Chapter 27

Sleeping Giant's Inn, Riverwood, Whiterun Hold. The barman was gruff and seemingly good-natured but with watchful eyes; not the best ale and beer brewer, but his cooking was solid and welcoming after a hard day of travel. His expression hadn't shifted when Tariq demanded the attic room in this one-level building.

"You'll have to talk with Delphine about that," was the calm answer.

"I also have business to attend to. I'm leaving for Markarth. She can find me there if she so wishes. Vlindrel Hall. Let her know I have other Word walls to find. And having witnessed her skill at entering difficult places, I might look favorably on her demands if she kindly chooses to assist my Word searches. Warn her I may be fighting dragons, so she should bring a sharp blade. She should also not forget the hunting horn she borrowed from me."

Not one twitch. Tariq smirked and left the inn.

It was all a hunch. Mysterious sightings, vague notes to meet, meetings at places that did not exist — things out of a Breton play. Flash and Dash. Bretons and Altmer were like that. They favored games with intellectual puzzles. He recalled the best spy-hunter he'd employed in Hammerfell was a Nord. Altmer simply because opponents didn't expect a mead-swilling, different-wench-every-week, perpetually drunk brawler barbarian capable of discerning their intelligence plans. Too bad the man wasn't more discerning about his bed company and the diseases they had.

Delphine, he suspected, was one of the lost Blades in hiding. Cagey, paranoid, and oh-so-angry. Many had been absorbed into the Penitus Oculatus, the younger trainees mostly. The older ones rejected the Medes. They would only serve a Dragonborn, or they believed they would be traded to the Dominion for favors. He hoped she didn't harbor any fantasies of putting a Dragonborn back on the throne or using him to get revenge on the whole Dominion, which amounted to the same thing.

There was a dragon wall near Karthwasten, then a black dragon came by. It let out a horrible roar, and the bottom of the crater heaved and spat out the bones of a dragon. The black dragon left, and the reborn dragon slew the Forsworn encamped there. Karthwasten's people were forced to move into the mines when it started hunting.

"If it isn't the Silver-Bloods, it's the Forsworn, and now it's dragons,' snarled Ainethach, one of the few Reach natives who owned land and, more importantly, active silver mines. He owed no money to the Silver-Bloods who controlled the Bank of Markarth and, incidentally, most of the silver and gold mines in The Reach. They kept trying to get him for failure to pay timely taxes or tax evasion. So far, with no success. Tariq had helped him out almost a year ago with such a problem and another one involving a kidnapped child. Karthwasten was on the way to Markarth, so Tariq had thought to stop by to visit.

"Ice or fire dragon?" he asked.

"Fire. Damn thing melted two fully loaded wagons of silver ore. The Markarth escort guards all ran back to the city. Their reports were the only reason we got a week's extension to scrape and dig up the melted silver from the dirt. With late penalty fees, of course," he added bitterly.

"Can you give me any details about its habits?"

Ainethach's people certainly could about the dragon and other dangers in the area. About four hours north was the old wall and ruins known as Dragonstooth Crater. The tower ruin was part of the Second Era Harmugstahl fortress built into the hillside below. It was another dangerous place where people disappeared because of some mad wizard doing things inside. An hour southeast from Harmugstahl was a shrine to Peryite. The priest there was an old Khajiit who mostly raved incomprehensibly over whatever was bubbling in his pot. The only danger there was to be caught downwind in the hallucinogenic miasma of his brew.

The dragon had already taken six cows. No help from Markarth unless they were willing to pony up the silver to hire off-duty guardsmen and other mercenaries. He had no choice; his people could deal with wild animals and robbers, but a dragon was something else. But he did not trust those presented by the palace because they were likely already bought by the Silver-Bloods. Instead, he appealed to the sisters of the Dibella Temple to help him find trustworthy mercs.

