Was it possible to encounter a tree?
It was. The entrance to the sanctuary cave was small and unmarked, and I nearly missed it in the long shadows of the evening sun. But everything changed when I entered Kyne’s Sanctuary.
The journey here had been exhausting, Snowback and I had made the whole trip in only two days, with a short night’s rest at Wilhelm’s inn in Ivarstead. I had been in especially foul mood when I left Jorrvaskr, still owed to my conversation with Aela. It had taken some time until the true meaning of her roasting had sunk in, and to hear that Snowback had given Jervar a hard time at the stables only let my anger boil hotter.
Vilkas was simply jealous, and it was my fault? Was she going crazy? Was he going crazy?
I’d gladly give him all these damned dragon souls, my own and all the others I had gathered, cut them out of me with a wooden spoon and present them to him on a silver tablet if I could. Here, take them, and have that nice little destiny on top. All for free. Perhaps the dragons and the beast in you will tear each other apart. And Farkas – by all Divines, that was even more insane! Yes, we had gotten along fine with each other, but Farkas got along fine with everybody. And I had even managed to screw that up. Damned Vilkas, did he have any idea what it meant to be a twin? Did he have any idea what he meant to his brother? That it was something nobody could take away from him – and certainly not I, even if I wanted?
What a fool. Moron. Thankless jerk. Icebrain!
Snowback had to pay for my fury. I threw a twig he had to retrieve until he turned on his back in front of me, his heavy panting begging for a break.
“Sorry, cutie.” I fondled the fur behind his ears, earning a content whimper. “At least you’re reliable. You are, aren’t you?” These speckled eyes were simply adorable.
In the end, he was the perfect distraction from my anger. If he was to be more than just a funny companion, I’d have to train him to follow my commands, he had to learn to stay quiet, to stay where I wanted him to and not to let himself distract by every small noise or movement he spotted. I had never trained a dog before and no idea how to start, but somehow I had the feeling that he was eager to learn, that he wanted to please me, and with some chunks of dry meat as reward we soon started to see the first results, although it was heartbreaking to see his gaze when he followed the stay command for the first time.
And now we had reached our destination, I wore Kynareth’s amulet around my neck, and as soon as the scents, breezes and sights of endless summer hit my senses, everything else simply vanished and fell off my mind.
The summer greeting me was a summer the harsh land outside had never seen. The golden light flowing in from huge gaps in the cavern ceiling couldn’t be of natural origin; the sun was already setting, impossible the bit of remaining light poured in like that. The cave was huge, I could barely see its outer walls, and it was filled with life. The glory of life. The essence of nature.
I stood at the entrance like a child, struck with awe, and let the mild breeze caress my face. Snowback sat beside me, nearly motionless, and didn’t even whimper. I saw flowers I had never seen before, everywhere, strewn over the meadows which covered the ground like vivacious carpets, and trees, even larger than the ones I knew from the dense woods around Riften, over and over studded with blossoms, their petals floating through the fragrant air.
It took me a moment to realise another oddness – it was quiet. Not absolutely quiet, I heard the breeze of the wind in the trees and the gurgling of flowing water, but many of the typical sounds of nature were missing. No rustling in the brushwood. No birdsong. No wolves howling, no foxes barking, no bear growling. Not even the faint noises which were so often overheard, the buzzing of bees and whizzing of midges, the squeaks of mice below the earth. This place contained absolutely no animal life beside Snowback and me – and some more people I saw in the distance.
The centre of the landscape was formed by a hill, a waterfall pouring down into a small lake on one side, the other framed by a lawn that stretched onto a steep cliff. Below it, a narrow path wound through the whole cavern alongside a crystal clear creek. It was the only path to the centre, to reach the… no, this wasn’t just a tree. It was an entity. Something breathing, thinking, being, so much more than a mere plant. The Eldergleam stood on top of the hill, sheltered by water and rock, struck by a single beam of light which made his everlasting blossoms gleam. It was the centre, but I felt it was also the source of this refuge. A spirit of life nothing could disturb, the most beautiful, the truest personification of Kyne I had ever seen.
Slowly we made our way along the path. I felt the pull towards it, but couldn’t help to stop every few steps and admire the view. The diversity of life around me, of shades of green was incredible, and the closer we got to the central clearing, the smaller I felt. This place was a living treasure for every alchemist, but even the thought to pick a single flower felt disgusting. Destruction of that kind, of any kind had no place here.
The mystical silence endured even when I reached the large space in front of the tree. A young man lay backwards in the grass, motionless, perhaps sleeping, perhaps meditating. A Nord woman approached me.
“Welcome to the sanctuary, child,” she addressed me calmly and with a gentle smile. “Kynareth is with you.”
