The silence in the small room was tense and loaded as Kodlak took place in his chair. Aela and Vilkas leant against the desk, close to each other, shoulders touching, arms crossed.
They built a front against us, or they searched each other’s closeness. I didn’t know. But both radiated nervousness and worry.
It spread over, this worry that contained a tinge of fear, and anxiousness clenched my chest, visceral and immediate. Whatever it was that had made them yelling at each other, it was something bad. Something dangerous and menacing enough to make them lose their composure, and it spread over to me.
“What happened?” Aela’s head shot up with Kodlak’s question. Her gaze wandered to my face, then she shared a look with Vilkas. His hands were clenched hard into his own upper arms, but finally he gave a curt nod.
“It’s two separate things. Problems,” she said.
“They’re not separate. And this one here is more urgent,” Vilkas cut in. “Fact is …”
“Fact is that Vorstag has disappeared,” Aela snapped, “and that it’s our damned duty to find him.”
“He hasn’t disappeared,” Vilkas barked back, “how do you think they knew we’d be there? They were waiting for us!”
“I don’t know, okay?” Aela faced him now, her face again contorted in anger. “Gods, you think I take this lightly? I razed them out, for Kyne’s sake! But I will not make assumptions about a shield-brother …”
“Because you’re blind! Don’t you see …”
“Vilkas!” Kodlak’s shout silenced them immediately. “Would someone be so kind and explain what you’re talking about?”
“And what’s with Athis?” I asked.
Both shared a look again, and I could see Vilkas clamp down on a remark. Aela played nervously with a quill, twirling it between her fingers while she gathered herself. “Vorstag is gone… missing. He was in the Reach, with Ria, and they separated because he wanted to meet up with his family. From there, he didn’t come back. Ria searched for him, but he disappeared without a trace.”
“And I ran into a trap of the Silver Hand. With Athis. He got poisoned. Badly.”
“The Silver Hand? How bad? Is he okay?” My voice had a tinge of panic.
“He lives, thanks to Danica,” Vilkas pressed out between gritted teeth. “But it was close. Too close. That stuff… something paralysing, but worse. Never seen anything like it. Arcadia tries to find out what it’s made of. And it was the second time already.”
“And now Vilkas believes that Vorstag sold us out.” Aela’s lips were pressed into a tight line.
Worry coiled in my stomach as I let their explanation sink in. The Silver Hand… again, and a shield-brother gone. I knew nearly nothing about Vorstag, only that he had successfully found his place among us, becoming close friends with Athis and especially with Ria. But – and I realised it with a surge of relief – it didn’t matter how good I knew him and how close we were. He was a Companion, my shield-brother the same he was Aela’s and Vilkas’, and whatever he had been done or had happened to him, it concerned all of us equally. We were in danger. What happened to one of them happened to all of us.
I felt shame that I needed a disaster like this to remind me. And I felt like a fool that I thought I could put a distance between them and me, even if it was only in my head.
And at the same time I felt a tiny, selfish trace of relief. For once, the Companions weren’t worried about me. For once, we could worry together about this danger to all of us, concrete and tangible, something we had to deal with here and now. There wasn’t much I could actually do to help. But I wanted to. I wanted to help. Do something, however insignificant.
“What makes you think it was Vorstag?” Kodlak asked.
“Because it’s more than a coincidence! How’d they know exactly when and where we’d show up? Someone must have told them!” Now Vilkas looked up, searching Kodlak’s gaze. “It’s not just that they were waiting for us. They’re stronger than ever, more of them, better trained and most of all much better equipped than the rabble we were used to. We have to find out who funds them, and Aela and I are needed here now. The whelps can’t deal with this on their own, Athis and I only got out because…” He shrugged.
“But we have no evidence that Vorstag is a traitor. He has enemies in Markarth, it can be just as well be that he was thrown into Cidhna Mine. Or… whatever. We must search for him. Before it’s too late.”
Kodlak slumped back into his seat, rubbing his palm over his face.
“And you two thought you could deal with this all on your own?”
“And who else will?” Vilkas flared up.
Aela retained her calm. “Someone has to, Kodlak, and we’re the best suited. And we have to hurry. Speculating won’t take us anywhere.”
“Let’s not be rash. What kind of problems did he have in Markarth?”
“He fell out with the Silver-Bloods when he worked for the Jarl. The family that owns Cidhna Mine.”
