All the way to Windhelm, Onóra thought about the mage from Riften. The lovesick look in his molten-amber eyes as she’d held her dagger to his neck, fingers choking the air from his throat. The bristle of unshaven stubble beneath her fingertips as she’d squeezed just enough to get her point across. The stammer of his overenthusiastic voice as he’d rambled on and on about things no one outside his head could possibly care about.
There’d been something almost endearing about him, a sense of devotion in those intense eyes of his that touched her heart in ways she rarely allowed. She could feel the love he’d had for her sister emanating from him, and while she’d told herself that hearing Anariel had never even mentioned she had a sister broke the last thread that held her to her twin she knew that was a lie. It made her want to know more. More about the mage, about his relationship with the other half of her soul.
He was definitely not the type of man her sister normally went after. Anariel had never been into mages—they reminded her too painfully of their father—but more than that was a silly rule she’d put into place over two-hundred years ago about never getting involved with a man more than an in inch shorter than she was. At six feet and nine inches tall, most non-Altmer men fell short beside an Altmer woman.
She could almost hear her sister’s haughty laughter as she remarked, “I shouldn’t have to look down on a man who’s supposed to be my equal.” So what had she seen in a mage more than a head shorter than she was?
Onóra had never really cared either way because before they went their separate ways most men had always flocked immediately to her sister anyway. Anariel was charming, outgoing, and her laughter was infectious. The fact that she could wield a blade like nobody’s business never failed to impress either, and in most social situations Onóra found herself invisible in the corner watching her sister have the time of her life.
Which wasn’t to say she hadn’t had her share of flings over the centuries with men her sister would never have looked twice at, or that she didn’t find herself drooling rather shamefully at the sight of a Thalmor Justiciar in full hooded garb. She had no love for the Thalmor, that much was true, but there was something breathtaking about looking a man who radiated pure magical energy in the eye beneath the shadow of his back and gold-trimmed hood. A few months back she’d indulged in carnal pleasures with a Justiciar who’d hired her to assist him in exposing secret Talos worship in the city of Markarth.
She didn’t care one way or the other about Talos, and why should she? He was a Nord god, and the Nords could keep him for all it was worth to her. When Ondolemar sought her out, flirtatiously promising a reward she wouldn’t soon forget, she’d gladly taken the job.
And Ondolemar’s shameless reward when she brought him the evidence he required to bring the old bard to Thalmor justice had done more than just make her toes curl. The man had been a breathtaking fury in bed, but she would find no such entertainment in Windhelm. The Nords who dwelt there were certain to eye her with caution as she stalked through their city beneath the hood of her robes, but she couldn’t help to wonder if Ondolemar had survived the Stormcloak seizure of Markarth. A flicker of sadness tickled in her belly at what a waste of good man it would have been if he hadn’t.
Ulfric Stormcloak barely suffered the Dunmer refugees that dwelt within his city walls, and as an Altmer she knew she was taking a risk every time she walked through the gates of Windhelm, but she’d promised to report back to Aventus Aretino once his nightmare had been dissolved. She didn’t care about the payment he’d promised. The kid was going to need all the coin he could scavenge if he was going to survive. She just wanted him to know that horrific part of his life was over.
Slipping through the shadows almost completely unnoticed, she ducked down the alleyway and headed to the Aretino house, picking the lock and quietly ascending the stairs into the sitting room. The boy was sleeping, curled up on the bed with one hand draped over the edge, a strange, yet serene smile curling his lips. Had he felt his relief on the wind, yielded to the temporary comfort of peace after a long and painful struggle?
She hoped so, and though she knew that comfort wouldn’t last, she silently prayed that the Night Mother would grant him just a little solace after everything he’d been through. An orphan’s life was never easy, and though a part of her wanted desperately to watch over and take care of the boy for the rest of his days it just wasn’t in her nature.
She would sit with him until he woke, tell him at least one of his nightmares was over and then it was time to move on again.
Not wanting to wake him from that peaceful state, she sat down at the kitchen table and opened her pack. She took out a bit of cheese to fill the emptiness in her stomach, nibbling it while she stared into the dwindling fire in the hearth.
She didn’t know where she would go when she left Windhelm. She’d made her home in Dawnstar long enough that a part of her actually felt like she belonged there. She’d let herself sink into the misery of that place, taking an odd sense of conflicted comfort in the curse of Vaermina’s nightmares, but staying in one place longer than a year had never been her style. Besides, if the mage actually succeeded in assisting Erandur in breaking the curse, what point was there in returning if the nightmares were gone. Their power connected her to her past in ways she hadn’t felt connected in years, startling her from sleep with the lingering scent of her mother’s perfume still clinging to her senses, the adrenaline-fueled fear gripping her heart, the tingling feel of Anariel’s small hand gripping hers so tight her bones ached in her skin.
