The Knight's Oath
30th of Last Seed
Äelberon gazed upon the night sky as he lay broken and bruised from days of battle, transfixed by its supreme beauty.
It was over, Dagon's reign was no more.
The moons, haughty in their perpetual reminders, shown like blood and alabaster upon the black velvet night. The ge, an infinite sea of glittering diamonds. Points of fire light, like eyes from a dark forest's edge, peering into his soul.
Sky became woman, a woman Äelberon he had never seen before. Her image danced across the cosmos of his mind and like the sky, as if of the sky, she also shown in shades of blood, snow, and ebony. And she was even more beautiful, if that was possible. Her caress, soothing like a cool breeze, welcome after the constant assault that was Dagon's flame.
Like a starving animal, he reached for it, for her, with a bloodied, trembling hand, chalked white from the dust of the Tower.
The Tower then drifted to his thoughts and he realized that the beauty of Her night, the beauty of Tamriel's victory over Mehrunes Dagon was framed by jagged shards of crystal and crumbling slabs of marble.
The memories then flooded in as his hand collapsed heavy upon his chest. Every death, every blow he and Rynandor had struck as they fought their way up the Tower's many steps. He remembered gently laying Lilandtar to his final rest, making the dying Kinsmer a promise he did not know how he could ever keep. He remembered a Daedric blade piercing his thigh just as he reached Tower's Summit. The scamp's laugh that delivered the blow. He remembered drifting then, in and out of consciousness, the dark poison working its promise of death upon him, only for Rynandor's white magic to triumph. And he remembered, as the Tower crumbled 'round them, the blasphemy when the old mage emptied a tomb of their sacred Aldmeri ancestors and dragged Äelberon inside it.
"I cannot let you die." He had heard him mutter.
There was then a strange lightness, and Äelberon felt like the weight was gone from under him, that he was somehow suspended. A lurch and then he plunged. Far and deep into Dagon's fire, felt it permeate his whole body like a great fever, felt himself burn as if he was in Dagon's Dying Lands, the heat was so intense.
Until it stopped. Fire turned to chilling ice. He was submerged in a great Northern Sea with no escape. Shivering, drowning. He thought death had finally come for him. He saw his Lenya welcome him into the light of Aetherius, her arms outstretched in love.
And he was finally at peace.
Äelberon's eyes slowly moved towards the center of what was supposed to be the Tower's domed roof. At first, he thought he was blind because he could make out nothing he knew from the room he had spent so much time in tending to the bodies of their Aldmeri Ancestors, saying his Order's rites on Sundas, all amidst the pulsating crimson glow of Transparent Law, the crystal heart of their Crystal Tower. But he was not blind, he had seen the night sky, knew what it meant and now he felt a great grief well within him when he finally saw what was lost for Tamriel's gain. What remained when he found the familiar spot was the empty broken husk of melted crystal. What had been crimson and vibrant was now black and dull, the pulsating life extinguished from it.
He was too shocked to cry out. All Äelberon could do was shake his head in disbelief, tears of despair flowing from his swollen eyes.
The soul of their people was no more. Gone forever.
And the People?
They would now be born upon the Winds of Change. The thing in the universe an Altmer despises most. Change, uncertainty.
For a time, Äelberon wept silently in profound mourning, understanding his great failure as a Knight of the Crystal Tower. The People were safe, but the Tower was no more. What had he condemned his people to in his doggedness to protect them?
The cost was indeed high.
"I'm sorry..." A familiar voice. "It must be done..."
Rynandor? What must be done?
Äelberon, despite his pain, turned his head to find the Archmagister. The old Mer, also covered in Tower's dust, was seated against a slab of cracked marble, perhaps one of the support columns or the interior of a tomb, Äelberon could not fully tell. Rynandor was rocking back and forth, clutching something small desperately to his chest, something that seemed to faintly glow. At first, it glowed a faint light gold, as a calian would, but then the gold gradually turned into a crimson, the glow peeking through the old Mer's clenched fingers. Whatever it was, it was absolutely beautiful and again, Äelberon felt compelled to touch. He reached, ignoring the terrible pain in his shield arm, wanting to feel something other than the hard sterility of the marble he was lying on, feel something warm, alive. First, his probing hand felt the velvet of Rynandor's robe, the cuff of the bell sleeve. He reached further and he felt his gauntlet being pulled away, exposing his white hand, black and blue from War's many bruises. Rynandor's gnarled hand then found his.
"Master?" Äelberon croaked, squeezing his Master's hand, just glad that there was life in it.
Rynandor the Bold turned to him and Äelberon perceived a glowing light begin to emanate from the Tower Sapiarch, a light that highlighted the old Mer's haggard and worn features, features that were marked by an uncharacteristic uncertainty and sadness. The once keen golden eyes now seemed so resigned to Äelberon. Resigned to their fate? Perhaps. It was as if something was now gone from him.
"I'm sorry." The Sapiarch repeated, the glow around him growing stronger, his rocking intensifying. "It always came first, my son, always."
Äelberon felt the magical energy begin to build around him and it triggered a bout of coughing that made his body reel from the effort.
"The Tower?" He managed between gasps of air.
"We are upon its very bones." The Archmagister murmured, still rocking, building momentum.
"You well know the answer, my dear, dear, boy."
He knew the answer.
Rynandor suddenly clasped Äelberon's hand, squeezing so hard that it hurt. Instinctively, he tried to pull away, but the Archmagister would not let go. He cried out in pain, but the old Mer heeded him not and he was too weak to resist further. "I'm sorry." The Archmagister repeated a final time.
The crimson glow from Rynandor's closed hand brightened and merged with the white light that now engulfed the both of them. The white hot heat of purest magicka grew and grew and then as fast as it grew, it withdrew into itself, making the tiniest pinpoint of light between himself and the Archmagister.
Äelberon eyes widened in awe at the display, wondering what would happen next. Would Rynandor attempt to rebuild what had fallen? Could he make the Tower whole again? He hoped so, he thought as he held the Mage's hand. It would repair the People, all that they had lost in this Great Anguish. They could even fill it with things again, he thought with a weak smile. He knew many noble houses with rare artifacts, things they could store in the reborn Tower. The library of books he had read, the art galleries, exhibits, and menageries he had walked through all flashed before his eyes. He remembered it all. Their words, their textures, their images. Committed to his memory. Rynandor was still clasping Äelberon's hand and a thought then occurred to the young student of magic. Maybe Rynandor needed a sacrifice, a blood connection as a source of magical energy? Or, someone willing to give of himself so that the Tower may live again? A Tenet of his order sprung to his mind.
"Honor Learning, Wisdom, and the Beauty of Art, Thought, and Creation, for you, as His priest, hearken unto Xarxes, his scribe."
Of the lesser Tenets, but in this situation, it tied closely to a Greater.
"Protect and Honor the weak, the innocent, the old and the young from the evils of Nirn with your service."
My life is a life of service.
The People were already protected, it was now time to Honor and serve them. So Äelberon relaxed and let Rynandor work his magic, giving himself unto Auri-El's will, understanding that he, a Knight of the Crystal Tower, would make one final sacrifice for his Blessed Isles and the future of its People. The Knight-Paladin felt the peace of sleep closing in and he was content in his decision, content to dream again.
"I leave my fate to you." he prayed, hoping with all his being that Rynador's magic would work a final time, that the Tower would be rebuilt. Strong and mighty.
