I didn’t know how Farkas could take it so easy. He got injured because of my stupidity. I had shouted at him, had hurt him and accused him of selfishness and not to care. And still he had watched over me.
Before the silence between us could become awkward, he finally let go of me with a gentle brush of his thumb over the back of my hand and shifted first to his knees and then to his feet, rolling his shoulders. He winced slightly when the movement strained the dark purple bruise on his shoulder.
I winced with him, inwardly. And then he bowed behind the bar and came up with a dusty bottle of mead. He plopped it open and handed it to me.
“We gotta share. It’s the last one.”
“You really have your own stock down here?”
He shrugged. “Only for emergencies. Usually I prefer to drink upstairs.”
I took a sip. It tasted a bit stale, but settled sweet and heavy in my empty stomach.
“And this is an emergency?”
He settled on top of the bar, his feet dangling beside me, and I reached the bottle up to him.
“Yeah,” he said, and then he tilted his head in neck and drank, more than half of it in one go, his Adam’s apple bobbing. When he handed it down to me again, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, his look was full of insecurity and doubt.
And all of a sudden, the events of the last night crushed with frightening clarity through my mind, every single word, Sam and Aela and Farkas, the yelling and shouting and crying. The pain. What I had said to him and that I had meant it. Every single word. And still, he had stayed with me and helped me through it.
No one knew our mutual despair better than we, impossible to hide from each other. A shiver ran down my spine, and I pulled my knees to my chest.
“What was that… with Aela, last night?”
“I’ve thrown her out. You woke all of Jorrvaskr with that shout, and she came and wanted to know if everything was okay. I told her not to ask stupid questions and that she should kindly leave us alone.”
“Gods…” I buried my face in my palms.
He slipped down from his elevated seat until he sat beside me, tilted his head back against the wood and stared at the ceiling. We should really get up from the floor some time soon. And he should get dressed.
“I’m not searching for reasons, Qhouri,” he said quietly. “All I wanna know is… if there’s a chance that we get back what we had. Before him. Without him.”
“There’s no such thing like a fresh start, Farkas. That’s just an illusion.”
“I know that!” he flared up. “But… we should stop hurting each other. It’s not our fault… not yours and not mine. We should stop feeling guilty.”
It sounded so tempting and so easy. The strange lightness I had felt since I had woken up with my hand in his, it was back. “I reckon you don’t want an apology?” I asked.
He turned his head to me. “You learn fast.”
“Okay.” He hadn’t left much for me, but I emptied the rest of the bottle in one long gulp, put it away and let the golden light of my healing spell appear in my palm. “At least… let me?”
He eyed me warily, but then he turned his temple to me. “My head hurts. The least you can do.”
A slight shudder went through him when the magic touched him and flowed through his body, but it did its work. I had had manifold opportunities to practise during the last weeks and felt much more comfortable healing others in the meantime.
Farkas relaxed under the treatment. “Feels good,” he mumbled, his eyes closed, but when I had finished his head and his shoulder, the bruises fading to mere shadows on his skin, and went to the angry, oozing wound on his chest, he held my wrist in a gentle grip. “Don’t even try. It won’t work.”
“Why not?” Of course I tried, and he was right. Nothing happened.
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Probably because it’s from Sanguine. At least the scar will be pretty.”
I swallowed. “That could… no, would have ended badly. Who knows what he’d have done with me.”
“Fortunately we’ll never find out.” And then he let go of my wrist and buried my hand between his palms. “I want it back, Qhouri. I wanna slay dragons with you and that you tell me what you’ve done with Delphine. I want you to laugh and feel safe with me again.” His smile was soft. “I’ll even climb up to High Hrothgar with you if necessary.”
I gave him a feeble grin. “The Greybeards have thrown me out last time I’ve been there.”
His eyes shot wide. “What? But Arngeir…”
“Arngeir is an obstinate, narrow-minded moron.”
“Now I really wanna know what happened.” He shook his head and pushed himself to his feet, reaching out to help me up. He wasn’t the only one with aching joints. “How about I find us something to do, and you tell me on the way?”
His eagerness made me smile. “Not gonna happen. We have a date with Kodlak, and I really need a bath before.” I reeked, of stale mead and cold sweat.
