The trek to Winterhold from Snow Veil Sanctum was proving to be a long one – made longer by the seemingly endless awkward silences that continued to manifest between the two women. Karliah certainly couldn’t fault her for being suspicious. She had, after all, shot her with what amounted to a toxin-coated arrow. It wasn’t exactly the most ideal way to begin any sort of relationship with someone. Admittedly, her motives had switched in an instant the second the woman had come through the heavy doors ahead of Mercer Frey. She had fully intended to plant the arrow in the central portion of his chest; to watch him collapse to the ground and finally to interrogate him. Make him confess to his crimes against the Guild…to his crimes against her…and Gallus. Poor, sweet Gallus.
But she knew…soon after they had entered the catacombs, she knew Mercer had arrived to seek her death. He had planned to bury the past completely, bringing along the woman Marieka to act as a shield. Had she been killed in the process, Karliah knew Frey would not have shed a tear or given her a second thought. He destroyed all hope of doing this cleanly…she had worried the woman would have perished because of her. It would seem though, that the gods clearly had a sense of humour – and one that Karliah would never understand. And now, this woman who merely hours earlier was on death’s doorstep, was striding silently beside the Dunmer, ultimately trying to get back to Riften in as close to one piece as possible. But first…they needed to reach Winterhold.
“I don’t blame you, you know,” Karliah said suddenly.
“Blame me? What could you possibly have me to blame for?” Marieka shot back.
“For being wary of me,” she replied. “What you’ve heard…it’s not easy to stomach.”
“No,” she began, “and neither is a poison arrow to the chest.”
“That is a misnomer. It was actually a toxin.”
“Bah! Semantics,” the Breton muttered. “The fact remains that you shot me.”
“Need I remind you that by shooting you, I also saved your life?” Karliah calmly explained. “Without that toxin slowing the blood in your veins, the exsanguination would have been…fatal.”
Marieka went silent for several moments. The reality of her near death experience had hit her several times already, causing her to request some time to rest. Karliah recognized that the woman’s injuries would have required her to need a moment of respite; but the look upon her face suggested that her reasons ran deeper than the physical.
The distance between the Sanctum and Winterhold was great, but no more than a half day’s walk. Or it would have been, had the weather been more hospitable to the two women. As it was, the winds howled into their faces, making it exceedingly difficult to maintain a brisk forward motion. Coupled with the blinding snow, the walk was one of the most challenging Karliah had remembered having in a very long time. And she had been walking the miles across Skyrim for an even longer time than that…
They persisted on through the day, arriving at Winterhold many hours after nightfall.
As they ascended the steps to the Frozen Hearth, Marieka was the first to speak.
She stopped at the top of the steps and looked at the woman. “Hmm?”
The Dunmer looked at her, puzzled by her apology.
“It is absurd that I maintain this disdain for you over the incident with the toxin. You in fact did save my life, and for that I am forever in your debt,” Marieka explained.
“Your debt shall be cleared once we understand what Gallus’ journal says and I can return to Riften to warn the Guild. Until then, I will still hold nothing over your head for what I did to save you,” Karliah advised. “Now let us enter the inn quickly, lest we finally catch our death of cold so close to our destination.”
Marieka smiled weakly as the Mer held the door open for her. They entered the inn quietly – the lateness of the hour meant most, if not all, of the occupants were sleeping. Luckily, the proprietor of the inn, Dagur, had not quite settled in for the night.
“Welcome to the Frozen Hearth,” he said kindly as they approached. “I’m about to turn in for the night, but if you weary travelers seek hot food or cold mead, I’m sure I can accommodate either request.”
“That is appreciated,” Marieka replied. “We, however, come seeking contact with a particular individual – Enthir of the College. Is he here?”
“Afraid not,” Dagur replied. “He’s been gone for a few days now. Don’t know where he travelled to, but he did say he’d be back by now. You’re both welcome to stay the night to wait for him. We could use the business.”
