Although Etienne did his best to keep up, he slowed the group down and they didn’t arrive in Riverwood for nearly a week. Selene and Brynjolf didn’t mind, but Delphine was put out. When they entered the inn, she stood with arms folded, glaring at them.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming back,” she scolded them.
Brynjolf nodded toward Etienne. “We had an injured man,” he replied unapologetically.
The innkeeper looked over Etienne critically. “Can we trust him?”
“Aye,” said Selene, “but we’ll leave him up here anyway.” She handed the thief a handful of gold pieces. “Get yourself a drink, and we’ll be back in a while.”
Etienne went to the bar, and Selene and Brynjolf followed Delphine to her secret room in the cellar. “Did you learn anything useful?” she asked after they had shut the false back panel of her wardrobe.
Selene nodded. “The Thalmor don’t know anything about the dragons.”
“Really. I find that hard to believe.”
“Damn it, Delphine, if you weren’t going to believe what I said, why did you send me in the first place?”
“You’re right, you’re right. I was just so sure.”
“Well, they’re on the trail, too. They’re looking for someone named Esbern.”
Delphine’s face lit up. “Esbern! He’s alive? I thought he was long gone. It figures the Thalmor would be looking for him. He was one of the Blades’ archivists, and he was obsessed with dragon lore. He was always talking about prophecy, the dragons returning, and the World Eater. Nobody paid him much attention, but maybe he wasn’t as crazy as we all thought.”
“We think he may be in Riften.”
“Down in the Ratway? I’m surprised you never ran into him.”
“I have,” Brynjolf said. “At least I think it’s him. We’re going there to find out.”
“If it’s him, you’ll probably have trouble getting him to trust you. If you think I’m paranoid, just wait. Ask him where he was on the 30th of Frostfall if he gives you any problems. He’ll know what it means.”
“Just so you know, we’ll be an extra couple of days getting to Riften,” Selene informed her. “We have to go by way of Windhelm. Oh, that reminds me.” She reached in her pack and pulled out the Thalmor dossier on Delphine. “You might want this.”
The innkeeper took the file and read through it. She smiled as she perused the dossier, which painted her as extremely dangerous and to be approached only with overwhelming force. “They think quite a lot of me, don’t they?”
“Just don’t let it go to your head. We’ll get to Riften as soon as we can and see if this man is Esbern. If it’s him, we’ll bring him back here. If not, I’ll just send you a letter and we’ll figure out what our next step is.”
“Do you need rooms for the night?”
“Aye. We’ll head out in the morning.”
* * *
They arrived in Windhelm mid-morning a few days later, and they only planned to stay long enough to talk to Ulfric before getting back on the road. After leaving Etienne at Candlehearth Hall, Selene and Brynjolf made their way to the palace, and Selene handed over the file. Ulfric’s face reddened as he read.
“‘Direct contact remains a possibility under extreme circumstances,’” he muttered. “Is Elenwen out of her mind?”
“I know you wouldn’t willingly help the Thalmor,” Selene said softly.
He looked up at her sharply. “Never,” he snarled, and then his expression softened. “However, this kind of knowledge opens the way to all sorts of possibilities, no?”
“Hopefully you can get some use out of it.”
“I will. Be sure of that.” Ulfric closed the file and regarded her for a moment before speaking again. He finally said, “Selene, I want you to be with me in Solitude for the moot.”
“What? Why do you want me there? And why didn’t you say something before?”
“All the jarls bring a second. I had thought to take Galmar because of our…awkward situation, but the truth is you deserve to be there.”
Selene looked over at Brynjolf, who simply shrugged. “It’s a great honor, Ulfric, but now that I’ve angered the Thalmor, I don’t know if being in the public eye in Solitude is such a good idea.”
“You’ll be protected; you know that.”
“Besides that, I don’t know where this dragon investigation is going to take me. I might not even be alive by then.”
“Don’t even think that,” Brynjolf pleaded softly.
“You’ll be alive,” Ulfric replied stubbornly. “And you’ll be at my side. Say yes.”
