Onóra didn’t sleep that night, even after she heard her travel companion’s soft snores in the bed beside her. She rarely trusted anyone well enough to let herself succumb to so vulnerable a state in their company, so she lay on her back staring at the ceiling and thinking through what she’d learned. Her new friend certainly didn’t seem to be a man corrupted by the voice of the Night Mother or the urgings of Sithis. In fact, he appeared to be no more than an ordinary mage with serious confidence issues—issues that would make him easy to manipulate if given enough time with him.
She’d never really thought in much detail how lonely her lifestyle was. There were moments of despair after she’d parted ways with Anariel, fleeting bouts of sadness as she realized no one in the world would ever love her if her own flesh and blood couldn’t find it in her heart to overlook her obvious darkness. Why she thought The Night Mother gave a damn about her loneliness went well beyond her normal process of thought, but she couldn’t help shaking the feeling that Marcurio had been sent into her life for a reason.
She decided before she even got out of bed she wasn’t going to press the man for any information about her sister. She’d overheard enough while eavesdropping the night before to satisfy her morbid curiosity, and he didn’t seem wholly compelled to actually talk about her sister’s death. If he ever did actually tell her the truth about Anariel, she’d pretend she hadn’t heard a thing.
She also figured being a little kinder to him might ply him a little and help him come to trust her.
She’d never had anyone trust her before. Come to think of it, she’d never been deliberately nice to anyone either, well… except the Aretino boy, but it was definitely going to be a task in and of itself to be kind to Marcurio.
How hard could it be, really? A thank you here, a please there?
But Marcurio was obviously a man who’d been designed by the Gods to test patience and by the time they’d hit the road she found herself rethinking her entire stratagem.
He literally woke up talking. And not just talking, but bubbling enthusiastically about how excited he was to get back on the road together. By the time they left the inn she had a miserable headache and the sound of his never ending voice seemed to rub whatever nerve throbbed in her brain until she swore she’d have a hemorrhage. Maybe the Night Mother just wanted her to kill him. The longer they were together, the more likely it seemed than her earlier notion.
Hadn’t he told her everything there was to know about him yesterday? How could there possibly be more things for him to talk about?
He spoke endlessly about his friend Ginna, who often paid him to act as her bodyguard. Apparently Ginna had horrible taste in men, which he remembered having said the day before and apologized for repeating himself.
“I just think all women deserve to be treated like queens, you know? Most of the time they have to work ten times harder than we do to get by in the world and they still have to put up with all of our macho bullshit, pardon my Argonian.”
“So why didn’t you just marry your friend Ginna?”
“Oh, don’t think I didn’t try to talk some sense into her, but that girl’s got a thing for men of mayhem, and I try to avoid mayhem, if you get my drift.”
“There is something about a man who’s not afraid of a little mayhem that intrigues a woman,” she quirked an eyebrow.
“Great, another one who thinks she needs a bad man in her life she can fix to make herself feel complete,” he grumbled.
“I don’t need a bad man,” Onóra actually laughed at him. She started to say I don’t need a man at all, but she stopped herself before the words came out. She didn’t really need a man, but having one around now and then wasn’t so bad. Everybody had needs and she found herself wondering boldly if he was even half as good at satisfying a woman’s needs as he was talking about how good he was at it.
“No, I don’t suspect a woman like you needs a man at all,” he shocked her with that assessment. It was almost as if he’d read her mind. “You seem very private,” he went on. “Very self-reliant.”
“I can handle my own affairs.”
“I’ll just bet you can,” he muttered almost to himself. She thought for some reason that would quiet him, but it was only a matter of seconds before he started talking again, this time about the dragon menace, which he didn’t think was much of a menace at all, nothing that should require some mystical entity like the Dragonborn to be born into the world anyway.
And on it went for almost two miles, Marcurio chatting contentedly, Onora wishing there was some tundra cotton on the side of the road she could stuff into her ears. Surely this wasn’t really what the Night Mother wanted for her—to spend her days with a partner who never knew when to stop talking.
“Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?” she finally snapped, glaring over her shoulder at him and taking great delight in the startled expression that took hold of his face.
The surprise only lasted a moment, long enough for him to think up the next thing he wanted to talk about, or so it seemed. “I get that a lot, actually. Everyone’s always so quiet, keeping to themselves, afraid to open up. I think if we talked to each other more, the world would be a much better place to live in.”
So he entertained her with his theories on keeping peace through random acts of kindness and simple conversation between strangers. Just when she was sure the Night Mother was punishing her, she felt a strange sense of peaceful darkness wash over her and found her attention drawn toward a rundown farm in the distance and a colorfully dressed little man leaping and dancing. The bells on his jester’s hat tinkled and jangled on the wind and the high pitched madness of his shrieking voice clawed at the air. Squinting, she could see he was standing beside a cart with a broken wheel, the horse tethered in front swinging its tail in pure boredom.
“Poor Mother,” she heard him say. “Poor dear, sweet, loving Mother, you must be so cold. No one will ever help us, no they won’t, and Cicero will have to kill them all. Yes, oh yes he will. A dagger to the heart, perhaps? A poison, maybe?”
“What’s going on up there?” Marcurio stopped, shielding his eyes against the brilliant white burn of the sun.
“Perhaps you should employ one of your random acts of kindness and find out,” Onóra suggested almost sarcastically.
“Maybe I will.” He hmphed and crossed his arms, marching toward the strange little man without looking back at her. “Hello there,” he called out. “You seem to be having a bit of trouble, traveler.”
“Agh!” the little man cried as they approached. “Bother and befuddle. Stuck here! Stuck! My mother, my poor mother. Unmoving. At rest, but too still.”
