The sun was just rising over Lake Honrich when they wound along the south wall and hiked the dwindling passage into the hidden cavern of Nightingale Hall. It took them just over three and a half hours to get there, and more than once they’d sighted Brutus in the distance behind them, but they lost him completely just outside the city. Not seeing him didn’t make Brynjolf feel any better. The man was still out there and whatever Ginna did had infuriated him.
No one had spoken a word on the road. Aventus hadn’t even uttered a single complaint about the speed at which they moved. He simply ran in between Ginna and Brynjolf with Karliah bringing up the rear. She kept her bow drawn, a poison-tipped ebony arrow nestled into the string just in case he got too close, but he was never within firing distance.
When they arrived, Karliah ushered the three of them into the hidden hall, remaining behind to secure the perimeter and promising to join them once she was sure everything was locked down. While Ginna settled Aventus into one of the small beds in the old bunking quarters, Brynjolf knelt to get a fire going in the hearth.
He didn’t know why they’d gone there, but Ginna was very specific about going to Nightingale Hall. Aventus would be safe there, she’d said. He would have felt safer surrounded by family in the Cistern, even if it was the first place Brutus would probably check for them. The Cistern was an impenetrable fortress, no one got in without notice, but Nightingale Hall had its advantages too. At least Karliah kept the place well stocked.
Through the night he’d tried several times to make sense of what he’d seen. One minute Ginna had been sitting behind him, he’d checked over his shoulder often enough to spy the outline of her armor propped against the tree, the eerie green light of that blasted Skeleton Key pulsing like a dull beacon in the night and the next she was there holding Aventus in her arms. She’d been so still Brynjolf actually thought she fell asleep. How in Oblivion had she gotten past him? Even more pressing was the question of how she’d gotten Aventus out of that cave without Brutus seeing her?
He was kneeling down to warm his hands in front of the growing flame when she stalked back into the main hall, the hood of her armor swaying from her hand as she walked.
“I think I got him to relax a little, but that poor little boy is so scared. He’ll probably never sleep again.”
“He wasn’t hurt at all?”
“I looked him over again. He had a few bruises, scraped knees. He said Brutus mostly threatened him, but he gave worse than he got. A couple of good kicks in the shin I’m sure the bastard won’t soon be forgotten.”
“Atta boy.” An appreciative grin twitched at the corner of his mouth and he rose from where he’d knelt to meet her. “And you? You weren’t hurt at all?”
“Not a scratch.” She held her arms out to show him, pirouetting as she walked and spinning in to stand in front of him. “I was in and out so fast he never even knew I was there until I was gone.”
“Right,” he nodded, glancing down to watch as she grabbed his hand in hers and started leading him toward the table. “Look lass, I have no idea what you did out there tonight to get the boy back, or how you managed to pull it off. I’m not gonna lie to you, but that scares me more than I want to admit.”
Ginna lowered her head, the loose locks of her light blond hair falling into her face so she could hide. “It scares me too,” she confessed. “More than you could ever know, Bryn. Everything about the last twenty-four hours feels like a nightmare.”
“Tell me about it,” he agreed, gripping her fingers a little tighter inside his before letting them go. He reached out to pull the chair away from the table so she could sit down and she lowered herself slowly into it with a heavy sigh. Instead of sitting across from her, he dropped down in front of her and ducked his head in to look at her. “No really, Gin, tell me about it.”
She rolled her head along her shoulders, the joints quietly cracking against the movement before her shoulders sagged forward. “Maybe we should wait for Karliah. There’s so much… I don’t want to have to tell the story twice.”
Brynjolf reached both hands up to smooth the hair away, cupping her face and lifting her gaze to meet with his. The circles under her eyes were so dark, it looked like someone had dipped their thumbs in soot and smudged them just beneath her lower lashes. He rolled the tips of both thumbs there, as if his touch alone could alleviate some of the exhaustion she felt. She nestled her right cheek into his warm palm and closed her eyes, fighting hard against a yawn that just wouldn’t give up.
“I don’t know what locking this place down might entail so she could be awhile,” he said. “Why don’t you go lie down for a little while? I’ll come and get you when she finishes.”
“Brynjolf, I am so tired I could just collapse right here,” she said, a strange tone in her voice that made him even more uneasy than he already was. “But I honestly don’t think I could sleep right now even if I tried. My heart hasn’t stopped racing for hours and I swear I can feel my blood humming and tingling inside my veins.”
Leaning forward, he brushed his lips across her forehead, lingering there with his eyes closed. “You don’t have to sleep, love, just rest your body. We’re safe here. I promise.”
She hesitated for a moment, as if she planned to protest, and then she nodded reluctant agreement. “Will you lay with me, just hold me for a little while?”
“Of course.” Though he didn’t know how long he could just lie there with his thoughts. He was tired, but he wouldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep. He needed to stay on guard, watch over and protect his family.
