Brynjolf didn’t dream. Never had really and he’d always imagined he never would, but after everything that happened at Irkngthand, he hadn’t been sleeping well at all. Aside from the ever-present tension he couldn’t shake off whenever he was in the same room with his new wife, his mind was heavy with guilt.
He’d lost control, something he very rarely allowed to happen, and yet it had happened twice in in less than a matter of weeks. Ginna forgave him for the mess he’d made of Honeyside when he’d thought she had betrayed him, but she hadn’t been, hadn’t seen him flying off the handle like a beast possessed. He’d still felt terrible about it after, but he’d kept it from her easily enough. The second time had been at Irkngthand. Karliah forgave him too, had passed off his loss of control as Mercer’s doing, the dark power of the Skeleton Key, but he’d not forgiven himself so easily. He nearly killed her and though she’d fought him off, there had been brief moments where he swore her soft, lavender eyes had almost been pleading with him to do it.
End my suffering, Brynjolf.
That was where the strange memories in his slumber seemed to come from.
He was a boy again, his mother leaning over the side of his bed in the Cistern to tuck him in, her soft yet brilliant green eyes shining with amusement at the way he squirmed. Even as she lifted a gentle hand to brush the wild locks of bright red hair form his face, it only served to stir him up even more, and he fidgeted away from her touch.
“You have to sleep my wee rascal, so you can grow up big and strong like your da.”
“I don’t want you to leave me, mummy.” Small fingers circled around her wrist in desperation. He knew what happened when she went away. Awful things, wretched things…
“I’ll be here when you wake come morrow, I promise.”
“No, mummy.” He knew she wasn’t coming back, he could feel it in his heart, whispers of a future already lived leaking through his memory dreams.
“Brynjolf.” Karliah appeared over his mother’s shoulder, her wide lavender eyes shining with affection. “Would you like Auntie to sing you a song?”
“No!” he protested. “I want my mummy.”
“Your mummy and daddy have important business to see to tonight, but I’ll stay here with you. Sing you a song and sit right here beside you until you fall asleep. Which song would you like to hear?”
Even though he’d resisted her, the peaceful calm of her voice always had the same effect on him. His fingers loosened from his mother’s wrist and she reached down to grip his chin, lifting his face to look at her. “Be good, my dearie. Don’t give Auntie any trouble.”
“He’ll be good, Hekja,” Karliah promised, her adoring hand tousling through his wild locks. “Brynjolf is always very well behaved, aren’t you Brynjolf?” She winked at him, as if suggesting they shared some sort of secret. “Now, would you like to hear a song about Morrowind?”
“I want you to sing the song my mummy always sings.”
“Ahh,” she nodded and scooted into the edge of the bed. He curled close to her, resting his head in her lap and closing her eyes as she stroked fingers almost absently through his hair. “The one about the knight and the lady.” She cleared her throat with a soft cough and then she began to sing. “Oh hush thee my baby, thy sire was a knight. Thy mother a lady, both lovely and bright. The woods and the glens from the towers we see, all are belonging dear baby to thee…” The subtle, clear tone soothed him, lulled him to sleep where he dreamed another dream inside that dream.
Beneath his pillow was a blade, cold and treacherous, its sharp edge slicing along the length of his palm as it slid downward to grasp the hilt. He drew it out as he sat up, the Karliah in his dream looking thoughtfully upon the drops of blood rolling down the blade. Even as she watched, she never saw it coming when his tiny arm surged forward, plunging that blade into her belly and twisting it.
His teeth ground hard together with rage, eyes wide with hate.
“Die, you miserable wretch.” His child’s voice entwined with the man inside him, awakening his awareness to what he’d done. “Auntie!” he cried out, trying desperately to withdraw the blade. She grasped at the hilt, hard fingers pressing his into the pommel as she pulled her body forward with a desperate gasp. “What have I done?” that dual-voiced horror echoed all around him. “Auntie!” She slumped over in the bed, her unseeing eyes staring upward at the dripping ceiling. “Auntie! No! Karliah! Karliah!”
