The streets were bustling with life, laughter and music and people everywhere, but Vilkas hurried along without seeing where he went, shoulders tight and jaw clenched, and beneath the anger he felt the tension behind his eyes coiling into a throbbing headache.
He made his way through the crowd on the market place, uncaring for the incomprehensive looks that followed him. Not that anyone stood in his way. No one ever stood in his way, people were going out of their way to evade him, scurrying away to avoid getting in contact with the dark, brooding Master-of-Arms of the Companions, awe and fear in their faces. As if carried a contagious disease, he thought bitterly.
Not that he cared. In fact, he was glad for the space he had, glad that he didn’t have to deal with fraudulent conversations, cheerful greetings and children tugging at his armour. How Farkas could bear all this importunity was a mystery to him. The noise and all the cheerfulness was already bad enough.
He didn’t care where he set his feet, and so it took him completely by surprise when he suddenly bumped into something… someone.
Or rather, someone had bumped into him, and he bit back the snarky remark spilling over his tongue in the last possible moment, making it only an annoyed grunt. Watery, redrimmed eyes looked up to him as the old woman steadied herself with a blotchy, claw-like hand clenched into the fabric of his cloak.
A joyous, nearly innocent smile spread over the wrinkled face. “Greetings, Vilkas,” she said with a humming lilt to her voice, and the casual, familiar way she addressed him made him scowl. But although Olava had a reputation of being not completely normal and always a distressing air of absence around her, as if her mind was somewhere else, still in the past or perhaps already in the future, the deeply rooted respect for his elders he could never shake off, even if they were completely nuts, made him hold still and grab her elbow to help her. The bone felt brittle in his firm grip. The woman had already been old when he was only a boy.
“Olava,” he said, bowing his head, waiting for her to let him go. But she didn’t, instead she tilted her head and eyed him curiously, and then she shuffled even closer into his personal space and placed a palm flat on his chest, right above his heart. And suddenly, he had the enervating feeling that he didn’t have to look down on her any more, that she had straightened herself and grown, her eyes on level with his, and under the aged dullness of her eyes he found a clarity that reflected him back at himself.
And the warmth from her hand seeped through his tunic, not like the touch of a lover on bare skin, but going deeper, piercing through his ribs and coiling into a hard ball of ache in the hollowness beneath, where he hadn’t felt anything for more years than he dared to count.
“Happy New Life Festival, Vilkas,” she said lowly, her gaze locked on his face, and he felt the gentle press of her hand and the intensity of her eyes, knew that she knew, and he wanted to cower and hide.
Instead, he squared his shoulders and tore his hand from her arm. “It’s not New Life Festival yet,” he answered defiantly.
“No.” She nodded, her eyes never leaving his. “New Life starts tomorrow. Today, it’s time to look back.”
He didn’t know how she did it, but he obeyed and looked back where he had come from, to the market place, the Bannered Mare and up the stairs to the temple and to his home. And for the first time since he had stormed out of Jorrvaskr, he saw what was going on around him, as if she had torn the veil from his eyes.
“See, Vilkas,” she murmured but didn’t tell him what, and his eyes darted around, searching frantically, desperate for something to hold on to, something that would give him a meaning. He didn’t know what he was looking for, only that he couldn’t help it because Olava had told him to see.
When his head jerked around as if it was guided by a string, he found what he was looking for, and he watched the scene that unfolded before his eyes with held breath. He watched the girl – Braith, wasn’t it? The daughter of this mercenary that was nearly as incompetent as Uthgerd – how she held the little Battle-Born boy in a headlock and punched him in the gut, fury in her face, fear in his and dark smudges of dirt in both, until his clenched fist opened and a few coins fell to the ground. She let him go with a shove and pocketed them in her shabby dress. She was known as a bully, and no one interfered. Children had to learn to take care of themselves.
And then his vision greyed out, became blurry and the picture was swapped, something else layering over it, different and still so similar. He saw himself a lifetime ago, a scrawny little boy, black tousled hair and pale blue eyes under dark brows, his neck held tight in the lock of a larger boy, his wrists locked behind his back, and again he felt the helplessness, the pain from the bruising grip and the fear of the punch that was inevitable. Hrongar had been his Braith. But he also felt – and saw and remembered, in startling clarity – something else. His brother was there too, standing in a group of other children, half a head larger, already with broader shoulders and more bulk than he and yet unmistakably his twin.
He was there, but he didn’t interfere either, only spurred him on. “Let him have it!” Farkas had yelled, “give him your fist!”, his bright voice only meant for him. And he remembered the sudden certainty that had flowed through his mind and pushed away helplessness and fear, unconscious and vague and indestructible, the knowledge that nothing bad would happen as long as his brother was there. Farkas was there and didn’t think it necessary to step in for his twin, believed that he would win this fight against the Jarl’s son all on his own, and it was Farkas’ faith that made him throw back his head, crush his skull into Hrongar’s jaw and use the moment of surprise to squirm out of the suddenly slack grip and kick him in the guts with more ferocity and confidence than he had ever felt before.
The pain in his head from the impact made his eyes water, but as the larger boy lay on his back before him, speechless and with reluctant respect creeping into his face, his own triumph and pride was mirrored in his brother’s laughter. Farkas never fought his battles for him, but his faith gave him strength, his belief that he was strong on his own, that he could fight for himself. And yet, he had always had his back.
Vilkas came back to himself, shaking his head in an effort to clear his vision, the strangely clear pictures from the depths of his memory lingering in his mind. He swallowed heavily, his mouth dry.
