I knew beforehand that it was a bad idea. Parties weren’t fun. Far too many people, people who became unpredictable under the influence of alcohol, who talked far too much and in the worst case became confiding and intrusive. Events like this tended to create an odd sense of closeness even between utter strangers that was nothing but an illusion. An illusion that usually led to regrets.
I knew how this went, and I didn’t want to take part in it.
Of course it had gotten around that the Harvest festival would be my last evening in Whiterun, and things suddenly became awkward. I had a last training session with Farkas, but we were tense and uptight with each other like never before, no teasing and joking or roaring laughter from him when I cursed his methods with my last bit of breath. And he didn’t roughhouse me half as eagerly as I was used to.
On the day of the festival, I kept myself busy and as much as possible out of Jorrvaskr, helping Tilma with the preparations. Fetching fresh vegetables, fruits and bread from the market, I realised that the whole city was indeed in a turmoil. Many of the citizens of the nearby villages had come to attend the large feast at the expense of the Jarl, the inns and streets were full of bards, jugglers and acrobats entertaining the crowd and hoping for their generosity, laughter and music everywhere. Everybody wore his finest attire, the houses were adorned with wreaths and garlands and the air sated with the scent of flowers, cooked food, roasting meat and fresh hay. Even the guards had lost some of their stern discipline, they showed an unusual friendly patience with the army of children rioting through the streets, had friendly greetings and claps on the back for the people they knew.
It was to be a glorious day. And slowly but surely, a foreboding knot of dread formed in my stomach.
The Companions planned to have a feast of their own in Jorrvaskr before they’d later join the crowd in the city, in the inn or on the marketplace where a makeshift stage was standing at the ready for various performances. I made the decision to attend the feast but excuse myself from the later activities. I wanted to get up early, after all – and if it was really as bad as I expected, the Companions wouldn’t get to rest at all that night.
I was nervous when Tilma shooed me out of the kitchen, ordering me friendly to join the crowd and have a great evening when the Companions gathered in the main room, all of them in fine casual clothings. At least I wasn’t the only stranger, the hall was full with friends and associates from Whiterun and beyond. Even the brother of the Jarl was present, one of the few who wore his usual armour. It seemed he hadn’t taken offence at the incident of last year, as he greeted Skjor with an amicable punch.
I stood a bit apart, waiting for the others to take their seats, but when Torvar blundered up the stairs, already with a bottle in hand, he pulled me with him and put me between him and Athis, pressing a tankard that was filled to the brim into my hand. He took in my slightly helpless expression with a wide grin.
“Don’t argue,” he said, slapping my back and clinking his bottle against my tankard. Athis joined in. It wasn’t that I had a choice.
All choices and all oaths to myself were vain when the Companions had already decided how the evening was to proceed.
The meal was regal, Tilma had outdone herself with the delicacies she served. And still it was pleasantly different from all the formal dinners I had ever attended – it was still rustic, the warriors none to fuss more over manners than to make sure that everybody had fun and got filled up. And they had fun, the drinks flowing freely, the usual mead and lighter ale as much as exquisite wine and liquors.
It didn’t take long and the well arranged table dissolved, people stood up, cleared the dirty dishes and put a few of the tables out of the way to gain room when instruments were brought out and the music began. There was no bard, but it wasn’t necessary. Two people who had sat besides Skjor during the meal and who Athis introduced to me as his sister and brother-in-law had brought a lute and a few drums, and Ria fetched her flute and joined in.
At first people were hesitating to move, only pulling their seats into a half-circle and tapping their feet to the rhythm or clapping their hands, some still with their platters on their knees. And the music was also different from everything I was used to. At the balls I had attended we had orchestras, professional musicians who had played and practiced together for years, with a repertoire elaborate and sophisticated enough for every king’s court and made to accompany the formal dances I had learned – either those that passed the women from man to man in burlesque gallantry or those that moulded two bodies together in movements as artistic as suggestive.
I had hated them both. I had hated to have to dance with strangers.
But what we got presented now was so different that I could only watch and listen in awe and amusement. It was much more improvised and impromptu, the trio played tavern and battle songs, ballads and other popular tunes everybody knew and was able to sing along. Everybody but me, it seemed. Ria had an enchanting voice, bright and clear, that rose easily over the noise, and finally Kodlak broke the ice when he stood up and asked Tilma with a small bow to grant her a dance. The elderly woman was all beaming smiles when she laid her palm into his and followed him to the dance floor.
