Ch. 12: The Wolf's Choice
21st of Last Seed, 4E 201
I am the Jarl , Balgruuf the Greater rationalized to himself as he climbed up the stone steps leading to the imposing double set of double old timber doors that marked the entrance to Jorrvaskr. The Jorrvaskr , a giant longboat born upon the backs of the original Five Hundred as they roamed the plains of Skyrim on their quest for discovery and vengeance.
Thousands of years old, thousands of years of traditions and service to Skyrim. No wonder he hesitated, because he was wrong. From a Nord’s point of view, he was wrong to give the job to the Witch Elf.
But a thousand septims versus five thousand spoke volumes to his already war-depleted coffers. And the witch elf? Well, dammit, he was smart. Had experience, not necessarily with draugr, though he knew what they were. He certainly knew all the literature on them, at least according to Farengar. The Mer’s experience was with the undead and technically Draugr were undead. The knowledge impressed Farengar enough. And, the Mer was a mage.
“More than the usual brutes the Jarl sends my way…”
The wizard did not realize what had escaped his mouth and promptly apologized. But it was true to some extent. The Altmer would treat Bleak Falls Barrow just as Farengar wanted it to be treated. Like Saarthal was for the College of Winterhold, Bleak Falls Barrow would be Farengar’s own private little excavation site. And Balgruuf understood the prestige it would give to his hold. Jarl Korir in Winterhold did not have this luxury because Saarthal belonged to the College.
But Bleak Falls Barrow is mine.
Ruins were a potential source of both power and wealth. Already he was aware of swirling rumors that both the Imperials and the Stormcloaks were searching for the tomb of old King Borgas, searching for the Jagged Crown of myth and legend in an attempt to bolster each side’s claim to the throne.
Balgruuf chuckled to himself and shook his head, adjusting the fit of his mink trimmed cloak - more for show than for warmth on this fine Summer’s morning. The crown was going to be a waste of time. The Jagged Crown was the stuff of legends.
The dragon at Helgen was now. The map was needed.
“Aren’t you going to knock?”
Irileth, her voice with just enough of her typical acidic annoyance with everything moving in the known world to make him close his eyes and sigh.
“I delayed.” He replied, turning his head to put his Housecarl in his line of sight. “Vignar was expecting me.”
Her slanted blood-red eyes narrowed and she squared her leather-clad shoulders in response. That she was on the small side for a Dunmer did nothing to hinder her ability to intimidate both the guards under her command and the Jarl she protected with her life. Balgruuf felt himself squirm unconsciously under her penetrating gaze. That her red eyes stood out against her ashen skin did not help either.
“So? You are the Jarl.” She countered.
“A Nord thing?” An eyebrow cocked upwards. He could hear the young guard Torbar snort behind them, but while he commanded respect, Jarl Balgruuf also valued himself on his ability to be approached and, aye, even argued with. “We are not in a position to stroke The Harbinger’s or Thane Grey-Mane’s pride.” Her arms crossed over her chest. “Not with this dragon.”
“A dragon that has not been seen since it disappeared into the mountains.”
“Nevertheless, a dragon. The Elf seemed capable and he was cheap. Besides, Farengar wants it done a certain way--”
Balgruuf snorted. “You just like that he is military.”
“Is that a bad thing? To have someone finally do a job for us that did not learn how to swing his weapon from the school of banditry? He will have the discipline.”
“You like him.”
“I liked that he showed you the proper respect, my Jarl.”
Spoken like a true former guard for House Redoran of Morrowind.
The Jarl nodded. “That is true, my friend.”
“Then open the door.” Irileth urged. “If the Companions also value honor...”
She was pushing it, but that was Irileth’s way, from when they first met in the Legion.
“Then there is no need for apprehension, my Jarl.”
Balgruuf found his courage and knocked on the heavy door. A small head with frizzy grey hair that ever seemed to find ways to escape the confines of her bun peeked through the ajar door. The watering eyes of the old squinted into the morning light. Only there was no smile as bright as that light to greet him today.
“My Jarl,” Tilma said formally, widening the door, while skillfully acknowledging him with a quick curtsy. Without missing a step, the Jorrvaskr’s housekeeper - or captain depending on who one spoke to - ushered them inside, her shoulders slouched with fatigue.
Balgruuf could feel his muscles relax when the familiar scents of bacon fat, fresh bread, fire, apple, leather, metal and warrior’s sweat penetrated his nostrils. He was in a Nord’s hearth, its flames casting the warmest of amber glows throughout the entire wooden hall that was decorated with great carved columns, hung weapons and animal skins, from bow to stern.
The Jorrvaskr. Mead Hall of the Companions.
One of his favorite places in all of Whiterun to sit down and enjoy a bottle of mead with real warriors. No talk of war, no petty politics, just fighting men and women. He saw it as a way to reconnect with the older Nord traditions and usually the ready laughter from the meal hall could brighten his mood even on the most difficult days.
