They traveled quickly, the essence of speed and shadow on their side. The quiet of the road at night gave them all plenty of time to think, and the more time he had with his own thoughts, the less Brynjolf liked the direction they were heading in. He wanted to get the kid back in one piece, but he was still having trouble with the idea that he was leading his pregnant wife to her doom in order to do it.
He still couldn’t believe he was going to be a father in the most literal sense of the word. He was still trying to get used to the idea that he was playing father to a kid that wasn’t even his, but this… this was different. Casting a glance over his shoulder at her, he didn’t know why he was surprised. They’d never taken any of the usual precautions to prevent it from happening, and since they met they’d spent more time together out of their clothes than in them. He shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised at all, but every time he thought about it he felt numb.
She really believed Nocturnal would protect her and their unborn child, and the amulet Maven gave her only seemed to bolster her confidence that much more. Maven could have given her an invincibility potion straight from Nocturnal herself and it still wouldn’t have made him feel any more secure about the whole thing.
The only thing it did make him feel good about was how wrong he’d been when Maven first sprang Aventus on them. He’d told her he didn’t believe Ginna was ready to be anyone’s mother, but she was a fierce mama bear willing to put her own life on the line to save a child that wasn’t even hers. He supposed he should trust her judgment in regards to the life in her belly as well, but it still made him nervous.
Having a family of his own, a real family within and beyond the Guild, had always felt like a pipedream, and then he met her. From the moment he first spied her at the Embassy party he’d had this intense feeling that his life and his luck were about to change in ways he’d never imagined possible. His whole life changed that night, along with everything he thought he knew. It hadn’t been an easy transition, but there was no one in the world but Ginna he would have wanted to go through it with.
Clouds drifted across the faces of the moons, lending them an advantage against nearby predators, or perhaps increasing their chances of becoming prey. He scanned the darkness for looming shadows, but the intensity of the night’s silence yielded no signs of danger.
Karliah sprinted up ahead to scout the road for trouble and signs of the their target, keeping to the shadows so well he couldn’t even see the outline of her cape fluttering in the shifting wind sweeping in from the north once she was a few steps away. Void, Ginna was standing right beside him, her muffled footsteps barely giving way to the sound of her presence. The Nightingale armor definitely had its perks.
They’d been traveling for three hours with nothing but silence between them. The day’s events had exhausted him completely; he could barely imagine how she must feel. She hadn’t said much since they left the Cistern. At Nightingale Hall she’d slipped quietly into her gear and pushed them back out the door to hit the road.
She felt guilty for everything that had happened, and guilt was an exhausting emotion at even the best of times. Was there ever going to be a moment’s peace for them? A moment to step back and actually enjoy the fruits of their hard labor?
“How are you holding up?”
“Hungry,” she muttered. “Tired. Stressed.”
“Maybe we should take some rest for a little while.”
“No,” she shook her head, that word escaping her so quickly it almost made him jump. “I have some jerky in my pack, and I want to get to Windhelm before sunup. The longer Brutus has Aventus, the more danger he is in. We need to find them, and fast.”
“Right,” he sighed. “You’re right. We don’t have time to waste.” The pressure of it was daunting, a kind of pressure he’d never endured before in his life and he’d seen a lot of backlash in his day. Even the business with Mercer didn’t seem so heavy in the face of Brutus Arenicci’s plot. They were quiet again for a spell, not even the sound of their footsteps breeching the silence. Somewhere in the distance he heard wolves howling, a sound that had always made his blood run cold. “I think maybe you were right about a lot of things,” he spoke up again, his own voice carving through the thick silence and darkness.
A soft laugh escaped her. “Um, I’m sure that’s the case. I’m always right, but what are you talking about?”
At least she was laughing, something he was almost certain the night’s events would have stolen from her for a good long time. She hadn’t done much laughing at all since she’d come back from finding and translating Gallus’s journal, the evidence she and Karliah needed to prove Mercer’s guilt to the Guild. She’d already been under an incredible amount of pressure thanks to her brother’s betrayal, and taking Mercer’s blade in the chest had only intensified that hardship. The added weight and responsibility of the Guild and their contract with Nocturnal pushed her that much more, and then there’d been Aventus. She’d taken to the idea so quickly, a part of her ready to give herself completely to the boy; had it been her inborn maternal instincts rising?
