The tomb where I was supposed to search for the Jagged Crown was a crypt called Korvanjund in the southern Pale. Stormcloak territory, another reason why Rikke couldn’t just send her own troops, and the easiest and fastest way to get there was via Whiterun. The Legate made sure personally that I climbed the wagon with the first light of the sun and gave the driver the orders herself. And she grinned broadly when I handed her the robe that had served me so well and asked her to give it back to Styrr in the Halls of the Dead.
“You stole it?”
“I borrowed it,” I said sternly.
She smirked. “Yes, of course.” She held out her hand as if she wanted me to take it. “I count on you, Dragonborn.”
“And I on you, Legate.” As much as I hated what I had to do now, the feeling of relief when the armoured figure and the whole city vanished in the distance was overwhelming.
The feeling of unease came back when Whiterun loomed in the distance. That sight that was so beautiful, especially at night when the lights from the wind district and Dragonsreach blinked far over the plains, now its familiarity caused a lump in my stomach. It wasn’t Breezehome that caused this dread, not the memories of Farkas. Those were buried, too deep to affect me. The dead didn’t haunt me, the dead were gone, and nothing could bring them back.
I could live with all the deaths I had suffered. I couldn’t change them, I had to endure them, and I did. The pain was locked away. It were the living who haunted me. The thought of the bustling life in Jorrvaskr, Athis’ words and my own weakness, he and Vignar and Vilkas and all the other Companions I hadn’t seen for weeks, the grief they could allow themselves to feel because they could share it.
For a single moment, when the wagon rolled up the street towards the stables and the driver threw a friendly greeting towards Bjorlam who was feeding his horses, the feeling of coming home overwhelmed me like a floodwave, the knowledge that people were waiting for me, people I wanted to be with. I missed them so much, I wanted so much to step through the doors of Jorrvaskr and have someone, anyone to lean against. Simple company. But I knew it wasn’t possible. I had to exclude them, for me and for them. Alduin was my duty and mine alone, and I wouldn’t risk to bring anyone else into danger.
I would never again be a Companion first and everything else second. I was Dragonborn first, and it left nothing else to be, and I entered the house without another look towards the upper levels of the city.
Time was of the essence to get to the tomb, but it was late at night when I arrived, and I had to stock up on supplies, potions and arrows before I set off for the march to Korvanjund. And I had to change my equipment – I wouldn’t be caught, but if I the Stormcloaks were indeed already there and I was seen, I had to avoid to be recognised at all costs. Every single distinctive piece of gear had to stay at home.
With the first morning light I was prepared, clad in simple clothes under my cloak, a short Dwemer sword I had found in Blackreach and an Orcish dagger strapped to my hips, another one hidden in a sheath on my left boot. After a short visit to the Drunken Huntsman my quiver was filled with arrows, and my knapsack was stuffed with the folded Dark Brotherhood armour I had always kept for who knew what reason. It didn’t provide the protection I was used to and I didn’t want to wear it in the city, but it was perfect to move quietly, and it included a masked hood that would conceal my features if necessary. No one who accidentally saw me in it would guess that it was me.
I was already hurrying along the empty street from Arcadia’s apothecary to the gates when the familiar voice called after me. I froze in my steps, and at the same moment I knew that I had given myself away and that every attempt to escape Ria now would only rouse even more suspicion. Two Companions chasing each other through the city would make even the laziest guard alert. When I heard her fast steps approaching, I waited for her.
“Qhouri!” Her face was so amicable when she embraced me closely, it made me choke. “We didn’t know you’re back from Solitude. How did it go? Vignar has told us everything about your meeting with Ulfric, that must have been so exciting!” She babbled, excited and agitated, and went beside me further down the street. Only when we had passed Breezehome and I still didn’t answer she regarded me more closely, saw my close-mouthed expression, the missing armour and the martial assortment of weapons I carried, and her torrent of words suddenly stopped with a frown of confusion.
“You’re leaving again?”
Now I turned fully to her. She wore her usual steel armour, but instead of the bow and shortsword she had favoured recently, she had an impressive greatsword strapped to her back, the weapon with the ice enchantment we had once taken from a draugr. Seemed that Vilkas had taken over her training again, I thought absentmindedly.
“Yes. Sorry Ria, I don’t have time…”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Where are you going? Are you going alone?” The sharp questions were moderated by a genuine, compassionate smile.
To explain myself and what I was going to do was the last I wanted, and I couldn’t bear her friendly, probing curiosity any more. It wasn’t her business, and I cut her off. “Sorry… but I got to go. Don’t tell the others that I’ve been here… please.”
