Eyes on the Prey: 15. Futile

eotp_wp_015_futile

“It’s all a question of preparation,” Torvar announced dryly as he pulled an insane amount of mead bottles from his pack. “I wanna see them empty tomorrow, or you’ll have to carry them yourself.”

We had arrived at the Valtheim Towers before sunset, and Farkas’ stew, Torvar’s supplies and the fire in the closed room soon dispatched the cold from my bones. Usually drinking with the Companions was something hard to keep under control, always loud, always boisterous, full of shenanigans and without thought about the odd looks of others or the next morning. This evening didn’t end in half-conscious intoxication. Instead I felt myself relax, shake off the tension that lingered in my bones since I had woken in Jorrvaskr and give in to my exhaustion. And here, in this nearly cosy ruin and with these three men around me, I felt sheltered and safe.

Torvar recounted a job in an Orc stronghold where he had to spend a night outside, freezing and sober, just to realise next day that he was hired to beat up the chieftain’s wife when I dozed off. I still giggled about his flowery description of the fight and the thrashing the woman had given him while her husband sat in the audience and spurred him on when the peaceful atmosphere took its toll, my eyes slipping shut over and over again, no matter how hard I tried to keep them open, my head sagging against Athis’ shoulder. Next I knew was that I lay curled together at the fire, a fur beneath and another one draped over me, the coals glowing dimly in the darkness. Torvar snored on one side, Athis lay flat on his back and breathed soundlessly on the other.

Farkas was nowhere to be seen, but I was wide awake, rose silently and made my way to the top of the tower where I found him, his elbows propped on the railing, the light breeze playing in his hair. He turned his head and gave me a smile when he heard me coming up the creaking stairs.

“Hey,” he said lowly.

“Hey.” I stepped beside him. He had chosen his place in such a way that he had the length of the road leading to and away from the towers in sight. But it was quiet, nothing moved. Only behind and high above us on the steep mountain flank rolled a pebble down the slope, probably just a goat. And in the distance, on the opposite side of the river up in the hills, an enormous fire was sending sparks and smoke towards the sky – a giant camp, no danger as long as we left them alone.

It was quiet and peaceful, around us and between us.

But eventually his low voice broke the silence. “Have you regained your memory? About what happened?”

I turned my head, studied him from the side. I didn’t know why he brought it up now. “No.”

His fingers started to play nervously with a piece of mortar he had cracked out of the wall. “I wanna tell you… before I have to tell the Greybeards.”

A shiver ran down my spine. “You brought me away from that place. And then you carried me home. Was there anything else?”

“Yes.” He stared down to the river, became quiet for endless seconds. “I hit you. I had to… I thought I have to hit you.” Now he turned his head, distress in his face. “You don’t remember?”

My breath hitched. “No.”

He spoke on quickly, nearly breathlessly. “You were so stiff, and you didn’t react any more, to nothing I did. I yelled at you that every frost troll around must have heard me, only you didn’t. I just knew I had to take you away, but I couldn’t leave the ruins in that storm. To take you higher was the only idea I had, but it wasn’t enough.”

“Not enough?” Although I could barely see his face, I heard the tension in his voice, the muscles in his neck strained.

“No. It was… as if you were dreaming. Somewhere else, and you couldn’t wake.” He swallowed.

“I’ve seen someone like this… once before. Vilkas… when he was small, when we were new in Jorrvaskr… he couldn’t sleep, and when he slept, he had nightmares. Horrible nightmares. I’ve been with him all the time then, and usually all was good when he woke up. No, not good, but better. But once, he didn’t wake up. He didn’t react to anything I did, just like you, and I didn’t know what to do, and then Jergen came and hit him. Slapped him till there was life in his eyes again and he could cry and was back. It was terrifying. I did the same with you, hit and pinched you to cause you pain. Perhaps I should have done something else, I saw you wanted to cry but couldn’t, that you wanted to breathe but couldn’t, and I was so scared…” his voice trailed off, and it became silent again.

