The Dragon and the Tree
"He that steals a cow from a poor widow, or a stirk from a cottar, is a thief; he that lifts a drove from a Sassenach laird, is a gentleman-drover. And, besides, to take a tree from the forest, a salmon from the river, a deer from the hill, or a cow from a Lowland strath, is what no Highlander need ever think shame upon."
- Sir Walter Scott. Evan Dhu Maccombich to Edward, Ch. 18
Fog creeps in on silent feet behind the morning sun rising over the lake outside the city of Riften. Scarcely large enough to earn the name city, half of Riften perched on wooden stilts over the southwest corner of Lake Honrich. The other half clings to a narrow piece of shoreline.
A grand lady in her day. She's lost most of her original gilt since those easy golden days of wealth and commerce. Those days are long gone and now there's naught but a small fishery, a brewery and a few merchants who stubbornly cling to the belief there's a fortune to be made here.
The guards claim you can smell her a league before you ever saw the gates. Like an old whore, she smelled of fish, old fires, and sewage. Inside the gates, the smell thickens and clings to the ground as the fog continues to rise off the stagnant water. Most days you have to go outside the gates just to catch a breath of fresh air.
Outside the walls, birds swoop and dive through the wraith-like fog, feeding on the water bugs floating on the calm surface. Slaughterfish hover close by hoping to catch a bird lingering too long over the water.
Deep in the trees a bear growls menacingly when a giant spider attempts to attack her. With her thick coat, the bear can easily survive the spider's poison. The spider cannot survive the six-inch canines the bear embeds in her fragile neck. She dies instantly, her exoskeleton crushed. The bear shakes her head once and tosses the creature aside. For a long moment, the bear watches the wolves move in to feast on the unexpected bonus of a spider meal. She decides the bony half-starved wolves are not worth her time. Her growing cubs require better fare so she moves on.
The sow huffs quietly into the frosty morning. Two furry heads with bright inquisitive eyes dash and scramble to their mother's side. When the little family is together, the sow leads them to the shore to wash away the poison and drink from the clear shallow water.
While her cubs play in the water, she watches the surface for movement. Her patience is rewarded when a slaughterfish enters the shallow water in search of easy prey. With a swipe of one massive paw, she expertly snags it from the water. It lands near her cubs, squirming angrily, with its horrible mouth gaping for something to breathe. In practice, as much as for the fun of it, they quickly pounce on the fish, growling and snarling fiercely. Under their mother's watchful eye, they happily settle in for breakfast.
Inside the walls of Riften, her small population slowly wakes to the new day. While under her city streets, hidden somewhere deep within the dark and twisted corridors of the Rat Warrens, the Thieves Guild holds court. Well-protected within their lair The Guild does not worry about anyone stumbling into their hideout. For no one who has ventured into the tunnels has ever returned to tell the tale.
Only spoken of in hushed voices from behind empty tankards, the townspeople gossip The Guild enjoys protection by those with enough coin in their pockets to make sure it stays that way. The Thieves Guild and Rat Warrens. The best kept secret that everyone knows about.
While the morning sun sent burning fingers into the choking miasma, a man rose from the ground, as if he were emerging from a crypt. Hidden from prying eyes, under Mara's Temple, Brynjolf stepped out of the underground headquarters and took a deep breath of sweet Riften air. Still in his prime, the massively built man, with bright auburn hair stretched his arms above his head and reflected on how much he loved this city. It has done right by him and he made a good living here.
Although it's not a story he will ever share with you, he wandered into Riften many years ago. Barely old enough to hold a dagger in his hand, Mercer Fray took him in and without a second thought tossed the stray into the midst of his men.
With their gruff uneducated ways, they raised the bright little boy with a heavy hand and unsympathetic words. They taught him about thieving, women, the ways of the world, and how to survive. Therefore, when he claims he's good at what he does, you'll know it's not just hubris talking. Riften is his home and his business. Although he would not hesitate to make a coin or two off them, he would defend her citizens with his life.
