With a sigh I dropped my pack beside my bed and stretched my shoulders. The journey from the coast south of Leyawiin had been long, and its last part had been made particularly unpleasant by a steadily drizzling rain and an unusually cool wind. I wanted a hot bath, something to eat, and my bed, but there was something to be done first. I grabbed the tightly closed leather bag I had secured to the outside of the pack and went to get rid of my proof.
Teinaava's eyes lit up as he saw me approach. "Greetings, Sister. It is good to see you. Did everything go well?"
I handed him the bag. "He is dead."
Eagerly the Argonian untied the string that held the bag closed and slipped its contents onto his hand. "Ah, thank you", he said, admiring the still wetly glistening, bloody heart. "Ocheeva will be pleased to hear that this matter is finally resolved." I was just as glad to be rid of the disgusting trophy, but said nothing. "Did he cause you any trouble?"
I shook my head. "He was half dead by the time I found him. An Argonian assassin got to him first, but was not able to finish him."
Teinaava let the heart slip back into the bag and wiped his bloody hand on the bag's outside. "Thank you again for this, Sister. As I told you, this matter was personal and will not affect your standing in the guild, but nonetheless you have earned a reward. I will bring it to you in a moment."
I nodded, eager to get to my bath and meal. Teinaava excused himself, and I went to prepare some hot water.
Half an hour later I was relaxing in the tub, enjoying the warmth that was seeping into my bones. This had been my first trip to Leyawiin, and while it had been nowhere near as cold as Bruma, I had still decided that Blackwood was not exactly my favourite part of the Empire. Apart from the wet climate and the insects it had been an easy journey, though, and it had made the twins happy.
I had not previously known that it was acceptable to ask other members of the Brotherhood for personal favours, but that was what Teinaava had done about a week ago. He had told me about an Argonian, an old friend of his and Ocheeva's, who had trained with them in their youth. Incidentally, I had learned that he and Ocheeva were really brother and sister, not just in Sithis - in fact, they were twins, or "egg mates", as he had called it. According to him, it was the custom in Black Marsh to present all hatchlings who were born under the sign of the Shadow to the Brotherhood, who then trained them as "Shadowscales": spies and assassins who worked for the Argonian court. Those who survived the training entered the Brotherhood as full members when they came of age.
Teinaava had told me that this friend, who went by the name of Scartail, had decided that he did not want to be an assassin, and had turned renegade. That, of course, was inacceptable both to the Argonian court and to the Dark Brotherhood. Teinaava was sure that the court would send someone to dispose of the renegade, but he had no very high opinion of the potential candidates' skills - quite correctly, as it turned out. Since the Shadowscales have rules similar to our Tenets, which forbid them to directly kill each other, he had asked me to travel to Scartail's last known hiding place and take care of the problem. I did not have any pressing assignment, so I agreed to do him the favour. It turned out that the journey took longer than the actual job - as Teinaava had anticipated, an Argonian killer had found Scartail first, but had failed to dispose of him. Scartail tried to bribe me, promising to tell me where he had hidden all of his gold if I agreed to let him live. However, I had not travelled all the way through the fog and rain just to take his money and let him escape. I finished him off quickly, then searched his campsite and found his "treasure", which had not been hidden that well after all. Finally I took his heart as Teinaava had requested, and returned home.
Slowly I realized that I had almost fallen asleep in the tub, and that the water was getting cooler around me. I decided that I really needed a bite to eat before going to bed, so I dressed and made my way to the kitchen.
In the hall I met Teinaava, who was still looking immensely pleased and who was carrying a parcel under one arm. As he saw me, a toothy grin split his face, and he approached, thrusting the parcel at me.
"Ah, Sister, I was just looking for you. Here, have this for your troubles. I hope it is to your liking."
Before I could answer, the nearby door opened and Vicente appeared. He greeted me with a smile and said, "So you're back. Did everything go well?"
"Yes, thank you", I replied politely, trying to stifle a yawn. "Excuse me, I have just arrived, and I am a little tired."
He waved my apology aside. "It's all right. Go and rest, but please come and see me tomorrow morning. I may have another contract for you."
