Dinya Balu told her that Mara worked in mysterious ways, that just when all hope was lost, the Goddess shined her light into the darkness and held a hand out to guide lost souls back into the sun. “She has given you a gift,” Dinya said. “A precious gift that may seem like a curse right now, but in time you will come to understand just how meaningful that gift is.”
Ginna thought the woman was crazy at first, but after only a few minutes in her company all of the sorrow, fear and despair that had been weighing her down since she’d come to possess the Skeleton Key seemed to lift away. For the first time in three months she could think clearly and so many things had started to make sense.
“But why now?” she asked, almost angry at the inconvenient timing of Mara’s precious gift. “Now is not the time.”
Before she could elaborate on the shabby state of things, the priestess reached across the space between them and touched her hand with such gentleness it nearly made Ginna cry. “That’s where you are wrong, my friend. Mara does not make mistakes. Now is the perfect time, the only time.”
They had been walking along the lake for almost ten minutes, the tiny fishing hamlet growing smaller with every step they took. When she stopped to glance across the lake she could see the guard posted at the bottom of the stairs leading into their home. It was a funny thing how quickly the context of that word changed in her mind. She’d once thought Cyrodiil would always be her home, that no matter where life took her, the path would always lead back to House Dareloth, but both Cyrodiil and House Dareloth were places she would probably never go again. Less than a handful of months ago, she swore she’d never feel comfortable anywhere else in the world. She’d fought the very idea tooth and nail, but now the only place she wanted to be was Riften.
Brynjolf was surprisingly quiet while they walked, and she realized when she glanced back over her shoulder at him he was just as deep in thought as she was. Did he know? Did he even suspect? She hadn’t known. She hadn’t the first clue, though in hindsight she realized all the signs were there; it should have been obvious.
She supposed that was the price a woman paid for growing up with only a father. Her sex education had come from Brienne’s trashy romance novels and the conversations she’d overheard within the house. It had been Brienne who took care of her the first time her moons’ blood came, and there’d been plenty of books in the great library explaining basic human biology, but she’d never thought about it in any great detail.
Before Brynjolf she’d taken the proper precautions. The necessary potion here or there to ensure she never created permanent ties to men like Lucius or Mallus, or worse, the countless nameless fools she’d gone way too far with in order to get a job done. When she met Brynjolf her life was in absolute chaos; she’d inadvertently thrown caution to the wind and never once thought twice about the consequences.
“But that’s how Mara works,” Dinya told her. “Don’t you see?”
It was strange hearing her say those words, but even stranger that Ginna understood them. She didn’t know how it would ever work out, if it even could, but it wasn’t up to her to decide. Nothing in life was.
A slow wind rustled through the white birch trees that lined the banks of Lake Honrich, the fragrant leaves whispering, the loose strands of her hair fluttering against her brow. She reached up to tuck them behind her ear and turned around to face him.
“I know I haven’t exactly been… well, I don’t even know what I’ve been like lately, so I don’t know how to finish that sentence. I imagine I’ve been pretty hard to live with.”
“No, lass,” he shook his head, and there was so much compassion and love in his eyes she realized she couldn’t second-guess Mara even if she tried. The man standing before her was her soul, the very essence of love planted so firmly in her life she could never deny it. “Our life hasn’t exactly been a field of flowers lately. It’s that damned Key, and Nocturnal. Your brother… And all the pressure from the Guild doesn’t make any of it easier, that’s for damn sure. I never thought… I mean if I’d known it was going to be this bloody hard…”
“Bryn.” She hushed him and reached a finger up to touch his lips, reveling for a brief moment in their softness. Those lips had saved her so many times, in more ways than he would probably ever realize. They’d talked her out of prison, convinced her to trust him, whispered promises of absolute devotion in the dark before they brought her divine pleasure unlike any she’d ever shared with another mortal soul. “Mara wants us to have a family.”
She watched the lines in his brow deepen, an expression he’d worn so often lately she expected it wouldn’t be long before those creases became permanently etched into his skin. He hesitated for a moment and then said, “All right…”
“I thought it was crazy too, I mean it couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time, but then the gods have their own plans and they rarely coincide with ours. And the funny thing is, when we had that conversation on our way to hunt down Mercer, the seeds had more or less already been sown, but we had no idea. Everything’s been so hectic, all that travel and work, the stress of everything, I must have lost track of my cycle. I never really paid it much mind anyway. It came when it came, you know, and I kept expecting it to come. It felt like it was going to so many times, but it never…”
The confusion didn’t lessen; in fact she could see in the stiff curl of his upper lip that if anything she’d only befuddled him more. And why wouldn’t he be confused? She hadn’t even realized it herself, how could he? She was trying to find a way to delicately share the news without terrifying him when a light came on that widened his eyes a split second before he grabbed her arms.