Tariq told him to present his greetings to the priestesses and have them hire professional sharpshooters. He would take on the dragon on the ground. But he wanted to make sure it couldn't fly so away, and for that, he needed the archers on the high peaks above the crater to shoot the moment the dragon spread its wings to escape. Karthwasten had some hunter/trappers and a couple Great War veterans. But the latter were family men, and Tariq hesitated to risk those grandfathers against a dragon. The rest were young, and Karthwasten needed them for hunting and predator animal control.

Ainethach returned three days later. Tariq was surprised to see Mother Hamal, Orla, and Senna. They had come along with six archers. The priestesses had been delighted to hear that Tariq had returned to The Reach.

"The Sybil sends her heartfelt greetings and invitation to visit at your convenience," Orla told him as she released him from her hug. "I want to add my personal thanks for the aid you gave my hometown of Granite Hills. My brother had a lot of good things to say about your battle skills. They'll hold a grand feast if you visit them unless you've already been there?"

"No, I haven't. Perhaps I'll stop by on my way back to Whiterun. But for now, I plan to spend a month or two in The Reach and hunt through old ruins. But tell me, why are you three here? Surely it isn't to help me hunt a dragon. That is dangerous and not at all fit work for Dibella's daughters."

"We are all healers, and magical shields are part of the Restoration School. We intend to shield the archers. The dragon may still ascend and breathe its fire, but we can block it. We know that if shields are of sufficient strength, this is possible. The Legion did send two scouts to Dragonstooth to assess the danger when Ainethach first sent word. One was a spellsword. He was able to use shields to make his escape. We had been called to heal him and listened as he reported events. So when we heard you wanted archers to help trap a dragon, we knew we had to come along to help. The volunteers are our faithful brothers in worship, and we would not see them take serious injuries if we can prevent it." Tariq laughed at that and comfortably settled an arm around her waist.

"Introduce me to these fine fellows who would dare shoot their little pins into the scale-armored hide of a legendary monster," he said. She did. Two Markarth guardsmen (Nords) and four Legion sharpshooters (two Nords, one Imperial, one Bosmer), all armed with bows enchanted by Mother Hamal, a master enchanter, and all of them on unpaid "religious observance" leave. Karthwasten hunters described the area, and positions were set. The archers took the high ground in pairs with a priestess shielding. As soon as they saw Tariq and Lydia enter the area, they began shooting arrows of ice and lightning.

Everything according to plan. The archers did their work and grounded the dragon. The Bosmer shot out one of the dragon's eyes and put two arrows into the dragon's tongue, hindering its shouting. The others mercilessly shredded its wings.

Tariq had already absorbed the new word. To his delight, it was an extension of the shout he'd gotten at Shriekwind Bastion.

"SU GRAH," he said with satisfaction, feeling the incredible surge of speed and strength. Combined with the Yokudan gift of stamina, it was a heady feeling of near invincibility.

"Masterfully done, Champion," praised Mother Hamal. It was evening, and they'd all made a temporary camp in the crater. They'd gathered the burnt bodies of Forsworn and the dead legionnaires and buried them. The dragon bones, scales, talons, and teeth had been collected. Tariq would be taking most of them with him to Markarth for now. To reward the archers, once he returned to Whiterun, he'd pay Gray-Mane to forge dragon bows they could pick up later at the Temple of Dibella.

"It'd be a heavier bow than I'd normally use," commented the Bosmer. Mother Hamal was cuddled against him. "Not an everyday weapon, but it would be something to show off to my family in Bruma."

"Bruma. Do you know the Ehldelanl family?" asked Tariq.

"The herbalists and healers? Yes. They're a fairly large bunch. It's too bad that their elders are being arrested or assassinated by the Thalmor. The family's businesses have been ruined by the pressures the Thalmor have put on them. How do you know them?"

"One of theirs is the steward of Falkreath, and one of their trade caravans was in Helgen. They gave free use of their goods and skills to the injured."

