They hadn’t even left Whiterun, and Liv wasn’t already so certain any more that she’d have fun during the next days. When the woman and her charges approached the gate, the guard opened it eagerly for them, and as his gaze wandered over the small fellowship, he gave her a sympathetic glance.
“Good hunting… Companions,” he said, his smile turning into a grin even visible behind the closed helmet when he caught her rolling her eyes.
The day was bleak, the barely risen sun hidden behind heavy clouds that released a drizzling rain. All of them were protected by thick cloaks and oiled leather, but nevertheless it would drench them through and through in a few hours. Not that they weren’t used to it… well, Liv was, no Companion could take the weather into account if they ever wanted to get anything done. But they had a trip of several days ahead of them, and the faces of the children trailing after her were even darker than the sky.
Liv could understand that Aela wasn’t thrilled about Vilkas’ company and that she didn’t understand why he had to join them at all for this trip. Usually they savoured the time they could spend with only the two of them, and Liv was proud of her daughter. The girl worked hard, helping her father to fulfil his contract with the Jarl of Falkreath to supply his court with fresh game and learning whatever he could teach her. Time with her mother was rare and precious, and time they could actually spend together and to their own likings was even scarcer.
But the girl was proud and assertive bordering on aggressiveness, showing indifference at best and disdain at worst for everyone she deemed unworthy of her attention – and she had a very concise opinion about who was worthy. All she knew was the harsh environment of the woods where she spent most of her time and the warrior’s hall of Jorrvaskr. She always strived to prove herself – to her father as much as to the Companions, battlehardened warriors who only used the training ground to keep themselves smooth during times of leisure, the best Skyrim had to offer in terms of fighting skill and finesse. These warriors were her yardstick, knowing she’d be one of them one day, and everybody who didn’t fit into this scheme wasn’t worth her attention. Especially not her peers amongst the children of Whiterun.
And especially not the twins that pestered her every stay in Jorrvaskr. And of these two, most of all not Vilkas, the smaller of the boys, no match to her except with his sharp tongue.
Liv regarded the interaction between the two kids with discomfort. Usually they were able to avoid each other, with Aela training with the adults and the twins sticking to themselves. That wouldn’t work during this trip, though, and a trace of doubt if it was really a bright idea to let these two bullheads loose on each other emerged in her mind.
It had already started when they gathered in the mead hall for a brief breakfast. Liv and Aela were already ready to go, and so was Vilkas when he finally came up the stairs from the living quarters – clad in simple leather pants and a sleeveless leather jerkin over a cotton tunic, his cloak rolled into a bundle and strapped to the top of his small knapsack. On his back, he carried a willow bow fit for his size, a small leather quiver and one of Skjor’s old longswords – a simple iron blade that he wore like a claymore.
Aela, still chewing on a mouthful of porridge, had pointed at him and began laughing. A condescending laugh that mirrored the foul mood that had only grown since her mother had told her that they’d not be alone during this trip.
“What d’you plan to do with that, snowberry?”
Liv knew the scowl that settled on Vilkas’ face only hid his insecurity and hurt pride, and that he would easily be provoked by her remarks. Obviously something Aela was fully aware of.
“Kill something,” the boy sneered, helping himself to an apple and a loaf of bread. And with a glance towards the mug standing in front of Aela, he added, “milkdrinker.”
“At least I could wield it like it’s meant to be,” she said full of disdain, “and not use it like a chopping axe.”
The boy’s cheeks blushed with anger, and Jergen, who had come upstairs shortly after his stepson, laid a calming hand on his shoulder. He let his gaze wander over the scene and finally met Liv’s eyes. Unspoken understanding was exchanged between the two adults before he bowed down to the boy.
“Aela is right, Vilkas. For this trip, you need something more practical.”
“But it is practical. Eorlund had it sharpened yesterday.”
“No, it’s too heavy and too clumsy.” Jergen hunched down to be on eyelevel with Vilkas. “You won’t be hunting only deer and rabbits this time, Vilkas. There will be wolves and bears. Perhaps even a sabrecat. Perhaps something worse. You don’t want any of these to come close enough for that sword to use.”
