Warning: Graphic descriptions of violence and torture
Skyrim is a harsh land, breeding a hard people where the strong survive and the weak fall, held together only by a thin coating of morals and law. Every Jarl had a prison, usually noxious dungeons deep beneath their keeps with bad air and even worse food, where people who had done something wrong were detained. Where justice was spoken. Not a life in luxury, but a life. And everybody in there had probably a reason.
This wasn’t a prison. It was… a piece of Oblivion, brought to us directly from the Summerset Isles.
The beauty of the night was followed by utter horror and immeasurable cruelty.
It wasn’t so hard to get in, much easier than we had anticipated. The darkness and the tendrils of mist rising from the sea and wafting over the shore were our advantage as much as the Thalmor’s demise.
The crumpled fort nestled on a small patch of land between the cliff and the sea, the waves leaking dangerously close to the walls. A watchtower lay in ruins, its foundations underwashed by the relentless attack of the tides, but the worst damage of the walls surrounding the courtyard had been repaired and reinforced. From above we could make out two entrances into the main building, one of them nearly submerged under piles of rubbish and the remains of the watchtower.
I had often watched Farkas make use of his inhuman senses, and it was fascinating to no end. Of course they were always at his disposal, he always had an awareness of his surroundings that surpassed mine by far. But when he concentrated and let his wolf deliberately loose, only a bit, strung tightly on the leash of his will and only enough to make his abilities his own, I always tried to catch the tiny change in his behaviour, the moment he abandoned a bit of his humanity for the beast in him. Nostrils started to flare, lips were drawn back in a snarl, and then his head twitched around when the picture of sights, smells and sounds that I couldn’t perceive formed in his head.
When he gave me a grin, it was slightly feral and full of self-awareness, self-mockery mixed with pride and resolve.
We attacked shortly before sunrise, directly after the change of guards. The night shift had vanished inside as fast as possible, and the new sentries were still adjusting to the cold, bleary-eyed and huddled into their cloaks after being woken only minutes ago. Quiet mumbling was audible while they made themselves as comfortable as possible on their posts. Guard duty out here in the middle of nowhere had to be incredibly boring.
We used a steep ledge to get down to the shore, easier to climb than to descend, and it didn’t matter that Farkas made enough noise to alert even the sleepiest guard. He approached the archway that led into the yard openly, throwing a greeting towards the Altmer who stood in front of it with his weapon drawn.
I had stayed behind halfway up the cliff, too far away to understand the short conversation that evolved, but when the Altmer was impaled on Farkas’ sword and the Companion ran inside, blocking the main entrance into the building, this was signal enough. The three archers on top of the wall fell one after another to my arrows while their attention was on the reckless intruder. But three more guards, all of them clad in the distinctive golden shimmering armour of Thalmor soldiers, were pressing Farkas hard, wielding swords or maces in one hand and throwing fire and lightning with the other.
One of them died with an arrow in his back, the second was hit in the chest. The icespike she released as she ran towards me flew off and shattered against the wall, and she fell to her knees with a wail, hands clutched around the shaft. Blood bubbled out of her mouth, and when I slit her throat, Farkas had already made short work of the last.
“Five to two,” I grinned at him. He barked out a panting laughter.
“Thanks to your meatshield, whelp. Let’s see how it goes.”
The laughter stuck to our throats though as soon as we entered the building. It was eerily quiet – at least our swift first assault had prevented an alarm inside. But something was off.
We stood in a storeroom, the only light coming from a couple of flickering torches left and right of the entrance. The air was chilly and moist, but apart from the bare walls covered with moss and green slime, the room was tidy and clean, shelves on the wall, crates and chests in one corner, a dozen of empty barrels stacked up in another. A heavy wooden door led deeper into the building.
And right beside the exit, a pile of snow and ice. Farkas poked it with the tip of his boot just to freeze all of a sudden, his face contorted in horror. He knelt down beside it and shoved the uppermost layer away. Beneath it, faces, limbs and bodies emerged, corpses carelessly thrown into a heap and covered with snow to keep them from rotting – perhaps only to spare the sensitive noses of their torturers.
