“You’re still here.”
He looked up hesitantly, then nodded at the platter placed on the finely chiselled sidetable beside my bed. I couldn’t help it, but the apple and the strip of dried venison looked as if they had been arranged.
“At least eat something before you run off again.”
“Will you be gone when I come back?”
He mustn’t think he could win this duel, not if stubbornness was the weapon of choice. And I could look at least as deadpan as he. I stood up and started to pack my knapsack with every single piece of equipment that seemed only remotely useful. And everything edible I could find.
I’d have to go on anyway sooner or later. Time to find a new place to set up camp.
I brought my supplies into the abandoned abode I had dispatched of its former inhabitants the day before. It wasn’t as cosy as the little hut, and it was probably not as safe – but it would do, for a couple of nights. Or however I should call my sleeping periods down here.
After the hideous work to pile up all the corpses in a single room, I really needed a bath. Time to look for that mysterious waterfall and find out what lay behind it.
This time I followed the cave wall in the other direction, turned right from the exit to Alftand. The gushing of water soon became louder, and there were much less buildings in this area of Blackreach and also less of the glowing mushrooms, more shadows than light around me. I knew I was right when a spray of humidity hit my face after I crawled over a narrow ledge – before me lay a small lake, the water shimmering cyan and opaque in the unearthly glow, filled by a stream falling down from an opening in the cave wall high above its surface, the effluent another fall deep into an abyss of foam and sharp rocks.
Perhaps I should persuade Vilkas to take a bath with me. He liked to live on edges, after all.
I didn’t have to convince him, though. As I stood naked under the lukewarm shower of the falling water and rinsed blood, dirt and various kinds of indescribable gore from my skin, his head surfaced suddenly behind the foamy curtain of spraying water, gasping for breath. He had found the pond before me.
We stared at each other, and I felt a small knot of dread build in my stomach, hearing nothing but the water gushing down around me and my own heavy breathing.
Until I realised that his face had darkened into the colour of the crimson leaves he held pressed against his chest like a bouquet, and until I sensed the waves of alarm and bewilderment leaking out from him. He was much more surprised than I. And he wasn’t only embarrassed – he was terrified.
“Nothing you haven’t seen before, Vilkas.” My grin was mirthless.
The strange plants fell from his hands, he opened his mouth once, twice, and I saw his throat move, but nothing came out of it. Or perhaps it did, and I just didn’t hear it, my brain fully stretched to comprehend what I saw.
The base of his neck, the hollow between his collarbones… it was a mess of scars, torn skin and crumpled tissue. I had never seen it before, always hidden behind armour or fabric, but I knew at once what it was. Only the fangs of a beast could leave such wounds. These scars were my mark on him.
I stared at him, at his throat, wide eyed, hearing nothing but my own heartbeat until he dove away with a sudden movement and vanished from my sight.
We had marked each other, severely and permanently. And sometimes, stubbornness just for the sake of stubbornness was more destructive than anything else. Sitting at the edge of the lake, I didn’t have to wait long for him to appear and settle beside me.
“You ogled,” I said with a small grin.
“No,” he answered straightfaced, “I watched out for you. There are chaurus on the other side.”
I turned to him, drew my knees to my chest. “I wanna make a deal. You stop hitting me, and I stop shouting at you.”
“Why?” There it was, the cautious smirk, the small challenge he couldn’t resist. Whoever made the first step lost the game. Just that this wasn’t a game any more, and perhaps it was time to start a new one.
“I need my strength for more important things than to fight you.”
“Will you stop healing me?”
“No. It’s just a friggin’ restoration spell, get over with it.”
He swallowed. “At least those magicka potions won’t go to waste.”
“If you get injured so badly that I need them, you’re doing it wrong anyway.” A grin flashed up, in both our faces, but we hid it before it could evolve into laughter.
We sat in silence for a while, but it was an almost comfortable silence. Almost. Now I also heard the clicking of chitinous pincers in the distance. He really watched out for me.
“Why are you still here, Vilkas?”
His face was emotionless again.
“I made a promise to keep you safe.”
“You’ve broken promises before. And I sent you away.”
“This is one I’m gonna keep. I made it to you, and you’re the last one who’s gonna make me break it.”
“And what did you promise your brother?”
“Farkas? Nothing. He wanted me to. But… I told him it wasn’t necessary.” His gaze was piercing. “You’re more than just my brother’s spouse, Qhourian. I’m not here because he wants me to. And now you owe me a question.”
I braced myself. “Okay.”
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
“You want the short or the long, complicated version?”
“Both. The short one first.”
