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In my humble opinion, this was one of my favorite chapters. It feels like you are settling into the characters more comfortably, which ...


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Chapter Thirty-One

A Song And A Ribbon--Part Two

Farkas followed the path down, trying to trace the source of the singing. Finally he spotted a red-haired woman, standing with perfect posture on a shelf of rock across the little glade. Her song grew softer after a moment, as she became aware of his presence. It ended on a piercing soft high note that seemed to penetrate his heart and belly with a sweet longing that sent shivers up and down his spine, then it was gone, leaving only the music of water, bird, and wind.

She turned to face him fully when she was done listening to the last echoes of her song. Vivid red hair was braided loosely around her face, framing a face as pale as freshly carved ivory. Farkas struggled to keep his mouth from gaping open like a fool, because in this light she was the most entrancing thing he had ever seen, wrapped in her long cloak, looking down at him with a curious expression, seemingly floating in the light.

He would have stayed and stared happily at her until the sun set, but a growing alarm in her expression told him he needed to say something. Anything at all to make her relax once more, and smile maybe. Conscious of his rough, gravelly voice suddenly, he cleared his throat and said, “Wow! Lovely. The song I mean, it was something else. Truly lovely. So, ahh, Laure wanted me to make sure you were okay, fetch you up in case you might be hungry. There is food. To eat. Up.” He clamped his lips shut then, aware that he was reduced to idiotic monosyllable words. Not caring to embarrass himself more in front of this woman any more than he had already, he waited for her reply while trying to steady his breath.

She smiled sweetly and looked away shyly. It was as if he had seen the rising sun for the first time, and he gulped quietly.

“Thank you,” she said in an accented voice as melodious as her song. “I am Autumn, and you must be Vilkas' brother. You have the same face.”

“Farkas. I mean, I am Farkas. Vilkas is my older twin.” He walked over to her ledge and held out his hand. “Come on down from there, and I will show you the way. Laure won't want you falling and breaking your neck.”

She took his hand and clambered down. “She must think me a clumsy idiot by now.”

“Nah. Laure--she just looks out for people. Her people.”

“It seems that she does go beyond the common kindness.”

“Every day. Nice to meet you, Autumn.”

“Well met, Farkas.”

They started across the narrow glade at the bottom of the cavern, walking quietly for a few moments before Farkas asked, eager to hear her speak once again, “So, are there words to the song you were singing? I would like to hear them someday.”

“Someday I hope there will be. I just felt like singing when I came in here, and that was what came out.”

“Wow, you have a gift. I could never do that. Just make up a song. At least nothing anyone would ever want to hear.

“Thank you, that's very kind.” Autumn found herself blushing furiously, glad that Farkas was walking ahead of her and couldn't see her flushed cheeks. She always turned a horrid pink when she blushed, and for some silly reason she hadn't figured out yet, she didn't want this giant of a man to see that if she could help it.

He helped her up a few steeper spots, then ushered her to the top with a hesitant smile.
She liked the way it softened the hard lines of his face, made his fierce expression friendlier and more welcoming.

He called out, “I found the songbird, Laure. Even brought her in one piece.” He gently nudged her into the spread out crowd, where Laurelin was waving and patting the ground near her.

“Autumn, come sit and refresh yourself. Meet my family!”

Later, Autumn found herself studying the diverse group of people all around her. There were more itty-bitty Bosmer than she had ever seen before, plenty of Nords—which was comforting--and there were even two Dunmer Companions and one pretty woman that she supposed was some sort of Imperial provincial. All seemed to be getting along well, and indeed were sharing meat and mead as if they were fast friends. She also supposed that the common factor in this harmony was due largely to the Dragonborn.

Before she thought about it in any depth, she turned to Laurelin and suggested, “Why not have the wedding here? There is a sense of peace and sanctity here, as well as the astonishing beauty, and you have your whole family with you right now!”

Laure stopped laughing at whatever clever thing Aheia had been saying to choke on a crumb of cheese. She waved off Vilkas' solicitous attempt to to pat her on the back, wheezing softly until her cough subsided. She wiped away involuntary tears and chuckled at herself, shifting uneasily on the ground.

“Ah, hem—that is an interesting idea; I hadn't thought of that. Remarkable notion, Autumn. Your idea has merit; of course, Vilkas would need to agree as well. We are also without a priest to officiate.” She studiously avoided looking his way, until he bumped her with his shoulder.

“I like how you think, bard, but I won't pressure her into anything she isn't ready for,” Vilkas said to Autumn.

“I'm sure someone here is qualified to officiate over a simple tying of the knot,” observed Belarym helpfully. Aheia nodded with a wide smile.

Farkas smacked his knee and remarked, “Sounds like a fine idea to me, Laure. The little songbird is right—all your family is here, and your shield-siblings too.”

“You could think of it as practice for the big one in Whiterun. Or a secret wedding that only we will know about!” mused Ria.

Laure stood and wiped the leaf litter from her backside, suddenly conscious of the intense scrutiny of everyone around. “Pardon me, I would like a moment alone please. I won't go far.” Indeed she simply turned and scrambled high into the branches of the Eldergleam. She found a likely branch and walked along it until she was given a choice view across the cavern. She sat down, draped easily in a comfortable crook and stared thoughtfully out, barely seeing.

Truth be told, I'm not ready to make that leap just yet. As in right now! She had been mentally girding herself up for the ceremony in Whiterun. Somehow that day was important for her peace of mind and comfort with the preparations she had made. She had even found herself enjoying the process. Not that I'll ever admit that to Vilkas or anybody else. Throwing parties was fun, and she truly loved Vilkas, and was ready to marry him. In a week. But today?

She tried to order her thoughts, but they tumbled about, untamed. She recalled how she had wished for a more intimate affair, before Lydia's bright idea to invite everyone. A small ceremony with only those few people she really cared about present. She sighed and rubbed her eyes.

“Nisi,” she called down eventually. “Please, will you join me up here for a moment?”

“Certainly, Mother. I will be right up!” called her eldest daughter. Soon the soft rustling of leaves and blossom announced her arrival.

“This is amazing, Mother. It is so peaceful, so serene here.” Nisinah eased herself down and slipped her small hand into her mother's. She didn't fail to notice how tall and spare of flesh she had grown since their last visit in Valenwood. “Did you wish to speak with me about all that business down there?”

Laure nodded but didn't trust herself to say anything, so remained silent. Nisinah ran slender fingers over the bark of the Eldergleam, feeling it's life pulsing beneath her hand, thinking quietly herself for a few long moments before saying quietly, “If you are truly sure you wish to join yourself so permanently to Vilkas, what harm is there in doing it here, in such a beautiful place?”

Laure fidgeted a moment before answering. “I do not have anything against the idea, in and of itself. I am actually rather fond of the idea. Clever girl, that bard.” She smiled ruefully and settled back once again.

“Are you positive you are ready to take this step, Mother? You know what you are committing yourself to? Losing Father was nearly unbearable for you. In truth, how much longer will you and Vilkas have together? He isn't a sapling anymore, and humans have such short lives in comparison to ours.”  Nisi turned her wide, black eyes on her mother and looked deeply into the icy blue pair facing her—searching for doubt or fear. She wasn't sure she was happy or disturbed that she found neither, only determination and excitement.

“Oh absolutely, I know what I am committing to. And I am not worried so much anymore about how long we have together. I'll love him every day of our lives and cherish them all. Aye I want to marry Vilkas; it isn't that. I was prepared for it to happen next week. It is more that this is unplanned; I had a list, you see.”

Nisi blinked slowly and squeezed her mum's hand. “Ah, well if you are not ready yet, I will stand with you.”

“Does a week make so much difference, Nisi?” Her daughter shrugged and shook her head. Laure took a deep breath and held it a long moment, then pushed it out. With it she mentally pushed out the last lingering doubts or worries. She had a marvelous opportunity here, with her shield-siblings already in attendance, in one of few places she thought grand enough for such an absurd spectacle as her wedding, and to really make it complete, beyond all hope or planning, her kin were here as well. She glanced up at the magnificent tree suspiciously. It was considered to be sacred to Kynareth, and that goddess had already proved she wasn't above tampering with her life.

A burst of laughter from below brought her back to the present situation. “Thank you, sweetling. I have been given many kogaan, many blessings today. Do you think Vilkas will agree?”

Nisi laughed brightly. “I think he would do whatever you asked him to do.”

“He's such a good boy,” Laure murmured, her lips curving up in an impish smile.

“So you are going to do this today, truly?” When Laure dipped her head in affirmation, Nisinah gestured toward the ground below where everyone waited. “Do you need a moment, or do you feel like just plunging in?”

“Headfirst and worry about how deep the pool is when we get there.”

“That's the spirit, Mum. Do you want to tell them?”

“We will both go, aye? No sense in wasting daylight. We could be half way back to Whiterun by bed time if we hurry.”

* * *

Laure and Nisinah dropped lightly from the lower branches of the Eldergleam and walked over to the group, both grinning broadly. Vilkas looked at his intended and gave her a slow nod, having heard all, and held out his hand.

Laure took his fingers and gave him a matching nod, then turned to find everyone watching raptly. She cleared her throat and called out, “So did you all need a formal invitation, or can we dispense with the formalities as soon as we find a cord or thong?”

Everyone shouted and stamped their approval, the noise sending a flock of startled birds winging up to the heights of the cavern, where they wheeled and darted, adding their own cries to the tumult.

“Okay then,” said Laure, barely heard. Her oldest granddaughter, Lyric, walked over with something rolled up in her hand. “What's this, sweetling?”

“It's one of my old hair ribbons. I thought you could use that to tie your knot. If you like it that is. I think you might because you gave it to me when I was little.”

Laure unrolled the ribbon and admired it's embroidered green vines, with tiny flowers that resembled blue stars. She recognized it very well. Slightly frayed at the edges, well worn as Lyric had carried it around for decades. “This will be perfect; thank you, darling one.”

Farkas squeezed up near Laure and his twin and asked, “May I do the honors? You know I am not always the best with words, but I would like to say a few things.”

Laure and Vilkas both agreed readily and handed him the ribbon, because all of a sudden there was a general buzz of energetic preparation happening that was nearly overwhelming for a few moments—then it all stilled as quickly as it had begun. Packs had been stowed out of the way, and a broad semi-circle of friends and family formed in the dappled shade around Laurelin and Vilkas, standing sheepishly in the center, hand-in-hand.

Farkas solemnly examined the ribbon in his big hands, then cleared his throat. “Most of you know I am not one for fancy speeches. I won't try to change that now. I just want to say that, I love my brother, and I have always wanted him to be happy, and to have the finest of all things in life. For a while I thought that glory earned in battle and riches in our pockets were the finest things in life. Dying a glorious death with a sword in hand seemed to be the only thing worth living for. These are the things I wanted for my brother. I can not say whether having any of these things gave my brother any true happiness. Then we all met Laurelin. She is a shield-sister to us first and above all other titles or stations. We know that she will have our backs when it comes to any situation. She has shown us what to do with our skills, how to aim them so that we can help those who need it. And she has shown us love, and how to be thankful for what we have, and how to live this life well, not just in hope of a happier afterlife. Most importantly though, she opened her heart to my brother, and they have helped heal each other in many ways. I know they will irritate and infuriate each other, yet I have seen them overcome incredible trials together. Now they are formalizing their bond, hopefully with the blessings of everyone present. May all the gods bless their life together.”