And I had wondered how I got those bruises on my upper arms, dark blotches that only hurt when I poked them directly. I had thought they came from his claws pressing in while he rushed back to Whiterun, or from Athis holding on too tight when I fought him in my unconsciousness. I hadn’t asked, they weren’t severe and the idea that one of them would hurt me just because he could never even emerged in my mind.

But it made him feel bad, obviously.

I nudged my elbow into his side. “Hey.”

He turned his head to me. It was astonishing how the moonlight caught in his eyes, made them gleam in their frame of dark warpaint. “Thank you, brother. You’ve done what was necessary. And thanks for your memories.”

A small, relieved smile curled his lips, and his shoulders relaxed. We stood side by side, listening into the night. For me, the silence was only filled with the rushing of the waters below us, an everlasting background noise, only occasionally drowned out by a gust of wind in the trees or the squawk of a sleeping bird. I wondered how much sharper his senses were, what he could hear, smell and see that I couldn’t. When his head jerked towards the east, nostrils flared, I knew there was something.

He met my curious gaze with a smile. “Wolves,” he whispered. “Listen. Their song.” I concentrated, closed my eyes to focus on my hearing, but it remained quiet. And then it was suddenly there, faint, far away but unmistakable, the howl of the alpha followed by the choir of the pack, merging together and echoing through the hills, warning and reminding the land of their power.

It didn’t work, not any more. Since the night in the Underforge, their voices had lost their terror on me.

Farkas leant against the parapet, listening, longing on his face. The sound came nearer, and perhaps he not only heard, but understood them. I laid my hand on his wrist. “Go,” I said. “I’ll keep watch.”

He turned his attention to me, a question in his eyes. He held my gaze for a moment, his index coming up and stroking along my chin, careful and rough, but then he nodded and was gone. The huge figure that emerged from the shadows at the foot of the tower only a minute later lifted its monstrous visage up to me and let out a yelp before it leaped into the darkness. It made me smile.

==============================

“You don’t have really an idea what these dragons actually are, do you?”

We sat in the warm quarters of High Hrothgar we had occupied before, the only room which held the piercing cold ruling everywhere else in these walls at bay. A fire spread its warmth, the light of the flames mingling with the ones of dozens of candles.

This was a time for questions and answers, not for practice or meditation, and I couldn’t learn when my brain was frozen. Master Arngeir looked expectantly from me to Farkas and back. My shield-brother was explicitly invited to join in my lessons this time. Not only was he the missing link to my lost memory concerning the events in the Labyrinthian, if he was to join me any further on this way – and he was dead set on doing so – it couldn’t hurt if he knew the same things about our enemies that I knew.

“They’re oversized lizards, and we can kill them.” Farkas’ voice was a low, confident rumble, and it made me chuckle. For him, this was the essence of our quest. Even Arngeir showed the touch of a smile for this answer.

“Well, yes and no,” the Greybeard said. “Yes, it’s possible to kill their bodies. A well placed arrow or a sharp sword can do that. Unfortunately, they are in many regards like us – there’s much more to them than just muscles and scales.” Arngeir turned to me, his face now grave. “You know what makes you so special, Dragonborn?”

“I can take their souls and make their power my own. And with this power, I have to fight them.” I was slightly confused. We had spoken about all this already, more than once.

“Yes, but that’s not all. The dragons you encounter now… they’re not new. They’re ancient, from the beginnings of time, and they have already been killed once, thousands of years ago during the Dragon Wars. But now they’re back, something’s bringing them back to life. We don’t know how, but they’re the same dragons our ancestors fought.”

This sounded a lot like one of the ancient myths Athis knew so wonderfully to recount. Dragons had been extinct, nobody had seen a single one of them for thousands of years. They were a legend, used to scare children. Certainly the ones we encountered now couldn’t be the beasts from the old songs?