“There’s none.” My grin was twisted. I felt as if I talked to myself, or to a mirror image. It wasn’t important if we hurt each other with the things we’d say – only now, only once and never again. More important was that they were finally voiced and put into words, something we both could try to understand.
“You’ve no idea how often I’ve asked myself that question. And if I had met you before Falkreath, I would have killed you without a second thought.”
“But then you didn’t. When you could have, you didn’t.”
“You suffered so beautifully, it would have been a waste. To see you with the ring… it was glorious. I watched you for hours, and everything I ever wanted to do to you didn’t even come close to that. When I left the prison, I wanted to leave you there and never look back.” I watched him curiously, waited for a reaction, but his features didn’t even twitch.
“And again you didn’t.”
“Farkas was there. He had followed me, unasked, and… it made things complicated. It would have killed him if I had let you die. It was your brother who saved you, Vilkas. His love for you, and my love for him. Never forget that. Without him, you’d be long dead.”
“Did you ever regret it? That you took the ring?”
I propped my chin on the arm that lay on my knees, my voice quiet and calm. “That I took the ring and played Hircine’s game that made me part of the pack? No. Never. That I took the ring from you? Yes. Every time you made me wanna kill you. And even more every time I fought with Farkas and we failed each other because of you. But he was always there, he never allowed me to run away, and we went through all this together. Farkas and his godsdamned trust.”
“He trusted me?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. He trusted me. He knew what I didn’t want to see: that your death wouldn’t solve anything. He always believed in me, that I’d find a way to deal with you that would be more than just avoidance and suppression. And I always knew that he would be there when I did. His only weapon against… all this. My hate, and my self-pity, and my own cowardice.”
“He isn’t here now.”
“He has taught me enough to leave me alone with you.” I gave him a small smirk. He didn’t return it.
“You could have forced him to choose. He would have chosen you.”
“It would have hurt him.”
“I didn’t care what it would mean for him when I tried the same.”
This was it. Now we were at the point where I could – where I had to ask the question. He wouldn’t hedge it. Perhaps he wanted to get it out as much as I. Explain and understand, and then see what would happen.
“I want to know why you did it.” I was proud how firm I uttered the question.
His voice was flat. “It was how to hurt you most. I wanted to break you.”
“You want the short or the long, complicated version?”
“I want the truth. Nothing with you is short and uncomplicated.”
“And with you neither.”
He became quiet, his gaze fixed on the opaque, glittering surface of the lake.
He winced, only a small jerk of his shoulders, and turned further away. For a moment, I expected him to jump up and run.
“You were just a whore,” he said finally, his voice low. “A weakling and a stray. But you held all this power, and they betrayed me for you.”
“Who betrayed you?”
“All of them. Farkas and Kodlak, the Circle, the whelps. And my own beast.”
I wanted to object, declare him insane – but I held back. He believed what he said. Or, at least, he had once believed it. I wanted to know his truth, and no one but he could tell me.
When I didn’t react, he shifted and searched my eyes.
“You usurped the Companions.” He shook his head, his lips twitching when he saw my aghast expression. “You changed us, from one day to the next. I had tried so long to make us what we ought to be, to claim the respect we deserved and to change what we were – glorified sellswords and doomed beasts. And then you came, and suddenly we had a new purpose. The dragonslayers of Skyrim. Famed, respected and honoured, with the Dragonborn in our midst – and nothing more than your tools. When you called, everything else had to stand back.”
He watched me expectantly, as if he waited for me to defend myself. I remembered how incredibly thankful I had been for the support of the Companions, back then when I had no idea what was waiting for me. For their sheer enthusiasm that made everything look so much easier. Vilkas had not once joined me as I worked through the Greybeard’s map. I never thought about it, there were enough of them that were eager to do so.
When I remained quiet, he spoke on.
“But you weren’t only Dragonborn, you were also part of the pack. Dustman’s Cairn and everything afterwards – it shouldn’t have happened. You knew too much, and what happened between you and Farkas… it was wrong.”
“Nothing happened between us, Vilkas. You know that.”
“Of course it did. You never let anyone come as close as my brother. Not even Aela or Athis. His wolf approved you, and the Circle was okay with it. As if you belonged to us. Aela and Skjor were ecstatic. They thought about offering you the blood, even back then.”
“If they had asked, I would have declined.”
“Would you now?” He shrugged. “They only didn’t because Farkas made them promise not to. He didn’t want to draw you into this mess that we were. But he pledged his life to you. I told him not to be silly, that it was just the curse of Hircine’s magic, that he couldn’t align his life to you just because his beast told him to. But he didn’t listen. Said there was more, that you needed him and that he owed you, that he had fallen in love and that he’d never tell you.”
