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Introduction

He watched the lithe figure of the Breton jump from the tower to the burning town below. He knew nothing about her but her name, Meliandra. She was already on the wagon when his men and himself were loaded onto the wagons. She was young, about fifteen years his junior; a child still, except her eyes said differently. He would have been intrigued then if he hadn’t believed that he was on his way to his own death. Now as he watched her jump out the side of the wall he found himself wishing he’d see her again.

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I do not own any rights to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.  That joy goes to the creators at Betheseda.

Embers of Betrayal

His orgasm racked through him so powerfully that he began to feel his body shake.  His seed exploded from him and filled his wife’s womb; the old hope of impregnating her rekindled once more.  His climax raging through his body, he howled his release, the sound echoing loudly in their chambers.

Astrid cried out in ecstasy; the reasons she had shunned his affections for all those years she suddenly could no longer understand, for they became petty and inconsequential to her.  All that mattered to her was her husband, then the Family.  She knew that after today, everything would be right again.  She would be rid of that flirtatious femme fatale once and for all, and her life, all of their lives, would be for the better.

An explosion ripped through the outer room, the shock wave knocking the two of them over as the door, bolted shut, shattered into pieces around them.  Coughing through the dust enveloping them, they scrambled over rubble as they rushed into the open.  The sight before them horrified them, the uniformed officers of the Pentilus Oculatus putting flame to barrels of flammable oil.

“By Sithis, no!” Astrid whispered in shock, her face paling as she turned to run.  “Arnbjorn, we’ve got to get out of here!”

But it was too late.  The man had become beast, the werewolf charging the attackers, taking one by surprise and rending his body in two with little effort before lunging at another, sinking his teeth deep into his flesh and ripping half of the man’s neck out.

Astrid turned and ran.

The Doppelganger

Meliandra burst through the doors, blood covering the chef uniform she wore.  Her breath was heavy with exertion and upon her face she wore a maniacal smile with a satisfied look in her eyes.  She stood there for a moment, catching her breath.  While this job had gone relatively easily, she could not shake the feeling it had all been too easy.  Taking a break, she began to sprint across the bridge, just moments from freedom.  Then she heard the slow slapping and Commander Maro’s figure emerged on the tower balcony.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she found herself confronted by a trio of Penitus Oculus officers; she stopped suddenly, her eyes darting around for an escape route.

“That man was, by far, the most insufferable decoy the Emperor has ever employed,” came the Commander’s voice, a sneer evident upon his lips.

The men watched the aged man collecting herbs by the pond as they quietly crept toward him, bows in hand, arrows nocked.  The assassin hummed to himself with an occasional mumble.  The commanding officer motioned for one of his archers to take aim; the guild member stopped suddenly, straightened, and began to turn around –

Festus heard a faint snap behind him.  Dropping the nightshade from his hand into the basket on the ground below him, he stood from his crouched position and began to turn around.  His spell was barely upon his lips when the first arrow landed in his shoulder.  Almost immediately, another arrow embedded itself in his chest, just missing his heart.  He raised his hand, uttered part of a curse before multiple arrows landed in his chest, driving him back.

The commanding officer advanced on the fallen man, cautiously watching for any sign of fight left in him.  He heard the gurgling from the man before he saw him and the sight brought a smile to his face, for blood was spilling from his mouth as well as his clothing showing the saturation of blood that bubbled forth from the many arrow wounds.  The man tried saying something, but the sounds he made were made without form.  He reached down and grabbed the assassin below the mandibles and lifted him to his eye level.

Festus looked at the attacker in the eye as he coughed blood upon him.  He tried to curse him but found that he struggled for the strength to form words, his breath being strangled from him as blood filled his lungs from the various entry wounds the arrows had created.  He felt the man’s grip on his throat tighten as he sneered at him.  Festus spit blood in his face, an obvious laugh erupting from him.

The officer reached behind him and took a hold of the spear on his back, and taking a breath, he thrust the blade into the wizard.  Blood poured out of the assassin, covering the officer’s hand as he twisted the blade around and gave one last thrust, bursting through the man’s back, pinning the dying man to the tree behind him.  The man spit upon the body, spun on his heel and signaled his men as he made his way to the Black Door.

“What,” came the disembodied voice, asking, “is the music of life?”

The officer cleared his throat before answering, “Silence, my brother.”

“Welcome home.”

#

Meliandra followed Gianna through the stone passageways, noting alternate possible escape routes in case her planned route was compromised.  She heard the castle chef’s nervous prattle that seemed to be equal to the nervous thoughts that ransacked her mind.  As they rounded a corner, she realized the completion of this job was just moments away.  Her heart was pounding, and she found herself idly wondering if anyone could hear it for seemed to be screaming in her ears.

Gianna stopped at the last set of doors down the hall, a nervous smile playing upon her lips.  She glanced at her companion, hesitating before the door.  A man’s voice could be heard saying, “You mean the wedding?  My cousin’s apparent murder?”  There was a pause.  “An unfortunate misunderstanding, no more.  Cold mead, hot tempers…these things happen.”

“Quite,” came another voice.  “Yet that recent business with the young commander.  Maro, was it?  How dreadful.  The son of your commander, plotting your assassination.

Gianna anxiously started speaking.  “Here we are.  Gods, I’m nervous.”  She took a deep breath.  “We’ll go in in just a moment.  Please, I’ll serve.  You just stand there and… be amazing.”

The door opened revealing a glamorously decorated banquet room with a group of about twenty guests and soldiers, an older man dressed in regal clothing sat at the head of the table, Penitus Oculatus officers on either side of him.  “Yes, an unfortunate turn of events, that.  But an isolated incident.  And I have been assured that the fault was with the man’s son alone.”  The aged man took a drink of his mead.  “Truth is, we are in no danger whatsoever.  Killing an Emperor can be useful, but befriending one?”  He laughed.  “Now that’s beneficial – as I’m sure you’d all agree.”  The Emperor noticed the two women who had entered, and a smile spread upon his face.  “Aha!  Here we are!  Honored guests, I present to you – The Gourmet.”

Meliandra gave a smiled and curtsied ever so slightly, keeping an eye on Gianna and the kettle in her hands.  “Your Grace,” she stated in response.

Gianna began to fill the Emperor’s bowl with the simmering concoction before him.  “Ah! The Potage le Magnifique.  So delicious.”  He inhaled deeply.  “My friends, as Emperor, I of course reserve the right of first taste.”  He brought his spoon to his lips…

#

Maro paced by the tower along the top of Castle Dour, always watching the doors on the other side of the bridge, waiting.  “Soon, Gaius, soon,” he said coldly to the emptiness.  Soon he would see that woman running through those doors, thinking that her escape was just moments away.  Soon, her blood would be adorning the weapons of his men.  Soon, he would be able to write home to his wife and tell her that their son’s murder had been avenged.

How he wished he could be in two places at once, for he wanted to see the smug look upon the woman’s face believing that her plan was successful.  He wondered how she would do it, this murder-for-hire?  Poison was a woman’s weapon of choice, so the saying went, and he doubted she wanted to delay her escape by engaging in some kind of physical fight.  Poison it was he concluded, shaking his head ever so slightly.

His thoughts returned to his son, his body stuffed with salt for the voyage home, the wound the assassin caused hidden amongst the embalmer’s incisions.  The death she had given him was so much more than what he surmised she had planned for the man behind the walls beyond the bridge.  An ironic injustice, the commander believed, but the death he had planned for her and her associates made up for it.

