“Qhouri, we gotta go. Bjorlam is waiting.” Athis shoved back his chair, still chewing on a piece of bread, and fetched his pack from the corner where we had deposited our gear.
I grumbled under a yawn. “Can’t even finish my breakfast? Gimme a moment.” I wasn’t even entirely awake yet after a night with far too little sleep. A wandering bard, an apprentice from the Bards college had played in the Mare, and he had been such a nice diversion from Mikael’s repetitive performance that it had become far too late. Or early.
“Go ahead, Athis. We’ll be there in a minute.” Farkas wrapped a couple of apples and honeynut treats into oiled paper and stuffed them into my already overflowing pack, slung it over his shoulder and handed me my cloak.
“One minute. Or you’ll have to walk.” The mer vanished through the door with a smirk.
We followed slowly down the stairs towards the Gildergreen, everything quiet around us, neither merchants nor Heimskr out yet. The dead tree had been felled, and in its place grew the sapling from the Eldergleam Sanctuary. It blossomed already, and if the legends were true, it wouldn’t stop blossoming until the world ended or Kyne decided that its time was over. The sight made me smile every time I passed it.
But now Farkas stopped and sat down on one of the benches in front of the temple, pulled me to his side and slung an arm around me. “You’ll be careful, will you?”
I smiled, my head lying against his shoulder. “It’s a library, Farkas.”
“You never know. At least Athis will have your back.”
“Yep. He’ll gut every book that tries to creep up on me.”
A grin quirked his lips, but then he turned to me, his arms closing around my waist, and he became serious. “Will you think about it? What we… talked about?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah, I will. I wanna speak with Kodlak and Aela as well. But I’ll have a lot of time to think now.” I kissed him softly. “I gotta go. Or I’ll have to walk.”
He looked at me with so much warmth that it clenched my chest. “You fetch me before you go anywhere dangerous. Promise.”
“Athis is a fabulous shield-brother, dear. And you gotta make yourself useful here.”
“Promise.” He looked so concerned and obstinate that it made me grin.
“Okay. I’ll fetch you if the Scroll isn’t in Winterhold. Satisfied?”
His smile was back as he palmed my face. “I’ll miss you, love. Good luck.”
“I’ll miss you too. We’ll be back before you know it.”
Athis gave me an amused look when I climbed without a word onto the carriage and curled myself into a corner of the bench, looking longingly back at the gates, but he kept quiet. I was glad about it.
Farkas wasn’t exactly delighted about the prospect to stay in Jorrvaskr while I visited the College of Winterhold in search for the Elder Scroll. But he was needed here, Aela urgently required some kind of support. She had run the Companions business effectively alone for the last months, with only little assistance from Kodlak. Farkas knew that, and he realised that it was high time to take over some of this burden. Nobody would let him near the ledgers, but he could distribute jobs, take care of the whelps’ training and deal with the clients.
The decision was made easier by Athis’ suggestion to join me. He wanted to visit the Shrine of Azura that was rumoured to exist somewhere in the mountains south of Winterhold. It would be an interesting sidetrip – if we were able to find it.
Skyrim had to offer a lot of dreary, bland places, but Winterhold had to be the worst of them all. True, the town – not much more but a sombre assemblage of ramshackled huts – suffered a horrible fate with the Great Collapse, when most of the city fell into the Sea of Ghosts due to powers nobody knew what unleashed them. That the Mages College was the only larger structure that survived the catastrophe was… at least suspicious, that I understood. But these events had taken place nearly 80 years ago, and nothing had happened since then to rebuild the formerly thriving town. Instead the Jarl preferred to rage against the mages, to blame them for the miserable state of his hold and to rely on the subsidy of the other Jarls.
Bjorlam let us hop off at the edge of the city, turned his carriage at once and vanished towards Windhelm. I couldn’t blame him. The ragged cobblestone path led through the village past the Jarl’s house, a dark inn and a shabby general store. No hint of spring was yet noticeable in this godsforsaken corner of Skyrim, a fine, powdery snow whirling erratically through the narrow spaces between the buildings.
Now that I had to enter the College for the first time, I knew what awaited me beside the cold, poverty and general misery, and I had tried to steel myself. The College itself wasn’t the problem, it seemed to be seated quite firmly on a huge pillar of rock, solid enough despite the fact that the cliff that led downwards to the sea was cut off right at its walls. No, the problem was the access. A frail bridge, not much broader than a blade’s edge, hanging freely in the air, covered in ice and snow, left and right nothing but a bottomless abyss. My mouth became dry even from afar, and no way I could tie myself to Athis to overcome my vertigo.
Before I had to face this problem there was another though, waiting for us in person of an Altmer mage guarding the entrance to the College at the top of the first flight of steps. She looked imposing despite her plain, only kneelong robe, blocking the way with her arms folded on her chest. The cold didn’t seem to touch her at all – I wanted that frost protection spell for the shivering Dunmer in my company.