The silence then was especially unnerving as he was led towards a comfortably cushioned wooden chair - even hardened warriors enjoyed their creature comforts - some distance from Kodlak Whitemane, the Harbinger.
Not Jorrvaskr’s leader, but their most respected member. Whitemane was engaged in conversation with - Balgruuf furrowed his brow - Danica Pure-Spring. What was the priestess of the temple of Kynareth doing in the mead hall? Kodlak was certainly no temple goer. Lucky bastard.
“My Jarl.” Irileth muttered, getting his attention and indicating to Torbar, who still stood at the open door. The youth was waiting for orders patiently.
“My words are for Whitemane alone.” They immediately assumed positions standing at the entrance and the door was closed behind them. As Tilma helped him with his cloak, he caught Whitemane’s glance, who nodded in greeting, waiting. A nod from Balgruuf and an unhurried smile let the Harbinger know that he could finish his conversation with the priestess of Kynareth, but before he did, Kodlak gave what Balgruuf determined were silent orders to the lad Vilkas and another to Tilma.
Keep the Jarl entertained.
Tilma’s perception of the Harbinger’s unspoken order immediately turned into hospitality extended to the Jarl. More silent orders and the man they called Brill, Vignar Grey-Mane’s manservant, disappeared into Jorrvaskr’s kitchen. Vilkas, tall and striking in his dark armor with intricate carvings depicting a wolf motif, groomed and bathed, quickly crossed the great hall, stopping just before Balgruuf.
He gave the Jarl a quick bow, his silver eyes making good eye contact. No Nord likes a man who cannot look you in the eye.
“My Jarl, you do us honor.”
Always correct. A quick glance at Farkas, Vilkas’ bulkier twin, let Balgruuf know why Vilkas was always preferred when company came. A disheveled, unshaven Farkas was under the table reaching for a dropped slice of bacon with greasy fingers. The tankard of mead on the table nearly fell when the large Nord hit his head on its underside. What would have normally been followed by a hearty laugh was followed by an uneasy glance before he took his place and resumed eating, his fair skin going blotchy with embarrassment. It was hard to believe sometimes that they were twins, their personalities were so different, but when they stood side by side, with their thick black hair, silver eyes, and handsome, dark features, there was no mistaking the relation.
“My apologies if we are not, uh, quite ready to receive you.” Vilkas explained. “We were told--”
“I know. You were expecting me Morndas.” Balgruuf acknowledged.
“Please sit.” The lad gestured to the chair with his hand. Balgruuf sat and Vilkas followed suit, taking the uncharacteristic time to rub his eyes. It was then that the Jarl noticed the dark circles under them.
Balgruuf and Vilkas exchanged the usual pleasantries. With some time yet to reach thirty winters, the boy was doing very well under Vignar’s tutelage, fast becoming their master at two-handed weapons and their keeper of lore. He was already on his way to shouldering the chronicling responsibilities from the aging Grey-Mane, making additions to their record of Harbingers and tracking more fragments of Wuuthrad, the great battle axe of Ysgramor that they were trying to put back together since the Second Era. Vignar had already introduced the boy to several Cyrodiilic scholars and the boy, ever industrious, was already pursuing his own inquiries. Balgruuf could see the title of Harbinger in Vilkas’ future. It was only a matter of time.
As interesting as their words over fresh apple fritters and breakfast ale were, Balgruuf ‘s eyes and ears couldn’t help but wander towards the tense and hushed conversation between Kodlak and the priestess of Kynareth. He strained to hear, trying his best not to completely ignore Vilkas. He could only pick the occasional word. The boy seemed just as distracted, his silver eyes darting towards the Harbinger. It seemed that he was picking up more of the conversation and from the boy’s stooping shoulders and somber expression, the conversation was not one that was welcome. Ah, to have the ears of the young!
The normally stoic Kodlak was visibly upset, also sporting dark circles from a lack of sleep, his usually robust face drawn. Danica’s brow was puckered and the priestess’s overall countenance was drained, like she had been… Balgruuf had spent enough sleepless nights with his youngest Nelkir to understand the signs.
Someone was gravely ill in Jorrvaskr.
Jarl Balgruuf immediately put a hand on Vilkas’ forearm, silencing the lad.
“Vilkas, is Vignar ill?”
The youth’s fierce eyes widened and then he quickly shook his head. “By the gods, no, he is well.” The young Nord shrugged his shoulders and ran his fingers through his hair. “A little upset with you, but he is in good enough shape to survive this winter if it is not too cold.”
Balgruuf released a gust of air in relief and took a sip from his tankard. “I can deal with his anger, not with his demise.” He paused. “It is good you are learning from him.”
“He is a fine teacher.”
The Jarl narrowed his eyes. “Then who is ill?”
