The sun had broken the horizon eight hours into the journey to the snow eastern city of Windhelm. They had come across an abandoned wagon and had stolen a horse from Katla’s Farm outside of Solitude. Vorstag and Lydia had been taking turns driving the horse pulled wagon as Meliandra sat next to the bound Appius. Getting him out of Castle Dour had proven to be an adventure in itself; his room was mere steps from the main corridor, the same corridor that was traversed heavily by Legion officers making it impossible to sneak out that way. It took her only a short moment to devise a plan that got both her and the traitor out of the castle. Vorstag had questioned her while Lydia balked but neither one had a negative thing to say when the short Breton appeared at the window with the bound Nord slumped over her shoulder. They watched as the man fell as she tossed him easily over the side, the two of them holding an edge of an outstretched tent that they carried with them on their travels. They snuck out of the city undetected and after stealing the horse, headed toward Windhelm.
Appius had been jolted awake by a bump along the stone road. He looked at the Breton, an angry look sat on his face. “You’re not going to get away with this!”
Meliandra sighed as she fished an apple out of her sack. She rubbed the dirt off the fruit onto her tunic, then withdrew a dagger from its sheath on her waist. She glanced at the man as she cut the apple in half, then again quartering it. “What makes you think that I haven’t already?”
“Rikke will come looking for me!” he stated firmly.
Meliandra laughed. “I’m sure she will, once she gets her fill of Orc dick, that is.” She shoved a piece of apple into his mouth. “Eat; I won’t have it said that I starved you.” She took a bite of the apple and watched him watching her.
He finished the apple slice and glared at her. “Whatever Stormcloak is paying you, I’ll double it if you let me go.”
She snorted. “I’m not doing this for the gold.”
His eyes widened in confusion. “If you bring me to him, he will have me killed.”
She took a bite of the apple again, chewed it thoughtfully then looked at him. “Not my concern.”
“Do you have no compassion?” he cried out.
“Of course I do,” she answered. “Just none for you.”
“Just let me go! He’s going to kill me!”
She looked at him, her eyes narrowed. “If I let you go, then he’s going to kill me.” He began to speak again but she waved him off and said, emphasizing her words with a jab of her dagger towards him, “Look, I promised Ulfric I’d bring you back alive; I didn’t promise that you would have your damn tongue.”
Vorstag’s laugh echoed through Appius’s head for the rest of the journey back to the frozen city he had come to despise. He had feared an outcome such as this from the moment he had agreed to this and now seeing what his future held for him, he resigned himself to his dreaded fate.
The afternoon sun shone through the window of Ulfric’s study, bringing a touch of warmth to this blistery day. As a child he would have begged his father to let him play out in the snow, wanting nothing more than to engage in snowball fights with Galmar and Yrsarald. Things had been easy back then. As children they had little to worry about. Yet it seemed as if with the blink of an eye everything had changed in their world. His childhood forever changed when he was sent to live amongst the Greybeards, not seeing his homeland for over a decade and when he finally stepped foot in his beloved home, it was not as the carefree youth that he had once been, but rather a cold, hard, driven man with an intense loathing for the Mer.
He paced the length of his study, his thoughts on Meliandra and if she had been successful on extracting the traitor or if she, like all the others before her, had failed. He had received word that she had made it to Solitude and even made it into Castle Dour but he had heard nothing since. He had sensed something about her that was different and he believed that she would have been successful on this mission. He only hoped that his gut feeling was right.
He heard the sound of footfalls on the stone floors outside his chambers followed by a loud rapping against the solid wood door that he recognized as being his general. “Yes, Galmar?” he called out.
The gruff general opened the door and walked in, his face showing surprise. He approached the jarl; the closer the man got the more Ulfric could see the pleasure in the eyes of the man. “What is it, Galmar?”
“That Breton thief…,” he shook his head. “She’s back with Appius.”
Ulfric smiled broadly. “I knew she was the one to do it.” He picked up his cloak and headed for the door. “Where is she?”
“The war room. Appius is already down in the Bloodworks.”
Nodding, he continued walking, his smile growing broader still. “Good,” he said with a hint of prideful flourish. “I suppose I should go thank the thief.”
She paced the room. She wanted to take her leave of Ulfric and return to Riften. She wanted no more to do with this blasted cold and this jarl. She glanced at the map on the table and noted that the Stormcloak flags were far and few in between. She saw Ulfric only had the support of a few holds; it was evident that he was losing the war. She continued examining her surroundings, very aware that she was being intently watched by one of Ulfric’s guards standing in the corner of the room. Every so often she would pick something up, look at it closely while the guard’s hand would instinctively go for his sword, then she’d set it back down and smile at the guard.
Her heightened hearing picked up footfalls beyond the wood door; she turned as the gruff aged jarl walked through the door. His piercing blue eyes smiled at her; in that look she saw a smoldering fire, entrancing her with a fearful respect. He strode over to her, confident and sure. She found his imposing height both threatening and comforting as he stood before her.
“I knew you were the right person for the job,” he said. “Did you run into any problems?”
She shook her head. “Nothing I couldn’t handle, sir.”
