Drusilla had spent her entire life training: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. She’d endured days that literally lasted an entire week, complete with fasting and no sleep to prove herself worthy of the wisdom and skills her masters had to offer, but not even the extremity of that training seemed to prepare her for the winding stairways of Markarth. She’d spent so much time climbing around the stairs of that city that by the time they reached the landing in front of Vlindrel Hall, she was out of breath and exhausted.
“This place is a nightmare,” she huffed, bending at the waist and perching her hands on her knees to catch her breath. If Ondolemar had spied her hunched over and gasping like that, she imagined he would have forced her to spend the next four hours exhausting herself until she knew every inch of Markarth like the back of her hand. Perhaps doing that wouldn’t be such a bad idea anyway. “How do people live in this city without experiencing regular heart attacks?”
Her new housecarl seemed to be hiding a bemused grin behind the neatly trimmed hairs of his mustache and beard. “We just do.” Argis turned his back on her and looked out over the city as she rose from her crouched position and followed his long gaze. “The view itself is well worth it,” he said, then muttered softly to himself, “at least I think so anyway.”
Drusilla scanned the so-called Dwemer-built city below, a quick gasp catching in her throat. It really was a beautiful sight, the setting sun casting a soot-blackened, golden glow over the stone buildings and glinting off the constant waterfalls. The burnt orange mountains just behind the city bathed in that light took her breath away, and she found her hand lifting without realization to her chest to steady the speedy beat of her heart.
“It is beautiful,” she agreed, but Argis didn’t acknowledge that she’d spoken.
“Come on inside.” He turned away from her with quiet resolve and pushed his key into the lock on the door. “I’ll give you the grand tour of Vlindrel Hall.”
Drawing her gaze away from the city below with reluctance, she followed him into the stretch of foyer leading upward into the house. The scent of wood smoke mingled with fresh snow and juniper berries that decorated the pots lining the foyer. It was a comforting smell, one she could imagine herself not only getting used to, but becoming comfortable with until she longed for its familiarity during long absences from home.
Home. She hadn’t had a proper home since Ondolemar left for Markarth, and though this new stone building would serve as her living space for however long she was meant to stay there in that city with her foster father, she wouldn’t allow herself to get too comfortable there. She knew better than that. She’d been trained for espionage, and eventually Elenwen would discover she was alive and call her back to do the work she’d been training for all her life.
Following Argis to the landing, she stopped to survey the interior of the main room. The long table was decorated by a lavish display of foods that immediately reminded her of the emptiness in her belly. Sweet rolls, breads and cakes surrounded a colorful array of fruits that instantly made her mouth water, but Argis distracted her from her first inclination to gorge herself by pointing out the book cases that lined the left wall leading into to the alchemy laboratory.
“Are all of these your books?” she astounded, pausing to study the colorful collection of spines. She traced her fingertip across the titles. The complete 2920 collection, from volume one to volume twelve, all seven volumes of A Dance in Fire, those two collections alone were enough to make her gasp in appreciation, but there didn’t seem to be enough time to fully appreciate the hundreds of books within it.
“They are yours now,” he muttered. “Collected by the thanes who’ve served in Markarth over the years, they became your property when you were granted that title.”
“Do you read much? I love to read.” She smiled over her shoulder at him, catching a glimpse of a grin breaking across his stoic face before he turned away and announced, “That is the Enchanting Laboratory and armory, and if you’ll follow me through the double doors over here, I’ll show you where your bedroom is.”
Leading her into a more private dining area with a cozy hearth and cooking pot and showing her up a short set of stairs and into her room. “This is where you’ll sleep,” he told her in that gruff, passive voice.
“Is your room nearby?” she wondered.
“That’s my room over there.”
He pointed to the room across the dining hall and she stepped off the landing to glance through the open door into that small space. Compared to her room, which contained a massive stone bed, several shelves, tables and wardrobes, the décor was much simpler, a dresser and a small table, a weapon rack, bedside table and a small bed she couldn’t even imagine a man his size fitting into.
“Have you lived here long?”
She could tell from the uncomfortable way he shifted his body weight that her simple questions bothered him, but he dutifully answered, “Twenty-years and two thanes, three now if you count you.”