Except for the merchants and the occasional adventurer most of Riften's small population never leave the city. There are just too many reasons to stay close to their belongings, businesses, and families. When they think no one can overhear, the shopkeepers complained to travelers that it's the Thieves Guild's fault. If only someone would do something about them, the city would flower again.
The fact is everyone in this town had a hand in their neighbor's pocket. Everyone made a little coin on the side. Everyone has a stake in keeping things just as they are. It's the way things work here in Riften. Brynjolf should know, because he's a master thief, second in command of the Thieves Guild and Mercer Frey's right hand man.
After carding his fingers through his long hair to pull it back from his face. He laced up his leather shirt and searched with sharp eyes for the Talos priestess, Nura Snow-Shod. Then he sees golden robes against the backdrop of the dark stone walls. Almost ghostly, she holds a bottle of ale and a heel of bread. He moved toward her as the fog breaks and eddies over his muscular stride.
Before he wishes her good morning and says his prayers, he begins their morning routine by sliding his arms around her still-trim waist.
"When are you gonna let me see what's under that dusty old robe?"
Instead of the accustomed scolding, she surprises him by leaning back in his arms. It's a nice change and he savors the moment by holding her for as long as she'll allow. Then she doesn't let him down and responds with her usual smart comment. Brynjolf covered her chilled hands with his, and grinned into the rough fabric of her hood. He loves a sassy woman.
"When Ulfric is on the throne, Bryn. That's when."
Bending his head to tickle her cheek with his beard, he whispered, "Careful what you wish for, lass. My spies tell me some whelp they're calling the Dragonborn sided with Ulfric."
She responded with wide eyes and Brynjolf laughed at her blushing cheeks. He flirts with all the girls in Riften, especially the pretty ones. Flirting is as natural to him as thieving, swordplay or coupling.
Nura is also one of the good people in this city and deserves a bit of good news. The war brought her nothing but loss and grief. The White-Gold Concordat forbids Talos worship, which forces her to hide behind the buildings next to the graveyard to keep a shrine for his followers. She lost a daughter in the war and husband to drink at the hands of those damn Imperials. Their two sons are nothing but milk-drinking, social climbers. While Brynjolf has little use for the rest of her family, Nura has sass and courage, so he watches out for her.
Then Brynjolf noticed her mouth turn down and a line furrow across the bridge of her nose.
"Today's the day, Bryn. Are you all right? I can hardly believe it was ten years ago."
"Today?" The thief looked down at her in confusion and steps back. Then it all comes back like the shock of an unexpected blow. Only a few folk know what today is and he counted them on one hand. Then Brynjolf swallowed hard, worked up a smile for her, and kissed her cheek.
"I'm fine. Just fine. You know me, lass." He doesn't want to talk about it, even with her. The remembering is hard enough.
After taking his leave of Nura, he headed toward the Bee and Barb for a tankard of mead and a bit of bread and cheese. The inn is a good place to judge the mood of the town and hear the news. A couple of the merchants greet him as he walks past their stalls. His thoughts are deep and centered on what Nura said, so he doesn't respond. He must work hard to keep the memory in perspective and go about his usual business. There wasn't a damn thing he could do about it then and even less a decade later.
A shout and the flesh on flesh sound of a slap pushed through the fog into the market. The noise drew everyone's attention toward the orphanage. A child's scream echoed across the square and bounces off the surrounding buildings. Dragging a child from the Hall, Grelod the Kind hands a little girl over to a pair of Orcs. Brynjolf stroked his fingers over his short beard. Orcs? He's got nothing against Orcs. They make great fighters. Parents? When was the last time you even saw an Orc bairn?
The blacksmith stops work, brandishing his hammer where the old bitch can see it. Grelod thrusts the terrified child into the Orc's arms. With a dismissive wave of her hands, she spits at the crowd and slams the orphanage door closed.
A minger, that one. A real four pinter, Brynjolf thought, shaking his head.
