“Come on, join us. You gotta meet the others.” Athis stood at the footend of my bed, arms crossed over his chest, and gave me an inviting grin. “I know you’ve been to the bath today, and on your own two feet.”
Yes, I had, but only with Tilma’s help. The peak of bliss would have been to soak myself in one of the huge bathtubs, but with all the open wounds scattered over my body that was unfortunately impossible. But it had still been wonderful to wash away all that sweat and gore with hot water and some lavender-scented soap.
It had been two days since I woke utterly confused in the bowels of Jorrvaskr, and on the one hand, I was overwhelmed by the helpfulness and friendliness of the Companions. The care I got was the best I could have wished for, Tilma fed me meals that were fit for the court of a Jarl, brought potions to dim the pain and treated my wounds with horribly smelling concoctions and salves. Even the priestess Danica, a friendly, professional woman, had visited once to control the stitches and infections, but when she saw that I made progress, she was gone again as fast as she had appeared, obviously in a hurry.
But on the other hand, all this helpfulness and friendliness was frightening. I didn’t want to answer Ria’s innocent but curious questions about the fight that had brought me into this mess and even less those about where I came from and what I had done out there that the wolf had catched me all alone. I had no answers for her… but she was only friendly, and every time I tried to dodge her curiosity, I was afraid to disappoint her – or worse, rouse her suspiciousness. The wary, unfriendly look of the woman who swept out of the quarters the morning after their party without so much as a greeting was already bad enough. Ria’s explanation that Njada was like that to every stranger and that I shouldn’t bother about her didn’t help at all.
And I remembered vividly Vilkas’ snarky remark about me being a disturbance for his whelps. I didn’t want to be a nuisance or interfere with their daily business. Yes, I was grateful to live. But although Jorrvaskr was huge and impressive, at least the parts I had seen so far, it was also incredibly crowded. Far too crowded, and it was nearly impossible to stay out of each other’s way. Nearly a dozen people lived here permanently, and additional guests, associates, clients and friends often stayed for a night or longer. It was a beehive with people coming and going all the time… and after only two days I already missed the solitude I had fought so hard to get used to, and I dreaded the time I would have to spend here. I wasn’t used to make conversation, to be friendly and to express my gratitude, and I had the feeling I had to express my gratitude all the time. They didn’t owe me anything, after all.
And now Athis wanted to drag me into their company for the evening meal.
Biting my lip, I tried desperately to find an excuse.
“I don’t feel so well. I’m not hungry,” I muttered finally, blushing under his examination.
He tilted his head, the corners of his mouth twitching. “So you wanna bury yourself down here for the next weeks?”
“Weeks?” I squealed.
He laughed lowly. “Yes, weeks. I won’t let you leave as long you’re not completely up to the mark.”
I groaned, pulling the blanket up to my chin. “Why do you do that, Athis? I could have just as well stayed at the temple.”
He sat down at the edge of my bed, watching me intently. “You really have to ask? You saved my life although it would have been much more profitable for you just to let me die. Don’t think I’m not aware of that.”
“But it only cost me a few potions. And I still got that pelt and your dagger.”
“You count a life against a lousy pelt and a piece of steel?” I had upset him, and his irked expression made me cringe.
“But I have nothing to pay this back! You spend all this stuff on me, and Vilkas is angry for a reason…”
He narrowed his eyes. “Vilkas? What did he say?”
“Nothing. Just that you don’t need any more disturbances… and that I kept Ria from her training. And that you neglect your jobs.”
Anger flared up in his eyes, but he pulled himself together. “I tell you something, Qhourian. About how the Companions work. You worry far too much.” He gave me a small smile. “Vilkas is part of the Circle. That’s… some of our members who act as advisors to the Harbinger. They keep track of our contracts, decide which ones to take and which not, deal with the clients, take care that the payments run in… stuff like that. They’re also the best in what they do. Vilkas is Master-of-Arms for a reason, no one in all of Skyrim who handles a greatsword or claymore like he.” He took a deep breath. “But all this doesn’t mean that he can order me around, or Ria or anybody else. Not even you. And if I decide not to dig for some forsaken family heirloom in a rotten cave in the Reach while you’re struggling with death here, that’s solely my decision and not his business.”
