I was swallowing convulsively the saliva that gathered in my mouth, fighting the waves that churned through my stomach. Damned poison, and the foul water had only made it worse. I was too tired to move, even knowing that the nausea would be better if I got up. The adrenaline of the fight had resolved into complete exhaustion, my limps glued to the ground as if they were filled with lead. I’d just stay here, stare at the ceiling of the cave that looked so surprisingly like a star-spangled sky and wait until the fine dust in the air had buried me.
If Vilkas would just let me. I managed to turn my head. He lay motionless on his back like me, his sword beside him.
“Of course you are. Suits you, that colour.”
“May I ask you a question?”
“We gotta get going.”
“No. I need a rest.”
“You need a rest?”
Now he turned his head to me. The corners of his mouth twitched. “Yeah. I’m tired.”
Vilkas was never tired, and if he was, he’d never admit it. When he suggested a rest, it was only because it was reasonable and we had to pace ourselves.
I propped myself on my elbows, my head dizzy. I felt green, but it would be better when I was up and doing something to distract me. He was just pampering me. “No, you’re not.”
A chortle escaped him. He had cushioned his head on his forearm and didn’t look as if he was going to move any time soon. “How does it feel to devour the soul of a dragon?”
I frowned at him, fighting myself to my feet. “I don’t devour them, that’s disgusting. And now let’s go.”
He turned his head to me, grinning. “Well, you look as if you were digesting it right now. Tell me. What do you do with them?”
“My Scroll is waiting in there.” I made a few steps towards the gate and heard him scramble to his feet behind me.
“Yeah. Since a few thousand years. I’m curious, Qhourian.”
My head tilted into my neck, I looked up to the palace. It was a magnificent complex of several buildings that were connected by the broad wall and stone bridges high above the ground. Three enormous towers rose from the corners towards the ceiling, the metal doors, tubes and roofs gleaming in the warm golden light of the globe. It was so different from the cold blue glow of the mushrooms we had spent the last weeks in that it alone made the place feel homey.
It was far from that, though, billows of black smoke still rising from the charred corpses of men and mer when I passed the threshold. I searched through the remains of the dragon when Vilkas jogged through the gate.
“The only description I have is from you.” He only arched an eyebrow. Many people had asked me this question, and I never liked to answer it. It was something I barely understood myself. “You remember when you explained to me how soulstones work?”
He nodded, lifting the skull to give me access to a few tiny scales that gleamed in a fiery orange.
“Well, that’s how it is. I guess.”
“You take their souls like a soulstone?”
I nodded, stuffing the scales into my pack. They were pretty, perhaps Eorlund could make some trinkets from them. Dragonscale jewellery would be something really exclusive. “In a way. You said that a soul is some kind of energy, and that’s how they feel.”
“But aren’t they unique?”
“No. Yes, of course, they’re individual souls. But once they’re dead, only power is left. They’re no personalities any more. I guess the same happens with the souls of people who get trapped in black soulgems.”
“But you take them into yourself.”
I turned on my heels, trying to decide where to start our search. Several entrances led inside the buildings – or tracts of the same – but none directly into one of the towers at the corners of the courtyard. Those were our goal. “Yes, but they don’t become a part of me. They’re far too alien. And strong, at the beginning I was afraid they would change me. But they haven’t, not really.”
“Let’s take that one.” Vilkas pointed at a metal door that led into the largest building, an enormous complex of grey walls that filled nearly half of the space inside the walls. It was also the door most of the people had fled through when the dragon came. “Does it hurt?”
“Yeah. To take them hurts, but it’s also… I feel as if I had to burst, and as if I could fly. Like a super potent stamina potion. And then it’s exhausting.”
“Like your shouting.”
“Yeah. What they give me… it’s too much for a mortal. We’re not made for it.” We had reached the entrance, and Vilkas pushed the door open. In one regard he was just like his brother – he was unable to be quiet. He didn’t even try. His boots battered the ground, his armour creaked, he cursed and muttered under his breath when something didn’t go according to his plans. His foes found him easily, and that was how he liked it.
But the entrance hall was empty and eerily quiet. It was treacherous, and I wondered where those who had fled from the dragon hid now. Vilkas only shot me a look over his shoulder as he inspected a few items on a shelf, shiny dishes and some things that looked only like metal scraps.
