Straag Rod, Book 1: Fate Goes Ever as it Must, Part 1
Chapter 6: The Deathbed
Skjor picked up his tankard when Njada’s Stonearm back fell against the table, moving it quickly out of the way. The corner of her mouth trickled with blood.
Heart of a Nord, Skjor smirked as Athis loomed over Stonearm, his dark gray hand still balled in a fist. The Dunmer was certainly learning to brawl like one. Njada quickly bounced back from her position on the table with a solid left hook that knocked Athis back. They didn’t call her Stonearm for nothing. The smaller Dunmer swiftly checked his position, managing not to fall into the hearth fire, though his movements did displace several plates and tankards in the process, scattering the remnants of their evening meal all over Jorrvaskr’s floor. Skjor heard a quiet sigh behind him, watched a wiry, age-spotted hand use a worn dish rag to wipe the accumulated water from the leaking roof.
“More mead?” She asked, her tone betraying her fatigue.
Skjor turned and faced the old woman, shaking his head. “No, that’ll be all Tilma..”
“Wish they would take it outside. I need to clean up.”
“It’s raining!” Njada yelled.
Skjor chortled. “Maybe the water will cool you off.”
“Aye.” Vignar grumbled from his position next to Skjor. “Jarl’s coming tomorrow. Hope they behave. Bunch of fucking animals.”
“Oh? The Jarl?” Skjor raised an eyebrow. “The old man know?”
“Told him as soon as I got back from the meeting at Dragonsreach.”
Skjor smirked. “How was that,” he couldn’t resist putting his hand to his heart and bowing from his chair, “my Thane?”
“I hate you sometimes.” The older Nord sank into his chair and made a face. “How do you think?”
“Still cannot believe they closed the city.”
Rumors of a dragon attacking Helgen spread like wildfire all throughout Whiterun. He and Tilma were at the market when they heard from Torbar, one of the guards. The guard was skeptical about it being true, though he seemed to furrow his brow when he saw Honthjolf lead a cloaked figure towards Ysolda. The figure was tall, Skjor had noticed, the Imperial cloak threadbare and muddy from travel. He didn’t give it much thought and proceeded to help Tilma load the weekly food for the Hall onto a small cart. Not a very warrior thing to do, but he didn’t mind helping out once in a while. Besides, he needed the air. No jobs, cooped up in the Mead Hall. It made him restless. He wasn’t at the point of striking blows yet like the others were, but he was very eager for another hunt.
It wasn’t going to happen now.
Vignar sipped his mead and rubbed his forehead. “Well, that’s why he’s coming.” the old Nord eyed Skjor’s tankard. “Best you keep sober.”
“Oh really?” Skjor challenged, picking up his tankard. “Maybe more mead after all, Tilma.”
“Aye.” Vinegar nodded. “A job. Keep that pitcher away from him, woman.”
She laughed and moved the pitcher away from Skjor. The grizzled veteran of the Great War then pouted which set both Tilma and Vignar laughing “My mead, my mead…don’t make me suffer, Tilma...” he pretended to sob. He changed his face immediately and flashed his wolfish grin, which made the old woman hug him and plant a quick kiss on the top of his bald head and playfully tug at his grey ponytail.
“Eh, woman, careful, that’s all I got! How am I gonna get all the ladies then?”
She laughed and kissed his head again and he didn’t mind, kinda enjoying the smell of fresh bread and dragon’s tongue that always followed her. It was Tilma, she was basically their mother and considering how his real mother was, Tilma was preferred.
“Shor knows we could use the coin.” She added, still with an arm around him.
“Aye.” Skjor nodded. He set his tankard down and helped himself to some of Vignar’s eidar cheese. “Better lay off this then. So what’s this job?” He asked, popping a piece of the sharp cheese into his mouth.
Vignar set his tankard down and broke off a piece of eidar cheese that was on his plate. He tossed it and grinned when a large husky caught it with an eager snap of its jaws.
“Who’s dog is that?” Skjor asked, mentally beating himself up for not noticing. The dog is on your blind side and didn’t make a damn noise, like a fucking mouse.
“You were in the Training circle with Torvar. Belongs to some fellow just walk in. He’s below with Whitemane and Vilkas.”
Huskies, rarer than the long-legged, wirery-coated hounds that most families kept in Whiterun. The great dogs of the North, working animals that pulled sleds along the ice flats, fought, and hunted with their Northern Nord masters. Almost like a wolf except with white and black markings on the face that framed eyes that were the most beautiful sky blue to Skjor. It was strange to see one so far south, but he knew the fashionable nobles of Cyrodiil often liked keeping them. Far prettier, but they suffered in the heat and suffered from a lack of work. Maybe not in Bruma, Skjor mused.
“New recruit?” Skjor raised his eyebrow.
“We’ll see, Witch Elf. Tall as fuck. Ugly too.”
Skjor frowned. “Witch Elf? And they’re all ugly, Vignar.”
“Aye.” Vignar grumbled. “Ain’t seen their kind in Whiterun for a long, long time. Not since after the War with those pretty chests of gold to buy out--nevermind. Hopefully Old Man will have some sense and have Vilkas throw him out the door. We don’t take their kind here. Not them.”
“I don’t believe you. That can’t be an Old Mary.”
“He seemed nice to me.” Tilma chimed in. “Knew about Wuuthrad.”
