Relief surged through me as we stood in the door and watched after the man walking towards the market place. He didn’t look back, and I relaxed into Farkas’ arms that were slung around my waist. His brother was finally on his way to Jorrvaskr.
Vilkas had been taciturn about his conversation with Kodlak, but he returned to the hall and had asked us explicitly to leave him alone. I complied gladly. Now it was his turn to make the next steps to become a part of the Companions again, and I could understand that he didn’t want our intervention. But I had a good feeling about it. He wouldn’t screw it up, and I could finally leave this stage behind.
I was glad to be rid of him, and that we could stay behind in Breezehome. I missed my siblings, the lighthearted chatter and carefree daily routine, their friendship and the feeling of belonging. Life seemed so simple in Jorrvaskr, easy and carefree. But I didn’t want to take the time to get involved into their everyday business, and I couldn’t pretend any more that I was only a Companion. Alduin had taken priority, the scroll Kodlak had taken into his custody the next step towards him. And I had to hurry up.
The Throat of the World loomed in the back of my mind like it loomed over Whiterun during these few days that I allowed myself to rest, distant and still always present. It was an obstacle on my way to Alduin that had to be overcome, and at the same time it was a promise of the things that lay behind it. Life, future, family. Terms that had always been vague and unspecified, things we never dared to put into words.
But now our togetherness had gotten a new quality, shifted towards a future that had become tangible.
We didn’t make concrete plans, not like other parents-to-be probably would do it. No discussions about names or what changes in the house would be necessary, no preparations. It was too early for that, too much stood between us and this family we wanted to become. But I sensed it in Farkas’ reverence when he ran his palms over my belly, in his amusement over the weird eating habits I indulged myself in, in his eagerness to spoil me and in his sheepish smile when he came back from a trip to the market and had instead spent a fortune on a whole stack of life detection scrolls.
“I wanna see what’s happening in you,” he mumbled, and from that day on he used one every single morning before we got up. The unbridled happiness that lit up his face with this little ritual accompanied us through the days.
Breezehome became my home over these few days, a refuge the rest of the world was only allowed to enter when we invited it in, something that only belonged to Farkas and me.
But of course we couldn’t absent ourselves forever, and when I had finally convinced Farkas that a full week of laziness was enough and that we really had to leave, we went up to Jorrvaskr in the evening. I wanted to get some things from my room, and it was silly anyway that we avoided the hall just because Vilkas was there.
Nonetheless I was nervous when we stood in front of the doors, which was even sillier. Farkas gave me crooked grin. “If there had been a funeral in the meantime, we’d have heard it,” he said and pushed the doors open. But everything was like it had always been, a group of Companions sitting at the fire, eating, drinking and chatting, Vignar having his dinner together with Olfina and Brill.
We were greeted with a good-natured cheer. “About time,” Njada said drily, “didn’t know that pregnancy makes you so lazy.”
“It doesn’t,” I laughed, “but I earned it.”
“You did. But I didn’t mean you.”
“Dunno. Farkas looks pretty worn out,” Athis chimed in with a grin, shifting to make room for us. We pulled our chairs into the round.
“Don’t ask,” my husband said. “That woman eats nothing but pickles. Five times a day. The whole house reeks of vinegar.”
“That’s not true!” I said indignantly. I ate other things too. Dry bread, for example. I craved dry bread, and it was good against the heartburn that plagued me. But I also craved the sour, fresh prickling of spiced vinegar on my tongue. One of the reasons that had lured me to Jorrvaskr was that Tilma’s cucumbers with dill and mustard seeds were simply the best, and now was the time of year when the shelves in her storage rooms were packed tight with sealed jars.
But despite the outward normality and the light-hearted banter, there was a tension in the air of which I wasn’t sure if it had been there before or if we had caused it. I felt the curious looks of Vorstag and Olfina, noticed Ria’s unusual tight frown and how she seemed to avoid to speak with me directly. The conversation wasn’t as easy-going as I was used to, contained little teases and quips that were only just not vicious enough to hurt, but unnecessary and obviously aimed to offend. And they were careful with the topics we spoke about, no one mentioning Blackreach and the weeks of my absence, and it was as if Vilkas didn’t even exist.
We never had to be careful what to say. Not inside these halls, not in this company, but now the conversation stalled over and over again, awkwardly, as if there was a threshold no one wanted to cross. Farkas felt it too, his hand on my knee a heavy weight of reassurance, but it also intensified the sense of detachment.
“Okay,” I said finally, putting my goblet on the table. “Would someone please tell me what’s going on here? Where’s Vilkas?”
“Who cares?” Ria blurted out. I gave her an incredulous look. She had balled her fists, staring defiantly at me. “He can rot in Oblivion! You should have let him rot!”
It became instantly quiet, as if everybody had only waited for this to be voiced. I lowered my head, breathing deeply to calm myself. Now had arisen what I wanted to avoid at all cost – that I had to justify myself for Vilkas.
Farkas pulled back his hand and bent forward. “Qhouri doesn’t have to explain herself to you, Ria,” he said sharply.
“But she should. She brought him back!” Her lips were pressed into a stubborn line, and she answered his stare with a flaring challenge.
“It wasn’t my decision that he’s here,” I said.
“No, it was Kodlak’s,” she spat. “As if that mattered. As if you didn’t talk him into it!”