Twenty years? She looked over at him in the soft gold glow of the hearth at the end of the room and studied the lines in his face. He didn’t look much older than twenty at first glance, but upon deeper inspection she could see years of hardship etched into his features beyond the mangling scars that decorated his face. If she had to guess, she’d say he was close to thirty at the least.
“What happened to your last two thanes?”
Stiffening his shoulders, he looked away from her and said, “The Forsworn.”
“The same Forsworn Jarl Igmund is sending me to take care of?” she asked tentatively.
“The same,” he nodded and walked toward the table in the center of the room. Pulling out a chair, he sat down and poured himself a tankard of thick, honey-colored liquid from a bottle on the table. “There is plenty of food in the house, plenty to drink. I know you’re the thane and I’m the housecarl, so I shouldn’t be giving you advice, but if you want to remain the thane I recommend that you eat and get plenty of rest. We’ll be leaving for Serpent’s Bluff Redoubt before sunup, and you’re going to need all of your energy.”
He didn’t look back at her after that, but sat quietly drinking from that tankard even after she made her way into her room. She unslung her pack from her shoulder, lowered it to the bedside table and sat down on the edge of the bed to try and wrap her mind around all that had happened in the last few days. She hadn’t even been in Skyrim a whole week, and all of her expectations, all Elenwen’s plans for her, the best friend she’d ever had and her virginity… all of it was lost in a blast of dragonfire and every moment was tainted with regret.
Lying down, she curled her legs up under her and marveled at the surprising comfort of that bed. Between the thick furs layered atop the mattress and soft, feather-stuffed pillows, it was easy to close her eyes and feel herself starting to drift away, but her busy thoughts kept pulling her back from the brink.
She’d had plenty of time to think about the dragon on the long carriage ride from Whiterun, to think about what she’d done with Hadvar just before she left, but even in during the lengthy nights of quiet travel her fears and uncertainty about the future were further tainted with worry that Ondolemar wouldn’t welcome her when she arrived in Markarth. She had imagined him taking one look at her and seeing all her shame, but he hadn’t. He’d opened his arms and welcomed her, and the fact that he’d immediately found a use for her made her feel safe for the first time since she’d crossed the border into Skyrim.
It wasn’t long before hunger disrupted the moment’s peace and comfort she felt. Rising from the bed she stood up and looked out the doors into the empty room beyond. Sometime during her thoughtful moment Argis had gotten up from the table and she hadn’t even heard him. She glanced curiously into the bedroom and saw him lying stiffly on the bed and facing the wall, a tattered fur blanket drawn up over his shoulder.
He didn’t move, or make even the slightest acknowledgement that he’d heard her get up, but she tiptoed anyway, feeling like some kind of burglar in her own servant’s home, rather than the mistress of the house. She went into the main room and surveyed the table for something to eat. Cutting herself a thick slice of fresh bread, she slathered it in butter and honey and then sat down in one of the chairs to eat it.
The old house was so quiet without floorboards to creek and groan in the night, quiet almost to the point of loneliness, as if her housecarl wasn’t even there in the house with her. She was used to being alone. Growing up with Ondolemar, he taught her the value of solitude before she was really old enough to understand it, that one’s thoughts were at their clearest when no outside distractions were abound to distort clarity, but sometimes she resented solitude and how lonely a clear mind often felt.
That loneliness made her think about Hadvar, whom she’d thought of more often than she expected to after leaving Whiterun. It was probably due to the fact that she’d given away the most sacred part of herself to him, which she would probably regret for the rest of her life.
Leaning forward, she lowered her half-eaten bread back to the plate and rested her elbow on the table. Sliding her face into her palm, she leaned forward with a sigh and closed her eyes. She’d given a part of herself to him that she could never get back and give to a man she actually had feelings for one day. In all her twisted imaginings about her very first time with a man, she’d never thought it would be with a wounded soldier, much less another human like herself. She’d always daydreamed it would be Lumelinor, despite the impossibility of there every being anything between them but friendship. Maybe if she’d just closed her eyes and pretended Hadvar had been someone else, she wouldn’t have humiliated him so badly, probably ruining his first time more than she’d ruined her own.
