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A Land Of Snow

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Valleri could do nothing but scream. A steel toed boot collided with her side as two other bandits watched on from a distance. They laughed, two deep voices resonating while the third was the throaty cackle of an Argonian. Blood sputtered from her mouth and onto the ground after the bandits had stopped beating her. If her hands weren’t bound, Valleri probably would have tried to squirm away. She had already lost the fight.

The one wearing the cursed boots finally knelt down, coming face to face with Valleri. He was smiling, eyes wide and crazed. His mouth was moving but whatever he was talking about was inaudible. Valleri could only pick up pieces of the conversation but nothing she could bring herself to care about. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she could see a bloody trail and the Argonian dragging a heavy, blanket wrapped object. Valleri felt nothing suddenly, not the bruised ribs or the sprained wrist or the bleeding gash on her face.

Only one thing made it to the surface of her mind.

She was going to die.

There was no panic or wriggling as the Nord in front of her brought out a rusty knife. If that was what he was going to end her with, then so be it. There was no sign of her friends anywhere nor anyone coming to help. If she was going to die she may as well do so with as much pride as she could. Valleri tried to garble out a curse as the knife moved in slow motion. Finally, the blade was pushing into her neck.

Her eyes scrunched closed and then… nothing.

When Valleri fell to the ground, she could hear the Nord being called by the others. The knife had been pulled away from her bare skin and she allowed herself to breath as he walked off. Valleri could only barely register the bandits in the distance now. Every time she breathed in her lungs burned. Was the sun beginning to set or was she finally passing out?

It didn’t matter now. The bandits were gone. Her friends were gone. But she was not gone.
Sleep finally took her as everything went black.

Waking up was as painful as Valleri thought it would be. Everything hurt and the smell of what Valleri presumed to be her own blood was quickly becoming nauseating. It took her what seemed to be forever to work up the courage to pull herself up from the dirt.

It was dark now, stars littered the night sky and Valleri was able to make out a constellation here or there. But with the night came the cold. Her fingers were numb and stiff. Valleri could feel a light layer of frost forming on her forearms. The bandits probably took everything she had, including anything that could keep the imperial woman warm. Even if they did, Valleri was too sore to check. Slowly she crawled her way to the closest tree and huddled at the base. Teeth chattering, she brought her knees up to her chest. Even if it only gave an illusion of warmth keeping herself in wouldn’t give the wolves something easy to chew on.

Valleri allowed herself one final look at the sky before leaning her head back against the trunk of the tree. Masser and Secunda were now beginning their descent into the horizon. Morning would arrive soon. Her eyes shut slowly and she breathed out unsteadily. Valleri would sleep and if she didn’t wake up that was fine. She didn’t give a shit anymore. The dull pain in her side flared up each time she breathed and her side felt like it was on fire. Her friends were more likely dead than alive and her reason for coming to this blasted province was gone.

It didn’t matter if she woke up, it didn’t matter.

There were voices in the background, but that was the only thing Valleri could acknowledge. Her eyes fluttered open barely; sun light and leaf litter took up most of her vision. She must have fallen over while she slept during the night. Her arm was trapped underneath her side while she laid huddled on the ground. The sun was blinding but Valleri tried desperately keep her sore eyes open.

The owners of the voices had started to come closer. Their footsteps crunched on the forest floor then stopped next to her side. One of them crouched down then said in a clear, deep voice, “You think she’s even alive?”

The second voice, soft and womanly, spoke, “I don’t think so. Would it matter anyhow?”

“If she’s dead we should at least bury her. Last rights and all that.”

“Fine. Let’s do what you want. We always do what you want. Especially when that fence is still broken.”

There was a light tap on her arm as the man Valleri had now decided the voice belonged to spoke, “Oh don’t be like that. Poor lady died before her time. I’ll carry her.”

The man bent over and slipped a hand underneath her ribcage, causing Valleri to jolt with pain. The man jumped back to his companion and started muttering in low tones. Valleri groaned and tried to face him but with no luck.

“Shit! We’ve got to get her home. You wait here; I’ll get a cart.” The woman said before running the way she came. The man, recomposed and calm, made his way back to Valleri. He laid a hand on her arm before reassuring her that she was safe. Valleri would have sighed with relief but the pain emanating from her side was almost too much.

Valleri didn’t know how long the man had kept her company before the woman arrived with the cart. She could hear the woman disembark and rush to the man to mutter something in hurried voice. Once again, Valleri had begun to fade back into unconsciousness and couldn’t register their conversation. Slowly the man picked her up, mindful of her side and put her in the back of the cart. The wood was hard on Valleri’s back, but much more comfortable. Leaf litter wasn’t poking her awkwardly and the woman sat in the back with her so she wouldn’t be jostled during the ride back to where the two strangers had come from. The ride was shorter than Valleri had anticipated and the sun seemed to be at its peak in the sky. The cart stopped with lurch in a clearing. In the distance there was a small cabin and a windmill; clearly these people were the only ones that lived this far out in the middle of nowhere. The man once again took hold of Valleri and rushed into the house.

The interior of the cabin was dark and warm. Inside was a single room with a table and hearth at one end and a bed at the other. The man all but tossed Valleri onto the bed then went to the hearth to begin boiling water. Meanwhile, the woman threw open the windows to let in the light then rushed over to the bed. She tore open the side of Valleri’s shirt to examine her side then gasped.

“Shor’s bones! She’s all purple.” The woman’s fingers grazed over her ribs to start a more thorough inspection. The bones burned and pulsated as the woman felt for fractures. “She’s got a broken rib. I’m gonna need a sheet.”

“Watch the water; I’ll be back.” Valleri could hear heavy footsteps exit the house and felt the woman take hold of her hand. It was soft, not like the burly fingers of the man when he carried her into the cabin. She whispered in low tones and a warm feeling filled the room. Valleri faded into unconsciousness once again.

Valleri woke up in the cabin once again; sunlight was pouring through the window and the hearth was dying down. Looking down, Valleri had expected to see her blood stained, tattered clothes, but instead found herself dressed in an old night gown. No blood, no dirt. Only the softness of the sun light and blankets.

She ran her hand over her side absentmindedly, feeling a break in a rib. She winced as the fingers brushed over her skin. That was inconvenient. Slowly, her fingers moved upwards, feeling for a gash on her left cheek. The wound had scabbed over now and was promising to scar. One of the only things she could remember clearly was the Nord’s face as he sliced deep into her face. The expression was sadistic; eyes wide and a toothy grin from ear to ear. The gash was dry now and starting to scab over. It was long, starting a few inches left of her eye and ending just above her jaw. Valleri sighed when she thought about the new scar.

She looked around the room and saw an open door outside, sunlight pouring into the room form there as well. Shuffling out the bed, Valleri stumbled forward onto the floor. She held onto the wall for balance; but her legs were shaky and it was going to time to get her strength back. The door wasn’t far off and it had only taken a second to reach it. Valleri paused to catch her breath. The fresh air hit her like a hammer; it was cool and damp, the light was mottled on the ground as it passed through the trees. In the distance was the windmill Valleri had spotted when she arrived. Opposite of the windmill was a vegetable garden with chickens. Two people were working in the garden, presumably the man and woman who had taken her in. Valleri watched them for a few minutes before the woman took notice of her.

“Jalfi! She’s awake!” the woman shook the man by the shoulder before rushing out of the garden. She met Valleri at the door and took her by the shoulder, a soft expression of concern washing over her face. “Are you okay? What’s your name?”

Valleri stared at her for what seemed like forever before blinking back into reality. “Where am I?”

“You’re safe now. That’s all that matters. Come on inside and I’ll get you something to eat.” The woman led her back into the cabin, draping Valleri’s arm over her shoulder for extra support. The woman cautiously sat her down at the end of the table and went to the hearth to begin cooking. The man came in only a short time after, kicking his boots free of any heavy grime that had collected while he was in the field. He took a seat on the bench next to Valleri. The woman was the first to speak, still cutting up vegetables and meat to put into her soup, “You’ve been out for almost two days. My name is Helgi and that’s my husband Jalfi,” She gestured towards the man sitting at the table, “He’s the one who found and insisted we bring you back. You’re lucky we even found you out there.” The woman poured her ingredients into a pot hanging above the hearth then came to sit next Jalfi, “Now, what’s your name and what can you remember?”

“Two days?” Valleri looked around the room for a moment, “Has it really been two days?”

“Yes, what’s your name?”

“Oh! Valleri,” she looked at Helgi, “My name is Valleri.”

“All right, Valleri, where are you from?”

“Cyrodiil.”

Jalfi furrowed his eye brows and stared hard at Valleri with anticipation. “Are you with the legion?”

“What?”

“I’m asking if you’re with the legion. I apologize, but I don’t want any soldiers in my home. It only brings trouble.”

Valleri shook her head, “I’m not with the legion. In fact, my friends and I didn’t even come through the main gate.”

“Why are you here then?” Jalfi’s scowl deepened as Valleri went silent.

Helgi looked at her husband and laid a hand on his shoulder. The attempt to calm him down was ineffective, but Jalfi didn’t move to speak again. Helgi looked back to Valleri then spoke with an even voice, “We’re farmers. There’s not much we can do out here in the middle of nowhere.”

Valleri quickly found Helgi’s meaning and paused. Her eyebrows furrowed together and she quickly muttered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I came here with a small group of researchers.”

“Ah. What happened to them?”

“We were ambushed by bandits shortly after we entered Skyrim. I’m guessing they’re probably dead,” Valleri felt her throat tighten as she recalled the events that led up to the present. Memories of metal clanging and the smell of blood crawled at the edge of her mind. They were still too fresh. “I don’t remember too much about the attack itself. Only that it was two Nords and an Argonian.”

Jalfi replaced his scowl with a more concerned look, “That could be anyone.” Helgi nodded momentarily and got up to check on the pot behind her. Satisfied, she took three bowls from a shelf nearby and filled them with the stew.
“Here, Valleri, eat this. You’re in need of nourishment if you’re going to recover nicely.” Helgi insisted in her soft, calming voice as she placed a bowl in front of the Imperial. Valleri looked at the stew in the bowl before eating it. There were potatoes and leeks in the stew with warm bits of meat here and there. She felt the broth going down her throat as her body began to warm up. The taste was bland, but Valleri was hungry enough to eat anything. Helgi smiled contentedly as she watched Valleri eat.

Jalfi was already finished with his portion as he started talking once again. “You said you came with a group of researchers? Maybe those bandits were after what ever your group was searching for?”

Valleri shook her head, “No, that’s not likely. My group was looking into some obscure stuff. Even people in Cyrodiil wouldn’t know much about it.”

“A random attack then.”

Valleri looked down at the empty bowl in front of her then sighed, “This is just great though. My first foray into Skyrim and I get attacked by bandits. I feel like such a fool.”

“You’re not a fool. Things are only so chaotic right now because of the war.

“Right.”

“How hard do you think it’ll be to track them down?”

“Difficult, especially when you’re not familiar with the territory. Winter will be coming soon as well.” Jalfi answered and leaned forward onto the table, hand resting on his chin.

“The Companions could probably help.” Helgi quipped before moving to collect the bowls.
“Who?”

“A warrior band based out of Whiterun. They pride themselves on being the best fighters in the province.”

“You think they’ll actually help me?”

Jalfi shrugged, “Maybe, probably.”

Valleri could almost feel the hope welling up in her chest for the first time since the ambush. Her heart pounded against her chest and she forgot about the dull ache in her side. Maybe, just maybe.

Helgi stared at the two figures sitting at her kitchen table. Valleri’s eyes were wide with anticipation, but Helgi could remember the shape they had found the poor woman in. She gave her pot a sharp tap with a wooden soon to get their attention. Surprised, both Valleri and Jalfi jolted and looked at the woman by the hearth. “Valleri, I get that you want to go after those men right now, but you’re still in no shape to even be leaving the house for too long. Your rib is broken; it’ll take at least four weeks to heal,” Helgi paused to sigh, “I’m not gonna let you go all the way to Whiterun until I know you can at least walk without falling over.”

”Wait,” Valleri looked back to Jalfi next to her, careful to avoid the disapproving eyes of Helgi, “How far is Whiterun? Do you have a map?”

Jalfi laughed a bit, “Now that’s funny, lass! Whiterun is about a week away by foot if you were in a hurry.”

“Where are we now?”

“We’re in western Falkreath hold. And don’t even think about leaving yet.” Helgi said from her spot by the hearth. Her eyes narrowed as she glared at Valleri across the small room.

Valleri’s expression went serious as she began thinking about the bandits and her friends, “Soon though. I need to know what happened to my group. I want vengeance.” Jalfi and Helgi stared at the woman, a calm, sure figure, sitting at their table. Valleri seethed quietly, barely moving.

Soon.

Chapter Text

The sun wouldn’t rise over the tree tops for several hours. Crickets called to each over back in forth and torch bugs lit up the night like candles floating in the air. Every few minutes a wolf would howl. He too was probably calling to his companions prowling in the night.

Valleri looked outside of the window once more as she finished buckling her belt. A small bag of food was prepared early in the evening for the trip north to Whiterun. Her boots and trousers had been mended some days ago with Helgi’s help, but Valleri still had to borrow the woman’s spare tunic. It was an ill fit since Heli was both taller and broader than Valleri, but it would have to make due until she could find another one.

Quietly, Valleri moved towards the door; steps were placed daintily on the cabin’s squeaky floorboards. The woman winced as the floor groaned momentarily. She stayed as still as possible, hand over her mouth to quiet her breathing. Helgi, still laying in the bed, didn’t move. Where Jalfi was Valleri couldn’t have known. Grabbing a grey cloak off the wall peg, Valleri opened the door and stepped out. The night was cooler than she anticipated, but nothing the Imperial couldn’t handle.

“And where do you think you’re going?”

Valleri spun on her heel to see Jalfi emerging from the side of the cabin, still dressed in his sleeping clothes. He crossed his arms as he stopped to face her. Valleri sighed and looked straight at him. Green eyes bore into Jalfi’s dark brown ones, “I can’t stay here too much longer. I’m sorry but I must leave.”

“I know. I’m sure Helgi knows too, but she won’t accept it.”

“She’ll have to.”

“Aye, she will,” There was a long pause between the two. Guilt rushed into a pit at the bottom of Valleri’s stomach, a sickening, black feeling. Jalfi smiled, finally breaking the silence, “let me at least give you this; it’s dangerous out there.” He gave her a small cloth wrapped package. Valleri unwrapped the cloth slowly, revealing a dagger. Runes had been carved into the blade and dark, worn leather was wrapped around the hilt. She looked up and wordlessly shook her head in protest.

Jalfi laughed loudly before looking back at the astonished woman in front of him, “Valleri, it’s a gift! Don’t worry about me and Helgi; we’re Nords! We have at least two of those lying around and who said a plain old ax never killed anybody?”

“Right.” Recomposed, Valleri slipped the dagger into her belt. She glanced down to the path leading to the main road then back to Jalfi. His arms were crossed against his chest and was looking right her again. “Thank you, Jalfi, thank you for everything. Tell Helgi I’ll miss her and will try to be back when this mess is over.”

Jalfi smiled wide again and nodded, “I will. Now you better get going before Helgi wakes up and hears that you’re going.”

Valleri smiled again as she took one last look at the little cabin and windmill before turning around again to make her way down the path. Torch bugs lit up the night like candles and the moonlight lit up the path in front of her. Valleri’s breathing hitched as she realized she would probably never see this place again.

Valleri sat at a small table in the back of the main room of the Sleeping Giant Inn in Riverwood. The room was much larger than she had anticipated, but warm enough to ward of the cold that came with the dark nights of Skyrim. Only having a cloak for warmth wasn’t as smart she thought initially; Valleri was more accustomed to the warm climate of southern Cyrodiil.

Riverwood itself was a small and unassuming by Valleri’s standards. She had arrived to the village in late evening when people were beginning to unwind from their day. The mill on the far side next to the river had been quiet and the forge next to it had become cool. The stillness had left Valleri unnerved. Something about the lack of walls around the village or the two craggy mountains on either side made her feel watched. A ruin perched on one side above the village seemed to condescendingly watch over the village. The structure was stark black against the snow on the mountain and Valleri was strangely entranced by the ornate porch that laid before the entrance of the ruin. Valleri didn’t feel drawn towards the ruin; instead she felt as if the ruin was a place she shouldn’t go into. Shortly after this strange interaction, Valleri had decided to place the thought in the back of her mind and not worry about it again.

People had been filtering in and out of the inn throughout the evening and from what she could tell, it was dark outside now. Many people were most likely asleep. The bard that had kept her company most of the evening had already retired to wherever he had come from and the barkeep that she spoken to earlier had left his post. Her only company now was the owner of the inn, an older, intimidating woman that had rented Valleri a room. The two of them had barely spoken two words to each other after Valleri had given a ring she pulled off a dead traveler as payment for the room. The woman narrowed her eyes in confusion but had didn’t make a move to decline the ring. Instead she had told Valleri there was an open bed in the left room.

The woman sat next to Valleri after wiping off a nearby table. She watched her from the corner of her eye, lips barley contorting into a disapproving scowl. Valleri didn’t bother to look back and continued to draw circles on a small stool next to her with a finger.

“You haven’t touched your drink in hours. Is something wrong?”

Valleri shook her head, “No, just thinking.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Not really,” Valleri lied, voice sharper than she had meant. “I think I’d like to be left alone for a little while more.”

The woman shrugged, sighing all the while, “Sorry,” the inn keeper paused, “It’s sort of my job to know what people in my inn are up too.”

The two women stared at each other for a minute before they heard a blood curdling scream from outside. The inn keeper ran outside to check what had happened, followed by Valleri moments later. It was dark outside apart from some lamps posted along the main road running through the village. Despite this, Valleri watched on as a woman ran from the general store a few feet away. The inn keeper ran to the screaming woman to calm her down, taking her by the shoulders and begin yelling in a similar fashion. Valleri rushed towards the door of the store only to be met by several hooded men. They had weapons drawn and were ready to fight their way out of the village if need be.

There was only a moment of hesitation between them and Valleri before the thieves started running past the Imperial. Valleri lost her footing as they rushed out and started falling backwards. Before her back contacted the ground, she took hold of the belt of one of the thieves and held on as tight as she could. The sudden weight had brought the man down hard on his face. Instantly Valleri pounded the back of his neck as hard as she could with her fist, putting most of her weight into the hit. He groaned and didn’t move again, leaving Valleri to take his sword and run off after the others. The other men, four in total, were running away quickly towards the bridge at the other side of the village. Valleri caught up to a straggler and slashed down as hard as she could. The man fell with a scream. Valleri pressed a knee firmly on his back. Blood seeped through the cape and into her trousers. Tossing the sword aside, Valleri retrieved her dagger and brought it swiftly across the man’s throat. More blood quickly pooled on the cobblestones as Valleri turned around without so much as another thought.

By now a crowd was forming around the entrance of the store and the screaming woman was now only sobbing. The man she taken down was now sitting up, hands bound behind his back. He was cursing under his breath.

The inn keeper walked forwards to meet Valleri, concern written all over her face as she scowled. “How many got away?”

Valleri breathed outwards, still out of breath, “Three of them. They’re on their way to that temple on the mountain. I killed one of them. What happened?”

A short man stepped away from the crowd a bit to address the women. He was snarling, face flushed despite the cold and hands balled up in tight fists. “My property was stolen was what. Those fuckers are dead, you hear me? Dead!”

Valleri watched the man begin to address the others, still furiously yelling, “Must have been important.”

The inn keeper nodded in agreement, “Some sort of golden trinket he had out on display. What a fool. I kept telling him it’d get stolen and now look.”

The man was now approaching Valleri directly. He stopped just a few feet away then said in a much calmer voice, “You’re the one who took out those two dogs, right?” Valleri sighed and nodded her head. His face relaxed, “I’ll offer you two hundred and fifty gold pieces if you could go up there and get my claw back. Extra if you just off them all.”

Valleri grimaced, “I’m gonna have to decline. I may have killed one, but that doesn’t mean I’m following them and get revenge for you. I’m sorry.”

The man breathed out slowly before attempting to ask her again, “Fine, five hundred even.”
Valleri’s eyes widened, “Did you not hear me? I’m not going up to that blasted ruin. It doesn’t matter how much gold you offer; I’m not going up there.”

“What will convince you then?”

“Absolutely nothing! I’m supposed to be in Whiterun tomorrow morning. I can’t be there if I’m dead in an old tomb for who knows what.” Valleri almost yelled. She straightened her back and shoulders and continued to stare at the man standing in front of her. Finally, he stormed off back to his shop, grumbling curses all the while.

Valleri looked up to the ruin, almost invisible in the night, then went back to corpse to pick up the stray sword she had used earlier. In one fluid motion she wiped the blade with the corpse’s cloak before taking his sheath to store it in. After a final glance at the ruin, she went back inside the inn. This was going to be a restless night

 

The old man had been sitting in the chair for what seemed to be hours now. Masser was at its peak, directly in front of him and illuminating his surroundings with a pale light. The old man leaned back as he surveyed the training yard in front of him. There was weaponry scattered here and there; swords had been left on the bench while spare arrows were still stuck in the target boards in the distance. Above that was the forge, a red glow still present at this time of night.

Behind him, the old man heard a door open and close as another made his way to keep the old man company. The new comer was still dressed in his armor, moonlight glinting off polished metal. His hair, black and choppy, hung in front of his face and charcoal had been smeared underneath his eyes. He slouched forward in exhaustion and didn’t speak to the older man next to him.

“I assume you are uninjured.” The old man muttered without breaking his watch over the night sky.

“Aye”

“You should rest then.”

“Not tired; probably won’t be for sometime yet.” His companion answered in a monotone voice, rubbing his hands against his temples.

The young man didn’t say anything more, just stared up at the sky to see if there was anything worth looking for. The old man only glanced over, “Do you ever feel as if something is ever rushing towards you?”

“What?”

The old man looked back up to Masser, “Something is coming. I can feel it in my bones, in my blood.”

The young man grimaced as he watched his older companion. “Does it have something to do with what you told the others today?”

“No, I do not believe so. It feels entirely different. It is coming though.”

The younger man’s grimace fell into a faint smile and he looked down at ground. “That only means we’ll have to be ready for it then.”

Chapter Text

There was already a commotion in the main hall as Valleri entered Jorrvaskr. People were yelling and cheering as two others, a Dunmer and a woman started throwing blows at each other. Valleri grimaced; any expectations she had of a highly ordered fighting unit was thrown to the wind.

She lingered by the door a few moments longer before a hulking man approached her. He was smiling widely with dark, long hair braided back to keep it out of his face. Valleri relaxed slightly as he greeted her warmly, “Are you here to join?”

“Uh… no,” Valleri glanced around the room, gaze focusing on the crowd at the far side of room. “Is there someone in charge maybe? I have something I need to discuss with them if so.”

The man stared blankly at her for a moment, as if something she said was indescribably confusing. Suddenly, his eyes lit up and he smiled again, “Oh right! You’ll want Kodlak for that! He’s the Harbinger”

The man didn’t say anything more, just stared at her with a grin. Valleri furrowed her eyebrows in frustration, “Do you know where he is?”

“Yeah, he’s the old man down the stairs at your right. I should probably warn you though; my brother is down there with him. He’s not known for being warm with strangers.”

Valleri frowned as she started to turn around, “Thanks for the warning.”

“No problem.”

The man’s words of encouragement did nothing for Valleri as she descended the stairs he directed her too. The door at the bottom felt heavier than it should have and her heart began to pound against her chest as she stared at the knob. It was burnished iron, but her hand was too warm to notice the cold feeling of the metal. Valleri steadied her breathing before turning the knob and walking into the lower floor. The barracks, as they appeared to be, were much warmer than upstairs. Valleri assumed this was because it was built partially underground like the buildings in Bruma she was familiar with. There was long, straight hallway with bunk rooms splitting away. Many of them had multiple beds while others were far more decorated and meant for a single person. At the far end of the hall was a final, ornately decorated room.

Two men were conversing in low tones at a table in the far corner. Valleri paused before entering the room to get a good look at them. The man on the right was older, grey hair brushed back, and calmly listening to his companion. That one must have been the brother the man upstairs had warned her about, even from a distance his gaze was intimidating. Eyebrows were furrowed with what Valleri could only guess was concern. Valleri began to eavesdrop on their conversation. They were talking about blood and honor. The hair on her arm stood up as she realized this was a conversation she shouldn’t be listening to.

The old man hushed his friend then smiled lazily, “We’ve company,” He looked at Valleri down the hall way and beckoned her to come closer. “And who may you be?”

Valleri’s palms began to sweat as she strode forward. Both men stared at her as she entered the room. “Valleri. Are you Kodlak? I was told that you were the leader here.”

“That I am.”

Valleri internally sighed in relief then reminded herself this was no time to appear relaxed. “I was wondering if I could convince you to take a job for me?”

“What sort of job?”

“I need help taking care of a group of bandits.” Valleri paused to steady herself then continued, “They murdered my friends.”

“There’s more to this isn’t there?” Kodlak looked Valleri up and down. “You’re a smart woman, you wouldn’t come all the way here if you did not a purpose to.”

“You’re right. I don’t have any payment; however, I was think-“

“Wait, wait, wait,” the younger man next to Kodlak shook his head and frowned, cutting off Valleri. She groaned as he continued, “Are you really just going to help this lady get revenge?”

Kodlak stared at his friend in slight disbelief, “Listen first; she hasn’t finished.” He nodded at her to continue.

“I would propose that I work off my debt with the Companions. I would like to believe I have a half decent sword arm.”

“You’re not from here I take it?”

“Not at all. My friends and I were ambushed shortly after arriving from Cyrodiil. Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Kodlak looked at the floor and pondered the idea for a moment, “Why did your group come to Skyrim?”

“We were researchers who had reason to believe that there was an Ayleid artifact hidden somewhere in Skyrim.”

“Do you still wish to find this artifact?”

“Any notes or leads we had brought with us were probably destroyed when we were attacked. I hate it but there’s probably no point anymore.”

Kodlak paused again. The man next to him looked on in anticipation. He had definitely been frowning with narrowed eyes as Valleri had answered Kodlak’s questions. The thought of rejection made Valleri sick, but there was a clear possibility that was how this might end.

“I believe there is still more to your story than what you have told us. However, as it stands, Valleri, I will accept your proposition.”

Valleri breathed out with relief quietly mouthing a quick thanks to Dibella. The other man didn’t hide his disappointment as he stared at Kodlak with his mouth agape. He turned to look at Valleri, grey eyes narrowed as he looked the Imperial woman in front of him. She took notice and lengthened her spine and smirked; anything to let him know there was nothing he could do. Kodlak, oblivious to Valleri and his friend’s interactions, looked over to the man next to him,

“Vilkas, why don’t you see what she’s made of?”

“Aye,” The man stood up from his chair then walked out of the room past Valleri. He looked over his shoulder as she turned around, “Follow me newcomer or I’ll leave without you.”

Valleri hurried behind him with a grimace. She had sinking feeling as she left the room. With the way the man had thought about her proposition in the first place, the test may not go so well.

The training yard was behind the main hall of Jorrvaskr. Most of the warriors Valleri had seen earlier were still inside. Whatever they were doing was beyond her. Vilkas stopped shortly after they stepped outside and turned around to address her, “You said you had a half decent sword arm?”

“I’d like to think so.”

“Well good, otherwise this would be a waste of time. You got a blade?”

“Yeah,” Valleri pulled it out of the scabbard at her side and handed it to Vilkas who had his hand out.

He looked at the sword briefly then held it out in front of him. He grimaced a bit before handing it back to Valleri, “That is a really shit sword. Where’d you get it?”

“I pulled it off a thief two days ago.”

“Should have figured.” He moved form under the awning covering a raised patio to the middle of the training yard. He waved Valleri over, “C’mon, take a few hits. I could take pretty much anything you can throw at me.”

Valleri strode up and took a fighting stance. Steadying herself, she took a swing at his left arm. Her wrist burned as her grip on the hilt of her sword tightened. Vilkas blocked the blow easily. He went for her side. The tip of his sword caught her as she stepped away. Her side began to throb. She swung for his back. Her blow connected and he turned around to face her. His sword arced towards her shoulder. She crouched forwards to swing and the blade contacted with his side. Valleri stepped backwards and Vilkas bent forward slightly. She raised her sword slightly and brought down on his shoulder. Before Valleri’s blade made it to his target, Vilkas hit her hard in her side. Valleri felt a sudden jolt of pain when his sword hit her broken rib. Her free hand went to her side and she started breathing heavily. Valleri looked up suddenly, breath becoming uneven, and looked straight at Vilkas. Short hair fell into her face as she rushed towards him, sword raised far above her head. He stepped back and raised his own sword to meet hers. The impact of the blades produced a loud clang that rung in Valleri’s ears as she stepped back to take another hit. She stalled to catch her breath allowing Vilkas to come forward and swing for her arm. She sidestepped to the right and went for his arm as well. He blocked, spurring Valleri to move to his other side. Once again, Vilkas moved forward and aimed for her chest. Valleri, tired and restless, knelt down and closed the gap between the two of them. She swung her blade for his abdomen at felt a connection. Vilkas moved backwards and swung for her side once more. Valleri had paused to catch her breath once more, allowing Vilkas’ sword hit her rib again. She cursed loudly and the throbbing morphed into a sharp pain that made Valleri double over with a grimace.

“I guess that’s where we stop.”

Valleri looked up, eye brows raised and her mouth drawn back, “Wait, no. I can keep going.”

“I bet you could, but that’s not going to help anyone.” Vilkas dropped his sword on the ground and approached Valleri. “When was the last time you got into a fight?”

“What?” Valleri collapsed onto the ground and breathed out. Hair was plastered to her face and her wrist and side burned.

“You got winded after I hit your side and your grip was all funny,” He gestured to her wrist then crouched down n the ground next to her. “Either you’re not in good shape or you’re crap at this.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Right,” Vilkas muttered as he finally met Valleri’s eyes with his own. They were steely blue and piercing; intimidating enough for Valleri to feel even the slightest bit guilty. “When were you attacked?”

“Almost two weeks ago. I honestly don’t see why that matters!”

“By oblivion, woman! You’re a fucking liability. I’m taking you to Danica.”

“What the hell?”

Valleri propped herself on her elbows as Vilkas got up and looked down at her expectantly. He sighed, “Danica’s a healer. Kodlak’s not gonna let you take any work if your wrist is broken or something. That’s just not safe.”

“What do you mean safe? Like fighting bears or bandits is ever safe.” Valleri complained from the ground. Her lungs were still painful but her wrist was beginning to go numb. Vilkas was still staring down at her, a hand now proffered to help her up. Valleri sighed and took it, “Fine. You win.”

The two didn’t speak as Vilkas led her to the temple on the other side of central plaza. Instead, Valleri took a better look at her surroundings; she had made her way straight to Jorrvaskr as soon as she entered the city. On her second time through however, she as able to take a second look at the giant dying tree that dominated the plaza. Perhaps the leaves fell as colder months approached.

Vilkas stopped and held the door open as they entered the temple. The interior was surprisingly light, not dark and musty like other temples Valleri had spent time in. there was a small shrine in the back of the room, while much of the space had been reserved for beds for the sick and injured. At the far left of the building was a small spring and wash basin for cleaning. There were no other people inside the building. Vilkas had gestured for Valleri to wait at the door while he went to search for Danica. He left her quickly and disappeared into another room. Curious, Valleri moved closer to the shrine in the back of the room. It was purple and in the shape of a vague looking acorn. Surprised, Valleri looked around the room once more. This was a temple of Kynareth.
Vilkas came back out a moment later with middle aged woman dressed in orange robes. She looked harried and tired as she disgruntledly followed the man towards Valleri. “Is this her?”

“Aye.”

Valleri almost laughed; both of them sounded equally tired. Danica approached her as Vilkas stepped back. The priestess gave her a look before taking her by the shoulder, “She looks a bit scrawny, but I’m guessing that’s normal. What’s your name?”

“Valleri” she answered as she gave the priestess a confused look.

“Great,” She moved towards one of the beds to her right and patted it, “Sit right here please.”

Valleri did as she was told and folded her coat sleeve up to reveal her wrist. Danica took the arm and started prodding until Valleri winced in pain. Danica started to move Valleri’s hand up and down, “You know Vilkas, this is the last time I’m doing this for you. I finally got a break and I’m spending it taking a look at some fool”

Valleri frowned internally as Danica continued her investigation. Vilkas moved closer to the two women, “Usually I would agree, but think of it as personal favor for Kodlak.”

Danica finally smiled as she looked at Valleri’s other arm for comparison, “Fine. Just this once though.” She looked at Valleri, smile still on her face. “You’re a new comer, right? Where are you from?

“Anvil,” Valleri answered. Danica shot her a glance of confusion. Valleri laughed nervously, remembering that they were just as unfamiliar with anywhere outside of Skyrim as she was with anything inside. “It’s a city on the Gold Coast south of the Imperial City.”

Vilkas’ eyes lit up momentarily but didn’t say anything. Danica put Valleri’s wrist down softly, “Cyrodiil, huh? That’s far.” She paused and turned back to Vilkas, “Her wrist is definitely sprained, but not broken. It’ll take a while to heal but there won’t be anything wrong after. You mentioned her side was injured as well?”

“The people who found me told me a rib was broken,” Valleri quipped, catching the attention of her companions. Danica frowned as Vilkas sighed in either disappointment of frustration; it was beginning to become difficult for Valleri to tell which one it was.

“Pull off your tunic,” Danica said unenthusiastically. She helped Valleri out of the overly large piece of clothing and urged her to lift her left arm up for the priestess to take a look. Vilkas continued to stand behind the older woman. She frowned as she took her first look at the giant bruises that were now coalesced around a singular area. The new cut from Vilkas’ sword had stopped bleeding but a scab had yet to form

“When did this happen exactly?”

Valleri put her arm down and in a quiet, mumbled, “About two weeks ago.”

“And you were sparring with Vilkas earlier? Any other fights?” the priestess asked as she palpated Valleri’s rib.

Valleri paused and stared blankly at Danica. The older woman narrowed her eyes; she knew exactly what happened. “Last night; I got into a fight with some thieves. I don’t remember being hurt, but my side has been throbbing ever since.”

“I should have known.” Danica turned back Vilkas. “You knew about this and still had a go at her?” she scolded, shaking her head slightly as the Nord took a step behind her.

“I honestly had no idea.”

“Sure you didn’t.” Danica muttered under her breath. Vilkas looked down momentarily, reminding Valleri of a sad dog.

“He really didn’t. I didn’t think it was important enough to mention,” Valleri said quickly. She grimaced and looked behind Danica to Vilkas. He had nervous look plastered on his face that probably mirrored Valleri’s own expression.

“You’re idiots, the both of you,” Danica went to the left side of the room to grab a damp cloth. “Valleri, whatever you do, don’t get into anymore fights for at least a week. The bone’s still healing and I don’t want it to moving out of place,” Danica looked Valleri in the eyes as she paused cleaning up the cut. “Got it?”
Valleri nodded her head at the woman, words not coming to her suddenly. Danica finished cleaning up the wound and went back to the sink to wring out the cloth. Valleri slipped her tunic back on and clasped the belt a little looser than before.

“You two can leave now.” Danica called out as she went to the other room Vilkas had found her in. Valleri slipped her coat on and followed Vilkas out the door. She was silent, pondering just what this meant for her search for the bandits that attacked her.

“Don’t look so disappointed; its not like getting a late start will change anything.” Vilkas said gruffly, not making any eye contact with Valleri. She didn’t answer him only continued to look forward, brooding all the while. Vilkas had noticed and sighed, “Are you really that desperate?”

“Yes, I am.”

“We’ll find them then.” Vilkas paused momentarily. He was looking forward towards Jorrvaskr. “If not now, then soon.”

Valleri smiled a bit. Vilkas’ encouragement was unexpected but welcome. Things were finally looking up.

Chapter Text

Ysolda snipped the final thread hanging off the tunic before handing it back the woman sitting in front of her. Valleri inspected the piece of clothing; the yellow tunic had a small splatter of blood towards the bottom that had stained the cloth orange. Valleri grimaced momentarily then sighed, “I didn’t even realize that was there.”

The red head chuckled to herself, “When Farkas asked me for a favor this was the last thing I thought I’d be doing.” Valleri began to slip the tunic back on as Ysolda gathered her sewing supplies and laid them in an old box sitting on the seat next to her. She stared at the Imperial woman beside her who was now slipping on a light over coat. As far as she knew, Valleri had yet to become comfortable after whatever circumstances led her to Whiterun. “How are you adjusting so far though? Farkas told me that people are still uneasy around you.”

Valleri thought of the man momentarily, much larger than she was but still somehow very cheerful. “I guess, but I’m not really part of the Companions. The healer over at the temple put me on suspension last week.”

“What for? You look fine to me.”

“Broken bone.”

Ysolda’s eyes widened in understanding for a second, “Must have been serious.” She paused and met Valleri’s eyes again, “He also said that you weren’t from here.”

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows as she looked back at Ysolda, “So that’s getting around pretty quick then?” She sighed out and looked off into the distance before glancing back to Ysolda, “I’m form Cyrodiil, and yes, I’m an Imperial.” Valleri’s voice was tired and accusing, and the expression of disdain on her face amplified the unwelcoming tone in her voice.

Ysolda sat back with a slight look of shock, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Wait! No, no. I didn’t mean to sound so upset. It’s just that you’re the seventh person to ask me that since I’ve arrived.” Valleri almost yelled, eyes widening and hands gesturing wildly.

Ysolda laughed, “It’s no problem. I had the same issue when I came here as well.” Valleri smiled a bit before turning around to finish clasping her belt. Behind them they could hear loud footsteps coming down the hall towards the bunkroom they were in. Valleri turned her head to greet the newcomer as Farkas entered the room.

“Vilkas and Kodlak are looking for you.” His voice was gruff and this was the most serious Valleri had seen him. With out his trademark smile, Farkas began to resemble his brother.

“You know what for?”

He shook his head, “Not really. Something about a job though.”

Valleri met Ysolda’s eyes and couldn’t help but smile. “Finally,” she muttered under her breath. She turned back to Farkas, “They’re upstairs?”

“Yep!” Farkas began to smirk a bit as he saw the enthusiasm in Valleri’s expression. He turned to Ysolda, suddenly taking note that she was still sitting down on a near by chair, “You’re still here?”

Ysolda nodded her head a bit before getting up after Valleri left the room. “I’m just leaving. That was an interesting favor.”

Farkas rubbed the back of his head in mock frustration, “Yeah, sorry about that. Usually Tilma would do it, but she’s out visiting relatives. Here, I’ll walk you out.”

Ysolda rolled her eyes before stopping next to the large man, “Thanks.”

It was easy to spot the two of them in the training yard, but Valleri made no mad dash to reach them. She could feel the hairs on the back of her neck to stand up in anxiety. Valleri strode up to the two of them on the raised patio. They were already talking, this time less secretive than when she had first spoken with Kodlak. “Farkas said you wanted to see me?”

The old man stared at her for a moment with slight confusion before realizing what she was saying. “I did, yes. We finally have work for you.”

“That’s what he told me, didn’t give me any details though.”

“Nothing difficult. But think of this as my last assurance that you can handle yourself well enough to be a Companion,” Kodlak said as he looked to Vilkas next to him. Valleri furrowed her eye brows in confusion. “Vilkas can give you the specifics. You’ll be leaving shortly.”

Valleri nodded without a word and rushed inside to grab her cloak and sword. Vilkas turned back to Kodlak. “You’re serious about ignoring her request if this doesn’t go well?”

“Very.” Kodlak grumbled as he looked over the warriors in the training yard. Most of them had been oblivious to their conversation and probably wouldn’t have cared anyways. Kodlak glanced at the younger man form the corner his eye as he continued, “I believe she will do well, but she reminds me of you.” Vilkas gave the old man an accusing look. “’Twas only an observation.”

“She’s reckless, I can already tell.” Vilkas huffed as started to turn around to follow Valleri back into the main hall.

“I am not surprised; people who feel their backs are against a wall usually are. I only wish that you show that hers is not.”

Vilkas grimaced as he opened the door and stepped inside. Valleri was already across the hall waiting for him. She was dressed in a light leather jerkin over her tunic. Vilkas stared with slight disappointment; this woman was crazy if she thought she could get away with being so lightly armored. He thought she would have learned lesson after those bandits had left her for dead. “I’ll try,” Vilkas muttered under his breath as the door closed.

The pair didn’t speak as they left Whiterun. Valleri had felt tense as the man next to her continued to walk a foot or so ahead of her. Vilkas wore his scowl like a well-loved mask. Valleri was used to sour, rude looking people, but Vilkas had just seemed hostile. While she wasn’t overtly friendly to her new compatriots save for Kodlak and Farkas, Vilkas seemed to go out of his way to avoid her entirely. Since their initial meeting, they had barely said two words to each other. Valleri didn’t feel as though it was her right to judge him however; she only recently met the man and he did help her find medical help, even if it was forced.

Vilkas looked ahead as they passed the last gate leading out of the city. Mountains laid ahead of them towards the south, tall and intimidating. Snow blanketed the top of the mountain and Valleri shivered as she stared up at it. She almost paused as she noticed they were crossing the bridge to head to the road going south. Vague memories of her time in before arriving in Whiterun surfaced. Her stomach dropped as she hurried to catch up to her travel companion.

Vilkas turned back towards her, “You okay?”

Valleri hummed low as she came up to his side. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Vilkas muttered something in response then continued his trek up the road. They were coming into a hillier area and fir trees began to line the cobblestone paths.

It was sometime before any of them had said something, but Valleri was able to work up the nerve to ask about the what sort of job it was that she agreed to take on. She wasn’t feeling well about being on the dark about what she was supposed to do. Vilkas turned around again and stared at her, “Nobody told you anything?”

“Not at all,” She narrowed her eyes as she looked back, “Kodlak said you were supposed to.”

“Why didn’t you ask earlier?”

She paused, “I’m not at all sure.”

He muttered under his breath again, “We were hired to clear out some bandits in an old ruin.” Valleri’s stomach dropped further and clenched her hands a bit as Vilkas continued to speak. She heard him complaining about how many people had turned to such a dishonorable lifestyle. Valleri couldn’t have cared less. She prayed to the eight it wasn’t in Riverwood.

“You don’t talk a lot.”

Valleri glanced up, eyebrows furrowed. “Sorry, is that a bad thing?”

“I’m just used to more talkative people.”

Valleri’s face relaxed; he didn’t mean any harm, so neither should she. “I’m just a bit preoccupied.”

“No problem. Just as long as you’re thinking about the task at hand when we get up there.”

The two continued to climb the hill going south and it was half an hour before finally reaching flat ground. The forest was much denser than it had been at the foot of the mountain. Riverwood slowly appeared over the horizon, a guard station still being the only thing standing between the village and the unknown threats of the wilderness. Nothing had changed in the past week. Vilkas quickened his pace as the village came into view and Valleri kept up with him easily. Valleri stared at the ground as she past the spot where she killed the thief; the blood stain had been washed away since the incident happened. There was no trace that she had been here before.

Vilkas went straight for the inn, the long house that dominated the village. The two of them walked up the steps and Valleri kept glancing at the store and the temple behind them. Memories of the theft came rushing back, making her frown slightly as she approached the door to the inn. The interior was almost the same as she remembered, only now it was less welcoming and a bit darker. Vilkas paused next hearth in the middle of the room. The inn keeper that Valleri met previously approached them, scowl still on her face.

“Are you the people the Companions sent?” she asked as she walked over to the two of them. The inn keeper paused, an expression of shock slowly replacing her dour expression. She stopped and looked Valleri up and down. “Aren’t you the one who helped us with those thieves about a week ago?” she pointed to Valleri, now smiling as she nodded her head.

Vilkas glanced at his friend standing next him. Valleri eyes had widened in what he could only guess was fright. “Is the same fight where you hurt your rib?”

Valleri’s face went red as she stared into the distance. She shrugged and said, “Well I mean, shit happens.” Valleri looked back at Vilkas who only looked forward at the inn keeper with an expression of disappointment.

“Where are the bandits you wanted us to get rid of?”

“Fuckers are holed up in that blasted temple.” A new voice echoed across the room, angry and straight to the point. The inn keeper breathed out on frustration while Vilkas and Valleri turned around to come face to face with a short man. Panic settled into the bottom of Valleri’s stomach. It was same man that had cornered her the night of the theft. Valleri groaned as he looked straight at her. “Wait I know you!” The man’s face scrunched up in anger, eyes narrowed and breathing unsteady. He seethed as looked past the couple and towards the inn keeper, “You should have told that you were hiring people to clear the damn place out! Especially that bitch. By the eight Delphine!”

Delphine looked deadpanned at the merchant, “How was I supposed to know she joined up with the Companions?” She looked at Vilkas and Valleri once again, “ I really apologize for this. I was hoping to keep Lucan out of this.”

The merchant, Lucan, paused and snarled at Delphine. Vilkas, exasperated by the exchange, addressed the merchant, “Wait, what happened between you and Valleri?”

“I politely asked your friend here to go after the thieves that took my property. She had the audacity to refuse,” He looked right at Valleri and continued, “And now look you’re back, you opportunistic bitch. Watch me give a single hint of gratitude when you get back with my claw.”

Valleri was seething by the time the merchant had finished. The audacity of this man was hard to believe. “I don’t remember you fighting off those people the night your trinket was taken. Not going after them yourself then trying to force the chore on another was pretty small of you.”

Valleri breathed in quickly, realizing the gravity of her words. Lucan started right at Vilkas and gestured wildly, “See? See what I mean?”

Delphine rubbed her temples with a hand before looking at Lucan. “Lucan, just stop. Poking a bear with a stick when you have a chance to get the honey doesn’t help anyone.”

“Aye,” Vilkas agreed, eyeing Valleri out of the corner of his eye. She was still red faced, but had calmed down after her outburst. “Our work is with Delphine. If we find your trinket, we find it. If not, oh well.” He glanced at Valleri, “Let’s go.”

Valleri nodded. She wouldn’t say anything more in case she said something to upset the already incensed shop keeper. Valleri cursed as the door closed behind her and she could hear Vilkas chuckle.

Snow crunched under Valleri’s boots as she walked slightly ahead of Vilkas. The temple loomed above them, just as intimidating and defensive as Valleri had remembered it. Up close though, she could see the age of the stones that made up the ruins. Intimidating though it was, the ancient feeling of the ruin was the first completely familiar thing she experience she had since arriving in Skyrim.

She looked up to one of the spires jutting out of the lower platform of the patio. There was a lone person standing and looking out over the ruin. Valleri paused and looked over to Vilkas. She gestured towards the bandit above and he nodded his head. The man approached Valleri, pulling his great sword out of its scabbard on his back.

“It’s probably just simpler to go at them straight.”

“Wait, what?”

Vilkas smirked slightly and looked at the confused woman in front of him. Her green eyes narrowed a bit and she glanced up at the ruin, calculating the odds in her head. She sighed, and Vilkas took another look at Valleri. Her profile was long and straight. It only took a moment before she turned back to him, expression more confident than before. She nodded and the two of them ascended the stairs slowly.

Another bandit pacing around the lower portion of the patio took notice of them quickly. He rushed at them, sword swinging wildly from the right side. Valleri was blocked it easily while Vilkas left her to attack the bandit they had first seen. The one on the spire looked stunned as the larger Nord ran towards him. He began to knock an arrow as Vilkas’ sword came down across his chest. The man yelled in pain as he bent forwards. Vilkas made one last motion and brought the blade hard across the back of the man’s neck. The fight was over quickly.

Vilkas turned around to see that Valeri had grabbed her opponent from behind. The bandit was struggling hard against her arm and was close to breaking loose. Before he could though, she dragged a small dagger across his neck. He made a guttural noise and then fell limp to the ground. Valleri stepped back as the dying man landed with a thud. She turned to face Vilkas, smiling a bit. He approached her as he sheathed his sword again.

“You’re going to have to trust me if you wish to continue working for the Companions.”

She scowled, “Trust takes time to build.”

Vilkas shrugged. Her words were true; trust was like respect, it had to be earned. “Fine, fist step then.” Valleri stared with a confused look and glanced at the large black door to their left. He gestured towards her, “This is your test. Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

Door leading into the temple opened easier than Valleri expected. She held it open as Vilkas followed her into the first cavernous room. The there was hole in the roof, light pouring and long green tendrils limply hanging over the sides. Underneath was a large pillar that had fallen over in front of them. How long it had been there Valleri couldn’t even begin to guess. Lichen and moss covered most of the pillar. She stared in awe while Vilkas walked ahead of her. He ducked under the pillar and stopped on the other side.

“You coming?”

“What?” Valleri paused, attention now on the Nord in front of her, “Oh, yeah.”

“Is this your first time in ruins like these?”

Valleri ducked under the pillar and found herself standing next to Vilkas. There was a small camp in front of them, complete with bedrolls and a dying fire.

Two dead bandits laid close by. “What the hell?”

“Probably woke up the dragur. The fools.”

Valleri looked up at her friend, who was still staring at the camp, “I don’t mean to sound like an idiot, but what’s a dragur?”

“Undead.” He glanced at Valleri who had shrugged slightly in disappointment. Her scowl told him she wasn’t impressed. “You sure you’ve been in ruins before?”

“Of course I have. Its just the first time I’ve been in an old Nordic barrow.”

“What sort of ruins are down in Cyrodiil? Out of curiosity.”

“Old elven ruins.”

Vilkas mumbled something unintelligible and went further into the ruins. Valleri followed him down the steps into a downward facing corridor. Many of the stones making up the floor were loose and Valleri could see multiple pathways that caved in long ago. Vilkas paused suddenly, sticking his arm out to halt Valleri. Valleri paused and took a look further down the hall.

There was a larger room at the end, and another bandit had just run in. He was jittery, head turning back and forth in panic. He paused in the middle of the room and looked up. Suddenly he jerked his arm back. Valleri could hear him scream and a strange whooshing noise from within the room. It was only a few seconds before he fell over.

Vilkas sighed next to her. “This’ll be fun,” he muttered sarcastically.

Valleri pushed past him and descended the final flight of steps into the room. She could now clearly see the lever the bandit had pulled in the middle of the room. She kicked the corpse out of the way before taking another look around the room. There was a higher platform at the far end of the room, clinging for dear life to heavily damaged wall. The wall was heavily decorated, old Nordic faces with animalistic motifs carved around them. The middle face had already fallen down and was currently sitting in a pile of rubble.

Vilkas came in shortly behind her, “How good are you at puzzles?”

“I dunno…” Valleri mumbled as she walked up to the fallen face and crouched down to inspect it further. “I take it ancient Nords were crafty?”

Vilkas had gone to the left side of the room, brushing old vines away from an alcove. He muttered something then turned back to look at Valleri, “They didn’t typically like it when strangers entered their crypts. Can’t say I blame them.”

Valleri approached him. There were three alcoves in total. Each one had a strange three-sided pillar inside. She tapped one of the pillars and felt it move slightly. Suddenly she looked down at the base of the strange stone objects. Lo and behold there was a relief carving of a snake. “Hey,” she called out to Vilkas, who had wandered off to the fallen head, “Do you mind helping me move these?”

He sighed and sauntered over, “Yeah, fine.”

Valleri scowled, “You have more brute strength than I do. Besides you may as well be helpful.” She went to far left alcove and began to push. The stone pillar moved smoothly before becoming stuck on the corner. Valleri gave one last nudge, finally hearing it click into place. She looked down, satisfaction filling her as she saw a snake on the front portion of the pillar.

“How far am I supposed move this?”

“Until you see a whale.” Valleri called over, exiting the alcove. She walked over to the lever. “Let me know when you’re done.”

“Aye.” Valleri heard a grunt followed by another click before Vilkas followed to meet her. He brushed a vine off his shoulder as Valleri pulled the lever back. The gate in front of them lifted with a screech. Valleri waited for Vilkas to exit the room first before turning back to see the gate crashing closed behind them.

Valleri heard a squeak as she stepped onto the final wooden step that had led down to the lower levels of the temple. Vilkas stayed slightly ahead of her. The ceiling in this part of the ruin was much lower, though Valleri wasn’t surprised. It only elicited a closed in feeling that Valleri wanted to shake off. It wasn’t long before Valleri could hear a male voice screaming.

The two of them continued, keeping close to the walls so they wouldn’t be seen. There was another large chamber up ahead. Unfortunately, heavy sticky webbing covered most of the entrance. Valleri dug out her dagger and cut an opening into the web. At the other end of the chamber, a large spider quickly scuttling towards an unfortunate Dunmer trapped in another web. Several fresh bodies were scattered about. Most had been eviscerated by monstrous spider.

Valleri felt a drop in her stomach.

“What’s out there?”

“Giant fucking spider.”

“Great,” Vilkas muttered as he gave an exasperated sigh.

“It’s going after another person though.” She looked back at Vilkas, “We could probably sneak up on it.”

Vilkas grumbled a bit as he looked though the opening. The Dunmer screamed again, this time it sounded more panicked. “Fine.”

Valleri was the first to climb through the webbing. She creeped to the side of the room, slowly making her way towards the spider. She grimaced as she heard it feeding on the Dunmer. Vilkas went straight for the beast, raising his great sword up. He brought it down on the spider’s abdomen. It reared up and turned around towards Valleri. Quickly the woman rushed to meet it, bringing her own sword across its eyes. The spider paused, allowing Valleri to get closer to it. She brought her sword down at angles, slicing through the top of the creature’s head. It made a squealing noise as it dropped dying to the floor.

Valleri backed away from spider and wiped her sword free of any of the visceral goo onto the creature’s body. Vilkas slid his sword back into its scabbard and groaned as he took a look at the dead Dunmer. The body was taking up most of the door way and cutting it down seemed to be their only option. Valleri almost tripped over a spider leg as approached him. She sighed in disappointment as she saw the body dripping more slime. Wordlessly, the two cut the corpse down. Vilkas saw Valleri almost squirm when she accidentally stuck her hand in a large glob of the stuff. Once the body was free, Vilkas shoved it to the side, allowing Valleri to cut a final opening into the web. As the body landed with thud, Valleri heard a clanging noise. She looked down and saw something golden and shiny sticking out of the Dunmer’s pocket. She tapped Vilkas on the shoulder, “Wait a moment.”

She ran over to the body, crouching to pick up whatever had caught her eye. She pulled out a small golden claw. Valleri stared at it for a moment, trying not fling the trinket across the room. The woman could almost hear the shop keeper laughing behind her wickedly.

“What’d you find?”

“The trinket.”

“Oh good. We can leave then.” Vilkas said as he started moving towards the entrance they came in.

“Wait!” Valleri stood up quickly, hand out reached, “The gate closed behind us, remember?”

“Fuck!” Vilkas turned around to see that Valleri was almost beaming. She was now clutching the gold claw close with a slight smile on her face. “You’d really want to spend more time here?”

Valleri glanced to the side before meeting his gaze again, “Yes?” She shrugged, “C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”

Vilkas sighed; if this lady was right about the gate, he didn’t have much choice.

Valleri could still smell the rot of the crypts as she passed through into another chamber. Small dust clouds erupted every time she took a step and she could hear the clicking noise of old, decrepit joints off in the distance. The dragur she had encountered so far weren’t anything to worry about; a few good swings here and there and they’d be down.

It was how many of them there actually were that was tedious.

Vilkas followed behind her. The Nord had no desire to continue but did anyways, fighting close at Valleri’s back. He barely said anything to her after running up the stairs to check on the gate.