Balgruuf looked up towards the voice, to see Kodlak Whitemane looming behind the boy. Nords were a tall people, there was no disputing that, but the Harbinger of the Companions seemed almost larger than life and Balgruuf was keenly aware that his life as Jarl did not allow the muscle tone it allowed a man such as Whitemane. He was large, even by Nord standards, broad of shoulder, with arms almost like tree trunks. The arms of a man who had spent a lifetime wielding a weapon. He was sixty-four winters, yet he had the vitality of a man half his age, with none of the growing frailty that seemed to plague Vignar Grey-Mane as of late, though the man was only ten years Kodlak’s senior. Even dressed in a simple light woolen shirt of deep brown and woolen trousers of the same hue, he cut an impressive figure, his growing mead belly the only sign that he currently spent more time seeing to the assigning of jobs than the performance of them. The intimidating body bore a head that was just as noble, framed by his namesake, in both beard and hair, decorated with the braids and beads that all Nord men used when they had the hair for it. From the hooked nose and piercing silver eyes, to the swirling black ink that decorated his firm right cheek, he was simply the Harbinger. The greatest of Whiterun, respected for his steady council and his wisdom. Balgruuf so respected the man that he offered him the title of thane, but the Whitemane turned him down.
“We are neutral here,” he had said, in his quiet way, and the axe was politely returned.
“Master?” The youth broke Balgruuf’s thoughts.
“I will speak to the Jarl now. Go, young Ria needs more work with her stances.” His tone turned appraising. “She was slow yesterday.”
“I know that she is. We all are. And we must all learn to push, even through adversity.” The Harbinger’s expression softened. “It makes us stronger. Work her stances.”
Vilkas rose. “Aye, Master.”
Kodlak gave the boy a tired smile. “Just keep the whelps busy, son. I will send Skjor to you later when he and Aela return from the ice sheet at the northern foot of the Throat.”
Where Ulfric is rumored to have a camp , Balgruuf thought, feeling the lines in his brow crease, near the Ritual stone, he marked on his mental map.
“Hopefully, some remained even through this Summer’s heat.”
“Aye.” Vilkas rose and was replaced by the Harbinger, ever shadowed by a mothering Tilma, who refreshed the Jarl’s tankard and handed Kodlak his own. Balgruuf’s brow creased further, it was plain now. None in Jorrvaskr looked like they had slept in days.
“Anything else, my Jarl?” The old woman asked as she acknowledged him with another curtsy.
“No, my dear Tillma. Go rest.” He paused, feeling his concern grow. “In fact, old friend, you all look like rest has evaded you.”
“Leave us, Tilma.” The Harbinger gently commanded.
“I will be downstairs…” Balgruuf saw the tears brimming her eyes. “With him. Give him whatever comfort I can.”
The Harbinger broke his stoic façade, his large hand rubbing the old woman’s shoulder. “It will be alright. Skjor and Aela will come. I promise. Remember, our Snow Bear is a stubborn one.”
Snow Bear, who is this?
The old woman gave a weary smile and wiped her tears with the cloth of her apron. “Straight from the ice flats…”
“Aye, that’s right.” The Harbinger nodded. “A snow bear of the ice flats. Tough and weathered with many scars. Only this time, the old bear is not alone. He’s got our pack. Skjor and Aela will come.” He gave the old woman’s thin shoulder a final squeeze. “Go to him and see if the animal will eat. I could feel his ribs more today. He is pining.”
More than just a band of warriors, Jorrvaskr was a close-knit family. Someone was ill. It was not Skjor, nor the twins. Balgruuf did not see Torvar or the Dunmer, Athis. Is it perhaps one of them , Balgruuf wondered. The old woman did say ‘him’. But neither one of them went by ‘Snow Bear’. Torvar was blond and though a Nord, was a little shorter than the other Nords of Jorrvaskr. And Athis, well Athis was certainly no bear with regard to build. The Dunmer was barely larger than Irileth. For Nords, names always meant something, especially if it was being drawn from one of the totem animals. A snow bear was a formidable animal.
Balgruuf noticed that Kodlak waited for Tilma to disappear down the steps into their living quarters followed by Danica Pure-Spring before he chose to speak again, favoring his tankard.
“You honor us with a visit.”
“Some may not think so.” Balgruuf replied, leaning back against his chair.
The Harbinger managed a tired chuckle, though his silver eyes did not reflect the action.
“He has a temper.” Balgruuf smirked.
“When I first came here, he was second only to Askar…” Whitemane reminisced.
“And still to be respected.”
“Very much so.” The Harbinger nodded, something hard briefly flashing in his eyes.
Do not worry, old friend, that is why I am here. I misstepped.
“Which is why I am here.” Balgruuf said aloud. “I may be Jarl, but even Jarls misstep.”
