Eyes on the Prey: 20. Regret

eotp_wp_020_regret

Betrayed.

Another lightning bolt slammed me into the wall and drove the air from my lungs, but I barely felt it under the feeling of bursting into fragments. Something clenched around my chest, prevented any breathing, and at the same time I felt how I left my flesh, was shattered and torn apart and pulled away from myself.

The face of my shield-brother appeared in my mind, how it had opened wide in unbridled terror and despair the moment the necromancer released his soul trap spell on him. Although I didn’t know the meaning of the dragon’s Words, I knew this was happening to me now.

Only my senses still worked, body thrashing under a barrage of magic, skin sparkling with a myriad of needle pins that pierced right into my flesh, the air laden with the metallic tang of the energies set free by the Altmer wizards, the impact roaring through my ears.

Betrayed.

At first, no resistance was left to counter this violent attack, and still it wasn’t the worst. The magic of the Thalmor violated my body, the Words of the dragon tore my self apart. But my mind still worked, and the worst was the sudden impact of comprehension what this betrayal meant.

He wanted my soul. Mine, the soul of this weak, trembling heap of flesh that lay curled into a ball, on the floor of a damp, dark cavern, screaming in agony.

It was the ultimate recognition of this sick joke the Divines had forced upon me. The soul of a dragon in the body of a girl, acknowledged by one of my own kind in the cruellest way possible. My humanity was irrelevant, everything that made me a woman ignored and discarded – all that counted was the dragon in me. Ysmir, the Dragon of the North. Gifted by Akatosh.

What a sick joke.

For a moment, I was ready to let myself go, to end it all and to vanish… or to gift myself to this brother who wanted to claim me.

But only for a moment.

And then something soared up, a power so raw that it scraped my insides, incredibly strange and alien. It rose, flared through my tormented body and clawed itself into my mind. I was not dead yet. As long as I lived, I was whole. As long as I still felt the pain, the traitor would not own me.

As long as I lived, I had my own power. It was there, in me, so incredibly strange and strong and still mine, so much more than the ability to shout Words and use ancient magic, and I only had to use it. No one would dominate me. No resistance against this other me was left when it broke out, when I let it free and flow through me, let it seize my body and my mind. The power that he wanted and that was mine alone, the strength of my own soul, even if it was caught in a weak mortal body.

Every muscle screamed when they fought against the onslaught and I rose to my knees, driven by the force that curled behind my closed lids. I felt as if I had to explode, as if the urge to release something would kill myself before the Altmer finished their deed.

I clenched my hands clenched around a smooth piece of wood that had been strapped to my pack and rose, hand over hand, until I knelt, the stick a crutch holding me upright as much as something substantial to focus on. It helped to force back the staccato of attacks, to overcome muscles trembling and convulsing with ripples of magic as much as exertion, to empty my mind until the flaring pain became dull, a blanket of agony I could move and breathe beneath, push against it until there was room again for something else.

I had exactly one chance. As long as I lived, I was whole. And if I died, I wanted to die with my own soul.

The traitor, the dragon cowered motionless in his nest, the Elves besides him, magic sparkling in their palms, the three of them watching me die so he could live. But I would hold my promise. I had one chance to kill the mind that held him here in this world and send him back into oblivion.

I let my will flow, and every bit of strength I had left went into the Word that tore through a throat raw from screaming and through my hands into this crude piece of wood that held me upright. It was like a repetition of the scene in Forelhost, my dragonfire and Rahgot’s staff drowning the room in a flood wave of fire. The staff slipped away under my grip and I fell forward and to the side again, lay curled together on the ground while the inferno devoured the cavern and everything in it.

As the heat sizzled on my skin, my mind cringed under the agonised, soundless shriek that echoed through my skull. No smoothness any more, no promises, no knowledge.

I felt the darkness of unconsciousness creep into my mind, my vision tunnelling, but I turned my head and watched. One of the Altmer was a burning heap of flesh at the feet of the dragon, curled together, twitching uncontrolled. The other ran around erratically, bumping into walls and pillars as his burning robe turned him into a living torch, mouth open in a scream of terror, fear and pain. And still he held the connection to his thrall, the voice of the dragon assaulting my mind again. The skeleton reared up in the middle of a sea of flames, neck twitching.