The goddess was present at this place, that I felt. But was she with me? The woman sounded so certain… but I carried Nettlebane in my pack, the cursed blade, dark magic made to hurt this miracle. I had come to steal. I wasn’t so certain that the goddess was with me.
Now it was obvious that Danica had spoken true – it was impossible to simply approach the Eldergleam. Its roots lay bare, thicker than my thigh and smooth like polished stone, entangled in a huge knot covering the whole hill. There was no way to overcome this barrier, no way but… the thought of the grim blade made me shiver.
Undisturbed I lay on my back and looked up to the magnificent sight, stayed like that for hours, entranced by the slow movements of the branches above me, by the play of light and colour between leaves and blossoms. Slowly the calm and peace around me seeped into the restlessness of my mind and erased all questions and uncertainties. A feeling spread through me I had never felt before: unconditional trust, completely irrational and unavoidable. I gave myself into the hands of the goddess, because she embraced me with her presence.
Perhaps I fell asleep, perhaps I just daydreamed, but when I opened my eyes again I knew what to do. I had to try it, at least.
I got rid of my armour and pulled the light rope out of my pack before I slung it back over my shoulder. My vertigo would prove useful for once. Snowback lay motionless in the grass, only his eyes following me.
Only when I stood at the bottom of the hill and tilted my head into my neck to look up where I had to go I could assess the deed I intended – a deed I was glad to do, for Kyne, for the Gildergreen, for Danica and Whiterun, for myself. I would not hurt this tree, not even scratch it. It was impossible to do so. When I started to climb, I felt the gaze of the priestess in my back, but she didn’t try to hold me back.
Hours later, I was on the verge of giving up. To throw the rope over a root, pray that it wouldn’t slip off the smooth wood, tie the ends together, climb up to the next halt, untie the knots and start all over again – my whole body trembled with exhaustion, fingers, arms and shoulders aching from the unaccustomed endeavour. But I felt as if the presence of the tree watched my meagre attempts, judged my perseverance and tenacity, and did so with sympathy and favour. Every time I looked up I found the strength to clench my teeth once more, to bite back the curses when the rope ripped my palms open, the raw flesh soaking the thin leather of my gloves and the fibres of the rope in blood. I wouldn’t give up.
When I tumbled over the edge of the cliff, I felt… nothing. Nothing but pain and relief, the whisper of the leaves above me soothing coiled nerves and muscles like a lullaby. For endless moments I lay motionless on the grass, my legs dangling over the abyss I had mastered, panting for breath and waiting for the flaring pain in my shoulders to subside.
And when I finally opened my eyes, I stopped breathing with amazement, and they filled with sudden tears of joy. Directly in front of my face, exactly where I’d fallen down, grew a sapling. A beautiful, perfect miniature of the miracle above me.
It was Kyne’s gift, and I was allowed to take it with me.
I left Nettlebane in a hollow at the trunk. There was probably no safer place in the world to keep the cursed blade.
“Divines, what happened?” Danica rushed towards me when I entered the temple, bruised and battered, limping and weary.
My whole body hurt, and I groaned.
“Got into an argument between a dragon and a giant, in Honningbrew’s backyard. The good news is, the giant won before the dragon could burn it down. The bad news is that he wasn’t amused at all about my help. Thankless bastard.”
I dropped down on one of the benches and held my gloved hands in front of me. “Pull, please. Fast.”
The leather and the raw flesh of my palms had blended into a mixture of blood, fabric, torn skin and searing pain during the last days, and the fight I got into shortly before reaching Whiterun didn’t help either. When the stiff gauntlets tore off my bruised flesh, ripping the oozing wounds open again, my scream must have been audible up to Dragonsreach.
While Danica tended to my wounds, she couldn’t suppress the question burning in her eyes any more.
“How in Oblivion did that happen? And do you have it? Did you get the sap?”
“No, sorry.” Her face fell into disappointment, until she saw my smirk. “But I have something better.” I wiggled my bloody fingers in front of her face. “You didn’t think I’d come back with empty hands after this?” Carefully I drew the sapling from my pack, stuffed into a pouch filled with soil from the Eldergleam’s roots. It had survived the journey apparently unharmed, just a bit wrinkled, and the priestess’ face lighting up in unadulterated, incredulous joy when I handed it to her was worth all the trouble. She held the little tree in her cupped palms, careful and reverent.
“Kynareth’s grace has come back, Qhourian. You have brought it back. This is a debt Whiterun won’t forget.”
“A pleasure, Danica.” I answered her smile equally bright and relieved. To have experienced the Eldergleam, to be deemed worthy of its blessing, that was more than enough reward. And I hoped she would pay me with something more valuable than treasures or honour.
She eyed me curiously. “You really wanna learn Restoration?”
I nodded. “Of course.” Examining the tender new skin of my palms where her spell had mended the flesh, I laughed shortly. “Would have been useful to have it earlier.”
