This story is a work in progress. Authored by Kementari.
Spoiler warning: Contains spoilers for all major questlines.
This user takes creative license with lore while writing fanfiction! Do not assume that everything in her stories is Bethesda-approved!
- 1 Smoke Hole Cave; Sun's Dawn 2, 3E411
- 2 Cheydinhal; Hearthfire 10, 3E411
- 3 Fort Farragut; Hearthfire 11, 3E411
- 4 Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary; Hearthfire 13, 3E411
- 5 Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary; Hearthfire 15, 3E411
- 6 Bruma; Sun's Dusk 2, 3E412
- 7 West Weald; Second Seed 22, 3E413
- 8 Ornilomea; Second Seed 23, 3E413
- 9 Fort Vlastarus; Second Seed 23, 3E413
Smoke Hole Cave; Sun's Dawn 2, 3E411
Lily drew the bowstring back to her ear, dainty fingers gentle on the taut cord and feathered arrow-haft, took one silent, nearly motionless breath, and let go. The slim bolt of death whistled slightly on its short voyage through the dank air of the shoreline cavern, and impacted. There came a gruesome squishing noise as it penetrated its target. The ash-skinned elf toppled forward, face jerking to a halt inches above the table upon which he had just moments ago been carelessly dining. The arrow-tip, glistening with the priceless red sheen of blood that has very recently been living, protruded through the Dunmer's throat and was presently lodged in the rough wood of the table.
With expressionless eyes, the Wood Elf gazed at the target of her unprovoked attack. She sat back on her haunches, giving her aching thighs a rest. After allowing the gentle nature-noises of the cavern to flow over her senses for a few moments, she was able to determine that no other beings shared with her the mossy stone haven.
Standing briskly, Lily deftly searched the outlaw's corpse and belongings, pocketing the small handful of Septims and the tiny, dull ruby she found. Then, unconcernedly shoving the still-warm corpse off the table bench, the Bosmer seated herself, glancing over the table's meager array with the air of one who has known intimately cakes and wine, but has only recently become a friend of hunger. Selecting a tired-looking carrot and a bit of traveling bread, the elf gazed into the nearby fire, mind drifting back to the whirlwind of events from the night before.
As Lily bit down on the hardening loaf of bread, her eyes wandered to the corpse of her victim. Shot through the neck - a clean, professional shot, arrowhead piercing larynx, jugular, and spinal cord all at once...
It was the way she had learned to shoot, decades ago in the forests east of Silvenar, the way the boy-elves had begged her to teach them to shoot. She had tagged along on their marauding parties, striking packs of adolescent Suthay-Raht Khajiit and laying waste to smaller domestic settlements on the fuzzy border between her people's land and that of Elsweyr. The deadly silencing shot was the safest way to dispatch the feline beings, stilling them quickly to lessen the chances of a battle-roar bringing another Khajiit - or several - down on top of her.
The shot was her signature on the trail of blood she had left behind when she was unceremoniously tossed on the Cyrodiilic shore north of Falinesti and informed that she would be killed on sight were she found within Valenwood's borders during the duration of her exile. And it was the shot she had fired at the Orc last night - the one who had roughly tossed her aside, spitting a racial epithet at the mer-girl who had had the audacity to stumble into him on a foggy day down at the docks of Cyrodiil's port city of Anvil - on the first anniversary of that exile.
The fog and the docks were his second mistake, after the insult. Turning his back and briskly stamping away was his last.
Lily closed her eyes, remembering the Orc's almost-graceful tumble to the stones below the dock. She hadn't ever let her temper cause her to kill an innocent. It was always the hunters, the corrupt, those worthy of death. She had leapt from the site like a spooked deer, hesitating only to pluck her arrow from the corpse. Hiding herself in the ramshackle hovel that served only as a roof over her head in times of rain, Lily had fallen into a fitful sleep, maddening dreams haunting her all night long.
The worst nightmare had not been a dream at all. Around the chime of midnight from the dock tower, Lily had awakened to a whisper of fabrics, a chill like a winter's breeze, and the unmistakable smell of death. Though she was on her feet, blade in hand, in mere seconds, the unseen presence was undaunted, and Lily even fancied she heard a laugh dance through the rafters. Stepping out of the shadows - or had the shadows stepped out of him? Lily could not even now be sure - a handsome Imperial wearing a robe of blackest pitch fastened his chestnut eyes upon her own slate stare.
He had teased her with threats, put her on edge with his seemingly endless knowledge of her own activities, and then offered her power - power, protection, and a place to belong.
He was a Speaker for the Dark Brotherhood, that infamous cult of ritualistic homicide, and his name was Lucien Lachance.
Lily somberly put an apple to her lips, and after a bite, withdrew a gleaming black blade, hilt inlaid with gold, from its place at her waist. She laid it on the table before her, Lucien's challenge ringing in her ears. Some part of her wanted to call him a nut, a crazy cult zealot... but even now, she trembled at the memory of his eyes. Was there something to the fire that burned in his sharp gaze?
Dusk that day saw the departure of a black-clad, lightly laden Bosmer, traveling east on the Gold Road toward a place in the Weald by the unfortunate name of the Inn of Ill Omen.
Cheydinhal; Hearthfire 10, 3E411
Lily crouched beneath an overhang of the chapel of Arkay in the city of Cheydinhal. The meager outcropping of the roof, so far above her, provided little reprieve from the sheets of rain that bathed the city and set its streets awash. Pressing her back against the cold stone of the chapel wall, she crossed her arms over her chest, wrapping her long fingers around her shoulders. The weight of the heavy black cotton-and-leather combat suit she had acquired nearly a month ago, as a reward for her first assassination for the Dark Brotherhood and the Night Mother, kept her insulated from the winds, but did little to ward off the bone-chill of the wet Valus night.
Contemplatively, Lily gazed to the south, where the flickering street-lamps afforded her only the barest view of the misleadingly broken-down shack that housed the Brotherhood Sanctuary. The boarded windows and crumbling gate-wall were all the protection necessary, she mused, to keep the house's secrets safe. No one would step foot in the house, with its long history of rumors, from hauntings to Daedric cults to secret societies’ meetings. Lily smirked. Sometimes the best protection was the simple truth.
Morose, Lily turned away from the Sanctuary and resumed her unseen vigil. It was the second night of the week, and the man who had inducted her into his family of killers would be along at any time. He visited Cheydinhal every week, to inform the Sanctuary’s matron, a slippery and unfriendly Argonian named Ocheeva, of whom the Night Mother had chosen to die that week.
Minutes passed, and she shivered again, pulling her knees in tighter to her chest. She was fairly certain Lucien knew of her private sentry, and she could have sworn he had looked directly at her hiding spot the week prior, before continuing on. She didn’t mind. Far better a failure to acknowledge her private worship of this ivory statue of a man, who so richly embodied the Death she had come to revere, than his kind but disapprovingly firm rejection of the service the other Murderers in the guild so vocally offered. If Lucien had need of her, she knew, he would command it, and she would obey without question.
Besides... Lily glanced back at the Sanctuary again with a thought of foreboding. That vampire had been setting her on edge.
Vicente Valtieri, she mused. His smile was too gentle, the creases around his eyes too sincere, and the pale, blood-streaked organs themselves gazed at her too steadily for her comfort. More and more, she found, she was seeking sanctuary outside the Sanctuary – the outdoors, with its penchant for sunlight, was one place the unnervingly familiar vampire could not follow her. She suspected he wanted to turn her into one of his kind, and Lily... was fond of life.
It had been half a year since the dark Speaker had extended her an invitation into his family of killers. In that time, Lily had killed more frequently and more viciously than she had since before her expulsion from her homeland. She killed traitors, liars, deceivers, thieves, adulterers, and the terminally immoral. Her heart quivered with joy every time she drew back her bowstring, and her tense fingers on the shafts of her daggers tingled with anticipation of the righteous vindication that would follow.
