Our parting from Skyhaven was awkward and curt. Esbern didn’t even show up, and Delphine only clasped my wrist and wished me luck. I hadn’t told her in detail what the next stages of my hunt after Alduin were, and she felt obviously left out. She didn’t like it either that she didn’t know what was going on between the twins and me, and least did she like that Vilkas left with us although I had beaten him to clump the day before.
We watched them say goodbye from a distance out of hearing range, and still it was weird to see the obvious affection they shared. Vilkas and Delphine – both were the last people I would have expected to like someone else and show it. But perhaps that was exactly the reason why she searched his face with so much concern and he let her pull him into a hug.
But he didn’t look back when the doors swang shut behind us, and somehow I was glad that we were finally on our own.
None of us even suggested to take the carriage. The way to Morthal would take us at least three days to walk, but we needed this time. The routine of travelling together with all the little duties that came with it would force us to work together, help us to get used to each other – and let us find out if this could work.
We soon fell into a steady pace that ate away the distance and could easily be kept up from dawn till dusk. But after the first miles in awkward silence I left the men alone, scouted ahead or trailed behind them to give them opportunity to speak. If anyone was able to break the ice it was Farkas, and it was important that the brothers got along. More than anything I valued his judgement, and if he didn’t trust his brother, this whole endeavour was doomed right from the start.
I didn’t have to hear what they talked about to see how close they were. Even as they were quiet at first, their strides adjusted and matched. And then there were tentative words that rose into shouts and scattered away again, quiet mumbling and heated arguments. The wind blew away the meaning, but I watched them closely. Their shoulders seemed to form one long line when dark heads leant into each other, their gestures strikingly similar, even if Farkas’ were wide and open where Vilkas’ were sharp and precise. And when I heard Farkas’ laughter roar up and his palm crushed flat into Vilkas’ back, I felt relief surge up.
I joined them again after a few hours for a short first rest, bringing two marmots to roast. Farkas came to meet me and took them from my hands. “You okay?” I asked lowly.
His smile flared up. “Yeah.” His head dipped down, and he kissed me softly. “I love you, you know?”
He wasn’t willing to allow me to take myself out of their company for longer.
“Just told Vilkas of our wedding,” he chuckled as we sat around a small fire, and to my great astonishment it was clearly amusement that quirked the corners of his brother’s mouth, “and now you’ve got to tell how you met that Brynjolf fellow for the first time.”
“Did Esbern never tell you the story how he got out of the Ratway in Riften?” I turned to Vilkas.
“Oh yes, he did. He complained about the inexcusable things the Dragonborn did to him. The worst was the dog, he said. I guess he meant Snowback?”
I was surprised that he even knew his name. “Yeah. He was with me all the time back then.” My faithful companion, I hoped Ria took good care of him. We all knew that he had been the only one and why I was so dependent on him, and for a moment the silence became laden. I forced my thoughts back to Brynjolf.
“I’d really like to know how Delphine got to know him, but she pointed me to Brynjolf as my contact to Esbern. Didn’t tell me who and what he was, though, and before he would help me, he forced me to crawl through the sewers and find him in the Ragged Flagon. Gods, it was horrible. I wanted to kill him.” I shook myself.
“Just good that you didn’t,” Farkas laughed, “or we’d have had a real problem. But I liked that guy.”
“You like everybody, brother. Even thieves,” Vilkas teased.
“Yeah, so what?” There was an edge in Farkas’ voice that Vilkas obviously wasn’t used to. “I’m not that bad at estimating people. And a mead on your tab takes you further than a blade to the throat.” He grinned at him over my head. “We could visit them together. A nice little tavern they have down there.”
“Pshaw,” Vilkas retorted, “crawl through Riften’s waste for a lousy drink? Certainly not.”
“You don’t have to. They have a back door in the graveyard.”
Vilkas’ head jerked up. “You know the secret entrance to the Thieves guild headquarter?”
“Yep. Rune showed me. And Athis too.”
“Rune? What kind of name is that?”
“A false one. But they’re used to us Companions in the meantime,” I said with a snicker. “In fact, I thought about a cooperation. Their skills could be useful… occasionally.”
His face closed down into a deep frown. “They’re thieves. Scum with false names.”
“But they’re nice, once you know them. Athis thinks so too. They even wanted to poach him.”
