When the drowsiness faded from my mind and I opened my eyes, squinting against the midday sun, I jumped to my feet with a curse. I had slept deeper and more restful than I had for weeks – no wonder after the last nights I had spent nearly entirely awake. But I should have visited Kodlak hours ago.
And he shouldn’t have let me sleep away half the day. I shot him an angry look, grabbed my cloak he had somehow draped over me and started to jog towards the city. Only to have him stop me with a firm grip to my wrist.
“Let me go,” I said angrily, mostly with myself, “why didn’t you wake me earlier?”
“You needed it,” he said with a smile.
“No. I need to see Kodlak.”
“He won’t run away.”
“Of course not,” I snorted. “But…”
He took the cloak from my hand and draped it around my shoulders. “Why are you so nervous?”
I stared at him defiantly, ready to give a snotty answer when the edgy anxiety suddenly left me. Why did he ask when he knew it anyway? I was nervous because I didn’t want to have this conversation with the Harbinger. I didn’t want to see what the last months had done to him and didn’t want to answer the questions he would have.
I felt a calloused finger under my chin. “Hey.” Farkas’ gaze was intense, a sadness lingering in its depths that was new. New to me. In him, it had grown for a long time. “He will be glad to see you. And he’s still our Harbinger. You know him. No pressure.” A small smile lit his face up, showing his affection for the old man. “You’ll have a drink together, and everything will be alright.”
“How’s he doing?”
His face closed down. “Haven’t seen much of him lately.” He made a few steps towards the street, then turned back to me. “He struggles. He will be glad to see you.”
I made a helpless gesture. We all struggled, I didn’t need to hear it. And then he came back, a few fast steps until he stood before me. “He won’t press you. And… it doesn’t matter, you know? What he wants. You have to decide if you want to be here.”
I shrugged, avoiding his eyes. “I’ve nowhere else to go. And… Aela said that I can make myself useful.” I paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. “And I missed you. But everything here…” Everything in Jorrvaskr reminded of Vilkas. It hurt us both, but it hurt us both for different reasons, and I didn’t want to burden him with it.
“Qhouri.” His voice sounded urgent, and I looked into his face. “Let’s just go, okay?”
I exhaled slowly. Yeah. One step at a time, and now, I would speak with Kodlak. Side by side, we went along the road towards Whiterun.
Shortly before we reached the stables, I gave him a feeble grin. “I just wanna grab the first job and the first shield-sibling that comes my way and get to work.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Hey,” I nudged my elbow into his side, “thank you.”
He gave me a sidewards glance. “For what?”
“For waking me in the middle of the night.”
He was quiet for a moment. “I’m a fool,” he muttered finally.
“Yeah. And I’m a bitch, we know that already.”
A tiny grin quirked his lips. It made me glad.
Farkas sat at the bar when I had gathered my pack from the room at the Mare, a bottle of ale before him, his forehead buried in his palms. I tipped him on the shoulder.
He shook his head. “You go ahead. I’ll see you later.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“Alright.” I wanted to say something else, his behaviour bothering me, but he had already turned away.
Kodlak sat in his usual, comfortable chair, the desk as always cluttered with books and notes. The door stood open, and I just knocked on the doorframe when I stood already before him, fumbling nervously with the laces of my tunic, at least as tense as the first time I had entered this room.
His sight terrified me. What had become of the aged, but still powerful warrior I knew? His clothes hung loosely around his body, the formerly impressive physique lost to bones and angles, gaunt features behind the grey beard and the warpaint showing the sharpness of chronic ailment. And his eyes were tired and weary.
A weariness that disappeared at once when he saw me. He had to recognise my shock but chose to ignore it, his face lighting up in a spontaneous, genuine smile as he stood up. No reserves in his welcome, and when he grabbed my wrist, held it a bit longer than necessary and I gave no sign of resistance, he pulled me into a hug, strong and warm like I was used to.
“It’s good to see you, Qhouri.” He held me at arm’s length, his gaze scrutinising. “I hoped you would come.”
I blushed. “Sorry for the delay, Harbinger.”
“Not for that.”
It became awkwardly quiet while we looked at each other. Marks of the last months, yes, lots of them. We couldn’t acknowledge them. Not yet.
Finally he cleared his throat and took his former place again, beckoning me to take the opposite seat. He clasped his hands on top of the table.
We both started to speak at once. “Qhouri, I…” he started, and when I interrupted him, “Harbinger…”, he pointed an accusatory index at me. “No. Stop that. You always called me Kodlak. Do that again, or I’ll call you Dragonborn.” And with that he stood up again, a bit laboured but with his usual firm resolution and threw his door open.
“Tilma!” he bellowed in an ear-splitting voice into the hallway and waited until the old woman scurried out of a sideroom. “Wine. The best we have. Now.”
“But Harbinger,” came her brittle voice from outside the room, “you know you shouldn’t…”
“Stop harbingering me!” he barked. “Do I have to get it myself?”
