Farkas stood at the foot of the stairs after Vilkas and Njada had left, his face creased into a startled, confused frown. I didn’t know myself. When Vilkas came down the stairs, armoured, freshly painted, sword and bow strapped to his back and his face set in determination, I couldn’t help but give him a happy smile. He was as exhausted as I after all, had slept only a few hours after our return… and now he left again just to give us some privacy.
His brother got a firm grip to the wrist, and then he stood before me, blue eyes staring down on me, searching my face, locking my gaze into his. He palmed my cheeks just like Farkas had done it only minutes earlier, uncaring for the people around us. Absentmindedly I suddenly realised what made his face so different from his brother’s – he lacked the laughlines in the corners of his eyes, those tiny crinkles Farkas had in abundance. But the callouses on his palms felt nearly the same.
“Qhouri…,” he whispered, and when his forehead touched mine, there was nothing left. Nothing to prove, no ego, no secrets, no challenges – just openness, bare and raw and sincere. He made use of our bond and forced me to see what he revealed, the acceptance of what had happened and what was still to come, all these confessions and the promises he had made only to himself – and above all this the overwhelming feeling of hope.
“Thank you.” So quiet that I wasn’t sure he had said anything at all.
He was at peace – with himself and with me. So far, in Blackreach, we had tried to come to terms with each other and our past. To join Njada on this job now was his first step to tackle the future and everything it would throw at him.
After tensing up first, I relaxed with a deep breath into his grip. He never cared how I would deal with his ruthless candour, but now his hands that covered the scars on my cheek were gentle, firm and unrelenting, a naturalness in the way he touched me that was new.
Our scars were the evidence of our history. They would always be there, but they didn’t define us any more.
A barely audible sigh came from his lips when I finally pulled away and tugged a streak out of his face. “Be careful, brother,” I whispered, my hands on his shoulders. My lips twitched. “And be nice.” His eyes tried to hold me, but the lopsided smirk I got was the Vilkas I knew. When he stepped back and opened the door for Njada, I still stood with the feeling of his hands on my face. Until Farkas’ words startled me up.
I lowered my head, rubbed the nape of my neck nervously. I didn’t know what it was for. It was something between Vilkas and me, and I knew I should share it with him. Only that I didn’t know how.
His fingers pressed into my shoulders. “What did he do?”
“I… I don’t know. Really.” Slowly he let his arms fall to his side, confusion in his face.
“I got to go, love. Visit… someone. Can we go out afterwards? I still got to tell you something… but I need to get out into the sun.”
He just nodded as I snatched my cloak from the hook and fled the room.
It was a cold, beautiful day, the sky shining in a bright, clear azure blue, an icy storm with a promise of frost and snow sweeping across the hills. It carried dead leaves and dried soil with it, rattled in the wooden roofs of the watchtowers, made the guards on their post at the gate shiver and bent the tents of the Khajiit traders. Kharjo answered my good-natured greeting with a friendly wave when we crossed their camp as a shortcut to get out into the plains.
I longed for fresh air, the scents of nature and the light of the sun, and didn’t care for the curious, amused looks of the guards when I ran over the drawbridge, held my beaming face up to the sky and drew my husband with me.
But he just watched me with a small smile, reluctant to join my high spirits, and when I grabbed his hand he clenched it in his grip, entangled his fingers with mine as if he never wanted to let go again.
It was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation with the storm wiping away the words right in front of our faces and every step a fight against its power, and so we made our way around the Dragonsreach rock in silence, close to each other but without talking, and the involuntary quiet built upon the slight tension we had both felt in the morning, when Vilkas had left.
Only when we came to an abandoned camp at the foot of the cliff directly beneath the palace, we stopped. It was a former bandit hideout, either the guards or the Companions had cleared it out not too long ago, and it provided enough shelter from the storm to make it a good place for a rest. Farkas placed his cloak on the ground for us to sit upon – clothed as he was, in thick woollen tunics and pants and warm boots, he didn’t freeze. And he had even brought an additional blanket, together with a snack and a bottle of ale which he unpacked carefully, kneeling between the remains of a splintered table and a broken barrel. Far too carefully. Far too hesitantly.
I had to hunch down beside him and take the bottle from his grip to get him out of his withdrawal, but when he turned to me, his hands clenched in his lap, the cords in his neck were thick and tight.
“What’s bothering you, love?” My voice was soft. I had a guess what was wrong, that his imagination was wreaking havoc in him, but I needed him to confirm it. His eyes were dark with confusion and doubt.
He gritted his teeth, but he held my gaze. “Did something happen? Between Vilkas and you?”
“No.” The answer was too short to be true, and he knew it. I sagged against him, and then he shifted and turned until I straddled his thighs, chest against chest and face to face. He relaxed slightly when he felt my limbs entwine around his body.