He must have seen the doubt in my face. Vilkas didn’t make the impression as if anything going on in Jorrvaskr wasn’t his business.
“But I wasn’t struggling with death any more. And I don’t want you…”
But he interrupted me. “Stop arguing, Qhourian. You wanna get on your feet again as fast as possible, don’t you?”
I nodded. On my feet and out of here.
“Okay. You will heal much faster if you stop fretting. It was my decision to take you in, Kodlak gave his approval, and neither Vilkas nor you will do anything against it. It’s not that we don’t have enough free beds.” He stood up and gave me an encouraging grin. “And now join me. You don’t want to force Tilma to serve you down here when you’re perfectly capable to come upstairs, do you?”
Well, I was far from being perfectly capable, cold sweat standing on my forehead and my legs trembling after the short climb up the stairs, but everything was forgotten when I entered the main hall for the first time. I didn’t know what I had expected… but certainly not this. I had no idea that a room could feel majestic, awe-inspiring and cozy at the same time.
Jorrvaskr was a single-floor building with a gigantic main room, huge in every dimension. The main area was big like a ballroom, only that it was dominated by a large firepit that spent warmth and light, on one long and both short sides lined by rows of tables that were now laden with food. The scent of stew, roasted meat and fresh bread watered my mouth.
This main floor was surrounded by a gallery that lay a few feet higher and on which we stood now, passing past broad double doors on both sides of the room and several smaller exits to what I assumed were kitchen and storage rooms. The stone floor in the centre was covered by long carpets in red and gold, the evening sun streamed in rays through latticed windows, candles burnt in large chandeliers and added to the overall homey atmosphere.
But the most distinctive characteristic beside its sheer size was the vaulted roof spanning high over the whole length and width of the room, the wood blackened over the centuries and held by enormous wooden columns that were adorned with intricate carvings, colourful banners and plaques with an impressive selection of valuable, choice weapons.
It looked ages old, much older than the stone quarters in the lower level, and it oozed history. Or perhaps it was just my imagination, but as I span on my heels and looked around, Athis watched my reverence with a gentle chuckle. On the wall beside the staircase hang a plaque on the wall above our heads that catched my eyes because it somehow didn’t fit into all the splendour. It displayed several fragments of charred metal, but even my untrained eye could see that the craftsmanship was incredible despite its destroyed state. I trailed one of the shards with the tip of my finger, turning to Athis.
“What is this?”
But before he could answer, a dark, angry voice came from a corner. “Don’t touch it. That’s Wuuthrad. It is…”
Vilkas. I turned, making out the man nearly hidden behind a pillar. “I know what Wuuthrad is,” I interrupted him sharply, “Ysgramor’s axe.”
Again there was irritation in his expression, besides astonishment and anger. He looked as if I had tried to melt the shards into a pitchfork. Athis took wordlessly my elbow and led me down to the tables that were laden with food. It didn’t seem as if they had formal dinner during which they all came together, but that everybody took what and consumed it wherever he wanted. To my relief, the hall was nearly empty, only an old man sat on a side table and another brought him his meal, and the man I knew as Skjor sat at the fire. The mer nodded to him in greeting, filling two plates with potatoes, grilled leek and some kind of roast and beckoned me to follow him.
“Let’s eat outside, I’ve heard that sunlight can do wonders to a sour mood. I’ll give you a tour later.” He spoke louder than necessary, and I answered his boyish grin with a chuckle. Somehow, I felt safe in his company.
During the following days I did what he had told me and tried not to fret too much. Of course my naive imagination of Jorrvaskr and the Companions had been more lyrical than correct. The legendary heirs of Ysgramor were people like… well, perhaps not like everybody else, I could sit for hours and watch them come and go, impressive in their gleaming armours and shining weapons when they went away and equally impressive when they came back, encrusted with blood and gore, sometimes limping, sometimes bleeding but always victorious.
