Eyes on the Prey: 9. The Black Stone

eotp_wp_009_the-black-stone

“You really need a very good reason to make me come here in the middle of the night!” The face of the hooded figure Skjor led into the room was hidden, but his voice revealed more curiosity than anger.

“We have indeed, Farengar,” Kodlak sighed, “thank you for coming so fast.”

He unfolded the cloth lying on the table between us, and the man gasped in surprise.

“By the Divines! How did you get that?”

The Jarl’s courtmage removed his hood, revealing a lean face, cleanly shaven except the impressive sideburns, and intense, dark blue eyes. Slowly, he took the stone from its wrap, and his eyes widened with astonishment.

“It’s… it’s been used!”

His words hung in the room like a poisoned fume.

“The gods help us. Help him!” Vilkas’ whisper expressed abysmal despair.

Farengar looked more than confused.

“Would somebody please tell me what happened?”

Kodlak appeared as if he had aged for decades during the last few minutes.

“You need to see for yourself,” he said and pointed to the door.

The almost palpable fear on the faces of the Companions infected me as well, but my confusion was even stronger than that. I understood that something terrible had happened, but… what? Skjor recognised my bewilderment before I could ask.

“Qhourian, you’re not much into magic, are you?” I just shook my head. Magic was something I never had the opportunity to get involved with besides some basic potion recipes – though I wasn’t sure if alchemy counted as magic at all.

“Okay. The thing you’ve brought us is a soulstone. They’re used together with a soultrap spell to catch the soul of a creature when it dies, and then they can be used to enchant stuff.” He hesitated. “Vilkas, please explain it to her. You know much more about it.”

Vilkas’ anger seemed to have subsided, his face only showed a weary thoughtfulness.

“The soul is weird. Every living thing has one, and contrary to common belief it’s not something completely spiritual. It’s… a form of energy, it’s what makes a lump of flesh alive. Without a soul, there’s no life… not even unlife. The draugr you killed in that tomb, even they have still a soul. Perhaps they’re undead because they’re still ensouled. In the end, nobody knows exactly… those that do are dead, and we can’t ask them any more.”

He gave a small, pensive smile that didn’t reach his eyes. I listened to his explanation with awe.

“This energy can be captured when a body dies. It’s a mystical art, but mages do it all the time. Farengar should show you the stones he uses, and what he can do with them. If you ever find some on your travels he will pay you a good price for them, because every stone can only be used once, and it’s destroyed when its power is released.”

He rubbed his palms over his face and into his neck, tired and nervous. I had so many questions, but I didn’t interrupt him.

“Usually enchanters only use the souls of animals, they don’t have an afterlife anyway. The souls of people – men, mer and beastmen – are special, perhaps because we’re conscious of ourselves. But they can be trapped just as well. It’s considered necromantic and an abomination, but it’s possible. With black soulstones.”

He lifted the cloth with the stone from Kodlak’s desk and placed it on his palm, the smooth surfaces shimmering in a deep purple in the dim light. His voice was frighteningly flat and emotionless. “And after everything we know, this one has been used on my brother.”

His words hang in the room, calm and ultimate, and they sunk in only slowly. That mage had defeated Farkas by stealing his soul. I had carried it around in this thing. He had lost his soul, but he was still alive.

Divines, what kind of existence was this?

I wasn’t the only one who followed this line of thought. It was Aela who broke the stunned silence.

“But it can’t be. A soultrap spell only works the moment a body dies, but Farkas isn’t dead! How is it possible that his soul is in there?”

Farengar, entering the room just this moment, heard her words and nodded gravely. “I must confess, I’ve never seen or heard about a case like this. But everything we know indicates that Farkas’ soul is hurt severely, and our only hope lies in this thing,” he pointed at the black stone that still lay in Vilkas’ hand before he turned to me. “Qhourian, you’re new here, aren’t you? It was probably pure luck that you found it at all, but that you brought it back here was brave and considerate – most people would’ve probably just thrown it away. I will do what I can, but I will need your help. You’re the only one who witnessed the process we want to reverse.”

The freezing wind made me shiver, it matched the icy cold that coiled in my ribcage and made it hard to breathe. Head whirling with confusion, eyes burning from exhaustion, that was how Athis found me. Silently he sat down beside me on the stairs leading to the training yard, his slender body radiating a subtle warmth.

