The journey to Riften from Windhelm took three days, mostly due to the atrocious weather just north of the Rift, but then Onóra spied not one, but three dragons just outside Shor’s Stone and decided to take the long way south and around. As she walked the near-empty road, she thought of her sister. The Rift had once been Anariel’s territory, and she had been some great hero to her people before the return of the dragons. She’d always wondered if her sister had lived to see their return whether she would have become a dragonslayer and given that Dragonborn queen of Ulfric Stormcloak’s a real run for her money.
Anariel had always been a bit arrogant when it came to her skill in battle. Though it had been ages since the dragons disappeared from Nirn, as a girl her sister often fantasized she was slaying them with her wooden practice swords in the courtyard. Onóra had preferred to sit alone in the shadows, trying desperately to make herself invisible while her sister played.
That was where their father always seemed to find them, and when he would ask Onóra what she was doing, she would scowl and cross her arms before pointing out, “You’re not supposed to be able to see me.”
Sitting down beside her, his gaze centered on Anariel, watching every arc of her blade, every forward thrust of her body. Without even looking, he asked, “Illusion magic today then, is it? Who are we hiding from, little one?”
“Everyone,” she harrumphed, trying to tamp down the jealousy she always felt whenever she noticed how proud their father was of her sister.
As if he sensed her feelings, he leaned back and lowered an arm behind her, drawing her near him even as she stubbornly resisted. “If you hide from me, I will be denied that pretty face of yours, but if you insist upon learning how to make youreself disappear, there is a book in the study beside your mother’s scrolls called Incident in Necrom. You should read it.”
Onóra had read the book in the study, and though it hadn’t taught her how to make herself invisible, it had increased her illusion magic abilities and set her on the correct path for a time. She’d read every magical tome she could get her hands on after that, aligning herself with illusion and destruction, much to her mother’s dismay. Her mother had mastered both restoration and mysticism in her lifetime, and was branching off into conjuration before the Oblivion Crisis. With Anariel following so closely in Ondelan’s footsteps, Nuniel had just assumed Onóra’s affinity with magic would lead her down a brighter path.
But even as her longing to learn the darker arts inspired long hours of study and practice, her father had encouraged her. “One day those skills might come in handy,” he’d told his wife one night while the two of them hovered over their sleeping daughters’ beds. Onóra hadn’t been sleeping, but listening to their sorrow and increasing fear as the Daedra marched closer and closer to the city. “She may need them one day to protect herself if we’re not there.”
She’d always thought he wouldn’t have been proud of who she’d become, but above all things their father wanted them to survive. Her dark skills had kept her alive longer than her sister. Maybe he would have been proud of her after all.
By the time she came upon Riften it was nearly dusk, and there was nothing left of the sun but a dusty pink edge of light smudged behind the mountains. She approached from the west, having passed through Treva’s Watch along the river’s edge until she came upon Lake Honrich and followed the stinking waters straight to the city’s quiet docks. It looked like rain had kept the boats tied up that day, and not a soul lurked even in the shadows.
Onóra circled the city once before returning to linger near the docks. She studied the layout of the city and tried not to gag on the overwhelming stench of fish and refuse while she formulated a plan. Walking through the front gate was just asking for trouble if something went awry, and though the back gate was unguarded, she didn’t want to chance running into any guards on the other side.
There was an old house near the edge of the water and within walking distance of the docks with an inconspicuous backdoor entrance. At first she thought it might be a quiet way to sneak into the city, but in less than an hour she’d seen at least three people enter and exit that house, which meant it was too heavily occupied to even consider. When she got closer, she noticed there was also a Thieves Guild Shadowmark carved onto the wooden railing of the porch near the door. Protection, she noted—marking it off-limits to anyone who didn’t fancy having their liver carved out.
After watching a man and woman hike down the stairs and turn back toward road south of the city, Onóra followed the wall along the docks again until she found a set of loose boards that let her enter the under street. Her boots got a little wet, but it was better than finding herself face to face with some guard demanding she tell him what her business in Riften was. She could always lie and fall back on her missive from Erandur if she needed to, but she’d promised herself she’d take care of Grelod the Kind before visiting the Temple of Mara.
Sticking to the shadows and remaining undetected until total darkness set in, she made her ascendance to the upper-level pier.
Onóra had heard rumors that the Thieves Guild was on the rise again, so she’d expected a double patrol of guards on duty in what was notoriously known as Home to Skyrim’s merry band of brigands. She’d been wrong about that, suspiciously noting that there were far less guards in Riften than any other city she’d been in.
Most of the homes and shops in Riften were cabin-style, old and faded logs specked with mildew stains from the constant damp and fog that slunk in off Lake Honrich and clung to the air. There were a few houses that had been kept in decent condition, and they towered over the rest of the city almost as menacingly as Mistveil Keep. The merchant circle in the center of the pier was four outdoor kiosks and a blacksmith, a tavern, the Blackbriar Meadery and a little indoor shop called the Pawned Prawn, not much to brag about, but it was more than a lot of other cities had to offer—Dawnstar included.
