Those that Know About Wolves.
The upstairs tavern of Candlehearth Hall is alive with gossip, rumour and suspicion. A body has been found not far from the city gates. Ripped apart. The words 'The Butcher' and 'werewolf', are banded about, and then drowned out by the bard's anti-Empire song.
Ciinnafil lowers her gaze.
You know what she is going to say before she even says it.
'I'm sorry.' She takes a sip of water. 'You've waited three days to see me and, well, that's just not my area of expertise.'
The heaviness of dread fills you, causing you to slump in your chair. It has taken you weeks to get to Windhelm. Fuelled on the hope of discovering the truth behind the mark on your arm, only to reach a dead end.
A Nord staggers past singing to the bard's song in a drunken slur.
A pain manifests in your chest – a longing for Jorrvaskr. You think about the long tables lined up in rows. The red banners rippling in the rising warm air coming from the open fire. The dry smells of ale as the kegs are cracked open. The clunk of mug against mug, and mug against wood, and Torvar asking if there's any more before falling asleep.
Suddenly Ciinnafil leaps off her chair like someone has shoved a hot poker into her. 'Why didn't I think of this before?' In her enthusiasm she knocks her food onto the floor. 'Come on, I know someone who can help you.'
Windhelm is painted grey. Blocky stones make up looming walls that pen the houses and shops into the city.
Ciinnafil pulls up the hood on her cloak and totters off in front.
At first you think she is leading you downwards into the broken and warren-like streets of what has been dubbed the 'Grey Quarter' due to its Dunmer residents. Instead she turns and leads you up steps, and away from the labyrinthine, squashed streets of the world below.
The wind sweeps down the alleyways, blowing flakes of snow.
Ice sticks to your eyelids. Snowflakes stick to your eyelashes, making the world around look blurred and soft. You blink them away, and wipe your hand across your face.
The world is muffled, apart from the crunch of snow under your feet.
The city walls retreat. Up here there are small courtyards with primitive benches, and bare shrubs that tremble in the ice-tipped breeze.
'I don't know how he's done it,' Ciinnafil says. Her void-like eyes dart from side to side. 'Mainly Nords who live up here, and bet you've seen how welcoming some of them are to none Nords.' She snorts. 'I suspect he rents the place. Done a favour for someone and they owe him, or something.'
A grimy coloured house lurks in the corner of a courtyard. There's an empty stone pot next to the front door with a twig - that might have been a plant - sticking out of the top. The front door is accompanied by two thin windows either side. The windows are sealed shut with wooden shutters.
'A warning,' Ciinnafil says, 'Elien lives alone. He doesn't interact much with the outside world.' She raps her knuckles against the door, and flecks of wood splinter off. 'So he may come across a bit… gruff. I can only apologise in advance.'
With no immediate reply, Ciinnafil pounds on the door.
'Elien! Open up! I know you're in there! You might be able to avoid the Aldmeri Dominion, but you can't avoid me!' She turns, looks up at you and grins. 'One moment,' she says, and kicks the door.
'You can't ignore me forever Elien!' Her words come out in a sing-song tone. 'I'm not going away.'
Ciinnafil draws back her foot, and before she can kick it again, the door shunts open an inch.
A long, angular face peers out from the crack in the doorway. 'Gods spare me,' The Altmer in the doorway snaps. 'It's you.'
The door groans and shudders as the Altmer pushes the door open further.
'What took you so long?' Ciinnafil says. 'I've brought someone to see you.'
'So I can see,' Elien says. There's a note of distaste in his voice. He stifles a yawn with the back of his slender hand. There are dark rims beneath his golden eyes.
'Some of us have been up before the sun,' he says. 'Working.' He stares, his golden eyes like beacons. 'Now, whatever it is. Whatever you are selling, I am not interested. No trinkets or talismans, no potions -'
'But my friend -'
Elien snaps his head towards you. He looks you up and down.
A chill runs up your spine and your suspect it is not just because of he cold. You look at the ground; shift your weight from one foot to another.
'I do not want anything off them either. Go away.'
Elien pushes his shoulder into the door, is about to shunt it closed, but Ciinnafil wedges her foot into the gap in the doorway, and tuts.
'Not very polite, is it Elien?' she says. 'Not after I brought my friend to help you with your studies.'
Elien stops trying to sever Ciinnafil's foot with the door. 'Whatever can you mean?'
The hairs on the back of your neck prickle. All of a sudden you feel like a bargaining chip.
Ciinnafil leans towards Elien. 'Werewolf,' she whispers. 'My friend can turn into -'
'I know what a werewolf is,' Elien snaps. As quick as a thief pocketing coin, his gaze is back upon you. 'There's no cure. Happy hunting.'