“You have brought me into this mess.”

He had washed away the white warpaint, only his bright red eyes were visible in the darkness.

“Aye, that’s true. But don’t believe that I regret it.”

“But Farkas…”

“What happened to him is not your fault,” he interrupted me sharply. “We don’t know what happened. Nobody knows.”

“But I could have helped him. I could have killed the mage much earlier. I should…”

“Could have, should have… bullshit, Qhouri. He was in a frenzy. Went berserk. You don’t get in the way of a raging werewolf. You would be dead by now, and the outcome for him would’ve been the same. Just that he would have frozen and starved to death with his soul trapped.”

I turned my head to him, searched his gaze.

“How is it… to live with them? So close?”

“You mean the Circle?”

I nodded.

“Are you mad at me because I didn’t tell you?”

“No. I shouldn’t know at all. Of course they’re not… open with it. Towards strangers. I just wanna know how it is. How you deal with it.”

He propped his chin into his palm. “There’s nothing to deal with. Once you know them… they’re good people. All of them. And if you ask how it is…” A chortle escaped him, his red eyes gleaming in the pale light. “It’s safe. Believe it or not, but there’s no safer place than Jorrvaskr. At least as long as you belong to the pack.”

“But you just said that Farkas would have killed me.”

“I don’t know, honestly. Perhaps he would, perhaps he wouldn’t. We don’t know how much control he still had. Kodlak would have probably been able to stop him.”

“Because he’s his Alpha.”

“Yes.”

I buried my forehead in my palms, sighing deeply. “Chased by half-rotten undead, rescued by a werewolf, a flashing and singing wall, and then the man I was responsible for stuck somewhere between life and death, with his soul trapped in a stone. It’s all your fault, Athis.”

He chuckled. “You are angry.”

Perhaps I was. Angry and confused and far too tired to deal with it. It was just too much. At least not at him. Although I should be, perhaps. And I should be angry because he made fun of me. It was just too much effort. “No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. Everybody would be. But better angry than afraid, I’d say.” He poked his bony elbow into my ribs. “See… it’s not so bad. Farkas still lives thanks to your care, Farengar is a clever lad and will find a cure for him, those werewolves don’t mean you no harm, and concerning that speaking wall… I’m sure we will find an answer to that riddle as well.”

His lighthearted confidence eased the riot of conflicting emotions. I needed someone like him – someone who could put things into perspective and tell me what to do. I was tired of being pushed around by events I had no control of.

“Come inside, Qhouri, I freeze to death here. I don’t have your hot Nordic blood,” he smiled. The mead hall was nearly empty by now, only Tilma clearing around and Vilkas sitting in a corner nursing a tankard of mead, a couple of empty bottles standing beside him. His scowl was empty and bland as he reacted to the clapping of the door with a glazed look.

Athis fetched a piece of parchment and a quill. “Here, write it down.”

“Write what down?”

“The signs in your head. The ones from the wall.”

It was so easy.

The mer looked curiously over my shoulder. “Oh, that’s dragon speech,” he said dryly. “You can find it all over Skyrim, often in burial sites or really secluded places. See, all of these signs look as if someone with talons had scratched them into stone. First riddle solved!” His boyish grin and enthusiasm carried me along, though I couldn’t believe that he had recognised it so easily. Until now, I didn’t even know that dragons had a language of their own at all.

“The next question is why you are able to read it. Or understand, or whatever. You said you know the meaning of that word? Because, the common knowledge of this language has been lost for thousands of years. It vanished with the last dragons, and only very few people know it today.”

“Yes. It means Fire. But it’s the only word I know the meaning of, there was a whole wall full of them. And I have absolutely no idea why I even know this one. There was no one who could have told me.”

“There must be a coincidence with the events at Helgen and the sightings of dragons. Dragons! I’d love to fight one, you know?”

“You’re insane. Farkas had the same stupid idea,” I mumbled.

But to see Athis treat the whole matter like a research project made me smile. I just feared to become an object of his studies – there was nothing I wanted less than be a part of this strange coincidence.