An image flashed through the mind of the boy, of himself standing proud and fearless, impaling one of the huge predatory cats on his blade. But… Kodlak had the pelt of one of these beasts hanging on the wall in his room, with the claws and the skull still attached. They were really huge.
Slowly, he nodded. And his eyes grew wide when Jergen fumbled at his belt, unstrapped the sheath of his dagger and handed it to him.
“Here, take this instead. But bring it back, it’s precious.” A conspiratorial sparkle glimmered in his eyes.
“But that’s your Skyforge dagger!”
Only full-fledged Companions were allowed to own weapons made from the famous Skyforge steel, blades made by the master smith at the ancient forge that had belonged to the Companions since Ysgramor’s time. They were of exceptional quality, working tools of the warriors as much as badge of their affiliation, and every new member only got his first Skyforge weapon during a formal ceremony that introduced them officially into the order. Vilkas had already witnessed several of these rituals, he knew how reverently the Companions treated their gear, and now he took the ornated leather sheath with equal awe.
“It’s only on loan. Take good care of it, okay?”
Vilkas nodded again, shooting a triumphant glance towards Aela. Who had watched the scene with obvious envy and now glared at her mother.
“Your daggers are perfectly fine, daughter,” Liv chuckled.
When the company had finally left, Jergen took a last swig from his tankard and went down to wake his other son. Farkas was a late riser, always had been, and he had only recognised with half an open eye that Vilkas got up before him. But when Jergen now shook his shoulder gently, he woke with a start.
“Out hunting, with Liv and Aela. They’ll be gone for a couple of days.”
Contradicting emotions flitted over the boy’s face. Disappointment that his brother had gone without saying goodbye and that for some reason they didn’t go on such an exciting trip together, relief that the blasted letter could rest for the moment and bewilderment why his stepfather stood expectantly and with crossed arms in front of his bed while he crawled out of his furs. He didn’t need help to get ready for the day, but now it seemed as if Jergen was waiting for him.
When he rubbed his eyes and grabbed some lose cotton breeches lying on a chair beside his bed, Jergen shook his head.
“No. Leather pants and jacket. You’re gonna accompany me on a job.”
“On a job?”
“Yes,” Jergen smirked, “on a job. We’ll be gone for a few days too. Get your pack ready.”
Excitement bloomed on Farkas’ face, and he answered the man’s smile brightly, suddenly wide awake. Jergen chuckled at the boy’s enthusiasm, it never took much to lift his spirits. He had thought about what Vignar had said, and although he didn’t approve the old man’s conclusions, one of his observations had certainly been right: Farkas wasn’t one to sit down and think. Or read. Or learn.
Jergen didn’t have really a plan how to tackle the reading problem, but he hoped that the knowledge that they were out on a job and the exertion of long marches would give the boy the focus to concentrate on other things as well. He was convinced that Farkas was neither dumb nor lazy, and Vignar’s remark that he didn’t show any interest and discipline had made him especially angry.
Although it was true that he was more playful and frisky than his brother, that didn’t mean that he didn’t want to learn and that he didn’t put any effort into it when he deemed it worthwhile. Jergen remembered vividly an incident two years ago, when Farkas had been absolutely fascinated by a sniper duel between Aela and her mother, both shooting arrows with alarming speed and precision at lumps of clay Skjor threw crisscross over the training yard. Only a day later he had not asked, but demanded to get his own bow, he had asked Liv to show him how to use it and not stopped practicing until he had memorised the motion sequences, how to draw and aim, how to breathe to keep his posture and eyes steady and how to focus the arrow’s trajectory. He had done nothing else for days, drilled himself all on his own, just taking quietly the occasional advice the warriors watching him in awe provided, until he was able to hit the bull’s eye of the straw dummy several times in a row. Everybody had been impressed… but then, Vignar hadn’t yet been back at Jorrvaskr to witness it.
He just needed an incentive to pique his interest, and that was given with the mysterious letter. And as sitting down with ink and parchment obviously didn’t work, they would find another way.
“Okay,” Jergen said as the boy emptied his bowl of porridge, “we gotta go to Dragonsbridge, clean out a skeever infestation.”
“Skeever?” Farkas laughed, swallowing hastily before he spoke on. “They need Companions for a few skeever?”
