Drifting in and out of the void. When my mind came closer to the surface, there was pain and heat and cold, flames that ate me alive from the inside, my head close to burst asunder. There were voices and hands on my skin and people that made me thrash in fear against their grip. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t, no sound breaching the aching fog clouding my senses.
Sometimes, there was water dropping down my parched throat, a voice gentle like a lullaby and soothing coolness on my forehead.
But the terror was back immediately when the fog finally lifted, leaving only a throbbing pain behind and I and remembered who I was. I was warm and clean, and I lay in a bed.
In a bed.
On a real mattress, soft and yielding under my body, clad in a cotton shirt and covered by a soft woolen blanket. More parts of me than not were wrapped in clean bandages. On both sides of the bed stood a paravent, leather hides stringed into a simple square rack, the floor was covered in thick carpets and furs, the furniture rich, sturdy and valuable, at least the bit I could see. On the walls hang plaques with weapons and shields, items of a style and material I had never seen before but obviously incredibly precious. Only above my bed hang the taxidermied head of a sabrecat, its fangs pointing directly at my throat.
I was alone, and all these impressions had time to sink slowly into my dazed brain. My wrist hurt, and I remembered that I had broken it. But I didn’t know why I could barely move my right shoulder, what all these bandages wrapped around my limbs, abdomen and chest were for and why every single muscle ached as I tried to sit up.
When the panic struck me like the fist of a giant, it clenched my chest, clouded my eyes with a red haze and shook me with a wave of nausea. This was far too rich, far too comfortable and luxurious. I was wrong, I didn’t belong here.
I threw back the blanket and swang my feet to the ground, trying to stand up. But my knees gave way under my weight, and blinding pain shot through my wrist as I tried to catch myself on the brittle rack that held the visual cover, stumbling and falling when it broke under my weight. My own whimper sounded hollow in my ears. The splinters ripped my palm open, but now I could see that the room was long and narrow, rows of beds lined up along the wall, separated with nightstands and some with similar paravents like the one I had destroyed, some with chests or trunks at their footends. And at the end of the aisle a door stood open, whatever lay behind it too dimly lit to see where it led.
An exit. I had to get out.
I was too weak to stand up, but I crawled forwards on all fours, leaving red dots on the carpet, sobbing and tasting copper when I bit my lip in an effort to stay quiet. I tried to stand up again, clenched bloody hands into the doorframe, desperate and panicked when all I saw was another corridor, only lit by a few torches and lamps. And doors, so many doors. It was… I was trapped, and a scream formed in my head as I fell again and cowered against the wall, a palm pressed to my mouth to prevent the wretching.
It was a beast that stormed around the corner, the first man I saw here, fast, blustering steps carrying him into the room I had tried to leave. He ducked his head when he entered, his shoulders barely fitting through the doorframe, but he stopped dead when he saw me, curled into a ball, bleeding and sobbing. Leather pants, a simple blue linen tunic, black, ruffled, shoulderlong hair… and frighteningly bright eyes that stared down at me, full of shock and bewilderment. The scream of terror that had built up finally erupted from my throat when he bowed down and picked me up without further ado. I fought against him, my nails scratching him through the fabric of his tunic, fear releasing strength I didn’t know I had.
But he reacted fast and with not more than a grunt, the arm that was slung around my shoulders pressed me against his chest, locking my arms and my head in his grip, and he didn’t care that I bit the palm he had plastered over my mouth as he carried me back to the bed and just let me drop onto the mattress. His hands pressed into my shoulders, his weight holding me down and barring my thrashing until I became stiff and rigid in his grip.
He gnawed at his lip and removed his hands slowly from my body as if he expected me to flail out at him, stood bent over me and stared with his enervating gaze, so bright and intense. He just stared without saying a word, and I could do nothing but return it. A stranger. Thrown onto the mattress. An iron grip I was powerless against. I clenched my fists into the sheets beneath me, the flaring fear coiling into an aching knot of dread into my stomach. But I was too stunned to move, too frozen in my fears, a maelstrom of panic swallowing every thought while I waited for the things to come. For what had to happen.
