Onóra should have been uncomfortable in a city like Windhelm. The way the Nords there treated the Dunmer was absolutely wretched, according to a select few beyond the city gates, and as a High Elf her presence within the walls attracted immediate suspicion. She watched in silence as two over-confident Nords bullied a proud Dunmer woman, threatening to set fire to her home in the night when the eyes of the guards were less-inclined to see, but the Dunmer only narrowed her wide eyes and crossed her arms, watching them walk away, toward Onóra with malicious intent.
Thalmor, said their distrusting stares. Spy, their murmurs carried on the wind. Assasin, at least that much was true, but she hadn’t come to Windhelm to dole out the Dread Lord’s justice or prey upon Skyrim’s newly crowned High King. Ulfric Stormcloak could rot for all she cared. She’d only stopped in his city on her way to Riften to rest for the night and replenish her dwindling stock of poisons from the White Phial.
“There’s no place for your kind in our city,” said a man in rags as Onóra made her way toward Candlehearth Hall. “Go back to where you came from.”
Ignoring him, she walked the steps and reached for the door handle, pulling the door outward and surveying the inside of the inn before crossing the threshold. The Nord woman behind the bar seemed less than enthusiastic to have another patron on her hands, and she didn’t seem to care what race Onóra was.
An Altmer sailor sitting unbothered on the bench at the bottom of the stairs spoke volumes of Windhelm’s twisted sense of hospitality. The Khajiit and Argonians weren’t welcome within the city limits and the Dunmer were housed in crumbling slums, but they were afraid to turn her kind away for fear of bringing the Aldmeri Dominion crashing down upon them in their weakened state of recovery from war. At least that was how it seemed when the woman behind the counter went out of her way to accommodate her.
“We’ve got cozy rooms and plenty of food and drink to sate your appetite.”
“I’ll take a room for the night,” Onóra told her, drawing twenty gold Septims from her coin purse and dropping them on the counter. “And a bottle of Alto wine.”
The woman pulled a bottle from beneath the counter and slid it forward. “Right this way and I’ll show you to your room.”
Elda Early-Dawn, as she introduced herself, chattered amicably enough as they walked the short hallway to the available room just beyond the entryway and on the left. She talked about the ever-burning candle on the hearth upstairs, noting that it had been lit 163 years earlier and asking Onóra to be careful not to blow it. She’d heard the story before, but it had been a dozen years at least since she’d been in Windhelm’s prestigious resting spot.
“Just let me know if you need anything else,” Elda said, backing out of the room and pulling the doors closed behind her.
Onóra unslung her carry-on pouch and bedroll, lowering them onto the chair in the corner of the room before testing the bed for comfort. It was cozy enough, she supposed, probably better than anything she’d get in Riften. It had been even longer since she’d ventured that far south, having decided it was best to stay away unless absolutely necessary. Riften had been her sister’s territory; Anariel had even become the city’s champion and thane for a time before she’d gone and gotten herself killed. But even after Anariel’s death, she’d avoided The Rift, a part of her still afraid she might run into her sister’s ghost there.
Seven years was long enough, she supposed. Maybe she could even find out where Anariel had been laid to rest and pay her a long overdue visit. They’d left so many things unsaid when they parted, both of them assuming in their haste and anger they would meet again to make amends when the time was right, if the gods were kind. One year had become ten years, ten had turned into twenty and before Onóra even realized it half a century had passed and though she liked to tell herself she couldn’t even remember what had torn them apart, it was a lie.
“You were born broken,” were some of the last words Anariel had said to her before they parted. “Everything about you is twisted and wrong. I’ve spent my whole life carrying your darkness, sister, but no more.”
There’d been other parting words, but none so cruel as those, none really worth remembering. Anariel had no idea the things Onóra had done to protect and keep them safe, the poisons she’d slipped to spare them some cruel and unmentionable fate, the lives her blade had snuffed out to keep them from harm when they were two girls alone in the world. Anariel had always thought she was the strong one, the righteous protector, but Onóra had kept them alive in more ways than her sister could ever imagine.