“Tell me. Please,” he whispered.
I rested my head against his shoulder, heard his heartbeat pound under my ear. “I’m not sure.” He didn’t move, waited for me to continue. “We’ve gone such a long way together, Vilkas and I… yes, something happened. We’ve come close, in an odd, bizarre way. But I’ll never understand him like you do, and…” I gave him a helpless look. I didn’t know how to explain something I didn’t really understand myself, and I hated that I felt so defensive. “It’s not that I like him. He’s just… close. It’s a bit scary.”
“But the way he looks at you… how he looked at you this morning… I know my brother, Qhouri. I know when he… cares for someone. It’s rare enough that he does, and even rarer that he admits it. Especially to himself.”
“I don’t know, love. It’s strange, but we had a good time in Blackreach. But now he’s also scared and vulnerable, and he’s searching… I’m not sure for what, but I don’t want to hurt him.”
“And you care for him.” It was neither question nor accusation, just a statement – and so simple that it was startling.
Did I? Did I care for his brother?
Part of the reason why I was so glad to be back was that I needed a break from Vilkas. Urgently. We didn’t try to kill each other any more, but the strange relationship we had developed in Blackreach was at least equally exhausting.
Of course it was in no way comparable to the closeness I shared with his brother, but it was also different from my relationships to all the other Companions. We had formed each other, we shared too much, and we knew too much about each other.
The Vilkas I got to know in Blackreach was still the same man I had known before – full of snark, sarcasm and arrogance, still prone to leash out at the slightest provocation, still someone who never hesitated to deal as much damage as possible against those that evoked his ire. But the picture got new layers during our time together, new perspectives and colours. He had proven that he was a man who was able to care, who could be reliable and protective. A good shield-brother.
But he had also taken the hand I had reached out to him and torn the whole arm from my shoulder. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware how intrusive he was. As aloof as he came across himself, he knew no borders of privacy and personal space.
At least not with me, I doubted that he dealt in the same way with Njada. As if he had a right to take part in my life. Perhaps it was because he had no life of his own, because he knew that starting over would be hard and painful and he needed something to hold on to. But it was also his way, this brutal openness he confronted me with and claimed from me in return. He knew me far too good. Once he had used it to hurt me, and now… now he used it to construct an intimacy that could only exist because we had sent each other through Oblivion.
But although he knew much more about me than I was comfortable with, although I often felt pressed and awkward with him, he had never exploited it. This scene in the morning – perhaps he wanted to force me to trust him. But I had felt his yearning and his sincerity, this desperate longing for me to believe him – to believe in him. Because I was the only one who knew all the abysses in him, the darkness, doubts and loathing, perhaps even better than Farkas.
We had already overcome so many points when we could have easily destroyed the other. But we didn’t, and in hindsight, that was all that counted. Not guilt, not forgiveness, not revenge or redemption. All this was there too, but most important was that we knew of our vulnerabilities and didn’t exploit them.
Our relationship was fragile and brittle, but it was there, built from the ashes of violence, humiliation and betrayal. I wouldn’t start to exploit it now.
Was this caring? I didn’t want to give it a name, but Farkas had done it for me. No one knew us both better than he, and it had only taken him the few hours we had all spent together to come to a conclusion – a conclusion that made him confused and wary.
I wouldn’t lie to him, and it was pointless to deny anyway. I gave him a feeble smile and shrugged. “I guess I do, in a pretty weird way. Kyne help me.”
It was quiet between us, just my own breath, his heartbeat and the storm howling along the rocks around us audible. I could feel the tension in his back muscles. “Yeah, thought so. He does that to women,” he mumbled after long minutes.
I lifted my head. “Farkas?” He stared into the distance, only his fingertips wandered slowly and absently over my back.
“And… you saved him. Can’t blame him that he doesn’t want to let you go.”
“And you spent so much time together…”
His head spun around.
I cupped his chin, my thumbs stroking his cheekbones. “Listen to me… your brother did a good job in Blackreach. It was a hard trip, and we had to rely on each other… of course we cared. If we didn’t, we would have never made it. Isn’t that exactly what you wanted to happen when you sent us off?”
He let his forehead drop on my shoulder and wrapped his arms around me, a slight tremble running through his body as I stroked his back. But slowly he relaxed and released a deep sigh, and a small, insecure smile curled his lips when he lifted his head and searched my eyes.
“I’m a fool. I should be glad that you don’t try to kill each other any more.”
I returned his smile, glad that he had shaken off this mood. “Nothing will ever be easy with him. We have tried to be honest with each other, but… gods, he’s so damned difficult! I even had to shout at him… once. Had to flash-freeze him because he was so annoying.”
His eyes shot wide, but then he chuckled. “Well, I guess he earned it.” His hand came up, stroked tenderly over my face. “I just missed you so much. I am glad that you get along. Really.”
