The Root Cellar
Astrid’s new fortress—bought and paid for with Skooma and blood—rose up between the low-hanging clouds like a massive fist of stone.
I was tired from all the teleporting. Sweat-lathered and flimsy. My legs felt like rubber and I wasn’t sure I could cast a spell if my life depended on it. We called it the Sanctuary, but I didn’t exactly feel at ease returning to those confined hallways and dark rooms, all of them filled with dagger-wielding killers.
I definitely didn’t like the idea of going inside when I wasn’t at full strength, but I was getting used to recognizing mistakes and then making them anyway.
“What’s wrong?” Veezara asked, lizard voice rasping in my ear. I had been supporting his weight for three fucking hours. Hence the rubbery legs.
He laughed, then coughed from the effort. “Whatever you say.”
I scowled at the stone bridge leading up to the portcullis of the fortress.
“I just get tired,” I said. “Even in this place, I need to keep my back facing the walls. You know?”
Veezara didn’t respond right away.
“I know what it’s like to be an outcast.” He said quietly after a while. “To have a home that only lives inside your memories.”
I took a deep breath. “Do me a favor, when they ask what happened, leave the teleportation out of your stories. For now, at least.”
“As you wish.”
I nodded, then started forward. It was amazing how heavy the Argonian was when I had to move him with my legs instead of magic.
Babette was in the courtyard of the Sanctuary, training her spider to kill some skeevers. She had about a dozen of the vermin confined in a wooden pen near the base of the wall. The spider was latched on to a fat, brown skeever’s leg, and the rodent was thrashing around, trying desperately to escape.
“The throat, Osiris!” she called. “Fangs to the throat!”
The skeever whipped around and nipped at the spider’s face. The spider let go and the skeever escaped to the far side of the pen.
“Idiot fucking arachnid,” Babette muttered.
When she saw me and Veezara approach, Babette’s childish face transformed from frustrated to surprised to worried.
“Gods, what’s happened to you, Veezara?” She looked from the Argonian to me. Narrowed her eyes. “Narova. You’re back.”
“There’s been trouble,” Veezara answered.
“Huh.” Babette didn’t seem moved.
There was an awkward silence.
“We need to talk to Astrid,” Veezara offered after a few moments.
Babette made an exaggerated pout with his lips. “Nobody ever seems to want advice from the three-hundred year old vampire. Why is that? Astrid’s a puppy compared to me.”
“Funny that she’s in charge, then,” I said. “And you’re not.”
The vamp bitch glared at me pretty hard. What can I say? I don’t particularly like Babette. It was hard to pass up an opportunity to antagonize her.
“Our fearless leader is in the root cellar,” Babette said in a choppy tone that made me smile. “Torturing an Orc.”
“Appreciated,” Veezara said.
We started to walk across the yard.
“Elf whore,” I heard Babette whisper under her breath. I was exhausted, but I still had ears.
I turned around. Let my sword arm hang. “Care to repeat that?” I asked calmly, shuddering a few of the tattoos along my right arm for effect.
Babette seemed to weigh her options carefully, but in the end her fear took over.
“I said, nice mask.” She motioned to the black visage resting at my hip. “That’s all.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “That’s what I thought.
The root cellar was actually a large Dwarven bunker that some bandits or squatters or whoever was living in Sanctuary before us had turned into a basement. Dozens of earthy tendrils and rootballs had wormed their way through the copper walls and ceilings. There were sacks of vegetables and grains, wheels of cheese, and bottles of mead in every corner and alcove.
In the back of the room, a seven-foot tall Orc was chained spread-eagle to the wall, wearing nothing except a breechcloth. Astrid was standing next to him. She had a rusty iron clamp fastened around his right tusk. The left tusk was lying on the ground in a pool of blood.
“Last chance, Crubdick,” Astrid asked calmly. “Where’s the warcamp?”
“My name is Crub-Lock Grom,” the Orc growled.
Astrid ripped out the tusk. The Orc howled and screamed, blood cascading out of his mouth. Astrid removed the tusk from the clamp and examined it between two fingers, smiling. The root of it was a lot bigger than I’d have thought.
“Lady Astrid,” Veezara said as we approached. “Pardon our interruption.”
Astrid turned to look at us, dropping the tusk in the dirt. She had taken off her breastplate—to better manage the torture, I guess—and the white silk shirt covering her chest was soaked with sweat. It was easy to see the shape of her full, teardrop breasts and the outline of her hardened nipples.
Despite my best efforts, I took some pleasure from the view. There was something undeniably sexy about the blond-haired, psychotic leader of the Dark Brotherhood.
“Ah,” Astrid said. “My wayward assassins.”
“We have to talk,” I said, glancing at the moaning Orc. “Privately.”
Astrid wiped some sweat from her forehead with her left arm. Again, my eyes gravitated to the sight of her body moving beneath that silk shirt. She had a languid, feline kind of grace about her—every movement was a kind of seduction.
Then she drew a dagger from her hip and jammed it into the Orc’s forehead. His eyes bulged and crossed, his tuskless mouth gaped open a leaking blood.
The arousing aspect of the moment died along with the Orc.
“Now we’re in private,” Astrid said. “Speak.”
Veezara glanced at me, then shrugged and told Astrid his side of the story—his capture, torture by Lord Vergun, and rescue courtesy of one Narova Black Hair. The Argonian kept his promise and left out the fact I’d teleported him over one-hundred miles in a single day after saving his life.
I told Astrid about the successful assassination of Siddgeir and the Thalmor ambush. Then I told her a lie about nursing my wounds in the woods alone for three weeks, instead of the truth.
When we were done, Astrid licked her lips once, frowning and thinking. It was easy to see we’d captured her attention.
“What would you do next?” she asked quietly, looking at me.
That surprised me. I’d pretty much pegged Astrid for a control-grubbing bitch who’d rather see the Sanctuary and the Brotherhood destroyed than someone besides her controlling it.
Maybe I was wrong about her.
“I have an idea about where this Lord Vergun is headed,” I said carefully. “I’d like to take four Brothers north to Solitude and kill him, along with all of his men.”
Astrid smiled. “Done. But I’m going with you.”