Anariel saw only killing without honor; apparently honor made everything okay. She’d been so much like their father that way. It had been so long since she’d seen him, but she still remembered him. Every word he’d ever spoken, every playful tousle of her hair, every time he’d scooped them both into his arms and showered them with affectionate kisses. He used to say there were two halves to every whole, and together his daughters were the culmination of something powerful and strong. Anariel was everything light and wonderful and good; their father would have been so proud. Onóra was darkness incarnate, cold and broken and rotten to the core; that was what she always imagined her father would have said about her had he lived to see the woman she’d become.
No matter how many times she tried to justify her actions, to tell herself she provided a sense of balance in the world, it was no use. Her father’s voice was ever-present in her thoughts, tsking and sighing and muttering that she was no daughter of his, and behind it was her sister’s voice calling her broken and twisted and wrong.
She liked to think she didn’t care, that they were only words and they had no power over her, but she’d loved her sister more than life itself. Maybe Anariel had been right; maybe she was broken. Or maybe she was no different than any other soldier or mercenary in the world. She took lives just like they did, collected payment for carrying out requests and she really did believe that the world was a better place without most of the people she disposed of. Vagrants, beggars, thieves, indebted gamblers, cheating husbands and wives, murderers, rapists… People who’d escaped the failing justice system, which was known for its seven-days-for-murder prison sentence (but only if you got caught.)
As if Anariel’s work had truly been anymore righteous…
Popping the cork on her wine, she slugged back a few swigs, wiping her hand across her chin to catch a dribble. Upstairs she could hear the bard strumming the familiar beginnings of another tune, a song her mother used to sing to them when they were girls in the Summerset Isles. The bard didn’t sing the song, but she didn’t have to. Onóra need only close her eyes to hear those ancient, near forgotten words. A shiver of memory rippled through her and for a moment she felt like she was four years old again.
Strange that she should hear that song in Skyrim, she thought, even stranger to hear it in Windhelm.
Curiosity eventually won her over, and after securing her things inside the room’s chest and locking the door after leaving, she ventured upstairs to have a look at the eternal candle on the hearth. It burned low, flickering gently when the door breezed open with a strapping, dark-haired Nord in fine clothes. He had melting flakes of snow in his hair and the vengeful keen of the wind at his back grew muffled behind the door as he closed it. A middle-aged blonde woman with a haggardly face immediately jumped up when she saw him, rushing across the room to meet him, much to his dismay.
“Have you given any more thought to my proposal, Captain?” Beneath the distortion of eventual death, the woman looked almost as if she might have been beautiful once.
“Viola, please.” He gently pushed her aside with an exasperated sigh. “It hasn’t been so long since my wife left me. That grief is still too near for me to even consider such a request.”
“Well, you just let me know if you change your mind.” She nudged him in the side with her elbow and wagged her eyebrows, a gesture that was impossible to miss. The good captain’s face flushed pink with embarrassment, and he moved past her to the stairs to fetch himself a mug of mead to bury his troubles in.
Onóra sat in the corner with her bottle of wine for hours and just observed the people of Windhelm. She listened to their conversations, having discovered long ago that some of the juiciest gossip came directly from the townspeople, especially when they were oblivious to the stranger in the shadows. Windhelm’s residents were no less crazy than the people of Dawnstar, she realized rather quickly. They just drew their insanity from a different well. There was a serial killer on the loose in the city; someone had been preying upon the young women, cutting them down in the streets in the dead of night. Three young girls had already fallen under his knife, the strange symbols carved into their skin rumored to be necromantic in nature.
Were she not already on an errand to Riften, she might have stuck around to see if she could catch that killer and give him a sweet taste of his own bitter medicine. But catching a killer took time and she’d promised Erandur she would deliver his desperate missive in a timely fashion.
And then another tidbit caught her ear though and she found herself leaning forward to take a listen.
