It was a long, lonely journey from Sky Haven Temple to High Hrothgar, and I relished every moment of it. Avoiding roads and settlements I slowly made my way eastwards, hunted when necessary, camped wherever I was when the sun set, enjoyed my independence. And I was thankful that Delphine had provided me with everything I needed, from a small tent and warm clothes to enough rations to take me to Ivarstead.
During the last weeks I had more consciously than ever observed how nature slowly came back to life, and it seemed that Snowback enjoyed the change of season even more than I. He chased every movement and every sound just for the fun of it, downright bursting with energy and joy, and I let him, his enthusiasm the perfect expression of my own feelings. I estimated that he had his first birthday this spring, and I was thankful for the company he had provided during the last months, through this endless, harsh winter. With our ongoing training he had become an awesome, reliable companion, fierce and loyal, courageous and disciplined when it mattered, but at the same time still so wild and exuberant that his capers left me more than once with sides hurting from laughter. I wasn’t sure if I would have been able to survive the winter without him, without his living warmth and his fidelity. It was good that we had found each other.
But when we reached Ivarstead, I left him with Wilhelm at the inn, to drag him through the icy heights towards High Hrothgar would have been nothing but cruel. And when I started the endless climb and passed by the ancient tablets, I realised that this was the first time I made this way alone. Farkas had teased me mercilessly during the first climb, when I was still so confused and scared to death about this whole Dragonborn stuff, and had been stern and determined the second time. I remembered how miserable he had felt up there, his injury and how naturally the Greybeards had welcomed him later.
This time I was all on my own – I was still confused and scared, but I had learned so much in the meantime. Certainly, all this knowledge and all these experiences had to be good for something. And this time, alone and with no one to have regards for, I took the time to read the emblems along the way. They told another story of the Dragonwars and of the founding of the Greybeards, though I understood only half of the cryptic sentences. And they spoke about the failure of the Tongues, and why Jurgen Windcaller chose restriction and silence for his Way of the Voice.
I could understand how these words that spoke of events eras ago could give the pilgrims of the path food for thought and new insights. That these events were worth to be remembered. I wasn’t so certain if this wisdom was meant for me, though. To think of failure was something I couldn’t afford.
It was already dark when I reached High Hrothgar, the sun still setting far too early for my liking, but Arngeir awaited me in the main hall – somehow he always seemed to sense when I was coming. But his welcome wasn’t quite as cordial as I remembered, and his expression was set when he led me into the cosy quarters where I had already spent so much time.
“Rest now, Dovahkiin,” he said curtly, “we’ll speak tomorrow.”
Confused, I stared at the empty doorway. I didn’t know him like that – Arngeir was never a really affable man, but so far he had at least given me the feeling that I was welcome in High Hrothgar. I missed that feeling now.
And then I realised that the chamber was only prepared for one person, as if they’d known I’d come alone. Perhaps he was disappointed that Farkas wasn’t here now? Despite the two men being complete and absolute opposites, I had the feeling that they respected each other, especially during our last visit.
And when I lay down on the stone platform that was softly cushioned with furs and blankets, my gaze lingered on the other one at the opposite wall, now empty and cold. Farkas had been here with me during my first visit, and although he was wary and cautious towards the Greybeards, he had helped me to come to terms with all the overwhelming new ideas I was confronted with. He had healed here after the attacks of the sabrecats, and here he had bared his heart to me and made the promise on which I had relied for so long.
I would never have come where I was now without him. Nearly astonished I realised that I wished he was here with me now. That I missed him.
That night I dreamed of a wolf, fighting by my side against Alduin.
“What can I do for you, Dragonborn?” Arngeir had joined me as soon as I had forced down some stale bread and hard cheese with a mug of hot tea, and he didn’t waste any time.
I had to gather my thoughts for a moment. I would have liked to indulge myself in the silence of High Hrothgar, to meditate with the Greybeards and turn my back on the world, if only for a few days. But first, I had to know where he stood. If he could – and if he was willing – to share his knowledge with me. If the hostility between the Blades and the Greybeards was mutual, I had to be careful and diplomatic, and I knew I was bad at both.
