Early next morning, Jenassa and I emerge from our tent into a day of sunshine. As we eat a quick breakfast and pack up, we decide to travel back to the ranger cabin by way of Shor’s Stone. We don’t really need all these animal pelts, so we might as well craft them into leather goods and sell them off.
As we arrive in the village, the blacksmith is already working at his forge. He waves and gestures to us excitedly, and we hasten over to see what he wants. Perhaps another animal has invaded someone’s house, or bandits have taken over the watchtower.
Fortunately it’s not another crisis — it’s the opposite, in fact. Apparently, a contingent of Stormcloak soldiers rode in yesterday evening, and finding that the fortress was empty of bandits, they swiftly established a garrison. Because of this, he tells us that the villagers are feeling much safer already, and he hands us a hefty sum of gold. “Here,” he says. “You’ve done so much for us, that we decided to line your pockets with as much as we could scrape up. Take it. You’ve earned it.”
Nice to know our efforts are appreciated. We tell him that we killed the bear who was preying on their livestock, and the blacksmith looks even more pleased. I decide not to tell him about the cubs, however — better he doesn’t know that little detail.
After selling him our leather goods, we make our way to the fort to see the Stormcloak banner flying over the ramparts. It’s definitely well-occupied, as by my rough count, there are twice as many soldiers guarding the outer fortifications as there were bandits. Feeling slightly smug, we turn and ride back to our little cabin in the woods.
Once inside, I head to the alchemy table to craft a few more potions — but they’re weaker than I’d like and they won’t be too effective if we find ourselves in real trouble. Still, some is better than none. I mention to Jenassa that despite her reassurances and the fact that we need to restock, I’m still not fond of the idea of heading into Riften.
In response, I hear a sigh. I turn to see her sit at the kitchen table as she reaches for a tankard. After pouring a great deal of wine into it, she motions for me to join her at the table. I finish storing my potions and sit down across from her. She nods at me, takes a hefty gulp from her tankard, and begins her story.
The Dark Elf’s Tale
Like most other Dunmer, I was born in Morrowind — but I have very little memory of my homeland. When I was young, my family moved to the island of Solstheim, to a town called Raven Rock. In those days, it was a thriving mining community under the control of House Redoran. It was a place of commerce and wealth, and most people living there grew prosperous. We had moved there in order to better ourselves, as we knew of several other Dunmer who had established themselves there and had done quite well.
In the years that followed, my family became well-respected. We had started life in Solstheim as miners, but my parents eventually became merchants, and my older siblings attained positions with the Redoran guard. As the youngest, it was expected that like the rest of them, I would soon rise to greater things.
But those days of prosperity swiftly drew to a close when the ebony mine became depleted. Those of us who didn’t leave Solstheim were forced to look for other work, and I was no exception. I was fortunate enough to become part of the crew on the Northern Maiden, a ship that ferried travelers between Solstheim and Windhelm. The captain, Gjalund Salt-Sage, was strict but fair, and we crew members were loyal to him. Originally from Riften, he would often regale us with stories of Skyrim, including tales of the Thieves Guild, who he described as an independent band of talented swindlers who lived by an honour code of their own making.
One day we took on a Dunmer passenger who, like so many others, was visiting her extended family in Solstheim. When she boarded in Windhelm, I gave her the usual speech that I usually gave to landlubbers. I explained that this was a working ship and as such, she needed to stay out of our way while we performed our duties, as doing otherwise might endanger the safety of everyone on board. She was a decent passenger and did what I asked. The crossing was uneventful.
When we docked, she asked some questions about the town and the state of the mines. I answered her questions, even though I had work to do and any of the town guards could have done the same. But there was something about her that I liked. She seemed determined and ambitious, traits I admired, and she was clearly anxious to meet her relatives in Raven Rock.
A few days passed, perhaps a week. I met her again at the smithy, where I had been sent by my captain to pick up a spare anchor chain that was being repaired. She was talking to Glover Mallory, the blacksmith, and as I approached, I overheard part of their discussion.
She seemed to be asking him something about his house. “What do you know about it, girl?” Mallory growled at her. She replied, “I don’t know exactly what it means, but I recognize a Guild sign when I see one. What I want to know is, what’s it doing out here, so far from Riften?”
My curiosity was piqued, especially as her reply seemed to deflate the smith’s belligerence. He asked her to keep her voice down, and that he’d talk to her later when he was finished work for the day. She frowned at him, but gave him a short nod, and I saw her head into the local cornerclub called The Retching Netch.