And still he’d been so kind to her, even coming after her so he could say goodbye.
She remembered the letter then, that strange encounter in the marketplace with the tattooed man who told her it had fallen out of her pack. She’d almost forgotten that whole bizarre entrance into Markarth entirely, and the letter he’d thrust into her hand.
When had Hadvar found time to write a letter and stuff it into her pack? And what might such a letter say?
Rising from her chair, she moved quietly through the house and to her bedroom. She paused only long enough to peek into Argis’s room and found him lying rigidly facing the wall in the exact same position he’d been in when she walked by before. Shaking her head at the fact that he hadn’t even stirred, she slipped into her bedroom, closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed to begin rifling through her pack for the letter. She found the parchment and drew it out, holding the folded paper in her hand for several minutes while debating with herself whether or not she wanted to read what he had to say.
Curiosity finally won out, and she unfolded the letter to find a single line etched across the page: Meet me at the shrine of Talos.
Her heart felt like it stopped in her chest for a moment. A million questions raced through her mind. Had Hadvar followed her from Whiterun to Markarth? And what could he possibly have to say to her that hadn’t already been said? That letter had been in her pack all day. Was he still there, waiting for her to come? And why, of all places, would he ask her to meet him at a shrine to Talos? The Temple of Dibella, she could understand, considering everything that had happened between them, but Talos?
Refolding the letter, she lowered it onto her lap and just sat there for a few minutes staring at the parchment. A part of her was almost overwhelmed by curiosity, while the well-disciplined side of her pushed her to forget. Why had he followed her to Markarth, after they’d agreed to start fresh as nothing more than friends? They couldn’t erase what happened between them, just like she couldn’t take back that fact that Lumelinor had died before she ever had the chance to tell him how she really felt.
She needed to move on from that day, that experience and everything about it. She needed to forget.
Crumpling up the paper, she rose from the edge of the bed and marched back out into the dining hall. Tossing the paper into the hearth, she watched the flames writhe along the smooth surface, stretching its hot tongue in black lashes until it there was nothing left of her night with Hadvar but the ashes and firm resolve of her own reckless mistake.
Surely, he’d grow tired of waiting and leave the temple eventually, leave Markarth and move on with his life. It was the right thing for both of them.
The distant sound of a knock on the door disrupted her from the depth of her thoughts, and startled she turned toward that rapping. She waited for Argis to stir, but when the knocking sounded again and he didn’t move, she headed down the long entryway to unlock and open the large golden door.
“Atani-mè,” she gasped almost guiltily, as if her foster father had caught her in the middle of something questionable.
“Answering your own door? Surely you learned nothing about the purpose of servants in all our years together. Where is your housecarl?”
“He’s already gone to bed.” She stepped aside to welcome him into the house and he followed, not lowering the hood of his black robes around his shoulders until after she’d closed the door behind him.
“Regardless, he is your servant. It is his job to take care of all your household matters, even if he is asleep when visitors come calling.” Stalking past her, he started up the incline into the main room, surveying the interior with a curled upper-lip. “Well, I suppose it’s not the palace a justiciar’s ward deserves, but it will have to do for now. I trust Igmund went out of his way to accommodate you after we parted ways?”
“Yes.” She went immediately to the shelf and grabbed a bottle of wine, knowing he would appreciate that he hadn’t even had to ask her for a drink. She pulled out the cork and poured while he drew a chair away from the table and made himself as at home as he could possibly be in a place so cold and alien to him. “It’s a very nice home, and Argis has been very helpful.”
“Good,” he sneered. “As much as I loathe that proud little worm, Igmund does have his uses from time to time. Has he set you to task ridding his land of the wretched Forsworn yet?”
“I leave tomorrow morning for a place called Serpent’s Bluff Redoubt.”
“An easy task for one of your skills.” He grinned up at her when she placed the goblet of wine in front of him, reaching out to curl his long fingers around the stem. “The Forsworn are an utter nuisance, and this city will be the better for it once they’ve been properly attended to. I’m sure you’ll make me very proud while ridding Igmund of all his problems, but in the meantime I don’t want you to forget that you and I have a mission to accomplish as well.”
