I bolted awake with the first light streaming through the window of our room, a throbbing pain in my head and a disgusting, sour taste in my mouth. I felt sore all over, muscles taut and aching. Only the thought of breakfast let me choke.
Gods, and this was supposed to be my wedding day?
And Farkas slept peacefully, his light snore completely undisturbed.
I shook him, gently at first, but when he pushed my hand away and turned to the other side just to resume his deep breathing, I poked him with more determination. Finally he jerked away, grunted annoyed and caught my hand, rolling to his back. A single eye slipped open.
“What’s the matter, Qhouri?”
“We got to get up!”
His view turned lazily to the window, then he shook his head. “The sun’s barely up. We’ve got tons of time.”
“No but,” he grunted and drew the blanket back up to his chin.
I sat at the edge of the bed and stared at him. I’d stare at him until he deigned to notice me. The nerve this man had!
Finally and without opening an eye he lifted the covers, pulled me on top of him and drew them up again. “Sleep. Too late to get nervous now.” A small smile quirked the corners of his mouth as his arms closed around me.
He had no idea.
It was a shallow doze at best I forced myself into, with people, names and faces racing in unsorted pictures through my mind. I wished anyone was here – Athis, or Aela, anyone of my siblings, anyone I’d call friend. So many people who should share this day with us.
But it were just the two of us. It had to be enough. It would always be enough.
“Why are you so fidgety?” His sleepy voice startled me.
“Aren’t you nervous? At least a bit?”
His eyes opened hesitantly. “No. Must be a bride thing.” He chuckled lowly, and his good mood was infectious. “Relax, girl. You’re just getting married.” Warm hands stroked in long, soothing motions along my back.
“Tell me something. Anything.” I just wanted to lie there, on top of him, engulfed by his warmth and with the vibrations of his voice under my ear. But he remained quiet, and I already thought he fell asleep again if it weren’t for those wandering fingertips.
“You remember when we were in Morthal for the first time?”
“Sure. It was horrible.”
He chuckled. “Aye, it was. But when I introduced you to Jonna… you could barely move with your cricked shoulder… I’ll never forget how you yelled at her. How you told her that you absolutely don’t care whom I marry and what I do with my life and that you only need me for the dragons, and that she should get lost with her stupid jealousy, and that we’re just friends. You were glorious, and I just wanted to crawl under a rock and die.”
I propped my chin on the back of my hand. “No, I was angry. You were such morons, both of you. And we were just friends. We only knew each other for a few weeks then.”
“Long enough. Lots of moments to make you precious to me. That was when I knew that I wanted you to care.”
“You’re still my best friend. How many women are so lucky to marry their best friend?”
“See, and that’s why there’s no reason to be nervous.”
He could talk. But his calmness soothed and reassured me as well. There was no reason to be nervous. Everything would go well, and tonight we’d be husband and wife and nothing would have really changed.
I couldn’t suppress a small chuckle. “Perhaps I’m just afraid that Brynjolf pilfers the temple’s giftbox.”
“He won’t dare it,” Farkas growled. “I’d kill him.”
“You made quite the impression on him, you know?”
“Hopefully enough to make him behave.” His hands stopped their motions over my back, and he bit his lip. “Qhouri… I have something for you. A gift. But I’m not sure if you want it.”
I lifted my head. “A gift? What is it?”
He rolled to the side and released me from his embrace, an insecure smile on his face. “I don’t know. It’s from Vilkas.”
All of a sudden, the air in the room was too hot and stale to breathe. All my nervousness and excitement, all the anticipation for this day was spoiled and darkened by these words.
A wedding gift from Vilkas. Something I needed like a hole in the head. I turned to my back and stared at the ceiling.
“You don’t want it,” Farkas said lowly.
My head spun around. “Of course I don’t! You expect me to be grateful?” I narrowed my eyes. “How does he even know that we marry?”
“He doesn’t. I just told him that I’d ask you. Mainly to annoy him,” he said with a sheepish expression. “But when I left Skyhaven, he gave it to me. And he said he wishes us luck.”
“Us? Or you?”
“Yeah, and next you’ll tell me that he’s happy for us.” I snorted in annoyance. What an utter bullshit. All he wanted was to retain his grip on his brother, even if it meant that he had to deal with me. Only that I didn’t want to deal with him.
Why did this man have to worm his way back into my life over and over again, even now, on this day that should have been ours alone? It was a stupid question, and I had always known the answer. Because tonight, he would be my brother-in-law.