“They really are,” Farkas said, poking the fire to avoid Vilkas’ speechless glare. “Brynjolf didn’t pilfer Maramal’s donation box. That was pretty nice.”
“And they made a party for us. Now we owe them,” I added.
“But they’re honourless vermin!” Vilkas barked out. The dagger he used to cut the meat pointed accusingly at me. “What comes next, the Dark Brotherhood?”
“Dunno,” I shrugged, “do they have a tavern?”
“We should ask the next assassin they send,” Farkas said dryly.
“Yep. And while we’re at it, I’d really like to know who has done the Black Sacrament for me.”
Vilkas mouth stood open. “You’re not serious.”
“Of course I’m serious. I want nothing to do with them if they can’t serve a proper drink.”
“They should be happy to cooperate.” Farkas nodded gravely. “That job with you is a waste of perfectly fine murderers, after all.”
“Yeah. And if not… I still need a cloak to match their armour.”
“You have taken their armour? And you wear it?” Vilkas looked horrified.
“Hey, it’s hot! Black and red leather. Tight. I really want a set for Farkas.” I had massive difficulties to stifle my giggle as I gave my husband a lascivious once-over, and he bit his lower lip hard. A choked noise came from his throat. My gaze turned to Vilkas. “It would suit you too.”
His face grew red with mortified embarrassment. “I would never …!” But Farkas burst before he could finish the sentence, bending over and howling with laughter. I gave in and joined into his guffaw, leaning over his back. Vilkas’ miffed expression was hilarious.
Finally he straightened himself, forcing himself to become serious. “Don’t worry, brother. I swear on my honour and by all the Divines that I will never wear Dark Brotherhood armour.” He cleared his throat, the corners of his mouth twitching. “In public.”
Vilkas swallowed a gulp of air, his gaze shifting from his brother to me and back. He closed his mouth with conscious effort. “Not funny,” he pressed out between clenched teeth. “Gods, you’re so made for each other.”
“Yeah, we are, aren’t we?” Farkas bent down to me and smacked a kiss on my lips, and Vilkas’ irritated grunt only rekindled our laughter.
Shortly after we crossed the Karth River we left the comfort of the road and turned northwards into the mountains. In opposite to other holds, the streets of the Reach were less safe than the wilderness, with their Thalmor patrols and abandoned forts by the roadside that were often manned with Forsworn. We would meet it again not far south of Dragons Bridge, and from there we’d make our way into the swamps of Hjaalmarch.
This first day of our journey went by surprisingly smooth. Of course we were cautious with each other… well, mostly. Vilkas and I were cautious, Farkas simply wasn’t able to. He always said what went through his mind or he said nothing at all, and it was impossible for him to stay quiet when he was happy – and he was so obviously happy now that it was heart-melting, and his plain, unsophisticated good mood was infectious and rubbed off not only on me. More than once I saw a cheerful smile flare up when he looked at us, and when Vilkas caught me watching him with an amused smile, even his lips curled in sympathy.
Nobody could embrace a simple moment of happiness as wholeheartedly and innocent as Farkas, without a thought of the future. I envied him for this ability.
It was mostly our routine that made travelling so easy. Everybody knew what had to be done, nobody let his guard down, we looked out for each other. I went hunting during the afternoon, and when I didn’t show up at the agreed meeting point at the agreed time, the men waited for me without complaint. Farkas cooked for us in the evening, and we split the watches evenly. Not once did we argue about all these mundane tasks, and it made everything else equally uncomplicated. Astonishing uncomplicated.
Everything went fine until the early evening of the second day. We had left Dragon Bridge behind and were already looking for a suitable campsite in the foothills of the Reach when we met the wandering minstrel.
“Talsgar!” Farkas and I cried out in unison. Everybody knew the bard, apparently.
I recognised him at once, the white curls, his friendly sunburnt face and the lute that was slung to his back, carefully wrapped into waxed cloth. When we found him, he stood between the bodies of two shabby and very dead bandits, a look of sadness on his face although the glow of a lightning spell still rested in his palm.
A look that changed first into confusion and then into delighted surprise when we called him out.
“My, if that isn’t the lady with the swift blade and my favourite Companion,” he smiled and extended a greeting hand.
“What happened?” I looked around.