“I know, I could have sent you alone just as well,” Jergen chuckled, “but they pay us, and so we will take care of it.” He sat down across from the boy and searched his eyes seriously. “It will us take three days to get there if we hike cross country, and another three days back. And when we’re here again, you will know much more about those blasted letters than you do now, Farkas. Promised.”
Jergen looked sternly at his son. He wanted him to know that this trip wasn’t meant to be just some quality time spent together, but that he was expected to work. The excited grin left the child’s face, replaced by the shadow of insecurity and doubt. But then he nodded silently, a crease of firm determination forming between his brows, and hurried to finish his breakfast.
“Okay. Tell me what you know already, Farkas.” They had left Whiterun behind, the weather had brightened up at least a bit, and they had settled into a comfortable stride side by side that made it possible even for the boy to span quite a distance. Perfect conditions to start an earnest man-to-man talk.
The boy was quiet for some time, then answered hesitantly. “Some of these signs… these letters. But I always forget what they mean. And how to put them together.”
“Which letters do you know?”
He thought for a moment, then his face lit up, and his index drew a huge circle into the air before him. “That’s an O!”
“Yeah,” Jergen smiled, “that’s easy, isn’t it? When we say O, our lips make exactly such a circle. Anything else?”
He painted the shape of a sharp angle, the tip pointing to the ground. “V! That’s what Vilkas starts with!”
“Exactly! Do you also know the first letter of your own name?”
The boy’s face was full of doubt. “It’s not V, is it?”
“No, it isn’t. Vilkas starts with Vvv and Farkas with Fff. It sounds different, doesn’t it?”
Jergen watched as Farkas’ mouth formed silent syllables while hopping at the same time over a narrow boulder without losing a step. “Yep,” he said finally, glancing up into his father’s face, “Vilkas sounds like… Vignar. And Farkas like…” he bit his lip in concentration. “Fralia!” His expectant face made Jergen laugh out loud, and he patted the boy’s shoulder in approval.
“You got it!”
Too stupid my ass.
“Okay.” Jergen had an idea. They didn’t have the means to practice letters anyway during their march, but they could practice their meaning. “I give you a sound, and you give me a name that starts with it. Forget the letters for the moment.”
“Forget the letters? But Vignar says I can do nothing without them!”
Vignar is an ignorant fool. Jergen bit his tongue before he said it out loud.
“Yes, forget the letters. They’re just signs… symbols, and we’ll come back to them later. Now we practice what they mean. Gimme a name with an Aaa!”
“Very good. And now… Lll!”
“Liv!” the boy whooped, “that’s easy!”
“Gimme a Kkk!”
“Kodlak!” He beamed at his father, obviously having fun with this game. “And then comes an O!”
Too stupid my ass.
“Okay. Give me a name that starts with an Ooo.”
The boy racked his brain, but obviously in search for a correct name, not because he didn’t know what was expected of him.
A grin spread finally over his face. “Olava.”
Jergen barely hid his astonishment. He had expected to hear Olfrid, one of the older boys part of the group of children that always rampaged through Whiterun together, or Olaf, the kind guard at the gate who had a watchful eye on them. He didn’t even know that Farkas knew the socalled Madwoman of Whiterun at all and wondered briefly if this was a reason to worry. But then he decided that it wasn’t, at least not right now, and answered the grin brightly.
“I tell you, Farkas, at the end of this trip you will not only read the letter you got, but write your own. Gimme a Ccc!”
But it wasn’t wrong, was it? Forget the letters, he had said. Especially the weird ones, like C, or Q, Y or W. Really, who had the braindead idea to call a letter doubleyu?
Soon they got into a rhythm of question and answer that matched their strides, and when they went out of names of people they knew, the simply expanded to names from stories and myths Farkas had heard during long evenings of tales and songs, and when those were depleted as well, they went over to animals, plants and whatever came to their mind. And it didn’t take long that the boy not only identified most of the initial sounds correctly, but also sounds in the middle of a word.