He mirrored my position now, knees drawn to his chest and his arms clenched around his shins. We both sat curled together, as if we had to protect ourselves, but we also faced each other.
“It was something only between him and me, Vilkas. We would have worked it out if you had let us. We did work it out when we finally could. It was hard and took a long time… but we did, and there was nothing magical about it. Just he and I, no Hircine involved. Your brother has a right to fall in love.”
“Of course he has. Of course I wanted to see him happy. But not with you. Not with someone who’d never return what he had to offer, not with a spoiled brat that only used him, exploited his strength and his kindness and would dump him when he wasn’t useful any more.”
“You really believed that?”
“Well, you did, didn’t you? When you came back from the Greybeards. And after he dumped his daughters to go with you to Labyrinthian. You were so full of yourself, and still he was full of understanding.”
I blushed and hoped he wouldn’t see it in the eerie light. After the fight against Nahfahlaar I had been an ass, and still he had been there when I needed him again. “You were afraid for him.”
“Yes, that too. I didn’t want him to throw his life away. But he refused to listen. Instead he broke his promise for you and left me alone with my beast, and the Circle was okay with that too. Even Kodlak told him he has to make his own decisions.”
“Before, he did what you told him.”
“Perhaps. He always fared well with it. But now he started to ask questions we had long answered – for Morthal, for his beast, for his future. With you, he found new answers that didn’t include me.”
“He didn’t want this, you know? It hurt him that you didn’t want to understand him. I can’t believe you trusted him so little. That all this boils down to him.”
“It doesn’t.” He clenched his teeth. “He betrayed me and I hated him for it, but in the end, I would have lived with his choices, no matter how irrational they were. What I couldn’t live with was that you had ensnared them all. Not only him, but Kodlak and the Circle, the whelps – and my own beast.”
“I had no dealings with your beast.”
“You have no idea.” He snorted a bitter laughter. “We’re close, Qhourian. We’re twins and pack-brothers. Farkas chose you – as his mate, as his partner, as the woman he wanted to spend his life with. Call it as you will, but you made him happy – even back then. Happy and desperate, and we all knew that it was ultimate. When something like that happens… you really think it lets the other unfazed?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that my wolf approved his brother’s choice. He accepted you into the pack. Without reserve. It was one more reason to fight him – and one more fight I lost.”
He took a deep breath, taking in my stunned expression, and spoke on, his voice blank and merciless. He laid himself bare to me, and he didn’t care any more how I’d react. “Before he sent us off, Kodlak deprived me of my positions. I wasn’t Master-of-Arms and his successor any more when we left for that job, and it was your fault. He wanted me to prove myself. And during that fight, when you got injured and I could smell your blood and your pain, my wolf nearly won. He wanted to protect you. But I couldn’t let him, I had to prove that I was stronger, I couldn’t lose against an instinct. It was your fault that I was too distracted to notice that that guy wasn’t dead yet. And then you saved me at the expense of the child. It was only the last straw. You were so weak, you were the reason why we failed, but you still had the power to decide who lived and who died.”
“I always thought… that you lost control. That it was more your wolf than you.”
He bared his teeth in a snarl full of self-loathing. “No. I won. I broke you both. You should know by now that no beast would ever be so cruel.” He jerked his head away, stared over the lake. His next words were barely audible. “He only took over when I realised that winning was worthless.”
Everything he had told me… it didn’t evoke the revulsion and anger it would have evoked only weeks earlier, that I should have felt after this glimpse into the abyss of his mind.
I always thought that Vilkas’ aversion – his hatred, even if it took me far too long to see it as what it was – was something irrational, unfounded and unprovoked. Our relationship had declined over many months, and for me, Farkas’ scrappy explanations were enough to explain his behaviour. I thought he was fickle and sulky and a presumptuous jerk who lashed out against me because he didn’t have his brother all for himself any more, because I had these mysterious powers and because he needed a convenient culprit to blame for his own misery.
It needed his own dry, thorough, nearly analytical explanation to understand what was really going on in that twisted brain of his. He didn’t palliate his reasons, and there was indeed a certain bizarre logic behind his accusations. He really fought against and felt abandoned by everyone that was important to him, and according to this logic, his attempt to get rid of me was the only way to save himself.
But the way he had answered my question also told me something else. He had laid his soul bare before me, all the fights he fought, all the mistakes he made, but it was neither justification nor an apology or a plea for judgement. We had long gotten beyond all this, had broken the vicious circles that held us in their grip – his of blame and violence, mine of self-blame and cowardice. We could take these unsentimental peeks into our abysses only because we had managed to crawl out of them. Back then, he would have never been able to give an account like the one he had presented me now. It told me that it had gone at least as far as I.
