I was alone with my breakfast, only Eorlund waving over as he climbed the stairs to the Skyforge, and soon after I heard the familiar noise of rhythmical banging of his hammer against steel. Inside Torvar called for Tilma and Ria scolded him for calling for Tilma, but for the most part Jorrvaskr was still quiet. Just like most of Whiterun, only from the market came the soft noise of the vendors preparing their stands. It made me smile. Just another ordinary morning, and such a beautiful one at that.
A perfect day to turn my life upside down. I should have been tired out, anxious and frightened. But I wasn’t. I was relaxed, had slept well, and there was exactly the bit of potato salad left over from last evening that I craved for breakfast. And now the sun was shining but the air was still fresh and crisp, and a light breeze blew a few mountain flower petals over the training yard that would prevent that it became stuffy later.
Not even the clapping of the door behind me could enervate me, as much as I had enjoyed the moment of solitude. But to see Kodlak come out was a surprise nonetheless, we had seldom seen him outside of his quarters. The old man’s motions were slow and laboured, and his skin was far too pale. But his warpaint was newly applied, and his grey mane neatly braided at his temples. I knew he’d never ask Tilma to help him with menial tasks like that, and I gave him a smile as he took place opposite of me with a strained grunt.
He squinted his eyes shut, but held his face appreciatively into the sun. “Danica has prescribed me to get out more often. Fresh air, a bit of exercise… I’m far too rusty. I guess she’s right.”
“I guess she also told you to eat properly. Can I bring you something?”
The corners of his mouth curled upwards. “Thank you, but stuffing me is Tilma’s job.”
We sat together in silence, the Harbinger apparently enjoying the quiet. But then he turned to me, a gentle smile on his face. “Farkas still sleeping?”
“Yeah. Deep and sound.”
“That boy is blessed.”
“Tell him that when he has to get up with sunrise next time,” I said drily.
Kodlak snorted amused and eyed me pensively. “You cleared things up?”
Now it was my turn to snort. “He forced me to take a bath in the river, and I dumped him in in return. So I’d say that yes, we cleared things up.”
“That’s good.” He leant back, draped his arms over the backrest of his bench. His gaze that had so often been dulled by age, pain and illness lately was sharp and clear. “You could have just killed him, you know? Instead to take the ring.”
The sudden change of topic startled me. I studied my fingernails. “You know I couldn’t, Kodlak.”
“Because of Farkas.”
I lifted my gaze to his face. “Yes. Because of Farkas. It was good to see him like this. So broken and powerless. But if I had killed him… he would haunt us forever.”
“And now Hircine wants you. You have no choice any more, no matter what you’ve decided before. Doesn’t this bother you?”
“I’m used to have no choice,” I said lowly. “That he wants me now… even if it looks like trickery, it gives me a certainty I didn’t have before. No one can take that from me, not even Akatosh.”
It was quiet for a long time. “I guess that’s a valid reason,” he said with a sigh. “I just hope you won’t regret it.”
“I’ll do fine, Kodlak. You’re all doing fine with the beast… all of you you deal with it differently, I know, but you do. The only one who didn’t was Vilkas. I mean… Farkas compared his beast with a hangover. I wonder if it will be like that for me as well.”
Kodlak let out a surprisingly booming laughter. “He’s really blessed.” Shaking his head, he became serious again. “It’s different for everybody. For Farkas… it’s mostly a tool he uses when he has to and puts away when he doesn’t. Aela indulges herself with her whole being, only reigns herself in when she has to, and Skjor was basically the same. And for me… the blood was always my most powerful weapon. I loved it, it made me unstoppable and frightening.” He swallowed. “It was easy for me to give it up now, weak as I am and with my mind already turned towards Sovngarde. Not sure I’d been able to do it ten years ago. So much easier now than for someone who has to fight the temptation every single moment of his life.”
He searched my face. I knew a challenge when I saw one, and I didn’t shy away. “You’re speaking of Vilkas.”