“Are you…?” he paused, trying to find the right way to phrase that question. “Did we…?”
“The priestess says we’ve been blessed.”
“Shor’s bones.” His fingers tightened around her upper arms as he held her out to look at her. “A baby?”
“I guess so.” She still didn’t know how she felt about it, how bringing another child into the darkness that was their world could possibly be a good thing, but Dinya told her over and again, “Mara works in mysterious ways. This child is exactly what you need right now.”
“Mother of Akatosh,” he cursed, though try as he might to play tough and hide the gleam of excitement in his eyes, the corner of his mouth quirking upward gave him away. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” she confessed. “The priestess told me Mara doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, but with everything going on right now I can’t even imagine trying to juggle another child into this mess. Aventus is handful enough, and he can more or less entertain and care for himself without interfering in Guild business too much. But a baby…” She shrank beneath the heavy weight of it all and sighed. “A baby needs constant care.”
“And a semi-stable environment.”
Smiling up at him, the uncertainty she felt over everything seemed so insignificant. “That’s just it though. There are no stable environments in this world, Bryn. All of that’s just an illusion. Your parents didn’t exactly bring you into a stable environment.”
“No,” he stiffened, “and they wound up dead. I got raised by the very psychopath that killed them—”
“But you turned out okay,” she pointed out. “Better than okay. Mercer’s atrocities aside, he did a damn good job raising you.”
“The man I am today has nothing to do with Mercer. I made my own choices, my own name.”
“I know you did, love.” He was still holding her arms, staring down at her in a state between overwhelmed joy and terror, but the priestess said even that was a natural response to learning a child was about to come into the world, a child created through the very essence of Mara’s Divine Love. Still, she wished she knew what he was thinking, how he felt about the news she’d just given him. “And you’re a good man, a strong man. You’re more than capable of standing up to whatever the gods, or even the Daedra for that matter, have to throw at us.”
“And your brother?” he asked. “It seems like he’s coming at you from all sides, trying to destroy you through the people around you. Having a baby is like an open invitation.”
Clenching her jaw, her teeth were so tight it actually made her head hurt. In the brief window of awareness she’d experienced, that had been one of the only things she could think about. What would Brutus do to her if he knew she were pregnant? What would happen to her baby if he ever got to her? “I will die before I ever let him hurt anyone else in my family.”
“See lass, that’s what scares me. If he’s doing all this to get to you, how long before he makes you hold good on that promise?”
“I don’t know,” she lowered her eyes. “I know the timing is all wrong, but we don’t exactly lead simple lives, Brynjolf. Will the time ever be right?”
“Probably not.” His hands slid down her arms, fingers twining with hers before he stepped closer to her. “Whatever you want to do, love, I’m with you all the way.”
It was weird saying the words that next escaped her, but they came out so freely it took even her by surprise. “I want this baby.”
“Then I guess we’re having a baby.” He smiled, a gentle gesture that made her believe for a fleeting moment that no matter what happened, everything was going to be okay. She fell against him, resting her head on his chest and relaxing for the first time in months as he held her there and ran his fingers into her hair.
Their moment of soft acceptance was short-lived, the sound of shouting in the distance drawing both of their gazes toward the gate. A body was racing toward them at such speed it was hard to even tell who it was. Brynjolf stepped away, immediately shoving her behind him and still holding her there even after he realized it was only Tonilia. She didn’t slow down even as she approached, nearly barreling into them as she skidded to a halt.
She immediately started spewing gasping remarks about the two of them coming and quick, but even when Brynjolf grabbed hold of her and tried to calm her, she just shook her head. “Someone broke into Honeyside.”
Ginna’s blood ran cold. “Where’s Aventus?” She looked up at her husband, his face blanching with the realization.
He said nothing, only took off running toward Riften with her and Tonilia less than two steps behind him. If he could have sprinted across the lake to get there any faster, he probably would have, but they still made exceptional time, arriving at the front door to find two guards milling around the entry. They’d knocked several people over in their haste to get home, but when Ginna saw nothing more than a pair of boots on the floor and a pool of blood puddling beneath them her heart nearly stopped.