All of them were human, and all of them were twisted in agony. I had to suppress a wave of nausea, but we took every single corpse and freed it from this obscene grave, searching for Thorald. But even if we had found him, it was clear that we wouldn’t have stopped here – more than ever we were determined to clean this place until nothing lived in it any more, unspoken understanding between us. The relief when all the dead were strangers was hollow.
We were used to death, had seen it a thousand times, had given it more often than we could count. We were also both familiar with useless, needless cruelty. But to see first hand what the Thalmor were capable of was beyond everything I could imagine. This was a place where people were broken, systematically and with finesse, and where others fulfilled their fantasies of power and superiority.
Only two Thalmor were occupying the room behind the entrance, a guard and a Justiciar, and Farkas stormed in with a furious roar. The armoured Altmer was knocked out by a hit of his pommel to the temple, and the mage had a sword stuck in his chest before he could even bring his wards up.
Steep, narrow stairs led down into the bowels of the fort, and the stench became worse the deeper we got.
It didn’t reek of rot and decay like I expected. The endless suites of rooms were tidy and clean, no matter what they were used for. Sometimes, I meant to smell a trace of Tilma’s curd soap. But it was overlayed with the stench of old and fresh blood, of the cold sweat of fear, of blackest despair and of the arousal of absolute power.
The first torture chamber we found was occupied by a Thalmor interrogator at work. A woman was strapped upright to a cross, her limbs impossibly far stretched, blindfolded and gagged, her back to the Altmer. Vertical cuts ran over her back, neatly aligned with her spine. Her torturer rubbed a dark liquid into the wounds, spreading them open and deepening them with a tiny, glittering instrument that looked as if it was made for exactly this purpose. His other hand rested between her shoulder blades, the soft golden light of a weak healing spell keeping her alive and conscious. She writhed and spasmed frantically in her bounds.
Farkas caught her when I opened the shackles, the body falling limply from the cross. The woman only looked at me from haunted, hollow, incomprehensive eyes when I washed her back carefully with the contents of my water canteen and healed the cuts the best I could. But we couldn’t take her with us. When I wrapped her into a blanket and asked her to stay and that we’d come back shortly and bring her clothes and potions and something to eat and get her out later, she only nodded.
When we returned, her body hang from a hook on the ceiling, slowly swinging back and forth.
We found several such torture chambers, equipped with devices and mechanisms I didn’t understand and didn’t want to figure out and victims we had to put out of their misery, broken bodies and minds too far gone to understand what was happening. A man cowered in the corner of a cage, rocking back and forth, not showing a single reaction to our presence. At first we thought he only sucked on his thumb, until Farkas grabbed him by the arms and tried to pull him out of the cage. The highpitched wail he let out was blood-freezing, blood streaming down his wrist and dripping from the corners of his mouth. He wasn’t sucking… he had gnawed on his own finger, parts of the fleshy pad missing. Just like his finger- and toenails.
Farkas shivered violently after he had severed his spine.
Soon, I had nothing but bile left.
Beside the torture chambers, we found an alchemy laboratory with endless shelves filled with ingredients and colourful, neatly labelled flasks and shining instruments, lined up on hooks along the wall. There were tools to force the jaw of a human open, syringes of various sizes, tiny knives to carve under skin and lift it off the flesh. A glance into the tomes with comprehensive records of the elaborate experiments let me heave again. There were poisons that would let muscles cramp or relax, from toes and fingers inwards until at last the lungs would stop working and the heart would stop beating, all the while the test object was kept conscious. There were concoctions that would thicken the blood into a viscous jelly and ones that caused hallucinations, driving the subject into screaming madness and forcing them to commit suicide in a manner the Thalmor appointed. Potions like acid that liquefied everything that got in contact with them, or ones that kept someone awake for an infinite amount of time. Tears streamed over my face when I found these. And of course there were lots and lots of the more common poisons, frostbite venom, nightshade essences or the simple extracts from red mountain flowers, skeever tails, troll fat or various mushrooms that were nothing less painful or deadly.