“The family that basically owns all of Markarth,” Vilkas threw in.
“Yes. It was bad enough for him to leave and come to Whiterun.”
“But he has family there,” I said.
“Yeah, a married sister and his parents. I knew he visited them from time to time, when we were in the area. It was never a problem. Until now.”
“If the Silver-Bloods threw him into the mine, I don’t see how we could get him out. That prison is tight. If he’s there at all,” Vilkas chimed in. His face was twisted into a scowl.
“He’s a Companion, not a nameless sellsword any more. Do we have any proof that the Silver-Bloods got him?” Kodlak asked.
“No. But at the moment, it’s the most plausible explanation.”
“No, it’s not. And anyway, it was a hazard for him to go to Markarth in the first place,” Vilkas growled.
“Because you’d never do anything hazardous for your family, right?” Vilkas flinched at the Harbinger’s remark, but then he gave a tight grin. It eased the tension in the room, at least a bit. “No one abducts a Companion and gets away with it. Igmund will have means to find out if Vorstag is in Cidhna, and he will if I ask him.”
“If he survives that long. That hole has a reputation. And it’s full with Forsworn.”
“Who won’t exactly like a Nord in favour with the Jarl.” Kodlak nodded gravely. “Anyway, this will be faster than you trying to break in there. And you should try to get in contact with his family.”
“Ria did that already. His sister knows nothing, and he never arrived at his parents’ house.”
“Okay. When will you leave?”
Aela hesitated for a moment, her eyes flitting to Vilkas again. They both started to speak at the same time. “At once,” she said, “already got my …”
“You can’t. Not now.”
“I have to, Vilkas! You wanna let him rot?” The quill broke in halves, and for a moment, she looked confused at the fragments before she let them drop onto the table.
“And who will take care of the Hand?” He shoved himself off the desk and paced through the room. “We have to do something. We’re deadlocked as long as we don’t know who their contact is, and one day we’ll have them on our doorstep.”
“Dramatic, much?” But there was no heat in Aela’s remark.
“Perhaps, but just one more reason to find Vorstag as soon as possible,” Kodlak said. “And you’re both right. As long as we don’t know if and how Vorstag and the Hand are connected, we’re grasping at straws. But it’s not either or. How long has he been missing?”
“Eight… perhaps nine days. We don’t know exactly.”
“Which means he can’t know about jobs that came in since then.”
Vilkas bit his lip in thought, then he nodded. “And if we take on one of those and the Hand is there, we know that it’s not Vorstag.”
“Yes. The whelps can do that if they know what to expect. Qhouri will brief them. In the meantime, one of you goes to Markarth, speaks with the Jarl and searches for clues. And both of you should have a look at the Hands’ hideouts, those that Aela destroyed. See if they moved back in. Perhaps find out where their funds come from.” He poked his index in Aela’s direction. “Don’t get reckless for now, okay? We’ll work on this together.”
Her face crunched up in frustration, but she nodded. “I’ll take Njada. She’s the suited for that kind of job.” Her gaze flitted to me. We all knew that under these circumstances I’d be an even better match for her. I avoided her eyes.
“Vilkas should go to Markarth, though,” I said. He gave me a questioning look, and Aela looked as if she wanted to object. “You’ll be alone if Ria and Torvar do the baiting job, but you can go to Skyhaven. It’ll be safer than Markarth, and Delphine can be your backup.”
For a moment he relaxed, the nervous tension leaving his shoulders. “That’s… actually a good idea.”
“Give them my greetings.” I wanted to say something else. To be careful, to come back safe, that they’d find something, that everything would be fine. He didn’t give me opportunity, just nodded curtly and followed Aela into her room.
They left together a few minutes later, but lingered for a moment outside of my door. Her hands rested on his hips as he pulled her into a tight hug. Their whisper was too quiet for me to understand, but I had the feeling that I was intruding on something.
“It’s too quiet, isn’t it?”
My gaze jerked up from where my eyes were glued to a single line in my book. Listening to Athis’ laboured breathing, I hadn’t turned the page for ages. Yes, it was too quiet.
His eyes were small with sleepiness and clouded with pain, but he showed me a small, relaxed smile. He should have slept for longer, but at least it seemed that I didn’t wake him.
“How are you?”
