I woke to the quiet mumbling of people, hushed voices, words I couldn’t understand. Slowly my thoughts emerged from the sleepy daze. I was freezing and stiff from lying on the cold, hard ground.
When I opened my eyes, the fisherman hunched beside me, shaking my shoulder gently. He looked concerned.
“People are looking for you. Warriors. They don’t tell us what they want.”
I startled up, wide awake in an instant. The only warriors I knew were the ones from Jorrvaskr. What did they want? Make me pay belatedly for the time I had spent there?
And why did this small, weather-worn man care at all?
I gave him a weak smile. “Thank you. I will deal with them.”
“My fire is yours. Tell me if you need help,” he said sternly. He didn’t even know my name, we had exchanged less than a dozen sentences the evening before. And still, the law of hospitality was obviously sacred enough to him to offer his assistance against trained warriors and put his own life at risk. I treasured him for his sincerity.
“What’s your name, friend?” I asked quietly. He smiled. Exchanging names meant to become an individual to someone else.
“Lars. My wife is Frigge.”
“I’m Qhourian. Thank you again, Lars. They won’t do no harm.” At least I hoped so.
I rose and saw his wife standing on the small path leading down to the river, arguing with two people. People I knew. I groaned inwardly. When Athis saw me standing at the fire, he shoved her to the side and came down with long, determined strides. No smile was in his face, not even the slightest quirk of his lips.
He stopped right in front of me and punched me into the shoulder. “Are you insane or just stupid to run off like that?” he bellowed, clasping my upper arms in a bruising grip, hard enough to leave a mark as he yelled at me. “We thought you’d stay at the inn until everyone’s sober again and we could talk, but no, you had to dash off like mad and vanish without a trace, and now Kodlak’s worried sick!”
I didn’t know why he had come, but I hadn’t expected this. Who did he think who he was? He dared to rebuke me? I yanked out of his grip and gave him a heavy shove to get him away from me, fuming with anger.
“Who do you think you are, Athis? Talk? About what? You know that I don’t have any money and that I couldn’t pay for a room. But you probably thought that women like me don’t have to pay. That I’d rather fuck some drunken dork than to freeze.” I shoved him again, my palms against his chest, and he stumbled backwards. “I’m so sorry that Kodlak worried. But you know what? He’ll get over it. And perhaps you’ve both learned not to take in every bitch that comes crawling to your holy hall!”
His arms fell to his side and his face crunched in frustration, but he didn’t fight back. I had been right. He didn’t want to fight, just make me pay for the disgrace I had brought to the Companions by humiliating me even more. Lars and Frigge stood like frozen, watching us dumbfounded as I snatched my satchel from the ground. I felt like crying, clenched my teeth violently when I turned to the fisherman.
“I’m sorry I disturbed you,” I said lowly.
He gave me a small smile. “You didn’t.”
But an amused chuckle came from where Aela leant against a boulder, a chuckle that evolved into a laughter when I shot her a glare. “Told you you’d need me for more than just to find her, brother,” she smirked at Athis who gave her a helpless look. A very smug told you so-smirk. “Call upon her conscience, what an incredibly stupid idea. Men!”
She shook her head and pushed herself off, patting the mer on the back as she came over. “Stay out of the way. Go hunting, or have a look if that mine near Riverwood we cleared out two weeks ago is still clean. Make yourself useful, I’ll meet you tonight.” She turned to me and eyed me curiously. “Where are you heading? Don’t even try to argue, I’ll join you.”
I didn’t deign her with an answer, just went away, along the path that led upwards into the mountains. It couldn’t be that far now. But I heard her steps behind me, accentuating the chaos that whirled through my head. I was helpless and furious, her steps, her entire presence grating on my nerves. I didn’t know what she wanted, I didn’t know why she had sent Athis away, I didn’t know why she accompanied me now. All I knew that it was impossible to get rid of her.
When I fell into a run, she kept easily pace despite the heavy pack on her shoulders. I tried to outrun Aela the Huntress. Laughable.
But she ran past me before I could say anything when I finally stopped in the middle of the street, ready to confront her. “Only half a mile further,” she said over her shoulder. And now it was me who followed her.