“I shouldn’t have taken it.” Sadness stood in his eyes.
I let out a long breath and rubbed my palm over my face. I felt angry and pressed, but I was also unable to stand this expression on his face. “I get it, Farkas. He wants to share in your life. But he doesn’t have to get through me to get to you. I just want him to leave me alone.”
He nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, Qhouri. I’m sure he meant no harm… but I shouldn’t have brought it up. At least not now.” He touched my cheek with a tentative gesture. “Forget it, okay? Today should be about us. Nothing else.”
I gave him a feeble smile. “And it is, because no one else is here.”
He kissed me softly. “You are here. That’s enough.”
“I’m still nervous, you know?”
“Better nervous than angry.”
“I’m not angry.” I tugged at his hand. “Come here. Tell me about Morthal.”
“When we left there… you were angry too. And I felt like an oaf.”
“Yeah. And then you told me that I’m not your type. It was… perfect.”
“Well, you aren’t. Didn’t help with falling in love with you, though.”
“But you are my type.”
“I am? Didn’t think you had something like a type.”
“I didn’t, till I met you.”
“You were afraid of me when we first met.”
“I like scary men.”
“Just because you’re scary yourself.”
A loud knock on the door disturbed us, and Farkas got up to open it. “Your bath, Sir!” A heavily breathing and sweating man dragged a bathtub into the room, two little boys following him with buckets full of steaming hot water. They looked curiously at me as I lay hidden under the blankets and the half-naked man waiting for them to finish their preparations. The man shooed them out of the door with an embarrassed smile.
Farkas turned to me as soon as the door had closed, clapping into his hands, a broad grin on his face. “Up with you, woman, stop dawdling! Gods, you have an idea how late it is already?”
That priest was insufferable. At first his face crunched into a derisive scowl because we dared to come to his temple in our armours. But I didn’t want to wear a dress, and we had had no opportunity to buy something special anyway. But our dragon armours were by far the most exclusive garment we possessed, we were comfortable in them, and they matched each other – so we decided to wear them. Then his lips curled into an indignant sneer when he saw whom we brought as our witnesses. At least the thieves were on time, they were sober, had bathed and came in simple civilian outfits.
And now he insisted that someone had to lead me from the door to the altar and deliver me to the groom, preferably my father. Because that was the custom, and there were certain procedures that had to be observed.
Stupid rules, stupid customs and stupid procedures. Brynjolf volunteered with a smug grin to fulfil the deed, but I outright refused. No way. This was ridiculous.
“Can’t we just… dunno, walk to the altar together? Or start the whole thing here? I mean, is it really so important?”
The priest’s lips were pressed into a firm line. He shook his head. “No. You have to be separated before I can unite you in Mara’s grace.” I had a hard time not to yell at him. I just wanted to get married, why did he have to make it as difficult as possible?
“Don’t be so cranky, Qhouri,” came a voice from the entrance. “Just let me do it and let’s get over with this.”
I turned, slow, incredulous and simultaneously with Farkas. “Athis?” we asked in unison.
The mer wore neat black leather pants, an immaculate white shirt and the broadest smile he could muster. “A little bird told me that something was gonna happen here today that I shouldn’t miss.”
I sprinted down the aisle with a squeal and caught him in a tight hug. Gods, I was so happy to see him. “Don’t be mad, but I just had to come. But I told no one else,” he whispered.
“Do I look as if I’m mad?” I whispered back.
“Let me guess,” Farkas’ amused voice came from behind me, “that bird wasn’t so little at all, and it had scales instead of feathers.”
Athis shot him a grin over my shoulder. “Perhaps you’re right. Or not.” The smile he gave me was warm. “No. You look happy. I’m glad I came in time.”
“Will you do it? Just to shut him up?” The priest watched us with a miffed expression.
“Of course. Who are these guys?” He gave Farkas an amicable pat and nodded a greeting towards the thieves.
“Brynjolf and Rune. We needed two witnesses, and they volunteered.” I turned to them. “This is Athis, a shield-brothers of ours.”
“That Brynjolf and Rune?” Athis asked astonished.
Brynjolf arched an eyebrow at the mer. “What do you mean?”
Athis grinned mischievously. “Her adventure in the Ratway is a tale well known in Jorrvaskr. You two left quite the impression.”
Farkas chuckled lowly, but Brynjolf looked as if he wasn’t sure if it was meant as a compliment or more as an insult. Rune gave him his typical light-hearted smile. “That impression was mutual.” Somehow I had the feeling that Athis would fit even better into the Ragged Flagon than Farkas.
