Eyes on the Enemy: 12. An Unexpected Find

eote_12_unexpected-findThe Divines had fun with me. Lots of it.

I imagined them all – eight, nine or how many ever, what did we mortals know of the gods after all? – gathered at a large table, feasting merrily while Akatosh shows them his newest toy and what he can make it do. Run back and forth through Skyrim. Yell at flying lizards. Fall into random holes, just to reappear at the surface battered and bruised. Try to stay alive and find a way to prevent the end of the world. Probably just a meagre amusement for this illustrious gathering, but better than nothing – divinity had to become tedious after some eras, after all.

And I imagined Kynareth, Kyne, mother of men, goddess of the elements and patron of warriors and travellers alike, watch me with subtle appreciation. She turns to Akatosh with a curious expression.

“So, at the moment she’s trying to find out how Alduin has been defeated? She knows the prophecy and has already stumbled across that weird Wall? And now she’s really badly stuck?”

“Yep,” Akatosh says, trying to suppress a goodnatured snicker. “You remember how we made that up, back then? Just good that Alduin has always been such a lout.”

“Dunno,” she says, pinching the bridge of her delicate little nose. “Perhaps you should have taught him some manners. He’s becoming… difficult.”

“Ah no,” Akatosh exclaims confidently, “he’s a good boy, just a bit skittish. When the day comes, he will do his job.”

Kyne gives him a slightly quizzical look, then sets her light green eyes again on the intricate display of this tiny, frozen, untamed part of Nirn that Akatosh has conjured over the dining table.

“I have an idea.” she claims.

“Do you, now?” Akatosh looks curiously at his Aedric sister. None of the others seems to understand his strange fascination like she does, the interest he has in these mortals, the innocent fun he gains from these games. Even Mara who claims to be the only one who truly cares for them is far too biased in her views to appreciate the complexity of these creatures, their ability to love and hate and cause havoc in the ways of the world just because they can. “Wanna toy with my toy?”

“Don’t be cruel, Aki.” She frowns at him. “I like that girl. She’s tough, but if you overdo it, she won’t be able to keep up. No, it’s just an idea.”

And then she whispers something in his ear and he starts to smile, the smile becomes a smirk and a snicker, and finally both bend over with fits of laughter. The others only have some indignant gazes for the merry couple. Stendarr’s frown is especially peeved, making Kyne stick out her tongue to him.

Yes, that’s how it must have been.

When we finally set foot into the cave that led to Skyhaven Temple, I wanted to fall to my knees and praise them all, and Kyne most of all to have finally led us here. We didn’t intend to stay too long, but the prospect of no more miles ahead of us, no more watches, a full night of sleep without pebbles poking into my ribs, clean clothes and a meal we didn’t have to kill ourselves made everything else irrelevant.

The puzzle traps were reset and we had to navigate carefully through them, but the entrance behind the bust of Renan Cyrodiil stood open, and I jumped up the stairs towards the main hall – just to be greeted by a blank, long, curved blade blocking my way.

When she recognised me, Delphine lowered her blade, but she kept her aggressive stance. She wore an ornate version of the Blades armour and a blade similar to Dragonbane at her hip, and I had to confess, she looked impressive. “What is he doing here?” she asked between gritted teeth, stretching her chin towards Farkas.

I looked at her full of bewilderment. “Happy to see you too, Delphine. What’s the matter?”

“He’s no Blade. You bring strangers here?”

“Strangers? Hello?” I gestured towards Farkas who stood behind me, perplexed by the frosty welcome. “It’s Farkas. Remember? My shield-brother and one of the guys who kept you alive over the last 30 years because you had the only inn between Whiterun and Helgen. You gave him the horn. He’s no stranger.”

“Hello, Delphine,” he rumbled over my shoulder. “Suits you, that armour.”

She shot him a scornful look, but ignored him otherwise. “He’s no Blade. He has no right…”

“He has every right to be here when he’s with me,” I snapped at her, my hackles rising. “We just razed a Thalmor stronghold, we need shelter and rest, and we’ll get it. Here. Why do you make such a fuss?”

“Thalmor? Did they follow you here?” Esbern’s croaking, whiny voice came from a doorway. If possible, he looked even more haggard than in Riften.

“Didn’t I say we cleared them out? And even if they did, you’d prefer we let them get us?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line. “This is a temple and the only Blades base in all of Tamriel. Not a hideout.”

I glowered at her. “Looks very much like it, though. How often have you been out and done something useful lately, Delphine?”