I didn’t wait for her answer and let her stand on the spot, the guards swiftly opening the gate when they saw me approach. She didn’t follow, but her hurt, incomprehensive face stung. She was just friendly, she didn’t deserve such a treatment, but she wouldn’t understand. And the times when she could have accompanied me as a shield-sister were over.
Korvanjund was weird, at least from the outside. Instead of the familiar narrow dome or the masoned pit in flat terrain that usually formed the entrances, the access to this crypt was built into the end a rocky cleft, extended and reinforced by man-made walls, its bottom only accessible by narrow, steep steps. And right above the familiar heavy metal doors I spotted the flickering of several small camp-fires, clearly visible in the long shadows of the setting sun.
The Stormcloaks were already here. I cursed inwardly, this would make my task much more difficult, especially as I didn’t know if some of them had already entered the tomb.
Crouching in the shadows I tried to assess how many soldiers Ulfric had sent. It weren’t many, perhaps a dozen, but what made me especially alert was that Galmar Stone-Fist was amongst them. While Tullius refused to send any forces at all to search for this artefact that so far wasn’t much more than a rumour – or a fairy tale -, Ulfric even sent his right hand to guarantee success. He obviously thought it worth it… especially as he probably had more and better information about it than just the tidbit the Legion had gathered from that unlucky courier.
Perhaps in the end the fact that the Stormcloaks were here, and Galmar among them, was a good sign.
I didn’t linger long in the vicinity of the camp, only long enough to get one essential information the General shared involuntarily with me when he admonished his soldiers in his booming voice and with a tankard in his hand to get a good night’s rest before they’d storm the crypt with the first morning light. He only got some jovial laughter which he returned. And I knew that I had exactly one night to accomplish my task undisturbed.
To reach the bottom of the cleft and enter the crypt unseen was the easiest part, they didn’t even place guards at the entrance. Either they didn’t even know the Legion had the information about the crown as well, or they thought the guards at the surface would suffice, but I was safe as soon as I slipped through the heavy metal doors. The slight creaking of the ancient hinges was easily drowned out by the howling wind in the cleft and the laughter and conversations of the men and women above me.
The entrance opened into a large, roughly circular room, in its centre a raw stoneblock with a few urns on top, its back ascending in a broad stairway that led first to a gallery, the niches filled with broken shelves and more urns, and then into a narrow hallway that led further into the tomb.
A typical entrance hall, not much different from so many others I had visited. At least it was free of coffins. Which meant I wouldn’t have to leave telltale corpses behind right at the beginning.
My plan was as simple as half-baked. I had to hurry, and I had to avoid wasting time with fighting – to sneak by as many draugr as possible and fight only when I absolutely had to would accomplish both goals at once. This would spare me precious time, and it had the additional advantage to leave a distraction behind me if I didn’t make it out before the Stormcloaks came in.
Usually I hated to leave anything living – or unliving – behind, the eerie feeling that something could tip on my shoulder any moment making it hard to concentrate on what lay before me. Especially as nobody really knew what caused the undead to rise, walk and fight, but now I didn’t have a choice. On the other hand it was also the first time that I visited such a crypt all on my own. I had always been with a shield-sibling so far, someone who had my back and usually someone who woke every living and dead thing in these walls by his mere presence.
But it went well – at first. Fortunately the undead were noisy, their irregular shuffling steps and the clanking of their rusty armours and weapons audible from far away. But the hallways I crawled through were old, winded and partly collapsed, and every sound echoed in a way that made it impossible to estimate distances. More than once adrenaline pulsed violently through my veins when I finally climbed over a pile of debris or rounded a corner just to find myself face to face with a pair those hateful eyes, burning with the eerie fire of a foul life-force that was worse than death. But I was silent and quick, quicker than they with their heavy weapons and clumsy movements, my sword tore silently through dry muscles and brittle sinews, and in the end I left most of the coffins and sarcophagi undisturbed.
Until I entered the upper level of another large room, carefully stepping over a pressure plate. Small tubes sticking out of the archway suggested that it would trigger either poisoned darts or streams of fire. The walls of the chamber below me were lined by coffins and guarded by two enormous draugr with black horned helmets, one of them armed with a vicious greatsword, the other with the glow of magic glimmering in his decayed palms. This one was the more dangerous, and my arrow killed him silently. Only his collapse wasn’t quiet enough, and with his death the coffins broke open all at once and released their residents, their heads moving erratically, searching for the intruder. It looked as if they sniffed the air.
I cursed silently, crouching like frozen behind a massive pillar that held a wooden walkway high above the floor. I had to get down there, could already see the gate that would let me proceed. Slowly I drew my bow and aimed for the second of the initial guards, but his movements were too unpredictable and he evaded the arrow in the last possible moment, the arrow flying past his head and coiling against the wall.