The Bosmer nodded. "Ah, not surprising. They are a good and fair bunch. Worshipers of Mara and Syrabane. Their loyalty to the Empire and failure to acknowledge Thalmor theology made them targets. So, Falkreath's steward is of that clan. No wonder the Thalmor are so free to violate the border. A little bribe to the jarl, threaten the steward with more imprisonment and death in her family… I'd report it, but I have no doubt that the higher-ups already know this from Legion Commander Skulnar in Falkreath."

In the morning, Tariq couldn't help but glance back to the tent the Bosmer had emerged from. The mer didn't miss the look and made a patronizing smirk. "I knew her when she was a cute curly-haired novitiate in Chorral's chapel of Dibella some sixty years ago. She helped me live through the depression of my wife's death in the Great War. I missed her when she was transferred to Skyrim's temple. When I got posted to Markarth two years ago and found she's the Mother of the temple, I was happy to renew our acquaintance. She may have lost her youthful endurance, but she's still as beautiful, skilled, and generous.

"So, Thane of Markarth and Whiterun, Companion, and Dragonborn… Now that last title automatically gets you the death sentence from the Thalmor. You'll soon enough have the Penitus Oculatus sniffing around you to ascertain your loyalties. You may also have remnants of the Blades trying to recruit you for some stupid attempt to resurrect what died two centuries ago. Even if Auri-El is willing to renew the ancient Alessian pact, let me tell you, the Penitus Oculatus are loyal only to the Medes. Your Dragonborn title doesn't mean a thing to them. They'll target you as fast as any Thalmor assassin."

He was a chatty elf. Tariq decided to see how much the elf would talk.

"Alright. I came back to The Reach to explore some ancient ruins. I'd appreciate any information on the areas."

"Show me, and I'll ask around." They went to Tariq's tent, and Tariq showed him the map he was working from. The Bosmer marked down known Forsworn camps and fortified hideouts.

"Now, this place might be of interest to you," he said, putting a finger on a spot a few hours from Karthwasten. "Biggest camp. But if you climb the peaks around here and look south, you'll see the top of a structure. Sky Haven Temple. Second Era Blades temple funded by the last of the Reman Emperors. I think it was supposed to be grander than Cloudrest, the Blades' temple in Bruma, but financial problems or war, I'm not sure. But since it's right in the middle of the largest Forsworn enclave called Karthspire, it's probably near impossible to explore. I cliff-climbed to the top months ago as part of an assignment to assess the strength of the camp below. The doors of that temple were impossible for me to open. But I also wasn't going to waste time trying to get around that since it wasn't my assignment. I've even managed to sneak inside the cave entrance in their camp. The outer areas are full of Forsworn. However, past a certain point, even they don't go because of ancient traps and puzzles. Again, I didn't waste time bending my brain to those problems. I had enough of a challenge just getting out alive to make my reports. I think this place may interest to you because of the Akaviri symbols for the Dragonborn carved all over the place.

"I'll ask some Reach friends if they know any local legends around these places you have marked. Hm, Ragnvald and Valthume. Give me a week; I'll try to have something you can pick up from the sisters. And this place, that's Hag Rock. Another major Forsworn encampment. Just your luck; all these word walls you're looking for happen to be in Forsworn territories. Doubtless, the hagravens are attracted to the latent powers in the walls. Even after you've drained most of the power from this word wall, I can still feel the power there."

"I would greatly appreciate any information you can get for me," Tariq said sincerely.

"Happy to serve, Dragonborn." The Bosmer grinned mischievously. "I'll be returning to Markarth unless there's anything else I can do for you? I've got five days of vacation leave on top of my day of 'religious observance.' I had no plans beyond getting extra sleep and fishing outside of Markarth."

"I was thinking of hunting what lives in Harmugstahl below. I am told that people wandering near the place end to disappear. Come along if you like," said Tariq.

… … …

"There you are." The Breton looked quite put out. Tariq frowned at her, and Lydia grunted, tired and displeased at this impudent woman appearing out of nowhere and addressing her thane like that.