Arngeir regarded my obvious disbelief with a stern look.

“And only if you kill them and take their souls, they will stay dead.”

He gave me a few moments to let the meaning of his words sink in, and it became eerily silent in the small room. I was the only one who could truly defeat them. The vague idea that had lingered in the back of my mind since Farkas and I had left Jorrvaskr for Ustengrav, to make the Companions and everyone willing to take part in this fight into an army of dragonslayers, it went up in smoke.

My helplessness must have been written into my face. “But… that’s impossible! How am I to end this all on my own?”

My shield-brother thought the same, obviously. “And with attacks like the one in the Labyrinthian on top of that. That’s madness. There must be something to protect her.” His voice sounded urgent.

Reminded of the main reason why we were here, Arngeir looked concerned. “Dovahkiin… I don’t know what happened to you in the Labyrinthian, but I know that it’s more than just a large tomb. It’s an age-old place full of magic. Arch-mage Shalidor lived and worked there in the first era, and the mages from the college always had an… unhealthy interest in it. Nobody knows what it contains. Perhaps a dragon has been trapped there. Perhaps a dragon has been raised there. Perhaps one of the old dragon priests feels his power renewed. We don’t know, like so much we don’t know. But the fact that it called you, that it recognised you… I’m afraid this means that powers not under our control have noticed the arrival of the Dragonborn.”

He fell silent. The numb fear I had felt after I woke up in Jorrvaskr returned. I wasn’t prepared to fight something like this, something that attacked only my mind. I couldn’t fight powers I didn’t see or understand.

“I’m not sure if it’s possible to shield yourself against such attacks. You have to be careful, listen to your senses. And you too, Farkas,” he addressed the man. “It’s good that you’re by her side. You have to be her eyes and ears, when necessary.” Farkas nodded sternly.

“The only advice I can give is to prepare yourself. Gather knowledge, more than I can provide you. You have to know your enemy if you want to overcome him. Learn from your own experiences, and learn from others. I know it’s not much, but it’s all I can give you at the moment. The more you know, the better you know yourself and your foe, the more likely you will succeed.”

If I had hoped to find answers here in High Hrothgar, I had been wrong. The Greybeards were the masters of the Voice – of the Way of the Voice, a way of peace and reclusion. They didn’t know much more than me about the things going on in the world – not who or what caused the rising of the dragons, not what to do against it. I just knew, slaying the beasts and crawling through long forgotten tombs wouldn’t be enough. I had to prepare myself while searching for answers, and I had to look for the knowledge I needed elsewhere.

A light smile played on Arngeir’s face. “You’re not as helpless as you seem to think, Dovahkiin. You’ve learned a lot already, perhaps more than you know. Come on, let’s have a little test. A test of your confidence, which will also be proof of our confidence in you.”

When I followed him into the main hall, the other Greybeards had already gathered. Arngeir assigned me the place in their midst and told Farkas to leave the room – friendly, for his own safety, as he said. Before I could prepare myself, the Tongues started to speak, all of them at once. The whole building quaked under the force of their joint voices, the sound penetrated through me like a blizzard, drowned me in a noise that hit like a physical force, hurled me around and forced me to my knees. Nothing in this cacophony resembled human voices any more, it was pure power – a power I had never felt before and hopefully never would feel again. But beneath the power there were words and a meaning, and although they were spoken in dragon tongue, somehow I understood them.

“Long has the Storm Crown languished with no worthy brow to sit upon. By our breath we bestow it now to you in the name of Kyne, in the name of Shor, and in the name of Atmora of old. You are Ysmir now, the Dragon of the North. Harken to it.”

Declared Ysmir, the Dragon of the North by Kyne and Shor. Gods, what a title. Again the feeling I had had in Farengar’s study right after the dragon in Whiterun overcame me – that this was ridiculous, a sick joke of the Divines. But this was High Hrothgar, and the Greybeards themselves acknowledged my power – and my destiny. No way I could simply ignore it, pretend all of this didn’t happen.