She had found herself, Lily knew. Her purpose; that to which she had been born. She had played at vindictive execution before, but in every instance, it had been her own, imperfect judgment that had led to the death sentence. Never the thrill of ecstasy she now drew from carrying out a divine being’s sacred orders.
For that was what the Dark Brotherhood was, Lily had learned. It was not a club of murderers. It was not a haven for homicidal maniacs. It was a solemn following of the Night Mother, and of the Dread Father Sithis, two of the true gods of Tamriel. Primordial; entropic, the gods ordered the world as they willed, and in their service, Lily had found her calling.
The heavy gate to Cheydinhal did not open, but Lily sensed an arrival. She strained her eyes to see the almost-outlines of the invisible black robe, which she knew had just come over the city wall. Every combat reflex she had ever refined flared up – her breath stilled as she opened her jaw a bit to enhance her hearing, and she focused her eyes on the stationary post of a nearby home to allow her peripheral to alert her of any movement.
Nothing came. Lily’s eyes tracked from left to right soundlessly, and not a fiber of her being twitched in her tense vigil. As she silently exhaled the breath she had been holding, she glanced over to the door of the Sanctuary, wondering whether she had missed him.
And then, in a silent flurry of motion, a leather-gloved hand clamped like a vise over Lily’s mouth. Her feet were kicked out from under her, and she felt herself being dragged backward, out of sight of the guards that stood perennial watch at the city gate. A sharp pain speared her neck, and the last thing to go through her mind before her consciousness washed away was that her attacker smelled strongly of smoke, sweat, and blood.
Fort Farragut; Hearthfire 11, 3E411
Lily awoke in stages, drifting back to consciousness sense by sense.
The first thing she noticed was the cold. She felt colder than she had been during any winter she had weathered in Valenwood, but it was not the sort of cold brought on by a blast of winter wind. She had the sensation of being tightly bundled up, but even the wrappings around her did nothing to ward off the chill that permeated her body. Next, she became aware of a hard surface pressing against her back. It was brutal but flat, pressing into her shoulderblades, hipbones, and the back of her head, and Lily dimly associated it with the cold flowing into her bones.
Lily regressed a step down the ladder of wakefulness and basked in half-conscious delirium for a moment before foggily realizing a sound was assaulting her ears. Arrhythmic and insistent, it shortly resolved itself into the scratching of a pen across rough paper. As she listened, she heard the scrawling pause, and there came a tinkling sound as the pen's owner tapped the nib against the vial of ink. The scribbling resumed, and Lily, resolving to open her eyes, slowly became aware of her surroundings. A far wall held a torch she could not see, casting shadows dancing over the flagstones of a hall that looked not unlike the older forts scattered around Cyrodiil. Her peripheral was blocked by the stiff folds of the dark hood she had been wearing in Cheydinhal, when she had ---
Lily's breath caught as her last memories caught up with her. Sharply she felt the bruises on her knees where she had landed on the stone terracing outside the Chapel of Arkay as her assailant swept her feet out from under her, the dull pain from the muscles she had pulled trying to defend herself, and the residual agony in her neck where her assailant's hand had jabbed into a vital pressure point, sending her into a blissful swirl of darkness. She writhed, making to spring up and draw her knife, but the motion was over before it started - tight cords bound her wrists, knees, ankles, and torso. Twisting defiantly on the stone slab, she looked toward the source of the earlier quill-scratching, which had abruptly ceased -- and froze.
Seated at a wooden writing desk and wearing an uncharacteristically colorful pair of dark green pants and loosely tied white chemise, was Lucien Lachance.
He regarded Lily with a measured expression before breaking the silence, methodically lowering his quill to the desk. "It's about time you woke up, Murderer."
It was a moment before Lily remembered to breathe. "S... Speaker," she gasped through burning lungs, lowering her eyes to the floor.
Lucien stood and crossed the room, light footfalls resounding on the heavy flagstones. He bent and placed a finger under Lily’s chin, directing her gaze upward. The torchlight behind him seemed to set his ash-brown hair ablaze, and for a moment, Lily reflected on how normal-looking the shadowy man really was. His features were nondescript, at best, and his coloring average, even for a human. As he was, dressed in civilian clothing, Lily herself would not have given him a second look if they had met on the street.
She shivered, realizing that the Speaker probably cultivated that impression meticulously. A total lack of memorable qualities simultaneously made one difficult for a witness to describe and impossible for authorities to trace.
"It’s dangerous for little girls to be out alone after dark," he intoned, breaking into her thoughts. "Especially this near to the Morrowind border. You never know who might be prowling around, looking for an easy target."
Lily bristled inwardly. Little girl? Easy target?
Lucien ran a finger down Lily’s jaw, tracing the bruise on her neck. "Forgive me, little shadow. I jest." Lily winced at the nickname, wondering whether it was an innocent play on the normally tenebrous traditional language of the Brotherhood, or something more familiar... and insidious.
Lucien smirked then, and poked at the bruised pressure point again, sending a flash of pain through Lily’s mind. Spots swam before her eyes, and she fought for the control to remain silent.
"In fact, you weren’t such an easy target at all. I myself might never have noticed you, if I didn’t know where to look," he continued. "You might be wondering why I brought you here," he said, taking a step back. "You have been making impressive progress, turning a few heads, as it were." He smirked again, showing more teeth than Lily thought absolutely necessary. "In fact, unless I’m mistaken, you’ve attracted your own... business, haven’t you?"
The measured cadence of Lucien’s words was unmistakable. Lily swallowed dryly, her mind racing with the memory of the offer the Sanctuary matron, Ocheeva, had made to her just a week prior. A "private contract", she’d called it, and one that Lily’s "fellow Murderers need know nothing about".
To Lily, it had sounded like a revenge job, rather than the Dread Father’s sacred decree. Quite aside from the questionable reliability of the source and the patent occlusion of the whole story, something in the back of her mind, that night at the Sanctuary, had told her to politely decline.
"I refused the contract," Lily whispered between suddenly dry lips. "Only Sithis sits in judgment on mor-" the thought ended abruptly, as Lucien savagely backhanded her across the face. Before her vision cleared, he had wrapped one large hand around her throat and half-lifted her from the stone slab.
"You refused the contract!" he barked; face inches from Lily’s own. "And as a result, the traitor Ocheeva’s damnable soul was laid bare to Sithis! Our Dread Father instructed our Mother, who informed the Listener, who came to me." Lucien’s expression changed fluidly from furious to ecstatic, and he abruptly dropped Lily back to the stone platform. She winced as she landed hard on her tailbone, and barely managed to keep her head from cracking back against the hard stone.
Lucien began to pace, gesturing grandly. "Your devotion has been noticed by the Dread Father himself, my little shadow! Such a thing does not go unrewarded! You are to be commended, little shadow, and have been charged with an honor and granted a boon!"
Lucien gazed at her expectantly. Lily, unsure of quite how to respond, ventured, "What is the honor with which I am charged?"
Lucien beamed. "The death of Ocheeva, of course! The Night Mother has selected her soul for the harvest, and upon hearing the circumstances of how such a treacherous heart was plucked out of hiding, the Listener has commanded that I myself see to the execution. But no, my little shadow... it is you who will hunt her and send her to the Mother and the Father. You, who will see the fear in her eyes and still the last writhes of her worthless, pitiful husk!"
Lily, for whom the trauma, pain, and shock of the last twelve hours had been nearly too much, was at a loss for words. Finally, she managed to echo the traditional vow of acceptance, which she had heard Ocheeva say to Lucien on many an occasion. "As... as the Black Hand wills, and the Dark Union directs, my Speaker."
The corners of Lucien’s eyes narrowed, and his smile faded to a smirk again. "Then go with Sithis, little shadow."