“And what if I did? You wanna judge me for making my peace with him?”
“Yes.” Her gaze turned into icy, bitter hostility. I had never seen her like this. “What about our peace? He nearly destroyed Jorrvaskr, and this is not just your home. You? You give a shit about us. You hole yourself up with your husband and only drop by to get a pat on the back. And now we have to deal with that bastard just because he killed a few Falmer for you?”
Farkas shot up. “You have no idea what you’re talking about!” he shouted at her.
“And everybody knows that for you, your precious brother always comes first, even before your wife! Do you even care what he did to her?” she yelled back.
“Ria!” Aela thundered, “shut up!”
“No, I won’t, and you won’t make me!” The young woman leaped to her feet with so much force that her braids flew around her face and her chair fell over behind her. “This is sick! You are sick, and I won’t bear to live with him under one roof!” She ran down the stairs, the door to the living quarters slamming shut with a bang.
It became deadly quiet in the large room, a cold, oppressive silence that lay like chilly fog on my mind. No one dared to say a word, no one dared to look me in the eyes. I buried my forehead in my palms as Farkas’ arm slung protectively around my shoulder.
Aela finally cleared her throat. “She didn’t mean it like that,” she said quietly.
My head shot up. “Oh yes, she did. She thinks I give a shit, that we’re selfish, lazy and presumptuous and that Vilkas is vermin not worth the gore under her fingernails. And I wonder if you all agree with her.”
“This came all pretty sudden,” Njada said hesitantly. “Can’t you understand that we’re… suspicious? That it’s not easy to have him dumped here as if nothing has happened while you keep away?”
“Oh yes, I can. I was just naïve enough to believe you’d be able to deal with it. With him, when even I could. I thought I could concentrate on Alduin now. But you don’t even try.” I clenched my teeth as I looked into the round, into the perplexed, embarrassed faces of my siblings. “You all know that you can speak up, and you know that Kodlak will listen. To each of you. But that would mean you’d have to listen as well. Instead…” I sighed. “All I wanna know right now is… where is he?”
I saw shoulders twitch and heads lower. They took too long to answer. Worry and anger puckered my mouth.
A growl formed in Farkas’ chest. “Where is my brother?”
“Out. On a job.” Aela’s voice was low. I tensed, but she didn’t give me a chance to ask. “Yes, he’s alone. He left too fast to give us opportunity…”
“Opportunity?” I flared up, “you let him go alone and blame it on opportunity? Who doesn’t give a shit here?”
“It’s just a criminal chase through the Pale,” Aela said in a placating tone.
I glared at her. “Isn’t that nice! A walk in the park, such a chase. Nothing can happen when you’re all on your own. And perhaps we’re lucky and he stumbles over a few Silver Hand, eh?” To see her blanch filled me with satisfaction.
“No Silver Hand.”
A gush of cold air hit my heated face as the door opened. Vilkas wore his Blades armour, he was dirty, wet and pale from exhaustion, but he entered the hall with firm steps and let a thick pouch drop in front of Aela. “The payment. I know you don’t like to deal with Skald.”
His gaze was icy as it wandered over the people at the table, his lips curling in contempt. “You know… I thought you’d take it out on me. I thought you’d make me pay, fight me and make my life a living hell, and I would have put up with it, because every one of you has reasons enough. But that you let it out on her now… that you let that brat kick out against Qhouri because none of you has the balls to say stuff to my face… that’s gross.” He bared his teeth in a derisive snarl. “No one here is as entitled to respect and support as she is. No one. And what does she want? The occasional pat on the back from those who call themselves her siblings. Nothing more. But you… you deny her even that. You sit here in your comfortable, safe little hall, live your comfortable, safe little lives and dare to accuse her not to care.”
He was quiet for a moment and took in the dumbfounded faces of the Companions – including mine and Farkas’. I was speechless. A small, nearly gentle smile broke the scowl when his eyes met mine. “You were right, Qhouri. Your mercy is worth nothing. But I won’t take any more steps of my own if you have to pay for them.”
He shouldered his pack and turned away, but instead to descend to the living quarters, he went around the table and the fireplace to the back door. Only in the last possible moment, a second before the door clapped shut, it was Torvar of all people who rose and called after him.
The man turned stiffly, his face unmoved, ready to lash out again. “Torvar?”
He seemed to have difficulties to bring himself to speak, his eyes flitting through the room. Finally he blurted out, “Silent Moons? Tomorrow?”
Vilkas only arched an eyebrow, but his shoulders sagged – only a bit – and his whiteknuckled grip on the handle loosened as the men locked eyes. Finally he gave a curt nod. “With sunrise. Sober.”
Torvar wore a sheepish grin as he lowered himself on his seat again and took a long gulp from his tankard. “Ria will hate me,” he muttered.
I stared at him and shook my head, trying to collect my thoughts. What was going on here? All of them were pissed at Vilkas – of course they were, what did I expect? – and in extension at Farkas and me. This hostility was something I hadn’t expected, though, and even less that it would be Ria to freak out like that. Vilkas was furious – for me. Not without reason, but they had reasons too. Plenty. And Farkas was seething, ready to punch everyone to Oblivion who dared to say a single wrong word.