An explosion of blinding light engulfed them, the force shattering all around. And Äelberon of Dusk, the last Knight of the Crystal Tower, screamed blindly into the winds blowing through Tower's Ruin.
Äelberon's scream morphed into a violent coughing fit. Something moved from deep within his lungs and then stopped, lodged into his swollen throat. He tried to take in air through his nose only to find it completely blocked. He gasped and coughed, trying to clear a path for the air to move, fighting with all his power. Was this a new nightmare? He was in the Tower ruins, there was a blinding light of magical energy and then blackness. Was the Tower rebuilt? He attempted to rise and find Rynandor, only to be overwhelmed by a great weakness in his body. Instinctively, his eyes fluttered open to make sense of his surroundings, but there was little to make out behind the film of tears.
The sound of scraping wood alerted him to a heavy presence next to him.
The terror of the unknown seized him, making him fight harder to get air, until he could fight no longer and felt the world go dim.
You need to die for the Tower to be rebuilt again, stupid. And Äelberon let himself relax again, feeling the peace of his sacrifice...
His back screamed in agony when he was suddenly lurched upright by a strong pair of hands into a seated position. The subsequent slap to his back almost made him faint.
"Stay with me." Came the sure command. Not Rynandor, but at the same time familiar. Another slap, more pain, he felt his own skin split and heard a muttered "shit, woman is going to kill me for opening those up again..."
Pain is reality. Something in Äelberon's gut told him to comply with the spoken request and he felt himself give a shaky nod.
Two more slaps to his back, the feeling of a sticky wetness spreading from behind, on his back, and then the thick phlegm broke from his throat. He felt a linen cloth invade his mouth to extract the piece and clear his mouth of any other obstructions. An untrained hand in its roughness, but needed. It withdrew and in its place air surged into his congested lungs with such welcome force that he became lightheaded a second time, breaking into a cold sweat that left him shivering violently. One hand held him steady so he would not fall backwards while another quickly draped a fur over his shoulders.
You are not in the Tower. The realization hit him hard, bringing his shivering to a dead stop, and Äelberon blinked several times, his mind gradually coming into sharper focus. It was only a dream. A vivid dream, spiked by fever. Your fever, from Helgen. You are Äelberon of Dusk, he began, further testing his cognition, forcing himself to recite his many titles, Knight-Paladin of the Order of Auri-El, former Knight of the Crystal Tower, former Captain of the Guard of House Larethian, former son, former ata, forever Aprax. You are two hundred and forty-three years old and after a lifetime of failure trying to kill the one who took everything from you, you had come to Jorrvaskr, the Mead Hall of the Companions, to give up and die.
Only you are not dead. Extremely sick, sicker than you were after the Tower, which could explain the dream, but surprisingly not dead. He did not know what to make of this new development yet. it was very unexpected, especially for a Mer who had spent so much of his prior time planning the trajectory of his final revenge-seeking days. Death had always been the outcome of all of his many scenarios. There had been no future.
And now there was.
But what sort of future?
His emotions were mixed and he imagined it would take some time to come to terms with this new development, some time where he would vacillate between despair and optimism. It was not what he expected and like any other Altmer, he did not especially enjoy change. Altmer lives tended to follow a directed, disciplined path and while his life had been far more chaotic than most of his race, he was still a creature of routine. Still doggedly adhered to his Order's tenets, still recited them morning and night when he was not incapacitated. He was methodical in his pursuit of Vingalmo, exhausting every lead, every chance to corner and kill the vampire. So there was anger at his failure at dying, because even that had been planned. Some anger that his request to the Harbinger was not respected. Shame at him giving up so readily. Confusion as to why a failure like him would even be given yet another chance to live. But those emotions were secondary compared to the sheer curiosity, the desire to know the 'why' of it, the reassurance that he was not done fighting in Tamriel's Arena, that he still had a chance to kill the bastard, and the weary tearless numbness that comes with having to start all over yet again. Alone. All of these feelings danced towards the overwhelming, almost causing him to shut down to protect his composure in front of the one tending to him, but a central image came to his mind, the black and white fur, the sky blue eyes, the projection of what mattered most to him at that moment. The one who had been unconditional with him since the beginning.
His Koor. His final request of Ysolda had been perfectly clear. He was so sure that he would die. There was a possibility that the dog was still in the city, of course, but Äelberon did not know for certain how much time had passed and he was in no position now to find out. Koor was lost to him, just as Reman was, and the armor his Lenya made for him, with its eagle motif, so many years ago. The bow that had challenged Bet and the gilded shield that had stopped the Demon's foul blows. All gone. Taken, either directly or indirectly by Vingalmo and his actions. All that being said, it was clear that Äelberon's survival indicated that Auri-El was not satisfied, not done with him just yet. There would be more tests, more trials.
if it better helps me walk Your way, my Lord, then let it be so. Better then to let the events play out, to let his path be guided. I will pray on the matter, later. You are not even finished with your coughing fit yet! Body first, then mind, then soul, he reminded himself while he sputtered.
After the fur was placed on his shoulders, Äelberon, through his remnant coughing, sensed the same hand move, heard the sloshing of water and perceived a nearby steaming heat. A muttered curse as if reacting to a sudden pain and then he heard water droplets fall, as if it was being wrung from something. He blinked several times more and slowly the film of tears turned into a small candle-lit room bound by walls of dark grey mountain stone. He was on a bed, he guessed, but it had an odd bump towards the foot of it and the consistency changed, going from rather soft and cozy for a Mead Hall to hard and flat with extra furs on it, as if compensating. The old Knight narrowed his eyes, staring at the foot of the bed. Ah, extended, with crates. His height has been accommodated, he thought as a hot cloth closed in, taking totally him by surprise.
Äelberon immediately recoiled when he caught the awful stench.
"I know it smells bad, Snow Bear..."
"But," the somehow familiar voice continued, "Danica's orders." A knowing chuckle.
Scamp's blood you know this voice!
"Well, actually Arcadia's. Healers, alchemists, all the same to me."
Juniper does not bloody go with garlic! With a hoarse groan of protest, Äelberon pulled away from the foulness again, but the strength of that infernal hand won out, guiding his neck towards the steaming cloth.
"So stubborn." The voice quipped. Despite his continued feeble resistance, the cloth covered his nose and mouth. "Now take a deep breath, Snow Bear."
To weak to exercise the alternative, Äelberon did as he was told and inhaled. The pungency of the garlic and the crisp pine bite of the juniper made his sinuses and lungs feel like they were being dissolved of their very flesh, making his eyes water anew. When he could stand it no more, he exhaled, hearing the rattle and wheezing of his chest.
Auri-El's bow, double pneumonia, he diagnosed, the healer in him taking over. Coupled with the infected lash marks, the poison, the malnutrition, and the weight loss. He knew he had been bad off at Helgen, but not like this.
The second inhale was a little easier and it was thus for several moments, just breathing, in and out, into the cloth.