I was tense, overtired and frustrated when Tilma woke me at a truly ungodly hour. I had dreamt without remembering what, but I seldom did. Only that this morning I had the nagging feeling that it was important, that something relevant escaped me as I made my way to Dragonsreach, the palace of the Jarl. I had never been here on the highest point of Whiterun before, and the view over the awakening city in the smooth light of the morning sun was admittedly beautiful and peaceful.

No guards watched over the entrance, but as soon as I entered, a Dunmer in leather armour approached me.

“The Jarl doesn’t see anybody now. If you have to ask a favour, come back later.”

Her brusqueness made me nervous, but I wouldn’t draw back.

“And you are…?”

“Irileth, Jarl Balgruuf’s housecarl. Nobody approaches him without my consent.”

“But I don’t want to speak to the Jarl. Farengar is awaiting me.”

“Oh! Are you the one Athis told me about? Come in, come in, Farengar announced your coming. But please, don’t keep him busy for too long, his research on the dragon rising is more than urgent, as I’m sure you’ll understand.”

She led me into Farengar’s rooms which looked exactly like I had imagined typical mage’s quarters. Colourful potions on the shelves, complicated arcane instruments and lots and lots of books and papers littered the huge desk and the floor. Farengar himself looked as if he hadn’t slept for days, tired and frustrated.

“Ah, Qhourian, good to see you.” He cleared some parchments from a chair and bid me to sit down. “I’m at my wits end at the moment, and I need some input from someone else to get going again. I’ve read every text about necromancy and soul trapping I have available, even some obscure stuff about a Daedra called Azura, but nothing seems to come even close to Farkas’ case. Please, I need to know everything about what has happened. Tell me every little thing you remember, and let me decide if it’s important or not.”

I didn’t want to recap the events again, but I tried my best. I told the mage how Farkas had entirely lost control in his bloodthirst, how he attacked the mages and how they defended themselves. About the reanimated thrall and the Dunmer with his strange spell whom I had killed in the last possible moment. Farengar just listened and made some notes, but didn’t interrupt me.

“And then? What happened then?”

My questioning view caused an impatient gesture. “Well, he was unconscious, you found him, and then? Was he like now right from the beginning? Or was there… a development in his condition?”

“No. He was unconscious, but he also… seemed to fight against something, like in a nightmare, just worse. He didn’t sleep, but he wasn’t awake either, he shivered horribly, and… and I didn’t know what to do, so I made camp and tried to keep him warm at the fire, but that wasn’t enough. I was afraid he’d freeze to death, or hurt himself, so in the end I warmed him myself.” I blushed at the memory how I had found myself trapped in his unconscious embrace next morning. “Oh, and in the morning, he thanked me. I think it was the last time he was really awake! And then he slept. I mean, really slept, peaceful and quiet, until the struggling came back.”

Farengar’s face became more and more thoughtful with my words. “That could be important… hm, yes… he woke and seemed better… conscious… and it happened when you were near him… perhaps it happened because you were there! Human souls need others to mend if they’re hurt, every healer knows this. Even physical injuries heal much better if somebody who cares for the patient applies the treatment. Perhaps I should leave all this necromancy stuff alone and read about restoration…”

He seemed deep in thoughts, but his eyes had lit up. His changed mood cheered me up as well, though I had no idea how I could have helped him.

With new energy he stood up and stretched his body. “Qhourian, such detailed reports like yours are immensely helpful. I’ve a few new ideas – but I also have a problem. I really want to help Farkas, the Companions are such an important part of Whiterun, and I know the boys since they were little pups. And apart from that, I’ve never encountered such an interesting case!” He smiled as if to assure me that it was more than scientific interest that drove him.

“But you know I’m the Jarl’s court mage, which means he has the first access to my work. And he wants me to do some research on the dragons which are rumoured to have returned.”

“No, that’s not a rumour. I’ve seen one of them myself.”

“You have seen one? Where? When?”

“I’ve been at Helgen.” I couldn’t escape it, that event wormed itself back in my life over and over again. Everything would have been different if the dragon… and the Imperials… but all ifs and buts wouldn’t change anything now.

“You’ve been at Helgen? Not many survived that.” A shadow fell on his face. “I’m glad you made it out alive. And perhaps it’s your destiny to deal with these matters even further. See… I need someone to go into Bleak Falls Barrow and fetch a Dragonstone for me. And when I say fetch, I really mean delve into a dangerous ruin in search of an ancient stone tablet that may or may not actually be there.”

