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The Assassin of Shadow

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A cool breeze rustled my tangled mess of hair, and the sounds of the plains lulled me into a comfortable peace.  I crouched comfortably by a stream. River water lapped over my hands, loosening a layer of caked blood. The grime and dirt from days of hunting had taken its toll on my appearance, but at the moment I cared very little about that. Instead, I focused on the chorus of nature that hummed around me. I was in no hurry to dislodge myself from this spot.

Today of all days, I had the right to take my time. Being the third of Heartfire, I was celebrating my twenty-sixth year. Honestly, I found that I was often surprised by how many years I had managed to survive. In my line of work, there were very few who lasted for very long without being masters at our trade. I did not consider myself a master. In fact, I was far from it, but I still had plenty of life to live. Just as long as I did not take any unnecessary risks…which were my specialty.

Once my hands were finally devoid of all but the most stubborn dirt, I turned back to my kill. It was average compared to my usual haul. Four pheasants, two rabbits, and two small deer. I had cleaned and skinned the does on the spot. The animals were much too big for me to just toss over my shoulder and trek home.

I stood and stretched my legs. Having paused to rest for as long as I had, it was past time that I returned home. I had already sent a courier ahead to my mother—who managed my contracts—so that she could in turn contact the clients. My message was half coded just in case an Imperial or Stormcloak envoy were to intercept him. We had long set a system in place for circumstantials such as these. This system was now more important than ever since Helgen had been razed to the ground almost a month ago. Now the crumbled city was inhabited by bandits; very few remember that my mother and I lived beyond the town and into the mountain, and so all but the bravest couriers declined the job.

The route around the town was dangerous and it required both stamina and knowledge of the land. While I had both, the roads around Helgen had fallen to disuse after the town was left smoldering.

 

The trek to Whiterun was tiring, but I had long fallen into this routine. In fact, I had been stopping here for so long that, even with the entire country in high alert of dragon sightings, the guards greeted me like a long-time friend.

"Ho, Huntress!" The guard to the left of city gate greeted me, "It's dangerous with dragons about. Mind yourself."

I gave him my friendliest smile, "I've heard; though, I thank you for your concern, friend."

"Go on inside," He motioned to the gate. I gave him a polite nod, pushing past the large wooden doors.

Once inside, I allowed muscle memory to guide me until I reached the marketplace in the plains district. Anoriath, whom I had been trading with for years, always gave me a good deal on my venison. As an experienced hunter and butcher, my shots were clean and my meat was premium. Which meant I was supposed to charge more.

His face lit up as I approached. I had a soft spot for the Bosmer, so—despite my mother's constant protests—I never allowed him to pay more than twenty septims for a good cut of meat.

"Huntress!" He chimed, "In town to trade, or are you going to stay for a while?"

"I have to make my way home, so I won't be staying in the city long." I said.

"That's too bad," He sighed, "I was going to see if you'd finally allow me to buy you that drink I've been promising you."

My cheeks warmed. I allowed a charming smile to slip onto my face. "Not today, but thank you." I finished my dealings with him in short order. He was impressed—as he always waswith the amount of meat I had managed to bring after a single hunt. He bought both deer skins and the meat from one of the deer. What I might have charged others over a hundred, I only charged him half. He tried to protest, but I shut him down quickly, reminding him that he likely could not afford it, and that I was not badly in need of coin. He was still thanking me when I turned to leave.

I allowed myself a brief trip to Arcadia's Cauldron to replenish my mother’s depleted stores. That would keep her from complaining too much at how little gold I had charged Anoriath. While I wanted to stop by Warmaiden’s in order to buy more arrows, I was already hard pressed to make it back home before sundown.

On another day, I promised myself.

 

After finishing my business in Whiterun, I made haste down the south road. This path would take me through Riverwood, but that too was another stop along the road home. My business in the small trading town was brief as I only stopped briefly at Sleeping Giant Inn to wet my throat and delay my hunger. Once I finished, I was on my way once more.

The road from Riverwood to Helgen wound off into the mountain. I kept to the path, stepping off only when a group of Imperial soldiers passed by. They greeted me curtly with a, "carry on civilian” before passing me by. This was a frequent happening due to Helgen's proximity to Fort Neugrad, and it had long stopped making me nervous. I trekked onward.