Again, she looked at her husband, who nodded. “It is a great honor.”
“And you’re okay with…Ulfric?”
“What, do you think I won’t go, too?”
“That is still undetermined. I’ve spoken to the other jarls, and they want you at the moot as well. We all agree that the dragon investigation is your top priority, so I may be able to get them to hold off until you’re ready.”
“All right,” Selene relented. “I’ll go if I’m able. But if I don’t solve this, it might not matter who’s High King.”
* * *
Etienne, back to full strength by the time they arrived in Riften, was thrilled to be home. So was Selene, if only for a brief time. If they found Esbern, they probably wouldn’t stay in town more than a day or two. She spent the day they arrived in the bathtub and in bed with Brynjolf, and the next morning they packed for the trip they would be taking if they found Esbern and went to the marketplace to trade.
Selene saw an unfamiliar face wandering around the plaza, one that didn’t appear to just be passing through. The attractive Khajiit wore a dress and carried only a small pack, as though she had just left her home for a trip to the market. She knew most of the Khajiit from the trading caravans, but this one didn’t look familiar. Thinking she might have a new neighbor and glad that Jarl Laila had finally begun letting the cats enter the city, she went up and said hello.
The Khajiit hissed at her. “Pfft! Leave me alone if you know what’s good for you.” She turned and sashayed away, her tail flicking behind her.
“Welcome to Riften, bitch,” Selene muttered.
“Ah, that’s the woman I love,” Brynjolf said wistfully. “She makes friends so easily.”
“Hey, I tried. Let’s go to the Ratway.”
Selene went to the Cistern, talked to Delvin, and looked through logs and papers to see how the Guild had fared while she was gone while Brynjolf went to the Flagon to talk to Vekel about the old man in the Ratway. With the exception of a few young footpads trying to cause a stir, everything was running smoothly.
“One or two of them got outta line,” Delvin said, “and Rune and Thrynn showed ‘em what’s what. I didn’t even hafta step in. Although Vex did warn them that if they caused trouble again, she’d rip them a new arsehole. Otherwise, the coin’s pourin’ in.”
“It’s as though you don’t even need me.”
“Don’t get me wrong, boss. I’m just as glad to hand the reins over to you when you get home. So how long you here for this time?”
“It depends. We’re looking for somebody who might be living in the Ratway. If he turns up, we’ll probably leave right away.”
“Who is it you’re looking for?”
“An old man, kind of crazy.”
“Oh, yeah, I know him. Can’t tell you where he goes, though. Just that he comes into the Flagon every now and then.”
Brynjolf came across the cistern toward the desk. “I can tell you. Vekel says he lives down in the Warrens. Comes in for supplies and pays the Guild a lot of coin to keep it quiet.”
“Aye, that’s the good news.”
“What’s the bad?”
“The Thalmor have been here. Poor Etienne was in the Flagon when Vekel told me. I thought he was going to run screaming, but he kept it together. Brave kid.”
“Etienne,” Delvin repeated, “is that where he was? The Thalmor had him?”
Selene nodded. “They’re looking for the old guy, too. But Vekel said he thought it was him?”
“To the Ratway, then.”
“Be careful,” Delvin warned them with a sly grin. “There’s a lot of lowlifes in the Ratway.”
Selene chuckled. “I know that. He already said the Thalmor were in there.”
They went to the door behind the Flagon that led to the Ratway Vaults, and Selene drew her bow and Brynjolf his sword before opening it and stepping through. It was a good thing they did, because the first thing they saw when they entered was a Thalmor wizard, standing in the doorway across the sunken courtyard. Another stood behind a grate on one of the lower levels. The ambient odors of the Ratway were too strong and the Thalmor were spread out, so she couldn’t get a good picture of their numbers and locations by her sense of smell; but she had no illusions that these were the only two.