“No! No, of course not!” She wrung her hands, giving me a pleading look. I could barely suppress a giggle, and it broke out when he sat again and mumbled something unintelligible into his beard. Impossible that he really called her an obnoxious hag.
“What?” He shot me a glowering look.
“Farkas predicted this.”
“Yeah. He said that…”
“You’ve been with Farkas today?”
“Yes.” I gave him a confused look. Wouldn’t tell him though that I slept away half the day under my shield-brother’s watch.
His voice was low. “Did you… get along?”
I nodded, the outbreak of cheerfulness fading as fast as it had erupted. “Yes. Yes, we did.” At least for the moment. No one could say what the future would bring, but a wordless smile bloomed over his face.
Tilma chose this moment to bring us the wine, a bottle and two goblets, and handed it over to Kodlak with a disapproving frown before she left again, shaking her head. He poured us the dark ruby liquid and handed one of the goblets to me. His expression told me not to interrupt him now as he sat quietly, circling the goblet between his fingers.
“I want to drink a toast to this day,” he said finally, his voice strained. “I have made mistakes… terrible mistakes, and the last one was the worst. There are no excuses… and still you’ve come back.” His hand shook slightly. “This is a good day, Qhouri. I want to drink to it with you.”
He lifted his goblet, and when mine clanked with a soft metallic sound against it, a quiet calm settled over me. I had always felt safe in this room and in his presence, from our very first meeting to the last, when he had sent us out to save the boy. I had felt safe because he believed in me – from the very beginning. And he still did.
And this was what made Jorrvaskr home. It was safety. A place to come back to and to hide in when necessary. It were these massive stone walls down here and the comfort of the ancient wooden planks upstairs, it was food and drink and fire and stories, shelter and warmth. And most of all was it the Companions – this incredible family, their protection, strength and reliability just as much as their flaws, insanities and mistakes. And the knowledge that I belonged to them.
“We all made mistakes, Kodlak,” I said lowly.
“Maybe. But you had to pay for them.”
I shook my head. “Yes. But I’m not the only one.”
He looked at me for a long time, as if he had to assess if I really meant it. Finally, he exhaled deeply, and the way he held his shoulders lost its rigidity. “Take your time to settle in, Qhouri. As much as you need.”
I gave him a light smile. “I’ll start working tomorrow.”
I shrugged. “I’ve nothing else to do. Been busy lately… but at the moment, when it comes to the dragons I’m pretty much stuck.”
Somehow I had the feeling I could tell him everything – about Alduin, about the Blades not able and the Greybeards not willing to help. About the prophecy that weighed on my shoulders like a mountain. Not now, though. No need to bring my troubles into Jorrvaskr. This break, this new beginning would do me good, and perhaps I’d find a new clue somewhere while working for the Companions.
“Yes, so I’ve heard,” the old man said, smiling when he saw my astonishment. “That you were busy, I mean. Uncommon events, lots of ruckus in Solitude and Riften… rumours and gossip. Lots of gossip. You know that we’re neutral in the war, but I like to know what’s going on in the province. Seems the Thalmor had to put up with some… serious setbacks recently. Of course I asked myself who’d be crazy enough to mess with them so thoroughly. It wasn’t hard to guess.”
At first his obvious amusement was infectious, but then a certain thought gripped me with striking fear. What if my actions brought danger to Jorrvaskr? The Thalmor knew me, and they knew about my affiliations. What if they brought their revenge here?
But Kodlak appeased my concerns. “Don’t worry, Qhouri. They won’t dare it, not even the Thalmor. We’re too respected, and we do have long-lasting connections to the Empire.”
“I hope you’re right. And I hope I can avoid them in the future.”
He gave me a warm look. “Perhaps you’ll tell me one day what you’ve done exactly to earn their ire.”
“I will.” I stood up, and he did the same, meeting me at the door. He took my hands in his, buried them between his palms.
“Perhaps, one day, we can talk about everything.”
I lowered my gaze. “Perhaps.” I left the room, and he closed the door silently behind me. I leant with my back against wall beside it, breathing deeply. Too much guilt and too much pain was unexpressed between us to make a promise. And to talk about it would change nothing.
Instead I threw myself into the work that piled up in the ledgers. Aela had been right, there was a huge back load, and it became worse daily. It seemed the fact that people had to wait for the Companion’s services only made them more eager to hire us. And of course there were jobs who always took priority – when people were in danger, every lost trinket, hidden treasure, or obnoxious beast plague had to wait.
I went out and cleared bandit hideouts for the Jarl, found lost family heirlooms for wealthy citizens or forgotten artefacts for whimsical scholars. I cleared troll and bear dens, a spriggan-infested glade and a storage cellar where a nest of skeever had spent the winter propagating. We killed the occasional dragon and found the occasional word wall, usually deep in some long forgotten ruins. No use in searching out their burial grounds any more, now that I knew what happened there.