“I’m too,” I said softly. “We’ve come far, your brother and I. It was good I made this journey with him. And it was your idea.”
He bit his lip. “Have you spoken about… what happened between you?”
“Yes.” The question he didn’t dare to ask stood in his eyes. “I don’t know, love. I don’t know if we will ever be able to leave it behind. But… we have gained distance. And we got to know each other. There’s more that we share now.”
A small smile spread over his face, and he nodded knowingly. “I know. He cares for you,” he said matter-of-factly. As if it made him glad.
I eyed him curiously. “Now that sounds as if you don’t mind at all.”
“I know it changes nothing between us… whatever it is that you share.” He kissed me softly. “I’m just so glad that you’re back, Qhouri. That you’re safe – both of you. And that you brought him here. You two… you’re the most important people in my life. If he needs you or you need him, if you have to work something out… do with him what you want. I trust that you don’t hurt each other.”
“No guarantees,” I grinned, closing my arms around his neck, “he’s still an ass, after all. And now I don’t wanna speak about him any more. There’s something much more important I gotta tell you.”
He tilted his head curiously. “And what would that be?”
I pecked him on the lips. “I love you, husband. You’ve no idea how much. You’ve no idea how much I missed you. But I had something of you with me all the time. Something precious.” I took his hand and pressed his palm on my belly, covering it with my own. It was warm even through the fabric of my tunic. I felt breathless, nervous, excited… and a bit scared of his reaction as he watched my face keenly. “I’m pregnant, Farkas. You’re gonna be a father.”
He became stiff, rigid like a bar of iron, every single muscle hardening to stone. Slowly his hands came up, settled first on my shoulders, then stroked down my arms as if he didn’t know where to put them. His face was a mask of overwhelmed stun, his heart pounding against my palm and his scent flaring up in shock and excitement.
“That’s why I had to leave earlier. I’ve been at the temple, and Danica has confirmed it.”
“Yes, love,” I laughed, “you’re gonna be a father. Again.” I chuckled at the disbelief in his expression. “Danica sends greetings, by the way.” It didn’t look as if he even understood what I said.
“A child!” It was a cry of delight, and then he laughed and sobbed and pressed sloppy kisses to every bit of skin he could find, and his hands were under my clothes, encircling my waist and pressing me against him with so much force that it took my breath away.
I had hoped and anticipated how he’d react, but to see it happen was a relief nonetheless because it was so impulsive and genuine. To experience this outbreak of unbridled, overwhelmed joy let my own stomach flutter, let me drown in his careless happiness.
“We’re gonna be a family!” I laughed against his lips, and with these, with my own words and his reaction to them, this glorious, unrestrained smile and the light in his eyes, the truth of it overwhelmed me. We would be a family, and the world would be safe for us. Because I would take care of that, personally.
He took my shoulders. “You glow,” he said, marvelling at my face. “You glow from the inside.”
I smiled and wiped over my eyes. “I’m just so relieved. And so happy that you’re so happy.”
He looked at me for a long time, and I could watch the breathless rapture change into calmer joy that had room for thoughts. “Of course I’m happy. Even if it’s a bad moment to be with child.”
I shook my head frantically. “I’ll make it work. We’ll make it work.” I leant heavily against him. It was good to know that he’d always be there to lean against. “I just have to hurry up now.”
“I’ll help you.” His voice was rough. “I’ll do everything. Anything you need. What does Danica say?”
“That I’m fine, just a bit starved. I was always sick in Blackreach, but it’s better already. You’ll have to feed me up.”
He nodded eagerly. “Can you… feel it already? And how did that happen anyway? I know you’ve taken those potions. Always.”
“Yeah, that was Vilkas’ first question as well,” I grinned.
It was the wrong answer, and I cursed myself for my improvidence, wanted to slap myself when his face fell into disappointment.
“Vilkas? You told Vilkas before me?”
I caressed his cheek. “Of course not. He told me.”
Now he was completely confused. “Vilkas told you that you’re pregnant?”
I sighed. “Yes. You know he’s far too clever for his own good. And a keen observer. And… at first, I didn’t want to believe it.”
“Now I’m really jealous,” he mumbled, “I would have liked to share that moment with you.”
I laid my arms around his neck, tangled my fingers into his hair. “We’ll have lots of moments, love,” I said softly. “Better moments. More important moments. I promise.”
The light was back in his eyes when he tilted his head, together with a cheeky sparkle. “Do you know how long? I mean… you know when it happened?”
I chuckled. Of course I wasn’t absolutely sure, but after Danica’s examination and with my assumptions about the influence of the beastblood, I had at least a guess. A very educated guess.
“Sometime during our honeymoon. Perhaps at the hot springs.” Masser had been full during those days, and we had not restrained ourselves, relished in the solitude and the shared experiences.