In a sharp curve, on a small rocky ledge directly at the precipice stood three ancient stones where Aela waited for me. The monoliths were clearly man-made, larger than I and nearly identical with their intricate engravings and heavy bands of steel lining the holes in their tips. They stood in a half-circle, and all that distinguished them were the icons engraved into on their front sections, one showing a running man with a dagger, the one in the centre a robed figure with a staff and the last one a heavy armoured warrior wielding axe and shield.
Aela leant relaxed against the right stone. “The Guardian Stones,” she said, “you know about them?”
I just shook my head. It was clear that they were some kind of monument, but I had never heard of them before. And I had given up to try to understand her. At the moment, it seemed as if she had led me here, as if my own decision to go to Helgen was entirely irrelevant.
She pushed herself off and stood beside me, pointing at the stones from left to right. “The Thief, The Mage and The Warrior. Three of more than a dozen Standing Stones that are scattered over Skyrim, but these are the most important. They’re said to bless those who have the strength and the will to choose the path of their life. Sometimes people bring their children here to determine their future. But it doesn’t work that way… you have to choose on your own.”
Her steel-nailed heels crunched on the rock as she spun around. “You can make your choice too, Qhourian.”
Very pathetic. I gave her a lopsided, cheerless grin. “My choices have been made for me long ago.”
“I knew you’d say that. Unfortunately we don’t have a Whore Stone to get you blessed for your further life. One of these will have to do.”
When I had knocked out the guard in Cheydinhal and fled, I had thought that was the turning point of my life. I thought it again after I left the tunnels of Helgen, but it had been just a sequence of coincidences that let me survive the dragon. And the Companions – they were just another accident. Again I had to start over because I had been careless in so many regards, and again there was nothing to choose. Helpless fury took over.
She didn’t see it coming when my fist landed on her jaw with a satisfying thump, a startled yelp my reward. I grabbed her collar and shoved her back against the Thief Stone.
“I don’t know what you want, Aela, but I can only guess that it has something to do with duty and pity and that damned honour of yours. You know what? Stick it where the sun never shines, I don’t need it!”
It was probably not the smartest idea to attack a fully geared Companion with nothing but my bare hands, but I didn’t care. She didn’t either though, staying motionless in my grip, a malicious smirk forming on her face.
“True, Qhourian. You’re so full of self-pity, you really don’t need mine. And I wouldn’t waste it on you anyway.”
I wanted to beat this condescending, complacent grin from her face, blinding rage breaking free in a furious scream. I didn’t target my punch, just wanted to hit and hurt her just like she hurt me so effortlessly. But she catched my fist before it could strike her again, grabbing my wrist in an iron-hard grip, and with a movement fast like lightning she pushed me away and spun me around, locking my hands behind my back and bending me over, my arms stretched upwards in an angle that I thought it would tear my shoulder joints apart.
She bowed down beside me, her face only inches from mine. Despite her violent treatment, her voice was nearly gentle. “Kodlak sent us to find you. No, he ordered us to find you. And you will listen why I want you to come back and speak with him.”
“Why would he?” I hissed, writhing in her grip. “I’ve never spoken only a single word with him!”
“I don’t know. But you know you shouldn’t have left like this.”
I barked out a scornful laughter. “Aye, I should have left much earlier. But better late than never, right? You’ll never see me again.”
“And that would be a pity. You’ve shown potential.”
“For what, Companion?” I seethed, “to offer some stress relief after a hard day of being honourable?”
She changed her position, one of her hands holding my wrists behind my back, and now the other clenched around my neck, forcing me to my knees. When I knelt before her, she released me and hunched down in front of me. Her voice was full of disgust. “Why do you do that? Debase yourself like that?”
I stared defiantly into her face. “I can’t change what I am. I won’t lie about it.”
Her expression was sinister. “What exactly are you, Qhourian?”
“You should ask your shield-brothers,” I snorted, “Vilkas has certainly a very concise idea of what I am.”
“Stop that. Leave them out of it. Vilkas is a fool, he didn’t listen.”
“Of course he did,” I flared up, “I’m not stupid! I saw his reaction… and yours.”
