The Dark Brotherhood Christmas Special
Five of us were leaving the next day to hunt down and murder a Thalmor lord. It would be a dangerous job. A bloody job. We were excited. We sharpened our blades and we cooked our poisons. We practiced the silent casting of spells—wove them in our hands and tossed them along the ceiling with expert hands.
That night, quite unexpectedly, there was a party to celebrate the Solstice—our darkest and most holy day of the year.
It was Cicero’s idea, apparently. He is a psychotic zealot from the capital who showed up at some point while I was busy massacring an Imperial fortress and assassinating a Jarl. I thought the jester suit was for the celebration, but Gabriella assured me with a roll of her eyes that he always dressed like that.
I despised Cicero immediately. Fucking clown.
The loon spent two straight days decorating the common room of the Sanctuary. He even forced all of the initiates to help him, which I was surprised Astrid permitted.
“Just make sure there’s plenty of wine,” she’d said when Cicero asked for more help.
It took all morning, but the walls were festooned with snowberry chains, tables were set up so that there was plenty of room to dance in the middle. Cicero even brought in a bunch of extra sconces and fired all four of the hearths.
And for some reason, he’d set up a fucking pine tree in one corner of the room.
“What is that for?” I asked, pointing at the tree. I had gotten lost on my way to bath house—still hadn’t figured out the twists and turns of the new fortress. Clearly I hadn’t entered the common room on purpose.
“What for? Why, it’s the Solstice Tree!” Cicero squealed.
I glared at him.
“What the fuck is a Solstice Tree?”
“It took a long time to find the perfect one, out there in the forest,” he said sternly. “Then I brought it back, and now we’ll decorate it!” His face lit up expectantly. “For Sithis!”
“For Sithis!” Nazir shouted from behind me.
The old Redguard was already drunk on some weird, creamy drink he’d stolen off a Telvanni barge. The stuff was disgusting.
I leaned in closer to Cicero. “That tree the craziest thing I have ever heard of, you nut,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” the clown said merrily. “Because a Bosmer with magical tattoos seems pretty outlandish to me as well.”
I looked at Nazir. He just raised an eyebrow and took another sip of wine.
Around mid-afternoon—just as the clown was putting the finishing touches on his decorations—three carriages packed to the brim with oak casts and crates of supplies showed up outside the portcullis.
Naturally, I assumed it was an ambush. I grabbed Astrid, Nazir, and my bow. We went to kill the carriage men.
“No! No!” Cicero wailed, stopping us at the drawbridge. I already had an arrow nocked. “It’s for the party!”
“What?” Astrid asked.
“You said to make sure there was wine,” Cicero shrugged. “There should also be Cyrodill brandy, Sujamma, Blackbriar mead and—if they’re not complete twits—some Argonian Bloodwine. Not to mention the food.”
“How much food?” Nazir asked hopefully, burping and sheathing his scimitar.
“Nothing fancy.” Cicero began counting on his fingers. “Horker stew, mammoth steaks, at least five goats, Elsweyr fondue—my favorite—steamed mudcrab legs, apple pie, snowberry crostatas, and lavender dumplings.”
“And you just…gave these people directions to the fortress?” Astrid asked, voice crisp with anger.
Cicero scampered a little closer to Astrid. “Well I obviously assumed we’d kill them after the celebration,” he whispered. “What kind of party do you think this is?”
“If any of them escape, I will skin you alive, clown.” Astrid sheathed her dagger. “Let them in. I need to change.”
“You do?” I asked.
She shrugged wearily. “It’s a party, isn’t it?”
Once the alcohol and wine was made readily available, things escalated pretty quickly.
We told stories for a while—I explained what it was like to crush fifteen men together with telekinesis. Gabriella demonstrated the finer points of seduction tactics for the initiates, talking dirty and squeezing her breasts together. I noticed more than a few of the novices develop bulges between their legs while she carried on. The Brotherhood’s armor does not leave many places for hard-ons to hide.
Can’t blame them. Gabriella knows her business—I felt a little something myself.
Sometime during her display of hormone acrobatics, an initiate sat down across from me. He was a half-breed: Bosmer and Dunmer. Rare. There was dirt underneath his fingernails and thick calluses on tips of his left middle and index fingers. A left-handed archer. That was rare, too.
“You’re Narova Black Hair,” he said. His voice was younger than his face, which was weathered and tanned. A face for the wilderness.
“I’ve heard you’re the best. A force of nature.”
“And I’ve heard you’re…nobody,” I said.
He smiled. “Yes.” Then he pushed a fresh jug of wine across the table.
“I noticed you favored the Alto,” he continued. “Figured I’d save you a trip.”
I looked at the jug, then at the elf. “What’s your name?”
“Bosmer name,” I said, rolling up a silk sleeve. “Was wondering which half raised you.”
I activated my smallest tattoo—a sparrow flying over a little lake near my wrist—and shattered the jug. Wine dripped down between the table slats, tapping the floor. A few people looked over.
Dondir frowned, not understanding.
