Author's Note: So, um... this happened.
The Fortunate Favourite
Chapter Fourteen: Ghosts of the Past
Madeline could never enter the Ragged Flagon without bracing herself first. She could never be sure she was ready for what waited on the other side, which, in her limited experience, could mean practically anything but was almost never good. Never mind the memory of the Thalmor. Gambling, knife fights, drunken antics, and almost anything else – except, she had noticed, anything remotely resembling what could be considered legitimate guild business.
Legitimate guild business. She could have laughed at that contradiction, were the reality of it not so bleak and grim.
On that day, however, she found the Flagon to be unusually quiet as she came through the secret entrance in the storage cupboard. She slowed her step, one hand poised to reach for the dagger on her belt. Quiet was almost always trouble. But as she peeked around the corner, she saw nothing amiss. Delvin sat at the table nearest the door, his back to the cupboard, while Vex and Tonilia sat with their heads together up on the gallery. Breathing a small sigh of relief, she stepped out from the shadows – only to kick over a wooden bucket that had been lurking around the corner. It went clattering across the floor, crashed against the leg of the closest table, and spun itself slowly into stillness. Every set of eyes in the Flagon turned toward her, and her face turned scarlet.
"Stealthy," Delvin said with a chuckle as he turned round in his chair. "You sure you're in the right line of work?"
"Don't say that too loudly, Mercer might hear you," she said, only half in jest.
Delvin laughed again. "After that entrance? Don't think it's me what needs to be worrying." When she didn't say anything, the amusement in his face softened to sheepishness. "I'm only foolin', love. Why don't you take a seat, have a drink?"
Madeline smirked and shook her head. It would do no good to remind him that it was well before midday. Time, she had noticed, moved at a different pace beneath the streets of Riften, and the hour of the day rarely seemed to matter when it came time for a drink. She wished she could share in his enthusiasm, but she had neither the stomach nor the conscience for it, and absolutely no desire to explain why.
Delvin shrugged off the snub with all the easy grace she had come to expect from him. "Something I can help you with, then? Since you don't seem inclined toward rest and relaxation?"
"No, thank you," she said. "Brynjolf sent me to speak with Vex about a job. He said it was important."
"Ah, all business with you, as usual." Delvin grinned and gave her a cheeky wink. "I knew there was a reason I liked you. So he's gone and roped you into Vex's grand scheme, eh? I swear that man could charm the scales off a dragon, and then sell them right back at twice the price."
She smiled to herself as she turned away, mostly at the idea of watching Brynjolf try to swindle a dragon and come out of it with his head still on his shoulders, but she wasn't quick enough to hide it from the old thief who missed nothing.
"Tsk, tsk," Delvin tutted disapprovingly. "Don't go smiling like that, my dear. Smiles like that only go leading to trouble." He gave her a light swat on the arm. "Be a good girl now and go back to frowning at everything. Ah, there you go. It suits you much better. Suits the guild better, too."
Madeline absently rubbed her arm, trying to keep such sage advice from bothering her, and failing miserably at it. Still, it kept her looking discontent as she approached Vex and Tonilia. She stood over them awkwardly for a moment; neither deigned to pay her any mind, too engrossed were they in excluding her. Finally, she cleared her throat, and was met with looks of loathing and annoyance.
"You here for work?" Vex asked, her mouth pursed in that perpetual grimace of hers. "Or are you just going to wander around all day?"
"Brynjolf sent me."
"Is that so?" Vex's lips curled into a slow, catlike smile, and just like that, everything changed.
Tonilia pushed her chair away from the table and stood. "This is between you and her," she said impatiently. She turned her critical eyes on Madeline. "Just don't forget to bring me something shiny that I can pass off to Bryn to get him off my back."
"I can pass things off myself just fine," Madeline replied, remembering the dragon scales.
"So I've heard." There was an icy wickedness in Tonilia's tone that Madeline did not like, but she made no comment of it as she watched the Redguard leave. It occurred to her then, as it hadn't before, that she may have been too concerned about hiding her true identity, and not enough about hiding her ever growing feelings for a certain red-haired thief with whom they were all well acquainted. She did not care to gain a reputation – not in that way, at least. She'd come too far to go down that road again.