“Welcome, travellers,” she greeted us, “you seek entrance to the College?”
I had to speak, Athis’ teeth chattered too violently.
“Yes.” I bowed my head politely. “We’re searching for information and hope to find it in your library.”
She eyed us from narrowed eyes. “You certainly do not look like mages. And you are even a Nord.”
The evident distaste in her voice made me grin. Not very common to be belittled in Skyrim because of your race… unless you were anything but a Nord.
“Well, we aren’t. But we’re not looking for membership anyway. Just for permission to enter your library.”
Her frown pushed her pointed brows up to her hairline.
“I cannot grant you access, even as a guest, if you cannot prove that you have at least some understanding of what you will encounter here. It would be far too dangerous, for you as well as for us. Is there nothing you can show me?”
She looked nearly desperate, as if she couldn’t believe that it was possible to grow up without the ability to throw around fireballs.
Which was exactly what Athis did now. A flick of his wrist, and a small flame appeared in his hand. Another flick, and a tiny fiery orb left his palm, flew along the path for a couple of feet, bouncing off the ground twice before it expired. My wide eyes educed a chuckle from him, this mer never failed to surprise me.
The concentration had even stopped his violent trembling. “Not very useful, I know, but I could light a candle with it if I were able to aim it correctly. It’s a spell though, isn’t it?” He looked expectantly at the mage.
She just shrugged, obviously not very impressed. I couldn’t blame her. “Well… yes. I suppose that has to suffice.” She turned to me. “And you?” Her gaze wandered to my hip. “Enchanted weapons do not count, by the way.”
No way I’d let Athis enter the college while I had to wait outside. But the mage’s face just warped into disgust when the golden light of my healing spell appeared in my palm.
“Restoration magic doesn’t count either,” she spat, “every child can learn it. It doesn’t need any insight into the nature of our art.”
Now I became angry, and I started to understand why people complained about the incredible arrogance of mages. This was the only spell I knew, the only one I wanted to know, and it was useful. Certainly more useful than the one Athis had shown.
However… who said that magic needed pathetic gestures and fancy light effects? How about… an incantation?
I smirked at the overzealous guardian. “Okay. FUS.”
A very short incantation, admittedly, but it proved to be effective. When the mage had picked herself up, it was nice to see her consternation.
“What… was… that?”
The smirk hadn’t left my face. “Show me the clause in your guidelines that states that the magic necessary to get access to your hallow grounds has to be… mortal. Or let me pass.”
I could literally see her think, confusion slowly turning into cognition. “You are…?”
“If you think about which races on Nirn have access to magic that are not men nor mer, I’m sure you’ll get it, sooner or later. If you need a hint: they can fly.”
Her mouth formed a silent Oooh, and she exhaled deeply. But then she pulled herself together and turned, her voice sounding professionally indifferent again. “I will show you the way. Come with me.”
Akatosh not only had a very weird sense of humour, he also had an infallible sense for the most inappropriate moment to release it on me.
The mage started to cross the bridge towards the huge building lingering in the distance – a distance far, far away – with fast, resolute steps. Athis followed her without hesitation, and I… I just stood there. The light snowfall did nothing to conceal the abyss that waited just for me only a single step ahead, and although I hadn’t even done this step, the cold sweat of panic already gathered on my temples.
Athis turned back when he missed my footsteps behind him, and a single look at my expression brought forth his most gleeful grin.
“Oh Qhouri, don’t be silly. This way is ages old, it won’t start to crumple today.”
Apparently he ignored willingly that the crumpling had already begun ages ago. The railings were actually non-existent any more, and large holes in the pavement revealed the nothing below it. But he came back, stood before me and grabbed my wrists in a firm grip.
“See that mage? You humiliated her. She’s just looking for a way to pay you back.”
He pulled me forwards, went backwards himself, and I had no choice but to follow him. “Eyes front, Qhouri. Look at my face. You know what she thinks? That she’s beaten by a bloody Nord. A bloody Nord girl. A bloody unwashed brutish Nord girl that needs something barbaric like armour to protect herself. She’s impressed by your armour, though. She thinks it’s pretty, and she’d like to know if that are real dragon scales. And she’s confused that the Dragonborn visits the College. She’s not really sure if it’s an honour or a nuisance, although she’s pretty certain that you are more of a nuisance. It irks her that she doesn’t really know what exactly the Dragonborn is, and she thinks that she should have paid more attention when it came to the history of this bloody frozen province. She’d like to know if you’re really a hero and a legend. And if you can really slay dragons with your voice. And if you have really the soul of a dragon. She’s angry that she had to let you pass, though. That you sent her to her precious ass. How it’s possible that the Dragonborn is a bloody unwashed Nord girl with warpaint and a blade at her hip and absolutely no understanding of real magic.”
