A cold droplet splashed against his brow, trickled down over the bridge of his nose and dripped across his cheek like a tear. Marcurio moved to reach up and wipe it away, but he had no hands. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, he discovered, wiggling and stretching his tight, aching fingers until pins and needles sparked feeling back into them again. His hands had been bound behind him, and when he fluttered his grip he could feel soft fabric edging just within reach.
He was tied with his back against a stone pillar, the binds so tight he could feel them stretched across his chest, digging into his skin beneath the cloth of his robes when he attempted to move. To make matters worse, the smell in the air was thick and stifling.
“Great,” he muttered, scaling his mind over the events that brought him to this strange state of imprisonment.
He hadn’t followed her on purpose. Okay, so that wasn’t exactly true either. He’d left Riften on horseback and happened upon her quite by mistake, which was bound to happen with both of them heading in the same direction. It was the following at a slow pace behind her that hadn’t been accidental. He’d put enough distance between them that if she turned around he would always be just out of sight, but the image of her graceful figure was never far from his own gaze.
He’d reasoned with himself that stopping in Windhelm for the night wasn’t exactly unheard of. It was a long trip to Dawnstar—he would obviously need some rest. If they bumped into each other there, and he was hoping they would, he’d point that out before she had another chance to put her dagger to his throat. There’d been images of a cozy bed in Candlehearth Hall and an imaginary conversation during which the spitting image of the woman he’d once loved welcomed him into her life and began telling him all about her childhood, but Anariel’s twin had never gone to the inn. She’d immediately ducked down the alleyway, disappeared into a dark house and hadn’t emerged for hours.
Waiting in the shadows and watching for her to come out wasn’t really stalking… so long as she never knew he was there. And she was fortunate he’d been there to help fend off those crazed, Nord attackers in the alley. There was no telling what they might have done to her had he not been there, he reasoned, completely ignoring the voice in the back of his mind repeatedly chanting the words you’re an idiot.
The rustling sound of a body moved on the other side of the pillar, the fabric of her robes tickling against the tips of his fingers as a low, throaty moan escaped her, and then another as she regained consciousness.
“Don’t panic,” he murmured in a low voice. “I’m strategizing a plan to get us out of here.”
“Who… are you?” she whispered, her accent and tone so familiar and soothing he could almost trick himself into believing she was the woman who compelled him to follow her in the first place.
“I’m the man who’s going to save your life,” he said confidently.
“You,” she muttered annoyed recognition. “Why are you following me?”
“I wasn’t following you,” he insisted. “We just so happened to both stop in Windhelm to rest for the night.” It came out too quickly, and even he thought it sounded a little forced when he heard himself say it—as if he’d spent too much time working out how he would explain himself if they did happen to run into each other. “And it’s a good thing too, otherwise you’d probably be dead by now.”
He could feel her struggling against her binds behind him, groaning out the words, “I’d thank you for your pathetic attempt at saving my life, but I get the feeling you’re half the reason I’m in this situation in the first place.”
“So, you think you could have handled those goons without me?” he ruminated. “Somehow I don’t think so. I put quite a hurt on our would-be attackers. You should be thanking me.”
“Would-be?” She actually laughed, a sweet yet lethal melody that inspired a tight tickle in the depths of his gut. “I should be thanking you? If it weren’t for you, I’d be halfway to Dawnstar by now. I could have handled those fools.”
“So, you were on your way to Dawnstar?”
“Not that it’s any of your business,” she countered, “but yes. I have a home there.” She stopped struggling, and from the corner of his eye he saw her shadow stretch along the wall over his left shoulder. How had she gotten free so quickly?
Stepping around the pillar, she crossed her arms when she arrived in front of him, her cold green eyes locked on his. “Why were you stalking me?”
“I already told you I wasn’t following you. Our meeting was nothing more than a coincidence.” He wriggled his wrists against the ropes that bound him, trying to conjure the flame of his destruction magic to burn through his binds, but his magicka was weak. They must have poisoned him to keep him docile. Damn it. “Could you cut my bonds, please?”
The woman tilted her head to look at him, a bemused grin quirking at the corner of her mouth. “Not until you admit you were following me on the road.” He watched her fingers tap the sleep of her robes, long, golden, shapely fingers that only seemed to add fuel to the strange fire igniting in his belly. What he wouldn’t give to feel those fingers against his skin. “I felt you there. Felt you watching me, and I thought long and hard about killing you, but until now I didn’t think you were really a threat. Maybe I should leave you for the Stormcloaks to interrogate.”