The bizarre, but peaceful feeling strengthened as they grew closer, and even though the mere sound of the jester man’s voice set Onóra’s teeth on edge, she felt the oddest sense that he was a kindred spirit. That the Night Mother was more near to her than she’d ever been in her life.
“What seems to be the problem?” Marcurio asked with a good-natured willingness to solve all.
“Ooh,” he whined. “Poor Cicero is stuck. Can’t you see? I was transporting my dear, sweet mother… Well… not her. Her corpse. She’s quite dead.” An insane cackle bubbled up from his chest.
Onóra was drawn to the carriage, to the sarcophagus propped in the back as a familiar excitement coursed through her veins. Hand reaching out, she withdrew it almost as quickly as she’d extended it, a part of her almost afraid of the power that beckoned her to the coffin.
The mad man was still relaying his sob story to Marcurio. Giggling at the most inappropriate points in the telling while Marcurio’s thin, dark eyebrow arched upward in an expression lodged somewhere between disbelief and disgust. So much for random acts of kindness, she almost snickered out loud.
“I’m taking Mother to a new home. A new crypt, but aggh!” he screamed. “Wagon wheel. Damndest wagon wheel. It broke! Don’t you see?” He gestured to the fractured and splintered wood and Marcurio nodded, stroking his fingers through the thin patch of hair on his chin.
“I see,” he said. “That is definitely a problem.”
“Uh, uh, uh!” Cicero snapped toward Onóra. “Don’t touch Mother. Mother doesn’t like to be touched. Only by Cicero. Her dear little Cicero.”
She stepped away from the wagon and lowered her arms at her sides, still unable to shake the strange feeling she felt.
“How can we help you, good sir?”
Good sir? She understood his mission to quell the people of Skyrim into a state of peace with random acts of kindness, but there was nothing good about this sir before them. It wasn’t often she encountered others like her she could so openly identify, but the strange little man in the jester’s attire was a venomous killer. She could smell the corruption on him, feel the darkness beating in his heart.
“Oh?” he clapped his hands and began to dance a little jig, singing the words, “Oh yes! Yes! The kindly stranger can certainly help. Go to the farm, just over there off the road.” He stopped dancing just long enough to point the rundown farm to their left. “The Rock-Fist farm. Talk to Bjorn Rock-Fist. He has tools, tools to help repair my broken wheel, but he won’t help us. He refuses.”
“Well that’s just rude,” Marcurio sighed and dropped his arms.
“Indeed, indeed! Convince Bjorn to fix my wheel and Cicero will reward you. Nice, gold. Shiny gold coin for the kind, kind mage who wants to help us.”
“I’ll wait here for you,” Onóra told him, watching him head toward the farm.
She and Cicero watched each other while he was gone, eying one another with curious intrigue. She wondered he if he knew what she was as certainly as she knew about him. Could he see it in her eyes? Smell the blood of her past on the cold wind whipping through her clothes?
“How did your mother die?” she glanced toward the sarcophagus again, her eyes dancing along the intricately carved patterns that spoke to her heart. She could feel its power, the coarse blade of a whisper rasping on the wind.
Come to me, my child. Come to your mother.
“A blessing, a curse. A blessed curse and the love of a husband whose heart is made of void and darkness.” He hissed. “Five children she killed for him. Five sacrifices to sate his hunger. Does she speak to you? Do you hear her in the night?”
Onóra didn’t know what to say, but she couldn’t look away from the bright eyes staring up at her with gleaming insanity and a near childlike wonder that unsettled her so deep in her soul she was actually glad for the sound of Marcurio’s voice for the first time since she’d met him.
“He’ll be down in a minute to fix your wagon wheel.” He announced. “He just had one last chore to attend to.”
Cicero held her glare for a moment longer and then he burst into another sing-song and dance over the words, “Thank you, thank you, stranger, thank you! And as I promised your reward.” He handed Marcurio a light bag of coin, and feeling rather pleased with himself he dropped it into the open pocket of his robes.
“Good luck to you, sir. I hope you get your mother wherever you’re trying to go with no more issue.”
As they started away from the scene, Onóra found herself glancing back several times to lock eyes with the strange little jester man. She didn’t know what had happened, who he was or why she’d felt so strange in his company, but the thick layer of dread in her belly told her she would surely see Cicero again.
“That was a kind thing you did back there for a stranger I can almost positively assure you no one else would have dared to stop and help.”
“He was a little eccentric,” Marcurio shrugged. “But still, I couldn’t just leave him there on the side of the road like that. Not with his mother’s remains in the back of a broken down wagon in the snow. Now hopefully the next time he’s in the position to help someone in need, he’ll remember this act of kindness and lend a hand.”
A dagger across the throat, she thought, but never a hand.
“I can see now why my sister must have loved you,” she said softly.
He was noble, perhaps not near as corruptible as she’d thought upon hearing he’d killed her sister. Maybe she shouldn’t let herself get too attached to him. Maybe she should just part ways with him in Dawnstar as she’d originally thought to do and move on before she got the poor, nice man killed.
An uneasy laugh caught in his throat. “Perhaps you could share that revelation with me because I’ll never understand how someone as pure as Anariel ever loved me.”
“Maybe she wasn’t as pure as you thought she was,” Onóra shrugged, some part of her taking more pleasure than she should have in corrupting whatever fond memories he might have of the woman.
But Marcurio didn’t say anything after that. In fact, he didn’t speak again until they saw the city of Dawnstar blurred by snow and edging closer on the frigid horizon.
“Doesn’t looked plagued by nightmares to me,” he announced.
Onóra laughed and linked her arm through his. “I’d watch who you say that to once we get there. The people of Dawnstar don’t take too kindly to others mocking their infinite, nightly suffering.”