#

Arnbjorn had Astrid on her hands and knees, his hands gripping her waist roughly as he thrust against her hard repeatedly.  He had forgotten how his wife felt, had forgotten the passion that had laid dormant for far too long between the two of them.  He loved her, he always had, and he knew he always would.  No one else had ever accepted him wholly for who he was, werewolf or not, except for Meliandra.  He knew what he had shared with the young assassin was pure lust, an animalistic desire that she was more than willing to satisfy, but neither him nor her wanted anything but sex.  He had sworn before the gods that he would love this woman he called wife for all of his days.

Astrid’s grunts and moans grew louder as her husband drove her closer to orgasm.  He pulled hard on her hair and called her a slut as he slammed into her again.  She felt his grip on her hips once more and his thrusts felt deeper than they had before.  Through gritted teeth, she demanded he fuck her harder, faster.  She was close, she felt herself start to quiver as the beginnings of her climax coursed through her.  She cried out when his thrust triggered the flood that erupted from within her; he paid no attention as he raced to catch his own, howling loud as his seed spilt inside her, drowning them both in the sounds of their lovemaking.

#

Meliandra watched as the man put the spoon in his mouth, tasting his last meal.  He closed his eyes, a smile coming to his mouth as he swallowed the poisoned dish.  “Oh…” he muttered blissfully.  “oh, how marvelous.  It is everything I had hoped it would be.  It…” he cleared his throat.  “I…” He coughed.  “I think something’s” He cleared his throat again. “…wrong…I –“ He clawed at his throat as everyone watched in horror.  His eyes bulged before he fell forward.

A guard rushed forward as a noblewoman screamed.  He lifted the Emperor’s head and saw the blank stare, felt for a pulse and felt none.  “By the gods!” the guard cried out.  “The Gourmet and the chef have poisoned the Emperor!  Get them!”

“What?!” cried out Gianna as she dropped the kettle.  “No!  No, you don’t understand!”  She began backing away from the approaching guard, his sword drawn.  “There’s been some kind of mistake! I…” She screamed as the guard thrust his sword up through her stomach.

Meliandra, in the meantime, had spun on her heel, heading for the door out of the tower, trying to take advantage of the commotion caused by the deceased castle chef.  Instead she found a lone guard between her and the door.  Casting a spell that made her skin impervious to attacks for a short while, and following that with the conjuring of twin blades, the assassin prepared herself for a fight.

#

Maro’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of shouts from within the tower.  He signaled his men; it was time.  He watched from an arrow slit, waiting with bated anticipation, his heart pounding heavily in his ears.  Time stretched on indefinitely, the seconds seemingly dragging into minutes.  Soon, Gaius, he thought, soon.

#

Meliandra burst through the doors, blood covering the chef uniform she wore.  Her breath was heavy with exertion and upon her face she wore a maniacal smile with a satisfied look in her eyes.  She stood there for a moment, catching her breath.  While this job had gone relatively easily, she could not shake the feeling it had all been too easy.  Taking a break, she began to sprint across the bridge, just moments from freedom.  Then she heard the slow clapping and Commander Maro’s figure emerged on the tower balcony.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she found herself confronted by a trio of Penitus Oculus officers; she stopped suddenly, her eyes darting around for an escape route.

“That man was, by far, the most insufferable decoy the Emperor has ever employed,” came the Commander’s voice, a sneer evident upon his lips.

At his words, Meliandra’s sneer matched his.  ‘Too easy,’ she thought bitterly, cursing herself for not taking heed of the signs.

“I’m glad he’s dead,” Maro continued.  “Ah, but I am even happier that you’re the one who killed him.”

“Why’s that?” she asked hm, her hands opening and closing into fists.

He laughed in response.  “You, an assassin for the Dark Brotherhood, have just made an attempt on the Emperor’s life.”  He snorted.  “Would have succeeded, had it been the real man.”

Meliandra’s eyebrow arched.

“Surprised?”  His voice was taunting; Meliandra grew more irritated.  “So was I, when a member of your ‘Family’ came to me with the plan.”  He paced a few feet, then turned back around, continuing, “We worked out a deal, you see.  An exchange.”  He looked back at her.  “I get you, and the Dark Brotherhood gets to continue its existence.”

Meliandra suddenly felt a dead weight in the pit of her stomach.

“But you know what?” He smiled broadly.  “I’ve changed my mind.  How about this?”  He laughed again.  “I kill you, and butcher each and every one of your miserable little friends?”

“Try it.  You’ll never succeed.”  Her heart pounded in her ears.

Again, he laughed, a hollow, bitter sound.  “Your Sanctuary’s being put to the sword right now.  That’s what I think of this ‘deal’.”  He pointed at her suddenly, his voice, tainted with venom, rising.  “You killed my son!  All of you!  And now, now all of you will pay the price!”  His eyes narrowed at her.  “Kill her.”  He turned on his heel as he continued, “And make sure there’s nothing left to bury.”

A Dish Fit for The Gods

Looking at her traveling companion, she gave a smile and said, “Don’t worry, I will be coming out of here, no matter what, make no mistake about that.  You just be ready with the horse to run as if a horde of dremora were on our heels.”

And with that, Meliandra headed up the steep path to the main gates of the great city of Solitude, carrying her chef’s hat in her hand, whistling cheerfully.

Meliandra took a deep breath, the saltiness of the sea below filling her nostrils.  The sound of the waves crashing upon the rocks below near the docks was hypnotic as she removed her armor and began to dress into the chef’s uniform she had acquired; Stenvar kept an eye on the road, watching for any passing city guards.

“You sure you can make them think you’re a chef?” he asked jokingly of her.

“I’ll have you know,” she smarted back, “I’m a great cook.  I just prefer to not be carrying cooking stuffs all over the place with us.  A skillet, a pot, some utensils, a few bowls, and some plates, that’s all we need.”

“Then why am I the one that does all the cooking?” he retorted.

She eyed him with a humorous glint in her eye.  “Because I pay you to.”

He laughed as he put a hand to his heart.  “You wound me, Meliandra.”  He watched her for a moment longer then continued on.  “You sure you want me out here and not in there with you?”

Nodding, she answered as she pulled her hair back, pinning it in place, leaving but just a wisp of hair flittering about her face.  “There’s going to be mass confusion in there.  I’m most likely going to have guards hot on my trail.  When I come through these doors”, she indicated the doors behind them, doors that led to both the city and the tower, “I want to get on my horse and put as much ground between me and Solitude as quickly as possible.  No hemming and hawing about, understood?”

He sighed.  “Yeah, I understand.”

She watched him for a moment, noticing his body language and how he averted his gaze from hers.  “But?” she finally prodded when he remained silent.

He looked at her, meeting her in the eye.  “But I gotta bad feeling about this.”

She shook her head.  “You’ve always got a bad feeling about something,” she muttered.

He let out an exasperated breath as he shook his head.  “I haven’t had a single good feeling about any of this…this…whatever the Dark Brotherhood has you doing as of late.”  He paused, thinking about his choice of words carefully.  “I don’t know, it’s like when you’re a kid and your mom told you not to go playing around those old ruins, but you did anyhow.  You get this huge knotted ball of dread in the pit of your stomach and you know it’s a big mistake to even be there, but you’ve got to keep going cause you’re too far in and now you’ve got to find your way out.”

She looked at him silence but nodded.  She sat upon a boulder and began to lace up the soft leather boots she had bought for this mission.  She had become so accustomed to the blackened leather boots she normally wore with her clothing; the tan of this leather looked strange to her against the pale white of her toned calves.  Looking at her traveling companion, she gave a smile and said, “Don’t worry, I will be coming out of here, no matter what, make no mistake about that.  You just be ready with the horse to run as if a horde of dremora were on our heels.”

And with that, Meliandra headed up the steep path to the main gates of the great city of Solitude, carrying her chef’s hat in her hand, whistling cheerfully.