Her chin set defensively. “I’m rebuilding the Blades. It’s my duty as Grandmaster.”

“I see,” I snorted derisively, looking pointedly around. Nothing had changed since I had been here the last time, the hall still as gloomy, dark and empty as the first time. “Impressive, your efforts. And as we’re not interested in becoming your newest recruits, you throw us out?”

For a moment, I had the nagging feeling that she would have loved to do exactly that. But then she took a step backwards.

“You’re welcome here, Dragonborn. Of course you are.”

“You wouldn’t even be here without me,” I muttered, pushing past her and waving at Farkas to follow me before she could sputter her obvious indignation. “You excuse us? We need a meal. And a bath. And a bit of peace.”

I led him to my former room on the upper floor. In passing, he regarded Alduin’s Wall with wide eyes, but I didn’t have the nerve for explanations in that moment. When he had closed the door behind us, he dropped his pack and leant with his back against the wall. “Dunno,” he muttered, “somehow I liked High Hrothgar better.”

He made me grin. In a way, the Blades were just as bigoted and close-minded as the Greybeards. Both parties had so very narrow, vacuous views on the world around them, tenets that were as ancient as far from reality simplifying things to mere black-and-white. On the other hand, the Blades were only two so far, and Delphine’s reaction had surprised me. It seemed her new, self-proclaimed title had gone to her head. Or Esbern had a bad influence on her.

“We won’t stay long,” I said, lying with closed eyes sprawled on my back on the bed, unwilling to move. “Just a couple of days, okay? And perhaps we can take the carriage from Markarth back home.”

“Markarth is crawling with Thalmor. I’ve a better idea.” He gave me a slightly sheepish grin as he pushed himself off the wall and started to empty his pack on the small table in the middle of the room. I arched a questioning eyebrow at him. “Morthal. Then Windhelm, to check on Thorald. And then the carriage from there.”

My first reaction was a desperate groan. That would be another journey through all of Skyrim. He read my reaction correctly. “You wanna go home directly.”

“Yeah. I want my own bed. And Tilma. And a drunken stupor in the Mare with the others.” I sighed.

He didn’t look at me, busied himself with sorting out his laundry. His voice was low. “If you want… we can go to Whiterun first, and I visit Morthal afterwards. But not via Markarth, that would be reckless.”

“You should have said something earlier. We could have gone there directly from Northwatch.”

“You said you gotta speak with Delphine.”

“I could have come here later. On my own.”

This wasn’t only about logistics and travel routes, I realised as I watched his shoulders tense up. In Skyhaven Temple, I was Dragonborn and nothing else. This was something that concerned only me, and he had no reason to be here. That I was glad that he was here with me, that I wanted to show it to him and wanted him to take part in my search for Alduin… I wasn’t sure if it mattered.

And it was the same with Morthal. It was his family that waited for him there, and I had no part in it. No reason to accompany him there.

“It’s been too long since you’ve seen them.”

He squirmed slightly. “I just try to stop by as often as possible.”

“You do more than just stop by. I know that, Farkas.” I looked pensively at him. “You want to go there alone, don’t you?”

“Idgrod would be happy to see you,” he said tersely.

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

He turned to me, and his expression was stern and bare of any doubt. “No. I’d like you to come. If you want.”

Although I wasn’t especially keen on meeting Jonna, I felt a strange sense of relief. “Okay. But then Whiterun. Fralia and Eorlund will have heard from Thorald in the meantime. And perhaps we’ll meet Kharjo.”

Surprisingly, we found a meal prepared for us when we finally emerged from our room after a short rest, the smell of a fresh meatpie making my mouth water. Delphine sat with some papers at the other end of the long stone table in the main hall and let us eat in peace before she came over, carrying a bottle of wine and taking the place across from me.

“Thank you, Delphine,” Farkas said, wiping his plate with a piece of bread. “That was excellent.” He had a way to break the ice, but I was still angry with her.

“What was that fuss earlier about?”

“We had visitors before,” she said defensively. “Forsworn, of course. It doesn’t go unnoticed when a large camp like Karthspire is suddenly eradicated. It even got around to Markarth. Damned city guard came sniffing about.”

“No reason to greet us like that.”

Her gaze lingered on Farkas. “So, you’re back with the Companions.”

“Yeah. Get used to it.”

“Listen… I’m sorry. I just don’t want you to lose your focus. You have more important things to do than to fulfil petty contracts for the Jarls.” She shrugged.

Yes, I had, but unfortunately I had no idea what these more important things were exactly. Somehow, I was reluctant to tell her of the Greybeards betrayal. And somehow, I had a notion that she wouldn’t be of very much help either.