“No, he didn’t. We were shocked, yes, all of us, but he only heard whore and escaped criminal. You told us more, though. Much more.” She took a deep breath. “You’re only 26 although you look much older. Your family is dead. You were only 14 when you became a prostitute. And somehow you broke out and ended up in Helgen. A bunch of Stormcloak rebels was to be executed there when the dragon attacked. You’re no soldier, you had probably no business on that block and the Imperials simply didn’t care. And it was destroyed four months ago. You’ve been alone for all this time.”
A small chortle escaped her. “You know, Qhourian… we Companions don’t have many rules, but one is never to go out on a job alone. We always work with a shield-sibling. Survival is far too much of a gamble without someone shielding your back.”
I averted my eyes. I had been careless, and I had no idea that she was so attentive. “Athis was alone when I found him.”
“Yes, and he paid for it. Will you be reasonable now and have breakfast with me?”
Gods, this was preposterous! Breakfast! I was hungry like a wolf, the growling of my stomach betraying me. She gave me a playful shove before she settled against the Thief Stone and pulled some bread, cheese and a few apples from her pack, throwing one of them over to me.
I still didn’t know what she wanted, but it was impossible to escape Aela the Huntress. I sat down, leaning against the Warrior Stone across from her.
“This is pointless, Aela, even if you were right. But you and I know that it won’t change anything.”
“And I didn’t think that you’re such a coward.”
My hands balled into fists. “I’m what?”
“A coward.” Her eyes were hard as granite. “You didn’t have a choice, am I right? You were forced into this life. Whatever happened to your family… you were only a child, and you never had a chance to decide anything for yourself. And if it was what you wanted, you’d still be there.” Her voice got a persuasive undertone. “But somehow you ended up in Jorrvaskr… call it luck, fate, destiny, whatever. With a Skyforge dagger at your hip. And whatever it is that Kodlak wants to talk about with you, it is probably some kind of offer.”
“I don’t want an offer from you, Aela,” I said coldly, “I don’t need your pity.”
“See? Cowardly. For the first time you could perhaps make a choice of your own… but you dismiss it before you even know what it is. Instead you spit your I’m a whore into everyone’s face and think that will take the decision out of your hands.”
I clenched my teeth. She was right, in a way. But it didn’t change anything. I couldn’t leave Cheydinhal behind. It didn’t even matter if I had been forced, if it was my decision to stay or to flee. It didn’t matter how I had become what I was, it stuck to me like a layer of gore. No one would ever look behind it.
“What should I have done, Aela? Lie to you? Vilkas asked, and he got an answer. It’s not that I could have defied him.”
She propped her chin in her palm, her calm gaze not leaving my face. A small smile quirked her lips. “No. You couldn’t have lied, but you don’t have to justify yourself.”
“Vilkas must have missed that memo.”
“He can’t tell you what to do… and you underestimate him. You underestimate us all. All I want of you is to speak with Kodlak. Listen to what he has to say, even if it’s an offer. And then you can decide and not just run away.”
I gave her a mirthless grin. “The next you’ll say is that I owe that to you.”
“Well, you do. But no, the next will be for you to get dressed.”
She fumbled a large package out of her knapsack and threw it into my lap. It was the armour and weapons I had used, even the quiver with the iron arrows was strapped to the top… and there was a sheathe with a dagger. Not Skyforge, but fine, sharp steel.
“This isn’t mine!”
She threw her hands in the air. “Gods, could you please stop to argue! The armour doesn’t fit anyone else and no one but you uses a mace. So just take it and shut up, okay?”
Suddenly I understood why Farkas said, albeit jokingly, that she was scary. She wore the title The Huntress for nearly thirty years already… she wouldn’t start now to let her prey escape, and she managed to look scary even while she was chewing lazily on a piece of bread.
For a moment we both ate in a silence that was nearly companionable. She endured my scrutiny without emotion, finishing her last bites and finally rose in a fluid motion. “Come on, if we take the shortcut over the mountain we can be home tonight.”
Home? I swallowed heavily as I stood up and started to put on the cuirass. Her lips twisted impatiently when I turned slowly to her, only half of the buckles fastened.
“Why did you send Athis away, Aela?”
She stayed silent for a moment, regarding me pensively. As she made a step towards me, putting her hand on my shoulder, her expression had suddenly a gentleness that seemed strange on her. “Because he’s a fool. And the last you need now is a man telling you what to do, even if it’s just a mer who’d never do you any harm.”