All that was left now was to come to terms with each other.
The silence between us built, but the cave around us seemed strangely alive, reminding me of the here and now. The chaurus clicked in the distance, the moist air smelled of mould, wet soil and the metallic tang of the minerals in the water, the occasional faint shriek or the rolling of pebbles down a slope revealed the manifold, dangerous life that surrounded us.
“I will not leave you alone here, Qhourian,” he said after a long pause. “You can tell me to leave, and I will… but then you will have to find someone to take my place.” His gaze wandered over the part of the strange, otherworldly panorama we could overlook.
“You gave me a promise.”
“Yes. But I won’t force you to take it. I forced you once too often.” His index painted circles into the lose sand at his feet. “I made it more for me than for you, and I used it to press you. But it’s worthless if you don’t want it. That much I have learned.”
“What else have you learned, Vilkas?”
“A lot. A lot about myself, and I’m not finished yet. A lot about my brother, and I’m sure he has some more surprises up his sleeve. And… I think I learned a bit about you. Not much… you’re still a mystery to me. But at least I know now that I don’t understand you.”
“You’re curious,” I said with an incredulous chuckle.
The hint of a smile tugged at his lips. “I guess I am.”
“You think we can use that? Is it… healthy?”
“Everything is healthier than what we had before.”
Vilkas’ face closed down into a frown when I pushed myself to my feet and climbed the small hill I had crossed on my way here. From the top, I had a marvellous overview over the landscape, even if the eerie lighting distorted distances and perspective. This undertaking we had started was huge. Lots of time to get to know each other. Lots of time to prove ourselves. For the first time I really believed that we could make this work.
I looked back at him. He stared at me, not even trying to hide his nervousness.
“I’ll warn you when I’m gonna heal you, okay?”
His smile flashed up, made his face open and nearly boyish. “Let’s go and find your Scroll.”
“Qhourian? Are you okay?”
Vilkas knelt in front of me, a concerned expression on his face. We had just left another of these tall, impressive buildings that all looked the same after another fruitless search. “You’re as pale as death. What’s the matter?”
I groaned, my head buried in my palms. “It’s nothing. Just a headache. Didn’t sleep well.” I scrambled to my feet and descended the stairs. “Let’s go.”
“Wait.” He reached out, but he didn’t try to hold me back. We never touched each other unless it was inevitable. But now he closed the distance between us, dispatching his gauntlet, and I flinched back from his cool palm on my forehead.
“What are you doing?”
“You’ve a fever,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Bullshit,” I barked, “werewolf, remember? We’re immune to diseases.”
“Yes, immune to infections. Not immune to collapse due to exhaustion. You haven’t really slept for days now, and neither have you eaten reasonably.”
He was right, only the thought of our dreary diet down here made me choke, and I didn’t sleep well. Even worse than usually. Every time I closed my eyes I dreamt of the woods of Falkreath, of a fresh breeze smelling of pines and wet earth and of the moons guiding my hunt. I wondered if his wolf was as restless as mine, down here in the bowels of the earth.
“Sorry,” I lowered my head, didn’t dare to look him in the eyes. “It’s just the stench. These Falmer reek, it makes me sick. A kingdom for a breath of fresh air.” I forced a grin on my face. “And another one for a piece of dried horker instead of dried venison.”
“Should we go back? To Alftand? Take a break, perhaps?”
“Gods, no! Not back, please. We’ve gone so far… surely this blasted tower must be somewhere here, doesn’t it?”
I heard the despair in my voice and read in Vilkas’ expression that it didn’t escape him, but he didn’t argue.
Blackreach had lost its fascination in the meantime… over the days and weeks we had spent down here the initial excitement had receded to a dull weariness, and that I had lost every sense of time drove me mad. The eerie light never changed, no day and night, and although we had found a rhythm of more or less regular sleeping periods, I had the feeling I was trapped in a bubble of timelessness. Nothing ever changed, nothing would ever change. No wonder the Falmer – and probably the Dwemer too – had gone mad. People weren’t made for this kind of life.
But despite the enervating tediousness we searched thoroughly through every building that resembled only vaguely a tower, fought our way through hordes of Falmer and their pet bugs, just to leave empty-handed every single friggin’ time. If only Septimus’ directions had been a bit less vague. We had also given up on keeping semi-permanent camps. When our supplies dwindled and our packs became lighter, we just carried all our stuff with us and slept where we were when we both were too tired to go on.