Valleri continued towards the end of the chamber. A flash of movement ran across the hall in front of her. On instinct, Valleri stepped back. Her foot landed on step stones and she felt it sink down into the floor. She cursed under her breath and almost fell backwards into Vilkas.

“What the hell?” Vilkas grabbed onto her shoulder, allowing Valleri to regain her footing.

She stared at him, eyes narrowed, “Sorry.” Valleri looked back towards the hall in front of them. Blades swung back and forth from the ceiling. The woman watched the blades for a moment, gauging how long it took for them to complete a cycle. “I think if I sprint, I could make it.”

“You sure about that?”

Valleri nodded her head, “Yeah, I could make it. They’re not going that fast.”

“Fine, just be careful,” Vilkas whispered as he stepped to the side. Valleri waited a moment for the first blade to reach the middle of its cycle then took off. Her heart thudded against her chest as she ran through the short corridor, worried that her timing may have been off. She turned around to look backwards as she cleared the trap, searching for Vilkas on the other side. He shouted something at her, but Valleri couldn’t hear what.

Before she knew it, a rickety, old sword whizzed past her. Turning around, Valleri came face to face with the dragur that she had seen before setting off the trap. She pulled her sword out of the scabbard at her side quickly and the dragur blocked her blow. The undead creature went to the side, Valleri following suit to keep attacking the dragur’s left side. Finally, with its back facing the swinging blades, she gave the dragur a swift kick. It landed with a satisfactory thud in the middle of the trap. She searched for a lever or pull chain to stop the trap while her adversary was torn to shreds.

Vilkas stalked over to Valleri after she stopped the swing blades. There was a loud snap as he stepped on the arm of the dragur. Valleri stood her ground as

Vilkas stooped in front her of with a scowl.

“What’d I do wrong this time?” Vilkas only shook his head and started walking to the next room. Valleri followed closely behind, frustration welling up in her chest. “What the fuck did I do?”

The two of them exited the corridor into a more natural cavern. A stream cut across the cave and past it was another sarcophagus. Valleri could hear a scrapping sound coming from within. Her imagination filled with dark images of what had been trapped in the coffin for centuries. Vilkas called back to her, pulling a short metal chain. A gate at the other side of the room lifted with screech, alerting Valleri to its presence. Vilkas led her through the gate and down alongside the stream that had started in the room before. At the end tunnel was a small overlook. Valleri paused and looked down.

Below her was small walk way going across a chasm. Another dragur was patrolling the thin walkway, a large axe pulled out and ready attack. Vilkas walked past her and towards the path leading down. “Vilkas, wait.”

The man paused for a moment before moving to look over the edge. He sighed when he saw the dragur. Valleri glanced at him, “I’m gonna climb down.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, I am,” she swung her leg over the ledge and started to make her way down the cliff face. She heard Vilkas above her move away from the ledge and go down the path. She grunted as she wormed her way onto the far side of the walkway behind the dragur. Valleri didn’t bother remain quiet as she charged the dragur. She felt her blade slice through the dragur’s chest, but the creature didn’t slow and pushed Valleri back. Valleri made a second attempt to strike the dragur. She arced her sword and connected with the dragur’s neck. Valleri tried to bring her sword out of the creature. The sword didn’t budge. Valleri huffed in frustration and brought her dagger. She readied into another attack position when she heard Vilkas yelling. Suddenly the dragur stopped moving and Vilkas’ sword had pierced it’s torso all the way through. He slid the sword out with ease and the dragur flopped onto the ground. Valleri stared out him with amazement as he bent down to retrieve her sword. He flipped it towards her and almost snarled, “That was incredibly stupid.”

Valleri frowned and took the handle. “Shut up. I could have handled it.” She sheathed her sword as Vilkas pushed past her. She sighed and turned to follow. Frustration welled up in Valleri’s chest. She prayed to the Divines they were nearing the end of the ruin.

Valleri stared at the large wall in front of her. There were ornate circular designs carved on the upper portion of the wall, split into three major sections. Small animals danced around the rings. Three small holes had been dug out beneath the rings. The carvings were curiously similar to the ones she had seen in the first puzzle room. Vilkas yawned behind her, “Any ideas?”

Valleri went towards wall. Her hand was outstretched to feel the stone when one of the rings moved under her touch. Valleri pulled her hand back suddenly, “Fuck! Was that supposed to move?”

“S’pose so.”

Valleri turned back to stare at Vilkas, eyes narrowed in discomfort. “Did the Nords really have to make so many damn puzzles?”

“What’d the elves do?”

Valleri shrugged and turned her attention back the wall, “Mostly just traps.” Vilkas muttered in acknowledgment and went to look around at some other carvings on the wall. The frustration that filled the pit in her stomach began to creep through her arms and Valleri breathed outwardly. The three holes caught her eye once again. Valleri could feel her eyes go wide.

Why hadn’t she thought of it before?

The woman pulled the small claw from out of her bag. She counted the fingers and measured them for good measured. Valleri smiled as she realized her breakthrough.

“Vilkas, get over here!”

“What is it this time?”

“Do you think you could move that top ring for me?” Vilkas shrugged as he moved past her and reached up, ready pull down to move the stone. Valleri looked closer to the palm of the claw. Nearing the top was a small bear. “Move it till you see a bear.”

“Same idea as the earlier lever, right?”

“Exactly. Middle one is a butterfly of some sort,” Valleri glanced up to watch Vilkas rotate the second ring. “Owl,” she muttered as she moved out of Vilkas’ way. He finished rotating the ring quickly and stepped back when he heard a click. Valleri crouched forward, claw in her hand. She inserted the gold trinket into the slots. There was a rumbling beneath her and Valleri stepped backwards into Vilkas as they watched the wall descend into the floor. The claw landed with a clang as it fell out of the wall.

In front of them they could see a large cavernous chamber. Moonlight poured in through holes in the ceiling and there was a raised patio in the center of the chamber. Valleri stood in awe. This final tomb was nothing like what she had seen in Cyrodiil.

Vilkas patted her shoulder and went on in. He walked at a slow pace, allowing Valleri to catch up with ease. The two of them stopped on the raised patio where Vilkas sat down on a coffin behind her. In front of them was another large black wall, curved in on itself. Strokes were carved in neat lines and made Valleri think of an old, dead language. Which language it was Valleri couldn’t guess.

“We should rest. It’s way past dark,” Vilkas yawned again. He sprawled out over the coffin and closed his eyes. Valleri sighed and looked back towards the wall. Vilkas eyed her out of the corner of his eye. She sat down on the floor in front of the wall with her back turned away from him. Short, flaxen hair covered her neck. It was wavier than most of than most people and he had noticed earlier that she was constantly pushing it out of her face. Why Valleri didn’t braid it back was beyond him.

“You’re curious about the wall.”

Valleri turned back to him, a smirk on her face. “I thought you were sleeping.”

“Just resting,” he heard Valleri chuckle, “I’ve seen those walls before.”

“What’s written on there?”

“An old language of dragons.”

“Dragons?”

“Yeah. A long time ago a bunch of fools thought it’d be fun to worship giant, flying lizards. That’s their script up there.”

“Do you know what it says?”

Vilkas paused. “Beats me.”

The two of them spent several minutes in silence. Valleri moved to the base of the wall and used her cloak as a makeshift blanket. She looked down at the floor for a minute before looking up towards Vilkas on the coffin, “You never told me why you were so mad earlier.”

Vilkas breathed out in exasperation, “Do you always rush into dangerous situations?”

“I guess.”

“There’s your answer then.” Vilkas said, voice thick with annoyance. He was scowling again. “Do you know what the Companions are built on?”

“Loyalty and honor. Something like that,” Valleri scoffed.

Vilkas sat up on the coffin a quick motion with a fiery spark in his eyes. Valleri only stared back at him. “The Companions take the hardest jobs because others can’t. We have to work together,” his expression softened, “We have to trust each other.”

“Trust doesn’t come easily for me.”

“I figured. Why?”

Valleri sighed, “I could ask the same question.” She glanced back to Vilkas who continued to stare at her with silver eyes.

“Fine. I don’t like people who think they’re above me. It was just me and Farkas for a while, and I had to be one to keep us safe.”

“So, you’re just an orphan.”

“Well not exactly. Some man by the name of Jergen left us at Jorrvaskr when we were children.”

“It seems like going into the Companions was the obvious choice,” Valleri muttered from her spot on the floor.

“Oh, shut up. I guess your parents weren’t happy about you becoming a research guard.”

Valleri whipped her head around and stared daggers at the man on the coffin. “Jokes on you, because they died before I could remember their faces.” Valleri didn’t elaborate further and continued to stare menacingly at Vilkas.

“Apologies,” Vilaks said quietly as he watched the anger melt of Valleri’s face. “What happened then?”

“I grew up in a temple before joining a group of scholars based in Anvil.”

“Why are you so prickly then?”

“When you’re raised by people who constantly tell you you’re a burden, then you begin to think they’re right.”

“What changed?”

Valleri glanced at Vilkas with an uneasy smile. “You sure are persistent. Let’s just say I wasn’t specifically a research guard or sell sword or what have you. They accepted me like family.” Valleri stared at that floor again, mouth pulled back in regret. Vilkas stared off into the distance with his head propped on his hand. “I’m sorry.” Vilkas heard her whisper.

“Don’t be. Just try to get some sleep. We’ll be in Riverwood come morning.” Vilkas took one last look as Valleri on the floor before laying back down on the coffin. Sleep wouldn’t take him for a while yet.

Valleri slid down the rock cliff with an arm holding her steady. Vilkas was still at the top of the ledge, gazing out across the trees below him. Valleri’s foot hit the forest floor with a soft thud and she wobbled as she steadied herself back onto flat ground. She glanced up to Vilkas above her and shouted, “You see anything up there?

“No. Just trees. It should be no trouble to get back to the village.”

The Nord climbed down the cliff after Valleri, landing a bit faster than he thought. Valleri stifled a chuckle as he almost tripped. He glared at her momentarily before his expression melted into a vague smirk as he caught up to Valleri. Their walk back to Riverwood was uneventful. The sun was beginning to rise over the tree tops and the air started to warm. Valleri could feel her fingers unthaw. She still wasn’t used to the cold climate of the mountains and the ruin had been colder than she had expected. Valleri would have to find a pair of gloves once she got back to Whiterun.

As the village came into view, Vilkas paused. In the distance a man running towards the center of the village. Once Valleri took a closer look, she could see tell tale brown and red uniform. The man was a legionnaire.

“Should we check it out?”

“Probably. There might be trouble.” Vilkas muttered as he crossed a stream towards the boardwalk leading to the main part of the village. His pace slowed as he rounded the corner. Delphine and a blacksmith were attempting to calm down the frantic soldier.

“I just fucking ran. Just fucking ran.”

“Hadvar, calm down lad. What happened?” the blacksmith questioned as he laid a hand on the soldiers back.

“It’s destroyed,” the soldier paused to catch his breath, “Absolutely gone.”

Vilkas came up on the trio standing in the middle of the road. “What happened here?”

Delphine looked up, a tinge of relief washing over her face. “Don’t know yet.”

The soldier looked up suddenly and turned to face Vilkas, “Nobody can help. Helgen’s been destroyed. Wiped off the map.”

Everyone stared at the young man in disbelief. Valleri felt her back go stiff and a cold feeling creep up over her shoulders. The blacksmith was the first one to speak, “What do you mean destroyed?”

“We captured Ulfric Stromcloak, but before we could execute him, a full regiment of rebels overtook the town,” the soldier’s eyes glazed over before he continued, “It was absolute bloodshed.”

Delphine looked up to Vilkas, “This is serious. The Jarl needs to know.”

Vilkas nodded his head in agreement. He glanced down at Valleri at his side. The woman had almost froze, her left hand balled up in tight fist. Her other hand all but clawed at her left. The anger in her eyes was unnatural.

“We’ll leave right away and I’ll talk to him.” He turned back to Valleri, “We found that man’s trinket while we were in the ruin by the way. You should probably be the one to return it.”

Valleri perked up, the look of rage melting off her face. She gingerly unpacked the golden claw from her bag and offered it back to Delphine. “Those bandits pretty much took care of themselves. I’m sure things’ll be fine, but stay safe,” Valleri muttered as she went to leave the group. The news of Helgen’s destruction left her feeling sick. Memories of Jalfi and Helgi’s fear and her own entry into Skyrim came rushing back as she walked down the road. Why were people so intent on ruining the lives of others?

Chapter Text

The sun was descending finally as Vilkas went down the steps leading to Dragonsreach. This day seemed to go on forever, but Vilkas was close to putting it behind him. His walk to the back of the training yard of Jorrvaskr was short. Crazy Heimskr had taken the day off and Vilkas was glad he wasn’t screaming at people passing by. The sunlight was distant as Vilkas walked around the side of the Jorrvaskr and the familiar sounds of arrows hitting practice targets had become clear. He could see Aela and Skjor standing side by side, bows out and quivers at their sides. Kodlak was standing close by, arms crossed as he watched his friends. Vilkas approached the trio, stopping next to the Harbinger

Kodlak glanced at the newcomer before looking back at Aela and Skjor, “How did Balgruuf take the news?”

“Not well. He’s as indecisive as he is stubborn; he probably won’t do anything about it,” Vilkas huffed.

“Sounds a lot like someone I know” Aela chuckled as she let an arrow fly. The woman breathed outwards with satisfaction after the arrow hit its mark.

Skjor laughed, smile playing on his lips, “Oh, don’t tease the boy, sister. He may be stubborn but he isn’t indecisive. He may pounce on you next chance he gets.”

Aela turned around to see Vilkas glowering at the two archers. “True, true.” She laughed again and pulled another arrow from out of her quiver. Vilkas continued to glare at her, “It was jest Vilkas.” She knocked the arrow, breathing in. The woman fired the arrow and cursed when it missed the target entirely. Skjor laughed as Aela narrowed his eyes at him in mock disappointment.

Still smiling, Skjor looked backwards to Vilkas, “Beyond that, how did the new comer do?”

“Valleri?” Vilkas’ expression softened as he stared at the ground in contemplation, “She did fine.”

Aela and Skjor stared at Vilkas was disbelief. Kodlak stifled a laugh next to him and Aela opened her mouth to speak, “This woman must really be something. You usually have something negative to say about every whelp we take on!”

“You’ve even memorized her name.” Skjor muttered under a laugh. Vilkas sighed in frustration.

“In all seriousness though, would you recommend we take her on?” Kodlak asked, recomposed suddenly. Skjor shrugged as he went back to the targets in front of him. Vilkas watched him for a moment as he thought of an answer.

“Valleri’s on par with Athis skill wise. She’s a risk taker though. If we take her on, she’ll want to do things her way.”

“Valleri has fire. I can appreciate that,” Kodlak paused, “The girl’s been through a lot, it’ll take time to temper her down.”

“It won’t happen for some time.” Vilkas muttered off handedly. There was another thunk when Skjor fired his arrow. The older man smiled as he knocked another arrow. “Not until she’s made some sort of breakthrough. Her friends were important to her.”

Aela turned back to the two men behind her, “She mentioned being from Anvil right? Was she with the fighter’s guild?”

Vilkas shook his head, “No, a private research group. She grew up in a chapel and didn’t get any sort of training until she joined up.”

“Valleri must have been one of the orphans left after the plague,” Kodlak muttered.

“Plague?”

Kodlak looked up to Vilkas, “There was a disease that ravished the Gold Coast region shortly after the war. Many people perished. I’d imagine that’s how she ended up at the chapel.”

“Makes sense,” Skjor whispered. “Either way, it’s already been a week. You may as well accept her contract officially, even if working with her is as tough as Vilkas says it’s going to be.”

“I didn’t say that.” Vilkas quipped as Skjor shrugged in an apology.

“I’ll let her know in the morning then,” Kodlak mumbled before turning to look down the path. “We have a visitor tonight, my friends”

Sure enough, when Vilkas turned to look at the side of the hall, he could see man in dark purple robes pacing down the path. The man’s hands were clenched up in tight fists and in one of them was a letter. There was venom in his expression as he neared the group. “If the Jarl doesn’t end up killing me, I swear on the grave of my father you people will!” the man swore. Vilkas sighed outwards with frustration as Kodlak moved closer to the mage with a friendly hand proffered out.

The mage brushed it back with a tired look. Kodlak grimaced momentarily, “What brings you here, Farengar?”

“You know that’s an interesting question, Harbinger. Somehow, even after two years, I’m still getting your letters from the College,” Farengar flapped the letter in the air before handing it to Kodlak. “Please just ask them to send it to you directly.”

Vilkas could see that the top portion of the envelope had been haphazardly torn open. Kodlak sighed, “You had to read it?”

“Of course, I did; there was no name on the letter. That courier only said it was from the College,” Farengar gestured theatrically with his arms, wide sleeves swinging to and fro.

Aela leaned on Vilkas’ shoulder, bow aimed downwards, and whispered into the younger man’s ear, “You think we could scare ‘em away?”

Vilkas shook his head with a slight smile playing on the corners of his mouth, “Not worth it.”

“Bah, you’re no fun,” Aela laughed as she steadied herself away from Vilkas.

“What’s it say?”

Kodlak scanned the document quickly, “They found a piece of Wuuthrad in a crypt nearby.” He looked over his shoulder to the Companions behind him. He would have laughed; everyone was experiencing a wide range of emotions, mostly shock.

Farengar huffed, “Listen; I don’t consider your lot to be friends and I’m probably one of the last people you’d take council from, but Kodlak, move quickly. Things like this don’t stay quiet and there are bound to be others who’ll want your fragment.”

“The wizard’s right, Kodlak.” Skjor muttered from behind the old man. Kodlak stared at the ground for a moment before heading inside.

“I’ll take the night to think on it. I’ll let you know of my decision in the morning.” Kodlak grumbled as he went back inside, quickly followed by Skjor.

Farengar didn’t linger long and only Aela and Vilkas were the only people left in the training yard. Aela strode over to the far side of the yard and started plucking arrows from the targets. Vilkas folloed her at a distance and helped her clean up the scattered arrows. The sky above them had began to darken as the sun made its dash to the horizon. Secunda was high above them and pale light began to pour down. “Hand me the extras, Vilkas. I’m going for the night.”

Vilkas looked over his shoulder with a scowl, “You’re not even going to pretend that you’re considering Kodlak’s view of things?”

“Kodlak’s the Harbinger, not the de facto master of the Companions. I can technically do what I want,” Aela shrugged as she slung her bow of her shoulder, “And a night hunt sounds good right now.” Vilkas grumbled and began to walk back towards the door inside. Aela called out once more before she rounded the corner around Jorrvaskr, “Don’t worry about it too much Vilkas; I’m sure things’ll work out fine!”

Vilkas opened the door with a sigh of exhaustion. Bright light hit him in the face like heavy fist aimed for his nose. Aela’s final words of encouragement did nothing to help his mood. Instead, Vilkas was now more sure than ever that things were beginning to fall apart.

Valleri sat at a corner table in the Bannered Mare, quietly sipping on a small mug of mead. Athis and Farkas were sitting at the table as well, both having drug the woman out for a drink. Farkas had been distracted most of the night while Athis had barely said two words to his friends. Valleri resolved herself to watching the activity around her; most of the people who had been coming in and out were loud and rambunctious, perfect for people watching. Most had gathered around the open fire in the middle of the building. In the distance, Valleri could here a bard screeching out a song. She sighed; this may have not been the best idea.

An older woman approached the table with another bottle of mead, glancing down to Farkas, “Your little group sure is silent tonight.” She stared expectantly at the three of them and a look of disappointment washed over her face when no one answered, “Did someone die? You all look so glum.”

“We’re just having a drink, ma’am.” Athis muttered from his seat, still looking at the people near the hearth.

“Well, that’s fine and all, but you’re killing the mood,” the woman huffed, “At least look like you’re not about to go murder someone.”

The woman turned to leave, but Farkas made a move to speak, “Hulda, do you know if Ysolda is going to be here tonight?”

Hulda narrowed her eyes in thought before answering. “I don’t think she will; said something about having some stuff clean up at home. Sorry,” Hulda muttered as she smirked at Farkas. He frowned momentarily as he took a large gulp from his mug.

Athis chuckled, “No need to get drunk just because your girl isn’t here tonight.”

Farkas nearly choked as he stared at the Dunmer in disbelief, “Ysolda isn’t mine and probably never will; not that I’m interested anyways.”

Athis laughed at his friend while a smile crept up Valleri’s face. “Wait, I thought I was imagining thigs, but Farkas is into Ysolda?” the woman chuckled, looking at the Dunmer for an answer.

“The big lug here’s been chasing after the poor girl since she came into town,” he pointed a slender, grey finger towards his friend, “Farkas is too cowardly to say anything.”

Farkas huffed out in frustration, setting the mug down on the table. He wore a scowl as he stared down the Dunmer across the table. Athis didn’t make a move and kept smiling. Valleri could see Farkas think for a moment before the larger Nord slumped against the back of his seat in defeat. He shot another glare at Athis, “Say one thing about it to anyone else, I’ll give you a black eye.”

“Sure, you will,” Athis muttered as he stared at the golden liquid in his own mug, “What I wouldn’t give for a real drink though.”

“What were you thinking?” Valleri muttered, silently thinking the same thing. The mead was too sweet for her tastes.

“Sujama. The corner club in Windhelm has some decent stock. Why, what were you thinking about?”

Valleri only shook her head, “Not sujama, that’s for sure.” She paused for a moment, leaning further back in her seat. “You’re from Windhelm then?”

“Unfortunately,” Athis whispered as he looked down at the table, “Came here maybe three years ago now. Azura’s blood, I hate that city.”

“As you’ve said a million times, Athis,” Farkas said from behind his mug. He looked over to Valleri, “We found him getting into a brawl with some Nords. They kicked him out of the city. Skjor offered to take him back with us.”

“What’s wrong with WIndhelm?” Valleri asked as she poured more mead into her mug. Athis stared at her with disbelief before she shrugged. “I just got here. Don’t blame me for being curious.”

Athis shook his head, “Windhelm is literally the worst place in Skyrim. Ulfirc Stromcloak is jarl, but thinks himself a king. Treats anyone who isn’t a Nord like they may as well be scum on the bottom of his boot.” He took a long swig of his drink before continuing his rant, “He pushed all of us Dumner to squalid part of the city; started calling it the Grey Quarter. The bastard.”

Valelri narrowed her eyes in contemplation. She could feel herself begin to fog over, “Why don’t you guys just kick him out, reinstate a new Jarl?”

“They can’t just get rid of a Jarl, Val,” Farkas muttered, “He’s got an entire army that’d probably siege the city before a few elves and handful of Argonians could take ‘em out.”

“Oh, so that’s why the people in Riverwood were worried about that Ulfirc fellow. He’s the one who started the rebellion?”

“Right as rain you are.” Athis stated before finishing off his mug. Valleri refilled it quickly as Athis continued, “Stupid war just to pet his own ego, I say.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Valleri gestured, “What is this war over anyways?”

Farkas shrugged, “Oblivion if I know.” Valleri looked over to Athis and watched as the elf shook his head.

“Empire is no better in my opinion, no offense.” Athis nodded his head towards Valleri, who shrugged in acknowledgment. “Idiot generals thinking it only takes a few more men, that land still technically belongs to them.”

Valleri sighed, suddenly aware of her falling mood, “It’s just as messy as Cyrodiil then?” Valleri looked up from her mead and over towards the hearth. Most of the people that had gathered around were laughing and telling stories. The bard was now singing a jaunty tune that roused the crowd around him. “What a waste,” she muttered before taking a sip of mead. Valleri’s mind began to fixate on the legionnaire from Helgen and the sudden disappointment that had washed over Vilkas’ face when he had seen her freeze.

Farkas shook his head, “Hulda was right. You guys are just sad. The wars got nothing to do with us, right?” the man said before refilling everyone’s mug, “Just drink up and don’t think about it!” Farkas grinned at Valleri and she couldn’t help but smile back. He looked back to Athis who was still sullen. “Did you know that our elf friend here has almost got caught up in a daedra cult a while back?”

Valleri looked over to Athis, who was now stuttering out a hasty reply, “Oh really?”

Vilkas glanced up when he heard the front door creak open. It was already late into the night and Vilkas had expected that whoever had went out for the night wouldn’t be back till the morning. Instead he saw a slender woman come in through the door. Valleri looked unsteady on her feet as she almost slammed the door closed.

Vilkas cleared his throat, catching her attention. She stared at him with wide eyes, “Fuck, I didn’t think anyone would still be up.” Valleri muttered, rubbing her eyes with a hand. “Why’s it so bright in here?”

Vilkas shot her a confused look from his spot at the table, “Where’ve you been?”

“What?”

Valleri slumped into a seat across from his and propped her head up with a hand. Vilkas could see a pink hue covering her face and her eyes were tired.

“You went out drinking with Farkas and Athis, I take it?” Vilkas shook his head.

“Yep,” Valleri slurred as she slumped over on the table, “I’m an idiot.”

Vilkas furrowed his eyebrows as he stared at the woman in front of him. The scene in front of him was bordering on pathetic, “Obviously. What’d exactly did they give you?”

“We started with that mead stuff, but then half way through Athis had the lady bring some sort of hard liquor,” Valleri groaned, “Drinking whatever was in that bottle was a mistake.”

“I’m not sure why you didn’t think so in the first place,” Vilkas glanced towards the door for a moment before looking back to Valleri, “Where are they?”

“Bannered Mare.”

“I don’t why I’m surprised. You tapped out then?” Valleri gave a quick gesture with her hand in acknowledgment and Vilkas nodded his head. He laughed, a smile playing on his face, “You’re going to have a rough time tomorrow.”

“Gods, don’t remind me,” Valleri whispered groggily as she looked up once more, “I regret this so much.”

“I can see that,” Vilkas stifled a chuckle as he watched Valleri groan again. The alcohol was starting to go to her head. He got up from the table and went to a cabinet at the far end of the hall. He shuffled around before finding a purple bottle. He took a glass and went back to the table to uncork the concoction.

“Please, I don’t think I can handle anymore.” Valleri waved as she shot him a disgruntled look.

“This isn’t alcoholic,” Vilkas muttered as he filled the glass half way before sliding it over to her, “It’ll help with the nausea.”

Valleri looked up to him with a pained expression before taking the glass from his hand. Her nose scrunched up as she brought the glass closer to her face, “This smells awful.”

“It’ll burn going down.” Valleri scowled at the glass before chugging it down. When she was done, Valleri set the glass down onto the table with a larger thud and she laid her head back onto the table. Vilkas continued to stare at her with a slight grimace. Blonde hair was splayed over her face, obscuring her expression. Vilkas sighed, “You know, sleeping in actual bed would help.”

Valleri hummed lightly before stray hairs behind her ear, “I just don’t want to move.”

Vilkas chuckled, “You’re a surprisingly calm drunk.”

“Fuck off.”

“There it is.” Vilkas quipped. He walked around the side of the table and started to wrap one of Valleri’s arms around his shoulders. The smaller woman slumped against his slide as she groaned again. Vilkas began to walk Valleri towards the stairs. She felt warm against his side, something Vilkas hadn’t expected. “This is the only time I’m going to do this,” the man gruffed as he carefully led Valleri down the stairs to the lower levels of the hall. Valleri began to mumble in tongues, speaking in and out of Cyrodiilic and some sort of Elvish. What she was mumbling about was beyond him.

Vilkas stopped at the final door leading into the bunk room and steadied his friend. She kept a hand on his arm as she reached for the banister. Valleri looked up momentarily and paused. Vilkas hear her breath hitch and her eyes were suddenly serious and alert.

“You have such kind eyes.”

Vilkas stared wide eyed at Valleri in shock, “What?” He felt his face flush and his shoulders tense up. Suddenly he was scowling again as s smile crept up Valleri’s face. “Bones, Valleri! Go to bed,” Vilkas nearly shouted as he turned quickly away from the Imperial at the door. He could still feel the strange, nervous warmth in his chest as he walked back to his own quarters.

It was good that Valleri wasn’t going to remember anything the next day.

Chapter Text

Valleri woke up with pounding, rhythmic throb in her head. She groaned as she rolled onto her back, legs still tangled in the wool blanket. The wall sconce next to her head was brighter than she hoped. Valleri groaned. What even happened last night?

Valleri could only clearly remember drinking with Athis and Farkas then the walk back to Jorrvaskr. Finally, Vilkas had greeted her at the door, but after that she couldn’t guess. Valleri didn’t think that Vilkas had said much of anything. Instead he probably muttered something snarky under his breath and left her to her own machinations. At least that’s what Valleri’s fantasy was. While Vilkas’ demeanor towards her had improved since Bleakfalls Barrow, the Nord was still off standish.

Valleri huffed as she forced herself up; Nordic alcohol wasn’t for her.

There were footsteps quickly approaching and Valleri didn’t bother acknowledging the older woman who had come to check on her. The woman mumbled something about Kodlak and the rest was lost. Valleri arched her back in a stretch and grabbed her overshirt before leaving the warmth of the bed. The walk up to the main hall had helped wake the Imperial woman up. Valleri scrunched her eyes closed and rubbed her face with a free hand when the sunlight starting to pour into the room hit her face. She garbled out a curse before finding a seat at the table dominating the room. She felt a hand grip on her shoulder lightly. Again, Valleri didn’t bother looking up, “Reman’s beard, not now.”

“Must be a bad hangover.”

Valleri finally glanced up, coming face to face with an expressionless Vilkas. She put her head in her hands, “Your criticism is the last thing I need.”

“Figured,” the man said as he pulled up a seat next to her. He grabbed for a piece of bread and broke it in half before gesturing it towards Valleri. “You’re going want to fill your stomach if you want to get through the day,” Vilkas muttered as Valleri swiped the bread piece from his hand. She could spot a corner of his mouth move upwards in a small smirk as he spread some jam over his half.

Valleri nibbled on the bread for a moment before pouring herself a glass of water. The fluid felt soothing against her throat and before she knew it, Valleri had chugged the rest of the water. Vilkas had only stared at her with a confused expression. He shook his head then went back to eating and Valleri enjoyed the companionable silence. Valleri watched as the sun finally made its way past the edge of the wall and she could feel her head ache ease a little.

She peeked over to Vilkas at her right before moving to speak, “I heard that Kodlak was looking for me.”

“Mm hmm,” Vilkas hummed as he continued to stare at the table in front of him. Valleri could see dark rims under his eyes, clear as day without the usual smear of charcoal covering his face. If Valleri hadn’t been preoccupied with her own hangover, she probably would have said something.

“You know what it’s about?”

“Aye,” Vilkas leaned back in his seat, “It’s about what happened at Bleakfalls.”

“Shit.”

“It’s not all bad news.”

Valleri looked away from Vilkas and back across the room with a slight scowl, “Easy for you to say, you aren’t the one being judged.”

Vilkas raised his eyebrows momentarily in shock, “I’ll have you know, its also me who’s being evaluated here. I was the one who had to make sure you weren’t a liability.”

“Kodlak can’t just kick you out for being a crappy judge of character though,” Valleri whipped her head back towards Vilkas with furrowed eyebrows, “I’m still just an outsider.” The woman huffed and went back to staring at the room in front of her.

Vilkas sighed, “True.” He looked back at Valleri, observing small features he hadn’t noticed before. Her profile was sharp and her nose was long and pointed. Her skin looked a tad paler than what should have been natural, but that may have been because of her previous night becoming acquainted with Nordic alcohol. Even with exhaustion written all over her face, Valleri’s eyes were wide and alert. He hadn’t noticed just how large her eyes were when she was still sober, but now it was plain obvious.

Vilkas turned around with a fluid motion, finding himself staring at Kodlak coming up from the lower level. The younger man nodded his head towards him and went back to watching Valleri. The woman hadn’t noticed the Harbinger behind her, but Vilkas wouldn’t have expected her to.

“You two are awake early.” Kodlak bellowed with a smile.

Valleri turned back with frightened movement, eye wide in surprise, and almost shouted, “Fuck!” Kodlak stared at her with a slightly disturbed expression and Vilkas tried not to laugh sarcastically. “I did not mean to say that!”

Kodlak sighed, “You’re already aware of what I needed to talk to you about?” Valleri nodded her head slightly before looking over to Vilkas with a tinge of worry. Kodlak caught onto the small interaction, “Vilkas told you then?”

“It was nice of him to warn me before hand,” Valleri muttered as she turned back to Kodlak.

The old man’s smile returned as he glanced over to Vilkas. The younger man’s expression was nearly blank, but Kodlak knew him long enough to see the hint of exasperation, “Quite.” He turned back to the Imperial woman, “I’ve made a final decision regarding your contract.” Valleri stopped breathing and began to wring her fingers in anticipation. “Vilkas has told me about your trip to Bleakfalls Barrow and was impressed, though his recommendation was still hesitant. You’re very much used to working by yourself, are you not?”

Valleri’s expression changed suddenly, eyes no longer scanning around the room with anxiety. Instead she looked directly at Kodlak with a newfound seriousness, “That’s not entirely correct. I only find it difficult to work with those I don’t fully trust nor understand,” she paused momentarily, glancing at the younger man next to her before looking back at Kodlak, “You can go a long time talking to a person without knowing if they’re going to leave you for dead in the right situation.”

Kodlak stared at the woman before answering, only for a moment that seemed to stretch for hours. Valleri was right, but still didn’t seem to understand what the Companions were like, didn’t understand how different this place was from her friends in Anvil. He cocked an eyebrow before glancing back to Vilkas; her comment had seemed directed at the younger Nord, if only a little. Vilkas’ demeanor had not changed from before. Grey eyes were still trained on Valleri, watching her movements with curiosity. If he had noted the second meaning in Valleri’s words, he didn’t want to look as if he did.

“That’s a piece of wisdom not many understand, Imperial. But you may find that it is not so true here.” Kodlak broke his formal tone and bellowed with a deep, resonating laugh, “I hope the others will make you think differently. I’ve decide to accept your contract.”

A look of relief and happiness washed over Valleri’s face as she breathed out. Both Kodlak and Vilkas could see a weight lift from her shoulder. Valleri smiled, genuinely smiled for the first time since she arrived. It was bright and infectious; Kodlak could see the corner of Vilkas’ lips curl in a smirk.

“That being said, Vilkas, I’ve also come to a decision concerning the news we got from the college concerning Wuuthrad.”

Vilkas perked up at the name and looked back up to Kodlak, “Have you now?”

“I would like you and your brother to take Valleri to retrieve it. Even if you find it was a false tip, I believe it would be beneficial for you to poke around.”

Vilkas furrowed his eyebrows, taking in what Kodlak had just said. He glanced back up, “I should tell you know that we won’t be able to leave for a time. No one’s seen Farkas since last night.”

Kodlak sighed, “Bannered Mare, I take it?” Valleri mumbled a few words of apology as Vilkas nodded his head. Kodlak stared forward in mock disappointment, “That will be fine then. Just make for Dustman’s Cairn when you three are ready.”

Kodlak turned to make his way to the training yard when Valleri lifted her hand for attention, “What’s Wuuthrad exactly?”

Kodlak smiled to himself as he continued towards the door, “You’ll find out soon enough.”

Farkas didn’t make his appearance until midafternoon. Valleri had been surprised to find that the Nord was wholly unaffected by their night out, smiling widely without faltering once in the time they had seen him. Vilkas only stared at her with a tinge of pity and amusement when his brother had come into Jorrvaskr absolutely fine. She internally chided him for finding her low alcohol tolerance entertaining.

They started for Dustman’s Cairn almost as soon as Farkas showed up. The sun was at its full height when the trio left the city gates behind them, beaming down on Valleri’s back as they walked westward. Vilkas and Farkas quickly led her away from the road and over the open plain. Many of the plants around them had began to prepare for the coming autumn weather. Leaves were turning a bright golden color, reminding Valleri of her native Gold Coast. Bright spots of purple stood out among the gold, giving a splash of color to the plain. Tall mountains rose on either side of the tundra; Valleri once again had the feeling that she was being watched by the mountains. She would probably never get used to the massive peaks looming over her back.

Farkas had been chatty the entire time the trio had been hiking to Dustman’s Cairn. Vilkas had acknowledged his brother with monosyllable answers beside her while Valleri had wondered at the scenery around them. Hours passed by like this in mostly companionable silence; Valleri felt as though she was almost back at home.

Before she knew it, the sun began its decent back into the horizon and the sky began to darken to an inky black. The trio’s pace slowed before Vilkas stopped their trek entirely towards Dustman’s Cairn.

He sighed as he looked across the horizon, “We’re going to have to make a camp for tonight.” He looked back over to Farkas behind him, “We probably would have made it if you weren’t so late earlier.”

Farkas shrugged as Valleri looked over to him with a look of concern, “Well, it’s already happened. Besides, camping out won’t be so bad.”

There was an awkward pause before Valleri crossed her arms and stared at the ground with an expression of disparagement. “Last time I camped out in the woods, I almost died,” she muttered, voice thick with sarcasm. Vilkas looked over his shoulder and Farkas’ smile almost disappeared. Valleri looked up, noting their expressions, “Bad joke, sorry.”

Vilkas sighed before moving down towards a lower point in the plain, noting that this was now their camping space. Farkas had taken Valleri to collect some firewood while Vilkas cleared away most of the debris. When they came back, Vilkas quickly made a fire that illuminated the night around them. By this time, Farkas had gotten quieter as the three of them sat around the fire. Valleri pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders and stared out at the scenery in front of them. Vilkas stared into the fire, face serious and mind probably overthinking about what they had to do in the morning. Farkas, on the other hand, had begun to hum to himself.

“You okay?”

Valleri turned her head to face Vilkas. He had glanced over to her at his left, looking up at her with expectant eyes.

Valleri breathed out, a small smile playing in her face, “Yeah, I’m good. This just reminds me of one time I had to camp out with my friends before arriving in Skyrim.”

Farkas perked up, “Same ones you’re looking for?” Valleri paused, eyes widening as her smile disappeared. Vilkas scowled at his brother as Farkas looked back at his feet, “Sorry.”

Valleri only shook her head before looking back out across the plain, “Yeah, they are.”

“What’re their names?”

The sun was now just a sliver above the horizon, turning the scenery around their camp bright red. She had seen the same sunset so many times before; this one had felt so distant suddenly, as if Valleri was no longer there. The air had begun to chill around Valleri and she brought her cape closer around her neck, “There were three of us. Alastaros, Lexius, and I.”

“One’s an elf I take it?” Vilkas asked with a gruff tone that he had meant to come off as interested.

A dull pressure welled up in Valleri’s chest. “Yeah. He took Lex and I in when we had nowhere else to go.”

“What was so special about that trip you mentioned?”

Valleri chuckled dryly as she finally looked back to the others. Farkas was staring at her intensely while Vilkas was still looking into the fire in front of them. She smiled as she recalled the memory. “Nothing really in hindsight. We got lost trying to find the entrance to a ruin called Wendir. I can’t even remember why we were trying to find the place, it was so long ago.”

“How long?”

The woman scanned the fire in front of her, “I was twenty or so at the time, so about six years.”

The two men sitting next to her were silent again and the three of them continued to listen to the fire crackle. Every few minutes Valleri could hear a howl or snorting in the distance and she could have sworn she had seen a tall humanoid walking against the horizon.

Farkas finally broke the silence again, voice quieter than before, “Did ever find the place you were looking for.”

Valleri paused, “No, we never did. The forest in that part of Cyrodiil is thick; its easy for people to go missing. If you go deep enough, you’ll find places where you can’t see the sky.”

Vilkas finally straightened his back and looked at her with amazement, “You’re not joking, huh?”

Valleri shook head, “Not at all.”

“It’s a lot like Falkreath I take it?” Vilkas almost huffed. Valleri could now see their breath in the light of the camp fire.

The woman sighed as she looked over to Vilkas, thinking for a moment before answering. “Falkreath appeared lighter, magical even. The Great Forest is a darker place; like there was always something behind me. There used to be towns and old cities before, but they’re all abandoned now.”

“You obviously must have stuck to the road then,” Farkas laughed.

“True.”

“What about now?” Vilkas quipped from her side, “Is it different?”

“Yeah it is. Everything is so open all of a sudden. Like I should be watched but there’s nothing else here.” Valleri muttered, “I can look around me in all directions and see for miles.”

Vilkas glanced up, “Does seeing the sky make you feel better?” Valleri saw a hint of a smile form on the Nord’s expression and she couldn’t help but feel a bit light hearted. Vilkas made a barely noticeable gesture for her to look up.

“Sort of,” Valleri followed his eyes upwards, the paused, “What in oblivion?”

Above their camp, bright lights dominated the sky. Green and purple hues danced around as the stars seemed to shine behind them. The lights turned the surrounding mountains rainbow and to the Imperial they had taken on a magical appearance. Their shape changed constantly; one moment they would be faint in the sky then suddenly explode like mage’s fire. Valleri watched the strange lights with wide eyed wonder for minutes. Vilkas and Farkas just went back to watching the fire; though Vilkas could still see the Valleri’s amazement out of the corner of his eyes.

“You’ve never seen the lights before have you?” Farkas asked offhandedly when he glanced over to Valleri.

She shook her head without looking down, “Never.”

Valleri smiled as she continued to look at the lights. These brothers certainly weren’t Alastaros and Lexius and Dustman’s Cairn was a Nordic ruin in the middle of the tundra, but Valleri didn’t feel out of place at that moment. With how things were going so far in this land of snow, she’d be back in Anvil and its familiar marble ruins soon enough. But it didn’t hurt to enjoy it while it lasted, right?

Chapter Text

If Valleri compared Bleakfall’s Barrow to a well-kept mansion, then Dustman’s Cairn would be a small shack. The ruin the trio had been hiking to turned out to be stony mound that was hollowed out only twenty feet into the ground with a small, black door leading into the interior. Valleri had almost missed it in the darkness of early morning. She had laughed when Farkas pointed it out, thinking that the cairn was just a small pile of stones at the foot of the mountain. Instead of laughing along with her, the brothers only stared back at her.

“Are we sure this is the right place?” she muttered again. Vilkas had already started up the side of the cairn’s exterior. She squinted as she looked up to him. The sun had started to peek from behind the mountain. Farkas yawned behind her, stretching the muscles in his neck.

Vilkas paused, looking down into the hole, ‘It should be, it’s in the right place.”

“It’s tiny though.” Valleri put a hand out onto the mossy stone that made up the mound. The stone was pockmarked, bits and pieces falling away onto the ground in small pieces. “The Companions were a big thing back in the day, right?” Valleri shouted and glanced back up Vilkas.

“It still is though,” Farkas retorted. He crossed his arms in retaliation as Valleri looked back at him with slight grimace.

“Not as big as we used to be,” Vilkas chuckled as he looked towards is brother. The man took a few steps closer to the edge of the hollowed mound. He turned his head calmly towards Valleri, understanding written all over his face, “But that’s not the point. You’ve only been to Bleakfall’s. Not everything is that grand.”

“Still,” Valleri paused. She shifted her weight from foot to foot, feeling unexpectedly exposed under Vilkas’ gaze. The woman took a deep breath, “Would the Companions really hide their most famous weapon in a glorified hill?”

“It’s not a hill, it’s just well hidden.” Farkas finally smiled for the first time since they had found Dustman’s Cairn and Valleri’s sudden anxiety lightened.

“She may have point. This place isn’t mentioned in the old stories. Most of the remnants of the original Companions went east or stayed up north.”

Valleri laughed internally while she cocked her head to the side and smirked. She knew that Vilkas had caught onto what she was getting at. “Why here then?”

“What are you getting at, Val?” Farkas shot her a confused glance.

Valleri sighed. Of course, she was quickly learning that Farkas was not someone who easily understood hidden meanings behind a person’s words right away. She crossed her arms and began to explain, “If it were me and I had to stash an old relic another person was meant to find later on, I wouldn’t move it to a place they know nothing about; much less keep it in some dungeon they’ve never heard of. I’m just saying it doesn’t feel right.”

She caught Vilkas’ gaze, the man looking at her through veiled eyes. “Right, why though?”

“I do this professionally, remember?” Valleri answered plainly. Her hands gripped her arms tighter than she had meant to, feeling accused. Valleri assumed this wasn’t what Vilkas had meant to do, but she felt attacked nonetheless.

“Just something people do then,” Farkas whispered, looking over to Valleri. He paused, thinking momentarily. “It’s probably a trap, Vilkas,” the larger Nord almost shouted. He squinted as the sun came around the mountain entirely,

Vilkas shrugged, “I’ll take Valleri’s word for it then.”

“Should we turn back?”

“No, we should at least check it out,” Vilkas muttered. He looked back towards the mountain momentarily with a grimace. He smiled suddenly, taking a last look down into the hole, “This place might not be a trap.”

Valleri chuckled dryly as she started up the side of mound. “So, I’m just crazy then,” Valleri muttered under her breath, mostly to herself. She smiled as she followed short distance behind Vilkas.

Vilkas looked back at her suddenly with a look of mock disappointment, “I didn’t say that.” He smirked again and opened the black door to the interior of Dustman’s Cairn. Valleri felt her stomach drop a bit when she stared at Vilkas’ back descending into the inky blackness. She stopped at the door way, feeling the pounding in her chest. The woman took in a deep breath before following Vilkas.

Valleri made her way down the short flight of steps, hand dragging along the wall. He eyes adjusted slowly as she saw a dim orange light at the bottom of the steps. Farkas put a hand on her shoulder as the man urged her forward into a small entry chamber. Vilkas was already in the middle of the room by a table, halfheartedly poking a dead dragur with the tip of his boot. The Nord muttered something Valleri couldn’t make out. Valleri scanned the room as she made her way behind Vilkas. Empty, open sarcophagi lined the walls, obscuring any old carvings that may have been of interest

“Something’s disrupted the dragur. There’s pieces of them all over.” Farkas quipped as he picked up a decapitated, grey arm. He smiled widely at Valleri as he waved the limb around in the air. Valleri stifled a laugh as Vilkas turned around. She could hear him groan as he shook his head. Farkas, finally reading his brother’s expressions, haphazardly tossed the arm onto the table.

Vilkas looked back down at one of the corpses, “Looks like they took whoever was here by surprise. They really made a mess; blood all over.” The man gestured at the floor, Valleri noting the glistening, red stains on the floor.

“I’ll take it I was right, then,” Valleri whispered as she smiled to herself.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Valleri looked up, eyebrows furrowed again. “Do you know who would want to lure you guys here?”

Vilkas looked towards the corridor leading deeper into the ruin, “I have an idea, but it’s no promise.” He turned back to his companions, expressionless save for a small upwards tilt of his mouth. Valleri breathed in sharply, scanning his face.

Farkas walked past Vilkas and Valleri and towards the next room. “We’ll continue on, I guess,” the Nord huffed. He disappeared quickly, leaving Valleri looking back to Vilkas.

Vilkas had already turned to face his brother, but Valleri paused, continuing standing in place. He turned back to her, arm reaching out for her shoulder. Valleri breathed out wards, cocking an eyebrow upwards. Vilkas looked down at the floor momentarily and shook his head with anther smile. He turned back towards the corridor with a lighter smile, “Come on, let’s go.”

The trio continued on through the ruin in relative silence. The halls of this ruin were strangely well lighted than Valleri would have expected. But then again, Farkas and Vilkas did suspect that there were others actually waiting for them. They hadn’t told her who they suspected and Valleri couldn’t help but be a little peeved about it. Sure, she wasn’t an actual Companion, but wasn’t knowing who had set the trap important information?

The Imperial woman strode behind Farkas, the three of them walking an orderly single file line. She scanned their surroundings every few minutes. The two men in front of her seemed weirdly calm. Soon enough they came out of the claustrophobic hallways and into a larger chamber. Vilkas paused before entering, tensing ever so slightly. He shot Farkas a concerned glance before continuing on.

Valleri had caught onto the interaction, and if they knew, the men didn’t let on.

She followed them into the chamber, continuing to look around for any signs of trouble. Vilkas stood planted in the middle of the room, staring at the opposite end of the chamber. A metal gate was lowered at the only exit out. Vilkas only narrowed his eyes in frustration as he crossed his arms. Valleri approached him, stopping a few feet short. “Not exactly a puzzle, is it?” Valleri quipped, looking forward at the gate. Vilkas only made a small grunt and turned around to look around the rest of the chamber.

She turned around to see him going into a smaller alcove before turning around to see if she could find Farkas. Disappointed that the much larger Nord was nowhere to be found, Valleri began walking closer to the gate. Most of the bars had been rusted and long tendrils of moss hung down. Even if they did find some sort of lever, the damn thing probably wouldn’t even go up.

There was a loud clang suddenly and Valleri spun on her heel to see that even the small alcove Vilkas had went into was block off.

“Fuck!”

Valleri hurried over quickly, “You all right?”

Vilkas turned around to face her, eyes narrowed in a glare. “No. No I’m not.” Vilkas retorted, expression darkening quickly. If the situation wasn’t quiet as serious, Valleri would have laughed.

“What happened?”

“I found a lever.” Vilkas craned his neck to check on the other gate. Breathing out he looked back at Valleri, “Go check if it’s going up. I’ll see if I can find a way out of here.”

“I don’t think it’ll go up quickly. It was-“ Valleri paused. There were footsteps behind her, loud a cacophonous. Whoever was in here with them didn’t even try to sneak up behind her. Valleri stepped away from the metal gate and turned to face whoever had approached.

In front of her were four people, each dressed in varying armor. Each one of them had glistening swords unsheathed and bared towards her. Valleri inhaled sharply. She understood the look Vilkas had given Farkas earlier. This was the trap; and it wasn’t good.

None of the newcomers made any further move. Instead, one of them, a smaller woman, only laughed, “Looks like we got more than we bargained for, lads.”

“Personally, I thought they’d send more.”

“Doesn’t matter, these two’ll be dead in a few minutes. One of ‘em already in a cage”

“Who’s the woman though? I don’t remember Skinner talking about a woman.”

“Shut your trap, Conrad,” The woman barked as she smacked one the others with the butt of her sword. She glanced at Valleri again, making sure not break eye contact, “She came here with him. The bitch’ll go down.”

Valleri heard Vilkas groan behind her. Her heart started pounding against her chest. The lack of confidence from Vilkas wasn’t going to help. Especially if he wanted to make it out of the cage. Valleri scanned the room once more. Shifting her weight from side to side, Valleri internally cursed Farkas.

The woman who seemed to be leading this new group charged at Valleri quickly, sword raised far above her head. Valleri only had a few moments to counter, using her smaller dagger to block the swing. The Imperial woman sidestepped as she unsheathed the sword, slashing at the woman’s side. The cut wasn’t deep, but it bled nonetheless.

Valleri felt sharp pain as one of the other newcomers slammed the butt of his sword into her right shoulder. She breathed inward sharply, sucking air in though her teeth. Valleri spun on her heel and brought the blade swiftly across his face. The man screeched and fell back, leaving Valleri to face the woman and one more of their friends. The duo charged at her from the front, forcing Valleri backwards into the middle of the room. She could hear Vikas yelling from behind the bars; angry and becoming desperate. The woman lunged forward, sword low and aiming for her side. Valleri sidestepped again, bringing her own sword down on the woman’s shoulder. As the hit landed, Valleri could see the other man swing his blade high above her, aiming for her sword arm. The blow hit hard and Valleri felt her sword fall from her hand as her grip lightened for a split second. Valleri cursed and stepped backwards again, trying to recollect herself before the next barrage of attacks. The third and final man came forward, sticking close to the injured woman.

The man who had disarmed Valeri came forward again, raising the dagger up to attempt to block. The man paused as Valleri heard a loud bestial roar. Valleri whipped her head around as she gaped at a large, hairy figure at the far end of the chamber. Valleri could see the other three people were just as stunned as she was.

“Valleri!” Vilkas yelled, “Get out of the fucking way!” The Nord gestured for her to come closer to the bars, eyes glued on the hairy figure across the room. Valleri backed away quickly, only stopping when she felt cold metal against her back.

“What in the oblivion is that?” Valleri muttered, eyes still trained on the figure. It had started running towards the three others, who were still standing in the middle of the room. The woman, slouched on one of her companions, snarled. Valleri looked over to Vilkas, who was also glaring at the beast.

“Not good.”

The three others were already charging the beast, each of them swinging their swords wildly. The beast growled in retaliation as it took one large swipe at the first person to try to make a hit. The man flew back, four large gashes bleeding profusely on his chest. The final two screamed one more time and lunged towards their adversary. The beast made quick work of them, Valleri paled as she saw it shed the unfortunate people to smithereens.

Valleri glanced back at Vilkas, still on the other side of the bars, with wide eyes. His initial anger seemed to have lessened, one of his hands no longer gripping the metal bar as hard as he could. He was still glaring daggers as the beast. The woman shifted her weight from foot to foot nervously. The beast stared back at the duo, much calmer than before. Valleri was able to take a better look at the thing in front of her, craning her neck up to meet its eyes.

“Farkas, what were you thinking?” Vilkas questioned, voice thick with frustration. The beast shrugged as Valleri glanced back at the Nord behind her. “What happened to not letting outsiders know?”

Valleri backed away from the two of them, hands coming up in protest.

“Listen, I’ve spent all day being out of the loop. What in name of the divines just happened?”

Vilkas and what was apparently Farkas stared at each other. Vilkas looked back to Valleri, pausing a moment to think about what to say. Valleri narrowed her eyes and stood firmly in place. “Everyone in the Circle all have… beast blood,” Vilkas mumbled hesitantly.

Valleri continued to stare at him, before glancing away, “Werewolves?”

“Yeah.”

Valleri breathed in sharply, coming closer to the metal bars to face Vilkas, the Nord, oddly expressionless. “Why would Kodlak let that happen? Don’t you guys realize how dangerous this is? I just saw Farkas tear apart three people!” Valleri almost yelled.

“If I remember right, you were losing that battle,” the Nord behind the bars muttered under his breath, glancing sideways at the ground.

Valleri’s eyes went wide again, “That’s not the point!”

“Fine,” Vilkas threw his hands up in frustration, “It’s a long story, okay? The only people who know are those in the Circle and Kodlak. And you now, apparently,” Vilkas stared past Valleri and over to Farkas. He looked back to Valleri with dark, questioning eyes, “Are you going to say anything?”

Valleri sighed shakily, looking between Farkas and Vilkas. “No,” she paused, “It’s not my place. Just answer one more question, if that’s all right.”

“Fine.”

“Who were those people? They know, don’t they?”

Vilkas breathed in sharply, “Another long story.” Valleri continued to stare at him, accusatory glare boring into him. “They’re part of a group called the Silver Hand. A whole bunch of spiteful milk drinkers. Can you finally get me out of here?”

Valleri’s expression softened and she looked up at Farkas nervously. Farkas nodded his head with a what Valleri figured was grin as the two of them went to the other gate, grabbing her discarded sword on the way. As Valleri suspected, the gate had all but rusted into the mossy ground. Valleri glanced back at Vilkas looking back at them expectantly. “Can you see if you can lift the blasted thing? It looks like there’s a lever on the other side.”

Valleri stood back as Farkas took hold of the metal bars and began lifting. There was a horrible, metallic screech as she watched the werewolf force open the gate. Farkas held it open as Valleri ran through, pulling the lever back as quickly as she could. Vilkas yelled something incomprehensible and followed the two of them out. Valleri looked back as Farkas let the gate down with a crash. Going back would be difficult now.

