Tiny needles were piercing my cheek, faint chinks skittering through my skull. The skin was wet. There was no pain, only a small fleck of awareness.
I was so tired. Too tired to bother about the numbness. The snow beneath me was ancient and harsh, cooling the heat on my face. The crystals tickled when they broke and melted. Tiny needles.
It kept me busy, this tickling. Busy and focused and distracted from the dizziness, from the way my heartbeat and my thoughts were slow and heavy and dazed. I tried to find a pattern in the tickles, but there was none. Nothing but this tiny fleck of awareness and dots of light dancing behind my lids. I wasn’t cold, just frozen. And so, so tired.
This was what dying felt like. Fatigue and cold, and most of me didn’t work any more. Too tired to find out what was left. Only this tiny fleck, the dots in my vision and the chinks of breaking ice in my ear. Meagre leftovers. It wouldn’t take long now.
I didn’t know where I was and it didn’t matter, but I knew where I came from. The black dragon had erupted into the void and I had laughed to counter his last, unbelieving scream, believing for him what he denied. There had been flames and yelling and more heat and more laughter as I dissolved together with Alduin. The divine giant had shouted at me. “A gift,” he had said. “A gift from Shor.” The laughter couldn’t get out. I wouldn’t need this gift, but I didn’t have the breath to give it back.
I had done what I had come for. They didn’t need me any more, and he sent me home, through another maelstrom of colours. For a moment, I waited for the light to change. Then I stopped waiting. Stopped thinking.
But now it had begun again. Why did it take so long? Why had it started again? I was tired of waiting. The bright dots became darker and less. I wanted to go home. It wouldn’t take long now.
Something shifted. In me? With me? Around me?
The light burst into a rainbow of sparks on the blinding white as I opened the remaining eye. Why did it still work? Why did it still hurt? Too bright, too many colours. The hooked outline of a claw in front of my face was blurred, as long as my arm and protruding from crimson scales. Beside it, stark contrast against the snow, another claw, tiny in comparison, charred and blistered. Raw red flesh glistened in the cracks of what had been my skin. How had I lost my gauntlet? It was important. I did not remember to lose my gauntlet. A shadow shifted over me, the sudden darkness relief.
“Thuri Dovahkiin,” the dragon’s voice rang from above, “you’ve proven your mastery. This is your doing. Listen!”
I did as he told me. A choir echoed around me. Had it been there before? A choir of grief, sorrow and shock.
“Alduin mahlaan!” they roared over the howling of the wind, the dragons that had gathered here. They never gathered, solitary creatures that they were, only now as they had to mourn their master, the fallen son of a god, in hollow voices full of power and melancholy. It had to be dozens, and I would have liked to watch them, but to hear their lament had to be enough. A spectacle nobody had ever witnessed before, and no one would ever again. Their mourning was the recognition of my triumph. The skin of my face broke when my lips curled into a smile.
It was nice.
“They acknowledge your power, and so do I. When you call me, I will come, Dovahkiin.”
Soundless laughter bubbled up, shaking my body in erratic convulsions. Breathing hurt and laughing hurt even worse, enough to yearn for the darkness that crept back into my mind.
That smug bastard. Thuri Dovahkiin!
The Dragonborn Overlord lay more dead than alive in the ancient snow of the Throat of the World, dozens of dragons around her, unable to move, unable to speak, only still breathing because her battered, stubborn corpse couldn’t decide if it wanted to perish from internal injuries, burns, broken bones, blood-loss or simply freeze to death. Or perhaps his brethren would tear me to pieces when they had finished their lament, and he would sit there and watch because I didn’t call him.
And Odahviing towered above me and acknowledged my power. Hilarious. As if it still mattered. Another chortle coiled my innards.
“You ass,” I choked out, the whispered sound tearing through my throat like molten iron. “Get lost.” Every breath, too shallow to lift the pressure in my head, flared like an inferno through my chest. I wanted it to end and closed the eye again, closed down whatever was left of me and waited for the darkness to come back. It wouldn’t take long now.
But Odahviing wasn’t finished with me. He tilted his neck and bent his head down, sulphurous, reeking breath hot on my face. It hurt as well.
“You sure, Dovahkiin?” Smug amusement trembled in his voice. “I could take you home.”
Bastard. I didn’t need him to go home. I had fought for life in all its glory, for safety and peace. I would go home with or without him.
“You want to go home, Qhourian?” Odahviing asked again, and now his voice was a nearly gentle rumble. I started to hallucinate, and I wondered why he knew my name and why he used it all of a sudden. A grin tugged the corners of my lips, I felt the skin break again and the hot sting of tears burn in the cracks.
My own lust for life had defeated Alduin. It had been worth it, I had said farewell to this life, and now I would go home. Go where I belonged. I had earned it.
“Yes,” I whispered, and he hooked those claws around me and lifted off, up into the wind and cold and darkness.
“Don’t move,” the sonorous voice of the dragon rang above me through the sky, “and don’t die. It won’t take long.”
