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Sunday, July 19, 2015

XXI - Markarth

Merill rose early the next morning and saddled Thelred for the ride to Markarth, almost on the opposite side of Skyrim. The predawn was grey and silent, and she was thankful to be out of the cold, blank snows of Winterhold and into the greener ranges of Hjaalmarch.

The day gradually blossomed into a brighter color, the sun occasionally peering out and sending dappled shadows through the evergreen needles to spot the path with light. The air was still sharp, though the sun warmed it enough for Merill to leave her hood down and let her hair loose – a refreshing priviledge in the bitter winter months. She stayed on the road for the most part, occasionally cutting through a Spriggan glade or through a lake (for both the excitement and the shortening of the journey). Thelred was fast proving to be a worthy steed, far more in his element down in the forests than in the ice fields. He cantered lightly along the trail, snorting in excitement whenever Merill let the reins loose to draw her bow and take down an opponent alongside the road. She often missed at first – shooting steadily while keeping her balance on the horse’s back was a challenge, but that only prompted her to try harder, and she was soon able to nail an arrow in the middle of a bandit’s eye as Thelred cantered by.
When the sun reached its zenith, Merill found a clearing just off the cobbles, bathed in a deep green shade with a brook running through. She slid off Thelred’s back, a weak smile touching her lips at the tangled grass underfoot. It had been a long while since she’d been in a forest, and the towering trees put her heart at ease in a way they hadn’t been able to do for years.
Merill left Thelred’s reins loosely looped over a branch and pulled a heel of bread from her pack, stretching out in the chill grass and tearing off a chunk with her teeth. She could only see fingers of the bright sky though the needles of the trees overhead, but the sun’s distant early winter warmth still stretched through. For one brief, blissful moment, Merill forgot about the cabin burning in the woods, Armion’s sword raised to strike down hard on Nalimir while Brelin burned, a dagger in her eye, taking her vision in a whirl of blood and pain.
She was jerked out of her reverie by a sudden cacophony of sound – wind fiercely whipping the trees around her, someone screaming, Thelred’s nervous whinny, and the unmistakable earth-shattering roar she’d grown to know so well.
Merill leapt to her feet, snatching up her bow and quiver from where they lay in the grass, and nocked an arrow, moving out into the road where there were fewer trees obstructing the view of the sky. Sure enough, a great, black-winged dragon circled the forest, its head tilted just enough so that it could survey the path below with one cruel, sharp eye. Merill drew her arrow back, closing one eye and angling the tip of the arrow at the dragon’s left wing. She let it fly and it cut through the leathery flesh of the wing just as the dragon spotted her.
Merill rolled to the side to avoid a spray of ice from the dragon’s jaw as it careened into the trees, its balance thrown. She straightened up, nocking another arrow and keeping it trained at the cloud of dirt that had floated up upon the dragon’s crash. It gave another great roar, shaking out from the dust, glaring down at Merill.
Ni!” she shouted, but the dragon widened its great jaws and screamed out more ice at her. She sprang to the side, letting the word Paarthurnax had given her rise up in her chest.
Fire burst forth, singing the scales of the dragon, and it reeled back, screaming in fury. You are of the dov. I have no doubt.
Ni!” Merill tried again. “Hon roti, zeymah!
Nisi bein rotu bormah, Dovahkiin,” he spat back, his voice deep enough to shake the earth.
Ofan tiidi tinvaak, dovah,” Merill shouted, and when the dragon moved forward she opened her mouth again. “FUS RO DAH!
The dragon sprang back, and Merill threw aside her bow, turning to look him square in the eye. The dragon slowed, almost apprehensive.
Laani krif him,” she told him. The dragon breathed heavily, his eyes dark. “Drem yol lok,” she said, raising her hands in a gesture of peace. “Roti…” Merill hesitated. “I’m called Merill,” she tried, resorting to Tamrielic. The dragon watched her, unspeaking. “I haven’t quite learned how to do names yet,” she muttered.
Nahagliiv,” he said, and Merill realized he was telling her his name. Fury Burn Wither.
Drem yol lok, Nahagliiv,” she said, inclining her head slightly.
Drem yol lok, Merill,” he replied drily. “The dovah are not as cowardly as you men. Take up your weapon so that I may end this.”
“You’re doing this for Alduin,” Merill said. “I want to know why.”
“Lord Alduin is ruler of us all, and it is his destiny to consume this world.” Smoke rose from Nahagliiv’s nostrils and fire burned in his eyes.