We found a room surrounded by iron cages, filled with wildlife – wolves, bears, even horkers, mad from pain and hunger, their lever-triggered doors opening into a circular arena. Cushioned seats on a balcony around it, and beneath a huge pit, full of bones and rotting corpses of humans and animals alike.
We found a heavily guarded and barred door which led to suites of rooms worthy of the emperor. Nowhere, not in the Jarl’s keeps and not even in the Thalmor Embassy had I seen such luxury. The Justiciar inside was completely oblivious of the things that had happened outside of his chambers. A Khajiit, only a girl, was tied to the posts of a huge bed, red silk spread under her. She was gagged and blindfolded as well, and her skin was covered with intricate patterns he had burnt into her fur with a red-hot dagger.
I fed him one of the potions we had found earlier, my glance fixed on his face when he choked on his intestines. The girl was unconscious when Farkas untied her, and he took it on himself to carry her further. We wouldn’t leave anyone else behind.
I became cold and hard and numb inside on our way through this maze of terror, dismay and pity coiling into an icy lump in my chest that grew with every cruelty we saw, every victim we found and every Thalmor we killed. And I watched the same happening to Farkas, his pale, horrified face turning into a stonen mask of resolve. We worked together like a unity of spirit and body, silent and deadly. No triumph, no smile about our victories, no relief over the survivors we found, no tears for everybody we couldn’t save. The whole endeavour had long stopped to be only about the rescue of Thorald. Now we had only one goal: to end this, to eradicate this place and everyone in here from Nirn.
We knew we had reached the deepest part of the ruin when we found a cavern that was connected to the Sea of Ghosts, its water level governed by the tides, the walls lined with shackles. Life in here was measured by moon cycles and spring tides, endless darkness making it impossible to keep track of days and hours. With every return of the full moons, when the waters rose highest, shackles were opened and bodies swept out into the sea, leaving it clean and new.
And down here, half drowned and half frozen, we found a prisoner who was not only alive, but sane enough to greet us with an angry hiss when we opened the door, and for a moment we stayed frozen to the spot, waiting for the attack from the pitch-black darkness. But nothing happened, only heavy, laboured breathing was audible. Despite everything we had seen, we both gasped in shock when I lit up a torch.
Only two of the shackles were occupied, one with the corpse of a man who was drowned, eyes protruded, body and face bloated beyond recognition. The other held a man as well, a Khajiit. He was famished and bruised all over, his wet fur looking ragged and mangy, but he held himself as upright as possible with his fists clenched around the chains that tied his wrists to the wall, muscles bulging, and after the first moment when he squinted them shut against the faint light, green eyes flared in defiance.
But I knew him. And he knew us as well, the snarl fading into utter bewilderment when we entered the room and he saw more than just our silhouettes against the opening of the door. He was one of the guards working for the Khajiit caravan that regularly stopped by in Whiterun.
Why in Oblivion was a Khajiit held prisoner by the Thalmor?
Farkas looked at him for a moment, a relieved smile spreading over his face. “Shor’s balls, Kharjo…” he said, shaking his head. But then he laid the girl into my arms and started to open the buckles of his armour, his eyes never leaving the man on the wall. I knew how he felt… finally, someone who wasn’t lost, someone we could rescue, someone who would live through this.
Farkas unlocked the binds with one of the many keys we had found on dead Thalmor and dragged the beastman out of the water and to the edge of the room. Lying on his side, his legs too numb to carry his weight and shivering violently, his gaze was clear and sharp as he glanced up to me.
“Companions. Here.” His voice was raspy and hoarse. “Thank you.”
I hunched down beside him while Farkas towelled himself and refastened his armour, seemingly unfazed by the icy bath. “We gotta warm you up. There’s a room not far, with a fire.”
