“This,” Vilkas dangled the trinket accusingly in front of his brother’s face, “is all I got!” They sat opposite of each other at a table in Jorrvaskr’s backyard, and the boiling anger in Vilkas’ voice made Farkas flinch. “What in Oblivion did you think to take this lousy job? Why do people hire us when they can’t even pay?”
“But she said she can pay,” his brother said helplessly, wringing his hands in his lap. “What should I have done, send her away?”
Vilkas’ face crunched into a cruel grin. “Exactly, brother. Send her away. Or demand payment in advance. Every dork could see that these people have nothing to pay the Companions with.”
“But she said…”
“You’re so gullible, Farkas! Gods, when will you grow up and start to think for yourself? Her husband got himself locked up in a bloody cave. He didn’t work during that time. What do you think, from what did she want to pay us if he didn’t even get that sorry wage in the mine? And when will you learn that we’re no charity?”
“At least you got to kill some necros,” Farkas muttered. Everybody knew that Vilkas loved to kill the evil mages that dabbled with life and unlife, no matter if he got paid for it or not.
Farkas remembered their client, the wife of a miner from Darkwater Crossing. A small, haggard woman, withered far beyond her age from hard work, too many childbirths and starvation, with a frightened girl clutching her hand and a newborn tied to her back. He remembered how she had begged under tears to rescue her husband from a circle of necromancers. She had been lucky that Farkas was the first one she met, the huge warrior easily softening to her obvious despair and his own pity.
She had been less lucky that his brother fulfilled the contract in the end.
Although he was glad to get out of Whiterun for the few days, Vilkas’ mood was already more than sour when he left Jorrvaskr. It had been foul for the whole month, like every year in Evening Star, the ubiquitous preparations for the New Life Festival making him itchy and irritable.
Gods, how he wanted this to be over. He wanted the darkness back, the long nights and dusky days that were so characteristic for this season, the snowstorms, blizzards and the impenetrable cover of clouds over Dragonsreach that matched the darkness in his mind.
He hated the festival, and he saw absolutely no reason to celebrate the beginning of another year that would be exactly as dull as the last. He hated the music, those sweet tunes with no rhythm and drive that only appeared in the bards’ repertoire during this time of year, that the children sang along with their mothers and the shopkeepers hummed behind their stalls. In duets and trios, for Ysmir’s sake! He hated the smells, vanilla and pines, anise and cinnamon everywhere. He hated cinnamon! Two days ago, he had turned on his heels and left the Bannered Mare without something to drink for the first time in his life, barely containing himself from throttling Hulda to death. Cinnamon mead! She dared to offer him cinnamon mead! Gods, that women sticked at nothing.
He hated the decorations. Fir branches and mistletoes everywhere, wreaths and garlands, candles and lights!
Jorrvaskr was, just like every building in the city, strewn with decorations, in- as much as outside. It was humiliating to see the entrance to the proud hall adorned with evergreens and Wuuthrad and all the other precious weapons mounted on the walls, emblems of the Companions honour, history and prowess, entangled with straw star garlands and glittering baubles.
Straw star garlands! It became worse every year. And Kodlak let her!
Since decades, since he had been a little boy, Tilma forced the warriors of Jorrvaskr every single year not only to festoon the ancient hall with straw star garlands of the most intricate designs, but to make them themselves, of course under her watchful surveillance. An unavoidable ritual. There had to be miles and miles of straw star garlands stashed away somewhere in the depths of the storage rooms, all of them made by rough, calloused hands much more used to stick a piece of steel into living flesh than to form something so fragile.
Ria loved it, but she also still slept with an unidentifiable stuffed toy clenched into her arms every night, proudly declaring that it was as old as her. Farkas loved it too, although his pathetic efforts always rather resembled a bird-nest after a storm. Of course he did, that brute also practised romantic ballads on his lute when he thought no one could hear him, and he could spend hours discussing the correct preparation of boiled crème treats with Tilma and Brill. Aela didn’t love it, but she let Tilma have her way with her, always had been plush like a tuft of tundra cotton with the old woman, and Skjor did what Aela told him. Athis didn’t love it either, but he was far too afraid of Tilma to argue. The only one who regularly had the balls to vanish from Jorrvaskr when the date was scheduled was Njada. Vilkas envied her for it. And Torvar… yes, Torvar. Always drunk, always boisterous, full of hubris and questionable morals. But as soon as the first leaves changed into the colours of autumn, Torvar started to practice, to draw new designs and make prototypes, his fingertips always sticky with the pine resin he used to glue the straws together.
