I cursed silently as Antoinetta regretfully shook her head. "Almost, Sister, but not quite. Try again."
For the past week and a half I had been training, mostly with her, sometimes with Telaendril who had once taken me out in the forest to hunt. I had discovered that the young Breton was quite a good, albeit rather strict, teacher. As soon as we had entered the training area, the carefree, chattering girl had vanished and the coldly efficient killer had emerged. It had been somewhat startling to witness this abrupt change in her demeanour, even though I had been expecting something along the line. If Antoinetta had really been as straw-headed as she sometimes appeared, she would hardly have been a member of this particular family.
Most of my new Brothers and Sisters, in fact, had this characteristic trait. Almost all of them showed more or less prominent sociopathic tendencies, but towards each other, they were warm and affectionate. This was of course the way the Brotherhood worked: it took in the outcasts, the unwanted, and gave them a home, a purpose and, above all, a sense of belonging. In return, it got their unconditional loyalty. A very simple principle really, but one that had worked quite well over the centuries.
I had become aware of all this during my first day in the Sanctuary, but I found that I did not really mind. Most people would have found the discrepancy in my brethren's behaviour disturbing, but I have made my views on most people sufficiently clear by this point and will not repeat them. In fact, I felt quite at home among the assassins, even though I privately thought that at least Antoinetta was more than a little mad. However, she was good company, though her incessant chatter sometimes got on my nerves.
Right now, however, she was very quiet and focused. When I had, somewhat hesitantly, asked her to practise with me, she had agreed enthusiastically, and she took her duties as a teacher very seriously. At her encouraging nod, I walked back to the start of our improvised training route and got ready to begin again.
"Very nice", she congratulated me a few minutes later, when I had finally managed to navigate the entire distance without a sound. I leaned against the wall, feeling exhausted. We had been at this since shortly after dawn, and it was now well past noon.
"I'm hungry", Antoinetta declared. "Let's go get something to eat, shall we? We can continue after lunch."
I nodded gratefully, and we were just about to leave when the large door crashed open and M'raaj-Dar stomped in, appearing even more disgruntled than usual. He looked around, then glared at me.
"You, whelp. Vicente wants to see you. Don't know why he sent me to tell you, but you'd better hurry." Without waiting for an answer he turned and left, visibly indignant at being reduced to errand-boy to me, of all people.
"So much for lunch", I stated drily, not deigning to comment on his rudeness. I suspected that Vicente's original request had been rather less urgent than the Khajjit had made it sound, but since I could not be sure, I decided to seek out the vampire at once. Being engrossed in my training sessions, I had not seen him for several days, and to my surprise I was actually looking forward to speaking to him again.
"I'll try to save some of the roast venison for you", Antoinetta promised. "Gogron's away on a contract, so it might even work."
I thanked her and went to see Vicente. Like last time, he was waiting for me in his room. He greeted me warmly when I entered and waved me towards the armchair.
"You look tired", he remarked after he had seated himself opposite me. "Is everything all right?"
I nodded, feeling strangely touched by his concern. "I have been in the training room with Antoinetta since before sunrise", I explained.
He smiled. "That incident on the pirate ship is still eating at you, then? Well, I can offer you a chance to prove yourself that it was a one time slip."
"Another contract?" I asked interestedly.
He nodded. "Indeed, and one that will require stealth and subtlety. As I said, the perfect opportunity to test your newly honed skills."
I leaned back in the armchair and silently waited for him to continue. Old habits die hard. He gave me an amused look and went on: "We need you to stage an accident. Kill the target in the manner specified, and you'll receive a considerable bonus."
Vicente paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. "The target is a Wood Elf named Baenlin. You will find him at his home in Bruma. Enter secretly, and avoid his manservant, Gromm.
"As I said, our client wants this to look like an accident, and we have been given very detailed instructions on how this accident is supposed to occur. Baenlin, it appears, is a man of regular habits. He usually spends his evenings reading in his armchair by the fireplace. Mounted above this armchair is a stuffed Minotaur head. The thing is heavy enough to kill a man should it fall down on him, and it will be your job to make this happen.
