4E 182—age eleven
"What is the first lesson I taught you?" the man rumbled, looking down at the two boys who sat in chairs across him at the table. They were picking at the remains of breakfast, though they had eaten enough to have more interest in the lesson at hand than the leftover sweetrolls on their plates.
"Never lose sight of your weapon," the smaller of the boys said promptly, triumphantly, shooting a glance sideways at his brother, who was now looking down at his plate. When Jergen spoke, Vilkas listened intently, and remembered. He had to in order to succeed, for he was neither as large or as strong as his brother. An intense boy of eleven winters of age, with huge pale eyes that stared just a little too intently, he had a quick, calculating mind and a furious temper that belied his small size.
"Correct," Jergen said, pounding his fist on the table once, in emphasis. "And why do we never lose sight of our weapons? Farkas?" he said encouragingly to the other boy, who was already huge for his eleven winters, the sort of slow, sweet child who adults tended to assume was older than he was and treated him with according disappointment when he acted his age. There was none of that in Jergen's voice, however: for all he was a gruff warrior, scarred and battle-hardened, his affection for the children was evident.
Farkas, however, merely smiled sheepishly and looked down at his plate, and said nothing.
"An enemy could take them," Vilkas interrupted, at the slightest hesitation, reciting as if from rote memory: "Always keep your weapon within your sight or within your grasp, or you deserve what'll happen when you lose it to someone quicker or faster'n you."
"Correct," Jergen said again, but frowned. "Vilkas, give your brother a turn. If you keep speaking for him, he's never going to learn to do it for himself."
"Sorry," Vilkas mumbled.
"No matter," Jergen said, waving his hand. "Boys, today we're going to put that lesson into practice." Both brothers leaned forward eagerly, though they knew better than to interrupt at this point. Jergen was a huge man, both tall and muscular, with a heavy paunch that would have tended to obesity if it were not for his active life. A bushy brown beard erupted from his face, giving him the look of a wild animal, perhaps a bear. At some point in the past, someone had cut off his left ear, and in its place remained a scarred, mangled bit of flesh, though his ruddy cheeks and twinkling eyes softened his wild appearance somewhat. He had a booming, jolly voice and was used to commanding attention, and did not take well to interruptions, even from well-intentioned, eager-to-please children. "And if you do it well, there'll be a reward in it for you. As you are aware, our good friend Skjor has a habit of leaving his things all around Jorrvaskr, willy-nilly, and it's been driving poor Tilma to distraction."
Vilkas grinned, remembering the woman's rage when she had almost stepped on a steel dagger, forgotten on the floor.
"So we're going to teach him a double lesson: you're going to show him that he must always keep an eye on his weapons, and that he shouldn't make more work for Tilma than she needs."
"Aye," said Vilkas, "We won't disappoint you, Jergen, we promise."
"Yeah," Farkas echoed.
"Right, lads," Jergen said, rising from the table. "I'm not going to tell you how to do it—that will be up to you—but I want it done, today."
"We won't disappoint you!" Vilkas promised fiercely, as Jergen grinned at them and strode from the room.
The brothers looked at each other once he'd gone, Farkas' expression questioning, Vilkas' calculating. "If we take it, he's going to look for us," the smaller boy muttered to himself. "And if he finds it we're going to pay."
"But where can we go?" Farkas asked, confused. "We've tried every hiding spot in Jorrvaskr, but he's been here so long that knows all of 'em. And it's not like the Battle-Borns or the Gray-Manes will let us into their homes, not with Skjor after us."
"Fuck the Battle-Borns!" Vilkas said daringly, flushed with sudden bravado. "We don't need help. Besides, Jergen would want us to do it on our own. There's got to be something…" He trailed off, a thoughtful frown on his face. A small child, with close-cropped hair because his brother wore his long, there were dark circles under his eyes, for he hated to sleep, often beset by nightmares of the time before they had lived at Jorrvaskr. Besides, there were only so many hours in the day…so many books to read and things to see. Often, Jergen or Kodlak would have to shoo him into bed, or caught him reading under the covers by the light of a candle. He had both a quick mind and a fierce desire to prove himself, to someone, anyone. Everyone.