“I’m stuck, Master, and I hope your wisdom can help me to go on.” A bit of flattery couldn’t hurt, though I doubted the man would be very susceptible to it. He gave me an encouraging nod to go on.
“During the last months I’ve learned a lot. For example that it’s Alduin the Worldeater who revives his brethren, and that he’s come back to fulfil the prophecy about the end of time. And that I have to stop him.”
Not a good start, as his frown and angrily narrowed brows clearly indicated. My heart beat with sudden anxiousness.
“Where did you get to know all this?”
I squirmed. “Is that relevant? Isn’t it more important that it’s true?”
His gaze was icy. “Haven’t you learned anything here, Dovahkiin? For example, that the intention is at least as important as the action itself and the result? So, answer my question: Who told you about these things?”
I sighed. “The Blades. We found Alduin’s Wall, it’s recorded there.”
“The blades!” The fury flashing through his eyes was fearsome, but he controlled himself after only a split second. But his voice had a power to it that was only a breath away from shaking the walls around us.
“I should have known. Always meddling in things they don’t understand, and their reckless arrogance knows no bounds. What have they told you, Dragonborn? That it’s your destiny to stem the tide after your wishes? And how convenient it is that your wishes are the same as theirs?”
This was an outbreak I didn’t expect. No diplomacy would help here, and the way he degraded Delphine and Esbern just as much as me and everything I had done so far made me angry.
“Yes, that’s what they told me. That I’m the only one who can stop Alduin, the only one who can prevent the end of time. But that you think I’m a child who has to be told what its wishes should be, who cannot make up its own mind… I thought you knew me better.”
His eyes were cold like the dark stone around us. “You’re nothing but a tool in their hands, Dragonborn.”
“I am no tool!” I flared up, furious. No one would call me a tool. No one would use me. “You know exactly what this means, the reappearance of Alduin. Why didn’t you tell me?”
He didn’t answer my question, and it was answer enough. His voice was carefully controlled now. “What do you need from me, Dovahkiin?”
I restrained myself, clenching my hands in my lap. “The Tongues of old have defeated him, and they used a Shout. A special Shout.” I lowered my voice. “I want you to teach me this Shout, Master Arngeir.”
A small, completely mirthless smile quirked his lips. “You want me to teach you? That Shout was used once before, and here we are again. Do you see the irony?”
I lowered my head under his unrelenting stare, rubbed my temples nervously. We didn’t know how Alduin had come back, perhaps he had indeed returned from the dead. But we did know why, and that had to be enough. “There must be a way to defeat him once and for all. The ancient Tongues knew so much more than I, and you’re the keeper of their knowledge. Please… I can’t believe you want him to destroy everything.” I begged. I couldn’t believe I begged. His voice became a touch softer, but his face remained stern and unyielding.
“What I want is irrelevant, and perhaps it’s even irrelevant what you want. Have you ever considered that Alduin cannot be stopped? That he shouldn’t be stopped?” He leant back in his chair, shaking his head.
I stared at him, dumbfounded. He couldn’t be serious. Irrelevant? I had done nothing but to explore myself since that first bloody dragon in Whiterun and tried to do the right things. Everybody told me it was my destiny to deal with Alduin, that I was only here because he was too, and I had done nothing but to cope with this. And I had gladly taken every bit of advice and every bit of help others had offered. Including his, and now he the gall to tell me nothing of all this mattered at all?
“You seriously wanna tell me that I shall let the world end because there’s a hypothetical possibility that it’s meant to? Since when do you decide when doomsday comes?”
He was eerily calm. “Explore yourself, Dovahkiin, and you will find your answer. We have taught you everything you have to know, but you will have to find the way of wisdom on your own. Without others imposing their influence on you.”
He sat there, so complacent, so certain to be in the right, so oblivious to his own hypocrisy, and my temper flared up, blood rushing to my cheeks and heat coiling in my throat, ready to spill out.
I forced it down with grinding teeth.
“What about your influence, Arngeir? And you dare to tell me to free myself from the influence of others?”