He held me tight, and I felt the rush of emotions that coursed through his body with a nearly physical impact. Joy, and love, and hope. A tiny, healthy dose of fear and the quiet determination to make the best of this new challenge. This child meant a future we never dared to think of before.
“Hey,” I whispered into his ear, “you wanna see it?”
His eyes went wide. “How? I can’t even feel it yet.”
“Oh yes, you can. If you know what to look for.” I had lost weight in Blackreach, and when I had taken a thorough, extensive bath in the morning, I had discovered a tiny, barely noticeable bulge in my belly. But now I took my satchel and pulled out a rolled up parchment.
“From Danica for you. It’s a life detection spell.” I chuckled at his incredulous gaze. “She has a whole stack of them for occasions like this. You just gotta read it.”
He took it with hesitation and eyed it suspiciously. “Magic? Will it harm you?”
“No. It just affects you. Makes you see… dunno, my life-force. I tried it out, it’s really harmless.”
I stood up and before him while he unrolled the paper with careful motions. I had no idea how these things worked, but it seemed that the spell was somehow stored in the scroll and could be released just by reading the words. Everyone was able to use them, even someone like Farkas – who held it now with obvious nervousness.
“What will I see?”
I gave him an encouraging smile. “Just try it out.”
His eyes flitted from the scroll to my belly and back, and finally he started to read with quiet mumbling. As soon as the paper crumpled into dust, his gaze shot up, the nervousness instantly changing into startled excitement. He gasped, his eyes growing wide.
“You really glow.” His voice was shallow. “There’s something… in you!” He shifted to his knees and laid his palms on my abdomen. “Here. I can see it. It’s not you. It’s something else.” He just stared at me, breathless wonder in his face, and only let his forehead drop against my belly when the effect of the spell faded.
I stroked his hair. “It’s our child, love,” I whispered.
He stayed like this for a long moment, his face pressed against me. When he lifted his eyes to my face, his arms coming around my hips, they shone with so much love and tenderness that it took my breath away. “Yeah. We will be a family.” His quiet fortitude moistened my eyes, and I blinked against the tears. He shot up and swept me into his arms. “Qhouri? What’s the matter?”
I hid my face in his chest. Damn mood-swings. “Thank you,” I muttered.
His embrace tightened, but then I felt his palm on my cheek, lifting up my face. “You will be the most glorious pregnant world-saviour ever,” he said with an expression of irresistible seriousness. “And then we will be a family.” He made it sound like a fact that was written in stone. My feeble smile was disturbed by a hiccup.
His laughter was brilliant. “You are bearing my child, woman. I have to be thankful!” He slung his arm around my shoulder. “Let’s go home. I want you to show me what to look for.”
“Okay. And I’m starving.”
“You only just had breakfast!” Farkas grinned at my indignant expression.
“That’s hours ago already,” I huffed, “and I have to catch up. And now… I want smoked slaughterfish. With pickled onions and vanilla sauce.”
“Together? On a single plate?” He looked horrified when I nodded vigorously. I had no idea why.
But when we left our shelter, my gaze was immediately captured by a movement in the sky, a dark, winged shadow circling over one of the mountaintops north of us, not far from the point where Vilkas and I had left Blackreach the night before. The dragon’s shriek was not audible from where we stood, but the reptile was obviously hunting, we saw it swoop down onto a point below it, saw it spit a stream of ice when it hovered over its prey.
I prayed it were just frost trolls or sabrecats it was after and not innocent travellers crossing the mountains, and my mind darkened. I didn’t want this reminder, not now, but the gods never cared for what I wanted. There were so many of them, and it seemed they became more frequent every day.
Farkas noticed my frown and followed my gaze, and when he saw what I saw, his grip around my shoulders became firmer and he turned us away, led me around the Dragonsreach cliff back to the gates of Whiterun.
“Don’t think about them, Qhouri,” he said with a calm smile. “Not today, not tomorrow. You need this time… and I don’t wanna share you with them now. Alright?”
I looked up into his face, into his expression of deep caring, and nodded. He was right, I needed this time. We needed this time.
“Kids… what did you think? Did you think at all? You really wanna send me into an early grave, don’t you?”
I looked at Kodlak in disbelief, the corners of his mouth twitching in agitation. He was completely beside himself.
We had left Breezehome for Jorrvaskr in the early evening, hoping that at least some of the Companions were back from their jobs, and found Torvar and Athis leaning against the rim of the well in the marketplace, chatting with Carlotta and teasing her daughter, both dusty and tired but chewing enthusiastically on the apples the merchant woman had gifted them. And their faces were priceless when they saw us coming up the street.
“I knew that hole in the earth would spit you out again,” Athis laughed when he threw his arms around me and I veered him around, earning us a grin from Farkas and Carlotta. And Torvar punched my shoulder, hard enough to leave a mark, and pulled an exaggerated face.
