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Chapter Thirty-two - Windhelm


BrotherofCats

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The party started with the dawn from Kynesgrove. The village hadn't been much to impress, though it had seemed pleasant enough. Fifty to sixty houses, nice inn, a blacksmith. And a shrine to Talos out in the open, people gathered around it praying. There was a statue of Talos in Whiterun, of course, and a priest, since Balgruuf didn't allow Thalmor in his city. Nora still wasn't sure how he pulled that off, since it was technically Imperial territory, and the damned elves liked to flaunt their White Gold Concordant. But this was Stormcloak territory, and the first Thalmor who appeared here would be the last, as least while Ulfric was still a going concern. Nora hadn't liked much she had heard about Ulfric, particularly how he had killed her friend Elisif's husband. But it was nice to not have to worry about the Altmer bastards showing their faces.

 

There had been quite a few Stormcloaks in the village, wearing their identifiable chain with wolf sercoats and mostly closed face helms. They had treated the party in a friendly enough manner, but Nora thought that was because her group had five Nords, while she was often mistaken for one with her eyes. They had shot some hostile looks at Eldawyn, but when her friend had shouted “death to the Thalmor” they had relaxed, and if not quite friendly, at least they weren't hostile to the high elf. It had still seemed worth saving, even if the Stormcloaks might be doomed to die in battle at a later date, because of the many civilians, families with children. She could imagine the village burning and the bodies of children lying among the destroyed houses. It was an image she could not allow to pass.

 

The sign had said that Windhelm was twenty miles to the north. Through a beautiful pine forest, snow hanging from the branches. It was cold, but Nora had been through the northern part of the kingdom and its permanent blanket of snow. And then she hadn't had her specially made winter clothing. They reached sight of the city in a little under four hours, riding the good but winding road. It was an impressive sight, a large habitation sitting behind high walls, the tops of several buildings visible above the barrier. A long bridge stretched over the White River, towers at intervals, the colorful coverings and buntings of merchants all along what had to be a half mile of bridge. Farms stretched to the east, at least a score of them, producing vegetables and dairy despite the snow covering everything else. More were on the road to the west, and there had been many in the vicinity of Kynesgrove.

 

The docks were on the river along the south side of the city, east of the bridge. While not as large as those of Solitude, they were still impressive, taking up almost a mile of riverfront. At least thirty vessels sat at piers, mostly the characteristic long ships of the Nords, though there were some ships of different configurations as well, including a couple of East Empire Trading Company carracks. Dock workers, bundled in warm clothing, from their stance and gait mostly Argonians, swarmed several of the ships, loading and unloading.

Nora saw to the stabling of the horses in the building sitting to the right of the bridge entrance. There was a competing stable on the other side of the walkway, but the one she stopped at had more empty stalls. There were horses for sale, fine looking beasts, but she wasn't in the market. She thought she figured out the reason for the disparity in business when an Altmer man came out to see to her.

 

“I'd like to stable all of my horses for eight, maybe nine days,” she told the tall elf, nodding toward her beasts. “And somewhere to lock up my equipment.”

 

“Five gold a day for each horse,” said the elf, one Ulindil, his Altmer wife looking on. “That includes feed, water, and a short walk each day to give them some exercise.”

 

Nora wasn't sure about the price, but it seemed to be about what she had paid at other locations, so she handed over an emerald, which the wide eyed elf took. “Let me get this appraised and I'll have your change for you.”

 

“Keep whatever is left over as security against additional days,” said Nora. She wasn't sure how long they would be here, but she wanted to have the stalls in case it was longer than expected.

 

“And how are you treated here, brother?” asked Eldawyn of the stablemaster. “Any trouble from the Nords?”

 

“Most of them aren't too bad when you get to know them,” said Ulindil, smiling at Nora's pretty Altmer friend. “Any that are total jerks deal with my competitor across the way, so I don't have to interact with them.”

 

“Are they much competition?” asked Nora, looking over at what seemed to be a rundown stables on the other side of the road.

 

“Not particularly. I'm a true stable master. Horses are my life. That brain rot over there knows nothing of horses, and his services reflect that.”

 

Nora led the way over the bridge, secure in the knowledge that her beasts would be well cared for. Her company depended on their horses, and though she would never be an animal person, unless it was cats or dogs, she realized that the mounts were good equipment, and needed to be treated as such.

 

I miss Dogmeat, she thought, imagining the loyal German Shepard that had accompanied her on so many adventures. The elderly dog was safe and sound in Sanctuary Hills, and she could depend on Nick to take care of him. But she would have loved to have him here.