Lily allowed herself three full breaths’ time of assurance that Lucien expected her to simply leave before meekly offering, "Might you... cut my bonds, first, Speaker?" She nodded toward the tight, rough ropes binding her ankles, knees, wrists, elbows, and chest. Lucien, who had been in the act of turning away when she spoke up, glanced back over his shoulder. His profile was perfectly silhouetted in the light of the torch on the far wall, reminding Lily just how cruel his features could be.
"Yes... I think I might, at that." Lucien’s voice, joyous and fatherly just moments before, had dropped like a stone to a pitch that was nothing short of sinister. He turned, and in his hand was a short ebony dagger, similar to Lily’s own. She had never seen his before, but she knew from talking to the other Murderers in the Brotherhood that each recruit was issued his or her own dagger upon entering the Brotherhood. It was an enchanted thing, uniform in blade and tang, but whose gold overlays would magically evolve a little every time the blade was used to kill. In a few years’ time, each blade was completely unique – a work of art commissioned by the Night Mother and created by the dark arts of the Dread Father – and a miniature, personalized reflection of the killer whose hand it called home.
Lucien’s was intricate and twisted, indicating thousands of lives taken over decades of service to the Dark Union. As he loosely held it in his fingertips, Lily was able to see the hilt. Her eyes widened as she realized that it was covered in minuscule, razor-thin spirals of jagged gold, which no doubt pierced into its wielder’s palm every time he used it to take a life. Lily glanced back up at the Speaker’s face, and realized that the fury and pride in his eyes had distorted themselves into a pure, maniacal fire.
He reached down to her waistband, drawing her own ebony dagger from its sheath at her side. Deftly flipping it in the air, he caught it by the blade and examined the gold tracing.
"Mmm. Meticulous, methodical... my little shadow, you take more pleasure in the hunt than in the kill, do you not?" Lily nodded. "Of course. And you prefer to send them directly to the Mother, rather than letting them see who it was that sent them, or know how they were sent." She nodded again.
His voice took on a harsher edge. "But, Murderer, a part of our calling is to enjoy the last moments of the hunt, to allow the prey to look into our eyes and despair. It is on this, the primal fear and release of hope, the knowledge that death is imminent, that the Wrath of Sithis subsists. To be helpless, stripped of all possibility of escape... this is what the Dread Father and the Night Mother desire for the children they cull."
In a motion as fast as a crack of lightning, Lucien hurled a bolt of dark magic at the single torch in the room, extinguishing it in an instant. A residual limning of bluish light allowed Lily’s adjusting eyes only the barest of warnings before Lucien moved again, and when Lily’s consciousness caught up with her, her dagger and Lucien’s were crossed, in his hands, on either side of her face.
A trickle of blood crept down each cheek, and Lily was motionless. Were he to strike again, she would not afford the chance that he might miss. He won’t kill me, Lily thought, trying to swallow back panic. He’s just given me a commission. That can’t have been all a lie...
Slowly the blades drew back, and she heard a wet slinking of metal on metal as her bloody dagger slipped into the sheath at her belt. Lucien strode to the foot of the slab and lowered his dagger, tapping the toe of her left softboot.
"And now, my little shadow... I’m going to show you that fear."
Lily gasped as the black blade drove into the soft underside of her foot. A moment later, a matching incision appeared in her right foot. Then a pair of slices through the rough black fabric that covered her left ankle and an identical set on her right. She set her teeth as the blade tore through the flesh of her calves and knees, reducing her clothing to ribbons. By the time Lucien’s blade was dancing up her thighs, she was whimpering a little with every cleave, and as he carved a sick imitation of a ritual magic circle into the flesh of her torso, her head had begun to swim.
Lucien’s face was above hers, then, and his dagger slivered the skin on her arms. The last thing she saw before the darkness took her was his eyes, fierce and alight with a purging fire, and her own terror, reflected in them.
Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary; Hearthfire 13, 3E411
Lily fought her way back to consciousness for the second time in a week that was quickly slipping away. Like the last time, she noticed the cold first.
Unlike the last time, she realized, she wasn't wearing any clothes.
Lily stirred, opening one eye a crack and groaning at the hazy light. How long have I been asleep? she wondered. Making another valiant effort to open her eyes, she turned her head to the side she hoped was away from the source of the light, and was rewarded with a jolt of searing pain along her throat. She gasped, reactively reaching for her neck with both hands, and tiny bonfires lit up all along both arms. Bringing a hand to her face, she realized that the flesh of her arms was decorated with a system of intricate spirals and words in the Daedric alphabet, all meticulously applied and all, now, due to her sudden movements, seeping scarlet.
"By the Mother...!" There came a clatter of vials from somewhere near her feet, and every fine hair on the back of Lily's neck stood up as the familiar voice of her least favorite Breton rang out around her.
"You're awake? You're awake! You mustn't move, little one, not a bit! You'll open your wounds again!" The coven's resident vampire, Vicente Valtieri, fussed loudly while gently pressing her arms back to her sides. Lily struggled in response, panicked at the thought of being exposed before the man who'd followed her so closely in recent weeks. His strength prevailed, though, and the little floodgates of agony opening all over her exposed flesh quickly eroded her ability to fight back.
"Don't touch me," she hissed through clenched teeth. "Leave me alone."
"Nonsense," he said, dismissively. "Your scrapes aren't bad, but they're legion. You'll lie right there until they heal." He uncorked one of the bottles he had placed at her feet and daubed a bit of its contents on a clean rag. "I've already cleaned these once today," he continued, his voice softening. "Don't make me do it again, I beg of you."
As the pale-faced man bent to his task, swabbing her bleeding limbs with an antiseptic that both stung and chilled, Lily felt a little of her revulsion melt. By the time he had started on her second arm, she had managed to mentally trudge through her pain-muddled thoughts to find a reason for her extraordinarily blurred vision and dulled senses.
"You - ah - you drugged me," Lily gasped, through a particularly painful moment of his ministrations. Vicente raised an eyebrow, not bothering to conceal the apologetic expression he wore.
"You were unconscious when you arrived, dear one," he responded gently. "But if I hadn't administered some kind of sedative, you would have been awake and delirious with pain through the worst of it."
Lily's back stiffened again at the vampire's term of familiarity, but she pushed the ire down. "How...long have I been asleep?" she asked, wincing.
Vicente’s eyes were apologetic as he glanced up at her. "Nearly two days and nights, I’m afraid," he responded. "In any event, I’m surprised you’ve woken already. You lost quite more blood than I think our Speaker intended."
"Is that so?" Lily bristled, an edge of frightened anger creeping into her voice. "That wouldn’t have anything to do with being surrendered to a bloodsucking monster while unconscious, I’m sure?"
For a moment, Vicente looked as though he were about to snap a sharp answer back at her. Then, very slowly, he lowered his gaze to her naked leg, and resumed patting at her wounds with the antiseptic. When he spoke, his voice was soft, tight, and unlike any tone, Lily had heard the vampire use before.
"Our illustrious Speaker dropped you off on the steps of the coven after a rough trip on horseback from his lair. Even if it were just your lacerations to worry about, you would have been in quite a bad way upon your arrival. The trauma incurred by his rather…" A muscle in Vicente’s cheek tightened. "…turbulent treatment of your injured person had plucked you from the clutches of mere danger and placed you near death."
He straightened, pouring more antiseptic onto a clean cloth and moving around her to begin work on her right leg. His back and neck were uncharacteristically rigid. "I am, I think it is safe to claim, the member of the coven who knows most intimately how much blood a being can lose and still awaken, given enough time."
He was silent for a while, and then looked back up at Lily with an expression that masked any underlying emotion. "I was also the only one who volunteered to care for you," he finished, quietly, "when you were in desperate need."
Stunned into silence by the vampire’s uncharacteristically taciturn response, it was a moment before Lily, in a very small voice, apologized.
Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary; Hearthfire 15, 3E411
Frustrated, Lily tossed the scrap of parchment away with a flick of her wrist – one of the only parts of her body that didn't ache when she moved it. It was no good, she mused, to review contract notes for murder targets while she couldn't even don her clothing without assistance, much less wield a weapon or stalk a victim.
