Jergen’s hand closed around Farkas’ shoulder with a firm grip the moment he smelled the smoke, and the boy stopped dead, looking anxiously up to the man. He laid a finger on his lips.
“Careful,” he whispered, “someone’s there.”
They were approaching a little hut, one of the many shelters found throughout the wilderness of Skyrim. Usually not more than three or four walls and a roof made from crude, raw planks nailed to a simple framework, these hideouts were erected and maintained by the groups of hunters that roamed the lands to get rid of the necessity of always carrying camping gear with them. They didn’t provide much comfort, only enough shelter for a night or to sit out a storm, but they were usually stocked with firewood and some furs and always located near a source of fresh water. It was common practice that everybody was allowed to use them as long as they were left in the same state they were found, and usually everbody abode by this unwritten law. Finding shelter could be lifesaving for everybody.
Knowing these habits, Jergen wasn’t especially worried when he realised that someone else already occupied the spot he had chosen for the night, but still he wanted to make sure that there was no danger ahead. He laid a finger to his lips and gestured the boy to follow him silently – it would be a good practice, and even if they were caught, it probably didn’t matter.
But he froze on the spot when they cowered deep in some low brushes at the edge of the glade, close enough to see who sat at the fire – these were no mere travellers. No hunters, no merchants taking a shortcut away from the roads, no warriors or mercenaries like themselves. A deep crease formed between his brows as he watched the two men and one woman who were hunched around the small fire they had built.
He knew outlaws when he saw them. He had killed enough of them to be sure. The mismatched armours and shoddy appearance were only a first hint, another was the fact that they always had their weapons close at hand, even the man that stirred the iron pot hanging over the flames. But what made him absolutely certain was their posture, this anxious alertness, this readiness to run – or to attack – as soon as something approached them.
No honest traveller would behave like that. These people weren’t ready to defend themselves against a bear or wolf attack – they were afraid to be caught.
Jergen mused what could have induced them to choose this relatively public, well known place for their rest when his sensitive nose catched something beneath the stench of smoke, unwashed bodies and cooking meat. And now that he looked closer, he saw that one of the men sat bent-forward, his forearm pressed against his stomach, the front of his tunic ripped and moist and his face shining with sweat.
He reeked of sepsis, and beneath the ripped fabric he held a festering open wound, oozing pus and ichor.
Jergen made his decision in a split second. Usually he would have just freed the world of this scum, but he didn’t want to risk a fight with the child around – on the one hand not to bring him into danger, and most of all didn’t he want him to see that much unbridled violence. But when he turned around and motioned Farkas to move, the boy still stared at the campsite, his eyes wide.
“We leave, Farkas,” Jergen whispered urgently, grabbing the boy’s shoulder and trying to turn him around. But the boy stretched out a finger and pointed at something.
“Jergen,” he breathed, “look!”
The commotion behind him made Jergen turn again. Farkas had been right, behind the group, in a corner in the back of the open hut, lay another man. Who now started to stir and to sputter, a pained groan ripping from his throat.
The bandit who had taken care of the food reacted at once to the sound, standing up and yanking the man to his knees. Now Jergen could see that he was young, merely more than a boy, blonde, short-cropped curls standing in every direction and clotted with sweat and blood, a bloody scratch running over his cheek. He was bound, his hands tied behind his back and now ripped brutally upwards by his assailant. The pain made him cry out as the brigand dragged him towards the fire where he was pushed roughly to his knees. The rope that bound his wrists was cut while the woman held a dagger to his throat. She hadn’t said a single word so far, her eyes on the injured man.
“Heal him,” she pressed through gritted teeth, the steel leaving a red line on the man’s neck.
Their prisoner tried to turn his head, his face contorted with fear, but the blade only pressed in harder. “I can’t!” he cried, his now unbound hands clenching in his lap, “I’m no healer!”
“You’re a mage. Heal him or you’ll die.”
Despair stood in the young man’s face as his eyes flitted over the people around him and came to rest on the injured man who seemed barely conscious any more. He lowered his head, whispering something they couldn’t understand.
A violent hit against his temple let him slump sidewards. “Heal him!” the other brigand yelled furiously, his boot making heavy contact with his ribs. Another hit to the back of his head made the young man fall prone, unconscious. Blood spilled forth and ran down his neck. When he didn’t move any more, his wrists were bound again.
Jergen felt a tug at his sleeve, and looking down he stared into the pleading eyes of the boy. He nodded, slowly and silently unsheathing his sword. Farkas was right. They had to do something. These people would kill an innocent man just because they didn’t have the means to help themselves. He didn’t feel pity with the injured man – life was dangerous, he had more than once only barely survived similar injuries, and usually it had been his own fault. Because he had been careless or unprepared. Never would he have someone else suffer for his own stupidity or bad luck.