He still kept this calmness, this incredible arrogant calmness.
“Return to the path of wisdom, Dovahkiin. Then, and only then will you find what you’re looking for. Then, and only then will we help you.”
I knew a dismissal when I saw one, and Arngeir had just kicked me out of High Hrothgar. Not that it was hard to leave, seething with fury and helplessness I wished him to Oblivion when I slammed the heavy doors shut behind me.
And when an impertinent frost troll came running up the path towards me, screeching and drumming his chest in an impressive display of strength and bloodlust, I shouted him down the slope of the mountain, watched with triumphant satisfaction how his body fell, flailing, tumbling in a cloud of whirling snow until it came to rest as a red blotch on a protruding rock.
Take this, Arngeir. This is how the voice is to be used. Way of wisdom? Way of bullshit.
Stupid old men with their stupid principles. Delphine had been right. They had a responsibility too, with all their power and knowledge. I clearly felt that Arngeir knew the answers to my questions, that he knew exactly what had happened at the end of the Dragonwars. I couldn’t believe that he outright refused to help me, and even less the hostility he had suddenly shown.
Someone should drag him down his bloody mountain and show him one of the destroyed farms, the burnt corpses, the razed settlements. And perhaps the laughter of children, the contentment of a simple craftsman, the love of parents. It seemed he had lost every sense for reality, for the real life taking place down here in the real world.
But I knew this beforehand, didn’t I? Wasn’t that exactly what I longed for when I visited them, to escape reality, to drown in the peace and silence, the changelessness and eternal wisdom that ruled that place? It was a treacherous escape.
And now even this escape was locked to me.
One step at a time. But what when there’s nowhere to go any more? When all ways are blocked?
“Mead, Wilhelm. Lots.”
It was late afternoon again when I returned to Ivarstead, but the inn was empty as always. Vilemyr Inn was never as lively and busy as the Bannered Mare in Whiterun, most of the patrons local farmers and workers. Perhaps the reason why Wilhelm was always so pleased when I came in.
“Already?” he asked with a smirk as I dropped on a stool at his bar, “it’s not even dark yet.”
“Don’t ask,” I grunted. “I either have to split some skulls or drink myself into a stupor right now, and I reckon you prefer the latter. Did you know those guys up there are bloody bastards?”
“Never had the pleasure to meet them,” he chuckled. “But so far you always seemed to be quite fond of them.”
“So far, yes. Ah, forget it.” I downed the first mug in one long gulp. It was comfortable to sit at this bar, watching Wilhelm polish his goblets, his quiet friendliness never pressing me into a conversation. Really good inn-keepers like him had some kind of inherent awesomeness, knew exactly how to deal with their patrons.
“You know, Wilhelm…,” I said pensively, “the worst is that I’ve no idea what to do now. Where to go. Perhaps I’ll just stay here, at least for a few days.”
He smiled, his warm, understanding smile. I didn’t think he really understood what was going on, but it felt good. “It would be a pleasure, Qhourian. You know I’ve always a free room for you.” It also felt good how he just called me by my name. My mug was never empty that evening, and although he fed me some pieces of apple pie in between, I worked myself slowly into a very comfortable and most of all relaxed state of tipsiness. The Greybeards could go to Oblivion and take the Blades and the Companions with them. I didn’t care. I would just stay here and let Wilhelm take care of the rest.
Some more residents of the little village came in for their evening drinks, I heard the door of one of the guest rooms clap, but I didn’t mind the friendly faces around me as long as they left me alone.
“Wilhelm, aren’t there any more ghosts around? Or anything else that needs taken care of? I’d have nothing against some useful work.”
He shook his head with a smile, his hands busy with a cloth cleaning his counter, his eyes slipping away from my face to a point behind my shoulder. “It won’t do you no harm to relax for a bit. You don’t look as if you’ve eaten or slept enough lately.” He nodded lightly to greet another guest, somebody slipped on the stool beside me.
“But I have work for you, Companion.”
A long bundle dropped in front of me. A voice I would recognise everywhere.