She slouched in the stone chair, and then straightened, immediately regretting the action. The arcane circle Lucien had carved into the flesh of her belly four days earlier was still tender enough to cause searing pain at even the slightest of movements. Gently lifting the white linen sheet that had served as a makeshift robe for her slowly healing body, she carefully inspected the wound. Vicente would be angry if it had reopened.
Vicente had been angry a lot recently, she reflected. His face, usually filled with such an unsettling cheer, had resolved itself into a stony glare over the past few days. He sat scowling into his alchemical vials while the rest of the coven busied itself with preparing to meet the Speaker every evening; he frowned at the door until Lucien invariably shoved it open to visit the victim of his play and Vicente's work; and glowered at Lucien's back as the handsome Imperial roughly fingered the twin scars on Lily's cheekbones, causing the blood to flow freely again as often as not.
Lucien's attention, though, had put off more people than just the vampire. Even the other members of the coven had become standoffish. Throughout Lily's ordeal, her sole visitor had been Vasha, the only other Bosmer under Ocheeva's rule.
The grinding screech of the heavy stone door snapped Lily out of her reverie. As though summoned by Lily's thoughts, Vasha herself appeared in the entryway.
She was not pretty by Imperial standards, but Bosmer found her fascinating to look at. She stood nearly a head taller than Lily, almost on a par with human height. The diminutive Bosmer, a race stunted by centuries of the Green Pact, found Vasha nearly Amazonian in stature and color. Vasha's flesh, as dark as that of most Redguards, and her shiny jet tresses set her apart to others of her race, anthropological scholars, and a small sect of priests. The highly superstitious elves had long held black hair (as they did varying shades of eye color, ear length, and straightness of the teeth) to be an ill omen. Born, as they were, with predominantly tawny shades of hair, punctuated by the occasional red or chestnut, young Bosmer learned quickly to ostracize their dark-haired fellows.
Lily had never said anything about Vasha's hair, and Vasha had refrained from commenting on Lily's eyes. Lily felt the situation to be acceptable.
"Feeling better?" Vasha asked, brightly. Lily made a noncommittal noise, and Vasha sat down on a nearby chair. The dark-haired elf reached out and tugged aside the strip of linen covering Lily's shoulder, inspecting the pattern of scars on her chest.
"They look red again. They're so expertly done," she said, her voice hushed. She traced one of the lines, and Lily hissed, resisting the urge to bat the offending finger away. "Sorry," Vasha apologized. "It's unusual, him going to such pains for such a low-ranked member," she continued. Before Lily could question her word choice (Pains?), Vasha went on. "The others – the coven, I mean – I think they're a bit jealous."
Lily didn't say anything. She'd have been jealous of herself, too, had their places been reversed. Being the pet project of the Speaker was a position to be envied, even if it meant wounds – or scars. Vasha brushed aside the locks of hair that hung over Lily's face and gazed at the diagonal scar that dominated her cheekbone.
"Is it true he reopens them every night?" she asked, reaching up to touch her own cheek in a gesture of appreciation.
Vicente hadn't left Lily unattended since her return to the coven, but the vampire had ways of making himself so unobtrusive that Lily frequently forgot he was there. Now, he looked up from his desk, where he had silently been attending to his correspondence, with an angry frown. His gruff voice, from a recess in the stone cavern, made Vasha jump.
"One or the other of them manages to, it seems, whether from her clumsiness and refusal to stay put, or his gross misuse of a Speaker's power for carnal pleasure."
Vasha spun around to stare at Vicente, shocked. Her training in the coven had taught her that no one spoke ill of the Speaker. Lily, though, had seen the unliving Vicente do so on many occasions. He was, perhaps, the only member of the coven from whom Lucien had anything to fear. Certainly the vampire showed no unease around the Speaker, even if he did display a somewhat forced veneer of formality when the latter was present.
Vasha, on the other hand, appeared to have at least as great a fear of Vicente as she had of Lucien. After a pregnant silence just long enough to be awkward, she mumbled an excuse about forgetting to meet Antoinetta for sparring and slipped out the door. Vicente stared after her with a half-smirk almost reminiscent of his old humour.
Lily twisted in her seat, ignoring the flash of pain and the spreading red spot under her left breast.
"What in the name of Sithis is it that compels you to do that, you repulsive old leech?" she hissed, finally allowing the frustration of the past week to spill over into her words.
Vicente glanced at her in surprise and queried mildly, "Do what?" Then, just as mildly: "You're bleeding again."
"Do what?" Lily repeated, mockingly. "Drive off every person who tries to show me the slightest attention. Insult and glare and pout and-"
Vicente cut her off. "My dear, I believe you must be tired. I have driven off no one."
"You did, just now, with what you said about the Speaker," Lily argued.
"The abnormally thin skin of those you choose as companions is really no concern of mine," the vampire retorted, making sure to flash his fangs as he spoke. "Now, please lie down, my dear -"
"Stop calling me that!" Lily snapped. "I'm not your 'dear', I never have been, and I never will -" Lily faltered, looking down at her ankles, which suddenly felt inexplicably warm and wet.
That's... a lot of blood, she thought, as her eyes rolled back.
"- or you'll faint for certain," finished Vicente, who had raced across the room just in time to prevent Lily's head from colliding with the stone slab. Laying her out on the cold surface, he stripped off his outer coat and set about staunching the flow of blood once again.
Bruma; Sun's Dusk 2, 3E412
Lily crouched in the snow behind the enormous Bruma mansion. Large enough to house a family, the house boasted the double-thick stonework and carved slabs of lumber so favored by the inhabitants of Skyrim. Even the baublewebs, bits of colored glass and beads woven into hemp latticework and hung at each rafter fascia, were as fine as any to be found in Riften, and seemed to laugh at the fierce eddies of snow that whipped around them. But no family of Nords lived here.
Lily glanced to her left, where her dark-haired companion sat pressed against the house's foundation, eking out a meager protection against the early Sun's Dusk blizzard. Despite being barely the end of autumn in other parts of Cyrodiil, in Bruma it was always winter. In truth, Vasha's golden scaled armor, despite its quilted padding beneath, was likely a good deal colder than Lily's sinuous black leather jumpsuit. Besides, the grey-eyed elf had had the sense to don a thick woolen robe before venturing into Bruma's frigid night.
"Are we about ready, then?" Vasha's voice was strained, and Lily caught a chatter of teeth. Murmuring a negative, she pointed to the cellar door beneath Vasha's feet.
"He's only come in the once," she replied. "Have to wait for the return."
Vasha nodded, easing her feet out from under herself. "Can't believe you'd sit out here for a week before the job." She added an expletive in their native language, and their eyes met. Then both girls snickered upon the realization that the literal translation of the common Valenwood epithet was "snow-season". Lily rubbed her forehead, still smiling, thinking to herself that Vasha's ten winters in Cyrodiil should outweigh Lily's two, but Lorkhan only knew wood elves came thin-skinned - and, for all Vasha's muttering, mostly impatient. Part of Lily - no doubt the part that had sent her leaping through Valenwood's tallest branches in order to take suthay-raht encampments "by surprise" - marveled, too, at the restraint she had developed in the past half-year.
The inhabitants of the house behind them were a sole Bosmer man and his Orcish servant. Vicente, who had taken interim control of the Sanctuary after Ocheeva's mysterious disappearance some weeks past, had given her the contract on this Baenlin's life almost a fortnight ago, and Lily had devoted an unusual amount of time to tracking the man's routine. She knew that he dined every night at seven sharp, and retired soon after. The servant was in the habit of visiting Baenlin's cellar once just before supper, to uncork a bottle of wine, and again afterward to lay out the ingredients for the next day's meals. After that, the orc returned to the kitchen to clean, a project that usually took him some hours, but Baenlin's nighttime activities were unknown to Lily.