He frowned in confusion. And then he released me and took a few heavy steps towards the door.
“Athis!” he roared, “move your lazy arse down here!”
I watched incredulously as he hunched down, giving me a thoughtful look over his shoulder while he picked up the remains of the ruined paravent. “Don’t forget to breathe, girl,” he said calmly.
A calm rumble and a quirk of his lips. And then he was gone. I obeyed and exhaled a deep breath to soothe myself.
I heard a door clap, fast steps approaching and a short conversation outside of the room. The men didn’t bother to speak quietly.
“What’s the matter, Farkas?”
“She’s awake. And…”
“Finally. ‘t was about time. What?”
“I think I scared her.” The deep voice sounded somehow sheepish.
“Icebrain.” The mer who entered the room shook his head and rolled his eyes. And it was indeed the Dunmer I knew. The madman who had tried to make me believe that he was a Companion. The one I had saved. My openmouthed gaping made him chuckle.
“Did he?” he asked, crimson eyes sparkling, but his grin vanished when he took me in, face bloostained and swollen with tears, my harried expression.
“Azura, what happened?”
“Athis?” I pressed out.
He pulled a chair to the side of the bed, filled a goblet with water from a pitcher and handed it to me. My hands trembled when I took it. I was incredibly thirsty, my head hurt and my eyes burnt.
And I had no idea what was going on. But the attack of sheer terror made way for something else… his appearance, this first vaguely familiar face I encountered here let my stomach flutter with relief. And embarrassment. Even before I realised what it meant that he was here.
“That was only Farkas. He isn’t half as dangerous as he looks like,” he said casually while he grasped my bloody wrist, but he gave me a confused frown when I yanked my hand out of his grip and clenched my arms around my own chest.
“You’re bleeding,” he said with an arched eyebrow. But then he bent forwards, propping his elbows on his knees. “What’s the matter, Qhourian? Is something wrong?”
Is something wrong? Is anything right?
I swallowed heavily, but I pulled myself together and tried to sit up without staining the linens and blanket further with my blood. My head swam, and I didn’t know which question to ask first. All I knew that I didn’t want to answer any questions.
His grin was back. “Jorrvaskr, yes. Surprised?”
I could only nod, dumbfounded. Jorrvaskr. The hall of the Companions. The mer was no lunatic. And that brute… he was probably a Companion too. At least he looked like a Companion. Or how I imagined that a Companion would look like.
“You look as if this was the Imperial Palace.”
Jorrvaskr, the Imperial Palace, the backside of Masser… to me, it was all the same. All equally improbable.
But if I could believe him I was in Jorrvaskr. And obviously alive.
“How did I get here?” I choked out.
He gave me a thoughtful gaze. “I tell you if you let me treat that wound. You don’t need any more infections.”
His scrutiny was enervating, but somehow I knew that what looked like a frown on his strange face with those sharp angles wasn’t meant as one. I had met enough elves to know that they all always looked slightly aloof. Altmer fair and aloof, Bosmer savage and aloof and Dunmer surly and aloof. They were just too alien, especially the Dunmer with their dark complexions, exotic features and unreadable eyes.
He raised an expectant eyebrow, and I stretched out my wrist hesitantly as he dipped a cloth into the pitcher. He took it in a gentle grip and started to clean the nasty scratch with experienced motions, smeared a healing salve into the gash and wound a fresh bandage around it. I was glad to have escaped his direct examination.
“Serendipity, I’d say. You were even luckier than I was when you found me.” His lips curled into a smirk, but it wasn’t malicious. Strange, this mer. But he already spoke on.
“I can only tell you the version that we were told. You know how it is with such improbable stories.” No, I didn’t. “Some hunters found you, and a dead wolf. They had tracked him down and he was already dead for some time, but you still breathed, and it’s a miracle that nothing had made a snack of you in the meantime. They brought you to Riverwood. Sigrid, the wife of the smith there, took care of you at first, but she’s no healer and you were injured too severely and still unconscious and feverish, and so she put you on the carriage for Whiterun.” He looked up and smiled at my incredulous expression. Carriages cost money, that much I knew.
