Svynn narrowed her gaze to the scene below her, cursing… inwardly but with all her heart and creativity, because every sound she made would mean instant death. Well, perhaps not instant, but nevertheless certain, painful and so inconveniently inevitable.
They should have just stormed the cave and mowed down everything that lived. Who cared how many guards there were, if the entrance was barred, if there were archers or mages? In the end, it would’ve made no difference. They had done jobs like this dozens of times before, and they’d always succeeded.
What an incredibly stupid idea.
“I’ve a bad feeling about this, Farkas,” she had said. “Let me scout the terrain,” she had said, “and you see to clean that up. Noob.” She poked the rugged cleft clotted with dirt and dried blood in her companion’s upper arm, where a sabrecat had clawed into the unprotected flesh between pauldron and steelplated gauntlet, and smeared the fresh blood from her finger onto his skin.
He flinched away with a yelp but grinned at her, white pointy teeth between the grime and blood on his face. “Noob yourself,” he grunted, “you’re gonna have to stitch me up anyway.”
And now she lay uncomfortably in the snow above the entrance to the cave they were paid to clean out and could move neither forth nor back. Below her, at least half a dozen of the hideout’s inhabitants had gathered – scrubby, unkempt, badly geared and malnourished figures spreading a seedy stench that quivered up to her hiding place like a poisonous cloud, her sensible nose wrinkling under the onslaught of the foul odours of sweat, alcohol and various kinds of rot. Nobody could foresee that they’d start a picnic right now, people gathering around a couple of hunters who had brought strings of small game and a deer. But someone had started a fire, and soon the scent of roasted turkey mingled with the rest of the smells.
She didn’t dare to move, pressed herself as flat as possible against the ground, her bodywarmth slowly sipping through her steelen breastplate and melting the snow below her. A drop of cold sweat ran agonisingly slow down her spine, the tickling making her want to scream.
Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Don’t be here. If only one of the brigands lifted his head to check the surroundings above the cave, he’d see her silhouette against the bright sky. Every movement would reveal her with the scratching of metal on stone. A shadow wandered over her body, filtering out the sun, and she started to shiver. A cloud? A dragon? Impossible to turn and check the sky.
But there were more distractions, tiny sensations that somehow didn’t fit into the scene below her, without her being able to grasp what it was exactly that made her so nervous. More an instinct than a real observation. A pebble rolling away somewhere behind her – perhaps only a rabbit or a fox. The barely noticeable scratching of metal on metal. Or was it metal on stone? Perhaps just the claw or hoof of an animal on the steep rocky slope, perhaps just an echo on the mountain flank above her. A huff on the breeze cooled her bare neck, as if someone released a controlled breath with as little noise as possible after holding it for too long.
She didn’t dare to turn, but her muscles tensed, trying to bring her body into a position enabling her to leap away if the necessity occurred. Drops of sweat formed on her temples, threatened to run into her eyes. She blinked furiously, as if she could prevent it. A cramp was forming in her left calf, she felt the muscle fibers convulse and tense and the pain build up.
Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Don’t be here.
What an incredible stupid idea.
Something shifted behind her, and all of a sudden she was certain, not only sensed, but knew that the real danger wasn’t in front her. Something approached, too quiet and furtive not to be a predator. The fine hair in her neck and on her forearms stood on end as she stopped to breathe.
“A caaaaaaaaave. Daaaaark. Daaaaaaan… gerous.”
It was only a growl, so low and so deep it was barely over her hearing threshhold, the last syllable ending in a threatening hiss. The warmth of a breath ghosted startlingly over the damp coldness of the skin behind her ear. For a single moment, her heart stopped beating. She froze, unable to move even if she wanted to.
As instincts kicked in, the sudden stasis in her chest sped up to a frantic hammering in a split second, pulse pounding in her ears, the held breath bursting out of her ribcage in a terrified, furious scream. At the same time a bearlike grip closed around her upper arm and yanked her up, out of her uncomfortable position and behind a wall of steel and muscles, and an already notched arrow flew… right into the sudden turmoil in front of the cave entrance. It was badly aimed, but it still found its target in the side of a brigand, and his agonised scream drowned easily out her cry and heavy breathing.