But they were still people with quirks and mannerisms. I learned that Aela the Huntress preferred to spend her free time out in the woods instead of inside the hall and that she was the one providing most of the enormous amounts of meat the warriors consumed. I learned that Torvar was a burly Nord with no restraints when it came to indulging himself into his mead, but who was nevertheless able to be miraculously sober when he went out on a job. Njada regarded me with barely veiled repulsion I didn’t understand at first, until I saw her come out of the men’s sleeping quarters one morning, shooting me a triumphant gaze. I knew Torvar had been out that night, and I understood. I gave her and Athis who appeared after her an amused smile. That evening, she challenged him to a brawl and beat him to pulp. And I learned that the only occasion that Vilkas lost his frosty, clinical demeanor was when his brother thawed him up. Farkas was a lighthearted, friendly hulk, helpful and companionable, while his brother either whipped the whelps through his unrelenting training or stayed to himself, usually brooding over a tankard of mead and a book. Strange, these twins.
The only one I didn’t get to know was their Harbinger, Kodlak. Athis said he was ill and stayed mostly in his quarters. Only once, when I woke from a nap, I caught an old man standing in the doorway of the living quarters, staring at me. He was an impressive figure, broad and bulky, with a mane of neatly braided hair and a full grey beard under lively eyes that seemed to pierce through my sleepy haze. He didn’t look ill. But when he saw that I was awake, he turned on his heels and was gone without a word.
But in the end, they all were just people… although different from all the other people I had ever known.
What distinguished them from others were the strong ties that obviously bound them together. They behaved like a family… I witnessed tensions and fights, but beneath the quarrels I felt a deep trust, a kind of unspoken understanding. In an hour of need, they’d stand together no matter what, and they called themselves shield-siblings for a reason.
I felt these ties, but I didn’t belong to them, and after some time most of them left me alone, the prodding and curious questions about my past stopped. I tried to stay out of their way, their flings, quarrels and bonds didn’t concern me. No one ever came too close, no one ever made any demands. And strangely, their reserve made me feel safe.
But I made progress, only the bitewound on my arm where the wolf’s fangs had mauled it into a gory mess of raw flesh simply didn’t want to heal. But as soon as I could I tried to make myself useful by helping Tilma. How she got the whole business up and running nearly all on her own was a miracle to me, although everybody else seemed to take it for granted. She sent me on errands into the city, to the market and to the various traders, and I welcomed these small tasks as they allowed me to stroll through the streets all on my own, get to know the city and escape the crowded tightness of Jorrvaskr.
The injuries and the long-lasting fever had left me frighteningly weak, and I knew I’d have to regain my strength before I could think of leaving. And the days flew by at an alarmingly fast rate. Training with the Companions was not an option, not only didn’t I have any gear, watching them during their exercises in Jorrvaskr’s backyard I knew that I was no match to them. And so I started my own practicing, made long marches around the huge cliff Whiterun was built upon while gathering flowers and roots for Tilma she could sell to the local apothecary. The consumption of potions and salves by the Companions was enormous, and it was the least I could do to cover these expenses.
The marches became runs, the same loop every day, and it felt good when I needed less and less time for the round along the outer walls and the steep cliff beneath the palace of the Jarl, past a watchtower and through the fields of the farmers directly outside of the city. Additionally I used a dead tree on my way as a training dummy, went into the familiar motions, attacks and parades and worked myself out until every single muscle hurt. The only thing I missed was a bow to practice my archery.
But my extended absences didn’t go unnoticed, and once a gruff voice stopped me as I opened the front doors.
“Where are you going, girl?”
Farkas stood behind me, looking intimidating in his steel training armour, dark warpaint smeared around his eyes, but his rumbling question sounded only curious.
“Out,” I said hesitating. To run around the city sounded simply ridiculous, I had to admit. “Gather some stuff for Arcadia.”
“What do you mean?”
He gave me a once-over. “You’re not even armed.”
“Of course I am!” My hand went to the hilt of the dagger that was strapped to my belt.
A short grin flared up in his face. “No, you’re not.” He turned on his heels and descended down the stairs to the living quarters, beckoning me to follow him and leading me into a side corridor where he opened a nondescript door. “Choose,” he said curtly.
