Eyes on the Enemy: 9. Journey

eote_09_journeyIt was in the middle of the Reach where we met the stranger.

Meeting strangers was always an affair of cautiousness and distrust, especially far off the road where every encounter had to wake suspiciousness. It was just safe and reasonable to expect the worst – a drawn blade instead of a greeting or, worse, a dagger thrown after us when we had passed.

But this one was different.

The Reach had proven to be the most difficult stage of our journey so far. It was under Imperial control and the roads too heavily patrolled for us, not only by legionnaires, but also by Thalmor. We couldn’t risk to use them, but progress through the mountainous landscape was difficult and far too slow for our liking – more than once we had to make far detours or turn back to where we came from when we suddenly found ourselves stopped by an impassable slope or abyss. And on top of that we had to deal with the constant threat of marauding Forsworn groups. Their larger camps were easy to avoid, but the rugged terrain they knew so much better than we offered plenty of opportunities for insidious ambushes, and once we were detected, they always attacked on sight.

We were exhausted after hours of climbing along a steep goat trail and took a short rest in the shadow of a large boulder. The man who approached us openly and with confident strides was an unusual sight, especially out here where we didn’t expect to meet anyone – and least of all a big warrior in heavy, worn out iron armour and with a greatsword strapped to his back that looked remarkable like the ancient blades I had seen wielded by the undead in the Nordic crypts. At least it was clear at first sight that this wasn’t a Reachman, and we only stood up, hands on the hilts of our swords, and watched him cautiously.

But he didn’t draw his weapon and approached us without hesitation, taking off his helm. We looked surprised at each other – he was an Orc. An aged Orsimer warrior, scarred and marked by a life of fighting. A prominent scar ran from his hairline across the cheek down to the corner of his mouth and left one eye blind, one of the typical tusks was broken, and the mane of thick copper hair, practically tied in his neck, was streaked with grey. But although his best years lay obviously already behind him, the mer radiated power and confidence. I hoped that the grimace we saw on his strangely elven face was more a smile than a snarl.

But he showed no sign of hostility, not even of surprise, and when he had reached us, he bowed his neck politely.

“More strangers in this strange land full of cowards and dark magic,” he said, regarding us attentively. “But you are no cowards.” His rough, dark voice sounded strangely pleased, but bare of any threat. I tensed, not knowing what to make of this odd greeting, but my companion laid a reassuring hand on my arm.

“No, we are not. Welcome, brother,” Farkas replied, sitting down again and beckoning the stranger to join us.

Astonishment flared up in the light brown eyes of the Orsimer. “Brother? You’re blood-kin?”

The Companion nodded. “I am. Granted by chief Mauhulakh from Narzulbur.” None of the men revealed his name in this strange conversation, as if it wasn’t necessary, and there seemed to be a weird understanding between them – an understanding that escaped me completely.

The Orc focused entirely on Farkas, they regarded each other curiously and estimating. Finally, the mer curled his lips in something that resembled a satisfied smile and tilted his head slightly.

“Will you grant me a wish, kinsman?” The last word came with an unmistakable emphasis.

Farkas nodded. “I will, if I can.”

“You can. You’re brave, and you’re strong. My time has finally come.” The mer took a deep breath and straightened himself. “Will you grant me the glorious death Malacath has promised to me?”

Farkas just looked at him with a light, understanding smile while my eyes grew wide. I understood that something strange was happening here. But did he really ask Farkas to kill him?

Before I could intervene, Farkas’ grip on my arm became firmer, but he kept his eyes on the old warrior.

He pointed at me. “She’s a warrior like you and I, but she’s not kin. I want her to understand. Will you explain your wish to her?”

Only now the Orsimer seemed to take real notice of me. His alien, almond-shaped eyes looked warm… and relieved. He addressed me, bowing his head slightly.

“We’re different from you Nords… and other people. We’re few, but we’re proud… and there’s no worse fate than to become useless. I’m too old to become chieftain and too old to take wives. But I’ve spent my life fighting, and I want to leave with a sword in my hand while I’m still able to. My time is over and I want what I deserve, promised by Malacath himself.”

This meant a duel, a duel to the death. And Farkas seemed determined to play this crazy game with him. My anxious expression must have betrayed me, because he just nodded at the mer who stood up and settled on a rock out of hearing range, starting to sharpen his blade.