“Finally I can tell you how much I hate you. And that husband of yours, but he knows it already.”
I grinned at him. “I love you too, Torvar. And we’ll make up for it, promised.”
Farkas interrupted our banter. “Where are you heading, up to the hall or directly to the Mare?”
“Well,” Torvar drawled, “we wanted to allow ourselves an afterwork drink under Hulda’s loving eyes, but I think we’re gonna cancel that plan?”
“Yes,” Athis grinned, “I wanna hear how the bowels of the earth look like. And what kind of milkdrinkers live there that they can’t even digest our Qhouri.”
And while the boys changed out of their armours and washed away the dirt of the road, we visited Kodlak to bring him up to date. Who had immediately started to yell at us, and our clueless looks didn’t ease his foul mood at all. It seemed as if he had just waited for my return to get this roasting off his chest.
“You two are insane,” he bellowed. “First you run off to marry. No, I don’t care for your reasons! We’re your family, we would have liked to share that day with you! But no, you didn’t even bother to ask, and instead to rely on us you ask thieves for assistance! Of all people available in Riften you ask this wretched gang of scum? Seriously? That the priest let them enter the temple at all is a miracle all in itself! And then you,” his finger pointed accusatory at Farkas, “get yourself blinded by those bloody bugs like a bloody greenhorn and let your wife run off with her worst enemy. For weeks! Months! Whose stupid idea was that, anyway? And now that you’re finally back,” his finger wandered to me, “you bring him home? And now he’s off again? With Njada? On a Companions job? You really think this is how it works?”
The old man buried his head in his hands and breathed heavily. My bad conscience kicked in like the fist of a troll.
Kodlak’s head shot up again when we didn’t say a word, grey eyes flaring with anger. “By the way, where is the blasted thing now?”
“What thing?” Farkas asked cluelessly.
“The scroll, Icebrain! Shor’s bones, I’m really not into magic, but even I know that it can turn the world upside down if it gets into the wrong hands. So, where is it?”
I hesitated. “Eh… Vilkas had it. I think… he left it in our guest room this morning.”
I hoped so, at least. Not that I had asked him. Perhaps he had just… forgotten about it in the rush of his departure, and the scroll had already driven an unsuspecting, innocent necromancer into madness. Or a troll had eaten it when he dropped his pack somewhere.
Kodlak’s expression twisted into something between rage and resignation. “Oh. You think it’s in your guest room? Is it at least hidden under his pillow, or did he just drop it off with his laundry?”
Err… if I remembered those moments in the Tower Mzark correctly, he had wrapped it into his laundry. The heat of embarrassment shot into my face. With this at least the Harbinger was right. We were careless… something like the Elder Scroll had to be kept in safe custody.
“I’m gonna…” I hesitated, not sure if I was allowed to ask for it. “Can I bring it here? To Jorrvaskr, to keep it safe till I need it?”
“Finally! A glimpse of common sense!” He stared at me. “Of course you can bring it here. I request that you bring it here! No safer place in all of Whiterun, you know that. I’ll have an eye on it personally.” He sighed deeply. “Divines… in their guestroom… I’m too old for this…”
He took a deep breath. “Okay. Anything else I should know?”
Farkas and I looked at each other. “Yes,” we said simultaneously.
Kodlak just grunted annoyed. “Out with it.”
“Vilkas wants to return to Jorrvaskr,” I said.
“Qhouri is pregnant.”
Kodlak slumped back into his chair, his eyes wide. “No.”
A look, and we quickly agreed that it was better to remain quiet for the moment.
“I really hope the first isn’t the cause of the latter. Or vice versa.”
“Of course not!” Farkas blurted out.
Our Harbinger looked very tired suddenly. He leant forwards, propped his elbows on his knees and rubbed his temples. “Sorry. That was uncalled for.” A small smile curled his lips, and I was relieved to see him slowly return to his old self. “I’m not sure… is it already allowed to congratulate, or should I wait until the whelp enters the world? And… is it one, or two?”
“Only one,” I laughed, “at least if Danica is reliable.”
But then I took in his harsh, gaunt features that made him look so eerily exhausted and swallowed. He had worried… for the Companions as a group and for every single one of us, and it had taken its toll. “I’m sorry, Kodlak. I know we were rash, and… we had to make fast decisions, and there were many moments when I wished I could just come here and talk to you. Ask for your advice. Perhaps not everything we did was really clever. But it was no mistake to marry Farkas, and it wasn’t a mistake either to go to Blackreach with Vilkas. Please believe me.”
I lowered my head. “Perhaps it was wrong to talk him into coming to Whiterun with me. He didn’t want to… he’s scared. But he’s also homesick…”
My voice trailed off when I met Kodlak’s incredulous glance. “You pity him, Qhouri.”