“Really? See, not an Old Mary.”
“Aye, was strange.” The old woman mused. “I was sweeping when he asked if it was really the fragments, though I think he called it, hmm, let me think.” She put a finger on her lip for a bit. “Elf-Grinder, that’s what he called it. Really soft-spoken when he asked about seeing Kodlak. Polite.” She deftly dodged a fighting Athis and Njada. “Unlike these two.” she muttered, slapping Njada’s back with her dishrag. Njada yelped in surprise, which gave the Dunmer an opening that resulted in a decent uppercut that made the burly Nord Shield Maiden fall hard on her backside.
“Still hit like a fucking girl, Athis.” She taunted, blood in her mouth. She spit and a tooth flew out, landing on the wooden floor. “Milk-drinker!”
Tilma’s brow puckered and she mumbled something almost inaudible to Skjor as she started to prattle off into the kitchen. Vignar gently grabbed her forearm, making her stop and lean towards him. “Don’t fret, Brill will help you and Olfina’s coming after her shift at the Mare ends. You’ll have help for the Jarl tomorrow. You’ll make apple dumplings, Aye?”
She responded to Vignar’s words by kissing the old man’s temple. “Of course, they’re his favorite.”
Skjor watched her disappear and then turned his attention back to the dog. It was exceedingly well behaved though his keen senses picked up on its uneasiness. The way the brow outlining those sky blue eyes seemed perpetually raised as the animal took in every detail of the Mead Hall, the tense posture as it sat on its haunches. It caught another piece of cheese tossed by Vignar, probably something its owner regularly did with it. It looked well cared for, the teeth especially clean, sharp and bright, despite that it was dirty from travel. Looked maybe close to three years old, a young animal still.
“So what’s this job?” He asked casually, tempted to break off some cheese from the plate as well. Let’s see if you can catch two at a time.
Vignar chuckled. “That’s for the jarl to tell you.”
“Oh come on, you can tell me.”
“He wants Vilkas on it too, maybe Aela.”
“Really? All three of us? Must be big for three members of the Circle. Hmm, an archer, a swordsman and a two-hander...”
“No, the boy he wants on lore.
“You know I’m too old for that shit now. My tomb days long gone. Boy knows just about everything I do.”
“He’s going to read the enemies to death?”
“Aye, very funny. Look at me laugh. Ha. Ha. Ha. You know, you could stand to read a few books, Skjor. Nothing wrong with lore. Learn your people. Especially with the way these Elves keep trying to snuff our ways out.” Vignar leaned in closer to Skjor, his breath strong with mead and the pungent cheese. “You didn’t hear this from me. Pretend to be surprised when Balgruuf comes tomorrow.”
Skjor crossed his heart and grinned. “By the Circle.”
“The barrow. Bleak Falls. Jarl wants it done. A dragonstone may be inside, Farengar needs it.”
His eyes widened. “Shit, seriously?”
“Aye.” Vignar replied, breaking off another piece of cheese for the animal.
Now that was a job.
They tossed their pieces together and aye, the dog was fast, catching both.
“Jarl didn’t say. Needs to sort that out with Kodlak, I reckon. Hence why he’s coming, so be on your best behavior, Veteran. Take a bath, sharpen your sword and pay attention. You know the drill. Maybe this visit will fetch us some much needed coin.”
“Aela, Farkas, and Ria are still out. They’ll bring coin.” Skjor assured.
Vignar shook his head. “This isn’t a giant bounty, Skjor. This is big, as big as the last barrow, when we came for the last fragment.” The old Nord’s face became somber, the twinkle leaving his watering grey eyes. “The one that took from us. Dangerous. I want you coming back.”
“I came back the last time.”
“Barely, my brother, barely.”
As if on cue, Skjor heard two sets of doors open, the outside doors and the ones leading to the Living Quarters. The husky stiffened at attention, but remained sitting, by the outside door, not moving when it opened wide and loudly. It’s head, however, turned towards the door to the Living Quarters, watching the steps, quivering with excitement, but not moving. You are well trained, Skjor observed.
Aela, Ria and Farkas trudged in, the scrape of their boots on the wooden floor almost painful to his hunt-starved ears and he quickly scanned his Shield-Siblings for any injuries while they were warmly greeted by Njada and Athis, their brawl already forgotten. All the heart beats were steady, strong, though Ria sported a big bruise on her shoulder.That was not a surprise. It was her first giant, probably grazed by its club or she was knocked down. Aela’s bow was unstrung and slung over her shoulder while Farkas’ greatsword rested over his broad shoulders, probably scuffing the pauldrons of his wolf armor. The blade sported the telltale drying blood stains. They were successful, still hale and on that, Skjor was proud.
From the Living quarters emerged Kodlak, already dressed down for the evening. Vilkas followed, surprisingly still in his armor. Skjor had already stripped for the evening, comfortable in his woolen shirt and trousers, not minding that his belly was bulging over his waistband just a tad, and he could tell that the returning Shield-Siblings were itching to get comfortable too. Finally, appearing last from the steps was Vignar’s mysterious cloaked figure. Ah, the one Honthjolf was leading at the market. A Witch Elf? Nah, Vignar was crazy in the head. That was no fucking Witch Elf, they weren’t fucking built like that. A tall Nord or an Orc maybe. He nodded in approval, they could use a good Orc in their group. They were a fierce people. He had known many in his Legion days...