It was a storeroom fit to equit an entire army, with racks and chests, tables and shelves full of weapons and armour, from tiny daggers to enormous battleaxes I’d barely be able to lift, from throwing darts to curved bows as long as I, from leather gear to heavy armour pieces made from iron, steel or kinds of metal I couldn’t name. Farkas took in my wide eyes with a chuckle. “What?” he said, “these are just leftovers for emergencies, loot and discarded stuff. We all have our personal gear.”
I looked around in awe, but it wasn’t hard to choose. I took a steel mace, an elegant willow longbow and a quiver with iron arrows, feeling martial when when I had strapped it all on. I knew it was only on loan, but it felt good nevertheless.
“Now we only gotta find you some armour,” Farkas said, examining me. “Leather, I suppose?” I could only nod. “You’re taller than the other girls,” he muttered while opening chests and rummaging through shelves, putting a cuirass, some leather pants and a pair of gloves aside. He handed me the items. “Here, try them on. I’ll be right back.”
The familiar weight of well-fitting leather on my shoulders brought back the memories of my time in Cheydinhal with sudden vehemence, constricting my throat. Only when I heard Farkas clearing his throat, I shook myself out of my thoughts. He watched me pensively, having changed into leather pants and jacket himself, his longsword strapped to his hip.
“Suits you,” he said gruffly, “now let’s get going.”
“Join you, yes. It’s the least I can do. That arm of yours is still useless.” He was right, unfortunately, the cuff of the gauntlet barely fit over the bandages. But my time alone was precious to me.
“I can take care of myself,” I said tersely.
He frowned. “No, you can’t. There are sabrecats out there. And wolves. And there’s a giant camp not far.”
He was right, of course, but we both knew that all this was no danger as long as I didn’t leave the vicinity of Whiterun. I just wanted to work myself out and pick some flowers, for Kyne’s sake!
But he shooed me out of the room and out of Jorrvaskr, and I knew that it would need more than my meager excuses to keep him from carrying out an idea that had once settled in his head. When we had passed the marketplace, he fell into the same light jog as I.
“Are you in a hurry?” he asked with a grin.
“No,” I answered between clenched teeth.
But it took until we had left the walls of the city behind that I felt his hand on my shoulder. He surprised me, and I yanked out of his grip, causing a confused look. “What exactly are we doing here, Qhourian? I thought you wanted to pick flowers?” He pointed at a tuft of tundra cotton right at his feet.
I groaned. “Told you you don’t have to accompany me. I’m just…”
Sudden understanding flew over his face. “You’re training, aren’t you? Running around the city to build up your stamina?”
I felt the blood rush into my cheeks. “Yes,” I said defiantly. “I have to start somewhere, after all.”
A laughter broke out of him. “You’re really crazy, woman,” he guffawed, “you live in Jorrvaskr and make up your own exercises? Have you ever thought of joining us? What do you need that for, anyway? It’s not that you’re weak.”
My face burnt with embarrassment. Of course I was weak, compared to them. And he had no idea how I lived, that I had to prepare myself. None of them knew how I lived, I realised suddenly.
I studied the fluffy cotton balls at my feet intently. They reminded how far into fall we already were and how much time I had already spent here. “Just leave me be, Farkas. Please,” I said lowly. He just meant well, but I didn’t know why. We were all alone, I didn’t know about his intentions, and it was scary.
But only incomprehension stood in his face. He tried to lay his hand on my shoulder, but I flinched away. His bright gaze on me was disconcerting. “What do you need this kind of training for, Qhourian?” he asked quietly. “I know I scared you on your first day, but I thought that was just… a misunderstanding. But now you’re scared again. Why? And why didn’t you ask us?”
These were exactly the questions I didn’t want to answer, that I had successfully avoided for so long. I hoped he wouldn’t see the despair in my face as I turned an ran away.
But he followed me, easily keeping up, and the sound of his steps behind me chased me along until I felt the familiar stitches in the side from overexertion. But I clenched my teeth and followed my usual path until my legs went numb, stopping only when I had reached the stables again, drenched in sweat, my palms propped on my knees and panting heavily. The stable master gave me a curious glance, and to know that he watched us made me relax slightly.