“Farkas, that’s madness!” I turned to him with wide eyes.

He squeezed my shoulders, but the look of determination on his face didn’t falter. “He won’t kill me, Qhouri. It’s his own death he seeks, not mine.”

“But he will fight back. He wants a glorious death.”

“Of course he will. But it’s an honour that he has asked me, and I will not deny his wish.”

“But why does he want you to kill him? Couldn’t he just… dunno, run into a Forsworn camp? Or find a giant who does the job?”

“That’s not how it works for them.” His gaze rested pensively on my face. “I’ll explain more to you later, okay?”

“Farkas…” Something constricted my throat. I was scared. For him.

“Hey.” His voice was soft, and he pulled me closer. I breathed him in. “I’m not ready to leave this world yet.” And then he dipped down and brushed his lips over mine, fast and fleeting. “Wish me luck,” he said with a small smile, stood up, took off his bow and quiver and went to the middle of a place free of rocks and boulders. I could do nothing but stay where I was and watch him fight for his life against a suicidal mer with a sword double the size of his.

I shook myself out of it. Worries like this weren’t only pointless, they were dangerous, but I couldn’t help myself. He was precious to me… and every day we spent together, something was added to this feeling.

So much had changed between us… everything, and much less than I had thought.

Most of all we were still shield-siblings, working together like we had always done it, concentrated on our task. Slowly we made our way through the land, avoiding people and settlements, killing when necessary, knowing that we had to be careful or the dogs would be on our trail. It was a harsh, dangerous journey as we tried to merge with the country, and it helped that it were only the two of us. But I was more aware of him now, more aware of his closeness and his touches. His hand in my neck, a helping grip, a short caress of my face. Just an affirmation that he was still there and a sign that he wouldn’t leave me alone. And what would have set my nerves on edge from everybody else was so familiar when it came from him that I never even thought of rejecting these small attentions.

I realised how familiar they were, how I was already used to them… to him. And I learned.

I didn’t lie when I asked him to help me. Never again did I want to panic like I had done it just because he said something, just because he was honest with me. Never again did I want to feel so helpless. I wanted to allow him a closeness that would help us both, and I wanted to prove that I wasn’t afraid of him. When we had for the first time the opportunity to get a whole night of rest without having to keep watch, in an abandoned mine we only had to dispatch of a few skeever, I placed his bedroll right beside mine instead of his usual place at the opposite side of the fire.

He gave me an astonished, shy look. “You sure?”

I just nodded.

At first I slept worse with him so close, was nervous of this proximity. He knew it, sensed me startle but never said a word, and I fought through it. Sometimes I woke with a large hand stroking gently over my hair, or a look into his sleeping face was enough to calm me, to make me realise that there was nothing I had to protect myself from. Slowly I got used to him, got used to the heat of a body beside me, his sleeping breath on my face, his restless movements when he dreamt. Until I found myself curled into his arms one morning, not at all scared by this unexpected cuddling, my head on his shoulder, the heat radiating from his body even through the furs between us not half as intense as the warmth in his eyes.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” he said with an insecure smile, “you were suddenly here.”

It felt… not frightening. Unfamiliar, but not frightening. He was just there, one arm under my neck, the other hand resting on my shoulder, a solid presence of safety and warmth. I was used to let him watch over my sleep, after all. And holy Kyne, he was so blissfully warm.

“… morning,” I mumbled, and he answered my sleepy smile with his own, full of genuine happiness.

He slept better with me near, more restful despite the beastblood and the dreams. With me, he didn’t dream of his brother – as if he needed the living proof in reach that the horrible images of Vilkas’ destructive frenzy were only an illusion. He told me about it, and I could see that he was more relaxed, more rested.

He told me a lot during this time. We talked more than ever, and it wasn’t always easy, often uncomfortable and sometimes painful. But it helped, and it bought me the time I needed to get used to him. To his familiar presence that felt so different suddenly, to the thought that our companionship would never be the same, to the idea that this change wasn’t as intimidating as I had feared. And to these feelings he never bothered to hide, that poured out of every look and gesture. There was no pressure, no enforcement, just a tenderness that wasn’t even new, that had always been there. But now I was aware of it, impossible to decline and increasingly easy to return.