“Bleak Falls Barrow.” Kodlak sighed and took a weary sip from his tankard. “It is not the first time we have lost a prestigious contract.” A knowing chuckle. “Did old Decimus Merotim sneak out of his fort and nab the job? Or was it his little lizard…” The Harbinger’s brow furrowed in concentration, “Tea, Tay, Tei…”
“Teineeva.” Balgruuf grumbled. “Gods no! We are still deciding if the Argonian can even return to the city. He is a great bounty hunter, but he--”
“Gets into a lot of trouble.” The Harbinger observed. The remark made the Jarl feel the heat build around his ears and neck. Because his old friend knew very well that Balgruuf was often the one who helped the Argonian’s trouble along. The lizard was a ferocious gambler and the source of many of Irileth’s headaches when Balgruuf snuck out to the Bannered Mare on his own for mead and a spirited game of Shells and Stars.
“It is all mostly harmless, though Merotim needs to keep Teineeva on a tighter leash. But your answer, old friend, is no. The war does not leave any room in our coffers to hire Goldpact Knights.”
“Knights, my arse.” The Harbinger snorted, taking a jab at Decimus Merotim. “I know no real knights. Least of all from that group. And you don’t have the coffers for the Companions either, I gather?”
Now he really felt bad, because he was in this hall enough to know that the roof was in disrepair, and that they sometimes asked for job payments in food to feed their growing family. He bent his head. The Civil War was affecting them as well. “No friend, not this time.”
Another swig of the weak ale and the Harbinger smiled and gave Balgruuf a pat on the back. “No hard feelings.” He then sat back down and scratched his long grey-white beard in thought for a spell, the hand briefly rubbing his inked cheek. “Then who got the job?” He finally asked, his bushy eyebrows raised. Another smile. “Just curious.”
It was Balgruuf’s turn to smile back and he allowed his shoulders to relax. Kodlak Whitemane was always a reasonable sort and though he and his Shield-Brothers were neutral, they understood that the Civil War was tightening everyone’s purse strings.
“It is a substantial barrow.” The Harbinger continued. “Are you expecting this one to survive?”
Balgruuf couldn’t tell if Whitemane was being snide or just tired. He tensed in his chair at the remark though. Another jab at the people he tended to hire. “He possessed other qualities besides his economy.” The Jarl replied curtly
Whitemane’s eyebrows rose again, creating furrows in his brow and giving the Harbinger the look of the large grey owls that sometimes haunted the dense conifer forest of the Eastmarch. The Nord’s eyes even took on their odd yellow cast for a brief moment, but that was just in Balgruuf’s head. No one has yellow owl eyes, dumbarse.
“Does he now…” the Harbinger mused and it was plain to Balgruuf that he was gathering information. “Did he leave already?”
“He gave every indication that he was going to, though he seemed ill-equipped. I did give him an amethyst, a trinket, to cover his expenses and for his service in delivering the news from Riverwood about the dragon that raised Helgen.”
“The dragon?” Kodlak paused his drinking and Balgruuf could tell that the old warrior’s interest had peaked. “At Helgen? Vignar told us. Do you know where it is?”
Balgruuf shook his head. “No, he told us it seemed to be heading northeast from Helgen toward the Velothi mountains. Seemed to know Skyrim pretty well for his kind.”
“He saw the Dragon?”
“He was at Helgen.”
“Ysmir’s beard!” Kodlak exclaimed. He then shook his head and the Jarl saw the Harbinger’s expression sink for a moment, as if he just realized something. “Wait, you said what? For his kind? But he is a Nord, no?”
“I did not say that, friend.”
The Harbinger’s face changed yet again, becoming greatly troubled. He turned away and shook his head, muttering to himself. Balgruuf again caught the name ‘Snow Bear’. “A high Elf took the job, tall and pale, is that right?”
Balgruuf blinked in surprise. “Aye, odd-looking fellow, but very smart. Apparently very familiar with the Ayeleid and old Nedic ruins of Cyrodiil. Well-traveled, been to every province save Skyrim. He impressed Farengar and my court wizard is never impressed--Wait, do you know this Elf?”
The Harbinger quickly stood. Irileth and Torbar immediately reacted, moving closer to Balgruuf, but he dismissed them with a wave of his hand. This was Jorrvaskr, he was safe here.
Just as Kodlak was about to speak, the doors to Jorrvaskr flew open, causing a dog to bark from the depths of the living quarters.
The Elf had a dog,a great Northern husky. He’s here! It was an opportune time to check on his progress towards the Barrow. Did he perhaps join up?
From the open doors appeared Skjor and Aela, pulling a wheelbarrow. They were breathless and tense, smelling of dust and spilt blood. The wheelbarrow was filled with irregular bundles wrapped in burlap and Jarl Balgruuf felt the dry cold permeating from it.
Danica Pure-spring emerged from Jorrvaskr’s living quarters, flustered, “The ice? Is it here?”
“Yes, yes.” Barked Skjor.
“Downstairs.” The Priestess quickly directed.