#

The afternoon sun was unusually warm this day as Commander Maro stood outside the door to Castle Dour.  At least it seemed that way to him.  He watched anxiously, waiting for the assassin disguised as a chef.  He knew it would take every bit of restraint he had to not kill the woman who had slayed his son where she stood when she came before him.  He had to let this grand production continue or else they had nothing, and all their work would be for naught.  And he wanted to make sure this bitch didn’t slip through his fingers.

During the late hours of the previous night, he had dispatched a group of men south to the location of the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary.  Unbeknownst to the leader of the group, he had had her followed after their clandestine meeting to discover their hideout.  Not only had his spy returned with the location, but the password to gain entrance to it.  Having sat on this information, he had decided in his inebriated state the night before that he was going to annihilate the group of assassins.  While one had killed his son, they all bore the weight of his murder and for that, they all needed to be killed.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed the shapely Breton woman approaching him, clad in a chef’s uniform, swinging her hat in her hand, and a smile upon her reddened lips.  His eyes looked her up one way and back down the other and as much as he hated to admit it, he would have fucked her all night long and into the morning had he not known who she was.  In the back of his memory, he recalled the reports scattered throughout Skyrim of a wench killing soldiers in their beds and wondered idly if the woman before him was one and the same.

Steeling himself and assuming the role this assassin expected him to play, he gruffly barked at her, “Stop right there, citizen.  The tower is off limits until further notice.”

The woman smiled at him sweetly, handing him an official looking parchment.  “I believe you’re expecting me.”

“What’s this?” he asked as he took the offered paper, feigning ignorance.  He began to skim through the words before him, speaking somewhat aloud, “…order of his eminence…possessor of these papers…the ‘Gourmet’…”  He looked at the woman, her identity as the assassin now confirmed.  He acted surprised, biting back the desire to cut her neck open and leave her to bleed right here on the stones.  “By Azura!” he cried.  “The Gourmet! I’m…I’m sorry!  I didn’t realize!  We…we had no idea who to expect, you understand.”  He reached into a pocket and pulled out a key as he walked toward the door.  “But please, don’t let me keep you.”  He unlocked the door and held it open for her.  “Please, proceed to the kitchens straight away.  Gianna, the castle chef, has been eagerly awaiting your arrival.”

He watched as the short woman walked past him and through the doors, a polite thank you coming from those full lips of hers.  He couldn’t help but smile and respond, “The pleasure is all mine.”

#

The soft of the leather of her boots were made of felt foreign to Meliandra as she walked down the long passageway to the castle’s kitchens, aromas of various foods cooking, meats roasting and breads baking.  While there was a lot of activity occurring in the back kitchens, a lone chef worked feverously over a large kettle, a frazzled look upon her tanned face. ‘Gianna,’ Meliandra thought to herself.  Stepping into her assumed role, she made her way toward the castle chef, placing a friendly smile upon her face.

The Imperial looked at her, eyes narrowed to slits.  “Not another delivery,” she snapped.  “I told you people, our stocks are fine.”  She motioned to a corner.  “Now put whatever you have over there, then get out!”

Meliandra gave a laugh, hoping it didn’t come across as too shallow and too fake.  “You misunderstand,” she said.  She fluttered her hand about, saying with a flourish, “For I am… the Gourmet!”

Gianna’s face grew excited.  “Oh!  Finally!”  She wiped her hands on a nearby towel and shook the assassin’s hand.  “When I heard the Gourmet was being brought to cook for the Emperor, I could hardly believe it!”

Meliandra listened as the Imperial gushed excitedly.  She could not deny the smile that found its way on her face.  The woman idolized The Gourmet to a fault.  In any other case, the Breton would have thought this to be endearing, rather she found it disconcerting knowing what the day’s end would bring.  “Silence!” she finally said, a hint of exasperation in her voice.  “I am ready to prepare the grand feast!”

“Oh,” the woman stammered.  “Yes, but of course.”  She cleared her throat.  “The Emperor has requested your signature dish – the Potage le Magnifique”. She indicated the large kettle she had been working over just moments before.  “I’ve taken the liberty of getting it started.  But the cookbook only says so much, and everyone makes the Potage differently.  I would be honored if we could make it… the Gourmet’s special way.”  She continued speaking as she made her way back to her kettle.  “The base broth is already boiled.  We can get started right now.  So…which ingredient should I add next?”

“Carrots, of course.”

Gianna nodded as she reached in a bin and brought out a handful of carrots.  The two women set about to scrubbing the dirt off the root vegetables and then set themselves to dicing them.  Making small conversation, they busied themselves making this requested dish.  “What’s next?”  she asked as she added the carrots.

“Now,” Meliandra said with some gusto, “we need to add a splash of mead.”

Gianna nodded.  “Ah, of course.  I suspected as much.”  She took a bottle of mead, uncorked it and splashed some of the liquid into the kettle.  “Alright.  What next then?”

“One nirnroot,” the Breton answered.

“Really?”  The woman sounded excited.  “I use nirnroot as a special seasoning all the time as well.  What a wonderful idea!”  She found some nirnroot on a shelf and cut it up fine, then added t to the kettle.  Inhaling the aroma deeply, she sighed heavily.  “Smells so good.”  Turning back, she asked, “What’s next?”

“Diced horker meat.”

Gianna got a dreamy look in her eyes.  “Hmmm…horker.  So delicious.  I swear, is there a soul alive who doesn’t enjoy the taste of…” Her cheeks reddened.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to get carried away.”  Once again, she busied herself with doing the meat and adding it to the meal.  “I have to say, the stew seems done.  Add anything else, and we may dilute the distinct flavors.  So…is that it?”

“No, now we add the last ingredient,” Meliandra answered, pulling the small bottle that Astrid had given her out from her satchel.

“Oh?  What is this, some kind of herb?  Are you sure?  The Potage tastes perfect as it is.  Any other ingredient might…”

Meliandra raised her eyebrow.  “Now, now, Gianna.  Did you not say that you’d be honored to make this the Gourmet’s special way?  Who’s the Gourmet here?”

Gianna looked embarrassed suddenly.  “Heh, I’m sorry.  Of course.  It’s your most famous recipe, after all.”  She took the bottle and added its contents into the simmering stew.  “All right then, your secret ingredient’s been added.  And if I may say so…it has been an honor, getting a chance to prepare a meal with, well…the best chef in the entire Empire.”  She picked up the kettle with both hands and looked at Meliandra.  “Ill carry the stew pot and lead the way up to the dining room.  I’m sure the Emperor and his guests are dying to meet you.”

#

He pushed her hard against the wall, his lust heavy upon his lips as he crushed them upon hers.  A muffled whimper came from the older woman, exhilarated and frightened at the same time.  His rough hands rubbed her breasts savagely as his tongue laid claim to her mouth, entwining around hers.  She tasted of the juniper wine she had been consuming; the taste of her intoxicated him more than any alcohol ever could.  It didn’t take long for her whimpers to turn into moans, soft as her hands slid up his chest.  She pushed against him; he wrapped his arms around her, his hands gripping her buttocks tightly.

Breaking the kiss only for breath, Arnbjorn growled as Astrid tilted her head back, baring her neck, the creamy white of her flesh flawless, perfect.  Bending his head slightly, he breathed in the smell of her deeply, letting his nostrils fill with her scent.  His lips touched her neck gently as he kissed her, trailing them down her neck to her throat.  Her fingers curled in his long, thick, white hair, ecstasy escaping her lips.  He continued to trail kisses along her neck to her chin, bringing his lips to hers once more, this time finding them more inviting with a heat equal to his own.