Farkas catched up, barely out of breath.
“See?” My grin was cheerless. “That’s why I didn’t ask.”
He eyed me pensively. “That wasn’t bad,” he said calmly, “I’m cheating, after all.”
He chuckled. “Aye. First, I’m used to move along in steel. And second…” he fumbled a simple copper chain out of his neckline, “this is enchanted to restore stamina. Very useful.” His sheepish grin made me laugh, but he became serious again. “I’m sorry, Qhourian. I shouldn’t have pressed you. But… whatever you need it for, I’m sure I could show you a thing or two. Okay?”
I would never have a chance like this again, to get tips from a Companion. I didn’t know why he made this offer… but he seemed genuine. Farkas always seemed genuine.
“Why would you do this?” I asked warily.
He shrugged. “I like to teach others. And… what you’re doing here is simply silly.” His frankness made me blush again, but he had already drawn his sword. “Come on, show me what you can.”
He bared his teeth in a devious grin. “Yep.”
I didn’t land a blow on him, of course not. But the mace was a weapon I was familiar with, and when I lunged for him and he dodged my clumsy attack easily, I was at least able to twist out of his blade’s way fast enough to prevent that his counterattack disarmed me with his first strike. Astonishment was written into his face after we exchanged a few moves against each other.
“You’re used to that weapon. I thought you’re just an archer?” His curiosity was obvious, but he didn’t dig further when he saw my tightlipped expression. “It’s something we can work with, at least. But you’re rusty.” His grin flashed up. “I’ll get you fit, believe me.”
I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. He chased me on long runs not only around the city, but to the outer watchtowers and other landmarks. He made me sprint the same short distances over and over again, let me hop on and off boulders dozens of times in a row, made me climb on trees and cross the White River balancing on slippery stones over and over again until I was wet and frozen to the bones. And then he made me stand motionless on one foot, shivering and with closed eyes, until I thought my leg would splinter like a dry twig under my own weight. And he forced me through spars that took hours, practiced attack sequences and defense strategies with me until they were carved into muscles and memory.
And when I lay flat on my back and thought every further move would simply rip my muscles apart, he made me start all over again.
His drill was merciless, but it was also effective. He seemed to sense my impatience and urgency, and although I often cursed him violently, I was also thankful for the time he spent with me. Especially once, when we came back to the city and were greeted by an earshattering roar and two familiar figures dancing around a giant – in the middle of a field of cabbages right across the stables, some frightened peasants watching the scene from a safe distance.
Aela and Ria were hard pressed by the furious behemoth, and Farkas drew his sword at once and charged into the fight with a bellowed curse. I had no chance but to join in as well, unstrapping my bow and joining Aela in trying to get a free shot while the others distracted him in close combat. Adrenaline shot through my veins as I watched the warriors move around their foe. The giant wasn’t especially fast, but he swang his treelike club with inhuman strength and entirely unpredictable, forcing Ria and Farkas to stay mostly out of his range and only dart in for swift strikes to his legs and sides. But especially Farkas was incredibly fast, unhindered by his usual heavy armour, and he wielded his blade like lightning strikes. In the end, he managed to cut the sinews in the back of his knee, and when the oversized man dropped down and threw back his head, roaring in pain, Aela yelled from the top of her lungs.
“His throat, now!”
Our arrows flew, finding their target, and when the Giant slumped forwards, Ria jumped on his back and pierced the tip of her greatsword through spine and neck, leaning on it with all her weight until he had stopped twitching.
We gathered around the gigantic corpse, my head hazy with excitement. Aela gave me an appraising look.
“Excellent work, sister,” she said with a small smile, and my incredulous gaping made her chuckle. Ria laughed loudly and full of relief, and Farkas gave me a grin and a nod.
“Yeah. Good job everybody,” he said gruffly before he knelt down and started to cut the toes from the giant’s feet.
The toes. From a giant.
He gathered them in a small leather pouch that was soon dripping with blood. And it smelled horribly.
“What in Oblivion are you doing?” I gagged and had to turn away from the gruesome sight.