And I had my first encounter with the Falmer, horrible blind creatures with deformed bodies and twisted faces entirely void of empathy. Intelligent, yes, partly mer but more beast, with lethal poison dripping from their arrows and acid-spitting pet bugs. Njada and I fought them in a small, eerily beautiful cave not far from Whiterun that led surprisingly down into the buried remains of a Dwemer ruin. When Vignar recounted the history of the Snow Elves of old, their war against men and their corruption by the betrayal of the Dwemer, the tale was so fantastic I wasn’t sure if I could believe him.
There were successes and failures, new scars and new experiences. Good ones too, even funny ones. Once Ria and I met a ghost on the road, which was uncommon all in itself, a ghost out in the open. Even more unusual was that it didn’t attack, didn’t even recognise us. The second weirdest thing was that he rode on a ghostly horse, and the most weirdest that he had no head. We followed him, curious and excited, just to see him vanish as if he had never been there when he reached an old, secluded graveyard. The draugr breaking out of its coffin as soon as we came close wore a beautiful, perfectly preserved ancient greatsword with a frost enchantment that Ria claimed happily for herself.
I tried to get back into the familiar routine, but it was hard to pretend that everything was back to normal when it clearly wasn’t. We all coped differently with the changes, and we were careful with each other, trying to respect tempers and mood swings, but we couldn’t ignore them, and we all knew what caused them.
And no one spoke about it. At least not with me. No one asked. Not how I had spent the winter, not what I had done before I met with Aela. On the one hand, I was glad about it. I had the feeling that these months were mine alone, no one had the right to pry into them. No one would take them from me. But too much was unspoken between us, and it showed.
The way they treated me with kid gloves drove me crazy. It wasn’t even terribly obvious, only an abundance of small things that showed an inordinate protectiveness that had never been there before and was only weird. Torvar’s obvious bad conscience when he came back from one of his nights at the Mare. The way they never left me alone when we were out of Jorrvaskr. How they sheltered me from others – clients and employers, people and strangers on the road or at the inns where we spent one night or another.
But it wasn’t only about me. If they worried about me, I had at least as much reason to worry about them. Perhaps it wasn’t so much that the Circle had failed, like Njada thought, but that there was simply not enough left of it.
Aela was fierce and disciplined whenever I worked with her, and she took more than her share of jobs. But every once in a while she vanished for days, never announcing beforehand where she went. But Skjor’s death had at least taught her not to leave us entirely in the dark, and when a courier came with a note and a name on it, at least we knew that either another Silver Hand hideout was eradicated, or where we could retrieve her body if she didn’t come back.
She always came back, often battered and bleeding, always silent and reticent, a flame of hatred and dark satisfaction burning in her eyes that no amount of blood could quench.
It was stupid, and it was dangerous. She didn’t only bring herself into peril. And no one confronted her with it.
It was her way to cope.
And then there was Farkas. Or rather, he wasn’t.
I didn’t know what Aela had told him, but at least he worked again regularly, taking preferably the contracts that would lead him to Winterhold or into the Reach, as far from Whiterun as possible. And he didn’t care who acted as his shield-sibling as long as it wasn’t me. When he wasn’t out on jobs, he often stayed away from the hall. And when we met in Jorrvaskr, during the rare occasions we were both at home at the same time, he went out of his way not to cross mine, spent even the nights away, and the dark circles under his eyes remained.
At first, I tried to deny it, couldn’t believe that he really avoided me at all costs. I blamed the circumstances, that there was nothing fitting for us to go out together, that he was stressed with the manifold obligations he had, not only in Whiterun, but also in Morthal. Despite the growing frustration, I tried to act normal, tried to speak with him about his jobs and mine, even asked him about his daughters. But his answers were curt and meaningless, cutting me off as fast as possible. When he didn’t have to, he didn’t speak with me at all any more.
It hurt, the way he shunned me, more than I wanted to admit to myself. The guilt that welled up every time we met and he turned away, because I knew why he was so distant. Why he couldn’t stand me. The helplessness, because I could do nothing about it. And the disappointment that he hadn’t meant what he said that first morning, that he didn’t even try. But Aela had forced him, and we were both confused and scared back then. Nothing had become better, and we had nothing to bridge this abyss.
I couldn’t confront him about it. Only once I tried, in a fleeting, spontaneous notion when I entered the back yard for a spar with Athis and caught him accidentally and alone, shredding a training dummy to splinters and rags of leather and straw with desperate aggressiveness. But he spun around before I could say a word, as if he had felt my eyes between his shoulder blades. For a single moment, his expression was soft, and he looked at me in the same way as he had done it that first morning in the Mare. And then his face shut down forcefully, narrowed brows and clenched jaws, and only aversion and sadness were left behind as he fled wordlessly into the Underforge.
Athis shifted behind me. “He’s struggling,” he said lowly. The hard knot in my chest that had grown with every rejection ached and made it hard to breathe, and I blinked frantically against the tears that gathered in my eyes.