But Olava wasn’t finished with him. “See, Vilkas,” she mumbled again, a strange authority in this brittle voice, and again his attention was drawn towards a scene he had seen a thousand times before, ordinary and mundane and usually only coaxing a condescending scowl on his face.
He watched Adrianne at her anvil, the thick leather apron tied around her waist, hair tied back into a tight braid in her neck, the wiry muscles of her arms and shoulders working as she lifted the hammer and let it crush with finely attuned force on a piece of metal that would perhaps become a pauldron. And he watched her beaming smile when her husband stepped out of the shop they owned together, bringing her a drink of water. Ulfberth placed the glass on the workbench, stepped to his wife and slung an arm around her waist, wiped some soot from her cheek and tugged a stray flick of hair behind her ear before he kissed her tenderly. For a moment, they had eyes only for each other, their intimacy unbreakable, and as the edges of his vision blurred again and he felt himself drawn away, he squinted his eyes shut in fear of what was to come.
Again he saw himself, proud and tall in the distinctive armour of a Companion leader, his hands on the hips of the woman he once thought he would marry. It was another New Life Festival, and she leant against him under the mistletoe at the back entrance of Jorrvaskr, her forehead on his shoulder and a small, shy and so incredibly happy smile on her lips. And as he smiled back and dipped down to kiss her, she pressed something into his palm – a pin, a little badge in the form of a falcon, a small trinket she had once gotten from her deceased father and that she now wanted him to have.
It had been the most precious gift he had ever received – more precious than the armour he got when he joined the Circle or the jewelled sword sheath the Jarl had presented him with for his merits for the security of Whiterun, more precious than the unique claymore that he still wielded, a masterpiece that Farkas got made for him, and more valuable than the priceless tomes Kodlak left him for his studies – and still he had never worn it.
Not once, and he hadn’t been true to the vague promise he had made under the mistletoe either. He hadn’t been ready to settle down, to start a family, to leave Jorrvaskr and to commit, and other things had always been more important, work to be done, jobs to deal with, places to see, people to meet. He was gone more often than not and took over more and more responsibilities for the Companions, and she left him a few months later and married a farmer outside of the city. And when he watched her pack her things in his small room, watched her silent tears without showing an emotion himself, he felt a coldness creep into his bones that had never left him since.
When they met now, every once in a while and only accidentally, he was able to greet her with a stern nod. They had never exchanged a single word again, but he still kept her gift, wrapped in cloth and hidden away deep in a drawer of his desk. She hadn’t asked for it, and he hadn’t given it back. But he had never again engaged in anything but fleeting, meaningless flings and had never again taken a gift from a woman.
A groan broke from his throat when he came back to the present, his eyes still firmly closed, and he slumped together, leant against the old woman who held him with surprising strength. “Vilkas,” she whispered, and now her voice was nearly gentle, but he shook his head frantically, trying to force the pictures she made him see out of his head and pleading with her to let him go.
She tugged at his tunic, removed her burning hand from his heart and palmed his face instead, dry and rough on the stubble. He opened his eyes, hesitantly, and searched her face.
“See, Vilkas.” And now she showed him, arm stretched out and pointing towards the stairs that led to the Gildergreen. On top of them stood a figure, dark against the pale brightness of the sky, someone who was only seldom seen out in the open and no one would want to meet voluntarily.
Andurs, the priest of Arkay was a strange man and an eerie sight, hollow eyes and hollow cheeks, skin pale from lack of daylight stretching tight over the bones of his skull, his hands forever discoloured from the essences he treated the dead bodies with, large and gaunt in his plain dark robe.
Vilkas knew him, of course he did, he was no stranger to death. He had been to the Halls of the Dead more often than he wanted to remember, buried friends and shield-siblings, people who had died while having his back and people he ought to have protected.
In their line of work, death simply happened. Instead to waste his time with long periods of mourning, he went on with his life like they would have expected him to, perpetuated the memory of their lives by going on the best he could and continuing what they had died for.
Andurs stood on top of the stairs, no one coming near him, his gaze running slowly over the crowd at his feet as if he was searching for something. When it came to rest on Vilkas, something flared up in these deep, dark sockets of his eyes, like a beam of light that hit him and pulled him in.
And all of a sudden, Vilkas felt fear that was new to him. Blank terror that made him gasp and his skin crawl, reaching deeper than everything he had ever known before. He wanted to get away from this fear that screamed in his head, but for once there was no escape. No happy memories, no pictures emerging from his mind. It was so much worse than being outnumbered, than foes stronger and larger than he, worse than the blood and gore and the very concrete panic that had to be overcome when he had to fight for his life.
This was overwhelming, and there was no thrill in it, no adrenaline, no chance of escape or of turning the tables. Only certainty, heavy and dreadful.
The certainty of another body lying lifeless and still on the stone table in the Hall of the Dead, of another laughter he would never hear again, another strong hand that would never again help him up when he slipped and fell, another body that wouldn’t warm him through the winter. It could be Kodlak, rotting away with his illness, or Aela, fierce and reckless when she was on the hunt. It could be the woman he hadn’t even found yet, hadn’t bothered to search for. It could be his brother, Farkas, who had always more than one eye on his siblings and became a beast when he saw them endangered.
Or it could be himself.
Today, they celebrated Old Life Festival. It would be over tomorrow. Everything could be over tomorrow.
Olava looked after the man sprinting over the market place, pushing people roughly aside and running up the stairs towards the ancient hall of the Companions as if he was chased by an army of ghosts, and a content chuckle escaped her. And she was sure that a smile flashed up under the hood of the priest that was meant only for her before the man turned on his heels and vanished back into his vault.
“Happy New Life, Vilkas,” she whispered.