And I was confused and tired. This was a disaster, but they would have to deal it out among themselves. I wanted to kiss Torvar for his sudden, unexpected initiative. They would hunt bandits together, and perhaps it would lead to something more. And if it didn’t because Vilkas was his usual charming self or Torvar behaved especially stupid – I couldn’t help it. I wouldn’t be here.
I stood up, rubbing my palm over my face. “We should go home.”
“Yeah. I’ll fetch your stuff tomorrow.” Farkas’ arm slung around my shoulder.
“When will you leave?” Aela asked.
“In two days.” Perhaps we’d just leave next day. The sooner the better.
“I’ll see you.” I wasn’t sure if it was a threat or a promise.
Aela came by while Farkas was at Jorrvaskr to fetch the Scroll and the stuff I wanted to move from my room there to Breezehome, mostly clothes and books. And she brought Ria. The two women stood stiffly in the main room while I put the kettle over the fire and opened a bottle of ale for them.
“Gosh!” I said, “sit down, for Kyne’s sake!”
It took an awkward moment of silence when they had settled, but I didn’t have the patience to beat around the bush. We would discuss this, and they – especially Ria – would either listen to me, or they wouldn’t. I wouldn’t let them talk me into remorse for bringing Vilkas back. “Okay. Let’s get over with this. We have to speak about Vilkas, don’t we?”
Contrition flickered over Ria’s face, but she didn’t avoid my gaze and nodded. “I’m sorry, Qhouri,” she blurted out. “I shouldn’t have said that. But I don’t get it! How could you bring him back?”
I gave her a feeble grin. “To get him off my heels. Thought I could pull it off.” She didn’t find it funny, and I became serious as well, clearing my throat. “Because that’s what Jorrvaskr is, Ria. His home. And I didn’t let him. I had to drag him, screaming and kicking. But… I believe he belongs here, and that we need him.”
“We don’t! We did just fine without him!”
“No, we didn’t. Kodlak needs him, Farkas needs him, I’ve seen the pile of unfulfilled contracts, and honestly… your footwork is still lousy.”
“That’s all true,” Aela chimed in, “but you know it’s not reason enough. And some of us need an explanation for your actions.”
“Yes, I know.” I looked sternly at my shield-sister. “But it’s not so easy to explain. It has taken me months to get to this point. But Vilkas is not a bad man, Ria. He is and will always be an ass, but he’s not a bad man.”
Her voice was shrill and incredulous. “You call that not bad, everything he did? He’s disgusting!”
“What he did was disgusting, that’s true and he knows it. I haven’t forgotten it, and he hasn’t either. But you know that’s not the whole Vilkas. Remember how you lived with him. He trained you, and I know it wasn’t always fun, but he taught you a lot. And when you went out on a job with him… it wasn’t fun either, but you always knew that you’d come home safe. That you’d never be in danger as long as he had your back.”
I saw the doubt in her features, wide eyes watching me full of disbelief. For her, everything was black and white. Vilkas had failed her too, and she had condemned him for it.
“Don’t think it was easy to deal with him. We have fought to the blood, I nearly beat him to death, he has hit me and I have shouted at him. But… well, now we’re fine, and how we got there… it’s something only between him and me, Ria. I wish you could trust me in this.”
“I just can’t understand how you don’t hate him. How you can think he belongs here.”
“I did. You have no idea.” My hands clenched in my lap. In Morthal, Vilkas had said that I was selfish when I considered his offer. And in a way, he was right. “It eats you up, you know? When you hate someone so much that his death would be a mercy, when you’d give yourself up just to see him suffer… it can destroy you. It darkens everything else, and it takes all your strength. I wish you that you’ll never learn how to hate like that.”
“But you left it behind.”
“We both did. And we had help.”
“He made pretty clear how he stands to you,” Aela chimed in with a chuckle.
Ria’s head jerked around. “He did?”
“Yep. He came back after you stormed off, called you a brat and told us to piss off and leave Qhouri alone.”
“Divines…” She buried her face in her palms, and it became quiet for long moments. But then she lifted her head, and her cheeks dimpled with a small grin. “That sounds a lot like Vilkas.”
I had to laugh. “Yeah.”
She had relaxed a bit, her hands folded loosely on the table. “I miss you, Qhouri,” she said with a feeble smile. “It would be easier if you were here. But you aren’t, and Farkas isn’t either…” She shrugged. It wasn’t meant as an accusation.
“We can’t help it, Ria.” Farkas blundered through the door, a heavy sack slung over his shoulder and a crate full of books jammed under his arm. He dropped everything at the bottom of the stairs, pushed off his cloak and fell on the seat beside me. “Qhouri has a job to do that is more important than our work.”
“I know you think that I just drop by to get a pat on the back.” The way her cheeks reddened made me smile. “And in a way, that’s true. I know it wasn’t fair to sneak him in like that, and I don’t want you to leave me alone. I’d like to think of Jorrvaskr as a place I can come back to when all this is over and done. A comfortable, safe little hall where I can live a comfortable, safe little life with all of you. Including Vilkas.”
“It will be pretty weird not to see you fight on every occasion.”
“Don’t worry, we will,” I grinned. “We’ll find plenty of reasons.”
“He’ll have to get through me first,” Farkas growled with mock anger.
I nudged my elbow into his ribs. “You let me deal with your brother on my own.”
Ria rose and slung her cloak around her shoulders. “First we’re gonna deal with him. You don’t worry and hurry up, okay?”