It's over in just a few minutes, and it's not something they haven't seen before. Today is different. This is the memory that haunts Brynjolf's sleep. His heart hammers against his leather tunic so hard he fancies he could almost see it. Cold sweat glued his hands into fists. Some days, all he has to do is look at the front door of the Honor Hall Orphanage and he's back to that morning ten years ago. Ten years ago today when he heard a young girl crying, 'Da! Da! Help Me!'
Plenty of children left the orphanage smiling, hand in hand with their new parents. Other children got spooked. These sounds were no different from the usual cries of a reluctant child. On that morning, just like this morning, he paused to join the market crowd looking in that direction.
A blond head is visible through the crowd. He watched the small child looking over the crowd until he realized the screaming child struggling between her new parents is his daughter. Her blond hair came loose from its braid as she tried to escape the Imperials. He was not a man who panicked or showed much emotion, but that day turned his blood thin and cold. How had this happened? Why had the old crone reneged on their agreement?
He nearly knocked one of the merchants off his feet pushing his way through the crowd to get to her. When she caught sight of him, she jerked her hands away from the couple and aimed herself at her father. By then he was close enough to catch her. Lifting her high in the air, for the moment, she is safe. No one would dare try to take her out of his arms. Not many people knew that little girl is his daughter. Delvin and Nura knew, but not even Mercer Frey knows about his daughter. Brynjolf had other reasons not to trust Frey, but that's another story.
Unless he got her quieted down, the entire town would soon learn the identity of this little girl. He whispered against her cheek. "Listen to me, Vika. You know the rules. You can't call me yer Da."
She placed her small hands on either side of his face, "I know… I know… I don't want to go. Please, you promised." A sob shook her small body. Pulling her close he muffled his voice against her bright hair.
"I love you, lass. Always. You must forget all about your old Da now. You'll have a better life than I could ever give you. Forget about this place and… By the Divines, little one. I am sorry."
His voice betrayed his emotions and for now, he must be silent. Numbed with grief, he held her just a moment longer before handing her over to the couple. With the entire town watching, he can neither give in to his grief nor stop what is happening.
She is a brave girl and knows the danger of anyone connecting her to Brynjolf. To her credit, she sniffed back her tears and calmly allowed her father to hand her back to the couple. Then she turned and watched Brynjolf over her new father's shoulder as they walked away.
In the long, lonely years to come that look stayed with him and haunted his dreams. He would never know if it was hatred or anger. In the space of a few steps, the little girl took on her father's shield. She is too damn young to carry such a shield, to learn to hide her emotions or stop herself from crying out for her father. But she managed it and as he watched the tears dry on her face, he told himself this was for the best. What does he have to give her? A life of crime in a dingy city on a stagnant lake.
There are some days the shield is too heavy for him to carry. Today, the weight of it broke his heart, because the reason for his very existence just walked away. He lost sight of her as they rounded the corner of the Bee and Barb. Then the sound of the gates opening and closing sliced through him and left a wound that never heals. Just before the horrible silence of her loss began, he heard her voice echo down the boardwalk.
"Please!" she sobbed.
It was the last time he ever saw his little girl, his brave Vika.
The memory drags him down into the sad and guilty place where he misses his daughter and wonders what happened to her. Is she well? Have those Imperials seen to her education and taught her how to carry herself like a proper lady. To believe they have is the only way he can endure her loss.
Nura offered to take her in, but the danger of the Black-Briar family finding out about a grandchild was too great. Brynjolf might have business dealings with Maven Black-Briar, but he'd never allow her to sink her greedy claws into his daughter. Maven Black-Briar has a well-known habit of using people until they are no longer worth anything and then they disappear.
Keerava, the bartender at the Bee and Barb watched Brynjolf enter the tavern. The bent of his shoulders and the look on his face told her much. Although she never told a soul, she also knew what today represented to the thief. She generously topped a tankard of her best Black-Briar from the tap and pushed it in front of him. She watches him take a long pull and close his eyes to let the mead seep into his blood. He wished the drink might wash the old memories away in a flood of honey and alcohol. It never works.