 

The bridge was crowded with stalls, thirty or more along one side, the carts of the proprietors on the other. Vegetable stands from the farms, fresh meats, seafood, even collections of trinkets made by the people selling them. It mimicked the open-air market outside of Whiterun, and Nora thought she might get some fresh vegetables on the way out. Then she saw it. A silver dragon claw, much like the one she had used to open the final chambers of Bleak Falls Barrow.

 

“How much for the claw?” she asked of the old woman manning the stand.

 

“You realize that this is pure silver,” said the woman. “Even melted down it's worth quite a bit. I've thought of melting it down to an ingot myself.”

 

And then one of the secrets of Skyrim is lost forever, thought the Dragonborn, sighing.

 

“And you will take...”

 

“Four hundred gold,” said the woman, “firm.”

 

“Sold,” said Nora, pulling out a couple of garnets and putting them on the counter.

 

“And what are those?”

 

“A pair of garnets, and worth considerably more than four hundred Septims.”

 

“I don't know that. Sell them in the market in the city, and bring me back gold, and the claw is yours.”

 

Nora sighed again, wondering if it was worth the hassle to obtain the key to some crypt that she didn't know the location of. Or what it contained. “I may be back,” she finally said. “Do not melt it down.”

 

“Mind your elf friend,” said one of the guards when they reached the open gates of the city. “As long as she behaves herself she'll be tolerated.”

 

Not welcome, just tolerated, thought Nora, looking over at the angry face of her friend. She could already see that they would have problems here, even if it was just dealing with jerks.

 

She examined the gates when passing through. They were six inches thick, hard wood and metal, and Nora imagined it would take quite a bit of force to breech them. She wasn't sure why she was already thinking about taking this city, just a feeling in the back of her mind. There were people all over the street running perpendicular to the entryway, some in finery, most in working clothes. All had on jackets against the cold, but it didn't look like enough to Nora, swathed in her thick travel furs. The people must be inured to the temperatures, since most seemed to be quite comfortable in what to Nora seemed inadequate clothing. A thin woman in what were essentially rags stood at the top of the steps to some large building, shivering and warming her hands over a brazier.

 

There was a Dunmer woman over to the side, held up and being harassed by some Nords who must have thought they were tough in threatening a woman.

 

“If your kind isn't going to help Ulfric, you should get your sorry gray asses back to Morrowind,” said one of the men, waving a fist at the woman.

 

“We don't help because it is not our fight,” complained the woman in the cultured speech of the high born.

 

“Stay in the damned Gray Quarter if you know what's good for you,” said the second man.

 

“Yeah,” said the first. “Next time I see you out among your betters I'm going to give you a beating.”

 

Nora had heard enough. She knew she was supposed to keep a low profile here, but hearing the woman being attacked just because of the color of her skin and the shape of her ears was too much. The ghouls of the Commonwealth had faced the same problem many times, and she had championed their cause. Now she was watching a member of a race that wasn't Nord getting the same kind of treatment, and her blood was boiling.

 

“Brave man,” she yelled, storming over to the Nord. “And what is the name of the champion who threatens to beat unarmed women?”

 

“Rollf Stone-fist,” growled the man, glaring at Nora. “And are you another elf lover. You need to get your ass out of city if you are.”

 

“Nora..” said Eldawyn in alarm.

 

“My Thane..” said Lydia, putting her hand over her mouth as she realized she had given information she shouldn't have. But the two men had attention for no one other than the woman confronting them.

 

“Get out of here, and let true Nords do as they would,” yelled the second, nameless man.

 

“And if I choose to stand my ground? What will you do then?”

 

“Perhaps you just need a good fucking, woman.”

 

“From a dickless wonder like you, Rollf,” growled Nora, curling her lip in a sneer. “I would rather fuck a skeever than a coward like you.”

 

“Why you...”

 

Rollf threw a punch at Nora, one that he telegraphed the entire way. Nora stepped out of the way easily, then snapped a forward kick into the man's stomach. He doubled over, and Nora threw an uppercut into his jaw that lifted him from his feet to fall to the ground.

 

Rollf lay groaning for a moment, then struggled to his feet. Nora was surprised the man was still conscious, and thought the moniker Stone-Head might have fit him better.

 

“You will pay for that, bitch,” yelled Rollf, staggering away on the shoulder of his friend.

 

“That was not wise, Nora,” said Eldawyn, putting a hand on her friend's shoulder. “But it was definitely in character.”

 

“This city is too good for you, friend,” said the Dunmer woman, coming over to talk. “And Rollf is trouble. Brave enough to challenge those he thinks beneath him, but too cowardly to actually fight for the cause he trumpets. He spends every night walking the Gray Quarter hurling insults.”