He spat the last word with such a disgust that I had to grin. His sparkling, blood-coloured eyes never left mine. “Eyes front. She thinks that she’d like you to stay, though, and she wants you to show her more of your powers. She wants to see them. She’s curious about you, and she wonders what you’re searching in her precious library. She hopes you’re impressed how she lights these… whatever they are. No, don’t look at the beams. Eyes front.”
We had made more than half of the distance, the narrow path stretching straight in front of me, but I was busy concentrating on Athis’ face and his silly babbling when Akatosh considered it the perfect moment to push the button. The roaring shriek drowned out Athis’ voice easily, and my gaze switched immediately and automatically to the sky. Only one being could emanate such a sound, and there he was, the dragon, wings spread wide, sitting on top of the huge walls around the yard of the college. He looked at me and grinned spitefully.
The mage in front of us burst into a sprint, yelling from the top of her lungs, and I could see people gathering in the courtyard. Athis didn’t change his pace though, didn’t lose his grip on my wrists until the dragon raised, circled above the building and released his fire blast into the small area. With a sudden snap all panic dissolved into the thrill of the fight. When I yanked out of the mer’s firm hold and darted towards the turmoil, I heard his laughter behind me.
The dragon had the definite advantage of the position, lingering on top of the wall with free access to the people below him. The mages were piled up to find some cover behind a huge statue in the middle of the place and the pillars surrounding it. On the other hand, to attack a group of people who had dedicated their lives to deal as much damage as fast as possible and from as far away as possible was a hazardous game, even for a dragon. He realised it too late, though.
In the end, they wouldn’t have needed me, although my own answer to his fiery blast certainly helped to let him collapse from the wall down into the courtyard. If he wasn’t already dead, he would have just broken his neck under his own weight. When the swirling and pushing inside of me finally stopped and another soul had settled itself neatly into my core, Athis leant relaxed against the marble frame of the doorway, a nonchalant grin on his lips. He didn’t even bother to draw his weapons.
“Good job everybody,” he said. “Would someone show us to the library, please?”
Athis cringed, his mouth pouted into a grimace of loathing.
“A mad mage! Living inside an iceberg! Azura, what have I done to deserve that?”
I scowled at him. “You’ve volunteered, Athis. Don’t be such a sissy.”
Our visit to the College’s library had been successful for once, or at least not entirely futile. The first surprise was the librarian himself an Orsimer clad in the robes of a mage, with the frame of a warrior and the zeal of a priest. And of course he sat on his treasures like a hen on her eggs, guarding them suspiciously from every stranger – and from everyone else, the way he snapped at the young Dunmer mage who had led us through the maze of doors and stairways. And of course he didn’t have an Elder Scroll – nobody really expected so much luck – but in the end he let us read through the bit of material he had about the topic. Two small books we were of course not allowed to remove from his sanctuary, but at least he provided us with parchments and ink to copy them.
And now we sat in the inn, the largest table covered with two piles of parchments and a map of the vicinities of Winterhold between us. We had to find a former College mage who was supposed to be an expert in Elder Scroll lore, probably the only one in Tamriel and at his time a brilliant genius. He had even written one of the books – which was unfortunately a completely incomprehensible dabble of an entirely insane mind.
It seemed he had suffered exactly the effects that were described in the second tome. Elder Scrolls contained a kind of knowledge and such a vast amount of it that no mortal mind was able to handle it, at least not without extensive training. Which meant, whoever read an Elder Scroll unprepared was condemned to a fate of utter, complete madness. Only with a lot of training – and a lot meant decades, better hundreds of years – some scholars had been able to lessen this madness into mere blindness.
But I had to find the Scroll now, and worse, I would have to read it. Not in dozens of years, but soon. Only someone with absolutely no knowledge about the history or nature of those Scrolls – a Naif – would not suffer this fate, but would also be denied access to this knowledge. It would remain mindless, pointless scribbles. But while I was certainly no scholar, I couldn’t claim that I was ignorant. After all, an ancient dragon had taught me.
And Athis just whined about the cold.
“Have you even read this, Athis? I’m not so sure any more if I wanna find that cursed thing at all.”
He skimmed briefly through the pages. Of course he had read it, several times already.
“Yeah, so what? You’re gonna read it, and I’m gonna save your sanity. We’ve made a deal ages ago, remember?”
This wasn’t funny. I rubbed my neck, tired and frustrated. With every step forward, the mountain of obstacles before me just seemed to grow higher and higher.
“How about you just readthat damned thing? No way any input couldtwist that blockheaded brain of yours, not even if it drives the rest of the world crazy!”
Athis leant back in his chair, took a swig from the stale, sour ale that was still the best this godsforsaken place had to offer and tilted his head with a gentle laughter.
“Stop fretting, Qhouri. Nobody knows what will happen when the Dragonborn reads such a scroll. Not you, not I and certainly not this guy here.” He poked the pile of pages. “And anyway, first we have to find the bloody thing. In a bloody iceberg.”