She was an incredibly independent woman, could take care of herself ,as she was so fond of pointing out, nevertheless, all he’d ever wanted was to take care of and protect her. He’d failed on that front so many times in the few short months they’d been together. Now they had children to think about, and he was failing in keeping them safe too.
He’d never felt more inadequate as a man in his life; he hated that feeling. He always liked to think that despite his brutish temper, he was a clever man. He could think his way out of a jam like nobody’s business, but the jam their lives had become since he’d met her… he couldn’t work his way through it no matter how hard he tried. Still, if he could take it all back, he’d change nothing about their life together.
He hated the idea of running, but he couldn’t think of any other way to keep their family out of harm’s way once they had Aventus back. Take the boy and his woman and lock them up somewhere nice and tight until he could figure out a way to put an end to Brutus Arenicci.
“About getting our family out of Riften.”
“Maybe.” Her laughter faded just as quickly as it arrived, a sullen thoughtfulness gripping the air between them. “Or maybe the only way we can make sure our children grow up strong enough to survive in this world is to keep them right in the thick of things.”
He couldn’t believe she was saying that, and for a moment he just looked over at the shadow of her profile in the dark with disbelief. She’d daydreamed almost nonstop about her little house in Markarth, and the handful of times they’d gone back to the city of Blood and Silver for work, they squatted in her dream home and that daydream just grew stronger. He couldn’t even count the number of times she’d said it would be a good home for a family.
“You said yourself Markarth is no better,” she pointed out. “There’s no place safe in this godsforsaken world, Bryn. Dragons, bandits, assassins, Daedra, psychotic family members… I thought maybe we could escape all that if we moved somewhere else, but that was just… Gods, I was so naïve. I think my hormones were clouding my judgment.”
“Or maybe they’re clouding your judgment now.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Maybe. All I do know is no matter where I go my brother will hunt me down. He isn’t going to stop until whatever game he’s playing has been won and I have a bad feeling the only ending for him will be my death. Nowhere is safe.”
“Then we will find someplace.”
“If I kill him, that won’t be necessary.” She was silent for a moment, and then, “And I fully intend to kill him.”
He had no doubt about her intentions, or her ability to carry out such a nasty task under ordinary circumstances, but in her present state of physical and emotional exhaustion he worried it wouldn’t be as easy as all that. Once they got closer to where they needed to be, they would have to step back, assess the situation and come up with a plan that would get all of them out of there alive—well, all of them except Brutus Arenicci.
“We will kill him,” he said, reaching down between them to take her hand. Her fingers were cold inside his, so he rubbed the warmth back into them as they walked. “Before he can hurt anyone else we care about, we will finish him.”
“Damn right we will. Aventus must be so scared.” There was lament in her voice, and the guilt was back. “After everything he’s been through… What was Maven thinking putting him into our care?”
“He’s a tough little boy. I’m sure he’s giving Brutus Arenicci enough grief to make him wish he’d stolen someone else’s kid.”
She ignored that, going on with her tirade. “Worse, what were the gods thinking? When I told the priestess now was not a good time for this, she said Mara doesn’t make mistakes, but I can’t help feeling maybe she’s off her game, you know?”
“The timing could have been better, but what can we do?” There was nothing really, unless she’d changed her mind about going through with it. The very thought made him feel cold inside, and he’d barely even had time to get used to the idea that she was carrying his baby.
A few months earlier, when she’d first come to him about Brutus framing her with their Guild-Father’s murder, something in the desperation she displayed had made him think she was pregnant. They’d spent weeks on the road together before coming back to Riften, and in that time he’d been inside her so many times it wouldn’t have surprised him if that was the bad news she needed to break. His scrambled mind had grasped at the first quick fix he could find, and the relief he felt when she spilled her bad news had been monumental.
“You’re not having second thoughts now, are you?”