The only distraction was Vilkas’ search for those strange plants, a variety of the nirnroots we knew from the upper world, just that they emitted a strange, crimson glow and only grew down here. They had been the reason why the deceased alchemist I had found at the beginning had come to Blackreach in the first place. Vilkas had taken his journal and gathered these plants now, as if he wanted to take over this research.
That evening, while I still chewed on a stale, dry biscuit and tried to force it down with the mineral, lukewarm water that was all we found here – a kingdom for a taste of fresh, cold, sweet water! – Vilkas spread our map of Skyrim on a large table and marked it with crosses, symbols and lines while skimming through the notes he had taken since the beginning of our journey.
“What are you doing?” I asked curiously, putting the food away. I only ate anyway because I had to, not because I was hungry. The crumbly bar of cereals, nuts, dried berries and honey tasted of nothing, and every bite seemed to grow into a choking lump the longer I chewed it.
He didn’t turn, just looked over his shoulder, his forehead frowned in concentration but with a rare smile on his face.
“I try to find out where we are. If this takes much longer, we will have to find a way out anyway. My enthusiasm for dry venison is waning as well,” he chuckled, but then his eyebrows creased in concern. “You should try to rest, I’ll keep watch.”
He was worried, and it felt weird. “Wake me in a few hours,” I mumbled. As if we knew how long a few hours were. But I also felt safe when I turned to the wall and tried to fall asleep.
We had become familiar with each other in the meantime, perhaps more familiar than ever before. It was inevitable when two people spent days and weeks so close together. Sometimes I even meant to feel a bit of the peace we had made before my initiation, although I still didn’t trust this feeling. That peace had been treacherous as well, nothing more than a brittle truce.
We were still very cautious with each other, especially when it came to personal matters… and nearly everything that connected us – the Companions, his brother, our travels, how we had spent the last months – was a personal matter. Many open wounds, sore and raw, that neither of us wanted to touch carelessly, especially after our outbreak of sincerity at the lake. Perhaps we both sensed that it had started something, that something was in the making that was too fragile to be disturbed by bluntness.
I was grateful for his cautiousness.
But we worked well together. Surprisingly well, I had to admit. Somehow I had expected that once we were used to each other, fighting alongside Vilkas would be similar to Farkas. I couldn’t have been more wrong, their fighting styles were as different as everything else. Farkas was a born protector. He put himself always into the midst of the fight, made himself the centre of the fight to draw the attention of our foes, to keep them away from me and give me room for my own attacks. Vilkas was always ahead of me as well and took the brunt of the onslaught when we had to fight more than one enemy at a time. But his strategy was more to harm them as fast and severe as possible than to prevent that they harmed us. A killer, not a protector.
As a shield-brother, he was much more demanding than Farkas, but he also proved on more than one occasion that I could trust his attentiveness. Fighting with him was fun and effective. I had never seen the twins fight together, not in a serious battle, but now I could imagine that they were indeed an unstoppable, fearsome duo.
Next morning, after another restless night, Vilkas took the lead, rushed ahead into the near darkness of a region that didn’t look as if it contained anything worth exploring.
“Hey,” I yelled after him, “where are you going?”
“Surprise!” He grinned back at me, but he seemed absolutely certain where he was heading. I was too tired to argue, for once glad just to be led and not to have to think on my own. I followed him for hours while he compared his maps over and over again, the one of Skyrim and the crude sketch of Blackreach he had drawn himself. Somehow he seemed to have a sense of direction and of the distance we covered that I lacked entirely. When finally a round pavilion with an iron gate came into view, he nearly ran towards it. It looked exactly like the entrance to the Alftand elevator at the surface, just a bit smaller, a broad metal tube vanishing above it into the cave’s glittering ceiling.
Vilkas turned the lever and stood bowed in the now open door to the room with the big, circular platform.
“After you, M’Lady,” he said with a smile, “welcome to Mzinchaleft.”
Daylight! Fresh air! Drizzling sleet! Low hanging clouds and an icy wind that went through marrow and bone!
It was glorious.
“Vilkas, you’re a bloody genius,” I shrieked when I ran out into the open, shining with happiness, holding my face upwards into the wet snowflakes. He still stood in the narrow dome that concealed the lift on the surface, and… he had the look on his face that he also wore when he dealt with his nieces in Morthal. I didn’t mind. My fatigue was blown away with the first deep breath I took. The sun was already setting, but it didn’t matter… just to know what time of day it was seemed to give me back a good chunk of my mental stability.