“Perhaps… someone who’s not Dragonborn would just die. Or go insane. Perhaps that’s what makes you so special.”
I answered his look pensively. There was curiosity and thoughtfulness, but no derision. He had always treated me like a freak – but now, I got the feeling that he really wanted to understand.
“Perhaps you have to be insane right from the start,” I chuckled. “I don’t know. All I know is that I’m a mess. A part of me wants them… craves for this power, no matter how much it hurts. It’s mine alone. Arngeir says it’s our will to dominate. Another part loathes them. They’re intruders I have to live with.”
“I guess you have. And you will need it for your fight against Alduin.” He cocked his head. “Left or right?”
A huge stairway led up to a platform with a large stone table and benches around it, two more left and right of it led downwards.
“Left.” I always took the left turn. We didn’t want to go down, but it seemed now we didn’t have a choice.
It turned out that the whole city complex had a full-size basement, a maze of sewers and cisterns, store-rooms and halls full of steaming machinery, most of them drowned by water that reached well over our ankles. It was blessedly empty, only the occasional Falmer guard darting around corners with enervating shrieks. I had the suspicious feeling that they used this horrible maze as a shortcut to get from one end of the complex to the other. We, however, got hopelessly lost in the damp darkness, even Vilkas’ infallible sense of direction failing down here. Wet torches filled the air with smoke that made me cough and choke, and I started to freeze despite the humid warmth. But every stairway we tried only led out into the courtyard again, and it took hours until we got a basic impression of the general layout and finally found out which corridors led along the outer wall and to the towers.
It was in the second tower, I was tired and frustrated and on my own because Vilkas and I had split and searched adjacent rooms to speed up this tiresome procedure, and again it was a shock to meet the people who lived here. This time, they were only three, two women and a man huddled up together in the corner of an otherwise empty room, looking at me from wide open eyes blazing with fear. They had rusty daggers at their hips, but one of the women raised an empty hand towards me, a gurgling sound coming from her throat – as if she wanted to form a word and didn’t know how.
My instinct told me they were not dangerous, that they were hopeless and broken and that they needed help. But the woman’s gesture turned into one of defence when I approached them, panic in her face while the man rose to his knees.
She was the first one who showed a hint of human reaction to my presence, the first sign of communication. I wanted to talk to her, ask her what she needed, why they were here, so many of them enslaved by the Falmer, and I let out a humming noise to calm her. But she froze in shock when I hunched down in front of her and took her hand in mine.
I didn’t get opportunity to ask, the lightning bolt that slammed into her chest tearing her from my grip and hurling her against the wall. I spun around and faced a shaman standing in the doorway, his claws clenched around a gnarled staff that pointed at me now. Half of his face was hidden behind a black, chitinous mask, and he seemed to grin at me – a mockery of a human expression that was countered by the high-pitched shriek he let out. I jumped to my feet, raised Dragonbane and sucked in a breath in a single motion, but I made a mistake… a mistake that should never have happened, the stupidity of a whelp. I turned my back to my enemies.
Before I could let the Shout loose, a thin, sinewy arm came with astonishing strength around my throat. Something scratched over the scales in my back and I let myself fall to the side, forming a tangle of limps with the man who had attacked me. But it also saved me, the lightning bolt only hitting the wall above me.
I had to get out of this headlock to get access to the only weapon that was able to reach the mage, but I had no leverage, the man not letting go and stabbing with his dagger wherever he could reach, the other woman trying to wrench the sword from my grip. I yanked back my head and felt something break, the impact dazing me for a second as pain shot in red-hot needles through my brain. The Falmer just rose his staff again when a dark shadow appeared behind him.
Vilkas wore a feral snarl that erupted in a roar as he beheaded the creature with a single strike, stormed into the room and shoved his sword into the chest of the woman with so much force that the tip broke through her back. His hand was covered in her blood when he yanked it out again and let it fall away, grabbed the man’s wrist that still clenched around my throat and broke it with a violent jerk. The scream was cut short when the Companion’s boot crushed into his face and shattered his jaw, a second purposeful kick against his temple breaking his neck.
A growl came from deep in his chest as his gaze darted through the room, and I recognised this growl – as much as the dark rings that lay around his pupils. His wolf was about to take over. I couldn’t let that happen.
I jumped to my feet the moment he turned with another roar towards the woman the shaman’s first attack had hit.