And when he once had to wake me from one of the nightmares that sometimes haunted me, pictures of silk and jewellery on my skin, of a ballroom and a bedroom that were lit too brightly, faces of strangers that always were too close, he asked me to tell him what it was about.

His questions were blunt and direct like it was his way, but at the same time they made clear that it wasn’t simple curiosity, but that he was ready to deal with this part of my life and that he wanted to understand – if I let him. It was an offer which I learned to accept, though slowly and tentatively at first. This was a closeness that was harder to allow, much harder than his breath on my skin or the touch of his hands. But the experience how he listened quietly and without judgement… it helped, more than I had thought possible.

Never before had I spoken about my life in Cheydinhal… only once, when Kodlak had asked, and even then I had only recounted the blunt facts. I didn’t know any more why I had revealed these things to our Harbinger. Perhaps because I thought I owed it to him for saving my life. Perhaps because I trusted him already more than I had ever trusted anybody else, back then when I struggled to get back on my feet and was still absolutely certain that I’d never stay in Jorrvaskr.

But now, with Farkas, it was the first time ever that I dared to go deeper, exploring not only what had happened, but what it had done to me. Never before had I tried to find words for the experiences of the child I had been, the feeling to be stained for life, the shame that never really left me.

Many of these revelations were only possible in the darkest hours of the night, when I didn’t have to see his reaction and the expression on his face. I wanted him to know, to understand why I was such a wreck, but I didn’t want to deal with the helpless fury my words caused. But his arms were always there, never hesitating in their warm embrace, never tightening too much, not even when I turned away from him, lost in tears and memories. And they were only possible because I knew he’d still be there when I came back, and sometimes his tears mingled with mine.

He was as gentle as persistent, allowed me exactly the distance I needed, and slowly I let him in, felt old, festering wounds heal through his words, his presence and all the patience it took. Only scars were left, but scars were just a memory, an archive of a life, they didn’t hurt any more. We both had plenty of them.

Talking helped, his understanding and his respect helped. It helped to clear up my mind, it brought things to the surface I didn’t even know any more that I had buried them. And it helped to let go. I realised how accustomed I was to my own fears. How dependent on them. For so many years they had been the headstone of my life, everything was built on these foundations lain in my youth. They had been the only constant, a certainty I could trust that it would always be there, unmovable and unchangeable, never touched or altered.

But I had changed since I had joined the Companions, more than I had noticed myself. Being a Companion had not only taught me to believe in myself, but also to trust in others – and in Farkas first and foremost. And now, he offered me something else to build upon, openly and without obligations. With this offer he helped me to tear down my walls, slowly, brick for brick and barely noticeable.

In return, he told me about his youth, what he remembered of his parents and about the horror of their loss, the images of their death that never left him again. The torture they had to endure and the twins had to watch, their endless agony, their screams and their last breath. And the unbridled, uncomprehending terror when they were suddenly back, moving corpses with dead eyes in faces that had always meant safety and shelter. Now they had lost the memory of their children, and their masters watched with cruel glee the devastation in the minds of the boys when they clung to the dead and got no reaction.

When Jergen came, Farkas was glad to be taken away. But Vilkas had buried the experience deep in his mind and hated him with all the ferocity of his four years for killing his parents.

But despite this experience and although he had to save his brother from the pain, the nightmares and the loneliness afterwards, I got the impression that he had been a happy child. Life in Jorrvaskr was exciting, they experienced a freedom and challenges the other children of Whiterun envied them for. And even if he sometimes envied them as well because they had parents to go home to, he had clung to Jergen and Kodlak, Askar and Aela’s mother and Tilma, wanted to please them with everything he was, and the Companions had done their best to give them a home. Neither he nor anyone else ever doubted that he would be one of them later, even if it wasn’t so clear what would become of Vilkas until they were far into their adolescence.

But as different as they were in their talents and personalities, it was impossible to separate the twins, at least not permanently. They were dependent on each other, complementing each other perfectly, and although Vilkas even left Jorrvaskr several times for extensive journeys through Cyrodiil and Hammerfell, he always came back – back home, back to his brother.