She led me into a quiet sideroom, closed the door behind us and told me to get comfortable and relax, and she grinned bemused when I took her literally and got rid of my armour until I sat in simple pants and tunic before her.
In the end, it wasn’t as mysterious as I had feared. And she was a good teacher.
“You see, every healing process comes with a cost, a cost of power that either the injured person or the healer has to pay. When it’s a healer, it simply goes faster because a lot of power can be spent all at once. It’s not the same as the strength you need to wield a weapon, but you will see that its use is quite similar, and it isn’t less exhausting. The main difficulty is to gain access to this pool of power.”
We started with the most basic spell, only able to heal minor injuries, but we agreed that it would be most useful.
Danica was patient and took her time, she practised with me how to breathe, how to concentrate to tap into this pool of power inside of me, encouraging me with her certainty that everybody had it and was able to use it with enough practice. That it was more a technique than an art. The moment I finally found it and the first sparkle of a warm yellow light appeared in my palm, caressing my own bruises, I was so excited that it faded away in an instant, and Danica laughed at my childish pride.
“Yes, that’s it.” Her smile was warm. “Now you need to practise, practise, practise. It’s like training with a weapon, you will see how it becomes easier over time, and how your own power and experience will grow.” Her face became stern. “But there’s also a danger to it, and you should know about it.”
I regarded her curiously. “A danger? What danger can lie in healing?”
“Being a healer is… demanding,” she explained, “perhaps more demanding than to cause pain, and believe me… when you fail, it can be worse. When you fail as a warrior, you get yourself into trouble. But when you fail as a healer, someone else will suffer for it.” She searched my eyes. “The greatest danger for a healer is to overestimate himself. It has happened that healers killed themselves because they went beyond their own limits.”
I found my first practice target right after I left the temple. At the foot of the stairs to the marketplace was a commotion, Carlotta and Fralia had left their stands and hunched over a small, wailing bundle. When I joined them, I saw that it was Mila, Carlotta’s daughter. The woman looked up to me, rocking the weeping girl gently in her arms. “She tripped and fell down the stairs. It looks worse than it is,” she said.
“Anything serious? Shall I take her to Danica?” I asked. She couldn’t leave her stall now, not with customers waiting to be served. The insufferable Nazeem groped her cabbages impatiently.
“No, no. Just a few bruises.”
I knelt down beside them. I knew the girl well, when she didn’t help her mother, she and her friends came sometimes to Jorrvaskr to watch us spar and train. And because Tilma always had some sweets for them. But now she didn’t even deign to look at me, pressing her swollen, tearstained face against her mother’s chest who mumbled soft consolations and stroked the back of her head. The child’s pants were torn and soaked with blood from a bleeding scratch on her knee.
“Let me try something,” I mumbled, rolled up the ragged leg and cleaned the shallow wound with a wet cloth Fralia had brought in the meantime. And then I closed my eyes and evened out my breath, searched for the power and knowledge I had just discovered. Only the quiet sobs of the girl broke through my concentration, and somehow, strangely, it helped to feel her pain to channel the power into the spell I had learned.
It was overwhelming to make the golden light appear, direct it to the wound and to see how it worked. The bleeding stopped, new, tender skin closed the wound and, most importantly, the pain subsided and the girl turned her head and watched me from huge, wondering eyes. Carlotta’s jaw was slack with amazement.
“You’re a healer?”
“No,” I laughed relieved, “Danica taught me only this one spell so far. Thought it would be useful. Thanks for letting me practise, Mila.” I stroked the girl’s cheek, and she rewarded me with a feeble smile. I stayed with them while Carlotta served her last customers and packed up her stall, and when she asked me if I’d like to join them for dinner at the Bannered Mare, I obliged happily. Somehow, I wasn’t particularly in a hurry to return to Jorrvaskr. And sometimes, it was good to deal with people who were normal, who lived a normal life with normal troubles, and get away from warriors, werewolves and dragons.
But of course I couldn’t escape for long, and my short reprieve was over when the door to the inn swang open and let in a crowd of loud, blundering, boisterous people who made straight for the large table in the back corner, waving and cheering to Hulda and the other guests. My siblings. All of them. They didn’t have to order, the inn-keeper knew anyway what each of them liked.
Athis, Torvar and Ria came over to our table, but when I made no move to join them, they left us alone and occupied their usual places. Only when Carlotta and Mila finally left after I had thanked them heartily for the meal and gotten a sweetroll from Hulda for the girl to take home, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just leave, not with all the Companions gathered here, it would have looked odd. But to join them as if nothing had happened was odd as well.
But it was only that, a bit odd, and the good, content feeling that had filled me since I left the temple, the knowledge that I had accomplished something that was good and useful, it still lingered in my mind and made me brash. And when the maid held a tankard full of foaming ale in front of me and told me with a grin that it was from Athis and that I’d only get it if I came over, I laughed out loud and took my usual place between Torvar and Ria after punching the mer into his shoulder.