“I will. I promise.” I pulled her into a tight hug. She was young, but strong and reliable. They all were.
Later that day, when we had both packed, taken long, relaxing hot baths and eaten together and I lay with a book sprawled on the bed, ready to enjoy a last lazy evening, Farkas fell down beside me and snuggled against my side.
“You okay, love?”
I had to grin. He had asked this question at least a dozen times since we left Jorrvaskr the day before, as if he couldn’t believe it when I told him every time that I was.
“Yep.” Of course I was. Jorrvaskr was fine, Vilkas was fine, and now I would go and read the Elder Scroll. The next step, and we would deal with the outcome when it came to it. I turned to the side and slung my arm around his waist. “Stop fretting, okay?”
“Okay.” A mischievous grin appeared on his face. “I got something for you. A bribe.”
“A bribe? What do you have to bribe me into?”
I recognised the jar he placed between us at once. It was one of Tilma’s, and when I lifted the lid, the delicious smell of dill and vinegar rose to my nose. “Pickles!”
“You mad if I leave you alone tonight?”
I cocked my head. “What are you up to?”
“I’d like to see Vilkas. He’ll be back with Torvar by now.”
Of course. The brothers had barely had opportunity to speak with each other, not once since we had come to Skyhaven. They had either fought and yelled at each other, or I had been between them. It was high time that they spent some time together, and who knew when he’d have the chance again.
I waved towards the door, already chewing. “You’re dismissed. Give him my greetings.”
“You just want them all for yourself,” he said with a grin.
“Exactly.” He scrambled off the mattress and tied a pouch to his belt. When he leant over me, braced on both sides of my head, I slung my arms around his neck.
“You know why I’m fine?” His eyes shone as he shook his head. “Because you’re always there when I need you.”
He kissed me softly. “Love you, woman.”
It had been a horrible climb, the Throat of the World covered in thick, low-hanging clouds we had to cross through. They released a cold, drizzling rain that had become snow higher up, and more than once we nearly lost the slippery, iced path in the thick fog, despite the steps, the stonemarkers and the shrines to lead us.
But it was our goal that filled my thoughts while I set step before step. Finally I was on my way to fulfil the dreaded task I had kicked down the road for so long, and all the reasons why I had hesitated for all those months wormed themselves back into my mind. I had not really an idea what awaited me when I’d use the scroll. Yes, the most obvious danger was simply to go crazy. But even if that didn’t happen… what would happen?
Would that thing really cast me back in time, physically, all of me including my body, like it had done it with Alduin? And how did it know exactly where – or when – to drop me off? And if just my mind wandered off – what would happen to my body if something happened to me during that journey? It was a war I would visit after all, I had to witness the Tongues fight against Alduin. What if my presence had an influence on that fight? And what would happen in my present when I disturbed the wound in time Alduin’s banishment had left, when I used that hole in the fabric of eternity?
I had no idea. But all these possibilities and vaguenesses filled my mind to the brim, and the only reason I hastened forwards were the answers I’d eventually get.
It was deep in the night when we finally stumbled through the heavy doors of High Hrothgar. Arngeir greeted us in the main hall, taciturn as always, and led us to the guest quarters where a meal and a fire already were already waiting for us.
I did not sleep. We laid ourselves to rest after a sparse meal, both so exhausted that we barely tasted any more what we ate, but sleep fled me. I was just tired, and despite my aching bones I couldn’t bring my mind to find the rest I needed. It was simply too silent in our cosy room, the thick walls blocking out every sound, and the silence lay upon me like a thick, heavy coat that threatened to choke me. Once I had craved for this silence, had found solace in it, but these times were over. Now I felt harried and trapped, and it just made my thoughts run around in even more frantic circles. There was nothing to hold on to, not even Farkas’ deep breathing was able to soothe me.
He stirred when I shifted again and again, trying to find a position that would allow me to relax.
“What’s the matter, dear?” he said drowsily, his hand coming up and stroking my shoulder.
“Can’t sleep,” I whispered, “it’s too quiet.”
He didn’t react at first, but then he turned around and lit a candle on the bedside table. A small smile played on his lips. “You could just tell me that you want me to practice bedtime story telling.”
I chuckled at his answer. He was so sweet. And his head was so obviously occupied by other things than dragons. “You can practice as much as you want, your stories won’t become any more suitable,” I snickered. “Not as long as you let Torvar mentor you.”
“Not?” he said with feigned astonishment. “Wait… in that case I’ll have to make them up myself. Still better than reading.”
I turned to him and put my arms around his neck. “They’re still suitable for me, love,” I whispered, just to see that cheeky, cheerful grin flare up.
“No, they’re far too exciting for you. Turn around,” he commanded and pulled down the blanket before he straddled my thighs. “You just need to calm down.”
His warm palms on my back were relaxing my body and soothing my mind at the same time, searching for tensions and knots in my muscles and loosening them with slow, firm strokes. He knew me so well, knew where not to touch because I would thrash out from the tickling and which spots always hurt most. He advanced methodically, started with his thumbs working my neck in small circles, worked over tight shoulders and upper arms, back to my shoulder blades and to the sides of my chest before he continued with the strained muscle strands along my spine, again starting in the nape of my neck and working down.
