They rode into Riverwood an hour after dark. Nora had thought about setting up camp, but the sign on the road stating that the town was five miles ahead decided her. Bathing in the cold river was all well and good, but she wanted to relax in a hot bath. The town was as before. Less than a thousand people, most in their homes enjoying an evening meal, some few still about on some task or other. People recognized her and waved, shouting greetings which she returned.
I'm almost home, she thought, smiling as she looked around.
The stables was still open, ready to service travelers late into the evening. She paid the stable master, who said he would take care of unloading the horses and brushing them down, ending the beasts' evening with some hay and oats. Nora arranged to have her things locked in a shed on the side of the stables and led the way to the inn.
The Sleeping Giant Inn was as remembered. There was a certain comfort to small towns which changed slowly if at all. People inside recognized Nora and another round of greetings ensued. She really didn't want the attention, but was in no mood to disappoint these people. She went to the counter and asked for rooms and meals, and the barkeep yelled for Delphine.
“She's here,” said the barkeep as the middle-aged Breton came out of her own room.
“So I see,” said the woman, looking Nora over in a manner that made the Dragonborn feel uncomfortable. As if the woman were looking over a prime cut of meat, deciding if it was worth the price. “I would talk with you, Nora Jane Adams. In my room. Now.”
Nora stared at the woman, deciding that she not about to jump at the commands of someone who was not her rank in the society of Whiterun. She was not arrogant in her titles, but she was willing to fall back on them when needed.
“I want my people settled into rooms first. And meals prepared for everyone.”
“Now,” said Nora in a firm voice. “Then I will give you some moments of my time, before I relax in a hot bath.”
Delphine must have realized that she was not going to win this one, and with a frown gave instructions to her man to get Nora what she wanted.
“This way, please,” said Delphine, leading the way to her bedroom. “I understand you've got the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. Congratulations.”
“And how did you know that?”
“I have my ways. I've tried to penetrate that tomb, and I will admit it was too much for me.”
The woman closed the door to the room, then opened a wardrobe. She pushed something within, and the back of the cabinet slid aside, revealing an opening and stairs leading down to a well-lit chamber.
“Why all the cloak and dagger,” said Nora, now on her guard, ready to move at the first indication of duplicity.
“I'm not familiar with that term,” said Delphine, leading the way down the stairs, looking back at Nora as the Dragonborn hesitated. “I mean you no harm. I promise. And you will want to hear this.”
Nora shrugged her shoulders and followed, staying loose and alert as she took the steps. The room was large, larger than the bedroom that led into it. Multiple chests against the walls, shelves with hundreds of books and the bottles of potions. A large table in the center with a map of Skyrim, held down with books and candelabras on the edges.
“It means spy stuff,” said Nora, looking at the map and noting the pins stuck here and there, multicolored flags designating, something.
“Then it might be correct,” said Delphine, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her lips and threatening to make her human. “So, everyone says you are Dragonborn. That you can eat the souls of dragons. Is that true?”
“Christ, Delphine. I've been seen doing just that in Whiterun Hold, in Solitude, and all places in between.”
“But I have yet to witness it, so I have been trying to devise a test for you.”
“I don't like where this is going,” said Nora, crossing her arms. “And why should I trust you?”
“You were a fool to come down here if you didn't trust me,” said Delphine, looking at the entrance.
“You and I both know that I can take you in a fight," growled Nora, looking firmly into Delphine's eyes. "So let off the threats and tell me what you want.”
“I represent an organization known as the Blades. Before the Thalmor all but destroyed us we were the guardians of the Emperor, and the servants of all Dragonborns. We have fallen on hard times, but I still have a network of informants across Tamriel who keep me apprised of the goings on of all the major players. If you really are Dragonborn we can be of great help to you. Even against the Dark Brotherhood, who I understand has been trying to kill you.”
“Yesterday's news,” said Nora, closing her eyes for a moment and seeing the frightening visage of the Night Mother in her mind. “I hit their sanctuary yesterday. Killed everyone in it. Even destroyed that frightful corpse they pray to.”
Delphine's eyes widened and her mouth fell open. “But, that's impossible. That door of theirs is impenetrable.”
“Well, my rockets penetrated it, and my suit pulled it open just fine. So, they are gone, and part of your offer is off the table.”
Delphine recovered fast, holding up a strange stone artifact that Nora had never seen before. “The Dragonstone. Something you missed when you explored Bleak Falls Barrow. Not very observant of you.”
The Companions had conducted the search while Nora paid attention to any incoming threats. There were none, and the trio of the twins and Aela obviously attached no significance to the object.
“So, what is it?”
“An artifact that reveals where the dragons are coming back from. And not just coming back, but coming back to life.”
Nora thought that sounded preposterous. But then she had encountered Draugr, vampires and things that went bump in the night. If they could transcend death, why not Dragons?
“And what has it revealed to you?”