Laure chuckled quietly. “Indeed, at the moment, a few of them can hardly keep their fingers out of our lives. Meddling with our dreams . . . filthy trick.”

“Hush dear,” chided Vilkas softly. “Did you want to say something for the group or shall I?”

Feeling just a trifle light-headed, Laure looked Vilkas straight in the eyes and told him evenly, “I had a plan. I was rapidly approaching my goal of being the wealthiest mer in northern Tamriel when this Dragonborn business was dropped on me without warning. All my careful plans were ruined. I certainly never counted on meeting you. Was it fate or chance that brought me to Whiterun, broke and in shock still, to encounter the infamous Companions for the first time? Whatever the cause, I am incredibly grateful to have you in my life now. Finding you reminded me that wealth is not everything. Being rich could not purchase what I have with you. In you I found everything I had been unconsciously searching for all these years. With you I feel safe and warm; even when we are apart, I feel that warmth. I look forward to seeing you again as soon as we part. I love hunting with you; I adore snuggling up with you and a good book. I love the way you say my name and never shorten it. I love your honesty and patience with me, even though I know it hasn't been easy. You stayed with me through rough times, and we aren't quite through it all yet. I believe the end is in sight, though, and once we get passed these last few minor obstacles . . . then, well, who knows what we will come up with? All I know is that today, I look at my very closest friend, my love, and know that I want to marry him with all my heart, and fill our home with happiness!”

Laure paused, then gave Vilkas a sly look. “Will that suffice?”

Vilkas gave a theatrical shrug. “Not terribly romantic, but you did have to come up with that on the spot. I hope your vows for the other ceremony will be properly poetic and tear-inducing.”

“I'll start writing them as soon as we get home. Did you want to say anything? Try not to make me cry though, my face puffs up horribly when I cry.”

“I suppose I could recite poetry to you, compare you in verse to the marvels of the world. I could liken you to a flower, or the sky at dawn. Infinite comparisons come to mind. But what I want to tell you is this: I underestimated you from the first. When you first walked into Jorrvaskr, all I saw was an underfed elf in borrowed armor. I couldn't see the strength and beauty in you—not yet, at least. When I took you out for your first testing, I wanted you to fail, because I thought you were just going to be a waste of my time. And I was angry that Kodlak was apparently in favor of you joining. But when you tried to punch my, ah, groin, you got my attention.”

There was a ripple of quiet laughter at that from the small crowd, but it hushed quickly, allowing Vilkas to continue.

“Had I known how very wrong I was, I would have let you punch me there and then, and perhaps gained that much more time with you. As it is, I stand here in front of you, and my heart is pounding, my knees feel like water, just from knowing that you love me, that I love you, and we will have the rest of our lives together. I no longer see you the same way; now I can perceive the strength and courage, the loyalty and divine beauty that fill you so full that those near you are blessed with a share, themselves. I could probably recite your praises for hours, probably have when I was in my cups.”

“Oh, you have,” said Farkas emphatically, but smiling his amusement.

Vilkas continued, apparently choosing not to pay attention to his twin. “Laurelin, I love you with all my heart, and though I have little to offer you, I make this vow. Though the sky may shatter and Oblivion take all else, I will stand by your side, and only the gods themselves will part us.”

“That will do nicely, love. Don't overdo it now.”

“Why thank you, love. I was finished, actually. My speech for the big ceremony is already composed and polished up nicely.” He paused a moment thoughtfully then exclaimed in mock recall, “Isn't there supposed to be a knot-tying somewhere in all of this?” They both turned and looked at Farkas expectantly, hands clasped tightly.

Farkas, holding the ribbon still, glanced from his brother to Laurelin. “You ready for this then?”

Vilkas gave his brother a long, steady look and said, “Aye. You, more than any, know I am.” He then waited for Laure to meet his gaze.

She held his hands tighter and winked. “Oh aye, I'm quite ready if you are.”

Farkas let out a deep breath, as if he had been holding it his whole life. He took the ribbon and looped it deftly around the couple's wrists while saying, “Well then, with no particular authority excepting that given me by these people gathered, and hopefully with the blessings of all the Gods, I bind you, Vilkas and Laurelin to each other for the rest of your lives as husband and wife. Protect and love each other, laugh and fill your home with joy. Hold each other up in times of weakness and sorrow, and never forget that which binds you is not this ribbon, nor duty. Remember always the love and devotion you have for each other, for those are but a few of the things which make you strong together.” Farkas finished tying the knot with a small flourish, then announced, “I name you husband and wife, Vilkas and Laurelin. Brother, would you like to kiss your bride?”

“I thought we would never get to that part!” Vilkas exclaimed as he wrapped his free arm around Laure's waist. He pulled her to him, their armor making muted screeches and crashes as dragonbone slid against darkened steel, the functionality of their armor contrasting sharply when their lips met with almost shocking tenderness.

As the kiss drew on and deepened, Farkas chuckled quietly. “About time, you two. Now, we celebrate with some mead and a few songs, I say!”
Laurelin Dragon Hunter--31
Ha! I bet you guys probably though I would NEVER get around to this! **Throws environmentally conscious confetti** Huzzah!

**Edit--As I seem to have completely dropped my manners and mind in my haste to get this posted, I must come back and say thank you to everyone who still reads and supports me in this endeavor. I have been going through some particularly rough times in real life, and unfortunately this story has had to take a back burner. That doesn't mean I've given up or forgotten, far from it. Much gratitude to Whisper for always being willing to grind through my chapters--I know they are long and still you give me great advice, time after time. Thank you!

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Chapter Thirty

A Song And A Ribbon--Part One

Laure eased the front door open and slipped through, a small frown creasing her brow. Vilkas had not moved from his seat, but he held one of the letters Bryn had left sitting on the table in front of him. Numerous couriers had left their personal marks on its outer folds, tracing its journey. He slid it to her with an encouraging smile. “This one might cheer you up, if I read it correctly.”

Laure examined it briefly before giving a small cry of delight and opened it immediately. Vilkas watched her eyes dart over the letter rapidly, once, then twice.

“Well, is there word from home?” asked Vilkas when she dropped to her chair, staring blankly at the wall.

“Aye, but it isn't cheerful in content. Nisinah writes to say that the Thalmor are becoming more persistent. They contemplate fleeing for a while and she asks about the border conditions. She says if the Thalmor apply much more pressure, our clan may not be able to protect them anymore. If Nisi is asking about shelter, it must be more troubling than she is saying here. She also mentions that Aheia and Belarym have already fled to the Imperial City, taking their children and mates. Oh Vilkas, what will we do? I suppose they would be safe enough here, but the Thalmor are still crawling all over, and if they could be found amongst all our kin in the jungles, then how long before they are found here?”

“I suppose we would need to figure out where to hide them,” Vilkas pondered, rubbing his chin, “although it may be difficult to explain a sudden increase in the Bosmer populations here in Skyrim. Do they have trades? That should help them blend in a bit. Not to worry my love. We'll just have to expand Breezehome a bit more if they arrive, and stack them up like kindling.”

“We could have Aheia and her boy stay here, and Belarym and his family could stay awhile in Solitude—Proudspire is just sitting there empty anyway. Plenty of room for the three of them and the baby. Although Da'avi isn't such a baby anymore, and Zavi must be walking by now. Oh, Vilkas! It would be lovely to see them again, even if they are running away.” She sat back with a wistful, worried expression.

“The Thalmor surely know where you live by now, as well as having a good idea of your assets,” he warned in a low voice, as if the Thalmor might have their ears pressed to the walls of Honeyside.

In her usual manner, she changed the subject, deciding to worry later. “They think they know. We'll just have to cross that river when we come to it. Here, come with me.” With that, Laure rose from her seat and took his hand, leading him downstairs. She reached behind a bookshelf, flicked something unseen, and heaved the whole shelf aside smoothly. Behind the shelf was a small locked door. “Behold, the hiding place and repository of nearly all my fluid assets. Keep in mind I have invested all over Tamriel, so my total worth is much higher than what you are about to see.” She gave him a kiss, then pulled a set of lockpicks from her sleeve, settling down in front of the door. He watched as she assumed the look of concentration she always wore when tickling a lock.

“Do you not have the key?” he finally asked. This seemed to be taking much longer than normal.

“Ssh!” she breathed, ear pressed against the door now.

“Sorry,” he whispered irritably.

Minutes ticked by and still the lock had not opened. Vilkas was leaning against the wall, considering making a jest about having some other thief come open the vault, when she bounced to her feet again, scrubbing her hands together, eyes alight with satisfaction.

“Perfect. I still can't pick it, and everything was still set as I left it. Paid more than you make in a year for that lock. Worth every septim.” She glanced his way and shrugged. “You get what you pay for, aye? So, ready to be dazzled?”

“Oh, aye. Quite ready. But about the key?”

“Oh, that whole door is fake. The real door only unlocks when the bookshelf is locked in where it is. Then I pivot this corner of it out--like so--and this triggers a mechanism under the floor, then I push here, and there you have it! Books are the key, so to speak.”

Sure enough, a hidden door, invisible to the eye, swung in quietly. Laure picked up a candle and ducked through the low doorway, with Vilkas right behind. She held the candle high and smiled happily, surrounded by her hoard.

Vilkas spun around in the only small open space of the room. Two walls were lined floor to ceiling with shelves and chests, one long wall had several armor stands with fantastical armor displayed on them, while behind were neatly hung weapons of every type. Cases with glass tops perched atop finely carved tables, strange statues, artifacts and neatly stacked bolts of cloth vied for space in the corners. Piles of cloth sacks and smaller chests seemed to be embracing an ancient worktable and two leather-cushioned chairs in the center of the room. Vilkas spotted a sword that could only be the fabled Chillrend in a case on one of the shelves. Other than that, he didn't see much more than the weapons and armor that were blatantly valuable. He felt a vague sense of disappointment until she flipped open a lid. The coffer—no, trunk- he thought to himself, was full to the brim with gold coins. She moved to the next and revealed more gold, yet another showed itself to be full of an assortment of gems, sapphires, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, a rainbow of glittering stones. Vilkas was rapidly adjusting his hasty judgment.