Her hand came up, her thump wiping away the tears that streamed over my face. She patted the back of my head when I muffled the sobs that shook my body against her shoulder.
“Nobody will force you to do anything you don’t want. No need to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid!”
She chuckled, holding me at arm’s length. “That’s good to hear. But if you don’t start moving soon, I’ll bring Farkas to take you to Whiterun. He’s worse than Athis, believe me!”
Well, that was a real threat. The thought to be carried through the city and into Jorrvaskr slung over the shoulder of that brute made me giggle under my tears. I knew he wasn’t only totally capable of doing so, he’d also not hesitate for a single second and have fun with it. And despite all our training, I’d never be able to outrun him. He cheated, after all.
“Harbinger.” I bowed my head respectfully at the old man who sat at a table in the antechamber of his quarters, a journal, ink and quill in front of him.
He gestured us to come in with a smile, putting the booklet away. “Thank you, Aela. I knew I could count on you. Please, tell Tilma I need dinner for two today, will you?” She retreated with a friendly nod.
“Have a seat, Qhourian.”
When I sat in front of him, he eyed me apprehensively. “We should have done this earlier. Get to know each other.”
He was the Harbinger of the Companions. He had better things to do than to get to know a stray that one of his warriors had taken in. More important things.
“It’s an honour, Harbinger,” I muttered, “but I don’t understand…”
“Why I sent the best tracker in all of Skyrim to find you? Well, it wasn’t my idea, Athis would have gone anyway. I just gave them… a little push.”
“But why?” I blurted out, “why all this fuss about me?”
He leant back in his chair, his hands laying relaxed on the armrests. He had nothing frightening about him, and still he emitted a serenity of age, wisdom and experience that was awe-inspiring. But his smile was gentle, and his eyes were kind and honest. The way he looked at me… I wasn’t sure why, but I felt that I could trust him.
“Many reasons, and I will tell you about them later. But first, I want you to tell me how you came here. And why you ran away.”
He wanted me to tell him my life. I met him for the first time ever, and he had no qualms to make such a demand. He met my incredulous gaze with a gentle chuckle.
“I want to get to know you, girl. Nothing you say now will leave Jorrvaskr. Nothing you already revealed will leave Jorrvaskr. Promised.”
As if Vilkas and Njada wouldn’t use every opportunity to point out how right they had been. As if a drunk like Torvar could keep a secret. As if someone as sweet and innocent as Ria would know when to keep her mouth shut.
But he leant forwards, his eyes piercing into my wary expression. “I promise. Get it off your chest.”
And I did. I told him everything, his calm gaze spurring me on, and once I had started it seemed I couldn’t stop again. I told him of my family and their death, the orphanage and how I came to Cheydinhal, my education there and my work. And how I fled, about Helgen and what happened afterwards. It took ages, and he never interrupted me, not a single comment, not a single question. Only once, when Tilma brought our dinner, beaming when she saw me, he interrupted the torrent of words that flowed out of me briefly. My food was long cold when I had finished, and I felt empty and numb.
And in a strange way incredibly relieved.
It was long quiet between us, Kodlak pouring us some wine and handing the goblet to me. My throat was raw and dry, and I took it thankfully. He circled his own goblet between his fingers and stared into the ruby liquid.
Finally he looked up and catched my gaze. “And why did you run away?”
I nearly choked on my wine. “I didn’t run away! I had to go anyway…” My voice trailed off. Of course I had run away, he knew it just as well as I.
His voice was gentle. “I think this is a misunderstanding, Qhourian. See… you’ve worked hard during the last weeks. You let Farkas bully you through a treatment that was much worse than what he grants the other whelps. You’ve been helping wherever you could. Many of our members have taken a liking to you. We thought… well, we were of the impression you wanted to stay. That you want to apply for membership.”
I was speechless for a moment. “You thought what?”
“That you prepare to join us.”
I shook my head unbelievingly. “But Kodlak… I’m no warrior. I’m just… of course I didn’t want to join!”
“Well, Aela says you’re a fabulous archer and Farkas that you’re not so bad with the mace. You just told me how you fought for your life more than once. Why do you think you’re no warrior?”
I groaned, burying my face in my palms. This had taken a direction that was as insane as awkward, and I wished the ground would open up and swallow me.
