The campfire crackled in the dimming evening light, the smell of salmon roasting over it wafting through the skies, the moons hanging high above them. Vorstag sat on a log near the White River, watching as Meliandra sharpened her weapons. She had barely spoken in the time that they had left Irkngthand, yet the silence spoke volumes. She had told him that they needed to travel toward Falkreath and when he inquired as to her companions she explained that she’d be meeting up with them in Riften later. And then silence as they walked west past the mountains. She had finally stated that they should rest and suggested making camp near the river. That was a couple of hours ago; he was getting frustrated. He was about to say something about it when he heard footsteps approaching; his dagger was in his hand as he turned to look around while standing.
“Vorstag, put it away,” Meliandra chided.
He looked over at her and noticed that while she spoke to him, their visitor had been observed for a while by her. He sheathed his dagger but remained standing, alert and ready to act.
The boy approached Meliandra, a hesitant but harried look upon his face. After confirming it was her, he continued. “Shor’s Balls, you’re a hard one to find! I was coming back from Riften when I saw you over here. Damn, I’m glad I finally found you. I’ve got something for you.”
She frowned. “Whose it from?”
“Well, it appears that you know some people high up. This is from Balgruuf the Greater, Jarl of Whiterun.”
Her eyebrow shot up? “The Jarl of Whiterun? What does he want?”
The courier shrugged as he held out the sealed message saying, “Your eyes only.”
She took the paper and handed the young boy a few gold coins, thanking him. She sat back down on the boulder she had been sitting on and broke the wax seal. Unfolding it, she read the summons, a questioning look on her face. She refolded it and slipped it into her satchel on her hip, then looked over at her companion. “We’ll be making a short stop in Whiterun.”
“That’s it?” he asked. “No reason?”
“The jarl is summoning me to Dragonsreach to discuss something to do with my surviving the dragon attack at Helgen.” She shrugged. “You now know what I know.”
After a moment Vorstag said exasperatedly, “What in Oblivion happened back there, Mel? You’ve barely said anything since we left Irkngthand.”
She sighed as she picked up the bottle of ale she had set down earlier and took a swallow. “I killed Mercer. “I’ve relished the thought of killing him since he stabbed me at Snow Veil Sanctum. I’ve imagined the scene over and over in my head, I’ve plotted what I would do when given the opportunity and when it was before me, I felt so alive. The pain at what he did drove me, the memory of what was lost, it, it just consumed me.” She took a long pull of the bottle then looked back at him. “I made him beg for death.” A slight smirk touched her lips as she said, “Well, he tried to beg. He was having a hard time with it due to him choking on his blood.” She took another pull of the bottle, this time finishing it.
Vorstag shook his head as the chuckle escaped from his mouth. “He deserved death. It wasn’t like he wasn’t begging the gods to take him from this world. He had been dancing with Fate for years.” He sat down, grabbed a piece of bread and, biting into it, continued, “But that’s not why you’re so damn quiet.” He looked at the bread then retrieved his own bottle of ale and took a drink.
“Brynjolf insists that I take the position of Guild Master.”
“Why don’t you?”
She frowned and looked out over the waters running past them. She saw some mudcrabs burying themselves beneath the sands of the shore off in the distance and thought how ideal the notion of burying oneself away from the bullshit of the world sounded once more.
“I don’t think I have much of a choice in the matter. He expects me to take charge once I get back to Riften.”
“So, postpone your return,” he said as he ate another bite of bread, chasing the dryness away with another swallow of ale.
“It doesn’t matter how long I procrastinate over returning. It’s not going to change anything between me and Brynjolf.” She picked up a handful of rocks and started throwing them across the field.
“Do you want things to change?”
She glared at him. “Yeah, I do. But every time I see him all I see in my mind’s eye is him screwing Vex. And that just sets me off all over again.”
“You know you’re gonna have to deal with this, Mel,” Vorstag said softly as he stood up to walk the perimeter of the camp. “You can’t run from your feelings forever.”
She took a left immediately before The Drunken Huntsman and ascended the steps to the Wind District, wanting to avoid the marketplace. It was midday; they had stopped at Honningbrew Meadery earlier in the day to sell some goods to Mallus, putting some more gold in their purses. Mallus filled her in on some of the local gossip and a few hot spots to avoid before sending them off with a few more supplies in their pouches, including a fresh loaf of bread that made Vorstag seemingly happy as he immediately broke off a good size piece of the bread and began to eat it contently as they had made their way to the city gates. Vorstag, a step behind her, commented on the fact that he’d never been to Whiterun before. She glanced at him to see him looking at everything wide-eyed, trying to take in all the sights of one of the main cities in Skyrim. She remembered the first time she had come through here and how awestruck she was by the beauty of the luxurious trees that filled the city, creating a slightly cooler climate than one expected. She smiled as she said, “It’s a nice little place, but I’m not fond of walls.”