No, it wouldn’t take long. I would have liked to see the land once more, but it was too late. So cold and so tired. Nothing hurt any more. The darkness crept in and lit up, the storm of heavy wing-flaps engulfed me and became a gentle breeze. Before my eyes, unseeing and still so clear formed a picture of glowing moons hanging over a lush forest, the scent of pines in spring, the light a reddish twilight, soothing and welcoming. A familiar howl echoed through my mind. A greeting. I fell and let go, light-hearted, thankful and without any regrets.
Now and forever. Finally, it would be true, and the bloodmoons were guiding me home.
“Not yet.” The voice was near, but I couldn’t make out the direction. Rough and dark and gentle, surrounding me like a blanket. “Not yet, love.” A caress like a spring breeze, a waft of familiarity and peace, burning the skin of my face with a new blast of fire.
It shouldn’t hurt. Not any more, not like this, not with this blinding agony.
Why does it hurt so much?
“Because you don’t belong here. Not yet.”
Make it stop. I want to stay. I earned it.
“Yes, you did, and one day you will. But not yet.” Something touched my lips, soft and dry and warm. A scent like a blanket. “Live your life, love. Make your own choices. You earned it.”
I can’t. It hurts too much. I clung to the faint scent of pines in the air and to the sound of this voice, so rough and gentle, wanted to cry and plead and sell my lifetime for the right to stay. For this agony to end. The cry couldn’t get out either. Don’t send me away. Please. Don’t send me away.
“Listen, Qhouri.” A palm on my forehead, soothing the panic. Another on my belly. “Listen. Please.”
I tried. Warmth pierced the cold, a tiny fleck of awareness. I listened and felt, followed his guidance, and finally I found what he wanted me to find. A rhythm, faint and fluttering. Faltering, stopping, starting over.
A pulse. A beating heart. Stubborn.
His laughter was bright. “He needs you now. You have to go.”
I couldn’t just go. I didn’t know where. I belonged here.
But there was a beating heart, hurting and struggling and living. Still living. I could feel it, deep inside of this battered shell of agony. My child. Our child. I couldn’t let it stop.
Lips on my forehead, tender, careful and soothing. “Have faith, love. Take your chances. I want you to be happy.” He sent me away, and it hurt. It hurt so much.
Floating in boiling water, tossed about by waves and tides. I was powerless against their strength, a plaything of the current, of the ebb and flow of awareness. Every wave crushed me into the sharp rocks of pain, melting my skin and replacing the air in my throat with liquid fire.
I wanted to drown, the depths beneath luring with darkness, quiet and cool. They pulled me in with their promise of peace and salvation, and sometimes I fell and sunk and stopped struggling, relieved. Then the darkness enwrapped me, cold enough to extinguish the flames, and it didn’t hurt any more.
But the current was merciless and pushed me up, always upwards, towards the heat and the pain and the flaring light that was still drawing me in. It hurt, but I had to reach it. It was always there, a pulsing beat in rhythm with my own heart, roaring through ears and veins, and the waters shoved me towards it and there were flames again and voices and no breath to push the world away.
Up and down, deep into the recesses of peace and finality until the tide gripped me again. Up again. Sometimes, there were words.
“Breathe, Qhourian. You hear me? Breathe, girl.”
My body was a vessel filled with fire. The thin air of every shallow breath devoured me from the inside, but I couldn’t not breathe. Stars burst behind my lids, and the voice toppled away again.
Down into the quiet and cool. I floated between pain and nothing and awareness. Up and down. And up. Voices, insistent and urgent.
“… to the the temple.” An angry whisper beside my head. “… needs better care … “
“No!” A dark voice, agitation cut down with a sharp breath. “She stays … you have to stay.”
“I’m needed … in good hands. … better hands.”
Words like staccato, too angry and too loud. “… up to debate. … have her gawked at like a curiosity.” The man sighed. “… can’t move her anyway. Not before she wakes up.”
“We don’t even know…” Shrill with worry.
“Don’t you…!” the man snapped. “She will. She’ll be fine.”
“But you can’t…”
“She’ll be fine!” Heavy steps and the scratch of wood on stone. Warm air streamed in, cool on my face. I turned my head towards the door. There was a wet, wheezing sound – my own breathing, every laboured intake of air devoured as soon as it passed the threshold of my lips.
For a moment it was eerily silent, then the woman stood up.
“Out. Leave us alone.” The door clapped shut. Blessed silence. My head was spinning, every sound reaching my brain through a haze of pain, fatigue and confusion. I turned my head towards the voice. Danica was familiar, her presence grounding.
When I opened my mouth, her palm cupped my cheek with a featherlight touch, her thumb sealing my lips. “No speaking, Qhourian. You hear me?” The voice was stern and commanding, but her grip released me when I tilted my head. It was hard to concentrate, but of course I heard her.
The next order. “Look at me.” My lids were stuck together, the effort to tear them open causing a wave of headache. Tears blurred my sight when the light pierced in. Too much light, and not enough by far. Dark edges around my vision, maimed and incomplete, the priestess’ face hovering above me swimming in and out of focus. It blocked the rest of the room. Her lips pressed into a tight line as she watched me become rigid.