“Oh. Yeah. Forgot about that. Okay, I’ll see you there.”
He opened the door for me, but before I left, I turned once more to him. “I slept well tonight, Farkas. It felt… safe. Thank you.” His smile was like a sunrise.
I was nervous when I entered Kodlak’s quarters. Whatever he wanted, it had to be something grave. I had never been invited to one of the Circle’s meetings before, and that the others were already waiting and I had to ignore Aela’s curious look only made it worse.
He offered me a chair and came unpretentiously to the point.
“Eorlund and Fralia have been here a few days ago. They’ve asked us for help.”
“Because of Thorald,” Aela said tersely, and Kodlak nodded affirmatively.
“Yes. They’re at the end of their tether. Eorlund knows of course that this is a delicate matter. If what everybody believes is true and he vanished because he was a supporter of the rebellion, it’s entirely against our habit to get involved. No politics. But they’re desperate, especially Fralia. She won’t believe that he’s dead… no matter how many facts speaks against it. He’s gone for weeks now, after all.”
“And so you promised them to help,” Aela said matter-of-factly.
Kodlak shook his head gravely. “No. I told them I’d consult with you.” He looked from face to face and raked with his hand through the thick mane of his hair, a rare gesture of nervousness from him. I didn’t know what to say, had still no idea why I was here at all.
He continued. “The problem is, if what I believe is true we have a much larger problem than anyone anticipated and even more reason to keep our heads down. And at the same time the best reason of all not to leave the Grey-Manes hanging.”
“What are you talking about?” came Farkas voice from behind me where he leant against the wall.
Kodlak took a rasping breath. “It’s unlikely that he was simply killed by bandits or wildlife. He vanished on the road from here to Riverwood. It’s guarded, and someone would have found his corpse in the meantime. But if he was really taken because of his affiliation with the Stormcloaks, it would mean the Legion has him. Only that they haven’t. They’re nothing but organised, and if he was an Imperial prisoner, there would be information about it. They keep lists, after all.” He gave me a twisted grin.
“How do you know they don’t have him?” Aela asked.
“I still have some old acquaintances in the Legion.” Kodlak shrugged. “That leaves only one conclusion. We know Thorald was – is – an open supporter of the Stormcloaks. But, not surprisingly, he’s also a worshipper of Talos.”
We all knew where this went, and an uneasy feeling settled in my stomach. “Fralia told me he wore an Amulet of Talos. She was mad about it, told him to take it off and not bring himself into danger and that he refused, stubborn boy. If he was caught with it by the wrong people, we know where he has ended.”
I groaned. “Thalmor.”
“Exactly. And that’s why I’ve asked you to come, Qhouri. You’re quasi our resident Thalmor expert.” He sighed deeply, lines of worry in his face. “We can’t let them hanging, but we have our principles… whatever we do, it will not be an official Companions mission.”
“What happens with Thalmor prisoners?” Farkas asked bluntly.
I answered his question. Delphine had given me an extensive briefing, after all. “They act entirely independent from the Empire, even if they’re only here to enforce the White Gold Concordat and especially the Talos ban. I’ve seen one of their prisons… and they know how to break people. I’m sure they have more of these facilities scattered over Skyrim.”
Kodlak nodded gravely. “Probably, yes. In the end they do what they want, and if we’re not careful, we can put ourselves into a serious tight spot here. And not only because of Thorald.” When he met our incomprehensive faces, he narrowed his brows in concern. “Thorald isn’t a simple miner or farmer no one knows and no one misses. His father is the best smith in Skyrim, and his uncle is one of Ulfric Stormcloak’s oldest friends and staunchest supporters. And he comes from Whiterun, the only hold that openly defies the Talos ban without being part of the rebellion. They would love to get some leverage against the Grey-Manes as much as against Balgruuf.”
“You think the Battle-Borns have their hands in this?” I asked.
“Not sure, but possible. No idea how far Olfrid would go to score off the Grey-Manes, but he’s so bone-headed in his blind allegiance to the Empire… it’s a pity, really. But if they have something to do with it, it should be possible to find it out. If not… we have to search elsewhere.”
Aela groaned lowly. “You really think this is a good idea? That we get involved into this?”