Underground we had gone steadily westwards and crossed a good part of the distance back to Morthal, and we came out in the mountains not far from the road we had taken on our way to Alftand. We found a sheltered place between some rocks to make camp, and when we had settled at a small fire, I sighed with relief. And I outright refused the piece of that wretched dried meat we had eaten for weeks now when Vilkas pulled the rations from his pack.
“No. Not tonight.”
He didn’t say a word, but he put it away, didn’t eat it himself either.
“You know what I want, tomorrow in Dawnstar?” I sighed wistfully, not waiting for his answer. “Grilled leeks and baked potatoes. With garlic sauce.” The thought alone watered my mouth.
He chuckled. “Sounds good. But I think I’d prefer… an apple pie.” He closed his eyes and groaned in exaggerated bliss. “Or a sweetroll. You think they have sweetrolls in Dawnstar?”
“You always had a sweet tooth,” I grinned, “both you and Farkas. I wonder what Tilma fed you when you were small.”
“Mmmh. Tilma’s sweetrolls… they’re the best.”
He was relaxed, and he had let his guard down. His face showed a longing that was clearly not only for Tilma’s treats.
“Vilkas?” Halflidded, unreadable eyes looked at me. “She’d be happy to stuff you up with her treats until they grow out of your ears.”
“You think so?”
I nodded. “I’m sure.” A small smile crept into his features.
When the clouds finally broke up and Masser poured his light down on us, I couldn’t and didn’t want to hold back any longer. Vilkas didn’t move, but he watched me closely as I took off my armour until I stood before him, barefooted and clad only in an old undertunic.
“Join me?” My gaze pierced into his. I felt his urge. Smelled his desire to give in and the struggle he fought against the restrictions he had imposed on himself. And I wanted to run with him. When he rose to his knees, his hands already at the buckles of his pauldrons, I gave him a baretoothed grin and darted away into the darkness.
I let her free and she took over with a happy yelp, the heat coiling at the bottom of my spine easing away all the strains and tensions that had built up during the endless days in the glowing darkness. I had missed her, I had missed the feeling of being one with my beast, and the moons guided us on our joyous run through the snow-covered landscape, me and the man-wolf chasing behind. We took on a pair of frost trolls, hunted and fought and fed, each of us with his own prey and nevertheless together. I tore through flesh and bones until I was sated, and then I ran, the pent up energy releasing in a frantic, aimless chase. I tried to wear myself out, tried to wear her out, hunted and killed just for the game and pursued my own shadow.
Until his howl stopped me, the silhouette of the wolf standing proud on top of a hill, his monstrous head thrown back, muzzle and claws pointing to the stars. He waited for my answer, and when he got it he dropped to all fours and stalked towards me, like the predator that he was, slowly gaining speed. Deep, guttural growls came out of his throat, but he didn’t want a hunt. I wasn’t prey.
He wanted… I didn’t know what he wanted, and I made a run for it. But he gave chase, followed my trail close enough to let me sense him near, to hear his panting and smell his scent, and I knew he could have overwhelmed me easily if he wanted. But when the attack came, the tackle from behind that sent me tumbling and rolling down a narrow hill, it came unexpected, and he was over me in an instant. Nearly as large as Farkas he locked me easily under his weight, ignored my thrashing and writhing, but he was careful not to use his claws, careful not to hurt me.
I would not submit, and I wasn’t afraid, ready to run although he used his fangs to keep me down. But his smell was confusing, not hunter, not mate, just… I didn’t know. I couldn’t read him. His teeth didn’t hurt me, pressing in only so hard that I felt them, not even piercing the fur, but he towered over me and held me down with all his weight and his strength, as if he expected me to fight back any moment.
But I didn’t feel the urge to attack him. And when he released me from his bite and stood above me, golden gazes locked in a silent struggle, I lay still and relaxed, let him sniff my neck, nuzzle his snout against mine and lick the troll blood from the side of my face. Until he was suddenly gone again, vanished into the darkness with a fast, powerful leap.
When I returned to our camp, sated and tired, he was already there, curled inside his bedroll into a ball as near to the fire as possible. It wasn’t really the climate to camp outside without a tent, but I’d rather freeze than spend the night anywhere but here under the stars. I knew he didn’t sleep, but I left him alone. I was warmed by the flames, my furs and the lingering excitement of the change running through my veins, watched the clouds drift past the stars and the moons, and eventually I heard him whimper through his restless dreams. When I finally fell asleep myself I dreamt of pine woods, the wind in my fur, a white stag and of my mate.
