“I feel like such a fool,” he told her.
“Ah, good then. I was thinking you were a fool, but was worried for a moment I might be the only one.”
The wiry mage beside her didn’t miss a beat, but rattled on as they walked as if she actually gave a damn about what he was saying. “We were never properly introduced. I’m Marcurio.”
“So I heard.” She arched a sharp eyebrow without turning to look at him or accept the offer of his hand, which he eventually withdrew almost hesitantly. She simply stared at it from the corner of her eye, noticing how meticulously trimmed his fingernails were, how every vein and cord stood out. These were not the hands of a warrior, but a man who wielded unimaginable strength and power no warrior could ever rival.
Fifteen minutes on the road and she was already plotting slow, painful ways to put him out of her misery. Fifteen minutes and she was already longing for the sweet peace of silence; the man didn’t seem to have an off switch. He hadn’t stopped talking since he’d attached himself to her and he hadn’t told her how her sister died either.
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You do have a name, don’t you?”
“Perhaps I do,” she shrugged, “but you’ll never have any need for it.”
“Oh, come on,” he chided almost playfully. “I bet it’s something beautiful. If we’re going to travel together, I should at least know what to call you. It’s rude to address someone as hey you or elf-woman.”
“I’ve been called worse,” she shrugged. Murderer, abomination and monster, just to name a few, but she kept those to herself.
“You really want me to spend the next few days addressing you that way? All right, but remember when it starts to get annoying that’s what you wanted.”
Oh, the number of ways in which she had already started to grow annoyed, and they had nothing to do with him calling her hey you.
People like Marcurio were the very reason she traveled alone and the more he rambled on, the more she started to see exactly what had attracted her sister to the man. He was vibrant, as full of life and energy as Anariel herself had always been, and the darkness inside Onóra immediately longed to quash it. Why she’d ever agreed to let him travel with her, she’d never know, but she had a feeling only one of them was going to make it to Dawnstar alive and it wouldn’t be Marcurio.
“So then I left Cyrodiil when I was seventeen and headed straight to the College at Winterhold to enroll in the school of Destruction under Master Wuunferth. He no longer teaches anymore, not since he took on the position of court wizard in Windhelm, and it’s probably better that way because Faralda is a much better instructor than Wuunferth ever was. He always had a weird fascination with the dead, and everyone knows he was practicing necromancy. I think all of the college professors should be Altmer mages, given your people’s natural inclination toward magic, but the Nords in Skyrim distrust the College enough as it is. Could you imagine if it were run almost completely by Altmer? It wouldn’t be pretty, that’s for sure.”
Onóra surprised herself in that she actually found herself listening to at least half of what he said, but mostly she kept wondering how such a small man could have lived as long as he did with such a big mouth.
“You don’t have a lot of friends, do you?”
“Me? Friends? Sure. I have a ton of friends all over Skyrim. The mages at the College, like I said and I count most of the people in Riften among my friends.”
“The people of Riften didn’t seem too thrilled with you from where I was standing.”
“Oh, you must be talking about Brynjolf,” he laughed. “Yeah, Brynjolf doesn’t really like me much, not since Anariel and I put a real hurt on his Guild a few years back and the fact that his wife and I are pretty close doesn’t seem to sit well with him either.”
“So you and my sister worked together?”
“Among other things.” She thought she noted a hitch in his voice when he said those words, but just as quickly as that sorrow came, he pushed it away and started babbling again. “She was such a noble warrior, a real Champion for Riften. Mjoll has tried desperately to fill her shoes since she came to the Rift, but I don’t think anyone will ever hold a candle to the things Anariel did for that city.”
“She always was a do-gooder.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” He glanced over at her, eyes like molten amber searching her face for understanding.
“Anything that gets you killed is a bad thing in my book.”
He was blessedly quiet for a time after she said that, traveling beside her with his head down, brilliant eyes focused on the earth beneath his simple boots. Unfortunately, the blessing of his silence was short-lived. As if swallowing whatever sadness had cut his dialogue short, he lifted his head and started talking again.
“We traveled from one end of Skyrim to the other, bringing peace and honor, exploring dungeons and solving problems for people everywhere we went. There wasn’t a person we ever came in contact with that didn’t adore her.”
“Of course there wasn’t.”
“In fact, you’re the first person I’ve ever met who’s had anything bad to say about her.” Turning his gaze in her direction, he waited for her to correct him, but when she didn’t he pushed the subject. “Why is that? Did the two of you have some sort of falling out? Wait, that’s a stupid question. Obviously you had a falling out.”
Onora’s eyes arced skyward, following the distant, graceful flow of a hawk. “Obviously.”
