Eyes on the Prey: 16. Like a Butterfly

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“Like this.” Vilkas’ voice was flat and emotionless as he bent over the alchemy table. “Be careful not to damage it.” He held the abdomen of the insect between index and thumb of his left hand, pressed its head with the tip of a needle against the soft wooden board and fixated it with a swift stab through the thorax, then pulled his hands away.

“Wait until it stops twitching and flapping.” He watched calmly how the wingbeat of the dying butterfly became slower and more erratic. “It’s important that it can move its wings freely, or it will hurt itself and lose the scales.” He turned to me, his gaze piercing. “What we’re after… they’re scales. Just like the dragon’s. Did you know that?”

I shook my head, watching the careful, controlled motions of his hands with a morbid fascination. They were gentle, nearly tender, yet still so cruel. Of course I didn’t know it.

He took a tweeter and removed the head of the animal with a swift twist, a small drop of a translucent liquid oozing from the body. “Now it’s dead. We don’t want it to suffer, do we?” That sly grin of him… as if he meant it. Next he showed me how to remove the wings from the body, carefully gripping them at the veins, the delicate tool looking far too fragile in his fingers. Using a tiny bone spatula, he scraped the glittering, colourful dust from their surface that held the alchemical properties.

He gave me a lopsided smirk, displaying the same cold inquisitiveness he had shown when he watched the animal die its slow death. I felt like the butterfly in front of me when he handed me the small tool. Or like a child, begging for approval. “Your turn.”

I clenched my teeth, not so sure any more if my request to learn at least the basics of processing ingredients and mixing potions was so smart. Or if it was smart to ask Vilkas. He had only scowled when I had asked him if the alchemy table in his room was only for decoration or if he actually knew how to use it.

Of course he knew, the butterfly his first lesson. And after I stored the pinch of dust I had abraded from the wings into a small phial, we spent hours making the most basic healing potions together, from wheat and the blue mountain flowers that grew everywhere around Whiterun. He taught me how to extract the sap and how to control the strength of the potion by adjusting the amount of water, the heat of the calcinator and the different mixtures. He taught me the basics of the craft with the same patience and sensitivity he had shown dissecting the butterfly.

This was Vilkas. His erratic attitude drove me crazy. And he fascinated me, because he forced me to overstep my limits.

After the failed trip to Riverwood I threw myself into a flurry of activity. For the first time I fulfilled regular contracts for the Companions, travelled back and forth through Skyrim and got to know my homeland, chased criminals, gathered long-lost family heirlooms from the undead clasp of draugr or cleared bandit and animal dens.

And finally I had opportunity to get to know my shield-siblings in their natural habitat – not that the mead hall wasn’t their natural habitat, but travelling around and fighting for the sake of others, that was what they did for a living. And to save each other’s life and tend to each other’s wounds, to share watches under the endless vastness of Skyrim’s sky or to sit out a blizzard in a small cave together, freezing and bored, all this formed bonds I had never known before. Working, training and celebrating together let me feel more and more like a real part of this group.

And every time we had the chance, we visited one of marks on the Greybeard’s map. They never disappointed insofar as we always found a dragon. We slayed them with growing ease, the Companions becoming slowly but surely the army of dragonslayers I had dreamt of. And more often than not I also found a wordwall in the vicinity, just like at Lost Tongue Overlook.

Slaying dragons, taking their souls and expanding my vocabulary became something like routine. And I never found so much as a hint at what caused their rising.

I took every job I could get, eager to carry my share of the workload resting on the Companions, the ledgers always full while the war occupied many of the regular forces. I worked myself out, barely slept any more, because it was the only thing that made me feel useful. Because slaying dragons, learning new Shouts… in the end, it would get me nowhere, and I knew it. And with every new word and every new soul settling in me, my frustration with myself and the futility of everything I did grew.

Additionally, when I wasn’t travelling criss-cross through the country, I followed the Greybeards advice and learned – everything and at once, and as I didn’t know where to start, I took what was available, soaking in unsorted knowledge like a sponge.