Teinaava waved cheerfully and excused himself, leaving Vicente and me in the hallway.
"Another contract?" I asked.
The vampire nodded. "I will tell you about it in the morning. You should get some sleep, though, as you'll probably have to leave right after we have spoken."
That sounded interesting. The bath had left me drowsy, however, so I decided to take his advice and get some rest. Falling asleep during his explanations about a contract would have been more than embarrassing, so I bade him good night and went to my bed.
"This is a rather... unusual assignment", Vicente said the next morning as I seated myself opposite him. "To be perfectly honest, I don't know why Lachance accepted it, but accept it he did, and so it has to be taken care of." He sighed. "In Chorrol lives a Breton named François Motierre. He has run into debts, huge debts, and turned to the wrong kind of people to settle them. They became rather impatient when it turned out that he is unable to pay them back as agreed."
I raised an eyebrow. Usually moneylenders had their own enforcers to keep their customers cooperative. They worked a lot cheaper than we did, and for this purpose they were just as effective.
Guessing my thoughts, Vicente shook his head. "No, I'm afraid it's not that simple", he said. "Your task is not to kill Motierre - in fact, he has hired us to keep him alive."
"Do we work as bodyguards now?" I asked drily.
"Not quite", the vampire said. "Motierre is expecting his creditors to send an enforcer to kill him. He wants us to fake his death and help him escape from Chorrol."
I shook my head in disbelief. "This is an unusual contract", Vicente continued. "Motierre had to make a special arrangement with us before it was approved."
"An arrangement?" I asked. The whole business was beginning to sound really strange.
Vicente regarded me sternly. "The Dark Brotherhood is not in the business of staging deaths, no matter how much gold is offered. Sithis demands blood, and blood must be paid. In order to accept the contract, we demanded a life. Motierre offered his mother, and we accepted. Lucien has already taken care of that... detail."
I snorted. "And I am to escort this coward out of the city now?"
Instead of answering, Vicente rose and opened his desk. He took an object from it and put it on the table before me. It was a plain steel dagger in an unadorned, slightly worn sheath.
"This knife has been specially poisoned", he said, returning to his armchair. "You will use it to stage Motierre's death, in the enforcer's presence. Motierre himself will provide more details."
I took the dagger and turned in my hands. It looked completely unremarkable.
"The blade has been coated with a rare poison called Languorwine", the vampire explained. "One drop in a normal human bloodstream will mimic the effects of death immediately. You should also know that there's only enough Languorwine on the blade for this one contract. After Motierre is sliced, the knife will be useless. You will have to get this right at first try." I nodded, carefully putting the dagger away. "Remember, the enforcer must not be killed", he continued. "We need him as a witness. If he cannot tell his employers of Motierre's 'death', the whole scheme will come to nothing."
Vicente placed another item on the table, this one a tiny, tightly stoppered glass vial. "Here is a vial of antidote, which will be used to revive Motierre after you successfully stage his death." I pocketed the vial as well. "He will have locked himself in his house, you'll have to break in. And you should leave immediately, for Motierre expects the enforcer to show up very soon."
I frowned. "Something does not seem right about this whole affair", I said. "Motierre does not have enough money to pay his debts, yet he can afford to hire us?"
Vicente shrugged. "As I said, he owes a very large amount. The people he has been dealing with are not content with partial payments. They want the whole sum - or a life. Since Lachance accepted the contract, though, I assume Motierre had enough left to pay for it."
"Hm." I still did not feel quite at ease. Something was telling me that there was more to this job than I was aware of, but I could not put my finger to it.
Vicente seemed to mistake my silence for nervousness. "Do you wish to reject this assignment?" he inquired somewhat coolly.
I snapped out of my thoughts. "What? Oh, no, of course not. I was just thinking... no, never mind. As you said, I should be leaving at once." I was surprised and also a little angry that he would doubt me like this. Without another word I rose, and with a brief nod at him swept from the room.
"Good morning, Sister! On your way again already?"
Teinaava was standing near the Sanctuary's entrance with Gogron and Telaendril and eyed me curiously as I approached. I quickly told them about my assignment. Gogron groaned. "What? Fake a death? And you can't even kill the enforcer? I don't envy you. But a contract's a contract. Just do what you've got to do."