I glanced up to him. “I hit a giant from twenty feet away. I don’t think that’s sufficient to join the Companions.”
“No, but it’s a start. And you can do much more than that. You’re not so bad at keeping yourself alive either.”
“Yes, and that’s what I prepared for, and I’m truly thankful for Farkas’ help.” I wanted to end this uncomfortable conversation, shifted my satchel into my lap and twisted the strap nervously. “This was indeed a misunderstanding. I’m sorry… I should have been clearer in declaring my intentions. I’m sorry I wasted your time.”
“Stop being sorry. Did you like to be here?” he asked curtly and with a new authority in his voice.
“Y… yes, of course,” I stammered. Apart from Vilkas. I didn’t say it out loud.
“And what would you like better, stay out there and freeze to death or stay here and make yourself useful?”
I pressed my lips into a stubborn line. “I will make it through the winter. There’s still time enough. And…”
“You love to argue, don’t you?” A small grin quirked his lips, but the seriousness didn’t leave his expression. “How about you try it out? A scholar, a friend of us, has located another fragment of Wuuthrad. Somehow it ended up in an old Nordic tomb, and someone has to go and get it.”
My eyes shot wide. “You want me to retrieve a fragment of Wuuthrad?”
He chuckled. “No, I want Farkas to retrieve it. But he wants you to back him up as a shield-sister. It was his idea.”
I was stunned, my mouth opening and closing again several times, my brain unable to form coherent words.
Kodlak leant forwards, crossing his arms on top of the table. “I won’t lie to you, Qhourian. You need to learn a lot. You can take care of yourself – mostly. But people are not made to live like beasts in the wilderness, and you have a lot of talents that would be a shame to be wasted.” A small grin flickered over his face, gone again as soon as it emerged as if he had made a joke that was only for himself. “But you have to learn to act in a team. You have to learn some trust – in yourself first and foremost, and then in your fellows. You will make mistakes, but you’ll have a chance to learn from them too. If you try it.”
He fell silent. We just sat there, deep in thought. I had to admit, I felt comfortable at the side of this old man. And I had to admit that I would miss Jorrvaskr. The light-hearted chatter, the shared meals, the feasts flowing with mead and ale and stories every time somebody came back from a job. The safety I had felt here, for the first time… ever. These people cared for each other. But how could I belong to this group? I came here as an outsider, a burden with nothing to give back.
But perhaps this offer was my opportunity to give something back, at least a tiny bit.
I bit my lip. “Will I be obliged to stay afterwards?”
“Gods, no! No one here will force you to do anything. See it as a trial – you try out how it is to work with a shield-brother, and we get to know you better. Farkas is easy to travel with, he’s reliable and doesn’t talk much. And he’s a beast in battle, though not exactly what I’d call subtle… no silent killing from afar with him around. But you will go along together just fine.”
I made up my mind. This was a chance I’d only get once, I wanted to make myself useful, and… I had spent a lot of time already with the man, and not once had he come closer than I was comfortable with. Somehow I felt that I could trust him.
I gave Kodlak a hesitant smile. “Okay.”
He snorted out a laughter. “Just like that? No further argument?”
He made me grin. “No. When will we leave?”
“You settle that with Farkas directly. He will brief you.”
I recognised a dismissal when I heard one. The old man looked tired and worn as he slumped against the back of his chair. But his grip around my wrist was firm and strong, and his smile appeared strangely satisfied.
I was ready to leave long before sunrise – easy after a sleepless night, but I was far too flustered to get some rest, despite the ale I had with Farkas and Aela the evening before. It had been a huge relief to discover that Vilkas had left Jorrvaskr for a couple of days, and his brother had just given me a good-natured pat on the back when I asked when he wanted to leave. “With dawn,” was his short answer, “this once I’ll pack for you. Just get up in time.”
But in the morning he only gave me an astonished raised eyebrow when he emerged from the living quarters, yawning heartily, rolling his shoulders and stretching the sleepiness from his limbs. He didn’t even take breakfast, just stuffed an apple and a sweetroll into a pouch, handed me my pack and left through the front door without looking back. Seemed he wasn’t exactly a morning person. Aela was the only other person present… in fact, she didn’t look as if she had slept at all yet, more as if she came directly from a hunt, her hair tousled and stains of blood on her hands. “Safe travels,” she said with an encouraging smile as I set about following Farkas.