I straightened myself. “Yes, I do, like I’d pity everybody who is denied to come home.” I clenched my teeth. “Kodlak… please. You once told me that I have to face him, and I called you a fool for that. But I did, and it has cost us all a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but I’ve made my peace with him. And he with me, and that’s perhaps equally important. Of course he can always stay with the Blades… but I wish you’d speak with him.”
Kodlak’s expression was pensive and doubting, but it also showed his usual friendliness, wisdom and empathy again – with an edge beneath it that revealed that he wouldn’t be fooled. That the peace of the Companions as a whole was worth much more to him than the well-being of a single – former – member, even if he knew him for more than 30 years. He was our Harbinger for a reason.
“Farkas?” he turned to my husband.
He didn’t hesitate. “Sweat, blood and tears, yes. Those two have fought, Kodlak, literally and with everything they have. But they’ve also gone through Blackreach and come out alive, they kept each other safe and came home together. That’s enough for me.”
Kodlak’s gaze lingered on Farkas, with that tentative smile that revealed his affection. He had raised those men after all, they were like sons to him, and he wasn’t ashamed to show it, like Farkas was never ashamed to confide in this affection.
“I can’t and won’t decide this on my own,” he said finally. “Before I speak with him, I’ll have at least a word with Aela. When will Vilkas and Njada be back?”
“Tomorrow afternoon probably.”
“Alright. Tell him to keep the evening free.”
An arrow whizzed past my head, so close that the fletching nearly caressed my earlobe, and lodged itself neatly into the temple of the scrubby Nord that was far too busy dodging and blocking my blade to realise what was happening in the background of the small cavern.
“Thank you, sister!” I yelled and heard Aela’s answering laughter from behind while another bandit already approached quickly, this one in heavy but rusty iron armour and wielding a battleaxe nearly as large as himself.
“Yours!” I shouted and darted past him, already in his back and engaging the last of our enemies while he still tried to follow my manoeuvre and turned on the spot, the head of his axe describing a large arc that was slow and predictable enough to bring up my shield and let it slide off. Aela’s first arrow pierced his side below the massive chestplate, and he doubled over with a scream. The second ran through his throat, and the scream became a gurgle. Poor fellow.
The last of these cutthroats was a wannabe-Athis, a Dunmer in shabby leather armour, wielding two daggers. He was fast, much faster than the attacks of my long blade, and his daggers came forth like the heads of a snake, unpredictable and vicious, searching for gaps in my armour and cover. But I had trained with one of the best dual wielding warriors in all of Skyrim and wasn’t as easy to fool as he thought.
“This is mine,” I panted when Aela appeared in the corner of my eyes, bow discarded and her own shortsword already drawn, “leave me at least a bit of the fun!”
Aela eyed our dance around each other critically for a moment, then she sheathed her sword and started to search through the chests at the edge of the room. When I heard her content grunt, I knew she had found what we were looking for – an ornamented, blunt, ancient greatsword with a distinctive jadegreen jewel embedded into the silver knot of the hilt. The family sword of a Whiterun citizen who had told us a touching story about how his father and grandfather had fed their entire families using this weapon and that he didn’t want to let it rot in some bloody bandit’s trophy room. He didn’t elaborate how it came there in the first place, but he paid us well to retrieve it back, and Aela’s expression showed that she had found even more. Gold and jewels probably, something to stuff our purses.
On next glance she had settled back to front on a crude wooden chair, her forearms crossed on top of the backrest.
“Hurry up a bit, Qhouri,” she said with a grin, “I wanna get out of here.”
My opponent gritted his teeth at her casual banter, increasingly desperate that he wasn’t able to slice past my cover. In the meantime I had inflicted him with a bleeding slash into the muscle of his upper arm and a shield bash that would colour his lower ribs black and blue for weeks – just that he wouldn’t live to endure it.
“Not so hasty,” I laughed, “I need the exercise. I’ve fought nothing but Falmer and machines for weeks and always had a big bad greatsword in front of me!”
She watched my next move, a stab to the unprotected throat of the man that he blocked by crossing his blades in front of his chest, countering my movement by a swift arch of his back. But he had to step back and I followed his retreat, ignored the feigned lefthanded attack to my side and hammered the edge of my shield downwards against the wrist of his right hand when it shot forwards in a low strike against my upper thigh. Something crushed, he screamed and the weapon fell with a dull clang to the ground. A fast kick and it was out of his reach, ending up between Aela’s feet who immediately started to clean her fingernails with it.
“Well, that sword can’t have been that big and bad, you’re by no means out of practice,” she smirked.