"The enforcer will not appreciate your little show", Teinaava said. "He'll likely attack you on sight."
I shrugged. "I am not worried about the enforcer", I said negligently. "These street toughs are usually selected for their intimidating size, not for agility and quickness. He will not catch me."
"The timing will be critical", Telaendril mused. "You will have to wait until the enforcer has a good view of what's happening. And of course you must put up a convincing show."
I made a face. "That, Sister, will be the most difficult part of the whole affair. I fear my talents as an actress leave something to be desired. Still, they should be sufficient to fool some bully." I adjusted my pack. "I must hurry now. I shall see you in a few days."
"Sithis protect you", Teinaava said. The others also said their farewells, and I quickly left.
It was late afternoon when I finally reached Chorrol. A thin mist was beginning to creep down from the mountains, veiling the setting sun. I expected to be in time, for the enforcer probably would not try anything in broad daylight. Of course that meant I had to be inside Motierre's mansion by dusk.
As I made my way to the Great Oak near which Motierre had his home, a young man accosted me. His blonde hair was unkempt, his eyes were bloodshot and his simple, blue and green linen tunic was stained and looked like he had slept in it. Even from a few feet away he smelled of stale wine. Swaying slightly, he gestured at me. "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, I've never been to Cheydinhal! I.... oh, hang on. You're someone else." He squinted, and I involuntarily took a step back. "Apologies, my good friend", he slurred. "I mistook you for someone else. Always being asked about it, I am. 'Didn't I see you in Cheydinhal?', they say." He sniffed.
I cursed silently and looked around, but fortunately nobody appeared to pay any attention to us. The last thing I wanted right now was to attract notice. "Listen", I said quietly, intending to chase him off, but he paid me no heed.
"Well I'm sick of it", he continued, his tongue growing even heavier. "Sick and tired, tired and sick. And perhaps a little drunk. But nevermind. You look like the honest sort, so I've a job for you." He nodded at me. "You're going to travel to Cheydinhal, and find out what sort of impostor is trying to besmirch my good name. And you're going to tell him..." He hiccuped. "...You're going to tell him I am quite capable of besmirching my good name on my own. He should cease and desist immediately." He beamed, obviously proud of his resourcefulness. By now his speech was slurred so badly I could barely understand him. I had to get rid of him immediately before someone did notice us after all.
"All right, all right, I will go to Cheydinhal", I hissed. "Now go get a drink, will you? You must be thirsty."
"An excellent idea, my dear!" he exclaimed. "I shall await your return. You'll find me at the Gray Mare." He bowed, nearly falling down in the process, and to my infinite relief staggered away down the street. I sighed and quickly hurried off in the opposite direction.
François Motierre owned a very nice mansion just across Chorrol's Great Oak. Here was the most fashionable part of the town, and from the look of the house Motierre must once have been quite wealthy. Now, however, there were the first signs of neglect on the building as well as in the small front yard.
All the windows were tightly shut, and the door was of course locked, too. It took me about ten seconds to pick the lock and slip inside. I softly closed the door behind me and looked around.
The anteroom I was standing in had once been luxuriously furnished. Now there were clearly some pieces missing - I noticed some lighter spots on the wall were once paintings or tapestries had hung, and an ornately carved and expensively upholstered armchair probably used to be accompanied by a matching table, which was nowhere in sight. A single oil lamp shed a flickering light on my surroundings. I listened closely. Someone was moving in the room next door.
Quietly I stepped through the door. A man was standing near the window, anxiously peering out through a gap in the curtains. He was nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other and quite oblivious to my presence.
I remained where I was and watched him for a while. I could not see his face, but from his stance and bearing I guessed him to be of middle age. He wore his brown hair rather long and was a bit on the portly side - grown soft from an easy life, I guessed. In fact, he looked almost exactly as I had imagined him. He was wringing his hands and muttering something under his breath, and I decided it was time to notify him of my presence.
I took another step into the room, taking care to make a sound. Motierre whirled around and stared at me. When I did not speak and made no move to threaten him, he relaxed a bit and smiled nervously.