“We’re all struggling,” I snapped, “no need to take it out on me. Let’s get going.” I drew Dragonbane and stormed down into the yard.
But of course he had every reason to take it out on me. I was the reason why he struggled, and he brought his point across every time we met. I didn’t try to approach him again.
In the end, I did what we all did and fled the hall, the tension and the awkward speechlessness between us all, caused by too many things that couldn’t be voiced. Working helped, it served as a distraction, and it was easier to bother about simple survival than to deal with the mess that was awaiting us in Jorrvaskr. And it was easier when there were just two of us – going along with the other whelps was still uncomplicated.
Until that one evening when all of us were miraculously at home at once, for the first time for weeks. Even Aela, even Farkas. Torvar and Ria tried to use the opportunity and gather everyone in the main hall, for a meal together and perhaps an improvised feast, and I joined them good-naturedly. We hadn’t spent an evening together for far too long. Perhaps it would do us good.
But it didn’t work. Farkas didn’t leave his room at all, Aela grabbed her bow and vanished outside right after she had finished eating, and Njada mumbled something about how drinking with Andurs was more fun than with us before she left downstairs. Ria scowled in frustration.
“We gotta get out of here,” she said stubbornly. “You go ahead, get us our table at the Mare. I’ll come with the rest.”
I was curious how she would force our reluctant shield-siblings to give up their self-imposed solitude – but somehow, she managed, and she wore a very complacent grin when we all had settled around the big round table that was ours by right and tradition.
The first round was on her tab. Probably a major part of her argumentation.
She had been right, getting out of the hall and together here in the cosy familiar atmosphere of the inn, meeting up and chatting with other patrons we knew just as well, did us good. At least it did me good, sitting between Ria and Athis and recounting our latest jobs, our tankards never empty. Njada made me hiccup with laughter with her scornful tale about a merchant who wanted a very special family heirloom silver goblet retrieved from some bandits who had raided his caravan. He got his goblet, and two dozen identical ones on top of it, and he was wasn’t thrilled at all when she dropped the whole load unceremoniously on his desk.
We had fun, fuss-free and uncomplicated, and for the first time for weeks I could relax and unwind, felt again that sense of togetherness that I had missed so much.
When Torvar emptied his tankard with a long gulp and a content burp, I stood up to get the next round.
Ria touched my wrist, concern in her face. “Let me go, Qhouri.”
I looked down on her, frowning. There was absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t share the expenses of such an evening. Especially as I had made good money lately. We all had. “It’s my turn. I’ll be right back.”
Standing at the bar and waiting for Hulda to receive my order, I watched the bustling life around me. Hrongar was there, the Jarl’s brother, arguing drunkenly with Nazeem about some unimportant trifle. Adrianne and Ulfberth sat in a secluded corner, holding hands over the table. Uthgerd shot me a scornful look across the fire, as if it was my fault that she hadn’t passed her trial with the Companions years ago. And Brenuin the beggar half stood at and half lay over the bar, arguing vocally with Hulda to get a whole bottle of ale for the single coin he had to offer.
I forged through the crowd and gave her a sign. “On my tap,” I mouthed. She nodded relieved and shoved the bottle into Brenuin’s hand. The way he grinned happily and pressed it to his chest like an infant as he jostled his way to the door made me laugh.
“Another round for us,” I said to her, slipping on a stool and gesturing to our table, “and we need something to bite. Nothing fancy, just some bread and cheese.”
“Of course, Companion.” She smiled. “Got some boar roast as well. Want it?” She was already busy pouring ale and mead into tankards.
“That was nice,” someone said. A Breton stood beside me, giving me an open, friendly smile.
I arched a questioning eyebrow. “What?”
“What you did for the beggar.”
“Ah, Brenuin.” I laughed. “He’s a pain when he doesn’t get what he wants. Easiest way to get rid of him.”
“Still nice.” He eyed me appraisingly. “Mead and ale, bread and cheese… I would’ve thought the Companions have a more exquisite taste.”
“This is Whiterun, not Solitude, Sir,” I grinned at him. “And we’re simple people with simple tastes.”
Brown eyes glittered mischievously as he turned fully to me, forcing me to lean my back against the bar. He stretched out his hand. “Sam,” he said unpretentiously. “Pleased to meet you.”
I took it, flashing him a smile. His handshake was firm and confident. I liked it. I liked to be approached and talked to by someone so normal and unpretentious. No one who hovered and patronised and made a fuss. This was a tavern, for Kyne’s sake. This was what people did in a tavern. “Qhourian. The same.”
“You look as if you have fun.”
I shrugged, not really interested in his observations about us. “Not more or less than the rest of the rubble. Hulda’s a good host.”