I observed myself carefully while I fought, tried to assess if anything had already changed. Since we had left Blackreach and Farkas took care that I got rest and everything my stomach desired in abundance, I felt like a completely new person. And despite the exertions of the last weeks, I was in good shape, strong and persevering. Farkas hadn’t been thrilled to let me go on this job with Aela, although it was nothing special or particularly dangerous, but he would have to get used to it. I was neither ill nor injured, and it would do me no good to let laziness become a habit, even if I had earned some recreation time.
I stalled my opponent for a bit, the man already panting heavily and sweat pouring in torrents down his dark grey face, leaving traces in his maroon warpaint. The way he clenched the handle of his remaining weapon showed that it made his palms already slippery. And he gritted his teeth to overcome the pain from the broken wrist, the hand hanging useless by his side, but I knew it had to spoil his reactions.
“Has Kodlak already spoken with you?”
Aela seemed a bit perplexed about this question. “About what?”
Obviously, he hadn’t.
“Vilkas of course,” I shouted while moving again, shifting my weight to get the leverage for the next strike. It was time to end this. I feigned an attack to his hip, made him twist sidewards just to stop his movement with a thrust of my shield to the bottom of his already bruised ribcage. Those dragon claws attached to its edge didn’t just look vicious. They pierced easily even through hardened leather, and they left his waist with several clearly defined, heavily bleeding holes, the impact additionally breaking a rib.
The mer doubled over and fell to his knees, wailing in pain, and Dragonbane’s long blade sliced smoothly through his exposed neck. Suddenly is was quiet, and I turned to Aela.
“He wants to speak with you before he meets him tonight. Vilkas wants to return.”
Aela sat completely relaxed on her chair, her chin propped on her forearms. And her smile was devious.
“Oh, does he now? Then I shouldn’t let our Harbinger wait, should I?”
I loved my sister dearly, but sometimes I just wanted to shove a boot up her bottom.
“Do you have an opinion on this, Aela?” I snapped at her, but it didn’t disturb her fabulous mood at all.
“Not sure,” she smirked. “Am I allowed to treat him like a whelp? Will he take over the ledgers again? Will he go hunting with me when you’re gone? Will he do what I tell him? Will he be nice?” She threw her hands in the air. “So many questions!”
“You always preferred to hunt alone,” I growled, but she already left the cave with fast steps and vanished into the dark tunnels that led to the exit, the sword we had come for strapped to her back. It looked silly, the small, slender woman with the huge weapon that stabbed with every step into the backs of her knees.
Only when we were out in the daylight again, she turned to me, and now her expression was serious.
“Yes, I have an opinion,” she said. “He is part of the pack, and the pack is sacred to me. We are what we are, and even if memories can haunt us, the past should be laid to rest. Better live for the moment.” She rested a hand on my shoulder. “If you can let go, I can as well, Qhouri.”
Beware, beware, the Dragonborn…
Mikael’s line died in his throat immediately when we entered the Mare, I didn’t even have to scowl at him. Seemed he had learned. And I was in the soothing, reassuring company of my siblings, sure as hell didn’t he want to get on the wrong side of us all.
I didn’t want to be the Dragonborn tonight. It was fun to recount our adventures in Blackreach in front of the eager faces of the Companions, but for the moment, I didn’t want to think of the immediate future. At least not of the part that involved the scroll that lay hidden in a heavily locked case in Kodlak’s study, not of Paarthurnax, not of Alduin. And I also didn’t want to think of what was going on in Breezehome at the moment, where two men tried to figure out how to go on.
There was so much we had to celebrate, I was dead set to take advantage of the opportunity. I had earned it.
When Njada had stumbled into the training yard in the afternoon, she came directly from the temple. The wounds she had suffered from the necromancers had been severe, too severe for a simple healing potion, extensive burns and nasty scorch marks left by lightning attacks, and she admitted openly that she’d be dead without Vilkas.
“He just did his bloody job, exactly what I expect from a shield-brother,” she said dryly but without malice when she had settled beside us on the porch, and as a thanks for the ale Farkas handed her, she punched him in the shoulder. “But you still owe me.”
And now we sat around our usual large table in the inn, Njada cuddled wearily on Athis’ lap who was arguing with Aela about the best way to deal with a Dwemer Centurion if there was no Dragonfire available, Ria singing along with Mikael, and I leant against Farkas’ shoulder and sipped on the single goblet of watered-down wine I was allowed over the course of the evening. And Torvar had found a convenient victim for his quips, having fun with me and my involuntary abstinence, but Farkas had an eye on me – Danica had forbidden excessive drinking, Danica’s word was law, and he was determined to take care that I complied. His constant joking and cheering with Torvar wasn’t very helpful, though. Not at all.
“Guys… if you go on like that, you can say goodbye to any plans of future fatherhoods right here and now. Both of you,” I growled.
“You know, Qhouri… I don’t hate you so much any more,” Torvar drawled in response, a cheeky grin splitting his face. “You’re already punished enough. Divines, I never thought I’d ever be so glad not to be a woman!”