"Oh! Well... um, hello." He coughed. "You must be the one Lucien Lachance told me about. I've been expecting you. We haven't got much time, I'm afraid." I just looked at him. "I borrowed quite a bit of gold from some underworld types. I... I missed a payment. Now they don't even want the money. They say I insulted them!" He cast a quick glance towards the window. "They've sent an enforcer to kill me! His name is Hides-His-Heart, and he's on his way here now! That's why I hired you! So you can fake my death!"
"I know all that", I pointed out coldly, unable to fully conceal my dislike of the man. "Get to the point."
He blanched. "Oh! Sorry! Please, I'm sorry! See, when Hides-His-Heart gets here, I'll put on a little act. Then you cut me with the knife, and it looks like I die!" He was speaking very rapidly now. "You must then flee from Chorrol, and Hides-His-Heart must not be killed! That way he can go back and tell his employers I'm dead." He wiped his brow with a handkerchief. "If you wait a day my 'body' should be put on display in the Chapel Undercroft - I have arranged for someone to visit me tomorrow morning, and they will find me. You can come to me then and administer the antidote." He mopped his face again. "Oh, I do hope this works..." he muttered.
Ignoring him, I walked over to the window and peered out. It was slowly getting dark, and the mist I had noticed earlier was solidifying into a thick fog. Good, that would facilitate my escape from the city after the 'murder'. A few people were moving about outside, but none of them came close to Motierre's house. The enforcer's name suggested an Argonian, and there was no lizard in sight. Satisfied, I went back to the door and settled against the wall to wait.
"Um... you look rather young for an assassin", Motierre ventured after a while. "Have you been in this, um, profession long?"
I levelled an expressionless gaze at him. He shrank back. "Oh my, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to insult you... of course, I'm not doubting your abilities, I mean..."
"For Sithis' sake, man, be quiet", I snapped, quickly losing my patience. Motierre flinched as if I had slapped him, and mercifully held his tongue. I have never been fond of small talk even under the best of circumstances, and Motierre was really getting on my nerves. I hoped the enforcer would show up soon - the Languorwine on the blade would put a stop to my client's prattling.
Hides-His-Heart unfortunately did not oblige me. Hours passed while we waited, I motionless by the door, Motierre pacing up and down nervously and gnawing his fingernails. Finally, perhaps half an hour before midnight, a loud rapping sounded from the front door.
"Motierre", a hoarse voice called. "I know you're in there! My employers are most displeased. I'm coming in and you can beg for your life. Not that it will do any good!" The voice laughed.
I do so detest those amateurs who will sacrifice the advantage of stealth just to make an entrance. I drew the poisoned knife from its sheath and readied myself.
The front door opened and a powerfully built Argonian strode in. He wore dark clothes and a patched leather armour. In his hand was a long dagger which looked well used. The enforcer closed the door behind him and approached Motierre, a toothy grin splitting his face. "Motierre! I am here to exact payment, in blood! You will... eh? Who is this?"
Hides-His-Heart had finally noticed me and eyed me suspiciously. "Hired a bodyguard, did you, you coward?"
"Oh my, what am I to do", Motierre lamented, and it was all I could do not to roll my eyes. The man was an even worse actor than I, and that is saying something. He was exaggerating his signs of distress so badly that the enforcer simply had to notice them as fake...
"An underworld enforcer and a Dark Brotherhood assassin both here to kill me!" Motierre wailed on. "Whatever shall I do?"
I ground my teeth in frustration. There was only one way to make the fool shut up before the Argonian caught on...
"The Dark Brotherhood?" The enforcer looked surprised. "Oh, you have been a naughty boy, Motierre, haven't you?" He snarled at me. "Stand aside, assassin! Motierre is mine! My employers demand it!"
I felt that the situation required me to say something suitably dramatic, so I hissed, "Sithis will have his due", and slashed the poisoned dagger at Motierre. He uttered a very satisfying scream of pain and dropped to the ground.