He simply nodded sternly, and he didn’t resist when Farkas and I slung an arm each over our shoulders and carried him out of what would have become his wet tomb not much later to a room that was something like a tavern and a kitchen combined, with storages of food and a still blazing fire. We let him down on a few furs, I laid the dead-still body of the girl beside him and we dragged the corpses of the Thalmor we had killed into a sideroom. Farkas left again to make sure that we wouldn’t be disturbed, and I gathered some fresh bread, horker roast, cheese and fruits – the Thalmor lived truly royally in this seclusion, and I wondered who’d have to starve for their greed.
Kharjo had fought himself into a sitting position, wincing in pain as he rubbed his legs. The rags he was clad into weren’t worth to be called pants any more, and his upper body was bare apart from his grey fur, darker and lighter stripes forming intricate patterns on his back that were occasionally disrupted by various scars. He was large, nearly as large as Farkas, and despite his pitiful condition, he revealed the defined muscles of a warrior. I watched him curiously while he downed greedily several mugs of water.
His whiskers and his tail switched when he caught me staring. “Water,” he hissed with disgust.
I frowned at him. “They have wine too. But…”
He bared his fangs in something that resembled vaguely a grin. “No. Salt water.”
“Oh.” Of course. He was a cat, after all. White crusts crystallised in his fur while he dried. I rose to my feet and went to the room where we had piled up the Thalmor corpses. “You need something to dress. To get warm. I’m afraid we have nothing but…”
“No! Not those robes!”
Farkas stood in the door. “He’s right. He shouldn’t have to.” He rummaged through his knapsack and pulled out a spare tunic and pants. “Here.”
The Khajiit took the garments, eyeing the Companion warily and confused. “How… why are you here?” He lowered his gaze to the Khajiit girl lying beside him. Her breathing was laboured. We had treated her wounds, although I wasn’t sure how much good salves and bandages did someone with fur. Burnt fur. But the depth of her unconsciousness hinted at other, internal injuries. “And what’s with her?”
Farkas narrowed his brows with worry. “We found her, but she doesn’t wake up. You think… you could have an eye on her? We’re searching for someone.” He turned to me. “Cells down there, behind the next gate. Thorald has to be in there.”
“Thorald?” Kharjo chimed in. “The young Grey-Mane?”
“You know him? Is he alive?” I asked excitedly. I had nearly given up hope to find him after all the death and cruelty we had seen, was tired and sore with a plethora of bruises and small wounds. But Kharjo’s presence and the way he showed sudden interest rekindled my vigour.
“He had the cell opposite of mine. We weren’t allowed to speak… but last time I’ve seen him, he was alive. Kind of.”
Farkas’ face fell. “What do you mean, kind of?”
“He was interrogated. Again.” The cat-man hissed angrily. “Not so bad. They only broke a few of his fingers. And there were burns…”
A shiver ran down my spine, my fingers twisting around Dragonbane’s hilt. “Let’s get going,” I said to Farkas, and turning to Kharjo, “you’re safe here. We’ll be back soon.”
“Yeah. And then you gotta tell us how you ended up here.”
“Wait.” He beckoned us to stop. “I can tell you… what you have to expect. Behind that gate is a corridor with five cells on each side. They’re opened by levers in the guard room behind it. At least three guards, often more. Two side rooms, one for storage, one for interrogation. Then another block of cells. A trapdoor at the end, but I don’t know where it leads.”
We looked at each other. That was immensely helpful. “Thank you,” Farkas said curtly, already turning on his heels. Now we’d finish this.
Five trained Thalmor against two intruders, and they needed human shields. Cowards!
The prison block was separated from the rest of the dungeon by an iron gate, the heavy bars only movable by levers on each side. It was our luck that I sneaked ahead to get an overview. What I discovered made my blood boil.
We were expected. Why the remaining guards hadn’t attacked us earlier was beyond me, perhaps because they thought there were more than just the two of us. But now they had entrenched themselves in the guard room Kharjo had mentioned, the cells along the aisle standing empty and open. Three of the inmates were tied together, gagged and kneeling in the archway in front of the Thalmor, Thorald in the middle.