Disbelief, shock and anguish stood in the faces that turned to the broad silhouette of a warrior suddenly appearing above the cave, black against the pale brightness of the sky.
Disbelief, shock and anguish stood in her face as she fell to her knees behind him, the cramp in her leg shooting with piercing pain through her thigh.
Farkas roared with laughter, throwing back his head in unbridled glee, let his bow fall away and covered himself with his shield as he leaped down into the small space in front of the cave’s entrance, drawing his sword while still falling. He landed with the grace of a sabrecat, tangled black hair flying around a face that showed a snarling grin, and he appeared in the midst of his enemies like a force of nature, seemingly out of nowhere, an insanely quick wall of steel and muscles wielding a whirling blade he struck like lightning.
A fast strike over an exposed throat, the edge of the shield thrashing into the ribs of another and a kick of heavy steelen boots against the knee of a third were three enemies taken out in a single motion.
After this first attack and as the numbness of surprise vanished from the faces around him, making place for fury and fear he backed off, against the rock face that rose steeply. He was reckless but not stupid, and he liked to have his back sheltered when facing more than one enemy. For a moment, he held the approaching figures easily at distance, falling into the prancing, resilient stance of defense that was second nature when facing superior numbers, enabling him to block or avoid anything they’d throw at him.
Not that they’d literally throw anything. The bandits were horribly geared, in mismatched armours, the metal parts rusty and unpolished mixed with untended, ill fitting leather pieces and armed with crude maces and notched blades. But even a hit with a simple wooden cudgel could be deadly when wielded with the strength of despair, and he had taken out only one of the whole group so far. One of seven, although the man with the arrow clutched his side and was pale with pain and the ones who had been hit and kicked were still struggling to get up again.
But all of them wore the determination to fight for their lives in their faces, though, and the circle closed around the warrior.
“Care to join in, Svi?” he roared upwards into the air. Despite his inhumanly sharp senses he had no idea where the woman was, the stench of his opponents and of the roast above the fire masking everything else, their grunts and curses and his own heavy breathing drowning out all other noises.
And then they were upon him, as by a hidden command. The attack wasn’t coordinated, these people weren’t trained to fight together, but they seemed to communicate through the hidden signs that were universal, distinguishing friend and foe.
A single, common foe. A friend who will shield my back when I shield his. We’re stronger together than each of us is on his own.
And Farkas fought for his life, although a spectator would have mistaken it for a dance, an exercise, a performance as elegant as deadly.
The woman cowered motionless on top of the cave entrance, only partly concealed by a narrow boulder. But noone cared to search the surroundings any more, now that the obvious danger was trapped in their midst, and she watched the happenings below her with gritted teeth.
The fury still boiled in her, anger with her companion about his prank that had caught her so embarrassingly off guard and with herself for being surprised so easily. Now let him see how to get out of this, she thought to herself, gloating at his efforts to defend himself against the attacks that seemed to come from everywhere at once, forcing him not only to wield his blade in elegant strikes, switching from foe to foe whenever he found an opening for a quick slash or fast hit, but also to use his shield actively like a weapon, blocking thrusts as much as using it like a battering ram with the full force of his strength.
And still, her anger was mixed with amusement, and her lips curled up when he yelled for her to join into the fight. They never granted a quarter to the other, and he knew exactly what he got himself into with his shenanigans. He expected her to let him suffer… and she knew to better live up to his expectations.
She cowered on her lookout with a grin full of mischief and had to admit, to watch him fight was a pleasure. She always liked to watch him… he was handsome and he knew it, with the well proportioned bulk of muscles, narrow hips and broad shoulders, the strong features under the always tangled, knotty mane of dark hair. More often than once they had been mistaken for brother and sister in blood when they turned up together, the woman not only taller than average, but also muscular and well trained, with the broad shoulders and strong thighs of a warrior used to work covered in steel. Added to this her blue eyes, though several shades darker than his, her broad forehead over prominent cheekbones and black hair that was cropped so short and irregular that it stood in spikes in all directions every time her fingers drove through it, and the similarities between them were striking.