I read through every single book available in Jorrvaskr, history and lore, research papers, bestiaries and journals, travel guides and maps. I pestered Farengar with questions, spent hours with him in his cosy little study. To his credit, he was more than patient with me, apparently delighted to have found someone who shared his interest in the dragon issues and the vast knowledge he had accumulated. I even spent a couple of evenings with Heimskr to learn everything about Talos he could tell me. It took some persuasion to lead his thoughts away from the sermon he preached day in day out to the citizens of Whiterun, but when he realised that my interest was less theological than historical, he proved to be astonishingly knowledgeable about my predecessor.

But apart from that, strangely it was Vilkas who took me under his wings during these weeks. He not only took care of my weapon training, he also pressed me forwards, challenged me with his knowledge, brought up always new questions I didn’t have the answers to.

Perhaps it was a bit of remorse because of the disastrous meeting with Delphine, perhaps pity, perhaps my hunger for knowledge just gave him opportunity to exhibit his superiority, but he occupied my time whenever I was in Jorrvaskr. He always found new ways to expose how little I knew – and to wake my interest.

But his room had also become my refuge, the only place where I found the quiet to read and concentrate. He let me use his desk, and the Greybeard’s map had found a place on the inner side of his door. We spent many hours together, discussing the various matters I read about – which meant usually that I asked questions and he tried to answer them.

I was grateful for his generosity and excited about his vast knowledge. And still, the time I spent with him always left me even more restless, more frustrated… and unsettled by his personality.

We had become acquainted with each other during those weeks, but that didn’t mean that we had become close. It was impossible to be close to Vilkas, not in the same way I had come close to all the other Companions in the meantime – or to his brother. I got to know my siblings, not only the raw facts, but their quirks and whims, aversions and preferences. Some were adorable, others hard to endure – Aela’s snarky remarks, Ria’s inexhaustible energy, Torvar’s foul mood when he was sober and bored, Skjor’s often aloof behaviour – but we got used to each other, and we grew together.

Vilkas had his quirks and tempers too, always had an edge to him, a tension like a predator ready to strike and a carefully hidden scorn. But he controlled himself tightly, seldom showed more than an irritated scowl or deadpan indifference, although it cost him – I spent enough time with him to notice the dark rings under his eyes and weary lines in his face, sometimes worse, sometimes better but always there. Occasionally, in rare moments when he thought himself unobserved, his face dissolved into a tiredness that was more than the result of a night of bad sleep, full of despair… and hopelessness. And sometimes, I saw Farkas’ gaze linger on his brother, full of concern. But it never took more than a second and his control was back, his jaw set in his usual cold, indifferent arrogance.

He was as ruthless to himself as he was cold to others. And it wasn’t my place to ask what set him on edge like that.

Because I never knew what to expect from him. He was patient, caring and cruel at the same time, challenging me with my shortcomings, pinning my ignorance, often leaving me embarrassed and humiliated. And then he took the time to talk things through, to teach me, as if it was his personal ambition that I became a scholar like himself. His sharp, often cynical wit could be hilariously funny, but it could equally fast slip into merciless humiliation when he found a weakness.

But the peace we had made with each other shortly before my initiation was brittle, and it became more obvious how fragile it was the more time we spent with each other. For the longest time I thought it was just him, that it wasn’t personal how he treated me, seeing how he whipped the other whelps through his training. I thought he was just difficult and that it was best to ignore his moods as best I could. I could learn from him, after all, even if it wasn’t a fun way to learn.

But it was personal. And I didn’t realise it until it was too late.

I loved the early morning in the training yard, especially in this time of year when the sun rose late, the only light coming from the flickering torches. When I could be certain to be alone and take my time, aim every shot carefully until the straw target was riddled with arrows, slowly feeling my body warm up despite the freezing cold before sunrise. When the sleepy dizziness finally vanished from eyes, muscles and brain, I started to train in earnest with exercising motions, attacks, thrusts and parades against the dummies or simply against my own shadow. I felt so alive in these hours, when I exhausted myself even before the first bite of the day, and I only stopped when the sweat froze in my damp hair, my muscles ached from the same movements over and over again and all motions began to flow together like a dance, guided more by instinct than by conscience or thought.