During the short trip to Dawnstar, Vilkas was considerate, but distant like he had always been. Nothing had changed. The wolf had overwhelmed me, and I did not understand it, but he hadn’t threatened me. Vilkas sensed my calmness, and I felt his relief. It was just something else that remained unsaid between us, something in abeyance. He didn’t try to hurt me, and for the moment, nothing else was important.
We had to to restock our supplies, and the trip gained us the very much needed diversion in our diet, a fast march through the wintry landscape and another cherished night out in the open, but apart from that it was annoying. Dawnstar was depressing and cold, its citizens inhospitable and cranky. And resentful. I had only been here a couple of times on jobs for the Companions, and now one of them fell back on me.
Once I had beaten some common sense and decency into the mushy brain of the owner of the local quicksilver mine, on behalf of his divorced wife – who owned the competing mine at the other end of the village and after he had harassed her for months. I had been here with Torvar, and Leigelf even got to chose who of us he preferred to beat him to clump. He had chosen me, and he had not forgotten the lesson, even if he didn’t learn anything from it.
Vilkas was at the apothecary while I haggled with the inn-keeper for rations and a few bottles of mead – and he seriously refused to sell me anything unless I rented a room. No way, I’d certainly not spend a whole precious night in a stuffy room when Blackreach was waiting for me.
The man was suddenly there, the stench of old sweat that mingled with stone dust and ale alerting me before I even saw him. I leant tired and annoyed against the wooden counter when two hands propped themselves left and right of me on the bar, trapping me between them.
“My, if that isn’t the Companion bitch,” he drawled into my ear. I froze, suppressing the reflex to ram my elbows into his kidneys, turn and shout him through the window. I didn’t want trouble, not when I only wanted to leave this dreary place as fast as possible.
The inn-keeper who watched us with pinched features. He wouldn’t intervene – inn-keepers never intervened into quarrels between their guests, not until their furniture got smashed up.
“She doesn’t want to stay for the night?” he said, grinning at the keep. “You know… word is those Companions all live together in one big hall. Wouldn’t you think she’d love a bit of privacy?”
“Leigelf,” I pressed out, “take your dirty hands off me, or they’ll not be able to hold a pickaxe ever again.”
He didn’t move a single inch, only bowed down his head. His breath was moist and reeking on my neck, sweat glistening on his nearly bald head. “You need to soften up a bit, Companion,” he whispered. “We just want to keep you company. Don’t we, Thoring?”
“Like the last time I kept you company?” I snarled.
“Oh, but it’s not like last time. Now you’re all alone, you’re cold and hungry and have no one to keep the nightmares away. Something’s in the air, you know? No one sleeps well nowadays. We can help you through that, as the gentlemen that we are.”
Thoring looked more than uncomfortable, and had enough when I felt his left hand sliding over my hip. Gripping his wrist, I pulled the dagger from my belt when his disgusting presence was suddenly gone. Vilkas had taken him in a headlock, his forearm pressing into his throat, and yanked his arm from my grip. He let out a pained, gurgling sound and struggled weakly as he was dragged out of the door without a word.
When I left the inn, Vilkas had thrown him down the stairs and stood above him, the tip of his sword at his throat. He would impale himself with a single false motion.
“Apologise,” he growled.
Leigelf remained quiet, his gaze flickering full of hate to me. Vilkas placed the heel of his boot on the thumb of his right hand and shifted his weight. The crunch of the breaking bone was drowned out by a scream that was cut short when a drop of blood ran down the miner’s neck.
“Leave it, Vilkas,” I said sharply.
Vilkas moved his foot from his victim’s hand, but he didn’t remove his sword.
Leigelf lifted the other hand, the only movement he dared to make. “Okay okay,” he cried, “I’m sorry, okay?”
Vilkas took a step back, but he held his sword ready. A cruel smirk played around his lips. “Get out of my eyes.”
When Leigelf had stumbled to his feet and run around a corner, holding his injured hand, and Vilkas turned with a satisfied smirk to me, I punched him in the chest. “You think I can’t deal with such vermin on my own?”
He furrowed his brows into a frown. “Of course you can. But you shouldn’t have to.”
“And what impression does it make when I have to be saved from a piece of skeevershit like that?”
Now his frown showed genuine confusion. “He touched you, Qhourian. He had his dirty hands on you. You really care what he thinks? He made that pretty clear already.”
My anger dissolved and I lowered my head. Of course I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to be pampered, and least of all by him. On the other hand, I wondered how I’d have reacted if he had done nothing at all.
“You would have done the same,” Vilkas said curtly.
I cocked my head at him. “Yep. But from me, it would have sufficed to threaten him with broken bones.”
