Rune and Ginna hit the road early, before the sun even came up, and even though she’d spent almost the entire day before wrapped in blissful sleep she still felt utterly exhausted when Brynjolf nudged her awake around four a.m. He and Aventus both got up to see her off, breaking their fast with her before walking her and Rune to the stables to see them off.
It had only been two days, but Aventus was downhearted to see her go, hugging her so tight she felt like she might crumble in his little arms when he said, “I’ll miss you.” She held him close to her, lifting her eyes to meet with Brynjolf, who only offered her a slow, sad half-smile before moving in to kiss her when Aventus finally pulled away.
“Be careful out there, love,” he murmured into her hair when he drew her body into his. “Send word if you come upon any trouble.”
“We will,” she promised. “Take care of the boy.”
He only nodded as he withdrew and met her lips again in a lingering departure that would stay with her all day.
Taking the northern route to Whiterun, they made good time on horseback and set up camp in the mountains just above Ivarstead two hours after sundown. They stopped only long enough to rest their horses and even though the beast had carried her on its back without complaint for the duration, Ginna swore it felt like she’d walked every one of those miles herself. Her hips and lower back ached and the dull, throbbing cramps in her stomach were a constant reminder that at any given moment her blood would come.
“You think Aventus is okay?” Ginna asked, absently pushing a stick through their campfire.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Rune assured her for the fourth time since they’d left Riften that morning. “Bryn’s probably got him pickpocketing Vipir for practice.”
“Vipir was back when you got up this morning?”
“He was asleep. I heard him and Vex come in late last night.”
“Did he find out anything about Aventus?”
Brynjolf shared his concerns about the boy’s origins, his fears that the ghost Thane of Riften had returned to try and tear the Guild apart again just when things were starting to actually look up. She tried not to think of how strange Marcurio had been acting the night before Brynjolf’s confrontation with him in the cemetery, tried to convince both Bryn and herself that Marcurio would never do anything to put her job or her life in jeopardy, but the way the man had run off right after that confrontation didn’t bode well for his intentions.
“I’m not sure. Like I said, he was asleep when I left.”
For a time they were quiet, her mind trying to grasp at the notion that Aventus had been sent to tear them apart from the inside out, that Marcurio had something to do with that. She didn’t want to believe it, but Brynjolf assured her that the man she called friend had never been amicable with the Guild. His affiliation with the woman Anariel had made him an enemy and the only reason Vipir let the man live was because he’d been so broken after Anariel died. Watching Marcurio suffer and self-destruct had brought Vipir peace of mind.
“Do you really think Marcurio is behind this somehow?”
“I don’t know, Ginna,” Rune didn’t look at her when he said those words, but remained transfixed by the fire. “I know he helped you out of a few binds, but…”
“He didn’t just help me out of a few binds. He had my back, even when it was against his better judgment. He killed innocent people to protect me in Markarth. Why would he do something like this after everything he did to help me?”
Again he said, “I don’t know, Ginna.”
She was silent for a long time after that, not knowing what to say or even think. She couldn’t imagine Marcurio betraying her or her Guild, even though everything seemed to point in that direction. Still, something about it all just didn’t seem black or white. He was her friend. Wasn’t he?
After a time Rune steered the conversation back to the Nightingales. He’d been asking questions all day, most of which she barely knew how to answer. She still wasn’t quite sure exactly what it meant to be a Nightingale, other than that they were bound to serve Nocturnal until their contracts with her expired, even after death.
Still awestruck by the very notion of the three of them standing face to face with Nocturnal, he noted, “Now that’s something I’d like to see before I die. What does she look like?”
“Nothing,” she shrugged. “Everything all at once. Like this great ball of shadow and energy that’s both everywhere and nowhere. A disembodied voice.”
“I bet it was beautiful.”
“Hmm,” she nodded agreement. “It was beautiful, but sort of scary too.”
“Everything about the Daedra is scary.” He shivered underneath the blanket he’d wrapped around his shoulders and huddled closer to the fire. “And the fact that your Guildbrother is messing with them terrifies me more than I care to admit.”
“Me too,” she confessed.