“Briinah! Hi los dovah. Vahzah dovah!”

And a shadow erupted from the opening in the back, from the inner caves, his movements strangely clumsy, nearly tripping over his own feet. He stopped for a moment, taking in the situation, the burning Elves, the twitching dragon skeleton. And he was foolish, so foolishly heroic, ran through the fire as if he searched for something, ran past the dragon towards me and was tossed through the room by the erratic hit of a wildly flailing tail.

Laughter broke out of me while I watched him. Another weak heap of flesh, irrelevant in this fight for dominance.

But he picked himself up and backed off against the wall, away from the dragon and out of the fire. Only when the remaining elf stumbled towards him, perhaps with purpose, perhaps accidentally, he made a fast decision. Farkas was unarmed, but he slung an arm around his throat and broke his neck with a powerful jolt. It was a futile, unnecessary effort, the mer was as good as dead anyway.

As I snapped back into myself it was like another strike of lightning, stronger than everything before, ripping me apart and knotting me back together, the shock jolting physically through flesh and bones and making me scream. I was whole and alive, and it hurt.

The enthrallment was broken, and with it the mental connection that had brought me here. In the end, the dragon just wanted to kill me like all the others, had thought his power larger than mine. And like all the others, he had underestimated me. And still, despite all the dragons that had died by my hand before, all the souls that fuelled my own strength, this was a loss I had to mourn.

Because he had taken something with him, even if he wasn’t able to best me. It was over, I had survived, and still I had lost something essential – the naïve illusion that being Dragonborn was somehow comparable with being a Companion. But this wasn’t a deed or a task, something I could finish and get over with. Being Dragonborn defined me, was imprinted into my core. I had known it before, everybody had told me that as Dragonborn, I had the soul of a dragon. I had known it, but it had taken this experience to make me grasp what it really meant. My soul wasn’t human, and I would never feel like just a girl again.

In this moment, curled into a ball, I felt hollow and numb and not human any more.

A shadow cowered in front of me, blacking out the flickering of the flames from the braziers and in piles of rubble and bones littered over the floor.

“Qhouri?” Farkas asked, his hand reaching out and flexing around my shoulder, “you alright?”

A shudder ran through me, his question so innocent, hesitating, full of concern and curiosity. He had no idea what had just happened.

He shook me, and I jerked out of his grip with a groan. I couldn’t endure this now, this closeness, his touch.

“Sister?”

“Don’t call me that,” I hissed, turning my back to him. I didn’t want him to care. His face fell into hurt incomprehension.

“What happened, Qhouri? Are you injured?”

I didn’t answer. He knew I wasn’t wounded, that there was no blood, no remains of the fight but a few scorch marks and blisters and the tingling in my muscles from the shock magic. And the feeling that I teetered on an edge, strung up to a degree that it took only a breeze to let me topple into the abyss that gaped before me. The abyss that was me.

I just wanted him to leave me alone. But he didn’t, hunched motionless behind me, nothing but silence between us.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” he whispered finally.

Slowly I turned to my back, stared blandly up into his soot-covered face. “Doesn’t matter. We live, after all.”

“What happened, Qhouri?”

I averted my eyes. “He wanted my soul for himself.”

A gasp was his answer, and a trace of fear appeared in his expression. It filled me with strange satisfaction. “He?” He pointed at the crumpled heap of bones that had been Nahfahlaar. “He wanted your soul? He was the one who called you?”

Nausea shook me when I fought myself into a sitting position. “He called me, yes. And he called me sister too,” I said, all the disgust and self-loathing I felt in my voice.

“Gods. And… you believed him? You let him?” he asked incredulously.

“Of course I did. He was right, after all.”

He narrowed his brows. “What do you mean, he was right?”

I rolled my eyes. “He was a dirty, undead, insane traitor, but he was also kin. Brother.”

“But he tried to kill you!”

“So what?” I snapped. “Haven’t you listened to Arngeir’s lesson? We strive for power and dominance. That’s what we both did, and I was stronger. Not your training, not my own skill… just the godscursed power of this godscursed soul of mine.”

Utter horror stood in his face. “That’s not true. Don’t say that. You’re not…”

“What? A monster?”