I literally purred when I felt tensions dissolve I didn’t even know I had developed. “If I hadn’t married you already, I’d do so right now,” I sighed in bliss when a particularly obstinate knot vanished under the firm pressure of his fingers. He chuckled and leant forwards, his warm breath wafting through my hair.
“Better?” he whispered and hovered above me, weight held by his forearms, just his face resting against my neck. Despite the chill in the air, his body radiated an incredible warmth.
It became silent again, no sound disturbing the calmness that spread through me.
Only when he shifted and released me of his weight I dared to move again and pulled him to my side. “Come here,” I murmured, begging for contact and he closed his arms around me, nestled skin against skin, and his eyes rested on my face in a silent invitation. More than that, a plea.
“Please,” he whispered and lowered his forehead to mine as I drew him closer. I felt the wolf reach out and with the wolf the man, and we both let our guards down, pulled away the barriers that usually sheltered our senses from the unrestrained impact of the outside. Now we let each other in without timidity or restraint, and our minds met in a way that was possible only between the two of us. I was with him just like he was with me, the borders of our selves blurring during this moment of sharing. A bond of unconditional trust, the ultimate closeness and the ultimate confession.
We were both scared, and no jest, no joke could hide it any more. We bared all our fears to each other, of all the unnamed dangers threatening and all the fights still waiting for us. And those for our future, for our child, for our world, for everything that we lived for. That we’d die for, if we had to.
They were different and still so similar, and nothing could take them away from us. But we could share them to make them lighter and more bearable, and besides our fears, there was still so much more. Faith in our strength and hope for the bit of luck we’d need, the determination to stay together, to go this way to the end and the knowledge that we could rely on each other. And above everything the love we felt for each other, flaring up in unbridled joy that we were still alive and that we were together, over and over again and every day anew.
We renewed our bond, marvelling again about what we took for granted so often, abandoned ourselves to each other. The silence resolved in laughter and lust, our bodies merging like our minds, little whimpers and breathless touches unfolding the last knots that lay tangled in my stomach.
The view when we left High Hrothgar to its courtyard next morning was as unexpected as breathtaking. I was used to see down the slopes of the mountain and into the distance, over the foaming waters of the White River and the plains of Whiterun Hold, Dragonsreach recognisable far away like a puppet house. And if the weather was particularly clear and calm and Eorlund particularly diligent, sometimes I could see the smoke column standing over the Skyforge.
Nothing of all this was visible now, no landscape, no river, no streets or buildings. The clouds we had crossed the day before still hung like a collar around the peak, separating us from the world beneath, concealing everything that could be used as an anchor for my gaze. It was a blanket of white, forming a scenery of rugged mountains, valleys and gently rolling plains, inviting me to explore it.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered in awe, and Arngeir answered with a low chuckle.
“Yes, it is,” he said, “and it makes it easy to forget that we’re still bound to Nirn.” He pointed up to the peak, the snow blinding my sight in the sunlight. “Breathe and focus, Dovahkiin. Paarthurnax is waiting for you.”
It was easier this time to reach Paarthurnax, we went with lighter packs, I knew better how to pace myself, and Farkas had memorised the way and could tell how far we still had to go. But I still had to fight the mist blocking our path with everything I had, every bit of my strength and concentration set on this task, and I was again exhausted to the bones when we finally reached the peak.
“Leave her alone, Paarthurnax,” Farkas grunted as he helped me to a sheltered ledge and handed me a healing potion against the searing pain in my throat. Despite the exhaustion, I had to grin at his flippant approach of the ancient dragon.
“Some day he’s gonna roast you,” I croaked.
“No, he won’t. The Dragonborn’s gonna protect me,” he grinned back and drew a leather-wrapped package out of my knapsack. “Here. Go when you’re ready.” He laid the scroll carefully into my suddenly trembling hands.
“I wish you could come with me,” I said, scrambling to my feet with a groan. “Perhaps with the two of us, we could have killed Alduin right back then, and that whole stunt with these scrolls wouldn’t have been necessary?”
Something was wrong with this thought, although I didn’t grasp instantly what it was exactly. But Farkas stood before me, his hands on my shoulders, and something worked in him, a deep frown of concentration creasing his forehead.
“No,” he said finally, “if Alduin had been killed back then we wouldn’t need a Dragonborn now. And if you weren’t Dragonborn, perhaps you also wouldn’t be a Companion. Perhaps you’d have never been born at all. Perhaps we’d have never met.”
Holy Kyne, this man found something positive in literally everything.
“Dovahkiin!” Paarthurnax’ voice rang over the mountain. It seemed he became impatient.
My hands palmed Farkas’ face. “I love you, husband,” I muttered, and he bowed down with a smile and kissed me, soft and lingering. “I know. Go and learn some words, I’ll be here when you come back.”
It was always he who had to wait for me to come back. It wasn’t fair.
“You really have it. The Kel – the Elder Scroll!” The white dragon didn’t wait until I had reached him, sitting on his usual lookout on top of the wordwall. “Tiid kreh… qalos. Time shudders at its touch.”
I had to tilt my head into my neck when I finally stood before him, and I felt as tiny as at the first time we met. Paarthurnax’ obvious excitement didn’t diminish my awe in the presence of his mighty appearance at all.
“No question is left, you are truly doom-driven.” His head bent down, and I thought to identify curiosity and excitement on his features. “Kogaan Akatosh! You truly live with Akatosh’s blessing, Dovahkiin, and the very bones of the earth are at your disposal.”