“Aela, let’s go.” Skjor commanded.
Aela the Huntress nodded and began pushing the wheelbarrow towards the stairs leading down. Jorrvaskr then became alive with an almost frenzied activity, as if they had been waiting for something important and it was finally here. Farkas dropped his meal and immediately went to help his Shield-Sister.
“Where’s Vilkas?” Skjor asked, making his way down the entrance steps towards Kodlak, his one silver eyes narrowing. It was always funny to the Jarl how more than a few of them had silver eyes, but silver eyes were not an uncommon eye color for Nords, especially among those in the Mead Hall. He was sure many of the original five hundred Companions eventually came together, had children. They were a passionate people, it would, of course, extend into other activities besides fighting and killing. The descendants of the Five Hundred would share common traits.
“Keeping the whelps out of the way as I asked. Join him. They could use your steadiness, Skjor. They are worried.”
The Veteran’s already downturned mouth became more pronounced in a brooding frown. “So am I. We had trouble.” He grumbled.
Skjor shook his head. “A skirmish, damn war. Then bandits.”
“Iron-hand’s men?” The Harbinger asked.
“Who won the skirmish?” The Jarl countered with his own questions. A skirmish? This close to the city?
The frown became a scowl. “Aye. Iron-hand’s men. We took care of them.”
“And the soldiers?” Jarl Balgruuf pressed.
The Veteran’s gaze fell upon the Jarl. “With all due respect, Jarl Balgruuf, we did not take the time to investigate, we had more pressing matters.” The Harbinger shot him a disapproving look, but the Veteran answered the look with one of his own. “Would you prefer that we did not make haste for a Shield-Brother in need?”
That was a clear warning from the Harbinger and the Veteran, a skilled warrior in his own right and Veteran of the Great War, backed down, though the gust of air from his nostrils showed that he was not happy..
“Skjor, go to Vilkas. Farkas and I have this.” The Huntress urged.
“My apologies, Harbinger.” Said with a hefty dose of resentment.
The Harbinger’s expression changed, softening, and he opened his mouth to speak, but the Veteran had already shoved the doors to the training yard wide open and let himself out with an angry grunt. It elicited a frustrated sigh from Kodlak and the Harbinger turned to Jarl Balgruuf.
“You need to follow me, please.”
The beast is fresh within them , Kodlak thought anxiously while they made their way down the steps leading to Jorrvaskr’s living quarters. He held open the door watching them pass through into the wide stone hallway, lagging behind to let his mind race. Feeling their fresh transformations only made his own heart strive harder to match the infernal beating of Hircine’s drum, forcing him to take deep breaths. It took effort, but he managed to replace the Huntsman’s drums with the war horns of Sovngarde and his heart ceased its pounding.
Fortunately Danica Pure-Spring was too preoccupied with giving Tilma instructions on how to prepare the ice bath to notice the Beasts that surrounded her. It was a possible danger among the affiliated, those who gave themselves in the service of the Aedra to feel that which isn’t of the Aedra. It created a wariness around the priestess of Kynareth that she mistook for a typical warrior’s reaction to being in the presence of a priestess and healer. A taker of life versus a giver of life. Only it was not that. His Circle were werewolves and she was-- Old fool, stop it , Kodlak frowned to himself, she is a priestess of Kynareth, not a Vigil of Stendarr or a demon hunter. She is more worried about the damn dead tree in the courtyard than ousting out a clan of werewolves that she does not even know exists .
And theirs was a subtle curse. For several hundred years Whiterun had a den of wolves within their beloved Mead Hall. The people only saw how they upheld the true “Nord” way. That it was all a lie was Kodlak’s burden to bear. His great sham over the city, his great shame over his heart.
But was it all bad? Time and time he would say ‘yes’ and then something would happen to challenge his view. Skjor and Aela secretly hunted at night, disobeyed him at every turn, fought his decision to live free of the Beast’s urges, but then they risked everything; discovery, persecution, death to bring the life-saving ice to a brother they barely even knew.
And a witch elf to boot.
Kodlak sighed and gave Aela a fatherly squeeze to the back of her arm. She responded by leaning back and nuzzling against his chest as she pushed the wheel-barrow.
Wolves never squabble for long.
“It took a lot for Skjor to help a witch elf.” She said as she pushed. “They took so much from him, the least of which being his eye.”
“I know. I will have words with Skjor. And apologize.”
“Good.” The Huntress nodded.
Kodlak gently tugged at her windblown auburn hair. “And thank you too.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I guess we all want to get to know that kind of stubbornness.”
“That’s for sure.” Chimed in Farkas. The comment made both Aela and Kodlak shoot the burley twin a sharp look, for Farkas was closer to Tilma and Danica and not supposed to be within earshot of their private whispers. The boy realized his mistake, briefly went red and resumed guiding the wheelbarrow in silence. An affiliated had to be actively seeking werewolves, had to break through their uncanny restraint, their carefulness, but he still did not like putting his family in a potentially dangerous situation.
