It was a good day, this first part of our trip, carefree and easygoing. I was used to have my senses on my surroundings and trained enough to keep pace with Farkas’ long strides. When the sun touched the horizon and we stopped at the foot of a hill, in a small hollow where we’d be sheltered from the winds, we had already made more than half of the distance to the Cairn.
After we threw off our packs, the first I did was to climb the hill, not caring for Farkas’ incomprehensive expression. I wasn’t used to such a sunset, it was so different from the dense forests around Falkreath. They were familiar, I had known them for all my life, their dusky tightness made me feel safe. But in the forest, the senses of smell and hearing were at least as important as my eyesight – everything could hide behind a wall of trees or in the dense thicket of the bushes.
This was so different, and although I had often been outside of Whiterun, to be out here in the wilderness far from every civilisation was something entirely different again. The plains were wide, endless vastness one could get lost in, the horizon so far away. To have a horizon all around me was something entirely new altogether. And the light and the colours were different, no green-tinged twilight, only gleaming, blinding brightness. The sun stood as a flaring orange ball, sending tendrils of golden light over the sky and the land and miraculously shrouding it in long shadows at the same time, while on its opposite side the pale crescent of Masser emerged.
It was beautiful. But Farkas was oblivious to my awe, already unstrapping the tentpoles from his pack and starting to erect it, and I knew I should help him. I watched him, the naturalness with which he set up our camp, he had done this clearly hundreds of time before.
But for the first time, it was our camp.
Suddenly the excitement of the day was gone, the constant alertness together with the feeling that we could rely on each other that had built over the small fights we had fought together this day. I realised that I didn’t know this man. We had spent time together, yes. We had laughed together, he had taught and trained me. Despite his intimidating appearance, he seemed kind, sometimes even gentle. But I didn’t know him, and now I had to spend the night with him.
Anxiousness flowed suddenly through my veins and coiled in my stomach. Not quite fear yet… more a tinge of cautious suspicion. Unconsciously I clenched my hand around the grip of my mace. He sat on his haunches, rummaging through his pack.
But he felt my stare, his hands stilled, and slowly he lifted his gaze to my face. Emotionless, stoic… unusual for him. He wasn’t oblivious at all, sensed the change in the atmosphere and became tense himself.
“You okay?” he asked gruffly.
I snatched my bow, turning away briskly. I had to get away from him, if only for a little while. To clear my thoughts.
“I go hunting,” I said curtly.
“But it will be dark soon.”
The look I gave him silenced him.
Swiftly a rabbit fell to my arrow, only a snack, but it would give our meal a bit more substance. A second one vanished into its burrow before I could let the arrow fly. I didn’t mind. I just wanted to be for myself, try to bring some order into the chaos of my mind, and instead to roam further I settled myself against a boulder and tried to find my inner calm by watching the sunset. The fiery ball dipped slowly beneath the horizon, the sky above me becoming first dark blue and then black, sparkling with stars.
So much had happened during the last days. Freedom had meant for me not to be able to do what I wanted, but to be free of the demands of others. This was the freedom I had strived for when I fled from Cheydinhal, what I had cherished during the months alone. And now, suddenly new choices and possibilities had been presented to me where I had expected them last. They came with new responsibilities and new demands, but they were also a chance. Perhaps the biggest chance I’d ever get.
So many questions burned in my mind. Why did they care, why did Kodlak make this offer, why did Farkas take me with him and not one of his shield-siblings, why all this fuss? But if I wanted answers, honest answers, I’d have to give something of myself. I’d have to give some trust. I hadn’t been afraid during the night with the fisherman and his wife. There was no reason to be afraid now.
A movement in the corner of my eye catched my attention, and a gasp broke free when I realised what I saw. A silhouette over the mountains to the north, their peaks already covered in snow. A black shadow, clearly visible against the not entirely darkened sky, huge wings gliding on the wind, a body coiling through the air like a snake. I’d recognise it everywhere, the distinct movement pattern of a flying dragon.