It was late afternoon by the time I could see Helgen's barely intact gate. Once I was close enough to make out one of the fur-clothed bandits that lazed by the front gate, I ducked off the path. I had thought about clearing the bandits from the town's ruins before, but after voicing the idea to my mother, she had told me that she would rather let them stay. It deterred curious travelers. While I was inclined to agree with her, their presence was—though momentarily overlooked—an inconvenience to say the least. They had a bad habit of wondering too far up the mountain, and it was my job to remind them that the small cabin was not for open for them to loot.

Sometimes I worried that they would decide to ignore the bodies that piled up when they ignored our demands. Not that ma was exactly helpless, because she most certainly was not. I just feared that they would one day pluck up the courage to test their luck when I was not home. Of course, mother would just wave away any of my protests, irritably stating that she was not a "feeble old bat" and that my worries were baseless.

Once I had circumvented the town gates, I continued up the dirt path. Our small cabin was only a mile or so up the road, past the first sign post, and right before the heavy snow fall. After about fifteen minutes, the cottage came into view. Ma stood outside, hunched over the plants in her fenced garden. She sat erect, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. She noticed my approach before I had the chance to call out to her.

My mother, who went by the name Silstina Arcael, was a relatively tall woman, standing almost an entire head taller than me. Her ebony curls were pinned from her face, and her cobalt eyes narrowed upon my approach.

"It's about time." She said, her velvety purr stern, "I thought you would never make it back in time for supper."

"You know that I always stop by Whiterun and Riverwood on my way home." I reminded her.

"Yes, yes. I know." She said, "You have your little routine, but if you remember correctly, you wrote me that you would be home before supper."

"I am, aren't I?" I huffed. She always had this irritating way of making me feel like a misbehaving child.

"I don't want to hear any cheek. Get inside and clean up. You're a mess." My mother ordered tersely.

With a roll of my eyes and a dramatic bow, I followed her snippy command. "Yes, whatever you say mother." Ignoring the pointed glare, I jogged the rest of the way to our front porch and through the front door.

"Put the game on the table, and for Mara's sake, brush your hair. You look like a beggar." I acted as though I had not heard her jibe and continued on with what I was doing.

Our cabin was one floor with low-ceiling loft where our beds lie. Directly across the room from the door stood a stone fireplace with a pot simmering over top of it. No doubt, she had been waiting on meat for a stew. I placed the wrapped venison, rabbit carcasses, and pheasants on the rectangular, wooden table along the wall and to the left of the hearth. After making sure that the three jars worth of ingredients for my mother were visible, I climbed the ladder to the loft upstairs and began to unpack my knapsack.

 

I was in the middle of putting away what few articles of clothing I had not worn when I heard the door open.

"You had better be washing up." My mother chirped in a singsongy voice, "Oh, canis root and fly amantula! Good, I was almost out."

"That would be why I got them." I said. By her lack of response I knew the exact expression I had earned.

I went back to unpacking before she could rip my head off about not having cleaned up already. When I finished, I clambered down the ladder. My mother said nothing as she stirred the contents of the pot hanging over the fire, she merely pointed a wash basin across the room. Since I was already headed that way, I said nothing as I tread across the room. I dipped my hands in the warm water, splashing it on my face. Scrubbing until I no longer received unsatisfied glares from my picky mother, I scrubbed the stubborn grime off of my hands that still lingered from hunting.

"Once you're finished, see to it that Nala is fed and watered. Then chop the leeks and carrots." I followed her instructions with little more than a huff.

Nala was a large, dark brown and black bay. She was my mother's prize mare. Sweet-natured, sturdy, and eager, she was a very good steed. She shook out her ebony mane as I approached.

"Hello, beautiful." I smiled genuinely for the first time all day. I stroked her nose, and she let out a contented huff. I checked her water trough and grabbed a few apples from a nearby barrel to feed her. Once she had finished with those, I stroked her nose once more before I sauntered back into the house to chop vegetables.

When I entered, my mother was admiring the slab of venison on the table. She weighed it in her hands, turning it over. She seemed to deem it worthy of entering the stew because she started slicing the meat into steaks. She did not take notice of me until I reached around her for a bundle of carrots and leeks. I did not flinch from her scrutiny, but I did raise my brows, as if to ask, “Good enough?”