I had known that only one eye was left. I had known, but it simply hadn’t mattered before, and I had forgotten about it.
But now, under her scrutiny, it mattered, and I panicked. On the right side was only darkness. Nothing, not even a shadow. I wasn’t prepared for this nothing, and a violent shudder went through my body, the shocked intake of breath stuck in my throat. Danica’s hand came up and pressed into my shoulder, holding me down and steady.
“Calm down, Qhourian. It’s okay. You’ll be fine.”
I stared at her face, the only thing to focus on. It was close, close enough to see the wrinkles and dark rings around her eyes and the grey hair strands in her bun. A burst of healing magic streamed with gentle warmth through my body and took away the edge of panic and pain. “You know who I am?”
She was Danica, priestess of Kyne. She would fix it. Her lips twitched as I nodded, and her grip on my shoulder relaxed. “You’re really back,” she said, bewilderment in her voice. I closed my eye again and waited for my heartbeat to calm down.
Next time I woke, it was easier to find my bearings. As long as I didn’t try to look around, I could nearly pretend that everything was normal.
And I could only pretend because I was in Jorrvaskr – not in my own room, but in Vignar’s chamber right next to the main hall. The window was ajar to let fresh air in, the door as well to keep the room warm. The scents and background noises were so familiar that I relaxed without recognising them initially as what they were. Only a sound beside me let me jerk and come to myself, the questions starting to tumble through my head. Why was I here? How did I get here? It made no sense.
Nothing made any sense. Not the sharp tang of potions and cold sweat, not the cool fingers on my forehead and not that I had to force every breath with conscious effort through the burning coil in my chest. It made no sense that I was dizzy with exhaustion right after waking up and shivering with cold while roaring flames devoured me from the inside.
What did I do here? I had said farewell. I wasn’t supposed to come back. It made no sense.
Something rustled on the floor at the footend of my bed – a body turning over under a blanket. There was a movement beside me, the scraping of a chair on the floor and the mattress dipping down as someone took place on the edge of the bed.
Athis. I turned my head to him. “Athis.” My lips moved without a sound. I felt his hand on my shoulder, greeting as much as restriction. There was a smile in his voice.
“Welcome back, sister.”
Steps approached. “Thank you, Athis. Please tell Tilma we need the tea I brought.” Danica’s voice was drowsy. It was her who had slept on the cot. She took Athis’ place and my wrist into her hand, feeling for the pulse.
I flexed my fingers in her grip. When I tried to do the same with the other hand, I couldn’t. Tightly wrapped into bandages that reached up nearly to my shoulder, it felt… weird. Stiff and incomplete.
From there I tried to go on and get a survey over my state. I was covered only by a thin, light linen sheet, and beneath that I was naked – as far as one could be called naked when torso and thighs were entirely wrapped into gauze and bandages. That was the easy part.
Everything else was a cacophony of different aches, none of them unbearable on its own… I had suffered burns and broken bones and flesh wounds and blood-loss before. But together they mingled into a symphony of pain that was as overwhelming as confusing. The right side of my head from temple to shoulder felt as if it was covered in thin ice that would crush with the slightest strain, and although the hollowness in the eye-socket didn’t hurt, it was deeply disturbing. My left ankle was splinted and lay on top of a pile of pillows, and I could only guess what the dressings were covering. Every breath, every movement caused sharp stabs of pain beneath them.
And every breath hurt in a way that let all the other aches fade into a dull throbbing, proof of my still beating pulse. I never knew that something as natural as breathing could be so difficult. Even if Danica hadn’t forbidden it, there wouldn’t have been enough air to speak.
But beneath all this, beneath the pain and the tiredness and the hammering in my head, there was still something else, and Danica gave me time to find it. A counterpoint to my own heartbeat, another rhythm pounding through my blood, it made itself known, insistent and urgent.
Another heart, another pulse. It was still there, and it made everything else insignificant. This stubborn little wonder was the answer to all questions. He needs you now.
I turned my head to the priestess. The room was lit only by a single lamp on the nightstand, and concentrating on her face, it was easier to ignore the strange flatness of my surroundings, the lack of perspective and the absence of a large part of my field of view.
“Is he okay?” It was only a barely audible whisper, but I had to know.
For a moment, she looked confused. Only when I moved the other hand down my body and let it rest on my belly, understanding flared through her face.
I nodded. Yes, he. My son.
She tilted her head, hesitating. Her grip on my wrist tightened. “He lives. Don’t worry.”
She was a lousy liar, and that he was alive was something I knew already. I jerked my head impatiently, trying to stare her down. I wanted answers. I needed these answers. “How bad?”
Her gaze explored my face. I clenched my teeth against the throbbing that pulsed between my temples. It didn’t help. Finally, she sighed and leant forward, propping herself on her elbows.