A plate of bread, cheese and a generous slice of horker meat appear in front of him.
"You're the best, Keerava. Can I bring you something? Something sweet for the sweetest innkeeper in Skyrim?"
"Never you mind, Brynjolf. I have enough to do around here without you flirting with me too. Save it for the young ladies, they always seem to fall for your charms. By the way, have you heard the latest about the new adventurer in town?"
Between mouthfuls of bread, he laughed aloud at her conspiratorial expression and felt the dark mood lifting. Their banter always helped chase the ghosts away and her wry humor made him smile.
"You're always good for a rumor or two. Tell me, is it this legendary dragon slayer, like we've heard?"
Keerava leaned even closer, "Some say so. With all this talk of dragons," she shook her head, "But I think it's just that; a lot of talk. I'll believe it when I see it. Well, well, here comes the lady in question now."
He followed the Argonian's gaze by turning his head toward the stairs. With the racket she's making in the narrow hallway, all eyes are on her when she rounds the corner into the room. Clad in a pair of ill-fitting leather pants and shirt, she raises her eyes to the curious crowd.
Brynjolf watched a slow blush creep across her cheeks. When she turned to find a quiet table, he also noticed the old rusty iron sword clinging precariously to her back with worn leather straps. An equally well-aged leather shield banged against her leg as she walked.
Because no one traveled through Riften that he didn't know about. He took her measure as she crossed the room and sat down at an empty table. She's not as young as he first figured and noted the woman's curves pressing against the stained leather. The shabby clothes and smudged face hide a pretty girl with a knot of reddish-gold hair hanging down her back and a pair of Nord — as the locals call them — blue eyes.
The hollowed out cheeks and darting eyes told another story. Where had this sprite of a girl come from and where was she headed?
Another guild member named Sapphire rolled her eyes at him from her position by the door. He couldn't disagree with his sister thief's assessment. How'd this young pup slip out of her kennel?
Then he watched her pull a bit of cloth from her pocket. A small bite of cheese lay in its center. When the waiter asked her what she wanted to drink, she handed him a coin and asked for just a small sip of mead.
Brynjolf shook his head in disbelief. This girl was easy pickings for the likes of Vex or Sapphire. Too easy.
Without questioning his sudden generosity, Brynjolf slipped Keerava a handful of coin, "Get her a bit of bread and good cheese." Then he added, "And an apple dumpling. She won't be lifting that sword to defend herself on such a meager diet."
Once the meal was delivered to her table, Brynjolf moved to join her and placed two red apples next to her plate.
"Good morning, lass. If you don't mind me saying, aren't you a wee bit far from your hearth?"
"I can take care of myself," she assured him through a mouthful of dumpling.
"Aye, I can see that with your starved eyes and ragged garb. You're a match for troll and necromancer alike."
She shot him a glance, the look in her eyes spoke to him of courage. It changed his first opinion of her. She looked at him as if he'd insulted her. Which, he reckoned he had. But he wanted to test her mettle.
"I earned the money for these. And, by the way, this is armor."
With a temper to match. Excellent. Could she control it when she needed to? Could she actually lift that sword on her back? How far could that look in her eyes take her?
There is only one-way to find out, "Interested in making a few more septims? You would earn enough in a few minutes work than you could in a whole day of hard labor." He had her attention now. Good. "Enough to get a proper kit for yourself."
She weighed his words under the guise of finishing her meal. After wiping her hands, she folded the napkin and aimed another sharp questioning look in his direction.
"What do you have in mind?"
viking-mythology dot com / yggdrasil
Sassenach, The Gaelic term for a Saxon. Survives in modern day Ireland and Scotland as a derogatory term for an English person.
Minger, Someone who was not just touched by the ugly stick at birth, but battered severely with it. Anyone who does not look better to you after several strong alcoholic drinks probably fit this category. Also, a woman who transmits STD or is in general dirty and unkempt.