Farkas came up behind me, looking over my shoulder. Although he tried to move quietly, the head of one of the guards jerked around when his heel scratched on the stone floor. I shot him an angry glare.
He shrugged, ignoring my irritation. “We gotta be fast,” he whispered.
“You nuts? Thorald will be dead the moment we attack, and the others as well. We need a distraction to get them out of the way!”
Our distraction came entirely unexpected and in form of a figure in shimmering elvish armour that pushed the lever while running past, knocking me out of the way and darting down the aisle in unbelievable speed. Half way through the hall Kharjo jumped on top of one of the open cell doors, crouched on the narrow bar with incredible balance and started to throw small, glittering, whirling objects at the Thalmor at the end of the room. Shards of broken potion bottles, still dripping with poison. His heightened position made his attack very effective, causing one of the guards to gurgle from his own blood that shot out of a hole in his throat.
Everything happened at once. Thorald did the only right thing and collapsed himself flat to the floor, drawing his fellow captives with him, Farkas stormed through the corridor, the air sizzled and reeked of ozone, laden with magic. One of the prisoners had a dagger stuck from his back, and the elven-clad Khajiit was struck by a lightning strike that hurled him off the door and into one of the open cells. I threw away my bow, no way I’d get a safe shot in this chaos, drew Dragonbane and threw myself into the fight while Farkas grabbed the ties that bound the prisoners to each other and pulled all three of them, dead and alive, away from the turmoil while I was already surrounded by the remaining three guards. The last one stayed in the back, out of the way to form his magic.
I tried to retreat, to back off against the wall to shield my back, the guards attacking ferociously with elven steel and the occasional lightning attack. For the moment I could fend them off, but like so often the worst wasn’t their onslaught, but the magic attacks from the back of the room. A vortex of frost formed around me, a form of magic I had never encountered before, like a tiny, artificial blizzard. Missiles, either of ice or of fire, would have hit the mage’s fellows as well, the way they cornered me. But this spell affected only me, the air itself frozen and whirling around me, a fog of snow clogging my sight. It shouldn’t have impaired me the way it did, but I was tired and injured, and this weakness seemed to take its toll on my natural resistance. Far too fast I felt my limbs go numb, a thin sheen of rime appearing on armour and skin, tiny needles of ice leaving frozen wounds behind. The cold made every breath a flaring pain I had to force into my lungs, but the worst was that it was suddenly so incredibly hard to move, the weight of my weapon straining against the failing strength of my arm and even my light leather armour forcing me to my knees. The moment the shield fell from my useless grip and I sucked in the air for a desperate effort to free myself from the onslaught, a heavy mace made breathtaking contact with my ribcage. The cold made the impact nearly painless, but I heard and felt something crack.
My blood ran cold, and I felt the heat rise along my spine. “FUS!”
Shouting with a broken rib was a lousy idea, but despite the weakness of the Thu’um, it did its job and hurled the Thalmor away from me. For a moment. The flaring pain cut down my breath, stars flying and dancing through my field of view. I fell to my knees, struggling despite my breathlessness and blurred vision to get up again. I had to, or the next strike would hit my neck.
But then another shout pulled the attention away from me, Farkas’ familiar armoured wall and whirling Skyforge steel appearing with a groundshaking roar between me and my opponents, a golden flash was on the wizard, attacked him with blade, claws and teeth, tore robe and flesh apart, and suddenly the crippling cold was gone and I could move again. Our enemies were skilled and rested, but they hadn’t seen what we had seen, and the loathing and hate and nausea that had loomed into a small hurting ball in my stomach erupted first into a last, frantic outbreak of violence and then into silence and darkness.
I swallowed something, and my vision cleared and I inhaled deeply just to see if I could. It sent a new wave of pain through my ribcage, but it worked. I tasted blood, my lip split open, and a familiar face was bent over me, although it was barely recognisable with the scruffy ashblonde beard, a deep cut on his cheek and an eye swollen shut. Thorald.
“Shouldn’t I save you?” I mumbled.