For a moment I sat like frozen, my heart hammering frantically in my chest and my mouth becoming dry, unable and unwilling to grasp the reality that sat beside me. But I felt her gaze on me, her’s and Wilhelm’s, and I couldn’t bear it for long. My hands were clenched around my mug when I turned stiffly.
“You’re harder to hunt down than a slaughterfish, you know that?” she said casually, as if we sat in the Bannered Mare for a drink. Her features were stoic when she searched my face. “You look horrible.”
My voice croaked. “You too.” She really did. Her auburn mane was a tangled, dull mess, she was frighteningly thin, all bones and angles, her muscles looking as if they were carved from stone, and her face… only huge eyes, an unhealthy fire gleaming in them, her unmistakable warpaint over pointy cheekbones and the thin line of her lips.
And all that nice drunkenness was gone for good. What a shame. I swallowed thickly and took a long gulp to wash the lump out of my throat.
“I suppose it’s no accident that you’re here, isn’t it?”
Her laughter was bitter. “Not even a little bit of smalltalk, Qhouri? Straight to the point? Nothing to get used to each other again?”
“I don’t have to get used to you,” I said curtly. And it was true. I had known that something like this would happen sooner or later, and better her than anyone else, accidentally or not. That she showed up now, in exactly this moment… it was so wonderfully ironic, I could nearly hear the snicker of the Divines in the back of my mind.
She looked incredibly weary. “Of course it’s no accident. We spent a fortune on bribes on every single innkeeper in Skyrim to track you down. But not everybody is as reliable as Wilhelm, and if we got a message that you’ve been somewhere we were always too late.”
He answered her look with a shy smile. “Hope you’re not angry, Qhouri, but I sent the courier as soon as you left for High Hrothgar. You had to come back here after all, if only for your dog. I don’t like how you go after these dragons all on your own.”
He could have just told me. Or asked. But of course he knew better than me what was good for me, everybody obviously did, and now it was too late. I gave him a glowering look, took my drink and changed over to an empty table. Aela followed and took the seat opposite of me.
“What do you want, Aela?”
A lopsided grin appeared on her lips, barely visible, a glimpse of the huntress she used to be. But it faded and only left a grey gaze hard as diamonds, shiny and cold.
“I wanted to see you with my own eyes, and I wanted to remind you that you’re still a Companion. I want you to listen. I want you to know what you left behind. You owe that to me. And…”
I interrupted her. “I owe you nothing,” I said harshly, watching her full of distrust as she sat there, taut like a drawn bowstring, impossible to ignore. The deep creases between her brows and on both sides of her mouth only deepened.
“Oh yes, you do. You have a responsibility with the Companions.” She lifted a hand, fending off my outraged reply. Her tone was clinical and shallow. “And most of all I want to know why. Why in Oblivion you didn’t come back.”
I paled, cold sweat damping my palms. She had no idea why I didn’t.
“I couldn’t,” I pressed out. A lump of ice formed in my chest, made it hard to breathe. I couldn’t relive all that. Not with her, not for her.
For a moment she was quiet, and then comprehension crept slowly into her features. “Divines,” she groaned. “You thought… you think I don’t know? You thought Vilkas would lie to us? That he could lie to us?” Suddenly her face became soft. “Listen to me, Qhouri. Please.” She didn’t wait for my answer, spoke on hastily. “He came back from that rescue job more than a week late… barely himself. And he only told Kodlak what had happened… what he had done, and then he vanished. Nobody has seen him since. Athis and I went to the wreck to search for you, but all we found were the shreds of your armour, the things you left behind and this.”
She opened the bundle between us with nervous gestures. It was my mace. My Skyforge mace.
“Most of us didn’t believe you survived, not after that attack, not in the middle of winter. And when Skjor was killed by the Silver Hand and we held his funeral, I know some of us cried for you as much as for him. But Kodlak never gave up hope, and neither did Farkas, and Jarl Idgrod’s message finally proved them right. That and the news from Kynesgrove. After it we renewed our efforts to find you, and here I am.”