We spoke about him like a stranger I had never met before, but he was ubiquitous – whenever Farkas spoke of himself, of his experiences and important events in his life, Vilkas was never far. Not much he had done without him, their lives intertwined so closely, so absolutely inseparable that it was impossible to leave him out. Everything that had happened between us stayed in the background, sadness, guilt and acceptance that were never expressed clearly, but I had to realise that Farkas wouldn’t be the man I knew – the man who bared his heart to me, close like no one before – without his brother.

Not once did we touch the present, until one day he tugged a braid behind my ear and let a warm hand rest on my cheek.

“He’s a part of me, Qhouri,” he said calmly. “I can’t just forget him. I can condemn him for what he’s done, I want to hurt him as much as he hurt you, but I can’t just let him go, and I will never stop missing him. He’s a part of me like your memories are a part of you, and I hope you can accept that.”

I shrugged defensively. “I don’t have a choice, do I?”

He pulled back his hand, his jaw tight. “Of course you have.”

But if I couldn’t deal with this, I would lose him. He never shied away from me and all the junk I dumped upon him, and it was bad enough that I couldn’t do the same for him. To force him to repudiate his brother would mean to force him to repudiate himself. Even if I wanted, even if he wanted to do that, it would never work.

“No, I don’t,” I said softly.

“I’m sorry.” His shoulders sagged, and he avoided my gaze.

But he buried his face in my neck with a heavy sigh when I pulled him into my arms. “Don’t be,” I whispered. “Never be sorry that you’re the man that you are.” For the moment, it were only the two of us. One step at a time, and he let me decide the pace.

Until the day we came up against a Thalmor patrol, far from every street, somewhere north of Rorikstead. It was too late to hide, we didn’t expect to meet anybody out here. They attacked as soon as they saw us, without the usual taunts and interrogations they had for passers-by, and we could only suspect that they recognised us. It wasn’t hard, with my white hair and Farkas’ distinctive wolf armour, but it also meant that they had order to kill us. But they had a prisoner with them, a small man in threadbare clothes, feet wrapped into bloody rags and hands bound, lips blue and chapped from the cold, his face a picture of hopelessness. When my first arrow felled one of the wizards, the guard nearest to him slit the prisoner’s throat with an unsurprised, casual motion before he turned to me.

He couldn’t cope with my fury. To sacrifice a life this way, so cruel and so needless, just to get rid of him… I shouted them down with frozen time and flaring bursts of fire just to show them that there were powers larger than theirs, and then I slit their throats just like they had done it with his.

When the corpses lay around me, my body sore from the power of the Thu’um and a wave of triumph and bloodlust running through my veins, I felt Farkas’ hands on my shoulders, pulling me against his chest.

“You’re scary, woman.”

His kiss was like a surge, rinsing away the riot of the kill, replacing it with his own warmth, his passion and admiration. He held my face in his palms, and his lips were persistent and patient until my limbs lost their rigidity and I relaxed into his embrace.

And now I had to watch him fight for his life. The worst was that I was condemned to idleness.

The fight began like an utterly normal spar. The Orsimer’s huge greatsword with its larger range looked like an advantage against Farkas’ shorter Skyforge blade at first, but I knew that it accommodated his natural agility, that he could wield it like a lightning strike. Both warriors tested their skills at first, moving fluently through the familiar motions with accurate, defined attacks and parades, and it took just a few moves to reveal that they were equal. Or nearly equal, I hoped. The mer was nearly as broad and tall as Farkas, wielding his blade with the finesse of decades of experience.

It was a strange fight, nothing like I’d ever seen. Where a spar could be fierce, its intention was never to injure severely or even kill the opponent. Sparring partners usually hit with the flat side of their blades and never attacked with full force. What I witnessed now though was far from the controlled aggression of a training; it was indeed a fight to the death, fervent and relentless, but in contrast to all the other fights we encountered every day, there was no hate in their faces, no roared challenges and yelled insults. Just a strange calmness, determination and respect.

The beauty of this dance, of the two powerful combatants circling each other, both equally skilled and relentless, had something mesmerising the longer it took. I knew how they had to feel, the sweat running down beneath armour and the helm the Orsimer wore, dropping into the eyes, drenching the fabric beneath metal and leather and chafing the skin to painful soreness under every buckle and joint; the increasing aches of overstrained muscles that had to be ignored; the effort to remain concentrated and alert for such a long time. The mer must have been a force to reckon with, he still was, and I wondered how he had spent his life. As a soldier in service of the Legion, like so many of his kinsmen? As a mercenary or sellsword? Or just as a defender of one of the strongholds in Skyrim? We’d never know, we didn’t even know his name. And although he searched his death, he fought with the power and resolve of someone fighting for his life. He wouldn’t show any weakness until Farkas could defeat him, and his death blow would be his final gift.