“No!” He gripped my upper arms in a grip so firm that it hurt. “Qhouri! Gods, he was in your head and messed with you! Why do you believe him?”

I ripped away from him violently, shoved him back so hard that he barely held his balance. The way he shrugged off what had been an epiphany for me as messing with my head, it was humiliating. And it only proved his ignorance. “I am not insane, Farkas,” I pressed out between gritted teeth. “He didn’t mess with my head. But I learned something I needed to know!”

“And what in Oblivion could a dragon teach you so important that’s not another way to kill him?”

“That he and I are alike.”

He jerked back. “You’re nothing like that! You’d never… Gods, you’re no dragon!” He spat the last word with utter disgust and his hands reached out, stroked over my arms and came to rest on my shoulders. “We have to get out of here. Let me take you home,” he said lowly, his voice imploring. As if he was pleading with me to come to my senses.

“No!” I yelled, shrugging him off brusquely. I needed Rahgot’s staff to get to my feet, my head bursting in throbbing, stabbing pain that made my eyes tear, but I forced myself to stand straight and not to shiver when I looked down on the man who knelt before me. He only waited for the opportunity to get back into his role as my protector.

“That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s how you like it… that you can drag me out. To have me dependent on you. Your brother is at least honest when he calls me a failure, but you… you like to see me weak.”

The way his face fell in shock, it made my chest clench with satisfaction and guilt. I was not weak, and he’d have to learn it. Most important was to prove to him and to myself that I was not at his mercy.

“That’s not true,” he whispered with a pained expression, “I never meant…”

“No?” I snapped at him, “who had to play around with that bloody mask and got himself caught by some bloody mages? And now you wanna take me home?” I bent down with a groan and slung my pack over my shoulder. “Go home, Farkas. Get your priorities straight, go to Morthal and make things right with your family. And let me for once do something on my own.” I felt his gaze between my shoulder blades as I stumbled through the cavern, but he did as he was told and didn’t follow me, stayed frozen to the spot.

I didn’t know how, but I made it back to the sanctuary, put on the wooden mask and entered the hideout in another time and space I had claimed for myself, this gift of a refuge where no one was able to follow me. I sought shelter and escape from everything that had happened, and the solitude and quiet enveloped me like a warm cloak, cosy, soothing and mind-numbing. Hours or days later, I didn’t know, I woke from dreamless sleep or unconsciousness, I didn’t know either and I didn’t care, every muscle and bone aching, dried blood, scorch marks and layers of dirt on my skin, starving and thirsty. And I was still alone when I finally took off the mask and returned to the ruins. For a moment I had expected Farkas to be there, to have waited for me, but of course he didn’t. He had no reason to do so.

A touch of guilt gnawed at my conscience when I remembered how I had pushed him away, but I didn’t let it get to the surface. I had relied on him and his unfaltering dedication for far too long and far too heavily, not only on the strength of his sword arm, but on the way he believed in me. To know that I could always fall back on him had kept me from believing in myself.

I just hoped that he had indeed gone to Morthal, reunited with his brother, his daughters and their mother, made things right with them. He should have gone there right from the beginning, shouldn’t have fought with Vilkas. Yes, I had been afraid to come here without him, but that shouldn’t have detained him from doing his duty towards Jonna and his daughters. That he risked all these bonds for me had let me feel gratitude before, although I didn’t understand his decision. I still didn’t understand it, and now it made me question his motives.

Because he hadn’t experienced what I had, and he lacked the understanding of what had happened with me. He had to learn that I wasn’t like Ria, that I wasn’t the frightened, overchallenged girl any more I had been when I came to Jorrvaskr. I wasn’t weak – not even when I thought I was.

I washed myself with melted snow, stilled my thirst and ate from the dry rations in my pack, then returned to the cavern with the dragon’s skeleton. A cautious approach wasn’t necessary, somehow I knew that nothing lived in there any more, but I had to search the caves for the remains of the Thalmor, perhaps find out what insane plan was behind all this. I wanted to know if they really thought they could control a dragon, if Nahfahlaar had betrayed them as much as me, or if they had really made a deal – their help in catching the Dragonborn’s soul for him in exchange for his service. Speculations as insane as scary.