 

“And why don't the authorities do something about it?” asked Eldawyn.

 

“Like they will do anything in the aid of elves,” scoffed the woman. “I am Suvaris Atheron, friend. And I appreciate the help. But it will lead to nothing. These Nords are prejudiced against my kind, and nothing will make them change. You are so different, a Nord who doesn't look at someone, see the color of their skin, and judge them beneath them.”

 

“I'm Nora. And I'm happy I could come to your aid.” Nora knew better than to tell this woman that she was not a Nord. Or her full name. Enough information had been dropped here that she would have preferred stay secret. “Would petitioning the Jarl help?”

 

“Hah. Ulfric assigned the Gray Quarter for our living quarters, and we are allowed to live nowhere else. Might as well petition the sea to stop flowing in on the tide than ask that one for anything. The Argonians have it even worse. They can only live in their barracks on the docks.”

 

Nora looked at the woman wide eyed. She had come here to see what life under Ulfric's rule was like, and she had already gotten a stomach full. Life under Ulfric meant people who weren't Nords lived in ghettos, much like the Jews had on Earth during the Second World War. I need to look into this more, thought Nora, before I go judging a whole people. I don't want to be like Ulfric.

 

“I would see this Gray Quarter.”

 

“Well, it's to the east of here. Right up those steps and bear around, and you can't miss it.”

 

Suvaris left, heading into the building she said was the Candlehearth Inn, while Nora led her crew up the steps and in the direction the Dunmer woman had indicated. They walked through twisting turning streets for about a half mile before coming to a gate much like the one they had entered. Nora walked through, her eyes taking in every detail. Fish drying on racks, people hawking their latest catch, seafarers coming and going. They walked down a series of steps, doors on either side, many with signs above them. Then onto the flat area of the docks themselves, ships sitting at piers, or actually casting off as the crew raised sail. It was much like Solitude, including ships from all over Tamriel, though missing the Imperial warships and Thalmor.

 

Argonians were unloading one large vessel with the flag of the East Empire Trading Company, piling crates and barrels on the pier for other Argonians to pick up on rolling carts. The doors to several large warehouses were open, revealing long aisles of high shelves containing thousands of boxes, barrels lined up along the walls. It was obviously a very busy port, little affected by the civil war. Business as usual for most people, and Nora had to wonder how the Empire was letting this go on. The city would be hard to take, but Imperial troops could sack the farms and blockade the commerce, yet there had been nothing of the sort.

 

Not my business, she thought, watching as a group of Argonians walked through a door in the wall facing the piers. She wasn't here to take sides, just to gather information so she would know which side to choose, if either. Or would she just continue on as a neutral, allowing her access to all of Skyrim.

 

The Dragonborn followed the Argonians through a door, to find herself in a large open room filled with beds, some long tables in the center. It looked like it could house several hundred people, and it was about half full of Argonians, lining up to get food from a large number of cook pots. The barracks, she thought, glancing around. It was clean enough, though there were clothes piled up everywhere, and no place to put belongings except under the beds, which were so close they gave their occupants little privacy.

 

“Come to stare, smooth skin?” asked one of the Argonians, approaching with hand on knife hilt.

 

Smooth skin, thought Nora, just like the ghouls of the Commonwealth. And these people were being isolated, segregated, just as the ghouls had been in Diamond City before their ejection. Some more Argonians approached, and Nora marveled at the diversity of their scales and horns. No two were alike, and they seemed comfortable with the differences.

 

“I have some questions,” she said. “I'm a visitor from Whiterun, where I have seen your people mixing with the populace. Are you allowed to mingle with the Nords?”

 

“Aye,” said the one who had talked first. “We're allowed the run of the town, as long as we don't cause trouble. Which the ruling Nords define as anything that makes them uncomfortable. And we can't afford to live anywhere but here, even if there were enough houses for us. Not when we're paid half the wage of a Nord, and expected to do twice the work.”

 

Nora did not like the sound of that. These people were trapped in a situation they couldn't escape, in economic servitude. She wouldn't doubt if passage back to their homeland wasn't prohibitive as well, or that their bosses sold them food and clothing at exorbitant prices.

 

“This place is cold,” said another Argonian, a woman, a small child clinging to her side. “The Nords give us wood, coal, but never enough to keep us truly warm.”

 

“Have you petitioned the Jarl?”

 

“That one will not even acknowledge our existence,” said the male. “Might as well petition the river to stop flowing. His people make money off of us, so all is fine as far as he is concerned.”

 

“And this is the only place your people can stay?” asked Eldawyn, moving up to stand beside Nora.

 

“This, and the barracks next door. They are both the same, so what's to choose.”