Selene nocked an arrow and shot the Thalmor, who cried out and dropped instantly, alerting the others. The elf on the lower level started moving through the tunnels toward their position as Selene and Brynjolf charged into the courtyard. Brynjolf ran his sword through the wizard to ensure that he was dead, and they continued on, only to be stopped by a tripwire across the doorway to the next room. Selene nodded at Brynjolf and stepped back. He sliced the wire and ducked out of the way as two spiked, iron spheres swung down from the ceiling and crashed into each other; then they stepped past and entered the room.
As they navigated the channels of the Vaults, they encountered three more Thalmor. Selene and Brynjolf knew their way around the Ratway while the elves did not, and they dispatched them with no trouble. Before long, they stood before a heavy door that led deeper into the passages of the Warrens. All the way at the back, after sneaking past several vagrants and one crazy chef who wanted to eat them for dinner, they found a heavy, iron door with a sliding peephole.
Selene knocked on the door.
The slide opened, and an old man peered out. “Go away!”
“Esbern? Open the door. We’re friends.”
“What? No, that’s not me. I’m not Esbern. You have me mistaken.”
“Delphine sent us.”
“Delphine?” He sighed dejectedly. “So you’ve finally found her and led her to me. And here I am, caught like a rat in a trap.”
“No, no, we really are friends, and we need your help. She said to ask where you were on the 30th of Frostfall.”
Esbern gazed at her for a long moment before nodding. “You’d better come in and tell me how you found me. And what you want.” He closed the sliding door and, by the sound, proceeded to open a series of locks. After half a dozen clicks and clangs, he said, “this one always sticks. There we go.” Click. Clang. The rattle of a chain. “Only a couple more.”
He finally opened the door. “Come in, come in.”
Selene and Brynjolf stepped in, and Esbern closed the door behind him. The room was fairly small, with a bed, desk, lots of shelves, and a cooking pot in the corner. The place was piled high with books. A look at the back of the door showed that he did indeed have an impossible number of locks. Delphine was right: he was paranoid.
“I’m Selene,” she said. “This is my husband, Brynjolf.”
Esbern looked at Brynjolf. “I’ve seen you before in the Ragged Flagon, no?”
“Aye,” Brynjolf replied with a nod.
“So Delphine keeps up the fight after all these years. I thought she’d have realized it’s hopeless by now.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’s hopeless’?” Selene asked.
“Haven’t you figured it out yet? What more needs to happen before you all wake up and see what’s going on? Alduin has returned just like the prophecy said. No one can escape his hunger, here or in the afterlife. Alduin will devour all things and the world will end.”
“Wait,” Brynjolf interrupted. “You’re talking about the literal end of the world?”
“Oh, yes. It’s all been foretold. I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen. All there is to do now is sit back and watch our doom approach.”
“I don’t hold to that,” Selene declared. “There has to be something. I wasn’t put here just to watch.”
“I’m afraid only a Dragonborn can stop him, and no Dragonborn has been known for centuries. The gods have grown tired of us and left us to our fate as the plaything of the World Eater.”
Brynjolf shook his head. “You’re wrong, old man. Selene is the Dragonborn.”
Esbern’s eyes widened. “What? You are…can it be true? Then there is hope. The gods have not abandoned us after all. We must…we must…” He practically jumped. “We must go! Take me to Delphine.” He started puttering around the room, picking through his possessions and stuffing things into a backpack. “Give me…just a moment. I must gather a few things…no, that’s just useless junk. What? I thought I threw that out years ago. Now, where did I put that annotated annuad?” He finally closed the pack and shrugged into it. “I’m ready. Let’s go. Quickly.”
Selene and Brynjolf led him back through the Warrens and Vaults to the Ragged Flagon, where he gave Vekel several hundred gold pieces for his service. After Selene informed Delvin they were leaving again, they left through the Ratway entrance. As they began to turn a corner, Selene picked up a familiar scent. The Khajiit she had spoken to in the plaza was just outside the next doorway, and her scent was laced with malice. She and Brynjolf drew their swords and stepped through.
