Despite the chill in the air and frigid waters, they’d bathed in the Darkwater River, shivering as they washed that horrid stench from their skin and hair, but grateful to be rid of it. They took turns sitting in their camp by the fire, combing the tangles from each other’s hair, careful to avoid disentangling each other’s warrior braids.
Ralof had given her her first braid the night they’d arrived in Riverwood after escaping Helgen. Her small village had been home to a few veterans from the Great War, but she hadn’t realize how significant it was until Ralof explained. “A braid is a true mark of a warrior,” he’d told her, holding out the twisted strands of his wild blond hair. He’d bragged that the four he wore in his hair symbolized the first four men he’d killed, but no matter the number, each warrior’s braids were of personal significance. Some marked deeds of valor, other the number of wars they’d been in, and even others still braided every lock of hair on their head to show how many men they’d run their blade through, but no matter what they meant to the warrior herself, they were a badge of honor to be worn with pride.
Ulfric wore two, one for each war in which he’d been a soldier. He’d told her once that his father had given him his first braid the day he left to join the Imperial Legion; the second he’d braided himself after shouting King Torygg to the ground and pushing a sword through his heart; marking the start of his own personal war for his homeland.
“She cut it off, you know.” His voice was so quiet, almost calm when he spoke those words. “Elenwen, I mean. It was her first act of cruelty against me.” She felt his fingers pulling together a thin lock of hair on the right side of her head, deftly twining it, pulling tight as he wove the strands together. “She cut off my braid and burned it in the palm of her hand to dishonor me. She said I was no warrior and she would prove it.”
When she tried to turn her head to look at him, he steadied her with his hand so he could finish his task.
“I promised her that day that I would cut off her head and throw it into a fire, right before I spat in her face. Of all the things she did to me, I think that hurt my pride more than any of the other horrors I suffered at her hands.”
“That makes me so sad.”
“It is over now. I grew it back.” He shrugged, as if the heaviness of his soul had waned a little just by sharing that dark, hidden part of himself with her. He leaned back to look at her. “You are a great warrior, heart of my heart,” he said, circling a thin strip of leather around the base to hold it in place. “Let the world see that.” She reached up to touch it, fingers caressing the tightly woven strands as she found her smile. “Though I don’t think even you have enough hair on your pretty head to braid for every dragon you’ve already slain.”
They had decided there was no sense in hiding who they were anymore, and so they marched toward the front gates of Riften unhooded, the nauseating smell of Lake Honrich an almost welcome scent after their night in that abandoned shack. The guard at the front gate was the same one who’d harassed them the last time they’d been in town, but he recognized Ulfric immediately bowing in reverence as he opened the gates to allow them passage.
It was mid-afternoon, and the people of Riften wandered about the merchant circle buying, selling, trading gossip. Ulfric let her do the talking, lingering at her shoulder while she asked about the Thieves Guild and the Ratway. The general consensus in town was that she should stay away from both, unless she was planning to shut it down, in which case they would all rejoice and name their firstborn children after her.
She had no intention of shutting down the Thieves Guild. Even if it was a criminal faction, every faction served a purpose in some way. She didn’t agree with the things the Thieves Guild stood for, but for some people it was a way of life and the only way they were able to get by. As they made their way into the dank, dripping cellars of the Ratway beneath Lake Honrich, Ulfric crouched behind her muttering, “I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but that shack actually smelled better than this place.”
He was right. The Ratway reeked of old piss, rot and body odor and to make matters worse, navigating its dark, winding tunnels was a virtual nightmare. They met with brigands and sellswords who couldn’t wait to stab them in the back and count out their coin, and when Ulfric unleashed his Thu’um to drive them back, she swore the rumbling of its thunder would bring the entire shanty town of Riften down on their heads.
“Let’s not do that again.” She yanked Wuuthrad from the dead body beneath her feet, a spray of blood splashing up against to slick her armor.
Ulfric reached to brush the dust and stone from his hair, shrugging a little as he mumbled, “Sorry.”