This feast was the first opportunity I witnessed the Harbinger to come out of his quarters and take part in the activities in Jorrvaskr. I still hadn’t spoken a single word with him, but during the meal as he sat at the head of the table, framed by Vilkas and the Jarl’s brother, our eyes had met, and he had given me a gentle smile. It was… as if he wanted to assure me of his approval that I was here, and it made me feel safe.
And now he led the dance, and it was as if the others had only waited for this signal to join in, the floor soon filled with pairs. This was no formal dance, the couples moved as they saw fit, more or less elegant or clumsy, barely touching or in tight embraces. Usually they tried not to get in each other’s way, but sometimes the whole choreography broke up and the crowd formed a circle or a line, grasping the shoulders of whoever was next to them, stomping, jumping and throwing their legs in unison.
Soon nearly everybody was either dancing or standing at the edge of the dancefloor, clapping and waiting for a partner. Only Vignar, the oldest Companion, sat in his armchair near the fire, chatting with a woman standing out because she was the only one wearing an elaborate formal gown, and Vilkas hadn’t left his place at the table either, nursing a bottle of mead. His gaze was smouldering, full of tension and barely tamed aggression, but for once I was able to ignore it. The others did as well, after all.
I had calmed down, the nervous tension gone, I realised with some astonishment. The mead had certainly helped with that, my tankard was never empty and I wasn’t used to that much alcohol, making my head slightly dizzy. But for the moment, I could forget that this was my last evening in these halls, that I would probably never see all these people again. For the moment, they weren’t just people any more. It wasn’t that we were close, not like they were among themselves. But I had formed some kind of relationship with them that wasn’t determined by power and abuse, and this experience was precious. It was something I would take with me.
I was relaxed and content to watch the crowd and listen to the music, and when Torvar came and asked me to dance, I shook my head with a smile and pointed him to Aela who had just been released by Skjor. He didn’t take offense, and neither did Farkas when he tried the same.
I was glad to have stayed for this evening, it would be a longlasting memory. But I wouldn’t dance. Too much closeness, too many memories of strangers pressing their bodies flush against mine I didn’t want to wake. As long as I only watched, taking in the boisterous cheerfulness around me, I could indulge myself in it as if it was my own.
The voice of Skjor’s sister pulled me out of my reverie, announcing another piece of music from their apparently inexhaustible repertoire.
“A song ages old that has gained new actuality recently. The dragons are back, we live at the edge of times and perhaps we will live to see the Dragonborn come. And if we do, we will know how to greet him!”
“Or her!” Torvar heckled, earning a laughter, but then the music set in and it became quiet.
Our hero, our hero, claims a warrior’s heart.
I tell you, I tell you, the Dragonborn comes.
With a Voice wielding power of the ancient Nord art.
Believe, believe, the Dragonborn comes.
It’s an end to the evil, of all Skyrim’s foes.
Beware, beware, the Dragonborn comes.
For the darkness has passed, and the legend yet grows.
You’ll know, you’ll know the Dragonborn’s come.
It was a beautiful tune, the women’s duet only accompanied by soft arpeggios of the lute, the melody slow and solemn. People stopped to dance as if for once, the words were more important than the music, but they smiled as they listened, sudden quiet quivering through the crowd as long as it lasted.
I had witnessed the return of the dragons and the devastation they could bring over the land. The threat was real, much more than just a legend of old, and still this song was full of confidence, it spoke of hope and strength and that a hero would come who had the power to overcome the darkness.
It was about a mythical figure, but although I heard it for the first time, I made it my own. My very own darkness was waiting for me, I was no hero and no song would ever sing of it. But perhaps I would find the strength to overcome it as well.
This evening would give me strength, the memory of Jorrvaskr and the Companions would give me strength. For the moment we were having a good time, and I was resolved to enjoy it as long as it lasted.
But it crumpled faster than I expected. My head was hazy in the warm, stifling air in the hall, all the voices and the music buzzing through my head like a swarm of bees. As I stood up, I felt Athis’ questioning look on me, and I gave him a smile and wiped my forehead as if I was sweating, leaving through the back door to the abandoned training yard. A gust of cold night air hit me with startling strength. There was frost in the air, and the first leaves of the trees standing around the porch and near the stairs to the Skyforge whirled dry and dead over the pavement.