The Argonian stared at the now motionless form for a moment, then howled in frustration. Taking advantage of his surprise, I pushed him aside. In one swift movement, I was past him and at the door. Outside, a thick fog was swirling, making it impossible to see farther than about two paces. Perfect. I dashed outside - and then a searing pain exploded just below my left shoulderblade. I cried out and staggered, but somehow managed to stay on my feet. Blindly, I ran off into the fog, away in the direction where I supposed the town gates to be.
By the time I reached the gate a few minutes later, my shoulder was burning like fire. I felt dizzy and my sight became blurred, and suddenly I realized that whatever had hit me must have been poisoned. I had to get out of the city before I passed out.
As I approached the gate, I could hear voices. Two guards were talking loudly; apparently the shifts were just changing. The men were cursing the fog, complaining that they could hardly see the ground at their feet. A loud creak indicated that the gate was opened, presumably to admit the soldiers on duty in the outer guard house to their post.
This was my chance to slip out of Chorrol unnoticed. It was dark, the fog was thick as a blanket, and what little light the torches gave off was swallowed by it. I drew a deep breath, instantly regretting it as a new bolt of pain shot through me. Then I ran towards the gate as fast as I could, slipping through it just as the two huge wings were swinging shut again.
"Wait, did you see that?" a voice called just to my left.
"See what, in this damned fog?" another one called back, sounding annoyed.
"Yeah, right... just a shadow, I suppose", the first one replied. I stumbled, caught myself, and finally reached the road.
I sagged against a rock, gasping for breath. My lungs were filled with fire, and my shoulder, which had been aflame before, now was curiously numb. The feeling was spreading, and my head felt as if it was stuffed with wool. Slowly it dawned on me that I needed help - the poison was greedily eating its way through my body, and without treatment it was quite possible that I would die before morning. I still did not know what had hit me, but I suspected a throwing knife. The blade still seemed to be lodged in my shoulder, and there was no way for me to get it out.
Almost unable to think clearly, I weighed my options. Going back to Chorrol was out of the question. So, obviously, was hiding in the forest. There was really only one place to go. Suppressing a groan, I pulled myself upright and staggered down the road towards Weynon Priory.
"Who is there?"
An aged Dunmer held a up a lantern as he peered suspiciously through the door.
"Please", I whispered. "Bandits... on the road... I need help..."
By now my sight had grown so dim I could barely see. The walk from Chorrol to the priory usually takes about a quarter of an hour. It had taken me almost an hour to get there, and I was slowly losing my fight for consciousness.
"By Talos..." The Dunmer put down his lantern, opened the door fully and caught me just as I was slipping to the ground. "There, dear... don't you worry, you're safe now. Brother Prior! Brother Prior!" he called as he carried me inside, and then, finally, darkness took me.
I awoke to the singing of birds. A soft breeze touched my cheeks, and light filtered through my closed eyelids. I was lying on my belly on something smooth, and someone was nearby - I could hear the sound of regular breathing.
I felt weak as a kitten and my shoulder hurt like hell, but my head was clear. Opening my eyes took an incredible effort, but finally I managed it.
I was lying between clean linen sheets in a simple bed. Nearby a window was open, and through it I could see the sun, which was quite low - it was either early morning, or approaching sunset, I could not be sure which. I tried to lift my head to see where I was, but the movement sent another jab of pain through me. I groaned softly.
"Oh, you're awake? Praise Talos, we weren't sure..." A round face came into view, regarding me with evident concern. It belonged to a young man in a plain homespun robe, whose tonsure proclaimed him a monk. I blinked at him, and he smiled. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Alive", I croaked. My throat felt like sandpaper.
"Here..." The monk held a cup to my parched lips, and I drank eagerly.
"Thank you", I whispered finally. "How long was I...?"
"Almost a full day", he said. "You arrived some time after midnight last night."
Damn. That meant I had to get out of here as quickly as possible, or Motierre would be buried - which would make administering the antidote somewhat difficult. I tried to sit, but the monk gently pushed me back into the cushions.
"Easy", he said. "Prior Maborel said you shouldn't move too quickly yet."
"My superior", the monk explained. "He extracted that dagger from your back - nasty piece of work, by the way - and he managed to counter the poison. It's a blessing you arrived when you did; Prior Maborel said you wouldn't have lasted much longer."