He nodded. “He always hated it. He was too young when I gave him the blood, and he fought with it from the very beginning. The wolf is powerful, and it makes itself known… but you have to give up a piece of yourself to let it free, if only temporarily. Farkas has no problem with that… he trusts himself enough to know that he’ll always get it back. But Vilkas… he didn’t want to lose control and give it away to his beast. He was always afraid of the power it had over him.”
I didn’t answer, but I didn’t stop him either. Perhaps this was important, even for me. Perhaps I’d have the same difficulties. He poured himself a goblet from the water canteen between us before he spoke on.
“You know how they lost their parents?”
“Farkas remembers it… all of it. You know that probably. But Vilkas doesn’t. His brother and Jergen told him what happened in that cave, but that’s not the same. He has buried it somewhere deep in his mind. All that is left for him of that tragedy is the helplessness and fear he experienced. That something horrible happened and he could do nothing about it. He can’t bear it, you know? Not to be in control. To be helpless. And the beast takes control when you let it free.”
He became quiet, and I didn’t have a reply. I knew him good enough to know that what he had told me wasn’t an excuse for Vilkas. Perhaps it was just an explanation, something he thought I should know. Perhaps he was right.
“I think… I can do that,” I said finally. “Let it happen. I just hope the wolf won’t fight the dragon for control. Then I’m screwed.”
“The dragon?” He seemed perplexed by the idea. “I don’t know. No, I don’t think so.”
“But you said yourself it will be dangerous for me. The beast comes with the blood, doesn’t it? It will be something new.”
A small smile appeared on his face. “No. That’s not how it works.” He took a sip from his water. “I meant it will be dangerous for you because of the ring. Because of Hircine’s special interest in you. I don’t think you being Dragonborn will change anything.”
“But what will it do to me? I don’t understand.”
“It’s said a Dragonborn has the soul of a dragon, but… well, it may be more appropriate to say that you have a soul like a dragon. You have certain powers and certain characteristics that are clearly draconic… Akatosh’s gift. He has marked your soul. But you’re still a woman, everybody knows that. Strong and powerful and perhaps different from everybody else, but still a woman, and that’s what Hircine wants. He will do the same, mark your humanity with the beast. The blood is only the medium for his magic.”
I stared at him with wide open eyes. If he was right, it would mean that taking the blood would indeed prove that my soul was human and not dragon. Or at least more human than dragon. Kodlak noticed my anxiety and laid a bony hand in a soothing gesture over mine.
“You mean… the dragon is a part of me, and the beast will be too. Not something separate.”
“Yeah. Characteristics of your soul. And it certainly won’t fight against itself.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“Well… I believe, if you really had the soul of a dragon, Hircine wouldn’t be able to mark you. Then you’d be truly Akatosh’s child, like Alduin, and nothing would happen when you take the blood.”
“When would nothing happen?” Aela came around the corner of the building, carrying a tray with potion bottles from Arcadia in one hand and a sack with potatoes from the market slung over her shoulder.
“If Qhouri is too much dragon for Hircine to claim her, nothing will happen tonight.”
“Pshaw!” she snorted, dropping her load on a free table, “Hircine knows what he’s doing. Of course it will work.”
“And you look forward to it.”
Her head snapped around, defiance in her face. I could understand that she was tired of justifying herself towards our Harbinger, but she remained calm. “Of course I do. It will make us stronger. And her too.”
“Don’t argue, please.” I looked from face to face. “I’ve made my decision, Kodlak. And I don’t have a choice.”
He gave me a feeble smile. “I know, Qhouri. And you have my consent, you know that. Even if I don’t give it as lighthearted as Aela.”
Somehow I had the feeling that a bit of lightheartedness was exactly what I needed right now, and when Danica came and led Kodlak inside and Aela offered to help me with my drenched armour, I accepted gladly. Especially when she went to ask Eorlund for his special grinding paste, it spared me a lot of scolding and arguing.