“Oh… nothing. They made a mistake.”
“Looks like that,” Farkas grunted. “Are you injured?”
He shook his head, his gaze shifting to the darkening sky. “No. But I have to go.”
“But it’s getting late,” I said. “You wanna join us? We’re about to make camp. It’s not safe alone.”
The bard looked hesitantly from me to the men, took in Farkas’ inviting expression and Vilkas’ open scowl. I didn’t care what he thought. Talsgar, as short as our meeting back then had been, had played a much more important role in my life than they’d ever know. Than he knew himself, probably.
I smiled encouragingly at him, but he shook his head.
“I’ve something to do first. Perhaps I’ll find you later. You know I’m good at finding things.” A small, ironic smile quirked his lips before he vanished between the hills.
Perhaps it was better this way. Vilkas’ inquiring gaze showed his suspiciousness.
“That’s the madman who’d rather sing for foxes and butterflies than to get a proper audience in an inn. Where do you know him from?”
I wouldn’t give away Athis’ secret. “Not your business, Vilkas.” I turned to Farkas. “And yours neither, so don’t even ask.”
“But you can’t just invite some stranger with questionable reputation to our camp.”
“Oh yes, I can. You’ve seen how I can.”
The sudden tension in the air was palpable. Of course I didn’t really know this bard. Yes, to invite him was spontaneous and perhaps too rash. But Vilkas was by all means the last to tell me not to listen to my guts when I felt like it.
“He’s no stranger, Vilkas. You know how long I know him already,” Farkas said in an effort to ease the mood.
“How do you know him?” I asked.
A gentle smile played around his lips. “I met him the first time when he was only a pup on his way to the college in Solitude.”
“A pup?” I couldn’t imagine Talsgar as a young man. He had something ancient and ageless at the time about him. I looked at him with wide eyes. “But that would mean…”
“Yeah. I was seven and out on my first job with Jergen. We saved him from some bandits.”
Vilkas pressed his lips into a firm line, but he let it go. For now.
But when I came back from my search for firewood, I couldn’t avoid to hear the twins argue. Not that they really tried to keep quiet. I dropped into a crouch and eavesdropped shamelessly.
“It’s a singing mage, Farkas! He isn’t trustworthy! How can you defend her when she invites shabby strangers to our fire and brings us all into danger?”
“That guy is no danger and you know it. And if he’s trustworthy or not is not yours to decide. She’ll have her reasons.”
“Aye, and don’t you think it’s suspicious that even you don’t know her reasons? Who knows what history they have!”
Farkas’ voice was dangerously low. “You don’t wanna go there, Vilkas, be careful. I know her history with you, and still you’re here. Better hold your tongue.”
The sudden flash that went over his face didn’t stop him to argue. “You’re naïve, brother. Always have been, always will be. Be as gullible as you want… if he shows up tonight I’ll have my eyes on him.”
I entered the clearing. “Do that, Vilkas. I’m sure we’ll all feel much safer when you watch over us. Oh, and I don’t have a history with Talsgar. I only met him once.”
He bared his teeth at me in an angry snarl. Seemed he had to relearn what it meant to be amongst pack. I dropped my armful of wood in the middle of the camp and poked him in the chest.
“Relax. And stop fighting your brother just because he thinks I know what I’m doing.”
He didn’t like to be touched, and he it liked even less by me, even if it was just an index to the breastplate. A shiver ran through him, but then he pulled himself together, and a lopsided smirk appeared in his uptight features.
“Or what? You’re gonna send me to bed without dinner?”
I shot him a grin over my shoulder as I started the fire. “Don’t give me ideas.”
Somehow, the tension had dissolved.
Talsgar approached our camp with enough noise to make himself known from miles away, but Vilkas still thought it appropriate to greet him with his hand on the hilt of his sword. But the bard seemingly ignored the gesture and Vilkas’ scowl and took the place I offered him beside me with a grateful smile. Farkas shovelled without any ado the remains of our stew into a bowl and handed it to him.
He nodded thankfully, then looked expectantly in the round. “And with whom do I have the pleasure?”
And I remembered. He didn’t even know my name. Athis didn’t tell him who I was, I never told him either, and then I chased him away. I blushed furiously.
“You know Farkas already, and this is his brother Vilkas,” I gestured over to him. “And my name’s Qhourian.”