"Whatever you decide, I got your back," Farkas said confidently. He was not a deep thinker, often slow to make a decision or to open his mouth, and often Arnbjorn said sarcastically that he was dumb as a box of rocks. Whenever the brothers caused trouble, Vilkas was the brains and Farkas the muscle of the operation, as much as the former longed to be the muscle as well—it was just embarrassing, to be the older brother, but so much smaller.
Chewing on his lip, Vilkas considered his options. Hulda at the Bannered Mare would probably throw them right back onto the street; she had just taken over running the inn and did not put up with any shenanigans, wanting to keep a spotless establishment. Residences were out; no one in their right mind would want an angry Skjor barging into their homes looking for his possessions. There was no cover on the tundra. And anywhere inside of Jorrvaskr was out, because Skjor would find them. Wait—anywhere in Jorrvaskr? He looked up sharply and grinned at his brother, toothily. "Farkas," he said. "I know where we can hide."
The two boys crept down the stairs into the living quarters, hearts pounding. It was still early enough on a Loredas that Skjor would not be awake, still sleeping off the effects of last night's drinking. That didn't mean they wouldn't need to be quiet, for he had preternaturally good hearing, as many of the Circle did. A wrong footstep could wake him, and he would know instantly why they were there. Jergen had given them septims to steal his things before, because he found his comrade's impotent rage amusing.
"All right," Vilkas whispered. "We go in, grab the sword, and get out. You go up to the meeting spot, and I'll go for the supplies and join you when I'm done."
"Aye," Farkas whispered back.
Together, they carefully opened Skjor's door. The big man was still asleep in his bed, snoring loudly. Vilkas glanced around the room, searching for the sword, catching sight of it on the floor, still in its scabbard, beneath a chair. The brothers looked at each other, and Farkas shook his head sadly. As Vilkas kept a lookout on the corridor for any of the other Companions waking, Farkas tip-toed into the room and snatched up the scabbard with one hand, slinging the belt over his shoulder so that he could more easily carry the heavy weapon. With a hand gesture, Vilkas indicated that they should get moving, waiting until Farkas had gotten out of the room before closing the door again behind them. His heart was pounding, half-unbelieving that they had managed to pull the audacious stunt off so far. As the boys hurried through the halls, Vilkas whispered orders. "I'll meet you at the hiding place in ten minutes. If 'm not there then than I've been captured."
"Aye," Farkas said, and saluted him. "Meet you there."
Vilkas snuck into the kitchens. In a way this would be trickier than stealing Skjor's sword, for Tilma was often awake and had eyes like a hawk and ears like a wolf, especially when it came to hungry, growing boys trying to spoil their dinners. Luckily, she was not in sight, though she had evidently been in the kitchens again, preparing breakfast for the waves of Companions who ate at varying points throughout the day. Vilkas, carrying a satchel, began emptying food into it, a wheel of cheese and a loaf of bread, several apples which he also shoved into his pockets. Some leftover steak from breakfast, wrapped in paper. And, feeling especially daring, two bottles of ale. He could hear footsteps in the distance, and knew it was time to flee.
"Farkas?" he could hear Tilma calling, as he fled through the back entrance, "Vilkas? What are you doing, boy?"
Fleet footsteps took him through Jorrvaskr at a high speed, careening around one of the corners of the living quarters as he rushed up the stairs. There were some benefits to being small, at least; he was much faster than Farkas and most of the other residents of the mead hall. It came in handy more than once, when he'd had to flee from angry Companions.
Outside, the sun had already risen over Whiterun, just barely. For a moment, his heart swelled as he viewed the city, his city. He had only lived here for six winters, but it was all he could remember. Except in his nightmares, his mind had blocked out all of his memories of his life before Jergen had rescued he and his brother from the necromancer's cult who had held them captive for long months. It was all shrouded in gray mystery, with brief flashes that occasionally emerged. The dank cave and the terrible stench of it. Blood being forced down his throat. The knowledge that he was going to fight his way out of this and die doing it even if he was only a child. And then Jergen's appearing from the darkness. He remembered that when the Companions had brought the brothers to Whiterun, he had been terrified of everyone in the street, expecting an attack from any side. It had taken long months of snarling at anyone who came close to him before he'd begun to feel even remotely comfortable venturing into Whiterun's streets. And now it was his home, beautiful, comforting home, the sleepy little thatched roof houses catching the sun in a yellow glow.