"If Baenlin is eliminated in any other manner, or if the manservant Gromm is killed, you will forfeit the bonus."
"How much time do I have?" I asked. I had never been to Bruma before and figured that it would take me a while to learn my way around the town.
"As much as you need. Discretion is more important than speed in this case."
I nodded. "Then I will leave tomorrow morning. I need this afternoon to prepare."
"That will be soon enough", he assured me. "Do you need anything from me?" When I shook my head, he smiled at me. "Safe travels, then, and may Sithis be with you. I shall expect you when you return."
I took this as a request to leave and did so, making my way to the living quarters in the hope of finally getting some lunch.
In the dining area, I found Antoinetta, Teinaava and Telaendril still at the table. Antoinetta pushed a plate of roast venison and vegetables towards me, which I gratefully attacked at once.
"So, was it really that urgent?" the young Breton asked.
I shrugged with my mouth full. Having swallowed, I said, "Not particularly. I will be leaving tomorrow morning. To Bruma, this time."
Telaendril shuddered. "Pack warm clothes", she advised. "Bruma lies high in the mountains, there is always snow there. And the people... well, let's say they take a bit of getting used to."
"Nords", Antoinetta added, as if that explained everything. "Bruma is closer to Skyrim than to the Heartlands, and it shows."
I shrugged again, not particularly concerned. "I am not planning on settling down there. I will do my job and be back home in a couple of days, I think."
"What is the job?" Teinaava asked curiously. I explained.
"Ah, one of those", he nodded knowingly when I had finished. I shot him a questioning look over my rapidly emptying plate. "Well, think", he said. "From what Vicente told you, who would you say our client is?"
I put my knife and fork down and frowned in thought. "It must be someone who knows the mark and his habits well", I ventured. "Someone close to him, or they could not have given such detailed instructions." The Argonian nodded encouragingly. "Also, my guess is that the client stands to gain considerably from Baenlin's demise, but only if no shadow of suspicion falls on them. All this points to a close relative... Baenlin's heir, or heiress."
"Excellent", Teinaava said. "Our client may inherit even if Baenlin is murdered, unless it can be proved that they are behind it. But it is so much more elegant to arrange things so that murder is not even suspected, don't you think?"
I nodded and resumed eating. "You'll find that assignments of this kind are quite common", Telaendril remarked, twirling the stem of her wine goblet between her long, slender fingers. "The instructions are often less specific than in this case, but some of our clients require the execution of a target by special means. It is usually worth the trouble accommodating them, considering how good the bonuses are." I remembered her discussion with Gogron on this point on the day of my arrival, and smiled inwardly.
"I do not think there will be much trouble", I said confidently. "I will take my time to explore thoroughly before going in. The main point will be to avoid this manservant."
"You'll do fine, I'm sure", Antoinetta said brightly. "And I must be off now. I'll see you when you get back, at the latest." She stood and smiled at me. "Sithis guard you, Sister."
The others also excused themselves, leaving me to eat the rest of my lunch in silence and think about the work ahead. Finally I concluded that I simply did not have enough information to lay out a detailed plan in advance. I would have to travel to Bruma and do some scouting, then things would certainly become clear. Satisfied for the moment, I pushed back my empty plate and went to prepare for the journey.
Late the next morning, I saddled my new horse, silently congratulated myself again on my foresight in acquiring it, and set out for Bruma. I had had a long talk with Ocheeva the previous afternoon, who knew Bruma quite well and had been able to give me some information.
Like most towns and cities in Cyrodiil, Bruma was built around a chapel, in this case, the Great Chapel of Talos. I knew that Talos had once been a mortal man, an ancestor of the recently deceased Emperor, in fact. By some means Tiber Septim had contrived to be elevated to godhood, which of course served the Elder Council and the Septim bloodline as an excellent legitimation of their rule. I did not really care one way or the other, having witnessed my share of "religious experiences" during my youth in Morrowind. The Nine Divines worshipped throughout the Empire seemed to me distant and colourless. Why, if they were indeed gods, they had allowed a mortal to join their ranks was beyond me. For all I knew or cared, it might have been because "Nine Divines" sounded slightly better than "Eight Divines."