“No, I’m not, Aela,” Kodlak answered honestly. “But we have to do something. Who else could? Vignar is one of us, and we’d be nothing without Eorlund.”
Aela nodded slowly, but she looked decidedly unhappy.
He searched my eyes. “Qhouri… I had hoped you’d take this over. Perhaps… well, the Dragonborn asking inappropriate questions may be less suspicious than one of us. And you’re not inexperienced in investigating Thalmor activities, after all.”
“What? You are not?” Farkas blurted out.
I gave him a small smile and nodded. “I’ll speak with Eorlund and Fralia for a start. And I’ll keep my head down.”
Kodlak looked relieved. “Thank you. And… if you find something out and you need a shield-sibling… I won’t tell you with whom to work. But I’d prefer this conversation wouldn’t leave this room.”
“No, you won’t join me!” I laughed at Farkas’ impertinence as he stood before me, disappointment in his face. It didn’t take much and he’d stomp his foot like a three-year-old.
“But why not?”
I grinned and lowered my voice. “This is about girl’s stuff, Farkas. You know, women among themselves… believe me, you don’t wanna witness that. It would damage you beyond repair.”
He scowled unhappily, more about my refusal to tell him what this was all about than about the teasing.
“I promise to get you into the action when there are some skulls to split. But now I won’t even leave Whiterun.”
The Grey-Manes had been overjoyed when I had visited them the evening before, full of thankfulness, nearly convinced that Thorald would be home soon now that the Companions had taken over. I hated to admit that we had no lead yet and to shatter their hopes, and in the end the lengthy chat I had with them revealed nothing I didn’t already know. Nothing substantial, at least. Only Fralia’s conviction that her son was still alive was so honest, so deep and unfaltering that I left them with an even stronger resolve to find out what happened with their son. Any certainty, even the worst, would be better than that.
The surprise came when I had left their house. A movement in the shadows between the door and the temple made me spin around, and I released a breath of relief when Olfina, the eldest of the Grey-Mane children, revealed herself and beckoned me over into a dark corner.
“I need to tell you something,” she whispered hastily, “but not now, I’ve got to get back before mother misses me. Can you meet me tomorrow, at noon, in the temple?”
And this was where I was heading now. Without Farkas.
I had no idea how he did it, but since our talk he gave me the feeling that our companionship was nearly back to normal. Perhaps it was really just a matter of personal resolve. Stop thinking, stop blaming, stop hurting each other. He never cared about what others thought of him, and he didn’t start now. That I had shouted at him, the events with Sanguine and my breakdown… he shrugged it off and gave no explanation, despite the obvious curiosity of our siblings. Eyes and mind on what lay in front of us instead of what we had left behind, and I could feel the relief in him when we shared a companionable bottle of ale after I came back from the Grey-Manes. And he promised not to leave Whiterun until we knew how to proceed further.
Olfina was already there when I entered the temple, and I convinced Danica swiftly to let us use her little office. The more privacy, the better, especially considering the young woman’s obvious nervousness.
“You’re searching for Thorald, aren’t you? That’s why you spoke with my parents?” I nodded. She certainly knew her mother’s thoughts about the matter.
“I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but it was hard not to overhear you… I think mother has gone a bit crazy over the loss of him. He’s never made a secret of his belief that the Empire should be driven out of Skyrim completely, and honestly, we’ve all seen this coming. Feared it would come.” Her eyes glittered moist. “But Ma is so convinced… perhaps something’s really wrong. Perhaps he isn’t dead. I’m not so sure any more, and I wanna help.”
The woman was about my age, quite attractive with the ashblonde hair and the grey eyes she had inherited from her father, and I knew that many people wondered why she wasn’t married yet. The few times I had met her, she made a strong and independent impression, and Eorlund was certainly not the kind of father who’d press her into a relationship she didn’t want. But she still lived under the roof of her parents, and I wondered what she could know. If she had perhaps shared secrets with her brother that even their parents didn’t know about.
I eyed her curiously. “If you know anything that would help us in our search I’d be most grateful, Olfina. At the moment we’re still pretty much lost.”
She hesitated. “No, don’t get me wrong. I don’t know anything about what happened to Thorald. But one thing’s certain, if anyone knows anything about him, it must be the Battle-Borns. Gods, how I hate this war! And this stupid feud!”