“You live in this world too,” Merill told him. “And you’re all right with Aludin destroying it?”
“It is not my place to decide how the world shapes itself,” Nahagliiv snarled, his claws digging into the cobblestones till they cracked.
“It can be,” Merill tried, raising her hands a bit more as Nahagliiv moved toward her. She saw a shout building in his throat and sprang to the side as ice shot forth, searing the land where she had been with cold. Merill snatched up her bow and drew out an arrow, sending it flying into Nahagliiv’s eye. The dragon screamed in anger and a spike of ice caught her arm, the sudden cold and pain making her gasp. She drew another arrow, but the sharpness in her arm was fierce, and she couldn’t hold her bow steady enough to make a clear shot. She was nearly ready to abandon the bow and try to muddle her way through the fight with a sword when Thelred came streaking in from the half-demolished trees, his mane flying and a high, angry whinny reverberating from his teeth.
Thelred’s sharp hooves struck Nahagliiv’s head before the dragon could turn, and he reared back with blood all up his legs. The dragon drew a breath to shout the horse down and Merill used the opportunity to scream out the words of Unrelenting Force, sending him flying backward and into the wreckage of the forest, his scaly body gone limp.
Merill lowered her bow, breathing hard as the skin melted off Nahagliiv’s bones and his energy poured into her, healing the gash his ice had left on her arm and pricking her brain into alertness. Thelred, completely unnerved by the dragon attack, trotted to her side and nudged her shoulder with his nose, whickering.
“I don’t really know what I was expecting,” Merill told him, taking his bridle. “It would be helpful to have more than one dragon on our side through this whole thing, don’t you think?” Thelred nickered in agreement, and Merill led him back to the clearing, retrieving her bag and climbing back into the saddle. She gave Nahagliiv’s bones a final look before turning Thelred back toward the road.
It wasn’t long before the tall, familiar stone walls slid into view around the craggy cliffs. The city of Markarth was carved out of the very rock of the Druadach Mountains, nestled in among waterfalls that spilled out from the snowy stones. It was a town that had grown rich from mining, though the Forsworn, Bretons that claimed the land beyond to them, were known to plague its residents. Merill stabled Thelred, anxiety spinning in her heart as she climbed the stone stairs toward the city’s gates. The last time she’d used these stairs, she and Kiseen had been fleeing from the city, laughing as they were pursued by half the city guard. She wondered if Edrene still ran the gang from the rooftops, or if she’d died in a brawl like so many others Merill had watched come and go. The streets of Markarth were a hard, cruel life, and not many survived them.
Merill moved into the marketplace, glancing around for familiar faces and seeing none, though she knew the gangs rarely ventured down to the market. It was far safer up on the precarious stone walkways that crossed the streets high above the city. Memories of long, hard years in Markarth’s gangs flooded back to her as she made her way toward the back of the city, and she pushed them away. Those were the years she had thought Nalimir was dead, the years she’d been bitter and cruel to everyone she’d met. She wanted to forget them.
“Merill! Merill!” She turned sharply, bracing herself for a familiar face from Markarth’s bridges, and relaxed when she saw a familiar Bosmer shouldering his way through the crowd toward her.
“Malborn,” she greeted him, and he gave her a breathless grin. “What are you doing in Markarth?”
“Couldn’t exactly stay in Solitude, could I?” he replied, and they stepped off the busy street to a more secluded alley, strewn with rubbish and crisscrossed with shadows from the bridges overhead. “I’m a known accomplice of the Blades now. Had to go somewhere the Thalmor couldn’t find me.” Malborn had lost weight since their panicked flight from the Thalmor Embassy – his cheeks were hollow, and there were shadows beneath his dark eyes.
“You should get out of Skyrim,” Merill advised him quietly, glancing down at the other end of the alley where a stunted skeever nosed through a spilled barrel of trash. “We’ve seen agents everywhere. You’d be better off in High Rock, where they haven’t got a foothold yet.”
“I’ve been planning to get off this frozen rock when the time’s right,” he told her hastily, starting to rummage in his cloak. “But for now I’m staying hidden. And I have something for you.” He whipped a small leather-bound book from his belt, holding it out to her. “This was in the cloak you gave me right after we escaped the Embassy. It’s a dossier, but I didn’t recognize the names. Figured it might be important.” Merill took the book, flipping idly to the first page.