But they only knew each other for three years, and of course they weren’t siblings. He and his twin brother had grown up at Jorrvaskr, the Companion’s hall, and she was an only child, her parents living on a farm near Solitude. But in these three years, they had become shield-siblings in every possible sense, learned to rely on each other in every situation. He had spoken for her admittance to the ancient order of warriors, he had been her forebear when she took the lycanthrophic blood that made her part of the inner circle of the Companions, and he had become the brother she always wished she’d have as a child.
And much more than that. They had become close friends fast, alike in their carefree approach of life. They were warriors and mercenaries, they killed for a living and had to face their own death too often to ponder uselessly over an uncertain future. Instead they embraced what the moment offered with all their hearts and shared the enjoyments they could give each other, be it excessive drinking and the inevitable hangover afterwards, the thrill of the hunt when they let their beasts out or a night of lovemaking with all the bliss, soreness and exhaustion that came with it. No awkwardness, no timidity was left between them, they took each other with all their quirks and flaws, no obligations tainting their relationship. They spent time apart, worked on their own or with others, took other lovers and had other friends… and still, when the going got rough they fell back on each other, and when one of them needed solace and comfort, it was the other’s company where they found it.
Not that she thought he deserved comfort right now. In this moment, she wanted him to make a mistake, to get overwhelmed, just to force him to admit that he had gotten himself into something far over his head.
But to watch him like now, the epitome of a warrior, the absolute control he had over his movements, showing his natural agility as much as decades of training and fighting, the way he surveyed his surroundings and was able to assess every move of his foes, react and proact always with the glimpse of an eye ahead that granted his survival and their demise, she could do this for hours. There were blood and gore, broken bones and severed flesh, and it was beautiful.
He pierced his blade into the soft flesh of an abdomen, shattered a wrist with the edge of his shield and crunched a jawbone with a well targeted hit of the massive hilt of his sword, turning his foes one after another into heaps of corpses and bleeding flesh. But gradually his movements became slower, barely noticeably at first, his breathing growing laboured and the excited grin on his face making way for focused concentration. But the mirth never left his eyes. He knew that his shield-sister was out there, hidden, watching him. He knew he deserved it, and he admired her resolve to get her revenge. And he was dead set not only to get through with it, but to provide her with a show to remember.
But one of the brigands, a hulk of man nearly as broad and large as Farkas wielded a warhammer, an enormous weapon, the heavy steelen head holding the warrior at bay with his much larger reach. At first he held back, careful not to hit his own comrades with his wide swings, but when the human wall around their enemy thinned, he made use of the full potential of his weapon and attacked with all the force he could lay into the powerful strikes.
And he was fast. Too fast for such a heavy weapon, but he knew that he had to end this fight as soon as possible, with three of his fellows already lying dead and others injured severely. He attacked relentlessly, aimed for the limbs of his opponent where he knew he’d be able to break bones even through the heavy armour if he could only score a direct hit. But Farkas was fast as well, avoided the deadly swings of the hammer, ducked and twisted, even blocked it once with his shield, although it looked as if it would fall from his grip, his teeth clenched as he countered the impact with bulging muscles. And still another fighter beset him from his other side, whirling two daggers in fast, unpredictable attacks, searching for an opening in the defences of his foe.
He found it in the gap between pauldron and gauntlet, pierced the short blade into the muscle of Farkas’ unprotected upper arm. The injury bled, but it wasn’t lethal, not even dangerous, and usually the warrior would have just laughed over the scratch. But the sabrecat’s claws had already ripped the flesh open once, the wound only hastily treated with a healing salve and a sloppily tied bandage, and this new attack ripped it open again. Fresh blood drenched the dirty cotton and dripped down his arm.