 

There was an Argonian on a bed, shivering, shaking, moaning out. When Nora pointed him out the to the pair she was talking to, she was surprised at the answer, though not completely.

 

“Skooma,” said the female. “One of the few things that are cheap here. If we are hooked on the drug, and have to work hard to get it, the bosses are happy.”

 

Nora looked at the doors to some other buildings built into the wall facing the docks. One had the sign of the East Empire Trading Company, another with the Clan Shatter-shield logo, one of the influential local companies. And they were the ones, both, who were underpaying the Argonians.

 

Nora walked into the East Empire Company office, to see a young Nord woman, sitting behind a desk, writing in a ledger. “Can I help you?” she asked, her blue eyes looking over the party.

 

“I would like to talk to the factor,” said Nora, smiling. “Is he available?”

 

“Orthus,” called out the woman. “Some visitors to see you.”

 

“What now?” complained an Imperial man, coming out of a back room in the office, wiping his hands with a rag. When the man saw what was obviously a high born lady and her retainers, all wearing good quality winter clothing with expensive jewelry in evidence, his demeanor changed. “How may I help my Lady.”

 

“I've come to talk to you about the living conditions of your Argonian workers. And their lack of pay.”

 

“We are trapped in a bad situation,” said the man, echoing what seemed to be a common refrain in the city. “Clan Shatter-shield is paying their workers little, driving down their prices, and we have to keep up. Especially with these damned pirates targeting our ships, ignoring theirs.”

 

That set off some alarms in Nora's mind. If the pirates were targeting one shipping company and ignoring another that meant something was up. But did it mean that Clan Shatter-shield was in bed with the buccaneers, or merely paying them tribute to keep them away.

 

“And you are?” asked Nora, using her best haughty tone.

 

“Orthus Endario,” said the man with a slight bow. “At your service. And whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with.”

 

“Helga. Helga Blackbriar,” said Nora, thinking it a good idea to not use her real name in this city. There couldn't be many Nora Jane Adams in Skyrim, or all of Nirn for that matter. “Related to the Blackbriars of Riften. And I wonder what Vittoria Vici would think of your business practices?”

 

“Hell, Vittoria authorized our pay cuts,” said Endario, shrugging his shoulders. “We know that the Shatter-shields are up to something, but we don't know what. If someone could get us proof that the Shatter-shields are up to no good, I would pay well.”

 

“I am not a spy, Master Endario,” said Nora, playing the insulted high-born lady and not the spy she was. “But, if I happen to come across something in my travels I will make sure you get it.”

 

“That was quite the performance, my friend,” whispered Eldawyn after they had left the office. “This isn't your first time playing something you are not, is it?”

 

“Nope,” said Nora, nodding. “But it would help if my friends didn't drop information about me that might make my job more difficult.”

 

Nora knew that most of her people were basically honest souls, the thought of playing a false image beyond them. The Dragonborn had played many roles in the past in order to infiltrate the Brotherhood and the Institute. While overall an honest person herself, she did what it took to get the job done. What was a little lying compared to all the killing she did anyway? While she was thinking that her stomach rumbled, and she realized it was now into early afternoon. But first she wanted to get a look at the Gray Quarter.

 

It was as advertised. A series of winding streets and narrow alleys, Dunmer living almost on top of each other. There were some doors that must have led into respectable houses, probably the dwellings of Dunmer nobles, the kind of people who floated to the top in any situation. A couple of signs hung over businesses, a trader, a small restaurant. Nora led her people into the restaurant, the strange odors of exotic fare coming to her.

 

“What do you want here?” asked the proprietor, obviously not used to seeing Nords in his establishment.

 

“Meal and drinks for seven,” ordered Nora, no longer playing the haughty noble, but now a down to earth mercenary. She pulled a coin purse from her side pouch and dropped it to the counter, letting the man hear the sound of gold.

 

“Is she okay, sister?” asked the man of Eldawyn. The elves in this city seemed to have a solidarity not seen elsewhere in Skyrim.

 

“Well, once you get used to the stench,” said Eldawyn, drawing herself to her full height. “I'm kidding,” she said quickly as the others speared her with glares. “They're fine. Fine. I've never traveled with better company.”

 

“Then they must not be from around here,” said the Dunmer, reaching under the counter and pulling out some bottles of wine, placing them on the counter with seven glasses. “We only have beef and vegetables today, if that suits you.”

 

“That will be fine,” said Nora, looking at the glasses, then around the small dining room. Everything was clean, probably more so than half the Nord establishments in the city

 

The meal was actually quite good, with some exotic spices that made the food hot to the tongue, much like the Thai food Nora had loved before the war. She ordered seconds, and cleared the second plate before the disbelieving eyes of the owner.

