“He is what?”
Fury flared in Jergen’s eyes as he sat across the man he had trusted to educate his sons. Only minutes ago he had dealt with a sobbing boy who for the first time in his short life didn’t want to sleep in the same room as his brother. Who was afraid of what his twin would ask him and deeply ashamed of his own inability to read the letter he had received. When he stretched out his arm and held the crumpled piece of paper that caused so much distress towards his stepfather, pleading him to tell him what was written in it, his childlike desperation broke Jergen’s heart, but he refused.
“It’s a secret, Farkas,” he said quietly, rocking back and forth with the boy on his knees, “you’re not allowed to show it to me.” This was a serious lesson as well. As much as he burst with curiosity and pity, he didn’t have the right to intrude into other people’s business… not even into the business of his sons, not as long as he wasn’t certain that there was danger ahead. And what danger could lie in a secret between seven-year-olds? But they had to learn how important it was to keep their mouths shut when necessary – especially Farkas, who was notorious for always saying out loud what went through his head. Companions had to be able to keep a secret.
In the end, he had advised Farkas just to keep quiet, to tell his brother that this matter was too serious to talk about and that he’d answer his letter in the same manner. Seeing the eyes of the boy fill with tears again, he put him down and knelt before him.
“You will read this letter all on your own, Farkas. And you will answer it. I swear. I’ll help you.”
Huge eyes stared up into his face. “But… if I can’t? Vignar says I’ll never learn it…”
Jergen gritted his teeth in an effort to stay calm. “You will. If you really want it, you’ll learn it in no time.”
Suddenly the boy held himself very straight.
“Warrior’s oath?” His bright voice trembled, with tiredness, anxiety and excitement.
“Warrior’s oath,” Jergen said sternly, holding out his hand and clasping the boy’s forearm in the traditional greeting. The answering squeeze was surprisingly strong, although the little fingers didn’t even reach around his arm.
And now he had to find out how it had come to this disaster in the first place.
Vignar was as much a battlehardened warrior as every Companion, but he had only recently returned from the war, a highly decorated officer of the Imperial Legion rendered useless by an arrow through his lung, forced to retire against his will. For the last months he had been recovering, trying to get back his breath and his strength with the tenacious stubbornness of someone who had lost what constituted his life, but although noone dared to say it into his face, it became more and more obvious that the injury had been too severe and that he would never become his old self again. Noone had seen him in his heavy armour for weeks, noone had seen him swing his impressive battle axe, not even in training.
But besides being a warrior, he was also a scholar. He had travelled back and forth through Tamriel, seen things and visited places nobody else in Jorrvaskr could even imagine. He had been the historian and annalist of Ysgramor’s ancient order even before he went out to serve the Empire in its fight against the Thalmor, and the experiences during the war had only deepened his interest in history and foreign cultures. As a scholar, as the keeper of their ancient knowledge he was still highly respected.
Jergen had thought him perfect to school the boys, to teach them letters and numbers, to read and write, the history of their homeland and the tenets of the Companions. It would give the elder man a new purpose and provide the twins with the knowledge they’d need later if they wanted to become something more than simple farmers or mine-workers. Even if they stayed in Jorrvaskr, they’d need this knowledge. Every Companion had to be able to read the contracts with their clients and to sign with his own name.
And now this low-brow dared to tell him right into his face that one of his pupils was…
“A lost cause. Yes.”
Vignar leant relaxed in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, and arched a challenging eyebrow at the fuming man.
“See, Jergen,” he said soothingly, taking a sip from his tankard, “I’m just trying to be honest. Your Vilkas here, that’s a bright head, we all know that. Probably too clever for his own good, the questions he asks are scary sometimes. No seven-year-old should ask such questions. But Farkas… I like him. I really do. He is endearing, and he has his talents. Give him a blade, and he will give you thrashing. Or try to, at least. He beat Aela two weeks ago, you know that? Though that girl is better with a bow than a sword…” His voice trailed off, but then he pulled himself together and met the glare of his opposite calmly. “But he doesn’t get it. All these things for which he has to sit on his behind and concentrate and work with his brain, they’re just not for him. Not sure if he can’t or if he doesn’t want to… both, probably. But he doesn’t show any discipline and no interest at all. He doesn’t even try.”
A furious scowl formed on Jergen’s face. “You really want to tell me that Farkas is too dumb to learn to read. And even worse, you told him that he’s too dumb to learn it.” He tried to swallow his anger, but it broke out of him. “Shor’s balls, he’s seven years old! What do you expect, a soldier you can order around?”
Vignar eyed the raging man over the brim of his tankard, not at all affected by his outbreak. “It works quite well with Vilkas. And… Divines, Jergen, why force him? Many people can’t read or write. Why put this effort into something he will be lousy at all his life?”
“He is not dumb!” Jergen thundered, rising to his feet and bracing himself threateningly on the table. “Give him a dozen things to get at the market, and he will bring exactly what you want! His brain works fabulously… just differently from his brother’s!”
“Why so defensive, friend? He’s not even your son. Who knows what will become of him.”
Jergen sat down again, clenching his own mug between his hands to keep them calm. He didn’t want to blow it completely with the elder warrior, but he also wasn’t willing to give up on his stepson. And he was still furious that Vignar dropped the boy so easily.
“No, unfortunately I’m gone too often and too long to be them the father they need, or I would have realised much earlier that you neglect him just because he doesn’t live up to your standards. But I have taken over responsibility for these boys, and you all have agreed to help, and they will learn whatever we can teach them. Both of them. And if you shun the effort although you promised, I will do it myself!”
“Well, good luck with that. But don’t come crying in a few weeks when he still writes his own name with a V just because his brother does the same.”