“It hurts to watch you.” The dark voice came from the patio, Vilkas leaning against a wooden pillar, arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t wear his armour, not even a cloak, but his appearance was immaculate, his hair combed back behind his ears and his warpaint fresh. I frowned at the disturbance, wondered how long he had watched me already, but my chagrin only caused a jovial smirk. Slowly I lowered mace and shield. He made it a habit to turn up when I wanted to see him least. When I didn’t want to see anyone.

“Then don’t look, Vilkas. Nobody forces you to be out here at this ungodly hour.”

“Oh yes, your incompetence does. I’m not gonna let a shield-sister kill herself because nobody bothers to show her how to do it right. Here. Try that. Against me.” He tossed me a sword from the rack with the training weapons. “You need something effective. Something that works against dragons.”

Oh, it seemed he actually paid attention when we sat together in the evenings, recounting our dragon fights, even when he just seemed to brood into his mead. I knew my mace wasn’t the ideal weapon against iron-hard scales and leathery skin, learned it painfully during an encounter when the beast had bucked me off its neck, Torvar and I only coming out relatively unharmed because he rammed the tip of his greatsword through the dragon’s throat before he could close his jaws around my shield-brother.

I had been mostly useless in that situation, my weapon not even able to slash through the dragon’s wings. But it was still the one I felt most comfortable with when I couldn’t avoid to get into close combat. Obviously, for Vilkas comfort was no reason to choose a weapon. Efficiency was, though.

What followed wasn’t a spar, it was a lecture in incapability. He attacked without further warning, without giving me a second to position myself, and disarmed me with his first strike, a cold, satisfied grin on his lips. Over and over again the unaccustomed weapon flew from my aching fingers, my hands, arms, shoulders and every other body part he was able to hit soon bruised from blows with the flat side of his own huge sword. In contrast he barely seemed to move at all, wasted no movement as he parried, blocked or simply evaded my meagre attempts to stab him.

He was relentless in his drill, forced my aching limbs into positions I wasn’t used to, showed and practised with me how to use the sharp blade and the tip of the sword to pierce and cut instead just to smash something with a blunt head.

But this was more than training. Even if he was right, even if I would profit from this treatment in the end, even if I told myself that I should be thankful that the Master-of-Arms of the Companions himself took the effort to teach me… for him, it was most of all another way to demonstrate his superiority.

He hurt me deliberately, and I had gone through enough spars to know that he hurt me much more than necessary, hitting the same spots over and over again. I was a lousy sword fighter, we both knew it, but I took his barked commands and snarky comments and didn’t give him the satisfaction to complain, clenched my teeth and stayed. But he only became more unrelenting and merciless the longer I put up with his treatment, playing his game with me, taunting me to give up, the smug smirk on his face slowly making way for something different… something darker and more cruel. As if he lost his patience. As if he grew tired of this mockery of a lesson.

He wanted to force me into submission.

And he could, because he was the Master-of-Arms and I was only a whelp. My dragon soul screamed in shame and fury, but it didn’t help me one bit when a especially powerful hit that crashed flat on my shoulder made me cry out, tears springing to my eyes. It felt as if he had broken my collarbone, my own weapon falling from my suddenly numb fingers with a dull clank, for the umpteenth time. When I bowed down tiredly to pick it up, my back aching, a forceful blow to the back of my thighs let me fall to my knees. I hadn’t even recognised that Vilkas suddenly stood behind me.

He pressed the sharp side of his sword into my side as he bent over me, the free forearm coming around my neck and constricting my throat, his knees pressing painfully into my kidneys. A single false motion, and the blade would slice through the leather of my armour. Absentmindedly I noticed that the sun had risen, golden light streaming over the city. We had spent hours out here.

“Too slow and too weak,” he hissed into my ear, “where’s the dragon now, Dragonborn?” His breath was warm even on my hot, sweaty face.

I couldn’t shout, I couldn’t even breathe. And even if I could, I wouldn’t have dared to. But I could try to ram my elbow into his thigh. He didn’t even flinch, only the pressure on my throat became firmer. Now his voice was a nearly gentle whisper. “You’d be nothing without the Companions, Qhourian. And without us, you will fail. Never forget that.”