Thalmor Dossier: Silronwe of Sunhold.
“Shit,” she murmured, slowly leafing through the dossier. It was long – pages upon pages of cramped writing, scribbled dates, crossed out cities. The Thalmor had been tracking Silronwe since she left their ranks. “Thanks, Malborn,” she said hastily, snapping the dossier shut and digging out a few coins for him. “Here,” she said, dropping them into his palm. “Use this to get out of Skyrim.”
“Talos guide you, Dragonborn,” he whispered, giving her a quick nod before ducking back out into the crowd. Merill leaned against the alley wall, slowly opening the dossier again. She scanned the beginning pages – information on Silronwe’s travel, who she saw, where she stayed, what she did. There were twenty-six years recorded here. Merill flipped past them, her eye catching a phrase here and there – possible accomplice, threat to the Empire, growing in talent, useful, killed six men with one spell. Then a word in the top corner of a page screamed out at her, and Merill practically ripped the book in her haste to find it again.
Cirwen. Nalimir’s mother.
Merill drew the page closer to her eye, her breath sharp in her throat as she read.

Former Retainer Silronwe of Sunhold’s past assistance in this area must not be forgotten. Without her, the Bosmer rebellion likely would have staggered Thalmor forces in Valenwood. N.B. – this dossier refers to the aid offered by Retainer Silronwe in 4E 175 in uncovering the leader of the Bosmer resistance against the Thalmor (A Bosmer woman called Cirwen). It was due to Retainer Silronwe’s intel that Cirwen was later dispatched and the Bosmer rebellion halted before it could cause significant disturbance to Thalmor troops in Valenwood.

Merill lowered the dossier, her blood run cold. Cirwen – Nalimir’s mother. Leader of the Bosmer rebellion, killed because of Silronwe. She shoved the dossier deep into her bag, as if burying it beneath everything else would make the problem vanish. She couldn’t keep this from Nalimir. But it isn’t your secret to tell.
“I’m not dealing with this now,” Merill grumbled under her breath, kicking some rubbish aside and startling the scavenging skeever. It gave her an affronted look before waddling further down the alley to find a less obtrusive pile of trash. Merill stepped out from the alley, running a hand through her frizzy curls as she made her way up to the wealthier district of the city, built higher up on the mountain’s lip.
Despite all her time in Markarth, Merill had never been inside Understone Keep, the Jarl’s palace. The keep doors were situated between two waterfalls, and she felt cold water spray her face as she passed by them. The door guards let her in, and she discovered the keep was quite unlike any palace she’d ever seen.
While most buildings in Markarth had been decorated to the Nordic tradition, Merill found that Understone Keep had very much kept in the Dwemer style. The main room of the palace was dark, lit only by two low braziers by the door, and the stones were hung with tattered green silk banners sporting the golden ram of Markarth. A rockfall had ruined most of the walls, and there were two narrow pathways beside the great doorway that Merill assumed led to the Jarl’s throne. Wolfhounds wandered lazily through the hall, growling at one another and picking at animal bones that lay scattered about.
One of the guards by the door directed her to the left to find Calcelmo, the court wizard that was known for making a lifetime study of the Dwemer. She climbed the uneven stones into an enormous chamber, banded with tall structures and curving stone walkways and brass doors. Calcelmo had set up on a lofty platform overlooking the great structures, poring over an alchemy lab. He had his back to Merill, but spoke almost immediately as she approached.
“I’m very busy, girl, so this had better be important.”
“I hear you’re the authority on ancient Falmer,” Merill said, and he turned to her, revealing a weathered face mostly concealed by a black beard peppered with grey.
“Then you were well informed,” he said, lowering his mortar and pestle. “I am at this very moment on the cusp of completing my magnum opus on the subject. I’m calling it Calcelmo’s Guide to the Falmer Tongue. It will revolutionize the way we understand those ancient beings.”
“Could I have a look?” Merill asked, and his face soured.
“Preposterous!” he spat, turning back to his lab. “That research represents years of personal toil in some of the most dangerous Dwemer ruins in Skyrim! You must be mad to think I’d allow anyone to see it before it’s completed. No, I think you ought to leave.” He sharply put his back to her, taking up his mortar and pestle again, and Merill crossed her arms in irritation.
She stood there for a moment, glancing around the vast hall, then turned to leave, casually sliding a small brass key off a nearby table and tucking it into her sleeve. Hoping this key would get her into wherever Calcelmo kept his records, she hurried from the hall.