Jergen gritted his teeth. “Farkas will learn to read, Vignar, and if it’s the last thing I do. And you know why? Because Vilkas will make his life a living hell if he doesn’t keep up. He already does. Precious Vilkas with his bright head is not only frighteningly clever, he’s also an obnoxious little brat.”
The man took his bottle and stormed out of the door, ignoring Vignar’s pretentious smile. Outside, he dropped heavily on a bench and took a long gulp, breathing in deeply the cool, fresh night air in an attempt to calm down. The darkness and quiet around him soothed his nerves. He wasn’t even entirely sure why he had lost it like that. Perhaps Vignar was right. Perhaps he really had no idea how to treat the boys, perhaps he did it all wrong. Perhaps Farkas should just do what he could do best, hone the talents he had and become a mercenary or soldier. And Vilkas would go his own way.
But he knew it wasn’t so simple. Deep inside he knew that the boys would never leave one another, and to force them apart would end in desaster. They were dependent on each other, they relied on each other, as different as they were, and he had the distinct feeling that the ties between the twins would only become stronger over the years. It was his responsibility to make sure that they had equal chances and equal choices when they grew older and had to make their own decisions. He couldn’t allow that Farkas was left behind.
The clapping of the door interrupted his train of thought, his senses recognising the scent of his shield-sister at once. But she wasn’t alone, the redhaired man beside her having slung an arm around her waist, and when she sat down beside him, her husband took the seat across from them.
“Trouble?” she asked softly.
Jergen sighed deeply, glad for the company. If anyone would understand, it were these two. “Yes. Good to see you, Liv.” He nodded at the man. “And you, Aksel.”
“What’s the matter? I heard you yelling at Vignar.”
“Vignar is an ignorant fool,” he grunted, burying his forehead in the heels of his palms.
She nudged him gently. “Spit it out.”
“Farkas has difficulties with his lessons. He doesn’t learn like he should… no, he just doesn’t learn as fast as Vilkas, and Vignar dares to tell him he’s too stupid. Gods, what kind of teacher is he to say something like that to a child!”
“He’s no teacher at all. He has no experience with children. Just that heap of knowledge he sits on.” Dislike quivered in her voice.
“But that’s not all. Not only can Vilkas already read and write and Farkas cannot, now Vilkas has started to write letters to his brother. Well, one letter so far, but Farkas was a mess when I found him tonight.” Jergen looked helplessly into the sympathetic faces of the couple.
“I’ve no idea what to do now. All I know is that Farkas has to learn to read… and fast.”
“He’s only seven, Jergen,” Aksel said calmly, “you really worry because he can’t read yet?”
“No!” he flared up, “not because he can’t read! I worry because he can’t and Vilkas can!” He turned to the woman beside him, driving anxiously with his fingers through his hair. “You know the boys, Liv. You know how close they are. I want them to learn stuff like that together. I don’t want Vilkas to rush ahead and Farkas to be left behind. Tonight I’ve seen where that leads.”
“Farkas will easily catch up when he gives him his next thrashing,” the man grunted, “that’s all that matters in these halls anyway.”
Jergen had to laugh. In a way, the wiry, temperamental hunter who only occasionally visited his wife in Jorrvaskr had a refreshingly outside look on life as a Companion. “It’s not so easy, I’m afraid. Vilkas has made good progress recently. He still insists to train with this giant sword and he still stabs his own feet with it, but he has made progress. Holy Daedra, that boy is stubborn. Every beating Farkas gives him only spurs him on. I wish it was the same the other way around.”
Aksel lifted an eyebrow. “Dear… you’ve no idea how glad I am that Aela is a single child,” he said dryly to his wife, making her laugh out loud and Jergen chuckle.
“You know… I’m not that old yet…”
He recoiled, lifting his hands in feigned horror. “Don’t you even think about it!”
“Why not?” Her grin was mischievious.
“Because…” The man looked as if he wasn’t entirely sure if his wife was serious or not. Finally, he leant forwards, nodding at Jergen. “Just listen to him.”
Jergen grinned at their bickering. They were a weird couple, the hunter and the Companion, weird but obviously happy. They had a strange arrangement with her living in Jorrvaskr and him staying in a small hut in the southern woods, more than a day’s journey away, and with their daughter splitting her time between both parents, but it seemed to work. One day the lanky, overconfident girl would join her mother in the ranks of the Companions, and it was already clear that she wouldn’t have difficulties to find her place with her fierceness and the way her father honed her skills as a huntress, impressive already at the age of ten. But until then, she was only a guest – a guest who clashed regularly with the twins who defended Jorrvaskr as their home territory fiercely against the intrusion of the only other child far and wide.
Liv turned to him with a gentle smile. “I’ve an idea. I was gonna head out tomorrow… a couple of days with my daughter, perhaps into the Eastmarch to the hot springs. How about I take Vilkas with us? You have him off your heels and can take care of Farkas, and he will have a nice challenge. See that he’s not the best in everything he starts.”
The man stared at her from wide eyes, thankfulness welling up in him, but then he shook his head. “That’s an awesome idea, Liv, really. But you know he’s not ready for such a trip, hunting with you two he will only be a hindrance. And… you need your time together, Aela and you. Don’t ruin it for her.”
She became serious. “I’m not entirely selfless with this offer, Jergen. Aela is far too solitary. That comes with the way we live, but she needs to spend some time with other kids, and urgently. I know the two are not best friends, and she will do everything to act the big girl and show him how it’s done correctly. But if he’s really as stubborn as you say, he will try even harder to keep up.”
Jergen thought about it for a moment, then gave a short laugh. “He will hate it.”
“Yep,” she grinned.
“Aela will hate it.”
“You will hate it.”
“No,” she snickered, “I will have tons of fun.”