The face twisted into something that could be a smile. “You did, Companion.” He held the bottle to my lips again. “Drink that.”
I shoved his hand away. “No. You need it more.” I coughed, fought for breath. “I can heal myself.”
“You can’t heal broken bones,” Farkas’ voice rumbled from behind. He knelt behind me, and I leant against his chest. “Please, Qhouri. Take that potion. You don’t need a rib through your lung.” His voice sounded urgent and full of worry. I wanted to turn to him, but the motion made me gasp, a muscle in my back cramping from the pain.
Farkas held me upright. “I will force you if I have to,” he whispered into my ear, “don’t let me watch you in pain.” I noticed that he breathed in sync with me, and for a moment I closed my eyes and relaxed, his breath warm on my sweaty skin. If he was injured, I’d want the same. I’d force him too.
I took the bottle from Thorald’s hand, and the men let me rest for a moment while the rest of the survivors gathered in the guard room. Before we left, we treated the worst of the injuries with our remaining potions and my meagre healing attempts.
One of the men who had been tied to Thorald had survived the fight as well, and we could free another woman from the second block of cells. With Kharjo and the girl he had taken in charge, this were five people we had to take care of, get them out of this horror, heal, feed and outfit them for their journey home.
In the end, I led them to the abandoned tower where we had spent the night before while Farkas pilfered the ruin of food, potions and blankets. It took ages to get on top of the cliff, but it was good to see how the prisoners helped each other, all of them eager to get away from the place of their suffering.
Thorald approached me when we had climbed the steep slope.
“I can never thank you enough for what you’ve done today, Companion. But I’m afraid I don’t have anything else,” he said sternly.
I shrugged, giving him a smile. “What’s with your hands? Kharjo said they broke your fingers?”
He wriggled them in front of his chest. “They always heal them afterwards. Double the fun if you can do it over and over again, isn’t it?” His gallows humour made me glad. “Who is Kharjo?”
I nodded at the Khajiit who went ahead, clad again only in Farkas’ clothes, the girl cradled into his arms. “Oh.” Thorald’s face darkened into a scowl.
“What’s the matter with him?” I asked confused.
He lowered his head. “I didn’t know his name, but he was taken because of me. When they brought me here… we met his caravan. He recognised me and asked why I was taken prisoner. The Thalmor don’t like insolence, and they like them,” he tilted his chin towards the beastman, “even less than us humans. His companions could do nothing after they set one of the wagons on fire.”
“Well… he risked his life for you today. Don’t think he holds a grudge.”
He glanced unhappily ahead. “Yeah.” And then he suddenly stopped to walk and hid his face in his palms, his shoulders bunching up, trembling.
“Thorald?” The young man leant heavily against me when I slung my arm around his shoulder. When his hands fell to his sides, his eyes were moist.
“Sorry,” he said lowly. “I just… I didn’t think I’d ever see all this again. You know. Snow, and trees, and the sky. A friendly face.”
“It’s over,” I said softly. “They’re all dead. And tomorrow I’ll burn this place down.”
Blue eyes searched my face. “Thank you. Again.”
“Your mother will be glad. She was the one who insisted that you’re still alive. Made a fuss until Kodlak sent us off.”
A tender smile spread over his face. “Ma is gorgeous. I’ll send her a letter… her and Dad, but please, when you come home, would you tell her too that I’m fine?”
“You don’t go back to Whiterun?” I asked astonished.
He clenched his teeth. “I can’t. They’d just come and get me again, and I’d bring my whole family into danger. No, I’ll go to Windhelm. Join the Stormcloaks.”
Fralia’s face appeared in my mind, her frantic fear, her unwavering belief that her son would return to her. He was her youngest, after all. “Your uncle will be proud of you. She will be heartbroken not to see you in person, though,” I said earnestly.
He nodded slowly. “I know. But I have no choice. Windhelm is better than this, I think. And perhaps… Avulstein should join me. He always wanted to, we always wanted to go together. Now is our chance. And he’s in danger too.”