“Stormcloaks?” he balked. “I thought the war was over.”
“You’ve obviously been out of touch with the world for quite some time, thinking you could just walk into Windhelm on a whim without notice, Imperial,” she mused.
“I could say the same of you,” he countered, wriggling his wrists against the ropes that bound him. Gods, they were so tight, chafing against his skin every time he twisted his arms together. “Stormcloak hatred for the Thalmor is far more intense than their loathing for Imperials. You’re half the reason the whole bloody war started in the first place.”
A strange look twisted her beautiful features, mouth curling, nose wrinkling. She clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and took a step back. “I don’t know how you knew my sister, but I’m surprised she let someone like you outlive her.” She hadn’t just let him outlive her. She’d begged him to kill her. “Then again, she always did have a soft-spot for bigoted morons with more ego than brains. I think they always made her feel smarter than she actually was. Though she normally gravitated to much more… manly men.”
He couldn’t explain, even to himself, why those words cut him. He only knew they were true. Anariel had always been too good for him, too kind and loving. And he’d met a few of her ex-boyfriends in their travels through the years. Brawny, brainless men—Nord and Orsimer warriors with hulking bodies and egos that bulged with self-righteous confidence and testosterone. Beside one of them, he was a mere speck of a man, his only claim to power the magicka he possessed and the overcompensating confidence he’d wrapped around himself like a protective cloak against his own fragile ego.
Well, there was the fact that he was no slouch in bed either; the gods had certainly blessed him below the belt, and there wasn’t a woman alive who’d been able to just walk away after bedding him.
Anariel overlooked every one of his monumental flaws and saw things in him no one else alive had ever noticed. Things even he had a hard time believing were true. She loved him for his loyalty, his wit and humor, the subtle insecurities that made him go out of his way to impress everyone around him.
“She was smart,” he countered almost protectively. “She was one of the smartest women I’ve ever met.”
“A smart woman doesn’t get herself killed when she’s got hundreds of years left to live.” He watched her face darken, and then she turned away from him, scoping out their prison for an exit. “You’re on your own, mage. Good luck.”
“I was with her when she died, you know.” He didn’t know why he’d said it, why he thought it would make some kind of difference, but those words gave her pause. She returned her gaze to him, eyes alight with a flash of unspoken intrigue.
Before she could respond, an echo of incoming voices stretched down the corridor leading into their cell and she cursed under her breath. Turning back to look at him, she momentarily debated with herself and then bent down, ducked behind him and begrudgingly cutting his binds.
“You’re still on your own,” she muttered, dipping into the shadows in the corner of the cell to set herself up for attack.
Marcurio slipped into the darkness on the other side of the room, conjuring what little energy he could actually muster. They’d taken his travel satchel upon capture, so he couldn’t replenish his magicka with no potions at his disposal and for a moment he wasn’t sure what he hated more: the fact that he was so drained, or that he relied so much on magic in situations like this.
Leaning his head outward, he spied two men coming toward the cell through the barred window. One lean as a wire rippling with electric hate, the other short and stocky with the most absurd facial hair Marcurio had ever seen. Who purposely grew their mustache into their sideburns and shaved their beard clean? Especially with a chin that wide?
Only a Nord. He rolled his eyes, his gaze landing on the elven woman on the opposite side of the room. He could barely see her among the shadows, the only sign that she was actually there a brief flash of ebony in her hand that caught on the torchlight when she drew the dagger she’d hidden well on her person.
“We’ll make ‘em talk,” absurd mustache said. “And then we’ll take the intelligence to my brother. He’ll have to listen to me then. Have to get me an audience with Ulfric so we can scourge this great city of the elven menace.”
“And I say screw your brother, Rolff,” the other chuckled. “Galmar’s got his nose so far up Ulfric’s backside, he doesn’t know when it’s day or night anymore. Mr. High and Mighty’s only job these days is to sit up at the Palace of the Kings on that big fat pampered arse of his babysitting Ulfric’s queen. He’s lost sight of what’s really important.”
“Hey,” Rolff growled. “He may be a brownnoser, but he’s still my brother.”
“I doubt he’d say the same of you if someone were to ask him who you were. You’re an embarrassment to him and you know it.”
“You shut up about my brother, or I’ll put my axe in your skull and interrogate these spies myself.”