"My horn," he said curtly. The Breton handed it over.

"I am curious how you breached the depths of Ustengrav," he confessed. "But I suppose you're not about to tell me any secrets, Blade." She stiffened at the naming. He smirked without showing it on his face. "What do you want of me?" He signaled Lydia to stand down and back off. She took her hand off her sword and retreated to where Rodina was keeping company with the horses. The Bosmer went with her.

"If you are Dragonborn, I've come to show you your destiny," she boasted with such an air of confidence that it took him great effort not to laugh in the face of such delusion. He really was too tired from dealing with the mad wizard and his giant, mutant spiders infesting the Harmugstahl fortress.

"'If?'" he repeated flatly. "The Greybeards say I am. But I see you have no faith in them. You think because you have passed their test without the use of shouts, their judgment is therefore invalid." He held his hand up when she opened her mouth. "Go to Karthwasten and ask who killed the dragon up the hill there. You may even go to the Temple of Dibella and ask the priestesses or that fellow over there. They were also present when I slew it and absorbed its soul. What can you teach me that the Greybeards cannot?"

"If it were left up to those old fools, you'd do nothing but sit up in the snow doing nothing but contemplating power they're too cowardly to use!" she spat. "Do you think the Remans and the Septims could have created what they did if they just sat up there too timid to use the power they were gifted? I can show you your true path."

"If I remember the history I was taught, the Akaviri butchered the Remans once they had firmly slithered into power. As a matter of fact, there are no historical records of Reman royalty ever battling a dragon. They claimed dragon blood through St. Alessia's pact. The Septims also never faced any dragons. They were as power greedy as any dragon, though."

"You have the power to save the world."

"From who? The Dominion? The dragons? I aspire to become Ansei. What is your greed that you envision is greater than my own ambitions? A bard accused me of fancying myself the HoonDing. Maybe I do. I see no harm in it as long as I remember the ironclad rule that once the task is done, I must immediately step down and step aside so that the world may progress. The HoonDing does not lead once the task is done. One job only; no staying in power to solve the world's problems because that is a job which will never end."

"It isn't that simple. Don't try to dumb down the real threats. The world is in danger, and we have to stop it."

"I'm doing my part and killing dragons. What else do you think I should be doing?" he asked, only mildly curious.

"I can't talk about it any further until I see the proof that you're the Dragonborn," she insisted. He exhaled sharply through his nose and walked past her towards the horses. "You're being a fool if you walk away now."

"I've heard cynics say that 'fool' is just another word for 'hero,'" Tariq said over his shoulder. "I'm willing to be both if it gets me to my goal. As I said, ask around. If you are not willing to believe me despite the Greybeards, then let me ask you — why should I take on faith whatever you would present to me? You won't even tell me who you are. Perhaps we are two fools lying to each other?"

Lydia watched the Riverwood innkeeper ascend the steep path that led to Dragonstooth Crater. "Whenever I've been to Riverwood, I've only dealt with the barman," said Lydia. "I always found it curious the absentee owner was the only one to rent rooms. Damn inconvenient for travelers, but at least the village put a campsite outside the town's west gate. Why does she think you owe her any proof that you are Dragonborn?"

"If my suspicions are correct, she's a Blade. If she survived the Thalmor slaughter of Cloudrest Temple and the decades of death squads afterwards, she's also paranoid." Tariq swung himself onto Cairo. Lydia was riding Malika, and Rodina, Nimat. The Bosmer rode double with Rodina. "I am curious about her rank in the Blades. I judge her to be in her 40s or 50s. So, unless she was a prodigy, unlikely her rank was among their elite. But the Thalmor have been her teachers in adversity these many years. She is resourceful and skilled. But this was not a good second impression."

"She has no respect for the Greybeards. That is not a good first impression for me," said Lydia.

"Maybe she'll apologize and sweeten up once she finds her proof that you are Dragonborn," suggested Rodina.