 

“You must have a parasite,” said the man. “Such a slender woman.”

 

The rest of her party had finished off the wine and asked for more, probably from the heat of the food.

 

“And was the food to your liking?” asked the proprietor when Nora had finished her second plate.

 

“Delicious. I would love your recipe.”

 

“It's all in the spices. From Morrowind.”

 

“And why did your people choose to settle here?” she asked, curious as to why anyone would come to a place where the locals were so hostile toward them.

 

“When the air is full of so much ash that you cannot breathe, you move on,” said the Dunmer, shaking his head. “At first this seemed a good place to settle. Or at least my da must have thought so. If they had known the place was so hostile, they might have walked on.”

 

“Is the club overhead open?”

 

“It should be. But let me proceed you and let them know you are okay.”

 

The Dunmer man did as he said, walking into the club ahead of them. The Dunmer in the half empty corner club glared at the Nords, their nods at Elda a little more welcoming.

 

“They're okay,” said the restaurant owner. “They're not from around here, so they aren't such terrible wankers.”

 

There were laughs all around, and the bartender pulled some clean glasses from the counter, then nodded toward some bottles.

 

“Ale all around,” said Nora, thinking that she wanted something light for all of her people so their tongues wouldn’t wag, then remembering her Altmer friend. “And a bottle of your finest wine.”

 

Eldawyn smiled her appreciation to her friend, then took the bottle and started drinking deeply.

 

“And how are you treated here?”

 

“Like dogs whose owners no longer want them,” said the barkeep, to a chorus of ascents all around. “Three thousand of us, in the space appropriate for half that many. And we aren't allowed to live elsewhere, even if we can afford it.”

 

“Have you petitioned the Jarl?”

 

“Hah. Brunwulf Free-Winter, a true Nord hero, took up our cause and went to the Jarl. Ulfric Fucking Stormcloak came down, looked around, and left with a huff. And nothing was done.”

 

“Anything else of interest here?”

 

“There's Sadri's Used Wares to the south of here. You might want to give it a try.”

 

Nora gave it a try, finding the owner personable, as would be expected of someone who needed to be friendly to customers while trying to sell. The shop reminded Nora of nothing as much as a pawnshop, something that was familiar from both the pre-war world and the Commonwealth. She thought of Daisy's shop in Goodneighbor, a place where you could get anything. This place seemed much the same, and some Nords, a man and a woman, were in browsing the wares.

 

“All of my goods are legitimate,” said Sadri, the sad looking Dunmer behind the counter.

 

Nora wondered why the man had to assure her of that, unless there had been some shady dealings here. She shrugged and pulled out an emerald. “What can you give me for that?”

 

“Not near what it's worth, I'm afraid,” said Sadri, pulling out a pair of glasses and examining the gem. “Worth at least three thousand. I can give you fifteen hundred for it.”

 

“But, that's robbery,” blurted Sofia, glaring at the elf.

 

Nora held up a hand to silence her friend, then looked at the Dunmer. “How about seventeen hundred?”

 

She understood this game, and though the elf was correct in that he really couldn't afford to pay full price, not if he wanted to turn around and sell it at a profit, he was still low balling her.

 

“Sixteen fifty,” said Sadri, placing the gem back on the counter. “My best offer.”

 

“Sold.”

 

Sadri went to a safe and removed three bags of coin, setting them on the counter, then counting some more out of his under counter cash drawer. Nora looked in each bag, verifying that they were indeed gold coins, then put the bags in her pack.

 

“Aren't you going to count them?” exclaimed Sofia.

 

“No. I trust our friend here.” Besides, even if they were short a dozen coins or so, Nora wanted the goodwill of someone she could sell items to too much to quibble. The elf smiled at her as she left, and Nora felt that her words had made her another friend.

 

“Buy some flowers, lady,” said a little girl, probably no more than ten, standing near the entrance to the docks. She was in a worn blue dress, a basket of wildflowers in her hands. The same kind of flower that anyone could pick for free right outside the city.

 

“Where are your parents, dear?” Nora asked, squatting to put her eyes on the level with the child.

 

“Momma died,” said the child, barely holding back the tears. “And da went off to fight for the Stormcloaks. He never came home. So I sell flowers so I can eat. I don't know what else I can do.”

 

“What about at night? When it gets cold?”

 

“Ms. Elda over at Candlehearth Hall lets me stay in the great room at night,” said the little girl, a smile coming to her face. “Buy some flowers, please.”

 

“I'll take them all,” said Nora, pulling out a handful of gold coins and placing them in the basket, then taking the flowers. She really didn't need them, but the girl was doing her best to make her own way, and Nora wasn't about to insult her.