“Will the ice help?” As stupid question, but distracting Danica with stupid questions would keep the priestess occupied. They were about halfway down the main hallway, about to turn right into the small hall that housed the twins’ quarters and beyond that, the small room that now housed Snow Bear.
“I will do my best to help Snow Bear, Harbinger.” The priestess replied.
The face highlighted by the dim candle light of Kodlak’s sitting area when they exchanged words five days ago was a long, striking face, cut of harsh angles. The Mer even had the longer, more hooked snout of the great Northern bears. Only his eyes were different, still slanted, but unlike any Mer’s Kodlak had ever seen. A burning red orange hooded under his silver brow. More eagle than bear. The lines and hollows of hunger prominent. The scars deep and old. Yet the voice that spoke was low and relatively soft-spoken. Snow Bear he was dubbed for his great size, and coloring, almost like new snow, but more so for his stubbornness.
Kodlak remembered such a snow bear once. He had been hunting with his brothers and sisters under the full moons, their howls and excited yelps mixing with the raucous bellows and cries of the horker colonies that were breeding along the small islands that dotted the northern coast. Early spring, a time when ice still bridged the islands and danger lurked beneath the surface. The old boar bear had ambushed a bull horker, large and sharp of tusk from under the water. Dragged it to the depths to drown the creature and then dragged it up again to feed. The strength that it took to feed itself and this animal knew nothing of Hircine’s blessings. He was just an animal. Kodlak had broken away from his pack to watch, to admire, fascinated, one wild grey thing watching another while the auroras danced in the night sky.
Some work for their gifts and some, he frowned in shame, do not.
A younger boar bear came to challenge. To steal what the old boar had rightfully earned. They circled each other and then the younger pounced. It was unfair and Kodlak almost wanted to intervene, wanting to swipe the younger bear with his massive clawed hand, but the law of the Huntsman is to not intervene. When a predator becomes prey, then the predator is no longer worthy in Hircine’s eyes. It was, in some ways, similar to the laws of Shor’s Sovngarde, for only the worthy can face Tsun and cross the whalebone bridge into the Golden Hall. So he only watched. The old boar’s leg was so badly damaged that the ice was bathed in blood. The young bear closed in for the kill and Kodlak had felt a profound sadness for the old boar bear.
Until an opportunistic bite to the younger’s throat sealed its fate. Experience had won the day and the old werewolf left the old boar bear to feast on his two prizes in peace. Kodlak was overjoyed to see the same boar bear yet again, the long scar on its leg growing new hairs, hunting among Jorrvaskr’s pack the following spring.
And so was Snow Bear.
At death’s door for nearly five days, Snow Bear simply refused to cross. It spoke volumes on the heart that had so newly joined them.
Heart and soul that clearly betrayed the intentions of their master. Snow Bear had come to Jorrvaskr to die a warrior’s death. Such a strange thing for one of his kind, but to another beginning to come to terms with his own mortality, Kodlak had picked up the signs immediately, the flicker of intent in their quiet conversation, the Mer’s finality in asking for real weapons. The Harbinger could not refuse the Mer’s hidden request. Farkas did not understand it when he loaned the Mer his very blade, but Kodlak did and one day he would take the time to explain to Farkas the great honor he had shown the Mer that day. It was conduct truly befitting a Companion.
The Mer’s conduct in turn was beyond honorable. It reminded Kodlak of an entry in their chronicles of Harbingers. An entry from the older volumes of the first era, Something the Outsider. He was awful with Merrish names.
“He who learns them the way of honor”, Kodlak mouthed to himself. Vignar would know, .
A black, grey and white form emerged from the room at the end of the hallway that housed the twin’s rooms, lanky, its ribs more prominent than before. That it was starving itself in grief did nothing to hinder its ferocity, its desire to protect his master. The sharp teeth were bare, its hackles raised in warning. Close behind the animal came Tilma, her hand instantly finding the husky’s shoulder to reassure it.
“Easy, little moon brother, easy.” the old woman soothed, using Aela’s name for the beast. The animal looked up at Tilma with large blue eyes that were like the summer skies over the tundra and flattered ears and bare teeth quickly gave way to uncertain shifting and pensive whines. Considering all that was happening to his master, the dog was extremely well-behaved, lying by his side, refusing food save for the occasional scrap Aela could coax into his mouth. If Snow Bear died, the beast would not be long for the world, such was his devotion to his master. Kodlak had seen these dogs in his travels along the northern Eastmarch, Pale and Winterhold, watched as teams of them pulled sleds across the ice flats, but he had only ever heard stories of their great loyalty.
I will spare you some pain, little moon brother.
“Aela, I will help Farkas take the wheelbarrow the rest of the way. Take the animal.” Kodlak commanded.
