She was running, stopping short before a tripwire that had she hit it would have set off a series of poison-tipped arrows before rolling down the ramp and back into the shadows. Racing through an obscure, lightless strip she jaunted up the stairs and stopped in front of a shadowed door. She turned back to look at him and in that moment the peace and comfort of her father’s love wrapped around her like a protective cloak in the darkness.
In that place he was as young as the day he’d claimed her as his own and taken her in off the streets. Only the thin traces of crow’s feet etched beside his dark brown eyes, the thick length of his black hair held not a touch of silver.
He hesitated on the stairs, the light that breached the murk smoldering the edges of his cloak and burning his skin, but when she reached to pull him into the shadows he stayed her hand. She watched the smoke rise off his skin, billowing like a wispy mask in front of his face.
“We have to hurry.” She tried to tug him once again but he wouldn’t move.
“I cannot follow where you go,” he said softly. “Nor can I protect you from the sorrows he will lay at your feet, my daughter, for that is his destiny just as it is yours. Know that I am always with you.” He lowered the tip of his finger to her chest. “Here.” And then he touched the center of her forehead. “And here.”
Ginna woke slowly, her body aching as she stretched beneath the quilt, curled and uncurled her toes before she rolled onto her side and drew her legs back up to tuck them close. She shivered against the damp chill of morning, and every muscle felt sore and overworked. Even her arm felt too heavy atop her aching breasts, both of which felt more like iron ingots stretching her skin beyond capacity. Worse than that was the subtle cramping in the lower half of her belly that signaled the onset of her moons’ blood.
She hated traveling during her moon time. Not only was it exhausting, but it made her a walking target to every predator on the road.
It didn’t do much for her mood either. “Poor Rune,” she muttered. It would be him who bore the brunt of her hormonal mood swings all the way to Whiterun and back. At least he had a sense of humor, which was more than she could say for herself at the moment.
The stiff muscles in her lower back spasmed in protest when she rolled onto her back again, making her curse the damp of Riften under her breath. It wasn’t raining, but the heavy clouds just beyond the window threatened to open up and drench the town, promising even more damp to come. Living over Lake Honrich didn’t help matters either.
She was still abed when she heard the key jiggle open the lock and the sound of Brynjolf’s voice on the other side of the door. He was talking to Aventus, sharing some secret about sizing people up and while most people outside their trade might have found that conversation inappropriate, it made her swell with pride.
She’d never imagined herself in the position they were now in, never thought she’d ever be someone’s wife, much less some poor kid’s mother.
Aventus was the first to come through the door, a sweet roll almost as big as his head in one hand and an apple in the other. His face lit up when he saw her and she drew herself from the comfort of the bed to sit against the headboard.
“Good morning, Aventus.”
“Good morning, Gin—er… Mama.”
“You don’t have to call me mama if it makes you feel uncomfortable.” Gods knew it was going to take some getting used to for all of them. She patted the edge of the mattress and he fell in to sit beside her as Brynjolf edged through the door and closing it behind him. When she lowered her arm around his small shoulders, he snuggled close to her almost as if it came naturally for him.
She couldn’t help but wonder how long it had been since someone held him that way, offered him the much needed comfort of loving human contact? The man who brought her into the world had never held her as a child, but Severus used to cuddle both her and Brutus on his lap whenever they needed a father’s love. She’d never had a mother, didn’t even know where to begin when it came to emulating the skills one must surely possess, but she hoped at the very least to be as good to this boy as Severus had been to her.
“It’s not that,” he told her. “I just have to get used to it, that’s all. I’ve been alone for so long I never imagined I’d have a home again, a family…”
“Well, you take all the time you need. We just want you to be happy.”
“I know,” he nodded. “We went to the market this morning. I stole a sweet roll.” He held his prize up to show her.
“And he didn’t even raise an eyebrow. This boy’s a natural born thief.” Brynjolf beamed with pride as he lowered a heavy ceramic pitcher onto the bedside table. “Your milk, love. Ice cold just like you wanted it.”
Her body reacted to the craving and she reached past Aventus for the pitcher, lifting it to her lips and chugging down several deep swallows right from the pitcher. It really was ice cold and perfect, immediately satisfying a need that had been nagging at her for days.
Watching her with amusement, Brynjolf rolled his eyes and said, “Save some for the kid. He’s still got a lot of growing to do, lass.”