The impatient harrumph of the priest interrupted us. “Can we start now?”
I gave him a beaming smile. “Yeah, we can.”
The ceremony was gratefully short and went by in a haze of nervousness, nausea and bliss.
The thieves took place in the foremost bench, and I followed Athis out of the temple. Outside, he slung his arms around my waist. “Nervous?”
I gave him a feeble grin. “Yeah. I’m so glad you’re here, Athis.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” He pecked me on the cheek. “I’m happy for you, Qhouri. And I know you two are happy together.”
He offered me his arm and opened the door, and as soon as we had entered, all nervousness was forgotten. Athis’ presence beside me was soothing, but my gaze was caught by the face of the man in front of the altar, by the unveiled love and happiness in his smile that was only for me. Farkas took my hand when we had reached him and squeezed my fingers reassuringly, and his palm was warm and dry.
The priest repeated some of the solemn sentences we had already heard the day before, but I didn’t listen anyway. My eyes were fixed on the statue of the goddess behind the altar, that beautiful woman with the loving gaze who held her arms open for and over everybody bidding for her blessing.
I bid for her blessing and her protection, from the bottom of my heart.
“… in this life and the next, in prosperity and poverty, and in joy and hardship …”
“I do. Now and forever.” Farkas’ deep voice was thick with emotion, full of the confidence and certainty that had carried us so far.
“Do you agree to be bound together, in love, now and forever?”
“I do. Now and forever.” I heard my own words like those of a stranger, firm and determined.
I never agreed more to anything in my life. Especially when two huge hands closed around my waist while the priest still spoke on, lifting me off my feet, and a mouth came over mine so forceful and tender as if it wanted to melt into my lips. “Gods, how I love you,” I whispered into his kiss, and he laughed and veered me around, and then he let me down and I kissed him again until that obnoxious priest interrupted us.
“The rings. Please. Just take the rings.”
We took them and slipped them on our fingers with even more laughter and a lot of fumbling because we both couldn’t take our eyes off the sheer happiness in the other’s face, and all five of us signed the document for the temple’s archive so no one could claim this didn’t happen.
Friend, lover, mate and husband. Now and forever.
Originally we had planned to invite Brynjolf and Rune to a meal and a few drinks at the Bee and Barb, but the thieves had different plans – when we left the temple, they led us without further ado to the graveyard. We tried to object, but when they invited Athis explicitly to join in – as if I had ever left him out of anything on this day – and the mer had that curious gleam in his eyes that he usually only got when he was about to explore a new ruin or cave, I knew it was inevitable to let the thieves have their way with us. Brynjolf said something about the Thieves Guild hosting the wedding of the Dragonborn was exactly the push their Lady Luck needed to come back to them, and that they’d not let us go without having a few drinks with them. And that the preparations were already done anyway.
Of course it wasn’t done with a few drinks.
“Okay, guys ‘n’ gals,” Brynjolf’s voice rose over the chatter in the Ragged Flagon where he had gathered his fellows, “gimme a moment, please.” He pointed with a wide gesture at us and grinned at my uncomfortable expression. “Some of you know the Dragonborn already. The lass once freed us from the Thalmor pest,”
“Only with Rune’s help!” I interfered, but he beckoned me not to interrupt him.
“and now she came back because she needed assistance in a more… delicate matter. Some of you also have already met that impressive lad beside her, yesterday he was so kind not to kill our Sapphire when she… tried to relieve him of some of his burdens. Since about twenty minutes these two are a married couple, and the participation of the Thieves Guild, represented by Rune and yours truly, was crucial to get this wedding done.”
Loud clapping and shouting was the answer to this announcement, and Brynjolf ignored deliberately the daggers I glared at him. He had promised!
The thief asked for silence once more.
“We have the fine tradition to celebrate a job well done, but had far too few opportunities recently to follow this tradition. And as this was a job very well done, it’s just right and proper we celebrate this occasion before we let her go to save the world again. What d’ya say?”
A roaring cheer was his answer.
I discovered soon that the Thieves Guild had some remarkable similarities with the Companions. They lived together, worked together and behaved generally like I knew it from my siblings. Like a family. And they never missed a chance to tap a barrel and party together. Any reason was good enough, even if it was the wedding of some strangers.
But before they started to gather around us for the obligatory congratulations, I had to take Brynjolf to task.
“You promised not to tell anybody!”