The jingling of keys was followed by the thunking click of the lock yielding to freedom and the door swung open on its rusted hinges with an ear-splitting scream. The thin, wiry Nord was the first one into the room, and before Marcurio could act, his mysterious companion emerged from the shadows with such grace the man couldn’t have stopped his death if he tried. Her ebony dagger wrenched violently across his throat, spraying blood like so much red paint around the cell while he gurgled and clawed at his open neck in panicked desperation.
Marcurio could barely summon more than a single fireball, but it was enough to blast the man with the ridiculous mustache backward into the cell, setting the ragged clothes he wore on fire. He dropped to the stone floor, rolling around screaming as he tried to put the fire out, the pungent stench of burnt hair and skin momentarily overpowering all the other smells of their prison.
His elven accomplice grabbed the keys from the belt of the writhing man she’d attacked and headed out the door, Marcurio hot on her heels. Closing them inside the cell, she locked the door and slipped into stealth mode to navigate the winding corridors of their strange prison.
The few dilapidated wall sconces they’d lit barely shed enough light into the halls for them to see their way through. He stumbled over something underfoot, falling flat on his face and landing just a breath away from the gaping-mouthed head of thousand year old dead man. Draugr. It was all he could do to keep himself from bellowing in disgusted protest. He should have known by the smell they’d been imprisoned in underground Nordic ruins.
Anariel’s sister lit a torch from one of the sconces in the distance, shining it in his direction with a perplexed grin. The bodies of fallen draugr littered the floors all around him, the stench of death so old no amount of fresh air would ever cleanse it suffocating his senses as he rolled onto his back and fought the gripping spasms of his own gag reflex.
She mistook his disgust for fear, tsking softly and muttering, “Oh for gods’ sake, they’re already dead.”
“That doesn’t make them smell any better.”
Swallowing the impulse again, he shot a glare in her direction and then started to get up off the ground. He didn’t know why, but she waited for him to fall in behind her before she started moving again and as they stealthily crept through the shadowed halls of that old tomb, Marcurio’s mind played cruel tricks on him.
He couldn’t count the number of tombs and ruins he and Anariel had cleared out together, how many times he’d followed her lead in that same manner, his eyes roving over the sweet curve of her backside as she moved like a cat through the silent catacombs. And just when his curious hand began to reach out almost against his will to touch that beautiful backside through her robes, she came to an abrupt halt in front of him and he stumbled into her.
“Shh,” she whispered over her shoulder. “There are more of them up ahead.”
His heart sped up, a tightness in his groin calling recognition to the fact that when she’d stopped she’d backed right into his hand, which was now cupping the ample flesh of her derriere. He didn’t dare move, for fear of drawing attention to it, but she had to feel it.
“I count four, three warriors and a magic user. If I had a bow, I could take out at least two of them before they even knew what hit them. You think you could handle the magic user?”
He wanted to handle her, he thought, every inch of her beautiful golden body until she whimpered his name in rapturous release against his ear. Shaking off the naughty thoughts running circles through his brain with a quick jerk of his head, he swallowed hard and said, “I don’t know. My magicka’s been drained. It took everything I had to summon that fireball.”
“Great,” she sighed, adding, “and get your grubby little hand off my ass.”
Quickly taking two steps back, his palm still tingled with the warmth of her body heat. She turned around to survey the dead draugr that littered the floor. She found an Ancient Nord Bow and a quiver of arrows, quickly slinging the quiver over her back and filling it with as many arrows as she could find amongst the scattered remains.
Marcurio searched too, finding a health potion and two stamina regenerating vials, but nothing to replenish is magicka. The poison had to wear off eventually, but sooner rather than later would be ideal. He already looked ridiculous in front of this woman he wanted so badly to impress, and a demonstration of his power might change the way she saw him.
“I’ll take out the magic user first,” she decided, rolling her gaze along the upper level of the ruins overhead. “Can you use a bow?”
“Can I use a bow?” he smirked haughtily, scanning the remains for another bow.
By the time he’d found one that wasn’t broken and filled a quiver with enough arrows to take down an entire army, she’d climbed up the structure and posed herself on the overhead walkway. He surveyed the walls, trying to determine how she’d gotten up there so quickly, but couldn’t figure it out. He wound up sneaking up a set of stairs that led to where she waited for him, her sight already aligned with the mage in the room below.
“Take out the smallest man first,” she whispered.
“Don’t you think it would be wise to take out the largest man first?” he grimaced, looking among the three warriors to determine which was the greatest threat.