“Not much, unfortunately. I don't know how to read all the symbols, but I have deciphered some that showed dragon tombs that I found empty, their occupants resurrected. And we Blades have always known that the Dragonborn were the ultimate dragon slayers. Which is where you come in.”
“I found that one would be resurrected near the village of Kynesgrove, just outside of Windhelm. In three weeks by my best reckoning. You need to be there to kill the dragon, and prove to me that you can eat their souls.”
“I still don't know why I need to listen to you,” said Nora, letting out a sigh.
“Haven't you been listening? We can help you.”
“And I have my own network,” said Nora, shaking her head. “I think I can do very well without your help.”
“And why are you fighting me?” asked Delphine, glaring at Nora. “I mean nothing but good for you. We can be of great aid to you.”
“Because you are so suspicious that you won't believe the eyewitness accounts of thousands of people,” said Nora, ticking off one finger. “Because you talk to me with an in-charge attitude,” said Nora ticking off another finger. “Like I'm supposed to follow the orders of someone I don't know, just because. And lastly, frankly, because I don't like you Delphine. You're probably very useful, but you rub me the wrong way. I've had to deal with people like you on my home world for political reasons, and don't see why I should continue that trend here.”
“Oh, the imaginary home world you have been telling everyone about.”
“And let's just add something else. You think I'm a liar. Now that's something to gain my trust and cooperation.”
“You saw my presentation at the Jarl's table. The world I showed that had everyone's full attention.”
“I thought that was an illusion,” said Delphine, face falling. “Cast by a very skilled mage.”
“Well, it wasn't. And I see no reason to prove it to you.”
“Will you come to take care of the dragon at Kynesgrove? If not for me, then to save that town from being burned to the ground.”
Nora felt her heart sink. The woman had her. There was no way she could let a dragon come to life to kill hundreds of people and not be there to stop it.
“When is it happening? How many days?”
“Twenty-three is my best estimate.”
Nora looked down on the map, tracing the roadways. “I can be there in nineteen days, I think. I have to go to High Hrothgar and talk with the Greybeards, and would like to see what Ulfric is about in Windhelm. Not that I mean to follow him, but I would like to hear what he wants to do from his own mouth.”
“Be careful,” said Delphine. “He's a snake.”
Takes one to know one, thought Nora. “Don't worry. I've infiltrated many hostile organizations on that imaginary world of mine. I just want to make up my own mind.”
“And don't let the Greybeards talk you into sitting on their mountain staring at your navel. They would have you afraid of your powers.”
“Don't worry. I've never liked having so much power, but if I have it I'm not afraid to use it.”
Nora traced a finger on the map, linking Windhelm to Winterhold, then deciding that it might be better to go by sea.
“To increase my knowledge of magic, of course. All the mages in my life keep telling me to go there.”
“But, you have the dragon powers.”
“I thought you didn't fully believe that. And though I have a kick-ass sword, I still carry a bow. Anything I can do to increase my chances in a fight I'm all for.”
“You show wisdom. I can believe you were a leader before you came here, no matter where it was from.”
Nora took her bath before dinner, her people coming out of the bathhouse as she entered. Annekke stayed, as much to provide security as company, though she denied the first.
“What did Delphine want?” asked the ranger, concern written on her face.
“She wanted to be in charge of me, but I told her no thanks.”
Nora decided to have a return engagement with the twins that night. They wouldn't be around her for long, and she meant to take advantage of them while they were. This time Eldawyn joined them.
* * *
Nora walked out of the inn in the morning, a wide smile on her face from the time she had spent with the twins. She wanted to check on the horses and the wagon with her armor, and get ready to hit the road. She came to an abrupt stop when she saw the five Thalmor in the middle of the street.
“Nora Jane Adams,” said the female Altmer in the gray Thalmor robes their mages wore. “I am Justiciar Elenora. And you are to come with us for questioning.”
Three of the soldiers, males, had their hands on their hilts, while the other woman in the group had her bow leveled, the arrow pointing at Nora's breast. The Dragonborn felt a chill at the words. People who went with the Thalmor most often were never seen again. She wasn't about to let that happen. Better to be cut down in the street than to be disappeared into a prison, subject to interrogation and torture.
“What are the charges?”
“No charges. Just routine questioning. As authorized by the White Gold Concordant.”
“And if I refuse to go?
“Then you die where you stand.”
If I'm going to die, it's not while standing, thought Nora, tensing her muscles and calling up the words to a fireball spell. Elves were fast, but nothing like her own speed, and she thought she could take at least a couple of them down before she fell.
The door to the inn opened behind her and she heard the voices of Sofia, Annekke and Eldawyn talking and laughing. Those sounds died immediately when the trio saw what was happening.
“We're with you, Nora,” said Eldawyn, moving to stand beside her friend, hands at the ready for spell casting. “And what do these scum want?”