“She is,” he nodded, “even if her cellar leaves much to be desired.” He cocked his head, and for a moment I wondered if his hair was really so tousled or if it was cut to look as if he had just crawled out of bed. Considering the fine quality of his clothes, the soft black leather of his gloves and the exquisite beauty of the intricate floral amulet around his neck and the matching silver rose he displayed on the ring finger of his right hand, I didn’t believe he was that careless with his appearance. When someone bumped into him from behind, his arm pressed against my belly to steady himself. I tensed, but he straightened himself swiftly. “Pardon. Rubble, indeed,” he chortled amused, his hand resting lightly on my knee. He stood so close now that I could feel the warmth of his body. It was cramped and crowded around us, after all.
Hulda had finally finished preparing a large platter laden with slices of fresh bread, cold meat and an enormous chunk of goat cheese for us, but before I could take it and free my place at the bar for another thirsty patron, Sam snatched a piece of bread and a bit of the roast for himself, holding it between two fingers and biting off delicately, his eyes never leaving mine. He gave me a boyish grin. “Thank you. I’m starving.”
His bold cheekiness made me laugh. Somehow I had the feeling that he wanted to challenge me, something I couldn’t stand for, and I pulled the dagger from my hip, cut off a slice of cheese and presented it to him on my flat palm. “Can’t have that.”
He took it gingerly, broke off a small piece and chewed demonstratively slow, his face scrunching up first into an expression of contemplation and then into such exaggerated pure bliss that I burst out laughing. “It’s not that good,” I snickered.
“But it is,” he drawled, his fingertips stroking lightly over my palm as he took the next piece. His other hand held suddenly a small bottle, and two glasses appeared in front of us on the bar. “And this will accompany it perfectly. May I return the favour?”
I nodded, eyeing him curiously. This guy was funny and full of surprises. He poured a translucent, amber liquid into the glasses and offered one of them to me. It smelled intoxicating, heavy and strong, of smoke and earth and traces of berries. His eyes never left my face, the grin becoming a lopsided smile.
“What is this?”
“It’s strong. If you can take more than two, you’re good,” he said, as if it was explanation enough. Mischief sparkled in his eyes that had nearly the colour of the strange drink, the challenge I couldn’t resist more than obvious. And then he took the platter from my hand and placed it back on the bar, closed both of my palms around the glass and covered them with his own. A strangely intimate gesture that made me hold my breath and a shiver run down my back. “Warm it up first. It becomes even better.” He leant in even closer and whispered in my ear. “Everything is better when warmed up.”
The fist that crushed into his jaw hurled him backwards, the brandy or whatever it was sloshing over my tunic. For a moment, I froze in shock. Farkas stood beside us, teeth bared in a feral snarl, a low, barely intelligible growl coming from deep inside his chest. “Hands off.”
The punch should have broken his neck, but the Breton only stumbled back until he was caught by Hrongar’s broad, steel-clad chest. For a moment, he looked absolutely dumbfounded, but then something flashed through his face. Something that was smug and amused and dangerous, far more dangerous than the huge warrior who went after him with his face twisted in fury.
This wasn’t happening, was it? Why did people have to make room when they anticipated a brawl instead to do something sensible? And why in Oblivion did Farkas just now discover his fucking protective streak, unasked and unwanted?
Before I could do anything but slip off my stool, Farkas had reached his opponent, eyes flashing, and reached out to close his fingers around Sam’s throat. But the man simply swatted his arm away, his hand shooting forwards and his fist clenching into the neckline and laces of Farkas’ tunic.
That alone shouldn’t have been possible. And even less should it have happened that the simple touch, not even an attack, stopped the fuming warrior as if he was struck by lightning and brought him to his knees, the growl changing into a pained wail that broke up abruptly. He stared up into the face of the man who suddenly seemed to tower above him, panting for breath.
Aela forged her way through the crowd with brute force, Athis and Ria on her heels, but I was faster than her, tried to push between the men and what did by no means look like a common brawl – more like an execution.
But Sam simply grabbed my upper arm with his free hand and held me at distance while he pulled Farkas closer, haughty amusement in his face.
“Ah. Hircine’s lapdog.” He still wore that smug smile, and he spoke so quietly that only Farkas and I were able to understand him, shaking his head in mock sympathy. “That guy hasn’t had fun since… forever.” He turned his head to me. “A friend of yours?”
I stared at the Companion, clenching my teeth. Now I saw what was happening with him. It was the rose that caused him so much pain that it made him shiver, the silver ring on Sam’s finger I had admired earlier. When he grabbed the collar of Farkas’ shirt, it pressed into the skin of his chest, practically burned through it and left an angry, oozing lesion behind.
But Farkas didn’t return my gaze, his eyes directed to the ground, his shoulders trembling slightly. He was in pain, and he deserved it. Why did he have to interfere now? Why did he have to ruin everything? I didn’t even feel anger. Only disappointment and frustration, and the cold, hard knot in my chest coiled into an even tighter ache.
“No. No, he isn’t,” I said lowly, freeing myself from Sam’s grip and taking a step backwards. “But don’t kill him, please.” Somehow I was entirely sure that he could, easily, with a flick of his hand.