Helgen had been in spring, although I didn’t know the exact date, and now my first winter in Skyrim was already rapidly approaching. Suddenly I was sober again, the calm relaxation replaced by anticipation and a sense of foreboding. I had been lazy and stalled, confiding in the comfort of living under a roof and having regular meals, had blocked out the fact that it had to end.
Now with the shock of the cold on my skin the awareness came back with sudden force. Taking a few deep breaths, I returned to the hall and crossed the hall towards the living quarters. I could pack my things just as well right now.
But I was stopped before I had even reached the stairs. The grip around my upper arm was unrelenting, so hard that it would cause bruises as I was hurled around and tossed into a shadowed niche in the back of the hall. Vilkas clutched my wrists in an iron grip and pressed his forearm against my collarbones, pressing me against the wall.
His voice wasn’t more than a threatening hiss. “That’s it, bitch,” he whispered into my ear, his breath unbearably hot on my neck, “now you tell me who you are, what you are and why you’re still here. I want answers.”
The onslaught of black panic that washed over my senses made it impossible to breathe, to think, to move. I froze, became rigid and stiff.
He was so close, far too close, his teeth bared in a feral snarl as his head bowed down to me. I could smell the mead on his breath and his bodywarmth seep through my clothes as he trapped me with his weight. His right leg forced my feet apart, placing him between them. In this position he could knock me over with a single motion, and at the same time it was like a travesty of intimacy. Observers would perhaps mistake us for a couple caught in passion.
When I didn’t answer at once, his grip on my wrists became even firmer. Not much more and he would break them. “I want answers, and I will get them. I want to know what you hide from us.”
A shiver of helplessness ran through me. Perhaps this was how it had to end, perhaps I should have anticipated it. I knew he could feel the blank fear that paralysed my limbs, the darkness that took over my thoughts, read it from my face and smell it in the cold sweat forming on my temples. He relished in it, in this power he had over me and came even closer, pressed in further, his pale gaze cruel and smug.
“Speak,” he growled.
And this was too much. The last men who had thought they could threaten me just because they were stronger and larger than me had died – the soldiers in Helgen just like the man trying to pillaging my camp.
I had sworn to myself never to be forced again, never again to submit to the alleged power of someone else. I straightened myself against his body.
“Why should I, Vilkas?” I spat into his face, “you’re gonna force me?”
I didn’t want it to end like this. Everything would have been better, but Vilkas had obviously severe hubris issues. His breath in my face let me gag, but I was no child any more. What he did was wrong, and I only had to convince myself that his power over me was just an illusion.
“If I have to.” He looked as if he wanted to strangle me, and that he lost his temper like this gave me back a bit of my self-control. But before I could do or say anything else, a calm voice came from behind.
“Vilkas? What’s going on here?”
Slowly he released the pressure of his body, only held my shoulders in a grip that was still equally impossible to escape. He spoke over his shoulder, teeth bared in a false grin.
“We’re just talking… sister.”
Aela watched the scene quizzically and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Doesn’t look like that. You’re drunk. Leave her be.”
He yanked away from her touch and spun around, a deep crease between his brows. “I’m not drunk!” he growled menacingly, “in fact, I’m the only one keeping a clear head in this house of fools.” His voice dropped to a sinister hiss. “Aren’t you curious about her, Aela? For weeks she’s lived here now, and we know nothing. Not where she comes from, not what she’s doing, not where she’ll be going. Nothing.”
The scene slowly attracted attention, more people gathering around us, most of them Companions. They were just people, curiosity and discomfort in their faces. Nothing personal. The music still played, but it was only a noise in the background, muffled by the maelstrom in my head.
Aela watched us pensively, took in how Vilkas’ palm still pressed me against the wall.
“Let her go, Vilkas,” she said calmly. He removed his hand hesitantly, but he still stood before me like a wall, looking defiantly into the round.
“I want answers. And I will get them. I want to know what she has to hide.”
Aela searched my eyes, sternness in her expression. “He’s right, Qhourian. We know nothing about you.”
“Isn’t a bit too late for that?” I snarled in her direction.
“It’s never too late.”
But it was Athis who made a step forwards although Njada tried to hold him back with a scowl. He stood before Vilkas, straight and slender, strong brows furrowed in scorn.
“What does it matter, Vilkas? She saved my life when it would have been much easier for her just to let me bleed out. She’s a fighter. You know I wanted her to stay, I’m not the only one, and still she will leave tomorrow.”