I lost sense of time, but the sun had already passed most of its way towards the western horizon when Farkas suddenly cursed between the panted breaths that were the only sound on this battleground, his shield nearly dropping from his grip. The Orsimer’s blade had found its way into his upper arm, slashed into the unprotected gap between cuirass and gauntlets and cut into the muscle. To see him bleed set me on edge, but it also seemed to be the turning point; the injury wasn’t so severe to really constrain him, but it unleashed hidden reserves of energy the older warrior simply didn’t have left. In the end, his age took its toll when the duel turned from a fight between skill and strength to one more determined by endurance and stamina. And in this regard Farkas was superior, and he was still able to sustain the speed and agility of his attacks while the Orc had already increasing difficulties to fend off his fast strikes, blocks and shield blows with his heavy weapon.

In the end, it was one of these shield blows that caught his opponent off guard and let him stumble backwards. The Companion didn’t tarry, followed the motion, another hard blow with the shield’s edge to the throat of the mer, he fell backwards and Farkas towered above him, one foot on his chest. For a single second he hesitated, the man and the mer looking at each other. A last nod of respect, and then he pushed the tip of his blade through the joint between cuirass and pauldrons, deep into his left side.

Farkas knelt beside the corpse, still panting heavily, and took the helm off his opponent’s head. He beckoned me closer.

“Look at him, Qhouri,” he said with a strangely calm voice, “see how he died.” He held the Orc’s head in a gentle grip under his neck. The mer looked peaceful, his eyes wide open, not a hint of pain or regret in them.

“It’s strange,” Farkas said, lost in thought, “that a death like his, wished and asked for, is so much harder to give than all the lives we end every day. We never think about it, don’t we?”

Even I felt an odd feeling of regret about the end of this unknown stranger, an end he had wanted so much for himself. But most of all did I feel relief that it was over.

“That’s why he didn’t tell you his name.”

He slowly closed the lifeless eyes. “Yes, perhaps. But he was strong, and strong-willed. He could have lived a good life for many more years, as a teacher and guidance for his kinfolk. Not all Orsimer go his path.”

I took his arm, dispatched it of the gauntlet. When the golden light appeared in my palm, he didn’t even flinch. I looked at him. “You gave him what he wanted. Truly wanted. It was a good fight.” I concentrated on the spell, saw how the magic took effect. “But he was strong and skilled. He could have killed you.”

“No, he wouldn’t have killed me. I could have yielded, and he’d have spared me. But it would have been honourless… not because I’m not able to defeat him, but that I don’t hold on to my promise.” His eyes locked into mine. “But I would have surrendered if he had been too strong.”

We did what we could to bury the body under a layer of rocks, in his armour and with his weapon. The wildlife would come and get him anyway, but at least he wouldn’t rot under the sun like an ordinary villain.

It was a quiet evening, the encounter had left us both thoughtful and pensive. The face of this dead warrior would be a longlasting memory, and I thought about this weird thing named honour, a concept so deeply rooted both in our Nord culture and in the ancient codex of the Companions. People lived, fought and died all the time in its name, and there was no worse insult than to be called honourless. But what did it really mean? Wasn’t it often not more than a category to assign to people – honoured, honourable, honourless? Was the way this man went into his own death really honourable, or was it just… stupid? Reckless? Cowardly? No. It was right, and it was right that Farkas had ended his life, because it had been his decision. I was not entitled to doubt it.

But it had left me not only thoughtful, but also curious, and Farkas proved to know quite a bit about this strange folk. My question about the blood-kin that had impressed the old Orc so much was answered with an amused smile.

“It’s nothing mystical, fortunately, it’s not that I’m partly Orc or somehow bound to their Daedric god. It just means that I’m an outsider who’s granted full access to the strongholds. Got it for a favour I did one of the chieftains once. Many of us Companions are blood-kin with them, it can be useful to be in good standing with them. We even work for them, occasionally. And they’re an interesting folk, often strange to us, but I suppose some of our habits seem equally strange to them.”