He waited until the woman cowered behind the wounded man who swayed as if he couldn’t hold himself upright any more, stabilising him with a firm grip to his shoulders. He gave Farkas a warning look to stay back and not be seen before he entered the clearing in front of the hut, sword drawn and ready to defend himself.
Before he could say a word, his concerns were proven right.
The leader of the group looked up, his face twisting in surprise to see the heavily armoured warrior approaching, but he didn’t falter for long.
“You’re not welcome here, stranger,” he pressed out between gritted teeth, grabbing a dangerous looking waraxe lying close at hand. His other hand clenched around the hilt of a dagger. From the corner of his eyes Jergen saw the woman retreat towards a stack of crates piled up beside the hut. On top of it lay a bow and a quiver.
He would have to be fast, with the odds against him like that, even if the injured man was no danger. He charged with a roar and attacked, turning in his first onslaught so the body of his opponent shielded him against the archer.
But an honourable life didn’t make automatically for the better fighter, he had to admit. His foe was strong and skilled, wielding his weapons with deadly precision, his strikes much faster than Jergens own and annoyingly unpredictable.
The outlaw started to circle him, tried to force him to turn his back to the archer, but Jergen backed off fast and brought the other man between himself and his companion again when he saw her nock an arrow. A fast slash of the axe collided with his blade, its curved edge sliding along the steel until it locked on the crossguard. Eyes locked and muscles bulged.
That dagger was far too near, Jergen more heard than felt the scratching of metal on metal when the small blade slipped off the steel plate of his greaves. His knee came up and rammed into his opponent’s groin, making him stumble back with a yell. A malicious grin formed on Jergen’s face. This wasn’t an honourable fight, it was never meant as such. Slowly his blood started to boil, the frenzy of the fight making his head light and freeing his instincts.
He nearly missed the small movement at the edge of his field of view, but when he realised it, it was already too late. The moment he saw the small, leatherclad figure slip into the darkness of the hut, his eyes shot wide and gave him away, the single moment of inattentiveness giving his foe an opportunity he used at once. Making a step backwards that wasn’t followed at once, his axe came down in a wide, powerful arc, aimed for Jergen’s neck.
He was too late to parry the hit with his sword or to duck under it, his only chance to let himself fall to his knees, the blade swinging audibly over his head. This was one of the worst moves he could have made and he knew it, leaving him nearly immobilised, and for once he cursed his heavy armour, especially as the leather the other man wore gave him now an advantage. The boot that crashed into his chest hit fast and heavily, making him bend backwards. He struggled for breath as the man towered over him but still brought his sword up again, both hands clenched around the handle and angling it to intercept axe and dagger at once.
Sparks flew as the weapons made contact, but the moment he gathered his strength to push the bandit back and give himself room to move the man suddenly screamed, collapsing with spasming limbs as magic sizzled over his body.
The young man kneeled in the entrance to the hut, the ends of the ropes still dangling from his wrists, purple sparks flickering between his palms and deadly determination in his eyes. Behind him cowered a child. As an arrow pierced the joints of Jergen’s breastplate and got stuck between them, the tip buried in his flesh, he ripped it out with a cry of anguish and pain, jumped to his feet and charged for the archer. The moment he had passed the fireplace, lightning struck again and the wounded man fell forwards with a hollow groan, dead.
When it became quiet, Jergen panted heavily, his palms propped on his knees. To his feet lay the beheaded corpse of the woman, the soil drenched with blood.
“Stay where you are, Farkas,” he yelled before he started to drag the body away, hid it in the bushes behind the hut.
Gods, this was exactly what he had wanted to avoid. That the boy had to witness something like that.
Farkas’ scream alerted him in an instant, the bright voice sounding helpless and terrified. He gave the body a last kick and rushed back to the campsite, just to find his son kneeling beside the young man who lay on his side, both faces deadly pale.
“He just fell over!” Farkas cried, “is he dead too?”
Jergen hunched down beside the boy, felt for the pulse of the young man, then pulled the child against him. “No,” he said soothingly, “he’s just unconscious.” He held the boy’s palm in front of the man’s face. “Here, you can feel that he breathes. Have an eye on him for a second, okay?”
The boy, glad to know what he had to do, turned his attention back to the mage. Jergen watched him for a moment. The boy was crazy. He knew exactly that he couldn’t intervene into the fight. But it seemed it was impossible for him not to do something, and so he had decided fast and all on his own that he would do the only thing he was able to – free the prisoner.