Drinking with my siblings was no solution, but it was an escape, at least as long as I ignored the wall of laughter and boisterousness and utter presence at the other end of the table, consisting of Skjor, Hrongar and the twins.
Gods, did they really have to be so loud?
It was impossible to ignore this cluster of Nordic masculinity, and as much as I tried to relax and forced myself not to think of all the unfinished business that had gathered with me on this table, it came up again with every sideways glance, closing in on me without ever making contact, like an itch under my skin.
I felt watched and ignored at the same time. By Farkas, every time I tried to catch his gaze, tried to make him understand that I wanted to speak with him, wanted to apologise and pull down this wall of hurts and misunderstandings that had built itself between us, he turned away brusquely, his attention solely on his mead or the conversations around him. By Vilkas, with unveiled scorn, his gaze boiling with such unbridled anguish that it was me who turned away every time our eyes met. But it was as if he searched it, obtrusive and insolent, as if he wanted me to feel trapped. And by Aela, with the stern scrutiny of the huntress assessing her prey, learning it, knowing it. I felt bare and vulnerable under her observation, as if she had figured something out that escaped me.
I felt like prey. And all that helped was drinking, even if it washed away the warm sense of accomplishment I had wanted to preserve so badly.
The Companions did what they were best at, especially when they were gathered like this: brag and drink, and both of it excessively. Perhaps even more excessively than usually. I didn’t know any more, were they always so blustering when they were together? Were the jokes always so bad? Hadn’t everybody heard those exaggerated stories at least a dozen times?
And Mikael, the terrible bard with the soft voice had made it his special mission for this evening to make me suffer, unable to resist to play that atrocious Dragonborn song over and over again, as if he got paid extra for every time he tortured me with it.
Believe, believe, the Dragonborn comes.
It’s an end to the evil, of all Skyrim’s foes.
Beware, beware, the Dragonborn comes.
An end to all evil. What a sick joke.
“Torvar.” The blonde Nord lay more than sat in his chair beside me, in his usual state, but he was available. “Do me a favour and tell Mikael, if he doesn’t stop playing that bloody song I’ll send Skjor.”
“With pleasure, sister!” His smirk showed that he wasn’t too drunk to enjoy a bit of mischief, but Skjor shot me a sharp, disapproving look.
“We don’t run around and hit people just because they do their job.” Divines, did nobody know how to take a joke any more?
“I know, Skjor, but you would if I paid you for it, wouldn’t you?” My grin was only a tiny bit malicious.
Anyway, the bard stopped his play abruptly in the middle of the line on getting the message, earning outraged complaints from the other patrons. But even Ragnar the Red was better than that constant reminder of something I didn’t want to think of. And even less did I want to think of the first time I had heard it, during the harvest festival at Jorrvaskr, a feast that had ended ultimately disastrous. Only the memory churned my stomach with a feeble feeling of foreboding. Something else I had to drown in mead. Or at least try to.
“Thank you. Come on, have another drink with me,” I mumbled when Torvar was back. He was a fine guy. Not the deadliest fighter, not the brightest spark, but reliable, friendly and so comfortably average. So comfortably unambitious. He was content if he had a bed of his own, a set of gear, three warm meals a day, enough to drink and the occasional roll in the hay. No further obligations, no further claims. Not so bloody complicated. His confused face when I leant my head against his shoulder escaped me, but his arm curling around mine did not, nor his bearded chin on my head.
I heard him mumble something and straightened myself, just to feel him tighten his grip.
“You know, you’ve always been my favourite…”
He stopped when I glared at him. “If you say drinking buddy now, I’ll kill you. Slowly.”
His blue eyes didn’t look half as dull down on me as I remembered them. “Well… but shield-sister doesn’t fit either.” His grin was smug and childish and intimate.
I snuggled against his chest, his chuckle vibrating under my head. “Oh yes, because that’s what I am. Your shield-buddy. Or drink-sister. Or whatever…” I held my empty mug under his nose. “Better do something about that.”
“At your command, M’Lady!” He tried to mimic a salute with a fist to his chest while he shouted his orders to Hulda and forced me into an uncontrolled giggle. His thumb stroking the skin of my neck was warm and rough and calloused, just like the whole man.
“At the moment, you’re most of all a pretty plastered favourite drinking-buddy of mine, and unfortunately I’m still too sober to take advantage of that. Fool that I am.”
“You would never take advantage of me, Torvar. You know I’d shout you to pieces.”