The Altmer kicks the Bosmer's foot away from the doorway, and slams the door in Ciinnafil's face.
'But, they've seen Hircine!' she calls through the wood.
Elien's main living area is boarded by bookcases stuffed with tatty books. There's an empty fireplace against one wall, and from the ceiling hangs a crude, wooden chandelier adorned with candle stubs.
The front door slams behind you.
Elien wrings his hands. Ciinnafil isn't with him, but a 'thank you' comes from the other side of the front door.
Elien looks over his shoulder, towards the door. 'Go away,' he growls.
He extends a long, thin finger and directs you to one of the elaborately carved, wooden chairs surrounding a square table in the centre of the room.
'She is a good girl,' he says, and takes the chair opposite you. 'But like all Bosmer, she is a pain in the head and has the attention span of a drunken Nix Hound.' He sighs and fixes his gaze on you through steepled fingers. 'You happen to befriend them one night, and then they never leave you alone.'
Elien reaches for a stone decanter perched upon a stack of books. He pours himself a drink into a tall, thin glass. 'They are like dogs.' He sneers. 'Does not matter how many times you kick them, they always come back for more. But she does have her uses, bless her. Drink?'
You decline the offer.
'Last night, was that you?' He chuckles, and adjusts the embroidered pillow beneath him.
Your heart suddenly increases; you tilt your head to one side and think, last night?
'Fancy a late night snack, did you?'
The drumbeat of your pulse increases, and you ask what he means.
'Last night,' he says, a smile begins to cross his face. 'Werewolf attack.'
A curse forms quick in your mind and you direct it at Ciinnafil for being so flippant about your condition. The weight of your weapon is reassuring, as you look from front door to windows – any possible exit.
Elien catches your eye. A slow smile spreads across his face. He swishes his drink around his glass.
'Could not have been you of course, they have the man in custody. Found him right at the scene of the crime.' He licks his lips. 'One of the guards asked me to take a look at the body.'
Elien sinks into his chair. 'You see, I am a bit of an expert around here. They take me very seriously.' He brings the glass to his lips and gazes at you over the rim with narrow, feline eyes.
'I study manbeast of all kind. But lycanthropy is my speciality. Most importantly I am a scholar of the Daedric Prince many know as Hircine.'
He lurches upright in his seat, slams the glass onto the table, causing droplets of wine to splatter onto the wooden table.
The muscles in your arms and legs tense. You ball your toes up in your boots.
'But here is my dilemma. You are my little conundrum. I have spoken to a lot of people throughout my years. I have spoken to a lot of time wasters. You are not a time waster are you? Altmer lives are long, but I consider every second I spend on Nirn to be precious, and let us just say, any time waster who enters my domain never exits in a happy mood.'
Elien's erratic moves unnerve you. You lean forwards in the chair, ready yourself to get up and leave.
The wind howls down the chimney. Flakes of snow fall like petals onto the black ash in the hearth.
'I have spoken to people who have said they have seen Hircine, even conversed with him. They were all liars of course. Why should I think you are any different?'
You stand up, ready to rid yourself of Elien's company.
The chair tousles the threadbare carpet.
'Let me make this very clear. I am not interested in your visions, your fantasies. Anyone of us can have those. A bit of Moon Sugar,' his voice rises, 'Skooma, and we can all see and speak with Hircine.' He stands and points a finger at you. 'That is it, is it not? You are a Skooma addict. I should have known. Ciinnafil is always wasting my time. Get out. Get out now before I make you regret you ever came looking for Elien.'
You clench your hands into fists; stride towards the door and long for the cold outside to reassure you that you are no longer in his house.
A hand latches around your wrist.
'Where are you going? I have not finished with you yet!'
You turn, Elien's grip is like a bear trap.
Frustration and confusion combine. You shunt yourself sideways into him.
He claws at your shoulder with his freehand, yanking away your cloak and tearing the sleeve of your jerkin.
He stops, all of a sudden as still as a statue, and stares at your exposed arm.
'Oh,' Elien says. His eyes are as wide as a fox's who has just stumbled into a household's larder full of salted meat.
'Oh! Oh, oh! But this!'
Again, you try to pull your arm free, but his grip tightens like a noose.
'This. Now this is special. This changes everything.'
Elien's smooth fingers run over the bumps and discoloured skin of the scar on your arm, and you feel a sensation like one thousand spiders scuttling up your spine.
'Tell me about this. This. Is it what I think it is? Of course, it must be. Werewolf bite. Hmm... but I wager, not how you caught lycanthropy. No this. This. This came from Hircine himself.
He meets your eyes and a disjointed smile dominates his pointed jaw.
'Tell me everything.'