Farkas looked perplexed, his eyes narrowing. “I thought you’ve met before?”
“Oh, we have, we have. We just haven’t been introduced properly,” the bard admitted cheerfully. I didn’t miss the meaningful glance Vilkas gave his brother, and I couldn’t blame him. This had to look weird.
Talsgar did the same he had done when he came to my camp: he made himself comfortable, in his friendly, natural, slightly disturbing way. I was sure that he was by no means oblivious to the reactions of the twins – Farkas friendly and curious, Vilkas’ suspicion only poorly hidden – and just as he didn’t bother about my reaction back then, he didn’t bother now. Or he was certain to be able to scatter this suspiciousness… after all, he had broken even through my walls.
It was silent while he ate with relish and we watched him quietly, but somehow it wasn’t an awkward silence. Even Vilkas’ scowl had lost a bit of its harshness, and the way he sat by the fire, his long legs stretched towards the flames and braced on his arms behind his back, he looked nearly content. I leant against Farkas’ shoulder, his arm loosely slung around my waist.
If it took this stranger to make us relax like this in each other’s company, it had been a good idea to invite him.
Finally Talsgar had emptied his bowl and put it down with a content groan. “That was truly delicious,” he bowed his head slightly, “thank you, friends. And thank you for the invitation. A night in warmth and safety is a gift that is very much appreciated.”
I handed him a bottle of ale. “Will you play something for us? Please?” But he rejected the drink with a gentle smile.
“I just need some water,” he said and took a small kettle and a leather pouch out of his pack. It contained dry herbs, and the brew he made smelled the same as the one he had served me that morning.
“Nothing better to make a bright day even brighter. Or to light up a dark night,” he said and sipped at his tankard, his lute already resting in his lap. His eyes searched mine over the brim. “I can sing you a song, of course. Or we can sing together. Or I can tell you a story.” He tilted his head, and his gaze wandered expectantly from face to face.
His fingers flitted over the strings, in a lazy, natural motion, and the soft tune he elicited from the instrument didn’t disturb the silence at all. It was the silence of the night, with all the small noises and scents that came with it, enhanced by the darkness. His play fit right in.
“A story. Please.” It was Vilkas who spoke.
“A tale it is then.” He never stopped playing, the sound soothing like a caress as he gathered his thoughts.
“I will tell you a tale that originates from here… from the Reach. It’s the history of the Reachmen, how they lost their freedom and their land. And it’s the legend of a hero and a prophecy, of an unholy pact and betrayal, the search for power and the price that is to pay.”
He let the words sink in for a moment. They struck a chord in each of us… familiar on a level that was far more personal than mere interest in a thrilling story. I was sure he could feel the anticipation they had evoked when he started to speak.
“The Empire was young and called the Alessian and the Reach was still a free land when these events took place, its people a proud folk, different in their habits, language and beliefs from all the races around them. But they were cornered from all sides and were distrustful against everyone, even against their own brethren. Many small kingdoms warred here against each other, and only their sages had the power to unite them through forecast and prophecy in hours of great need.
“One day a boy was born in the Sundered Hills, in the heart of the land, and he received the name of the eagle circling around the peaks of the mountains and the blood flowing down the steeps of the hills. Faolan, Red Eagle he was called, and the Augurs looked at the stars and tied his name to his destiny: to be a warrior without peers, to be the one to unite his people and to bring freedom and peace.
“And a warrior he became, the greatest of them all, true to his fate. He vanquished rivals and opponents and rose to leadership, became strong in a time of need for his land. The Empress of the South was lusting after the rich realms of the North. Broaden her influence, unite the peoples under her banner – and get access to the treasures beyond her borders, that was what she wanted. The Reach was as barren then as it is today, but its mines laden with silver, iron and gems were highly coveted – as they still are.
“One by one the Kings of the Reach fell to the Empress’ forces, either to their knees or into their grave. Only Faolan, young but powerful, was not willing to yield. He stood proud and strong against the invaders, refused their bargains and sent back their bribes, stout to fight and die for his people’s freedom rather than to surrender to their twisted promises. But he was too young and too proud and too rash, loath to listen to the advice of his counsellors, and in the end he was deceived not by his foes but by those he trusted, by the weak-hearted who chose a life under a foreign tyranny over their own ways and the war that was inevitable.