“I don’t know if he’s okay, Qhouri. You had stopped breathing, and I don’t know for how long… it’s a miracle that he survived that. But if he didn’t, you wouldn’t either. A miscarriage would have killed you.” She rubbed her palm over her face, exhaustion making her features slip for a moment. Her brows furrowed in concern. “But you’re in a lousy state, and I can’t say for sure if and how he’s affected. Only time will tell. All I know is that you’ll have to be very, very careful over the next months. With you both.” She gave me a gentle smile. “He’s definitely a tough little guy.”
Oh yes, that he was. Tough and stubborn. I lifted the wrapped hand and brought it between us.
She tilted her head, an eyebrow arched up. “Worse than everything I’ve ever seen, and still better than anyone could expect. You heal well. Surprisingly well.”
No, not surprising. Hircine’s gift.
“The worst are the burns, internal and external. Your windpipe, even your lungs… as if you tried to get cooked from the inside and roasted from the outside. And in some parts… you were pretty crisp.” She shouldn’t try to amuse me. I wasn’t even sure if that was her intention, her demeanour serious. “You lost your eye, and half of your face… well. Crisp. I did my best… but some scars will remain. And we’ll have to see if the hair on this side will ever grow back.” She pointed at my right temple, then her hand stroked lightly along the sheet that was my blanket. “You will have many lasting reminders. Those wounds…” She sighed. “You’ll see. Tonight I’ll change the dressings. Burns are always tricky, and in that extent… well, they have to heal slowly, or the scars will become a hindrance later. I’ll do what I can.”
She turned around when the door opened and Athis entered, carrying a pitcher and a goblet that he set down on the nightstand. He bent over me while Danica filled the goblet.
“I’ll lift you up, okay? Relax,” he said with a gentle smile. “Don’t help.” One hand drove under my neck, holding my head and lifting it from the pillow, then the other arm came around my shoulders and shifted lower, splayed around my back as he tilted me into a half lying, half sitting position. When I flexed my stomach muscles involuntarily and tensed as sharp pain flared through my abdomen, his grip tightened. “Relax, Qhouri,” he said in a no-nonsense tone. My forehead was pressed against his chest, and he held me firmly until Danica had piled up a few pillows behind me, then let me sink back. “Good girl.”
My breath came in shallow rasps, and the skin of my face stung at a spot behind my ear when I tried to answer his smirk, as if it was too tight for that expression. “Bossy,” I whispered.
He snorted a laughter. “We’re gonna spoil you rotten, believe me. And there’s nothing you can do. Not even talk back.” He winked at Danica who gave him a fond grin and turned to leave, not giving me opportunity to get into an argument.
The cheer dissolved though when the healer filled the goblet and held it to my mouth. “It will hurt, but you need to drink. Urgently. You’re parched.” She was right. The inside of my mouth felt raw and sore, but also as if something furry had died inside. The brew was lukewarm and smelled faintly of mountain flowers, chamomile and sage. I always hated sage.
But when she trickled the first drops into my mouth and I swallowed reflexively, it made me sputter and gasp for a breath that didn’t want to come, lights exploding behind my lids. Danica waited patiently until I had clamped down on the feeling to suffocate that clenched my chest and let tears stream down my cheek. Only on one side. Only one eye was still able to cry.
She gave me a feeble, apologetic but encouraging smile. “Sorry. But you have to.”
I clenched my teeth and steeled myself. In a way, it was similar to the experience after my first climb to Paarthurnax, just worse. Back then, I also thought I’d never speak or breathe or swallow again.
“More,” I mouthed, bracing myself. She nodded and let me take a larger gulp. Easier to force down more of the liquid at once, but I was thankful when she put the goblet away and her healing spell touched my throat. My head swam, pain throbbing behind my eyes. I was exhausted.
My gaze wandered to the firmly enwrapped left hand that lay like a dead weight beside me. “What else?”
She took my wrist. “This hand was burnt worst. It seems… you used it to protect yourself. Your face, against the heat. We had to amputate the pinky and the tip of the ring finger. But you’ll have to start to use it soon, or the scars will immobilize the muscles.” I nodded. I would do whatever she expected of me.
She shrugged. “The rest is not so bad. Your left collarbone was broken, that was an easy fix. Your ankle is broken too, but it’s a clean fracture and I left it alone for the moment. You won’t get up any time soon anyway. A cracked rib. Oh, and a few flesh wounds and bruises that looked worse than they were. At least in comparison.”
How in Oblivion had I broken my ankle? Danica’s hand was cool on my forehead. “Enough for now. You need rest.” When she caught my tired gaze, her face lit up with a warm smile. “I’ll keep watch.”
For a moment I wondered why she had to keep watch here in the safety of Jorrvaskr, but my thoughts were too blurred to ponder the meaning of her words further, and then I was back in the drift, waves breaking over and swallowing me, floating between the the darkness in the deep and the light above that sliced me up, pulsing with life.
