Liv groaned inwardly when she heard the twig snap, but it wasn’t this sound that made the deer run. It was the highpitched, startled gasp that came after it.
First one, then only after a split second all of the animals in the small herd became alert, heads jerking up, ears twitching. And as with a sudden command, all of them were in motion, staying together in a bulk and darting through the narrow underbrush. Far too soon the last doe had vanished from her sight, only the thrumming of the hooves still audible.
This should have been their dinner.
She strapped her bow to her back again with slow, controlled motions, trying to calm down the rising anger. The arrow that should have pierced into the eyesocket of one of the beasts still dangling losely between her fingers, she turned around, exhaling deeply.
“Vilkas,” she sighed, “didn’t I tell you to stay behind for now?”
The boy stared at her with wide, guilty eyes, his palm pressed to his mouth. “But Aela went as well. I just followed her,” he whispered.
Liv tilted her head in surprise. “Aela?” Her eyes searched around, but her daughter came openly around a bush, not caring to be quiet any more, chewing on a grass stalk. “We would have gotten two of them if it weren’t for him,” she said with a challenge in her voice, waving condescendingly at the boy.
“I told you both to stay behind. I just wanted to get us some dinner.” Liv’s voice had lost the annoyance and became threateningly calm. This was serious. If she couldn’t trust the children to do as they were told, they would bring them all into danger.
The girl stood there proudly, a fist resting on her hip. “I didn’t make them run,” she said smugly. “But if he can’t even stay alone for a few minutes…”
Liv breathed deeply to keep her anger from exploding. It had been a horrible trip so far, and she had to admit that it was mostly her daughter who made the situation so strenuous.
And it made her wonder why the girl behaved so different, now that Vilkas was with them. Usually they were completely at ease with each other and always found plenty of things to speak about, Aela reporting enthusiastically everything she had done and learned during the weeks they had spent apart and squeezing every little tidbit of talk and gossip about events in Jorrvaskr out of her mother. The had a relaxed relationship, and it had even become stronger the older Aela became. Liv was aware that her daughter wasn’t far from becoming a young woman, mature beyond her age with the responsibilities she had to carry, and she was grateful and proud of the trust and confidence the girl showed towards her.
But now the girl had been tight-lipped the whole day, trudging after her mother with a deep scowl, and when she spoke at all she complained – over the weather, why they didn’t walk faster, why they had to carry the large tent, whey they had to rest more often than usual. She didn’t talk to Vilkas, but it was obvious that she blamed him for everything.
In the end, tired of the silence and foul mood, Liv had called Vilkas to her side and forced him into a conversation. At first he had been taciturn and hesitating in his answers, but when Liv recounted the story of her latest mammoth hunt and how it had hurled one of her companions all over the place, he thawed recognisably, and suddenly she was confronted with a plethora of questions. How heavy and big are they? Which weapons to use best? How thick is their skin? Where to attack? Is it possible to kill a mammoth with a single strike? Can they really impale a man on their tusks? Is it possible to ride them? Do giants really make cheese from their milk?
He was absolutely enthusiastic about the topic, but he also had a nearly analytical way to ask his questions and think things through. And when they had gone from killing mammoths to giants and their lifestyle and he had asked why they were able to keep the huge beasts as cattle and humans were not, she had to admit that she was lost.
While Aela’s scowl deepened even further, and Liv recognised it with unease.
She knew that the children didn’t get along well. Some kind of competition was only normal, and of course Vilkas couldn’t cope with her when it came to weapon and fighting skills – he had only started his own training and had nearly no experience with fights outside of Jorrvaskr’s training ground. But although he generally was a quiet child, he could easily deal with her when it came to arguments, especially as Aela usually tried to win by yelling at him, and he wouldn’t gift her a septim when she insisted on starting to pick on him. Especially not when his brother was involved.
But all of this was only normal behaviour between kids. The open hostility towards the younger boy and intractability towards her mother Aela showed now bothered Liv deeply.
She narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “I told you both to stay behind. When I tell you to stay behind, what do you think that is… a suggestion?”
“But I just wanted to help!” the girl yelled furiously.
“No!” Liv exploded, “you know the rules! What you’re doing here is no help and you know it!”
She was startled by her own outbreak. Divines, these kids gnawed at her nerves, but she breathed in deeply in an effort to calm down, looking sternly into the girl’s face. “You know the rules, Aela,” she said finally in an earnest tone. “Of you two, you’re the one with much more experience. You know how it works when we’re out here. My word is law. I expect you to act accordingly.”
The problem was, usually she didn’t have to set laws. Usually they worked together, and Aela listened to her mother and took the advice she got without questioning. Usually she didn’t have to order her around.
The girl met the woman’s eyes with an unrelenting glare. “So now I have to play babysitter for the rest of the trip? You wouldn’t have left me behind if not to watch out for him!”
Well… unfortunately she was right, Liv had to admit. They didn’t get as far today as she had hoped, and with only the two of them they would have probably gotten their prey without difficulties. If she was honest, Vilkas had indeed hindered their speed as well as their hunt.
Looking over to the boy, she saw him standing silently, studying the ground between his feet, chewing on his lower lip. And he shivered from exhaustion. This day’s march had demanded everything of him, and still he hadn’t complained once.
She sighed. “No,” she said, “Vilkas doesn’t need a babysitter, and you will get opportunity to prove your skill. I just want us to have some fun, okay? We’ll reach the springs tomorrow anyway.” She made a step forwards and laid a hand on Aela’s shoulder, strong enough to prevent her shrugging out of the grip. “And now let’s set up camp and relax. Only dried meat for tonight, but it was a long day.”
Her other arm came around Vilkas’ shoulder, and she drew the children away to where they had dropped their packs. They were silent now, both of them, but while Aela slowly relaxed, Vilkas pulled quietly away from the touch and fell a few steps behind them.
They had a tense, bland dinner without much talking. Aela was a bit more relaxed when she set the tent together with her mother, but Vilkas nearly fell asleep while slicing potatoes for the stew that boiled over the fire. When Liv took his knapsack and unrolled his bedroll for him, he just nodded thankfully, exhaustion written into his face.
As soon as he had emptied his bowl, he rose, washed his face with the leftovers in his waterskin and retreated quietly.
“Vilkas?” Liv called after him.
He poked his head out of the flap once more. “Yes?”
Liv smiled at him. “You’ve done a good job today. Sleep well.”
Aela and Liv didn’t touch the events of the day in their conversation as they stayed at the fire, both enjoying the warmth of a herbal tea, one of Tilma’s special mixtures. Liv enjoyed the togetherness with her daughter, and she enjoyed especially how they slowly found back to their usual lighthearted tone. But when Aela yawned heartily, stretched herself and shimmied out of her leather jacket to prepare for the night, she laid a hand on her wrist, holding her back.
“Be a bit nicer to him, Aela. Please,” she said earnestly. The girl stiffened, anxious that her mother forced this topic on her now, but she squared her shoulders and answered Liv’s gaze defiantly.
“Why did he have to come along at all?”
“Because…” Her voice trailed off. She couldn’t just tell her daughter that she thought that his company would do her good. Although her behaviour today had shown clearly that she really needed to learn to get along with others, even if she didn’t consider them equal.
“See, Aela… he’s just a boy, and he’s younger than you, and we all know you’re much more skilled than he. But although he’s only seven, he already knows a lot, and he tries. Remember how you had to toil sometimes, three years ago. Remember how your dad trained with you. Vilkas doesn’t even have a father… and Jergen doesn’t have the time to show him everything he has to learn.”
“I know,” the girl said casually, “he’s only a foundling.”
Her derogatory tone left Liv speechless. When she answered, her voice was threateningly calm. “What do you mean, only a foundling?”