“Downright shame about the Aretino boy,” one woman shook her head. “After losing his father to that blasted war, his poor dear of a mother died of a broken heart, or so I heard it said. And that bumble-head of a steward up at The Palace of the Kings sent that frightened little boy off to Riften. I’d have looked after him. All they had to do was ask.”
“I heard he was back,” the man she gossiped to replied. “He’s back and he’s over there in his family’s old house performing the Black Sacrament, trying to call up the Dark Brotherhood to kill some old bag down at that orphanage.”
The Black Sacrament.
Those words definitely rang in Onóra’s ears. She didn’t think people even performed the Black Sacrament anymore in Skyrim, much to the Dread Lord’s dismay. Killers were hired through secret channels and whispered rumors, jobs handed down through the ranks of the Dark Brotherhood… though not for Onóra. She always seemed to know exactly where to find work. It was like the vengeful and wicked called to her and she followed the sound of their despair.
“This boy,” she spoke up for the first time since she’d sat down at that table in the corner, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. It was as if they hadn’t even realized she was there at all, a shadow among the shadows leaping out to frighten them like some ghoul. “What is his name?”
“What boy?” a suspicious Nord woman shook her head.
“The Aretino boy?”
“Aventus Aretino,” the man who’d been speaking with the gossiper confirmed. When he turned his head to look at her, she realized he was the same man who’d been harrassing the Dunmer just inside the gates. There was malice in his hard-steel eyes, an unspoken threat he was prepared to back up with his fists if need be. “Why? What’s it to you? Is he wanted by the Thalmor too?”
“I’ve no love for the Thalmor,” she assured him. “No more love for them than Ulfric Stormcloak.”
“Isn’t that just what a Thalmor spy would say to keep the hounds off her trail?”
“Rolff Stone-Fist, I don’t care who your brother is or how far he’s got his nose up the High King’s backside! I’ve told you once if I’ve told you a thousand times, Candlehearth Hall welcomes everyone.” The kindly old gentleman turned his attention to her then, smiling a near toothless grin. “Don’t mind him, milady. Name’s Nils. I’m the cook here at Candlehearth Hall.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nils.” She knew when to be kind, when to play the game like everyone else. “What can you tell me about the Aretino boy?”
She watched the jovial grin fade from his face, drawing down every wrinkle in his leathery old skin. “Not much,” he shrugged. “There’s rumors that he ran away from the orphanage south of here in Riften, a few people even claim to have seen him sneaking through the shadows of the marketplace at night trying to steal food, but if he has none of the guards have caught him yet. And that nonsense about the Black Sacrament… well, some people will say anything to get attention.” He turned a glare on Rolff Stone-Fist and his partner in gossip.
“Is his family’s home still empty?”
“Oh yes,” Nils nodded. “Property rightfully belongs to Aventus once he’s of age, and without anyone in the family to grant the Jarl consent to rent the house it’ll remain empty until the lad returns, I expect.”
“Thank you for the information,” she nodded, pushing her chair away from the table.
Everyone in Candlehearth Hall watched her walk down the stairs. She didn’t have to look back over her shoulder, she could feel their eyes boring into her flesh like hungry worms. They wanted to know who she was, what she was doing there, why she even cared about some little boy whose parents left him an orphan.
An orphan… just like her.
She’d always had a soft spot for them. Their vulnerability, their strength against all odds, their undeniable hunger to survive in a world that didn’t want them.
She stopped at the desk to ask Elda where the Aretino residence was in the city and then she slipped out the front doors and down the stairs into the bitter Windhelm night. Stormcloak guards were everywhere, and just like the Stormcloaks she’d left behind in Dawnstar, they were suspicious of her simply because her ears were pointed and her skin was gold. One even felt the need to call out, “Make trouble in my city and you’ll have to answer to me,” as she was turning left into a small row of houses that led all the way back to the Palace of the Kings.