He walked her into the bunkhouse and waited over her shoulder when she stopped to draw the blanket back up over Aventus. Despite everything, the boy had fallen into a deep sleep in that brief window of time, and as he stepped back to watch her lovingly linger above him for a moment, some of the tension inside him melted away. Their little family, all of them safe and sound together, but for how long?
The bed Ginna curled into wasn’t exactly built for two, and judging from the way his boots dangled over the edge he was guessing whoever had designed it hadn’t been thinking of Nords, or rather anyone taller than five feet in height. She snuggled in against the cold stone wall and curled up on her side, leaving just enough room for him to spoon her body into his. She fit perfectly against him, her foot lifting back to rest over his calf and tangling them together comfortably. For a while he rubbed the taut muscles of her lower back until the tension began to melt away, soothing her restlessness and relaxing her.
She finally stopped fidgeting and squirming, her breath slowing into the occasional soft snore. So much for not being able to sleep if she tried, he smiled to himself.
Brynjolf’s hand eased over the curve of her hip and dipped down to rest on her belly. Just looking at her body it was impossible to tell, and so it still hadn’t fully sunk in that there was a baby inside her, his baby. For a moment while that reality gripped him he swore he felt his heart skip a beat, a sensation that made him jump so unexpectedly Ginna stirred. She smacked her lips and mumbled under her breath before settling back in against him and immediately drifting back to sleep.
The night they were married they’d made for Irkngthand to face Mercer and while camping out he’d brought the subject of a family into play, but even then he hadn’t thought it would happen for them so quickly. In a couple of years, maybe, once things settled down, but she’d already been with child when they had that conversation. The gods seemed to have other plans for them, yet another instance in which he had absolutely no control over his affairs.
He could have gotten angry about that, but he was so tired of being angry all the time. Getting mad didn’t change anything, but as his da used to say, old habits died hard.
Thinking of his father, he closed his eyes and tried to remember the man’s face. It had been so long since he’d last seen him that even if he concentrated all his energy on calling up the image, all he could remember was his eyes. After all, those eyes stared back at him every time he met his own gaze in a looking glass or clear stream of water. Even Karliah had told him in their first quiet conversation before they’d become Nightingales that he looked so much like Beigan it took her breath away, and from time to time he caught her staring at him, head tilted, a sad gleam in her lavender eyes. He wondered if Ginna would object to naming their child after his father if they had a boy.
Sliding his hand up under her shirt, the warm, bare skin of her belly was taut beneath his touch, harder and just a little distended, enough that now knowing what he knew, he could feel it. How big was it inside her? How soon would he be able to lay his hand in that place and feel definite signs of life? Despite the inconvenient timing, he couldn’t deny that the notion of becoming a father thrilled him, even if he was starting to feel like he was walking too closely in his own father’s footsteps.
He barely heard Karliah come in, and under ordinary circumstances he wouldn’t have even known she was there because she really was that good, but he was on high alert and the whisper of her movement jerked his head from the pillow. Glancing back over his shoulder, he tried to move as little as possible to avoid waking Ginna. She could try to refrain from sleep all she wanted, but she needed the rest she was getting right then.
Slowly disentangling his body from hers, he lowered his feet the floor and gently pushed off the mattress, walking quietly to the doorway to meet with Karliah. He waited until they were both outside the door before he spoke, asking, “Everything secure?”
“As secure as it can be. The entryway is hidden from prying eyes, so it’s doubtful he’ll find us here, and I set enough traps that even if he is clever enough to get by them, we’ll know he’s coming long before he gets here.”
“Good,” he nodded.
“I don’t know how long we can stay here, Brynjolf. To be honest, I didn’t prepare for this. I’ve got enough food and supplies to last the four of us for a couple of weeks, but eventually someone will need to make contact with the Guild.”
“Aye,” he followed her into the main hall and took a seat across from her at the small table. “And knowing Ginna, she’ll want to head over there as soon as she wakes up to check on Rune. Maybe we’d be better off in the Cistern.”
“Maybe,” she reluctantly agreed. “But I think we should lay low here for at least a couple of days, at least until some of the heat dies down.”
“Is Aventus all right?”
“Ginna looked him over again before he fell asleep. She said he had a few scrapes and bruises, but not much else. Poor kid’s been through enough as it is. I can hardly imagine what this is going to do to him after he’s had time to process it all.”
“He might surprise you,” Karliah reached across the table for a bottle of wine, popping the cork and pouring a cup for each of them. “He reminds me a lot of someone else I know.” A gentle grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. “And that man turned out just fine despite all the hardships he had to endure.”
Laughter scuffed through his throat. “I don’t feel fine most days, trust me.”
“Maybe not, but you’re doing all right for yourself. Did you talk to her about it?”
“She said she wanted to wait until we were all together. There was too much to tell and she didn’t want to have to say it twice.”
“Then we’ll let her sleep awhile.” Gulping down several swallows, she lowered the cup to the table and leveled a serious gaze at him for a moment. He didn’t know how long she just stared at him, but several minutes passed before she finally worked up the courage to ask, “What do you think happened over there tonight? Did you see anything out of the ordinary?”