Brynjolf shot from sleep like an arrow from the taut string of a bow, his ragged breath caught and burning in his throat as he gasped for air. The bedroom was half-dark, and the gentle patter of rain on the roof combined with the soft grind of pestle upon mortar from downstairs.
He was home. Home and grown and Karliah wasn’t dead, or at least he hadn’t killed her. That knowledge did little to alleviate the heavy hammer of his heart inside his ribcage. Every morning he woke from the same dream; every morning since they’d left Irkngthand, and though he knew it was only a dream it felt so real and the guilt was almost more than he could bear.
That dream would haunt him throughout the day, his mind never far from the cold blade in his hand, the warm rush of her blood across his skin. Brynjolf shivered and swallowed hard.
Dropping back into the bed with a heavy sigh, he stared up at the ceiling and listened to the rain fall, to the sound of his woman crushing poisoned berries in the potions lab just below the bedroom. He wanted to call out to her, for her to come crawl back into bed with him, comfort and love him as she had in those strange days before they’d vowed to spend eternity together. She would come if he called, even if she was still angry with him. She might even lie down beside him and take him into her arms; smooth away his fears with kisses and let him slip inside her warmth where he felt safe from the rage of his own internal beast.
The pestle slowed and then stopped almost as if she’d heard his silent pleas. Moments of quiet followed and then he heard her footsteps on the stairs. Had he cried out in his sleep? Had she heard his terror and shame? She arrived in the alcove just at the top of the stairs and glanced over as if checking to see if he was still sleeping. Even though he hadn’t lifted his head, he still caught her glance, held her stare and silently willed her to come to him with his eyes.
She was one of the most stubborn women he’d ever known, more headstrong than Vex, and that was saying something.
“You’re awake.” She leaned into the corner of the wall near the wardrobe, as if purposely resisting.
“Aye.” He rolled onto his side and extended a hand to her. Even when they were at odds with one another, she made him feel calm. “Come here.”
Ginna pushed off the wall and started toward him, fingers reaching for his. He curled around to grab her and drew her into the bed, into his arms as he turned onto his back again and let her rest atop her crossed arms on his chest.
“Still mad at me?”
“I was never mad at you.”
He watched her full, lower lip disappear between her teeth and then she turned her bright blue eyes on him. “It sure felt that way with all that space between us while we slept.” When he sighed, she scooted upward a little and lowered her forehead to his.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, brushing her lips over his, moistening them with her tongue before he drew her down and drank deep from her willing kiss.
“No,” he said softly. “I’m sorry, lass.”
Something happened to him when he was with her, something he couldn’t explain, didn’t want to explain because all that mattered was that it felt right. She felt right. She calmed the frayed edges of his nerves, even when she was being difficult and stubborn and no woman in the world had ever been able to do that. He’d tested plenty of them out over the years, to be sure. The softness of her fingers whispering through his hair, the gentle nuzzle of her nose against his when she grinned before kissing him again, the eager press of desire when she rolled onto her side and lifted her leg to rest over his hip, scooting her tiny body closer until he could feel the warmth of her sex even through her armor.
She’d only been in Windhelm a couple of days, and even as he’d kept himself busy in her absence, he’d missed her nonetheless. He’d expected things to get easier after Mercer’s death, especially with all the coin she was bringing in running jobs for the Guild, but everything had only gotten harder and all the dreams they’d shared, all the plans they’d made while curled together in the dark seemed to slip further from his reach.
He grabbed her thigh, hand sliding down the supple curve of her backside to draw her in tighter against him, his kiss alone strong enough to enlighten her of his plot to divide and conquer. Tumbling her onto her back and moving in between her thighs, he slowly worked the buckles of her armor and began peeling it away layer by layer, following every inch of bare and exposed skin with soft kisses that made her whimper with delight.
The games they played together drove him out of his mind, making it damn near impossible to hold out for any great length of time, but for her he gladly suffered the agony of restraint. The tender cries bordering on desperation that she tried to hide, her mewling excitement rising every time he moved through her… every whisper, every brush of her gasping lips across his… All of it was worth it, worth knowing if even for a little while he could make her happy, make her forget about all the hardship that had plagued their lives in the days since they’d met.