I was more than sympathetic with her feelings. Both families nursed their old, long-established influence in the city, and both did so preferably on the expense of the other clan. Nobody ever thought about the chances they and Whiterun could have if they worked together.
Olfina pulled herself together. “You must promise that you will tell nobody about the things I’m gonna tell you. It’d ruin me and help no one. Please?”
“Okay… the thing is, I had a… relationship with Jon Battle-Born.” She took a deep breath and blushed slightly, ignoring my surprise. “It’s over, not because I don’t like him, or he doesn’t like me, but because all hell would break lose if anyone got a catch about us. Especially his family. But I’m certain, if you tell him that you know about us, he will tell you everything he knows about Thorald just to buy your secrecy. If he knows something. Just don’t tell him that you got it from me!”
Holy Kyne, what a mess. She was pitiable, suffering so first-hand under this enmity, and I thanked her honestly for this information. It had to be hard for her to reveal it in the first place, and to a near stranger like me. I’d do anything not to make her situation any worse, but it also provided me with a leverage to put some gentle pressure on the Battle-Borns. Or one of them, at least.
But first I had to return to Jorrvaskr. Aela sat entirely relaxed on the terrace above the training yard and watched her shield-siblings work. She eyed me curiously when I dropped down beside her.
“Will you ever tell me what happened?” She pointed at Farkas who was sparring with Athis. I could watch him fight for hours, time and time again amazed how he was nearly as fast as the lithe mer, even in heavy armour and with his much longer blade.
“No.” I gave her an awkward grin as I fumbled the waterskin from my belt. The last gasps of winter could still send one or another snowstorm over the plains, but today the breeze from the south was outright gentle and balmy.
“At least you speak again. And he hasn’t trained that vigorously for weeks, you know? Whatever you said to him, it looks as if it worked.”
“Me?” I looked as innocently as possible. “I didn’t say anything, Aela. Perhaps you should just yell at him more often?”
In the last possible moment, the object of our interest blocked an attack of Athis’ whirling daggers, his own sword coming down in a fast, narrow arc, aimed for his shoulder and neck. Only that Athis wasn’t there any more, had danced back and out of reach and tried to throw the much larger Nord off balance with a kick to his shield. Who yanked it away and grabbed Athis’ ankle. In mere seconds, the whole duel had evolved from a spar to a brawl, strength and weight against flexible agility.
Aela laughed loudly, and Farkas turned to us, with Athis in a headlock and a faux scowl on his face. “Not funny,” he growled, “little grey-skin here is obnoxious.”
He probably didn’t hold tight enough – if he did, he’d have broken Athis’ neck – and the mer wiggled out of his grip and jumped on Farkas’ back, legs around his waist, both arms clenching around his throat. “I’ll show you obnoxious!” he declared triumphantly, not letting go until his victim started to sputter.
Farkas, together with his snickering burden, stumbled up the stairs towards us. “Shield-sisters! Help!” he panted, one hand held out pleadingly, the other trying to loosen Athis’ grip on his neck. The two men were a ridiculous sight, sweaty and dirty, warpaint smeared and full of dust.
Aela thought that too, obviously. She jumped up and backed off with a laughter. “No way! Not before you’ve taken a bath! Both of you!”
I intervened. “No! At least not Farkas. I need him exactly like he is.”
She shot me a disbelieving look. “You sure, sister? That guy reeks worse than the bastard at the springs who wanted you to scrub his back!”
“Hehe. No, I need him for a certain purpose, and for that he’s perfect right now.”
“Now I have nasty images in my head. No, I don’t wanna know what kind of purpose that could be!” Aela vanished giggling into the hall, followed by Athis who gave me a playful pat on his way in, and I turned to Farkas whose grin had suddenly turned into a concerned frown.
“What was that about you scrubbing some backs?”
I shrugged. “Just some… uninvited guests we had in the Marches. They wanted some fun… and we wanted them to take a bath before joining. One of them asked me to help him.” I grinned. “I did, but it turned out to be a bit rougher than he anticipated.”
He grabbed me at the elbow and led me to one of the tables, his face deadly serious, his eyes full of worry. “Qhouri, that’s not funny. Did he scare you?”