His words sent a cold feeling down my spine. Had it really been so close? I shivered. The young monk, seeing my reaction, patted my arm reassuringly. "Don't worry, you're out of danger now. Just rest here for a week or two, and you'll be right as rain."
His words banished all contemplations of my mortality from my mind. On no account could I stay here even for a few days.
"I cannot", I said, again struggling to sit. This time I almost managed it. "I must leave today."
He stared at me. "Out of the question", he declared flatly. "You're in no condition to leave your bed, much less this house."
He was right, but I had a contract to fulfil. After our last meeting, I did not want to imagine what Vicente would have to say if I returned to Cheydinhal to confess that, yes, I had staged the murder, but unfortunately Motierre had been buried for real and I had not been able to retrieve him. Unthinkable.
"You do not understand..." I said, thinking fast. "I am a messenger. I bear an important message which must reach its destination by tomorrow morning at the very latest."
"That's no problem", he shrugged. "Just give it to me, and I will send someone to deliver it."
"The message is not written", I countered. "I am to deliver it verbally, and only to its recipient. I am truly sorry, but this is important to my employer."
"More important than your life?" he asked. I shrugged - or tried to, before a sharp pain stopped me. I was fairly certain that dying during an assignment was far more acceptable to Sithis than simply failing. As Vicente had pointed out on an earlier occasion, the Dark Brotherhood had a reputation to maintain.
The monk sighed. "What happened to you, anyway? Eronor said you were talking about bandits when he found you."
I nodded. "They surprised me on the road. I tried to flee, but one of them threw something after me... I guess the fog saved my life, they lost me in it." Rather a weak story, I thought, but it would have to do.
The young Brother seemed satisfied with it, however. "Talos strike those bandits", he muttered. "They have been getting bolder and bolder recently... all the more reason for you to stay here until you're healed. In your present shape you'll stand no chance should you run into another band."
"Believe me, I will take this warning", I assured him grimly. "I will be careful not to run into another band."
He sighed. "You really are determined to go, aren't you? Prior Maborel will have my hide when he returns from Chorrol and finds you gone, but I can't keep you here against your will." He spread his hands in defeat. "Go with Talos' blessing, if you must - and if you're able to."
"Thank you", I said, and as I tried to sit up again I noticed for the first time that I was not wearing my shirt. My shoulder and part of my chest were thickly bandaged, but apart from that there was nothing to cover me. I blushed and drew the sheet up to my chin. "Um... would you please hand me my shirt?"
The monk blushed at least as deeply as I had and did as I had asked. "I, ah, will wait outside while you get dressed", he mumbled, rose from his chair and left rather hastily.
I gritted my teeth and finally managed to sit up. The effort left me slightly breathless, and I found myself wondering how I would manage the trip to Chorrol - not to mention the return journey to Cheydinhal. The first task, however, was to get my shirt on. The monks had cleaned the blood from it as best they could and had even patched the tear the enforcer's knife had left.
With some effort I managed at last to struggle into the garment. I sat up straight and waited for the dizziness to subside. Finally I felt stable enough to try getting to my feet.
It took me another few minutes, but at last I was standing more or less upright. Good. Now for walking... I took a careful step and almost dropped to the floor again. Cursing inwardly I grabbed the bedpost and steadied myself.
Slowly, very slowly, my weak knees regained a bit of their strength. I took a few hesitant steps around the room and finally had to realise that this was as good as it was going to get. I looked around the room one last time, and when my eyes fell on the wardrobe in the corner, an idea crossed my mind.
Opening the wardrobe revealed several plain brown robes like the young monk was wearing. I selected two of them and carefully hid them in my pack. Then I drew a slow breath and hoisted the pack, which fortunately was fairly light, onto my uninjured shoulder.
The weight made me stagger again. I silently prayed to Sithis for strength. Please, do not let me fail at this, I thought. Right now I would have welcomed the feeling of cold detachment I had experienced in the Imperial Prison, but if Sithis chose to help me, this time he had selected a more discreet method.
I steadied myself, and when I finally trusted my legs to carry me at least a few steps, I went to the door.