“Much better. A little make up would do wonders, but at least you no longer look homeless.” Only my mother could make a compliment sound so condescending.

“Thanks ma.” I muttered, turning my attention to helping supper along.

When we finally sat down to a table of food, the atmosphere was calm. Evening meals were usually hurried. I was in and out so often that I rarely had time to sit and eat. Tonight, we sat there in comfortable silence, enjoying each other’s company for once. Only when my mother finally spoke did the atmosphere change.

“We’ve received a notice of a new contract.”

Her words were nonchalant, as though they belonged in normal conversation. Though, between the two of us, this sort of talk was normal. This sort of news did not usually bother me, but that meant that—after several days of almost non-stop travel and contracts—I would not be able to sleep in a warm bed that night. The prospect did not sit well with me.

“Already?” I groaned. “I’ve only just returned from my last one.”

“Yes,” My mother agreed, “but our client is willing to pay half up front. It’s quite a lofty sum.”

“Does that really mean that I have to set out right away?” I sounded almost childish in my complaining.

“Why wouldn’t you?” She asked, as if I should want to do nothing else.

“It’s my birthday, I would like to sleep in my own bed for once. Is that a crime?” I retorted curtly.

Her arched brows rose, “Oh. That’s how it is?” Her lips pursed, “I was going to inform you that the amount of gold we would make off of this contract alone would be enough for you to retire for an entire year, but it seems as though you would rather continue with your trivial small jobs instead. I’m sure that the Dark Brotherhood would love a contract of such importance.”

I had to pick my jaw up off the ground as I took in her words, “What do you mean an entire year?”

“And here I thought you would rather stay home. Of course, you can, if it’s that important to you.” She stood, her chair making a horrible scraping sound, “Were today any other day, you would be in a hurry to leave me here alone. I guess can arrange other contracts so that you won’t have to be home for so long. A year is a long time to spend with your lonely mother, and I could see how it might seem like a burden.” She began to clear off the table.

The longer she went on, the more guilty I began to feel. My outburst had been very clearly misconstrued. She had taken my objections as though I did not want to be home. She had lost a great deal in the last month. She was already lonely and restless, but when the dragon leveled Helgen, she lost her beloved apothecary. Now, she must have thought that I wanted nothing more than to be away from home. I admit, the thought crossed my mind at times, but it had never been true.

“Ma-” Her ranting continued, “Ma-” still undeterred, “Ma, what’s the contract?”

“Now you want to know what it is?” Her voice was full of resentment.

“Look,” I sighed, “I didn’t mean it that way. I’m tired, and I wasn’t looking forward to moving out right away. It was not because I want to be away from home.” She paused, as if to consider my words, so I continued while I had the chance. “I miss home terribly when I’m away. I only wanted to spend the night at home, in a warm bed, and with you by my side. That’s all.” She turned back to me, her head held high.

“That is why I mentioned the gold in the first place. I know you care very little about finances, but I thought that the prospect of a year off might appeal to you.” She said haughtily.

Relief washed over me, “It does.” I said earnestly.

Her eyes flooded with an emotion that I could only place as triumph, “Good.”

“The contract?”

“Yes, that.” She produced a piece of parchment from within her apron. I took it from her extended hand to read it for myself. Our clients mostly correspond directly with my mother. It is through her that I receive the bulk of my contacts—the rest through friendly contacts in the Dark Brotherhood. I usually have little to no control over what contracts my mother approved. Some might consider her to be too controlling, but I never minded it, at least, in these circumstances. It turned out to be easier in the long run.

The contracts were usually letters explaining the details and pouches of coin. Sometimes the letters were detailed, but other times there was a single sentence. One this particular scrap of parchment, there was only a name: Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak.

Chapter Text

My mouth was suddenly so dry that I had to take a drink to wet it again. It was a harsh feeling when realization started to settle in, like my stomach had bottomed out. If I hadn’t been sitting, I surely would have collapsed. Ulfric Stormcloak. The single most high profile target that I had ever been assigned. I had done in noblemen, housecarls, and stewards. Never had I been assigned a Jarl. This was almost as significant as the recent assassination of the Emperor.