Her fears eventually steered the conversation back around to Aventus and how quickly she could feel herself growing attached to the boy, how terrifying it was to realize loving other people would make them targets for her brother’s hate.
“I really like that little boy. I know I barely know him, but he feels right with us. Like we’re supposed to protect and guard him with our lives, or something.”
“I mean one minute I’m in it for myself, you know? And Bryn, of course. I mean when I say myself I mean him too, but now there’s this kid in our lives and he’s a part of the bigger picture too. I keep having this vision of getting the Guild back on its feet and taking a back seat for a while as the coin just keeps flowing in. Be a real family within the family, you know?”
“You’ll get there,” he said. “It’s been a slow process, but it’s coming. I can feel it. And with Nocturnal on our side now, how can we lose.”
“It’s just so weird though. This is all I’ve ever known and I never thought I’d want to do anything but this. Now I feel sort of conflicted. Like maybe there’s more to everything than the life I’ve always known.”
“Sometimes I feel that too,” he admitted, peeling at the stem of a dry leaf he’d picked up from the ground. He’d been playing with it for almost an hour, staring absently at his own hands while it danced and twirled between his fingers. “I’ve been searching for something my whole life, always feeling like I’m just a step away from finding it. Every time I think I’m close it leaps ten steps ahead of me and I can’t catch up. But I will get there.”
Quiet melancholy always followed statements like that, Rune drifting away on his own thoughts and Ginna never knowing how to pull him back in and make him feel safe.
“I wish there was something I could do, Rune. Something I could say that would make it all okay.”
“You do things for me all the time,” he muttered. “The Guild makes me feel like I’m part of a real family, and it always has, but ever since my father died I feel so disconnected from it all. Like the tether holding me to this whole place was cut and I’m drifting further and further out to sea.”
Ginna reached across the space between them for his hand, her fingers curling around his and squeezing. “I won’t ever let you drift away.”
Lowering his other hand over hers, he patted gently and said, “Maybe that is what I need to do.” He didn’t look up when he spoke those words, but he must have felt her body tense. There was desperation in the words that followed. “I just want to know who I am, Ginna. Where I came from, where I belong.”
“I know you feel like you can’t be a whole man unless you find the answers, but I know who you are, Rune.” She stood up and withdrew her hands from his. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had and not a day goes by since I met you that I don’t find myself wishing I’d grown up with you as my brother instead of that psychopath out there digging up Daedric disaster.” She waited until he finally lifted his vibrant hazel eyes to her face. “Maybe you don’t know where you came from, but you belong with us.”
The smile he offered was soft, and she was glad to see it reached his eyes, but only just. Whatever was going on inside him couldn’t be placated with a hug and promise that she’d always be there. And that was the worst part about it. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what he was going through, how hard it was to deal with the fact that he didn’t even know his own name.
“I’d never just leave you behind, you know,” he said quietly. “Even if I drifted away for a while, I would always come back to my family, my Guild.”
“Well, you better,” she warned, “or I’ll come looking for you. Imagine how pissed of Brynjolf would be if I had to drop everything to come hunt you down.”
He laughed then, genuine amusement, and for the rest of the night they did not speak of the darkness hovering over both their lives, even though it was never far from their minds.
The rain started just as they were coming up on the Honningbrew Meadery, and while Rune sighed and pointed out once more that he swore it only ever rained in that city, Ginna found her gaze turning toward the Meadery. She hadn’t been back there since she’d helped forced the balance of power into Maven’s hands and even though Mallus offered to fence for her if she were ever in Whiterun, a part of her knew she couldn’t trust him.
She wondered if Brutus had been to see him, and considered stopping in to poke around and ask questions, but she worried he’d betray her if he was in contact with her rival and Brutus offered him enough coin.
There’d never been much love between Brutus and Mallus; her Guildbrother had always found the man to be beneath him, endlessly nagging her in an almost endearing way to find someone more worthy of her affections. It had been one of the few times he’d actually made her feel like he cared about her, and she had continued to hang around Mallus just to annoy him.