The quickly uttered ‘shit’ from Aela made Skjor turn his head, seeing that her eyes were on the husky.
“He’s here.” Ria whispered in Farkas’ ear, looking worried. “That’s his dog.”
Farkas frowned. “I told you, Aela. We should have--”
“Shut up.” Aela said through gritted teeth, shrugging off her pack and tossing it to the floor.
“It’s gotta be the reason he’s here.” Farkas insisted.
“We got the coin. It’s his word against ours.” She continued, opening her pack to retrieve that all too familiar pouch.
Her words made Skjor raise his eyebrows and he finally acknowledged to the Huntress that he had been privy to their entire conversation. For a brief moment, she visibly shrank, like a child caught red-handed with their hand on a freshly baked sweet roll, but she then stiffened up, looking ready to fight. His eye again found the cloaked figure, and watched Vilkas lead him towards the door to the training circle, while Kodlak approached Skjor and Vignar.
The old man perched behind him and there was something off about his face, like he had been spooked by something, or seen a ghost.
“The giant’s dead.” Aela suddenly proclaimed, tossing the coin purse to the table where Skjor and Vignar sat. “We killed it. Here’s the coin from Severio Palagia with his appreciation. Bushels of barley and grain from his stores will arrive by Fredas.”
Aela had negotiated, Skjor was impressed.
Kodlak nodded. “Excellent. The coin will do us good. And the food.”
“Aela.” Farkas repeated. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” The Harbinger looked confused.
“Shut up, Farkas.” She turned to the Harbinger. “It’s nothing.”
“That’s not true.” Farkas shot back.
Skjor and Kodlak exchanged glances. “What isn’t true?”
“Nothing.” The Huntress insisted, her silver eyes growing intense.
“Then what the fuck is he doing here?” Farkas growled, pointing towards Vilkas and the figure.
The husky made to move upon hearing Farkas’ raised voice.
The cloaked figure raised his gloved hand to stop the animal.
Skjor didn’t give two shits that the dog stopped and became like a statue again at the command. All he cared about was the fucking way the spoken ‘r’s were flipped, the pure vowels, and he could feel the heat of anger building in his face.
He felt Vignar’s breath in his ear again. “Told ya.”
It was a Witch Elf. The accent very thick and he wasn’t even speaking Tamrielic.
He glared at Kodlak, his expression demanding an explanation.
The old man’s hand rested on his shoulder and older Nord could clearly sense Skjor’s displeasure. “Training Circle. Come with me.”
“Are you fucking serious?”
“Skjor, now.” Kodlak warned, giving his shoulder a squeeze that wasn’t gentle. The old man’s eyes then found Aela and Skjor could see her squirm. “You have business with this Mer, Aela?” He asked.
“No.” She crossed her arms over her chest and stuck her jaw out in defiance. Now Skjor knew she was lying.
“Farkas doesn’t seem to think so.” Kodlak turned to Ria, hoping to get a straight answer from their newest member. “What happened, Ria?”
A ferocious glare from the Huntress made the young Imperial retreat behind Farkas. Aela would not have killed her, but she would have given her a thrashing. Brawls were common in Jorrvaskr and the young Imperial was more than ready for her first.
“Harbinger? Are you coming?” Vilkas called from the door, giving the figure a once over. “We’re waiting.”
“Shor’s bones. Pulled in two bloody directions at once. Coming Vilkas.” An angry huff. “All of us, then. Outside. Now.”
The whole pack followed Whitemane outside into the pouring rain, settling down to sit at several tables, covered by wooden awning that they frequently used to observe spars and eat outside when the weather held, or to shelter them when the weather didn’t. A spar, now? It was bloody storming outside, the roof was fucking leaking, but whatever, the old man was captain of this ship, not him. Skjor sat next to Kodlak and impatiently drummed his fingertips on the weathered wood.
“A witch elf?” He heard Njada as she stood next to Torvar. “Why?”
“Dunno.” Torvar answered, spitting on the ground in disapproval. “Waste of time. Their kind can’t fight.”
They can, just not in any way that is fair, Skjor brooded.
Athis was very quiet, leaning against one of the awning’s support beams, arms crossed over his slender chest, his deep red eyes on the training Circle, not participating in the conversation and Skjor briefly wondered what the Dunmer was thinking, because he couldn’t read Elves to save his arse. Skjor hoped he wasn’t thinking that they were speaking against him. Dunmer actually made warriors, House Redoran, the Ashlanders. Though he still had much to learn about being a Companion, no one questioned Athis’ fighting skill in the Mead Hall.
But Witch Elves were different. He knew first hand, saw them ‘fight’ during the Great War, or rather, what they considered fighting. They were a callous, cruel, manipulative people who fought with magicks and thin needle swords, leaving the Bosmer and the cat people in their employ to do most of their heavy lifting, some of the cats so giant they could carry the Witch Elves on their backs. It wasn’t the Nord way, not by a long shot and it was devastating.
“Athis.” He called, getting the Dunmer’s attention. “You showed Njada today, good brawl. A real warrior.” He made sure he was definitely loud enough for the Witch Elf to hear.
The slanted eyes blinked once and the Dunmer gave a subtle nod, acknowledging Skjor’s compliment, but he remained taciturn at the support beam. You’ll have to talk to the Mer later, Skjor sighed. Let him know it’s not him.
