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All Skyrim's Foes

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Delphine of the Blades, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, considered herself a fortunate woman when all was said and done. Granted, her life had been a hard and lonely one, but the last six months or so had turned things around. She'd gone from being a humble innkeeper (albeit one with many years espionage experience) to the head of Tamriel's most feared order of assassins with a secret mountain hideaway, a serious amount of gold at her disposal, the patronage of the local king and not only an adoring and handsome Dragonborn husband, but a beautiful and passionate young lady friend. Rare was the morning she didn't wake up with one or both of them wrapped around her and rare was the morning she didn't smile at whoever she was with and thank the gods and Night Mother for her good fortune.

Today was not one of those mornings.

“You can't wear that to my father's wedding!”

“CICERO DOESN'T CARE! CICERO NEVER LEAVES HOME WITHOUT IT! CICERO IS WEARING IT!”

“Not as my date, you're not! Come on, give it to me, please.”

“NO! Thieving hussy, leave me alone!”

“Cicero, you're the official escort of the Reach-King's youngest daughter! You can't wear that! Do you have any idea how it'll make me look?”

“Like the brazen little hussy you are??”

“Cicero, I'm serious, give me the damn-”

“NEVER!”

“THAT'S ENOUGH!” Delphine cried, flinging the bedroom doors open and stepping out into the private parlour attached. It was a truly nice suite of rooms at the Blue Palace, a double room for her and Cicero, a central parlour and a room for Eola on the other side. It was just a shame Cicero and Eola were behaving like such spoilt brats.

Still in her night shift, with a hastily flung on robe over the top, Delphine wearily emerged into the parlour. At least both of them had the grace to look ashamed of themselves. Eola was still in her undershift – she'd need help with her outfit. Cicero was already decked out in breeches and boots, white shirt hanging open and dark blue frock coat over the top, just needing fastening and tucking in and his cravat tying. Delphine had gone to a lot of lengths to find the latest High Rock fashions for Madanach's party and Cicero had been not only compliant but very excited to be dressing up in fancy clothes and at the prospect of being admired by all and sundry. It seemed she'd been a little too optimistic.

“Cicero, you are not wearing your jester hat to the wedding,” Delphine sighed. “You're there as the Dragonborn. You need to look the part as the Saviour of Skyrim, Avenger of Torygg, He Who Speaks With Dragons and with any luck, a credible marriage candidate for Eola's hand so she doesn't get suitors trying to win her over all the time.”

“She should be so lucky,” Cicero muttered darkly. Eola shot him a pointed glare before turning to Delphine.

“Oh Del, honey, it's not the hat. I only wish it was the hat, that I could steal and get Sapphire to hide until it was all over.”

Delphine scratched her head, confused. What else did Cicero never leave the house without and was averse to leaving behind? She'd already said it was fine for High Rock noblemen to carry daggers.

“The hussy Eola wants me to leave my wedding ring behind!” Cicero wailed, turning to Delphine, anguished. “Cicero never leaves that behind! He only takes it off to bathe, in bed and for oiling Mother or performing other messy tasks that might damage it!”

Delphine felt her irritation fade as her heart went out to him. Theirs had been a simple ceremony in Riften as opposed to the extravaganza this promised to be, but Cicero had been near tears as Maramal the priest had handed over the rings and Delphine had slid his onto his finger. They'd left the Temple arm in arm, heading to the Ratway where Brynjolf had been kind enough to throw a party for them at the Flagon. While the rest of the Dark Brotherhood had drank and danced the night away, Cicero had rarely left her side, sighing happily and staring at the ring like a man possessed.

“If you're not careful, I'll start to think you love that ring more than me,” she'd teased. He'd looked guilty and immediately apologised.

“No, no, never Listener!” he'd cried. “But it is proof, don't you see? Proof that this is all really happening and that Cicero is really loved! It means I belong to someone.”

She'd kissed him on the spot, reassuring him that he was and he did. While he did indeed take it off in bed, in the bath and for the Night Mother, he never removed it at any other time. Not normally a problem, but at a wedding half of Skyrim was attending, it really wouldn't do for the groom's unmarried daughter, a Princess of the Reach, to have a married man on her arm.

“She's right, Cicero,” Delphine said with a sigh. “You'll have to leave your wedding ring behind. It'll bring us attention and we don't want that.”

Cicero's face fell as he realised he'd lost the argument. There was no throwing tantrums around Delphine, not if he didn't want to end up getting spanked for his trouble anyway.

“But Listener,” said Cicero, turning sad eyes on her, “what if Cicero forgets? What if his mind slips and he starts to think it was all a dream? How will he know he's still yours?”

Delphine took him into her arms. He actually did look genuinely afraid that might happen.

“What are the chances of you forgetting you're in love with me?” said Delphine gently. “You never did all the way through Skuldafn and Sovngarde, and you were gone for weeks!”

Cicero nestled in to her, seeming to calm down. “But if I did, the ring would remind me I had someone, and then I could at least look for you even if I didn't know who you were. If Cicero's not got his wedding ring, why, who knows where he might end up?”

“I am sure you'd find me eventually,” said Delphine, ruffling his hair. “And even if you never knew to look, I would. I'd do everything in my power to find you, love. I wouldn't stop until my Keeper was home and safe.”

Cicero giggled and squirmed, peeping up through his eyelashes as he always did when she called him her Keeper. Really, he was too adorable. She was a lucky woman.

“So, you're going to give me the ring then,” she said softly. Cicero nodded, still a little unhappy, but he took it off and placed it in her hand.

“You'll keep it safe, won't you, Listener?” he whispered. “You'll have it there for me when I get back, yes?”

“Of course I will,” Delphine promised. “Now, go and finish getting yourself ready. Madanach's probably waiting for you. Off you go, let's not keep the Reach-King waiting, hmm?” She gave Cicero a playful smack on the arse to encourage him. Cicero shrieked, in delight this time, and scampered off to find a mirror so he could finish preening.

Eola sidled over for a cuddle of her own.

“How do you do that?” she pouted. “I tried everything but he stood firm, and all you do is stroke his hair for like ten seconds, and suddenly he's all smiles and sunshine and doing whatever you want.”

“It's a mystical power granted by the Night Mother,” said Delphine, kissing the top of Eola's head. “The ability to sweet-talk Cicero into anything. That and a good beating every Loredas. Keeps him on his toes.”

“I bet it does,” Eola smirked. She looked up at Delphine, expression softening. “You're awesome, you know. I love you so much.”

Delphine tilted her head, unable to stop grinning as Eola's lips met hers. The two of them kissed, getting increasingly more passionate until Cicero coughed politely.

“Listener and sister? Cicero is ready to leave now. Listener? Eola?”

Both women broke off, Delphine looking at least a little apologetic while Eola looked utterly unrepentant. She did however look Cicero over appreciatively.

“Ooh, don't you look tasty!”

“That has such a different meaning coming from you,” said Cicero, looking most uncomfortable, although that could be due to the cravat at his neck. “Well, Listener? Will I do?”

He would. He would indeed. “You are absolutely gorgeous,” Delphine breathed. Hair tied back with a black ribbon, black charcoal lining his eyes in the latest fashion out of Cyrodiil, and managing to have a dangerous look about him despite the ruffles at his wrists and throat, Cicero looked absolutely stunning. Delphine could imagine half the women in the place wanting to dance with him at the wedding party. She just wished she could be there, but with Thalmor starting to return and her needing to co-ordinate everything, she'd need to stay out of sight.

Cicero grinned and twirled on the spot so she could get a good look at him. Delphine smiled appreciatively. He was a gorgeous, gorgeous man. She was so lucky to have him.

“You get out there and show them, Dragonborn,” she told him. Cicero giggled and ran over, kissing her full on the lips, a long, slow passionate kiss that left her breathless.

“I love you, my Listener,” he crooned in her ear. “My sweet Delphine, dearest wife of mine.” His voice shook a little as he said the word wife, as it always did. She could hardly fault him for that, it still felt a little weird having a husband.

“I love you too,” she told him. “Go on, off you go. Make sure the groom's not having second thoughts.”

Cicero laughed, waved goodbye to Eola and ran off, the door closing behind him. They could still hear the laughing and singing, audible until it slowly faded away as Cicero ran down the stairs to Madanach's chambers.

“Sweet husband you got there,” said Eola, not quite able to keep the wistfulness out of her voice. Delphine hugged her, guessing all too well what was on Eola's mind. It wasn't wanting a husband or wife of her own, it wasn't even jealousy of Delphine. It was Eola's own feelings for Cicero that were getting less sisterly over time, as she'd finally broken down and confessed to Delphine about a month after they returned from their Cyrodiil honeymoon. Delphine hadn't even been that shocked to hear it. Unfortunately for Eola though, Cicero was quite adamantly not interested and had freaked out when Delphine had asked if he'd ever thought of her that way. The whole possibility had been quietly shelved but that didn't mean Eola's feelings had died.

“I'm sorry, love,” said Delphine. “He does care about you, you know. Even if he doesn't like showing it.”

“Yeah, but it's the taking care of me when I'm ill and making me laugh and going hunting with me kind of caring he has in mind,” Eola sighed, frustrated. “Not the hot loving kind and Del, your husband's a hottie. Did you see his arse in those trousers? I mean, wow. Cici's a pretty boy.”

“He is that,” said Delphine. She traced a finger down Eola's cheek, on to her shoulder and then down around the curve of her breast. “But you're pretty damn cute yourself. If he's not interested, well, it's his loss.”

Eola shivered, eyes fluttering closed as she rubbed up against Delphine.

“Honey, I am going to need to start getting ready soon, I'm going to be late if you start doing that. And no love bites! Not today!”

Delphine had pulled Eola close and was fondling her bottom, nibbling her lover's neck with not a care in the world. Laughing, she kissed her on the cheek and let her go.

“I do apologise,” said Delphine, not looking terribly sorry at all. “I'll try and make sure you don't turn up at the wedding looking completely manhandled. Or ladyhandled as the case may be.”

Eola laughed, reaching out a hand to Delphine. “Come on, make me over. You said you'd have me looking like a proper Breton noblewoman. Can't wait to see what you've got in store for me.”

“Beloved, I will have you coming second in looks only to the bride. Even my devoted and loyal but clearly not all there husband might start appreciating you,” Delphine promised, steering Eola into her bedroom. She settled Eola down in front of the desk mirror and began reaching for the make-up tray. “You know, if anything ever did happen between you and Cicero, I just want you to know I wouldn't mind. The two of you are normally so affectionate with each other, it seems a bit weird that you're not together, you know?”

“You just want hot threesomes,” said Eola knowingly. Delphine couldn't quite hide the look of hope in her eyes at that prospect.

“It's merely a nice bonus,” said Delphine, refusing to get distracted when she had a girlfriend to pretty up. “What's more important is that you're happy.”

“Right now, I'll settle for fabulous,” said Eola. “Today isn't my day, after all. I just want to get my father hitched and off on his wedding night, and then I just want to get some expensive booze down my throat and wipe the mental images from my head.”

Understandable really. Delphine just hoped Madanach and Elisif were doing well themselves. A marriage arranged for politics and a thirty six year age gap did not make for the most promising start, but Elisif had seemed calm, even cheerful, the day before and while Madanach wasn't exactly the romantic type, his eyes softened just that little bit when talking about Elisif. Delphine knew they'd been exchanging gifts and letters over the past few months, but only the gods knew how they actually felt this morning. As long as they got through the day without being assassinated, Delphine would rest content.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Elisif watched herself in the mirror as Erda set about applying her make-up for her. New dress hand-sewn from fine cloth of gold by Taarie and Endarie of Radiant Raiment, her usual circlet polished up so it shone, a pair of gold-coloured slippers with rubies sewn in – Elisif's wedding outfit was going to have everyone talking.

If it meant they shut up about her choice of husband, so much the better. Even her steward was getting in on the act.

“My Jarl, for the last time, are you absolutely sure about this?” Falk asked, pacing the room behind her.

“Yes, Falk,” Elisif sighed. “Yes, I'm sure about this. I've thought about it and I still think it's the best course for both Skyrim and the Reach.”

“And what about you, hmm?” Falk asked, looking rather shrewdly at her. “Torygg died barely a year ago and I know you still miss him. You met Madanach once, at that secret meeting during the war that you still won't tell me about. Don't tell me that was enough to make you fall in love with him.”

No, it wasn't... but it was enough to make me like and respect him, because out of everyone around me, he has been the one person who has consistently treated me like an adult and a queen and someone who can be trusted to think for myself! Unlike her steward. Who had been supposed to be thinking about retiring this year, after the war was over and things had settled down, in theory so he could put his feet up and take it easy after being steward to no less than three rulers of Skyrim. In practice, it was the worst kept secret in Solitude that he'd been having a fling with Thane Bryling and was going to resign to spend more time with her. Of course, that had been before she'd announced her forthcoming marriage to Madanach, and now Falk was insisting he was staying on to make sure she was all right. Elisif liked Falk, she really did, but he could be very overprotective. Too overprotective. Elisif hadn't realised until Falk changed his mind about going how much she'd been looking forward to being able to choose her own steward. Everyone in her court was inherited, everyone. Bryling and Erikur had both been Thanes since Torygg's father Istlod's day, Sybille had been court mage since forever, Bolgeir had been Torygg's housecarl first, and Falk had been promoted to steward by Istlod in the later years of his reign after his previous steward died. Torygg hadn't minded, he'd grown up with them, knew them, was happy to keep them on. But Elisif hadn't even lived in Skyrim before her marriage. Then she'd travelled to Solitude with her elderly father, who'd wanted to see his homeland again before he died. He'd lived long enough to see her go to a dance at the Bards' College, meet the son of the High King, fall in love and get married. Then High King Istlod had died, Torygg had become High King and she'd found herself Queen Consort, and that had been fine, no real responsibility other than to look pretty, look after her husband and hope the longed-for babies would come.

And then Ulfric had murdered her husband and her world had changed. Now here she was, a year on, Tullius might have gone back to Cyrodiil and the war might be done, but she was Queen of eight holds where seven of them were run by other Jarls who didn't have to actually obey her, where the national military was actually the Empire's troops under Rikke's command, and where even her own court ignored her most of the time. It needed a ruler to function but everyone in practice just stuck to the same routines they'd had since Istlod. Here she was, High Queen, and she probably had the least power of anyone here.

So when faced with a Forsworn barbarian more than twice her age, radiating power and menace and danger despite having dressed up for the occasion, who'd actually treated her like she really was a great and powerful queen, who'd treated her like an equal when she clearly was anything but... when he'd had the nerve to demand marriage to seal the alliance, she'd pushed the initial shock aside and said yes. Because while Madanach was not someone she'd ever have seen herself getting involved with in a million years, one thing he was not was a pushover. He had his own army, a little reduced since the end of the war, but still a force to be reckoned with and loyal to him, not the Empire. He didn't have to answer to anyone inside the Reach – there'd been one little rebellion after the treaties had been signed, where apparently the Matriarchs of Lost Valley Redoubt and a few camps along the Reach's eastern border had declared Madanach a traitor to the Reach and the old gods for selling the country to the Empire. That rebellion had lasted all of two weeks before being brutally put down, the assault on Lost Valley being led by Madanach in person, there were even rumours a dragon had been involved, and the rest of the Forsworn had been eager to hail Madanach as the one true Reach-King. Madanach had gleefully recounted the whole thing in one of his letters to her, and while he'd spared her the gory details (and refused to comment on the dragon), he'd said the old gods had indeed passed judgement but not on him. There'd been no trouble since. Elisif really envied him. His court had been hand-picked by him, his steward was an old friend and comrade, his housecarl a massively tall Orc who was frankly terrifying and yet apparently in awe of Madanach himself, only a five foot ten ageing Breton when all was said and done. The nearest thing he had to Thanes were his blood brothers who'd been in Cidhna Mine with him, all of them loyal to the death as well, and he had his daughters, both very capable in their own right. Kaie the Crown-Princess, Field Marshal of the Forsworn and effectively in charge of the Reach's military, and Eola, who held no formal rank beyond her hereditary title... but given her connections with both the legendary Dragonborn and the Dark Brotherhood, didn't really need one.

Everyone feared Madanach. Everyone respected his strength and cunning. Everyone had stories of Forsworn brutality, and after reading Legion reports and Madanach's own account of the Lost Valley Incident (Madanach had just remarked that while he'd spared those who'd surrendered, he'd ensured the rest would not be repeating their crimes – Rikke's report had told of smoke from Lost Valley visible for miles across the tundra, hundreds of Forsworn butchered in the battle and the ringleaders' charred and bloodied remains impaled on stakes and left above Lost Valley Falls for all to see) Elisif had seen the truth for herself. Madanach ap Caradach, King of the Reach, was a bad bad man.

And yet she still envied him. What could have been a civil war had been swiftly averted and indeed proved something of a turning point for the new ruler – apparently he'd never been so popular in Markarth. Elisif couldn't approve of his methods, but she wished she could be a bit more like him. Except without the murdering part, even if Madanach had justified Lost Valley by pointing out no Jarl anywhere would put up with half the guard deciding they were going to declare independence and that it was perfectly legal to execute traitors. Which was true, but did he have to be quite so extreme in his methods?

She supposed it was asking a bit much of him to suddenly turn into an avatar of sweetness and light overnight. She just hoped he'd be a more forgiving husband than he was a king. All the same... he'd been perfectly sweet to her, and the citizens of Markarth seemed to think he was wonderful. He couldn't be all bad.

“I am marrying him, Falk,” said Elisif, her voice level despite the little shiver in her stomach whenever she thought of Madanach. “He's a good ally, and he's been a good friend to me and to Skyrim these last few months. I don't need love, I don't care about love, I loved Torygg but he's gone! Madanach offered, so I said yes.”

“You had a lot of offers,” said Falk quietly. “You had lords from all over High Rock and Hammerfell sending offers, you had interest from Morrowind and Cyrodiil, even a few Argonians. Why him?”

She had indeed. She'd had gifts and proposals from all over the place from nobles thinking a single woman in possession of a kingdom must be in want of a husband, and so she'd had to listen to declarations of love from all over Tamriel, boasts that so and so was the most virile, the wealthiest, would give her many fine sons, was a fine warrior or horseman or hunter or would lend a powerful army to her side. From Madanach, nothing. He'd written after the initial uprising, telling her it was done, the Reach was his and by the grace of the old gods, he'd hold it against Ulfric if it killed him and not to fear, he'd keep his promises to avenge her husband. Elisif had already heard the Legion report but Madanach's letter had made her want to punch the air. Take that, Ulfric. The Empire had the Reach back without having to do a thing themselves.

Then had come the invasion, Ulfric taking advantage of Balgruuf's indecision to sweep across the tundra unimpeded, over Broken Tower pass and down into the Karth river valley to lay siege to Markarth, and communications had fallen silent. Elisif had scoured every Legion report for news, heart in her mouth, hoping against hope Ulfric hadn't triumphed over Madanach again... but this time, Madanach appeared to have learnt his lesson. He'd later said training with the Dragonborn had been invaluable in defending against Ulfric's Thu'um, and apparently the untimely deaths of the Matriarchs of Dead Crone Rock and Karthspire prior to the uprising had removed two key political opponents of Madanach's and given him their entire camps to assist with the city defence. All the same, he'd written that it had been touch and go towards the end – food had been running out, morale was low, he'd been starting to wonder if Delphine was ever going to strike – and then they'd all seen that dragon descend and all Oblivion break loose and by the end of the day, the Stormcloaks had been no more. Elisif wished she'd been there – as it is, between dry Legion reports, travellers tales, and Madanach's own account, written to her after she'd pleaded for him to tell her the story, she'd pieced it together well enough. It had been a great victory, no doubt about it and when the news had come to Solitude, she'd actually screamed and wept from sheer joy and delight at it all being over. Madanach's own letter, simply saying that it was done, Ulfric was dead and Torygg avenged, and that he hoped she could at least rest easy now, then congratulating her on winning her throne, had left a tearful smile on her face for days. That had not been why he'd agreed to this whole business, but that he'd been able to appreciate what it meant for her was touching.

So after the Moot had met and everything had settled down, she'd ratified the Treaty of Markarth and settled down to await Madanach's formal proposal. And waited. And waited. Proposals had flooded in from all over, but not the Reach. Elisif should have been relieved, but she really hadn't been. She'd started to worry. She'd begun to wonder if he'd lost interest. She'd been torn between thinking at least she could marry someone else, and sad that it wasn't him offering. Finally she'd lost patience and written a letter to him tersely informing him she'd received offers from many admirers, all at least as eligible as him if not more so, and that if she didn't get a proposal off him soon, she was calling off the marriage alliance and marrying one of them.

Five days later, Kaie ap Madanach, Field Marshal of the Forsworn, Crown-Princess of the Reach and Heir to the Mournful Throne, had arrived in person with an honour guard of Forsworn, all dressed in traditional Forsworn gear but armed with fine ebony and glass weapons, war-painted and tattooed and generally looking terrifying, and presented her with a wooden gift box with the Wolf's Head of Solitude marked out on it in gold leaf.

She'd opened it to find a gold necklace in a strange twisted design Kaie had informed her was a traditional Reach knotwork design, with rubies embedded in its coils, and earrings to match. Accompanying it was a card folded in two and sealed by an odd silver-purple rune with an M emblazoned over a crowned eagle crest, just reading:

“No kingdom can thrive while its ruler is lonely,
No leader can rule while they're ruling alone.
Dance with me, Elisif, come be my Reach-Queen,
Bring new life to Skyrim, and love to your own.”

“Did he write this himself or get a bard to do it?” Elisif had whispered, sinking back into her throne, her legs shaking.

“Get a bard to do it?” Kaie had laughed. “A bard?? My lady, there are official military documents in the Reach that have had less secrecy surrounding them than the contents of that card. He's let no one see it, not me, not Nepos, not Eola, no one. It was sealed with his personal rune seal, keyed so only you could open it, and by the gods, he's been temperamental on the subject even for him. I don't know what you wrote to him, but he commissioned a very nice set of jewellery on the spot, told the smiths to work overtime to get it finished in four days, donated the rubies from his personal vault, and locked himself in his study drafting whatever was on that card for two days solid. Then sent me up here to deliver it and told me nothing was more important than you getting that box, nothing.”

Elisif hadn't been able to speak, just stare at the card and the jewellery, trying to get her head around the fact that she'd just had yet another proposal and that this one spoke not of the potential groom's own virtues nor was it making her any grand promises nor talking about all the children they were going to have. All it made was one single promise.

You won't be lonely any more. I will take care of you.

Elisif had felt her head swim and her heart ache and she'd cried out inside yes, yes, please, keep me company, I'm so lonely, I know we're not in love but I don't think I want that anyway, not yet. I'll even have sex if you want to, Dibella, no one's touched me in months, I need it, please...

“Tell him I accept,” Elisif whispered. Kaie's smile had widened into a look of pure delight and the Forsworn princess had actually squealed.

“He will be so pleased,” Kaie assured her. “He's been so anxious since he got that letter of yours, fevered like you wouldn't believe. Honestly, I think he'd have been relieved to get any answer, but that one... that one he'll like. You've really got to him, you know.”

Elisif had felt a strange little thrill at that, a dark, dangerous sensation of being helpless prey and having attracted the attention of a vicious, stalking predator which now had designs on her, of the Reach-King's darker desires descending on her and claiming her for his, and by Mara, it was wrong, it was near-blasphemous, but she wanted and craved Madanach in her bed, the dangerous and ruthless Scourge of the Nords taking her and ravaging her and conquering her in lieu of taking her country. She didn't care it'd probably hurt, that he'd not want to be gentle. She just wanted him to take her and use her for his own pleasure and then... then he'd take care of her and she'd never be alone again.

“Jarl Elisif?” Falk had asked, concerned. “What's going on? What did he want? What have you just agreed to?”

Elisif had pulled herself together and got to her feet, composing herself like a queen should and taking a deep breath. Maybe her court would complain, but they were not going to stop her doing this because she'd just given her word to the Reach-King, and Madanach was not a man you messed around, and after the Lost Valley Incident a mere month after the Battle of Markarth, everyone knew that.

“Falk,” she'd said. “Write polite letters to all my suitors and decline their offers with my most sincere regrets. Then contact Rorlund at the Temple of Divines and get me a list of dates the Temple's available for booking a wedding. I think Second Seed's a good month for weddings, don't you?”

“A wedding?” Falk had asked, confused. “But you just told me to reject all – oh no. Elisif. My queen, you haven't...”

“I'm marrying Madanach,” Elisif said, her voice calm and firm and carrying to the entire court. “Start preparing this city, Falk, because there's going to be a big wedding and I'm going to need to cater for guests, dignitaries and the entire retinue of the Reach-King. Kaie, stay here tonight, I'll need to write a proper reply to him thanking him for the gifts. I think it'll make lovely wedding jewellery, don't you think?”

Kaie had grinned and agreed it would indeed. Elisif had held the box to her as Falk had directed Kaie off to the guest suite. He'd looked horrified and betrayed, but he'd had no choice but to obey and get on with preparing. Elisif had brooked no refusals, not on this. But he'd still not entirely accepted the decision which was why even on the wedding morning he was still wanting to know why.

“Does it matter?” Elisif sighed, having long ago given up on trying to persuade Falk that Madanach wasn't that bad.

“Of course it matters!” Falk cried. “The man's a monster who massacred an entire settlement of his own people!”

“They'd declared him a traitor, were trying to plot a rebellion to oust him and were attacking travellers, of course he had to do something!” Elisif said wearily. “If Dragon Bridge did the same, I'd have to send the guards in too!”

“You'd at least negotiate first, or try to,” Falk pointed out. “His idea of negotiation was basically 'surrender or I slaughter you all'. He's shown not a shred of remorse since.”

“He'd never show it,” Elisif said quietly, fingering her necklace. “Doesn't mean he's got no regrets.” He gets lonely too. He'd never admit it to most, but he was willing to share it with me.

“Elisif, you can't keep making excuses for him,” Falk said, looking genuinely worried for her. “They say he had his first wife killed by the Dark Brotherhood because he'd grown tired of her. What happens when he grows tired of you or gets angry? I can't... you're my Jarl, my High Queen, if he hurts you...”

“He won't,” Elisif said, knowing in her heart that the tales told by Madanach's enemies were only half the story. “He's a better man than everyone says he is... and he's going to be my husband.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cicero waited patiently while the Forsworn guards on duty outside Madanach's suite called in to see if their king was up yet. There were footsteps, the door was flung open and Borkul the Beast, the seven foot tall Orc who served as Madanach's personal bodyguard was staring down at Cicero.

Cicero just smiled back. He had no fear of Borkul whatsoever. He'd fought the Orc before, and Borkul's broken left tusk would serve as a permanent reminder of who'd won.

“Hello Borkul,” Cicero purred. “Is dear Madanach in? Delphine and Eola wish to ensure he is well and ready to attend his wedding.”

Borkul growled back at Cicero. “He's up. No funny business, little man. I've got my eye on you. Now get inside.”

Cicero whistled cheerfully, skipping inside. Madanach proved to be in his private room, trying vainly to wrestle with his own cravat and failing.

“Gods dammit,” he swore. “What realm of Oblivion were these designed in?? I'm getting too old for this...” He noticed Cicero in the mirror, relief descending over him. “Thank Sithis. Get over here, Dragonborn. I presume you know how these things work?”

“Of course, of course,” Cicero murmured, turning Madanach round and deftly tying it for him. Most self-respecting male Cyrodiilian assassins soon learnt this sort of thing – made infiltrating high society so much easier. The knot in question was a popular one from about twenty years ago, but Cicero guessed no one in Skyrim was likely to know that.

“There,” said Cicero, satisfied. “Now the Reach-King truly looks the part of a worthy consort for fair Elisif.”

Madanach looked at himself in the mirror, grimacing. He wasn't used to clothes quite this formal and it showed.

“Damn High Rock Bretons,” he muttered. “Why'd they have to make their fancy clothes quite so uncomfortable, eh?”

“If it's any consolation, Eola tells me the women's clothing is worse,” said Cicero, feeling sympathetic. “But you do look very dashing and Elisif is sure to be impressed.”

“You think so?” Madanach asked hopefully. Cicero nodded, a little confused. He'd been under the impression this was a business arrangement, a marriage of convenience. Madanach didn't look remotely convenienced by any of this.

“Is, er, everything all right?” Cicero asked. “Only you look... nervous.”

“Of course I'm nervous!” Madanach shouted. “I'm about to get married to a woman not even half my age, the world is watching, she's a civilised young lady used to having the best of everything and her first husband was a handsome young man that everyone loved! What in the Void am I compared to that??”

“But you're King of an entire province,” Cicero said, scratching his head. “A rich province, especially since dear Thonar's widow tragically died during the uprising and all the Silver-Blood properties defaulted to the Crown. Dear Madanach might be advanced in years but he's hardly ineligible.”

“This was a terrible idea,” Madanach whispered, one hand resting on the wall as he stared at his reflection, hoping it would mysteriously mutate into that of a handsome young man with hands free of blood. “I feel like I'm forcing that sweet, innocent girl into marrying a man old enough to be her father to keep the peace. She could have had half of Tamriel and she chooses me because of some promise I extracted months ago because damn Nords never break their damn word even when there's a good reason. I know I promised I wouldn't ravage her but... Gods, Cicero, you can have an entire silver mine to yourself if you go to Elisif right now and tell her she doesn't have to do it. She likes you, she'll take the news better from you.”

Cicero folded his arms, eyes boring into the Reach-King's back. He'd not been at the conference, but Eola had told him Madanach had been most insistent a wedding was the only thing that would win over the Reachmen to getting on with Nords. Now he had changed his mind, after all the expense and the trouble they'd gone to getting ready for this? Absolutely not, Cicero was not having this, not at all.

“Now listen here,” he snapped. “Delphine's gone to a lot of trouble to ensure this all goes smoothly, and Cicero has spent the last month attempting to teach your daughter how to dance and comport herself like a proper lady, which has resulted in sore feet, headaches, frustration, tears and a great deal of fine mead consumed by poor Cicero as he attempts to recover from the trauma. Madanach is marrying the High Queen or Cicero will become very angry!”

Most people on seeing Cicero's expression would have quailed in terror. Madanach watched Cicero's reflection in the mirror, caught his eye and promptly burst out laughing.

“My girl's been giving you a hard time, has she?”

“Yes!” Cicero shouted. “Cicero went to a lot of trouble trying to get her to act half-way civilised and he's not seeing the effort go to waste! This wedding is happening!!”

“Well, far be it from me to anger the Dragonborn and deprive my little girl of a chance to show off to the world,” Madanach laughed, his nerves fading a little. “I don't really suppose I have much choice at this point, do I?” He hesitated, looking back at his own reflection. “You really think Elisif will like this?”

“Why not?” Cicero asked. “Madanach is the one who has been writing to Elisif and sending her gifts these past few months. Surely she has been writing back? Surely she would have said if she was unhappy?”

Madanach reached into his pocket and produced a crumpled letter, smoothing it out to read. From the state of it, it looked like he'd done this frequently.

“Here, read it,” he said, thrusting the letter at Cicero. “It's the most recent one she sent, from a week ago.”

Cicero went over it.

Dear Madanach,

I hope this finds you well – I know you're still busy trying to sort out the aftermath of the war and Lost Valley and everything else. Is it really only a week to go? Time's just flown by. I'm a little nervous about it all, but looking forward to it. I can't believe I'm getting married again! There was a time right after Torygg died when I couldn't even think about the possibility. Now I'm not only thinking about it, I'm actually happy. I still miss Torygg, but he's in Sovngarde now and I'm still here and only twenty three. I could be alive for another fifty years, I can't be alone all that time, I just can't. You could live another twenty – it's better than nothing. If I have to marry anyone, I'm glad it's going to be you. You're not the monster everyone says you are – you're just really good at hiding your better nature from outsiders. I do feel very honoured to no longer be one in your eyes. It means a lot to me.

We've been working flat-out to get everything ready for you here in Solitude. The Temple has been swept, the candles ready, flowers brought in. The entire Palace has been cleaned (apart from the Pelagius Wing but no one goes in there) and there's an entire floor been set aside for your party. I know your Steward Nepos sent the numbers already, please thank him for that. Our Friend has been in touch as well, and her people have been here for the last week, vetting everybody and checking the rooms over. I think she might be a bit paranoid, but if you trust her to do a good job, I will listen to her. I wouldn't want anything to spoil the day for us.

I'm really looking forward to the wedding, and to seeing you again. Please let me know if there's anything else you're going to need, I'll do my best to see to it. I must confess, I'm a little nervous, more so than with Torygg. I knew him quite well by the time we got married, I'd spent a lot of time with him. I've not seen you at all since that conference where we first met. But I've enjoyed reading your letters. You've been such a gentleman and so kind and helpful and patient. You must think I'm such a foolish girl sometimes. I promise not to keep bombarding you with questions, it's just I've only been a Jarl less than a year and Queen hardly any time at all. I know you've not been Reach-King long either, but you held the Reach once before, didn't you? And you've been leading the Forsworn for longer than I've been alive. So you must know a thing or two about leadership, right?

I want to be a good Queen, I really do. That's why I'm doing this. I know you're only allowed to be a consort, not a joint King, but part of ruling is having a good consort to help. Torygg always told me that. He said I was a very good consort. I think he was a very good King, it's just a shame he had so little time. I hope I can live up to his memory.

There I go again, thinking about Torygg when I should have my mind on you. I'm sorry, I'll try and stop that. But this time last year I was his wife and now I'm marrying you. It takes some adjusting to. I do promise to try and be a good wife to you though. You're a good man, Madanach, and you deserve to be a happy one. I'll do my best, I just hope it's enough.

Come to Solitude soon. I'm looking forward to it.

Faithfully yours,
Elisif

Cicero folded the letter and passed it back, grinning.

“Madanach has nothing to worry about,” said Cicero gently. “Elisif does not sound like a woman who doesn't want to marry you.”

“Not a woman in love though, is she?” Madanach sighed. “She's still grieving Torygg, that's obvious to all. And he was a handsome young man. I have a feeling she's going to be horribly disappointed when she gets me to herself.”

“And?” Cicero asked, puzzled. “This is business, you said so yourself according to the Listener. So what if she's not in love?” He tilted his head, looking closer at Madanach. The Reach-King looked nervous. Very nervous. As nervous as Cicero had been before his own wedding, climbing up the walls of a Riften inn room, wailing to Calixto and Lucien and Aventus about what if he was imagining the whole thing or the Listener changed her mind or realised she preferred Eola and Cicero got there to find out she'd married her instead or... Lucien had pulled him into an embrace and told him rather sternly to summon his mother and wail to her, while Calixto had cheerfully explained to young Aventus that this was an integral part of any wedding preparation, for the groom to have a nervous breakdown and for his male friends to derive great entertainment from the fact while ensuring he did actually turn up. Cicero had assumed that didn't apply to political weddings. Unless...

“Does Madanach have feelings for the Lady Elisif?” Cicero enquired. Madanach slumped into a chair, looking defeated.

“Fell in love with her the moment I first saw her,” he admitted. “She's a sweet, beautiful young thing. Well, you've met her, you know. This marriage makes sense politically, and gods know it'd be no hardship for me having her in my bed. But I don't think she feels the same, and why would she? Oh sure, she sounds willing enough, but I'm not sure how I feel about having a wife who's only with me out of duty.”

“So you'd rather... not have her at all?” Cicero asked, still a little puzzled. It would break his heart to learn Delphine had only married him out of duty but he'd never give her up if she was still willing to stay anyway.

“I'd like her to be happy,” said Madanach, staring moodily at fingernails that had been trimmed and manicured for the first time in his life, as if cosmetic grooming could hide the fact he was a brutally efficient ender of lives and virtually the polar opposite of Elisif. “With someone she cares about. She's an innocent young girl, she certainly doesn't deserve me.”

“Whereas humiliating her in front of everyone by jilting her and leaving her at the altar, that will make her ecstatic,” said Cicero, beginning to lose patience. “Madanach, if you don't marry her, someone else eventually will and you won't be at all happy! And Cicero will probably end up getting called in to eviscerate the poor man she chooses, which is lovely for me and profitable for the Brotherhood – hmm. Yes, yes, Cicero can sneak you out of here now, break the news to poor Elisif for you and then cheerfully await all the contracts on her future lovers. Madanach, this is a marvellous plan! Any preferences on how you want them killed?” Cicero folded his hands together and danced on the spot, delight in his eyes, although he did feel a little bad for poor Elisif who emphatically did not deserve to have everyone she loved slaughtered. Madanach was looking faintly horrified by this point, and this was someone who'd run his own assassination ring for years.

“You're insane,” said Madanach, blunt as always and one of the few people absolutely not afraid to call Cicero exactly what he was to his face. He got to his feet, checking himself in the mirror and adjusting his outfit a little. “Come on, I suppose I can hardly back out now. Let's go see if everyone else is ready, then we're all assembling in the hall. Let's hope my daughters aren't taking forever to get their outfits together.”

Cicero followed him out, still not entirely sure what was going on in Madanach's head or if he actually wanted to get married or not, but as long as he went through with the wedding, that was the main thing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

All the groom's party was assembling in the Blue Palace's hallway, all looking most unlike themselves and in varying degrees of discomfort with the formal clothing. There were a few guards in Forsworn armour standing on the edges, all glaring at any passing Nord and generally doing their best to look intimidating. Nepos had been left back home to take care of Markarth, but Kaie was there in a glittering dress with Borkul on her arm and her warpaint off for once, and Cicero recognised a few other faces from Cidhna Mine. Argis the Bulwark, former guard and now housecarl of the Brotherhood, was also among them, standing to attention as he saw Cicero arrive.

“At your service, Keeper,” he nodded. Cicero still wasn't sure what to think of the man, but Madanach seemed to think he was reliable, he'd helped defend Markarth during the siege and he seemed loyal. All the same, Cicero couldn't help but think Argis disapproved. Well, if Cicero was honest, he couldn't even tell what was going on in Argis' head. Unusual. Most people were easy to read. Argis wasn't, not at all. Still, until he proved disloyal, Cicero could do nothing other than take him at face value.

“Any sign of Eola yet?” Cicero asked. Argis shook his head.

“None. Listener's still getting her ready.”

“We'll be here all day then,” Cicero muttered, already bored. He glanced over at the locked door to the disused Pelagius Wing and wondered if one of the maids might have a key. It'd be the perfect place to hide bodies...

There was a noise from the balcony and Cicero looked up to see a young noblewoman descending in a flowing pale green and white dress, intricate Breton embroidery in silver thread all over it, long golden hair trailing down her back from a black and gold version of the headdress worn by Forsworn warrior women, and a black silk patch with jewels attached covering her left eye. Cicero could tell all of it was enchanted in some way or another – magicka or Destruction enhancers perhaps? Maybe. Cicero didn't recognise her but once upon a time, many years ago, he'd have been moving in to seduce. She was wielding a fan that looked Akaviri to Cicero's eyes, black and mother of pearl with black silk folds and a golden dragon woven on it, hiding the lower half of her face. Probably for the best, as that dress's bodice was drawn in at the waist and doing amazing things to the woman's breasts. Damn Bretons, designing these uncomfortable clothes that nevertheless hugged you in all the right places, smoothing down some areas and emphasising others and... Cicero was just very glad Delphine was not here, that was all.

The woman descended the stairs and snapped her fan closed.

“Will I do?” she grinned, and Cicero felt his throat go dry as he recognised her. He knew that voice all too well.

“Eola?” he managed to croak. Eola just looked very smug as she glided forward.

“What's wrong, Champ? Don't like my outfit? Delphine and Taarie spent ages working on this.”

“It's very nice,” said Cicero faintly. “Goes with your, er, where did the hair come from?? You had short hair this morning!”

“Hair extensions,” said Eola crisply. “Aren't they a wonderful invention?”

Cicero just nodded, wondering when it had suddenly got quite so warm and trying very hard to remind himself that she was not a beautiful young noblewoman, she was a murdering cannibal who liked to feast on the flesh of her victims and bathe in the blood. Unfortunately, it didn't help, in fact it was making matters worse.

“Is that my little girl in there?” Madanach strode forward and took Eola's hand, formally kissing the back of it.

“Da!” Eola laughed, fanning herself in a most coquettish manner that really didn't suit her in Cicero's eyes. “Look, Delphine got me a pretty outfit!”

“I shall be sure and thank her,” said Madanach, kissing her cheek. “Ah, but look at you, you're going to have every man in the place making eyes at you. Oh Sithis, does that mean I'm going to have to start entertaining all the suitors now?”

“Oh, you'd love it,” Eola laughed. “You'd get to send them off to wrestle bears or strangle Spriggans or deal with dragons to prove their worthiness, that's if they could get the courage up to talk to you in the first place.”

“If they're that spineless, they're not worthy,” Madanach growled. He patted Cicero on the back. “Well now, Dragonborn, you take care of my little girl, you hear? Make sure no one decides Reachwomen are easy and that they want to take advantage, hmm?”

“Yes, quite,” said Cicero faintly as the Reach-King went off to start organising everyone and leading them off to the Temple to await Elisif. Eola smiled and took his arm, still fanning herself.

“Are you alright?” she asked, looking strangely at him. “You're not normally this quiet.”

“Hmm? Oh! No, no, Cicero is fine,” Cicero lied, forcing himself to smile as he fell into step behind Kaie and Borkul and barely managing to not stare at Eola's cleavage. She was his sister, if not by blood then certainly in other ways. It was wrong. Very wrong indeed. He was married now, for Sithis' sake. He was the Listener's and not free to go fondling other women, not without her permission, which he definitely didn't have and was unlikely to get. Particularly not as Eola was also the Listener's, and if he started getting involved with her too, the Listener would have no one to tend to her. No, no, this was a terrible idea from start to finish.

Eola rapped him on the knuckles with her fan, startling him back to himself.

“Are you listening to a word I've been saying?” she snapped.

“Yes!” yelped Cicero. “Er. What were you saying?” Eola rolled the one eye he could see.

“I was asking if you'd spoken to Da this morning. He seemed a bit on edge. Is he OK?”

Now this was safer. Much safer. Focus on Madanach's love life and not his own traitorous libido, yes, much safer.

“He is a little anxious, yes. Most men are when they're about to get married, but Madanach is a bit worried Elisif will be disappointed. Apparently he is feeling guilty over forcing a sweet and innocent young thing to marry him.”

“He's not forcing her!” said Eola, surprised. “She was quite willing at that conference – she was reluctant at first, but in the space of about ten minutes talking to him, she'd changed her mind and was starting to flirt with him. Because my Da's a silver fox.”

“Yes, and one with feelings,” said Cicero, trying not to laugh because it wasn't funny watching the fearsome King of the Reach lose it over a woman, it really wasn't. “He's in love with her and really wants her to feel the same way, but doesn't think she ever will. Sad, is it not?”

“That's adorable,” Eola sighed. “Misplaced, but adorable. He's the former King in Rags, now King of Silver, and he's got his own army of fanatics who would die for him. He's personally killed an impressive number of people and he started before either of us were born. Come on, what woman wouldn't go for that?”

“I know!” Cicero giggled. “Were Cicero single, and were Madanach not dear Eola's father and also single and interested in men, Cicero would have thought about it! But Cicero's affections are engaged elsewhere and so are his, it would seem.”