She walked casually, as if she belonged in that city, and no one seemed to notice her at all. Just the way she liked it. In fact, no one even saw her approach the front doors of Honorhall Orphanage and hunker down in front of the door to pick the lock. It creaked open on rusted hinges as it swung forward, and the shouting she heard from within set her on edge, wondering if she’d alerted the monster within of her presence. She immediately drew from the well of illusion deep inside her, disappearing in an unnoticeable hiss of magic, but a few moments of standing in the shadows near the door told her what Grelod the Kind was really on about.
“…your chores done! Those who shirk their duties will get an extra beating. Do I make myself clear?” Her voice was like the tines of an old fork scraping across the bottom of a porcelain bowl, and the children who’d been tormented with her cruelties would have nightmares about it for the rest of their lives, to be sure.
A dutiful chorus of young voices called out in reply, “Yes, Grelod.”
“And one more thing! I will hear no more talk of adoptions! None of you riff-raff is getting adopted! Ever! No one needs you. Nobody wants you. That, my little darlings, is why you’re here, why you will always be in here until the day you come of age and are thrown into that wide, horrible world. Now, what do you all say?”
“We love you, Grelod. Thank you for your kindness.”
It was pitiful, those innocent children paying homage to a monster so cruel, and against their will at that. Onóra leaned in to take a peek through a small crack in the door and caught sight of the scraggly old bag in the middle of the room, a group of children ranging in age milling around her.
“That’s better,” the old woman nodded. “Now scurry off to bed, my little guttersnipes, and if I hear one more whimper from this room tonight, everyone in it will get a beating!”
They scattered like autumn leaves in a heavy gust of wind, leaping into their beds and disappearing under the tattered covers without even so much as a whisper.
“Constance!” Grelod barked. “Make sure everything is locked up. It’s light’s out.”
“Of course, Grelod.” A meek young woman standing near the fire turned around to face the lady of the house, her soft brown eyes downcast to avoid the woman’s cruel stare when she passed her to head out of the room.
Constance passed right by Onóra without notice, locking the door and then shuffling out of the room again. Leaning around the corner again, she watched the old woman disappear into a bedroom and close the doors behind her.
Onóra waited. She listened to the old boards creak and settle, the gentle patter of rain drumming against the rooftop, the crackle and spit of logs in the fireplace as a chorus of sleeping children drew breath after breath. Constance had lain down on the cot in the room with the children, and when the elf crept by her first, she paused and watched the younger woman sleep. The rise and fall of her chest, the occasional flutter of her eyelids. Death’s hand had been kind to this one, only the subtle hum of his presence clinging to her, distorting her face until it was wrinkled as an old fig, lips puckered and peeling. When Onóra blinked, she saw her again as she was meant to be seen, and then she passed on through the rows of beds.
There was one empty bed near the fire, the blankets neatly tucked into the mattress, the pillow fluffed. It must have been Aventus’s bed, she thought, moving forward until she came to the door she’d seen Grelod the Kind enter. She opened to door quietly, but one of the children stirred, a little girl with golden braids and wide grey eyes. Even in the sparse light from the fire, Onóra could see the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Children and animals could almost always see through invisibility magic, and when the assassin moved the little girl’s eyes followed. Lifting a long, golden finger to her lips, Onóra told her silently to stay quiet and the child swallowed hard before nodding and lowering her head back to the pillow. Slipping into the room, she closed the door behind her and stalked to the edge of the bed where she hovered for a moment to watch the old woman sleep.
People always looked more fragile when they slept, and though normally Onora would have woke her victim to let them know who sent her, her heart went out to the children in the other room. There were so many of them, already broken and alone, afraid of the world around them. Even if the majority of them felt the same as Aventus Aretino, she didn’t want to further scar them with the sound of their keeper’s dying screams. There would be enough to scar them when they found the body come morning.
Coating the tip of her dagger with a unique paralytic poison, she leaned over, her shadow passing across Grelod’s body like the widespread wings of the angel of death. She positioned the dagger just over her heart and plunged it quickly through her ribcage and into her life-vessel. She didn’t even have time to scream, the poison spreading quickly through her blood, but not before her eyes shot open and she gasped betrayal.
Onóra leaned down and whispered softly in the dying woman’s ear, “Aventus Aretino says hello.” She stood up straight again, watched the frantic horror in old Grelod’s eyes upon hearing those words. How many times had she stood over that poor little boy with a switch in her hand a wicked hatred in her heart, thriving on his pain and sorrow the way summer crops thrived on heavy rain after a dryspell? How many times had she told him his mother hadn’t loved him enough to live? That no one in the world cared for him, loved him, wanted him?
The corner of the assassin’s mouth lifted into a satisfied grin when those wide eyes relaxed and a final breath eased from between Grelod the Kind’s lips. She almost looked peaceful, Onóra thought. Peace was more than she deserved, but that was not for her to judge.
Her job was done. Aventus Aretino was avenged and the children of Honorhall Orphanage were safe from at least one monster. Sheathing her dagger, she tiptoed out of the room and found the little girl who’d caught her sneaking into Grelod’s room had fallen asleep. Come morning, she would think it was just a dream, even after they discovered the old woman dead in her bed.
She slipped out through the door she’d come in, closing it quietly behind her and taking a deep breath of the heavy air. She’d find somewhere else to sleep for the night and return to Riften in the morning to talk to the priest, maybe see if she might find someone who knew where her sister had been buried so she could pay her respects. For the moment, she just wanted to wash the blood from her hands and get a good night’s sleep.