There had also been an issue with his heart, a nagging tightness in his chest since escaping the Keep that radiated into his left arm with that dreaded numbness that no one ever wants to feel, especially a fighting Mer. A heart attack, a rare condition among the long-lived Altmer, but the stress of his journey had been too great. The life he had led, far too difficult. That is what finally brought him down at Jorrvaskr. As he continued his treatment, Äelberon weakly brought a hand over his sweat-dampened chest, massaging, both to aid his breathing and to feel his heart. There was a barrier of finely spun cotton cloth, though his hand quickly found skin through a drawstring opening at the neckline. A nightshirt? He had not owned one of those since he was in House Larethian. He usually just slept in his clothes, he was out in the wilds on jobs or running from the Thalmor so much. Had this been made for him? There was also a tightness of pulled fabric, thicker, but the different texture told him that it was a wound dressing. For his back. Clean, save for the recently split scabs. He guided his hand to the left and assessed his pulse through flesh drawn over now prominent bone - Gods! he was so thin, almost as thin as his time in the Jerrals. The pulse? Strong and steady, the healthy sound making him raise his eyebrows. Well, that seems... resolved. In fact, his heart was about the only thing that was not bothering him right now. He had been healed? By whom? Who else had magicks in the city besides the Jarl's court wizard? Whomever it was, the job had been done with considerable skill.
Subsequent breaths took less struggle and Äelberon felt the heavy congestion begin to loosen and move enough that he could find a measure of relief. Not a permanent fix, but a sound treatment. Enough to put him on the path to recovery until the person who fixed his heart returned or he could complete the work on his own. That would take some time. Magicka was a fickle thing, always the first to leave the body and the last to return. He had spent it all on the Dragon so the boy would not die such a horrible death. He wondered where both were now and that led to a chain of other thoughts. Random thoughts, tangents upon tangents. He really hated how his brain worked when he was sick. He could not control his memories well and for a few moments he struggled to put his mind back in the now. The pork dinner he had 42 days ago at the Tap 'N Tack with grilled leeks and potatoes, fixing Calianwe's lute, making Koor's bed for the first time, sparring with Vingalmo, the day he noticed that Decimus had gone bald, his first lesson with Rynandor, losing Reman, Ulfric Stormcloak, the Dragon's great eyes staring right into his own. He shook his head to clear his mind, which made the hand adjust the position of the cloth, mistaking his gesture for more refusal.
"Easy, Snow Bear... not quite done yet."
Too many memories, like sands upon a beach. Too many, too many...focus, old Mer, focus!
The barrow! It just bubbled to the surface, ahead of the others. Ah, shit, he frowned, and at the same time, he was glad that he was less distracted. Probably done already, he imagined. He felt himself release a ragged sigh at yet another missed opportunity, but immediately set his jaw in resignation while he continued his breathing. No use crying over spilt milk, old Knight, you will rebuild your life another way. When recovered, your will ask for an audience with the Jarl to explain yourself.
The one administering his treatment shifted position and Äelberon absently felt the familiar pull of hair at the back of his neck. He released a tiny gasp that the Nord mistook for discomfort.
"Hmm, that's pulling, let me get that for you."
A single, thick braid was gently moved from against his back under the fur to over his shoulder where it draped, clean, long, thick and silver-white, leather lacing intertwined. Intact, not the way he typically did it, but in the Nordic fashion. And again, Äelberon of Dusk was surprised by Skyrim. Cutting the hair was a common treatment for high fevers, misguided, but still practiced. Yet, here was his hair, the visual mark of his Order, preserved. A hidden blessing in this most dire time. Vingalmo did not get everything, it seemed. All in all, he had been extremely well cared for, clean and bathed judging by the lack of smell. Why he had received this level of care, he did not know.
He guessed he was in the bowels of Jorrvaskr. What they had called the Living Quarters when the old woman escorted him downstairs. The stone matched the stone of the hallway, only it was a much smaller room. He perceived the dustiness of books, dried herbs, wood, fresh straw and a hint of mustiness that came from a room that was not used frequently or used for storage. Are you in a damn closet again, he laughed in his mind, remembering the moments of his dreams when he was in Rynandor's closet in the Tower. Happy times, but stagnant times.
You must move forward...
Another shadow looming nearby made him tense initially until he heard a happy cry.
"Mary's Mercy, he's awake!" Followed by a joyful clasp of the hands. Somehow, at the sound of the new voice, Äelberon's mind saw the image of thin grey-haired woman sweeping, small for a Nord, haggard from a long day's work. The one who took you to see the Harbinger.
"Aye, fetch some water." That bloody voice, he furrowed his brow, growing frustrated with himself. Blast his mind for being so damn foggy still, for his vision being dull. It spoke with a certain authority that he definitely recognized, but it was not the Jarl. "Let us see if he'll take some on his own."
"Is he alright?"
Another chuckle. "Snow Bear is rather stubborn in taking his medicine, old woman, but I suspect that's not a bad thing."
A giggle. "Just like his namesake."
Is that why they were kept calling him Snow Bear? His stubbornness? Äelberon rolled his eyes. Because you never told them your name, you oaf, so sure you were of death.
"The water, Tilma."
Tilma, aye, that was her name, and he felt the fingers of his draw hand instinctively tense, remembering the sting from the ebony. The fragments. He had asked her about the fragments mounted on the wall in complete awe at seeing something so ancient.
The fragments of Elf-grinder or Wuuthrad by its Nord name. Storm's Tears. It was very stupid to touch the fragments of the battle axe that had destroyed so many of his kind. He knew that it would burn, but touch he did, to honor the ancestor who dwelled the Mead Hall long before him.
Maybe it is fitting you are here then, he processed silently, still breathing into the cloth. You are an outsider too.
The old woman's steps as they moved away were quicker than Äelberon expected for one who was so thin and frail looking. Who was the other? The one that supported him as he took his treatment, now without any complaint. The pair of hands and arms were certainly well built because even at his diminished state, he was still rather heavy.
A loud commotion from down the hallway and another curse from the man holding him steady brought Äelberon out of his sickly musings.
"Ysmir's Beard, what ears! He knows."
Äelberon released a gust of air and felt his heart tighten in glad understanding. He knows.
The quiet, unreadable grief that permeated his mood became an garbled, cracked exclamation of joy when Äelberon heard the all to familiar whines and foot pads getting louder and louder, followed by the heavy steps of armored boots, more cursing. Koor skillfully eluded two large Nords in a dark armor, sending one to the floor, and bounded upon the bed, pushing Äelberon back against the pillows and furs at the head of the bed and away from the steady grasp of the Nord who was holding him.
"Farkas!" The Nord bellowed, throwing the cloth to the floor in exasperation.
Äelberon did not pay much attention to ensuing argument among the Nords, something about "it being too soon" and "where's Aela?", and "that's devotion", his only focus was on the barrage of kisses from his little one. The yaps, growls, yowls and whines of husky speech that told him all about Koor's many adventures while he was gone from the world. He ignored the pain in his back, the congestion of his lungs, his terrible weakness and reached from the bed, hands first thoroughly bathed by a warm, wet tongue before they were allowed to trace the familiar long muzzle and pointed ears. Their reunion was very clumsy because the dog would not be still long enough to allow a proper hug and his boy was nearly crushing him against the bed, but Äelberon did not care. It was a promise he was very glad, Ysolda did not keep, letting tears of joy finally streak down his cheeks, allowing himself the emotional release after everything that had happened since his capture. He answered the husky with kisses of his own, pressing the animal close to him in relief, sobbing quietly into Koor's soft fur.
I am not alone.
He knew they were staring, but he did not care. He loved his little one, loved him since finding him in the snow, nearly froze, his mother dead beside him. It was as a father cries for his lost child who is now found. There is no shame in that. Several moments passed before Äelberon composed himself enough to make words. "Auri-El, Adonai ali... your servant accepts your merciful gift." He croaked in impassioned prayer, giving thanks for his good fortune, stilling holding Koor. "And show favor... to this Mead Hall... for... their decency."