“You are a traitor to your people,” yelled the Justiciar, glaring at her fellow Altmer. “Step aside. All of you step aside, unless you want to be charged with treason.”
“Hard to call it treason when we have taken no oaths to you motherfuckers,” said Sofia, one hand on her hilt while the other held flames.
“You are all bound by the White Gold Concordant,” growled the leader of the Thalmor, at first confused by Sofia's insult, then going into a rage as she figured out the meaning.
“I don't recall signing that piece of shit,” cried Annekke, quickly stringing her bow.
“Very well. You have all breathed your last.”
The door opened behind them again, this time Elesia, Valdimar and Lydia coming out, and immediately falling in with their friends. The brothers were on their heels, standing and drawing their weapons.
“This is treason,” shouted the Justiciar, her face red.
“Walk away,” said Nora in a tone that would chill the heart of a king. “And we won't be forced to kill you.”
The Justiciar looked like she was about to stroke out, but thought the better of it and turned away, motioning for her people to follow. As soon as they were out of sight down the street the people who were out on the morning broke into cheering and clapping. It seemed that no one here liked the Thalmor, and that got Nora wondering if she would someday be leading them in a revolt against the Altmer tyrants.
“What are you going to do, my Thane?” asked Lydia as they saw to the horses. “We will have to keep watch for them for the foreseeable future.”
“You know I don't roll that way, Housecarl.” The party mounted and rode out of town, and Nora was sure that the Thalmor were following them far behind. Probably to see if they could catch the party off guard with magic and arrows.
Nora, Valdimar, Lydia and Eldawyn dismounted as they took a bend in the road. The rest moved on, taking the dismounted horses with them, while the quartet moved into the woods and set an ambush. She had thought of bringing Annekke, but the Housecarls were already guilty by association, and her Altmer friend truly hated the Thalmor, so that had decided her. Minutes after concealing themselves in the brush the Thalmor appeared, jogging up the road with something that Nora had never before seen. A small troll in armor, some kind of war beast.
Lydia drew her bow while Nora and Eldawyn readied their spells. The Thalmor hesitated for a moment, as if they were following some magical marker, or the nose of the troll. The beast hesitated, looking up the road and then to side, sniffing.
“Krii,” shouted Nora, and the Thalmor staggered as Marked for Death took a good portion of their life force while softening their armor. Nora sent a fireball into them to signal for the others to attack. Eldawyn sent one of her own immediately after, while Lydia sent an arrow into the neck of the leader, who was outside the strike zone of the magical assault. The troll ran toward them, snarling, to meet the hammer of Valdimar, which laid it low, dying. Nora sent flame into the creature, a weakness of trolls, and finished it.
“We need to get rid of these bodies,” said Nora, looking at her friends, while the rest of her party rode back to them, minus the brothers who had stayed with the armor laden wagon. Nora quickly found a depression a hundred yards off the road, filled with leaves and branches. She dropped a heavy stone and watched with satisfaction as it fell through the debris, which snapped back into place.
“Get them to the side of the road,” she told her followers, then met eyes with Valdimar. “You and I are going to carry them to the hollow I found and dump them in. Eldawyn, I want you to ash any blood on the road. I don't want a trace that they ever existed.”
If the word had come down from Thalmor headquarters this might not be enough. But Nora was thinking this had been a local decision, since they had found no orders for her arrest on the leader. And within a week she would be in Eastmarch, where the Thalmor were not welcome at all.
She and her big Housecarl carried a body each to dump. Valdimar stared at Nora in disbelief as she held the body of the Justiciar with the same ease as himself with a soldier.
“I keep forgetting how strong you are,” said the big man, who was looking decidedly handsome now that the face paint had faded completely.
They dumped the bodies and went back for more, until after three trips the five Thalmor and the troll had disappeared into the landscape. Elda had incinerated any blood, the dust of which now blew in the morning breeze. Nora took one last look, satisfied that they had left a mystery. That group of Thalmor had disappeared off the face of Nirn.
“I hate them,” said Eldawyn as the party mounted and moved to catch up with the twins. “I wish I could wipe them all off the face of Nirn.”
“And I think we will be helping you with that, my friend,” said Nora, grimacing as she looked over at her Altmer follower. “I am officially at war with these bastards. A guerrilla war. We can only hit them when there are no witnesses, but I want these bastards to fear walking the roads of Skyrim.”
She thought that might bring her trouble, especially if there were hostages to free, but she considered ways they might strike out of the sight of those people. She refused to hurt the captive Nords, but she also refused to let the Thalmor conduct business as usual.
They reached Whiterun as the sun was setting, paying for stabling and arranging for workers to bring all their gear to Breezehome. She thought about retiring, but decided that she needed to talk to Balgruuf about her adventures, telling him everything except her run in with the Thalmor, and of course all of her sexual escapades. She thought the world of Balgruuf, but some things the avuncular man didn't need to know.