“The Augurs and Sages, those who had forecast his fate and made him the man he was, they abandoned him now and with him the fate of their people. The Red Eagle was defrauded of his land, his power and his very name.
“He was betrayed, but he was not broken. A prophecy once spoken cannot be abjured, a destiny can only be formed, but not be rewritten. Faolan gathered those who were true to him and went into hiding, claiming the caves and crevices of the land as his kingdom. He became the untamed spirit of the Reach, hurling revenge at Imperials and traitors alike, and his followers grew in numbers, hope and strength under the Alessian oppression.”
Talsgar’s voice was soft and low, and his fingers treated the strings as if they had a life of their own. He spoke slowly, completely withdrawn into himself, his gaze lowered to the body of his instrument. Not once did he look up to search for our reaction, so different from the bards I knew from the cities. So different from Mikael who was always in touch with his audience, who craved for every small sign of appraisal as if he needed it like the air to breathe.
The bard became a weaver of sounds, tunes and words wound together into something more. Something to get lost in.
Talsgar had paused, only his lute playing a soft interlude that kept the suspense in the air. His story was not finished, but he took his time, gave us opportunity to free ourselves from the spell he had woven around us. I used the break to kindle the fire and feed it with some more dry twigs while Farkas refilled our mugs. He only continued when he was sure our attention was back on him.
“Faolan and his followers lived with and from the land, never forgotten, the prophecy living as well as the legend he had once been. They were fierce, and they wreaked terror over the Empire and the traitors amongst their own, but they were only few and without the means to start a real war. For every Imperial soldier they wiped out, two more moved up to take their place.
“It was a dark, wet and cold night when the second betrayal took its course, the sky over the Reach choked by clouds. The war had taken its toll, and even Faolan’s most faithful followers fell victim to doubt in nights like these. Damp, frozen hopelessness ground its way into their hearts when the scouts came and gave account of fortified garrisons full of men and their steel, full of food, ale and whores, without doubt about their victory and of their right to be here.
“In such a night a stranger was caught near Red Eagle’s camp, a huddled, shambling figure, cloaked in rags and face hidden under a cowl. Intruders were put to death, such was the rule to prevent deceit and discovery, and the Red Eagle himself came to witness the execution. Only when the stranger already knelt in front of a blade ready to strike, she raised her voice and asked – no, demanded – to be allowed to speak to the righteous king of the land. It wasn’t human, this voice, screeching and alluring, sated with the power of the wilds.
“Faolan stood and watched, contemplating the insolent request, his men waiting for the sign to carry out his order. And then he beckoned to release the stranger and led her to shelter, guided by curiosity and a dark foreboding.
“Only when they were alone, she revealed her nature. Not human. Not at all, not any more. A witch she was, an abomination fused of woman and creature, a spirit of the wild, venerable and terrifying. A Hagraven, corrupted, evil… and powerful in the ways of dark, ancient magic.
“‘You need the strength of the land,’ she spoke to him. ‘Only the land itself can erase the taint of the strangers. I can give this strength to you. I will give it to you, for a price.’
“A pact was made, a contract sealed, and Faolan didn’t haggle. He surrendered to the offer and gave what deemed necessary: he gave his heart, his soul, his humanity. But he sold a soul that was not his alone, bound by fate and prophecy. He was deceived into power, and with himself, he sold the heart and the soul of his people.”
Talsgar made us hear more than just his words. He wove his spell of words and melodies, and we heard the noise of the fights and the screams of dying men, felt the despair around the shattered, lonely fires and the fury hidden in the damp caves scattered throughout the landscape around us. And we smelled the stench of witchcraft, listened to the screech of a raven and the subtle, deceiving promise it carried.
The Circle knew them, these subtle promises of power and that the price was always higher than anticipated. Nobody knew it better than we. A suppressed groan erupted from Vilkas’ throat.
I didn’t know to what extend Talsgar was aware what effect his tale had on us, but he built up the tension so subtle and smart that I was sure he wasn’t as withdrawn as he looked. He was cunning… drawing us in, ensnaring us in his story. Did he know what it meant to us? Did he know what we were? Or did he just choose it because it fit the setting? I didn’t know.