“The chest upstairs by the bed is really just bait. I put a quality lock on it, but lets face it, it's an easy one to tickle. I make a nice pretty stash in there, and the idea is that if anyone should happen to get in the house and past Iona, they'll think they hit the jackpot and hastily take what they can grab, making for the nearest exit. So far it seems to have worked on the few occasions someone was bold enough to ignore the marks around my house. Ah, here are some nice ones!” She tipped the lids of two chests, each large enough to put a child into. In one, nothing but emeralds; the other, sapphires. Further investigations by Vilkas revealed carefully sorted gems, each type in their own case. Magical rings and necklaces took up still more room; neatly folded enchanted garments filled a chest of drawers; loose pearls spilled from dwarven metal coffers' and behind amber-tinted glass doors, row upon row of books, scrolls and maps, some ancient, some new, some that Vilkas recognized, some that he itched to cautiously open and devour with his eyes.

Laure came to one last safe. Unlocking it, she drew out two large, cloth-wrapped objects. “These are my favorite pretties. None of the crowns or weapons in here are the measure of the Eyes of the Falmer. See?” She unwrapped one and handed it to him, grinning when she saw the way his eyes seemed likely to jump from his head.

Dazed, he took it from her, surprised at the weight of the thing. He looked around the crowded, mostly tidy room, trying to estimate the value of it all, and blinked. “I wouldn't have believed you if you had just told me. What are you planning on doing with all of this? And did you steal it all, truly?”

“I didn't need to steal it all. I make plenty of money adventuring, trading, and investing. The stealing is just for fun.”

“Did you steal these?” he lifted the Eye in his hand, glaring at the glittering stone suspiciously.

“Well, I prefer to think of it as timely relocation of historical artifacts from a temple that was being destroyed. They would have been lost for all time under a mountain of rock and half of an icy lake. So, no. I didn't steal them. In fact, I paid a sizable amount for one of them.”

Vilkas gave her a stern look, complete with lowered brows.

“What? I bought it from Bryn after we made it out of Irkngthand as it flooded. That was where they were, the Eyes. In a lovely old statue of a snow elf. I used to despise the Falmer for being so nasty, but now I feel sorry for them. They were beautiful and intelligent once, long, long ago. That statue was all they had left of their heritage and now the last temple is drowned and destroyed.”

“Paid for or no, bad things come to tomb robbers and despoilers of holy places. It may have been better to leave these in the statue where they belong.” In spite of his reproving words, he tilted the gem in both his large hands to catch the candlelight on its broad facets.

“What could be worse than being made to fight an endless succession of dragons, my love? Would it help you to know that I did not actually remove them, that it was the bastard who tried to stab me through the heart who did the actual pillaging?”

“Not terribly, but point taken. However, what are you going to do with it all?”

“Buy an island. Open a meadery of my own. Build a mountain fortress and gild it all with gold and jewels. Retire and write tawdry pillow books for Aldmeri ladies . . . not sure exactly. Maybe I'll fund a private army to overthrow the tyrants across the world, one at a time.”

“You could buy a very large island, open a meadery on it and write all the books you pleased while underlings ran your army with what I see here. And this isn't even all of it.”

“Not even remotely. I'm disgustingly, filthy rich. Don't worry, I won't ask you for an allowance.”

Vilkas snorted, handing her back the Eye. “I think it will be the other way around. I understand why you're so free with household expenses, letting your housecarls have access to pots of gold and the like.”

“Shall I set up an account for you, dear? Once we are wed, it will be your treasure as well.”

Vilkas harrumphed and shook his head. “If I ever come up short for mead money, I'll let you know. What I want to know now is can you actually wear all of these armors?” He pointed to one particularly scant set with a hopeful expression.

“Let me see if I can remember how to put all of that on.” Laure donned the armor, and swiftly found herself pressed up against the table, with her mate's eager fingers and lips exploring the many places the armor didn't cover. When he bore her down and discovered the many sacks on the floor were full of unsorted coin and gems, he laughed, and took her with the tinkling of coin and gems as a subtle, exotic music they barely noticed after a time.

* * *

The next morning, Laure and Vilkas were having a quick breakfast before taking to the road once more, at last headed back to Whiterun. She looked through the letters still stacked on the table as she chewed, paying barely any attention to most them. The last one caught her attention, however. A letter from the Jarl of Falkreath Hold invited her to become a thane, pending her ownership of a house there. Laure liked certain areas of the hold well enough, but it was not as central as Whiterun, therefore, less than ideal for her needs. She set the letter aside and finished eating in thoughtful silence. The jarl had explained that while there were no available houses for her to purchase, he did have a piece of land that offered a suitable building location. It was a temping offer, given the thought that she might need to help her children relocate sometime in the future.

Worry twinged the muscles along her spine in a shiver as she considered the dangers to them here in Skyrim. They would be trading one danger for another, and perhaps even compound it. At least if they were in the north, I would be able to protect them a little, she thought.  Still she had difficulty shaking the grim awareness that the Thalmor would probably expect her family to seek shelter with their mother. And the dragons, while more reluctant to openly attack the cities now, still raided caravans and small settlements about Skyrim. One thing after another and another. . . .

Finally, she cleared her throat and announced, “I have one more thing to do before we leave, love. It won't take long at all.”

“Can I help?”

“No, I am merely going to the Bee to gather someone up. She has few belongings, so I imagine she will be ready to leave presently.”

“She?” quizzed Vilkas, puzzled and fairly sure he had missed or forgotten something.

“She,” confirmed Laure from the front door. “The bard I mentioned last night. She is coming to Whiterun with us to sing. She has a voice to bring tears to your eyes, and she's easy on the eyes. She is eager to earn her way, but seems to meet with misfortune more than not. I thought she could sing at our wedding.”

Vilkas shrugged and accepted this with aplomb, knowing his mate well enough not to waste time with pointless questions. He was also delighted in the little things she kept putting together for the ceremony. He had anticipated a grudging participation from her, but she seemed bent on doing it properly, even if the whole thing set her into sudden fits of shivering in the middle of the night. A bard to sing was a magnificent idea, to his mind. Whatever gave her peace and comfort and kept her from running away in a panic back to Valenwood.

Before mid-morning Laure, Vilkas, and Autumn the bard were well on their way. At midday, they stopped to rest the horses and stretch their legs. Autumn gratefully slid off her horse and hobbled around in little circles, working out the cramps that tightened every muscle in her back and upper thighs. Vilkas and Laure, much more accustomed to such journeys, raced to a nearby out-cropping that overlooked the Aalto flats. In the far distance, barely seen through the fumes rising from great vents and steaming mudflats, was the great hill which protected the Eldergleam Sanctuary. It was there that Laurelin and Vilkas had first traveled together, in willing service to a goddess. A goddess the couple respected, if not revered. It seemed their good deed had not gone unnoticed, and She had dipped her hand to pluck the strings of their lives.

Laure gazed off toward it, remembering the dragon she had fought there a few months ago, and wished she had taken the time then to stop and sit for a while under that radiant tree, even if only for a short time. A new set of worries for her family had settled atop the already heavy burden she carried, but Eldergleam offered an otherworldly peace that was soothing and rejuvenating.

Vilkas took in the wistful expression on her face, the drawn lines where her skin was stretched tight over sharp bone, squeezed her hand and observed, “We could take a bit of a short cut through and visit the sanctuary, if you like.”

“How do you always do that?” she asked quietly.

He shrugged—knowing precisely how, and she knew too.

She turned to see how Autumn was faring. The young bard sprawled on the edge of the road with her back to a boulder, staring balefully at her mount. They allowed the already saddle-sore girl a few minutes more rest, then Laure began picking her way across the familiar landscape, leading her horse. Autumn took the middle position, grateful to be off the horses for a little longer, while Vilkas brought up the rear, his piercing gaze always casting about, looking for threats.

Their passage was slow but uneventful, and in short order, the three travelers reached the earth-shrouded shrine to Kynareth. Laure led the way once more, letting the heady, light scent pull her down the path. It smelled of blossoms and bird down, moss, and her grandchildren's hair after being washed. Pollen drifted by on slow wafts of warm air, and she felt the peace of the place seeping into her skin, her heart, her very soul.

Autumn followed Laurelin down under the mound, sniffing curiously, head swiveling about to catch glimpses of the birds flitting in and out, filling the passage with bright song. “What is this place? Somehow it feels comforting, even though we march under the earth and the way is dark!”

“This is the outer passage to the Eldergleam Sanctuary. Follow me; I think you will be amazed when you see it. One must travel the darkness before coming to appreciate the glory of light.”

Autumn was a bit baffled by the sudden lightness in the Dragonborn's manner, but she nodded anyway, for she saw the truth in her words. She followed the elf down the twisting passage, trusting that she knew what she was speaking of.

As they threaded their way further in,Laure caught wisps of other scents mixed with the green smell of moss and water: warm bodies, hot blood, baked road dust, metal and bone, leaf mold and ripe fruits, hot in the sun and heavy with juice. A smell so familiar, so reminiscent of home that she nearly laughed aloud.

She rounded the final bend in the tunnel, picking her way over the piled stones tangled with roots. Soft light filled the tall cavern, stretching down in long, slanting beams.

Autumn came to a stop, eyes moving in wonder over the marvelous space, but Laure and Vilkas  bounded forward with cries of surprise and happiness. Crouched on a boulder near the path, Farkas looked up from the iridescent beetle he was examining and waved.

“Wondered if we were going to need to track you over the whole country. Glad we didn't.” He stood and embraced Laure and his twin fiercely, then turned to lead them deeper in. “I have a surprise for you, Laure.”

The path Laure had cleared remained open, winding steeply up the rocky hillside, but she scarcely took note of where she put her feet. “Farkas, what are you doing here?” she exclaimed, delighted to see him, but concerned as to why he was here and not seeing to Whiterun's defenses. “Is all well in town?”

“Town's fine. Balgruuf gave us all leave, given who we are escorting around, looking for you.” Turning the last corner Farkas gave a broad wave with his big hand toward the large group of people resting in the sun-dappled shade under the Eldergleam. His rough voice was full of triumph as he said, “Surprise! They came looking for you in Whiterun right after you left.”

With the exception of Vignar, every one of the Companions was present: Aela, Athis, Erik, Keiran, Njada, Ria, Serith 'Za, and Torvar. Lydia was with them, speaking with Erik as she sharpened her sword. Among them, rising gracefully to their feet to greet her with open arms and relief on their angular, familiar faces, was her family. Her children, Nisinah, Belarym, Aheia, their mates, and there swarming down from the massive limbs of the Eldergleam came her grandchildren—the oldest two girls helping the youngest down with playful calls.

Astounded to find them here, Laure was stunned speechless, as her beloved little ones tackled her legs, and the older girls waited patiently. Finally she managed to gasp out to Nisinah, who was standing nearby with an indulgent smile, “I don't understand; you're here! You made it over the borders safely, and all of you? How? Sweet Mara, I never thought to see you all here in truth, nor so soon!” She squeezed the youngest, Zavarym, tight and stroked his temple softly.

The young Bosmer lad gave her a tentative hug and light kiss on her cheek, murmuring, “Ama Laurlin?”