“Rune!” She shoved through everyone in her way, wrenching through Brynjolf who’d grasped onto her so hard she’d have bruises on her arm later where he grabbed her. “Rune, oh gods, Rune.” Tears stung in her eyes as she dropped onto the floor beside her friend in a panic and took his slack hand inside hers. “Is he…?”
Nura Snow-Shod knelt over him, her hands radiating golden healing energy into his wounds. “He’s been deeply wounded, but he will live.”
“Where is our boy?” she asked the healer.
Nura shook her head. “I saw no boy. I only just happened to be walking by the house on my way to the market when your friend there,” she pointed to Tonilia, “came rushing outside calling for a healer.”
“Tonilia?” she asked desperately. “Where’s Aventus?”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head, unable to make eye contact. “He wasn’t here when I came in.”
“Niktas is dead,” the guard standing in the open balcony doorway announced. “Whoever killed him came in and probably left through this door.”
“Didn’t anyone see them?” she shouted.
Brynjolf knelt in behind her, his arms coming around her protectively, hand reaching out to disentangle her fingers from Rune’s. “Shh, lass, it’ll be all right.”
She slapped at his hand when he freed it and reached for her friend again. “Find our boy,” she screamed at the guard in the doorway.
His partner stepped into the bedroom and over the body, muttering to himself that he would check downstairs for any signs of the child. Ginna listened to his hollowed bootsteps on the stairs leading into the lower level, but her eyes never left Rune’s face. His olive skin was so pale, but for a moment she swore she saw his lip quiver and she reached down to touch his face.
“Please Rune,” she whispered. “You have to be okay. You have to, do you hear me?”
His eyes fluttered beneath the lids, but he did not open them and as she glanced down at the knifewound in his belly she swore the sight of so much blood leaving someone she loved made her sensitive insides rumble with sickness. Leaning back against Brynjolf, she closed her eyes for a moment and drew in several deep breaths to try and steady the nausea before it could overpower her.
“Let’s get you outside for a minute,” he murmured against her ear. “Get you some air.”
“No,” she refused. “I’m not leaving him until I know he’s going to be all right.”
She didn’t move from that spot until Maramal and Dinya edged their way into the house through the front door, asking for space so they could lend their healing hands to Nura’s, and she’d only moved then because Brynjolf physically lifted her off the floor and drew her back into the kitchen to stand watch over their efforts.
“He’s going to be okay.” He held her from behind, both arms resting loosely across her waist as he nestled his chin on her shoulder. “I promise you.”
“I don’t know, lass.”
Her attention fell to the shadow emerging from the stairwell, the guard who’d gone down to search for the boy stepping onto the landing with a downcast frown and a book in his hand. “There’s no sign of the boy in the house,” he regretfully informed them. “But I found this on the bedside table in his bedroom. It was lying open and there’s a strange symbol on the inside cover drawn in blood. Do either of you recognize this?”
Holding the book out, Ginna saw the Oblivion symbol smeared across the blank cover, the blood still wet and sticky, and all the restraint she’d managed was lost. She got sick right there, doubling over as she fought hard against her gag reflex, but it was no use. The contents of her stomach spilled out onto the guard’s worn leather boots before he had a chance back up.
“Here,” Tonilia came in from the side and looped her arm across Ginna’s shoulders to offer her further support. “Let’s get you outside, hon.”
They brought a chair out from the kitchen and sat her beside the front door, Tonilia wiping a cool cloth across her brow while Brynjolf paced the wooden planks that lined their doorstep. When Maven made her way toward them, something inside him snapped and he grabbed the woman before she even knew what hit her, throwing her against the side of the house with such force she gasped in agonizing protest as his large hand came in around her throat.
“See what you’ve done?” he bellowed, his voice echoing through the silent alleyway. “See what your meddling has brought?”
“Brynjolf,” she rasped, her fingernails clawing at his wrists in attempt to free herself from his clutches.
Ginna jumped up and grabbed him. “Bryn, no! This isn’t her fault. Let her go.” He seethed, bits of spittle flecking his lips as he exhaled an angry growl unlike anything she’d ever heard from him. “Let her go, please.”
“If she’d never…” he didn’t loosen his fingers from her neck, and Maven’s face was turning the most disturbing shade of purple. “If she hadn’t… It wouldn’t have happened like this. All my life, I did everything you wanted me to without question. Every order, every job…”
Maven’s bulging eyes looked to her in desperation. “Brynjolf, she can’t breathe.”