The thief grinned very complacently. “First, lass, anybody never includes your own family. I’m sure you know how that works. And second, if I remember correctly, I just promised your little secret wouldn’t leave this room. And it hasn’t.”
I was speechless. What a rascal! But it was impossible to be angry at this honest, charming smile when he embraced me in a bearlike hug. “This isn’t part of the deal any more,” he said warmly, “just have a good time, okay?”
The thieves were an odd bunch of people, many strange names that could only be made up, most of them congratulating us honestly but obviously more interested in getting their share of the free mead and the venison roast they had prepared. Even Sapphire forced half a smile on her face when I offered her a hand.
But we had a lot of fun, although it was weird to be with so many strangers on this day. We didn’t need words to know that we both felt the same. That we both would have preferred to be in Jorrvaskr now and that we wanted to be alone as soon as possible.
I had been right about Athis, though. He blended into the crowd as if he belonged there. Brynjolf gave me a crooked grin as we watched him in the middle of a group of thieves, recounting our fight through Forelhost.
“As I can’t have you, perhaps I’ll try to poach him,” the redhead said.
“He would make an awesome thief. Much better than me,” I chuckled. “But you can’t have him. He is ours.”
“Why not? Look at them. Even Sapphire is falling for him.”
It was true, the young woman hang fascinated on his every word.
“No one knows how to deal with feisty Nord women like our Athis,” Farkas snickered good-naturedly, and I had to laugh out loud. No, I didn’t want Sapphire and Njada to meet. That would really end in disaster.
I was just busy explaining to Rune and an elder Breton named Delvin that we really planned to spend our honeymoon in a cosy little Dwemer ruin near Winterhold when Farkas approached us.
“‘Cuse me, but I need my wife for a moment,” he said with an irresistible smile before he drew me into a niche and claimed my mouth with so much ferocity I felt my knees go weak. “I wanna go. Now.”
A fabulous idea. “Let’s just sneak off. They’ll appreciate it.”
Of course it didn’t work, but the laughter we got when we were caught and exclaimed innocently that we just needed some fresh air was friendly. Athis slung his arms around our shoulders. “Good luck in Blackreach. Be careful, okay?”
Farkas nodded, and I pulled the mer close. “Thanks for coming, Athis. With you… it was perfect.”
“A pleasure, sister. Stay safe.”
It was still early in the evening, and despite the damp, foul atmosphere in the city, the sunset over Lake Honrich was beautiful. The mist in the air was glowing, the low sunrays reflecting on the low hanging clouds and on the quiet surface of the water. We made our way out of the city to the docks where we settled with our backs against the warm wooden wall of a boathouse.
He was surprised when I handed him a package.
“A gift for us both,” I said with a light smile. “Open it.”
The small casket was wrapped in cloth, and Farkas took out its contents with confusion in his eyes. “A key?”
I leant relaxed against him. “For Breezehome. The cottage next to Warmaidens. I bought it.”
He was quiet, just looked down on me with bright, astonished eyes, but a heavy arm came around my shoulder and pulled me against his chest.
“But you didn’t want it.”
My fingers tangled with his. “No, but you did. And… perhaps the idea isn’t as silly as I thought.”
The sun had nearly vanished beneath the horizon when he spoke again, the sky over us already a velvety purple. “So… you think we’re gonna live there some day? And tend to the garden?”
“You will tend to the garden, love,” I said teasingly, “while I train the whelps in Jorrvaskr or go drinking with Athis and Torvar. And in the evening, you will cook for me.”
“How about I teach you to cook?” he said with a quirked grin, but then he fell silent again. “I’d like to go home now.” There was a longing in his voice that made clear that he didn’t mean our room at the inn.
“Nobody spends his honeymoon at home,” I said with chuckle, “and it’s neither fully paid off nor completely furnished yet. Oh, and your wife is broke now.”
His smiling face bent down to me. “Are you saying you’re a bad catch?”
“Yeah, sort of. Sorry for not telling you earlier.”
He rose with a laughter and offered me a hand, just to swoop me up into his arms when I stood, one arm under my knees, the other around my shoulders. “Doesn’t matter. You’ve married the happiest, richest man in all of Tamriel, wife. And he has all his luck and his wealth right here.”
And with that he carried me through the gate, past the ogling guards, over the market place and through the inn, curious glances and a few whistles following us. I hid my giggle in the crook of his neck. He stopped in front of the door to our room and pushed it open.