Now they knew where I was, strange hissing indicating their alertness. A single narrow stair led up to my hiding place, the wooden construction brittle and unstable, and I positioned myself now at its top, nocking another arrow. At least they wouldn’t be able to reach me all at once, and I was able to force the first onslaught back by shooting the first living corpses from the stair back down. But then the second draugr lord came up, his greatsword crackling with lightning magic, and his larger range forced me to take a step back. But in the confined space on the stairs and beset by his comrades from behind, he didn’t have the space and leverage to use his weapon like it was meant to, in those wide, powerful swings that were able to cleave a man in half.
I closed in on him where he could hurt me least and forced the Dwemer blade into his rotten flesh. The light beneath the helmet flickered and he swayed, the blade still buried between his ribs, and the moment he tilted away, lost balance and tore the metal from his chest, he shouted.
The strength of his shout sent me flying backwards, away from my convenient position, and in flying I saw him flail and topple and fall, freeing the way for the Draugr that pushed past him.
For an agonising moment everything went black, the impact of my head on the floor shooting with white-hot lightning through my brain.
It was the heat that let me come round. Heat that streamed over my face and the thin leather of my armour, and the roar of a firestorm that tore through my ears.
The draugr had shouted me into the hallway I had come from, and of course I had landed directly on the pressure plate that triggered the trap. Fire shot from metal bushes set into both sides of the stone arc, the fiery streams crossing each other and forming an impenetrable net of flaming jets. And I wasn’t roasted yet only because I lay flat on my back.
It was ridiculous. And even more ridiculous were the draugr waiting on the other side, shuffling and teeming, not daring to come too close to the deadly blasts.
I would have liked to wave at them, but instead I squirmed backwards, as flat to the ground as possible, to get out of the reach of the flames.
And when I could stand again, I bathed them in my Dragonfire, eliminating them once and for all. Galmar Stone-Fist would have a hard time to explain this heap of smouldering mess.
The tomb wasn’t only huge, fitting for a king of the first era, it was also a horrible maze. I searched what seemed like hours for the lever to open the gate I had cleared so thoroughly, wandering and crawling through side corridors filled with traps that promised very imaginative kinds of very messy deaths. And when I could finally go on, it only became worse. I spent ages examining dead ends, but at least most of the niches with dead bodies remained undisturbed by my silent inspection. If Galmar took the same way, he would find more resistance than I.
When I finally reached the Hall of Stories, the broad, large aisle with walls covered in the typical reliefs and the equally typical door with the three concentric stone circles, I sighed with relief. I hadn’t found the key so far, the claw that would reveal the solution to the puzzle and fit into the notches in its centre, but the pair of draugr guarding it were nothing if not but a safe bet to have it. And now I had plenty of space to aim, the first one went down with the first arrow, the second took three, but he collapsed halfway between me and the door. And he had the claw in his possession, pitch black and made from a strange, incredibly hard wood I had never seen before.
But even more dark aisles followed, more burial chambers, more dead ends riddled with traps, and slowly I became impatient. It was hard to estimate time down here, but I knew that mine ran out, and I was exhausted, battered and bruised, many non-serious wounds adding up to an overall ache that made every crouched step a painful effort.
And I had to admit that I wasn’t as resilient any more as I had been only a few weeks ago, tired easier and had less stamina, and it took longer to catch my breath and get going again after each fight than I was used to. It was annoying, and it made me worry. I couldn’t afford to show weakness now, but pregnancy obviously didn’t go well with this line of work.
To reach the final room, the throne room of king Borgas released new energy though, especially as I felt the familiar tug on my conscience from a wordwall in the background. Four huge stone pillars framed a platform in the centre of the vast hall, adorned with intricately carved bearded faces and the characteristic stylised dragon heads, their large toothless fangs pointing towards the ornamental throne standing in the middle. And on it sat a motionless corpse, slumped down like in deep slumber, clad in shimmering armour and with an unusual helmet on his head.
Even from the distance I saw that this wasn’t the typical crown, no gold, no precious gems glittering in the dim light of the ever burning firebowls hanging from the ceiling. No, it looked vicious, framing the deformed face with something that looked like fangs and bones.
Familiar fangs and bones. If I wasn’t mistaken, this thing was made of the remains of a dragon.
I exhaled slowly, crouching in the shadows behind the entrance, and breathed in again equally concentrated to shut out the call of the Word of Power, to cast off the weakness in my arms and shoulders and get a single, straight shot. Experience told me that I had only one try before all hell would break lose in this room, and the tip was coated in poison.