His reaction surprised me, and I wondered why he was so agitated. He should know that none of us was ever in danger. “No, he didn’t. There were four of us! Don’t you think we know how to deal with such filth? Even Tilma would’ve crushed his skull with a frying pan if necessary!”
Some of the anger left his face. “Sorry… of course you know how to deal with something like that. I just thought… oh, forget it.”
Something dawned on me. “You thought I’d panic because of the kind of… fun they wanted?” I shook my head. “Farkas, there’s a lot of things that scare me, but I can still distinguish between worthless vermin and men who are really dangerous. As much as I know whom to trust and whom not.”
He relaxed visibly and nodded. “Okay. You know what you’re doing. So, what special purpose is that?”
I told him what I had found out so far and what Olfina had told me. I had promised her secrecy, but the secret was in good hands with him, and if our little plot yielded any results I’d need him anyway.
“And now, brother, I need you to look scary for Jon. No skulls to split yet, but do you think you can put on your most intimidating attitude and come with me?”
He looked positively disappointed. “Just look scary? I’d prefer to be scary! What do you think I train for?”
“No, just pretend for now. We don’t want the whole Battle-Born clan come after the Companions. But if we get what we want from him, I’m pretty sure you can be scary as much as you want afterwards.”
With him in tow I made my way down to the marketplace where our target usually loitered around. Perhaps looking for Olfina.
“There he is,” I whispered to Farkas, “have your way with him and take him… behind the Warmaiden, nobody will disturb us there. But don’t hurt him, I don’t think he’s really done anything wrong.”
I watched the scene unfold for a moment. Jon Battle-Born was several inches smaller than Farkas and probably only half his weight, and although he was clad in iron armour and wore a sword at his side, he was obviously no fighter. In fact, I knew that he wished to go to the Bard’s College and become a minstrel, and that he despised Mikael from the Bannered Mare and his frivolous ways with a passion that matched mine; for that alone I had to like him. He wasn’t a bad man, just an involuntary participant in a conflict he probably didn’t have any interest in, and I really wished he could find his luck the way he wanted to – but for now we needed him only as a source of information. It was to hope that he wouldn’t show too much resistance.
I made my way to the clear spot behind Adrianne’s smithy, and soon I heard footsteps, both men coming into view, the Companion roughly jostling the wannabe-bard into my direction. I would’ve been scared as well if I didn’t know him – his huge stature in the massive steel armour and the dangerous looking greataxe he had strapped to his back only for this occasion, his hair a tangled, sweaty black mess, the deep frown, smeared warpaint, puckered brows and the deep growl were quite a display of intimidation. I had to suppress a snicker.
“As if you didn’t know me, Companion,” the man sneered, trying in vain to get out of Farkas’ iron grip around his neck. “What do you want? And why the hassle with your lapdog here?” Farkas only tightened his grasp, and slowly he forced his victim to his knees. I didn’t mind, a little fear was always useful to loosen a tongue, but I didn’t want to go too far.
“No need to break his neck, Farkas. Don’t think he’ll run away.”
“Better safe than sorry,” he growled, but he suppressed a grin, his eyes sparkling with mischief. He had far too much fun with this.
“Jon…,” I smiled friendly at the young man. “Please excuse our rash approach, but we need your help. In fact, I think you’re the only one who can help us.”
“And what in Oblivion could the Stormcloak’s lackeys need my help with?” he spat.
Farkas clenched his fingers even tighter around his neck, causing a startled, pained yelp from the man. “The Companions are no one’s lackeys, worm,” he growled into his ear.
“You house that filth in your own hall!” he gave back. Stubborn. I grabbed his chin and forced him to look up to me. Now he was trapped between us.
“You wanna be careful with your accusations, Battle-Born,” I said threateningly low. “Vignar is a veteran of the Imperial Legion of outstanding merits. He has seen things that a spoiled child like you can’t even imagine.” I shook my head in mock sympathy. “And I thought you could think for yourself, but all I hear is the bigotry of your father. A pity, really.”
His eyes showed a hint of insecurity. “What do you want then?”