He was too far away to see if he was hunting or to hear these screeching shouts that ached in my bones, but the memories filled the gaps easily. I knew there were more of them than just the black one that had destroyed Helgen, there had been sightings and attacks, the stories spreading like wildfire through the province. I rose hastily and hurried back to our camp where Farkas stood at the fire, staring into the same direction.
He pointed at the mountains when he heard my steps. “You see that?” There was excitement and eagerness in his voice.
“Yes,” I said curtly, ignoring the menacing sight and starting to skin the rabbit. He turned slowly, examining my expression before he sat down across from me. I kept myself busy, throwing pieces of meat into the simmering stew, avoiding his gaze.
“Would you tell me? About the dragon?” His voice was low.
I startled. “The dragon from Helgen?”
I tried. I told him of this impenetrable blackness that surrounded the beast like a shadow, of the stench of rotten flesh and molten iron, that he was as long as Jorrvaskr from snout to the tip of his spiked tail and at least equally wide when he spread his wings. I told him of the fire the monster had released, the dragonfire that melted stone and reduced people to heaps of ash in mere seconds, how whole buildings collapsed under the impact of his weight.
I tried, but I was a bad narrator. He was only fascinated, nothing of the terror I had witnessed spread over to him.
“You think it’s possible to kill them?”
I snorted out a bitter laughter. “There were soldiers, Farkas, a whole lot of them. Archers, people with magic. And in the end, everybody was either dead or had fled, and the city lay in ruins.”
He shovelled two portions of stew into wooden bowls and handed one to me, and for a moment, we ate quietly. Until he held the spoon with the hot mouthful he had just blown on motionless in front of his face, staring into the distance. “We would have done better,” he said pensively.
“You’d like to try it?” I asked incredulously. Gods, I had put ideas into his head. Bad ideas.
“Of course,” he answered with a boyish grin. “Vilkas always says he has killed one of every species in Skyrim. He’d die for the opportunity to kill a dragon.”
I cringed under his words, and he watched me with a trace of astonishment before his face fell into a frown. Slowly he shoved the spoon into his mouth, chewing and swallowing even slower.
But my appetite was spoiled with the mention of his brother, and I put the bowl to the side. How could these men be brothers? And twins, at that?
Farkas didn’t talk much, but when he opened his mouth, he did it without thinking. I knew he didn’t mean any harm with his remark, it wasn’t his fault that I was so bristle. Vilkas didn’t talk much either, but when he opened his mouth, he did it never without thinking. He knew how to use words like that enormous Skyforge blade he had always strapped to his back, always cold and calculating, dealing as much damage as possible.
Farkas shifted awkwardly, first chewing on a bite of bread, then on the inside of his cheek. “He isn’t always such an ass, you know?” he blurted out.
I stared at him surprised, not having expected him to bring it up at all. But perhaps we had to get this over with. Perhaps I’d get some answers from him. I steeled myself.
“No, of course not. Only to me,” I said coldly.
“He was just curious! But he shouldn’t have pressed you… not like that.”
“That wasn’t simple curiosity, and you know it. He could have just asked, you know.” A shiver ran down my spine when I remembered how he had pressed me against the wall. The weight of his body, his breath, this closeness.
Helplessness stood in Farkas’ face. “But you never told anyone anything, not even Athis, and we hoped you’d open up a bit… during the festival. We were all curious…”
The stammered sentence hit as if he had slapped me. He averted his gaze when I stared him down. “Are you saying you planned to make me drunk to make me talk?”
“No!” He buried his forehead in his palms. “Gods, I knew I’d mess this up.” He lifted his gaze to me. “He just wanted… Vilkas doesn’t trust people easily, especially when he doesn’t know anything about them. In a way… he just wanted to protect us.”
From me? That kind of paranoia was laughable. And not funny at all.