“So,” he turned to Kodlak. “You going to explain this?”
The older Nord’s eyes were on the training circle, studying the figure, as if he himself wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do on the matter. The removal of the cloak revealed that it was indeed a Witch Elf, taller than any Skjor had expected. The size of one of the Aldmeri Dominion’s Jaguar-men from the war, though maybe not as broad. The skin was white as snow, the white hair so wet it was plastered to his head. The face, sporting a haggard afternoon shadow, wasn’t a young face, not infirm, but had more than its share of lines. The nose was the most prominent feature, hooked like a bird of prey. He was clad in a simple ill-fitting leather jerkin over a beige woolen shirt, leather trousers and a pair of too tight leather boots finished the pathetic look. Want to play warrior, eh? Well Vilkas will beat that right out of you, Witch Elf.
Vilkas was a fine young warrior, gifted with two-handed weapons in a way Skjor had rarely seen, especially with the great blades. Feet were a little slow and still a tad too aggressive in his approach, like a saber cat sometimes, but the swarthy lad was young, no greys yet found his black hair or his beard when he chose to sport one. Before he reaches thirty winters, he’ll be the greatest of Jorrvaskr, hands down, and you can retire like old Vignar and play cards all day long. Or take over for the old Man and let him play cards all day long. But Vilkas wasn’t thirty winters yet and Skjor still felt good. Very good. Good enough for the Barrow.
“What is he doing here?” Aela this time, still standing, her body on edge.
Kodlak sighed. “If you must know. He asked to join. I cannot refuse a request, Aela. Everyone has the right to prove themselves worthy to be called a Shield-Sibling.”
The Huntress’ body language changed and Whitemane immediately perceived it, making Skjor marvel at the acute senses still present despite the greater age. “Besides, what does it matter to you if he joins or not, Aela. Unless?” Kodlak’s gray brows raised in a question, but his set jaw and thinned lips suggested something far more stern. “You are not telling me everything?”
“He killed the giant.” Farkas blurted out, unable to resist Kodlak’s probe.
The whole fucking family turned their heads in unison at Farkas’ words, save Vilkas who was now explaining to the Witch Elf the rules of the spar, not that it would make any difference to the fool. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Witch Elf draw his weapon, a Legion gladius, and show it to Vilkas, who shook his head in disapproval. A Gladius against a greatsword, really? Skjor scoffed, typical Old Mary. No clue and no, you can’t fucking blast your way through this spar. Magic was strictly prohibited in the Training Circle. You want magicks, go to the fucking college.
By now, Aela was seething, caught on a lie, which in turn, made Kodlak bristle. The Harbinger’s silver eyes locked with Aela’s “This true?”
“It was our kill. Our job.” She snarled, already on the defensive.
“Ria was under the giant and you wouldn’t have reached her fast enough.” Farkas explained. “She would have died. So he took the shot. A bloody good one.”
“Or bloody lucky.” Aela retorted.
Vilkas left the Witch Elf in the rain and quickly approached, his mouth downturned with irritation mixed with impatience. “He doesn’t have a suitable weapon. The gladius is a typical Legion joke.” Skjor shot him a hard glare - don’t you insult the Legion, but to his surprise Vilkas wasn’t at all phased. “I will cut that blade in half with Eorlund’s steel and we cannot have another incident like Uthgerd and the boy.” He added.
The Harbinger chewed the inside of his lip for a spell, understanding Vilkas’ concern. The woman had taken things too far, and a young lad died. They then turned her away. Hard business that, because she still frequented the Bannered Mare, still hurting from their decision. It was a poor match, a poor decision.
“Then find him something more suitable” He then abruptly shook his head, stopping the lad, and Skjor nodded. Finally figured out what is so fucked about this, eh? “Wait, wait, wait, what? No practice blades?” Whitemane gestured to the rack of dulled weapons against the door of the Mead Hall. “Give him one of those. It’s a spar, not a bloody battle, Vilkas. We’re just testing his mettle.”
“But Master, he requested real weapons.”
“What?” It was Kodlak’s turn to be annoyed. “Real? Is he mad?”
“I told you, Master. That one is not right in the head.” Vilkas tapped his forehead with his fingers to drive home his point, and leaned closer to them, his voice barely a whisper. “The eyes are… well, they’re just wrong, glazed, bright, I’m telling you. They are a strange kind, the Witch Elves.”
“Well, certainly can’t spar with a bow.” Skjor rolled his eyes, kind of enjoying the mess Whitemane had gotten himself into. It was not the first insane person who had asked for a spar with Jorrvaskr and got a thrashing, leaving them running away with their tails between their legs.
“Then if he can’t fight. Send him away.” Aela suggested. “Be done with it.”
“I’m not done with you yet, Huntress.” Kodlak warned, gesturing with his head for her to take a seat, which she immediately did, though not without a certain amount of attitude. He pointed a finger at her. “You better have not done this Hall dishonor.”
She looked away, her expression bitter. “We fought the giant, weakened it. We would have killed it too, on my honor, I do not lie. If the Witch Elf did anything, it was one, lucky shot that we didn’t ask or need him to do. Severio never saw it, he just assumed we finished the job and gave us what he owed us. I am not ashamed I took the coin or the food. You are my family.” She flashed an angry look at the Witch Elf standing in the rain and Skjor was wondering just how much of their conversation was drifting towards those white knife ears. He had never seen a Witch Elf with that color, they were normally this awful yellow color, like weak ale or piss. They were not being loud, but he never underestimated Knife Ears, their hearing was nearly as good as his own. “He is nothing.” Aela continued. “We needed the money. It’s been our first job in weeks, Old Man.”