“Better.” He propped himself on an elbow, the other hand pressed to his side where the bandage that covered the festering dagger wound was soaked with pus. “Help me?”
He never hesitated to ask. He never tried to do something that was beyond his strength. I knew how much I had hated to be dependent on someone else for the easiest, most personal tasks, the humiliation and helplessness. Now Athis was in that situation, and he let me help him as if it was no big deal. I loved him for it.
The day Athis was brought home from the temple, I had left my room for the first time on my own two feet. I was drenched in sweat and shivering from the fire that flared beneath my scars, but I made it to the dorm. I had just wanted to see him, convince myself that he was if not well then at least alive and healing. But Danica had thrown a tantrum when she caught me, and in the end it had been Athis who declared that if we’re both wrecked we can just as well be wrecked together and asked Olfina to push two beds together.
I wouldn’t be of much help to him, and he slept most of the time anyway, but at least I could keep watch over him. He was worse off than me, the poison that had hit him of a kind neither the priests nor Arcadia had ever seen and all their antidotes useless. Danica could only treat the symptoms, waiting that it worked its way out of his system. But his wounds were infected and refusing to heal, and the effect of the paralysis that by a hair’s breadth had stopped his heart still lingered in his blood, making every movement clumsy and sluggish.
I had to have an eye on him. I had to see how he recovered, that he recovered. It was the only thing I could do after everyone else was gone, searching for clues about the Silver Hand and fighting for our safety.
“The others will be back soon.” I helped him to lean against the headboard and handed him a drink of water, my hands lingering near the goblet. Sometimes, he didn’t have enough feeling in his fingers to hold it on his own. “They’ll find something.”
He took a careful sip. “And then we’ll get them. Bastards.” He had a teasing lilt to his voice.
“Of course you will.” You will. They will. Not we will.
“Does it bother you?”
“The silence. It does bother me, you know?”
He never failed to surprise me. “Why?”
“I asked first.” Now the tease was in his smirk. I turned my head away.
“I’m used to it.”
“True.” As if he understood. Perhaps he did. I felt his gaze on me, probing past the borders of scars and memories. He would not breach them. No one did.
The silence beneath the waves, when the rhythm of breath and pulse had ceased. The silence of Alduin’s mist, swallowing the screams of the damned. The wordless silence of the beast, filled only with blood and anger. The silence of the Falkreath woods, where every wish, every dream had to yield to the demands of survival.
The silence of death after the crack of jaws snapping shut and bones breaking.
I was used to it, but to listen to his breath was still better. “I just hate the waiting.”
I laid my palm on his forehead. At least his fever had gone down, but there was a fine sheen of sweat on his skin. The air in the room was too hot, stale and reeking sour. Suppressing a groan, I fought myself out of the bed to open the door to the corridor and the tiny ventilation slot beneath the ceiling. The fresh air made it easier to breathe, but it did nothing for the pain every movement still caused, the heat beneath my skin, the aches in my muscles. Especially those in my lower back, straining under the weight of my belly. Weeks of bedrest had left me frighteningly weak.
I jerked around. Athis had lost the grip on the goblet when he tried to pull the blanket up to his chin. His fingers were clenched into the drenched fabric.
“Shit. Sorry, Athis.” I rushed over to him, then turned around again and slammed the window shut. He was freezing, goosebumps on his forearms and grinding teeth revealing how he fought against the bout of weakness. “Sorry. Gods.” He slumped back when I wrapped him into a dry blanket, careful not to touch his injured side. But when I hurried to refill his goblet, a careless motion shoved the lamp from the nightstand.
For a moment I stood still and stared at the shards and the oil dripping to the floor, the tips of my fingers pressing to the hard leather edges of the eyepatch until it hurt. I hadn’t seen the damned thing, but I should have known where it stood. There was a wheeze in my breath that was impossible to calm down. “Godsdammit.”
I bent over and grabbed another blanket from a free bed. “Take this.”
He shook his head, the glint back in his eyes. “It’s fine. Stop fussing, please.”
“But you need…” I took a discarded shirt and tried to mop up the oil. I only smeared it over the floor, making the stone slippery.
“Qhouri.” Clear exasperation was in his voice as he grabbed my wrist. “I’m fine. The others will be here in a minute, and Olfina will take care of this.” His chin jutted towards the puddle.
“You’re not fine!”
“Only because you’re driving me nuts.” He moved to sit up again, crunching his face with the effort.