The Chapel of Talos in Bruma, Ocheeva had told me, was frequented mostly by Countess Narina Carvain and her household. The Nords who made up most of the town's population did not, to the Countess's chagrin, take their religious duties very seriously.
What they evidently did take seriously, or at least in serious quantities, was the local mead. According to Ocheeva, there were two inns in Bruma, both of which also rented rooms to travellers. There was the Jerall View Inn, a rather high-class establishment which catered mostly to travelling merchants. The other one, Olav's Tap and Tack, was somewhat more "rustic", to use the Argonian's expression, and this was where most of the locals drank. I had instantly decided that Olav's would be a good starting point to get the information I needed.
My plan, as far as I had one, was to get a room in one of the inns and then wander around a bit to get a feeling for the place. It should not be a problem to find Baenlin's house, for Bruma was by no means a large town. I would spend the evening at the tavern, and from there I would just have to see.
The weather was calm and mild, perfect for riding. A high, thin haze obscured the sun, obstinately refusing to be dissipated by the soft breeze. My horse, a good-natured little mare, plodded along placidly, giving her somewhat less than experienced rider no trouble at all.
Around noon I stopped at an inn on the Red Ring Road for a light meal. About a mile beyond the inn lay the fork where the Silver Road branched off to lead north towards the Jerall Mountains. A helpful Imperial Legion Guard, who was having lunch at the inn before continuing his patrol, informed me that the road to the north was clear and the weather likely to hold, so "it should be quite an easy journey, ma'am." I remembered Vicente's advice that I should learn to interact more with people, and decided that this was a good time to practise a little. I chatted some more with the young soldier and finally thanked him for his help with the most dazzling smile I could muster, which for some reason made him blush violently. Feeling quite proud of myself, I set off again.
A few miles onto the Silver Road I had to stop and unpack my newly bought fur-lined woolen cloak. The air was beginning to get decidedly chilly as the road wound its way in serpentines up the mountains. The vegetation around me was beginning to change, too: the lush grasslands of the area around Lake Rumare were giving way to low shrubs, pines and firs replaced the oaks and beeches of the lowlands. As I climbed higher, there were patches of snow on the ground here and there, and the wind picked up, making me snuggle gratefully into my warm cloak.
I encountered nobody during the last few hours of my journey. The only living things I saw beside myself and my faithful mare were a couple of deer which immediately fled when I approached, and a rather huge brown bear, which fortunately padded about at a fair distance and did not appear inclined to come any closer.
During the day, the high haze had solidified into an unbroken cover of clouds, and so dusk came early. It had begun to snow lightly by the time I arrived at Bruma's main gate, and despite my warm clothes I was chilled to the bone and looking forward to a warm fire and a hot meal. I left my horse in the care of the competent-looking Nord woman who ran the stable just outside the town walls, inquired for directions and shortly afterwards entered the ornately carved wooden door to the Jerall View Inn.
I had decided to indulge myself and get a room in the better of the two inns, especially after taking a quick look at Olav's, which I thought bore an unfortunate resemblance to my shack in the Imperial City, though the walls appeared a bit sounder. I still had some of the money I had got for the gems from the late Captain Tussaud's booty chest, and twenty-five gold coins bought me a very comfortable room for the night and an excellent stew for supper. I ate slowly, letting the warmth from the fireplace seep through my bones, and finally felt alive again.
After supper, I rather reluctantly donned my cloak and went out once more. By now it was fully dark, and the falling snow made it difficult to see beyond an arm's length. I carefully made my way down the frozen, treacherous stone steps that led down from the inn to what passed for Bruma's main street. Minutes later, I found myself in the taproom of Olav's.
The difference between this establishment and the inn I had just left could hardly have been greater. Olav's Tap and Tack was a squat little house, built from wood and dry stone like most houses in Bruma, but without the ornate carvings which adorned most of the other buildings. Its interior reminded me a little of the Inn of Ill Omen, but where the latter had been shabby from neglect, Olav's was worn with use. About a dozen patrons occupied the rough tables, and the noise they made was astonishing.