I leant back in the uncomfortable chair, crossing my arms over my chest. “I hate to break it to you, Delphine, but we do much more than just fulfil petty contracts. Who do you think those Jarls ask first when a dragon burns down their farms and fields? The dragonslayers of today are the Companions, not the Blades. And others. People kill dragons all over the province, they don’t need me for that.”

“Carsten says dragon steak is exceptional. And roast from the haunches, especially with wild thyme,” Farkas chimed in drily. Delphine’s expression made me laugh out loud, and Farkas couldn’t suppress a grin.

“Who in Oblivion is Carsten?”

“The captain of the Hjaalmarch guard. I trained them.”

She gulped in a mouthful of air, but caught herself quickly. “You know that’s not important in the end. Only Alduin counts. As long as he’s out there…”

“But he isn’t. I don’t know where he is, but no one has seen him since Kynesgrove. And it is important that the people out there have the feeling that they can do something. That they aren’t alone with the dragon menace and that they can protect themselves. I can’t be everywhere, you know?”

“You don’t know where he is? What did the Greybeards say?”

“Nothing.” I groaned inwardly. “My visit there was pointless.” The smug told-you-so-smirk that formed on her face made me angry. “Have you found out anything? Or Esbern?”

“No. Not yet. This here,” she gestured through the hall, looking slightly helpless, “it’s incredible. You’ve been down in the cellars, there’s whole rooms full of archives. Esbern is still taking stock.”

I looked sternly at her. “You need to recruit, Delphine. You can’t rebuild the Blades on old legends alone, and you need help here.”

“I know. But it’s too early. I can’t go out there and simply ask people to join us.”

“No, I suppose you can’t,” I sighed. As long as this was all the Blades had to offer, they were as useless as the Greybeards.

Farkas emptied his goblet. “If someone comes our way, we’ll send him over.”

“I’m supposed to let the Companions recruit for the Blades now?”

He shot her a cheeky grin. “You can have the leftovers that are unusable for us. Night, ladies.” Before she had opportunity to answer, he pushed back his chair and stood up. His hand lay on my shoulder as he bowed down to my ear. “You look tired,” he whispered, his beard tickling my neck, “don’t let me wait too long.” It made me giggle.

Delphine watched us with an arched eyebrow, but she only asked when the door had clapped shut behind him. “You share a room?”

“Yeah.” I saw no reason to justify myself and cut her off. “Believe me, Delphine… if anyone helps me to focus, it’s Farkas.”

We spent a heavenly lazy day in Skyhaven Temple, doing nothing but some laundry and a few repairs on our gear.

Or better, I spent a heavenly lazy day. Farkas spent his time winning the Blades’ hearts. He offered Delphine to spar with her, and she jumped full of enthusiasm at the chance to go against a real opponent. But he had never seen her fight and underestimated her clearly, her first strike catching him completely off guard and leaving a bleeding bruise on his arm. And when he teased her, saying he liked her better when she still served him his mead and she disarmed him in retaliation, his expression was priceless.

And he won Esbern’s eternal affection when he asked the old scholar to explain him what this wall was all about his shield-sister had told him so much of. He was either exceptionally well at play-acting – which I doubted – or he was in fact genuinely interested in Esbern’s longwinded rambling about the history of the Dragonwars and the elements of the prophecy. But I knew he loved stories that could just as well be told at a campfire. He didn’t care if they were myth, legend or a historical event as long as they contained strong warriors, lots of fighting and heroic deeds. The Blades could serve with all of this excessively.

Additionally, he hauled some chests and crates full of yellowed parchments and brittle books from the depths of the archives, new material for Esbern’s inventory and studies. And I knew he had won when he presented himself to Delphine afterwards with a wide grin, with cobwebs in his hair and dust smeared over his cheeks – and in ancient, original Blades armour he had pilfered from the armoury. Instead to throw a tantrum, she only gave him a lopsided grin.

“Suits you too, Companion.”

The cuirass was a bit too tight for him, and he rolled his shoulders uncomfortably, making the brittle leather and the metal plates covering his chest and abdomen creak in protest.

“Not sturdy enough,” he chuckled. “Skyforge is better.”

And in the evening, when we were alone in our room, he pulled something out of his pack and turned to me with a mischievous grin. “I stole something,” he whispered conspiratorially and handed me an old tome, bound in weathered brown leather. “It fell out of one of Esbern’s crates. Thought it could be interesting for you.”