"Are you going to sit?" Vex asked, cutting into thoughts that were making Madeline's brow furrow even more than usual.
I'd rather not, Madeline thought, then sat down anyhow. "So what's this job?"
"Are you sure you're up for it?" Vex teased, ever cynical. "It's not for the faint of heart."
Madeline wrinkled her nose. "It's burglary. I don't see where heart comes into it."
If it was the answer Vex was waiting for, she gave no sign, but Madeline could almost pretend there was a glimmer in her eyes that had not been there before. "There's a manor in Windhelm that's been sitting empty for weeks. The owner isn't even around to miss anything. I want you to clean it out. Think you can handle it?"
Madeline stared blankly at Vex. Her heart had lurched at 'Windhelm', and what followed had done nothing to help her recover. It dawned on her then why Brynjolf had singled her out for this, and it was a truth that settled hard and cold inside of her. She clenched her teeth against an oath of frustration, and took a deep breath. "What's the catch?" she finally managed to make herself ask, resigning herself to this fate as she had all the others. What was one more unbearably difficult thing in the name of someone else's cause?
It had always been nothing to her – every other time but this.
"What makes you think there's a catch?" Vex asked with a sleek, sly smile that Madeline was sure could have charmed any one of the boys into doing whatever was needed. But the stories of Vex's temper over this haunted manor job had reached even Madeline's ears since she'd returned from Whiterun, and she knew no one was lining up for this. She'd passed it off then as only so much rumour, but she realized now that she'd merely been lying to herself. The greedy gleam in Vex's eyes spoke volumes. Even Madeline could not deny the truth when it stared her straight in the face, and she had become a master at lying to herself of late.
"There must be a catch. Bryn wouldn't have said this was important if it wasn't, and I doubt a little housecleaning is high on his list of priorities," Madeline pointed out as she folded her arms over her chest. She was steady as a rock as she challenged the other thief. After all, it was no bluff of bravado if she knew the answer beforehand. For the first time, she realized she had an edge over the guild that she'd never had before. "And it's no secret that everyone else has already turned the job down. So I ask again, what's the catch?"
Vex watched her closely a moment, her eyes narrowed, but if she was taking Madeline's measure or contemplating the best way to dispose of her, Madeline could not say. All she could do was keep her wits about her and try her best not to falter. But after a half-dozen heartbeats, Vex's smile widened into something a little more honest, a little more accepting.
"The catch isn't what you're stealing, but who you're stealing it from," she said, settling back. "I assume you've heard the story of the Dragon and the Bear?"
Madeline swallowed hard. Keeping her face impassive made the muscles in her jaw ache. "Bits and pieces. I don't care much for rumour."
"It's no rumour. It's a scandal the whole country over, and it seems there was no happy ending. The dragon's flown off and left her treasure for the taking. And nothing short of an army at his gates is going to draw that miserable bear out of his cave to be bothered with it." Vex smirked at her own wit. "So to speak."
Madeline could not hide her disappointment. "I thought the trouble was ghosts, not dragons."
"No ghosts, just a couple of murders," Vex said, tossing her hair dismissively. "And no dragon, either. That's the beauty of it all. I've had a friend in Windhelm keeping an eye on the place for me, and he tells me that Ulfric's favourite thane hasn't been seen in over a month. Word on the street is that she's deserted him. She's gone for good."
She did, and she is, Madeline thought, her frown deepening. She took up with a thief and turned to a life of crime. Hardly a tale worthy of the Dragonborn. A fresh surge of guilt rose up in her throat; it was never far from her thoughts, not truly. She wondered briefly what Delphine would think of Archer's fall from grace, or if the Greybeards would recognize their dovahkiin, she whom they had hailed Ysmir by the grace and glory of the gods.
And her dear departed maman, what would she say?
Madeline thought she'd left that all behind, that none of it mattered any longer, but she couldn't have been more wrong. It appeared that it was at the very fore of Brynjolf's mind. After all, old loyalties died hard, and if she'd turned oath-breaker once, who was to say she wouldn't do it again? What use was she to him if she couldn't be trusted?
"I'll do it," she found herself saying. She told herself that it was not because she had something to prove to Vex, or Brynjolf, or even to Mercer, but because she had something to prove to herself. Perhaps, by the time this job of Vex's was over, she would be able to believe it.