“But why was he so impressed that you’re blood-kin?”

“Because… well, we get around a lot, and we see lots of strange things. But most people aren’t interested in them. You don’t see many of them, the strongholds are secluded and they prefer it that way, to be left alone. Many Orcs join the Legion for some years, but most of them come back. They don’t have much choice where or how to live. Their customs are pretty strict, and there’s not many places in Skyrim where they’re really accepted.” He smiled down on me. “One day I’m gonna take you to one of those strongholds. There’s even one not too far away, Mor Khazgur, but we don’t have the time to visit them now.”

To go somewhere just because we could, not because we had to – that sounded more than tempting. “I’d like that.”

“But I must warn you,” he said, an odd smirk on his lips, his eyes sparkling with mirth, “they live in longhouses, huge halls with one single big room. All of them, and also their guests eat, train and work there.” He bowed down to me and whispered in my ear, a suppressed snicker in his voice. “And sleep. All of them, together. Naked.”

I stopped my walk, my eyes wide, my hand at my heart, gasping in shock. “No! You mean… it’s just like in our whelp quarters? Really?”

His look was appalled enough for a moment, and then we both burst out with laughter.

============================================

It was the last evening before we’d finally reach Northwatch Keep, break in, kill everything inside and get Eorlund’s son back home. That was the plan, at least – everything we had vaguely resembling a plan. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy, but we were both tired of travelling and eager to do what we came for after this long, exhausting journey.

I was already busy packing away our cooking gear when I heard Farkas call from outside of the small ruined tower that provided our shelter for this night.

“Come out here, Qhouri, you’ve got to see that!”

The sight was incredible. Northern lights were nothing spectacular in Skyrim, but they were much more seldom in the south than here at the coast of the Sea of Ghosts. And never before had I seen something so beautiful. Not only the bluish shades of flickering lights I knew, but a curtain of colours, every shade from a dark red and purple to bright blue, turquoise and green, wafting above the horizon while the sky directly above us was sprinkled with stars. Combined with the glittering of the sea below the cliff and the silhouette of impressive icebergs in the distance… it was magical.

I stood, marvelling and speechless, until I heard Farkas vanish into the tower and come back with our bedrolls.

“You wanna sleep outside tonight?”

“No. But I wanna see that as long as it lasts, and you’re cold. Some people say that this,” he gestured a wide arc over the sky, “is a sign of the Divines, that you have their blessing.”

I settled beside him. “Well, the Thalmor see it probably as well.”

“Meh, Qhouri, you’re horrible. And so unromantic.” With that he drew me close, and I cuddled myself against him. Winter was far from over up here in the north, but he was right – this natural spectacle was worth a bit of freezing.

We lay on our backs side by side, watching the beautiful patterns of the aurora dancing above us, my head on his shoulder, his fingertips painting circles on my arm. I thought about the task lying ahead of us. Two people against a whole fort full of trained mages and warriors, that looked a lot like another suicide mission. It wasn’t our first, but the stakes were high. We would attack in the wee hours of the morning, when it Farkas’ superior vision would prove most useful and the Thalmor were hopefully least alert.

And until then, there was no use in fretting. I snuggled closer to the gentle, quiet giant beside me, searching his warmth. His arm under my neck curled around my shoulder as he pulled me against him.

“It’s been nearly a year,” he broke the silence. When I turned my head to him, the question in my eyes, his grip became firmer. “Since Helgen was destroyed.”

I shivered. “Alduin. Yeah.” I didn’t want to be reminded. So much had happened since then. So much I had still to do.

“Qhouri… when you have to go against him…”

I remained quiet and tensed. I couldn’t think so far ahead.

He exhaled slowly. “What do you think… what will be one year from now?”

I didn’t want to think so far ahead. He felt my reluctance, his arm slackening. “Chances are high that I’ll be dead.”

He huffed out a hurt sound. “Why do you say that?”

“He’s the Worldeater, Farkas. Not even the ancient Nords could defeat him, and they were many and had dragons to help. I am just one woman.”

“But you’re Dragonborn, and they were not. And… you’ll never be just one woman.”

“You’d go with me against Akatosh’s firstborn?”

“Against Akatosh himself, if necessary.”

“You’re insane.”

“Perhaps. You better hurry to catch up.”

