Ginna knew it probably would have been easier to travel straight to Winterhold from Snow Veil Sanctum, but Winterhold was an empty city and in her weakened state, she needed another horse. Mercer had taken hers; she’d expected as much, but it didn’t keep her from cursing his name on the long, bitter walk to Windhelm, the cold cutting through to her bones and making the healed wound in her shoulder ache. She had known from the moment she met him something wasn’t right about Mercer Frey. He’d reminded her of Brutus, calculating, arrogant, almost cruel in his nature; she should have listened to her gut instinct.
Always listen to your gut. One of Severus’s earliest lessons.
It was too late to go back and change it now.
It was nightfall when she came upon the city of Windhelm, and though she knew the matter at hand was more urgent than anything she’d ever seen to, she was still weak. She pushed through the city gates and asked a Dunmer woman just inside the walls where she could take rest and fill her empty belly. At first the woman was taken aback by Ginna’s approach, asking if she shared the Nordic opinion that the elves had no place in Skyrim, but then softened when Ginna explained that she wasn’t from Skyrim.
She directed her to Candlehearth Hall, which rested in the daunting shadow of the Palace of the Kings. Making her way through the Stormcloak soldiers that filled the streets, she entered the tavern and ordered food and drink from the woman behind the counter before paying ten septims for a room. After showing her to her room, Ginna made her way up the stairs to sit at one of the tables and listen to the bard sing.
She sang of oppression and honoring Ulfric, the true High King of Skyrim, of Sovngarde and death, and though Ginna still didn’t claim to understand the whole point of the war in Skyrim, she couldn’t deny the song moved her a little. Maybe she was just tired.
Leaning her back into the chair, the shadow that fell over her right shoulder caught her off guard and she jerked her head around to find a tall, dark-haired man with more muscle than she ever thought one human capable of building. “I am so tired of that gods damned song,” he muttered, more to himself than to her. “I’ll give you ten septims to take a break,” he called to the bard.
“My voice could use a rest,” she conceded when the song was done.
“Good, my ears could use a rest,” he grumbled.
Ginna looked up at that man, confused by his obvious lack of support for Ulfric’s cause despite the fact that he was decked out in full Stormcloak armor, ragged and stained in the blood of battle. He looked rough, unshaven, unkempt, the stringy locks of brown hair that hung around his face half-tucked behind one ear, but he had the most intense and piercing blue eyes Ginna had ever seen. He tipped back his tankard and gulped down several swallows of whatever he was drinking, and then lowered the empty mug at his side.
“Farkas, you’re back,” a high-pitched female voice called from the stairs behind the hearth. “How goes the war? When did you get in?”
“About an hour ago, and the war still goes. Ulfric says we’ll march on Solitude soon, but he’s been saying that for months.” He walked toward the young woman, the two of them slipping back down the stairs together and leaving Ginna alone in the hall for a while.
People came in and out the side door, mingling, drinking, whispering about all the young girls who’d been murdered in the city. One of them, a handsome, retired sailor warned her to be on her guard in the city streets; Windhelm wasn’t safe for young women. He was wearing fine clothes, and by the looks of his heavy pockets, they were teaming with coin and valuables ripe for the picking, but Ginna let alone.
It was probably the first time she’d sat in such a place without treating herself to the treasures in other people’s pockets, and quite of few of them looked as though they had very interesting pockets. She wasn’t even tempted. She was too tired to steal; maybe she had a fever.
She finished her mead and then headed down the stairs to the room she’d rented. She locked the door and looked around. It was a nice enough room, much nicer than the one she’d stayed in at the Bee & Barb. Brynjolf would have teased her if he could have seen her there.
Thinking of him made her heart ache, and even though she was completely exhausted, when she crawled into bed her mind just kept turning. What if there was no way to translate Gallus’s journal, or what if Gallus’s final words did nothing to exonerate Karliah from the crimes Mercer had framed her with? What if his journal did provide evidence of Mercer’s betrayal, but Brynjolf still didn’t believe that everything she’d ever felt with him, everything she’d said to him, had been true?
Maybe she should just run away. Find that island and sink into the sand to be forgotten forever.
But no… There was no running away from the way she felt. She had a feeling that no matter what happened, she would never be able to walk away from Brynjolf; even if Mercer turned him against her and made him hate her.
Her dreams that night were filled with the walking dead, their bulging eyes and hungry jaws snapping at her as they reached in to tear her limb from limb. They tugged and they pulled her in every direction until they turned into birds, sharp beaks nipping at her flesh, devouring her bit by bit until she woke with a startled gasp just before dawn.