Arngeir’s last gift for me was a map – a map which showed some of the ancient dragon burial grounds, as far as the Greybeards knew about them. It was a great treasure, especially if his claim – or assumption – that the dragons we saw today were the same our ancestors already fought was correct. If it was, it would give us the knowledge where to find the beasts, and perhaps we would even find out who or what raised them.

I felt this was the core of the issue. We could wander through the province and slay dragons forever, as long as we didn’t know what caused their resurrection it wouldn’t help in the long run. I had to find out the cause of their rising, and this map was at least a beginning.

We studied it intently when we were back in Ivarstead, sitting in the inn and comfortably supplied with mead and food by Wilhelm. He had taken a liking to us since we had cleansed the barrow, and as Farkas didn’t hesitate to tell him why I had been at High Hrothgar during my first extensive stay with the Greybeards, he was full of friendly, innocent awe. Now he watched us curiously as we spread the map on his counter.

“What do you have there?”

Farkas gave him a grin. “We’re trying to decide which dragon to slay next.” The way the innkeeper’s jaw dropped made me laugh.

“You do what? Isn’t it enough that they’re everywhere, now you gotta seek them out?”

“Aye. This map shows where they… roost.” Farkas’ index poked a mark south of Riften. “How about this one? Lost Tongue Overlook. Not too far and so secluded that certainly no one has stumbled over it before us.”

Wilhelm looked as if he’d never see us again when we left, but we found our dragon exactly where the map indicated him to be. No wonder the locations of these sites had been lost, even we who knew where to look had difficulties to find the way up into the Jerall Mountains, the snow, icy wind, bears, sabrecats and icewraiths straining my nerves. Not even Farkas’ inexhaustible excited rambling about what we’d find and where to go next and what we’d do once we knew what caused all this could lighten my mood. Quite the contrary.

Even if the Greybeards hadn’t been of any help in regards of substantial information, they had made more than clear that the rising of the dragons was something much more complicated, dangerous and perhaps fateful than just the sudden appearance of powerful beasts that killed people all over the province. There was more to it, and Arngeir had also made clear that it was my liability to uncover this mystery and put an end to it. Not Farkas’, not the Companions’, only mine.

The way he talked about this endeavour as if it was ours, as if I couldn’t make a single step without him set me on edge, and when we finally found the huge creature, bathing in the sun on top of another word wall, I was ready to shout the beast to shreds. Farkas didn’t even grant me that small pleasure though, charging in before I was even able to let loose a single arrow, much less a Shout. I watched him for a moment, how he slashed through the membrane of the dragon’s wings to keep him grounded, the happy grin that plastered over his face, the challenging look he shot me. This was what he wanted to do, what he was good at, and at the same time it was so incredibly futile.

We had learned from the experience at Ustengrav, but the fight was still frantic and hard, leaving us with several painful bruises. But in the end we slayed him with much less difficulty than the last one.

And still my disappointment boiled over, because of course we found no hint at all about the cause of his rising. Nothing. Frustration coursed through me when I sat down on the dragon’s hipbone, trying to catch my breath from the fight, the new Word and the soul that had settled in me.

Farkas hunched down in front of me, a hand on my knee. “Next time we’ll find something. For sure!”

“Yeah, of course,” I snapped, “we’ll just appear exactly the moment the beast raises from its grave. You’re naïve, Farkas.” I shoved his hand roughly away, ignoring the slight look of hurt on his face, stood up and turned towards the way that would lead us down to Lake Honrich. “Come on, this was pointless. All this is pointless.”

“But you got a new Shout! And a new soul!”

I turned sharply. “And you think that’s what I want? You think that’s a reward for this useless trip?”

He made a helpless gesture. “We’ll find something, Qhouri. I promise. We’ll search until we know what causes all this.”