“Come little moon brother.” The huntress beckoned, a quiet whisper, out of the earshot of the priestess of Kynareth. The husky seemed aware of what she was, or could sense the kinship with her spirit and despite the animal’s terrible pining for his master, he bonded with Jorrvaskr’s Huntress.
A low moan from the bed at the far left corner of the room caused the husky a moment of hesitation, but Aela was persistent. “Shh, don’t fret, Snow Bear will hunt with you again soon, little one, I promise.” She whispered in a voice that surprised Kodlak for its tenderness. Her silver eyes then caught a glimpse of what lay upon the bed and their normal fierceness flickered with discomfort. But it was the smell and sounds that came from the bed that seemed to bother the Huntress more. She quickly guided the husky out of the room and with a shuddering glance at Kodlak she disappeared from the living quarters. He knew she would move to seek the sunshine and that she would probably hunt tonight. Seek life after seeing what she saw. Kodlak did not blame her. The slow death of her father, his wasting disease that left just skin and bones in his final days, was traumatic for a creature of such vitality, who loved life as Aela did. Death and sickness did not suit her.
But it suits you , he thought with a resigned nod and Kodlak took his place behind the wheelbarrow and began pushing it with Farkas into the small room that served as Snow Bear’s sick room. The wooden tub was already placed near the bundle of furs that betrayed Snow Bear’s presence on the bed. Jorrvaskr’s collection of books and chronicles were gathered and precariously stacked on top of an old enchanting table that had not been used probably since the Third Era. On another table was a rudimentary alembic and some dried herbs, remnants of many brewing projects Tilma and Njada Stonearm were working on. The room, for all intents and purposes, was a closet, a storage space for Jorrvaskr’s lore, but it would do for Snow Bear now.
The smell emanating from the Mer was the pus that still oozed from his lash wounds. The mark of the Thalmor Skjor had explained. And the Veteran knew because he himself had survived the very same lash. While the smell was bad, the sounds of Snow Bear’s labored breathing was far worse to stomach. Every gasp a fight for it not to his last.
“He is worse.” The priestess muttered, pressing a hand against the Mer’s pasty forehead. “He is burning. We must put him in the tub. Then fill it with ice.”
“It could kill him.” Tilma objected, wringing her hands. It was a gamble. The treatment killed as much as it helped, especially for children. But Snow Bear was no child and the fever stood to kill him too.
Kodlak felt a pang of worry as he and Farkas set down the wheelbarrow.
“So we put him in the tub?” Farkas asked. Even he was unsure.
“Aye lad, help me.” Kodlak nodded. He turned to Danica, noticing her drawn, pale features. She’s about as sure of this as you are. “And his heart?” He had to ask.
It had been an incredible heartbeat, strong and steady all through his introduction and his spar with Vilkas. Then it stopped and when it stopped, Kodlak felt such a deep fear, felt Hircine’s claws close about him, and heard the Huntsman’s laugh.
Another for my Hunting Grounds.
Then the heart started again and Kodlak swore on Shor’s Bones that the Mer would not die.
“I repaired the damage to the heart and it is strong. If we can bring the body’s fire down, he will live.”
“Good.” Kodlak nodded. He glanced at Farkas and the two Nord warriors positioned themselves; Kodlak at the head of the bed and Farkas at its foot. “Ready, boy?”
“Aye.” The young lad was ready.
“On my count, we lift him and place him in the tub.” Kodlak pointed to the Mer’s large, white feet. “Grab his feet, son.”
Two strong hands made to grab the Mer from underneath his ankles. A solid, pushing kick and an accompanying growl from the Mer made Farkas pull back, dodging the blow.
“Come on, Snow Bear. Thought your kind liked baths…” Farkas was undaunted and despite the Mer’s delirious struggles, he managed to grab Snow Bear’s ankles.
“If he fights this much now, I have made a sound choice for the Barrow.”
In all his concern about Snow Bear, Kodlak had forgotten that the Jarl had been walking with them this whole time. So it is you, Snow Bear, you are the one who cost your brothers a job.
“Let me help.” Offered the Jarl, making his way to the center of the bed. “Three will be better than two, he is not small.” He gave Kodlak one of the Jarl’s ready smiles. “Besides, it is not the first time I have had to coax someone to take a bath who clearly does not want one.”
The irony of three Nords attempting to help an Altmer struck Kodlak and he released an unconscious guffaw that probably raised eyebrows. He wiped his brow of sweat nervously, you will drink later, old man .
“You take one side, I’ll take the other.” Kodlak instructed.
“Be careful.” Tilma chimed in from the corner of the room.
“Just be ready with the ice.”
Kodlak propped the Mer’s shoulder and was promptly struck in the chest. He turned to face the dealer of the blow and saw two great eyes boring right into his, a mere pertan away. He could feel the heat from the Mer’s fevered face, it was so hot, that it felt like the SkyForge itself.
He almost jumped when the Mer then spoke.