“Yes sweet boy, I'm your grand-mama Laurelin. I've not seen you since you were a little tiny baby, and now look at you! So big and strong! Did you have an adventure coming to see me?”

Little Zavarym nodded shyly, toying with the tip of his pointed ear idly, big cinnamon colored eyes straying curiously toward the Companions trying not to crowd the family reunion. He pointed and babbled something she couldn't quite make out and then hid his head under her chin.

Aheia stepped closer and took her son back into her arms for a moment, then released him to play with the others while she greeted her mother. Nisinah was already there, twining her fingers into Laure's as they kissed each other's cheeks and embraced. Belarym wasn't to be left out, and he gathered both his sisters and mother into his arms and squeezed them tightly.

Long had Laure worried in the back of her mind for the safety of her family, and just yesterday that concern had sharpened to a cutting edge that she had to protect herself against by trusting in their own abilities to look after themselves. Now, miraculously, they were here. Whether they would be safer, she could not tell, but at least she knew that at the moment, they were here, healthy and whole, and that eased her mind tremendously. Her many questions could wait, for they now had plenty of time, and they would be able to speak face to face without the impersonal medium of paper and ink as their sole means of communicating.

Absurdly, Laure felt tears beginning to well up in her eyes, relief, fear, and sudden happiness shaking her body into wracking sobs. Her children felt those sobs and squeezed her all the tighter, enfolding her and lifting her up when her legs threatened to buckle, and quietly let the emotions run their course through her. The worry drained, another tension in her heart eased and within a short time, she was steady on her feet again, laughing quietly at her outburst.

Palming tears from her cheeks, Laure looked around in a happy daze, remnants of moisture making the already sparkling light and scenery glitter and wobble. She took several steadying breaths, reluctant to let go of any of her children for even a heartbeat, trying to hold onto three hands with her two.

Aheia grinned, asking, “So you really had no idea we were all going to show up?”

“I only received Nisi's last letter yesterday. I thought that if any of you came to Skyrim it would be in smaller groups, and later.”

Belarym muttered, “That was the plan, but the situation was becoming worse by the moment. We made separate crossings over the mountains, and met near a burned town--Helgen, I think it was called. Anyway after we all made it over, we decided to go to Whiterun and try to join you there, as that seems to be your home these days. Your Companions agreed to help us find you since we were eager and hadn't the slightest clue where you could be. They have been most helpful and kind.”

“And what of my sister? Does she stay in Valenwood?”

“Aye, she and her mate and children cannot abide leaving Valenwood entirely. They will try to lose themselves in the wilds for a time,” replied Belarym softly. He paused, licked his lips, darting a look to Nisinah, who shrugged and nodded slightly. Laurelin's son glanced to Vilkas then continued, “Farkas has told us that we arrived in time for a joyous occasion, aye?”

“Aye, I am to wed my mate Vilkas in just over a week. Here, you must meet my love; he's not at all like most Nords. Now that you are all here, it would mean much to have you there when we are joined. We are having a huge feast after, and in my fondest dreams I could only wish you would be there when we do.” She turned and beckoned to Vilkas, who was speaking quietly with Aela and Athis. Laure watched as he excused himself from his shield-siblings and strode over to her. Laure couldn't help herself and leaned over to Nisinah and added,”See, I have gone and landed myself a younger man after all. Isn't he delicious?”

Nisi sighed and agreed placidly, “Yes, Mother. He is pleasing to the eye--for a Nord--but there are still a few things I would rather not hear from you.”

“I'll spare you the gritty details because I love you. Unless you say you won't come to the wedding. Then I'll scald your ears with with every slippery, salacious thing we've done.”

Aheia laughed from behind them. “Relax, Mother. We've already been through this with your mate's big brother. We are all happy to be a part of your celebration!”

Vilkas arrived just then and bowed politely with his palm over his heart to each of her children.

“Vilkas, these are my darling children, Nisinah, Belarym, and Aheia. Darlings, this is Vilkas, Master-at-Arms of the Companions, a man of rare character and intelligence, tempered with compassion and devastatingly good looks. I would still be lost without him.”

As the oldest, Nisinah stepped forward and greeted Vilkas first, hands outstretched. “It is an honor to meet the one my mother has spoken so highly of at last. And it is a relief to know that she has found one she loves and can trust so deeply after the loss of our father.”

She said the words warmly but Vilkas understood the protective nature of the statement, and the intention behind it quite well. “I hope to earn your trust as well, in the future. It is a pleasure to meet you all. I am pleased that  you arrived when you did; hopefully, despite any hardships you endured coming over the borders, it will be worth knowing that your mother must be beside herself. She has long worried for your safety, yet felt there was little she could do to ensure it. And she has missed you tremendously.”

Belarym stepped forward and clasped forearms with Vilkas, then turned and clasped hands with the two mer behind him, “Good to finally meet you, Vilkas. Your brother has already told us quite a bit about you. These are my mates, Garyn Briarwood and Arctilyn Feathermoss. One of the children running around over there is ours, the older boy, Da'aviem.”

Vilkas nodded and bowed again before clasping hands with Belarym's mates—Arctilyn was nearly Laurelin's height, but with a slight golden tint to her nut-colored complexion, made less noticeable by the rings tattooed up her arms, while Garyn looked up at Vilkas with a curious gleam in his eye, as if he was considering the idea of climbing the big Nord before him like a tree. Vilkas was mildly relieved when Aheia stepped in and pulled him into a warm hug.

“If Mother loves you, you must be a very special man indeed. Thank you for keeping her safe,” said his wife-to-be's youngest child, who was younger looking than him, but then so was Laurelin.

“I try, but she sometimes throws herself headlong into danger, with nary a thought for her hide.”

Laure grinned as she mocked herself, “That isn't true, my love. I usually care quite a lot about my hide, I just think about it halfway through.”

“Precisely what I was saying, love. However, these days you are becoming remarkably adept at getting yourself out of tight situations.”

“I'll put you in a tight situation,” she muttered, knowing his sensitive ears would catch what her daughters would not.

Promises, promises. He let a hint of a smirk through the polite expression he wore, all the while continuing to exchange pleasantries with Aheia and her partner, a handsome mer named Ossiem.

* * *

After the polite and somewhat cautious initial greetings were over, Laure went and scrambled up the Eldergleam to sit on its broad branches with her four grandchildren for a little while, before little Zavi announced he was hungry. Suddenly everyone was ravenous and they dropped from the tree to go rummage through bags and satchels for something to fill their bellies.

Food was passed around, seats found on boulders and twisted roots and amid the ferns, and Laure basked in the wonder of her day. She and Vilkas sat shoulder to shoulder on the moss, passing bites of cheese and dried venison to each other, sharing a skin of mead, laughing and telling stories, chatting lightly with the crowd of people assembled on the high shelf.

A sudden, wordless song seemed to well up, rising high over the rush of the waterfalls spilling from above. Everyone paused to listen as the beautiful melody echoed throughout the massive cavern, acoustics magnifying the sound until the single voice seemed many.

Aheia, Nisinah, and the two oldest grand-daughters, Lyric and Aaria hummed in appreciation, eyes bright.

“That is my new bard, if I'm not mistaken!” Laure exclaimed quietly. “I think I should go get her before she trips and falls into the stream. I'll be right back.”

Farkas was already up, waving her back to her seat. “You stay and catch up with your family. What is her name? I will go and bring her up here.”

“Thank you, that is sweet, Farkas. Her name is Autumn--pretty little red-head, can't miss her.” Laure smirked and gave Vilkas a satisfied grin before scooping her grand-son Zavi up once more.

Vilkas watched his brother disappear down the path, then shrugged. She was up to something, he could be sure of that, and he had a decent idea what that something might be. So be it, apparently she didn't have enough to do already and needed to play matchmaker for his brother. He relaxed and decided to let what would happen do just that. Da'aviem shyly held up a tiny wooden bow, presenting it to him for approval, and Vilkas leaned forward to admire the qualities of the miniscule weapon with quiet approval.
Laurelin Dragon Hunter--30
Well, again it has been a fantastically long time. Life being what it is right now, I'm glad when I can string two words together in a proper sentence. All else aside, I hope you enjoy! The rest of this chapter is forthcoming. I broke it up because it was simply too long.
To all who took a little time from your day to wish me a Happy Birthday, thank you! I had a lovely day, and a small gathering at my house with family and friends! I miss you all, and I am still working on chapter thirty. Much love and light until next I can post!
  • Mood: Optimism
  • Listening to: Something groovy and patter of kid feets.
  • Reading: Abyss Beyond Dreams--Peter F, Hamilton
  • Watching: Walking Dead
  • Playing: Back to Skyrim
  • Eating: Nope.
  • Drinking: Water.
Every new year has its own challenges. Last year was a constant uphill battle for me. Between trying to become more financially steady, my body being a bitch and making it hard for me to do what I love and excel at, trying to remain positive in the face of everything that didn't happen as planned, and the loss of a dear friend, I feel ready to have things play out for the better. Most importantly, I possess the will to work hard for what I want, and it will all come together in good time.

I AM still writing as I find the time, chapter thirty is in the pipe. For months it feels as though I had lost my voice and the threads of my story were loose and waving in the breeze. I have been sitting down again with pen and paper, and somehow that has worked. Something about the blinking cursor at the end of an incomplete sentence just kind of walled off my ability to take the story from my head and put it out. Pathetic maybe, but true. I'm just glad I still have the motivation to finish this monster of a story, after over two years of sporadic productiveness and stalling. It's getting there, and I am still determined to finish--eventually!

So, Happy New Year to you all, may it be filled with energy, health and happiness. Love and Light.

  • Mood: Optimism
  • Listening to: Something groovy and patter of kid feets.
  • Reading: Abyss Beyond Dreams--Peter F, Hamilton
  • Watching: Walking Dead
  • Playing: Back to Skyrim
  • Eating: Nope.
  • Drinking: Water.

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Chapter Twenty-nine

Stranger Things Have Happened

Laure lay in bed, comfortably between waking and dream. Since becoming a werewolf, she had run the full range of sleeplessness, from light tossing to vivid dreams that left her exhausted upon waking. Lying next to Vilkas had the benefit of calming her sleep on most nights, yet another thing to be grateful for.  Not that it would be an issue for much longer, she reminded herself drowsily.

She was considering trying to catch a few minutes' more sleep when she heard a key snick quietly into the lock on the front door. Iona crept in on soft feet and closed the door behind her. The housecarl immediately stoked the fire back into life and began heating water, preparing breakfast. Laure snuggled back into Vilkas' chest, not quite ready to rise yet, content to sprawl lazily in bed for a moment or two longer with her thoughts of the new day's tasks.

Iona tried to be quiet, pulling plates and knives from the cupboards, but she cursed roundly when she bumped a pitcher of water and it splashed over the floor.

Vilkas stretched, pushing himself hard against Laure's back, letting her know he too, was awake, so she called out, “Don't fret Iona; we're up. Or getting there.”