Leaning back in her chair to savor the rich tang of Eidar cheese on her tongue, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine Anariel with the mage from Riften. Had she loved him, or had it been the other way around? He’d seemed almost lovestruck when he saw her, as if he’d woken from some long nightmare and was relieved to find it had all been just a dream. Her twin had a cruel way about her at times, especially with the affections of men she didn’t deem worthy of her.
The most unfortunate thing of all was the men she did feel were worthy. Brutish Nord men who looked incredible in dented, leather armor and liked to play the hero, when most times there was nothing heroic about them at all. It had been such a man who finally wormed his way between them, and as she tilted her head back against the wall behind her, she could almost hear Anariel’s voice, the memory of her stunned, exasperated face radiating in her mind.
“What have you done?”
“What needed to be done, Ana. He was going to hurt you.”
Throwing her head back, she laughed, the tightness of her amusement so forced it only served to make Onóra feel that much worse about the situation. “You say that about every man I let into my heart or my bed.”
The Dread Lord had led her to the young Breton woman who’d barely survived Brawn’s loving embrace, the memory of his ties to her forever burned into Lilahna’s scarred and tormented flesh.
“I just want peace,” the woman whispered through a throat so crushed it barely allowed air enough for her to breathe. “To sleep at night knowing he will never hurt anyone else the way he hurt me.”
Brawn would have done those things to her sister too, if Onóra hadn’t done what she’d done for Lilahna. She’d just been protecting her, but Anariel had happened upon Brawn’s just in the nick of time to watch her blade come down. Her gasping scream drawing Onora’s attention away from the task before her, but not in time to stop his dying breath from gasping through his bloodied lips.
“There’s something wrong with you, Onóra. Something so very wrong that I just… I can barely even look at you anymore without feeling sick in my stomach.”
“He’s a killer. There’s a woman in…”
“I’ve tried to deny this for so long,” Anariel cut her off. “To look the other way and pretend what I knew in my heart was wrong, to defend you when everyone in our life called you a freak, but I can’t do this anymore, Nora. You’re broken and I can’t try to fix you anymore.”
“Ana, no, listen to me…”
“No, you listen to me!” she cut her off. “You are a curse. You’ve been a curse since the day we were born and I’m tired of having to make excuses for you. Having to clean up after you.”
She reached for her sister, for the only lifeline she had left in the world, and Anariel jerked away from her grip as if it were poison.
“Don’t touch me,” she shrieked. “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!”
Onora’s eyes blurred over with tears, the distortion of her sister’s horror intensified by that lens of sorrow and guilt.
“Please, just… if you’ll just listen…”
“Ana, please. There’s a woman, a Breton woman who paid me five hundred Septims to exact her vengeance. If you just come with me, she can tell you. You’ll see for yourself the things he did…”
“Get out or I’ll call the guards, Nora,” she warned. The pain of that threat cracked her voice, but she stood firmly behind it.
She just stood there staring, her lower lip trembling with unspoken apology and a desperate need to make it all right, but how could she if Anariel wouldn’t even listen.
“Just go.” Turning her back, she refused to look at her when she said, “I never want to see you again.”
Onóra gasped awake with a start, the small hand that had been shaking her from sleep quickly withdrawing, the body attached to it taking two steps back as his large, round eyes stared. “You came back,” he murmured. “Does that mean…?”
Swallowing in an attempt to alleviate the dryness in her mouth, she stretched her neck to the side before nodding her head. “Grelod the Kind is dead.”
Aventus dropped onto the floor at her feet. “Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I knew the Dark Mother wouldn’t let me down.” He scrambled across the wooden boards on his hands and knees toward the hearth, then back toward her dragging a heavy knapsack behind him. Sitting down with his legs crossed, he unlooped the buckle on the pack and flipped open the flap. “Here, your payment, as promised.”
He withdrew an old plate, the gold spiraled etching that rimmed the shining ceramic a distinct familial patter suggesting it was at least three hundred years old and had probably been passed down from one generation of Aretinos to the next for centuries. She watched his finger trace the scrollwork and wondered how many pieces of his family’s collection he’d bartered with after his mother died to get the things he needed to survive. She’d been there, done that herself. What few valuables she and Anariel managed to take from the shattered remnants of their childhood home had gotten them out of the Summerset Isles, and after more than two hundred and fifty years the only family heirloom she had left was her father’s wedding ring. Anariel had taken their mother’s band, had probably been buried with it. It was as it should be.
“This should fetch you a really good price.”
“I can’t take that,” she insisted.
“But I have so little money left…”
“It’s all right,” she insisted, lowering her hand over his as she pushed the heirloom toward his chest until he brought his other arm up to hold it close to his heart. “I have a feeling old Grelod the Kind would have wound up on the end of my blade anyway, when all was said and done.”