“Yeah. Yeah they are,” Eola sighed, this time looking unaccountably sad for some reason. Surprising. Wouldn't Eola want her dear father to be happy with his wife-to-be? Shrugging, he kept on walking, keeping an eye out for potential assassins not working for Delphine. They had a job to do, after all.

~~~~~~~~

The wedding went more or less without a hitch in the end. Of course, there was that incident when that Nord had raced in halfway through the ceremony waving a sword around and screaming that Elisif wasn't to worry, he'd save her from having to marry that monstrous witch-king.

The day had been saved by Argis stepping out from the crowd, grabbing the man in a headlock from behind and punching him in the face, knocking the interloper out before letting him drop to the floor and giving a respectful nod to Madanach, who gave a satisfied smile back. The guards had hauled the intruder off to the cells, and things had settled down after that.

Elisif had looked beautiful in a gorgeous golden dress and a matching set of gold and ruby earrings and necklace, walking down the aisle on Falk Firebeard's arm. To the surprise of many people, she was actually smiling and when Falk let her go to join Madanach, she looked quite pleased to see him.

“Not too late to back out, you know,” Madanach had said roughly. “I promise not to declare war on you if you do.”

Elisif had just laughed. “But who would I constantly pester for advice then? I'd miss your letters.”

Madanach hadn't even known how to react, so it was fortunate that the priest was calling them all to attention really. The ceremony had just got to the vows when the interruption had occurred. Elisif had cried out in horror, drawing instinctively closer to Madanach, who'd put an arm around her and flung the other one out, casting a ward. Mercifully, it hadn't been needed.

“Are you alright?” Elisif whispered, staring at him in shock as the guards hauled the intruder away.

“Shouldn't I be asking you that?” Madanach asked. She was trembling in his arms, eyes wide and looking very young, more so than usual. Madanach felt his heart go out to the poor girl.

“He was going to kill you!” she whispered, and Madanach began to wonder if she might actually have been worried for him.

“I don't think he'd have got as far as me,” Madanach reassured her. “After Argis, there are half a dozen Forsworn, Cicero and Borkul all sitting in the aisle seats and that's just on my side. Anyone who can get past that lot is welcome to have a go.”

Elisif had not looked convinced, in fact she was now scowling. “They most certainly are not! People are not allowed to go around waving weapons at my husband! I am Queen now and I forbid it.”

“I'm not your husband yet,” Madanach pointed out. Elisif was not one to let a little detail like that bother her.

“Well, we'd better get that seen to, hadn't we? Rorlund! Do please continue.”

“Y-yes, my lady,” said the Temple high priest, a little unsettled by the disturbance but a professional to the end. Half an hour later and the ceremony was over, the happy couple heading for their reception at the Blue Palace.

There was music. There was dancing. There was a full buffet rather than a sit-down banquet as this was well-known to be harder to poison. There were several Dark Brotherhood assassins wandering around keeping an eye on proceedings, including an Alik'r warrior and a Dunmer mage searching the guests as they came in, an innocuous and eminently forgettable Imperial man casually socialising and mingling with the guests, and a dark-haired Nord woman in a maid's outfit serving drinks and making sure guests kept their distance from the happy couple. Two blonde Nords were prowling the balcony, appearing to most as a pair of lovers seeking privacy, but in reality, both were observing everything going on down below.

Elisif watched from her throne, having had another installed next to it which Madanach was now sitting in. He was sipping a goblet of her best Firebrand wine – she'd sent him a case as his first courtship gift from her and he'd clearly acquired a taste for it, certainly if the way he was working through it tonight was any indication.

“Enjoying yourself?” she whispered, leaning in a little closer. He'd been quiet since the ceremony, toying with his new wedding ring, brooding on something. While Elisif had been buzzing with excitement over finally, finally not being a widow any more, he'd seemed withdrawn. Worried about something. Friendly enough to his own retinue but terse with everyone else. She'd not known him well enough to know if this was normal, but she did have all his letters still, and he was nothing like the man who'd written them. Everyone had said the Forsworn were semi-literate barbarians, but there was nothing semi-literate about those letters. He'd waxed lyrical about events in the Reach, answered her questions about the war, the Dragonborn, Forsworn customs, anything she'd wanted to know, he'd talked about. They were well-written too – this was a man who knew full well the power of words and how to use them. He'd complimented her, teased her, made her laugh, made her smile. It had been like having an uncle or older brother or even grandfather who'd been all over the place, lived a little – all right, lived a lot – and was now dispensing his wisdom to her, a favourite and cherished niece or sister. Even if most of that wisdom had essentially boiled down to 'just remember, you can in theory have them all killed if you want, although you may have to do a little work to actually justify it'. Not always the most immediately practical then, but he'd still charmed her.

Now here he was, and she wasn't sure what she'd been expecting but this wasn't it. Withdrawn, moody, hostile, something clearly bothering him although his people were downing her mead and having a great time, currently clapping along while the Dragonborn was doing some sort of acrobatic display.

“I've had worse nights,” Madanach murmured, slight smile on his lips as he watched Cicero walking on his hands along the balustrade. “What about you, are you having a good time? You seem happy enough.” He shifted in the throne, turning to face her, pale blue eyes losing none of their concern. An improvement, at least. Worried about her was an improvement over just worried.

“Why wouldn't I be?” Elisif whispered, turning to face him and shifting closer. “I just got married! To someone I like! I'm not a widow any more. I'm not – I'm not alone.”

“Hope to the old gods that wasn't the only reason you agreed to it,” Madanach growled, taking another sip of his wine. He glanced down at his wedding ring, toying with it again.

“You know, it's still not too late, Imperial marriage laws allow an annulment if you've not consummated it yet,” Madanach said suddenly. “You don't have to do this if you don't want to.”

Sick feeling of fear prickling down Elisif's back as she began to realise why he might be looking so concerned.

“Don't you want to? Be married to me?” she whispered. “But you wrote me that really sweet poem and sent this lovely jewellery, and told me all those stories about the Forsworn and the Dragonborn and...”

Madanach placed a finger to her lips, that faint smile flickering at his mouth again.

“Of course I do, you're beautiful. I just can't work out why you'd want me. Can't be the money or the power, you have those in your own right.”

Elisif laughed bitterly. All that work to become High Queen and it meant nothing. Just an empty title and a court that wasn't even her own.

“I've got no power whatsoever, Madanach. The army's not mine, the court's not mine, I could up and leave Solitude for months and everything would run just fine,” Elisif sighed, frustrated. “Every time I try to make a decision, Falk or Sybille or one of the Thanes overrules me. About the only thing of any importance I've ever got my way on was marrying you, and even then they were all begging me to reconsider.”

“Elisif, please don't tell me you said yes to me because your court all thought it was a terrible idea,” said Madanach wearily. “Even I'm not sure it was one of my best.”

“No!” Elisif snapped, beginning to lose patience with him. “I said yes because... because I wish I was more like you!” Madanach's eyebrows shot up at that, but he motioned for her to keep talking. Elisif felt the blood rush to her cheeks but continued. “Because you're fearless and powerful and everyone is scared of you and everyone takes you seriously.” She looked away, not wanting to see the confusion in those eyes, or worse, laughter. “No one's afraid of me and no one takes me seriously,” she whispered. “Except you.”

“I'm not afraid of you,” Madanach said, tone deliberately light and amused. Elisif rolled her eyes and without thinking shoved him in the arm like she'd done now and then with Torygg when he'd decided to tease her. Madanach laughed, caught her wrist and pulled her into his arms, trailing his fingers down her cheek and this was more like it, this was much more like it, he was pleased by something, pleased by her maybe? She hoped so, although the thought occurred to her that what pleased him might not be terribly good for her.

“Madanach?” she breathed, voice catching in her throat and coming out almost like a whimper.

“Elisif,” he murmured, low growl dragging out the syllables of her name and making her want to cling onto him. “Last chance to change your mind.”

“No,” she whispered. “Husband.” She shivered as she said it, jolts of pleasure or terror, she wasn't sure which, shooting to her loins as she quivered in his arms.

“Wife,” he growled and then he kissed her, and this was nothing like the one he'd given her during the ceremony, firm but gentle and all too fleeting, this was a rough claiming that promised so much more to come. Yes, yes, don't stop, please please take me to bed and use me hard...

“SING IT AGAIN!”

The Dragonborn, it could be no one else. Elisif couldn't stop the disappointed moan as Madanach broke off the kiss, muttering “oh for Sithis' sake...” and looked up wearily to see what Cicero was doing now. Pestering Lisette the bard from the look of it.

“Please,” Lisette gasped, backing away. “I already sung it three times tonight! Isn't that enough?”

“But Cicero likes that song!” Cicero whined, stomping his feet. “It has a nice tune and lovely words and it's about him! And sweet Lisette has a pretty voice! Pleeeeassse??”

No sign of Eola anywhere. Madanach growled to himself and got to his feet.

“I'm very sorry, Elisif, but in my daughter's absence, I think I'm the only one in the room who stands a hope of getting through to the little maniac.”

“That's quite all right,” Elisif whispered, wondering, not for the first time, how the poor man had got that way. “What does he want from her?”

“He wants her to sing 'The Dragonborn Comes' again,” said Madanach, in the voice of one who had to deal with this sort of thing on a regular basis. “He loves the song but sadly for the rest of us, he doesn't know when to stop. Option one is paralysing him and hauling him off to the cells for the night, which is my usual choice. Alas, not an option tonight. So we'll have to distract him. Elisif, did you want to dance?

“Well, yes but...” Elisif followed his gaze and realised he didn't mean with him. “Oh, you want me to dance with Cicero.”

“I'm told he's good at it?” Madanach offered by way of apology. Elisif nodded and followed him over to where Cicero was bouncing up and down in front of the terrified young bard. Well, if it was in the service of a good cause...

“Cicero ap Stelmaria, I hope you're not bothering this nice young lady,” Madanach purred, one hand clamping on Cicero's shoulder. Lisette's face went even paler as she realised the Reach-King himself had turned up, and she backed away, clearly petrified.

“Me? Humble Cicero wasn't bothering her! Humble Cicero never bothers anyone!” Cicero cried, all wounded innocence. “Poor Cicero just wanted to hear his favourite song. Hardly anyone ever sings it for him.”

“That does surprise me, because I distinctly recall hearing 'The Dragonborn Comes' three times already tonight,” Madanach said, turning Cicero around to face him. “Here, I need a favour.”

“A favour? But of course! What manner of favour?” Cicero tilted his head, crafty look appearing. “Cicero is happy to oblige you, dear Madanach, you need only ask.” A pause and then... “If Cicero does this favour, is he allowed back in the Hag's Rest again?”

Elisif was aware the Hag's Rest was the new name of Markarth's inn but what Cicero had done to get barred from it was something she really didn't want to think about.

Madanach sighed and gave in. “Fine. But you behave yourself and pay for your drinks and no fighting or harassing anyone or you're banned again. Now. I'm an old man and I'm tired, but my lovely young wife wanted to dance. They tell me you're good at it. Take her for a turn around the dance floor and I'll be much obliged.”

“Is that all, sweet Reach-King?” Cicero purred. “Say no more!” He turned his attention to Elisif, eyes wide and unblinking, grin showing far too many teeth as he offered his arm to her. “Elisif, sweet Elisif, pretty Elisif, lovely Queen of the Eight Holds, come with humble Cicero, we shall have dancing and music and gaiety and laughter!” Without further ado, he whisked Elisif off to the dance floor, and to give her her due, she only looked a little terrified as the Reach folk band Madanach had brought along started to play something lively.

Madanach breathed a sigh of relief. That could have turned nasty. After the infamous incident involving pestering Ogmund to sing the song twelve times in a row, which had involved the Markarth guards getting involved and Cicero having to be collected by Delphine from the cells the next day, Madanach was a little twitchy about any scenario involving Cicero and alcohol. At least he wasn't drinking a lot tonight. Now that the dancing was under way, Elisif didn't look worried either, just laughing and twirling on the dance floor, copying Cicero and picking the steps up well enough. She was having the time of her life. Good, she deserved to be happy after everything that had happened to her. Apparently she'd been there when Ulfric had killed Torygg. She'd had to be dragged away to stop her flinging herself at Ulfric, all the while apparently screaming like a madwoman that he was a murderer and a traitor and she hoped the Daedra took him. Poor girl.

But Ulfric was dead, Madanach had seen it happen personally, and Elisif was happy again at last. With him, apparently. He still had a little difficulty getting his head around the idea of Elisif actually being enthusiastic about this, but he'd explicitly said she didn't have to do it and she'd still been stubborn over it, so who was he to argue? He'd done nothing about the engagement after the Moot, even made sure it wasn't mentioned in any of the treaties so she wasn't bound, and she'd still written to him barely weeks after the smoke cleared over Lost Valley and demanded to know when her proposal was coming, and if it didn't arrive soon she was choosing one of her many other suitors and marrying them. He'd have laughed at her temerity, but he'd been too busy panicking and trying to avoid flying into a jealous rage to do anything other than swing into action and start sorting out an impressive courtship gift fit for a queen everyone adored. He still couldn't quite believe it had worked, but she'd said yes and then the letters had started coming, asking him questions and charming him with the details of court life in Solitude, and wanting advice and stories and looking up to him and honestly he'd been so flattered by the attention, he'd dropped his usual barriers and just told her whatever she wanted to know – the more bloody details omitted of course. It hadn't really sunk in that he'd have to actually marry this sweet young girl of twenty three and a far younger twenty three than either of his two had ever been, not until he'd actually got to Solitude and then it had all hit him, and a man not accustomed to either fear or guilt had suddenly found himself consumed by both. But it was done now, and there was no going back, especially not after hearing her whimper his name and then that kiss... He'd assumed it'd end up being a loveless marriage of convenience, but perhaps, just perhaps, this might work out after all.

Noise in a far corner and Madanach spun round, old instincts kicking in as Detect Life flared in his left hand, lightning bolt ready to go in his right... but it was just a couple in the shadows. Arguing from the sounds of it. A decent human being would have left them and given them some privacy, but this was Madanach listening in, so of course he cast a Muffle spell and swept closer, hiding around the corner.

“... don't care, Falk!” Now that was one of the Thanes – Bryling, was it? Arguing with Elisif's steward. Elisif had already told him in one of her letters they were having an affair. Apparently it wasn't going too well.

“Bryling, I'm sorry, I love you but I can't step down now! Elisif needs me! I can't leave her alone with that monster!”

“You're going to have to for the wedding night! Unless you plan to ask Madanach if you can watch?”

Under no circumstances whatsoever. But joking aside, Madanach made a mental note to keep an eye on these two. Falk's overprotectiveness and clear personal loathing of him, and Bryling's resentment – not a good combination.

“What – no! But at least if I'm around, I can look after her, give the orders she might not be able to bring herself to...”

Sharp intake of breath. “That's it, isn't it. You like having the power, you like being the one she leans on, you can't handle someone else being her shoulder to cry on, especially him, he's not someone you can just push around or manipulate, he's dangerous.”

“I know that! That's why Elisif needs me, she has no idea who she just married. Bryling, I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing it for her!”

A sob then a bitter laugh. “Of course you are. It's her, always her, isn't it? Always pretty young Elisif, isn't it? Never me. Well, you know what? She's all yours. I don't care any more, Falk, you and me are done. You're welcome to her. Oh, but she just got married, didn't she? To a jealous and possessive madman with a private army and the Dark Brotherhood at his back. Oh dear. Never mind. I'm sure you'll work something out. She needs you, after all.”

“Bryling, you can't – Bryling!” Too late. Bryling was clearly coming this way, and Madanach hastily darted back, sliding into one of the thrones, reaching for his wine before anyone suspected anything was amiss. Bryling strode out furiously, barely sparing Madanach a second glance as she swept down the stairs to where the band had set themselves up, clearly intending to find a dance partner and get straight back on the horse.

Falk staggered out after her, dishevelled and panicked and running hands through his hair. He looked about him to see if anyone had heard that – and his eyes fell straight on Madanach. Madanach sat up, watching Falk with interest. The man clearly hated him and was afraid he was going to start hurting and abusing the High Queen and while Madanach could quite see why he might be afraid that might happen, Falk really had very little to worry about. Elisif would never come to any harm from him. Of course, if Falk's real fear was that Madanach was going to completely overturn the power balance in this court... well yes, of course he was, that was the whole point of suggesting the marriage in the first place. Elisif knew it too, which appeared to be exactly the reason she'd said yes. Time for a change in the Blue Palace, and wasn't Madanach's patron deity the god of taking what was there and making it not be?

“Firebeard,” Madanach nodded, raising his glass. “Something I can help you with?”

“No,” Falk said, pulling himself together and glaring at him. “The Queen. Where is she?” Honestly, it was almost as if Falk suspected Madanach of having murdered her already. As if Madanach would marry a beautiful young woman and murder her before the wedding night, really.

“She's on the dance floor,” Madanach said, trying not to smirk. “I'm too old to go cavorting around the place, but there's no reason she shouldn't have fun. The Dragonborn's looking after her.”

Falk went even paler, but given the Dragonborn was a national hero who'd slain Alduin and returned to save Skyrim from the Stormcloaks, he couldn't really argue. Even if said Dragonborn was a stab-happy little lunatic.

“I need to find her,” Falk breathed, turning and walking briskly away. Madanach shook his head and returned to his drink. Elisif had been right, this court was all wrong – for her, for anyone. Definitely time for a change. He was the official consort now, after all, and after achieving his lifetime's ambition, he was secretly hankering for a new challenge, something to occupy his mind. Dealing with Solitude's dysfunctional court might be just the thing.

Getting up, he went in search of Lisette, who was downstairs striking up conversation with the lead fiddle player of that folk band Nepos had found for him called The Briar-Hearted – all ex-Forsworn turned musicians and surprisingly talented. Time to send a message to the Nords.

“Hello there, are you still taking requests?” he asked the young bard. On seeing her start at his voice and back off nervously, he hastily put on his most reassuring smile. “Don't worry, you don't have to sing The Dragonborn Comes again. I was just wondering if you knew Rains of Lost Valley. They all do, don't you worry.” He nodded at the band, who all grinned and raised their instruments, ready to go when Lisette was.

Lisette blushed a little but did smile. “Oh yes, of course! I've been rehearsing it especially, I just didn't know if you'd want to hear it at your wedding, but if you want to...”

Madanach wasn't completely at ease with being reminded of Lost Valley, if he was honest – fighting his own people wasn't something he'd taken any great pleasure in, but the Hags had left him no choice. At least all the parents in the camp had had the sense to heed his call for them to surrender before he came in force, and fled with their belongings and their children before the slaughter had started. However, it had boosted his reputation no end in both the rest of the Reach and Skyrim, and then someone had written that Rains of Lost Valley song all about the perils of screwing over the House of Madanach, Red Eagle's Heirs. It would do perfectly.

“I do,” said Madanach, glancing over at Falk Firebeard who was watching from the sidelines, taking in Elisif taking her leave of Cicero, laughing as he kissed her hand and bowed to her, then Bryling already getting quite friendly with a Nord who'd been with the Jarl of Whiterun's party, and finally glaring at Madanach himself. “All I ask is follow it up with Age of Aggression, cheer everyone up afterwards.”

A song about the death of Ulfric Stormcloak would get everyone in the room going, his lovely wife included. As she saw him standing there and made her way over, Madanach held out a hand to her and pulled her into his arms. First move made in this chess game. Let Solitude respond to that how it would.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eola had retreated to the shadows, the party taking its toll on her. No proper food, far too civilised by Forsworn standards, full of people who bored her silly, oh and not only did she miss Delphine, Cicero was being the life and soul of the party, enthusiastically talking away to anyone and everyone, telling stories of dragon-hunting and bravery, dancing with anyone who offered and yet somehow contriving to be rarely far from Madanach and Elisif – in fact, right now he was taking the young queen for a turn around the dance floor. He was good too – apparently his mother had sent him for lessons as a boy, and he'd been to a fair few dances in Cyrodiil in his youth as well. Whereas Eola couldn't get the hang of these formal dances at all, and had left him to it. It was one thing to dance with Cicero or her father, both of whom were fairly forgiving of the fact she had no sense of rhythm whatsoever. It was quite another to be whirled around the dancefloor by some stranger who would then most likely start reporting to everyone that the younger Princess of the Reach couldn't dance at all. Not that Eola greatly cared, princessing wasn't her day job after all, but it was annoying to think about total strangers laughing at her. At least if she heard anyone badmouthing her, she could send Cicero after them. Or maybe take care of them herself. Now that was a cheering thought.

A flash of black out of the corner of her eye and the sensation of someone suddenly there without a sound.

“Who are you?” Eola snapped, spinning around to challenge whoever was fool enough to sneak up on her.

“I'm sorry! I didn't mean to, er, startle you.” It was a young woman with black hair and dark eyes, Nord, probably about twenty, dressed in typical Nord fine clothing. And from the look of her, she was clearly a Black-Briar. Eola had already seen Maven and a younger man who was presumably her son wandering around. This must be Maven's daughter.

“Word of advice,” said Eola tersely. “Don't sneak up on a Forsworn. What is it?” It was nice being a king's daughter. It meant not having to suck up to the likes of the Black-Briar clan. Not that this one seemed to be too stuck-up, in fact she looked a little starstruck.

“I'm sorry, I just wanted to get to actually talk to you. Are you really Madanach's daughter?”

“Yes,” said Eola, torn between boredom and a prickling feeling of uneasiness. “That's why I'm here, at his wedding, in uncomfortable clothes and bored out of my skull when there's a million other things I'd rather be doing.”

The girl giggled a little. “I understand,” she said sympathetically. “I'd much rather be back in Riften with my alchemy experiments or out gathering ingredients. But Mother says this is where all the movers and shakers of Skyrim are, so here we have to be. Oh, I haven't introduced myself, have I? Ingun Black-Briar of Riften. My mother's Maven Black-Briar, the meadery owner. And she's been Jarl since the peace summit at High Hrothgar.”

“I know,” said Eola, wondering what on earth the girl wanted. “I was there. Helped negotiate it.”

“Yes!” Ingun breathed. “I mean, yes, you did, you're friends with the Dragonborn, aren't you? I bet you and he have had tons of adventures!”

“We've had a few,” Eola admitted. “I hope you're not eyeing him up. He's not available, and you're a bit young for him.”

Ingun shook her head. “Oh no. I'm not after the Dragonborn. Mother doesn't seem to like him for some reason. I don't know why.”

Probably something to do with getting on her nerves at a certain Thalmor party last autumn, but Eola decided not to tell Ingun that.

“So if you're not after the Dragonborn, what do you want?” Eola asked, now beginning to wonder what Ingun was after. She really didn't want some chit of a girl hanging on her arm who just wanted to gossip and giggle about boys all the time. She already had Aranea and Sapphire and Delphine, who between them had enough dirty jokes and lewd stories to keep the entire Imperial Legion entertained. Eola didn't think Ingun would exactly fit in.

Ingun lowered her voice, edging nearer. “Is it true what they say? About, you know, your father? That he's got the Dark Brotherhood in his pocket?”

Eola froze. She knew people were talking, but she didn't think anyone would be quite so brazen as to actually ask.

She laughed, acutely aware of how fake it sounded but not caring. “Oh, don't be so ridiculous! Of course my father's not in charge of the Dark Brotherhood! What a funny thing to say!”

“No?” Ingun asked, raising an eyebrow. “Mother seems to think it wasn't a coincidence that the Dark Brotherhood killed the old Emperor, then Madanach took over the Reach barely weeks after the High Hrothgar Accord was signed. Now everyone says that the Dark Brotherhood freely walk the streets of Markarth, and they've got a temple in the city where anyone can perform the Black Sacrament. Is that true?”

Eola dropped the innocent act. “Keep your voice down,” she hissed. “No one with any sense talks openly about the Brotherhood. Listen, I don't get involved in politics unless I have to. And if Da's had dealings with the Black Hand in the past, that's between him and them. Same way people don't walk up to your Ma and ask her how the Thieves Guild are doing these days, do they?”

That struck a nerve. Ingun's eyes widened and she glared at Eola.

“My mother is a perfectly respectable citizen!” Ingun snapped. “She would never associate with the likes of them!”

“Of course not,” said Eola. “Same way my da's a perfectly respectable ruler who would never hire the Brotherhood to get his enemies removed for him. Do we understand each other?”

Ingun's shoulders sagged and Eola could swear she looked disappointed. “Yes, we do,” she sighed. “So I suppose there's no point asking you how I'd go about joining up then.”

Eola spluttered, mead going everywhere. “I'm sorry, what?” she managed to gasp. “You. Want to join...?”

“The Dark Brotherhood, yes,” Ingun whispered, eyes alive with delight. “It must be such an exciting life! Imagine, to have such power! To be able to stalk the streets, knowing that you could end the life of any one you see before they even knew they were dead! It's... intoxicating.”

Namira help her. The Dark Brotherhood had acquired adoring fans. Eola hated to have to break it to her that while there'd been a fair number of contracts since the Battle of Markarth, most of the time was spent training, doing chores, spending her rota days at the Temple and chilling out back at Karthspire. It wasn't a bad life, all told, but the glamorous bits weren't as frequent as she'd hoped. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. She certainly hoped Ingun wasn't expecting it to be all killing Emperors and dropping dragons on rebel Jarls.

“Have you ever actually killed anyone?” Eola asked. “The Dark Brotherhood don't take sweet little innocents, you know. You've got to already be a murderer before they'll look twice.”

“So if I killed someone, they'd take me?” Ingun asked thoughtfully. Eola covered her eyes, giving up on talking any sort of sense into the girl.

“I wouldn't know,” said Eola wearily. “I'm just an innocent young girl who tries to stay out of that sort of thing. I'm just saying what I've heard. If you kill someone and get away with it, maybe they'll send someone to recruit you. If you get caught... well, you're on your own.”

Ingun just smiled, an evil little smile that made her look a lot like Maven... if Maven ever smiled, that was.

“Oh, I won't. Get caught, that is. Thank you, Eola. You've been very helpful.”

“Helpful? Who has been helpful?” Oh good. The music had finished, the opening strains of Rains of Lost Valley had started up (of course they had, it was probably asking for too much to get through the evening without it) and Cicero had taken his leave of Elisif and come to see what Eola was up to. There went any chance of extricating herself painlessly out of this one.

Cicero skipped over to them, tilting his head as he examined Ingun, all curiosity. “I know you!” he squealed. “Or... no. But you look familiar. Wait! You are Jarl Maven's daughter, yes? Cicero Di Rosso Dragonborn, at your service, my good lady.” He swept her a low bow, but thankfully did not kiss Ingun's hand.

“At yours and your family's,” said Ingun, blushing. “Are you really the Dragonborn?”

“Why yes!” Cicero giggled. “Did you want Cicero to demonstrate?”

“No!” Eola cried. “You know what Delphine's opinions are on Shouting indoors.”

Cicero pouted but did not argue. He turned his attention back to Ingun, seemingly intrigued. It couldn't be sexual attraction, Ingun didn't seem like Cicero's type and he always made such a big deal of being the Listener's anyway.

“Is the sweet Miss Black-Briar an alchemist, by any chance? Cicero sees what looks like Nirnroot stains on your fingernails.”

“That's amazing!” Ingun laughed. “You must be so observant to have worked that out. And please, call me Ingun. Unlike my mother, I can see the value of having the Dragonborn for a friend.”

“Gods help us,” Eola muttered. Being technically on duty, she wasn't really drinking much, but right now she felt the urge to get some more mead in.

“Indeed,” said Cicero thoughtfully. “But what are the Black-Briars offering the Dragonborn? Cicero already has money, he prefers wine to mead, and he is already counted a friend by both Queen Elisif and Madanach the Reach-King. What else does Jarl Maven have to offer?” He was smiling politely, but there was an edge of steel to his words. Far more than the simple fool he pretended to be, and Eola couldn't resist grinning. It was said there were five staples of the Cyrodiilic diet – bread, meat, fish, wine and politics. If Ingun was trying her hand at intrigue, she'd picked the wrong person to do it with.

“Oh, I'm not here on my mother's behalf,” said Ingun, frowning. “Honestly, Mother's very good at what she does, but she's content being the big fish in a not terribly big pond. I've got my sights on bigger and better things.”

“Such as?” Cicero inquired.

“She wants to join the Dark Brotherhood,” said Eola. She'd not been lying when she said she didn't care for politics. Waste of time in her opinion when there were people to kill.

Cicero's eyes widened and he turned back to Ingun, appraising her with fresh eyes.

“Yes, yes, perhaps,” he murmured. “You're young, a bit sheltered but there is something about you. You have had poison on your hands... but have they ever felt the blood of another?”

“No,” Ingun admitted. “But... I could do it if I had to?”

“If you had to,” Cicero repeated, smiling. “If Ingun would be a Dark Sister, she would be better off doing it because she wanted to. Because she loved the way the blood pooled on the floor and the way the life went out of their eyes as she stabbed them...”

Ingun bit back a little whimper, and Cicero grinned at Eola, triumphantly.

“Cicero is good at this, yes?”

“Sweet Sithis,” Eola muttered. “Listen, champ, I'm going to get a refill on the mead, want anything?”

“No, no,” said Cicero, offering an arm to Ingun. “Cicero is fine as he is. Come, come, walk with Cicero a while, dear Ingun. It seems we have things to discuss.”

Eola left them to it and went to see what else was happening. Not a lot from the look of it. Rains of Lost Valley had thankfully finished and Elisif was back in Madanach's arms, clearly flushed from the dancing and all the mead used in the toasts earlier and laughing in delight at something Madanach had said. From the flirty way she was smiling at him and angling her body at him, Eola had a feeling the wedding night would go just fine. Kaie was sat off to one side, clearly flirting with Borkul, and the big Orc was quite clearly flirting back. Took all sorts, Eola supposed.

The party was beginning to die down a little as various couples paired off – no real noteworthy gossip there, although she did notice one of Elisif's thanes cozying up to Jarl Balgruuf's brother. Now if that was Bryling, very interesting – Madanach had told her Bryling was having a secret affair with Falk Firebeard according to Elisif, but apparently not any more if the way she was flirting with the Jarl's brother was any indication. Falk himself was off in one corner, looking worried about something, eyes not leaving the young queen as she cajoled and begged and finally convinced her husband to slow dance with her. Madanach had rolled his eyes, laughed and let her pull him to the dance floor. Very good to see – Madanach hadn't really talked about it much, but he'd clearly been lonely for a long time. It was nice to see her father happy again – despite his ruthless reputation (entirely deserved), he had a very well hidden caring and protective side and Elisif was clearly bringing it out. They'd make a great couple, Eola just knew.

Eola wondered where Delphine was. Times like this she missed having someone of her own. With Cicero off talking murder with Ingun Black-Briar, Eola began to realise just how uninteresting everything else seemed by comparison. Not to mention how stressful keeping up this façade of elegance was. Gods, she missed her coven. When all this was over, she was so going hunting again. She was running out of decent food and it had been so long since she'd tracked prey and brought it down. So long since she'd seen blood spilled...

Blood. The scent of just that very thing drifted across to her, and next thing she knew, she was staring at a worn jade amulet just visible below a fine silk shirt. She looked up and smiled with relief to see a fellow hunter.

“Cal baby, you're still here,” Eola laughed. Calixto Corrium, ex-serial killer, part-time necromancer and fellow Dark Brotherhood member, bowed and kissed her hand.

“I'm still here, yes. May I have the honour of this dance, milady princess?”

“Please never call me that again,” said Eola vehemently. “I'm so sick of having to pretend to be sophisticated. Can I go to bed yet?”

“When your father does,” said Calixto, leading her to the dance floor. “Until then, we are working security providers.”

“My feet hurt,” Eola whined. “I've been standing nearly all day! My eyepatch itches, I can't move properly in this dress and these hair extensions weigh a ton. I don't wanna be a princess any more!”

“Poor darling, are your diamond shoes too tight?” Calixto muttered, wincing as Eola trod on his foot.

“Yeah,” Eola said, pouting. “Look, is anyone actually going to be stupid enough to try and assassinate either the High Queen or her consort in the Blue Palace itself, in front of everyone? Apart from us, but we're professionals and we've all been paid not to.”

“Someone tried at the Temple,” said Calixto, eyes scanning the room. “Delphine thinks that might have been a one-off but could have been a distraction, trying to lure us into a false sense of security so we'd let our guard down.”

“Think she's right?” Eola asked, knowing what the answer would be.

“She might be,” said Calixto, spinning her round so she could take in the rest of the room. “Do you want to gamble your father's life on it?”

Of course not.

“So what are we looking for?” she asked. If he'd spoken to Delphine, that meant she'd have given him some pointers.

“Well, we're all accounted for, and there's no other professional assassins who'd take this on,” said Calixto. “So we're looking for an idealistic amateur.”

“An amateur,” Eola mused. “Someone who wants a nine-hold Skyrim again and who probably wanted Ulfric as High King. Quite probably knowing this is a suicide mission but not caring because Sovngarde awaits, right?”

“Right,” Calixto confirmed. “Probably looking a little nervous, because they've never done this before, time is running out and if they're going to strike, it'll have to be soon.”

“So someone nervous and probably young, because older people tend to be a bit more mellow and less willing to throw their lives away without a good reason. See anyone like that?”

Calixto didn't answer, surveying the room with his eyes narrowed. Then they flicked wide.

“There!” he gasped, letting go her hand so she could spin round to see. One of the young women serving drinks was moving ever closer to Madanach, licking her lips nervously. A Nord, dark hair, in her twenties, steely determination in her eyes and she moved more like a warrior than a servant. Madanach, whispering something in Elisif's ear, was oblivious to her approach. Or at least he was until the drinks tray the waitress was carrying went flying to the floor and she produced a very sharp kitchen knife, ready to strike.

Elisif looked up and screamed, pushing her husband to one side and positioning herself in front of him, bravely facing the woman down despite having nothing in the way of weapons, armour or magic at her disposal. Eola, forewarned, was there, a lightning bolt staggering her father's attacker but not stopping her. Nor did the ice spike from Kaie a split second later. It was only Elisif's reaction and it being her, not Madanach, in the woman's line of attack that gave her pause.

“WULD!” A flash of blue and red and the attacker went flying, blood spraying everywhere as an ebony dagger neatly sliced her throat open. Screams broke out around the room as guests panicked and guards tried vainly to restore order. Sitting on top of the would-be assassin's body was one actual assassin, giggling to himself as he wiped the blood spatter from his face and cleaned his dagger. Eola bit back a whimper as she stared at the sight. Brutal, violent and oh gods she could kiss him right there. But no. He wasn't interested, and this really wasn't the time or the place anyway.

“Eola, are you alright? You have blood on your cheek. Eola?” That was Calixto, sounding a little concerned, as if she'd never seen a violent death before.

“Oh I'm fine,” said Eola, shaking her head and coming back to herself. “It's just a little blood, it won't hurt me. Da, where are you? Da?”

“Right here,” said Madanach roughly, Elisif still clinging on to him in terror. “I'm fine. Are you?”

Eola nodded, still staring at the dead Nord. She had no idea who she was or how she'd even got in here. But she was sure Delphine would find out and then... then there would be trouble.

Chapter Text

The Dark Brotherhood gathered in Delphine's suite for the post wedding briefing. Bride and groom had been escorted to their wedding chamber by Falk Firebeard himself, accompanied by Elisif's housecarl Bolgeir Bearclaw, Argis the Bulwark and a couple of Forsworn guards, and should be safe enough for the night. Especially as Astrid had personally swept the room beforehand, Babette was keeping watch on top of the roof above the bedroom window and Lucien was patrolling the corridor outside all night.

“So who were our would-be attackers then?” Delphine asked. “What do we know?”

“Temple guy's not a threat,” said Sapphire. “Name of Talsgar the Wanderer, he's a travelling bard who apparently had a crush on Elisif for years – wrote a load of pretty ballads about her. Couldn't bear to see her getting married to someone else, especially not someone thirty years older with a reputation like Madanach's. I don't think he was actually intending to hurt anyone – guards only let him through because, well, everyone knows Talsgar. He's not normally any trouble. I think we can let him go, unless you want to make an example of him, of course.”

“I know Talsgar,” Delphine sighed. “He stopped in my inn on a number of occasions. Leave him be, we can let the Jarl's justice take its course. What about the woman, the serving maid Cicero killed?”

“Stabbed her!” Cicero giggled. “Stab stab stab stab stab!”

“Did you ever, I'll never get the blood out of this,” said Eola, ruefully eyeing her dress, now liberally stained with the blood of her father's would-be killer.

“Yes, you did, well done Cicero, but I do wish you'd kept her alive. I'd have liked to interrogate her,” said Delphine. “Anyone got anything on her? In particular, how she got through our vetting process?”

“According to the staff roster, she was taken on for the wedding,” said Aranea. “Needed a bit of extra gold, claimed to be a miner from Dawnstar, name of Hroki. Business not doing so well due to the mine owner dying so she was over in Solitude for work.”

“Oops,” Astrid purred from where she was cuddled up to an equally unrepentant Arnbjorn. “That mine owner was one of ours. Sorry, Listener.”

“There's irony,” Delphine sighed. “Still, not your fault one of her employees was so hard-up she was willing to turn traitor. That's assuming she was one of her employees and not assuming a false identity, of course. Yes, Nazir?”

“Listener, she was no more a miner than I am. Sure, she was strong and well-built, but I took a look at her body before the priests took it away. Miners have cracked hands, rock dust ingrained and certain calluses from wielding a pick-axe. We only killed Beitild a month ago if that. This woman was in no way working down a mine that recently. From the look of her, she was a warrior of some sort.”

Now that was interesting. Why would a warrior be working as a humble servant? It seemed a bit demeaning for someone who probably wasn't a professional assassin, and Nords loved their honour above all. Delphine needed to find out who this woman had been, because she had a sneaking suspicion she'd not been acting alone. Someone had put her up to this, turning her head with talk of nine Holds again and Sovngarde awaiting.

“In that case, Nazir, get yourself to the Hall of the Dead and see what else you can find out before they bury her. Take Calixto with you, he knows his bodies. Sapphire, go through her things, see what you can find. Probably nothing, but you never know. Also tomorrow, you and Aranea need to start talking to the servants. See if she dropped any hints about where she came from. The rest of you, get some sleep. Been a long day for all of us.”

No one was disagreeing with that. Nazir, Calixto and Sapphire disappeared on their errands, Astrid and Arnbjorn slipped off to their room, Aranea close behind and heading for hers. Leaving Delphine alone with her two lovers.

“Thank the gods that's over with,” Eola sighed, kicking off her shoes and moaning in sheer relief. “I hate dressing up. Tomorrow it's back in the armour. Namira, how I have missed it.”

“You look so pretty in that outfit though,” said Delphine, shoving business out of her head for at least a few minutes. “Well, you did before it got blood all over it, anyway.”

“Cicero likes the blood,” Cicero volunteered, cheerful and buzzing from post-kill euphoria. “Red, white and green go well together.”

That was her Dragonborn all right. Bloodthirsty to the end. His own outfit was still covered in it.

“Are you going to get that coat and shirt off?” Delphine asked. “You can hardly wear that now, it's got blood everywhere.”

“Mmm... blood,” Cicero sighed. He grinned at her, flicking his eyebrows up. “Listener just wants an excuse to see sweet Cicero out of these nice clothes.”

Laughter from Eola, and Delphine couldn't help but smile. “Sweetie, if I wanted you out of those clothes, I'd just order you to take them off.” A pause and then because Delphine couldn't help herself... “So get that coat off.”

That brought a cheer from Eola. Clearly the mead had gone to her head a little. Cicero sighed and unfastened his coat, sliding it off. The cravat soon followed and Cicero even went so far as to unfasten the shirt, Amulet of Talos visible. Then his feet went up on the table, blowing a kiss at Delphine as he reclined back in his chair.

“Listener needs to stop ordering me to take my clothes off in front of our sister. We would hate for her to be overcome with lust for handsome Cicero and attempt to savage him. That would be... bad.” He glanced at Delphine, nervous suddenly. Delphine felt a little bit guilty. If she ordered him to strip off entirely, he'd probably do it – but she didn't think the consequences would be worth it.

“In your dreams, Cici,” said Eola quickly. Cicero glared at her, annoyed as always by her use of the childhood nickname. Cicero had gained the ability to regularly summon the ghost of his dead mother from Sovngarde with a Shout and while he didn't regret it exactly, he'd confessed to Delphine that he wished his mother could remember he wasn't a little boy any more.

“Don't call me that!” Cicero snapped. “You are not allowed to call me that! Only Mama and the Listener are allowed to call me that, and the Listener doesn't! Tell her, Listener!”

Oh good, the day was ending as it had begun. Not that the two of them weren't adorable but when the bickering started, Delphine began to get a headache.

“I am going to bed,” she declared. “You two will have to sort your own problems out tonight. I expect to wake up without any stabbing having happened.”

“Listener!” Cicero wailed after her. Delphine turned in the doorway, smiling at him.

“It's Tirdas. Join me later if you want to.”

Cicero nodded sadly. “I will,” he whispered. As soon as the door closed, he turned on Eola, glaring.

“Now look what you did. You have annoyed Delphine.”

“That isn't her being annoyed. Just a little knackered,” said Eola. “You can crawl in to bed with her later, or indeed right now, and she is likely to forgive you as always and snuggle with you.”

“Cicero isn't tired,” said Cicero sulkily. “Cicero just killed someone. Cicero is never sleepy after that. You know this!”

Eola did. Cicero would most likely be awake and energetic for some hours yet. Fortunately, she had anticipated this problem.

“Well, we'd better make the most of that, hadn't we? Look what I happened to find just lying around downstairs!” She reached under her chair and produced a bottle of the finest Colovian brandy, swiped from the buffet table while everyone else had been too busy screaming. Cicero, having been avoiding alcohol all night, began drooling at the mere sight of it. Seconds later, he had slid from his chair and was crouching at her side, two glasses from the table in his hand and a hopeful look on his face.

“Sister...” he purred. “It has been years since I had Colovian brandy. Years! Cicero has not seen it anywhere in Skyrim!”

“Would you like some, Cicero?” said Eola, grinning. Cicero nodded eagerly.

“All right then. But you have to be nice to me,” said Eola. “Think you can manage that?”

Cicero's grin widened. “Oh sister. Cicero has just the thing.” He slipped off again, rummaged in his coat and returned with a small vial of clear purple liquid. It didn't look quite like any potion Eola had seen before.

“What is it?”

“A little gift!” Cicero giggled. “A concoction of dear Ingun's! She calls it Liquid Delight. She gave some to poor Cicero after he said he'd think about letting her in. She says it is a little like Skooma but non-addictive, just a little something that makes the world seem like such a nicer place for a few hours. Does sweet Eola want some?”

“Do you have any idea what this stuff even does?” Eola asked. Cicero shook his head, grinning.

“No! But Cicero is going to find out!” He uncorked the vial and promptly knocked back a mouthful before offering it to Eola. She looked at it and sniffed it carefully. It smelt fantastic, like honey and roses. Experimentally, she drank a little of it. It didn't taste of much, just honey at first, and then it seemed to evaporate on her tongue, going straight to her brain as all the tension in her body just started to drain away.

“Sweet Mother, Cici, this stuff's fabulous! It's like I could just melt through the chair and onto the floor.”

Cicero giggled, not even caring that she'd called him Cici again. “I know!” he laughed. “It's so nice and warm, isn't it?”

“Still want the brandy?” Eola asked, waving the bottle around. Cicero nodded, seemingly fascinated by the candlelight reflecting off its surface.

“Ooh, yes please. But sister, if we're going to drink, maybe we should go somewhere quieter. Cicero would not wish to wake the Listener now.”

Eola got to her feet, swaying a little as she did so. “Come on,” she murmured, holding out a hand. “Let's go hang out in my room. Least that way when we pass out, we'll be comfy.”

Cicero took her hand, brandy glasses in his other hand, giggling in delight. He was buzzing already, his skin tingling all over and feeling like he'd been wrapped in a big fur blanket. Something was niggling at him, something trying to tell him this was a very bad idea. He couldn't think why though. Everything seemed so lovely and Eola was pretty and she had brandy! All set for a very good night with his sweet sister.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Someone whose evening was not going so well was Elisif. Things had been fine up until that woman had gone for her husband with a knife, and her mind had flashed back to last summer and Ulfric calling Torygg out then Shouting him to the floor and the sword plunging down... She'd shoved Madanach out of the way, flinging herself between him and death, like she'd never been able to with Torygg. She couldn't go through all that again, she just couldn't.

They'd whisked her away after the Dragonborn had struck. He was a strange little man but a friendly one, always polite but treating her like a human being, not a child or a porcelain doll. Now he'd saved her life. She made a mental note to do something for him, name him Thane or something. He'd saved her life and her husband's – she just wished there hadn't been so much blood.

Blood. Oh gods, blood, there'd been so much of it after Torygg died, blood everywhere, all over her hands and her clothes after she'd cradled him in her arms and screamed.

She was crying again, sobbing and shaking as she let Falk and Madanach lead her into her room, sitting down on her bed, barely aware of who was around her.

“My Jarl, are you alright?” That was Falk. Of course not, she had blood all over her dress, her wedding party was ruined, someone had tried to kill her husband, a husband she was desperately trying to impress and be a good wife to, and now here she was in tears on the wedding night. Everyone was staring at her, she just knew it, they all must think she was so pathetic. Fine Queen she made.

“Does she look it?” Madanach snapped at him. He had an arm around her, his other hand holding hers and rubbing the back of it, and that felt nice, made Elisif feel a little less terrified. “Don't cry, cariad, it's all right, no one's going to stab anyone here. You're safe.”

“She tried to kill you!” Elisif sobbed.

“Yes, well, she's not the first to try that,” said Madanach, which was not terribly reassuring. “You did well, girl. Good reflexes you got there.”

Elisif didn't answer. She couldn't take her eyes off the bloodstains. Blood of a stranger and it could so easily have been her husband's. Again.

“All right, I think the lady Queen's had enough for one night,” said Falk, deciding someone needed to take charge and it might as well be him if Elisif was too shocked to react. “Time we all left Lady Elisif to it. The High Queen needs her sleep.”

Everyone filed out, and Madanach got up to follow. He wasn't sure if she'd want him there or not. Earlier, he'd had no doubt she'd want him in her bed. Now, who knew? She certainly wasn't going to want sex. Being tucked up in bed and left to sleep was probably best for her now, and she likely had servants for that. To his surprise, Elisif cried out as he walked away.

“You're leaving?” she whispered.

“I was thinking you might prefer to be alone, given the circumstances,” said Madanach. He'd never exactly been good at dealing with crying women – Mireen had rarely cried, and while he'd dealt with his daughters' tears as children, twenty years away from them in prison had left him ill-equipped for dealing with them as adults. Mercifully Kaie had her mother's steely nature, and very little ever seemed to bother Eola.

“But it's my wedding night!” Elisif cried, looking devastated. “I don't want to spend it alone.”

Now that was a surprise – a nice one though. He guessed the whole experience must have left her desperate for company – well, she'd said she was lonely before. Maybe they were still relative strangers, but he was her husband now. If she needed company, he'd happily provide it.

“My lady, no one would think any less of you if you wanted to sleep alone tonight,” Falk said, bristling a little. Oh good, the power struggle was back on. Couldn't the man see Elisif was upset, needy, had nearly ended up a widow again just as she'd finally managed to shed the label? Now was not the time to fight over her, and while Madanach had spent many years cultivating a reputation as a man to be feared, he could sometimes wish people had just a little faith in him to be a decent man when it mattered. I'm not an abusive husband! Quite the reverse, just ask Mireen...

“Well, I don't,” Elisif snapped. “It is my wedding night and I want to spend it with my husband. Thank you, Falk, I won't need anything else.”

She stared at Falk with all the determination she could muster. Falk stared back before giving in. He shot a glare at Madanach, clearly not approving but not having much say in the matter.

“As you wish, my Queen,” he said curtly, ushering out all the various guards and housecarls, and closing the door behind him. Leaving them alone. Well. This was awkward, wasn't it? When Madanach found out who was behind that assassination attempt, he was definitely going to exact the Reach-King's Justice on them, in the most brutal, old-style fashion he could think of. Up until then, things had been going well, Elisif had been happy, they'd been talking and flirting like two people who hadn't only laid eyes on each other once before the wedding itself, Elisif had been more than a little tipsy, clearly sex-starved and eager, and unable to keep her hands off him. Madanach had been rather enjoying it and very much looking forward to taking full advantage later. Now look at her. Tearful, scared, unhappy, upset and when Madanach found out who'd been behind it, he was going to absolutely annihilate them. It wasn't even the prospect of not getting any action tonight after all. Someone had upset his wife. No one upset his family like this. No one.

“Are you alright?” he said quietly. “Do you need anything?”

“Brandy,” Elisif whispered. “Bottle of Colovian brandy in that cabinet, stole it off the Thalmor at Elenwen's last party before that dragon attacked them.”

Normally Madanach despised thieves, but he despised the Thalmor even more, particularly after Delphine had shown him a certain dossier indicating they'd been behind the Markarth Incident.

“You make a habit out of walking off with other people's things?” he asked, raising an eyebrow as he poured two tumblers of brandy for them.

“No,” said Elisif, finally smiling a little. “It was just lying around and it's hard to get hold of and expensive and the Thalmor don't appreciate it anyway. They chill it with frost magic.

“Is that a bad thing?” Madanach asked, hastily shutting off the frost spell in his own hand. He wasn't expecting her to take to magic overnight, but even so, the disapproval hurt.

“It ruins the taste!” Elisif snapped. “You don't do that to a good brandy. Save it for the cheap stuff.”

Madanach felt himself relax. Not the magic use, just objecting to ruining a good drink. Madanach had never really been a brandy drinker – give him Reach jenever any day – but any quality drink was worth trying.

Elisif accepted the tumbler off him, knocking it back and shuddering as it sunk down her throat. Madanach shivered as he watched her, there being something delightfully erotic about the sight of a young woman drinking a fine brandy and moaning at the aftertaste.

“Slanta,” Madanach murmured, using the traditional toast of the Reachmen and drinking his own, feeling the cares of the day sliding away as the stuff trickled down his throat and really this was good brandy, he definitely needed to track some down himself. It seemed his new wife had excellent taste in drinks – well, he'd known that after he'd sampled that wine she'd sent him.

“Slanta,” Elisif giggled. “I don't know what it means, but half your lot were saying it to each other all night, so I suppose it can't be bad.”

“Means your good health,” Madanach told her, taking another sip of brandy and feeling the room start to warm up from all the alcohol. Time to shed a few layers. He placed his own glass on the nearest cabinet and began to strip off his coat, then that damn cravat, and finally unfastened a few buttons on his shirt before returning to the bed and removing the boots too.

Elisif hadn't said a word, but she'd watched him curiously, eyes wide as she sipped her drink. No fear, no anxiety, but she did look a little surprised.

“Probably should have asked before stripping off, shouldn't I?” Madanach laughed apologetically as he retrieved his drink and stretched out on the bed. “Don't worry, I just couldn't stand wearing these wretched things a minute longer, that's all. I'm not about to pounce on you if that's what you were worried about.”

“I wasn't,” Elisif sighed, looking a little wistful, staring down at blood-covered hands, her ruined wedding dress and the last of the brandy, which she soon knocked back, shuddering again at the kick as she put the glass away and wiped her mouth clean. Madanach downed the rest of his own drink, really rather glad that was the last of hers because if he'd had to watch her do that again he'd have thrown decency to the wind and claimed her anyway.

“Feeling better?” he asked. Elisif nodded, kicking her shoes off, before removing circlet, rings, earrings, necklace, all neatly stored in Elisif's special jewellery box. She took the wedding ring off last, placing that by itself on the table near the bed, before falling back onto the covers with the grace of youth. Madanach was fairly certain if he did that, he'd probably injure himself, but he did take the opportunity to move closer until he was lying alongside her. He wasn't really expecting anything to happen between them tonight, but this was the closest he'd been to a woman in over twenty years. Even if she didn't want him yet, that didn't mean he wasn't at least going to make sure she knew he was there.

“Thank you,” Elisif said, staring at the ceiling. “For being so understanding about all this. I'm so sorry. You come all the way to Solitude to get married and someone tries to kill you at the reception. What must you think of us?”

A question best not answered, to be honest. Asking the King in Rags what he thought of the Nords, honestly.

“Frankly, I was thinking only yesterday when I got here how strange it was to be walking openly in a Nord city with everyone knowing who I was and no one trying to kill me. It's actually rather reassuring that someone tried. Just like old times.”

“Don't!” Elisif cried, turning to face him, looking heartbroken. “You could have died! I only just married you! I can't be a widow again, I just can't!”

“Elisif,” Madanach whispered, not sure how to react to this. He really wasn't used to someone being quite that worried about him. Mireen had never been that terrified, ever. Elisif barely knew him and here she was, afraid to lose him already. Probably because she barely knew him.

“I'm sorry,” Elisif whispered, wiping her eyes. “I just... you've been really lovely all the time I've known you, and I was having such a nice time with you, and I wanted it to be special, and now look at me, I'm covered in someone else's blood, my evening is ruined and you probably think I'm so pathetic!” She looked like she was about to start crying again and Madanach felt his heart go out to her. Poor girl, she was trying so hard to make a good impression. Truth was, she'd already impressed him a long time ago.

“I don't think you're pathetic,” he told her, stroking her face. “I was having a nice time with you too, the evening's not done yet and while I don't find the sight of blood off-putting, you can always take the dress off, wear something else.” Or nothing at all...

“Er... actually, I can't,” Elisif admitted, blushing a little. “I mean, I can't actually get out of it by myself, I need servants. Um. Could you... er? Help?”

Dear sweet gods. Formal clothing really wasn't his strong point, as this whole escapade had proved. Still, the thing was covered in blood, she could hardly keep wearing it.

“What do you need me to do?” he asked, resigned to his fate.

“Just undo the laces at the back, I think it comes off by itself after that,” said Elisif, rolling over to show off her back. Madanach did as asked, watching with some satisfaction as Elisif wriggled out of it and kicked it across the floor into a corner. She was still in a silk undershift, but this was far more of her than Madanach had ever seen on show before. The temptation to throw chivalry to the winds and run his hands over that beautifully soft young skin was damn overwhelming, but he restrained himself. She was exhausted and emotional, he reminded himself. She definitely didn't need him throwing himself at her.

“Better?” he asked. She nodded, finally smiling.

“Much better. Thank you.” She shivered in the chill night air – might be Second Seed now, but Skyrim nights were still a little chilly.

“Cold?” Madanach asked. “I can put a fire rune down if you like.” Please say no, the cold air is doing wondrous things to your nipples...

“No, it's fine, it's not that cold – wait, you can do that?” Elisif looked honestly surprised over the idea of someone not a career wizard being able to use magic and certainly surprised over runes being used for temperature control and not for protection.

“Of course,” Madanach grinned. He definitely needed to make a point of showing off his Destruction magic skills at some point. They were all going to call him Witch-King anyway, he may as well remind them he had genuine power.

“You can do magic,” Elisif breathed, fascinated. This could hardly have been news to her, but clearly it hadn't sunk in yet.

“Yes, they call us the Witchmen for a reason,” Madanach laughed. “Want to see some?” Elisif nodded, wide-eyed.

“All right. See that lamp over there?”

Elisif did. It was a standard goat horn with a candle burning away in it. Or at least it was until Madanach sat up, raised his hand and took careful aim, sending a blast of Ice Storm at it. The light went out. Madanach grinned at Elisif, who was looking faintly appalled but did nothing apart from crawl under the covers. He repeated the trick until the room was in darkness – of course, it was now also freezing. Shivering, he dived under the covers himself to join Elisif, after casting a fire rune on the ceiling to start warming the room up.

“Are you going to do that every night?” she whispered, not sounding remotely impressed, in fact she sounded nervous.

“Only if you want me to,” he told her, stripping his shirt off and edging closer to her. “Although I can't promise never to use Destruction magic in front of you again, it's a bit of a specialty of mine. And a very misnamed school – everyone thinks battlemagic when they think of it, but the fire and frost spells have a wide range of non-combat temperature control applications and Calcelmo, that's my court mage, seems to think the Dwemer were using a form of lightning magic to fuel all their machines – what? You're staring at me.”

Elisif was watching him in the glow of the fire rune, looking amazed but starting to smile.

“That's him,” she whispered. Sithis help him, he'd married a madwoman. Again. At least this one wasn't an evil sadist. He hoped.

“I'm sorry, I'm sure that was meant to sound deep and insightful, but you'll forgive me if I have to ask what in Oblivion you're talking about,” he growled. Elisif's smile just broadened.

“The man who wrote me all those letters,” she whispered, drawing closer. “I wondered where he'd gone. I liked him. I'd not seen any sign of him since you got here, just this moody stranger. But now he's back!” Elisif was right alongside him now, snuggling up against him, head on his chest. “Hello, ridiculously smart, funny and charming Reach-King. I missed you.”

She was smiling up at him and it was a good thing the runelight was red, it meant she couldn't see him blush.

“I have actually married a lunatic, haven't I?” he murmured, stroking her hair as he held her to him, smiling as he kissed the top of her head, feeling a weight slide off his shoulders as he realised she was all right, they were all right, it was probably going to be fine. Probably.

“Well, I married a man who thinks it's appropriate to use battlemagic to put the lights out at night, so which of us has it worse?” Elisif said, rather pointedly in Madanach's opinion.

“Not too late to kick me out and apply for that annulment in the morning,” Madanach told her, although his nerves and guilt over marrying her were fading as he realised he liked this, he liked having her here, and she was smiling and comfortable and felt so soft and warm and he didn't want her to go. Elisif the Fair, his Elisif now, even if she never wanted anything more from him than this.

“It will be once we've... you know,” she whispered, and now she sounded nervous, going tense in his arms and Madanach remembered she'd been in tears not half an hour ago.

“We don't have to,” he told her. “I'd never force you, I'm not that sort of man, even I have limits. If this is all that happens between us, tonight or ever, then I'll live with it.”

Elisif slowly raised her eyes, surprised. He couldn't imagine what by, hadn't he always said the sex was entirely optional? She was smiling though, trailing a finger down his cheek, then down to his chest, stroking his chest hair as if she'd never seen any on a man before.

“All this time, everyone has been telling me that you're a ruthless murderer with a heart of ice, a savage beast who bathes in the blood of his enemies and mounts their heads on his wall, and takes pleasure in every drop of Nord blood spilled. And now I'm alone with you, the Queen of the Nords that you hate and despise so much, in your arms, entirely at your mercy, yours to do with whatever you please, and you just want to cuddle? Honestly, I'm a little disappointed.”

Madanach had gone very still, blood pooling in his loins and yes, yes he had in fact had an awful lot of fantasies along those very lines but it was one thing to think about it and quite another to actually do it, especially when he'd got to know her and stopped thinking of her as a queen and a Nord and instead just started thinking of her as Elisif, an innocent young girl who he wasn't sure he could bring himself to treat like that. Now here she was, whispering the very scenarios his more lurid fantasies had envisaged.

“Disappointed? Is that right?” His voice dropped into a low and dangerous register which he reserved for those occasions when he wanted to really get to someone, and it clearly worked on Elisif because her breath had caught in her throat. By Sithis, this was going to be fun. “Do you mean to tell me that you married me not in spite of my dreadful reputation but because of it? That all along you've been having secret fantasies of being ravaged by a fearsome Reachman like a bitch in heat?”

Elisif actually whimpered, fingers digging into his arms as she buried her face in his chest. He'd take that as a yes.

“I had no idea Nord women were quite that shameless,” he breathed into her ear, fingers entwining into her hair. “Or maybe it's just you. It's a good thing your steward can't see this. How do you think your court would react to knowing their pretty little queen is craving being pinned down and fucked by a bloody-handed monster like me?”

Elisif let out a little sob, and Madanach yanked her hair, forcing her to look up at him. She was gasping for breath, eyes wide and a little fearful, but her hands were free and she wasn't fighting him – quite the reverse, in fact one hand was reaching for his groin. One slap on the back of her hand later, and she'd taken it back, yelping.

“You will touch me when I tell you to, do you understand me, girl?” he murmured and Elisif nodded, gasping and squirming in his arms, and by Sithis, first time in two decades and it was turning into something about as far from sweet and romantic as it was possible to get... but it wasn't a soulless business transaction either. She wanted this as much as he did – needed it. Far be it from him to deprive her of something she needed.

“Now,” he purred. “Where were we? Oh yes, you were going to answer my question. Do you, Elisif the Fair, High Queen of Skyrim and shining symbol of all that is good and pure and honourable to all Nords, want the murdering son of a bitch that is Madanach ap Caradach, King of the Reach, to use you like a common whore and make you beg him to do it harder?”

Elisif nodded, whimpering. Not good enough.

“Out loud,” he growled. “Do you want me to fuck you?”

A little keening noise came from Elisif's throat, and she managed to gasp, “Yes. Yes, please, yes.”

Oh this was good. This was very good. His relationship with the Nords had been a complicated one to say the least, marked by hate, obsession, glorious victories and crushing defeats and winning in the end against all the odds. That had been a day to treasure, a sweet victory indeed... but not quite as sweet as this one was turning out to be.

“Say it,” he hissed. “Say it out loud and clear. Say you want me inside you.”

“Please,” Elisif whispered, reaching out for him, clutching his upper arms, all shame gone from her now, just wanton and aroused and pleading and by the gods, he wanted her. “Please, I want you. It's been so long, please.”

“Please what?” Madanach murmured.

“Please fuck me,” Elisif whispered, writhing against him, and he knew he had her now, knew he'd won. “Please.”

“Happy to oblige,” Madanach growled, pushing her on to her back. Elisif cried out, back arching as he pinned her down. His own restraint finally gave way, all guilt and fear fading in the face of sheer carnal want and the knowledge she wasn't innocent at all, not in this, she craved being used as much as he wanted to possess her. He kissed her hard, fiercely claiming her lips and revelling in the sensation of feeling her against him, breasts pressing into his chest as she moved, hearing her moan as she kissed him back. Letting her arms go, he pulled her to him, one arm round her back while the other shoved her night shift up, sliding between her legs. She was already soaking wet and Madanach couldn't stop himself groaning as his fingers slid inside her, base of his hand grinding against her clit. She was thrusting against him, crying out his name, begging for more. Madanach couldn't take his eyes off her. So beautiful. So very beautiful and willing and his, all his, she belonged to him now and no one was ever going to take this away from him. Letting her go, he removed his remaining clothes and helped her strip. His wedding ring was last to go, placed carefully alongside hers. He didn't need a symbol when he was about to have the real thing.

Elisif was lying back on the bed, looking up at him, flushed and breathless and just a little uncertain. She really had no reason to be – if anyone ought to be feeling insecure, it was him. But she was beautiful and there and she wanted him, and he didn't care about anything else.

“Gods but they didn't lie when they called you Elisif the Fair,” Madanach breathed. Before she could respond to that, he'd claimed her lips again, nudging her legs apart and then he was inside her, moaning softly as he felt her walls clamping around him. So tight and so wet and she felt amazing as she moved with him, clinging on to him and not even seeming to care that he was in no way the handsome youth Torygg had been.

“Please, more!” she cried. Madanach obliged, moving a little faster and reaching down to find her clit again. She cried out, eyes flicking open then closing again as she began to moan.

“You like this?” he growled.

“Yes, oh yes,”she gasped. “Don't stop, please!”

He had no intention of doing so, carrying on and watching as she writhed beneath him. He could only thank the gods that he had enough self-control to hold on, because this was a sight to be treasured. He could die a happy man having seen this – Elisif the Fair falling apart in his arms, begging for him to fuck her harder.

“Yes, yes, come for me, yes,” he gasped, and Elisif cried out as she finally came, crying out incoherently, but he recognised his own name in there. He let her clit go and sped up, thrusting into her hard and fast until finally he was coming too, crying out her name as he let go inside her, thrusting a few more times until finally he was spent, collapsing exhausted next to her, shaking all over and hoping it had been enough. From the way she crawled into his arms, he guessed it probably had been. He planted a kiss on her forehead, cradling her in his arms, Elisif the Fair, his beautiful wife. Cicero had been right – who cared if she didn't love him back just yet? He'd take care of her – she was his now and he intended for things to stay that way.

“Are you all right?” he asked. Elisif nodded, still shivering in his arms.

“Yes,” she breathed. “Dibella, that was... I mean... they weren't wrong about you, you're an absolute beast.

“Is that good?” he asked, hoping he'd not just inadvertently put her off him for life. He didn't think so but it was wise to check.

To his enormous relief she nodded.

“Yes. Oh yes,” she sighed. “By the Eight, I needed that. Torygg was always so gentle, like he was afraid I'd break. You're not. You're... I didn't even know it could be like that.”

Another great victory for the Reach, although this was one Madanach was going to keep to himself. It would be crass to boast, after all.

“Thank the gods, because it's too late to get your annulment now,” Madanach laughed, holding on to her. “No going back, you're stuck with me.”

Elisif clung on to him, and this was new, having someone who needed him, someone who didn't just roll over and go to sleep after it was all over. If he hadn't had feelings before, he would have fallen in love that second. I think she likes me. I think this is going to work.

“Don't go,” Elisif whispered. “Don't leave. I miss Torygg and always will, but what I miss most is the company, the having someone there to talk to and be with.” She looked up and Madanach felt his heart flutter to see her smiling up at him as if he was the answer to her prayers. “I can talk to you. I can just rest in your arms and feel everything's going to be all right. You're terrifying and powerful and dangerous, but when I'm with you, I just feel so safe.” She reached up and kissed him once on the lips. “I'm glad I married you, Reach-King.”

“Likewise,” was all Madanach trusted himself to say, pulling the covers back over them both and making himself comfortable with his beautiful wife in his arms. The day had been long and exhausting, and it appeared people were still trying to kill him despite him turning over a law-abiding new leaf (made manifestly easier when he was the one writing the law, it had to be said). Morning would bring a whole new set of challenges, not least finding out who was behind said attack, but he had faith Delphine would find something. She always did. Right now, all he cared about was the woman in front of him. Sweet, beautiful Elisif. Lonely, helpless Elisif and that state of affairs bothered him. His queen shouldn't feel so powerless in her own court, and the intrigue that was clearly hiding beneath the surface was a concern too. He'd get to the bottom of it and deal with it though. He had a queen to protect now. Skyrim had better be careful. If they'd thought him dangerous before, they had no idea how dangerous he could be when his loved ones were hurt.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In a room down the hall, Madanach's daughter was also having a very good evening. With Ingun's Liquid Delight concoction coursing through her veins, and with several shots of brandy having passed down her throat by this point, she was lying back on her bed, propped up on her pillows and feeling quite cheerful.

Cicero was lying at the other end of it, staring at the ceiling and giggling.

“Sister, sister, I'm floating!” he giggled. He'd had far more of both Liquid Delight and brandy than she had and how he was still conscious was a mystery.

“You're not, you're still on the bed,” Eola pointed out. “Both of you.” Twin jesters blurred, separated and re-merged into one.

“No, no, there's only one Fool of Hearts,” Cicero laughed. “Only one Cicero.”

Yeah, there was. Pity. If there were really two of them, Delphine could have one and Eola could keep the other. Alas, there weren't. Eola yanked at her hair extensions irritably. They were heavy and she was having enough trouble staying upright as it was.

“Cici, I can't get the hair grips to come out!” she cried, frustrated. “Help me!”

Cicero rolled over and crawled up to her end of the bed. “But Cicero likes your long hair. It's pretty!” he purred.

“Well, get it off me and you can do whatever you want with it,” said Eola. Cicero pouted.

“It looks nice attached to you. Makes you look less scary.”

Scary? Cicero was scared of her? That made no sense, Cicero was rarely scared of anything, except Delphine of course.

“I'm not scary!” Eola protested. “Well. All right, I can be kinda scary. But not to you! You're my buddy! I wouldn't hurt you!”

“You might!” said Cicero, a little defensively. “You keep staring at Cicero. Like he's a piece of meat. Cicero has seen what you do to meat! He's seen what you do to people!”

“I've seen what you do to people too!” said Eola. “You stab them! And then you like to lick the blood off your fingers – no, don't argue, I've seen you do it.”

“Is different!” Cicero said, still pouting. “Cicero would not do that to a Dark Sister!”

“Well, I wouldn't cook and eat a Dark Brother either,” said Eola, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “I wouldn't hurt you! You're pretty!”

Cicero's cheeks flushed red, but he was smiling, giggling with those dark eyes even darker than usual.

“Eola is pretty too,” he said, starting to pick over her hair and gently pull the grips out of it. Eola sighed with relief as the hair extensions fell to the bed and the weight disappeared off her head.

“So much better, thank you.” She tore the eyepatch off with it and looked up at him, trying to think if he'd actually said she was pretty or if she'd just imagined it. Either way, he was still a total sweetheart. A bloodthirsty and depraved sweetheart, but still. Not like she was any better.

“I love you, you know,” she giggled. Cicero lay down on the bed next to her, still grinning.

“Cicero loves you too,” he said. Well yes, he had occasionally said that before, most notably before flying off to Sovngarde on a dragon's back. If only he meant it in the way she did.

“Not like a brother,” Eola sighed. “I love you like... I love you, Cicero. I'd totally jump you if you'd let me.”

Cicero just smiled sadly, stroking her cheek. “Cicero is the Listener's, sweet Eola. Cicero can't be anything more than a brother, no matter how much he wants it otherwise. Delphine wouldn't want Cicero going off with other women. And you're hers as well, Cicero thinks it would be very bad for him to interfere with you.”

“She could watch. She'd like that,” Eola giggled. “Or she could join in. She'd really like that.”

Cicero hissed under his breath but did not move away. “Do not tempt me, hussy,” he whispered, the smile fading. “You have been tempting and beguiling Cicero in one way or another since the day we first met, and today has been the worst. Now you're offering yourself? Eola, sister, stop this. Cicero is not free to love you.”

All the while he was saying this, he was leaning over her, shirt falling open, chest on view, hair falling down around his face and those eyes impossibly dilated. His voice said no, his body was saying anything but. Eola reached up and slid her arms under his shirt, shivering as her fingers raced over his slender but still quite well-muscled frame. Cicero yelped as she ran a finger over one of his nipples.

“Just because you're not free to doesn't mean you don't,” Eola whispered. Cicero shuddered and looked down at her, face in shadow and utterly unreadable.

“She will punish us both,” he breathed. Eola shrugged.

“Thought you liked that sort of thing?” she asked, grinning as flirtatiously as she could manage. Cicero just blinked at her.

Seconds later, he was on her, shoving a leg between her thighs, pinning her wrists above her head and his mouth on hers. He was not gentle, teeth nipping at her lips, tongue down her throat. Eola moaned, opening her legs and giving in, shivering as he finally let loose the desires he'd been repressing for months. He'd often told her there was a vicious monster lurking inside. She'd long hoped to see it in action. Now here he was, pinning her down and preparing to have his way with her. He'd already left her mouth and was now going for her throat, leaving punishingly fierce bites down her neck as he made his way to her chest.

“Filthy little hussy,” he was hissing into her skin, “do you have any idea what you're doing, what you've done? I'm meant to be your brother, meant to be your friend, meant to be a good husband and Keeper, but you keep looking at me! You keep... arousing me. Every time I see you kill, every time I see you feed, wrong, wrong, so very wrong and Cicero can't stop, can't hold back, what have you done??” His other hand was at her skirts, shoving them up as he yanked her underwear down. Eola wriggled out of it easily enough, and then couldn't stop herself crying out as he rolled her on to her front, one hand pinning her shoulders down as the other reached for his dagger and sliced the laces open. Eola felt her dress falling off her, but Cicero didn't bother removing it entirely. He just threw the skirts back, leaving her on her knees, bare arsed and vulnerable as his fingers slid into her. Namira yes, she needed this.

“Please yes, more,” she whispered. Cicero laughed, leaving his thumb inside her while his fingers found her clit.

“Like this, do you?” he hissed. “Like being bent over and taken like some wild animal, hmm?”

“Absolutely,” Eola gasped, clinging on to the headboard. “Gods, yes, knew you'd be hot in bed the moment I laid eyes on you.”

“Quiet,” Cicero snapped, slapping her arse. That only made her moan louder.

“Oh, you're a depraved little pervert, there's a surprise,” Cicero sighed.

“You're one to talk – ow!” He'd spanked her again. “You're in so much trouble when Del finds out about this, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” he giggled. “She'll be very cross. It will be glorious. Should I stop?”

“No,” gasped Eola. “Oh no, don't stop.” Her vision was blurring and her skin felt like it was on fire and every time he spanked her, it made her go weak. He did it again and she nearly wept. A pause and then his fingers were gone and something else was nudging at her folds.

“Namira yes,” she gasped, moaning in delight as his cock slid into her, hard and thick and by Namira, this felt good, so good, every sensation intensified as her spine felt like it was about to melt. Cicero was thrusting, gently at first and then speeding up as she cried out, alternating slow gentle movements with harsher ones and every so often punctuating the whole thing with another smack to her backside. Eola hadn't been so turned on in a long time. Finally, finally, finally and he's as filthy as I am, sweet Namira, yes. Clinging to the headboard, she sobbed and moaned and cried out as he sped up, fucking her hard and fast until she couldn't take it any more and was screaming her orgasm into her pillow. Cicero wasn't far behind and not long after he was pulling her to him, crying her name as he came. Finally they both collapsed on to the bed in a tangle of limbs. Eola closed her eyes, a euphoric feeling of contentment all over her. Cicero, surprisingly, was now cuddling her, smoothing down her clothes and kissing her face gently.

“Cicero is in a lot of trouble, isn't he?” he giggled.

“Not with me, that was hot,” Eola murmured. “Do it again some time.”

“Listener will be angry, very angry indeed.” He was still giggling, still planting little kisses on her. “She will have to punish her Cicero, yes she will. Oh but it was worth it. So, so worth it!”

Eola snuggled into his arms. She supposed she couldn't really call him brother any more, although she had a feeling that he'd probably still call her sister despite this.

“You still like me?” she asked. Cicero stroked her hair and kissed her forehead.

“Of course!” he laughed. “Sweet Eola is pretty and feels nice and makes such exquisite noises. Cicero would play this game again if his Listener lets him.”

Eola smiled as she drifted off to sleep in his arms. True, Delphine would probably insist that Cicero required a good hard beating for molesting his sister, but that done, she'd probably then just re-organise the rota and haul them both into her bed for some good times.

She made a mental note to thank Ingun most profusely, and if the girl did manage to kill someone, Eola had absolutely no objections to her joining up. Not if she promised to brew some more potions like that one.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cicero slipped quietly out of Eola's arms after he was sure she was asleep, carefully tucking the blankets around her and retrieving his dagger. Somehow he managed to get his boots back on and although he was a little unsteady on his feet, he managed not to actually fall over. Now that was not how he'd expected the evening to go. No regrets though. Some faint little voice at the back of his head was screaming at him, but he felt far too cheerful to pay any attention to it. The Listener would probably be rather angry but he could endure any punishment she dished out. Eola was his beloved sister and friend, and by Sithis the sex had been fantastic. She might not be the Listener, but she understood him, understood his predatory urges. Giggling quietly, he crept out of the room. It was still Tirdas night after all, and that meant he should really be in the Listener's bed. Yes, definitely time to find his beautiful, cruel, sadist of a wife and go back to being the loving and always eager Keeper again. But oh it had been glorious to go back to being the evil-minded rake of his youth for a little while. Maybe next time Eola would let him tie her up. Maybe.

He closed the door behind him, and turned to creep across the empty parlour... but it wasn't empty. A man – no, two men – were there. One was wearing a set of black robes and drinking something out of a tankard, and the other... the other was an older man with blind eyes and a multi-coloured outfit that reminded Cicero a little of his jester gear. Both seemed to be arguing.

“And I'm telling you, my friend, this is my palace and you've no right to be here, none at all!” the older man was shouting. For someone with two pale orbs for eyes, he seemed to be staring right at the other one as if he could see just fine.

“I'll go where I please,” the other one slurred, and as he spoke, he kept changing from human to a dremora and back again. Cicero blinked. That potion of Ingun's must be strong. “I go where there's partying and fun and Sheo, ol' buddy, there'sh been plenty o' that here tonight.”

“Fun? Someone tried to kill the groom and then that little fella with the red hair slit her throat! Is that your idea of fun, Sanguine?”

Sanguine just looked up expectantly as if awaiting the punchline. Sheo, or whatever his name actually was, stared back before laughing and slapping his thigh.

“Because it is mine!” he laughed. “Did you see the blood? They'll be cleaning that up for weeks!”

Cicero giggled, liking the multi-coloured stranger immediately. Here was clearly a man after his own heart, although what he was doing here was anyone's guess.

“Excuse me, good sirs,” he said, staggering over to them and collapsing in to the chair opposite. “Cicero couldn't help but wonder why you're here in the Listener's private parlour. He hopes you're not up to no good. He'd hate to have to do more stabbing tonight.”

“There he is!” the older man cried. “The little fiend with the dagger. Bless you, lad, you've made an old madman proud. Well. Mad god, actually. The Madgod in fact! Sheogorath at your service.”

Had Cicero been anywhere close to sober, he'd have... well, he'd probably still have stuck around, if only to wave his dagger about and shriek at the Daedric Prince to get out of the Listener's private rooms. As it was, he found the whole situation hilarious.

“Cicero is honoured to meet you, dear Sheogorath,” he giggled. “Who is your friend?”

“This drunken wastrel is Sanguine, my disreputable excuse for a brother, and what he's doing here is anyone's guess. Sanguine, you old rascal, why are you here bothering these poor people, anyhow?”

“I'm not botherin' anyone!” Sanguine slurred, taking another drink from his tankard. “They summoned me! There was drinkin' and illish – elick – bad potions, and then him and that one he calls his sister started havin' a little fun together. Thash debauchery an' I'm the Daedric Prince of it.”

“Aye and I'm the Daedric Prince of Madness, doesn't mean I have to turn up in some other Daedra's house whenever one of their followers has a little episode, does it?”

“This is your house?” said Sanguine, confused. “I thought it was the Jarl of Solitude's house.”

“It is!” Sheogorath laughed. “But this city's rulers have been such a tribute to me over the years, I've rather taken a shine to it, you know? It's just a shame the recent ones have been so boring. Sure, Elisif's a pretty young thing, but she's not very adventurous, is she now? Now this lad,” and he appeared at Cicero's shoulder before Cicero had even realised he'd moved, “this lad shows promise!”

“Promise?” Cicero asked, confused. “Promise at what?”

“Why, mayhem of course!” Sheogorath laughed. “Don't you think so, Sanguine?”

Sanguine raised a tankard, grinning. “Now that's true enough. Good sir, you've had enough down your throat tonight to kill a small animal and you're still standing! My good friend, I salute you.”

“Cicero is very flattered,” said Cicero, blushing. “But might he ask where all this is going? Only Cicero should be tending to the Listener...”

“Ah, don't worry about her, she's fast asleep,” said Sheogorath offhandedly. “But see here, Cicero my friend, you've caused a bit of a ruckus.”

“Have I?” Cicero asked, feeling rather nervous. “Cicero's very sorry, he had no idea. What has he done?”

“Your fooling around has managed to summon him, and him being here's drawn me away from attending to a very important follower of mine!” said Sheogorath, frowning. “What do you have to say to that, hmm?”

When he put it like that, Cicero could quite see that it did sound rather bad, rather bad indeed.

“Oh dear. Oops?” said Cicero, giggling. He reached for the vial containing the last of the Liquid Delight. “Could Cicero interest you in this? He promises it'll make it up to dear Sheogorath.”

Sheogorath laughed, took the vial, downed the contents and promptly turned into a purple horker. Then into a purple Hagraven. Then a Storm Atronach and finally back into himself again, albeit with purple hair this time.

“Now that was something!” Sheogorath laughed. “Got any more?”

“Er, no, that was the last of it,” Cicero admitted. Now both Daedra looked annoyed.

“Don't I get any?” Sanguine demanded. “Now that's just not fair.”

“There's no more?” Sheogorath snapped. “Now that just won't do, laddie, it won't do at all! You're going to have to make it up to both of us.”

“How?” Cicero asked, wondering just what on earth two Daedric Princes were likely to want.

“Well, that's the question, isn't it?” said Sheogorath, turning to Sanguine. “How's the lad going to make it up to us?”

Sanguine looked a bit confused. “I don't know, Sheo, how is he going to make it up to us?”

“I don't know, I thought you'd be able to think of something! Honestly, Sanguine, what do I keep you around for if not your brilliant ideas, hmm?”

“A ready supply of mead and my lovely personality,” Sanguine slurred, fluttering his eyelashes at Sheogorath. “An' I give the best blowjobs in Oblivion. Better than Mephala. And Nocturnal. An' even Ashura.”

Cicero wisely decided to make no comment on this, in fact the thought of the Daedra Lords tumbling in and out of each other's beds was... a little arousing when he thought about it.

“Aye, that you do,” Sheogorath laughed. “I'd almost forgotten. Speaking of which, why'd you never write after last time? Just because I'm the Madgod doesn't mean I don't have feelings, you know!”

“I sent you that letter on the back of an Argonian concubine!” Sanguine protested. Sheogorath frowned, trying to remember.

“That was a love letter? I thought it was a death threat. I can never tell the difference. I knew I liked it for a reason. Anyway!” He slapped Cicero on the back. “Laddie, I've had my eye on you for a while now, and in a few short months, you and your friends have managed to completely send the world mad. You've killed an Emperor and been rewarded by his army, you assassinated an immortal Dragon God, you put a criminal in charge of the Reach and made him look like a hero, and now assassins are providing bodyguard services while bodyguards are trying to assassinate kings! Crazy!”

Cicero giggled. When put like that, it did all sound rather mad.

“Yes, yes, we did, we did!” he squealed. “Cicero hasn't had so much fun in years! Well, apart from sweet Delphine throwing him out and Cicero being heartbroken. But Cicero won his Listener back in the end.”

Sheogorath wiped a tear away. “That was the best bit!” he cried. “You lost it completely, lad, it was amazing. But don't you see, the forces of sanity are rising!”

“Are they?” Cicero asked. “How do you mean?” It sounded awful, whatever it meant.

“Forces of sanity?” Sanguine asked. “Say, Jyggalag's not coming back, is he? That'd be a shame. I don' wanna have to get used to a whole new Sheogorath. I like you as you are now.”

“No, no, not him,” said Sheogorath irritably. “Human forces of sanity! Tonight was just the start, you know. They're trying to restore order as they see it and stop the chaos that's taken over Skyrim. Well, we're going to stop them! Or rather, you are!”

“Yes!” cried Cicero. “Er... wait, how? And why me? What can poor Cicero do?”

“What can't you do, lad?” Sheogorath laughed. “Sanguine and I both agree, when it comes to spreading madness and merriment and mayhem, there's none better than you. Isn't that right, Sanguine?”

“It is!” Sanguine agreed. “Wait. When did we agree that? I don't remember...”

“Nor do I, but it's clear we both do!” said Sheogorath. “So how about we get started?”

“What, now?” Cicero asked. “But Cicero is meant to be tending to the Listener! He can't go running off with Daedric Princes just like that.”

Sanguine waved a tankard at him. “Aw, we'll have you back before you know it. An' if you help us out, there's a magic staff in it for you too.”

“Maybe two!” Sheogorath put in. Cicero hesitated, something occurring to him.

“By magic staff or two... that isn't a euphemism for, er, gentlemanly parts, is it?” Cicero wasn't fussy sexually speaking but even he was a bit wary of getting it on with two Daedric Princes. Something told him these two weren't terribly clear on the concept of safewords.

They both stared at him, then each other and promptly burst out laughing.

“Oh that is priceless!” Sheogorath wept, wiping a tear from his eye. “See, didn't I tell you he was special?”

“He's exactly what we're looking for,” Sanguine agreed. “Don' worry, it's not a eufer – yoofi – we're not gonna seduce you. Just two perfectly good magical staves and the chance to save Skyrim from the forces of boredom and self-righteousness. Whaddya say?”

When they put it like that... “All right!” Cicero agreed. “What did you want me to do?”

Sanguine staggered to his feet and offered Cicero his tankard.

“Have a drink of that, my friend, and we'll get started.”

It smelt intoxicating, and Cicero was far too drunk to pay any attention to the voice screaming at the back of his mind.

“Down the hatch!” he giggled and drank. It tasted like sweet Alto wine, except with a kick like brandy. Cicero slumped back in the chair, feeling contented and utterly incapable of moving.

“Now what?” he slurred, watching with interest as all the lights in the room went blurry. He was vaguely aware of Sanguine and Sheogorath on either side of him helping him to his feet.

“Now, my friend, we start having some fun,” he heard Sanguine say, and then the world went black.

Chapter Text

Eola had woken up in agony the next morning, bloodstained clothing falling off her, laces already sliced open and the light blinding her. She'd peeled the remains of the dress off, noting that her underwear was already gone. Well there was only one scenario which would involve her underpants disappearing but her dress staying on, which meant those hazy memories of being kissed, bitten, spanked and fucked had definitely happened. She reached for a mirror. Yep. Love bites all over her neck, chest and shoulders. She'd had sex with Cicero. No sign of him now though. She hoped he wasn't regretting it. Still, neither he nor Delphine had been in here shouting at her, so she hoped all was well.

One healing spell later, and the bruises were gone and she looked a little less bleary-eyed. Next, her potions chest. One Cure Disease potion (unlikely Cicero was carrying anything, but old habits died hard), one Cure Poison potion, one morning-after birth-control potion (again, Eola was quite, quite well-versed in dealing with the morning after unplanned sex – she'd lost her virginity not long after leaving home to a young Imperial soldier who had proved to be absolutely delicious in more than one sense and she'd not exactly been shy in getting her needs satisfied since) and a few healing potions later, and she was feeling human again.

Breakfast and a bowl of cold water were waiting in the parlour – someone had clearly been in and tidied the place too. Delphine's bedroom door was open – no one in there. Delphine and Cicero were clearly up. She washed her face and under her arms and between her legs and settled down to eat. After that, time to get dressed in her normal clothes and go find her lady and her jester.

Delphine was watching from the shadows, observing Elisif holding court with Madanach at her side. Madanach looked a little worse for wear, but Elisif seemed to be glowing, one hand resting on top of Madanach's. She seemed happy, and Eola was pleased to note her father looking marginally less grumpy whenever his eyes fell on Elisif. Right now, Elisif was talking to Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun, who seemed to be apologising profusely for something.

Eola joined Delphine, wondering where Cicero had got to. Delphine turned to her and smiled knowingly, edging nearer as she put an arm around Eola.

“Hello love,” she whispered in Eola's ear. “Good night, was it?”

“My head hurts,” Eola moaned, snuggling up to Delphine. Well, she didn't seem angry so clearly things were probably all right by her. That's assuming she knew, of course. “Cicero and I drank an entire bottle of Colovian brandy between us, it was awesome.”

“I thought as much,” Delphine said, smiling. She indicated the court. “No trouble last night, and bride and groom seem happy. I think things went well for them. Also, we found out who our mystery assassin was.”

“Really? Who?” Now that was fast work, even by Dark Brotherhood standards. Delphine nodded at Jarl Balgruuf.

“Turns out she used to work for Balgruuf until just after the Battle of Markarth. She was one of his guards, trained as a housecarl in fact, a woman called Lydia. Apparently she resigned after news of the post-war treaty with the Reach was announced and went to join the Companions. Then she headed off about a month ago and wouldn't say where. No one in Whiterun's seen her since. Until last night. Balgruuf was in bits when he realised it was her who'd tried to kill Madanach. He's barely stopped apologising to Elisif all morning.”

“Can see how that would be awkward,” said Eola, stunned. “But the Companions? Seriously? They always seemed like the good guys. Why'd one of them take up assassination??” She recalled meeting Farkas and Ria the year before, and seeing how obsessed with bravery and honour they were. If one of the Companions really believed they were doing the world a favour by killing someone, she could see how they might do it even if it meant breaking the law, but assassination? Didn't seem like their style.

“I don't know,” said Delphine. “But I'm thinking at some point it may be worth infiltrating them. Just to find out if this Lydia really was acting alone or if someone put her up to it.”

“I've got a couple of contacts in the Companions, I could go if you liked,” Eola offered. Delphine smiled but shook her head.

“Not you. Someone might recognise you as Madanach's daughter – besides, I think a Nord might have better luck. But I might need you to head down to Whiterun and talk to your contacts at some point soon, find out what they knew about Lydia, who she was friends with, if she talked about politics or religion at all. Any information could be useful.”

“I can do that,” said Eola, already looking forward to the trip. Whiterun was a pretty city – it'd be nice to see the place again. A little sightseeing, a little shopping, take Farkas and Ria out for dinner, how hard could it be? “It'll be nice to get out of Sanctuary for a bit. Give you and Cicero a little Listener and Keeper time together.”

Delphine smiled wistfully. “That'd be nice.” Then she planted a kiss on top of Eola's head. “Just don't stay away too long. I love Cicero dearly but he can be a little tiring sometimes. I need you as well. With you, I can just relax and let go and feel everything's going to be all right, you know?”

Eola smiled, hugging Delphine that bit tighter. Theirs wasn't a terribly kinky relationship as these things went, but surprisingly, Eola usually ended up being the one on top, sexually speaking anyway. It was a dynamic that probably had its roots from when Delphine had been alone and missing Cicero and needed taking care of, and despite Cicero being back, elements of that still persisted. Eola wasn't complaining. She really had no objections to cradling Delphine in her arms and getting her off in as many ways as she could think of.

“So how is he anyway?” Delphine asked casually. “I take it you two crashed out together and he's still in bed wishing he was dead.”

A cold prickle of dread made its way down Eola's spine as the realisation that he'd crept out of her bed but never made it into Delphine's hit her.

“Is... is he not with you?” Eola asked. Delphine did look up at that, smile fading as the same realisation hit her too.

“No,” she whispered, “I've not seen him all morning. He never made it to bed last night, I assumed he was with you!”

Eola slowly shook her head. “I fell asleep and he crept out after that, I assumed he'd gone back to your bed. He's very hung up on the rota being kept to, you know that.”

Delphine had gone pale, the all-powerful leader of the Dark Brotherhood looking like she was about to cry.

“But if he's not with you, and he never joined me... where is he?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Delphine sat with her head in her hands, feeling the tears building but refusing to cry, not in front of the entire Dark Brotherhood, dammit! Madanach had had his people out looking, Elisif had had every nook and cranny of the Palace and indeed the city searched, everyone had been interviewed. There had been no sign of him. No one had found him anywhere, no one had seen him leave. It was as if he'd just vanished. Even offering a reward had brought nothing. Now it was dark and Cicero still hadn't turned up. Delphine couldn't remember the last time she'd felt this frightened. Even reaching Whiterun and finding he'd gone off on a suicide mission to Sovngarde hadn't been this bad – at least then he'd been fully armed and she'd known where he was and what he'd likely face. This... this made no sense at all. Worse, he'd been heavily intoxicated and armed with only his dagger. If someone had wanted to abduct him, he'd have been easy prey. Maybe it wasn't even abduction. Maybe there'd been foul play or an accident or... Maybe his body was lying in some cupboard or chest, or he'd got on to the roof somehow and fallen into the inlet and his body would wash up near Dawnstar weeks from now or...

“We'll find him, Listener,” Nazir was saying. “He'll turn up. He's a red-haired singing jester with a sharp knife and a penchant for stabbing. He's not exactly inconspicuous. We offer a big enough reward, someone will come forward with something.”

“He's not a jester,” Delphine whispered. “He's not got his hat.” She had it cradled in her lap, clutching it in her hands as if that might bring its owner back. She was wearing his wedding ring on her other hand. Oh gods, the ring he'd wanted to keep in case he got lost and forgot he loved her. Now he was lost and alone out there without it, and what if something had happened? At least if he was wearing a wedding ring, anyone who found him would know he had a spouse waiting for him and start asking around. Without it, he was just a random lunatic with a knife.

Eola had her arms around her, tears in her own eyes. She'd barely left Delphine's side all day, clinging on to her, clearly devastated and also clearly blaming herself for being the last person to see Cicero and having let him wander off. Delphine was very glad she was there – at least it meant she wasn't completely alone.

“We'll find him,” Aranea reassured her. “We'll search the whole of Skyrim if we have to. Where do you want us to start?”

Delphine shook her head, trying to pull herself together. She was still Listener when all was said and done. She needed to at least look strong even though she was falling apart inside.

“Elisif will have her people keeping an eye out for him here in Haafingar, and Madanach will be doing the same in the Reach,” she said, thinking how she was going to cover the remaining seven Holds. “Calixto, I need you in Windhelm, asking there for rumours of him. Sapphire, get yourself to Riften, ask in the inn, talk to Brynjolf too, get the Guild on the case. Aranea, go to Winterhold, ask in the College, see if anyone has either seen him or knows some way of scrying for him. When the three of you are done, stay based in Windhelm, keep your ears to the ground. Nazir, can you check Falkreath out for me? Astrid, I'll need you to ask in Dawnstar and keep listening out. Arnbjorn, I'll need you to ask in Morthal. Also patrol Hjaalmarch in your beast form, see if you can pick up a trail. I'd also appreciate if you can check the coast from here to Dawnstar just in case...” She found her breath catching on the words.

“No problem, Listener,” said Arnbjorn gruffly, placing a hand on Astrid's leg. Astrid squeezed his hand, nodding in affirmation at him. Their marriage was nothing like Delphine's own, but it was a happy one, and Delphine could see in their eyes that they could guess how she was feeling. It was the twin expressions of pity for her and relief they still had each other that gave it away.

“Babette, keep working on that recipe Ingun gave you, see how it reacts with alcohol. You want to capture any live test subjects, do it, just make sure it's not anyone who'll be missed.” Ingun Black-Briar's involvement had been unexpected and a potential complication – her admitting she'd given the drug to Cicero as a bribe to try and persuade him to let her into the Brotherhood had been even more so. Still, she'd seemed genuinely horrified and upset and sworn it shouldn't have hurt him, in fact its usual effect was to make the user feel very happy and content and not want to go anywhere. Of course, she'd not tested it along with half a bottle of strong brandy, and she wasn't Cicero. She'd been a bit reluctant to hand over the recipe at first, but after Calixto and Aranea sweetly pointed out that thanks to her potion, the leader of the Dark Brotherhood's husband had gone missing, and that if Ingun didn't want a rather less friendly audience with said leader, she'd do well to co-operate and hand the details over, she'd been more than helpful.

“What do you want me to do, love?” Eola asked. Delphine squeezed her hand. On the one hand, she didn't want Eola to go anywhere, she just wanted her here to hold her and reassure her. But on the other, there was one potential source of assistance left to her, and Eola was the only one she could send to tap it.

“I need you go to High Hrothgar,” said Delphine. “I don't know if the Greybeards will be any help whatsoever, but they deserve to know. And if you can, speak to Paarthurnax. If he's truly a friend of Cicero's, he'll at least try and help. Also that innkeeper in Ivarstead likes Cicero – tell him to pass on any rumours. Call in at Whiterun too, ask after him there. Talk to your contacts about that other matter too, may as well do that while you're there. Then come home. As quickly as possible. I can't lose you too, I just can't.”

“You won't,” Eola whispered, stroking her hair. “I'll come home, I swear it.”

Delphine squeezed Eola tight. She'd already lost her husband – no, not lost, just misplaced – she couldn't bear to lose her lover as well.

Delphine dismissed them all, telling them to get some sleep and set out in the morning. They all filed out, leaving her alone with Eola. It wasn't until the door closed that she finally placed her head in her hands and began to cry.

“Del,” she heard Eola whisper and then she was there, taking her hands away and holding her, looking pretty wretched herself. “Sweetie, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.”

Delphine clung on to her, weeping into her shoulder. Eola held her, stroking her hair and soothing her, and eventually Delphine's tears subsided a little.

“It's not your fault,” Delphine whispered. “You weren't to know this would happen.”

“No, but... Delphine, I think I caused it!” Eola cried, looking sick to her stomach. Delphine frowned, looking at her properly and suddenly realising that Eola's emotions were not those of a loyal sister mourning her vanished brother.

“What did you do?” Delphine asked wearily, guessing all too well what the answer would be.

“I had sex with Cicero,” Eola confessed, looking away. Delphine had never seen her look ashamed of anything before. It was an odd experience. Delphine had the feeling she was supposed to be erupting in a jealous rage at this point, but nothing was happening inside. She just felt numb, in fact she didn't greatly care about anything other than Cicero being all right and safe and back home where he belonged.

“Go on,” was all she said. “What happened?”

“We'd had a bit to drink, and that potion of Ingun's,” Eola admitted, seemingly gaining confidence from the fact that she'd not been immediately struck down. “I ended up telling him how I felt. And he was very sad about the fact and told me he wasn't free to love me, no matter how much he might want to. So I told him you'd be alright with it if you got to watch or join in now and then, and then he got angry and told me to stop tempting him, he was yours and that you'd punish us both. That was when I told him I thought he liked that sort of thing and he sort of lost it and we ended up kissing and it kinda went on from there and it was really good sex and he was so sweet afterwards, giggling and kissing me and telling me it had been nice and I was pretty and he'd do it again if you let him.” Eola did smile at that memory despite the tears trickling down her cheeks. “Then I fell asleep and when I woke up, he was gone. I thought he was with you, probably confessing everything and awaiting punishment, but he wasn't and now no one knows where he is. I'm so sorry, Del, if I'd just kept my mouth shut, we'd probably just have cuddled and fallen asleep and woken up together. As it is, I've made him freak out and run away, Del, I'm sorry, I didn't mean for things to end up like this!” Eola couldn't even look at Delphine as she was saying this. She'd ruined everything, she knew, she was lucky if Delphine even wanted her in the same Sanctuary any more. Not only had she ruined everything between her and Cicero, she'd managed to ruin everything between Delphine and Cicero, and now Delphine would probably kick her out and it would serve her right.

“It's not your fault,” Delphine said, her voice hollow. Eola looked up, stunned. Delphine was staring into space, horrorstruck expression on her face.

“How is it not my fault?” Eola asked bitterly. “I just fucked your husband!”

“Because I said you could,” said Delphine guiltily. “I gave you permission and you took me up on it and that's... well, it was going to happen at some point, wasn't it? That's why I told you it was fine. But I never told Cicero. The one time I did ask if he'd ever felt anything for you other than friendship, he freaked out and refused to talk about it. So I just let it go and never actually said it would be fine. Oh sweet gods, he probably thinks he cheated on me. No wonder he ran away...”

“Del, stop it, it's not your fault either, all he had to do was man up and confess like I did,” said Eola, taking Delphine in her arms again. “But the little idiot didn't and now we're stuck with the consequences.”

“Don't I know it,” Delphine sighed. She straightened her back and dried her eyes, looking less despairing than she had done. “But what's done is done. And at least he's probably not been abducted or murdered or fallen off the Great Arch. No, he's out there somewhere, alone and afraid and feeling needlessly guilty, but he'll come back. He'll always come back for me. And when he does, we will sit down, all three of us, and we will talk and we will sort this out like adults. And then he's getting a good hiding.” Delphine nodded expectantly, cruel smile on her face. Eola felt the guilt trickle away, relief flooding her. Delphine didn't blame her. It wasn't her fault. They'd find Cicero and get him home, it would all be all right in the end.

“When you do, can I help?” Eola asked hopefully. She didn't mind getting topped by Cicero, but turnabout was only fair play and he had caused an awful lot of trouble and upset by disappearing.

“Oh, I think that's only fair,” said Delphine calmly, getting to her feet and extending an arm to her. “Come on, let's get to bed. After all this, I think I require a little comforting, don't you?”

Eola followed Delphine in with a smile. If by comforting, Delphine meant orgasms, Eola was more than happy to oblige.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Slowly, he opened his eyes. Dark, but not dark enough – the candles around the room blared most unpleasantly, a thousand mammoths seemed to be stampeding through his head and he felt like he was going to be sick. Still, he was in a bed at least. That was something.

“Ah, so you're awake at last, lad. I was starting to wonder if you'd ever open your eyes.”

He was clearly in a bedroom – stone walls, nicely furnished, very comfortable double bed, weapons decorating the walls indicating it was clearly a warrior's room. Probably that of the silver-haired man in the unusual steel armour with a wolf's head on it, if he was any judge.

“Hello?” he said faintly. “Do you know where I am, by any chance? And if the kind sir could possibly furnish me with a headache potion, I would be most grateful.”

“Yes, I thought you might need one. There's a healing potion by the bed and a poison cure. Drink those and you should feel a lot better.”

Sure enough, the potions helped, and the pain in his head eased.

“Feeling better, lad?” the old warrior asked. He nodded, wiping his mouth.

“You did not tell me where I was. Or who you are. Or...” He tried to remember anything about how he'd got here or where he'd come from. Nothing. Sure, he could point at most of the objects in this room and say what they were and what they were used for, but knowing who he was and where he came from? He shivered as he realised he had no idea. He didn't even remember his own name. Slowly he looked down at himself. Male, definitely. Pale skin, muscles, not an old man but probably not a fresh-faced youth. Stubble on his chin, red hair on his arms and dusting his chest and hanging down to his shoulders. By the gods, he needed a mirror. He also needed clothes. All he was wearing was a strange amulet with some sort of power, but he didn't know what it did or how to use it. Very frustrating because he had a feeling he should.

“You're in Jorrvaskr, home of the famed Companions of Ysgramor. I am their Harbinger, Kodlak Whitemane,” the old man said, looking at him as if he should know what this meant.

“How did I get here?” he asked, hoping something would at least start to come back to him. “Do I – do I live here?”

Kodlak was frowning at him. “You don't remember? Well, the state you were in, I'm not entirely surprised but... don't you know where you live?”

He shook his head. “Um. No. I don't remember anything. I was hoping you knew.”

“I'm sorry, lad,” said Kodlak sadly. “I've never laid eyes on you before you turned up here yesterday, nor have any of the rest of us. You just burst in to the mead hall, clearly the worse for drink, announced you wanted to dance for the Companions and began doing cartwheels on the table. We tried to catch you but then you apparently fell off the table and knocked yourself out. That was when I came upstairs to see what the commotion was.”

“Oh dear.” He cringed, truly unsure what to tell this Kodlak, who was clearly kind and wise and very patient to want to help poor... damn it. To help him in his hour of need. “I am very sorry, very sorry indeed to have inconvenienced kind Kodlak and his esteemed... Companions, was it? Did I have clothes when I came in? Dear Kodlak need only return them to me and poor... er, I shall take my leave and be on my way.”

“And go where exactly? Do you even remember your own name?”

No. No, he didn't, and it disturbed and annoyed him. He should know his name, damn it! He shook his head sadly.

“Aye, I thought not,” said Kodlak gently. “Well, lad, I think we should probably get you looked at by Danica over at the Temple of Kynareth, but maybe that can wait until later. Your clothes – well, they were in a bit of a state, although they seem to have been quite nice before you got all the blood on them. Not a mark on you though, so can we assume none of it was yours? No, suppose you don't know that either, do you?”

He shook his head mutely, feeling about ready to cry. No idea, he had no idea who he was or where he came from or if he had loved ones wondering where he was. Did he have parents? Siblings? Was he married? Single? A father? He had no idea, none. All he had was this amulet.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, lifting it up. Kodlak did smile at that.

“It's an amulet of the god Talos. He's the god who was once man, a Dragonborn who founded an Empire and became a god when he died. I'm guessing you must be a worshipper of his. Best to keep that quiet, boy. No one in Jorrvaskr will care, but out there, Talos worship is illegal. You don't want to have that amulet on show if you can help it.”

“I won't,” he whispered, clutching it. It was all he had left of who he was. He didn't remember anything about who Talos was, but if Talos was his god, he'd stay loyal. Maybe Talos would help him get his memory back. “Was I carrying anything else?” Too much to hope there was a letter or a journal that would tell him who he was.

“A few things,” said Kodlak. “You had a set of scaled armour on over your clothes, although it was a little big for you. It's good armour though – our smith, Eorlund, has it now, he's going to alter it for you. In the mean time, I found you a leather set to wear. Also you had some other things on you.”

Those other things were stored in a chest in the corner, and once he'd got dressed in the nice leather armour with matching bracers and boots and a clean loincloth, he inspected them. About 200 septims in cash – interesting, that meant he wasn't completely penniless. A few potions, including one healing potion, a couple of magicka restorers, one stamina potion, a fire resistance draught and a carry weight solution. A giant's toe and some Hagraven feathers and a vial of water. Five lockpicks. A nice looking shiny golden bow and some less interesting iron arrows. A handful of gemstones and a nice circlet – well, they'd fetch some money, he supposed. A ring. Not the most attractive thing in the world, in fact it looked like a worm eating itself. But it looked familiar when the rest did not. He slipped it on his finger and felt his energy levels shoot up immediately. A stamina enhancer then. It felt comfortable there too, like it belonged there, and he had the feeling it had been a gift from a loved one. Finally, there were two daggers, one rather nice looking ebony one that felt like an old friend... and one twisted stone knife that radiated evil. Looked sharp though. He attached both to his belt, and Kodlak handed him a pack to store the rest of the things in.

“Now what?” he asked. Kodlak led him out into the hallway.

“Well, lad, you're welcome to stay here if you want, but I warn you, we're an order of warriors. You're carrying weapons and you had the blood of other people all over you, so I'm thinking you have a few skills along those lines.”

“I do?” He fingered the hilt of the ebony dagger. It did feel familiar. Something told him he would certainly know how to use it if he had to. “How do we find out?”

“We put them to the test, lad,” said Kodlak. He reached for a book on the table and handed it to him. “First, let's see if you can read.”

“The Song of Hrormir,” he read. “Hrormir Son of Hrorgar, Summoned to the Court of Vjindak, Son of Vjinmore, King of Evensnow. 'Mighty caster of magic, I charge thee to go to Aelfendor, For its hoary Warriors do threaten my Land And bring forth their cousin Demons To terrify my People.'”

Kodlak nodded, smiling. “Good, you had an education, it seems. But then from your voice I can tell you're a native of Cyrodiil, and few people there are completely illiterate.” He reached for a sheet of paper, a quill and inkwell. “Here. Try your hand at writing.”

He dipped the quill into the inkwell without thinking, the pen poised over paper. “What should I write?” he asked.

“Anything. Anything at all. I have seen men with head injuries who have lost the power of speech but could still write, and one case where a man would write and not know he'd written it. Maybe your hands remember what your mind does not. Write your name, and where you're from.”

Before he even knew what he was doing, his hand had scrawled across the paper in an elegant, if slightly old-fashioned writing style.

Cicero Di Rosso, son of Stelmaria. Born in the Imperial City, 2nd Sun's Dawn 161 4E. Late of Cheydinhal and...

Cicero dropped the pen, pain flaring as fire raced through his head, fire, pain, blood, death, dragons. Whimpering in terror, he clutched his amulet as he huddled on the floor, sobbing as he concentrated hard, trying to force it all back inside. Shoving it all back, he mentally forced it all behind the image of a big, strong vault door and locked it tight.

Slowly, he opened his eyes, shivering in terror. He still had no idea who he was but if delving into his past brought out dragon fire, he didn't want to know. But he had a name and a date and place of birth and his mother's name. Maybe if he found this Cyrodiil place, he might find some answers.

To his surprise, Kodlak had knelt beside him, his whole expression changed. He'd been kind before, if a little distant. Now he looked sad, but there was affection in those eyes.

“My boy,” he whispered, one hand on Cicero's back. “My poor boy. Are you all right, what happened?”

“I don't know,” Cicero whispered. “I was writing, and I was going to write where I went after Cheydinhal, wherever that is, but my head hurt and there was fire and dragons and I was frightened. So... so I shut it away.”

Kodlak took him in his arms and just held him, rubbing his back.

“Was there a dragon attack? Was that why you were in such a state? Did you lose a loved one to a dragon?”

“I don't know,” Cicero said, wondering why he couldn't just remember, damn it! But that would mean opening that door in his head, and behind that door lay dragons and fire and pain and he couldn't, he just couldn't. He'd have to find out the hard way, he supposed. “I should go back to this Cheydinhal place, I suppose, or the Imperial City, or this Cyrodiil place you mentioned. Are they far?”

“Many miles away,” said Kodlak gently, helping Cicero to his feet. “And Cicero, Cyrodiil is... dangerous. Used to be such a prosperous and civilised place, and still is in many ways. But in the last few years, it's been a lawless place with crime running rampant. Governor Tullius appears to be making a difference there, but I'm not sure martial law is a lot better. Either way, without papers and a reason for being there, you won't get far. In your current state, they'd arrest you as soon as you got near the border. I'm sorry, lad. I think you'll need to stay in Skyrim a bit longer.”

Cicero's heart sank. But if he couldn't get back to Cyrodiil, how would he ever know who he was? Was his mother, Stelmaria, still alive? If so, where was she? Was she worried about him? Did she have a husband to take care of her? Brothers and sisters of his to look after her while he was gone? He had no idea. But he was worried for her and not just because she was all he had to go on. She was his mama, and even though he couldn't remember her or anything about her, he knew he loved her dearly.

“What do I do?” Cicero asked, feeling helpless. “I don't know who I am or where I came from or anything!”

Kodlak put an arm around him, leading him along the corridor. “Don't worry, Cicero. You're quite welcome to stay here as long as you like. I think your memories are in there somewhere still. With time, they may even come back. In the mean time, we have beds in Jorrvaskr for the strong of heart and the skilled of blade. I have a feeling you're both.”

Cicero presently felt not at all strong of heart, in fact he felt like he hadn't eaten for a week and was still very wobbly on his feet. Still, he wasn't about to turn down free hospitality. Clinging on to Kodlak, he let himself be led upstairs.

~~~~~~~~~~

“Kodlak, I don't mean to question your judgement but are you sure about this?” Skjor asked roughly. “He barges in here uninvited, clearly drunk, and causes uproar, and you want to take him in? I mean, look at him. Even sobered up, he's clearly not all there.”

Both Skjor and Kodlak couldn't help but look at where Cicero was sitting at the main table, tucking in to everything he could lay hands on, washing it down with fruit juice. He was scrupulously avoiding the mead but other than that, appeared ravenous. Not a complete surprise, but no one had anticipated the singing. When not eating, he'd stop and sing quietly to himself. About sneaking and stabbing. Kodlak couldn't help but wonder what exactly had damaged Cicero's mind, but damaged it certainly was. Still, he wouldn't turn his back on the lad. Not Stelmaria's boy.

“He remembers nothing, Skjor,” said Kodlak. “Not who he was, or where he came from. He knows his name, but precious little else. He needs help and last I heard, the Companions did not turn away those in need.”

“We're mercenaries, not a Temple of Mara!” Skjor snorted. “Can he even fight?”

“He has daggers, and I think he knows how to use them,” said Kodlak. “He's no stranger to light armour either, he was dressing himself up in that set without needing help. He's worn it before.”

“Doesn't make him one of us,” Skjor said, still sceptical.

Jorrvaskr rumbled as something flew over head, a great Shout that sounded a bit like ZEY-Z'RO echoing across the city and then gone again.

“Damn dragons,” Skjor growled. Kodlak couldn't rightly disagree. Every day for the last week, one would pass over the city from the west, not attacking, just Shouting and riling everyone up. It was always the same dragon, a huge red and black creature that blotted out the sun as it flew over. It was setting everyone on edge. From where he was sitting, Cicero had dropped his cutlery, hands over his ears, face screwed up in pain.

“Are you alright?” Kodlak asked, concerned. Cicero slowly opened his eyes, nodding wearily.

“I think so. It... it brought back the dragon fire. What was that?”

“A dragon,” said Skjor. “Vicious bastards, the lot of them. Merciless killers, little better than wild beasts. They've been quiet since the civil war ended, why are they now terrorising our cities again?”

“Well, maybe if it doesn't stop, we can start taking the fight to them,” said Kodlak, patting Cicero's shoulder. “Maybe if Cicero here's any good with a bow, we can try and shoot that one down, hmm?”

Cicero smiled nervously and turned back to his food. From the other side of Jorrvaskr, Aela headed over, clearly worried about something.

“Harbinger, may we speak?” she asked. Kodlak nodded assent and led her off into one corner, Skjor behind them.

“What is it?” Kodlak asked.

“We had a visitor this morning,” said Aela. “Said she knew Farkas and Ria, but as they're both out on a job in Winterhold, we've no way of verifying that. Young-ish, Breton – and from her accent and that headdress she was wearing, I'd say she was a Reachwoman.”

Kodlak and Skjor exchanged looks. Now that was ominous. While Kodlak was quite happy in principle for the natives of the Reach to rule themselves, and the new country seemed peaceful enough, King Madanach had a fearsome reputation, justifiably so after the Lost Valley Incident, and there were all sorts of rumours regarding him being hand in glove with the Dark Brotherhood. Of course, that didn't necessarily mean this woman was among their number.

“What did she want?” Kodlak asked. “Was she wanting to join?” Aela shook her head.

“She was looking for someone. A friend, she said. A short red-haired Imperial in his early forties called Cicero.”

As one, all three turned to the oblivious man now working his way through a large plate of sweetrolls.

“Did you tell her he was here?” Kodlak asked.

“No,” said Aela. “I didn't like the look of her. Particularly not the red and black gloves and boots she had on, and that magic staff on her back gave me the shivers just looking at it. She said she could offer a large amount of gold for his safe return or any knowledge leading to his whereabouts, and if we heard anything, we should send word to Nepos the Nose, Madanach's steward at Understone Keep in Markarth.”

Kodlak revised his earlier thoughts that not all natives of the Reach were in with the Dark Brotherhood. It was clear Skjor thought the same.

“You think it's really Madanach after him, or his assassin friends?” Skjor asked.

Kodlak looked over at Cicero, feeling a little chill run down his spine and his long suppressed inner wolf stirring at the mere thought of harm coming to the lad.

“Little difference from what I hear,” said Aela. “They got him out of prison and put him on the throne, he gives them licence to do what they want. Whether Cicero crossed Madanach or someone else has hired the Brotherhood, the result will be the same in the end.”

“Still want him here, Kodlak?” Skjor asked. Kodlak nodded, one hand going to his sword-hilt, caressing it in the same way Cicero's hand went to his dagger-hilt whenever he felt anxious or threatened.

“I do not fear the Brotherhood,” said Kodlak. “They will not find him here and if they do, we are more than a match for them. Look at him, he's half-mad and remembers nothing. I can't just let him take his chances on his own. No, he stays with us, under our protection. At least until his memories come back and he can decide for himself where to go. Also, he's apparently a Talos-worshipper.”

Aela just shrugged, but Skjor looked interested. “Really?” he said thoughtfully. “Well now. That's something. I've never met a Talos worshipper yet who couldn't handle a blade. Maybe there's more to him than meets the eye.”

Over at the table, Cicero was giggling, having an animated conversation with Torvar. Torvar appeared to be suggesting some sort of dagger-based competition, if the Skyforge blade in his hand was any indication. Cicero appeared delighted at the prospect.

“Divines help us, are we going to have to take Torvar to the Temple to get his hand seen to again?” Aela sighed wearily.

“Cicero thinks this is an excellent game!” Cicero giggled, watching Torvar very slowly and deliberately place his left hand palm down on the table and carefully stab between his fingers with his dagger, just missing flesh.

“Now you,” said Torvar. “'xcept faster. Flowing blood means ya lost.”

Cicero cheerfully placed his hand on the table, drew his ebony knife and stabbed, his right hand moving so fast no one could see anything but a blur. The sound of hammering echoed around Jorrvaskr as Cicero stabbed the table, manic grin fixed in place. After a minute, he replaced his dagger in its sheath, raising an unharmed left hand.

“Torvar's go!” Cicero cried, bouncing around on the bench and looking expectant. Torvar stared at the table where Cicero's hand had been, going a little pale.

“I, er, I think you win that one, my friend,” he said nervously, backing away. Kodlak approached with Skjor and Aela to see what Cicero had done.

Newly punched out into the table was a near-perfect outline of a man's left hand. Cicero giggled again and placed his hand into the outline. It fit perfectly. Cicero noticed the three of them staring at him and took his hand away, blushing a little.

“Cicero is very sorry about the table,” he said apologetically. “I got a little carried away. Er. Kodlak?”

Kodlak had never seen anything quite like it. Nor had Aela, and Skjor looked absolutely amazed.

“Still think he should leave, Skjor?” said Kodlak finally. Skjor looked up from the hand carving, actually smiling.

“He's in.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“So, tell me again what you saw,” Aranea asked. If she was brutally honest, a Skooma-addled Khajiit trader didn't seem like their best bet but Sapphire had been most insistent that this sounded like a lead. So here they were, trying to interview a traumatised Khajiit by the name of Dro'marash.

“It was... awful,” Dro'marash shivered, clinging on to the Skooma bottle like his life depended on it. “We were travelling our usual route up from Riften, past Steamcrag Giant Camp, you know it?”

“I know it,” said Sapphire. “What happened?”

“Well, there's a giant lives there with his mammoths,” said Dro'marash. “Never normally any trouble if you keep your distance and leave the mammoths alone. But not this time.” He shuddered, taking another shot of Skooma.

“The giant attacked you?” Aranea asked, wondering what a giant deciding to attack a Khajiit caravan had to do with finding Cicero.

Dro'marash didn't answer. It was his fellow Khajiit, Kharjo, who took up the story, patting his comrade's shoulder as he did so.

“Someone else was attacking the giant,” said Kharjo. “A small man with a knife and long red hair, running around this way and that, dodging the club and getting underfoot like a kitten wanting food. We were going to go and help him, because he didn't even have armour on. Then the giant swung his club at him and...”

“Azura, no,” Aranea whispered, horrified. Cicero might be insane, but he rarely took on foes he couldn't handle. To take on a giant by himself? What was he thinking?

“He dodged aside, jumped on to the club, travelled up with it and when he was level with the giant's face, leapt on to its shoulders and... killed it!” Dro'marash cried, still shivering.

“He stabbed both eyes out and while it was staggering around, he slit its throat and leapt off as it fell,” said Kharjo. “Hit the ground rolling and then just got up, sliced its toes off and starting looting the place for valuables.”

Sapphire had her arms folded, grinning smugly at Aranea as if to say 'I told you so!' Aranea had to agree that that did sound exactly like Cicero at work.

“Then what?” she asked.

“He pulled on a set of scaled armour he found in the giant's chest, and ran off to the west,” said Kharjo. “Didn't stop laughing the entire time. Kharjo has not seen anything like it in all his years. This one does not know who he was, but if Kharjo ever sees him again, Kharjo will be running, and Kharjo is not a coward, no.”

“He didn't even hesitate!” poor Dro'marash wailed, clinging on to Kharjo. “He just slashed the poor creature's throat open and kept on laughing!”

Definitely Cicero. “How long ago was this?” Aranea asked.

“Two nights ago,” said Kharjo. “By the moons, this one hopes never to see such a thing again.”

Having seen Cicero in action, Aranea could sympathise. It took some getting used to. But a giant, on his own, with just a dagger? Aranea had never quite believed the story Delphine had told, that Cicero had revealed himself as Dragonborn when a dragon attacked the Night Mother and he'd stabbed it to death with just his dagger. She was starting to reconsider. Handing the two Khajiit some gold for their trouble, she set off with Sapphire to investigate.

It proved to be as they'd said. Steamcrag Camp was deserted but the detritus of combat was everywhere, as was the blood of the unfortunate giant. The corpse itself was lying on the ground, throat slashed open in a style that was Cicero all over, and the toes had been carved off. Not a single septim to be found anywhere. Cicero had looted the place fairly thoroughly. Why, though? Why flee Solitude in the depths of the night and end up all the way on the other side of Skyrim? Hadn't Cicero sobered up at all in that time? It didn't sound like it. Two nights ago – so he'd disappeared on the night of the wedding, spent all day and night travelling, presumably resting at some point, reaching here around sunset two days after the wedding and killing the giant, then running off west. Why? It made no sense whatsoever. But then, very little about Cicero did.

Still, it was something. A confirmed sighting, and whatever state Cicero might be in mentally, he was alive, unharmed, free and out there somewhere. Delphine would be able to take comfort from that at least. With Sapphire following, Aranea headed for home. Time to see if Calixto had had any luck.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two days later found half the Dark Brotherhood gathered in the Eldergleam Sanctuary after tales had come into Windhelm of some trouble there. It turned out trouble wasn't the word. Massacre, possibly.

“What in the name of Sithis happened here?” said Sapphire, looking queasy. Delphine, having left Sky Haven Temple as soon as news of a confirmed Cicero sighting came in, had been thinking much the same thing. The Eldergleam Sanctuary was normally a peaceful place, dedicated to the beauty of nature and the glory of Kynareth. Not now, it wasn't. There was blood and bodies everywhere with flies buzzing around. The smell was appalling.

“Cicero happened here,” said Calixto. “That much is obvious, surely?”

“Yes, but why?” Aranea asked, following Delphine into the desecrated Sanctuary. “Why would even Cicero kill all these people?”

“This is Cicero we're talking about,” said Calixto. “He rarely needs a reason to kill people.”

“Yes, but he usually has one,” said Delphine. “So what was it? Eola, anything catch your eye?”

Eola was kneeling by the body of a young Nord woman. For once, she wasn't carving meat off it.

“Cicero didn't kill this one,” she announced. Now that was unexpected.

“What did?” Delphine asked. Eola pointed away, where the body of something else was lying on the ground. A Spriggan. Further searching of the Sanctuary revealed another pilgrim, a male Nord this time, also showing signs of having been killed by a Spriggan's claws, and the bodies of two more dead Spriggans. While the pilgrims were definitely Spriggan victims, the Spriggans themselves had been killed by smooth, clean razor cuts. In other words, the work of someone with a sharp dagger and the skill to wield it.

“So Cicero didn't kill these pilgrims,” said Delphine, relieved beyond the telling of it that Cicero had for once not been the guilty party. “But while he was here, or just before he arrived, something happened here to disturb these Spriggans. They kill everyone here, Cicero fights them and survives because he's more than capable of dealing with a few Spriggans. So... what happened?”

“Maybe Cicero was the one who disturbed them,” said Sapphire. “Gods know he disturbs me.”

Now that sounded all too likely. “All right, so Cicero manages to offend Kynareth somehow and the Spriggans start attacking anything that moves. So what did he do?”

Aranea looked up at the Eldergleam itself, the huge tree that dominated the cave. The oldest living thing in Skyrim, people said, and the whole reason this Sanctuary even existed. It must be involved somehow.

“He did something to the tree,” said Aranea. “Must have done, I can't think of anything else that would have raised the Spriggans.”

“Don't tell me Cicero was so out of it he tried to stab a tree,” Calixto laughed. Delphine looked up at the vast bulk of the Eldergleam. It was entirely possible. But why, Delphine had no idea. Would Cicero's dagger even have scratched the Eldergleam? Only one way to find out.

“Let's go have a look.”

There was another Spriggan on the track leading up to the tree, again showing all the signs of having had an unfortunate run-in with Cicero. Aranea was examining the giant tree roots arching above them.

“Listener,” she said thoughtfully. “Have a look at this. I think these roots originally grew over the path. I mean, blocking it.”

“What makes you think that?” Delphine asked. Aranea indicated the slash marks on the sides.

“If someone right-handed was walking up this path and found tree roots blocking his way, and slashed at them with a dagger to try and get them to move, it'd leave marks like that.”

“Are you trying to tell me Cicero stabbed the roots of the Eldergleam when they blocked his way and they just moved for him?” Delphine asked. She knew a little about the Eldergleam, and what she'd heard was that ordinary daggers couldn't hurt it. Cicero's dagger was better than most but even that might not have touched the Eldergleam.

“Recoiled,” said Eola softly. “They recoiled back when he hit them – look how the scratches are at the apex of the arches. He got hold of a weapon that trees find repellent.”

“Is there such a thing?” Sapphire asked.

“Must be, he's clearly found one from somewhere,” said Delphine, moving on.

At the top of the path was another dead pilgrim. Dead, but not from a Spriggan's claws. He'd been stabbed in the abdomen in an up-and-under-the-ribcage cut that was definitely one of Cicero's favourites, but it was the slash to the throat that had finished him. He was a thirty-something Breton, dark hair, eyes and beard, dressed in ordinary clothes and unarmed. Not really a threat to anyone, although gods knew that had never stopped Cicero killing anyone.

Being all quite used to blood and gore by this time, everyone gathered around the body.

“Well, this is definitely one of his,” said Delphine. “And he's dual-wielding too, look at the angle on that throat wound.”

“Yes,” said Calixto, “he'd clearly stabbed the man in the chest, and put his off-arm around his shoulders and dragged it across his throat from behind like that. Good work, that man.”

“It wasn't his ebony dagger on the throat either, look,” said Eola, pointing at the wound. “It usually has cleaner edges when he uses that. Whatever blade he used, it had a curved serration of some sort on it.”

If assassination didn't work out for any of them, helping the guards solve murders would make a promising second career, Delphine thought to herself, feeling rather proud of them all. Of course, none of this really helped say where Cicero was now, or why he'd been here in the first place.

“Why this man?” said Delphine thoughtfully. “All the other pilgrims he left alone. Why did he kill this one?”

“Maybe the Spriggans got to them first,” said Calixto. Delphine shook her head.

“I think he died before the Spriggans were let loose. He's lying here on his back and clearly Cicero attacked from the front from these wounds. So Cicero was facing down the path which means this guy had followed him up. He doesn't look like a skilled sneaker, so Cicero must have known he was there. Why'd he let him get so close?”

“Probably didn't like Cicero hacking away at those roots,” said Sapphire. “I don't think it's a coincidence that the body's lying here right after the last of the roots. Pilgrim guy was following Cicero, no idea what our boy was up to, Cicero starts hacking at the roots, pilgrim loses it and Cicero stabs him.”

That made sense. Still didn't answer the question of why Cicero had a pilgrim to the Eldergleam Sanctuary following him in the first place. Delphine pulled some charcoal and paper out of her pack.

“All right, who's good at drawing? Aranea? Good, get scribbling. I think this guy's identity might help us track Cicero. If we can find out who he was and where he might have met Cicero, we might be able to find out where he went after this and why he was here in the first place.”

“Will do,” said Aranea, beginning to sketch. Delphine got up to see where Eola had wandered off to. She was staring at the trunk of the Eldergleam in vague horror. Delphine came to look, eyes widening. Behind her, Calixto and Sapphire joined her.

“Good gods, Cal, you were right,” Sapphire breathed. “He really did try and stab a tree.”

“He succeeded,” said Delphine faintly. Across the trunk of the Eldergleam was a six inch long gash with sap bleeding from it. Nasty. Hopefully not enough to actually kill the tree, but nevertheless vicious. Had to be Cicero, it just had to be. No wonder the Spriggans had attacked.

“But why?” Sapphire whispered. “Why stab a tree? Did he want the sap? What good would that do him?”

“Well, there's all sorts of alchemical uses,” said Calixto. “But I doubt Cicero would know what they were on his own, so if he was retrieving the sap, someone else asked him to. What intrigues me more is how he did it. Metal weapons wouldn't be able to touch a tree like this. Many have tried.”

Metal ones, no – but stone ones and old magic might do it. Delphine could only think of one culture that used both of those.

“Eola?” Delphine asked. “What do you think? Why would Cicero or anyone else want Eldergleam sap and how would he be able to cut the bark?”

“Hagravens,” said Eola softly. “Hags might want it. Not sure what for, but they might. They'd be able to cut the bark too. Kaie was telling me about this dagger they'd been working on, Nettlebane. It's a stone knife, imbued with old magics, meant for sacrificing Spriggans. It's not in the Reach, it's a coven down in Orphan Rock working on it, but if they can get it right, half the Hags in Tamriel will want one. Looks like they not only finished it but Cicero got hold of it. Whether they gave it to him so he could get sap for them, or he took it from them because someone else wanted the sap, I don't know.”

“Orphan Rock?? But that's down in Falkreath!” Delphine was more confused than ever. So he'd killed that giant, then gone to Orphan Rock, taken the dagger from the Hagravens there and come all the way back? In a few days? Had he been stopping to sleep at all? She had to find him and fast, and that meant trying to find out who'd sent him here and why. He'd never have thought to do it on his own. And how had he got mixed up with that hapless Kynareth worshipper anyway?

Kynareth, Kynareth – wait. There was a temple to Kynareth in Whiterun. Delphine felt a sense of foreboding prickling down her spine. Something told her this city held the answers.

“Cal, Sapphire, head back to Windhelm with Aranea. I'll take that sketch when she's finished with it though. You've all got enough contracts to keep you going for now but be prepared, I may need you. Eola, you're with me.”

“Where are we going?” Eola asked, cuddling Delphine as soon as Calixto and Sapphire had left.

“Orphan Rock,” said Delphine. “I want to find out if Cicero really went there and if there's anyone left alive to interrogate. Then we're going to Whiterun. I think Cicero might have gone there.”

“Whiterun, eh? It's possible.” Eola had been on her way there after leaving High Hrothgar until she'd run into an excited Delphine on the road and learned that there'd been a sighting of Cicero, at which point all thoughts of checking out Whiterun had been abandoned. It'd be nice to see the place with Delphine. She just hoped they were on the right track and didn't run into a dead end. Cicero had been missing nearly a week and all the other Holds were drawing a blank. Eola had a horrible feeling that if this didn't pan out, the slender thread of hope that was keeping Delphine going might just snap.

Chapter Text

Orphan Rock had proved to be as they'd expected – a blood bath with the bodies of several witches and a Hagraven littered around, with much blood and the valuables looted. He'd been there all right. All of which told them very little apart from the fact that at least it hadn't been the Hags wanting Eldergleam sap. So who had wanted it? Delphine didn't know, but she was determined to find out if she had to ask every alchemist and court mage in Skyrim. First though, the Temple of Kynareth. So while Eola headed off to Jorrvaskr to see if either Farkas or Ria were around, Delphine went to check the Temple out.

So it was that Eola returned from an utterly fruitless conversation with a red-haired Nord warrior who'd stared down at her throughout as if she was barely worth talking to and whose eyes had shut up completely when Eola had mentioned her father. Honestly. Damn Nords and their pride. Delphine was waiting underneath the Gildergreen, sitting on the bench with her head in her hands.

“No luck?” Eola asked sympathetically. “Had he not been there?”

“He'd been there,” said Delphine, not looking up. “Turns out he was there a few days ago wanting holy water. Something about needing to repair a staff. Danica told him she'd help him if he helped her heal the Gildergreen. It got hit by lightning ages ago and died, but Danica thought sap from its parent tree might help. So she sent him off to find Nettlebane and get the sap. Turns out the pilgrim was a man called Maurice Jondrelle who'd come to see the Gildergreen and on hearing Cicero was going to the Eldergleam Sanctuary, wanted to go too. Apparently Cicero said he'd been killed when Spriggans attacked them. Looked very heartstricken at the fact too.”

“Yeah, I bet,” said Eola, taking a seat next to her and putting an arm around the unhappy Listener. “He's such a little ham actor, that one. What then?”

Delphine finally looked up, tears rolling down her cheeks, and shrugged helplessly. “That's it. He took his holy water, thanked her profusely and left. Didn't say where he was going. That was last night. If we'd got here a day earlier, we'd have caught him. But we didn't, and now he's gone and we've no idea where. We've lost him, Eola.”

“Don't say that,” Eola whispered, taking Delphine into her arms, the silent tears and dead look in Delphine's eyes more terrifying than if her lover had been bawling her eyes out. “We'll keep looking, this is Cicero we're talking about, there'll be more sightings, I just know it. Next time a whole bunch of people show up dead and no one knows why, we'll be there. We'll find him, Del, I swear it.”

“What if we never do?” said Delphine, clinging on to Eola. “What if we never find a trace of him again?”

“We've got ears everywhere, Del,” said Eola gently. “We'll find him. I swear it, Del, we'll get him home.”

“What if he doesn't want to come home?” Delphine whispered, eyes bleak. “What if he doesn't want me any more?”

“Why wouldn't he?” Eola asked, bewildered. “You're his Listener, he adores you. He's a little brat, but he's your little brat. Always has been. And he always will be. He'll come home. I know it. Also, you're beautiful. If he's lost interest, he's even crazier than we thought.”