Vex grinned. "In that case, you'd best get yourself a warm cloak," she said. "I hear it's cold in Windhelm this time of year."
"It's always cold in Windhelm," Madeline replied.
It was the most honest thing she'd said all day.
The winter wind howling through Eastmarch was unrelenting, and had been her constant companion since she'd descended out of the mountains. Cold and unforgiving, as endless as the snow that fell from the pale grey sky, it drove against Madeline's back, forcing her forward.
Snow never stayed long on the volcanic tundra. The heat from the ground melted it where it fell, turning the road to slush and mud. What did not melt swirled around her with the bitter wind, obscuring the road ahead with a sheet of white. And always, always, it carried the stench of the tundra, of sulphur and heat and ash, so that every step along the once familiar road was a journey reminiscent of a walk through Oblivion.
Not that she had even the slightest clue what that would be like, but she had never been one lacking in imagination.
With every step she took, she told herself she should turn back the way she'd come. Past Riften, down the road that led the way through the Jerall mountains to Cyrodiil. Even with the Stormcloaks patrolling the roads, she might be able to slip over the border somehow. Perhaps Maven held influence even this far outside the city, and she could pretend to be on guild business. How hard could it possibly be to talk her way past a few gate guards?
Yet every step she took carried her forward instead of back, and she went willingly on. She no longer had it in her to run. Thoughts of the guild, of loyalty, and of Brynjolf, kept her on the road to Windhelm, to return to Hjerim, the house of blood and ghosts, there to rob herself of ill-gained gold and the spoils of war to prove to a guild of thieves where her allegiance truly lay.
This time, she was making the choice. No longer would she blindly follow where the road led her. From now on, she would follow her feet, for they knew the way, and she would hold her head high, that she might see the coming of the dawn, if the gods were kind and granted a break in the storm.
It was a full day's journey from Riften to Windhelm, and with the wind at her back, she made good time. She'd left almost as soon as she'd finished with Vex, stopping only a moment in the market to resupply her pack with provisions for the road. She didn't mention to Brynjolf or to anyone else where she was going; the way word travelled around the guild, she knew he'd find out soon enough, and she wanted to be well on her way when that happened. This mission he'd sent her on, using Vex as his unwitting agent, had stirred up more than enough turmoil inside her, and she did not trust herself to keep her tongue in check if they came face-to-face. She'd done enough damage in the past few days as it was.
If she was honest with herself, which she rarely was of late, she was angry with him. His penchant for cloak-and-dagger methods reminded her so much of Delphine that it turned her blood cold. Forget for a moment that it was his business, his livelihood, to make his deals in such a way; forget for a moment who and what he was. A thief, a confidence man, a scoundrel. She had thought, had wanted, however foolishly, for there to be some semblance of trust between them, some sense of honest discourse. All of her secrets had been laid bare.
She understood his reticence; she was a deserter, a known liar, a coward where matters of the heart were concerned, so damaged was she by all that had come before, war and dragons and a man who would be king. That her loyalty wanted testing should be no surprise, that proof of her dedication to his cause was warranted did not insult her. Even after all she'd done for Brynjolf and his guild, she was still an unknown factor, a variable that could change everything, and even in her short time running with the guild, she'd learned when it came to luck or chance, you never sided with chance.
It was the doubt in her eyes, the hesitation on her tongue, and not the proof of her deeds that made him question her so. She knew it in her heart. That he had hidden behind others to put her to the test, that he had set her to this task, that he had pulled at the secret strings and set her on this path, this muddy road through Eastmarch, that is what had her heart thundering sickeningly in her throat, her thoughts filled with righteous fury and dire prediction. This abiding darkness kept her warm, and carried her across the tundra.
It wasn't until she saw smoke in the distance, chimney smoke, thick and welcoming, that she realized the shy winter sun was setting and she'd almost reached Kynesgrove. Her anger had distracted her and delivered her practically to Ulfric's doorstep. Now, there would be no turning back.