I ground my teeth. “This is my job, Farkas. We won’t do anything. We will return to Whiterun now, and then I will have to find someone who knows something about it.” And if there was no one who knew more about it than the Greybeards because I was the first Dragonborn for ages and no one had ever faced something like the rising of ancient dragons before and because the Divines had an absolutely retarded sense of humour, I’d have to do it all on my own. Hunt them and take their souls for the rest of my days. Tears of helplessness and frustration burnt in my eyes, and I turned away swiftly.

We made our way to Riften and took the carriage to Whiterun, all in uncomfortable silence. I knew I had hurt him, but I found the way he had committed himself to this insanity and, even worse, to me incredibly awkward. It was useless anyway, I knew that slaying dragons alone wouldn’t be enough, and still this was what he thought we’d do until it was done. And I felt as if what had started as an offer and a promise from him had somehow turned into a demand I had to fulfil, that I had to let him participate in this quest, no matter if I wanted or not. No matter if I was comfortable with him… and somehow, I wasn’t.

Not any more, at least not in the same way I had been at the beginning of our travels, when we still got to know each other, both overwhelmed by the weird soul stuff we had gone through. When we thought that perhaps we could help each other with these experiences. Our fight in Morthal had only been the first rift, it had shown me a side of him that was hard to accept.

But we had made peace afterwards, and he had saved my life in the Labyrinthian. Another mystery I didn’t understand, something else he couldn’t help me with.

When my train of excuses and accusations had come to the point where I asked myself if he was useful enough for me, I cringed away from my own thoughts.

Because it was so much easier. Of course he was useful, and in so many more regards than just with his fighting skills. I simply didn’t want him to commit, to dedicate himself, not to this dragon business and even less to me, and I feared that this was exactly what he was going to do. What he had already done, perhaps. I didn’t want him to come so close, didn’t want a confidant, and it scared me how I had started to think of us instead of me over the last weeks.

And still, as he sat on the opposite bench of the wagon, with a stonen face and avoiding my gaze, remorse overwhelmed me. He didn’t deserve to be treated like that. He wasn’t a puppy following me in mindless devotion – he was a warrior, one of the best in all of Skyrim, he knew the land so much better than I, and his company and advice were invaluable.

And apart from that… he was more than just a companion. I wasn’t used to call someone a friend, I had never had a friend before… perhaps beside Athis, but the mer was hard to resist with his friendly, cordial way that was still distant enough to leave me room to breeze. Farkas wasn’t distant, he looked through me and forced me to be honest with myself, impossible to keep him at arm’s length, and still he was gentle and sincere. And he had become a friend. Someone I had learned to trust, someone with whom I had shared the perhaps most important weeks of my life. Someone who took me as I was, without judgement or resentment, who had made me feel like a Companion because he gave me the feeling that I belonged there.

That his open attachment and protectiveness suddenly felt more like a prison I couldn’t escape than like a warm cloak I could rest and relax in, that was my problem, not his. I had changed, not he, and he didn’t deserve to be treated like that.

“Farkas?” His head shot up, but his expression was guarded. “Would you please yell at me when I behave like an ass and not just shrug it off?”

He lowered his head. “No,” he mumbled, but I saw a small grin curl his lips. “Not gonna risk that you shout back.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is. Told you I’d have your back as long as you need me. And when you go visit Delphine… you don’t need me. You could take Vilkas along, he’s much better in dealing with… difficult people.”

Pun intended? Gods, how I wished he would just yell at me.

==============================

Being back in Jorrvaskr wasn’t really relaxing, knowing I couldn’t stay. When I spread out the map of the Greybeards on the large table and explained what it was, my siblings were enthusiastic, gathering around the parchment and allocating who would have the honour to slay which dragon with me.

Yes, we would visit all these places sooner or later, but first there were more pressing matters to attend to. The mysterious innkeeper in Riverwood was the only lead I had now. But Farkas refused outright to join me when I asked him, standing with his brother at the fire.