He looked expectantly at me, his smirk making clear enough who he meant when he said he was looking for someone. Bleak Falls Barrow, that was the Nordic tomb near Riverwood. And it meant probably more draugr. But if I could buy Farengar some time to search for a cure for Farkas with this trip, I would of course do it.

“What is this Dragonstone?”

He gave me a crooked grin. “I’m not sure. It’s said to contain a map of dragon burial sites. Sounds crazy, I know, the part with the burial sites as much as that there could be a map of them. But it’s the only clue I have at the moment, and my sources are usually reliable.”

I didn’t even want to think about what kind of sources this could be, but I gave him my word to get the job done as soon as possible. I had nothing better to do anyway, and no way I’d leave Whiterun for good as long as I didn’t know what would become of Farkas.

Athis declared me insane if I thought I’d go through that tomb alone when I told him where Farengar had sent me and refused to discuss the matter further. Instead he met me at the stairs with his own pack on his shoulders.

“Someone in Riverwood has a skeever infestation in their storage cellar. We can just as well take care of that and then go into the Barrow together.”

“This is no Companions’ job, Athis.”

He gave me a mischievous grin. “You wish. If you hadn’t pilfered it, it would be. The Jarl pays good, no way I let you rake in the reward all for yourself.”

And no way I’d ever win an argument with the mer. Gladly I accepted his company and the sidetrip, after all this would finally be the opportunity to thank the blacksmith and his wife for taking care of me after the incident with the wolves.

The journey was supposed to take us only half a day, and we enjoyed the beautiful weather and the colours of autumn shining in the already low sun.

But somewhere between the Honningbrew meadery at the outskirts of Whiterun and the bridge that led over the White River into the village our lazy stroll was rudely interrupted by a pack of wolves; we had heard their howling for some time, but their ambush out of the brushwood came still unexpected. Observing their attack, how they fought viciously together finally brought to the surface what had gnawed at my subconsciousness since the morning.

“Athis, I need to go back to Whiterun. I’ve an idea about Farkas… perhaps its utter nonsense, but I need to talk to Kodlak about it. Could you take care of the skeever alone and meet me at the crossroads leading to the barrows tonight?”

Athis looked more than curious, but didn’t ask any questions. He knew I’d tell him more as soon as I could.

I rushed back into Jorrvaskr and towards the stairs to the living quarters full of excitement. And again I was stopped by a brutal grip to my upper arms.

“What are you doing here?” Vilkas sneered, “aren’t you supposed to do some work for that wizard?”

I froze instantly, went limp in his unrelenting grip. I hated myself for the irrational fear his proximity induced, but I was also powerless against him. Completely helpless.

“I need to talk to Kodlak,” I whispered, not looking into his face. I knew he glared down on me full of aversion. “I have an idea… about Farkas!” I wanted to yank out of his grip, but it only became stronger, his fingers clenching into my flesh. Again he pressed me against the wall, his voice a threatening growl.

“Don’t you dare to come near him, bitch,” he hissed into my face, “it was madness to take you along in the first place, and of course you failed when you should have had his back. You won’t get another chance to harm him, no one needs your ideas, and his family will take care of him. Did I make myself clear?

The hatred and anger in his voice hit me like a rock. He shoved me away from the stairs and blocked the way, legs apart and his arms crossed over his chest. I knew he would turn violent if I tried to enter the living quarters, but as shocked as I were, I knew I had to talk to someone of the Circle. If not Kodlak, then somebody else. It was just an idea, for Kyne’s sake!

In the end, I found Skjor in the training ground, working with Ria. Seeing my expression, he told her to practice a certain move, lowered his weapon at once and came over. “Qhourian? You look as if you met a ghost!”

No, not a ghost, but I wouldn’t complain about Vilkas. I wouldn’t give him that satisfaction, and I just wanted to get this out of my head.

“Skjor… do you have a moment, please?”

“Of course. What’s the matter?”