We stared at each other for minutes, stared at the other’s face, so familiar and still so alien, took in the changes and the marks of the past months. A stranger was sitting there, her face vacant, void of all feelings, and still she had effortlessly shattered my world again. A stranger who was my shield-sister at the same time, someone to trust, so frighteningly familiar.
What she had revealed in these few sentences… it was too much. I didn’t even realise that tears ran down my cheeks and smeared my warpaint to dark streaks until she reached over the table and brushed her thumb over my face.
“Now you look a bit like me,” she said.
“I’m so sorry, Aela,” I whispered, “I’m so sorry for Skjor.”
For a split second her face showed a despair I never thought she could feel, much less express. But it was gone as soon as it flared up, and her control was back.
“Don’t be sorry for Skjor, he’s hunting in eternity now. We have to care for the living.” She took a deep breath.
“Thank you for listening, Qhouri. I will leave you alone now. But I wish you were still here tomorrow.” And with that she was gone, vanished into the night outside with a blast of cold air, leaving only her half-emptied bottle and my mace behind. The badge of my membership.
And for a moment, I wondered how it felt to surrender humanity and give in to the instincts of the beast. To leave everything behind, guilt and hate, love and friendship and responsibilities, the whole complicated web of human relations. And knowledge… how it was to lose oneself in blessed beastly ignorance. And I wondered what she found right now, chasing her prey, hunting and killing, if it was freedom and strength or just an escape that hurt even more when she had to come back.
Jorrvaskr… Jorrvaskr had been locked away in a sealed chamber of my mind, everything I had left behind. The bad… and also the good. At least I had admitted to myself that there had been good, much of it. That I missed the companionship and the feeling of having a home. But even knowing that I couldn’t avoid them forever, I had not dared to think about the consequences.
Now they were here, and the decisions I had to make towered in front of me like the Throat of the World. The Greybeards had thrown me out, and going back to Skyhaven Temple was pointless. I was stuck.
But Aela had said I was still a Companion. During this night when sleep fled me, Masser tinting my room in reddish light and I knew Aela was out there, was here in Ivarstead, that she had come for and was now waiting for me… I realised that I couldn’t deny her. Because she was still my shield-sister, had never stopped to be, but mostly because I had a load of questions only she could answer.
Vilkas was gone. Skjor was dead. And I had to know what I had left behind.
She was waiting for me next morning, frowning when she saw me come out of my room, massaging my temples. Someone had driven a rusty nail into my brain, right behind my left eyebrow. I didn’t know if it was the mead or… everything else.
I got a cup of hot tea and a bowl of porridge from Wilhelm and joined her, but I didn’t dare to break the silence. I didn’t know how, and her quiet presence made me nervous.
“You need to hear it, don’t you?” she asked finally. There was an edge in her voice that made me jerk.
“That I want you to come home with me. That we need you there. All of us, but some of us more than others.”
No. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. “You know exactly that’s the fastest way to chase me out of that door.”
But Aela didn’t give up that easily. Her face was serious, but her eyes had lost a bit of the stonen harshness from the evening before. “I still don’t understand… why you didn’t come home. How you could think he’d get away with that.”
I bit my lip, averted my eyes. “It’s Vilkas’ home too.”
“Was.” Her scrutiny was enervating. “You didn’t trust us to deal with this. With you, and him.”
“I suppose I didn’t.” Most of all didn’t I trust myself to deal with it. Just the thought to have to, to meet that man, to answer the inevitable questions sent a shiver of dread down my spine. I took a deep breath to calm myself. “I knew he’d go back… and I couldn’t face that. I still can’t.” I concentrated on my spoon that stirred figure-eights through my porridge.
“You don’t have to. We just want you to come home.”
It became quiet again, and then I snorted out a bitter laughter. “I’m stuck, you know? The Greybeards kicked me out of High Hrothgar, and I have no idea what to do now.”
A short grin flared over her face. “Really?”
“Yeah. Arngeir tried to tell me what to do, and I called him a hypocrite.”
“That’s gross.” She tilted her head. “Perhaps you need a break from being Dragonborn. Do some simple, honest work for a change.”