Vilkas shook himself from his reminiscence—he had a mission to complete. Turning back to Jorrvaskr, he did not see his brother, and assumed that Farkas had already gotten up to their hiding place. It would prove more difficult for him, smaller and not as strong, and so he planned his angle of attack carefully. He went at it from the side, grabbing hold of one of the support poles and wedging his feet into the crossbeam, using the wooden shields that adorned the side of the upturned prow of the hall to pull himself up, the muscles in his arms screaming in protest. He was sweating now, perched precariously on the shield. The ground seemed far away now. But he was Vilkas, a member of the Companions-to-be, and he feared nothing. Determinedly, he hunched carefully up the side of the ancient ship, balancing himself against the slope of the wood.
At the height, where the long stave at the height of the porch roof flattened out, just wide enough for two boys to lay down upon it, Farkas was waiting for him, the sword resting in pride-of-place at his side.
"Hey," he greeted him cheerfully. "Get anything good?"
"Yup," Vilkas replied, grinning, as he opened the satchel and showed his twin the fruits of his theft.
"Ale!" Farkas exclaimed, impressed. The boys were occasionally allowed to have sips of wine with dinner, but if they ever so much as tried to sneak a drink of the Companions' ale or mead, Tilma came at them with a wooden spoon, ready to rap their knuckles and make them regret it. "Nice."
From below them, they could hear an enraged bellow. Skjor had discovered the theft. "JERGEN!" they could hear him yelling, "You gods-damned sister-fucker! I know you're behind this!"
Vilkas peered down at Whiterun spread below them, his legs hanging down over the edge of the roof, and grinned. "Well, I have a feeling we're going to be up here a while, brother. Might as well get comfortable, eh?"
They lay down on their backs in the warm summer sun, watching as the clouds drifted overhead and listening to the commotion downstairs. The other Companions seemed to be torn between amusement and confusion at Skjor's fury. From their vantage point, the boys could hear it all. "You sure you didn't leave it in the Bannered Mare last night?" Arnbjorn said dryly.
"No!" Skjor roared. "I had it in my room!"
"Shouldn't take your eye off your weapon," Jergen said, all concerned condescension.
"You dog," Skjor growled. "I know you had something to do with those. You and those stray pups of yours."
Vilkas snickered. "Hear that, Farkas? We're strays."
"'S not very nice," Farkas said, frowning.
"Well, we did take his best sword," Vilkas said. "I'd be mad too."
"Jergen's right, shouldn't've taken his eyes off it," Farkas said, with a sniff.
They passed the rest of the day that way, snacking on the bread and cheese, making sandwiches with the apples and meat and watching from their hiding spot as Skjor's tiny form could be seen barreling through Whiterun, bullying the residents into allowing him into their homes to search for his missing sword. Though they were smiling at first, the grins gradually devolved into tipsy giggles: around lunchtime, Vilkas pulled the cork from the ale. After initial wrinkled noses, the boys had grown accustomed to the taste, and swapping the bottle back and forth, taking long pulls of the pilfered ale, they were both a little drunk.
Vilkas could not remember a time he had ever felt so happy. The ale fogged his brain pleasantly, giving him a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it wasn't just drunkenness. It was the audacity of their crime, the difficulty of pulling himself up onto the roof and the success of making it without a fall. The company of his brother, the person who was most important to him in all the world, even if he did consistently thrash him in practice. Skjor's impotent rage and the echoes of Jergen's guffaws drifting up to them, the humming amusement of their adopted family as warriors either attempted to assist Skjor in finding the sword or offered him suggestions to throw him off the track. At one point, Jergen passed below the porch and looked up, catching sight of Vilkas' pale eyes peering over the edge of the roof, and he winked at them. Vilkas lifted the bottle in a salute to the man, grinning back in triumph. And there was the promise of a little pocket money from Jergen later on. Perhaps he could finally buy that dagger from Eorlund that he'd had his eyes on for months, carefully saving up every septim he owned, while Farkas spent all of his on sweets from Belethor's shop.