Delphine tightened her grip on Eola. Leaning up, she kissed her, gently at first but with increasing desperation, fingers entwining in the other woman's hair. Eola moaned at her touch, kissing back just as fiercely until finally breaking it off, eyes dilated and face flushed.

“Shall we see if the inn's got a bed free?” said Eola breathlessly. Delphine nodded, feeling a sudden need to have Eola's nipple in her mouth and fingers in her cunt. Letting Eola take her by the hand, she followed in the younger woman's wake.

~~~~~~~~~

Kodlak and Skjor sat and waited while Danica finished examining Cicero. The young Imperial still looked a bit peaky but after a thorough examination, Danica declared that aside from the after-effects of far too much alcohol and the memory loss, Cicero was in very good health for a man his age, in fact he could easily pass for someone about five years younger.

“Is he one of yours then, Kodlak?” the priestess asked, taking both men aside for a private conversation while Cicero got dressed behind a screen. “I wondered why on earth he'd been in here this week demanding holy water to repair a staff, but if it was something you or a client needed, I suppose that would explain it. Try and keep him off the mead though, he reeked of it before. Does he... have a problem with drinking? If so, I have some potions that might help, and I'm happy to see him for regular counselling.”

“We're looking after him until he gets his memory back,” said Kodlak, glancing at Skjor. “He's relatively new so I don't know if he's had a previous problem, but so far he's been steering clear of mead since he sobered up.”

“Here's hoping it lasts,” Skjor muttered, remembering all the times Torvar had declared that was it, he was giving up the booze for good. It had never lasted and usually ended in a two-day long bender. Skjor just hoped Cicero wasn't another one with the same problem.

“Have you seen him before then?” Kodlak asked, curious. Danica nodded.

“Yes, he was in earlier this week. Despite the intoxication, he was quite functional and cheerful. He went all the way to Orphan Rock to fetch a Hagraven knife for me and then fetched some Eldergleam sap from Eastmarch. We'll have the Gildergreen blooming again soon thanks to him. I'll always be thankful for that if nothing else. I'm glad he's in good hands, I was worried about him, especially after that lady was in here this morning asking after him. I don't know who she was, but I think she was a friend of his, maybe even his lover. She was worried something bad might happen if he wasn't found. Said to send information on his whereabouts to her care of the innkeeper in Riverwood. That was only a few hours ago, she might even still be in the city. It'll be a relief to her to know he's safe.”

“This woman,” said Skjor, shooting alarmed looks at Kodlak. “Was she a blonde Breton, by any chance?”

“That's right, do you know her?” Danica asked.

“We know of her,” said Kodlak grimly. “Danica, this is important. If she comes back, tell her nothing. Don't send her any information. She's not from Riverwood, she's from Markarth. We think she might be an agent of King Madanach's.”

Danica's eyes widened. She guessed all too well what sort of agents Madanach had at his disposal.

“You're not telling me she was...” Kodlak and Skjor both nodded. Danica had to sit down from shock.

“But she looked so genuine,” she whispered. “She seemed so hopeful when I said I'd seen him and devastated when I said I didn't know where he'd gone. I just assumed... I had no idea she was... one of them!”

“Aye, well, the sons and daughters of Sithis are very good at deception,” said Kodlak gently. “You're not the first to have been taken in. The lad's memories will come back soon, I'm sure, and then he can tell us if this woman is really his friend or not. Until then, for his own safety it's best to tell no one he's here. We'll take care of him, don't worry.”

“If anyone can keep him safe from those fiends, it's you, Kodlak,” said Danica.

The conversation changed topics at that point as Cicero emerged, back in his armour, ever-present grin in place. Danica cast some more healing spells on him and prescribed a few potions to assist his recovery but advised time was the only thing that might bring back his memories. Much as Kodlak had suspected. Still, it was good to know the lad was in good health physically, even if he did seem almost childlike mentally. Time to get him back to Jorrvaskr. Kodlak would keep him safe until his dying breath if he had to.

~~~~~~~~~~

“NO! NO! NO! CICERO DOESN'T WANT TO!!!!”

“Stop shouting!” Skjor snapped as he and Vilkas pinned him down. “It's not going to hurt!”

Cicero only wailed louder. Tilma held the potion in her hand, looking nervously at Aela.

“Is this all strictly necessary? The poor thing's screaming like we're torturing him.”

“You heard what Kodlak said,” said Aela, wincing at a particularly ear-splitting shriek and wondering how on earth an uncastrated adult male could hit notes that high. “The Dark Brotherhood are after a short red-haired Imperial man. So we need to make him not one.”

Tilma held the bottle of blonde hair dye in her hands. It had been going so well – he'd had no problem at all with shaving his legs and armpits and chest, and had been fine with dyeing the hair on his arms. But when they'd started to work on the hair on his head, Cicero had screamed and tried to make a break for it. Aela could only be thankful that Cicero's dagger had been out of reach – as it was, it was taking all Skjor and Vilkas' strength to keep him from running away.

“Cicero, please,” Aela sighed. “It's to keep you safe from the Dark Brotherhood so they don't recognise you. I promise you, it won't hurt and it's not forever.”

It was to no avail. Cicero was actually sobbing by this point.

“NOOOOO!!!!” he shrieked. “CICERO LIKES HIS HAIR THE WAY IT IS!!! CICERO LIKES RED! CICERO DOESN'T WANT TO BE BLONDE!!!!!”

By this time, Kodlak had arrived, drawn by all the noise. On seeing him, Cicero quietened down, no longer fighting, although he was still sniffling. Skjor, seeing he was no longer about to run for it, let him go and motioned for Vilkas to do likewise. Cicero, on being released, slowly sat up before appealing to Kodlak.

“Kodlak, Kodlak, they want to dye my hair!” Cicero wailed. “They want to cover Cicero's pretty red hair with that horrible blonde dye!”

“I know, Cicero,” Kodlak sighed. “I told them to do it. I must say, I didn't think you'd react quite this badly.”

“We should never have let him have that mirror,” Vilkas muttered. Kodlak ignored him, arms folded and staring Cicero down.

“Lad, we've been over this,” said Kodlak firmly. “You're being hunted by the Dark Brotherhood. They're the most feared order of assassins in all Tamriel. They killed the Emperor himself on his own ship. They killed Ulfric Stormcloak in the middle of his own army. Some say they can even get dragons to obey them. And they're after you. If they find out you're here, we'll fight them to the death, but your best protection is if they don't know you're here. That means disguising you so they don't recognise you. Hence the hair dye. Now are you going to go along with it or not?”

Cicero pouted, staring up at him in abject misery.

“I like my hair,” he whispered.

“Yes, it's lovely hair,” said Kodlak, doing his best to sound soothing. “But it might get you killed. It might get your Shield-Brothers and Shield-Sisters killed defending you too. You don't want anyone dying because of you, do you?”

Cicero hesitated, and then gave in, shoulders slumping in defeat.

“No, sir,” he whispered.

“Much better. Thank you, Cicero,” said Kodlak gently. “All right, Tilma, you can proceed. I'll stay here and keep an eye on things, just in case, hmm?”

Things went quite smoothly after that. Cicero subsided and let them continue, offering no resistance as red hair turned blonde. All the while though, he kept staring at Kodlak, eyes full of betrayal. Kodlak hated putting the poor lad through this against his will, but it was better than the alternative. Better by far than seeing Stelmaria's boy slaughtered by the sons of Sithis. He'd miss that hair too, but rather that than wake up to find Cicero's throat cut, blood as red as his hair pooling on the floor.

Stelmaria. Forty years since he'd known her, and he'd met no one like her before or since. He'd been a twenty five year old mercenary out in Hammerfell, caring for little but wenching, wine and the next fight. She'd been a thirty-four year old Legionnaire stationed in the same town. He'd made the mistake of groping her backside one evening while she'd been relaxing in her civvies in the bar the troops frequented. Bad idea. She'd floored him with a wicked right hook and spent ten straight minutes shouting at him with a foot pinning his chest down. An impression had been made. He'd skulked off, defeated but unable to get her out of his mind. She'd pointedly ignored him every time he'd tried to talk to her after that until one day he'd just broken down in the street and fallen to his knees, begging her to give him a chance. She'd looked, smiled a cruel and cold smile down at him, and said if he was a good boy and did as he was told, she'd consider it. He'd remembered the fire in her eyes as she'd pinned him to the floor the night they first met, and agreed. For the best part of a year, they'd been lovers and she'd changed his life. Taught him about honour, respect, compassion, treating people well, protecting and taking care of the weak. She turned him from little more than a thug into a true man of honour. Then one day in early Sun's Height in the year 160 4E, she'd just disappeared. He'd been supposed to be meeting her for a drink and dinner as they usually did but had been unavoidably delayed due to an assassination attempt on his employer. When he'd finally made it to the bar, ready with profuse apologies, she'd been nowhere to be found. He'd been upset but reasoned it had been her way of punishing him.

When two days had passed and Stelmaria still hadn't been seen anywhere in town, he'd asked at the Legion after her. He'd been told she'd gone AWOL. For a month, he'd searched the local area, listened to rumours and gossip, offered money for news. Nothing. It was as if she'd vanished. Finally, he'd given up hope and when a fellow Nord turned up and told him he'd do well in the Companions, he'd agreed. There was nothing left for him in Hammerfell. Not without her. He'd never seen her again. There'd never been anyone else for him after that. He could never quite give up hope that she might turn up in Whiterun one day. She never did.

Then a few days ago, this man, this Cicero, had turned up, looking for all the world like a male version of Stelmaria. Anyone else who'd barged into Jorrvaskr drunk and cavorted all over the place like he had would have been shown the door... but he'd taken one look at Cicero's unconscious form, that beautiful red hair spread out around those classic Cyrodiil features and he'd known, just known, he was Stelmaria's kin. Of course he'd taken the boy under his wing, how could he not? Then Cicero had written out that biography. Just one line, his name, mother's name, date and place of birth but it told Kodlak everything. It told him Stelmaria hadn't died... and it told him that seven months after disappearing, she'd given birth to a son. Their son.

Why she'd never come to find him, he'd never know. Maybe she'd tried, but heavily pregnant or with a small child in tow, it couldn't have been easy. Maybe she'd never had the means, or had been injured or had died while Cicero was young.

Maybe she'd lost her memory like her son clearly had. It was a sobering thought and a heartbreaking one. He couldn't bear to think of her staggering around the Imperial City, half-mad and amnesiac and pregnant with no one to take care of her. He should have tried harder to find her or waited longer for her to come home, or... but it was done now. All he could do was make sure her son – his son – was looked after.

If that meant fighting the Dark Brotherhood itself, he'd do it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cicero stared at himself in the mirror. It took a bit of getting used to. Admittedly he'd got very little to go on with regards to what he'd looked like before – he'd only seen himself in the mirror twice since getting here – but he'd liked what he first saw. Liked his eyes, liked his lovely red hair, liked the way his cheekbones had caught the shadows and the way his lips curved when he smiled. He didn't know enough to know if he was a good judge of these things, but he'd liked the way he looked even if others didn't.

He really wasn't sure about himself now. Blonde hair. Blonde! Oh the indignity. But if it kept this Dark Brotherhood away, maybe it was for the best. Maybe Kodlak might give him jobs now. Or at least let him outside on his own. Honestly, the man was so overprotective. It grated a little. But he'd been kind to poor Cicero and given him somewhere to stay. They were all kind to him – mostly. Admittedly Skjor was a little brusque and Vilkas didn't seem to think much of him and Njada openly wondered why on earth he'd been allowed to stay and that new Companion Harrald sneered at poor Cicero every chance he got. His mother had been a Jarl apparently. Cicero had been told that a Jarl was the person in charge of each Hold of Skyrim and they lived in big houses and told everyone what to do. The Jarl of Whiterun, for example, lived in Dragonsreach, the big palace overlooking the Skyforge. Clearly Jarls were important people. So Cicero had asked why, if Harrald Law-Giver's mother was a Jarl, Harrald was here and not learning how to rule a Hold for when his mother died. He'd been told not to talk about it. Fortunately, Aela had explained that Laila Law-Giver wasn't a Jarl any more, she'd lost her Hold during the war when the Dragonborn had held a peace conference at some place called High Hrothgar and given Laila's Hold to the Empire as part of arranging a truce so he could fight dragons. Cicero had no idea who this Dragonborn fellow was but from all the stories, he sounded a little frightening and almost certainly quite mad. All the same, he also sounded very brave to be able to talk to important people like General Tullius as he'd been then, and the former Stormcloak leader Jarl Ulfric, and to go up against dragons took some doing. Cicero wished he was that brave and talented. Dragons scared the living daylights out of him. Every day that red one would fly over shouting, and every day Cicero would curl up and hide, trying to stop the dragon fire taking over his own head. It scared him, but he couldn't talk to anyone, not even Kodlak or Aela. Everyone thought he was odd as it was, he could just imagine the reaction if it got out he also had dragons living in his head.

“Hey, new blood, are you done looking in that mirror yet? I've seen girls spend less time looking at themselves than you.”

Now that would be the other new recruit, Ralof. No Jarl's son this, just a miller's brother from a village called Riverwood (Cicero didn't recognise the name but apparently it was not too far from Whiterun and very pretty) and once a part of the Stormcloak army. At least until a dragon had landed on it at the Siege of Markarth and the Dark Brotherhood had ripped through the camp. There were rumours the Dragonborn had helped the Brotherhood that day, but Cicero was sure that wasn't true. A hero like the Dragonborn would never join the Brotherhood, although it was possible that he might be an Imperial sympathiser. That was Cicero's best guess anyway.

“I'm sorry, does dear Ralof want to borrow it and admire his own pretty blonde hair?”

Ralof glared at him. Cicero had been warned that Ralof had seen some horrible things in the war and to go easy on him. All the same, Cicero had the feeling that a soldier like Ralof had been wouldn't want people pitying him. Probably.

“Watch your tongue, Imperial. I killed dozens like you during the war.”

“Yes, well, Cicero might have killed plenty of Nords for all he knows,” said Cicero, glaring back. “It is not his fault he can't remember.”

Ralof fell silent, staring at his mead tankard. “I wish I had that problem,” he said softly. Cicero felt a pang of sympathy for the man.

“Well, if I ever remember how I lost mine, I'll be sure to tell you,” said Cicero. Ralof did laugh at that.

“Cicero, from the way you got here, I'm not sure your method's the best one. Not sure I want to stagger drunkenly into a mercenary headquarters and start dancing on their tables. You were lucky the old man took a liking to you, that's all.”

Cicero did giggle at that. “I'm very sorry. I'm not sure what on earth possessed me. I'm sure I would never normally do such terrible things.”

“I'd be more inclined to believe you if you actually showed a shred of shame about any of it,” said Ralof. Still, he was smiling and that, if Kodlak was to be believed, was a rarity. “So, Cicero the Imperial, are you going to be a proper Shield-Brother or are you just going to be the Harbinger's little pet? Not seen you take on a job yet.”

“No one's offered me one yet,” said Cicero. “Kodlak doesn't seem to like me going far from Jorrvaskr. Also I don't know if I'd be any good at fighting. What if I'm very bad at it?”

“You'll never know unless you try,” said Ralof. “Why don't you join us out in the training yard? We can try you with a few weapons, see what you're good at.”

Cicero thought this was an excellent idea and followed Ralof out.

It turned out that Cicero was indeed a light armour specialist, as Kodlak had predicted. Mainly because when he tried a set of steel armour, he could barely move in it, much to the delight of the various Companions watching his training. Cicero changed back into his scaled armour, feeling a lot more comfortable once all that metal was off him.

Two-handed weapons training didn't go much better. Cicero tried, he really did, but it was very difficult to hit someone with a weapon almost as big as you were. After the third time he tried to hit Ralof with a warhammer and nearly fell over doing it, Ralof tactfully suggested he try sword and shield fighting instead.

This went rather better. Just as Cicero had proved a natural with a dagger, so he took well to sword fighting too. It was just a shame that he could never quite get his shield up in time to block Ralof properly. In the end, Cicero threw it away, grabbed his ebony dagger in his left-hand and began dual-wielding. It was like someone had thrown a switch. Once Cicero abandoned the strategy of trying to block blows with a shield and instead just concentrated on trying to hit Ralof, everything changed. Ralof's own shield protected him, but he was staggering back, hard-pressed to keep Cicero at bay and having great difficulty hitting Cicero back due to the man being constantly on the move. Finally Ralof yielded.

“You win, you win!” he cried. “Sweet Talos and Mara, I'm never criticising your fighting skills again. Stick to wielding a blade in each hand, no one's going to stand against you in a fair fight. As long as you've got the ability to see it through. Plenty of men hesitate. Can't quite bring themselves to take another man's life. That's usually the end of them.”

Cicero wondered what it was actually like to kill someone. Kodlak had told him that apparently he'd killed Hagravens, but Cicero didn't think that counted. Hagravens weren't people. He tried to imagine driving his knife into someone – between the ribs? Up and under the ribcage? In the kidneys? Knife across the throat? Any of those would do it. Messy though. Blood everywhere. Mmm... blood.

The door in his head shook as the dragon behind it raged. Cicero took a deep breath and counted to ten to get it to shut up. Dear Talos, what was wrong with him? Being a brave warrior was one thing, but going into a vague trance at the mere thought of flowing blood was something else.

“I'll do my best,” Cicero promised. Although whether he meant to fight well and survive or to avoid any more fantasising about blood dripping across skin and onto the floor, he wasn't entirely sure.

Chapter Text

Three weeks later, and Cicero was settling in well. He might have lost his memory but he could have ended up in far worse a situation than he had done. Kodlak had finally relented and agreed to send him out on jobs. They'd started him off on simple ones involving dealing with wild beasts, a Shield-Brother or Sister with him, usually Aela or Ralof. It had soon become apparent that he was wasted on beasts, and so they'd start giving him jobs involving bandit lairs. Now those were much more fun. Ralof had advised him that when dealing with superior numbers, it was best to sneak up and take them out quietly one at a time. Cicero hadn't thought that a terribly honourable way of dealing with opponents, but Ralof had assured him they'd done this in the war all the time – it was fine to use a bit of trickery against superior foes, especially if the enemy didn't have any honour themselves. So Cicero had done exactly that, creeping up on individuals and slicing their throats open, or shooting them down from a distance. He'd proved to be a natural. Everything else had faded away, and there had been nothing but death, blood, screaming and stabbing. Cicero had loved every second. He'd never felt so alive.

Finally, the bandit chief had come running out, a big Orc in steel plated armour. Cicero had dived out of the way, blades ready to strike, and then Ralof had rushed in, roaring a battle-cry, battle-axe raised and carving the Orc to pieces with just a few strikes. Blood had gone everywhere and Cicero actually had to bite back a moan at the sight, hoping Ralof didn't notice the unfortunate erection making its presence felt in Cicero's loincloth. Mercifully he didn't, just kneeling by the Orc's side, pulling his helmet off and covering his face.

“Ralof?” Cicero whispered, crouching next to him. “Is everything all right?” He wasn't sure what he'd do if the big Nord started crying. He liked Ralof. He didn't want him to be unhappy.

“I'm all right,” said Ralof gruffly. “Thank you, Cicero. It's just... I keep thinking it'll get easier, but it never does.”

“Ralof doesn't like killing?” Cicero said, gently rubbing Ralof's back. Ralof laughed.

“If I didn't like it, I wouldn't do it. I'd have gone back to Riverwood and spent the rest of my years chopping wood at my sister's mill and teaching my nephew how to shoot rabbits.”

“But you joined the Companions,” said Cicero, confused.

“Aye, that I did,” said Ralof, finally looking up, half-smile on his face. “I told you once that some men hesitated before killing and it was usually the death of them.”

He had, Cicero remembered it well. He'd kept those words in his mind as he struck, expecting to have to force himself to kill. He'd been amazed to find that he'd had no difficulty whatsoever. He'd killed and stabbed without a thought, no sooner seeing a weak point than his blades sank in with lethal precision, and then he'd be moving on to the next with not a care for the one he'd just killed. Man, woman, Orc or elf, he'd not cared. Ralof hadn't been hesitating either, judging from the cries of “True Nords never back down!” and “Victory or Sovngarde!” echoing around the camp. No sense of subtlety once cover had actually been broken, but he was an excellent shot and very good with that battle-axe.

“Ralof survived a war, so can Cicero take it Ralof does not hesitate if it is them or him?” Cicero asked carefully. Ralof nodded.

“I don't hesitate, Cicero. Never did. I liked it too much. The adrenaline. The tacit permission and encouragement from commanding officers. The praise. The glory. I killed and I slaughtered for the Stormcloaks and got called a hero. Hard to come home and be a mill worker or lumberjack after that. So I joined the Companions so I could keep on doing it. It's not helping though.”

“Is it not?” Cicero asked, helping him up. Ralof shook his head.

“Hardly. They still keep calling me a hero. For clearing out a few bandits or beasts? There's little glory in all this. But it's a living, and at least I can take the anger out on people who deserve it.”

“Ralof is angry?” Cicero asked as they left. Ralof just laughed, pausing to clear out the bandits' loot chest and splitting the proceeds with Cicero.

“All the time. War ruined me for a normal life. It's not even the things I saw, it's the things I did, butchering innocent people, civilians, and enjoying it. I'm trying to move on, but... ah, but you don't want to hear an old soldier complain about his life, do you?”

“Cicero thinks Ralof is considerably younger than I am, so less of the old,” said Cicero with a grin. “Come on, Kodlak will be waiting for us. He always seems to worry about poor Cicero. I don't know why. I'm quite capable of defending myself.”

“You certainly are,” Ralof laughed, patting Cicero on the back. In a friendly silence, they set off back for Jorrvaskr.

~~~~~~~~~~

Three weeks and no word. No news. Nothing. There'd been a few bandit lairs cleared out and a few escaped criminals killed that looked like they could have been Cicero's work, but they all turned out to be Companions jobs.

Sky Haven Temple was a much quieter place without him. Somehow it just didn't feel right to be laughing or teasing each other or telling stories without him. It definitely didn't feel right to start showing public displays of affection when Delphine was quite openly mourning her jester.

“You need to eat something,” said Esbern gently.

“I'm not hungry,” said Delphine, shoving the food away. It was eggs and bacon with mushrooms and Eidar cheese, and the smell had half the Sanctuary salivating. Apparently not Delphine.

“You didn't eat breakfast yesterday, or dinner,” said Esbern. “All you had was bread and cheese at lunchtime. Look at you, you're wasting away.”

“I said I'm fine!” Delphine shouted. An awkward silence descended, and Delphine noticed everyone staring at her, all with varying degrees of worry... or pity. Aventus was leaning into Calixto's shoulder, looking distinctly on edge. Oh good, that meant the prospect of yet another awkward conversation with Calixto where a necromancer and serial killer who'd murdered at least three women (that they knew of) would tell her that while he understood she was mourning, could she at least try and keep it together around Aventus, she was scaring the boy. And he was right, absolutely right.

“I'm going to tend to Mother,” she said, getting up and walking out, knowing that she'd probably start crying the minute she walked into the little chapel, as she always did. Having a proper crypt for the Night Mother meant the remains need never be oiled again, freeing Cicero up for other things. Of course, that was while she'd still had a Cicero. Good timing or terrible timing? She never could decide.

As always, she swept the chapel before checking the shrine, ensuring candles were lit, replacing a few burnt out ones, clearing away the wax that had dripped on to the floor. Then the flowers, removing the dead ones and making a note to head out to the camp and find some more to replace them. Not far of course, she could never go far, just in case Cicero came back while she wasn't there.

He's not coming back, you fool. Cicero's dead, you know it, it's why you're wearing that ribbon on your wrist.

It was the one he'd had in his hair at the wedding. She'd tied it around her left wrist, partly as a remembrance... but it was also a traditional High Rock gesture of mourning. She didn't know for sure, would never know. But if he was coming back, he'd have come back by now, she'd have heard some sign of him. Her little he-daedra, her beloved jester boy, he was gone. She just hoped it had been a quick death.

From the Night Mother, nothing. She'd given contracts as usual, which Delphine had written down and promptly handed over to Eola to dish out. At first, Eola would come back to report on jobs done and bring reports from Aranea and Astrid, but after Delphine had shown very little sign of caring, even that had stopped. The Night Mother hadn't criticised, not exactly, but the communications had got increasingly terse and business-like. She'd at least told her Cicero wasn't in the Void, but as Cicero might well have decided to join his mother in Sovngarde instead, that wasn't the comfort it could have been.

Eola. Gods, Eola. She still shared her bed, warming her up every night, they'd even made love as usual at first. Then even that had stopped as days turned into weeks and Cicero hadn't come home. These days, Delphine didn't have the energy to initiate anything and Eola had stopped trying after the third time Delphine had burst into tears before getting anywhere near orgasm. Now they would just hold each other. Some part of Delphine was sorry, so sorry for putting Eola through this, she wanted to scream that she still loved her, she still thought Eola was beautiful and please not to give up on her. But she couldn't. She just didn't have the strength.

Footsteps behind her.

“What is it?” she asked, guessing who it would be. Other than Cicero (oh gods, Cicero, come home), only one other person ever dared interrupt her while she was here.

“You skipped breakfast again.”

Delphine could just imagine what she'd see if she turned to look. Five foot seven of pissed off Reachwoman glaring at her, one good eye doing the work of two.

“I wasn't hungry.” Not even a lie. Food didn't really taste of much these days.

“Dammit, Del!” Delphine shivered at the vehemence in those words. Eola rarely got angry with her, she'd been sympathy itself, but just lately, Delphine had felt more tension than usual in her lover's voice.

“You need to eat, look at you, you're like a walking corpse!” Eola shouted. “You're meant to be in charge, and you're doing nothing, just sitting around and moping! You can't keep on like this, we can't keep on like this, we need a leader!”

“The Night Mother's our leader,” said Delphine, fingering a nightshade flower. Still alive for now, but likely to wilt in a day or two. She'd need to gather more, couldn't let the shrine go untended, could she? It needed to look perfect for when Cicero came home.

“She only talks to you. Who's there for the rest of us??”

“You're all adults!” Delphine snapped, feeling a flicker of emotion for the first time in a while. “You don't need me to babysit, do you? Can't I even mourn my husband in peace?”

I'm mourning him too!” Eola's voice echoed like a scream, the sheer volume finally shattering Delphine's barriers as she turned to look at her lover, shocked to hear her sounding so broken. Eola was always so strong... but there she was, standing in the aisle of the chapel, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Eola,” Delphine whispered, horrified. Eola wiped the tears away, hardly daring to look at her.

“Since he vanished, I've been there for you, taken care of you, loved you, tried to be there for you, tried to be the partner you needed. I tried, I really did, but you just kept pushing me away, pushing everyone away. It's like nothing matters but him, like he's the centre of the fucking universe or something. The selfish little bastard ran away, disappeared, broke your heart, my heart, this entire fucking Sanctuary's heart, and I'm still here, still loving you and being here for you, and it's not enough, never enough, damn it Del, what do I have to do to get you to love me back??”

“I do,” Delphine whispered, reaching out to touch Eola's arm. Eola didn't move.

“You don't,” she wept. “You clearly don't, because I held you and tended to you every damn night while you cried your eyes out, told you everything would be alright, because you're my damn Matriarch and I love you so much I can barely breathe sometimes for thinking about you. Who in the Void is doing that for me, hmm? No one.”

“Sweetie,” Delphine breathed, guilt racking at her heart. “Oh sweetie, don't cry, you're my brave little sabre-cat, my sunshine girl, don't cry, I'm sorry, please...”

Eola didn't seem to hear or even care. She sank into a pew, sobbing her heart out. Delphine, tears in her own eyes, sat next to her, holding her in her arms, stroking her hair and rocking her like she would a child.

“Don't cry,” Delphine whispered, feeling her throat tighten and her blood chill as the numbness finally broke with the realisation of what Eola was going through. Fierce, brave, murderous Eola who feared nothing, finally falling apart under the strain and Delphine had been too wrapped up in her own grief to notice. “Honey, I'm so sorry, I'm here, I'm here, I hadn't realised, oh love, it'll be alright, I've got you, just don't go. Don't you go too. I love you, my she-aedra.”

“Don't call me that, I'm on the other side,” Eola wept, but she'd turned towards Delphine, burrowing into her chest, clinging on to her. Delphine kissed the top of her head, before lifting Eola's face up and kissing her, lips claiming hers with a passion Delphine hadn't felt in weeks. She still felt broken inside but having Eola helped. When things were right between them, it was like basking in bright sunlight, all warmth and glowing. When things were wrong... it was just horrible.

“I've been a terrible partner, haven't I?” said Delphine, finally breaking off the kiss. Eola was finally smiling a little, cheeks still covered with tears.

“Don't say that,” Eola said softly. “You lost your husband, of course you're upset. I just hate seeing you letting yourself go like this.”

“Yes, and you lost your best friend and someone you were in love with too, and you never even got a chance to go anywhere with it. You must have been heartbroken, and I've been no help at all, have I?”

“Not really,” Eola murmured. “And – and Da's still going ahead with this stupid honeymoon tour Elisif's dragging him on, because she wants to be out there seeing her people and is convinced that if she drags Da out to see the rest of Skyrim, he'll start liking and trusting Nords and they'll stop thinking he's a monster. I've told him it's not safe, he shouldn't go but he just keeps saying he married Elisif to guarantee peace, he should at least try. I don't know what to do, I'm scared something will happen to him out there, and I wanted you to help but you weren't there!”

“That's still going ahead??” Delphine could barely believe that after an assassination attempt at the wedding, Madanach was still intent on travelling Skyrim with his wife. She strongly suspected this was less about guaranteeing peace than about proving to the Nords in general, and his pretty young wife in particular, that he wasn't a coward. “Sweet Sithis. Who's he taking with him? Tell me Borkul's going.”

“No, he's staying behind to make sure nothing happens to Kaie,” Eola sighed. “Da's taking Uaile and a few others, and Bolgeir's in charge of security overall.”

“And how's a female bodyguard meant to keep an eye on him?” Delphine cried. “She can hardly watch him in the bath, can she? No disrespect, I'm sure she's capable enough but she's younger than you are.”

“She's been fighting since she was fourteen,” said Eola. “Nepos speaks really highly of her.” However, she didn't sound convinced.

“So have you, in fact you've been out on your own facing danger without an army to back you. Oh, and you've run several dangerous missions for me, including breaking your father out of prison on your own,” said Delphine, depression fading away as her mind seized on a problem and began analysing it. “All right. Get yourself down to Markarth. Your father is taking Argis whether he likes it or not. The Temple doesn't need guarding, not really, we could leave a chest full of gold and Azura's Star unattended in the middle of the place and no one would touch it. Also get me the schedule. I want to know where he's going to be and when. I want to see where's the most likely place for an assassination attempt.”

Eola was staring at her, stunned. “You... you know he only paid us for protection at the wedding, right? We're not his bodyguards. You don't have to spend our time and money on keeping him alive.”

“Not the point,” said Delphine. “We're the assassins here. No one does assassination work but us – it's not in our interest to have amateurs start doing this sort of thing. Also Madanach's people kept our Sanctuary safe and still do – I owe him. He's one of us. I look after my people.” She stroked Eola's cheek. “And he's your father and you'd be devastated if anything happened to him. Can't have my sabre cat being unhappy. It's not right.”

“You're doing all this... for me?” Eola asked, dazed. Delphine nodded, smiling.

“I'd do anything for you,” she said, kissing Eola's forehead. She wasn't really brilliant at the whole maternal and comforting thing, if she was honest, but planning and scheming? That, she could do, and would do if it meant Eola was happy and not threatening to leave.

Judging from the fact that Eola had just taken her face in her hands and was kissing her in a way they'd not kissed since Cicero vanished, Delphine guessed she'd succeeded.

“I missed you,” Eola whispered, finally breaking off the kiss. “I missed you so much.”

“I didn't go anywhere,” said Delphine. Eola just raised an eyebrow.

“You were gone, Mama Del. I don't know who that unhappy stranger with your face was, but it wasn't you. I'm glad you're back.”

There was truth to that. Delphine could still feel a yawning chasm in her heart where Cicero should be... but her heart was at least still beating. For as long as that was the case, she had a Family to tend to and although Cicero was a huge part of it, she couldn't let the rest fall apart because of him.

“I'm glad too,” said Delphine. “Now, get yourself to Markarth and hurry back. In the mean time, I need to have a bath and a decent meal, and when you get back, I'm going to take you to bed for a few hours and fuck the living daylights out of you. How does that sound?”

Eola responded by kissing her again, a long slow kiss that left them both breathless.

“I'll be back before you know it,” Eola promised, before racing off to grab her weapons. Delphine
watched her go, before turning back to the Night Mother.

“Well Mother, I hope you don't object to me meddling in politics again. But I can't have non-Brotherhood people thinking they can get away with assassination. It's just not on. Very bad for business.”

No response. Well, that wasn't a surprise. But she'd take a lack of response as meaning the Night Mother didn't mind. Turning around, she left. Time for bath, breakfast and if Eola didn't take too long, a long, leisurely session in bed. Then... this Listener had work to do.

~~~~~~~~~~~

“Hey there beautiful,” Eola murmured, nipping at Delphine's ear. “Trust you to be out of bed already and hard at work planning.”

Eola had woken up to find the bed empty. Getting dressed quickly, Eola had correctly guessed that Delphine was probably in the crypt, either communing with the Night Mother, or going over that schedule Eola had sweet-talked her father into handing over. He'd insisted all this fuss wasn't necessary, but after a bit of pouting on Eola's part, Madanach had sighed and given in, rolling his eyes and saying yes, fine, he'd take Argis, he could do worse, he supposed. He'd be leaving for Solitude that afternoon. Eola hoped Delphine had a plan, because they didn't have long to put it into action.

“Hello love,” said Delphine, sitting cross-legged on the floor with the schedule in one hand and a map of Skyrim spread out in front of her. She seemed distracted, but didn't object as Eola sat behind her, wrapping arms and legs around her and nuzzling her neck. “I'm trying to work out where's most dangerous.”

“Any ideas?” Eola asked. Her father was visiting every Hold capital, but identifying which one was the most likely place to assassinate a visiting king was a tough task.

“Not Solitude,” said Delphine. “They tried there and failed, it won't happen again. Elisif wasn't taking the possibility of assassination seriously enough last time, but she won't make that mistake twice. She might be young but she's a fast learner. Won't be any of the minor Holds either. They'll want a statement, they'll want witnesses, they'll want it to be in a big city. So. Windhelm, Riften or Whiterun.”

“Bet Windhelm's got a load of ex-Stormcloaks just waiting to cause trouble,” said Eola softly. Delphine shook her head.

“A few, but Windhelm's got too many of its own problems right now. Turns out Ulfric was paying so much attention to the war, he neglected Windhelm's domestic affairs and the city's near bankrupt. Not many jobs to be had in Eastmarch these days, and most of those are going to Dunmer and Argonians. The city's looking less and less Nordic by the day. Most of the ex-Stormcloaks who weren't carrying war injuries and couldn't find work have gone elsewhere in Skyrim or decided to seek their fortune abroad. There's always work for Nord mercenaries somewhere.”

“So not Windhelm then,” said Eola. “What about Riften? The place is loaded, even with the Guild and Maven Black-Briar taking their cuts.”

“Possibly, but I don't think so,” said Delphine. “Everyone knows Riften is corrupt. You kill someone on the streets of Riften and everyone's just going to shrug and say 'so what?'”

Which just left...

“Whiterun,” said Eola. “You think it's there.”

“I do,” said Delphine. “Cultural heart of Skyrim, home to the Skyforge, Jorrvaskr, it's where Olaf One-eye captured a dragon, it's in the shadow of High Hrothgar itself. It's rich, it's well-populated, and the Jarl was no friend of Ulfric. If I wanted Madanach dead and to send a message to Skyrim's Nord population, I'd do it there.”

It made sense, although Eola suspected that a contingent of demobbed Stormcloaks turning up would rouse suspicions, even if they just looked like ordinary Eastmarchers needing work. Still, as Delphine said, Nord mercenaries could find work anywhere.

Nord mercenaries...

“The Companions,” said Eola, inspiration dawning. “That assassin, Lydia, she'd been a Companion. They're based in Whiterun. And they were awfully suspicious when I started asking questions. Like they've got something to hide. I think they might be in on it.”

“You think so?” Delphine asked, sceptical. “They don't usually get involved in politics. They're usually neutral on this sort of thing. I can't see them sinking to anything as dishonourable as assassination. Assassins don't go to Sovngarde.”

“They might if they thought they were doing the right thing,” said Eola softly. “Nine Divines down to Eight, nine Holds down to eight – there might be some among them conflating the two and thinking retaking the Reach will get them Talos back.”

It was possible. And while Delphine highly doubted all the Companions were involved, it was possible some of them might be. Maybe they were harbouring an assassin without knowing it. It was something she couldn't afford to ignore.

“I should have infiltrated them weeks ago,” Delphine sighed. “I was going to send Argis, but can't now. Damn.” Damn Cicero. And damn her too for getting all mopey over him and not doing anything earlier.

“Well, Farkas must be back by now,” said Eola. “If you want, I can head out there, sneak in, see if he's back and then hit him up for details. Then I can meet up with Da when he gets there, make sure no one tries anything.”

“I've got a better idea,” said Delphine. “Get yourself to Markarth today, go with your father. If you're going to be in the city, you may as well be there officially. No one's going to be a better protector for him than you. You can check Jorrvaskr out while you're there.”

“Are you sure?” Eola asked, worried. “I feel bad about leaving you alone for so long.”

“I'll be fine,” said Delphine, turning around and hauling Eola into her lap. “Just come back when you can. I'll be waiting.”

Eola kissed her, wanting to remember how this felt, keep the memory of how Delphine sounded and tasted and felt in her arms. Delphine had one hand around Eola's waist and the other cupping her breast, right up until she broke off, annoyed and staring at the Night Mother, barely visible in the glowing soul gem cage that kept her body safe.

“She picks her moments,” Delphine sighed.

“What, what is it? What did she say? We got another contract?”

“Yes,” Delphine sighed. “Some guy called Skjor. Wants to meet us in White River Watch.”

“That near Whiterun?” Eola asked. “I could go and check it out?”

“Would you?” Delphine asked, relieved. Eola nodded. Delphine pointed the location out on the map for her – sure enough, it looked quite close to the city. It looked like Eola would have a busy week or so ahead of her. All the more reason to take advantage of her lover now while she still could.

~~~~~~~~~~~

On the steps of Jorrvaskr, and nearly all the Companions were gathered to watch – well, those that were in. Farkas had apparently fallen off a glacier and done something to his ankle and was still resting up in Dawnstar until the swelling went down, but Ria's latest letter said he was doing well and they were going to get a boat to Windhelm and carriage back home soon. Skjor was also off on some mysterious job he wouldn't tell anyone about, but other than that, everyone was gathered to watch the procession. Not every day a visiting king and queen arrived in the city, after all.

Cicero had wormed his way to the front, knowing he'd never be able to see properly otherwise. Not that he recognised any of them anyway.

“Who are they all?” he whispered to Ralof, hoping he knew more of the faces than Cicero did. The Nord warrior was sitting on one of the steps, Njada on his other side, but he seemed pleased to see Cicero settle down next to him.

“Well, that's the Jarl of Whiterun, Balgruuf the Greater,” said Ralof. “A good man, if misguided in his politics. And his steward, Proventus Avenicci. A craven coward if ever I saw one, but the man's got a brain on him. That Dunmer's his housecarl, Irileth. Not sure I trust elves, but she's loyal to the Jarl.”

Some vague memory stirred in Cicero, of a Dunmer woman in black and red, orange hair and black hood pulled down over her face and the knowledge that she'd been kind to him in some way, or had he helped her? He didn't know, but he felt fond of her, whoever she was.

The Jarl and his people were waiting at the foot of the great steps to Dragonsreach, awaiting the royal procession. In the distance, a hunting horn sounded and a bard stepped forward.

“Make way for the lady Elisif, High Queen of Skyrim!” she called. “And her husband and consort, Madanach, King of the Reach!”

She stepped aside, and the royal couple stepped forward. Cicero saw to his surprise that while Elisif was a pretty young woman with long red hair, her husband looked older, much older. White hair, craggy features, dressed similarly to Jarl Balgruuf but looking ill at ease in such finery. Still, there was power about him and a sword at his side, and while he wasn't as well-muscled as the big Nord in steel armour next to him, Cicero wouldn't want to fight the man. There was a definite aura of menace to him.

“That's him,” Ralof murmured. “The Witch-king himself, the Butcher of Lost Valley. It's said he knows all sorts of dark arts, and we know what he did to his own people when they spoke out against him. Look at him next to the queen. Gods know what it's like for her, being married to that monster. Poor girl.”

Elisif didn't seem to look all that unhappy to Cicero, in fact he noticed her squeeze her husband's hand, smile at him gently and say something to him before leading him forward to meet the Jarl. The two armour clad Nords next to the king and queen fell back, but a lightly-armoured Breton woman behind them took her place on Madanach's other side. Cicero noticed her eyes darting about, seemingly more concerned about the surroundings than anything else. Almost as if she were scanning for threats. Interesting. A bodyguard then, but more than a mere housecarl from the confident step in her gait.

“Who's that?” he asked Ralof, indicating the woman. He couldn't see her face properly, not from here, and the Reach head-dress obscured her hair, but he had the strange feeling he'd seen her before.

Ralof was glaring at her through gritted teeth. “I know her,” he growled. “She was at the battle of Markarth. I never saw her close up, just her and the rest of those Sithis-worshipping scum running off into the distance after they'd killed Jarl Ulfric. But that's the younger Reach-Princess, Madanach's daughter by his first wife. Eola, her name is. They say she's almost as bad as her father, a cruel and vicious killer without remorse. They say she killed Galmar Stone-Fist personally and then feasted on his corpse.”

“Eola fear-ola,” Cicero murmured, wondering where that odd little rhyme came from. He watched as pleasantries were exchanged and the royal party followed Jarl Balgruuf off to Dragonsreach. He wondered if they'd come to visit Jorrvaskr at all. Probably not, but Whiterun had been given a few days off to celebrate and there would be feasting in the streets to welcome the royal couple. Cicero was determined to enjoy it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Ralof, Ralof, are you ready? The feasting is under way and someone has bought Elsweyrian firecrackers off the Khajiit! Come, come and see! Ralof?”

Cicero stopped in the doorway of the dormitory where they all slept. Ralof was in there alone while everyone else was either out in the town or upstairs drinking in the mead hall. He was sitting on his bed, head in his hands.

“Ralof?” Cicero whispered, coming to kneel next to his friend. With some of the Companions, he wasn't at all sure they actually liked him that much. Ralof had never been among that number, in fact Ralof had gone out of his way to be nice to him. Cicero liked Ralof, liked him very much. He didn't like seeing him unhappy.

“Ralof, dear Ralof, are you all right?” Cicero whispered, taking Ralof's hands in his. “Has someone upset you?” He hoped not. He'd hate to have to beat up one of his Shield-Siblings, but he'd do it if he had to.

“No, no, it's fine,” said Ralof, his voice weary. Cicero realised to his horror that Ralof had been crying.

“It isn't fine, Ralof is hurt and unhappy!” Cicero cried, sitting on the bed next to him and wrapping his arms around him. For once, Ralof didn't object, putting his own arms around Cicero. Strange, Ralof wasn't normally this affectionate, or if he was, it was in a very gruff and manly way.

“If we do something dishonourable but in a good cause, do we still get to go to Sovngarde?” Ralof asked pensively. How he expected Cicero to know the answer to that, Cicero had no idea.

“Is this about the war again?” he asked. Ralof often got a bit strange and maudlin when that came up.

“Yes and no,” Ralof sighed. “Cicero, I'll be leaving Jorrvaskr soon. I've got a special job to do. I can't talk about it and... I don't think I'll be coming back. Little chance of me surviving this one. I am sorry, my friend.”

Cicero couldn't stop himself crying out at that.

“Nooo!” he wailed. “You can't go away, you can't die! You're my friend! Cicero likes you!”

Ralof laughed, actually kissing the top of Cicero's head. “I like you too, lad. You're like no one else I've ever known, fierce in battle and one of the kindest people I know outside of it. A bit simple-minded, but that's probably the memory loss. I'll miss you.”

“Take me with you!” Cicero cried. “If it's dangerous, take me as your Shield-Brother! Cicero won't let any harm come to you!”

Ralof shook his head. “Not this time. It'd break the old man's heart if anything happened to you. I don't know how or why, but you're almost like a son to him. No, this is a suicide mission. It's best I go alone.”

Cicero clung on to him, tempted to wail and scream at the unfairness of it all, to make a friend just to lose them again. But he could see Ralof's mind was made up.

“Ralof,” he whispered. “If – if you do survive, will you come back to Jorrvaskr? Come back and tell the story?”

Ralof patted Cicero's thigh. “We'll see, my friend. I don't think I'll get to say goodbye to you before I go, so I'm saying it now. Goodbye, Cicero. And thank you. You've got a good heart.”

“So has Ralof,” Cicero sniffed, wiping tears from his eyes. “Ralof has been kind to poor Cicero, very kind indeed. Cicero shall miss you.”

“Stop it, man,” said Ralof roughly, looking away. “Honestly, I've seen girls cry less than you.”

“It's your big muscles and pretty blonde hair,” Cicero forced himself to laugh, willing to lapse into teasing banter if that was what Ralof preferred. “They make me come over all emotional.”

Ralof laughed at that and reached into his storage chest. “Well then, I should give you something to remember me by, shouldn't I?” He rummaged through it and produced an odd black object, shaped a bit like a claw. Cicero looked at it, confused. It looked familiar, but Cicero had the odd feeling it should be golden, with blue or diamond tips to the claws.

“What is it?” he asked, taking it off Ralof.

“It's something Galmar gave me before... during the war,” said Ralof. “He thought that in one of the ruins north of here, a place called Korvanjund, the Jagged Crown was buried. It's the traditional crown of the High King or Queen of Skyrim. He wanted it to give to Ulfric for when we won. But that never happened. He thought that claw would unseal the tomb for us and gave it to me for safekeeping. I think he wanted me to go and fetch it, but when the Forsworn took Markarth, I was needed there. I've never had the chance to see if he was right, but I think he was. He wasn't a sentimental man, old Galmar.”

“Did you want me to try and find it?” Cicero asked. Ralof patted Cicero's leg, smiling.

“Just hang on to the claw. For now, I think the legend is best left as that. But one day – one day, if a High King or Queen worthy of the name needs it – you know where to look. Someone should.”

“Why me?” Cicero asked softly. The claw alone looked valuable. Why would Ralof think Cicero should be trusted with all this?

Ralof reached out and traced a finger across Cicero's half-hidden amulet.

“You're not a Nord, but if you were, you'd be a true one,” Ralof said. “You're a Talos-worshipper too, you understand even if you don't remember. I trust you to know when the time is right, I trust you to know who the Crown belongs to.”

“Thank you,” Cicero whispered. “I don't know what to say.”

“Then don't say anything,” said Ralof. “Come with me and let's enjoy the evening with some mead and song and maybe a woman or two, eh?”

Cicero laughed nervously. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to just randomly seduce a strange woman and bed her, and he was fairly sure he didn't want to touch mead ever again, but if Ralof wanted to, Cicero would pretend to drink more than he actually was, join in a few rude army songs, and try and persuade the women of Whiterun that Ralof was sex on a stick. If Ralof was insisting on leaving, and it would break Cicero's heart to never see him again, the least Cicero could do was to give him a night to remember.

Chapter Text

Cicero danced into Jorrvaskr, rather pleased with how all that had gone. Drink had been drunk, firecrackers watched and indeed played with, songs had been sung, Cicero had kept a low profile as he'd promised Kodlak, and Ralof was off with Ysolda, probably about to have his night get even better. All was well in Cicero's world, and now he could go to bed. That's assuming he could get to sleep what with Whiterun having a party all night, and the rest of the Companions likely to stagger in drunk at unseemly hours of the morning.

Cicero had the vague sensation that once he would have considered ten o'clock at night to be ridiculously early, but right now, all he really wanted was sleep.

“Cicero, there you are.” Cicero looked up to see who had spoken. To his surprise, Skjor was there, back from wherever he'd been, sitting at the main table and clearly waiting for him.

“Skjor?” Cicero asked, a little nervous. The man always made him nervous. Not that Skjor had been actually nasty to him, but Cicero always felt he was judging him. Still, Skjor had complimented his skills now and then, so that must mean Skjor didn't hate him, right?

“Don't look so nervous, lad, you're not in trouble. Quite the opposite,” Skjor laughed, getting to his feet. “Good you're here, I've got something for you.”

“For me?” Cicero asked, surprised. “Skjor shouldn't have. Humble Cicero doesn't need gifts.”

“Humble Cicero doesn't deserve hunting either,” said Skjor, patting Cicero on the shoulder. “You and me are going to take a little trip, just the two of us. Don't worry, we're not going far. Just to a little ex-bandit den just out of the city.”

“Does – does Kodlak know about this?” Cicero asked, his anxieties not allayed in the slightest. Skjor paused.

“No. I don't think he'd exactly approve of the method. But he'd approve of the aim, which is getting you free of those Dark Brotherhood scum. Come on, come. This is your chance to be a free man and not live in fear. Means you can grow your hair red again if you want.”

That had Cicero sold. The prospect of looking in the mirror and seeing red hair again was too much to resist.

“Lead the way!” he giggled, following after Skjor with not a care in the world.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“It's good to see people having fun, isn't it?” Elisif said, watching the street party from her bedroom window. Everyone had been unanimous in agreeing it was far too risky for her and Madanach to actually attend, but Elisif could still see the firecrackers and the lights and hear the sounds of people having a good time.

“If you like that sort of thing,” Madanach growled, coming to stand behind her, arms coming to rest on her stomach. He'd been grumpy and out of sorts ever since they'd arrived. Strange, she would have thought Dawnstar and Morthal would have bored him and Whiterun be a bit more his thing, but he'd liked Hjaalmarch, he'd thought it was peaceful. He'd also got on very well with Idgrod Ravencrone and not implied at all that she was in any way troubled in the head, being courtesy itself. He'd later said he was quite used to dealing with Hagravens, she was no worse. Not to mention that on learning a wizard had moved to the town, he'd promptly disappeared to spend all afternoon talking to the man, with Eola in tow, returning and loudly saying Falion was a charming man and a scholar and he didn't see what all the fuss was about. Likewise in Dawnstar – although he'd complained about the cold, he'd also spent the time wandering around the town, wrapped in furs and with only Argis for company, watching in seeming amazement at Nords going about their business, ordinary people doing ordinary things. He'd come back deep in thought and admitted that when you saw them like that, just drinking quietly in a tavern, or working a forge or a smelter or coming up from down a mine, it put things into perspective. It turned out he'd never really seen Nords doing manual labour before. Back in the Reach, it had always been Reach natives or Orcs doing that sort of job. Elisif had felt a little ashamed of her people to hear that and told him if that was really the case, Skyrim didn't deserve to keep the Reach. He'd looked at her in surprise then pulled her into his arms and kissed her more tenderly than he'd ever done yet. They'd had a very good night that night.

Now here they were in Whiterun and he was back to scowling at everyone.

“Don't you like to see people having a good time?” Elisif asked, turning to face him. Madanach just grunted.

“If I thought it was in my honour, perhaps,” he scowled. “But they're mostly here to see you and then get drunk.”

“You are such an old cynic,” Elisif laughed. “Darling, you promised you'd be nice. You're here to try and persuade them you're a good man and not a monster.”

“I am being!” Madanach protested. “I have been here in the cultural heartland of the Nords for eight whole hours and so far have yet to Ice Spike, Flame Cloak or throw lightning at anyone. Gods help me, I'm starting to sound like the Dragonborn now. I hope he turns up soon. He's always good for some entertainment, not to mention when he's around, no one will be pointing and staring at me.”

“Well of course they're going to stare, you're a visiting king,” said Elisif, stroking his cheek. “Doesn't mean they don't like you.”

“Oh, I rather think it does,” Madanach muttered. “They have that statue of Talos, plus shrine, right there in the square, when allegedly no one is meant to be worshipping him. It's like they're mocking me. Don't they know what he did to the Reach?”

“Well yes, Tiber Septim's seizing of the Reach from the Witchmen was one of his first military triumphs – oh.” Elisif winced as she recalled just a little too late who she was talking to. “I guess when you put it like that...”

“Exactly, none of you even think what those military triumphs you're so proud of cost us,” said Madanach, glaring. “Savages, you call us. Madmen. Witches at best, because we don't hamstring ourselves by denying our magical heritage. We're just people, Elisif. People who want to rule our land and live in peace. Is that so hard for Skyrim to understand?”

“No,” said Elisif softly, resting her head on his shoulder. “No, it's not difficult at all. I hope more of my people come to understand that too.”

That, of course, was when the explosion happened. The entire palace shook and Elisif shrieked as she clung to Madanach, only just keeping her feet. Next thing she knew, Argis was kicking the door open, sword drawn.

“What happened?” Madanach asked, helping Elisif up.

“Someone just blew up the kitchen,” said Argis. “Don't know who or how, but the place is on fire. We need to get you both out of here, come on. Bolgeir's waiting.”

Elisif's housecarl was indeed standing ready. “Lady queen, come with me.” Madanach motioned for her to go ahead, as he fell in behind, casting mage armour and silently thanking the gods he'd not taken his sword off yet. The corridors were filling with smoke already and he could hear screaming. This was never an accident – in fact, if he'd not known better, he'd have said that this had all the hallmarks of one of Delphine's plans. As it was, he knew damn well the Matriarch had been too cut up over Cicero's loss to plan anything like this even if she had been minded to kill him. Which she wasn't.

Behind him, he heard Argis cry out, and he spun round, casting a flame cloak. Argis was bleeding, but the big Nord was still standing, exchanging blows with a young woman in scaled armour. Her shield was easily keeping him at bay though.

“Madanach!” Elisif cried, on realising he was no longer behind her.

“Get her out of here!” Madanach shouted back to Bolgeir who, being a very good housecarl and prioritising his mistress's safety over anything, grabbed Elisif in his free hand and hauled her away. Madanach turned back to assist Argis, fire blazing from his left hand as he moved in. The woman yelped, leaping back in shock, turning her shield to block the fire as she darted back, positioning Argis in between her and Madanach. Argis swung at her again, but she dodged out of the way of his sword. Whoever she was, she was good. But not a mage. Madanach used the last of his magicka to summon a flame Atronach behind her and began to move in for the kill. She staggered under a fireball from the Atronach, and then Argis swung his greatsword down, nearly taking her arm off. She screamed in pain, but still kept her footing. She locked eyes with Madanach and raised her sword to him.

“Skyrim belongs to the Nords!” she gasped out. Madanach just laughed.

“Keep it,” he growled. “But the Reach is mine.” He slipped out of the path of her sword, letting his momentum carry his blade forward to take her head clean off her shoulders. She collapsed in a pool of blood as Madanach's mage armour died. His magicka was recovering nicely, but he knew he'd not be able to cast it again. Raising his free hand, he cast healing magic on Argis until the other man was no longer bleeding.

“Thanks,” Argis nodded. “Who do you think she was?”

An ear-piercing scream echoed down the corridor before being immediately muffled, then silence. Madanach felt his blood run cold as he realised who it was.

“The distraction,” he breathed. “Come on!” Without waiting to see if Argis was following, he ran down the corridor.

His worst fears hadn't happened, but it wasn't far off. Bolgeir was lying dead on the ground, covered in his own blood... and Elisif was nowhere to be seen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cicero followed Skjor up the mountain trail, wondering what on earth lay in wait. He noted a few bandit corpses lying around and guessed Skjor must have cleared the place out already. But if he'd done that, why was he only now bringing Cicero here?

The cave that he eventually lead Cicero into proved to be a long and winding vertical climb, showing evidence of recent bandit habitation, and evidence of an even more recent Skjor visitation. Finally they came to a cave with a cage door on the far side.

“This is it, Cicero,” said Skjor, rubbing his hands. “Your key to getting the Brotherhood off your back. Want to have a look with me?”

Cicero stepped forward, suddenly feeling a horrible sense of foreboding prickling down his spine. In one corner was an open chest containing red and black leather armour, a strange black staff and a glowing fiery sword, along with a few potions and a large star shaped soul gem. In the cage... Cicero fought to keep his composure as he saw a young blonde woman in there, stripped down to her underwear, covered in cuts and bruises, including a particularly nasty wound to the back of her head, and worst of all, daggers through both hands, pinning them to the ground. There was blood everywhere (blood, blood, lovely blood, but not like this, no no no) and the girl was whimpering in pain. She looked up, but one eye was blind and the other so swollen it was a wonder she could see through it at all.

Cicero saw her and knew her. He didn't know how or who she might be, but he felt a sharp jolt of recognition as soon as he laid eyes on her. Recognition... and rage, mixed with a fair jolt of arousal. Bruised and battered she might be, but he wanted her, and he wanted to kill whoever had done this to her. Slowly, he turned to Skjor.

“Who is she?” he whispered, voice shaking with the effort it was taking to keep the dragon locked inside his head from bursting out of the vault. “What did you do to her?”

“She's one of the Dark Brotherhood,” said Skjor gleefully. “There's a ritual you perform, the Black Sacrament, if you want the Brotherhood to kill someone for you. You do that and then someone from them comes to meet you and discuss matters. So that's what I did, and this pretty thing walked in. Fought hard when she realised it was a trap, and that sword of hers is a piece of work, but I got her in the end. She's a witch of the Reach, that's why I stabbed her hands. Don't want her casting at us. But we've got her caught, and now she's going to tell us where the Brotherhood live and how to find them.”

“Go to Oblivion,” the woman hissed. “I'm telling you nothing.”

Skjor knelt down next to her, unlocking the cage and swinging it open. “Oh you will. Because if you do, we're going to end your life nice and quick. If you don't, well, my friend Cicero and I are going to take our time with you until you're talking. You do not want us to take our time with you, witch.”

“Cicero?” she whispered, staring blindly around, trying to see who else was there.

“Know that name, do you?” Skjor grinned. “Well yes, he's here and you're not getting your filthy claws on him. Try to fight one of us, you fight all of us.”

“You're making a huge mistake,” the woman gasped. “Just let me go now and we can forget all this ever happened – ahhhh!!” Skjor wrenched one of the daggers free and plunged it in again, this time in between the joint of her thumb and the rest of her hand. Cicero put his hand to his mouth, caught between ever increasing arousal at the sight and scent of blood and a horrific feeling of wrongness that was going to make him vomit any second.

Cicero drew his ebony dagger, the hilt settling into his palm like it belonged there, as it always always did. Skjor noticed him step forward, nodding in approval.

“You want a go as well? Sure, who am I to stop a man taking revenge.”

Cicero nodded, realising to his horror he was smiling, and he was mad, he must be mad surely, to take any kind of pleasure from this.

“Revenge,” he whispered, edging closer. “But not on her.” Without even realising what he was doing or wasting time debating morals, he struck, pouncing on Skjor, one arm around his neck, and as Skjor cried out in surprise, Cicero's other hand drew his dagger across his throat. Skjor gurgled out his last and went limp, falling dead to the floor.

“What happened?” the woman cried. “Cicero? Cicero, is that really you?”

Shaking, Cicero knelt next to her, reason slowly returning. Talos, oh Talos help him, he'd killed Skjor in cold blood, just murdered him, and Skjor had been trying to help, had captured a Dark Brotherhood assassin to try and find out where they were so Cicero didn't have to live in fear any more. How had Cicero repaid him? By murdering him and helping the assassin. He reached out and pulled the dagger out of her other hand, causing her to cry out again.

“Cicero,” she wept. “Cicero, please, if it's you, please talk to me, please...”

He lifted her up and pulled her onto his knee, no idea what to do now. He was no healer, and if he took her back to Whiterun for help, wouldn't the guards ask questions about Skjor and where he'd gone? He wondered if that chest of gear had any healing potions in it.

“My name is Cicero,” he said cautiously. “I don't know if I'm the Cicero you mean or not though.”

She laughed, actually smiling despite the tears in her eyes.

“It's you,” she laughed. “Cici, baby, it's you, you're alive, thank the gods, you're alive!” The fear and tension seemed to die out of her, and Cicero found himself smiling too. She knew him! She knew who he was! She could tell him! Of course, first he had to heal her somehow.

“I don't have any healing potions,” he said nervously. “Are there any in your gear?”

“The ring,” she whispered. “Do you still have the ring?”

“The ring?” Cicero looked at his fingers. The only ring he had was that ugly one with the stamina boost on it, but surely not... “What, this one that looks like a fat worm?”

“That's it,” she gasped, wincing with every breath. “Put it... put it on my finger.”

Cicero did so, and she seemed to rally as it had its effect.

“Namira yes, that hit the spot,” she purred. “Now. Where's your friend? Take it he's not breathing any more?”

“Not now, no,” said Cicero, feeling a sense of unease prickling down his spine. “He's over here, but...” The woman was crawling forward, seeming to sniff out the blood, crying out with every movement but determined not to stop. Cicero dragged Skjor's body forward so she didn't have to crawl.

“Get his armour off,” she gasped. “Then... then you might want to look away for the next bit.”

Cicero stripped the wolf armour off. The woman moaned as she lowered her face to naked skin.

“Fresh-killed Nord,” she whispered. “My favourite.” With that, she tore into Skjor's flesh with her teeth, biting into muscle, sharp teeth tearing the skin as she began to feed, blood pouring to the ground as she fed. Cicero realised with a sick horror that Ralof might have been right about the Reachmen and women, they really might have feasted on the flesh of dead Stormcloaks after killing them. He was even more horrified to realise that this bothered him not at all, in fact he was feeling ever so slightly pleased to watch this one at work. Dear Talos, what is wrong with me, what sort of sick perverted creature am I??

But what truly amazed him was that as she fed, the wounds on her body were healing, her hands and head mending themselves and previously useless fingers were now flexing and gripping Skjor with no difficulty whatsoever. Finally, she sat up, wiping blood from her mouth and licking her fingers, smug satisfaction all over her face.

“Oh, that hit the spot. Just what I needed. Hey Cici, you can have your ring back now.” She took it off and dropped it into his hand, words trailing off as she took one look at him, stared at him with her mouth open wide and then promptly dissolved into laughter.

“Daedra take me,” she gasped, barely able to speak for laughing. “You're blonde!!!” She doubled over in hysterics. Cicero slipped the ring back on, suddenly feeling annoyed.

“It wasn't my idea!” he snapped. “They made me dye my hair! It is not poor Cicero's fault!”

She howled even louder, tears actually rolling down her face. “It's adorable!” she finally breathed.

“I am not adorable!” Cicero shouted, beginning to regret saving her over Skjor. She just kept on giggling. Cicero was about ready to scream in frustration, right up until her hand went to her chest and she choked.

“What is it, are you alright?” he asked, worried. After going to all this trouble to save her, he didn't want her to drop dead, although part of him thought it would serve her right for overeating.

“I don't know,” she gasped, dropping to all fours, face screwed up in pain. “I – ack! Gods, what is this, what was...” She looked at Skjor's remains, eyes widening in horror. “Sweet Mother, he was a werewolf??

“He was?” Cicero asked, confused. He'd had no idea, so how did she know that – oh.

The woman threw back her head and screamed as fur sprouted all over her body and her face deformed into a snout, a scream that became a howl as she shot up in height and fingers turned to claws. Seconds later, a six and a half foot tall werewolf with golden-brown fur and one blank eye stared at him. Cicero should be frightened, he really should but the thing looked so horrified and mournful, and it just seemed like the funniest thing ever. He burst out laughing, clutching his sides and collapsing against the rock wall, hardly able to breathe, he was laughing so hard.

The werewolf whimpered. Cicero laughed even harder. Its lips pulled back in a snarl and it roared at him. Cicero broke down completely, now actually rolling about on the floor, cackling like a maniac.

“You're a werewolf! That's adorable!” he managed to get out. The beast raised its claws, snarling at him and for the briefest of moments he thought she might actually attack him... then she paused, scenting the air.

“What?” he asked, drying his eyes. “What is it?” The wolf snarled, but not at him this time. Turning around, it bolted for the door, disappearing for the great outdoors. As it ran, Cicero saw the torn remnants of her underwear lying on the floor. Talos help him – so not only was there a newly turned werewolf on the loose but when she turned back, she'd be naked. He wasn't sure his evening could get any worse, but he had to at least try and stop her killing anyone.

Scooping up the entire contents of the chest, he located a discarded knapsack and shoved them into it. There was an ebony war axe in there too, and the flaming sword was better than his own Skyforge weapon. Arming himself with them and slinging her staff over his shoulder with the pack on top of that, he fled after her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The werewolf was running fast, very fast indeed, dropping to all fours, clearly in pursuit of a trail. She was heading east, hitting the road in search of prey. Cicero swore under his breath and chased after her. Her trail wasn't hard to find. First the dead wolves, then the dead highwayman, then the dead Vigilants of Stendarr. They seemed to have been torn apart with particular vehemence. Cicero picked his way gingerly over all the blood and innards everywhere and kept going. Finally, near Valtheim Towers, a bandit hideout cleared out by Njada and Harrald only last week, Cicero came across the horse. The poor beast hadn't stood a chance. Judging from the scratches down its flank, the werewolf had chased after and leapt on to it, bringing it crashing to the ground. It had been tacked up, so presumably had had a rider. Said rider couldn't have gone far, surely?

Sure enough, he hadn't. In the doorway of Valtheim Towers, barely fifty feet from the horse, Cicero found Harrald Law-Giver's body, or what was left of it. Cicero hadn't liked the man, but even he'd not deserved this, had he? Grimacing, he stepped over the remains and ventured in. Judging from the trail of blood, the werewolf had gone inside. Drawing the ebony axe, Cicero followed the blood up the stairs. To his relief, the murder spree seemed to have ended here – the woman was lying on the floor, completely naked and completely exhausted.

Cicero slid the pack and staff off his back and laid his weapons alongside them, crawling over to her. She was alright. Thank the gods. Quite why he was so worried about her when she'd just torn through a bandit, three Vigilants of Stendarr and one of his own Shield-Brothers, he had no idea, but worried he'd been. She knew who he was! Even if she was probably Dark Brotherhood, she knew who he was, she'd been pleased to see him, no, not just pleased, relieved to see him alive and well. Then rather than kill him, she'd just laughed at his hair and even after turning into a werewolf, she'd spared him despite slaughtering anyone else in her path. She knew who he was and more, she clearly regarded him as a friend.

He looked her up and down, blood still on her hands and arms and around her mouth, and worse, spattered over her chest – oh Talos. Pretty, naked, covered in blood, and he could practically feel his cock fighting to get out of his loincloth. He'd thought Ralof looked cute after a kill? This woman had him on the verge of orgasm already.

Talos, what is wrong with me?? I can carouse in Whiterun and not feel the urge to bed anyone, despite mead flowing and flesh on show, but a strange woman eats a corpse in front of me, turns into a wolf, rips five people to pieces and lies naked in front of me covered in their blood, and suddenly my cock won't shut up?? Talos, please help me, I think I'm some sort of sex fiend...

Her eyes flicked open, and she smiled to see Cicero there. Oh good, as if things weren't already quite bad enough.

“Hey.” She noticed the stunned expression on his face, glanced down at him, then at herself and then back up to him. “Well. This is awkward, isn't it?” She didn't look remotely ashamed of anything.

“You're naked,” he managed to squeak out.

“Afraid so,” she purred. “Disappointed?”

Cicero shook his head, barely able to speak, and then cursed himself for tacitly implying he'd been admiring her.

“I have... clothes... over there,” he said, waving desperately in the direction of her pack. She glanced at them disinterestedly and turned back to him, smiling gently.

“Yeah, I'll get dressed in a second. Once you stop staring at me.”

“I – um – yes,” Cicero stammered. “Er... do we know each other?”

She looked genuinely surprised at that, frowning at him. “Of course we do, we've been best buddies for ages. Don't – don't you remember?”

Cicero shook his head. “No. No, I don't remember anything. Not past the last month. I know my name but that's all.”

“Sweet Namira,” she breathed. “No wonder. Oh my god, Cici, you poor thing. You poor, poor thing.” Next thing Cicero knew, she'd sat up and was cuddling him. Dear Talos, she felt amazing, smelling of meat and blood and nightshade and woodsmoke and Talos knew what else, and those fabulous breasts were pushed right up against his chest, still with blood all over them even if it was drying now. Without really stopping to think, he'd pulled her into his lap, head resting in the crook of her neck, one arm around her waist as the other went around her shoulders. She gasped, before looking down at him, crooked smile on her face.

“Now is that a dagger in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?”

“What do you think?” he growled, control beginning to slip as he started to nibble her jawline. She let out a satisfied little moan and shifted so she was straddling him, grinding right on to his cock.

“I think,” she gasped, “that you've been a very naughty boy, finding me naked like this and instead of doing the gentlemanly thing, you're perving all over me.”

Yes, yes, it was true, he must be the worst kind of vile degenerate to start taking advantage of a naked woman, especially when she had blood all over her still and oh Talos, that just made it even sexier.

“Yes, yes, I'm an absolute monster, what must you think of me,” he growled, in between running his mouth over her breasts and finally fixing on a nipple, and Talos it felt good, so good to be doing this, she sounded divine and tasted better and her fingers in his hair pushing him in closer... well, hardly his fault if she was making him do all this, was it?

“I think you're a depraved little pervert,” he heard her gasp out. “Oh gods yes, keep doing that.”

“I am, I am,” Cicero laughed, running his hands down her back and cupping her buttocks in his hands, squeezing them as he realised with delight that they fitted into his palms almost as if they were intended that way. “Talos, you have the most perfect arse. I bet it looks fantastic with you on yours hands and knees.”

“Awful, awful boy,” she moaned. “I ought to give you a good hiding for saying things like that to me.”

Cicero heard a strange keening sound coming from somewhere and surely that hadn't been him making that noise, it couldn't have been, the idea of her bending him over a knee or table or anything else and spanking his backside shouldn't be at all arousing, but it was, it was.

“Please,” he heard himself crying. “Please, please.” She actually cackled on hearing that.

“Oh I don't think this is the time or place for a full on punishment session, but you are a filthy and disgusting little deviant, I do agree. So... so you're going to – oh gods – I'm going to sit on your face and you're going to make it up to me, how's that?”

“Talos, yes,” he wept, leaning back and lying down, motioning for her to come forward. He didn't remember if he'd ever done this before or if he even liked it, but his cock was screaming yes, so he assumed he must do. She crawled forward and positioned herself over him, inches from his face, the dark gold hairs tickling him a little. He could smell her from here, all warmth and wetness, hint of blood that only drove him wilder, and he grabbed her hips and pulled her to him, revelling in the sensations as he buried his face in her folds, moaning as he began to suckle on her clitoris. She actually cried out at that, rocking backwards and forwards as he explored her, tongue sliding inside her entrance and gods, she could keep making those noises all night as far as he was concerned.

“Yes, yes, Cicero, yes!” she cried out, pushing his face right into her as she came, orgasm hitting her as she thrusted onto him and Talos, he must be an absolute mess by now but he didn't care. Finally, she subsided, getting off him.

“Sweet Mother, you're good at that,” she gasped. Cicero slowly wiped his face, delicately licking his fingers and watching her, hoping that she'd take the hint and let him do more for her.

“I might be good at many other things,” he purred. “Shall we find out?” He was on her in seconds, rolling her on to her back and pinning her shoulders down as he began unlacing his armour, finally freeing his cock. She rolled her hips back, wrapping her legs around his waist, confirming his suspicions that maybe, just maybe, they'd done this before.

“Tell me your name,” he whispered. “I want to know what to shout when I come inside you.”

With that, he slid inside her, taking a perverse delight from the low groan she gave as he sank into her. Sweet gods, but she felt amazing... and familiar, yes, he'd done this before, he was almost sure.

“Eola,” she gasped. “My name's Eola.”

Eola... as in... Cicero felt a little bubble of hysteria well up as it dawned on him just who he was currently sheathed inside.

“You're King Madanach's daughter,” he giggled. She nodded, starting to giggle herself, and by the gods, that did feel nice.

“I'm balls deep in the Reach-King's daughter,” he laughed. She nodded, still grinning. Well, that would certainly explain why the Dark Brotherhood might be after him, and why this particular assassin of theirs hadn't killed him on sight. Dear gods, he'd stolen the virtue of the Reach-King's daughter. That's if she'd had any to start with, which frankly he doubted.

“I don't think you're a princess at all,” he murmured, rolling her back so he could hook her legs around his shoulders. She moaned, back arching as he sunk deeper into her. “I think you're a filthy little hussy.”

To his surprise, her face softened as she smiled back up at him, a sweet smile he'd not thought her capable of, all care and tenderness.

“You do remember,” she whispered.

“We've done this before, haven't we?” he said, starting to move, loving every movement, every sound coming from her, and suddenly the entire mood had changed, less fierce arousal and suddenly gentle and tender.

“Yes,” she breathed.

“We're more than friends,” he breathed, the emotion almost choking him. Again, she nodded.

“I always wanted you,” she said softly. “You were the one in denial.”

“I was a fool,” Cicero growled, speeding up, tears in his eyes as he realised something of who he'd been. He didn't know a lot but he knew he cared deeply for this woman, very deeply indeed.

“You got that right,” Eola breathed. “Sithis yes, fuck me harder.”

He didn't know who Sithis was, presumably some old Reach deity, but he obliged, thrusting harder, watching as she writhed beneath him, crying out in pleasure, approaching yet another orgasm. He'd never seen anything quite so beautiful, although admittedly with only a month's worth of memories, that wasn't hard to achieve. His previous life would have to go some to top it though.

Finally, she hit her second orgasm, crying his name as she came, clenching around him and sending him over the edge completely.

“Eola,” he cried, thrusting into her and letting go as he came and came hard. “Yes, yes, Eola yes, I love you, yes, yes gods yes.” He thrust a few final times before collapsing on top of her, letting her legs go and just planting little kisses onto her face.

“I love you,” he whispered, finally feeling the world making sense for the first time. “I love you, don't I, we're lovers, we must be, Talos, I'm sorry, you must have missed me so much.”

“I did,” she whispered back. “We weren't exactly lovers, we had sex once, but we never got to talk about it before you...”

“Disappeared,” Cicero finished, feeling horrible for abandoning her. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Eola.”

“It's alright,” she whispered, stroking his hair. “You're alive. I found you. Thank the gods you're alive, we all thought...” She clung on to him, kissing him gently on the cheek. Cicero turned his head and decided he should really kiss her properly, seeing as she was his lover and all. So he pressed his lips to hers, kissing her gently, feeling her lips part under his as she moaned into him. He let her go, smiling. He found he no longer cared about the flesh-eating or the assassination career or anything else. She was his. He'd found her, at last. His pretty Eola. He no longer even really regretted killing Skjor – he was sorry, of course he was, but Skjor had threatened his Eola, hurt her, abused her. Of course he had to die, it was a matter of honour, he'd understand that.

“I'm here,” he told her gently. “You have your Cicero back. I'll leave Jorrvaskr, go wherever you want, protect you from anything. I love you, my Eola. I love you so much.”

“You only just met me,” she pointed out. Cicero smiled and kissed her.

“And?” he purred. “For all I know we've known each other for years.”

Eola did laugh at that. “Not years. But a while now. We've been through a lot together. Gods, Cicero, I missed you. I really did.” She paused, something occurring to her. “Wait a second. Did you say you'd been in Jorrvaskr?”

Cicero nodded. “That's right. I'm a Companion. At least, that's where I woke up with no memory, and they took me in and were kind to me.”

“The Companions,” Eola breathed, her face hardening. “I knew it was them, thought there was something up there from the start. Damn it! If we'd infiltrated them earlier – oh gods. Oh sweet Namira, Elisif! I need to get dressed, I need to get dressed right now.” She pushed him off her, flinging the pack open and hauling her black and red armour out. Cicero pouted as buckles fastened, and pouted even more as she claimed her weapons off him. Finally, she downed a strange looking potion from a grey bottle.

“You had anyone else since you wound up in Jorrvaskr, Cici?” she asked, tucking the bottle away and producing a red potion. Cicero shook his head.

“No, no one. Cicero never met anyone he really wanted.”

“Awesome, means I don't need to bother with this one,” she said, shoving it back into her pack. “All right. Listen up and listen good. Skyrim's in trouble, a lot of trouble, and if the worst happens in Skyrim, the Reach will be next. Someone's trying to kill my father, Madanach.”

“Who would do that?” Cicero asked, shocked. Of course, as soon as he said it, he guessed an awful lot of people might want to. Madanach was not a well-liked man. Everyone knew how he'd dealt with the rebels of Lost Valley, and Ralof had said he was some sort of black magic using fiend. Ralof the ex-Stormcloak... who was leaving soon on some sort of secret mission that he didn't want to talk about. Oh Talos. Ralof.

“I think I need to get back to Whiterun,” he breathed. “Something very bad is going to happen.”

“It already has,” said Eola, looking pale. “I didn't run all the way out here on a whim. That guy downstairs, I smelled him riding past and I could smell who he had with him. He'd taken Elisif prisoner. I don't know what he'd want with the High Queen of Skyrim, but it can't be anything good.”

No, it really really couldn't. Talos, this was worse than he thought.

“That man,” he whispered. “I knew him. He was one of us. A Companion. His name was Harrald Law-Giver.”

Eola nodded grimly. “Not a surprise. Is he related to Laila Law-Giver, by any chance?”

“She's his mother,” said Cicero, feeling very thankful that Laila was no longer a Jarl and could therefore no longer exact a brutal revenge on her son's killers.

“He wants his mother's Hold back,” said Eola softly. “Of course he does – did rather. Confirms my suspicions – the conspiracy's centred in Whiterun, and the Companions are involved.”

Cicero wanted to object, but he knew deep in his heart she was right, absolutely right. It broke his heart to think his Shield-Siblings were planning assassination and murder like this. And for what? To save Elisif from being married to Madanach? Reclaim the Reach for Skyrim? Break with the Empire like Jarl Ulfric had wanted? And who was involved? Aela? Vilkas? Torvar? Those two he'd not met yet, Farkas and Ria? Not... not the Harbinger, surely. Not dear, kind Kodlak. Cicero hoped it wasn't true... but if it was, honour demanded he do something about it. Elisif was the queen, and she'd married Madanach, she'd not want her husband dead, would she?

“What do you want me to do?” Cicero asked. “Whatever you need, I will do it. Honour demands it... and Madanach dying would make sweet Eola unhappy. Cicero would never want Eola to be unhappy.”

“Thank you,” said Eola gratefully, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. “Oh Cicero. I want to take you home, I want to tell you everything about who you are, what you've done, all you are and all you can be. You're not just anyone, you're special, Cicero. You've got a home, and a Family that loves you dearly, you've got wealth and status, you're someone, Cici! But I can't. Not yet. I need you to do something, something sneaky and dangerous. And it means I can't tell you who you are, because if you're caught, the less you can tell them the better.”

“I understand,” said Cicero. He took her into his arms, breathing her in, planting little kisses on her cheek. “I don't care about wealth or status, I just want you. I want my pretty Eola to be happy. So what does my sweetling need?”

He could have sworn she'd flinched on hearing that.

“Don't,” she said, her voice sad. “Until you get your memories back, or at least until I can tell you who you are, don't make any commitments. When this is over, I will explain everything, I promise. But right now, well, first we have to find Elisif, make sure she's alright.”

“Where is she, do you know?” Cicero asked, hoping the young queen hadn't heard them making love. That would be deeply embarrassing, especially as she was Eola's stepmother.

“Yeah,” said Eola. “When she saw a werewolf rip her captor apart and block the only exit in the process, she did what any sane and sensible unarmed woman would and fled across the bridge screaming. So we should probably go and get her and calm her down, because I imagine she's freaking out in a fairly major way right now. After that, I'm taking her back to Markarth.”

“Not... not to her husband in Whiterun?” Cicero asked, confused. “Won't he be worrying?”

“Of course he will,” Eola sighed. “That's if he's not...” She stopped, a shudder going through her as she clung on tighter to Cicero. After a second, she seemed to pull herself together. “Of course he'll be worried, he adores her and I think she likes him too. But if the conspiracy's based in Whiterun, it's not safe for her to go back. If I can get her to Markarth, then she'll be safe, probably safer than in her own capital. Then... then we'll see what to do. But I need to get her to the Reach first.”

“And me?” Cicero asked. “What did you need me to do?”

“Go back to Jorrvaskr,” Eola told him. “We've been trying to work out how to infiltrate them for weeks and you're already there. Do they like you? Trust you?”

“I think so,” said Cicero, thinking of Kodlak and Ralof and feeling ill at the thought of having to spy on them, but knowing there was no choice. If some of the Companions were planning to commit treason, he had to stop them. Honour demanded it... that and he didn't want Eola to lose her father, even if he was a cruel and evil man.

“Good,” said Eola. “In that case, I need you to get back there and find out everything you can. Who's involved, what are they planning next, how we're going to stop them. Anything that's useful, anything at all. Do whatever you can to get it, just don't get caught. If you do, get out of there by any means necessary and get to the Reach. Get to Markarth and ask for me at Understone Keep.”

“Should I send any information there too?” Cicero asked, wondering if a courier could be relied on not to read the letters. Eola shook her head.

“No. Too risky. You know Riverwood?”

Cicero did – it was Ralof's home village after all. Ralof kept saying he should take Cicero to visit his sister there, but there'd never been time. Might never be time now.

“Awesome. The innkeeper at the Sleeping Giant, he's... a friend. Sort of. Don't tell him too much, but any information you get, seal it up in a letter, address it to Delphine and leave it with him. He'll hang on to it until someone else can pick it up and get it to her.”

Cicero promised he would. “Who's Delphine?” he asked, curious. Eola's eyes widened at this and for a second, he could swear she looked guilty. She patted his face, sadness in her eyes again.

“She's a friend,” Eola said. “A very good friend. You can trust her. You can trust her with your life.”

“Did I know her too?” Cicero asked, sensing there was a lot Eola was not telling him.

“Yes,” said Eola. “Yes, you – you and she got on. You've known her longer than me. She cares about you a lot – if you're in trouble, she'll do anything to help you. And when this is all over, you and she are going to see each other again and...” She let him go, looking away. “When this is over,” she repeated. “But for now, you've got a job to do, and we've got a queen to find. Are you with me?”

Cicero was. Never mind this mysterious Delphine woman. He'd work with her if Eola said so, but Eola was the one he loved. He'd follow her anywhere... and right now, he was going to follow her and track down the Queen of Skyrim.

Chapter Text

They finally found Elisif hiding out in the second Valtheim Tower. On the upper floor was a double bed that had clearly once been the home of a bandit chief. The room seemed nicely made up too, candles, clean bed, bottle of wine nearby, and were those flower petals scattered over the sheets? Someone had made a nice little love nest up here, and Eola felt her stomach turn as she realised why they'd brought Elisif here. They were planning to seduce her away from Madanach, into the arms of another man, then kill her father and marry Elisif off to a consort who'd have her reclaiming the Reach before they knew it. She'd only just got here in time. As it was, Elisif was at least unharmed, if terrified. Right now, the Queen of Skyrim was hiding under the bed, clearly not even close to being seduced, although Eola had the horrible feeling that would not have stopped her captor forcing her.

“Stay away from me!” Elisif cried. “I've got a knife! I'll kill you, I swear it!”

“Does she actually have one?” Cicero murmured to Eola. Eola shook her head.

“Doubt it. And even if she did, she's no match for either of us.” She raised her voice, hoping Elisif would respond to someone she recognised.

“Elisif?” Eola called. “It's OK. It's me. Me and Cicero. We've come to get you.”

A pause. Then Elisif spoke again, sounding less like a fierce warrior queen and more like a frightened child.

“Eola?” she cried. “Is that really you?”

“It's really me,” said Eola gently, getting to her knees and leaning down. Elisif was huddled under the bed in a fetal position, clothes torn and filthy, tearstains on her face. She'd never looked less queenly in her life.

“There was a werewolf,” Elisif whispered. “It tore that man apart – the one who kidnapped me. I was so scared!”

Werewolf. That was her now, wasn't it. Lovely. Well, Arnbjorn had always managed to keep control of his changes somehow. Eola hoped she could learn to do the same. As it was, she could feel it, her inner wolf curled up asleep for now – but lurking, always lurking, and after that burst of freedom, tearing down the road, fast and strong and unstoppable, she knew that at some point it would want out again. She wasn't sure whether she was scared of that or not.

“It's gone now,” said Eola. “You can come out. Cicero and I will look after you.”

Elisif dragged herself out from under the bed, shaking all over.

“Eola,” she sobbed. “Oh gods, Eola, what happened? There was fire and smoke, and they killed Bolgeir. Madanach, oh gods, Madanach, is he alright?? Please, please tell me he's not dead!”

Eola held her, soothing her as best she could and exchanging glances with Cicero, who was hanging back, clearly even less comfortable at dealing with sobbing queens than she was.

“I don't know, but I'm sure he's fine. Takes a lot to kill my old man, cariad. Cicero here's going to go back to Whiterun and find out for us.”

Elisif looked up sharply to hear that. “We're not going back there?”

“Divines, no,” said Eola, remembering not to swear by the Void or the Daedra in front of Elisif. “Cicero and I think there's a conspiracy to retake the Reach for Skyrim by any means necessary, and we think it's based in Whiterun. It's not safe, Elisif. We need to get you somewhere safer.”

Elisif looked up and started to see Cicero watching.

“Cicero? What happened to your hair??”

Cicero muttered something indistinct, blushing.

“Disguise,” said Eola. “Best not to mention it, it's a bit of a sore point.”

Elisif nodded quickly and turned her attention back to Eola. “So what do you suggest?”

“Cicero's going back to Whiterun to investigate how deep this conspiracy goes,” said Eola. “Meanwhile, you're coming with me. We're going to Markarth. You'll be safe enough there until we can learn more.”

“Can't I even go back to Solitude??” Elisif demanded. “I'm Queen, I can't just be seen to be running away! Skyrim needs a leader!”

“Elisif, you're not even armed,” Eola sighed. “Yes, you're right, you should absolutely go to Solitude as soon as you can and ensure there's not trouble there. But right now, we don't know how deep this plot goes or who's involved and Markarth is the one city where I can guarantee no one in any position of influence is planning to kill you. For all we know your own steward could be in on it.”

“Falk would never betray me!” Elisif cried. But she didn't look as confident as she might have done once. Sighing, she gave in.

“All right,” she said softly. “I'll go with you to Markarth. But as soon as we get any concrete information or I hear of trouble in Solitude, I'm going back to my palace, understand?”

“Yes, Elisif,” said Eola, following Elisif out. Cicero put an arm around her, looking sympathetic.

“Are you going to be alright?” Cicero asked quietly. “You do not want Cicero to come with you, help keep you and Elisif safe?”

It was tempting. It was very tempting indeed. Especially after what had just happened, the prospect of being in close quarters with him, there when she went to bed, there when she got up, fussing over her, even fawning a little, calling her... No. Not when Delphine hadn't even seen him yet. Bad enough they'd ended up having sex again. She didn't think she could handle him dishing out the terms of endearments he should be using with Delphine. No, keeping him around would be a truly terrible idea. Best if she sent him back to Whiterun, and then got back to the Reach as soon as possible then found Delphine and told her everything.

“I'll be fine,” she told him. “But thank you. I think you saved my life.”

Cicero kissed the top of her head, cuddling her tight.

“You are my Eola,” he whispered. “No one hurts you. If you need me for anything, anything at all, I will be at Jorrvaskr. Come find me, my love.”

Oh gods, he had to stop calling her that. Had to.

“I'm not your love,” Eola told him. “We haven't got that far yet.” Cicero just grinned, that familiar, annoying, smug and oh-so irritating grin of his.

“Not yet,” he purred. “But Cicero is patient.”

He was indeed. He had all the patience of a born hunter and knew exactly how to charm and manipulate when he had to. Yes, Eola had to get him out of her sight before anything else went wrong, for everyone's sake, not least his own.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Madanach barely heard anything Jarl Balgruuf was saying to him. Something about truly sorry, deeply ashamed that something like this could happen in his own city, his own palace? He really wasn't paying attention, even if it wasn't every day a Nord Jarl that wasn't his wife was so apologetic to him.

Gods, Elisif. She could be anywhere. At least they'd only abducted rather than killed her, but that wasn't reassuring him any. They'd been married all of a month and now this happened? They'd barely got to know each other. Barely started out on married life.

He'd never even told her he loved her. It had seemed a bit premature. Now he might never get the chance. He should never have left her side, should have left Argis to take his chances with that Nord, he was sure he could have managed on his own. He'd just not wanted to risk one of his own men, even if Argis was a grown man now, not a Forsworn agent any more, a very capable warrior (and Madanach had trained him, he should know). He should have left Argis to do the job he was trained to do and gone to take care of his defenceless wife but no, he'd had to get sentimental at precisely the wrong moment.

Then as if matters weren't bad enough, he'd been told Eola was missing. Her armour and weapons too. Her business was her own, of course, but Madanach didn't like that she'd left without telling him and wasn't back yet. He could only hope that she'd seen them take Elisif and gone after them. If he was wrong about Delphine and the Brotherhood really had done this... No. He refused to believe that.

“I can promise you we'll do everything in our power to find her,” Balgruuf was promising. “Elisif was – is – a sweet young woman, and she doesn't deserve this. We'll find her and your daughter too, I promise.”

Madanach thanked him and retreated to where Argis and the few Forsworn he'd brought with him were waiting.

“On your orders, sir,” said Uaile, fingering her war axes. “We'll find whoever took them and slaughter them all. No one screws with the Forsworn!”

“Thank you, but I think this is a little beyond us,” said Madanach wearily. While the fire was out, Dragonsreach still reeked of smoke and ash, and it would be some time before their rooms could be aired. Beds had been set up in the Great Porch, but Madanach honestly felt the inn would be more secure than sleeping out there. Probably more comfortable too.

“The Jarl says he's going to hire the Companions to help us out,” said Argis. Nord he might be on his mother's side, but his mother had been killed when the Nords took Markarth back, and Argis had been raised by the Forsworn. He knew the true face of the Nords alright, and he sounded sceptical of these Companions. Madanach had to agree – how were a group of Nord warriors supposed to track down a missing queen when no one knew where she'd gone or who'd taken her?

“I don't need help from the man whose guards let her get taken in the first place,” Madanach snapped. “No, this is going to require a rather subtler touch from someone who actually knows what they're doing. And if they took Eola too... well, it's more than me who consider her Family. Uaile, round up as many candles as you can get your hands on, and lend me that dagger. Duach, see if you can sneak into that apothecary's store, get me some nightshade. Argis, this city will have a Hall of the Dead, won't it?”

“It will, but what... oh no. Sir, I know you're in need, but the city won't stand for you desecrating its dead.”

“And do any of you have any better ideas?” Madanach snapped, losing his patience. “Is there a single one of you who thinks Delphine won't move Oblivion itself to get the job done?”

If anyone did think otherwise, they were wise enough not to say so. Madanach would take that as agreement.

“Right then. Argis, with me. The rest of you have work to do.”

The Forsworn dispersed, leaving Madanach alone with one half-Nord housecarl – no, half-Reachman ex-Forsworn who'd been invaluable in smuggling things in and out of Cidhna Mine while he'd been a prison guard there. Madanach didn't trust Nords, and the few he did trust, he'd long stopped seeing as Nords. Argis was one such.

“It's not your fault, sir,” Argis said quietly. “None of us saw this coming, I don't think the Matriarch saw it coming.”

“Of course she saw it coming, why do you think she sent you and Eola?” Madanach snapped, running fingers through his hair and trying to focus on what punishment he was going to exact on whoever had done this and not on what they might presently be doing to Elisif. “Damn it, I should never have left her. You're not a boy any more, you'd have been fine. She's my wife, she was unarmed, she's not a warrior, she's just a young girl who ended up as queen. The whole reason she married me was because she was lonely and powerless and wanted someone she saw as strong. She was relying on me to take care of her, and I let her go!” Madanach backed up against a wall, slumping to the floor, never having felt so helpless – even when the Nords took his city, he'd had a plan and he'd known his then wife was more than capable of getting herself and the girls to safety. That was the trouble, wasn't it? He was so used to not having to think about his wife's safety because Mireen had had her own guards and was a very capable sorceress in her own right. He was used to the standard evacuation procedure being to send him in one direction and Mireen in another so that the enemy would have to split their forces and there was more chance of one of them making it. Now here he was with Elisif who could just about swing a blade, knew no magic whatsoever, and it was belatedly occurring to him that of the two initiations into adulthood that marked a Forsworn's coming of age – the rite of death and rite of life – she'd only ever taken one of them. Not a virgin or he'd never have married her, but she'd never taken a life. Innocent and still half a child and old gods help him, he should never have let her out of his sight. Anu, Sithis, please, please bring her home, don't take her yet, please...

Argis had settled down next to him, holding out a hip flask and Madanach took a swig from it, not greatly caring what was in it, but he was pleasantly surprised to find it was sweet, sweet jenever from the Reach, bless Argis, he knew how to make an old man smile.

“You weren't to know,” Argis said quietly. “Delphine'll find her, I promise. And Eola will show up. She was out on business, but she'll be back soon and when she is, she'll track the bastards down personally. She'll get Elisif home for you.”

“In what state though,” Madanach whispered, trying not to think of her captors hurting her, torturing her, violating her – gods help him, he was the world's worst husband, he must be.

“You really like her, don't you?” Argis said, sounding surprised. Madanach took another swig of jenever and nodded.

“Don't look so shocked, boy, you of all people – yes, of course I do. She understands me and doesn't run in terror, and she's beautiful. Clearly not all there of course, or she'd never have looked twice at me, but she's mine and... Argis, I swear, when I get her back, she is not leaving my side. We were going to have this on-off arrangement, the two of us in Solitude for a week, then apart, then in Markarth for a week, then both of us in our own capitals again. Not any more, we're alternating a fortnight in each and she is not leaving my sight, not without several armed guards – that's my guards, the Nords clearly don't know how to look after her.”

If Argis had taken any offence at that, he didn't show it and Madanach was too worked up over ensuring no one ever harmed his wife again to consider the possibility. Argis just patted his king's back.

“For what it's worth, I'm glad you dropped back to help. She was really good, I'm not sure I could have held her on my own. I'd have died to save you, you know that... but I'm glad I didn't have to.”

“You shouldn't have to, you're the Matriarch's now,” said Madanach, but all the same, on some level, as far as Madanach was concerned, once a Forsworn, always a Forsworn.

“Not just the Matriarch's,” said Argis, shifting protectively closer to Madanach.

“No,” said Madanach, glad Delphine had sent the boy along – not such a boy any more, he was all of thirty five now – but Argis the Bulwark was still one of Madanach's best and Nord blood aside, he could be relied on.

If the worst had happened to Elisif, or for that matter, Eola (but Eola's a nightblade, she's as strong as her mother ever was, stronger than me in some ways, she'll be fine, she has to be), Madanach was going to need him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Calixto stepped away from the dead Redguard, cleaning his daggers and leaving the body concealed behind the Grey-Mane house. There hadn't been many requirements for this job, just kill the man while his wife Ahlam was at the Temple of Kynareth. He'd hoped to use the street party as a convenient means of stalking his prey, maybe winning the man's trust somehow. He'd not expected someone to try and blow up Dragonsreach, but it had proved most helpful. Ahlam, being the public-spirited woman she was, had immediately raced to the Temple to help deal with any casualties. Nazeem, being the public-spirited man he was, had immediately panicked and rushed for home. In the crowd, it was simplicity itself to 'help' him, guiding him through the shrieking masses, into a dark corner while the guards' attention was elsewhere, and then... Job done, back to Windhelm to where Aranea would be waiting with coin and hopefully other things. Calixto did rather like the way his life was going these days.

Of course, he had to wonder why someone had tried to blow up Dragonsreach in the first place. Didn't look like it had done much damage overall. Curious. He knew who else would be curious too. Delphine had suspected there was some conspiracy in Whiterun. If this wasn't part of it... no, this definitely merited a little investigation.

There wasn't an awful lot of information to be had, but it did mean Calixto was on hand when Madanach strode down the Dragonsreach steps, the Brotherhood's own housecarl in tow. Both disappeared round the back of the Temple of Kynareth. Interesting. Very interesting indeed. Dropping into a sneaking pose, Calixto followed.

Both men headed into the Hall of the Dead. Calixto had to wonder why they were heading in there. Why on earth would Madanach be interested in the bodies of Nord dead? Unless... No. Surely not. But who did he want dead, and why would he even need to perform the Sacrament here when he could just have a quiet talk with Eola? Unless she wasn't here. Had she gone somewhere? Or... he'd heard talk of deaths, not many, just two, a man and a woman. He'd not been able to get any information other than that, and he'd assumed people would have said if they'd been anyone important. But Nords might not consider a Reachwoman princess terribly important.

Heart in his mouth, he crept into the Hall after Madanach. He was talking to the on duty priest.

“Just a few minutes, it won't take long,” he was saying. “Gold in it for you if you tell no one I was here.”

“Sir, you really can't go in there,” the priest protested. “There's been noises in there, the dead are restless, I'd go in myself but...”

“Tell you what,” said Madanach wearily. “If my man and I go in there and sort the dead out for you, will you agree to leave us alone in there and forget we were ever here?”

The priest nodded nervously, and Madanach drew his sword and cast a mage armour spell, leading Argis towards the actual crypt. Calixto waited until the priest had retreated to bed and followed.