“Someone paid for me?”
“Well, yes. They’re good people out there. Look out for each other. And when a stranger is dropped on their doorstep who can’t help himself…” He shrugged. As if it was only natural.
“Anyway,” he continued, “you were brought to the temple, and Danica…” My clueless look made him halt. “She’s the priestess here. Our local healer. It’s a temple of Kynareth. Well, yes, she took care of you. That broken wrist and broken ribs were the smallest problem… well, the wrist was, it was crunched and should have been treated much earlier. But more serious were the flesh wounds, the infections and the sepsis that had spread through your body in the meantime. She had a hard time to get that under control. At least you also got a hit to the head and refused to wake up anyway. But she was also the first who recognised the dagger you wore.”
“The dagger… your dagger!”
His grin flared up as if he was proud of himself. “Aye. It’s Skyforge steel, Qhourian. Only Companions wear these weapons. And when a strange woman in raw furs appears more dead than alive in Whiterun and wears a Skyforge dagger, of course they inform us. But the temple is full with injured soldiers and there wasn’t much she could do for you anyway after you got over the worst, and so I let you bring here. Tilma has some healing skills too.”
“You’re really a Companion.”
“Aye. You didn’t believe me?”
It was too much. But before I could think of an answer, someone else poked his head through the door. Another man, another Companion. He was obviously a Nord, broad and burly though not as massive as the first man I had seen, clad head to toe in fine steel armour that was intricately chiseled, the edges adorned with wolf fur. An ornated wolf head decorated the chest piece, and the hilt of the sword that was sheathed in the simple leather scabbard at his hip looked remarkably like the one of my dagger.
A Skyforge weapon. Made in Ysgramor’s forge, a fire older than mankind, by the best blacksmith in the province. My father had always said that a true warrior was one with his weapon and that a weapon was nothing without the hand wielding and the head guiding it. Ysgramor’s own axe had become part of his legend. And I had come by such a legendary blade and didn’t even know it. I had skinned rabbits and wittled arrowheads with it.
The man was balding, he had only one eye and a nasty scar leading from the empty socket down his cheek, but with his gear and dark warpaint that ran in stripes over his cheekbones he looked every inch the true warrior my father had spoken of. When he realised that I was awake and staring at him, its gaze was piercing.
“You’re finally awake.”
I felt the familiar clenching in my chest. Another stranger. I could just nod, and he scowled at my lack of answer before he turned to Athis. “Have you seen Vilkas?” he asked curtly.
Athis shook his head. “No. Only this morning, training with his brother.”
The man vanished without a further word, and Athis turned back to me. His examining scrutiny made me cringe. The relief must have been readable on my face when he pushed back his chair and stood up, because he gave me a slight frown. And a look full of pity.
“No need to be scared, Qhourian. You will heal… and you’re safe here.”
“From wolves? Or men?” I blurted out. Stress and exhaustion made it hard to think.
His reaction was weird. He laughed, loud and boyish.
“You ask strange questions,” he snickered. “But from both, if you ask me. I’ll send Tilma to look after your wounds and with something to eat, you must be starving. We can talk more later, and you will meet the others.”
Left alone, I fell back into my pillow, my eyes tearing from the throbbing pain in my head. It felt irreal, all of it, I wasn’t sure if all of this was really happening, but I recognised with some astonishment that the initial panic was gone.
I had been injured because of my own carelessness. By all logic, I should have been dead by now. But somehow, I wasn’t. For some reason people had saved and taken care of me, without being asked for it and without payment.
It was something so new that I had difficulties to grasp it, much less to trust in it. I always had to pay for everything I had – with my body, my dignity, my self-respect.
But for the moment I was injured, unable to leave and dependent on them. I didn’t know why the Companions had taken me in, a nameless stranger – Athis had paid for the help I had given him, and he owed me nothing.
Shame for being here, useless and at their mercy and helplessness because there was nothing I could do about it welled up in me as the exhaustion became overwhelming. All I could do was to get back on my feet as fast as possible, not to be a burden to them for longer than necessary.