“Please, what you think of this… could it be possible that the beastblood keeps Farkas alive? I mean… I know nothing about this stuff. But he’s part wolf, isn’t he? And the wolf was in control when it happened. Farengar said he has never seen a case like his before, but he also doesn’t know what you are. Perhaps the wolf part in him couldn’t be trapped by that black soulstone? Perhaps it’s utter nonsense, but…”

If I had hoped for some kind of approval from the warrior, I was disappointed. Skjor listened intently, but with every word the frown on his face only grew.

He shook his head. “No. It can’t be. We’re still human, and Farkas wasn’t even transformed. The spell worked on him, after all. The stone you brought was used to trap a human soul.”

“But… aren’t you both?”

He stared at me, then his gaze shifted away, towards the mountains in the distance. “Join your spirit with the beastworld, we say,” he mumbled absentmindedly. It was quiet for a long moment. “Perhaps… you’re right.” Squaring his shoulders, he pulled himself together and turned his attention back to me. His one-eyed gaze seemed as if it wanted to pierce my soul now. “I wonder, Qhourian… others would be scared, even terrified if they knew what we are. If they had witnessed what you have seen. But you aren’t, I can tell. Instead you’re reasonable and think about it and try to help. Why?”

A few days ago I would have been terrified as well, but then… I had witnessed something incredible. I gave him a pensive smile. “I have seen him, Skjor. He wasn’t mindless… he recognised me. He protected me. And even afterwards… I mean, I knew something was wrong. I saw that he fought with something, and he told me it was because of the change. But I never thought he was dangerous. Not once.” Only when I woke up in his arms. But that was… just a reflex. And it was because of the man, not the wolf.

A grin flickered over his face. “Yes, Farkas is quite the puppy. But don’t fool yourself. We are dangerous.” He stood up with new determination. “I will speak with Kodlak about this, and we will speak with Farengar. You’re right, he should know… perhaps we’ve missed the forest for the trees. And you return to your job, I want you to be back as soon as possible.”

He nearly ran into Vilkas who left the building just the moment he opened the door, and the glare the man shot me didn’t go unnoticed. The two of them locked eyes until Vilkas retreated from his stare. Skjor finally spoke.

“You come with me to our Harbinger, there are decisions to make.”

If looks could kill I would have dropped dead from Vilkas’ murderous gaze right on the stairs.

The cool wind and the swift jog back to Riverwood cleared my head. I was glad that Skjor had taken me seriously, but the confrontation with Vilkas gnawed on my nerves. Slowly frustration and confusion turned into anger. I was angry at myself because he was able to overpower me like that. And of course I was angry at him. It wasn’t my fault that Farkas went against a full camp of mages alone. He even forbid me to follow him. He was the experienced warrior, not me, and he should have known better. And I had done everything in my power to help him afterwards. There was nothing I had to blame myself for. And now I had to concentrate on the task at hand.

“You don’t look very happy, Qhouri. Already afraid of the undead?”

Athis leant relaxed against the railing of the bridge, a slice of bread in one hand, a bottle of ale standing beside him, his face turned appreciatively into the evening sun.

“Let’s go. No, I’m not afraid. In fact, I’m in the mood to split some skulls. And not necessarily undead skulls, but they will do for now.”

“There won’t be only undead. I’ve stocked up on potions in Riverwood, and the trader has a trinket stolen from his shop. He believes the thieves have their base in the Barrow, so if we can get it back, there will be another reward in it.”

Athis knew better than to ask further about the reasons for my foul mood and let me let off steam on the thugs camping in front of the entrance. Inside were even more of them, but these bandits were no challenge in comparison to the skilled Silver Hand warriors we had encountered in Dustman’s Cairn. They were clad in cheap, mismatched pieces of armour, wielded rusty maces and notchy swords and, worst for them, they didn’t expect us.

Athis would have made an amazing assassin if he were a bit less nice. Or honourable. Sneaking into a large room, we overheard a conversation about a guy named Arvel running ahead with the claw. Athis grinned. “He won’t get far,” he whispered. It was awesome to watch him sneak absolutely soundless through the shadows until he could have pickpocketed one of the guys. He slit his throat instead, and killed the other with a swift strike of his dagger. Both were dead before they knew what happened, the mer turning with a triumphant, boyish grin to me. He had obviously a lot of fun, and I was glad that he had joined me for this trip.