“Sorry, my thane. I didn't mean to rouse you,” Iona called from the front room, setting the plates down with a muffled clatter.

“I say again, don't fret. Vilkas was getting up anyway to come help you with breakfast, aren't you lover?” Laure smirked as she yanked the blanket away from her mate and tucked it under her chin. Vilkas yelped at the sudden cold and shortly he was tugging the blanket, although Laure suspected more to cover his nakedness than from the chill air. Giggling, she fought back, until his fingers began burrowing under her arms, tickling the whole way.

“Perhaps you have forgotten, love, but we have many things to do today. We do not have the luxury of staying in bed all morning,” he reminded her in his low voice.

Shortly after they had arrived, a message had been delivered to the front door, summoning her to a meeting with Maven, who had kept her later than Laure was happy about. It had only served to emphasize how much their time belonged to every one else.

“Well I know it. I was hoping after last night's meeting I wouldn't need to work anymore and I could quietly retire with a dozen well-made manservants to wait on me hand and foot. Looks like I'm stuck with a smelly Nord who shivers when the nasty Dragonborn steals the blankets.” She broke off and howled in laughter when his fingers dug into her sides, and she leaped from bed, hair askew, chest heaving, naked as a newborn.

“You're going to get it someday, serah,” she said, leveling a stern look and finger his way.

“Promises I intend to hold you to,” he replied with an impudent grin, triumphantly tucking the blanket around his waist. “Since you're up, could you help me find my trousers?”

Laure winked and asked sweetly, “The ones I threw in the fire last night? Oops, I do hope you brought spares. I was in a hurry to get you out of them.”

“I suppose I don't really need pants,” he made to rise but she scooped his trousers up and threw them to him instead. He pulled them on and looked about for his tunic, unable to find that either. Until he spotted her a moment later, wearing it, and it only, as she and her housecarl seared up fish and scrambled eggs. Without protest, he pulled an extra tunic from his pack and sat down to watch her slender legs and appreciate the flashes of her backside as she moved about. He wanted to haul her right back to bed, but he had not been jesting when he said they had much to do. Maybe after the wedding--no scratch that, after Alduin--they would be able to take some time for themselves. For now he contented himself with hot food and kisses from his woman and, as she bent over to deliver both, a nice view down the loose neck of his tunic, so he enjoyed that too.

“Eat up,” she said needlessly. He looked down and took up a crusty slice of bread, warm and toasted. She even made her honey-butter he thought happily, tearing off an enthusiastic bite.

“You two are sickeningly cute,” observed Iona.

“Aren't we just?” agreed Laure with a lift of one shoulder and saucy grin to her beloved.

* * *

Breakfast was done, the dishes cleared away, Laure and Vilkas washed and dressed. She rubbed the back of her fingers across his cheek, raising an eyebrow at the rasping hiss it made. “Are you going to shave before we dine with the jarl?”

“Of course. I'll do that while you take care of your other business. Will you be back here before we head over to the keep?”

“Aye, I should come back and change clothes again.” The supple doeskin trousers and linen tunic she wore now might be fine for simple errands, but would never be acceptable for brunch with the jarl. Kissing him goodbye, she slipped out the front door and made her way across town, dashing up the stairs to the temple of Mara. Rolling her shoulders back and taking a deep breath, she opened the door and greeted Maramal, priest of Mara, with a broad smile.

She emerged a half hour later, wondering how she had been out-maneuvered so soundly by the enthusiastic priest. While he had agreed to make the journey to Whiterun to perform the marriage, he had guilted her into aiding him with tasks he had been guided by his goddess to see completed. She had agreed with the condition that she and Vilkas would see them done as long as she was able to see to Alduin first.

Maramal had been delighted with the outcome, and Laure was pleased herself, glad the list was growing shorter. Her next stop took her behind the temple to the graveyard. In moments she was splashing softly down the sewer tunnel, slipping into the back entrance of the Guild. Most everybody was asleep at this hour, so she pocketed the gems and gold Bryn had taken to leaving in her personal chest, and slid into the Flagon without waking any of the sleeping thieves.

Vekel gave a wave and poured a flagon of mead for her, setting it on the counter where she pulled up a stool.

Delvin gave her a smile and said, “Well, well, look who's dropped in for a bit of a friendly visit. We heard you was in town, Boss. How's the business o' being Dragonborn treatin' you?”

“Oh, you know the way of it. I wave my magic swords at the dragons and they fall out of the sky, dead at my feet. I am then showered with gold and gratitude. Handsome young warriors hold doors and offer me drinks. And my shit doesn't stink, either.” She grinned his way and they clinked mugs before drinking deeply.

“I take it the truth ain't quite so shiny then? We hear things, course. But half of it seems too strange to be true.”

“Don't believe half of what you hear, and take the rest with a grain of salt. You know how things get exaggerated. I'll tell you all about it when I get back from Sovngarde. How are things here?”

Delvin knew her well enough to ignore the comment about Sovngarde, filing it away as something to ask Bryn about later.

She covered the top of her flagon when Vekel moved to refill it. She wanted to keep a clear head, so she nursed the rest of her drink while Vekel and Delvin filled her in on the happenings and Guild business. Tonila sauntered in a while later and joined them for a bit before going to a quiet corner to break her fast.

Conversation trailed off for a moment. Delvin glanced her way with a curious look and cleared his throat. “So Brynjolf dropped an interesting nugget of news on us the other day. Said you're getting married soon, to that Companion fellow. Any truth to that?”

“That is correct. Vilkas and I are to wed in Whiterun before the moon turns.”

“Huh, 'that is correct' sounds nice and proper. You must know more than your saying. Truth is, we all figured that you'd just settle down with Bryn. This man your hitching yourself to, he make you happy?”

“Very much so, Del. How does Bryn seem? Is he okay?” Laure fiddled with her mug, eyes glued to the scuffed counter.

“Well enough. It's been a long time coming I think. He's had time to come to terms with the change, happened slow-like, so it's not as if he was particularly surprised. A little hurt, but he's a grown man. I told him years ago to not let you slip by, but he wasn't about to come over all heavy and try to force you into something you weren't comfortable with. His loss, and maybe next time a lass comes along and turns him inside out like you did, he'll take some initiative.”

“Perhaps. He can be rather stubborn.” Laure went ahead and took the shot of brandy that Vekel plunked in front of her, feeling the need for a little extra bit of fortification just then. “B-aahh, wow! A little fire to warm the gut. What I was about to say is, Brynjolf will always have a special place in my heart, no matter that I am wed or not. We shared too much for me to forget. Things are just . . .different now.”

“I'm sure he will be delighted to hear that,” Delvin remarked dryly.

“I'm sure he will be. Look, I have a few things to take care of, but when he wakes up, let him know I need to see him before I leave tomorrow, please.”

Delvin nodded slowly, accepting a refill of his empty mug.

A short time later, she excused herself and walked to the corner where the face changer sat. “Galathil, I have a little work that I need done, if you've the time.”

The Bosmer woman smiled up and said through gritted teeth, “Of course, what can I do for you this time?”

Laure grinned and announced, “Well, you see, I'm getting married and dragons keep burning my hair off. I'm just vain enough to want to style it nicely for the wedding. So I would like it longer, please. Also, I want some scars on my neck and chest healed.” She rolled a few glittering gems between her fingers, then offered them over. “For your time and skill.”

Galathil stood, making the gems disappear to a pocket sewn in her sleeve. “Aye longer, and thicken it up a bit while I'm at it. Here, sit.” She pressed Laure down to the bench, fingers already massaging her scalp, combing through her swiftly lengthening hair as she worked her peculiar magics. “So does Bryn know about this wedding yet?”

“Aye, he knows.” Laurelin watched her hair transform, becoming a glossy, brighter gold, waves springing to being. It did little to distract her from the worry that came when she thought of Bryn's reaction to her letter, the news. She had promised to give him the whole story and catch up with him when she was next in Riften, thinking they could sit down with a bottle and talk, but she hadn't anticipated Vilkas meeting her on the road into town. It might complicate a few of her plans, but she would have to work it out quickly; time was short and she was sure she didn't want Vilkas and Bryn meeting just now. Or ever. She was frowning when the other mer slid a mirror around to show her the results.

Galathil stepped back, “Did I do something amiss? Too much gold?”

“No, my compliments, actually. My hair hasn't looked this nice in years. I was just thinking.”

“About your husband to be? Or Bryn?” the face changer asked with a smirk. She set to tightly braiding Laure's waist length mane.

“Yes,” was Laure's brisk reply, as she mentally scratched off one more entry on the list. Next was midday meal with Jarl Laila. This much of the day she could look forward to without any worry. Laila was a leader concerned for the well-being of her people; if she had a fault, it was that she was too trusting of her advisers and thanes, often seeming unaware of the shadier business happening right under her nose. Laure could think of two thanes of Riften who were unarguably on the shady side. Namely herself and Maven Black-Briar. However, if Laila was easily manipulated, at least she wasn't a tyrant, and Laure did have genuine affection for the jarl of the Rift.

Outside once more, Laurelin headed back to Honeyside, ready to change into more appropriate attire. At the gate, a half dozen guards clustered, arguing loudly.

“What is the trouble here? Has there been some sort of attack?” Laure asked when she drew near.

The bickering stopped and one of them turned and replied, “Werewolf attacked not far from here, in broad daylight no less. We told that Companion staying at Honeyside; he said he'd take care of it, but told us to pull all the men back in the gates until he returns. Cocky bastard that one—hey, where you going?”

Laure was already dashing down the alley toward her house. When she burst in, Vilkas' street clothes lay discarded on the floor and he was fully armored, pulling on his gauntlets. His silver eyes met hers and he smiled grimly. “I'm afraid I will have to be excused from lunch, my love.”

“Of course, I understand. Please, be safe. You know our feral brothers are wildly unpredictable, and I want you in one piece for our wedding night.”

“I'll be back before you know it. In one piece.” He leaned over, kissing her hard, then snatched up sword and shield. He kissed her once more, before she pushed him off and spun him around.

“Go on then. Get all sweaty and bloody so I can get you naked and wash you clean.”

“Deal,” he said and was out the door. Laure listened to his steps and then bent to pick up his discarded clothing before changing herself.

* * *

Laila stood to greet her guest, hands outstretched. “Laurelin, I am glad to have you here again! But where is your Companion friend? I thought he would be joining us today.”

Laure took her friend's fingers and clasped them warmly in her own. “I'm afraid he was called away on urgent business. I hope you are not too disappointed, my lady.”

“Ha! Well leave it to a man to find any reason to avoid suffering through a meal with two women catching up on the latest gossip, aye?”

“Truly. However, in his defense, he wished to investigate the report of a werewolf seen not far from your gates.”

The jarls eyes widened, “Indeed! Well, I suppose he can be excused then. Will he be quite safe?”

“Vilkas is one of the mot skilled swordsmen I know. He won't take any unnecessary risks.”