The Aretino residence was the second residence in the alleyway, the structure rising above the walkway and hovering like a heavy shadow in front of the palace. From several feet away she could hear it whispering to her, could hear the distant echo of the Night Mother’s cackle in the back of her mind. Yes, she seemed to say, yes! Another child prays to his mother…
Onóra crept up to the door, scanning the alley for signs of life and finding none. Ducking down, she drew a lockpick from the deep pockets of her robes and deftly turned the tumblers into place, the lock giving away almost too easily and allowing her entry into the house. From the bottom of the stairs she saw a low golden light flickering and heard the constant murmur of a desperate child’s voice.
“Sweet mother, sweet mother, send your child unto me for the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear. Sweet mother, sweet mother, send your child unto me…” Her footsteps on the stairs were silent, leading her to an empty room but the glowing light of candles told her where to go. She followed their flicker and the constant sound of his voice. “…for the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear. Sweet mother, sweet mother send your child unto me…”
The room he knelt in was empty, save for the candles and the effigy of his victim, skull, heart, bones and flesh laid out beneath his prostrate body. Nightshade petals were scattered all over the floor and his arm writhed up and down, performing the repetitive mock-stabbery of his intended victim. She’d never heard a child speak the words, though she’d heard tales of children walking the dark path before.
“Please, how long must I do this? I keep praying, Night Mother, why won’t you answer me.”
She lingered in the doorway, listening to his desperation until at last the burden of his grief was almost more than she could stand. “The Night Mother has no listeners anymore, Aventus, but she finds a way to answer when she can. I have come in answer to your prayer.”
“You came!” He jumped up from where he’d knelt, blood on his hands, staining the front of his tunic and pantlegs. He even had a smear of it upon his cheek, half washed away by the falling of his own tears.
“Are you all right?”
“It worked! I knew you’d come! I just knew it!” Onóra thought he was going to hug her, he was so happy. “I did the Black Sacrament, with the body and the… the things and you came. An assassin from the Dark Brotherhood.”
“Yes, yes.” She nodded, reaching a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “The Black Sacrament. You did very well, Aventus. The Night Mother is proud.”
“It took so long, so very long, but now you’re here and you can accept my contract.”
“Of course.” She guided him out of the room and helped him sit in the chair near the hearth. He was exhausted, the dark circles under his eyes telling of endless nights of prayer to the Night Mother for vengeance and salvation. How long had it been, she wondered? How long since he’d eaten or taken any rest? “Tell me about your contract.”
“My mother… she… she died. I… I’m alone now so they sent me to that terrible orphanage in Riften. Honorhall.” She poured him a cup of water and he drank thirstily, dribbles of water spilling down his chin. “The headmistress is an evil, cruel woman. Grelod the Kind, they call her, but she’s not kind. She’s terrible. To all of us. So I ran away and I came home and performed the Black Sacrament. And now you’re here! You can kill Grelod the Kind.”
“There, there, little one.” She stroked her fingers through his hair, brushing it away from his face and offering him a hopeful smile. It was easy to smile at children. Their deathmasks, though she could still see them, always seemed the least intrusive. She could still glimpse the glowing edges of life around his face, the promise of many long years before the corrosive hands of time took hold and drew him to his grave. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
“You will kill her, won’t you?”
“Of course I will,” she promised.
“Please hurry.” The eyes he raised to hers were dark blue, heavy tears rimming the blood-shot edges and threatening to fall. “To be honest, I’m kind of lonely here. As much as I hated getting sent to Honorhall, I really miss my friends there.”
“I will take care of Grelod the Kind,” she assured him. No child should have to be alone. She’d been lucky in that she’d at least still had her sister. “And then you can go back to Honorhall and be with your friends again.”
“Oh, thank you!” And then he did hug her, his arms thrown around her waist so fast it nearly knocked her back. She thought he was going to cry again, relief gripping him so tight his body actually started to relax for the first time in weeks, maybe even months.
It was a strange thing, strange and yet wonderful and in that moment there was nothing more in the world that she wanted than to make that little boy’s wish come true.
“Thank you so much!” Aventus Aretino would sleep that night, like a child in the comforting arms of his dark Night Mother.