But now it was stronger than the urge to let myself fall, and when I emerged again, Danica’s face was there again, watching me intently as she gave me time to wake. I was sore all over, my eyes heavy and my head drowsy, but this time it really felt like waking. Not overwhelmingly strange any more, not as if I had to convince my body that it still lived. “Good,” she said with a content smile, “you didn’t stop breathing again. Let’s have a look at you.” She pushed back the thin cover and went to work with eager professionalism, and I watched her curiously as she started to unwrap my torso.
Thick layers of healing salve mixed with blood and greasy scabs had glued the soft gauze beneath the bandages firmly to the wounds, and when she ripped off the first strip without much ado and without warning, bile gathered in my throat with a new flare of fire, the biting metallic tang of fresh blood, oozing and salve only making it worse. I didn’t have the breath to force it down, didn’t even have the breath for a whimper.
If she had done this before and I had stayed unconscious throughout, I really had been more dead than alive.
Only her healing spell running in gentle waves through my body kept me conscious. She gave me an apologising look and wiped the sweat from my forehead. “Told you. Crisp. I’d give you something stronger for the pain, but it could harm the child. Can’t risk that.” She shrugged and peeled off another piece of the stained fabric. Pain spiked white-hot with every strip she removed and folded down into red-hot when she gave me time to get myself together. The cool air puckered my skin, waves of pain making it clammy and shining with sweat. “Honestly, your armour did an amazing job,” she said casually, as if to give me something else to focus on. “I still had to cut away some of the burnt skin, but it looks good.”
She had a strange idea of good. Broad stripes of raw flesh ran in curves from the sides of my chest, crossed over my belly and led down to my thighs. Rigged lines, as if painted by a trembling hand. They formed the outlines of the scales of my armour, where they were held together by metal strips. Ironic. At the moment they looked horrible, raw flesh in shades of red and purple and pink, partly covered by a greasy, brown-black smear. Where the wounds were deepest, where she obviously had cut away burnt tissue, they were strangely numb. Only the edges hurt, ragged and unhealthy pale or still covered by remains of scorched, dead skin.
And Danica said they looked good.
But they would heal, and only scars would remain – lasting reminders. When I tore my gaze from the severed flesh, she held a mirror in her hand. “You wanna get over with it?”
There was no reason for pity, and I met her eyes with a trace of defiance as I nodded. The face that looked back at me from the polished bronze was the one of a stranger. I was bald, the hair shaved where it wasn’t burnt off. My right ear was an unrecognisable clump of swollen flesh, and a good part of my head, face and throat were covered in purple, crumpled skin, sore and tender and streaked with sickly white lines. The corner of my mouth was contorted into a grimace, the scarred tissue rough and numb when I drove my tongue over the lip. The blind, desiccated eyeball lay like a mouldy berry in its socket, milky white with dark edges, the bulge of a scar lifting the eyebrow into a permanent expression of astonishment. Only that there were no eyebrows left.
It didn’t look real, it didn’t even feel real, and I stared at the reflection for a long time. For sure, it didn’t look like me.
But when I let the hand that held the mirror fall away and turned my gaze to Danica, I met a strange look. She sat very still, her hands folded in her lap. I didn’t know what kind of reaction she expected and tried a small smile. It felt cramped and stung where the skin was too tight.
“Draugr,” I croaked. I looked like one, and I sounded like one. I even felt like one… not quite dead, but not quite alive either.
She shook her head, opening her mouth as if to say something and shutting it again. She inhaled deeply and bit her lip. I watched her confused. “Did Alduin do this?” she pressed out.
Now I knew why she was so nervous. I also knew that this wasn’t what she wanted to know. “Killed him.”
She let out a jerky breath and her eyes were moist, but the smile that bloomed on her face was bright and relieved. She slumped forward, her elbows on her knees, and touched my wrist. “Kyne be praised,” she whispered. “You’ll be fine, Qhouri. I promise you’ll be fine.”
It wasn’t the kind of shouting and yelling that was common in Jorrvaskr that startled me from my doze, but a heated discussion loud enough to be audible even down in the living quarters. One of them was Ria, and when the door at the bottom of the stairs slammed open, I heard her rushing after a man whose voice and determined steps I recognised instantly as Jarl Balgruuf’s.
“With all due respect, Companion, I will speak with my Thane directly. She’s here, isn’t she?” He didn’t stop, and he didn’t bother to speak quietly. Kodlak lifted his eyes from the tome in his lap with annoyed surprise.
“Balgruuf? Himself? So far he has only sent Irileth.” It wasn’t hard to guess what brought the Jarl to Jorrvaskr in person. For sure he didn’t just want to convince himself that my convalescence was progressing well, and I steeled myself for him to barge in. But Kodlak gave me a single look and placed the book on my nightstand, shaking his head. “Never knew when to back off. Time to give him a taste of the Harbinger’s domiciliary rights.” He gave me a crooked smile. “It won’t take long.”
I watched him leave, grateful for his unspoken understanding. He had a way to know what I wanted or needed without me having to ask. But then, we had spent a lot of time together lately, more than ever before.