I wished he’d take my worries a bit more seriously. He had certainlyno idea how it felt to lose one’s mind. I had every reason to be afraid, and his light-hearted jests did nothing to ease my mind.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” I snarled at him, “you stay here and try to decipher this Septimus’ ravings, and I’m gonna search for him that lunatic. It can’t be that far, Urag said the outpost must be somewhere north of this island here.” I pointed at the map. “Probably not more than a day’s journey.”
Athis just giggled into his mug. “Bad idea, sister. Very, very bad idea.”
I glared at him. He wasn’t very constructive this evening. “I think it’s a fabulous idea. You will keep your precious feet warm, and I won’t have to bear your entirely inappropriate optimistic know-it-all attitude for a whole day. Sounds wonderful!”
“It’s tempting, you’re right, but I’m not suicidal, Qhouri. And I’d rather die trapped in a frozen waterfall than end with Farkas’ sword through my guts just because I let you go alone somewhere you don’t even know where it is. With your sense of direction, you’ll end up on an ice flow at the shores of Solstheim.”
All these brothers and their overprotectiveness were really grating my nerves. Yes, I did end up in the Archmage’s quarters when I tried to find my way out of the College. Damned dark stairs and doors that all look the same, so what?
But Athis just grinned at my anger. “I’m going to bed,” he said, standing up and stretching himself with a groan, “will you find your room alone, or do I have to show you?”
He was up the stairs and out of sight far too fast, laughing loudly, and the goblet I threw after him just bounced off the wall. Bastard.
Of course he was already waiting for me when I left my room, sitting at the bar with a cup of tea and a smug grin. I didn’t really expect to be able to slip out of the inn alone, not even at this ungodly hour, but I felt an odd twinge. Silly anger about being so predictable, and the equally predictable relief that he was there. There could be worse fates than having a companion who actually cared, even if he was sometimes exhausting.
He shoved a platter filled with dry bread and crumbly cheese and a cup with some herbal brew in front of me.
“Don’t be mad at me, Qhouri,” he said, his smirk changing into a boyish smile, “you know I won’t let you go alone, even if I didn’t promise Farkas to look out for you.”
I couldn’t help but answer his smile. “You’re hopeless, Athis. But some day I will have to do something all on my own, and then it will be your fault when I fail because you’ve spoiled me.”
The man we wanted to find was supposed to live literally inside of an iceberg floating in the Sea of Ghosts where he had found some weird Dwemer artefact. It had probably broken off one of the glaciers coming down from the mountains that had swallowed several Dwemer ruins on their way. Only a few snow bears, ice wolves and sabrecats slowed us down as we circled the large island north of Winterhold, especially as I insisted on skinning them and gathering their pelts on our way back. The wonderful warm and dense fur of these arctic creatures would come useful, and it was too precious to go to waste.
When we finally found the secluded outpost not fare from the shore, complete with a small rowboat tied to a wooden post and an entrance barred by rotten planks, twin torches burning in front of it, we had to swim a short distance to reach it. It was a pity that Athis didn’t give me the satisfaction to complain. He undressed, gulped down a frost protection potion and slipped into the icy sea with a happy yelp, carefully holding armour and clothes above the water.
The inside of the hideout was as disturbing as its inhabitant. We gained entrance over a rickety ladder, but as soon as the daylight from outside was blocked off by a narrow, twisted corridor, the light became unearthly. A blue glow shining through the thick walls of ice, the frozen vapour of our breath forming clouds that never seemed to dissolve, obscuring the light of the few bleaking torches that lit a circular cavern. The most prominent element of the room was the enormous metal cube that stuck out of the wall. Its front – and not much more was visible inside of the glacial cave, the rest of the object hidden in ice – was decorated intricately.
The old man inside the large cavern clearly heard and saw us enter, hollow eyes turning to us, but he didn’t stop his pacing through the single circular room, a monotonous voice muttering incomprehensible words. I had the disturbing feeling that although he did see us, he failed to notice our presence entirely.
Only when I greeted him he stopped his pacing, but still, although he looked in our direction, he didn’t seem to look at us. More like… through us. Through us, and through the ice, somewhere no sane mind could follow him. This feeling of him not entirely being there never left me throughout the whole encounter, and it left me highly uncomfortable.
Septimus Signus was insane. Not only a bit weird and deeply immersed in his research, whatever it was, but completely, hopelessly, irrevocably crazy. Out of his mind. Most of the things he said made absolutely no sense, and neither his manic laughter nor that he spoke in rhymes helped.
This was what happened to people who got too deep into matters that weren’t made for a human mind. At some point, when he tried to explain what he expected to find in that gigantic cube, I stopped to listen to his ramblings, only watched his frantic behaviour, the way he caressed the metal of the cube and paced in small circles through his cave.
I didn’t want to end like this. Athis gave me a concerned look and nudged his elbow into my ribs, startling me up.