This wasn’t just smug satisfaction about my failure any more. There were disgust, loathing, a barely tamed fury… and hatred. And with sudden clarity I knew that the brittle peace between Vilkas and me was only a truce, and that it would not hold.

And I knew that he was right.

Only when he finally released me, sheathed his own sword and I dropped into the dust of the training yard, gasping for breath, drenched in sweat and with trembling muscles, I noticed that we were watched – Farkas leant on a pillar, absently chewing on a loaf of dry bread, his eyes full of pity… and respect.

“Don’t look like an oaf, brother,” Vilkas spoke loud enough to be certain I overheard him as he crossed the patio, “you know, that would have been your job. What did you do all the time you spent together?” His grin was bleak and cheerless.

Farkas ignored him though, waited until his brother had vanished inside the hall and then came over, hunched down in front of me.

“You okay?” he asked roughly. I clenched my teeth, forced down the tears that gathered in my eyes. No, I was not, and I didn’t answer his rhetorical question, resting my forehead tiredly on my knees. Everything hurt, and Vilkas’ sudden unveiled hostility caused a coil of dread in my stomach. I was no match for him… and I couldn’t afford to fight. Not here, not at home. I needed my strength for other things.

Farkas knew all this. I knew – and Vilkas knew certainly as well – that he had heard every word. When I felt his hand on my shoulder, warm and steady, I couldn’t resist to lean into the touch. If he pulled away, I’d just topple to the side. But he wouldn’t.

“Why does he hate me, Farkas?” I asked helplessly. “I thought…”

His grip became firmer. “He doesn’t. He’s just… struggling.”

“With me?”

“No. Not with you.” He paused for a moment. “Not mainly, at least.”

“But he’s right,” I whispered. “It’s so useless. Everything I do is so useless.”

His voice was deep and soothing. “Don’t believe him, Qhouri. In this, Vilkas is wrong. You’re strong… you will find something, and then you’ll know how to go on.” Gods, he was so damned naïve. And so damned confident.

How I missed that confidence around me. How I missed the feeling that someone believed in me.

I lifted my eyes to his face, too tired and confused to ponder my words. “I miss you, Farkas.” He would understand. He always did.

He looked at me from deep, dark eyes, his fingertips stroking over my cheek and tugging a sweaty braid behind my ear. “I miss you too, sister,” he said quietly. “I miss our travels. But you don’t need me any more to delve through old tombs. And…”

I lowered my gaze as he didn’t speak on. He was right, I didn’t need him any more to slaughter draugr or dragons. I needed him for other things though, and perhaps they were even more important than just his sword arm. For the short breaks his company gave me, to relax and recover every time his brother had found another way to run me down, in this lighthearted, undemanding, nearly instinctive understanding between us. After we had returned from Riften and gained some distance, I could admit to myself how much I missed him. He didn’t make any demands… and he was the only one I could show my fears and frustrations, because he knew them anyway.

But we had both… other obligations. We had barely seen each other during the last weeks, and not only because I was so busy. He was seldom in Jorrvaskr as well, either out on jobs or spending his time in Morthal. I knew he had finally told the Circle about his daughters and that they had taken it surprisingly well. He had told me about that meeting full of relief, and the joy beamed from his eyes when he talked about the girls, how he slowly settled into his role as their father, how they got to know each other and they accepted him, how he arranged this life with Jonna in some kind of companionable routine.

He was happy… and I was happy for him. And still I missed him, as selfish as it was.

“Farkas!” The harsh shout broke the silence between us. Vilkas stood at the door, washed and changed. “I need you. Now.”

A touch of anger moved over his face as he rocked back and rose. But he held out a hand to help me up, and I let him thankfully pull me to my feet. For a moment, he buried my hand between his palms. “My promise holds, sister,” he said lowly, giving me a gentle smile. And then he turned and went over to his brother who watched us with unconcealed scorn.

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

It was an easy job, not really worthy of the Companions, but Athis and I took it nonetheless, if only to escape Jorrvaskr. The Jarl of Riften had charged us to catch a criminal who was rumoured to have escaped towards Whiterun Hold. The man was the owner of a sawmill, a lonely small settlement at the shores of lake Honrich, and he was sentenced to death for killing one of his workmen he suspected to spend too much time with his wife.