In the beginning, Danica had insisted on someone keeping watch over me at all times because she trusted neither the reliability of my respiratory system nor my survival instinct. I was in no shape to protest, and I got used to someone being there all the time while I floated between deep unconsciousness, troubled sleep and dazed awareness.
Every time I woke, there was still this feeling of disorientation, the refusal to believe what had happened and where I was, the feeling that it made no sense. That I made no sense, even as everything around me was finally right. Foreign in my own body, foreign in Jorrvaskr, foreign in this world.
But I would have to face it again, and although I didn’t know if my siblings really understood my struggles – I certainly couldn’t articulate them – they did everything to make me feel right. To make me feel at home.
On good days they entertained me with anecdotes from their jobs and gossip from all over the province, they helped me with the exercises and lotions Danica had developed to keep the healing scars smooth, and they spoiled me rotten. The best was a dessert Tilma had invented only for me – ice crushed into fine dust was mixed with cream and honey and whatever juice or mashed fruits she had availabe, then whipped until it was a light, fluffy mousse. It was delicious and a true blessing for my burnt throat.
On bad days, when I was cranky and grumpy and disgusted with myself because I was so damned helpless and every bit of progress took far too long, they left me alone and only took care that I ate and slept.
And on very bad days, when I thrashed around and whimpered through pain and breathlessness, their silent breathing, mumbled words and careful touches still helped more than they probably knew.
They were always there, and when I got lost again in the depth and the coolness and the darkness where I didn’t have to breathe, they ripped me out of it and pulled me to the surface. Once my cheek stung in the outline of a hand, a burst of air and light exploding in my head. Ria had her teeth bared above me. She said something, her tears cool on my skin when I huffed into her face. I wanted to know why she cried, but I couldn’t ask. But I felt remorse, and I did not dive so deep next time.
Olfina did most of the work, she helped me eat, change, wash and relieve myself, but all of the Companions except Vilkas spent their time at my bedside, and they never gave me the feeling that it was an unwanted duty, even if they had just an hour or two between appointments. Vilkas I didn’t see once, he was barely ever in Jorrvaskr, and as weeks went by, the notion that he actively avoided me became stronger and stronger. But although it left a nagging feeling in my stomach, it was something I didn’t have the nerves to bother about.
Only later, when Danica had declared me finally out of immediate danger and I had insisted to be moved to my own room so Vignar could come home, it was Kodlak who had taken over most of the duty. It wasn’t necessary any more, but the Harbinger cut off my meagre protest by making himself at home. Soon a comfortable armchair had found a place beside my bed, and my desk was covered in piles of books and parchments. He spent long hours every day in my room, reading, scribbling pages and pages of undecipherable notes, sometimes reading to me, sometimes nodding off himself. I wasn’t sure why, but I was glad about his company, and I spent hours dozing away, listening to his voice and to my own breath, laboured and uneven, to the fluttery heartbeat inside of me and to the noises that came from upstairs where the Companions were alive and safe.
In Jorrvaskr, I was surrounded by life, and they never let me forget about it.
But when he came back now, Kodlak wore a tense scowl and propped himself heavily on the backrest of his chair instead to sit down and resume his reading.
“You’re ready to get back into the action, Qhouri?” He glared at me. “Because you will have to if Balgruuf gets his way.”
Seemed the Jarl had made clear that he expected his Thane to report back in for duty, and Kodlak looked like a really pissed off mother hen. I would have liked to witness that confrontation.
I stretched out a hand and gave him a grin. It still felt weird, muscles and skin moving wrong and the scars stinging. “Get me a crutch and I’m in,” I whispered. I had my voice back, but it was broken, a rough, scraping sound that was hard to get used to.
He shot me an incredulous look, pushed the chair around so it was facing me and dropped with a heavy sigh into the cushions.
“I don’t want to bother you with this, Qhouri,” he said. “And I made very clear to him that he has to get through me if he tried that again. And through Danica, and Aela, and Vilkas and Athis… well, I think he got the idea. The problem is that he is right. In a way. We have a problem.”
I propped myself on my good elbow and waited until he stuffed some pillows behind me before I wiggled backwards. We had a routine with these manoeuvres in the meantime. The change in position was a relief, because it made other parts of me hurt than before. Despite Danica’s efforts, my back was sore from too much lying.
“What kind of problem?”
“That people are so damned nosy!” A fit of coughing came over him, and I wished he would calm down. “We got lots of mail over the last weeks. Some of it to you, but in great parts also addressed to me or the Companions in general, and every single letter wants to know what you did, if you really were in Sovngarde, what happened with Alduin and – occasionally – how you’re faring. So far, we ignored most of it. No one but you has the right to speak in your name.”
His face was grim. “But Balgruuf faces the same questions, only that in his case they come from higher up. From the other Jarls – all of them! -, from the College… heck, even Tullius has sent an inquiry. Perhaps he can’t wait to go on with the war. And gossip’s running rampant. There’s a rumour spreading that you’re dead and that the dragon attacks have only ceased because Alduin is gathering his army.”