“But the witch stood by her promise, and his band of ragged, desperate fighters grew into an army no one could stand against. Not the thriving garrisons, not the traitorous leaders of the Reach. He spilled blood until the Karth turned red, and after two winters his home was free again, ruled by a king whose eyes burned cold like obsidian with a will not entirely his own. He had become one with the land, eternally hurting from the thorns that covered his heart. He was the briar that sheltered his people from the outside world.
“The Reach was free, but the peace he had paid so dearly for was short and treacherous. The Empress’ generals came with an army unheard of, the land itself surrendering to their supremacy. They conquered and vanquished and finally laid siege to Faolan’s fortress in the Sundered Hills until he came forth himself for the last battle. He wore nothing but his rage and his flaming sword, and a thousand men fell to his fury before the day ended.
“But in the end, when night fell, so did he. And his mind was clear once more, and he saw what he had done – sold himself for a treacherous power, given his life, his soul and his dream, and by surrendering to the ancient witchery he had not only condemned himself, but all of his people. All of his land.
“The oath he spoke with his last breath, to come back and lead them again once the Reach was free, it was the last betrayal. With this oath he claimed to be what he had given away: the heart and soul of his people, and he condemned his people to fulfil the destiny he had abandoned.”
I felt Farkas’ grip tense around me, barely noticeable but proof of his rapt attention, and it made me look up. Vilkas sat curled up into a ball, hands folded around his shins, forehead resting on his knees. His shoulders were twitching.
Talsgar had stopped to play, his hands lying flat on the corpus of his lute. His voice was so quiet now, I had to concentrate to hear him.
“They fight until today. Until today, they sacrifice their own to the dark magic of the land, make them the thornhedge they hope to find freedom and peace behind. They are trapped… in their old ways, in a prophecy that still has to come true and in an oath that still has to be fulfilled. They still hope that one day the price will be paid and the promise will be delivered. They fight for the freedom of their people, their land and their souls, and they will fight until the world ends or the dead rise to lead them again. Until eternity, if they have to.”
It was quiet as if the night itself held its breath and didn’t dare to make a sound when Talsgar had finished. It was broken by a desperate shout and a dark shadow. Vilkas was like a flash as he leaped up and over the fire, shoved the bard to his back and pressed him to the ground. He hovered above him, his hands dangerously close to his throat.
“Lies!” he roared, “not for eternity!”
Farkas and I yelled in unison, but I was faster, grabbed his shoulders and hurled him away from the bard. But he didn’t struggle, let go without resistance and slumped together at my feet. For a moment, we were all like frozen. And then he shook off my hands, frenzied hurt and guilt in his face, scrambled to his feet and darted off into the darkness.
Farkas ran after him, reaching into his neck and drawing his shirt over his head, letting it fall where he was.
I waited for the howl that always broke free with the change, and it came, twofold. The bard regarded me with calm, gentle eyes when I dropped beside him to my knees. He didn’t flinch when I touched his shoulder with my fingertips.
“I’m sorry, Talsgar. So sorry. That shouldn’t have happened…”
He looked… mostly curious. “What exactly happened?” The question baffled me.
“He tried to hurt you?”
The bard seemed to contemplate my answer, his fingers drumming a light rhythm on the corpus of his lute. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
“Why did you tell us this story?”
His smile was gentle. “I’m not sure. I’m never sure why I choose something. Just go with my guts, and when I saw you three… I thought it had a meaning to you.”
“You’re a wise man, Talsgar.” I hesitated. “You wanna leave? I’d understand if you don’t want to stay… here, tonight, with us, I mean… I could bring you back to the road. At least.” My blush only deepened when the man chuckled lowly.
“No, girl, don’t worry. I’m quite comfortable here. And it would be rude to leave a lady alone here in the middle of nowhere.” He grinned, a sympathetic grin considering how we had met first – alone in my camp in the middle of nowhere. “I’ll stay at least until your men are back.”
“They’re not my men!”
“No, of course they’re not,” he chortled.
The small kettle still stood by his side, and now he filled it with fresh water and set it into the glowing coals. Soon the invigorating scent of his mysterious brew drafted from the tankard. “You want some?” he offered, and I took it gladly. The hot beverage warmed my cold fingers and calmed my mind.
I had the feeling I had to explain myself. The incident and why Vilkas had reacted so frenzied. But I couldn’t, of course. I still pondered what to say without saying too much when his next remark started me up.