For a moment I stood like frozen, heat rushing to my face, then I lowered my head. Athis was the most undemanding patient ever, never impatient, always more concerned about me than about himself. But Danica had forbidden him to move more than absolutely necessary. He needed to stay warm. He needed to drink. He needed to sleep. All things I should have been easily able to take care of, but instead I only made everything worse. “Okay.” I hated how I had to support myself, grabbing bedposts and armour stands as I went to the door. I was so godsdamned useless that I wasn’t even able to keep him halfway comfortable.
“What are you doing?”
“Not driving you nuts any more.”
He sighed behind me. “Okay. Let’s try this again. Could you stop driving us both nuts and calm down?”
When I turned, he patted the mattress beside him, still this maddening teasing grin on his face.
“But you need rest. Danica said…”
“Danica said I’m healing and need to take it easy. And so do you. Don’t throw a tantrum just because your hand-eye-coordination is still lousy.”
Over the last days, I had heard him curse and shout in pain and whimper in his sleep when his injuries took their toll. But never, not once, had I seen him lose his confidence that it would get better, the same as it had been when he nearly died at Azura’s shrine. He didn’t take it seriously, the severity of his wounds, knowing that he’d be okay, even if it took a bit longer than he liked. He didn’t take me seriously either when I started to fuss over him, even if he humoured me.
Usually, I admired him for it. Sometimes I wished I were like him. Right now, it drove me insane.
I clamped down on the urge to snap at him and slumped down on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t want to be such a nervous mess.
“And stop being sorry, for Azura’s sake.” He grabbed a pillow and straightened it against the headboard, giving me an inviting nod. “Relax.”
It became quiet as he laid back and his breathing eased. But when I reached for the discarded book, he was faster than me, took it and put it out of my reach.
“Give me your hand.” The no-nonsense tone again, the one that made it pointless to argue. There was nothing to argue about anyway. Tension in my shoulders uncoiled as I stretched out my arm and he slathered his fingers with the viscous lotion from a jar on his nightstand.
Despite Danica’s and my own efforts, thick layers of scars still nearly immobilised my left hand. The remaining fingers were stiff and unable to stretch completely, every flexing felt as if the skin split apart, and the palm was far too sensitive to grasp or hold something securely. And beneath that mess of burns, the muscles of hand and forearm were stuck in a permanent cramp, to a degree that I had resumed to keep it in a sling just to get a bit of respite.
But I didn’t give up. It was frustrating, but I made my exercises with stubborn tenacity although Danica always pressed her lips into a tight line when she came for an examination.
At first, after I had lodged in with Athis, he had just watched my efforts to stretch and bend the fingers and to rub in the healing salve with clumsy motions, trying not to disturb the scars too much while simultaneously trying to loosen the muscles. Until one day he had dipped his index into the jar and took my wrist in a gentle grip.
When I treated myself, I knew what to expect, what and where it would hurt most, and could brace myself. But even the healer with her careful touches sometimes made me cry out in pain when a patch of skin decided to react as if she hit me with a burning iron.
Apart from that, it looked like a claw. I didn’t want him to touch it and tried to jerk the limb out of his grip.
He gave me that look that was half annoyance and half an amused Don’t be stupid. “Let me try, Qhouri,” he had said. “If it’s done correctly, it works like a foot rub.”
Of course he was right. His fingers, slick with salve, were cool as he pressed both thumbs into my palm. Instead to rub he just applied none too gentle pressure, and although it hurt, it hurt in a different way than everything I was used to. I had learned to distinguish a lot of different kinds of pain over the last weeks, and this one… it was good, at least in comparison, like the aches of knotted muscles that flare up in a hot bath before they fade away.
The handrub became a daily ritual between us. It was only a small thing, it actually helped, but it did more than that. He accepted this part of me in all its ugliness and dysfunctionality, and I learned to let him take over. When his fingers worked their magic, I stopped to wait for the next flare of agony, and I stopped to be aware of all the pains and disabilities, of all the insecurities and things I wasn’t able to do any more. When I once slept off under his treatment with my head on his shoulder, he woke me with a gentle swat of my nose. “My arm’s falling as dead as yours,” he said, shoving me off into my own pile of pillows. His indignant expression made me laugh.