“Praz fah stin fen kos lok grohiik.”
The Mer chuckled and used his white hand to grab Kodlak’s collar with a vice-like grip, drawing him closer. It was almost too much to look directly into the Mer’s eyes, so blazed and bloodshot they were with fever.
“Fah hi ahrk fah zey.” The laugh that accompanied that line was a chilling, bitter laugh. All Kodlak could do was dumbly stare, not knowing what was said, but feeling an understanding that penetrated into his very being. Old speaking to another who was also old. The Mer gave him a shake.
“Fah stin.” The Mer repeated, lowering his brow.
“Fah stin?” Kodalk shook his head, “I don’t understand you, Snow Bear.”
To Kodlak, it sounded like the tongue of the Draugr. Some spoke. He shuddered at the dark memories that bubbled to the surface, dragging an unconscious Skjor away from the collapsed cairn, leaving the others behind to die.
All for a fragment of Wuuthrad gathering dust in an old werewolf’s drawer, never to be reforged again.
But was the language why Snow Bear was doing the Barrow? Why would a Mer speak this tongue? A linguist perhaps? A cold chill ran up the Harbinger’s spine. Or was the Mer worse? Skjor had told horrible stories, that they were taught our ways, so that they could… Gods, what have I let into my house?
“Kodlak…” from a distance.
The Mer’s grip on his collar relaxed and the red-orange eyes rolled behind his head. Snow Bear fell back against his pillow and Kodlak could feel the Mer’s blood burn.
“Kodlak, he is dying.” The Jarl’s voice snapped Kodlak to attention and he acknowledged the Jarl. Neither he, Tilma, or Danica had heard the Mer’s words, but Farkas’ look of utter confusion told Kodlak that he had. He gave Farkas a reassuring nod.
“On my count, boy.” He said calmly, but it was probably very plain to the lad that his heart was practically hammering out of his chest. The boy’s was too. He slid his arm under the Mer’s neck and shoulder.
All three Nords flinched when the Mer spoke again. Kodlak noticed that Tilma and Danica were ready with the ice.
“Let the winds take me, old man.” The Mer muttered again. “I tire.” The voice was not the rumble from earlier, but a frail, colored with a tragic sadness. “Honor my last wish.”
Kodlak closed his eyes.
He had wanted to die.
The Mer from his dreams. The one who would raise his sword and shield with him against Hircine. The one who would turn the Huntsman’s hunt for their souls inside out. The one who would finally give him his dream of Sonvngarde. Snow Bear of the ice flats who defied all odds, who clung so hard to life, wanted to die. As with most things in life, it boiled down to two choices..
Honor a warrior’s dying wish and remain a wolf forever.
He heard Hircine’s laughter in his head.
You will never outsmart me, mortal.
Or dishonor the Mer and drink forever in Shor’s Golden Halls?
The Mer went limp. The heartbeat wavered.
“We’re losing him!” Tilma sobbed.
“One, two, three.” With a grunt, the three men lifted the Mer and lowered him into the tub. Kodlak grabbed a chunk of ice from Tilma and placed it upon the Mer’s chest. He grabbed another and another.
“I’m sorry, Snow Bear.” He said under his breath, but his brow lowered in defiance.
I will outsmart you, Huntsman.
It was his turn to laugh inside.
I use the Legacy translator at thu'um.org for the Dovahzul because otherwise the language does not sound as articulate. If you want to know what is said, you can launch the translator and translate the Dovahzul, but I didn't want to translate it in text because how would the PoV character know what is being said. Also, a shout out to Karver and Teineeva for allowing me to use their characters from the Straag Rod extended universe. Both Decimus Merotim and Teineeva are members of Skyrim's Goldpact Order, an order of "knights" who worship, for the lack of a better word, "gold" and are regarded as some of the best bounty hunters and mercenaries in all of Skyrim. Finally, more has been done to enrich the environment of Skyrim and make its world feel more natural. I was particularly influenced by the biodiversity of Norway and other parts of Scandinavia. The Horkers now have the habits of colonial pinnipeds like walrus and elephant seals, Skyrim's snow bears now look and behave more like polar bears.
Chapter 11 * ToC * Chapter 13
Loving the rewrite Liss
I love the sensory details you put here, particularly in regards to Jorrvaskr. It conjures a sense of place--home for the weary warrior. The first part also has a lot of hints as to the Companions' true nature.
And I wonder what role Aelberon will end up playing. Seems like Kodlak has plans for him that might go beyond what we saw in the game...
Thanks. I always wanted to give hints, but I also always wanted it to be illegal, you know? Yep, there are definitely plans. I am very happy I shifted Aelberon's arrival to much earlier, we'll have more time to flesh out the relationships better. I feel like endgame comes so quickly in the game, like you do a few quests and bam, you're the leader of everything.
Yup, at least in Oblivion and especially Morrowind, you had to work at it