It would take hours to treat the leather back to its original smoothness and to polish the metal parts and the scales, and it was the perfect occupation for this day. The dull, repetitive work and the rhythmic clanking of metal against metal from the forge made a soothing background for my thoughts.
Perhaps this would be the most important change in my life, even more important than that first dragonsoul at the watchtower. After that fight, I knew that something groundbreaking had happened – but mostly because people didn’t tire to tell me how special it was. The taking of that first soul had been an overwhelming and frightening experience, true. But it hadn’t changed me. Afterwards, I had still felt like the same woman I had been before.
Taking the blood would be different. It would change me in my innermost core, and tomorrow I wouldn’t be the same woman any more I was now. I would know and feel it, that mark Hircine would place on my soul.
The biggest irony of it all was that all this was gonna happen because of Vilkas. That he forced me to do it, in a way. And that I didn’t mind, not at all. I wasn’t at peace with him, not by a long shot. But I was at peace with everything that had happened since Athis and I had returned from Azura’s shrine. Kodlak was right, I could have just killed him. But that I didn’t was the right decision, and everything that came afterwards including Hircine’s involvement was a development outside of my control. But that Aela had found him, that he had finally returned into our lives was perhaps the best that could have happened.
And still I had so many questions. When I watched Aela from the corner of my eyes as she treated the inside of a gauntlet with the thistle oil we used to keep our leather gear smooth, she tilted her head and shot me a grin.
“What in Oblivion did you do last night?”
I grinned back. “Take a bath. In the river.”
“Gods, why? I mean…” She waved the gauntlet in front of my face. “This is a disaster.”
I had to laugh. “Honestly? I have no idea. Farkas forced me.”
“And you let him?” She sounded positively dumbfounded.
“No,” I snickered. “I shouted at him. It did the trick.”
“To clear it up. Though I’ve no idea what exactly. Sometimes he’s a mystery to me.”
She laughed out loud. “Your man is by far the least mysterious being on Nirn, Qhouri.”
“I know. But he acted as if he was jealous of Hircine. And that’s so silly, not even Farkas is such an icebrain.”
“No. But he’s wolf. I really have to tell you?”
As if that explained everything. My cluelessness made her chuckle. And she had no opportunity to explain because Farkas and Ria left the hall in this moment, fully geared and steering directly towards our table. He dropped down beside me and slung his arm around my shoulder, and his grin didn’t show even a hint of bad conscience as he watched us work on the damage he had caused.
Instead he smacked a kiss on my cheek. “You need me today, dear?”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “And what do you think should I need you for?”
“Dunno. Moral support? My neverending adoration?”
“You weren’t very adorable last night.”
“And it’s worthless anyway unless you plan to help with this,” Aela quipped.
“I know.” His grin nearly split his face as he bent his mouth to my ear and whispered, “but I made up for it.” Aela’s smirk proved that she heard him perfectly and made me blush.
“No, thanks. Your support is more than questionable.” I looked from him to Ria who appeared decidedly clueless. “What are you up to?”
“Gonna have a look at the Ritual stone,” she said. “Bjorlam said there’s strange noises. Perhaps another necro rookie using it for his practices.”
“Someone should just tear it down,” Farkas grumbled. “That thing is an abomination.”
“Not today. Be careful. And be back in time, okay?” He just nodded and jumped up, waving Ria to follow him. The trip wouldn’t take them more than a few hours anyway. I looked after them and shook my head. “I wanna have his nerves.”
“Perhaps he just needs a distraction and doesn’t want to grate on yours,” Aela said.
“Told you. A mystery,” I said with a laughter.
“I envy you, you know? That you met our Lord.”
A shiver ran down my spine. “You shouldn’t. It wasn’t pleasant.”
“Why? What happened?”
I cringed at the memory, didn’t want to talk about it. But her gaze was warm and understanding and curious, and I knew I could tell her. “He seduced me.” Her eyes shot open, and I had to grin. “Not physically. I didn’t have sex with a god. But… he played with me, and I couldn’t resist him. Impossible. I was absolutely helpless in his presence. Would’ve done everything he told me.” I shook myself. “It was horrible.”