I wouldn’t tell him that I had to dig through exactly these bones to get the blasted thing. Holding the Scroll firmly pressed to my chest, I bowed briefly.
“Greetings, Paarthurnax.” But he didn’t have the patience for formalities any more. Even his very own eternity could come to an end, and he wanted this step to be done.
“Go, Dovahkiin, do not delay. Fulfil your destiny. Take the Scroll to the Time-Wound.”
The Time-Wound. My gaze wandered to the point where his snout pointed, on the other side of the Wordwall. It didn’t look different from any other spot in this place, but perhaps it was nothing I could discern with my mortal senses.
I swallowed and cleared my throat until Paarthurnax turned his attention back to me, as if astonished that I still stood in front of him.
“Do you know… can you tell me what will happen?”
The dragon’s head swang once from one side to the other, his flews lifting in a draconic smile.
“No. Alduin won’t miss the signs of what’s happening here today, that’s for certain. But you are Dovahkiin. Don’t fear.”
It was his confidence, the confidence of one of the eldest beings on Nirn in a mortal girl that let me finally set one foot before another. And when I reached the spot he had indicated, I could indeed feel it. A ripple, barely perceptible, like gentle waves of water flowing over my skin. Just that it wasn’t a feeling… it was something else, a sensation my body wasn’t made to process. We mortals were bound to the moment we lived in, with no connection to the future and no ties to the past but our frail memories.
But this was a ripple in time, a disturbance in the fabric of eternity. And somehow I could feel it, and with the harmless piece of parchment in my hands, I’d be able to use it.
Slowly I unfolded the package Kodlak had so carefully tied up, and I forced myself not to think back to Jorrvaskr, to concentrate on my fingers busy with the tight knots of the strips. The soft leather fell away and I held the scroll in my hand, smooth wood against my palms, and the time to hesitate was over. The weird not-feeling became more noticeable when I unrolled the parchment, tugging at my senses in a way that shouldn’t have affected them at all, and when my gaze fell on the lines and signs I could read no more than I could feel the time around me, it was over in a blink of an eye. Time was light I didn’t see, a touch I didn’t sense, a tunnel around my vision pulling me forward. I was drawn away, away from the mountain yet staying in place, and although I was gone, I still knelt in the snow at the top of the world. Like I had done it a second ago. Or an era ago. Or an eternity ago.
There were dragons, an army of them circling around the peak of the mountain, colourful wings darkening the sky, their shrieking roars earshattering, fire and ice lighting up the mountaintop in red and white blasts that blinded the eyes before it fell into near darkness again. And beneath them fought people, Nords in ancient armours I had seen plentiful in their tombs, screaming and shouting, slashing and dying.
This wasn’t just a fight… it was a battle. The last great battle of the Dragon Wars, where both parties threw in everything they had left after this long war, the battle that had to bring a decision. I saw people die in fire and ice and fangs, saw dragons fall from the sky, the membranes of their wings shredded by arrows, fireballs and the claws of their own brethren. Because this wasn’t just a battle of mortals against their ancient foes – I saw dragons fight other dragons, and the remaining dragon priests stood by the side of their masters and battled with magic and Shouts against their fellow Nords.
The scene was blurred before my eyes, as if I observed it through the wavering heat above a fire, the alien signs from the scroll still swirling at the edge of my vision, and I wasn’t sure if it were indeed my own senses that followed the events. But although the signs held no meaning, I understood what I saw, and that meant at least that I hadn’t lost my mind – for the moment. My gaze was fixed on the fight before me, three warriors bringing down a dragon in front of the wordwall with steel and magic before they gathered to await their next foe. They stood nearly on my toes when they discussed the proceedings of the fight, just that my toes obviously weren’t there. As was the rest of me.
The whole sensation of being in-between this slaughtering, to see, hear and smell something I shouldn’t be able to see, hear and smell and to know that at the same time I knelt in the snow under the watchful eyes of Paarthurnax and Farkas – it was deeply disturbing, made it hard to concentrate on the events, my attention additionally distracted by all that dying around me. Especially when the slender woman with the exclusive, golden-hilted sword couldn’t stop boasting how many dragons had already bloodied her blade that day, the brute with the greataxe complained that Alduin didn’t show up and the old man in the grey robe scolded his fellow combatants for being naïve.
I thought they were all naïve. They had no idea what they were doing with that insane plan of theirs. And Alduin would come.
I smelled him before I saw him, the stench of molten metal, seething blood and rotting flesh. And I heard his laughter, malicious, sinister and devious, a voice I would never forget.
Helgen. Kynesgrove. Memories of the future flooded me, blurred together with the signs on the scroll in front of my vision, images behind my closed lids that remained the same through the ages and were terrifying real – fiery red eyes, wings darker than a clouded night sky, a mass of muscles under dull black scales and spikes and an aura of purest hate, made to bring death and destruction.
I wasn’t there. He couldn’t see me, he could do me no harm, he couldn’t know that I’d witness his demise. At least his temporary demise.
“He is beyond our strength.” Perhaps the old man was right, and perhaps Arngeir had been right as well. Perhaps Alduin wasn’t meant to be defeated, and perhaps I was the one who was naïve and presumptuous.