“It must have been pretty bad,” he surmised. “I just can’t believe I knew Ana all those years and she never told me she had a sister.”
It was difficult to stomach hearing that again, to know that Anariel still denied her after all those years as if she truly had severed all ties without ever looking back. The hawk above circled back toward them, spiraling on the wind for several seconds before shifting its direction again. As much as she wanted to tell herself she didn’t care, that her sister didn’t deserve to be honored with remembrance, she was not so cold. There was still an emptiness inside her that longed for Anariel’s love and forgiveness, for her understanding and acceptance, for the soul bond the gods insisted that they share.
“How long did you travel with her?”
“Four years,” he sighed. “I know that may not seem like very long to you, and to her it was probably no more than the blink of an eye, but to me it felt like so much more than that.”
It was obvious in the way he spoke of her that they had been more than just mere travel companions, more than friends, and yet she still couldn’t get over how different he was from the men she’d always associated with her sister’s tastes. She could tell when he walked, by the way his loose-fitting gold mage’s robes clung to his frame, that every inch of him was lean, hard muscle, but standing beside some of the men she recalled from her sister’s past he seemed slight. And Anariel had always avoided wizards, a part of her so tragically scarred by the loss of their precious father the mere thought of magic was enough to spark her fragile emotions.
What was it about this mage that made him worthy enough for her to look past centuries of sorrow?
“You loved her.”
“More than I ever even realized.”
Neither of them said anything after that confession. They walked side by side along the road, Onóra kicking at the occasionally pebble before it fell beneath her boot, Marcurio’s intense eyes lifting to watch her as she geared up for the kick. She kept telling herself to just ask him already, to come right out and say the words, “How did my sister die,” but pride kept her from following through.
“She used to do that very same thing,” he gestured to her foot, his finger trembling a little as he pointed it toward the tumbling stone on the pathway. “She once kicked the same rock from Riften to Windhelm without missing a single step.”
Of course she did. It was a simple game they’d used to occupy themselves when they were girls traveling from a city they were no longer welcome in to the next. They took turns kicking it, laughing and watching it skitter and roll, keeping it in their sights so they wouldn’t lose it. Every new kick was a point, but no one ever won. So simple, and yet it had made the burden of every journey feel lighter, the fear of what the next town might bring less intimidating.
Lowering her foot to the ground, the urge to keep on kicking that rock was stronger than she would ever tell, but she denied it. As if stopping would somehow punish her sister’s memory more than not asking the only man who knew the answer to the question, “How did my sister die?”
They walked for hours along the quiet road, facing little more than a couple of wolves and a wounded frostbite spider that only ambled toward them in a desperate act of self-preservation. Marcurio talked about mindless things, never once offering up the answer to the only thing she really wanted to know. When they arrived within viewing distance of the College of Winterhold, it rose like a foggy shadow among the cliffs overlooking the city. The howling, merciless wind and snow had become sharp, pelting teeth of ice biting through every exposed bit of skin on their bodies.
“I have friends in Winterhold,” he shouted above the wind. “We can stay at the Inn for the night and start fresh in the morning. There’s no guarantee this storm will have abated by then, but I’d kill for a warm bowl of stew and a stiff drink to take the chill off these old bones.”
Tugging the hood of her cloak in closer around her face, she wanted to tell him that he could stay there if he liked, but she would keep on traveling until she reached her destination. It was the perfect way to end their journey together and she told herself she could go on living the rest of her life never knowing exactly how her sister died, but she could barely feel her feet anymore inside her boots and the gloved tips of her fingers were painfully numb from the cold. She only nodded and stumbled almost blind through the snow behind him, cursing whatever foolish prompt that brought her and her sister to Skyrim in the first place all those years ago.
As it was, that last couple of miles to Winterhold felt like endless leagues, and by the time they finally stumbled up the stairs leading into the Frozen Hearth Onóra swore the very marrow in her bones had solidified and she was going to need an icepick to chip her own cloak from her shoulders.
“Marcurio!” A Bosmer mage with a gruff voice and the most intense red eyes Onóra had ever seen glanced up from the heated conversation he’d been embroiled in with an Altmer wizard who ignored the interruption and went on insisting he had no idea what the Bosmer could possibly be referring to. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. I thought I was going to be cursed to suffer this blowhard’s company alone all evening,” he groaned, waving them through the near empty establishment as he called over his shoulder for Dagur to bring a couple more mugs of mead to warm the travelers. “Did Ginna send you to barter a few things on her behalf, or are you here early for the Mage’s Conference?”