I let him go and made a step backwards, my arms crossed in front of my chest. “We’re looking for someone, and I’m pretty sure you know where he is. Tell me, what do you know about the whereabouts of Thorald Grey-Mane?” The man blanched visibly, a first hint that he wasn’t completely oblivious. I pressed further. “Don’t even try to lie to me. I don’t wanna hurt you. And Farkas… he hasn’t split a skull for ages. It makes him nervous, you know?”
Farkas’ amused grin didn’t make it easier to keep my own intimidating composure. But Jon was more unrepentant than I would have given him credit for.
“All I know is that he was a bloody traitor who got himself killed,” he scoffed. “Serves him right. I thought the Companions don’t take sides? Why do you care?”
“Why we care is not your business, Jon,” I said softly. “But perhaps it’s of interest to you that his sister is devastated by the disappearance of her brother.”
All of a sudden he practically deflated, all the artificial, indignant anger vanishing from his posture and expression. His eyes shot wide. “Olfina?”
“Yes, Olfina. I’m sure your father would be very interested to hear about your little… fling. What do you think, how much would he like to learn that his spawn fraternises with the enemy? We all know that he’s not exactly patient with bloody traitors.”
All blood drained from his face, cold sweat suddenly pooling on his forehead. I could see him tremble in Farkas’ grip. And it didn’t need anything else to make him speak.
Perhaps it was the living and very real threat towering above him, the obvious fear of his father or honest frustration with the whole situation, but suddenly he talked as if his life depended on it. That was what we wanted him to think, of course, but he should have known that we wouldn’t kill a citizen in broad daylight and inside the walls. But the words just tumbled out of him, he spoke without thinking, frustration, guilt, righteous anger and a good share of fear breaking forth.
He told us how he despised the war, how his father was a merciless tyrant with his thumb on everyone in the household and beyond, how he wanted nothing more than to get away, go to Solitude, join the College and start over with Olfina where no one knew them.
And he told us how outright idiotic the whole idea to take the Grey-Mane son captive had been right from the beginning, no matter if he was a Stormcloak, no matter if there had been instructions to deal a blow against the Grey-Manes. He didn’t know who had given this order, but he knew how the whole affair had backfired when the Thalmor came for their captive. The Justiciar who had visited them in the dead of night hadn’t been happy at all that the prisoner in question was only a younger son of the Grey-Mane clan. And now the Battle-Borns had their attention as well, and nobody in his right mind wanted any attention of the Thalmor.
We let him speak, and when he became quiet, hanging boneless and desperate in Farkas’ grip, the Companion yanked him up and slammed his knee painfully into his kidney. “Where did they take him?” he barked, disgust in his face, and now his threatening behaviour had nothing playful any more. He was as appalled as I how deep people would sink for a crumb of attention.
He told us. Thorald was held captive in Northwatch Keep, a former Imperial fort that served as a secret Thalmor prison now.
Fralia Grey-Mane had been right.
I leant against the doorframe of Kodlak’s chambers and watched the men bending over the large map on his desk with a queasy feeling. A strange sense of unease and suspiciousness. It all felt too normal. We knew what we had to do and we would go out and do it, and although this was far from being a regular job, all this, all the planning and the preparations, felt far too ordinary.
It felt as if I was strung on a leash, a tension in the air no one would dare to admit. Or perhaps no one but me felt it. The way Kodlak had congratulated us to our success – “Excellent job, you two, really!” he had exclaimed, smiling broadly – and how Aela didn’t even try to get involved, leaving no question who would get Thorald out of that prison, it left me itchy and irritable.
Why did it have to be Farkas and me? I hadn’t worked with him for ages. We were barely on speaking terms again, and the way he seemingly shrugged off everything that stood between us – it felt forced and insincere, and it made me nervous.
And I wouldn’t just put up with it. Too often had I ignored my gut feeling until it was too late.
“Farkas,” I said briskly.
He looked over his shoulder, a deep frown on his face. “You should have a look here, Qhouri. The friggin’ farthest corner of Skyrim they could find. It’ll take us weeks to get there.”
Yeah, that was exactly the problem. I ignored his lament for the moment. “You stocked up your emergency supplies?”
“Not yet, still gotta visit Arcadia. But there’s time…” When he saw the resentment in my face, he narrowed his eyes. “You mean…”
I nodded curtly. “I need it. Now.” I turned on my heels and marched towards his quarters, his steps heavily behind me.