My hand on his shoulder was firm. “Vilkas.” He spun around, and for the fraction of a second I was sure to become his next prey. Predatory rage flared in his features. “She’s dead.” At least I hoped so. If she moved now, he would snap. His breathing was laboured, grinding teeth betraying his fight for control, his muscles twitching under my palm. The whole man was strung to the breaking point, a single false motion and the tension would release.
I had to calm him down. Instead to back off, I made a step towards him, my hand coming up, my palm resting against his cheek. “Not here, Vilkas,” I said as calm as possible. “It’s okay. I’m okay.” At least I had his attention now, his gaze piercing into mine, flaring with inhuman wrath. I held it and forced myself to breathe evenly.
The growl that vibrated in his throat didn’t subside as his eyes flitted erratically from my face through the room, searching for danger, and came to rest on my neck. “You’re bleeding,” he snarled, baring his teeth.
The man had cut me, but it was only a shallow scratch. It would be easy to heal, but not now. No magic as long as he hadn’t calmed down. “It’s nothing.” I held his gaze.
I was trying to tame a werewolf, a man who was known for his unbridled fits of violence and uncontrolled temper. But in the end, the only one who could reign him in was he himself, and I could just try to help.
He was just protecting me. I was nervous, anxious and angry with myself, but I didn’t even get the idea of being afraid of him. And then, for a long moment, his gaze came to rest on my face before he closed his eyes. He exhaled a long breath that took a bit of the tension with it, nestling his jaw into my hand like a whelp begging for attention.
I was glad when he made a step backwards and broke the contact. His shoulders were still tightly coiled, but his eyes had their silver-blue colour back.
I nodded. “Thank you. I was careless.”
“Heal yourself.” I did, and despite the display of magic he seemed to become calmer when the bleeding stopped. He only looked terribly exhausted as he rubbed his palm over his face, his skin ashen and beads of sweat on his forehead. He flinched slightly when I touched his elbow.
“Come on. We’ll rest for a moment.”
One of the rooms we had searched previously had a bar on the inside of the door, a small chamber with a few shelves, stone table and benches and a platform that looked remarkably like the beds in Markarth. I unwrapped my bedroll and placed it on top of it after I locked the door. When I turned to Vilkas, he watched me with a stoic expression.
“No.” Yes, I was, but not more or less than I was constantly anyway. “But you are.”
“I don’t need rest if you want to go on.”
“You wanted a rest before we even started. Sleep if you want, I’ll keep watch.”
He arched an eyebrow, but didn’t argue, discarded his gauntlets and settled with his back to the wall, his legs dangling over the edge of the platform. As if he wanted to leave enough room for me as well. He tilted his head into his neck and closed his eyes.
But I took place back to front on a chair, my arms crossed on top of the backrest, rested my forehead on them and let my thoughts doze away. It was quiet and peaceful in the little room, only Vilkas’ even breathing audible. If someone tried to enter he would have to use brute force, and I’d be long alert before that happened.
We had both pressed onwards relentlessly, if only not to admit a weakness to the other, but the constant alertness in this cursed realm, bad nourishment and the lack of daylight were more straining than we wanted to admit. If we weren’t successful soon, we’d have to get out of here and take a break that was longer than the few hours we had spent in Dawnstar. My thoughtlessness today and his obvious difficulties to control himself were only another reminder that we were both getting to the bottom of our strength.
I could just hope that Vilkas would be able to find Raldbthar, the third entry point to Blackreach we knew about after Alftand and Mzinchaleft.
I didn’t know how long we stayed like this, but somehow it was more restful than a fruitless attempt to sleep. Eventually he had taken off his pauldrons and lay on his side when I glanced over to him, curled into a ball with one hand resting under his cheek. It made me smile. He slept in the same position as his brother, and now, with tousled strands of hair falling into his face and the lines of his face eased of their harshness and tension, he looked more than ever like Farkas.
That he was able to relax so deeply in my company only showed how far we had come, and that I could relax like this in his made it even clearer. I had taught him respect and to take me seriously, and that lesson had been painful for us both. But we had gone beyond that. Now we knew we could rely on each other.
A movement on the bed and Vilkas’ quiet voice startled me up. “I thought you’re keeping watch,” he said, but there was only calmness in his expression when I turned my head, my cheek resting on my forearm.
“You look better,” I said.