It is a heavy, heavy debt you owe them, old Knight.
Joy quickly turned into fatherly concern when he felt hard the poor creature's ribs. "Easy, easy..." He soothed as best as his cracked voice would allow, rubbing the husky's neck while the creature squirmed against him in excitement, yapping softly in continuous conversation. "Why... have you not... eaten, eh? Eh?" Every word between wheezes and gasping breaths, yet he found the strength to guide the animal's head so that Äelberon made eye contact, searching the dog's sky blue eyes for answers. He held firmly the jaw when the creature could not meet his gaze directly "You... are hungry, boy," His other hands ran through the beast's flank, wincing. "So thin, so terribly thin." The dog kissed his nose in apology, making him laugh, and Äelberon held Koor close to him again, their faces pressed together. "I missed you soundly... my little one. You will eat now, yes?"
"We tried to get him to eat."
Still holding Koor, Äelberon turned to his right at the sound of the younger voice. A Nord, burley and strong, with a mop of thick black hair and fierce black war paint around silver eyes. Images of a giant flashed before his eyes, a battle. A fine shot from his bow. The Nord had been there. More images. Of that fateful stormy night. It was this Nord's blade he used in the spar. Finest steel he had ever held not by his own or his Lenya's hand. "Aela managed to get a few scraps into him," the Nord continued. "She's got a way with the creatures, but then he just stopped eatin'. Too sad, I guess."
He bowed his head in humility. "Thank you..." He struggled to breathe between more coughs. "I will never forget..." He turned, facing the ceiling of wooden beams, closing his eyes to regain enough strength to finish what he had to say. Koor had finally settled, making himself comfortable to his left, his head resting on Äelberon's shoulder. "Forget your great...kindness to him... and to me." He opened his eyes and made a great effort for the last words because he needed to. It was of his Order to be this way. It was his way.
"And by Auri-El's will, I, Äelberon of Dusk, Knight-Paladin of Auri-El, Knight of the Crystal Tower, Aprax... am in Jorrvaskr's debt."
The great effort of giving them his name left him immensely tired, keenly aware of how weak he still was, but he had said his piece and could now move forward towards honoring that debt.
There was a new weight on the edge of bed, a wall of a Nord clothed in dark brown wool, and Äelberon saw a large, battle-calloused hand with thick fingers find Koor's back, giving the animal's fur a sound ruffling, punctuated by a pat.
"Barring not eating, you would have been proud of the animal, Snow Bear. He gave us no trouble." A warm chuckle. "No doubt, when you both are healed, the two of you will make fine additions to our Mead Hall."
Äelberon's eyes traveled from the hand to the Nord it was attached to. Large hands, large arms, a great barrel of a chest, a belly made by mead, the dramatic swirl of black ink across a firm right cheek and extending downwards into a thickly muscled neck. The long, coarse grey hair and beard were ornamented with several plaits sporting decorative beads of polished jet and carved ivory woven into the plaits with thin leather. Long of face, weathered from the elements, with a thin bridged, downturned nose and thin mouth under the dense beard. Äelberon's eyes then locked with a pair of bloodshot silver eyes, hooded and creased from age, but still possessing the great fire of a warrior. The silver eyes of Jorrvaskr. They had spoken in Bruma about how many of the Mead Hall had the trait. Passed from generations of Companions over hundreds of years. The eyes were kindly as they stared back at him, the look of relief apparent through their fatigued darkened circles.
"It is good that you have returned to us, Snow Bear," He then acknowledged Äelberon with a nod, "Knight-Paladin. Some had given up hope," a smile showing teeth, the silver eyes twinkling, "but I had not."
Äelberon blinked in surprise, finally matching the voice with the face and then the name.
The Harbinger, Kodlak Whitemane.
They helped the Mer drink some water and then Kodlak quickly cleared the tiny room of the crowd of noisy shield-siblings that had gathered at the doorway, excited to see their newest member finally awake and talking. The raucous group dispersed, their many conversations and questions echoing through the hallway. One lingering conversation stood out and Kodlak felt his forehead crease.
"Who is this Mer to Kodlak?"
"Peace, brother. The old man will reveal his purpose in time. He always does."
"Old man doesn't know what's lying in that bed, Aela. I fought that war. I know."
"But Skjor, he bears your scars, and you cannot deny the strength of will."
"I understand that, but you don't know what they are capable of. They would mark one of their own like that, just to deceive, earn our trust and then strike. Move him to the temple and let him be on his way. I don't trust him."
Of course the questions came from Skjor.
He is my key to Sovngarde, Kodlak answered Skjor's question silently, his eyes on the floor in contemplation while he favored his evening mead.
But that was something that Kodlak could not and would not divulge at this time. He was not ready. Instead he recounted only part of his dream to the Circle, that he wanted to be rid of the Curse, to seek its Cure and join Jorrvaskr's Shield-Brothers of old in Sovngarde for his spirit home. The twins sided with him, Aela and Skjor sided with Hircine, bringing an unspoken strife to their tight family. Communicated through furrowed brows, feigned happiness at the local brothels, sullen heavy drinking, and secret hunts that Kodlak only pretended did not happen. No, Snow Bear was a private matter. Perhaps he would tell Skjor when the man eventually assumed Kodlak's mantle as Harbinger so he could pursue the matter further, but not now. For the time being, it was sufficient to say that he simply did not want someone who had put so much effort into surviving to die. Even Skjor, for all his hatred against the High Elves, as a Nord could understand this. There was merit in the Mer's display of grit, both in his spar with Vilkas and his subsequent battle to live.
It was a grit and doggedness that was not common among the manipulative, weak-bodied Thalmor, a people that preferred mind games and magicks to actual honor, but, Kodlak raised his brow and nodded to himself, very common in a knight. "I know no true knights." Words he had spoken to Jarl Balgruuf only a week ago.
Well you might know one now. A knight-paladin was the title the Mer used. The religious connotation was very clear in the oath he just swore. Even with a voice cracked and frail from illness, his first uttered words were to a god in prayer. Not in secret, but out in the open, where others easily heard. Farkas, Vilkas...
Would there be magicks, Kodlak wondered, both curious and fearful of the prospect. There were absolutely none in Jorrvaskr who practiced. Hircine's secret magic was magic enough for the Circle. Traditional magicks were not encouraged, seen as dishonorable, cheating, though Vignar did often speak of the Nord "clever men", powerful mages who sometimes joined Jorrvaskr's ranks in the times before. Ages ago. Whiterun was certainly no Winterhold, magicks were very rare. Danica, the court wizard, perhaps the acolytes of the Temple, and that was all Kodlak knew in a city that was Skyrim's bustling central hub for travel and trade. The Mer's race was certainly practiced in magic, though the Mer did not use it when he sparred Vilkas. That had been strange, but the Mer had not conducted himself in a way that was typical of his people.
Would there be danger?
Skjor thoughts were ever on the Thalmor, and there was logic to that, but Kodlak's thoughts returned to the dread he felt as he accompanied Danica Pure-Spring and the others bringing the ice that saved Snow Bear. The apprehension at her presence in the Mead Hall alone. What an affiliated could do to them if they learned the truth and did not understand that they were not like the wild werewolves of the deep forests, savage and brutal.
The Mer was a priest. A priest among the wolves of Jorrvaskr. The Mer you saw in your dream.
"Skjor speaks true of the Thalmor."
