Liv knelt at the edge of the little creek and swept large handfuls of icy water into her face. She felt tired, but it was a good kind of exhaustion, incredibly relaxed after soaking for hours in the hot spring right next to their camp. The warm, nearly milky water sated with minerals eased the strains from body and mind like nothing else, and not even the stench of rotten eggs could bother her any more. But it wasn’t drinkable, and after they had erected their tent in a small grove, they had all earned something warm and spicy for dinner.
The cold revived her senses, and she sighed contently. Five minutes for herself, that wasn’t asked too much. Tomorrow she would go hunting with the kids, and she was confident that they’d have a good time. She’d show them the Atronach stone and the huge hollow where those enormous, strange bones protruded from the ground. It were probably only mammoth bones, but legend was that a dragon was buried there, the skeleton still intact and the visible parts of it shimmering like alabaster. The kids would love the story.
The day hadn’t gone too bad. In fact, it had been much better than anticipated after the disaster of the last evening.
They were all in an awkward mood in the morning, albeit for different reasons. Aela was still at odds with her mother, Vilkas kept to himself, barely nodding a stiff thanks when Liv handed him some bread and a tankard of tea for breakfast. And she felt strangely helpless towards the children, a helplessness she only reluctantly admitted to herself.
When they dispatched the tent, she drew Aela to the side and not asked, but ordered her sternly to leave Vilkas alone. She didn’t give an explanation, didn’t refer with a single word to their conversation of the last evening, but for once the girl sensed that her mother was deadly serious and that she would have to face the consequences if she kept up her cussing and bitching. Apart from that, she wasn’t insensitive. She felt that something had happened although she didn’t know what, and she knew she had gone overboard. She didn’t like the boy and she blamed him for her own misery, but she wasn’t cruel. Not deliberately, at least.
They broke their fast, packed and headed out towards the Eastmarch in tense silence, but Liv was relieved nevertheless. At least the weather had cleared up, and they marched into the rising sun, chirping and rustling around them as the wildlife woke to the new day. To be out here with nothing to do but to set one foot in front of the other and having a lazy eye on their environment was nothing but relaxing, and soon she recognised the change of mood in the children as well.
Vilkas trudged a few steps behind them, but she became aware how his interest awoke. He wasn’t as used to living in the wilderness as Aela, but he wasn’t a total fledgling either, and when Liv called his attention to the manifold things they encountered, told him which plants were poisonous and which edible or usable in alchemy, showed him the scratch marks of a bear in the bark of a tree and the hollow where a sabrecat had spent the night, he was full of rapt attention.
When they caught the clarion song of a robin, Vilkas mimicked it with astonishing accuracy and even got an answer, she saw for the first time a small, shy smile on his face. He still didn’t engage actively in their conversation, and he still seemed detached and withdrawn. But for once he seemed to enjoy to be out of Jorrvaskr, even if he had to bear their company. For once he behaved like a seven-year-old should behave, showed interest and shook off his brooding mood, and Liv was relieved to see the change in him.
The hot springs greeted them in the late afternoon with their sulphurous smell and clouds of steam over the glittering surface of turquoise basins in the open landscape. They dropped their packs and discarded their armours and clothes without searching for a campsite, exhausted and sweaty as they were. Aela was in first, only in her panties she shuddered in the cold air and jumped into the pool with a squeal of delight that made Liv grin. But when her head broke through the surface again, she shook herself like a wet whelp, red hair flying in wet tresses around her head, cupped her palms and threw a handful of water on her mother.
Just that Liv chose that moment to bend down and unlace her boots, and the water splashed right into Vilkas’ face who stood behind her.
For a moment Aela froze, startled by the wet patch on Vilkas’ jerkin and tunic… and by the devious expression that settled on his face. Not really a scowl, not yet a grin, an unsettling mixture of mirth and threat. His gaze wandered from the girl to the pool she stood in, the water reaching up to her waist, and over the small cascades where the water fell down into the lower basins.
His eyes were fixed on Aela while he shrugged off his clothes swiftly, and she watched him as well for a moment before she dove away and climbed down the steep ledge to the lower level, landing with another splash. Trying to regain her footing on the slippery ground, she didn’t notice the small figure that came after her until she felt his grip on her ankle, yanking her foot from under her, making her fall to her back and breathe in water. She sputtered and coughed, but a firm grip to her shoulders and the weight of the boy held her down while she struggled helplessly to get up, and finally Vilkas placed both his feet on her chest, locked her flat against the bottom of the pool and pushed himself off, vanishing again beneath the surface. When he emerged again, he had reached the lowest level of this spring, the water deeper, darker and cooler than in the higher basins.