“You too. You’re not green any more.” He stretched himself and propped his temple into his palm. A smirk tugged at his lips. “I have more questions.”
“Still curious about the dragon?” I chortled.
“Yes. And about your wolf. How are you doing with her? Are they getting along?”
A question like this, so intimate and personal, would have embarrassed me deeply from him not long ago. But not any more. It was something that tied us together.
“How could they not? Of course they do. When I have to shout… the dragon part takes over, and she doesn’t like it. And she’s happiest when I let her free. But it’s not that one part of me would fight against the other.” I had had the same concerns before I took the blood, but Kodlak had allayed them. And of course he had been right.
“But wolves don’t like to be dominated. Especially not wolves like ours.”
I wasn’t sure if he didn’t want to understand or if he couldn’t. I straightened myself, lifted my arms over my head and stretched my weary limbs. “But they’re us, Vilkas. There’s no intruder. The dragon is a part of me… and I have no comparison how it would be without him. And the wolf is a part of me too. Sometimes I fight with myself, but I can’t dominate myself. It’s just what we are.”
His eyes shot up, locking on my face. “This is not what I am!”
“Oh yes, it is. Remember… twenty years ago, when you took the blood. Do you still know how it felt?”
His eyes darkened. “Yes,” he said quietly, “of course I do, as if it was yesterday. The rage. The hunger. The bloodthirst. The power it has over me, these urges I can’t resist. And it has never stopped.”
“Is that all? You don’t have a single positive memory?”
His face contorted as if in pain, but he answered. “You know the ecstasy of the hunt, the pleasure to kill and to feed. To still the hunger. The joy and the freedom and power, and the safety of the pack. You know all this.”
“Yes, I know, and for me it’s worth it. But that’s not what I was getting at.” I tilted my head, watched him intently. He was full of rapt attention. “You believe there’s dark magic at play and that the beast is something strange you can get rid of. I don’t doubt the magic and that Hircine has his fingers in it. But… well, I told you that I know how it feels when something alien enters your being. My beast… she’s not alien. It wasn’t in Aela’s blood. It was there before and only awoke. Perhaps it got enhanced by the magic, perhaps it got some kind of… independence and it certainly got the ability to take a certain form, but it was there before. It was always a part of me.”
Slowly he sat up, staring at me as if he had never seen me before. “But… isn’t that terrifying? The feeling that this… thing… is a part of you?”
I shook my head. “No. She completes me, even if it’s sometimes a fight. She’s desperate when I’m sad, when I’m angry she’s furious… but she’s still me. You know how that feels.”
“Yes, I know how that feels. It’s terrifying.” He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. I wondered what made him admit this so openly.
“But it’s not our beasts that make it hard for us. As a part of us, we can control it. But if you fight it… or suppress it, you only hurt yourself. It’s cruel… and that’s something entirely human. You said it yourself.”
He was silent for long moments. “That’s what I did,” he said finally. “What I tried.”
“And it hurt you.” He didn’t answer, only lowered his head. “Our wolves are like us, Vilkas. Look at our siblings. I’ve hunted with Aela, and her wolf is like her, just fiercer and wilder. Or Farkas. His wolf is nearly tame, disciplined, efficient, almost gentle… just like your brother. And I would bet that yours has a temper. What do you think, what kind of wolf would… Tilma become?”
The question forced a feeble smile on his face. “A toothless puppy. She can’t even kill a fly.”
“Yeah, I thought the same,” I snickered. “Aela explained a lot to me before I took the blood. She said that we’re always both, always man and beast, but I knew that already, since Dustman’s Cairn. But afterwards, I finally understood. We’re always both. Everybody is always both, only that we are aware of it.”
“And that makes us less human than others.”
“No. It just makes us different. And for me… she is my proof that I’m just a woman. In her, there’s no dragon. She is more human than some people will ever concede me to be, and for me, that’s a gift.”
He had buried his forehead in his palms, deep in thought, and he didn’t look up when he finally started to speak again.
“I envy you, that you can accept it so easily. All of you. I always did. Perhaps you’re right. But nothing will change that it has been forced upon us. For me, it will always be a curse. A treacherous, pleasurable curse I’m forced to accept or it will destroy me, but nevertheless a curse. Hircine has us in his grip, and we have no choice any more.”