As his fingers worked their magic now, the mess of nerves and anxiety in my head calmed down nearly instantly. It became quiet while he stretched my fingers with gentle pressure and folded them back into a loose fist. It felt good just to let him.
I had my eyes closed. “Hmm?”
“You remember when we were in Forelhost?”
I turned my head to him, brows furrowing. “Of course. The mad Thalmor. You getting roasted.”
“I didn’t get roasted.” He worked his fingertips into the muscles of my forearm, right between elbow and spoke bone. “We planned a party back then.”
Now I twitched, but his grip was unrelenting. “That’s still more than a year.” His 300th and my 30th birthday. It had been a nice idea, back then. It was still a nice idea. But the tension was back, and a touch of anger coiled in my stomach that he brought this up right now.
“I know,” he said calmly. He let go of my wrist, laid my hand onto his thigh and covered it with his own. “But I insist on that party to happen. Just saying.”
“Do you now.”
“Aye.” He gave me a grin that wasn’t quite as carefree as I was used from him. “I’ve no idea what’s going on in your head, you know? But I insist. You better be here.”
It didn’t sound like an idea or a suggestion, rather like an appointment. A lot could go wrong in one year, we both knew that. It was not a road I should let my mind take.
“I’d like that,” I said lowly. The big BUT stood in flaming letters between us. I withdrew my hand from his hold and lowered my gaze. “There’s nothing going on. In my head. I just don’t know if…”
“You don’t have to,” he interrupted me. “You don’t have to know. You don’t have to plan. You know what I think?”
I gave him a questioning look and shrugged.
“Yes, a year is a long time. And you will use this time – month to month and day to day. Minute to minute, if necessary.” He tipped at my temple. “I don’t believe there’s nothing going on. I think that a lot of Qhouri is hidden in there that no one has discovered yet. Not even you.”
Nothing was hidden in my head, only some stuff stashed away that I didn’t need any more, and I really didn’t need him to stir up the dust.
I shook my head. “Please, Athis… I don’t need a pep-talk.”
His gaze was piercing and gentle at the same time. “And how about a reminder?”
We won’t leave you alone. We’re gonna remind you where you belong until you come back to us.
I knew that. Even back then I had believed him.
And now, as he was holding his promise every day and every hour, I didn’t have to tell him that hoping for something to happen wasn’t the same as believing that something would happen. That I wasn’t used to make plans that extended beyond the next day and that Jorrvaskr was the only home I had ever known, that I felt I belonged here but didn’t know how.
“It’s not that I could just leave,” I said.
“That’s true.” He rubbed his fingertips together, still shining with lotion. “Do you hate it?”
“That you can’t. That you …” He gestured towards me, a movement as strained as his smile. “That … everything’s different.”
“That I’m a cripple? Dependent on you?” He shrugged, helpless. At least he didn’t deny it. “Better you than anyone else.” When he opened his mouth for a reply, I lifted a hand to stop him. “No. I mean it. I’m glad to be here, and I won’t go anywhere anytime soon. Okay?”
“You don’t hate it because it would make no difference if you did.”
“Well, it wouldn’t.” I gave him a smile. “I don’t wanna wallow. Stop pestering me, okay?”
He lowered his head for a moment, but then he showed me a small grin and tugged at my sleeve. “Gimme. I wasn’t finished.”
I leant lightly against his good side as he resumed the treatment of my scars, my head tilted back against the wall. It was easy to relax like this. All his attention was now directed towards what he was doing, and I hoped he’d stop worrying about the rest of me.
“But I’m awesome at pep-talking,” he mumbled.
I snorted. “It’s scary.”
“If I told you that we’ll be fine, does that count as wallowing?”
I chuckled. “You can’t help it, can you?”
There was no amusement in his voice. “Would you believe me?” His fingertip squeezed a little too hard, and he held the pressure, sending a jolt through my arm. I forced myself not to flinch.
We were fine. Not perfect, but fine. But if Athis said it, I would believe him.
I nudged my elbow into his side, careful not to make him jerk. “Yes, I would. Stop pestering me.”
“Okay.” A muscle in my arm gave way to relaxation, and the pressure released.
“Qhouri?” I felt an amused huff on top of my head.
“You know what I want from you for my birthday?” He was a precious, annoying, teasing bastard.
“I’m sure you’ll tell me in time.”
He suppressed a snicker. “I want you to sing me something.”