Valleri smiled widely as she opened the chest and found the small iron key lying underneath a bright red pelt. Grabbing it, Valleri turned around and ran through the first door way into a second room. Vilkas turned around to watch the woman forcing the key into the lock then exclaim quietly as it clicked into place. He walked slowly towards her, giving Farkas a light punch on the back to get his attention. Valleri looked back towards him with a smug smirk.

“You were right about the key, but you didn’t have to be such an ass about it,” Valleri remarked, turning back towards the next corridor. Valleri craned her neck forward then sneered. The walls and ceiling were covered with a thick, sticky layer of webbing.

“I was still right.” Vilkas muttered, stopping behind Valleri. He sighed when he saw the webbing. He turned back to Farkas, mouthing an apology. He stepped past Valleri into the hall and stopped again, “Also Valleri, just because you found the blasted key doesn’t mean anything.”

“Sure,” Valleri whispered, stepping forward. She looked back to Farkas, finding that the werewolf had stood nearly frozen in place, “You okay?”

Farkas made another confusing expression and shrugged. Vilkas turned back to face Valleri, “Farkas isn’t usually the best with large, crawly insects.”

“Really? I didn’t think you’d be tense about stuff like that.” Valleri said to Farkas, with a look of mild concern and downturned eyebrows.

Farkas shrugged again, looking at Vilkas behind Valleri. “C’mon. It’ll be easier to take care of this ourselves then go forward,” Vilkas shouted, turning on his heel to get a better look at the rest of the room.

Valleri covered her nose as she held her blade loosely in her other hand. The stench in the room was pungent and Valleri was amazed that Vilkas wasn’t bothered by it. She could hear a scuttling noise behind her. Turning around, Valleri could see a large, pale spider climbing down the webs hanging off the wall. The arachnid made Valleri’s skin crawl. She breathed out as she backed up, watching the spider crawl closer to her. The spider reared up, waving its front legs up in the air. Suddenly panicked, Valleri swung her blade wide, taking of parts of the spider’s legs. It squealed and fell forward, allowing Valleri to plunge her sword into its head. Valleri kicked the dying insect off her sword, turning on her heel to find Vilkas was wiping iridescent goo off his own blade. Valleri heard a thud as she saw Farkas smack his head into the wall above the short doorway.

Vilkas once again took the lead, Valleri and Farkas following close behind. Their trek was relatively calm, Valleri once again looking at the carvings around them with boredom. Once again, Vilkas led them into a cavernous chamber, though much larger than the room where Valleri had been ambushed by the Silver Hand. At the far end of the burial chamber was another black, curved wall, similar to the one she had seen in Bleakfall’s Barrow. Valleri followed Vilkas closer to the wall, stopping just behind a closed sarcophagus in front of the wall. She watched on as Vilkas continued forward, finally taking dark piece of metal from another altar. Valleri looked down as the sarcophagus underneath her started to rumble. She stumbled backwards and the sarcophagus lid burst open, allowing the dragur to rise up. Valleri unsheathed her sword in a fluid motion, brandishing it at the walking corpse.

Valleri swung for the dragur’s arm, only for the attack to be deflected by rotting, wooden shield. Out of the corner of her eye, Valleri could see Vilkas turning around as quickly as he could, a wild look of surprise written all over his face. Valleri countered a strike from the dragur, side stepping and swinging again for its other arm. The blow connected and Valleri felt the blade slash through an old tendon. It made a hollow scream and turned around, dropping it’s shield as it moved. Again, Valleri could see the dragur begin to swing towards her again. She blocked, but was surprised when she heard Vilkas yelling, about to bring his great sword down across the dragur’s shoulder. The undead man slumped forward and Vilkas pulled his blade out of the mummified corpse, “Damn dustmen.”

Valleri gave him a quick nod of her head in thanks before looking over to Farkas. The werewolf was being bombarded by more undead adversaries. Valleri didn’t hesitate to rush to the beast’s aid, sword swinging wildly. The remaining dragur went down easily between the three of them. Valleri took a moment to look around them, in slight disbelief at the pile of musty corpses around them and the furry werewolf standing at her right. Farkas’ fur was matted with blood and dust and smelled almost as bad as it looked. She started to walk back towards the altar where Vilkas had found the fragment.

“That’s all of them,” Vilkas muttered, voice booming off the stone walls.

Valleri leaned against the altar, finding that the fragment was indeed gone, “Well now what?”

Vilkas turned around, making sure not step on any body parts, “We go home.”

“What about Farkas?” Valleri questioned, gesturing towards the werewolf walking behind Vilkas, “He can’t just walk into the city looking like that.”

Vilkas turned his head and gave Farkas a quick look, “It’ll be fine, he’ll turn back to normal before we make it Whiterun.” Farkas grinned once more, making the hair on Valleri’s neck stand up. She was never going to get used to that.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Valleri muttered, watching Vilkas closely as he walked towards the far side of the room towards a set of stairs that presumably led out of the ruin. He halfheartedly wiped some blood off of his face, smudging a red streak across the bridge of his nose. The bright red contrasted brilliantly against his skin, drawing Valleri’s eyes to his face. She took a few moments to attempt to tear her eyes away before he noticed. He looked at her quizzically before reaching the top of the stairs and pausing. Valleri chuckled to herself before moving to follow the two of them back to Whiterun.

Chapter Text

They didn’t return to Whiterun until much later that night. However, only Valleri and Vilkas had made it into the city. Farkas opted to stay back until his ‘time using the beast blood’ Vilkas had put it came to an end. As far as Valleri could tell, he had already begun his transformation back into a recognizable human. Vilkas gave him a quick goodbye then started the trek with Valleri back to Whiterun.

Most of the other warriors were out drinking or in bed when the duo walked into Jorrvaskr’s main hall. The hall was dimly lit, warped shadows danced on the walls menacingly. Kodlak and Skjor were sitting at the head of the table that dominated the room. Both men were quietly sipping on drinks with grim expressions.

Skjor looked up immediately, meeting Valleri’s eyes by accident. She looked away quickly; something about the way the man looked at her made her feel unwanted. He looked back at Vilkas, who was standing apart from Valleri, and spoke, “One of you is missing; what happened?”

Valleri peeked at Vilkas through the corner of her eye. The man stared past Skjor and over to Kodlak. She could have sworn she saw his eyebrow twitch. “There were some complications.”

“Oh?” Skjor cocked an eyebrow, “You did find the fragment though.”

“Aye.”

“What’s the complication then? Did something happen to Farkas?” Skjor’s voice was beginning get louder, almost shouting across the room.

Vilkas sighed, mouth curling into a tired frown. “Farkas may not be back until tomorrow morning.”

Skjor turned his head to look at Kodlak sitting across from him with narrowed eyes before glancing over to Valleri. Valleri shifted uncomfortably, internally cursing the situation. She just wanted to sleep. Vilkas only continued to stare at the two men seated at the table, “I think I know what you’re getting at,” Skjor said finally, voice quiet and distant, “Valleri, you can go. This doesn’t concern you.”

Valleri sighed in relief as Vilkas shrugged and walked towards the table, digging through his pack for the fragment. Before she could turn to leave, Kodlak spoke, “Actually, Valleri, join us. You were there. We may have questions.”

Valleri groaned internally as she strode up to the table, slumping into a seat next to Vilkas. She looked back towards window behind them. It was already dark outside and she didn’t know how long this conversation would take. Skjor looked back to the goblet in front of him with a tired look, “What was that complication you mentioned earlier?”

“Farengar was right about Dustman’s Cairn being a trap.”

“Silver Hand?” Skjor muttered, eyes not moving. Vilkas nodded and hummed affirmatively. “I don’t see how that’s really a problem.”

There was silence for several seconds, tense, uneasy silence. “I got separated from the other two when I got ambushed. Farkas came to help then…” Valleri muttered before trailing off.

“Farkas thought it would easier to turn into a werewolf.’

Kodlak looked over to Skjor suddenly, eyes darkening before glancing over to Valleri. The woman squirmed when she met his eyes. “Farkas is skilled enough to take care of a few of the Silver Hand by himself without using the beast blood,” Kodlak mumbled. Valleri could see the old man grimace slightly.

“He didn’t do it out of spite, he’s too honest,” Vilkas retorted, “I was stuck behind. Farkas must have thought that it would be simpler that way.”

“He shouldn’t have been using the beast blood in the first place,” Kodlak muttered. His voice was thick with annoyance, garnering a glare from Skjor. Valleri glanced over to Vilkas, suddenly more awake than before. The dark-haired Nord looked uncomfortable with eyes darting back and forth between the two men across the table.

“That’s a conversation we shouldn’t be having currently, considering present company,” Skjor grumbled, looking at Valleri. She scowled in return. “Anyways, we’ve bigger fish to fry right now.”

Kodlak hummed and crossed his arms, “Right. Valleri knows about the beast blood now.”

“She’s an outsider, it’s generally a bad idea to let outsiders now. If the fact that we’re werewolves gets out, we’re going to be run out of the city.”

Valleri felt her scowl deepen, “Don’t talk over me as if I’m not here.” Vilkas looked over to her with a hint of surprise on his expression. Kodlak only smiled as he turned his head to look over to Valleri. Valleri slouched back in her seat and crossed her arms in retaliation.

“You’re right. How do you feel about this recent discovery?” Kodlak spoke clearly as he addressed Valleri.

The Imperial woman sighed. She glanced over to Vilkas, who was also looking down at Valleri with an expression of reluctance. She felt her scowl melt into thoughtfulness. Finally, Valleri met Kodlak’s stare, “If I’m being honest, I was frightened at first. It was sudden and if for any reason I’m the target of one of you while you’re in that bestial form, I wouldn’t survive,” Valleri paused and glanced down, “But, I’m already here and I still want to find the monsters that killed my friends. I told you that trust doesn’t come easily, so if I can trust you to help me my find them, please trust me enough not to tell anyone about you being werewolves. Please.” Valleri thought she was begging by the time she stopped talking, but she couldn’t care. Especially after winning Kodlak’s approval.

Skjor breathed outwards in frustration before moving his gaze from Valleri to Kodlak, “No reason not to believe her,” the man said under his breath. Kodlak nodded and Valleri let herself breath. Skjor looked back to Vilkas and Valleri with a softer expression, “I’m giving you two have the next few days off, considering that you’ve had a lot of unexpected jobs recently. Enjoy yourselves; the Kyne Festival should be going on soon enough.”

“I’m going to bed then,” Valleri muttered, chair clattering as she got up. Vilkas followed her quickly, walking a few paces behind her. She could feel exhaustion flowing into her shoulders as she neared the door leading to the bunkroom.

Vilkas stopped her before she walked in, turning her head to face him. “I appreciate what you said to Kodlak. It’s brave to say that you fear nothing, braver still to face your fears,” Vilkas said, voice shaky.

Valleri smiled uneasily; the feeling that something similar had happened before washing over her. “It was no problem. Lying to people like you and Kodlak doesn’t seem right, “ she chuckled, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Valleri turned quickly and disappeared into the room.

“Rest well,” Vilkas nearly whispered, a small smile forming on his lips as he turned away.

It felt like it had been forever since the last time Valleri woke up feeling completely rested. The last time she could remember of the top of her head was the night before she left Anvil. Valleri breathed out before opening her eyes, still pretending she was laying under familiar, cleaner blankets. Valleri’s heart dropped when she willed her eyelids open to see a stony wall in front of her. Valleri sighed.

She left the bunkroom quickly, taking the stairs up to the main hall with more energy than she expected. Valleri glanced out the window; the sun was already up. The main hall was empty still and she didn’t see anyone outside the window. Valleri smiled to herself and took a seat at the table.

Valleri only sat for a few moments before she was joined by several others. Valleri peeked at them from the corner her eye. Farkas, Vilkas, and Athis sat down at the other end of the table, the twins speaking softly. Valleri could only pick up bits and pieces of their conversation, but nothing important. Athis was almost completely silent, answering Farkas and Vilkas with a monotone voice.

Farkas was his old self again, not the imposing, hairy beast he had been in Dustman’s Cairn. Valleri was relieved, especially after the previous night’s conversation. Farkas noticed her staring and his eyes went wide with excitement. “Val! You’re up,” the Nord exclaimed, excited smile plastered on his face.

Valleri groaned internally. “When did you get back?”

Farkas slouched back into his seat and glanced over to Vilkas, “Early this morning. It was still dark out.”

“Have you slept yet?” Valleri cocked an eyebrow as she stared at Farkas.

“Nope, not at all.” Farkas laughed dryly. Vilkas looked at his brother with mild concern while Athis stifled chuckle.

“Where were you even? I thought Vilkas and Valleri got back last night,” Athis glanced over to Farkas.

Valleri looked over to the two Nords nervously, catching Vilkas’ glance. “I got distracted fighting a giant,” Farkas muttered, eyes not moving from Vilkas and Valleri. Valleri didn’t move; she spied Athis scowling out of the corner of her eye.

“I’m not surprised,” Athis muttered. Valleri looked at the table and breathed out. “Too bad you two didn’t back him up; it could have been fun.”

Vilkas shook his head, “Nah, there’s a thing such as too much fun. Besides, Farkas seemed to have handled it well enough.”

Farkas furrowed his eyebrows as he glared at his brother, “I handled it perfectly.”

Vilkas laughed, tension leaving the room finally, “Sure you did,” he looked over to Valleri, “Skjor gave the three of us a few days off.”

“Wait really?” Athis stared the three of them with a look of confusion. “That doesn’t sound right.”

Vilkas breathed in sharply, “Actually, Farkas, that might not be right. Skjor probably wants to talk to you about the last few days.”

“Well, damn.”

Valleri smiled lightly and looked at the trio across the table, “That’s what you get for running off.” Valleri slouched against the table, reaching for a jug of water stuck in the middle of the table. She huffed once more as she poured the cold water into a nearby goblet. She looked down the table, eyebrows furrowed downwards.

“The Kyne Festival’s tomorrow, if I remember correctly. Good timing,” Athis muttered, mostly to himself.

“Kodlak must have planned it,” Farkas muttered. His smile slowly came back. “It’ll be a nice break.”

“You’re planning on making a move finally?” Athis asked, glancing over to Vilkas who was starting to smirk to himself.

“About time. Ysolda’s been here almost two years,” Vilkas motioned with his hand, smirk growing wider suddenly. He looked down the table towards Valleri, smirk softening. The woman only gave him a small shake of her head and chuckled.

“What is the Kyne festival exactly?” Valleri asked, voice stumbling to find a spot in the other’s conversations. Vilkas and Farkas looked over at her with confused expressions. Athis smacked Farkas on the arm lightly, eliciting a small grunt from the Nord.

Vilkas took the hint, “It’s a festival for Kyne. In the name”

“Kynareth?” Valleri paused, glancing at the table before looking back at Vilkas, “I thought her feast was in Rain’s Hand.”

Vilkas scowled momentarily, “It’s a local festival here in Whiterun honoring the older goddess,” Vilkas paused, looking at Valleri staring at the table in front of her with furrowed eyebrows, “Kyne was the mother of Nords and the tree in the middle of the square is sacred to her.”

“Different goddess then?” Valleri muttered, meeting Vilkas’ eyes once more.

“Yeah, something like that. Danica could explain it better,” Vilkas retorted. He watched Valleri get up from the table and stretch. Her hair fell away, and Vilkas could see freckles descending downward.

“It should be fun then.” Valleri said finally before heading outside, Vilkas’ gaze following the woman as she left.

The mead was flowing like water by the time sun had dipped down below the horizon. Vilkas was halfway sure he was already tipsy; he felt much looser than usual and people were actually tolerable. Most of the older citizens of Whiterun were gathered in the square under the Gildegreen, lanterns hanging from the lower branches. This was only the third year the festival had been held since the tree had been restored. Whiterun was beginning to get into the swing of things again.

Vilkas could spy Valleri out of the corner of his eye towards the base of the old tree. He hadn’t seen much of her since they got back from Dustman’s Cairn, their conversation the previous morning being the most they had spoken for some time. The Imperial was smiling widely while talking with Ysolda and one of the local bards. Her eyes were bright and present; not defensive like he had seen so many times before. She caught his eye and laughed, making the man scowl and look down. He had been caught.

Vilkas looked over across the lane; Farkas had been caught up by some old man probably pestering him about Jorrvaskr. He sighed. Farkas had more important things to do tonight.

Taking a final, deep swig of his drink, Vilkas handed the stein to some poor sod and sauntered over to his brother. Farkas saw him immediately and smiled nervously. Vilkas sighed, “Is everything okay over here?”

The guard captain, a short, balding Imperial man Vilkas could never remember the name of, swung an arm over Farkas’ shoulder. The larger Nord gave him an uncomfortable grimace while trying to wriggle free. “Perfectly fine, my good lad. Just asking your brother here here why you guys continue to work in Whiterun proper!” the man exclaimed. He swung his arm out dramatically, losing whatever was left of his drink. “You’re not letting the city guard do their job!”

Vilkas groaned internally while Farkas that screamed at him to help. “You should talk to Skjor about that, he’s a member of the Circle.”

“Aren’t you two also part of the Circle or the Council or whatever it is you guys are called?”

“The Circle,” Vilkas muttered under his breath. Maybe some people weren’t entirely tolerable tonight. “Listen, Kodlak needed to talk to Farkas. It sounded important and we don’t make it a habit to keep him waiting,” Vilkas retorted, glowering at the Imperial.

The guard captain stared at him before bursting out with laughter. “Fine, fine. Just trying to have a conversation,” the man griped as he walked away.

Farkas breathed out in relief, finally meeting his brother’s eyes with an anxiety filled glare, “That was worse than listening to Vignar.”

“Don’t mention it,” Vilkas patted Farkas on the shoulder, “Have you talked to her yet?”

Farkas shook his head, “Not at all. You know how I just lose the words when ever I try to speak?” he paused, noting Vilkas’ confused glance, “It’s like that but with feet.”

“It’ll be fine. Just make sure to get your question in before someone else does.”

Farkas furrowed his eyebrows, “Wait, what?”

“I saw that Mikael fellow go up and talk to her.”

Vilkas saw the color disappear from Farkas’s face, “Fuck.” Farkas turned back towards his brother, jaw clenched, “I thought he was after the fruit vendor! You don’t think he’d make a move for Ysolda?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s slept with most of the serving girls at Dragonsreach and I thought I heard something about him and Hulda,” Vilkas trailed off, “Probably not too late if you go now.”

“You’re right,” Farkas gulped.

“Here, I’ll go with you; diffuse the situation a bit.” The Nord muttered, eyes catching another glimpse at Valleri. The woman was now smiling nervously as she talked with Ysolda and the bard. Unfortunately, Mikael was staring mostly at the taller Nord woman, longer than what would have been considered appropriate.

The brothers made their way to the small group relatively quickly; if only Farkas hadn’t taken such a round about way to get to the other side of the plaza. The love-struck Nord made a small waving gesture as Valleri turned her head to see them coming. She breathed out in relief as Vilkas stopped next to her. Ysolda also seemed to be less nervous, moving away from the bard and closer to Valleri.

“Greetings gentleman! How do you find the festival?” Mikael exclaimed, wide smile failing to hide his annoyance. His plans for that night were probably ruined.

“Wonderful actually. It always seems to get better as the night wears on too,” Vilkas retorted, staring down at the Imperial man. Mikael crossed his arms with a huff; making Vilkas stifled a laugh.

“Festivals typically do. I was just telling Ysolda though that people usually start to leave around now. I offered to walk her back to her home.” Mikael smirked, eyeing Farkas devilishly.

Farkas grumbled something undiscernible and Ysolda glanced between the two men, “Uh, I think I’d like to stay actually.”

Vilkas could see a spark of hope light up in Farkas’ eyes when he finally spoke up, “Right, I needed to talk to Ysolda abut something.”

“Oh! That’s perfect! All the more reason to stay.” Ysolda almost yelled.

Mikael laughed dryly, “Bu we could go to the Bannered Mare, no one’s there. I’ll get some wine, maybe a bit of food, some music. It’ll be like another festival.” He grabbed onto her shoulder, fingers grabbing onto the fabric of her dress tightly, “C’mon, it’ll be like we’re still here.”

Farkas inhaled sharply before muttering an apology. In a quick, fluid motion Vilkas could see his brother land a hit of the bard’s face. Ysolda gasped as she and Vilkas stared at Farkas at disbelief and Vilkas could hear Valleri burst out laughing.

Farkas stepped back, eyes not leaving Ysolda. Breathing out sharply, he seemed to have regained his composure, “I actually have to talk to you about something. Can we talk in private?”

Ysolda stared at him blankly for a moment. She glanced at Mikael groaning on the ground than looked back to Farkas. “Absolutely. Let’s go,” The woman grabbed onto Farkas’ hand and led him out away from the crowd.

Vilkas glanced back at Valleri to his side. the Imperial woman had ceased laughing and was poking Mikael with her boot. The bard was out cold after landing hard on the stone floor and would have more than a hangover the next morning.

Valleri looked back towards Vilkas, smiled still wide, “That was amazing.”

“Aye,” he paused, “I certainly wasn’t expecting that. I think that’ll help though.”

Valleri chuckled, “One could only hope.” Vilkas smirked, knowing full well that she was right. Farkas was never very skilled with words nor women. The two of them stood silent for some time before they were joined by a passing Vignar. The old man nearly tripped on Mikael and spilled his drink on the ground. He muttered something and kicked the passed-out bard hard in the ribs.

Vilkas could see Valleri cock an eyebrow and turn to stop Vignar, “Excuse me, but I didn’t quite catch that.”

“Stupid Imperials making a mockery out of our ancient traditions.” Vignar spat.

Valleri breathed out, her eyebrows furrowing, “Aren’t you doing sort of the same thing?”

“Not at all! I still practice the old ways, I don’t take this festival lightly like you milk drinking foreigners,” Vignar paused, a snarl forming over his face, “The Empire made a mockery out us all when they surrendered to those pointy eared bitches. Now you Imperials disrespect our traditions and get all bitchy when you fucking weaklings can’t finish a fight.”

Valleri looked at the old man in disbelief, “Wait up a moment, what are you going on about?”

“You should know, you’re one of them,” Vignar paused, “Imperials only brings problems where ever they go, be it the war of those damnable elves!”

“Why in oblivion are you lumping all Imperials together? Most of us don’t even want the civil war, let alone care enough to pay attention,” Valleri retorted, “We didn’t even start it!”

“So you say. You’re probably just leading the Thalmor into the city, using that story of you almost dying as fucking cover,” Vignar snarled, looking Valleri straight in the eyes, “When those Thalmor dogs come after you, and when they do, I’ll be the first one to throw you to them.” The Nord spun on his heel and disappeared into the crowd before Valleri could get another word in.

Vilkas looked down at Valleri finally. The woman was shaking; out of anger or frustration, he couldn’t tell. He stepped backwards as Valleri turned around to face him, eyes wide and watery. She breathed inwards. “Old man’s just drunk. You know how people are.”

“Still no excuse. No fucking excuse,” Valleri muttered under her breath. She met his gaze momentarily. The woman shook her head and stormed off suddenly and Vilkas could only stand in place. He watched her back disappear into the darkness towards Jorrvaskr. The Nord could feel a pit in his stomach and there was a sour taste in his mouth.

Vilkas was going to follow her.

Chapter Text

Valleri stared over the training yard from her spot on the edge of the Skyforge. The yard was dark, almost black, compared to the pool of light that made up the plaza towards her right. Her breath was shaky; anything she tried to do to calm down wasn’t working. Valleri had no idea why she had gotten so upset about what the old man had said. Vilkas was right, the man was obviously drunk and drunk people said foolish things.

But when that man mentioned the Altmer and the death of her friends, Valleri couldn’t stand it. Rage welled up inside of her chest almost immediately, but when he turned, it melted. The rageful, hateful feeling was replaced with a cold emptiness, a memory of Masser and Secunda on her first night alone. It was a lonely feeling Valleri had suspected was there since her friends had died.

Valleri wasn’t ready to face them yet; not yet.

Valleri didn’t hear the footsteps behind her until her companion stopped almost right behind her. Vilkas sat down on the stone with a grunt. He breathed in then turned to look at her. His grey eyes were apologetic but Valleri felt none of it. “It took me a while to find you, I thought you’d be down in the bunkroom. Vignar was… out of line. He’s drunk, but you’re right. It was no excuse,” the Nord trailed off.

“Vilkas?”

“Yeah?”

Valleri felt a lump in her throat, dry and cracked, “What am I doing here?”

The man shrugged, turning his head to view the festival below, “Can’t really say for sure but probably hiding away from the others.”

Valleri shook her head. She scowled, frustration began to boil over, “No, what am I doing? I thought I was going into Dwemer ruins with Alastaros and Lexius, looking for one of the last great relics of the Merethic. How did I end up here?”

“What’s wrong with ‘here’?”

Valleri’s head whipped around, curls flying haphazardly in her face. She breathed out with a snarl. Vilkas continued to stare at her with only hint of interest. “Didn’t you see what just happened? I was accused of a crime I had nothing to do with and threatened to be handed over to dictator elves. I was scared to even come here in the first place because of that but this was my only option, and now all I know is that I was right,” Valleri was almost yelling at him by the time she stopped, scowl fading into a tight-lipped frown, “Maybe I should just cut my losses and go back to Anvil.”

Neither of them said anything for several minutes as Valleri tried to recompose herself again. The woman drew her knees close to her chest. Flax curls covered her arms as she laid her head on her legs and breathed out shakily. Vilkas stared upwards and moonlight hit his face, illuminating pale skin. He began to speak softly, “You talk a lot about how wonderful Alastaros and Lexius were. What were they like?”

Valleri glanced at him confusedly, “Excuse me?” Vilkas could see tear tracks running down her face.

The corner of his lips curled upwards in a small smirk, “There’s at least one reason you’re still here, looking for the people that murdered them. Come on, what is it?”

Valleri breathed outwards shakily and looked forward into the darkness. She sat still for a moment. Her frown turned serious as Valleri contemplated what to say. Finally, Valleri spoke in a steady, quiet voice, “Lexius was my brother,” she paused, looking at Vilkas, but continued before he could fill the silence, “Not like you and Farkas though. We weren’t related really but he treated me like we were. Alastaros helped bail him out of a life sentence in the Imperial City before taking him in. I never heard the full story but Lex was good at finding things, getting into places. Stuff like that. Stupid, annoying Lex.”

“What about Alastaros? He was an elf, right?”

Valleri finally smiled, even if it was slight, “Yeah. He left Alinor years before the war because of his research on ancient elves. He wasn’t in the good graces of the Synod, so all of his expeditions were looked down on as useless or illegal. Never stopped him though.”

“Sounds like your friends had questionable habits,” Vilkas grimaced a bit, but Valleri’s grin only grew wider.

Valleri chuckled to herself, “Can’t deny that.” She paused, looking up at the sky with a wistful expression, “Alastaros always said that the works of geniuses were rarely appreciated in their time. He was right though. My father was right.”

“You considered him your father?”

Valleri breathed out, “Gladly. That stupid elf took me away from a life as just another priestess; gave me a reason to live when I didn’t have one. I’d say that’s deserving enough.”

Vilkas glanced at her with furrowed eyebrows, “What about your blood father?” He paused, looking over to Valleri. She stared at him with a grimace and Vilkas could feel himself begin to panic. Vilkas recomposed himself quickly and started again with an even tone, “Kodlak may be the man who raised my brother and I, but Jergen was there first regardless. I feel no particular love for the man, but I can at least acknowledge him.”

Valleri shook her head. “No, I can’t. You grew up with stories and a name. For all I know he could have been a monster. Alastaros was there for me though. Stupid elf was still supposed to be here…” the woman trailed off, grimace growing as her mouth became a thin line. Vilkas could see her starting to shiver.

The man sighed, continuing to look at their surroundings. The festival down below was beginning to die down as people made their way back to their respective homes. Danica would begin to clean up what was left of the festival, opting to take down the lanterns when she was sober again. “What about you?”

“What?”

Vilkas tilted his head to the side, “If you go back to Anvil, you won’t be here for them. Their killers won’t pay the weregild unless you find them. At the very least make them pay,” He smirked as he looked back over to Valleri.

The woman sighed as she began to stand up. She stretched, humming all the while with a small smile and tired eyes, “You’re right. They’d do the same for me.” Valleri looked down to Vilkas, grin widening, “Thank you, friend.”

Vilkas froze but soon shook his head, “It’s the truth. The least I can do is help you see it.” Valleri proffered a hand out to him, offering to help him up from his seat on the stone. “I think I’ll stay here for a while,” Vilkas muttered.

Valleri sighed, turning on her heel with a laugh, “Fine, you stubborn Nord. Just don’t stay out in the cold too late.” She could hear him stifle a laugh as she went down the steps. For some reason, the night time chill wasn’t as bad as earlier and the lump in Valleri’s throat was no longer there. The pit in her stomach was, but she could handle it now. Valleri felt that avenging the deaths of her friends was no longer the best option, but her determination was reignited. She could handle it. She could face it.

Vilkas could smell Farkas coming down the hall towards their bunkrooms. It wasn’t a bad scent, just Farkas; no steel, no sweat, and no blood. It was easy for him to pick out his brother in the myriad of other people in the basement. Farkas was one of the only stable things in his life and Vilkas was always keenly aware of his absence.

Farkas rounded the corner and stopped at the entrance leading into Vilkas’ room. The man was smiling widely as he leaned on the door jam. Vilkas turned from his seat to face him with a tired look of confusion, “Is everything okay?”

Farkas beamed brighter, “Yep!”

“Ysolda said yes, huh?” Vilkas muttered, turning his attention back to the book he was skimming before Farkas came in to bother him

“Absolutely she did!”

“That’s wonderful,” Vilkas replied with disinterest, “So, what does that mean exactly?”

Farkas paused, smile fading momentarily, “I dunno, we’re officially courting I guess. I’m excited though.”

“You should be. Ysolda might be the one for you.”

Farkas smiled meekly, “I sure hope so; she’s so wonderful though, and sweet, and strong and...” Farkas began to trail off and staring off into space.

Vilkas nodded and continued to scan the pages of book before flipping forward. Farkas stood watching him with a blank expression. Vilkas glanced up at him with a grimace, “Did you need something.”

“Not really,” Farkas muttered, “Are you happy though?”

“Excuse me?” Vilkas’ frown deepened as he set the book down beside him.

“You’re almost thirty.”

“You are too, Farkas. Don’t forget we have the same birthday.”

Farkas looked on nervously, “Not what I meant. I’ve never seen you take an interest in anybody outside of a fling. At this rate you’re going to end up alone.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Vilkas growled as he glared at Farkas.

“Aren’t you lonely?”

Vilkas paused looking down to his lap. He thought of Valleri up on the Skyforge telling him about her family, the way she spoke with such warmth. He could see the way she looked on with longing when she talked about Anvil and the Gold Coast. The way she talked about Alastaros and Lexius was pitiful; she knew it to, but she had to be honest. She was lonely here in Skyrim without them.

Maybe deep down Vilkas felt similarly. There was no reason for him to feel that way though. He had grown up in Whiterun and everybody he cared for was still alive. There was no basis for such feelings.

“You’re a fool, Farkas. I’m not lonely.”

Farkas sighed, “If you say so. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Vilkas watched his brother turn around and walk into his room before the door closed. He took the book back and tried to read again. He may have occasionally missed people while they were gone, but that wasn’t loneliness. Vilkas would never be lonely.

The woman was still sitting on the back porch, sipping on some left-over mead. She swished the golden liquid around in the goblet, watching the torch light glint off the sides of the goblet. She sighed, sleep wasn’t going to come tonight; too much alcohol always made her more aware of the beast blood pulsing through her, if that was even possible.

Finally, she could hear her companion trudge along the side of the mead hall. The man was probably intoxicated as well. Everybody who had partaken of the festival earlier in the evening was drunk on some level. The man rounded the corner and waved. The woman smiled.

“Are we sure about this? We should probably wait until we’re a bit more sober.”

The woman laughed, “The hunt has a way of doing that already. We’ve done it before in much more inebriated states. Remember last year?” The man grunted in reply and the woman continued, “Besides it’s not like we’re up against an army. Just a few trolls, maybe a giant, and we’re done.”

The man shook his head and waited for the woman to join him. “If this gets out, Kodlak will have some things to say.”

“He always does. Didn’t you hear him getting on Farkas for what happened with Valleri?”

“The old man’s on edge. We should take it easy for a bit.”

The woman glared at the man, “He won’t find out. I’m going to go regardless.” She slung her bow over her shoulder and began towards the city gate. The man huffed and started to follow, but didn’t bother to catch up.

The field was vast in front of them and the woman started off into a sprint. There was no feeling quite like the freedom of running off into the night. There were no cities or laws or people to stop her from doing as she pleased. If she didn’t have so many people in the city she cared about, the woman would have started living out here in the wilderness a long time ago. Responsibility was a funny thing.

Soon enough the man caught up to her and the two of them continued on together. It wasn’t long before they found something hiding in the scrub brushes of the tundra. It was nearly impossible for anything to hide effectively on the plain but the woman had to give the misguided troll credit for trying. The two of them took joy in the chase, the troll leading them west. The terrain began to drop steadily. The woman steeled herself as she slid down cliff faces.

Suddenly there was a grunt behind her. The man sat grimacing at the bottom of the rock face, cradling his calf. The woman cursed loudly as she saw the small figures coming at them from the horizon. They were surrounded quickly.
The distance between her and the new group was too close for her to be effective with the bow she had on her back and a small knife wasn’t going to be any good. She was about ready to start the transformation when she heard a snarling behind her. The man was already ahead of her.

It wasn’t long into the battle that she saw the man beast struck down. His fur was matted with blood and red was streaming down his chest. Most of the blood was from those of the ambush party, but the woman was sure some of it was his. The man beast was slowing down. She began to feel her arms and back tingle as she began her own transformation. This situation may be becoming dire quickly, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have her own tricks.

The transformation had only just begun when she felt a crack against her skull and all she saw black.

Chapter Text

Valleri pulled her cloak closer around her shoulders as she made her way through the market. It was surprisingly busy considering how inebriated the whole city seemed to have gotten the night before. Valleri felt like an extreme light weight when she compared herself to the Nords of Whiterun. The package underneath under her arm shifted uncomfortably as the Imperial woman tried to hurry away from the general store. Something about smug merchants always got under her skin.

Valleri stopped suddenly before running into the back of a much larger Nord. She smiled to herself when she recognized the choppy black hair.

Vilkas turned around when he finally noticed her, eyebrows furrowed, “Apologies, I didn’t realize you were there.”

The woman laughed dryly, “Don’t worry about it too much. What are you doing out though? This was supposed to be our last day off.”

Vilkas cocked an eyebrow, “What’d you expect I’d be doing?”

“Not inspecting vegetables,” Valleri muttered under her breath, half way hoping that he didn’t quite catch that.

“Tilma asked me pick up some things for dinner tonight. Still official Companions business as far as you’re concerned,” Vilkas retorted. He grimaced as he started to walk closer to the stalls.

Valleri breathed in sharply then smirked. “Can I join you? I could help you carry some things back.”

Vilkas turned to face her, grimace fading, “I won’t stop you.” He waited for her to join him, smirking while he watched. Valleri sighed while she readjusted the package under arm.

Vilkas stopped at the vegetable vendor, quickly picking out the provisions as Valleri started to converse with the woman working the stand.

The vendor unexpectedly turned to Vilkas, “I saw what your brother did to Mikael last night. I wanted to thank him.”
Vilkas looked up at the woman with a confused expression, “What for?”

“That stupid bard has been bothering me for months. It was nice to see him get what was coming, even if it was just plain violence,” the woman laughed, handing Vilkas a few leeks.

“I feel obligated to let you know that he mostly just did it for his own benefit,” Vilkas smiled nervously, “He had it coming though.”

“I’m just wondering when someone will finally run him out of town,” the woman almost spat. Valleri winced at the words, a reaction Vilkas caught onto quickly.

“That’s a bit harsh, even for him,” Vilkas retorted, narrowing his dark eyebrows. He quickly parceled out a few septims and handed them to the woman

The woman laughed dryly, nervously, “That’s rather out of character for you. Did something happen last night?”

Vilkas peeked at Valleri to his side. The Imperial woman was still grimacing, but only he seemed to have noticed the expression, “Sort of. I’m in a bit of hurry, I’ll talk to you some other time.” The Vegetable gave him a disappointed stare as the duo walked off.

“Were leeks and potatoes the only thing you needed from her?” Valleri asked, following behind him. Her voice seemed quieter than she had meant it to be.

“That’s all Tilma asked for. Apart from the lamb,” Vilkas trailed off, pace slowing as he thought. He turned back to Valleri and handed her the small basket of vegetables. She took them with a smile and readjusted her package. He eyed her inquisitively, “Where did you end up going?”

“Just over to the general store. Had a few things to pick up.”

“Like what?”

Valleri chuckled, mood lifted, “Are you really that curious?” Vilkas kept staring at her with a cocked eyebrow and Valleri sighed, “Fine. I had to get some candles and a pitcher.”

Vilkas frowned, “Why not just use one from Jorrvakr?”

“I couldn’t find any silver, for specific reasons unbeknownst to the good people of Whiterun,” Valleri said with a playful smile. Vilkas only shook his head, smirking all the while. She laughed, “I need it for a small ceremony in a few days.”

“What for though? There’re no holidays for a while,” he looked at the sky momentarily then added, “Unless it’s personal.”

“It’s a feast day for Dibella, though I tend to just burn a candle and leave a fresh pitcher of water at a shrine. I like to keep it simple.”

“I didn’t think you’d be too interested in the whole religion, chapel thing considering what you told me last night.”

Valleri sighed, biting the inside of her lip, “You’d think so, huh?” she paused, “There was a priestess who started at the chapel a year or two before left. She told me about a more obscure sect of Dibella worshippers that wasn’t exactly affiliated with the Temple of the Divines.”

“So, it’s like Nords who worship Kyne instead of Kynareth when they’re actually the same thing?”

“Sort of,” Valleri grimaced. She felt as if the comparison didn’t quite fit, but at least Vilkas understood what she meant.

“What’s the sect devoted to exactly?” Vilkas muttered while he started to look over another vendor.

“What?”

“Different sects typically venerate certain aspects of their chosen divine. Dibella encompasses a lot, right?” He glanced over to her. She could see the boredom on his expression plainly; he didn’t bother hiding it.

“Primarily the feminine aspect, though I do remember learning some Dibellan mysteries when I was a bit older,” Valleri stifled a chuckle as she looked towards the ground, “Those were some crazy days.”

This time, Vilkas’ expression lit up, eyebrows jumping almost to his scalp. Valleri could barely look at him, grin plastered to her face. Vilkas coughed, eyeing her conspicuously, “What the fuck were they having you do?”

“There’s nothing to worry about; it was all consensual.”

“By the eight, woman,” Vilkas could see the vendor eavesdropping from across the both; the poor elf’s face was beet red. Vilkas could at least hurry up and complete the transaction. Valleri, for her part, was perfectly composed; he asked and she answered. Vilkas looked back down to Valleri as they started to walk back to Jorrvaskr. He could barely contain his nervous laughter, “You probably shouldn’t let that particular piece of information out. People tend to get skittish about religion these days and might get…”

“The wrong idea?” Valleri cut him off, all evidence of her grin completely wiped away. “Don’t worry, I’m used to that. Alastaros; nope, many people in the chapel weren’t especially fond of my spiritual choices either.”

They were silent for a long while before Valleri stopped behind Vilkas, looking down with a worried look. Something new was on her mind; Valleri didn’t bother to hide it as she stood underneath the Gildegreen. Vilkas turned to face her, “Something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong per se. It’s just that…” Valleri paused, her eyebrows furrowing even more. “What you said in the market, and last night especially; it was kind.”

The Imperial’s eyes finally met Vilkas but he didn’t move. Instead he frowned, “It’s nothing to thank me for, people shouldn’t…”

“Shut up for a second,” Valleri snapped, bridging the gap between the two off them while she still held his gaze. “You’re not required to be nice, nobody is. Last night is a perfect example. Vilkas, you made an effort to be a decent human being whether you aware of it or not.”

The Nord felt goosebumps rise on his skin as Valleri continued to glare him. Vilkas wanted to say something badly, but couldn’t bring himself too. The Imperial’s green eyes were so… genuine. Vilkas wouldn’t even think of admitting that they made him feel even a tab bit guilty, never.

“Just accept the fucking thanks and let it be. I need some one to call a friend in this thrice damned province and you’re proving to be the only one I can actually trust.”

The words that just spilled out of Valleri’s mouth felt heavy in the air. Vilkas looked downwards, finding any excuse to get those eyes off of him. “Fine; I’ll accept. But I’m not expecting to completely do everything you ask.” Vilkas muttered, he looked back at her, back straightened and a corner of his lips was curling upwards. “You’re a pain Valleri, but a good pain.”

Valleri beamed brightly as she mumbled something Vilkas couldn’t pick up and rushed up the stone steps leading up to Jorrvaskr. What did he just agree to?

Valleri saw Kodlak first when she went to drop of the vegetables with Tilma. She hid her own package outside in an empty barrel to avoid any mishaps with the resident werewolves. If Valleri was going to be privy to the secret, she may as well respect it. Unfortunately, the silver she needed for the ceremony wouldn’t sit well with those in the Circle.

The old man called her over with a hand gesture and a smile. Valleri didn’t feel the pit in her stomach she typically noticed when she talked to the man. Kodlak wasn’t mean or horrible, but he was intimidating. Something about authority never quite sat well with her.

“Did you need something?’ Valleri laughed nervously. The woman chider herself internally.

“Yes, I did,” Kodlak replied, catching onto Valleri’s micro expression. The old man smiled a bit in return, but Valleri could only see it as a grimace through his thick, white beard. “Let’s go downstairs, there’s more privacy there.”

Valleri nodded and followed the Harbinger to the back room, the room she had first seen him and Vilkas speaking in the day she joined. It was still opulently decorated compared to the rest of the mead hall; books littered the table and shelves around her. She could recognize old journals and diaries from around the leaf litter. Valleri sighed, reminded of Alastaros; the elf’s office was very much the same way.

Kodlak motioned to the seat next to him with a quick gesture and waited for Valleri to be seated before he began. “It’s well past the time we spoke to each other properly. Vilkas has told me of what you’ve been going through briefly, though that can’t paint the larger picture.” He paused, a grim light cast in his eyes, “Valleri, you’re not one to divulge information easily; however, now I need to know more about what happened that night.”

Valleri gulped; why now of all times? Valleri steadied herself, looking into the space in front of her. She felt sick as she spoke, “It’s hard to recall, it was evening and the initial attack was quick.”

“Who was with you?”

“My colleagues. A Redguard, Lexius, and an Altmer, Alastaros. Lexius and I were armed when it happened, but we weren’t nearly as prepared as we should have been.”

“Have any of you ever been in Skyrim previously?”

“Lexius was here about four months prior to our expedition. I’m not entirely sure what he was doing, only that he was primarily traveling near Markarth,” Valleri finally looked up to Kodlak, “Listen, Lexius may have been a reckless idiot, but I don’t think it was someone looking for revenge. It was too random.”

Kodlak didn’t say anything for a while and Valleri tried to steady her breathing. She could feel her heart pounding against her chest, “Do you have any details about the bandits who attacked you?”

“There were three of them; two Nords and an Argonian.”

“This was in Falkreath hold correct?”

“Yeah, I don’t remember where specifically though. A couple of farmers brought me into their home some while I was still unconscious. I couldn’t tell you were they drug me off from.”

Kodlak crossed his arms and leaned back against the seat, “I’d like to thank you for that; details don’t come easily.”

Valleri nodded her head and made to leave. She turned towards Kodlak, “Why now though? I’ve been here nearly a month and only now you ask me what happened.”

She watched Kodlak chuckle to himself, “You didn’t really believe that I had forgotten about you?” The grin on Kodlak’s face faded, “I’ve been trying to contact the guard in Falkreath. That hold is known for its particularly high number of bandits. They might know something.”

“You’d think they’d have done something about it already though, right? Who’d stand for that?” Valleri seethed.

“Falkreath isn’t known for initiative. The Jarl there is young and not entirely concerned with well-being of his subjects.”

Valleri opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted. Kodlak stood up with jolt when he heard the yelling upstairs. Valleri didn’t look back as she started spiriting across the room towards the stairs. Dread filled the pit in her stomach and Valleri slowed her pace as she ascended the last few stairs. Kodlak pressed his hand into her shoulder as he stopped next her moments later. The Imperial’s eyes went wide as she saw what people were yelling about.

In the middle of the room, she could see Aela all but tossing what Valleri was sure was Skjor to the ground. The man was covered in dark red. much like his female companion. There was a sick, limp thud when he finally hit the floor. Vilkas was there with them, pulling off what was left of the man’s armor. Skjor gritted his when he jolted awake and saw the ragged gashes all over his body.

Valleri glanced at Kodlak above her; the man wasn’t bothering to hide his wrathful disappointment. She followed him only to the outside wall and stopped. Kodlak continued on, quickly taking Skjor back into side room along with Tilma. He was there for what seemed like forever, Valleri could hear a yell or grunt every few seconds. Valleri tried to make eye contact with Vilkas, but the man was just staring at the large pool of blood and armor pieces scattered on the floor. Valleri didn’t move.

Soon enough she heard the door clatter and Kodlak was approaching them with a glare. Vilkas and Aela stood up straight, not saying anything. Valleri shrunk back into the background; this was something she didn’t want to see.

Kodlak breathed out, eye brows turning downward. The man spoke in a clear, steady tone, “What happened, Aela?” The woman stared back at the Harbinger. Anger burned in the woman’s eyes. “Aela!”

Valleri could see Aela relent, the Nord glancing down in defeat. “Fine!” Aela snapped, “We were out on a hunt last night. Skjor got hurt!”

“Exactly, Skjor got hurt! He’s more than hurt, our shield brother could have died!” Kodlak retorted, gesturing to the pool of blood on the floor. “Were you two using the blood?”

“That was the point of us going out in the first place!”

Kodlak sighed, voice quieter, “You should have at least let someone know what you were doing.” The old man glanced at Vilkas, causing the younger Nord to glance down with a look of uncertainty.

“We didn’t tell you because you’d make a bigger deal out of this than you should. That you’d bring your own opinion of the beast blood into this.” Aela countered. She had calmed down from her initial protests, but she was still furious. Finally, Valleri caught Vilkas’ eye. The Nord only shook his head; Valleri saw the unspoken apology. The Imperial didn’t move lest the others see her too.

“This incident only further proves my point; you and Skjor are only becoming reckless. The both of you take the responsibility of the blood too lightly. Regardless of what happens after death, you’re already paying for it.”

Aela snarled, not saying anything for several long seconds. “Keep your own regrets out of this Kodlak.” The woman stared the old man down before walking out of the mead hall. Kodlak looked down at the blood drying on the floor. Valleri only felt pity when she looked back to Kodlak; seeing him as an old man whose own children just passed him by. He looked up, finally noticing Valleri at the other end of the room. She stared at him with down turned eyes, still frozen where she stood.

“I apologize for that allowing you to see that, Valleri. I’m sorry,” Kodlak whispered. He turned his head away and walked off into the room Skjor was placed in. The door shut and Valleri finally let herself breath. She could still feel the goosebumps on her arms and shoulders.

Vilkas approached her silently, placing a hand on her arm. He looked at her with apologetic eyes, “He’s right; you shouldn’t have seen that.”

Valleri stared back at him with wide, worried eyes. She felt grounded with his hand on her arm and it was easier to recompose herself. “How long have they been fighting about,” she paused, trying to think of the proper words, “That?”

“It’s been festering for a long time,” Vilkas muttered, “Kodlak only began to voice his opinions shortly before you arrived.” There was a long pause between them, the pit in Valleri’s stomach was stagnant. “Skjor will probably be fine.”

“Who’ll clean up the blood?”

He glanced over to the stain with a grimace, “That should be the least of your worries right now.”

Valleri nodded, pulling her eyes away from the blood stain. The smell, metallic and decaying, was beginning to become overwhelming. She breathed outwards, finally putting her hand to her nose to stifle the smell. Vilkas patted her arm then turned to walk away. Valleri felt a lump in her throat as she watched him walk away.

Chapter Text

The next two weeks passed by without any further incident for Valleri. She was certainly shaken up by Kodlak and Aela’s fight for the rest of that one day, but she put it to the back of her mind. Kodlak couldn’t look at her without frowning to himself with regret for a few days afterwards. In the meantime, Vilkas gave her any further orders. The younger man was nice enough about it at least and tried not to bother her too much. He knew all too well how uneasy the argument made her feel. There wasn’t a lot to do in the mean time and most of her jobs were quick and easy.

Skjor himself was another matter. He passed out sometime after he was taken away. Since them, he passed in and out of consciousness. Danica came by every few hours to check up on the mostly comatose man. It wasn’t difficult to see that every once in a while, Kodlak seemed to prepare himself to lose one of his best men. Valleri only personally saw Skjor through an open door a number of times. Tilma and Danica often came out of the room with dark red bandages and sheets, an immediate deterrent for Valleri’s usual curiosity. Farkas distanced himself after he learned of what happened and Vilkas visited the man often. Vilkas told Valleri that he thought of Skjor like an uncle over a meal one night. She shrugged but kept the information in the back of her mind. It might come in handy later. Obscure information usually did.

Valleri found herself sitting on the edge of the Skyforge most of the time that she was in Whiterun, usually with a book or journal. The view was nice and Eorlund didn’t complain. Valleri kept to herself and tried not to make trouble. People in turn didn’t really bother her either.

Unless that person was Farkas.

More often than not, Valleri didn’t notice people walking up behind her between the clanging of metal and being stuck in her on world. That’s why Valleri always flinched when Farkas playfully hit her in the shoulder when he sat down next to her. She sighed, staring at the ink smudged across the page; this was a new journal!

Farkas took a quick look at the page, grin fading a bit, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to mess up your page.”

Valleri couldn’t help but smile to herself. “I know. It doesn’t really matter, I guess,” she set the pen and journal next to the ink bottle, “Need something?”

Farkas’ eyebrows shot up with realization, “Right! I did. Nope, Kodlak did. Not me, unless you wanted to chat for a bit?””

Valleri stared out over the training yard with a look of contemplation. Getting up, she gathered her things. Turning back to Farkas, Valleri smiled, “Where’s Kodlak?”

The man shook his head with a chuckle, “Not today, huh?”

“Talk to Eorlund, he’s a great conversationalist,” the woman stared deadpanned at the ground when she heard the old blacksmith grumble something behind her.

“I should know, huh?” Farkas laughed, “Kodlak’s waiting in the bunkroom. Good luck!” he shouted as Valleri waved and descended down the stairs.

Valleri found Vilkas shortly after she entered the mead hall. She eyed him inconspicuously from behind; the Nord was almost completely oblivious and tossing a cloak haphazardly over the back of a chair. She could see his profile from where she stood. The man’s squared jaw line led her eyes upwards to a small scar above his eyebrow. Valleri certainly didn’t notice that before; must have been because Vilkas was finally clean. She rushed past, trying to leave before Vilkas cornered her.

“Valleri!” Vilkas shouted as he turned his head to look at her. The Imperial woman turned around and sighed to herself; too little, too late. “Did Kodlak ask to see you too?”

“Yeah, do you know what it’s about?”

Vilkas shook his head with an annoyed glance, “I’d bet you fifteen septims it’s just another job. I couldn’t guess the particulars though,” Vilkas sighed and pulled at his collar, “It’s getting difficult to talk to him about certain things.”

Valleri cocked an eyebrow, “Certain things?”

“Doesn’t matter. Let’s go,” Vilkas started walking downstairs with out her. He stopped and watched while Valleri stashed her journal and quill next to her assigned bed. Valleri glanced at him as Vilkas slouched against the door jam. The man looked exhausted and probably needed a break.

Kodlak seemed just as tired when she saw him sitting in his usual seat at the end of the hall. The old man smiled meekly as he noticed her staring. He nodded towards Vilkas as the two of them entered. “Good, you two came together.”

“What is it this time?” Vilkas questioned, voice low and almost grumbling. Valleri winced.

“I got a letter from the Reach; people from Karthwasten are going missing near an old Nordic ruin.”

Valleri scowled, “I’ve come to realize it’s your job to answer calls for help like these, but what about the guards?”

Vilkas glanced down with a bored, unsurprised expression, “The Jarl’s more concerned with the Forsworn.”

Valleri turned to look at him, “Who are they?” She shook her head and glanced back at Kodlak, “Never mind, I’ll find out later. How far is Markarth?”

Kodlak looked brighter suddenly when he locked eyes with Valleri, “It’s a little more than a week away. You two will be away for a while.”

Vilkas perked up, “No one else is coming?”

“Unfortunately no. There have been a lot of jobs starting to come in as the first snow approaches. Don’t be disheartened, I have perfect faith that you and Valleri will do well. That’s all,” Kodlak finished with a smile. Vilkas shrugged and turned to leave the room, Valleri quickly following suit. Kodlak breathed in, “Actually, Valleri, I had a question for you.”

The woman turned back around to face the large Nord, “What’d you need?”

The Harbinger addressed with an even tone, “What do you plan on doing after you find the people you are looking for?”

Valleri paused and stared at him with wide eyes, “I… I honestly haven’t thought about it much.”

Kodlak glanced downwards with a look of disappointment, “You’ve been too caught up with the past to think about the future.”

“I wouldn’t say that exactly.”

“If you decide not to go back Cyrodiil after this ordeal, I’d like to offer you a more permanent position in Whiterun.”

Valleri breathed outwards with apprehension, “I’m not sure what to say.”

Kodlak nodded his head, “I didn’t mean for that to sound heavy-handed, but please consider it.”

Valleri looked back at him apologetically and rushed out of the room. She paused when she saw Vilkas leaning against the wall with arms crossed next to the open door. The younger man stared at her out of the corner of his eye. Valleri knew immediately he’d been listening to their conversation. She could only give him an unsure glance as she rushed back upstairs.

Vilkas and Valleri left Whiterun soon after the sunrise the next moring. They walked mostly in silence as Valleri watched the sun rise over the mountain range north of the city. Vilkas was leading her mostly the same way the went when heading towards Dustman’s Cairn but this time around they stuck close to the road. Guards dressed in yellow armor patrolled the road, paying little to no attention to the two travelers. Valleri didn’t mind however, the guards around in Skyrim were much more crass than the city guards in Cyrodiil and Valleri had trouble keeping snide comments to a minimum so early in the morning. She pulled her cloak closer around her as the early morning chill refused to leave.

“You didn’t sleep, did you?” Vilkas turned to look at Valleri walking at a slower pace behind him. Somehow even with the dark, ugly smudges of charcoal under his eyes, the Nord looked very awake.

Valleri chuckled to herself and shook her head, “Not really. I’ll be fine though.”

“Did you go to bed late or something? Or are you excited about finally leaving the hold?”

Valleri hummed quietly, “Nothing like that. I always just have a tough time staying asleep when it gets cold.”

Vilkas looked down at the ground with a disbelieving scowl, “That doesn’t sound right.”

Valleri chuckled again and finally locked eyes with the Nord walking next to her, “You’ve lived in Whiterun all your life, right? Never really stayed anywhere warm and temperate for an extended period of time?” she smirked and went back to looking at the scenery around them. The mountains in the background were starting to accumulate white patches of snow. Just looking at it made the warm blooded Imperial shiver.

“Can’t say I have,” Vilkas admitted, glancing back at Valleri.