But I found nothing substantial in the things the Altmer had left behind, only the large amounts of supplies they had stored away proof that they had obviously been here for quite some time and planned to stay even longer. The cave system went deeper into the mountain, but they had cleansed it of draugr, skeever and spiders, and there was nothing for me to do or to discover – nothing but another Wordwall that provided me with the strange ability to slow the current of time. I knew at once that this Shout would be a powerful weapon.

It was eerily quiet around me when I finally left the complex, nothing audible but the howling of the wind between the broken walls, but Labyrinthian had lost its terror. I had freed the ancient city and myself from the horror lurking inside. A strange calm settled into my mind when I reached the Shrine of Akatosh where we had spent the night before. Last time, I had prayed to the god, for guidance and luck, the strength to survive and his blessing. I didn’t pray now. The blessings of the Divines were indistinguishable from a curse, that much I had learned, and I wouldn’t risk to be granted another gift.

I came back to Whiterun two days later and during the first heavy snowfall of the winter. What had pierced my skin with sharp tiny needles of ice up in the mountains had become thick, wet flakes clinging to the fur of my cloak and wetting the fabric beneath, the frigid wind going through marrow and bone. But when I stumbled through the gates under the sympathetic gazes of the guards, I had made a decision, and instead to return to Jorrvaskr, I headed straight for the temple.

I had to be strong for myself, not for the sake of others, and I had to be able to help myself. Vilkas’ lessons had only had one effect: to make me realise over and over again how much I didn’t know, how little I was able to do on my own and how useless all my endeavours were. Now I would ask for a lesson that would teach me something practical and useful. And it would drive Vilkas into madness when he’d find out.

The thought coaxed a mirthless grin on my face.

Danica rushed towards me as soon as I entered the warm, brightly lit room, concern in her face. Usually the Companions only came to the temple in the rare case when they were injured too severely for potions and Tilma’s considerable healing abilities.

I gave her a calming smile. “You have a moment, Danica?”

Her eyes darted through the room, to the cots with injured people lining the walls. Barely a bed wasn’t occupied, many of them with soldiers in ragged armours. The skirmishes between the Imperial army and the Stormcloak rebels became more frequent and fierce lately, and the priests made no difference between the factions when the wounded were brought to them. But she nodded and led me to a small table.

I straightened myself and came straight to the point. “I want to learn your magic, Danica. Restoration. I think… it would be useful.”

She eyed me astonished. “I understand the Companions are no friends of magic,” she said hesitantly.

“I’m not only Companion. And I want to broaden my horizon.”

She smiled at my brusque request, the urgency in it, but her gesture to the large circle of the room was regretting. The pain and injuries gathered here took all her attention.

“Perhaps you can, perhaps you can’t, child. I will teach you, but I need your help first. Whiterun needs your help first. We have a shrine, but this isn’t a temple any more. To bring Kynareth’s grace back, we need to bring back life to the Gildergreen.”

I could barely hide my surprise. The large tree in Whiterun’s centre hadn’t been green for many years. It was dead. But on the other hand, it was Kyne’s tree, Kyne’s symbol. When the Divines meddled into mortal affairs, everything was possible. No one knew that better than me.

As she filled me in about what she had found out about the origins of the tree and the vague possibility she saw to save him with the help of its ancestor, the holy Eldergleam tree, one of the eldest beings of Nirn, I realised that this was perfect. What I needed most was a break from everything, from the Companions and their never ending work, from my shield-siblings, especially the twins, and most of all from the dragons.

This was something entirely different, and it was perfect. For once, I would do something useful, I would do it all on my own and prove that I could.

The streets of Whiterun were quiet and empty when I left Jorrvaskr early in the morning, not even Heimskr was up yet, and the guards at the gate just nodded tiredly when they let me out. Only Kodlak knew that I had to take care of something and that I’d be away for a few days.

I sighed a breath of relief when the gates shut behind me. I definitely needed some time alone with myself, and I had to relearn to rely on my own strengths and nothing else. But it was strange to travel alone again, especially as I tried to avoid any settlements.