“You may spend the night at home, so that you can get a good night’s sleep. You will need it before you set out in the morning.” My mother said, disrupting my reverie.

“Ulfric Stormcloak.” I fought to keep my voice level.

“Yes, is that a problem.”

Her tone was nonchalant, but that did not stop me from straightening my back and replying with a prideful, “No, not at all.” I knew I would regret the words the instant they left my mouth.

“Good. Just remember, when you finish this contract, you will be free to purse whatever you wish for a year or maybe even more.” She crossed the room, placing a kiss on the top of my head, “Now. I will fetch the tub so that you may properly bathe.” She left me alone, and I stared at the slip of paper in my hand blankly.

My mother returned promptly with the bronze basin. By this time, I had steeled myself over. I could do this—I would do this, and nothing would stop me. She drew me a bath after boiling buckets of water. It was not until I had discarded my clothing that I realized just how dirty I had been. I must have placated my mother by accepting the contract, because she did not utter a single complaint. Instead, she walked across the room to pull out one of her last bars of homemade soaps. It smelled of juniper berries and roses. My personal favorite.

When she offered to help me wash, I allowed it instead of waving her away as I normally did. This gesture pleased her. In reality, I did not think I would be able to do much more than lie there.

Once I was clean, I sat by the hearth to dry. My mother brushed my hair while humming a soft tune that she used to sing me to sleep when I was a girl. This particular lullaby was effective, working in tandem with the rhythmic strokes of the brush. My rampant thoughts were quieted, and my eyelids grew heavy. Once she finished, I was off to bed.

I expected sleep to find me quickly, but that would be fortunate. Instead, I spent most of the night staring up at the ceiling. My fatigue had all but vanished by the time my mother had extinguished all of the lights. Trying to clear my mind, I closed my eyes. This only made the persistent rambling worse. What if I failed? How would I get close enough to him to even make an attempt on his life? After what felt like hours of asking myself tedious questions, I finally gave in to the fact that I would not sleep until I thought I had a foolproof strategy.

 

By the time the sun peaked over the horizon, I had only gotten a few hours of sleep. My eyes were gritty and my frustrations raw. With bleary eyes, I read over the letter I had written. Satisfied with its content, I folded it and sealed it with wax. This would go to a contact in Riften. Though the letter seemed full of trivial gossip, she would understand the deeper meaning of what I had written.

When my mother woke an hour or so later, I was packing my knapsack.

“I hadn’t expected you to be awake so early.” An ebony brow quirked as she regarded me.

  “Nor had I.” I paused to study the belonging in my hand. A battered amulet of Mara gleamed in the candlelight. It used to belong to my grandmother, then it passed to my mother, and now it was mine. It was the very Amulet—my mother had told me—she had used to attract the attention of her late husband, a man I had never gotten the chance to meet.

I wrapped it in an old handkerchief and gingerly placed it in a bag. Reaching across the table, I grabbed a stack of coins that I had been saving for large assignments such as this. They numbered three-hundred and seventy-four golden septims. Since I would be purchasing a more winter appropriate wardrobe, I only packed the bare essentials clothing wise. I had a few pairs of woolen leggings, but for an extended stay, I would need more than that. I scooped the coins into a purse and tied it tight. That too joined my amulet.

I began counting out the supplies I was taking for my journey. I had enough coin to hire a carriage to take me to Windhelm. The journey would be long and daunting, but it would be necessary as I was without a horse. The rest would be spent on supplies once I arrived in the city. I nodded, it would be worth it, and I could certainly hunt to earn anything I lacked.

Once I had finished packing the essentials, I moved on to the basic healing supplies. Five healing potions, dried herbs, a portable alchemy kit, and clean bandages. Then came personal effects. A hairbrush and makeup—to pacify my mother. By this point I had long scarfed down a breakfast of apples and cheese, so I would only need to pack food for the road.

I finished and admired my handiwork. Everything had its own pouch or section, and each item was meticulously placed for the best balance. My knapsack finished, I donned my traveling armor before throwing the bag over my shoulder. I checked over my prized ebony bow and made sure I had a full sheath of arrows. Now I was ready. I cast a glance around the room to see that my mother was absent. She must be in her garden. That was my cue to take my leave.

Once outside, I stayed on the porch to allow the cool breeze to blow against my face. I braided my curls into a plait that hung over my shoulder before stepping off the porch.

