“You’re a smart man, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that you are going to need to keep a close eye on that one, Marcurio,” Nelecar said, tipping back his mug and swallowing the last of his wine before rising from the bench with a groan. “And I mean a really good eye.”
Didn’t he know it? Marcurio looked into his own tankard, the amber liquid rippling darkly at the bottom. He didn’t know what to think of the woman he’d been traveling with all day, the woman who’d saved his life when she didn’t have to, only that she was a sight for sore eyes and the greatest part of him wanted desperately to get inside her—and not in the way his libido normally pushed either.
He wanted to know her, everything about her, all the details Anariel had so selfishly hidden from him about her family. But most of all, he wanted to know why she’d hidden them in the first place. She’d always been so forthcoming, so righteous and honest and realizing that she’d kept something so important from him made him feel cold in ways he hadn’t felt in a very long time. It made him want to know what other secrets she’d been hiding.
On the other hand Marcurio hadn’t exactly been the picture perfect fiancé. It was easy to look back on his time with the most wonderful woman he’d ever known and think fondly of the way she’d been with him, how willing she was to give of herself when all he’d ever done was take. Selfish and arrogant, indifferent to her fragility until it was too late to take it all back, he could only wonder now how much more amazing she might have been if only he’d been good to her.
Judging from Onóra’s cold demeanor, something very bad had torn the sisters apart.
No wonder she had kept those parts of herself secret and safe. He hadn’t deserved to know her past; he probably didn’t deserve to know it now.
Enthir cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he stared over at Marcurio with curious red eyes. “How certain are you that Anariel is really dead, Marc? That this woman isn’t just… toying with you?”
“She’s dead, Enthir,” he lifted his gaze across the table at the elf.
“All right,” Enthir nodded. “Let’s pretend for a moment you did see her die,” he started, allowing that suggestion to ruminate for a few moments before he continued. “Are you absolutely positive there was no way she could have gotten up from where she lay? Say… born anew to darkness.”
Before he could answer, Nelecar called from the entryway into his permanent room at the inn. “Fair thee well, my friends. I’m calling it a night.”
“Good night, Nel.”
“’Night, you insufferable oaf.” Enthir leveled a mischievous grin at the Altmer, who scowled and then slipped into his room, closing the door at his back and leaving Marcurio and Enthir alone in the bar. Glancing toward the counter, Dagur snoozed there, his soft snores confirming the man had fallen asleep at his post. Following Marcurio’s eyes, Enthir lowered his voice and leaned in a little closer, “Okay, we’re alone now, so answer my question. How certain are you she wasn’t infected with Sanguinare Vampiris, Marc? It happens all the time, more often than anyone even realizes.”
Swallowing against the aching tightness in his throat, he felt like he was suffocating. The greatest part of him longed to alleviate some of the burden of guilt he’d carried with him, but everyone had loved Anariel so well, most of them commenting rather harshly even after she died that he’d never deserved her.
If anyone ever knew he’d been the one to kill her…
As if he read the other man’s mind, or at least sensed the overwhelming need to unburden himself, Enthir tilted his head in question. “Well?” he urged. “Come on, Marcurio. We’ve known each other long enough for you to know you can trust me. I’m the man who deals in shady things, but I can keep a secret like nobody’s business.”
“She was infected,” he whispered softly. He didn’t have to turn his head to see Enthir’s dark eyes widen with disbelief and horror. “We’d been called into Morthal by Jarl Idgrod to investigate an arson case and what the townspeople thought at the time was a haunting. Restless spirits from the fire, they claimed, a little girl’s spirit wandering the streets at night, but it was so much more than that. A husband survives his wife and daughter, only to move in with one of the most beautiful women in town the very next day… It was as fishy as it sounds, and through clues I still to this day have a hard time coming to terms with, we found ourselves stumbling upon an intricate little coven of bloodsuckers holed up in a cave just outside of town. Jarl Idgrod begged us to see them exterminated, and we did, but not without paying a price most dear.”
“Oh, Marc,” Enthir muttered. “I can already see where this is going.”
“Movarth was more powerful than we ever could have imagined. I mean, this guy had been alive for hundreds of years, and he was building a little army there in that cave. Gods only know what he was planning to do with them. Ana didn’t even realize until it was too late that she’d contracted the virus from him before she ended his pathetic life. She knew something wasn’t right, but she never thought…” The heaviness of dread inside him mingled with nausea and pain and he doused the emotions with the last swallow of mead in his mug. It warmed through him, only further stoking the fire of anxiety in his belly.
“We were on our way back to Riften and I watched her deteriorate day by day until the sun itself began to destroy her. I pleaded with her to stop in Shor’s Stone to see if they had a healer, but she thought she could make it back to Riften. By the fourth day she said she could feel her own blood simmering inside her veins and her eyes… Dear gods, Enthir, those beautiful green eyes were so red and hungry. I told her I would do anything for her, let her feed on me whenever she needed, but there was just enough stubborn determination left inside her to refuse. She begged me to end it.”
Those words escaped him so quietly that his elven companion had to lean in closer to make sure he’d heard correctly.