It were the small things I missed most. Steps crunching the snow beside me, the tent already standing when I finished gathering firewood, the noises others made in their sleep. Of course I could do without, like I could do without someone helping against wolf packs, someone cooking for me or keeping watch while I slept. But I was used to all of this. The silence of my first night alone was nearly more frightening than an assault out of the dark would have been.

In a way I retraced the last months of my life on my way to Orphan Rock where I would retrieve the sacred dagger we needed to get the sap from the Eldergleam. I crossed the dense woods of Falkreath Hold where I had spent the time after Helgen, before I met that injured elf. A bear had settled in the remains of my old camp, but I had left nothing behind that was worth keeping anyway. But I dispatched the new inhabitant, wanted to spend at least one night at this place, if only to get a feeling what had changed since then. Much more than just the season.

When I passed the ruins of Helgen, I imagined to smell smoke and ash in the air, even after so many months. Somehow, this place marked the turning point of my life, perhaps even more than the murder of my parents or my escape from Cheydinhal. The dragon who turned the former striving village into a heap of crumpled stones, never rebuilt and left to be a hideout for bandits and thugs, he had also turned my life upside down. Not that I had had much of a life before, but anyway… had he appeared to save me? But why should he save me, the Dragonborn, his greatest enemy? Or did he come to save Ulfric Stormcloak, like so many people thought? I couldn’t believe it was simply a coincidence, but in the end, this was just another unanswered question in a pool of so many others.

I had to restrain myself from loosing myself in these questions, from pondering too much about the past. There had been so many chances where things could have easily turned out entirely different – to reason about a what if for every single one of them would take me nowhere. And I didn’t want to start to doubt the few deliberate decisions I had made. To help Athis. To join the Companions. To go to High Hrothgar and accept this destiny I couldn’t escape anyway, whatever it would turn out to be. I couldn’t know what these decisions would mean for my future, but I didn’t even want to. Better to turn my attention to the present – with the Eldergleam tree I had to deal again with something supposed to be older than mankind, perhaps even more ancient than the dragons.

I knew what awaited me at Orphan Rock, Danica had told me about the horrible magic of the hagraven witch that resided there, the rituals they performed against themselves and against nature. I hoped Farengar’s amulet would protect me. What I wasn’t prepared for was the savage fight going on in the camp of the mages who served as the hagraven’s slaves, their servants or victims, I didn’t want to know. But obviously they had come too close to the nearby Stormcloak camp, and the soldiers were dead set to clean them out. But in contrary to me, they had obviously no idea what they marched into, those young men with their light armours and simple steel swords. They were many, but they didn’t even get close through a barrage of lightning and fire. I hid on a rock above the cruel scene and watched in horror.

In the middle of the hollow soared a single rock, littered with bones and half-rotten limbs, some of them distinctively human, some fires blazing in rusty iron bowls and emitting an awful stench. And in the centre lingered the most dreadful creature I had ever seen. On first glance only a woman, an old woman considering the bent back and the shaky steps with which she moved. But her hands were twisted into ravenlike claws, her back and shoulders covered in black feathers instead of tunic or skin. She sent a never ending chain of fireballs into the approaching soldiers, splitting their lines apart and setting men, trees and earth ablaze. I knew this was my target, but as soon as my first arrow hit her, the bushes around me started to burn as well. She easily divided her attention between me and the troops below, and the best cover would serve me nothing if I was roasted alive. I had to retreat, upwards between the rocks where it was much harder to hide, but at least they wouldn’t burn as easily.

It took endless minutes until I finally sensed that the attention of the hag had turned away and I dared to approach again. I was far too used to a shield-sibling storming in front of me, serving as a distraction and giving me opportunity to deal my strikes from behind. This time, I only had one more try, or I’d suffer the same fate the soldiers below me endured. At least they kept the other mages at bay.

This time my arrow hit her right into the chest, and the creature stumbled backwards with a hateful screech, but she recovered herself with astonishing strength and tenacity. But I shouted back, not caring that I was revealed to the participants of the fight below me.

“FUS RO DAH!”

Still regaining her balance, my Shout caught her by surprise, and finally she dropped silently down the cliff, her black feathered arms spread like useless wings. But her absence was noticed immediately. The mages froze in place for a moment, a desperate wail sounding through the valley, and their resistance was broken. They were obviously more than simple servants, their will somehow tied to the hagraven, and it left them when she was dead. In the ensuing chaos it was easy to sneak over the trunk that connected the solitary rock to the walls outlining the basin. Nettlebane, the dagger I had come for, stuck in the corpse of a spriggan.