“One more thing before you go…“ Her voice nearly startled me. I turned to see my mother leading Nala around the cabin.

“Ma?” The horse was already saddled, and her saddle bags were packed with unknown items.

“Happy birthday, love.” She handed me the mare’s reigns.

I did not know what to say other than a shocked, “What.”

“Unless you’re home to ride her, she gets very little exercise. She’s been growing restless, and I can’t bare the thought of her going to waste.” She said wistfully, “Besides, love, she has always favored you most.” I stroked Nala’s nose, at a loss for words. This present was the last thing I had expected before setting out. How long had she been waiting to hand over ownership? My throat constricted with emotion.

I finally managed a, “Thanks ma.” Mother placed a kiss in my hair line, helped me into the saddle, and gave me a warm smile.

“Send a letter every once-in-a-while, would you.”

 

After brief good-byes, I spurred Nala into a trot down the mountains. She disliked the bandits as much as I did, and in a split second decision I notched an arrow. With very little effort on my part and a little illusion magic, I had managed to clean out the ruined city and collect most of my arrows from the bandits they felled. Instead of forcing Nala to walk the unsteady route off path, we trot through Helgen with our heads held high.

I felt a deepening affection for the bay as we passed the bodies strewn through the streets. She did not shy away or pay them any heed. Her head was held aloft in a manner not unlike my own. Nala and I would do well together, and now that she was mine, she was coming with me every chance I got. A companion would be nice during the lonely days of travel.

The sun was already high in the sky by the time our leisurely stroll had brought us to Riverwood. I was not in any particular hurry. Factoring in time to eat, sleep, and rest Nala, this trip would take three days at the most—two if I had no trouble from bandits or wildlife. This plan would take time to execute, and if I allowed myself to rush, I would chance muddling my already slim chances.

When we reached the Whiterun stables, I turned Nala over to the capable hands of the stable master.

“I will be right back, so I won’t unload her saddle bags.” I told him with my friendliest smile.

“Right you are, miss.” He looked over Nala with a twinkle in his eye, “She’s beautiful. She must have cost a small fortune.” I did not engage in his conversation, instead, I trekked up the path to the city’s tall gates.

“We hadn’t expected to see you again so soon,” One of the guards greeted.

“Light armor, excellent choice.” The second guard commented. I pushed past the gate after flashing him a smile. I let the gate close behind me as the two launched into a debate of heavy versus light armor. I shook my head. Men…

The sound of hammering caught my interest. As soon as you enter the city, Warmaiden’s was on the right. Adrianne Avenicci was standing at the forge, shaping a bit of iron into a blade.

“Afternoon,” I greeted.

“Ah, our best customer!” The imperial replied, “We just got a fresh shipment arrows inside.”

I gave her my thanks before entering the shop. Inside I was greeted by a bear of a Nord behind a counter. He wasted no time in placing bundles of arrows on the counter.

“Any of them strike your fancy?” His question was customary, but he already knew his answer. When I quirked a brow he said, “Ebony it is then!” I paid and left after a good natured chat.

I walked the steps to Dragonsreach, finding the courier there. I paid him and sent him ahead with my letter. I wasted no time in leaving after that. With three quivers worth of arrows, I had plenty to hunt at will. Retrieving Nala from the stables, I spurred her into a trot.

I stopped only when I thought Nala was growing tired. It was then that I allowed myself a small meal of bread and  an apple, feeding Nala out of a bag of oats found in one of the saddle bags. Once I thought she was sufficiently rested, we would continue our journey.

Being young, the bay had plenty of energy, and she was more than eager to press on. Her enthusiasm brought a smile to my face on more than one occasion. I was thankful that she was hardy as we traveled farther north. The temperature was steadily dropping, and when the sun dropped below the horizon, it was only bound to get worse.

Only when the sun had been several hours gone from the sky and the moon was high overhead did I stop to make camp. A breeze was nonexistent, so I had a small flame burning in no time. My small encampment was near a tiny pond. I shot two mudcrabs and made a meal out of their legs as Nala lapped merrily at the water. I took the time afterward to relieve the steed of her burdens and rifle through the saddle bags. Extra food, potions, Nala’s brush, and other trifle were neatly packed within.