I forced my way through the crowd without caring on whose feet I stepped, every desire for further revelry, intoxication or stupid challenges blown away. Only when I had reached the door, I heard a voice calling after me.
“Qhourian!” Sam stood at the bar as if nothing had happened, raising his glass to me. “Another time, okay?” He gave me a broad grin and downed it in a single gulp. From the corners of my eyes, I saw Aela lead Farkas away, an arm slung around his waist. It clenched my chest with a feeling of loss and relief all at once.
The others were loud when they came home, but I didn’t sleep anyway, tossing and turning and cursing at the blankets that kept tangling around me. Only when a multitude of heavy steps came finally down the stairs to the living quarters, I forced myself to lie still, my back to the door, eyes pressed shut.
My efforts to feign sleep were futile, though. Of course they were when Aela stood before me, arms crossed over her chest. Damned senses of hers.
“We gotta talk,” she said curtly. “Get up.” Impossible to ignore Aela the Huntress, and even less to defy her. I didn’t even try.
She shoved a bottle of mead into my hand and beckoned me to take place on the single chair in her room as soon as I entered. My suspicion even grew when Athis came in after me, closed the door and leant against it, his face unusually serious.
“You did wrong by him tonight,” Aela said bluntly.
I knew at once who she meant, and I didn’t believe my ears. “I did wrong by Farkas?”
Slowly, I put the bottle back on the table, stood up and went to the door. “I don’t have to put up with that nonsense,” I pressed through gritted teeth.
“It’s no nonsense. You hurt him, and I want you to make it right.”
I spun around sharply. “You got that wrong, Aela.” The anger and frustration that had simmered for weeks now finally boiled over. “It’s not possible to hurt someone who pretends I don’t even exist. Who hasn’t spoken a single word with me for weeks. Who gets sick when he only sees me from afar.”
She raked her hands through her hair, but it was Athis who answered for her. “You have no idea what happened tonight, do you?” I gave him an incredulous look. Why did this sound like a fucking interrogation?
“I know very well what happened,” I snapped. “For once, I had fun. For once, there was someone who just wanted to have fun too. No fuss, no worry, no fucking protectiveness. Just a lousy drink. And then that jerk,” I pointed at the door, “thinks he has to punch him to Oblivion. For exactly no godsdamned reason!”
The exchanged a look, and Athis couldn’t suppress a snicker while Aela bit her lip to remain earnest.
“What?” I barked. This was ridiculous. And their amusement was totally uncalled for.
Athis shook his head, smirking. “Should we tell her?”
“Yeah,” Aela chuckled, “Farkas tried to punch him to Oblivion. And it would have worked with everyone else, we all know that. That fist is of iron. But your precious funny Sam guy didn’t even sport a bruise. Didn’t that make you suspicious?”
I gaped at her, speechless. Sam’s unscathed reaction to that hit had made me suspicious… for the fraction of a second. As if I had time to care for injuries when there were none.
“Gimme your necklace, please.”
My hand went to my throat. “Why?”
She threw up her hands impatiently. “Just give it to me.”
When I handed it over to her, she eyed it with obvious disdain. “Silver,” she muttered, but then she pulled herself together. “Look at this.” I tensed when she fastened it around her neck. Athis watched her just as keenly as I waited for the bruise to form.
But nothing happened, nothing but a slight shudder of disgust that went through her body. She took it off hurriedly and gave it back to me.
“Silver does nothing to us as long as it doesn’t get in contact with our blood. That hurts, yes, and it can easily kill us. But this here, jewellery and such… it’s not pleasant, but it doesn’t harm us.” She swallowed. “That ring… Farkas will keep a scar from that wound, you know? It was silver, but it was also something else. Magic.”
I felt blood rush to my cheeks, suddenly nervous. “Could you get to the point?” I asked lowly.
“He didn’t smell human, Qhouri,” Aela said calmly. “That was the first hint. And he knew at once about Farkas’… bond with Hircine. We suspect… well, we think that guy you had so much fun with tonight was a Daedra. A Daedric Prince.”
“Sanguine, to be precise. Looking for a victim for his next prank,” Athis chimed in.
He nodded, his face deadly serious. “Yeah. The Prince of hedonism and debauchery. Patron of brothels and whores. The rose is his trademark, and he loves to… play with people.”
Athis as a Dunmer knew probably more about the Daedra than anyone of us, including Vignar. And now he seemed terrifyingly confident about his assumption.
Suddenly, I felt dizzy, and I dropped down heavily on the edge of Aela’s bed and buried my face in my hands, all anger washed away by this revelation. A Daedric Prince, and I had been naïve enough to stumble directly into his trap. Naïve and stupid. Who knew what kind of concoction he was going to instill into me.
Soft steps crossed the room, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and the door clapped, and then Athis was gone and Aela sat down beside me, slinging an arm around me.
“It’s okay,” she said softly, “nothing happened.”