He did not jump at the sound of the Mer's quiet words, but his heart did skip a beat in surprise. I forgot how bloody keen their knife ears are.
A smattering of productive coughs reminded Kodlak of an illness that would see a long and difficult recovery. Three weeks alone confined to the warmth of his sick bed after he woke. No outside, no sunshine, no breeze. Danica's orders. All these restrictions designed to give time for the pneumonia to fully heal. It would take the patience of a saint to follow the priestess' strict instructions and Kodlak was not sure the Mer would be compliant.
I certainly would not be.
"But he does not speak true of me." The Mer continued.
The Harbinger's eyes left the stone floor to face the Mer. He was propped up against every pillow and every bundle of fur a doting Tilma could muster from the Mead Hall, putting the Mer in a seated position. He had refused sleep after drinking his fill of water and instead wanted to have words, though until now, they both had been struggling with how to start, causing an awkward silence to span between them. The husky slept content at his left side, the great head resting on the Mer's lap. A bear paw of a hand, paler than marble, just like the rest of his skin, with long fingers was stroking the animal's head. Not the soft, slender hands typical of his people, but strong hands, muscled and calloused from, Kodlak's eyes focused, noting where the skin subtly changed textures, a lifetime of both bow and blade. A fighting Mer. The motion of the hand was slow, soothing to the dozing animal and perhaps to the Mer as well.
"It was Skjor who brought you the ice." Kodlak countered. The Mer was probably right, but still, Kodlak would always defend a Shield-brother.
"His honor is known to me." The Mer's eyes finally met Kodlak's. Strange, deep-set eyes, hooded like hawk's, with dark circles, accentuated by facial hollows that spoke of possible months without proper nourishment. They were not the deep, cloudy blood-red of the grey-skinned Athis, or the greens and golds of the Mer's own people, but a much lighter shade of orange-red, clear and sharp, with flecks of what Kodlak could only describe as fire and gold. Keen and bright, very much resembling a bird of prey to the Harbinger with their quiet stare. A quiet stare that betrayed a hint of weariness to Kodlak, as if they bore the great weight of life behind them. Old eyes belonging to a frame and face that though was still in the throes of ill health, seemed to belong to someone who looked somewhere between Skjor's and Kodlak's age, closer to Skjor's. Athis, the only other Elf in Jorrvaskr, was sixty-five, a year older than Kodlak, yet the Dunmer's eyes, face and demeanor still had a fair amount of youth behind them. He also possessed the Elvish lack of maturity that was very odd to Kodlak for someone with so many years behind him. Grown Mer in their thirties, forties, and even fifties acting like youths barely out of school. Their life stages seemingly stretched out. Snow Bear was different and that made it almost impossible to guess the Mer's age, but Kodlak ventured that he was significantly older than Athis. Perhaps close to one hundred? Kodlak could not imagine any older, though he heard Elvish lives could span in the hundreds, even thousands of years. Perhaps powerful mages sealed in their libraries from all the dangers of the world could attain those fantastic numbers, but a fighting warrior with callouses like that on his hands, with a body covered in scars? Kodlak Whitemane knew enough about the longevity of warriors firsthand to know that it was impossible. Their life was hard and most did not last. The Mer was definitely seasoned, but still young. A veteran of the Great War perhaps, like Skjor.
The head lowered in a small bow, though eye contact was maintained.
"As is yours."
Such respect cannot be sincere.
Kodlak narrowed his eyes in scrutiny. "You know of us?"
There was a weak smile that gave the harsh lines and angles that drew the Mer's long face a rather unexpected warmth, especially around the eyes. Eyes do not lie, Old Man, he is being sincere, so be nice. "Bruma's Fighter's Guild may not like it much, but Jorrvaskr's name is spoken with pride among the Nords there, Harbinger. Your deeds are known." The head tilted to the side. "Though some do not quite believe the 'One hundred Orc berserkers...'"
Kodlak laughed, slapping his thigh. The dog stirred, but quickly resumed its slumber when it deemed the gesture harmless. "Bumph. That old Orc is bloody right, it was more like forty." Kodlak scooted his chair close to the edge of the bed. "People exaggerate. Are you from Bruma?"
Let the words begin, Kodlak thought merrily, barely containing his excitement. He knew his Shield-Brothers and sisters inside and out after decades in the Mead Hall and their life could, at times, be... be, well, boring. At least to him. The same jobs, the same personalities. The Mer was different, unknown and the unknown was always a potential adventure for Kodlak. He was surprised Vilkas wasn't beating down the door to this tiny room to sate his own curiosity. It's the boy's deference to you that keeps him away. You'll let Vilkas have his chance later and then grin from ear to ear while Snow Bear's ears fall off from all the questions.
Snow Bear's head tilted to the side again and Kodlak perceived the slightest change in expression, mostly from the Mer's slanted eyebrows, one rose.
"No. I was born in Summerset. I lived in Bruma." The Mer clarified, though there was a lack of the 'tone' Mer typically sported when they were being condescending.
Alright, that was a stupid question, Old Man. Change the subject.
"You know Bumph?: The Mer opened his mouth to speak, but Kodlak quickly continued, "She still lives? Still running the Fighter's Guild?"
You are not letting him bloody talk.
There came a rather silly half smile from the Mer and he chuckled as he nodded. "Yes, yes, and yes."
"Should I write her then, tell her you are sa--"
"No." Said firmly, followed by more coughing. He took as deep a breath as his congested lungs would allow and sighed. "As an old Orc, Bumph knew what I was doing."
"Do you have other family?"
"None that live."
He hesitated on that question, the eyes glancing to the side as if carefully weighing his answer. The Mer's eyes then found Kodlak's. "Several that mean a great deal to me. One almost like a son, but like Bumph, they knew what I was doing and it is better for them at this moment if they do not know my fate. For their own safety."
"To be honest, I had not planned on even having this conversation with you, Harbinger." Snow bear released a gust of air and the shoulders stooped, his eyes going faraway. "I had not planned a lot of things..."
"You had planned to die." Kodlak pointed out, knowing full well what the 'old Orc' reference meant. Seeking the Good Death.
"My intention to you was clearly communicated then?"
It must be an Altmer thing, this formality in speech.
"It was." Kodlak nodded.
The Mer's brow creased and his gaze fell away. Kodlak squared himself, preparing to address the fact that indeed he had not honored the Mer's dying wish. The Mer looked down, his thumb stroking the beast's brow. Another sigh and the small smile appeared again, a tenderness in his expression as he regarded the sleeping animal. "Though the action has now complicated matters for the both of us, I thank you for not listening."
That was a surprise. He had expected the Mer to be angry.
"No one who clings so hard to life truly wants to die, Snow Bear."
"Deep down, this is truth and I do not regret the decision that was made on my behalf. Again, thank you." There was a silence between them for several moments, before the Mer spoke again. "How long have I been here?"
"You fell on the eighteenth, today is the thirtieth."
The eyes suddenly widened and the Mer quickly put his hand to the thickening growth of silver hair upon his cheek, doing what every male does to measure the passage of time. There was true shock in the eyes before he slowly lowered his hand to rest at his side. "I did not have a beard when I came here..."