Suddenly, four pointed Bosmer ears pricked up at a sound barely audible over the storm. Vasha's eyes met Lily's, and Lily nodded. The servant was back in the basement. Silently, both girls pressed an ear to the heavy wooden door. Minutes later, they were rewarded with the faint clang of the cellar's interior door scraping shut. Mentally, Lily counted to one hundred before slipping a lockpick from the wrappings at her forearm. Vasha watched with interest as Lily gently hassled the lock, and gave an admiring whistle when it clicked open.
"You could join the Thieves with fingers like that," she teased. Lily shushed her.
"Don't even joke about that," Lily said quietly. "You know Vicente-"
"Yes, I know," Vasha dropped her voice to a whisper as Lily painstakingly lifted the heavy cellar door. "Good old Vicente would frown at you wholeheartedly if he thought you were taking things from the people you so graciously kill." She raised her hand to her mouth in a gesture of exaggerated shock. "Why, he might even waggle his finger angrily!"
Lily pursed her lips and dropped into the cellar after Vasha, carefully lowering the door so as to make no indication to the occupants of the house that anything was amiss. "I don't want to talk about this, especially right now," she hissed. "Don't make me sorry I brought you along."
Vasha raised a delicate black eyebrow. The girls, comprising the only Bosmer under Lucien's command in the Cheydinhal sanctuary - and indeed, two of only a few in the entire city, given its proximity to Morrowind - had grown together slowly. Of late, however, they were nearly inseparable. Nearly two months prior, Vasha had invited Lily along on a contract, and the girls had found it so much fun that they made it a tradition. Lily's threats to end that tradition occurred once or twice per contract, so Vasha just grinned. "All right," she conceded, "but you're going to have to talk to me about him sooner or later."
Lily rolled her eyes and crept to the wooden door that led to the interior of the house. "It opens onto the hallway," she said, testing the handle. It would be noisy to open the door, she knew. Vasha guessed Lily's intentions, and moved to help the other wood-elf, slipping her slender fingers under the bottom of the door and lifting with her shoulder. Lily guided the door open just far enough for the two of them to slip in, and Vasha relaxed, panting.
Behind her, Lily was stripping off her thick overcoat, which was just beginning to thaw. Vasha raised an eyebrow as Lily dropped her bow, arrows, and sword atop the pile, leaving only her ebony dagger clipped to her belt.
"You planning to kill him with your dashing good looks?" she whispered. Lily looked up at her, frowning.
"Didn't you read the note I gave you?" Vasha shook her head, and Lily looked dismayed. "It's supposed to look like an accident," she continued, her voice a murmur. "Just... follow me."
Vasha frowned, but slipped out the door behind Lily. The smaller elf made her way soundlessly down the corridor, stopping to peer around the wall before ducking around a corner and tiptoeing up a flight of stairs. Vasha followed her, in hot pursuit, but froze when the toe of her gold-scaled boot scraped across the first step. Lily whirled, dropping her chin to allow her sinuses and throat to open, increasing her hearing, and for a long moment the girls remained transfixed on the staircase, ready to flee at any indication that they had been discovered. When no sounds of alarm were forthcoming from the house's residents, they moved on, more carefully this time.
At the top of the stairs, Lily crept into an alcove that led to what appeared to be a bedroom. Beckoning Vasha over, Lily put her shoulder against a wood panel in the wall and gently shoved it backward to reveal a tiny crawlspace, just big enough for the two of them. The girls wedged themselves in, and Vasha helped Lily shove the panel back into place.
"So what's this about an accident?" Vasha queried in a barely audible voice. Their heads were nearly touching, and Lily hardly had to breathe to be heard.
"The kill has to look like a complete accident. Lu-" Lily broke off, thinking of the other coven members' animosity toward her because of the Speaker's obvious favoritism, and then sighed, rolling her eyes. "Lucien told me the contract was put out by the orc's wife. She wants him to come home, to tend to her and their children, but he's indebted to this Baenlin character - literally, and in his own estimation of his honor - and the terms of that debt are servitude until death."
Vasha nodded. "The orc's, or Baenlin's. And the orc would never forgive himself if he thought he'd let someone murder his master right under his nose." Lily murmured an assent, and then peered through a peephole in the paneling. "So how are you going to do this?" Vasha pressed.
"I'm not sure yet, honestly," Lily admitted. "Strangling him will leave a mark, and if we try to pad the neck, we risk him making noise. And if they look closely, they'll still see it. Weapons are obviously out, and poison..." She trailed off.
"Poison could work, but we'd have to get the food," Vasha supplied. "And I guess the servant dying as well is out of the question."
"More or less," Lily replied. They crouched in silence, each thinking hard about a way to set up an accidental death. Minutes passed, and the girls were aware of voices coming from downstairs. Lily couldn't make out what they were saying, but Vasha pressed her ear to the wall.
"The servant - Grom? - is going to bed." Vasha looked worried. "That means Baenlin can't be too far behind..."
"No, his light goes out after midnight," Lily reassured her. "We've a couple of hours."
As Lily lowered her chin to rest on her knees, Vasha shifted uncomfortably, creating some distance between herself and Lily. Crouching in such a small space after being out in the cold so long didn't agree with the elf, and she was rather starting to wish she hadn't come along. Idly, she picked at what looked like a bit of hempen rope protruding from a crack in the wallboards, hoping to distract herself from her physical discomfort so that she could think properly.
The rope didn't give. After a few minutes of picking at it, Vasha frowned, and then glanced at Lily. The blonde Bosmer seemed lost in thought, and simply sat motionless in the cramped crawlspace. But for the slight rise and fall of her chest, and the sound of her breath - barely audible even a foot away - the grey-eyed assassin could have been carved of ice.
That's Lily for you, she thought to herself. Cold as stone, that one. Minutes passed, and Vasha continued to fidget with the rope. She, like most of the Sanctuary, had been surprised when Lucien had started showing unnatural favoritism toward Lily. Slowly, though, it had dawned on them why he found her so captivating. She was silent most of the time - never questioning orders, never boasting about her kills - and those haunted grey eyes seemed to see everything and judge nothing. And as the weeks passed, Vasha realized that Lily's own infatuation with the Speaker had nothing to do with his chiseled features and everything to do with his dedication to the cause of the Brotherhood. Silent, perceptive, talented, and worshipful - exactly the sort of servant Lucien required. Vasha had heard Ocheeva, the recent nest-mother of the Sanctuary, wondering whether Lucien meant to leapfrog the girl into his position on the Black Hand when his time came - a position Ocheeva had begun to think of as her own.
Vasha exhaled. Not that it mattered. Ocheeva had disappeared weeks ago, and though nobody spoke of it openly, the members of the coven were all fairly certain Lucien had set his pet on her. Vasha would have put good gold on the guess that Lily's black dagger sported a new Argonian-shaped growth.
Vasha pulled out her own ebony knife, pausing a moment to look at the gold lacework on its handle. Wild spirals chased each other up and down the hilt, so intertwined with each other that they looked as though they were moving. Vasha had seen Lily's dagger, and knew that it belied Lily's precise, methodical approach to killing. She almost felt embarrassed of her own knife, sometimes, with its haphazard, disorganized tracings. She knew it spoke volumes about her own style of hunting - she flew by the seat of her pants so often that the leader of the Anvil coven had once asked her cruelly whether it was Sithis she followed, or Sheogorath.
Suddenly angry with Lucien, herself, all black and gold daggers, and the only two Bosmer alive who didn't seem to mind the cold, the dark wood-elf savagely pushed the blade of her knife into the rope, hoping to wedge off a piece of it to fidget with. Lily's eyes came alive, and she opened her mouth to berate Vasha for the noise.