Madeline walked quickly through the quiet little village. The road was empty, save for a single guard on patrol; all the rest, she could only assume, were deep in the warm belly of the mine, hard at work. She made quickly for the inn, there to pay for a room and for a hot supper, there to rest her weary feet for a spell and to warm herself by the fire. The innkeeper was kind enough, having a paying customer on her hands after all, but she did not recognize the dragonslayer in her midst, she who had once saved the village from a fiery, ruinous fate.
Though this boon of anonymity was becoming a common occurrence, Madeline could not allow herself to grow accustomed to it. She feared it would be too easy to hide forever beneath the illusionist's guise, to shake off the mantle of Archer, to forget the Dragonborn and all she'd fought for before she'd turned craven and run. She did not want to forget, nor be forgotten. What she wanted, more than she'd ever wanted anything, was to reconcile all that she was, Maddie and Archer and dovahkiin, to live a life of her own choosing, dragons and destiny be damned.
However, she was not so naïve as to believe that such a fate would fall into her eager, waiting hands. As she left the inn and hurried through the waiting dusk, Windhelm rising over her as she crested the last hill beyond the sleepy village of Kynesgrove, she realized that after all her running, she'd really gotten nowhere at all.
Windhelm hadn't changed much in her absence.
It was snowier, certainly, but that was true for most of the countryside. The city wore true winter well. She had never known such stillness here, nor such peace, but she couldn't allow herself to be fooled by the illusion of quiet tranquillity. She did not have time to idle in the snow, musing upon the fleeting twilight. Beneath it all, she knew the same dark shadows lingered, clinging to the high stone walls streaked with the grime and ash of the centuries. There was malice here, and desperation; it hung in the very air, and the smoke of the forges that drifted over the rooftops veiled the city in misery and darkness.
The better to guide her thieving, surely.
She crept along familiar paths, and found a quiet little corner, tucked behind the kitchen chimney of the Cruel-Sea manor, where she could keep an eye on both the street and her own front door, all while keeping herself from freezing to death. Under cloak of darkness, she waited for the right moment to make her move, idly watching the guards on their hurried patrols and her once-neighbours rushing past on their way home, almost unrecognisable beneath their layers of fur and wool.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, her patience was rewarded. The heavy door to Hjerim opened, and out slipped a ginger Nord in ill-fitting armour. Calder, the guard dog, on his way to the tavern, as reliable as ever. He would return after a couple of hours or so, having imbibed just enough to poorly maintain a semblance of respectable sobriety.
By then, however, Madeline would be long gone.
It was a very strange thing to break into her own home. Though a key remained in her possession, she couldn't possibly risk being caught using it – never mind that she could not risk being caught, regardless. So she'd left it in Riften, wrapped in cloth at the bottom of her chest, hidden away even though no one would ever guess its true significance.
When she got the door open, she tucked her tools back into her belt pouch, and ducked inside. She braced herself for the rush of warm air and soft light to wash over her as she shut the door behind her, but her preparation went unrewarded. The main hall was cold and dark, the lamps extinguished, the shutters closed. The unexpected darkness threw her; immediately, her guard came up, and she reached for the dagger at her belt. She was reminded so sharply off Hjerim as it had been before her, of the shadows and secrets in every corner of the house of blood and bones, that for a moment she could not bring herself to move, and stood frozen on the threshold.
She waited. Nothing in the house stirred. Thin, pale shafts of moonlight filtered in through the frosted windows, shining down on the dust and neglect her absence had invited. She waited, breath held, heart pounding.
Kynareth save you, you damned fool, she thought, you really are jumping at ghosts.
She relaxed – a little – and let her hand fall from the hilt of her dagger. Incensed by her own foolishness, she sensibly knocked the snow from her boots, left the safety of the door-frame, and crept deeper into the house.
The unfamiliar shadows reached for her as she trespassed upon the past. Never had she let the candles burn so low, nor had the hearth fire ever gone out when she was mistress of this house. She wasn't frightened of the dark; she'd fumbled through enough caves and ruins to have become accustomed to its presence, and Brynjolf did not proclaim her proficiency at shadow work to anyone who would listen for naught. But she had seen too much in this house. She knew what dark secrets those shadows held, and always she had kept them at bay with candles and braziers brightly lit. She was no coward; she simply could not claim ignorance to the evil that had gone on within these very walls.