Briefly I wondered why poison worked on Draugr at all, with them having no blood circulation any more. But this was one of the questions that was equally unanswerable as the one where they got the breath to shout from.
The arrow flew, I followed the trajectory of the tip with my enhanced senses, and it hit. Right into the chest of the dead king, not into his throat where I had aimed. I cursed inwardly, the Draugr had jerked up the moment I let the missile fly, perhaps he had heard the buzzing of the bowstring that disturbed the deadly silence of his tomb.
And of course, as if he had given a hidden signal, with his first motion he got company, three more draugr gathering around their king like his bodyguard before they moved into my direction.
One of them was a mage, and I took him out first, their slow movement giving me opportunity to hit him with several arrows until he collapsed. And when the strange parade came too close, I made use of the vastness of the hall and their natural brainless stupidity, moved backwards along the wall and fired arrow after arrow, easily escaping their attempts to come close enough for a sword strike.
Only Borgas himself didn’t want to die to this tactics. Even in death he was larger than I, tough and much better armoured than his fellows, many arrows simply recoiling from the massive iron plate he wore. Triumph seemed to gleam in the blue light flaring from his empty eye-sockets when the hand reaching into my neck only found an empty quiver. And at the same moment I felt a shift in the air that let me hold my breath, a barely audible noise, a change in the faint breeze that went through the tomb.
My time was over. I wasn’t alone any more.
Sword and dagger drawn I fell into a crouched defensive stance, waiting for the undead to come close, his sword held high over his head. I didn’t want to use a Shout against him, not with the risk of others hearing it. Although I knew it would take the Stormcloaks at least a few hours to reach this chamber, I didn’t know how near it was to the entrance – entirely possible it lay right behind one of the walls, considering the circular layout of many of these tombs.
The draugr lord was faster, stronger and much more agile than the usual undead, and to go into close combat with him was hazardous. So far I had clenched my teeth and gone with desperate determination into every fight I couldn’t avoid, even if I had to force down the urge to look over my shoulder, slink back and wait for my companion to storm ahead. I wasn’t used to fight alone, but I wasn’t helpless.
Only now, as I blocked his weapon with my much shorter sword, hilts locked above our heads and the strength of his assault nearly breaking my wrist, I thought for a moment that I wouldn’t make it. That it was insane to fight an undead king all on my own, that his tomb would become mine as well when he sliced me in half. He forced me to withdraw my weapon with a push that let me stumble backwards.
Despite the weight of his weapon and armour, he came at me with alarming speed, and he chased me backwards through the room while I tried to avoid his cleaves and not to trip over steps and scattered corpses. Sweat ran down my back, my thighs and shoulders aching.
“Godsdammit,” I cursed under my breath when the tip of his sword sliced right through the thin leather of my cuirass and along my ribs, the warm wetness of blood soaking the armour.
This fight had to end fast, and instead just to wait for a gap in his cover, I had to force him to make a mistake. I led him towards one of the massive stone pillars and allowed him to trap me with my back to the stone. If I didn’t know better I could have sworn that his rotten teeth grinned grinned with malice and triumph when his sword first swung high, then came down in a huge arc, aiming for my neck.
It would have split me in half down to my navel if I had still been there. But I used the curve of the pillar to twist to the side and backwards at the same time, and the heavy, sparking impact of metal on stone nearly tore the sword out of the draugr’s hands and let him stumble against the column. The precious moment he needed to regain his balance was enough to get behind him and lodge sword and dagger in swift strikes into his neck.
I fell to my knees, fighting for breath. This had been too close. But beneath the adrenaline-fuelled exhaustion rose some kind of triumph. I had made it, all on my own. “Rest in peace, my king,” I muttered when I pulled the crown from his head. It was a hideous thing, indeed made of dragon teeth and bones, and I stuffed it deep into my pack before I made for the wordwall in the back of the hall.
“Klo”, sand, the second Word of Power in the Shout that enabled me to slow down time around me was Korvanjund’s gift. It alone was reward enough for all the effort it had taken to get here, and I felt deep satisfaction when its meaning settled inside of me.
The burial chamber of King Borgas had another exit, just like I had hoped, and I nearly ran along the hallway in my eagerness to get out. Only when I was already about to throw open the heavy wooden bar that locked the last door, I came to my senses. Faint voices were audible behind it, the voices of a man and a woman. It seemed Galmar had left a guard at the entrance to the tomb.
I was able to remove the bar and to open the door only a crack quietly enough to remain undetected. It led directly into the entrance hall, to the level on top of the broad stairway, and I could see the exit from my position. It wasn’t far, and but it seemed impossible to reach without being seen with the soldiers standing only a few feet away. And I didn’t want to kill them, not if I didn’t have to.