“It was just a few hours more and I would’ve been gone anyway.”
“Don’t call me that!” I said sharply, making him flinch back. “Your brother has been an ass since the first time I met him. Perhaps I deserved it, I don’t know how you Companions tick, but what did he gain by that apart from ruining the evening for me? It was just a few lousy hours!”
“But we didn’t want to let you go!”
“And why not? Why in Oblivion do you care?” I yelled at him.
And he yelled back. “Because you were alone! You were alone and starved and your equipment was pathetic when you found Athis and alone and nearly dead when the hunters found you. You had no contact to anyone during the weeks you were in Jorrvaskr. You only worked like a maniac all the time…”
“Yes,” I sneered, “because some people have to work if they want to survive, especially if they want to live alone. Believe me, Farkas… your training was a walk in the park compared to…” I didn’t finish the sentence. Everything had been a walk in the park compared to the years before.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too,” he muttered.
He straightened himself with sudden determination, and he didn’t avoid my gaze any more. “I didn’t want to speak about this with you. I don’t have the right… you don’t have to justify yourself. But we really thought you’d join us. We thought you’d fit in… some of us, at least. Athis of course, and after I worked with you I thought so too. And Ria. But afterwards…” A small grin curled his lips. “Well, after Aela made us understand what exactly you had told us… you know what she said?”
I shook my head.
He chuckled. “She said How can someone with such a fucked up life be so incredibly stubborn?“
“I’m not stubborn!”
A low laughter came from him, deep and rumbling. “Oh yes, you are. You proved it already during our sessions. I really tried to push you over your limits… but you just wouldn’t give up. You didn’t even complain.”
I couldn’t help but give him a grin. “Oh yes, I did. You just didn’t take me seriously.”
“That wasn’t complaining, that was just… letting off steam. We had fun, out there.” He leant forwards, propped himself with his elbows on his knees. “I tell you what I thought, Qhouri.” He emphasised the nickname, and this time I didn’t complain. “I thought that you’re incredibly stubborn and strong and nice for someone with such a fucked up life. And that you’d fit right in exactly because of that. And before you ask: I took you along on this job to test this theory. Okay?”
It took me a few minutes for this to settle in. If I had learned anything so far about him, it was that he meant what he said. And… what would he gain by lying to me? The way he had yelled at me and made fun of me in the same breath… there was no pity in him, no deceit. He meant what he said.
He thought that I was strong enough for them. And nice. Whatever that meant exactly.
Slowly, a grin spread over my face as I eyed him curiously. “What will Vilkas say when he gets to know that we’re after this piece of Wuuthrad together?”
He returned my grin. “He will be furious.”
“And… you take the chance?”
He watched me pensively. “You said you had siblings too. Have you never fought?”
“Of course we have.”
“Thought so, because that’s what siblings do. Vilkas will be mad at me, and then he’ll get over it. He always does. That’s what siblings do too, you know?”
I had the feeling that he didn’t just speak about his brother.
He gave me a small smile. “Get some sleep, Qhouri. I’ll wake you when I get tired.”
Somehow, the thought to let him watch over my sleep wasn’t so alarming any more.
It was still dark when I woke all on my own, only a faint gloom on the eastern horizon announcing the new day and the golden glow of the coals playing around the silhouette of Farkas’ broad frame. He peeked over his shoulder and met my gaze before I even moved.
“You didn’t wake me,” I said accusingly, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. I felt perfectly rested.
He gave me a short smile. “You needed it more than I.”
“Don’t make that a habit,” I frowned at him, “I can take watches just like you.”
He grinned. “Okay. Next time you stay up for the night.”
Next time. It made me smile how he said that.
Dustman’s Cairn was a pit in a hill, the narrow elevation hollowed out and the walls of the hole stabilised by masonry. If the purpose of the construction was not to make the entrance to the tomb too obvious in the flat landscape, it was effectively counteracted by the huge standing stones erected at its edge, forming a prominent landmark visible from far away.