Farkas vanished immediately behind his bar and brought forth two bottles, handing one of them to me. “What’s the matter, Qhouri?”
I took a deep breath. “I wanna know if you think this is a good idea. You and me, on a journey of weeks.”
His face closed down. “You’d rather go with Aela?”
“No!” I clenched my hands in front of me. “I don’t know. You could go with Aela! Why does everybody think it’s a given that it has to be you and me?”
“Because Kodlak has assigned the job to you, and everybody knows we work fine together.”
“Kodlak is lousy in assigning jobs.” I regretted my words as soon as I had said them and his face scrunched up in pain. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…” I felt my shoulders slump forward. I didn’t know myself what I meant. Perhaps it was just the irrational feeling that everything got decided over my head.
He sighed deeply. “Should I get Aela, so we can ask her to take over?” he asked lowly. I heard the disappointment in his voice.
Yes, I thought. Let her take over, either for him or for me. It would be so much easier. But I couldn’t say it out loud. “No. It’s just… “
“You don’t trust that it will work.”
I raised my gaze to him. “Yeah. What is this, Farkas? Peace, or truce? I feel… like walking on thin ice, and you keep telling me that it will hold. But I can hear it crack.” I shrugged helplessly. “I thought we’d clear Valtheim for a start. Or kill some trolls. Or… dunno. Something easy.” Something that wouldn’t tie us together and leave dependent on each other for such a long time. Something that would give us opportunity to get used to each other again.
“We don’t need easy.” Suddenly, there was this strange determination in his expression that was so characteristic for him. “I don’t know what this is, Qhouri. More than a truce, I hope. Perhaps not yet peace… but we’ll get there. We’ve always been a good team, and we’ll work fine together. And everything else… we’ll work it out. We always did.”
“You think so?”
He looked at me for a moment, then put his bottle away and came around the bar until he stood before me. He raised his hands as if he wanted to lay them on my shoulders… or pull me into his arms. But then he let them fall to his side again.
“I’d go crazy if I didn’t,” he said quietly. There was so much in his face, confidence and a hint of insecurity, excitement and a plea… and something warm. Something that told me that he wouldn’t let me down, and suddenly I felt like a fool for these silly, vague concerns that I carried around.
I let my forehead drop against his shoulder, and now his arms came around me, pulled me into a warm hug. “I just don’t wanna fight with you again,” I whispered into his chest.
His index tilted my head upwards. A small smile curled his lips. “I’d rather fight than repeat the last weeks. And we’ve fought before, Qhouri. I’m still a fool, and you’re still a bitch. Some things don’t change.”
Somehow, he still managed to make me laugh. And of course he was right, running away would solve nothing. But I wanted stability, I wanted him to be the rock he had always been, strong and solid and reliable. I wanted back what we once had.
But we would have to work for it, both of us. He was willing and just waiting for me, and I didn’t even know what I was afraid of.
I lifted my head. “Okay. I’ll visit Arcadia and Elrindir and buy them out. And guess who’ll carry all that stuff to the other end of Skyrim.”
His grin flared up, boyish and cheerful. “A pleasure, sister.”
After a brief visit to the apothecary and Elrindir’s hunting store to stock up on arrows and every potion we could possibly need I wanted to get as much sleep as possible before we’d leave Whiterun before sunrise, but Athis interfered with my plans. He made an almost shy impression when he stopped me on the stairs down to the living quarters.
“You have a moment, Qhouri?” One look at him told me that sleep would have to wait, and I nodded and followed him without a further word out into the courtyard where we were undisturbed.
“You leave tomorrow, don’t you? With Farkas?” Nothing in this hall remained secret for more than a few minutes, it seemed.
“Whatever you’re up to, it will do you good. Both of you.” But he didn’t elaborate and became quiet, shifting uncomfortably on his bench.
“What’s the matter, Athis? At the moment I can’t tell you more… but I’ll come back, you know?” My attempt to lighten up his mood failed miserably.
He scowled. “Of course you will. Farkas will carry you back if he has to.” He took a deep breath. “No… I’ve something to confess. You’d never find out on your own, but… I can’t keep this to myself any more, so I better tell you now.”
I looked curiously. What could it be that made him that nervous?