“That’s true,” I said quietly. “If you can’t accept this choice you once made, you’re doomed. But there’s worse fates than to live in a pack like ours. And for me… I knew what it meant when I made it.”
“It wasn’t your decision. You were pressed into it as well.”
I gave him a good-natured grin. “Don’t overestimate yourself, Vilkas. I would have taken the blood with or without you or Hircine’s intervention. It’s easier with Farkas around, though,” I admitted.
“Really? They influence each other?”
“Yes. It works for both of us, but it’s more important for me. She’s easier to handle when her mate is near. Calmer. Everybody knows how well-behaved his wolf is,” I chuckled.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
The question startled me, it came so unexpected. But it was bare of malice. I nodded. “Yeah. Like crazy. I hope he’s fine.”
His smile was gentle. “He isn’t. He misses you too. He wants nothing more than for you to come home.”
It was quiet for some time, then I heard him chuckle. I was glad that he had shaken off this broody mood.
“I know why your dragon and your wolf don’t like each other.”
“Do you now?”
“Yeah. Because he’s male, and she’s female. That can’t work.”
I laughed out loud. Vilkas had made a joke, and it wasn’t even spiteful.
“Sorry to shatter your beliefs, but dragons don’t have a gender. It’s easy to think of them as male because they’re so loud and rash and violent,” I chuckled when his lips quirked in amusement, “but… they just are. Imagine they would breed!”
“Horrible idea.” When I tied the waterskin to my belt and stood up, he reached out and touched my wrist.. “Wait…,” he said. “One more question.”
I looked enquiringly at him, nodding. This conversation was enervating personal. I didn’t know why he was suddenly so insistent, but it seemed he wanted to use the opportunity and squeeze as much information out of me as possible.
He gave me a sheepish grin. “Why is your hair white? And what colour did it have when you were a child?”
The question made me blush deeply, with embarrassment and with anger. My awkward reaction made him frown. “Sorry…,” he said, but I interrupted him.
“Why do you wanna know? I’m no whelp any more!” I snapped.
“Yeah, I know. It’s just…” Now he blushed as well. “You’re weird, you know? I mean… you’re so much. Werewolf and Companion and Dragonborn. You’re strange in so many regards, you’ve survived so much, you have all these powers and you will save the world from Akatosh’s son. You’re a hero and a legend. Like Talos. If you wanted, you could end this war and throw out the Dominion and become next High Queen. And the Icebrain just married you!” His hands clenched in his lap. He was embarrassed and stared from wide open eyes at my aghast expression as I stood up and slung my pack to my back.
For him, I was just weird. That was what all this sudden interest boiled down to. Perhaps he didn’t regard me with as much revulsion any more as he once had, but I was still just an abomination. An object of study, and if he could, he would dissect me to satisfy his curiosity.
I threw back the bar and stormed through the door and towards the stairway that led up to the next floor. I knew the layout of these towers in the meantime, there would be a large circular room in the centre and many smaller ones lined up on the outer wall. Vilkas called something, and then I heard heavy footsteps rushing after me.
I didn’t care. Usually we cleared the corridor first before we searched through the rooms, but now I stormed into the central hall without a second look. The small group of Falmer in there died in an inferno of dragonfire, one of the warriors that came running through the door with a arrow through his chest, and only two were left to engage in close combat.
I managed to hold them both at a distance. They were abominations, degenerated, cruel, unhuman.
Perhaps I was unhuman as well. That’s what Vilkas thought, and he was smart, after all. Strange like Talos! Perhaps I had no right to be treated like a woman. Perhaps I had no right to want to be normal, to love his brother and be a part of the Companions.
I clenched my teeth when he stormed into the room, surveying the situation in the fraction of a second. The moment Dragonbane pierced through the chest of one of the Falmer, he beheaded the other from behind.
We stared at each other, breathing heavily and the corpses between us.
“I know I’m a freak,” I snapped, “and you know what? You forgot some pigeon-holes to file me in. I’m also a whore and an escaped criminal, and a stray and a weakling.” I had tears in my eyes, the smoke and the stench of burning flesh making my stomach churn again.
I barrelled past him to leave the room. He held me back, his hand clenching around my upper arm. I froze. The last time he had tried this, I had beaten him to clump.
When I spun around, his grip loosened, but he didn’t let go, and he started to speak before I could yell at him.