Karliah nodded, tossing a number of septims on the counter to cover their accommodations for the night.
“I’ll show you to your room,” he said, emerging from behind the counter.
The two followed him and he brought them to a small room with two beds in it.
“Thank you,” Marieka said.
He nodded to her and began to walk away, muttering to himself. “Sure hope that Enthir gets back soon. He always manages to bring me interesting trades. It’d be a shame if…”
As his voice trailed off, Karliah closed the door behind him. “We shall wait here until the mage returns. It will do you good to rest with that wound.”
“I’ll survive,” she replied, sitting on the bed furthest from the door. “After all, with a good night’s rest, I will be able to heal myself in a more proper manner. That being said, it pains me terribly. The next time I see that treacherous bastard, I plan to gut him.”
“I’m afraid there is a long line of individuals who are ahead of you in that regard,” Karliah said, for the first time allowing her face to display somewhat of a smile. She lowered herself gracefully on the other bed and began to remove her boots.
“What are your plans?” Marieka asked. “Once we figure out what information the journal holds, that is.”
“We’ll need to return to Riften, to inform the Guild,” the Dunmer replied.
“I don’t expect they will be very welcoming of me,” she advised. “I suspect that Mercer would not have brought you with him had some of the more senior members of the Guild not trusted you by now. I believe their trust in you will give them the pause that I need to stay their hand long enough to present what we have found. Will that be a problem?”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t think so. Though I hope you are right. I worry this may not work out as you anticipate.”
“Have faith, Breton,” she counseled. “Once they hear of Mercer’s deceit, they will understand. Particularly once they hear that he attempted to murder you. Perhaps one or two of them may already call you friend?”
Karliah eyed Marieka closely as her eyes became unfocused when she stared at nothing in particular. She was biting her lip as if in careful contemplation. The wistful sound of the woman’s voice as she said that single word told her that she was right. She had taken a liking to someone in the Guild – though who, or whether the affection was reciprocal, was unknown. It mattered not – she suspected that would become clear to her soon enough.
“Sleep well, Marieka,” she said, causing the other woman to start.
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “Yes…you as well, Karliah.”
The women made themselves comfortable in the hard beds of the inn as Karliah extinguished the candlelight in the room. Sleep did not elude them for long and soon, the quiet in the room was replaced by soft measured breaths and dreamless slumber.
Nearly a full week had passed by the time Marieka and Karliah prepared themselves to enter the cistern beyond the Ragged Flagon. The meeting with Enthir proved somewhat fruitless. The mage was unable to translate the journal as they had hoped, but he provided them at least with someone who might be able to help. The journal had been written in the Falmer language, and he knew of an individual – a Court Wizard who fancied himself more of a scholar – who studied the language extensively.
The required trip to Markarth was trying for Marieka. She spoke little of it upon her return to Winterhold. Regardless, she was successful in obtaining information that Enthir used to translate the text of the journal. With the translation in hand, Karliah became excited at the prospect of returning to the Guild…to the family she was exiled from for so many years. They left immediately, deciding to hire a carriage for the long journey to Riften.
It had all led to this moment. They stood a distance to the Flagon itself, some of the Guild’s members noticing their presence, but remaining unalarmed.
“Who will know of you here?” Marieka asked.
“The most senior members,” she replied. “Delvin is still here I suspect? And Brynjolf, of course.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, Delvin…he’s still here. And…”
Karliah noticed the Breton’s breathing became increased. The vein in her neck even visibly pulsed more quickly. Her skin flushed; a bead of sweat upon her brow dripped down her face.
“Are you nervous, Marieka?” she asked.
“I…yes,” she replied.
“You should not be so worried,” she advised. “We will tell them of Mercer, and—”
“It’s not that,” Marieka interrupted. “It’s just…never mind. We should hurry before everyone becomes more suspicious of our presence than they already are.”
The Dunmer instantly understood that she was nervous about who they were about to see. There was no sense in attempting to decide who the object of her concern – and perhaps her affection – was; she would likely know in moments.