When I opened my eyes again, Alduin sat on top of the wordwall, on Paarthurnax’ favourite spot. His voice was dripping with malice and aplomb.
“You will die in terror, mortals, knowing your final fate… to feed my power when I come for you in Sovngarde!”
“JOOR ZAH FRUL!”
Finally! This was Dragonrend, the Shout of mortals that made the dragon suffer mortality. The old man had shouted the words, and they burnt themselves into my brain in blazing letters when blue flames engulfed the dragon’s body with a force even he could not cast off.
Alduin’s scream was earshattering, anger and fury sounding in it, disbelief… and a hint of fear.
“Nivahriin joorre! What have you done? What twisted Words have you created? Tahrodiis Paarthurnax! My teeth to his neck!”
He berated the mortals who had bound him to earth as cowards, helpless in his wrath, and the warrior-woman just laughed at him. “I see it in your eyes, worm.” She approached him with her sword drawn, shoulders squared, straight and bold. “You feel fear, for the first time in your life. Feel the fear!”
But the fight had only just begun, and the Worldeater was a terrible foe, even when rooted to the ground. He was unbelievably fast and strong, shifted his huge mass around as if it weighed nothing, the elegance he’d show on his wings even visible now. No place was safe from his fangs, his claws and his tail as he turned and shifted, the violent flaps of his wings sweeping his enemies away.
But the three warriors were relentless, they picked themselves up every time they were brought down, avoided his deadly breath, his teeth and claws in a foolhardy dance of wit, strength and stamina, the dragon held down infinitely by the shouts of the mage.
Until the warrior lost his footing, fell and evaded the fire blast only with a swift roll, cowering into a ball with his shield covering his back. It was the distraction of a single, fateful second when the woman followed the movement of her companion and didn’t notice the dragon’s huge head shooting forwards and towards her.
The sickening crunch when his fangs closed around her body ended her scream, and she didn’t feel it any more when he hurled her down the slopes of the mountain.
“Feed me in Sovngarde!” The dragon’s roar was filled with satisfaction.
“No, damn you!” It was a scream of despair and hopelessness the warrior let out, but he resumed his attacks with new vigour, hate and determination speaking out of every swing of his greatsword. But his rashness served a purpose. He knew now that they couldn’t win this fight, and he wanted to gain his fellow the necessary time.
“Felldir, it’s no use! Use the Scroll! Now!”
Without a second thought the robed man backed off, away from the fight, away from the dragon who was bound by Dragonrend and the attacks of the warrior. He came towards me, and I saw him grip the scroll stuck into his belt, saw him unroll it before my eyes.
His evocation was already fading when the signs took possession of me.
“Hold, Alduin on the Wing! Sister Hawk, grant us your sacred breath to make this contract heard! Begone, World-Eater! By words with older bones than your own we break your perch on this age and send you out! You are banished! Alduin, we shout you out from all our endings unto the last!”
Alduin screamed in rage and horror, struggled against the force that overwhelmed him, his refusal to accept his banishment obvious. But his last roar was triumphant, and although I didn’t understand the words, I knew that he realised in time that he wasn’t defeated, that he would return. A roar of victory and malice followed me through the eternity of light and darkness and nothing, back into my present.
The roar was real, as was the presence behind it, the feral screams from past and present mingling into a single sound, carrying an amount of purest hate, malignancy and dominance that had had an eternity to grow and ripen.
It was as real as the snow beneath my knees and my palms, as the weakness in my bones and the veil before my eyes, as the hands tugging at my shoulders.
“Qhouri! Get up!”
Someone stood behind me, watched me, and as soon as I opened my eyes, strong hands grabbed my arms and shoved me away, out of the way of a deadly fireblast.
The sky had darkened, impenetrable, unnatural clouds circling in a gloomy maelstrom over the peak of the Throat of the World. The shadow looming on top of the wordwall was even darker though, only hateful crimson eyes gleaming as bright spots in the dim light.
Alduin. Alduin was here.
“Dovahkiin!” It was Paarthurnax’ voice, so different from his brother’s, the white dragon circling above the place. “Use the Shout! Use Dragonrend!”
But I still struggled to gain back my senses that didn’t work as usual. Alduin’s roar blasted in a cacophony through my ears, but worse was the veil shadowing my sight, everything I set my gaze on blurred, colourless and at the edges framed by the flickering signs from the scroll. When I fought myself to my feet, my knees threatened to give away under me. Only Farkas’ firm grip held me upright, he had his weapon already drawn, his eyes searching the sky.
I followed his gaze, blinking and fighting to clear my head, and gasped in awe. The dragons fought, light against darkness, both with fire that illuminated the uncanny clouds. They circled each other, a mad chase over the sky, vanished behind the flank of the mountain just to reappear somewhere else, clawed and bit and shouted, every word a word of power, even if they just exchanged insults.
“Use it! He’s too strong on the wind!” Paarthurnax’ cry thrummed like a bell in my ears, and I tried to focus, tried to follow Alduin’s black form long enough to hit him with my voice.
“JOOR ZAH FRUL!”
It hit, the blue flames engulfing the black body, and we watched in awe how Alduin’s circles became less regular, confused, clumsy, how he left his brother alone and slowly descended to earth as if someone pulled him down on a string. I panted heavily, still not at the height of my senses again, and felt Farkas’ grip tighten. He turned me around, his gaze searching my face.