“Well,” the girl said defensively, “nobody knows where they come from. Who knows what their parents were. Perhaps they were necromancers themselves.”
Liv slowly put away her tankard, turned to her daughter and grabbed her upper arm. Aela startled in the grip, her eyes shooting wide with bewilderment when she saw the fury in her mother’s eyes.
“And what if they were? What if Vilkas’ and Farkas’ parents really were necromancers? What difference would it make? Would you treat him differently if he were Askar’s son?”
A stubborn line formed around the girl’s mouth. “If they were Askar’s sons, they would become Companions too later. But they’re just here because nobody else wants them.”
Liv let her daughter go, had to force herself not to shove her away. Where in Oblivion did she pick up these prejudices? This careless cruelty?
“What do you think, what will you become later, Aela?”
She straightened herself. “A Companion, of course. Like you and grandma.”
“Of course! You always said I’ll be a Companion! You said it’s our tradition!”
“Well, I’m not so sure any more.”
The bewildered, terrified speechlessness of her daughter gave her a strange sense of satisfaction, even though it pierced through her heart to see her like that. But at least she had gotten behind that facade of complacency.
Liv turned sternly to the girl. “You’re my daughter, and I love you, Aela… but it needs more than to be the daughter of someone to become a Companion. Much more. It needs hard work, and loyalty, and honour. The Companions are a family, there’s a reason why we call ourselves brothers and sisters. If you don’t feel like that towards your shield-siblings – all of them! – you’re in the wrong place.”
“But I work hard! And everybody says I’ll have my trial as soon as possible!” Now Aela’s voice sounded nearly desperate.
“Yes, you do, but it seems you don’t know how lucky you are because you have the chance to work and learn and train with your dad and me. Vilkas and Farkas work hard too, and they have nobody. Have you ever thought that not everybody is as lucky as you?”
“But that’s not true! They live there, in Jorrvaskr, and can train with you all the time, and they have Jergen, and all the others, and you!”
“That’s not the same, Aela. Yes, they were lucky that Jergen found them. But they lost their parents. Do you know what that means? How would you feel if your dad and I were gone suddenly, if we were killed on a job?”
The girl looked at her with wide open eyes, swallowing heavily. “You can’t get killed,” she whispered finally, “you’re warriors.”
“Don’t be so naive, Aela,” she snapped, “of course we can. Our line of work isn’t exactly peaceful.” She laid a hand on Aela’s arm. “We do our best to stay alive, but it can happen. It has happened to him.” She pointed at the tent.
The girl gritted her teeth, pressing her lips into a firm, stubborn line. “And now he needs a babysitter. Either Farkas or Jergen or you! And he ruins our trip!” The accusation in her tone was unmistakable.
Slowly but surely, Liv lost her temper with her daughter. “He doesn’t need a babysitter! But he deserves to learn the same you had the chance to learn, and I promised Jergen to teach him everything I can!”
“But he’s not your son!”
Suddenly Liv became very quiet again. “No, he isn’t, daughter. He’s just a foundling. But if he and his brother want to be Companions one day and they pass their trial, they will be your shield-brothers, and it does not matter at all if their real parents were Companions too or necromancers, beggars or Jarls. It doesn’t matter, and if they want to join us, they will have my support just as much as Jergen’s. Is that clear?”
The stubbornness was back in Aela’s face. “Farkas perhaps. He is… good. But not he.” She waved in direction of the tent. “He will never be a true warrior with that silly sword of his, and he has no right to be here!”
“Fortunately that’s not yours to decide.” Liv took a long gulp from her tankard, suddenly tired to the bones. “Go to sleep, Aela. We’ll have a hard day tomorrow.”
“Do as I say!”
Something in her tone made the girl obey without a further word, and she retreated into the tent, sending her mother a last angry glare before she closed the flap. Liv buried her forehead in her palms.
This wasn’t fun. Not at all.