We knew at once that something wasn’t right. The remains of a small campfire littered the trampled snow outside of the entrance.
“Seems it was a good idea I didn’t wait for my brother to come here,” Farkas said thoughtfully. “Let’s be cautious, we’re probably not alone.”
Of course we’d be cautious, and of course we weren’t alone, but the beings we encountered were clearly not the same who had camped outside. Farkas scratched his head as he mused over the significance of the devastation in the first room we entered. Someone had been digging in front of a large sarcophagus, and the offerings to the dead usually stored on shelves or in urns were carelessly thrown to the ground.
Whoever went through the vast, dusty halls before us had disturbed the dead rather recklessly. We stumbled over broken coffins and cracked urns all over the place, and their former owners weren’t amused at all. Farkas had warned me of the draugr, undead ancient Nord warriors, kept in their unholy state of unlife by a power nobody knew where it came from. When we encountered the first one of them roaming restlessly through the dark corridors, decayed, withered muscles dragging the body clumsily along but an eerie blueish glow in the sockets of his eyes betraying his determination to stand against any kind of intruder, I questioned the burial habits of my people for the first time. The ancient, rusty but huge sword the living corpse swung in my direction when he spotted us just shook my beliefs even further. The Nords of ancient times should have thought of cremation.
But with the two of us we were able to handle the onslaught, Farkas rushing with furious yells and such obvious enthusiasm into every fight that I had no opportunity to develop something like fear. The draugr were strong but slow, and I took either care of archers he couldn’t reach fast enough or darted around him and attacked the living corpses from behind. It didn’t take long for us to fall into a kind of routine, despite the excitement and tension every doorway and every twist in the tomb’s long, winded corridors caused.
We progressed steadily deeper and deeper into the tomb. Like Farkas had predicted, the air became chilly and moist, and I was glad for the cloak I unstrapped now from my pack and slung it around my shoulders. Until we met a dead end in a large, circular chamber that looked nearly cosy, brightly lit by torches and braziers, furnished by stone benches and tables that were remarkably intact and clean, and no coffins or burial niches with crumpling skeletons or mummies anywhere to be seen. The most remarkable item in the room was the enchanting table standing in a corner, but it was covered by such a thick layer of dust that it obviously hadn’t been used for ages. Farkas furrowed his brows warily, especially when we had to realise that the massive iron grate blocking the only exit had no obvious means to open it. The whole room reeked of trap.
But we were exhausted, and as we knew nothing lived – or unlived – behind us any more, a little rest seemed to be well deserved. After a sparse meal with some bread, cheese and dried meat, we began to explore more thoroughly. The room had some small alcoves crammed full of urns, shelves and grave goods we hadn’t inspected yet.
And then I demonstrated my incredible stupidity. It wasn’t inexperience or imprudence and not only curiosity, it was simple foolishness. Finding a switch in one of the niches, I had nothing better to do than to use it. Without giving an alert beforehand, without thinking about what could happen.
What happened was that the closed gate opened, the bars vanishing with a rattle into the floor. And in front of me, iron bars thundered down and trapped me in the tight space between shelves and urns, and the cursed switch suddenly refused to move a single inch. I yelped, angry at myself, and Farkas stopped to inspect another corner and turned to me. A broad grin spread over his face.
“Now look what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
“Get me out of here. Please!”
“Don’t panic. I’ll find…”
But he didn’t finish the sentence and tensed suddenly, ready to attack, a gesture beckoning me to keep quiet. A deep crease formed between his brows as he turned his head to the newly opened gate, his nostrils flaring. A low, deep growl came from his throat.
And then they were there, half a dozen people flooded the room and surrounded the warrior, cornered him with his back against the grate I cowered behind. A heavily armoured Nord with a huge silvery axe on his back seemed to be the spokesman, his intentions clear when he unsheathed his weapon with a murderous glare.