She felt his hands move from their position on her rear as he took a step back, continuing to build each one’s passion as they kissed.  She was aware that he was loosening the pants he wore and knew with an excited start that they were beyond the point of no return.

Breaking the kiss, he looked upon his wife, his eyes piercing hers before he loosened the knot releasing the flowing silken material that held the shift she wore in place, letting it drop at her feet.  Those eyes, ravenous now, devoured the naked woman before him before he carried her to their bed and thrust her on it before him, laying his claim to her once more.

The Stage Is Set

She glanced at him sidelong before looking at the rock she found beneath her fingers.  Rubbing the dirt off with her thumb, she answered, “You would know.”  With a flick of her wrist, the stone flew from her fingers, skipping across the top of the water, ripples born from where the stone kissed the crystal blue water before sinking to the bottom.  She looked back at him, her lips teasing a smile.  “Is that all you wanted, Arn?”

“This is the grand finale isn’t it?”  She nodded.  “When do you leave?”

“Shortly.”  Her voice sounded distant as she avoided his eyes.  “I need to take care of a couple things before I head out.”

He looked at her sternly.  “What’s going on, Tidbit?”

The night was darker than normal, as Stenvar and Meliandra made their way back to the Sanctuary from Nightgate Inn in The Pale.  Stenvar swore it was an omen; Meliandra laughed it off.  She wanted to hurry up and get back to Falkreath; she had decided that she was going to speak with Babette about taking her leave from the Brotherhood, at least for a time.  She felt as if she needed to focus her attention to other things, like her conflicted feelings for the Windhelm jarl while still being in love with the Thieves Guild second-in-command.  And then there was the matter of her being the Dragonborn.  As much as she had shied away from this fact, the increasing dragon attacks weighed heavy upon her mind.  She only feared that once Ulfric or Tullius discovered her secret that she would become a weapon to be used against the other in this war.  She shook her head as she thought about the predicament, she had found herself in.

“What you thinking about over there, Meliandra?”  Stenvar asked, having noticed the shake of her head in the glow of the torch she carried as they rode along the road.

“Things,” she answered.

“Things,” he repeated.  “What kind of things?”

She arched her eyebrow.  “Just…things.  The future.  The present.  And the past.”

“Well, that narrows things down quite a bit,” he responded sarcastically.

“But yet that is what is on my mind.  You asked.”

He chuckled then asked, “Why are you so secretive?”

“Why do you ask so many questions?”

He laughed.  “Passing the time, that’s all.”

She smiled into the darkness.  “Fair enough.”  She sighed before continuing.  “I’ve been giving thought to leaving the Brotherhood.”

“Seriously?”  His voice was filled with surprise.  “Why?  It’s an endless supply of gold.”

“Too many politics,” she said evenly as she thought of Cicero and what everyone said about his attack upon the Sanctuary.  “I know what happens when the backbiting and backstabbing starts, I saw that with the Guild.”

“The Guild you’re the leader of?”

She stopped her horse and looked at him.  “I never told you that I was.”

“No, but I found out when I was mistaken for being a member of the Guild by that Argonian innkeeper in Riften.”

“Keevara,” she grumbled.  “Damn lizard keeps running her mouth when she needs to keep quiet.”

Stenvar shrugged.  “It is what it is.  No big deal.”

She silently conceded, then nudged her horse back into walking.  “The Guild that I was given to oversee after two and a half decades of leadership by the man who brought a plague to the group.  I didn’t want leadership; it just fell in my lap.”

“So, why did you end up with the Brotherhood?”

“Needed to get away from everything that had happened.  I had already been contacted by the Brotherhood and had been offered a place among the Family.”  She shrugged.  “Just seemed like the right choice at the time.”

He nodded.  “What will you do if you leave the Brotherhood?”

“You mean where will I go?” At his nod, she answered, “Finish my obligations with Ulfric, from there, I’m not sure.”

“You’re the Dragonborn.”

“And?”

He hesitated for a moment.  “It’s just with all the attacks….”

“And what happens when Tullius or Ulfric realize that I’m the Dragonborn?” she snapped angrily.  “All I want is to live my life away from the Empire, the Aldmeri Dominion, this damn war.  I just want my fucking life.”

After a moment of silence, Stenvar stated matter-of-factly, “Pretty sure that’s all those people wanted to do too.”

#

Maro glared out the glassless window across the courtyard, listening to his subordinate report on the preparations for the Emperor’s visit in a week’s time.  It didn’t matter what these men in the room reported to him; he knew his orders and they differed from the ones he gave to them.  The words echoed dully in his ears as he feigned interest, his eyes watching the sparring soldiers below.

Bearing through the reports, he sighed deeply when the men exited the room.  Turning to the small table to his side, he opened a bottle of the Stros M’Kai rum he had procured and poured some into a tankard. As the liquid slid down his throat, his thoughts turned dark again.  His emotions barely stayed in check since he sent the body of his son on a ship home to his grieving wife, for he knew that his role here was not finished yet, that the final curtain had yet to fall.

The sound of steel boots announced the approach of the three officers he had brought in on his new secret orders, his two best swordsmen and his best archer.  He had known them for decades, had come from the same town, trained together and had served together.  They had watched one another grow older, marry, and bear sons and daughters.  And now they gathered to avenge the death of one of their own.  Each man poured himself a tankard of the rum before they stood before the large wooden table, each man wearing a somber look upon their faces.  One of the men raised his tankard and said in a grave voice, “For Gaius.”

“For Gaius,” the others chimed in, each raising their tankard high before taking large swallows of the libation.

After a few minutes of silence, one of the men braved to ask, “Are you sure this is happening?  It’s not some trick by these assassins?”

The commander nodded.  “Their leader assured me the one responsible for Gaius’s murder would be the one making the attempt upon the Emperor’s life.”

“And we’re just going to let this murderer walk right in here and do whatever they please?” another asked, an incredulous tone to his voice.

Maro nodded.  “Yes.  We-“ he indicated the three of them and himself “-will be waiting outside of the Tower that the Emperor will be dining with his guests of honor to apprehend this bitch.”

“And you’re sure that she’s going to be leaving through that door?”

He nodded.  “Yes.  She will be aware that all other exits will be not only locked but manned with armed guards.  Only this exit will be her safest way out of here.”

The men nodded; they all heard the restrained anger in the commander’s voice.  For the rest of the evening, they discussed the plans for that day, then as the oils burned deeper, they began to depart for their beds, for morning came soon.

#

“Ah, the prodigal murderer returns,” came the voice of the mage assassin.  “And the Gourmet?”

“Dead,” came the flat response from Meliandra.

“So I gathered.”  He added a pinch of frost salts to the potion he was brewing.”  It seems a certain Orc has disappeared.  Which means you not only killed the Gourmet but disposed of the body as well.”  He glanced to his side to see the Breton assassin an arm’s length from him, an official looking parchment in her hand.  “You’ve got the Writ of Passage too, I see.  Splendid, splendid… Ah, and word has come in from Markarth that the Keep’s cook has met an untimely demise.  You performed your duties to the letter.”

“Did you expect anything less?”  She smirked at him, her eyes glinting in the flame of the nearby sconce.

“Hmph.  I was wrong about you.  I see that now.  Maybe we all were.  Here’s your payment.  And… a little something else, as well.  From me.  Consider it my way of apologizing.  For being so damned curmudgeonly!  He handed her a ring, resplendent with an amethyst set in the center, intricate designs engraved upon its band, the strong pulse of its enchantment visible.  “It’s called the Nightweaver’s Band.  I wore this for years.  I want you to have it now.  It’ll give your magic and sneakiness some much needed ‘oomph’.”  He cleared his throat, a smile on his lips as his eyes gazed on her.  “Now, you’d better get a move on and see Astrid.  It’s time!  Time for the final stage of this grand and glorious operation.”