“Exactly! I’m just not used to the cold is all,” Valleri smiled, laughing to herself.

Vilkas looked back up with a cocked eyebrow, “Sounds like you need a blanket or a sweater or something. Especially since you’re going to be here at least until spring.”

“Yeah, right,” Valleri paused, standing still by herself momentarily, “Wait what did you say?”

“What?” Vilkas watched the Imperial start walking again, facing him with a frown. Valleri could see a hint of panic in his expression, but that didn’t make her feel any less confused.

“You think it’s going to take that much time to find my friends?” Valleri eyed him with an reproachful glare. Again, Valleri knew that Vilkas meant no harm by the off handed comment, but still…

Vilkas eyed her with a bored expression. He breathed out and went back to scanning the road in front of them. “Yes, I do actually,” he answered with a deep, unemotional voice. Valleri scowled in return.

“Why though? Kodlak was finally getting in touch with the authorities in Falkreath and that doesn’t mean I can’t be out there looking myself,” Valleri gestured wildly with her hands almost losing her cloak in the process. She scrambled to readjust it, realizing she probably looked like a fool.

“Winter’s at the very least a few days away and you think it’d be easy to scour the forest for two dead bodies and three bandits. It’s not possible,” Vilkas sighed with disappointment and shook his head.

Valleri breathed out, and chuckled, “Doesn’t mean I can’t try.”

She could hear Vilkas grumble at her side before a corner of his mouth turned upwards finally, “All right, just… be careful if you do.” They walked on for quite a bit and Valleri noticed they were starting to come into hillier terrain. Vilkas started to address her again in an even voice, “Let’s say you do collect the weregild, what then?”

Valleri shrugged, “Back to the Gold Coast I guess.” She kicked a loose stone on the road watched it roll a few feet before kicking it again.

“I thought you didn’t have a lot to go back to apart form Alastaros and Lexius.”

“That doesn’t mean I have nothing. It’s my home; I just can’t abandon it,” Valleri muttered mostly to herself. Vilkas tilted his head and frowned. The Imperial woman laughed nervously, hoping it would lighten the increasingly awkward mood.

The Nord finally glanced back at her with a slight grin; Valleri felt herself begin to relax. “Why not just take time off and travel?”

She cocked an eyebrow and locked eye with him “What happened to this wergild thing? And aren’t we technically traveling right now?”

“Yes, we are, but that’s not the point,” Vilkas muttered. He stopped walking and started gazing northwards over the tundra. Valleri saw him squinting then spotted two large creatures ambling on in the distance.

Valleri pulled her cloak closer around her shoulder as the wind buffeted into her, “What are those?”

“Mammoths. They can put up a fight but then the giants will go after you,” Vilkas whispered as he continued to watch them.

Valleri sighed and glanced up at him, “What was your point by the way?”

“About earlier?”

“Yeah.”

Vilkas turned back to Valleri with a small, almost pitiful frown, “Every time you’ve left Anvil was on sort of business. And what we’re doing right now, we’re on our way to a job. You’re not going to Markarth just because you want to.”

“Well I sort of want to,” Valleri mumbled to herself. She scowled to herself and started walking off again. She spun on her heel and looked back Vilkas with a broad grin, “Some one can say the same thing about you, right Vilkas?”

The Nord narrowed his eyes with annoyance, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Valleri gestured widely and shouted, “What have you done for the past ten, no fifteen years of your life? Worked with the Companions, right?”

Vilkas stated walking towards her with a slight scowl, “Okay, stop right there. I’m perfectly content with my life the way it is.” He stared down at her with a look of mixed pain and annoyance. Valleri would have bet that he was lying. If there was one thing she learned about Vilkas in the time she had gotten to know him, he was a proud man.

Valleri felt the dark mood starting to overtake the situation and the open space of the tundra began to close in on her. The Imperial laughed nervously, “If you say so.” She started walking again, finding another pebble to kick around. Vilkas caught the pebble next and saw his face brighten up when it flew a few feet farther than he anticipated. She looked back at him, “Why are you so interested in what I’m doing anyhow? Is it because of my conversation with Kodlak yesterday?”

Vilkas didn’t say anything for a time, black choppy hair covering his face as he looked down. Valleri almost didn’t hear him when he began to whisper, “I’d be lying if I said no.”

Valleri felt guilty for poking fun at the man when she paused next to him. She didn’t attempt to make eye contact. “I’m sorry,” she spoke quietly and placed a hand on his arm, “Would it really be that bad if I left?”

Vilkas brushed the stray, black hairs out of his face before looking back to Valleri, “I’m not sure if I have an opinion on that matter yet,” the Nord started walking towards the west again, a spring of confidence back in his stride. He looked at Valleri over his shoulder, eyes bright and alert, “If you do end up taking Kodlak up on his offer, go on a trip first, clear your head. Maybe I’ll go with you.”

Valleri couldn’t help but smile as she ran to catch up to him, “That’d be the day!”

Vilkas was still on his first drink when the group of soldiers entered the inn. Valleri sat next him, slowly nursing a small mug of mead and staring into the fire. Her burgundy grey cloak was draped over shoulders like a blanket, reminding Vilkas of their conversation the day before. Vilkas was glad they made it to Rorikstead before night fall. He hated sleeping under the open sky, the experience always left him with a threatening feeling of being watched. Valleri was also much happier being indoors. Her face paled in disappointment when she saw the small white flakes falling from the sky. By now he expected the snow was coming down hard and steady. Poor, poor Imperial.

The new comers were loud and it was hard not stare at them with a frown. The five of them crowded the door and let all of the cold air into the room. Each one of them had deep purple capes clasped around them and fall faced helmets. Anyone who had been in Skyrim for even a short time would know who they were. Vilkas could see Valleri pull the cloak closer around her from the corner of his eye. She watched the group of Stormcloaks from the corner of her eye with a look of disdain.

Soon enough one of the Stormcloak soldiers started ogling the Imperial woman sitting next him. Vilkas sighed and tried not to pay too much attention. Unfortunately, Vilkas overheard them making comments and bets. Damn the blood! There were times he appreciated the inhumane ability but now was not one of those times.

He was tempted to throw punches at the a few of the of Stormcloaks behind him for some of the nastier things they were saying about Valleri.

Soon enough one of them actually approached her, a large Nord who slid his helmet off and placed it on the table in between the two Companions. He narrowed his drunken eyes and starting to rattle off a few pickup lines. Valleri sat, eyes glued on the fire in front of her. To be honest, Vilkas knew exactly what she was doing; hoping the soldier would just go away wasn’t going to do anything.

The Nord started to lean over her with a hand on the back of the chair but soon began to move his arm down onto her shoulder. Vilkas was about to make a move when he saw the steel helmet collide with the man’s face. There was a metallic clang when the piece of armor connected with his cheek and the Nord was out cold. He fell to the stone floor face first when she pushed him off her.

Vilkas couldn’t help but give her a surprised glance. He saw her hurt, embarrassed expression, face bright red and eyes wide. Valleri mumbled an apology before heading back to their room. He glanced at the group of Stormcloak soldiers with disgust and rushed to follow Valleri.

The woman was much calmer in the smaller room than she was in the main hall of the inn. She began to speak in hurried manner, not letting Vilkas get a chance to cut in. She spoke about how rude the Stormcloaks seemed to be, how they were just like the legion. How in Cyrodiil, legionnaires would strut around and push civilians around all because they thought they were the only ones who mattered any more. How nothing ever changed no matter which army you ran into.

She looked at him with furrowed eyebrows and piercing eyes. What was the point of the war in the first place? The Empire was much to weak to be fighting a war in the first place. The Jarls of Skyrim had to have known that it was easier to gain freedom through peaceful means rather than slaughter. Had they never realized that or were they both too prideful to turn back?

Valleri sighed, out of steam but he could see that she felt much better. They both laughed nervously, Vilkas finally saying that he could see what she meant. Breathing out, Valleri quietly thanked him with a nod of her head. He could see Valleri smiling at herself before going to bed as he left the room to finish his mead.

Chapter Text

Valleri couldn’t help but stare wide eyed at the city looming in front of them. If she looked closely enough, the Imperial woman could clearly see the buildings and spires carved out of the bed rock. She had seen cities carved out of stone before, but nothing on this scale. Alastaros told her that they were primarily exploring Dwemer ruins during their ill-fated trip. Were they all like this?

Vilkas didn’t seem to be phased by the grandeur of the front gate. To him it was probably just another city with more problems and people to deal with. There were only so many times a person could go to a place and still feel amazed by it.

She turned to look at the Nord only slightly behind her, trudging through the patchy snow like he was going to murder someone, “You okay?”

He stared at her with narrowed eyes, “I’m fine. I remembered just how much I hate this place.”

The smile faded from Valleri’s face before she turned back around. She stopped and looked up at the city, “What’s so bad about Markarth?”

Vilkas stopped behind her, finally looking up. The scowl on his face faded into an expression of mild annoyance, “Same type of people here as there are anywhere else. Besides, the entire city’s built on a Dwemer ruin. That just can’t be safe.” The Nord continued along the path leading to the gates.
“That’s exciting though!”

“I’m not going to say anything more and let you think that,” Vilkas muttered before finally reaching the steps leading to the city gates.

Valleri shook her head. She was about to take another quick step to catch up to Vilkas when she felt something ram into the back of her legs. Valleri felt the heel of her boot slip across a slick patch of ice. The woman reached out for anything to grab onto but the fall was inevitable. She hit the ground with a thud and her right shoulder careened into the point of a jagged rock. “Fuck!”

Vilkas turned to face his friend laying on the ground, “What in oblivion happened?”

Valleri steadied herself. She looked over to her left; there was a wide eyed dog wagging it’s tail and staring at her with what could have been a smile. “I hit an ice patch,” the Imperial muttered as she caught up to Vilkas. She could see him begin to smile smugly.

“You didn’t break anything, did you?”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I take it there wasn’t a lot of ice on the Gold Coast?” Vilkas retorted, desperately trying to keep a straight face. He waited for Valleri to enter the city before going on through himself.

“If I ever see you there, I’m gonna throw sand in your eyes.” Valleri grumbled.

Vilkas sighed, rubbing the back of his head with a free hand, “That’s fair.” Valleri shot him a glare through narrowed green eyes. The Nord couldn’t help but laugh to himself. He paused in the middle of the market, watching as Valleri seemed to continue on to a side street. Shaking his head, Vilkas addressed her, “Valleri, where’re you going?”

The woman paused and spun on her heel to face him. She looked at him with confusion then realization, “I have no idea.”

“We’re supposed to meet a man by the name of Ainethach at the Silverblood Inn.”

Valleri began to approach Vilkas again, face contorted in a frown, “Where was I going?”

“Up to the other side of town towards the mine. Come on,” Vilkas held the heavy stone door open for Valleri as she strode on through into the warmth of the building. The interior of the inn was dimly lit apart from the hearth at the back of the room and a wall sconce every few feet. Vilkas stepped in and the door slammed behind him with a thud. The inn was mostly empty apart from a spare smeter worker here and there. All Vilkas knew was that they were searching for a Breton. At least he’d assumed Ainethach was a Breton name. He followed Valleri to the back of the room and took a seat by the hearth.

It wasn’t long before they were approached by a newcomer. The man was too short to be a Nord and the tattoos on his face certainly didn’t have any cultural motifs that Vilkas could recognize. The man crossed his arms nervously, “Sorry but are you guys with the Companions? I was supposed to meet a man by the name of Vilkas here.”

Valleri glanced at her friend with a questioning expression. Vilkas nodded, “I’m him. This is Valleri, she’s with the Companions as well,” he gestured to the woman in question. She smiled at the Breton anxiously.

“Well that’s all well and good. You’re gonna need more than one person any ways,” Ainethach laughed nervously while Valleri shot Vilkas an unsure glance. “Some of my miners went missing a while ago near an old Nordic ruin and I haven’t seen them since. I’d go after them myself but I’ve got enough problems between the Forsworn and those, well, I’m going to stop there.”

“You own land around here then?”

“That I do, Karthwasten.”

“What’s the ruin called?” Valleri piped up from her seat on the other side of Ainethach.

“Ragnvald. All I know is that if I go meddling around an old burial site, I might get attacked and lose the mine.”

Vilkas muttered, looking into the fire in front of him, “Shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Great then. The ruin is a tad to the south west of Karthwasten. There’s a road that should be going right to it some where between here and my town.”

“At least we won’t have to spend a day looking for it,” Valleri couldn’t help but smile, reminding Vilkas of their trip to Dustman’s Cairn a week or so before.

Ainethach finally laughed genuinely, “I’ll leave you two to it then. When you’re done just come on up to the mine and let me know what happens.” He turned to leave the inn, “I’ll see you in a few days hopefully.”

Vilkas watched him leave then looked back to Valleri. The woman unclasped her cloak and laid it across the back of her chair. Her hair was hanging in front of her eyes, rose gold light glinting off of the strands. She turned to face Vilkas, mouth curled up in a grin.

Vilkas paused, not knowing what to say. He looked back int the fire and started speaking, “We’ll leave tomorrow morning. No need to rush at this point; people don’t typically make it out of places like that alive.”

Valleri’s gaze turned sorrowful in the firelight, “Well, you’re not wrong.” The woman looked back over to Vilkas, “We call those people idiots. But when you think, we’re the idiots, right?”

“I’m not an idiot though,” Vilkas muttered, “I’m a trained professional. I’ve been going through old ruins and caves since I was barely a man.”

Valleri laughed, “Me too, but that doesn’t mean I make the best decisions,” she patted him on the back roughly, “You should know!”

Vilkas sighed, smiling all the while, “Regardless, you’ve only ever been theses sorts of places for research or treasure hunting or whatever it was you did with Alastaros, but you were still safe about it.”

“And what part of this is safe?” Valleri cocked an eyebrow. Vilkas only shook his head and looked back into the fire.

This was going to be fun.

Breakfast was a dull affair the next morning; Valleri wasn’t feeling particularly hungry and Vilkas was missing after she left him the night before. Though it wasn’t like she could really coax him into doing much anyways. Valleri learned many things about the Nord in the time she spent with the Companions; Vilkas was not someone you messed with early in the morning. It wasn’t that he was overtly horrible, the man was just cold and distant.

Valleri accidentally woke up earlier than she would have liked. The stony bed provided by the inn was insufferable and Valleri would much rather sleep outside on the ground than on the slab of rock. She had a hard time falling asleep in the first place, but staying asleep was another thing.

The woman found a corner table in the main room of the inn and sat for a time. People filled the building as they came inside to find food and a warm fire to wake them up. Most of them were sluggish smelter workers, dressed in threadbare tunics and trousers. How they could work outside like that was beyond her. Even with the heavy cloak, Valleri still felt the chill creep up on her.

Valleri broke off another piece of bread but couldn’t find will to start eating it. Sitting alone for the morning meal felt foreign. In the time that she was staying with the Companions, she would end up eating with Vilkas. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist but the company was nice at least. Finally, she started to nibble on a spare carrot on her plate. The taste was bland, but it was food.

She perked up when she saw a familiar black haired Nord lumbering out into the main hall. He was slouching as he walked; Valleri figured he didn’t sleep well either. He stopped by the main counter before turning around to search for her. Valleri made no move to welcome him to the table. Instead she began to slouch further into her chair when he came striding up.

Vilkas yawned as he took a seat across the table. Valleri smiled to herself, “You too, huh?”

“Gods, I hate this city,” Vilkas grumbled. “Why they don’t use normal beds is beyond me.”

Valleri stifled a laugh, “Did you actually get any sleep?”

Vilkas rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Only a few hours. What about you?

The Imperial laughed, “No, I don’t think so.” The Nord across from her furrowed his eyebrows, “I’ve been sitting out here for a few hours.” Valleri paused, twirling a strand of hair around her finger, “Do you think that maybe we should have just gone straight to Ragnvald?”

Vilkas stole the last piece of bread from Valleri’s plate, “Not at all. I’d much rather just sleep on a stone bed than walk in the dark in the Reach.”

Valleri thought of the surrounding scenery, steep cliffs and fast-moving rivers could be dangerous in the day time. It was easy to see Vilkas’ point. She watched him finish off the food on her plate and got up to put her cloak back on. “How long do you think it’ll take to get there?”

Vilkas shook his head and looked down at the table, “Not long at all. The trek will take the better part of a day, but that’s to be expected.” The chair clattered as Vilkas began to move back into his room, “I’ve got a few things to pick up, then I’ll meet you outside.”

Valleri nodded her head in reply and began towards the door. She hesitated before opening it, mentally preparing herself for the blast of cold from the outside. It was still dark as well, the looming wall in front of her blocked the sun. The walk to Ragnvald was going to be miserable. Valleri leaned against a stone pillar supporting the rockface and closed her eyes. She figured she may as well get a bit more rest before leaving Markarth.

She waited by the door for some time before she saw a cloaked figure running down one of the side streets at an oddly fast pace. Valleri could only stare on, feet frozen in place as the figure kept running closer. Valleri shouted at them with worry before she attempted to step away. The woman was too late, the hooded figure side swiped her and fell forward into the stony ground. Valleri tried to reach out for anything to regain her balance, but she felt herself loose her footing on another ice patch. She felt her side hit the ground hard before attempting to get up. “Gates to oblivion,” Valleri shouted as she propped herself back up with an arm. Her shoulder was throbbing again. She glanced at the person who ran into her; he too was picking himself up from the round and his hood was flipped back to reveal golden, pointed ears. She scowled, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I am…” the Altmer trailed off.

“What in Ysmir’s beard happened? I was gone for only a few minutes!” Valleri looked up and saw Vilkas standing in front of the door leading into the inn with a look of disappointment on his face. He walked over and offered a hand out to Valleri. She sighed and took it, cursing Vilkas internally. She wasn’t going to hear the end of it.

“I accidentally ran into your friend here,” the Altmer muttered as he turned around to face the two Companions. He looked at Vilkas with a sheepish grin then back at Valleri. He had only glanced at her for a few seconds before there was a bright light of recognition went off in his eyes and his jaw drop. “Wait, I think I know you!”

Valleri stepped back. there was something unsettling about this elf.

“Your name is Valleri right?” his smile faded when she failed to answer, “Did you have brother by the name of Lexius? A Redguard? How about Alastaros? Do any of those names sound familiar, at all?”

Valleri looked at him with wonder before glancing over to Vilkas, the Nord was equally surprised. “How the fuck did you know that?” Valleri muttered, listening to the sound of her heart pounding in her ears.

The Altmer ginned again, taking Valleri’s hands into his own, “I didn’t think I’d ever get to meet you! Lexius was adamant that you hated the cold.”

“How did you know Lexius though?”

The Altmer’s grin faded a bit, “I met lexius when he came here to get the Falmer translation a year or so ago. I’m Calcelmo’s nephew, Aicantar.”

Valleri paused, immediately recognizing the name, “The same Calcemo that studied with Alastaros in the Imperial City before Alastaros got kicked out?” Aicantar nodded vigorously. Valleri breathed in and took her hand back, “Wow, I heard a few storied about Lex’s trip but nothing in great detail.”

Valleri heard Vilkas grumble behind her before patting her on the shoulder, “What are you doing running around so early in the morning when you’re supposed to be in a Dwemer ruin with this Calcemo fellow?” Valleri glanced up to the Nord; it was another valid question.

Aicantar laughed nervously, “I was, uh, running errands, very important stuff.” Valleri stared at hm through narrowed eyes. The Altmer winced, “Yeah, okay, fine. So maybe I may have gotten into a fight with Calcelmo.”

Vilkas stared at the elf with a scowl, “Are you running away?”

Valleri breathed in sharply and didn’t move her gaze away Aicantar, who was beginning to melt under Vilkas’ scrutiny. She had to stop this before it started. The Imperial woman coughed to get Aicantar’s attention, “Was it that bad?”

“Well, I maybe not so kindly told hm that he was too preoccupied with his own work to notice any of other plebeians working for him,” the elf began to seethe again. Aicantar began to shift from one foot to another, “I figured getting away for a while would help.”

Valleri tilted her head to the side, “It usually does.”

The Imperial looked up to Vilkas. The man was rubbing his temples with annoyance, “We should probably start going.”

“Right,” Valleri mumbled. She paused and took one last look at the Altmer. He was dusting himself off and muttering something Valleri couldn’t pick up. Tapping Vilkas on the arm for him to wait, she addressed Aicantar one more time, “Hey, you’re from Summerset Isles, right? Are you good with destruction spells?”

Aicantar furrowed his thin eyebrows, “It’s called Alinor now, but yeah. I’m pretty handy with lightning.”

Valleri smiled, preparing herself for the barrage of complaints that would come in a moment or two, “Why not come with us? I’m sure we could use another person and staying out of the city isn’t going to do anything for you.”

“Valleri, what the hell?” Vilkas all but shouted, eyes wide and stormy.

“What’s wrong with having another person with us?”

“The elf’s a liability.”

“No, he isn’t. It’ll be fine.”

Vilkas’ mouth turned into thin line, “No. That’s it, he’s not coming with us.”

Valleri wanted to punch the Nord, but stayed still. They didn’t have to agree on everything. Before she knew it, Aicantar slowly raised his hand and began to speak, “Actually, I’d like to go. I’m not sure where you’re all going but I’d rather be anywhere but here.”

Vilkas stared at Aicantar for only moment before sighing. Her rubbed the bridge of his nose, “Fine, he can come.” Aicantar shot Valleri a happy glance before Vilkas began to address the Imperial woman, “You’ll be the one to talk to his uncle if anything happens though. I don’t have any particular wish to deal with smug elves.’
The Nord turned to leave and Valleri began to walk next to Aicantar. The elf shot her an exasperated smile, “Is he always like that?”

Valleri laughed to herself, ‘Not always. You just caught him on an odd day.”

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” he held the city gate open for Valleri, who didn’t even try to catch up to Vilkas. “What happened to Lexius? Did you guys ever find that necklace he mentioned?”

Valleri paused, her face turning white, and breathed out sharply. Cold creeped up on shoulders, a different cold than the snow around them. She turned back to Aicantar with a sorrowful expression, “A lot of things happened since then. Right now isn’t really a good time to talk about it.” The woman turned away only to see Vilkas waiting at the bottom of the steps. He had definitely overheard their conversation and his scowl was replaced by a much softer expression. Valleri felt a little better when she nodded in reply and the three of them started on their trek to Ragnvald.

Chapter Text

It was easy to spot Ragnvald from a distance. The stark black architecture stood out from the rockface and fir trees like a sore thumb. Valleri squinted when she looked at it; bright sunlight reflected off polished blotches of black stone, turning it bright silver. A massive front porch led to the front entrance to the ruin, a looming slab of black behind the tall arches. It was the same foreign architecture Valleri saw previously at Bleakfalls barrow. Long tendrils of overgrown vines and leaves descended down parts of the arches like a curtain. Being the historical scholar she was, Valleri assumed it was built by similar people nearly at the same time in history.

Valleri sighed and brushed away a vine, “Well, at least it’s more obvious than Dustman’s Cairn. But why in the world would they build a settlement so close to Nordic crypt?” She scowled and looked back to Vilkas and Aicantar. She ran backwards into another vine, tangling her arm up in the process. Exasperatedly, Valleri pulled out her dagger and cut away the green tendrils.

“Ainethach mentioned a mine, so the location was probably just one of convenience,” Vilkas muttered from behind her. He looked at Aicantar with piercing glare, “Much like Markarth, huh?”

Valleri could hear Aicantar laugh dryly as he squirmed momentarily. Quickly, the High Elf glanced sideways at the Nord with a sour smile, “At least Markarth has actual guards from keeping whatever’s down there at bay. Besides, Calcelmo hasn’t had the chance to wake anything up yet. The excavation’s been closed down for now.”

Valleri breathed out, reaching the next part of the porch, “That’s a shame,” she stopped at the side of one the porch, and crossed her arms, “What happened?”

Aicantar laughed awkwardly as he ducked underneath more vines, “Giant spiders and the such. Nothing too horrible.”

Vilkas finally looked up to Valleri, expression lighter than before. He paused next to Valleri, “As someone who doesn’t go galivanting into old ruins mostly for the hell of it, I’m curious as to how often stuff like that happens?”

Valleri looked at him with a smile and shook her head. She knew he was only joking despite the accusatory tone he used. She looked over her shoulder with a smirk, “What sort of stuff do you are you referring to?”

The Nord shrugged with boredom, “Waking up giant centurions, old spirits. That sort of thing.”

“I have a hard time believing that you’ve never done the same,” Valleri laughed, walking past Vilkas. He gave her a shrug as he turned to face her and Aicantar. The elf was already nearing the door leading to the interior of Ragnvald.

Aicantar locked eyes with Valleri, shooting Valleri an unsure look. He glanced back to Vilkas with knitted eyebrows. “She’s got a point. You Companions have a reputation of running head on into old crypts like this,” Aicantar shouted as he gestured upwards to the towering spires that lined the sides of the porch. “You’ve had to have fought at least one ancient chieftain after startling them awake,” Aicantar quieted down and tilted his head with a smirk.

Vilkas sighed and glanced downwards with a shake of his head, “Okay fine. I’ll admit that I did, but only once.” He met Valleri’s eyes with a look of defeat. The Imperial couldn’t help but grin to herself.

“Are you going spare us any of the bloody details?”

Vilkas made his way to the black door without making eye contact with either Valleri or Aicantar. Finally, Valleri could hear him whisper, “Not for you two.”

She watched him open the heavy door and frowned, “What a killjoy.”

Valleri followed Aicantar into the ruin. The woman had to squint when she stepped into the main room; it was almost pitch black in the chamber despite holes in the ceiling letting light in from the outside. Vilkas and Aicantar were already looking around the room, the elf gravitating to a table in the middle with a mummified corpse laid haphazardly on top. She watched the elf grimace with disgust. Vilkas shot him a look of annoyance when he saw the elf start poking at the corpse with spare piece of metal.

Finally, Aicantar looked back at Valleri leaning against a pillar holding up what was left of the roof. “It smells like death in here,” he coughed out.

Valleri smirked. She was perfectly used to the smell of rotting corpses and dry dust; it took Valleri a moment to remember that the Dwemer typically didn’t leave bodies, “No kidding. Not as bad as burnt up oil though, that’s for sure.”

“Quiet you two, we’re not sure if the dragur are awake or not,” Vilkas snapped back, voice carrying loudly through the chamber. Valleri only stared at him through narrowed eyes before striding over past him, Aicantar quickly following her. She glanced back behind her for only a second to see Vilkas scowling lightly.

She led the two of them through another short set of corridors, finally coming upon a chamber much different than the first. The ruin seemed to direct them onto a raised pathway while a set of stairs led to the floor below them. Valleri looked over the edge; two dead dragur were already lying limp on the ground with a few splatters of dried blood around them. Vilkas saw the blood as well and shot a glance at Valleri. Wordlessly she nodded her head in acknowledgment and rushed down the stairs leading to the lower floor.

She kicked one of the dragur with a boot while Vilkas and Aicantar made their way down. “It’s like Dustman’s Cairn, they’re all torn up,” Valleri muttered when she turned back.

“Blood’s dried up too, I’m assuming it must have been the miners,” Vilkas looked back up to Valleri, “This is a lot of blood though.”

“Are we looking for a body then?”

“Well, I’d say the search is over,” Aicantar muttered to the others. He was following what Valleri could only assume was a trail of blood to the far corner of the room. Valleri attempted to peer over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of the decaying body. Aicantar’s pale face was scrunched up with disgust as he looked down at the unfortunate corpse. He muttered under his breath, “What a horrible way to go.”

“There were more of them, right?” Valleri asked, unable to pull her eyes away from the dead body.

“Aye. We should probably go further in, make sure there isn’t anyone else left.” Vilkas started walking back up the stairs to the walk way above. He watched as Valleri and Aicantar followed him up, “Who knows, maybe one of them lived?”

Valleri shot him a doubtful glance, “That’s just wishful thinking there.”

She walked past the Nord and into the next room. It was raised and closed in much like where they found the dead miner. Behind the haphazardly put together wooden panels, Valleri could see the final part of the chamber below. Valleri began to walk forward when began to hear a grumbling at her side. The woman whipped around, cursing herself internally when she saw the dragur begin to bring his sword down on her. “Fucking hell!” Valleri shouted as she sidestepped, only able to grab the dagger out of small scabbard on her side. Valleri swung around the back and plunged the dagger into the decaying neck. The black great sword fell from the dragur’s grasp. Valleri yelled one more time as she unsheathed her sword and drug across the dragur’s neck. The shambling corpse dropped to the floor with a thud.

Valleri was still breathing heavily and coughing up dust when Vilkas and Aicantar came rushing in. The elf stared at the scene with dumbfounded confusion while Vilkas only looked at her with a blank stare. This had happened too many times for Vilkas to be surprised any longer.

Instead Vilkas shifted his weight to the other foot and shot her unimpressed look, “Happened again, huh?”

Valleri crouched down and pulled the dagger from the corpse below her. She wiped the dust clean on the lower hem of her cloak and turned to face her friends, “Well, it’s not going to be the last time either. Besides one dragur doesn’t amount to much.” The Imperial smirked as Vilkas approached her, his expression finally softening.

The Nord walked past the wooden paneling and into the lower bowels of the room. Aicantar and Valleri followed suit but stayed on the upper portion of the stairs. Around them was random clutter; old urns and piles of rotting bandages and wrappings littered the floor around them. At the head of the room was a sarcophagus and Valleri walked up to inspect it closer. Two round impressions were left on either side, looking as if there was something missing.

Vilkas came up right behind her, looking down at the sarcophagus, “This doesn’t look like it’s going to bode well.”

Valleri glanced over to him, “You’re good with this stuff. Do you know any of the history of this place?”

“Not at all,” he whispered as he shook his head. “But I’d gather the people who built this place was trying to keep whatever was buried here exactly where they left him.”

“The miners probably knew more than we did.”

Vilkas shrugged. He didn’t say anything further and looked over to the Altmer fiddling with door at the far left. Aicantar stepped back as he noticed the giant smear of blood covering most of the door. Valleri could see the color left the elf’s face again. Aicantar spun on his heel to face the two of them and shouted at a distance, “This might where they went.” He paused looking at the rusty smudge left on his hand, “At least I’m assuming it is.”

Vilkas exchanged a quick glance with Valleri then sprinted up the stairs to the elf and took a look around the adjoining hall. Valleri leaned against the sarcophagus with folded arms, waiting to see Vilkas’ reaction to the discovery. The Nord nodded towards Aicantar and motioned for Valleri to come up to meet them. He took a final glance into the corridor and spoke in a clear, low voice, “Whether or not they knew what was going on here, they seemed to think it was better to keep going.”

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows as she came up behind Aicantar, “You’d think they would have just turned back.”

Vilkas led his two companions into the hall way, muttering all the while, “Prideful idiots.”

The Imperial woman shook her head, “We could say the same about you.”

“That’s rude,” Aicantar whispered.

He bumped into Valleri’s back when Vilkas paused at the end of the hallway. There was another flight of rickety, old stairs leading down to a lower level of the ruin. Valleri looked over Vilkas’ shoulder to see what made him stop. The Nord had a disappointed scowl on his face and Valleri felt her mood deflate when she saw the shambling dragur.

“Fucking dustmen,” Vilkas whispered as he left to head down the stairs, “I should just really start bringing a bow with me. Everything would just be so much easier.”

Valleri patted him on the shoulder and watched the unfortunate undead go down with a fluid strike from Vilkas. “Do you know how to use one even?”

He furrowed his eyebrows, “Of course I do. Kodlak and Skjor wouldn’t have let Farkas and I start taking jobs if we didn’t. Also, Aela made a pretty threatening case.”

She followed Aicantar down where Vilkas was still standing around. The Altmer shot Vilkas a look of confusion, “Just to be absolutely clear, that’s a dragur?”

Vilkas sighed and shook his head, “Well at least you knew the name.” He poked the corpse with the tip of his sword, “Why?”

Aicantar shrugged, “I thought they’d be more squelchy, I guess. Not quite so…”

Valleri cut him off, “Dry?”

“Sort of.”

The three of them stood in an awkward silence while Valleri looked around the room. Going forward were two more passages leading in the same general direction. “Should we split up?”

She smirked as she watched Vilkas balk in horror. “Fuck no,” he sputtered, “That’s a recipe for disaster. Especially with you two.”

“Thank the gods…”

Vilkas caught onto Aicantar’s whisper and turned to face the elf, “are you rethinking coming with us now, elf?”

Valleri could see Aicantar jump at the accusation, eyes bulging for only a moment, “No, not at all. It’s just new is all.”

Vilkas exchanged a bored glance with Valleri while the Imperial woman glared at him. He shrugged and turned to leave, “Let’s go then.”

Valleri quickly lost track of the twists and turns of the ruin as they made their way closer to whatever was waiting for them at the end. She was sandwiched between Vilkas and Aicantar and the mood was beginning to worsen. Valleri was beginning to fear an all-out fight between the two of them than any ancient dragur they might chance upon. This was a bad sign.

Regardless of the darkening moods of her compatriots, Valleri followed Vilkas into an open chamber. She quickly stepped away, allowing herself to breath for the first in what she felt was forever. She glanced around the room, surprised by the lit torches lining the walls. There was a sarcophagus at the head of the room, placed vertically and evenly against the wall. The lid was laying broken on the floor, revealing that it was lacking a body. In the middle of the room was another raised platform with stairs leading up to it opposite from the sarcophagus. She paused and furrowed her eyebrows. Something wasn’t right about the platform.

She pushed past Vilkas and all but ran up the stairs. Valleri heard Vilkas gripe behind her as she stopped just shy of a pedestal dominating the space. The woman stood enthralled as her eyes landed on it. A small ebony carved skull was placed laying on the pedestal, two sapphire eyes stared right through her. The tips of her fingers brushed the top of the skull, feeling the raised patterns on the metal.

Then she felt something sticky. Valleri grimaced as she pulled her hand away to see a reddish-brown slime covering her finger tips. Her face scrunched as the smell of decaying blood filled her nostrils. Valleri stepped backwards as her eyes followed the patches of blood to the other side of pedestal. She gasped and finally noticed the dead body of a miner slumped against the pedestal.

Vilkas called up to her, almost shouting, “Is everything okay up there?”

Valleri hesitated, eyes still glued to the miner n front of her. “I,” she paused, “I found one of the miners.”

Vilkas glanced over to Aicantar behind them, the elf shrugging in reply. “How bad is it?”

The Imperial woman shook her head, “It’s bad. Part of his arm’s missing. I think his jaw’s hanging off.” She grimaced, leaning her head over the side to get the nauseating stench of the carnage out of her mind. She spun to face Vilkas and Aicantar coming up the stairs, “I only fond one of them. Did Ainethach say how many were missing?”

Vilkas stopped next to Valleri, crouching down to inspect the body. He spoke with a grimace, “Not at all.” He got up and addressed their friend standing on the steps, “Aicantar, you probably shouldn’t come around here.”

Valleri watched the Altmer nod. He placed a gloved hand to his nose, “I figured. I can smell it from here. Did you find anything else?”

“Like more bodies?” Valleri’s lips curved upward in an uneven smile. She laughed to herself dryly when both Vilkas and Aicantar shook their heads in mock disappointment. “No, but I did chance upon this,” she remarked, holding up the miniature skull high enough for Aicantar to see. The elf’s eyes went wide with wonder while Valleri shot him a smug look.

Vilkas didn’t seem to share their same enthusiasm, “We’re all assuming it’s for the coffin in the main chamber, right?”

Valleri nodded her head, “That’s the idea. It’s probably a perfect fit, though we’d have to try it out to be sure.” She looked at Vilkas in front of her with confusion. The Nord was no longer focused on her, instead gazing on something on the platform behind her. Aicantar was beginning to look concerned as well. Any previous amazement the elf had felt before was wiped away. Hairs stood up on the back of her neck and Valleri began to frown. Valleri whipped around as an axe came down hard on the edge of her cloak. The skull dropped from her hand as she attempted to undo the clasp around her neck, though before she could, the dragur began to pull another, smaller axe from its belt.

She looked over to Vilkas with wide, desperate eyes. The Nord was beginning to draw his own sword, but it was too late. The dragur was already beginning to swing towards Valleri as the woman tried to tear her cape away from the battle axe. She heard a sudden humming noise and Vilkas nearly stepped backwards off the raised platform. There was a flash of light then the dragur flew across the room like a doll. Vilkas took advantage of his enemy’s sudden misfortune and ran over to finish him off. Confused, Valleri turned back to Aicantar; the elf was breathing heavily with an arm outstretched. Small tendrils of purplish white electricity danced along his hand and forearm. He locked eyes with Valleri, giving her quick nod.

“Are you all right?” he muttered, pulling the arm back to his chest.

“I’m fine.” Valleri gave a final tug on her cape and heard the fabric tearing. She grimaced when she watched Vilkas come back with a smirk a minute later, “What happened?”

“I found the last miner. The dragur must have went after them when they went for the skull.”

“Well, shit.” Valleri sighed in frustration, “That was the last one I take it?”

“Probably.” He oved past Valleri and Aicantar and back to the lower level of the chamber.

Aicantar grimaced, eyebrows furrowing, “What about the skull? Shouldn’t we at least see what they were after?”

Valleri shot Vilkas a tired look, causing the Nord to chuckle to himself. “Aicantar’s right. Val, get the skull,” Vilkas said in an even, sure tone. He turned to face them with a smirk, “Now let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Skjor couldn’t remember exactly when he woke up. Everything since the night after the feast was one big blur. Many of his dreams were so vivid, so life like, it was beginning to become difficult to tell what was reality and what wasn’t. He honestly couldn’t remember the last time he dreamt. Since taking on Hircine’s blessing decades before, any dreams were sporadic, twisted nightmares. Lord Hircine wasn’t one for bestowing frivolous gifts.

Skjor tired desperately to breath evenly. His ribs felt like fire, but it was nothing compared to the sweat inducing heat of his skin. Danica mentioned something about an infection or fever.

It didn’t matter though.

Fever and broken bones be damned if he was to be tied down to this bed. Every minute of each agonizingly long day felt like torture. Skjor had by now memorized each miniscule detail of the back room he was trapped in. There was a broken bow in the far corner; twelve loose septims sat on a table near the middle of the room right next to a book with sea green binding. The curtains next to the bed were woven by someone who had no care for the craft; small bits of yarn were uneven in the weft and not all of the rows were pushed together. Beyond that, the Nord could hear others outside. Skjor’s sense of smell went quickly but his ears were still sharp. It was easy to hear the midnight conversations of Aela and Kodlak. Their arguments were long and heated.

The unintentional eavesdropping was beginning to grate on his already thin nerves.

Skjor could feel himself becoming restless. The beast blood was close to boiling over and the longer he stayed in the bed, the worse it was going to get. Something had to be done about it soon.

Shafts of moon light shone through the holes in the curtains. Skjor grunted as he rose to a sitting position and began to stretch his arms over his head. Muscles burned and bones creaked when he moved, but there was a rejuvenating quality to the movement.
That’s when he smelled it. Skjor looked down to see his midsection had been wrapped up in yellowed, gooey bandages. Pus seeped out from the haphazard wraps as he moved. Usually Skjor would have been concerned, though now he couldn’t process it. The giant gash on his stomach was oozing and there wasn’t really anything he could do about it now.

The Nord was about to lay back down when he heard more people talking. Kodlak was speaking in clear tones to one of the newer companions. Ria probably; the second voice was that of a woman too high pitched to be Aela.

“It shouldn’t be too hard. Just the usual extermination,” Kodlak bellowed.

“Is it people this time?”

“No, just bears and wolves.”

“Oh nice. I’ll head out tomorrow.”

Skjor couldn’t process the rest of their conversation. Maybe he didn’t want to. But there was only a split second before the plan was already formulated. He couldn’t sit in bed any longer before he absolutely needed to transform. Besides, Kodlak said the job was easy enough. What was the harm in going out for a hunt?

Valleri could still smell the canal behind her. The water was stagnant and the rancid smell had probably been building up for centuries. The dragur the trio had taken down were floating at the top and probably wouldn’t do anything good for the stench that emanated from behind. Old, vague memories of Ayleid ruins on the beaches of Lake Rumare came rushing back and Valleri almost felt like vomiting. It was nothing compared to the rancid, acidic smell of decaying blood though.

Aicantar was pacing behind her with a spare rag tied around his nose and mouth. The poor elf was probably tired of Ragnvald already. Valleri felt sorry for him; people who didn’t know them or their line of work personally would probably say they were same type of historical scholar, but that was far from the truth. While Alastaros was quick to get his hands metaphorically and literally dirty, Calcelmo was slow to explore any actual ruins and worked with theories and speculation. Aicantar was probably paying for it now. Valleri could only hope the Altmer could hold it together long enough to reach the end.

The trio came out of the stairwell and into another larger chamber. Valleri felt chills go down her spine as she noted how similar it was to the chamber where they found the skull currently sitting in her pack. A thin, stony walkway led to another circular platform in the middle of the room. Beyond that was another sarcophagus at the head of the room. Hidden alcoves lined the side of the room, looking over the sarcophagus.

And there at the pedestal was a second little, black skull. Valleri sighed internally.

Valleri paused and turned to Aicantar and Vilkas, “Listen, before we do anything, I’m not touching the skull. Not again.”

The two men glanced at each other with confused expressions. Finally, Vilkas sighed and addressed Valleri, “What in the world are you talking about?”

Valleri’s stared at him with wide eyed disbelief, mouth agape. She gestured wildly at the room in front of them. “Are you kidding, Vilkas? As soon as we move that skull, that coffin over there is gonna bust open and go for the unlucky fool who touched it.” Valleri crossed her arms, “I’m not going to be that fool. I’ve already done that.”

“What makes you think that would actually happen? If you’re careful, maybe you wouldn’t have that problem.”

Valleri gestured wildly, “Just look at this place!”

The two of them stared at each other, Valleri narrowing her eyes in frustration. Vilkas didn’t move either; the Nord stayed stiff and looked down at the shorter Imperial. Aicantar began feel the tension between his two companions. “She has a point,” Aicantar agreed. Out of the corner of his eye, the Altmer could see Valleri’s frown melt into a smug smirk.

“Fine, fine,” Vilkas relented, “I’ll go get the skull.”

Valleri watched him through narrowed eyes as he sauntered up to the pedestal. With a flourish, the Nord grabbed the skull and held it the air for her and Aicantar to see.

“See, it’s fine,” he shouted. Valleri felt her chest tighten in disappointed exasperation. “You two are just jumpy,” Vilkas smirked. He tossed the skull to Valleri to put in her bag.

“You don’t have to be an ass about it,” Valleri muttered. The stone skull clattered besides its companion at the bottom. She felt Aicantar tap her on the back, gesturing over to Vilkas with a nod of his head. Valleri furrowed her eyebrows; the Nord was preoccupied and the sarcophagus at the end of the room was beginning to break open. Her grimace melted into a grin, “Shit, I was right!”

“We’ve got more pressing problems to deal with,” Aicantar slurred as she noticed the other coffins opening to reveal more dragur. She could hear Vilkas yelling obscenities at the dustman in the background.

Valleri kicked her bag towards the entrance of the chamber before drawing her sword. The woman didn’t wait for the dragur to come to her and ran at the walking corpse, raising her sword high above her head. The dragur froze, dead eyes locked onto Valleri. She swung down hard on its shoulder. There was a sickening snap when her sword went clean through and a calcified arm landed on the floor with a thud. The dragur began to run towards the door, back turned to Valleri. Her heart raced faster when she remembered her bag left defenseless by the entrance. Quickly, Valleri jumped the gap separating the alcove from the platform, landing heavily on the back of the dragur. Without a thought, she plunged the short sword into its skull.

Valleri wiped the dust and sweat from her eyes before getting up. Aicantar was already done with his own opponent, standing in place with disbelief. The elf finally looked over to her and nodded his head. Valleri glanced over to Vilkas before grabbing the bag; the burly Nord was finishing off the dragur. He laughed when the tall, horned helmet clattered as its head fell to the floor. Vilkas exchanged a glance with her before ascending the stairs to meet his companions.

Valleri smirked to herself as she grabbed the bag, “I told you we’d wake something up.”

Aicantar chuckled to himself and the smile melted from Vilkas’ face. The Nord furrowed his eyebrows, “Shut up. It was probably just a coincidence.”

Valleri started off back from where they came, calling out behind her, “You’re just saying that because you don’t want to be wrong.” She didn’t have to turn around to know that Vilkas was smoldering again. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and waited for the stragglers. Aicantar was still grinning from ear to ear.

“You have the other skull, right?” Vilkas mumbled as he approached the woman.

“Oh, don’t change the subject,” she jeered. Vilkas’ scowl deepened and Valleri sighed; now wasn’t the time. “Yeah, I have the skull. Nothing to worry about.”

Vilkas shot her a glare and walked past as quickly as he could, “I was only making sure.”

Valleri grimaced to herself and waited for Aicantar to pass before following. The elf shot her an exasperated glance and she couldn’t help but feel a bit better. She let herself breath again as the trio made their way past the putrid canals and back into the main burial chamber. No one said anything as Valleri hesitantly made her way to the sarcophagus dominating the room. Sighing to herself, Valleri quickly placed the stone skull into the slots carved into the side of the sarcophagus. Valleri held her breath and braced herself for the sound of stone cracking as whatever monster came from the sarcophagus.

But to her surprise, nothing happened.

Valleri stared at the coffin in confusion. Maybe there was nothing here after all?

“Is everything all right?” Aicantar called from his place on the stairs.

“Not sure…” Valleri trailed off. She could feel the two of them staring at her back in anticipation. Valleri knelt down on one knee next to the skulls, the general idea of what was probably wrong swirling in her head. “Don’t lose hope in me yet,” Valleri mumbled as she switched the placement of the skulls. The woman stepped back as she grimaced at the familiar noise of the sarcophagus opening.

Without warning, there was a sudden, bright flash of purple. Valleri shielded her eyes as best she could from the light. The woman almost toppled backwards when she saw the robed dragur begin to float over the floor. It wailed a low-pitched scream as it made its way towards the three of them.

Vilkas was already charging after it by the time Valleri had her sword out and ready. She watched Vilkas swing at it a few times, the Nord yelling with each hit. He was snarling as he moved; any enjoyment she’d seen in him before was washed away. Chills crawled up her spine as she watched Vilkas separate a mummified arm from its body. The thing knocked the Nord backwards with fluid movement. When it saw that Vilkas was down, the thing shifted its attention from Vilkas to Valleri and her feet refused to move.

Valleri steeled herself and waited for it to come to her before making any sort of move. She stepped higher onto the staircase behind her. In only a moment, the thing was close enough for Valleri to hit. She felt her blade make contact with its neck. The thing barely slowed as it continued to push her back. Valleri attempted to hit it again before the thing slouched forward. Vilkas was standing behind it with his sword half way into it’s back. The man grunted as he pulled the blade out.

Unfortunately, the thing didn’t take its attention off Valleri and the woman could see a cloak of white lightning beginning to surround the thing’s forearm. Valleri moved to the final step of the stair case, side stepping all the while to avoid its arm.

Valleri couldn’t do anything as she failed to feel her foot contact the ground.

The woman’s heel began to slip as her foot hit a slick patch of stone underneath her. Valleri began to see things in slow motion; in the far background Aicantar had grabbed the thing’s spare staff and was beginning to shoot off a spell. Meanwhile a look of panic flashed over Vilkas’ face. Valleri couldn’t stop herself from falling but she could at least take something down with her. Valleri felt rotten bones snap as her blade connected the thing’s abdomen.

Finally, there was a sharp pain on the back of Valleri’s head and everything went black.

Valleri groaned but didn’t open her eyes. The nape of her neck felt slick and cold compared to the rest of her head. She was slouched against someone’s back, hands grasped onto her thigs tightly to balance her against each wide step taken. The movement reminded the woman of being on a ship. Slowly, Valleri forced her eyes open. Her head was propped against Vilkas’ shoulder and Aicantar was following next to him. It was already dark out and Valleri could see Vilkas’ profile illuminated by the moonlight.

“What happened?” Valleri’s voice came out as a hoarse whisper.

She saw Vilkas look up at her from the corner of his eye. “You’re awake then?” He glanced back forward, “We’re almost to Karthwasten.”

“What happened to the flying dragur thing?”

“The dragon priest? Aicantar ended up killing it with its staff right after you were knocked out. You missed a good show.”

Valleri turned her head to look at the Altmer beside them. Aicantar laughed to himself, “It really wasn’t much.”

Valleri buried her face back into Vilkas’ warm shoulder and hummed. Her eyes closed again and Valleri didn’t say anything further. She let Vilkas carry her further towards the village. The Imperial felt content as she was reminded of a time before her arrival in Skyrim.

It wasn’t long before she felt the Nord stop. The grip on her leg lessened and Valleri let herself slip away. Her feet landed on the stony ground with a thud. She wiped the sleep away from her eyes and narrowed them as she saw a group of people gathered in the middle of the village. Valleri’s shoulders tensed up as the figures began posturing aggressively. This wouldn’t end well.

Valleri began to walk forward, legs still unsteady. She could hear Vilkas call out behind her, “Valleri, stop. Don’t be a fool.”

She turned around quickly, fire in her eyes, “You can come or not, Vilkas.” Valleri all but ran to the people. Ainethach was already yelling obscenities at some burly looking Nord standing opposite of him. She stopped in the middle of the group, looking around at the miners and mercenaries around her, “What the fuck is going on here?”

Ainethach turned to her with a look of desperation, “I’m getting shaken down!”

“We’re only here to collect on debt, old man,” the Nord stated gruffly. He crossed his arms in retaliation while Valleri shot him a glare. “Who in oblivion are you anyways?”

“That doesn’t matter right now!” Valleri shouted. She spun back to face Ainethach, “What happened?”

Ainethach didn’t answer her, instead glancing to Vilkas and Aicantar rushing up. Valleri stared at him until the Breton made a move to talk, “These thugs just showed up and started demanding that I hand over the deed to my mine.”

“It’s a fucking debt, Ainethach,” the Nord snarled. “You still owe us for clearing out those Forsworn.”

“That was almost two years ago, Atar!” Ainethach yelled over Valleri. The man exchanged a worried glance with Valleri, “Please, you’ve got to believe me.”

Valleri huffed before addressing the Nord, “Why collect after all this time? That’s ridiculous.”

“Why the fuck does it matter to you?”

Valleri paused for a moment. She could see Vilkas and Aicantar out of the corner of her eyes; her black-haired Nord was staring at her disbelief. “You’re probably right. But I’m on a job for Ainethach over here and taking advantage of innocent people doesn’t sit well with me.” Valleri gestured to the road, “I don’t care to know your name, but just leave. You’re not wanted here.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, girlie. You really shouldn’t be sticking your nose in other people’s business,” the Nord seethed. Valleri could see his patience was wearing thin.

“I’ll repeat myself then; leave.” Valleri didn’t move as she continued to stare the man in the eye.

“Fucking Imperial. I don’t have time for this shit.”

Valleri felt Vilkas tap her forearm, “Neither do we. C’mon Valleri.”

The Imperial woman slapped his hand away with a quick motion. “Shut up Vilkas,” Valleri glanced back to the Nord in front of her, “If you don’t have the time, then go. It’s so fucking simple!”

“Stubborn bitch. If you really want me and my men to go, prove it.” The Nord took a wide step towards Valleri. Valleri felt her heart begin to race; she harshly miscalculated the size of her opponent.

Valleri began to laugh, “You couldn’t hurt me even if you wanted.” She felt a surge of satisfaction when the Nord’s face turned a bright shade of red.

“Yeah, no. that’s not happening.”

Valleri turned back to see Vilkas taking off his cuirass to reveal a plain tunic. She stared at him with wide eyes as he strode next to her. “Vilkas, by the divines, what are you doing? This is my fight!”

“It’s really not,” Vilkas down at glanced at her. “Be honest, Val. In the shape you’re in, you wouldn’t last two seconds.”

Valleri stepped back and huffed, “Fine, you win this one.”

The Nord facing them looked smiled widely, “This should be fun! You really think you can go into a fistfight with no protection?”

Vilkas shrugged then rolled his shoulder back for a stretch. “Listen, friend, after the day I’ve had, I really don’t want to bash your face in. But then again, I can’t let Valleri lose a fight when she has a point.” Valleri gasped as she watched Vilkas throw a heavy punch at the Nord’s face. The Nord staggered back a bit. He looked up and wiped some blood away from his nose with a smile. The woman strode backwards next to Aicantar, eyes wide. She winced with each blow exchanged.

It hadn’t even been a full minute when, finally, Valleri watched the Nord land a blow on Vilkas’ face and her friend went down. Aicantar held Valleri back from running to stop the fight. The elf’s grasp on her shoulder was too tight and Valleri didn’t have the energy to wriggle away. She felt a lump in her throat appear as the opposing Nord kneeled down to pummel Vilkas to a pulp. The woman bit down on her tongue hard to stifle a yell as one blow after another connected. Aicantar let her go as they both saw Vilkas grab onto the Nord’s arm and flip him onto the ground with a fluid motion. Vilkas hit the back of the Nord’s head hard and his opponent went cold.

Vilkas breathed heavily as he turned his head to address the rest of the mercenaries. He spoke with as much authority as he could muster, “Leave now and take your milk drinking leader with you. This land isn’t fit for any of you to rot in!”

Valleri didn’t bother to watch the others leave and rushed to meet Vilkas. The mas was still kneeling on the ground, head hung low in exhaustion. She grabbed him by the shoulder gently then pulled his face to get a good look at him. Valleri cringed when she saw his black eye and split lip, “Gods, are you all right?”

Vilkas breathed out heavily and wiped away more blood coming from his nostrils. “I was just in a fucking brawl. What’d you think?’

Valleri frowned as she tore a piece of her cloak to wipe away the blood form his lip. Vilkas winced as she dabbed away the red mucous. “Don’t be an ass, I’m trying to help.”

“I don’t need your help though,” Vilkas protested. Valleri glared at him then her expression melted into another sorrowful frown. The expression looked unnatural to him and Vilkas could feel a pit form in his stomach. He sighed and relented, “Fine, but only this once.”

Valleri suddenly looked down at the ground and he could see tears forming at the corners of her eyes. She was frustrated and tired and Vilkas felt similarly. “I am so sorry,” he heard her whisper. The Nord felt the gash on his lip burn as she tried to work quickly. Sleep began to take him and finally Vilkas slumped onto her shoulder. Vilkas felt Valleri wrap an arm around his shoulder before he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Valleri sighed as she looked across the room. Vilkas was sleeping on the bed next to the window, head buried into the pillow. Any tiredness or pain Valleri felt earlier was almost gone as she watched him from her seat. There was a pang of guilt in her gut when she thought about the fist fight with the hustlers. Vilkas was a tough person who was trained for fighting, but having him meander his way into her own arguments was gut wrenchingly sickening. She shouldn’t have to have Vilkas do that for her, regardless of what he thought.

It was too late now; Vilkas’ face was beaten nearly to a pulp and Valleri felt like a wet rock. Aicantar had been gone for only few hours. Ainethach had been a bit hesitant at first, but when the old Breton heard about how their trip into Ragnvald went, he offered for all three of them to stay the night.

The Imperial had to admit there were some perks for sticking up for people.

The woman heard the front door creak open and she turned to see the Altmer walking in from the outside. Aicantar’s hair was still wet but he looked much more refreshed than before. Smiling, he addressed Valleri, “Bath’s ready for you. I told those nice people that you’d be over in a few minutes.”