“You die now, dog!”
A woman standing in the back with her bow drawn interfered, an excited lilt to her voice. “Which one is that? Krev will want to know.”
“Doesn’t matter. He wears that armour, he will die.”
These weren’t ordinary bandits, and this was indeed a trap. They knew him… perhaps not his name, but that he was a Companion. The distinctive armour with the intricate wolf design had given him away, and they had come solely to kill him. Six against one… Farkas was strong, and he was a trained warrior, but this was too much, even I could see that. Cold sweat of panic ran down my spine.
Slowly the circle around him closed in, weapons were drawn, pure hate in the faces of our attackers.
“This will make an excellent story,” one of the women growled.
But Farkas just stood there, slightly bent over, and he took no action to defend himself, didn’t even unsheathe his sword, and his shield lay discarded on a table nearby. I wanted to slap myself for the foolishness that had brought him into this mess, but the fact that neither he nor his foes acknowledged my presence at all made me hug the wall behind me and stay quiet, watching the events unfold before my frightened eyes.
“None of you will live to tell it.” His voice had dropped, more a daunting growl than human speech. I waited for him to spring into action, to let out his typical attack roar, but instead to draw his weapon, his hands only nestled nervously at the straps of his armour. He held himself as if he was in pain, bent over, and I could see his back heave under heavy breathing.
His weird behaviour scared me even more.
What in Oblivion was going on? Was he already hit, by an arrow or a poisoned dart? But the approach of his opponents slowed down, as if they hesitated to come closer, and I saw eyes grow wide… with disbelief and fear.
It was hard to believe what happened then. A man in steel armour and with a finely crafted sword one second – and in the next moment he doubled over, spasming erratically, he grew and changed until he towered over his foes, his armour falling away and the low growl from his throat becoming a roar that had no resemblance with his usual voice any more. A whirling blur of fur, claws and fangs mauled our assailants into shreds nobody would recognise as human any more.
I didn’t know how long it took, in my mind the rampage only lasted seconds. I held my breath and watched, wide-eyed and petrified.
It was over in mere moments, and nothing lived any more but the enormous beast… and I. Yet. He – it? – Farkas? – let out a deafening howl which echoed deep into the tunnels as if it wanted to announce its presence, then it turned to me. Gleaming eyes locked into mine, golden with specks of reddish, like copper, flaring with fury and bloodthirst and hunger – and still, as he watched me intently, cowering against the back wall of the little room, the bars still between us, there was more than just feral savagery. This monstrous gaze had no similarity with Farkas’ light blue eyes, and still there was a glimpse of silver… a glimpse of reason.
They weren’t human, but they weren’t only beastly either. The last time I had looked into the eyes of a wolf, I had seen nothing but the urge to kill me. This… he was different, and somehow I wasn’t particularly afraid. Stunned, yes. Crazed, shocked and disbelieving. But not as panicked as I should have been when a werewolf two feet larger and at least thrice my weight set his eyes on me.
What I had just witnessed was so incredible, so beyond any sense and experience, I was too stunned to be afraid. And somehow, although the monster with its stained black fur, menacing fangs and claws still dripping with blood and gore had nothing human in appearance, I simply knew it was still the gentle brute who had fought by my side, that he was somewhere in there and that he wouldn’t turn against me.
But finally the wolf – werewolf – turned away and vanished through the newly opened door. For an endless moment I feared to be left alone and trapped, but then the bars raised, and Farkas entered the room again – the Farkas I was used to, shirt and pants torn at the seams and hanging around him in rags.
With a sigh of fatigue he sat down on one of the stone benches, burying his forehead in his palms, and seeing me come out of my hiding place, an unstable smile touched his lips.
“Sorry, Qhouri. I didn’t want to… scare you.”