He shot me a smirk as he turned to the inn. Thoring stood in the open door and looked as if he wanted to get rid of us as soon as possible. “We need supplies,” Vilkas said, pointing at me. “You will sell us whatever she wanted for whatever she offered. Understood?”
Sometimes Vilkas being an ass was pretty convenient.
We descended back into the depths of Blackreach with new determination. More ruins, more Falmer, chaurus and machines, but this time it took only a few days and some more fruitless searches through long abandoned buildings until a new landmark caught our eyes. A giant sphere hanging from a massive metal chain led us to the a part of the city that looked suspiciously like the centre of all of Blackreach. It loomed over it with a bright, golden glow, shimmering like a false moon. The vast complex of buildings was enclosed by a wall thrice my height, sitting on top of a hill and overlooking the surrounding area like a castle.
And here, in the centre of this kingdom where we expected it least, we found people. Not only degenerated Snow Elves, but real people. Nords, Imperials, even some Redguards and Elves. Men, women and children, dead eyes in sickly pale faces that hadn’t seen the sun for years – or never. Clad in rags, but armed. Broken enough to be armed by their masters.
Servants and slaves to the Falmer, held like cattle. Obedient like cattle. Their death by our hands was no release, and our death by their hands would have changed nothing. Not for them.
The only entrance to the large courtyard was a huge gate, the gate-wings long fallen from their hinges, but it was guarded. Large men, better fed than the others, unarmoured but armed with rusty maces and dented blades. It should have made me suspicious that they guarded the inside of the gate, that they were there to prevent escape, not intrusion. But I was too shocked to see these familiar faces all of a sudden, too convinced we had found an enclave of human life, forgotten and forsaken for the gods knew how long… I just wanted to speak with them, and they caught me completely off guard.
They attacked on sight as if they had waited for me, shrieking in the strange, monotonous language of their masters while Vilkas jumped out of his cover and to my side. We backed away into a corner of the courtyard as fast as we could, and then they were upon us, so many of them, wave after wave of emotionless faces and frail bodies. Human faces, bare of any remains of humanity. Their order was to eliminate us, and they’d do what they were ordered to please their masters, tear us apart with their bare hands if necessary… or die trying. So many, pouring out of the buildings, an endless stream of hopelessness.
But there were Falmer hiding between them, archers, their arrows dripping with poison, but unreachable for us under the onslaught of their minions. They didn’t care whom they hit to get through to us, people writhing in poison-induced agony at our feet, arrows flying, deflected, hitting others with dull thuds… until one of them hit me, pierced its way through my pauldron and into my shoulder.
Vilkas’ greatsword held the onslaught at bay while I fumbled the antidote from my belt, but there were too many, hands grabbing, rusty knives and crude clubs bashing at us, clawlike fingers holding my wrist before I could take the flagon to my mouth.
They were too many. I jerked violently out of the grip.
“FUS RO DAH!”
Silence, at least for a few seconds, the foul liquid extinguishing the dizziness in my head and numbing the pain that flowed from the wound through my veins. Vilkas drew me upstairs, away from the masses, to a higher, better defendable position.
And then I heard it, and I couldn’t believe what I heard – the heavy flaps of leathery wings, a familiar roar, the stench of sulphur and molten stone, the earthshattering impact.
A dragon, trapped a mile beneath the sky where he belonged. Instead he was sated with the heat of the earth, glowing red and orange like a stream of lava, ready to unleash his fury and his fire upon us. I didn’t know where he came from all of a sudden, if I had summoned or awoken him, but the disturbance of his age-old sleep obviously annoyed him. Within seconds the courtyard was entirely depopulated, the army of our enemies either blasted into heaps of smouldering flesh or fled behind the massive doors of the buildings. Only the archers on top of the wall remained, but now I had room to take care of them while Vilkas jumped into the fight with the beast.
The battle was short, but frantic. The dragon was trapped between the buildings, he didn’t have enough space to spread his wings or manoeuvre his gigantic body to his liking, and it wasn’t hard to stay behind him, out of reach of fangs and claws, and attack from relative safety.
While already collapsing he released a last furious, fiery breath, filling the courtyard with reeking smoke. I nearly suffocated while his soul found me, but Vilkas waited, coughing and choking himself, and dragged me out through the gate and down to the river until we were sure no one was following us.
“Gods,” I panted, lying spread on my back, completely drained, “where did that thing come from?”
“No idea.” Vilkas collapsed beside me after he had filled his waterskin. “Seems they follow you everywhere.”
I snatched it from his hands before he could empty it completely. “I hope not.”