The must have navigated those tunnels for more than two hours, fighting back skeevers, brawlers and spiders before they finally came to the doors of the Ragged Flagon and made their way into the dark headquarters of the Thieves Guild. They were met by a tall, broad-shouldered man with a gapped-toothed sneer and blond mutton chops, who assured them that one false move would see them both dead.
“I’m here to see Brynjolf,” she explained.
“Nobody here by that name,” the mutton-chopped brigand growled, crossing his arms.
“What do they want, Dirge?” She looked toward the sound of that melodious voice, recognizing it immediately and remembering her very first trip to Riften more than four years earlier. He’d coaxed her with the sweet promise of more coin than she could ever carry and called her lass when he’d reached up to tuck the braid behind her ear. She’d been so mad at Vilkas at the time, she had momentarily considered taking the thief up on his offer just so he wouldn’t stop calling her lass in that tender brogue.
He stalked toward them with a swagger that almost nearly matched Ulfric’s in confidence, lowering the hood around his shoulders to loose the flowing locks of his fiery red hair, he cleared his throat. “Finally come to take me up on my offer, lass? I can’t think of any other reason the queen from above would make her way down below. I hear your kingdom is in desperate need of coin now that you’ve liberated us from the cruel yolk of Imperial oppression.”
Luthien actually laughed, especially when she saw Ulfric’s furrowed brow over her shoulder. “You actually know this man?”
“Not exactly,” she shook her head. “We met once, long ago, but he promised me the world that day if I would just find the courage to reach into the depths of other people’s pockets and take it.”
“Thieves,” Ulfric grumbled.
“We are all thieves in our own right, my lord,” Brynjolf bowed his head. “Even you, King Ulfric. Some say you stole the throne right out from under Torygg. You have to be a pretty damn good thief to steal an entire kingdom, not that I give a damn what games you lords and ladies play, but I do commend you for your tenacity nonetheless.” Turning his attention to Luthien, he asked, “What can I do for you, lass?”
“Actually, we need your help.”
He laughed then, a hearty chuckle that probably went on much longer than he intended it to. “You made it perfectly clear you haven’t the stomach for the kind of work I do. How could I possibly be of help to you?”
“We’re looking for someone. Delphine of Riverwood told us you would be the best person to ask.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “Delphine. Then you search for the lost Blade who’s made his home here.”
“You know where we can find Esbern?”
“Maybe I do,” he shrugged. “Maybe I don’t. Information like that doesn’t come cheap, if you get my meaning.”
“A hefty bag of gold would be nice,” he shrugged. “Maybe enough to help get the guild back on its feet again.”
“How about five hundred septims?” Ulfric offered.
“Really, I’m insulted.” Brynjolf frowned. “I’ll tell you what, double that offer and I might be persuaded to loosen my tongue.”
Ulfric was quiet a moment as he regarded the man in front of him, and then he nodded. “Consider it done.”
“I will consider it done when the gold is in my hand.”
“Half now and half when the old man is safely out of this place and delivered to his destination.”
Brynjolf winced, sucking the air between his teeth. “I don’t think so. All now, or no deal.”
“Or how about nothing at all, and we will just find him on our own.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Good luck with that.”
Luthien had a feeling the two of them could go on all day at that game, so she stepped between them and held up her hand. “I’ll tell you what,” she began. “We will give you seven-fifty gold right now and the promise of seven-fifty more when Esbern is safe. That is three times our original offer and more than enough to help you thieves clean up your little rathole.”
“That sounds like a fair deal.” Brynjolf nodded, turning his gaze to Ulfric. “What say you, your Highness? Can you cough up the gold?”
Ulfric begrudgingly handed over the coin, which Brynjolf weighed out with a delighted grin. “I’ve gotta tell you, lass. It’s a damn shame you walked away that day,” he winked before he sauntered over to the table to lay down his price. “You may be handy with a war axe against dragons, but you would have been a beautiful little thief. I bet you could have given our Vex a run for her money.”
“Where do we find Esbern?”