She’d done a lot of things to purposely annoy him when they were younger, most of those them relatively innocent, but now she couldn’t help but wonder how many of those things she considered petty aggravations pushed him toward the hatred he felt toward her. It seemed a petty thing for him to still be clinging to grudges so inconsequential, but she wouldn’t put anything past him anymore. He’d killed their father, betrayed her, burned their childhood home to the ground and destroyed their Guild.
“Who are we looking for?” Rune drew her from her thoughts as they edged through the city gates, but before she could answer a surly Nord in Legionnaire’s armor shoulder between them without even saying excuse me.
“Excuse you,” Ginna snapped over her shoulder. “I swear these Nords have absolutely no manners.”
“Gray-Mane or Battle-Born?” he snarled almost viciously.
“Gray-mane or Battle-Born?”
“I don’t know. Battle-Born, I guess.” Their contact was a man with that surname. Perhaps whatever situation he’d asked Delvin to have her take care of was so urgent he spent his days stalking the gates for someone wearing Thieves Guild armor. “Are you Olfrid?”
“No.” He seemed somewhat taken aback by her question. “Olfrid is my wife’s father.”
“Great, where can I find your wife’s father?”
Surveying her with caution then, he scrunched his lips together and twisted them beneath his teeth. “Who’s looking for him?”
“Olfrid doesn’t have any friends.”
“If he’s anything like his son-in-law, I’ve no doubt about that,” she mumbled to Rune. “All right then, I’ll find him myself.” They stalked away from the gates and into the bustling town. Two little girls circled around them in a giggling game of tag before jetting up the incline toward the Merchant’s Circle and the Bannered Mare. “I’m going to go do some digging, try to track down Olfrid Battle-Born. If you want to go hang out at the inn, I’ll come find you there.”
He turned a wary eye toward her, his heavy brow furrowing. “Brynjolf said I am not to leave your side, Ginna. I’ll come with you.”
“Oh, come on, Rune. We’re in Whiterun. What could possibly happen to me here? There are Stormcloaks everywhere, and enough people milling around that I doubt even Brutus, bold as he has been, would dare start anything in the city.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I think I’ll be all right. And if Brynjolf asks when we get back to Riften after this job, I’ll tell him you even held my hand while I was pissing.”
“Sorry, no can do.”
“Delvin said this was a delicate job,” she pointed out, scanning faces as they climbed the hill. “Delicate means I need to do this on my own. Now you can go wait for me in the Bannered Mare, have a drink and flirt with the ladies like a good little rogue, or I give you the slip the first chance I get and you spend the rest of our little visit here in Whiterun wandering around checking shadows for me. You decide.”
She watched his gaze drift left, toward the food vendor’s cart and the young, vibrant woman selling fresh fruits and vegetables. He was conflicted for a moment, obviously weighing out the comfort of a good strong drink against Brynjolf’s promise of no quarter if he left her alone for even a second.
“For the good of the Guild, Rune. I’ve gotta take care of this alone.”
“All right,” he sighed. “But I swear if anything happens to you…”
“Nothing like a little bit of doom to make me feel confident before a big job,” she scoffed. “Calm down. If anything happens to me, I’ll take full responsibility.”
“Yeah,” he rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you’ll make a real convincing case from the grave.”
“If anything happens, I gave you the slip.”
“If anything happens, I’m throwing myself off of Dragonsreach. It would be a quick and painless death compared to what Brynjolf would have in store for me. I’ll give you thirty minutes to track down the contact and come back to let me know what’s going on. If you aren’t back by then, I’m coming after you.”
“Deal,” she agreed. “Now go talk to the pretty lady. I know you like her.”
Turning back over her shoulder to watch him amble toward the vendor’s cart before hiking the stairs into the Wind District, he grinned at her. She followed the sound of the mad priest’s voice, scanning faces as she worked her way through the crowd picking pockets as she moved. She was just coming up on the Temple of Kynareth when she heard a very haughty voice pronouncing to the guards that the Empire would send reinforcements and then they’d all be sorry.
“Go home, Battle-Born,” the Stormcloak barely batted an eyelash against the man’s tirade. “Or we’ll forcefully remove you. Maybe you’ll even spend the night cooling your heels in a holding cell up at Dragonsreach…”
“How dare you threaten me? I am one of the most powerful men in this city.”