“Good.” There was such madness in his eyes, Ginna didn’t even recognize him.
“No,” he elbowed him in the side to shove him away, the action startling him into the moment. “It’s not good. It doesn’t help anything.” Backing him into Haelga’s bunkhouse, she stood in front of him with challenge in her eyes, and as the wave of temper began to ebb she saw fear and regret flash inside him.
Behind her, Maven doubled over to catch her breath, raggedly drawing air into her lungs while clutching her bruised throat. Tonilia brought her cold water from the basin on the table, and she gulped it down in furiously swallows before snarling and shoving the pitcher at the other woman. She stalked toward Brynjolf, looming over Ginna’s shoulder as she demanded, “How dare you attack me?”
“Maven, please forgive him.” Ginna turned to face her. “Aventus is gone. He was taken.”
The malice in the matriarch’s eyes softened into fear and the hand she’d positioned over her throat quickly rose to stifle the gasping breath of horror that escaped her. “What? What happened?”
“It was Brutus,” Ginna said, lowering her head in shame as the tears rolled down her hot face again. “It had to be. He killed the guard out back, left Rune for dead and he took Aventus. He left some book on the table with the Oblivion sign drawn on the inside cover… in blood.” She swallowed hard over that notion, a part of her so terrified that the blood had been Aventus’s, another part of her not wanting to believe Brutus could ever hurt an innocent little boy. Of that she couldn’t be so sure though. Everything she’d thought she’d known or believed about the man she’d called brother most of her life was turning out to be wrong, so horribly wrong.
“Oh dear gods,” she whispered, lifting her head to look at Brynjolf. “We have to find him.”
“Aye,” he pushed off the wall behind him. “We do.”
Maven stepped into the scene of the crime and started issuing orders, but Ginna hung back with Brynjolf, pushing him into the chair they’d brought outside for her after she’d gotten sick. “You need to pull yourself together,” she told him. “Your temper isn’t helping anyone right now, and it nearly destroyed the only person with the power to help us.”
He hung his head in shame, a long sigh fluttering through the locks of hair that fell into his face. “She put him in our care, against my better judgment. She made me bring him into our family, Ginna. If she’d never…”
“He came to Riften looking for you.” She grabbed his chin and jerked his face upright so he had no choice but to look at her. “Whether Maven pulled the strings that put him into our life or not, he is still a part of our life. You can’t blame her because you care about him. If anyone’s to blame for this, it’s me. I brought this down on all of us the minute you paid my fines and sprung me from Solitude’s prison.”
“Yes, Brynjolf. This is all on me. I brought him to Skyrim. I focused him on everyone we love and I’ll be damned if I let him hurt anyone else in our family. I’m going to get Aventus…”
“No,” he reached up and gripped her wrists in his hands, squeezing them almost painfully. “I’m not letting you anywhere near him. If anyone’s going after that psycho, it’s going to be me.”
“Don’t you get it? That’s what he wants. He wants you to come charging in there like some kind of gods damned hero so he can kill the only thing in this world that’s ever made me happy.”
“I don’t give a damn what he wants. I’m going to find him and then I’m going to kill him, but not before I make him suffer for everything he’s done to my family.”
Before she could say another word, the guards brought Rune out on a plank, the three healers following behind them. “Where are you taking him?” she asked.
“To the Temple,” Maramal replied. “It will be easier to combine our energy in the presence of the Divines.”
“We’re coming with you.”
“Give us some time,” Dinya requested. “An hour or two of silent meditation and healing, and then you can come. His wounds are deep and we need absolute focus in order to heal him.”
“Okay,” she nodded, stepping up to the plank and laying her hand on Rune’s shoulder. She knelt and brushed the sweaty locks of hair from his forehead, kissing him tenderly where her fingers had just brushed. “Hang in there, Rune. Please?” He was still unconscious, but a part of her felt like he could hear her, at least she hoped he could. “I’m coming to the Temple in one hour,” she told the priestess.
Dinya nodded, and the procession marched forward, clearing some of the chaos from inside the house, but not the dark cloud that seemed to be hovering over it. Turning back to look at Brynjolf, who’d also risen to come and stand beside their friend, she didn’t know what to say to him. Didn’t know how to tell him that she couldn’t just let him run headlong into whatever trap Brutus was setting.
If she lost him, she lost everything.
“Ginna,” Maven appeared in the doorway, “Brynjolf, come in here for a moment. I think I may have found something useful.”