“Aye, that’s true. I’m easy to scare, especially by a woman’s voice. And I cherish my life far too much to take the risk.” He leant over to clink his tankard on mine, a boyish smirk on his lips. “But I wouldn’t fight if you took advantage of me, you know. I’m very compliant in that regard. Even if some people at this table look as if they’d like to test their blades on my neck.”
“Your neck’s strong enough to deal with that.” Honestly, I didn’t care. I felt hazy and warm and comfortable where I was, listening to scraps of conversations that didn’t concern me, his fingers casually stroking my shoulders.
“I’ve never seen you like that before. So… cuddly. And I wonder…”
He didn’t speak on, and I turned my head to see his face. “Torvar?”
“Forget it. Told you I’m a fool.”
I poked him in the chest. “Coward. Say it.”
“Is it… ” he blushed. I had never seen him blush before. “Is it because it’s me, or because you just… need a broad shoulder to lean on?”
I hid my face in my drink. Why did everybody always have to ask questions I didn’t want to answer? Why did I make him ask?
“You’re a fine guy, Torvar. And your shoulder is perfect for the moment.”
He was quiet for a second, but then I heard his good-natured answer. “And you’re a fine lass.” He nuzzled his nose into my hair. “At least I can tell my grandchildren one day that I spent a night with the Dragonborn in my arms.”
My laughter was as sour as the taste in my mouth, I hid the sound in a long gulp. Drinking was better than talking. Much better.
A commotion at the other end of the table startled me from my half-drunken daze, and a fast look revealed that the inn had nearly emptied and our round had become smaller in the meantime as well, Skjor, Athis and Njada gone. But the Jarl’s brother was still there, and he had brought a friend with him, an elder man with long, greying hair neatly tied back in his neck and wearing a heavy armour similar to Hrongar’s. Both were equally deep in their mead as all of us, chatting amicably with Skjor and Ria.
And a girl had wedged herself brashly between the brothers, one of Hulda’s maids, a cute little thing with long blonde braids and rosy cheeks. She giggled about something Vilkas had said and wriggled around on his lap, his hands on her hips. But she leant over to Farkas and whispered something into his ear, her arms around his neck. Or perhaps she was nibbling at his earlobe while his brother pressed against her from behind, I couldn’t tell, but the scene made me grin.
It brought back our conversation after we had left Morthal and how we had been able to laugh about it. How he told me that he would have gifted me to Vilkas in the unlikely case I ever found myself where she was now. His light-hearted cheekiness had broken the ice back then, and I had been so incredibly relieved that we had been able to clear our problems up. And even if this wasn’t the case now, all this was nearly painfully ironic and we had no reason any more to laugh with each other… this girl was perfect for him, tiny and cute and so adorably eager to please. Vilkas should just gift her to him.
But Farkas was obviously reluctant to join into the fun, despite her efforts, leaning back in his chair as far as possible and clenching his hands around his mug even when she scooted closer to him and offered him a generous view into her low-cut neckline. Only when Vilkas leant over and spoke lowly to him, his head shot up in an involuntary reaction and locked on my face. His expression froze, became hard and cold and full of anguish, a look nearly hateful and so full of disappointment that my smile shattered into icy shards that pierced into my soul. A second later, his face closed into forced indifference that was completely alien on him.
I shouldn’t have shown my amusement. And the sudden fear that we had really lost it, that there wouldn’t be any more laughter and cheekiness and clearing up clenched my chest in an icy grip. Vilkas observed his brother with clinical attention, a gaze sharp like a falcon’s while his hand inched higher, pushing up the girl’s skirt, wandering along her thigh. She didn’t mind, but focused her own attention entirely on Farkas.
And he reacted, finally, put away his drink and pulled her closer, his eyes still fixed on my face, gnawing on his lip while his hands stroked her back and flexed around her backside. And then she whispered something in his ear and finally caught his attention, his gaze tearing away from me and focusing on her cleavage, darkening into something between desire and despair as he buried his face in her neck.
More than once I had seen my siblings make use of one of the private rooms in the upper floor, and not just to sleep off their inebriation. More often than not, these flings led to light-hearted teasing afterwards. Especially Torvar was famous for coming back to Jorrvaskr just in time for breakfast, with a confident swagger, dark rings under his eyes and a sated grin on his face. It had never bothered me. It had never concerned me.
Things like this happened all the time, and this girl wasn’t a girl at all, she was a grown-up woman who knew exactly what she was doing, confident and practically sparkling with the awareness of her own attractiveness. I didn’t know her name, but she wasn’t new in the Mare and obviously more than acquainted with the men, and there was a familiarity between her and the twins that made clear that this wasn’t the first time she had their attention. She was no victim.
And still, now she was, she wasn’t even aware of it, and it made me nauseous. Vilkas’ hands touched and stroked her methodically and with apparent practice, and still, in this moment, she was only a piece of flesh he used to show off, a token in a game instead of participant. His attention was fixed on his brother… and on me.