I felt bad that his rejection filled me with relief, and it was only soothed by his casual remark that he’d prefer to visit Morthal instead.

And Vilkas’ expression was priceless.

The twins hadn’t seen each other since we had left for Ustengrav, and I left them alone to catch up. Time for me to get some well deserved rest.

But next morning when I filled my belly with a bowl of porridge, delicious with its rich taste of cinnamon and honey, the light pack for the short trip to Riverwood already leaning against my chair, Vilkas dropped down beside me.

“Farkas told me about the horn and Delphine,” he said curtly, “you want me to accompany you?”

“I just have to speak with her. Don’t think I need a bodyguard for that.” I took another spoonful and swallowed. “But thanks for the offer.”

“She not only knew somehow that the Greybeards would send you to Ustengrav, she also made it through it all on her own. I wouldn’t trust her any further than I can throw her.”

“She’s a Breton, Vilkas. I’m sure you could throw her quite far.”

A grin flashed up in his face. “Not far enough.” He paused for a moment. “You shouldn’t go alone, Qhourian. That woman is dangerous… we know her for years, we’ve often enough spent our coin in that inn, and none of us ever noticed anything odd. Her disguise was perfect… you know that we have means to see behind something like that, usually.”

I eyed him thoughtfully. Perhaps the idea to have a werewolf sniff out any lies and deceptions wasn’t the worst.

“I could take Aela along.”

He barked out a short laughter. “Aela would just kill her for the first wrong word. And she has a very concise – and narrow – opinion about what people are allowed to say to her and what not.”

“Skjor?”

He gave me patient look. “Let’s go, Qhourian. The sooner we go, the sooner we’re over with it.”

Didn’t seem as if I had a choice.

Delphine wasn’t thrilled about his company either, though.

Sven greeted us with a friendly nod, playing leisurely on his lute when we entered. But she narrowed her brows into a frown, leaning only outwardly relaxed onto her broom. A very unremarkable woman in her shoddy blue dress, the grey-streaked blonde hair neatly braided in her neck.

“Greetings, Vilkas,” she sighed. “Your brother was here. Recently.”

He grinned, but his eyes were hard. “Hello Delphine. I know, he fetched something from you. And now I bring you something in return.”

Something? I arched an eyebrow at him, but the woman’s head jerked to me.

“You’re the one who found the note. And… you’ve been in Bleak Falls Barrow. With the mer.” She fetched a crumpled piece of paper from the pocket of her dress that I recognised at once.

I nodded, eyeing her suspiciously. “I don’t believe that you went through all that trouble and didn’t gather an extensive profile of me by now.”

“Of course I did. But one can never be careful enough.” She leant the broom against the counter, suddenly all business. “Follow me.”

We followed her into a guest room that looked like all the others until she opened the back panel of a wardrobe and narrow stairs appeared behind it. Vilkas gave me an odd look, cocking an eyebrow more curiously than concerned as Delphine grabbed a lamp and descended into the darkness.

The stairs led into a cellar, filled with chests and shelves, alchemy equipment, books and a large table cluttered with parchments, some new, some yellowed and brittle enough to be ancient. The study of a scholar. Truly the last thing I expected in an ordinary inn.

Delphine leant with her back against the table after she locked the door behind us, a small grin showing on her lips. “I know, I’m pretty good at keeping my harmless innkeeper act.”

“Then I suggest you tell me what’s behind this act and what you want from me.”

She lifted a hand. “Not so fast. The Greybeards may think that you’re Dragonborn, but I didn’t go through all this trouble on a whim. Before I tell you any more, I need to make sure I can trust you.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What does that mean, you need to make sure you can trust me? How do I know that I can trust you?”

“If you don’t trust me, you were a fool to walk in here in the first place. Even with that… escort of yours.” Vilkas let out an annoyed grunt.

I gave her a forced smile. “I’ve been in much more hostile environments lately. I can defend myself, you know?”