“This is how it’s done correctly, isn’t it?” he asked with a strange little smile, and his lips closed over mine when he entered and kicked the door shut behind him, my arms clinging around his neck.
He leant with his back against the wall when he let met down, his arms around my waist. “You’re really my wife now,” he said with a quiet, incredulous laughter. “I can’t believe it yet.”
“And you’re my husband.” I threaded my fingers through his hair. “Thank you.”
“What for? That I married you? If I remember correctly, I had to talk you into this.”
“For your love and your patience. For everything you taught me. And for this wonderful day.”
“I’m thankful for every day we have together, Qhouri. And today… it wasn’t quite like I imagined, but it was perfect.”
“I’m glad you’re not mad. That I told Athis.”
He gave me a gentle smile. “I know what he means to you.”
Yeah. I loved all of my siblings, every single one of them in a unique way. But Athis had been the first. The first to take me in, the first to believe in me, the first who gave me the feeling that I belonged to them. He had a very special place in my heart.
Perhaps he was for me what Vilkas was for my husband. Only that Athis had shared this day with us, and Vilkas hadn’t.
“There’s something still waiting for you,” I said calmly, stroking his neck. “Another gift.”
Astonishment flared over his face. “You mean…?”
“Yeah. You should open it.”
He watched me from wide eyes, but then he went to his pack, reached inside and fished out a small, simple leather pouch.
He let it rest on his palm. “It’s for us both, Qhouri.”
“You wanna know what it is?”
He nodded slowly, his gaze fixed on my face.
“Then open it.”
He sat down at the small table, his back to me, and fumbled with the knot. When he turned it over, something fell with a dull clank on the tabletop, and he let out a surprised hiss.
I stepped behind him and looked over his shoulder. My eyes grew wide.
It was an amulet, a disk half the size of my palm, made from dragonbone that was polished to shimmering alabaster. A dragon was carved into the front, the lines blackened with ash – the beast was depicted in a half-profile as if it was flying towards us, neck stretched and maw wide open, fangs, tongue and scales clearly discernible, caught masterfully in the moment before it released a Shout. The wings were spread wide and protruded from the smooth curve of the amulet’s edge.
And only when Farkas turned it around, I saw that it was divided in halves, a smooth, wavy cut that was barely visible when the parts were held together.
The backside was adorned with another relief – two wolves, both shown in profile, with bristled manes, heads thrown back and jaws wide open, so life-like that I thought I could hear their howls. What formed the wings of the dragon on one side were the wolves’ heads on the other.
Farkas caressed the edge with the pad of his index and looked up to me.
It was beautiful. A true work of art. That something like this, something so precious and fitting for us came from Vilkas’ mind and from his hands… that he made such an effort, that he even bothered… I swallowed heavily.
“It’s amazing,” I whispered full of awe.
“He must have made it during his watch turns.”
“When he was supposed to watch over you?”
“Yeah.” A small smile quirked his lips. “He means no harm, Qhouri. I think… he just wanted to do something nice.”
I didn’t believe that it. Vilkas wouldn’t just do something nice, not without second thoughts and especially not for me. But this wasn’t the moment to ponder his motives.
I took one of the halves in my hand and threaded the thin, braided leather band Vilkas had enclosed through the little hole at the top. The material was warm to the touch. But when I wanted to fasten it around Farkas’ neck, he took my wrist and stopped me.
He took the amulet from my hand, put it away and pulled me into his lap. “This day was perfect, love. With Athis and the thieves… and all these gifts.” He palmed my cheek, so much love in his eyes that it made me choke. “But it’s not what matters. What matters is that you’re my wife. Just you and me.”
I took his hand and laid my palm against his. The rings shimmered in the candle-light. He was right. For the moment, nothing mattered – not Vilkas, not Alduin, not Blackreach and the Scroll, not the thieves down in their sewers or the tantrum the Companions would throw when they got to know about our wedding.
When I claimed his mouth, I could taste his love and his longing, and I could feel him pull his barriers away, how he let me in and reached out for me.
He pressed his lips to mine and I felt his hands in my hair, tug and remove the leather strips that held my braids, his fingers raking carefully through them until he had them untangled. Only when his hands came down and started to open the straps of my pauldrons, he broke the kiss and leant his forehead against mine. “You’re no warrior tonight,” he whispered. “No Dragonborn, no beast, no Companion. Just my wife. My beautiful, wonderful wife.”
“And this night won’t be spoiled,” I said with a small smile, busying myself eagerly with the buckles of his armour.