“Not a thing,” he lowered his head, the loose strands of his auburn hair falling in around his face. Lifting a hand through them, he brought his eyes up to meet with hers again. “One minute she was alone behind me and the next she was there with the boy. I swear to you she never moved, Karliah. Trust me, I kept looking back at her to make sure she was all right because Nightingale or not, I don’t trust that damned Skeleton Key.”
“Neither do I,” she admitted. “We’ve all seen firsthand the aftermath that comes from using it. The power hungry madness that claimed Mercer… I know after everything he did you might find this hard to believe, but Mercer Frey was a good man once with a noble vision.” She was thoughtful then, quiet for so long he thought she’d finished talking, but then she went on again. “He grew up in the streets, as so many of us do, watching the noble elite cast their unwanted scraps to the peasants below. They lived in such excess it literally turned his stomach and he spoke often with Gallus when they were partners about his plans to take some of that excess and spread it around in the streets to shift the balance of power. Gallus brought him into Nightingale Hall because of that vision, but the Key corrupted it and day by day we watched it fade until the only thing Mercer gave a damn about was ensuring that he never found himself in the streets of Daggerfell again.”
“I can’t imagine Mercer ever wanting to help anyone but himself.”
“Mercer was a much different man then.”
He contemplated that, a trickle of fear rolling down the length of his spine. Ginna had a good heart; how long before the Skeleton Key corrupted it? “Do you think it will drive her mad the way it did him?” He watched Karliah’s face lengthen, her eyes lowering to the table as if she didn’t want to think about that, much less answer his question. “Because I’ve got to tell you, Karliah, if it came down to it I could never hurt that woman, no matter what she’d done.”
“I know.” She reached across the table and lowered a hand over his. “We won’t let it go that far, Brynjolf. I promise.” She patted his fingers and then withdrew. “You should go get some rest yourself. We had a long night, and you look exhausted.”
He started to tell her he couldn’t sleep even if he tried, and laughed a little when he remembered how quickly Ginna had fallen into contradiction with her own words. “Maybe I will lie down for a little while.”
Making his way to the bunkhouse again, he crawled back into that tiny little bed with Ginna, curling his body into hers and laying his head on the pillow. She rolled and shifted to situate herself until she was comfortable again, all the while mumbling unintelligible things. Finally she settled again, her arm locked tight over his, his hand resting almost protectively over her belly.
He didn’t know how long he laid there listening to her and Aventus breathe, but eventually the conjoined mingling of their exhales lulled him and he felt himself drifting away. At first he could still hear them breathing, but soon that sound shifted, became the constant run of water spilling into the Cistern. He was laying in his old bed there, his mother’s shadow hovering in above him.
“I’ve already told you, laddie, it’s well past time for little ones to be asleep.”
“But I’m not tired.”
“You have to sleep my wee rascal, so you can grow up big and strong like your da.”
“I don’t want you to leave me, mummy.” Small fingers circled around her wrist in desperation. He knew what happened when she went away. Awful things, wretched things… If he could only just keep her there with him, maybe he could save her.
“I’ll be here when you wake come morrow, I promise.”
“No, mummy.” He knew she wasn’t coming back, he could feel it in his heart, whispers of a future already lived leaking through his memory dreams.
“Brynjolf.” Karliah appeared over his mother’s shoulder, her wide lavender eyes shining with affection. “Would you like Auntie to sing you a song?”
“No!” he protested. “I want my mummy.”
“Your mummy and daddy have important business to see to tonight, but I’ll stay here with you. Sing you a song and sit right here beside you until you fall asleep. Which song would you like to hear?”
Even though he’d resisted her, the peaceful calm of her voice always had the same effect on him. His fingers loosened from his mother’s wrist and she reached down to grip his chin, lifting his face to look at her. “Be good, my dearie. Don’t give Auntie any trouble.”
“He’ll be good, Hekja,” Karliah promised, her adoring hand tousling through his wild locks. “Brynjolf is always very well behaved, aren’t you Brynjolf?” She winked at him, as if suggesting they shared some sort of secret. “Now, would you like to hear a song about Morrowind?”
“I want you to sing the song my mummy always sings.”
“Ahh,” she nodded and scooted into the edge of the bed. He curled close to her, resting his head in her lap and closing his eyes as she stroked fingers almost absently through his hair. “The one about the knight and the lady.” She cleared her throat with a soft cough and then she began to sing. “Oh hush thee my baby, thy sire was a knight. Thy mother a lady, both lovely and bright. The woods and the glens from the towers we see, all are belonging dear baby to thee…”
Later he would ponder the reason for the first peaceful sleep he’d found in months, but as slumber held him there was no dream inside his dream that morning, no blade beneath his pillow, no bloodshed he couldn’t stop, only the constant soothing croon of Karliah’s lullaby and the warmth of his wife’s sleeping body nestled against his.