But she didn’t know if she could. She wanted to guzzle it all down until her empty belly felt heavy and full. Returning the half empty pitcher to the table, she glanced up at the sack in his hands and hopefully asked, “Did you steal me any sweet rolls?”
“Of course,” he handed it over to her. “But save me one. I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately, but it’s as though no morsel is safe once it lands in front of you. Delvin told me last night you swiped the food right off his plate.”
“I was hungry.” She tugged open the strings on the bag and dug out a sugary sweet confection. They were fresh, still warm enough that the rich cream frosting made her fingers sticky. “And he wasn’t eating it. I didn’t want it to go to waste.”
“The Void hath no fury like a woman with an appetite,” he told Aventus. “Come on, lad. Go sit at the table and eat your breakfast. As soon as Rune gets here you and I are going to start your second lesson for the day.”
“What’s my second lesson?” He brightened at the prospect of more stealing, and Ginna actually chuckled a little to see him so excited.
“It’s a surprise,” Brynjolf said. “Go on, eat lad.”
“Here, take this milk with you and pour yourself a cup before I drink it all.”
Brynjolf fell into his seat after he scrambled off to the kitchen, slinking his arm behind her and drawing her close to him. His heat immediately warmed the damp chill from her bones, emanating from his body into hers. She nestled closer, burrowing into him and nibbling at her sweet roll, savoring the way the warm bread melted on her tongue before she sunk her teeth into.
“I had a dream this morning about Severus,” she murmured quietly, not so much to hide what they were talking about, but because just saying the words made her feel vulnerable and small.
Being with Bryn had helped to alleviate some of the sorrow she carried with her after losing her Guildfather, taking the edge off of her brother’s betrayal and making her feel like she belonged somewhere again. A part of her just wished sometimes that he had known the man, that he could understand why she spoke of him with such reverence and admiration. She only knew of Gallus what Karliah and Brynjolf told her, but sometimes when she pictured the man it was her father she saw.
“We were walking together through the ruins of a dark temple, sneaking through the shadows because everywhere the light touched it burned right through our clothing. I tried to pull him out of the light, but when we reached the top of the stairs he wouldn’t move. He said he couldn’t follow or protect me, but he was always with me.”
Beside her Brynjolf swallowed and then he turned downward to kiss the top of her head. “I’m sorry, love.”
“No,” she shook her head. “Don’t be sorry. It’s all right. It was kind of nice, almost like a part of him really was still with me somehow.”
“Maybe he is.”
“Yeah,” she muttered. “Maybe.”
She had just finished dressing when Rune arrived at the front door, slipping inside the house with a quiet good morning. Aventus was ecstatic to see the man, and for a moment she stood in the walkway between the master bedroom and dining room watching as the boy rehashed his morning activities with unbridled excitement.
“And then my new Da said I had to eat this apple since I stole it, but I don’t really like apples a whole lot.”
“I guess you’ll think twice before you steal another apple then, won’t ya?” Brynjolf called absently from the bedroom.
“At least it wasn’t a turnip,” Rune shrugged.
“Eww, I hate turnips.”
“You and me both, kid.” Rune leaned right to see if Brynjolf was watching and when he was certain he was preoccupied with the parchment he was perusing, he held his hand out. “Here, I like apples,” he whispered. “And I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
“Thanks Rune.” He shoved the apple into the man’s oustretched hand and Rune quickly tucked it into one of his pockets. “You’re the best.”
“I knew you’d fit right in,” he laughed softly as he reached out to tousle Aventus’s hair.
Smiling to herself, she couldn’t help but think one day Rune was going to make an exceptional husband and father, even if he rarely ever brought up matters that concerned his own heart. There’d been a girl back in Solitude once. Before he’d met Brynjolf and joined the Thieves Guild he thought he might become a fisherman like his father and settle down with her, but that was all he ever said. She wondered if he ever went to see her when he visited with his father before he died.
“You don’t like apples.” Ginna sat down at the table and invited him to sit as well, the two of them watching when Brynjolf ushered their young charge out the doors for more training in the Cistern.
“No, no I do not.” Reaching into his pocket with a laugh, he drew the apple out and lowered it into her outstretched hand. He watched her bite into it as he leaned back in his chair and noted, “He seems to be adjusting.”