“If you say so. I should be terrified to face such a beast myself, but enough of that. I had thought we might take our refreshment up in my rooms. There is much we should talk of, and little I want shouted from the walls by sunset.”

“Of course, it would be a pleasure.” Laure followed the jarl through the keep and up the stairs, smiling to herself. Poor Laila had no idea she had invited the wolves to dinner.

Jarl Laila indicated a velvet cushioned chair for each of them before a brightly burning fire. They settled in while a serving girl poured wine and lit a few lanterns, then quietly departed.

Laila sniffed her wine, swirling it thoughtfully, a small smile curving her lips upward. “So, Dragonborn, it seems we will be celebrating a momentous event soon. Are you nervous?”

Laure sipped and blithely said, “Not at all.” Laila raised an eyebrow and chuckled knowingly. “All right, I'm terrified. Is that more to your liking? But also elated too. Makes for an interesting emotional state. Is that normal?”

“Perfectly, I believe.”

“Well, I guess I'm fine, then. Here is your invitation, if you can find the time to leave. I would understand if you could not.” Laure passed the wax-sealed parchment over.

“Nonsense. A few days away from the Rift would be a welcome diversion from the tedium of court. Now you must tell me all about your betrothed. Is he handsome and brave? Does he treat you like a queen?” The jarl leaned forward, eyes wide and full of mischief.

Laure had no qualms about telling Laila of her beloved, and so the two women had a merry lunch, talking about men, children, and weddings over wine and roast chicken stuffed with creamy goat cheese and herbs. Finally, after the plates were picked clean and they were settling back with another goblet of wine, Laila pursed her lips, eying Laure speculatively.

“I suppose I should tell you why I asked you to join me up here today, rather down in the hall.” She toyed with the base of her filigreed goblet, gathering her thoughts. “I wanted to speak with you privately because I am concerned about a few matters here in Riften, and I hope you might help set my mind at ease, and we can come to an arrangement beneficial to us both.”

“It would be a pleasure and an honor to aid you any way I can,” said Laure earnestly. Though from her tone, Laure's guess that it wasn't just so they could gossip in private niggled its way into her thoughts.

“Excellent. I was hoping you might tell me what will happen with your business here after you have wed. Conditions in the Rift are slowly turning about--less crime, better regulation of the less savory elements that stained the reputation of my city. Given your solid affiliation with the Companions, it is altogether understandable that you have distanced yourself from your old friends. However, it would be a terrible thing if certain factions were to boil out of control again because you were not present to temper their behavior.” Laila allowed a ghost of a smile to lift her lips, somewhat softening the blow of her words.

Laure paused, not sure if she was understanding what the jarl was saying. Surely she isn't referring to . . .to that? Carefully schooling her features into a neutral expression, she waited to see if Laila would offer any more. Rather than say anything, she sipped her wine with a polite look of interest, while frantically chasing any sort of plausible response through the sudden maze of her thoughts.

“Come now, Laurelin. I'm sure you know of what I speak. The Guild is prospering once more, and I need to know if you intend to allow them to slide back into their old ways, or if things will continue as they have since you took over. Brynjolf seems capable enough, but one never can tell with a man like him. Some men need to be told what to do like children.”

Laure spluttered, choking on her wine, eyes wide in alarm. While she tried to regain her composure and breathe again, Laila sat back, smiling serenely over the table at a thoroughly flustered elf. Laurelin had suspected that eventually this conversation would have to happen; however, she had hoped it could be put off indefinitely. Damn, she knows, but for how long? Her association and status within the Guild had long been obscured behind various layers of cover stories and fronts established over the years, but when she and Brynjolf had battled a dragon before the very gates of Riften, she had realized--then conveniently forgotten--how difficult it would be to keep the truth concealed. And Bryn and I were seen together, wearing our Nightingale armor. Fuck me . . . .

“My apologies, Jarl Laila. You caught me completely off balance for a moment.” The jarl nodded and waved the apology away. “Before I attempt to answer your question, may I ask—how long have you known of my involvement with the Guild?”

“I suspect from very near the beginning. It may have taken a few weeks, but my information is usually quite accurate once it gets to me. One does not simply take up residence in my city and begin dicing with a thief of Brynjolf's notoriety without it coming to my attention sooner or later. Sooner if I have my way.”

Laure nodded. She should have known. “I'm sorry to have thought I could deceive you, your ladyship.”

“I'm still Laila. We can save the titles that adorn our names for the public, aye? We both have such nice ones, don't we?” She folded her legs and smoothed her skirts, giving Laure an expectant stare.

“Laila, it seems I must reevaluate some assumptions I had made about you. It would seem you know quite a bit of what goes on below.”

“Quite enough, and I pay well to be kept in the loop. Maven likes to think she has me blinded as well. With her I don't believe I will soon be disabusing her of the notion.”

“You know about her part in our business as well? My, my. Maven would be most distressed to learn you are more . . .aahh . . . aware than she likes to think.” Laure couldn't help the little tingle of admiration she suddenly felt toward the jarl.

“It pleases me to allow Maven her intrigues. Indeed, some of her most 'loyal' people are mine own. The fact is, she is useful in a fashion, as long as she keeps her own informants and network in order. For a while she was the only person standing in the way of sheer chaos within the Guild--until you came along, and Mercer Frey subsequently jumped ship. She is an astute businesswoman, accepting no excuses for poor execution of tasks. Her reputation was enough to help keep many small-time criminals properly respectful of the rules. However, as much as she likes to think she has more power and influence than she does, she is still little more than a well-connected merchant.”

“A well-connected merchant with the ear of the Dark Brotherhood,” Laure muttered into her nearly empty goblet.

“Be that as it may, I allow Maven her games and illusion of power. Any person with enough coin can gain the attention of the Brotherhood. She simply enjoys the terror and pliability of those who are intimidated by her boasting, and thus is fooled of her own accord that she has more influence than she actually does.” Laila poured the last of the wine into their goblets and sipped.

Laure was swiftly sorting out her options. Denial was right out. The jarl plainly knew enough to get Laure thrown into jail faster than she could say, “Fus Ro Dah.” But she must not want to do that, or she wouldn't have needed to bring me up for a nice, cozy lunch. “So what is it I can do for you, my jarl? You have me at quite a disadvantage, to be sure.”

“What I want is the stability you have brought to the Guild to continue. I was not lying when I said it would be terrible if the improvements that have manifested the last few years were to evaporate. I realize it would be unreasonable to hope that thieving could be eradicated, that the Guild be dissolved, Riften free of criminals and thieves. That day will most likely never come. Oh now, don't look so distressed; my sources have told me about the way you and that red-haired charlatan restructured the Guild after Mercer. I have noticed a subtle shift in your targets, and the 'protection' fees have dropped, while at the same time offering up true protection from members of the Guild. In truth, even the incidents from non-guild members have declined. You now govern yourselves, meaning I don't have to spend as much on patrols and investigations. I just need to hear from you, Guildmaster, that the situation will remain nicely balanced after you have wed your Companion.”

Laure felt she succeeded admirably in not flinching overmuch and said, “Brynjolf has been more or less in control since before I found out about being Dovahkiin. He and I instituted all these changes together, so when I was forced to assume other responsibilities, he was already prepared for the job. I don't foresee him making any radical changes to the operation any time in the future. I gather you would like me to keep this conversation private?”

“Oh, aye. Indeed. You should certainly tell Brynjolf, however, so there can be no mistakes made. To be blunt, I am not interested in disrupting your business, the situation in Riften is nicely balanced right now, I would be a fool to tamper with it, perhaps send it back to where we were before.” She smiled coolly at Laurelin before continuing. “My concern is, and always has been, making sure my city thrives and prospers. That its citizens are safe and fed. That the civil unrest touches us all as little as possible. That is what I am asking for your assistance with, Laurelin Vo' Shai. I named you thane four years ago for that purpose. And now I need your assurance of continued assistance, from you, Dragonborn. And from the Guild.”

“This would complicate the Guild's arrangement with the Black-Briars. Currently much of our information comes from Maven, or promptly goes to her desk. She will notice if we suddenly start holding back on her.”

“I would expect you to continue much as before, with the stipulation that all information relevant to my needs be passed to me, and only me, first. It may prove useful to see what she alters before handing information over to me, have true documentation to compare. In return, my guards continue to ignore the frequent visits to a certain mausoleum in town.” Laila finished her wine and set her goblet on the table. “Understand, I am quite fond of you, Laurelin. Thief, or Dragonborn, or both, it makes no difference to me. However, if you and your Guild are not being of more pertinent use to me, I see no reason why I shouldn't, say, impose a heavy tariff on all goods brought to the city by your associate merchants down below. Nor would I see the need to have thieves—even those who willingly surrender when caught—taken to a comfortable jail cell for a short time. Not when I could get my information in other ways.” The jarl raised her brow, eyes boring into Laure's, with no trace remaining of the seemingly naïve woman Laure had thought she knew.

Laure realized how deeply, how woefully she and Brynjolf had underestimated this woman. And people thought Maven was ruthless! A wide, genuine smile appeared on her face. “Of course I would be honored to assist you in any way possible, Jarl Laila. I will inform Bryn immediately. My own concern is that if Maven finds out . . .well, there will be blood if that happens.”

“Leave Maven and her brood to me. If she causes trouble, she will learn a few things herself. Naturally, I wish to be notified if the Guild learns that she suspects I am more informed than she currently thinks.”

Laure nodded, feeling almost as stupefied by this turn of events as when Farkas had changed into a werewolf before her very eyes that first time. At least he had given her some hints, when viewed in retrospect. Laila had tugged the carpet from under her feet with no warning at all. At least I'm not the only one, she thought to herself. The whole realm thought the Jarl of Riften was completely clueless. Oh, this is just too delicious for words!

“Excellent! I am glad we can work together in this matter. Now, shall I call for more wine, while you tell me more of your plans for the future with this Vilkas character? Are you going to wear something traditional to your people?”

Chuckling, Laure could not refuse. “Perhaps just one more. Maybe you can tell me about this flower girl I've been told I'm supposed to have strewing petals in front of me.”

* * *

Laure was in the midst of recounting her tale of lunch with the jarl and all its surprises to Vilkas, when he stopped her with a smug look. “You know you deserve this just a little bit, aye? The great Guildmaster, being completely fooled by a simple jarl. At least you aren't alone. Most people would agree that she seems to be quite different than the Laila you met today. You didn't feel the need to confess our condition, did you?”

“Absolutely not. Are we taking care of that soon?”

“As soon as we can spare the time. I had hoped to get up to the tomb before the wedding, but there is still much to do. Hungry? We can make something up while you tell me about the rest.”

Laure nodded and joined him, working together with practiced ease, taking numerous quick intervals to kiss and tease. Not long later they sat before the remains of a modest supper, sipping wine with full bellies. When a knock came at the door, Laure paused and gave Vilkas a puzzled glance, but he only shrugged.

“It's your house.” He calmly turned back to his wine, a hint of a smirk playing briefly over his lips.