The reaction was immediate. An angry growl tore itself from the warrior’s throat, and the last remains of complacency and playfulness left his face in an instant, replaced by a feral snarl. Lips drew back to his teeth, a deep crease formed between heavy black brows, quiet fury written into the lines of his face. And his eyes changed… the usually unfaltering pale blue gaze altered, barely noticeably at first, a dark ring appearing around the irises. But it grew, expanded towards the black centre, seemingly emitting a golden light clearly visible in the shadows of the cave entrance.
His attacker flinched back as he recognised the change, realising that provoking this foe probably wasn’t the smartest idea he ever had. That – perhaps – it had been the last mistake of his miserable life.
This single moment of distraction spelled his doom, the single step the brigand made backwards enough. Farkas followed the motion, eyes locked into the fearful gaze of his opponent as if he wanted to give him a last message on his way. The blade formed an arc through the air, so fast it was nearly audible, and found its target in the unprotected neck of the man, severing the head from the torso.
Hot blood sprayed from the stump, the corpse tilting to the side and against the last man standing who had raised his warhammer in a devastating attack, aimed to shatter bones, preferrably those of a skull. The heavy weight slumping against him let him lose his balance, though, and the swing went astray, pushed further away by a forceful thrust of Farkas’ shield. The weight of the weapon pulled the man around, stumbling, trying to regain his footing, but it was too late. The sword of the Companion tore through a joint of his breastplate into his side, a forceful thrust pierced it between the ribs and into his heart.
Farkas stood bent forward, palms propped on his knees and panting heavily as he took a moment to catch his breath, regarding the messy remains of this fight around him with a complacent smile. A smile that became a smug grin when he saw his shield-sister slip down the steep slope from above the cave and that she only strapped her own greatsword to her back when she had reached the ground.
He knew she would be ready to intervene if necessary. And he had shown her that it wasn’t.
Her forceful punch against his shoulder caught him off guard, though, the hit shooting with sudden pain through the bleeding wound in his upper arm.
“Icebrain,” she growled, “see what a mess you made.” It wasn’t clear if she meant the accumulation of gore he had left behind or his own injury, and he cocked a heavy eyebrow at her.
“You took too long, sister,” he grinned, “I wanna be home again tonight.” With an impatient motion he opened the buckles of his pauldron, shrugged it off and ripped the ragged, clotted bandage from the wound before he dropped heavily on a log at the now abandoned fireplace. “How about you finally stitch me up before we take care of the rest?”
She took place beside him, ripping pieces of cotton thread from the quill. When the wound was cleansed, she pressed the edges none too gently against each other, assessing where to put the first stitch. He clenched his teeth as the needle pierced his flesh, but gave no further sign of discomfort. Only when she tightened the knot harder than necessary, he gave a startled yelp.
“Careful, Svi! Gods, what kind of girl are you that you can’t even make a proper seam?”
She wiped away the drops of blood that poured out of the stitching holes with a clean rag. “Don’t be such a wimp,” she grumbled, “if you had let me do that before that stunt, it would only be half as bad.”
“Yeah, but this was twice the fun,” he grinned through gritted teeth.
Her head jerked up, the needle left stuck in his flesh. “I knew you were there.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“You’re as subtle as a mammoth. Of course I did.”
“You didn’t. You screamed,” he answered matter-of-factly, displaying a smirk so smug that her face flashed with renewed anger.
“Only because I couldn’t believe that you’re so stupid!”
He bowed his head to her, whispering into her ear. “You lie and you know it.” His lips grazed teasingly over her skin, laughter quivering in his rumbling voice.
Rubbing the healing salve into the wound with more force than necessary, she gave him a cheeky grin that showed the dimple in her chin, standing in disturbing contrast to the roughness of her actions.
“And you know that you will pay for that.” Her fingertips caressed the inside of his wrist as she took his hand and placed it on his bloodsmeared upper arm, urging him to press the edges of the gash together while she wound the bandage tightly around his biceps. He watched her treatment of the injury approvingly, showing no sign of discomfort, but as soon as the ends were secured, he stood up and refastened the buckles of his pauldron.
“You already had your revenge. Now it’s my turn again.”
“Pah,” she snorted, “as if you could pull that off twice.”
The grin he shot her over his shoulder as he pushed the narrow entrance open was mischievious.