"Now, here's a pretty one", boomed a stentorian voice, easily carrying above the din. "Greetings, traveller! What can I get you?"
The voice belonged to one of the biggest men I had ever seen. He was more than a head taller than I, and at least twice as wide. His muscles bulged beneath his simple linen shirt, and blue eyes twinkled merrily beneath a shock of coppery hair. He eyed me critically when I ordered some ale, but declined his offer of food. "You're a pretty enough lass, but way too thin. Sure you don't want any of my stew?"
I assured him that I had already eaten, and he finally agreed to bring me my drink. I found a place at a very small table in a corner, and after removing my cloak managed to insinuate myself into the narrow gap between it and the wall to sit on the only free chair left in the room. The red-haired giant, whom I assumed to be Olav, brought me my ale, inquired again whether I really wanted nothing to eat, and encouraged me to give him a shout should I change my mind. "Your first time in Bruma?" he asked sympathetically when I flinched at a particularly loud bellow from one of the other tables.
I nodded, making sure to smile shyly. "Is there going to be a fight?" I asked with, I hoped, a convincing measure of anxiety.
"Shouldn't think so", Olav reassured me. "That's just Honmund, he gets a little noisy when he's in his cups. Since there are none of the Countess's people around, there shouldn't be a problem." Seeing my slightly puzzled expression, he explained: "Honmund lives with Alga, the Bard, in the old Nord way. Meaning they're not married in the sense the Chapel priests approve of. That apparently scandalises some of the Nibeneans up in the castle to no end, and Honmund loves picking a fight with them." I could not have cared less about Honmund's private life, but remembering that some reaction was expected, I made sure to mould my features into a properly shocked expression.
Olav regarded me with something like disappointment. "So you're one of them Chapel-going folks, too?"
"I am really here to pray at the Chapel of Talos", I said as if confiding a secret. "You see, my brother, he is a scout in the Legion. He is being sent away to Morrowind, and I vowed to make a pilgrimage to Talos's altar to pray for his safety."
Olav shrugged noncommittally. "Can't hurt", he said tolerantly. "Anyway, as long as you're not trying to preach or anything like that, there won't be trouble." I assured him that I planned nothing of the sort. Olav gave me a cheerful grin and patted my shoulder. "There's a sensible lass", he said. "And see, Honmund's already calmed down again. Anyway, the guy he's been arguing with is his best friend, and he's got a calm head on his shoulders. Not one for brawling, our Gromm."
I managed to contain my sudden interest at this piece of information. Raising my mug of ale to my lips, I unobtrusively sneaked a glance at the man Honmund was drinking with. Gromm sat with his face turned halfway in my direction, so I got a good look at his features.
Baenlin's manservant had a broad, rather nondescript face, with low brows and narrow eyes. His hair was surprisingly dark for a Nord, and even seated he looked tall. From where I was sitting, I could not hear his voice, for unlike his companion, he was not shouting. I put my mug down and returned my attention to the innkeeper, who fortunately was called away at that moment by another patron. Settling back against the wall, I started to think.
I had no intention of killing Baenlin tonight. I did not even know yet where he lived, so I resolved to follow Gromm when he left to find this out first. I would use the night to get a look around the house and see whether there was any other means of entrance except the front door. Then I would lay out my plan, and tomorrow evening I would strike, so that I would be able to leave this abysmally cold place the morning after that at the very latest.
I reluctantly concluded that there was a - however small - risk of arousing suspicion if someone noticed me leaving the tavern right after Gromm. I slowly drained my ale, keeping an eye on my mark and finally paid up and left. Outside, I was greeted by a sharp, bitterly cold wind, but at least it had stopped snowing for the moment. The moons were still obscured by clouds, but the large brazier burning near the town gate to keep the guards from freezing to death on duty gave off enough light to see by. I drew my cloak more tightly around me, then slipped into the narrow crevice between two buildings and waited for Gromm.