“Of course not.”
“The matter of this dragon you escaped in Helgen is to become our top priority. Eyes and ears open for any information you might discover while I do some more digging back here.” He sipped at the wine, his sneer growing exponentially at the bitter taste. “I swear, there isn’t a decent vintner in this awful place. Everything they produce tastes like honey-laden mammoth piss.”
“I’m sorry,” she lowered her head in shame.
“Not to worry.” He pushed the cup away. “There is a shipment of various delights coming in next week, including several cases of Firebrand wine. I’ll be sure you are properly stocked so you can accommodate my tastes when I come to visit.”
“Drusilla, please, sit down and be comfortable with me.” He gestured toward the chair at his right and tilted his head to look at her, his bright eyes alight with wonder and curiosity. “It’s been so long since we were able to just sit together and talk the way we did when you were small, and I want to hear everything you failed to mention in your letters over the last three years.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” she insisted, drawing out the chair and lowering herself into it. “I spent so much of my time in training, just as I mentioned in my letters.” So much time fighting with herself about the way she felt for Lumelinor, even though she knew he would never feel the same, and eventually using the training techniques Elenwen taught her to try and forget all of her feelings completely.
“Those curt, emotionless missives could hardly be called letters, my Lothiriel.” Reaching across the table he lowered his hand atop hers. “A single page detailing the rigorous practice and training could hardly be called a letter. Elenwen’s idea, no doubt, curbing your emotions. She always insisted it would be the impulses of your emotional nature that would be your downfall as a soldier, and perhaps she was right about that, but surely you still have love for me in your heart after all I’ve done for you.”
“Of course I still love you, Atani-mè. You were there for me when my own father would barely even look at me.”
“Yes, I was, and I guess that is why you came to me in this time of uncertainty and doubt, instead of searching for Elenwen as you should have. You have no idea how happy that makes me.” Lifting his other hand to touch her face, a slow smile drew the corners of his mouth.
“I didn’t know who else to turn to,” she admitted. “Whether or not the ambassador was even still alive. When I was scared and alone, all I could think of was how safe I would feel if I were with you.”
“You will always be safe with me. I have thought of you as my own daughter since the moment they first handed you over to me. I was told not to care for or love you, simply look after and raise you, but you could not help your lineage, couldn’t help that you were born so low. Perhaps in your next life you will choose more appropriately so you might be born of more noble blood. I loved you well, even though I was not supposed to, and I always will.”
She couldn’t count the number of times he’d said that to her in her life, the old lament making him uncharacteristically soft for a moment before he withdrew his hand and leaned back in his chair to sigh. A short laugh followed, and then he said, “It would seem as we have grown together, I have inherited all of the emotions Elenwen taught you to displace. My superiors would be most displeased with me if they could hear the way I speak to you when we’re alone.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” she grinned up at him, feeling comfortable and safe for the first time in a very long time.
“That’s my girl.” Ondolemar smiled over at her again, patted the top of her hand before withdrawing and pushing his chair away from the table. “I suppose I should be going. I wouldn’t want you leaving on your little mission for Igmund without enough sleep to sustain you because I kept you up all night.”
There was a part of her that wanted to reach out to him and beg him not to leave again, that feared she was going to wake up from a wonderful dream only to find herself at the mercy of Elenwen’s rigorous mental training. That same part of her wanted to confess all of her mistakes to him while he was there, only so he could reassure her again that it was human for her to make mistakes, and despite the flaw of her own DNA, he loved her anyway.
“I needn’t tell you to be careful out there tomorrow. The Forsworn are a menace you can handle, I’ve no doubt, but like all vermin they tend to congregate in droves. Be careful they don’t overwhelm you and check in with me when you return from Serpent’s Bluff Redoubt.”
“Of course,” she nodded, following him into the foyer and down the decline toward the door. “Atani-mè,” she called out as he was reaching for the handle, “thank you… for everything.”
Drawing his hand up to her cheek for a moment, his touch lingered on her skin even after he withdrew, and drew his hood back up over his head before stepping into the damp, chilly Markarth night and heading gracefully down the winding stairs.