And my husband had nothing better to do than to burst into roaring laughter.
It became late, conversations slowly turning into onesided, slurred speeches and songs into bawled, wordless caterwauling, Hulda keeping her maids busy and her guests happy. I watched the ruckus around me with an unusually clear head, but strangely, it wasn’t unpleasant to be sober for once while everybody else gradually drowned in their intoxication.
“What do you think, should I ask Vilkas to join us?” Farkas asked suddenly and in a low voice, bowing down to me.
He started me up. “Eh… you don’t know what Kodlak has told him. Perhaps he’s gonna leave tomorrow.”
His gaze was thoughtful. “I’d like to ask him.”
I looked into the round, into the cheerful, more or less drunk faces of the Companions, the atmosphere at our table so wonderfully relaxed. To bring Vilkas here would destroy the mood, of that I was certain – but it had to happen, sooner or later.
“Now’s as good a moment as any,” I said with a shrug. “Perhaps better than tomorrow when everybody has a hangover.”
“Everybody but you,” Farkas snickered. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
It seemed to become quiet when the two huge, bulky Nords suddenly stood in the door to the inn, the cold air of the night rushing in before Farkas kicked it shut. Of course it didn’t – although the brothers were always an attention-getting appearance, especially when they turned up together, most of the patrons were more interested in their tankards than in any other guests. But our table became silent, all conversations died at a blow when every eye turned to them. From the corner of my eyes I saw Athis whisper something to Njada who released him, and then he stood up and went towards the men, slender, dark and straight, his lips pressed tight in determination, crimson eyes narrowed on Vilkas with a seriousness nobody was used from him.
When he stood before him, the tension seemed to become corporeal, and it released violently when the mer’s fists crushed into Vilkas’ face with the speed of a snake’s head and all the power his trained body was able to muster, one hitting his jaw, the other breaking his nose. The attack came and was over so fast that neither Vilkas nor Farkas were able to react in time.
Now the inn was quiet, the attention of every single person directed at the three Companions at the door. Athis stood motionless in front of the brothers, tense like a bowstring, ready to defend himself against anything Vilkas might throw at him.
“You had that coming for far too long, brother,” he spat between gritted teeth, but Vilkas stood still as stone, his face rapidly swelling, blood trickling from his nose down his chin and into the neckline of his tunic. The mer only relaxed slightly when I stood behind him, my hands on his shoulders.
“Leave it, Athis. Please.”
He leant shortly against me, regained his composure, then turned stiffly on his heels. And he wore a malicious smirk.
“That was long overdue, Qhouri,” he said loud enough that no one could miss his words while he went calmly back to his place, “and I’m not finished with him yet.”
Vilkas flinched when I touched his chin and examined his face. “You need to see a healer,” I muttered, “just let me stop the bleeding first.” He endured the healing without complaint, but when Farkas took him by the elbow, he broke free. His gaze ran through the room, over the faces of the Companions, teeth clenched and hands balled into whiteknuckled fists, and finally met mine. Hard and icy, full of pride and determination… and something that was only for me. Hope, trust and gratitude… and the iron will to fight through this. He would not back out, not from them and not from me. I bit my lip and averted my eyes.
“Just gonna wash,” he grunted, “gimme a second.”
I took a deep breath and steeled myself before I went back to my place.
“Move on, Torvar,” I shooed him onto the next chair before I took his, then I looked into every single face assembled around me. I felt the tension in the air, the surprise and the doubts in my siblings.
“Vilkas will join us because I want him to join us. If one of you has a problem with this… with him, or with me… feel free to take it out on us. But not here, and not today. Please.”
Nobody moved and nobody left, even if it was only because they were simply too curious to miss how the night would develop further. And when the twins finally joined us, Vilkas took deliberately the place between his brother and Athis. It took an endless, incredibly awkward moment of silence, but when nothing happened at all, people returned finally to their drinks. And it didn’t take long until Vilkas was drawn into the conversations of his brother with Athis and Torvar, though forced and taciturn. But it was a start.
Only when he turned to a nearly sleeping Njada and asked her if her burns had been treated well, something more than shallow banter between drinking buddies shone through. Njada just nodded drowsily, but Athis eyed the Companion’s bruised face over the brim of his tankard. “You know, Vilkas,” he said, “Qhouri is a pretty lousy healer, not only compared to Danica. You should really go to the temple and get that pretty face of yours fixed.”
“I think I earned it, greyskin,” Vilkas answered, his voice constrained by the injury, “and it will heal anyway.”
Not a trace of amusement was in Athis’ voice. “Yes, you did, and much more than that.” He took a deep gulp, then he lifted his tankard. “Drinking helps too. You should hurry up, we’ve quite a lead.”