The anchor chain wasn’t quite ready yet, as Mallory had been just finishing the repair job before he was interrupted. As he worked to complete it, I wandered over to his house for a casual look. After a few moments, I spotted a symbol scratched into the stone beside his door.
I had no idea what it might signify, but her mention of Riften and the smith’s reluctance to talk made me recall the captain’s stories about the Thieves Guild. I wondered if one had something to do with the other. Since I had some time to kill while I waited for the chain to be finished, I decided to head to the cornerclub myself for a drink.
I caught sight of her as I entered, sitting at a table with a flask of sujamma. She seemed somewhat preoccupied, but she mostly seemed lonely and depressed — which was surprising, given her assertiveness when she was talking to the blacksmith. I approached her table, reintroduced myself (since frequently passengers didn’t recognize me when I was away from the ship), and asked if I could join her. She gave me a questioning look, and then assented, motioning for me to have a seat. “Good to see you again, Jenassa,” she said. “By the way, my name is Karliah.”
I thanked her, sat down at the table, and ordered some ale. (Sujamma always gives me a headache.) After a few moments, I asked after her family. Karliah took a sharp breath, then replied that her favourite cousin had died from a cave-in at the ebony mine. Her other cousin was lame from a hunting injury, and her uncle was a widower. They were scratching out a living by farming ash yams and fishing, but the ash drifting over from Red Mountain was slowly polluting the water, and the fish were growing scarce.
“It gets worse,” she continued. “My mother and I want to offer them a chance to start a new life for themselves in Skyrim. We have enough money and resources to help them get on their feet. But my uncle’s stubborn pride won’t let him consent. He’s convinced my mother is nothing but a common criminal, and he doesn’t think much better of me. He keeps saying that our money is nothing but ill-gotten gains, and that dishonest people always come to a bad end.”
She took a deep swig of her drink. “I’ve spent the last few days trying to convince them to come back with me, but I’ve had no luck and I’m at my wit’s end. I’ve recently come of age, and in a few years I’ll be expected to follow in my mother’s footsteps. I was hoping one of my cousins would consider joining up with me… in my chosen profession. It’s the sort of thing where it’s useful to work with a partner, at least until you establish yourself. I hate leaving them like this, but I can’t help them if they refuse to be helped.”
I sympathized as best I could, and then changed the subject to something more cheerful, entertaining her with some amusing experiences I’d had working as a sailor. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking about the symbol on the smith’s door and the captain’s tales of the Thieves Guild. I felt rather sorry for her, but at the same time I had a growing sense of envy that she seemed to have a far more adventurous future than I did.
A day or two later, Karliah booked passage for the return trip to Windhelm. I greeted her when she boarded, noting that she was still by herself. Clearly she hadn’t been able to convince her relatives to sail back with her.
As the crew and I prepared to weigh anchor, Karliah seemed to hesitate, then deliberately walked straight over to me.
“I want a word with you,” she said levelly. I glanced at my captain. He’d seen Karliah approach, and he gave me a stern nod. I knew what that meant. I was allowed to talk to her briefly, in case there was something wrong, but if all she wanted was a chat then I was expected to politely decline and get back to work.
Karliah and I walked a few steps away from the crew to the other end of the ship. She turned around and pinned me with an intense look.
“Come with me,” she said. I had no idea what to say, so I just stood there, speechless. She continued. “I like you, and I can it see in your eyes — you want more from life than being stuck on this boat until you both sink. I need someone reliable, someone smart, someone I can trust. We can help each other out. And I promise, if you accept, you’ll have all the wealth and opportunity you could ever desire.”
Her offer was well-timed. Captain Salt-Sage had paid us our wages the day before, and he’d told us that since fewer people were making the crossing, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to afford a crew of three for much longer. So on impulse, as soon as Karliah finished speaking, I approached the captain and gave my notice. After the initial surprise, the crew wished me well, and the captain tried not to look relieved that his problem had been so neatly solved. I gathered my few belongings from below decks, and stepped off with Karliah at Windhelm.
On previous trips, I had spoken occasionally with the Argonian dockworkers, so I had some idea of how they and the Dunmer were treated like second-class citizens. But I was unprepared for my first sight of the slums in the Grey Quarter.
As Karliah and I made our way past the docks and into the city, I was shocked at what I saw. Of course we had beggars back in Raven Rock, but they were still treated like people. In contrast, most of the guards in Windhelm treated the Dunmer like unwanted animals, or vermin, forcing them to live in squalor and crowding them into tiny spaces. It was as if the city itself was a cage.