What had gone wrong? She had been so proud of her daughter. She still was, Aela was a good girl, talented and diligent. Liv knew that the tantrum she had thrown today was partly motivated by simple jealousy because she didn’t have her mother all to herself. But there was more behind it, and it concerned the woman deeply. Despite the hard life they lived, somehow they had managed to spoil their daughter. Of course she worked hard, and she was good at what she did. Sometimes she was indeed exceptional. But it had obviously done her no good to let her know about it.
The pride Liv felt herself for the tradition of her family that at least one woman of every generation became a member of the Companions, she had wanted to convey it to her daughter. It was an honourable tradition, with much prestige and many obligations, and of course she wanted Aela to continue it. But in her mind, this tradition had somehow twisted into a claim. Into an entitlement she had no right to feel. Especially not when it excluded others, and even less when it led to the contempt she had shown today.
And Vilkas… the boy was far too quiet. Liv didn’t have the feeling that he was intimidated by her daughter, despite her hostility. He didn’t even ignore her, quite the contrary. He rather seemed… detached, observing silently everything around him, just taking in Aela’s outbreaks and barely veiled insults and equally Liv’s reactions – or non-reactions, as she shamefully had to admit. But he gave nothing away, and this behaviour was disturbing. He was known to have a temper and never to cut back in an argument, and he had a way to argue for his – and his brother’s – interests when he felt that they were treated unjust that was as eloquent as remarkable for a boy of seven years.
That he kept so frighteningly quiet now and simply endured everything Aela threw at him left Liv with a bad feeling. He was seven years old… if he was hurt or angry, he should show it. If he was tired or hungry or his feet ached, he should show it. But he didn’t, as if he knew that he didn’t belong here, that showing was futile because it would change nothing. And so he kept pace with them without so much as a grumble, carried his share of the load without complaint and didn’t show his exhaustion once. He had ruined their hunt, yes… but even that wasn’t solely his fault.
She would have to find a way to melt the ice between the children.
Liv emptied the rest of her brew into the fire and threw a few handfuls of sand onto the flames before she rose with a sigh. She would only allow herself a light doze and keep her senses alert, but she needed some rest as well.
But as soon as she opened the tent flap to squeeze herself into the tight space between the children, she knew that something was wrong.
Aela lay on her side, facing the leather wall, and slept. And Vilkas mirrored her, pressed against the opposite tarp as if he wanted to make himself as small as possible. As if he didn’t use the least space anyway. But he lay stiff like a plank, and he was wide awake.
And when she smelled his tears, even if he didn’t release a single sound, she knew that he had overheard their conversation.
She lay on her back for a moment, uncertain what to do. Aela slept deeply and with light snores. But on her other side, the breathing of the boy was shallow and erratic, she could her his teeth grind in his effort to keep quiet and feel the tension in the small body.
And she could imagine what was going on inside him in this moment. The urge to escape this situation and the helplessness because he knew that he was too small and too weak to leave, because he was stuck with their company. Stuck with the girl that despised him for so many reasons and the woman who had just taken him along because she had made a promise to the man who claimed to be his stepfather. The knowledge that he was just here because nobody else wanted him around. Because he was just a foundling.
She could sense the loneliness and despair radiating from him, trapped in the tight space of this tent with them. And it broke her heart.
He didn’t react, only became even stiffer when she finally turned to the side, propped her head in her palm and laid a hand on his shoulder, a light and cautious touch. She didn’t expect anything else. Not from Vilkas. He seldom allowed physical contact, so different from his twin… only from Tilma, and even that only rarely. But now he couldn’t get away, and although she couldn’t force him to open up, she wanted at least to let him know that she was there, and that she knew that he was awake.
But after a few minutes she retreated her hand, left the tent again to give him some space and sat down at the lowly smouldering fire. She poked the coals with a stick and watched the sparks scatter and extinguish beneath the dark clouded sky.
It would be a long night, but she would keep watch over the children. It was the least she could do.