But I had more tools in my bag of tricks than others.
“Tiid Klo,” I whispered under my breath, testing the just gained new power, and the familiar feeling of timelessness set in at once. The breathing and the heartbeats of the people in the other room slowed down, their whispered conversation became incoherent, slurred, elongated syllables. When the first drew his head in slow-motion to find out where that grinding noise came from, I already slipped through the heavy metal doors at the other side of the room, out into the open.
The effect would wear off only a few seconds after I was out, and I just wanted to lean tiredly against the doorframe, catch my breath and hold my face into the faint sunlight filtering through the high clouds when I became aware of more heartbeats and more human scents. More guards, positioned right outside of the entrance. I hadn’t expected people outside, but it seemed Galmar Stone-Fist knew indeed that eventually more intruders would try to disturb the peace of the dead.
Panicked I darted forwards, down the steep stairs and into the rift that led up to the surface, but I knew I was still in plain sight when the yelling behind me rose to its normal frequency and a sharp pain bolted into my calf.
They reacted fast, and now they tried to shoot me.
I stumbled and fell to my knees, rolling with a suppressed curse behind a protruding wall, all restraints vanishing when heavy, crunching steps approached from behind and this last bit of pain mingled with all the injuries and aches I had accumulated during this night. No way I’d let this mission fail, not now after I had come so far. If I didn’t kill them, they would slaughter me like a piece of cattle.
I didn’t even have time to unfasten the leather straps and buckles of my armour, my deforming, growing body ripping the seams apart, the familiar, cherished heat rising through my spine resolving the pain in an outburst of violence.
My last conscious thought was that I didn’t want them to die. At least they wouldn’t know who had killed them, only what – conscience and reason were lost in blood, fury and screams, and then I bolted out of the shadows of the cleft and into the woods, my hunger not sated and the need for the hunt erupting in a how full of yearning.
A howl that was answered, entirely unexpected and familiar, and I froze on the spot, sniffing the air, picking up the scent that came with the wind.
It was the scent of the pack, promise and threat at the same time, causing another kind of yearning and the fear to be caught. The beast sat motionless, torn between the urge to follow that scent and the urge to flee it, still the taste of human blood on its tongue and hunger gnawing at its innards. It tugged at the frail thread connecting the parts of its soul, and finally it ran off and fled.
The beast was afraid of itself and of the things it didn’t remember, and it fled into the soothing mindlessness it had grown used to. It was used to hunt alone. The bonds of the pack had lost their grip.
When the stag broke through the under-brush, the bliss of the kill took over and only the resistance of the prey and the fight was left, only deadly fangs and claws ripping through fur, flesh warm and saturating, bones cracking under a heavy bite.
The mortally wounded animal reared up in a last desperate effort to break free, my fangs already buried in its throat, biting and swallowing when the tips of sharp antlers pierced my fur, the last violent jerk of dying muscles throwing me off and sending me flying against a rock.
Everything went black.
The pain woke me, beside the lingering ache of the change there was a dull throbbing in my ribcage, a sharp sting shot through my leg, and the sunrays pouring through the green roof of the trees hit my dazed brain like lightning. Groaning I blinked and tried to free my senses of the addling fog in my head, but trying to prop myself on my elbows I had to realise that I was trapped.
“Lie still,” a voice hissed and a strong hand pressed against my shoulder, “here, bite this.”
A piece of leather was shoved between my teeth, and then someone braced himself on my hipbone and my thigh while the slim blade of a dagger sliced into the muscle of my calf to cut the stuck arrowhead free. It was jerked out with a jolt of searing white pain, and while I still breathed in the air for a scream, the edge of a potion bottle was pressed against my teeth, half of the liquid running through my throat, making me cough and gag, the other half dripping down my chin.
The change still lingered in my blood, and the fury boiled up again, fuelled by pain and confusion about what had happened and what was going on right now.