Our enemies were not only unskilled fighters, they were also not the smartest. One of them died an agonising death from poisoned darts by turning a lever which was so obviously trapped even I recognized it at once, and with the corresponding pillar puzzle so simple it took us mere seconds to solve it.

Deeper into the tomb, the bandits were followed by spiders. Huge spiders. In fact, the largest spider I had ever encountered, larger than the one in Dustman’s Cairn, and even Athis didn’t manage to approach her unseen – far too many eyes. But we dispatched it as well, just to find a desperate Dunmer pleading for help trapped in a huge, sticky mess of silk.

“You aren’t accidentally called Arvel the Swift, are you?”

Athis smirked maliciously at his compatriot, he could look really evil if he wanted. The Dunmer seemed to tremble with fear, but Athis cut his tirade short.

“We free you, and you give us the claw. Deal?” The mer nodded frantically.

I knew something was wrong with him, he was far too nervous and agitated to trust this display of terror. And of course, as soon as I cut the strings of the web, he turned and darted away – deeper into the tunnels.

I wanted to follow him, but Athis grabbed my arm. He seemed to count – until we heard a rumble, a roar and a terrified shriek which was suddenly cut off.

“Only 20 seconds. Let’s be cautious, whatever got him isn’t far. And it’s probably not bandits any more.”

It were draugr, the same kind of draugr I already knew, clumsy but strong, and we found Arvel’s corpse nearly cleaved in half by an ancient greatsword. We took the claw, and his journal told us how to use it – it wasn’t only a trinket, but rather the key to the heart of the barrow. I wondered if the trader he had stolen it from knew this and what treasures Arvel and his fellows had hoped to find there.

Athis’ and my style went perfectly together, we slipped through the corridors with barely a sound, and while I preferred to use the bow from a distance, he obviously liked his pair of daggers much more. It was even easier than with Farkas, because he was able to detect and avoid the many traps on our way instead just to stumble into them, and as he didn’t raise every undead in the barrow at once like Farkas did it with his furious roars, we usually only had to deal with one or two at a time, were even able to dispatch some of them before they had left the narrow alcoves where they had waited the last few thousand years for us to appear.

The tomb wasn’t quite as vast as Dustman’s Cairn, and beside the draugr there were at least a few skeever for variety and an underground stream that got us wet feet, but in the end we reached the end. The claw opened a portal, the enormous stone disc vanishing into the ground with a disconcerting grinding noise.

I knew at once that we had reached the end because it contained another of the strange word walls, and the effect was exactly the same as in the Cairn – a single syllable chiming in my head, a certain line of signs and finally the blue light pouring into my brain. Just its meaning was different – this time, I learned the dragon word for force, and I still had no idea what to do with this knowledge.

As soon as he saw the wall, Athis knew without another word that he couldn’t rely on me while I stumbled towards it. He watched my back, and of course the huge coffin in front of it broke open when I approached and released another draugr – these undead were so predictable. This one was clad in shimmering armour and attacked with deadly magic, and the small throwing dagger Athis threw at him for distraction just bounced off. Fortunately I was back on my feet much faster this time, and we could go after this last foe together.

But in the end, he was just a draugr. A powerful wizard draugr, but still undead and without the brain to deal with two swift, skilled enemies at once. In his coffin, we finally found a stone disk, one side covered with the same kind of signs like those on the wall, the other with some scratch marks that could eventually depict the outlines of Skyrim – with very much imagination and only if one knew that it was supposed to be a map. I was glad I wouldn’t have to decipher it, but if this wasn’t the Dragonstone Farengar was looking for, he would have to get it himself.

It was only a light snowfall that coated the blank rocks all around us in white when we left the Barrow, but the sharp wind made it into pricks of sharp pain on every bit of unprotected skin, and Athis started immediately to shiver violently. The exit was just a hole in the mountain side, even higher than the entrance, and the descend was tedious, dangerous and slow in the near darkness. To return Riverwood, drop into the warmth of the inn and order hot drinks to thaw our frozen bones was exactly the gratification we thought we had earned ourselves. It was already well past midnight, and of course we could have returned to Whiterun at once; but we were both tired after that endless crawl through the darkness, we wanted to deliver the claw personally, and I still wanted to speak with Sigrid.