“Where can we find this Scroll, Septimus?” I asked curtly, eager to get out of this cave.
The man caressed the concentric circles on the cube’s surface as if they contained some hidden truth. “Here. Well, here as in this plane. Mundus. Tamriel. Nearby, relatively speaking.” He giggled into his beard. “On the cosmological scale, it’s all nearby.”
I rolled my eyes, unsure if it made sense that we continued this conversation. But Athis was more patient and held me back when I turned towards the exit.
In the end, all we got were three names: Alftand, Blackreach and Tower of Mzark. And I took reluctantly another Dwemer device that was supposed to gain us access to these places.
“I know where the Alftand ruin is,” Athis said thoughtfully when we were finally back in the daylight. “Never heard of this Blackreach though. We can just hope at least some of the stuff he told us proves to be true as well.”
“It doesn’t matter, Athis,” I snapped, “the project Hunting Alduinjust died a peaceful death.”
He wanted to protest, but I cut his response short. “No,” I snarled, “you’ve seen that guy. He’s been… how did Urag call him? … a brilliant mind. One of the best scholars they ever had at the College. Intelligent, literate, disciplined. And now look what has become of him, a silly, drivelling weirdo, running in circles in an ice cavern with nothing but nonsense in his head. If a brilliant mind becomes like that after dealing with such a thing, what do you think will happen with me? I will not end like him… or worse. Forget it, end of discussion.”
I took a deep breath. “Let’s go and find your prince.”
He was clever enough not to press any further.
The gods had mercy and sent me a distraction without further responsibility. It was wonderful to be nothing but a shield-sister for once. Athis had the lead, and I had his back. Wonderful.
After a bit of probing the inn-keeper it wasn’t hard at all to find that Shrine of Azura he was looking for. Some refugees from Morrowind had erected it some decades ago high up in the mountains between Winterhold and Windhelm, but in the meantime it was nearly deserted – probably too out-of-the-way, too dangerous to reach with all the snowbears and frost trolls ambushing anyone who left the main roads. A single priestess took care of the Shrine, Azura’s last remaining worshipper in Skyrim.
Until Athis came along and became her champion.
“It’s all your fault,” he muttered as we slid down the steep, icy, windswept path on our way back to Winterhold. “Something like that would never have happened if you hadn’t been there. She must have mixed us up.”
I grinned at him with a touch of glee. “How is it, Athis, an encounter with a living god? Have you heard unearthly, hollow voices that reveal your destiny and prod you towards some incredible heroic deeds?”
“You’ve been there, Qhouri. There were no voices. Just a half-insane priestess who claimed to know me from her dreams.” He chuckled. “Not that I’ll complain when pretty Dunmer ladies dream of me, but please not before we’ve ever met! It somehow gives away the thrill of the first impression.”
He sighed demonstratively. “And of course I have absolutely now idea what to do now. In the adventure novels I read, I always thought the directions were so vague because it’s more exciting. For the reader. Not for the hero.” The way he spat out the last word made me laugh. I felt better than I had for a long time.
“Get used to it, Athis. It’s exciting, after all. I’m sorry I’m of no help here. I mean… I know nothing about your Daedra. What’s the significance of Azura?”
Suddenly his features became soft, as if he lingered in old, fond memories. “Azura… she’s precious to my people. Most Daedric princes are… all of them are dangerous, and they’re either entirely evil, like Molag Bal, or somehow weird, like Sanguine or Sheogorath. Azura is… well, she’s not what you’d call good, not in a Mara-kind of way, but… she shows some interest in us mortals. Of course she’s selfish, but she isn’t cruel. She’s helped the Nerevarine to overcome Dagoth Ur, for example. And she’s known to give visions of the future.”
I remembered something. “I’ve only heard of her once, from Farengar. He read something about an artefact of hers when he searched for a cure for Farkas.”
Athis stopped abruptly in the middle of the path and turned to me, his finger poking my chest, his face beaming with excitement. “That’s it, Qhouri! You remember what that priestess said? Find an elven mage who can turn the brightest star as black as night.That must be about Azura’s Star, not the stars up in the sky! Azura’s Star…” His eyes gleamed nearly reverently.
“What is Azura’s Star?”
“It’s her trademark, so to say. It can probably do much more than that, but here in our realm it’s known to act like a soulgem, that’s why Farengar was interested in it back then. A reusable soulgem that can store the largest souls. An incredible powerful item!”
He jogged along the path, gesturing me to follow him. “If my guess is right, the elven mage we have to find has to be an enchanter. Come on, Qhouri, how many enchanters can there be?”
“In the Mages College? … Probably more than anywhere else in Skyrim.”
But we were lucky and didn’t even have to enter the College. We knew the inn hosted a mage, on our first evening we had overheard a hilarious argument between him and the inn-keeper about some failed experiments that nearly blew up the whole building. When Athis found him in his room and simply asked him if he accidentally knew a mage who studied stars, the Altmer nearly fell to his knees in shock.