Valleri glanced at the elf before looking back over to Vilkas. She sighed. “Thanks. I’ll leave in a moment.”

“You feel bad, don’t you? I can see it written all over your face.”

Valleri winced. “It’s hard not to.”

“Well, don’t beat yourself up over it,” Aicantar muttered.

The woman laughed dryly, mouth turned up into a smirk, “Right, otherwise Vilkas might end up with more bruises.”

Aicantar quickly looked at the ground in embarrassment, face turning bright pink. “Gods, I am so sorry.”

“Why? I was the one to make the joke.” Her eyes didn’t move from the Nord in the bed.

“I dunno. The set up was ridiculously easy.” Aicantar sighed and slouched down in chair near Valleri. “That reminds me, what’s Lexius been up to recently? Is he coming back to Skyrim soon?”

Valleri felt her chest tighten up at the question. She breathed out and thought before answering the Altmer, “Lex is dead.”

“Wait, what?”

“Lexius died about a month or so ago.”

“Gods, that’s horrible,” Aicantar rubbed his hand over his face and breathed out. “Damn it! I was hoping to meet him again.”

“Crafty Redguard got to you too, huh?”

“Yeah. Even though he stole my notes and split, I’d still consider him a good friend.”

A small smile rose on Valleri’s lips. “I’m glad.”

For a while there was a lull of silence. Aicantar stared at the table in front of them and drew circles into the wood with his finger. He looked up to Valleri once more, “What about Alastaros?”

“He’s dead too,” Valleri muttered, her voice dry and emotionless. “Same time and place as Lex.”

“Why are you here then? Are you giving up on the necklace Lexius mentioned?”

“That’s why we came actually. Lexius was able to make sense out of your notes and had a general idea of where the Ayleids stashed it.”

“Oh.” Aicantar perked up suddenly, “Do you still have the notes?”

Valleri shook her head. “No, I’m assuming they were destroyed when we were attacked.”

“So, you’re just going to give up?”

Valleri paused. Vilkas started groaning and shifting in his sleep. She watched him with narrowed, tired eyes. The woman breathed out with relief when he finally settled, “I’m not entirely sure yet. There’s been a lot going on and I haven’ had a lot of time to think about it.” She tilted her head and propped it on a free hand, “Plus, all of Lex’s and Alastaros’ personal notes are gone, your stolen notes included. I’d have to start all over again.”

Aicantar sighed, “Was it actually a necklace?”

“The only clear part was that it was a tuning crystal set as a pendant. The pendant was supposed to act as key when the holder got close enough to some sort of hidden vault in Sedor. Some sort of magical bull shit like that.”

“Were you the one who figured it out?”

Valleri grinned widely now, “Yeah, I was the one who translated that. There was a whole library of scrolls and I only ended up making it through a few of them before I found it.”

“Oh damn, that’s lucky.”

Valleri hummed in response, “Well, it was.”

“You could always just get a new team to go with you,” Aicantar offered. He gave her a soft smile and the Imperial woman chuckled to herself.

“I can’t though. It’s probably not worth it. It’s already taken two lives and I don’t want to lose anymore people.” She looked back to Vilkas with a small frown. Vilkas was laying face down into his pillow and snoring rather loudly. Her frown only grew wider.

“Like Vilkas?”

The woman shook her head slightly, “I think just anybody. Lex and Alastaros were the two most important people in my life. I don’t have anyone else to lose,” Valleri paused, “But other people do and I can’t take that away from them.”

Aicantar watched her closely, face emotionless besides a curious upwards tilt of his eyebrow. She finally looked at him with a soft smile, “You said there was a bath ready in the other building?”

“Yeah. You look like you need one.”

She laughed, “It feels like I haven’t had a proper bath in months, at least not since I left Anvil.”

The elf leaned back in his chair and stretched. Wringing some excess water from his hair, he got up and started down the stairs. “Well, since you’re leaving, I’m gonna say good night.”

Valleri looked at Aicantar with a confused frown, “You’re not going to take the other side of the bed?”

“No, I don’t think I’d fit,” Aicantar laughed nervously, “Besides, the idea of sleeping next to your friend there scares the shit out of me!”

The Imperial woman shook her head with an entertained smile, “Coward.” She took one last look Vilkas before heading towards the door. The Nord was still laying face down in the pillow, but the snores were replaced with a low, agonizing groan. With out thinking, Valleri strode over and placed a hand in his shoulder. She smiled as Vilkas seemed to calm down. Didn’t she hear somewhere that werewolves only had nightmares?

The sun was already pouring through the window by the time Vilkas woke up, bright light pouring into his eyes. He groaned and turned over onto his back. Muscles were sore and bones creaked as he moved and Vilkas only had a vague idea of what had happened the night before. Guessing from the way his lip and eye burned, it probably wasn’t good.

The Nord sat up in the bed and took a quick look around. The room around them was cluttered and lived in; items scattered here and there, books piled up high on a table near the hearth. Water droplets of melted ice clung to the inside of the windows. Valleri was curled in chair near the opposite side of the room. A blanket had been haphazardly thrown over her as she slept with her neck sloped at an uncomfortable angle.

Vilkas continued to stare at her from his spot on the bed. Valleri was still fast asleep, breathing evenly and expression nearly blank. Every once in while, he could see her shiver. Had she been there all night?

Finally, Vilkas threw his legs over the side of the bed and the soles of his feet landed with light tap. The floor wasn’t as cold as he’d expected and Vilkas glanced back at Valleri she was still there, sleeping peacefully in the chair. He strode over quietly to hearth and placed another few logs onto the dying fire. Dull sparks flew as a plume of smoke rose from the ashes.

Valleri finally began to move, eyelids fluttering open slowly. She brought the blanket closer around her neck as she looked about the room. The woman glanced down at Vilkas, eyes full of sleepy confusion, “Where are we?”

“I’m assuming Karthwasten. Where did you think we were?”

Valleri paused a moment. She looked around the room once more then answered, “I could have sworn I was back in Anvil, in the sitting room of the manor.” Valleri sighed as she watched Vilkas’ eyebrows furrow together, “It’s really sunny is all.”

Vilkas nodded his head as he poked the fresh logs a bit then stood up. Valleri watched him with bored eyes as the Nord raised his arms up in a stretch. “How’s your neck?”

The woman chuckled to herself, “Not as bad as your face probably.”

“Fuck, don’t remind me. Black eye will be gone in a few days, but my lip will probably scar over.”

“Are you worried about it?”

“Not particularly. Just disappointed maybe.” Vilkas groaned, “Why’d you let me do that, anyhow?”

“Don’t ask me; if I recall correctly, you’re the one who jumped in unexpectedly. I was just the concussed idiot who decided to poke fun at an angry Nord.”

Vilkas stared at her blankly for only a moment before turning back to the fire. It was beginning to burn brightly in the hearth and the smoke was wafting nicely into chimney. Vilkas sighed and looked over to the other side of the room. The lithe form of their elvish friend was bounding up the stairs. Obviously, Aicantar had rested well the previous night.

The Altmer smiled widely when he met eyes with the Vilkas and Valleri, “You two are up late!”

Valleri frowned, “Too early Aicantar, way too early.”

The elf laughed, a high-pitched noise that felt unnatural to Vilkas’ ears. “Well, not really though,” Aicantar insisted. “To be honest, I thought you two would have left already.”

Valleri and Vilkas exchanged a questioning glance before Vilkas turned back to the Altmer. “I thought we were waiting for you?”

“Why though? I can make it back to Markarth on my own.”

“Are you sure?” Vilkas muttered.

“Yeah I’m sure,” Aicantar replied, tilting his head to the side. “I don’t have a lot with me so I could probably leave in a few minutes and make it there this afternoon. And I’m sure you two want to make it back to Whiterun as soon as possible.”

Valleri exchanged a soft look with Vilkas, “We can’t argue with that.”

“See, Valleri knows.” Aicantar laughed to himself as his two friends looked on with tired eyes. Vilkas was still relatively amazed that he had so much energy after their ordeal in Ragnvald. “It’s not like I won’t ever see you two again though.”

Vilkas laughed dryly, “Not unless you come to Whiterun. I wouldn’t want to visit the Reach again for a while after this.”

“Well, that’s your prerogative then,” Aicantar shrugged. He looked at Valleri, still curled up in her chair, with a grin, “But Valleri, let me know if you start searching for that necklace again. I’d like to see where that takes you.”

Valleri smiled sadly as Aicantar took her hand, “Me too, though I doubt I will.”

“We’ll see. But I wish all of the luck on your travels ahead, whether over land or sea.” Aicantar shook her hand and went paused to exchange a final glance with Vilkas before leaving the house.

Vilkas furrowed his eyebrows and looked down at Valleri, “What was he talking about?”

“With the necklace?” Valleri paused, looking back to the fire, “It’s what I came here for.”

The two of them left Karthwasten later that afternoon and Vilkas was mildly concerned over the lack of inane chatter from Valleri. The woman seemed to have been lost in though since Aicantar went his sperate way. Something must have come up between the two of them that Vilkas didn’t feel comfortable prying into. It wasn’t his place; he learned that quickly after asking Valleri about the necklace that Aicantar had mentioned. She wasn’t angry or upset, just conflicted. Whatever it was, it had important to her.

Valleri looked up to the sky, noting a dull grey that covered the usual blue. She sighed as she willed herself to continue on. “How long have you been a part of the Companions?”

Vilkas looked over his shoulder with confusion, pausing before he answered, “Since I was about seventeen, I think. I lived at Jorrvaskr a lot longer but that’s when I took my first contract”

“What sort of contract was it?”

Vilkas surveyed the path before them as he waited for Valleri to catch up. The Imperial’s cheeks were beginning to redden in the cold and Vilkas couldn’t help but notice that her freckles were blending in with her skin. “It was an extermination job. Farkas and I were sent out to Rorikstead to take care of a den of wolves preying on livestock for food. Looking back, it was probably one of the worst jobs we could give someone, but it was us and we were young kids. Couldn’t have been happier.” He glanced down at Valleri, “Why’re you asking?”

“I dunno really; just curious,” she paused, “How about when you joined the circle?”

Vilkas frowned a bit, “That’s not exactly something I’d share really.”

“Well, it’s your story, not mine,” Valleri muttered. She looked off into the distance with a mild look of disappointment as the both of them continued onwards.

The Nord could feel a pang of guilt. Valleri was trying to be friendly after being so broody earlier, that was all. He could hear Skjor yelling at his back to not be an ass and be nice to the newcomers.

Sighing, Vilkas began to speak again, “I guess I could tell you, but only if you tell me something about yourself in equal measure.”

Valleri cocked an eyebrow, “Equal measure, huh? That shouldn’t be too difficult.” Vilkas watched as his companion smile widely for the first time all day. She exchanged and entertained glance with him, eyes full of alert energy again, “You first, Vi.”

Vilkas paused, unsure of where to start. He breathed out one more time, his breath turning to steam in the cold, “I joined the circle a few months before Faraks did about six or so years ago. I was sent on a rescue mission with him and I ended up having to drag him back to Whiterun with a broken leg while the lady who was stolen was returned safely to her home. Farkas spent a few weeks walking around with a limp. It was a whole fiasco.”

“What happened after?”

Vilkas cringed internally, a sickly feeling rising in his chest, “Skjor was the one who offered me the beast blood. I was a young fool back then; I took it with out thinking. The first night was rough. I almost ended up killing a guard before being chased out of the city. I had to keep a low profile for a while.”

Valleri smirked to herself, “It sounds more like a hassle than anything else.”

“You know, the more time wears on, it really is. Don’t get me wrong, being a werewolf has it’s perks; but it feels wrong,” the Nord muttered half to himself.

“Does Farkas feel the same way?”

Vilkas shook his head, “You’d have to ask him. He took to the blood a lot better, but he usually follows my lead with stuff like this.” He looked up at the craggy sloped around them. The river was still rushing next to them and Vilkas could see steam rising up from the water. “I worry about him sometimes; Farkas is indecisive.”

Valleri narrowed her eyes, “I didn’t really catch onto that. Your brother just seemed really forward to me. I guess I don’t know him as well as you do though.” She laughed to herself as the woman continued to trudge on through the snow.

“What about you? You promised an equal trade and I’ve upheld my end of the bargain,” Vilkas reminded. The Nord looked down expectantly at Valleri as the Imperial narrowed her eyes in thought.

There was only a moment before Valleri’s eyes lit up with excitement, “Oh, I know! One time, Lex and I got lost in the sewers underneath the Imperial city.”

Vilkas looked at her in disbelief, “Wait, what?”

Valleri hummed positively, “We were trying to sneak our way into the Arcane University library since we had been kicked out before. We got lost for almost two days before finding the right tunnels. Lex got bit by rat, it was wonderful.”

“Aren’t there vampire covens and shit like that down there?”

Valleri laughed once more, “Yeah, apparently. But we never found any. A good thing too; creatures like that require silver weapons to kill, and I didn’t have any at the time.”

“You do now though?” Vilkas questioned.

The woman shook her head, smile fading, “Well, I did, but it was lost during the ambush. Alastaros had it commissioned for me when I started joining him more regularly during expeditions.” Valleri sighed, “I’d love to see it again. That sword was like another arm.”

“A pure silver sword; that’s never quite sat right with me,” Vilkas tilted his head in thought, “But I can see the merit, even now that you’re living in Jorrvaskr.”

“Really now?”

“You said it yourself before; if you get into a tricky situation, a silver blade wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” Vilkas suggested. He watched as Valleri silently considered the idea with a serious expression.

“I’ll look into it then,” she muttered before stopping on the road. Vilkas followed suit, noting a robed figure approaching them quickly. Whoever it was, they were tall and through the hood, Vilkas could see an elvish face covered with old burn scars formed into intricate tattoos. Something about this elf made him uneasy and he could see that he made Valleri uneasy too.

“Hail and well met!” The figure called out, voice chipper despite the cold.

To his surprise, Valleri stepped forward to offer a greeting, “Well met, Altmer. Is there something we can help you with?” Her voice was smooth, even welcoming, but Vilkas could see from the she held herself, Valleri wanted nothing to do with this elf. “We’re on a bit of a tight schedule.”

“Yes, of course. I was just wondering if you could tell me if I’m heading the right way towards Markarth? I’m supposed to meet an associate there.”

“You’re heading in the general direction; the rest of the way will only take a day or two.”

The elf smiled from underneath his hood and Vilkas could feel goosebumps begin to form all over his skin. Something about it seemed so unnatural.

“Wonderful!” The Altmer exclaimed, beginning his trek once again. Vilkas could see Valleri start to loosen up when the elf once again addressed them, “You wouldn’t know if another Altmer by the name of Aicantar is there, would you?”

Vilkas watched Valleri pause before turning around with a cold, impersonal expression. “I don’t know anyone by that name. I’m sorry but I can’t talk any longer; goodbye.”

The Imperial woman began to walk away quickly, refusing to look backwards as the Altmer and Nord were left behind.

It didn’t take long for Vilkas to catch up to her but he didn’t say anything until the elf was far behind them. “Did you know that man?”

Valleri shook her head, “I’m not sure. I just got a bad feeling.” Valleri glanced up Vilkas with uncertain eyes, narrowed to avoid the glare of the sun reflecting off the snow, “Let’s get back to Whiterun.”

Chapter Text

Getting drunk in the middle of the night was never a good idea, even by Ysolda’s standards. She poured herself and her two companions another round as she, Aela, and Farkas sat at the upstairs table in Jorrvaskr. Ysolda hadn’t spent a lot of time in the Jorrvaskr but that was quickly changing. Nearly every night for the past week, she’d make her way to the mead hall to make sure everyone was still there. When Skjor ran off, the entirety of Companions went into a frenzy trying to find him.

How Aela hadn’t just completely deserted them by this point was beyond her. If Farkas ran off into the night with a hole in his abdomen, nobody would see Ysolda again.

Ysolda looked up when she heard Farkas’ mug hit the table with a thud. The big Nord didn’t look as chipper as usual and Ysolda sighed, “How much longer do you think Kodlak will keep up the search?”

“For Skjor?” Farkas paused, “Not long. He’s gotta be dead by now.”

Aela glared over at Farkas with cold, exhausted eyes, “What’s the matter with you? Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean we should stop looking.”

“And there’s only so much time before wild animals find a dead body, Aela.” Farkas gestured wildly with an arm, “Snow’s been on the ground for almost a week, they get hungry out there.”

The huntress looked at the mug of golden liquid before taking another gulp. “Skjor deserves to come home, even in death.”

“I agree, but at this point there isn’t going to be a lot to bring back.”

“I didn’t think that Skjor was such a believer in the old ways,” Ysolda muttered. Her mug was almost empty, prompting her to slide it over to Farkas. Any more alcohol tonight would be a bad idea.

“He wasn’t,” Aela spat, looking forward with narrowed eyes, “It’s a matter of honor. He’d do the same for anyone of us.”

“You’re not wrong,” Farkas muttered. He looked back down at the table with frown and sighed.

Ysolda shook her head with a scowl before standing up. “You two are depressing. I get that Skjor’s missing, but it’s like I’m courting the wrong brother at this point,” Ysolda stated before exchanging a quick glance with Farkas.

The man looked like a kicked puppy as he watched Ysolda starting at him, “That really hurts, but if you really want to, I don’t think he’s seeing anybody.”

Ysolda’s heart sunk like a rock. She gave Farkas a peck on the cheek before giving him a wide grin, “Farkas, I’m sorry! You know I wouldn’t trade you for anything else.”

Aela groaned as her two companions fell into their own little world, “I’m surrounded by imbeciles.” She poured the last of the mead into her mug and gulped it down with renewed vigor. It was pitch black outside, but when she looked closely, she could see the making of a blizzard coming down. As much as Aela hated it, Farkas was right; Skjor was probably dead.

Alea looked up from the table when she heard the front door clatter open. Two snow covered figures entered, shaking the white flakes away from their hair and cloaks.

“I’m just saying that maybe the way you hold the grip is all wrong.”

“And I’m saying that it isn’t. Just because I didn’t learn how to hold a sword the proper, Nordic way doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

“Who taught you, then? I’d like to talk to them about their teaching style.”

“It was Alastaros’ husband. His name is Skeeva and he’s a very lovely Argonian.”

“See, you should have just said that an Argonian taught you. It explains a lot.”

“Oh, hey, Aela,” Valleri muttered as she noticed the other woman listening to her and Vilkas’ conversation. “I didn’t think anyone would be up this late.”

Aela narrowed her eyes in confusion, “Wait, what time is it?”

“About one in the morning.”

“God’s dammit to Oblivion, I’m not even surprised anymore.” Aela clattered from her seat but stayed motionless as she felt the ground beneath her swirl. Then Nord sat down again suddenly and waited for the room to stop moving. She shouldn’t have been this exhausted

Vilkas came up to Aela’s side and rested his cloak on the table with a perplexed frown. “What in the world is my brother doing?” he questioned as the Nord finally saw Farkas and Ysolda still preoccupied with themselves.

“Desperately forgetting the events of the last week,” Aela muttered groggily. Her head hit the table with a slam and she was out like a light.

Vilkas took a swig of what was left in Aela’s mug and turned to Farkas, “What was she talking about?”

“Skjor ran off and is probably dead in the wilderness,” Farkas muttered as he turned to face his brother. Vilkas exchanged a worried glance with Valleri behind him. What happened while they were gone?

Valleri and Vilkas slept uneasily into the next morning. The exhaustion of their trip into the Reach melted away only to be replaced with confusion as to what happened to Skjor. As far as Valleri was aware, the old warrior was getting better. But then again, a lot could happen in nearly two weeks. She knew that from bitter experience. Valleri didn’t stray very far from Jorrvaskr in the morning. Vilkas seemed to be on edge all day, waiting for someone to tell him what was going on. All they both got were bits and pieces of Skjor’s escape. It wasn’t until that afternoon when Ria and Torvar came back did they figured everything out.

The two Companions came back only with a bloody, rusted sword. The warrior’s corpse was found face down in a ravine out towards the west. They didn’t describe a lot of what they found, only that most of what was left had already been devoured by wild animals. Trying to bring back the body would have meant being denied entry back into the city.

Valleri felt her heart sink when she heard about Skjor’s death. While she didn’t know the man very well, Vilkas and Farkas were visibly torn up. Farkas left Jorrvaskr as quickly as he could, finding Ysolda or Athis, Valleri assumed. Vilkas disappeared for most of the day. Where he was, Valleri couldn’t guess. It really wasn’t her business. Besides Vilkas was probably sick of her. She couldn’t blame him.

Aela had been another thing. Watching the abject horror wash over the woman’s face followed by spiteful rage was terrifying and reminded her just how out of depth she was. While Valleri may have felt similarly about her own set of circumstances, this was not the time nor person to vocalize that to.

Skjor’s impromptu funeral was bleak affair held later that night. Each one of the Companions gathered at the Skyforge where a priest of Arkay preformed last rights. Valleri didn’t say anything as she watched from the patio below.

It wasn’t her place.

Valleri leaned back further into her chair as she watched Masser and Secunda from window. The view was hazy and tiny crystals of ice clung to the glass pane, but the familiar purple light from both moons illuminated the room like torch light.

The room was eerily quiet. There was no drinking or merriment tonight. Instead, the Companions seemed to have retired early for once. Even when some had to wake early the next morning, they would still be out with their compatriots. The quiet that Valleri had once relished made her uneasy now. It felt like something other than those tall mountains was looming over her.

It was easy to hear the pounding foot steps coming up from the basement, but Valleri couldn’t pull her gaze away from the window. Finally, the woman glanced over when a familiar figure with a bushy white beard took the seat across from her.

Kodlak looked at her with purple rimmed eyes, arm propped on the sill for support. She had never seen him look so old. “I’m surprised to find you awake, Valleri.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Kodlak shrugged with a faint smile, “You tell me. People can’t sleep unless something is wrong.”

Valleri breathed in sharply, “There’s a lot wrong, Kodlak. You of all people should know.”

“Aye, I guess I should.”

“Can I ask you a question?” Valleri muttered as she finally pulled her eyes away from the sky.

Kodlak stared at her blankly before registering what she had said. “I don’t see why not.”

“Was Skjor’s disappearance related to the Circle’s beast blood?” Valleri swallowed hard as she searched Kodlak’s face for an answer. She knew it wasn’t her business to ask, but it was beginning to eat at her.

Kodlak looked down at the ground with a look of shame, “Unfortunately no. If it were, it’d be easy for me to blame him for it. But there’s no blame due anywhere except for myself. If I wasn’t so single minded in the past, perhaps Skjor would still be here.”

“You’re talking about the argument Vilkas mentioned, I take it?”

Kodlak laughed dryly, “Vilkas told you?” He shook his head and the corners of his lips curled into a faint grin, “People think that Farkas would be the one to spill our secrets, but they forget that his brother is the one that actually speaks.”

Valleri cocked an eyebrow as she watched the smile fade from Kodlak’s expression. “Well, regardless, you could tell me why everything seems to be falling apart. I think I’d like some answers.”

“You really are a scholar, aren’t you?”

“That was the formal title, yes.”

This time, Kodlak’s eyes went to the window where Masser and Secunda were still high in the sky. Valleri didn’t move as she watched the Harbinger search for an answer, eyes still locked on him. Finally, Kodlak sighed, “Taking the gift was a sign of tradition for us. For those early in our history, it was untapped source of power, and maybe it still is. There is nothing wrong with wanting to return to Hircine’s hunting grounds after death, but I was promised Sovngarde, a place for my ancestors.” The old man looked back to Valleri with a look of determination, “Young people will always make decisions they’ll regret. It’s how you live with that decision after that makes you an honorable person.”

“What about Farkas and Vilkas? Don’t they want out too?”

The Harbinger sighed in frustration, “Those two are one of my biggest regrets. I should have given those two another option rather than to take it and become Circle members or not. Skjor shouldn’t have been so eager either.”

“Why didn’t you?” Valleri paused, before glancing back down at her feet, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for that to sound so accusatory.”

“You’re just curious, I can understand that. I guess I was proud that something I had perceived as good or important was happening to them. I’d consider them sons if I wasn’t such good friends with their parents.”

Valleri’s eyes widened as she made the connection, “That’s right. Vilkas and Farkas were orphans, weren’t they?”

“I’m not entirely sure if orphan would be the correct term for their situation. Their parents were old friends of mine form my earlier Companion days. They were kind people; their father Jergen was crazy, but their mother Ysra was good woman. She balanced him out well enough.”

“What happened after that?”

“She died when the twins were still babes, and Jergen couldn’t seem to handle it. He just up and left one day. I guess I felt responsible for them.”

Valleri paused. She looked back at the window, mood deflated. “Do you think there’s a cure for beast blood?”

“I’ve been working on that for years, Valleri,” Kodlak paused, “Even if not in time for myself, then at least Vilkas would have time.”

She turned to the old man again, confusion written all over her face, “Why Vilkas?”

“I’m not sure if you’ve caught on or not, but he’s never quite adjusted well to the gift. I’m lost as to why, but he tends to lose control easily. There have been times where Vilkas will just disappear for days on end and he’s not exactly himself for weeks afterwards.”

“He actually told me a little about while we were in the Reach. I didn’t realize it was that bad.”

“Aye, sometimes it is. Now that Vilkas has been trying not use the blood, he’s been getting worse. How the boy has been able to last this long is a miracle. I hope it lasts.” The two of them sat in heavy silence while Valleri tried to process what Kodlak had just said. Finally, he looked up at her once more, “May I ask a favor, Valleri?”

“Yeah, sure. What is it?”

He breathed in sharply before speaking, “I worry for Vilkas. If something should happen, I’d appreciate it if you were there. I don’t mean to ask you to follow him around constantly, but just be there for him if he needs it. Vilkas may try to put on a strong front, but he’s still human.”

Valleri got up from her chair and glanced at the ground before looking back to Kodlak, “I’ll try. But I don’t think you have much to worry about. Vilkas isn’t as vulnerable as you think.” She started to walk past Kodlak and the wooden beam that separated the room. Valleri turned back for a final time, “I’m going to bed. Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Kodlak nodded in acknowledgment, “Hopefully.”

The basement was colder then she expected. Valleri stared at the bed with a look of frustration; she was exhausted but there was no possible way she was going to sleep there tonight. Her conversation with Kodlak was draining and she was almost too exhausted to sleep on the hard mattress. Quietly she left the bunk room and went down the hall towards the Circle bunk rooms. Maybe she could borrow one of Skjor’s blankets. It wasn’t as if he was going to be using it anyways. The Imperial turned the corner into one of the adjoining hallways, hoping she had found the right one.

Instead, Valleri paused as she grabbed onto the doorway. Vilkas was already asleep, back turned to the open door. Valleri’s mind went back to Kodlak’s story and a lump rose into her chest. This time, Vilkas wasn’t thrashing in sleep, but it didn’t make her feel any better.

“I know you’re there,” Vilkas muttered, bringing Valleri back to the present. Slowly, he turned over to face her with a groan.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake anyone up.” Valleri’s voice came out as hoarse whisper and she couldn’t help but cringe to herself.

“You’re not very quiet. I could hear you a mile away,” Vilkas paused, “What are you doing up anyways?”

Valleri glanced at the floor and crossed her arms as she leaned against the door jamb, “Too cold to sleep. I figured I’d search around for a blanket.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, I’ll just leave. Sorry for waking you,” the woman muttered as she turned to go back to the larger bunkroom.

“Val, wait,” Vilkas called out from the room. Valleri paused and looked back once more. Vilkas glanced over to the side of the room as he propped himself up on an elbow. “I wasn’t really asleep either. Why not just sleep in here instead of waking up the entire hall?”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

She watched Vilkas shrug, “I’m not sure. Might help you sleep and you can always find another blanket in the morning. Now, are you coming or not?”

Valleri paused for a moment before walking back into Vilkas’s room. He held up the blanket as she crawled into the bed next to him. Vilkas turned back over towards the wall, facing away from smaller figure next to him. Valleri rested her head on his back and tried make herself as small as possible. Vilkas was right though; this was much warmer. Finally, Valleri felt her toes begin to warm up. The cold was washed away and Vilkas’ even breathing made her feel so at ease. Sleep came easily and Valleri welcomed the black abyss.

Chapter Text

Valleri entered Jorrvaskr as quickly as she could. Evening Star had always felt so different for her. Usually, she could still go outside without feeling as though her fingers were about to fall from her hands and the streets typically weren’t death traps. Staying in Whiterun over the winter may have been a mistake. But then again, here she was. The inside of the mead hall was annoyingly warm against her bare skin. Soon enough though, Valleri would be glad Tilma kept it so warm.

She draped her tattered cloak on chair before looking around the main hall. It was empty; most of the other Companions were still out in the training yard. In the time since Skjor’s funeral, things slowly settled into a renewed normalcy. Aela and Kodlak had been scarcer since but the others were still preoccupied with normal business.

Except for Vilkas. Most of Skjor’s old duties were dropped onto the hapless Nord without so much as inquiry about whether he really wanted to take them on or not. Unfortunately, Vilkas’ opportunities for taking on new jobs were switched for clerical work that seemed to take up most of his time. Valleri smiled faintly as she saw the stack of papers on the table. At least the winter chill had slowed down any actual business.

Her smile grew as she finally saw Vilkas come up from the basement. He looked absolutely bored until he took notice of the Imperial by the door, “And where’ve you been?”

“Just out.”

“I can tell. Your face is all red.”

“Yeah, no joke,” Valleri laughed. She took the seat next to Vilkas’ stack of paper work as she watched him approach with look of resignation. “Looks like your day has been just as exciting though.”

“Bones; I don’t know how Skjor ever handled this.”

Valleri propped her head on a free hand. “That miserable, huh?” Vilkas hummed with acknowledgment as he started shuffling through papers. Valleri couldn’t help but grin; watching him try to focus on the stack of paper work shouldn’t have been so entertaining. “It can’t be that bad,” Valleri muttered half to herself as she took a paper from the top.

“Maybe for you, but you live for this stuff.”

“Not really. Most of the paper I used was for expedition notes or translations. No actual book keeping.”

Vilkas cocked an eyebrow as Valleri continued to read the paper she had picked up. “You talk about translating stuff a lot. What exactly do you mean by that?”

Valleri shrugged, “Well the Ayleids didn’t speak Cyrodiilic, now did they?” She looked up back to Vilkas, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so curt.”

“No, you have a point. Learning the language is just the next step then.”

Valleri laughed to herself, “More like muddling through it. Ayleidoon is really contextual and you start to lose that after a thousand or so years. Unfortunately, it’s been a lot longer than that.”

“What about the vocabulary?”

“That part’s generally straight forward at least. A lot of the language is really similar to old elvish, so it has a few base words that can be combined for a larger vocabulary. It’s not too difficult.”

Vilkas sighed and looked out the window past Valleri. “I haven’t read a lot on Ayleids, but they were the last elvish empire in Cyrodiil, right?”

Valleri perked up, “Yeah, that’s right, though empire isn’t the word I’d use. Old Ayleids were petty kings hell bent on revenge, even frequently turning on each other. The only sure time they started to resemble some sort of empire was when Perrif started to rebel.”

“Perrif?” Vilkas narrowed his eyes in confusion.

“Saint Alessia,” Valleri corrected. She watched as Vilkas stared hard at the ground with confusion. “Alessia was only title given to her after she made Empress. Periff was a more common name the Ayleids used.”

“The more you know, I guess,” Vilkas whispered, looking back to the paperwork in front of him. Valleri only continued watch her companion. “Why are you up here anyways?”

The woman paused before answering, “Just bored, figured you’d want some sort of distraction.”

Valleri finally heard the Nord chuckle to himself. The two of them sat in comfortable silence while Valleri felt the feeling come back into her fingers. Her skin tingled and Valleri swore it was something she could never get used to, even with two months of blistering cold now under her belt. How Vilkas or Farkas could stand it was beyond her. Lucky Nords.

Valleri looked up as the front door open again; a cold wind rushed into the room. A Dunmer stood staring at her and Vilkas with a bored look on his face. “Oh, good. Some of you are still here,” Athis said as he approached the table.

Valleri turned around in her chair, “Everything okay?”

The Dumer stopped next to her, red eyes falling on the paper Vilkas was reading. “No, everything’s okay. Are you two busy?”

The Imperial took another look at Vilkas, who was trying desperately to focus n his work. She exchanged a look with Athis, “No, not at all.”

Athis paused, considering Valleri’s answer. Unimpressed, he turned to Vilkas, “You as well?”

“Depends on what you need.”

“That’s fair. Do you remember Shimmermist Cave?”

Vilkas looked up with narrowed eyes, “Sounds familiar. Why?”

“Trying to win a bet. Going into that cave alone isn’t very smart.” He glanced over to Valleri, “You two will do.”

Valleri stared at the table in confusion, “Rude.” She watched as Vilkas clattered out of his chair. “We’re really going then?”

The Nord stared back at her with narrowed eyes. “Of course we are. I’ve been stuck inside all week. If I don’t get out soon, I’m gonna go crazy.” Valleri smirked to herself as went to the basement to grab her equipment.

Valleri breathing evened quickly as she leaned on her sword for a moment. Her arm burned as the gash continued to bleed. She’d have to bandage the wound up before they left for the next chamber. Athis and Vilkas were busy looking at spindly, white creature lying dead on the middle of the natural bridge it had dropped onto.

The giant spider and the rat were easy to take care of, but when the creature dropped on top of her, Valleri panicked. She was able to drive her dagger through its eye and clamor from underneath the thing. Vilkas and Athis were finally caught up to her to finish the creature off.

“What the fuck was that thing?” Valleri managed to cough out. She pried off another piece of her quickly diminishing cloak and began to wrap the scrap around the gash.

Vilkas tapped the thing’s head with the tip of his boot, causing it to lull sickly to one side. Valleri felt her stomach churn. “That is a Falmer.”

“You’re not serious?”

Vilkas sighed as he exchanged a glance with Athis. “What’d you think they’d be like?”

Valleri took a step backwards, shaking her head, “I’m not even sure, but not that.”

“Valleri, if you don’t mind me asking, but where did you hear about Falmer?” Athis questioned.

“Some old letters I found. The Ayleids were in cahoots with the Falmer before Alessia took them down.” Valleri grimaced as she watched both Vilkas and Athis groan. Athis actively pinched the bridge of his nose in disappointment.

“We’re not looking for a history lesson, Val,” Vilkas muttered. The Nord began to walk in front of the her, looking over his shoulder. “The Falmer are nothing more than savage monsters now.”

“How unfortunate,” Valleri whispered. She breathed out sharply and continued to follow her companions.

“Well, atrocities happen I guess,” Athis figured as he strode after her. “I personally think it’s a miracle they even lasted this long.”

Valleri chuckled to herself, “Makes you wonder, huh?”

“Quiet you two,” Vilkas muttered as the tunnel began to go dark. Valleri took heed and braced herself. She could feel chills run up and down her spine and anxiety settle in her stomach. She hoped they would find the end of the cave soon.

Valleri was breathing heavily by the time Vilkas had finished off the last of the Falmer. The creature elicited a high-pitched scream as Vilkas cut downwards and Valleri grimaced as she watched it fall limp to the ground from the corner of her eye. Quickly she tried to refocus on something else, wiping the blood off her own sword with the bottom of her cloak.

Vilkas turned over to Athis across the room, “How much longer do we have?”

“Not long. This was probably the last chamber of the hive.”

“Thank the gods. I hate dealing with Falmer,” the Nord muttered under his breath. He looked over his shoulder to the woman behind him, “Val, you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” She paused, “Hey Ahtis, what sort of bet are you trying to win?”

“Not at liberty to address that, suffice to say I’ll be a very rich man soon.”

Vilkas sighed with disappointment, “Don’t tell me Farkas and Torvar have something to do with this?” The Dunmer shrugged but didn’t say anything. Valleri watched with amusement as Vilkas continued to groan to himself.

“No need to be so upset. Let’s just go,” Athis said as he walked past Valleri. She took one last look at Vilkas before turning to follow the Dunmer. The Nord was looking at the ground with a look of utter frustration before she heard him begin to move. They didn’t move very far into the tunnel when the sides of the cave began smooth out and small bronze pipes found their way out of the bed rock. Soon enough, Valleri saw a giant, golden door looming in front of them. She almost ran into Athis as the elf stared up at the door with indignation. Valleri took a step back and smiled unsteadily, “Were you counting on this?”

“Not really,” Athis whispered.

“Well, no sense in waiting,” Valleri said as she began to push past the elf. Suddenly she felt a tap on her shoulder and she turned to Vilkas looking at the door with scowl. “Something wrong?”

“I can hear something behind that door, like clockwork.” He paused and gave Valleri a worried glance, “Just be careful, okay?”
Valleri smirked, “Since when is that a priority?”

Vilkas shook his head and took his hand off her shoulder. Slowly, Valleri stalked up to the door and pushed it open, revealing only a sliver of the other side. Her heart stopped as she saw a metal golem, its back was turned to her. The thing was already preoccupied with an even shorter opponent when the room began to steadily fill with steam and she could hear another, familiar shriek of pain. Valleri backed up from the door as it swung further open.

“What’s in there?”

She turned back to see Ahtis and Vilkas staring at her intently, “Depends on what it is, but it’s a bit distracted.”

Athis breathed out sharply, “What’s it look like?”

“Large and gold. Started shooting out steam.”

“Fuck, fuck.”

“Athis, what in oblivion are you going on about?” Vilkas asked as he furrowed his eyebrows.

The Dunmer looked backwards with panicked, red eyes, “I didn’t count on there being a fucking centurion.”

“Oh,” Vilkas paused, eyes widening, “Well, this was your idea. May as well go in there and take care of…” Vilkas trailed off as he watched Valleri begin to draw her sword and walk back to the door. She pushed it further open. “Valleri, wait a moment!”

“Shut up,” She hissed. The Imperial began to sneak up behind the centurion before it turned around to face her. The mechanical golem rose it’s arms up with hiss before it started charging for Valleri. Before the thing could land its attack, Valleri was able to roll out of the way and get behind it.

Surrounded, the centurion seemed to panic as Vilkas and Athis charged towards it. Steam once again filled the room. Valleri heard both of her compatriots yell before several loud clangs sounded from the wall of cloudy steam. She breathed out before swinging her own sword across the back of the centurion’s legs. The woman felt the blade cut through a few wires before she stepped back to assess the damage. Gritting her teeth, Valleri watched as the centurion slowly turned around. Behind the large hunk of walking metal, she could see the silhouettes of Vilkas and Athis.

“Come at me, bitch!” Valleri taunted with a crazed grin, yelling at the top of her lungs. She braced herself as the centurion raised its hammer-like arm high into the air and brought it down. The arm caught the edge of he cape and Valleri started to panic. Quickly, she unclasped the garment and ran to centurion’s side, while the thing struggled to free its arm. Valleri aimed for an unprotected portion of its backside and jammed her blade deep in. The centurion jolted and Valleri pressed her sword deeper in. Satisfied, the woman finally twisted it and she felt the metal blade break inside of the clock work innards. There was only a moment before it stopped twitching.

Valleri took a moment to catch her breath as both Vilkas and Athis approached her from behind. Athis stared at the centurion with amazement while Vilkas clapped her on the back. “Are you all right?”

Valleri smiled widely, pride washing over her, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Athis laughed dryly, “I don’t think I’ve even seen anyone from the Circle do something quite like that.”

“Hey, watch it,” Vilkas snapped as he looked over his shoulder to the Dunmer. Athis only smiled wider and began inspecting Valleri’s cloak still trapped in the stony floor with the centurion’s arm. Vilkas turned to the sword in the centurion’s back, “Are you gonna be able to get that back?”

Valleri sighed before glancing over, “Not at all. I was able to shatter it in the cogs. It’s useless now.”

“Well that’s a shame.” He watched as Valleri crossed the room and began rummaging around in the debris left by the Falmer. After a few minutes of shuffling around, Valleri seemed to have found what she was looking for. Standing up straight, Valleri looked the deformed Falmer blade up and down. Finding it to her liking, Valleri started off towards the exit.

“Wait a minute, Val. You’re not actually going to be using that?”

The woman looked over her shoulder momentarily and grinned again, “Of course I am! It’s a free sword and mine just broke. Take what you can, right?”
Vilkas rubbed the side of his face with anxiety, “You’re gonna get killed with that thing.” He watched as Valleri shook her head and turned back around. She laughed as Vilkas watched her back disappear into the gloom.

The Skyforge was always windy, this late into the year especially. Vilkas nearly slipped twice on his way up, and he figured going down was going to be an equal pain. How the old smith was able to make up here every day was beyond him.

Eorlund was still busy, even as the sun was quickly setting under the horizon. The red glow from the forge illuminated the man ominously and all Vilkas could think of was daedra. He didn’t say anything as he approached, instead watching as Eorlund took a long piece of metal out of the fire and began to strike it with a spare hammer. Sparks flew upwards with each hit and Vilkas could feel them land on his bare forearms.

In only a few moments, Eorlund started to speak, eyes still glued to his work, “You only come up here when you need something.”

“Well, you’re not wrong.”

“I’ve been hearing about the new recruit today. Your skills are going slack, lad.”

Vilkas grimaced, “Not at all. Valleri just took initiative is all.”

“If you say. Now why’re you here? I still have a lot of work to finish,” the old smith gave him a glare from the corner of his eyes.

Vilkas paused, crossing his arms as he leaned further against the rock face, “I need a sword.”

“That’s not any different.”

“Actually it is. The blade needs to be made of silver.”

Suddenly, Eorlund looked up with a wide-eyed frown, “Are you mad? Ysmir’s beard! Why’d you want a silver one?”

“It’s not for me,” Vilkas retorted.
Eorlund’s face melted into indifference as he looked back down to red hot metal in front of him. With a sigh, he threw the metal into a basin of water to cool off before glancing back to Vilkas. “Long blade?”

“Short blade. Probably with a longer handle too.”

“Imperial or elvish style then.”

Vilkas began to smile, “Exactly. The sooner its done, the better too.”

The older man sighed in exasperation. “The Saturnalia feast is coming around soon. I’ll probably start getting a lot of orders piling up. A sword like that might get lost in the mix”

Vilkas’ smile melted into frustration, “Shit, don’t remind me.”

“That’s right, you don’t typically like celebrating, do you?”

Vilkas looked over the training yard. Most of it was still covered in snow from the last blizzard and nobody was motivated enough to shovel it away. He’d have to make sure one of the others started on it soon. “It’s not that I don’t celebrate. It’s just having everyone in the same room at once is a bit taxing.”

“I can relate.” Eorlund paused, “I don’t think it’ll be too bad this year though.”

Vilkas laughed to himself dryly, still looking over the training yard, “One can only hope.”

Chapter Text

Ysolda couldn’t help but smile to herself as she watched Farkas come out of her small kitchen with a plate of fried meat. A smaller plate of crostatas she had made earlier in the morning was already on the table in front of her. While frying up some pieces pork was one thing, Ysolda was too proud to let anyone else make her crostatas. She had spent too much time as a girl perfecting the recipe. Even her mother grudgingly admitted to her superior baking skills shortly before Ysolda left for Whiterun.

Farkas pulled out the chair with a clatter and she eyed him with a grin. The larger Nord started taking the still piping hot pieces of fried meat. Ysolda could hear him hiss through his teeth and Farkas dropped the meat back onto the plate. “Still too hot?”

“Yeah,” Farkas mumbled before taking one of Ysolda’s crostatas for himself, “This looks good though.”

“Most stuff looks good to you,” Ysolda quipped, earning a shrug from Farkas.

“Can’t argue with that.” He took a larger bite out of the crostata and paused. A look absolute joy washed over his face and Ysolda laughed at his huge grin. “What’s in this? Juniper berries?”

Ysolda paused for a moment, wiping a strand of hair behind her ear. “No, snowberries and some left-over apples I got from Carlotta.”

“Left over from the cider, right?”

“Yeah, I’m not going to be the fool who wastes their food.” Ysolda looked over the food before picking up one the still warm pieces of fried meat.

“You come from a big family, right?”

The smile returned to Ysolda’s face and she sat back in her chair, “Yeah. Five brothers and my parents. I was a middle child.” She exchanged an entertained glance with Farkas. “Bet it was different for you, huh?”

“Probably. Vil and I don’t have any blood relatives around but the Companions are a bit like a family; sort of, I guess.”

There was quiet pause, allowing Farkas to finish his crostata. Ysolda gave Farkas another glance, “I’m family, right?”

Farkas furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, “I’d like to think so. But that’s something we can talk about more later. Maybe,” the grin came back Farkas face as he pecked a kiss on Ysolda’s cheek. He pulled back, “For now, let’s just enjoy today.”

“Right.” Ysolda sighed, “We’re actually doing that then?”

“Doing what?”

“Going to the feast together tonight. That’s a sure thing, right?”

Farkas looked at Ysolda with down turned eyebrows and sad eyes. “I sort of thought we were.”

The woman breathed out before taking one of her pastries. “I’m a tad bit nervous if I’m being honest. But I think I’m mostly excited about it,” Ysolda took a bite of the crostata. She could see Farkas chuckle to himself as he propped his head on a free hand. “It’ll be the first time I’ve celebrated Saturnalia with someone since I left home.”

“Well, hopefully it won’t be the last time either. Though, I do feel a bit sad for a few of the others,” Farkas said.

“Oh, come on, Athis can manage just fine by himself. I’m not sure about Vilkas, but I reckon he’ll be fine too,” Ysolda sighed.

“He’ll be fine. Knowing Vilkas, he’ll just go the back porch and get drunk.”

Ysolda shook her head before finishing the crostata. “That’s just sad. He’s gotta realize there’s more to life than just work and bashing skulls. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him let loose.”

“I have,” Farkas mumbled as he stared off into the distance with a frown, “It was horrible. If you think I could throw down, then Vilkas is somewhere far above that. Unfortunately, he makes for a sad drunk most of the time.”

Ysolda shook her head, “Oh well.” She paused before an expression of realization washed over her face, “Oh, that reminds me! Valleri’s going to stop by to pick up a dress sometime this afternoon.”

Farkas furrowed his eyebrows, “Wait, Val’s going to the feast?”

“Apparently,” Ysolda shrugged. She got up from her chair and started clearing empty plates from the table. “I should probably start cleaning up; if I don’t do it now, gods know I won’t until I have replica of the Throat of the World in my kitchen.”

“Here, I’ll come help.” Farkas stumbled out of his chair, grabbing onto the wall for support.

“You don’t have to, you know.”

Farkas just shook his head as he grabbed the stack of plated from Ysolda and marched into the kitchen. “I helped make the meal and I finished my share. The least I can do is help you out with the mess.”

Ysolda sighed as she watched Farkas disappear into the other room. “I figured there was a reason I liked you.” Without another second wasted, Ysolda joined him for the dishes.

Valleri breathed out as she made her way to the Jorrvaskr’s basement. She could feel a dull pang in her right side, a reminder of the old wound she had when she first joined the Companions in early fall. Several months had already passed and Saturnalia only served as a bitter reminder that she wasn’t any closer to finding the monsters that killed her friends. Besides that, it wasn’t as though Saturnalia was a particularly noteworthy holiday for Valleri either.

The Nords didn’t exactly share those sentiments however.

Several people around town, most notably Ysolda, tried to explain to her that the feast held in Dragonsreach was more than just a celebration. They uttered flowery words about the feast being a lively beacon of hope and encouragement in the dark, cold winters of Skyrim. Something about coming together as a community and reliving the good times of the previous summer.

Valleri still didn’t believe it, but who was she to turn down good food?

Still the pale-yellow dress hung over her arms only reminded the Imperial woman of the long, tedious sermons of the Primate back in Anvil. There was nothing more problematic in her opinion. When she asked Ysolda about the fancy dress, the Nordic woman just laughed. Of course, this was one of the few instances when the Nords had to make an effort to look half way decent. Ysolda mentioned traditions and decorum, repeatedly telling Valleri it wasn’t that bad.

Valleri sighed once again as she entered the shared bunk room she had been living in for the past few months. By now the sight of the bed in the back corner was a welcome sight, especially since Tilma had provided the warm-blooded southerner with extra blankets.

Not that it stopped her from seeking physical human contact in Vilkas’ bunkroom every few weeks or so when things got too dark.

Valleri swung the dress over the small screen separating her small area from the rest of the room before noticing the long, solid object wrapped in red wool on the mattress. The woman furrowed her eyebrows and set the note aside. Slowly she unwrapped the object, stepping backwards as the wrap fell to the ground.

In her hands was a sabre, silver gleaming in the candle light. The blade was sharp and curved, ending in a perfect point at the end. Small runes were carved into the metal near the dull side of the blade, the script almost to flowery to be Nordic. The handle was long with dark leather wrapped around tightly. Small brass tacks held the leather further in place. Valleri took a closer look at the craftsmanship, the end of the sabre was almost too well balanced to be any old sword. Somehow the grip felt natural in her hands. Almost forgotten memories of marble ruins and grass lands opening out to a turquoise sea flooded through her head like a tidal wave. Valleri’s breathing hitched as she felt the tell-tale sting of tears at the corners of her eyes.

Carefully she placed the blade back onto the bed, picking up the dark red wrap from the floor. She held the fabric out in front of her. The fabric had been sewn into a light cape, pinned together with a small wooden clasp. The wool was thick and the tight weave would make for a durable garment. It was wonderful.

She folded up the fabric neatly on the bed beside the sabre. Finally, she reached for the note, “Sorry I couldn’t find you earlier, figured setting it on your bed would suffice.” Valleri chuckled, to herself before sitting down. Shaking her head, Valleri let the note flutter to the ground without a care in the world. “That fool. That absolute fool.”

….

Jarl Balgruuf had been speaking nonstop for almost five minutes by the time Valleri began to find the whole thing tedious. Listening to some guy go on and on about community comradery and how things were going to get better with more hard work and care was almost as boring as chapel sermons.

Valleri took another sip of the mead in front of her as she watched the scene unfold from her chair in the corner away from main tables. Her eyes kept drifting away from the front and towards the people at the other side of the table.

Vilkas was seated facing her but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead Valleri had never seen hm look so bored. She had never seen him so clean either. His choppy, black hair was washed and brushed out of his face, revealing the cold, stern expression she had grown so used to. Every few seconds she watched the Nord fiddle with his collar; the tunic he was wearing tonight was stiffer than usual and sported a higher collar. He looked very nice in the formal wear, but Vilkas had also never looked so out of place.

Finally, she watched a look of relief wash over his face as the Jarl called for a final toast and officially started the feast. There was loud wave of chatter as people began to move about the greater part of the hall. Valleri on the other hand didn’t move from her spot on the sidelines, content enough to just people watch.

It didn’t take long before Aela found her way to the Imperial woman. The Nord tapped her shoulder, making Valleri reel back with surprise. Aela looked Valleri up and down, cocking an eyebrow, “Well, you look spiffy.”

“Yeah, but I think I’d rather take a punch to face than wear this dress,” Valleri smirked as she continued to scan the crowd. Aela just continued to stare at her. The smirk disappeared from Valleri’s face as she continued, “Dressing up like this never sat well with me. Reminds me of the chapel.” The Imperial woman looked back to crowd towards the middle of the room, eyes finally landing on Vilkas talking to Kodlak.

“That makes two of us then. I’m surprised you even found a dress that fit you in the first place.”

“Ysolda lent it to me. She mentioned dressing up for the feast and didn’t give me much time to decline before getting excited. I didn’t have the heart to say no,” Valleri shrugged, taking another sip of the mead besides her. She handed the mug off to Aela, who promptly finished it off.

“That woman sure has ways of getting people to do what she wants.”

“I don’t think Ysolda’s quite like that. She’s been nothing but nice to me since I’ve got here,” Valleri retorted looking back up to Aela with perplexed expression. Alea just shook her head with a small, amused smile. “Actually, most people have been really nice. I didn’t expect that.”

“What’d you think was going to happen?”

Valleri chuckled to herself, “Gruff Nords who’d throw me out of the city or something; I dunno,” Valleri paused when Aela gave her a questioning side glance. “I’d been attacked the first day I got here, Aela. Don’t blame me.”

“I never said I did.”

Valleri frowned as she turned back to watching the crowd, “You gave me a look.” She paused when she failed to find anyone familiar in the thick crowd of people, slumping back into her chair with a sigh.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

“Not in particular,” Valleri muttered, getting up from the chair. She walked past Aela, giving the Nordic woman a wave, “I’m going o go get some air. There’s too many people here.”

Valleri could hear Aela mutter something but couldn’t be bothered to care what it was. As quickly as she could, the woman made her way towards the back of the building, clamoring up the steps to the second floor. The room was empty with the back and the large door at the end of the room was ajar, cold wind seeping in from the outside. Intrigued, Valleri opened the door and looked out.

Before her was a massive porch opening out towards the east. Mountains loomed in the distance beyond the massive stretch of field in front of Valleri. Slowly she made her way farther, stopping right in the middle of the porch. Looking upwards, Valleri could see thousands of stars littering the sky above her. Both moons were high in the sky, Secunda falling in front of Masser. The star light lit up the mountains with a flurry of strange, wondrous color.

Valleri found herself walking closer to the edge to get a better look. Cold wind buffeted her bare skin, chills running almost unnoticeably up her arms. The cold seeped under her skin, but Valleri didn’t care. The view in front of her seemed so real but would vanish as soon as she looked away.

For the first time in a long time, she felt like herself again.

“Valleri, is that you?” a voice shouted from above her. The woman tore her eyes away from the mountains and looked to find Vilkas leaning against the stone wall on the walkway above. He almost laughed as he took a swig from a large green bottle. “One moment; I’ll come down to you,” Vilkas said as Valleri heard him walk across and descend the stairs to the porch.

Finally, Vilkas slowed as he approached Valleri. The Imperial shook her head as she felt her lips curl into a grin. “I thought you left,” Valleri laughed.

“No, not yet.” A corner of his mouth curled upwards as he leaned on the railing and looked over the landscape in front of them, “I just wanted to cool off a bit. It gets crowded in there during these big events.”

Valleri chuckled to herself before taking the bottle from Vilkas. “I know what you mean. You looked really uncomfortable during the Jarl’s speech.” She sniffed the contents of the bottle and scowled momentarily as she smelled the fruit infused alcohol, “What’s in here?”

“I wan’t sure when I took it off the table, but I’m sure its some sort of spiced wine. I know Balgruuf imports the stuff from Solitude this time of year.” He watched as Valleri took a large gulp from the bottle, laughing nervously all the while, “You might want to be careful, that stuff has an unexpected kick to it.”

“If it does, I haven’t noticed.” Valleri swirled the contents before handing it back to Vilkas. “It reminds me of a spiced citrus wine I had in Anvil.”

“What now?”

Valleri eyes widened momentarily as she looked over to Vilkas, “I keep forgetting you don’t have lemons or oranges here. What a pity.”

Vilkas furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, “What the fuck is an orange? You’re obviously not referring to the color.”

Valleri burst out laughing before wiping a stray tear from the corner of her eye. She stared out over the mountains in front of them, “It’s a sweet, bright orange fruit that grows on trees down south. We only really get them during the fall or winter when they ripen up. Juicy as hell though when you cut it up.”

“And how would you expect me to know that?” Vilkas gestured wildly with his arm over the railing of the porch. With one hard swing of his arm, the Nord sent the bottle of wine over the edge and they both watched as the bottle landed somewhere in the darkness below them. Finally, Valleri heard crash moments later. “Well, shit,” Vilkas mumbled before leaning back.