“But you know I’m not dead. And… I told Danica. About Alduin.”
His smile was twisted. “Yeah, we know. And I always knew that you’d slay that annoying worm and that you’d certainly not come back without the job done. But we don’t gossip, and you were barely conscious when Danica asked you, and…” He was so obviously uncomfortable that it made me smile.
“They think I was delirious.”
“Yes. And some people would certainly prefer a dead hero over a living legend.” He busied himself with filling a goblet with cold tea and handed it to me. “Everybody saw you flying away on that strange dragon, and everybody saw him bringing you back. In his claws. But that’s all they know, and of course people are curious. They want to know if Alduin is dead and how he found his end… and whom to thank. And to praise.” He watched my discomfort with his intent gaze, and I pulled myself together. He was right, after all.
But for me, the fight against the Worldeater had been the end. The person that flew away on Odahviin’s back had been nothing but Dovahkiin, and with Alduin gone, the Dovahkiin had fulfilled her purpose. The prophecy had taken its course, no further chapters left. After I had fed Alduin his balls, nothing was left for me to do, and what defined me had no meaning any more.
I had said farewell, I had been ready to die, and in the end I did, somewhere between that battlefield and Jorrvaskr.
That I was here now and had to give account to Kodlak, to the Jarl and to the world, it made still no sense. I hadn’t planned for this eventuality, for a future where I would have to go on. There was no room to make any plans before, and I didn’t know how to do this now, put something together from the charred remains that Alduin had left behind. All I knew was what I was not any more – a warrior, the Dragonborn.
But just because I had put it behind me didn’t mean that others were willing to do the same. People were curious.
Because for Kodlak and Balgruuf and everyone else it was different. Of course it was. They had lived before, they had lived through it, and now they went on living as if nothing had happened. Nothing did happen. Not for them, and all that was relevant was if this life would continue the way they were used to.
They had a right to know that it would. I gave him a tentative smile. “Let him in next time. I’ll speak with him.”
Kodlak watched me pensively. “Qhouri… I told you what Balgruuf wants because it’s your decision how to deal with this. But I want you to know that he can’t force you. You have no obligations towards the Jarl… or anyone, for that matter. And I want you to know that you can rely on us. No one will make any demands of you that you’re not ready to fulfil. Not under my watch, and if you never want to speak about Alduin ever again, he will, for once, not get what he wants.”
I believed him, that he would put all his authority into the balance to protect my interests. I didn’t believe him though that he had no interests of his own.
“But I can’t hide in here forever. And… people have a right to know what happened. Don’t try to tell me you’re not curious.”
Kodlak’s hand lay on my wrist. His was frail and brittle, sharp bones and dark veins under thin, mottled skin. Mine was mutilated and crippled. The remaining three fingernails were black and would fall off on their own.
His face closed down as he lowered his gaze. Perhaps he came to the same conclusion as I. We’re both no warriors any more.
And then he rose abruptly and stood with his back to me, his forearm propped against a bookshelf. I watched him confused.
“I was scared, you know?” His voice, usually so sonorous, was restrained and weak now. “When you flew away on that dragon, I was scared like never before. And I’ve seen lots of scary things in my life.”
Somehow I had a feeling that I shouldn’t interrupt him. He turned around sharply and pointed at me. “You think I was scared for you? Wrong, Qhouri. I was scared to death for myself. For this little bit of time I still have, for everything that may or may not come afterwards. When you went to Skuldafn, this prophecy, this vague threat of doom was suddenly concrete. You were on your way to fight the Worldeater, and if you failed, my fate was sealed. And nothing else mattered.” He stood straight and stiff, fingers clenched behind his back, but he looked me straight in the eyes, a gaze full of guilt and grief and anger. “And then I realised that this fear lay on your shoulders. Mine, and everyone else’s, and your own. If I was so scared, looking after you from a safe distance, how must you have felt? For you, this threat of doom has always been concrete, you have faced and felt it. And for you, this life I was so afraid for always came second. All these months, and still you took step after step with this burden on your back and carried us through. All on your own. I think… then I understood why you had to put everything behind you.”
He lowered his head, and it became quiet. He looked very small, our Harbinger, the man who had always given me a home to come back to when I couldn’t go on. After long minutes, I stretched out my arm and touched his knee.
“You were never a burden, Kodlak. I wouldn’t have made it without you.” Without him. Without all of them. He had no idea how much I owed him.
He lifted his gaze to my face. His expression was very quiet. “You made a journey that no living soul should have to make, girl. But you also came back, and that’s the real miracle, and the least we can do now is give you time to recover. Time that wouldn’t even exist without you, and it’s yours for the taking. At your terms, as much or as little as you need.”
I had a lump in my throat that was more than just soreness. “I’m still pregnant,” I whispered. This child wasn’t shattered and charred, not like the rest of me, and it had a right to get the start it was entitled to. If nothing else, it gave me a new purpose. He needs you now.