“No, you’re not,” he said calmly, lowering his sword, “and I didn’t say that. You’re just a woman. Sometimes you’re awfully touchy, and… I should have found better words. But you are weird. In many regards, and that we’re here together and talking about this is not the least.”
The moment his hand fell to his side, I made a step backwards. “A bit late, that insight,” I spat.
“I know. Much too late. It took me until I saw you again.” He blushed and bit his lip, raking his free hand through his hair. His reaction made me suspicious.
The fingers clenched around the hilt of his sword were white, but his didn’t avoid my gaze as he shook his head. “Much earlier. In Falkreath.” He swallowed. “I was aware, you know? I was trapped in the change and had no control over myself, but Hircine made sure that I was able to savour every single moment.”
My breath caught, heat shooting into my face as I remembered what had happened in that cell. What he was getting at.
“I knew you were there. I saw how you indulged yourself into my torment. I waited for you to kill me, and I saw you both.” A trace of amusement flared over his face, gone the moment it appeared. Only a sad smile remained. “I saw him cry for me, and how you cried for him. You caught him. He needed nothing more than you, and it didn’t matter any more why you were there – in that moment, nothing mattered for you but my brother, and he could fall into your love and be safe.”
I bit my lip, staying quiet. This was disconcerting. Vilkas lifted his hand as if he wanted to touch me, but then let it fall back to his side.
“It was beautiful, Qhourian. You needed each other so much – because of me. I don’t know much about that time… not much more than agony and Hircine’s terror. But this is something I’ll never forget. Without this, I would have never given you the ring.” He swallowed, and now his voice was barely more than a whisper. “And later… much later, when I saw you again and you forced me to deal with you… I thought that this was the only way how a woman like you should be fucked against a wall.”
I passed him, my gaze directed towards the ground, and he followed without a further word. This was worse than awkward. He was brutal in his open honesty, knowing exactly how much it could hurt. He knew so much about me – too much, so many things that had formed me, that were deeply personal and intimate – and he could use all this so easily against me. Only to know what he knew made me feel at his mercy.
So far, we had been careful with each other, but with his insistent questioning and this revelation he had broken this cautiousness. He didn’t have the right to look through me like that. I didn’t know him good enough. I didn’t trust him enough.
But he forced me to trust him. And at the same time, in the same breath, he answered questions I would have never dared to ask, bared himself to me, showed me his own vulnerability and insecurity.
We made our way through the building in silence, didn’t separate again, and at one point, after we ran into an ambush of Falmer waiting behind an open door, he took the lead once more. We worked flawlessly together and pressed forwards and upwards, cleared two more floors and searched them thoroughly until we could go no further. We had found nothing, and I turned immediately back and towards the stairs downwards. When I missed his steps behind me, I spun around.
“What is it? Get going!”
He leant against a stone table, his arms crossed in front of his chest. “I’m still curious,” he said with an infuriating smirk.
“No… more… questions!” My index pointed accusingly at him. “What happens between Farkas and me is not your business! You have no idea what we’ve been through, and you’ve no right to intrude. You will leave us alone!”
His grin faded. “I know. What you have… I should have trusted him right from the beginning. He was always better with people.”
“Only Alduin is worse with people than you,” I snapped.
“But I want to learn, and he doesn’t.” His lips quirked again. What in Oblivion was so funny? “This is not about Farkas, Qhourian.” He made a step towards me. “I misjudged you. I still do, sometimes. You have given me this chance… and I don’t get why. The least I can do is try to understand. Do you justice.”
“I think you know more than enough about me. More than you’re entitled to. You’re just searching for new labels you can pick on me.”
“Labels don’t do you justice.”
He tried to force me to open up to him, he gave a shit about my sensitivities, and I didn’t know why. My instinct told me that his motives could only be sinister, but my experience with him told me otherwise. He had proven himself, was open and honest. Perhaps it was his way, that he took the right for himself to be so intrusive. But I didn’t know him good enough, and it was too much and too fast.
I shook my head and left the room, and now I heard his steps behind me.
His hand on my shoulder was firm and heavy. “You’re curious too. And you have many labels for me as well.” Yes, I had. Sadist, rapist, ass. Companion, Master-of-Arms. My nemesis, the thorn in my side. A pitiful creature. A predator, dangerous and vulnerable. Pack-brother, shield-brother, brother-in-law.