He’d never put much stock in actual matters of the heart, having preferred the quick and painless detachment of two unfamiliar bodies in the dark, but not when it came to her. It was never quick with Ginna, never painless or detached or unfamiliar. From the moment he’d first touched her, first felt the heavy slug of her fist against his jaw, he’d known. She was his. She’d been his before he ever even knew her. He’d been searching without even knowing.
It was the kind of superstitious nonsense Delvin Mallory was famous for, but Brynjolf didn’t give a damn. He only knew that now that he’d found her, he wasn’t letting her out of his sight, wasn’t letting her slip away again because his life had been so empty without her in it.
After playing kiss and make up, Brynjolf relaxed on his back, content with the feel of her nestled into the crook of his arm, her soft hair tickling across his bare chest every time he exhaled. He should have been at the Cistern hours ago; he had important things to do, but there was nothing more important to him than Ginna. She needed to know that.
“I spoke with Marcurio this morning.” There was hesitation in her voice, as if she expected him to tense up. “I’ve already paid him and we’ll be leaving for the Twilight Sepulcher at dawn.”
“It’s for the best, lass,” he said, though obviously not in reference to her little mercenary friend. He liked Rune well enough, but he’d never missed the kid as much as he did then. At least he knew he could trust Rune with Ginna’s life. The Imperial mage, with his shifty eyes and snarky comebacks… not so much. His rates were outrageous and Brynjolf wasn’t stupid. He’d seen the way Marcurio looked at his wife. “But maybe I should come with you after all.” He really couldn’t afford to take the time away from the Guild, but for her, he’d do anything. Give it all up, if he had to. “It is Nightingales’ work, after all.”
“Bryn,” she started, lifting her head to look down at him. “I know you can’t leave the Guild right now, and I know you don’t like Marcurio, but he’s a good companion, a strong mage. Believe it or not, he earns every bloody Septim he charges. He’s a friend…”
“A friend wouldn’t charge you five hundred gold to watch your back,” he pointed out. “Go and find him, get your gold back before he spends it. I’m coming with you.”
He watched the tight corner of her mouth soften, lip drawing into a disbelieving grin. “Are you serious?”
“Aye,” he nodded. “We’ll go together and rid ourselves of that bloody Key once and for all.”
The smile melted from her face, her eyes losing their shine just before she looked away and lowered her head back to his shoulder. “I had that dream again this morning before I woke. The one with Nocturnal telling me to use the Key.”
“Nocturnal doesn’t prey on dreams.”
“I know,” she sighed and shook her head. “I know it’s just the Key, luring me to use it, trying to tempt me, but the things she said in those dreams.” He felt her tiny body shudder just a little and she scooted closer to him as if she were cold. “She told me the Key wouldn’t be safe in the Twilight Sepulcher, that Brutus was plotting to steal it so he could enter her realm through the Evergloam and steal the Gray Cowl. She said I should keep it, use it to restore the Guild, protect it from Brutus and as her Champion, carry out sentence on him.”
“Damn,” he shook his head. At least her dreams were pushing her toward greatness, demented as it was. His were only making him feel worse. “That Key knows all the right words, doesn’t it, lass?”
“Aye,” she agreed. “It does.”
“That’s reason enough to make haste. It’s getting more and more convincing, which is only going to make it harder to resist. I’ll head over to the Guild after I break my fast,” he said. “Let Delvin and Vex know we’re heading out on important business first thing tomorrow morning. You should hunt down Marcurio, like I said, and tell him the gig is off. Get your money back.”
“I will,” she sighed and raised a hand into her mussed hair. “Those dreams, Bryn, they just felt so real. She was cruel and sarcastic, almost mocking me as she commanded me to do her bidding.”
“They’re only dreams, love.” He stroked her shoulder and kissed her brow. It was easier to say that to someone else, than to believe it for oneself, that was for sure. His own dreams had grown so dark, so foreboding, a part of him was actually afraid to face Karliah for fear he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from driving a blade through her belly. “Only dreams.”