“Where do you come from? Who sent you? The College mages? Or the Jarl? They promised there wouldn’t be any more questions!”
Athis’ curious face curled into his most malicious, most intimidating grin, and when he drew one of his daggers and casually started to clean his fingernails with the tip of the blade, the mage blanched even further.
“I didn‘t promise anything, and I’ve just asked a simple question. Friend.”
The mage lifted both hands in an imploring gesture. “Calm down, please! Put that weapon away! No need to do… something rash. I’ll tell you everything!”
Athis sat down on the only chair in the mage’s room and folded his arms across his chest.
Nelacar stood up and paced through the room. I leant silently against the doorway, my hand settled on the grip of my sword. Every time he passed me, he shot me a fearful glance. This was fun.
“What do you know about soulgems? And Azura’s star?”
“Enough to spare you the basics. Get to the point.” Athis face remained remarkably unsurprised. He had been right.
The man wrung his hands. “Okay, okay! A Dunmer named Malyn Varen was the last known possessor of Azura’s Star. He worked here, at the college. Some of us wanted to find out why the Star didn’t break on use, like every other soulgem. We worked with him… it was a fascinating project, but we didn’t know what he was really planning.”
Athis leant forward and propped his elbows on his knees, looking genuinely threatening at the frightened mer. “What did he do? Out with it, we haven’t all day!”
The mage slumped down on his cot. “He was dying, from some untreatable disease, and he wanted to save himself. But his research… in the end, it drove him mad. He believed he could seal his own soul into the Star to become immortal. When he started to kill his own disciples and experiment with their souls, the College exiled him.”
Athis’ temper flared up, the dagger was back in his hand, its tip pointing at the mage’s chest. “The Star was never meant to hold black souls! He corrupted it to preserve his own rotten life? One of the most beautiful, most powerful artefacts on Nirn, and he corrupted it for himself? And you helped him with that?”
“No!” the mer wailed, “please believe me! I left him before he vanished to Ilinalta! I don’t even know if he was successful in the end!”
He looked pleadingly at the furious Dunmer. “Listen, friend, I will help you to end this nightmare, but whatever you do, please don’t take the Star back to Azura! These Daedra, they’re evil! She drove him insane, with her visions and apparitions. Perhaps he had the initial idea himself, but she made him do it. Nobody can stand the might of a Daedra!”
“Your Malyn should have thought about that before he started to dabble with things not meant to be dabbled with. And you too, worm!” Athis growled. “Of course I will not stand against her. I plan to do her bidding!”
His gaze was so full of righteous outrage that the mage backed off into the farthest corner of his room, sending an intimidated look past the Dunmer as he turned and left with fast steps. Athis shot me a wide grin, and I followed him without a word until we had not only left the inn, but all of Winterhold behind us.
I saw his shoulders twitch while we walked and heard strange sounds bubble out of his throat, and all of a sudden he stopped in the middle of the road and bent over in a roaring laughter. “This was… crazy!” he yelped, his face contorted with glee, “I mean… my, that guy must have a bad conscience the size of Dragonsreach, really!”
I had to join his infectious guffaw. “You’d make an excellent interrogator, Athis. I’ve seldom seen someone so terrified just because of a simple question.”
“… yeah, and I just asked him if he knew someone who studies stars! He could have just sent me to the Jarl’s court astronomer!”
He contained himself with some effort, but then he became serious. “But this Malyn Varen story is troubling. I mean, a mage sealing himself away in a Daedric artefact? I’ll gladly present him to Azura on a silver platter.”
It was rather rash that we fled Winterhold the way we did, giggling and laughing, because evening already approached. But it would have ruined the effect of Athis’ investigation if we had spent another night at the inn. Not with the mage brooding at the bar.
And so we made camp on the coast, in the shelter of an overhanging cliff. Athis froze terribly, but he said it was worth it. And we would be in Windhelm anyway next evening, spend the night there at Candlehearth Hall, and he became nearly lyrical about their hot cider and the fabulous bard performing there and the comfort of the rooms… I had to stop him, because the cold wind of reality felt even harsher with such thoughts.
Instead I asked him to tell me more about Azura, and he told me a story about a ring of moon-and-star that was another gift of hers and what the Nerevarine once had to do to get it. And when I tried to lure him away from his favourite topic to more general information about the Daedra as he knew them – because I knew them only as hateful demons, eternal antagonists to the Divines, and their worshippers as barbaric, utterly depraved people – he gave me a curious look.
“Where’s that sudden interest come from, Qhouri?”
I shrugged defensively. “Just wanna know what we have to deal with.”
“I told you. And I could talk for weeks about them all. So, what exactly do you wanna know?”