"But you said 'second impression,' my thane, when was your first?"

"When I returned the stone from Bleakfalls Barrow to Farengar. She was in his office but masked. When I came in, she was badgering Farengar for 'results.' Things happened before I could question her. But I remembered her voice and her distinct tone of impatience."

"And as you suspected, she is the horn thief," said Lydia. "One who could get to the bottom of Ustengrav, yet could not do the same for Bleak Falls Barrow to fetch the item she knew was there. I think I understand your displeasure with her."

"I don't think she was aware it was there," said Rodina. "I've talked with Farengar and gotten him to confide in me. He was the one to actually identify that location. She only had vague clues. Once such clue was a gold claw."

"Do you think Orgnar is a Blade?" asked Tariq.

"Um, no. Probably a Blade informant but not an actual agent. He's pretty close-mouthed about his background, but I've managed to get hints of Eastmarch."

"You know," said the Bosmer, "talking about Blades can get you into trouble if you're not careful of your company. Just one whiff, and the Thalmor will send out your invitation to Northwatch."

"To what?" asked Rodina.

"Northwatch. An old Third Era fortress. Long abandoned until the Thalmor set up a garrison they know no one has the balls to deny them. People they suspect of treason of Talos worship go in, information and death squads go out. We suspect they've got themselves a cozy arrangement with the folk that live on the island within sight of the fortress. We think necromancers at best."

"At worst?" asked Tariq.

"Vampires. Doesn't matter to that dark lot if the fresh meat they get are insane from torture."

"And the Legion is fine with this?" demanded Lydia, outraged.

"The Legion doesn't know. The Ambassador has ordered General Tullius not to look too deeply into the matter for the sake of cooperation. But we couldn't help but look into it when one of our own disappeared into Northwatch."

"Who is 'we?'" Tariq asked gently.

"Oh, my little surviving band of spare Blades stationed in Markarth."

… … …

Fjotra, the Sybil, seemed to have fully recovered from her trauma of imprisonment and rape by the Forsworn. She looked to be growing into a stately beauty, but for now, she was a shy child with a ready smile and sharp wit. When Tariq came to the temple, he had been invited to share the Sybil's noontime meal of fish, bread, and fresh fruits. He drank wine, and she drank tea. They talked about Karthwasten, dragons, Tiber Septim, destinies, and the latest rumors and events in Markarth.

Mother Hamal eventually arrived to remind Fjotra it was time for meditation before evening service. She then escorted Tariq to a salon with a small and walled garden. "It will be an hour before the others arrive," she said apologetically. "Please wait here. We can provide you something to read or a novitiate to entertain you with conversation or music."

"A musician would be fine," said Tariq, and soon a young girl with a lute was strumming away while Tariq performed sword exercises in the garden.

An hour later, the Bosmer, Rynon, led in five others, four men, one woman, all Nords. They were all dressed in nondescript clothing that gave no clues to their professions or social status. Mother Hamal and the novitiate excused themselves.

"So and so. You are all Blades?"

"Yes. Finders, except for me, I'm actually Operative rank," said Rynon. "We're all information gatherers. As for myself, I haven't been on any mission since the end of the Great War when the Medes accepted the Dominion's demand to outlaw the Blades and to turn over any remainders to the Dominion."

"And Delphine. Do you know her?"

An old Nord stepped forward. "Delphine Gestor, Operative class, stationed at Cloud Ruler Temple in Bruma. Was absent on a mission when the Temple was attacked and destroyed by the Dominion armies. Noted for her infiltration skills. Was on the observation list for a possible promotion but notes on her temper and lack of respect towards team members were cautionary flags preventing any further advancement until she learned better cooperation and leadership skills." He paused and looked at the woman in their group.

"She's a bully," the woman added flatly. "First impression. Her social courtesy skills are minimal. She's polite only if she hasn't yet evaluated your usefulness to her or whether your social or political status is greater than hers to warrant caution."