Laure was rising when Iona breezed past and cracked the door. “Message for your mistress. G'night.” Iona closed the door and handed over a small scrap of paper, sealed with the Black-Briar crest.

Laure took it and opened it, eyes taking in the few words as her lips formed a silent, “Damnation! That vile woman leaves me no peace when I am in town.”

“Another summons from our favorite meadery proprietor, I take it?” asked Vilkas softy.

“Aye. If I go now, I can probably still catch her while she's installed at the Bee. You could come with and get a fresh beer. Jalen-Jei makes a few interesting drinks. Only one of them was slightly revolting.”

“Fascinating as that sounds, I think I'll stay in and snoop for your treasure stash. I know you must have one, and I'm curious to see if you really have a collection of ridiculously sized gems. And Chillrend, Farkas said you have Chillrend.” He leaned back in his chair to a wall and rapped it curiously with his knuckles.

“Don't go knocking holes in the walls; I'll show you everything, all my ill-gotten gains, once I get back,” laughed Laurelin.

“Take too long and I make no promises.” He rose and rapped at another spot near the hearth, ear pressed to the surface.

“Be good, and I'll hurry. That hag has wasted enough of my time with her schemes already. Going to have to do something about that, and soon. I always say that . . . really mean it this time.” She blew a distracted kiss to Vilkas and hurried out before she could be drawn in by him again.

Vilkas settled down by the fire and picked over the remnant of his meal, then hers, happily drawn into the pages of a new book, fortified by some fine vintages his mate had squirreled away. He knew that the next time that door opened, she would step through and she would be his for the rest of the night.

* * *

Laurelin walked quickly down the stairs, Maven Black-Briar's last words still bouncing around in her head. Always with the threats or demands. Never a bloody thanks, let alone inquiry to her health.  The matron of the powerful Black-Briar family seemed constitutionally incapable of revealing the slightest shred of compassion, any where, any time. All Laure could do at the moment was keep the bitch satisfied enough for her to not interfere. <It may just be time to set some of those plans Bryn and I have made into motion. Yes, talk to Bryn and we'll start the game as soon I get back from Sovngarde.</i>

Sidestepping Talen-Jei, Laure bumped into the backside of another of the Bee and Barb's customers. “Oops, beg your pardon!” Turning to see who she had nudged, she beheld a familiar face.

“You're the bard I rescued from the sabre cat a few days ago!” exclaimed Laurelin.

The bard in question was a willowy woman barely into her twenties. Long, dark-red hair framed her face in a wild, comely jumble. The young woman blushed and lowered her eyes. “Yes my lady. I thank you again for your kindness.” Her voice was soft, and spoken with a pleasant but pronounced accent.

Laure smiled softly, “I am many things, lass. Yet none of them are a lady. Please, call me Laurelin. What was your name again?”

“I am named Autumn Rose, La--Laurelin,” said Autumn, correcting herself quickly.

“Aye, you would be,” smiled the pale mer. This one was a beauty that would turn heads in any company.

“I hate my name; as soon as I earn a better one with my music I shall change it!” flared the young woman in a surprising show of spirit.

“Why would you change your name? It is as lovely as you are, and I think it suits you. From what I have seen, that is.  I am named after a tree. Truthfully, if you are half as talented as you are lovely, then your fame is assured.” Autumn blushed again, glancing to and fro, as if hoping that no one in the busy tavern would overhear, but smiled a bit in spite of herself. Alas, that spark of amusement faded rapidly.

“Talented or no, I think I must be cursed.”

Laure's sharp eyes caught the slightest glimmer of moisture at the corners of the other woman's eyes, which immediately sparked her concern. “What happened? Here, tell me over a mug. Do you prefer mead or ale? Wine?”

“Water please, just water. Or maybe some wine? If it's not too much to ask? Mead makes my voice all garbled, and without my lute . . .” The tall redhead stifled a sob as Laure was frantically signaling Keerava for drinks, steering the younger woman to a table in a corner. No mean feat, the Bee was almost perversely designed to prevent quiet, clandestine conversations, most tables arrayed in plain sight. Made it that much easier for the ever suspicious Talen-Jei to keep a reptilian eye on his customers.

The bard was snuffling quietly and fidgeting with her long fingers by the time their refreshments arrived. Keerava set a carafe of wine, a flagon of water to temper it, and two goblets on the table. Laure dropped gold into the Argonian's scaled hand before pouring wine from the carafe and handing Autumn her goblet.

“So what happened after the sabre cat?” queried Laurelin as she sipped her wine, moving the flagon of water aside. “You were right outside of Windhelm. I thought you were taking carriage to Solitude.”

Autumn took a long gulp of her wine, un-watered, before beginning. “I was. Rather, I did. We were just setting out, and barely had Windhelm vanished from our sight when a group of bandits set upon us! The horse and teamster were quickly slain, and I was forced to flee on foot. I escaped, but my only possessions were–foolishly, perhaps--left behind! My lute was a family heirloom, entrusted to me. It was a treasure to me and I lost it! I must confess, I panicked, and soon found myself lost. I wandered a day or more before I found the road, and a kind soul to point me in the direction of a town. A farmer was coming to Riften, which is the largest town I was near by that point, and he gave me a ride. Thus, I find myself here in Riften, impoverished and without even the humblest tool of my trade to earn my keep!”

Laure topped off the girl's drink. “So you play the lute, and you also sing?”

Autumn nodded shyly, again drinking deeply of her wine.

The mer caught the eye of Talen-Jei, who sidled over. Laure whispered a few lines to the lizard man, who left the Bee right after she was done. Smirking to herself, Laurelin kicked her feet up onto a spare chair, while Autumn watered another goblet of wine and stared glumly into the rafters.

Talen-Jei returned a moment later, carrying a lute, and walked over to where the thief and bard sat. Laure took it from him, then turned with a smile to present the instrument to Autumn.

The stunningly pretty bard stared at the lute with disbelief, not taking it at first.

“I have had this in my house for, well, I don't remember how long. I know it can't replace your old instrument, but I don't play, so it's been unused all this time. It should be sound, just needs tuning, I imagine.” Laure slid it over the worn tabletop and gave a small gesture with a long-fingered hand.

“I can't accept this; I have no coin to pay you,” demurred the redhead quietly.

“You are proficient with its use, though, correct? Play a few songs for me, and we shall see about payment after. I would be honored if you graced us with a song.”

Autumn Rose plucked a string experimentally, listening to the mellow, slightly out of tune note that sounded. She picked the instrument up finally and set to tuning it, her eyes sparkling with interest. She swiftly had the instrument tuned, while she tried to ignore the small crowd that was beginning to form nearby.

Warming up with a sweet mellow instrumental piece, the bard smiled to herself, delighted to feel the strings and frets under her fingertips again. It wasn't her family instrument, but it was a thoughtful, generous gift—again, from the Dragonborn herself! When she finished her warmup, she looked over at the Dragonborn, nodded once, then began to sing.

Laure heard the first passage and smiled. Indeed, the woman had a lovely voice that brought chills to her listeners. So what if she was singing that appalling tune she hated? If all bards were as gifted as this, she could listen to it all night.

* * *

Buzzed and humming to herself, Laure trotted the few yards from the door of the Bee to her own house, paying attention to little else, anticipating showing Vilkas her hoard. Then he would marvel at her wealth and cleverness, and they would make passionate love right on piles of her ill-gotten gains. Yes, and she had to tell him about the extraordinary bard she had found. Plans for that bard mingled drunkenly in her mind with her lascivious plans for her mate, pleasantly muddled.

She pushed through the door, intending to say, “Vilkas you should come hear this singer!” Instead she skidded to a halt, door swinging wide to slam into the chair behind the entrance, all speech temporarily ripped away. What actually came out was a somewhat slurred, barely audible, “Shhi—fuck me!”

Vilkas and Brynjolf sat facing each other at her miniscule kitchen table, their large bodies making the room seem suddenly, impossibly crowded. Bryn was handing a goblet to Vilkas. Alarm flashed through her fuzzed mind, and she had a sobering vision of bloodshed and dragonfire, before she realized she was witnessing a remarkably calm meeting. Vilkas and Bryn both had neutral expressions that revealed little to nothing of their feelings about the whole situation, conveying only polite courtesy.

Her surprised gaze fell on the goblet Bryn had extended to Vilkas, and she wondered if Bryn would be tempted to slip something nasty—perhaps not lethal, but assuredly intended to make Vilkas direly uncomfortable for a time--into that drink.

Rather than take that chance, Laure made straight for the wine and slipped the goblet from Bryn's fingers, taking a healthy gulp before he could protest.

“Easy lass, there is plenty more where that came from,” chided Bryn lightly.

Laure swished the wine around her mouth a moment, and when she could neither taste nor smell anything abnormal, swallowed. “I just wanted to have at least a taste before it was all gone. Nice nose to it, velvety finish. Although, I probably shouldn't drink any more this evening.” She passed the glass to Vilkas, who gave her a searching look before lifting the wine to his own lips for a taste. He nodded approval of the vintage and sat back, heavy brow still low and knitted over his eyes.

Laure sat and poured a cup of water, letting her heart slow back to its normal tempo. “So, Brynjolf, you have met Vilkas, I see. Have you been waiting long?”

“Just arrived a few moments ago. Vilkas was kind enough to invite me in while you were out. I hope I'm not intruding.” He directed this last toward Vilkas.

“Not at all, I insist. I know Laurelin needed to talk with you before our wedding, and it will give me a chance to become more acquainted with another of her . . . ah . . . associates.”

Laure suppressed a grim chuckle at Vilkas' not-so-subtle reminder that regardless of her history with Bryn, Laure and Vilkas were committed to each other. She was sure Bryn hardly needed a reminder. She could read it in his tiny facial expressions, the way his gaze would slide to her fingers, entwined with Vilkas' and away, the too casual slouch in his seat. His scent, silently crying out in torment, announcing his misery to anyone who could understand the message.

Laure wished there was a way to make this all less painful for him, but she could think of no ideal solution, no way to ease his way through. While she pondered the dilemma, Bryn broke the uneasy silence that followed Vilkas' statement.

“I know it's late, lass, and I don't wish to keep you both. Del mentioned you wanted to speak to me about something in person. What's the news?”

Grateful for his deft refocusing of the conversation, she nodded. “Where to start? Maven has been looking to use my reputation and status to increase her own. I managed to divert her for now, but I think we are going to need to do something about her soon. Although, we may have some assistance from an unexpected quarter if we play our cards right.”

Brynjolf flicked his emerald gaze toward Vilkas and tilted his head minutely to one side in question.

Laure nodded as if to reassure him and continued, “Which brings me to the second thing. I had a magnificent lunch with Laila today.” She leaned forward, pouring wine for the three of them. They all sipped their drinks for a moment.

“And?” prodded Bryn after he swished the lush vintage over his tongue and swallowed appreciatively.