They didn’t fit together. And he was right – I was curious about him.
I tugged nervously at my braid. “Why do you want to know about this, Vilkas?”
His smile was open and gentle. “I think I should start at the beginning.”
I regarded him pensively. This whole conversation was awkward, but he didn’t back off – and I could feel that he didn’t want to hurt me. Perhaps he really wanted to understand. But he had opened up to me, in a weird way… as if he knew how easily this openness could lead to new injuries but didn’t care, because it couldn’t be worse than what we had already gone through.
“Stray-blond. And now we should really get going,” I said with a small smile.
“Straw-blond? That must have been pretty.”
His confusion when I poked him in the chest was nearly adorable. “Not straw-blond. No silken tresses shining like sunrays. No little princess. Stray-blond. Something between dirty sand and muddy brown. Like Snowback’s belly and cropped so short,” I balled my hand to a fist with only the pinky stretched out, “because once I nearly scalped myself, when my braid got stuck while the rest of me jumped off a tree.” I grinned at him. “My sister’s reached down to her butt, though.”
He swatted my finger playfully away and barked out a laughter. A rich sound, full of relief and mirth. “You mean… you climbed on trees? You might possibly even have become dirty?”
“Yep. Horrible, isn’t it? If Talos were just a dead man, he’d rotate in his grave now. I was too tall for my age, and wild and clumsy and always full of bruises. It was so bad that my mother learned to ignore anything less than infected wounds and broken bones.”
He strapped his sword to his back, but his smirk was lighthearted. “You’re not clumsy any more. Still a bit tall for your age, though.”
I bit my lip. His lighthearted words woke a memory that hurt. He frowned when he saw my expression and stopped to adjust the straps of his pack.
“What is it?”
I recalled how I crouched on the ground of the training ground after my first sword training, beaten into submission by him and his malice. “Once you called me incompetent, too weak and too slow.”
His face closed down. Seemed he knew exactly what I meant. “But you were.”
“You were an ass back then, Vilkas.”
He didn’t avoid my gaze. “I know,” he said calmly. “I wanted to see you where I left you, crying on the ground.”
“You tried to break me.”
“Aye. But you didn’t.”
“I was close. But your brother was there and gave me his strength.”
He bit his lip. “I’m glad that he did.”
I believed him, because he didn’t only say it. For a moment, his features became soft and open, and he showed me what he couldn’t say out loud.
He was glad that he had failed. And he was glad to be here, with me, exactly where we were now. Down here in the bowels of the earth and at this point in our relationship. We had built something to build upon over the last weeks. A foundation. Perhaps it was still brittle and vulnerable, perhaps I didn’t trust it completely, but it was a start. A good start.
“I’m glad too, Vilkas.”
His smile was soft and genuine. “Come on. There’s one more tower waiting for us.”
But this tower was empty as well, and my frustration boiled over when we left the uppermost chamber of the whole complex after what felt like another eternity of fighting and searching. I leant against the balustrade of the small balcony that went around the slender building, the golden orb hanging directly above me, and fought down tears of anger and disappointment. This had been obviously the centre of the whole kingdom, we had even found something that resembled a throne room. And still none of these buildings was the Tower of Mzark. Either that, or the scroll was simply not here.
“Qhourian?” Vilkas called from the other side of the building.
“Leave me alone.” My frustrated grunt let him come over.
“I think I…”
“Gods Vilkas, leave me alone! Just a few minutes, is that too much to ask?”
He backed away with a frown, hands raised in apology, and I drowned for a moment in my chagrin, my forehead leant against the cool metal of a slender pillar. I felt sick and tired and discouraged, and I wanted to scream my ire over this blasted city, but I restrained myself. Not gonna accidentally wake another dragon.
I was on the verge of losing hope we’d ever find that blasted scroll, of believing that everything had been in vain. That it simply wasn’t here, that Septimus Signus had been wrong. That guy was a complete lunatic, after all. To take his babble at face value had been madness right from the start.
But I couldn’t give up. Not now, not after we’d come so far. I would not leave this godsforsaken cave before I had turned every single pebble upside down. We’d find another exit to the surface to take another short break, and then I would go on. Holy Kyne, how I longed for the open sky above me, for real daylight instead of this eerie glow and the real darkness of the night instead of these artificial shadows.