I squirmed under his scrutiny, pondering if I could tell him. If I should tell him what I didn’t get out of my head since the night before we had left Whiterun. Since Farkas had brought it up again. “What’s the only other Daedra I could ever have to deal with? Besides Sanguine?” I asked finally.
He tilted his head, his eyes going wide. “Hircine?”
“Have they asked you? To join the Circle?”
I nodded. “Well, not asked. But… Aela said she’d like me to. To strengthen the pack.”
“Yeah, that’s obvious. And Farkas?”
I lowered my head, rubbed my temples with my thumbs. “What makes you think Farkas did as well?”
He gave me gentle smile. “Don’t come me with the icebrain thing, Qhouri. I know he thinks about stuff like that. He just doesn’t talk about it… usually.”
I had to join his amusement, even if it was weak. He was right. “He thinks it would make me stronger. We had that incident with the assassin… he got poisoned, and his wolf dealt with it. And…” I let myself fall to my back and stared up to the sky, my hands behind my head. Athis didn’t disturb me. “He wants me to take the blood because no one knows if Kodlak will ever find the cure.”
It was quiet for a long time, and only when I rolled to the side and propped my head into my palm to look at him, he nodded in understanding. “He plans for your afterlife together.”
“Yeah. Chasing Alduin is dangerous.”
“No, it’s not. It’s exactly what I would expect from him. But… what do you think?”
“I don’t know, Athis! I mean… everybody tells me I have the soul of a dragon. I have no idea what will happen with me when I die. If Hircine would even take me!”
“Well, you could ask him. Take the blood and see what happens. If you want to take the risk.”
“And Akatosh throws a fit, together with Kodlak. Of course.”
“Akatosh is used to trouble with his kids. And it’s the wrong question anyway.”
He made me laugh. “And what is the right question, Mr. Expert-In-Divine-Behaviour?”
“Let’s assume you’d go to Sovngarde. I mean, you’re a Nord, you’re a warrior and you’re Dragonborn, if anyone is entitled to it, it’s you. And let’s assume you can bind yourself to Hircine with no dragon soul getting in the way.”
“That’s a lot of assuming.”
“Maybe, but it’s not unreasonable.” As far as something like this could be not unreasonable. “You just have to decide what you prefer – an eternity of drinking and feasting or an eternity of hunting and getting hunted.”
“And an eternity with or without Farkas,” I said quietly.
“Yeah.” His expression had lost every trace of his teasing smirk. “Are you scared because he wants this?”
“Scared? No. Not any more. It’s just like him. I’m just not used to anyone thinking of me like that. In terms of eternity.”
“He loves you, Qhouri.”
“I know. And I feel the same. With him… I feel whole. I always did. But… I can’t make any promises. He knows that.”
“This is a promise you could make.”
Yeah, I could. Perhaps the only choice I was able to make all on my own and all for myself was the one of my afterlife. And in a way, it was also a decision what I wanted to be, here and now, in this life and in this world – Ysmir, Dragon of the North, fabled hero and saviour of the world… or Companion of Jorrvaskr, warrior and beast, part of the pack.
This decision wasn’t hard to make.
I offered my friend a feeble smile. “Where will you go, Athis?”
His face was thoughtful. “As no one will build a family shrine for me… the Dreamsleeve, probably. And come back, some day.” And then a small, joyous, genuine smile flared up. “Perhaps Azura will take me… after this.”
“You’d like that?”
His eyes gleamed as he looked up into the mountains, in the direction of the shrine. “Yeah. I’d like that. It would be an honour.”
Windhelm was an impressive city, old and venerable, every stone breathing history and so incredibly Nordic. Ysgramor’s city, so different from Markarth, the Dwemer city, or Solitude, that bustling trading post where the influence of the Empire showed everywhere.
Windhelm was raw, dark, harsh and beautiful. A pity that its residents were only raw, dark and harsh.
I knew how Jarl Ulfric treated the Dunmer – and generally the elven – population in his hold. I knew the city contained a baleful slum where they were jammed together if they wanted to make a living inside the city walls. I knew that my kinsmen generally weren’t very fond of strangers, and that the refugees from Morrowind had an especially hard time.
I knew all this, but so far, it didn’t really concern me. I had been in Windhelm before, on short visits, but then I had been either alone or with another shield-sibling. I had never been here with Athis.
The mer knew as well what awaited him, he wasn’t thrilled with the atmosphere inside the walls, but he was willing to bear with it for a night in comfort and warmth.
The proprietor of Candlehearth Hall wasn’t exactly delighted to rent out a room to him and told him outright to keep his head down as long as he stayed at her inn. Seeing this open and completely uncalled hostility, I already felt my hackles rising. But Athis just nodded quietly, took his key and a tankard full of hot cider and settled in a chair in a corner.
“Don’t get mad, Qhouri,” he said with a feeble grin, “they’re just morons. It’s not that we have to fear for our safety just because I’m here.”