Skjor’s eyes found Kodlak’s. Now who can argue with that, Whitemane? Aela brought up a valid point.
“Then what do I tell him?” Vilkas interrupted. “He’s waiting.”
“Give him this.” Farkas suddenly offered, handing Vilkas his greatsword. The action made their attention shift to Vilkas’ twin and immediately Skjor felt the Nord’s heart rate accelerate and saw his fairer complexion start to redden from embarrassment and possibly fear. “If a share is what he’s wantin’, then let him fight for it. Like Aela said, we would’ve had the giant, Harbinger. But he did prevent Ria from getting squashed and well, I can respect that.” Farkas glanced at the Elf, his dark brow lowering. “Doubt he can hold his own anyway. Doesn’t look so good. But the weapons will be even, Sky Forge against Sky Forge. Brother against Brother.”
It took a spell for all of them to recover from the shock of Farkas’ rare display of wisdom and the boy nearly turned tomato from their looks.
“Did you have words after the giant?” Kodlak asked, bringing his attention back to Aela, much to Farkas’ relief. “He made no mention of it when he spoke with Vilkas and I.”
The Huntress furrowed her brow, recalling the conversation. “No, come to think of it, no Harbinger. Seemed in a great rush to get to the city. Just nodded at us, took a long look at Ria, it seemed.”
“Like he was checking if she was alright.” Farkas added.
“Aye,” Aela nodded. “Then, went his way. Never said a word.”
“This true, Ria?” Kodlak asked and Aela bent her head, shame finding her features when Kodlak did not seek confirmation from her, the leader of the job, and sought it instead from the welp. Well, that’s what happens when you lie, woman. He’s not going to let us be us if you keep lying. He understood Aela’s motivation, she was afraid for the Mead Hall. They both saw the Old Man’s lack of interest since his ‘great’ decision several weeks ago, shutting himself in his quarters, not even stepping out for fresh air, made all the worse when he shared his "dream". They saw their beloved home start to fall into disrepair. But Aela didn’t just fear for the Mead Hall, which was her life and home, she was also afraid for their pack and its future.
The Imperial girl glanced over her shoulder at the Old Mary, still standing like a bloody fool in the rain, though now he had placed a gloved hand on one of the training dummies. His expression unreadable, but with those fucking, slanted, sharp eyes his kind always have. A weird red-orange, not even the right colors. Observing, judging. Her mouth was slack in thought and Skjor thought that she had maybe not heard the Harbinger.
“Ria.” Kodlak repeated, making her snap to attention.
“It’s true, Harbinger, no words.” She confirmed. “He went on his way, as Aela said.” Her expression then changed, becoming almost thoughtful. “I didn’t even get to thank him. He saved my life. Just like...” she didn’t finish her thought.
Kodlak let out a gust of air and settled into his chair, thanking Tilma for bringing him a fresh tankard of mead and a large bowl of roasted pine nuts and Skjor couldn’t help the smirk when the old woman showed no signs of leaving. Not a warrior, but every bit a member of the family.
“If he was interested in claiming a share, he would have brought it up. Nothing of the sort was mentioned, though I struggle to understand why it wouldn’t. The claim, from what you’ve told me, is legitimate.” Kodlak took a sip of mead, his eyes on the Elf in the rain. “Couldn’t read him well when we talked, their ways are not our ways, so more difficult to discern a motive. Only said he wanted to join. When I told him that it involved Vilkas testing his mettle, he agreed, just a nod and a stare that seemed like it was looking through the very walls, into parts unknown…” He let his voice drop and something then both hard and sad flashed through the old warrior’s eyes. “Alone. Like a great old snow bear, straight from the ice flats…”
“Hmm?” The old Nord raised his eyebrows, letting out another sigh before straightening in his chair.
“Well, that doesn’t sit right with me.” Farkas frowned. “That he wouldn’t say.”
Aela scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“I understand that it doesn’t and I actually agree with you, Farkas.” The Harbinger nodded while he favored his mead.
“Anything else, old Man?”
“No, Tilma, come join us and enjoy your tej.”
“Ran out, yesterday.” She said flatly.
Fuck, old man, you know shit is bad when the old woman doesn’t have her bloody tej.
“I’m sorry. We’ll pick some up tomorrow. Sit with us then.”
The old woman sat, her eyes on the Elf too and Kodlak renewed his focus on Farkas.
“Tell you what, lad. If he does well and he makes it in, we’ll give him restitution.” His eyes found Aela’s. “It’s the honorable thing to do.”
“Maybe you need your head examined, old Man, his people don’t have a lick of honor.” It was said as much for Aela’s wounded pride as it was for himself.
Kodlak gave him a look, but chose to ignore Skjor’s jab “Nevertheless, we have honor, especially if a life was saved in the process. Vilkas, lend the Mer Farkas’ sword. We’ll see what he does with it.” The lad took Farkas’ weapon and started to turn towards the training circle. “And boy.” Whitemane added.
Vilkas turned around. “Yes, Master?”