“That’s an unfortunate waste of wine.”

Vilkas scowled, eyebrows knitting together with disappointment, “Yeah, I know. It’s not worth going back inside to get another one though.”

Valleri hummed in acknowledgment before resting her head on her hands. Secunda had passed Masser in the sky, signaling their final descent. Beside her, Valleri could hear Vilkas quietly breathing in an even manner. His presence was calming as the thoughts in her mind started to finally slow down. Instead she focused on the way the light reflected off Vilkas’ face almost the same way it did off the snow on the mountains. Grey eyes seemed silver, almost white in the pale light.

Valleri breathed outwards, glancing back up to him, “I want to thank you for the sword by the way.”

“What sword?”

Valleri looked at Vilkas with a baffled expression momentarily before the grin on her face came back. “The one you left on my bunk with the shawl, you dummy.”

An expression of fear and embarrassment flashed over Vilkas’ face before he turned away from her. “That was nothing,” he retorted, almost stumbling over his words as he tried to remain monotone.

“Why’d you do it though?”

Vilkas paused, straightening his back while he searched for an answer. Valleri continued to look at him with a faint smile. Finally, the Nord breathed out, “You lost your last one beating the crap out of a centurion. That should be reason enough.”

Valleri tilted her head, “Maybe so. But it’s a sabre made up of entirely silver. The last sword I had was from Alastaros and I treasured it,” she paused, “This one is almost exactly the same, given only a few discrepancies. You could have given me literally any sword, Vilkas.”

Vilkas didn’t say anything for a moment, only looked at the dark gulf between them and the tundra below with a confusing expression Valleri couldn’t quite describe. “The way you describe how much you miss Anvil is,” he trailed off, gaze turning towards the sky, “It’s so pitiful, but I don’t think I’ve ever head anything so honest. It’s such an integral part of you that being torn away from it all and having to redefine yourself almost from the ground up again is daunting even for an outsider. I don’t think I could do that even if I wanted to.” Vilkas locked eyes with Valleri, his expression earnest, “That sword isn’t the same one as the one Alastaros gave you, but I hope it helps you find yourself again.”

Valleri almost stopped breathing, his words ringing in her ears. She could feel her heart pounding against her chest as she tried to look forward again. Something about how he spoke with such open heartedness struck a chord and Valleri couldn’t remember how to react. She found her self moving to look at him again. They way the pale illuminated the assured, wistful expression on his face made chills run up her spine and her mind go blank. Slowly, Valleri croaked out a thank you before spinning on her heel to leave and recollect her thoughts.

When he was out of eye sight, Valleri leaned against the wall and let herself breath again. Without thinking, she buried her face in her hands. Her cheeks felt hot to the touch despite spending so much time in the cold.

Why did Vilkas have to be so right all of a sudden?

Chapter Text

Valleri wiped the snow from her altar, setting the jug of fresh water on the stone surface. The sun hit her back like a heavy blanket. It wasn’t long before she could feel the back of her neck begin to seat under the red, wool shawl. The wet sensation made Valleri feel disgusting. Still, it had been too long since Valleri had made the trip out of town.

Satisfied that the snow was gone from the alter top, Valleri poured the water into a silver pitcher placed towards the back of the altar after dumping out the left over, stale liquid she had used previously. Valleri scowled; the altar was dull without the usual flowers that Valleri would scatter around. The branches of snowberries she picked earlier in the day would have to do.

The woman stopped, backing up a step to look at her work. It wasn’t bad; Valleri’s small shrine in the hills behind Anvil was much better. But considering her situation, she could help but think that the tiny shrine was all right. The Dibella Valleri prayed to had put up with months of silence from Valleri, so having a new shrine was the best thing the goddess had gotten from her in a long time.

Valleri breathed out before kicking some more snow away from the base of her altar; she wasn’t about to get her trousers wet before leaving for the day. Valleri kneeled down, leaning her head down on the stony edge. Breathing out once more, the woman closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind. The sun on her back made her sleepy all of the sudden and Valleri found herself stifling a yawn. Her hope of some sort of meaningful prayer was lost in another second.

Why the Divines didn’t regularly fuck up her life or abandon her entirely was beyond her.

But then again, they did put up with worse people. It wasn’t long before Valleri heard foot steps behind her. They stopped behind her, finally leaning on the rock wall supporting the roof of the cavern above them.

“Didn’t realize you found an actual cavern for yourself,” Vilkas’ deep voice echoed off the rock and Valleri could feel it grate on her nerves. “It looks nice regardless.” When Valleri still didn’t move from her spot at the altar, she could hear the man drop a package to the ground and come closer behind her. She didn’t have to look back to know he was staring her down.

Valleri sighed, opening her eyes while her eyebrows knitted together, “You couldn’t have waited for me to finish and come back to town?”

Vilkas sighed, “Suppose I could have.” The man paused before stepping back a step. “Kodlak gave us another job.”

Valleri wiped the stray bit of snow from her trousers, “Again, couldn’t it have waited for tomorrow?”

“Not exactly, no,” Vilkas said, shaking his head, “We found another fragment.”

“Of Wuuthrad?” Valleri turned towards the side and bit her lip, “Well shit. That was bad timing.”

“Why? What’s the occasion?”

“It’s a feast day for Dibella. I didn’t have it in myself to skip this one. Where’s the fragment?”

There was slight arch in Vilkas’ eyebrow that made Valleri smirk to herself, “I still find it hard to believe that you’re religious.”

Valleri crossed her arms, “Because I don’t push it on other people?”

Suddenly the large Nord looked sheepish, “Well, no. Just figured with your childhood and all.”

Valleri breathed out, “Oh right…”

“Well anyways, the fragments in Falkreath,” Vilkas muttered, “It’s been a while since you’ve been down that way. Are you going to be all right?”

Valleri laughed dryly before taking her jug from the altar, “Of course I’ll be fine. I don’t see why I wouldn’t.” She shot him a confused look with down turned eyes, utterly concerned as to why he was being so anxious about Falkreath.

The look of unsure worry melted from Vilkas’ only to be replaced with the usual questioning stare, “I don’t know why I asked.” There was a smile on his face finally and Valleri began to walk away from the cliff. As she left the cave, Valleri could feel the wind begin to pick up around her.

“Can I visit some friends of mine when we’re down there?” Valleri asked.

“You have friends?”

Valleri scowled, “Fuck off. They helped me get back on my feet after the attack. They’re good people.” Valleri watched him shrug in the distance. She breathed out; Valleri didn’t imagine she’d see Jalfi and Helgi again. But things were looking up. “Give me, like, fifteen minutes to grab my stuff. I’ll meet you out here.”

Valleri was almost to the road when she heard the man call out, “Val, wait!” Vilkas paused as he watched her turn on her heel, “I’ve got your stuff right here. I figured I’d save you the trip.” Valleri shook her head once more and smiled as she watched Vilkas pick up the grip of her silver sabre and wave the blade around menacingly in the air. There was even a small pack already prepared; hopefully stocked with bandages this time around. Really, the thought was nice. The Imperial sighed; what in the world was she going to with her nearly full jug of water she had in her hands?

If there was something to be said for Valleri, it was that she had an acute distaste for soldiers. Valleri couldn’t remember a time in which Anvil wasn’t full of legionnaires, even this long after the war. They were worse than sailors; they caused a ruckus at all hours of the morning and many of them had brought along the boom of skooma to Anvil in only a few years. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.

Cracked Tusk Keep was situated low against the mountains behind it, but even from a distance, Valleri could see the fort was in heavy disrepair. Vilkas motioned for her to pause with a quick gesture, bring her attention to a small camp towards the left flank of the fort. A bright red and black tent made Valleri perk up. Breathing out, she could feel a shiver run up her spine. What in Oblivion was the Legion doing here?

This was just some ramshackle old ruin in the middle of nowhere.

Valleri shot Vilkas a concerned look, grabbing onto his shoulder to further her point. He looked back at her with a sigh, purple rimmed eyes narrowing. His eyes darted back to tent. The legionnaires had already taken notice of the duo and most of the activity in the camp came to a halt. Valleri could feel her blood go cold.

A man with a tall, red brimmed helmet approached them only to stop at a distance. “Hail and well met. What are you two doing here?” he called and waved his arm in the air. Valleri cringed at his voice, the posh Imperial City accent grated her ears. The helmet and the smug air about the man had told her that he was at least a captain.

Valleri nodded when Vilkas looked back at her. Turning back to the captain, Vilkas answered, “We’re just here for an old relic. We had no intention of interfering with a siege.”

“This isn’t exactly a siege here,” the man came closer with a lazy smile, “We were ordered to clear out and take the place over. Damn fort’s full of bandits. but that’s neither here nor there.” He paused, looking past Vilkas towards Valleri. The soldier cocked an eye brow upwards when he finally met Valleri’s eyes. He laughed, “I certainly didn’t expect to see an Imperial sister all the way out here in the sticks! Where in the world did you get that nasty scar?”

Valleri felt her skin go cold; the way he had asked made her feel sick. “That’s none of your business. I’d ask that you drop it,” she retorted with a frown.

The captain put his hands up, smile still plastered to his face, “No harm meant. Are you two mercenaries or something?”

Vilkas’ mouth turned into a scowl, “No, we’re Companions. There’s a piece of an old weapon we’ve been sent to get that my Harbinger believes is in that fort.”

“Ah, see now! That just makes more sense!”

“Can we go in possibly?” Vilkas huffed.

The captain tapped his foot on the ground for a moment, “You see, that’s going to be a problem. We haven’t started clearing the place out yet. It’d be a real shame if some of the locals did so before us. Make us look bad, you know?”

Valleri stepped out form behind Vilkas before the Nord could answer, “Why did you need the fort in the first place? This is leagues away from any rebel fighting force, it’s strategically useless!” Valleri gestured wildly with her arms as she spoke.

“I can see you’re a southerner, right? I can tell by your accent. It’s all wavy and you roll your R’s weird,” the captain said, “But that’s beside the point. You probably don’t realize that a lot of the local Nords have taken to going across the border illegally these days because of the war. General Tullius wanted a few people to guard the main part of the border. Cracked Tusk was going to serve as that guard and when the Stormcloaks make their way down here, there will already be a fort.”

“Or there would be.”

The captain laughed again, “You got me there. Hey, you Companions are fighting types, right?”

Vilkas’ eyes narrowed with curiosity, “And what of it?”

“We could use some extra back up in there. I’ve only got a handful of inexperienced greenhorns with me. Having an extra two blades would be a benefit.”

“Get to your point,” Vilkas snapped.

“I like you,” the captain quipped, “I’m offering you a deal. You help me take the fort, I make sure you get your relic or whatever it was. Benefits both parties.”

Vilkas glanced back to Valleri, eyes searching for answer on the woman’s expression. Valleri didn’t break her icy stare from the captain. He sighed; there wasn’t going to be any other way of doing this. The Legion was already camping out. “Doesn’t seem like we have much of a choice. As long as we remain neutral here it shouldn’t be a further problem.” Vilkas stepped forward, “When do we start?”

The smile on the captain’s face turned excitable, “Just gotta get the men on their feet and then we can go.”

The dust in the fort was thick despite recent human activity. Valleri could see thick swarms of dust motes floating in the dim light filtering in through the windows. The Legion soldiers around her only made it worse; they plodded around the first room of the fort like a herd of cattle. Dust rose with each foot fall and Valleri imagined it would only be another hour before she would choke on the air.

Valleri stayed a few paces behind the group. There had only been a few bandits in the first room that put up a nasty fight. The legionnaires that had filled the room were clumsy; new recruits sent on their first mission away from the main brunt of the war. Injuries abounded in the first foray with the bandits. The leader of the group, Captain Oriana, seemed to enjoy watching them, reminding Valleri of a father watching his young children doddle around with wooden weapons. She wasn’t by any standard a master of sword work, but even she found herself cringing.

Vilkas paused, glancing over to Valleri. He shook his head, gesturing over to the legionnaires, “It would just be so much easier if they weren’t here.”

The Imperial woman narrowed her eyes with dismay. “I just…” she paused, “I just hate this so much. I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t have any part in the military, no matter how small.

“You’re overexaggerating.”

Valleri shot him a serious, wide eyed glare. “Listen, I’ve dealt with enough of the Legion’s shit to know I don’t want my name pegged with them,” she seethed.

The Nord stepped back when he saw the fire flicker through Valleri’s green eyes, “What’d they even do down there? Ysmir’s Beard.”

“I’ll tell you when we’re alone,” Valleri murmured as she nudged Vilkas’ shoulder. She didn’t say anything, only let her expression go sour, when she spied Captain Oriana walking up to them.

He was laughing when he approached and the sound made Valleri’s skin crawl. He crossed his arms with a boastful air, “You two sure are quiet. How’d you think the men did though? Honestly?”

Vilkas only stared the captain for a moment with a blank stare before moving to speak, “Why in Oblivion did the general order such inexperienced lads to take over a fort? Their sword arms are useless.” Valleri could see some of the legionnaires wince at the Nord’s words. Vilkas made no effort to be quiet.

Captain Oriana hissed through his teeth, looking suddenly very self-aware. He glanced backwards before looking back to Vilkas and Valleri. “Well, I did ask for honesty. You know, since that seems to be the consensus, though, I was thinking that you two could head upstairs and scout the place out.”

Vilkas and Valleri exchanged a relieved glance. The sour expression on Valleri’s face melted into curiosity, “Any particular reason?”

“Just figured you two would rather do something productive while you’re here. My gut tells me there’s only a few of the bandits left. Much rather have some competent fighters take care of them then get started on repairs. And I’m assuming you want your relic too, right?” Captain Oriana’s eyebrow was arched at an incredible height that under any other circumstances, Valleri would have found it a bit silly.

Valleri glanced back at Vilkas as the Nord shrugged, “Sounds good to us.”

The captain laughed heartily, “Yeah, yeah. Me and my inexperienced lads will stay down here and make sure you don’t get ambushed from behind.” The captain gave Vilkas a final, haphazard salute before the Nord tried to catch up to Valleri. Captain Oriana shouted a quick good luck as the Companions disappeared up the stairs.

Valleri paused for moment, drawing the silver sabre from her side. The door in front of her was ajar and dim candle light flickered from inside. It was only another second before she could feel Vilkas come up besides her. Shadows flickered from inside, but Valleri sure that her friend could hear exactly what was going on inside of the room.

“Do you see anyone in there?”

Valleri breathed out, “Yeah, just one, a big orc. They seem panicked.”

He tilted his head and moved away from Valleri, “Shouldn’t be too difficult.”

Valleri nodded her head before cracking the door open more. Just as she expected, the orc turned around and swung a heavy axe down on the desk besides her. Valleri felt herself step back from instinct. As the orc leaned down, Valleri swung her blade across his bare chest, carving a large gash into olive skin. He looked back at her with a yell and Valleri backtracked into the hallway. She glanced over to her side when the orc was free of the door. With a sudden flash of movement, she watched as Vilkas made a finishing move on the orc and their olive-skinned friend was down for good.

Valleri bypassed Vilkas and went back into the smaller bed room in front of them. There was a large chest at the foot of the bed that caught the woman’s eye. Swiftly, Valleri lifted the lid up only to be met with disappointment. There were only a few pelts in the bottom of the chest; nothing more.

Vilkas stood beside her, a small blood splatter smeared across his nose. “Nothing?”

“Nothing,” Valleri sighed. She looked back up to Vilkas from her spot on the floor, “Do you mind checking the body?”

“Yeah sure.” He helped Valleri off the ground and left her standing on the room. She watched as Vilkas scrounged around on the corpse. “By the way, are you ever going to tell me why you dislike soldiers so much?” he shouted.

Valleri sighed. Suddenly she felt drained. “People up North don’t hear about it much, but Anvil County has a lot of old family farmland. After the Empire was able to get the land back after the war, they stared taking it garrison soldiers. Something to do with how expensive it was to rebuild the old forts. More often than not the local farmers tried to rebel violently.”

“They had nowhere to go then?”

The woman hummed as she looked over to the desk at her side. “A lot of the displaced people would come into the city and wreak havoc. There was time when I was a small girl when it wasn’t safe to walk the streets at night. Things got better, but the memory remains.”

Vilkas turned back, “But how many years ago was that? At least fifteen.”

Valleri smiled a bit when she exchanged an exasperated glance with the Nord, “It doesn’t matter how much time passes. When the Legion just keeps taking land that belongs to the people, going as far as killing them, it’s horrifying. Skyrim’s lucky the civil war hasn’t come to that yet.” Her smile turned into a grin when she saw a small brass key on the desk. She grasped it in her hand before making her way back to Vilkas.

The Nord rubbed the back of his neck in frustration before turning to look at Valleri behind him. She held the key up to show him and a weight fell off his shoulders. She spoke with a twinge of pride in her voice, face lit up like a beacon, “And Vilkas, you should know that legionnaires are horrible farmers.”

It had only taken them a few more minutes to find the locked door and retrieve the fragment they came for. The black piece of metal felt heavy in Valleri’s hands. She almost missed it in the rubble of the fort’s vaults. Thankfully, Vilkas had seen enough of the other fragments to recognize it immediately.

Captain Oriana didn’t stop them from leaving the fort either and Valleri was glad to be gone from the place. Her mood improved as soon as she stepped foot outside and the stuffiness of the fort’s interior was left far behind. The woman smiled as she saw the rainy, foggy weather outside. The snow outside turned to slush, causing small pools of water to form in the ice beneath her feet.

Vilkas looked up to the sky with a scowl. He looked monotone in the silted light, hair and armor slick with water. Sighing, he turned back to Valleri behind him, “I keep forgetting how warm Falkreath can get. This rain is miserable.”

Valleri laughed to herself, still enjoying the feeling of raindrops on her face. “I think it’s rather nice. I haven’t seen rain like this in a while. It’s dry where I’m from.”

Vilkas just shook his head, “It feels unnatural.”

Neither Vilkas nor Valleri said anything further as they continued their trek away from the fort. They stuck mostly to the decrepit, cobblestone path that wound its way around trees and rocks. Every so often, Valleri would try to look past the first layer of trees and into the depths of the woods, only to be met with inky blackness. For all she knew, creatures from old stories could have been stalking travelers on the road and none would have been the wiser. Somehow though, this part of the woods looked too familiar to harbor any monsters. Had she been here before?

Vilkas paused suddenly, Valleri almost bumping into his back. He looked off into the distance with a concerned expression. Valleri furrowed her eyebrows as she tried to meet his eyes, “Hey, is something wrong?”

“You don’t smell the smoke? It’s smells like a house fire.”

The woman tried to smile, a sick feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. “Vilkas, I’m not a werewolf. All I smell is the rain.”

“Right,” he muttered as he covered his nose with a free hand, “It’s thick and probably close by.”

“Are we going to go check it out?” Valleri asked, voice serious. Vilkas hummed in response as he made his way down a side path. Valleri’s pace quickened as she tried to keep up. Still, her gaze fell on the trees around her. As the smell of the smoke became increasingly present, the realization dawned on her.

The Imperial woman broke out into a sprint, running past Vilkas. It wasn’t long before she came across a clearing. A windmill at the far side of the clearing was set ablaze, blades falling to the ground below. The small farm house on the other side was finished burning. The heavy straw roof was all but gone and dark smudges of black charcoal covered the remnants of a window.

Valleri couldn’t breathe, her arms felt heavy as she watched Jalfi and Helgi’s small farm be consumed in the fire. The two Nords, people she had gotten tot know in such a short amount of time after they had saved her, were nowhere to be found.

She couldn’t move and it was all Valleri could do from lashing out horrifically.

Chapter Text

Valleri almost didn’t think as she ran to the farmhouse. Instinctively, she covered her nose to protect her lungs from the left-over smoke rising from the burnt-out ruins. Broken glass and ceramic pieces crunched under foot as she searched for any sign of Jalfi or Helgi. Her friends were nowhere to be found.

The rain around her began pouring harder and Valleri almost didn’t hear Vilkas striding up from behind.

“Valleri, this isn’t the time for some heroic gesture! Whoever did this is probably still here,” Vilkas scolded as he grasped onto her shoulder.

Valleri turned to him, panic obvious in her wide eyes, “Vilkas, I knew these people. I knew Jalfi and Helgi. They took me in after I almost died.”

Vilkas gulped. “Gods, Val…” Vilkas trailed off as he ran from out of the house and towards the windmill across the way. Valleri put the Nord out of her mind and continued to look for any sign of her friends. The rain was quickly washing away the carnage of the attack. The worst filled her mind and Valleri felt like she was going to choke.

“Valleri!”

The woman turned around to see Vilkas waving her over to the windmill. Valleri almost crashed into him when she ran over. Grasping her shoulder to help her balance, he gestured towards the bottom of windmill. The bricks making up the structure were splattered with sticky red, dripping down onto the dirt as the rain kept falling. Valleri turned to look at her friend, words failing to form as she moved her mouth to speak.

Vilkas shook his head, “I don’t think your friends are alive.”

“No, no. I’ve already lost two people. I refuse to believe they’re dead; I can’t,” Valleri’s voice went cold and she stared at the blood stain. Her eyes followed the red down to the ground, creating a trail towards the woods. Messy foot prints sunk deep into the mud.

“Valleri, it’s hard, I know. But your friends are gone. You’ve got to accept it.”

“Shut up!” Valleri shouted. She glared at him, teeth clenched together. Vilkas stepped back slowly as Valleri gestured back down at the ground, “They were dragged away, see?”

The Nord sighed in frustration. He could see Valleri’s eyes begin to water and she was shaking violently; whether from cold or sorrow, her couldn’t say. Vilkas swallowed hard before rubbing his face with a free hand. “Valleri, it’s raining and the snow on the ground is going to make it hard to track anyone.”

Without thinking, Valleri watched as her hand collided with Vilkas’ face. There was a look of confusion replaced his previously stern expression, but Valleri felt her back stiffen. “I don’t give a shit, Vilkas! I have to make sure that whoever did this doesn’t go unpunished!”

“Calm down for a moment; we’ll think of something, okay,” Vilkas said, tone even and reassuring. “I said it would be hard, not impossible.” The woman looked at him with gut wrenching expression, a flicker of hope in her eyes. She rubbed a hand vigorously across her face, smearing ash across her skin. “You’ve gotta promise me one thing, though. Okay?”

“Yeah,” Valleri answered, voice shaky.

“You have to listen to me this time around. I’m not letting you take any unnecessary risks. You’re not in the right frame of mind to be going after people.” Vilkas watched as Valleri stared hard at the ground beneath her feet. Thoughts visibly raced behind her eyes as she fought against the impulse to run off before him.

Finally, the Imperial breathed out, considerably calmer. “Fine, we’ll do things your way.”

Vilkas sighed with relief, taking his hand from Valleri, and looked back towards the trail leading into the woods next to him. The scent was faint, but it wasn’t completely washed away by the rain. Soon, the smell of mixed blood and smoke would be the only thing he could use to track Valleri’s friends. Daylight was almost gone and they couldn’t stay here. If they did, there was a good chance that Valleri would freeze during the night.

Vilkas huffed before making his way into the woods, Valleri following him as best she could.

Several hours had passed before Vilkas was able to pinpoint where the murderers came from. Valleri had been eerily silent the entire time they spent searching for the camp. The bandit camp was heavily fortified with wooden walls and watch towers, making Vilkas was hesitant to approach. He couldn’t hear or smell anybody.

The Nord looked to Valleri next to him. The woman’s face was stone, mouth held in a thin-lipped scowl. “This is it then?” she muttered, voice cold.

“Yeah. It has the same smell to it at least. The blood trail ended a bit back but I couldn’t be more sure this is the place.”

Valleri shot him a glare, “What are we waiting for then?”

“I’ve got a gut feeling this place is a trap,” Vilkas countered, “Look at it. This place is as fortified as Riverwood and there’s no one here.”

The Imperial shrugged with a sigh, “Listen, you can wait there if you really don’t want to go in, but this is personal. I have to go.” She stared towards the wooden gate at a fast pace, leaving Vilkas behind. Vilkas felt a hole form in chest before willing himself to follow the woman.

Just as he thought, the place was empty. Valleri led him through a maze of smaller tents and shacks as she proceeded towards the back of the camp. She checked each one thoroughly, halfway expecting her friends to be inside. Each time she failed to find either hide or hair of her friends, the woman began to panic more.

Vilkas followed her further, checking to make sure they were in fact alone. Each time he turned a corner or passed by an open tent, the Nord’s heart would quicken as he expected someone to jump out at him. When no one did, Vilkas would breathe a sigh of relief. He wasn’t keen on fighting in this dark, rainy weather.

Valleri paused when she got to the last portion of the camp. It was empty; no tents or awnings for a person to hide in meant that bodies would have been left out in the open. With a single, wide glance, Valleri’s legs almost buckled underneath her. There was still no sign of Jalfi or Helgi.

Vilkas finally emerged from the behind the fence. He looked at her with a questioning expression. The Imperial woman couldn’t bring her self to speak; the lump in her throat made it hard to breathe, let alone say anything. She only shook her head in response. It was all Vilkas needed to know that their search was almost over.

Valleri glanced around the fenced area once more. Finally, her eyes landed on a hidden door built into the rock face behind her. It was well hidden, tendrils of moss dangled low in front of the dark wood. She waited for Vilkas to catch up to her before looking up at him with a pleading look. “Please, it’s just one last place. Then I’ll be done,” she whispered, tugging lightly on his sleeve. “Please.”

The Nord sighed wearily. With a quiet nod, Valleri heard him mumble a response before walking towards the door. It opened with a creek, pale yellow light illuminating the outside fog. Valleri wanted to rush in, but her legs only trudged along.

It took several moments for the woman’s eyes to adjust to the sudden light. Soon she could see a narrow mine shaft leading further downwards into the cave. A myriad of smells hit Valleri like a boulder and she found herself wanting to vomit. The woman held onto the cave wall for balance as she continued forward. The path was straightforward; any diverging tunnels had been blocked off or destroyed by previous cave ins, making a singular tunnel for any miners who may have worked their way down. Valleri slowed as there was suddenly steep incline down and torches became more frequent. Pausing, Valleri could see they had come across a final, cavernous chamber. Both she and Vilkas stopped on an elevated deck over looking the bottom of the cavern. In the distance was another deck with a house was built across from them.

Nearing the edge, Valleri looked down to scan the dirt floor. She looked around slowly, trying to take in the entirety of the room. Valleri gasped when she spotted the faint splash of red on a table pushed towards a corner before running full speed down the ramp next to her.

Out of breath, Valleri blindly made her way towards the table. She could hear Vilkas shout towards her as he followed. She didn’t care though, not when she was this close. Her gait slowed to a tired walk as she saw the mangled body of a man laying half off the table top. Valleri covered her nose to block out the scent of decay as she went to touch the body. Grasping the shoulder, Valleri gently pulled the body towards her. The pit in her stomach deepened as the body landed with a thud. Her mind went blank as Valleri was able to get a good look at the man’s face.

Staring back at her through glassy, emotionless eyes was Jalfi. Dark purple bruises colored his skin underneath smears of old blood.

Valleri jolted back, sending Jalfi’s corpse fully off the table. Hot tears finally broke free and Valleri almost fell to the floor. Vilkas caught her before she could fall, hugging her from behind to keep her up. Valleri found Jalfi in the worst state she imagined, though not entirely unexpected. This only left Helgi unaccounted for and Valleri didn’t want to think about what may have happened to the woman.

Vilkas’ grip around Valleri tightened considerably before she heard a voice from above, “Shit! How’d you two get in here?”

Valleri went cold and any sorrow she felt drained in a moment only to be replaced with fiery rage. She looked up, locking eyes with a scruffy Nord. His eyes widened when he saw Valleri snarl at him. The bandit cursed to himself as he stepped back in fright and Valleri could hear another voice behind him.

“Is everything all right?”

“No! Two milk drinkers wandered in. Fuck! Fuck; the boss is gonna loose his shit!”

Their conversation paused and Valleri heard the familiar, throaty cackle of an Argonian. Further enraged, Valleri elbowed Vilkas in the side as hard as she could to loosen his grip on her. Her friend groaned and hung his head low. Finally, free, Valleri ran off to find her way up to the bandits above her.

The first bandit, a shorter, darker man, could only stare in horror as he met Valleri at the ramp leading up. He was dressed down, completely taken off guard and not ready for a fight. Valleri didn’t hesitate; drawing her blade, she swung down as hard as she could across the man’s bare chest. He fell to the floor with a gurgling scream. The Argonian past him was visibly terrified, eyes wide and arms flailing about in the air. He was begging for mercy and Valleri didn’t immediately cut him down.

“Where’s the third one?” Valleri yelled. The Argonian fumbled with his words, still worried for his life. Valleri’s patience wore thin, “Where’s the man that killed my friends?” Her voice cracked as she screamed at the beast man and her sword hung low at her side.

The Argonian still couldn’t speak. He stared back at Valleri as he knees buckled underneath him. Valleri shook her head and raised the sword above her head. She didn’t think as she watched a flash of silver fly downward and all she saw was red. Staring down, Valleri allowed herself to catch her breath. The sabre dropped from her hand as Valleri tried to recollect herself. She stood there for several minutes before hearing a commotion behind her.

Vilkas shouted a curse as his great sword made contact with the third bandit. The bandit, long blonde braids swinging wildly, fell to the ground quickly after Vilkas’ counter attack.

He laughed as he glanced back to Valleri. The Imperial woman felt sick when he smiled that same, sadistic smile. Vivid memories of the knife breaking through the skin on her cheek came flooding back. The bandit began to speak, his heavily accented voice made her cringe internally, “You were supposed to be dead, you bitch.”

Vilkas looked between the monster on the ground and Valleri staring blankly at him. A look of concerned confusion was plastered on his face as dark, damp hair hung in his face. “Valleri, who were these people? Are they the ones you were looking for?”

Valleri nodded. She stared down at the bandit, “Where’s Helgi?”

“Who the fuck is Helgi?” the bandit questioned before he made the realization, “Oh! You mean the woman from the farm! Yeah, she was a wild ride, that one!” He paused, making sure not to break his stare on Valleri. “Just like your Redguard friend. Fit like a glove if you know what I mean.”

Valleri reached for the dagger Jalfi had given her months before, knelt down, and pressed the blade to his throat. “You have no right to talk about my brother,” Valleri spat. The bandit only laughed again before Valleri pressed the blade deeper. Small droplets of blood swelled around the edge of the dagger. “Not after what you did to him.”

“I should have brought you back with them.” The bandit glanced up at Vilkas with a sick grin, “But, brother, you of all people should know that Imperials scream too much. It’s shame she didn’t just die.”

Vilkas didn’t say anything, but Valleri could see that he was close to beating the bandit to death. Valleri breathed out, releasing much of the pressure off the man’s neck. Slowly, Valleri addressed the bandit again, “Why didn’t you just kill me and be done with it?”

“Just be glad you’re alive,” the bandit retorted. Valleri stood up and gave the bandit a swift, hard kick to the ribs.

“Answer the damn question, you worthless piece of shit,” Valleri ordered, staring down at the man kneeling in front of her. Her stomach churned as he laughed with a guttural, spurting noise.

“Women like you don’t fetch a good price on the market. Elves and able-bodied men certainly get enough coin though.”

Valleri backed up a step, running into Vilkas’ chest. A look of horror washed over her face and Valleri could feel her chest tighten up, making it difficult to breathe again. She couldn’t care anymore; just looking at the smug bastard was almost too much. The room began to spin and Valleri clung onto Vilkas’ arm for support. The cavern was warm, almost sweltering, but Valleri could see her hand shaking violently.

Vilkas then addressed the bandit, Valleri picking up on the slight hesitance in his voice. “You sold them?”

“Like you wouldn’t?” the bandit tilted his head, “A man runs about two hundred spetims on the market. One of those prancy elves is about a hundred more, even if it’s an era old!”

Valleri walked off, Vilkas assuming she couldn’t listen to the bandit any longer, allowing the Nord to come face to face with him. Crazed brown eyes bore into him and Vilkas could feel chills running up his spine. “Who was the buyer?”

There was a long, drawn out pause before the bandit answered, “It was a group of mages. They wanted live test subjects or some shit like that.”

Vilkas could hear Valleri perk up behind them. “Lexius and Alastaros are alive then? How long ago did they leave?”

“Not long, though they’re probably dead now. Mages don’t know how to take care of their pets,” the bandit said, grin growing larger. Both men could hear Valleri muttering quietly to herself, still in stark disbelief of what the bandit said. Vilkas slapped the bandit hard across the face when he started leering at Valleri. He watched as a trickle of blood ran down from the man’s nostrils. “There’s no need to hit me again. It’s not as though I’m going anywhere.”

“I don’t care,” Vilkas barked, voice almost cracking, “Where did the mages come from?”

The bandit didn’t answer, only stared back at Vilkas with tired, arrogant eyes. He licked the blood off his lips with an extravagant flick of his tongue. Repulsed, Vilkas leaned back with a grimace. “Hey, since I’m gonna die anyways, why not just indulge a doomed man for a bit? I bet you’re like the Redgaurd; you’d probably scream the same way.”

There was no hesitation when Vilkas jumped to his feet, backing up as quickly as possible. Valleri ran past him, silver sabre in her hand again. She swung down hard on the man’s neck and his head rolled away on the ground. Valleri paused finally, breathing heavily. Vilkas couldn’t move as he watched her; the Imperial’s back shook as he heard Valleri begin to sob.

Nerves calmed, Vilkas made his way to Valleri’s side and reached out a hand. The sabre dropped from her grip as she turned back to Vilkas. He wrapped an arm around Valleri’s shoulders and rubbed her back in slow, rhythmic circles.

“We’ll find your friends, I promise.”

Chapter Text

Vilkas sighed with relief when he and Valleri finally approached the heavy wooden doors leading back into Jorrvaskr. It was late afternoon and the sun was still high in the sky. The inside of the mead hall was dark in comparison, but much warmer than the blustery, cold wind outside. Brill must have left the fire in the hearth well-tended throughout the night to ward of the chill.

He held the door open for Valleri, the woman only nodding in acknowledgement as she entered before him. Since the night they had killed the bandits in Falkreath, Valleri had been uneasily quiet. She hardly ate and he was sure she wasn’t sleeping either. The purple rims under her eyes were grew more obvious with each passing day.

Vilkas could clearly recall the night he tried to talk to Valleri about what had happened. She brushed him off coldly and Vilkas figured that it was best not to ask. He learned early on that poking his nose in business that wasn’t his only brought unforeseen consequences. What happened was Valleri’s business and he was only made more aware how much of an outsider he actually was. Vilkas felt a sick churning in his stomach when he thought about it.

Valleri looked exhausted as she left his side and went back to the bunkrooms in the basement. He watched her back as she left and Vilkas felt a small weight lift off his shoulders when she left.

“You’re back then?” Vilkas heard a familiar voice when Valleri’s figure finally disappeared down the stairs.

Vilkas glanced over to the opposite side of the room as he approached the table and took a seat. The chair was uncomfortable but he was glad to be off his feet. Farkas gave him an unsure look, “Kodlak was getting antsy when you didn’t show up after a while. He was hoping to have a meeting with the other Circle members at some point. You were the last one to show up.”

Vilkas sighed, leaning far into the back of the chair. The sudden exhaustion flooded back into his shoulders. Maybe Valleri was right in some way; dealing with people, even people he considered family, was almost too much at the moment.

“I assume he wants to meet tonight?” Vilkas groaned.

“Yeah. I can tell Kodlak to save it for another day. You look like shit.”
Vilkas scowled. “Rude,” he paused, “But I can’t disagree. Also just tell him now and get this over with.”

Vilkas felt a small smile form as Farkas chuckled to himself before he went to the cupboard at the far side of the room. He shuffled around a bit before procuring two flagons and a bright red bottle. “What happened out there to make you so late anyhow?”

Vilkas stared blankly ahead as he took a sip of the mead Farkas had poured for him. The alcohol tasted sour as he thought back to the incident with the bandits.

His voice was dry and unemotional as he spoke, “We had to bury two people.”

Vilkas did not relish the idea of staying up late for another long night of irrelevant discussions about the Circle’s recent behavior. He loved Kodlak dearly, but today was no day to hear more about other people’s problems. He agreed the Harbinger’s ideas, but that was something he could only really keep between himself.

Aela and Kodlak were already waiting in the Underforge, standing at opposite ends of the room. Judging from the woman’s face, Aela was still unwilling to budge on her opinions. Vilkas took his place, leaning on the rock wall near the back. Hopefully standing a few feet from the main group would help keep him out of most of the conversation.

“Now that we’re all here,” Kodlak’s voice boomed in the tiny cavern, “We can begin. I believe that enough time has passed since the loss of Skjor that we should begin looking for a new member of the Circle.”

There was a tense pause where no one moved. Vilkas desperately tried to avoid eye contact with any of his compatriots. After a few moments, Aela spoke up. Her arms were crossed as she spoke, staring intently at Kodlak, “I don’t see why we need to at all. Skjor died only a few months ago. It would be a dishonor to his name to replace him so suddenly.”

Kodlak sighed, “We’re not replacing our shield brother, sister. All I would like to point out is that the Circle is lacking recently.”

Aela frowned, gesturing wildly with her hands, “How? How are we lacking?”

“Skjor’s death, obviously. And since then, you’ve been increasingly gone. That only leaves Farkas, Vilkas, and I.”

Vilkas chewed on the edge of his lip as he watched Aela and Kodlak continue to glare at each other from across the cavern. The woman’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Okay, fine. So, let’s say I’m not here all the time and that leave you three here. Fine, who would you recommend for the Circle?” No one said anything as Aela glanced around.

“Njada’s been here the longest,” Farkas murmured, attempting to lighten the mood. He looked around with unsure eyes, hoping for a sign of acknowledgment from the others.

Aela shook her head, “No, she wouldn’t take the blood well. Njada knows the old stories.She probably has a fond distaste for werewolves.”

“How about Athis? His sword arm is just as good,” Kodlak asked. His voice boomed across the rock like a shout and Vilkas cringed when the volume peaked.

Farkas glanced down at the basin in the middle of the room with confusion, “Have we ever had a Dunmer on the Circle before?’

Kodlak shrugged, “A few times. Not many Dunmer are keen on being Companions in the first place, much less accepting beast blood.”

“Athis did mention wanting to become Harbinger though. Maybe he’d be willing to accept the gift.”

“And what if he doesn’t? What if anyone we offer the position to doesn’t want it?”

Aela glanced over to Kodlak, the annoyance in her voice was sharp, “What’s your point Kodlak?”

“I don’t think that we should deny membership of the Circle to those who decline Hircine’s gift. I no longer believe that it’s fair. It’s a less than honorable part of the contract.” There was a dull throbbing behind Vilkas’ temples when Kodlak finished. The look of regret on the old man’s face when he looked over to him that only made it worse.

“Do you suggest that we do away with it entirely then?”

“Well, no.” Kodlak stumbled, “But at least give newcomers a choice to decline. Lycanthropy does not always lead to anything good, sister.”

“Fine. Let’s not make a decision now, but that doesn’t mean we can just do away with the fact they’d have to be okay with knowing that we all have the gift. If that gets out, there will be no Circle.”

Farkas rose his hand before speaking, “How about Valleri then?” She already knows.”

“And she knows because of who again?” Aela retorted, eyes now glued on Farkas. Vilkas could see panic flash through his eyes; they’d already known the Aela’s wrath was something not to be trifled with. Her stance softened and Farkas breathed out with relief. “Though, you’re right. She hasn’t said anything about it.”

All three of them looked back at Vilkas in the corner. He shrugged, pulling a small bit of moss off the rock wall, “I wouldn’t recommend her to the position.”

Kodlak looked at him in mild shock, “That wasn’t the answer I had expected from you, Vilkas. I assumed you looked at her favorably.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I do,” Vilkas paused, tilting his head in consideration, “But, she intends to leave us as soon as she possibly can.”

“That’s right, I’d almost forgotten about her contract.”

Alea scowled, “Right, I’m surprised she hasn’t mentioned it.”

Vilkas sighed. “Yeah, about that…” he looked around the room, eyes falling on Kodlak last, “There’s been a few unexpected developments with that.”

Valleri brought the red shawl closer around her shoulders as she sat on an outcropping of rocks outside of Whiterun. The sun was almost gone and the night sky was already brilliant. Only slight tinges orange sunlight mingled with the dark purple. The wind buffeted towards the north, hitting hard against her back as Valleri stared towards her home. The tall mountains that separated the two provinces never seemed so daunting.

The joints in her arms and back burned with exhaustion. Moving her head to the left was painful; the knot in her neck was deep and no matter what she did, Valleri couldn’t get it out. Sleeping was getting difficult because of the dull pain in her back. Valleri found bits of time here and there, but nothing substantial.

She continued to stare towards the south, longing for the warm, golden coast again.

Turning towards the road leading back to town, Valleri saw a tall figure quickly approaching. She would have stood up, but as tired as she was, Valleri didn’t move when she realized the figure was Kodlak. He exchanged an exasperated glance with her when he finally stopped on the ground beneath the outcropping.

“It took me a while to find you. Why are you all the way out here?”

Valleri leaned her head back, “There’s too many people, Kodlak. I just can’t find it in myself to deal with them at the moment.”

There was a dry laugh from below, “I feel that as well. But perhaps, some company will do you good. Walk with me.”

Valleri deliberated her options for moment before slowly making her way down the rocky outcropping. Kodlak offered her a hand as she descended the last few feet before walking towards the open tundra behind them. They walked in silence for a while, Valleri staring at the sky in front of her. The tundra was wide open and Valleri could see a vast field of stars, pointing out constellations here and there to herself.

“You’re not quite yourself today, are you, Valleri?” Kodlak asked.

The Imperial woman felt a small smirk form on her lips, “That’s a bit of an understatement.” She glanced over to Kodlak at her side, only to be met with a look of concern written all over the old warrior’s face. A sick feeling descended into her stomach and she hung her head back with a groan. “Vilkas told you, didn’t he? That ass!”

Kodlak’s face contorted with confusion, “Tell me what?”

“Fuck.”

“Valleri what happened?”

The woman stopped walking and sighed, “We found the bandits that attacked my group.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

Valleri clenched her teeth in frustration, “Well it would have been, but they murdered two more people that I considered friends.”

“You were able to avenge all four of your friends?”

“Well, no,” Valleri paused, desperately trying to articulate her thoughts, “We didn’t find Alastaros and Lex.” This time Kodlak paused. Valleri watched him trying to understand what she had said. “They claimed to have sold them off alive.”

“Not all is lost then,” Kodlak retorted with a smile, “What are you planning to do from here on out?”

Valleri felt the sick feeling turn black and she desperately wanted to leave Kodlak alone in the tundra. She threw her arms up in the air, “I don’t know! I don’t fucking know.” Valleri paused, rubbing a hand on the back of her neck, “I don’t want to decide anything. I just want to stop thinking about it, just be done with the whole thing.”

Kodlak regarded her with a small smile now, eyebrows downturned, “Perhaps you’re correct. Valleri, is it possible to put a name to what you’re feeling?”

Valleri looked at the ground as she pondered Kodlak’s question. Almost nothing came to mind in the muddled thoughts. Finally, she answered, slow and unsure, “I can’t even think to tell you Kodlak; suffice to say that I feel like I’m out in the opening but I’m suffocating. Everyone’s just waiting to watch me implode at any time; I can’t stand it.”

“You’re keeping a lot in at the moment. Talking to someone or not is up to you, but might I offer you a suggestion?” Kodlak asked.

“Well, that’s your job, isn’t it?”

“Just let it out. Everything you’re holding onto, channel it and scream at the mountains around us. They will listen and not judge you too harshly; I certainly won’t.”

“Wait,” Valleri paused, “You’re telling me to just scream?”

“As loud as you can.”

Valleri shook her head, “Fine.” She walked a few paces ahead of Kodlak, taking one last wide glance at the scenery in front of her. Taking a deep breath, Valleri reared back and scrunched her eyes. Without warning, the Imperial woman let out a shrill, whooping yell. Her throat soon became raw as the volume increased. Her lungs emptied themselves of air and Valleri could feel her muscles tense up in protest.

When her voice suddenly gave out nearly a minute later, Valleri opened her eyes. She was left breathing unevenly and her face felt hot against the breeze. Arms dropping at her side, Valleri stared out over the open tundra in front of her. Everything seemed to be in its proper place, unchanged from before. But for only a moment, everything seemed lighter. The Imperial turned back to Kodlak behind her.

He was smiling genuinely this time, not moving his gaze from Valleri, “Do you feel differently now?”

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows, “I think. My body is still exhausted and I’m still grieving for Jalfi and Helgi. But I feel a bit better about my family.”

Kodlak bellowed out a laugh, “I am glad to hear it. Come, let’s go back to town before we start to freeze.” Valleri nodded and followed Kodlak back the way they came.

The light in the main part of the hall was still lit when Valleri returned. It was dim, but lit none the less. Vilkas was sitting at the table, sharpening a small knife with a blank expression. He glanced up when she closed the door behind her. He looked her up and down before going back to sharpening his knife. “You’re doing better, I take it?” he said without looking up.

Valleri unclasped her shawl, “I think. It’s hard to tell; I’m just tired.”

“That’s usually how it goes,” Vilkas paused, “It’s like having a cold sometimes. At this point just getting a good night’s sleep can do a lot of good.’

"Right,” Valleri trailed off.

She sat down next to Vilkas, watching him test the knife’s edge with a finger. Satisfied with his work, the Nord set the whetstone down on a small cloth on the table and gestured towards Valleri with the knife, “Would you consider the weregild paid now?”

Valleri looked off into the distance, “To be honest, a debt was paid, but it wasn’t for Alastaros or Lexius. Not when there’s a chance of them being alive.”

Vilkas exchanged another glance with Valleri, “You’ll be staying in Whiterun, then?”

Valleri smiled, attempting to rub the sleep out of her eyes. “It seems that way. I can’t just abandon them now.”

“And back home to Anvi when all of this over with?”

The Imperial laughed, “You’d love that wouldn’t you?” She paused, noting the disappointed expression on Vilkas’ face. “But, no, it’s too early to think about going back to Anvil.”

Vilkas smiled slightly as he got up from his chair, “And your debt to the Companions?”

“Kodlak claimed it was void,” Valleri muttered, “Though, I might still try to be useful around here until I find my family. I was accepted as an official member; may as well put it to use.”

“Hey, Valleri?”

“Yeah?”

Vilkas turned back to Valleri at the table, “Get some sleep before you decide anything, alright?”

The Imperial woman could only smile as she laid her head on the table and closed her eyes, “All righty then.” Vilkas only shook his head when he heard Valleri start to snore. Carefully, he wrapped one Valleri’s arms around his neck and carried her down to the bunkrooms. He was glad that Valleri had fallen asleep and couldn’t see the exasperated grin on his face.

Chapter Text

Vilkas watched as Farkas tossed away his sword before hefting a large, ivory tusk on his shoulders. Exasperatedly, Vilkas groaned as he collected the sword, holding it low by his side. Farkas huffed once more before starting the trek back to town. His brother glanced at him from the side curiously.

“Why did we stop for exactly?” Vilkas asked. Farkas could hear a tinge of annoyance in his voice.

Farkas laughed a bit before answering, “Ysolda needed a mammoth tusk. Something about the Khajiit caravanners.” Vilkas only continued to stare at him with a the characteristically questioning expression ever present on his face. “Ysolda mentioned it and I figured it’d be a nice surprise. Don’t fault me!”

“I’m not. Is there some sort of occasion happening I’m not aware of?”

“Just a gift.”

Vilkas rolled his eyes as he continued to walk, heading towards where he assumed the road continued, “If you say so.” He heard Farkas laugh to himself. “I was hoping to make it back sooner though.”

“It seems to me that you’re looking forward to all that paper work Skjor left behind,” Farkas jeered. Vilkas looked back with vexation, only to be met with his brother’s large grin. The feeling of irritation melted into exasperated fondness. Vilkas was used to Farkas’ bad jests by now; he meant no harm. “If you’re not careful, your sword arms gonna get flabby,” Farkas added.

Vilkas turned and pointed the spare sword towards Farkas, “You wish.”

Farkas huffed as he readjusted the mammoth tusk. “I haven’t been on a job with for a while and I bet you let Valleri do most of the heavy lifting.”

Vilkas tilted his head, finally noting the silhouette of Whiterun in the distance. “I can’t really argue that.” He watched his breath turn to ice for a moment as he waited for Farkas. The sun was still up but the nights were long; sundown would start in only a few hours.

“She should be on her way back by now, right?’

“Who? Valleri?”

“Yeah. Who else would I be talking about?”

“Could have been Ria or Aela for all I know,” Vilkas retorted. His grip on Farkas’ sword tightened, “I still think Kodlak was wrong to send her out by herself for so long. Valleri’s likely to do something stupid without someone with her.”

“Like me, huh?” Farkas continued to smile as he walked.

“No, not at all. Valleri’s smart but doesn’t think things through. I can’t imagine what she’d get up to when no she’s alone.”

Farkas glanced at Vilkas from the side. Turning his head was too difficult with the large tusk on his shoulders. “You really wouldn’t know either. Not unless you ask.” Farkas could hear his brother mutter under his breath.

It took another hour for the two of them to reach the city gates. Several of the guards rolled their eyes at Farkas, but didn’t say anything. To them, the tusk was probably just another trophy to be set up in Jorrvaskr. Instead, Farkas focused on the disrepair of the outer wall and the crunch of the snow underneath his feet.

The taller twin turned back to his brother once they passed the front gates, dropping the tusk down to the ground, “I’m gonna leave you here, if that’s okay.”

Vilkas shrugged, “I see no reason why not. Besides, there’s no place left in your bunk room for that,” Vilkas gestured to Farkas’ mammoth tusk, “thing.”

Farkas shook his head and laughed as Vilkas gave him a playful hit on the shoulder. “I’ll see you later,” Farkas mumbled before making his way to the center of town. His pace quickened when he spotted the familiar ginger trader bartering with a fruit vendor.

Boy, was Ysolda going to be excited to see him.

Valleri couldn’t feel her fingers as she made her way through the darkness around her. The snowfall had lessened over the past hour, but small flakes of snow continued to fall through the darkness. Valleri’s lamp had been snuffed out before when she accidentally tripped in a snow drift.

Valleri was cold, tired, and probably lost.

Why Kodlak sent her so far north by herself was beyond her. The trip up to Winterhold was easy enough. The small town was unassuming, but the Mages College made her smile and Valleri found herself recalling fond memories of the Arcane University. The Synod were a bunch of pompous asses, those at the university included; but the libraries were amazing. Valleri couldn’t imagine what the College could be like on the inside. The elvish woman guarding the gate wasn’t keen on talking to her though.

After Valleri’s job was done, clouds were already gathering on the horizon. The innkeeper warned her not to go. But did Valleri listen?

No. No she didn’t.

Instead, Valleri was sure she could at least make it too Windhelm before the weather got too bad. She agreed with Athis’ opinion on the state of the city, but it was a guaranteed bed and meal if she made it.

It wasn’t long after Valleri departed from Winterhold in the morning that the snow began to fall. At first it was calming, magical even; though it was only a few hours before the actual blizzard started. Valleri quickly found that she lost the road and was stuck wandering south into the wilderness. Valleri tried not to panic, but as nightfall began to descend, she found her self clutching the hilt of her sabre tighter.

Valleri’s pulse slowed as she saw a bright light off in the distance past the tree line. Relief washed over her as all but ran towards the light and the person carrying it. The person slowed as Valleri ran out ahead of them, awkward smile plastered to her face.

The stranger with the lamp reeled back and Valleri could only imagine the look of shock on their face underneath the heavy hood of their cloak. Valleri gestured wildly as she spoke, “Wait, wait, wait! I don’t mean any harm!”

The stranger had a fireball ready suddenly and Valleri wilted. “Don’t think I wouldn’t fire this if you pull that sword on me!” they yelled.

Valleri gulped, pulling the hood of her shawl down to reveal her face. “Please, I swear I just got lost! That’s it!”

She could here them sigh before the ball of fire in their hand disappeared. They rubbed their temples in frustration, “You’d better be right.” They pushed past Valleri and held the lantern aloft. Turning back to Valleri, they beckoned for her to follow them, “Come on, I’m staying at an inn nearby. I’ll pay for a meal too. You probably need it.”

Valleri felt her lips curl up into a smile as she followed the hooded figure through the snow. The inn was at the bottom of hill. Valleri almost slipped as she made her way down and the stranger with the lantern looked back when she cried out in momentary panic. They shook their head before leading her the final few feet to the door.

The inside of the building was almost heaven when Valleri walked in through the door. The smell of wood smoke and the heat from the hearth in the middle of the room was comforting after Valleri had walked around the woods for hours. The man at the bar didn’t look very hospitable, but she couldn’t judge. Being able to spend the rest of the night indoors was a miracle.

Valleri unclasped her shawl as the stranger that found her talked to the innkeeper. The grumpy looking Nord looked exasperated as the stranger gestured towards her. Finally, he threw his hands up in the air in defeat as the stranger turned back to Valleri. She walked to meet him halfway by the fire when he pulled his hood down and Valleri couldn’t help but freeze.

In front of her was an Altmer with burn scars all over his face in intricate, swirling patterns. His dark brown hair was pulled into a tight bun with out any stray hairs despite the blustering wind outside. Golden, hawk like eyes met her own and Valleri couldn’t help but feel vulnerable.

“You were the women who pointed me to Markarth a few months ago weren’t you?” His voice was slick, making Valleri pause for a moment.

“The one and the same,” Valleri cringed.

“I should thank you for that. Come have a drink with me!” the Altmer gestured towards on the tables after snatching a bottle from the bar. He sat down with flourish, looking at Valleri expectantly. With a sinking feeling, Valleri followed.

“I’ve been looking for you for some time now. What happened to your friend?”

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows, “My friend?”

“Yes. The imposing Nordic bear lurking behind you last time we met.”

Valleri glanced at the ground in realization. “Right. He had some other business.”

The Altmer shrugged. Pouring himself a glass of wine, he began to speak again, “Our mutual friend Aicantar was kind enough to give me your name. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are Valleri Alastarim I assume?”

Valleri felt her blood turn cold. The Altmer glanced up at her with calculating eyes, the purple rims now obvious against golden, flaky skin. “And who the fuck are you?”

“There’s no need to become aggressive. My name is Cyrenial.”

Valleri glared at him, “Make it quick, what do you want?”

“I’m merely searching for Alastaros. He went missing several months ago and my organization has asked me to keep tabs on him. I was hoping that since you were his daughter in all but title, Valleri, you would know where he is.” He crossed his arms and stared at her for an answer.

“What organization are you referring to?” Valleri asked, furrowing her eyebrows in curiosity.

Cyrenial sighed and glanced back to the fire before taking a sip of his wine. “I’m with the Synod.”

Valleri grinned momentarily, “I call a bluff!” Valleri almost laughed at the quizzical look on the Altmer’s face before leaning back in her chair. “The Synod didn’t care much for Alastaros, so I know for a fact they wouldn’t send a single person out looking for him, even as punishment.”

Cyrenial raised a hand up with a defeated grin, “Fine, you’ve got me!”

“Thalmor then?”

The Altmer grinned, “Well, there’s not much else going on in Alinor if you stay.”

“Breath of Dibella, you people like getting your noses into everything. Why are you looking for Alastaros?”