Later, looking back on that moment, Vasha would reflect that her intent was certainly not to sever the old rope completely, and she never anticipated the loud crash from the sitting-room below, nor the grunt that ended abruptly, wafting through the newly created hole in the wall. Least of all did she expect the orcish howl of anguish as the servant, awakened by the clamor, discovered his master in a heap before his favorite chair. Baenlin had been killed instantly by a blow to the head from an enormous hunting trophy... lately held in its place over the sitting-room by a length of old hempen rope.
West Weald; Second Seed 22, 3E413
Vasha rocked back and forth on the saddle, trying to work some feeling back into her legs. Her chestnut gelding complained noisily at her movements, trotting a few steps to shake her up. Horses! she thought, acidly. Just ahead, Lily perched effortlessly atop a gorgeous blue-black mare; a recent gift from Lucien, if the crusted blood in the shape of a hand on the mare's rump was any indication. The mare looked back at the gelding's whinny, glaring disapprovingly from crimson eyes. There was something of magicka about this horse, Vasha knew - its hooves flew faster than the wind when Lily gave the mare her head.
Right now, though, Vasha was tired of all horses, and wished only to be at the end of their journey. A week or so past, she had accepted a contract that took her just past the border of Valenwood, and had hurriedly extended an invitation to her friend, who no doubt missed the trees of her homeland.
Vasha had been shocked at the way Lily's usually-shrouded grey eyes lit up with fury at the offer. The blonde elf hadn't even dignified her with a response, and Vasha had persisted with questions, risking Lucien's wrath, until Lily finally snapped. Turning on her heel, Lily had caught Vasha by the neck, dragging her into a sideroom in the Sanctuary. The following flurry of Bosmeri had been sharper than any knife, and by the time Lily had finished telling Vasha precisely why she had no interest in an offer to return to Valenwood, Vasha had been thoroughly terrified.
So, in a frightened babble, she had offered to travel with Lily as far as an inn near the border, and return for her after the job had been finished. She had half expected those grey eyes to be the last thing she saw before a black blade flashed across her throat, but Lily's expression had softened. Lily had requested that she extend her trip into the forest by a couple of days to deliver a letter to an elf in Arenthia, and Vasha had, of course, agreed.
And then these damned horses had to come in and ruin what should have been a nice trip home. We can't take them past the border anyway, she thought. At least it's only a day or so away...
The dark-haired elf kicked at the sides of the gelding. Still walking, he turned a lazy eye back toward her. Frowning, she kicked again. He turned his head away, and after just long enough to make a point, cantered a few steps forward to bring her parallel with Lily's mare.
"Want to stay at an inn tonight?" Vasha called brightly. "I know of a little place just a few hours out from the border. We could finish the ride tomorrow!" She mentally crossed her fingers - Lily had already vetoed the idea of extending their trip by a day, but you never knew what a day of riding could do to someone's willpower. Lily didn't respond, her eyes steady on the southern horizon. Vasha knew that the great forests of Valenwood wouldn't be visible for hours yet, but that didn't seem to lessen her friend's resolve.
Lily had been unnaturally quiet throughout the journey - quiet even for Lily. Vasha had seen her fingering the parchment envelope, sealed with Vicente's blood-red wax. Sometimes, at night, when Lily didn't think Vasha was looking, Vasha would see her simply staring at the ancient star-symbol painted onto the front of the envelope with a thick calligraphy brush. Vasha thought she had seen something like it before, but couldn't recall what it meant. The one time she had asked, the warning in Lily's eyes had been enough to talk Vasha out of her curiosity.
Vasha mused. The girls had been friends for months now; together more often than alone, and yet she knew next to nothing about Lily's past. The little she had learned that day in the Sanctuary - that Lily had been exiled - did less to answer questions than to raise them. She didn't dare ask the reason for Lily's exile, though the question burned in her mind. The primary confusion in Vasha's thought process stemmed from Lily's age. The girl wasn't even old enough to have committed any willful crime severe enough to warrant expulsion from the homeland - and certainly not any crime severe enough for a magistrate worth his salt to expel such a talented archer. Vasha herself was more than twice Lily's age; sixty-two and in the prime of her life for at least another century. Lily couldn't have been a day older than thirty - barely past adolescence by Bosmeri standards. Theft simply wasn't a crime in Valenwood, and young elves weren't held responsible for murders or even violations of the sacred Green Pact until they reached maturity - around fifty years of age.
Lily finally stirred, clearing her throat with a hiss. The girl spent such long periods of time silent that she frequently needed to prepare her voice for use, or risk embarassing squeaks. "When you reach Arenthia, take the south road out of the town and travel on it for about two hours. You'll see an eastward path about then - no other roads branch from there, so you can't get lost - and you'll take that for another hour. Ornilomea is a tiny township there."
Vasha nodded. "And who do I give the letter to?"
Lily was silent for a long moment. "Ask the people there for Maredhel. Go wherever you need to go to deliver it to her directly. Don't give it to her relatives, or show anyone the envelope." She looked over at Vasha, studying her. "And don't mention me."
"Of course," Vasha replied, hurt. "I'm not a complete dunce."
"We'll see," said Lily darkly.
Some hours later, the sun had dipped into the west and Masser had begun its ascent into the eastern sky. The elves stood at the border of the great forest of Valenwood, as far as Lily would go toward her home. The blonde elf slipped delicately from the saddle and began removing the mare's tack.
Vasha, on the other hand, almost fell out of her saddle. She had to sit on the ground for a few minutes while Lily hobbled her gelding, just massaging her aching legs. She got the idea that the gelding found something humorous about the whole situation, and shook her head at him threateningly. As Lily began to make a fire, Vasha strode around the clearing a few times. When she could feel her toes again, she came back to the horses and lifted a satchel from the gelding's back. Lily sat staring into the nascent flames, gently poking them with a twig, her eyes dull.
Sitting down next to Lily, Vasha took a calculated risk and placed a gentle hand on her friend's shoulder. Lily didn't react. After a silence, Vasha asked, "So... who was Maredhel? A friend?"
Lily blinked into the flames, her shoulders relaxing a bit. "Not really. I didn't... know her all that well." She shook her hair out of her eyes. "But I've needed to tell her something for a while now, and this seems like my chance.
Vasha let the silence linger for a moment. "Would you... like me to ask her to come back with me? To see you, I mean?"
"No." Lily's response was instantaneous and final. "In fact, if she volunteers to come with you, I trust you haven't lost the forestry abilities needed to lose her." Vasha nodded an assent, pushing down the prickle of irritation at the insinuation. Lily stood, then, and dug the wax-sealed envelope from her mare's saddlebag. "Maredhel will know if it's been opened, and she's got permission to kill you if it has."
"I think you're bluffing." Vasha laughed.
Lily held her gaze. "One way to find out."
Vasha held up her hands. "Okay, tiger." She put the envelope into her satchel and strapped her boots tight. "Anything else?"
Lily looked into the fire. "I know you have a target out there, but if Maredhel is hurt as a result of any of your actions..." She trailed off.
Vasha nodded solemnly. "I understand." She turned around, surveying the black forest. So many beings in Tamriel feared those huge trees, their fifty-yard heights only a tiny taste of the gigantic boles deeper in the forest, but to Vasha - and undoubtedly to Lily - they looked like home. She smiled, thinking of the hunt ahead, and looked back down at Lily. "Goodbye, then," she offered, not really expecting a response.
"Good luck," Lily replied. Her friend, who had already begun to stride off into the forest, turned in surprise. Lily met her eyes. "And... thank you."
Vasha just grinned, nodding her head. As she turned away a third time, she caught a whiff of their four-legged companions, and was doubly pleased to be leaving them behind.
Ornilomea; Second Seed 23, 3E413
The long-legged elf stretched languorously, kicking off the furs that covered her as the morning light seeped through the branches of the roofless Valenwood hide-house, built in the crotch of a tree several hundred feet up. She snuggled deeper into her feather pillow, trying to hide her eyes from the light. A movement to her left brought her fully awake, squinting in the brightness.