Perhaps it had been reckless, perhaps it had been their salvation – but Jergen couldn’t help but feel proud of him.
He dragged the other corpses away, fetched their packs and placed some furs near the fire before he went back to the hut. Lifting the mage up and placing him near the fire, the young man stirred and groaned as he started to examine him. Besides some bruises that were large, dark and painful and proof of the cruel treatment he had suffered, his bloody wrists and the wound at the back of his head, he had no other obvious injuries. It was probably the hit to the head, combined with exhaustion and the stress of the fight that kept him unconscious, and Jergen decided to wait until he’d wake all on his own after he had cleaned and bandaged the open wounds.
In the meantime, they would have dinner.
The brigands had cooked some boarflesh in a kettle over the fire, and they made use of this now, refined it with a few potatoes, onions and carrots as well as some wild garlic, fresh from the edge of the wood. Jergen watched the boy curiously while they were preparing the food. He seemed remarkably unfazed by the bloodbath he had just witnessed, just a bit withdrawn.
“Are you okay, Farkas?” he finally asked gently.
The boy looked up at him, a slight shiver running through his body. “That lightning…,” he said shakily, wetness gathering in his eyes, and Jergen understood. Lightning spells were often preferred by Necromancers. The boy had probably witnessed their use before… perhaps even on his parents.
He laid a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t like it either,” he said calmly, “but today it helped us.”
The boy stared at him for a moment, then nodded silently and turned back to slicing his carrots. “That’s what you do all the time, don’t you?” he asked suddenly without looking at the man. “Kill people. In all the stories you tell, people always die.”
Jergen felt guilt well up. This was nothing for a child. It would have been his duty to protect Farkas from it. But the boy returned his look earnestly and calm, but not afraid.
“Not all the time. But sometimes, yes. When I have to.” He kept his hands busy, the sharp smell of the garlic rising into his nose. “These people were evil. They would have killed him,” he pointed at the motionless figure at the fire, “and us as well.”
“Yes…” The boy became quiet for a moment. “Why do people become like this? We could have helped the man…” Farkas motioned a cut over his stomach. “They could have just asked!”
Jergen couldn’t suppress a small smile. Many people lived in Jorrvaskr in a tight space. One of the first thing the boys had learned – painfully, after Skjor had caught them in his room, rummaging through his one of his chest – was that they had to ask if they wanted something that wasn’t theirs.
“I don’t know. Perhaps they know nothing else. Perhaps because they can’t do anything else but take from others. Some people have never learnt it better.”
A sigh from the fire alerted him, and he gave the ladle to Farkas. The mage stirred with fluttering eyelids, holding his side with a pained expression. He jerked back when he saw Jergen towering above him as he opened his eyes, but the warrior hunched down, helped him to sit up and pressed a healing potion into his hands. He gulped it down all at once, twisting his face due to the bitterness and let out a relieved groan.
“Who are you? There was a boy…”
“I’m Jergen. Companion from Whiterun. We came by just in time, it seems.” He waved over. “Farkas, come here.”
When the boy stood before them, the man smiled at him, showing some dimples in his cheeks that made him look even younger. “My saviour. Thank you.” He straightened himself with a grunt and sat up. “Name’s Talsgar. I’m just a bard… from Bruma, on my way to Solitude to the college. It was careless to leave the road… thank you, friends.” Relief and exhaustion shone from his eyes.
Jergen smiled. “Hungry? Your assailants left some food behind. It will be ready in a few minutes.”
It was nearly visible how the thought watered his mouth. “I only got some water from them. For nearly two days… Gods, I don’t think I would have survived this night. They didn’t want to believe that I’m no mage…”
“But you are! That lightning…,” Farkas blurted out, his eyes wide.
“No, I’m not.” Talsgar smiled friendly. “I just know a few spells… not even enough to defend myself, it seems.” A crease formed between his brows. “They destroyed my lute, those bastards. I will have to make a new one.”
“But you can just buy one. Will you tell us a story? You know lots of stories, don’t you?” Farkas asked eagerly as he brought some wooden bowls filled with stew over to the men. The only bard he knew was Carsten, the minstrel hired to entertain the crowd in the Bannered Mare, Whiterun’s local tavern. Sometimes the Companions borrowed him when they had a feast of their own, and he was an inexhaustible source of tales and songs.
Talsgar laughed, an open, boyish laughter. “Every bard with any kind of self-esteem makes his own instruments, boy. Bought instruments are just for dabblers. And yes, if you want I will tell you a story. It’s the least I can do.”