Of course we went there first for our investigation and found his wife inside the house, a shy, frightened, intimidated woman. But when we asked our questions about the whereabouts of her husband, she was much more nervous than necessary, wrangling her hands and clenching her fists into her apron, cold sweat on her forehead.

Athis gave me a wary look, then his gaze wandered to the small rug the woman stood on. It hid a trapdoor, the outlines clearly visible under the threadbare fabric. The woman paled when I pushed her to the side and Athis pulled it open.

The miller cowered in the corner of a damp, dark hole usually used to store wine and vegetables, his hand clenched around the neck of a broken bottle. He blinked frantically when the light streaming in through the opening blinded him. How incredibly stupid to hide in his own house.

He was too frightened to resist though when I climbed down the rickety ladder with my weapon drawn, bound his hands behind his back and shoved him towards the exit. We delivered him to the guards at the gate of Riften without him muttering so much as a word, glad to be rid of him.

And when we stood in the throne room of Mistveil Keep and Jarl Laila’s steward counted our payment into a purse, the dragon came over the city.

Riften was a reeking, rotten hole, corrupt to the core – the guards even tried to make us pay a travellers tax after we had delivered our prisoner to them -, full of debris, the human kind sneaking through the shadows, the regular kind piled up in every corner and alley, its stench mingling with the seedy smell of the oily shimmering canal leading through the centre.

And it was nearly entirely built of wood.

The sight when we left the keep in a hurry after a guard had yelled his warning through the room was incredible. It was chaos and hectic, yelling and screaming and people running around in frantic panic beneath the gigantic beast that hovered directly over the market place, the whiff from the slowly flapping wings blowing dry leaves and rubble through the streets. Only very few people seemed to keep a clear head, and none of them was in uniform. I saw a man with fiery red hair and a fine, elegant coat with two children on his hips, yelling at the old hag who tried to shut the door of the orphanage in front of his nose until he shoved it open violently and brought the kids inside. And the Argonian keeper of the inn shooed the merchants and customers from the market place into her establishment. I hoped she had a cellar where they could hide.

A Nordic woman who didn’t leave her stall in time, gathering the cheap, unsorted armour and weapons she sold was hit by the fiery blast of the beast. She fell with flailing arms and a scream backwards into the canal. We didn’t have time to watch if she surfaced again.

Where in Oblivion was the godsdamned housecarl to bring some order into this chaos?

Athis and I looked at each other, nodded at each other and I darted down the stairs to the market place with him on my heels, already gathering my breath.

No matter how dangerous a flying, firespitting dragon was and how much easier he was to fight when grounded – most of all, we had to prevent now that he landed. Not here, not on these wooden gangways or on a roof and out of reach, between all these stalls and huts and houses that would incinerate like tinder with a single hit of his breath. And the few guards that stood around and fired arrows at him had obviously no idea what they were doing. They even managed to miss him a couple of times.

“FUS!”

Now I had at least his attention, the cold, indifferent gaze of the dragon turning immediately to me as he struggled with a roar to hold his balance. I sent an arrow towards his throat, Athis like my shadow doing the same, and ran towards the southern gate.

“Open!” I yelled as the guards didn’t lift a finger to let me out, with the beast on my heels.

“The gate is closed,” one of them said stoically. I couldn’t believe it. Perhaps because we didn’t pay the travellers tax. But I didn’t have time to argue, the dragon now turning his attention towards the orphanage.

“FUS RO DAH!”

It was frail and ramshackle anyway, the wings of the gate splintering in its hinges. I ran outside and knew from the distinctive sound of a dragon sucking in the air for his next shout that he followed me. At least I wasn’t alone with the beast, Athis, some guards and a few brave men and women coming after me. A quick glance around revealed that some of them were clad in matching armour, dark, tight leather that blended in with the shadows. The guards held a careful distance to them.

But my problem now was the dragon, and after I had to shred to damned gate to pieces, my throat hurt like fire, I didn’t have the breath for another shout and had to rely on my bow. Riddling him with arrows was no foolproof way to kill a dragon though and usually only served to make him angry. And we were still far too near the city.