“Yes, yes, Olfrid. We know all about your… power. Now move along, before I take some of that power and shove it up your…”
“Excuse me,” she approached, grabbing the sleeve of the man’s fine clothes and tugging him away from the scene before he wound up imprisoned for sheer arrogance alone. “Come home, Uncle, before you find yourself in serious trouble.”
“I’m not your…” She elbowed him in the ribs just enough to shut him up, steering him toward the Gildergreen in the center of the Wind District. “I don’t know who you think you are, but if you don’t unhand me this instant…”
“What?” she pushed him onto the bench and crossed her arms. “You gonna call the guards? I’m sure they’d rush right in to help you out.”
“Who are you? What do you want from me?”
“Delvin Mallory sent me,” she explained. “Said you were in need of a discreet ally for a delicate matter. Though for someone requiring a delicate touch, you certainly seem to have a bit of trouble with discretion.”
His brow furrowed in scorn, but when he lowered his eyes to the hands now folded in his lap his derision quickly faded into abashment. “I’ve never been one to sit idly by and let the powers that be overrun my affairs. This temporary Stormcloak occupation is an outrage. The Empire will oust Ulfric from the throne eventually, and bring peace back to our lands, but I suppose that’s the least of my problems right now. I’m glad you’re here.” He admitted, gesturing to the seat beside him. “If anything should happen to Arn, there’ll be hell to pay.” The rise of his voice attracted several curious onlookers, and Ginna had to draw a deep breath to keep herself from lashing out at her contact.
“All right, you need to calm down. Who is Arn?”
“A close friend of mine. We fought together on the battlefield until old age got the better of us. Now it’s up to me to save him one last time. This time from the executioner’s block in Solitude.”
“Solitude?” She actually groaned that word, her weary mind and body not exactly keen on heading further north for another job. “What am I doing in Whiterun then? If your man is headed for the executioner’s block, you should have given all the details to Delvin to save time.”
“Arn’s been on the run for quite some time. The City Guard in Solitude has been searching for him for a very serious crime, and he fled here only to get himself arrested for drunken behavior.” Olfrid lifted his head and stared up at Dragonsreach. “Can you imagine? He always was an old fool who could barely hold his drink, but I digress.”
“So Arn’s here? In Whiterun?”
“Yes, in the Dragonsreach barracks. Fortunately, his identity isn’t known to the authorities here in Whiterun, so we still have a chance to save him.”
Great. A jailbreak. Delvin should have sent Cynric, not her. Prison breaks were his area of expertise. Not that she couldn’t do it, but why not send someone who’d made breaking out of prisons his life’s work?
Drawing in a deep breath, she followed the man’s gaze toward the jarl’s palace and exhaled. “All right. Point me to the prisons and I’ll break him out.”
“Hold a moment,” he lowered a hand to her forearm and just held it there. “This is more than just a simple prison break. If that were the case, I’d have sent those specifics to your higher-ups. What I want is to have Arn’s name stricken from the record books permanently.”
“Ah,” she nodded. “Imitation amnesty.”
“Precisely. I want to set him up with a new identity. It’s the only way to throw the guard off his trail for good.”
“Okay, what do you need me to do?”
“The job is two-fold. First, I need you to head up to the Jarl’s office in Dragonsreach and steal a letter from Solitude warning Whiterun’s guard to keep an eye out for Arn. The second part will not be so easy. I need you to change Arn’s name in the prison registry to his new identity.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
“If it was an easy job, I would have hired a local thug instead of a professional. You see, both of these items are kept inside Dragonsreach and they don’t allow visitors into the Jarl’s or Steward’s chambers.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get inside.”
“Here’s everything you need,” he handed over the paperwork containing Arn’s new identity. “And one more thing. If you get caught I can’t afford to be connected to this in any way. Remember that before you do anything stupid.”
“First of all, I won’t get caught,” she assured him. “Your friend Arn is as good as wiped clean from the system. Second, Delvin Mallory would never send an idiot to do this kind of job. I’m a professional, as you pointed out. I work quickly and I’m always discreet.”