Her eyes gleamed. “That explains it.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“That explains what?”
“Farkas’ behaviour.” She leant against the armrest of her bench and folded her legs beneath her. This looked as if it would take longer. “Okay… there’s two things. Things you know already, but haven’t experienced yet. I’ll try to explain.” She pinched the bridge of her nose.
“First, our lycanthropy isn’t just a disease. You know how wolf packs work?”
I nodded. “Yeah. They’re families, usually. A breeding couple and their offspring.”
“Yeah. They’re families, blood-relatives, very similar to human families. And it’s the same with us. We share an ancient bloodline that has been passed on for centuries now. A bloodline and the magic that comes with it. It makes us different from everybody else, from other humans and other weres, but it also makes those who share it kin.”
Her eyes looked warm. “You will join this bond tomorrow, Qhouri. And that’s what Farkas meant when he said he wants you to be like him. This bond is what he wants to share with you. It’s the biggest compliment he could make – especially as he didn’t mean it as one. We… are closer than others, closer than mere siblings, friends or even lovers. It makes us empathic for each other… and Farkas has already extended this bond to you, even if you’re not pack yet.”
“Hm,” I mused, “but I am, at least he said so. He said that his wolf has approved me. After Dustman’s Cairn. I didn’t understand then what that means, though.”
Her eyes widened in astonishment. “Really? That’s… uncommon. Usually our beasts are not interested in normal people. They just care for their own kind. But this shows how strong the bond between you already is. How special.” She laid a hand on my arm. “You’ll have to get used to the thought that you can’t hide things like that from him. Something like your encounter with Hircine. Of course he can’t read your mind, but he knows when something is wrong. Or different.”
Farkas’ sensitivity had surprised me more than once, his ability to know what I felt and to react accordingly, never taking advantage of this knowledge. He knew me better than I knew myself. But it was more than just a feature of the beast. It was in himself, part of his personality.
“But why did he react like that? So aggressive? I mean… I’ve never seen him like that before. So jealous. Possessive.”
“He’s not jealous. You’re right, it would be silly.” She eyed me intently. “Okay, first the theory, then your special case. We’re close like a family, like a pack. But we’re both, man and wolf. We’re always both, never only wolf or only man. A bit of me is beast right now, and we still retain our humanity even when we change. And we can control both sides. Some better or easier than others, but we can. You will see.”
“Is that what the curse did to Vilkas? That he lost this control?”
“Probably, yes. The curse takes it away – he was caught between his two sides.”
“That means the same will happen with me.”
“Yeah. But you have a mission, Qhouri. An order from Hircine himself. He wants you to be his hunter, and he will guide you.”
“He tricked me already once.”
“Did he really? Or did he just hunt you down?”
I had been his prey, caught in his trap. Of course it felt like trickery. But just because I wasn’t able to cope with him didn’t mean that he had deceived me. He had never been unclear in his intentions. I gave her a crooked grin. “You’re right.”
“The Lord of the Hunt is no trickster, Qhouri. His goal and his methods are simple – kill or get killed. Prove your proficiency. It’s easy, and that’s what he expects from you. You don’t have to outwit him, and that’s something Vilkas never understood, so used to outwit everybody all the time as he is. You just have to impress him.”
I shrugged. “I’ll do my best.”
“You already did, or he wouldn’t have chosen you. And that’s also why Farkas and I think you’ll fit in.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you we’re always both, man and wolf. But… to be a werewolf isn’t always easy, and how you deal with it depends on your character as a human. You have to be strong, you have to be at peace with yourself to not get lost in the wolf, and you need to be pretty bullheaded to deal with his demands.”
“You mean I should take the blood because I’m a stubborn bitch?”