 

“That's too much,” said the girl, looking at the small pile of coins.

 

“That's for the customer to say, dear,” said Nora, looking into the sad eyes that were now bright with hope. “Get yourself a new dress. Always helps to look good for the customers.”

 

Nora felt herself on the verge of tears as she walked away with her handful of flowers. Another tragedy of the war, a homeless orphan making the best of her situation. Luckily, there were enough kind people to let her shelter from the weather, or undoubtedly she would have been found one morning in this cold city dead, frozen to death. Nora wondered if she could adopt here. Not something she could do yet, since she needed a place large enough for children, and some staff to look after them when she was away.

 

“I find it hard to reconcile the trained killer with the compassionate woman,” said Elesia, walking beside Nora. “Most curious.”

 

“I was a mother long before I killed my first person,” said Nora, remembering holding baby Shawn before the war. “The maternal instincts are still strong.”

 

“Still,” continued Recorder, for that was how Nora thought of the girl in this persona, “I have studied the records of hundreds of heroes across the multiverse. And invariably all of them became heartless killers, as much to protect themselves as anything. Yet you have become a hero on two worlds, and still remain as human as ever.”

 

Nora had always been good at compartmentalizing. Maybe that was her secret. When she had practiced law, defending the innocent, and the guilty, she had been able to turn off the side of her that sought real justice, even vengeance, while doing her job to the best of her ability. She refused cases in which freeing the defendant would result in a clear threat to the community, but tried to get those who had simply made a mistake a fair shake.

 

“It surprises me that you have remained sane.”

 

Nora noted how some of the passing Nords were staring at Elesia.

 

“My friend's a little daft,” she said by way of explanation.

 

“Oh,” said Elesia, blushing. “Maybe I shouldn't be throwing out such terms.”

 

“Maybe you shouldn't,” said Nora with a laugh. “And who's to say what's sane or not. And if I am. But if I ever lose my humanity, I want one of you people to slit my throat in my sleep.”

 

“I can't see that happening,” said Eldawyn, shaking her head. “And if it does, it will only be because we have failed you.”

 

“You have become a little more human yourself, Elesia,” said Nora after smiling at Elda. “Not quite the dispassionate Recorder anymore, are you?”

 

“Oh, I've gone and made a mess of my assignment,” said the woman in her little girl's voice. “When I go back I'm sure to be relieved of my position. Getting too close to my subject and all. And they would be right. Having sex with the client is, uh, frowned upon.”

 

“Then don't go back,” said Eldawyn, who with her magical background had a greater understanding of what Elesia was talking about than the others. “Send them your last report, destroy whatever it is that they can use to track you, and stay with us.”

 

“I might need some magical help to destroy the tracker,” said the woman.

 

“Then we will get you the help you need.”

 

Nora thought she knew what Elesia was referring to. A tracking/com device in her brain. The Dragonborn had the equipment with her, the cobbled together sensors, to do a brain scan, and thought that some targeted spells might solve the problem. Or it might scramble Elesia's brains, a sobering thought.

 

The party had wandered into the market district, the home of the blacksmith, alchemist shop and some other homed businesses. And dozens of stalls, the owners standing out in the weather and selling their wares. One in particular caught Nora's eye, an Altmer, lighter of skin than most, as if she had Nord in her lineage as well. Her stall was packed with goods, weapons, armor, clothing and trinkets. Even some potions. Nora walked over, wanting to see what the woman had to say about Windhelm.

 

“Well met,” said the woman in a cultured accent. “And well met, sister,” she said, looking at Eldawyn, who returned her smile. “Niranye at your service, my Lady. And I'm sure I have something you need. But a word of warning. I don't bargain. The price I charge is what it's worth, and if you think you can do better you're welcome to go there.”

 

Nora wondered how many customers the woman drove away with that spiel. However, she was pretty and well dressed, and that probably went a long ways toward getting sales, especially with the Nord men. However, she seemed inadequately dressed for the humid cold, though she seemed comfortable enough. Nora was wondering if her blood would ever thicken enough to handle this climate.

 

“How are you treated in this city, being an elf and all?”

 

“Half elf, you mean,” said the woman, confirming Nora's suspicions. “I have Nord in me, which makes it somewhat easier, though it also makes it harder to get along with some. Most of the Altmer look down on me, and I appreciate your friend for being accepting.”

 

“Only an idiot judges people by the color of their skin,” said Eldawyn in a cold tone that told volumes about what she thought of those people. “I wish more of our people thought that way. Then we wouldn't have the Thalmor.”

 

Niranye smiled, and Nora realized they had a kindred spirit here.