Merill had heard talk during her years in Markarth of a Dwemer museum in Understone Keep, a closed-off area where Calcelmo was preparing a number of exhibits on the vanished race to display. Merill found the palace’s ragged nature came in handy, though, when she was able to slip into the shadows and listen for one of the guards to mention the museum, pointing her in the right direction. To her relief, the key slid straight into the miraculously unguarded brass door and she slipped in without hindrance.
Merill found herself in a dimly-lit hallway, all stone ribbed with brass gears and cogs. She kept her head low, carefully moving forward until she reached a large carved pillar separating a wide antechamber from the hall.
“What a waste! There must be a dozen men up there!” someone said, and Merill pressed her shoulder into the cold stone, listening. When she had joined the Thieves Guild, she thought she knew most of the tricks, but Brynjolf had taught her how to listen to the way voices echo on stone to judge the layout of a room. She closed her eyes, focusing on the sound of the guards’ voices jumping from wall to wall. You may be a good thief, girl, but that doesn’t mean anything if you can’t learn to cooperate.
“Yeah,” another said. “Calcelmo called his entire expedition team – said he needed every man he could get to protect his research.” Great.
“Better them than us. We lost three good men to the traps up there, and for what – just to see another damn spider clanking around?” It was a cross-shaped room with a depression in the centre, dominated in the centre by some kind of object – another pillar, maybe, or a statue. Brynjolf could listen closely enough to tell where every door in the room was, but Merill wasn’t quite that good yet. She carefully peered around the pillar, making sure her face was in darkness, and saw the two speaking guards standing around a large dormant steam centurion on a pedestal, leaning against stone tables and looking irritated. Merill was sure there was an indescribable amount of loot around the chamber, but there were also an unfortunate number of guards patrolling and she didn’t have time to slip past them all.
“We could be helping in the war, but instead we’re just sitting around guarding piles of dusty shit.” Merill ducked out from behind the pillar, bypassing the guards and crouching near one of the stone tables.
“You two getting paid to stand about and talk?” another guard asked, and Merill ducked her head and shuffled under the table as one of them passed. As soon as he had crossed her, Merill slid around the corner and made a dash for it, keeping low to the ground as she passed by tables laden with Dwemer artifacts and dusty display cases till she got to the door at the back of the room, which opened with the same key she’d slipped off Calcelmo’s table.
Merill made her way down another hallway, deserted, until she came to a slightly smaller room, empty save for a few crates stacked around the walls and a great puddle of spilled oil in a depression in the stonework. Merill heard footsteps approaching from the opposite hall and quickly ducked into a smaller room off to the side, some kind of office whose desk was buckling under the weight of so many dusty books. She glanced behind her to be sure that whoever was approaching wasn’t there yet, then moved to the desk, silently shifting the books in search of something she could use to set the oil alight. Merill had taken to carrying small jars of oil with her in times like these – she had grown very fond of using fire to get out of tight spots. It was quiet and quick and offered enough of a distraction to make an escape.
She came across some kind of carved brass rod on a small pedestal, inlaid with a faintly glowing soul gem. Curious, Merill carefully curled her fingers around the rod and lifted it, finding it to be surprisingly light. Almost the moment the rod left its place, there was a great clanking from the wall and a door on one of the pipes slid open, spitting out a ball of carved brass the size of Merill’s torso. She hastily backed up against the wall as eight intricate legs shot out and the spider-like construct stood up, clicking as its front legs probed the stone for an intruder.
Merill stayed perfectly still, guessing the creature couldn’t see but had some sort of movement detection enchantment.
“Aicantar?” a voice from outside the office called. As slowly as she could, Merill drew an arrow and pulled it taut, aiming for the chamber outside. Keeping her eye on the spider, she let the arrow fly, hitting the stone and clattering to the ground. The spider moved at once, going straight for the fallen arrow, and Merill heard the patrolling guard exclaim. There were sounds of a scuffle, then a muffled moan, then silence. Merill peered out and saw the spider standing over the bloodied guard, its front legs clicking menacingly on the stone. She went around the room behind it, leaving it to its prey.