Fear and determination stood in his, and with sudden impact I realised what was awaiting us. This wasn’t an ordinary foe, not even an ordinary dragon. Nobody had bested Alduin before… and it was so dark around us, the gloomy twilight threatening all on its own.
“Go, please. You can’t fight him,” I whispered, but he shook his head.
“Never. Now you need me.” His mouth closed over mine, and for a single moment the mountain, the dragons, the darkness vanished, nothing was left but his taste, his scent and his love. “I’ll have your back.” A lopsided smile curled his lips, and we released each other, became Companions and shield-siblings. Nothing but the enemy mattered any more, wolfish instincts merged with wit, training and experience.
One has to be insane to fight a being like the Worldeater.
“Ruth wah nivahriin joor! The weapon of my ancient foes? You will never be their equal, arrogant little mortal, you who you call yourself Dovahkiin!”
He mocked me, the malice and superiority in his voice already his first strike.
“Hurt him, Dovahkiin, now!” Paarthurnax encouraging words let me dart forwards, nearly stumbling at first, the dragon watching my approach with amused indifference. I watched his head jerk, the black spikes around his jaw and in his neck forming dark, well-defined targets. I wielded Dragonbane after all, and I trusted my blade.
But I didn’t even come close, the long neck just twitching like a whipcord from side to side, the fangs rising above me and ready to strike down. I backed off, from the corners of my eyes I saw Farkas lung for his wing while Paarthurnax circled above us, releasing blast of fire on his brother that should have molten stone. Alduin didn’t even seem to feel it.
“Paarthurnax, brother… you are weak.” The black monstrosity laughed at his brother, full of glee. “I am strong. Many strong souls have fed me!”
I hated this voice, dark, sonorous and still rippling my skin like the scratch of dull claws on dry wood. It hurt and chafed my insides, and he knew it.
It hurt even more when he started to shout, twisting his neck upwards, his fangs directed to the whirling clouds above us and roaring at the sky, releasing a kind of power that was entirely incomprehensible and still striked my innermost core.
Even the elements obeyed him, and the sky broke open, released molten stone and burning rocks from its depths. Deadly missiles, unaimed but hence nothing less dangerous. A single hit would crush us or burn us to ashes, and their impact was impossible to predict or avoid. And even if they didn’t hit, they melted age-old snow and ice, the air soon filled with clouds of hot steam and dust that hurt in my lungs and obscured my view even more.
One has to be insane to fight the Worldeater.
But I tried. I tried with everything I had, tried to get close enough to stab him while avoiding the lightning fast attacks of his fangs and claws and his deadly blast. A few times I succeeded, just to feel Dragonbane slide off of the massive armour plates, finding no gap in his cover and no leverage for my strikes. A few times Farkas pushed me out of the way of an attack and I saved him from being shred to pieces, and once I heard him roar in triumph when he pierced through the leathery skin of Alduin’s wing. The gods bless Eorlund’s Skyforge steel. But the worm just shoved and swept him away with a violent flap, and it took long, far too long until he appeared again, limping and furious. And I saw Paarthurnax’ fangs closing around his twitching, spiked tail, but his old teeth were dull, and his efforts just coaxed another sinister laughter from the black monstrosity.
But in the end everyone fought on his own, we lost track of each other in the steam and the darkness during this mad dance around our foe, between the falling rocks and the dragon’s vicious attacks. No one had his back shielded, but we fought with the determination of despair, aware that our demise would mean final damnation. We must not die. We must not let him get away.
It was a puddle of molten water on ice that let me slip, let me stumble and fall backwards, the back of my head thudding on the ground, and for a moment I saw nothing but stars blooming into bursts of colour in a black void as the impact pierced into my brain. Tears of pain shot into my eyes, the falling rocks only blurred objects impossible to evade. A glowing orb raced towards me, I could smell the wave of burnt air running ahead of it, and for the fraction of a second I was tempted to lie still and let it crush me, to end everything within this single moment.
Paarthurnax’ yelled plea let me twist and roll to the side, the missile striking the ground right beside my head. It burst into sharp splinters of stone and ice, piercing the skin of my face, blood running down my neck while I struggled to get up.
The blue flames were dwindling, loosening their grip on the massive body. I panted for breath, needed only a second, just one precious moment to find the air for the Shout. Alduin was breaking free, roaring his hate over the mountain, new-found strength fuelling his immortal power.
He unfolded his wings and rose on his hindlegs, his body already stretching to the sky while I sucked in that breath I needed so desperately. For a single moment, it was only he and I. He didn’t fight any more. He had nothing to fear, he would do as he liked and I couldn’t hinder him.
“I am Al-Du-In, Firstborn of Akatosh. I will outlast you… mortal!” It wasn’t a roar. It was nearly a whisper, a sinister sound that flayed the skin from my flesh.
The muscles in his legs tensed as he got ready to lift off. I knelt before him and saw his head coming down as a blurred shade, black against the darkness of the sky, only his teeth shimmering white. He would escape and take me with him, my breath coming too slow and too weak.
“No!” An equally inhuman roar, and a flash appeared between us, shimmering bones and gleaming steel. Alduin’s head shot forwards, the movement so fast it was barely visible. His fangs closed with a snap.
I had heard this sickening crunch before, and the shout became a scream.