~~~~~~~~~~

Restless dead? This was what passed for restless dead these days? Madanach had been expecting Draugr. Or possibly a necromancer hiding out here. Not a couple of skeletons wandering around with weapons in hand.

One sweep of Argis' sword dealt with one. A firebolt spell from Madanach ended the other. Then a rattling from behind alerted them both to the presence of a third.

The skeleton was making for them, sword raised – and then it fell apart, bones collapsing to the floor as a figure in black and red leapt out of the shadows and shoved a dagger into it.

“Well,” said Argis. “That was quick. Do we still need to perform the Sacrament now?”

“I'm more interested in how he knew we were here,” said Madanach, arms folded as Calixto Corrium got to his feet, brushing the dust off his armour.

“Happened to be here on another job then saw the King of the Reach and the housecarl he gave us heading off to the Hall of the Dead. I had no idea you were so concerned about the souls of Nord dead, Madanach. Regretting killing so many of them?”

“Hardly,” snorted Madanach. “Looking to send a few more to their graves actually. Coin in it for you if you're willing to help us out in that regard.”

“Oh, as always,” Calixto grinned, stepping into the light and kicking a few bones out of the way. “I just have one question, why go to all this trouble? Why not just pass word on to Eola?”

Madanach closed his eyes, trying not to imagine Eola lying dead in a ditch somewhere.

“Because I don't know where she is,” said Madanach softly. “She disappeared, and I think the same people who took my wife may have taken her, or she went after them or something. Argis said it was business, but she wouldn't have gone far, she should have been back by now. All I know is that Elisif and Eola are gone and I don't know where or who took them. I don't trust the Nords to find either of them. But I do trust you people. You look after your own. So I want the bastards behind this found, I want my daughter and my wife found and brought home, and then I want those responsible dead, ideally as brutally and painfully as possible. Can the Brotherhood do this for me?”

Calixto had gone very quiet, the smile fading from his face.

“Perform the Sacrament,” he said. “We need to summon the Listener.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Delphine sat in the Night Mother's chapel, unable to sleep and rather bored with it. It was lonely with everyone out on a job – Eola in Whiterun, Calixto, Aranea and Sapphire temporarily working out of Windhelm, Cicero... but best not to think about him. No news might be good news, but Skyrim was a big place, a wild place, and there were plenty of places for people to disappear, never to be heard from again. She should know.

Listener...

“Mother?” Delphine asked, glancing up and reaching for the pen and notebook she always kept nearby just in case. “Do you have something for me?”

Yes. The Sacrament has been performed tonight. A child has called to their Mother. Go to Whiterun, seek out Madanach ap Caradach, King of the Reach. He requires our services.

“Madanach's performed the Sacrament? In Whiterun??” Delphine could barely believe it. That Madanach might require their services was no great surprise, of course, but what could be so urgent that he wouldn't wait until he got back to Markarth where he could visit Sithis' own Temple, or at least perform it somewhere it wasn't actually illegal to do so? Come to think of it, why not just speak with Eola if it was really urgent? She knew how to send word to Dawnstar or Windhelm and get one of her siblings in to help.

A chill ran down her spine as she realised just what might prompt Madanach to seek out the Brotherhood's services in a hurry. If someone hurt his family, in particular his much-loved youngest daughter. Oh no. Eola.

“What happened?” she cried, praying it wasn't true, hoping she was wrong. “Did Eola get into trouble with the guards? Was the client not there? Or... was it a set up?” It can't be, it can't, Mother always warns me of those, doesn't she?

“Your sister ran into trouble with the client, yes. Oh don't worry, she's not dead. But the client played her falsely – no true Sacrament was it, but an attempt to discover our location. Needless to say, it failed.

“But... you must have known that,” Delphine whispered. “Why didn't you warn me??”

Warn you?” Laughter at that. “Once, perhaps. But of late, you have lacked a little something as Listener. You've grown complacent. Sloppy. Dispirited since my Keeper was lost. No new recruits. No new Sanctuaries. We are doing better than we have in years, but your performance of late leaves much to be desired.”

“I was mourning my husband!” Delphine cried. If she'd been hoping for compassion from the Night Mother, she was mistaken.

Sithis has yet to claim his soul. Your husband lives yet. But he is one man. To let the rest of the Family fall apart because one has been lost? Not what I look for in a Listener. Had you done your job properly... you would not have needed me to tell you it was a false Sacrament.

It hurt because it was true – she'd been effectively out of action for weeks, doing the bare minimum. Eola had already suffered because of it – now she might be in real trouble. All because of her.

Delphine fled the chapel to gather her things together and hit the road. There was no time to lose.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Odahviing!”

The huge dragon lifted his head up, blinking at her sleepily before growling and preparing to go back to sleep.

“Odahviing, I need a favour!”

A growl this time as Odahviing pointedly turned over. Delphine threw her hands up in the air. Things had been a little tense between her and Odahviing ever since his arrival, but Cicero had smoothed everything over when he was here. Now he was gone, and Odahviing had been depressed and miserable ever since. He'd spent the nights curled up on the mountainside and his days flying over Skyrim, howling Cicero's name to the winds in a vain attempt to locate him. It hadn't worked.

Delphine was barely sure of her authority over the dragon at the best of times but with no Dragonborn to help, she was even less so. But she didn't have many other options and time was of the essence.

“Odahviing, you swore an oath!” Delphine yelled. “I've got an urgent mission from the Monahvulon! Open your damn eyes!”

Odahviing roared, took to the sky, circled around before landing in the courtyard, glaring balefully at her.

“What??” he snarled. “Huzrahi, I am trying to sleep!”

“I'd love to be in bed as well, but the Night Mother had other ideas,” Delphine sighed. “Listen, I need to go to Whiterun. Now. Eola's in trouble and I need to find out what's going on...”

“Yol-Ah?” Odahviing asked, his whole demeanour shifting at her name. “She is in danger?”

“I think she might be,” said Delphine. “Her father's just performed the Sacrament and the only reason I can think of for him doing that is if something's happened to her. Will you help me?”

“Of course, Huzrahi,” said Odahviing, instantly all politeness. “Yol-Ah is a good friend. She mourned Ziizahro with me, sat with me and would talk about how much she missed him and how you'd withdrawn into yourself. It was good to know I was not the only one feeling bereft.”

“So was I!” Delphine protested.

“Yes,” said Odahviing. “But you were not the one providing comfort to me. Still, you have yet to send me away or order me killed. I suppose I should be grateful.” He stretched out on the ground, resting his head near her. “Come, get on. I shall take you to Whiterun. For Yol-Ah.”

It was the best she was going to get. At least he was actually doing as asked, even if for Eola and Cicero's sake rather than hers. It would do for now. She made a mental note to start spending a little more time with the dragon. Wouldn't do for his loyalties to be too dependent on the others, after all. That certainly wasn't guilt she was feeling for neglecting the poor thing, certainly not. Climbing gingerly on to the dragon's neck and clinging on to his horns, she bit back a scream as Odahviing took off into the night.

~~~~~~

Minutes later and Whiterun loomed into view, Dragonsreach dominating the tundra. Whiterun looked as peaceful as always... but was that smoke coming out of the palace?

“Take us in a little bit closer!” Delphine shouted over the wind. “I want to see what that smoke is!”

Odahviing obliged, staying just out of bowshot as he swept over the city. Delphine was horrified to see a charred and gaping hole in the palace wall. No wonder Madanach had wanted her called in.

“Land on the Great Porch!” Delphine yelled.

“You expect me to land there after what happened last time??” Odahviing shouted back.

“It's not a trap, I promise, you can go as soon as you've dropped me off, go back home or wherever else!”

Odahviing growled but did as asked, coming in to land on the huge balcony at the back of Dragonsreach. Delphine slipped off and called her thanks to Odahviing as he took off, wheeling away and out of sight. Now that had been fast. Barely half an hour since leaving Karthspire, if that. She'd definitely have to spend more time with Odahviing in future if it meant she got to travel by dragon more often.

Several Whiterun guards and a few Forsworn had run up, weapons out to fight the dragon. They lowered their blades when they saw her.

“Kynareth help us,” one guard whispered. “Who are you that can command dragons?”

“A friend,” said Delphine calmly. Yes, definitely travelling that way more often. “Is Madanach here? I heard he wanted to talk to me.”

“Right this way,” said a Forsworn woman with silver hair and striking amber eyes who Delphine guessed was probably Uaile. Ignoring the shocked whispers from the guards, she let herself be led to where Madanach was waiting.

~~~~~~~~~

He was in the Great Hall, sitting at the long table. All the Jarl's household had long since retired to bed, but Madanach was still up, looking older than she remembered. Certainly grimmer anyway. Argis stood at his back and Calixto was sitting next to him. How the Butcher had got here, Delphine had no idea, but she was glad to see him. She could use the help.

“Madanach. I came as fast as I could, what happened?”

Madanach looked up, rubbed his eyes and stared in disbelief. “You're here already? That was fast, I only... never mind. Sit down. I need your help.”

“The gaping hole in the palace wall told me that,” said Delphine. “What happened? Where's Elisif? And... Eola?”

“Gone,” Madanach said, staring blankly at the candles on the table. “The fetchers set fire to Dragonsreach and while one of them tried to kill me, another killed my wife's housecarl and abducted her. I don't even know where Eola is – all her weapons and armour are gone, but I don't know where she is and I'm worried. Delphine. Help me find them. Please.”

Delphine sat down before her legs actually did give way. An attack on Dragonsreach, Elisif taken captive, Eola who knew where because she'd sent her into a trap. The Night Mother had been right, she should have been investigating Whiterun properly weeks ago, had Argis joining the Companions within days of the wedding. Instead she'd been too busy chasing after Cicero. If she'd had eyes on Jorrvaskr or the city generally, she might have been able to prevent this. But it was too late now. All she could do was try and find out where Elisif and Eola were. She didn't have very many leads to go on... but she had a fair idea of where to start.

“We'll find them,” Delphine promised. “We'll find them and get them home. Of course, Sithis will require a death, so I hope you have no objections to the perpetrators being butchered in the most bloody manner I can think of?”

Madanach finally managed a smile at that. “I was hoping you'd say something like that. Make it so their own mothers won't know them.”

“I will,” Delphine promised, inwardly deciding that if anyone had laid so much as a finger on Eola, she was going to reduce them to a bloody pulp. “In the mean time, do something for me. Three things in fact.”

“Name them,” said Madanach, fully co-operative now someone he trusted was in charge of things.

“First, get some sleep. It's nearly two in the morning and you look like you need it. Secondly, in the morning, tell the Jarl you've hired me to investigate the disappearances. Balgruuf does know me, but it'll help having some stamp of officialdom.”

“I'll do that,” Madanach promised. “And the third thing?”

“Go home,” said Delphine, raising a finger to ward off the protesting. “No really, I'm serious. Get back to Markarth with your people, leave Argis with me. You're not a ruler here, you're the consort only, and I don't have the resources to provide bodyguard services for you and find your wife. For as long as you're here, you're a potential target.”

“So you're saying I have to go back to Markarth and wait??” Madanach demanded. “I can't even be here to welcome her home?”

“If you stay here, there's a good chance you might not be there at all,” said Delphine firmly. “You want me to take this job, you will do what I tell you. Do we understand each other?”

For a few tense seconds, Madanach stared defiantly right back at her, almost looking like he was going to argue. Fortunately, he knew when he was beaten.

“Fine,” he growled. “I'll leave tomorrow. Just find them.” With that, he got up and walked out, Argis following after a nod from Delphine.

Delphine waited until both men had gone before slumping on the table. She'd need sleep herself before she could do anything, but at least she was here. Eola. Gods, Eola, I'm so sorry, please come home soon.

“Are you alright, Listener?” Calixto asked carefully. “I know you and Eola were... close.”

“I should have been able to prevent this,” said Delphine softly. “I knew there was a conspiracy in this city, knew it in my heart and let it go. Now this happens. Fine sort of Listener I am!”

“You're too hard on yourself,” said Calixto, patting her shoulder. “Have you slept yet either?”

Delphine admitted she had not.

“As I thought,” said Calixto, helping her up. “Come on, let's find you a bed. Eola's room's relatively undamaged, you can have that and I'll sleep in the sitting room outside in case of trouble.”

Delphine had no problems agreeing to that. Following, she let herself be led off to sleep. In the morning though, she had a lot of work ahead of her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

So far, the day was going exactly as expected. Balgruuf had been a little offended that his offer of hiring the Companions was being rejected, but on the other hand, seeing Delphine in charge had reassured him. Delphine could only wish the Whiterun guards could be as helpful. Already she'd found them marching the Khajiit traders into the dungeons on charges of supplying the explosive materials used to set fire to the palace. She'd interviewed them all personally and found the Khajiit guilty of nothing more than wanting people to have a good time. While they'd certainly been selling fireworks and firecrackers to all and sundry, there was no actual law against that and it certainly wasn't the Khajiits' fault someone had used their wares to commit arson, any more than it was a blacksmith's fault if someone bought a sword off him and stabbed someone with it. With that logic put in front of the guards, they'd reluctantly agreed to let the cats go.

She had however been able to get the description of a possible culprit – a blonde Nord warrior in steel armour who'd been asking questions about the explosive potential of said fireworks if they came into contact with flammable material. He'd said he just had safety concerns if one hit a building, but Ri'saad the Khajiit knew a shady character when he saw one and suspected otherwise. He'd still sold him the fireworks though. Coin was coin. Delphine could have throttled Ri'saad at that point, but had at least got a description. A warrior who wasn't one of the guards. Interesting. In town for the festivities or a Whiterun resident? She had no idea, but it was worth looking into.

She'd already sent Argis off to Dawnstar to fetch Astrid and whoever she had in Sanctuary, and a courier had been dispatched to Windhelm to get Sapphire and Aranea down here. With any luck, she'd have a full complement of assassins by tomorrow, and with Madanach now on his way home, she could commandeer the vacated guest suite to house them all.

As it was, she just had Calixto, but his input was valuable enough. He was currently examining the body of the dead woman who'd tried to kill Madanach and Argis.

“Well, you got anything?” Delphine asked. “How'd she die and who was she?”

“Cause of death's easy enough – sword cuts and fire magic consistent with trying to take on a Nord housecarl and a notorious Breton witchblade by yourself,” said Calixto, going over the burns on the woman's back. “All injuries are consistent with Madanach's account – injury to the left arm caused by a greatsword, burns to the back caused by an Atronach being summoned behind her, mild burns on the right arm from being attacked by a mage from the front. Cause of death decapitation by a sword strike she couldn't block with her left arm out of action. Ironically, it looks like she was actually very good indeed with shield work – she'd likely have been fine against two warriors, but add in the magic and she was vulnerable.”

“So a trained warrior then,” said Delphine. “But not a guard or Irileth and Caius would have recognised her, and she's not in the Legion because all Fort Greymoor's off-duty soldiers last night have been accounted for. Could be she's not a Whiterun resident and was just here for the party...”

“But you don't think so,” Calixto finished. Delphine shook her head.

“No. An operation like this takes time and planning. Whoever our guys are, they've been in the city for a while. I know most of Whiterun's tradespeople and noted citizens, she's not one of them, and no one has reported a guest missing. Hulda and Elrindir don't recognise her, so she wasn't staying at either of the inns. Wasn't staying in Riverwood either - Orgnar's been sending me details of guests who aren't Riverwood residents.”

“So we're looking for somewhere in Whiterun that two warriors could stay for an extended amount of time, unnoticed and unquestioned and out of sight, and not join up with the guards,” said Calixto. The answer, when thought about, was obvious.

“Do you know what,” said Delphine thoughtfully. “I think it's time we paid a little visit to Jorrvaskr. See if by any chance they have any missing members. I think if we get someone from there up here, we'll find out exactly who our lady is.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Cicero slowly opened his eyes. He was back in bed at Jorrvaskr and had clearly slept in longer than he'd meant to. Oops. Then again, after last night, it was hardly a surprise. He'd escorted Eola and Elisif to the ridge overlooking Whiterun, saying a polite goodbye to Elisif and a rather more sensual one to Eola involving a kiss that had left her breathless and a promise to find her again soon. A promise he intended to keep but right now he had a job to do. A spying job! Rooting out a hidden conspiracy. How very exciting. He'd have to be subtle. And sneaky. It wasn't terribly honourable, but what was it Ralof had said? That sometimes you had to do dishonourable things in honourable causes?

Half the dormitory was empty – Torvar was fast asleep and snoring still, as he'd been when Cicero had crept in a little before dawn. Athis' bed was empty but in need of making – he was probably about somewhere. Ralof's bed was untouched – clearly he'd got lucky after all. Harrald's bed also pristine – would be forever now. Cicero had no regrets there. Njada's bed also not slept in. Odd. She wasn't the partying type. Cicero had a hard time imagining her getting out there and waking up in someone else's bed but anything was possible, he supposed.

Time to get up, have a shave and a wash and get dressed and then have breakfast and then, well, start finding out how everyone's night had gone. Tilma had very thoughtfully left a bowl of water by his bed, along with a mirror, soap and razor. Very nice of her. All those times he'd been kind and helpful and not left his things lying around for her to pick up had paid off. He set to work, dutifully shaving off all visible red hair as he'd promised Kodlak. Made him look a bit odd compared to the other men, but Cicero didn't really care. It was quite nice having a smooth chest and legs, although it itched a little. Felt nice against the armour though. He got dressed, secured his weapons and headed out. He should definitely let Kodlak know he was alright – the old man might have been worried. There was also the little matter of whether to confess about Skjor or not. Cicero decided it was probably best not to quite yet. He couldn't risk getting thrown out before finding out useful things for sweet Eola and this mysterious Delphine.

He made his way down the corridor to Kodlak's room, surprised to hear raised voices. Vilkas from the sound of it.

“You think you can just come in here and accuse us of something like that??” Vilkas was shouting. Cicero darted into the shadows and crept closer to listen in.

“I'm not accusing, I'm asking,” a woman replied tersely. Cicero had never heard that voice before, but something about it sent chills down his spine. There was something eerily familiar about it, and a certain sense of authority that was doing very strange things to his mind. Whoever she was, she was strong and capable and by Talos, she scared Cicero, not least because he had a feeling that if she decided to punish him, he'd probably just roll over and let her.

“We have one dead woman who made the mistake of trying to kill the King of the Reach and his housecarl. We have descriptions of two other men who succeeded in killing the Queen of Skyrim's housecarl and taking her prisoner. All warriors, all had to have been in the city for some time to plan this, and there's nowhere else they could have been hiding except here. I have the authority of both the Reach-King and the Jarl of Whiterun to investigate this, so guess what, you will be co-operating with me and my people or it's quite possible you'll all be seeing the inside of Dragonsreach dungeon. Now I want a full roster of all your people, including who was in the city last night and anyone who's not accounted for, and when that's done, I want one of you in the Hall of the Dead with my colleague Calixto here, having a look at that dead assassin and seeing if she was one of yours! Do we all understand each other?”

Cicero bit his lip on hearing that, certain he'd start whimpering otherwise. If that had been directed at him, he'd be on his knees in seconds confessing everything. How Kodlak and Vilkas weren't doing the same was a mystery to him.

“Master, you can't possibly be thinking of letting her talk to you like that!” Vilkas again. Cicero crept closer. Vilkas was standing, arms folded and glaring belligerently at the woman. Kodlak was sitting down, looking quite calm, while Aela was sitting at the small table opposite him, being surprisingly quiet for her – in fact, she looked worried about something. Cicero felt a pang of guilt. She was close to Skjor, Cicero knew that, and rumour had it they were lovers. How to break it to her she'd never see him again? A problem for another time, Cicero thought to himself.

The two visitors were standing, one a fellow Imperial with greying hair and black and red leather armour, watching nonchalantly from the doorway. The other, the woman who'd spoken earlier... she was dressed in brown leather armour like any random adventurer, blonde hair tied in a ponytail and probably a Breton considering Vilkas towered over her. There was an unusual looking sword at her waist, long, thin, slightly curved. Cicero had a sensation of having seen one like it before, maybe even wielded it.

Right now, she was staring down Kodlak and not even seeming to be fazed. Whoever she was, she had power. But enough to intimidate Kodlak? Cicero didn't know.

“I am no one's Master, Vilkas,” said Kodlak calmly. “We of the Companions do not generally get involved in politics. We remained neutral in the war, despite our ranks holding Imperial sympathisers and former Stormcloaks. When one is sworn in as a Companion, one's loyalty is to your Shield-Brothers and Sisters above all questions of who is in power. Rulers come and go. Your family is forever.”

“Well, I could say the same about my people,” the woman said, her voice softening a little. “But sometimes you don't have a choice about your politics. I counted Ulfric as a friend, I still helped the Empire win in the end. Now I'm being hired to help track down a kidnapped High Queen and a missing Reach-Princess. So far, all our avenues of investigation are drawing a blank – except the ones leading to Jorrvaskr. Now are you going to co-operate or are you going to get in the way of finding two vulnerable and frightened young women?”

The man in red and black smirked briefly before being suddenly overcome with a coughing fit that Cicero strongly suspected was fake, as if the idea of the missing women being vulnerable or frightened struck him as amusing. Cicero might have been angry, but he had to admit, as far as Eola was concerned, those two words were hardly the first that sprung to mind. So both of these people knew her and knew her well. Interesting.

“Of course not,” said Kodlak, his voice gentle and soothing. “I'll do everything in my power to help. Vilkas, why don't you go with Delphine here and see if this mystery woman is anyone we recognise? Aela, you can stay here with me, go over the books and see who's here and who isn't. I hope no one from Jorrvaskr is involved, but after Lydia left us and then tried to kill Madanach at his wedding... yes, I can see why you might want to investigate.”

“Thank you,” said Delphine, sounding a little less aggravated. “Well then, Vilkas, you'd best come with us. Anything you can tell us would be useful.”

Vilkas didn't look pleased but he followed her and her companion out. Cicero took cover under a bench as they walked past. Delphine, that was Delphine, the one Eola said was a friend, that Cicero could trust. That was Delphine, and she would know who he was! Cicero watched from his hiding place, lying down and angling his head so he could see her face. She was older than Eola, but not dissimilar in looks. Her face was a little more delicate looking than Eola's but no less attractive. More so in some ways.

Eola, Eola, you never told me she was beautiful... Cicero lay back on the floor, watching speechless as she walked away. A friend? Cicero hoped so, he'd hate to have her as an enemy. But he could watch her all day. She was a warrior too, he could tell. Strong. A leader. He could probably win a fight with her, all things considered. Probably. But it would be close and... He'd never hesitated to strike before, but he had a feeling she would give him pause. The idea of fighting her just felt so wrong. Why would he fight her? She was strong and beautiful and he just wanted to curl up at her feet. He shivered at the thought. Yes, she scared him. But Eola said she could be trusted. Cicero wasn't entirely sure he could trust himself around her, but she was looking for conspirators too. So Cicero would help her find them.

Once they were far enough down the corridor to minimise the risk of being seen, Cicero crept out from under cover and sneaked after them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Aela watched as Delphine and her friend led Vilkas away, before turning to Kodlak. Something about the woman had set all Aela's warning signs going, but that was nothing compared to the signals the man had been giving off. She had a feeling he'd have killed her without even thinking about it and dissected her body just to see what it did if he could have done. She hoped Vilkas would be alright.

“What do you think, Harbinger?” Aela asked. “Are we really going to co-operate with them?”

“I don't see we have a choice,” said Kodlak, his voice sombre. “If members of the Companions have indeed taken it upon themselves to start assaulting lawful rulers and their families... Honour demands we find them and atone. At least Lydia had the decency to leave before setting out to try and murder a king. One lone assassin I could brush off. Not a second attempt right here in Whiterun. Besides, I will not have it said that the Dark Brotherhood are more honourable than we are.”

“You think that's who they are?” said Aela. Not that she disbelieved him, of course not, but she was curious to know how he'd reached that conclusion.

Kodlak hesitated before answering.

“Once, many years before you were even born, I loved someone dearly. Then she disappeared. I never found what happened to her. It was the only time in my entire life that I was ever tempted to perform the Black Sacrament. Fortunately, reason prevailed and I did not. But if I was tempted by the loss of a loved one, a man like Madanach who already is rumoured to have connections with them isn't going to hesitate. She's a high-ranking assassin, and I'm sure her friend there is a hardened killer.”

“I can believe that,” said Aela, shuddering. “But whoever we hand over... they'll be killed. Kodlak, we can't just start handing over our Shield-Brothers and Sisters to the Brotherhood. Doesn't matter what they've done, no one deserves that.”

“Aye,” said Kodlak, sighing. “But Elisif does not deserve abduction either. If there is treason and corruption in our ranks, I want to know about it. I want to know how deep the rot goes. I will protect my family from a lot, but from the consequences of their own folly? Even I can't save them forever. Aela? Aela, dear girl, what on earth is the matter?”

Aela had her face hidden in her hands and Kodlak could have sworn she was crying, but surely not, Aela rarely got that emotional. She looked up, tears on her cheeks.

“Aela,” said Kodlak, placing a hand on her arm, fear knotting itself in his chest at the sight of her. “Do you know something? About... all of this?”

“Skjor,” Aela whispered, sounding heartbroken. “He wasn't here this morning. I think... I think he might have been involved.”

Kodlak closed his eyes, feeling his own anguish threatening to overwhelm him. Not Skjor... not one of his oldest friends. Surely Skjor couldn't have kept something like this from him. But he'd been acting oddly for the last few weeks, and then insisted on taking the White River Watch job on by himself, despite the fact one of the younglings could easily have dealt with it. Then he'd gone off on some other job that he wouldn't talk about and no one had seen him since. Apart from Aela apparently.

“He got in last night,” said Aela miserably. “I asked him if he wanted to come out hunting with me. He shook his head, said no, another time maybe, he had other plans. I asked him what they were and he said he couldn't tell me yet, but when the time was right, he'd round us all up and lead us in a fight so glorious the bards would sing about it until the World-Eater came back again. I decided to leave him to it and went out alone instead. I was out on the tundra all night, ran nearly to Rorikstead and back. I didn't see him when I got back and when I woke up and found what happened in Dragonsreach, I immediately thought... So I went to his room and it was empty. Bed not slept in. Kodlak, please, please tell me he told you what he was up to, that it was something else entirely.”

“He said not a word,” said Kodlak, knowing in his heart he'd never see Skjor again. A friendship of two decades, over. “I'm sorry, lass.”

Aela slumped forward on the table, head resting on her arms, not saying a word. After a few moments, she got up, face pale and tears in her eyes.

“Harbinger, by your leave, I think I need to be alone for a few hours. I'll be in my room if you need me.”

Kodlak nodded assent, reaching for some ale. He wished he was still young and headstrong enough to go racing off in search of someone to bludgeon. As it was, he was old and wise enough to know it would make very little difference. If Skjor was not dead yet, he likely soon would be. He'd lost his closest friend for good. Retreating into his room, he closed the door. Word would get out soon enough, but for now he just wanted a little time to mourn.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Elisif huddled behind a rock, shivering. She'd fled in blind panic, heedless of where she was running to, just knowing she had to get away. She'd run and run, tearing apart two wolves, a Spriggan and a bear in the process, until finally the transformation had worn off, leaving her exhausted, covered in blood and naked. She'd found a stream to clean the blood off in, but now she was cold, naked and terrified. If anything found her, she had no way of defending herself... and now she was cursed into the bargain. She couldn't even go looking for help in case it happened again. At least she'd not killed any people, but she'd been so scared that she might. She just hoped Eola found her soon. If anyone could help her, she might be able to.

Footsteps, but not human ones. There came the sound of an animal's breathing, and a shadow loomed over her. Elisif saw it and screamed. A werewolf, clearly visible in the light of both moons and the aurora. Not just any werewolf. Elisif knew this one. It was the golden-brown one that had chased after her when she'd been abducted. Fast and strong despite only having one eye, it had had no problem bringing down their horse. Her abductor had dragged her to the fort, flung her in and tried to block the door, but the beast had smashed it down anyway and pounced on him. Elisif hadn't waited to see any more before fleeing across the bridge. Eola had told her it had gone and although she'd not seen a body, Elisif had assumed Eola and Cicero had killed it and thrown the body in the river. Clearly it had just decided she wasn't worth the trouble and run off. Maybe now it was back to finish the job.

“Please don't kill me!” Elisif sobbed. “Please!”

The wolf growled, padding forward. To Elisif's surprise, it had two backpacks in its mouth. Her and Eola's packs. It dropped them both, then picked up hers in its front claws, carried it over and left it rather pointedly in front of her before returning to the other pack. It then sat down, looking the other way.

Elisif wasn't entirely sure what was going on but she wasn't going to argue. She pulled her armour back on and re-equipped her weapons. Finally she approached the wolf, sure by now it wasn't going to hurt her.

“Um. Thank you?” she said hesitantly. “For bringing my things. And it was you who saved me that other time, wasn't it?”

The beast nodded once, then grimaced. It curled in on itself, howled, fur rippled and shrank back into skin, and suddenly Eola was sitting there, curled up and naked.

Oh. Oh! Well, that did rather explain everything... Elisif backed off and rather awkwardly handed Eola's pack over, looking away as the other woman got dressed again. No wonder Sinding had called her 'one of us'. Eola and Sinding must have recognised each other as fellow werewolves.

“Madanach never told me you were a werewolf,” said Elisif, not sure what to say but feeling she ought to say something.

“He doesn't know,” said Eola tersely. “And you can't tell him either. It's... not a good thing for a Reach man or woman to be. It's not just that it's associated with Nord invaders. It's a curse. Hags came up with it centuries back. Makes you less than human, makes you a beast. We cast it on the Nords, tricking them into thinking it would make them great warriors. We didn't tell them it would corrupt their souls, stop them going to Sovngarde. Poetic fucking justice the Reach-King's daughter got herself infected, eh?”

“And his wife,” Elisif whispered, tears in her eyes as she realised that she might just have lost Madanach as well as all hope of a normal life. “What do we do now?”

Warmth on her shoulder and back as Eola nestled next to her, arms around her waist.

“You're not infected, you're just cursed,” Eola said gently. “Sinding told us we'd need to commune with Hircine by killing that deer. So... that's what we're going to do. We're going to offer him the ring back and he'll lift the curse. You'll be whole again and you can go back to Da, be queen.”

“And you?” Elisif asked, putting an arm around Eola, acutely aware that only dealt with her problems. Still left Eola as a werewolf and with a father she adored who'd likely turn against her if he knew. “What are you going to do? Is there a cure for you? Do you even want one? How long have you been a werewolf anyway?”

“About two days,” Eola confessed. “It wasn't intentional, I got infected after a fight with one. When I rescued you? That was the first time I'd ever changed. Apparently when you first get infected, the blood turns you at once. But you turn back and after that it's voluntary. I'm still trying to work out how I feel about it. I don't know if there's a cure or not. All I can do now is live with it. It's not something the world needs to know about. You and Cicero, you're the only two who know. I'll have to tell Delphine, but no one else needs to know or is going to know.”

“I won't tell anyone,” Elisif promised. “You're a grown woman, it's no business of your father's. As long as you don't start transforming in the middle of town or ripping citizens to shreds or anything.”

“I'm usually a bit subtler than that,” Eola laughed. She smiled and squeezed Elisif's hand. “Thanks. You're alright, you know. Da's a lucky man. Come on.” She got to her feet, helping Elisif up. “Let's go find this deer. We've got a Daedra to commune with.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Irileth?” Delphine asked. The Dunmer housecarl was standing at her bedroom door, looking distinctly ill at ease. “Is everything alright?”

“You have visitors,” said Irileth tersely. “Three Nords, a Dunmer priestess, a Redguard and a little girl who gives me the creeps. Also that Imperial friend of yours that isn't the Dragonborn and Madanach's Nord housecarl are back. All in black and red, and frankly if they'd not said they knew you, I'd have found a reason to lock them up. Are they friends of yours?” The tone of Irileth's voice implied she was hoping Delphine would say no so she could imprison them all. Delphine hated to disappoint her, but she knew her Family all too well.

“Send them up,” Delphine grinned. “I've been waiting for them.”

Irileth sighed and left. Minutes later, the rest of the Dark Brotherhood trooped in, all looking remarkably cheerful.

“Hello Listener!” Babette called. “Is this your room? It's very nice!”

Arnbjorn was next, muttering something about fancy-pants Jarls in their overdone fancy palaces. Astrid rolled her eyes.

“Ignore him, Delphine, he's not liked this city since the Companions kicked him out of it. How are you doing, my dear? Going up in the world, I see.”

“I'm just borrowing it,” said Delphine. “Come in, come in, sit down all of you. Things have moved on considerably, and I'm going to need your help.”

“Is it true?” Aranea asked. “Someone's abducted Elisif and Eola and you think the Companions did it?”

“Close the door,” said Delphine as they all trooped in and sat down, aside from Argis who checked no one was hanging around in the corridor before closing the door and standing with his back against it. “Yes, it's true. Well, not all the Companions, but I think our conspirators were using Jorrvaskr as a convenient cover.”

“So we can't storm the place and kill them all,” said Arnbjorn, grimacing. “Pity.”

“Oh, we still could,” said Calixto thoughtfully. “With the depletion in numbers, I think we outnumber them now.”

“We are not storming Jorrvaskr!” said Delphine, calling them all back to attention. “Now, I have news. We've had an interesting development this afternoon. Turns out we have a man on the inside after all.”

Blank looks. Delphine had to try and repress a smile.

“I found Cicero,” she told them. Stunned silence and then the room erupted with cries of “what?”, “how?” and “where is he?”

“Are you telling us he was in Jorrvaskr the whole time?” Aranea asked. She'd never been stupid, that one.

“The Companions let him in and haven't kicked him out yet?” Astrid asked, amazed and a little annoyed on Arnbjorn's behalf. “Their standards must have dropped.”

“But if he's there and he's alright, why didn't he send a message?” Sapphire asked, worried. “Are they keeping him prisoner?”

“Not intentionally,” said Delphine. “Seems after leaving the Temple of Kynareth, he must have gone there for some reason. Apparently he woke up there with no memory of who he was and where he'd been. He's still quite functional and his personality's much the same, but he sees himself as a Companion now, because they've taken him in and looked after him.”

“We won't be storming Jorrvaskr then,” said Calixto faintly. Everyone else seemed to concur. Even with amnesia and without Shouts or any of his usual equipment, Cicero was still capable of utter mayhem. No one really wanted to incur his wrath.

“But you've met him. Spoken with him,” said Astrid thoughtfully. “He's agreed to help us?”

“It didn't go quite as well as I hoped when I met him,” Delphine admitted. “I think I spooked him. But it's alright. We know where he is, and he wants the conspiracy unmasked too, so he'll be helping us. And it gets better! He found Eola for us and rescued her. Turns out the Companions are under the impression we're looking for him.”

“Which we were,” said Nazir, and then the penny dropped for all of them. “By Sithis, you mean they thought there was a contract out on him?”

The room dissolved in laughter. Delphine had to join in. Really, this was ridiculous, the idea of there being a contract out on the beloved husband of the Dark Brotherhood's leader. But no one outside the Brotherhood and their allies knew Cicero was married to their Listener, and if you didn't know that Cicero was a high-ranking and much-loved member of said organisation... well why else would the Dark Brotherhood usually be after someone? Delphine had to laugh, because if she didn't, she'd likely start crying.

“They did,” said Delphine. “Which is why they've drawn ranks to protect him. In particular, one fool decided to do something about it, and performed the Sacrament in order to capture one of our members and torture our Sanctuary locations out of her.”

“Eola,” said Calixto softly. The merriment had faded out of the room. Eola was a popular member of the Brotherhood – those weeks she'd spent hiding out at Falkreath had endeared her to them as much as to the Karthspire contingent. No one liked the idea of seeing her hurt.

“He got the drop on her, captured her, tortured her,” said Delphine, trying not to think too hard about the details because if she did, she really would cry. “Then he made a mistake. He left her imprisoned and went to find Cicero so he could help.”

“May I take it that didn't go well?” Aranea asked. Delphine smiled. That was one way of putting it.

“He may not remember, but he's still ours,” said Delphine, feeling rather proud of her little madman. “He killed Skjor, set Eola free, helped her heal up and got her out of there. Of course, that's when Elisif's abductors, or one of them, rode past with her. Cicero and Eola gave chase, and caught up with them at a place called Valtheim Towers.”

Sapphire and Aranea both sat bolt upright at that.

“Valtheim Towers??” Sapphire gasped. “We came past there!”

“Listener, you'll want to hear this,” said Aranea, leaning forward. “The place has been a notorious bandit hideout for years, so Sapphire tells me. Well, we got there to find the door smashed in, and a body inside, ripped to pieces, blood everywhere, like a troll or bear or something had been at it.”

“A body? Who?” Delphine asked.

“Well, when we finally found the head, I recognised him,” said Sapphire. “He was Harrald Law-Giver, son of my ex-Jarl, Laila.”

“And one of the suspected abductors,” Delphine breathed. “So Cicero was right, Eola and he did find Elisif and rescue her. Did you see anything else there?”

“Well, the loot had been cleared out and there weren't any other bodies, just a trail of blood up the stairs that stopped on the first landing. Honestly, we had no idea what had happened, but thought you ought to know,” said Sapphire. “Cicero and Eola did all that? Because it didn't look like their work. No sign of Destruction magic, none of the clean cuts Cicero uses, none of the cauterised ones Dawnbreaker leaves.”

“Then the horse, don't forget the horse,” Aranea added. “Looked like it had been brought down by a sabre cat, or something similar. Same thing probably did for the bandits and the Vigilants of Stendarr we found nearer Whiterun.”

“At least, we think they were Vigilants,” said Sapphire, looking a little nauseous. “What was left of them.”

Odd. Very odd. Cicero and Eola had been on foot, giving chase to someone on a horse. Yet they'd stopped to attack Vigilants who might otherwise have left them alone? Delphine could certainly see them taking on the Vigil for fun, but not if they were chasing after Elisif. In fact, Valtheim Towers was some distance away and neither would have known that was the rider's destination. To do all this in one night, using methods neither normally used. What in Talos's name was going on?

“Listener,” said Arnbjorn thoughtfully, “did you say the Companion they'd killed was Skjor?”

“That's right, you know him?” Delphine asked. Arnbjorn hadn't been in the Companions for over a decade, but he'd likely still know a few of them.

“Yeah, he was the Harbinger's right hand,” said Arnbjorn. “He'd been in the Companions forever. They are not going to be pleased when they find out he's dead. They're going to be even less pleased when they find out Cicero killed him.”

“Were there any witnesses other than Eola?” Astrid asked. Delphine shook her head.

“Then what's the problem?” Astrid asked. “Not like any of us are going to tell them what happened.”

Once, Delphine would have agreed and not worried. Of course, that was before Cicero acquired a sense of honour and decency from somewhere.

“He's one of them now,” she said. “He thinks like one of them. There's a good chance... there's a good chance Cicero might confess.”

“He wouldn't,” said Calixto, disbelieving. “He's not that stupid. Is he?”

Delphine caught Aranea's eyes and saw agreement there.

“We know what he's like about punishment,” said Aranea. “If he's formed a similar emotional complex to the Companions' leader to the one he's got around you plus a residual commitment to the Tenets... yes, he might confess.”

Delphine certainly hoped it wasn't that similar. She didn't think the old man, Kodlak, was into men, but she could definitely see Cicero forming an attachment to him. Sithis, they could be in real trouble here.

“I think we need to visit Jorrvaskr,” she said nervously. “I think Cicero could be in trouble. If they turn on him...”

“He'll murder them all?” Nazir suggested, his voice implying that he'd personally have no regrets about this.

“He might,” said Delphine. “But he sees them as family, it'd destroy him to do it. I'm more worried he'd go along with whatever punishment they decided to give out. Arnbjorn, what sort of thing might they do?”

“I don't know,” said Arnbjorn, sombre. “With any luck they'll just kick him out. Not unless they decide to resurrect an old style punishment and whip him or something.”

“Have they met him?” Astrid laughed. Arnbjorn did not laugh back.

“I've seen men die from that sort of punishment, wife. I don't think Kodlak Whitemane would sanction it, but it's possible it might happen unofficially. Besides, we may have a bigger complication. I think I might know what killed the Law-Giver brat – well, I've got it narrowed down to two possible scenarios. I'd need to see Skjor's body to know which it was though. For all I know, they're both true. Where is his body, did you bring it back to Whiterun?”

“No, it's probably still in White River Watch,” said Delphine, mind already planning. “All right, here's what we do. Arnbjorn, you, Calixto, Aranea and Babette are with me. We're going to White River Watch to investigate there. Astrid, take Nazir and Sapphire, keep an eye on Jorrvaskr. Argis, you're with them, station yourself under the Gildergreen so you can intervene if Cicero makes a run for it. Arnbjorn, if the Companions wanted to dish out a punishment beating, where would they do it? Not in the main mead hall?”

“No, Tilma'd give them what for if they got blood all over the place,” Arnbjorn laughed. “No, it'd be in the Underforge. Solid rock, easy to clean, can't hear the screaming from outside, secret exit into the countryside if they die and you need to dump a body. There's a secret entrance in the rock under the Skyforge.”

“Then that's where you need to keep watch in particular,” said Delphine, desperately wishing Arnbjorn hadn't mentioned the possibility of needing to dump bodies. “If you see Cicero either being kicked out or being dragged into the Underforge, intervene and get him out of there. Hide your faces, try not to kill anyone, but if Cicero is in danger, I want him out of there by any means necessary, understand?”

Everyone did. Gathering their weapons, the Dark Brotherhood moved out.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Had Delphine but known it, her fears were groundless. Straight after leaving Dragonsreach, Cicero had gone back to Jorrvaskr. He wasn't sure what to tell Kodlak, but he had to say something. Tell him about the conspiracy, definitely. That Eola and Elisif were fine and on their way to the Reach, of course. Confess about Skjor?

Cicero wasn't sure about that one. Yes, Kodlak deserved to know his friend was dead but admitting he'd killed him and didn't even feel terribly guilty? Even the Harbinger's patience had limits.

As he passed down the corridor, unfamiliar voices echoed from the room opposite Vilkas's.

“That's the last time I leave my brother in your hands, Ria.” That was Vilkas.

“I did my best!” a woman with an accent similar to his own protested. She sounded young... and familiar? “You try carrying a man his size all the way across an icefield!”

“Leave her be, Vilkas,” a man growled and he sounded like Vilkas except his voice was gruffer and deeper. “She did a good job getting me to safety. Not her fault the ice is treacherous. She's from Cyrodiil, she wouldn't know the warning signs. I'm a Nord and I didn't see them either.”

“Pay him no heed, Ria, he's just worried,” Cicero heard Aela say. “Good to have you both back, this place has gone halfway to Oblivion while you were gone. Wait until you hear what happened...” The door closed and Cicero could hear no more. He guessed that these two newcomers were Vilkas's brother and the other Imperial, Ria, finally back in the city. Now that would be nice, having another person from Cyrodiil to talk to. Maybe she'd know him! He could but hope.

Kodlak was sitting at the desk outside his room. He looked up, smiling in relief to see Cicero alive and well.

“Cicero,” he sighed. “There you are, lad. There is no time to lose. Get your things together now. Yes, everything. You need to leave Jorrvaskr and you need to leave now, before it's too late.”

“Why?” Cicero asked, inwardly cursing. How was he meant to unravel the conspiracy and spy for Delphine and Eola if he wasn't even here?

“Because the Dark Brotherhood are in Whiterun,” said Kodlak. “They're investigating us for the abduction of the Queen and Reach-Princess, and if you stay here it's only a matter of time before they find you. So you need to leave.” He led Cicero back down the corridor, knocking on the door of the bedroom belonging to the mysterious Farkas and put his head through the door.

“Very sorry to interrupt, but I'm going to need Ria. Lass, can you step outside?”

Kodlak stepped back and moments later a young woman in her early twenties emerged, with dark hair and dark eyes and Cyrodiilic features like his. Pretty, although not really his type. A bit too young. Far too innocent.

She took one look at him and her face lit up.

“Cicero!” she cried. “What are you doing here? Did you finally decide to join up? What happened to your hair? Is Eola here too?”

She did know him! As she stepped forward and hugged him, Cicero hugged her back, unable to stop smiling. Talos, it was good to see a friendly face. Even if he didn't remember her.

“Do you know each other?” Kodlak asked, surprised. Ria nodded, grinning as she let Cicero go.

“Of course! Farkas and I ran into him and his friend Eola while I was doing my Trial. He taught me so much in the space of a few hours and then I saved him from some Draugr. Cicero, I'm so glad you're here! You can teach me more things and we can go on adventures!”

“You know who I am!” Cicero squealed. “We were friends! But that is amazing! Cicero hadn't thought any of the Companions knew him. But you do!”

Ria nodded, smile turning into a frown. “Don't you remember? It was only last year!”

Cicero shook his head sadly. “I don't remember anything. I woke up here a few weeks ago with no memory. Kodlak was very kind and took me in and now I'm a Companion. And so are you, and we're clearly friends and you can help me!”

Ria looked shocked, turning to Kodlak. “He has no idea who he is?” she gasped. Kodlak shook his head.

“No, lass. It seems you may know more about him than anyone else here.”

Ria looked back at Cicero, still amazed. “By the Eight,” she breathed. “You don't even know you're the Dragonborn??”

Cicero's hearing must be going. He could have sworn she'd just said he was the Dragonborn, but that wasn't right, the Dragonborn was a homicidal madman clad in black armour made from all the dragons he'd killed and the jester hat that was his trademark, that he wore to show that he feared nothing and laughed in the face of danger. The Dragonborn who'd lured a dragon to Dragonsreach, right here in Whiterun, trapped it in the palace and then flown off on it to go to Sovngarde and kill the World-Eater himself. The Dragonborn who'd come back, wiped out the Thalmor presence in Skyrim (allegedly) and then descended on the back of said dragon into the midst of the Battle of Markarth and turned the tide for the Empire and the Reach as he'd carried off Ulfric Stormcloak and made an end of him.

That surely wasn't him. It really couldn't be. Cicero was just a humble little fool who happened to be good with a knife, that was all. He laughed nervously.

“No, no, Cicero isn't Dragonborn,” he said quickly. “I can't be, I'm not terribly powerful or anything, I'm just good at killing things.”

“Dragonborn,” Kodlak whispered, stunned. “Ria, are you sure?”

“Sure!” said Ria. “He was using Shouts and everything. And he had the jester hat and the black armour. Everyone knows about the hat and the armour!”

“I don't have a jester hat,” Cicero whispered, but behind the steel vault, the inner dragon was raging, and someone was laughing, laughing laughing laughing like some sort of madman. Dragons in his head. He'd killed a lot of Thalmor in his time, according to Delphine. The dragons were his power, according to Delphine. Dragonborn. Oh Talos. No no no.

“Dragonborn,” said Kodlak again, broad smile on his face and oh Talos, were those tears in the old man's eyes? “No wonder the Brotherhood are after you, any number of people might want the Dragonborn out of the way. Especially as you're a known supporter of the Empire and the Queen, despite worshipping Talos.” He turned to Ria. “Lass, Cicero here's in danger. He's lost his memory, doesn't have his armour or that enchanted Akaviri blade he usually has, can't use the Thu'um without his memory. There's a contract out on him and the Brotherhood are in the city. Ria, lass, I know you've only just got back, but I need someone I can trust to keep my boy safe, there are traitors in the Companions and I know you're no Stormcloak. Are you willing to accompany him, get him to safety?”

“Harbinger, you don't even need to ask,” said Ria cheerfully. “Go on adventures with the Dragonborn? Absolutely! Let me get my things.”