A bastard. I’d always known it. “A horker bull in heat would sound better than I.”
“I’d rather have a horker than Mikael.”
“You’re an ass.”
“And you love it.”
I lifted my head to look at his face. “I do.”
“Good to know.” His grin was brilliant. “You better be here. Just saying. Both you and …” He reached over and patted my belly.
A jolt went through my abdomen. Not painful, just a sudden, forceful pressure from the inside that made me hiccup and freeze with shock.
And so did Athis. For a second, he didn’t move and just stared at his hand, jaw slack. And then he pushed the blanket down into my lap and laid his palm flat on my belly. His face flashed in a broad, incredulous grin.
“You aren’t just hungry, are you?”
I shook my head, words stuck in my throat.
“Was that the first time?”
I nodded. I thought I had felt him before… little flutterings, like bursting bubbles. But I had never been sure. It had never been so purposeful.
“Wow.” Athis was all focus now, bent over as far as his injury allowed and spread his fingers on the thin shirt I was wearing. I looked down on his hand on my belly, holding my breath. It was the wrong hand – too dark, too small, too bony, too cool. But it was a good hand, it was the only one that was here, and some things were better left unthought. It was Athis’ hand, and for that it was the right one.
“Listen, young man,” he said sternly, “I’ve had an eye on your mother for a long time now, and of course I’ll also have an eye on you. So you better be here.”
There was another kick, and Athis looked very proud of himself. A tear spilled over as I broke into giggles and hid my face in his shoulder. It felt bony and fragile, but it also felt like a wall.
“Aw!” Amusement rang in Olfina’s voice as she stood in the doorway, carrying a huge tray with dishes, sliced bread, roast, cheese and a bowl with the hearty broth Athis was still restricted to. The door to the stairs stood open, and I heard Eorlund shout a greeting at Tilma, Vignar call out for Brill and Kodlak’s scuffling steps from the other end of the corridor.
Athis snickered and patted my shoulder, waving at her with the other hand. “Shush. We’re having a moment here.”
“Wouldn’t have guessed.” She suppressed a laughter as she placed the tray down. Since it were only so few of us remaining in Jorrvaskr and Athis and I were confined to the dorm, everyone else had made it a habit to take their meals down here with us. Eorlund had unceremoniously pushed a few of the free beds to the wall and hurled a large table into the room, and now we gathered at least once a day. It was something I was looking forward to, but now I blushed under her curious look. Behind her, people were crowding into the room.
Athis tilted his head and searched my face as I straightened myself, a question in his eyes. When I nodded, the proud grin returned to his face. “I just got kicked,” he declared.
“And he liked it.” That got me a goodnatured, but weak kick to the shin.
“He just got …?” Slow understanding bloomed on Olfina’s face as she placed the broth on Athis’ nightstand. He regarded it with obvious disgust. “Don’t tell Ma, or you’ll never hear the end of it.”
“What is she not to tell Ma?” her father boomed as he entered the room, his arm slung around the shoulders of his wife. Fralia let out a laughter.
“That her son has started kicking.” Olfina gave her mother a grin. “Please don’t tell her how horrible I was and that you didn’t sleep for months and that the boys were much easier.” She offered me a hand to help me up. Athis wasn’t allowed to leave the bed, but I took my place between her and Kodlak.
“But it’s true,” Eorlund said. “I was a wreck by the end of it.”
Fralia patted his hand. “Of course. You suffered horribly when I was pregnant.” He had the decency to blush slightly and answer the laughter around the table with a sheepish grin. “That’s great, Qhouri. He’ll be a strong boy.”
The Grey-Manes had aligned themselves even closer with Jorrvaskr over the last weeks than before, and not only because Eorlund and Olfina were the only ones left who were able to do any heavy lifting. The smith was practically a part of the Companions, and there was no secret that he didn’t share. The same was true for Olfina, especially since she had permanently moved in. But Fralia always seemed to be a bit uncomfortable with us – she was friendly and helpful, but she had her own business, and I had the feeling that she liked us best from a little distance. Rarely was she seen inside of Jorrvaskr, even with all the hours Eorlund spent with us.