 

“It took some time, but once they got to know me things got better. With most of them. Except for that damned Rollf Stone-Fist and his buddies.”

 

“Oh, yes. We've run into him. Harassing a Dunmer woman. I hope he remembers the thrashing I gave him the next time he thinks it a good idea to pick on the helpless.”

 

“Good for you,” said the elf, new respect in her eyes when she looked at Nora. “Rollf may be a loudmouth, but he has a reputation as a fighter. So you must be formidable.”

 

“Oh yes,” said Lydia. “My Tha..I mean Nora, is quite the warrior.”

 

Nora turned and glared at her Housecarl, who put a hand over her mouth as she looked away.

 

“I am Helga Blackbriar, from Riften,” she told the elf.

 

“And you don't have the accent of the Rift.” said Niranye in a whisper. “More like Whiterun, though even that isn't quite right. But don't you worry, Thane Nora. Your secret is safe with me. Whatever you are up to, I'm sure you have a good reason for it. Now, please buy something.”

 

Nora chuckled. She really liked this half elf, who seemed to have a city's worth of sense. “Do you have any arrows perchance.”

 

Next Nora wanted to check out the Alchemists shop, the White Phial, wondering at the significance of the name. She was greeted by an argument between an elderly Altmer, the master she assumed, and a young Breton who appeared to be the apprentice.

 

“But Master Nurelion. You're too old, and your health is too fragile, to try and make your way through that ruin.”

 

Nora's ears perked up at the mention of ruins. And possible word walls.

 

“What are you looking for?” she asked the old Altmer.

 

“After searching my entire life I have finally determined the location of the White Phial, the artifact I named my shop after in the hope that someone would recognize the name and give me the location. And now I discover that it is only two days ride away, in the Forsaken Cave. And this young fool won't let me get it.”

 

The Altmer doubled over in a coughing fit, and Nora thought the man didn't have much time. Healing wouldn't help, not against the ravages of age. Only becoming a lich or a vampire would help him now, and she doubted the elf would pass up his chance at the afterlife of his people for such a fate.

 

“I could get it for you,” said Nora, thinking of the possible word wall.

 

“You would do that for an old man?”

 

“Of course.”

“Curalmil, the master alchemist interred in the crypt, has made in so only another master can enter. Fortunately for you, I have the mixture needed to get into the final section already made up.”

 

Nurelion reached under the counter and pulled out a small bottle, handing it to Nora. Nora thanked him and started talking with Quintus, the apprentice who was handling business.

 

“What are you doing standing there,” yelled Nurelion in a strained voice. “Go get the Phial you fool.”

 

Nora didn't know whether to get angry or to laugh. She thought neither would be productive, so she finished her transaction and left. She thought it was about time they got a place to stay for the night, since she had no intention of riding the unknown road to the west in the dark.

 

The Candlehearth Inn was well lit and warm. Nora went up to the common room first, seeing a trio of bards, one of them a very pretty Dunmer, playing lute, flute and drum, the woman singing one of the traditional Skyrim songs, but the words of this one praising Ulfric. A number of people occupied the room, sailors, merchants, mercenaries. The fire was warm, and Nora moved closer to absorb the heat. The child she had talked to before was sitting before the fire, eating a sweet roll, and Nora took a seat on the floor beside her.

 

“Thank you so much for buying my flowers,” said the child, looking over at her and smiling.

 

“What's your name, sweetheart?”

 

“Sofie. What's yours?”

 

“Helga,” said Nora, feeling bad about lying to the child, but she had a cover to maintain. “And you don't have a home?”

 

“Elda lets me stay here at night.”

 

“But nowhere permanent? No chance of adoption?”

 

“No. And please don't send me to that awful orphanage in Riften. I'll run away. I swear I will.”

 

“Don't worry, Sofie. I'm not about to snatch you away from your home. But I might be able to adopt you when I have a home to take you to.”

 

“That would be wonderful,” said the little girl. “I would like that. I bet you would make a good mama.”

 

That hit Nora right in the heart, and she made a resolution to get a home where she could adopt children. There were so many in this world that needed a loving family, and if she could give that to some of them, she would.

 

“I'll try to find a place, Sofie, but it might take some time.”

 

“Oh,” said the child, a look of disappointment coming over her face. “That's okay.”

 

Nora felt awful when she got up off the floor. She wanted to help the child, but she needed to help the world. She would do what she could when she could, and Sofie was first on her list.

 

“I'd like three rooms,” she told the inn keep, Elda Early Dawn, who had been complaining about the Dunmer invading the city when Nora approached. That seemed strange to the Dragonborn, since she employed a Dunmer bard and had people of several races in her common room. She was thinking that maybe Elda was just playing the game so she wouldn't be harassed. Rollf had been in the downstairs part of the inn, and had hastily left when he saw Nora, proving that he wasn't a complete idiot. “And baths for seven.”