“Both of you pack, and then meet me in the Underforge,” said Kodlak. “There is much to discuss.”

~~~~~~~~~

Fifteen minutes later, and Cicero was ready for action, all his worldly possessions packed. Well, physically ready anyway. Inside, he felt terrified and small and not at all like a mighty dragon-slaying hero. Really, there had to be some mistake.

“Don't worry,” Ria whispered as she led him into the Underforge. “I'll look after you.”

It was something that a twenty year old slip of a girl had more faith in him than he did. Kodlak was waiting for them both. He was sitting on one of the empty plinths and motioned for them to take the others.

“So what's going on?” Ria asked. “Vilkas said there'd been trouble, and I'd heard the Queen had gone missing, but I never thought it'd be something to do with us! That poor woman, and her poor husband! I met him in Dawnstar, you know – I mean, I didn't know it was him at first, he just looked like an old man having a quiet drink in the inn, but he seemed so nice and polite. He did say he'd recently remarried after his first wife died, and I could tell, you know? There was just this glow about him whenever he talked about her – didn't know he was talking about Queen Elisif at first, but I could tell he really cared about her.”

“Even a man like King Madanach can be in love with his wife,” said Kodlak knowingly. “Even a hardened killer can still love his daughters dearly. A cold-hearted dispassionate killer is always dangerous, but not nearly as frightening as one driven by love. Madanach is one such – everything he's ever done has been driven by it. Love for his people, his country, his children, the two that still live, the two he lost to his own war. Now his wife and his daughter are missing, and he would kill their abductors himself if he could, but he is King now and can't drop everything to find them. So he's hired the Brotherhood to do it for him, and they stop for nothing. They've been here, asking questions, and I hate to say it, but they're formidable. In this, they're even right. Lydia, Harrald, Njada, Ralof, they were all in on a plot to re-unite Skyrim and probably resurrect the Stormcloak cause in the bargain. They couldn't prevent the marriage, but they'll settle for ending it, one way or another. Njada and Lydia are dead, but Harrald and Ralof are out there still, and there may be others. Cicero, if there's a contract out on you, you're in danger, and if it gets out that you're the Dragonborn, it will be even worse. You won the war for the Empire, you killed Ulfric Stormcloak. Getting you out of the way permanently would be a tremendous coup. Indeed, I am starting to wonder if you might not have ended up here precisely because of that, although who on earth managed to get you here, especially under the circumstances you arrived under, I have no idea. But you can't stay here, not with the Brotherhood sniffing around. I won't risk you. I can't.”

“Harbinger,” Cicero whispered, not sure what to say. Kodlak was staring at him intently, almost hungrily, and Cicero began to wonder what on earth was going on. He was starting to feel most uncomfortable. However, he could at least share what he knew.

“I don't know where Ralof is,” said Cicero. “But Harrald is dead. I saw him taking Elisif, and I didn't think that was right so I followed. And... and then I found Eola. The Reach-Princess. She was chasing him too, and she knew who I was. She said we were friends and I saw her and knew I knew her somehow. So I went with her and we killed Harrald and rescued Elisif. They're both safe and Eola's taking Elisif back to the Reach.”

“That is welcome news indeed,” Kodlak laughed. He looked thoughtful. “You know Eola the Reach-Princess? Ria, is this the same woman you saw him with when you first met him?”

“I think so,” said Ria. “She was definitely Breton and she was dressed like a Forsworn although she said she wasn't one. She didn't say she was a princess, but this was months ago while the war was still on, so I suppose she wasn't at the time. She was really nice though. I liked her. She could really fight.”

Kodlak was now looking very thoughtful indeed. “So you're friends with Madanach's daughter. That would make sense, that would certainly explain why you intervened in the war the way you did – you wanted your friend to have her kingdom back. Yes, yes I see. I do indeed. In fact, I begin to wonder... Ria, what does Eola look like exactly?”

“About Cicero's height, short dark blonde hair, blind in her left eye, freckles. Mid-twenties, I think. Why?” Ria asked.

“Lad, I think she was looking for you,” Kodlak sighed. “We suspected she might be Dark Brotherhood. Of course, I never saw her myself, Aela was the one who spoke to her, and the Dark Brotherhood agent investigating the abductions is also blonde and Breton, so it may be otherwise, but even so... Too late now, lad. I can't take the risk. But if you truly are Dragonborn... well, I know who might be able to help you. If you can get your memories back, then you'll know far more than anyone about who to trust. Indeed, you might even realise who's behind all this.”

Cicero honestly doubted this, but on the other hand, he did want his memories back, more than anything. It was getting to the stage that he'd even consider taking Delphine's advice and letting the inner dragon out.

“Where do I need to go?” he asked.

“To the Throat of the World,” said Kodlak. “Go to a little village in the Rift called Ivarstead, then anyone there can point you up the 7000 Steps that lead up the mountain. At the top of the path is the monastery of High Hrothgar, home to the Greybeards. Last year, when the dragons came back, they spoke for the first time in a long time, calling the newly-arisen Dragonborn to them. Not long after, we all heard them say words of greeting, anointing said Dragonborn as the chosen of Akatosh. Long has the Storm Crown languished with no worthy brow to sit upon. By their breath they bestowed it to the Dragonborn in the name of Kyne, in the name of Shor, and in the name of Atmora of old. At least, that is more or less what they said. If Ria is right, they said those words to you. Which means you are Ysmir now, the Dragon of the North, and they will recognise you. Go to them, Cicero. Go and ask them if that is still true. If you are in truth the Dragonborn of legend, they will know you and they may be able to help you reclaim that heritage.”

Cicero shivered at the mere thought. Ysmir, Dragon of the North?? Gods no. He really really wasn't. He couldn't be, he was just a humble warrior, right? Right?

“Why?” he asked, realising he was shaking all over. “Why me? I'm not special! I'm not talented or bright or strong or a mighty warrior! I'm just humble Cicero. Just a little fool with a gift for stabbing things. I can't be Dragonborn, I can't have done all that, I just can't!”

“You were a pretty good warrior in Dustman's Cairn!” said Ria.

“Aye, and you've been a fine warrior since you joined us,” said Kodlak. Slowly, he got up, wincing as his knees straightened, and made his way over to sit on the same plinth Cicero was perched on, putting his arm around him. “You've done a lot of good work since you've been here – clearing out bandits, dealing with beasts, killing Falmer, retrieving lost heirlooms. You're as good as anyone in Jorrvaskr and you may be afraid now, but Vilkas and Aela both tell me that when danger threatens you don't even hesitate. Lad, you're both strong and talented, and you're not as foolish as you like to make out either. You could be the Dovahkiin, my boy. You truly could. But you won't know until you visit the Greybeards.”

Cicero had snuggled into Kodlak's arms as he'd said this, feeling his inner dragon calm down and something similar to the same soothing feeling he'd had in Delphine's arms descend on him, a sense that everything would be just fine in the end and that he was cared for deeply. It wasn't as intense as it had been with her, but it was similar.

“Did you know me before as well?” Cicero asked. “I don't think you did, but the way you treat me, the way you're always so protective... you don't treat the others like that. You're prepared to let them go off and risk their lives on their own, but you don't seem to like letting me out of Jorrvaskr unless there's someone with me. Why? Did you know I was Dragonborn?”

For a long moment, Kodlak didn't say anything. Cicero risked looking up and was rather surprised and a bit embarrassed to see tears in the old warrior's eyes. He was smiling though, and he seemed very proud for some reason.

“No, I didn't know you, and I certainly didn't know you were the famous Jester Dragonborn. But once, a very long time ago, I knew your mother. I knew Stelmaria Di Rosso. But she vanished and I never saw her again. Not until you came here looking just like her.”

“I look like her?” Cicero whispered. For some reason that gave him comfort and the brief stirring of a memory echoed in the back of his mind of a beautiful woman with pale skin, dark eyes and gorgeous red hair like his own should be.

“You do,” said Kodlak softly. “It's why I took you in. Then when you wrote down who you were, that you were her son born forty one years ago, I knew.”

“Knew what?” he heard Ria ask, confused. Kodlak answered, but his eyes never left Cicero.

“My son,” he breathed. “You're my son. My fierce, brave, kind-hearted son who is also the Dragonborn, it turns out. Of course I took care of you. Of course I protected you. I couldn't find your mother, didn't even know she was pregnant when she left. But I can honour her memory by taking care of you. I'd give up my own life before I let the Brotherhood take yours, my boy.”

Cicero could barely speak and if he did, he suspected he might end up crying. The Harbinger was his father. No wonder. Everything became clear in a heartbeat. Maybe he didn't look that similar to him, but if he resembled his Imperial mother, that would explain that. He hugged Kodlak tightly, tears in his eyes.

“Father – you're my father,” he gasped, unable to stop smiling. “I – I didn't know, could never have guessed...” He stopped, unable to say anything more. He wasn't all alone in the world. He had a father, blood kin. He was loved.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“No need to thank me,” said Kodlak gruffly. “No true Nord lets his kin stand defenceless. You're a good man and a brave warrior, and I'm so proud of you, my son. My boy, the Dragonborn.”

“My father, the Harbinger,” Cicero said softly. He didn't know if anyone had ever told him they were proud of him before. Certainly it didn't sound like he'd ever had a father growing up. It was a new feeling but not an unwelcome one.

“That's so cute,” he heard Ria say, making him uncomfortably aware he was being watched. Coughing and wiping the tear from his eyes, Cicero let go and got to his feet.

“I should be going then,” he said nervously.

“Aye, that you should,” said Kodlak, patting Cicero on the shoulder. “There's an exit out of the city through here – only one way but it means you can leave without being seen. Go quickly now, I need to get back to Jorrvaskr before I'm missed. Talos guide you, lad.”

“And you,” Cicero said, lump in his throat as he hugged Kodlak goodbye, hoping this wasn't the last time he ever saw the old man. He'd never had a father and had no idea how to react, but he'd grown to care for Kodlak. The Harbinger had taken him in and cared for him, Cicero had no idea what he'd do if anything happened. But Kodlak had the rest of the Companions to look after him. He'd probably be alright, and Cicero wasn't intending to be gone long. Ria and he made their final goodbyes before making their way down the tunnel and out into Skyrim.

Once out into the early evening air, it was time to hit the road. Cicero reached into his pack, checking the ebony claw Ralof had given him was still intact, before taking his bearings and then trotting off north.

“Wait, where are you going? The Throat's that way!” Ria called, confused.

“I know,” said Cicero. “We're not going there, not yet anyway. Yes, I know Kodlak said to. But Ralof, before he left, told me something, something important.”

“He did?” Ria folded her arms, glaring disapprovingly. “Shouldn't you have told the Harbinger this?”

“Yes, maybe, but what if the Dark Brotherhood torture him to find out where I've gone?” Cicero asked innocently. “He can't tell them where we really are if he doesn't know.”

“Oh Stendarr, do you really think they might?” Ria whispered in horror. She turned to run back to Whiterun, or at least she did until Cicero grabbed her arm.

“I don't know, but the others won't let anything happen,” said Cicero. “And he said you needed to keep me safe. So come with me. You wanted adventures with the Dragonborn, didn't you?”

“You don't even remember you're the Dragonborn,” said Ria, but she did relent. “So what did Ralof tell you? I should point out I'm not a traitor. I hope you're not thinking of joining Ralof.”

Cicero shook his head. “No, no, Queen Elisif seems like a sweet young lady and I would never want any harm to come to her. But Ralof before he left gave me this.” He produced the ebony claw, showing it to Ria as they began to follow the road north.

“What is it?” Ria asked, curious. “It looks like a dragon claw, but what's it for?”

“Ralof told me it was the key to a ruin called Korvanjund,” said Cicero, tracing his finger along the animal symbols carved on to the claw. “The Stormcloaks were looking into it during the war. Apparently Ulfric's right-hand man Galmar thought it contained the Jagged Crown, the legendary crown of the High Kings and Queens of Skyrim. He never got the chance to investigate though. Ralof kept the claw after the war, and he gave it to me for safekeeping. He said that one day, if a High King or Queen worthy of the name needed it, I should go to Korvanjund and get it. Well, Elisif seems like she needs all the help she can get. What say you, Ria? Shall we go to Korvanjund and see if it's there?”

Ria didn't need telling twice. No Companion worthy of the name would turn down the chance to go on an adventure like this one. Hand on her sword-hilt, she ran after Cicero. Time to share in the Dragonborn's glory.

Chapter Text

Had Cicero but known it, the decision to go north would have many consequences, the most immediate of which was that he and Ria didn't run straight into Delphine and the others on their way to White River Watch. That could have gone very well indeed... or very very badly. At any rate, it never happened, and Delphine made her way into the former bandit hideout without any trouble.

Arnbjorn and Calixto were having a close look at the body of the dead Companion. He'd been found in his underwear, wolf armour heaped in the corner. Cause of death would appear to be the slashed throat that was definitely Cicero's work, but the chewed right arm looked like Eola's doing.

“Well?” Delphine asked Arnbjorn. “Which of your two scenarios is the most likely?”

Arnbjorn poked over the bite-marks on Skjor's body. “The one I thought it might be. I have good news and bad news, Delphine. Good news is Cicero's probably not a werewolf.”

“Well, I should hope not!” said Delphine, wondering how that was good news and what the bad news might be. “What's the bad news?”

“Bad news is I think Eola now is,” said Arnbjorn, looking slightly nervous and with good reason. Delphine looked about ready to stab someone and truth be told, she felt it.

“How?” she managed to ask.

“Skjor was a werewolf, all the Circle are,” said Arnbjorn. “It's where I got my beast blood from – it was Skjor who turned me. You drink the blood of a werewolf, you become one.”

Delphine stared down at Skjor, feeling numb. Not difficult to work out that after killing Skjor, Cicero had given Eola the Ring of Namira to heal herself with. He'd had it with him when he vanished, was wearing it when she saw him, and he might not have known what it did, but Eola would have done. She'd needed healing, used its powers, taken a few bites out of Skjor not knowing he was a werewolf and...

“Oh gods,” Delphine breathed, feeling vaguely nauseous at the thought of her girlfriend turning into a raging beast. “Sweet gods, Eola. I need to find her, I need to make sure she's alright.”

“It's not that bad!” said Arnbjorn, a little stung. “She should have control over the changes, she can decide if she ever wants to use the power or not. It's not a curse.”

“I don't know if she sees it that way,” said Delphine, worried. Becoming a werewolf – few people would be entirely easy with that, and Eola hadn't chosen it. On the other hand, at least Eola wouldn't be too horrified or guilty to learn she'd changed into a beast and torn some innocent and not so innocent people apart. It wasn't far different from the sort of thing she liked to get up to anyway.

“What's our next move, Listener?” Aranea asked. “I don't think there's more this place can tell us.”

A good question, fortunately one for which Delphine was prepared.

“We relieve the others, and then keep a watch on Jorrvaskr until tonight. At which point, we're sneaking in while they're all asleep for a little... interrogation. In particular, I want to know why Vilkas didn't tell me Cicero was one of them, and then I want a word with the Harbinger. Someone has a few questions to answer.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Finding the deer Sinding had mentioned had been harder than they'd imagined, but with enhanced werewolf senses, they'd tracked it down in the end. Elisif's archery skills had proved woeful to say the least, but a few spells from Eola weakened it sufficiently that it was easy prey when Elisif finally hacked it to death with her axe.

“Is that it?” Elisif asked, voice hushed. “We killed it, now what? Was it the right one?”

The answer to that question soon became obvious as a ghostly stag materialised above the cooling body of the one they'd just killed.

“Well met, hunters,” the ghost said. If a deer could grin, this one would be. “I am Hircine, Lord of the Hunt. What would you ask of me?”

Eola nudged Elisif forward. Elisif wasn't at all sure about communing with an actual Daedric Prince, but if it was the only way to get the curse lifted, she'd do it.

“Er... hello, Lord Hircine,” she said nervously. “I found your ring. I was hoping to give it back.”

“Were you now,” Hircine laughed. “Would that be because of the little gift that comes with it, by any chance?”

Elisif hesitated for just a beat too long before answering.

“I just thought you should have it back. I know if someone took something of mine, I'd want it back.”

“How very generous,” said Hircine, sounding only a little scathing. “But I don't just want the ring back. I want the thief punished. Sinding has offended me, little hunter. That makes him prey. Hunt him, kill him, offer his skin to me. Then I'll take the ring back.”

“What?” Elisif cried. “But he's an innocent man! He doesn't deserve to die!”

“Deserving death does not come into it,” said Hircine, supremely indifferent to Elisif's protests. “He is prey, prey must be hunted. That is all there is to it. If you do not hunt him, others more eager to gain my favour will arrive before you. I'm sure you would not want to miss out on the spoils now.”

“You mean if I don't do it, I'm stuck like this,” Elisif breathed, horrified. Hircine just tilted his head.

“You'll find the prey at Bloated Man Grotto. Make haste, hunter,” was all Hircine said before disappearing. Elisif stared at the ground where he'd been in stunned silence.

“Elisif? Elisif, are you alright?” Eola asked, placing a hand on Elisif's shoulder. “Elisif?”

“We have to find Sinding, kill him and skin him as an offering to Hircine,” said Elisif, trying not to cry. “Otherwise Hircine won't take the ring back and... and I'll be stuck like this forever! Oh, but Eola, I can't! How am I supposed to kill an innocent man? And skin him?? But I can't even be around people like this, never mind be queen. Madanach won't want a werewolf for a wife! And Skyrim needs me!”

“Elisif.” Eola had taken Elisif's hands in hers, trying to calm her down. “Elisif, it's all right. I'll help you. We'll do it together. Just think of Da and your people. This is about a lot more than you. Not just Skyrim, but the Reach too. We're not going to last long with someone else ruling Skyrim. The Empire won't help, they're too busy calming Cyrodiil down and worrying about the Dominion. We need you as Queen. Come on, Elisif, you can do this.”

“I'm going to have to, aren't I?” said Elisif, wiping tears from her eyes. “Oh Eola, I'm so sorry, this is all my fault. I'm so sorry for dragging you into this.”

“It's okay, honey,” said Eola gently. “I don't suppose it would have been a good idea to leave a Daedric artefact lying around for just anyone to take, would it? Come on, let's get moving. Bloated Man Grotto's some way away.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Slowly, Vilkas opened his eyes. Something was wrong, the room had been dark when he fell asleep, but was now lit with a searingly bright light that didn't look like candlelight, and his arms were stretched out and he couldn't move them... or anything else. There was a woman in leather armour sitting on top of him, and while in itself it might not have been a bad thing, the fact remained he was non-consensually tied to the bed, some witchlight spell on the ceiling was blinding his eyes and he didn't like the way she was looking at him.

“Hello, Vilkas,” she said casually. “I do apologise for disturbing you, but I'm afraid I had a few more questions.”

“What is this?” Vilkas growled at her. “Some sort of interrogation?? You could have just asked!”

Delphine leaned forward, the magelight's harsh brightness bleaching her features and making them look like some sort of mask, one of the hateful carnival ones from Cyrodiil that had always given Vilkas the creeps.

“I could, but I wanted to make sure I got an honest answer. Unlike the ones I got earlier. I don't like being lied to, Vilkas.”

Vilkas grew cold as he realised she knew about Cicero. He could only thank the gods that Kodlak had sent Cicero away that afternoon with Ria. Poor girl had only just got back and now she was off again, but Kodlak had assured him she'd been quite happy to help. Apparently she'd met Cicero before and liked him – had learnt quite a few things from him in fact. So that was why she'd got back from her Trial and suddenly developed a style of combat based on ducking and weaving and moving too fast to hit, and with a vastly improved one-handed weapon handling technique. Vilkas hadn't been sure what to think about that. It bothered him for his protégée to suddenly start looking up to Cicero instead of him. However, right now, all that was the least of his problems.

“I'm telling you nothing,” he said fiercely. “Now get out of here before I call the rest of Jorrvaskr in here.”

“Not feeling talkative? That's a pity. Never mind, I don't mind talking for a bit. I don't advise screaming though. You see, you're not the only one with loyal brothers and sisters, and mine have been hard at work.” The jolt of terror Vilkas felt must have shown on his face, because Delphine laughed at that. “Oh don't worry, they've not killed anyone. But if your siblings wake up in a hurry, they'll find their legs tied to the bed and their weapons and armour mysteriously misplaced. We've also got means of preventing werewolves transforming, much like our resident alchemist provided a serum that when rubbed into the skin, hides our scent from you. We came prepared, Vilkas. So if you care about your siblings at all, you're best advised keeping quiet so as not to wake any of them, and then answering my questions. Starting with why you never told me about Cicero.”

“You're not getting your hands on him,” Vilkas hissed. “I don't care what he did or who he offended, he's our brother and I'll die before I see any harm come to him.”

“Noted,” said Delphine tersely. “So you do know him. Where is he? We searched the place, he's not here.”

“I don't know, the Harbinger sent him away. To keep him safe from you,” said Vilkas, straining at the ropes holding him. It was no good, they'd been tied by an expert. No getting out of here without using beast form, and not only had she said she had means of dealing with that, he'd sworn not to use it, and true Nords kept their oaths. “Torture me all you want, I can't tell you what I don't know.”

Delphine patted his cheek tenderly. “It's a good thing some of my Family aren't conducting this one, they'd happily take you up on that even if you didn't know. But I'm merciful and I'm prepared to believe you don't know where Kodlak sent him. So answer my next question instead, and I'll take my leave. Who's Cicero's lover?”

Cicero's... lover? Vilkas hadn't expected that one, not the question or the idea of Cicero being interested in anyone that way. There was a certain charm and flirtatiousness to the man, but Vilkas honestly couldn't imagine him being intimate with anyone. Cicero had always struck him as a bit too childlike for that. Still, Cicero was a man grown with presumably a man's desires, so it wasn't out of the question. All the same, Cicero had slept in a bed in a shared dormitory and just hadn't been alone with anyone long enough to have taken them to bed.

“He doesn't have a lover,” said Vilkas, confused. “He flirts with everyone and will be all over anyone who's remotely nice to him, especially if he wants something, but actual... intimacy? He's not had the chance. It's possible the night of the abduction, he was out quite late then, but surely one night's not enough for him to get attached...”

“Are you sure?” Delphine purred. “No one in Jorrvaskr he liked to spend time with, go out on jobs with? That woman, Aela, she has nice red hair. Cicero likes red, you know that.”

It was very true, although Vilkas wondered how she knew that. Cicero had often exclaimed how pretty her hair was, but every single time, Aela had irritably told him to go and bother someone else.

“It's not Aela,” said Vilkas. “He's not her type. He was also friendly with Ralof, but Ralof's definitely not the type of man to be with other men. Why do you care anyway?”

“That's not your concern,” Delphine snapped, her face closing. “All I care about is finding him.”

“All you care about is the damn coin from whoever's hired you to kill him,” said Vilkas bitterly. Damn assassins. No care for the harm they did or the pain they caused, just death and blood for nothing more than coin. It made Vilkas sick to think about it. On the other hand, a paid assassin could be bargained with. Not that Vilkas had a lot to offer. But Cicero was his Shield-Brother – a hyperactive and half-crazy simpleton of a Shield-Brother perhaps, but Farkas wasn't exactly the next Calcelmo either and Vilkas still loved him. Vilkas wasn't about to let Cicero down.

“Listen, you don't have to do this,” he said, sounding a little desperate, but not caring. “You don't have to kill him. Just leave him here with us. We'll keep him here, safe and away from whoever his enemies are, you go back to your client, tell him Cicero's dead, take your gold, everyone's happy.”

To his surprise, Delphine looked rather insulted by this.

“What do you think we are, some sort of mercenary gang?” she snapped. “We're the Dark Brotherhood! We can't just go around letting targets live and lying to clients about it! What sort of message does that send out? Honestly, I'm appalled you even suggested it, and you a man of honour and all.”

“What would you know about honour?” Vilkas couldn't stop himself saying. She wanted honour? He'd give her honour. “But if you're so damn honourable, how about this? Don't kill him. Take me instead. My life for his. I don't care about dying. There's no Sovngarde for me, I know that. So kill me and let him live. You get a death, Cicero lives, the client thinks his enemy's in the grave, everyone's happy.”

Delphine looked back at him, startled. Her turn to look confused now.

“You... is this a serious offer?” she asked. Vilkas hung his head, giving up. Farkas would be heartbroken, and it would mean never seeing Ria again, and Kodlak would be grieved, but Vilkas had seen the attachment the man had to Cicero. Vilkas didn't know why, but Kodlak loved Cicero almost like a son. If his death could keep Cicero safe... so be it.

“Yes,” said Vilkas softly. “All I ask is you make it quick.”

“You'd give up your life to save him from us, why?” Delphine whispered. “You've known him barely a month. You know nothing about him.”

“I know he's a good man,” said Vilkas, remembering facing up to an unexpected Dwemer abomination in Shimmermist Cave and being sure he was going to die, and then Cicero appearing out of nowhere, darting around the thing's legs and slashing certain key wires with his dagger, and as it fell to the ground, leaping on top of it and methodically taking it apart with his sword. Remembering getting the letter from Ria telling him Farkas was injured and they'd be delayed while he healed, and sitting outside, wondering what she wasn't telling him and if Farkas was really going to be alright, and how foolish could his twin be, didn't he know Vilkas would be devastated if he died? It had been Cicero who'd sat with him and listened to him rant about how he knew this would happen if he let the two of them head off without him, they'd get into trouble and he'd lose one or both of them, and now it had happened, Farkas was injured, he'd almost certainly got injured saving Ria from something, and what were they thinking, getting into dangerous situations like that, they could get killed, didn't either of them think what that would do to him? Cicero had patted his hand and said nothing, just smiling knowingly and only saying perhaps Vilkas should be a little clearer how he felt about them both when they got back. Ridiculous advice, Farkas surely knew Vilkas cared, and Ria was just his trainee and a friend, nothing more, despite those dangerous dark eyes and that hunter's grin that gave him the shivers. All the same, Cicero had cared enough to say it and that meant something.

“You know nothing about him,” said Delphine, and now she just sounded sad.

“He's my Shield-Brother,” said Vilkas. “I would die to protect him, as I would for any here. And it would break the old man's heart if anything happened to him. So go, assassin. Take my life, take your leave, forget Cicero was ever here.” He closed his eyes and waited for the end. Nothing happened. Surely she wouldn't hesitate? She couldn't be unwilling to kill, she'd outright said she was Brotherhood.

A gloved hand patted his cheek.

“You really mean it, don't you,” she said softly, amazed. “You have no idea who he is, but you're still willing to die to protect him.”

“Yes,” he hissed. “Just get on with it, you sadistic bitch.”

Laughter. “Well, yes I am,” Delphine said, clearly amused by something. “But you don't need to fear. Keep your life, Vilkas. Cicero is safe from me – we're not going to hurt him. There's no contract on him, never was. That's not why we're after him.”

She got off him, stretching her legs out. Hardly daring to hope, Vilkas opened his eyes. She was about to head out, looking at him over her shoulder, still smiling.

“I know where I've been going wrong,” she said. “All this time I've been thinking like an assassin, when what I should have done was think like a Companion. Thank you, Vilkas, you've been very helpful.”

“Wait, where are you going?” Vilkas cried. “Are you going to untie me??”

No answer. The magelight blinked out as he heard the door close behind her, leaving him alone in the darkness. Well, wasn't that just lovely. All he could hope was that it wasn't Aela who found him like this, or he'd surely never hear the end of it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kodlak lowered the book he'd been reading. They were being quiet, very quiet. No one had approached his room yet, but he was fairly certain everyone else had been tied to the bed with weapons just out of reach, and that was the best case scenario. He reached for his own trusty Skyforge blade. Not that he feared the Brotherhood, but it wasn't a good idea to let them think him weak.

The door cracked open, the assassin creeping in with barely a sound. Kodlak was impressed by the skill involved. Even so, he could hardly let them proceed unhindered.

“Come in, why don't you,” he said calmly. “I know you're there, you know I'm here, we may as well dispense with the charade and talk like civilised folk. Why don't you take a seat?”

Delphine looked up, and to her credit, smiled, blushing a little.

“You're good,” she admitted, getting up and closing the door behind her. “Don't worry, I'm not here to kill you or anyone else. I just need to talk to you.”

“In the middle of the night?” Kodlak asked, raising an eyebrow. “Most people would arrive in the day for casual conversation.”

“It's not a casual conversation, and I'm a night person,” said Delphine. “I didn't want to be disturbed.”

“I see,” said Kodlak. “Might I surmise from this that my brothers and sisters will, if they wake suddenly, experience great difficulty in getting up and arming themselves?”

“They might find it a bit harder than usual,” Delphine admitted sheepishly. “Don't worry, they're fine. Only one of them seems to have disappeared. Where did you send him, Kodlak? Where's Cicero?”

So it had come to this. Kodlak's hand went to his sword-hilt.

“He is not here,” said Kodlak, amazed at how steady his voice was considering his inner wolf was starting to growl. “I sent him away, so that he would be safe from the likes of you. You may practice your murderous trade as you please, but you will not lay a finger on any of my folk.”

“I know,” said Delphine, and her voice was far gentler than he'd ever thought he'd hear it. “I don't want to hurt him, I swear it. I just want to find him.”

“You expect me to believe that?” Kodlak asked, disbelieving. All the same, there was something in her eyes that seemed... sincere.

“I don't,” she said, looking away. “But I'm done playing games, so I'm just going to tell you the truth anyway. Believe me or not, as you please.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out something made of red and black cloth, placing it on the table and staring at it, folding and unfolding it. Kodlak looked at it, blinked, looked again, and felt a chill go down his spine. Surely not...

“There's no contract on him,” Delphine said, her voice rough and jagged as if there was something in her throat. “There never was. We were hunting all over Skyrim for him, but not to hurt him. Never that.” She sniffled, wiping a tear from her face and finally looking up. Kodlak saw tears rolling down her cheeks, saw the wedding ring and another ring with a sapphire in it alongside it, a custom more often seen among Imperial wives who would wear both wedding ring and a betrothal ring from their beloved – easily explained if she'd married a Cyrodiil man, he realised now. And the black ribbon round her wrist, a gesture of mourning in High Rock. Proof of her words though was not on her hands, it was in them – there in the two-pronged jester hat she was clutching as if her life depended on it. No one in Skyrim wore a jester hat, Skyrim hadn't had jesters in years. No one but one man. The Jester Dragonborn. A short Imperial redhead who could carve opponents into pieces in seconds and laughed throughout as he did it. Now here was a leading Dark Brotherhood assassin in his room in tears, clinging to the Dragonborn's hat. His son's hat, if Ria was right.

“He's my husband,” Delphine whispered. “He's been missing for weeks, I thought he was dead. He must have been, nothing keeps my Cicero imprisoned for long. We'd not even been married long and only that morning, he'd told me how much he loved me and that he thought I was beautiful. He's such a sweet man. He'd never run away, he was happy. At least I thought he was... Then I found out he was here, and I came to find him but he's gone again. Please, Harbinger. Please tell me where he is. I miss him so much, please...”

Kodlak stared at the hat, finally lifting his eyes to look at her. It still could be some sort of deception, but he knew how to read people and he didn't think a leading Dark Brotherhood assassin would want someone to see her so upset and vulnerable. She looked genuinely heartbroken at the thought of Cicero being gone. He remembered his words to Cicero and Ria that a killer motivated by love was the most dangerous of all, and that even a monster like Madanach might love his wife and children.

Even a Dark Brotherhood assassin could love her husband and be devastated when he vanished without trace.

But why would the Dragonborn of legend marry a Dark Brotherhood assassin? He could have had anyone. Why marry someone he knew was a murderer? Kodlak found it hard to believe that Cicero wouldn't have known who his wife was. There was only one real explanation, wasn't there.

“He's one of you,” Kodlak said softly, feeling his heart snap in two. “Did you recruit him yourself? How long has the Dragonborn been the worst kind of sneaking backstabber? When did you corrupt the spirit of Ysmir?”

Delphine's lips curved briefly in a smile. “He recruited me, Kodlak. He's been part of the Brotherhood for twenty-five years. He was fifteen when he killed his first, and he's never regretted any of it. Don't think of him as some noble-minded hero. He kills for fun first and coin second, and if he's managed to make Skyrim think he's a legend, it's because I steered him towards the ones that needed killing most. I sent him after dragons and Thalmor... and he turned me into an assassin. I'm not even sure I regret it any more. He has that effect on people.”

Indeed. He'd had that very effect on Kodlak, being sweet, charming, innocent, vulnerable, childlike, cosying up to everyone like a practiced flirt and then turning around and demonstrating some killing moves that impressed everyone. All assassin's moves, Kodlak realised now. Stealthy, sneaky, stabbing moves, a flowing means of fighting ideally suited to a warrior you didn't even know was there until they killed you. The gods had given a Dark Brotherhood assassin the gift of the Dragon Blood. It was a cruel, cruel irony, and even crueller for Kodlak was the knowledge that the man they'd chosen was his son. His son, a hardened and unrepentant murderer, even if he no longer knew that. What was worse was that Kodlak couldn't even bring himself to hate the man. Cicero might be Dark Brotherhood... but he was still Kodlak's son.

“I sent him to High Hrothgar,” said Kodlak wearily. “If he is truly Dragonborn, the Greybeards may be able to help. But if he's truly a Dark Brotherhood assassin, then by the Nine, I hope he never remembers. I almost think I would rather have him innocent and unknowing than...”

“I understand,” said Delphine. “Must be hard to realise the man you loved like a son isn't being persecuted by the Brotherhood, he's being reclaimed.”

“He is my son,” Kodlak said gruffly. “I knew his mother years ago, but she disappeared. I didn't know she was pregnant, not until Cicero turned up here looking just like her. He wrote this down when he got here, although he doesn't consciously remember any of it. Here.” He passed the piece of paper to her, waiting while she scanned it.

“Talos preserve us,” he heard her whisper, and wasn't that the crowning irony. Cicero probably wasn't even a Talos worshipper really. The amulet must have been a gift from his wife.

She passed the paper back to him. “You're really... you're really his father.” Kodlak nodded. She didn't say anything more. Finally he looked up to see her frowning at him.

“What, lass? Finding it hard to believe? He takes after his mother physically, you must know that.”

“He does,” said Delphine. “But believe it or not, I do see a bit of a resemblance to you as well. You've kept him hidden all this time and got him away just in time to stop me seeing him. Take it the hair dye was your idea too. You're a very cunning man, Kodlak Whitemane, and a perceptive one. Much like your son. Very protective of your loved ones. Like your son.”

“But even in my headstrong youth, I would never have joined the Dark Brotherhood,” said Kodlak, staring straight into her eyes. “Unlike my son.”

“If your eyes were brown, they'd look just like his right now,” said Delphine. She got to her feet, clearly done talking. “So he's gone to the Greybeards – well, that might be a good thing. At least he's safe. And this little visit hasn't been in vain. We searched Vignar's room while we were here, went over this whole place. Vignar keeps a journal, you know. He's worried about Skyrim, hates the Dominion, wishes Madanach had died in Cidhna Mine. But he's not a traitor. He's deeply grieved that Companions were involved, hopes Elisif is alive still, and doesn't want another war. Skyrim's suffered enough in his mind. There's no one else in Jorrvaskr who might have been involved, and now I know you were protecting Cicero, not traitors... well, I can let you be. The conspiracy's moved on. I imagine they'll try to relocate Elisif, but Skyrim's a big place and Eola's an old hand at disappearing into the wilderness. They'll never find her. In her absence, I think they're likely to make a play for the vacant throne, which means I'm off to Solitude in the morning. I think I might find Ralof there.”

“And Skjor? He's been missing since that night too,” said Kodlak. It wasn't just Cicero who might not be all he appeared to be after all. “Is he in Solitude plotting treason too?”

Delphine paused, and when she looked at him, her eyes were full of sadness. “He's dead, Kodlak. I'm sorry. But for what it's worth, I don't think he was involved. He tried to take one of us prisoner so he could torture her and find out where we were based so he could wipe us out and free Cicero from being hunted. It backfired and he's dead. We took the body to the Hall of the Dead this evening.”

Kodlak bowed his head. He'd suspected Skjor was dead but to hear it confirmed... Part of him wanted to rip her to pieces, take revenge on the Brotherhood for the death of his old friend. Something stopped him though. They were murderers, but Skjor had tried to take them on by himself and paid the price. He must have known the risk. Also, while he could never approve of their business, they were Cicero's family too. He knew deep inside that he couldn't hurt Cicero's wife. He'd save Cicero from anything, but he couldn't save the man from himself. Cicero's memories might well return eventually and the first thing he'd do would be to seek out the wife he'd left behind. Kodlak couldn't be the one responsible for Cicero coming home to find his beloved wife dead, he just couldn't.

“I see. Thank you for telling me,” he said. “Now if you please, I'm an old man. I need my sleep.”

“I'm sure you do,” said Delphine, sounding not unkind. Sympathetic even. “We'll be on our way. No one's been harmed, and you'll find all your weapons and armour in the mead hall. If Cicero comes back, send him to Solitude. I'll find him there.”

Kodlak was sending him nowhere if he could help it, but he nodded in her direction anyway. He'd be prepared to tell Cicero where she went and let him make his own decision, but that was all. She left, closing the door behind her, moving silently in boots that surely had some sort of enchantment on them. Kodlak finally let out the breath he'd been holding. All of it for nothing, Stelmaria's handsome young son had been lost to the Brotherhood years before. Part of him wondered if Stelmaria knew, if she was even alive to know. He should have asked Delphine, it sounded like she knew of her. He'd give anything to speak to Stelmaria again, talk to her about Cicero, find out if she was as disappointed and heartbroken as he was. Find out if it was wrong to still feel just a bit proud of him regardless.

We made a monster, you and I, Stelmaria my love.

We made a Dragonborn.

Now that at least was something worthwhile. Not many men could say their son had killed the World-Eater and won a civil war. Maybe he could never approve entirely of his boy, not any more. All the same, he'd always had a sense Cicero was special. In Kodlak's eyes, he still was.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blood everywhere. Death everywhere, flies buzzing around corpses – elves, men, women, one lone Khajiit. All torn to pieces by a werewolf's claws.

“He's been here,” said Elisif, looking at the demolished campsite, bathed in red light from the moon.

“He's still here,” said Eola, picking over the bodies, nostrils twitching. Must be the smell of death affecting her werewolf senses, Elisif guessed. It really couldn't be easy for her having to struggle with a beast nature thrust upon her. Elisif wasn't dealing terribly well with the Daedric curse either, but at least she'd not changed since that first time.

Round a corner, and there he was, Sinding now back in human form, perched on top of a rocky cliff.

“You?” he cried. “By all the gods, I didn't think... Come to kill me, have you?”

“I'm sorry,” Elisif said, tears in her eyes. “It's the only way to lift the curse. I'd live with it if I could... but I'm needed.”

“Needed,” Sinding repeatedly bitterly. “Whereas I'm just a lonely man with no loved ones who no one will miss.”

“You got that right,” said Eola cheerfully. “Now are you going to give in and let us get it over with, or are you going to drag it all out and put up a fight?”

Sinding just laughed. “You think you'll win, don't you. Because you're two young women in the flower of your youth and nothing really bad has ever happened to either of you. Well, maybe you've seen a few fights, werewolf, but have you ever really lost one? And do either of you know what it's like to be prey?” He didn't wait for an answer. His body shifted, and then he was in his beast form, leaping down from the rock to land before them.

Elisif shrieked, brandishing her axe in front of her. Eola had raised the body of the Dunmer mage and cast mage armour on herself, Dawnbreaker at the ready. The battle was on.

Elisif spend most of it hiding behind a shield she'd found, darting out from behind it to strike with her axe, sometimes missing, sometimes managing to get a glancing blow in. Mostly though it was Eola's magic doing most of the damage. Sinding swung his claws this way and that, mostly missing or skittering over armour, but one real hit and they could both be down and bleeding.

Eola's zombie Dunmer blasted the wolf with lightning, causing it to stagger back under the impact. She raised Dawnbreaker to strike, and on Sinding's other side, Elisif raced in with her axe at the ready.

Sinding looked up, glared balefully at them both, and suddenly launched himself at Elisif with the last of his strength. She swung her axe, catching his left arm, but his right was still working and his claws raked down the left side of Elisif's face in a spray of blood. Elisif staggered back, crying out in shock, hand clutching her cheek as blood poured over it.

“ELISIF!!” Eola screamed, horrified at the sight. Sweet gods, they were miles from the nearest proper healer, her own skills were good but limited and even someone like Aranea or Calixto might never be able to properly heal damage like that. Sinding turned to her, something like spiteful satisfaction in his eyes. Maybe he wasn't going to win this one but he could make sure Elisif never forgot him.

Eola was quite willing to ensure Sinding carried the memory of her into the afterlife and beyond. Flames in one hand, Dawnbreaker in the other, Eola the Fire Huntress was ready.

Sinding was not. He raised his claws to give Eola the same treatment he'd served Elisif – and then blood exploded from the back of his head as Elisif's axe clove his skull in two. The light went out of Sinding's eyes as he fell to the ground, dead. Behind him, Elisif was standing, the half of her face not covered in red pale as death and her remaining good eye with tears flowing. Then her knees gave way and she collapsed to the floor.

“Elisif,” Eola gasped, racing to her side. A telekinesis spell brought their packs over, and then every single healing potion either of them had was either being poured down Elisif's throat or over her face, Eola's entire magicka being expended on healing spell after healing spell, until it ran out and then Eola would drink magicka restorants until her reserve filled up again. Finally, it was done. Elisif was as healed as she was going to get. It was never going to be enough.

“Mirror,” Elisif whispered. “For the love of Mara, get me a mirror.”

Shaking, Eola produced the small hand mirror she'd picked up at Riverwood. Elisif stared back at her new reflection.

Truth be told, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Two thin parallel scars down her cheek, but the nasty one was the one that cut across Elisif's left eye, claiming her sight in it forever. Eola had done her best but eyes were notoriously difficult to fix. At least Elisif had kept the eye, but it was blind and sightless like Eola's own.

Elisif threw the mirror down, covering her face with her hands.

“He will never want me again,” Elisif said, her voice sunk in despair. “No one will want to look at me again. How can I be queen like this??”

Eola held her as Elisif sobbed her heart out on her shoulder. She wanted very much to tell her it was going to be all right, but in all honesty, she wasn't entirely sure how Madanach would react to this. Devastated, angry, yes of course, what husband wouldn't be? But would he still stand by Elisif and love her? Eola hoped so, but he'd walked away from Mireen when she'd turned into a Hagraven. Eola hadn't blamed him for that, Mireen had been a vicious shrew before the metamorphosis. Would he do the same to Elisif though? Eola hoped not. She'd grown fond of Elisif.

“Plenty of Nord rulers have had battle scars, some of them even lost an eye,” said Eola. “Why not you?”

“They were men,” Elisif whispered. “Fierce warriors, Nord heroes, everyone expects them to fight and have a few scars to show for it. And that was in the days of old, it's different now! Jarls aren't meant to get that close to the fight these days! Certainly women Jarls aren't meant to. Elisif the Fair, they call me. The Fair!” Elisif burst into tears again.

“Then we'll call you something else,” said Eola softly, stroking her hair. “We'll get you some war paint to hide the scars a bit and then we'll get you on your throne again, and absolutely no one's going to talk down to you or treat you like a child ever again, because you caved in a werewolf's skull with an axe and people respect you when you can do things like that. Come on, weren't we meant to skin this guy?”

“Let's do it,” said Elisif grimly. She took the dagger Eola gave her and made her way over to Sinding's corpse. She'd not really had a lot of experience with skinning beasts and it showed. It took nearly an hour and the result was not something you'd be getting a good price for in any halfway decent blacksmith's store. But it was done.

Hircine materialised, nodding in approval.

“Well done, little hunter. You have more fire in you than I thought. I'm impressed. Thank you. I consider the thief adequately punished.” The ring on Elisif's finger flickered and was gone. Elisif sighed as it vanished. At least one problem had sorted itself out.

“Can you heal my face as well?” Elisif asked hopefully. Hircine shook his head.

“I am a hunter, not a healer, mortal. True hunters keep their scars as a memento, a tribute to worthy prey. Do not hide them in shame, little one. You took on a mighty foe and lived and all will know now that you are strong. And just in case they need convincing – he hurt your face, so now I will give you his. When any ask you who wounded you, tell them you're wearing him.”

The werewolf pelt shifted in Elisif's arms, shrinking and reshaping as it turned into a set of leather and metal armour, Sinding's face forming the centrepiece on the breastplate. Elisif ran her fingers over it, staring at it in awe. There was enchantment laced into it, she could tell – magic and poison resistance.

“Thank you,” she gasped, but Hircine was gone.

“Try it on,” Eola urged. Elisif disappeared behind a rock and changed into it. It fit perfectly, moulding itself to her body. It was supremely comfortable, if a little revealing. On the other hand, at least it being this low cut meant no one would be looking at her face. A small mercy.

Eola whistled as Elisif came back.

“Well, look at you, wolf slayer! Don't you look all bad-ass!”

Elisif had to admit, she didn't look like a helpless little princess any more. She didn't feel like one either. She felt... stronger. Fiercer. Angrier. Definitely angry. Angry at the bastard who'd taken her looks out of spite. Angry at the world for making them the be all and end all anyway. Angry at those who'd taken her from her husband's arms in the first place. Angry at pretty much everyone. But not the woman in front of her.

“I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you, Eola. If there's ever anything I can do for you, you let me know. I'm not murdering innocent people, but anything reasonably ethical and within my power, you just have to ask.”

“Oh honey, let's get you back to Markarth before we start thinking about favours owed,” said Eola sadly. “We need to get you back to Da and then back on your throne first.” She finished cleaning the blade on the ebony war axe and handed it back to Elisif. “Here. This is yours now. A fierce werewolf-killing warrior queen deserves a proper weapon, don't you think?”

Elisif tucked the axe into her belt. “You don't have to do that,” she said, fighting tears again.

“Yeah, I do,” said Eola. “I kind of feel responsible. Besides, I already have Dawnbreaker. I don't need an ebony war axe as well.”

Elisif traced her fingers along its handle. It truly was a fine piece of work and it had served her well. No enchantment – well, she had a few skills in that area, she'd have to see about sorting that out. It'd need a name too. Hmm. She'd have to think of something. The prospect almost took her mind off Madanach's likely reaction. Almost.

“Do you think Madanach will be very angry when he sees me like this?” Elisif asked nervously.

“Yes, probably,” Eola sighed, taking Elisif's hand. “But not at you. Come on, we're not far from the border. Nearest camp's Lost Valley Redoubt – what? Don't look – oh come on. That was months ago, the place is cleaned up, restaffed and utterly loyal to their King, you'll be fine.”

“But the song,” Elisif began, remembering how Rains of Lost Valley went, the chorus anyway. And so they spoke, and so they spoke, the Hags of Lost Valley. But now the rains weep o'er their camp, and no one there to see. Because Madanach had ordered the rest of the Forsworn in and massacred the place. She hadn't thought there was anything left of the place.

“You don't want to entirely believe what bards sing about,” said Eola, grinning. “They use a lot of poetic licence. Take the Tale of the Last Dragonborn – according to that one, the Jester Dragonborn is a decent human being, a simple-minded fool with only a knife who was just trying to get his dear mother's remains home when a dragon attacked him and he managed to kill it by sheer luck and became Dragonborn in that instant. It is technically true, but not the whole story. Same with Rains of Lost Valley. Yes, Da told them all to surrender or die, then proceeded to slaughter those who'd not seen sense and fled the camp, but he wasn't going to salt the earth and leave it to burn when he was done. It's our main border outpost on the south road into the Reach, it's a highly strategic location. Of course we restaffed it once we'd got rid of all the bodies. One of Da's blood brothers runs it now. It'll be fine.”

Elisif wasn't convinced of this, and oh sweet Kyne, she was going to a Forsworn camp. She'd not been to the Reach in years, certainly not since Madanach took over, and there were all sorts of terrible stories of what the Forsworn did at their camps, ranging from human sacrifice to necromancy to cannibalism, with Nord victims being a favourite.

She just hoped everyone really had got the message that they were all friends now, because if they were anything less than loyal to her husband, her chances did not look good. This of course was assuming she'd still have a husband after this. He'd probably not publicly repudiate her, not when he'd married for peace, not love. But would he still look on her as tenderly as he did before? Unlikely. Her marriage could be over before it had even started.

Despair in her heart, she followed Eola out.

Chapter Text

Lost Valley Redoubt was barely visible from the road, but the waterfall was unmistakeable, plunging a good five hundred feet down the mountainside. Eola led the way along the path, fording the river and helping Elisif up the mountain track that led up. Elisif had to wonder exactly how Madanach had even managed to assault this place, but Rikke's reports hadn't lied. The newly promoted General, having heard Madanach had lost control of the Forsworn, had come to Lost Valley at the head of her own troops to restore order and then get a competent ruler on the Mournful Throne, only to see the smoke guiding their way and what looked like a red dragon flying off into the west, and arriving to find a very much in control Madanach overseeing corpse disposal and general clear-up, and cheerfully inviting her in for a glass of jenever. Rikke had declined but not before asking what exactly had just happened. Madanach had apparently just shrugged and said he'd had a little internal dissension to deal with but not to worry, it had all been settled now, aside from those two smaller camps on the Whiterun border but he would be visiting them soon to persuade them the path to a long and happy life definitely did not involve getting on the Reach-King's bad side. Rikke was an experienced soldier with many battles behind her, but even she was appalled by Madanach's casual attitude to it all. She'd turned around and left them to it, and sure enough, there were no more rebellions, no more unauthorised Forsworn raids, and no one saying anything other than that Madanach the Reach-King was undisputed ruler of his country.

Now Elisif was where it had all happened, following Eola up into the Nord ruins. The camp looked open to the sky for the most part, Lost Valley Falls plunging down the mountainside, no sign of the impaled bodies Rikke had spoken of. The only stakes to be seen were the stockades hammered into the ground along the path, and the ones either side of the entrance with goat's heads on them, but Eola assured her all this was completely normal for a Forsworn camp. Elisif grimaced a bit, just thankful whatever preserving liquid they'd been dipped in concealed the smell and kept flies off. Elisif had been in Legion camps before, but this was nothing like one of those. The sun was setting and in the distance someone was drumming. The smell of alchemy and cooking drifted over on the breeze, and among the strange leather and juniper branch tents, Forsworn wandered around doing utterly normal things like cooking and smithing, a few children in hides and feathers running around playing tag while their parents sat around campfires laughing and talking.

“How is it so peaceful after...?” Elisif whispered to Eola.

“Because the dance didn't stop just because theirs did,” Eola said, as if that explained everything, and turned to hail the two sentries that had just stepped out into their path, weapons raised.

“Name, Eola ap Madanach, business, seeking somewhere for me and the Queen here to stay for the night,” Eola called, in the tones of someone used to being let into wherever she wanted to go. “We had a little trouble in Whiterun.”

Weapons were lowered and the two of them were waved through. Elisif followed, staying close behind Eola, looking down and trying to avoid the stares and whispers.

“That's the Queen??”

“What happened to her face? I thought she was meant to be really pretty?”

“Does the King know?”

Elisif bit her lip and ran after Eola, fighting back the tears. No, of course not, and she didn't even want to think of the reaction when he found out he didn't have a beautiful young wife any more. Maybe he'd not married her for love, but he'd definitely found her attractive and seemed to enjoy her company. She liked him too, and the sex had been something of a revelation. Madanach ap Caradach was an inventive man, it seemed. She'd been happy, and he'd seemed to be too. Now she could have lost it all.

The camp leader was sitting outside his tent as the sun went down, watching the flames and clearly enjoying a relaxing evening – or at least he was until he saw Eola running up to him. Silver hair and striking amber eyes – was his daughter one of Madanach's guards?

“Uraccen!” Eola cried, and yes she was, that was her name, Uaile ap Uraccen, the surname being a parent's name like all the Reachmen and women had. Elisif remembered him from the wedding too, one of Madanach's blood brothers, a Cidhna Mine veteran.

“Eola!” The two embraced. “You're alive! Thank the gods, your father was beside himself when he came through here.”

“He was here?” Eola asked, surprised. Uraccen nodded, passing her a spare sabre cat pelt and inviting her to sit down. Elisif settled down next to Eola, not sure if she wanted to be remembered or not.

“Yes, rode in here with his guards, including my daughter, told me it had all gone to the Void in Whiterun but he'd called the Matriarch in to deal with it and she'd sent him back to the Reach. I've not seen him so furious and upset in a long time, Eola. And who've you brought-?” His voice trailed off as he stared at Elisif.

“I found Elisif,” said Eola softly. “She – she's OK. I'm going to get her home. Back to Da, where she belongs.”

“What happened to her face?” Uraccen asked, as if Elisif wasn't there and capable of speaking for herself. “Does Madanach know?” Elisif finally lost her temper.

“I'm right here!” Elisif shouted. “We got attacked by a werewolf and it did this to my face, and then I killed it and turned its pelt into armour! And no Madanach doesn't know, but you know what, I don't care, he didn't marry me for love or desire or anything, it was just a business deal, so he can just keep calling me consort and spend enough time with me to give the impression he's still my husband, and as for anything else, that's all he ever offered in the first place!”

Eola looked horrified, staring at her with cheeks flaming, but Uraccen just met her eyes calmly.

“I see, and does Madanach know it's only a business deal between you with no feelings involved?” he asked, eyebrow raised. “Because he was here barely a day ago and there were plenty of feelings on his side, mostly involving wanting to rain fire and vengeance on the sons of bitches who'd taken you, being furious at himself for letting you get captured in the first place, worrying incessantly that they were torturing you and hurting you, and being absolutely terrified that he'd never see you again.” Uraccen tilted his head, still that calm expression on his face. “Tell me that's a man who doesn't have feelings.”

“The alliance means a lot to him, it's protecting his country, of course he cares,” Elisif whispered, but both Uraccen and Eola were looking rather pitying at this point.

“And – and it probably reflects badly on his image that I got taken,” Elisif continued, sure that was it, Madanach was an old school warlord and his power relied heavily on him being seen as strong and powerful and to be feared – having his wife go missing would surely undermine that, right? “And it's not his fault, why would he think it's his fault, he had nothing to do with it!” Elisif shoved the obvious conclusion to the back of her mind – it was business, just business, just an alliance, Madanach barely knew her, he didn't have feelings for her, she definitely didn't have any for him, it would make it so much easier when he saw her looking like this and rejected her, meant she wouldn't have to see his heart breaking as he turned her away, meant her own would be just fine.

Eola placed a hand over hers, squeezing it tight. “Cariad,” she whispered, and Elisif knew that one, it was a popular term of endearment, Madanach used it frequently to her, but it was probably just habit, he'd probably said it to his first wife too and he hated his first wife, judging from the few occasions he'd mentioned her.

“He's not in love with me,” Elisif whispered. “He's not. He can't be, we barely know each other, he can't have – Mara help me.” The campfire blurred and Elisif began to cry, and then Eola was holding her, rubbing her back and stroking her hair while Elisif howled in her arms. If even the Forsworn, a group not known for their weak stomachs or aversion to violence, thought she looked terrible, how was Madanach going to react?

Please don't leave me, Madanach, I'm sorry, I'll do anything, just please don't go, don't leave me, I love you, please...

Elisif sobbed even harder as she realised it was too late for her at least. Somehow, he'd managed to win her over, and it wasn't just having someone there in her life and in her bed again that made her smile whenever she woke up to find him there. It was the way that he'd hold her after sex, no matter how rough or degrading it had been, how he'd just smile at her and kiss her and tell her she was beautiful. Or indeed at other times, just sitting next to her, talking about anything, or having dinner together, and sometimes he'd just stop, look at her and smile, and she'd lose all track of what she'd been thinking. It wasn't love, it couldn't be, it was just being flattered by a charming and powerful older man paying her compliments or listening attentively or wanting her in bed. She didn't love him, she couldn't, not now, not when he could never truthfully call her beautiful again.

But love him she did. She could only hope he didn't feel the same. At least it meant one of them wouldn't have their heart broken when he recoiled in horror like everyone else.

“Is she all right?” she heard Uraccen ask, worried.

“Course not, a werewolf clawed her face off and she's worried Da won't want her any more,” Eola said and that set her off crying again. Especially when Eola hesitated and asked, “Do you think he won't?”

Another pause before Uraccen spoke again.

“You lost an eye and he still loves you.”

“I'm his daughter! Not the same!”

Elisif glanced up as Uraccen shrugged.

“No. But Elisif's still his as far as he's concerned. Madanach doesn't easily let go of what's his, Eola. Now, you'll be wanting food and somewhere to sleep and an honour guard to Markarth in the morning, yes?”

“That would be lovely,” Eola said and Elisif had to agree. Food. Sleep. Markarth – oh gods. Madanach had talked of bringing her there as his queen for the first time, of the city turning out to welcome her, of a party, music, dancing, meeting her new people, being brought in as his new bride and a guest of honour.

No one would ever honour her or want to meet her again, and her first visit would probably be her last. As Eola and Uraccen went over mundane details, Elisif closed her eyes in Eola's arms and let the tears fall.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There weren't many days when Madanach regretted becoming King of the Reach. The respect, the impressive Dwemer keep, the master bedroom with its own waterfall, the love of his people, the opportunity to pore over obscure Dwemer objects and talk about their civilisation with Calcelmo whenever he felt like it (Madanach found the Dwarves and their technology fascinating, and Calcelmo had been beside himself to have an employer who actually understood what he was talking about and was interested in things magical), and more than anything else, being able to walk outside in the sunlight or even the rain whenever time permitted – all these were things Madanach enjoyed very much indeed.

What Madanach did not enjoy was being petitioned and harangued by patently unreasonable citizens who wanted the moons on a stick, especially when they were foreign dignitaries and he couldn't even throw them into one of the cells in the guard barracks (Cidhna Mine having been turned into a working commercial silver mine rather than a prison the very day Madanach took over). Yes, it had to be said – Maven Black-Briar was truly driving him up the wall.

“Well?” she demanded, standing before the Mournful Throne with her arms folded. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” said Madanach, rubbing his temples, feeling a headache coming on. “Your son was imprisoned in a cell in your own keep, in your own city, in a Hold of Skyrim of which you are Jarl, guarded by men and women you employ, he mysteriously turns up dead one morning and you think I am in some way responsible?”

“You know perfectly well what I mean!” Maven snapped, tapping her feet. “You know who has the skills to sneak in unobserved and murder my son with no one catching them! The Dark Brotherhood carried out the deed, but someone had to have hired them!”

“Madam Jarl, I assure you I have not hired the Dark Brotherhood to murder your son,” said Madanach wearily. “With my own wife and daughter presently missing, I do have other priorities than having a man killed when I've never even crossed paths with him.”

“But you know who they are,” Maven pressed, stepping forward, her eyes ever more intense. “You can ask them who their client was. Maybe you even know. Well? Tell me, and there's gold in it for you!”

“Madam, even if I were a close and personal friend of the leader of the Dark Brotherhood, which I'm certainly not going to comment on in open court, I assure you that the last thing I would be doing is asking her about any contracts I wasn't personally involved in. The Dark Brotherhood's business is its own, and no one with a grain of sense gets involved unless they have to. Besides,” said Madanach, seeing the desperation beneath the anger and wondering why Maven Black-Briar of all people had trekked all the way to Markarth to petition him about the Dark Brotherhood, “there are certain rumours that you might have contacts of your own in said Brotherhood. I can't help but wonder why you're talking to me instead of the well-connected in Riften.”

“You can hardly expect me to comment on that in someone else's court, even this one,” said Maven, raising a well-plucked eyebrow. “Suffice it to say that if I did have contacts of my own in the Dark Brotherhood, don't you think I'd have exhausted them first? And that the only reason I might travel all the way to this – to Markarth – would be if said contacts had proved completely useless to me?” The angry facade shifted just slightly and underneath it, Madanach glimpsed a terrified mother worried about her family. So Maven did have feelings. He had wondered.

“It's not just Sibbi,” said Maven, her voice softening. “I understand how the business works, I know he had enemies. If it was just him, I'd bury him, mourn him, curse his foolishness and get on with my life. It's Ingun, my daughter. She vanished after the funeral. She left me a note saying she was sorry, but Sibbi's death had made her realise how fleeting life was and she wanted to see the world. I don't know where she is and my usual contacts are proving less than reliable. The note was her handwriting, but if someone wanted Sibbi dead, she might be next and I have no idea where she is! I need to know the Brotherhood aren't after her too. Please, you have children too, you know how it is.”

Madanach did. He did indeed. He remembered the day Eithne died in front of him, and three years later, Amaleen dying too. Then them telling him Eola had run away and that had been the worst, the not knowing. He'd not expected her to get herself incarcerated to rescue him a decade later, of course, but seeing her again, knowing she was alive and thriving, that had brought a light back into his life he'd not realised had gone out. Now she was missing again, and although he knew full well she was a formidable young woman, he was still terrified that the next time he saw her would be as a body on a slab in the Hall of the Dead. He wasn't sure the light would survive if that happened, and if Elisif turned up on the slab next to her... he knew it would die for good.

“I can't tell you, Maven,” he said gently. “I can't tell you because I don't know. But try the Temple of Sithis here in Markarth. Make enquiries there. If Sibbi was one of theirs, if Ingun's a target – they won't tell you a thing. But if it wasn't them – they may tell you that at least. I'm sorry, but it's all I can offer. I hope you find her soon.”

Maven bowed her head. Clearly that was as close to grateful as Maven Black-Briar ever got. Moments later, she was all business again.

“I suppose that will have to do,” she said, sniffing as imperiously as ever. “I shall find this temple and ask them. I hope they prove more useful than everyone else has been. Good day, sir.” With that she turned and stalked out, her housecarl in tow.

“Gods give me strength,” Madanach murmured, relieved that was over with. Back to worrying about his own missing family members. “Have we got any other appointments expected today?”

“I don't think so,” said Nepos, glancing over the schedule. “Why do you ask?”

A pity, work is the only thing that stops me imagining some Stormcloak son of a bitch hurting or raping or torturing my Elisif, or Eola lying dead in the middle of nowhere with her throat cut and the rats getting to her, oh gods, if they're all right why has no one sent word??

“Was thinking of knocking off early,” said Madanach wistfully. “Maybe taking a tour of the walls or sitting out on the balcony.” Because if anyone did come bringing word, he'd see them that much sooner from outside...

“I hope you're not going to spend the entire afternoon drinking jenever and getting maudlin over Eola,” said Nepos, looking rather pointedly at his king. “I told you, Madanach, she went missing along with all her weapons and armour, she's a talented sorceress, whatever she's doing is probably secret business and she'll likely turn up in a few days without a mark on her, or at least send word. In fact, she's probably helping our friends track down the Queen right now.”

“I hope you're right,” Madanach sighed, feeling that a nice shot of jenever and Reach tonic, and a slice of yellow citron fruit from Cyrodiil would be just the thing right now. Skooma would be even better, but he was better than that, stronger than that, he was not hurling himself off the wagon no matter how bad things got, he was king, dammit! And kings certainly did not have Skooma habits due to twenty years in prison with not a lot else to do.

Half an hour. He'd give it half an hour before heading out on a city inspection. Anything to take his mind off Elisif being out there, alone and vulnerable and frightened, and Eola who knew where.

It was barely ten minutes later that a small group of Forsworn warriors rushed up the stairs towards the throne room. Borkul was on his feet, approaching as the guards at the foot of the Mournful Throne intercepted. Madanach looked up, curious. Amidst the knot of Reachmen and women, all looking much the same in their Forsworn gear, there was a flash of black and red on one of them, and in the middle was red hair and someone leaning against another woman, disguising the fact she was taller than them.

Madanach got to his feet, his heart in his mouth. It couldn't be. Surely not.

Borkul strode over, barked out an angry enquiry as to what the problem was, the King was busy – then immediately falling back, motioning for them to come forward. The warriors all dispersed, all but two. Both female, one in the Shrouded gear of the Brotherhood but a Forsworn headdress, and the other... A red-haired Nord but dressed in a revealing set of leather armour, the like of which he'd never seen before, with gauntlets and boots of Elven make and an ebony war axe at her waist. She was clinging to her Reachwoman friend, head resting on the other woman's right shoulder so he couldn't see that half of her face, but he'd know her anywhere. He'd know both of them anywhere.

“Sweet gods,” he breathed. “You're alive. Both of you. Gods, come here, let me look at you both.”

He stepped forward, ready to take them both in his arms and welcome them home. To his surprise, Eola looked up at him, her face anything but pleased. Were those tears in her eyes??

“Eola, cariad, what's wrong? You're here, you're safe, what happened?”

“I'm sorry, Da,” she said, her voice sounding broken. “I tried to keep her safe but it didn't work, we ran into trouble. I'm so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Madanach asked, his nerves on edge. This was wrong, all wrong, he'd have expected them to be glad to be here, relieved at being safe. Not Eola looking scared and guilty, and Elisif cowering away from him as if he'd blame her for getting abducted. She hadn't even moved, just clinging on to Eola and hiding her face. Was she hurt? Maybe he should send for Bothela, but surely if the Queen Consort of the Reach was injured, anyone with a brain would have taken her to the alchemist or one of the Temples first. “Elisif? Elisif, what's wrong? Are you alright? Talk to me, woman.”

He came to stand next to her, lifting the scaled helmet from her head and smoothing out her hair. Elisif let out a sob and detached herself from Eola, burying her face in his chest as she began to cry softly.

“Elisif?” he asked, trying to comfort her as best as he could, not easy when no one would tell him anything and his senses were screaming at him that something had gone horribly wrong. “Elisif please, tell me what's wrong. Eola, what happened to her?” She didn't seem injured, but there were plenty of things that left no outward scars and dear gods, if someone had violated his Elisif, the Brotherhood's attentions were going to look compassionate and merciful compared to what he was going to do to them.

“Her face,” he heard Borkul whisper, and Borkul was not a man easily shocked. “Look at her face, Madanach.”

Slowly, feeling his heart in his throat, Madanach backed Elisif away from him so he could lift her chin and look at her properly.

“I'm sorry,” Elisif sobbed, eyes shut as he stared at her, at the scars streaking down her left cheek and across her eye. “I'm so sorry, please don't hate me, please, I'm sorry...”

By all the gods, what did they do to you?? Gods, Elisif, I should never have let you go, this is all my fault... But Madanach was not a man used to wallowing in guilt, so it got swiftly transmuted into rage and fury and the urge to burn things.

“What happened?” he breathed. “Who did this?”

“There was a werewolf,” Eola said, sounding scared and timid and that was another thing to fuel the rage within, his fearless little girl sounding like that. “Down in Falkreath. It was so fast and so strong, and it went for Elisif before we could kill it. I did my best but I'm not a healer and...”

So not her captors – but she'd never have been in Falkreath without a full retinue of guards otherwise, and no werewolf would have got close if he'd been there. No one hurt his queen like this. No one.

“I will kill them all,” Madanach heard himself say, all rational thought fading from his mind. “I will have every single werewolf in Tamriel exterminated for this. Every cursed one of them. I swear it, Elisif, I-”

Elisif's eyes flicked open, one unharmed, one clouded and sightless, and she shoved him away, her face flushed, making the scars more obvious. She didn't seem to either realise or care, she was that furious. Madanach caught his balance, not sure quite why she'd suddenly lost her temper, but he realised he'd never seen her angry before. He couldn't call it a pleasant experience, but there was something about her now, something stronger, harder, not that helpless and vulnerable woman he'd married any more – but this new Elisif was something he could get to like, not least because the idea of her pushing him back onto a bed and savagely undressing him before claiming him with teeth and fingernails involved was strangely enticing.

“You will do no such thing!” she shouted. “Firstly, your authority only extends to the Reach, so you're not going to be persecuting werewolves anywhere else if you don't want a diplomatic incident on your hands, especially not ones living under my rule in Skyrim!”

Standing up to him, by the old gods, she was standing up to him, and this was glorious, hardly anyone ever did this except his daughters and Nepos and Delphine, and now Elisif finally was flexing her real power. If she could stand up to him, she could stand up to her court, and by Sithis, that he wanted to see. A queen worth the having, and while he'd always seen the potential, it hadn't surfaced... until now.

Of course, that didn't mean she was getting it all her own way.

“They're animals, Elisif!” Madanach protested. “Beasts! They're not human! Every Hold in Skyrim, including yours, makes it perfectly legal to kill a transformed werewolf!”

“Then maybe I'll change the law!” Elisif shouted back. “You gave Hagravens citizenship in the Reach, I can damn well do the same for werewolves! And secondly, it doesn't matter! The werewolf who did this to me is dead! I killed him, me, with an axe to the skull and then I took his skin and now I'm wearing him! So don't bother going on some pointless crusade against all the werewolves who never laid a finger on me, because if you do, I swear you and I are done, Madanach! I'll go back to Solitude and you and I are never sharing a bed again. I mean it!”

The court had gone very quiet, no one looking at anything but their feet, apart from Eola who was staring at Elisif in amazement. Madanach couldn't fault her for that. Elisif had her hands on her hips, glaring at him with a ferocity he didn't think she'd had in her. She truly did mean every word, he could tell. If he didn't back down on this, he'd lose her for good. The thought stabbed at his heartstrings, especially when she was standing there in that armour, all fiery and passionate and dear gods, had she really responded to a face clawing by caving in a werewolf's head and turning his skin into armour? The initiation of death, by Sithis, she'd claimed her full adulthood at last, and a werewolf?? He couldn't remember anyone who'd proved their ability to kill by going after a werewolf.

Who cared if this made him look weak. His wife had just killed a werewolf, absolutely no one was going to fault him for not antagonising her without good cause.

“All right,” he said, clenching his fists to his shoulders. I give in, you win this one, Brenhina, if you really killed a werewolf, you sure as Oblivion don't need me to protect you. Just tell me you at least still want me... “All right, if you say he's dead, I'll let it go. Just... don't do anything rash or hasty or... did you really kill it yourself?”

“Did she ever!” Eola put in, sounding rather pleased about the fact. “Took me fifteen minutes to get all the blood and brains and skull fragments off that axe. You should have seen her, Da. She was so brave.”

“I can believe it,” said Madanach, still hardly able to take his eyes off Elisif. She'd relaxed her stance, but was still looking wary. Not a child, her innocence gone, but he could definitely still love what she'd become. “Gods, Elisif, look at you, they'll hardly recognise you back in Solitude. My wife, the brave warrior hero.” Words he never thought he'd say. He certainly never thought he'd end up married to a fearsome Nord warrior woman, but the prospect didn't actually bother him. Quite the reverse.

A smile flickered on Elisif's lips and she looked like she was about to cry again.

“I'm not Elisif the Fair any more,” she said solemnly. “I don't know who I'm supposed to be now. What if they don't want me as queen any more? What if they think I'm some sort of monster now?”

“They already think that about me,” said Madanach, shrugging. “Maybe they'll stop thinking I'm defiling their beautiful queen every time they see us together?”

“They don't have one any more,” Elisif said bitterly, and then she finally gave in to the tears and started crying again. Madanach felt his heart ache to see her like this. You still are beautiful to me, and I still want you, and you're not a monster, not even close. He stepped forward and pulled her into his arms, kissing her cheek and stroking her hair, letting her sob on his shoulder. He had his wife back, and despite the scars, it could have been so much worse.

He had his daughter back too, and as predicted by everyone else, she was just fine, as always. He wasn't sure why he worried, she was quite capable, he knew... but he remembered her when it had been otherwise, remembered her as a delicate newborn, holding her in his arms and falling in love with his latest child, promising her the world. No matter how strong and fearless she got, he'd always still think of that helpless baby whenever he looked at her.

“Come here, m'inyeen, don't think you're getting out of here without a hug.” Eola finally laughed and made her way over, head on his shoulder as she put her arms around them both. His family was back together, they were all right, they weren't dead, either of them, and it was going to be fine. Of course, there was still this conspiracy to root out... but he could manage that, especially once he'd had a chance to find out what Delphine had managed to get for him. As long as his family was safe.

“Eola, thank you. Thank you for getting her home. I'm glad you're both all right, I was going out of my mind. Delphine's hunting down the bastards responsible, you should probably go find her soon and help out. But not today. Tomorrow, come have breakfast with me and tell me everything. But tonight, I've got a wife to look after.”

“Of course you do,” said Eola, smiling. “Between you and me, I think she needs it, she's missed you.” She kissed him on the cheek, then did the same to Elisif. To Madanach's surprise, Elisif let him go and hugged Eola fiercely.

“Thank you,” Elisif whispered to her. “I owe you my life. I'll never forget everything you've done for me.”

“Don't mention it,” Eola laughed. “You take care now, Wolfslayer. Look after my father for me – between you and me, I think he needs it too. I'll be at the Temple if you need me.” She kissed Elisif on the cheek and left. Elisif smiled and waved her off, before it occurred to her she was now effectively alone with Madanach and even though he seemed pleased to see her, she had no idea how this was going work out. This was proving to be more awkward than the wedding night.

Madanach didn't seem to think so. He slid his arm around her waist and turned to Nepos.

“Nepos, I'm retiring to bed early. Send a bottle of the good wine and dinner for two, I have a consort to attend to. I don't want to be disturbed for any reason other than an invading army.”

“Understood, Madanach,” said Nepos cheerfully. “I'll keep the hordes at bay. Have a good evening, won't you?”

“You're... taking me to bed?” Elisif asked, barely daring to hope. That sounded like the set up for a romantic night in.

“Is there a problem with this?” Madanach asked as he guided her off to the master bedroom. “I agreed not to wipe out every werewolf I could lay my hands on, so I'm assuming you're still willing to have me.” He stopped, suddenly looking nervous. “You, er, are still willing to have me, aren't you?”

“Yes,” Elisif breathed. What a thing to ask. Why wouldn't she want him? She was the one who'd just changed out of all recognition, he was still the same old Madanach. Same old stubborn, smart, cunning, flamboyant, ruthless, sexy man she'd always known. “Yes, of course. Why wouldn't I? Do you still want me? Even though I'm not... not beautiful any more?”

Madanach didn't answer. He just reached across, cupped her face in his hands and began to kiss her, gently at first then with increasing fierceness, pulling her to him, fingers in her hair, hand sliding down her back to caress her bottom. Elisif gasped, kissing him back, writhing against him as she felt him hard and ready through his clothes.

He broke off, running a thumb across her scarred cheek, gentle smile on his face.

“Maybe you're not so pretty as you were,” he said. “But I still think you're beautiful.”

“Really?” Elisif gasped, finally feeling the anger and the misery starting to fade. It might be all right. It just might. Yes, there might be pointing and stares and revulsion from the rest of the world, pity and horror and turning away from her ruined face. But Madanach wasn't turning away. He was still smiling at her, still wanting her, and with him at her side, she suddenly didn't care any more. No one was going to openly pity her or scorn her when she had the fearsome Scourge of the Nords and Butcher of Lost Valley alongside her, holding her hand and looking at her like she was still the fairest woman in Skyrim.

“Really,” Madanach confirmed. “I've always liked women who aren't delicate little flowers, who can hold their own. Saw that potential in you from the start. Now it's finally coming out. Any woman whose response to getting injured in a fight is to turn around and bash their opponent's skull in is all right by me.”

“But would you want to marry one?” Elisif asked, acutely aware of the phenomenon of Nord men who claimed to value honour and valour and bravery and martial skill, right up until it came to their wives and then suddenly those were bad things.

“I'm already married to one,” Madanach laughed, leading her up to the bedroom door. “And I'm very pleased about the fact.” He stopped, taking her hand in his and suddenly kissing her fingertips. “Cariad, I could wish you'd not been hurt. I don't like thinking of you being afraid, in pain or unhappy. But you're one of us now. The initiations of life and death all Forsworn undergo to be treated as an adult.”

“Have sex and kill something, yes I know, Eola told me,” said Elisif, recalling what she'd said. It really did say an awful lot about the Forsworn way of life, when you thought about it – no wonder they'd got a reputation as murdering party animals.

“That's one way to put it,” Madanach grinned. “But yes, congratulations, you just passed the initiation of death. I'm actually relieved. It means I don't have to feel guilty any more.”

“Guilty about what?” Elisif asked. He wasn't still going on about giving her a chance to not be married to him, was he? It was rather too late to back out now, Reach divorce laws notwithstanding.

“This.” Then he was kissing her again, pushing her up against the wall, one hand on her breast as his cock ground into her and she couldn't help but moan as she held on to him, kissing him back just at furiously.

“Guilty?” she whispered as he finally let her go. “Madanach, you don't need to, everything we've done, I've enjoyed.”

“I know,” he breathed, nipping at her ear. “But you were so innocent, you just seemed so helpless, I felt bad even though I was never going to say no to you. Felt like I was taking advantage somehow. I like my women strong and you weren't. But now you are. Now... now you're like me. Not there yet, you've got some things to learn, but you are changed. And by Sithis, I want you.”

Elisif moaned, pushing his head into her shoulder as he started to nibble at her skin.

“I'm all yours,” she gasped. “Where's this bed of yours?” Madanach laughed and backed off, taking her hand and opening the bedroom door.

“Right here, macreena. Come on, inside, I think you're in dire need of being laid down on said bed, undressed and then given a very thorough demonstration of just how beautiful I think you are.” He ushered her into the room, closing the door behind them both. Elisif looked around, awed at the room before her. Same Dwemer architecture as the rest of the Keep, but the bed looked superbly comfortable and thankfully not made of stone, and on one side of the room was an actual waterfall cascading down the wall and through a chasm in the floor.

“You have a waterfall in your room!” Elisif cried, delighted. “That's so pretty!”

“Yes, and it does make it very easy to clean up in the morning. Nothing like a nice shower to start the day. Cold as the Void but that's what Flame Cloaks are for,” Madanach murmured, coming to stand behind her, wrapping arms around her waist. Elisif took her gauntlets off, laid both them and her axe on the dresser and turned around, sighing happily as Madanach began to kiss her neck.

“I was so afraid you wouldn't want me any more,” Elisif gasped, moaning softly as Madanach's mouth made its way down her chest, reaching her breasts and beginning to nibble the tops. “I thought I'd lost you for good.”

“Never,” Madanach growled from her cleavage, hands reaching to undo her armour fastenings. “Gods, never, why would I want to give this up?”

Elisif entwined her fingers in his hair, pushing him down harder into her breasts and he actually moaned in response, lifting her up so she was perched on the dresser, and she had a feeling they weren't going to actually make it to the bed. Her armour was falling off her shoulders and Elisif slid her arms out of it, holding Madanach as he latched on to one of her nipples. One thing this was definitely not was a business transaction. Feelings, he had feelings for her, and maybe she didn't know precisely what they were yet, or if he was more concerned with what would happen to the Reach if he lost her than with his own personal grief, but he'd worried about her. He'd missed her. He wanted her very very badly.

“Don't stop,” she gasped. “Please don't stop, Dibella, you're so good at this.”

Madanach groaned into her cleavage, picking her up and carrying her the short distance to the bed, flinging her on to it and stripping the rest of her clothes off her. Then he was kissing her again, fingers inside her as she wrapped her legs around him, and then his fingers were gone and he was taking her hard, fucking her fast, not seeming to care about anything else other than having her there, reclaiming her as he gasped her name over and over, and there was something about seeing him like this, seeing his usual self-control gone, that went straight to her loins. She cried out his name as she came, and that set him off too.

Afterwards, Elisif dived under the covers, Madanach holding her to him as he planted gentle kisses on her face, not even seeming to care about the scars.

“Are you alright?” he murmured. “Really alright? What happened, cariad? What did they do to you? Maybe they didn't give you those scars, and I didn't see any others on you... but I don't know what did happen.”

Elisif closed her eyes, burrowing into him tighter, not wanting to think about any of it, not being dragged away while that blonde Nord killed Bolgeir, nor coming round from that sleeping potion just as Eola had downed their horse in beast form and being shoved into that old tower, looking around for a weapon just as Eola had smashed the door down and descended on her red-haired captor. She'd fled screaming to the other tower, wondering if she could perhaps climb up the cliff and get away there, realising she couldn't and taken refuge upstairs instead – only to find a bedroom set up for a romantic evening. Maybe this hadn't been her intended destination, maybe it was someone else's lover's hideaway... but she had a horrible feeling it had been meant for her and she still felt nauseous just thinking about it.

“Eola got there in time,” Elisif whispered, tears in her eyes. “She killed the man who took me. I wasn't hurt. I'm fine, I'm alright, I'm...” Not fine. Really not fine.

“Elisif,” she heard Madanach breathe, his grip on her tightening, and she closed her eyes, starting to cry as the stress of the last few days finally overcame her. Madanach held her as she sobbed into him, murmuring the same thing over and over again, that she was home, safe, he was there, he was sorry, so sorry – what? It wasn't his fault!

“It's not your fault,” she whispered.

“Cariad, I let you go,” Madanach said, his own voice muffled, and Elisif slowly realised that not all the tears on her cheek were hers. “I should never have left your side, they'd never have taken you if I'd been there. Can you ever forgive me?”

Elisif felt her heart melt. Forgive him? There was nothing to forgive – he'd stayed to help one of his own men deal with the enemy right there and sent her away to keep her safe, get her out of a burning building.

“You weren't to know there were others lying in wait,” Elisif whispered. “You didn't do anything wrong. Mara, no, please don't cry, you shouldn't cry, you're a tough, fearless, murdering barbarian, they don't cry!”

“You say the nicest things, wife,” Madanach laughed, kissing her cheek as he dried his eyes and finally released his hold on her a little, head resting on the pillow alongside her. “Macreena, our arrangement. I want to change it. I'm not leaving you, I'm not leaving your side if I can help it. Where you go, I go. Two weeks in Markarth, two in Solitude. I leave you alone for five minutes and someone kidnaps you – damned if I'm leaving you alone for a week at a time!”

“Madanach,” Elisif whispered, feelings tears threaten to come again. “You don't have to, I don't want to take you away from your people!”

“They will cope,” Madanach said gruffly, taking her hand in both of his. “But if anyone took you from me again... I'm not sure I would.” He closed his eyes, kissing her fingers, and Elisif remembered Uraccen telling her rather pointedly that Madanach had been close to losing it, and that the Reach-King was very protective of what was his. Elisif felt her heart skip at the thought that that included her now. The one week on, one week off arrangement had been a compromise, born from recognition neither could leave their capital for long and an acknowledgement that theirs wasn't a marriage for love, a bit of time apart would at least provide an escape if all went wrong. It seemed Madanach was reconsidering and Elisif... Elisif felt tears rolling down her cheeks, tears of joy this time. When he'd left to return to Markarth two weeks after the wedding, it had taken all her strength to stay calm, not cry or cling to him or beg him not to go, to take her with him. She'd felt her heart break as she'd stood outside the gates of Solitude watching him leave, the loneliness crashing back in and feeling so much worse because she'd been so happy after the wedding. They'd settled into a routine of her holding court while he'd had a desk set up to one side of her courtroom, which he'd settled behind, produced a strange, Dwemer-made frame holding two Dwemer optics that went in front of his eyes and had two of his Forsworn bring a pair of leather cases full of documents awaiting his attention, and she'd got to watch the odd sight of Madanach running the Reach from the Blue Palace. Three of his guards had been near the table at all times, dressed in full Forsworn armour, two to guard and one to run errands, and glaring at anyone who approached too closely, and even Erikur had taken the hint and left him alone. Aside from the near constant bickering between Madanach and Falk (and even that had been just a little entertaining sometimes) and Bryling withdrawing into herself and making little secret of the fact that she hated both Falk and Madanach in equal measure, it had been nice. She'd had a husband again, and she'd loved it... up until he'd had to leave. Now he was promising not to, ever again.

“Yes,” she gasped, flinging her arms around him and holding him to her. “I missed you so much when you left, part of the whole reason I wanted to tour Skyrim with you was so I got to spend time with you, of course I don't mind having you with me!”

Madanach had his own arms around her, holding her tight, planting a kiss on her forehead and she had no idea someone as fierce and ruthless as Madanach could be this caring and gentle.

“It – it isn't just the alliance you were worried about, was it?” she whispered, needing to know for sure how he felt. She didn't think so any more, but she needed to hear it from him, needed to hear him say the words.

Choked laughter from Madanach that was almost a sob.

“After all this, you ask me that? As if that was the first thing to go through my mind when my wife went missing under violent circumstances?” He kissed her again, one hand cupping her jaw while the other held her against him.

“I love you. I have always loved you, I have wanted you from the first moment I laid eyes on you,” Madanach murmured, voice low and husky as he breathed the words into her ear. “I was going to ask for a political marriage anyway, and it would have to be me, I'm not selling my daughters into marriage and they couldn't give you heirs anyway. I was hoping mutual loathing of Ulfric Stormcloak would at least convince you not to reject me out of hand. I'd heard you were pretty, but nothing prepared me for seeing you walk into that place. You took my breath away and you kept on doing it all through that conference. You know, hardly anyone ever stands up to me. Most people seem to find me intimidating, I can't think why.”

“Because they're afraid you'll murder their families in front of them if they disagree with you,” Elisif whispered, feeling light-headed and tearful and happier than she'd been in months. Madanach laughed at that.

“Mere disagreement won't get them killed, it's treason and rebellion and making me look incapable that will do that,” he murmured. “You on the other hand – when you argue back, I don't mind. When you do it, it's because you passionately believe you're right, not because you want to advance your own agenda or make a bid for power. You're young, you're idealistic, you want to do the right thing – I've not been any of those things for a long time... but I was once. Having you around helps me remember what it was like. Thank you, macreena. I'm a better man and a better king because of you.”

Elisif clung on to him, tears of joy rolling down her cheeks and then she kissed him for all she was worth, all her fears fading away. She was the beloved of the Reach-King, she had a strong and powerful consort who adored her... and she loved him too.

“I love you so much,” she whispered when they finally parted, both gasping for breath. “I was so scared I'd lost you, so scared you'd leave me. I don't care you're older, I don't care that you must have the worst reputation in the Empire. You've taken care of me, helped me, been there for me, and it's not just me either, don't think I haven't noticed you being polite and respectful to my servants and people, and your entourage doing the same.”

Madanach didn't look her in the eye, appearing vaguely embarrassed about the whole thing. “They kept calling me 'my lord'. Doesn't feel right for Nords to be calling me that. Also you ignore the servants at your peril. Had Thongvor Silver-Blood paid any attention to his domestic staff, he might still be Jarl.”

Elisif shivered at the mere thought. No, no, absolutely not, no one in charge of the Reach but Madanach!

“Well he didn't and he's dead, and I think you're much better at looking after the Reach than he was,” said Elisif firmly. “Maybe I'm a little biased because I'm your wife, but you were managing to run your country without even being in it.”

“Ran the Forsworn out of Cidhna Mine for years, this is no different, just more comfortable,” Madanach said, still sounding a little uncomfortable with all the praise. He stroked her hair then ran a finger along her cheekbone. “You really mean it, don't you. You really feel the same.”

Elisif nodded, leaning in to kiss him again, unable to stop smiling as he pulled the covers over them both and returned the kiss just as enthusiastically. She was back where she belonged, in the arms of a husband who loved and treasured her. Everything was going to be just fine.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eola raced up the steps to the Temple of Sithis – it was a lovely well-appointed building, but Eola could wish it didn't have quite so many steps. Finally she reached the door and slipped inside. It wasn't the Sanctuary, no, but there were a couple of beds, a small kitchen and it was warm. It would do. Elisif was home, mostly intact, delivered to her loving husband and the two of them were probably settled in for a nice romantic evening. Tomorrow, Eola was going to be on her way to Karthspire to see if Delphine had sent word, and then off to Whiterun to catch up with her.

Of course, her good mood evaporated on seeing who was in the Temple, engaged in haranguing Muiri.

“Well, this just isn't good enough,” Maven exclaimed. “I come all the way from Riften to speak with a member of the Dark Brotherhood and you tell me they're not even in the Reach??”

“I'm afraid the Temple is closed,” said Muiri firmly. “You're welcome to leave any tributes or prayers, but there are no priests or priestesses of Sithis available to deal with your concerns at present. Some very urgent business has come up in Skyrim, they're all otherwise engaged.”

“I see, and when do you think they might be expected back to deal with their loyal customers? I have a longstanding arrangement with their organisation, I do not appreciate being kept waiting around!”

Muiri looked like she'd dearly like to take up assassination herself, starting with Maven, but her housecarl Maul looked dangerous. Argis, newly returned from Whiterun, was sitting in the corner, cleaning his battle-axe off, but even so, Muiri would not win a fight with Maven Black-Briar.

“Muiri,” Eola sighed wearily. “It's fine, I'll deal with this.”

Muiri gave her a pathetically grateful look, disappearing to the alchemy lab. Eola folded her arms, staring down Maven. Of all the things to come back to...

“Jarl Maven,” said Eola. “To what do we owe the pleasure? Is it a contract you're after or just a quote?”

Maven looked at her, frowning. “Haven't I seen you before?”

“Very possibly, I do represent the Temple on a regular basis,” said Eola, deciding not to bring up the Thalmor Embassy party of the previous year. If Maven didn't remember her from it, Eola wasn't going to remind her.

“Indeed,” said Maven. “Well, maybe you can actually give me some useful information then. Do you or do you not have a contract out on my children?”

Now that was unexpected. While Eola had no doubt whatsoever that the Black-Briar family had more than its share of enemies, she didn't think anyone had actually gone so far as to call down a contract on any of them.

“Not as far as I know,” said Eola. Impossible to know for sure what with the ledger being back at Karthspire, and Astrid did plenty of side work that never made it into the Karthspire ledger, but a contract against a Black-Briar – that she'd have remembered, and Astrid was a bit too closely linked to the Black-Briars to even consider killing one of them.

“Really,” said Maven, eyes narrowing. “Then would you care to explain why my son was found dead in his prison cell with not a mark on him? Are you seriously telling me that my son managed to die in my own keep and you people weren't responsible?”

“Definitely not one of ours,” said Eola. “Listener would have told me if that was going down. Just found dead one morning? That's good going – er, I mean, that's awful, I'm so sorry for your loss,” she said hastily, seeing the fury in Maven's eyes. It was a pity that the one responsible would almost certainly die horribly when Maven caught up with them, otherwise Eola would have been most interested in talking to them herself. Anyone capable of poisoning Sibbi Black-Briar in his mother's keep was clearly talented.

“I see,” said Maven. “And my daughter? Are there any contracts out on Ingun?”

Ingun? Now who in Tamriel might want her dead?

“She's dead too?” Eola asked. Surely not, two dead Black-Briars would have got people talking surely?

“Disappeared,” said Maven. “Not 'disappeared' disappeared, just vanished. Run away. She left me a note saying she wanted to see the world and just packed her things and went. I don't know where she is. I don't know if whoever killed Sibbi might be after her next.”

This was probably the most human Eola had ever seen Maven look. Who would have thought it, the woman who ruled the Rift with an iron fist did have a heart after all.

“Well, wherever she is, she's not someone we're looking for,” said Eola gently. “She's safe from us. But tell you what, if we run into her, we'll tell her to write home, let you know she's all right. Would that be OK?”

Maven's shoulders sagged a little, but she nodded. “I suppose it will have to do. Madanach did say you'd only ever tell me if she wasn't a target. If you find her, you know where to find me.”

Eola showed her and Maul out, before heading back inside.

“Right, if there are no more distractions, you guys, I'm crashing out. I have had a rough few days what with the imprisonment and torture and rescuing Elisif and dealing with werewolves and Daedra and...”

Argis coughed politely and indicated the side room off the main chapel area. In the door way, a woman in Shrouded Robes emerged.

“Has she gone?” Ingun hissed. Eola sank into a chair, feeling a headache coming on.

“What are you doing here. Just... what are you doing. And where'd the robes come from?”

“She's been here for the last week apparently,” said Argis, pointedly focusing on his battle-axe. “We lent her a set of robes to wear while her armour was being mended. Wanted to speak to you or Cicero in particular and refused to go to the inn. I'm not sure she's got any money of her own.”

Ingun settled down in a chair opposite Eola, looking very pleased with herself. “I'm here to join!” she said, practically buzzing. “You know, like you and Cicero said I could at the wedding.”

“Yeah, if you killed someone. You know, your ma is worried sick about you – oh Namira, no.” She looked at Ingun, who was looking properly gleeful. “It was you, wasn't it. You killed Sibbi. Your own brother. To impress us, why? Couldn't you have gone for someone a bit less high profile?”

“Because the bastard's been raping and abusing me since I turned 14 and grew breasts. It stopped when he met Svidi, that's his ex-fiancee. She was nice, I liked her. Of course, then he turned on her as well, and her brother found out and Sibbi killed him, which is why Mother locked him up.” Ingun just shrugged, still grinning. “I knew he'd start with me again as soon as he got out, so I paid him a little visit. Laced my lipstick with poison, took the antidote myself, kissed him and rubbed the poison into his skin. Dead by morning, no trace of what did the job, and I don't have to worry about him getting his hands on me ever again. So, what do you think? Am I in?”

“I don't even know what to say,” Eola whispered. “Are you serious?”

“Totally!” Ingun laughed. “Oh gods, it feels so good to be out of Riften. Goodbye, small town politics, hello glory!”

“There's precious little glory to be had in this business,” Eola felt obliged to warn her. Ingun just raised an eyebrow, looking just like Maven in that instant.

“Tell that to Cicero Dragonborn,” said Ingun, grinning.

“Yeah, but he's Dragonborn. Things tend to happen when he's around,” said Eola. Ingun just leaned forward, the firelight reflected in her eyes and making her look as mad as Cicero himself.

“Exactly,” she breathed.

Eola gave in. She knew when she was beaten, and she had been intrigued by whoever had managed to kill Sibbi without anyone realising. That it was his own sister was unexpected – but she could work with it.

“All right, you're in on probation. But there's rules, see? You've got to do what you're told, see? You answer to me for now, but the Listener's in charge overall. And you don't breathe a word of any of our secrets, and you don't kill or steal from a fellow member. And the boss of all of us is the Night Mother. You work very hard and be very good, might be Cicero and Delphine will let you see her one day. Maybe. In the mean time, you treat her with respect. Got all that?”

“Got it,” said Ingun. “So now what? Who do you want me to kill first?”

“Right now, no one,” said Eola. “You're going to head into our armoury over there and kit yourself out with a set of armour. We got all sizes, male and female. Also get a bow, arrows, sword, daggers. Then rest for tonight. I'm meeting Da tomorrow, then you and I are going travelling. We've got to find the Listener. There's trouble in Skyrim and she's going to need our help. But before we leave, I need your help. You're an alchemist, right?”

“I've got a little training, yes,” said Ingun. “Why, do you want me to knock up some poison for you?”

“Not exactly,” said Eola. “But I need your help to knock up a special potion. It's for a friend of mine...”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Korvanjund turned out to be bigger than either Cicero or Ria had thought. Not just a simple set of ruins but a whole underground complex. With bandits. And Draugr. Lots and lots of Draugr.

It was very strange, but it was almost like Cicero had done this before. Despite the fact none of his work with the Companions had taken him in to any Nord tombs. Even so, he could recognise pressure plates and tell the difference between dead Draugr and the ones likely to get up and cause trouble. Sneaking up and stabbing them took care of that. Ria followed behind, taking aim at anything she saw move. She wasn't at all a bad shot. Together the two of them carved a path through the tomb, making their way towards the centre.

Now they were facing a stone door with no obvious way past.

“Now what?” Ria whispered.

“You are the one who has been through these places before!” Cicero hissed back. “I never have!”

“You have though!” Ria insisted. “You and I explored Dustman's Cairn together. And you'd definitely dealt with Draugr before then! Look, Ralof gave you that claw. Maybe that has something to do with it.”

Cicero dug the claw out, examining it carefully. Perhaps, perhaps – the claws could fit that centrepiece. And three symbols on the claw – three rings in the door with symbols. Hmm. He started to move the rings, lining the symbols up in the same combination as on the claw and taking a deep breath, inserted the claw into the door.

“It's working!” Ria squealed as the rings spun and the door sank into the floor with a grinding of cogs and a flurry of dust.

“It is, it is!” Cicero giggled, doing a little dance on the spot as he put the claw away. “Come on, come on, sweet Ria, let us venture on! Maybe there'll be more Draugr to kill!” Cicero liked killing Draugr. He liked killing them very much indeed. He had a strange sensation though that the Draugr killing could get even better, a vague feeling that there should be explosions as they died, or that he should be able to set them on fire somehow.

Not enough fire. There was not enough fire and this bothered him. Still, perhaps there'd be a fire trap up ahead to set loose on some Draugr. Cicero liked fire.

There were no fire traps, but there were plenty of Draugr, all of which Cicero and Ria took great delight in slaughtering. As Ria had said on the way, an awful lot of her fighting moves seemed based on his, adapted a little to take her preference for heavy armour into account and based less on sneaking than his, but still, there was a similarity there.

“We really did this before?” he asked her. “And I really taught you things?”

“Yeah,” said Ria, sheathing her Skyforge sword. “You're really good at it. I mean, you were kind of scary, but you knew what you were doing. You're still kind of scary, but nicer about it, you know? Less obviously violent.”

Oh if only she knew just how much effort Cicero was expending in reining in the violent tendencies. Just enough to get the job done, absolutely no need to laugh or sing or start shrieking about blood. No need for any of that, so no need to do it, so why he kept feeling the urge to break into song, he had no idea. Now was not the time, and he wouldn't want Ria to think he was insane, no. Ria was a sweet and innocent young thing, although she did seem to enjoy hacking the Draugr to pieces just a little too much. Well, he could hardly judge her for that.

“Am I really Dragonborn?” he asked her, hoping she'd say no. He was to be disappointed.

“Of course you are,” she said, smiling. “You were fierce then and you still are. When you get your memory back, you'll see.”

Cicero wasn't entirely certain he wanted his memories back if he really was Dragonborn, but he had to admit a certain curiosity. He didn't feel terribly strong or powerful if he was honest. Just another warrior trying to get by. Still, Ria seemed certain that he'd been exceptionally skilled when she'd last seen him in action. He just hoped he could keep living up to expectations.

Finally, the passage led to a big chamber, a seemingly empty one with just a few urns and various shelves – and a throne in between two large coffins. A throne occupied by a Draugr, apparently sleeping. It stayed that way as they approached. On its head was a strange iron helmet, reinforced with what were clearly dragon teeth.

“Is that it?” Ria whispered. “The Jagged Crown?”

“I don't know,” Cicero whispered back. “It could be?”

Ria put her sword away and made her way over, running fingers over the crown. It was no ceremonial artefact, this. It was a piece of heavy armour designed for a warrior ruler leading their troops into battle. Ria had never met Elisif, but she'd not heard of any noted martial prowess on her part. Would it even suit her or would it just look ridiculous on her? Still, it was the long-lost traditional crown of the High King or Queen, Elisif was entitled to it. Ria picked up the crown.

“Ria, no!” Cicero shouted. The Draugr that had been wearing it looked up and reached for its sword, a vicious looking ebony weapon that could probably cut through Ria's steel armour without trouble.

Next to her the two stone coffins fell open and two more Draugr stepped out. This was not going well. Outnumbered, probably outmatched, definitely in for a tough fight.

She loved this sort of thing. With a cry of “For Ysgramor!” she drew her sword, bashed the Draugr nearest her with a shield and swung her blade at the other one. Behind her, Cicero had fired off a couple of arrows into the Draugr making for him, before drawing sword and dagger and charging towards it screaming “Talos take you!”

The fight took off in earnest, Cicero ducking and weaving as he took on one, Ria letting her shield and armour take the hits from one while she stabbed at the other with her sword. Cicero was keeping up a relentless series of strikes on his opponent, but Ria was beginning to falter.

“Give me a hand here,” she shouted.

“I'd love to, but I'm a little occupied!” Cicero shouted back. The Draugr Scourge that was laying into him was now using frost magic to try and slow him down. It was working too. This... was really not going well, and now the Draugr Scourge near her had had the same idea. She could feel her reactions and movements slowing down, her stamina draining away under the relentless ice magic. Ice...

“Try Shouting!” she called over to Cicero, some memory flickering in her mind of last time they'd been besieged by Draugr.

“Shouting what??” Cicero demanded.

“I think it's something like IIZ!” Ria cried. The Draugr Deathlord's ebony sword got past her guard, hitting her shoulder and slicing through armour into flesh. It didn't go deep, but the pain made Ria cry out and lose her grip on her weapon.

Ria staggered back, holding up her shield, all the while looking frantically around for a replacement blade. Stupid, stupid, hadn't Vilkas always told her – rule number one, never drop your blade. Now she'd done exactly that and she didn't know if she was glad he wasn't there to see it or wishing he was there so she could say goodbye.

“IIZ!” Cicero screamed at his Draugr. Absolutely nothing happened other than Cicero staggering back, clutching his head. The Draugr Scourge and the Draugr Deathlord that had been wearing the crown both turned on him, scenting blood. Cicero shook himself down and launched himself at them both. His sword skewered the Scourge, sending it falling to the ground, and his ebony dagger he flung straight at Ria. It clattered to the ground at her feet, and she snatched it up, ignoring the pain in her shoulder as she shoved it into her Draugr opponent's ribcage. The thing cried out and collapsed to the floor, dead. Cicero meanwhile had dodged out of the way of the Deathlord, rolling across the floor, grabbing Ria's discarded blade and stabbing it into the Deathlord's back.

The thing finally died, collapsing to the floor. Ria reached for a healing potion, knocking it back and feeling the pain starting to ebb. Cicero handed her sword back and started running his hands over her, Restoration magic coming from his fingers and mending her skin.

“You're a mage?” Ria asked, surprised. Cicero tilted his head, pursing his lips.

“Am I?” he asked, confused. “I don't know, it just sort of came to me to do this.”

“Well, someone trained you in a bit of healing magic, and I'm not complaining,” said Ria, flexing her fingers and shaking the stiffness out of her arm. Might take a while to get back to full health, but he'd done a good job. She ripped the dagger out of the Draugr's dead body and handed it back to Cicero. Surprisingly, he was grinning.

“That Shouting didn't do a thing,” he said, smirking. “So I'm clearly not Dragonborn, am I?”

“You've done it before!” Ria protested. “You shouted it at a Draugr and it turned to ice. I saw it!”

“Did you?” said Cicero, still grinning. “You must have been mistaken. Come, come, dear child, let us see what else is worth having.”

The resulting search turned up some potions, gold, a few bits of jewellery and a nice ebony shield which Cicero told Ria to keep. After a thorough search, all that was left was the curved wall at the end with carving on them. The wall with one word glowing in vivid blue light.

“Ria, do you see that?” Cicero whispered. “It's glowing!”

“I see it,” Ria breathed. “What's it say? Does that glowing word say... sand?”

“Het mah sahrot Konahrik Aaban, Kiin se klo se Alik'r. Praan nu denek Keizaal,” said Cicero softly. “Here fell mighty Warlord Aaban, child of the sands of Alik'r; rest now in the soil of Skyrim. Can't you read it too?”

“No, just that blue word,” Ria said. “The rest of it is in some sort of language I can't read – must be Ancient Nord. You must know Ancient Nord! Makes sense though, you were staring at the other wall we saw in Dustman's Cairn. It had a glowing word on it too, sun I think it was. You said it was some sort of Dragonborn thing, a Word of Power?”

“Well there we are!” Cicero laughed. “I'm clearly not Dragonborn because you can see the word too, so everyone must be able to. Also I couldn't Shout. So I'm not Dragonborn, I'm perfectly normal, I just happen to have studied Ancient Nord in the past. I must be a warrior-mage, a scholar. Ooh, ooh! I must be a secret priest of Talos! Yes, yes, that would explain it! Cicero the scholarly fighting Talos-priest!”

“Scholarly. You.” Ria couldn't claim to know Cicero well, but the man she remembered was definitely not a scholar. “Come on. Let's get out of here. Dragonborn or not, we're going to High Hrothgar. You're going to meet some Greybeards.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Someone was shaking her shoulder, whispering for her to wake up. Eola muttered, shrugging the hand off. The scent was wrong for Delphine, about the only one who Eola would actually want to be groping her in the middle of the night, so therefore Eola had no intention of getting out of bed any time soon.

“Gerroff,” she muttered, rolling over.

“Wake up!” a woman whispered. “There's someone in the Temple! A man!”

“Yeah, he's our housecarl, he's meant to be here,” Eola murmured.

“No, not him! A stranger!” Ingun whispered, panicked.

Eola's eyes flicked open. Scents, some old, some new, Ingun, Argis in the other side room, Muiri's drifting over from the alchemy lab... and in the hall, a different one. A man.

Eola placed a finger to her lips and motioned for Ingun to follow. To her credit, Ingun moved as silently as she did, Shrouded boots noiseless on the Temple floor. Ingun even had the wit to pull on her cowl and nock an arrow to her new Elven bow, ready to shoot if required.

The intruder was a man, around Eola's age, possibly a year or two younger, a six foot Nord with strapping muscles and blonde hair, dressed in leather armour with a battle-axe slung over his shoulder. He was moving quietly, nervously, but making no real effort to sneak.

“Cover me,” Eola whispered, pulling a Shrouded Hood on and stepping in to the light.

“Welcome stranger,” Eola purred. “Do you have business with the priesthood of Sithis? These are not our normal hours of business.”

“I would have thought the middle of the night was exactly your usual hours of business,” the Nord said bitterly.

“Now, now, just because we deal in darkness doesn't mean we need to be uncivilised about these things,” said Eola, raising her hands. She didn't think he was going to attack, but he was not acting like either an eager recruit or a nervous petitioner. In fact, she could almost swear he hated them all, but if he was going to attack, this was not the way to do it, and this was no green youth. Whoever this man was, he'd seen combat.

“May I ask what you want from us?” Eola asked. “Are you wishing to offer a prayer for a soul, or a donation or...?”

“None of those,” he said. He unshouldered his battle-axe, causing Eola to summon fire into her hands just in case. Then he laid the axe on the floor, kicking it away and kneeling, hands behind his head. Eola lowered her hands, glancing at Ingun, who looked as confused as she felt.

“What are you doing?” she asked. This was not normal behaviour for their visitors.

“Turning myself in,” he said. “It's only a matter of time before you'd catch up with me eventually. I'm guessing it'll go a lot easier if I just come straight here and let you get it over with.”

“Get what over with??” Eola asked, now completely bewildered. Ingun had lowered her bow a little and broken cover.

“I killed someone,” he said, staring at the floor, looking every inch the penitent. Eola exchanged glances with Ingun. This was just getting odder by the second.

“You, er, do know where you are, don't you?” Eola asked. “Who you're talking to?”

“Aye,” he said. “I know who you are. That's why I'm here. I'm thinking you'll be looking for me soon enough.”

“Why, does someone want you dead?” Ingun asked, fascinated. “Are you saving them the trouble of finding us?”

“Ingun, shush,” said Eola. “All right, who are you, and who did you kill?”

“My name is Ralof,” he said, eyes still fixed on the floor and hands firmly on the back of his head. “I was a Stormcloak soldier once, lately a Companion. Then... then I got myself involved in something I shouldn't have.”

“Get to the point,” said Eola. Argis had stirred from his sleeping quarters on the other side of the Temple, and Muiri was sticking her head round the door to see what was going on. “Who'd you kill?”

“Falk Firebeard,” said Ralof softly, voice devoid of emotion. He finally raised his eyes to Eola, and they looked like the eyes of a man who'd stared straight into Oblivion itself. “I killed Queen Elisif's steward and made it look like the Brotherhood's work. Nightshade flowers over the body, black handprints, Hail Sithis on the wall in his own blood.”

“I need to sit down,” said Eola, feeling ever so slightly faint. This was bad. This was beyond bad.

“Is that – is that not good?” Ingun asked nervously.

“Falk Firebeard was Elisif's steward and trusted right hand, he was looking after her Hold while she was travelling,” said Eola, mind barely processing the implications. “Now he's dead and everyone will think it was us. Including Elisif. She's not only a personal friend of mine, she's married to my father, the Reach-King and the reason we even have this Temple. Da knows where our headquarters is and he's got a fucking army at his disposal, an extremely loyal and fanatical army otherwise known as the Forsworn. I don't think he'd want to hurt us, but if it's a choice between letting the Brotherhood operate and keeping his wife... Aedra and Daedra, she'll be heartbroken and she'll blame me, you stupid Stormcloak son of a bitch, do you have any idea what you've done??” She was on her feet, fire in one hand, lightning in the other. Argis had produced his own sword and was moving to block the door and Muiri had dived back into the alchemy lab.

“If you would destroy a man, first undermine his allies,” said Ingun softly. “Uncle Mercer always used to say that. But Eola, if Ralof here's so keen to help get Elisif off the throne and bring us down... why's he here confessing?”

A very good point. Eola extinguished the fire, throwing her Shrouded Hood back. Stalking forward, she grabbed Ralof by the hair and yanked his head back so she could stare deep into his eyes.

“Do you know who I am,” she said, voice low and menacing. Ralof nodded, meeting her gaze.

“You're Eola, Princess of the Reach. You're the one who killed Galmar and feasted on his dead body. I'm not remotely surprised you're in the Dark Brotherhood.”

“I didn't kill him personally, but I was there when the bastard died, yes,” said Eola, sounding far more calm than she felt. “You are going to talk to me, Stormcloak, and you better hope I like what I hear, or I will personally cut your throat, melt your face off, eat your flesh and drink your blood, and if you're really unlucky, I'll do it in reverse order. Why did you decide to do something so mindnumbingly foolish as to fuck off the Dark Brotherhood and having committed said act of witless stupidity, why are you here telling us all about it?”

“Don't you think I don't know all that?” Ralof shouted. “Do you think I don't know I'm a dead man walking? Sure we all sang and drank when you killed the Emperor, but I was at the Battle of Markarth. I saw you summon a damn dragon out of the sky! I wasn't close enough to see you in action, but all those who were died horribly enough for me to be glad of that. I did the deed last night and fled, word will be getting out soon enough. I spent most of today hiding out in the wilds wondering what to do, if there was any way out for me other than ending my miserable life, but I'm damned if I can see one. I thought I was doing the right thing, the honourable thing for my country, freeing it from a corrupt Empire and getting the Reach back where it belongs, getting Talos worshipped again. But Falk Firebeard was a decent man and he didn't deserve what I did to him. I posed as a guard and butchered him in his sleep. It's no way for a Nord to die. It won't get him to Sovngarde. And now I'm fairly certain I'll never see Shor's Hall either, certainly not after framing you for the deed. If you can kill an Emperor on his own ship and Ulfric among his own men, what chance do I have? I thought if I came here and handed myself in, you might at least make it quick.”

Ingun had raised her bow again and Argis was poised with his sword ready, looking almost as furious as Eola felt.

“Say the word, Eola. Say the word, we'll strike him down where he is,” Argis growled, looking all too ready to shed some blood. Eola didn't know why her father trusted him so much, when he trusted few other outsiders and certainly very few Nords, but Argis' devotion to the Forsworn cause was apparently genuine, and he'd served the Brotherhood willingly and uncomplainingly. It seemed he was as appalled by Ralof's actions as she was. Eola shot him a smile. It was nice to have someone loyal watching her back. Argis nodded back at her, smile flashing briefly over his face before he turned back to Ralof, seething at the man.

Eola let Ralof go, stepping back from him. Back to business.

“You can count yourself very fortunate that you are presently worth more to us alive than dead,” said Eola softly. “As it is, once we've managed to fully rectify the consequences of your utter stupidity, you will be handed over to our Listener for final judgement, and when I say final, you can be pretty sure it will be very fucking final indeed as far as you're concerned.”

“Understood,” said Ralof, resigned. “Just make it quick.”

Eola wasn't prepared to make any such promise, but right now she had more important things to do. Such as throw herself at Elisif's feet and swear by all the Divines it hadn't been them who'd killed her steward.

“Argis, get some rope and tie Ralof's hands. Then get yourself dressed properly. You and Ingun are going to be helping me escort this corpse-to-be to my father where he can explain to the Reach-King and the woman whose steward he just killed just what in Oblivion he thought he was playing at. What time is it anyway?”

“About half past five,” said Argis. A bit early, but this really couldn't wait, and at least they'd have had something approaching a good night's sleep. Eola nodded for Argis to get on with it, and sat with Ingun to watch over a newly-tied Ralof while their housecarl sorted his gear out.

“I seem to have joined at an interesting time,” Ingun said, seemingly enthralled by the whole situation.

“It's not always like this,” Eola sighed, wishing the girl could be a bit less enthusiastic about things. This was hardly the time or the place.

“Good thing I'm here to see it all then, isn't it?” said Ingun eagerly.

Well, at least someone was happy. Trying not to think of Elisif's likely reaction, Eola retrieved her own weapons. This was not going to go well.

Chapter Text

News had travelled faster than they thought. Madanach was already out of bed, sitting on the Mournful Throne with Elisif on his lap, listening grimly to a young Forsworn messenger telling of how the Steward of Haafingar was dead and the Hold was descending into chaos. Elisif had her hand to her mouth, tears on her cheeks. Neither she nor Madanach had had the chance to get dressed properly, both wearing simple tunics, but no one watching them could be in any doubt that these two were still rulers regardless.

“Da!” Eola cried, racing up the steps towards the throne. “Da, I can explain everything, it's not what it seems!”

Two Forsworn guards stepped out in front of her, barring the way, eyes like ice. Not the treatment she was accustomed to getting, and her father right there too. Madanach raised his eyes to hers, face a mask.

“Your business is your own, daughter, but if you're going to kill my wife's people, you could do a better job of covering your tracks.”

“Da, I'm sorry, I swear, it wasn't-”

“Shut up!” Elisif screamed. She leapt off the throne, running down the stairs, elbowing the Forsworn out of the way and delivering a resounding slap to Eola. “Lying, murdering bitch, I trusted you! I thought you were my friend and you do this??”

“It wasn't us!” Eola cried. “We didn't kill Falk, I swear it! I swear to Sithis Delphine would have told me if he was one of ours!”

“You expect me to believe a word you tell me??” Elisif shouted, furious. Well, this was going as well as expected – Elisif hurt and furious, and her father... Eola looked away, not wanting to see the disappointment in those eyes and the unasked question – why? Well, she might not be able to exactly say why, but she could at least prove the Brotherhood's innocence. Eola stepped aside and motioned for Ingun and Argis to bring Ralof forward.

“This is who killed your precious Falk. He isn't one of ours, he's an ex-Companion and ex-Stormcloak by the name of Ralof. Explain yourself, Stormcloak.”

Elisif stared down at him, confused. She frowned, and then her face twisted in fury and recognition.

“You, I know you! You're one of the men that took me! You killed Bolgeir while the other one hauled me away,” she cried, eyes flicking back to Madanach, who'd sat up, his own eyes narrowing as they fell on Ralof. If Ralof hadn't already made an enemy of the Dark Brotherhood, Madanach would most likely have killed him on the spot.

“No, you're not Brotherhood,” Elisif continued, her own anger flaring. “But you did kill my housecarl, and now my steward.”

“Yes,” said Ralof, barely daring to meet her eyes.

“Look at me when I'm talking to you!” Elisif snapped. Ralof hesitantly looked up and gasped to see what she looked like now.

“Yes, murderer, get a good look at me,” Elisif hissed. “I'm not the little doll you remember. Not any more. You will face justice, and I might wield the headsman's axe myself if I have to. Tell me why you did it, and who else is involved.”

“We wanted our country back!” Ralof shouted. “From the elves and the witches and the Empire and whoever else might make us slaves and stop us worshipping our gods! From the murdering bastards who killed Ulfric! From...” He stopped, the anger fading away. “He said you were some slip of a girl in the Empire's pocket, and Nords shouldn't be ruled by someone who couldn't even wield a blade. I guess he was wrong about that now, eh?”

“The man who did this to me is lying dead in a cave somewhere after I caved his head in with an axe,” said Elisif softly. “Now who gave you your orders?”

“Hrongar,” said Ralof quietly. “Hrongar of Whiterun. He planned the whole thing. Never backed us during the war, but apparently the country being partitioned changed his mind. I don't think he's ultimately in charge, but it was him who sent Lydia to join the Companions. He's been in contact with Laila too I think, that's why Harrald came here. It was Lydia and Harrald who recruited Njada and I. I assume if you're here Harrald is...”

“Quite dead,” said Elisif, finally allowing herself a smile. “Eola here killed him. It wasn't pleasant or pretty.” She turned to Madanach, all business and had she but realised it, finally looking every inch the High Queen she was. “I need to get to Whiterun. Hrongar is Balgruuf's brother, if he's involved, I need to act fast. I'll need to take Ralof here to Whiterun so he can confess everything and I can get Hrongar into custody and back to Solitude for trial. I'll need soldiers, bodyguards, anything you can spare.”

“You shall have it, wife of mine,” Madanach promised, kissing the back of her hand. “Borkul! Get my armour and weapons and assemble my honour guard. Also send word to Banning to ready the horses. Eola, you and Argis and your friend here – wait. Aren't you Maven Black-Briar's daughter?”

“That's right,” said Ingun cheerfully. Eola could have cursed the girl for wandering about uncowled in that armour. Madanach looked rather pointedly at Eola than back to Ingun.

“Your mother's very worried about you, young lady,” said Madanach sternly. “She was here asking if we'd seen you.”

“Yes, Eola told me,” said Ingun, folding her arms and meeting his gaze, not even flinching. She clearly wasn't fazed by Madanach's reputation – having a mother also notorious for having people removed if they got in her way had clearly made it hard to intimidate her. “But I'm twenty years old, I don't have to do everything my mother tells me any more.”

“Your mother's a Jarl,” Madanach pointed out. Ingun just smiled.

“Only of the Rift,” she grinned. “I'm not in the Rift any more.”

“No, she's with me,” said Eola, interrupting before this got out of hand. “Well, for now anyway. If it doesn't work out, she's on the next carriage back to Riften.”

Madanach gave up trying to be authoritative, at least as far as his daughter was concerned. “Fine, fine. Just write to her and let her know you're alive, alright? And that the Brotherhood aren't hunting you.”

“I promise she will,” said Eola before Ingun could say anything else. “Come on Ingun, you and me and Argis need to get this one to the cells and make sure nothing happens to him.”

Ingun was agreeable to this and the three of them hauled Ralof off. Leaving Madanach with Elisif.

“Thank you,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around him. “For helping me. I should probably go sort out my own armour, shouldn't I? Are – are you really coming with me? You don't have to do that, this is Skyrim's problem, not yours.”

“Skyrim's problem is likely to become my problem in fairly short order if Hrongar gets his way,” said Madanach, finally letting a little of the worry show. The Reach was strong and its terrain rugged and hard to assault, but Ulfric's army had come close to breaking Markarth. He wasn't sure how the Reach would stand up to a unified Skyrim army, and nothing made it easier to unite people than a common enemy.

“He won't,” Elisif said fiercely. “I will bring him to justice for this. And whoever he's working with. I swear it, Madanach, I won't let him hurt you or your people.”

Madanach held her, stroking her hair, not sure he really trusted himself to speak right now. So different and yet still very much his Elisif.

“Come on, cariad,” he finally said. “If you're going to bring wrongdoers to justice, we should get you kitted out. That Daedric outfit of yours, and I can get you some of our gear to go with it too. Looks better than armour lifted off a dead Thalmor.”

“You really think it was lifted off a dead -” Elisif stopped, remembering who was alleged to have been behind the Liberation of Northwatch and rumoured to have assisted with the destruction by dragon of the Thalmor Embassy and who had definitely turned up with a dragon at the Battle of Markarth, and that there had been rumours of a dragon at Lost Valley, not to mention Elenwen accusing him of robbing their Embassy at the conference. Of course the Dark Brotherhood's cache of Elven gear was all ex-Thalmor.

“Some Forsworn gear would be lovely,” said Elisif, thinking that the boots and gauntlets would go nicely with the Saviour's Hide. “But... not the head-dress. I need to look like a Nord Queen, not a Forsworn warrior. Have you got anything suitable?”

It turned out not to be the case – it was all Forsworn gear or Orc-wear or other heavy armour that looked a bit ridiculous on her. She opted for a scaled helmet that had once belonged to an unlucky Stormcloak. They'd managed to get most of the blood off it and knocked out the dents. Frankly, Elisif was a little reluctant, but it was the best on offer other than Shrouded Cowls, and while Elisif was prepared to tolerate the Brotherhood for her husband's sake, she was not wearing their armour.

Last thing of all was the weaponry. There wasn't a lot in the way of shields – Forsworn didn't use them, and the few shields that remained were all painted with Markarth's ram horns, or in the process of having Madanach's crowned red eagle crest painted on them. But Elisif still had her axe – and she knew a thing or two about enchantment. She also recognised Azura's Star when she saw it, and Eola was willing enough to lend it.

“Not as powerful as a black gem though, I'm sure Da has a few lying around if you want one. He'd not mind you taking one, I'm sure.”

Elisif took Azura's Star off her, placing it on Calcelmo's Arcane Enchanter, frowning at Eola.

“Listen Eola, I'm willing to tolerate you and your father's less than savoury habits for love of him, the fact you've saved my life on several occasions now, and because you've all been of great assistance both now and in the past. But do not think for a moment that I approve of it.”

“Understood,” said Eola quietly, watching as Elisif set to work. A few minutes later and it was done, the now empty Star being passed back to Eola.

“What did you do to it?” Eola asked, curious.

“Well, seeing as it's most likely to end up being used against Nords in the near future, and we're used to cold and don't use magic, frost and lightning seemed less than useful. So I put a fire enchantment on it.” Elisif gave it a few swings, giving a few battle cries as she mimicked fighting invisible opponents. Eola wisely stepped out of the way.

“What are you going to call it?” Eola asked. “Every mighty ruler should have a mighty weapon with a name.”

Elisif paused, tracing her fingers along the ebony carvings on the axe, the red of the fire enchantment glowing faintly on it. She had no idea who'd made it. Eola had told her she'd found it in a Nord ruin, taking it off a dead Draugr after it had nearly killed Cicero with the axe. It might have had a name when said Draugr had been alive. But there was no way of knowing. Whatever it had been before, that had died in that ruin. It was reborn as hers now. So it deserved its own name. Elisif pursed her lips. Imagination wasn't exactly her strong point – she left poetry for the bards. All the same, she could think of something.

“Blackfire,” she said, the name coming to her. “It's black, it sets enemies on fire. What do you think?”

“Blackfire,” Eola repeated. “I like it. You got yourself a weapon of legend there, Wolfslayer.”

Elisif sheathed the axe, grim smile on her face. “I have. And soon they will all know it. Come on, Eola. Let's see if Madanach's got everyone else ready.”

“You do that,” said Eola, another idea occurring to her. If they were going back to Whiterun anyway, she wanted to be prepared. “I'm going to need to swing by our Sanctuary on the way. There's a few things I'm going to need...”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After Korvanjund, Cicero and Ria had been about ready to collapse. Ria had barely stopped all day, having spent the morning on a carriage, then leaving Whiterun again and walking up to Korvanjund with Cicero then exploring it, and it was now the early hours of the morning. Neither fancied setting out on the long journey to High Hrothgar straight away. Fortunately Ria had known of the nearby Nightgate Inn. Just up the road really, an ideal place to rest and sleep. So they'd headed out there and rested for a few hours. Now they were on their way towards Windhelm, avoiding Whiterun by taking the road south alongside the Darkwater instead, then down into the Rift and towards Ivarstead that way.

It was all going quite well until they ran into the dragon.

“Dragon!” shouted Ria, taking aim. She'd never fought one before, although she'd heard lots of stories. Still, Cicero was Dragonborn even if he didn't remember it. He'd know what to do, right?

“DRAGON!!” Cicero shrieked, diving behind a rock. “RIA! What are you doing??? Get over here, don't antagonise it!”

“True Companions never back down!” Ria shouted, dodging out of the way of a jet of fire. “What sort of Dragonborn are you??”

“I'm not a Dragonborn!!!” Cicero shouted back. Ria let off another shot, hitting it this time.

“You're a Companion though! Give me a hand or you're not my Shield-Brother any more!” Ria shouted. The dragon wheeled around and landed behind her, preparing to breathe fire at her. Ria raised her shield and braced herself.

Cicero sighed, knocked back a Resist Fire potion and drew his own sword. Ria might be a little bit mad, but what sort of Companion was he if he left his Shield-Sister to fight alone? What would Kodlak think of him? He couldn't bear to think of his father being disappointed in him.

“For Jorrvaskr!” he shouted, rushing forward to strike at the dragon. The battle was on.

Somehow it got easier. Reflexes kicked in. Cicero somehow knew how the dragon was going to behave, what heralded its fire attacks, roughly how long he had when it landed, and most importantly, how to shoot one in flight.

All right, so maybe he'd fought one or two before. That did not make him Dragonborn.

Finally the thing was dead. Cicero kept firing arrows while Ria hit it repeatedly in the face, darting back from its teeth. The beast flailed, close to death, and Cicero sheathed his bow and risked running closer. A few strikes from him and Ria combined and it was dead.

“We did it,” Ria gasped. “We killed a dragon!”

“We did, we did!” Cicero laughed, feeling rather light-headed after all that. Ria grinned, picked him up and swung him around, depositing him between her and the dragon with a grin on her face.

“You're stronger than you look!” Cicero gasped. Ria just smirked.

“I had to haul Farkas's arse across an icefield. You're nothing compared to that. Hey, the dragon's burning!”

Cicero turned, some vague feeling of dread prickling down his spine. Almost like this had happened before and it wasn't pleasant. Some sort of light was boiling out of it, and it was heading straight for him. Before he could run, the light whirled around him, sinking into his skin.

“See? You are Dragonborn!” he heard Ria say, before the dragon soul seeped into his brain and his mind erupted in fire.

Cicero fell to his knees, howling. There was a dragon in his head, roaring around his brain, roaring and breathing fire everywhere. Ria was kneeling by him, crying out his name, but she couldn't help, no one could help, the thing was in his head and it was going to kill him, going to kill everything, burn him from the inside out. Nothing could help him now. Nothing... except possibly one thing. The dragon there already was rattling behind the vault door, screaming in rage at the interloper. Dragons within and dragons without and Cicero knew there was no fighting them, not this time.

He remembered Delphine's words and the promise he'd made. If all was lost, if his back was against the wall and he had no other options... Well, this looked like all was lost otherwise. Bracing himself, he opened the vault.

A vast red dragon with sharp teeth and inhuman amber eyes and perhaps scariest of all, a cruel and not entirely sane grin on its face burst out, howling and laughing with a wild glee. With a cry of “YOL TOOR SHUUUULLLL!!!” it breathed fire all over the dragon and pounced on it, teeth biting into its neck.

Dragon blood everywhere and Cicero could take it no more. Closing his eyes, he passed out.