To my relief, I did not have to wait long. About a quarter of an hour later, Baenlin's servant appeared, swathed in a fur cloak but still recognisable. He looked neither left nor right, but instantly made his way along the main street and past the gate. Quietly, I slipped from my hiding place and followed him at a safe distance.
It turned out that Baenlin's house was just a few minutes' walk from Olav's Tap and Tack. Stomping the snow from his boots, Gromm unlocked the front door and vanished inside.
The windows were tightly shuttered, so I could not see whether there was a light within. Taking a closer look, I quickly ruled out the windows as a means of entrance. The heavy shutters appeared to be secured from the inside, and there was no way I could open them without a lot of noise. Feeling slightly disheartened, I made sure nobody was around to watch me and quickly stepped into the gap between Baenlin's house and the neighbouring one to have a look at the back.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was indeed another entrance. A low wooden door, really more of a hatch set into the wall at an angle, probably led down to the cellar. It was locked, but studying it closely I concluded that the lock was by no means beyond my abilities. I hesitated a moment, then decided not to enter tonight to have a preliminary look around. The risk was too great, besides, I was tired after a day on the road and feared that exhaustion might lead to some stupid mistake. Determined not to make another one of those, I returned to the Jerall View Inn for a warm fire and a good night's rest.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, and by the time I had finished my very substantial breakfast, the sun was shining from a deep blue, cloudless sky.
I stepped outside, and for the first time since my arrival I got a good look at the town. Ocheeva had described it well: all in all, Bruma was, as she had put it, nothing to write home about. Perhaps two dozen houses clustered around the Chapel, overseen by the Countess's castle. Most of the houses sported ornately carved support beams in the typical Nord style, but some, like Olav's tavern, were unadorned. There was a weaponsmith, a general store and a clothing store. The Fighters' and the Mages' Guild both had guildhouses here, and I assumed that being sent to Bruma was not exactly considered a promotion.
I made a round through the town, which did not take very long. The general store, which went by the strange name of Novaroma, was run by an Altmer named Suurootan, who assured me that, despite Bruma's remote location, he was able to provide all the comforts one could get in the Heartlands, and then some. I browsed his inventory, which sadly did not live up to his claims, and left without buying anything.
My visit to the clothes shop, which according to its sign was called Nord Winds, was very short. The proprietor, a young Nord woman named Skjorta, was quite indisposed and certainly not up to the task of dealing with customers. As she put it, "We're Nords. We drink because we're happy. It's only the fat head the next morning that makes us unhappy, and then we have to drink some more to make it go away." I tried my best sympathetic look on her, which in her state was a complete waste of effort, and on my way out closed the door as silently as possible behind me.
Having thus exhausted the local possibilities - the weaponsmith did not really interest me, since I had no need for a new weapon - I remembered the story I had invented to explain the purpose of my visit to Bruma and went to the chapel. At least it was fairly warm inside, which in itself was a small miracle - the large room with its high vaulted ceiling looked quite impossible to heat. I seated myself in one of the pews, bowed my head as if in prayer and for a while simply enjoyed the silence. A cleric bustled about, but respectfully refrained from interrupting my "devotions".
Of course, I was not praying, I was thinking. I would have liked to leave Bruma immediately after the job was done, but that would not be feasible. Even if I left the inn today and hid my horse and belongings outside the town walls, it would be impossible to leave unobtrusively at night. The two gates were the only exits, and the town wall was much too high and steep for me to climb. I reluctantly concluded that my best course of action would indeed be to kill Baenlin, then return to my room to sleep there and leave Bruma early the next morning as if nothing had happened.
I spent about two hours in the chapel, then returned to the inn for lunch and some rest. The afternoon was blessedly quiet and uneventful. I waited until about eight o'clock in the evening, then dressed carefully in my black leathers, covered them with my cloak and left.
The sky was still clear and the moonlight somewhat brighter than I would have liked, but there was no help for it. I passed Baenlin's house and slipped into the shadows at the bend of the street. Keeping close to the city wall, I crept towards the back entrance.
I had underestimated the difficulty of picking a lock while one's fingers are rapidly freezing stiff, but finally I had the door open. Blowing on my hands to get some feeling back into them I quietly entered the cellar.