“You’ll find him in the Warrens, but be forewarned. Two of our ranks went missing a few weeks back. Turns out one of them was working with the Thalmor, who’ve been snooping around these parts as well since he disappeared. We didn’t tell them anything, not after what they did to Retienne, but there’s no telling what that rat Gissur already told them.”
“Is Retienne… all right?”
“He’s safe, hidden away for now. He says a beautiful woman saved him and set him free, but she wouldn’t tell him her name. Maybe you make for a better hero than a thief after all, lass.”
The directions Brynjolf gave them through the Warrens were a muddle of confusion, and they met with a host of Thalmor just outside the Ragged Flagon. Ulfric charged into battle with a taunt, while she summoned her magic and together they got the job done, but there were more waiting in the hallways and alcoves all throughout the Warrens and before long it seemed they were in an epic battle to see who would reach Esbern first.
When they approached the door, she could hear them in distant corridors calling out warnings. “I’m going to find you, and when I do, you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
She knocked on the cracked wooden door, drawing in a breath through her nose and holding it while she waited for an answer.
“Go away,” an old voice on the other side. “I’m very busy.”
“Esbern? Open the door. I’m a friend.”
“No, that’s not me.” She could hear his words trembling through his throat. “I’m not Esbern. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s okay, Esbern. Delphine sent me.”
There was painful relief in the speaking of her name, “Delphine? How do you… So… you’ve finally found her? And she led you to me… and here I am caught like a rat in a trap.”
“Yes, I know exactly where she is and I can take you to her, but we have to move quickly. The Thalmor have found you. We need to get you out of here.”
“Then I suppose this is the end of poor old Esbern,” he said.
“Esbern, I swear. I haven’t come to hurt you. Please, open the door. There are Thalmor agents in the Ratway searching for you. I don’t know how much longer we can hold them off alone.”
“And no doubt you are one of them. Go away. I’m not opening this door for anybody.”
“If that old man gets us killed…” Ulfric growled.
“Delphine needs your help to stop the dragons. I’m the one the Blades have been searching for. I’m the Dragonborn.”
“Dragonborn… did you say… Then… there really is hope after all. You’d better come inside. Quickly now! Thalmor agents have been seen in the Ratway.”
“Ysmir’s beard,” she heard Ulfric mutter. “If we live through this I’m going to strangle Delphine with my bare hands.”
“This’ll just take a moment.” She could hear Esbern unlocking a series of bolts and chains on the other side of the door, the echo of Thalmor agents drawing closer. “This one always sticks. Ah, there we go. Only a couple more. There we are. Come in, make yourself at home.”
She and Ulfric slipped into the tiny cell of a room and the scrawny, bearded old man dressed in little more than rags closed the door behind them. As he turned to look at her, he regarded Ulfric suspiciously and then he focused his sights on her. “You? Dragonborn… Is it really true?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I am the Dragonborn.”
“If you are Dragonborn, as you say, then there is still hope after all. For so long, all I could do was watch our doom approach, helplessly.”
“You speak of Alduin?” she asked.
“You know of him?”
“He haunts her dreams every night,” Ulfric said.
“Ah, then you are aware then that the return of the dragons is merely nothing more than the final portent to the End of Days, yes?”
“End of days?” she repeated. “You’re talking about the literal end of the world…” She had seen it so many times, running helplessly through the fields, arms heavy with the weight of her children and a great shadow of doom at her back. And when the meteor showers rained down around her, the ground beneath her feet began to liquefy and melt, drawing her and everything she loved into darkness.
“Oh yes,” he nodded. “The prophecies make clear the signs that will precede the end times. One by one, I have seen them fulfilled. Alduin has returned, just as the prophecy said. The dragon from the dawn of time who devours the souls of the dead. No one can escape his hunger, here or in the afterlife. Alduin will devour all things and the world can end. Nothing can stop him.”
She shuddered, a series of chills rippling through her that were so powerful she could feel her knees begin to shake. If not for Ulfric’s hand on her shoulder, fingers curling into her muscle to hold her steady and remind her of her strength, she might have fallen.