“No.” His eyes darkened. “Tonight you’re mine. And I am yours.”
The following week was perhaps the happiest of my life.
We were on our way to Alftand, but we took our time on our way north, enjoying our improvised honeymoon travelling criss-cross through the Rift. The weather was stable, and although the nights were already noticeably colder than at summer’s peak, we savoured to be out again, unbound and free, caring for nothing and nobody but ourselves. We spent a few days in a secluded place at the hot springs, and nothing disturbed us – no dragon, no bandits, nothing. And when the weather changed and it became rainy and uncomfortable outside, we relocated into the peaceful shelter of the Eldergleam Sanctuary, into the endless spring under the magnificent tree.
And Farkas made good on his promise to take me to an Orsimer stronghold. Narzulbur wasn’t far from Windhelm, but it lay so secluded up in the mountains that formed the natural border to Morrowind that nobody would ever travel there accidentally. Farkas knew the chieftain, he had received the honour of being called blood-kin by him, and he was certain they’d let us stay even if I was a stranger to them.
He was wrong. Narzulbur was a small stronghold, only about a dozen people living in the longhouse and working in the affiliated mine where they digged for the special metal their famous, vicious looking armours and weapons were made of. But Chief Mauhulakh was a proud warrior, although he was stricken by fate, having lost four wives to death. He mourned his wives, he mourned his solitude, and he waited for the day his son would challenge him and take his place as head of the tribe.
But until then, he’d hold on to the old ways of the Orsimer, and that meant that no stranger was granted access to the stronghold, even if it was the wife of a friend. He was friendly to us, even openly pleased to see Farkas, he provided us with supplies and joined us in the evening for friendly banter and exchange of news, but he didn’t let us enter.
Not that I really minded. The prospect to sleep in one big room with a dozen strangers wasn’t exactly thrilling.
But Mauhulakh eyed me curiously over the small fire we had built in the shelter of the palisades.
“You chose well if she earned those dragonscales herself, friend,” the Orsimer said casually to Farkas. I had to grin over the bluntness of his quick judgement, but Farkas just lifted an eyebrow.
“She’s a warrior and a Companion like me. We’re equal.”
I wasn’t sure if he was aware that by stressing my assets he mostly raised his own reputation, given that in this society only the chieftain was allowed to have wives and daughters were given away like a prize to whoever their father chose for them.
But Mauhulakh just chuckled amused. “Oh, you and your human way of courting,” and Farkas gave him a grin that eased the light tension. The men obviously understood each other.
The Orsimer turned to me. At least it didn’t seem unbeseeming to speak freely with him.
“Would you like to do me a favour, Companion?” he asked with a strange smile.
What a weird question. Of course I could do him a favour, if he needed my help. But he’d have to ask me, not the other way around.
Only Farkas’ broad grin brought me onto the right track. This was his way to invite us into his home!
I couldn’t suppress a smirk. “Is there anything I can do for you, Chieftain?”
Now he smiled openly. “Actually, there is. Gloombound mine is prosperous, but we’re looking to expand. My son Dushnamub, our blacksmith, recently went out to explore a nearby cave as a possible prospecting site. But during his exploration he met some opposition and lost his lucky gauntlet, a gauntlet he claims that it heightens his skills. He’s been mostly useless since this incident, the armours he makes not even worth to be sold to the Stormcloaks in Windhelm. Would you be so kind to retrieve this gauntlet for us?”
Get a gauntlet out of a cave? That couldn’t be so hard.
“It’s an honour that you entrust me with this task, Chieftain,” I said, Farkas nodding approvingly. “I’ll see to it tomorrow.”
The cave was less than an hour’s march away from the stronghold, it was tiny and inhabited just by an old, crinkled, lonely mage and his pet atronach. How the unlucky blacksmith was able not to kill him escaped me, because the wizard attacked me on sight. I adjusted this lapse for him. The gauntlet in question – it had to be right one, why would anybody else lose a single gauntlet? – was made of sabrecat leather and studded with plates of orichalcum, the greenish metal that somewhat resembled the scales of my own gear. I found it in a chest that wasn’t even locked.
I didn’t know what to make of the simplicity of this task. If the chieftain thought I was just a girl he had to do a favour, this was an affront not only for me, but also for Farkas, the outsider he called brother. But perhaps this whole blood-kin thing was essentially not much more than a formality – his pride didn’t allow to let us enter his Stronghold the day before, but perhaps he just didn’t want to make it harder than necessary.