It was dark down here, of course, but my night vision spell quickly took care of that. As was to be expected, the cellar was used as a storage room, with crates, barrels and cupboards lining the walls. A couple of baskets held apples and various vegetables. Everything was neat and tidy, if a little dusty. Wasting no more time on the contents of Baenlin's pantry, I left my cloak and my wet boots near the entrance, then went up the stairs to the door at the top. I pressed my ear to the rough wood, but could hear nothing.
To my relief, the hinges were well oiled, and the door opened without a sound. I peered through the crack and saw that beyond it a short corridor ran past the living room to a flight of stairs. Low voices were coming from somewhere to my right.
I debated with myself for a moment, then took my carefully saved invisibility potion from my pocket and swallowed it. Feeling more secure now, I stepped forward into the corridor and silently closed the door behind me.
The living room took up most of the house's ground floor. It was dominated by a large fireplace which gave off a welcome warmth. Gromm bustled about the room, apparently tidying it. Near the fireplace, someone was sitting in an armchair, but from my vantage point I could see nothing more than a pair of outstretched legs.
"Would you like some more of the mulled wine, Master Baenlin?" Gromm asked, indicating a pitcher which stood close to the fire.
"That would be nice", the figure in the armchair replied. His voice was that of an old man, but still firm, the voice of a healthy person. I could imagine that this made his heir rather impatient.
While Gromm busied himself with the pitcher, I stepped over to the stairs to get a better look into the room. Now I could see the armchair and, what was more important, the stuffed Minotaur head mounted above it. I could not see exactly how it was fastened, but it seemed that two sturdy ropes disappeared into a hole in the wall. I decided that it would be a good idea to have a look around upstairs.
Silent as a shadow I mounted the stairs and was well out of sight by the time my potion's effect dissipated. A balcony ran across the entire length of the living room, with a bedroom branching off on either side. I entered the one on the right, which from its simple furnishings I guessed to be Gromm's. Carefully, to avoid any creaking from the floor boards, I moved through the room towards a flimsy wooden screen set into the opposite wall. It moved aside at my touch and revealed a narrow, cobweb-infested crawlspace. At its far end, light shone through a hole in the wall.
This looked promising. I ducked through the low opening and carefully crept towards the hole. When I reached it, I saw at once that this was exactly what I had been looking for: the ropes I had noticed holding the stuffed head were tied to a pair of wooden boards, the fastenings easily within my reach.
I reached for my dagger, then checked myself. If this was to look like an accident, it was not a good idea to cut the ropes. Unlikely as it was, someone might investigate. Carefully, I started picking at the knots, trying to untie them.
I had just opened the first of them and felt the other beginning to slip loose, when a shuffle from below almost made my heart stop. Baenlin was leaving his chair! Already, I could feel the fastenings give way under the weight of the head, and I knew that I could not hold the thing up for any length of time. Desperately grabbing the rope, straining my arms to keep the ugly trophy still, I listened breathlessly.
"Gromm, do you happen to know where I put the second volume of that treatise?"
"Which one was that, Master?"
"Elderon's work on Dwemer culture", the old man replied. My arms felt like they were being torn from their sockets, and I could feel the rough rope chafing my palms. That they were beginning to get slippery with sweat was not helping either, and I felt the rope slip a fraction of an inch. I gritted my teeth and grabbed it more tightly, praying to whomever would listen that Baenlin finally found his book and returned to his chair.
"Here it is, Master", I was relieved to hear Gromm say. A moment later, the sounds from below indicated that Baenlin was seated in his chair once more. Paper rustled as he opened his book.
I relaxed my grip as I felt the rope slip through my fingers for good. An instant later, a crash resounded through the house, followed by a hoarse, although very short scream. A brief moment of silence, then a desperate wail: "Master? Master Baenlin?!"
I peered through the hole but could not get a good look at what was going on below. Crawling backwards on my hands and knees, I returned to the bedroom, slid the wooden screen back into place and dusted myself off. My hands were raw and stung where the rope had taken the skin off, but there was no help for that now. As quickly as possible, I made my way downstairs.