A bowl with a lukewarm broth stood on the nightstand beside me when I woke up, and a girl leant relaxed against the headboard of the bed opposite of mine. A girl with weird paintings on her face, a stripe along her chin and some reddish ornaments around her eyes that trailed up to her temples. Perhaps she thought it made her look fierce, but the roundness of her cheeks, the braids dangling around her face and the dimples that appeared with her smile when she saw me stir made her look like a dressed up child. On the other hand, her sleeveless leather jerkin revealed the muscular shoulders and arms of someone used to wield heavy weights, and she hopped off the mattress, bouncing twice before she landed on her feet, with the smooth movements of a warrior.
“Hi, I’m Ria,” she said unceremoniously, dropping down on the edge of my bed. “How are you doing?”
She resonated with energy and curiosity. I watched her warily. “Qhourian,” I said lowly, taking the offered hand. But I avoided her eyes, and she followed my gaze and handed me the bowl with the broth. I took it greedily, and she watched me drinking it down with a friendly grin.
“I know, Athis told us. You must be famished. You’ve been more or less out for nearly 3 days. Or even longer, we don’t know how long it took before you came to the temple. You don’t either, do you?”
“More or less?” I asked confused. I didn’t remember anything since… now that I thought about it, the eyes of the wolf were the last I knew, coming closer and closer, the hunger in them.
“Are you cold?” The young woman bounced away and grabbed the blanket from the bed she had sat on. Some kind of disappointment stood in her face when I shook my head, and she dropped it at my footend. “Yes, on and off. Sometimes you were a bit less unconscious. Enough to feed you some potions and water, or you’d be much worse now.”
I didn’t remember anything. I always thought people were either unconscious or not.
“You helped me… with that?”
“Why yes, of course! I sleep here too, you know? And Njada… usually. Sometimes she sleeps in the other room. When Torvar is away and only Athis stays in the boys’ room, then she stays there too.” She grinned a bit sheepishly.
Of course. This was a dormitory, after all. Of course people slept here, although all the beds were tidied up quite neatly. And I had no idea who Njada and Torvar were.
I stopped her current of words. “What time of day is it?
“Late afternoon. Oh.” She threw her hands in the air. “You haven’t been out yet, have you? Gods, I’d go crazy to be trapped down here. You know that we are underground, do you?” Her way to end every sentence with a question without to wait for an answer was exhausting… or annoying… or endearing. I wasn’t sure.
I shook my head. “I know nothing about Jorrvaskr. Barely how I came here.”
“Yep, it was your luck that you still had that dagger with you, wasn’t it? Although Danica did the main work, you’re nearly as good as new. Some scars will remain, but you don’t mind scars, do you?”
“I don’t know,” I said slightly amused, “I didn’t have many scars before. But I suppose I don’t.”
“Aye, scars aren’t that bad. Look here.” Suddenly she knelt beside me, pushing my thighs away. It hurt, but I clenched my teeth. She yanked up her jerkin and presented me her bare stomach. A long line of glossy skin trailed from her ribcage past her navel and vanished under the waistband of her pants.
“Cavebear,” she said proudly, “but I killed it. Have you ever killed a bear?”
“No.” I smiled. She was really a bit like a child. I couldn’t fathom her swinging a weapon and killing something. Or someone. I could also not fathom anyone doing her any harm. It would destroy this openness and naivity once and for all.
“Okay,” she jumped up, pulling down the edge of her clothes, “I gotta go. Just wanted to look after you. We’ll have a feast tonight, so don’t worry if it becomes a bit louder. Aela and Njada have been away on some important jobs, and now they’re back, and it was Torvar’s birthday two days ago and he will get shitfaced plastered tonight, and then Farkas will have to carry him to his bed again… or he will just sleep upstairs at the fire… well, you know how that goes, don’t you?”
No, I didn’t. But it sounded like fun. The last I wanted was to spoil it for them.