After the deed was done, I vanished back into the wilderness. The Stormcloaks would want to find out who caused the death of the hagraven, and they had certainly heard my shout as well. The last I wanted was to declare myself in front of a bunch of rebels. The dagger I had retrieved was a strange thing, a weapon nothing alike I had ever seen before. Actually, I didn’t think it was even usable as a weapon; the blade was made from something like black glass, the edge polished to a sharpness able to cut through stone and metal – at least it left a deep cut in my thumb before I even knew I had touched it. But it was also so fragile it would probably break with the first strike. I wrapped it in thick layers of leather and stored it deep inside my pack.

Now that this immediate task was dealt with, I felt reluctant to return to Whiterun at once. The Gildergreen tree was already dead for so long, it could certainly wait for a few more days, and I’d simply presume the right to enjoy my newfound freedom a bit longer. Some people would probably call me crazy for enjoying to be out in the wilderness alone in the middle of winter, but I didn’t care – at least as long as the weather held, a snowstorm or worse would force me back anyway.

After the first few days in my old camp it felt a bit like coming home – not like coming home to a place like Jorrvaskr, but like coming home into my own self-consciousness. Into the awareness that I was able to survive all on my own. That it was nice to have others around, that I didn’t have to be afraid of them and could enjoy friendship and camaraderie, but that I’d always be able to rely on my own skills if the sky should decide to collapse.

And that a lot of things were so much easier when they were not laden with relationships, with demands, dependencies and liabilities.

I savoured my solitude wholeheartedly, especially as I knew it wouldn’t last long. For the time being I laid some traps for the occasional rabbit or whatever they would catch and had a good time hunting wolves and foxes, sneaking on game and crafting some items I’d never use again.

But when I found my traps plundered for the second time, my hunting instinct awoke. I didn’t want to worry if whatever attacked my rabbits would perhaps some day find the courage to attack me as well.

Well, it wouldn’t. A pitiful whimper alerted me long before I reached the spot where one of my traps was hidden under a bush, and the bundle of multicoloured fur that had entangled itself in the leather cords watched me approach from brown-speckled eyes that looked so forlorn I couldn’t help but smile. The dog wasn’t much more than a whelp, and the way he chewed on the strangled skeever showed that he was simply hungry, not aggressive. It was a curious sight with its floppy ears hanging low beside the long snout, the scabby fur strangely hued in various shades of brown and grey and sable and with a large white fleck at its rear.

“Been too greedy, hm?” I greeted the creature when I knelt down beside it, just to feel its teeth in my ankle – too weak to pierce the leather of my boots, though.

“That skeever’s yours already, little hunter!” I felt his heartbeat calm down a bit when I scratched the fur in his neck while cutting the ties, also to have a tight grip on him should he decide to attack. He was small and certainly no challenge, but I didn’t want to hurt him, and the last thing I needed was an infection from an animal bite. He barely moved when I had freed him, letting me check for injuries – not that I could have done much about it, but he seemed to be in good health. No wonder, my prey had fed him well.

“Now off with you, Snowback.” After a pat on the back I expected him to vanish into the wood, but he didn’t. He just sat there and watched me, his short tail wagging slightly.

The following days were a constant struggle between my attempts to ignore him and his efforts to attract my attention. He never came too close, but he also never left my view. His ways to ruin my hunts were as manifold as foolproof, a yelp in the wrong moment, the movement of a falling leaf letting him rush off through the brushwood or a subtle smell catching his attention, but there was no chance to shake him off. Obviously he had nowhere to go, and the loyalty in his odd eyes when I threw him some bones or leftovers from my meals was heartrending. After the third night I woke with him cuddled to my feet, searching shelter and warmth against the light snowfall, whimpering in his dreams. The smell of wet dog reminded me of Jorrvaskr. It was time to go home.

The thought let my heart sink. How could it be that I found peace only when I was alone with myself? Jorrvaskr was home, and I wanted to return, I missed it. But there was also so much anger and hassle waiting for me there, some of it just annoying, some outright terrifying. And most of it was tied to the twins, to Vilkas’ hostility and the way Farkas made it even worse with his way to cluck over me like a mother hen.