“Exactly,” she chuckled. “The Circle is no place for whelps, and none of us would ever behave like one. You know what Kodlak says, that we’re all our own masters? For us, that means most of all that none of us outranks the others. None of us would ever submit to a pack-mate, and none of us would allow it. We do have something like a hierarchy, but it’s very subtle, and it shifts and changes all the time. And we don’t fight for our positions. Well, usually.”
Usually. Something dawned on me, and it constricted my throat. “So… last night, Farkas wanted to prove his dominance over me, because he knew Hircine has done the same. Just that it didn’t work.”
Aela rolled her eyes in annoyance. “Gods, no! Don’t play dumb, Qhouri. Exact the opposite.”
“The opposite? I don’t get it, Aela.”
She tilted her head. “See… we’re equal. All of us. And you will not only join us, but Farkas has chosen you as his mate. He would never accept someone by his side who isn’t on par. The thought that you had to submit, even if it was to a Daedric Prince, drives him crazy. And… with all this stuff going on, Vilkas and the ring and you taking the blood… his beast was probably closer to the surface than usual. He just reacted accordingly.”
I stared at her. “You mean… he just provoked me to see what I’d do?”
“No. I don’t think he really thought about it. He just needed… a proof. That you’re still the same, that what has happened with Hircine hasn’t changed you.”
I grinned. “Next time I’m gonna blast him to Oblivion. Perhaps that will be proof enough. Icebrain!”
She snickered. “He’ll love you more every time you do that.”
We shared a moment of comfortable silence. I was grateful for the friendship and the trust of this fierce woman, something she didn’t give easily. I knew she had her dark sides, that she often had to fight to keep herself in check, not to give in to her nature, but I also knew that she’d do everything for her family – a family she had accepted me into.
When I felt her slender fingers on my wrist, I looked up into her eyes. A small smile crinkled her warpaint.
“Please be careful with him, Qhouri. You’re the only woman in this world who will ever really understand him. Who will share his distinctiveness, and he… he’d do everything for you. No one can hurt him like you, not even Vilkas. I don’t want to see him hurt.”
“I love him, Aela. It’s taken me long enough to get it, but I truly do. He’s the best that has ever happened to me. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t fight.”
She laughed. “Oh, I’m sure you will, and the sky will burn when you clash. You’ll have lots of fun together.”
“We already do.” I became serious. “But, Aela…”
She tilted her head when I hesitated to speak on. “Yeah?”
“I’m not doing this only for him. And I’m glad… thank you for your support. And…” I gave her a feeble grin as she looked at me expectantly.
“Spit it out, Qhouri.”
“Well… if Kodlak is right, it doesn’t really matter whose blood I’ll take tonight.”
“No, it doesn’t. But Farkas will want to be your forebear.”
“Yeah. But I wanted to ask you… if you’d do it instead.” Her eyebrow rose quizzically. I shrugged. “It’s just… I don’t want to take his blood. I know it doesn’t really make us related… but it feels wrong.”
The corners of her mouth twitched. “Of course. It will be an honour, sister.”
I spent the rest of the day alone, at my usual place at the edge of the Skyforge, out of Eorlund’s way and with a fantastic view over the plains. I had a lot to think about, had all the facts I could wish for lain out plain in front of me, knew as exactly as possible what was waiting for me.
But fretting would end in nothing. The decision was made, I was as prepared as I could be, and I wouldn’t be alone. Now I could only take things as they came. As I forced worries and fears out of my mind, I slipped nearly automatically into the meditative calmness I had learned in High Hrothgar, my head empty, like an escape from an overload of impressions and challenges from the outside.
Not long past noon I could see Farkas and Ria cross the bridge near Honningbrew, and when he settled not much later quietly beside me, I leant contently against his chest.
“You okay?” he asked, handing me his waterskin. I hadn’t noticed how thirsty I was. I nodded and drank deeply.
“Kodlak is speaking with the whelps right now. Tells them that you’ll join the Circle.”
“And everything else?”
“No. Only that we’ll be gone a few days.”
I turned my head to him. “Aren’t you worried?”