When I opened it, the smell of age-old dust tickled my nose, the letters nearly faded to illegibility. But its title startled me at once: Atlas of Dragons.

A list of named dragons, recorded in the Second Era. Dragons slain, and Dragons known to live. And at the very end the information I had so desperately searched for:

Paarthurnax – The legendary lieutenant of Alduin in the Dragon War. He is now known to lair on the Throat of the World under the protection of the Greybeards of High Hrothgar.

I looked at him with wide eyes. “I should kiss you for this.”

His eyes sparkled as he spread out his arms. “Be my guest.”

I was brimming with excitement next day, could barely contain myself to have breakfast and kept our farewells as curt as possible. “I’ll see you, Delphine. Keep Esbern in check.” I embraced the woman shortly. Esbern didn’t even recognise our departure when we stormed out of Skyhaven Temple. The refuge of the Greybeard’s declared enemies, the absolute last place where I expected to find such a treasure.

I was aware that the book we stole was priceless and contained essential information, especially for an order of dragonslayers. I was also aware that this information wasn’t exactly up to date. And I was aware that there was no guarantee that this Paarthurnax was still living, that I’d be able to reach him or that he’d be willing to talk to me.

But finally I had found something to confront Arngeir with. I laughed out loud at the memory how I had mocked Esbern about finding a friendly dragon. And now there was one, and a lieutenant of Alduin from the Dragon Wars at that, living under the protection of High Hrothgar. I assumed it was rather the other way around, that the Greybeards lived under his protection, but howsoever – if he hadn’t eaten them and if he was still alive, there was hope he wouldn’t eat me either. And perhaps even speak with me.

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

Two whirling, brown-skinned, black-haired bundles of pure energy jumped on Farkas as soon as we crossed the bridge leading to Morthal, and he caught them in his wide open arms with the happiest laughter I had heard from him for a long time. And when we went through the village, Farkas with one child held firmly on each hip, it became obvious that he had made Morthal a home during the last months. Everybody knew him, the guards greeted him amicably, names and cordial comments flew around that made clear that he had a history and friends in this small city.

He was one of them, and I was not. It had been only the two of us for so long… and now our togetherness was broken at a moments notice. With a strange, distant astonishment I realised that beneath the amusement about his open happiness, it stung, short and sharp.

At the crossroads in the middle of the village I turned to the Jarl’s hall, but Farkas set down his daughters and held me back.

“Where are you going?” His face still showed this joyous smile that had flared up when he saw the girls run towards him, the laughlines in the corners of his eyes clearly visible through the warpaint.

“Gonna visit Idgrod. Take your time, Farkas.”

His eyes lost a bit of their brightness. “Okay.” And then he kissed me, short, firm and reassuring in the middle of the street, and a lopsided smirk curled his lips when he whispered in my ear. “See you there.”

Bastard.

My grin must have been something between embarrassed and retarded, judging the surprised amusement Idgrod showed when I entered her hall. She dismissed her steward with a wink and greeted me with a warm embrace.

“Qhourian! That’s a surprise!” She held me at arms length and regarded me with a scrutinizing look.

“Good to see you, girl. What brings you here? Another scheme to bring me into trouble?”

Bad conscience hit in and my face fell, but her jovial smirk showed she wasn’t serious. Not entirely, at least.

“I have to apologise, Idgrod. I didn’t want you…”

She put me off. “Not for that, girl. The Thalmor tried to give me a bit of a hard time after your little jest, but I told you already… an old hag like me isn’t that easily to scare off, and certainly not by them. And General Tullius isn’t as soft as he sometimes does, at least not when it matters. Don’t worry.”

She led me to a place at the fire and seated herself beside me.

“You look much better than last time, but still as if you hadn’t had a proper meal for weeks. Been too busy, eh?”

I smiled. “Yes, so to say. I’m back with the Companions, not least thanks to your intervention. And now we’ve taken care of… well, we’ve been on the road for ages.” With a heavy, content sigh I stretched my back in the comfortable armchair and felt some joints pop. It was heavenly, especially when Idgrod’s housecarl served me a tankard full of deliciously hot, spiced wine. My genuine thanks was answered with an evenly genuine and slightly suggestive smile.

“There’s more where that comes from, Milady Dragonborn. And whatever else you need.”

Idgrod shooed him away and looked slightly embarrassed, but I grinned. “More of that,” I raised my mug at her, “is certainly welcome. Thank you, Idgrod.”