I took a deep breath. Yeah, nothing had happened. But only because someone had had my back. Someone of whom I had expected it least.
“Why did he do that?” I whispered, leaning my head against her shoulder. “I mean… he hates me. Vilkas is gone because of me. I mean… he should be glad if I end up as a divine plaything. And now… he gets himself hurt? For me?”
A low chuckle reached my ear. “He wasn’t aware that he was about to punch a Daedra when he did it,” she said. “It was just… you know him. He doesn’t think in situations like that. It’s his instincts, he saw you in danger and acted.”
“And now he regrets it.” I lifted my head. “I can never make up for that, Aela.”
She shook her head with a gentle smile. “You’ve always been a good team, Qhouri. It would be a shame to give that up… for us all, and most of all for you both.”
“But what can I do? He doesn’t even speak with me!”
“Try it. At least… tell him you know what he did tonight.” The heel of her palm rubbed soothingly over the stiff muscles of my shoulder. “He doesn’t hate you, Qhouri. It’s just… he’s lost. He’s struggling, with you, with himself, with everything. You could help him, you know?”
“I’d just make everything worse. I already did.”
“No. I think… you can only get through this together. Perhaps you can even help each other.”
I groaned desperately. We were both struggling. I kept myself occupied and distracted all the time and at all costs for a reason, and he couldn’t stand me for the same. He was a mess, and I was as well. And I feared it would only get worse if we threw it together.
Not that he wanted, he had made that clear enough. But Aela was right. At least I had to thank him.
“You think he’s asleep? Right now?”
“Only if Tilma has given him something. He doesn’t sleep much… not with the nightmares he has.”
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms. “Okay.”
“He doesn’t bite, Qhouri.”
I gave her a twisted grin. “Oh yes, he does.”
She gave a short laughter and opened the door for me. “You should get some rest too. Kodlak wants to see us tomorrow,” she said casually.
My breath hitched, and I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. “Kodlak? Why? And who is we?”
“Farkas, me and you. And no, I don’t know what it’s about.”
Gods. I had barely seen our Harbinger since I was back and not spoken more than three sentences with him. What did he want now?
“You could have told me tomorrow, you know?”
“You think too much, Qhouri.” Her grin was cheeky.
No, I didn’t. Or I couldn’t help it. Far too many thoughts whirled through my head when she had closed her door behind me, and for a moment I was tempted to turn around the corner and vanish into the dormitory. And when I finally knocked on Farkas’ door, cautiously not to wake him if he slept but loud enough not to be missed if he was awake, I was proud of myself.
But nothing moved behind the door as I stood outside, anxious and nervous. Perhaps he really slept. Perhaps he wasn’t here at all, had already left Jorrvaskr again. Or, perhaps and most probable, he knew that I was here and simply ignored me, like he had done it for so long.
After some endless minutes standing in front of the silent door, I turned away with a sigh of defeat. I couldn’t force him. Perhaps I’d just write him a note. Perhaps I’d just move to the inn to reduce our necessary interaction to a minimum. I could easily afford it with all the work I did, and I’d have a room for myself. And then that morning in the Mare came back to my mind, when I wanted so much to make things right with him that I believed him although he told me that Aela had forced him to come.
I still wanted it so much. I still would believe him, but he didn’t even lie to me any more. Angry with myself, I wiped my eyes with my sleeve.
“Qhouri.” The voice in my back was rough and strained, I hadn’t heard the door open. When I turned slowly, he stood before me, his hand clenched around the handle. He was clad only in lose pants, the wound on his chest untreated except a thick coating of healing salve, red and raw like an accusation.
For a moment, we only stared at each other. There was anger in his expression and exhaustion, tightly guarded cautiousness and the omnipresent sadness. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry.” My voice shook, and I stumbled over my own tongue. “I didn’t want to wake you. Aela and Athis told me what has happened tonight… about Sanguine and why you got hurt so badly and I didn’t want that and… I want to thank you. I’m a fool. Thank you. And I’m sorry.” I babbled, unable to think straight, my cheeks burning.
He rubbed tiredly his palm over his face, and then he made a step backwards and held the door open. “Would you come in?”
I nodded slowly. When I stood in the doorway, I held my breath in surprise. I knew his room well, dominated by the massive bar that didn’t leave much room for anything else, and it had always been chaotic. Cosy, but chaotic. Now it was tidied up to the last titbit, no spare clothes or armour parts, potions or weapons lying around, some new shelves on the wall, no dirty dishes and empty bottles on the bar or beside the bed. When he caught my surprised look, he shrugged sheepishly and pulled a chair from a corner.
I preferred to stand though, with my back against the door. He leant against the bar, and it became awkwardly quiet.
“I didn’t want this,” he muttered finally. “I didn’t want to make you cry.”
Slowly, I lifted my head. If all it took were some tears… this was something I didn’t want. I didn’t want his pity, and I was far too touchy lately anyway. I straightened myself. “It’s nothing. I’m just tired. And… I just wanted to get that off my chest. Really. I was a fool tonight.”