Pushing up off the bench, she walked away from him while stuffing the paperwork he’d given her into his pocket. “Come and find me at my home when all is said and done.” He pointed toward a big house just past the Hall of the Dead. “I’ll be waiting for you there.”
She headed down into the Plains District to find Rune, who was casually leaning against the food vendor’s cart listening to her complain about how dirty the Stormcloak men were, that at least the Imperial guards bathed once in awhile.
Ginna nodded toward the inn before ducking inside and grabbing a mug of mead to drink while looking over the details of the job. Rune joined her a few minutes later, signaling for the Redguard woman who worked the bar to bring him a tankard of ale before dropping into the chair.
“How’s your girlfriend?” she teased, barely looking up from the documents on the table.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” he actually blushed when he said that. “Just a single mother trying to make a good life for herself and her daughter.”
“She is pretty though.”
“Yeah, but she’s got too much baggage for a guy like me. Or maybe I have too much baggage for a woman like her. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Did you meet with the contact?”
“Yep. It’s a simple job. I have to steal some letter from the Solitude Guard from the Jarl’s office up at Dragonsreach and make a minor change to the prison registry.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
And it was. While Rune distracted the guards in the palace, Ginna snuck upstairs to the Jarl’s quarters to search his desk for the letter. She was just coming out into the bedroom with it, tucking it into her pants pocket when she caught sight of another stone like the one she’d found on the Dainty Sload. Immediately drawn to it, she crept toward it, scanning over her shoulder to make sure the guard hadn’t caught onto her presence. Lifting it from the bedside table, she secured the stone in her pocket and slunk down into the Steward’s office to change the prison registry.
They were in and out in less than an hour, walking casually down the stairs from the Cloud District as if they’d had every right in the world to be there in the first place. They turned right at the Temple of Kynareth and walked past the Hall of the Dead until the came to the doors. She walked right into the house, telling Rune to wait for her outside. Olfrid was sitting in front of the hearth nervously wringing his hands.
“You… you’re back. And so quickly. Has something gone wrong?”
“No, everything went as planned. It’s been taken care of. Your friend Arn should be safe now.”
Every wrinkle in the old man’s face softened, the heavy dread that weighed him down disappearing as he smiled. “Arn? Never heard of him.”
Ginna laughed softly and dropped into the chair across from him. “Once he finishes his sentence, your new friend Horgeirr can return to his farm up north and live out the rest of his life untroubled by the crimes of his past.”
“Splendid,” he clapped his hands together. “I suppose that means your work here is done and I owe you payment. Here,” he handed her an enchanted sapphire ring. “Tell Delvin he has my support and all the weight it carries here in Whiterun from now on. I think he’ll be quite pleased.”
“I will give him the message. And if there’s anything else we can ever do for you, please, don’t hesitate to send for us.”
“You watch yourself out there,” he said, rising to walk her to the door.
She fell into step beside Rune, who was pacing the street and they headed down the stairs that came out near the gates. “That went well.”
“And quickly. We’ll be back in Riften before we know it.”
“There’s something else I want to do before we go. Someone I should pay a visit to.”
Rune’s forehead immediately scrunched with dreaded curiosity. “Who?”
Swallowing against her apprehension, she knew it was risky, but if she wanted to get the drop on her brother she had to be as crafty as he was. She wouldn’t divulge any details she didn’t have to, never mention her marriage to Brynjolf or the fact that she had a family, just in case he was in with her brother.
“I need to talk with Mallus Maccius.”
“Oh no,” Rune shook his head. “Are you crazy? That bastard ratted you out after we met with him last time, and Brutus sent the Dark Brotherhood after you because of him.”
“He’s on Maven’s payroll now and we don’t actually know that it was Mallus who ratted me out for sure. Besides, if he did, maybe he’s been in contact with Brutus again and he can give us information. I need to find out what he’s up to.”
“You know, I think I’m finally starting to understand why Brynjolf’s always at his wit’s end with you. You’re going to be the death of me, I swear it.” He sighed defeat. “Fine, we’ll go and talk to the snake, but don’t you dare even try to talk me out of coming with you, or I may as well just throw myself off Dragonsreach now and get it over with.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Come on. The sooner we get this over with, the faster we can make for home.”