He looked up to me, gore smeared over his face, tousled tresses falling into his eyes. He tucked them away with an impatient motion, leaving fresh streaks of dirt. “For Arcadia. We’re out here to gather alchemy materials, aren’t we? Giant horn is precious, it will fetch us a good price.” His grin was boyish.
But despite the excitement of the fight and the short feeling of cameraderie we had shared, the experience had also made me realise that my time in Jorrvaskr had to come to an end. I was healed and perhaps even stronger than before the accident, I had learned a lot and stalled already far too long. There was no reason to stay any longer. When I steeled myself and joined Athis at a table in the courtyard, I realised that I would miss him. I would miss them all, somehow… well, perhaps except Vilkas and Njada.
The mer nursed a bottle of ale and was watching a spar between Vilkas and Aela and Farkas shredding a training dummy apart, but he gave me a lazy smile when I took place across from him.
“Aye,” I muttered nervously. “I’ll leave tomorrow, Athis. And I wanted to thank you, for everything. All of you, but… well.” I didn’t know what to say.
He stared at me, an awkward silence growing between us, and I already contemplated to leave the same moment and spend the night at the inn. Just that I didn’t have the coin for a room. But then the mer leant forward, crossing his arms on the table.
“Why now, so suddenly? Is someone waiting for you?”
He knew that wasn’t the case. More than once people had asked me if I wanted to send word about my whereabouts somewhere, and every time I had refused. I bit my lip.
“No. But it’s about time. High time.”
He narrowed his eyes. “And where will you go?”
“Home.” It was true, in a way. I took a deep breath. “Please, Athis… I don’t wanna argue. Just…”
He propped his chin into his palm. “Impossible. You can’t leave like that,” he said matter-of-factly.
“And why not, for Kyne’s sake?” I had really hoped this would be easier.
He grinned at me. “Because you haven’t been drunk yet. You can’t live in Jorrvaskr for weeks and not get shitfaced at least once. Impossible.” He poked an affirmative index into my chest. “And next weekend is the perfect opportunity. Harvest festival, you know? All of Whiterun will be one big party.”
I was speechless. “You want me to stay to see me drunk?”
“No, not simply drunk. Plastered. Wasted. Boozed up that the mead runs out of your ears and you can’t walk straight any more. Torvar will be delighted, he’s always looking for new drinking buddies.”
“You’re insane, Athis.”
“Yep.” He turned away and yelled across the training yard. “Farkas, leave the poor thing alone and come here for a moment, please.”
The warrior finished the sequence of his attacks and turned, shining with sweat but a happy grin plastered over his face. When Athis waved at him, he placed his sword in a rack and came over. The mer crossed his arms over his chest, leant back against the table and looked very complacent, but from the other end of the yard, I saw Vilkas watch us with a leery scowl.
“Farkas, as a member of the Circle and as her mentor, would you please tell her that the Harvest festival will be fun?”
He looked confused from Athis to me. “Of course it will.” He chuckled. “Last year, Skjor made the Jarl’s brother jump from the top of the stairs down into the pool at the bottom. He nearly broke his neck.”
Yeah, that sounded like lots of fun. But Athis wasn’t finished. “And now you tell her that it would be a shame if she missed it.”
“Of course it would.” His eyes grew suddenly wide. “Wait, what?”
“She wants to leave tomorrow.”
Farkas propped himself heavily on his palms, shaking his head. “But… why?”
I didn’t want to argue and sighed wearily. “Please, guys… you know I have to go. I can’t stay here forever.”
“But why are you in such a hurry suddenly?” Athis’ grin was devious, and it made me angry. I pushed back my chair and stood up.
“I said I don’t want to argue.”
But a firm grip to my shoulder held me back, and I didn’t have the heart to jerk out of Farkas’ grip when I met his gaze. “Please, Qhourian. You can’t just vanish like that after so much time, without a proper farewell. Stay at least for the festival, it will be fun. Promised.”
That was exactly what I feared most, a proper farewell. But I also felt that it would be cowardish to vanish like a thief in the night. Although it didn’t really matter, I didn’t want to be remembered as a coward. And it was only two more days. Slowly, I nodded.
But I swore to myself to stay away from the mead.