Nobody had ever asked me. I didn’t want to stay. I didn’t know where I belonged, but it was certainly not Jorrvaskr. These people could easily afford to be generous, with their wealth, reputation and power. It didn’t mean that this was my place to stay. I knew this… and Vilkas knew it as well.
His scowl was full of contempt. “So now we take in every bitch that comes crawling from under a rock just because she can skin a bear? A bear she didn’t even kill herself? She’s even more useless than Ria! We have no idea who this woman is,” he spat as if I wasn’t there, “no one here has!” His furious gaze turned to me. “You will answer these questions. Now.”
Athis became stiff, clenching his fists. He was adorable, but what I felt most was curiosity how this would turn out. The waves would calm as soon as I was gone, they knew each other far too good and for far too long to fight over someone like me. Not seriously.
But the mer was angry, his voice only a hiss. “Where did you come from, Vilkas? What exclusive lineage do you have to show off that you deserve to be a Companion? Tell me, Vilkas… under which rock did you live, you and your brother, before you came here?”
Vilkas blanched, visible even under the warpaint. I could hear him grind his teeth. “We were only toddlers,” he pressed out, “and Jergen was a softhearted fool.”
“And still he took you in,” Athis said dangerously calm, “and when he was gone, Kodlak and many others took care of you. No one ever asked what you are and where you came from. No one ever denied you your place here.”
I had to end this and made a step forwards, laying a hand on Athis shoulder. Vilkas’ furious gaze tried to impale me when I met it. “This isn’t the same, Athis,” I said calmly. “I’ll answer your questions. You’ve got a right to know who resides in your hall.”
“It’s not his hall,” Athis scowled, “you don’t…” The look I gave him made him close his mouth. No one else intervened. It was as if they had only waited for this scene to happen.
I steeled myself. Suddenly I was freezing, but it was better to end this episode like this than to lie to them. A few hours more or less, a last night under this roof… it didn’t matter any more.
“I come from Falkreath originally. At least I was born there, 26 years ago. My family was nothing special, I had a sister and a brother. And concerning the question what I am…” I gave him a small, mirthless grin. “Well, some people would call me a courtesan, but I won’t lie in these halls. I’m a whore, I’ve been a whore for the last twelve years. And I only know which end of a piece of steel is supposed to hurt because my master was generous and let me play as long as I did a good job. At least it helped me to escape the block in Helgen.”
I looked from face to face, head high and shoulders squared, taking in their stunned expressions as I turned on my heels. There were shock, contempt and disgust, traces of pity and curiosity, all the reactions I had expected. Athis’ jaw was slack with bewilderment.
At least now they finally all agreed with me that I didn’t belong here.
I retreated into the dormitory, no one following me. I would keep the clothes I wore, they were old and threadbare anyway, but I placed the armour I had used and the weapons I had trained with on the bed I had slept in. The blanket was folded neatly on the foot end, and I eyed it wistfully. But nothing of this was mine, everything I owned was stuffed into the crude satchel I slung over my shoulder. It was light, and still it was uncomfortable after I had tried out the knapsacks the Companions used with their intricate straps and bindings.
When I passed by the group of warriors that still stood like frozen, I handed the Skyforge dagger I had used for so long to Athis, hilt first. “Thank you for this, Athis,” I said with a light smile, “but I don’t want to risk any further misunderstandings.” He took it reluctantly, but he took it without a further word.
Once more I looked into the round. I had no quarrel with them. “Thank you all. You saved my life and took me in for longer than necessary, and for that I’m grateful.”
There was no reaction but a satisfied smirk from Vilkas. Only Farkas watched me with pity and confusion in his face, as if he couldn’t believe what had happened. I gave him a glance.
“Fun, eh? Just like you promised.”
To see him cringe gave me an odd sense of satisfaction.
I crossed the room stiffly, ignoring the stares that followed me. The moment I opened the heavy doors that led outside, the Harbinger’s deep voice sounded full and demanding through the room.
“What’s going on here?”
I closed the doors behind me. Vilkas would find an explanation. He was good at explaining things.
I felt numb as I made my way down the stairs, numb and frozen from the inside, but I forced myself not to look back. And as I went through the streets of the city, brightly lit and full of laughter and music and people enjoying themselves tremendously, anger crawled into my innards. Anger with myself.