Distracted by memory, she miscounted her steps, and stumbled blindly into the stairs, knocking her shin sharply and crying out in surprise. She slumped down against the stairs a moment, forcing herself to draw a steadying breath. Her legs would bear the bruises of this folly come morning. She tried in vain to soothe her frayed nerves, and sent up some desperate, wordless prayer to whomever, or whatever, it was that thieves prayed to. The misplaced pride of a moment ago had fled, leaving a hollow absolution in its wake. She could not afford to make a mistake; not now, not here.
Madeline squeezed her eyes shut. There were no ghosts here, but for the ones in her head.
She pressed on, and made it up the stairs without further incident. The upstairs hallway, like the rest of the house, was cold and uninviting. Moonlight glinted off the empty glass cases and spilled across the floor. She did not have to close her eyes to imagine the dust that had settled on every surface, or the cobwebs that gathered in the corners. The house had been left to its slow, inevitable decay, and the trouble she'd gone to had been for nothing. It surprised her to find that Ulfric had left Caldur here to rot, and patrol the empty halls, surrounded by ghosts he could not see. To watch and to wait for his thane to come striding in the door as she'd so often done during her months here, pink-cheeked and puffing with autumn's chill.
Now here she was, slipping in unannounced, all shadow and silence, wearing a stranger's face and the colours of another man. Did Ulfric wait for her, from his high seat in the hall of his fathers? Did he think her dead in the Reach with the rest of his men? Had he mourned for her? She supposed not; there were always more pressing matters at hand.
Best not to delay, then.
Everything was right where she remembered it was, jewellery, silver, purses of coin. She sorted through it quickly, pocketing anything that was more valuable in gold than it was in sentiment. There wasn't much; the legend of the dragon's treasure that had enticed Vex so was unfounded. Books and a few trinkets, tools and the odd weapon or spare bit of armour. No great riches. She felt a bit of shame then, for not living up to what was undoubtedly the beginnings of her legend. But the past was past, and there was only one person now she sought to impress, and simple gold or jewels would do little to satisfy his high expectation. No, she knew Brynjolf was expecting something special.
Luckily, she knew just the thing.
She found her chosen token of fealty in the locked cabinet where she'd left it. After she'd retrieved it, she hurried through the rest of her sweep, careful not to disturb anything despite the evidence that nothing would be missed. No one had been in this room since she'd departed for the Reach more than a month before. Someone might have been keeping an eye out for the Dragonborn for the guild, for Ulfric, for the Thalmor, and the Divines only knew who else, but it was woefully clear that no one had been stopping in to clean during her absence.
She laughed to herself then, the absurdity of a thief living in the gutter turning up her nose at an unaired room and dusty mantel. Even after she'd left the house and locked the door behind her, she could not banish the wry smile from her lips.
But her amusement was short-lived. She had no sooner stepped out of the dooryard than a guard came up the steps from the temple, torch blazing as he went about his routine patrol. Blinded by it, he should not have been able to see her up on the hill. She should have been safe, even as she ducked back toward the shadow of the wall. And yet –
There was no thought to it, no plan. She moved on instinct, across the street and up the stone corridor. Her boots slipped in the fresh snow as she took a corner too fast, and her shoulder bore the brunt of the impact as she pushed herself off the wall and kept running. The wrong way, she was going the wrong way, she thought. Too late, as she raced across the empty courtyard, the braziers brightly lit.
Another shout sounded from behind her, and she ran through the great stone gateway, throwing herself at breakneck speed down the icy, uneven stairs. The wind burned her cheeks, and cold air seared her lungs with each gasping, panting breath. Later, she would marvel at how close she'd come to killing herself as she slid down those treacherous stairs, but whatever luck had abandoned her with the guard now saw her safely to the bottom, and she ducked into the closest alley.
Heavy footsteps pounded behind her, driving her forward. She was close to the gate to the docks now, and somewhere through the rush of blood in her ears and the thundering of her heart, she managed to pick it out as the safest route. She could see the gate, she was almost there –
A child stepped out of the shadows, threadbare shawl wrapped around her thin shoulders, a basket clutched in her pale hands.
"Over there!" she said, and pointed, wraithlike, to a stack of barrels draped with netting.
