23 - Esbern

I handed my armour, my warhammer, and a carefully selected collection of potions to Malborn, the Wood Elf agent in the Winking Skeever. He set off for the Embassy, while I walked down to where the carriage was waiting. I changed into the more formal party gear Delphine had selected for me, and boarded the carriage.

Elenwen met me just inside the door, and she knew my name, even if she didn't know my face. I was surprised, as she must have seen me at Helgen, and I should have been conspicuous, as the only Dremora. I'd was certain that I'd seen her there, talking to Tullius as we were carted in. Like all Altmer, she was tall, slender, and quite attractive in an elven way. Which probably made her quite unattractive to the average Nord, who likes his women more ... cuddly?

Malborn interrupted us, mainly to get my attention, I think. When Elenwen wandered off back to her other guests, he asked that I should try and create a distraction, so he could sneak me into the off-limits part of the building, where my equipment was waiting.

Obviously, that distraction couldn't include me, or everyone would be looking my way. That was enough of a problem already, as most of the other Jarls and Thanes there had never seen a Dremora before, and were curiously peeking in my direction whenever they got the chance.

I had a few options. There was the Thane of Solitude, Erikur, who was apparently attracted to the Bosmer girl serving drinks, and could probably be goaded into making a nuisance of himself with her. I was reluctant to do that, however, as it might get her into trouble, too.

Most of the other choices were just as bad, but the half-drunk Redguard merchant who came in at the same time I did, a man name Razelan, looked like my best bet. I delivered him another drink, and persuaded him to stir a bit of life into the proceedings. He wasn't enjoying himself there anyway, and didn't mind getting tossed out.

After he'd managed to insult Elenwen, and most of the others, the guards all swarmed in to apprehend and eject him, blocking everyone's view of me. I took the opportunity to slip through a door behind the bar, with Malborn.

He led me through the kitchen, and I found my equipment waiting in a chest in the pantry. There was a door at the back of that, providing access from the private quarters, and my entry to the same. Malborn closed and locked the door behind me, warning me I'd be on my own.

I searched the rooms I now had access to, dealing with a few interruptions from Thalmor guards as they blundered in. I found nothing of interest, and headed out the door into the courtyard, hoping to find something in the Solar opposite. Of course, that meant dealing with more guards on the way, which I must admit, I quite enjoyed.

By the time I entered the Solar, I was wondering why I hadn't just stormed my way in to begin with. The Thalmor guards didn't put up much opposition, and it would have avoided all the masquerade of the party invitation. On the other hand, the party did keep Elenwen herself out of the way, and perhaps that's what Delphine had in mind.

In the Solar, I found Rulindil, the torturer in charge of the Thalmor dungeon, talking to a Nord informant, name Gissur. After eliminating them, I had a key to the lower floor, where I imagined I'd have a better chance of finding something useful.

There was a single Thalmor soldier guarding the cells. She didn't last long. Now I wanted to check out any containers, free any prisoners and generally disrupt things. I found a number of documents that I suspected Delphine would like to read, especially as one was about her. Another concerned Ulfric Stormcloak, but the third was on another man I'd never heard of; someone called Esbern.

Just then, some more soldiers came in at the top of the stairs, and they had Malborn with them. Before they could do anything to him, I attacked, and soon had a key to an exit that I suspected we'd quickly be needing. I freed the only prisoner I could find, and together we opened the trapdoor that led out.

It opened into a cave, and I could hear something animal-like ahead. I kept the others behind me, and it was well that I did, as it turned out to be a Frost Troll. As I struck at it, a fireball flew in from the mouth of the cave and helped put it down.

"Zahra! How did you know where I'd be?"

"Delphine mentioned that you'd be coming out here, so I was waiting outside. When I heard the troll, I came in."

"So where's Delphine, now?"

"She went back to Riverwood. You need to collect the rest of your gear there, at the Sleeping Giant. She took it all with her."

Malborn and the prisoner, a Breton named Etienne Rarnis, ran off in different directions. While Etienne had thanked me profusely, Malborn was complaining that he'd be a fugitive for the rest of his life. As if he hadn't anything to do with that situation.

