Vipir arrived home shortly after Rune. And for over fifteen minutes the sounds of his wrath echoed through the Cistern. It had been over five and a half years, but Lydia still recognized those wails. When the sounds died down, the silence seemed to scream back. No one spoke; everyone simply stared—first, toward the room where Vipir had retreated and then back at Lydia.
Finally, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, Elspeth turned to her and asked, “What in Oblivion did you do to that man?”
“I left him in prison,” she replied quietly.
“For a year,” interjected Rune, who had joined the women at the edge of the bridge by Mercer’s desk. “Perhaps somebody should go talk to him,” he suggested, narrowing his gaze toward Lydia.
But she just stood there, staring and biting her lip. She turned to Elspeth, who was furious.
“Why didn’t you just stay in the room?” she demanded. But before Lydia could answer, Elspeth yanked her closer and whispered harshly. “You need to fix this. Did you see how angry the ginger looked? I don’t think they are going to tell us anything now.” She looked back toward the desk where several of the thieves had gathered. They were huddled and talking in hushed tones.
“I’m sorry,” said Lydia. “I just—”
“Don’t apologize to me,” said Elspeth as she pushed Lydia over the bridge. “Go talk to…to whatever his name is.” She stepped back as Lydia walked tentatively forward, but then lunged toward her again and grabbed her arm. “Grovel if you must but…” she paused and glanced across the room. Several of the thieves were looking their way, glowering. “If he tries anything, I will slice him open.” She gave her another light shove. “Now, go!”
Lydia walked slowly over the bridge and around the corner. As she approached the room where Vipir had thrown his tantrum, she stopped and took a deep breath, desperate to quell the anxiety gnawing at her stomach. In the years since she had left Vipir in Falkreath, her anger and grief had given way to guilt. What she had done was not motivated by justice or even to protect her position in Balgruuf’s court. It was vengeance, pure and simple. It was spiteful and malicious and she regretted it. But she never thought she would see him again.
She peered into whatlooked like it had once been a training room. Practice dummies and chests and barrels were overturned; weapons and arrows were strewn everywhere. In the middle of it all was Vipir, sitting cross-legged and resting his elbow on his knee as he held his head in his hand. He looked…gods, she thought, as her heart flipped around in her chest…he looked good, but so weary and distressed. It hurt to think how much she brought that on, just by being here. After several moments, she stepped in and sat on a storage chest just inside the door, one of the few that hadn’t been tossed around during his fit.
“My gods, Lydia.” he said as looked up. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked, his voice a mix of dismay and irritation.
Lydia swallowed hard. “I still owe you a favor,” she replied, stumbling over each word and hoping desperately that some levity would diffuse the tension between them.
Vipir just stared at her blankly before shaking his head and letting out a loud, uncomfortable laugh. “I’m having the worst fucking day,” he said. And it was true. He had taken the new kid up to Ivarstead and when he returned to their meeting place, he was gone. Boti said that she had seen Altmer in dark robes, Justiciars maybe, right around where Etienne should have been waiting. But no one saw them arrive or leave. Vipir felt responsible and rode back to Riften as fast as he could in an utter panic. The last person in the world he expected or wanted to see upon returning to the Cistern was Lydia. “I’m serious,” he said sternly. “Why are you here?”
“I’m here with Elspeth,” she explained. “She needs some information from Brynjolf.”
“Elspeth? Is she your Thane?” he asked sardonically, although he was actually somewhat curious.
“No. She’s a friend,” she explained. “I’ve been helping her with an important task.”
“Good!” he said, smirking. “I hate Thanes. Even more than I hate housecarls.”
That stung, but she had no business being surprised. “I deserve that,” she said, looking down. When she looked up again, she expected to see him seething at her. But he wasn’t. His eyes—those dark, soulful eyes that she once loved—were filled, not with anger but sadness. “Look,” she continued slowly. “Elspeth did some work for your guild—”
“What!” he interrupted “Your friend? Did work for the guild? And you’ve been helping her?” He let out another uneasy laugh. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”
“Rune recognized me even before you arrived,” she continued, ignoring the sarcasm that cut into her heart. “Now it looks like Brynjolf is going to renege on their deal.”
“And what, pray tell, do you want me to do about it?”
“You have every reason to hate me. But please, please don’t take it out on her,” she pleaded. Her voice was so very sad and desperate.
He paused and thought about this. During his incarceration, he had taken all that rage—all the rage he felt toward her and all rage he’d seen in her eyes as she turned away from his cell—and turned it back onto himself. He spent his time in prison mired in self-loathing. He certainly hated her back then.