But most of all, more than the music and the decorations and the smells, did he hate the mood that came with the festival. Suddenly, without any obvious reason, people became nice. Animosities and petty quarrels that had simmered for months or years suddenly blew away like smoke in a winter storm, people who had to be forced to breathe the air of the same room with physical violence before suddenly drank themselves into a stupor together while sharing family secrets and childhood memories.
Happy faces, smiled and friendliness all around. Disgusting. As if not everything would go back to normal when people were sober again.
Gods, how he wanted this to be over.
The seemingly simple job Farkas had thrown at him had been a welcome escape. The best had been to kill the pathetic couple of necromancers in their shoddy cave, to impale and incapacitate them. The miner they had kidnapped to perform their hideous experiments on him had been more dead than alive when he freed him from his rusty shackles, but that wasn’t his problem. As long as he breathed, he had done his job, and he expected to get paid.
Especially as he had to carry him back. The rundown shack the man called home had only one room, tamped mud with a thin layer of straw on the floor, raw furniture, the fire not able to keep the cold creeping in through the leaky walls at bay. But at least nothing here reminded him of the upcoming festivity, not a single fur twig decorating the walls, no bright light, and the few shrivelled potatoes lying on the table would certainly not make a feast.
The horrified expression of the woman when he tossed the unconscious man from his shoulder onto the hard cot didn’t escape him, and her wail when she threw herself over the motionless body only set him further on edge.
And when he demanded his payment and she wrought her hands and cried that her husband’s boss hadn’t held his promise and she needed the few coins she had for potions and sobbed into her palms, “please, kind Sir, please, have mercy!”, he had lost his temper.
“You don’t need potions,” he had barked, “he won’t survive the night anyway.” The deadly silence that followed his words had filled him with cruel satisfaction. Of course he had pilfered a good amount of coins from the cave, along with some jewels, rare alchemy ingredients and a few tomes Farengar would give him a small fortune for. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that he had earned his payment and that he wouldn’t make a fool of himself or of the Companions as a whole by selling himself cheap.
But the woman had nothing she could give him, nothing but a few copper coins and this cheap trinket that he snatched from her hand with a derisive snort after she had unfastened it from her neck with trembling fingers and a new flood of tears.
And now Farkas turned the pendant carefully between his broad fingers and examined it. “Not worth much,” he said pensively, “but it’s pretty.”
“Not even Fralia will take it,” Vilkas snorted. “Keep it, it’s perfect for that pretty bitch from the Mare that you can’t keep your hands off.”
Farkas gave his brother a frown, but his attention was back at the jewellery when he felt something under the pad of his index. He trailed it along the edge, strangely carefully, until he found a small knob. A gentle press, and the lid popped open with a faint sound.
Inside was a lock of hair, a thin blonde strand, tied together with a simple piece of cotton thread.
Farkas held the open amulet on his flat palm. “What is this?” he asked, an edge to his voice that was unusual. Vilkas looked defiantly at his brother. He wouldn’t get emotional now, would he?
“How would I know? She babbled something about a dead daughter. Probably the sister of the brat hanging on her apron.”
Farkas closed the amulet with careful, nearly tender motions and buried it in his large palm as if he had to protect it, but his jaw was tight.
“And you took it from her? A family heirloom?” His voice was dangerously low.
Vilkas wasn’t oblivious to the change in his brother’s mood, and that he had to justify himself now only kindled his anger. “Of course I did! What should I have done, leave with empty hands?”
“You got your share.” Farkas pointed at the thick pouch tied to Vilkas’ belt, then looked at the trinket again. “And for us, it’s worthless.”
“That was loot. Loot is not payment. Didn’t you listen to me? Gods, why do you even care?”
The enervating pale gaze of his brother came to rest on his face, and Vilkas felt his cheeks heat up. No one looked through him like his twin, saw the misery coiling in his chest and the strain on his shoulders that never gave him rest. No one cared for the Companions like him, for their tenets and traditions and honour, for the well-being of every single one of them. He was the one who held them up in these hard times, who kept the contracts coming and made sure that they weren’t seen only as a drunken bunch of rubble. He felt like being chained, tied down by petty, worthless jobs and his efforts to chase and claim the respect he deserved.
His brother saw all this, but he didn’t understand him. No one understood him. Sadness stood in Farkas’ eyes. Sadness… and pity.
“And why don’t you, Vilkas? Why don’t you care… only once?”
Vilkas stood up, slowly, propping his hands on the table and hovering over his brother. “Because one softhearted fool in this hall is more than enough,” he hissed before he stormed out of the door.
A little something fitting for the time of year, featuring shameless usurpation of plot-bunnies.