While Aela still fought for breath, he floated motionless on his back and relaxed, hands folded behind his head and a grin on his face.
Liv watched the scene with awe. She hadn’t expected this, but the boy swam like a fish, slipped through the water with an ease as if this were truely his element – and with much more grace than her daughter. In hindsight it wasn’t astonishing, though – of course swimming wasn’t the most common hobby in Skyrim, but Vilkas had learned it in the foaming waters of the White River right outside of Whiterun and not, like Aela, in the calm waves and on the gentle shores of Lake Ilinalta. And he obviously liked it, he rampaged through the pools, climbed out and jumped in again, slipped down the small waterfalls, and every time Aela crossed his way she fell victim to his insanely fast attacks, found herself flat on her back and dumped beneath the surface while he slipped out of her grip like an eel.
They didn’t play with each other, but they played and they interacted. And although Vilkas for once had clearly the upper hand, Aela reined in her temper, even if she cursed violently every time she came up coughing and panting.
“That tastes horrible!” she yelled up to her mother, Liv lying motionless on her back, her head resting on the edge of the uppermost, hottest pool. She didn’t intend to move anytime soon, not as long the children didn’t crack their skulls or were about to drown.
“Nobody forces you to drink it, daughter,” she yelled back.
“Oh yes, he does!” Aela turned around, but Vilkas was already gone again.
“Your problem if you let him.” But Aela didn’t hear her, caught again in their endless circle of chase-and-get-chased.
The memory made Liv smile while she filled the water skins. She should have known that after the rock bottom the day before, it could only become better. She just hoped the momentary ease of tension would last over the next days. Tomorrow, if they found suitable prey, Aela would have the upper hand again.
The scream that woke her from her musings was full of panic and terror.
It was Vilkas’ voice. She froze only for a second, the first image flashing through her mind the kids mauled to shreds of bloody flesh by sabrecats or wolves, the second thought cursing herself for her carelessless because after the bath, she hadn’t bothered to don her armour again. At least sword and dagger were tied to her hip, and she drew them while already racing back the short distance.
They had set up camp in a small clearing in the middle of a patch of wood, the glade providing barely enough space for their tent and a fire. The sight that was presented to her as she ran through the trees was as terrifying as confusing.
Aela lay on her back near the fire, her head dangerously near to the licking flames, writhing and twisting, white foam at her mouth as she panted in convulsive breaths for air. And Vilkas stood at her feet, legs spread into a defensive stance, and swang an enormous branch.
A burning branch, the flames nibbling at smaller twigs protruding from it, sparks spraying through the air. He used it in the same fashion he swang his training sword, both hands clenched around the wood, using the strength of his shoulders and the weight of his body to move it, his arms held stiffly in front of him. Burn marks were clattered over his bare forearms.
Liv stopped dead, trying to make sense of the scene. Until she saw the movement at the edge of the glade and the faint glow between the trunks of the trees. It took her only a few steps, she let her dagger fall away and ripped the branch from Vilkas hands, shoving him away and behind her before she attacked the spriggan with sword and fire, hacking and slashing at it with a furious scream. The creature lunged out at her but the fire kept it at distance, and Liv didn’t feel the scratches the branch-like arms and fingers left on her skin anyway. She drove it back with the wrath of her attacks, deeper between the trees into the darkness where its glow was better visible than in the flickering light of the fire. Insects swarmed around her, biting and stinging but she was relentless, and finally the spriggan collapsed to the ground, the sickly green glow dying out, its limbs twisted like a strange knot of vines.
Liv panted heavily but didn’t take time to catch her breath, racing back to the camp. She remembered how she had jostled Vilkas away and felt sorry, hoping she didn’t hurt him, but as she came back he hunched already beside Aela, the contents of her pack emptied at his feet. Spare clothes, arrow tips, traveling rations, her whetstone, a map and a couple of candles lay in a messy heap, and Vilkas was already busy sorting the various bottles of potions from the pile. She gave him a small, thankful smile as she knelt down beside him and grabbed the flask with the antidote. Her heart pounded in her chest, from the fight, with fear for her daughter and anger with herself, but she forced herself to calm down as she felt for the pulse of the girl and brought the shaking, spasming body into a sitting position, back against her chest, Aela’s head tilted against her shoulder.
Most important was to make her swallow the medicine. She pressed the bottle into Vilkas’ hand.