“Don’t bother about me, Ria. And have fun.” The girl already bounced towards the door, but she turned once more, chewing on her lower lip.
“It will be really loud,” she said sheepishly. “I don’t think you’ll be able to sleep. I’d say you come up and drink with us, but I suppose …?” She pointed at my wrapped up limbs and didn’t finish the sentence.
I gave her a small grin. “No. I can barely stand on my own feet.” She was too cute, and I believed her that she would have dragged me into their party if my condition had allowed it. I knew though – and the others knew it probably too – that I had no place in there.
“Yeah. Buggers.” Her face lit up. “I could get you something to read. Some books. From Kodlak or Vilkas.”
Wow. They had something like scholars here? Of course they had. This was no mindless group of bloodthirsty killers. I nodded. “That would be nice. Thank you, Ria.”
But it wasn’t Ria who came back a few minutes later, it was a man… the same man who had hurled me back to the bed after my fruitless attempt to escape, only that he was now clad in the same kind of armour that Skjor had worn, he had shaved and his hair was neatly oiled and tucked behind his ears. But he still had to stoop when he entered to room. How had Athis called him? Farkas?
I blushed when he stood before me, arms crossed over his chest, his face frowned into an indifferent scowl. His pale gaze had all the warmth and gentleness of a glacier. I had made a fool of myself before… no wonder he regarded me with so much open suspicion.
“I’m Vilkas,” he said with a snide, “Master-of-Arms of the Companions. And I’d appreciate if you didn’t distract our whelps from their duties. It’s bad enough that Athis neglects his jobs to help you recover, but we really don’t need any further curtailings. Ria missed half of her training because of your needless chatter.”
My confused expression only deepened his scowl.
Ria had missed her training because she had waited for me to wake up? We hadn’t talked that long. How was I supposed to know what her duties were? And why was he so irate? And he wasn’t Farkas? His brother? His twin?
Yes, his twin, that was obvious now that I had a closer look, although some differences became apparent. Although the similarities were striking, same height and the same facial features with strong brows over these eerie pale eyes, broad cheekbones and a strong chin, this Vilkas was less bulky than his brother. By no means slender or scrawny, only a bit leaner and with much less muscle mass. But he moved and held himself with the easy grace of a predator, ready to attack at any given moment, and at the moment he leveled a glower full of deep anguish at me.
And the threat in his tone was obvious. People had been nice so far… at least those I had spoken with, but I should have known that a stranger in these halls wasn’t appreciated by everyone. He just showed me my place – a guest, a burden, interfering with their duty. And he made more than clear that being a Companion meant discipline and commitment, that he would tolerate neither laxness from his whelps – what a strange label – nor disturbances from a nuisance like me.
No need to jump down my throat like that, though. I had no intention to disturb their daily routine, quite the contrary. More than ever I felt like an impurity in these halls, and my determination to leave as soon as possible only grew.
“My apologies, Vilkas,” I said calmly, “it won’t happen again.”
Some of the anguish was replaced by irritation. He stared at me for a moment as if he had to figure out my intentions, but there was nothing to figure out… I meant it exactly as I said, and I endured his examination without flinching. But I was relieved when he nodded curtly, turned on his heels and left the room without a further word.
I didn’t want to read anyway.
Tilma, the woman Athis and Ria had mentioned already, turned out to be an elderly woman who claimed to have cared for the warriors of Jorrvaskr as long as she could remember – and it sounded as if she meant since Ysgramor’s times. But she brought me a light meal and unwrapped endless smudgy bandages, and for the first time I had opportunity to have a closer look at the nasty wounds the claws and teeth of the wolf had left. Yes, there would be scars, lots of them.
The Companions were really loud when they were feasting. There was laughter and music and songs, the clapping of hands and clanking of mugs, a brawl with lots of shouting, dancing and heated, drunken arguments. But it didn’t matter to me. A gentle warmth spread through my stomach after the meal of cooked potatoes, grilled leeks and tender chicken breast, and my head felt as if it was stuffed with tundra cotton when a light fever returned. The noise swept over me in gentle waves, and I slept deep and dreamless.