He looked at me, his thumb stroking my neck. His smile was weak, but still warm and full of confidence. “I am. But you’ll do what’s necessary, Qhouri. And I think… for you, this is right.”
We met in Kodlak’s quarters when the sun dipped behind the horizon. We had nothing left to discuss, and I just showed them where I had to go, Vilkas’ hiding place, a grotto not far from the sunken keep where I had been with Athis. Farkas would lead me there, and Aela agreed to come too, just in case. “At least I can bring you something to dress,” she said with a lighthearted smile.
Apart from that, nothing else was left we could plan in advance. No use in discussing things that could or could not happen.
“You will have to watch over me.” I searched Farkas’ eyes.
“I will.” It was a promise extending far beyond this night.
Remembering, holding on to the impressions, these last ones. The scent of ash and mead, sweat, food, wax and oil that mingled to home – Jorrvaskr. The familiar traces in the carpet, threadbare from steelnailed boots. Broken light through latticed windows, bright laughter from below, a cool grey finger tucking a braid behind my ear. Then the waft of fresh air when the door opened, the flicker of the torchlight on the training weapons and the dim red glow from the forge above, a half emptied bottle of ale left behind, smooth cobbles under my naked feet. Scratching of stone on stone and a dark hole in the wall. Warm eyes over a grey beard. And the caress of a hand in my back, a whispered promise, the softness of chapped lips on mine.
The damp, musky air in the large, narrow cavern greeted me with its familiarity, the presence of the Companions making the atmosphere dense and heavy. Ancient magic full of calmness and certainty. The goblet was slippery and cold in my fingers, the icy water within fogging it with moisture. Aela was waiting, auburn fur and gleaming fangs towering above me. Her short wince of pain was only another step.
I wrote these memories, the most precious of them all, into the red streaks slowly dripping in, swirling into erratic patterns, tainting and enriching the liquid. I tried to follow the flow, tried to burn it into my brain until nothing was left but blur and haze. Just the red remained. When the thick wrist and black claws drew away, a shiver ran down my back. I was ready.
Three pairs of eyes watched me, only one of them human. “Join us, sister. Join your spirit with the beastworld,” it said.
The first taste is salty, earthy and metallic, and warmth settles pleasant and heavy in my stomach. The second is already different, the warmth flaring up into a coil of heat, all of a sudden, unexpected and overwhelming. It chokes me, waters my eyes, and it tastes of too much, so much more than just blood. It tastes of earth and wilderness, power and defeat, raw flesh and fear, the frenzy and ecstasy of the hunt and the kill. The essence of life and death. I gasp and swallow, light red drops trickle down my chin, and I make it mine, feel the heat spread and spirit of the blood start to rise along my spine, through my limbs, flow through my bones and veins. A sharp pain stabs the inside of my skull, making room for something new. My pulse pounds in my ears and behind my eyes, and my form expands to contain it. It feels all too familiar.
The heat is a pain that’s taking my breath away, searing, tearing, twisting, breaking me apart in agonising pleasure, and with the heat rises the beast, another self, awake, angry and hungry. Fresh air and an onslaught of scents from the exit force me into movement, stumbling, falling and getting up again, the overwhelming urge to break free of familiar confines and to get out. New strength wants to break free, limbs want to move and betray me, strange, unaccustomed and out of balance.
The impact of the impressions outside completes the change. Colours shift into shades of grey, the black form beside me blurred except when moving, leading me, never stopping. Too much. Too many noises, too many scents. Still the taste of her blood on my tongue. Thoughts drift away into pictures and sensations, emotions are reduced to raw desires.
My wordless howl echoes over the plains, wild and free, and it gets an answer. The hunt awaits me, guided by the moons. There are others, pack-mates, leading the way.
I don’t need their guidance.