Merill soon discovered that much of the Dwemer Museum boasted similar traps and rigs that made it very simple for her to distract and take out the patrolling guards and mercenaries. She was only forced to use her bow once, when a single sellsword looked straight into her hiding place and locked eyes with her. She’d managed to put an arrow between his eyes before he could raise the alarm. At some point, Merill reached an area of the Museum that she guessed Calcelmo had never figured anyone would breach, for it was absent of guards despite the wealth of material inside. She swept the room as quickly as she could, taking the most valuable of what she saw as she searched intently for some clue about Calcelmo’s research of the Falmer.
There were certainly plenty of research notes, but Merill couldn’t possibly go through each page of tiny, intricate print in the time she had – especially once her work with the traps in the previous rooms was found. Calcelmo said this was some of the most important research he’d ever done, Merill thought, closing the drawer on the desk she’d been searching. She glanced around the chamber, looking for a chest, a safe, something to store important documents in. Maybe even further on.
Merill broke the lock on the door behind her and filled it with wax, another trick Brynjolf had taught her to significantly slow down pursuers, and went through the next door, slightly surprised to feel cool water spray her face and night air touch her cheeks. She had emerged onto a narrow balcony high above Markarth, built straight out of the mountain. A set of uneven stone stairs wound up and out of sight to her right, and Merill decided to skip looking out over the sleeping city in favour of continuing her search.
She picked the lock on the door that met her at the top of the stairs and slipped through, finding herself in a high-ceilinged chamber hung with tattered tapestries and lined with rubble. There was a landing overlooking the chamber on which stood a great stone tablet, intricately carved and covered in the same strange, spiky characters that filled the pages of Gallus’s journal.
“Finally,” Merill breathed out, quickly finding the stairs and climbing up to the tablet. As she’d presumed there would be, a small office just behind the tablet was dominated by a large stone table covered in half-flattened bits of charcoal and rolls of paper blackened with rubbings. Merill found a blank scrap of paper and a piece of coal and went out onto the landing just as she heard the doors cranking open. Shit.
“Search every bit of this tower,” someone was shouting. “The thief isn’t leaving here alive, you understand?” There were sounds of mumbled agreement. Merill knelt against the stone and spread the paper out on it, hastily scrubbing the charcoal across it, covering as much of the parchment as she could with a copy of the stony etchings. “Coltius, Reyman, guard the door.” Merill dropped the charcoal and shoved the rubbing into her bag, peering out from behind the tablet. At least nine guards were moving toward the stairs, their blades drawn, while two flanked the only exit.
Merill silently drew her bow, climbing off the landing and onto a smaller platform that circled the room. She crept along it until she reached the edge, where she crouched in shadow and slid two arrows from her quiver, digging one into a patch of moss beside her knee and nocking the other.
“There’s no way the bitch got out, I saw her go in here,” one of the guards was saying as Merill drew the arrow back.
“She’s hiding somewhere, we just need to be thorough,” another said, and Merill focused the arrow at one of Coltius’s neck, carefully aligning the steel tip with the spot where she knew the vein would burst the fastest. Left, she reminded herself, the memory of Brelin showing her how to shoot in the woods so many years ago biting at her mind. Aim left.
The arrow found its mark, burying itself in Coltius’s neck, and he collapsed, barely making a sound as blood erupted from the wound, spraying the stone wall behind him.
Shit! Captain, she’s –” Reyman started, his hand going to the hilt of his blade, but Merill’s second arrow hit him in the back of the head before he could finish, and he gave out a half-strangled moan as he crumpled at the knees.
Wasting no time, Merill slung her bow on her back and leaped down, landing catlike on the stone and shoving the great brass door open with her shoulder.
There!” someone shouted, and an arrow whispered past her ear as she stumbled out onto the balcony. The way back will be guarded, she thought hastily, looking out over Markarth as the sun began to dawn.
FEIM ZII!” Merill felt herself fade as the Thu’um took hold, rendering her immune to damage for a short time. She climbed atop the balcony’s railing and wasted no time, diving off the edge as guards clustered on the balcony, shouting. Merill raced alongside the waterfall, light as air, and hit the stone path at the bottom, quickly rolling to her feet. An arrow struck the flagstones beside her and Merill took off, dodging through the miners and early-risers of Markarth that shouted in protest as she pushed past them, using one hand to keep her hood over her face and the other to shove people aside.

Merill slowed when she reached the marketplace, glancing around. The stall owners were setting up for the day, and the guards here looked tired and unaware of what had just occurred in the museum. Merill hastily moved past the farmers and miners entering the city and took Thelred from the stables, leading him out to the road as the rising sun hit the flagstones.

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