They turned right at the top of the steps and made their way towards the Temple of Kynareth and then up to Dragonsreach once they came to the Gildergreen. She stood for a moment listening to the priest of Talos then headed up the steps to the palace of Whiterun. It had been quite some time since she had climbed these steps bringing with her Gerdur’s request for the jarl to send aid to Riverwood after the destruction of Helgen.
The guards in front of the doors halted her at the entrance, demanding to know who she was and what she business was at the palace. She arched her eyebrow and proceeded to attempt to hand them the summons but once they saw the seal of Balgruuf the Greater, they immediately stood aside and allowed her admittance.
Once again, she was overwhelmed with the size of the entrance hall; the banners hung from the rafters, slightly swaying every so often. The jarl’s children were seen on the upper balcony, apparently hiding from someone and she did not see the Dunmer housecarl around nor did she see the jarl on his throne or at any of the tables. She approached the steward, the jarl’s summons still in her hand.
“Ah,” Proventus said, barely glancing at the summons, “the survivor from Helgen. The jarl’s been anxiously awaiting your visit.” He gestured toward the tables, filled with breads and dried meats, fruits, berries and cheeses as well as jugs of mead with tankards on the tables. “Please, help yourself to food and drink. I’ll go tell Balgruuf you have arrived.”
Meliandra and Vorstag looked at each other, bemused expressions on their faces. Vorstag shrugged, pulled out a chair, and sat down, picking up a jug and a tankard as he did so, saying, “Don’t mind if I do.”
Meliandra smirked as she watched her companion. “Have you ever turned down free mead?”
He looked at her, a lopsided smiled on his face as he shook his head. “Nope, can’t say that I ever have.”
With that, Meliandra laughed.
Balgruuf sat in his private office at his desk, reviewing the reports his guards outside the city walls sent. He was trying to be neutral in this civil war, rebellion, whatever one choose to call it, he wanted no part of it period. He saw there were skirmishes on the outskirts of his hold; it both angered him and made him nervous. He set the reports down in a stack and picked up his goblet of mead. He held it a moment, the rim in his fingertips as he swirled the liquid inside round and round as he lost himself in thought. His mind drifted to a time when things were so complicated to his young mind. The Empire served its people as the people served their Empire. There were minor incidents throughout the lands, just as there always had been and always would be. He was a young man, destined to take the throne after his father’s passing. He caroused throughout the hold, bedding a different wench every night, sometimes more than one a night, sometimes more than one at once.
And then the Great War happened.
The tranquility that he had known was gone. He was new to the throne and lacked the direction he so desperately needed. He had spent many nights pacing the length of the palace grounds. He never liked agreeing to the terms of the White Gold Concordant but he felt he had made the best decision for the people of Whiterun, his people.
But it never had sat well with him.
He saw Proventus entering the study and sat back, asking what brought his steward here as he took a drink of the mead.
“Sir,” Proventus said, “the young woman from Helgen has arrived in response to your summons.”
He sat up quickly, a smile spreading across his face. “She is? Good. Have the cook start on the evening meal. I will take it here in my private quarters and have her as my personal guest. See to her needs until then. I am going to bathe and prepare for tonight.”
“Sir? I thought she was coming her to take care of a mater for Farengar?” the confused steward asked.
“Yes, yes, she is,” the jarl said in a rush. “I thought I’d speak to her about it first before bringing her to Farengar.” He stood and walked towards his bedroom, starting to undress along the way. “Have one of the servants tend to my children tonight; I’m going to have an evening of my liking for once.”
Balgruuf merely smiled as he closed the doors on his steward.
Vorstag watched the steward leave the table waiting for the man to be out of hearing distance. “Mel, I got a strange feeling about this.”
“What do you mean?”
He sighed. “Just that no good is going to come out of tonight. A private dinner with the jarl in his private quarters? I might have never been here before, but I’ve heard stories about the jarl and this palace.”
“Yeah?” She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “What kind of stories?”
“Supposedly his late wife took her life right here in the palace. Some have speculated that she did so because the jarl was having an affair, so they say because less than a year later, the children’s nanny bore him a son.”
“Okay, so where, then, is this nanny?”
He shrugged. “I’ve heard dark forces have plagued this palace for years.”
“And what about the jarl? What kind of stories do you hear about him?”
“That he can’t keep it in his pants.”
She laughed, spraying her mead across the table. She looked at him and smiled. “He wouldn’t be the first man I’ve known with that problem.” Vorstag frowned. “I’ll be fine,” she said reassuringly. Don’t worry about me. And hey, how often do you get the chance for some r & r in a palace?”
He cocked his eyebrow. “You mean if I haven’t ended up in jail somehow?” At her frown he said, “Fine. Just remember, my blade is yours.”