In short, it was a perfect day, and Vilkas knew he would remember it for the rest of his life.
"When d'you think we'll be allowed to join the Companions for real?" Farkas asked.
"I dunno. Maybe a few more winters," Vilkas said, rolling onto his back again, letting his legs hang carelessly over the edge of the roof.
"I'm going to be the best fighter since Kodlak himself was admitted into the company," Farkas said.
"Kodlak?" Vilkas scoffed. "You've got no sense of history. I'm going to be the best since Ysgramor at least."
Farkas snorted a laugh, and then suddenly raised a finger to his lips. Skjor was passing on the porch beneath them, still furious. An idea came to him then, born of devilry and mischief, and he grabbed one of the apples they hadn't eaten yet, and threw it at Skjor's head. It bounced off with a thunk, and the man whirled around, searching for his attacker. "WHO'S THERE?" he growled, stretched to the breaking point by the frustrations of the day. Farkas giggled uncontrollably as Vilkas struck a pose like a spear-thrower, and let another projectile fly. It took a few more apples before Skjor realized where they were coming from, and then he looked up and fixed his furious eyes upon the boys. Farkas unsheathed the sword, lifting it in both of his hands in a sardonic salute as Skjor's eyes practically bugged out of his face.
"I'M GOING TO KILL YOU BOTH," he growled, and looked wildly around the courtyard, trying to figure out how they'd gotten up there in the first place. A crowd was gathering, both Companions and men and women who'd come up from the market place to see what all of the commotion was about. When they saw the huge warrior hauling himself up the side of Jorrvaskr, and the boys on top of the roof taunting him ("You're slow, old man!" "Like you could ever catch us, you're so slow it took you all day to figure out we were even up here"!) the citizens of Whiterun cheered for either side: Jergen calling, "Run, boys!" and Belethor waving a fist and shouting, "Catch the thieves, Skjor! Make 'em pay!" A little girl, Ysolda, clutched her hands to her heart and murmured, "Oh, they're so brave!"
Skjor had gotten onto the roof and the chase began in earnest. At first he couldn't decide who to chase first, but when he saw that Farkas had the sword, he went for him, awkwardly trying to keep his balance on the curved wood. When Vilkas saw that, he threw the last of the apples at Skjor, hitting him square in the back. The man growled in an almost animal rage, and his eyes flashed yellow, teeth bared. And Farkas took the opportunity to rush sideways, handing the sword off to Vilkas, who staggered a little under his weight. Every time that the man would get close to one of the twins, the other twin flew by, snatching the sword away, their light feet and smaller bodies moving more easily on the prow.
"Get 'em, Skjor!" Arnbjorn laughed. "Come on, old man, what's wrong? A couple of boys too much for you?" A few guards at the edge of the Dragonsreach outcropping watched from above, smirking.
Below, Jergen was laughing so hard that the tears streamed down his face, cheeks a brilliant red as he doubled over with merriment. Even Kodlak was watching with a wry amusement, though he said, "Someone's going to get hurt, boys! Come down from there."
"Victory!" Vilkas yelled triumphantly, as he dodged below Skjor's grasping arms. Unfortunately, he misjudged the distance and he slipped, losing his footing and sliding down the entire length of the roof with a startled yelp. For a moment, he could feel himself flying through the air, a strange sensation that he would never forget, as he watched the ground rushing up towards him. And then a snap, and pain: he landed hard on his left arm, and it broke under the impact, his breath knocked from his body. Instantly, all of the laughter stopped, though some of the raucous yells continued. On the roof, Farkas, terrified for his brother, had stopped running and had been captured by Skjor, who twisted his own arm behind his back as he forced him down off of the roof.
"I told you someone was going to get hurt, boy," Kodlak said, shaking his head as he helped Vilkas to his feet, "You've more bravery than sense."
Even though he was in a great deal of pain and knew that once Skjor caught up with him he would be in more pain, Vilkas had never been prouder, and his chest puffed out with pride.
The Harbinger thinks I'm brave, he mouthed at Farkas, who grinned back at him.
It had certainly been one of their most memorable days at Jorrvaskr, and though his arm throbbed uncomfortably, Vilkas let out a happy sigh. He belonged.