It was ridiculous. And disgusting. And somehow, I couldn’t stop watching, caught in a morbid fascination of this blatant display of mutual seduction as much as in the nagging feeling that this wasn’t what it looked like, that I was another participant in this weird, scary game they played. Or just another token, and I didn’t know the rules.
Vilkas’ voice was low enough that I would have missed it if I hadn’t paid attention. “You seem quite interested, Qhouri.” He never called me Qhouri, seldom called me anything else but Dragonborn, knowing exactly how much I hated the title. A false smile spread over his face, all teeth and cold eyes when he saw that he had made me blush. “Wanna join in? I’m sure our Lina here won’t mind.” He stroked the girl mechanically, like a doll.
It was so easy and so low. This was the game he played? Torvar’s arm around my shoulder tightened, but I only produced a contemptuous grin. He wanted to provoke me with sex? Me? Laughable. Pitiable.
“Interesting offer, Vilkas. But I think I’ll abstain for now.”
“You know…,” he drawled slyly, one elbow propped on the table and his chin in his palm, the other arm still slung around Lina’s waist, “you should have some fun from time to time. It would do you good. Perhaps… it would thaw you a bit.”
A growl formed in Torvar’s chest, not so drunk at all. It made me grin even broader. I didn’t even know that he was able to make such noises, and I grabbed his wrist to calm him down. Torvar and his protective side… he was so cute.
“But I have, brother. You know… for fun, I prefer pleasurable company. Like that Hagraven a few days ago. That encounter was… hot enough.”
In the meantime, our exchange had the attention of the whole table, Aela looking worried, Ria anxious, Hrongar and his friend curious and Farkas imploring. Even Lina had realised that she didn’t get the attention she deserved and looked confused from face to face.
But I saw nothing but Vilkas any more, our eyes locked and everyone else blanked out, and for the first time I understood that what connected us was indeed not just dislike, misunderstandings and distrust, but pure, blank, mutual hate, quivering between us like a thread that was stretched to the point of breaking. It even didn’t matter any more why. When something sinister and cruel crept into his features, it didn’t come as a surprise.
“And what was your prize?”
My breath caught in my throat. He wouldn’t dare… but of course he would, his intention clear, and I couldn’t escape. No escape, never, I had always known it. And although I knew he could see the dread that coiled in my stomach, smell and feel it and Aela and Farkas could as well, I was able to accept the inevitability of this blow. I removed Torvar’s arm from my shoulder and let go of his wrist, sat stiff and numb on the edge of my chair, clear-headed and expectant.
“Vilkas…” Aela’s voice was calm, but carried a clear menace. A menace our Master-of-Arms ignored, still leaning relaxed on the table and lifting his mug for a long gulp. His voice could have been nearly gentle, if it wasn’t so vicious. So venomous.
“Tell me your price, Dragonborn.” He licked his lips. “We can afford you, you know? Farkas spends all his coin on women and mead anyway, he doesn’t need much. And I promise we won’t pamper you.”
The thread was torn. His words shred the threads that connected me with the people around this table all at once, the whole cobweb of screwed relationships that had always been far too complicated a pattern for me to understand. Only now I realised how frail it had been, and now it was too late.
Some things were impossible to leave behind, and Vilkas had stripped me effortlessly of everything I had become and achieved since Helgen and reduced me to the naked core. To the life I had lived before, that had formed me, everything else only a pathetic disguise.
Everything seemed to have slowed down as if I had bent time to my will with a Shout. It was eerily silent around me, no one saying a word. No one said a single word for me. Vilkas’ gaze was still locked on my face, a pleased and merciless grin, making sure that I got his message. And I got it and accepted his victory with a slow nod. Perhaps this was all it had been for him – a game against the Dragonborn he had to win at all costs, negotiation just as little an option as surrender.
But I wouldn’t negotiate anyway. He was waiting eagerly for my reaction, and I rubbed my palm over my face before I turned my attention back to him.
“You’re selfish, Vilkas,” I said lowly. “Why only Farkas? Why not include all your brothers?” I stared into his face, my expression as frozen as my soul. “Don’t worry… I could take you all. And if you want, I will even call you master. For an extra, of course.”
I watched intently as the complacent grin slowly dripped off his face and he swallowed heavily, his Adam’s apple bobbing. I wanted to clench my hands around his throat and press until the movement stopped. I had the power to do so. He had won because he had made the rules of this little game, but he wasn’t stronger than me. Not any more, and his triumph was hollow.
“No?” I shrugged. “And I thought you like to share. Just as well. Lina will have to do then.”