Madeline glanced over her shoulder. The hulking shadows of the armoured guards on her trail rushed toward her, long and looming in the torchlight. There was nothing for it. She cast the child one single, mistrustful look and vaulted over the barrel.
She'd barely crouched down when the guards came to an abrupt halt in the mouth of the alley. Her body shook with the effort of controlling her breathing. Daring to peek through the nets, Madeline saw she'd somehow managed to accumulate three pursuers, each of them burly, sullen Nords. Two stood with weapons drawn, but one was unarmed, carrying his torch aloft. Each of them wore the proud blue banner of Eastmarch across his chest, but it looked washed out and grey in the shifting light.
The guard with the torch took off his helmet, and stood over the little girl. "Did you see a thief run this way, child?"
The girl only looked up at him, mute and innocent, before she pointed down the steps leading to the Grey Quarter. The guard nodded, replaced his helmet, and motioned for his companions to follow. They hurried in the direction the girl had pointed, down the stairs and out of sight.
Madeline waited until the sound of their footsteps had faded into the night before she eased a little into her snowdrift, trying to catch her breath. She wiped her running nose with the back of her sleeve, and when she looked up, the little girl was peering down at her curiously.
"Are you a thief?"
"Sometimes," Madeline admitted, "though I try not to be."
"Oh." The girl frowned, disappointed. "Well, would you like to buy a flower?"
Madeline could not help but smile. She'd buy a hundred flowers from this child, anything for the saving grace, but something was wrong. "What is your name?" she asked the girl, looking her over again. Her clothes were dirty, the bottom of her skirt heavy and frozen from being out in the snow all day. Brown eyes stared back, questioning, overlarge in her thin, pale face.
"Sofie," was all she offered.
Madeline frowned, her heart sinking, and forced herself to ask the question to which she already knew the answer. "Where are your parents, Sofie?"
The girl gave her a scrutinizing look, as if gauging her trustworthiness. Madeline swallowed back a bark of laughter that threatened to escape at the thought of a street urchin measuring the worth of a thief. But whatever the girl saw left her satisfied, and so she said, "My mama died when I was little. My father was a soldier. One day he left, and didn't come back, so now I'm all alone."
A soldier. Madeline could see the truth written on the girl's face, through the grief and cold. A Stormcloak, she hadn't said it, but then, she didn't need to. If she was left begging on the snowy streets of Windhelm, who else could her father have been?
Damn you, Ulfric, you heartless bastard. This is your doing, Madeline thought, as the girl looked up at her with hollow cheeks and hopeful eyes. You don't fight for your people or your gods. You fight only for yourself.
How could she have been so blind?
"So, would you like to buy a flower? Please?" Sofie plucked a stem from her basket and held out the orange blossom, as if selling flowers in the snow was the most natural thing in the world.
Dragon's Tongue. Of course it would be.
Madeline made herself smile as she took the flower and tucked it into her belt pouch, hoping the child could not see the disgust that boiled under what calm she could muster. The street was quiet now, and she finally crawled out of her hiding spot, brushing the snow from her backside as she went. Without a second thought to the trouble she would face when she returned to Riften, she pulled her dagger and cut her purse from her belt. She handed it to Sofie. It was heavy, and would see the child through a few weeks, at least, if she was careful. Madeline hoped she was.
"Thank you," Sofie said softly, nodding in silent acknowledgement of the agreement between them.
"Is there a boat for hire down at the dock?" Madeline asked, her mind still fogged with anger and regret. The high stone walls of Windhelm loomed over her; she needed to leave, needed the road, the open sky, time to think, and woe betide any who fell upon her thinking her easy prey.
"Gort has a boat, if he's still awake. Though he's more likely drunk if he is."
Madeline nodded. A drunken boatman was the least of her concerns. She only needed to get across the river. "Until we meet again, Sofie," she said, placing a hand on the girl's head.
"Talos guide you," Sofie said, before she turned and walked away.
If Madeline had waited but a moment longer, she might have seen the girl tuck the coin purse in her basket beneath her trove of wilted, frozen flowers. She might have seen the girl look back over her shoulder, her dark eyes lonely and wistful. But Madeline was already gone.
It was a long way to Riften, and someone was expecting her.