~~~~~~~~~~~

“Cicero!” a woman was crying. “Cicero! Talk to me, please, are you alright?”

He knew that voice. Knew the accent, it sounded a bit like his own sweet mother, but she was dead so it surely wasn't her. No, he'd need to call her for that. Still, he knew the voice.

“Mama?” he asked, blinking, wincing at the harsh sunlight. His head felt full of cotton – had he been drinking? He wasn't sure...

“No, I'm not your mama, it's me, Ria!”

“Ria,” Cicero whispered, memory finally coming back. Yes, he remembered her, the dear child had been exploring Dustman's Cairn with Farkas way back when he'd still been learning how to breathe fire. “Hello, hello!” he cooed. “Fancy seeing you here!”

“You don't remember?” Ria asked, helping him sit up and brushing him down. “Kodlak told us to go to High Hrothgar, but you wanted to retrieve the Jagged Crown first. Then there was a dragon, and you took its soul!”

Kodlak... Jagged Crown... High Hrothgar. Slowly memories of the more recent past began to resurface. Very odd, the last thing he remembered clearly was stabbing that woman at Madanach's wedding. Everything after that was... very uncertain.

“We were going to High Hrothgar?” he asked, confused. “Why, did Arngeir send for me?”

“Who's Arngeir?” Ria asked, her turn to look confused now.

“He's the Master of the Greybeards,” said Cicero. Well, clearly she'd never been there, she wasn't to know. Wait a second, why was Ria of the Companions travelling with him anyway? She'd surely not joined the Brotherhood.

Cicero scratched his head, wondering where his hat had got to. Not to mention his armour and Dragonbane. Why was he wearing this scaled outfit? It was nice but not as good as his usual set. He shook his head, hair falling before his eyes. He brushed it aside, noticing the light playing on it oddly. Light...

He pulled a lock of hair before his eyes, having a closer look at it. Light, too light. Bright, shiny, golden...

“Sweet child,” he said faintly, “I don't suppose you have a mirror about your person, do you?”

Ria looked at him a bit oddly, but passed a hand mirror over from her pack. Steeling himself, Cicero looked at his reflection. Sweet, sweet Sithis. It was worse than he'd feared.

“What in the Void has happened to my HAIR???” Cicero screamed, throwing the mirror down and clutching at his blonde locks. Ria shrank back, looking terrified.

“Kodlak made you dye it, don't you remember?” she said nervously. “So that the Dark Brotherhood don't find you.”

Finally memory started to re-arrange itself. A memory of an old man staring down at him while two others rubbed the hateful blonde dye into his scalp. Kodlak Whitemane. Harbinger of the Companions. Telling him the Dark Brotherhood were looking for him, there was a contract out on him, they must never ever find him.

Well of course the Dark Brotherhood were looking for him, Delphine must have been going frantic. Sweet Night Mother, Delphine. He had to find her. Had to.

“How long have I been gone?” Cicero whispered, starting to panic. “Ria. Dearest Ria. When did Elisif and Madanach get married?”

“Er, about a month ago?” said Ria. “Maybe a bit longer?”

“Sithis help me,” Cicero whispered, feeling the blood draining from his face. “Ria, Cicero needs to go. Now. He needs to find sweet Delphine and let her know he's alright and not dead. And get his hat back. Bad things happen when Cicero doesn't have his hat!”

“You... you remember!” Ria gasped, delighted smile on her face. “You know who you are!”

“Of course I know!” Cicero cried. “I'm Cicero Dragonborn! And I need to go home! Now!”

“Cicero, you can't, the Brotherhood will find you!” Ria cried. “You know what Kodlak said!”

Kodlak. The memory hit Cicero like a troll. Kodlak Whitemane holding him, telling him... telling him he was his father and that he was proud of him.

Father. Of all the things to happen. He'd been so out of it he'd managed to join the Companions and discover he was the Harbinger's illegitimate son. He'd never had a father before. Never wanted or needed one. Not until now.

Father. Being held in Kodlak's arms and comforted. Being praised. Tears in the old man's eyes as he fussed over his Dragonborn son, one of the famed Companions.

His Dark Brotherhood assassin son, Keeper of the Night Mother and her true Listener. Sithis help him. Cicero closed his eyes. His mother had been upset enough over it, but mothers forgave anything in the end. She'd birthed him, raised him, he and she had been close, so close, always, she could never have turned from him. Kodlak had known him a matter of weeks, if that. Oh father, you are going to be so disappointed in me. Well, only one solution to that – Cicero would just have to not ever tell him. It would be fine, he'd just tell him he'd remembered who he was and was going home, visit every so often, send heavily edited letters about his less illegal exploits. No need for Kodlak to ever know his son was a hardened killer. He'd have to make sure Delphine knew as well, Kodlak would surely want to meet his daughter-in-law...

Cicero's last memory of Delphine floated into his mind. A memory of lying in bed with her, her reaching for him with that sweet smile of hers... and of him running away, telling her he was spoken for, that she needed to mourn her spouse first anyway, and her stumbling after, crying out for him to wait, he was her... He was her husband and he'd turned her away. Because he'd thought he was in love with Eola.

Dear gods, Eola. He'd stabbed Skjor to save her. Of course he would have, his only regret there was that he couldn't raise him and stab him again. He remembered seeing her hurt and bleeding and barely being able to think for rage. Just remembering it brought it all back. Then he'd freed her, she'd fed on Skjor and promptly turned into a werewolf. Which shouldn't be funny, it really wasn't, except he'd howled with laughter at the time and honestly, he was hard-pressed not to grin as he remembered her poor, horrified, werewolf face. Which vision was promptly replaced by memory of her naked, blood-covered form and that unrepentant grin of hers and oh Sithis, he was hard again, horny again, make it stop, repeat some algebraic equations or go over Calcelmo's Theorem again, yes, try and work out the length of the hypotenuse for a triangle where the other lengths of its sides were three inches and four inches...

Damn. Still not working. He could remember the blood and the way she tasted and the way she sounded and...

She is not my Listener, I can't be in love with her, I just can't... Except he wasn't sure that when he saw her again, he'd be able to keep his hands off her. He'd loved her dearly for a long time, he knew that, but as a sister only, he'd always told himself. He was the Listener's, he wasn't free to love Eola, not in that way.

Too late. Far too late, his love life was an unholy mess, Eola knew how he felt, had not stopped him or told him he had a wife, what was she thinking??? Delphine knew he'd found someone and she'd want to know who and it would devastate her to know it was her own lover. He'd ruined everything.

“We need to go back to Whiterun,” he whispered. “Right now!”

“You can't!” Ria cried. “It's too dangerous! Kodlak said you couldn't!”

“Yes, and he also said when I got my memory back I'd know who to trust!” Cicero said firmly. “The Harbinger advises, he does not give orders. Cicero does not have to obey. Kodlak is a Harbinger only... not a Listener.”

“What's a Listener?” Ria asked, scratching her head. Cicero decided now was not the time to explain. No, now was the time to get back to Whiterun using the fastest means at his disposal.

“Ria, haven't you ever wanted to fly?” he purred.

“Not really, I think I prefer being on the ground,” said Ria, now looking at him as if he was some sort of crazed lunatic.

“Well so does Cicero most of the time, but time is of the essence!” said Cicero, taking a deep breath. “OD-AH-VIING!” The Shout echoed around, reverberating over Lake Yorgrim and off the nearby mountains.

“You can Shout again!” Ria gasped, impressed. “What did that one do?”

“Wait! Just wait!” Cicero giggled, placing a finger to his lips. Seconds later, wingbeats could be heard, wind whistling through the trees as a vast shape flew overhead.

“Dragon!” Ria cried, raising her bow.

“No!” Cicero cried, grabbing her arm. “Do not shoot this one! He is Cicero's friend!”

“ZII-ZAH-RO!” Odahviing roared, landing by the road, sending snow flying everywhere. Cicero squealed and ran over to him. Right up until Odahviing's head swivelled to glare at him, teeth bared and eyes blazing.

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, ZIIZAHRO???” Odahviing roared. “I have been searching Keizaal for weeks! Calling you. Shouting for you! Nothing have I found! We feared something had killed you. Feared a new Dovahkiin would be called. We could not find you! WHERE WERE YOU HIDING?!” Odahviing crawled forward with every word, pointedly nudging at Cicero as he did. Cicero staggered back, beginning to feel rather nervous and hoping Odahviing wasn't reconsidering the whole Ziizahro Thur arrangement.

“Cicero is sorry, Odahviing!” Cicero cried. “It was not Cicero's fault! Cicero lost his memory, he didn't know who he was or even that he was Dragonborn! He has only just got his memory back! And he knows you must all have been worrying, that's why he's called you, zeymahi! Cicero needs to find Huzrah Delphine and everyone else and let them know he's not dead. Cicero is sorry, zeymahi. Very sorry indeed. He did not mean to upset you, dearest Odahviing.” As he said this, his voice softened and he began to stroke Odahviing's nose, cooing softly over the huge dragon. To everyone's surprise, not least Cicero's own, it proved to work as Odahviing calmed down, closing his eyes and leaning his head on its side, nuzzling gently at Cicero.

“Yol-Ah and Huzrah Delphine missed you,” Odahviing growled. “The Zeymah-kiir Aventus likewise. He is growing fast. I am trying to teach him the Thu'um but it is hard going.”

“He is not Dragonborn, Odahviing,” said Cicero gently. “He will not learn it as naturally as I would. But he might learn a few Shouts in time.” He turned to Ria, beckoning her over. “Ria, Ria, sweet Ria, come! You must meet Odahviing! He is Cicero's friend.”

Ria had sheathed her weapons, approaching nervously.

“You really can control dragons,” said Ria, amazed. “The stories of you descending on one and wiping out the Thalmor and the Stormcloaks, those are all true, aren't they?”

“Control is not exactly the right word,” said Cicero, running his hand over Odahviing's warm muzzle. “But Odahviing is my friend and my brother and he will help me if I ask. Especially if it involves killing lots and lots of people. He's always very pleased to help with that.”

Odahviing's eyes flicked open as Ria tentatively ran a hand over his nose. He lifted his head, looking at her curiously.

“I do not know you. But you remind me of Ziizahro. Are you his briinah-sos?”

“That means blood sister,” said Cicero. “No, Odahviing, Ria is briinahzin only to poor Cicero. She is from Cyrodiil too but we are not kin.”

It was possible they might be distantly related somehow, maybe through Cicero's mother or her unknown blood father, but Ria wasn't sure it was at all likely. “We're not kin,” said Ria. “Not that I know of anyway.”

Odahviing looked at her, eyes keen and looking very thoughtful, although it was difficult to read a dragon's expression.

“You have strength in you,” he said. “Still a kiir. But not a weakling. Very well, Ziizahro-briinah, I will accept you as friend. You killed a Dovah after all.”

“Odahviing is not allowed to eat dear Ria!” said Cicero firmly. “She is Cicero's friend!”

That was not as reassuring as it could have been in Ria's mind. Fortunately Odahviing just nodded, lips still curved in a smile.

“I will not harm her. She... interests me.” Odahviing shook himself down and sat up. “So Ziizahro, as there are no enemies to be seen and you are in the middle of nowhere, may I take it you require transportation?”

“Yes please!” said Cicero, looking hopefully up at him. “And for sweet Ria as well. We wish to go to Whiterun, Ria lives there and Cicero needs to find sweetest Delphine and persuade her he still loves her and has not abandoned her.”

“Whiterun,” Odahviing sighed. “It would be there. Very well, get on. I will take you to the city.”

Cicero giggled and climbed on, straddling Odahviing's neck and holding on to the dragon's horns. Ria got on behind, avoiding the spines and holding on to Cicero. This could be the most uncomfortable ride of her life. She wasn't wrong. When Odahviing took to the air, she clung on to Cicero, screaming as the ground fell away. Dragon roaring echoed across the valley as Odahviing wheeled around and flew for Whiterun.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“What do you mean, we have to leave?” Delphine asked, confused. She'd been intending to depart for Solitude that day anyway, but actually being asked to leave hadn't been in the plan.

Balgruuf looked up at her, his eyes shadowed.

“We've had word from Solitude,” Balgruuf said. “Two nights ago, Falk Firebeard was murdered. By the Dark Brotherhood. I don't know what Madanach's playing at, or if his allies have double-crossed him like they do everyone in the end, but a good man is dead and Skyrim is in trouble.”

But we never... Delphine shot a glance at Astrid, who looked as confused as she did and shook her head. Not one of hers either. Which meant the conspiracy were one step ahead of her, as always. Oh Talos, when Madanach and Elisif heard about this...

“How do we know it was the Brotherhood?” she asked, doing her best to stay calm. Balgruuf just shrugged.

“The usual. Nightshade petals, Hail Sithis painted on the wall. Same as when that old woman at the orphanage was killed.”

There was karma for you, but Delphine didn't have a lot of time to waste pondering it. Some bastard had framed her, probably to try and drive a wedge between her and Madanach. It might even succeed. He might be willing to hear her out, but she wasn't sure Elisif would be.

“It gets worse,” said Balgruuf. “Bryling's taken over as Jarl. She's invoked some obscure law that if a ruler leaves Skyrim in secret and makes no provision for a successor, they are deemed to have forfeited the throne. So not only is she now Jarl of Haafingar, she's calling the Moot. She wants to be High Queen. And my brother is supporting her. They met at the wedding, got engaged shortly thereafter, he's been visiting regularly. He's there right now, acting as her housecarl.”

“Your brother's life expectancy just plummeted, I hope you realise that,” said Delphine softly. “Staging a coup is something where you either win or you die.”

“I know,” said Balgruuf, his face a very picture of misery. “But this is his own damn fault! He wants to try his hand at kingmaking, let him! I cannot save him from his own stupidity.”

“I'm sorry, my Jarl,” said Delphine softly, finding she meant it. Hrongar and Bryling were unlikely to survive this little experiment, but with them dead, she could at least hope for an end to it.

Balgruuf made no acknowledgement other than grunting.

“Get yourself to Solitude,” was all he said. “Take your people with you. The Moot's in two days, I need to make my own preparations. My loyalties are with Elisif but if she doesn't turn up to defend her crown...”

“Understood,” said Delphine. The Moot due the day after tomorrow, and not even illegitimate as Elisif had indeed left Skyrim. The fact that Elisif hadn't wanted to leave nor planned to, and that she had left her Steward in charge until someone killed him didn't change a damn thing. Three o'clock in the afternoon – unlikely to make Solitude by nightfall, but they could all make Dawnstar and get a ferry from there in the morning.

“Come on,” she said to the rest of the Brotherhood, all gathered in Dragonsreach Great Hall, listening in stunned silence to her conversation with Balgruuf. “Are we all ready?”

They all were. They'd been preparing to leave anyway, just waiting for Delphine to say the word.

“Then after me.” Delphine led the way, racing for the doors. Astrid caught up first, just behind her shoulder.

“It's very annoying when some group of unknowns starts murdering people and pretending to be you, isn't it Listener?” Astrid purred, grinning despite the situation.

“Astrid, shut up,” Delphine snapped as she tore through the doors and across the wooden bridge to the great stone staircase.

A shadow flew overhead as guards raised their bows. Astrid unshouldered hers, and Delphine was on the cusp of reaching for her own bow... until the dragon turned and the sunlight glittered red on its scales.

“Hold up!” she shouted. “That's Odahviing!” But what was the dragon doing here? Odahviing disliked Whiterun intensely, he'd never come here on his own. Odahviing swerved and came in to land... behind Jorrvaskr?

All right, things had just got very weird indeed.

“With me!” Delphine called. “We're going after that dragon!” Sprinting down the steps, she ran for the mead hall. She had a strange feeling that maybe, just maybe, her errant husband might be coming home.

Chapter Text

“Where are we landing??” Ria cried, clinging on to Cicero in terror as Whiterun reeled beneath them.

“Not by Dragonsreach again!” Odahviing roared. “By Akatosh, I've had quite enough of the place!”

Cicero was scanning the city, his usual vertigo forgotten for once. His eyes widened as he saw a group of red and black clad figures emerging from Dragonsreach with a blonde woman in brown leather at their head. Delphine. Delphine, it had to be, it was her! But where to land, it had to be nearby and he couldn't land in the square, there wasn't room. He'd break the Gildergreen and they'd only just healed it. No, the only place there was room was Jorrvaskr.

“Jorrvaskr!” Cicero cried. “In the training court!”

“If the Zeymahzinne-se-Ysgramor shoot me, I hold you responsible, Ziizahro!” Odahviing shouted, but he did as asked and touched down in the midst of the archery range. Aela sprang back, stunned, but she soon had her bow raised again. Vilkas likewise was on his feet, greatsword in hand. Farkas was scrabbling for his own bow although his ankle still wasn't healed sufficiently to take his weight. Torvar was too busy staring at his tankard and wondering if it was time to give up the ale to do anything, but Athis had his sword ready.

Kodlak, previously enjoying a nice afternoon in the sun, took up sword and shield, ready to die if he had to. At least, up until the dragon looked at him, lowered its head, and he saw the two figures mounted on the back.

“HOLD FIRE!” he shouted. “They're not enemies!” Well, the woman wasn't anyway. Ria dismounted and collapsed in a heap on the ground, looking very pale and possibly about to vomit. Behind her, Cicero dismounted, landing perfectly as if he'd done this a million times before. For all Kodlak knew, he had.

Cicero patted the dragon on the side, called “Thank you, Odahviing!” after him and waved as the dragon flew off, heading for the Throat of the World.

“Ria!” Vilkas cried, racing to her side and helping her up. “Are you alright? What is this?”

“Dragon-” Ria gasped, clinging on to Vilkas, legs still shaking. “He's Dragonborn!” She pointed at Cicero, who looked rather uncomfortable at all the attention.

“What?” Vilkas said, puzzled. “He can't be, the Dragonborn wears a jester hat.”

“He was when I first met him,” said Farkas. “He's Dragonborn all right. Hey Cicero. Welcome back.”

“Hello Farkas!” Cicero trilled. “Hello Aela, hello Vilkas, hello everybody! Cicero is sorry to appear rude, but he has his memories back and now he needs to very urgently go and find the Listener or he is in terrible terrible trouble...”

“What are you doing here, man!” Vilkas cried, still with an arm around Ria. “The Dark Brotherhood are after you, you can't stay here!”

“Yes, yes, I imagine they probably are,” said Cicero, ignoring Vilkas completely and running for the door... only to run straight into Kodlak. Slowly, Cicero raised his eyes to Kodlak's own, fixed grin in place.

“Hello Harbinger!” he said brightly, looking rather more demented now than when he'd not known who he was. “I, er, need to...”

“I know, lad,” said Kodlak sternly, reminding himself that however childlike and lovable he appeared, Cicero was in reality a ruthless killer and unlikely to ever change. Despite the despondent look on Cicero's face as he'd spoken. “She was here. She had your hat and she told me everything. Who you were and why the Brotherhood are really hunting you.”

Cicero closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, finally opening them again to look Kodlak straight in the eye.

“Cicero isn't allowed in the Companions any more, is he?” he sighed.

“You may consider yourself fortunate that I didn't kill Delphine on sight and visit the same on you,” said Kodlak softly. Cicero gasped at that, eyes widening a little. Damn the lad, even now Kodlak couldn't bring himself to hate him. There was just something endearing about him... and whatever he'd done, he was still Kodlak's son.

“Where is she?” Cicero whispered, face pale and horrified. “Tell me you did not harm her...”

“Kodlak, what's going on?” Aela asked, exchanging confused looks with Vilkas. “Why's he worried about a Dark Brotherhood assassin's wellbeing?”

“She lives, Cicero, and left here unharmed. I suggest you go find her,” said Kodlak, wishing the brat would just leave and stop reminding him of Stelmaria and making him want to hug him.

Behind him, the door to Jorrvaskr flung open.

“No need,” Delphine called out. “I'm right here.”

Aela and Vilkas both reached for their weapons. Behind Delphine, a small girl with striking amber eyes ran out of Jorrvaskr, hanging back in the shade with a hood over her features. Around one side of Jorrvaskr, an Imperial man, Dunmer priestess and dark-haired Nord woman arrived, and around the other came two blonde Nords and a Redguard. All had weapons or magic at the ready.

“You!” Vilkas shouted, shoving Ria behind him and pointing at Arnbjorn. Farkas also reached for his greatsword.

“Thought we were all very clear on what we'd do to you if you turned up here again,” said Farkas gruffly.

“You're welcome to try,” said Arnbjorn, raising his warhammer. Beside him, Astrid had her bow trained on Vilkas. Or at least she did until she saw Cicero.

“Husband, is that...?”

“Smells like him,” said Arnbjorn.

“But his hair...” said Nazir, mouth beginning to quirk into a grin.

“He's blonde,” said Calixto, lowering his katana. “How long's he been blonde??”

Cicero closed his eyes, mortified, clutching at his hair. Oh good. Not only did he have ridiculous hair, now the entire Dark Brotherhood had seen it. Frankly he was almost beginning to wish there had been a contract out on him by this point.

“You didn't tell us he was blonde now, Listener!” said Babette. “Look at him, he's adorable!”

“I am not adorable!” Cicero shouted, his cheeks blazing.

There was a stifled giggle from Sapphire. Then the same from Calixto. Then the two of them had lost it completely, laughing their heads off, both clinging onto Aranea to stay upright. This promptly set Nazir off and soon the entire Dark Brotherhood, Cicero and Delphine excluded, were falling about laughing. Even Delphine couldn't resist smiling.

“It's NOT FUNNY!” Cicero shouted. “It was not my fault! Cicero didn't consent to this!! STOP LAUGHING!!!”

Not only did no one stop laughing, even Aela and Ria were now starting to snigger.

“I HATE YOU ALL!!!!” Cicero shrieked at them, before turning to Delphine, pleading. “Listener,” he whined. “Make them stop!!”

“Quiet!” Delphine yelled, something that did at least reduce full-blown laughter to a few quiet chuckles. She stepped forward to where Cicero was standing, staring up at her, eyes wide and now trembling a little.

“You called me Listener,” she said, hardly daring to breathe. “You came here on Odahviing. You... you remember, don't you? You know who you are!”

“Yes,” Cicero said softly, taking another step nearer. “Yes, I did what you said and let my inner dragon out and then I remembered again. I remembered being Dragonborn. I remembered being yours.” He stepped forward... and then dropped to his knees, staring at the floor.

“Listener,” he said, so quiet she could barely hear him. “Listener, I'm so sorry, please forgive me, I love you, please...”

“Vilkas, what's going on, I thought the Dark Brotherhood were trying to kill him?” Farkas asked quietly, confused.

“They were looking for him,” said Vilkas, his face sombre. “But not to kill him, it would seem.”

Delphine folded her arms, staring down at him.

“You do still want to be married to me then,” said Delphine, just a hint of bitterness in her voice. “I had wondered.”

“Yes, yes, of course, I'm yours, always!” Cicero howled, clinging on to her boots. “Please forgive poor Cicero, he didn't know, he didn't remember, he's sorry, Listener!”

“You told me to find someone else!” said Delphine, eyes narrowing. “Because you said you already had someone!!

A collective noise of “oooh” went round the Dark Brotherhood, all of whom were wincing and looking rather sorry for Cicero.

“Lad, is this true?” Kodlak asked wearily. “You told your own wife you couldn't be with her because you had another lover?”

“That's bad, isn't it, Vilkas?” Farkas said. He made no claim to being an expert on matters of the heart, but even he could guess that was not a good thing to do.

“Very,” Vilkas agreed. On his other side, Aela was making herself comfortable, grin on her face, eagerly anticipating the response to this.

“I'm sorry, Listener!” Cicero wailed. “Cicero is a fool, but he is your fool! He won't... he won't stray again. He promises, he swears it, please!”

“Damn right you won't,” Delphine snarled, leaning down and grabbing him by the hair, yanking his head up. “You don't get to marry the leader of the Dark Brotherhood then fool around behind her back whenever you feel like it!!”

“I won't, I won't, I love you, please!” Cicero howled, openly sobbing now.

“Then tell me who she is,” Delphine said, tightening her grip. To one side, Vilkas got up, reaching for a sword – at least until Kodlak motioned for him to sit down.

“Leave it, lad,” said Kodlak quietly. “This is for them to deal with on their own.”

“I can't,” Cicero whispered, tears rolling down her face. “I can't, you'll kill her, it's not her fault, please!”

“Should have thought of that before you fucked someone else, shouldn't you?” said Delphine savagely. “Now if you are serious about being my husband again, if you ever want to be in my bed again, you will tell me the little slut's name!”

“Listener!” Cicero sobbed. Delphine gave him a shake.

“Tell me!” she shouted at him.

Cicero closed his eyes and whispered something that sounded like 'ayla'. As one, all the Companions turned to Aela, who promptly went scarlet.

“It wasn't me!” she cried. “Cicero's not my type!”

“Eola!” Cicero sobbed, louder this time. “It's Eola. I'm in love with Eola. Listener, I'm sorry, I'll let her go, I'll stay away from her, I promise, I swear it, please, I'm sorry!”

Delphine let him go, stepping backwards in shock. Cicero fell to the ground, curling up and sobbing quietly. As one, the Dark Brotherhood had gone silent, grins and jokes replaced with a deathly seriousness.

“My Eola,” Delphine said softly. Cicero nodded, unable to speak.

“What, the Reach-Princess?” Ria gasped. “Well you can't kill her, her father's one of your allies, isn't he?”

“Eola's not single?” said Farkas, disappointed. “That's a shame – ow!” Vilkas had clipped him around the ear.

“Quiet!” he hissed. “If she's the Dragonborn's mistress and the Reach-King's daughter, you should stay well out of it!”

Silence... and then confusion all round as Delphine started to laugh.

“You're in love with Eola,” she giggled. Cicero looked up, puzzled but starting to smile nervously.

“Yes,” he admitted. “Er... Listener, are you well? You haven't gone mad, have you? Only Cicero doesn't know if it's a very good thing for the Listener to be mad, not that there haven't been insane Listeners before, but it's usually not ended terribly well – they end up making inanimate objects or animals into Sanctuary Speakers and then there's usually an unfortunate accident not long after, Cicero would hate for Delphine to have an unfortunate accident...”

Delphine's giggles turned into full on laughter at that point. Finally she pulled herself together, kneeling next to him, one hand on his shoulder.

“I know, sweetie,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I know you love her. I've suspected that for a while.”

“You... you have?” Cicero whispered. “But... why didn't you say? Or... or do anything?”

“I tried, you freaked out and insisted you were the Listener's, no one else's, you didn't love her that way, she was just your sister only. For fifteen minutes straight. So I gave up and decided you'd have to work it out on your own. Eola feels the same, you know. Except she fessed up months ago. Honestly, Cicero, you could have just said. I don't have a problem with you two being happy together, I really don't. You make a cute couple.”

“You don't?” Cicero whispered. “I mean... we do?”

“Yes, you're both evil and predatory and kind of depraved. Frankly, I'm surprised you didn't choose her over me in the first place. You could have done, you know.” Delphine was stroking his hair, smiling rather sadly at him. Cicero blinked, then shook his head, very firm on that point.

“Why would Cicero do that?? Eola's not the Listener. She doesn't have the Night Mother in her head. Eola's my dear sister even if she is a little hussy... but she's not you.”

Delphine smiled and took Cicero into her arms, kissing the top of his head.

“You're still my Keeper?”

“Always,” Cicero breathed, eyes fluttering as he melted into her arms.

“Then I think I can let you be with Eola if that's what you both want,” said Delphine gently. “I gave her permission ages ago. About time you knew too. Just remember, my orders take priority, yes?”

Cicero nodded, all enthusiasm now he apparently wasn't about to be speedily divorced and abandoned.

“Of course, Listener!” he purred. “You're the boss... forever and always.”

Delphine smiled and cuddled him, loving the feeling of Cicero snuggled against her, purring in her arms, back where he belonged. All around her, the massed ranks of Dark Brotherhood could be heard clapping and cheering, and even the Companions looked pleased. Surprising, but then again, everyone liked a happy couple reunited, she supposed.

“Of course,” she said, “there is one thing. Eola might have had permission... but you didn't.”

The cheering stopped, although the sniggering that replaced it was not an improvement in Cicero's mind.

“Listener?” he said nervously. “Sweet Delphine? You said you were not angry...”

“Not the point,” said Delphine, grinning. “You're still in a lot of trouble, young man. We've got pressing business at the moment, but when this is all over and we get back to the Sanctuary... you're going to be spending an awful lot of time making up for your recent misdeeds. An awful lot of time.”

Cicero made a noise that sounded a bit like 'meep' and buried into Delphine's arms, ears going pink.

“Yes, Listener,” he whimpered. Delphine kissed his cheek and helped him up. Yes, definitely hers again. She had her Keeper back. She could have cried from sheer happiness, but probably not in front of the entire Brotherhood, and definitely not with the Companions watching, even if Aela, Ria and Farkas were all sitting there with identical soppy looks on their faces.

“In that case, I should probably give you this back,” she said quietly, reaching into her pocket. She took his left hand in hers and slipped his wedding ring back onto his finger.

“You kept it,” Cicero breathed, staring at it as he flexed his fingers.

“Of course I did,” said Delphine. Cicero laughed, tears rolling down his cheeks as he shook his hand and then put his arms around her.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I love you, my sweetling.”

“I love you too,” she told him and then she kissed him, just about managing to refrain from groping him anywhere she shouldn't but about ready to die from sheer happiness. She'd missed him. Finally, she broke off. Yet more cheering was going on in the background, along with applause and somebody wolf-whistling.

“This is yours too,” said Delphine, pulling the Daedric dagger from her belt and handing it over. Cicero squealed at the sight, kissing it and clipping it to his belt.

“Did you stab anyone with it?” Cicero asked hopefully. His shoulders sagged as Delphine admitted she'd not had the chance to actually use it, just carried it around with her.

“Never mind, sweetling,” said Cicero. “Cicero is sure you will get the opportunity to stab lots of people at some point. If not, he shall be sure to use it for you.”

“You're too kind,” said Delphine, raising an eyebrow. She reached into her belt-pouch for the final thing of his she'd barely put down since he'd vanished. “Here. Time you had this back as well. You don't look right without it.”

It was his hat. The resulting shriek was high-pitched enough to set dogs barking down in the Plains District and had all the werewolves present clutching their ears.

“MY HAT MY HAT MY HAT!!!” Cicero shrieked, clutching it to his chest and skipping around delighted. He shook it out, pulled it on, adjusted the fit, and did a lap of honour around Jorrvaskr, running up to each Companion and Dark Brotherhood member in turn cooing for them to see his hat. There were an awful lot of awkward pats on the shoulder and words along the lines of “yes, you look lovely, welcome back, yes Cicero, it suits you, really it does”. At least up until, last of all, Cicero skipped up to Kodlak and stopped dead. He paused, balanced on the tip of a toe for all of two seconds, before running back to Delphine in silence, grabbing her hand and leading her over to Kodlak, looking unusually nervous.

“Listener,” he said, licking his lips. “Sweet Delphine, this is Kodlak Whitemane, Harbinger of the Companions... and my father. Kodlak... this is Delphine, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood... and my wife.” He stood back, looking far more nervous than he had when he'd introduced Delphine to Stelmaria.

“We've met,” said Delphine, unable to repress a smile. “I know he's your father, Cicero. Kodlak... thank you for looking after him. I hope he's not been too much trouble?”

“No lass,” said Kodlak, his voice gentle and the bitter condemnation of before a lot less obvious. Now he just looked sad. “He proved his worth while he was here. He's a very talented warrior, that was clear even before I discovered he was Dragonborn.”

“He is that,” said Delphine, cuddling him again, feeling rather proud of her jester boy. There wasn't a lot he couldn't kill if he put his mind to it, and as far as bravery went, Cicero wasn't scared of anything he could stab. Small wonder he'd fitted in here. “I'll be taking him home now. He's needed with us. But... I can send him back to visit?” Cuddled up next to her, Cicero watched Kodlak, dark eyes impossibly wide. Kodlak watched back, not wanting it to look like he approved of the Dark Brotherhood's murderous trade... but not wanting to turn away his son either. He'd grown to care for Cicero and even with his memories back and presumably the bloodlust allowed free rein once more, there was still something very endearing about him. Mind gone completely, of course, and what the story was behind the hat, Kodlak had no wish to know – but he also knew that if he'd only tried harder to find Stelmaria all those years ago, he might have been able to bring them both to Jorrvaskr and raise Cicero as his own. A Companion-raised Cicero would have been a very different man, Kodlak knew. As it is, all Kodlak could do was try and set a good example to the Cicero he'd got. Cicero couldn't be all bad to have found a wife who clearly loved him, unorthodox relationship notwithstanding.

“He'll be welcome if he chooses to see us,” said Kodlak gruffly. Not exactly acceptance of his assassin son... but not outright rejection either. “We might even have a little work for him.”

Cicero squeaked, doing a little dance on the spot.

“Cicero would like that,” he said softly.

“Aye, I imagine you would, lad,” said Kodlak, sighing. “I just wish I had known sooner about your true background. I don't suppose it would have changed a lot, but it might have saved Skjor. I don't suppose I'll ever know which one of you killed him?”

Uncomfortable silence. All the Brotherhood were looking at Delphine... and she was looking at Cicero. He'd gone very still, staring at Kodlak wide-eyed.

“Probably best you don't know,” said Delphine. “I'll arrange for a suitable sum of weregild to be sent over – 1500 septims is enough?”

No amount would ever be enough, but Kodlak was prepared to accept it in return for peace. Skjor had known the risk, known who he was dealing with after all. He opened his mouth to say yes.

“Harbinger, it was me!” Cicero cried. “He took me from Jorrvaskr, saying he had something for me. But... but he had Eola there, my pretty Eola, and I didn't know who she was but I knew I knew her and that she was a friend. So... so I stabbed him and rescued her. And I'm not sorry, because now I do remember, and Eola's not just a friend, she's my sister and... well, she's my Eola, mine and the Listener's and no one's allowed to hurt her. Anyone else beats her up and puts daggers through her hands, Cicero shall stab them too and not regret it in the slightest.” He'd stepped forward as he'd said all this, folding his arms and staring Kodlak down, the childlike persona shading into what must be a variant of his more professional one. Six inches shorter than Kodlak he might be, but Kodlak wasn't entirely sure who'd win if they ever came to blows. This was a man who persuaded dragons to work for him, had killed the World-Eater, wiped out the Thalmor in Skyrim, and turned the Siege of Markarth into an Imperial victory. Skjor clearly hadn't stood a chance, and that was without the Thu'um at Cicero's disposal. Without realising it he'd slipped into a mirror of the pose Cicero was standing in, arms folded, feet apart, head tilted slightly, lips pursed.

“Well, you do have honour of a sort, it seems,” said Kodlak wearily. “This Eola must mean a lot to you.”

“Cicero would avenge any brother or sister of his if they'd been hurt,” said Cicero pointedly. Then the barest hint of a smile crossed his lips. “But he does have a soft spot for dear Eola.”

“I've got a soft spot for you too,” said Kodlak. “Fortunate in the event. I will need weregild, Cicero. Gold alone cannot bring my oldest friend back.”

Cicero looked very thoughtful and straightened up, shaking his hair back.

“Did you love my mother?” he asked. “Truly?”

Surprising. Where that question had come from, Kodlak had no idea, but the lad deserved an answer.

“Of course, lad. I've never met anyone like her before or since, apart from you that is. I loved her with all my heart, never found anyone since to compare. I was going to ask her to marry me the night she disappeared. Alas, I never got the chance.”

Cicero's whole stance had softened, a tight, sad little smile on his face.

“Would you ever want to see her again?” he asked. “Or would it be too painful?”

Now that sounded almost like it was in Cicero's power to grant. Was she still alive? Free to marry? Even if she was old herself, even if he probably didn't have more than a year or so left to him, the idea of seeing her again, holding her in his arms... It couldn't make up for all the lost years, Cicero's ruined childhood, disreputable adult life and whatever trauma had shattered his mind, but seeing her again, being able to hold her once more before Hircine claimed him... yes, he'd give anything for that.

“Is she still alive?” he asked, hardly able to contain himself. Cicero shook his head.

“She died years ago, Harbinger. In the Great War, when the Thalmor took the Imperial City. But do not be upset, dear Kodlak, sweet Kodlak. She is safe in Sovngarde – she was a Dragonborn too and Shor has her at his Hall. Cicero saw her again when he went to kill Alduin there. And she gave him something before he came back, because she knew Cicero would miss her. Maybe Cicero is not the only one, hmm?”

Sovngarde, she was in Sovngarde, waiting for him, waiting for her Nord hero lover to die honourably and come to her. Except he likely never would. The bitterness of the curse had never seemed harder than it did right now.

“How is this helping me, Cicero?” Kodlak asked. “Knowing she is dead, that she died years ago but might have lived if I'd looked harder, found her before... this is only grieving me more.”

“Don't,” said Cicero softly. “Death is not so final as all that. Look, look bormah, a gift of the dragon blood. SOS FRON DAAL!”

Everyone shrank back as grey light coalesced summoning... something. Seconds later, it had shrunk into the spectral form of a five foot three woman in Legion uniform. She glanced around before her eyes fell on Cicero.

“Mama!” Cicero cried, brilliant smile lighting up his face. Kodlak could barely breathe. It was her, Stelmaria, here in spirit, summoned from Sovngarde by the power of the Thu'um.

“Cicero!” she cried. Mother and son embraced, holding each other tight. Whatever Cicero's other flaws, he clearly treasured his mother. At least that seemed to be the case right up until she stepped back and slapped him hard.

“Ow!” Cicero cried, rubbing his cheek. “What was that for?”

“Not calling!” said Stelmaria furiously. “It's been a whole month! I was worried about you!”

“I didn't know!” Cicero protested. “I'd lost my memory and forgotten I was Dragonborn or how to Shout! I'm sorry, Mama.”

“See it doesn't happen again,” said Stelmaria, glaring at her son. “Honestly Cicero, how careless of you. Your poor wife must have been worried sick. Delphine, darling, how are you?” The two women embraced, Delphine actually seeming pleased to see her mother-in-law. That did surprise Kodlak, he'd always thought Stelmaria would be the type to disapprove of her children's partners on principle.

“Now that I tracked Cicero down, very well,” said Delphine. “I'm sure he's not going to run away like that again.”

“It wasn't my fault!” Cicero cried. Stelmaria ignored him.

“You must keep a constant watch on him, dear,” said Stelmaria knowingly. “He was exactly the same as a boy, turn your back for a minute and he'd be off, gone exploring or into somewhere he shouldn't be. Why, one time I was with a customer and the next thing I knew he'd run out the shop. He was barely four! He made it all the way to Tiber Septim Plaza before I finally caught up with him...”

Kodlak decided to interrupt before Cicero actually did implode from sheer embarrassment.

“Stelmaria,” he said softly. Cicero seized on the chance to distract his mother from going over every single childhood infraction he'd ever committed (of which, needless to say, there were many).

“Mama, Mama, look, I found an old friend of yours,” he cooed, tapping her on the shoulder and nudging her towards the Harbinger. She turned... and froze on seeing Kodlak.

“Kodlak,” she gasped, eyes wide. “By the Nine. Kodlak.”

“Stelmaria,” he said, holding a hand out to her, hoping she'd still want to take it. “Stelmaria, my love, is it really you?”

She nodded, biting her lip, looking like she was about to cry – could ghosts cry? Apparently so, she was wiping tears away, approaching him as if in a trance.

“Kodlak,” she whispered. “Kodlak, I'm so sorry, I-”

“It's all right,” Kodlak breathed, stepping forward to meet her and taking her in his arms. “Come here, lass.” She felt cold to the touch but more substantial than he'd thought she would be. She nestled into his arms like she'd never been away, sobbing incoherently on to his armour. Kodlak closed his eyes, knowing he'd start welling up himself in a minute.

“What happened?” he breathed. “I searched for you but never found you, asked all over the place but no one had anything substantial to tell me, just rumours that led nowhere. Where did you go, Stelmaria? And... did you know you were pregnant? Why did you never come and find me? I would have helped you, of course I would.”

“I know,” said Stelmaria softly. “You'd have married me, taken me back to Skyrim to be a little housewife while you went off adventuring. I didn't want that, Kodlak, didn't want to be a mother at all! But I didn't know what to do or how to tell you, and I didn't want you marrying me just because I was pregnant.”

“I'd have married you anyway, lass, I was going to ask you that night you vanished!” Kodlak cried. “And I'd never have left you at home, not for long. I'd heard of Jorrvaskr – I didn't need a lot of convincing to come here. I'd have brought you and Cicero here, there would have been plenty of people on hand to help. You could have gone adventuring too, lass.”

“I know that now!” Stelmaria wept. “I didn't then, I was a pregnant Legionnaire with no husband or kin and the Legion's not exactly conducive to family life, is it? I was scared and confused and I didn't know how you'd react.”

“So you ran away,” said Kodlak. Stelmaria shook her head, looking up, alarmed.

“No!” she cried. “That's just it. I didn't leave on purpose. I was sitting in our usual inn, waiting for you, determined to tell you that night, but terrified about it! So I was trying to calm my nerves and had a bit more to drink than planned. Then this man came up to me, Sam, his name was. He was some sort of mage, bought me a few drinks, seemed a bit the worse for wear himself. And he was nice, he listened, let me talk. The more I talked to him, the better I felt, as if I didn't have a care in the world, and I don't know what wine he was buying me, but it was a lot stronger than it tasted. I... I don't remember what happened after, but when I woke up, I was in a field just outside Bravil and five weeks had gone past. I was an absolute mess, Kodlak, I really was – but the first thought in my head wasn't you, it wasn't even the Legion. I was so scared I'd lost my baby.” She lifted her head and looked back at Cicero, smiling through the tears. Cicero was now sitting on Delphine's lap, arms around his wife but his eyes not leaving his mother. He was staring at her, mute from astonishment. Clearly he'd never heard this before either.

“He was fine, thank the Divines,” Stelmaria continued. “I was so relieved and I knew right then I was keeping him. I managed to get back to Hammerfell, only to be told you'd gone back to Skyrim. The Legion weren't pleased either, but due to my previous exemplary service, they agreed to pension me off rather than kick me out. So I took my Legion pension and went to the Imperial City to make a living there. I was ill throughout the pregnancy, it was a hard one, and I couldn't travel with a small baby. After a few years it just got harder and harder to leave. I guess I just assumed you'd moved on, found someone else, maybe got married and had other children. Wasn't until I got to Sovngarde that I realised you never did...”

“I never did,” Kodlak said, clutching her to his chest. “Talos, I never forgot you, never, but I didn't even know if you were alive. I'm so sorry, love, I should never have given up, I should have kept on trying to find you...”

“You weren't to know,” Stelmaria whispered, already starting to fade. “I should have come to Skyrim once Cicero could walk. But it's alright, love. I'm in Sovngarde now, and I'll be waiting for you when your time comes.”

“Stelmaria!” Kodlak cried, trying to hold on to her. She faded into mist in his very fingers.

“I'll be waiting...” her voice whispered, and then she was gone. Kodlak sank to his knees, face in his hands. There for a few brief minutes and then gone again. And he a beast who could not follow.

Hands on his and then Cicero had peeled them from his face, cheek pressed to Kodlak's as son held father.

“It does not last long,” Cicero whispered. “But it is more than poor Cicero had in thirty years. It is better than never seeing her again. If Kodlak is willing, Cicero can visit once, twice, a month, and bring his mother with him, if Delphine can spare him, of course.”

“Of course,” said Delphine gently. “I don't have a problem with that.”

Kodlak put his arms around Cicero, warm, alive and even smelling a bit like Stelmaria. Maybe he was a murderer, maybe he was less than honourable, maybe he'd got Skjor's blood on his hands. But he was also the famous Dragonborn and more to the point, Kodlak's son and his last link to Stelmaria.

“Don't kill any more of my Companions, boy,” Kodlak growled.

“I won't,” Cicero said calmly. “If they don't come after me or mine.”

“While I am Harbinger, they will not,” said Kodlak, releasing Cicero. “Visit at least once a month, more if your wife can spare you. Let me speak with your mother, and your weregild will be repaid in full.”

Cicero smiled, kissed him on the cheek and helped him to his feet. “It shall be done,” he promised.

“We should probably go,” said Delphine, approaching from behind. “I'm going to need Cicero, I'm afraid. There's been... further developments.”

Cicero didn't like the sound of that. “What sort of further development?”

“The conspirators just made their next move,” said Delphine, smile fading. “Cicero, you're really not going to like this...”

Chapter Text

Elisif raced into Dragonsreach, ignoring the guards trying to tell her she couldn't go in there.

“I'm High Queen, I'll go where I want!” she shouted, running up the Great Hall. “Where is Balgruuf??”

“The Jarl is busy,” said Irileth, having been advised some madwoman had turned up with a load of Forsworn and a Nord in chains and decided this required her personal attention. “Can I help – sweet Azura. Elisif??”

Oh good. Yet more questions and stares. “I got mauled by a werewolf, hit the thing with my axe, it's dead, I turned its skin into armour and now I look like this. Could I possibly speak to the Jarl? And his brother.”

“Hrongar's in Solitude,” said Irileth faintly. “But I can get the Jarl. Yes, come with me, he's upstairs, he'll be glad you're back...”

Balgruuf was upstairs, consulting with Proventus.

“And I say you should consider Bryling's claim. Elisif's disappeared, we've got no idea where she is or what's happened and I don't think those agents of Madanach's are very reliable. We can't afford for Skyrim to be seen as weak or unstable, if the Dominion decide to attack, the Empire can't protect us!”

“I am not abandoning Elisif!” Balgruuf shouted. “She is the rightful queen and until I know for sure she's dead, I am not supporting someone who's willing to resort to assassination and abduction to achieve their ends!”

“My Jarl, we've got absolutely no evidence that Bryling had anything to do with Falk's death or Elisif's disappearance,” Proventus put in. “Opportunism in a crisis isn't the same as treason.”

“No, but murder and assassination are,” said Elisif, striding in. Behind her, Argis and Ingun dragged Ralof into view, throwing him to the floor while Eola stood over him, magic at the ready. Madanach emerged after them, glass war axe at his side and dressed in full Forsworn gear, calmly moving to stand at Elisif's side while his own guards fanned out around them. Proventus gasped to see her then saw the look Madanach was giving him and promptly moved so the Jarl was hiding him from view, and Balgruuf looked like he couldn't make up his mind whether to be relieved or horrified.

“You're alive,” he gasped. “Thank the Divines, you've got here not a moment too soon. What happened?”

“Eola and the Dragonborn rescued me and dealt with my abductors,” said Elisif tersely. “Then I got attacked by a werewolf on the way back to the Reach. It took my face, I took its skin. Balgruuf, where is your brother?”

“Solitude,” he said, his face grave. “Elisif, you need to get there. Your steward, Falk – he's...”

“Dead. I know,” said Elisif, betraying very little emotion. She'd mourn later – she'd already had a cry on Madanach's shoulder, and despite the thorny relationship he'd had with Falk, he'd still held her and comforted her anyway. It had helped. Meant she could focus on justice for Falk and for her. She motioned at Ralof. “I found the culprit – or rather, he turned himself in.”

Balgruuf looked up at Eola in her red and black and Ingun, face hidden behind her cowl.

“May I take it the Dark Brotherhood were not in fact behind Falk Firebeard's death?” he asked carefully.

“Tell him what you told me,” said Elisif, nudging Ralof none too gently with her foot. “Without the politics, if you please.”

“I killed Falk Firebeard,” said Ralof quietly. “Then I made it look like a Dark Brotherhood hit. I helped abduct Elisif too. They wanted her out of the way, then her steward gone, and Madanach and the Brotherhood at each other's throats over it. So they could walk in, take Elisif's throne and then take back the Reach.”

“Bastard!” one of the Forsworn shouted. Madanach waved at him to be quiet.

“Calm down, friends. We'll make sure that never happens. They'll pay in blood if they go for us.”

“Tell him who they were, traitor,” said Elisif calmly, hand resting on her axe. Ralof glared at her, but did as told.

“Hrongar of Whiterun and Bryling of Solitude,” Ralof spat. “Hrongar gave us the orders, but we all knew what his engagement to Bryling was really about. He recruited Lydia, sent her to join the Companions, persuaded Laila Law-Giver to send her son to Jorrvaskr. They recruited Njada and me. Does that satisfy you?”

Balgruuf had his head in his hand, clearly grieved by the confirmation of his worst fears.

“I knew it,” he said gruffly. “He left for Solitude yesterday, saying he wanted to support Bryling in her hour of need. We heard the news about Falk today. Hour of need! It is worse than you think, Elisif. Bryling has not just taken over as acting Jarl, she's usurped you. Apparently there is an ancient law that states if a King or Queen leaves Skyrim in secret and makes no provision for a successor, they are deemed to have forfeited the throne. She's called the Moot, Elisif. Day after tomorrow.”

Elisif felt her knees go weak, the room swaying before her. Madanach's arms went round her and Elisif clung on to him, fingers curling into his Forsworn armour. They couldn't... they couldn't do that to her. Not Bryling. She'd always liked Bryling, always trusted her with anything. Erikur she could see being that opportunistic, but Bryling? It just didn't make sense. She knew Bryling had left Falk over him not stepping down, as gleefully recounted by an unrepentantly pleased Madanach, but to go this far?

“You want her taken out, just say the word, stepma,” she heard Eola saying.

“You'll have my people behind you, of course,” Madanach was telling her. “Elisif. Elisif? Are you all right? Talk to me, wife.”

“She can't do this,” Elisif whispered. “She can't do this, damn her!” Except she could. Elisif was vaguely aware of the law, but she'd not thought about it, hadn't even considered it – because to her eternal shame, it hadn't fully occurred to her that the Reach wasn't part of Skyrim any more. She'd thrown her throne away, and when Madanach heard the reason, he'd probably never speak to her again. Torygg, I'm sorry, I've lost everything your family worked for. And Madanach... I'm sorry. She went over her options. They were limited at best, but there was one road left to her. Madanach was going to hate it, but it wasn't his kingdom on the line. Not yet anyway. Taking a few deep breaths, she straightened up.

“Thank you. Both of you,” she said, smiling sadly at Eola as she squeezed Madanach's hands. “But I'm a Nord looking to be Queen over Nords. I can't take the throne back by force using a foreign army and the Dark Brotherhood. I need to do this legally. There's only one way I can get my Hold and my throne back. I'll need to challenge her. In – in the old way. Like Ulfric did with Torygg.”

The room erupted, gasps and shocked whispers everywhere, and that was just those who were afraid to be too blunt with a queen. There were those present who weren't.

“Elisif, you'll get yourself killed!” Balgruuf cried.

“Elisif, Torygg died!” Eola protested. “Bryling's a seasoned warrior, she'll take you apart. For the love of the old gods, at least name a champion. I'll do it if you like.”

One word cut across all of it, a cold voice not remotely tolerant of dissent.

No.

Elisif turned around, little chill prickling down her spine as she locked gazes with Madanach, and those fearsome ice blue eyes had never looked so menacing.

“Madanach,” Elisif began, for the first time ever starting to feel just a little afraid of him. He wouldn't hurt her, he loved her, right? Right?

“You are not doing this,” he hissed at her. “It's a fight you cannot win, and I will not see you in danger again. We will go in there, and we will rain down fire and blood on this usurper Jarl. We will be the scream before the gods claim her soul, the axe that falls and takes her to the Void. You are Reach-Queen now, you are ours and you will not be facing danger when there is a single member of my Forsworn ready to fight in your stead.”

All the while he'd spoken, voice quiet but the entire room had heard every word and Elisif felt her knees go weak, her hands shake, arousal and fear mingling as she fought the urge to fall into his arms and let him take care of everything for her. It was tempting, so very tempting... and deep in her heart, she knew that was the problem, the reason this whole mess had got started. Everyone was afraid that her marriage had handed Skyrim over to Madanach, that he'd rule through her. If she let him do this for her, they'd be proved right.

Forcing herself to meet his eyes, she drew herself up to her full height, five foot ten, same as him, he wasn't that frightening, he really wasn't, apart from the Destruction magic and the axe and the retinue of fiercely loyal guards all armed to the teeth and the extremely well-organised military machine just poised to bring death to his enemies, oh gods, what was she doing, had Falk been right after all?

Deep inside, a quiet inner voice seemed to whisper in her ear. Calm, Elisif. Be still, Elisif. He is your husband and he loves you. If you can stand up to him, you can handle Bryling. He is far more frightening and dangerous than she is.

Elisif closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and opened them again, knowing what to do.

“I am not a Forsworn, Madanach!” she sighed, feeling the strength come from somewhere, and if this didn't kill her, it would make her stronger, and if it did kill her, Sovngarde awaited, because she was a Nord and this was what it meant to be one, valuing your life but valuing the right thing more. “I am a Nord and I will fight her as one. And I will do it myself because I am done being helpless, I am done being a pawn, I am the High Queen of Skyrim, and I will never ask any man or woman to fight or die for me if I am not prepared to do the same!”

Silence. Not a word anywhere. Just everyone watching while she stared down the Butcher of Lost Valley.

“You dying is the damn problem!” he snapped, but his gaze had wavered and she felt her heart skip, knowing as she'd known all along that underneath the frightening exterior that he cultivated to persuade his enemies to leave well alone was a man like any other. A man who loved his young wife dearly and couldn't bear to lose her, even if two kingdoms fell in the process. Which of course was why she couldn't let him interfere.

“I need to do this, Madanach,” she told him, silently pleading with him to understand. “It has to be me, it needs to be me, I need to prove I'm strong on my own! I could never avenge Torygg myself, I had to rely on you and the Dragonborn and the Empire to do it for me. Please, cariad. Please let me do this.” Well, why not use a Reach term of endearment if he was so bent on staking a claim. It couldn't hurt, right?

Madanach was shaking his head, but his expression had shifted, it wasn't the pitiless Reach-King looking at her any more, just her husband, her crazy, stubborn, headstrong but passionate consort. She'd won this one.

“I will never understand you people,” he growled. “You and your damn sense of honour. So you're going up against a seasoned warrior in single combat, on your own, in a fight to the death. That's the plan, is it? And I'm supposed to just watch you die in front of me?”

“You don't have to watch!” Elisif whispered, placing a hand on his arm. “Madanach, you can go home. Go back to the Reach. This isn't your fight.”

Madanach looked at her hand, then back up to look at her.

“The Void it's not. Where you go, I go.”

Elisif closed her eyes, little keening sound coming from her throat and she didn't want to die, she didn't, her people needed her, her country needed her, and her husband needed her, even if he'd never admit it. She couldn't die so soon, she just couldn't.

“I don't have a choice,” Elisif breathed. “I love you, but I can't let you go in my place, Skyrim needs its queen. You're strong and you're brave and you're fierce and by the Eight, I love you so much... but it needs to be someone Nords look up to.”

“She's right, Da,” Eola cut in, sad but also looking thoughtful. “She doesn't need us, she needs a hero.”

“A hero.” Madanach turned his attention to his daughter, positively radiating sarcasm. “And where exactly do you think one of them's going to be hiding, hmm? They're not exactly easy to find, m'inyeen. Heroes do not just crawl out of the woodwork when you least expect them.”

Eola didn't even bat an eyelid. “This one does,” she said, sounding very confident and Elisif had to wonder just what Eola had up her sleeve. And then she remembered.

“You know where the Dragonborn is!” Elisif laughed, suddenly feeling her whole mood just pick up. The Dragonborn, Cicero, the Imperial who'd killed the World-Eater. Of course he could help, of course!

“You found him?” Madanach's face lit up for the briefest second before falling again, probably as it occurred to him that with Cicero back, he'd once again have to start dealing with all the harassment charges and other petty criminality reports. “Oh. You found him.”

Eola nodded, starting to smile. “Yeah, I did. He's in Jorrvaskr of all places. If we're lucky, he'll still be there. Come on, let's go.”

Madanach nodded to his guards and followed his daughter out. Elisif made to leave but turned to say goodbye to Balgruuf first.

“The Dragonborn, hmm?” Balgruuf said, still not looking thrilled, but less horrified than he had been. “You keep some dangerous company, Elisif. I hope you know what you're doing.”

“They can't be any worse than my own court are proving to be,” said Elisif bitterly. “Cicero saved my husband's life. He can help me get my throne back, I'm sure of it. A fight to the death between the usurper Jarl and the Dragonborn – everyone in Skyrim will want to hear that story. He saved my country once, he can do it again.”

She hoped so, anyway. With any luck, she might not even need to fight. If she turned up in Solitude with the Dragonborn at her back, Bryling might just surrender on the spot.

Not to mention that the Dragonborn wasn't the only hero at her disposal. Ralof had been a Companion, so had Lydia and Njada and Harrald. Jorrvaskr owed her a debt of honour, and it was time to collect.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jorrvaskr itself was quiet – in fact, the actual hall appeared empty apart from Tilma sweeping up. She pointed Elisif to the back of the hall.

“They're all outside, my dear. Be careful, though, they have visitors. It all sounded a little hectic to me.”

Elisif thanked her, wondering what sort of visitors the Companions might be entertaining. She motioned for everyone else to follow. Madanach and Eola had insisted on coming, of course, both of them following behind and admiring Jorrvaskr, seeming rather intrigued by the place considering their history with the Nords. She'd also had Ralof brought too, his Dark Brotherhood handlers not letting go of his chains for a second. The Forsworn had been left under the Gildergreen – they'd come quickly enough if a fight broke out. Although from the sound of it, it appeared one might have done already.

“YOL TOOR SHUUUULLLL!!!!”

“Is that -?” Madanach asked his daughter, correctly guessing the source. It wasn't like he'd not had Cicero's fire breathing ability demonstrated repeatedly for him when Cicero had finally acquired it, leading to a blanket ban on that particular shout within one hundred feet of any Forsworn camp without explicit authorisation.

“Cicero,” Eola gasped. “He's here! And he's remembered how to Shout.”

Why or how the Dragonborn might have forgotten how to Shout Elisif really didn't understand, but she felt her heart skip at the realisation he was here. She liked Cicero. He'd saved Madanach before and he supported the Empire even if he was a bit... odd. But he was easily the most feared and capable warrior in Skyrim. Everywhere she'd been in Skyrim, she'd been introduced to all sorts of people, including Skyrim's children, and the first question on the lips of those children hadn't been “do you have a crown?” or “what's your palace like?” or “what's it like being queen?” No, it had consistently been “do you really know the Dragonborn? Is he as scary as everyone says? Does he really have a jester hat? Does he really ride dragons and go to Sovngarde and kill Alduin and Ulfric Stormcloak?” The adults had laughed nervously and told the children not to bother the queen with questions like that, but she'd seen in their eyes that they were also eager to know but too polite to ask. She'd indulged them and told the story as far as she knew it. Cicero might not realise it, but his reputation was growing with each retelling. He was rapidly becoming an authentic folk hero and Skyrim legend. At a time like this, she wanted him nowhere but by her side.

“HOW DARE THEY???” a male voice screamed. Definitely Cicero, although Elisif had never heard him anything like this angry before. The sheer rage made her want to run away, but she was a brave Nord warrior queen now and brave Nord warrior queens did not run away from angry Dragonborns when they needed their assistance.

“HOW DARE THEY TAKE THE DREAD FATHER'S NAME IN VAIN?? THE FILTHY BLASPHEMERS WILL PAY FOR THIS INSULT!! WHO ARE THEY??? CICERO SHALL FIND THEM AND KILL THEM ALL!!!!!

“He knows,” said Eola cheerfully, yanking on Ralof's chain. “Hear that, traitor? The Night Mother's Keeper just found out about your little prank. He's not got much of a sense of humour about this sort of thing, I'm afraid. The Listener might pass judgement but he'll be carrying out the sentence, I imagine. He's protective like that.”

“Well, that's what we're trying to find out!” she heard Delphine saying, sounding a little rattled. “So I need you to calm down and help me, and then when we know who was responsible, I promise you, I will hand them over to you and you can tear the fetchers apart. How does that sound, darling, hmm?”

Elisif opened the doors and stepped out to see a training dummy on the floor, in pieces and on fire, and Cicero with a black dagger in one hand and a steel sword in the other, not in his usual black armour but with the famous hat in place. Right now he was facing Delphine, face twisted in rage while she stroked his hair with her right hand and had her left placed on his arm, presumably to discourage him from doing any more damage with that sword.

“Mama Del!” Eola cried. “It's alright, I found him! Found the bastard who stitched us up. Bring him, let's have our Matriarch get a look at him.”

Delphine let Cicero go, not even sparing him a second glance. All her attention was on Eola as she covered the distance between them, sweeping her into her arms and holding her tightly.

“You're all right,” Delphine gasped. “You're safe. I was so worried!”

“I'm fine,” said Eola, her voice muffled. She looked up, her own arms going around Delphine – but she didn't look happy. “Del, we need to talk. In private. Soon. It's important. But Cicero found you! And he's got his memory back!”

“I found him, yes,” said Delphine gently, stroking Eola's hair, knowing what was bothering her and not caring. Eola was back, that was all that mattered. “He did tell me, Eola. It's all right. I guess he rescued you from Skjor and something happened between you, right?”

“Yeah,” Eola whispered, lowering her voice and glancing at her father, who had emerged behind Elisif and was looking over her shoulder, too busy surveying the massed Companions and clearly regretting not bringing his guards to pay any attention to Eola. “I'm sorry, Del. It's worse than that though. He used the Ring of Namira to heal me and we didn't know it but Skjor was a werewolf and...”

“I know,” Delphine whispered. “Arnbjorn guessed one of you must have been. It's all right. I still love you.”

“Don't tell Da,” Eola said softly. “Please.”

“Why would I?” Delphine asked. It was just another thing to add to the growing list of things Madanach didn't know about his daughter, starting with the cannibalism, most likely also involving their own relationship too – honestly, by this stage, lycanthropy as well was almost the least of them. She kissed the tip of Eola's nose, risking it seeing as Madanach was too busy fighting a staring match with Vilkas to notice. “Come on, let's see what you brought me.” She took her hand and went over to where the blonde Nord was kneeling. Cicero had already made his way over. Surprisingly, he wasn't screaming at the prisoner, just looking a little confused.

“Ralof?” he said, frowning. “Ralof, why are you here? And in chains? You are not Eola's pet, are you? Cicero doesn't think you want to be Eola's pet. She has cruel tastes, my sister.”

Slowly, Ralof raised his eyes to meet Cicero's. He took in the hat, the last vestiges of hope draining from his face.

“You're not a Talos worshipper at all, are you?” he asked, realising his mistake and feeling like he'd been kicked in the stomach. “You're him. The damn Dragonborn. And... you're one of them. The Keeper, Eola called you. And you called her your sister.”

“Ralof,” said Cicero softly. “I'm sorry. Cicero didn't remember, he swears. But the memories came back. And now Cicero knows who he is again. Ralof... Ralof, what happened? Why... by Sithis, Ralof. What have you done?” Cicero was staring at Ralof as realisation hit home. No homicidal outrage this time. Just horror on the face of a man not normally horrified by anything.

It was strange, with Eola threatening him, and even facing Elisif and Madanach's anger, all he'd felt was anger and defiance in the face of his fate, when he'd felt anything at all. Now he was face to face with the fanatical Keeper of the Night Mother, clearly a high-ranking Brotherhood member and devoted to their cause, clearly offended beyond all reason by his actions... and his former brother in arms who'd fought alongside him more often than anyone else, teased him and talked with him, flirted constantly and fussed over him like a mother. He remembered that last night at Jorrvaskr, saying goodbye to Cicero. The man had wept to see him go, begged for him to come back and tell the story, seeming more like a child begging his father not to go than a man a good decade older than Ralof. He'd seemed so innocent and lovable and if Cicero had been female, by the gods Ralof would have dragged him to bed some time ago. As it was, he'd grown to care for him. Now it turned out Cicero was anything but innocent at heart. Well, nor was he and he'd accepted that long ago. Cicero still had something of his about him though, as was evident from the fact that Cicero hadn't immediately stabbed him. No, he was just staring at him in despair and disappointment and that got to Ralof like nothing else. He'd not just betrayed Elisif and the nameless, faceless Dark Brotherhood. He'd betrayed a dear friend.

“I'm sorry,” he gasped. “I'm so sorry, Cicero. I killed Falk Firebeard. Made it look like you, your order. Eola says it'll be you who kills me. I'm so sorry, my friend.”

Cicero sank to his knees, hands covering his face. “Don't. Don't call me that,” he said, voice sounding oddly muffled. It took Ralof a second or two to realise Cicero was crying.

“Cicero, don't,” Ralof began, feeling utterly wretched. Cicero looked up, tears rolling down his cheeks but his face twisted in rage.

“Shut up!” Cicero howled at him. “Don't say anything to me, don't even talk to me! You – how could you?? You are meant to be the honourable one! Now Cicero's meant to execute you?” He shook his head, dark eyes staring furiously at him. “Say nothing to Cicero. Do not look at me, do not talk to me! Ralof was a good man, kind to poor lost Cicero. You are nothing. Nothing!

Without another word, he got up and turned away, walking towards a woman in leather armour and clinging on to her. She put her arms around him and kissed his forehead, hugging him before turning to Ralof.

Ralof had expected many things from the leader of the Dark Brotherhood, but he'd not expected this.

“Delphine??” he asked, amazed. He'd heard lots of strange rumours about her after getting back to Riverwood, that she'd taken in a strange man in a jester outfit with a huge box, started travelling a lot and returning with all sorts of other waifs and strays, before they'd all just upped and left one day. She'd last been seen leaving with said jester, a one-eyed Breton woman and an old man who could use magic. Not long after, the jester and his friends had descended on the inn, reclaimed the box and all Delphine's things, handed Orgnar the deeds to the Sleeping Giant and disappeared for good. Everyone had speculated that she'd died horribly or that she'd eloped with the jester, and when the stories of the Jester Dragonborn had started circulating, it wasn't hard to guess that was her mysterious new friend. Ralof had privately thought they'd eloped but maybe she'd been killed and the grieving Dragonborn had killed Alduin for revenge. He'd never suspected this.

“Ralof,” she breathed, staring at him, looking as horrified as Cicero had. “Sweet Talos, Ralof. You killed Falk??”

Ralof just nodded mutely. It had been her who'd helped him decide to join the Stormcloaks. After the Thalmor took his cousin, he'd spent many nights drowning his sorrows in the Sleeping Giant and found a sympathetic ear in the innkeeper who'd seemed to hate the Thalmor as much as he did. She'd encouraged him to follow his heart and do what seemed right, so when Ulfric killed Torygg and staked his claim for the throne, Ralof had packed up and headed for Windhelm.

He'd not seen her since, and he'd definitely not expected to see her again while chained up and imprisoned. There'd been something more to her than met the eye, but he'd never have thought her an assassin.

“You know him? Of course you do,” Cicero murmured, realisation dawning. “Ralof of Riverwood. Of course, of course. Ralof spoke of you, Listener! He said he spent many hours in your inn, happily drinking and...” Cicero glared and strode over to Ralof again, dealing him a sharp backhander. “That is Cicero's wife you were lusting after, you disgusting philanderer!”

Oh good, just as he was thinking things couldn't have got any worse, Cicero had to remember Ralof talking of his home and in particular waxing lyrical on the charms of the former innkeeper. He could hear laughter from Madanach and his daughter, and his former Shield-Brothers and Sisters also seemed to be finding the situation rather amusing.

“She wasn't your wife at the time,” Ralof muttered. Cicero's eyes narrowed but he said nothing, wrapping his arms protectively around Delphine.

She was just shaking her head sorrowfully. “Ralof, what were you thinking??” she sighed. “That you had to turn to this at all, but to frame the Dark Brotherhood?? Have you completely lost your mind? What on earth made you think that was a good idea?”

“Hrongar said it was the only way!” Ralof protested. “That nothing else would work but sowing dissension amongst the Reach-King's allies, making it look like he'd lost control of the Brotherhood.”

More howls of laughter from said Reach-King.

“I don't control the Brotherhood!” Madanach laughed. “I've been known to request their assistance on a number of occasions, but in charge? No one knows the Dread Father's mind, Stormcloak.”

“No one but me,” said Delphine softly, fingers entwined in Cicero's hair. His eyes had fluttered closed as he rested his head on her shoulder, slight smile in place. She turned from Ralof to where Elisif and Madanach were waiting, both watching from near the door, Madanach in his Forsworn gear again and looking far more at ease than he had the last time she'd seen him although still a little wary with all these Nord warriors around, while Elisif... Well, she didn't look like a helpless little girl any more, that was for certain. Delphine couldn't not react to the scars, but she was used to Eola's blind eye staring back at her all day and pity was the last thing she'd ever feel for her beautiful sorceress lover. Madanach hadn't run in horror from his wife, so Delphine would simply take the situation as she found it and get the story off Eola later. She had her organisation's reputation on the line, she had more things to worry about than Elisif's face.

“You have my word, Elisif,” Delphine promised, hoping Elisif believed her. “You have my word no one from the Brotherhood killed your steward. We'd never have – we'd never have killed any of your court!” Not like that, she wouldn't, she'd have made it look like a suicide or accident or something... “Anything you need from us, you have but to ask.”

Elisif nodded, faint smile on her face. “I believe you. You're not good people but you're not stupid people either and you need my husband alive and willing to tolerate you. I – look, I don't think I can ever really approve of what you do, but Tullius was right when he said you could get the job done. I'm not hiring you, I can't hire you, I need my people to see me as the rightful queen, not be afraid of me or think I'm a puppet. But... I think I might need to borrow the Dragonborn? If he's willing?”

“I think I can lend him to you,” said Delphine, ruffling Cicero's hair and pushing him forward. Cicero looked up, blinking, surprised but pleased to have his services requested.

“Me? But of course, of course!” Cicero giggled. “What does the sweet lady Queen need from humble Cicero?”

“I need to make it look like I've got popular support,” Elisif told him, stepping forward and placing her hands on his shoulders. He looked at both hands then up at her, those deep brown eyes looking deceptively innocent. Hard to believe someone so adorable could be responsible for as much death and destruction as Madanach assured her he definitely was. Very hard to believe he'd killed Alduin by himself. But he'd done all those things, and she needed him. “I can't be seen to take my throne back using a foreign army and assassins for hire. I need backers that every Nord in Skyrim respects. That's why I need your help, Cicero. I need the greatest hero alive in Skyrim today.”

Cicero looked a bit confused but nodded. “Well all right then, dear Elisif. Did you want Cicero to try and find them? I hope you know where they are, we don't have a lot of time.”

He actually meant it. Dear gods. How could he not know? How didn't he realise that people drank his health in taverns all the time, that children played at being the Jester Dragonborn on the streets of every city in Skyrim, she'd even seen boys willing to pretend to be Reach-Princess Eola on condition no kissing happened. How Cicero could still be so modest after all that had happened amazed her.

“What are you talking about, you're right here!” said Elisif gently. “Honestly, everywhere I go, it's Dragonborn this and Dragonborn that, and do you really know him, Elisif, he must be really scary, what's he like, is he married, is he good-looking, does he really wear dragon scales and a jester's hat? And do you know what I tell them?”

Cicero shook his head, silent. He'd gone very pink, backing off and hiding behind Delphine. Oops. She hoped she hadn't spooked him.

“I tell them that to his enemies, he's like a force of nature, like a dragon himself, a storm of fire and steel descending on them and leaving nothing behind but blood and bones and the sound of his laughter. But to his friends, he's loyal, kind, caring, devoted and willing to go to the ends of the earth to help them. I could do with friends like that, Cicero. Especially now. Are you my friend, Cicero?” She'd softened her voice as she talked, adopting the same gentle tones that she might use to coax a frightened child out of their hiding place. Amazingly enough, it worked. Cicero peeped out from behind Delphine, blinking at her – and then emerged, grinning.

“Of course, of course!” he giggled. “Cicero is honoured to count sweet Elisif as a friend of his! Yes, yes, Cicero shall help her get her throne back and avenge poor Falk. She need only ask. In fact, Cicero found something for her, after a little tip from the traitor Ralof. Of course, Cicero thinks he didn't intend for you to wear it, but Cicero doesn't care. Loyal Cicero was told to keep it for a High Queen worthy of the name, and here you are!” He grabbed his pack and started rummaging through it, finally emerging with a steel helmet with dragon teeth all over it.

A hush fell over everyone as all stared at the Jagged Crown.

“By the gods,” Vilkas breathed. “Is that...?”

“Maw unleashing razor snow, Of dragons from the blue brought down, Births the walking winter's woe, The High Queen in her Jagged Crown,” said Kodlak softly. “Yes, I think it might be.”

“It is,” said Ria, grinning. “We killed the Draugr wearing it and took it for ourselves. Cicero said he'd been told it was hidden in Korvanjund so we went to look for it and there it was!”

“It was, it was!” Cicero laughed, holding it out to Elisif. “Here, here! For my pretty queen Elisif! The Jagged Crown with its shiny, pointy teeth!”

Elisif lowered her head as Cicero placed the crown on her, settling it into place and dancing back, clapping gleefully as she looked around, trying to adjust to the unaccustomed weight on her head.

“It's heavy!” she gasped. This would take some getting used to... but she had the Jagged Crown! The real thing, the legendary lost crown of King Borgas. It was definitely made from real dragon's teeth anyway.

She turned around, just about managing not to overbalance, wanting to know what Madanach thought. He was leaning back against the wall of Jorrvaskr, shoulders hunched, arms crossed, looking a little nervous but when his eyes fell on her, he smiled.

“I've got a crown, look!” she cried, hoping he'd be at least a bit impressed even if he'd probably never heard of the Jagged Crown. He just laughed and turned to Argis, who was also watching with a grin on his face, the usual impassive housecarl persona dropped for once.

“She's got a crown, look,” Madanach laughed, pointing at it. “My wife, the mighty warrior queen, all set to bathe in the blood of her enemies.”

“Suits her,” Argis noted, slight smirk on his face and honestly, it was a good thing she was married or that look could have proved quite distracting... what was she saying again? Oh yes, trying to educate her husband on the finer points of Nord culture.

“It's an ancient artefact from Nord legend!” Elisif sighed. “The traditional crown of the High King or Queen! It's been lost for centuries but if I turn up wearing this, even Bryling will have to be impressed.”

“Takes more than a crown to make a queen,” said Madanach softly, smile fading. “Takes power. It takes knowing that throne is yours, will always be yours, that even though some Nord son of a bitch is sitting in it and calling himself Jarl, the land doesn't know him and the people don't know him, and that when the time is right, you are going to come calling and you will have your country opening up to you and your people chanting your name as you carve his head from his shoulders and raise it for them all to see.”

The mood had changed to a far more sombre one, and as he'd spoken, speaking from his own experience she knew, she'd felt something change, something inside her answering the call, the sure certainty that yes, that throne was hers, yes Skyrim was hers, and yes her people didn't just need her, they wanted her, they'd turned out at her wedding to line the streets cheering and while her choice of husband hadn't gone down so well, they'd cheered anyway. In Dawnstar and Morthal and Whiterun, they'd all turned out to see her and wave and just getting from one end of town to the other had taken forever as she'd stopped to talk to everyone. And no matter where she went, they'd all seemed pleased to see her and they'd all said nice things and they'd even believed her when she'd whispered that her husband was a total sweetheart really and not to be too afraid of him.

They were her people, even the ones who weren't Nords. Skyrim was her country. Damned if some jealous bitch who resented her for inadvertently breaking up her relationship with a lover it seemed she'd had killed anyway was getting her hands on it.

“I will come calling for her,” Elisif promised, feeling the rage that had hardly left her the past few days uncoiling at the back of her brain again. “I will come for her, and I will have the Heir of Red Eagle at my right hand, and the Laughing Dragon on my left!” Cicero squealed and giggled right on cue, clearly anticipating a bloodletting in someone's future. “And by the Eight, no one will take that throne from me again.”

“Lady Queen,” Madanach breathed, fierce, proud smile on his face. “They never will.” He stepped out of the shadows, finally letting the Nords get a good look at him as he took Elisif's face in his hands and kissed her. It was some moments before a coherent thought formed in her head again, but she was dimly aware of Cicero cooing to Delphine over how cute they were and wasn't the Reach-King a good kisser, at which point Delphine had told Cicero in the sweetest of tones that he had been repeatedly told not to make comments like that about Madanach and that he remembered what had happened last time he'd made insinuations, didn't he, at which point Cicero had mumbled yes Listener and slunk off behind her.

Madanach finally let her go, and Elisif slowly turned around, hoping she wasn't blushing too much. Fortunately, it seemed most of those present hadn't minded, in fact most were smiling. One arm still around Madanach, Elisif surveyed them, deciding those in the red and black were Delphine's people, which left the rest as Companions.

“Do I have the honour of speaking to the Harbinger of the Companions?” she asked, guessing correctly that the old man now getting to his feet must be Kodlak Whitemane. He was tall, taller than both her and Madanach, but he had kind, fatherly eyes. They swept over Madanach, growing cold as they took the Reach-King in, and Madanach's own eyes narrowed at the sight of the Harbinger. Elisif nudged her husband in the ribs. Honestly, now was not the time to hash over old grievances! The Companions weren't even a political faction, or at least they weren't meant to be. Fortunately it seemed Kodlak was of the same opinion, for the hostility left him as he turned to her.

“You do, lady Queen,” he said, bowing. “I am Kodlak Whitemane. On behalf of all my Shield-Brothers and Sisters, please accept our humble apologies for the distress caused to you by those of us who joined for the least worthy of reasons.” He barely spared a glance for Ralof at this point. “I assure you those of us remaining intend no treachery and are happy to see you continue as High Queen for many years to come.”

“I'm very pleased to hear it,” said Elisif, relieved the entire guild hadn't turned against her. No ruler needed the backing of the Companions exactly, but to have incurred their enmity – she couldn't rightly have said she deserved the throne if the Companions of Ysgramor had all decided she was unworthy. It seemed that was not the case, and if they truly were sorry, then that did make the next part easier. “But I need to get my throne back first. To do that, I need to convince people I'm the true Queen, and they won't believe that if my most visible supporters are the Forsworn of the Reach and the Dark Brotherhood. I need to ride into Solitude with people at my back who all Nords respect. I have the Dragonborn. Do I have the Companions of Ysgramor too?”

“You do,” said Kodlak without even hesitating, and Elisif just about managed to contain her delight at his words. “We'll stand at your back when you confront the usurper Bryling. We have a debt of honour to repay, both to you and to the world. Companions are not politicians, we do not do assassination and king-slaying. I think it time to remind the world that we are not traitors. What do you say, brothers and sisters?”

“We are with you, Harbinger!” Vilkas cried.

“We go where you do, Kodlak!” Aela agreed.

“Just tell me who needs bludgeoning,” said Farkas, although how exactly he intended to bludgeon anyone from a sitting position was anyone's guess.