My palm slapped against Vilkas’ cheek and left instantly a red, distinct imprint on his face, and his breath hitched, his weight holding me down, face furious and eyes dark with unbridled anger only inches from mine. His fingers pressed in far too close to my throat. “I said lie still,” he snarled, and my head yanked up and hit is jaw as my knee crushed into his groin and he gasped with pain and jerked away, but his hand never loosened its grip, clenched around my chin with his fingers digging into my cheeks as if he wanted to break my neck. I grabbed his wrist, elbowed him in the ribs with all the strength I could muster and rolled us around with brute force, clenching his waist between my knees as hard as I could even as the white-hot pain from the bleeding wound flaring through my leg made me dizzy. “Bastard,” I panted between tight jaws and his back arched to throw me off, eyes tinting golden and teeth bared. His feral snarl called forth the answering howl of my own beast, I clenched my hands around his throat and he nearly broke my wrists when he ripped them off, nails leaving bleeding scratches on his skin. His free hand formed a fist and crushed with careful aim into my bruised ribs, the sudden pain forced the breath from my lungs in a scream and he used his advantage, pushed me around and rolled until he was on top again. My wrists were trapped in his grip, unrelenting and bruising above my head and my body held down by his weight, his eyes glaring down on me in a wrath not entirely human, there were small twigs and dry leaves and snow in his hair and he smelled of home and of belonging and was so warm and familiar and pack, and I was so cold inside… I lifted my head and silenced the growl that came deep from his throat, claimed his mouth violently, teeth and lips and tongues, a struggle of despair and sensations and pleasure none of us wanted to win, and when we had to gasp for air, his breath shivering hot and ragged against the skin of my neck and I tasted his pulse, his grip around my wrists released and my hands raked through the mess of his hair…
The world fell away, and it was so wrong.
We only breathed into each other, eyes closed, feeling without touching, I smelled his fury and arousal and longing, the pent up energy, the thrill of this kiss and the hollowness beneath it and wondered what he’d smell in me, didn’t dare to move until our heartbeats slowed down and he released me of his weight, rolled off and hunched beside me. Only now I noticed that I was clothed, clad in the lose pants and shirt I had changed for the Dark Brotherhood armour shortly before I had reached Korvanjund. He had dressed me after the change.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, sitting up and turning away from him, my arms clenched around my chest. My face was hot and burning with shame, and I didn’t dare to look at him.
He sat motionless and silent, only the tip of his index moved up to my face, trailing a line from my brows over cheek and jaw and down the curve of my neck until it reached the hem of the shirt, a touch so gentle and tender it was barely noticeable. “Don’t,” he said quietly and drew his hand away, his fingers clenching in his lap. “I know you don’t want me.”
He was just as cold inside as me, and every attempt to fill the emptiness in us both with each other only fed it, made it larger and darker, more unbearable, more frightening and more cruel.
I treated the wound in my leg with a short burst of healing magic, not enough to close it completely, but at least it stopped the heavy bleeding. It would do, and I stood up and gathered my pack and the weapons he had collected from the battlefield near Korvanjund. He still crouched in the snow when I turned back to him, elbows on his knees, his forehead buried in his palms.
“You shouldn’t have followed me just because Ria doesn’t know when to shut up,” I said calmly. “Go home. Stop caring. Please.”
It took him a long time to answer.
“I can’t.” His voice was rough and stern, and he became quiet again for a moment that stretched into infinity. “The night before you left… when we met in the Huntsman and I was so glad that for once, you weren’t there… I’ve never seen him so happy. He talked about you and your child and how glad he was that we got along, and that you’d live in Jorrvaskr and Breezehome and raise a family with us all. He believed in you, and he believed that everything would be fine. He was so incredibly happy. And we were nearly sober when we parted because he knew that you’d bully him up with sunrise, and then he asked me to…” His voice trailed off, broken, he hid his face in his hands and rocked back and forth in an erratic rhythm. The silence built until it was suffocating, drowning out everything else.
When he lifted his gaze to my face, his eyes were like stormclouds, dark beneath the brightness and revealing the void in him. The crack in his soul. I could hear the thunder of his heartbeat over the distance between us. “He made me swear,” he whispered. “He was so incredibly happy, but he knew what you were going into, and he made me swear to look after you if anything happened to him. To keep you safe, to care for you and for his child and to make sure that you’d come home.” He clenched his teeth and stretched out a hand. “I swore… to him, and to myself. I can’t lose you, Qhouri. Not you too.”
Twins. Both or none. This would never be true again.
I knelt down in front of him, cupped his chin in my palm, and we found the same despair and loneliness in the other’s face each of us felt himself. It wasn’t a revelation, and it wasn’t a surprise. We could show each other our sorrow because it was so similar, but we couldn’t ease it.
“He’s dead because of me, Vilkas. I can’t bring him back, I can’t heal your loss, but you’re not obliged, neither to him nor to me. If it helps you I hereby release you from your promise. Just stop it. Leave me alone.”
When I started to stand up, ready to leave, his fingers closed around my wrist. His voice was shaking.
“You don’t care any more?”
I had to overcome his resistance as I loosened his fingers from my arm, one by one.