Maredhel raised a naked leg and unceremoniously shoved the snoring Bosmer - his hair, red as fruit and stiffened to stand upward in the latest fashion, had looked much nicer last night - out of the bed. He grunted as he hit the tree branch below, but merely curled up in the giant tree's embrace and went on snoring. Maredhel raised herself onto an elbow and groaned, covering her forehead with a slender hand. The hangover would last until noon, at least, she decided.
Pulling herself awkwardly out of bed, she stumbled over to a shard of looking-glass strung up against one of the hide walls by a bit of leather cord. She scrubbed vainly at her face and unruly mop of blonde hair for a minute or two before giving up. Pulling on a suspiciously moist set of leathers - How much dancing did I do last night, anyway?, she stumped through the hide flaps onto the east-facing limb of the great tree.
Surveying the forest below, Maredhel felt a little of her headache drain away. I live in heaven, she told herself, as she did every morning. Hell on every side, and it'll be on us tomorrow, but for now, it's heaven.
She began the descent to the forest floor. She moved slowly at first, so that her hangover-dulled senses wouldn't betray her to a long drop and a quick stop, but as the thick morning air of Valenwood flowed over her, she began to pick up speed. A hundred feet from the ground, she leapt into empty space, catching the familiar branch of a neighboring tree with her deft hands and thick leather gloves, and she used her momentum to swing fully around the branch, landing neatly atop it, where she scaled the gentle slope of the older bole, facefirst, toward the ground.
I live in heaven, she thought again, the hide-house and its sleeping inhabitant forgotten. She couldn't remember his name or how they'd met, and he wouldn't be there when she returned in the evening - with another male, as likely as not - so there was no sense in bothering with silly courtesies. She took off sprinting toward a pristine little pond nearby, intent on washing away the previous night and preparing for the upcoming one. After all, six hundred years is far too short a lifetime to worry about who you're with when you're thirty.
Less than a mile away, another Bosmer awoke in a similar, though empty, bed. The clay-walled inn boasted a roof of hides, but its proprietor had frowned at the dark-skinned elf when she had asked that it be unrolled for her the night before. "It's a spring night," he had grumbled. "Tetcha ex-pats, going native in Cyrodiil." At length, he had agreed to unroll a portion of the skin roof over Vasha's room.
But he had charged her double for the room, she noticed, though she wasn't sure whether it was because of the roof or because of her color. Whether he thought her a halfbreed or not was irrelevant; far preferable, in her mind, for her countrymen to think she had some Redguard blood in her, than the alternative.
Vasha left the room quietly, wearing a simple leather jerkin, finely tanned hose, and crude leather slippers instead of her usual armor. The Bosmer near the border weren't nearly so strict about the Green Pact as their fellows deeper in the forest, but Vasha was acutely aware of the layers of plant-based fabric that pillowed the brassy metal she usually wore for a job. As she entered the common area of the inn, she noticed that behind the bar was an older woman, not the snotty young mer she had met last night. The woman glanced up as she approached.
"Rotmeth?" she queried, reaching for a steaming pitcher.
Vasha blanched. She had forgotten about that. "Just... just a cup of jagga, please." The woman had almost begun to look suspicious, but her pleasant smile returned as she trundled off to fetch the chilled milk wine. Vasha sat down, closing her eyes for a moment. How could you forget that? Ten years, and you forget rotmeth? she berated herself. Every young Bosmer can remember their first experience with the bilious liqueur, and Vasha's was not one she wished to repeat.
When the woman returned, Vasha laid a handful of septims on the bar, enough to cover the charge, tip, and a generous apology for foreign currency. The crone smiled and pocketed them. Change wasn't offered in Valenwood - if you put it down for someone else to pick up, you had no claim on any part of it.
"I need help finding someone," Vasha began pleasantly, with the air of a courier. "I'm passing through on business, but I got roped into delivering a letter for an associate. He spoke of a mer in this town by the name of Maredhel... I don't suppose you'd know her?"
The old woman cackled. "Maredhel? Merry Maredhel? Everyone knows her, girl," she replied, with a sly wink toward the men at the other end of the bar, "some better than others."
Vasha's cultured smile almost faltered. "Merry" Maredhel? She tried to picture Lily - reticent, straight-laced Lily - friends with someone who went by such a description. Still... it's not a terribly uncommon name, but then, it is a rather tiny town... "Do you know where I can find her?"
The woman's grin disappeared. "Depends what it's about. I won't have anyone troubling her. Who is this associate of yours? How does he know her? He'd better not be that sleazy Breton what slipped through here a year back; dear girl, what with her mother gone and father gone off, where does he get the nerve to do some'n like that..."
Vasha interrupted her, grasping for words. "It's... it's nothing like that. He was never... I don't think they ever met but briefly. Friend of a friend kind of thing."
The old woman looked skeptical. "Well... all right, but if I hear differently tonight, you'll catch it from me. Don't think I don't know how to give it out to a young stripling like you, even if you are too tall." She rapped her cane on the bar soundly, eyeing Vasha up and down.
"Tonight?" Vasha paused. "What do you mean, tonight?"
"Tonight! Tonight, last night, tomorrow night, every night." The crone grinned. "Dancing, fire, rotmeth, and all the young men you could ever want to choose from, tall one. Maredhel's in here most every night, the envy of the town. Ah, but I remember those good old days, being young..."
Vasha cut her off again. "So I could just meet her tonight, rather than go off looking for her? I have some business I could attend to today, and I'd much rather put the time to good use."
The crone eyed her, chewing on her bottom lip. "Suppose that means you'll want the roof up again tonight, hm?"
Vasha rolled her eyes. "If it'll make you happy, old woman, I'll sleep under the stars."
Fort Vlastarus; Second Seed 23, 3E413
Lily pursed her lips, squinting in the dank air of the ruined fort. She had woken from nightmares of her last visit to the Valenwood-Elsweyr border and risen with a determination to distract herself until Vasha returned. She had made her way northward to an old fortress about which she had heard some intriguing rumors.
Only partially consciously, Lily touched the scar on her right cheek with the bare fingertips of her arrow-hand. The rumors were true - half a dozen of the undead fiends had already been laid low by her bow and knife. Lily had been bled by one vampire, months ago, and if she wasn't careful now, another might eagerly take the role Vicente had graciously declined to fill.
She gazed down at the cluster of bodies around the fire below. Bodies, not people - though they walked, laughed, and spoke, they didn't breathe.
But they killed.
So we share one thing in common, Lily thought, and leapt.
She landed almost silently behind the body that used to belong to a Dunmer. Her gamble had paid out - the robed one with only a knife at his belt had been some kind of sorcerer. Red and gold lightning crackled over Lily's fingers as her blade passed through the vampire's throat. Disconcertingly, no spray of hot blood followed the magicka discharge from his veins - the blood left in him had congealed and rotted long ago.
His companions had reacted almost before Lily's boots had touched the ground. The body of an Altmer female sprang back, unsheathing a matched set of wickedly curved shortblades. Yelling a curse, she charged Lily, blades a blur of silver.
Lily, with only a dagger in her hands and one eye on the third walking corpse in the room, hesitated for a fraction of a second too long. The left sword clanged harmlessly off the jet blade of her dagger, but the right, wielded with more power and accuracy than its mate, found its mark in Lily's upper arm. She roared in pain, spinning under the Altmer's upraised left arm and plunging her dagger upward into the sensitive flesh connecting arm and torso. A good strike, Lily knew, but not enough - these fiends died much harder than living beings. Still, it was enough to stagger the vampiress for a moment or two while Lily sought the third corpse.
A short human, he had backed into a corner, cowl over his face, while brandishing a longsword and light shield before him. He seemed to be chanting something, and for a moment Lily saw a glimpse of white fangs beneath the hood.