But even as they still ate, it became obvious that Talsgar was in no condition to entertain an audience that evening. He was still in pain, his head throbbing, his eyes looking hazy and tired and he nearly dozed off while still chewing. He was full of thankfulness when Jergen told them their destination and that he could accompany them next day, and gave Farkas an apologetic look.
“I’m afraid I need to get some rest if I wanna keep up with you. Tomorrow, okay? As many stories as you want. Promised.”
When Talsgar had retired under his furs at the back wall of the hut where it was dark and quiet, Jergen turned to his son.
“Aren’t you tired? You did a hell of a march today.”
“No. But I gotta wash.” He jumped up and darted towards the lively little creek that ran beside the hut, a cheeky grin spreading over his face, and Jergen laughed out loud. That little rascal. “Hey,” he shouted after the boy and pointed at the used bowls, “do them as well while you’re at it.”
When the boy came back, his face shrubbed clean and his hair plastered in wet strands to his neck, Jergen had already poured him a small amount of his mead into a cup. Just a sip, but the boy took it proudly and tasted. Jergen watched him amused as he settled beside him on the log, the fire sending sparks into the dark sky.
“You really like that, don’t you?”
“Yep. It’s sweet.”
“Well, you earned it. You really did a good job today. Although… that rescue of Talsgar, that you freed him, that was dangerous.”
“But I wanted to help!”
“I know. And in the end, it was good what you did. But if the archer had seen you, she would have killed you.”
“But she didn’t. I was careful.” The boy looked stubbornly at the man. “I always stayed behind the trees.”
“Clever,” Jergen smiled. And brave, he thought.
“You think Talsgar will really tell me a story tomorrow?” the boy suddenly asked, excitement in his voice.
“Of course he will, he’s a bard. I’m sure he knows lots of them.”
“How is it that bards know so much more stories than other people?”
“Because it’s their job, Farkas. Just like it’s my job to clear skeever dens and Eorlund’s to work the forge. I think… they share them between themselves. And there are many stories in books.”
Farkas frowned. “I know. Vilkas reads them all the time. But he never tells me what they’re about.” He was quiet for a moment. “I’m much better at storytelling than he. It’s much more exciting than reading.”
“But you still wanna learn it, don’t you?”
“You still know how to spell your name? Or are you already drunk?” Jergen grinned at the boy.
“Jergen… that was only a sip!” The boy looked indignant that he even dared to asked.
“Oh, excuse me, Sir… didn’t wanna imply that you can’t hold your mead.” Jergen nudged the boy into his side, and Farkas giggled. “We could do one more exercise. Unless you’re too tired, of course.”
“I’m not tired!”
Of course not. “Well, if you’re up to it, perhaps you’d like to start to read that letter of yours?”
The boy’s eyes shot wide. “Really?”
“Yeah. We’ve practiced so much today, I think it’s time to come back to the letters.”
Doubt flitted over the boy’s face, but then he leant over, full of attention. “Okay.” He took the last drops of his mead and put the cup away.
“Alright,” Jergen said, “your name starts with…?”
“Fff.” It came without hesitation.
Jergen used the sole of his boot to clean a small spot in front of them of leaves and pebbles and to smooth it into a plane surface, then took the ladle from the stew that cooled off beside the fire. He held it upside down and used the handle to scratch some lines into the earth at their feet – one vertical, two horizontal.
“That’s a Fff. It’s the first letter of your name. Wanna have a look at your letter and see if you can find it?”
Jergen prayed to the Nine that Vilkas had at least written one word that started with an F.
Farkas fished the crumpled piece of paper out of the pants pocket and unfolded it carefully, turning to make sure that his father didn’t even get a glimpse. Jergen watched him amused and released an inward sound of relief when the boy’s face lit up into a broad smile.
Farkas just beamed at him and nodded, used his own boot to wipe out Jergen’s scribble and took the ladle from his hand. And then he bent over and started to scratch something into the dirt, his eyes skipping back and forth between the letter and the flat plane between his feet, biting his lip in concentration.
Jergen watched in awe. The boy wrote.
When he was finished, Farkas turned to the man. “What does this mean?” he asked, his voice anxious, nearly breathless.
Jergen slung his arm around the boys’ shoulder, pulling him against his chest as they bent together over the word. The letters were uneven and clumsy, some lines askew or flowing into each other where they shouldn’t, but they were definitely readable.
“This means Farkas. It’s your name. You’ve just written your name.”
Bright shining eyes looked into his face as the boy pointed towards the hut – or towards the underbrush behind it. “I want to do something else later,” he said. “I don’t want to become like them.”