"Let me introduce you, Dragonborn, to the group. Names, Blade rank, and job class," said Rynon. "I am Rynon Goldleaf, Operative, trained for scouting and infiltration." He gestured to the Old Nord, "Arno Barrister, Finder, Archivist. Finea Barrister, his daughter, Finder, Archivist. Cormac, Finder, Courier. Lysander, Finder, Courier. Edmund, Finder, supply clerk."

"And what do each of you do publicly?" asked Tariq.

Rynon glanced at his people and shrugged. "Optional," he stated to them. "Myself, as you know, I am a Legion scout."

Arno was the supply clerk for the guardsmen of the palace. Finea had her hands full with four children, two of her own and two orphaned nephews of her late husband's brother. Cormac was one of the clerks working in the city tax office, doubling as an agent for a Lord Nepos, who publicly worked for the Silver-Bloods but secretly took order from the imprisoned Forsworn "King" Madanach. Lysander was a clerk in the Merchants' Guild and spy for the Silver-Bloods. Edmund preferred not to say exactly but hinted it involved a lot of smuggling.

Tariq acknowledged to himself this was quite a group of information collectors. They seemed oddly eager to expose their secrets to him. Did they still honor the directive to serve and guard the Dragonborn?

Priestess Orla came to tell them the worship service was over. Rynon stayed behind while the rest of the Blades dispersed among the crowd.

"So, now you know our group. This Delphine is not someone we'd go out of our way to contact or cooperate with. She would have to contact us first and know the proper passcodes. As you've heard, she hasn't impressed any of us as safe to cooperate with. Finea especially. Her instincts are what's kept this cell intact and safe when the Thalmor settled in and began their night-covered purges. I'm the newcomer to this group and had to undergo quite the trial to gain their trust even when I did have the passcodes."

Tariq nodded. "I'm surprised they're so fast to acknowledge me."

"It all comes down to purpose, sir, and ingrained dedication to an ideal. What's a Blade without the hand to wield it?" The Bosmer grinned ruefully. "I heard what you said to Delphine, and I've shared it with the others. Maybe you don't need or want us. Still, we hope to be useful to you."

"I'll think about it," said Tariq. "You've offered me a new weapon, one I'm not sure I know how to properly utilize. I need time to think about it."

"We appreciate that, Dragonborn. We all have families we're keeping secrets from. Me, I'm a widower, and my children have no idea I'm a Blade. Neither does Arlo's wife or his other two children besides Finea. The other also have families and attachments they don't want to say 'goodbye' to without good reason. Foolish to have such attachments, I know, but when the Blades were declared outlaws, what else were we to do with our lives?"

"Is the only way I can get in contact with you through the temple?"

"Easiest way. We all are regulars here. I don't believe they know we're Blades exactly. Our general excuse is that we're an avid group of chess players. We even host an annual tournament with winner-takes-all entry fees for anyone who wants to try. You know our covers now, so at your discretion.

"If there's nothing else, then I'll take my leave, sir. Thank you for your time and willingness to consider us." The Bosmer saluted him, Legion style. He paused at the door to say, "Oh, we hear your Markarth housecarl is badly injured and not likely to return to tend to Vlindrel Hall. Rather than let it sit empty and a temptation to thieves, why not hire yourself a steward and housekeeper? I hear the junior archivist at the royal library is looking for a new position since being passed over for the job of assistant to the chief archivist. If you need character recommendations, I'm sure the royal mage and his nephew will give sterling recommendations. So will the jarl's housecarl and the priest of Divines."

"Hm. Are we talking of Finea, by chance?"

"Yes. Still, get those character references. This is not an attempt to tie you to the Blades. Finea really needs to change jobs. Being a Blade is no longer a steady income. She does have four children to support and needs the pay. And where she lives, the children will come along. I understand if that's not what you want, and so would she."

"No promises but I will consider this."

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