“You have experience with betrayal. All of you.”
I stared at him. Gods, this man was far too clever for his own good. Or he had seen far too much in his life.
“Yes, we have. The three of us… personally. And… in a more general sense.”
“I see.” He sipped on his tankard, making soft slurping noises when the hot brew burnt his tongue.
“Talsgar?” His friendly eyes looked at me without pressure. They had not once lost their gentleness during the last hours. “I know that Athis sent you to me, last time we met. And… I’m sorry I destroyed your lute. And nearly slit your throat. It seems you’re in danger every time we meet.”
The laughlines around his eyes crinkled in open amusement. “Aye,” he chuckled, “that mer… he knows that one day, curiosity will kill the bard.” He refilled his tankard with slow, careful motions. “You wouldn’t have killed me, girl. You were desperate and lonely, but you never would’ve killed someone who came to you in peace. Even if you didn’t understand it.” He took another sip, and his next words were casual. “Your Vilkas here, he’s desperate and lonely too.”
This man was far too clever for his own good.
A noise at the edge of the clearing indicated someone coming back, not caring to be silent. It was Farkas, he was alone, and the excitement of the change was drowned out by anger, sadness and disappointment radiating from him in waves as he pulled his discarded shirt back on. When I went to meet him and pulled him into my arms, tried to get over the tension in his muscles, he buried his face in my neck with a heavy breath.
“It will be fine,” I said, stroking the back of his head. “We will be fine.”
He sighed deeply. “He’s such a fool,” he whispered.
“Where is he?”
“Needs to calm down. Alone. He will come back.”
Farkas took the first watch, and despite the excitement I felt tiredness defeat my body as soon as I crept into the bedroll. The low mumbling of the men outside of the tent lured me into sleep, and I smiled when my eyes closed. It would do him good to speak with the bard. He had an astonishing effect on people… and he was an outsider who knew nothing about us.
To be ripped out of sleep in the middle of the night was as terrible an experience as always, and Farkas knew better than to force me into a conversation consisting of more than a few annoyed grunts when he had to wake me. Instead he waited patiently until I had brought myself to creep out of my cosy nest and get back into my armour before he settled into the tent. He usually used my bedroll in these situations, and I envied him deeply for the warmth I had left him behind.
But once I was properly awake, I loved these quiet hours of the night when I watched over the safety of us all. It was one of the few opportunities to be alone, and I didn’t need much sleep anyway. It was rare that anything happened at all during these hours, and if a pack of wolves or another animal became too curious, my senses were always alert enough to warn me early, even if my thoughts were elsewhere. That we were attacked was even rarer. The wildlife sensed the beasts in us and stayed away, and humans finding us accidentally in the depth of night… well, those were either drunk or suicidal.
And so I sat with the lowly glowing embers of the fire warm in my back, Dragonbane on my knees, and listened to the sounds of the night. The hoot of an owl, rustling under dry leaves, the noise of pebbles rolling down a slope where goats made their way over unclimbable heights, the thrumming hooves of a herd of deer, the distant roar of a predator. And the breathing or light snoring of the men under my watch who trusted me enough to delve into their dreams, Farkas in our tent, Talsgar curled up under some furs near the fire.
Watching him brought a smile to my face. What a strange man. He seemed so dupable… trusting and helpless, but I knew he was neither. When we met, he stood between corpses he had killed himself. But now he slept peacefully, here in our camp where he had been attacked only hours ago, and he had not once shown any fear. Quite the contrary, really… He always looked content, absolutely happy with where he was and what he did. I wondered if he had family or close friends somewhere, people who waited for him to come home, people he missed during his travels. People who were close enough to drive him mad. I had to smile at the thought. A bit of madness was a small price for a place to come back to.
Not even Vilkas’ return could disturb me. He came back silently and settled on a log in my back, staring into the coals with his elbows on his knees and his chin propped into his palms. He didn’t move and ignored me completely, but I could sense that he had calmed down.
Only when I heard the soft clinks of glass against glass, I turned around to see what he was doing. He had placed his pack between his feet and was sorting out all the potions, salves and bandages he was carrying.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, not wanting to disturb the sleeping men.
He lifted his gaze to me, calm and collected. “You need them more than I.”