The young monk stood outside on the staircase's landing, his eyes widening in surprise when he saw me. "You really are a stubborn one, aren't you?" he said. "Well then, if I really can't convince you to stay... may Talos guard you on your way."
I thanked him and even left some gold pieces by way of thanks. He promised to distribute them among the poor. I descended the stairs and finally reached the road. Slowly, I made my way back to Chorrol.
I arrived shortly before the gates were closed for the night. The guards took no notice of me. Unfortunately, the fog had lifted during the day and so far showed no signs of returning. If all went well, though, I would not need it to get myself and Motierre safely out of the town.
When I arrived at the Chapel, it was almost fully dark. The doors, of course, were unlocked as always, and nobody kept me from entering. The interior was deserted, only a few candles were burning, their flames perfectly still in the undisturbed air.
With some difficulty, I set down my pack and removed the two robes. With considerably more difficulty, I put one of them on. Thus attired, I went down the stairs and opened the door to the Undercroft.
Cold, musty air greeted me as I gingerly stepped into the crypt. I had no idea where Motierre's bier might be, so I decided to start in the room to my right and work my way onward from there. I assumed that the recently deceased would be laid out in the front part of the crypt to grant easy access for the mourners, so finding my client should not take too long.
For once, at least, I was lucky: Motierre's bier was indeed standing in the first room I entered. The Breton looked for all the world like a corpse: his face had a waxen pallor, and his limbs were stiff as wood. I approached the bier and drew the vial from my belt. Carefully, I pried open his mouth and let a few drops of the antidote fall between his lips. Then I waited.
A few minutes later, my charge began to stir. He drew a shuddering breath, coughed weakly, and opened his eyes. "Ooh, my head", he groaned.
I gave him a few moments to get his bearings. Finally I grew impatient. "Can you get up?" I asked by way of a greeting.
He slowly set up and stretched his limbs. "Ohhh... I'm a bit stiff, but quite fine otherwise." He looked around. "Ah yes, the Undercroft. My family members are buried here, you know."
Right then I could not have cared less about his family. Instead of replying, I thrust the second monk's robe at him. "Put this on", I instructed him curtly.
He hesitantly took the robe from me. "Um... there is something I may have failed to mention before. My ancestors will see my 'revival' as a desecration of their tomb." Under my cold gaze he finally started putting on the robe while he talked on. "This Undercroft is... well... quite cursed. Any desecration will cause my ancestors to rise from their graves and defend their resting place."
Wonderful. "Are you telling me that we will have to fight our way through a mob of undead?" I asked flatly. He nodded weakly.
"Then get on with it", I snapped. "Perhaps we can get out before..."
I stopped as a foul stench assaulted my nostrils. Motierre's eyes widened in horror as he stared at an alcove at the far end of the room. "Here they come! Oh my, Aunt Margaret! You are looking the worse for wear..."
I turned to see a figure staggering towards us, trailing scraps of a tattered linen sheet. I was rather glad I could not get a good look at it in the gloom - if it looked as bad as it smelled, it would certainly have given me nightmares.
I grabbed Motierre's arm and dragged him towards the door. I was in no condition to fight the zombie, and our only hope was to escape before it reached us. Fortunately the thing was moving rather slowly, for neither my charge nor I were in any shape to run.
We reached the door and I heaved a sigh of relief as it closed behind us. Looking around, I grabbed a wooden plate from a nearby shelf and wedged its rim under the door, hoping to keep it shut long enough for us to make good our escape. I turned to Motierre. "Draw your hood up", I said. "Keep your head down and follow me. Do not speak, and do not start running."
He nodded nervously and did as I had told him. I drew my hood up as well, folded my hands in my sleeves, and together we stepped outside. We slowly walked towards the gate, two monks serenely returning from their prayers. We did not meet anybody on our way to the gate.
"Excuse me, officer", I said meekly to the guard at the gate, while doing my best to make my voice sound deeper. "Would you be so kind as to open the gate and let us out? We are quite late, I am afraid."
"Of course, brother", the guard agreed readily. "There you go." He opened the gate for us.