We had all been surprised when she started to join Eorlund for our dinner. And I was even more surprised when she took me to the side one day and asked for a word. “I don’t want to impose, Qhouri,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you… if you ever have questions about your… ” She gestured towards my belly. “It’s scary. And confusing. At least it was for me, when I was expecting Olfina.” She shook her head with a small, self-deprecating smile and straightened herself, hands clasped behind her back. “It’s been some time, I know. But if you ever want to talk to someone who knows how it is… my house is always open for you.”
She was sweet, but I didn’t take her up on her offer. Danica had told me what to expect and how to behave myself. She also told me that we wouldn’t know if the boy was healthy until he was born. I didn’t need any more advice or consolation, and there was no reason to be confused. Or scared.
“By the way, Aela has sent a note,” Olfina said.
“Aye,” Kodlak nodded, “but only to let us know that they’ve found nothing so far. All the old hideouts are still deserted.”
“Any word from Vilkas? About Vorstag?” Athis asked.
Kodlak shook his head, a shadow flying over his face, and for a moment the conversation stalled. Nothing else was to be expected, those of us out there were searching for a needle in a haystack, after all, with no real clues and leads. No word from Vilkas meant at least that Vorstag probably wasn’t kept in Cidhna Mine, because that was what he wanted to check first. What we didn’t know was if in this case, no news were good or bad.
We could just wait, and I let the noise wash over me, listening only with half an ear as the discussion meandered from necessary repairs of the roof to the soltice festival and finally to the burning question if Honningbrew mead was better in winter or in summer. Athis dozed off in the middle of that argument.
It was nice, this gathering, the easy familiarity, the banter, the way we had no secrets from each other. Not as loud as when we met around the fire upstairs, with less bravado, less levity, much less alcohol. But it was good to come together, and when Kodlak reached over and cut the roast on my plate into small chunks when he saw me struggling with the knife, I just gave him a grateful smile.
“Found something yet?” I asked lowly.
He nodded and shoved the plate back in front of me. “Falkreath,” he said equally quiet. “I’ll show you later, okay?”
We had no secrets from the Grey-Manes, but this was something Kodlak didn’t like to discuss in front of everyone – the progress in his search for the redemption of Hircine’s magic. It had been an obscure tale from Solstheim about a cult of witches presumably able to cure lycanthropy that finally got him on the right track.
He had tracked this cult through times and countries and found out that they were not only spread over all of Tamriel, but that they also had a coven in Skyrim. At least they had when his unlucky predecessor forged the fateful pact, and he felt safe to assume that it was exactly this cult of Hircine who had granted the Companions their power.
And now he searched for their current whereabouts to ask them to reverse the curse.
Of course it wouldn’t be so easy – a soul for a soul was the principle – but for the moment, Kodlak didn’t bother. “They got enough of souls from us,” he declared, “we did our part. And if needed, they will listen to force.” His smile had been grim, and although we both knew that it was Vilkas who would deliver this message if necessary, it was good to see how this final success revived his spirits.
He had bad days, of course, days on which he wasn’t able to leave his bed, we heard nothing but his ragged coughing and Danica came over every few hours to treat him. He always looked ashen and fragile after these episodes, but he never let his weakness show when he joined us again. Ultimately the good days, when he made plans for the next year and indicated that he was looking forward to spoil my son rotten and Danica left with a smile, those days still exceeded the bad ones.
Today was such a day, and I couldn’t even imagine to not have him here, in our midst.
I only perked up again when the front door upstairs opened and shut again with a bang. Eorlund took the axe he had left leaning against the wall and stepped out into the corridor, but he put it away immediately when a bright voice came down the stairs.
“Where is everybody?” Twofold heavy steps, and then Ria and Torvar turned around the corner, nearly running and out of breath. Her face lit up when she saw us all, though, and for a moment she just stood there in the open door, snow in her hair and melting into a puddle where clumps of it fell off her boots, exhaustion and relief showing in her face.
Torvar only shook off his gauntlets, pulled up a chair and started immediately to stuff a few slices of bread with meat and mustard. When he stole a cucumber from my plate, I gave him an incredulous look. They weren’t even supposed to be back yet, the destination of their job lay up in the northern mountains, literally in the middle of nowhere.
He gave me a look with no remorse and a lot of tiredness. “What?” he said, chewing. “Haven’t eaten all day.”
“Are you okay?” I asked. “What happened?”
Ria shook herself out of her thoughts, gave me a brittle smile and entered the room properly. “We found them,” she said. “In Driftshade. Their headquarter.”