Kodlak nodded, "You grow one rather fast." he leaned forward and offered a reassuring smile. "If you ask me, Snow Bear, it looks better. Makes you far less ug--"
"The Barrow?" The Mer interrupted urgently. "The Dragon? Have there been anymore attacks? What news?" The Mer shot out questions in rapid succession and then, to Kodlak's surprise, attempted to rise from the bed, waking the animal in the process. "I need to go..." He muttered. "They are counting on me--"
Shor's Bones, he's still delirious. Kodlak raised both his hands in a gesture of pause that quickly morphed into gently shoving the Elf back into the bed, praying the dog wouldn't bite off his hands in retaliation for touching his master. Curiously, the dog seemed to understand the Mer's condition better than the Mer did, offering no protest at Kodlak's actions. "Easy, Snow Bear. You need to recover. There has been no dragon since Helgen and rest assured, the Barrow is still yours, waiting for your full strength, on the Jarl's word of honor."
A wee lie, but the Mer did not need to know yet that it was on the condition that his Shield-Brothers join him. Truth be told, the Jarl was ultimately getting the better deal. The Mer and the hand-picked of Jorrvaskr for a thousand septims and the Barrow's exploration conducted exactly as Farengar Secret-Fire wanted it to be, as an expedition. It was not taking away from the Elf, it was giving him the support that he needed to complete the job.
"I made an oath. I must go. I promised."
There was a surprising amount of quiet physical resistance from the Mer before Kodlak's lycanthropic strength was forced to take over. No yelling, no cursing, just simply pushing back against Kodlak's hold, wanting to get up, wanting to see the task done. The determined expression in the eyes said it all, he would have done the Barrow in his current condition. He either would have found a way to do it or died trying.
Kodlak pushed the broad, food-starved shoulders against the pillows a final time and held the Mer there securely, aware of both their heavy breathing, locking eyes with him. "Snow Bear," his voice was low, "easy, you will fulfill your oath, but not if you go now..."
It took a moment, but the Mer finally blinked in understanding and their struggle ceased. Kodlak only let go when he felt the Mer's shoulder and neck muscles relax into the cushions, when there would be no more attempts to leave. A prolonged coughing fit was followed by a deep breath then a long sigh. A pained look from those alien eyes told the old Nord everything the Mer felt about his current predicament. There would be no barrows, not for a long while. Kodlak returned to his chair and took a well earned sip of mead. Mer was strong. It was going to be an exciting prospect to see the Mer fully recovered, choosing not to dwell on the looming shadow that he may not.
"Snow Bear..." The Mer pondered after a few moments, lowering his brow in thought. "I do not know this bear. I only know the brown ones in Cyrod." Did he mean Cyrodiil? Then Kodlak remembered, Cyrod was an old name for Tamriel's central province. An extremely old name. "The ones that grow fat on berries and honey before they den for the Winter. Or the ones living high in the mountain caves of the Jerralls." There was a chuckle and a wry smile formed. "Is the Snow Bear particularly known for its stubbornness?"
"Yes." Kodlak answered the Mer's smile with a smirk of his own. "Like you. Snow white, like you. But it's also strong and fierce. A survivor. Again, like you. The name just fit and now it has stuck within the Mead Hall and even beyond its doors."
"I do not mind it." He made a face. "It certainly beats Wasseek Shap."
Alright that was not Tamrielic. The Mer seemed to have a command of languages that made Balgruuf's choice of him for the Barrow make all the more sense. "What is Wa, wa, wass--" Kodlak tried, but utterly failed.
"Wasseek Shap," said with an accent that closely approximated the Gold Pact's Argonian. "Means bright frog in Jel. Seems my peculiar coloring makes an impression on multiple peoples. It is what the Tum-Taleel tribe called me." He shook his head and chuckled inwardly, as if remembering something very funny to him. "It was not meant to be flattering. Granted, when they found me," he shrugged, "I was naked in all of my alabaster glory." The brow lowered, "and about to be cooked and eaten by another tribe, rather unpleasant business. "
That was definitely question for later, Kodlak grinned at the prospect. "Snow bear is better and we promise not to eat you."
Kodlak almost bit his tongue at how that came out. Relax, he does not know you're a werewolf, old fool.
"Thank you." The Mer smiled.
"Besides, you didn't give your name, another clue of your intent, Knight-Paladin Äel..be..ron of Dusk." He finished slowly, trying to say the Mer's given name as the Mer had pronounced it earlier when he swore his oath to his god. Kodlak raised his eyebrows in question. "Did I at least say that correctly?"
"Yes, you did, Harbinger." Another small bow of the head. "Again, thank you."
He was going to nip this Altmer's formality in the bud.
"Kodlak, just Kodlak."
The Mer's smile broadened just a bit and something mischievous flickered those eyes. One more tiny bow.
"Of course, Kodlak, just Kodlak."
Kodlak Whitemane released a hearty laugh, falling for one of the oldest childrens' pranks in the books. The rarest thing in all of Nirn now sat before him, an Altmer with a sense of humor. His laugh tapered down to a remnant snort and he took a sip of mead. "I fell for that one." He acknowledged.
"Yes, you did. I did not offend, then?"
"Oh no." Kodlak shook his head. "On the contrary, I like a man--" A slanted eyebrow shot upwards and Kodlak rolled his eyes, yet another thing to get used to, "Ysmir's beard, Mer that can best me. I may be Harbinger, but I can still be put flat on my arse in the Training Circle. Occasionally." He added quickly just to let the Mer know that he was Harbinger for a reason.
The Mer gave a knowing nod and glanced sideways. "As can I. In fact, my arse is rather flat as of late, been figurately knocked down so many times..."
Tilma and Vignar will enjoy the quick wit. Another member for their spirited evening games of cards over tej, perhaps?" Kodlak swirled the mead in his tankard before indulging again. Brill was doing good work, it was a far better brew than Honingbrew, almost surpassing Black Briar in quality. "Normally, a person who joins the Companions wants their name to be known." He continued the conversation.
"Sometimes it is better to not be known." The Mer replied quietly, immediately sucking the humor from the room. Air blew from his nose and his mouth thinned into a disapproving line. "I acted in haste, gave you my name and now you are at risk. I had not intended to join." It was clear the Mer did not quite understand what had happened on that stormy night, that he was now a Shield-Brother.
"Well, join you did. You more than proved your metal against Vilkas that day. You survived the Training Circle, you are one of us."
"When they find out I am not dead, the Thalmor will come for me." He replied, either not understanding or ignoring what Kodlak had just said. "And they will kill all who stand in their way."
There were tales told about the bluntness of Altmer. Balgruuf had mentioned a chopping block in Helgen, that the Mer had been brutally honest when he said that he was destined to die before the dragon attack changed his path. Crossing the border illegally while hunting. Not typically an offense that warranted death, usually just a stiff fine and deportation back to the original province with a slap to the arse, or perhaps jail time if the crime was serious enough, but death? It was not like he stole a horse. That was strange and it set off horn blasts of alarm in Kodlak's head about the Mer's status in the world. Skjor's fears perhaps had merit and should be addressed.
"Are you a criminal to them?"
There was a flash of profound sadness in the Mer's eyes. "No, I keep to my Tenets. I am only guilty of loving my Homeland. Apparently, that is enough for them to hunt me."
A dissident then, Kodlak mused, or... an exile. In their conversations regarding what do do with Snow Bear and the Barrow, Balgruuf had also struggled with the incongruency of the Mer being on the block. Warning both Riverwood and Whiterun of the dragon, nearly dying in the process, was not the act of a criminal.
It was the act of someone who understood self-sacrifice. A knight.