Karliah whispered that I should try not to stare, and I managed, but with difficulty. She led me up a rickety walkway to a makeshift shelter, where an older couple were trying to survive the cold. They seemed to recognize her, and she addressed them by name, introducing them to me and asking where we could stay for the night. After one of them gave directions, she thanked them, insisting that they accept a few septims for their assistance.
Next we made our way to the marketplace, where Karliah suggested I buy some leather armour, as it would be relatively durable for the journey ahead. As I made my purchases, I noticed that the Nord merchants would look at us askance and make disparaging remarks, but they’d accept my coin fast enough. It was a thoroughly odious display of animosity, bigotry, and greed. I am grateful that Windhelm was not my only experience of the Nord people, for if it had been, I’m certain I would grow to be as bitter as some of my fellow Dunmer.
We spent the night in another makeshift shelter, high along the cold stone walls with only straw and thin bedrolls for warmth. I was used to sleeping in a rough bunk below decks, but compared to our Windhelm shelter, I might as well have been a soft noble used to thick furs and feather beds.
I asked Karliah about the inn, as we had passed it on our way to the market, but she speared me with a look. “Even if it cost us nothing, I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in luxury while our fellow Dunmer were shivering in hovels all around us,” she said. I liked her even better after that, and wrapped myself in my bedroll without complaint.
I’m not sure how we managed to sleep through the night without freezing to death, but we did. The next morning, we bought a few more provisions and traveled on foot to Riften. We made a brief stop to visit her mother, Dralsi, where Karliah reported the news about their relatives back on Solstheim. We were invited to share the midday meal, and she introduced me to her mother, who looked me up and down with a stern eye. I sensed I was under intense scrutiny, and I have never felt more intimidated by someone in my life.
“So, you think you can keep up with my daughter?” Dralsi asked me.
I hesitated. What should I say? I barely knew her daughter. I decided on the simple truth.
“I’m not trying to keep up with your daughter,” I replied as steadily as I could. “I’m just keeping her company, and hopefully we’ll keep each other alive.”
Dralsi’s expression relaxed into a small smile, and she nodded at Karliah. “She’ll do. Luck be with you, my daughter, and remember everything I’ve taught you.” They embraced, and soon we were on our way again.
We reached Riften just as the sun was setting. Karliah told me to stay close and keep a sharp eye on my coin purse. We passed by several houses, then she led me down some stairs to a wooden boardwalk beside the canals. She stopped beside a metal door built into the stone wall, and swung it open, leading me into the sewers.
Karliah had told me what to expect on the way to Riften, otherwise the sight of those sewers would have sent me running. They were dark and twisted, full of dangerous corners and flickering shadows. Now they’re as familiar to me as my ship used to be, but in those days I was unsure and apprehensive. I followed Karliah closely, practically in her footsteps, as we made our way through the stony passages.
Soon we were attacked. Two squatters appeared from nowhere and tried to rob us or kill us — I’m still not sure which, but it didn’t matter. Karliah grabbed her bow and shot the first squatter in the throat so fast that he barely had time to gasp. The second rushed at Karliah with a dagger and disarmed her. As they grappled, I drew my sword and stabbed him in the back. Karliah took control of his dagger and punched it beneath his ribs — and just like that, we had two corpses at our feet.
Karliah nodded at me, pleased with my efforts. “Not bad,” she said. “You have good instincts. How do you feel?”
I thought about it. “Fine, actually,” I replied. “They were about to kill us, weren’t they? So it had to be us or them.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Mind you, where we’re going, you won’t be called on to do much of that. But it’s good to know how to fight in case things go wrong. Try not to kill unless you have to — but if you do, make it swift and sure.”
I looked at her. “Where exactly are we going?” I asked. During our trip, she had given obscure hints regarding our destination, but this was the first time I had asked her directly. Perhaps that’s because I already had a good idea.
“I thought you knew — or perhaps you just want me to say it,” Karliah replied. Then she grinned at me as if she could no longer contain her excitement. “We’re going to join the Thieves Guild.”
Jenassa’s story isn’t finished, I can tell — but Jenassa herself is definitely done. Her head starts nodding over her tankard and the wine bottle is completely dry. For once, I never touched a drop myself. Her tale has kept me riveted, but now it’s time to help my emotionally spent girlfriend into bed before she passes out.
I undress her and tuck her in, and she falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow. I think about how we’ve spent our evening, and I can’t help but feel sorry for her.
She’s going to have one hell of a hangover in the morning.