Once I had finished, I unpacked a bedroll and readied myself for bed. I did not bother to remove my armor in case I needed to spring into action at a moments notice. Sleep came easily enough that night, allowing me to wake in the early hours of the morning. The fire had long burned down to coals, which I used to grill leeks for breakfast. Afterward, I erased most of the traces of my little camp, saddled Nala, and continued onward.

After another day of travel, Lake Yorgrim was visible in the distance by late afternoon. I kept Nala to the  main path allowing it to guide us around the north side. I spurred her into a gallop, and by the time Windhelm’s cold, gray walls came into sight, the sun was already beginning to dip below the horizon again.

 

When I reached the stables, an Altmer couple were arguing back and forth. This argument had apparently been going of for some time, because when I approached, I went unnoticed.

“If the guards would listen to Viola, they’s have caught the butcher by now.” The woman said tersely.

“Viola is a gossip loving attention seeker.” The man replied pleasantly.

“Aren’t you worried that I could be next!?” She barked at the man.

The man let out a sigh, “I always worry dear, but we need these horses sold if we’re to make room for that new shipment. Honestly, I don’t know why you worry yourself with such matters.” The woman opened her mouth to retort, but the man had taken notice of me and cut across her, “Good evening traveler!” He called merrily, “That is one beautiful bay, if I do say so myself.”

“That she is,” I agreed, “I am expecting an extended stay, so I trust that you’ll take good care of her.” By this time I had already dismounted and started relieving her of the saddle bags.

“No complaints here!” The man chimed. The woman, whom I assumed to be his wife, snorted before going on with her business.

Once I was assured that Nala was in good hands I trekked across the snowy bridge to the front gates. The high walls of the Palace of Kings towered over everything, and they were clearly visible even over the walls surrounding the city. As beautiful as the architecture was, the city was devoid of color. The inky, black sky was more vividly hued. The washed out, icy stones gave the atmosphere a bleak depression. How anyone lived here permanently, I would never know.

Upon entering the city, it became very clear that there was no more color within the walls than outside. Any semblance of a smile that had lifted my lips was gone. I would have to hope that my stay would not be prolonged any farther than necessary.

In the center of the stone square, on a raised foundation, stood the inn. I climbed the uneven steps to the Candlehearth Hall. Warmth greeted me as I opened the door to the left. Inside the cramped space, a lone figure sat at the bar. A Nord woman with an aged, but otherwise kind face greeted me from behind the bar.

“I’d like to rent a room for the night-“

“Oh no you don’t.” The figure at the bar sat up and faced me. The woman had arched features that suggested Elven parentage, but pale skin and blue eyes that suggested Nord. Her arms folded across her chest, and her thin lips were pursed.

“Really now Sona.” The Nord admonished.

“Sorry Elda, but this is the one that I’ve been waiting for.” There was not a hint of sincerity in her words, but only a seasoned liar would know this, something that Elda clearly was not.

“Very well then.” She waved us away.

Sona beckoned for me to follow her back out of the door. Once outside she wrapped her long arms around me, holding me against her breast completely unabashed.

“Yes, yes, hello Sona.” I sighed.

“I thought you would be here sooner.” She held me at arms length, her eyes narrowing with accusation.

“I took my time.” I countered.

“Yes, well…” She frowned at me, “I figured Silstina would hound you to get a move on.”

“I got off easy since yesterday was my birthday..” I shrugged.

“Oh no! I almost forgot! We have to celebrate!” Her face lit up entirely, all irritation at my late arrival forgotten. “Let’s go to the Ragged Flagon and-“ A quirked brow halted her train of thought, “Right…contract…my bad…Well, pa will be happy to see you.” She wrapped an arm around my shoulder—which she had to hunch to do seeing as I barely cleared her own. “Can you believe that he still thinks he’s forgotten your name?”

My laugh was genuine, “I’m not altogether surprised. I’ve forgotten to mention it for a reason.”

“You’ll probably have to give him a name this time.” Sona sighed, “Since you didn’t mention one in your letter, what’s the verdict?”

“Abelle Jolvan, daughter of Breton farmers from High Rock.”

Her lips pursed as she regarded me, “Doesn’t fit you…”

“It doesn’t matter.” I said, “It’s all in the details.”