“You know,” he began, “I used to imagine all the things I would say to you if I saw you again.” He paused, trying to read her face. He always supposed she would be aloof and haughty with him, regretting the intimacy they once had. But she just appeared unhappy, and still rather beautiful, which made him soften—but just a bit. “I don’t hate you Lydia, but it’s really hard to look at you.”
“I didn’t come here to hurt you,” she said quietly.
“Yeah,” he said, letting out a deep breath as he leaned back, “I’m sure you didn’t.”
Lydia was working up the nerve to tell him something and there was a long silence that was surprisingly not nearly as awkward as either expected. “I’m so sorry Vipir,” she said finally. “I should have paid your fine. I never should have left you there.” Her lip was trembling and she had tears in her eyes.
He shook his head. Her apology made him uneasy although he wasn’t sure why. “You didn’t have much of a choice,” he said. He never forgot that she left him in anger, but he had always assumed that helping him would have compromised her position and reputation in Dragonsreach.
“But I did!” she exclaimed. The words came out in a strangled cry as the tears fell and her chin quivered. “Nenya offered to let me pay the fine anonymously. ” Lydia had hoped this confession would lighten the weight that had settled into her chest, but his face had contorted and he looked almost as angry as he did that moment years ago when he realized that she was going leave him to rot in his cell.
“Why are you telling me this now?” he bellowed. On this day, where he felt as though he failed the guild, that he was not worthy of the family that was just outside standing up for him, the truth of why Lydia abandoned him cut deeply. She was not the beautiful and virtuous woman who had once seen something good and worthy in him. She was vindictive and cruel and she left him to rot because he was worthless.
“I thought you deserved the truth,” she sobbed.
“Oh fuck you Lydia!”
“Vipir the Fleet? What sort of a name is that?” Elspeth shook her head. “Did she give him that nickname? No wonder he hates her.” She took another drink of the mead that Rune had poured while he laughed and choked on his. She was irritated and impatient, but was otherwise enjoying her conversation with Rune, who took it upon himself to relay the details of what happened between Lydia and Vipir.
“What about your name?” she asked. “Did your parents call you Rune? Or is that your sneak-thief name?”
“Have no idea what my birth name really is, and I frankly don’t care.” When she raised her eyebrows, he grinned and continued. “Actually, the fisherman who found me, the man I call my father gave it to me. Thought it was fitting I suppose. I never changed it, because it never felt right to do so.”
“Yes, but why Rune?”
“My father told me he found me as a young boy in the wreckage of a ship that sank off of the coast near Solitude. All he found in my pocket was a tiny smooth stone inscribed with some sort of strange runes,” he explained.
“Very interesting,” she replied. “It actually sounds like the masculine version of Runa, my guardian’s name.”
Rune furrowed his brow and looked at her intently. “Wait. Did your parents die in a refugee camp?”
“How did you know that?” Her voice grew suspicious as she sat upright.
“Relax,” he said. “It was the first thing Lydia ever told me. Well, after hello and her name. I remember thinking, that’s a lot of random information.” Rune leaned forward and looked out into the Cistern. “I knew she was trouble. I never said as much though.”
Elspeth rolled her eyes. “I just can’t believe you thought she was involved in thwarting your heist,” she said, smirking. “Lydia is an incredible warrior and she’s smart. But…well, she’s not exactly cunning.”
He nodded his head in agreement. “When Vipir didn’t come back, I thought for sure it was because he went home with her. That failed heist set us way back and it was months before we figured out he wasn’t in Whiterun and was still in Falkreath jail.” Rune shook his head as he pulled his tankard to his face, muttering “Fucking Siddgier” before finishing the last of his mead.
“You know,” she replied, “there is only so much sympathy I can muster for a criminal spending time in prison but Siddgier is a jackass.” The things she knew about the Jarl of Falkreath made her blood boil but she pushed this aside for now. “A year seems excessive, if what you told me is true.”
“Vipir took the fall for everyone,” Rune explained. “It’s not that all the crimes weren’t committed; they were. But he wasn’t responsible for everything. He’s just the one that got caught.”
“And Lydia left him there.” Elspeth let out a long exasperated sigh. “Now the information I need is being held hostage at the whimof a spurned lover. Great.” She was getting angry again.
“I’m sorry,” said Rune. “Something else come up that Vipir feels responsible for and I’m fairly certain Brynjolf doesn’t want to drop a salt pile in that wound by helping Lydia-the-housecarl’s friend.” His emphasis on her name and station betrayed the shared disdain toward Lydia within the guild.