The old Man gave a smile that reflected his old spirit, instantly making Aela grin and the next words were definitely loud enough for the Elf to hear.
“Show him the fury of Sky Forge steel and send him back crying to his Blessed Isles.”
Kodlak grabbed a handful of pine nuts and then slid the bowl in front of Skjor. Dammit, salted and freshly done too. He took a bunch and then passed the bowl along to his other Shield-Siblings. They munched noisily while Vilkas entered the training circle, holding both weapons. Tilma snatched the bowl when Torvar got too greedy.
“Save some for your brothers.” She chided.
Brothers? Sorry, old woman, that Witch Elf is spending the night at the Bannered Mare, not our Mead Hall.
The storming night was in full force and he could see the others begin to squint, using the flashes of lightning to see better, so he pretended to as well, though he could see just fine. He nudged Farkas and the Nord followed suit with a grunt, narrowing his silver eyes. Don’t want anybody figuring out we can see in the dark, Ice Brain.
The Old Mary had not moved from his position and to Skjor he looked almost ghostly with that pallor, like a vampire, only vampires didn’t have heartbeats. That was definitely noticeable, faster than he expected and the Nord’s features contorted into a smug grin. Scared already, eh? Probably already sweating too and Skjor looked closer, sure enough, there was a sheen of sweat on the Old Mary’s face. One strike from Vilkas and you’ll piss your pants.
Vilkas handed the Mer the weapon.
“You know the rules.”
The Mer only nodded, carefully taking the weapon with a brief glance at Farkas while Vilkas assumed his positioning, taking some practice swings. The Mer did nothing, didn’t even move from his spot. Skjor felt Vignar lean close to him. “Well fuck me. Not even checking the blade for balance? No practice swing?”
Skjor shook his head. “I know.”
“This is going to be a bloody massacre. You watch, he’ll run at Vilkas like a fool. Well, Jorrvaskr could always use a funny man.” He joked, throwing a few more pine nuts into his mouth with a loud crunch.
“Shh.” Warned Kodlak.
Vignar and Skjor exchanged knowing glances before settling to watch.
Vilkas, noticing that the Mer wasn’t moving, assumed a position in the training circle that would force a move in order for them to spar properly.
Skjor finished off his pine nuts and wiped his mouth of any pieces before relaxing into his chair, crossing his arms over his chest to watch. Was the dog still inside? He suddenly looked over his shoulder, through the door that was ajar and blinked. Shit, it was, now he gave the Witch Elf that, he could strain a fucking dog.
“It’s alive!” Vignar whispered with a sly chuckle, making Skjor shoulder’s shake. He turned to the training circle. Aye, finally the Mer was moving. About time.
Skjor’s eyes then narrowed in confusion, because it wasn’t exactly what he expected. Witch Elves had small steps, some bullshit about Phynaster or some god like that, but the Mer wasn’t walking like that. There was an ease to it, almost a casual strength and grace, like a dancer, both hands on Farkas’ greatsword, though it wasn’t yet raised. His eyes totally focused on the Nord in front of him, not on the floor. It reminded him of someone. He knew someone who fucking moved just like that.
Decimus Merotim, the Goldpact Knight. The old Blade, they called him. He turned to Kodlak and saw that the old Man’s mouth was a little open, watching, seeing the exact same thing. The Harbinger shook his head slightly when Skjor tried to talk and motioned with a quick move of his hand that they should continue to watch.
The two began to circle, slowly. Vilkas’ blade higher, ready to strike. The Mer only circled, his blade low to the ground. They did two revolutions like that and Skjor could already see the beginnings of frustration on the young Nord’s face. The Mer wasn’t attacking.
Suddenly Vilkas gave a swing, small, a tester, to see if the Mer was even fucking awake. It was deflected in an economical motion.
“At least you are awake.” Vilkas sneered.
The Mer just stared, still circling.
Vilkas tried again, this time, doing a little thrust. And again, deflected, the same smallness to the motion. They repeated this pattern of mini strikes for a small spell and by now, the audience at Jorrvaskr was beginning to get bored. Aela sighed. Athis went from leaning against the support to sitting on the ground, his back against it.
Then the Nord he flicked his wrist, moving the blade, testing the Mer another way. Only the Mer didn’t even cross blades, he just moved his hands, making Vilkas hit empty air.
“What are you waiting for, Elf?” Vilkas growled. Understandable, he’d be jumping out of his trousers too at this point.
The red-orange eyes narrowed and the Old Mary tilted his head to the side, the nostrils flaring just enough for Skjor to notice.
“For you to actually swing the blade, human.”
There are just some things you don’t say to a Nord, and that was one of them. That set Vilkas off and he came at the Elf, his blade held behind his shoulder, the wrath hew. Going old Nord school, Skjor observed with a smile. Kodlak was nodding in approval as well. It was why Vilkas, even at such a young age, was nearly a master of his art, all that book learning and study paying off. This was going to be over quickly, for Vilkas’ strength alone, but also for his smarts. You’ll either fall on your arse to avoid the blow, Witch Elf, or you’ll die.
In a move that surprised everyone for its incredible speed, making young Ria rise from her seat, the Elf countered the strike, their blades finally clashing. The Elf then moved the weapon slightly, using his momentum, and the blade’s tip was suddenly pointing barely a pertan from Vilkas’ face. And he heard Kodlak murmur the words, the old teaching words many fighting Nords knew.