I forced myself to calm down, banned the thoughts of failure and unfulfillable wishes deep into the farthest corner of my mind before I went over to Vilkas. I wouldn’t reveal my weakness to him. He stood at the opposite side of the building, both hands propped on the iron bar of the handrail and stared into the landscape, but he turned when he heard my steps.
The frown was gone, and he smiled, excited and genuine as he pointed at something in the distance.
“Look over there,” he said, “see that? If that isn’t a tower, I’ve never seen one.”
More deserted streets, more mushroom lamps, more ramps and stairs, walls and gates… I couldn’t bear them any more, but at least the aimless wandering had come to an end for now, and we had a real goal – this huge, slender needle of stone and metal that leant against the cave wall, lean and towering above everything else. And of course in the friggin’ farthest corner of Blackreach, as I had predicted right at the beginning.
We went side by side, openly along the cobbled street because it seemed to be the most direct connection to the tower, took out the occasional ambush of Falmer or automatons with practised ease. This new hope, the justified prospect that it would really be over soon revived my spirits remarkably.
Vilkas shot me an astonished look when I nudged him lightly into the side.
“Sorry,” I said, but his sole reaction was a quizzically raised eyebrow.
“For yelling at you. It’s not your fault that I’m such a wreck.”
“It’s not yours either. It’s okay, Qhouri.”
He never called me Qhouri. “It’s just… gods, how I hate this place!”
“I said it’s okay. It’ll be over soon anyway.” He gave me an odd smile. A warm smile.
“Don’t get all soft on me suddenly,” I chuckled, “it doesn’t suit you.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “I know, you know?”
“You know what?”
The grin became a smirk. “I may be just a man, but I’m not stupid.”
I stopped, my eyes narrowing. A shiver ran down my spine. “What in Oblivion are you talking about?”
My tone and expression must have made him suspicious, the way the amusement slowly left his eyes. His voice was low when he answered.
“That you’re pregnant, of course.”
I stopped dead. “I’m not…!” The response, nearly yelled, died in my throat.
He watched me blanch and sway when his words hit, watched my hands spread protectively over my belly when a wave of nausea let me break out in cold sweat. And he was there, his hands firm on my upper arms when my knees gave way under me.
He had just spoken out loud what I had pushed away for weeks now, what I didn’t even want to acknowledge to myself so far. I had put the blame on the beastblood. On the stress, the injuries and poisonings, the lack of sunlight, sleep and proper food, the Thu’um and the constant emotional turmoil I was in. And now he had said what I didn’t want to be true, so casually, so certain.
He knelt before me after he had let me sit down on a boulder, his features changing from confusion into a concerned frown as he searched my face.
“How?” My voice was weak, but I needed this confirmation. From him, of all people.
“You aren’t sure yourself?” I shook my head without looking at him, but it was a lie. Deep inside, I was sure. I just didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t dare to acknowledge the fact.
“Divines. And I thought… it’s so obvious!” His hands raked through his hair.
“See… I’ve watched you. You’re tired all the time although you sleep enough. You’re always sick, worse in the morning, and when you eat at all you’ve difficulties to keep it down. And…I guess it must have been about six weeks since you came to Skyhaven Temple. Perhaps seven. You haven’t bled once in all this time.” His grin was weak, and he blushed slightly. “Sorry, but that’s something you girls can’t hide. That smell is… distinctive.”
This was Vilkas. He made his observations and drew his conclusions, impersonal, rational and objective. He had watched me and concluded that I was with child.
A simple fact. And probably correct.
I curled into a ball, my hands clamped around my shins, forehead dropped onto my knees and shivering violently. But when I felt a hand on my shoulder, I jerked back and shook him off.
I felt empty, empty and numb. I knew I should feel differently… somehow. Happy, perhaps, or excited, but there was nothing. Just a reaction of my body, and the desperate longing to go home, home to my husband. Home where I could share it with him. He would tell me what to do now. I needed his help, his support, his faith into a future that was worth to bring children into. Because I wasn’t ready for this. The world wasn’t ready for more children.
When I stood up with a stonen face and resumed my way towards the tower lingering in the distance, Vilkas looked at me as if I were a ghost, but he followed without a further word. Only when two Falmer warriors came running and screeching from the side of the street, he stormed ahead and took them out before I could even draw my bow.
“Enough,” he growled, ripping his blade from the corpse, “leave us alone!”