When Jergen assessed from the position of the eerie patch of brightness behind the clouds that it was time for a rest, he sent Farkas ahead towards a lone tree that loomed in the distance, ordering him to gather some wood and start a fire. The plains of Whiterun were full of small game that would make a fabulous snack, but with the boy chatting and laughing by his side, he’d have no chance to catch it. As the boy ran away and he drew his bow, searching for a rabbit, a pheasant or a gopher, he had to smile. As different as the twins may have been, in one point they were similar: both were stubborn to a fault. Both would never admit that something was too hard for them to do or to learn, both would never admit that they were too tired or weak or small to do something they really wanted. As much as Vilkas would never abandon his far too large training sword although everybody told him that with his slender, lean physique he was much better suited to wield a smaller, lighter weapon, Farkas had the same kind of determination. It just had to be woken. He had been frustrated and discouraged by Vignar’s attitude, but it seemed as if his enthusiasm was back.
Jergen felt a strange sense of pride – not only because he knew now that Farkas was neither too dumb nor too lazy and that Vignar had been proven wrong, but because he had found a way to motivate the boy. It hadn’t taken that much, just a bit of encouragement and a sense of achievement, but he was proud that it was him who had instilled this new confidence into his son.
When they had settled at the fire and Farkas had taken over the staked rabbit to roast it, Jergen leant relaxed back against the trunk of the tree and popped open a bottle of mead.
“Okay,” he said casually, “one more exercise, and if you do it right, you get both of the legs.” The boy who knelt close to the flames turned to him, a streak of ash smeared over his face that showed a cheeky grin.
“And a swig of your mead.”
“My mead?” Jergen chuckled, shaking his head. “Don’t get brazen, boy. It’s not solstice.” Last winter solstice had been the first time the boys had been allowed a small swig of mead for the celebration. Jergen had hoped that they wouldn’t like it, but unfortunately this hope had been dashed soon. They were true Nords, after all.
“Alright. Your name starts with which sound?”
“Fff.” The answer came quick like a shot, the attention of the boy set again on the rabbit. Letters were important, but food was even more so.
“And then?” The spinning of their midday snack stopped suddenly as the boy turned to his father, bewilderment in his face.
“Yes. What comes after Fff? And don’t let it scorch.”
The boy resumed the rotation of the stick, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Aaa?”
“Yep.” Jergen tried not to show his excitement. The boy had obviously grasped the concept of putting the letters together. Just without letters. “And next?”
Farkas’ mouth formed silent syllables. “Kkk.”
“No, that’s wrong.”
He started so violently that the rabbit nearly flew off the stick, but Jergen just chuckled. “Say your name slowly. And clearly.”
Farkas answered with a deep frown, but he pronounced carefully. “Far – Kas.”
“Hear that? There’s something between Aaa and Kkk. What sound is it?”
The boy said again, “Far – Kas,” then his face lit up. “Rrr!”
“That’s it! Okay, what do we have now?”
“Fff, Aaa, Rrr, Kkk.” He paused, but only for a moment. “And then another Aaa. And Sss!” The triumphant grin that spread over the child’s face was full of confidence, as if he was absolutely sure that he was right. A confidence that was confirmed by his father who moved to his side, took the stick out of his hand and laid a hand firmly on his shoulder.
“You, Sir, have just spelled your own name,” Jergen said earnestly. “Congratulations. And now you only have to memorise the signs for the sounds, and you’ll be able to read and write it as well. But as everybody knows, your memory is fabulous.” He unsheathed his dagger and made a probing cut into the meat. “And now enough of that. Both legs for you, as promised.”
They sat in comfortable silence, chewing contently on the grilled meat, a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese, and Jergen enjoyed the quiet while Farkas had his mouth full. His gaze lingered full of affection on the boy beside him. It had been a good idea to take him along, in his leather outfit and with bow and shortsword lying close at hand, he already looked like a little warrior. And the smear of grease and ash over his face could easily be mistaken as warpaint.
But when the boy tilted his head as if he sensed the scrutiny of the man and a mischievous grin plastered over his dirty face, he became suddenly alert.
“Yes?” he asked warily.
“If I can spell your name as well, do I get a sip of your mead?”
Jergen laughed out loud. That little brat. “No,” he shook his head. “At least not now. Perhaps tonight, before bedtime. And after you’ve bathed.”
Farkas’ frown just added to his amusement. Yes, some things only came for a heavy price. Another lesson the boy would have to learn.