“No!” He raked his hand nervously through his hair. “Yes. Yes, you were, but I was worse. Please, Qhouri… I didn’t want this. I hurt you, and… when he asked you tonight if I was a friend of yours and you said no…” A groan broke from his chest. “Can we try this again? A fresh start?”
I stared incredulously at him. A fresh start? Now, out of the blue, and just because he had caught me crying? I laughed bitterly, my hands clenching into fists. “You said that already once, and it was a lie. And now again? Just because I shed a few tears?”
“I didn’t lie,” he whispered.
“Perhaps you didn’t. But it didn’t take long until you changed your mind.”
“Please… I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to hurt you. You seemed to be fine, and I thought it would be easier if we… every time I see you, I see what he has done to you. What he has become. And every time you see me…” His voice trailed off. He looked so helpless and forlorn… something broke in me. He didn’t have the right to look at me like that. He didn’t have the right to ask me for help.
“I know what you thought, Farkas,” I said harshly. “I’m not stupid. You thought it would be easier for you. And you know what? Every time I see you, I feel guilty because you’re such a wreck. I feel guilty because you were my friend once, I trusted you with my life, you were the one who always made me laugh and feel safe and I missed you so much. It hurts me to see you like this and to know that it’s my fault. But don’t pretend you ignored me for weeks to do me a favour. You’re a wreck not because of me, but because your brother is a bastard and a rapist and you can’t live with that.”
He stared at me from wide open eyes as I talked myself into a rage, blinding fury that had grown for so long and burst forth now. “You’re searching for a fucking reason, aren’t you? Anything that explains it. Anything that explains him. I can give you a reason, Farkas. I gave him plenty of reasons. When he asked me if I fucked you that night I made him believe that I did, because that question alone was sick and I knew he’d hate the mere thought that I desecrated his precious brother. And yes, I called him a dumbass and a coward because he didn’t change to save the boy. It would have been reasonable, even Kodlak told him so, but he rather sacrificed that life than to break his fucking principles!”
I made a step towards him and punched him in the chest, blind with tears and from the images of that fight and death and Vilkas on me that whirled through my head and hurt. “I gave him plenty of reasons,” I yelled at him. “Is this what you want? Is it reason enough to rape me and leave me to die? Is it better now?”
And then my legs buckled under me, I fell to my knees and curled myself into a ball, tears and snot smeared over my face. “I shouldn’t feel guilty for you,” I whispered, shivering and crying. I wanted to hide, from myself and from him. “I shouldn’t. What he did was wrong. It’s not my fault.”
It became quiet. Deadly quiet, nothing left that held me, only my pulse roaring in my ears and the breath that hurt when it finally came. My mind ran in circles and screamed at me – it’s not my fault, not my fault, reasons enough, not guilty. Not my fault.
And then there was a trembling body against mine and hands on my shoulders, on my skin, holding me tight, large and calloused. I screamed and shouted and Farkas flew against the wall, and the door crashed open and Aela stood in the room and yelled at me and Farkas yelled at her and the door slammed shut and she was gone again.
The taste of copper filled my mouth, my lip bitten open. It didn’t stop the tears or the raw aching in my throat, and it didn’t stop the guilt or the loneliness.
I didn’t understand them. I didn’t want this. It hurt so much.
And then warm wetness touched my face, the cloth rough and soothing and smelling of Tilma’s curd soap. It rubbed the remains of my warpaint off my face, stubborn and thorough, and the mess of too much crying, the bloody spit in the corners of my mouth and the pain behind my eyes. And there was a voice, deep and rumbling, humming a few notes. I listened, but there were no words and no melody, just a simple, meaningless sound that laid itself over my senses, like the covers that were draped over my body, spending warmth.
When the images came back, late in the night and in the darkness of barely glimmering coals, someone was there to hold on to, the smell of oil and wolf and safety wiping them away. It told me that it wasn’t my fault.
I woke lying on the floor in Farkas’ room, stiff and sore but warm and with a clear head, wrapped into the blanket from his bed. He sat beside me, his back propped against the bar, healing salve and blood smeared over his chest, a dark bruise on his shoulder, his face stained with traces of tears and a large, angry bump on his temple. But he held my hand, fingers entangled, and slept peacefully.
I watched him until he stirred, bleary-eyed and confused, his free hand going to his head with a low groan. That lump looked painful, and his neck had to hurt horribly after sleeping in this position, the goosebumps on his arms proving that he was freezing. For a moment, the grip of his fingers on mine tightened, then he relaxed. He rolled his head along the wooden boards until he could look at me.
“Hey,” he said.
I propped my head into my palm, but I didn’t let him go. “Hey.” A tiny smile curled his lips and made his eyes shine. It made me glad. “I need a drink,” I said.
His grin flashed up, but he didn’t move and he didn’t let me go either. “Fabulous idea.”