The three Nightingales traveled in shadow and silence, north through Eastmarch and on slightly west into The Pale, where the old Dwemer ruins of Irkngthand lie nestled and almost forgotten in thick drifts of hard, white snow. None of them had spoken much while they were on the road, and even when they stopped to set up camp, they were quiet, each of them deep in thought.
Ginna couldn’t stop thinking about how quickly everything in her life had changed. Though now that she had time to reflect on it all during the long, winding road to Irkngthand, she guessed it hadn’t happened as quickly as she thought. Her luck had been running out for years, beginning in her mind when Severus had first become sick. The Guild in Cyrodiil hadn’t suffered nearly as bad as Riften, but upon reflection she could clearly see a dwindling line of darkness drifting in like a shade.
On the other hand, meeting Brynjolf had triggered a whole new streak of luck unlike any she’d ever expected to know in her life. Not all of it was good luck, but the good seemed to far outweigh the bad whenever she was with him–or at least it didn’t seem near as daunting with someone at her side to help share the burden. Maybe it was daft to put so much thought into it, but it almost felt as if Nocturnal herself had brought them together so they might know strength, to grant them the power necessary to wreak havoc in her shadows and restore fear in her blessed name.
But what if she was wrong about Nocturnal’s intentions? Ginna wasn’t stupid and she’d never been idealistic when it came to her own future, but Brynjolf gave her something she’d known very little of in her lifetime: hope. And her hope insisted that surely Noctunral’s influence would bring them the luck they needed to see Mercer Frey to the justice of a very blood end. But what if that wasn’t what Nocturnal wanted at all? Severus had often spoken of Lady Luck’s fickle appetite and wavering whim, and now that she’d come face to face with Her Shadowship, Ginna had witnessed firsthand just how cruel a mistress Luck could be.
She didn’t want to fool herself into thinking she deserved a happily ever after, even if that was what she wanted more than anything else in the world. Her heart kept lingering on that dreadful possibility: what if the life she and Brynjolf longed to share together was over long before it was even given a chance to start? They were bound in service to that cruel mistress, as well as each other, but what if their contract to Nocturnal proved stronger than the vows and promises they’d made to Mara and each other? Thinking about it made her shudder under a cold fear unlike any she’d ever known. A life without Brynjolf was no life at all; not even an afterlife.
And if they did manage to defeat Mercer, then what? Him even suggesting that she lead the Guild still made her head spin, possibly more than them becoming Nightingales. She’d wanted to stay in Riften, keep herself firmly planted within the Guild, within Maven’s good graces, but to take Mercer’s place as Guildmaster? It seemed so… sudden. A part of her still didn’t understand why he didn’t want the position himself. He said he didn’t want to lead, but she’d witnessed him taking care of business for Mercer, running things with Vex and Delvin. That Guild was already his. Why not, at the very least, run it with her? Like partners?
She woke alone on their second night of travel, Karliah having turned in and Brynjolf taking over watch duty for the last two hours in camp. Ginna made her way out to join him by the fire, hunkering down to crouch beside him and share the heat he offered freely when he lowered his arm over her shoulder to tug her closer.
“You’ve still got a couple hours of sleep if you want it, lass. You should take advantage of it. We face Mercer soon enough, and you’ll need all the energy you can muster.” He didn’t turn to look at her when he spoke, but kept his distant gaze centered on the small fire. She wondered what he was thinking, if his mind was churning over the same thoughts that plagued her mind almost endlessly since they’d uncovered the truth about Mercer.
“I’m not tired.” She laid her head against his shoulder and exhaled a long breath laden with confusion and woe.
“What’s on your mind then?” he asked. “Having second thoughts about all of this? About me and all my baggage?”
“Don’t be stupid,” she muttered. “It’s just as much my baggage as it is yours, especially now. I’m the one who got run through, remember?”
“Aye, a crime I intend to repay tenfold.”
“You and me both.”
“We’ll put our blades in him together then.”
They were quiet for a time, the whistling wind swirling at their backs, the fire cracking, spitting, hissing whenever a squall of snow drifted in to melt around the edges. Ginna found her mind wandering beyond Mercer once more, to the life that awaited them if they actually managed to track him down before it was too late.
“And then what?” she asked after a silence so long, she actually felt him turn his head downward to try and look at her better in the firelight.
“And then what what?”
“After we take care of Mercer, then what?”
“Everything.” He shrugged, dropping back to sit on the cold ground and tugging her in to sit beside him. He drew her closer and lowered his chin atop her head. Ginna snuggled in, content with the closeness of his body to hers, the warm exhale of his breath as it fluttered through her hair and cascaded down her cheek. “We’ll take care of your business in Cyrodiil, rebuild the Guild, maybe eventually have a family.”