But he shouldn’t have sent me away at all. It wasn’t even midday when I came back, and the columns of thick, black smoke rising from the wooden palisade and watchtowers were visible from far away. I fell into a frenzied sprint when I saw the dragon swoop down the slope of the mountains above the longhouse, his fiery blast hitting the buildings with frightening accuracy.
The fence and the huge tent that sheltered the forge was already burning at several places, as well as the frail rope bridge that led over the chasm between the longhouse and the mine, the smouldering remains separating the few warriors and the miners. The latter were running around frantically in front of the dark opening into the mountain, unarmoured and armed only with their pickaxes but fiercely determined to bring down the dragon with the little means they had.
It was horrible to watch the devastation the beast caused from afar, how it circled tightly above the stronghold, how it carried away a man in his claws, to see a person fall from a collapsing watchtower with wildly flailing arms, to hear the screams and smell the stench of burning wood, leather and flesh.
When I arrived on the scene, the dragon sat on the rocky ledge in front of the mine, his long neck swinging back and forth, unreachable over the abyss the destroyed bridge had spanned. Bodies lay in front of him and between the smouldering remains of the forge, and I just hoped the surviving miners had sought shelter in the cave. A few warriors, Farkas amongst them, stood on the edge and tried to harm him with their arrows, constantly on the watch for his deadly blast.
They would not be able to kill him like this, and the longhouse was probably lost if the dragon took off again.
I rushed through the gate, not caring any more for permissions, dropped everything I carried but Dragonbane and my shield and made my way to the fighters, handing my quiver to Farkas.
“Keep firing, try to distract him. I’ve got to get close without getting roasted.”
No time for explanations, Farkas just nodded and made room. I made a few steps back and took a run-up towards the edge, saw speechless faces fly by, still wondering if the power of my Thu’um would suffice to carry me over the chasm when I already jumped and shouted
and I landed hard and with a cry in the heap of the collapsed and still burning forge tent, ducking and rolling towards the cliff that separated me from the mine.
The Divines bless Eorlund for this armour. Although I rolled through licking flames, the scales didn’t even feel warm. They wouldn’t help against real dragonfire, though.
The dragon must have seen me coming, but the only sounds I heard for the next moments were the gasps and yells from the other side. As soon as I left the shelter of the ledge, the beast would be able to reach me with its blast
But I had to find a way up.
“Keep firing,” a familiar voice finally roared, and I heard not only the whizzing of arrows, but also the dragon sucking in air for his next attack. This was my chance.
There were only two possibilities. Either I took the main ramp along the edge up to the mine entrance where the dragon would see me at one and risked that he simply shouted me down into the cleft. Or I tried to climb the ledge on the other side to get into his back. If he didn’t notice me and I was very, very lucky, perhaps I’d even be able to surprise him from behind while he was still focused on the enemies pincushioning him – not very probable, but still worth a try.
As soon as I saw the blast shoot towards the archers, I crawled along the wall and made my way to the far side of the forging area. There was a way upwards – not really a path, more a route of protrusions I’d perhaps be able to use if they held my weight, if I didn’t slip and most importantly if the dragon didn’t notice me. I’d have to use all available limbs, no way to defend myself while I hang in there.
With a sigh I started my climb, pressed tightly to the wall, trying to be as quiet as possible. When I finally drew myself onto the remains of a rotten wooden walkway, I was panting heavily, the muscles in my shoulders, thighs and fingers burning, and the dragon greeted me with a friendly grin, lying flat on his belly, the long neck stretched towards me. The stench of his breath was suffocating. He had awaited me.
Now I knew what the frantic yelling was all about that I had so desperately tried to ignore.
We stared at each other for an endless moment while I slowly rose to my knees. Time always seemed to stand still in the presence of one of these mighty beings, when they recognised me and locked their souls into mine.
“FUS RO DAH!”
We shouted at the same time, his blast against my force. The fire streamed around me only for a second as I cowered behind my shield, it scorched my braids and blistered my exposed face, the steelen crosspieces and the chainmail of my armour heating up, but the dragon scales absorbed the worst of the impact. The Divines bless Eorlund.
It wasn’t possible to move a dragon with this shout, they were simply too large, but it’s possible to stagger, distract and interrupt them. His neck jerked back and up, his blast diverted harmlessly against the mountainside, and the beast staggered on his hind legs.