As she consulted her map to get a clear idea of how long the journey to Winterhold would take, she thought seriously about stealing another horse, but when she approached the stables the horsemaster was already out and tending to his beasts even though the sun had barely risen. She had enough gold, more than enough thanks to that last job she’d done for Mercer and those rare treasures she’d sold to Delvin. For the first time in her life, she paid for her ride and as she parted with that hard-earned gold, she felt conflicted.
She could almost hear Brynjolf asking her what she would do when she ran out of gold? Shouldn’t she save it for a rainy day? If her life hadn’t become one big rainy day, she didn’t know what else to think about it.
Steering onto the northwestern road, she took comfort in knowing that for a time she would be safe from Brutus. Mercer had sold her out, and had likely reported back to Brutus that she was dead. And so it was truly as a ghost she traveled. A dead woman on the road that no one needed to bother with.
Winterhold was even colder than Windhelm, which she hadn’t thought possible, but the bitter winds riding in off the Sea of Ghosts mingled with the blizzard that carried her into a silent city. The cold set into her bones, made her shoulder throb and ache in the place Mercer’s blade had pierced her. She tethered her horse outside the inn and stared up at the overwhelming castle that loomed from above. She knew nothing about the mage’s college, or how she would gain entry to find this Enthir person Karliah had sent her to search for.
And then Nocturnal smiled on her. Or maybe it was the Daedric Prince of coincidence, she didn’t know, but she’d never been happier to see a familiar face in her life. He was sitting at one of the tables sipping brandy and hadn’t even looked up when she came in, but she recognized him right away.
“Marcurio?” She stepped up behind him and he turned his head over his shoulder upon hearing his name, the long ponytail of golden-brown hair falling down his back.
“Oh…” His golden-amber eyes did not smile, not the way they had the first time he’d met her, or even the second time. “It’s you.”
“What are you doing all the way up here?”
“If you must know, I was attending a meeting at the College, not that it’s any of your business.”
“I probably deserve that,” she admitted, sinking down onto the bench beside him. He scooted over a little, as if he didn’t want to get near her and she wondered for a moment if Brynjolf had actually threatened him. “Look, I’m sorry about the way I treated you the last couple of times I saw you.”
“I see…” He narrowed his eyes over her suspiciously. “What do you want? I’m incredibly busy and don’t have time for being social.”
“I… I want to hire you.” She looked down at the table and ignored the sound of Brynjolf’s voice in the back of her mind. I don’t think I’ve never met a thief who liked to throw their money around the way you do.
“Do you now?” he almost snorted his disbelief. “What do you take me for? Some kind of fool?”
“No, I’m completely serious. I need your help.”
Lifting his hand to stroke the patch of hair beneath his bottom lip, his fingers tugged through it as he leaned back to study her. “You really are serious, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am really serious. Look, I don’t have much left, but I’ll pay you double if you want me to.”
His hand dropped slowly to the tabletop, lips twisting as he mulled that over. “Double, you say?”
“A thousand gold septims.” Ginna reached into her bag and drew a heavy sack out onto the table. She pushed it over in front of him without flinching and watched his dark eyebrows knit together.
“I don’t know about this.” He started to reach for the bag. “This smells like a trap. What’s the catch? Have you got your merry band of thugs waiting outside to kill me, because I can promise you that I won’t hold back my formidable power if I’m forced to use it.”
“I just need help.” If he had even half a notion of how hard it was for her to ask for it, he probably wouldn’t have had doubts, but Marcurio knew very little about her at all. She’d never given him a chance. “It’s just me here. No one’s waiting outside to kill you,” she sighed. “And I’m already dead, so…”
“What do you mean, you’re already dead?”
“It’s a long story.” She lowered her head.
“Well then, you’d better start telling it…”
“I can’t,” she raised her stare to meet with his, soft blue eyes pleading. She must have looked so pathetic. “I thought mercenaries weren’t supposed to ask questions.”
“Normally, we don’t, but then normally I don’t associate with clients I already know I can’t trust.”
“Look, are you going to help me or not? If not, I need to know now so I can try to find another way to work this out on my own.”
Marcurio drew in a deep breath, chest puffing out as he roved those golden eyes over her face before lifting them to focus on hers again. “All right,” he agreed with a sigh. “I’ll help you, but if I even so much as suspect you’re up to something… tricky, I won’t hesitate in roasting you alive where you stand.”
“I promise you it won’t be. Now what do you need?”
“Well, for starters, I’m looking for a mage.”
“You’re sitting with one right now. One of the best to be precise.”