“It was too dark for him,” I said pensively, “he wasn’t healed, and it was too dark with that storm Alduin had conjured. Farkas couldn’t see in that light, not well enough for such a fight and we both knew it, but he stayed with me because he cared. Because he didn’t want to leave me. And perhaps… if I had cared less as well, if I hadn’t tried to beat Alduin and have his back, if Alduin hadn’t known that he was my biggest weakness… perhaps I could have defeated him. Perhaps your brother would still live if we both hadn’t cared so much, and all this were over already.”
He went slack, slumped together, and I placed his hand back on his thigh like the limb of a puppet before I rose to my feet.
“It’s not worth the price, Vilkas.”
I left him behind, turned north towards the street that would take me to Solitude, but his whisper still reached me.
“I don’t believe you. Why can’t we stop lying?”
I left him behind and with him this darkness that I knew so good, that shred his soul to pieces and that he could show no one but me. I hoped it would be for the last time. The long farewell from Farkas entailed so many smaller farewells that I couldn’t distinguish them any more, Vilkas only one of many, even if we shared so much more than others. All of them only left a feeling of detachment and disparity behind.
I took this feeling with me, my thoughts already in Dragon Bridge where I would meet with Legate Rikke. She’d either wait for me there, or I would have to send a courier to Solitude, but at least she didn’t force me to see her in Castle Dour again.
She was already waiting, and the exchange of items, crown against a sealed parchment, was quick and easy.
“How did you get it?” I asked, and she gave me a proud, slightly arrogant grin.
“A lot of common sense and a bit of persuasion, Dragonborn,” she said. “Imperials are different. They don’t care for prophecies and divine deeds, especially when they’re not their own. But they care for arguments. Well, at least Tullius does. Even he has to concede that the Dragons are a plague someone should do something against. And Balgruuf will never let us garrison our troops in Whiterun freely, and to besiege the city now over the winter would be madness. In the end it wasn’t hard to convince him that every measure to keep Ulfric away from Whiterun would be in our best interest, at least at the moment.”
“Well, you should hope that I don’t succeed then,” I said. “Because if I do, I will probably be back in a few days.”
She regarded me thoughtfully. “How will we know if you were successful?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Perhaps the dragons will tell you?”
She held out her hand, and this time I took it, grasped her wrist in a firm grip.
“Thank you, Legate.”
“Good luck, Dragonborn.”
I travelled to Windhelm to inform Ulfric of my agreement with the Legion and found the Jarl in a shouting match with Galmar another officer. The scraps of their conversation I caught as Jorleif led me into his warroom made clear that the reason for his ire was the very item that had bulged the pack of an Imperial Legate when I had last seen her – the loss of the crown and the mysterious, gruesome slaughter of his men by a beast in the armour of an assassin. He wasn’t happy about the disturbance, took only a fleeting look at Tullius’ document and barked at me to get going, and I was glad to leave as fast as possible. Only two days later I was back in Whiterun. When I passed both decrees to Balgruuf, his eyes went wide.
“You really did it,” he muttered, “I should really…” A small, complacent smile spread over his face when he didn’t finish the sentence, but his gaze wandered to his housecarl who followed the conversation closely. Their eyes met, and she gave a firm nod. “Dragonsreach is at your disposal,” he said finally, “when do you want to start?”
“Tomorrow with sunrise. Please keep your guards ready,” I said sternly.
A question flashed through his face. “Will the Companions come too?”
I had already turned and crossed the hall towards the exit. “No,” I said curtly over my shoulder.
There was a single last visit I had to make, and my steps were firm when I climbed the stairs to Jorrvaskr and entered. Approaching the building, I heard the familiar noise from the back, the screech from Eorlund’s grindstone, shouting and cursing, barked orders from Vilkas, Ria’s laughter and the bright clanks when the training weapons collided. The main room was nearly empty when I crossed it, only Tilma with her inevitable broom sweeping the boards, and Njada sitting over a snack.
She started up when she saw me, rose and opened her mouth to speak, but sank quietly back to her chair when I ignored her. The living quarters hit me with their scent as soon as I opened the doors at the bottom of the stairs. Not because it was so familiar… but because it wasn’t. Something was missing in this scent, a single characteristic touch, something that had belonged to these aisles and rooms like the threadbare carpet, the wide vaulted ceiling or the sooty streaks on the wall above the candle holders. It had belonged here since I had woken in these rooms for the first time, injured and mad with pain and fear, and now it was gone.
Perhaps I was mad again. Perhaps I had always been. It didn’t matter any more.
Kodlak’s door stood open like usual, and he looked up from the journal he wrote in when he heard me approach, his face twisting in surprise, but he sat straight and attentive when I closed the door behind me. When I dropped a key in front of him, he regarded it with obvious discomfort.
“I will go to Sovngarde tomorrow, Harbinger,” I said sternly, passing over the greeting. “This is the key to Breezehome. Please do with it whatever you deem appropriate.”
