The man clad in steel and with a huge greatsword strapped to his back leant relaxed against one of the wooden columns holding the roof over the terrace. Jergen had just come back to Jorrvaskr from an unexciting but tedious job, hunting down a criminal through the dense woods around Falkreath who had successfully bribed a guard to escape, he was tired and aching and had only dropped his pack, grabbed a bottle of ale and left the Companion’s hall towards the abandoned backyard again to get a few moments of peace for himself. And now he stood still in the shadows the deep evening sun threw over the paved place, trying to keep as quiet as possible, and still a spectator would have wondered how the soft expression on his face would fit into his martial appearance, skin and armour smeared with blood and grime.
But his eyes were fixed on a niche in the wall around the yard, a corner that was already veiled in darkness. But he had senses that could pierce through it, and he not only saw the small body curled into a ball against the wall, he could also hear the suppressed sniffs and quiet sobs that came from it.
A gentle smile spread over his lips as he pushed himself finally off the column and went over, hunching down in front of the boy. Bright, puffy eyes half hidden behind dark hair that urgently needed a cut stared alarmed into his, the child appalled that he was found and disturbed in his hiding place.
The warrior crossed his arms on his own knees.
“What’s the matter, Farkas, hm? Tilma has made fresh sweetrolls. Shouldn’t you be inside by now?”
The boy huddled up only closer, his arms curled around his shins, shaking his head. In his fist he clenched a folded piece of parchment, the paper crumpled and moist from his sweaty grip, the other hand coming up and wiping his nose with his sleeve. He looked so miserable that the man refrained from admonishing him. Instead he gave him a curious look and stretched out a hand.
“What do you have there?”
But the boy jerked back violently, hiding the hand with the parchment behind his back.
Concern flitted over the man’s face. Writings of all kinds could be dangerous. What if this was a mage’s scroll with a spell the boy could accidentally release? Or something that didn’t belong to him, something private with things he shouldn’t know?
“Tell me, Farkas. Please.”
The boy looked pleadingly at him. “It’s mine. Really.”
He laid a reassuring hand on the boy’s knee. “I believe you. But what is it? I just don’t want you to get into danger…”
“Just a letter.” It wasn’t more than a mumble.
“A letter? Someone wrote you a letter?”
Surprise stood in the man’s face. He knew the boy wouldn’t lie to him. He rarely lied… sometimes he tried to, or tried to hide things his brother had decided that they had to be kept secret, but even then he was seldom successful. He was a terrible liar, every hint of bad conscience easily readable from his face. In this moment, he didn’t have a bad conscience, that much Jergen saw. He was sad and forlorn, in the heartbreaking way only a child could be sad and forlorn.
But a letter? To a seven-year-old? That caused so much distraught? Worry spread over Jergen’s face, a concern that turned into confusion when he heard the next muttered words.
“Not someone. Vilkas.”
And suddenly the boy’s eyes all but swam in tears, avoiding desperately the scrutinising gaze of his stepfather, his lower lip trembling.
Jergen hid his astonishment. “Oh. Yes, of course. Vilkas.”
He had absolutely no idea what was going on here, but it was certainly strange. Why in Oblivion should one brother write a letter to the other, with the twins sticking together all the time like the two sides of a creme treat anyway? They lived in the same house, shared a room at night, trained and played and learned together during the days. And, even more importantly, why did it turn Farkas into a trembling mess of misery?
Once again Jergen doubted his own ability to take the father’s role on the boys. It wasn’t that he didn’t love them… since he had rescued them three years ago from a cage in a necromancer’s den and brought them to Jorrvaskr, they had wormed their ways into his heart, both of them in their own, unique way. Farkas with his easygoing cheerfulness, his kind heart and openness and his exuberant enthusiasm for the lifestyle of the warriors of Jorrvaskr. And Vilkas with his probing curiosity that could drive the adults around him into madness and the deep vulnerability he hid behind an attitude that was as cute as precocious now and would become self-opinionated and dogmatic later if they weren’t careful with him. If they wouldn’t look so obviously alike, nobody would believe they were twins.
He loved them, he really did, and although he knew that neither he nor the other Companions would ever be able to replace their parents, he was certain that a childhood in Jorrvaskr wasn’t that bad. He did his best, after all, and the kids were accepted by everybody. It was more that he often simply didn’t understand them. Kodlak had laughed heartily at him when his friend had admitted his helplessness towards the boys once, his inability to react appropriately when they did child stuff and he simply didn’t know why they suddenly threw a tantrum, started to hit on each other or broke into heartbreaking crying. More than once he had been full of thankfulness when Tilma had simply shoved him away and unpretentiously taken care of the boys. He didn’t know if it was because she was a woman or because she was no warrior, but where he behaved only awkward, she managed easily to calm the waves.
The same helplessness gripped him now as he faced the quietly sniffing boy.
In the end, he knelt down and drew the child into his lap, cursing himself for a moment that he hadn’t even taken the time to discard his steelen breastplate. That much hew knew at least, cuddling like this worked nearly always with Farkas and nearly never with Vilkas. He tilted his head to be able to look into the boy’s face, trying to sound gentle and reassuring.
“What’s that letter about? Can you tell me? Or is it a secret?”
It was obviously the wrong question. Suddenly tears streamed freely over the boy’s cheeks again, leaving trails in the dust and dirt the day had left behind, but he didn’t lose his grip on the folded paper, clenched his small fist in a way that would make it unreadable soon.
“It’s a secret. Vilkas said so,” he sobbed, hiding his face against the man’s chest.
Something dawned on Jergen. If someone had told him what this was about and if it had been about someone else, he would have found it hilariously funny. But this was his little boy, the child who could spend hours with his wooden training sword, shouting expletives at the training dummy he had picked up from the warriors around him and reacting with a proud grin when Skjor, Kodlak or one of the others patted his back in jovial approval. The boy who would haul around buckets of water for Tilma he was barely able to lift himself when he decided that she looked tired and who was the only one able to calm his brother when Vilkas woke up screaming from his nightmares. But he was also the boy who still believed that Ysgramor had sailed right up to Whiterun and turned his ship with his bare hands to live under it, who found stories of dragons and daedra much more fascinating than the history of his own family and who had already wasted a fortune in parchments making funny ink blobs during their lessons with Vignar instead to listen and learn, while Vilkas had already read through half of the little library in the Harbinger’s quarters and wrote lists of things he intended to do every day just to show off that he could.
He held the shaking body firmly, absentmindedly realising that he wasn’t quite so small any more, and stroked soothingly over the dark tangle of hair until the sobbing had subsided into an erratic hiccup.
“Tell me, Farkas,” he said quietly, “do you know what’s written in the letter?”
Gently he laid a finger under his chin, forcing the boy to meet his serious gaze. Huge silvery eyes met his, dark with distress. And a trace of bad conscience.
“No,” he whispered.