“No, a specific mage. Don’t all you mages know each other, or something?”
Scoffing, his eyes arced upward and he reached for his brandy. “That’s like assuming every Dunmer knows every Altmer and Bosmer just because they all have pointed ears.”
“Right, anyway… I’m looking for a mage by the name of Enthir…”
“Enthir?” Marcurio glanced back over his shoulder into the corner of the quiet inn. “You mean that Enthir?”
She followed the length of his finger into that corner where a lone, Bosmer mage sat hunched over a book, fingers curled around a tarnished mug. “That’s him?”
“It’s the only mage I know named Enthir.”
Ginna rose from her seat and started toward him, Marcurio pushing up to curiously follow. “Excuse me,” she said as she approached. “Are you Enthir?”
“Yes, yes. What can I help you with?”
“My name is Ginna. I’ve been sent by Karliah.”
“Karliah?” The elf’s eyes widened and he drew back in deep thought, almost muttering to himself. “Then she’s finally found it. Do you have Gallus’s journal?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I do, but there’s a bit of a problem.”
“A problem? What sort of problem? Let me see it?” While Ginna dug into her satchel to retrieve the journal, Enthir went on talking. “All those years, it’s probably faded.”
“No, not quite.” She drew it out and handed it over to him. “It’s written in some strange language neither of us recognized. She thought perhaps you might be able to determine what it says.”
She watched as Enthir opened the pages and began leafing through them. “Ahh, this is just like Gallus,” he laughed. “A dear friend, but always too clever for his own good.”
“Who’s Gallus?” Marcurio leaned in over her shoulder, pushing himself up just a little too close to her. Ginna looked back at him, blinking and lifting her eyebrows in a silent plea for him to back off. He took a step back and huffed as if it had been her crowding him.
“Don’t worry about it,” she told him, returning her attention to Enthir. “Can you read it?”
“He’s written all of the text in the Falmer language.”
“Falmer? You mean the Snow Elves?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.” He closed the book and reached for his mug again.
“Can you translate it?”
“No,” he shook his head. “However, I know someone who might.”
“All right, who?”
“The court wizard in Markarth, Calcelmo. He may have the materials you need to get this journal translated.”
“Markarth,” she pinched her lips tight together. Didn’t it figure getting the evidence she needed wouldn’t be as easy as a simple trip to find a mage in Winterhold? The longer she was away from Riften, the harder it was going to be to convince Brynjolf of her innocence when the time came. She was never gladder than she was at that moment that she’d traveled into Windhelm for that horse.
“A word of warning,” Enthir went on. “Calcelmo is a fierce guardian of his research. Getting the information we require will not be easy.”
“Of course it won’t,” she sighed. “Any ideas on ways I might be able to persuade or convince him? This is more important than you could ever imagine.”
“Calcelmo always was a bit of an ego,” Enthir noted. “And with good reason, I suppose. He’s the authority on Dwemer culture, and no one else in Skyrim can even begin to match his knowledge. Appeal to that if possible. It may not persuade him completely, but it will definitely get you into his good graces.”
“Thank you. I will remember that.” She reached for the journal and opened it to the first page again, studying the strange symbols inside. “Enthir, tell me something. Why would Gallus transcribe his journal in the Falmer language?”
“The Falmer have a language?” Marcurio edged his way into the conversation again, but before Ginna could shoot him another look, Enthir answered her question.
“Besides the fact that there are only a handful of people in Tamriel who even recognize the language? I’m fairly certain he was planning some sort of heist that involved a deep understanding of the Falmer language. Sadly, we never had the opportunity to speak about the details.”
“Where did he acquire the knowledge to use that language?”
“Ironically, I pointed him in the same direction I just pointed you, to Markarth and Calcelmo. I’m only hoping whatever means he used to learn the language will still be available to you.”
“I hope so too.”
“Gallus was a dear friend of mine,” Enthir said softly. “And a surprisingly astute pupil of academia. I was devastated when he was killed. I suppose that risk always exists in your… line of work. I just never imagined his luck would run out.”
Ginna drew in a breath, remembering the sorrow she’d seen in Karliah’s bright, lavender eyes, feeling Enthir’s sadness then too. “None of us ever think our luck will run out, but Karliah and I are going to turn this all around. We may not be able to bring Gallus back, but…”
“But it seems like some of that bad luck may be turning itself around already,” he noted. “Karliah’s been on her own for a lot of years. She’s lucky to finally have someone she can trust on her side.”
“Come on, Marcurio.” She turned away and began heading for the door.
“Where are we going?”
“Markarth,” she said without looking back. “To find another wizard.”