"Talos bless you", I murmured, then walked out with Motierre on my heels. "Not so fast", I hissed as the Breton started walking more quickly. "They can still see us."
Obediently, he slowed down again. I kept us at this slow pace until we were safely out of sight, hidden by some large rocks and the darkness. I set down my pack and steadied myself against the rock. "Are we... safe?" Motierre asked timidly.
"For now", I told him curtly. "What you make of it is no longer my affair. Our business is concluded."
"Indeed it is", he said, and beamed at me in the darkness. "I will make my way to Anvil and find a ship." Privately, I doubted he would ever make it that far, but as I had said, that was none of my business. I nodded at him and turned to leave.
"You have served me well, assassin", he called after me. "I am in your debt."
That did it. I stopped in my tracks, turned around slowly and gave him an icy look. He must have been able to see it despite the poor light, for he took a step back. "I serve no one but Sithis", I said softly. "Do not get ideas above yourself."
With this I turned again and left him standing there. My shoulder hurt, my head was swimming again, and I wanted nothing more than to get my horse and finally head home.
I do not really know how I managed to make the journey back to Cheydinhal. In my memory, everything is a haze of pain and exhaustion. Had I really been set upon by bandits that night, I probably would have had no chance. Fortunately I met nobody on the road, and my mare was her usual placid self and plodded on with little intervention from me. I arrived in Cheydinhal shortly before dawn and immediately went to give my report to Vicente.
The vampire was of course still up. When I entered his quarters, he looked up with a welcoming smile. Then he sniffed the air, and the smile vanished. "What went wrong?" he asked rather brusquely.
"Yes, and a good morning to you, too", I replied somewhat dourly. "Nothing went wrong. The contract was fulfilled exactly as planned."
At least he had the good grace to look slightly embarrassed. "Forgive me", he said in a slightly strained voice, waving towards my customary armchair, into which I sank gratefully. He sat down opposite me and looked at me closely.
"So, the contract was fulfilled", he said. There was a hard glint to his eyes I had not noticed before. "But I smell blood on you, fresh blood, and I'm almost certain it is yours. So let me ask again: what went wrong?"
In as few words as possible I told him what had happened. He listened in silence. When I had finished, he asked, "You took refuge in the priory?"
"What else was I to do?" I shot back. My shoulder was burning like fire, I was fairly certain that the wound had reopened, and my head was splitting. I badly wanted my bed, and I was in no mood to justify my decision, even to Vicente, who was technically my superior. "That monk as good as told me that the poison on the knife was lethal. I would not have been able to revive Motierre if I had been lying dead in the forest."
He drew a deep breath and I expected him to reprimand me for my harsh words. Instead he said, "You are right, and I apologise again. Go and rest, we will talk more when you are feeling better."
I nodded, and with some effort dragged myself to my feet. Without another word I staggered to the living quarters, where I collapsed face-down on my bed.
I awoke when I felt something tugging at my shirt. I opened my eyes to find Telaendril by my bed. The Bosmer had a plain leather bag with her and was trying to get my shirt off. Groaning softly, I turned around so she might strip the garment over my head. She put it aside, then produced a slender dagger and cut the bandages away. Looking over the wound, she tsked. I slumped back onto the mattress.
"Lie still", Telaendril commanded. "Those monks did a fair job cleaning the wound and getting the poison out, but apparently they don't know a thing about stitching."
I clenched my teeth as she selected a needle and thread from her bag. "How bad is it?" I asked.
"Bad", she replied curtly. "Had you stayed put, as the monks doubtlessly told you, you would have been all right, but when you started moving around, the wound opened again." She had finished threading her needle and set to work. "No wonder Vicente was worried", she added.
"Worried?" I snorted, trying to ignore a new surge of pain and failing badly. "He did not sound worried when I arrived. Annoyed is more like it."
"Worried enough to seek me out immediately after you left and tell me to see you at once", she said, working steadily. "And I know Vicente, he's not easily troubled."
"Whatever", I murmured, suddenly feeling much too tired to care. The contract had been fulfilled, I was safely home again, and for the moment, that was all that mattered. Despite the pain, I closed my eyes, and this time I did not fight as sleep took me.