“On my command, give it to her. But only by drops, okay?”
The boy’s eyes stared frightened into her face, but he nodded silently, following her motions as she clenched her fingers around Aela’s jaws, forcing them open and pressing a thumb between her clenched teeth. She didn’t care now if her daughter would bite her. A terrifying gurgling escaped Aela’s throat, she thrashed against the unrelenting grip of her mother’s arm that was slung firmly around her chest, but finally she opened her mouth.
“Now,” Liv pressed out, and Vilkas lifted the bottle to the girl’s lips, his hand trembling. Drop by drop the viscous liquid trickled into her mouth, and Liv felt dizzy with relief when she swallowed, only a small amount dripping down her chin. It didn’t take long and the antidote took effect, the cramps left her body, she sagged against her mother, her breathing calmed down and the tortured unconsciousness passed over into a deep sleep.
Liv hooked an arm under her daughter’s knees and carried her carefully to the other side of the fire, laying her down on a bedroll and tugging her under a thick layer of furs. Tears stood in her eyes as she knelt beside her daughter, and she exhaled a long, shivering breath.
Divines. What if… she didn’t dare to finish the thought as she stared down into the deadly pale face that was bare of any expression, stroking it with her fingertips and tucking away a sweaty strand of copper hair.
But a suppressed sob behind her startled her up, barely audible, barely there. As she turned, she saw Vilkas still kneeling in the mess he had made, his face buried in his palms, his body shaking in helpless crying. When Liv hunched down beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder, he tried to jerk out of her touch. He always did. But now, she wouldn’t let him go.
“Vilkas…,” she said softly, holding and steadying him, but he only lifted his eyes to her, tears streaming over his cheeks.
“I should have held her back,” he sobbed. Again he tried to get away from her, and again she didn’t let him.
“Vilkas…” Liv answered his frightened, frantic gaze with her own, her grip on his shoulders firm. “You saved her life tonight.”
The boy clenched his teeth in an effort to calm himself, but then his eyes wandered to the motionless figure beyond the fire, tension, guilt and fatigue breaking free in convulsive sobbing, and he curled himself into a ball, his elbows on his knees, trembling and shivering.
Liv didn’t think any more about the right behaviour towards this strange boy, she followed her instincts, pulled him into her lap and closed her arms around him, overcame the resistance in the small body with soothing strokes along his back. He cried as if all dams had burst, wetting her tunic with his tears, and compassion clenched her heart as she held him.
Compassion and guilt. He was only seven years old, and tonight he had saved her daughter’s life. But no one had embraced this child like this for the last three years, and nobody knew if he ever had ever known closeness like this at all. Of course he never allowed anybody to come so near, no one but his brother, always detached and dismissive… but on the other hand, no one had ever cared enough to overcome this refusal, to ask for the reasons. Everybody always thought that he was a bit weird, with his wit so much sharper than usual for a boy of his age, and everybody had directed the affection these warriors were able to show towards his brother, because it was easier, because Farkas took it with a smile and an open heart. No one thought it worthwhile to fight for the affection of a stubborn seven-year-old foundling when his twin was so much more endearing.
She didn’t either. And now he had saved her daughter’s life, brave, determined and clever. She owed him her life. The thought hit her like a lightning bolt.
She held him until the crying had died down and his fists released their clenching grip on her tunic, but he made no effort to get away again, stayed leant against her chest even as his breathing had calmed down. When she opened the jar with the healing salve, took his hand and treated the blisters on his arms and hands, he lifted a gaze full of thankfulness to her face.
“What happened, Vilkas? Can you tell me?” she asked quietly. She held him loosely and without force, but he didn’t move, his head resting heavily against her shoulder. She could feel the exhaustion in him.
“There was this fox,” he whispered so lowly that she barely understood him. “Aela said you like fox pelts and she wanted to get it and told me not to follow her. But… I thought it looked weird, and I told her to stay and that you’d be back in a few minutes, but she didn’t want to listen.”
“What do you mean, weird?”
His voice became firmer. “It was odd that it came so close to the fire that we could see it. It just stood there. And…” he hesitated.
“Yes? And what?”
“It glowed.” Now he looked up into her face. “Only a bit, but… are there glowing foxes?”
Liv exhaled a deep breath. “Yes, there are. Sometimes. It glowed like the spriggan, didn’t it?”
“Spriggan? That was this thing?”