I didn’t want to be the one to tell Fralia that she’d lose both of her sons at once. “That would break your mother’s heart.”
“She’ll understand. And if she doesn’t, uncle Vignar will make her.” He gave me a feeble grin that was accompanied by an angry growl of his stomach. He grunted annoyed. “I could eat a horse.”
“Farkas will cook for us. Something easy to digest, his rabbit stew is to die for. If you ask nicely, perhaps he’ll let you chop the onions.” To hear him snort out a pressed laughter made me glad.
Farkas joined us at the watchtower a bit later, carrying a huge load to make this first night in freedom as comfortable as possible, but he only dropped everything into one messy pile and went off again. “Gotta get some more stuff,” he said over his shoulder, “I think I found your armour, Kharjo. Someone chop some onions in the meantime. And potatoes.”
Thorald shot me a look, burst out laughing and drew his brand new elven dagger. “Of course, Companion.” Even the two strangers we had rescued gave him a smile.
The man and the woman belonged together, a couple of farmers that were caught at an illegal Talos shrine near Falkreath. They kept to themselves though, quiet, intimidated people, giving the impression as if they couldn’t believe that the nightmare had come to an end. They stared with open mouths at Farkas when he handed them clothes and potions, fresh bread and a bowl of steaming stew. Only when we sat around the fire after a hearty meal and discussed how to go on further, they accepted gladly Kharjo’s proposal to join their makeshift fellowship until Dawnstar. The Khajiit was in remarkable good shape and an experienced warrior, they would be safe under his lead until they reached the Pale. From there Thorald would go to Windhelm, and the others would travel towards Whiterun until Kharjo found his caravan again and the farmers could take a carriage to Falkreath.
“And you?” Thorald asked, giving us an inquiring look.
Farkas shrugged. “We gotta keep our heads down for a while. If Qhouri burns the place down, the Thalmor will know who did it. They’ll suspect it anyway, and Dragonfire is pretty unmistakable.”
Thorald gnawed on his lip. “So you have to hide because you came here for me.”
“Only for a time,” I chimed in, “it’s safer if we split up. And the Reach is nice this time of year.” I knew where we’d go. Skyhaven Temple would be the perfect hiding place for the time being. And I wanted to speak with Delphine and Esbern anyway, after they’d been so spectacularly right about the Greybeards.
In the night, when the farmer couple clung to each other, whimpering in nightmares, and I had joined Farkas for his watch because I couldn’t sleep, an odd sound came from the inside of the tower. Kharjo still sat by the fire, his eyes bright lights in the dim light, and he purred. A deep, humming sound that seemed to make the air itself vibrate, soothing and peaceful. He still had the girl on his lap, hadn’t let go of her for a single moment since we left Northwatch Keep. Once we had thought she’d wake up, thrashing and letting out a pained, mewling wail, but she fell back into unconsciousness and had been deadly quiet and motionless since then.
When the sound suddenly stopped, we knew it was over. The warrior came out with her on his arms. “Burn her, please,” he said in his rasping voice. “Burn her where she suffered.” He laid her down at the crumpled wall, wrapped into blankets like a mummy. I nodded and shifted closer to Farkas, suddenly cold. His arm was wrapped tightly around my shoulder, searching for closeness and warmth.
Next morning, shortly before the small group left our camp, Thorald came to say farewell.
“Stay safe, Grey-Mane,” Farkas said, clasping his wrist. The young man gave us a feeble smile. I embraced him briefly.
“I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for with those rebels, Thorald.”
“They fight for the right reasons, Companion,” he said sternly, and the belief in his voice was honest.
I sighed. “We all think we do. Just… please, promise you won’t forget what you’ve gone through down there. And what you’ve seen. Jarl Ulfric isn’t exactly famous for his tolerance.” I beckoned down to the shore. “Don’t forget who’s your real enemy. And don’t forget who risked his life to rescue you. It weren’t only Nords, and it weren’t only humans.” I searched for Kharjo. He looked impressive in his steel armour, sword and shield strapped to his back.