“No,” she refused his doom. “It is not hopeless. I am the Dragonborn.”
Humbled for a moment, the old man lowered his head, shaking it. “Yes, yes. You’re right. I forget myself I’ve… I have lived without hope for so long. The prophecies are clear. Only the Dragonborn can stop Alduin.”
“Then he can be stopped?” Ulfric asked.
Esbern went on as if he hadn’t heard him, saying, “We must go. Quickly now. Take me to Delphine. There is so much we have to discuss.”
“Can Alduin be stopped, old man?” Ulfric spoke up.
“Yes, yes. In good time I will explain everything. But please give me just a moment, there are a few things I must gather.”
While Esbern rushed around his small apartment, she turned to Ulfric, a spark of hope mingling with dread. It was true then, everything her dreams had spoken of was true. They were on the edge of the End Times, and if what Esbern said was true, only she could stop them from coming.
“This is bigger than just Skyrim now, Ulfric.”
He’d been chewing at the corner of his mouth, deep in thought. “I know.”
“We’re talking about the end of everything.”
“I know,” he repeated, firming the edge on his voice.
At her back she could hear Esbern muttering to himself as he packed his things. He was looking for his annotated Anuad, but nothing he was mumbling seemed to matter in the wake of what he’d told her just moments before. Night after night, she’d stood witness to the End of Days, but something else he’d said to her lingered amidst thoughts of foreboding and doom.
“Esbern, what did you mean when you said no one escapes his hunger, here or in the afterlife?”
But before he could answer they heard a host of footsteps in the hallway. “This way, just up there.”
“We’ve got company,” Ulfric called out.
“Damn it! I guess that’s good enough,” Esbern said. “All right, let’s go.”
“Get ready for a fight,” she heard Ulfric say over his shoulder as he reached for the door.
She summoned her Storm Atronach before he’d even finished opening the door, and it rushed out to meet with the Thalmor on the stairs. “A fellow magic user,” Esbern beamed, as if they were simply heading out for a lazy afternoon stroll through the Ratway. “That will definitely come in handy.” He summoned a Fire Atronach that swept up to fight beside hers.
She’d thought stumbling through the Ratway had been difficult before, but the Thalmor seemed to come out in never ending droves, and as soon as they ended one meeting with them, another bloody, shock and fire-fueled battle began just around the next corner. She could feel her magicka draining quickly, and there was no time to replenish it.
“Esbern, do you know an easy way out of here?”
“Of course,” he grinned. “Follow me.”
The Thalmor thinned out the further they grew from the Warrens, but met them again as they raced through the Ragged Flagon, coming in the opposite door and unleashing bolts of lightning that caught her off guard. Ulfric’s Thu’um thundered through the cavern, knocking the two soldiers backward long enough for the three of them to unleash an attack. Cutting them down quickly, they raced up the stairs and out the door the Thalmor had come in, scurrying behind Esbern as he guided them toward the exit.
As he pushed through the door to the Ratway, the outside air rushed into her lungs and she swore at that moment she’d never been so happy to smell fish and stagnant water in her life. She breathed in a heavy sigh of relief, but Ulfric was quick to remind her that though their troubles may have been behind them for a moment, it was only a matter of time before they caught up with them again.
Esbern squinted against the daylight, as if he hadn’t seen the sun in years. From the looks of him, Luthien guessed he probably hadn’t.
“We need to get out of Riften,” Ulfric announced. “And fast.”
“We’ll need another horse,” Luthien sighed.
“I don’t suppose you have any coin, old man?”
“Me?” Esbern shrugged. “A little bit, but not enough for a horse.”
Ulfric’s shoulders slumped, a heavy breath deflating his broad chest. “Why is everything with Delphine such a headache?” He muttered into his beard, shaking his head as he started up the rickety stairs to the pier.
“You’ve got a headache, did you say? I think there’s a tonic in my bag…” Esbern followed him up the steps, digging through his worn and tattered satchel as he walked.