#

Meliandra found Astrid sitting in her room, eating privately while reading a book.  The woman looked at her and smiled; a shiver ran down her back.  “So,” she said icily, “it’s done.  You’ve killed The Gourmet.  And now Titus Mede II is as good as good.”  The room echoed with her laughter.

“Then I take it the Brotherhood is ready to act?”

“Oh yes, it is time.”  She smiled broader.  “And I’ve decided you will have the honor.”

“Me?”

“Of course.”  Setting her book aside, she stood up and walked toward her husband’s lover.  “Go now to Castle Dour in Solitude.  Present the Gourmet’s Writ of Passage to the officer in charge, Commander Maro.  I’m sure you remember him.”  She smiled again.  “You’ll gain unrestricted access to the kitchens, and then the Emperor.  You’re posing as a chef, so you’ll be able to poison his meal rather easily.” She opened a safe box and handed a bottle from within to her.  “Here, take this.  It’s called jarrin root.  All it takes is one taste, and the effects are quite…immediate.  The Emperor will be serving Sithis before he even knows he’s dead.  Once Mede has been killed, escape through the upper door, and across the bridge.  I’ve…’arranged’ for it to be unguarded once the alarm is sounded.”  She smiled again.  “Now go, sister.  Go fulfill your destiny.”

#

Arnbjorn waited for Meliandra by the pond inside the Sanctuary, sitting upon a boulder by the patch of flowers, his bare feet dangling in the cool of the water.  Her scent wafted over to him, growing stronger the closer she came in his vicinity.  “Tidbit,” he said loud enough for her ears but quiet enough to not carry.  The pebbles crunched beneath the soles of her boots as she approached.  “Have a seat?” he asked, indicating the spot next to him.

Meliandra cocked an eyebrow, bemused, but sat cross-legged next to him.  “Everything alright, Arn?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine.” He looked at her, noticing again how entrancing her amber eyes were as they gazed into his own.  “Look, I…I just wanted to say thanks for coming to find me.  Back in Dawnstar.”  He chuckled.  “Crazy jester finally met his match, am I right?”

She glanced at him sidelong before looking at the rock she found beneath her fingers.  Rubbing the dirt off with her thumb, she answered, “You would know.”  With a flick of her wrist, the stone flew from her fingers, skipping across the top of the water, ripples born from where the stone kissed the crystal blue water before sinking to the bottom.  She looked back at him, her lips teasing a smile.  “Is that all you wanted, Arn?”

“This is the grand finale isn’t it?”  She nodded.  “When do you leave?”

“Shortly.”  Her voice sounded distant as she avoided his eyes.  “I need to take care of a couple things before I head out.”

He looked at her sternly.  “What’s going on, Tidbit?”

“Nothing, Arn.  What makes you say that?”

He cocked his head to the side as she continued to avoid his gaze.  “There’s no sarcasm to your voice.”

She smirked.  “Your wife.”

Confused, he asked, “What about her?”

She hesitated then said as she stood up, dusting the dirt off her as she did so.  “You should go to her, be with her.”  And with that, she turned and walked away from him.

#

Across the continent in the northern land of Windhelm, Ulfric sat at the table with Galmar and Yrsarald Thrice-Pierced in the command room.  A storm was forming over the frozen waters with a strong wind blowing it toward the hold; the hearths in the palace were burning hot, taking the bite from the air.  Before them was a map of Skyrim, flags marking loyalties while stacked on the side of the table were reports from without the land.  Ulfric held one report in his hand, a slight frown on his lips as he read its contents to the two men before him.

“He’s coming to Skyrim?  To Solitude?”  Galmar asked.

The jarl lifted the report.  “From what our spies report, yes.  By week’s end, his ship will be docked outside Solitude.”

Yrsarald sat on the chair behind him.  “What’s the purpose of his visit?”

“I would have thought he’d have been here for his cousin’s wedding, disastrous as it turned out,” Galmar said.

“One would think.”  Ulfric shrugged.  “Apparently the Emperor has decided to turn his attention to our ‘rebellion’.”

“You’re agitated,” Galmar stated evenly.  “What else is in that report?”

Ulfric sneered.  “Tullius and Elisif are to be wed.”  He practically spit the words out.  “He’s going after the throne, he seeks to secure it for the Emperor, mark my words.”

“When is this wedding to take place?” Yrsarald asked.

“Sometimes before the next full moons,” the jarl answered.

“We will not be able to take Solitude in that short of time,” Galmar said.

He shook his head.  “No, we won’t.”  He sat down, steepling his fingers as he looked at his two most trusted soldiers.  “Which begs the question, what do we do when that bastard puts his seed in that whore?”

Triangles

She took another pull off the flask as lighting arched above them, splintering into multiple tendrils of light spreading across the grey sky.  Off in the distance, she saw a dragon circling high above the mountain ridges.  A pang of guilt hit her hard as she recalled the increasing reports of dragon attacks.  While she knew that Brynjolf would protect her if he discovered she were the Dragonborn, but Ulfric, she knew that as soon as he discovered who she was, she knew he would find any way to keep her by his side, to fight for his side in this war.  Inevitably, the Empire would discover her and do whatever they could to either use her as a weapon or to put her beneath the headsman’s axe once more. 

Elisif laid her head upon her down pillow, a contented look upon her flushed face.  She felt her heart rushing beneath her slightly heaving naked breasts.  She glanced beside her as Falk laid beside her, laying upon his side, reaching over and tracing his fingertips upon her silky skin.  “I wish we could lay here forever.  I wish I never had to go back to sitting on that damn throne.”

He smiled softly.  “If wishes were fishes, we’d all swim in riches, my love.”  He leaned forward and kissed the tip of her nose.  “What’s troubling you, darling?”

“General Tullius has agreed to the marriage.”

“Oh.”  He shrugged.  “Does that bother you?”

“The way he acted, it was so,” she paused searching for the right words.  “It was like the entire dinner, conversation and even agreement to the marriage was a complete waste of his time, as if he could not even be bothered with any of it.”

Falk nodded.  “The man has a lot on his mind, Elly,” he said, calling her by her childhood name.  “The war takes up the majority of his time.  It is highly probably that you will see very little of your future husband while this war wages on.”

“What about having a baby?  My Court –“

He leaned forward and kissed her deeply, drawing her close to him.  When he broke the kiss, a glint was evident in his eyes. “Don’t worry about matters that are not here yet, love.  These things will sort themselves out in due time.  Until then,” he reached around and cupped her ass cheeks and gave them a squeeze as he pulled her even closer to him, “don’t let those things occupy space in that pretty little head of yours.”

#

Brynjolf sat in the Flagon, looking at an empty chair across from him, his memory of an unexpected visitor months ago playing in his mind again, much like it had been since he first heard what this man had had to say.

…The man sat next to Brynjolf and took a drink of mead before saying, “I don’t think you realize everything that Meliandra went through during her time with the Guild and what kind of weight was put upon her by you making her the Guild Master.”

“And of course you do,” Brynjolf replied, watching hm with cautious eyes.

The Nord nodded as he took a hunk of bread and broke a chunk off it before shoving a bite in his mouth.  “I know more about her since that whole Mercer Frey debacle than you do.”

Brynjolf bristled.  “She ran away from here.”

“Aye,” the man said, “that she did.  But do you know why she did?”

Brynjolf glared at the man, his fist clenching and unclenching beneath the table.  “What kind of stupid question is that?” he snarled.  “If you really did know why she left, you would know that she left because of me.”