Thorald followed my gaze and nodded, but then a smile formed on his face. “Get back home safe, you two,” he said lightly, “and I want an invite for the wedding.”
“Which wedding?” I asked confused.
“Well, yours of course!” he said with a goodnatured chuckle, but when he saw me blush furiously, his cheeks tinted red as well. “I mean… you’re together, aren’t you? I thought…” He lowered his head. “I’m sorry.”
Farkas chewed on his lip like he always did it when something was awkward, but he didn’t say a word. I was glad that he didn’t. I had a lump in my throat, and I really didn’t want to talk about this. Not now, and especially not with a lad like Thorald.
Taking a deep breath, I shrugged and lifted my knapsack to my back. “We’re shield-siblings. Companions don’t marry.” It was true, no one of us was married. The gods knew how he got this weird idea.
I was terse and withdrawn during the gruesome duty in the keep, a work we set about with angry tenacity. We dragged all the corpses of the Thalmor’s victims into the luxurious quarters of the Justiciar and the dead Altmer into a pile in the courtyard for every visitor to find first – naked and only adorned with a bunch of amulets of Talos we found in a strongbox. Farkas took the little skiff that was tied to an iron hook on the wall, rowed half a mile away from the shore and dumped their armours and weapons into the sea. A fortune, hopefully lost forever. And I gathered everything that could be used as evidence for the terror the Thalmor had cultivated here – the ledgers with the data about their experiments, reports, guard duty schedules and storage lists, a couple of journals and even some of the horrible potions. I didn’t know if we’d ever need it, but Delphine had taught me that such knowledge could become a treasure that mustn’t go to waste.
And in the end, we burnt it down. Dragonfire devoured the corpses of the prisoners, and we laid fire to everything flammable, the smoke and the heat slowly cleansing the place. When we left for the last time, coughing and panting, a huge, black, oily cloud stood already above the ruins. It was time to leave this place, before anybody would come to investigate.
We turned south, quietly walking side by side, and it took hours until one of us said a word. We had done it, had rescued Thorald and eradicated a small piece of Thalmor presence in Skyrim, but the feeling of relief and accomplishment didn’t want to come. The images of crippled bodies, pools of clotted blood and the observing cruelty in the Thalmor’s faces still swirled through my mind, but it was Farkas who put it in words first.
“Never thought people could be so vicious.”
It was such a simple statement and still said everything about the man beside me. He was a living weapon, a werewolf, a mercenary who got paid to kill people, intimidating, hardened and deadly, but cruelty was alien to him. A warrior by heart, every fight he got in was much more about the thrill than about the killing. He’d never afflict pain – any kind of pain – without reason or just because he could on someone who couldn’t fight back.
I was different. The moment I saw that Justiciar die from the poison I had instilled him, writhing and screaming in his agony, I felt hate and satisfaction, a dark pleasure in his torment and a rush of power. I relished in these feelings. And I knew if I could, I’d gladly do the same to every single Thalmor in Skyrim. On Nirn. Make them scream.
Farkas was right, I was scary. And I needed him to keep these dark urges in check.
I let my leatherclad hand slip into his steel-plated gauntlet. It was a strong hand, calloused and hard, able to draw a bow, wield a sword and tested in more than one brawl, but it felt tiny in his. Tiny and sheltered.
He gave me a soft smile. “I wanna go home,” I said, and I had to admit to myself that it sounded far too whiny. Jorrvaskr was safety and stability, a place to hide in. Just not now, and not for us. But I was tired of travelling and fighting and thinking about the future. A future I didn’t have, and that was nevertheless irrevocably intertwined with the man who held my hand in a gentle grip. I still didn’t know where this would lead.
A/N: Originally, I wanted to let this chapter end on a lighter, fluffier note. But it went as it always goes, and the fluff between my characters took a life of its own and twisted itself into something bigger. And that’s why you’ll get a whole chapter of its own next, full of fluff and feelings and a tiny bit of smut that will do nothing for the plot and a lot for their relationship 🙂