Kodlak shook his head and straightened in pride. "Well, the Thalmor are nothing to me, Snow Bear. Nothing to the Jorrvaskr, Mead Hall of the Companions."
The gaze became like hardened steel and the jaw set grimly. "You underestimate them."
"You are not the only one sporting those scars in Jorrvaskr, Snow Bear." He argued back.
"Then Skjor is even more formidable than I previously believed." His face then changed, growing drawn, as if remembering a past pain. "it is no small feat to survive those scars."
"You have good ears. It is indeed he who bears those clustered scars. Took the eyes of the Justiciar that gave them to him too." Another nod of pride, which was the way it always was when he spoke of Skjor, their present disagreements on the Beast Blood aside. "He is the greatest of us, Snow Bear. Survived Red Ring and the many evils of the Great War before I found him and brought him to Jorrvaskr to become what he is now. The Veteran we call him on account of his Legion days. A nickname, like Snow Bear is yours. But you are wrong, the Thalmor will not come for you." Kodlak waved his hand in dismissal. "With this Civil War, travel is hard enough as it is. And winter will come soon, making it worse. So they will think you dead for a good long while, certainly long enough for you to recover to the point where you can defend yourself in the way that your callouses and your conduct in the Training Circle showed me that you can. And with your new Shield-brothers and sisters by your side," Kodlak flashed a grin tinged with the promise of battle and victory, "they will rue the day they ever dared approach the Eagle of Skyforge and the crew of the Jorrvaskr that makes their home under its winged shadow. You made an oath to my Mead Hall when you woke, Äelberon Snow Bear, and this is the oath I make to you as your Shield-Brother. They will not come here."
The Mer seemed to chew on what was said for several moments, as if carefully considering his options. The eyes then looked downwards, past Kodlak onto the floor. "The bearskin. Would you fetch it for me please?"
The request caught him off-guard after what he had thought was a rather fine speech, but Kodlak turned and there it was, the skin of a cave bear, black, recently skinned too, the faint scent of flesh and dried blood lingering in his wolfen nose. It was fashioned to resemble a bindle of sorts. The Nord twisted in his chair and reached, easily holding up the fur sack. A bow slid from the corner of the wall where it was propped against the bindle, hitting the floor. The Mer winced and made what Kodlak could only describe as the Altmer equivalent of a sour face.
"Careful." He seemed to chide, though Kodlak picked up on the sarcasm. "It is the only bow I have."
The Harbinger eyed the warped weapon and frowned at its lack of craftmanship. "Falling to the floor can only help that bloody weapon."
Kodlak turned at the Mer's sudden guffaw, a hoarse affair, punctuated by coughing, but it was still a healthy laugh.
The sense of humor has returned. Use it, Snow Bear and you will fine.
"It is a very sad state of affairs when I say that is all I have left." A smirk. "My lenya would cry if she saw me with that weapon."
"Mother in my tongue. She was a smith."
'None that live', he remembered the Mer's words. Dead, Kodlak noted.
"Do you practice then? I hear Elves follow their families in craft, often for generations." Kodlak asked, to make small talk and keep the Mer comfortable, but to also gage if an overworked Eorlund could benefit from the help. Working weapons would be a fine way to rebuild the strength needed to wield them.
"Well enough to know that the blade I held the night I fell was the best weapon I have ever held besides what she made for me."
That was very lofty praise indeed coming from a High Elf. Kodlak acknowledged the compliment with a polite nod and vowed in this head to introduce the two when the Mer was allowed outside. Or perhaps bring the smith to the Mer for a formal introduction. "May I pass your words of praise on to Eorlund Gray-Mane?"
"Please do so. His steel is legend in Bruma." The Mer replied. The husky stirred and shifted position, releasing a contented snort. He looked down fondly on the sleeping dog and rubbed the animal's exposed belly. "At any rate, this little one here, infinitely better than a warped bow, I have him, but I will not part with him. My Koor is priceless to me."
"We would not demand such a thing of you, Snow Bear. He is a Shield-Brother too."
The Mer seemed very reassured by those words and Kodlak set the bindle upon the bed. The Mer gestured with his head towards it and the tone of his voice had a purpose behind it. I can already tell that you will never beat around the bush, Snow Bear. "Speaking of price. There is not much inside, an amethyst of fine jewelry quality from the Jarl, a spell tome, an enchanted ring, an enchanted hood, a chainmail shirt, and of course, the skin itself, from a worthy sow. You are welcome to sell them to help cover the debt stemming from my convalescence." A nod that was all determination. "I will work off the rest."
Of that, I have no doubts.
Kodlak took another sip of mead before leaning to his left to set the tankard down on a rickety nightstand next to the Mer's sick bed. He resumed his position on the chair, one arm resting on his mead belly, the other rubbing his beard. His eyes were on the Mer that stared back at him, feeling a big smile form. Bloody sick as he was, he already wanted to work off his debts.
The intense eyes narrowed and the mouth turned downwards, the nostrils of the distinctly aquiline nose flaring with that same strength of spirit Kodlak saw immediately when they first met. "Do you think this is funny? The shame at having to hawk items like a peddler?" Now he had a Altmer's tone. "I do not belittle the work of a peddler, but that is not who I am. I am a warrior."
The Nord shook his head quickly. "Oh, no, no, no. Do not take my smile for ridicule, Snow Bear. On the contrary, it is respect. We have only briefly spoken, but I can already tell very clearly who you are. And yes, you are most definitely a warrior." The Mer opened his mouth to speak, but Kodlak continued. "I agree with you, we should sell these things, but not to pay your debts."
"My honor demands I pay you back. For me and for Koor." The Mer insisted, growing flustered. "My life is yours." He looked upwards quickly, then faced Kodlak. "It is Auri-El's will."
Would it come to that, his very life? Kodlak wondered in the back of his mind, not liking Snow Bear's turn of phrase. He hoped not. As brief as this encounter was, he was already liking the Mer. The spirit, the strength of will. He was formal, but not to the point of stuffiness. Clearly disciplined, Kodlak ventured that military life played significantly into the Mer's history. That and religion. And at the same time, he could laugh at himself and his predicament. They were also seemingly at the same point in their lives. Kodlak was either surrounded by younglings or people already infirm with age. He was somewhere in the middle, mature and seasoned, but still with his fighting spirit. His body hale, not yet content to sit around and play cards all day like Vignar was. He did not begrudge his job as Harbinger, he loved leading a new generation in Jorrvaskr's traditions, but a part of him knew he could still clear a bandit lair, could still make men piss themselves with just a hard look.
I am not done yet, and neither is this Mer.
"And you will pay Jorrvaskr back, but..." Kodlak sized the sick Mer up, deliberately not continuing.
He admitted that it was fun to goad the Mer, to see the tiny signs of impatience and stubbornness creep into the sick features, to lead the bear deliberately. There was an old Nord saying, something to the tune of 'keep poking the bear with a stick' and... aye, 'get mauled', but Kodlak was having too much fun. The Nord crossed his arms over his chest. "How would Auri-El dictate that you pay me back, Äelberon of Dusk, Knight Paladin of Auri-El?"
"Through service." Answered without hesitation, though he was still annoyed and then he paused before speaking again. "As I have done so for the past two-hundred and twenty-six years."
Kodlak was very glad he had put his mead down and stopped drinking because the Mer would've been bathed in a shower of the stuff. By Shor's hairy nut sacks, he had been very wrong.
"Two, two, two hundred?" He stammered, blinking again, not quite comprehending. "Two hundred?"