I had been a bitch to him in Labyrinthian, I realised this now, and I would try to set things right. But he would also have to realise that I was able to take care of myself, that I didn’t need him as much as he thought, and most of all that every minute we spent together made his brother only more unbearable – something I was not gonna risk.

At least I could leave Snowback at the stables for the one night I planned to stay in Whiterun, but I was tired, wet and frozen to the bones when I entered Jorrvaskr, just to be greeted by grey eyes hard as stone and flashing with anger. As if he had waited for me right behind the door. Somehow, it wasn’t really a surprise.

“Where in Oblivion have you been?”

I groaned. “Not your business, Vilkas. Don’t pretend you worried. Kodlak knew I’d be gone for a bit.”

“Yes, for a few days, not for nearly a month! You can’t just vanish for weeks when you have obligations to fulfil here!”

Even a blizzard in my little camp would have been more comfortable than to come back to this, to this demanding, accusing, possessing look on his face. I reached the end of my tether.

Shut up. It hasn’t been a month, and I’ve been busy. You’re not responsible for me, you don’t order me around and I’m entirely capable to take care of myself. I know you still like to pretend that I’m the whelp who needs the guidance of his superiors, but it gets tedious. Get over it, finally.”

He grabbed my forearm in a bruising grip when I started to descend the stairs to the living quarters. The situation was frightening familiar, but this time, I wouldn’t back out. Not again. He needed to learn that werewolf or not, member of the Circle or not, he didn’t have the right to push me around.

“Do… not… touch me.” My voice was calm, and I didn’t turn away from his furious gaze. After some endless moments, he let go, but he braced himself against the wall on both sides of my head, his breath hot on my face.

“I don’t care if you’re a dragon, Akatosh’s chosen or Talos incarnate, whelp. If you wanna be a Companion, you will play by the rules. And the most important rule is that you don’t leave a shield-brother behind. Never. Understood?”

Divines. Of course Farkas had told him about the events in Labyrinthian… and what I had said to him. And of course Vilkas didn’t understand it any better as his brother.

“I didn’t leave him behind!” I said defensively. “We parted after the job was done. Neither your brother nor I need a nanny!”

“He doesn’t, no. But you?”

I shoved him away roughly. “It only proves my point when he comes whining to you just because I don’t wanna be pampered by him any more,” I snarled. “Gods, I’m sick of your attitude. Both of yours!” To my astonishment he took a step backwards, stood before me with his arms folded over his chest, a condescending, triumphant smirk on his face. And his eyes flicked away from my face to a point behind me.

When I turned and followed his gaze, my eyes met with Farkas’ who stood like frozen at the foot of the stairs, and the bottomless sadness, the anger and deep disappointment in his expression struck me to the core.

And then the door slammed shut and he was gone again.

“You will regret this, Qhourian. I swear you will.” Vilkas’ last words were a soft, venomous whisper.

And for once, he was right.

Once I had accused Vilkas to have severe hubris issues, but now it seemed I was nothing better. I knew I had been a bitch in Labyrinthian, far too absorbed into myself and how I felt to care if I hurt someone else. It didn’t even make a difference that it was Farkas, I would have lashed out against everyone.

But to remember his face right now caused sour bile to rise in my throat. I hadn’t been aware that I had hurt him deeply enough to grant such a reaction from both of the twins. I hadn’t been aware that I was even able to hurt him so deeply. And now he refused to talk to me. I knew he was in his room, I heard him shuffle and pace around, but he gave no sign of acknowledgement when I knocked and pleaded with him to open door and finally whispered my apologies through the wood that shut me out.

I couldn’t force him. And I had promised Danica to leave for the Eldergleam sanctuary next day. Bad conscience clenched into a ball of dread in my stomach at the thought to leave this behind with no opportunity to clear it up, but there was nothing I could do.

The hall was quiet in the evening with most of the Companions away, and I was glad that I didn’t have to endure any more confrontations. I sought as much solitude as possible in Jorrvaskr and buried myself on a small table in a dark corner of the hall, trying to keep myself distracted with the boring accounts about some ancient battles in the Jerall Mountains. Until Aela dropped down beside me. And it was impossible to ignore Aela the Huntress when she didn’t want to be ignored, even if she didn’t say a word.