“Yes. Another miracle.” A tentative smile lit up his face. It was gaunt under the beard, but his eyes were as alive as ever. “You have made us a gift, Qhouri. But don’t forget that you’ve also made this gift to yourself, and… I hope for you that you’ll learn to cherish it. It’s more than duty, this life, and it’s yours for the taking.”
Live your life, love. Make your own choices. My head swam.
But Kodlak pushed his armchair around again so he sat beside the bed instead of facing me and took place as if the disturbance by Jarl Balgruuf had never happened and this conversation was over. But his book rested unopened in his lap, and of course it wasn’t.
What did he mean, “learn to cherish it”? Of course I cherished what I had. There was no better place to heal than Jorrvaskr, and I was grateful to be here. I cherished the care, the comfort and the familiarity, and most of all did I cherish the company. To have the people around me I adored most in the world, their support and protection. I cherished that there was no duty in it.
But he couldn’t protect me forever – I didn’t even want him to -, and I couldn’t think only of myself. I had to find a place in this world, for me and for my son, and this place wouldn’t be Jorrvaskr. Not like before, not for a cripple like me.
I was certain that he knew this as good as I. But he had built me a bridge when he made clear that it was my decision how to deal with the Jarl. He would have my back, and I could nail him down on his offer and gain some precious time.
When I turned my head to him, he was alert in an instant. “Would you speak with him for me? With Balgruuf? So he can shut up the rumours that I’m dead?”
The obvious disgust in my expression made him smile as he turned to me. “Of course. What shall I tell him?”
I gathered my thoughts. Perhaps I should just start with the most important part.
“That I stabbed him.” His eyes went wide. On second thought, that sounded pathetic.
“You stabbed him?”
Pathetic, yes. His expression made me grin. “Yep. It was a lucky hit. And then he was dead.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “That’s all? Balgruuf will have a hard time to make a hero’s tale from that. And Mikael as well.”
No one needed a hero’s tale, and it was something I couldn’t deliver anyway.
“Why would I make Mikael’s job any easier than necessary?”
“True. And he’ll make up the missing pieces anyway.”
“In that case… you can also tell them that I fell through a hole in Skuldafn. That Alduin was a coward and that Tsun doesn’t fight fair. That the Hall of Valour is a lot like Jorrvaskr, and… that there were others who fought with me. Warriors, heroes from the Dragon Wars. There was a lot of shouting.”
“And then you stabbed him.”
“Yep. I mean… it took forever, and I was tired…”
He shook his head, incredulous amusement in his eyes. “Mikael will hate you.”
“I think I can live with that.”
“Like Jorrvaskr, you say? Good to know. I’ll feel right at home then.”
Now it was my turn to jerk around. “You’re…”
His smile was bright. “You shouldn’t bother with this, but yes. I will go there and see it for myself. I know now how to end this curse.”
Of course I bothered. “You must tell me about it. Please.”
“I will,” he chuckled. “We’re not in a hurry, Qhouri. Not you, and I’m not either. We’ll get through this winter and then you’ll give birth, and that’s something I wouldn’t miss …”
The door to the stairs slammed open and shut again. What was it with the noise today? Aela and Vilkas stormed into the living quarters, yelling at each other.
“A fucking trap, and you just want to ignore it?”
“I don’t ignore it, Vilkas! But perhaps it was just a coincidence, and …”
“It was no coincidence! Gods, they’re back, we must …”
“I know, right?” They had arrived in front of Aela’s door. And in front of mine. “Coincidence or not, we will deal with them. But not now. Vorstag has priority now. And Athis has to get…”
“What’s going on here?” Kodlak stood in my doorway, and I could only imagine the scowl he gave them. The arguing ceased, and it was quiet for a moment.
“Nothing, Kodlak,” Aela said finally, keeping her voice down. “Sorry. We didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You didn’t,” the Harbinger snapped, “but you won’t storm in here like a herd of mammoths and cry doom and not explain yourself. What’s the matter with Athis and Vorstag?”
I heard Vilkas’ low growl. “Athis is …” He broke off abruptly as Aela interrupted him.
“Can we meet in your quarters? This can take a while,” she said.
“No!” At least I was able to make myself heard, as Kodlak spun around and the other two looked over his shoulder. Anxiousness clenched my chest. “What’s with Athis? And Vorstag?”
“You shouldn’t bother with this, Qhouri,” Aela said.
I pressed my lips into a tight line, tired of getting told that I shouldn’t bother. “You won’t tell me?”
“Of course. But …” Vilkas sounded more annoyed than anything, but he looked away when I tried to catch his gaze. What was the matter with him? I knew he had avoided me over the past weeks, but what did he think how long he could keep this up? One day he’d have to tell me why, but right now this was something I really didn’t want to worry about.
“Circle-meeting, now. Here.” I gestured around the small room. “Find a seat. I wanna know what’s going on.”
A/N: What can I say? Exactly one year since the last update, and I’m still not entirely happy with this chapter. Pathetic. But Q won’t release her greedy grip on me till I’ve seen her through to the bitter (or not so bitter) end, so let’s see how it goes.
I’ll do my very best.