 

“Sure thing. They're yours for the day. The bath is downstairs.” She led Nora to the rooms, one at a time. Two of them had large double beds, one with three singles, perfect. “And don't break anything,” growled the innkeep, walking away.

 

Nora let her people get something to eat, then bathe. She ate with them, thanking Susanna for the food when the serving wench brought it. Susanna brought the tray back to the kitchen, then walked back into the common room, talking one of the men and walking off holding his hand, laughing. Nora knew the signs, and Elda was letting her serving girls service the customers in other ways. Nothing she had any qualms about, as long as the girls were willing. She herself was feeling restless, and decided to go for a walk to see more of the city, planning to go up to the northwest section where the established families lived.

 

“Do you want company?” asked Eldawyn.

 

“No. I need to do some thinking. I'll be back within the hour.”

 

“Be careful,” said a white-haired Imperial woman, Viola Giordano, who had been listening in. “The butcher is on the loose, and no one is safe.”

 

Maybe I'll get lucky and the bastard will try to take me, thought Nora. That would be the end of his murder spree.

 

There were still people about as she walked back to the market district. Everything was closed up tight, the stall keepers at home and warm. The cold was bitter, and Nora shivered even in her furs. And then she noticed the scuff of a boot behind her and realized that she was being followed.

 

The Dragonborn felt a thrill run through her, both fear and anticipation. If she could take the Butcher and make this town safe again, she would consider it an evening well spent. She also worried that she might fall, since she had no way of knowing what the man's capabilities were. A serial killer, he had to be an expert on death. But she knew where he was, behind her, and all she had to do was lead him into a trap.

 

The northwest district was straight streets and large homes, ornate doors that led to the luxuries of the rich and famous. There were no guards in sight, and Nora wondered why they weren't patrolling this district if no place else. After all, this was where the money was, and if they weren't also patrolling the Gray Quarter, what were they doing. Sitting around a fire somewhere? She couldn't blame them, it was really cold out, but that was not their job. The footsteps continued her way, matching her pace, and she had no doubt she was being stalked.

 

“Got you,” hissed a man, coming out of the shadows and grabbing her right arm. Another came rushing in from left and grabbed her other limb. And Rollf came hurrying up and around to stand before her.

 

“Not so big now, are you?” said the enraged man, pointing a finger at Nora. “And now you pay for humiliating me in front of the city.”

 

The man had a long thin blade in his hand, and Nora was sure she knew what he intended. Her face carved up, her beauty gone. That didn't work on her, though, and besides, she had no intention of letting them do so. But Rollf thought she was helpless, a woman held in the grip of two strong men.

 

Nora launched a front snap kick, the crown of her foot coming up to crush Rollf's testicles against his body. The man grunted, dropped the knife, then squealed in a high-pitched cry. Nora twisted to the right as her foot came up and then down on the instep of that man. His grip failed, and Nora continued to twist around to break free of the last assailant. She launched a palm strike into his face, rocking his head back, then sent a quick flurry of blows into his chest and body. The other man, stumbling on his hurt foot, reached for Nora's throat. A pair of forearms broke his grip, and Nora sent a double knife hand into his neck, sending him to the ground, unconscious.

 

Rollf came at her again, his face screwed up in pain. Nora heard other men coming out of the darkness, and wondered how many friends the Nord had brought. She hit him in the face with a fist, then readied herself to start launching killing blows.

 

“Rollf Stone-Fist,” shouted a female voice. “You are under arrest for assault. Stand down, or we will cut you down.”

 

Nora looked around, realizing that a half dozen guards had appeared, the people she had just seen coming at her.

 

“This bitch attacked me and my friends. We were just minding our business when she came at us like a wild beast. Look at what she did to us.”

 

Nora smiled as she took in the two men on the ground, one unconscious, the other struggling to get back to his feet. They were fortunate she hadn't been going for kill shots.

 

“We saw what happened, liar,” said the female guard officer. “We were trying to trap the damned killer, and you ruined our trap. So I think we will be sticking additional jail time on you, for letting that bastard get away.”

 

“Oh no,” said Nora, realizing that the steps she had heard following her must have been the killer, and not only had she lost her own chance to get him, but the trap that had been waiting was sprung prematurely. And the man would be much more careful in the future.

 

She fell into bed with a sleeping Elda that night, unwilling to waken her drunken friend, raging inside that everything had gone wrong. And the nightmare's she had that night were of a madman, felling her from behind and cutting her open while still alive.

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