“Who cuts at you from above, threaten with the point…”
A textbook deflection, executed, well fucking perfectly. By a non Nord.
“Well shit.” He heard Vignar say and the old Nord was right. Old Marys did not fight this way.
Blowing out a gust of air from his nostrils, and perhaps a bit thrown off by the move, Vilkas shifted sideways, shoving the blade away from his face and backed away to prepare another strike. The young Nord recovered quickly, however, and renewed his sneer.
“Beginner’s luck.” He chuckled.
The Elf was breathing hard, sweating heavily, but the blade was now ready, in a stance that was nearly as aggressive as Vilkas’.
“Then try again, youngling.”
“Youngling?” Vilkas laughed. “You’re going to eat dirt for that, Old Mary.”
Vilkas came at him, another from over the shoulder, his favorite attack. This time the Mer came with a block from below, using the flat of his blade. And then they just blinked because what happened next was so fucking fast, that even the Circle, had difficulty processing it. Kodlak leaned forward.
“What the Oblivion?”
Vilkas sword was on the fucking ground and it took Skjor a few seconds to figure out what the Mer actually did. The fucker had done something extremely risky and he didn’t emerge from it unscathed. Aye, he could smell the fresh blood. A cut maybe. As he brought up the block, the Mer had rapidly looped his right wrist and arm around Vilkas’ blade, forcing it to the side before trapping it hard against his body. His own sword was then brought up to lever against Vilkas and the Nord’s sword was abruptly wrenched from his hands.
“You dropped your blade... “ The Mer gasped for breath, “Companion…”
“Ysmir’s Beard! For that move alone, he’s in.” Kodlak said and Skjor could only nod with the others. It was true, Old Mary or not, that move was not beginner’s luck.
But Vilkas wasn’t done and neither, it seemed, was the Mer. By now, the crew of the Jorrvaskr was getting excited, enjoying the unexpected turn of the spar and the prospect of a new member who was perhaps not as green as new spring grass. Tilma was practically ripping her dish rag in half from her happy tension and the rest were cheering while the warriors circled again. The smell of blood grew stronger, but it was not fresh blood. It was now mixed with sweat, frost mirriam, and… Skjor sniffed again, letting his senses take over.
Sickness, pus, and poison.
“Kodlak.” He wrinkled his nose.
“I smell it too, Veteran, though it’s very faint.” The Harbinger whispered. By now, Farkas had turned to listen to them. Aela’s eyes were still on the warrior, but she was farther away.
“Then stop it, he’s done enough. I am satisfied. I think we all are.” Farkas gave them a quick nod of agreement. “Vilkas will not live this down for weeks.” Skjor grinned. “Losing his weapon to an Old Mary like that.” Skjor made to stand. “We can stop--”
“I don’t think he wants to stop, Skjor.” The Old Nord said quietly, the hard sadness returning to his eyes.
“You don’t understand. You’re not yet old.”
“That smell isn’t healthy, old Man.”
“Let him have his moment.”
Skjor and Farkas exchanged looks and for once Skjor was as confused as the Ice Brain was by the Old Man’s enigmatic words. Whitemane faced the sparring warriors again, the great grey brow lowering.
It was clear that Vilkas was beginning to perceive the scent as well because he seemed almost hesitant to go for the Mer again, though he still circled. There were several false starts and Vilkas looked like he was trying to sort out what to do and Skjor didn’t blame him. If the Mer had that much of a grasp of Nord greatsword techniques, then it would be difficult to find an angle to approach, but at the same time, if he was limited, Vilkas could counter the move and end the spar. As Decimus always said, fighting is 90% thinking and 10% moving. And the boy was digging, digging for something to use against the Mer, something he couldn’t counter.
There was a sudden twinkle in the lad’s silver eyes and he went on the move, deciding on a fake maneuver. He was going to try to trick the Mer. Farkas fell for it all the time in Jorrvaskr. Most did. Even Whitemane fell for it a few times, laughing hard when his arse hit the ground that his mead belly shook. Vilkas brought down his sword, only to shift its direction when he saw the Mer attempt the deflect.
The Witch Elf’s stance then changed. It went from the broad smooth motions of the Nord way to a more compact stance. And he went on the attack, going full forward, much smaller steps, much lighter on his feet. The blows consisted of a series of aggressive vertical and diagonal strikes, with a short, fierce cry to match each, almost a syllable or a word, perhaps. The blows quickly overwhelmed Vilkas, forcing him to bring up his blade to just block each blow, rendering him unable to move his weapon to attempt a counter. The Mer wasn’t stopping, he just kept striking, forcing the boy to retreat, his face full of focused intimidation, and it was now Kodlak’s turn to rise from his seat, sensing the threat.
He had seen such attacks before, during the Great War. From… Skjor narrowed his eyes, fucking Blades. This was Akaviri fighting, only improvised on a greatsword instead of their grand katanas. It wasn’t perfectly executed, but it didn’t need to be. It just needed to surprise. And it did. Vilkas was helpless.
“Kodlak… say something…” Skjor whispered.
The Elf did a final vertical strike and then something happened when he prepared his next diagonal one, the face turned absolutely white as snow and the body seized up. The Mer then lost his grip on Farkas weapon, reaching for his left arm before clutching finally at his chest.
He collapsed on Vilkas, unmoving.