I swallowed a spoonful of lukewarm porridge. It tasted like sawdust. “Tell me, Aela. Tell me what I left behind.”
The hard lines around her mouth were back. She leant back in her chair, closed her eyes shortly. And when she opened them again, she fixed me with burning intensity. “Okay.” She gathered herself. “Things have… changed. Kodlak has secluded himself completely. He was the one who sent you on this job… and with Skjor, he lost one of his oldest friends. Now he has stopped to care for anything but his blasted research. The whelps are doing fine, mostly. Just overworked… well. The last months have left their marks. Athis has taken over a lot of stuff, but they cope and work their asses off. And Farkas… he isn’t himself any more. He barely works, spends a lot of time in Morthal… and when he’s in Whiterun, he’s out hunting. More often than I, and that means something. For a time… before we knew that you lived, I was afraid he’d go crazy. Or feral.”
My breath hitched. “Does he hold me responsible… that his brother is gone?” I asked lowly.
“I don’t know.” She paused for a moment. “All I know is that he suffers. But he doesn’t talk to me.”
He had lost so much. This was what Idgrod had meant. “I can’t help him, Aela.”
She snorted. “Oh yes, you could. I know you could if you wanted to.” She shrugged and continued. I had asked, and now she wouldn’t spare me the rest. “With you and Vilkas gone and Farkas not much help… we were spread thin before, but then it became impossible to keep up with the contracts. Skjor and I… we started to take jobs alone. It was stupid, but… it became just too much. And once, he tracked down some Silver Hands and thought he could take on them all on his own.” She clenched her jaw. “At least he sent a note about his plans. At least we could retrieve his corpse when he didn’t come back.” She made a noise of grief and anguish, and then she shoved back her chair and went to the bar. For endless moments, she just stood there with her back to me, thin and small, her forehead propped into her palms.
And for a moment, I was overwhelmed with guilt. Her pain that she hid behind this iron wall of self-control clenched my chest with an iron fist. So much loss, for all of them. And all of this just because… something between a sob and a whimper escaped me.
She shot around, glaring at me. “Don’t you dare!” she shouted furiously, Wilhelm and the few other guests startling and staring at us. I jerked back violently, watched with held breath how she strode with long steps through the room, lips pressed into a thin line until she stood before me, palms propped flat on the table. Suddenly she didn’t look small any more… more than ever like the huntress I knew. “Don’t you dare to blame yourself,” she snarled. She looked as if she’d hit me for a single false word. But then she only exhaled deeply, rubbed her hand over her face and sat down. Slowly the atmosphere relaxed again.
“I’ve tried to keep the whole lot together, but… well, I could use a helping hand.”
“You want me to come back to take care of the workload.”
“Yep.” Her grin was twisted. “And to bring Farkas back on track. And because we missed you.” She leant over towards me. “And most of all because you’re a Companion. We will stand at her back, that the world may never overtake us. It means something, Qhouri.”
Tears gathered in my eyes, and I blinked them away frantically, trying to hide my face behind my cup. Of course it didn’t work, her smile gentle. “I missed you too,” I whispered. “It took some… a long time till I admitted it to myself, but I missed you.”
“I hoped that would be the case.”
“But we can’t turn back time. We can’t just continue where we were – I was a mess then, and I know I drove you crazy. But I’m still a mess. I’m stuck and confused and don’t know what to do now, and if – and that is only hypothetical – if I came back, it were only because I’ve nowhere else to go.”
“Perhaps you haven’t much to give. But I haven’t much to offer either, except the promise that we will keep going. But Jorrvaskr is still the one place you can always return to. Or hide in, if necessary. And there’s still the sword-arms of your siblings, friends to share your burdens… and Tilma’s cooking. You look as if you needed that the most.”
Somehow, she made me laugh. “You’re cruel, Aela, you know that?” I had no idea she was so manipulative, that she’d figure me out that easily. She had hunted me down like her prey. But perhaps I wanted to be hunted down. Perhaps I wanted to be forced and others to make this decision for me.