“You found who?” Kodlak raised his voice.
Her hands went to the buckles of her pauldrons, fumbling, uncertain. “The Silver Hand. An army of them.”
For a moment, the room was eerily silent before everyone started to talk at once. Kodlak lifted himself half out of his seat to ask for silence. “There was another trap?”
Ria and Torvar exchanged a gaze. “No,” she said, “at least we don’t think so.”
Olfina pulled a chair between us. “Come here. Eat something. You look horrible.” Ria gave her a grateful smile and slumped down on the seat.
“That den was crawling with them,” Torvar explained. “At least a dozen guards, and buckloads of people coming and going. Far too many for a simple trap. And too organised. They’re living there.”
Kodlak slumped back into his chair and ran his fingers through his hair. “No way that’s a coincidence.”
I had chosen that job for them. I thought it was safe – relatively, of course. Far off the beaten tracks and therefore perfect to set up a trap if someone sought an opportunity. But all by itself, not particularly dangerous. “It came from Jarl Korir. About a helmet of his that got stolen. His guards tracked the thieves to Driftshade, but didn’t dare to go in themselves. It looked pretty ordinary.”
Kodlak shook his head. “Most certainly no coincidence. Korir would sell his wife for some extra funds, and he doesn’t care where they come from.”
“You’re talking about a Jarl here, Kodlak. That’s some serious accusations,” Vignar threw in.
“And a Stormcloak Jarl at that, I know.” Kodlak showed him a grim smile. “I’m not accusing him of anything, not without proof. But you have to admit that he isn’t the brightest candle in the lot. Perhaps he was deceived as well.”
Vignar looked doubting, but he refrained from a further remark. Kodlak turned to Ria who had taken place between Olfina and me. “Have they seen you?”
“No.” The way Torvar ducked his head and Ria blushed, there was more to it. “But they would have if we hadn’t killed two of their guards,” he said.
“We had to get a closer look. At first, we weren’t certain they were Silver Hands at all.”
“So you left corpses behind,” I said. Ria nodded.
“And if they were expecting us, they know now that you were there. That we found them.” Kodlak’s remark silenced all talk. Anxiety crawled up my spine. Something in this made no sense.
Eorlund was the one who finally asked. “Why would they do that? Even if that job was a foul lead… why would they lure us to their hideout?”
“Because they know how we work,” Kodlak said. “Skjor was alone. Aela was alone. There’s rarely more than two of us.” He looked into the round, his gaze heavy. All of us were in this together, no matter if we were Companions or not. “They also know that we never back away from a fight. I guess they expected you to charge in and become easy prey. And when you wouldn’t have come back, more of us would have paid them a visit. A visit they were just waiting for.”
“We’re not that stupid!” Righteous indignation stood in Ria’s face.
“But you wanted to,” Torvar muttered.
A light smile lit up Kodlak’s face. “No, you’re not, fortunately. And Qhouri has briefed you well, it seems. But now they know that we know.”
“Perhaps we should just indulge their wishes.” Athis was wide awake now and had fought himself into a sitting position, the haggard lines of his face twisted into a grin that had something decidedly evil. And eager. “Take the fight to them, like they expect us to. End them once and for all.”
This was so typical. “You won’t take anything anywhere,” I said, looking through the room. For an ancient order of famous warriors, we were a pathetic lot. Besides Ria and Torvar, Eorlund was the only one who’d be able to take up a fight in this moment. “And dozens of them? In their headquarter, well trained and well equipped? They’d butcher you.” It was a truth we would have to face.
“Each of us is worth a dozen of them!” Torvar said.
Kodlak’s lips quirked up. “Sometimes, yes. When we’re exceptionally good and they’re exceptionally careless. Nothing I would rely on right now.”
“Anyway, first we need the others,” I said. “We’ll have to decide together. And no one knows them better than Aela.” I searched Ria’s eyes. “If Vilkas hasn’t found anything yet, I’m afraid Vorstag will have to wait.”
She pinched her lips into a tight line. “I know. This here… this is huge. What we’ve seen there…” She leant against Olfina who slung an arm around her shoulder, her eyes huge. As if she only now realised how far in over their head they had been, and full of relief that someone else would take over.
I could just hope that this didn’t go far over all our heads.
A/N: If horkers sound anything like walruses, Q is doing them serious injustice here. Because they make the most adorable sounds.