The few moments of shock were quickly broken by Kodlak. “Tilma! Smelling salts, Now!”
The old woman sprinted into the Mead hall and everyone was suddenly up, their chairs scraping loudly against the stone floor. The whelps knew to keep their distance as it was best to let the veterans of Jorrvaskr handle any injuries. Vignar was already starting to usher them inside and close the door to stop the now crying dog from busting out. The screaming whines it made were horrible to listen to, touching something deep within the Veteran’s heart. A primal deepness. It knew something was so, so wrong.
Skjor reached Vilkas first, practically jumping down the steps to reach them. The lad was just shaking his head, his eyes wide.
“I didn’t touch him, I swear. I swear.”
“No one’s saying anything, Vilkas. You fucking hurt?” He repeated.
Vilkas shook his head quickly, looking up at the Veteran.
Skjor grunted, gently pushing the Elf off the young Nord. And he listened, carefully. Shit, shit, shit, very faint and fast, very fast. And by Hircine’s Spear, the Mer was hotter than Eorlund’s forge. He shook the Mer, but he was like a fucking ragdoll. “Come on, wake up.” he urged, and then he saw it, the stains on his left side, more deep red stains on his back at the edge of his jerkin. And he saw the wetness when he raised his hand to look in the darkness. The familiar red covered his fingers. The whole back was fucking soaked in blood. “Fuck, he’s bleeding. He’s fucking bleeding really bad. What the Oblivio--”
“I didn’t touch him!” Vilkas yelled.
“I know, Vilkas, I know! Just calm down!” He roared towards the door. “Tilma! The fucking salts NOW.”
The door swung open and the old woman, moved far quicker than her years suggested, kneeled before Skjor and the Mer, tears in her eyes. “Here, here, here…take them. Oh gods, hurry! He’s like wax!”
Skjor held the salts under the Mer’s nose and they were rewarded with a moan, the eyes snapping wide open briefly before rolling back into his head. He went totally limp then. By then, Kodlak was also by his side while Skjor began to unfasten what he realized now was an overly tight jerkin from the Mer’s body.
“He needs to breathe. He doesn’t breathe, he dies.” He muttered, Farkas and Aela had now joined them, Farkas picking up the Mer’s head from the wet ground and supporting it on his lap while Skjor worked to remove the jerkin, fighting hard with the wet leather in the rain. Aela produced her dagger and fuck it, they just cut him out of it. The wave of putrid stench from his many wounds made all five werewolves of the Circle reel with disgust and Tilma cried out, putting her hands to her mouth. It was a foul infected mess. What the fuck happened to him?
“We take him to the Temple.” Kodlak ordered.
For a moment, all of them just stared at the old Man, blinking, not sure if the Old Man was being serious. It was forbidden to go. Their covenant with the Huntsman made it so.
“We can’t.” Vilkas whispered.
“Kodlak, you can’t go.” Tilma reinforced, wringing her hands with worry, glad that they were all out of earshot. “Send for Danica. I can run there fast. I promise. Or Ria.”
“Are you mad, Ria will just ask why we cannot go.” Aela hissed.
“He can’t wait. We go.” Kodlak put his hand under the Mer’s left arm, trying to lift him up. “Farkas support his head. If we all lift, we can--”
“Let me just lift him, Harbinger, I’m strong enough, I can throw him over my shoulder.” Volunteered Farkas.
“Yes,” Kodlak nodded. “You do tha--”
“Kodlak!” Someone needed to bring the old man back to their world. Hircine would punish them for this, this wasn’t some passive Aedra you could fuck over whenever one felt like it. This was THE Huntsman.
“We let a Shield-Brother die then? Because we all agreed. He is one of us.” Whitemane replied, his face beginning to flush with anger, only there was too much sweat with it, how it beaded on his forehead and nose, dripped from his temple. Guilty, why are you guilty?
“Kodlak. Send for Danica, aye, but don’t make--”
He felt the old Man’s hand grab his shoulder so hard that it hurt. “We go.” Whitemane rumbled, his eyes blazing yellow for a brief moment before returning to normal. “And that is the end of it. Pick him up, Farkas. Let the Huntsman do what he wills with me. I take the blame.”
Tilma was already gone, much to Skjor's relief and to the old Nord's flustered expression at the Old Woman's fleetness. Danica would come to them. But the intention was clear and it wouldn't go unpunished, Skjor knew that much about the one who truly ruled the Mead Hall.
Notes: A shoutout to the Sunflower Manual for helping me sort out the quirks of two handed swordplay. I am no weapons expert and my first draft of Straag definitely showed my awkward, gameplay inspired combat. We used a combination of Medieval/Renaissance German and other techniques (Sunflower knows this way better than I do) to represent the variety of skills Aelberon has picked in his long life. I also wanted to convey that combat with such weapons didn't need to be heavy and clunky. Vilkas is a total bad ass. And, I wanted to really revamp this spar and defining moment in Aelberon's life.
Altmeris - One of several langages I use in Straag. It is based on Hafnir's languages in the Imperial library and some snippets of lore. Unfortunately, due to the limited vocabulary in the Altmeris section, I combined it with Aldmeris so that Aelberon would have a far larger vocabulary than a toddler. Naroy is the imperative for stay or remain. A more forceful command then Nare, which is also an imperative form, but designed to be more polite and probably be the command Aelberon would use the most often with Koor. The stem word is Nara-