I sighed. “What’s the matter, Aela?”

“You’re playing with fire, sister.”

“I know. Literally,” I snorted.

She was not amused. “We worried. I’m not sure what you have to prove… but you should stop challenging him.”

I just stared at her. She had really come to rub even more salt into my wounds?

“I know I’ve been a jerk. But what am I supposed to do if he doesn’t even speak with me?”

For a moment she looked confused, but then a small grin quirked her lips. “Not Farkas. Vilkas.”

“Vilkas?” He was my smallest problem at the moment.

“Yes, Vilkas. Stop being a pain in his ass.”

“Aela, please. Vilkas never worries about anyone but himself. And perhaps his brother, when it suits him. When he says he’s worried, he actually means that he doesn’t trust me to take care of myself. And it was him who told me that all of Jorrvaskr just circles around my job.”

Aela turned to me and took the book from my grip. She wouldn’t let me out, it seemed.

“Listen to me, Qhouri. I know he’s a jerk. I know he’s difficult and a terrible egomaniac. But believe me, he cares deeply for the Companions and for all of us. Please, don’t let this argument escalate. Part of the problem is that you’re both stubborn as mules.”

I had to grin. Yes, the times when he could’ve broken me were over.

“Yes, he cares for the name and the honour of the Companions, and for history and tenets and glory. And perhaps for his brother, perhaps for you, but certainly not for me. He’s a pain in my ass too, you know?”

“He’s just not used to somebody talking back.” At least, she didn’t seem so convinced any more that all of this was solely my fault. Or that it was my job to end it.

“But I’ve done nothing to challenge him! I wanted to learn from him! But he used it every single time to show off and put me down. That’s not caring, sorry to say that. And it’s also not caring that he falls back on silly threats when somebody dares not to cower before him! Gods, it’s as if he used all that brain just to be as insufferable as possible!”

I didn’t want to become so agitated, I really didn’t. But my blood boiled. Aela looked at me with an odd, lopsided smile.

“One could say the same of you.”

My anger deflated in an instant, receded into tiredness, sadness and shame, and I buried my face in my palms when I felt blood rushing into my cheeks.

“No,” I mumbled, “I’m just an insufferable fool.” I shrugged helplessly, searched her face for answers she wouldn’t give. Not even if she had them. “I don’t know what to do, Aela. He doesn’t speak with me, and I have to leave in the morning.”

She arched a surprised eyebrow. “Again?”

I nodded. “I promised. But not for long, only a few days.”

“Perhaps it’s for the best that you’re out of the way for the moment.”

“Sometimes I think it’d be best if I was out of the way completely.”

She leant forwards and laid a slender hand on my wrist. “No. But this constant fighting has to end.” Her face was deadly serious. “You’re a Companion, Qhouri. Nothing will change that. But like it or not, you’re more than that, and we all have to deal with it, even Vilkas who sees himself constantly challenged by you and your attitude and your friendship with his brother. Farkas has the least troubles with this, and he won’t be angry forever, we both know that. But most of all you’ll have to deal with it yourself. You have to decide what’s important to you and what you’re willing to give up for being Dragonborn.”

I lifted my eyes to her, all my fears written into my face. “And what if I have to give everything up? What if I don’t have a choice?”

“You have already made some choices, and they’re final,” she said with a light smile. “You’ll always be one of us, and you’ll always have a home here. Don’t forget… by human standards, you’re not the only one in this room who is a bit weird. Not by a long shot.”

A bit weird. Her flippant remark made me smile, and a wave of relief washed through me as she held my gaze calmly.

“You know… to top it all, this whole mess in Labyrinthian gained me nothing. It was completely futile. Again.”

“Nothing at all?”

I shrugged. “I got a name, but that’s all. And I have no idea if it’s relevant.”

“Well, you’ll find out.”

I sighed, but gave her a feeble smile. “Thank you, Aela.”

She stood up, laid a hand on my shoulder. “Sleep well, sister. And safe travels.”

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2 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prey: 20. Regret

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