He smiled as he withdrew her ebony dagger from the folds of his robe, once again examining the ornate details of the craftsmanship before handing it to her. “I’d say that you earned the return of your weapon then.”
She took her prized dagger in her hands, smiled and thanked him. She slipped the sheath into place on her hip, it’s familiar weight a reassurance to her; she looked the jarl in the eyes. “Does this mean that you trust me?”
He chuckled yet there was no mirth behind it. “Trust is earned, not given. But,” he paused, “you are on your way to being trusted.” He set his heavy hand gently upon her shoulder as he continued, “Walk with me.”
She followed as he exited the room, entering the large hall. Large banners hung from the wall, all proudly displaying the Stormcloak bear. A handful of nobles ate at the grand table, laden with roasted meats and jugs of Nord mead. She eyed each one, looking and wondering. Ulfric noticed this and questioned her. She shook her head and said softly so that only his ears would hear her. Even the smallest rabbits have big ears, my Lord.”
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, his eyebrow raised and a curious look upon his face. “Very well.” They remained silent until they entered the passageways and then he turned to face her. “I admire your sense of confidential urgency so would you oblige me with an explanation of what all that was?”
“Before I apprehended Appius, I observed him speaking with someone about things here in Windhelm. Sir, he’s getting all of his information from someone who has access to the Palace.” She paused a moment before continuing. “And you.”
He searched her face intently, looking for signs of deception, and seeing none, asked, “Do you know who his contact is?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, sir. I did see her face somewhat and I am sure I would recognize her voice if I heard it.”
He nodded and began to walk again. “Then it seems as if I am still in need of you and your skills.”
She sighed and followed him to the Bloodworks.
He was cold in his cell. The frigid city in the north was experiencing a cold front making it colder than normal. Add to that the cells were drafty with no source of heat except for the sconces along the walls which put out hardly any heat. He looked at the hay pile and thought about his circumstances. There was little doubt in his mind about what fate lay before him; he only wondered how much time he had left before Ulfric passed his sentence.
Voices echoed off the stone walls; he recognized the deep voice of the jarl and became anxious. He quickly thought about the options he had before him and realized how few they were. A moment later Ulfric and the Breton entered the room.
“Appius, Appius,” Ulfric states as he spread his hands vastly before him. “Tell me these things I’ve been hearing are not true. I know that you would never sully your family’s good name the way rumor has it.” He stood before the gate to the cell, a slight smile playing tauntingly upon his lips. “Surely this is nothing, more than a big misunderstanding, right, Appius?”
He stared back at the jarl, confused.
Ulfric turned to the Breton and asked her to retrieve the key to the cell’; they waited for her to return. Appius swallowed nervously, knowing nothing good was going to come of this but not knowing what to do. A moment later, the ebony haired Breton returned to Ulfric’s side, key in hand. At his command, she unlocked the cell and stood aside. He swallowed nervously again as he watched Ulfric walk calmly into his cell. He knew Ulfric too well to think that the jarl truly believed in his innocence.
“My old, dear friend,” the rule said as he stood in front of him, “why don’t you tell me your side of the story and explain this situation – “
Suddenly Ulfric’s hand shot up and grabbed ahold of the traitor’s neck right below his jaw then slammed the man against the wall with a resounding crack, his eyes large with more fear than he had ever experienced in his life. A fire raged in the eyes of Ulfric Stormcloak and when he continued speaking, his voice was hard and thundering.
“ -before I rip your goddamn throat out?”
“My Lord,” he choked out.
“’My Lord’?” Ulfric repeated with a growl. “You dare call me your lord when you’ve been betraying me?!” His grip got tighter around Appius’ throat. “You worthless waste of skin! I have half a mind to throw you into River Yorgrim with boulders tied to you!”
“I know thing,” Appius managed to say.
Ulfric smiled, his eyes glinting. “Yes, you do. I want to know who your co-conspirators are.”
He shook his head in denial. “No one, sir. It was just me.”
Ulfric gripped his throat tighter as he snarled, “Do not lie to me, Appius! You were seen and heard conspiring with someone! Tell me what I want to know!”
With little air making its way to his lungs, he nodded what little he could. “Please, sir,” he rasped out, “release your hold on me and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Of course you will,” Ulfric responded as he released the man.
Appius fell to his knees and rested his hands in the hay beneath him. His eyes closed, the air burning their way through to his lungs as he asked for forgiveness in a quickly whispered prayer to the Divines.
He knew that the time had come.
Meliandra saw it a moment too late. She cried out as she saw Appius pulling the cork out of a vial. She quickly cast a paralyze spell that crashed into his chest, collapsing him to the ground. Ulfric spun around to see his prisoner start foaming at the mouth like a rabid wolf. For a moment, terror shone through Appius’s eyes before they went dull. Meliandra rushed into the cell and stood behind the jarl who was examining the small black vial clutched in the hand of the now deceased traitor. She pried the vial from the immobile fingers and gently sniffed it. “A fast-acting poison, sir,” she said. “He had nothing on him when I brought him down to the cell.”
Ulfric picked up the chair that sat in the corner of the cell and hurled it against the bars, his anger exploding just like the chair splintering into pieces.