As if on cue, Vipir and Lydia returned. As Rune and Elspeth approached, they both shook their heads. They were both so deliberate, the gesture looked rehearsed. Vipir went to the Ragged Flagon to drink himself into Oblivion while Lydia joined Rune and Elspeth. They looked over at Brynjolf who simply scowled and with a quick jerk of his head, signaled for Rune to escort the women away. Fuck, thought Elspeth. She was livid.
“I made everything worse,” said Lydia. “I wanted to apologize and come clean with him. I feel terrible about this.” She looked absolutely miserable and Elspeth couldn’t bring herself to be angry with her. But she was still furious.
“All right,” said Rune, leading them back toward the kitchen area. “Look, I’ve got to get you two out of here. Go get a room at the Bee and Barb. I’ll talk to Brynjolf in a day or so. Once things settle down around here, I’ll try to get him to come around. He’s not one to renege on a deal—things are just a little, well, insane right now.”
Lydia was nodding in agreement and thanking Rune for his help, but Elspeth wasn’t paying attention. Instead, she was leaning against the wall and reflecting on everything that had brought her to this point. Arcane. Helgen. The College. Ondolemar. She looked around the Cistern and at the thieves who were wandering about, practicing archery, talking with Brynjolf. The Sorcerer’s Bane could devastate this place, she thought. This realization brought her mind into sharp focus. She had to stop acting so fucking powerless, when she had strength and power that these people couldn’t possibly comprehend. She also suddenly realized why Xeri had made such an effort to teach her to remain detached. She scanned the room again and looked back at Rune and Lydia. She knew what she had to do.
“Does that ladder lead out?” she asked, looking toward the back of the kitchen area. “Is it locked?” she continued as he nodded toward her.
“Not from the inside,” he explained, although her sudden curiosity was somewhat confusing. “Look, let’s just get you both out of here.”
Elsepth glanced across the Cistern once more as she stepped to the side and stood in front of him. “Your guild is like a family, right? You mess with one, you mess with everyone.”
“Yes…but Brynjolf’s not unreasonable. In a day or so, I should be able to convince him to come around,” he assured her.
Should. Elspeth needed more than that. “You are a really nice guy, Rune.” She looked carefully him. He had a warm smile and such expressive eyes. Her heart started beating rapidly and her stomach seized up. “I’m sorry,” she said as she pulled back and threw her arm across his face as hard as she could—dragging her bracer against the bone under his eye and his nose. She yanked him down by his armor and kneed him twice, once in his gut and once between his legs, so that he fell to the ground. Then, she stomped on his hand, breaking his fingers, before bringing him up to his knees. Finally, she cast a row of lightening runes on the ground in front of them. Rune howled in pain as she grabbed her dagger and held it under his throat.
“What are you doing?” said Lydia as she readied her axe.
“I am getting what I came here for!”
“You bitch!” A huge blond Nord with red face paint screamed as he charged toward them. He was immediately thrown back by an exploding lighting rune but Elspeth barely noticed as she tossed two perfectly aimed fireballs across the Cistern at a couple more thieves who were readying their bows. The spells she cast were just strong enough to fend them off but not kill them. Not yet.
“Shor’s balls! Stay back!” yelled Brynjolf at the others who came running ready to fight. “She’s a mage, like that blowhard mercenary at the Bee and Barb.” He and Mercer had approached swiftly with their weapons drawn, but stopped with the first lightening explosion.
“Oh I am way more powerful than Marcurio,” she screamed. “Brynjolf, you listen to me. You don’t get to renege on our deal because one of your thieves went to jail five years ago and his lover of a month decided she had better things to do than spring him. Guess what! Thieves go to jail. Court housecarls don’t pay their fines. That’s the way the world works.” She pushed the blade against Rune’s neck and he started whimpering. The dagger was glowing slightly—the lunar forge enchantment was in effect, burning his neck even though she was only lightly digging the blade into his skin.
“Shut up!” she shouted. His cries threatened to break her, which would ruin the whole stunt. She looked back across at the thieves who were standing around, stunned silent. She would have much preferred to assault one of them instead of Rune. They hadn’t shared their mead with her as he had. And their faces were not kind like his.
“Brynjolf, get my information. Now.” She was desperately trying to keep her voice steady. Thalmor and bandits and cave-dwelling mages were easy; it was simply kill or be killed. Never before had she threatened harm when she actually didn’t want to inflict any. She was terrified. Terrified of her cunning and that they would see right through her and soon she would be on the other end of the blade.
“All right!” he said as he left to retrieve the ledger from Mercer’s desk and stormed over, stopping just short of a lightning rune.