An arrogant smirk curled her lips. “Not against me. Don’t forget – I went through Ustengrav before you.”

I wouldn’t let her threaten me. “Yes, I wondered how you did that and with leaving so many of the… inhabitants alive for us. And I wonder if your skills are truly a match against real Dragonfire.”

Something flickered through her eyes. Concern… perhaps fear, but it was gone as soon as it appeared and her face was emotionless again. “Enough of that. I’m part of a group that’s been looking for you… well, someone like you, for a very long time. If you really are Dragonborn, that is.”

Now Vilkas made a step forward. “What group are you talking about? This woman,” he pointed at me, “has taken the soul of the dragons at the Watchtower, near Ustengrav and south of Riften. Only their skeletons remain to prove it. The Greybeards have acknowledged her as Dragonborn. What’s there to doubt?”

“There are greater powers at work than you can imagine. The appearance of the dragons marks the turn of the eras, as it has been foreseen. I can’t be careful enough, and I have to make sure that this isn’t a trap of the Thalmor.”

Surprised, Vilkas sucked in the air sharply. “The Thalmor?” I blurted out, perplexed by this weird… idea. Accusation. Whatever it was. I didn’t know much about the Aldmeri Dominion, only that it held the Empire in its grip since the war thirty years ago and that their repressions were the reason why Ulfric Stormcloak had shouted the High King to death and started his rebellion. The idea that I was allied with them… it was far-fetched, at least.

The woman pushed herself off and went around the table to a shelf in the back of the room. The way she held herself suddenly, shoulders squared, her steps barely making a sound… despite her common attire, I knew suddenly that she wasn’t an innkeeper any more. That she had changed into her true identity, whatever it was. And that I didn’t trust her.

She turned back to us. “Yes, the Thalmor. Their spies are everywhere.” She regarded me pensively. “I’m not your enemy, you already got the horn back. I’m actually trying to help you. I just need you to hear me out.”

Vilkas tensed beside me. “It is not your place to make demands, Delphine,” he spat out, losing his patience with the woman. I felt the same, the way how she beat around the bush was annoying and suspicious. “You went out of your way to get to her, it seems you need her much more than she needs you.”

She turned to him with equal aggression. “The arrogance of the Companions, always meddling with things they don’t understand and without regard for the greater picture. Just like the Greybeards, and equally predictable.”

I clenched my teeth in anger. “I’m a Companion too, Delphine. Tell me what you want, now.”

She balled her hands into whiteknuckled fists, but her face twisted into an forced smile. “It doesn’t matter what you are except that you are Dragonborn. And you will have opportunity to prove it soon enough. All that matters is that you’re not a spy of the Thalmor. That is what I have to make sure first and foremost.”

I didn’t understand her. I agreed with Vilkas that she was dangerous, but this paranoia she displayed was… as disconcerting as ridiculous.

But Vilkas had obviously enough. His voice was dangerously low, his hand lingering on the hilt of his dagger. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, Delphine. But are you aware that you’re insulting the Dragonborn and the Companions in the same breath? You dare to threaten her? You dare to assume she’s a thrall of the Thalmor? You know exactly that we don’t deal in politics, and still you dare to doubt not only her power, but also her honour and ours?”

She met his flaring gaze with unmoved calm. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, Vilkas. You have no idea what it means to have enemies that have hunted you for ages.” She turned her attention to me, her face set in determination. “I suspect that the Thalmor have something to do with the rising of the dragons. And if I’m right, then the Gods help us.”

I didn’t get opportunity to reply. Vilkas propped his palms on the table and leant forwards, baring his teeth in a threatening snarl. “The Thalmor! The bloody elves are a pain in the behind, but to believe that they’re behind this… and to put her in line with them… that’s insane, and we don’t have to put up with this nonsense. If you need the Dragonborn, you know where to find her.” He turned on his heels and stormed up the stairs.