The icy wind that hit me when I closed the door behind me blew the tension from my body that had kept me upright, all of a sudden, and I only made it to the stairs leading up to the Gildergreen. I didn’t have the strength any more to climb them, I didn’t know where to go anyway, and so I just leant heavily against Carlotta’s empty market stall, trying to find a thought in the emptiness of my head that would lead me further. When warm hands pulled me back into a broad chest, Farkas’ arms closing around me and his forehead resting on my shoulder, I leant instinctively into his warmth and the familiar scent. I hadn’t been aware that I shivered, and for a moment, I wanted to crawl into this safety, hide from the world and cry my eyes out.
“Qhouri…” It was this single, muttered word that woke me from my stupor, making me break free from his embrace with a violent jerk. There was no safety, nothing to rely on, just delusion and deceit. Spinning around, I found the others forming a half-circle around us, Torvar, Ria and Aela. Suddenly so protective, my siblings. Protective, as helpless as me and so completely useless. I wanted to scream my fury at them, but I didn’t. Instead I pressed my pack against my chest and tried to barge through them.
Aela took my wrist in a firm grip, grey eyes stern and serious. “Don’t go now, Qhouri.”
“And why not?” I snapped, “why should I stay? You know… this one time I would have needed someone in my back, sister. Only this once. And you did nothing.”
She chewed on her lip. “You’re right. This has escalated. But it’s not too late to fix it.”
“It is not my job to fix it, Aela, and it’s not yours either. The only one who really needs fixing is currently rutting his brain out, with a girl that probably pretends for herself that he is his brother.”
The choked, raspy sound Farkas let out was strangely satisfying.
“What will you do now?”
I shrugged. “I’ve a job to do.”
“At least speak with Kodlak. He will speak with Vilkas too.” She gave me a strange look.
I straightened myself. This was ridiculous, she knew just as well as I that there was no solution. “Listen, Aela… this is pointless. I don’t know why Vilkas acts the way he does, it’s not my business, and you know what? I don’t care. But I know that he won’t leave me alone and that I have to protect myself because no one else does it for me. And next time, I would kill him.” I took a deep breath and turned to Ria. “Be careful, sister. Perhaps you’re the next in line when I’m not available any more.” She looked horrified.
“This isn’t about Ria,” Aela said sharply. “It’s about Vilkas and you. And…” Her voice trailed off.
Her eyes flitted to Farkas. My laughter was mirthless.
“That stupid promise he made and his stupid entitlement that Farkas has to hold his hand through every stupid decision he makes? Yes, I know about it. It’s his problem, and his alone. And most of all isn’t it an excuse.”
“No, it isn’t. And he will learn that he can’t go on like this.”
Suddenly, I felt incredibly tired. There was still this nagging feeling that I missed something, that something was hidden in this mess that I should see and take into account, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Vilkas wouldn’t learn, and the only way to solve it was to split the knot in halves, even if it left only shreds behind. And it was something I had to do on my own, because none of them would do it for me.
“I can’t go on like this either. I’m sorry.”
“But this is your home.” Farkas’ words were only a whisper in my back as I went past them, but there was so much forlornness in them that it made me stop and look back. He looked as tired as I felt, deep lines of exhaustion and sadness written into his face, and when our eyes met and he reached out and touched my cheek hesitantly, I leant into the touch. His palm was warm and rough and calloused, and I knew the man behind it was not. He was hurting, and he showed it to me because that’s how he was and he couldn’t help it although I had caused this pain.
“Walk with me,” I said softly, and he came and went quietly by my side, through the gates of the city and to an empty watchtower where we were protected from the icy wind and had a breathtaking view over the plains, bright with a thin layer of snow under the flickering lights of the aurora.
“I already ran from Whiterun once, remember?” I leant against his shoulder, and he had slung his cloak around us both. “It wasn’t so much different. It was also Vilkas who made me go then.”
“But you came back.”
I chuckled. “Aela threatened to bring you to force me. I thought better not to take the risk.”
“I’m glad it worked.”
I turned around, searched his face. “It won’t work any more. I know now that you’re not dangerous.”
His eyes darkened. “But you think Vilkas is.”
“I don’t know. Yes. He scares me, but most of all… I cannot let him do this, Farkas, but I can’t fight back either, because then we would kill each other. Perhaps it would be easier if I understood him, but I don’t. And it’s probably not my business anyway. But I can’t go on like this.”
“You know that he didn’t mean it, don’t you? What he said…”
I turned my head, stared incredulously into his face. “Of course I know that. I’m entirely aware that Vilkas would rather fuck a skeever before he’d take me. But what he really meant… what he really wanted to tell me is even worse.” A short, bitter laughter broke out of my throat. “Perhaps I should have just nailed him down on his… offer. And make him pay afterwards. It would have been the worst punishment, especially if he had to perform in front of you and Lina.” Suddenly I wanted something to drink. Badly. “…interesting arrangement he had in mind there…” I mumbled.