The man nodded.  “You’re partially right.  She did leave because of you.  But not for the reasons that you think she did.”

Brynjolf looked at him, confusion written across his face.

“You think she’s so weak that she couldn’t handle the fact that she caught you banging ol’ blondie?”  He shook his head.  “She couldn’t face you knowing what Mercer took from her.  From you.  From the both of you.”

#

Tullius sat wrapped in a towel, enjoying the warmth of his sauna here in his quarters in Castle Dour.  The heat seeped its way into his taut muscles, slowly easing the tension that had settled into his shoulders.  His time in Skyrim was quickly becoming a never-ending nightmare that he could not wake up from.  He found his yearning for home increasing day by day and it ached to his very core.  But the situation here was nowhere as minimal as they had initially thought.  He cursed the day he accepted this mission.

Strong hands laid upon his back, the fingers working their way through the knots beneath his skin.  He rested his head as his lover’s hands worked their magic and relaxed him.  This was the only thing worth a damn in Skyrim, this love he had found.  “Sometimes I don’t know what I would do without you.”

A chuckle came from behind him.  “I don’t know how you survived this long without me.”

He laughed.  “I wonder that myself at times.”

A kiss upon the back of his neck preceded the question, “How did dinner with Elisif go?”

“It is agreed; she will make all the arrangements and we shall be wed in a fortnight.”

There was a hesitation in the movements behind the general.  “A fortnight?  Does the jarl know about me?  About us? What becomes of us?”

“I don’t think she knows about us and what does it matter?  As long as I put a child in her, nobody is going to care about you and me.”  He leaned his head over and kissed the hand there.  “Nothing will take me from you.”

Tullius’s lover moved in front of him and dropped to their knees, taking the older man’s face in their hands.  “I love you,” the man said as he kissed Tullius.

Tullius returned the kiss, slowly at first, the heat between the two men building up quickly.  He felt his lover’s hands removing the towel from his waist and take his throbbing cock in his hand and began to stroke him.  He watched as the man broke the kiss and began to trail kisses down his chest until he came upon the general’s pulsating engorged member.  Captain Aldis took the cock in his mouth and began making love to him orally so intensely that Tullius didn’t realize that his breath had been trapped in his lungs until his pleasured moans filled the room.

#

Ulfric sat upon his throne in the Palace of the Kings, listening to Jorleif report on the state of his hold.  Another report of a dragon attack, a failed Imperial takeover of a town, a wheat shortage due to a skeever infestation.  Earlier Galmar had given him reports from the outposts deep within enemy territory and impressed upon him the need to push harder against enemy lines.  His thoughts drifted to the murder of the Penitus Oculus officer within his hold, a murder he knew his lover had committed, a murder that he had knowingly and willingly covered up.  Galmar’s constant berating of the Breton wore on his nerves and troubled the solitude of his mind.

Jorleif’s voice broke through his thoughts, startling him into the present.  For a brief moment, he stared at the man in silence.  Taking a deep breath, he stood as he said, “Send everyone away, I will receive no more requests today.”  Turning on his heel, he walked out of the throne room, his destination unclear in his mind.  His footsteps, echoing through the passageways, led him to his personal armory, the flickering of the flames of the sconces the only witnesses to his path.

The door scraped against the floor as he opened it, making sure to place the key securely in his pocket.  There on the far wall was the most prized possessions he had, his father’s armor, signet ring, and his greatsword.  In a smaller display case lay the jeweled rings that once adorned his father’s hands as well as the jewelry his mother had worn.  As he stood in front of the display, he found his thoughts turning to familiar ground as he questioned who he would leave his legacy with, having still not sired a child who drew breath.  He was beyond his father’s age when he had been born and he now began to fear his own mortality.

#

Meliandra pulled the fur cloak around her tighter, the rain frigid as she sat in the back of some farmer’s hay wagon on his way to Solitude.  She took a long pull off the honey mead in the flask she had bought off the driver to warm her bones.  While being able to cast a variety of spells to keep her warm, to do so continuously tired her to her most extreme.  Staring at the road behind them, she smiled as she thought back to the time her and Brynjolf had gone for a late night ride one drunken night only to discover they had no riding gear and instead had laid upon a hay pile staring at the stars above them, falling asleep in each other’s arms only to be woken by the guards early the next morning.

Her thoughts of Brynjolf warmed her in ways the alcohol could not and how she longed for those days again, before Vex, before Mercer, back when their love was still young and innocent.  But she saw how he looked at her, suspicion in his eyes and she knew that he had lost something he once had for her.  If he were to find out what she was keeping buried deep within her, hidden deep in her heart, she knew he’d hate her, he’d never forgive her.  And that was something she did not think that she could handle.

And then there was the whole thing with Ulfric.  She knew Brynjolf despised the Windhelm jarl and that that dislike went beyond the rebellion.  She knew that if he ever discovered to what extent her relationship with him had gone, she feared he would further distance himself from her and that was something else that she did not think she would be able to handle.  But it did not stop the fire of desire she felt for the man.

Ulfric’s face surfaced in her mind, her thoughts tracing his image before her.  She felt the softness of his lips as he pressed them against hers, the feel of his fingers tracing over her skin fresh in her memory.  For a man so gruff, so harsh, so intimidating, the gentleness he showed while making love to her had surprised her, only making her desire him again and again, regardless of the danger the man posed to her.  He had become an addiction of sorts to her, the more she tried to separate herself from him, the stronger the pull to him became.

She took another pull off the flask as lighting arched above them, splintering into multiple tendrils of light spreading across the grey sky.  Off in the distance, she saw a dragon circling high above the mountain ridges.  A pang of guilt hit her hard as she recalled the increasing reports of dragon attacks.  While she knew that Brynjolf would protect her if he discovered she were the Dragonborn, but Ulfric, she knew that as soon as he discovered who she was, she knew he would find any way to keep her by his side, to fight for his side in this war.  Inevitably, the Empire would discover her and do whatever they could to either use her as a weapon or to put her beneath the headsman’s axe once more.

Her past was quickly catching up to her.  She had become too comfortable here.  She should have made her way to Cyrodiil as soon as she had had enough money to sail.  She had gotten greedy though.  And she had fallen in love despite herself.  But the question that echoed in her ears was which one did she love more, Brynjolf or Ulfric?

Madness Comes Calling

Cicero tilted his head slightly, a strange glint appearing in his eyes.  Strange only in the fact that for this moment, the disturbed maniacal look was gone, replaced by a calm, calculated look of a man who knew perfect sanity.  His words came out in measured tones.  “Do you honestly think that I became the Night Mother’s Keeper because of being daft?”  His smile grew and as it did, it became more frightening to look at.  “I was one of the best in Bravil and I was one of the best at Cheydinhal.  It was because of my skill that I was chosen to be Keeper, to protect our Mother.  It is not a duty that should be treated like a joke, but one that carries a great amount of responsibility.  And honor.  Something that you have no grasp of.” 

A rumble emitted from deep within Arnbjorn.  “You’re a disillusioned little man.”

Cicero laughed again, a maniacal upturn to his lips.  “So says the traitor’s lapdog.”  He tossed the man one of his knives.  “Let’s even up the odds, shall we?”

Arnbjorn lunged at the jester, knocking the man off balance, but Cicero remained standing, a smirk upon his face.  “The sheepdog thinks he can best Cicero?”  His laughter rang out.  “Stupid dog.”  His knives appeared in his hands before the werewolf realized; the cut on his side elicited a howl from the lycan.

The werewolf growled and began to shift back into human form, blood slowly flowing from the wound on his side.  “Damned fool,” Arnbjorn swore through gritted teeth, his anger raging in his eyes.   