Great. All I wanted were some answers. And all I got was a paranoid innkeeper using her real or imagined secrets to build up an annoying aura of mystery, a shield-brother who saw his honour endangered and both of them going at each other’s throats. Vilkas was a fool to run off like that, before she had even answered why she had stolen the horn in the first place. But the way the woman behaved, she was probably indeed a dead end. The Thalmor! In this he was right, what a complete and utter nonsense.

I rubbed my palm tiredly over my face and turned to leave as well. But I hadn’t even reached the stairs when I heard her quiet voice behind me.

“You stay.” Not a question, but an order.

Slowly I turned around. Delphine still stood at the opposite wall, tense, ready to leap like a cornered predator, a dagger dangling between her fingers. She held it loosely at the tip, and it would take only a single flick of her wrist to lodge it neatly into my chest.

Fus,” I said and left, the dull sound of her head hitting the shelf behind her coaxing a grin on my face. I could get used to this.

Vilkas waited for me outside, and he rushed down the road towards the bridge that led out of the village as soon as I left the inn, his fast, blundering stride revealing his anger. At first I rushed after him, but when he didn’t slow down and didn’t have a single word to say, I stopped on the bridge and dropped down on the parapet, burying my forehead in my palms. I wouldn’t run after him till Whiterun. What a complete, utter debacle.

But his steps came back. “What’s the matter?” he barked.

“This was a disaster, Vilkas.” I was louder than necessary, but Gods, I was frustrated.

“Of course it was. She insulted and threatened you. All of us!”

“Yes, but that’s not the point!”

He stared down on me as if I was retarded. “Did you listen to her, Qhourian? She claimed the dragons are a work of the Thalmor and that you’re their lackey! What in Oblivion can be the point in that!”

“She didn’t claim. She simply assumed.”

“As if that mattered. Whatever obscure group she belongs to, she’s obviously completely oblivious to what’s going on here. You’re not Talos or Martin Septim, it’s not your job to rule or save an Empire. Your job is the dragon plague, something they never had to deal with. She has no idea what she’s talking about if she seriously thinks the Thalmor have anything to do with it. And to think that you are allied with them…” He hit his forehead with his palm.

Now I jumped up and stormed down the bridge. He kept easily pace, which made it easier to yell at him. “You don’t get it, do you? I have no idea either! I have no idea what to do now with this damned dragon plague! And our bloody honour doesn’t help with that one bit!”

His face twisted in fury, with me now instead with Delphine. “How can you say that! Who if not the Companions are willing to help you? Who dragged you through all this so far? What do you think why I am here with you?”

I exploded. “You are here because you can’t bear not to be involved, and as soon as something doesn’t go as you want you blow up and stomp out like an angry bull!”

“So you would have preferred to have yourself – and us! – drawn into a war against the Dominion?”

I clenched my fists. “Gods, Vilkas, don’t be so melodramatic. I just need some answers, now that even the Greybeards sent me away! Yes, she insulted us and perhaps she is insane. But perhaps she also knows something, anything, and I didn’t get this information because you had to force her onto the defensive!”

“She wouldn’t have been so defensive if she had honest intentions with you.”

“We don’t know what her intentions are! All I know is that I’m stuck!”

He gnashed his teeth audibly. “This woman wants to use you, Qhourian. Perhaps not for a war, but for some very weird personal plot of hers. She isn’t interested in helping you, trust me. And get used to many more people trying to rope you in for their purposes. Many people will try to make use of the Dragonborn. You better be careful not to become their toy.”

All of a sudden my anger subsided. I was really naïve. I thought everybody was as terrified of the dragons as I. That people could be so ruthless to use this threat and the appearance of a Dragonborn for their own agenda – of course they would, I just hadn’t considered it so far.

But I wouldn’t be used. Never again.

It was quiet between us for the rest of the way. Vilkas knew exactly that he had given me plenty of food for thought, and he left me alone.

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2 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prey: 15. Futile

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