“Maybe you poisoned it,” I said. Then stood up. “Or maybe I just don’t like you, new blood. Happy Solstice.”
Later, Nazir and Cicero forced the initiates into a drinking competition that involved throwing knives and riddles. By that time I was already on my third jug of Alto wine so I didn’t follow the rules too closely.
“Riddle me this, brave young servants of Sithis!” Cicero called. “How far can a Guar walk into the woods of Morrowind?”
“Twenty miles!” an extremely drunk Nord called.
“Wrong. Drink and give up a knife.”
“Until he dies?” asked a doubtful Breton with red hair and a hook-shaped scar under one eye.
“Wrong again!” Cicero beamed. “I’ll be able to make suit of armor from all these knives.”
“Halfway, you idiots,” called Babette. “After that, he’d be walking out of the woods.”
“Ah,” Cicero smiled. “We have a clever and nubile vampire on our hands. But unfortunately that isn’t correct either.”
Everyone frowned. I took a big chug of wine. I hate riddles almost as much as I hate clowns.
“He can’t walk in the woods at all,” came a voice from the gallery above. We all looked up.
Astrid was wearing a form-fitting dress made from thousands of silver links that left very few mysteries about the shape of her body. She wasn’t wearing anything underneath, either.
“There are no woods in Morrowind anymore,” she said. “Just nubs and cinders.”
Cicero bowed his head. “The correct answer. I owe you a knife, my lady.”
“Keep it,” Astrid said. “I’d have nowhere to put it.”
Astrid walked down the steps with her familiar and feline grace. The dress shimmered as she walked, the firelight snaking along her hips and breasts and neck. The metal whisper of the chainmail accompanied each footfall. She stopped at the base of the stairs, all of us looking at her. And her looking right back.
I always thought the Solstice was a bullshit holiday, but this was getting fun.
“Servants of shadow and steel,” Astrid said. “Show me your hearts.”
In unison, we drew daggers from hip, back, and shoulder sheathes. The murmur of blades being freed filled the room.
“What is the music of life, brothers and sisters?”
We said nothing. Silence.
“Sing me a lively song, then.”
All of us plunged our blades into the table, making a thump like the heartbeat of a giant.
“We have all been working hard. Everyone has earned this celebration, the newest members and the veterans alike.” she said. “This sect has honored more contracts—and earned more money—than any other sanctuary has in decades. Together, we will pump fear back into the shadows of Tamriel.”
“Hail Sithis!” someone shouted. Then we were all shouting happily and laughing—letting our teeth and our true, dark nature show. We pounded our cups against the table and drank deep. We yanked our daggers free from the wood and returned them to their homes by our sides.
Next there was music.
Cicero scrounged up three dusty drums he found in some cellar and assigned people to play. Assassins started dancing in fluid rhythms on the floor. This was the dance of the Night Mother—smooth and secret. Dangerous and dark. I wondered what our enemies would think of this sight: the most talented killers in Skyrim reveling in a drunken dance and all of us wishing—though we’d never admit it, even to ourselves—that this long night would last a little longer.
Sometime between my fifth and sixth jug of wine, Astrid sat down next to me, accompanied by a metallic swish.
“Nice dress,” I said.
“It’s ridiculous and you know it,” she said. I could tell from her voice that she stone-cold sober. “I just wanted the initiates to have some stories.”
I looked sideways at her but didn’t say anything.
Across the room, Cicero stood up and started making a scene—holding a half-dozen throwing knives he’d won from the riddle game in each hand.
“And now!” he shouted, “I will perform a juggling act!”
He began to toss the knives into the air—two and three at a time—creating a bladed whirlwind on the dance floor. People were impressed.
“What do you want for yourself, Narova?” Astrid asked after Cicero had tossed a few dozen knives up and down successfully. She, for one, did not sound impressed.
“Want?” I turned to her.
“The future, and all that.”
I took another gulp of wine. “Honestly, Astrid, I don’t think about the future very much anymore. I kinda figure I’ll be dead before I get there.”
Astrid smiled. “That’s why I like you, Narova. You’re fucking crazy.”
She got up and moved towards the gallery stairs.
“Wait, wait my lady!” Cicero called when he saw her leaving. “All the knives! Let me show you all the knives at once!”
To give the idiot credit, he really did manage to get all twelve of them up at once. He even caught a few. But then he dropped one. And two. And three.
Then the clown tripped slammed his own damn head onto the floor.
I’ll be honest, I was the first one to start laughing. Astrid was the second.
But Cicero didn’t get up. Instead, his leg started twitching and he pissed himself. People stopped laughing, and the drums stopped booming. We all got up from our seats and went to take a closer took, Astrid pushing through to the front.
It was clear what had happened—there was an inch of steel poking through the back of Cicero’s stupid jester hat.
“Huh,” Astrid said. “That’s too bad.”
She turned away and continued on up to the gallery.
“Happy Solstice, everyone,” she called when she reach the top. She did not sound very upset about the death of Cicero, the mad clown assassin.