“Yes. They’re… some kind of spirit. They have power over nature, and they can command animals.” A small chortle escaped her. “We’ve been lucky it only had a fox under its control and not a bear.” She searched the boy’s eyes. “How did you know that fire helps if you didn’t even know that it’s a spriggan? Nothing is as effective against them as fire.”
He straightened himself slightly, lifting his head, and a trace of his usual smugness was in his voice as he gave her a tiny, strained grin. “It’s made of wood, Liv.”
She grinned back, relieved and tired. “Aye, of course. Stupid question, that.”
His eyes flitted to Aela again. “Will she be okay?”
“Yes. The antidote contains painkillers and a tranquilisers, and she will sleep for at least twelve hours. But she will be fine. Aela is tough.”
A small smile spread over his face. It became quiet for long minutes, the boy seemingly content to lie in her lap. But she felt that he wasn’t as relaxed as he looked, and finally she straightened herself. Perhaps she’d never have an opportunity like this again.
The boy only nodded without looking at her. As if he knew what was to come, and as if he wanted to make it as easy for her as possible. But his breath hitched, and she felt him tense.
“You know… when Jergen brought you to Jorrvaskr, three years ago, many people told him to take you to the orphanage in Riften instead. Also some of us Companions. But he didn’t want to, he argued and fought to be allowed to keep you, and honestly, many of us didn’t understand him. What did he want with you two little boys, and how would you fit into this life… but he was stubborn, and he got his own way. Nearly as stubborn as you.” She smiled down at the dark head that lay against her shoulder. “But that was three years ago, and nobody asks these questions any more. You’re strong boys, Farkas and you, and one day you will be warriors and perhaps Companions too. If you want to. And until then, Jorrvaskr will always be your home. No matter where you come from, you belong to us. Never forget that.”
The boy didn’t react, but she felt his hand clench into her tunic again, as if he needed something to hold on to. Her embrace tightened slightly.
“You know why I invited you on this trip?”
He shook his head, barely noticeable.
She laughed lowly. “Two reasons. First, I thought it would be fun. You’re smart, and it’s high time you learn how to survive out here. You can’t learn everything from books alone. And you’ve done a good job so far. An excellent job, to be honest, even Aela will have to admit it. And the second reason is… well, your brother has a little problem, and he needs some time with Jergen to solve it.”
Vilkas’ head jerked up. “Farkas has a problem? What is it?”
“Nothing serious,” Liv said soothingly, “he will certainly tell you when we’re back. But Jergen wanted to help him with it, and he took him out on a job of his own. And he didn’t want you to stay behind alone.” She looked sternly into the boy’s face. “Jergen cares for you, Vilkas, for you both. He may not be your father, but to him, you’re much more than just foundlings. He will always be there for you… for Farkas, like right now, and the same for you. Don’t forget that either.”
Huge bright eyes stared into her face. The boy swallowed heavily. “Okay,” he whispered.
They sat together in silence, and slowly Liv felt the small body in her arms relax. Just when she wanted to release him and ask if he was as starving as she was herself, she heard a light snore. The boy slept, peaceful and quiet, cuddled into her warmth as if he belonged there.
The passengers of the carriage from Riften had only just finished to unload their baggage under the impatient eyes of the driver when the wagon from Solitude rumbled over the cobblestone road towards Whiterun’s stables. As soon as the two people on its benches saw the other incomers, greetings, yelled questions and laughter sounded all over the place.
Farkas hopped from the carriage as soon as it had stopped moving, but fell to his knees with a pained yell when he hit the ground. Vilkas was at his side in an instant, helping him up.
“A skeever bit me, and it got infected.” The boy poked his own thigh with a proud grin.
“A skeever? You’re such an icebrain!”
“I’m not! There were dozens of them, and I killed three all on my own before it got me!” His brother got a punch to the shoulder that made him stagger.
Jergen laughed and clasped Liv’s wrist. “How did it go?” he asked lowly.
She gave him a small smile. “Horribly. And awesome. And… well, he’s a remarkable little boy, your Vilkas.” Her gaze went to her daughter who climbed slowly from the carriage. The girl was still paler than usual and moved with a certain strain. “Aela was attacked by a spriggan and Vilkas saved her life.”
Jergen’s eyes went wide. “Wow. You got much to tell, I think.”
“Aye. And you? Any progress?”
His face lit up. “You’ve no idea. The boy learns best when he has at least 30 miles in his legs. I think we’re over the worst, now he just needs lots of practicing.”
“But that’s awesome!”
“Yeah. It was much easier than I had thought. And Vignar is still an ignorant fool.”