Cicero laughed.  “Good.  Cicero does not like fighting the beast, now the odds are even.”

“Even?”  Arnbjorn chuckled.  “Even with me having no weapon, you are no match for me.”

Cicero tilted his head slightly, a strange glint appearing in his eyes.  Strange only in the fact that for this moment, the disturbed maniacal look was gone, replaced by a calm, calculated look of a man who knew perfect sanity.  His words came out in measured tones.  “Do you honestly think that I became the Night Mother’s Keeper because of being daft?”  His smile grew and as it did, it became more frightening to look at.  “I was one of the best in Bravil and I was one of the best at Cheydinhal.  It was because of my skill that I was chosen to be Keeper, to protect our Mother.  It is not a duty that should be treated like a joke, but one that carries a great amount of responsibility.  And honor.  Something that you have no grasp of.”

A rumble emitted from deep within Arnbjorn.  “You’re a disillusioned little man.”

Cicero laughed again, a maniacal upturn to his lips.  “So says the traitor’s lapdog.”  He tossed the man one of his knives.  “Let’s even up the odds, shall we?”

#

Tullis shifted in his seat uncomfortably as the imposing Altmer glowered at him from across the desk, her eyes boring deep into his, her displeasure plainly evident.  “I had been assured that when you received this posting, this uprising would be squashed and that you’d have Ulfric in chains.”

“And I had him!”  Tullius retorted.  “Once I took the head of this snake, the rebellion would have been quelled.”

“Excuses,” Elenwen snapped.

“Excuses?!”  he roared.  “How am I to blame for a damn dragon attack?”

“Oh, you’re not to blame for the attack.  But you should have executed Ulfric first.”

“Wasn’t it you who said he should watch the heads of his men roll before his own did?”

The woman looked at him, the expression blank upon her yellowish face.  “No,” she said coldly, “I believe you are mistaken, General.”  She stood up, straightening the folds of her dress.  Looking at the small man before her, her eyes narrowed, and her voice turned ice cold as she said, “And do not mislead yourself into thinking I did not see who else was in the back of that wagon with the usurper and his rebels.  You botched that as well.  I do believe that it would be in your best interest to fix this debacle or else it will be you that finds himself beneath the headsman’s axe.”  With that, she walked out of the room followed by her two security guards.

#

Meliandra swore as she rode Shadowmere along the beaches of Dawnstar searching for signs of Arnbjorn, Cicero, or the Sanctuary.  The temperature had dropped drastically, the frigid air making her breaths visible before her eyes.  As the wind picked up, she picked up the scent of human blood, familiar to her nose.  Spurring the horse on, she followed the scent, finding the lycan around a bend, bleeding from a wound in his side; the Breton noticed the Black Door cut into the rock wall behind the man.  Slowly, the black horse came to a stop and she climbed off the creature, going to her lover’s side.

Arnbjorn snorted as he looked at the petite woman.  “Should have known Astrid would send you.”

“You’re hurt,” Meliandra said evenly.

He laughed.  “What gave it away?”  He laughed again, his eyes soft as he looked at her.  “Yeah, I’ve got to admit that little jester is good with that butter knife.”  A chuckle again.  “But don’t worry, tidbit, I gave as good as I got.”

“I don’t doubt that,” she replied, her voice neutral.  Squatting next to him, she looked at his side. “Bleeding appears to have stopped,” she mumbled as she opened the satchel on her hip and fished out a small bottle.  Popping the cork, she looked at him and said, “This is going to sting.”  Before he could respond, she poured the liquid on the open wound, eliciting a howl from the man followed by a string of obscenities.  Saying a few words and with a flick of her wrist, she cast a spell to close his wound.  Standing up, she asked, “Where’s Cicero now?”

The man jerked his head toward the door.  “In there, through the door.”  He coughed as he got to his feet.  “Some old Sanctuary, by the looks of it, I would’ve followed him, but I don’t know the phrase.”

She nodded.  “I know the phrase.  I’ll get Cicero.”  She looked at him, meeting his eyes.  “You go home.  Take Shadowmere.”

“You’re gonna need help in there with him.”

Shaking her head, she looked at the door.  “You won’t be any help to me right now, Arn.  I’ve got this.  Go home to your wife.”

He nodded.  “Fine, I’m not going to argue with you.”  He looked at the door.  “I slashed him good.  Pretty sure I severed an artery.  Don’t know what you’re going to find in there… but you can probably just follow the blood.”

 

She waited for the man to climb atop Shadowmere and ride off before she walked toward the old, Black Door.  “What is life’s greatest illusion?” came the question from the wheezy voice of the ancient enchanted door.

“Innocence, my Brother.”  Meliandra responded without hesitation.

With a creaking, the door opened as the disembodied voice wheezed, “Welcome home.”

#

General Tullius sat across the table from the young jarl and listened, politely as she spoke about the home of her youth and her late parents.  He smiled at all the appropriate times, bid her to continue her stories when she feared he lost interest in her words, all while Elenwen’s parting words ran rampant through his head.  The more her words echoed in his brain, the more Legate Rikke’s urgings found their way to the forefront of his mind.

“I’m sorry, General,” he heard Elisif saying.  “I don’t mean to bore you with talk of my childhood.”

“You’re fine, Elisif.”  He made it a point to use her name.  “We both know why this dinner was arranged,” he stated.  At her nod, he continued on.  “Are you in agreement with your court?  You and I should join in marriage?”

She took a deep breath as she began to speak.  “My court fears that Ulfric might make an attempt upon my life in an attempt to put someone loyal to his cause upon the throne of Solitude.  A move that would play in his favor, as he would waste no time in ousting you and the Legion from Castle Dour.”

“Astutely stated,” Tullius said with a nod.  “And your feelings towards that?”

“Towards a union between you and I?”  She shrugged.  “It is our way, isn’t it?  Political alliances are made through marriage unions, the strengthening of our people comes from such alliances.  It is what it is.”

“And the…” he hesitated a moment then looked her in the eye.  “You have no objections to bearing my children?”

Elisif forced a smile.  “That is a wife’s responsibility, is it not, General?”

He nodded, uncommittedly.  “Then it is settled.  We shall be wed.  Make the necessary arrangements.”  He stood up and walked out of the room, leaving his intended bride with her surprised thoughts.

#

Meliandra made her way through the darkened passageways of the Dawnstar Sanctuary, relying upon her heightened senses, her ears strained for the slightest sound while she had cast a spell enabling her to see in the dark.  The jester taunted her, his laughter echoing off the stone walls.

“I knew you’d come, Meliandra.”  At her silence, he continued.  “Astrid knew her stupid wolf couldn’t slay sly Cicero.  So, she sent the best to defeat the best.”

Meliandra smiled to herself at his comment.  Releasing an arrow, one of the many Sanctuary Guardians dissipated before her.  Silently, she continued on, her light-footedness muffled further by her enchanted boots, her eyes constantly searching the darkened shadows.

“This isn’t what Mother would want.  No, our Mother surely does not want you nor I to die.  But me more than you.”

As Meliandra crossed a wooden walkway, spears thrust towards her from the walls.  Dodging them, she heard the jester’s mad laugh.  “Ouch!  Pointy pointy!”  His maniacal laugh rang through again.  “My home is well defended.  I always have been a stickler for details.”  He laughed again.  “Get it?  Stick-ler.”  He roared with more laughter.  “Oh, I slay me!”

Avoiding the tripwire and taking note of the oil slicked floor, Meliandra saw the Guardians emerge from the darkness and embedded arrows in both of them before they saw her.

“You’re – you’re still alive,” came Cicero’s voice.  “Cicero respects your abilities, of course, but could you at least slow down a bit?  I’m not what I used to be.”