I eyed the other guests suspiciously, saw the looks of reluctance and disgust my friend earned just for sitting peaceful in front of the fire, and I asked myself how he could be so calm. It was wrong and unjust. If only one of them dared to open his mouth…
Well, one of them dared. A dirty, shabby, drunken example of a man, with unkempt blonde hair, bad teeth, reeking of old sweat and ale and with the remains of his last meal still sticking in his scruffy beard. A typical Nord, so to say. He came alone, and after looking around in the large room he took deliberately a seat near our table, and the hateful glances he shot in Athis’ direction were more than talkative.
I wouldn’t even have minded if had stayed quiet. But he hadn’t been sober right from the beginning, and it didn’t take long that he started to mumble, incoherent half-sentences directed at no one specifically but loud enough everybody who wanted could overhear his sermon. Or had to, if he sat as close as we did.
“Scum, dirty scum, seems no place is safe from them any more. Came here for a peaceful evening, but the mead is foul with that filth around. The whole inn reeks of grey-skin filth. Damned elven bastards. Thalmor, grey-skins, all the same, all Imperial spies. Living here in our city, under our protection, pollute our air and refuse to help our cause. Dirty treacherous bastards, all of them.”
Athis tensed, but he didn’t move, and he laid his hand on my wrist in an effort to keep me calm as well. That was an error, though… when the man saw him touch me, he shot up and threw the contents of his half-emptied tankard right into Athis’ face. The mead dropped over his face, through his beard and into his armour, and still he remainedquiet, let the man’s hateful tirade just wash over him.
“Take your dirty hands off the girl, not only do you scruff up our city and our inn, now you wanna spoil our women too?” I was speechless for a moment, until I saw that malicious smirk appear on Athis’ face. He removed his hand from my wrist, but leant over to me, intimately close, let his cold fingers linger in my neck and whispered in my ear, his chuckle against my skin.
“He’s not worth it, Qhouri,” he said slowly, as if he wanted to extend this blatant moment of intimacy. His forehead leant against my neck. “But I won’t stop you if you wanna have some fun.”
In the meantime our little scene had gathered the attention of the other patrons; most faces were simply embarrassed, some were waiting anxiously for what was to come, and some showed an open hate similar to the one in the face of the man in front of us.
Who now turned to me, with a leering, tooth-gaping grin, and reached out to grab my wrist. “Listen, girl, no need to bear that piece of shit any more. Let me show you how a real Nord treats a woman.”
I showed him how a real Nord treats a drunken bastard like him before I even had time to think about it. Instinctively I broke free from his grip and my fist collided with his jaw with a heavy thump, the dragon scales on top of the gauntlet abrading the skin of his throat. To see him stagger back into a chair, screaming and bleeding, was the best this blasted city had shown me so far. But he was a Nord, and no Nord ever gave in after a single hit. Especially not when he’s half drunk, and when he’s been hit by a woman.
“Whore,” he screamed, his eyes bloodshot with fury, drivel in the corners of his mouth and blood soaking his dirty tunic. “Grey-skin bitch, I’m gonna teach you a lesson!”
No one called me a whore and got away with it. He was obviously practised in brawling, but he was no match for me. Strong, yes, stronger than I had anticipated, but more than half drunk, slow and predictable in his movements. And at least none of the other patrons intervened as I beat the living daylight out of him. I was furious, mocked him to get up every time he was down just to have the opportunity to place another hit into his ugly face or his soft belly. He should have been glad that I didn’t shout at him.
Unfortunately, instead to interfere in a more open manner, someone had called the guards instead. They just looked around for a second, took in the bleeding body curled up in front of the fire, somebody pointed at Athis, and they advanced at once to arrest him.
“What’s going on here? What has he done?” I intervened.
A Nordic woman in exotic armour with an unusual weapon and a bleeding cut above her brow apparently deserved an answer.
“Trespassing. Violence against a citizen. Violation of Jarl Ulfric’s laws. We’re gonna find something, Milady.”
My brows knit together in a scowl. “You’re not gonna find anything, Mylord,” I hissed, “this gent has done nothing but sit here with a drink he paid for. If you’ve come because someone has beaten the crap out of this reeking piece of junk,” I pointed at my opponent who still lay on the floor, writhing and whimpering, “then you’ll have to take me.”
I unstrapped Dragonbane and my bow and handed both to Athis.
“Keep them for me, will you, brother?” He just took the weapons, speechless for once, and his frown deepened even further when I turned with a smile and presented my wrists to the guards. “Would you show me to my room, Mylords?”
They were clearly embarrassed to arrest me like that, and when I turned a last time before they led me out of the inn, Athis still sat in his chair and looked after me.
“Oh shit,” he mouthed, and I couldn’t suppress a chuckle. I had survived worse than a single night in a cold cell.
But for Athis, I’d even spend a night in jail. Gladly. I’d do it again, any time. I just hoped my actions didn’t cause any further… complications. Not that I needed any more enemies.