I narrowed my eyes in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll go back to Skyhaven.” He held my gaze. “I’m sorry I ruined this for you. But I don’t think it will work.”
He was pathetic. “You give up so easily?” I snapped, “run away before we’ve even reached Morthal? Not worth much, that promise you made.”
He clenched his teeth. “I wanted to kill him, Qhourian.”
“Yeah. And two days ago I wanted to kill you. But I didn’t, and now we’re both here.” I shook my head. “What we want and what we do is not the same, Vilkas. What we want is only important in here.” I tipped at my temple. “But what really counts is what we do. And tonight, you only made a fool of yourself. Talsgar is fine, no harm done.”
His hands were clenched into a tangled piece of cotton strip. “That’s what you think?” His voice was shallow.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I think you’re an enormous jerk.” I pointed behind me. “There’s room in the tent. Go cuddle with your brother and get some rest.”
He tidied up the mess he had made without a further word. Farkas grunted annoyed when he crawled beside him, but soon I heard nothing around me but threefold deep breathing. I wondered why he complied so easily to what I told him to do, but I was glad to have my peace again.
These hours of quiet were the hours when I did a lot of thinking, the fateful habit Farkas wanted me to get rid of. Rags of conversations paced through my mind, evoked by Talsgar’s presence and the events of the evening.
“You’re so much alike, it’s scary.”
“Your Vilkas here, he’s desperate and lonely too.”
“He can’t bear it, you know? Not to be in control. To be helpless.”
“We are closer than others, closer than mere siblings, friends or even lovers.”
“He’s my little brother.”
“I have to start with you, and I need your help.”
This evening had opened my eyes to something I should have realised much earlier. Vilkas – cruel, violent, cold and calculating Vilkas – was by far the most vulnerable of us three.
Farkas’ and my relationship was built on everything that we had shared, that we knew each other inside out. There were no secrets, nothing that we could hide from each other, no matter how dark, cruel or painful.
And to a lesser regard, I shared something similar with Aela and even Kodlak. I knew about Aela’s struggle for balance and her fanatic, irrational hatred of the Silver Hand as well as Kodlak’s fears regarding his afterlife, so deep and urgent that he sometimes forgot that he was still alive.
And they knew me just as well, every single one of my weak spots, and it had never bothered me. We had built the foundation of knowledge and trust for this inescapable bond the blood formed between us long before I had joined them.
Vilkas and I shared the blood, but we lacked the foundation. We had never had opportunity to build it. The relationship between us had always been determined by power and control. He had been so much stronger than me – physically and in regards to his skill, his knowledge and his rank. I had never questioned his superiority.
But power and control didn’t work any more, and I understood why he had such a hard time to deal with this change. I had the safety and the support of my husband and the others. He didn’t. He was a part of the pack, and at the same time he was an outcast.
And as an outcast with nothing to rely on, he was dangerous, prone to lash out against everyone who threatened to discover his weaknesses. Tonight, it had been Talsgar.
If I wanted this journey with Vilkas to work, we’d have to work on the foundation. We’d have to get to know each other, and we’d have to learn to trust and honesty.
But I had told him I wanted to try and start something new, and he had asked to give him this chance. We would have to try. Yes, this was gonna be a long, exhausting, difficult and dangerous journey.
Talsgar got up long before sunrise, going from deeply asleep to wide awake in only a blink of an eye. He had his stuff packed in a matter of minutes, his instrument again wrapped neatly into its cloth, but then he settled beside me on my log and filled my mug with another of his brews. He seemed to produce and drink this beverage in enormous amounts.
“Thanks for your company, Talsgar.”
He looked nearly apologetic. “I’m sorry I disturbed your peace. Give the men my greetings, will you?”
I smiled at him. “It should be me who apologises. But perhaps… it was good that it happened tonight. I hope we’ll meet again, one day, under luckier stars.”
He tilted his head into his neck and looked up into the clouded sky.
“Yes, perhaps. You know…” he chuckled lowly, “your tale will be an interesting one, Dragonborn. It would be an honour and a pleasure to tell it.”
He stood up and was gone before I could answer, vanished into the darkness.
“Kynareth guide you,” I whispered after him.
A/N: The tale how 7-year-old Farkas once saved Talsgar from bandits is told in my story “The Letter”.