When had I become so naive and gullible? I had fooled myself into a false comfort of which I always knew that it was only on loan, that it wasn’t mine. How could I believe I could leave it behind? I’d never leave Cheydinhal behind. This was what I was, what I had always been, useless as everything else. I remembered my training with Farkas. For him, it must have been an entertaining distraction from the real work he did as I fidgeted against him with my borrowed mace and thought he was serious in his efforts to teach me. Borrowed gear, borrowed food, borrowed warmth. Borrowed companionship. Sooner or later, I’d always have to give it back – and pay for it.
As I leant against the dead trunk of the Gildergreen tree and looked down to the crowded market place, a mirthless grin spread over my face. I could just find someone to buy me a drink. Or perhaps someone to take me in for the night. It would be easy, wouldn’t it? Find someone who paid for me, and I would pay him back the best I could.
Revulsion with myself shook me and made me heave. I wasn’t drunk enough to act on my ideas.
Instead I pushed off the street and shoved myself through the crowd, earning unsympathetic glances for my rude behaviour, and just left. The guards let me out of the gate with a weird look – no one left the festivity so early in the night, quite the contrary, there were still people arriving, late travellers eager to join in.
But I wanted to get out, and I made my way down to the main road with a feeling of which I wasn’t sure if it was despair or determination. I would survive this night, somehow. And the next and everything that came after it.
I spent the night in an empty box at the stables, the restless snorting of the horses keeping me awake. But they also spent some warmth, and I was gone again with the first tendrils of light before anyone had seen me. And when I stood at the crossroads that would determine my further way, studying the signs pointing in direction of Riften and Markarth, Windhelm, Riverwood and Ivarstead with a strangely clear head, I suddenly knew where I had to go.
The most important now was to find some equipment, at least a bow and a dagger, and I knew where to find some. I couldn’t afford to buy anything essential, the few meager coins I owned barely enough for a single meal at an inn, and I wouldn’t steal. But Skyrim was at war, and people died all the time – people with armour and weapons. The tunnels beneath Helgen were full of corpses I had left behind myself, and they weren’t accessible from the city itself any more after the collapse of the vaults under the dragon’s attack. After I had taken what I could use myself or sell, I would return to Whiterun and gather alchemy ingredients for Arcadia until I could afford the most basic supplies. The least I needed was a warm cloak and woolen clothes to get through the coming months. And I wanted a bedroll, warm and cozy, with a fur-lined hood like the ones I had seen in Jorrvaskr.
Everything was still quiet at the stables as I turned away, not even the carriage driver was up yet and waiting for passengers. Something between melancholy and new vigour filled me as I stepped on the cobblestone road, passed the meadery and turned right on the mountain path towards Riverwood. I couldn’t change what had happened, but in the end, it could at least serve as a lesson learned.
The frost of the night made way for a mild, windless day, so warm that the march along the steep path parallel to the White River made me sweat, especially as I fell into a run when I heard the howling of a wolf pack in the distance. No more wolves – their pelts were precious, but I had had enough of them for the rest of my life.
But I had to admit, whatever Farkas had aimed at, the endless runs over the plains had done their purpose. I was barely out of breath when I reached the vicinity of Riverwood, the earshattering noise of a sawmill even drowning out the foaming waters.
I didn’t enter the village though, although one day I wanted to come back here and thank the smith and his wife for their selfless care. But not like this, not like a beggar with nothing but the clothes I wore, and so I didn’t cross the river until I had left the small settlement behind, stayed in the shadows of the mountains that loomed over it, crowned by the crumpled, but still menacing ruins of a watchtower and a Nordic tomb.
The path up to the entrance to the maze beneath Helgen was winded, curving in serpentines through the sparse forest. With no means to defend myself I didn’t dare to leave it and cut through the wilderness though, and when the sun slowly dipped towards the horizon, I had to accept that I wouldn’t reach my goal that day. But I found a place to stay for the night with a pair of fishers, a man and a woman living at the edge of the river. Their camp and its surroundings smelled horribly due to lines over lines of drying fish strung up on racks around their fire, but I couldn’t be picky. They were quiet people, didn’t tell me their names and didn’t ask for mine, but they offered me to stay with a friendly smile and traded a piece of bread for some of the berries and tiny, sour wild apples I had found by the wayside. When I curled myself together as close to the fire as possible, the woman handed me a threadbare blanket.
I slept deep and dreamless that night, as if I had never gotten used to a roof over my head and the comfort of a mattress.