“Turn the page down and toss the book to Lydia,” Elspeth ordered. Lydia caught the book and brought it over. Next to Birkir Wartooth’s name were property details for a location she didn’t recognize.
Lydia shrugged and scribbled the location on a scrap of paper from her satchel. “We’ll ask the scout with the caravan right outside town,” she said as she dropped the book and stuffed the paper into the pocket inside her armor.
“Get out of my Cistern,” yelled Mercer. “And don’t let me ever see your face here again.”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” Elspeth promised as she and Lydia backed away, still dragging a groaning Rune along on his knees. Lydia opened the trap door and quickly scaled the ladder.
Elspeth sheathed her dagger and grabbed Rune’s broken hand. “What the fuck are you doing?” he croaked. She winced when he turned his head and looked up at her. His eye was swollen shut and she was fairly certain his nose was broken.
“A thief needs his hands,” she explained as she applied a healing spell to the fingers she had broken. When she was done she shoved him away—his pained and confused expression was too much to bear—and followed Lydia up the ladder and out to the graveyard.
“Well, would you look at that!” exclaimed Lydia as she exited the monument with the single stone coffin. “That’s why they were in the cemetery.” She grunted and shook her head. “We need to leave Riften right now. Who knows what one of those thieves will try after they’ve had too much to drink tonight. We’ll restock with the caravan and camp on the way.”
“All right,” agreed Elspeth, still somewhat shaken by her burst of violence.
After procuring supplies and directions from the caravan, they walked for an hour or so before camping although they did not feel much like sleeping. By morning, neither was particularly well rested and so they ambled along. Soon, they saw a house in the distance right where Zaynabi, the caravan’s scout said it would be.
Elspeth stopped for a moment and just stared. “There it is,” she said.
“Are you nervous?” Lydia asked.
“Oh, you know she’s not going to be there right? Whoever is in there is going to tell us that Elrindir has been hiding Nerussa in the basement of the Drunken Huntsman this entire time.”
They approached cautiously. The house was set in a cluster of trees, at the end of a path flanked by an outcropping of rocks. Elspeth heard a snap and whipped around. But before she could even put her hand to the hilt of her sword, she heard a light thud and felt a sharp pain in her left leg. “Gah!” she said as she leaned in to Lydia. “Arrow.”
Lydia readied her axe and helped Elspeth to the ground. “Are you okay?” she asked as she looked around, trying to find where the arrow came from. She couldn’t see anyone. “Heal up and we’ll knock. I can’t see anything.”
“It doesn’t hurt,” Elspeth replied. She couldn’t get the healing spell focused because her leg was going numb. Everything was going numb. “I can’t feel anything,” she said, as the sensation in her limbs began to fade. Her tongue felt thick and she could see a haze of grey and black cloud her vision. “Lyd….p-p-oison,” she burbled as she slumped over.
“Elspeth!” Lydia dropped to her knees and began frantically searching their satchels for a cure poison potion.
“There is nothing you can give her that will help.”
Lydia jumped up with her axe and looked at the tall, dark haired Nord who was now standing in front of her. Lydia hadn’t even heard him approach. Just as she raised her arm, she heard another voice from behind. “I don’t think so,” it said. Someone held a sword to the back of her head. It was a woman, a tall red-haired Nord.
“I designed that poison and there is only one antidote.” He patted the pocket of his armor.
“Give it here!” screamed Lydia.
“Why should I?” he asked. “You are trespassing on my property.”
“We didn’t come here to hurt anyone,” she explained, her voice shaking with sheer panic. “We’re just looking for Nerussa!”
“I don’t know any Nerussa,” he said. “Tell me what you are doing here and—”
The door to the house opened and a tall Altmer woman came rushing out. “What is going on out here?” she exclaimed. “Trgvye, what have you—oh my gods!” she exclaimed when looked down and saw Elspeth. She dropped to her knees and gathered Elspeth in her arms. “Trygve! Give her the antidote, NOW!”
“Do you know this woman?” asked the one with the red hair. Her voice was low and joyless.
“Are you Nerussa?” asked Lydia nervously, still feeling rather apprehensive about this Trygve and the red-headed woman.
The Altmer ignored them and shifted just enough to give Trygve room to administer the potion. She moved Elspeth’s hair out of her face and cupped her face in her hand, gazing at her as tears formed and fell down her cheeks. “Oh my gods,” she said, her eyes not leaving Elspeth.
“Who is she?” asked Trygve as he propped the potion bottle in Elspeth’s mouth.
“This…” she said, her voice full of astonishment. “This is Bedyn’s child.”