My prey is ready for me, and I find it without effort. I hear frantic, stumbling heartbeats and the rush of blood, smell the sweat of fear, yearn the softness of their flesh. Shrill screams pierce my ears, begging for mercy, trying to hide and scurrying away. But I rush forwards, a stab of metal in my thigh cannot stop me, cannot stop the hunger. Hunger turns into frenzy when I smell my own blood. A naked throat is pleading, screaming, offering itself.
The impact of the other one lets me stumble and shoves me away, fangs snapping shut around nothing. The prey escapes. I turn with a roar, but he tackles and pushes, bites and snaps until I chase him into the shadows of the trees. He is larger and heavier than me, but my fury follows him into the darkness. We chase each other, my claws in his thigh, his fangs in my neck. But he isn’t prey, I smell his need and he doesn’t feed me, and the urge to kill takes over when new game breaks through the underbrush. To tear my claws into living flesh, to snap a spine between my fangs is the power I am entitled to. I lap the blood quelling from pulsing wounds, the heart of my prey still beating like thunder in my ears. The rhythm slows down, a last shudder going through the creature, the flow becoming a trickle and finally stopping. My prey. My kill. I howl in triumph and I feed, succumb to the famine. The flesh is warm, ready to be ripped open, and it’s mine.
The other one watches me. He doesn’t dare to steal my feast.
The pain returns when the rage of the kill dies down. I have expected it, the searing and stabbing in my bones that coils into a thrumming ache in my core. The battle continues inside, wolf against woman, fighting to take the reign. The flesh is weak and soft, and my mind is torn apart. To drown in the darkness is the final relief.
I awoke naked, still with the taste of blood in my mouth, barely able to speak. The world span around me, dull, lifeless and blurred when I stirred, the wounds in my neck stinging. This was me as well, but the change came too fast. My pack-sister was gone, but the man hunched in front of me, watching and bleeding. I could smell him. Brother. Mate.
“You went after the wrong prey.”
“Prey is prey.”
“People aren’t. Not for you.”
The fury flared up, tugged at my frail conscience. A faint snicker, and the beast took over again.
“It’s my prey!” The yell became a roar, the man smiled and shifted with me.
I didn’t know how long it took. I shifted again and again, the sharp pain becoming a continuing ache, my senses lost in the effort to adapt. The sensations became different when the moons waned and again when the sun rose. The bright daylight burnt my eyes, I fled deeper into the woods, craving for the shadows. Slowly, the periods I spent in one form or another seemed to become longer, memories of my existence drifting back and forth with each change. I became aware of myself.
And I relished in the freedom and the passion of the hunt. The reverent awe of myself I had felt during the first hours vanished with the experiences I made, the thrill of untamed power overwhelming me. The untamed strength, the flurry of speed, the fear of my victims, the impact of impressions from a world that seemed so much larger than before, the instincts and reflexes that led to prevalence instead to mere survival… I felt when hunting and I remembered when not. I had joined my spirit with the beastworld, entirely and unreserved.
The doubts only came later, during those hours when I was not beast and returned into full consciousness, when I knew this wasn’t just me. I craved for the wolf, my wolf, feeling so natural and right, but I knew I was betrayed. It wasn’t just the blood of my sister and not just the craze of the hunt. It was the cursed trinket. It had to be, but knowledge was powerless when instincts took over. Hircine’s curse had taken possession of me, as thoroughly as we all had feared. This was the worst. To get lost in the beast and to relish in it, to know that I couldn’t control it and not to be able to do anything.
Farkas didn’t leave me, not for a second, prevented me from killing innocents, led me with patience and subtle guidance towards our destination. He remembered his first change and had witnessed Vilkas’, but mine was worse. Much worse. No indication that I was about to gain back control, impossible to fight the changes, even if I was aware what was happening. He forced me to drink, to clean and to heal myself, but when the beast took over I had to submit to its reign. And he joined me again and again, patient and uncomplaining, my man, mate and brother.
But I felt his unease beneath the excitement the closer to our destination we came, it dripped over into my own mind, and slowly my goal resurfaced from beneath the frenzy and the passion, filled my memory and my consciousness.