And then, after an especially nasty shot from Athis, the arrow getting stuck in his throat and blood dropping like crimson tears from the wound, the dragon did what I had so far never seen one of them do – he rose too high for us to reach him and veered off, in a straight line towards the mountains in the south-east.

At least the city was safe… for the moment.

I still catched my breath when a Nord in shining golden armour approached us – elven armour, the same the Thalmor warriors patrolling the land wore. Strange.

“You didn’t kill it,” he said with a scowl, “it will come back.”

His blatant accusation rendered me speechless for a moment, then I felt my face heat in anger.

“Ah, Unmid. How nice to see you.” Athis’ voice was calm. He bent over to me and whispered into my ear, “that’s Unmid Snow-Shod, the Jarl’s housecarl.” Ah, there he was at last. He didn’t even carry a bow and deigned Athis only with a curt nod, keeping his gaze on me.

I narrowed my brows in frustration. “I would have been easier if the guards had let me out when I told them to open the gate.”

“They just followed my orders. And now the gates are destroyed and the dragon is gone. What do you plan to do about that?”

This was preposterous. “I do not plan to do anything about it, Sir,” I sneered. “How about you adjust your orders to include some common sense? Would you have preferred to have the dragon land in the middle of your market?”

He puffed himself up even more, not at all impressed by the notion. “If he had stayed, he would be dead by now. But you had to chase him away, hence the Jarl orders you hereby to track him down and kill him. You’re Dragonborn, after all. He probably fled to Forelhost.”

I took a step backwards, my hand on the hilt of my mace. But before I could give him an appropriate answer, Athis thankfully chimed in, stepping in front of me, his teeth bared in a malicious smirk.

“This must be a misunderstanding, Unmid. Or a mistake on your side. You know, you don’t order the Dragonborn around. No one orders the Dragonborn around, not even your Jarl. You can ask her politely to save your rotten city from this beast that will, and in this you’re right, certainly come back. A proper reward for her service is of course taken for granted. Or you can assign the job to the Companions, of course for our regular fee. Or you send your own troops. Your choice.”

Gods, how I loved this mer. The man, at least a head larger than Athis, was dumbstruck for a moment, his Adam’s apple silently bobbing up and down as he tried to find an answer.

“You’re both Companions? You’re Dragonborn and Companion?” he finally pressed out.

“Yes. We just brought back a murderer who fled from your jail. Another indication of the state of your security.”

Anger about my insolence flared up in his face, but then he pulled himself together, his gaze flitting back to the city and the remains of the gate. He squared his shoulders. “I hereby assign the slaying of the dragon threatening the safety of Riften to the Companions of Whiterun,” he said stiffly. At least he was a man of fast decisions – and had the authority to make them.

Athis gave him a beaming smile. “Thank you, Sir. It will be done. What is this Forelhost you mentioned?”

Now he was all business. “An old Nordic fortress not far south-east. It’s ancient, rumours are that it was one of the last refuges of the Dragon Cult. A group of Stormcloak soldiers went up there recently, they were searching for some artefact to help the war. Of course we supplied them with everything we could, but perhaps they also roused the dragon.”

It was really not far, and we were immediately on our way. Athis was of astonishingly good mood when we climbed the steep path towards the fortress, humming a simple tune.

“Hey,” I nudged him, “what is our regular fee for slaying dragons?”

He grinned boyishly. “No idea, this is the first time we’re contracted officially. Usually the Circle decides things like that… but I guess we’ll have to improvise this time, do we?”

It wouldn’t come cheap, that much was clear.

We found the Stormcloak patrol Unmid had mentioned at the entrance to the fortress – or rather the remains of it, a single soldier clad in the distinctive Stormcloak officer gear, reinforced leather with a blue sash and a rather silly looking bear helmet. He cowered behind the crumbling remains of a wall, trying to hide from the dragon that loomed on top of a huge stone arch above the gate. A few bodies lay around, but they were burnt so crisp that it was impossible to discern what they had been before their demise. But he joined into the fight at once after I staggered the creature with my Shout, letting loose a barrage of lightning and fire that helped tremendously to bring the beast down.

Another soul for my collection.