Her smirk was cheeky and predatory at the same time. “I do my best, and I’m not one to give up that easily. Think about it, Qhouri.” She shoved away her bowl and stretched herself. “And now… I’ve taken the day off, the gods know I earned it. Wanna join me to the hot springs?”
“A vacation?” I couldn’t imagine her doing nothing. Being lazy. And… the idea was tempting, but I hesitated. It was obvious that now that she had tracked me down, she wouldn’t let me out of her claws again. But I was torn between the comfort of her company, of the feeling that for once, I didn’t have to take care of myself, and the commitment that came with it.
“A mini-vacation,” she nodded, and then she narrowed her eyes on me. “You don’t have to come. But if you don’t, you force me to hunt you down again, and I’ve really enough on my plate.”
“You wanna make me feel guilty?”
“If I have to,” she smirked. Ruthless, that woman. And irresistible.
Aela set a fast pace, and we cut across the country first in eastern direction, through Darkwater Crossing and then turned north. When we passed the Eldergleam Sanctuary and she saw my longing gaze, she smiled. “Your sapling has already the first buds. Danica sits on it like a broody hen.” It made me laugh. A little piece of Whiterun’s everyday life. I was glad to hear it.
Not much later I saw a column of smoke in the distance, the air clear, windless and already reeking faintly of rotten eggs, and Aela made a beeline for it. Now I was really curious – as far as I knew, there was nothing remarkable in this area except one of the standing stones and perhaps one or another bandit hideout. But no enemies were waiting for us. A makeshift camp was set up next to one of the steaming, milky-blue pools, and Njada, Ria and Tilma were basking lazily in the warm water.
And they had seen us coming before I realised where she had led me, Ria squealing and bouncing excitedly through the shallow pool. She looked younger than ever without her armour and warpaint, wet hair flying loosely around her dimpled cheeks. “You did it, Aela!”
I turned slowly and speechless to her. She gave me a twisted grin. “Surprise, Qhouri. Don’t be mad, please. Let’s just have a girl’s day.” Dropping her pack where she stood and already unfastening the straps of her armour, she scowled playfully at Ria. “And you stop looking as if you just won a bet.”
Even Tilma laughed out loud, especially when I kept standing at the edge, gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe she had plotted this. That they had plotted this.
Njada lay prone on the water, her arms propped on the edge at my feet and her head tilted into her neck, gazing up to me with eyes squinted against the sun. “It’s good to see you, Qhouri. We were… worried,” she said with a small smile. And it was the honest welcome of this usually so tight-lipped woman that made the dam break. I laughed and sobbed and peeled myself out of my armour as fast as possible, and then Aela just pushed me into the hot water. I emerged with a squeal, bright laughter around me.
“What are you all doing here?”
“What does it look like?” Aela snickered. “Get away from work and all those guys at Jorrvaskr of course. Gods know we all need a day of stress relief. Especially Tilma.” She smiled warmly at the old woman who chuckled in return.
“I daren’t imagine in what state the hall will be when we return. Imagine Brill cooking for the boys!”
“They won’t cook, Tilma, don’t worry,” Njada said drily. “They will be entirely happy with your sweetrolls, some cheese and bread and lots of drinks. Perhaps they’ll even do without the rolls and the cheese.”
If Aela hat planned to get me immersed into this cheery, comfortable and utterly chatter about everyday life in Jorrvaskr, she was successful. No one asked where I had been and what I had done, nobody asked about my future plans. If they assumed I’d return with them anyway or just accorded to leave me alone with these questions – I didn’t know, but I was glad to leave all that behind, if only for a few hours.
It was a wonderful day and an even brighter evening. The warm water smelling of minerals and wet soil had an astonishing effect on me, not only couldn’t I remember when I had was that clean the last time, it also relaxed my strained muscles as thoroughly as my mind. To float on the water for what felt like hours left me in a state where nothing, all my problems and sorrows, real or just made up, mattered any more. A giant could have herded his mammoths over me in that moment, I wouldn’t have cared.