“And we have a problem, but also a solution,” she said carefully.

“I'm all ears, lass. Poised on the edge of my seat in anticipation.” Lies. He reclined as easily as ever, looking relaxed and only mildly curious.

“Long and short of it is that we've been had. By Laila, of all people!”

“How so? I thought you had her sorted out.”

“She let me think so. Turns out, she is very much aware of what is going on in Riften, as concerned as she always seemed to be, and ah, proactive in keeping tabs on what goes on.”

“So, what you're saying is that she isn't quite the easy mark we all thought?”

“Not even remotely. Gods, Bryn, you should have seen her today. You might have pissed yourself with joy to hear it. Best of all, she isn't fooled by Maven.”

“I fail to see how any of this is good news. If she's connected you to Maven, and Maven to the Guild, we're done for!”

Vilkas leaned back and gave a grim smirk, enjoying on a deep level witnessing the two thieves get a little taste of the dish they had served so often to others. Deceit was always hardest to swallow to those who regularly served it out, and little expected to have it returned, and in such a fashion.

“Easy, it isn't as bad as it sounds. She knows, has known for years about you and me, knows I'm Guildmaster,” she continued on, ignoring Bryn's involuntary flinch when she spoke so baldly about Guild business in front of non-Guild members. A Companion, no less. “She isn't going to move on us, but she has conditions.”

Bryn visibly relaxed while Vilkas scowled. Bryn could handle negotiating, understood that game innately. “All right, I'll bite. What does our remarkable charlatan of a jarl have in mind?”

Laure launched into an explanation—quietly amused at how Laila and Brynjolf had labeled each other--of the requirements Laila had outlined, then she and Bryn fell to discussing ways to implement this into their scheme for bringing down Maven. To Laure, it felt like old times, before she had been pulled away from the life made within the Guild.

Vilkas sat back, patiently keeping his temper, holding back the irrational, seething jealousy he felt when witnessing her enthusiastic planning with the gingery thief. Against all rationality, he sympathized with Brynjolf. The man knew he was not her chosen and was gracious enough to surrender and accept the changes with some dignity. He knew he would never be able to keep his wits if the table was spun round the other way. However, when the planning had taken them through the first bottle of wine, and another, and was rapidly devolving into wilder and wilder ideas, liberally peppered with anecdotes and shared memories of past mischief that he had no part in—then, and only then, did he clear his throat softly.

Laure swiveled her gaze his way and he made a small flapping gesture with both hands, mouthing 'Alduin'.

The planning stopped abruptly, Laure popped out of her seat to stoke the fire, while Vilkas and Bryn stared at each other with distinctly unfriendly expressions for a moment before they masked themselves once more in courtesy.

“I'm sorry, Bryn. I shouldn't be making plans like that just yet. I still need to find my way to Sovngarde somehow and face Alduin. That would be the other news.”

“Sovngarde. Would you need to die to go there? How is a mer supposed to gain admittance to a human afterlife?”

“I've been led to believe there is a portal somewhere that I may pass through, still alive. Pointy ears and all. After all, I only intend to pass through, I've no intention of lingering; from what I understand, what Alduin does there is worse. But if something should happen . . .”

“Say no more, lass. I understand. Everything will be taken care of while you are away.”

“And after if something should--”

“I'll not be hearing any of that, lass. I'd wager good coin that you come back with Alduin's eyeteeth in your pocket. If something should happen, I would take care of business as usual, but I don't think you're destined to be defeated by an overgrown lizard.”

Laure nodded, glad he understood her need to be reassured that business would carry on. “Thank you. I've been told no good deed goes unpunished, so I hope you will forgive me for the last bit of business for the night. I was going to wait until I got back from Sovngarde, but this way will be better. I am giving you my resignation as master of the Guild, effective immediately. You will be new Guildmaster, Bryn, until such time as you wish to retire or find a suitable replacement.  I asked Karliah, but she very politely told me to bugger off. I doubt even you could sway her. She did mention that she would help out from time to time, as always.”

Bryn tried vainly to cover the frown of unhappiness pulling at his lips, so he concealed it with his wine cup until he regained his composure. “Well, I can't say I'm surprised; I had rather guessed it might come to this sooner or later. Can't say I think much of your choice for Guildmaster though, lass. Very well, I'll take the position, but I don't like it one bit. However, anything I can do to help ease your transition back in to respectable society will be an honor,” he said, unable to hide the reproachful look he threw Vilkas' way.

Vilkas ignored it, keeping his gaze on his beloved, no longer smirking. He knew she hated causing the red-haired thief any pain, but he approved of her decision. It was past time she severed her ties to the criminal world and focused on what she was meant to do. Be more present as Harbinger, work on plans for further improvements to Breezehome, and then they were going to get to the business of filling it with pink-cheeked babies.

Bryn reached into an inner pocket and withdrew a slender packet of letters. “These are for you. I opened and replied to the ones pertaining to business, but the opened ones in there still have things I thought you should see yourself. As for me, I must be going now. I don't doubt I have kept you both up longer than you liked.” He stood up once she took the letters, gave a brief nod each to Vilkas and Laure, then disappeared noiselessly out the front door.

Laure gave Vilkas a stricken look, half out of her chair before she realized it. He rolled his eyes and said, “Go, then. Just come back soon, aye?”

She nodded, flung the letters to the tabletop without looking at them, and dashed out the door.

* * *

Bryn was down by the docks, sitting in the shadow of a pile of crates, gazing morosely out at the lake when Laure found him. She settled herself down with a sigh, legs dangling over the edge.

“Shouldn't you be nuzzling up to your husband to be, lass?”

“Bryn, I had hoped you could at least try to be happy for me.”

“You know why I never asked you, lass. I'm feeling a little less than charitable towards the man just now. I feel like I passed over an opportunity that he then snatched up, all because I thought you were comfortably off the market. Don't ask this of me just yet.”

“So I take it this means you won't be coming, then,” she said ruefully, knowing it had been a long shot anyhow. “All kinds of shiny baubles gathered in one convenient location, worn by influential upper crust.”

“I'd rather swim naked with a school of slaughterfish. Nice try, though.”

“It would mean a lot to me, and Vilkas will be on his best--”

“Lass, I'm sure the last thing anyone wants--Vilkas least of of all--is me at your wedding. No thanks. And I have a mind to refuse to accept your resignation.” He tried to glower her way but after a moment allowed it to soften. In that softening, she saw all the hurt he was so adept at concealing.
“Why, Laurelin? Does he make you so happy? I . . .I would have done nearly anything to be where he is now.”

“He does make me happy, Bryn. It has nothing to do with you; you always were wonderful. But I truly think I needed to meet him. I got the best weapons training money can buy,” she jested quietly,  “all for free, and I found a partner as well. Just as I needed my time with you. I will cherish our time together, and I'll be grateful to still call you friend.”

“You know you went barking mad when you became a werewolf,” he teased, “I blame him entirely. Of course you and I can still be friends.”

“True, but he didn't turn me. He kept me sane through it all.”

“The giant twin then. Still blaming Vilkas, it amounts to the same thing.”

“It wasn't Farkas either. It was a woman,” reminisced Laure with a half smile.

“So she's a biter, eh? I love it when you talk dirty; tell me more.”

“Enough, I've told you too much already. So you won't be coming to Whiterun?”

“For that, sorry lass, but I'll join the Greybeards before I watch you marry some other man.”

“As if they would accept you.”

“I'm sure you catch my meaning. No, I think I'll take advantage of the fact that half the nobles in the province are going to be conveniently—for me--far from home. Already have agents abroad making early preparations, actually.”

“Good plan, Guildmaster.”

“That . . . it's not official yet, and I'm not telling the lads about my 'new position' until I sew some things up.” He stood and helped her to her feet, retaining her fingers long enough to brush them with his lips. “Plus, I know that it will be less than a year before you are bored with settled life and you'll march back in like you own the place, looking for mischief. If I can put it off long enough, you might be ready for quieter work. This is all some strange wolf phase you will grow out of.” He winked and released her fingers reluctantly.

“Better not get your hopes up, darling.”

“Always looking for the silver lining. Good night lass. For what it's worth, congratulations. I hope you have much joy in each other.” He turned and slipped into the shadows, blending away into the night.
Laurelin Dragon Hunter--29
Wow, it has been a very, very long time. This one is long, and I make no apologies for it, there was just no reasonable place to break it up. If you like longer chapters you should be going into convulsions of happiness right about now. Also, why does this bard keep popping up? Hmmm. . . Love to all of you and thank you for being patient. Gratitude to Wendy, as always.

Please remember to fave, and leave me feedback if you would be so kind! ^_^
To all who took a little time from your day to wish me a Happy Birthday, thank you! I had a lovely day, and a small gathering at my house with family and friends! I miss you all, and I am still working on chapter thirty. Much love and light until next I can post!
  • Mood: Optimism
  • Listening to: Something groovy and patter of kid feets.
  • Reading: Abyss Beyond Dreams--Peter F, Hamilton
  • Watching: Walking Dead
  • Playing: Back to Skyrim
  • Eating: Nope.
  • Drinking: Water.


Pyreiris's Profile Picture
Mom, Dusty, sometimes Dear or My Love.
Artist | Hobbyist | Varied
United States
Gardening, dancing, doodling, reading, writing Mom Lady. Old school gamer girl, always roleplaying in my head.



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Whisper292 Featured By Owner Feb 13, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
I see Leslie already tagged you with this. You don't have to do it twice, of course, but you still deserve to receive it from me.

Tag a quality deviant, You’re it! Quality doesn’t mean that you have a lot of followers, or a lot of messages. It means that you’re nice to other people, and you deserve to be happy. If you get this message, someone is telling you that they love you as you are, and they don’t care how much followers you have. Send this to 10 deviants who deserve it. If you break the chain, nothing will happen. But it’s just good to let someone know that you love them! Heart 


Pyreiris Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
I'll tag some worthy souls when I have my lappy and not just my phone. Love you to the Moon!!
Lesliewifeofbath Featured By Owner Feb 12, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Tag a quality deviant, You’re it! Quality doesn’t mean that you have a lot of followers, or a lot of messages. It means that you’re nice to other people, and you deserve to be happy. If you get this message, someone is telling you that they love you as you are, and they don’t care how much followers you have. Send this to 10 deviants who deserve it. If you break the chain, nothing will happen. But it’s just good to let someone know that you love them! :D (Big Grin)
Pyreiris Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
D'awww! I love you too, lovely Lady!
Wilvarin-chan Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2015
Happy birthday, dear!! Happy Birthday Godliek :D Omg I gets present Huggle! 
Pyreiris Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks you, Sweetness! :hug:
Lesliewifeofbath Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Happy Birthday!  This handsome fella wants to give you a kiss.George the Llama by Lesliewifeofbath
Pyreiris Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Oh, smoochie!! :kiss:
Lesliewifeofbath Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
saltygambler Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2015
Happy birthday! :iconsparklesplz::icongrinstareplz:
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