The eyes flickered with pride and the Mer smiled, nodding back slowly and it was Kodlak's turn to be led by the bear. "And twenty-six, I was seventeen when I took my leather lacing in His name. My oath to my Order."
Kodlak did the math in his head and just felt his mouth go slack with awe.
Two hundred and forty-three years. He is older than anything you know that is living, Old Man. He is almost four times your age. How?
"Shor's bones, you've seen eras pass, haven't you?" He asked and then was silent, hoping the Mer would offer more details.
The strange eyes met Kodlak's. "It is your right to know who I am. You, Kodlak Whitemane, who saved my life. It is rare for one to learn my name, because knowing it comes with certain risks and I am dedicated to protecting the innocent. Yes, I, Äelberon of Dusk, have seen the passing of eras, the passing of one way of life," the brow creased slightly and a weighted sadness flashed through the Mer's eyes, "to another, for good and for ill. I knew the time when the moons did not shine. I have witnessed rows upon rows of gates opening--" Kodlak's eyes widened. Oblivion gates! He's seen the Bloody Oblivion gates! "And vanquished what came from within. I was the Slayer of Bet, a demon sent from the very bowels of Coldharbour to torment my People in their Great Anguish. I was the subject of children's stories in my Homeland. They told tales of how I blocked the blow of his axe with my gilded shield nine times. Nine... Yet, I could not keep a beloved Crystal Tower from its fated fall. And I could not adapt to the change that came with that terrible fall. The hatred that sprung from its ashes. I am of the Blessed Isles, Summerset," The Mer continued, his tone reminiscing, "a land of shimmering, blue seas and golden coasts. Of orange blossoms and rainbow-hued canah birds. The land of Eton Nir and rolling green hills, of great cities of glass and crystal. I am..." he nodded slowly, "Altmer, an ancient people, whose past possesses far more depth than what humans now fear...”
His face then turned dark and Kodlak could the sadness in the Mer's eyes become a profound pain.
"But being known does not mean you are safe. It did not protect me from the trajectory of my people. I could not change. I would not embrace their Oegnithr, the evil behind their hate, so I am forever exiled from my beloved home. A hunted Aprax." Kodlak wanted to ask what that word meant, but the Mer continued. "And I became a vagabond knight for an Archaic Holy Order that is all but extinct to the world. Obsolete in their eyes. And yet I still wander endlessly in my Order's name, an Aurielian, the Thalmor's banishment and pursuit of me doing nothing to hinder my service to the innocent and defenseless. It is who I am and I will not stop, defiant to the end."
"So you are a knight?"
"Yes." The Mer admitted. "I am. And my perpetual quest? To hunt the dark things of the world, Harbinger. Children of Bal's blood. Children of Hircine's moon...Children of Daedric shadows and ill intent that prey upon the lives of the innocent. I hunt them, excise them clean from the helpless, cast them out back into their planes."
Kodlak Whitemane cleared his throat nervously. "Like the Vigil, then?"
"I go where the Vigil do not."
Ysmir's Beard! You let a bloody demon hunter into this den of wolves.
The hairs on Kodlak's neck stood on end in dread, understanding the terrible danger of what was now under his roof, but he hid it behind his Harbinger's mask of composure. There would be no mention of this to the others until he could sort out what this would mean for the Mead Hall first. It was clear, however, that this was what had ultimately earned the Mer the Barrow. While there was fear, there was no doubt in Kodlak's mind that his many prayers to Ysgramor and Talos had just been answered. In the form of a Knight-Paladin of Auriel, the Mer he saw in his dream. An Aedric light to blind the Daedric Huntsman's gaze maybe just long enough to give Kodlak his clear path to Shor's Golden Hall. Would he be able to tell Snow Bear of his plight? Would he hear Kodlak's spiritual woes with compassion or a zealot righteousness?
Will you help me, Snow Bear? Or will you strike me down and condemn me to the Hunting Grounds?
For the time being, he would not burden the Mer. He needed to do his own significant healing first, but for the first time in a long while Kodlak felt great stirrings of hope, that Hircine might not get his way after all, that his fate was not set in stone.
The Mer continued. "I have rebuilt my life from deep loss countless times over, and after this time's failure, Harbinger, I. had. given. up." The last words were emphasized.
It was how Kodlak felt when he first realized the terrible mistake he had made in taking Hircine's Cursed Beast Blood. In that, he shared a kinship with the Mer.
Snow Bear's features then brightened and there was that warm smile again, the eyes mirroring the gesture. "Only for another old warrior not to listen to my last wish. I am grateful for this gift of life, Kodlak Whitemane, for this second chance, for you not listening. And I will serve the Jorrvaskr" - how did he know it was a ship? - "as I serve the God of my Order until my debit is repaid, through my bow, my blade and my magicks." He extended his hand towards Kodlak. An offering. "You have my word, as His Knight. I repeat my oath to you."
Kodlak took the arm and gave it a sound clasp, happy that there was some strength behind it. "Then, Knight-Paladin, when you are better, we will take the things in this bindle to market and sell them, not to pay Jorrvaskr back, but to put you in a position where you can be of true service, as you would want to be, through your bow, your blade, and your magicks. This is my oath to you, from one old warrior to another." Kodlak smiled and let go. "You will regain your fighting form, Äelberon of Dusk." Kodlak took this as a cue to rise. "Until then, rest and recover."
Ene molage - Altmeris for fire eyes or eyes of fire.
Ge - A shortened form Magna ge "children of magnus". In Elder scrolls lore, the Magna ge are sentient beings that escaped during the creation of Nirn with Magnus, a god who represents the sun. The stars seen in the sky are the holes they literally punched into Aetherius when they escaped.
Oegnithr - An Altmer concept of bad change.
Nirn has two moons, Masser, the larger, reddish moon, and Secunda, a smaller moon that is cream-colored. In lore, the moons represent the corpse of Lorkhan, the god that instigated the creation of Nirn and separated Elves from the immortal plane. Elves, especially the Altmer, or High Elves, especially resent this because they essentially became mortal.
Tum-Taleel - "Root House People" A tribe of Argonians from the Mirkmire region of Blackmarsh. Äelberon of Dusk spent some time there in the years after the Void Nights, so around 100 4e.
My apologies for the lack of pictures, but I have been very busy as of late and the quicker I can format this, the happier I'll be, so things will be pared down in favor of getting content out. Yeah, it's been a long, long time, but I really struggled with the is chapter since it is significant character development. Thanks for understanding.
First, I really loved some of the descriptions sprinkled in throughout this chapter. Elements like the many-hued glories of Summerset or the more homey comforts of the Companions' Hall gave the scenes a strong sense of place.
The fall of Crystal-Like-Law definitely reminds the reader of just how much the Altmer lost in the Oblivion Crisis. Simply replacing a building does not fill the gap left behind by its absence. And unfortunately, this gap seems to have devoured the Altmer psyche.
I liked the switch to Kodlak's perspective. It's easy to see why he's so keen on Aelberon. The Mer's clearly worthy of the Companions, and what's more, brings in some new blood. In-game, the Companions always felt like they'd gone to seed a bit. Formidable, to be sure, but coasting rather than striving. Kodlak recognizes that this is a problem, and that Aelberon's presence might help kickstart things without overturning them. Aelberon's a skilled warrior, but he's also disciplined and reasonable, all good traits for groups like this.
And it's good to see Koor back with him!