“Petty excuses!” Athis just claimed dryly when we had finally found a place near the fire for ourselves, our packs and our tankards. “What is it that keeps you from returning to Jorrvaskr? What happened while I cleaned that vermin-infested cellar?” This elf had clearly seen too much in his life to be fooled by someone like me. His face was earnest, but his eyes looked kind.

I clenched my hands around my mug. “I… I clashed with Vilkas. He holds me responsible for his brother. And he has clearly expressed that he doesn’t want to see me in the hall again.” Athis didn’t show any reaction. He knew I wasn’t finished.

“And anyway, the later I return the more time Farengar spends on Farkas’ cure instead to deal with stupid dragons! And… I told Skjor that they should tell him about the lycanthropy, perhaps that helps! Because Farkas still lives, but his soul is also in the damned stone, so it must be his beast that’s keeping him alive! That’s why I had to get back…”

The words just tumbled out of me. Athis leaned over and grabbed my hands over the table. His fingers were still cold, but his eyes sparkled. Was this guy ever serious?

“Okay… just let me get this straight. You found the solution for Farkas’ problem but let his mad twin throw you out of the hall. And instead of splitting his skull, you take your frustration out on some poor guys having a picnic in an ancient ruin. I really, really hope Skjor understood what you told him and did your job: speak with Kodlak and slap some sense into this moron.”

I couldn’t help it, but he managed to elicit a weak smile from me.

“Athis, my problem isn’t Farkas. No, that’s wrong, of course it is, but it’s nothing I can help with. Farengar and the Circle and his brother are much more important with that. But… Vilkas is right when he says that all this wouldn’t have happened if one of you had been with him. A real shield-sibling.”

Athis just stared at me for a moment, then he stood up and went over to the counter. When he came back, he dropped a small key on the table. “Here, the key to your room. I’ve taken only one, I will sleep on the floor. In front of the door. Not taking the risk that you vanish in the middle of the night just because you’re too scared to deal with this.”

“I’m not scared! I just know my limits!”

“No, you don’t.” He took a long gulp from his ale.

“It seems now it’s you who has to get some things straight. You have just now proven that you’re a fabulous shield-sister, and believe me, I’ve probably fought with more people than you’ve ever known. This was your first job ever, it was unexpectedly difficult and dangerous and you had to deal with a shield-brother running havoc, and you still brought him back alive. And that precious broken blade. You must have done at least something right.”

“Not right enough,” I muttered, and Athis exploded.

“By Azura, would you please stop fretting? Why do you believe every single word our highly-valued Master-of-Arms says and not one I try to hammer into your stubborn head? Or Aela, or Kodlak? Don’t you think Farkas had a reason to take you with him?”

“Yes, he had. He wanted to test a theory. And now we see how this test turned out.”

Athis leant forwards, suddenly serious. “Vilkas is an ass, Qhouri. He is a good Companion and a good man, an excellent warrior and a good friend, he is mad with fear for his brother and jealous because it was you who brought back this fragment, but he is also an ass. He can smell that you’re scared of him, and he exploits it. Don’t let him do that.”

I bit my lip. He was right, I felt helpless in face of Vilkas, it had been the same in every single confrontation so far. And I felt helpless now when I lifted my gaze to his stern face.

“I just want this to be over, Athis. I just want Farkas to be healed.”

“I know. But what do you want for yourself?”

My freedom. Go my own way. Escape the demands of others. But what had thought to be a chance had only turned into a nightmare.

I shrugged, avoiding his eyes. “I don’t know. Live my life, I suppose.”

“You should think about it then.” He emptied his mug in one long swig and stretched himself. “Let’s go to bed, Qhouri. We’ll take it from here tomorrow, okay?”

Unfortunately our room had two beds, standing on opposite sides of the room. I would have liked to fight with him for the place on the floor.

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2 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prey: 9. The Black Stone

  1. Vilkas. Grrrr.

    Having done the Dawnguard storyline, I can’t help wondering what Farkas is going through, wondering if he’s roaming around the Soul Cairn trying to figure out what in Oblivion is going on, if he’s just in some kind of weird dream state, or if he’s even conscious at all.

    • When I was first in there it gave me the creeps, but this episode was written first long before Dawnguard was out. I’m not sure if what Farkas will tell us later about it really fits with that… but on the other hand, he hasn’t been really dead yet 🙂

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