“Die, Blades scum!” the Khajiit cried as she attacked, stabbing at Selene with a dagger. But Selene was ready and dodged the blade, swinging her sword and practically slicing the cat’s arm off. Brynjolf caught her from behind and impaled her on Chillrend.
When she fell dead, Selene searched her and found a note from someone named “E.” She had seen enough of that handwriting to recognize it easily; it was Elenwen’s. “Seems Elenwen wants me dead.”
“I wonder why,” Brynjolf said mildly.
“I can’t fathom.”
* * *
Selene and Brynjolf got to know Esbern on the trip to Riverwood and adored him. He did seem a bit crazy, but it didn’t take long to realize that although he might be eccentric, he still had all his faculties. His knowledge base was immense, and he regaled them with many stories about the Blades, the Empire, dragon lore, and anything else that struck his fancy. He also knew, however, when to keep his mouth shut, and he was an excellent battle mage.
“It seems I remember my old training,” he bragged as he helped take out a group of bandits with fireballs and a flame atronach.
When they arrived at the Sleeping Giant Inn, Delphine practically ran into his arms.
“Delphine!” the old man sobbed as he held her. “It’s good to see you. It’s been a long time.”
She pulled back and regarded him with a tear in her eye. “It’s good to see you too, Esbern. It’s been too long, old friend. Too long. Come on. I have a place we can talk.” She led them to the secret room, and Brynjolf closed the door behind them. “Now then, Esbern, I assume you know about…” She nodded toward Selene.
“Oh, yes, Dragonborn! Indeed. This changes everything, of course. There’s no time to lose. We must locate…let me show you.” He dug around in his pack. “Hmm, I know I had it here somewhere.”
“Esbern,” Delphine moaned impatiently.
“Give me just a moment. Ah, here it is.” He pulled out a book and laid in the table, opening it to a page with a map and a drawing of a temple. “Here. Sky Haven Temple.”
“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Delphine asked Selene.
“Why don’t you let him talk, and maybe he’ll tell us.”
“Alduin’s Wall,” he announced. “One of the lost secrets of the Blades, where they recorded all they knew of Alduin and his return. Its location has been lost for centuries. The Blades archives hold so many secrets, I was only able to save a few scraps when I escaped; but I’ve managed to find it. I believe Alduin’s Wall is our best hope in finding a way to defeat the World Eater.”
“And you think the wall is in Sky Haven Temple?”
“How do we get there?”
“The temple was built around one of the main Akaviri military camps in The Reach. The entrance seems to be near what’s now known as the Karthspire. I cannot wait to see what we find when we arrive.”
“I can tell you what we’ll find: Forsworn.”
“No big challenge,” Brynjolf remarked.
“You’re right, especially with four of us.”
Delphine smiled. “I knew you’d have something for us, Esbern. We should leave as soon as possible.”
“I wouldn’t mind having a night to rest,” said Brynjolf.
“Aye,” Selene agreed. “We’ve been on the road for days. Let’s spend the night here and stock up on supplies before we head out.”
“If you’re sure,” Delphine said reluctantly.
“You can leave now if you want. That way, by the time we get there, the Forsworn will already be out of the way.”
“Selene,” Brynjolf admonished.
* * *
They stayed at the inn overnight and packed up to the leave the next morning, stopping at the Riverwood Trader and Alvor’s to stock up on potions, first aid supplies, and arrows. Orgnar provided food and drink for the trip.
“Orgnar, this is it,” Delphine finally announced. “The inn is yours. I’m probably never coming back here.”
The barkeep paled just a bit, and his face fell. Sadness permeated his scent, and Selene realized there was more to his reaction than just concern over inheriting the inn. “Well, now, that’s something to think about.”
“Take care of yourself, Orgnar. Goodbye.”
Orgnar started to reach for Delphine but drew his hand back before he did something impulsive. “Yeah, sure. You too, Delphine. You be safe.”
Selene grinned at him. “I’ll be back.”
He gave her the closest thing to a smile that he ever managed. “See you soon, then.”
She waved goodbye and followed the others out the door and down the south road. Next stop, The Reach.