My pack was heavy, but it was also full of things I was eager to carry around because they were so incredibly useful, and once I had adjusted the straps it wasn’t quite so uncomfortable any more. The knapsack itself was filled with rations that would last us over the following days if we didn’t find any easy prey, dried meat, dark bread, hard cheese and nutritious but crumbly biscuits made of cereals, nuts, dried berries and honey, alongside with some emergency potions, bandages, salves and a small, incredibly sharp knife. There were some extra arrowheads, a map, a whetstone, a spare bowstring, a flintstone, a few candles and a spare woollen tunic. A bedroll wrapped into thin oiled leather was strapped to the top, together with a cloak made from wolf fur, the edges lined with the wonderfully soft pelt of a sabrecat. When my fingers brushed reverently through it, Farkas gave me curt nod. “It will freeze tonight, and those tombs are bloody chilly as well. You’re useless when you’re cold.”
I felt incredibly well equipped.
The tomb, Dustman’s Cairn, was located two days west of Whiterun – two days on foot. Not that I minded walking, but when I asked Farkas why we didn’t take horses, he gave me an uneasy look. “Waste of money,” he grumbled, “those tombs are big, you can easily spend a day or more in there. And when you get out again, the beasts are either gone or dead.” Seeing his expression I had the distinct feeling that he simply didn’t like riding. He frowned when he saw that I couldn’t suppress a smirk.
Kodlak had been right – Farkas was easy to travel with, and the journey of the first day was pleasantly uneventful. A few times we had to defend ourselves against wild animals, but what would have tested me to my limits if I had been on my own was merely an inconvenience as a duo. It was a whole new experience.
Another whole new experience was to watch Farkas in combat and to fight together with him, especially when some foolish bandits made the last fault of their miserable lives and tried to ambush us. Somehow he noticed them much earlier than I, four ragged figures hiding behind a group of rocks. I would have never been able to take on them all on my own, and an ambush would have been my certain demise. Farkas had no such concerns, though – he touched my shoulder briefly to get my attention and told me to stay in the back, a feral grin curling his lips. And then he ran off with rattling armour, unsheathing his sword and shouting expletives, a berserk that came over them like a force of nature.
Not exactly subtle. And he wore such a happy grin plastered over his face that I couldn’t help but join him in the fight with the same enthusiasm, peppering our enemies with arrows.
I felt some pity for those poor brigands in their rags and hides when the last one tasted the tip of his blade right in his stomach. They either had no idea what they had gotten themselves into, or they were very desperate.
When it was over he took a deep breath, turned to me and grinned through the blood and the dirt on his face, his dripping sword still in one hand, something glittering in the other.
“Look what I found! Something pretty for the lady who stays noble in the back while the man does the work!”
Seeing his impish smile, I couldn’t help but laugh. Wordless I went over to the heavily armoured bandit chief and pulled my arrow from his throat. “Farkas, you’re an excellent distraction for my way to work, and I think this guy was entirely aware that it wasn’t you who killed him. So, sharing the loot is only just. What’s it you have there exactly?”
It was an amulet of Mara, the goddess of love and compassion. The poor guy who wore it was obviously on a courting mission, but whoever he had in mind was probably better off without the former owner. I stuffed it into my pack, perhaps I’d be able to sell it for something useful. And we both had to laugh when we imagined how one of these miserable thugs would try to find a wife to share his way of life.
It felt good to share a laugh over some silliness. After he was fully awake, Farkas became an entertaining companion, he had a way to let me forget my troubles, all the questions I would have liked him to answer and instead to concentrate on whatever lay directly before us. And he made me laugh, or at least smile with his witty awareness of everything going on around him, his comments always spot on, sometimes snarky, but never offending. But he was obviously happiest when he could get into action without having to think too much, no matter if it was against a couple of sabrecats suddenly charging at us from a hollow in the ground or just a small pack of skeever that he impaled on his blade one by one. And although I often felt his gaze on me, sometimes even during combat, he never told me what to do and never came too close.
As if he trusted that I knew what I was doing, that I would have his back just like he had mine.
Traveling with him felt good.