I held a careful distance to him, but I managed to answer his smile weakly. “I’m not scared. Not much. I should be… but I’m not. Everything went so fast…” A slightly hysterical giggle broke from my throat. “I was much more afraid before you… changed. When I thought they’d kill you.”
His eyes sought mine.
“Not sure if I have the right to tell you this, but you deserve an explanation.”
He fell silent for a moment, then pulled himself together. “You know what you’ve just seen?”
“You’re a… werewolf?” It felt strange to put it in words.
“Yes. Some of us are, we can be like wild beasts. Fearsome.”
Fearsome, yes. The sudden realisation hit me like the fist of a draugr. I had lived in a den of beasts. For weeks. Beasts who could have mauled me to pieces but had tended to me as if I belonged there, who had helped me to regain my health and to become strong again. A pack of wolves.
As a child, my father had told us stories about wolves raising human children like their own whelps, making them part of their pack. They became wolves in everything but appearance, living like them, communicating like them, unable to get back into the society of men if they were found. They either died, or they returned to what they considered their true families, as if they’d find the safety and closeness they were used to nowhere else.
Werewolves however were seen as monsters roaming through the wilderness, humans who had lost their humanity entirely, brutish, mindless beasts killing everything in their way. I had just witnessed the exact opposite. This beast hadn’t been mindless – and it hadn’t lost its humanity. Not entirely, at least.
Many titbits of information I had picked up during the last weeks now suddenly fell in place. Kodlak’s remark about the beast in Farkas; Vilkas talking about the blood haunting him in a conversation I accidentally overheard – I had thought he spoke about the blood of his foes he had spilled; Aela’s palpable exhaustion some mornings. The strange bond I felt between them. Perhaps even Vilkas’ unjustified protectiveness and fierce aggressiveness.
“Your brother…,” I mumbled, “he’s one of you, isn’t he? And Aela?”
He nodded, pale eyes fixed on my face. “You’re a keen observer.”
I swallowed. “And… Athis?” I didn’t want to believe that the Dunmer could transform like the brawny Nord beside me, that his laughing face would turn into such a monstrosity.
Farkas laughed out loud, deep and rumbling. “No, Athis not. Athis is just… Athis.” He gave me a stern look. “Only the Circle has the gift… or…” he bit his lip as if he had to stop himself from saying more. The Circle, the people Athis had introduced to me as advisers, as those who took care of the administrative duties coming with the Companion’s business. Seemed there was more to it, unless being a lycanthrope was an essential prerequisite to deal with defaulting clients. Besides Aela and the twins, Skjor belonged to them… and Kodlak, of course. The Alpha of the pack.
I sighed with relief, but then I swallowed. A question burned in my mind, but I didn’t dare to ask it. A frown formed on his face as he watched me.
“What’s the matter, Qhouri? You said you’re not afraid…”
“Can you… control it? Only use it when necessary?”
He regarded me pensively. “Yes. All of us can, we’re not the monsters from children tales. We go hunting… well, most of us do, this urge is there, but we can control it. I would never go out with someone like you if I couldn’t.”
His honesty eased the feeble feeling in my stomach, but it came back when he pointed at the bloody mess he had left. The gruesome sight constricted my throat. “They were Silver Hands. They… don’t like werewolves, and they’ve sworn to eliminate us long ago.”
“How did they know we’d be here? Or you?”
He stood up and started to don his armour again. Some of the straps were torn and buckles bent, but fortunately it was still usable. He spoke over his shoulder.
“No idea. This was obviously a trap, but they got what they deserved.” He shrugged, and I didn’t flinch when he laid a gauntleted hand on my shoulder.
“I’m not glad that I had to show this to you. It’s not that I don’t trust you… but I hope you don’t feel uncomfortable with me now. I hope you believe me that I will never hurt you.”
I believed him. He had done what he had to in order to protect us both.
I gave him a feeble smile. “Let’s get going, there’s a broken blade waiting for us. I promise not to touch any switches.”