The two hurried through the tavern, ignoring the looks from those patrons at the tables throughout. When they arrived at the door to the cistern, Marieka’s hand paused when it rested upon the handle. Her hesitation was brief, but measurable. Finally, she breathed deeply and opened the door.
She walked ahead; Karliah remaining slightly obscured from view behind her. Several figures nearest the reservoir itself turned around at the sound of their footsteps echoing through the cavernous expanse.
“Marieka!” It was Brynjolf. Karliah would have known his voice anywhere. “What are you—”
His pause suggested that he had spotted the figure behind her. The way he attempted to peer around her confirmed it. His eyes had widened; shock overtaking him. He and those he stood with drew their weapons, ready for a fight.
“No…no, Marieka. Why did you bring her here? Why did you bring that traitor back to us?” he seethed, venom injected into every word. “How dare you bring her here…”
Karliah’s eyes moved between Brynjolf’s face and that of Marieka. The expressions of betrayal and heartbreak that fell upon them respectively informed on only one thing: it was Brynjolf who held Marieka’s heart.
She could encourage their pain no further and immediately stepped in front of the woman.
“Brynjolf,” she cautioned. “You know not the whole story. Lower your weapons and I will show you proof that I did not murder the man I…that I did not murder Gallus. I will show you proof that you have been betrayed. We have all been betrayed.”
Karliah sat at the edge of the cistern, reflecting upon how smoothly her plan had been carried out. Brynjolf, Delvin and the others quickly accepted her explanation – particularly with the evidence of Gallus’ journal and the empty vault. The Guild was on edge. They would not settle until Mercer had been called to account for his actions.
And so she sat quietly watching the reunion between Brynjolf and Marieka from afar. It may not have been clear to some of the others, but she knew of hidden love in the Guild. She experienced it. She and Gallus had spent many nights exchanging stolen glances and tender kisses under cover of darkness. And her trained eyes saw the subtle nuances of their actions. He stood a little too close to her; his eyes and fingertips lingering a little too long where they fell. If the emotion displayed at the beginning of their near confrontation hadn’t been a dead giveaway to what was between them, then these moments would have pushed aside any doubt Karliah had.
She didn’t want to stare, though couldn’t help but do so. What she saw reminded her of happier times…times from so many years before. The tender caress of a cheek made her ache for her lost love. She closed her eyes for a moment, fighting back tears twenty-five years in the making as she finally returned home. When she opened them, she glanced back once more to observe the stolen moments by the door. Brynjolf reached for Marieka’s hand and squeezed it. She turned and began to walk away, but he refused to let go…not until she had turned back to him one final time. As the gap widened between their fingertips, she turned and headed through the door.
The Dunmer quickly turned her gaze away from his direction. In her periphery, she spied him approaching where she sat. They would finally have a few moments to themselves – after so many years. When he reached her, she stood to greet him. He immediately wrapped his arms around her petite frame, to which she returned the embrace. His head rested atop hers and he leaned towards her to speak.
“Karliah…I…words will not ever do justice to the amount of pain in my heart I have for what we’ve done to you,” he murmured into her ear. “Sorry is far too weak of a word.”
He loosened from the embrace and they pulled apart, yet he kept his hands upon her shoulders.
“Brynjolf, it wasn’t what you did. How could you have ever known the betrayal that was carried out?” she asked rhetorically. “I will not hold you responsible for this.”
“We should have investigated,” he insisted, dropping his hands to his side. “There had to have been something we could have done to learn the truth.”
“You had no reason to suspect Mercer,” she said. “And it was a long time ago. I am working to put the past behind me. It has been the only thing that has allowed me to survive these long years alone. And I am almost there. I will soon make Mercer pay for his transgressions.”
“I have every belief that you will,” he advised. “I have sent Marieka to seek evidence of Mercer’s whereabouts. With luck, we will know where he is headed by nightfall.”