Hircine’s order. Vilkas, the thief. Hunt him down. For his glory.
The entrance to the grotto was just a black hole in the mountainside, drawing me in with a subtle promise, but strong hands on my shoulders held me back. Don’t give in to the urge. Not now, not yet.
Eyes like the winter sky, full of humanity and faith. “Free him. Free yourself.”
“I will hunt him down.” I had order to kill him. If he had to die, it would be by my hands. I would not allow that someone else got him.
Smooth skin on smooth skin. “Go and impress him. And come back to me.”
He believed it possible, and that this would be the end. I took his smile and his scent with me as I entered the cave.
The bloodmoons cast their spell over me as soon as I passed the entrance, hardly spending enough light to see my surroundings. But I didn’t have to see.
A hunter lay at a fire, surrounded by corpses.
“The prey is strong.” He coughed bloody foam. “But more will come. Bring him down, for the glory of Lord Hircine.”
When I change now, I do it deliberately and full of anticipation. A second later his blood drips from my claws, offered for the glory of our Lord, my howl resounding through the grotto. The prey may know that its hunter has arrived.
Nothing moves, and everything’s a blur. I can smell him, the huge black shadow, I will find him. He cannot hide, not from me. He knows, he knows who comes for him, and he waits for me on a rocky knoll, at the edge of a clearing surrounded by old, crippled trees.
When I step into the light, he lowers himself on all fours. Eyes lock, flews drip with drivel, drawn back to show shimmering fangs. I hear his growl, the defiance in his challenge, and images flash through the back of my mind, more than half conscious. A dead child and cruel eyes, an unrelenting grip and the fight for breath, the shredded leather of my pants and the torn skin of my face. I can smell our impatience and our fury, his hate and mine, relentless and unbroken by distance and time. The waiting comes to an end when I lung for him with a yelp, crazed by his scent. A flurry of movement and the blur dissolves into clarity and sharpness, my claws hit him straight across the chest, a strong paw sends me tumbling against a trunk.
Finally we fight, alike and equal. He wants to be free again too. We’re both trapped, and only one of us will escape. He is larger, heavier and stronger than me, but weary and worn, covered in mud and gore. I am sated with the blood, and I am faster.
The scent of musk and blood and wet, churned up soil beneath clawed feet, dripping, gaping wounds, flaring eyes, tense muscles releasing their power in an explosion of violence and hate. The moons don’t move in this place and on this occasion, an endless, timeless dance, never giving in, never submitting. Just he and I, circling each other and clashing again and again, ripping wounds and waiting for a taste of blood. Man or beast or both, it doesn’t matter – I will kill him, we both know it, for me, for us, for Hircine’s glory. I will end this and free myself.
He is careless. He has always been careless, too arrogant, too certain of his prevalence and his superiority over me. And now… he doesn’t care any more. He rushes forwards and towards me, aggressive, on all fours and tail straight, fangs bared and ready to crush muscles and bones, ready to overwhelm me with his greater weight and raw strength. He is fast but I am faster, evade him, feel his hot breath in my fur. It only fuels my fury. A tackle against his ribs and he slips on the murky ground, falls and I fall with him, the momentum turning us around. I land on top of him and pin him to the ground, my feet clawing deep into his thighs and sharp talons digging into his shoulder. He claws at my back, tries to reach my throat. He always goes for my throat, but I don’t let him. Struggling he only hurts himself.
He is not stronger than me. My fangs pin his neck to the ground and press in, piercing fur and muscles tense with resistance, still fighting, his head jerking to escape the bite. I will rip his throat out.
And then the flesh between my teeth becomes soft and this body beneath me, all power and strength, relaxes and yields in submission. The steam of his breath in my face carries the scent of defeat, the growl deep from his throat is cut off as he gives in, his arms falling to his side.
Eyes like a winter sky, looking at me full of wonder.
But his blood pools under my tongue, the moons pull me forward, and the snicker in the back of my mind becomes a laughter.