“A pleasure, girl.” Curiosity sparkled from her eyes. “But tell me, who is we? Is Farkas here with you? We haven’t seen him for ages.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I must confess, it was his idea to come to Morthal. The twins caught him when we entered town, he went straight for the inn.”

It was the most relaxing evening I had savoured for a long time. I had absolutely no obligations in Morthal, I could simply relax in the Jarl’s pleasant company and savour her generous hospitality. A hearty meal, some more wine that easily went to my head, lots of wonderfully unexciting local gossip and Idgrod’s amusement about what the Companions had done to find me after her message and how I finally returned to Jorrvaskr – it was good to spend this time with the elder woman who offered her friendship so openhearted. She didn’t ask for things I didn’t want to tell her, and not once did she call me Dragonborn. For that alone I was incredibly thankful. And I felt that Highmoon Hall… it wasn’t home, but it was a place where I could go when necessary, where I was accepted just because, not because people wanted me to do something for them. Skyhaven Temple had been a nice break and rewarded me with a treasure in the end, but now I felt finally true relaxation sip into my bones and my mind.

It was long past midnight when I finally retreated to my room, tired to the bones, good-humoured and with a head more than slightly dizzy. The luxury to rest in a real bed instead in a bedroll or on a straw-filled cot, the smoothness of real blankets and the softness of a real mattress were as wonderful as the whole evening. But my sleep was lighter than usual without Farkas’ presence beside me, and I startled with a grip to my dagger when a heavy weight shifted the mattress.

“Easy, woman,” he chuckled, crawling without further ado under the blankets. So familiar, so close, so safe. I hadn’t been aware that I had been waiting for him, but I did. The short, happy ache in my chest proved it.

“I thought you’re staying at Moorside?” I mumbled, instantly at ease again.

“No.” He turned to the side, I lifted my head and he stretched out his arm until it lay under my neck. “I don’t wanna sleep alone,” he said lowly. “And gotta make sure that you sleep well, of course. You smell of too much wine.”

“And you of too much mead. Looks like we both had a good time.”

“I never have too much mead.” I heard the good mood in his voice, he shifted slightly and I felt him slacken. “How long do you want to stay here?”

Secunda shone through the window, tinting his face in silver and shadows. “Your decision. Told you to take your time.”

His fingers trailed patterns on my arm. “Thank you, Qhouri. This is… important for me.”

He was so close, and… I didn’t want to think any more. “I know.” His neck muscles tensed and he became rigid for a moment when I searched his mouth, but then he lifted his head to meet me, a halted breath releasing in a long, slow exhale. It was a slow, lingering kiss, a caress full of tenderness, playful and sensual. Our lips were barely moving, his hand cradling gently and without pressure around my neck and into my hair.

A tender smile curled his lips when he pulled back, stroking a strand of hair out of my face. “I got a favour to ask of you.”

“Hm?” My lips tingled where he had touched them.

“I promised the girls to show them the dragon skeleton. At Ustengrav, you know? We’d like to go tomorrow… it will be a day-long trip. And Jonna wants you to join us. To keep us safe. There’s spiders out there, after all.” He chuckled lowly.

I tensed slightly, and of course he recognised it, a concerned frown forming on his face. “That’s nonsense. You don’t need me for that.”

“True. I know that, and you know that. But Jonna worries. Please?”

I was too relaxed and too sleepy to argue. “Okay. I’ll take care of the spiders.”

His head dipped down, and he kissed me again. “Thank you,” he whispered against my mouth, and I rolled into his chest as his arms closed around me. There were worse ways to spend a day than a lazy stroll through Hjaalmarch with him and his daughters, after all. I breathed him in deeply when my head came to lay on his shoulder, the linen of his shirt rough under my cheek. For a moment, I wished there was only skin.

“I’m drunk,” I giggled.

“Yeah, you are,” he chuckled. “And this is not comfortable. Turn around.”

I gave him a curious look, but I did as he told me, and he spooned around me, my back against his chest, and pulled the blanket over us both and up to my chin. His embrace was tight, and without the furs between us I felt the heat radiating from him.

No demands. A thought shot through my mind – a memory. Never before had I been with a man like this and felt so safe. Never before had I been able to fall asleep in a man’s arms.

I already drifted back into the darkness when I felt him move again, his stubble lightly scratching my skin. He bent his head to my ear, the whispered breath warm on my neck. “You know what I’d like to do now?”

I shook my head.

A low laughter rumbled behind me. “Find out where you’re ticklish.”

“Don’t you dare, Farkas.” I fell asleep with a giggle and the warm caress of his lips on my temple.

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