“Not on that ankle you won't,” said Ria, eyeing it up. “Don't worry, Kodlak, I'll go in his place.”

“What happened to him?” Delphine asked.

“Fell off a glacier a few weeks back,” Farkas growled. “Don't worry, it's nothing, hardly even hurts any more.”

“Except when you try to move it or balance upright or put any weight on it,” said Aela, rolling her eyes.

“Sweet Farkas has not seen a healer?” Cicero asked, gliding to Farkas' side, looking concerned. Farkas ruffled Cicero's hair, making him squeak.

“It doesn't matter,” Farkas told him. “Natural healing's good enough for the Orcs, it's good enough for me.”

“It matters, it matters a great deal!” Cicero cried, appalled. “Cicero cannot have his dear friend Farkas in pain and unable to stab things, no! Listener, Listener, we must help, we must!”

Delphine rolled her eyes and beckoned Aranea over. She did have some very talented medics at her disposal after all. It would do no harm to show off their abilities. “Aranea, can you and Calixto have a look at Farkas's ankle? We can't have the Companions riding into battle with a man down.”

The two assassins knelt by Farkas's side, ignoring his protests as they unwrapped his foot and prodded the swollen mess that was his ankle, Cicero scampering back and telling Farkas not to worry, it would be all right, his brother and sister knew lots and lots of things about repairing body parts.

“What do you think, dear?” Calixto said. “Broken?”

“No, but the ligaments are torn,” said Aranea, healing spells already running over it. “Which is why it's not healing properly. You can fix that, can't you?”

Calixto nodded, beckoning Babette over. “Babette, do you have any sleeping potions? I'm going to have to go in and fix those, then Aranea's healing spells can do the rest. All things considered, best if the man's unconscious.”

Farkas was hustled into a corner and drugged and soon the Dark Brotherhood medical team were setting to work. Delphine left them to it and joined Elisif and Kodlak. Madanach was still at Elisif's side and still turning cold eyes on Kodlak. The hostility was apparently mutual, but Kodlak at least was too good a host to say anything.

“So, Harbinger. My wife seems to think that you might be able to help her, and do what the Reach and the children of Sithis cannot. I hope so, for her sake. Me, I'm not sure what you've got that we haven't. Not like no one's ever paid you to kill – you've attacked enough of our camps in the past.”

“We've got hands free of the blood of innocents,” Vilkas snarled, getting to his feet. Eola detached herself from the pillar she was leaning against, casting her mage armour, and the Dark Brotherhood were all turning to Delphine, hoping for a fight. Fortunately, Kodlak at least had no more interest in bloodshed than she did.

“Vilkas,” Kodlak growled, motioning for him to sit down. “We were hired to do jobs, no more. I have nothing personal against the Druadach Kingdom of the Reach or its people. From what I hear, the country is a peaceful and prosperous one.”

“If they don't start disagreeing with its ruler,” Vilkas muttered. Argis leaned in to Madanach, clutching the hilt of his sword.

“If you want me to beat him up, sir, just say the word, I'm quite happy...” Argis began, looking all too eager to pound Vilkas' head through furniture. Absolutely not, Delphine was not having any of her people start fights with the Companions, especially on someone else's orders.

“Hey,” Delphine snapped. “Argis, you answer to me, not him. Back off.”

Argis withdrew, but not before exchanging glances with Madanach, who nodded for him to do as told.

“I don't expect everyone in the Reach to agree with every decision I make, and I'm sure there's plenty who would love to have a Jarl instead of a King,” said Madanach, staring Kodlak down and ignoring Vilkas completely. “I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is openly rebelling and launching unauthorised attacks on travellers and citizens and making me look weak and incompetent. The Legion agreed to back me because I promised I could bring peace to the Reach, and I will do just that.”

Kodlak stared straight back into Madanach's eyes and to everyone's surprise, not least Madanach's, he nodded.

“You are doing,” he said, and if there wasn't a lot of affection there, there at least was respect. “Don't think I've not noticed the distinct lack of call for our services in the Reach since you took over. No bandit raids. No reports of beasts menacing anyone's home – at least not for long. No heirlooms needing retrieving or anyone needing rescuing – not from anywhere in the Reach anyway, and we've even had reports of Reach citizens being kidnapped, taken to locations outside the country, and their captors ending up mysteriously and brutally slaughtered and the victim being returned home safely. Madanach, the Companions fight so others don't have to – but we only fight when we're needed. And in the Reach, we've clearly not been needed. For that... thank you.”

Madanach's eyebrows shot up at that, and Elisif snuggled up next to him, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“See, they don't think you're all bad,” she told him. Madanach didn't seem to know how to react to actually being praised by one of the Nords he'd spent his life fighting, in fact if anything he looked a little disappointed.

“Well, I've got all these camps of Forsworn warriors hanging about, may as well make use of them,” Madanach said gruffly, looking at his feet rather awkwardly. “So anyway. My wife needs her throne back, and apparently due to some insane notion of honour, she's decided she wants to go up against the usurping bitch herself rather than having those more experienced in dealing with such matters take care of things for her. Elisif, I'm hoping you have a plan of some sort that's a little better thought out than walk up to her, demand she hand the throne back and challenge her to mortal combat if she says no.”

Given that was the entirety of Elisif's plan, she wasn't really sure what to say, but fortunately Cicero had turned up to listen and thought that was an excellent idea.

“Ooh yes, yes! Cicero likes that plan. Do not fear, pretty Elisif, Cicero shall be there and if Bryling says no then Cicero shall happily stab her for you and then the throne will be all yours! No need for Elisif to get her hands wet, no need for Madanach to worry his pretty wife might get killed. Humble Cicero shall do the stabbing so Elisif doesn't have to, isn't that right, Listener?” Cicero was bouncing on the spot, beaming at Delphine and looking hopefully at her.

“If Elisif thinks it's a good idea,” said Delphine, glancing at Madanach, who clearly thought this was a fine plan, and Kodlak, who appeared to be regretting ever saying that Companions fought so others didn't have to in front of Cicero. He wasn't the only one with regrets.

“But I do have to!” Elisif cried. “This whole thing has come about because everyone thinks I'm too weak to rule! That I'm the Empire's figurehead, or Madanach's puppet, or just a young and foolish girl with no business being queen. No one thinks I'm capable, no one thinks I'm strong, everyone just sees me as some pawn to be pushed around and I'm sick of it! I want to be High Queen, I am High Queen, and this is personal now. She had Falk killed just because he was more loyal to me than her, and she's taken my city over. I'm going to fight her and I'm going to win! Even if I don't exactly know how yet.”

“Well said, lass,” said Kodlak, eyes twinkling. “With spirit like that, you might just manage it. And were you not queen, I'd have you in Jorrvaskr. You're a true Nord.”

Elisif blushed but smiled back at Kodlak. High praise indeed.

“Thank you,” she whispered. Beside her, Madanach just rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

“You people are insane,” he sighed, giving up on talking sense into his wife and turning hopeful eyes on Delphine. “Delphine, you're a sensible woman. Help me out here. Find me a way to get Bryling off the throne in such a way that will satisfy my wife's sense of honour and yet not get her killed.”

Talos help her. One of these days, people would stop asking her for the impossible.

“Madanach, this is not exactly simple!” Delphine sighed. “I've not got a lot to work with here!”

“You killed an Emperor and a dragon-god, I have faith in you,” Madanach said confidently, having settled into a chair with his legs crossed, one elbow on a table and generally looking very relaxed for a Forsworn man surrounded by Nords. Damn him.

“And what am I supposed to do, dress Cicero up as Elisif and hope they all fall for it?” Delphine snapped. A mistake, it turned out.

“Ooh, ooh, Cicero likes that idea! Cicero will happily wear one of Elisif's pretty dresses – does she have anything in red?”

“I don't think so,” Elisif whispered, backing away from him. Kodlak was shaking his head at his son, probably wondering if perhaps Stelmaria had really wanted a girl, a theory Eola had come up with and still swore by.

“I'm sure we can come up with a workable plan without resorting to deception and trickery,” Kodlak said, hoping to restore order. Unfortunately for him, resorting to deception and trickery was what both Delphine and Madanach did best.

“I've got it,” said Madanach suddenly. “Cicero, hold still, let me try something. I promise it won't hurt you.”

“Madanach, what are you -?” Delphine began as Madanach raised his hand to cast. Not the flame, frost or lightning of Destruction magic, but the gentle blue of an Illusion spell, that flowed out and hit Cicero, bathing him in light and reshaping his features, fading to leave an exact duplicate of Elisif.

Everyone had stopped their own little conversations and turned to look. Two Elisifs were standing there, one with her hands to her mouth, absolutely horrified... and the other staring down at her/himself, squeaking in delight.

“Listener,” s/he breathed. “Listener, look at me, I'm... I'm pretty!

Yes, Stelmaria had definitely wanted a girl.

“You were pretty anyway,” Delphine told her/him.

“Are you sure this was a good idea?” Argis murmured to Madanach, who was slowly shaking his head, reconsidering the whole thing.

“This may have been a mistake,” Madanach muttered back, and this opinion was confirmed as Cicero/Elisif pirouetted over to him and sank to his/her knees, the very image of his wife but smiling and giggling coyly up at him in a way Elisif, the real Elisif, never did.

“Hello, husband,” s/he purred. “Is there anything I can... do for you?”

It had been a while since Madanach had ever moved that fast, but move he did, leaping to his feet so quickly the chair fell back as he backed away from his wife's face with that crafty expression.

“Argis,” he gasped, and Argis promptly produced the hip flask again, handing it over so Madanach could gulp down the contents and pass it back.

“Alright, that is the worst idea I've ever had in my life,” Madanach gasped, hastily casting another spell and restoring Cicero to his previous appearance while everyone else howled with laughter, apart from Elisif, who looked as appalled as her husband.

“I don't act like that!” she cried, horrified.

“No,” Madanach growled. “You don't. Come here, wife.” Elisif duly went to him and Madanach took her in his arms, clinging on to her to reassure himself it was really her and she wasn't going to turn into a mad jester when the spell wore off.

“Have we all now seen the peril of careless use of Illusion spells?” said Kodlak sternly, eyes sweeping the courtyard, and most of those present had the sense to at least nod, apart from Cicero who was still sniffling to Delphine about how he'd liked looking like Elisif and now he wasn't pretty any more.

“I prefer you looking like you, and I still think you're very lovely,” Delphine said, kissing the top of Cicero's head. “Still, good idea with the illusion though – you just need to cast it on someone else. You can cast it on me if you like, or Eola?”

Eola looked up from where she'd been helping Aranea with Farkas' ankle, nodding at her father. It was Elisif who objected.

“Absolutely not!” she cried. “No casting Illusion spells to make other people look like me!”

“No fear,” Madanach growled, voice slightly muffled from where he was leaning into her chest. “Right now, I'm not sure I want to cast another Illusion spell ever again.” He looked up, hope fading as he realised his best idea was a no-go. “So if we can't persuade them all someone else is you...”

“It'll be all right,” Elisif whispered, more to convince herself than him. “It will.”

“And if it's not?” Madanach asked, tracing fingers down her cheek. “Elisif, this is a fight to the death you're talking about – you win or you die! I'm not a man accustomed to begging, but Elisif, please... don't die, you'll break my heart.” He'd taken her hand in his, kissing her wrist and holding it to his face, not able to look at her.

“I won't,” Elisif said, trying to sound brave and comforting, but she wasn't entirely convinced herself – and he certainly wasn't.

“I wish there was a way of very quickly teaching you everything Cicero knows about killing people,” Madanach said, gazing off into the distance. “If we can't make Cicero look like you, give you some of his skills.”

“Well, he could train her?” said Ria, having edged closer to listen in, and having met Madanach before when she'd believed he was just an old Breton having a quiet drink in a tavern, she wasn't intimidated, not much anyway. “He managed it with me – I wasn't as good as he was, but I improved a lot and it didn't take long. That'd surely help?”

Cicero did look up from Delphine's arms at that, seeming quite pleased at the prospect. “Yes, yes, humble Cicero is happy to teach dear Elisif what he can about stabbing. We do not need to leave until tomorrow, do we Listener?”

“Well, no,” said Delphine, “but you've still got only a few hours – it's nearly five. What is it, Babette?”

“I might be able to help,” said Babette thoughtfully, having left Aranea and Calixto with a selection of surgical potions for Farkas. “I had this idea a while back and talked to Esbern about it. We were trying to look at a way of using the dragon blood in potions to allow the user to gain some of the abilities of the Dragonborn. Remember? It was why we were taking all those blood samples off Cicero earlier this year.”

Delphine remembered. She'd been a bit wary, but Esbern had been insistent it might be of great benefit and in the end she'd relented and agreed as long as Cicero was willing. He'd turned out to be very willing, staring in fascination as the Dwemer blood extractor did its work and the tube filled with blood. Esbern and Babette had rushed off to compare notes on Babette's alchemical knowledge and Esbern's research on the Akaviri magic used to make the Blood Seal. Delphine had heard nothing else and had assumed they'd found nothing – of course, Cicero had then disappeared and she'd had many other things to occupy herself with.

“Did you find something then?”

Babette nodded. “We did! It's not much, but I had a bit of luck. I made a potion involving Cicero's blood, a bit of dragon bone and dragon scale and a few other things, and tested it on Nazir, and he was able to learn Words of Power like Cicero can!”

Delphine turned to stare at the embarrassed Redguard.

“Never again,” said Nazir firmly. “I still can't Shout. I just looked at all these dragon carvings and knew what they meant and what they did.”

“Because he'd need a dragon soul,” said Babette. “I think if we'd killed a dragon before the potion wore off, he'd have been able to take the soul as well.”

“Can't he summon dragons?” Vilkas asked, pointing at Cicero. “He calls one, we kill it, Elisif takes the potion and absorbs its soul so she can Shout, is that the plan?”

“But Cicero can only call Odahviing, and Cicero isn't killing Odahviing! Odahviing is Cicero's friend!” Cicero did however look thoughtful. “But Cicero might be able to share his knowledge of the Thu'um, like Arngeir did for him. Yes, yes, if Elisif drinks this potion, Cicero could teach her how to Shout as well as how to stab people.”

Elisif stared at Cicero and then back at Madanach. “I don't know if this is a good idea,” she whispered to him.

“It is orders of magnitude better than making Cicero look like you,” said Madanach, still shuddering at the memory. “Why, are you worried?”

“I don't want – what if it changes me?” Elisif whispered. “What if I'm not me any more? What if I end up like – like Ulfric?”

“What, snatched up by a dragon and dropped from a great height?” Madanach smirked, remembering that day all too well. Amazingly, Ulfric had survived the fall, cushioned by his armour but badly injured and unable to move. Madanach had finished the man off, carving head from shoulders and showing it off to an entire city that had howled in delight and hailed their leader as Reach-King. Markarth had loved him ever since.

“You know what I mean!” Elisif snapped, and to his surprise, she looked seriously worried. “What if I abuse it? What if I hurt someone?”

Madanach took Elisif's hand in his and kissed her fingers. “Cariad. You never will. I know you never will, because you're asking questions like that. You'll use it to defeat Bryling, then knowing you, never again. You are not Ulfric. You are nothing like Ulfric. You don't have his arrogance or his cruelty. You're a kind and compassionate woman, and you're going to be a magnificent queen.”

Elisif hugged him tightly, feeling her nerves abate a little. Someone had faith in her at least. It helped. I'm so glad I married you, Madanach. I love you so much.

“I learnt from the best,” she whispered in his ear, and Madanach said nothing to that, just holding her that bit tighter.

“How long does this thing take to make and what do you need?” Delphine was asking Babette. “There's an alchemy shop in town, they should have most of it.”

“Not a dragon bone, dragon scale and a tube full of Cicero's blood, they won't,” said Babette, already making a list using the quill and paper that had been produced for her. “But the rest is fairly common stuff.”

Ria promptly shoved a dragon bone and scale from the dragon she and Cicero had killed that morning under Babette's nose and Cicero had his arm bared and ready, big grin on his face.

“Give me an hour and an alchemy lab,” Babette laughed. “Trust me, Elisif. You're going to be a temporary Dragonborn.”

Chapter Text

“I can't do this.”

Of all the problems that might have come up, Cicero hadn't expected that one. The two of them were sitting in Skjor's old room for privacy, with a desk and a couple of chairs provided. So far it had gone well, the potion hadn't seemed to have done any harm, Elisif seemed to understand the Words of Power Cicero had inscribed for her, and he'd gifted his knowledge of Unrelenting Force without any trouble. Only now Elisif seemed to have gone to pieces over it.

“Yes you can,” said Cicero, impatient. “Cicero has written it down for you, FUS, RO and DAH. And he has given you his knowledge of the Words! Elisif is quite capable now of shouting Unrelenting Force. Try it! Just the first word. Shout for Cicero.”

“I can't!” Elisif cried, head in her hands. “I can't use it! I know it already, I heard it before! It's the Shout Ulfric used to kill my husband! I can't use it myself! I'm not knocking her to the ground and murdering her, I'm just not.”

Cicero couldn't for the life of him see why that would present a problem, but he supposed she could hardly call Ulfric a monster for Shouting her husband apart and then do the exact same thing to Bryling.

“You are going to have to kill her, you know,” said Cicero gently. “She cannot be allowed to live. This is treason, we do not let traitors live to betray us again.”

“I know!” Elisif cried. “And I'll do it, I will, but... but not like that. Isn't there anything else you can teach me?”

“Of course, of course!” Cicero giggled. “But Cicero does not think the Listener would approve and he's not sure Madanach would either. But they are not here and if Elisif is willing...”

“Teach me,” said Elisif firmly. “Madanach is not the boss of me just because he's my husband.”

“As you wish,” Cicero grinned. He wrote out three more words for her.

“YOL, TOOR, SHUL,” Elisif read. “Fire, Inferno, Sun – this is for breathing fire!?”

“Yes, yes!” Cicero laughed. “Elisif could breathe fire like a Dovah! See, this is how!” Before she could react, Cicero had folded his arms and gifted the knowledge to her.

“Mara have mercy,” Elisif said faintly. “That training dummy. That was you.”

“Yes!” Cicero cackled, bouncing up and down on his chair. “It was the Shout that killed Alduin. It is Cicero's personal favourite. Now Elisif can use it to toast Bryling without having to worry about any harm coming to her. Should she survive, she will be so injured she will be easy prey for your pretty, pretty axe.”

“I am not breathing fire over her!” Elisif cried, appalled. “No one should have that sort of power. Frankly, I'm not sure you should, but if you're Dragonborn, I suppose I can't stop you.”

“Oh Elisif need not worry, Cicero has been told by the Listener on many occasions about when he is and is not allowed to breathe fire,” said Cicero cheerfully. “Have no fear about me.”

“It's not you I'm worried about!” said Elisif firmly. “Honestly Cicero, isn't there anything else I could use?”

“Well, there is something,” said Cicero thoughtfully. “Cicero used it on Ulfric once. If you wish it to appear like a fair fight, this would weaken her sufficiently so you could fight her. Is my lady queen interested?”

“I hope it's better than the other two,” Elisif sighed. “Go on then.”

Cicero inscribed the final Shout down – three words, one learned in Falkreath so long ago, one on a little visit to a cave near Windhelm, and one he'd picked up not long before the wedding, on a dragon hunting trip to the Rift.

“KRII LUN AUS,” Elisif read. “Kill Leech Suffer. Sweet gods, Cicero, what does it do??”

“Drains the life out of your victim,” said Cicero softly, his face half-shadowed in the lamplight and looking like some sort of figure of nightmare. “It will weaken her, may even kill outright. You do not need to use all three words, but the effect is stronger if you do. Let your axe then do the rest. Would Elisif receive Cicero's knowledge of this Shout?”

Elisif closed her eyes and nodded, praying that the gods would forgive her for this. She hoped she wouldn't have to use it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cicero stepped out of Skjor's room, bidding goodbye to Elisif, off to Dragonsreach to join her husband for the night. Delphine was staying up there too, probably with Eola. The two of them had disappeared for a long, private chat so Cicero assumed they wanted to catch up. He didn't begrudge them that. Delphine loved him still, that was all he needed to know. He could wait for a more physical reunion later. After all, he was in trouble still. Wouldn't be right to receive Delphine's sweet affections until he'd been properly chastised, would it now?

Besides, he wasn't sure he wanted to deal with Eola just yet anyway. Far too complicated. He was just a humble fool, wanting nothing more than to serve his Listener and the Night Mother, and if there was blood and stabbing and fire involved, so much the better. He didn't need Eola complicating his life with her predator's smile and her killer's hands that could summon fire and the blood on her chin as she'd fed on Skjor and her beast form and the way she'd torn Harrald Law-Giver apart, and the way she'd felt when he'd taken her and oh Sithis, he was in trouble, a great deal of trouble indeed. The Listener could love who she pleased, Cicero understood that. But he was meant to be hers! How was he supposed to devote himself to her if Eola kept getting in the way?

He made his way upstairs, wondering if anyone else was still around. Aranea had taken her lovers back to Windhelm once Farkas had been settled, on orders from Delphine and Cicero would personally be very surprised if Laila Law-Giver was still alive five days from now. Ralof had been incarcerated in Dragonsreach dungeon overnight, Astrid and her people had left for Dawnstar and most of the Companions had gone to bed. Jorrvaskr was quiet, but there was still food left out and Cicero was hungry.

A solitary figure was sitting at the table, a pack and assorted weapons at her feet. A figure he'd been hoping not to run into, and curse him he'd not even thought to sneak up.

“Cicero, wait.”

Cicero sighed and finished climbing up the stairs. She'd got up and was walking over with the pack, stopping a few feet from him.

“Sister,” he said softly, leaning back against a pillar and folding his arms. Eola smiled nervously at him.

“You got your memories back. That's good, right?”

“All things told, Cicero might have been better left in ignorance,” Cicero growled. “You are fortunate that the Listener forgave me and took me back. Why didn't you tell me I was married??”

“Well, I would have done, but I didn't realise you didn't know until about five seconds before you'd started kissing me!” Eola protested. “What was I meant to say afterwards, nice sex, by the way your wife's looking for you?”

“You could have said no!” Cicero cried. “Or put some clothes on! What was Cicero meant to do with a blood-soaked naked woman in front of him flinging her arms around him? He's human, Eola! But if I'd known... if I'd known I had a wife waiting for me, I would never have done it. I should never have done it either time.”

“I see,” said Eola softly, resignation in her voice. She sounded so sad and hopeless and Cicero felt the unfamiliar sensation of guilt prickling at him, not to mention the desire to go and comfort her. But he couldn't, because if he did, he might start kissing her again, and that would lead nowhere good. Probably to sex on the table in the middle of Jorrvaskr, and Cicero had pushed the limits of Kodlak's tolerance already.

“I'm sorry, you're right, I should have told you,” Eola was saying, looking away, arms folded and staring at her feet. “I should just have let you go in the first place, you're clearly not interested. You're Keeper of the Night Mother at the end of the day, aren't you? Delphine's got the Night Mother in her head, what am I next to that, eh?”

“Don't say that, that's not why I love her,” said Cicero, wishing she'd go back to being a designing little hussy again. He could more or less deal with that. He hated seeing her penitent and unhappy like this. “Well, not the only reason I love her,” he admitted.

“Maybe not,” said Eola, “but from the moment I first met you, you wouldn't shut up about her. It was Listener this and Listener that, and you made her sound like some untouchable mystic goddess. It was very clear your heart was set on her, but I was kinda hoping that you'd never want to sully her with something like sex and that I might be able to get a little something out of you. Because you are cute, Cici, even if you are nuts.”

“I'm not crazy! And don't call me Cici,” Cicero grumbled, glaring at her. That was better, the guilt was going away, but the affection very much hadn't. She even had a point about the sex. He'd never get tired of bedding Delphine, absolutely never, but there were some things he could just never do with her. He wasn't Lucien, who reacted to a Listener's authority by wanting to have them beg him to override it. He was just humble Cicero who wanted to curl up at his Listener's feet and love her and tend to her. Unfortunately he was also Cicero the assassin with a Dovah inside and afflicted with some very inconvenient urges to occasionally use and dominate. Urges which Eola kept waking up, damn her!

“That was before I met her and then damn if I didn't realise where you were coming from,” said Eola, her voice wistful. “Gave up trying to split you two up there and then. I knew you'd never look twice at me in that way, but it didn't stop me loving you anyway. You were one of the best friends I ever had – you still are, if I haven't screwed up completely. I'm sorry, Cicero. You don't need to worry, I'm not going to make any advances or put myself in a situation where you might get tempted.”

“Sister,” Cicero whispered, feeling wretched again. She just looked so unhappy, and Cicero had no idea what to do about it. He loved her, of course he did, he couldn't help that, that was the problem. He was scared he'd love her more than the Listener, or that there might come a day when he had to choose one over the other. What if he chose Eola? It didn't bear thinking about.

“Here, I brought your things,” she continued, leaving the pack at his feet. “It's got your armour in there, and Dragonbane here, and various potions and poisons and a few soul gems for you, also your bow and your lockpicks and all your good arrows. Time you looked like you again.”

“Thank you,” Cicero whispered, tears in his eyes at seeing his ebony bow and the Akaviri sword Delphine had gifted him with. Looking like himself again – yes, he'd like that very much. It was just a shame about the ridiculous hair.

“And – and I got something else for you,” Eola finished, producing a bottle full of some red potion and holding it out. Cicero frowned, taking it off her. It was the wrong shade for a healing potion, but it didn't look like a poison either.

“What is it, sister?” Cicero asked, confused. “Is it poison?”

“No, although I don't recommend drinking it,” said Eola, smiling slightly. “It's red hair dye. Ingun and Muiri came up with it. It won't get your hair back to its original colour, not exactly. But it'll make you look a bit less silly while the blonde grows out.”

Cicero stared at it, feeling the tears well up. She'd got him hair dye. She'd known, known how much he'd hated being blonde, known how much he'd missed the red. So she'd done something about it, something no one else had thought to do. It was a small thing, a silly thing, such a foolish, insignificant thing really. But it meant the world to Cicero.

“Come here,” he gasped, before he really did start crying. She looked strangely at him but stepped forward anyway. Cicero pulled her into his arms, clutching her to him and just holding her, forgiving her everything in that instant. He still had absolutely no idea where they all went from here, but she was still his beloved sister. Even if they never shared a bed again, at least he'd not lost her for good.

“You've forgiven me then,” he heard her gasp. He nodded, not really able to say anything else.

“Knew you would,” she laughed. “You're a bit predictable sometimes. Come on, want me to dye it all back for you?”

“Yes,” he managed to get out. “Yes. Please.”

Eola let him go, taking one hand in his as she picked his things up with the other. “Come on then, let's get on with it.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Nnng, sister, yes, oh yes!” Cicero sighed happily as Eola's gloved fingers moved through his hair, pouring water from a jug and rinsing out the last of the dye. He'd been sighing and moaning and writhing quite suggestively throughout the whole experience. Frankly, Eola was just glad she'd left the door open. As it was, she'd had both Aela and Vilkas sticking their heads around the door and looking suspiciously at her, attention drawn by all the noise.

“He didn't do that when we dyed his hair,” said Vilkas, eyes narrowed as if she were at fault somehow. “He screamed the place down.”

“That is because Vilkas was ruining his hair,” Cicero purred. “Eola is putting it right.”

“Consent is such a small thing but it does make all the difference,” said Eola, rubbing Cicero's hair with a towel. Red dye everywhere, the towel was ruined, but towels were cheap enough. What price having Cicero looking like Cicero again? “There you go, Champ, you're done. Here, have a look.” She passed him a mirror, watching with satisfaction as he squeaked in delight, fingering his hair. It wasn't exactly its old shade, it was lighter due to the blonde dye underneath, but he was definitely a little redhead again.

“Red! Red!” Cicero cackled. “Cicero has red hair again!”

“It suits you,” said Aela, actually looking like she approved. Not an expression Eola had seen on her before, in fact both her and Vilkas had been staring at her with barely-concealed anger ever since she'd arrived. Fellow beasts recognising each other, and probably recognising where her beast blood had come from too. It was a good thing Kodlak had been so kind as to agree to an amnesty really.

“You should get your armour on too, get yourself looking like a proper Dragonborn again,” Eola told him. He'd stripped down to his loincloth for the hair dye job, providing no little temptation for her, but she'd kept her hands to herself. Mostly.

Cicero dived for the pack, hauling out reams of leather and clinking dragon scale, sliding into it and fastening the hooks and buttons as if he'd never been out of it. His daggers, all three of them, clipped to the shoulder belt, and his two swords fitted nicely on his waist belt, with the archery gear on his back. The hat was the finishing touch. Preening and cooing, Cicero twirled, showing himself off as he admired himself. Despite the fact his favoured non-combat outfit was a jester's motley, Cicero had to be one of the vainest men she knew.

“Dragonborn, I'm Dragonborn, Cicero is Dragonborn!” Cicero shrieked, dancing on the spot. “Sister, sister, I look like Alduin-Kriid again!”

“Whatever is all the noise about, it must be nearly midnight-” Kodlak stopped, speechless as he saw Cicero there in his black and red armour, Dark Brotherhood handprint on the front, Akaviri blade at his side along with his Skyforge one, and blonde hair turned red again. Cicero stopped mid-prance, finely balanced on one foot as he grinned up at Kodlak.

“Hello Harbinger,” he chirped. “Eola dyed my hair back to red! And she brought my things, look! I killed Alduin in this outfit, you know.”

“Yes, yes I'm sure you did,” said Kodlak, torn between pride and sadness. Sadness that the illusion he'd had of Cicero the Companion was gone for good – but pride in the Dragonborn before him. “You look exactly like the stories say you do.”

Cicero lowered himself to the ground, standing on both feet, hands on his hips and his head tilted.

“What do the stories say?” he asked. “Cicero doesn't hear many tales of the Dragonborn, you understand. The bards all say it's a little awkward to tell the story when I'm right there like this.” Cicero covered the space between them in a second, standing on tiptoes, nose to nose with Kodlak and a wide grin on his face.

“I can see how that might distract them, lad,” said Kodlak gently, placing hands on his shoulders and nudging him back a little. “The ones I've heard make you sound like a screaming force of nature in black and red that leaves a trail of bodies behind you.”

“They got that right,” said Eola from where she was cleaning up the various towels and other things used to de-blondify Cicero.

“Oh hush, sister, you know full well you were responsible for a good half of all the death,” Cicero giggled, dancing over to her, taking her arm in his and leading her over to where Kodlak was watching.

“Harbinger, this is Eola ap Madanach of the Reach,” said Cicero formally. “Cicero's dear friend and beloved sister who has been invaluable to Cicero on his many travels and helped him even when the Listener would not.”

Kodlak looked at her, frowning. Yes, a werewolf, he could tell, and from the scent of her, Skjor's blood had turned her, Vilkas had been right. He didn't think a witch of the Reach would have taken the beast blood voluntarily. Certainly not one also a child of Madanach. He'd had dealings with the Forsworn in the past, he'd done some research into the beast blood. If he understood it rightly, it had been intended as a curse from the start, a way to turn Nords into beasts and keep them from Sovngarde. Not used widely – it was a pyrrhic victory to give power to the enemy and the downside not apparent until the afterlife. But when Terrfyg had made the mistake of asking witches for help, they'd seized the opportunity. Kodlak knew they'd never intended to imbibe the beast blood themselves.

Eola of the Reach could not possibly be pleased at becoming a wolf, nor would she want knowledge of that reaching anyone else. Perhaps, just perhaps, Kodlak could use that.

“It's a pleasure to meet you, my dear,” he told her. “The stories did tell of you, you know. Many of them agree the Dragonborn had a blonde lover, a woman who ran at his side and cast magic, who helped him kill dragons and who helped liberate Northwatch and kill the Thalmor. Quite a few of them have him linked romantically with the Reach-King's daughter. A fascinating love story, but I suspect much embellished.”

Cicero went a bit pink and started coughing. Eola patted him on the pack and just smiled.

“He's married to Delphine, but he and I are very fond of each other. We've had some good times. Are you really his father?”

“Aye lass,” said Kodlak. “I am. Hard to believe, I know.”

“Very,” Eola agreed. “You seem very well-adjusted.”

“Cicero is well-adjusted!” Cicero protested.

“To what, a life of crime?” Vilkas muttered, still watching from the doorway. He'd not stopped glaring at Eola since she'd walked in.

“Vilkas,” said Kodlak, a hint of a growl to his voice. “We talked about this. We agreed to respect the Dragonborn's lifestyle choices as long as he did not bring dishonour on us.”

Vilkas growled back but said nothing. Eola and Cicero were both glaring at him, but no one had gone for weapons yet.

“You know,” said Eola, “I think out of the two of them, I prefer Farkas. He's such a nice man. Don't you think so, Cicero?”

“Yes, yes, dear Farkas is perfectly nice!” Cicero purred. “Such a kind man. Cicero likes him. Never treats poor Cicero like he's insane.”

“That's all well and good,” said Kodlak, intervening before the bitchiness got out of hand. “But I need to speak to Cicero and Eola alone. Vilkas, Aela, if you'll excuse us?”

“Come on,” Aela sighed, grabbing Vilkas and dragging him out. “You heard him, let the Harbinger have his privacy.”

The door closed behind them, but outside their conversation could still be heard.

“I don't hold with playing host to murderers, Aela!” Vilkas snapped.

“Oh what, and you never let the beast get out of hand and kill an innocent person before?” Aela said in response.

“Not intentionally! They kill for coin and enjoy it!”

“Then we are not so very different,” said Aela, her voice fading as she led Vilkas away. Kodlak waited until both had gone before sitting down, the strain becoming evident.

“Harbinger?” Cicero ventured, looking nervous. “Are you all right?”

“Aye lad, do not worry about me. I am old and some days the pain is more than I can bear. But only some days. Sit, both of you. There is a personal matter I wished to discuss, and I think you more than any might be able to help.”

“Me?” Cicero asked, confused. He took a seat on the bed that had once been Skjor's, taking Eola's hand without really thinking about it as she sat down next to him. “What can humble Cicero do? Is there someone Kodlak wants killing? Or is it something only a Dragonborn can do?”

“Actually, I was thinking of Eola,” said Kodlak, eyes falling on the young Reachwoman. She looked up, startled as he mentioned her name.

“Me?” she asked, surprised. “Are you after some sort of favour from my father? Or is it something magical and arcane that the other Companions just wouldn't know?”

“Close enough,” Kodlak sighed. “I won't beat around the bush. Lass, you share the beast blood, same as us, let's not deny it. And from the scent of it, you were infected by Skjor, presumably when he captured you, yes?”

Cicero and Eola both nodded. “There was a lot of blood,” said Cicero, eyes flicking nervously at Eola, whose own expression was looking just a little fixed. “Small wonder some of his got into her wounds, no?”

“Indeed,” said Kodlak, sure that was not the whole story and equally sure he didn't want to know it. “Be that as it may, you now share the blood of the beast with us, like it or not. But I know you did not choose it and that your people regard it as a curse. Not just a curse, but one intended to punish outsiders. For the Reach-King's daughter to be infected – well, I can see that might be something you'd want kept quiet.”

“Are you trying to blackmail me?” said Eola softly, her gaze hardening. Cicero's grip on her hand tightened as he laughed nervously, hoping sister and father weren't about to come to blows.

“I'm sure Kodlak would never do anything so despicable as that,” he said quickly. “Kodlak is a good man, an honourable man, he has always told Cicero that being a Companion means being straightforward and honest and definitely doesn't involve sneaking around and manipulating people, no.”

Kodlak had to smile. At least Cicero remembered his words, even if he almost certainly would never live by them.

“My lad speaks the truth, I do not wish to blackmail you. Rather, it seems you and I are in a similar situation. We both share the blood of the beast... and we both wish to rid ourselves of it.”

“You do?” Cicero asked, tilting his head. Eola just looked thoughtful.

“I've not actually decided yet. Not been one long enough to form an opinion either way. Sure, it'd be embarrassing if it got out and it'd break Da's heart, but Cicero doesn't mind and the Listener's OK with it. They're the ones who matter, not some nameless public.”

“Well said,” said Kodlak, nodding in approval. “Nevertheless, your life would be easier if you were cleansed of it, and you may decide one day that you want to do just that. In fact, of all of us, you are best placed to find a way. This curse is dark magic, old magic. You use magic, you're a spellcaster of some renown, and you're the child of witches. You also have access to the lore of the Dark Brotherhood – I don't know if you're experts on werewolves, but I'm sure you have your sources. Eola, you may not want a cure... but I do.”

“And you want me to help you find one,” said Eola knowingly. “Let me guess. You're getting old and you want to get to Sovngarde.”

“Yes,” said Kodlak. “Particularly now that I know Stelmaria's there waiting. I couldn't tell her, couldn't tell her the beast blood keeps me from joining her. But if I can find a cure before time runs out... it could still happen.”

Cicero let go of Eola, sitting up, his face pale. “Werewolves... cannot go to Sovngarde? Kodlak won't join Cicero's mama in Sovngarde when he dies?”

“No, lad,” Kodlak sighed. “We are children of the Daedric Lord Hircine, and he'll claim us for his own when we die. Unless I find a cure, the little you can give me of Stelmaria is all I'll ever have.”

Cicero actually whimpered a little, before turning to Eola, grabbing her shoulders, eyes manic.

“You must help him! You must make enquiries, you must, you must! Poor Kodlak needs to be cleansed, or he and Mama will never see each other again, and Mama will be all alone in Sovngarde! Sister, sister, please!” Without waiting for an answer, he let her go, flinging himself on Kodlak, hugging the Harbinger and burying his face in Kodlak's shoulder.

“We will find one, I swear it,” he gasped. “Cicero will look all over Skyrim, go back to Cyrodiil if he has to and he will make sure Eola asks as well. We will find a cure for you, Cicero promises.”

“I haven't said yes yet!” Eola cried. Cicero shrugged, letting his father go and patting him gently on the shoulder.

“She will,” said Cicero, sounding perfectly confident. “Cicero will talk her into it.”

Kodlak laughed, and patted Cicero on the back. “You're a good lad, Cicero. Despite everything. I don't expect miracles but anything you can find will be a help. I've asked every spellcaster that comes anywhere near Whiterun, but no one seems to have any ideas. I've considered going to Winterhold even – I'm a little old to enrol as a student, mind.”

“Oh Kodlak should not be journeying all the way up there!” Cicero purred. “Winterhold is cold! No, no, Kodlak should stay here in comfort. Cicero knows a little magic now, he shall go and become an apprentice, study in their Arcanaeum for you.”

“Oh gods no,” Eola couldn't stop herself saying. “You are not learning the arcane arts unsupervised. All right, seeing as Cicero's now obsessed with the idea and as I'm clearly not going to get any peace ever again unless I help, I will make enquiries, hit up every source at my disposal. If need be, we'll send Aranea up to Winterhold again, she's still technically a student there. If it's there, we'll find it.”

“Thank you thank you thank you!” Cicero cried, doing a little dance in the middle of the room. “See, see, Harbinger, we shall find your cure for you. Cicero shall ask the Listener, she knows all sorts of people. She might be able to help.”

“I'm very thankful for it,” said Kodlak, getting to his feet, wincing as his knees cracked. “Thank you, both of you. I can offer gold for anything useful you find.”

Cicero started to protest that that wasn't necessary, Kodlak's happiness was worth more than gold, at least until Eola tersely took his arm and interrupted, saying they'd be happy to accept a reasonable sum to cover their expenses, then hauled Cicero out, saying it was late and they should leave Kodlak to his rest.

Kodlak bade them both goodbye, smiling despite the fact that they were both brutal killers and really he should disapprove of them both. But Cicero was his son, and his heart was true. He'd managed to kill a dragon god, and his siblings had taken down an Emperor, gained independence for the Reach and stopped a war. If anyone could find a cure, it would be them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Delphine's eyes fluttered open. The room was dark and it must be late but she knew she'd heard something. She slipped a hand under her pillow for the dagger she always kept there, wondering if it had been a good idea to send the entire Brotherhood home.

Arms slid around her, a black-clad hand pinning her wrist to the bed. Delphine panicked and then went limp in relief as a voice purred in her ear.

“Listener,” Cicero breathed, spooning behind her in his dragonscale armour. That was back in the Sanctuary surely, how'd he got that back? Maybe Eola had brought it for him.

“Cicero, what are you doing?” Delphine asked. He'd let her wrist go and slid his hands under her arms, pinning her against his chest as he began to nibble at her neck. This was not like him.

“Ssh, ssh, just relax, my sweetling,” he crooned in her ear. “Cicero means you no harm. Does he, sister?”

Delphine turned as the bed shifted again and Eola slid in next to her, hands cupping her face.

“We both agreed you needed tending, but couldn't decide who it should be,” she murmured, in between planting little kisses on Delphine's cheeks. “So here we both are.”

Cicero was grinding against her backside, the armour doing nothing to hide his erection. Delphine was clad only in her night shift and soon not even that as Eola picked up her discarded dagger and slashed it down the front.

“What are you doing?” she gasped, before Eola tossed the knife away and kissed her. When Eola finally stopped, all objections had faded from Delphine's mind. She could hear Cicero's ragged breathing, hear the arousal there as he'd watched the two of them kiss. Maybe he'd never go so far as to pin her down and use her for sex himself, but apparently aiding and abetting Eola was just fine.

“She's so beautiful, isn't she?” Eola whispered, tracing a finger over the curve of her breasts. Cicero tightened his grip, growling softly as he ground into her.

“Yes,” Cicero said, nipping her earlobe. “Yes, she is.” One hand slid across her chest, pinning her by the shoulders as the other slid down her side, pinning her at the hip. “Our beloved Listener is a sight to see. Sithis, I've missed this.”

Delphine felt she should probably be raising objections at being objectified and used like this, but she was having trouble remembering the right words. Or indeed any words, and things didn't improve when Eola began to kiss one of her breasts, gently stroking her as her mouth found the nipple and began to suck gently. Eola was moaning as she did so, and she could hear Cicero's breath catching in his throat. Delphine could feel herself growing wet, whispering for Eola to keeping doing that, don't stop, don't ever stop. She wanted to move, gods she wanted to move, pin Eola down and kiss her fiercely, hands between her legs and making her come, but she couldn't. Cicero was holding her tight, cooing in her ear, whispering not to fight it, just to let go and be tended to.

He was in so much trouble later. But Eola was trailing kisses down her stomach, moving down as Cicero's hand moved up, coming to rest on her breast right as Eola kissed the top of her mound then latched on to her clitoris.

Delphine cried out, trying to thrust, move, anything, but Eola had her lower half pinned against Cicero as she licked and sucked, while Cicero had her upper half held tight as he caressed her breasts and whispered how beautiful she was, how he'd never seen her this close while someone adored her before.

She opened her eyes, twisting to look at him. He was barely visible in the half-light, face shadowed but visible enough for her to see that evil little smile of his.

“You're in trouble, he-daedra,” she whispered. He giggled, eyebrows flicking upwards.

“I know!” he laughed, and then he kissed her, lips fastened on hers as teeth and tongue began to nibble and lick. He slid out from under her, pinning her to the bed as he kissed her none too gently. Delphine kissed him back, fingers in his hair as she finally gave in and held on to him, moaning as her husband kissed her and her girlfriend had half her hand buried inside her. It wasn't long before Delphine came, her cries muffled by Cicero's fierce kisses, and then he let her go. Eola took her hand away at the same time and Delphine actually sobbed at the loss of contact... then they swapped places. Cicero dived between her thighs, whimpering as his lips made contact, and Eola was kneading her breasts again.

“He's such a good boy, isn't he?” Eola whispered in between kisses.

“He's a little brat,” Delphine gasped. “But he is good at that – mm!” Eola had kissed her again, this time not letting up for a second as her tongue explored her mouth and her hand squeezed Delphine's nipple. She could hear Cicero moaning as his tongue and fingers explored her and Delphine finally came, girlfriend wrapped around her and her own legs wrapped around her husband.

Finally she collapsed on the pillows as the two of them disentangled themselves, Cicero hauling himself up to spoon at her back and cuddle her, Eola snuggling against her chest.

“How you doing, Matriarch?” Eola whispered.

“You're both awful, awful people,” Delphine finally managed to get out. “Sithis, encouraging you two to hook up was a very bad idea.”

Eola looked up at Cicero, suddenly worried, and Delphine immediately realised she may have spoken too soon. There was an awkward pause before Cicero replied.

“Sister Eola and I have not 'hooked up'. Not... not as such. But we do both agree that our Listener is beautiful and deserves the best we can give her.”

“You have more of that to look forward to,” Eola whispered in her ear, the tension fading. “Much more.”

Delphine shivered at the thought. She could definitely stand for her lovers to join forces to lavish attention on her again. Only it did feel a little one-sided.

“Neither of you came, in fact you're both fully dressed. Are you...?”

“Cicero is fine, sweetling,” he said gently, kissing her cheek. “Although perhaps he should get this armour off, he can hardly sleep in it.” He slipped out of bed and began stripping in the dark.

“We're fine, Delphine,” said Eola. “We talked on the way up here, sat up by Dragonsreach for a bit and cuddled. I told him we didn't have to be a couple, not if he didn't want to. He just said he needed to think about it. So he's going to do that and in the mean time, we've agreed you're in dire need of hot threeway action.”

“Somebody is in need of a good spanking,” Delphine said, glaring pointedly at Cicero. He just shed the last of his clothes and slid into bed, cuddling her, grin on his face.

“Cicero is already looking forward to it,” Cicero giggled. Purring, he snuggled closer and kissed her on the cheek.

“Sleep well, Listener,” he cooed. “Cicero shall be here all night.”

All night. Delphine hadn't had him by her side all night since before the wedding. She felt tears prickling at her eyes as she realised he really was back for good.

“I missed you,” she whispered, holding him tight. “I really thought I'd lost you. I thought you'd died, I...” She stopped, unable to say any more as she clung on to him, weeping quietly on his chest. Cicero held her, stroking her hair and kissing the top of her head, and she felt Eola at her back, putting arms around them both as she kissed her cheek.

“It is alright, Listener,” Cicero whispered. “Cicero is here. Cicero is sorry he hurt you. Cicero isn't going away ever again, he swears. Oh sweetling, pretty Delphine, don't cry, please.”

Delphine wept on his shoulder, glad of him, glad of them both being there, holding her, comforting her, protecting her. Loving her. She'd missed the pair of them. Finally, she stopped crying, drying her eyes on the handkerchief Eola had provided.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “You're both so lovely. I do love you, both of you, I promise.”

“We know,” Eola whispered back, kissing her cheek again. “You go to sleep now. We're here, we'll look after you. It's all right.”

Delphine nodded, closing her eyes as she sank into the pillow, finally drifting off to sleep. The last thing she remembered was Cicero sitting up and stroking Eola's hair, kissing her once on the lips, forehead resting against hers and wishing her goodnight before laying down by her side, then Eola stripping off and nestling on her other side. As Delphine drifted off to sleep, Cicero and Eola draped their arms around her, and if, during the night, Cicero's arm snaked forward to cuddle Eola as well, no one really minded.

Chapter Text

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.

“Elisif! Elisif!”

“Lady Queen!”

“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.

Chapter Text

In the end, the Moot went without a hitch. Balgruuf backed Elisif, Brunwulf had to admit he'd had doubts about her leadership skills but she'd proven him wrong, Brina just wanted a return to law and order and a ruler that hadn't had to assassinate innocent people to get her throne, and Idgrod had claimed to have seen it in the stars as a foregone conclusion. Even Korir admitted he'd been wrong and that she was a true Nord in the end. Siddgeir, being a bit of a craven coward, loudly claimed he just wanted life to get back to normal. Which just left Maven.

She stared Elisif down for the longest time, looking very calculating. Then, to Elisif's surprise, she turned to Madanach, sitting quietly in a chair by the far wall, flanked by Borkul and one of the Forsworn, and nodded at him.

“I agree. I don't want the crown for myself, which leaves Elisif as the next best choice.”

“Rikke?” asked Elisif hopefully. She didn't think the Empire's military representative would veto the whole thing, certainly not a Nord General who had just seen the Moot agree to back her, but she liked to be sure of these things.

“Frankly, I'm just glad to see the whole business done with a minimum of bloodshed,” said Rikke, smiling at Elisif. “Welcome back, High Queen. Good to see you again. I've still got those traitors downstairs in the cells, they're ready when you are. I'm assuming you'd rather deal with them yourself.”

“I think that's probably best,” said Elisif. She wasn't looking forward to the trials, but it was vastly preferable to having the Imperial machine get involved. “I'll see about arranging something within the next week or so. I have to set my court to rights first.” Didn't she just. Madanach had already insisted on assigning her Uaile as her new housecarl, claiming the Nords clearly weren't up to the job, but she'd put her foot down with regards to her steward. She'd want a Nord for this job if possible, to counterbalance the Reach's influence, and she wanted to make the choice herself. She'd need to get the post filled soon as well, before Erikur volunteered his services. He'd made a lot of noises about the need for stability and continuity and not letting the country go leaderless while Bryling had been in charge, but hadn't actually said Bryling was the rightful queen either. He'd also been quite keen to welcome her back, although the conversation had been cut mercifully short after Madanach had gazed at him thoughtfully for a minute and asked if Erikur had lost any kin to the Forsworn because he was sure he'd once killed a man who looked just like him. Elisif had just about managed not to laugh, and held it together long enough to tell her husband off. He'd been utterly unrepentant, of course, and Elisif was just glad Madanach was of the opinion she should acquire a few new Thanes before risking anything happening to Erikur. Honestly, it was a good thing she loved her husband dearly, because sometimes he was just impossible.

The Jarls filed out, business concluded and most of them eager to get back to their Holds. They'd met in the Imperial Dining Chamber in Castle Dour – not the most auspicious venue given an assassination attempt against Titus Mede had taken place there, but it could hardly be worse than that horrible ruin Elisif had first met Madanach in. Elisif, still wearing the Saviour's Hide and accessories, the Jagged Crown on the table in front of her, finally relaxed in her seat at the head of the table, hoping they'd at least replaced the chair. Right up until she realised Maven Black-Briar was still there, standing before her.

“Jarl Maven?” Elisif asked, frowning. “What can I do for you?”

“Actually, I just wanted a quick word with your husband, and then it's more a matter of what I can do for you.”

“My husband?” Elisif looked at Madanach, who'd taken a vacant seat next to Elisif and was looking as confused as she felt. “What about?”

“Just a personal matter,” said Maven hastily. “Nothing improper, you understand. No, I just wanted to let you know I heard from my daughter. The impossible child still won't tell me where she is, but she says she has some new friends, a steady job and somewhere nice to live, and that she's doing well and not in any danger. It seems I can stop fearing for her life at least.”

“Good to know,” said Madanach, his face softening. “At least she's doing well for herself. Be patient, she might even turn up to visit when you least expect it. Mine did.”

“I'm hoping it won't be visiting me in prison!” said Maven, but she was smiling for once. She turned to Elisif, her business with Madanach apparently concluded. “Now, Jarl Elisif. I believe you're in need of a new steward. I have a candidate for you. Apparently this whole situation has caused him some considerable distress and he feels he owes you a debt of honour. As he'd otherwise be uselessly employed taking up a room at my keep, I've agreed he can come and work for you if you'll have him.”

Elisif wasn't at all sure she wanted one of Maven's people as her steward, but as long as it wasn't actually a Black-Briar family member, she'd cope.

“That's very kind of you, Maven. Who is it?”

“Saerlund Law-Giver, Laila's younger son,” said Maven. “His mother disowned him when he chose the Empire over the Stormcloaks and he stayed behind when she departed for Windhelm. To have his brother involved in all this and his mother implicated too – well, it's all taken its toll. The poor man's beside himself. I've no use for him myself but unlike the rest of his family, he's not a fool. I brought him with me if you'd care to interview him later today?”

Elisif looked at Madanach, who was looking thoughtful. He noticed her and laughed.

“Don't look at me, cariad, you were insistent on choosing your own steward. All the same, if he really does feel he owes you, consider it. No one's more loyal than a man who feels he owes everything to you.”

Almost certainly speaking from personal experience there, although she had to wonder whether he was talking about those who worked for him, or his own relationship with Delphine. He had a point though – Saerlund would no doubt be very keen to prove he wasn't a traitor like his family, just in case the Brotherhood decided he was a loose end that needed tying up. If he could start quickly, so much the better - she had no idea what state Bryling had left her Hold in. At least she couldn't have done much in the few days she'd been Jarl.

“Very well. I'll be holding court this afternoon, send him to see me and I'll talk with him.”

“I'll do that,” said Maven, getting up to leave. “Oh, and one other thing. In Riften, there's an Altmer mage by the name of Galathil, calls herself a face sculptor. If you wished to do something about those scars, I'm sure she could be of use to you. I can easily have her sent up here, it's no trouble...”

“I'll think about it,” said Elisif. “Thank you, Maven.”

Maven nodded and took her leave. Madanach edged closer, hand closing over her own.

“Are you going to take her up on it? You know, that face sculptor business?”

Elisif stared into the distance thoughtfully, taking his hand in hers. She'd ask his opinion, but she had a feeling he'd just tell her it was her face, make her own mind up.

“I don't know,” said Elisif. “Is – is it wrong to want to keep looking this way? As a reminder? I mean, I'm not sure I want to make a habit out of killing werewolves and breathing fire over people who've annoyed me. But if I get my face put back to the way it was... I might forget I was strong.”

Madanach laughed and kissed her cheek. “You've always been strong, macreena. Just took you a while to realise it.” He cupped her face and kissed her on the lips this time. Elisif responded, putting her arms around him and kissing him back. It was some time before either of them stirred from the room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Back at the Blue Palace, and Cicero was standing on the balcony, outside the suite of rooms where it all began, clad in his old jester outfit, his ebony dagger at his side, Delphine's ring on his left hand, Eola's on his right. Delphine was still asleep after what had been an enthusiastic session even by their standards. Eola had been in the other room, leaving them to it. Probably for the best.

It was very strange, having all the excitement over. It was very strange indeed to be back in his motley again. It was a good feeling though. Finally he felt like Cicero again. Humble Cicero, the happy Keeper, Fool of Hearts, property of the Listener. Oh, and Dragonborn. Mustn't forget that one.

“Hey, Cici. Want a sweetroll?”

Eola came to stand next to him, leaning against the parapet and offering said cake to him.

“Yes,” said Cicero. “And don't call me that.” He bit into it, moaning softly as the sugar hit his tastebuds. First thing he'd eaten all day – neither he nor Delphine had wanted to stop touching each other long enough to get out of bed. But Delphine was asleep now and Cicero wasn't one to enjoy being cooped up for long. After attending to certain necessary biological functions, he'd washed, dressed and was now stretching his legs. He didn't like to go far though. Didn't want Delphine to think he'd vanished again.

“Da got back half an hour ago,” said Eola calmly. “Not sure where he is now, having a nap maybe. Elisif's interviewing for a new steward. You'll never guess who her first candidate is. The younger, Imperial-supporting, Law-Giver brother. Feels he owes her a debt of honour, apparently. Seems nice. Didn't have the heart to tell him I ate his brother.”

Cicero put the rest of the sweetroll down, suddenly losing his appetite. Eola had a way of doing that to him.

She had a way of doing a lot of things to him. How she could just stand there, so calm and matter of fact, looking out at the room below when the two of them had... He'd been intimate with her, had her in all sorts of ways and the desire hadn't gone away, damn it. How could she just act so normally? As if nothing had happened? Cicero wished he could do that. As it was, he kept wanting to kiss her again.

“Hey, you alright, Cicero? You're looking a bit... pale?” Eola sounded a bit concerned. “You're not ill, are you?”

“No, no,” said Cicero, and that was nice of her, to be concerned like that. It wasn't even concern about catching anything – it turned out werewolves never got ill. Ever. They never got colds, flu, ataxia, rockjoint, Dibellan diseases, infected wounds, anything like that. Beast blood killed all sorts. “Cicero is just... glad to be Cicero again.”

She smiled at him and that smile also did strange things to him. She really needed to stop doing that, or he was going to end up cuddling her, and that really was wrong, cuddling up to a cannibalistic murdering werewolf and cooing over her like she was the sweetest thing in the world. Worse, she might start cooing back and that would be even weirder. He really wasn't sure he could handle Eola being sweet and romantic and affectionate to him. The prospect terrified him. He'd far rather she was mean to him. In fact, he'd really rather enjoy that.

Well, maybe if he asked her nicely to not stop teasing him and not to turn into a giggling besotted idiot, and if rather than fill her room with flowers, she was just content with a small bouquet now and then, and...

Slowly, Cicero edged a bit nearer, resting his hand next to hers in what he hoped was a casual, unaffected gesture. Eola didn't even react, still looking at the people below. Cicero moved his hand a bit nearer hers, the back of his right hand against her left, just brushing it slightly. Now Eola looked up, eyebrow raised at seeing him so close, but not saying anything. Cicero took a deep breath, heart pounding in his ribcage as his fingers curled gently around her hand, and when she didn't object to that, he decided to take the risk and raise her hand to his lips, pressing a gentle kiss against her fingers, Cyrodiil style.

Eola looked surprised, but pleased, yes that was definitely a smile appearing on her face, and Cicero decided at this point that if she hadn't set him on fire, he was probably all right to stroke her face and quite possibly kiss her if that went well. He'd just raised his left hand to her cheek when the lightning bolt hit him.

“WHAT IN OBLIVION ARE YOU DOING WITH MY DAUGHTER??”

Eola's head spun round, horror and mortification writ large all over her face, while Cicero clung to the stonework, shaking his head and trying to work out what had just happened. That wasn't difficult when he saw Madanach advancing, mage armour cast and twin lightning spells in both hands.

Instincts from twenty years ago kicked in, from a time when having to flee from angry fathers and husbands had been almost a weekly occurrence. Cicero shrieked, vaulted over the parapet, landed like a cat on the floor below and fled the palace, clutching at his hat and shouting “WULD!” as he ran. A few guards stirred themselves, before deciding that no, they really didn't want to know what was so terrifying it had the Jester Dragonborn running in fear.

“Da!” Eola shouted, finally collecting her wits together sufficiently to react. “What was that for?? You scared him! We only just got him back!”

“Someone should be scaring the pair of you!” Madanach seethed. “What in Sithis' name do you think you're doing, girl? Playing around with a married man, and not just any married man but the Listener's husband?? Do you have any idea what she'd do if she found out?”

“Well, yes, actually...” Eola began. Madanach didn't hear her. He grabbed her by the shoulders, giving her a little shake.

“She. Will. Have. You. Killed,” Madanach hissed. “Don't think Cicero will protect you, he might cry, but he'll go back to his wife in the end, they all do. If she finds out, I'm not even sure I can protect you. Eola, cariad, break it off, let him go, I can't lose you again, I just can't.”

Very little ever really scared Madanach and he rarely showed it when it did, but fury had given way to real anxiety. Eola reached up and put her arms around him, realising she should perhaps have told him about her and Delphine ages ago. He returned the embrace, holding her close against the fine clothes he'd worn for the Moot, kissing the top of her head. Yes, she really should have told him, he was a Forsworn man, it wasn't like this sort of arrangement was terribly unusual on a Forsworn camp.

“Da,” said Eola softly. “Da, it's alright, I know what I'm doing, you don't need to worry about me. Really, I'm alright. But please don't hurt Cicero again. And I really need to go and find him before Delphine finds out he's run off again...”

Madanach let her go, actually growling in disbelief.

“Dear gods, still all you can think about is going after him?? Eola, for your own good, let him go!!”

“Let who go?” Delphine asked, stepping out into the corridor, wondering what the shouting was about. At least it hadn't been Cicero, she'd recognise that high-pitched wailing anywhere. As it was, the arguing had woken her up and she'd hastily pulled her leather armour on and come out to deal with whatever had gone wrong now.

Madanach turned and to Delphine's surprise, the feared leader of the Forsworn, the King in Rags turned Reach-King, Scourge of the Nords, Butcher of Lost Valley and devoted son of Sithis was staring at her with real fear in his eyes. For a whole second he stared at her, then, shoving Eola behind him, he faced her, forcing a smile.

“No one. Nothing. Absolutely nothing you need to trouble yourself with, Matriarch, just my daughter and I having a little disagreement.”

Delphine could always tell when someone was being dishonest, and for a consummate politician, Madanach was remarkably bad at lying to her.

“Eola. What happened?”

“He found Cicero kissing my hand and has turned into the worst kind of crazy, overprotective father,” Eola sighed. The fear in Madanach's eyes turned into horror as he stared at his daughter.

Eola!!” he hissed, blood draining from his face. Spinning round, he turned back to her, pleading.

“Matriarch, please. Don't kill her. I know you'll be angry and believe me, you have every right to be but she's young and foolish, please don't kill her. I'll take her back with me to Markarth, keep her away from your Sanctuary, you can give whatever punishment you like to your husband. Just please, don't hurt my daughter. Please.”

It took a few moments for Delphine to figure out the true cause of Madanach's distress. Clearly he'd come across Eola and Cicero being affectionate, clearly he'd correctly deduced the changed nature of their relationship, clearly he was not in favour... but it wasn't disapproval of Cicero per se or even someone having romantic intentions towards his daughter that was the problem. He'd not been there when she'd confronted then forgiven Cicero, and Eola had evidently never told him about their relationship. He'd not unnaturally assumed she and Cicero had a standard, monogamous marriage and that Cicero was being unfaithful to her... with his beloved and adored youngest daughter. The poor man must be going out of his mind in terror of the brutal revenge she'd have likely exacted on her husband's mistress, a not unfounded fear had she ever caught Cicero with anyone else, she had to admit.

“You never told him, did you?” she said to Eola, trying not to smile. Eola looked a little sheepish, staring at her feet.

“Never seemed like the right time,” Eola admitted. Madanach looked between the two of them, utterly lost by this point.

“Tell me what?” he demanded. Delphine decided some things were better shown, not told.

“Eola, come here.” Eola obliged, stopping inches away from her. Delphine smiled, stroked her hair and then pulled her close, kissing her full on the lips, a kiss that soon got more than a little heated, at least until Madanach coughed, bringing them both back to attention.

“So, you and Eola...”

Delphine nodded, getting no little enjoyment over watching Madanach try and get his head round all this.

“I see. And Cicero knows?”

Eola nodded this time, starting to smile herself.

“Right, right. How long has this been going on exactly?”

“With me and Cicero? We're still trying to figure it out. With me and Del? Since the Battle of Markarth.”

“Since how long??” Madanach cried. “All that time and you never said anything??”

“I didn't think you'd approve,” said Eola, still looking a bit guilty.

“I don't!” Madanach snapped. “My daughter, a princess of the Reach, fornicating around with both halves of a married couple – it's unseemly!”

Delphine had had no idea the Forsworn were that prudish, in fact all the evidence she'd seen would seem to suggest the exact opposite, but then again most men tended to be hypocrites when it came to their own daughters. Fortunately Eola wasn't one to take that lying down.

“Well, I'm sorry if me having needs and feelings and getting them satisfied outside of holy matrimony is too much for you, but I love Delphine and I love Cicero too or will do once he makes his mind up about what he wants, which I might add he was almost about to do before SOMEONE threw lightning at him-”

“You cast lightning at my husband??” Delphine cried. Madanach backed off, looking rather nervous.

“I, er, might have got a bit carried away,” he muttered. Eola ignored the pair of them and kept right on ranting.

“And if they weren't already married to each other, I would happily consider taking Delphine down the aisle, but she's already got Cicero and unless multiple marriage becomes legal any time soon, that's not an option. So I'm going to continue living in unwedded bliss with the pair of them and you are just going to have to like it!”

“You'd consider what?” Delphine whispered, wondering if she'd heard that correctly. Eola and Madanach were too busy glaring at each other to notice.

“There is nothing I like about my daughter being someone's mistress, even if that is the Dragonborn and Matriarch!” Madanach shouted. “So I am going home as soon as I can get away and talking to Nepos, and we are bringing in legal multiple marriage in the Reach. And as soon as that's law, you my girl are going before a priest with either Cicero or the Matriarch, I don't care which, and you are getting married as befits a member of the House of Madanach. And that is FINAL!”

With that, Madanach turned and strode off, clearly a man on a mission. Delphine felt a little sorry for Elisif, who was not only going to have her time with her husband cut short, but was also most likely going to have to endure Madanach's ranting for the next hour. Still, Elisif was his wife, it was par for the course.

“Del, I'm so sorry,” said Eola wearily. “This is why I never told him, I knew he'd react like this, I just knew it. I love him to pieces, but gods, can't he just let me be? This is partly why I joined you guys, the priesthood of Sithis means you don't have these obligations to your blood family any more!”

“But you don't want to cut ties,” said Delphine softly, pulling Eola into an embrace. Eola nodded, head resting on Delphine's shoulder. She looked utterly miserable. Delphine kissed the top of her head.

“Don't worry, love,” Delphine said, mind already at work. “Nepos the Nose is a very bright man and has known your father a very long time. I think that if we were to write to him and send it by express courier today, telling him your father has some insane plan to marry you off to the already married Dragonborn and wants to legalise multiple marriage to make this happen, please help stop it, I think he could happily tie your father's scheme up in enough red tape to keep it from happening for quite some time, if ever.”

Eola snuggled her tighter. “I love you, Del,” she sighed. “You're all kinds of awesome, you know that? I mean, it's not that I'm opposed to the idea, but if I ever get married I want it to be because we both want to, not because my father has gone all patriarchal on me and insisted. Also if I married you, Cicero would probably freak out. It'd be all 'no, no, you can't be the Keeper, Cicero is the Keeper, Cicero Keeps the Listener, not you!'”

She even had the shrieking and the demented eye-swivel down. Delphine was impressed, if a little unnerved. Eola was probably right though. Cicero had agreed to her and Eola getting together on condition he got to be the official Keeper and legal spouse. She wasn't sure he'd react well to a second legal spouse.

“Speaking of Cicero freaking out, where is he?” Delphine sighed. “Don't tell me, he ran off after your father threw lightning at him.”

“Yeah, legged it out the door,” Eola sighed. “He can't have gone far though, and I think I can track his scent now. At least we know the Daedra aren't involved this time.”

That was something, Delphine had to agree. Eola being able to scent-track someone – now that was new. A gift of the beast blood? Eola confirmed this was so.

“You know, I'm kind of getting used to this whole beast blood thing. Even if we do find a cure for Cicero's Da – I think I may just hang on to it. Maybe. If that's all right with you?”

“No problem here,” Delphine reassured her, giving her a cuddle. “You know, you're going to have to show me your beast form at some point. Maybe on the way home.”

“Long as you don't laugh like Cicero did,” said Eola. Delphine laughed and promised not to. Heading out, they went off in search of their missing jester.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It didn't take long to find him. They'd got as far as the Hall of the Dead when Eola turned her head and pointed at the graveyard wall.

“He's over there. Hiding behind the wall probably. You go and call him out, he responds better to you.”

Delphine went over.

“Cicero. Cicero? You can come out. Madanach's back at the Palace, we straightened things out. No one's going to hurt you, I promise.”

Cicero's head peeped out from behind the wall, eyes just visible.

“Listener? Is that you?” Cicero whimpered. Delphine sat down on the wall, stroking the top of Cicero's head, and Eola sat down on Cicero's other side. Slowly Cicero stood up, parking himself in between the two women. He still looked very nervous, eyes flitting between the two of them.

“Cicero is sorry,” he said mournfully. “He was... being affectionate to his dear sister and her father saw and took exception. I'm sorry, sister!” To everyone's surprise, it was Eola who got the cuddle this time.

“Aw, honey,” said Eola softly, cuddling him back and stroking his hair. “It's alright. We explained everything. He knows now. You and me are good.”

“Apart from the fact where Madanach said neither of us are good enough for her, his little girl isn't going to be anyone's mistress and that he's bringing in multiple marriage laws in the Reach and then Eola has to marry one of us or else she doesn't have a father any more,” Delphine sighed.

Cicero blinked and then sat up, frowning in confusion. “Madanach wants Eola to be happy... so he's forcing her to get married or he won't speak to her again? That doesn't sound like it would make her very happy.”

“It doesn't!” Eola cried. “He's being impossible!”

“Don't worry about it,” said Delphine, rubbing Cicero's back. “I'm going to write to Nepos and get him to tie the whole thing up in so much red tape the thing never gets passed. Eventually Madanach will give up, he and Eola will talk it over and all will be well.”

Cicero still looked a bit confused, and definitely unhappy about something. Suddenly he reached out with one hand and put an arm around Eola's waist, dragging her to him, then repeated the action with Delphine.

“But then Eola can't get married,” said Cicero, scowling. “Cicero doesn't like that either.”

Delphine fought the urge to go in search of a brandy or jenever shot. First one, now the other...

“Marriage? With you?” Eola asked, clearly thinking along the same lines if the exasperation in her voice was anything to go by. “Sweetie, you can't even decide if you're interested or not.”

“Not me!” Cicero cried. “Eola and the Listener. Listener and Listener-wife. Cicero would not mind. Cicero likes weddings. We could have flowers and candles and sweetrolls and wine! It would be nice.”

Delphine looked at Eola. Eola looked at Delphine. Both looked at Cicero, who was sniffing a bit and looking very wistful.

“By the Nine, I think he's actually serious,” said Delphine. “Cicero, you do know it means a bit more than just a day out at the Temple and a party, right?”

“Yes, of course Cicero knows that!” Cicero laughed, rolling his eyes. “Cicero has been married himself for a good four months now, he does know! It means being together always, and taking care of each other and tending to one's sweet Listener and never having to worry about everyone going away and leaving you all on your own in the dark ever again, because you have a wife to take care of you and a home to come back to.” He was looking at Eola as he said this, still that wistful look in his eyes. “Cicero thinks Eola would like having that. Cicero is worried Eola might find someone else and decide to marry them instead and leave. Cicero doesn't want that, Cicero would miss her! But if Eola was Listener-wife, she wouldn't leave! Cicero would have his sister always and he could tend to you both!”

He was holding Delphine's hand as he said it, but his eyes never left Eola's, hopeful mad smile on his face as he gazed up at her. Eola found herself smiling back despite it all, guessing what lay behind it all that he couldn't bring himself to say out loud. She put an arm around him and snuggled in closer, ignoring the stares of various guards as the three of them cuddled.

“Bless you, sweetheart,” said Eola, closing her eyes. “You're a dear, sweet, lovely little man sometimes. But I'm not getting married just because you'd like it either.”

Cicero's face fell as he pouted, lower lip trembling. Delphine noticed and cuddled him tighter.

“What Eola is trying to say is that it's a pretty big step and something she and I would have to discuss before agreeing to anything. So we'll do that, and you're not to worry about it. I don't think Eola's going anywhere any time soon.”

“I'm not,” said Eola, ruffling Cicero's hair. “Sorry, champ, you'll have to do better than that to get rid of me.”

Cicero giggled, squirming in between them, clearly not sure who to snuggle first. Finally he settled for resting his head on Delphine's shoulder but flinging his legs over Eola's. Eola took the opportunity to stroke his thigh and amazingly, he didn't seem to mind.

“All right,” said Delphine. “So now we have that settled, we need to talk about tonight. The Companions and Elisif might have done their bit, the bards are writing the song now, but we still have some work to do. Tonight's going to be a busy one, my loves.”

Eola did look up at that, sly grin in place. “Castle Dour, by any chance? I haven't forgotten about the loose ends that need tying up.”

“Ooh!” Cicero gasped, realising who she meant. “We are going after Hrongar? Ooh! Will there be stabbing?”

“Oh yes,” Delphine laughed. “There will indeed.”

Cicero howled with laughter... at least until he remembered who else was in Castle Dour's dungeon.

“And... and Ralof?” he asked softly, nervously. Delphine nodded.

“He owes us,” she said quietly. “One way or another, he pays tonight.”

Chapter Text

There was nothing about this situation that was to Ralof's liking. Not from waking up to the sound of his cell door opening and then a punch to the face, kick to the stomach, bag over his head and being forced to his knees as his hands were tied. Not being hauled out of the cell and taken away who knew where, but definitely out of Solitude. Definitely not being forced to his knees on swampy, muddy ground.

And absolutely not Hrongar sobbing as he begged for mercy.

“Please, I'm sorry! She made me do it, it wasn't my fault, I'm sorry!!” he was howling. “Please, don't kill me, pleeease!”

Ralof was definitely getting a bit sick of the wailing.

“Oh, face your death with some courage, man!” he snapped, finally daring to break the silence. Their captors hadn't said a word, but he knew who'd come for them. The Dark Brotherhood wanted revenge.

Someone else was clearly in the same frame of mind he was, as he heard someone slap Hrongar. Then the sound of him being hauled away. Leaving him alone. In the distance he heard a door slam. A building nearby then. Interesting, although as the screaming started, he decided perhaps he was better off not knowing or thinking too much about that.

Someone cast a spell and then next thing he knew, the hood was ripped off him. He blinked in the magelight hovering above him as his eyes adjusted. He was out on the Hjaalmarch somewhere, Solitude's lights blinking in the distance. Before him stood the two he knew it would be in the end. His one-time Shield-Brother and the former innkeeper who'd set him on this path in the first place.

“So this is it, is it?” Ralof asked bitterly. “Final judgement and the sentence to match? At least you're not making me dig my own grave. I should be grateful for that, I suppose.”

“Leave a prisoner with his hands free and a potential weapon in his hands?” Delphine asked. “I don't think so, Ralof. I'm not like the Thalmor. Not like I heard the Stormcloaks were either.”

“We never made true Nords do that,” said Ralof, feeling the words hollow in his throat. All the horrific things he'd done for the Stormcloak cause and he justified them by saying he'd never done them to Nords. Sithis may as well claim him, he wasn't fit for much else.

“No, just innocent Dunmer and Khajiit,” said Delphine, shaking her head. Ralof risked looking up and saw that she wasn't even angry or teasing. Just very sad and disappointed. “It's not what I had in mind when I told you to follow your heart and do what you thought was right.”

“The Dark Brotherhood's not what I had in mind for you either,” said Ralof, still trying to work out how this was the feared assassin's guild's leader. She didn't look evil or cruel, in fact she looked genuinely sorrowful at all this. Still the same old Delphine who'd stopped him that last night when he'd tried to kiss her as he left the inn, taken his hand away from her and placed it on his chest and told him he could do better than her and to go and kill some Thalmor for her.

She looked less careworn now, not nearly as hard. How ironic. Whether it was her marriage or her career change, Ralof didn't know, but she looked well. When this was done, she'd probably hold Cicero for a bit then take him home and get on with what was probably a very good life. He envied her that.

“I didn't exactly plan it,” said Delphine. “But who am I to argue with fate? When the Night Mother calls you, you don't say no.”

“Is that what's happening tonight?” Ralof asked, not sure who the Night Mother was, but guessing she was some sort of deity the Brotherhood worshipped. A Daedra perhaps? Who knew. “You're sending me to her?”

Delphine nodded. Next to her, Cicero, who'd not said a word and barely looked at Ralof, shivered. Ralof couldn't even tell if it was fear or joy. Delphine rubbed his arm but she never took her eyes off Ralof.

“You owe us, Ralof. You took the Dread Father's name in vain and could easily have caused a lot of trouble for us. As it is, Hrongar's paying the price with his life.”

Another scream cut the air. It was coming from a small wooden shack not twenty feet away. Ralof shuddered and looked away.

“I know, I know, I owe a debt to Sithis, I need repay it in blood. Can we get on with it? It's cold out here.”

Delphine did finally laugh at that. “Spoken like a true Nord,” she grinned. “Well now, it's certainly true you owe us a blood debt.” She dropped to a crouch, hand stroking his cheek. “But you did come and confess, and your testimony persuaded everyone that Elisif still deserved her throne and that the Brotherhood weren't involved that time. Also Cicero likes you. He's got a good sense about people. Can look someone in the eye and know their worth.”

“They used to say that about Kodlak too, and he still let me in,” said Ralof softly. No doubt about it, Cicero had definitely sniffled then.

“Maybe he thought you could be saved,” said Delphine.

“He was wrong then,” said Ralof, closing his eyes. “I'm not getting out of this one, am I?”

“Not the debt, no,” he heard her say. Then a pause, as if she didn't quite want to give the order. Ralof found it hard to believe the head of the Dark Brotherhood habitually shrank from having people killed.

“It must be paid and paid in blood.” Again the hesitation. What was wrong with the woman? Did she enjoy dragging this out or something? Did she get some perverse pleasure out of watching him tied and helpless?

“But there is no reason the blood has to be yours, or that your service to Sithis has to be in the afterlife.”

“What?” Ralof gasped, looking up. Next to her, Cicero had finally raised his eyes, staring at his wife.

“Listener?” he asked, lip trembling. “What – what are you saying?”

Delphine got up, grinning down at Ralof. “I'm saying he's got a choice. I know about your Stormcloak career, Ralof, I know you lost any scruples over brutality a long time ago and I know you're a career soldier who'll kill on command. You're too good an asset to waste. So if you're willing to kill on command for me, you get to live. If not, well, we'll make it quick at least. You won't have to go through what poor Hrongar's suffering.”

Her words were punctuated by another agonised scream from the shack. Delphine glanced over and then back, as if someone being tortured to death in the background happened all the time around her. For all Ralof knew, it did.

“Well?” Delphine asked gently. “What do you say?”

There was only one real answer to this, wasn't there. It wasn't honourable, but he'd not had any honour for a long time. Not since Karthwasten or all the other atrocities since. They were monsters, but he was no better. Not any more.

“I'll do it,” he said quietly. “If I had a choice, a real choice, I would never sign up with you. But you were a good woman once, as I thought Cicero was a good man. I – by Talos, I have worked for worse.”

“It'll do,” said Delphine, nodding. “All right Cicero, cut him loose and help him up.”

Cicero danced on the spot, squealing. He flung his arms around Ralof, giggling in delight before letting him go and cutting his hands and feet loose.

“I swear, I've seen girls who squeal less than you,” Ralof muttered as Cicero helped him up, brushing the mud and dirt off and all the while chattering about how merciful the sweet Listener was and how glad he was to be able to welcome Ralof as his brother rather than stab him.

“Hee! It is the prospect of a handsome man on his knees in the mud. It'd make anyone squeal,” Cicero laughed. “Come, come, let us find you some proper clothes, you cannot serve Sithis in prisoner's rags!”

“There's some Shrouded Armour in the pack over there, it fits Arnbjorn, so should fit you too,” Delphine said with a smile. “But before I can admit you properly, it's traditional for an applicant to prove their worth by killing someone for us. We'll get you equipped but you'll need to do a job for us. We'll get you to where your target is, but the kill will have to be yours. See it as a test of your resolve and sincerity.”

“Ralof gets to stab someone!” Cicero giggled, those wide eyes staring at him without blinking. “Ralof is so lucky!”

Lucky wasn't the word Ralof had in mind. “Who do you want dead?” he sighed. Best to get this over with if it had to be done.

Delphine told him. Ralof's eyes widened in amazement. That was unexpected. He wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. But nevertheless, he'd do it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hadvar rode through the night, carrying the all-important message from Rikke to Tullius, updating him on recent events. He should have been getting the ship from Solitude, but there'd been some problem with its food supplies, a rat infestation or unusual fungus that had sprouted overnight, he wasn't sure. Either way, it had been delayed so he'd taken a horse instead. It was all going quite well and he'd just got out of sight of Dragon Bridge when an ebony arrow smacked into his horse.

The horse screamed, collapsing to the ground, and another arrow finished the beast off. Hadvar rolled off the animal, staggering to his feet. Bandits? But those were good arrows, a cut above your average bandit to say the least. He drew his sword, looking around for his assailant.

A man stepped out from behind a boulder, unshouldering a battleaxe. A man with blonde hair and leather armour, red and black if the light from the moons and aurora was anything to go by.

Hadvar didn't know how Ralof had got out of that cell, but that he'd apparently joined the Brotherhood didn't even feel like a surprise any more.

“Ralof, you damn traitor,” Hadvar spat. “First you murder a steward and abduct a queen, now you're interfering with a lawful messenger?”

“Courier duty, is it?” Ralof laughed. “I'd heard you were some kind of captain now. A little menial for you, isn't it, being Rikke's errand boy?”

“It's an important message, she only trusts the best,” said Hadvar, raising his shield. “Now get out of my way, traitor.”

“I'm afraid not,” said Ralof, his voice grim as he hefted the axe. “Your journey ends here, Hadvar. Nothing personal, but someone wants you dead.”

“And you're here to do the deed,” Hadvar said, disgusted it had come to this. “I'm disappointed in you, Ralof. You were a good man once. Even joining the Stormcloaks, you had principles. Now you're just an assassin for hire?”

“You took the Empire's coin!” Ralof shouted. “Don't talk to me about principles! We were friends once, but you'd have sent me to the block at Helgen and not have thought twice about it.”

“I'm a soldier, Ralof!” Hadvar cried. “You joined the enemy side, it was war, that's the way it is! You were a soldier too, you know this. We follow orders and kill who we're told to, that's what we do.”

Ralof nodded, his face expressionless. “Yes,” he said calmly. “It's what I do.” He raised the axe and struck.

Hadvar was fast, but not fast enough. His shield broke under the impact of Ralof's blow and his own return strike wasn't quite hard enough to get through Ralof's armour, only skimming his side. Ralof recovered and raised his axe to strike again and there was a brief window of opportunity where a decisive sword strike could have eviscerated Ralof.

Hadvar hesitated. Ralof didn't. One blow later and it was all over, Hadvar lying dead on the ground. Ralof wiped the blood off the axe and turned to where Delphine and Cicero were emerging from their hiding place. It had been Cicero's arrows that had brought the horse down and Ralof had no doubt Hadvar wouldn't have survived this encounter even if Ralof had lost the fight.

“Well?” Ralof asked, determinedly shutting off the part of his mind that was screaming in grief over having killed his childhood friend. “Now what?”

Delphine didn't reply immediately. She knelt down next to Hadvar and closed his eyes.

“I'm sorry, Hadvar,” she said quietly, before getting up.

“That's it,” she said to Ralof with a little shrug of her shoulders. “You're done. Your debt's paid. You're in the clear.” She started to smile a little, clearly amused by the confusion on his face. Fortunately Ralof wasn't the only one confused.

“Ralof's debt... is paid?” Cicero asked, scratching his head. “Is Ralof not a brother after all then?” The little jester actually looked upset at this. Delphine put an arm around Cicero and gave him a cuddle.

“I'm not going to demand eternal servitude over one murder,” Delphine said gently. She took a large bag of gold out of her pocket and tossed it over to Ralof. “Here. 1000 septims for your trouble. You can keep the axe and armour too. We faked your death, left sufficient blood over your cell to convince people not to bother looking for you. Ralof of Riverwood is dead. But you get to live. Get out of Skyrim, shave your beard, cut your hair, change your name, live quietly for a few years and maybe one day you can come back to Riverwood when things have quietened down. I hear Solstheim's nice. Head over to Windhelm and get a ship from there. I'll visit Gerdur, let her know you're alive and out there somewhere.”

“I'm not joining the Dark Brotherhood?” Ralof asked, suddenly starting to feel rather enraged at having to kill an old friend as an initiation and then not even get allowed in.

“But Listener, he met all the entry requirements!” Cicero cried unhappily. “Please?”

“Oh, the invitation's still open,” said Delphine. “But I don't want anyone in my organisation who's not willing. Far too risky. You ever decide you want to join us, visit the Temple of Sithis in Markarth. But for now, you're free to go. Go and live your life, Ralof.” She tapped Cicero on the shoulder and guided him off. “Come on, love. We're going home.” Without another word, she started walking south. Cicero stared after her, then back at Ralof, looking heartbroken. He hesitated then darted back, diving into Ralof's arms.

“Ralof must take care,” Cicero whispered. “Ralof must look after himself. And if Ralof ever needs help or needs anyone killing, Ralof must find us. Cicero promises he will help.”

Ralof hugged him back. Cicero was an odd little man, and a damn Empire-lover at that, but honestly, Ralof was getting more than a little tired of politics. Cicero had also wiped out the Thalmor Embassy, so clearly it was rather more complicated than that anyway. In fact, Ralof was beginning to work out that Cicero had no ideals whatsoever, just a lot of personal loyalties... and apparently he was one of them.

“I have never known anyone quite as affectionate as you, man, woman, elf or beast,” said Ralof gruffly. “But I'm glad to have known you. Go on, Dragonborn. Go and kill some things for me.”

Cicero nodded, wiping a tear away. “Cicero is glad he didn't have to stab you,” said Cicero softly. Then he turned and ran after Delphine.

Ralof watched them go. He had his freedom, utterly undeserved but welcome nonetheless. The only thing was, what to do with it? Delphine had said Solstheim and she was right about Skyrim not being a healthy place to be right now for him. All the same, going back to a quiet life as a blacksmith or a lumberjack or a hunter just didn't appeal. He was a soldier, permanently and irrevocably even if his army was gone. He killed who he was told to and followed orders. He just didn't have anyone to give him orders any more.

But he could. If he wanted. It wasn't the most honourable career path in the world. But he'd certainly never be bored either.

“Delphine, wait!” he cried, taking off after them at a run. Both stopped to wait, and with his longer stride, he caught up with them soon enough.

“Changed your mind?” Delphine asked, knowing grin in place. Ralof grunted a bit and shrugged.

“Well, we can't have Cicero getting lonely, can we?” he said. “Talos knows what sort of mischief he'd get up to without me.”

Delphine laughed and squeezed his shoulder, green aurora reflecting off her hair and making her look more like some sort of weird elf than a human right then. Once, that would have bothered Ralof. Now it just seemed like mere trivia.

“All right then, you're in,” said Delphine, resuming walking. “Cicero, fill him in.”

Cicero shrieked with delight, pouncing on Ralof and cuddling him to within an inch of his life, before taking his arm and excitedly explaining about the Night Mother, the Tenets, the Sanctuaries, all of it. As the aurora blazed, the three of them made their way back home.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Sky Haven Temple, Delphine had called it. Karthspire Sanctuary its other name. Ralof hadn't been sure what to expect from the Dark Brotherhood's secret headquarters in the Reach, but this had not been it.

First, the Forsworn military camp spanning the eastern branch of the Karth, the guards of which had inspected him thoroughly and grudgingly waved him through on Delphine's word, then a tortuous climb and another set of introductions to the Briar-Heart camp commander based inside a cave in the Karthspire itself.

“They know you're here?” Ralof said, incredulous. “Madanach knows you're here?”

Delphine nodded. “They don't have access to the actual Temple, but we've worked very closely with Madanach and the Forsworn since we moved in. Now you're beginning to see why your little stunt with Falk Firebeard was such a bad idea?”

Ralof nodded quietly, following her into the depths of the cave. It opened up into a ravine, and the combination system that lowered the bridges left Ralof stunned.

“The combination changes every week, but there's a schedule inside,” Delphine told him. “Consult it before you leave, or you could be sitting out on the steps for some time when you get back. Forsworn'll look after you, but they won't know the code, you'll have to wait for one of us to head out and let you back in.”

Then had been the fire trap. Cicero had squealed and bounced and begged to be allowed to do this next bit. Delphine waved him ahead, and he navigated the path without trouble and deactivated the trap.

“The solution's to step on this symbol and only this symbol and follow the path to the chain over there,” said Delphine, pointing out the Dragonborn symbol on the floor. “Otherwise, well, you're going to be in a lot of pain quite quickly. Answer to this never changes by the way. Sometimes it's not even switched on if we're expecting people back in from a job, but it's best to assume it's active unless you know otherwise.”

“It's the same symbol that Cicero's got on his back,” said Ralof, noting the red leather dragons on Cicero's armour.

“Well spotted,” said Delphine. “It's the Akaviri symbol for Dragonborn. Eola's idea, that.”