“You sent her off?” Karliah exclaimed. “The poor girl’s been run ragged these past weeks! She should be resting.”
“She insisted she be the one to go,” he clarified. “I asked her if she was certain and she maintained that she was. I can only wonder what happened to steel her to do this.”
“I’m sure she will tell you eventually,” she replied, not wishing to overstep her bounds.
“Where did you manage to find her, Brynjolf?” she wondered. “She is quite different from many of the others I recall being part of the Guild.”
“That she is,” he replied. “Would you believe I was about to attempt to rob her, and I caught her doing the same to the proprietors of the Bee and Barb?”
“Interesting,” she said, an eyebrow raised. “Though she does give off the air of naïve wanderer, doesn’t she? I’d have figured her for an easy target as well.”
“Trust me, lass,” he said. “She is no easy target.”
“Yes, but she is a terrible sneak. I’m quite confident she set off every trap in Snow Veil Sanctum. And does the woman own a dagger? For she seems to prefer blowing things up to silence. I am sure that not a Draugr remains there, for they have all been awakened by her wanton destruction. I do not suggest sending her anywhere that requires any level of stealth.”
Karliah smiled an easy smile at him. “You love her, don’t you?”
“What?” He put on a good look of shock at least.
“Brynjolf, we’ve been apart for many years, but I’m not stupid. I saw you with her. You love her.” She eyed him carefully, watching his face to search for betrayal of his emotions.
“No…we…sure, we have a…thing. But it’s not love,” he said flatly. “She doesn’t want to bring feelings into it. I don’t either. Besides…she is married to another. It’s…complicated.”
“It’s always complicated, Brynjolf. Look…you might be able to deny it to yourself, but I know what I saw,” she persisted. “And you and I both know that marriage doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to love.”
“That was a long time ago, Karliah,” he replied. “I’ve put it behind me and would prefer not to be reminded of it.”
“Of course,” she said. “It doesn’t change the fact that you need to admit to yourself what your true feelings are for the woman. Be fair to her. Be fair to yourself.”
“I—,” he began, but did not finish.
“Brynjolf, what Gallus and I had…it was life-changing. It was beautiful and pure. We fought for it. And still…so long after his death, I’ll never love another,” she said, her eyes glassy. “Do not pass on what you know is in your heart simply because you believe she does not wish it so.”
“Are you saying I should ask her if she has changed her mind?” he questioned.
“I’m saying you should search your heart. And if you find what I am sure you will find, you should ask if she feels the same,” she advised. “Though, asking her is a waste of time if you value my opinion. What I saw tells me she more than feels the same way you do.”
“Just how long were you watching us?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at her.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” he said.
“Brynjolf, you daft Nord! What would it do to you to lose her?” she demanded, clearly frustrated by his stubbornness on the subject.
“To lose her? What are you talking about, Karliah?”
She could no longer hold back the truth of what had happened at Snow Veil Sanctum. “Mercer tried to kill her. He stabbed her and left her to die. If it weren’t for…” She cut herself off and sighed.
His entire demeanor changed in an instant. His eyes squeezed to thin slits and his hands balled into fists.
“What did you just say?” he growled. “That bastard…that fucking rat! When we find him, I’ll cut his fucking heart out.”
“Ah,” she said. “That’s the fire I expected to find within you, Brynjolf. Now tell me that you don’t love her.”
“Why didn’t she tell me?” he asked aloud, despite not truly requesting an answer.
“Perhaps she was afraid of your reaction,” Karliah replied. “You need to keep a level head during this. You know how dangerous Mercer Frey can be. He’s proven yet again that he has no regard for any of us. Keep your temper in check, lest you end up like Gallus with poor, dear Marieka living with the regret of not telling you how she truly feels.”
“I appreciate you telling me,” he said coolly. “Mercer Frey has made his choice. And I intend to make him regret every bit of it until the moment I force the last breath from his body.”
Karliah smiled. Mercer would pay. She – among a growing list of others – would see to it.