“Yeah, I think so.” She poured them both steaming mugs of tea and slid his across the table before snapping her teeth through the crisp skin again and savoring the sweet, tangy juice in her mouth.
“He’s a really good kid. I’m glad you guys are taking him in.”
“Me too,” she agreed. “It’ll take a while for us all to get used to each other, and I’m sure it won’t be easy with me running off to take care of business all the time until the Guild is strong again, but I think he’ll be okay here with Bryn while we’re gone.”
“Brynjolf is a good mentor,” Rune agreed. “He taught me so much when he took me under his wing. I’m sure he’ll be a good father to Aventus.”
“If it was safer I’d love to take him with me. For all three of us to travel together. There’s a lot he can learn from both of us on the road, but things being what they are right now…”
She hated the idea of Brutus discovering just how deeply she’d embedded herself into her new Guild Family, struggled with her imagination as thoughts agitated in her mind of the things he might do to the people she loved just to spite her. He’d burned their childhood home to the ground, killing everyone who’d stayed behind to stand beside him even after he’d framed her. She didn’t want to think about what he would do to her new family.
As if she’d been speaking those words out loud, she added, “I wish I knew why he hated me so much. And not just me, but our entire Guild and family. The things he’s done… all the people he’s hurt. None of it makes any sense. Severus gave us both the same opportunities, the same amount of love and attention. I mean, sure, I got jealous when he had a special job for just the two of them and I wasn’t included, but I always got over it. He never did. He would mope around and torment me endlessly whenever he thought I was getting more attention than he was. It just feels like he’s carrying all these grudges around from childhood, acting out against regrets he should have gotten over a long time ago. I gave him everything he wanted. The seat of power, my support…”
She’d barely stopped to breathe through that exhausting emotional tirade, and when she let the words disintegrate with her thoughts, she actually felt her chest tighten and hitch as if she were on the verge of tears.
“Some people are just born wrong, Ginna.”
“Maybe he’s been cursed by Sheogorath.”
“Madness wouldn’t explain all the rotten things he did to you when you were just kids.” Rune pointed out. “I know it’s hard to imagine someone in your own family would actually want to hurt you, but look at Mercer. We can call it madness all we like, blame the Skeleton Key, call it greed, but in the end the more likely explanation is that he’s just plain evil. The only thing men like them care about is themselves.”
She struggled with that notion, some conflicted part of her wanting to believe for just a moment that her brother could be saved. But she knew better, and even after everything he’d already done to her, all the dark things he was sure to bring to her doorstep, it still made her feel sad.
As if he’d read her troubled thoughts, Rune reached across the table and lowered a hand to her forearm. “No one can save a man from himself.”
Tears she hadn’t even realized were swelling in her eyes slipped down her cheeks and she reached up to swipe them away. Nodding, she said, “I know.” She laughed a little, embarrassed by that unexpected display of emotion. “I think I’m still just really tired. All that travel, you know? My mind is scattered or something.”
“And to think we have to get up early and back on the road tomorrow. You should rest today,” he withdrew his hand. “Rebuild some of your strength. You look tired.”
It seemed a silly thing to crawl back into bed so soon after getting out of it, but she took Rune’s advice and went into the bedroom to lie down while he read a book about the Nightingales she’d brought home with her from Nightingale Hall. She always got a little moody before her moons’ blood, sometimes even a little weepy.
For a long time she just laid there listening to the occasional turn of the page, to him lifting and lowering his mug to the table whenever he took a drink. She tried to ignore the frazzled roll of thoughts through her head, the momentary glimpses of herself trying to save the man she’d called her brother almost as long as she’d been alive.
Rune was right and she knew it.
There was no saving Brutus. Nocturnal would never allow it. In truth, after everything he’d done she shouldn’t have wanted to in the first place. He was a dark curse that needed to be wiped clean from her life before he hurt anyone else she loved.
She shivered beneath the quilt and curled her legs up closer to her body. The fire in the hearth barely took the chill off the air, and the cold, damp bed felt so big whenever she was alone in it. She wanted Brynjolf, to feel his body close to hers, to share his heat and let the strength of his arms bring her comfort.
Every time she blinked her eyes grew heavier and heavier until finally the gentle patter of morning raindrops on the rooftop lulled her back to sleep.