Making her way to the lower level of the Sanctuary, she saw the large opening with broken glass, a trail of blood beyond the barrier.  Carefully, she made her way over the jagged edges and continued on.  The walls were frozen over, having been made a den for many types of creatures by the looks of the many bones littering the way ages past.

“Brrr,” came the echoed voice of Cicero.  “Chilly!”  He laughed.  “You’ll enjoy this.  Not an original part of the Sanctuary, per se.  Let’s call it a ‘forced addition’.  Forced by what?”  More maniacal laughter echoed through the icy passages.  “Oh, come and see!”

It was at that moment she saw the large frost troll in front of her.  “Fuck me,” she breathed under her breath.  Quietly, she quickly fished out a poison from her satchel and dipped a few of her arrows in it, then soundlessly took aim.  The first one landed soundly in the troll’s lower back.  Without pause, she nocked and released the next arrow, that one landing directly above the first.  The creature collapsed to its knees, the paralytic poison proving itself effective.  She nocked the last arrow and released it, watching in satisfaction as its tip broke through the beast’s thick skull and into its brain, killing it.

Some moments later, Cicero called out again.  “All right, so Cicero attacked that harlot, Astrid!  But what’s a fool to do when his mother is slandered and mocked?  Surely you understand!”

Silently, she continued creeping through, her objective clear in her mind.  Kill the jester.  She soon found herself in the catacombs of the long-since-been used Sanctuary, seeing coffins containing the remains of long dead assassins.  Seeing more specters emerge, she quickly eliminated them and moved on.

“Cicero admits, he thought you’d be dead by now.  Heh.”  A nervous chuckle followed.  “Maybe we could just forget all this? Hmmm?  What do you say?”

She killed more ghosts of assassins past as she made her way further in, ignoring the jester’s attempts to get her to speak.

“If its any comfort, I do feel slightly bad about Veerzara.  Stupid lizard got in my way!  But please tell me that hulking sheepdog has bled to death.”

She sneered but remained silent.  Ahead was a gate and her detect life spell told her he was just beyond it.  Silent footsteps made their way to a door at the end of the passageway.  Her target was within moments of drawing his last breath.  As she removed the door bar, his voice reached her ears again.  “And now we come to the end of our play.  The grand finale.”

Opening the door, she saw the man, sitting propped against the wall by the hearth, multiple cuts across his body, blood still fresh upon his hands.  He laughed as he looked up at her and said, “You caught me!  I surrender!”  More laughter as he stared at her, a smirk on his face.

She looked at him, expressionless.  “There is only one cure for your madness, Cicero.”

He smiled as he answered, his tone even and level.  “Oh, yes, so creative, Meliandra.  I do like that.  But I must point out, killing me would be a mistake!”  He laughed, hollow in its sound.  “Yes, killing me would displease our mother.  She is your mother too, isn’t she?”  He smiled again through the pain.

“You have betrayed the Brotherhood.  You are a traitor and have to die.”

“Traitor?  Me?”  he shook his head.  “So confused, aren’t you?  So confused.”  He coughed.  “And they say that I’m mad!”  A laugh bubbled from him.  “If I’m a traitor, so are you!  Have you not heard the maiden’s voice?”  He coughed again.  “Walk away.  Let me live!  A tiny white lie for a dark assassin.”

She stared at him, the blade in her hand turning over and over as she listened to him.

“Listen Meliandra.  Let me live.  Yes, I attacked the strumpet Astrid, I did!  And I’d do it again for our mother.  Anything for our mother.  Return to the pretender, tell her I’m dead!  Tell her you strangled me with my own intestines!  Tell her you stabbed and drowned poor Cicero!  But lie!  Lie, and let me live!”

She stood there, the dagger in her hand being turned over and over still.

“Do what you will.  I have no fight left.”  He sighed.  “In the end, Sithis will judge us both.”

A Surprise at Home

The moon was playing hide and seek as Meliandra made her way to the Sanctuary after leaving Stenvar at the inn in Falkreath.  Off in the distance something spooked the birds as a flock suddenly flew from the trees.  Her heightened hearing picked up sounds of something, no, someone, rushing through the woods.  She listened intently but heard nothing more.  Keeping alert, she continued her way through the Pine Forest, looking forward to collapsing in her bed and sleeping.  A wolf howled in the distance and a chill ran down her spine, the hair on the back of her neck standing up.  She quickened her pace as she neared the Sanctuary, noticing the droplets of blood that marked the ground.

Rushing down the stairs into the main area of the Sanctuary, she found a disastrous sight.  It was obvious a fight had occurred, evidence of destruction magic was everywhere, from scorch marks on the walls to frozen flowers; Arnbjorn’s workspace showing signs of a ferocious fight, the grindstone overturned and blood splatter covering the wall by his workbench.  Her attention was drawn to Veezara, half sprawled on the floor close to his usual spot.  He was bleeding from his side.

“Just try to relax,” Babette was saying.  “Let the elixir do its work.  You’ll feel better shortly.”

The reptilian sighed as he finished drinking the potion the vampire had brought him.  “Thank you, dear,” he said.  “You are most kind.  The jester’s cut feels as bad as it looks, I am afraid.”

“Damn it,” Astrid swore.  “This should never have happened!  We knew better.  We knew better, and still we let our guards down!  Agh!”

The wizard nodded.  “I’ll admit, even I’m having a hard time disagreeing with you.”

“What happened?” Meliandra asked.

“Cicero!” She snapped.  “He’s what happened!  The fool went absolutely berserk!  He wounded Veezara, tried to kill me, and then he fled.  I knew that lunatic couldn’t be trusted.”

Festus nodded.  “It’s true, I’m afraid.  Cicero was a little whirlwind, slashing this way and that.  It would have been funny, if he weren’t trying to murder us all.”

The Redguard spoke up.  “Don’t forget the ranting and raving.  About the Night Mother, how she was the true leader of the Dark Brotherhood, and Astrid was just a ‘pretender’.”

Astrid sneered and glared at Meliandra.  “Look, we’ve got to deal with this situation.  You’ve got to deal with this situation.”

“Me?” she retorted.  “What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to find that miserable little fool and end his life!” Astrid snapped, before adding in a softer tone, “But first…find my husband.  Make sure he’s alright.”

Meliandra’s eyes widened as she looked around.  “Where’s Arnbjorn?  What happened?”

Astrid’s eyes flashed her anger.  “During the attack, Arnbjorn flew into a rage.  When Cicero left…Arnbjorn went after him.  They disappeared not long before you got here.”

Nodding, she thought about the howling she had heard earlier.  “So, if they disappeared, how am I to find either one of them?”

“Search Cicero’s room. Maybe there’s something in there that sheds some light on where he might have gone.  Let me know the minute you find something, I’ve got to see to Veezara, and calm everybody down.”

Some time later, Meliandra brought a set of journals to Astrid.  “He’s headed to an abandoned sanctuary in Dawnstar.  I have the password.”

“The Dawnstar Sanctuary?  Whatever for?” She shook her head.  “Never mind, it doesn’t matter.  You need to leave.  Now.  Every moment counts, so I want you to take my horse.  His name is Shadowmere.   You’ll find him outside, by the pool.  Let’s just say he’s…one of us.”  Her eyes became serious.  “Find Arnbjorn.  Make sure my husband’s all right.  And then, send that jester’s twisted little soul to the Void, in many pieces as possible.”

As Meliandra left the Sanctuary, she could not help but think of the irony that Astrid turned to her husband’s love to find him.  Beholding the stallion that emerged from the pool before her, she smiled wickedly and said, “Alright, Shadowmere.  Let’s go have some fun.”