I used my chance and started my favourite attack against a dragon in his situation – climb him. The hind legs made an excellent ladder, and once I was up and on his back, the spikes along his spine served as fabulous grips on the way towards his front end. Not that this way was easy – usually a dragon wasn’t exactly thrilled about a mortal scrambling along him. The fangs at the end of the long, flexible neck were still the biggest danger, as well as the possibility that he tried to take off, although this could be countered by severing the joints of his wings while I passed them. But once it was possible to reach the neck and especially the connection between neck and skull where the scales were easy to pierce, the dragon was as good as dead.
I made it, desperately clinging to the spikes on his back, all bones in my body rattling from his efforts to throw me off and without someone else distracting the beast – that would have been Farkas’ job, but the archers had ceased fire out of fear to hit me. Dragonbane’s slim blade slipped between and under the scales, severed tendons and sinews, its tip piercing the skullcap without much effort. The last exhale of the beast was a shrieking roar before he collapsed, and when the corpse started to dissolve, I fell more than jumped off to the ground.
But I had been too late, and the devastation was indescribable.
Too many were dead. Three of the miners, their bodies nearly unidentifiable. Two of the hunters and a little girl, Mauhulakh’s daughter from his latest wife. And Dushnamub, his son, the blacksmith I retrieved the blasted gauntlet for. If I hadn’t been on this useless trip, perhaps I would have been able to save them. Some of them, at least.
Mauhulakh was a broken man, kneeling over the corpse of his son, his olive skin paled to a greyish yellow under the smeared layers of ash and sweat, his lips bared over the fangs into a contorted expression of grief. It was his mother who had taken charge for the moment, who cared for the injured and sent out a group to retrieve the corpses of the miners. I met them on my way down the mountain and around the stronghold, and they greeted me with awe, respect and sorrow in their faces.
Farkas waited for me at the gate, the wise woman beside him, a healing potion ready. It was heavenly to feel the blisters on my neck recede, but when I took in the chaos around me, I felt a sting of guilt not to be hurt more severely.
It wasn’t fair.
The old woman held herself demonstratively straight, nearly stiff, determination surpassing the sorrow in her face. But I smelled the despair she wouldn’t allow to break through.
“We are in your debt, Dragonborn.” Her tone was formal.
I shook my head. “No. I just did what I had to. And I was too late.”
The woman faltered slightly. Perhaps she agreed. “We… we will go on. Somehow. Build again what has been destroyed. My son will take another wife.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose you will.” I clenched my teeth, the hopelessness in her voice making me cringe.
The woman stared at my face. “We will send word to the other strongholds, Dragonborn. You will be welcome.” She vanished into the longhouse without another word.
These people were doomed. They were too few, too secluded, too strict in following their old traditions in a world where dragons and a civil war already scratched on their doormat. If they didn’t bend with the storm, it would break them, but I had the feeling these people would never bend. They’d rather perish like they had lived, proud and unyielding, than adapt to a changing world.
If the chieftain had just swallowed his stupid pride, I would have been here when it mattered.
But I didn’t have the right to tell them how to live. I turned to Farkas, already adjusting the straps of my pack.
“What, now? At once? Can’t we… help?” He beckoned a wide gesture over the destructed site.
I turned to him sharply. “What do you wanna help? Are you a healer? Help to rebuild a forge they don’t have a smith for? Help to prepare the dead? I doubt we’d be allowed to attend their burial rites. I really doubt they want us here, now.”
He looked so helpless, his eyes on the chieftain who still knelt beside the scorched corpse of his son. “But… I thought…”
I put a hand on his forearm. “He’s not your friend, Farkas. He tolerates you. Perhaps he even respects you. But he’d never turn to you for help or advice, no matter what happens. And you can’t force him.”
The only help we could offer these people – and dozens of similar settlements in Skyrim full of people who were helpless when death came swooping down on them – was to do what we set out for originally. Go and find the Elder Scroll, learn Dragonrend and kill Alduin.
Seeing the old mer on his knees, the burnt buildings and dead bodies, it didn’t matter any more what happened to me, what danger waited ahead, what risks I had to take. My only duty was to survive until the World-Eater was dead.
Farkas saw the new determination in my face, and he understood what it meant. I already made the first steps down the mountain when I felt a gentle grip around my wrist. He pulled me without a word against his chest, his arms closing around me in a silent offer of comfort, and only released me when he felt me relax, a sad, small smile on his face.
It did matter what happened to me – it mattered to him. He was the one who held me in balance, and he wouldn’t stop to put his weight into the scale.
But the lighthearted bliss of our honeymoon was over.