Unable to give more of her attention to the non-immediate threat, Lily spun back to face the Altmer, ducking just in time to dodge a deadly blow from her right-hand sword. The left, Lily was gratified to see, had been discarded, her left arm now too weak to use. Clotted blood seeped from the wound - So she's a young one, then! - and the arm hung limp at her side. As Lily and the Altmer traded blows, Lily was dimly aware of the chanting from the corner growing in volume and cadence. She feinted left one last time, and slipped suddenly within the Altmer's reach, close enough to embrace her if the fancy took her.
An embrace of sorts, at least, she thought. The younger vampire, off-balance and surprised by Lily's invasion into her personal bubble, stumbled backward, her sword arm coming around in a wide arc ... exactly as Lily had anticipated. She caught the vampire's forearm and wrist in a bone-snapping grasp, and twisted the sword hand cruelly. Momentum and a gentle push did the rest. The vampire wheezed, gaping down at her ruined arm and the blackish fluid flowing in lumps down her chest, and died.
And then Lily ran out of time.
The last vampire finished his chanting, and before she could even fully turn to face him, Lily was lost in a world of blazing white. Lightning leapt from her blade to her jewelry to the metal buckles on her armor, and seemed to fill her ears, mouth, and nose like water. She screamed, soundless in the holocaust of her senses, but the onslaught continued. Faintly, Lily was aware of the gold-hilted dagger in her hand, outstretched like a lightning rod toward her attacker, and her grip tightened lest she lose it in an involuntary spasm.
The barrage let up for a moment, and Lily focused seared eyes on the body that had once been a man. Wincing, she took a step forward, but crumpled to one knee, and then forward onto her hands. The thought entered her head that she might die here, on the floor of this ruin, and a multitude of faces flashed through her mind. Then the breath of respite was over. The magicka storm flashed toward her again, and she writhed facedown on the ground. But it had barely begun to crackle over her again when it stopped abruptly.
Through blurry eyes, Lily watched the last vampire in the fort crumple to the ground. Exhausted, she let her head fall forward onto the blessedly cool flagstones of the fort. Presently she heard quiet footfalls, and then a rough hand pressed against her neck. Lily smelled blood, old and new, a sweaty musk that wasn't her own, and the distinct fragrance of cedar smoke. Inside her head, her subconscious strained to place the familiar scent-memory.
With a moan, she lifted her head and opened protesting eyes. The chestnut gaze that shone down on her was unmistakable.
"S-Speaker," Lily gasped.
"Quiet now, my little shadow," came the reply. Then Lucien knelt beside her, drawing her up to rest against him as he bandaged her arm.
"Patriarchs," he murmured quietly. "Clan leaders, and especially old vampires. They know deeper magicka than our paltry Mages' Guild realizes exists. You must be careful, grey one." He brushed a lock of hair out of her face, and chuckled. "Look, my little shadow -" his hand came away wet with living blood. "You opened my gifts again."
Lily tried to laugh, a weak sound. "Tell... Vicente," she managed, and Lucien's roar of laughter filled the fort.
Vasha washed her hands before leaving the victim's home. A short, strapping young Bosmer, with a shock of red hair that stood up like a sheaf of wheat, he was in the running for the easiest kill of her career.
Badly hung over, with a touch of moon-sugar, Vasha guessed. He'd come stumbling through the door at nearly dusk, reeking of yesterday's rotmeth and skooma, and boasting some vicious scrapes on his hands and knees - tree climbing gone awry, she supposed. He'd died soundlessly. The drugs and scrapes would make for an interesting autopsy - If one even occurs, she reminded herself.
As she made her way back to the center of town, Vasha marveled again at how different the border cities had become in just ten short years. Following the Simulacrum, life expectancies and the quality thereof had dramatically declined for the once-noble Bosmer. The War of the Blue Divide and the Five Years' War - the latter of which had been Vasha's personal reason for leaving the province - had left the province stripped and demoralized. Rumors of the return of the Wild Hunt had reached her ears even in Cyrodiil, and the inhabitants of Valenwood seemed to have a fearless, even careless, attitude toward the implications such a rumor held. The inn ahead was no exception. Even a block away, the rowdy noise of the tavern beneath the stars was well audible.
She pushed open the door, reflecting that if she had simply arrived before the wee hours of the morning the night prior, she might have met this Maredhel and be already on her way back to Cyrodiil. She was greeted by a raucous crowd of whirling Bosmer; boy and girl, young and old, all seemed to have a place in the frantic dance.
The bar was a madhouse, but Vasha was gratified to see the old proprietess behind the counter, reaching around and over her sour-faced night attendant as she kept rounds coming for the insistent crowd. The crone recognized her at once and brightened. "Jagga?" she asked, not waiting for Vasha's assent before filling a mug. If the black-haired Bosmer didn't want it, another of them would.
As she pressed the mug into Vasha's hands, she gave a significant glance over to the far corner of the room, where a partially-dressed blonde elf sporting the most impressive pair of legs Vasha had seen in years sat immersed in a cloud of smoke, surrounded by no fewer than ten attractive Bosmer lads.
As she approached, Vasha was assaulted by the unmistakable, heavy smell of moon-sugar, heated to release inhalable fumes. The cloying smoke clung to everything, and nobody in the inn seemed to give any indication that they realized the stuff was illegal by Imperial law. One of the boys next to the girl that Vasha hoped was Maredhel glanced up as she neared the table.
"Hey-hey, darkie, come sit with us for awhile," he jeered, half turning and patting his knee. "Got a seat for you right here, black-hair! Pretty blackbird, come sit!" Vasha ignored him, but as his friends joined in the mocking catcalls, she could feel the points of her ears reddening. The girl still hadn't looked up, nestled as she was on the chest of a well-built youth.
Vasha reached down and tapped the blonde on her exposed shoulder, as the jeering boy next to her turned his pleas to mock dismay. "Excuse me," she said loudly, wondering if the intoxicated girl realized she was about an inch of leather away from being a public exposure. "Are you called Maredhel?"
The girl stirred. "Who wants to know?" she snapped, languidly lowering her shoulders in a pout that indicated she knew precisely how much was on display. She looked up at Vasha...
...and Vasha found herself staring down into a very familar pair of steel-grey eyes, bordered by an identical pair of delicate cheekbones, fine eyebrows, and petite, slightly upturned nose.
Speechless, Vasha could only blink in amazement while the girl cursed her in heavily accented Bosmeri. Lily?! she thought, dumbstruck. Then her eyes fastened on the short hair, the voluptuous curves more at home in a negligee than armor, and the perfectly smooth, unmarked cheeks and chest - no sign of the scars Lucien had put there months ago.
Somewhere Vasha found her voice. "You...are you Maredhel?" she repeated, stupidly. What a question, her mind admonished her. The girl rolled her eyes.
"Yes, for the tenth time. What the tetch do you want?" She looked annoyed, and the boys around her sympathetically continued their harassment of the newcomer.
"I...You...I need you to come with me. Outside. Need to speak to you alone." Vasha mentally cursed herself for her lack of verbal acumen.
The blonde looked even more irritated. "Sure, I'm not doing anything right now. In fact, I was hoping someone would come along with something stupid to take away all my boredom." The boys laughed appreciatively, and Maredhel lay back across the laps of several of the most attractive of them. "Go on out there and wait, I'll be out when I'm done."
Vasha had almost fully returned to herself, but the idea of arguing with someone who looked so much like her dangerous friend was nibbling at her. Still, nothing ventured... She unsheathed her sword and put the tip of it through a couple of inches of table, on a level with Maredhel's eyes.
Those grey eyes widened, then, and the table abruptly fell silent. For all their bravado, it seemed that Maredhel didn't keep the bravest of fighters as her companions.
"I said," Vasha repeated, straightening her back and allowing her full height to lend authority to her words, "that I need to speak to you outside. Now."
Maredhel blinked, and was standing up a second later, tugging the leather cords of her top back onto her shoulders. She was out of the room in a flash, and Vasha tugged the sword out of the table and followed. The little knot in their corner had sobered up quickly.
Hope they didn't pay too much for that skooma, she thought as she left the tavern.