The Companions had prepared for everything, brought plenty of food and drink, bedrolls, warm clothes and even firewood to provide the greatest comfort such a night in the wilderness in early spring could have. Ria had even brought her flute, and after we had prepared the meal together and eaten in comfortable, companionable silence, she played for us. I listened to her, lying on my back and gazing up to the stars, hushed chatter around me and the warmth of the fire at my feet, and for the first time for weeks and months I felt completely, absolutely safe. Nothing bad would happen with these people around me.
But perhaps our fire was too bright or our laughter too loud, but the night was already far advanced and both moons stood high over the horizon when Aela suddenly froze. She held up one of her hands, silencing us, the other grabbing her bow.
“Whoever you are, get out or you’ll regret it.” Her voice sounded through the darkness around our fire, transporting exactly the challenge and threat it was meant to.
We all had our weapons lying close at hand, and although we were only clad in breeches, shirts and and warm cloaks, the four of us switched effortlessly into fighting mode. The hoarse laughter coming from the shabby blonde Nord and his Orc companion when they stepped into our circle of light confirmed our suspicions. Both men wore shady leather armour, as scruffy and untended as their unkempt, dirty wearers themselves. The stench of old sweat and stale mead quivered around them like a cloud and made me wretch.
“Good evening, ladies,” the Nord said, his smug, toothgaping smirk showing that he didn’t care a damn about the impression he made, “you seem quite merry tonight, and my friend here and I asked ourselves if you would mind to let us join into the… fun?” The Orc just grunted appreciatively.
Aela’s expression transformed into the sweetest smile, her batted lashes hiding the predatory shine in her eyes only for those who didn’t know her. She looked at each of us, telling us silently to play along, before she addressed the Nord.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we’re not… geared to host any more guests tonight, Sir. You will have to look elsewhere for your fun. I’m sure there are plenty of nice places around.”
The Orc frowned, but the other man just nudged him to keep him quiet and chuckled. His eyes were hungry and mean.
“But none as beautiful as this spot of yours. And my honour demands that five women all on their own out here in the wilderness need some protection. A protection we are willing to provide.”
Aela glared at him, then cast her eyes down. She was such an image of utter shyness that Njada had to hide her snicker behind a cough. “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it was foolish of us to come out here all alone.”
I leant over to Tilma beside me and whispered in her ear. “You know where this will end?” She nodded. “When the fun starts, please get behind the tent. Those greatswords have a huge range.”
“A little adventure, eh?” the Nord drawled with a false, reassuring smile. “Believe me, Milady… you’re brave, but it’s not safe out here.”
Aela sighed demonstratively. “And your compensation for this protection will be just some… fun?”
Both men nodded vigorously. Aela stood up and looked at us, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “What do you think, girls? Shall we let them join?”
I looked up to her. “You’re the boss, sister. Though I’d prefer they’d take a bath first.”
“Only if you join me. You know, to scrub my back,” the Nord bellowed, traces of frustration in his voice. Seemed he became tired of our little game.
But Aela grinned and pointed at me. “She’s right. No bath, no fun. We’ll keep watch over your ugly asses while you wash that grind away, the way you reek you haven’t seen any soap for ages.”
Her dismissive laughter drowned in the infuriated roar of the Orc. He unsheathed his sword and darted towards her, Ria coming to her aid while Njada and I took care of the Nord.
It wasn’t even worth to be called a fight, those guys had no idea what they got themselves into. The Orc was dead in less a minute, killed by an arrow through his neck while he was busy with Ria, and when we pinned the Nord to the ground, Dragonbane at his throat, he was such a measly picture of helpless fury and fear it was disgusting. Aela spat him in the face.
“What did you think we are, a group of women alone out here, without male protection? A knitting club?” she snarled.
“Bitch,” he spat out between gritted teeth, but his eyes flickered full of panic from face to face, “you’d kill a defenceless man?”
Her eyes, her facial expression, her whole posture became cold and hard like granite. She looked at me, saw the tension that made my hand holding the weapon tremble. “A bastard who thinks with his balls? Of course.” I stopped to shake when I slit his throat.
Njada choked openly. “Disgusting. Let’s get rid of the corpses, and then I need another bath.”
We all joined her. Bathing in the moonlight had something strangely peaceful.