He looked at the item as if it would bite him. “You won’t come back?”
“Not here, no.” I extended a hand towards him, and he returned the formal gesture hesitantly. “Thank you for everything, Kodlak.”
I had to get out of here.
But Kodlak didn’t release me from the grip on my wrist and finally rose to stand before me. The old man had completely lost his broad warrior bulk over the last months, but despite his frailness and the gaunt features under his warpaint he could still look down on me.
“We will stand at her back, that the world may never overtake us.” His voice was grave. “Remember?”
Of course I remembered. There was no mirth in my laughter. “You didn’t even know what that means back then, Kodlak. What you saddled yourself with when you let me join. Nobody knew.” I withdrew my hand from his.
He took the key from the table and pressed it into my palm.
“That doesn’t make it less valid.” He closed my fingers gently around the cool metal, his palm warm around my fingers. “No, Qhouri. I will not help you in abandoning your home. I understand what you’re going through…,” his grip around my fist became firmer when he saw my scowl, “oh yes, I do, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last who has suffered such a loss. But what you intend to do now is wrong.”
“You don’t understand, Kodlak,” I said blandly. “Farkas died because of me, and if I live, I will have to live with that, if only for the child. But you lost so much since I came here… I can’t live here any more.”
Kodlak observed the tightness of my jaws and the thin line of my lips with his kind, thoughtful gaze. “Sit down,” he said finally, the grip on my elbow overcoming my resistance with gentle force, but his words were a command impossible not to obey. “I won’t let you go like this.”
He took place again, and his face showed deep sympathy, the sternness and serenity of his age. “We’re all our own masters, Qhouri. This holds true especially for you, you’ve never been good in taking advice, but it applies to all of us. Also Skjor. Also Vilkas. And also Farkas. It was his decision to go with you, and he knew of the risks.”
“He didn’t decide to die!” I yelled, trying to keep the despair in check with my fury. “He wanted to live and he wanted a future, with a family and good work and his friends, and without all this death and doom! And I took that from him, and from you all to share it with him!”
“No!” he thundered, the unaccustomed might of his voice making me recoil, “Qhourian!” His eyes searched my face with frightening intensity, and then he slumped against the backrest of his chair, his palm rubbing his forehead. “That’s what he wanted, yes, for you both. But most of all did he want to be with you, no matter how, when and where. You couldn’t have tied him up just to keep him safe, and you know that. He cherished every moment you spent together… and he would have never given up a single of these moments for an uncertain future.” He laid a warm, strong hand on my wrist. “He was exactly where he wanted to be, up there at the Throat of the World, when he fought with you against Alduin. You didn’t take it. He gave it. For you, for your child, for us all. For everything he loved. You should respect that.”
“But it wasn’t worth it.” Dry sobs shook my body, but I couldn’t cry. “It was so useless.” I lifted my eyes to his face. “And it hurts so much. It hurts to be here.”
“That’s something you don’t know, Qhouri,” he said quietly. “Of course it hurts. It hurts for all of us. But it wasn’t your doing, and… nobody knows, but perhaps you would be dead now if you had been alone. If he hadn’t been there. Perhaps it wasn’t useless at all.” He held my gaze through my speechless stare.
He felt my resistance, my urge to run through this door, to end this conversation and he knew he would have to let me go.
“Don’t run away, girl. Don’t burn all bridges behind you. Think about it before you erase everything you have built up here. It’s not all gone, and it’s not all destroyed. Think about what Farkas would want, for you and for your child and what you would want for him if he were in your place.”
I knew he didn’t want to press me… he believed what he said, and he challenged me, but in the end he would respect my decision. But the gaunt lines of sorrow in his face betrayed him, and they would haunt me like the bottomless grief in Vilkas’ eyes haunted me. But to be haunted was still better than to have to meet them every day and to know that I had caused them. I looked at the key in my hand, twirling it between my fingers and avoiding his eyes. In the end, I offered it to him, flat on my palm.
“Keep it, Kodlak. Please. I can’t…” My voice was weak. He took it from my hand and put it into the drawer under his desk.
“Take your time, Qhouri, at least promise this to me. Jorrvaskr will always be here, and we will always stand at your back. But you have to let us.” He embraced me, his hug not as ribcrushing and bearlike as it once was, but still warm and comforting. “And now go and slay that annoying worm.”
“You think I will defeat him?”
He chuckled lowly. “Of course you will. You’ve learned from the best, haven’t you?”
Not It’s your destiny or The prophecy says so or You have to save us. Just this. You’ve learned. You’re prepared. You can do it.
Gods, how I loved this man.