Since I had my armour, and a change of clothing, even if it was a bit ostentatious, I didn't desperately need to go there right away. I re-read the dossier on Ulfric, and wondered if there was enough material here to extract a bit of gold from him. It did imply that he'd been quite informative, when he was their prisoner, and I suspected that Elenwen had a hand in that. Or some other part of her body.

Delphine would, I'm sure, be quite pleased with hers. It made her look much more important than I suspected she really was. But the one on Esbern was intriguing. The Thalmor clearly believed he was the key to knowledge of the new dragon situation, and had made him their highest priority. Perhaps he should also be mine?

The dossier mentioned Riften, but that wasn't very precise. Since Delphine was one of the Blades, perhaps she'd have a better idea where in Riften to start looking for him. I'd better go to Riverwood next, after all.

Delphine was surprised to discover that Esbern was still alive. She'd thought herself the sole survivor of the Blades. As for finding him, she told me that he'd most likely be in the Ratway, which is where the Thieves' Guild headquarters were. Anyone who wanted to hide would be down there. She gave me the impression that there was as much of the city down there as there was on the surface, so it didn't narrow my search much.

In Riften the entrance to the Ratway wasn't hard to find, but I imagined we were entering a hostile labyrinth, and the rest of the hunt wouldn't be easy. Getting attacked by a couple of low-lifes in the first tunnel just confirmed that.

There was a raised drawbridge blocking our way just a little further in, and we needed to jump down and find a way around it. Presumably a Thieves Guild member would be able to lower that drawbridge, or maybe there was another entrance somewhere that they used. I just hoped that it all connected together, and we weren't in the wrong part.

We encountered less skeevers than I'd expected, but that was mainly because they had low-lifes preying on them, and an abundance of traps. It all made progress slow and tedious. Eventually, however, we reached the Ragged Flagon, which seemed to be a Guild-run tavern, although they were unconcerned that we weren't members. Presumably just getting here was enough. A door at the back led further into the tunnels.

It wasn't long before we encountered some Thalmor soldiers, who were also looking for Esbern. That made sense, as we already knew that the Thalmor suspected he was in Riften, and they wouldn't have found him up in town. Why they attacked us wasn't as clear, but they did, so they died.

We finally came across a door that had multiple bars, and locks, and seemed more like a fortress than a beggar's cell. This was probably where Esbern lived. I knocked, and voice told me to go away. I asked the voice if he was Esbern, and he denied it, of course. So I mentioned the 30th of Frostfall, and Delphine, and that changed his mind.

Once we were inside his little home, he explained that it was the date the Great War started, and he and Delphine had been at Cloud Ruler Temple, in Cyrodiil at the time. The two of them had separated, and had been on the run from the Thalmor ever since. When the Dragons re-appeared, he'd seen that it was futile to continue, and retreated down here.

"Why futile?"

"Because this is the beginning of the end-times. Without a dragonborn, there's no way to stop Alduin, and the world will inevitably come to an end."

"But I'm dragonborn, or at least the Greybeards tell me I am. I find it hard to believe, being a Dremora, but they assure me it's possible."

"Well, this changes everything. You need to take me to Delphine immediately. Or at least, once I've gathered what I need for the journey. Just a moment." He started to hunt around his cell, stuffing various items into his pockets.

"I think that's all," he said, "Let's go!"

Almost as soon as we went out the door, we ran into another group of Thalmor. The mage among them summoned a flame atronach, and I smiled at the poor choice. To add to their woes, Esbern countered with a frost atronach of his own. This man wasn't the frightened rat I had taken him for.

Esbern also knew all the shortcuts to get out quickly, dropping down grates in the floor, and ducking down side-passages that I wouldn't have considered. Soon we were standing back outside the Ratway entrance in Riften.

I decided to take the carriage to Whiterun, and walk to Riverwood from there. The carriages never seem to get attacked, and the road from Whiterun to Riverwood was about as safe as any. I'd cleared most of the area around it myself.