She had expected Proventus or one of the guards to come escort her to the jarls quarters so she was slightly surprised when she saw Balgruuf coming from the stairwell. He was dressed in fine robes and it looked as if the gold on his circlet had been polished and he had adorned his fingers with fine rings. She heard Vorstag behind her whisper, “You holler for me if he gets too much for you to handle; they’ll have to throw me in the dungeon before I leave here without you.”
“Shush,” she whispered back at him, waving him away with her hand she held at her side. He hmphed as he sat back at the table, making himself a plate of food from one of the many trays that the servants had brought out.
She turned her attention back to the approaching jarl; when she had first met him she thought little of appearances, she had been more concerned with being discovered as an escaped prisoner. He was older than her, not elderly but mature. He had sharp, angular facial features softened by the slightly graying of his beard that framed his face and eyes as blue as the ocean; the smile on his face was genuine, touching even those blue eyes.
“Meliandra,” he said in greeting once he stood beside her. “I’m so glad you could come. I was beginning to wonder if the courier was going to ever find you.”
“He found me yesterday right past Valtheim Tower, Jarl. I’m on my way towards Falkreath Hold on a job for a.…influential group of people.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Your letter said something about my time in Helgen when it was attacked?”
“Yes, we’ll get to that. Please, come with me.” He gestured for her to follow him, then began walking back up the stairs.
She fell into step with him, letting him lead her past a point few got to venture past. She glanced around when they got to the top of the steps; a map of Skyrim lay upon the table, flags marking Imperial and Stormcloak position while books were placed on many of the bookshelves along with a variety of keepsakes. He led her to a set of doors and stepped aside as he looked at her.
“This part of Dragonsreach is off limits to those who come to visit the palace. This is the private wing; my family resides here along with Proventus. I try to keep the hassles of being jarl on this side of the door, except for my personal study.” He paused as he gave a smile. “I guess this is the most appropriate place to say, ‘Welcome to my home.’” With that he opened the doors, allowing her to pass through first.
The entranceway was larger than she had expected, the walls adorned with numerous mounted heads from a variety of wildlife around Skyrim. City banners hung from the ledges, the yellow fabric shining in the glow in the numerous lanterns that hung off the walls in ornate designs. Display cases with pieces of Dragonsreach’s history were placed sporadically against the walls; Meliandra, intrigued, walked up to one. Inside was a suit of steel plate armor with a very old looking steel battle axe.
“those belonged to Olaf One-Eye,” he stated. “You might say that they’re a family heirloom.”
“You’re a relative of Olaf One-Eye?” she asked, slightly surprised.
“A direct descendent in fact.” He walked up to her and asked, “Do you know the story of Olaf & Numinex?”
“I recall hearing stories my mother told me as a child,” she answered, with a slight smile on her face. “I must admit to a fascination with antiquities.” She looked at the upper level. “And up there?”
“My personal quarters, my children’s quarters. Shall we head up there? There’s more…antiquities up there.”
She chuckled as she nodded and followed him up the stone steps. After a moment of looking at more pieces of Whiterun’s history, he led her past a pair of giant doors that led to his own personal quarters.
The long table was set for two; bowls of a soup made of leeks sat beside platters of roasted venison and grilled potatoes, a large plater was filled with breads and cheeses, their goblets filled with ale. The glow of the candles flickering against the walls gave a warm feel to the room. Vorstag’s words came to her mind for a moment as she heard the doors shutting, Balgruuf saying, “Let’s have some privacy.”
Brynjolf sat at the desk in the Cistern, his thoughts stewing ever since leaving Bronze Water Cave. Delvin had been the only person who had approached him upon his return yesterday. He had looked at the older man as he walked into the Cistern from the graveyard, sighed and nodded his head. “Mercer’s dead. We recovered the Skeleton Key and Meliandra is on her way to the Twilight Sepulcher to return it to its rightful place. Karliah is waiting at Nightingale Hall for the conduit between the two to be reopened, letting her know that Meliandra has been successful.”
Delvin had nodded. “Good to know. I’ll tell the others. What shall I tell them about the position of Guild Master? Has Meliandra accepted the title?”
Brynjolf scowled. “She hasn’t accepted it, but she hasn’t rejected it either.”
“So, things are still on the outs with you two I take it?”
Brynjolf had just shook his head and walked away saying, “Not even going to go there, old friend. Not even going there.”
Now he sat fuming at himself for the way things had turned out and how many times he had had the opportunity to make things right that he had instead let pass. His thoughts were tortured as he wondered if it was truly too late to apologize for everything. He knew he needed the Breton back, he wanted her like he had wanted no other. She had made him feel alive and that nothing else mattered but her and making her smile, making her happy.
He looked across the way to the bed she would sleep in at times, empty as it had been since before her departure for Snow Veil Sanctum. Even if he couldn’t have her by his side again, he was determined to bring her home. And if the only way he could prove himself to her again was through his being her trusted right hand man, then he’d be fine with that.
He owed her that much.