In the corridor, I saw a visibly distraught Gromm kneeling over a prone figure. The falling head, I noticed, had made quite a mess of Baenlin; there was rather a lot of blood on the floor and even on the walls. It occured to me that I had never really looked at my victim's face, and now it appeared that I never would. Not that it mattered in the least.
Gromm's shoulders were heaving, and the big man was sobbing like a child. From the way he behaved, there could be little doubt that my work here was done. Satisfied that the manservant was quite oblivious to his surroundings, I slipped back into the cellar and from there out into the night.
I slept well that night, again enjoying the comforts of the Jerall View Inn, and the next morning went upstairs for breakfast feeling quite refreshed and eager to be on my way.
The innkeeper awaited me with a large platter of steaming pies, a pot of freshly brewed tea and the latest gossip. As he poured my tea, I was treated to a detailed report on the recent demise of a respected citizen of Bruma, who apparently had met with a tragic accident last night, leaving his devoted servant quite incapacitated with grief. I made the appropriate noises but refused to carry the charade so far as to let the "news" spoil my appetite. I ate with relish, keeping my injured palms out of sight as much as possible, then paid my tab and took my leave.
It was snowing again when I left Bruma, and I was looking forward to getting back to Cheydinhal and its more temperate weather. I stopped only briefly to rest and feed my trusty little mare, and consequently was back at the Sanctuary by mid-afternoon.
With a small sigh of relief I dropped my pack onto my bed, then went to see Vicente. He had clearly been expecting me, for on the table in his room stood a pitcher of wine, a goblet and a plate with fruit, cheese and freshly baked bread. "Welcome home", he smiled and waved me towards the table.
I thanked him and gratefully lowered myself into the armchair. As I reached for an orange, he frowned and caught my hand in his, turning the palm upwards. "What's this? Did anything go wrong?"
I felt a peculiar catch in my throat and had to swallow before I could reply. "A very minor complication", I assured him. "It is nothing, really."
He insisted on seeing my other hand as well and very carefully ran a finger across the chafed palms. His touch was light as a feather and did not hurt at all. In fact, it felt good, and I felt a strange tingling run down my back.
"Unfortunately, I am no healer", he said, releasing my hands. "When we've spoken, go find Telaendril. She has some skill, though she seldom uses it." He smiled wryly. "I won't suggest asking M'raaj-Dar for a potion or an unguent."
I grinned at him and started peeling the orange, wincing slightly as some of the juice dripped onto my raw palms. Wordlessly, he took the fruit from me and peeled it, which left me quite embarrassed.
"Well, tell me how it went", he said, and I did. He finished peeling the orange and handed it to me, and I nibbled at it while I spoke.
As before, he listened without interrupting me. When I had finished, he nodded approvingly. "Very well done", he said. "Our client should be satisfied." He took something from his belt. "You have earned your reward and bonus", he said, pushing a small leather pouch towards me. It jingled slightly. "This is the reward. And here", he laid another object on the table, "is your bonus."
I carefully picked up the item to examine it. It was a dagger, but I had never seen one so unusually shaped. The blade was rather long and slightly curved, the hilt etched with strange, flowing runes. It had almost no crosspiece, instead two hook-like extensions curled upwards parallel to the blade like talons. The blade itself appeared to be steel, but it had an almost liquid, silvery shimmer to it.
"It is called Sufferthorn", Vicente explained. "Its prick is quite deadly, I assure you."
"Thank you", I said, watching the play of the candle light on the polished metal. "I have never seen a weapon like this."
"An elven dagger", he said. "Enchanted to draw an opponent's strength from them, weakening them and making them easy prey."
"How appropriate", I murmured, carefully placing the dagger in my belt and pocketing the pouch which, I suspected, contained coins.
"Isn't it?" He smiled. "Now go, and let Telaendril see to your hands. I expect that you will need them again soon."
I nodded and got to my feet. I would go find my Bosmer Sister as he had advised, and then I needed some time to think. For some reason I could not quite fathom, I was feeling a little bewildered. Strangely enough, when I left his room I caught Vicente looking as though he was as well.