“I just wanted to tell you… if you ever plan to disappear again, you need to find a new hiding place. Because I knew where you were, during the winter.”
Seeing him blush, visible even through his dark skin and warpaint, I slowly grasped what he had said.
“You mean… you knew where I lived? And you told no one?” His nod left me speechless, and a shiver ran down my spine. I hadn’t been alone, all this time. And not only didn’t he reveal himself to me, but he also kept quiet to the others. “For Kyne’s sake, why?”
He clenched his hands in his lap. “And make you run again, and I have to find you in Elsweyr next time?”
I grinned. This was, after all, pretty ironic.
He eyed my reaction with obvious relief. “It was an accident, honestly. I had to fetch something in Falkreath, and on my way back I remembered where you found me with that stupid bear. And I don’t know why, but I made a short sidetrip through the forest and looked around for a bit and found your camp. And you. It’s not hard to find an open fire in the middle of nowhere if you know what to look for.”
“I must be a lousy hunter if I didn’t notice you. Not even your tracks… And why didn’t you come out and say hello? I would have… liked that.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” he said sternly. “You weren’t ready for any company, not even mine, and I didn’t want to take the risk. Of course I wanted to drag you back home at first. Vilkas was gone, Skjor dead and Farkas a wreck, and you were in a horrible condition as well. But I knew it wasn’t gonna happen, not that easily. You needed that time alone with yourself, and I knew that I couldn’t force you, you’d have to come to your senses on your own. So I just kept an eye on you, to make sure you’re okay.”
“You looked out for me? Through the whole winter?”
He nodded. “Every few days, just to see if you were still alive. Of course you weren’t okay, but that had to be enough. I’m a terrible shield-brother… the hardest was to keep quiet. I was in a lousy mood all these weeks. And… I couldn’t take every job in and around Falkreath all on my own, that would have been too suspicious. So I had to tell Njada.”
“And you both kept quiet and left me alone.”
“Yep. ‘t was hard, believe me. But we thought it for the best.”
We sat there for some minutes while I tried to digest what he had told me.
“Athis, you’re insane. But you’re right… I would have run again. I couldn’t deal with you back then. I could hardly deal with myself.”
His smile was unusually soft. “I know. Though you probably wouldn’t have come far, injured and half-starved and weak as you were.”
“It wasn’t so bad. Snowback was there, after all.” My breath hitched with sudden comprehension. “I always wondered… you brought him, didn’t you?”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah. Took him with me and let him run. He found you without problems. And that’s not all, I’m afraid.” His face showed a trace of his typical smirk. “When you didn’t bother to get back into life – not necessarily back to Jorrvaskr, but at least somewhere I didn’t have to fear constantly that I’d only find your naked bones next time – I knew I had to do something. And I sent you a friend, to give you a little push.”
Now he grinned at my dumbfounded expression. “I didn’t tell him who you are, just where to find you and that he should visit you. Accidentally, so to say. Did you really think a travelling bard leaves the safety of the streets in the deepest of winter and just happens to stumble over your camp somewhere in the middle of nowhere?”
“That weirdo Talsgar? He’s a friend of you?” Not that it really surprised me, Athis had all kinds of weird acquaintances.
He chuckled. “Well, not really a friend, but we travellers know each other, and he owes me. I saved him from a frost troll once. And he’s always game for a bit of a crazy trip.”
“Well, he did an awesome job. I found him at my fire one morning as if he belonged there, he had bewitched Snowback, and then he played that atrocious Dragonborn song until I cut his strings. Not much later I went dragon slaying again.”
“That was the worst, Qhouri… when you were suddenly gone, without a trace. At least it didn’t take long till we got the news about the dragon in Kynesgrove.”
I had tears in my eyes when I looked at this mer who accepted me like I was, with all my insanities, and just held his hand over me when necessary. What could happen with friends like this?
“Are you mad at me?” His voice had lost its mirth.
“Mad at you? You’re the best friend I could wish for. Why should I be mad at you?”
The relief shone from his eyes. “Then, please… could this remain our little secret? The others would dump me into the Skyforge if they knew.”
I just nodded. In this, he had taken my side, and I’d never forget it.
“I need to get some sleep, Athis. Thank you for telling me.”
“Safe travels, sister. Be careful, okay?”