“Larger men move slower,” she pointed out and then added, “on my mark.” She counted off their assault with a tap of her foot so light only he could hear it. He lined up his arrow on the smallest man he could find, and then loosed it on the third tap of her foot. She released hers as well, the tip cutting through the mage’s skull like a hot knife through butter and was already reloading before the remaining threat even knew they were under attack.
Of course, his arrow would barely graze the arm of the man he’d shot at, making him look completely inept in front of a clearly better marksman. Her second arrow found his man, embedding in his neck as he turned his head in their direction. He fell into the soup he’d been eating and the other two warriors went into attack mode.
If he could just summon his magicka, he’d blast them both with such a powerful shock he could take them both out in one hit. Cursing under his breath again, he aligned another arrow, but his target wouldn’t be still. It bounced off the stone wall behind the man and clattered to the floor.
The woman beside him set another arrow swishing through the air, and he watched the third man fall, but she didn’t bother reloading. Instead she closed her eyes and held out her hand. Marcurio could feel the elemental shift of magic in the air beside him, and moments later she unleashed an ice spike that lodged in her target’s shoulder. The man went down with a groan, crawling across the floor to safety, but she was already realigning her bow, narrowing the tip of the arrow and then releasing. It landed perfectly, cutting into his back and straight through his heart.
He fell with a thud and moments later a sizzling pool of blood leaked out from beneath his corpse.
“You’re a mage?” he astounded.
“No,” she shrugged.
“But you just…”
“Not everyone who can use magic is a mage,” she pointed out. “I know a few spells, mostly Illusion magic, but there are a few destruction tomes up here I call upon when I’m really in a bind.” She tapped her forehead with a long finger and grinned. “Come on. We should find our way out of here before their friends realize they’re all dead and come looking for us.”
He followed, stunned silent for probably one of the first times in his adult life as this familiar, yet mind-boggling enigma of a woman led him out of the ruins he probably would have died in if she’d left him. It was a harsh reality he’d never admit to anyone; he was having a hard enough time accepting it himself.
When they finally emerged in the cold light of day, Marcurio drew in an appreciative breath of fresh, clean air. He had to shield his eyes against the brilliant light of the sun until they adjusted, but his companion didn’t even stop moving, she just kept walking and after a few seconds he realized he was going to have to jog to catch up with her if he didn’t want her to get away.
“So, are you going to Dawnstar?” he asked, glancing sidelong at her.
Her face gave nothing away, no emotional response whatsoever when she said, “Perhaps.”
“We should travel together. It’s obviously not safe out here for either of our kind.”
“I’m no Thalmor.” She turned her eyes on him, the frigid bite of their luscious green hue so beautiful he wanted to lose himself in that cruelty.
“Maybe not, but Nord mentality dictates that they shoot first and ask questions later.”
“What do you say?” he asked, not understanding why he was so eager to walk beside her. To know her in ways he’d never known her sister, make up all the wrongs he’d done to her with this woman who looked so much like her it wrenched his heart inside his chest. “I really am a powerful mage. In fact,” he held his hand up, the orange glow of fire magic stirring his aura, “I can feel my powers recharging.”
She stopped for a moment on the side of the road and turned to look him over, size him up in ways he swore he’d never been sized up before. “I travel alone,” she finally said.
He swore a part of his soul shattered when she said those words, and then he reached for the first thought that popped into his head. It was a risk, especially considering he knew nothing about her or her relationship with her sister, but it was his only chance. “All right,” he shrugged. “I guess you’ll never know how your sister died then. You can walk to the ends of Nirn and back, but you’ll never find out from anyone else. I’m the only one who knows what really happened to her.”
The cold calculation of those mesmerizing eyes were on him again, boring into him with such unspoken power he actually shuddered a little. “And what makes you think I give a damn how she died.”
“Because she was your sister.”
Her dark lips pursed tight beneath her nose as she inhaled, carefully contemplating his offer of truth and closure. He didn’t know what had transpired between them, but surely she must want to know. If he’d had a sister, he would want to know.
“All right,” she tentatively yielded. “But once we reach Dawnstar, we go our separate ways.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “Though judging from Maramal’s predictions, that shouldn’t be a problem. Apparently, I’ll probably be dying in Dawnstar.”
It was at least a four day walk to Dawnstar from Windhelm, and the last thing he wanted was to risk them getting caught by any remaining thugs in Windhelm’s underground hatred patrol. Smiling thoughtfully to himself, it had only taken him two days to win over her sister. Four days would give him plenty of time.