He became stiff, a shudder running through his body. “You’re not serious.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “No. It was a joke. I would never fuck your brother in front of an innocent little girl like Lina.” The shock on his face made me giggle.
“At least you’re not mad at me any more.”
“I’ve never been mad at you.”
“But I hurt you. I’m sorry.”
“You’re a bitch and I’m a fool. We know that already.” I gave him a relieved smile and leant my head against his shoulder, glad he let it go so easily. His chin rested on top of my head. “What have you been up to during the last weeks?”
“Looked for a new Gildergreen.”
“Danica asked me to. And I’m glad I got the chance to help. It was… awesome.”
“And… you were successful?”
I nodded. “Have you ever been to Eldergleam Sanctuary?”
“In Eastmarch? No. Passed by, yes, several times. But never been in there.”
“You should visit it next time. It’s incredible.”
“The Gildergreen… that’s a big deal for the temple. And the city. Hope she paid you well.”
I grinned. “See, and that’s why she didn’t ask greedy mercenaries like the Companions.”
He chuckled. “Does that mean she didn’t?”
“No. I got…” I looked curiously up to him. “You got a wound somewhere? A bruise, or a scratch?” Every Companion usually carried some injuries in various states of healing around. I got a questioning look, but he rolled up his sleeve and presented me a cut right above his elbow, covered only by a sloppily tied bandage. “Dagger,” he shrugged, “bastard paid for it.”
“Of course he did.” I closed my eyes and tried to force out the spell and to focus it on the torn skin and flesh. It had been easier with Mila, because the girl had directed me with her tears to the cause of the pain she felt. Farkas was completely unfazed by the injury, though. It certainly hurt him, but not enough to pay attention.
And when the golden light finally appeared in my palm, he literally jumped back and tore his arm from my grip with a yelp, startling me so hard that it disappeared instantly.
“What is that?” he gasped.
I gave him a patient look. “A healing spell. Don’t tell me you’ve never seen one before.”
He breathed heavily. “Of course I have. It’s just… why can you do that?”
“Danica taught me. It was my payment. And it’s useful,” I said defiantly.
“It’s magic.” He swallowed. “You could have at least warned me.”
“It’s a healing spell, Farkas. It does no harm.”
He looked warily at his arm, as if he feared the wound had miraculously disappeared. “Potions and salves are perfectly fine. Or needle and thread.” He shot me a sideways look and couldn’t suppress a lopsided smirk. “If you really wanna make Vilkas freak out, you try that with him.”
I gave him a wry grin. “Don’t worry. Should I ever find myself in the predicament of your brother bleeding out in my presence, I’ll gladly leave him alone.”
And promptly we were back at the beginning. He searched my eyes while he rolled down his sleeve, and when he was finished, he took my hand and buried it between his palms. “I don’t want you to go, Qhouri,” he said quietly. “You’re right, this has to end. But we’ll find… I’ll speak with him. He has to see… It’s not only the two of you. If he goes on like this, he will tear us apart. And himself too.”
He was so serious, and so convinced that there was a solution, somewhere in this messed up knot that was the Companions, and that we’d only have to take the time and patience to untangle it. And at least in one point he was right, and Aela was too – this wasn’t only about Vilkas and me, and even a clear cut wouldn’t solve everything.
And it was so typically Farkas that he wanted to protect his family and his brother and me at the same time and put himself in the middle of it, no matter if he knew beforehand that it would tear him apart.
I nodded slowly. “Okay. I’ll speak with Kodlak.” I gave him a twisted grin. “But I don’t want to stay in Jorrvaskr tonight.”
“It’s your home, Qhouri.”
Aela had said the same, but I wasn’t so certain. Not in that moment. “I just need a door I can shut behind me. With a lock. On the inside.”
He swallowed. “You can have my room,” he said finally.
“Yep. It has a lock.”
“I’ll sleep on the floor. Or in the dorm, whatever you want. I have to get up early anyway, got a job tomorrow.”
I watched him pensively. “Why do I let you pamper me again?”
His boyish grin flared up. “Because you’re just a girl, and every girl loves to be spoiled from time to time.”
I shoved him so hard that he nearly toppled down the steep ladder. “I’ll sleep on the floor. And don’t you dare to snore.”
Of course he did, if only to annoy me, and it reminded me of the nights we had spent together outside, when I had watched over his sleep. We should find an opportunity to do that again. He was already gone when I woke, but I had a bowl with fresh water that was still warm, a piece of soap and a clean towel waiting for me. A not so subtle reminder that I reeked after spending days and nights in my travelling clothes, and it made me smile.
Sometimes, it felt good to be spoiled.
A/N: This took far too long again, and I don’t know how often I’ve written, rewritten, erased, overhauled and revised this chapter. It has driven me nuts, and I’m still not entirely happy with it, but now we can finally come to the finish of the first part.