Cyrenial gestured outwardly with a hand, “The higher ups like to keep tabs on everyone, expatriates especially. We believe he is looking into something that formally belongs to the Dominion. If he can tell us any information regarding his research, we may be able to offer him a deal to come back to Alinor.”

“I thought he was a citizen of the Empire,” Valleri retorted.

“He was born and raised in Alinor. Alastaros may be interested in the new opportunities in his homeland.”

Valleri clicked her tongue with distaste. “Yeah, I’m going to have to call you out on that too. I know Alastaros pretty well, and he’s not the biggest fan of the Aldmeri Dominion.”

“Regardless, Valleri, why are you here in Skyrim?”

The Imperial paused for a moment. The question was not entirely unexpected, but it still caught the woman off guard. Finally, she worked herself up to answer, “Alastaros and I had an argument before he left Anvil a while back. I came up here to clear my head.” Valleri felt her pulse begin to quicken.

“May I ask why Aicantar told me that you told him Alastaros died? And that you were working with the Companions?”

“I’m just assuming he’s died. Listen, we didn’t part on very good terms,” Valleri lied. She could feel the panic cement itself into her stomach; her mouth was dry and her movements were quickly becoming erratic.

“And the Companions?”

“Just a way to keep myself occupied for a while.” Valleri glared at Cyrenial from across the table. “Look, I’ve had a long day. I appreciate you paying for my room and all, but can I please leave and get some sleep?” Valleri got up regardless of Cyrenial’s unimpressed reaction. She waited for him to say something as she continued to grasp the back of her chair.

“One final question, perhaps?” Cyrenial asked. Valleri groaned internally as he smiled. “Do you know anything about his research on a special pendant from the ruins of Sedor. It was an old relic supposedly moved to Skyrim for safe keeping.”

Valleri snarled at the elf in front of her, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Listen well, Altmer, I’m only going to say this once. If Alastaros didn’t bother telling you or your organization anything, then it’s obviously not your business. I’d recommend that you just leave my family alone or I’ll be sending your body back to the Isles in pieces.”

Valleri turned on her heel and fled back to the bunkrooms on the other side of the inn. She didn’t have to look back to know that he was still smiling.
“Sweet dreams, Valleri.”

Vilkas watched from across the table as Ysolda began to laugh at one of Farkas’ bad jokes. What the trader had found so appealing in his brother was beyond him. But Vilkas could see they were happy and he couldn’t be mad at that. He glanced out the window for moment, noting the lack of any light outside. Candle light now lit the small room.

“You okay there, Vilkas?” the red headed woman asked as she moved her attention away from Farkas.

Vilkas glanced over with confusion, “Yeah, I’m fine. Why’d you ask?”

Ysolda breathed out, looking back over Farkas, who only shrugged. “I don’t know. You looked a bit melancholy for a moment.”

“That’s just his face, ‘Soldy,” Farkas quipped before pouring himself another mug of mead.

The woman furrowed her eyebrows, “Well it must be yours then too.”

“How’d you figure?”

She laughed a bit before answering, “You two technically have the same face, right?”

Both brothers blanched in mock horror before Farkas gestured wildly. “I’m lucky enough not to. I don’t have that same scar over my eye from a bar fight.”

Vilkas sighed, “That’s not fair. It wasn’t a bar fight; I was technically on a job.”

“In a bar?” Ysolda quipped, unimpressed.

“Yeah,” Vilkas paused, “But it wasn’t just me. Farkas was there too. He broke a chair over some poor milk drinker’s head.”

Ysolda rubbed her face in amusement. Shaking her head, she rubbed Farkas’ cheek with a smile, “You never cease to entertain me, do you? How long ago did this happen?”

Vilkas smirked as he watched panic flash momentarily on Farkas’ face. “It was, uh, about three years ago. We were in Morthal when it happened.”

“You two probably aren’t too welcome there then.”

Farkas nodded his head, “Not at all. I try to avoid going up that way at all.”

“How about Solitude?” Ysolda asked.

“Nope, haven’t been there since I was boy,” Farkas said, finishing his off his mug, “Vilkas has been there more recently though.”

Ysolda hummed in response, stacking the plates left over from dinner earlier in the evening. “I grew up near Solitude.”

“What was that like?”

“Well, it’s a lot closer to the sea, that’s for sure. But there’s not a lot left at home now. Since my parents passed a few years ago, a few of my brothers took over the farm,” Ysolda paused, “I didn’t really want to stay anyhow.”

Ysolda took the plates back into the small kitchen behind them. Vilkas found himself starting out the window again, hoping to see something in darkness. Disappointed when all he could see was a reflection of himself, the Nord looked back down at the table.

It wasn’t long before Ysolda came back out of the kitchen. There was a wide grin on her face as she spoke, “I almost forgot! I’ve got some good news from Hulda earlier.”

Vilkas watched Farkas perk up with excitement. “Well, what is it?”

“She told me she was going to let me take over the Bannered Mare after she retires next year.”

There was a moment of silence when Ysolda looked at Vilkas and Farkas for some sort of answer. In a moment, Farkas leapt from his seat and hugged her around the shoulders. Pulling back from his hug, Farkas all but shouted, “That’s great! Absolutely wonderful!”

Vilkas got up from his chair and started for the door, “Well congrats, but you two look like you’re having fun. Good night.”

Ysolda shouted a quick goodnight as he left and closed the door tight behind him. It wasn’t as dark outside as he thought and Vilkas looked up to the sky. Only small Secunda was out, offering what little light it could. Vilkas tired to hurry back to the warmth of Jorrvaskr. A cold wind blew in from the north as ugly clouds made their way towards the open tundra.

Vilkas paused and looked north before opening the door. There was a storm brewing near Windhelm and he could only hope that a certain, warm blooded Imperial wouldn’t freeze to death on the road.

Chapter Text

Valleri made it back to Whiterun in what she could only assume was record time. She didn’t want there to be any chance of Cyrenial following her. This wasn’t her first run in with the Thalmor; they kept close tabs on Alastaros’ work, but she didn’t think they’d follow her all the way to Skyrim. Valleri’s encounter with the Cyrenial, ugly scars or not, didn’t bode well. The past two days had been anxiety filled. Even within the last hour, Valleri felt spooked.

The Imperial didn’t slow down until she made it back to Jorrvaskr. Absolutely sure that she was safe in the mead hall, Valleri slumped against the inside of the door. Her shawl was scrunched up uncomfortably between her back and wall, but Valleri didn’t move. Instead, she buried her head in her hands and focused on breathing evenly again.

“Val, you okay?”

The Imperial looked up from the ground to meet a familiar, charcoal smeared face. Valleri managed a shaky smile, “Yeah, I think so.” Valleri paused. Uneasiness slithered its way down her back, finally settling into the soles of her feet. “Actually, I’m not sure.”

Vilkas cocked an eyebrow, setting down a package he was holding, “Did something happen?”

Valleri pursed her lips before breathing out. “I met that Altmer again. The one we saw after Markarth.”

“What happened?” When Valleri didn’t answer, Vilkas sighed and sat down on the floor next to her. “It’s uncomfortable down here,” he murmured, stretching to find a good place to lay his arm.

Valleri scoffed, “You didn’t have to, you know.” She leaned her head back against the wooden door and sighed, nerves finally calming. In a moment Valleri continued, “I got lost in the woods and the blasted elf ended up taking me back to an inn.”

“Valleri, that’s usually a good thing.”

“No, it wasn’t. He recognized me, and not just as a stranger on the road. He knew my name, Vilkas.”

Vilkas’ previously calm expression melted into distaste, “Shit. Aicantar probably told him.”

“Yeah, right? You know what the worst part is?”

“What?”

“The damn elf is trying to track Alastaros down for his research on Sedor. Do you remember that necklace I told you about?”

Vilkas shook his head, “Only vaguely. What’s so important about it?”

Valleri bit her lip in frustration, “That’s the thing; I don’t have a clue. Alastaros and I were only able to determine that it opened some sort of vault in Sedor. The Ayleids got paranoid though and sent it up here to Skyrim for safe keeping. The last sort of mention we found was an Ayleid Falmer document; some sort of contract.”

“Wait, let me get this straight,” Vilkas paused, “You’re saying that those Ayleids sent some sort of magical key to the Falmer for safe keeping.”

“Yep.”

Vilkas scowled for a moment, “You realize that the Falmer were pretty much conquered by the dwemer, right?”

“Yep.”

“And now more elves are aiming to get it.”

“Not just any elves,” Valleri added, “Cyrenial mentioned he was a member of the Thalmor. He was shifty about it though, trying to tell me he was with the Synod.”

Vilkas’ scowl deepened as he glanced over to Valleri. “Bones, Val. Is Alastaros a wanted man or something?”

The Imperial laughed dryly, “No, not like that. The Thalmor keeps a close watch on a lot of Altmer in the Empire. Alastaros has always been watched; I’d be surprised if even the Empire wasn’t looking out for him.”

“If they knew before, why all the secrecy on Alastaros’ part all of a sudden?”

“Alastaros never knew honestly knew what was in Sedor. Cyrenial probably has a better idea, but he’s still in the dark too. The fact that he has to ask Alastaros where the necklace is and what it does means that he doesn’t know how to get in,” Valleri trailed off, beginning to pick at a scab on her arm.

“Hey, Val?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you ever met this Cyrenial character before? Maybe in Anvil?”

“No; if I did, I’d have recognized him the first time. Burn scars like that are hard to forget,” Valleri muttered. Goosebumps rose on her skin as she spoke the Altmer’s name, the memory of his face looming over her.

The smirk returned to Vilkas’ face as he tilted his head to the side, “You’ve got a reputation then.”

The smile on Valleri’s face widened and she unclasped her shawl. Red fabric fell away from her shoulders, allowing Valleri to stretch her arms again. Vilkas watched her with curiosity; freckles dotted her skin down to her hands creating warm colored constellations in her skin.

“It was bound to happen at some point, I guess. I am a linguistic genius,” Valleri said with a flair of pride, soon laughing at her own joke. Her expression turned serious again, “He recognized you too though; asked where you were.”

Vilkas felt his good mood begin to disappear, “Well, fuck.”

“I am so sorry I got you so far involved. I honestly didn’t mean to,” Valleri explained.

Vilkas chuckled to himself, “That’s the last thing I’m worried about. The Thalmor have nothing on me and probably never will.”

“I remember Lexius saying something similar a few years ago.”

The Nord huffed as he got up from the floor and reached for the package he was carrying before. “Look, don’t worry about it too much. You’ve got bigger priorities than looking over your shoulder for a scrawny elf. Now,” Vilkas gestured towards the door leading outside, “can you move? I’ve got a delivery to make.”

Valleri shook her head with fond exasperation before getting up. “Of course, you do.”

Vilkas could feel something clawing against his ribs as he waited for Ulfberth to take a better look at the ore Eorlund had sent over. The man inspected each piece with an expert eye, taking about a minute to look at one piece. Vilkas shifted uncomfortably from side to side as the gambeson he wore became constricting. Confused, especially since he’d worn the garment nearly every day, Vilkas hoped silently that Ulfberth would hurry up.

With a smile, the merchant placed the ore sample he was holding onto the counter and began to speak. Vilkas didn’t pay attention. The room was sweltering and Vilkas could feel small beads of perspiration drip down his back. The clawing sensation against his rib cage was only getting worse.

Vilkas couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Sorry, but I have to leave,” Vilkas mumbled, much quieter than he meant to.

Ulfberth regarded him quizzically. “Yeah, that’s fine. Hey, you don’t look so good,” the man trailed off as Vilkas went for the door. Behind him, Vilkas could her the merchant shout, “Give my regards to Eorlund!”

Vilkas nodded back slightly before shutting the door behind him. The breeze outside offered some sort of respite, but Vilkas still felt like he was being strangled. He stayed still for a moment, the noise around him beginning to pound in his head. Disoriented, he tried not look like he was rushing back to Jorrvaskr as quickly as he could muster.

Valleri watched as people filtered into the mead hall for the evening meal. Most nights, everyone would go their separate ways to find food where they could, but Tilma made a point of gathering most of the warriors and having a friendly meal all at once. The old woman took her cooking very seriously and as long as she still served the Companions, she would make sure they knew it.

Valleri sat at her usual spot near the end of the table, next to some of the younger, newer members. It was hard to hear what the others were saying from her spot, but she could watch anyone sitting at the table without having to crane her neck at an uncomfortable angle.

Ria continued to chatter next to Valleri as the older woman searched the table for any sort of familiar, fresh vegetable.

“I don’t get it! I mean, just because I go into caves doesn’t mean I’m not claustrophobic,” Ria complained, gesturing wildly with her hands.

Valleri hummed in acknowledgement, not paying much attention to her friend. Resting her chin on a hand, Valleri muttered, “Who I wouldn’t kill for a good few cucumbers or a watermelon.”

Ria stared at her in confusion, “What are you on about now?”

Valleri looked back her with equal confusion, “Wait, what?”

“Oh, never mind. You weren’t even paying attention, were you? Going on and on about vegetables.”

Valleri laughed, “Not at all.” She looked over to Ria’s nearly full plate and noticed the tomatoes she failed to eat. Valleri gestured towards the plate, “Are you going to finish those?”

“Take ‘em. I’ve lost my appetite anyways,” Ria grumbled.

Triumphantly, Valleri switched the plates and popped one of the small, red vegetables in her mouth. She glanced over towards the middle of the table, where most of the Circle members were sitting; Kodlak was in the middle flanked on either side by Farkas and Vilkas. She could catch pieces of their conversation here and there, but nothing completely relevant. Farkas had been gesturing enthusiastically with his hands while Kodlak was laughing about the warmer weather.

Her eyes landed on Vilkas; something seemed off about him. Usually, he came in for the evening meal after sparring with the senior members, thus wearing a lighter, leather cuirass to the dinner table. Today was different. He pulled at the loose collar of his tunic, obviously bothered by the fabric. Vilkas didn’t seem so well either. His face was paler than normal and Valleri was sure she could see a light sheen of sweat on his forehead.

He barely spoke as he picked at his food; something he usually didn’t do either. Torvar hit him playfully on the shoulder but Vilkas obviously wasn’t having any of it. He snapped at the man; his face contorting into a angry frown. The look of fright on the younger man’s face was almost worth it.

With a clatter of his chair, Vilkas excused himself from the table. Kodlak looked down at his food with a pained look before Vilkas went out the back door. Valleri looked down at her plate as well, thinking for a moment. Something really wasn’t right.

Without a word, she rose and followed him, pushing past Ria to get to the back door. It wasn’t long before Valleri found the Nord around the side of the building, head buried in his hands. He didn’t move as she approached him slowly; though Valleri was certain he was already aware of her presence.

“Hey, are you okay?” Valleri asked. Vilkas continued to stay still, but she could hear him breathing heavily. Tentatively, Valleri placed her hand on his shoulder, still thinking about how he lashed out at Torvar. “Vilkas?”

“Just go away,” he mumbled as he finally raised his head to look at her. Valleri stepped back when she saw his face; from up close, Vilkas looked worse than she initially thought.

“Gods, you look like shit,” Valleri paused, moving her hand to his forehead. His skin was hot to the touch.

Vilkas protested, swatting her hand away from his face, “I’m fine.”

Valleri scowled, “Vilkas, you’re running a fever. You’re not fine.” She looked over Vilkas one more time, placing her hand back on his forehead, “You were fine this morning, but not now.”

“I still am.”

“Shut up,” Valleri countered. “This could be serious. People just don’t go from perfectly healthy to a fever in a matter of hours. Not unless it’s something bad.”

Vilkas stood up suddenly and looked down on her. His face was twisted into a snarl and Valleri instinctively stepped backwards. “Just drop it okay? I’m fine!” he yelled and pushed past her before ambling away. Valleri only shook her head and glowered at the ground. If she didn’t know better, Valleri would have thought she was worried about him.

Some hours later, Valleri sat at the table in the main room of Jorrvaskr, flipping through the pages of an old book she pilfered from Kodlak’s study. The pages were worn while the corners were folded down and every few pages there would be a mysterious smudge. The words were familiar to her; Valleri had a clear memory of finding the same book in Alastaros’ study.

The footsteps approaching her were obvious and she didn’t look up from her book. Farkas sat down in the chair next to her with a thud. Looking at the spine, Farkas began to mutter to himself, “On Oblivion, huh?” He paused for a moment, leaning back in his chair. “Isn’t that book outdated?”

“Probably is, but for now it’s just something to read for the time being. I’m not all that interested in the dealings of daedra. Stuff like that gets out of hand quickly and I’m not in the mood for making deals with my soul at the moment.”

Farkas laughed and went about his business at the table. Distracted, Valleri set the book down gently and glanced up the Nord. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Valleri paused a moment, “Do werewolves ever get sick? Like with the common cold for example?”

The Imperial could see Farkas thinking for a moment before he answered, “No, I don’t think so. I haven’t gotten sick since I became one and I’ve never seen Skjor or Kodlak sick.”

Valleri rubbed the side of her face in contemplation. “What about Vilkas? He wasn’t looking good earlier.”

“That could mean anything Valleri,” Farkas said.

The woman balked at him with disbelief, “He was running a fever. Normally I wouldn’t ask, but he was okay when I talked to him this morning.”

“Wait a moment, we’re talking about Vilkas, right?”

Valleri breathed out sharply, frustration obvious, “Have you been listening to me at all?”

“Yeah, I have. I think I know what you’re talking about,” Farkas paused, expression no longer as mystified as before. “He gets like this when he hasn’t changed over often enough.”

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows, “Like withdrawals?”

Farkas nodded his head in agreement, “It’s probably just best to let it run its course. I haven’t heard of anything some can do to make something like that better. I asked Kodlak once a few years ago but he didn’t know either.”

“Really? Absolutely nothing?” Valleri shook her head in disbelief before Valleri could remember a conversation she had with Kodlak before. Farkas only shrugged. “Is Vilkas still here? Do you know?”

Valleri was already out of her seat before Farkas told her that Vilkas could have been anywhere. A strange panic began to set in as Valleri rushed down the stairs and towards his bunk room. Deep down, the woman hoped that he was just down with a cold or even the flu. Instead, her heart sank when she found the room deserted. Making a stop for her sword and pack, Valleri went back upstairs.

Farkas was still sitting where Valleri had left him. He glanced over to her with concern, “Val where are you going?”

Valleri was already securing the pin on her shawl as she looked up. Taking a spare lantern from a table near the door, she turned around, “I’m going after him. What else would I be doing.”

Farkas clattered out of his chair, reaching out for the Imperial. “Val, wait! Don’t be an idiot. You don’t know what he’s capable of,” Farkas trailed off. Valleri was already out the door, leaving the Nord with a defeated feeling. Sitting back in his chair, Farkas sighed. Valleri had no idea what she was getting herself into.

Chapter Text

Valleri breathed heavily as she stopped running in the darkness. This time, she was careful not to slip on the ice and snow still on the ground, but it was slowing her down. Valleri had only seen one werewolf in her life and Farkas had been fast. Even if Vilkas hadn’t transformed, Valleri couldn’t take a chance and loose him due to complacency.

While Vilkas hadn’t mentioned anything forthright, from what Valleri understood, he didn’t want anything to do with his lycanthropy any longer. If something were to happen…

Valleri tried not to think about it. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on the worst.

Only a few hours had passed since she ran from Jorrvaskr and took the road south towards Falkreath. Vilkas could have been anywhere, leaving Valleri to follow her gut. The forest surrounding the road she’d taken was thicker here, providing plenty of places for Vilkas to keep out of sight. So far, though, Valleri hadn’t been able to make out his tracks in the snow. Too many people must have passed by recently and making out a single person was hard enough. The Imperial was thankful though. The lack of claw marks meant he hadn’t changed over quite yet.

Pausing, Valleri could see a few lights still left on in Riverwood. Someone was bound to be awake; they could have seen Vilkas passing through. With her determination rekindled, Valleri rushed towards the village.

Valleri wasn’t sure what to expect when she made it to the village, but what she found wasn’t surprising. The inn keeper was outside in the middle of the road, inspecting a dead chicken. The woman glanced up when she saw Valleri approach.

“What, what happened here?” Valleri stammered out, still out of breath.

The inn keeper regarded her suspiciously as she stood up and brushed the snow off her apron. The woman spoke with serious tone, “Nobody’s sure, but something started attacking the livestock. The blacksmith was able to scare it away not even half an hour ago.”

Valleri looked around as the inn keeper gestured to the carnage around them. Almost a whole flock of the chickens had been left half devoured in the road. Blood, feathers, and fur stained the snow and Valleri could see claw marks.

“Do you know what it was?”

The inn keeper shook her head, ‘Not at all. We didn’t even realize it was here until the chickens started making a racket. All I know is that it was large and hairy.” Valleri’s heart sank as the inn keeper furrowed her eye brows. “Why are you here though?”

Valleri was taken off guard and began to panic when she looked back to the inn keeper. “I’m, uh,” Valleri paused for a moment, looking back to the chickens, “I’m looking for a friend.”

“Oh?”

Recomposed, Valleri glanced up towards the road, “Yeah. He got ran off a few hours ago and I’ve been looking for him since.”

“What’d he look like? He probably passed through,” The inn keeper offered, crossing her arms.

Valleri laughed for a moment, unnerved smile forming on her face. “No, it’s fine. I don’t want to bother you further, you’ve already got your hands full,” Valleri continued as she pointed to the blood bath on the ground in between them. She nodded her head towards the inn keeper before leaving.

“Just be careful; that thing could still be out there!” Valleri heard the inn keeper shout from behind. The concern was kind, but Valleri hope desperately she’d find whoever killed the chickens in Riverwood.

Valleri lost track of time but the sun was already gone, signaling that at least one day had passed since Vilkas had gone missing. By now, the people she left in Jorrvaskr were probably aware that both she and Vilkas were missing. They could be in a panic for all she knew.

She was already way past Riverwood and walking down the road next to Lake Illinalta. It was hard to keep track of Vilkas’ claw marks. The sun earlier in the day melted the ice into pools of slush and most evidence Valleri relied on was gone. She cursed herself; she wasn’t a tracker and now that night was falling again, Valleri was going to have an even harder time. Getting lost in the woods was no longer her biggest fear.

Glancing to side, Valleri paused to catch her breath. Her eyes landed on a small clearing in the woods. Strange lights emanated and enticed her closer. Hesitant, Valleri held the grip on her sword tighter as she readied her lantern to move forward.

Instinctively, Valleri gasped as she approached. A small altar laid covered in blood n the middle of the clearing. There was corpse on the altar surrounded by books, but the blood didn’t come from there. No, that one was far too old and far too dry. Valleri moved a few feet to the side. her stomach churned as she saw the dead person sitting propped against a weathered stone pillar. Valleri tried not to stare at it for long; from what she could tell, their face was mauled and their intestines fell out of cavernous gash in their stomach.

Valleri stared forward as the ground under her spun. The claw marks dug deep into the dirt here, now leading a trail of blood up the hill behind the alter. Unintentionally, Vilkas had left Valleri an obvious trail she could follow. The blood looked fresh but Valleri couldn’t say for certain. The freshly melted slush could have mixed and kept it from drying quickly. Valleri was no tracker. Still, the Imperial felt a weight lift from her shoulder as she realized she wouldn’t have to just guess where he was going any longer.

The path eventually ended by a cabin situated on the side of another major road. Mud crabs went after her feet as she rounded the corner of the cabin and disappointment welled in her chest when she found the scene left for her. Like the other places Valleri stopped at, Vilkas had definitely been snacking on unfortunate victims.

Only this time, it was more than just a snack.

Valleri felt her stomach churn again as she saw the bodies littering the ground around the cabin. Vilkas had done a number on them; most of the bodies wore shredded pieces of armor while weaponry lay scattered and damaged nearby. Valleri heard a crack underfoot when she moved forward. Looking down, she could see the lower part of a person’s jaw where she tried to place her foot. Bits of teeth and muscles was still attached to the bone, making Valleri want to vomit. The last moments of whoever the jaw belonged to sprung into Valleri’s mind and she turned away quickly.

Valleri didn’t wish to stay and found where Vilkas’ tracks continued as fast as she could after relighting her lantern. She followed them south across the road, leaving the scene of carnage far behind. Vilkas’ tracks began to appear more and more human as she continued into the thicker brush. Valleri no longer needed to follow the tracks. She was close and she could feel it.

The Imperial woman eventually walked into another, larger clearing. The last glimmer of light from the sun filtered through the trees around her and torch bugs lit up the area like mage light. Her eyes landed on the small pool in front of her as a stream trickled down from the mountains above.

Her skin went cold as she saw the naked form of Vilkas laying face down in the water. He wasn’t moving and Valleri could see the long gashes and ugly bruises all over his skin through the thick mat of fur down his back and arms. He must have tripped before passing out; the edge of the pool was nearly destroyed and clods of dirt and grass stuck to the soles of his feet. At least he was mostly human now.

Valleri skirted around the side of the pool to face him unclasping her shawl and throwing her pack to the ground. She splashed into the pool in hurried fashion, placing hand on his shoulder to inspect some of his wounds. Cold water seeped through her trousers and into her boots, but she didn’t care to move him. Instead, Valleri couldn’t help but grimace as she took a look at what she assumed was his blood on her hands.

It didn’t matter who’s blood it was, though. Vilkas was going to be scarred either way.

Valleri turned to look through her pack for first aid supplies when she heard him start to groan. It was a grating noise that made chills run up her spine. Valleri glanced back at Vilkas in the pool. He was already starting to get up, propping himself up on his elbows. Matted, wet hair hung in front of his face, obscuring Valleri’s view. His shoulders and arms were still beast like, with fingers ending in sharp claws.

“Vilkas? Can you understand me at all? I’m here to help.” Valleri spoke in low tones as she turned fully to face him. Her hand moved to touch his shoulder again but she stopped.

She didn’t realize anything was moving before Vilkas lunged at her. He snarled at her as she backed up from the pool quickly. His fangs were bared and he looked at her through crazed, golden eyes. Valleri backed into a tree as Vilkas swiped at her. There was a burning sensation as she felt Vilkas’ clawed hand make contact with her arm. He was about to go in for a final attack as he cornered her against the tree.

Then he stopped and screamed, a shrill, unearthly noise that made Valleri go cold.

Vilkas’ eyes turned into unemotional glass as he slumped over against her leg. There was a new, long laceration across his stomach. It wasn’t deep but bled all over Valleri’s trousers anyways. Surprised, Valleri now noticed the silver sabre that hung loosely in her hand. She must have countered instinctively before he could finish her off.

Valleri shook violently as she tried to recompose herself. Vilkas could have killed her. She knew deep down he could; Vilkas had evened warned her about it before. But seeing the inhuman urge to attack her in his eyes was sobering. As much as she didn’t want to believe that he could just end her without a thought, the figure clinging to her leg was still Vilkas. He was still one her closest friends and he needed help.

Valleri slid to the ground and hugged tight around his shoulders. She buried her face into his fur and began to cry.

Vilkas didn’t expect to wake up in a bed. In fact, it was the last thing he expected.

He remembered falling face first into a puddle before everything went black. Vilkas’ entire body burned and tingled as he moved. Skin pulled against stitches in his shoulder and back. Clean bandages were wrapped around his midsection. Vilkas propped himself up against the headboard of the bed he was laying on, now able to survey his new surroundings.

“You’re up then? Good, good. I’m glad.”

Vilkas glanced over to the other side of the room. Valleri was sitting curled in a wooden seat, hugging her sword close to her chest. She stared at him through steely, purple rimmed eyes.

Vilkas felt his chest tighten up, “What the fuck happened?”

Valleri gulped, getting out of her chair after placing the sword on the table. The chair clattered loudly across the floor as Valleri dragged the chair to his bed side. Vilkas looked at Valleri’s face a bit longer. He studied the circles under her eyes, the gaunt cheeks, and the pale skin. She looked miserable.

Valleri sighed, “When you ran off, I was stupid enough to run after you.”

“Oh,” Vilkas muttered. He looked back down at the blankets. He caught a glimpse of the bandages wrapped around his stomach and there was an immediate sinking feeling. “What happened exactly?”

“Do you really want to know?”

They exchanged an unsure glance before Vilkas continued, “Well, I’ve never really known what happens when I black out. Only blurs and snippets, but nothing for certain.”

Valleri tapped the side of the chair with her finger nervously. “It was,” she paused, “Let’s say it was grizzly. You were in bad shape when I found you.”

“I feel worse than usual. Must have been really bad. Did I, uh…” Vilkas trailed off.

Valleri’s face went cold. She’d seen something. “Hurt someone?” The woman paused, “You killed few chickens yesterday night.” She laughed nervously, and the sound grated against Vilkas’ ears.

“Valleri, don’t hide what happened. You’re not protecting me from anything.” Vilkas placed a hand on Valleri’s arm. Unexpectedly, the Imperial pulled back with an uncomfortable expression. Vilkas felt himself go cold. “This isn’t the first nor the last time I’ve lashed out. Just tell me.”

“You ended up killing a lot of people yesterday night. They looked to be bandits, but they were people nonetheless.”

“You saw what remained then?” Valleri nodded in response. Vilkas could only imagine what she’d seen. He breathed out, the gash on his stomach hurt more than he’d have liked. “There’s something you’re still not telling me.”

Valleri shook her head, mouth turning into a thin line. “Vilkas, no.”

The Nord furrowed his eyebrows in frustration, “Yes. If I don’t know, it’s going to bother me. Valleri, please.”

There was a long pause and Vilkas could see the Imperial’s eyes tearing up. She rubbed them furiously before speaking, “When I found you, you were still turning back into a person and didn’t recognize me,” She paused again, obviously trying to speak clearly. Vilkas already knew and the guilt began to grow. “You tried to lunge at me and I was forced to draw on you. I was scared I killed you because of the silver.”

He almost couldn’t speak. The weirdly painful gash on his stomach made more sense. And he deserved it. He stammered out a single world, “Why?”

Valleri looked back at him with a confused expression, “What?”

“Why the fuck did you stay? I almost killed you.”

Valleri’s expression turned rageful, even betrayed. “You think I hate you now?”

“It’s a valid point of view considering what happened,” Vilkas muttered. His breathing became ragged quickly as he rubbed in eyes in frustration. “Why would you follow me in the first place? You knew what was happening.”

“Maybe I should hate you Vilkas; you said it was a valid reaction. But you know what? I don’t. I can’t,” Valleri paused, forcing eye contact, “Vilkas, I was worried about you. You’re one of my closest friends and I saw you suffering. I can’t stand by and watch you in so much pain.”

“It’s not your obligation though!” Vilkas argued.

“Do you remember the Kyne festival shortly after we met? You sat next to me while I told you how much I hated Skyrim. That wasn’t your obligation either, but you stayed.” Valleri paused a moment, taking Vilkas by the shoulders. “Vilkas, just listen. I’ll tell you over and over; you’re my best friend and I can’t take that back. What happened last night scared me like nothing before, but it doesn’t change anything.”

Vilkas could only stare at her in what he could only call amazement. Valleri was exhausted and dirty and probably scared. But she was still so earnest and honest and brave.

He laughed shakily as he placed a hand on his forehead. “It was good I asked Eorlund to use silver instead of steel.”

“Skyforge silver. That’s something you wouldn’t hear on a regular basis.” The smile reappeared on Valleri’s as she got up from the chair. The Imperial went to the hearth and placed a few more logs on the dying fire.

“Where are we anyhow?”

She looked back to Vilkas with an uneasy expression, “The house where the bandits were hiding out. I took the night to move the bodies down the hill after I took care of your wounds. It should be okay to stay here for a few days while you recover from your ordeal.”

Vilkas furrowed his eyebrows, “You didn’t sleep?”

Valleri chuckled to herself, “I did a bit but don’t worry. I’ll get breakfast going.”

Vilkas nodded to himself as Valleri left the cabin. His stomach grumbled when he thought of food and anything sounded good. He couldn’t help but smile to himself. This was the best he’d felt in a while. He still felt horrible but there was marked difference compared to usual. Valleri had no idea how much things had improved since she arrived almost four months ago.

Chapter Text

Rain pattered on the window as thick fog gathered outside. Whatever snow was left outside was gone by now, melted into puddles of water. The interior of the cabin was much warmer, the hearth inside had been burning for the last hours as the sun went down.

Vilkas stood at a table at the far end of the one room cabin, cutting up vegetables. His joints were still tired and strained, but at least he could walk around without the room spinning around him. The pot was already boiling over the hearth behind him and without another second wasted, he dumped the carrots and potatoes into the broth.

The door clattered and the Nord looked a wet Valleri up and down. Shrugging off her pack and setting it on the cupboard next to the door, Valleri looked over to the soup simmering on the hearth. She furrowed her eyebrows, “I could have taken care of that.”

Vilkas titled his head as looked back at the hearth, “I know, but you were gone fore a while and I was getting hungry.”

“What’s in here?” Valleri asked. She stirred the pot in attempt to see what Vilkas had prepared.

“Vegetables leftover from the garden outside. Carrots, potatoes, stuff like that.”

Valleri glanced back him with an inquisitive expression. “No meat?”

Vilkas shook his head, “I don’t think I’d be able to stomach it for a while. Not after what I did. I’m surprised after how many times this has happened that I haven’t given meat up entirely by now.” He could feel his stomach churn at the thought.

“Alastaros was a vegetarian. It‘s a lot easier in Anvil since farming is more of a thing down south,” Valleri explained. Vilkas didn’t say anything back, only continuing to stare into the fire with a blank look. Valleri unclasped her shawl and undid the braid in her hair. It was frizzy and wet and Valleri wasn’t looking forward to brushing out. She’d have to chop it off soon anyhow; her hair was nearly to her shoulders and becoming harder to manage in the dry climate. Keeping it short was just more convenient.

She turned back to Vilkas, “How’re the stitches holding up?”

He looked up with surprised eyes, caught off guard, “So far so good. When am I supposed to take them out?”

“Don’t worry I’ll help with that. But you’ve only had them in three days, Vilkas. I’ll check on the ones on your arms tomorrow, but the gash on your stomach won’t be good for another week.”

“Is that how long we’re staying holed up here?”

Valleri’s face turned sour, “No, not at all. We can leave tomorrow if you like, but I just wanted to make sure you were okay before going back to Jorrvaskr.” Valleri paused. “I don’t want what happened to Skjor happen to you.”

“Valleri, you shouldn’t worry about it too much. Skjor was almost dead by the time someone got to him,” Vilkas reassured Valleri. She didn’t move, but Vilkas could see the sickly expression all over her face

“I’ve seen people die form a lot less.”

Vilkas grimaced, “Oh really?”

Valleri sighed, “Vilkas, I grew up in a chapel after a plague wiped out a quarter of the people living in Anvil. I began training as a healer before I left even.”

“That’s right,” Vilkas paused. He sat down in a seat next to the table while Valleri went to check on the soup. “Could you tell me more about Anvil?”

“Like what?” Valleri asked, eyes not leaving the pot.

“What was it like growing up there?”

Valleri took a deep breath in, “It was probably fine, thinking back. The primate in chapel was some stuffy old man but the priestesses were nice enough. They were all hoping I’d be a healer or something. They told me that my mother was a healer before she died.”

Valleri’s eyes were emotionless as she stopped speaking. “Sorry about that,” Vilkas muttered as he propped his elbow on the table.

The Imperial laughed dryly as she turned towards him with a confused look, “Why? It was a long time ago and it’s not as though I’m terribly upset over it.”

“Did they ever tell you anything else about her?” Vilkas felt his pulse start to race when he asked. He knew it was wrong to pry, but curiosity got the better of him.

“They did actually once I got a little older.” Valleri now smiled widely, “They said she had brown eyes and pale skin and she always had something nice to say to those who came into the chapel for help. She apparently made a real difference for the plague victims before she got sick herself.”

“Did they tell you her name?”

Valleri nodded slightly, “Yeah, they did.” She paused for a moment, wistful expression on her face, “Her name was Ulia.”

“It’s pretty,” Vilkas replied.

Valleri turned back towards him with a grin. “Isn’t it though? Soups ready by the way. Get me a few bowls and I’ll serve it up.”

Vilkas got up from his seat with a groan as he went to the cupboard. Valleri hummed to herself as she ladled the soup and handed the bowl back to him. The Nord began eating right away, not waiting for Valleri to take her seat. The taste was subpar and watery, but it was food and Vilkas was glad for the sustenance.

Valleri eyed him curiously. He furrowed his eyebrows, “Is something wrong with my face?”

She shook her head, “No. I’m a bit curious though; what does silver do werewolves exactly?” Vilkas laughed loudly as he rubbed his eyes. Valleri shot him a disgruntled glance, “Did I day something wrong?”

“No, no, not at all. It’s a valid question,” Vilkas cracked a small smile, “I should have expected it. Silver upsets the blood for some reason. Makes it hard to heal wounds.”

Valleri’s face went pale. “By the Divines, I am so sorry.”

“Don’t be, that sword saved your life. And it’s not like I haven’t been stabbed by silver before.” Vilkas took a bite of potato before continuing. “It’ll just leave a nasty scar.”

“How about prolonged exposure?”

“What happens is like an allergy. Sneezing, coughing, rashes; that sort of stuff. Something about the way the blood reacts causes a reaction. If I were to stay in a silver mine for any amount of time, I’d probably have a cold for about two weeks. It’s awful.”

Valleri stifled a laugh, “You can’t win them all I guess.” It wasn’t long before she was laughing at her joke and Vilkas only exasperatedly shook his head and continued eating.

Valleri almost didn’t wake up when the pounding at the door got louder and more persistent. They rain must have stopped sometime after she dozed off; water was still dripping down the windows but the familiar pattering noise was no more.

Valleri groaned as she watched Vilkas start to get up from the bed. She gestured for him to stop while she grabbed for her sword and checked the window. The figure outside was small and soaked wet, but Valleri couldn’t see anything threatening. She unlocked the door with a rushed urgency while Vilkas got up behind her.

Valleri was met with the fearful face of a woman she didn’t know. The newcomer nearly started crying when Valleri let her sword go slack in her arm. The woman nearly fell into Valleri’s chest as she kept muttering to herself, “Oh thank the gods! I’d never thought I’d find help!”

The Imperial woman glanced back to Vilkas, now behind her, before bringing the newcomer into the cabin. She sat her down in the chair near the hearth and handed her a blanket as Vilkas locked the door behind them.

Valleri kneeled in front of the woman and spoke in an even tone, “Can you tell us what happened?”

The woman looked down at her with wide, scared eyes. In only a moment, she started tearing up and Valleri felt her heat sink. Tangled brown hair fell in front of her face as the woman’s head hung low. Valleri sighed and looked back to Vilkas. The big Nord only shrugged.

Hesitantly, Valleri placed her hand on the woman’s bruised arm and began to speak again, “We can’t help you if you don’t tell us what happened.”

The woman finally rubbed her eyes and swallowed hard. “I, I was kidnapped by wizards. I don’t know how long ago, they kept me and a few others locked up in a cave. Oh gods, I didn’t think I’d make it out.” The woman began crying again.

Valleri shook her arm lightly, trying to get the woman back on track. “Are you hurt?”

The woman shook her head profusely, “No, I’m fine.”

Valleri didn’t pause, “You said wizards kidnapped you? Do you know what for?”

“They needed live test subjects,” the woman managed to say between shaky sobs. “If they took you, you weren’t coming back. They took my brother and he never came back. I heard him screaming from the back room and then it stopped so suddenly.”

Goosebumps rose on Valleri’s skin; she tried not to shake as her mouth went dry, “How many people were with you in the cave? How did you escape?”

“There were five others, including me.” She paused, “Two of them killed one of the guards and set the place on fire. Everyone panicked and I think I was one of the only ones to make it out. All I remember is running.”

Valleri got up suddenly and passed Vilkas on the other side of the room to grab her cloak, “Where’s this cave you mentioned?”

“Only a few miles west from here. But, please! Please, don’t go!”

Valleri grinned uneasily as she went for the door, “I’ll be back soon. My friend will look after you in the meantime.” She gave the woman a final reassuring glance before closing the door behind her. It was almost pitch-black outside, but Valleri’s eyes adjusted quickly. She could make the shapes of trees and rocks here and there and that would have to be good enough.

Valleri only made it a few feet down the road before she heard foot steps behind her, “Valleri, wait!”

The woman turned around to see Vilkas running towards her. Her eyes went wide with astonishment, “Vilkas, what the fuck are you doing?”

“Are you really going?” Vilkas asked. Valleri could hear a hint of anger in his voice.

Valleri looked at him with disbelief, “Of course I am. Why do you think I’m out here?”

Vilkas glanced at the tree line before looking back at Valleri, narrowing his eyes in frustration. “Alastaros and Lexius may not have even been there. Whoever kidnapped that lady sounds much more serious than your usual mage, Valleri.”

“I’m still going,” Valleri retorted.

Vilkas’ angry expression melted into something softer. He placed a heavy hand on her shoulder and didn’t break eye contact. The concern in his face was obvious. “It’s just an unnecessary risk. You’ll probably go in there and get hurt, maybe killed.”

Valleri glared at him, “That’s never stopped me before, Vilkas. And frankly neither are you.”

The Nord stepped back and he suddenly looked so betrayed and Valleri immediately felt a pang of regret. Vilkas steadied himself as best he could and broke the silence, “Fine, but I’m going with you.”

“Absolutely not,” Valleri said plainly.

“Why?”

Valleri paused, almost forgetting to breath. “The gash in your stomach for one. Maybe the fact the fact that you’re still coming down from your transformation the other night? How about the fact that you have no armor? Would you like me to continue?” Valleri finished, gesturing wildly.

Vilkas sighed and crossed his arms. Most of the frustration in his face was gone and Valleri felt like a weight lifted. “Fine, you’ve made your point.”

Valleri mustered a smile as she stepped closer to him. “I’ll try to be careful, all right?”

“Doesn’t make me feel better, not in the slightest,” Vilkas retorted.

Valleri could almost laugh, “I know. If I’m not back by tomorrow evening, can you promise me that you’ll go back to Whiterun? I know you’d rather not, but I need to be sure you and that woman are safe.”

Vilkas wouldn’t look at Valleri while he pouted. He shook his head once more, “I still want to go with you.”

Without much of a thought, Valleri hugged him around the shoulders and buried her nose in the crook of his neck She smiled wildly as he hugged her back. “I’ll be fine, just you wait. I’ll be back before you know it then we can go home.”

Valleri pulled away from Vilkas and placed her hand on the hilt of her sabre before turning on her heel. Vilkas crossed his arms as he watched the Imperial woman disappear down the road. Suddenly he felt a lot colder before willing himself to go back to the cabin.

Vilkas stalked back to the cabin with a sick feeling in his stomach. He knew that Valleri could handle herself decently in a fight and she wasn’t a complete idiot. But leaving her by herself wasn’t sitting well with him.

The door was already open for him when he saw the cabin up ahead. The woman was holding on the door as tight as she could, as though she would have to close it at any moment to keep intruders out. The fear in her eyes was mostly gone now, replaced by exhaustion. Vilkas didn’t spare her a second glance when he walked in.

The woman turned to face him as Vilkas sat down on the bed, “That woman, will she be all right by herself?”

“I hope. She has a bad habit of rushing into things. I’m usually there with her to make sure she doesn’t do anything too reckless,” Vilkas muttered as he ran a hand through his hair.

The woman sat back in the chair at the other end of the room. “Why didn’t you go with her now?”

Vilkas looked at her from the corner of his eye, not bothering to turn his head. The woman reeled back for a moment before Vilkas answered in a low tone, “She asked to go alone.”

“Oh,” the woman muttered. She pulled her knees to her chest and stared to run her hands through the knots in her hair. She looked back at Vilkas on the bed, “What’s her name?”

“Her name is Valleri.”

“What about yours?”

“Vilkas.”

The woman’s face lit up momentarily as she began to speak again, “I had a cousin named Vilkas. He died though recently in one of the skirmishes up north. That’s why my brother and I were travelling; we were going to his funeral in Windhelm.” She stopped talking suddenly, but Vilkas could hear the nervousness in her voice.

“Apologies then,” he said, trying to fill the awkward lull.

The woman furrowed her eyebrows in mock confusion, “What for?”

“Your cousin and your brother I suppose,” Vilkas shrugged.

“Oh.” The woman paused and he could see sorrow wash over her face, “Thank you. I guess I’m lucky to be alive.” She looked up again, trying to look happy once more, “Is this your home, Vilkas?”

The Nord shook his head, “Not at all. Valleri and I from Whiterun.” Vilkas paused momentarily. The woman was eyeing him with curiosity, probably hoping he would continue. He sighed and relented, “I was in a similar situation a few nights ago and ended up pretty hurt. Valleri found me before things got too bad and we’ve been bunking up here since.”

“What happened exactly?”

Vilkas felt his chest tighten at the question. “That’s not something I feel comfortable telling you,” he sputtered before watching the woman tense up. Vilkas sighed again, “Sorry, it was a valid question, but I’m just not keen on answering.”

The woman shook her quickly, “No, it was a really personal. I apologize.” There was another long silence while the woman finished working out the knots in her hair. She braided it back while she started talking again, “Is Valleri your wife or something?”

Vilkas sat up with a start, mouth held open in shock. “What in the world gave you that idea? Of course, she’s not my wife! We work together!” He could feel his cheeks heat up as he rubbed his temples in frustration. He could feel a migraine coming on.

“Sorry!” the woman nearly shouted, eyes wide again, “You two just seemed really close and you ran after her before she left. Mum always did say I assume the craziest things.”

Vilkas got up from the bed and went towards the door. He looked back to the woman at the table, “Listen, it’s late. People say stupid things when they’re tired. Get some sleep. I’m gonna go outside for some air.” He slammed the door behind him with a quick movement, not bothering to look back. The smell of rain and decay hit him like a cart and the Nord found it hard to stand suddenly. Taking a seat on the bench, he rubbed his chin in thought.

Valleri said to give her a day. Only half an hour had passed since she left and Vilkas was already tired of waiting. He was beginning to assume the worst was bound to happen, despite knowing that Valleri could hold her own perfectly fine.

Why did he feel so empty when she let him go?

Chapter Text

Valleri paused at the mouth of cave, the smell of the left-over smoke from inside and the unnatural heat that came with it emanated from the entrance. Without much thought, Valleri pulled the sabre from the scabbard at her side and strode on in. The darkness of the cave made her skin crawl, the tunnel narrowing as she went downwards. It opened out to another cavern where a large mammoth skull was suspended in the air on fraying ropes. Valleri took a look at the tusks, aimed downwards towards the floor. Smears of red blood covered the tusks, contrasting with the yellowed ivory. Valleri could feel her stomach churn as she turned away.

Valleri found herself in another, larger tunnel where the smell of burning oil hung heavy in the air. It was thick enough and Valleri could almost taste it in her mouth. She looked around before stepping further. A wooden walkway lead to another cavern further up on the wall. The wood was burnt up and Valleri could see remnants of old oil puddles on the floor. From the look of it, the fire was bound happen sooner or later and how it didn’t happen until now was beyond her.

Carefully, Valleri made her way up the ramp. Burned wood creaked underfoot. With each step, Valleri braced herself. The wooden steps made one final groan before Valleri let herself breath as she made it to the landing. The tunnel leading to the next portion of the cave was dark. Valleri was left make out only vague shapes in the distance.

Steeling herself, the Imperial kept her sabre hung high in the air as she walked forward. Eyes adjusted to the darkness, Valleri’s skin prickled.
Valleri glanced around to inspected the room. Remnants of desks and various magical equipment littered a better part of the area. There were a few bodies scattered on the floor, burned past recognition. Red salts littered the floor, spilling out of a toppled barrel. They crackled as Valleri sifted through the mess with her foot. Even through the thick leather, the salts were warm.

In the back corner was a cage not big enough for a wolf or two though two dead Nords were laying stacked in the back portion of the tiny space. Valleri felt her stomach churn; she’d seen bandits who treated prisoners better. But then again, the woman who escaped did say the prisoners were nothing more than experiment fodder.

A dead Bosmer wasn’t far off. He wasn’t as burnt up as the other mages around her. Valleri knelt down to get a better look. His neck was hastily cut open, wound open and gaping. Jagged bits of flesh had been eaten away by fire while old blood dried into the dirt and floorboards. This man must have been the guard that the prisoners killed. Valleri got up, spotting a bloodstained dagger nearby.

Valleri sighed and put the sabre back into its scabbard. She came prepared for a fight, but assuming from the bodies around her, it was already fought and won.

The next cavern was much larger; Valleri had to crane her neck upwards to look at the ceiling. This room looked to be untouched by the fire; ancient Nordic stone work lined the walls and no wood was to found. On the upper balcony, Valleri could see the remains of an explosion on the wall. The fire may have not reached here, but something still happened.

Quickly, she made her way up to the balcony. One of the old word walls she’d seen before was carved into the rock face while a small altar was placed haphazardly in front. Valleri paused as she made it to the upper landing. Fire salts were scattered around the ground in a circular fashion, though they had been disturbed when Valleri noticed they didn’t form a perfect circle. A scorched body lay on the alter, obviously sewn together from spare body parts from the prisoners. She could smell the rotting flesh from where she stood and almost vomited. The Imperial woman willed herself to go forward despite the black, sickening feeling that cemented itself in her stomach.

Valleri turned her head when she heard a cough from the other side of the altar. She peered around the corner to find an old man sitting on the ground, staring up at the black wall.

He glared back at her from the corner of his eyes. “Well? What are you waiting for?” he snapped, voice raspy with age.

Valleri’s skin went cold as she stared at him in disbelief. Finally, she mustered a small, unsure smirk, “Waiting for what exactly?”

“Oh, by the Divines, are you going to kill me or not?”

Valleri reeled back momentarily before speaking, “You think I’d kill you?”

“You come into a well-known coven hideout with a sword and not expect to kill anyone for treasure and glory? What sort of a half-baked adventurer are you?” the old man squealed with wide eyed disappointment.

“I’m not an adventurer; I’m a member of the Companions on business,” Valleri shrugged. “Are you the last one alive?”

The old man threw his hand up in the air with exasperation, “Of course, you’re apart of the Companions! They get their damn noses everywhere.” He looked back at her with narrowed, suspicious eyes, “But yes, I suppose I’m the last one left. After what happened, I’m surprised I’m not dead.”

Valleri paused before moving around to the other side of the altar. She stared down at the old man, “What happened here though?”

He laughed dryly, “There was a riot and the prisoners burned the goddamned place down! I told Steffanos it would happen, but did he listen to me? No, not at all and now he’s a stiff. Serves him right,” the old man muttered as he stared at the ground.

“Who’s Steffanos?”

The old man laughed again, “One of them crazy Synod bastards they had the right idea to kick out. He was convinced he could make some sort of flesh flame atronach hybrid. We needed fresh body parts for the experiments.”

“That explains the fire salts in the other room,” Valleri muttered to herself. She took another look at the black ring on the wall. She gestured towards it uneasily, “Is that Steffanos over there?”

“What’s left of him at least.”

Valleri cringed, “Gods, what a horrible way to go.” She looked back to the old man and tilted her head in curiosity, “You mentioned a riot?”

“That I did. Some foolish apprentice left a dagger near the cage and one of them prisoners slit his throat with it. The pig bled out all over the floor. When the others went to check it out, they set the place on fire. Everything was chaos after that. Steffanos went crazy when two of them went for blood.”

“I’m not surprised,” Valleri whispered blandly. She paused for a moment, “Did Steffanos ever buy any of the prisoners?”

“Sure, he did. But only when things got slow.”

Valleri breathed out, suddenly feeling more alert. “Did he buy a Redgaurd and an Altmer recently? They would have come together.”

The old man paused when he looked up at the Imperial woman. “How would you know that?”

Valleri laughed dryly, a meek smile forming on her face. “They were, uh, friends of mine.”

“Well, you’d be happy to know those two were the ones who started this whole mess in the first place,” the old man continued, not breaking eye contact with Valleri. “They weren’t in good condition when Steffanos bought them. But boy, did he do wonders on the Altmer. He was nearly blind in one eye when he escaped. Can’t imagine they would have gone far knowing what shape they were in.”

“Well, fuck,” Valleri sighed; this man obviously didn’t know her family well. When it mattered, Alastaros and Lexius could travel efficiently enough to out match a horse on a paved road. They’d been enough sticky situations to know better. But then again, Lexius was more than likely still recovering from his assault and Alastaros was apparently almost blind. Valleri could only hope for the best.

“I believe their possessions are still in the back room if you’re interested.”

“Possessions?”

The old man got up off the floor and began ambling towards the other side of the balcony, “The bandits who were selling them didn’t check the old Altmer’s pockets very well. The apprentices found a trove of things he’d hidden. Not a lot mind you.”

Valleri followed at a brisk pace, catching up to the old man quickly. He pulled out a small bag and emptied the contents out on a table. Reluctantly, Valleri sifted through the small pile of things. Most were small make shift knives, but Valleri paused when she potted a glimmering piece of metal. She picked it up and inspected the carved ruby eagle on the golden band. Alastaros’ signet ring wasn’t helpful in the least, but Valleri almost cried. She wasn’t expecting to see it again.

The old man placed a gentle hand on her back, his near constant frown melting into a look of pity. “There was a journal as well. Steffanos kept it separate from the rest, thinking there could have been something useful since one of them was an elf and all.”

Valleri looked up, “Is it still here?”

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows in confusion, “Unfortunately, it is,” he muttered.

“What do you mean unfortunately?”

“When the prisoners were rioting, your friends came here to grab their things before they split. Steffanos went mad when he caught them and started yelling and spitting like of them cats from down south. There was a scuffle and Steffanos was vaporized by the elf and the Redgaurd grabbed the wrong journal.”

Valleri’s skin went cold again, barely able to speak, “I need that journal. It’s imperative I get it back.”

The old man shrugged before pulling a small leather-bound book from a nearby bookshelf. He offered it to the woman, “No one could understand a lick of anything in there. Your friends must have been some sort of geniuses to read and write whatever fancy elvish is in there. Though in hindsight, I guess it would have been easy for that Altmer.”

“It was Falmer,” Valleri said plainly as she flipped through the small journal. She paused staring at the blood-stained pages, noting the change in hand writing near the end of what had been written. Alastaros’ elegant script turned hurried and jolty, closer resembling Lexius’ bad handwriting. “Almost no one can read it, so I don’t think a bunch of country hicks could make heads or tails of what written here.”

“Falmer? Like the blind creatures in Dwemer ruins?” the old man questioned.

“One and the same,” Valleri said without moving her eyes away from the pages.

“That list of Dwemer ruins in the beginning makes sense. What were your friends looking for?”

Valleri glared at the old man momentarily before snapping the journal shut, “It’s not my place to say. All you need to know is that the Thalmor are interested in this matter, so it’s best not get involved.” She paused, trying to look not quite so icy, “Thank you though. You’ve helped more than you’ll ever know.”

The old man shrugged a final time before moving past Valleri. “I don’t need or want your thanks, lady. I’ve got nothing left here.” He waved his hand at her dramatically, “I’m leaving and I suggest you do too.”

Valleri only frowned to herself as she watched the old man leave the room. She willed herself to the edge of the balcony and sat down. What was left of Steffanos was on the wall behind her and she could see the ruins of the fire in the other room. Valleri couldn’t think and only stared at the old Nordic stonework that lined the walls.