Slowly I sat up and pulled my knees to my chest. His unfaltering serenity was unsettling. “Why do you do that, Farkas? I mean… why would you want to be with me? I’m a freak, scarred inside and outside, with no past and no future. I can’t make any promises, and you don’t even get your well-deserved fuck for all the hassle. So, why?”

He stayed on his back, folded hands cushioning his head. But his gaze was levelled on my face, the aurora forgotten. “Because it feels right,” he said after a long pause. “What we already have… it’s precious. It’s more than I ever had with anyone before. And all without fucking and without promises.”

“But… this can’t end well. I’ll probably die. And you too, if you stay with me.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. You don’t know.” He gave me a feeble smile. “And I’d rather have this time with you now than leave you alone just because it can be over some day.” He pointed over his shoulder behind him, along the coast towards Northwatch Keep. “Perhaps we’ll be dead tomorrow. We don’t know. But probably not.”

He didn’t appease my fears, didn’t sugarcoat or play them down. They were valid, and he knew it, knew exactly what he got himself into. And still he was so incredibly certain. Kodlak had once said that he had a fortitude that amazed him, and he was right. Farkas’ true strength lay beneath all that bulk.

“I just hope Thorald is still alive.”

“We’ll see.” He turned to his side, propped his head into his palm. “It was a stupid question. I don’t wanna know where we’ll be one year from now.” And then a totally inappropriate chortle broke from his chest. “You know… with you being Dragonborn… you’re fated to fight the Worldeater, aren’t you?”

I nodded, frowning. Did he have to come back to it over and over again?

He flashed me a boyish grin. “If the Divines have any sense of drama, they’ll do anything to keep you alive until then. And until then, there’s probably no safer place in all of Tamriel than here by your side.”

For a moment, I was dumbfounded by this logic. Unmistakable Farkas-logic, irrefutable and irresistible. Just like the whole man. And when his words sunk in, the serious lightheartedness behind them, it was the moment I realised that he would always be there, no matter what happened, no matter if it was reasonable, no matter what I said. It was the moment I believed him, and it was the moment I realised that I didn’t want it any other way. I wanted him here with me, no matter what.

Perhaps it was the moment I fell for him. Hard.

When I laughed at him, it sounded bright and relieved. I reached out, touched his cheek. His stubble had grown into a beard in the meantime. “You’re insane.”

His gaze was locked on my face and his palm covered my hand. “No, I’m not,” he said lowly. “I love you, Qhouri. These scars… they only prove that you have survived. You’re strong. You don’t need me. But you and I… we just fit.”

And then he took my wrist and tugged until I let myself fall, knowing he’d catch me. He pulled my back against his chest. “And now relax. We’ll have a hard day tomorrow. I’d rather not rely only on the Divines, you know?”

“No, I’d not either,” I said quietly. “I’m glad we’re here. I mean… it’s useful. Easy. The Thalmor are assholes, we can kill them, take Thorald home and make Eorlund and Fralia happy. This, and you… I fear I’d really go insane without you.”

A soft laughter rumbled behind me. “It’s not just me, you know? One of us will always be by your side. With your way to get yourself into trouble it’s at least never boring to be your shield-sibling. You fit perfectly into this crazy pack of ours. Never forget that again, please.”

I turned to my back and looked at the stars, like I had done it so often during my time alone.

“I didn’t forget it. I just never… grasped it really, this whole family thing. I never thought that anybody would miss me, not like that. Someone like me is easily replaceable. If anything I thought Vilkas would go back to Jorrvaskr, tell you how I have failed, and the Companions would go on like they always have.”

He propped himself up and looked down on me. “None of us is replaceable easily. We’re no training camp for people just looking for coin or a bit of excitement, and it isn’t enough to be skilled with a weapon. We have to be careful who joins us. But after everything that happened before your initiation, we’ve all been certain that you belong to us. And of course we’d dig over all of Skyrim to find you.”

I closed my arms around his neck. “I’m glad that you did. Glad to be back. Really.”

A smile spread over his face, pensive and nearly shy, but his gaze held mine, stunning in its sincerity. Slowly his mouth came down, his lips closing over mine, tender and careful and so soft, and when I opened them against him, his tongue traced them briefly before he drew back.

“Not as glad as I,” he murmured, his forehead resting against mine.

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