A second bridge and up the winding passage, Cicero racing on ahead... and then silence, followed by a plaintive wail.

“Listener!” Cicero cried. “There's a Black Door here! This wasn't there before!”

Delphine bit back her laughter as she led Ralof up to where a black door with a skull and handprint on it was tersely telling a wailing Cicero “You are not worthy.

“Cicero lives here!” Cicero shouted at it. “Cicero is Dragonborn and Keeper! LET POOR CICERO IN!!!”

“How do we get past?” Ralof asked, hoping Delphine knew how if Cicero didn't. Fortunately it seemed she did, as she prised Cicero away from the door and hauled him to his feet.

“A recent installation,” said Delphine. “We recovered a great deal of Brotherhood lore from the old Cheydinhal Sanctuary, and among it all was instructions on how to create and enchant a Black Door. We finally got the thing installed about two weeks ago. And you won't know the passphrase, will you, either of you?”

“Cicero was not here!” Cicero wailed, head buried on her shoulder. “How is Cicero supposed to know??”

Delphine shot a knowing look at Ralof, who had to smile in sympathy. He'd had his own fair share of occasions dealing with a frustrated or unhappy Cicero before now. He stood next to her as she approached the door.

What is life's greatest defiance?” it hissed at them.

Delphine looked at it and smiled. “Laughter, my brother,” she told it.

Welcome home,” the door replied, swinging open. Cicero looked up, blinking at Delphine and looking so adorably baffled even Ralof couldn't stop smiling.

“Laughter?” he whispered. “That's the passphrase?” Delphine nodded, kissing his forehead.

“Yes,” she told him gently. “I wanted a reminder of you.”

Cicero had clung on to her in silence, sniffling into her armour as she'd lead them both into the Temple proper. First the empty Cyrodiil Courtyard, then up another passageway into the main hall. Ralof hadn't expected anything so huge. It was almost the size of Ulfric's Great Hall. And Ulfric's Great Hall hadn't got the stone mural dominating one half of the room. The place was beautiful, if dark and cold, but Delphine assured him that when people were up, it was a lot brighter with the braziers and candles lit and a few fire runes down.

Cicero had taken him off for a tour, pointing out bathrooms, and the armoury and the alchemy lab and the enchanting chamber and the library and the training ground at the back of the Temple, and finally the living quarters, where Cicero had found a vacant room, lit the candles, fetched some bedding for him, Shouted the worst of the dust away and swept the place out a bit.

“Cicero shall help Ralof clean it properly tomorrow,” Cicero promised. “But it will do for tonight, yes?”

Given that Ralof couldn't remember the last time he'd had his own room, it was far more than he could have dreamed of.

“Thank you,” he told Cicero. “This place... it's nothing like I'd ever thought a Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary would be.”

“It wasn't before Delphine and I claimed it,” said Cicero, perching on the end of the bed. “Has Ralof heard of the Blades?”

Only very vaguely. “Weren't they Imperial bodyguards?” he asked, trying to remember what he'd been told about the Oblivion Crisis. Cicero grinned.

“Yes and no,” he purred. “They were Akaviri dragonslayers, and they would seek out and guard the ultimate dragonslayer – the Dragonborn. They built this place but it was abandoned. Then the Blades were disbanded themselves after the war. So sad, so very sad!”

After the war... but that was only thirty years ago. Not long at all. Plenty of time for a Blade who'd been young-ish then to still be a warrior in her prime now.

“Are you serious? Delphine was a Blade??” he cried. Well, that explained so much. Secret Talos-worshipping Thalmor-hating Blade, in Riverwood all that time. Cicero cackled, clapping his hands in delight.

“Yes, yes!” Cicero laughed. “So when she found a new Dragonborn, poor Cicero confused and in need, of course she helped him, of course! Of course, she wasn't expecting him to be Keeper of the Night Mother, nor was she expecting to be named Listener, no. But that is a very long story and Ralof is surely tired.”

“I truly am,” said Ralof, collapsing on the bed. It was surprisingly comfortable. It'd do. “You'll tell me the story tomorrow, hmm?”

“Of course!” Cicero laughed. “It is far better than the silly legends that have sprung up. Sleep well, my brother.” Slipping out of the door, he left Ralof lying there, wondering just how he'd managed to end up as part of a legend.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next day brought more introductions as the Brotherhood regathered. Ralof had been woken up and brought breakfast by Cicero, dressed in not just the famous hat but a full jester's motley. He'd talked and chattered and fluttered around the room, fussing and tidying like a mother hen. Ralof had begun to realise quite why Cicero had always been so nice to Tilma back at Jorrvaskr and helped her out. Clearly the Dark Brotherhood didn't have a Tilma to tidy up after them, so Cicero had taken on the role, at least in part. Cicero had helped him clear his own room and then taken him on a full tour, showing all the bits that got missed the day before. It was going quite well until Cicero reached the kitchen and showed Ralof the chores rota.

“And this is the cooking and cleaning rota – Ralof need not worry just yet, it is likely done for the week ahead already, we will get your name added in good time.” Cicero scanned the list, went very quiet and then promptly tore out of the room shrieking.

“WHY IS THE LISTENER'S NAME ON THE CHORES ROTA???” Cicero shouted, as he stormed into the main common room. Delphine winced, shoulders hunched a bit. The rest of the Brotherhood also seemed to be present – Ralof recognised most of the faces from Jorrvaskr. No sign of the Alik'r Redguard or the vampire child, but he recognised the others. Including Madanach's daughter. Oh great. Fortunately she was too busy glaring at Cicero to notice him.

“Because you weren't here and they needed doing, so she offered to help out with the rota,” said Eola wearily. Cicero threw the list at her, not mollified in the slightest.

“LISTENER SHOULD NOT BE DOING MENIAL TASKS LIKE THIS!” he shouted back. “CICERO KEEPS THE LISTENER, LISTENER DOES NOT KEEP EVERYONE ELSE!”

Eola got to her feet, finally fed up with Cicero's shrieking.

“Well, if Cicero had not been off in Jorrvaskr, Delphine would not have been upset and unhappy and in mourning and only stirring herself to do her share of the chores, and I would not have had to roster her just to make sure she actually got up in the morning! So if Cicero has a problem with that state of affairs, maybe Cicero can get back on with Keeping the Listener instead of shouting at me!”

“CICERO ISN'T SHOUTING! CICERO HAS NOT BREATHED FIRE AT ALL YET!” Cicero broke off and ran to Delphine's side, Eola's words having just clicked. “Listener, Listener, sweetest of Listeners, Cicero is sorry. So sorry! Delphine does not need to worry, Cicero is here now, Cicero will look after you and ensure you are not subjugated to such tedious indignities again.”

“Really, Cicero, it wasn't any bother, it took my mind off things, honestly,” Delphine protested, to no avail. Cicero had wrapped his arms around her, snuggling her tight.

“Cicero is here,” he cooed. “Cicero isn't leaving. Cicero shall keep you safe and warm and protected and happy. Dear Listener need not worry about a thing.”

“That's lovely,” said Delphine, ruffling his hair. “Now prove it by not shouting at your sister and helping her redo the rota if the old one offends you that much. Go on Keeper, start Keeping.” She gave him a smack on the rear that made him shriek in delight before running over to Eola, the temper tantrum apparently forgotten as he sat down next to her and began scrawling on the rota. Eola let him get on with it. She was too busy staring at Ralof.

“What in Oblivion is he doing here??” she snapped. “I thought the plan was to slit his throat and leave him for the mudcrabs?”

“Change of plan,” said Delphine, shrugging. “Couldn't let talent like that go to waste, so I gave him the Hadvar contract to do as a means of repayment. Then I invited him in and he accepted. I hope you two aren't going to fight.” Cold blue eyes flitted between the Forsworn princess and the Stormcloak loyalist.

Ralof stared back at Eola. She was looking fairly hostile herself. Ralof remembered the threats she'd made and the note of hope that she'd be able to make good on them. She must be so disappointed this Nord had escaped her grasp. All the same, he'd also seen her talking to Elisif as a friend... and whatever Elisif's politics, she'd turned out to be as true a Nord as any in the end.

“Was it really you who killed Galmar?” he asked, hoping to get an answer to that at least. Eola shook her head.

“Nope. Bastard swung an axe at me and damn near killed me. I wasn't strong enough to fight back.”

Ralof turned to look at Cicero, surely the prime suspect if Eola herself hadn't done it. To his surprise, Delphine spoke up.

“I did it, Ralof. No one swings an axe at my Eola and lives to tell about it. I killed him and I don't regret a damn thing. Best speak now if you have a problem with that.”

Ralof took a seat, feeling his legs about to give out from under him. He'd not expected that.

“You... but you worship Talos too, and Cicero said you were a Blade, you must hate the Thalmor. Why side with the Empire?”

Delphine took a sip of her tea, not looking at him. “Business is business and Tullius offered the coin. Plus an independent Reach was better for everyone, and Madanach deserved better than skulking around here. And like I said, Galmar went for my Eola, most likely because he recognised her and knew killing her would take the victory from Madanach even if the Stormcloaks lost. That's why, Ralof.”

What was worst of all was that he got it. War was war. Business was business. Galmar was gone, but at least the truth was more honourable than the stories. He turned back to Eola.

“I also heard you might have been at the Northwatch Liberation. Was it you who helped Cicero wipe out the Thalmor?”

“Oh now, that was me definitely,” said Eola, beginning to smile. “Did the Embassy as well. Best night I've had in a long time where I've kept my clothes on.”

“Hussy,” Cicero muttered, not looking up from his rota scrawling. Eola ignored him.

“Thalmor took my cousin,” said Ralof, finally smiling. “On behalf of Skyrim, thank you. You've done us a service. I forgive you for the Battle of Markarth. War is war and we lost.”

Finally, Eola smiled back a little. “No more attempting to take back the Reach or kill my father?” she asked. Ralof shook his head.

“No. It won't bring Ulfric back, or Galmar, or all the other good men and women who died in that war. It won't get rid of the Empire, there's no one who'll dare challenge Elisif for the throne now she knows the Thu'um. What's done is done. I'm sorry, Eola.”

Eola reached out and took his hand. “I'm sorry too. We're not your enemy, Ralof, we just wanted our land back and our gods. You know how that feels, right? Of course you do. Well, stick with us, and maybe when the next war with the Dominion comes, Emperor Tullius will remember who helped win Skyrim for the Empire. Reckon you'll be up for high-risk missions involving taking out a few Thalmor?”

“I'd consider it an honour,” Ralof laughed, pouring a nearby glass of mead and raising it. Eola grinned and lifted her own glass of jenever and Reach tonic to clink it against his.

That done, the rest of the introductions were straightforward. There was Aranea Ienith, a calm and pragmatic Dunmer mage who welcomed him aboard. Calixto Corrium, an Imperial a few years older than Cicero with cold eyes and a cool look that made Ralof feel most uncomfortable. Sapphire, a pretty but hard-faced young Nord in what looked like Thieves Guild armour, who tersely informed him not to get any ideas, she was spoken for. Ralof hadn't actually intended to do any such thing but wisely said nothing. Astrid, another Nord with dark eyes and a voice like poisoned honey, exuding sensuality but alas married to the big blonde Nord next to her, Arnbjorn. They were both visiting from the other Sanctuary in Dawnstar. Aventus Aretino, barely eleven years old but already dressed in Shrouded robes and showing off some wicked moves with a steel dagger, claiming he was going to be better than Cicero at stabbing when he grew up. Esbern, a kindly old man, mage and scholar and apparently a dragonlore expert. Ingun Black-Briar, yes one of those Black-Briars, my mother owns the meadery, don't you know, and Ralof didn't really know Maven but was fairly certain she didn't approve of her daughter joining the Brotherhood. He wasn't at all surprised to learn Ingun left that little detail out of her letters home.

And finally, oddest of all, Cicero cast a summoning spell of some sort and a ghostly Imperial, face just visible beneath the hood, stepped out of the Void and appraised Ralof. There was the merest hint of a smile, which Ralof hoped meant approval.

“Lucien!” Cicero cried, pouncing on the spectre and snuggling him. “Cicero has missed you, he has, he has!”

Lucien smacked Cicero firmly on the backside. “Do not lie, Keeper, you did not even remember me. And it's taken you how long to resummon me? Three days after your mind returned?”

“Cicero is sorry!” Cicero wailed. “Cicero could not before! Cicero's father would have disapproved!”

“Ah yes,” said Lucien. “Your... father. The werewolf. The one who glories in his kills but denies he's remotely like us. I am aware of him.” He turned to Ralof, looking him over again. “I am aware of you too. Lucien Lachance, Speaker in life of Cheydinhal Sanctuary, at your service. An innovative method of getting our attention, albeit best not repeated. A good kill though. You'll fit right in.”

“I... thank you,” said Ralof faintly. This was all going to take a lot of getting used to. Still, they'd accepted him. Where they all went from here was anyone's guess, but Ralof finally felt the ghosts of his past fading away. He personally doubted there was anyone at this table who'd not got stories to match his own. At least he didn't have to worry about them judging his misdeeds. Helping himself to food and mead, he settled in to listen.

“And now that we're all here and introduced, and everyone's met Ingun and Ralof, time to get down to business. Couple of items on the agenda, first off, Eola, I take it Ingun's initiation went well?”

“Namira, yes, the girl's a natural,” Eola grinned, patting a blushing Ingun on the shoulder. “She was cutting into poor Hrongar like she'd tortured a million times. She'll do fine.”

“Good to know,” Delphine nodded. “In that case, Ingun, welcome aboard, you're officially one of us. Eola, did you get anything out of him? I refuse to believe Bryling and he came up with all that on their own.”

“Did we ever,” said Eola. “But I think it's best if I tell you in private later. It's kinda... weird.”

Weird. Well, that could cover pretty much Delphine's entire Dark Brotherhood career. Even so, for Eola to think it was odd was concerning.

“All right, you can tell me everything later. Second item, well, it's rather bigger. Seems the Night Mother was a bit angry with me for having not kept up the pace after the Empire took Markarth. Seems she wants us to start expanding. New Sanctuaries, new recruits, that sort of thing. Well, we've got a couple of new recruits which should please her. But we need to do more. We need to expand. Which is why I've been doing a little reading, and made a decision. I'm reinstating the Black Hand.”

“The Black Hand,” Astrid mused. “The old ranking system. It would make sense... but isn't the Hand meant to operate in secrecy?”

“Meant to,” said Delphine, “but there's not enough of us yet to make that feasible. Also, we all know each other. In a few years, with more Sanctuaries, new recruits, people who don't remember this time, that'll be an option. Right now, we're too close-knit. We have to start somewhere. I'm not bringing in a full ranking system – again, not enough of us and I don't want a bitter falling out over someone getting made Slayer when they think they should be Executioner. So I'm appointing Speakers of the various Sanctuaries and they can sort out rankings amongst their own people if they want.”

“Various Sanctuaries?” Aranea asked, raising an eyebrow. “Listener, we only have two and Astrid's already Speaker of the other one.”

“I know, which is why she's here for this,” Delphine replied, nodding at Astrid. “Astrid, you can consider yourself a Black Hand member, congratulations. As Speaker, you also get to name a Silencer as assistant to be your deputy and the one who deals with your most dangerous contracts. That choice is also yours, but you don't have decide now or at all if you can't choose between them.”

“I'll have to think about it,” said Astrid, squeezing her husband's hand. “But thank you, Delphine. I'm honoured. Who's taking over as Speaker for this Sanctuary?”

“I'm coming to that,” said Delphine. “But first, I need to get a third Sanctuary off the ground. Hjerim's been a safe house for some time, now I'm making it a Sanctuary. Aranea. You're going to be its Speaker. Take Calixto and Sapphire with you. I'll give you some funds to start you off and a set of contracts. From what Eola tells me you've been doing some Speaker work already, and everyone looks up to you. Well? Want the job?”

“Are you serious?” Aranea gasped. “Me? Speaker?”

“Why not you?” said Delphine. “You're one of my best.”

“She's right,” said Calixto, squeezing her thigh. “You're very good at what you do. I'll follow you anywhere, you know that.”

“He's right,” said Sapphire on Aranea's other side. “If we've got to open up Windhelm... I can't think of anyone better to do it.”

Aranea smiled at them both then back at Delphine. “Listener, I'm honoured to accept. When do we leave?”

“Soon,” Delphine said. “Not right away, but within a fortnight. I know you'll need a bit of time to get organised. Which just leaves a Speaker for Karthspire. I do need one, I can't run it all on my own.”

“But Listener, you have sent most of our people away,” said Cicero, scratching his head. “Sister Aranea is taking Sapphire and the Butcher to Windhelm and Astrid won't be sending any of hers here. That leaves just me and Eola and our two new siblings. Cicero isn't a Speaker!”

“I know,” said Delphine softly, eyes falling on Eola. “But you are, Eola. Sithis, you've been organising this place since we moved in, you already meet clients at the Temple and elsewhere, I can't imagine this place without you. What do you say? Want to be my Speaker?”

Eola stared at Delphine, disbelieving. Then at Cicero, who was staring open-mouthed. Then at Lucien, who nodded faintly, smile on his face. Then back at Delphine, who was looking hopefully back at her.

“Are you offering me this just because we're... you know?” Eola asked, fairly certain she didn't want the job just because of who she was sleeping with. Cicero might be content with honorary titles denoting his status as official consort of the Listener – she wasn't anybody's property and was determined to stay that way.

“No,” said Delphine firmly, “I'm offering because you're smart and capable and would be good at it. You'd be an amazing Speaker anywhere.” Still, her face softened a little. “But I must confess, I don't want to send you away.”

Eola had to admit, she didn't want to go away either. What had she shouted at Delphine while Cicero had been gone? What would it take to get her to love her back? Delphine was never going to be the most publicly demonstrative of women. But maybe this was her way of saying it.

“In that case, yes,” said Eola. “I'll be your Speaker. I don't really want to have to move either.”

Delphine reached out and took Eola's hand. “Then welcome to the Black Hand, my Speaker.”

Eola squeezed Delphine's hand as everyone cheered, and would have said thank you, had Cicero not pounced on her.

“Sister-Speaker!” Cicero squealed. “Eola isn't going anywhere! Eola is staying! Officially! Permanently! Forever!” He let her go, sighing happily and gazing into her eyes like a lovestruck puppy. “Cicero is so happy for you. So very happy!” He was practically bouncing in his seat, holding her hand and grinning, face flushed and surely those weren't tears in his eyes?

“I think you're more pleased about this than I am,” said Eola, feeling a little overwhelmed. Cicero slipped his other arm around her, kissing her cheek.

“Cicero is very pleased indeed,” was all he said, his voice dropping in pitch and sounding surprisingly tender.

Delphine released Eola's hand, smiling at the pair of them. “All right, meeting closed. Astrid, see me, I have contracts for you to take back to Dawnstar then you and Arnbjorn are welcome to stick around or go home as you please. Aranea, you and I have things to discuss so you should come too. Eola... I'll see you in a bit.” She shot Eola a smile and headed off with Astrid and Aranea behind her. The formalities over, the party began to break up, or at least start morphing into an actual party what with Ingun pouring mead for everyone and even a small glass for Aventus. Esbern had long since disappeared back to the library.

Eola waved the mead aside, still not quite able to believe the Black Hand had reformed and she was part of it.

“I'm a Sanctuary Speaker, Cicero,” she whispered to him, getting up and leading him away from where Arnbjorn was already proposing some sort of drinking game. “I can hardly believe it!”

“I know!” Cicero laughed, hugging her tight. “Sister Eola, Karthspire Speaker! Cicero is so pleased and very proud of sweet Eola. Of course, she will need a Silencer.”

“Yeah,” Eola sighed. “Don't know what I'm going to do about that. I'd have said Aranea, but she'll have her own Sanctuary now, and she's taking Cal and Saffie with her. What's that leave me with, two new bloods? Be a while before either of them are experienced enough.”

Cicero actually looked a little affronted at that. “What about me?” he pouted.

“What? Oh, come on now,” Eola laughed. “You're Delphine's Keeper, you can't be my Silencer as well, surely?”

“Mother does not need oiling any more,” said Cicero, tilting his head, that crafty, knowing look in his eyes. “Cicero has time on his hands now. A Silencer helps the Speaker and takes on the most challenging and dangerous contracts. Well, your humble brother will happily deal with those contracts that require... special attention. What is the point of Cicero being Dovahkiin if he never does any killing, hmm?” He was leaning forward, backing her against Alduin's Wall, starting to nuzzle at her ear. Eola closed her eyes, beginning to smile as she put her arms around him. Finally, finally, permission to have him and a willing Cicero who knew who she was and wasn't intoxicated or anything!

“Listener must give permission, of course, and her orders take precedence, but Cicero is quite willing to be Eola's Silencer if she will have him,” he murmured, teeth nipping at her ear.

“Doesn't that mean I get to give you orders?” she murmured back, mind already hazy with visions of Cicero on his knees. Cicero shivered in her arms but didn't let up, still pinning her to the wall as he nibbled her jaw.

“Cicero will do as the Speaker bids him,” he whispered. “But Cicero also thinks that Speaker Eola now and then would enjoy giving up a little of her power, hmm?”

“That may be true,” Eola gasped, running her fingers through his hair. “But I also think you're a very bad boy, and it would be a terrible idea if you had everything your own way all the time.” She squeezed his bottom to drive the point home, and Cicero giggled.

“Yes, yes, Cicero is a very naughty boy indeed, with some terrible, terrible fantasies of ravishing and debasing his Sanctuary Speaker,” Cicero laughed. “Eola is going to have to do something about that...”

“Oh, you can bet I will,” Eola breathed. “But Delphine's got to say yes before I can name you Silencer.”

Cicero shrugged. “Oh, she will say yes. Delphine loves you, she will not want to refuse her wife anything.”

Eola stopped groping him as that sentence sunk in.

“Wait, I'm what?” She shoved Cicero away. “I am not Delphine's wife!”

Silence as the assassins sitting round the table all looked up, caught Eola's eye and immediately all went into a little huddle. Cicero was unrepentant, grinning back at her.

“Oh, but Sister, you are, you are!” Cicero cooed. “Not by the laws of the Reach, but the Brotherhood live by our own laws and customs, and the Tenets say nothing about how many spouses a Brother or Sister may take. If the Orcs can have their Code of Malacath where the chief takes as many wives as he wishes, surely the Listener of the Dark Brotherhood can take as many spouses as she wishes? Unprecedented for there to be two Keepers, of course, but there is no need for a Listener to make her spouse Keeper if her lovely wife is already a Speaker...”

“That is NOT what I agreed to!” Eola shouted. Cicero just grinned, skipping nimbly back out of slapping distance. Everyone at the table had gone very quiet, but Eola could sense the mirth just waiting to break out.

“I am not married to Delphine!” she snapped, but Cicero's words had had an effect and deep inside she began to wonder if that wasn't exactly what she'd just signed up to. Namira help her, she had to stop this.

“I have to talk to her,” Eola breathed, racing for the door. Cicero, grin not letting up for a second, sauntered over to the table and sat down, accepting a tankard of mead from Calixto.

“I hope you realise that you are in a lot of trouble,” Calixto said, eyebrow raised. “I can't imagine either of them will be terribly pleased that you've just proclaimed them wife and wife.”

“Oh, someone had to,” said Cicero, resting his feet on the table. “Eola loves Delphine but is worried Delphine loves me more than her. Delphine loves Eola but is worried Eola won't truly want to stay with someone so much older than her. Cicero is sick of watching them not do anything about it and doesn't want Eola to leave. Of course he wants them to get married. If they will not speak to each other, Cicero will have to start the conversation for them.”

“And when Delphine comes out of that office in about five minutes with a sword in her hand, we'll know how that conversation ended,” Arnbjorn growled. “Good work, little man.”

“Why, thank you brother,” Cicero purred before realising the implication. “Now wait just a second, the Listener is not going to stab poor Cicero no matter how annoyed she is with him!”

“That's true,” Sapphire pointed out, “she's been living with him since Last Seed and hasn't done yet.”

“Thank you, sister – wait a second! Cicero is not difficult to live with!”

“Is it always like this?” Ingun had to wonder as Calixto refilled her glass.

“Most days, but don't let it get to you,” Sapphire replied, producing a set of cards from her pocket. “All right, I've got a set of Cyrodiilic fortune cards, who's for a game of Emperors?”

That distracted Cicero sufficiently to stop hostilities, and as the cards were dealt, he sat back, feeling very pleased with himself. With any luck, Delphine and Eola would argue about it, talk about it, realise they were meant for each other, declare undying love and emerge as Listener and Listener-wife. Or they might just become very angry with poor Cicero and haul him off for a good beating. Either option was fine with him.

Chapter Text

Delphine looked up from her desk as Eola burst in. She'd just finished handing over a set of contracts to Astrid, and was about to start discussing plans for Windhelm with Aranea when her lover threw the door open, clearly furious about something.

“Del, we need to talk. Right now!”

“Right now?” Delphine sighed. “Can't it wait?”

“No!” Eola cried. “No, it can't! Do you know what Cicero just said to me??”

Oh good. He'd been home barely a day and already Eola was arguing with him. Normally they sorted things out between themselves after a bit of raised voices and possibly throwing things and then sulking and not talking to each other, and then inevitably Cicero would get lonely or bored without her and sidle up to Eola to make it up to her, and she'd forgive him and all would be well. It was actually rare for either of them to involve her.

“Astrid, Aranea, I'm really very sorry, I think I need to deal with this. Astrid, feel free to stay tonight or leave now, it's up to you. Aranea, we can talk tomorrow, you're not leaving right away or anything.”

Both Speakers exchanged knowing looks and filed out, Astrid in particular looking rather keen to find the others and discover just what Cicero had done now. Delphine closed the door and turned to her seething girlfriend.

“What's he done now?”

“He said...” Eola stopped, gathering her breath. “He said that – that you making me Speaker was the same thing as him being Keeper of the Listener and – and that you and I were married now. Del, we're not, tell me that's not why you did it, please!” Eola was staring at her, eyes wide and shaking all over, whether from horror or fury, Delphine couldn't tell. Delphine was having a little difficulty thinking straight herself, in fact the urge to find Cicero, drag him in to that office and lash him until he wept was all but overwhelming.

“He said what?” she said softly. “He said that. To you.”

“Yeah,” gasped Eola, near tears. “He said it and he was smiling as he said it, like he'd won some contest I didn't know I was playing. Del, I'm not – I can't!”

Delphine took Eola into her arms, rubbing her back as she tried to console her. Hard to be consoling when she felt this angry, but she'd do her best.

“He had no right to say that to you, no right at all!” Delphine snapped. “I decide when, if and who I'm married to, not him! We had a deal, I'd marry him and love you, and he'd abide by that and not interfere! By Sithis, the conniving little weasel...”

Eola seemed to relax a little. “We're not...”

“No,” said Delphine firmly. “Trust me, love, you'd know if we were. There'd be a proposal and a ceremony and rings and a party. Our love life has got nothing to do with making you Speaker, I did that because you're smart, capable, well-placed politically in the Reach, and because I trust you and because you'll be good at it! I need someone as my right hand, someone I can rely on. You're that someone and you always were, even before I fell in love with you. Being my Speaker is not the same as being my wife. Sweetie, I would never trick you or force you into marriage. I know you're not ready for that, and maybe you never will be. Maybe you're not the marrying kind. Talos knows you probably don't want to end up as the second spouse of someone old enough to be your mother.”

The tension had died out of Eola's body as she snuggled in to Delphine's arms.

“Don't say that,” she whispered to her. “You're beautiful.”

“I'm fifty five and not getting any younger,” said Delphine, acutely aware that every time she looked in the mirror there seemed to be one more wrinkle, one more grey hair, and that she wouldn't last forever. “Ten years from now, twenty if I live that long, and I'll be old and grey. Will you still want to be with an old crone? You'll be a warrior-sorceress in her prime, the formidable Speaker of Karthspire Sanctuary, while I'll be an old hag sitting with the Night Mother that no one really cares about any more.”

Eola tightened her grip on Delphine. “Don't say that!” she cried. “As long as I live I'll care about you! You are my Matriarch, my Listener, you hear the words of the Night Mother, there is not a single member of this Sanctuary who doesn't respect that! So you're getting older, so you won't be pretty forever? You think I care about that?? I'm a priestess of Namira! The Lady of Decay! She doesn't judge on outward appearance, and nor do I. The older you get, the more I'll love you. I promise you, I will love you and care for you until your dying day. I swear it, Del.”

“Talos help me, you've got a fetish for the ageing process,” Delphine said weakly. A joke, but she didn't really have any other way to process the idea that Eola felt quite that strongly about her. She loves me. She really, truly loves me. Delphine held on to her, tears in her eyes, feeling a sense of rightness about it all, a sense of safety, a sense not quite there when she held Cicero. With Cicero, she felt protective of him as he nestled in her arms, a sense of caring deeply and feeling responsible for him. Not so with Eola. With Eola, she was the one feeling honoured to be loved by her, she was the one feeling cared for and protected. She'd made Eola Speaker because she was strong and talented, but she loved her for the same reasons, and she knew right then that she never wanted Eola to go.

“It's not a fetish,” said Eola, sounding a little frustrated. “It's deeper than that. We're all dying, all decaying and you're closer to that than me. It's... it's the part of the life-cycle no one likes to talk about, but Namira embodies it. That you're older than me isn't why I love you, but it's something I envy in a way. It certainly means I won't run off with a younger lover if that's what you're scared of. You'll be taken care of in your old age, you won't die alone and unloved. I love you, Delphine. I just wish you understood how much.”

“I do,” Delphine whispered, kissing Eola's forehead. “I do, Eola, I really do. I know I don't always say it or show it, but you're important to me, I swear. Maybe Cicero's my Dragonborn, maybe he's my boy to guard and protect and occasionally deliver strict moral guidance to or just tease because it's fun to watch him, but you're my rock, you know? You're my right hand, you're my go-to girl, you're my shoulder to lean on when it all gets too much, you're the one I can be vulnerable around. Gods know I've probably taken advantage horribly of that, especially when Cicero vanished. But dear Talos, Eola, if it had been the other way around, if the Daedra had taken you... we'd have fallen apart. Me, Cicero, the Brotherhood, everything. You've seen me mourning him and got it into your head that I only love him? You didn't see me when you left, I cried myself to sleep most nights because you weren't there. All the guilt and regret and the 'what if?' didn't help, but mostly I just wished you'd come home. It feels so wrong without you here, I miss you when you're not around. I just don't always show it, mostly because I still can't believe someone young and lovely like you is interested in me.”

“Delphine,” she heard Eola whisper, her voice sounding almost in pain, and then Eola was kissing her fiercely, lips claiming Delphine's and fingers reaching for the straps on her armour. Delphine began to undress Eola too, and soon the two of them had staggered back into a nearby chair, Eola sinking into it first and Delphine sliding in to her lap, neither of them breaking off from the kiss for more than a second at a time. At least not until Eola lifted the top half of Delphine's armour off and began to kiss Delphine's chest.

“So damn fine,” Eola gasped inbetween kisses. “I will adore these no matter how old you get.”

Delphine didn't say a word – couldn't as Eola's mouth fastened on her nipple. She held on to the back of the chair, moaning as Eola sucked and nibbled, those hands of hers groping Delphine's backside as she did. Virtually all Delphine's clothes were gone by this point aside from her leather boots, and she was aroused and wet and desperate for Eola's touch. Eola was still fully dressed in the studded armour she kept for hanging around the Sanctuary in. There was something a little unfair about this to Delphine's mind, and suddenly she was overcome with the urge to touch Eola, have her fall apart in her arms for once.

“Eola,” Delphine breathed, backing away and slipping off her lap, kneeling and sliding a hand between Eola's legs. “Take your underwear off.”

Eola obliged. “Del? What are you – oh!” Delphine had grabbed her lover by the hips and pulled her forward, sliding a finger inside her. Eola's eyes fluttered closed, back arching as her hands gripped the chair's arms. Delphine slid a second finger alongside the first, watching as Eola gasped, cheeks flushed with arousal, and Delphine could feel her getting wet. Talos, but she looked so beautiful like this. How she could ever think Delphine didn't love her, Delphine had no idea. Leaning forward, she began to speed up the thrusting as she bent her head forward, pressing a kiss against Eola's clitoris. Eola actually yelped at that, before slumping back in the chair, crying out as Delphine kissed and licked, eyes only occasionally flicking up to where Eola was gasping her name out.

“Del, oh gods, Namira, don't stop, don't stop, I love you!” Eola cried, leaning forward, knuckles white as she came, shaking as the orgasm hit. Delphine kissed her thigh and sat back, reaching out to Eola who slid off the chair and into her arms.

“I love you too,” said Delphine softly, cradling Eola in her arms. “Never believe I don't.”

Eola said nothing in response to that, but she did use telekinesis to bring a fur rug over.

“You'll get cold,” she said, wrapping it around Delphine's shoulders. “Can't have that.”

Delphine smiled and kissed her again. That was her Eola all right. Always fussing. Not quite like Cicero, but in her own way just as protective. It was a nice thing to have.

“I'd marry you, you know,” said Delphine gently. “If you wanted to. You don't have to, but if you ever did want to, I would.”

Eola said nothing, just letting Delphine hold her. Delphine began to wonder if she should have said that, if she'd not just offended Eola and ruined everything. She needn't have worried. When Eola finally did look up, she was smiling.

“Let me think about it,” Eola said, kissing Delphine on the cheek. Delphine clutched her tight, ruffling her hair. It wasn't a yes... but it wasn't a no either. It would do.

“Oh, I gotta ask you something as well,” said Eola. “Before Cicero was making inappropriate and out of line marriage comments, he offered to be my Silencer as well, assuming you approved of course. He's the only assassin left in Sanctuary with any actual experience, and despite him being an obnoxious little pain in the arse, he'd be good at it. What do you think?”

Delphine's initial reaction was to scream no and clutch Cicero to her. He was her Keeper, hers! But Eola did need a Silencer. One thing for Eola to not choose one, but if she had no one to choose, that was something else. She'd consented for them to get involved, hoped for it in fact. She just didn't want to give him up.

“Not yet,” she finally said in the end. “He's only just got back, and he's still in trouble for disappearing like that. Also, given his interference with us, if I go out there and tell him he can be Silencer, it'll be rewarding and encouraging it. Give me a month to read up on Silencers and think about it, and you and I can talk about what it would mean in practice. In the mean time, I can have Cicero on a punishment detail reminding him of his place. Which you can help me administer if you like. Get him used to the idea of answering to you, not just me.”

Now that Eola liked the sound of. “You want to go out and tell him right now what a bad boy he's been?”

“No,” said Delphine, reaching for her clothes. “I want to head to bed with you and celebrate your new job as Speaker. Then, when Cicero's been lulled into a false sense of security, the two of us can ambush him and decide on a suitable punishment. How does that sound?”

That sounded like a plan. Grabbing a bottle of wine and a tray of snacks, Eola followed Delphine out. Time to celebrate.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cicero skipped back to his room in a drunken haze, Lucien trailing behind him. That had been a fun evening, even more so when they'd sent Aventus to bed and started playing the more adult drinking games. Then everyone had started slipping off to bed, Aranea hauling her two off and Astrid taking Arnbjorn away with a look in her eyes that said someone was in for a good time. Ingun had retired to bed not long after, then Ralof had cuddled Cicero, told him to sleep well and retired to his own room. Leaving just Cicero and Lucien, and honestly if almost everyone else was having sex tonight, Cicero decided he didn't want to be left out.

“Come, come, Lucien,” Cicero giggled. “I've been very bad, haven't I? All that time away from me, trapped in the Void, you must have been very frustrated.”

“Oh, I have my outlets,” said Lucien calmly. “Very few of them squirm and giggle like you do though.”

“I do, I do!” Cicero laughed, knowing he was blushing and not caring. “Are you going to make me squirm tonight? I hope so!”

Lucien laughed. “I don't deny that would be entertaining. But I think someone else has a prior claim.” He indicated up ahead, to where Delphine was waiting, dressed in her leather armour as she leaned against the wall opposite Cicero's room.

“Listener!!” Cicero squealed, skipping up to her, draping himself over her as he snuggled into her. “You're here! Waiting for sweet Cicero! I did not think I would see you tonight. Cicero thought you would be enjoying dear Eola.”

Delphine's mouth quirked in a smile as she pushed Cicero back, holding him at arm's length.

“I was earlier. Now – now I think it's time I enjoyed you.”

That was definitely a predatory gleam in her eyes, a cruel smile that promised he was in for a very rough time. Cicero closed his eyes, sighing happily.

“My Listener is too good,” he gasped.

“Indeed,” said Delphine, folding her arms, taking care to keep a couple of feet between them. Cicero hardly had time to ask why when the reason became apparent. A paralysis spell flared from the shadows, hitting Cicero and causing him to keel over, unable to move or speak. Delphine caught him, taking him by the shoulders, while Eola emerged in her Shrouded Robes, smirking as she picked up his legs, the fiendish little hussy. Cicero desperately wanted to thrash and wail about how unfair this was, but Delphine clearly had planned this.

Lucien approached, grinning.

“A plan well executed. What are you planning to do with him?”

“What do you think?” Delphine asked. “He's been a very bad boy. The disappearing act, the seducing my girlfriend, and now he has the nerve to start interfering with me and Eola and claiming we're married? He's crossed the line, so Eola and I are going to place him firmly back on the other side of it.”

“A worthy aim,” Lucien nodded, clearly approving. “He's clearly become ill-disciplined due to his time with that Jorrvaskr rabble. May I join you?”

Delphine glanced at Eola, who nodded, grinning at Lucien.

“Sure! More the merrier.” Eola looked down at Cicero, face frozen in confusion but eyes glaring furiously up at her, and couldn't help but smile. “This is going to be fun.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They dragged him down to the usual playroom and stripped off his motley, placing his dagger well out of the way, before hauling him upright and shackling him to a reinforced steel version of a tanning rack, arms and legs spread. Delphine opened the chest and began getting toys out, spreading various implements out on a nearby table.

“Dear gods,” Cicero heard Eola say. “Look at some of this stuff – the Thalmor don't have torture implements as fierce as these!”

“Some of these are Thalmor ones,” Delphine replied. “Cicero brought a few back from the Embassy. So thoughtful.”

“So what are you going to use first?” Lucien purred. “Are we inserting anything? Applying the clips?”

“Not yet,” said Delphine cheerfully. “Got to warm him up first. Eola, bring that paddle over there.”

Eola picked up a black leather one with the shape of a hand-print cut into one side. “Del, I have to ask who on earth you paid to make this.”

“Didn't,” Delphine said smugly. “Found it in Cheydinhal. Someone there was quite the perverted boy or girl.”

Eola glanced at Cicero. “Someone clearly was.” Lucien just looked rather proud of his old Sanctuary.

Delphine stepped up to Cicero and yanked his hair back. The paralysis spell stopped him responding as well as she'd like but he looked genuinely worried.

“Now Cicero,” she said sweetly. “I won't bother going over all your sins again, because I think we all know why you need this doing. Eola says you offered to be her Silencer. Well, I need to think about that one, because frankly, my lady deserves far better for her Silencer than a naughty little boy like you. But if you do aspire to that honour, then you need to be able to prove that you'll take discipline from her as well and do what you're told. Which is why you're here. That and interfering in our relationship. Eola and I will marry when and if we choose, and we will tell you when that's happening. You do not get to decide for us. You need reminding of your place in this Sanctuary, my dear.”

A whimper. The spell was starting to wear off. Good. Cicero was much more fun when he wriggled.

“Eola,” said Delphine, letting Cicero go. “Why don't you get started?”

Eola cackled gleefully, grinning as she twirled the paddle in her hand and raised it to strike.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some time later, and Cicero was a weeping, reddened mess, pleading hysterically for mercy. Clips on both nipples and all down his back, tight leather tie at the base of his weeping cock, and Sithis only knew what state his poor abused backside was in. They'd moved from the hand-print paddle to a whip to a riding crop to the cat o' nine tails and he was covered in the welts. Then Eola had started in with the pin-wheel, and when she'd trailed it down his stomach and started dragging it along his cock, Cicero had finally broken.

“I'm sorry!!!” he howled. “Please!!! No more, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Listener!!!! Delphine, I love you, I'm sorry, please!!!”

Delphine had actually done very little this time, having left Eola and Lucien to do most of the punishing. Lucien had an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to inflict pain and punishment and had been gladly instructing Eola in the fine art of correction and pain. Right now she was carefully threading a string through the clips decorating Cicero's back.

“Like this?” she asked. Lucien nodded, inspecting her work.

“Yes, exactly like that, well done. Now, I think we're nearly ready. Don't you think, Listener?”

“I think so, yes,” Delphine said, getting up. “Do what you're going to do and then cut him down.”

Lucien took the loose end of the string and passed it to Eola, who took a deep breath and yanked it. The clips came off with it and Cicero screamed as the feeling came flooding back.

“LISTENER!” he shrieked, rattling the shackles as best he could. “I'm sorry!!!” He was crying now, sobbing with the pain, his cock hard and uncomfortable and he couldn't come or touch himself or anything and it hurt, it hurt, everything hurt, he just wanted to curl up in Delphine's arms but she wasn't even touching him herself, just watching. Was this how it was going to be, being Silencer? She wouldn't punish him personally any more, she'd delegate it to Eola? That hurt more than any blow.

“I'm sorry,” he whispered, broken. “Delphine, I'm sorry.”

She was unchaining his ankles, then his wrists followed and she caught him as he collapsed in her arms. Eola was there next with a sabre cat pelt, wrapping it around him and lowering him to the floor, untying his cock and taking all remaining clips off him, and then she and Delphine were rubbing the feeling back into his limbs.

“I'm sorry too,” Delphine whispered. “But you needed a reminder of whose you were.”

“Yours,” Cicero whispered, wiping the tears away. “Always yours, Listener.”

Delphine kissed him on the cheek, then sat back. To Cicero's surprise, Eola then kissed him too.

“Ours,” she whispered. “You're ours, sweetie.”

Cicero finally opened his eyes to see the two of them smiling down at him, Lucien watching over their shoulders.

“Listener?” he whispered. Delphine squeezed his shoulder gently.

“You did well, love,” she said, her voice soft and loving and kind, far kinder than wretched Cicero deserved. “You took your punishment well, even though I know it was hard for you. You're not going to interfere with me and Eola again?”

Cicero shook his head. Lesson learned there – mostly anyway.

“And you're not going to run away or go astray again?” said Delphine.

“Never,” Cicero rasped. Delphine stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head.

“Good boy. Now, your punishment isn't quite done, but I don't think I will need to do anything more other than your usual regular reminders. However, you need to make up for your absence, so I'm grounding you for the next month. You're confined to Sanctuary. Also, Eola will be drawing up a rota, and to ensure you don't get bored, she'll be making sure you have plenty of work to do.”

“Will I ever,” Eola laughed. “You're on latrine duty for the next month. And that's just the start.”

Cicero whimpered, appealing to Delphine. She just smiled back at him.

“She's Speaker. Don't argue.”

Cicero sagged, sniffling as he snuggled into Delphine's arms. This all seemed most unfair. All the same... it was nice to be back in his Listener's arms. It seemed he was forgiven. And if he spent the next month being very very good, he might even get to be sweet Eola's Silencer. He'd like that. He'd like that very much indeed.

“Come on, let's get you to bed,” Delphine said, helping him up. Eola retrieved his motley and helped him get dressed. Her fingers brushed his cock as she helped with the trousers, and Cicero felt his libido quickening again. He could stand a little more attention from his Listener and Speaker, most definitely. Maybe Lucien would decide to get involved. Now that would be nice. Very nice indeed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Twenty four hours since the punishment session. Twenty four hours in which Cicero had let Delphine and Eola lead him to the Listener's bed and tuck him in, docile and unresisting as they'd climbed in alongside him and given him fruit juice and rubbed salve into his welts. In the morning, he'd given them both a kiss on the cheek, murmuring their titles as he did so. That had led to Eola kissing him rather more fiercely, the beast blood howling in her head, demanding... something. It was the one side-effect – she never slept well any more. She didn't get any more tired from it, but she tossed and turned in her sleep a lot. Fortunately the Listener's bed was big enough for her not to wake Delphine, and Cicero had been out like a light all night.

He was still sleepy as she kissed him, but he'd giggled and rolled onto his back, not objecting in the slightest as she rode him, wriggling under her and gasping as she'd taken him inside her.

That had got Delphine's attention, and she'd nestled next to Cicero, exchanging long, slow, sloppy kisses with him, holding him tight as Eola fucked him. Cicero had held on for as long as he could, but eventually he came, clinging on to Delphine as he did. Eola rolled off him, beast blood howling for more. Delphine had just laughed and slid under her, hand reaching to Eola's clit.

Still not enough, and then Lucien had grabbed her roughly and slid inside her, cold prick right up inside her as he'd fucked her hard, one hand on her hip and the other reaching for a nipple, twisting it until Eola cried out.

“Werewolves,” Lucien had laughed. “All the same. All need it hard and rough and violent or they're never satisfied.”

“No change there then,” Cicero had muttered, at least until a slap on the thigh from Delphine had shut him up. Eola hadn't cared. She had a cock inside her and her lover's hand on her clit and all was well in her world. Then Lucien had started spanking her and she'd come screaming. Lucien had thrust rapidly into her and hit his own climax, dissolving as he did so. Eola felt a little disappointed as she'd collapsed into Delphine's arms. Cicero had dealt with the ghostly remains before spooning in on her other side, cuddling them both.

He'd been like that all day. Friendly. Sweet. Affectionate. Bringing her tea and snacks and offering to rub her feet and scampering about the place obsessively tidying. She'd gone back to her room for something to find him making the bed. Eola was just thankful she'd not found him doing her laundry or decorating the place with flowers or anything else.

“You really don't need to do this,” she'd said faintly. “I've not even done the rota yet.”

Cicero had just shrugged. “Cicero wanted to,” he'd said. “Sanctuary Speaker who is so kind as to host Listener and Keeper and Night Mother should not have to trouble herself with this sort of thing.”

Namira help her. “I'm not your domme,” Eola said softly. “Not like Delphine is. You know that, right?”

Cicero had stopped then, gliding to her side and staring at his feet. “Cicero knows,” he'd said quietly. “But you are Cicero's friend and... and he'd like you to be happy.”

She'd not been able to resist cuddling him. Exactly how long this was going to last was debatable, but it seemed genuine.

“He's doting on me,” she'd said to Delphine later. “Why is he doting on me? He never dotes on me. What's he up to?”

“He's always like this after a session,” Delphine had said. “He says being reminded who he answers to calms his inner dragon right down. Apparently it's nice.” She'd patted Eola on the shoulder, grinning. “Congratulations, you have a Cicero. Enjoy it.”

This was going to take some getting used to.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

That night, Delphine finally remembered there'd been an interrogation at some point in the last few days.

“So, you were going to tell me what you got out of Hrongar,” said Delphine lazily, sitting back in her chair in the kitchen, sipping her tea. Eola was sat at the table opposite, tucking into an Orc pie, while Cicero, sole other occupant of the kitchen, had just finished the washing-up and was now skipping around, putting things away and singing quietly to himself.

“I was!” Eola laughed. “For what it's worth anyway. It's more than a little weird. Get this. He said it wasn't his idea. Said a woman, not Bryling, told him to do it.”

“Did you get a name?” Delphine asked. Another loose end to tie up. Laila Law-Giver had died the same night Elisif had been challenging Bryling – an apparent suicide by poison. Aranea had done her job well. Laila's housecarl Unmid had gone home to his family in shame, while Anuriel, her steward, was halfway to Morrowind by now. Delphine hadn't thought there'd been anyone else involved.

“That's the weird bit,” said Eola, leaning closer. “He didn't know. Didn't even know what she looked like. Apparently there is this old door in Dragonsreach, a door only the Jarl has the key for, and she's behind it. He found it because Balgruuf's son, Nelkir, kept hanging around near it and his behaviour took a turn for the worse when he did. He chased the boy off and that's when he heard her. The Whispering Lady, he called her. She kept saying what a shame it was for Skyrim to get partitioned the way it had and how the Empire had stabbed them in the back in return for their loyal service. Told him he could put things right, restore order, make things the way they should be again. All he had to do was listen to her and do what she told him.”

Restore order. Cicero had told her all about Sanguine and Sheogorath visiting and telling him the forces of order were trying to change the world back to what it would have been. Now what was so powerful even two Daedric Princes needed help to thwart it? Help from the children of Sithis no less.

The answer was obvious. Another Daedric Prince.

“I think this bears looking into,” said Delphine thoughtfully. “I think I'll need to pay a little visit to Whiterun in the next day or so.”

On the far side of the room, Cicero had gone very quiet and very still. He always fretted whenever Delphine left the Sanctuary without him. He fretted even more if she travelled alone.

“Eola, I'll need you to stay here and keep an eye on things,” said Delphine, fully aware of Cicero listening to every word. “And... I'll need to take Cicero with me. I guess he'll have to start his confinement to Sanctuary when we get back.”

Cicero dropped the broom he'd been holding, squealed as he leapt into the air and ran over to Delphine, snuggling her.

“Thank you thank you thank you!” he cried. “Cicero will be very good and not get in the way, he promises!”

“See that you don't,” said Delphine, pulling him into her lap. “You're still in trouble, it's just I need your services out of the Sanctuary.”

Cicero promised he'd be the best Keeper ever, and Delphine wouldn't even know he was there. Eola got up, gave them both a kiss goodnight and left them to it. Listener and Keeper could have each other tonight. Eola was feeling the call of the blood, and tonight she was going on the hunt.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Out of the Sanctuary, up into Red Eagle Redoubt, clad in her Forsworn gear and being saluted as the sentries recognised her. Into the Sundered Towers then out onto the tundra plain – within sight of Whiterun in under an hour. Away from the towers, strip off behind a rock, clothes into pack then change.

No pain any more, just the thrill as the beast burst out and Eola's senses sharpened. Every sound, every smell, and she recognised them all. She wasn't even sure she wanted blood tonight, just to be free, wild, running and running until she could run no more. Her pack now had an extra strap with a special fastening that just snapped together so she could carry it in beast form – Farkas had shown her the design and she'd paid Beirand in Solitude to copy it for her. Very useful, and it meant she wasn't tied to one spot. So off she went, bounding across the tundra, thoroughly enjoying herself. Mudcrabs, foxes, rabbits and bigger prey, none were a match for her, not even a sabre cat. She was chewing on one when she smelt something else. Another. A challenger.

Eola stood up, claws at the ready, hoping her beast form wasn't about to wear off, because here was another like her. Also female. Reddish-black fur. Aela the Huntress, surely, Eola knew her scent.

Aela bared her teeth and sprang for her, knocking her to her feet. Eola wrestled back, snapping at Aela's face as the two rolled over and over, lashing out and nipping but holding back, Eola realised as it occurred to her that while Aela was certainly furious, she wasn't trying to kill. A dominance fight then. Eola could deal with that – or at least she could until she realised Aela was bigger and stronger than her and had her pinned down. Then her beast form chose that moment to wear off. Aela laughed, claws digging into Eola's skin – or at least she did until Eola raised a hand and cast a flame cloak spell. Howling in fury, Aela let her go, rolling to beat out the flames. Her own beast form then wore off, leaving two angry, naked women staring at each other.

“That wasn't a fair fight,” Aela seethed. “Magic's cheating. You should have yielded, I had you!”

Eola reached for her pack, pulling her armour back on.

“Nor is being bigger and stronger than me, but apparently that's allowed?” Eola snapped. Aela shrugged, pulling on her own armour.

“I don't make the rules.”

“No, but you play by them,” Eola retorted. “What do you want anyway?”

“You're hunting in my territory,” Aela growled. “That makes you a target. You've got the whole Reach, you don't need to invade my tundra.”

“Your tundra, is it now?” Eola sighed. “I wasn't aware it had an owner, other than the Jarl.”

“We're not talking about politics or civilisation,” Aela said, taking a seat on a nearby rock, arms folded and glaring. “We're talking about territory. Pack. Who hunts where. Things you wouldn't understand, new blood.”

Eola growled, baring her teeth. “I know all about pack and hunting, trust me.” Aela just laughed.

“Not like one of us, you don't. You were brought over accidentally. You weren't welcomed into the pack. You're one of us, but you're not one of Us. You're not a Companion, not my Shield-Sister. So don't hunt in my territory.”

“And who's going to stop me?” said Eola, determined not to lose this tussle. “You on your own? You can't patrol the whole plain and I can beat you if I have to. Way I hear it, the other werewolves are all busy looking for cures.”

Aela hissed, reaching for her dagger in rage. “Yes, because you killed the only one who would stand with me! You and your... Dragonborn! Skjor's dead because of you, the old man's trying to throw this gift away, Vilkas fights the beast every single day and Farkas goes where his brother does because he's not got the wit to do otherwise!”

Ah. So this was what it was really about. “We paid weregild for that,” Eola reminded her. “Cicero visits Kodlak and brings his mother back for him, that was the deal.”

“Sure, the old man's happy,” Aela hissed. “But where is my weregild, hmm? What will compensate me for the loss of my brother? My pack is gone, witch! The only other two werewolves out there who share my blood are you and Arnbjorn, and I'm not joining the Brotherhood!”

“Good!” Eola shot back. “You're not staying in my Sanctuary anyway!”

“My Sanctuary's the Underforge,” Aela snarled. “And thanks to you killing Skjor, it's incomplete and always will be. I'll never find the Totems on my own.”

“Totems?” Eola asked. “What Totems?”

“The Totems of Hircine – you never heard of them? Well, no, I don't suppose you would,” Aela sighed. “They're not widely known outside his worshippers and werewolves. They're powerful artefacts blessed by Hircine. Skjor thought they'd have the ability to change our powers, channel them in different directions. I'm still looking, but it'll be difficult and dangerous alone. Without Skjor, I've got no one else who'll go.”

Well, Aela did say she'd wanted weregild, and the opportunity to explore her werewolf powers was not something Eola could dismiss lightly.

“I'll go if you want,” Eola offered. “I'm good with a blade as well as magic, I could help you find them.”

“You'd do that, would you,” said Aela sceptically. “Out of the goodness of your heart.”

“You wanted weregild, here's my offer,” said Eola. “I'll help you finish what Skjor wanted to do. All I ask in return is that I can use these Totems myself once we have them.”

“When we have them, they're going to the Underforge and staying there,” said Aela, her voice firm. But she did relent a little. “I suppose you can visit and pray to them now and then. I might even tolerate you hunting on my tundra. I don't know exactly where they are yet, but I have a few leads to check out. When I locate one, I'll send word. Meet me and I'll know you're serious.”

“All right, you have yourself a deal,” said Eola. They shook hands and parted ways. The Totems of Hircine. How very interesting. Eola still wasn't sure what she thought of the other werewolf. Aela clearly didn't approve of her – but on the other hand, she seemed to be a fellow Daedra worshipper and she knew about the beast blood. This was something Eola just couldn't pass up.

Chapter Text

Bored. Bored. Bored. Nelkir was always bored these days. Ever since Uncle Hrongar had found out about the Whispering Lady and never let him near the door again. Then he'd gone off to Solitude to join his future wife Bryling, and never come back. The Dark Brotherhood had got him, and Queen Elisif had killed Bryling to retake her throne, with a bit of help from the Dragonborn.

Stupid Dragonborn with his stupid hat. Stupid Elisif. Stupid everyone. Hrongar was gone and even though Nelkir could go back to the Whispering Lady now whenever he wanted, she was no fun any more. She just ranted and raged about stupid pathetic mortals who couldn't get the simplest of instructions right.

So Nelkir avoided the door and now Nelkir was bored all the time. Bored. Bored. Bored.

He flung himself on to a bench overlooking the Great Hall, kicking his feet against the rug as he began to munch on an apple. Soon he'd finished that and then he was bored again except now he had a core to get rid of. He could leave it under the bench for the servants... or he could try throwing it, see if he could hit the balcony on the other side. Worth a shot.

He got up, reaching back to throw it... until a black-gloved hand caught his wrist and stopped him, expertly spinning him around to look up into two dark eyes in a pale face, mouth curved in a wicked grin, red hair coming out from under a jester's hat.

“Hello,” the Dragonborn purred, and while he wasn't much taller than Nelkir, he had Nelkir's wrist in an iron grip. “Nelkir, is it?”

“What do you want?” Nelkir snapped, twisting his arm, trying to get free. “Let me go at once, I'm the Jarl's son!”

“Harrald Law-Giver was a Jarl's son too, it did not stop us killing him,” the Dragonborn laughed. Nelkir glared up at him. He wasn't scared of this idiot in the jester's hat, even if he was a mighty hero. Heroes didn't hurt children. Except looking into this man's eyes, he wasn't entirely certain of that any more.

“Dear child. Sweet child,” the Dragonborn cooed. “Cicero has heard of you. Cicero had... questions.”

“Shut up and leave me alone!” Nelkir snapped. “I'm not a baby, you can't talk to me like that! I'll have you arrested!”

Cicero barely moved but the next thing Nelkir knew, he'd been spun round and was now being held in a headlock.

Dearest child. Sweetest child,” Cicero purred, voice dripping with poison. “Cicero had heard you were a spoilt little brat. It seems the tales told only half the story. Cicero has a fosterling about your age. Cicero loves the boy dearly but had he spoken to Cicero the way you talk to people, Cicero would have thrashed him severely. Do not think your parentage will stop Cicero doing the same to you if you are not a little more... respectful.”

“You wouldn't hurt me,” Nelkir hissed. “My father would punish you.”

“Not here, no,” said Cicero calmly. “Too many guards, too many witnesses. But later... when spoilt Nelkir is alone in bed at night... and no one is around except the odd guard or servant who could easily be bribed, maybe someone who petulant Nelkir has been rude to once too often and who would be quite willing to turn a blind eye... then Cicero could easily find you and take you.”

“Who are you?” Nelkir whispered, a chill running down his spine as he realised he might just have met his match in this one. “What do you want?”

“Oh, I am just humble Cicero,” Cicero giggled. “No one important or special. But we had questions, my sweetling and I. We do, we do! So we're going to ask them and you're going to answer and then we'll take our leave. That's all, sweet Nelkir.”

“What do you want to know?” Nelkir gasped. Most of the adults were fools, blind, petty fools who treated him like a baby, kept things from him, thought he was stupid. This one might dress like a jester, but he was not a fool, not even close. This one noticed things. This one wasn't treating him like a child, and it slowly dawned on Nelkir that that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

“Sweetling?” Cicero called. “I think the boy is willing to talk now.” He let Nelkir go, turning him round again and guiding him back to the bench, taking a seat alongside him, that smile not fading once.

Out of the shadows came a blonde woman in leather armour and Nelkir knew her. She was that one the Reach-King had hired, who everyone said was a mercenary, but Nelkir knew better. Far better. She was Dark Brotherhood, and everyone knew but no one said a word. Too scared to try anything in case she came for them and their families next.

“Hello Nelkir,” she said, her voice gentle but Nelkir wasn't fooled. This woman killed people for a living.

“You don't fool me,” he snapped. “You're with the Dark- mmph!” She'd placed a finger to his lips.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” she said calmly, still sounding gentle and kind. “But people don't go around saying things like that, because spilling the Brotherhood's secrets is an excellent way to guarantee a visit from them, a night-time visit involving a one-way trip to a remote location. You get my meaning, don't you, Nelkir? Of course you do, you're a very bright boy. Brighter than most of the adults, very bright indeed for your age and everyone always underestimates you, don't they? They talk down to you, think you've not noticed or wouldn't understand so they don't tell you things. But you notice and you understand, don't you?”

Nelkir nodded, not at all sure where this was going. He didn't think they were going to kill him, the Dark Brotherhood didn't mess around when they wanted someone dead. If they'd really wanted to kill him, they'd have done as Cicero had suggested without bothering to warn him, abduct him from his bed, do the job and leave his body to be found much later.

“What did you want?” he whispered.

“Tell me about her, Nelkir,” Delphine said softly, leaning forward. “Tell me about the Whispering Lady.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

“He knows about that??” Balgruuf cried. Delphine nodded. They were in his private quarters, just Delphine and Balgruuf, the guards sent away and only Irileth watching from the corner, unwilling to leave her Jarl alone with the one everyone suspected was a high-ranking assassin but that no one could prove anything about. Cicero was as always standing behind Delphine with a fixed grin plastered to his face.

“He does. Don't worry, sir, I won't tell anyone. You're hardly the only Nord worshipping Talos on the quiet, and I've no love for the Thalmor myself. The boy also said he was your illegitimate son.”

Balgruuf went paler still at this. “How does he even...” he whispered. “By the Nine, yes it's true, I had an affair while my late wife was pregnant with Dagny, which I broke off after my wife found out about it and threatened to go back to Windhelm with the children. I'm a man of honour though, I made sure Nelkir's real mother was taken care of. When she died, leaving Nelkir alone and barely six months old... of course we took the boy in and raised him. Freydis may have barely forgiven me for betraying her trust, but even she couldn't resist a helpless child. She loved Nelkir like her own. And Nelkir is my son, just as Frothar and Dagny are my children, if anything happens to them, he'll be Jarl and legitimacy be damned.” He sank back in his chair, hand over his eyes.

“How is this happening, Delphine?” he asked. “What's done this to my boy? He used to be such a loving, gentle child. Now look at him.”

“I don't know, my Jarl,” said Delphine. Mind-healing was not something she had any skills in whatsoever, but she could at least halt the source of the poison. “But he did say something about a door. An old one, always kept locked, that you and Farengar are the only ones with keys to. Is it true? Is there such a door in this palace?”

Balgruuf inhaled sharply, eyes glittering. “Delphine, you don't know what you're asking. What's behind that door... best it stays there. It's an evil thing and it's driven good men mad before now.”

“Including your youngest child and your brother,” said Delphine, leaning closer, determined not to let this go. “Before the Brotherhood took him, Hrongar said under interrogation that a Whispering Lady had given him the whole idea to abduct Elisif and kill Madanach. Apparently the original idea was to marry her off to Harrald Law-Giver and put Laila in charge of the Reach, with Hrongar and Bryling taking over as Elisif's housecarl and steward to ensure the queen did as told, but when Harrald was killed and Elisif rescued, Hrongar changed tactics and persuaded Bryling to take the throne for herself instead. And it was all at the instigation of whatever thing you've got behind that door. So what do you have in this palace, Balgruuf? What's corrupting your family??”

“Balgruuf?” Irileth whispered, worry causing her to forget about formality. “Is this true? All this is because of something in this palace that you knew about??”

Balgruuf nodded, eyes closed. “I'm sorry, Irileth,” he said quietly. “It's the Ebony Blade. The Daedric Artefact of...”

“I know what the Ebony Blade is!!” Irileth shouted. “Sweet Azura, Balgruuf, you told me Farengar had got rid of it! We lost three good guardsmen to that thing! Now you tell me it's not only still here in Dragonsreach, it's corrupting anyone who goes near it??”

“I am not having it fall into the hands of our enemies!” Balgruuf shouted back at her, getting to his feet.

“If this is what it does, maybe that's for the best!” Irileth snapped. “How in Oblivion am I meant to do my job as housecarl if you don't tell me these things??”

“And what would you have done with it, hmm?” Balgruuf asked, glaring at her. “We tried destroying it in the Skyforge, the hottest forge in Skyrim. Not only did the fires not touch it, they cooled around it and Eorlund told me to get the cursed thing away from him. We cannot destroy it and we cannot risk letting harm come to innocent people from it!”

“Too late for that, just ask Elisif!” Irileth snapped back. Balgruuf flinched back from the anger in her voice and Irileth belatedly realised she may have crossed the line.

“My Jarl, I'm sorry, of course you may do as you wish in your own palace, but I beg you to consider...”

Balgruuf raised a hand, sighing as he sat down again.

“No, no, you're right. It can't stay here, not if it really was behind my brother's madness. But what to do with it...”

Delphine glanced at Cicero, who had remained quiet throughout, huddling in the shadow. No help there, he was just shrugging, looking a little panicked himself. Delphine turned back to Balgruuf.

“Jarl Balgruuf, may I ask, what is the Ebony Blade?”

“It's an artefact of the Daedric Prince Mephala,” said Balgruuf, his voice hollow. “It manifests her power, drives good men and women to treason and murder. The Blade gains power when you use it to murder the ones who trust you. Your friends. Your loved ones. It's an evil thing, Delphine. That's why we locked it away, to stop it corrupting anyone else. Of course, we didn't think Mephala would start reaching out through it and corrupting people anyway.”

“Well, who can predict what a Daedra's going to do?” said Delphine, thinking. Balgruuf was right, it couldn't stay where it was. But what else to do with it? Only one real option, and she didn't like it at all.

“Jarl Balgruuf... give it to me. I can take it away from here, dispose of it somewhere safe, somewhere no one will ever find it. It'll never trouble you or anyone else again.”

Both Balgruuf and Irileth were looking at her, surprised.

“You would do that... for us?” Balgruuf asked, a little suspicion in his voice. Delphine nodded.

“For all of us. It's not just you and yours who suffered, it caused me no end of trouble too,” Delphine said, trying not to think of what would have happened if it had worked, if Madanach had died, Elisif had survived with a Stormcloak husband and believing the Dark Brotherhood had killed her steward, if Ralof had not confessed. If Cicero and Eola had not been where they were when Elisif was taken.

Balgruuf glanced up at Irileth. She didn't look happy about this arrangement at all.

“My Jarl, may we talk? In private?”

“Of course. Delphine, if you can excuse us? Wait outside with the Dragonborn, I'll find you in a few minutes.”

Delphine assented and led Cicero out. As soon as the door closed, Irileth slid into Delphine's vacated seat.

“My Jarl, you can't seriously be thinking of handing the Ebony Blade to the leader of the Dark Brotherhood!”

“We don't know that, Irileth. Not for certain,” said Balgruuf, not entirely willing to concede a once trusted citizen and friend had joined up with the feared assassins' guild.

“Oh we do,” Irileth laughed. “We know the Brotherhood abducted Hrongar and killed him – the guards finding his bloodied remains in Solitude Market with a scroll in his mouth advising the world that so ended all who trifle with the Dark Brotherhood prove that. But what you may not know is that I heard from Rikke this morning apologising that she'd not been able to interrogate Hrongar properly before his abduction – he'd been holding out on her. Delphine says she has access to information obtained from Hrongar under interrogation – how? If Rikke couldn't get anything out of him before the Brotherhood took him, but Delphine managed to – what else explains it but her being involved with the Brotherhood and privy to whatever they extracted during their own questioning?”

It made sense, Balgruuf had to admit, but it wasn't enough to justify arresting her, and it seemed a little ungrateful after all she'd done. Also, if she was offering to get rid of the Ebony Blade... it would be a relief to get it off his hands.

“Maybe that's no bad thing,” said Balgruuf thoughtfully. “The Blade's curse is that it gains power from the wielder using it to murder their friends and loved ones. Well, who are the friends and loved ones of a Dark Brotherhood assassin?”

“Other Dark Brotherhood assassins,” said Irileth, beginning to see where he was going with this. “So you think we should give it to her, she'll fall under its spell and wipe out the Dark Brotherhood.”

“With any luck, yes,” said Balgruuf. “Either that or she'll resist and find a means of destroying it. Either way, a great evil is wiped from this world and none of it is my problem.”

Irileth could find no fault with this reasoning at all. So it was that Balgruuf went out to where Delphine was waiting, gave her the key, told her where the door was and to get the thing out of his city.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The door was as old and forbidding as promised, and was that blood all over it? Delphine wasn't sure and wasn't going to ask. She took a deep breath and approached, Cicero trailing behind. Time to see what this Whispering Lady was like.

“Ohhh. Oh! Oh, this is too delicious. Hrongar failed me, Nelkir is too young to be of much use, but you... The Night Mother's own Listener, here of her own free will, after my power for herself. Oh yes, I can use you, Listener Delphine. I can indeed.”

“I assure you, you will find that a tougher prospect than you might imagine,” said Delphine grimly, unlocking the door. Well, that was Fire and Darkness disproved. If this was Mephala, she certainly wasn't the Night Mother. Sounded nothing like her.

Mephala just laughed. “They all say that. They all succumb in the end. Take you. You're the Listener, yes, but you never wanted to be. You were hijacked into it. Betrayed. Given up by Akatosh and Talos as the Night Mother's price for killing Alduin. They lost their first Dragonborn to the executioner's axe just before Alduin returned. The only other suitable candidate in all Skyrim? The son of the last generation's Dragonborn, a highly trained assassin called Cicero, more than capable but wedded to the Night Mother. So Akatosh had to go her and ask, and she accepted the contract but at a price. She wanted the Dark Brotherhood to be great again, she wanted her children to be feared. She wanted a new Listener and she asked for you. So Akatosh and Talos agreed. They gave you up, Listener Delphine. Talos let you go and left you for the Night Mother to claim, Akatosh wakened Cicero's dragon blood and helped ensure the two of you met, and you walked straight into the trap. Akatosh got a protector for his second-choice Dragonborn, and the Night Mother got herself a Listener. A very good bargain. Everyone's happy. Except you. Aren't you tired of dancing to her tune? Don't you want your freedom back? Don't you want to be Talos's again, don't you want to be running the Blades, hunting dragons, not people? I can offer you that, Delphine. Take my Blade, a Blade for a Blade. Take it, and we can begin. Take the lives of ten who trust you, cut your way to freedom, bring my Blade back to its full strength. Starting with the one who trusts you the most.”

Delphine had the door open by this point, staring down at the black katana on the table, a two-handed blade but a sharp one nonetheless. Swallowing, she hooked it over her shoulder before turning to look at Cicero, seeing him there, smiling, wide-eyed, gleeful.

“Is that it, sweetling, is it? It looks very sharp. Positively... wicked!” he giggled.

The one who trusted her the most. The one who'd been there from the start, the one who adored her and lived to serve. Her Keeper.

“Yes, him, take him, end him. He only wants you because you're Listener, you know that. Left to himself, he'd have chosen Namira's child, the one who shares his bloodlust. Take him to some remote spot and end his miserable life, and then you are not only rid of him, you can have Eola all to yourself...”

Delphine forced a smile to her face and turned to Cicero. “Right, Balgruuf wanted this thing out of his city so that's what we're going to do. Cicero, that Blackreach place you and Aranea found the Elder Scroll in. Is it far from here?”

Cicero shook his head. “Not far at all, my lovely. Shall Cicero take you there?”

Delphine nodded, letting him lead the way. Remote, deep, dark, known to hardly anyone. Perfect for what she had in mind.

~~~~~~~~~~~

“So this is Blackreach,” Delphine said, looking around at the huge cavern. Cicero had brought her down here in an elevator that had brought them out in the huge Dwemer room where the Elder Scroll had been. Cicero had then taken them out of the tower into Blackreach itself, over a bridge and along a road, past all sorts of Dwemer ruins, sleeping Centurions that looked like they might wake any second, away from a central citadel that Cicero said was infested with Falmer. Now they were sitting in a quiet corner, overlooking a waterfall. It was lovely down here. Peaceful. Apart from the Falmer, but one couldn't have everything. Still, there didn't seem to be any around for now.

“It is, it is!” Cicero squealed. “Does my Listener like it? Isn't it pretty? Dark and lovely, and lots of pretty lights and colours, and plenty of Falmer to kill! Cicero would bring Eola but you can't eat Falmer, so he's not sure she'd like it so much. But that's not something that would bother you.”

“Can't say it does, no,” said Delphine, reaching for the Ebony Blade. Now or never.

“So what now, Listener?” Cicero asked, oblivious. “Are we going to hide the Ebony Blade here where no one will ever find it?”

“In a matter of speaking, yes,” said Delphine as she unsheathed it. In her head, Mephala's voice was echoing again.

“Yes, yes, now, while he's distracted, before he can strike back. He won't see it coming, it would never occur to him that his beloved Listener might hurt him...”

“Cicero,” said Delphine, her voice shaking. “Do you love me? Really and truly? Or is it just the Night Mother in me you want?”

“What sort of question's that?” Cicero laughed, turning to her. “Delphine, sweetling, of course Cicero loves you. Is something wrong, my sweet? Only last time you asked Cicero things like that was just before you cast him out...” He saw the Blade in her hands and his smile died. “Ah. Cicero sees.”

“Mephala told me things,” said Delphine, feeling lightheaded all of a sudden. “She said... she said I was a sacrifice. A price to be paid, because the original Dragonborn, the one who was meant to kill Alduin, died at Helgen. The only alternative was the son of the previous Dragonborn, a highly-trained assassin quite capable of killing dragons, who'd just come to Skyrim a few months before.”

“Me,” Cicero whispered, eyes travelling between that blade and her, licking his lips nervously. “So... it was never meant to be me.”

“No,” Delphine whispered. “Some Nord called Melinda apparently. But the Legion thought she was a Stormcloak and executed her, just before Alduin turned up. So Akatosh turned to you instead. Except you were already the Night Mother's so he couldn't just activate your dragon blood. So he had to go to her and ask, and her asking price was a new Listener, a reborn Brotherhood. Her asking price was me.”

“You,” Cicero repeated, eyes glistening. “You were a gift from Akatosh. To me and the Night Mother.” Despite the seriousness of the situation, he actually smiled. “I already knew that, my love. You were too lovely, too perfect to be anything else.”

Delphine fought the urge to laugh. Of course he'd think that. The Divines had sacrificed her to Sithis so the Night Mother's Keeper could save the world. Of course he was honoured by it, it hadn't worked out at all badly for him.

“I didn't know,” Delphine whispered. “No one even bothered to ask me if I was all right with it.”

“Sweetling,” Cicero breathed, stepping forward, gloved hand cupping her cheek. “Please...”

“What did I get out of it?” Delphine gasped, fighting back tears. “A large amount of gold, underlings, a headquarters in the mountains, influence and power, oh, and a husband and girlfriend, let's not forget those. As long as I'm OK with having people killed and never seeing Aetherius. Eternal damnation in the Void as the price for the world. Even you have a shot at Sovngarde and your number one hobby is stabbing people.”

“I'm not going to Sovngarde!” Cicero cried. “Not if... not if you're not. And hussy Eola certainly isn't. Cicero loves you, sweetling. Cicero always loved you. Cicero wanted you before you were Listener, and when he didn't even know who he was or who you were, he still wanted you.”

“You ran away and said you had someone else,” Delphine said, trying not to remember how torn up she'd felt to find him and then have him flee again. Cicero closed his eyes, kissing her once on the lips.

“Didn't mean I didn't want you,” he breathed. “If I had known that the big, burly jealous spouse you had was actually me, I... I wouldn't have run. It just never occurred to poor, humble, foolish Cicero that you might ever want to marry someone like me.”

“You thought I had some big, burly, jealous spouse who'd come after you with a battle-axe if you did anything with me,” Delphine gasped, unable to stop herself laughing at that image. Cicero nodded, giggling despite the tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Yes!” he giggled. “Foolish Cicero thought you'd be married to some big, muscular Nordic type. Not... not a humble idiot like me.”

“I am though. And... I still want to be,” Delphine whispered, one arm sliding around his waist and pulling him to her. The Ebony Blade fell from her other hand and she raised fingers to stroke his cheekbones, those gorgeous Cyrodiilic cheekbones, and those bow-shaped lips now curving in that evil little smile she loved. Gods forgive her, she couldn't hurt Cicero. Not now, not ever. Not her boy.

“Do you still have the Wabbajack?” she asked, letting him go and stepping away from the Ebony Blade.

“Right here,” said Cicero, unshouldering it. “What did you want me to do?”

Delphine was vaguely aware of Mephala screaming in her head, but shoved the voice to the back of her mind.

“What are you doing?? You could be free again!!”

“Sorry,” Delphine growled. “Only woman who gets to sit in my head telling me to kill people is the Night Mother. Cicero. Wabbajack that thing.”

“Yes, Listener!” Cicero giggled, waving Sheogorath's staff at Mephala's blade. The staff's red light lit the sword up as it promptly turned into a huge black dragon.

Not an improvement in Delphine's mind, but at least she knew how to deal with dragons. Reaching for her bow, she dodged its flames, Cicero taking off in the other direction as he got his bow out too.

“JOOR ZAH FRUL!” he Shouted at it. The dragon wheeled around, shrieking as it crashed to the ground... right into a Falmer camp.

The fight that followed was short but bloody, as six Falmer swarmed out, attacking the dragon with poisoned blades. The dragon hit back, claws and teeth making short work of the Falmer. Cicero and Delphine kept their distance, taking shots with their bows, picking off any Falmer the dragon missed and shooting the dragon itself if no obvious Falmer targets presented themselves. Finally everyone apart from Cicero and Delphine was dead and the dragon was dissolving in fire. As always, the soul swirled up, straight into Cicero, who gasped as it hit him.

“Cicero!” Delphine cried. “Are you alright?” Oh gods, the spirit of the Ebony Blade in Cicero, that couldn't end well, it just couldn't.

Cicero hiccuped, then laughed. “Ooh! That one felt different! Yes, it's in the cage now, hissing at me. Keeps saying I should murder you so I can be Listener. And the Harbinger too, punish him for not approving of me. Tsk tsk. This one is annoying me. Ooh, I still haven't unlocked that Word of Power from Dragontooth Crater yet!”

Before Delphine could stop him, Cicero had blinked then started giggling.

“Oh dear. Listener, what was Mephala in charge of again?”

“Sex, lies and murder,” Delphine sighed. “Talos help me, Cicero, what just happened? Did you... did you just eat the soul of the Daedric Prince of murder??”

Cicero had gone bright red, enormous grin on his face. “Cicero liked that one! It was crunchy! Only now Cicero wants to kill something. Or... or have sex. He's not sure which one.”

“Well, we just killed all the Falmer and I'm not having sex with you out here,” said Delphine sternly. “Come on, let's get out of here. Can you remember which way the Tower of Mzark is?”

“This way!” Cicero trilled, skipping off... before stopping and running back to her, concerned. “Listener? Are you... are you all right? You... you were not yourself... and you were unhappy. Cicero wants you to still be Listener, but if you are unhappy... Cicero doesn't want you to be unhappy!” He looked miserable at the very thought.

Delphine took a deep breath, wondering how all right she really was. She didn't know if Mephala had been telling the truth about how she got picked to be Listener or not, and honestly it didn't make a lot of difference by this point. However, it did lift one burden off her shoulders.

“I'm all right,” she said, putting her arms around Cicero, drawing comfort from having him there. “I think. And I'm not going anywhere, love. Maybe I didn't choose to be Listener, maybe it's not what I wanted... but it helps knowing that it had to happen, that Akatosh and Talos had to hand me over. They didn't want to do it so it's not like I got cast out, but if it's what they intended... then I guess it makes it easier to bear, you know? Like it's what I'm meant to be doing, it's OK to run the Dark Brotherhood, be good at it and enjoy it. Might as well make the best of it, eh?” She gave him a cuddle and he giggled again, wriggling up against her, grinning lasciviously. Whether he'd really just eaten Mephala's soul while it was bound up in her artefact or not, it was clear whatever he had just devoured had ramped up his sex drive.

“Oh, you're very good at it,” Cicero purred in her ear. “You're very good at a lot of things!” He lowered his voice. “Tower Mzark has bedrolls and privacy. We could... linger there? Please?”

Talos help her, she couldn't resist him when he was all breathless and needy like this. One smack on the backside later and he was actually making little keening noises. Well, not like they were in a great hurry to get back. Not now the danger was over.

“Let's go,” she told him, taking him by the hand and leading him away. Maybe she'd been sold for peace, but she'd got an attractive husband out of the deal. Time to make use of him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Much later, when they'd finally made it back to Karthspire and told the story, and Cicero had started murmuring sweet nothings in Eola's ear and persuaded her off to bed with very little effort on his part, Delphine had settled herself in the chapel for a word with the Night Mother.

“So. I was your price for Alduin's head, was I?”

To Delphine's surprise, the response was laughter. Ever so slightly guilty laughter.

“So Mephala told you that, did she? I thought she might. Yes, you were. When the Dragon God turned up along with that other Mortal Turned God Talos, I could barely believe my ears. Didn't they know I'd retired? Been retired, I should say – thanks to that bitch Mephala's machinations, I barely had a Sanctuary to call mine. Just Cicero, thought too mad and foolish to bother with, and Falkreath because they barely believed in me any more.”

“Mephala's the reason the Dark Brotherhood fell apart?” Delphine asked, surprised. She'd always wondered why the Night Mother had stopped talking in the first place. The things you found out...

“Yes, child. I was a worshipper of hers once, when I worked for the Morag Tong. Up until the whole of Tamriel save Morrowind banned us, and the Tong withdrew, curtailing its activities out of fear and some misguided principle of justice. Justice?? There is no justice out there. None but what we make ourselves. So I left the Tong, stayed in Cyrodiil and researched. I read many old texts until I learned of the darker power behind all the Daedra and all Oblivion – Sithis the Dread Father. I gave him worship and in return, I got his attention. Hardly anyone worshipped him directly, you see. The Forsworn and Hags, yes, but not civilised people in places like Cyrodiil. No one communing with him just to talk to him, not actually wanting anything in return. He was pleased, and he kept coming back. The Dread Father does not love, not exactly... but he could not stay away either. For my sake, the Formless took on form, appeared as a man... lived as a husband, fathered my children. For ten years, he'd come to me each night, reading my children stories, tucking them in bed, and then he'd take me to bed and...” The Night Mother sighed happily. Delphine winced, hoping the Night Mother would spare her any further details. Happily, she moved on.

“Then he came to me one night and told me our time was drawing to an end. Trouble was coming, we weren't going to survive, and being mortal Dunmer, we'd go to the Dunmer afterlife and be parted from Sithis for good. I wept and cried, begged him to take us to the Void instead. He said he would, but there was only one way. If I killed the children in his name and took my own life, a sacrifice to him, dedicating ourselves to the Dread Father. I told him I would. It broke my heart but I did it. I gave them strong poisons in their food and smothered each in their sleep that very night. Then I hung myself. Next thing I knew, I was formless myself, with Sithis in the Void but linked still to my mortal body. When, hours after my body cooled, an amoral young thief crept into our house to see if there was anything worth having, I was able to call to her, get her to take my body and preserve it. She became my first Listener. And so it began, the Dark Brotherhood doing what the Morag Tong never could – a professional guild of assassins and murderers, doing the will of Sithis all over Tamriel and profiting nicely from it. Mephala's hated me ever since, and immediately began plotting our downfall. It took centuries but she managed it in the end. Almost.”

“Are you saying the Great War and all the upheaval since was all down to Mephala trying to wipe out the Dark Brotherhood??” Delphine cried, feeling vaguely revolted at the very thought.

“Not all of it. It's impossible to know for sure. But she's been plotting against us for a long time, that I know. I had almost given up hope of ever regaining my former power, until Akatosh and Talos came to me in dire need of my assistance. Needless to say, my price was power again, a Listener again, a Dark Brotherhood capable of sweeping all before them. I saw you, Delphine, former Blade driven bitter and dark by years of loneliness, a proven killer with training and experience in planning covert operations... but still at heart yearning for a purpose. For a Dragonborn to give your life meaning again. I couldn't think of a better candidate, so I asked for you as my Listener. Neither god wanted to give you up, but in the end they saw they had no choice. They weren't going to find a better Dragonborn than Cicero at such short notice, so they agreed to my terms. Talos let you go, lifted the barriers against another claiming you, Akatosh woke Cicero's dragon blood and changed the winds of time so you two would meet earlier than you would have otherwise... and you walked willingly into the trap, taking us in and when Cicero was gone, coming straight into my arms.”

“You set me up,” Delphine whispered, not sure whether to be angry or impressed. Still, she had to admit – she'd been drawn to Cicero from the start. She'd seen a Dragonborn and thrown caution to the wind, and even working with a Dragonborn, she could have left the Night Mother alone. She'd not done so.

“Regretting it?” the Night Mother asked, amused. Delphine shook her head.

“No, no really. If it had to happen, it had to happen. If Alduin had won, we'd all have died. If I'd really wanted out, I'd have used the Ebony Blade and gone over to Mephala.”

“A good thing you did not. I would have hated to have to start all over again. Not to mention Sanguine and Sheogorath already paid me for the contract against her.”

Delphine scratched her head, sure she was hearing things. “I'm sorry, did you say... Sanguine and Sheogorath had a contract against Mephala??”

“Oh yes,” the Night Mother cackled. “It turned out Sanguine and Mephala had had an arrangement for eons. Well, the Daedric Princes of sex and debauchery, it was only natural. Right up until Sheogorath renewed himself after the Oblivion Crisis and the new Sheogorath took a liking to Sanguine. Seduced him out of Mephala's arms then promptly forgot he'd done it and took a long holiday. Leaving poor Sanguine desperately hunting him. Of course, Mephala's not one to take that lying down and started making Sanguine's existence a misery. What's a Daedra to do but seek out a higher authority to do something about it? And only one thing's more powerful than the Daedra.”

“Sithis the Dread Father,” said Delphine, the pieces finally clicking into place as she realised just why Cicero had been taken by the Daedra in the first place. They'd known the conspiracy was in Jorrvaskr and wanted an agent there, and what better agent than someone who didn't even know he was an agent? And no wonder the Night Mother had been so furious with her for letting it go and moping after Cicero. If she'd sent someone to infiltrate Jorrvaskr, they'd have found Cicero, reassured her and she could have started planning around it, made contact sooner. Dammit. Still, it had all worked out in the end, just about.

“Of course. Do you honestly think I would have let my Keeper get abducted by Sanguine and Sheogorath of all people if there hadn't been a contract at stake?? Those two don't have much in the way of limits but even they know not to get on my bad side. So we worked together, and they mostly did as they were told, and it's all worked out quite well. Congratulations, Delphine, you just helped assassinate a Daedric Prince.”

“We did what? Seriously?” Delphine was very glad she was already sitting down, because she wasn't sure she'd have stayed upright otherwise.

“Well, I'm not entirely sure she's gone for good. But she'd bound herself too heavily to the Ebony Blade, and when you destroyed it, you took a good deal of her power with it. She's in the Void with Sithis now, and he's making sure she's learning the consequences of messing with his children. Don't bother praying at a shrine to Mephala for some considerable time, Delphine. They're not going to do an awful lot for you.”

“I imagine not,” Delphine whispered. That was going to have some interesting consequences in Morrowind, that was for sure.

“And speaking of shrines... I'm thinking it's about time I had some built. One here, one in the other two Sanctuaries, one in the Temple. Now there's a vacancy among the Daedra, well, it's time I took advantage. I'll be wanting a human skull, ebony ingot, filled black soul gem, daedra heart, nightshade and two flawless rubies for each shrine. Get all that together and bring it all here. We have work to do, my child.”

Didn't they just. This was going to be expensive but if the Night Mother wanted it, she'd have to do it. She was sure they could get ebony ingots off Ghorza in Markarth or Beirand in Solitude, Babette would know how to source daedra hearts, nightshade wasn't hard to get and Eola and Cicero would be only too happy to have an excuse to go murdering people for the skulls and souls. The rubies were going to be trickier, but she still had credit with the Thieves Guild. They'd be able to sort something out, she was sure.

World-Eaters and Daedric Princes. Could things get any stranger? Delphine had heard it said of Clan Grey-Mane that they had the ability to forge anything as a gift from the gods, but in return were obliged to forge literally anything requested of them. Maybe the same was true of the Dark Brotherhood – Sithis would grant them the ability to kill anyone or anything, but in return they had to kill anyone whose death was prayed and paid for, from beggars to merchants to priests to Jarls to Emperors to gods.

She didn't know who'd be the next big contract for her little band of murderers. It would have to go some to top this one though. But when it came through... she'd be ready. If this life was what the gods wanted for her then so be it. Tamriel wouldn't know what had hit it.