“Neither, actually. I’m on a very important assignment for the Temple of Mara.” He announced, lifting a leg across the bench and settling into the seat with a groan. “We’re on our way to Dawnstar, but that storm is just brutal so I figured what better place to come in from the cold than the old Frozen Hearth.”
“You know you’re always welcome here, my good man.” Dagur plunked two mugs down on the table and the Bosmer paid.
“And who’s your fri—” The Bosmer turned his attention to Onóra, who had taken a seat beside Marcurio and reached up to lower the hood from her head, and that was when his voice seemingly got lodged in his throat. “Marcurio? How could this be?”
“It isn’t what it looks like.”
The Altmer mage leaned forward to inspect the subject of their conversation, his squinting yellow eyes widening with intrigue. “Necromancy was never your forte, Marc. What is the meaning of this?”
“I told you, it isn’t what it seems. This is Anariel’s sister…” And then he stopped, a flush of red rushing into his face upon remembering he didn’t even know her name.
She didn’t know why, but she felt sorry for him so she held out her hand and introduced herself, “I’m Onóra.”
Marcurio turned to look at her, a flash of surprise at how easily she’d offered her name to strangers when she’d blatantly refused to give it to him.
“Enthir,” the Bosmer took her fingers in his and gestured with his other hand over his shoulder, “And this oafish buffoon who likes to call himself a mage is Nelacar.”
“How dare you insult me,” Nelacar roared, his haughty voice carrying through the empty inn. “I am your superior and I immediately demand that you apologize.”
Ignoring his indignation, Enthir clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and said, “I had no idea Anariel even had a sister.”
“Neither did I,” Marcurio muttered, lifting the mug to his lips and swallowing several gulps of mead. “Though one would think that was the kind of thing a girl would tell her fiancé, wouldn’t you?”
“Indeed,” the Altmer nodded agreement.
Her fiancé? Onora found herself leaning back to look at Marcurio with intrigue as she withdrew her hand from Enthir. Why hadn’t he mentioned that earlier when she’d asked him how long they’d worked together, when she’d brought up the obvious notion that he’d loved her?
So, her sister finally decided to settle down and start a family—and with an Imperial mage, no less. The plot just kept thickening and thickening as she realized how much a person could change in fifty years. She’d once known Anariel better than she knew herself, but the more time she spent with this man who’d been with her only four years, the more she felt like a complete stranger.
It was disconcerting, and she felt herself shifting in her seat while the three mages caught up, chugging down the thick, honeyed mead in her mug until it was empty and then signaling for the barkeep to bring her another.
She’d managed to walk through Skyrim for fifty years without even once running into her sister or anyone who actually knew her. Of course, there’d been the occasional strange glances, but in the last twenty-four hours she’d come face to face with not one, but four people who’d known Anariel—one of whom had been preparing to marry her before she died. The safety and security of her large, anonymous world suddenly felt smaller and more exposed than it ever had before, and there was only one solution: a quick severing of ties.
“I’m weary,” she announced, pushing her empty mug away and rising from the table.
“Dagur lets me stay downstairs when I’m in town,” Marcurio told her. “Here, let me show you.”
Excusing himself, he promised to return once she was settled, and then led her toward the staircase behind the bar. She followed him down the stairs and into the private dwelling nestled among the mead barrels.
“You can take whichever bed you like,” he said, gesturing to the two neatly made beds and then adding, “Onóra,” as if he couldn’t stop himself from saying her name now that he’d learned it.
“Thank you, Marcurio,” she nodded, looking between the two beds as if they were the most fascinating things she’d ever seen. She wouldn’t sleep, but lie down for a while, wait for him to sleep and then slip out before anyone had a chance to even ask where she was going.
It was better if she didn’t linger, if she didn’t let herself fall into some trap of allowing him to placate whatever sorrows he still carried over the loss of the woman he loved.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you in the morning,” she unslung the satchel over her shoulder and lowered it to the bed closest to where she stood.
“Bright and early,” he agreed. “I’ll have Dagur wake us at sunup.”
He hung back a moment, just staring at her. She didn’t have to turn around; she could feel the intense burn of those brilliant amber eyes on her back. She went about her business, ignoring him until he finally said, “I’m glad we decided to travel together, Onóra.”
Turning over her shoulder to look at him, those words were so genuine they made her tremble a little, every hair on her body rising as the chills rippled through her. She didn’t even know why, but a part of her thought twice about her plan to just walk away, reason and longing clouding her judgment as she realized the man in front of her was her last true tie to her sister. She should just cut that tie for good and move on, walk away and never look back.
“Well, good night.”
“Good night,” she murmured.