“A family?” She scoffed a little at the notion and drew out to look at him. “You can’t be serious.”
Ginna watched the corner of his mouth draw wider, a playful light shining in his eyes when he met her gaze. “My childhood was nothing worth remembering. I wouldn’t want to ever put anyone else through that.”
“And neither would I, which is why we would be the perfect family. We already know how not to parent, so we could do it right.”
“What? And raise little pickpockets?”
“Why not?” That grin broadened even more, and he tugged her back in close again. “It’s a good trade. Between the two of us, we could raise a couple of pretty sneaky thieves, I think.”
Ginna couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled up from deep inside her, and she covered her mouth to keep from waking Karliah. Though if she knew Karliah even half as well as she suspected, the woman probably wasn’t asleep anyway. Not after everything she’d been through, not with Mercer just a blade’s edge away from finally quelling the fire of revenge that had burned inside her almost as long as Ginna had been alive.
Resting her head on his shoulder again, she shook it, burrowing deeper against him. “Maybe we should have talked about the things we wanted before we got married.”
“I want what you want, Ginna,” he murmured. “I’ve known it since I met you.”
“And what if I don’t want babies?”
“Then you don’t want babies,” he shrugged. “But I think you do. Maybe you just don’t know it yet. Think about it, lass. The chance to have a real family. Our family.” He let her dwell on that for a moment before adding, “It’d be stronger than any Guild we’ve ever been a part of.”
And she did think about it, her mind trying to wrap around that concept. Had Bryn’s parents foolishly thought the same thing when they brought him into the world? The optimistic possibility of family unity blinding them to the dangers they were putting themselves and their son in?
Their lifestyle and occupation didn’t exactly promote the kind of family atmosphere conducive to raising children. A thief’s Guild was generally the only family she would ever need, but what if they could turn all that around? It reminded her once more of the conversation she’d had with Marcurio in Markarth, about her trade being just as valid as any other. And was it really any more dangerous than being a warrior or soldier, a sell-sword or mercenary? Life itself was downright treacherous in their world; it didn’t matter who you were.
She hadn’t been around very many children in her lifetime. Severus hadn’t taken on any others after her, so Ginna never had any younger guild siblings to look after and the children she used to play with in the streets hadn’t exactly been much to get excited about. Brats, all of them. They’d mocked an ridiculed her, made her feel small and powerless and alone because they all had families to go home to at the end of the day and Ginna had nothing but her old, drunk daddy before Severus took her in and taught her how to turn that darkness to her favor.
How many nights had she cried herself to sleep, even after the Guild became her home? How many times had she cursed the world for being such a cruel place for a child all alone?
They were all orphans, but if she and Brynjolf had a family, they could change that. Give their own children a good life, the kind of life every thief she’d ever known daydreamed about—whether they liked to admit it, or not—even her. As a girl, she’d only ever wanted her father to love her, but the man hadn’t known how. Severus had done the best he could, but the damage her father had done had made her bitter and untrusting and cold.
Being with Brynjolf had taught her how to trust in ways she’d never imagined she’d be able to do. It made her feel full and whole and warm, and even if it was foolish, their love gave her hope. For a moment she could almost feel the threads of that love twining around her, and in that same moment she knew a family would only make that bond they shared even stronger.
“Maybe,” she said after a long silence. “Eventually.”
“Aye.” His fingers trailed down her arm and his shoulder burrowed in closer to hers, the side of his head resting atop her own as the long strands of his hair fluttered across her face when the wind blew. “Eventually, but first we need to worry about Mercer. Crime is one thing, murder is another, lass. He will answer for everything he’s done.”
“I can’t imagine how difficult all of this has been for you.”
“I’d rather you didn’t try to imagine it. He’s put you through enough already.”
“I know, but it makes me angry whenever I think about all he’s done to you.”
“You and me both. I just want to crush him with my bare hands.”
“You’ll get your chance soon enough,” Karliah said softly from behind them. “It looks like I’m not the only one having trouble sleeping.”
“Maybe we should take advantage of the darkness and get to Irkngthand then,” Ginna suggested.
“I agree with the lass,” Brynjolf said.
“Let’s pack up our camp and head out,” Karliah nodded. “If we go in from the northern peak, we can avoid the bandit raiders that make the grounds their home. The fewer adversaries we face on the way to meet with Mercer, the better.”
“Then it’s settled.”
Brynjolf pushed up from the cold ground and held his hand out to help tug Ginna from her seat. His warm fingers curled around hers and when he drew her to stand, for a moment they stood together, trading glances in the darkness. Whatever they faced, they faced it together, now and forever.He had her back and she had his. She only hoped the Gods weren’t setting them up to fail.