After a few minutes of silent contemplation, she rose from the chair and looked around the empty house. The remnants of his call upon the Night Mother rotted in the room where she’d found him, and before long the stench would alert the guards. He’d find himself back in Honorhall Orphanage, under the guidance of a kinder mistress, but a child as headstrong and resourceful as Aventus didn’t belong in a place like that.
He needed guidance, structure, a trade.
She knew it was a strange idea when it popped into her head, but there were two paths a homeless orphan could take if he wanted to survive, two guilds that would gladly accept him into their familial structure and prepare him for the world. If someone didn’t guide him down the right path, he’d wind up walking in her shoes. She didn’t wish that on anyone, and she couldn’t guide him herself.
“There is one way you can repay me, Aventus,” she turned back over her shoulder to look down at him.
“Anything you want me to do and I will do it. I owe you so much.”
“I want you to pack up your home, clean up your sacrifice to the Night Mother and head down to Riften…”
“But I can’t go back to Honorhall,” he protested, a quiver in his voice that broke her heart. “I miss my friends, but…”
“I don’t want you to go back to the orphanage. I want you to seek out Brynjolf.”
“From the Thieves Guild?” There was recognition in his face upon hearing the name.
“Yes, from the Thieves Guild.”
“Okay, but then what?”
“Tell him Anariel sent you to be his apprentice. That she wishes to make amends for the trouble she caused his guild in the past.”
“You’re very crafty, Aventus,” she told him. “And the shadows are on your side. I think if you embrace them, you could be a very clever thief one day.”
“I’d rather join the Dark Brotherhood and become an assassin like you, Anariel. Can’t you take me with you? I’ll be your apprentice, do whatever you want me to do…”
Closing her eyes, she considered correcting him, but then thought better of it. He didn’t need to know her real name. “I’m sorry, Aventus, but no. The life of an assassin is very dangerous and solitary as well. I work better in the shadows alone, and I’m afraid you’d be terribly lonely if I took you on.”
“But I would be a good apprentice,” he insisted. “I would do whatever you asked me to. You’d never even know I was there unless you wanted to…”
“Perhaps one day, your path will lead you to Sithis, but I think right now you’d be more suited to answer Nocturnal’s call.”
There was such heartache in his eyes, it tore her apart. Two more minutes with him and she might have gone against everything she believed in and taken him on. But she couldn’t. She was poison, and enough time in her presence and she’d taint him too. He had a clean slate now that his nightmare was over. A chance to start anew.
“Will you do as I asked? Go to Riften and apprentice yourself to Brynjolf of the Thieves Guild?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he conceded sadly.
Aside from all the obvious reasons, she really didn’t know why she’d done what she’d done. Smoothing things over between Anariel and her rivals seemed an incredibly twisted thing to do, especially considering how much Brynjolf seemed to hate her. She’d known a lot of thieves in her day though, and they were far less solitary than assassins. Even if they were a little stunned by the gesture, they wouldn’t leave a young boy standing in the streets with an empty belly and nowhere else to go.
“I want you to go as soon as you can,” she told him as she was leaving. “It won’t be long before Ulfric’s guards catch onto your presence here, and if they get their hands on you they’ll send you straight back to Honorhall.”
“I’ll clean up here and leave in the morning, I promise.”
Smiling softly, she turned toward the door and said, “That’s a good boy, Aventus. Take care.”
Stepping out into the streets, the biting cold Windhelm air nipped through her robes like little teeth. She only hoped Aventus followed through on his promise. She couldn’t stomach the thought of that sweet little boy turning down her path.
She was just turning right into the alley when an unexpected blow to the gut caught her off guard, doubling her over until she was struggling on her knees to catch her breath. “Get up, spy.” A thickly accented Nord ordered.
“Please,” she gasped. “I’m no spy.”
“That’s what they all say,” the Nord glowered at her. “But we have ways of making you talk.”
His grip curled around her wrist, twisting her arm behind her back and quickly looping rough strands of rope to bind her hands together.
“You there! Unhand that woman,” a voice at the other end of the alley called out. It was an oddly familiar voice, but Onóra couldn’t turn her head in its direction to identify its owner. “Or I’ll call the guards.”
“Well, well, well. We’ve got ourselves a hero boys,” another Nord clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
“Not just any hero,” another said. “An Imperial hero.”
“Doesn’t that just figure? Where there’s Thalmor, there’s always an Imperial. Get him, boys.”
The distinct sound of shock magic hummed in the air, electricity burning through the cold night until it filled her lungs with every breath. But her rescue never came. There was a loud thunk and the distant crumple of a body hitting the paving stones several feet away from her, the shock magic disappearing in a flash of ozone and lingering smoke.
So this was how Sithis planned to punish her for sending Aventus Aretino to Nocturnal?
She struggled, gnashing her teeth and wiggling her body against them as one of them dropped an executioner’s hood over her head, and then a heavy thwack collided with the back of her skull.
Onóra’s world went dark.