I eyed the man curiously while Athis rummaged through the skeleton for bones and scales. He was a mer – an Altmer, which struck me immediately as strange. And he wore the distinctive, arrogant scowl that was so characteristic for his kind. Only briefly had I seen his face lit up in surprise when the soul entered my body.

“Good,” he nodded stiffly, “I’m Captain Valmir. After I lost my men, I need you to accompany me into this ruin and retrieve an artefact for Ulfric Stormcloak.” The disgust on his face while speaking these words was… weird. And what was it with all these guys today who thought they could order me around?

I gave him a sweet smile. “Well met, Captain Valmir. Please help me out… since when do you have authority over the Companions of Whiterun? Or over anyone who isn’t a Stormcloak? You must have taken over… during the last 24 hours, and I hope you’ll excuse my ignorance over this unexpected development.”

His face crunched in anger, orange eyes flaring down on me. “I don’t,” he said curtly. “I need someone able to deal with undead and worse. You are, obviously. Your reward will be generous.”

I pinched the back of my nose, seemingly deep in thought. “You know, Captain…” I said friendly, “you could just ask. Politely. Not everybody is bribable. And we just earned a generous enough reward to keep us settled for today.” I beckoned towards the remains of the dragon.

“You would have never taken him down without me! You owe me…”

“I owe you nothing. I’ve slain already more dragons than you have probably ever seen, Sir.”

He narrowed his eyes threateningly. “I could force you. I have the Jarl of Riften behind me.”

She owes me too. But you can try, of course.”

Something about this mer was strange. That he was a mer, and an Altmer at that was strange, that he fought with magic even stranger. Everybody knew about Ulfric Stormcloaks racism and his hatred against magic, much worse than the usual discomfort of the Nords in general. And now, a High Elf throwing fireballs posing not only as a simple soldier, but as an officer of the rebel’s army, searching for something important and probably powerful in a ruin that was somehow connected to the Dragon Cult of old?

Something about all this was very strange. I wanted to get behind it, my curiosity woken. The members of the Dragon Cult were the human rulers over mankind under the dragon’s reign after all, and they were said to have been granted terrible powers by their overlords. Long gone, long forgotten, nearly as long as the dragons themselves. But if this was indeed their last bastion, perhaps we’d find something interesting.

On the other hand, I couldn’t afford to help a Stormcloak. The Companions didn’t take sides in this war. We were neutral, and I wouldn’t breach this policy.

And something told me that even if this man wasn’t honest, he needed us desperately.

After a brief, whispered counsel with Athis, we decided to give it a go and deal with the political implications when it came to it. If it came to it. Athis was at least as suspicious about the mer as I.

I turned back to the Captain. “We will help you, under a couple of conditions.”

He barely withheld his anger. “And what would those be?”

“First, we get the supplies that were meant for your men. We haven’t planned for such a lengthy expedition. And second, you stay behind and wait here for us. We’re used to work in a team, a third would only be a nuisance.”

He complied with gnashing teeth, and while we filled our bundles with the rations he had stored away, he filled us in with what he knew about the complex. That it was the stronghold where the Dragon Cult tried to regroup after its strength was broken by the humans rebelling against their terror. That King Herrald besieged them in the first Era and that most of the bastion was inaccessible today due to a collapse that must have happened during this siege. And that our job now was to find a way inside and to retrieve the staff of the Cultist’s leader, one of the powerful priests who led his remaining forces here.

We had barely entered the eerily silent ruins when Athis turned towards a small room and dropped his pack.

“Now we can rest,” he said with a grin, already chewing on an apple.

“You wanna rest? Now? Here?”

“Qhouri… we ran through the Rift, catched a murderer, fought off a dragon, climbed this bloody mountain and killed it in the end, all in the last fourteen hours. Not to speak of the morons we had to deal with. And those guys in there,” he pointed towards the gate that led deeper into the ruins, “have waited for us since the first Era. I’m sure they won’t mind a few more hours.”

I flashed him a slightly bemused smile, certain that he could have easily started the exploration of this place at once if he wanted. But a rest was fine, and the strange mer outside could easily wait a few hours longer for his staff as well.

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5 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prey: 16. Like a Butterfly

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