“I didn’t want to. Even then I was so selfish as I tried to imagine my life without her in it, but she pleaded with me, grabbed the stake and held it in my hand…”
Everyone who’d ever known her loved her and he expected scorn from the man beside him, but it was gentleness with which Enthir touched him, his long fingers curling around Marcurio’s forearm and squeezing thoughtfully. “Say no more, my friend. Say no more.”
But he’d already started and he couldn’t stop the flood of emotion and turmoil venting through him. “I killed her, Enthir. The only woman who ever loved me for who I am and I put a stake through her heart as if she were no better than some rabid animal.”
“And that is exactly what she would have become if you hadn’t done her bidding, Marc.”
“Would she?” He didn’t now anymore. In the last few years he’d heard of numerous cases in which vampires had been cured by a mage in Dawnstar, and even more strange were the number who chose to live with the virus, blending themselves as carefully into society as possible, all the while managing to keep it under control. If only he’d been able to convince her…
“Don’t do this to yourself, man,” Enthir said. “Don’t torture yourself anymore than you already have and if I were you, I’d keep that little story to yourself until you know more about this woman who claims to be her sister.”
“There is no claiming about it,” he shook his head. “Look at her. They are of the same soul, and maybe she’s come looking for me to find answers… She has a right to know what happened to her sister.”
“She doesn’t have a right to know anything until you find out why Anariel never mentioned her to you. You just remember that when you start thinking with that troubled soul of yours.”
“I just can’t help thinking the gods sent her to me for a reason,” he mused. “Like a sort of second chance.”
“Oh, Marc. Don’t let anyone ever tell you you’ve got no heart, but you need to be realistic about this. There was obviously a reason Ana pushed that woman out of her life, a reason she kept her hidden away in her past. Maybe I don’t know her from Boethiah, but something about that woman just isn’t right. Guard yourself and your secrets until you know everything there is to know about this Onóra.”
Onóra stood in the shadow of the stairwell listening to the two men talking, her hand poised and trembling over her lips as she heard Marcurio’s dark, guilty confession. Enthir’s caution didn’t surprise her. She was used to more empathetic souls sensing what dwelled inside her, and maybe he was right to warn Marcurio against her. Everything she touched turned to ash, and while finally hearing the truth about what had happened to her sister should have alleviated some of the guilt she still carried, she couldn’t help wondering if Anariel would still be alive if she’d been there to stop him from killing her.
She couldn’t imagine it. Her sister, a vampire? Didn’t it just figure she was too damn noble and insufferably proud to embrace such a wondrous gift? That she would implore the man who loved her to end her suffering, rather than prey upon the world at the top of the food chain? And he’d done it, he’d ended her misery the way Onóra had ended the miserable existence of so many others who didn’t belong in the world.
She didn’t know if the sickness and disgust she felt inside had more to do with finally learning the truth about Ana’s death after all those years, or with the purity of her sister’s spirit. Their father had been right all along. The two of them really, truly were two halves of the same whole and Anariel had gotten everything righteous and good, leaving Onóra with nothing but emptiness and darkness.
It should have been her who’d been given the gift of the blood so many others considered an infection. The things she could have done with such a blessing from the gods, the ease with which she could answer the dark calling of Lord Sithis and the Night Mother, the power she would possess.
Guilt gripped her as she realized the wickedness of her own thoughts, tearing her between what she knew to be considered right and what her dark heart longed to embrace. But even more than that was the sudden longing she had to get inside this man who’d known her sister, loved her and then killed her. A part of her wanted to punish him for taking away the only person in the world who’d ever understood her, while at the same time she wanted to lift him up and celebrate him for liberating her from the cruelty of her sister’s hateful love.
There’s something wrong with you, Nora. You’re broken and I can’t try to fix you anymore.
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head. “I’m not broken.”
For the first time in her life she didn’t want to believe that, didn’t want to fall into the trap of guilt her sister had set for her. For too long she’d let the fears of her family color the way she saw herself, darkening the power inside her until she could no longer see the light for what it was. Onóra had walked Nirn for more than two and a half centuries feeling like every impulse inside her was bad and wrong, that she’d been born broken, but she’d been touched by a god. Kissed on the forehead by Padomay himself and sent into the world to do his bidding, to wreak havoc and invoke chaos.
Why wouldn’t they fear her? Why shouldn’t they despise her?
But why should she despise herself? She was only doing what she was meant to do, what her god had planned for her.
At the sound of shuffling bodies upstairs and murmured goodnights, she turned back into the room and silently closed the door behind her. She crawled back into the bed Marcurio had given her and closed her eyes, her thoughts racing wildly through her head. She heard him enter the small room, the shifting of his footsteps on the stone floor and then she felt him near her, hovering over her, watching her while he thought she slept.
What was he thinking? What cruel, dark thoughts played through his mind?
Everything Sithis had given her had been a gift, including this man who’d known and killed her sister. She didn’t know what Marcurio’s place in her future was, but she wasn’t going to walk away from him so easily. He was like her, more like her than anyone she’d ever met; he just didn’t know it yet.
For the first time in her life, Onóra didn’t feel alone.
The Night Mother had sent her a partner and it was up to her to bring him over to the darkness.
*Eep, I realized I don’t have any images for the header in this chapter. I will have to update that later after I send Marc and Nora to the Frozen Hearth again.