“About having this baby? No, I’m not. I just…” She paused for a long time, as if picking through her words and thoughts very carefully. “Dinya said we conceived this baby on our wedding night, and that makes it even more special, you know? I just don’t know how it’s going to all play out, that’s all.”
“Neither do I, lass. I wish I did, really I do. There’s nothing in the world I want more than to make you feel safe.” He squeezed her fingers. “But we’ll get through this. We’ve seen more action in the short time we’ve been together than I’ve ever seen in my life, and somehow we always manage to come out on top. You know I’m not one for superstition, but it really does feel like something’s on our side.”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Let’s just hope whatever we’ve got is more powerful than the forces Brutus has on his side.”
Karliah appeared in front of them, startling them both from their conversation. “I scouted ahead about a mile and a half, and it would seem Lady Luck is smiling on us.”
“What do you mean?”
“I had hoped traveling with a child might slow him down a bit, and I was right. He must have drugged him to get him out of the city quietly, but it’s worn off now and Aventus is fighting him tooth and nail. He’s got him tied up and was gagging him when I came upon their camp, which is nestled in a small cave just west of here.”
“We shouldn’t waste any time then,” Brynjolf said. “If we could get in there and catch him unawares…”
“No,” Ginna shook her head. “That’s probably exactly what he wants. He’s likely betting on the notion that we’re right behind him, and he’s setting a nice little trap to reel us in.”
“So what do we do?”
“Rune said he was talking to someone else when he was in the house, someone he couldn’t see. Did you happen to see if he was alone, Karliah?”
“I checked the perimeter of the cave and didn’t see anyone else, but that doesn’t mean anything. He could have sentries in the surrounding trees, or some supernatural element on his side we aren’t aware of.”
“We should fall in behind him like shadows, observe and assess the situation as we follow him wherever they’re going. If he is alone and we can get a clear shot at him without hurting Aventus before he gets to this shrine, we take him out.”
“And if we can’t get a good shot at him?” Brynjolf asked. “If he does have something supernatural on his side, now do we get around that?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed.
“You’re both forgetting we have something supernatural on our side as well,” Karliah reminded them. “The Skeleton Key, it enhances the potential of whoever possesses it. Ginna, I think it may be time to tap into your power and potential to turn this in our favor.”
“And how do I do that?”
“As Nightingales, the Key is our connection in this realm to Nocturnal and the Evergloam. Even though I don’t possess it I can always feel it when you’re near. It whispers to me, calls to me, tempts me. For you those whispers must be like shouts.”
“It gets inside my head all the time,” Brynjolf confessed. “Especially when I’m sleeping.”
“Yes,” Karliah nodded. “That would make sense. The more relaxed you are, the easier it is for you to commune with its power.”
“So I need to take a nap?” Ginna almost laughed.
“Not necessarily a nap, but if we can find a quiet place near his camp, I can keep watch on the cave and Brynjolf can keep watch over you while you embrace your potential.”
“And if my potential isn’t enough to stand against him? If whatever he’s got on his side is stronger than what we’ve got on ours?”
Brynjolf couldn’t see Karliah’s face, only the bright lavender beauty of her exotic eyes peering out through her mask, but those eyes said enough. None of them knew what they were really up against, and if he’d allied himself with several of the Daedra, there was no telling what power he had at his disposal.
“I don’t know, Ginna,” Karliah lowered her head. “I really wish I did.”
“Well,” she drew in a deep breath, releasing all her tension as she finished her thought, “we’ve got nothing to lose, I guess.”
That wasn’t true. They had their lives, Brynjolf thought. They were stuck between a rock and a hard place with no place to go but into the fire. “We can do this, lass.” He lowered a hand onto her shoulder. She lifted her head, her pale blue eyes peering out through her mask to meet with his. For a long moment she just held his stare and then she nodded.
“Let’s find a place near this cave to set up camp.”
Stepping into her, he let his arm drift down to rest across her shoulders as he steered her after Karliah. He had no idea what they were doing, if the Skeleton Key could really even help them get through the task that lay ahead, but without much else to go on it seemed it was their only hope. For a moment he closed his eyes and sent a silent plea to Nocturnal. They were doing her will, the least she could do was lend a hand.