Vilkas went back into the cabin to find the woman had indeed fallen asleep, though in the chair and not in the bed like he’d suggested. He breathed in deeply before groaning momentarily in pain. His stitches stung if he moved around too much. Valleri had really done a number on him and the silver wasn’t good for his health. He did give her the sabre for the possibility she’d be cornered by a werewolf, but in all honesty Vilkas didn’t think she’d have to use it for its intended purpose.

He pulled a spare cloak over his shoulders and grabbed a lamp from the table. Jostling the woman awake, he spoke with a serious tone, “Hey, I’m leaving in a moment.”

The woman wiped the sleep from her eyes and looked around the room. “What time is it?” she muttered.

“I’d reckon its almost first light. You’ve been asleep for a few hours.”

“I thought that Valleri lady asked for a day before we did anything,” the woman retorted, pulling her blanket closer around her.

Vilkas clicked his tongue, “Listen, I’ve seen Valleri do some pretty stupid shit from time to time and I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

The woman didn’t answer for a moment before getting up out of the chair. “I’ll go with you then.”

“Why in the world would you do that?” Vilkas nearly shouted as he turned his head in disbelief. The woman reeled back for a moment, making Vilkas a bit guilty. “Would you really want to go back there after being held in a cage and tortured for so long?”

The woman crossed her arms, “I’d rather not stay here by myself. I’m not sure if any of those mages are alive and looking for me.”

Vilkas rubbed his face and sighed in frustration before throwing her a cloak. He didn’t wait for her to put it on as he went outside and lit the lamp. The woman followed him closely as they made their way to the cave entrance some miles away. The sun was beginning to rise as Vilkas entered.

The smell of smoke and burning oil hit him like a door and he had to take moment to breathe. The woman turned to him, “Are you all right?”

Vilkas nodded his head as he rubbed his temples, “I’m good. I didn’t expect the smoke to still be so heavy in the air.”

The woman’s expression melted into confusion, “What do you mean? It’s already filtered out.”

“Oh,” Vilkas muttered nervously, “I’ve got a sensitive nose. Let’s go.” The Nord pushed past the woman and hurried through the first part of the cave. There were no signs of a recent struggle besides the riot the woman mentioned. He slowed down as he found the back room with the cage. He gestured towards it and the dead Bosmer nearby. “Is that where they kept you and the others?”

“Yes,” the woman said, face pale. “That elf tried to grab me a few times. When the Redgaurd killed him, I couldn’t have been happier”

Vilkas turned towards the exit, “Shor’s bones. We’ve gotta find Val.”

The woman nodded in agreement before the duo moved to the final room. Vilkas felt himself tense up as he moved. The silence in the other room was unsettling and Vilkas’ mind went to the worst. He paused before opening the door, cursing himself that he didn’t bring any sort of weapon.

The door swung open with a high-pitched creak, revealing a spacious old Nordic crypt. The stone was untouched by the fire but Vilkas could see a corpse on an altar above.

“Vilkas?”

The Nord looked up to his left to see Valleri perched on the edge of the balcony looking no worse for the wear. He felt a weight fall of his shoulders and he could feel himself smiling a bit.

The Imperial woman got up from her seat and Vilkas and the woman on the lower level. Her happy expression seemed tense and her voice was shaky, “What are you guys doing here? I hoped you would have stayed back at the cabin.”

The woman made her way to Valleri’s side, “He couldn’t wait and was going to run off.”

Valleri frowned when she looked back to Vilkas, who looked at her with a guilty expression. She sighed in exasperation before her expression melted into annoyed fondness. “You still can’t trust me not kill myself in these ruins, huh?”

Vilkas shook his head, “You said trust should be earned.” He paused, looking around the room, “What happened here? The place is empty.” Vilkas could see Valleri pause, obviously uncomfortable. The Imperial’s eyes shifted from him to the woman by her, mouth contorting into a worried frown. Valleri pulled his hand to her and opened it only to drop a small ring in it. He inspected the ring closer, noting the intricate carved bird on the face. “What is this?”

“They were here, Vilkas. They were here and they escaped,” the words barely made their way from Valleri’s mouth as she smiled widely.

The woman next to Valleri shifted nervously, “Who escaped?”

Valleri laughed as she turned to her, “There was an Altmer and a Redguard with you. I’ve been looking for them for months now.” Valleri took a hold of the woman’s shoulder with glee, “Gods, I can’t thank you enough!” The woman didn’t say anything as Vilkas could see her process Valleri’s sudden thanks.

The Nord gave the ring back to Valleri, “That’s great, Val, but it doesn’t tell you where they went.”

“It does though. They accidentally left Alastaros’ journal in the confusion. He wrote down everything. If I had a little bit of time, I could figure out where they are. I can continue Alastaros’ work.”

Vilkas furrowed his eyebrows, “You mean the Ayleid necklace? You’re going after it?”

Valleri beamed back at him with happiest grin he’d seen. “Vilkas, you have no idea. This has been something all three of us have been dreaming about for almost two years now. If finding them means finding that necklace, I can’t even begin to think of the possibilities.”

Vilkas sighed; there was no changing her mind and frankly he couldn’t bring himself to disappoint her. Valleri just looked too happy and she needed it now more than ever. He breathed in and shook his head, “Let’s go at least. We’ve been away from Jorrvaskr too long.”

Valleri took one final look at him, smile still warm, and grabbed his shoulder for support “Yeah, let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

The trio didn’t arrive back in town until late in the afternoon the next day. Valleri was lucky enough to convince Vilkas to bypass Riverwood after mentioning what happened with the chickens. The woman was much less easy to persuade. She was tired after her long ordeal in the cave and while Valleri couldn’t blame her for wanting to take things slow, the Imperial wanted to go home. This trip turned out to be too much longer than Valleri anticipated.

Whiterun hadn’t changed in the week Valleri ran off into the night. Vilkas was visibly glad to see the doors of the mead hall and immediately went downstairs to sleep. Claudia said her final farewells and departed for god’s knew where. The Imperial woman threw her scabbard on the table in the main hall and sunk into a chair. Sunlight filtered in through the windows but Valleri just wanted to sleep.

She was brought back to the present when Farkas took the seat across from her. He looked her over with concern, “That took longer than expected. You look like shit.”

Valleri smirked, “I feel like it too.”

“How did things go?” Farkas asked, voice nervous as if he were expecting bad news. His eyes fell to the bloodstained portion of her shirt sleeve.

“Everything hurts, but I’m fine. Vilkas is on the mend too, so he’ll be okay.”

Farkas paused, “I saw him on his way down. He didn’t say anything and just went on to his room. I’m assuming he’s just sleeping it off now.” Farkas’ eyes darted around the room anxiously, “I smelled silver on him. What happened?”

Valleri gulped, guilt crawling up spine. She met Farkas’ eyes momentarily before looking away, “I’m not sure you’d want to hear about it.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

“Yes it can, Farkas,” Valleri muttered. Farkas stared at her, eyes alert and curious. The Imperial woman sighed and tapped the wooden table nervously. “You really want to know what happened?”

The Nord nodded his head vigorously, “Yeah, I do. I already know it’s not in the slightest bit pleasant. But that’s how things go, right? I just want to know what my brother went through. Maybe in that way I can help him.”

“Alright, fine.” Valleri paused, wringing her hands in anxiety, “I found him in the woods right after he was starting to turn back and killed some bandits. I can only assume that he didn’t recognize me or something and went to attack me.”

“Valleri, I told you that would happen,” Farkas said.

The woman waved him off, “Yeah, yeah. You told me so. I knew what I was getting into.” She looked out the window momentarily, “I may have almost sliced him open with that sword he gave me.”

Farkas blanched in horror, “Wait, what the fuck?

Panicking, Valleri clamored out of her seat, “Do you know where Kodlak is? I forgot there was something I needed to talk to him about.”

The Nord furrowed his eyebrows in disappointment, “He’s outside, Val.” He watched Valleri leave the room with an exasperated frown and only shook his head when the door closed behind her.

“Kodlak, we need to talk.”

The old warrior looked up with a blank expression that made Valleri unnerved. He breathed out sharply as he looked her up and down, noting the tiredness in her eyes. Without much thought, he tapped the chair next to him for her to sit down. Reluctantly, Valleri took his offer.

“How long ago did you get back?”

“Not even an hour ago,” Valleri said before resting her forearms on her knees. “Would I be right to assume you have a good idea about what happened?”

Kodlak was slow to answer, eyes not moving from the people in the training yard. “Aye, I could give an educated guess, even without seeing what shape the lad returned in.” He turned his head towards Valleri, “Was it as bad I think it is?”

Valleri laughed dryly, “I’m not entirely sure what happens usually, but he ended up killing a lot of people. He almost killed me too.” She watched Kodlak’s bearded face contort into a grimace.

“How’s he been holding up since then?”

Valleri spoke in clear voice, trying to sound as unemotional as she could, “He was pretty horribly beat up.” She paused, noting his surprise, “But I was able to treat his wounds though. He’s got a bunch of stitches.” Valleri continued

“May I ask where you two stayed during this time?”

“There was an abandoned cabin I was lucky enough to find. We stayed there.”

The Imperial woman stopped and looked back at the training yard in front of her as she waited for Kodlak’s answer. Valleri heard the old man sigh to himself before speaking, “Thank you, Valleri. I can’t relate to you how much it means to know that Vilkas had someone there for him this time.”

“I’m happy to do it, Vilkas is one my closest friends here. But why don’t you ever try to help him? You said he was like a son to you.” Valleri asked.

“I have tried in the past. Vilkas is a prideful fool though much like the rest of us and he was livid when anyone tried to help. I’ve tried to explain it to him time after time, but the lad’s convinced the blood is his burden to carry alone.”

Valleri couldn’t feel any empathy for Kodlak and willed herself not to say anything that might anger the old man. She watched Aela curse as she missed a target. “What did you tell the others Vilkas and I were doing after you found out we left?”

“I told them there was an escaped prisoner in Falkreath that you two were sent after. Why?”

Valleri smirked, “I want to make sure I get the story right in case anyone asks. I feel a bit bad for Vilkas though.”

Kodlak looked over with curiosity, “Oh? Why’s that?”

Valleri laughed, “They’re either going to think it was some sort of superhuman escapee or that the Master at Arms is losing his touch.” Kodlak smiled at her remark and Valeri let herself breathe again. “Hey, Kodlak?”

“Yes?”

Valleri glanced at the old man with curiosity, “Are you any closer to finding a cure?”

Kodlak shrugged, “Patience is a virtue when trying to find such obscure information. But I’m close. So close I can all but taste it. I’ll let you know first thing when I do find a cure.”

Valleri nodded in silent agreement before continuing, “One other thing, about Alastaros and Lexius.”

“Did you find them?”

“No, I didn’t.” Valleri paused and looked down with a small smile. “But we came across the mages who happened to buy them. By the time we got there, my friends were able to escape. I was able to find Alastaros’ journal through the wreckage.”

Kodlak’s eyes widened, “Valleri, that’s good news, but I fail to see what this means.”

“If I can read through it I might be able to find out where they’re heading. Alastaros was after a relic holed up here in Skyrim. Knowing them, that’s where they’ll be heading.”

“Not back to Cyrodiil?” the old man inquired, furrowing his eyebrows.

Valleri shook her head, “Not at all. Both Lex and Alastaros spent too long trying to find it and they don’t give up easily.”

“Right then. Valleri,” Kodlak paused, exchanging an uncertain look with the Imperial, “I recall that when I accepted your initial offer quite some time ago, you said you had no intention of going after this relic. Has that changed?”

Valleri frowned as she studied the old man’s face again. His expression was still blank and it made her nervous. “What if it did?”

Kodlak sighed and stroked his beard, “Change begets change, Valleri. May I be frank for a moment?”

“Go ahead.”

The old man cleared his throat, then continued, “During the few months that I’ve known you, I’ve noticed you have a one-track mind. You become consumed with what ever is in front of you at that moment and not much else. The Companions primary goal is to serve those in Skyrim that can’t help themselves.”

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows and paused Kodlak. She spoke up, voice tense, “Are you asking if going after this relic would interfere with my work here?”

“Well, yes.”

“Fuck. Look, I’m not sure,” the woman breathed out, “I’ve been working on this project for years now, Kodlak. I could go to Markarth if you really think I should leave.”

Kodlak shook his head as he got up from his seat, “No, no, Valleri. If you want to leave Whiterun and the Companions, it should be of your own volition.” He looked down at her before walking away, “Whatever happens, it is your choice.”

Valleri watched him leave with an empty feeling of foreboding.

Valleri leaned back in the wooden tub, letting the warm water lap over her shoulders. She rubbed at her skin with a coarse rag, wiping away the dirt and grime away. The water turned a sick brown water the longer she soaked.

Ysolda knocked on the door before striding into the back room. The woman sat down on a stool near the side of the tub. She shook her head at Valleri, “You’ve been here for no more than ten minutes and the water is already dirty. What were you two even doing anyhow?”

Valleri shrugged, water splashing over the side and onto the floor, “Just chasing people through the woods. You know, the usual stuff.”

“Must have been one hell of a guy if it took you and Vilkas almost a week to find them.” Ysolda chuckled to herself before dipping her hand in the water. “It must be nice to relax after all that I suppose.”

“Nothing better than a good bath. Also, a lot better than public bathing too.” Valleri paused tilting her head, “Or a river.”

Ysolda laughed nervously as her eyes grew wide. “Wait, public bathing? Should I be concerned?”

“Not at all,” Valleri said, waving her hand dismissively, “Public baths are a lot more popular in Cyrodiil. There’s a ton in the Imperial city since most homes are old and space is in short supply.”

“Did your place in Anvil have a bath?”

“Yeah, we did. The previous owners had it built facing west, so if you went in in the evening, you could watch the sunset. Though I lived with three men, one of which was an Argonian, so I didn’t use it often.”

The grin on Ysolda’s face grew, “And the river?”

“A few years ago, we were staying at an old Ayleid city in the Reserve a good way north of Anvil. We were there for months.”

“So the river was your only option?” Ysolda continued. Valleri nodded her head before dunking her head into the water. Ysolda propped her head on her hands and waited for the Imperial to surface. “I heard about the journal you found.”

Valleri groaned, dragging her hands down her face, “Gods, Kodlak told Farkas didn’t he? I swear, next time I see Kodlak…”

“I thought you liked Kodlak?”

Valleri paused and glared at the water in front of her, “I don’t know right now. He says one thing then changes his mind without telling anyone. It’s the most infuriating thing sometimes.”

Ysolda laughed and straightened up again, “What happened?”

“You wouldn’t want to know and it’s complicated.”

“Oh, come on, I bet it’s not!” the Nord woman continued, ignoring her friend’s protests. There was a sharp knock at the door and both women fell silent. Valleri was breathed a sigh of relief as Ysolda left to open the door. “What in the world are you doing here?” Yslolda nearly shouted.

Valleri craned her neck forward to see the Vilkas’ dark figure in the door way. Unimpressed, Ysolda crossed her arms and blocked the door. “Ysolda, it’s fine. He can come in,” Valleri retorted.

“Are you absolutely sure?” Ysolda asked as she looked back at Valleri over her shoulder.

“Yeah its fine,” Valleri said, waving for the two of them to come, “Just hurry though. You’re letting all of the warm air escape.”

Vilkas followed Ysolda into the room only to lean back against the wall. The air in the room was tense as Ysolda continued to glare at Vilkas. Finally, the redhead moved to speak, “What did you come over for?”

The man shifted his weight uncomfortably before giving his answer, “I needed to talk to Valleri.” Ysolda only shook her head when he failed to elaborate. “Ysolda, can you leave? I’d rather talk to Val alone.”

“Are you kidding?” Ysolda retorted, turning back to the Imperial in the bath, “Valleri?”
Valleri laughed nervously, “It’s fine Ysolda. It’s not like he hasn’t seen any of this before and we’re all adults. Besides I’ve seen him naked too, it should be good.”

Valleri watched as Vilkas’ eye grew to the size of dinner plates and his face turned a dark shade of red. Ysolda moved her mouth to speak but no words came out. She looked back and forth between Vilkas and Valleri with a look of shock. Finally, Ysolda shook her head and left the room, mumbling incoherently.

Vilkas moved closer to the stool next to the tub as Valleri sat forwards. Concern was written all over his face and Valleri almost wanted to laugh. “Did you actually see?” Vilkas trialed off and Valleri couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

She rubbed her face to regain any sort of composure. It was another moment before she could speak, “Yeah, I did. Your clothes were gone when I dragged you back to the cabin.”

“Shor’s bones. I’m not sure there’s much I can say after that then.”

“Not really. But don’t apologize, it’s not I haven’t seen that before,” Valleri continued, enjoying the uncomfortable look on the Nord’s face. He didn’t say anything to stop her as the Imperial continued, “Wait! When was the last time you got laid?”

Suddenly Vilkas looked up, “I don’t see how that’s relevant!”

Again Valleri laughed. She shook her head with a grin, “Sorry, you’re right. That was in bad taste, wasn’t it?” She paused, looking back up to Vilkas. The man’s look of embarrassment had melted into something more akin to mild concern. “What was so urgent that you had come all this way?”

“I heard about your conversation with Kodlak,” Vilkas murmured quietly.

Valleri clicked her tongue, “Farkas told you?”

“No, Kodlak did. He said you were thinking about leaving for Markarth. Was he serious about that?”

Valleri tried to make ye contact with Vilkas but when she failed, she spoke, “I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen. He was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do any of my work here if I went after Lex and Alastaros.”

Vilkas frowned, “It’s easy to see where he’s coming from.”

“I know, I know. That’s why I was wondering how hard it would be to ingratiate myself with Calcelmo. Maybe I can stay there while I sort things out,” Valleri explained.

“I thought Calcelmo hated Alastaros. You’d really do that?”

Valleri laughed, “Yeah, I don’t think I have much choice. If Kodlak doesn’t want me here, I can’t stay.”

She watched Vilkas pause and bite the inside of his lip, “That doesn’t sound all that fair. Just leaving like that?”

“No one said Kodlak was the fairest person in the world. Though after what happened with the Circle, he’s trying.” Valleri looked down at the brownish water and tried to smile, “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I moved on; I wasn’t planning on staying long anyhow.”

Suddenly she watched Vilkas look up with an expression of uncertainty, “What if I asked you to stay regardless?”

Valleri narrowed her eyes with curiosity, “What would you get out of it?”

Again nervous, Vilkas looked away. “I’m not even sure. I could say I would miss you but that’s probably not entirely honest. I think I’m too invested in what you’re doing…” Vilkas trialed off.

Valleri’s lips spread into a wide smile, “Are you saying you want to help me find the necklace?”

The Nord gulped as he reached for Valleri’s hand. Holding it tight in his own he looked down to Valleri with an earnest expression, “It doesn’t matter if Kodlak asks me to or if Alastaros comes to me personally from the grave, I want to help you, Valleri. After what happened last week, I feel as though I owe you so much.”

Valleri could feel herself choking up, “I honestly don’t know what to say, suffice to say I don’t think I could be happier.” The Imperial woman paused, finally making eye contact with Vilkas, “I’ll think it over before I do anything and I’ll start on the journal tonight.

The Nord got up from the stool and started towards the exit, “Sorry about barging in on you, but I thought I should tell you before you left or something.”

“Hey, Vilkas?” Valleri said before he opened the door.

“Yeah?”

“What you said is really important. I don’t think I’d leave if I can help it especially since you’re willing to stick with me.” Valleri heard Vilkas say something to himself before he disappeared into the other room. She looked back at the water, cupping a bit in her hands. Slowly the liquid drained and all Valleri could think of was the genuine look on Vilkas’ face. She couldn’t help but feel better when she thought about it.

Chapter Text

Valleri stopped and held her breath as she watched the shadows illuminated at the other end of the tunnel. The man ahead of her was slow and unaware of his surroundings. Valleri had no appreciable skill in sneaking around. The fact that she’d been trailing him or no less than an hour and he still hadn’t noticed her yet spoke to what this person thought of his personal safety. The tunnel turned a corner and Valleri could see an opening into a larger cavern at the end. She stifled a groan. Despite her guide’s lack of attention, any noise might change his lack of attention. Valleri couldn’t risk that; not yet at least.

The man paused unexpectedly and Valleri almost rammed into his back. Panicked, she turned swiftly around, trying to stick close to a gap in the wall. Another woman; thin and sickly, approached the man with a concerned greeting.

“Have you seen the boss? Scales was found outside.”

“What do you mean found? It was his outdoor shift. He takes one like the rest of us.”

“He was killed, you dimwit.”

“Gods, what by?”

“We’re not sure yet. Looked like a person.”

Valleri closed her eyes. Her grip on the sabre tightened as she tried not to move. The two other people in the tunnel still made no indication that either had noticed their unwelcome company.

“As far as I’m aware he still hasn’t left his spot by the waterfall.” There was an unsure pause where the Valleri saw the man look around the cavern. She backed up closer into the gap before she heard him speak in quieter tones, “Do you think that someone outside knows?”

“Knows about that stupid, little fragment? Why would they? The Skinner said this place was secure after they took care of those scimitars hiding out.”

“Right, right. Besides the boss said this place was good. We,” he trailed off; Valleri’s palm felt slick against the leather grip of her weapon. “We should listen to the boss.”

“Someone’s gonna have to tell him about Scales.”

“I’ll do it. I was heading that way anyhow,” the man shook his head, “Gee, poor Scales.”

The woman muttered a quick thanks before turning back and Valleri could hear her guide sigh to himself. Valleri craned her head towards the next opening in the tunnel; several others were meandering around the main portion of the cavern. She gulped and cursed to herself. Where was Vilkas when she needed him?

The Imperial waited for the man to exit the tunnel before peering out further. The side of the cavern closest to her was almost pitch black and empty. Many of the loiterers were distracted, including her own hapless guide. Valleri crouched close against the rock wall as she moved towards the next tunnel. She stopped when the man she was following continued towards the same exit. An idea formed in her head and she quietly sped after him.

It wasn’t long before the man led Valleri to another cavern, this one much smaller. The stench of dried fish was thick in the room. Valleri tried desperately not to cough. The man stopped again when he felt Valleri grab ahold of his shoulder and slide the blade of her sabre under his chin.

“Don’t move, don’t speak unless spoken to or I’ll pull this sword across your veins and watch you bleed out on the ground like dead pig,” Valleri ordered. She felt the man straighten his back against her. She tugged the blade tighter against his neck, “What did I say?”

“Don’t move and don’t speak,” he answered.

Valleri smirked, “Right, good man.” She paused, not letting pressure off his neck. “Where’s the fragment?”

“What fragment?”

“Don’t take me for a fool. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“I’m not saying shit!” he exclaimed. Valleri answered with tighter grip around his shoulders. The man gulped again, “The boss has it locked up. He never leaves the chest alone. Takes his meals next to it and that sort of crap.”

“Nice to know. Is there anyone up there with him?”

The man began to struggle, “And why in Oblivion would I tell you that?”

Valleri elbowed him as hard as she could in the ribs, “Should I remind you who’s got a sword to their neck?”

“Fine, fine, you’ve made your point!” The man breathed out sharply then continued, “Sobin is the only one past here. He makes sure the boss isn’t interrupted form what ever he’s been busy with. He’s the only one he’ll trust. I told you everything! You don’t have to kill me!”

Valleri cringed as pang of guilt hit her in the gut, “Fuck, you shouldn’t have said that.” She closed her eyes and drug the blade deep across his neck. The man made a guttural gasp for air as he fell to the ground. Valleri watched him with a frown as he twitched on the ground and tried to yell out. She waited a few minutes for the man’s spams t stop before she dragged him to a dark corner of the cavern. Panicked, Valleri haphazardly dumped some of the dry fish over him and left the room.

She followed a ramp up to another landing. A single person was sitting down at a table on the upper level, watching the lazy people down below. Valleri tried her best to recompose herself before coming forward into the light.

The man, Sobin, looked over to Valleri with a suspicious glance. “Who the fuck are you?

With out missing a beat, Valleri answered, “I was that contact the Skinner wrote about. He sent a letter to the boss stating that I was coming almost a month ago.” She paused and furrowed her eyebrows in mock anger, “You were supposed to be expecting me and this is the welcome I receive?”

Sobin stood up from his seat and walked towards the Imperial, “The Skinner never sent no letter! You’ve gotta come up with a better story than that.”

“Lie? You actually believe I’m lying?” Valleri waved her arms wildly for effect, causing Sobin to back up. “Are you telling me you never got the letter?”

“No, we didn’t. You said the Skinner sent you?” Sobin crossed his arms in opposition. “Well where’s your proof?”

Valleri paused for a moment, unsure of what to say. “I’ve, uh,” Valleri stuttered as she handed her sabre to Sobin. The man inspected it closely as she continued, “That sword was given to me by the Skinner. He had it specially made as a reward for being the leader of the group that cleared out the pack up north.”

“What now?”

Valleri scoffed, “Your sanctuary is really behind now isn’t it?”

Sobin stared at her through dead, tired eyes. “Well, who am I to argue with the Skinner? The boss is just down that tunnel,” he spoke as he handed back Valleri’s sabre.

She inserted it back into the scabbard as she spun on her heel away from Sobin, “Thanks a bunch,” she muttered. The tunnel was much longer than the rest and curved back and forth over and over again. Disorientated, Valleri paused as water began to lap over her feet. She looked forward, noting the river that began to flood the tunnel. Reluctantly, Valleri began to wade further into the water.

She was soaked by the time she passed the waterfall her previous guide had mentioned. “Who is it now? Can’t you see I’m busy?” she heard a scratchy voice above her say.

Valleri craned her neck upwards to see a hunched old man siting at desk on the landing. She frowned as she exited the water and started walking up. “Sobin let me in. That’s fine right?”

“Well, if Sobin thought it was…” The old man trailed off as he looked over to Valleri. A look of shock was written all over his face and Valleri couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t know you. Why did Sobin let you in?

Valleri shook her head, “Your door guard may be dead. Someone had to tell you. And your personal serf is really daft.”

“It seems so. What are you here for?” the old man muttered, face sinking.

“The fragment of Wuuthrad, nothing else.”

The old man shook his head as he stood up from the desk, “Nope, you can’t have it. You have to kill me to get that fragment.”

Valleri shrugged, “I’d really like not too if I can help it.”

“You’ll have to,” the old man said in a serious tone. “Are you with the Companions?”

Valleri paused, contemplating her answer. Finally, she smirked to herself, “Oblivion no! I’m a fucking linguist.”

The old man’s face melted into confusion, “What?”

Valleri unsheathed her sword, flourishing it wildly through the air. The old man stepped backwards as he fumbled at the sword at his hip. His pleas for pity went unheard as Valleri stalked closer. He swiped at her with his short sword in futility. Valleri finally muttered six, sharp words.

“Aedra tatava ni, Naga canva ni.”

Valleri squinted her eyes as she spied another person further up the road. A smile formed on her lips as she recognized the tall, dark figure. Valleri rushed forward with a long stride only to meet her friend in a few minutes.

Vilkas looked down at her with an inquisitive expression. He had a black eye and Valleri couldn’t help but notice the small smear of blood on his neck. The Imperial couldn’t help but laugh. “What are you so chipper about?”

“Look for yourself,” Valleri answered. She retrieved the fragment from a pocket and tossed it to the Nord.

Vilkas caught the small metal piece in his hands and brought it up to the sun. After rubbing his finger against the carved pattern, he looked back to Valleri next to him, “So you didn’t end up running away with your tail between your legs.”

Valleri shook her head and laughed, “If I recall you’re the only one here with a tail.” She paused to watch the exasperated look on Vilkas’ face. “It was easier than you’d think.”

The Nord shrugged, “Well, at least you didn’t have trouble. Congrats to getting the last fragment.”

“Thanks!” Valleri exclaimed, taking the fragment back from her friend. She gestured towards the large bruise on Vilkas’ face, “What happened to you?”
Vilkas furrowed his eyebrows in confusion before nodding his head in realization. “You meant the black eye, didn’t you?”

“I thought it would have been obvious.”

Vilkas sighed and rubbed the back of neck as he followed Valleri. “I ended up getting decked pretty hard in a fistfight near Rorikstead.”

Valleri clicked her tongue with dissatisfaction, “You’re probably not welcome back I take it?”

“I said near, not in town. Also, I wasn’t fighting the townsfolk. That’s actually anti Companions, believe it or not,” Vilkas retorted. He watched Valleri stifle a laugh. He looked back to the tundra in front of them, eyes focused on the horizon.

“I’m surprised Kodlak even let you out of Jorrvaskr. It’s been what? Barely a week since we got back?” Valleri added. She looked over her shoulder to Vilkas with a questioning look with an eyebrow arched inquisitively.

“About,” Vilkas muttered. He quickened his pace to catch up with Valleri, only to match her stride when he met her side. “Did you work things out with Kodlak?”

Valleri’s posture tensed as she walked. “I’m not sure if work out would be the right term for it. We just stopped talking about the subject. I think if I don’t mention it, Kodlak won’t either.” She looked back up to Vilkas, “Is he usually like that?”

“Sometimes. At least you’re not just leeching off us. Did you make any progress on the journal?” The Nord watched Valleri squirm and try to urge herself to speak. “It’s not a complete loss, is it?”

“No, not at all,” Valleri paused, “It’s just that it was Alastaros personal journal before this debacle.”

“Is there a lot of private stuff in there you didn’t expect?” he asked.

Valleri nodded her head, “Yeah. He kept a lot from Lex and I apparently. Nothing relevant, but it’s still a tad emotional for me to go through. I’m not sure if I can relate it better.”

Vilkas shrugged, sun glinting off his armor. “I get it. Why not just skip to where Lexius took over? You said that the handwriting switched half way through.”

“That’s funny! Have you seen Lex’s penmanship? It’s atrocious.” Valleri patted Vilkas’ shoulder with a grin. “I’d rather bet that Alastaros wrote something about it than go through crazy Falmeri and Lex’s chicken scratch.”

“If you say so,” Vilkas mumbled. “Did he really write everything down in Falmeri though?”

“I think it looks like Falmeri, it’s too swirly to be plain Ayleidoon. But then again, he could have just been spilling ink on the pages.”

Vilkas could now see Whiterun close in the distance. He tried to keep pace with Valleri despite the urge to run towards the city. He turned back to the Imperial next to him, “You’d think that Falmeri and whatever your Ayleids spoke would be similar. They should have actually just kept it simple and have all the elves speak the same language.”

“They did though, for the most part,” Valleri said half to herself.

Vilkas paused to look at her, “Wait. You’re not kidding, are you?”

“I’m not. It was called Aldmeris and the elves spoke it before each ethnic group split off. Ayleidoon and Altmeri are the most similar to Aldmeris, with Falmeri and old Bosmeri close behind,” Valleri explained, eyes now alert, “Each language evolved on its own depending on what was needed. That’s why you’ll have such vast differences between modern Bosmeri and Falmeri for example.”

“What about this Ayleidoon and Falmeri?”

“As far as I can tell, it’s similar enough. But looking at a new alphabet and dialect is confusing after spending so many years translating only Ayleidoon. There’s a learning curve,” Valleri added. The enthusiasm in her eyes was gone and Vilkas felt bothered.

“Maybe you’ll have to get to Markarth after all?” he joked, grinning from ear to ear.

Valleri sighed with exasperation, “Yeah, I’m not going to give up that easy, Vilkas. Though writing a letter to Aicantar wouldn’t be a bad idea.” The woman paused and looked forward with fascination. Vilkas tried to follow here eyes to see what was so distracting but found nothing.

“What’s out there?” Vilkas finally asked.

The Imperial woman laughed out loud, “Nothing I suppose, but the way the sun was hitting the top of Drgaonsreach, it made the top of the city look like gold. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

This time Vilkas stood up straight and looked over the city skylines. Valleri was right; then sun did make it look like shining gold.

Kodlak looked over the piece with a trained eye, scanning over each crevice carved into the blackened metal. The color was the same as the other fragments apart from the occasional smear of dirt, but that could be over looked. The hatching on the handle matched as well as the missing leg of the bear on the piece he supposed was above it.

He paused his inspection to see Valleri was still in front of him. She stood nervously, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Vilkas was next to her with a curious expression.

“How many people ended up dying for this piece?” the old warrior asked as he placed the metal fragment in a small lock box on his desk.

Valleri didn’t say anything for a moment and something about her expression told him that the question was not expected. Finally, the Imperial spoke, “Only three. I tried to sneak in rather that fight my way through since I know I don’t have the required muscle.” She looked over to Vilkas next to her as she finished.

“You strove to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. That is commendable, Valleri.” He paused and exchanged a glance with her, “Especially considering this is an authentic fragment. Congratulations, you brought us the final piece we needed.” A relieved smile formed on the Imperial’s face as a weight was lifted her shoulders. Kodlak could also feel the weight lift.

Vilkas, who was not as celebratory as his friends, spoke up finally, “Well, now that we have all the fragments again, what do we do now?”

“I’ll ask Eorlund to piece Wuuthrad back together then the Circle will decide what do with the weapon.” Kodlak looked back over to Valleri, “Until then, I believe it is a good time for a celebration here in the mead hall. What do you say, shield sister?”

Surprised, Valleri reeled back, “Who, me?”

Kodlak smiled, “Yes, you. You were instrumental in completing this task. It wouldn’t be right to not have you honored at such an event.”

“He’s got a point,” Vilkas retorted while crossing his arms. He gave Valleri an approving look.

She shrugged, “I won’t say no, if you keep insisting.”

Kodlak clapped in triumph and the noise resounded loudly in the tiny office, “We’ll have a feast ready for the occasion two days for now. I’ll hope to see the both of you there.” He watched the two young ones leave his office as they talked in a quiet, happy chatter. If Kodlak didn’t know any better, he secretly hoped something would happen at the feast.

Chapter Text

Wine and mead flowed like a river and main hall of Jorrvaskr was loud as the people chattered around the music in the main hall of Jorrvaskr. Dancing couples took up much of the indoor training area at the far end of the room. Tilma had spent the entire day cooking up sweet meats and light fluffy pastries for occasion that seemed to never cease coming from the makeshift kitchen in the other room.

Vilkas watched as the people around him continued to drink and dance. The mug in front of him was near empty. The Nord took a bottle on the table and gave it a sniff. The fruity smell was unpalatable but he poured it in the mug regardless.

He was in the middle of taking a swig of the drink when he spotted Valleri across the room. She was talking in quiet tones with Ysolda, leaning against the window in a yellow silk dress. She smiled widely when Ysolda gestured grandly.

A hand fell onto his shoulder, causing Vilkas to look over at the person leaning on him. He furrowed his eyebrows in exasperation as Farkas leaned down closer next to his face.

Vilkas sighed as he pushed his brother away, “How much have you had to drink?”

Farkas shrugged. “Not a lot,” he said loudly in Vilkas’ ear. Farkas looked back to the two women across the room and grinned when his eyes landed on Ysolda. “Should I ask her to dance? I’m gonna ask her to dance.”

“What are you waiting for then?”

“I’ll call over Valleri too, that way you’ll have someone to talk or something,” Farkas said, giving Vilkas a playful nudge on the shoulder. Vilkas cringed to himself as he took another sip of the drink in front of him.

“No, please don’t. I’ll be fine.”

Farkas waved his brother off, “You don’t know what you want.” Farkas stood up straight as he called for Ysolda across the room. Vilkas watched the red head look over to them and gesture to herself. Farkas quickly nodded with a grin. Ysolda tugged on the Imperial’s sleeve and walked towards them at the table.

Ysolda wrapped her arms around Farkas’ neck and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Did something happen, love?”

“Not really, but I did need something.”

The red headed woman grimaced in concern as she pulled away from Farkas, “Is it a dance?”

“Yeah,” the Nord admitted sheepishly, “It was.”

Ysolda chuckled to herself as she grabbed onto Farkas’ hands, “I was honestly wondering what was taking you so long!” The Nord woman began to lead Farkas to the dance floor. Vilkas watched her give Valleri a wink as she left.

Vilkas didn’t say anything as Valleri sunk into a seat next to him. He glanced only scowled as Valleri grabbed the half empty bottle Vilkas had poured his drink from and take a chug from it. She laughed as she set the bottle down, “Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure, is there?” Vilkas retorted.

Valleri shook her head with a lopsided grin, “Nothing is wrong then! Of course, I’m probably a little bit tipsy at this point.

Vilkas shook his head and reached over to ruffle Valleri’s hair. “I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah,” Valleri mumbled. The Imperial looked over to the dance floor, eyes scanning the couples. Her grin turned soft and genuine when she found Farkas and Ysolda. “They look happy enough.”

“Aye, they do.” Vilkas added. His head began to feel a bit fuzzy and Vilkas figured he should stop drinking for the time being. He pushed the mug away from him. “Has Kodlak already made his toast?”

Valleri nodded, “Not yet. Hopefully it will be nothing like Balgruuf’s though.” She reached for the mug and finished off Vilkas’ drink.

Vilkas laughed to himself as he recalled the Saturnalia feast some months before. He shook his head as he tried to recompose himself. He took another look at his brother only to lose him in the crowd. The song ended abruptly as the two of them watched Kodlak climb up on the table at the head of the room and clear his throat with a cough. The room went eerily silent as everyone looked in his general direction

“I can see many of you with us tonight are already deep in your cups, so I’ll keep this short.” The old warrior looked around the room with a smirk, brandishing his own goblet in the air with a flourish. “I would like announce that all of the fragments of our ancestral symbol, wielded by great Ysgramor, have been collected and returned to the mead hall. I say we drink to the prosperous future of those friends of the Companions!” Kodlak yelled something incomprehensible and leapt off the table. There was a deafening roar as the crowd went back to the feast.

Vilkas took a piece of the grilled meat as Farkas and Ysolda appeared from the crowd. Ysolda grimaced as she looked over towards Valleri, “I thought he was going to mention you in his toast.”

“Why though? It was a good toast, short and to the point.” Valleri said.

Ysolda crossed her arms, “I thought you found the last fragment. That deserves credit, right?”

“I happen to agree with Valleri on this,” Vilkas mumbled to himself. The Imperial woman nodded her head in acknowledgment.

The red headed Nord rolled her eyes and waved Vilkas away with a free hand, “But still, you deserve some sort of credit. It’s only fair.”

Valleri tilted her head with lazy glance, “It’s not the credit I want. However, I do appreciate the thought.” Valleri grabbed ahold of the now almost empty bottle and took another swig of the alcohol. Vilkas grimaced as he watched Valleri finish off the bottle.

“Are you just going to drink, Valleri?” Ysolda asked. The Imperial woman shrugged but didn’t say anything further. Exasperated, Ysolda gestured towards the dance floor, “Are you going to go out there tonight?”

“Probably not tonight,” Valleri paused when Ysolda gave her a pleading look. Valleri threw up her hands with a laugh, “I certainly can’t dance by myself, now can I? Will you dance with me, red?”

Valleri laughed as Farkas came up behind Ysolda and slid his arms around her waist. He gave Valleri a betrayed look. Ysolda laughed before giving him another kiss on the forehead, “Looks like I’m already taken. But, uh,” Ysolda fumbled before slapping Vilkas on the back, “What about this guy? He’s free right?”

Vilkas stared up at Ysolda with narrowed eyes, “Yeah, I don’t dance.” He looked over to Valleri nervously, who only shrugged dismissively.

“Not even just one time? Look at Valleri, she’s desperate to get out there!” Ysolda protested. Vilkas sighed in annoyance when Valleri mouthed a quiet apology. He stopped paying attention when Ysolda continued to pester him.

Valleri stood up from her chair and grabbed a hold of Ysolda’s hand with a chuckle, “Look, Vil’s not having any of it. I’m dragging you down with me.” The two men watched as Valleri drug Ysolda away.

Vilkas leaned his arm on Farkas as he sat in Valleri’s seat. With a blank expression, Vilkas looked over to his brother, “Looks like your dance partner was stolen.”

Valleri didn’t think that the music could get any louder, but like as many things in Skyrim, the volume was pushed to an extreme the Imperial wasn’t used to. The Imperial attempted to lead her taller friend away from the group of bards at the end of room. Anything to be able to hear herself through the din of music.

Ysolda couldn’t help but laugh as the Imperial twirled her around the dance floor. She glanced over to the twins at the table for a moment before almost crushing Valleri’s foot. “I am so sorry about that.”

“About what?” Valleri asked, genuinely confused.

“Oh, never mind. Your face is all red and I can barely see your freckles,” Ysolda laughed. The Nord woman poked her friend’s cheek, making Valleri reel back a bit at the touch. “It’s a shame that Vilkas won’t join us. I don’t think I’ve seen him dance before.”

Valleri tilted her head in Vilkas’ direction, the man was still talking to his brother. “I don’t think you can really fault him for that. Dancing isn’t for everyone. There’s no need to force him into it.” Valleri didn’t say anything as she watched the grin Ysolda’s face grow. Valleri felt her face flush further as she stuttered out, “What?”

Ysolda gave a quick shake of her head before turning away from Valleri’s suspicious glare. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing! Otherwise you’d have never mentioned it,” the Imperial woman whined. “If you don’t tell me, I’m just gonna go crazy thinking about it all night.”

“Fine, fine,” the Nord relented. She gestured towards the twins, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you have a thing for Vilkas over there.”

Valleri blanched in horror, eyes wide and mouth agape. “I don’t though! What gave you that idea?” Valleri stammered.

Ysolda chuckled to herself, “I dunno. You defend his crazy notions without a thought and always take his side.”

“I do not. Vilkas’ ideas aren’t half bad and he gives me as much shit as he does anyone else,” Valleri explained.

“I wasn’t done yet, Valleri. You’re close with him and he talks about you a lot when you’re gone. I’ve known Vilkas for only a few years, but I’ve never seen him get so attached to another person apart from Kodlak and Farkas.”

The shock on Valleri’s expression turned serious, “Just because I’m close with Vilkas doesn’t mean that’s the nature of our relationship.”

“What about the other day in my bathroom, then? You said you saw him nude before.”

“That doesn’t mean anything!” Valleri exclaimed, almost yelling. Ysolda looked back to her in shock.

The Nord woman bit her lip in thought before looking back up. Valleri frowned with a hint of shame. “Valleri, I’m going to say something you’re most likely not going to like.” The woman paused while she waited for her friend to look up. Ysolda locked eyes with Valleri and tried to smile softly, “You keep saying that such grand gestures don’t mean anything. If everything means nothing, then I think you’d have to rethink the definition of what intimacy means.”

Valleri stopped moving all together, looking back at the table. Vilkas was already gone. Uncomfortable, Valleri unclasped her hand from Ysolda’s waist and left. Without much thought, Valleri made her way across the room and down the stairs leading to the bunk rooms. No one should be in there.

Valleri leaned against of the support beam and tried to even out her breathing. Why was what Ysolda said so maddening? Who was she to tell Valleri what a relationship meant to her? Valleri scowled as she rubbed her face in frustration.

“You’re loud, you know?”

Valleri looked up to see Vilaks coming down the hall way from the Circle bunk rooms. He was carrying a neatly folded blanket in his arms. The man paused when he saw the annoyed expression on Valleri’s face. “Did something happen?”

Valleri glanced over to him, eyes landing on the ugly yellow bruise covering his left eye. The usual smear of charcoal had been washed away, making it easier to his silvery grey eyes. Valleri turned away quickly before running her hand through her hair.

“No, nothing happened. I’m just…” the woman trailed off, not sure how to finish her sentence.

Vilkas approached her, “You’re just cooling off or it’s too loud?”

Valleri perked up, “Yeah, that’s it.” She shook her head after, eyes down turned, “It’s really not, it’s just too hard to explain.”

“That’s never stopped you before,” Vilkas muttered, “But if you really don’t want to talk, I won’t pry.”

The Nord started walking past her again. Valleri reached out and grabbed his arm before Vilkas looked back at her with a confused expression. Suddenly aware of she did, Valleri let go and looked back at the ground, “Sorry about that.”

The look on Vilkas’ face softened, “You’re fine.” He turned back to face her with a quick turn and Valleri could feel herself tense up. “You want some company?”

“Isn’t someone waiting for that?” Valleri asked as she gestured towards the blanket in his arms.

Vilkas looked down at his arms and shrugged, “To be honest it was for me, so there isn’t anyone who’d miss me if I were gone. Maybe Farkas but he’s got Ysolda now.

Valleri noticed the melancholy glint in her friend’s eyes. “Are you lonely, Vilkas?” She watched Vilkas step away from her. He looked called out, almost ashamed. The atmosphere in the room turned heavy and Valleri could only feel guilt towards her question.

Unexpectedly, Vilkas tossed the blanket above Valleri’s head like a shawl. He pulled the corners tight around her and said, “If you asked me that two days before I met you, I’d probably have taken that as a challenge.” He paused for a moment, stepping back again. “But now, I think I am a bit lonely.”

Pulling the blanket back from her eyes, Valleri felt her chest tighten up. “I think I feel that too,” Valleri answered. She looked back to Vilkas, noting the genuine look in his eyes. His movements were slow, but Vilkas warped an arm around Valleri’s waist and puled her closer. Tired, the Imperial hugged, him close, burying her face into the crook of his neck.

“Apologies.”

Vilkas brought Valleri’s face up and he exchanged a glance with her. Cupping one of her cheeks in his free hand, he kissed her. Valleri’s eyes went wide as their lips brushed together. Her body tensed as he pulled back.

Vilkas’ gaze didn’t move from her. Valleri couldn’t think straight. Before she knew it, she brought his face down hers and kissed him back. The Nord pulled her as close as he could and she felt the blanket fall off her head. Vilkas’ hand moved from her cheek and up along her scar, finally ended on the back of her head. Fingers wove around strands of her hair; the feeling of brushing through her wavy locks made her hum silently with pleasure.

Her heart began to pound against her chest and she found herself fighting against the urge to not breathe. Valleri felt her knees buckle beneath her and the two of them melted to the floor. Finally, Vilkas moved his mouth downwards and began to kiss her neck, but in only an instant, Valleri spoke in a low, breathy voice, ‘Vilkas?” She nudged him when he didn’t answer, “Vilkas, what are we doing?”

Valleri felt chills when her friend looked up to face her. When Vilkas didn’t say anything for a moment Valleri’s heart began to race again. The Nord looked away, face flushed, “I’m not even sure.”

Hesitantly, Valleri pulled her hand back from Vilkas’ face. “Is this right?”

“It feels right, so does it matter?”

Valleri felt a sharp pain in her chest. She scanned the ground, anything to avoid Vilkas’ eyes. Instinctively, the woman bit her lip anxiously. “It does. It matters more than anything. Vilkas,” she paused, “Do you feel anything for me?”

Valleri finally locked eyes with Vilkas again. She searched his face any sort of answer and again, she could only see sad confusion in his expression. He was reluctant to answer, but he tried, “I have to be honest with myself.” Vilkas stopped short when he heard footsteps descending down that stairs.

Neither of them moved until Valleri could see the familiar figure of Kodlak pausing on the stairs. Valleri felt suddenly vulnerable under the blanket. She pulled the fabric over her head and attempted to hide away.

“Did I interrupt something?”

Taking her cue, Valleri got up and walked past Vilkas still on the floor. She gave the old warrior a betrayed glance before going up the stairs. Kodlak looked back to Vilkas with a confused expression. The younger man breathed out and didn’t move. Finally, Vilkas turned to Kodlak and muttered, “Not at all.”

Chapter Text

Valleri glared at the yellowed, scorched page in front of her, attempting to will it into submission. Her eyes burned from the lack of sleep and the remnants of tears she wiped away earlier. The Imperial felt as though everything was blocked up; ugly feelings previously buried deep began to resurface. Each time she opened the tattered journal, Valleri had to emotionally prepare herself for the worst.

She’d gone through Alastaros’ spare journals before, but their contents were suddenly so tame compared to what she was reading now.

Leaning back in her chair, Valleri sighed and rubbed her hand over her eyes. The pressure made her blink reflexively and her blurry vision turned clear once again. Momentarily refreshed, Valleri took a look out the window towards her right. Valleri cursed to herself in a quiet, bitter tone. The sun was already peaking over the wall in the training yard.

Valleri really stayed up all night trying to glean any relevant information from the twice damned book.

Defeated, she laid her head on the table and shut her eyes. Her arms and chest felt heavy and any attempt to sit up was met with disappointment. Valleri lazily flipped the journal closed and slid across the table away from her. She took one more look out the window only get blinded by the light. Valleri groaned again. The only respite she could get was when she laid down with her face flat against the hard wood.

It took Valleri a moment to notice the cold, wet feeling against the side of her face. Confused, Valleri lifted herself up from the table, listening to the clicking noise in her lower spine and ribs. She rubbed some of the mysterious liquid away from her skin and hair only to blanch in horror when she saw the black staining the tips of her fingers. Looking down, Valleri saw that she tipped her half open ink bottle when she laid down.

Black ink spread across the table, seeping into a table cloth at Valleri’s left. The Imperial woman attempted to wipe it away with a spare towel. With most of the excess gone, Valleri could see that the old wood making up the table had seeped up quite a bit of the ink. There was an irregular patch of black stain now on the table. There was no way that was coming out now.

Valleri rubbed her eyes in frustration when she heard foot steps coming up from behind her. With out a doubt the ink was smeared across the left side of her face and was all in her hair.

Farkas gave her confused expression when the Nord took a seat next to the empty ink bottle. Valleri shrugged and shook her head, “It’s been a long night.”

“And the ink?” Farkas asked, gesturing towards his own cheek.

“Don’t ask.”

Farkas sighed and rested his head on a free arm. “Did you sleep?”

“Nope!” Valleri exclaimed, grinning like a fool. “Why in the world are you up anyhow?”

“Nothing important. Just didn’t feel like sleeping,” Farkas said as he rubbed the black patch on the table. “Vilkas should be up soon.”

“Grand, absolutely grand,” the Imperial muttered.

Farkas narrowed his eyes in confusion. “You’re not mad at him or something, are you?”

Valleri glanced at her friend from the side of her eye. She sighed and frowned, “No, I’m not mad. I’m just frustrated. And tired. And I have no fucking idea what this says!” Valleri rubbed her temples before scrunching her eyes together in defeat. “Why didn’t Lexius just write what he was going to say in Cyrodiilic?”

“Maybe because he didn’t want anyone to find out what he was writing?”

Valleri turned her head to glare at Farkas and the Nord leaned back in his seat with a look of regret. In an instant her expression softened, “I’m sorry Farkas. I’ve got a lot on my plate and I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

The Nord nodded understandingly, “I know, it happens.” He paused for a moment, looking at the journal. “Did you ever get a letter back from your friend in Markarth?”

“Oh, the letter I sent Aicantar about the translation?” Valleri asked, eyes now wide and alert. She shook her head, “Not yet. Of course, there’s always the chance he never got it.”

The two didn’t say anything further as Valleri absent mindedly rubbed the stain with a finger. She didn’t bother to turn around when she heard another pair of footsteps coming up behind her and Farkas. Relief washed over here when she heard Kodlak answer the door. The old warrior chatted with a courier before closing the door with a slam.

Kodlak looked over the two at the table with mock concern, “You’re the last two people I would have expected to be up this early.”

Kodlak sat at the table next to Farkas and started to go through the bunch of letters he’d taken from the courier. A wide grin grew on Farkas’ face as the younger man spoke, “It happens sometimes. And actually, Valleri said she didn’t even sleep!”

Kodlak hummed in response, only to look over at the Imperial with confusion a moment later. Valleri shrugged and went back to staring at the table. “He’s isn’t joking, is he?” Kodlak asked Valleri, hopeful expression on his face.

Valleri shook her head, “Not at all.”

“Oh,” Kodlak murmured before handing Valleri a small envelope. “This is for you, by the way.”

The Imperial looked at the front side of the envelope and scowled when she couldn’t read the messy handwriting, “Is this what I think it is?”

“Probably. The young man at the door said it was from Markarth.”

Valleri stood up from her chair with a start, tired grin all over her face. She didn’t say anything as she went downstairs to most likely read the letter. Farkas watched Kodlak sigh a final time.

“Hey, Kodlak?”

“Yes?”

“Did something happen with Valleri and Vil? They’ve been avoiding each other like the plague.”

The old warrior looked towards where Valleri disappeared. “That’s not my place to say. If something did happen though, I beleive I may have been party to causing it.”

Valleri didn’t even realize she nodded off until a heavy hand jostled her awake. Her eyes shot open suddenly, leaving her disorientated. Breathing deeply, Valleri grabbed the edge of the table instinctively in front of her. Her eyes landed on the opened letter laying haphazardly on the surface and she remembered where she was.

The Imperial frowned when she pushed Vilkas’ hand away from her shoulder. “I’m awake, I’m awake.”

“You sure?”

Valleri shot the Nord a accusing glance, “Yeah, I was just resting my eyes.” Her expression softened as she folded up Aicantar’s letter. She watched him as his face melted into a confused stare. “Is something wrong?”

“You’ve got ink on your face and all in your hair,” Vilkas pointed out as he gestured towards the black splotch.

“Yeah, I’m very aware of that. I’ll clean it up later,” Valleri retorted. Her voice was sharper than she meant it to be, but she couldn’t bring herself to apologize. She breathed out before continuing, “Was there something you needed?”

Vilkas didn’t answer immediately, content enough to watch her for the moment. He looked over towards Kodlak’s office, “He wanted to see us.”

Valleri followed Vilkas’ eyes and sighed. She looked back up to Vilkas, “Did he say what for?”

“Nope, nothing,” Vilkas answered in monotone voice.

He stepped away from the chair and followed Valleri to the back office. She shot him an unsure glance when she noticed they were walking on opposite sides of the hall. It felt unnatural to the Imperial after being in close proximity to him for a such a long time.

Though after what happened, Valleri wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

Kodlak didn’t look up from what he was writing when he waved the two of them in. Valleri, still tired, leaned against the back wall and willed herself to stay awake. “You’re both here. Good,” Kodlak finally said, turning around in his seat to look at his company. There was a small relieved smile on his face.

Vilkas crossed his arms, “What did you need us for?”

Kodlak paused, looking back and forth between Vilkas and Valleri. He breathed out, “I need you two to run an errand for me. There’s a book in Solitude I’ve been waiting for and I just got word that it’s come in.”

Vilkas scowled, “You want us to go halfway across the province for a book? Is this official business?”

“No, it’s not. I’m asking as a favor.”

Valleri tilted her head in confusion, “Why the both of us though? One person will do since it’s as if we’re going into a cave.” She glanced over to Vilkas momentarily, expression turning sour. “Besides, I’m busy,” she added, gesturing with a free hand.

Vilkas turned back, “With what?”

“I have some business in Markarth I have to take care of.”

“I take it this is personal business?” Kodlak asked. Reluctantly, Valleri nodded her head. The old warrior sighed, “I should have known. Regardless, Markarth is on the way; you can just do both on this trip.”

Valleri exchanged an uneasy glance with Vilkas before continuing, “Why not just ask someone else to go?”

“Valleri, this book has certain implications about the beast blood. I would love to send someone else, but since this isn’t something I can trust with just anyone.” A nervous grin replaced the soft smile on his face as Valleri just stared at him blankly, “Think of it like a short sabbatical, a trip of sorts.”

“Fine,” Valleri finally answered.

Kodlak looked over to the younger Nord, “Vilkas?”

“We’ll be gone for about a month.” He stared down at the ground, “I don’t see why not. We’ll leave tomorrow morning.”

Valleri watched as Vilkas left the room and turned back to Kodlak. She shook her head, “I’m not liking where this is going. Not one bit.”

“It’ll be fine. Besides, you have been cooped up in Jorrvaskr for some time. Getting out might do you two some good.”

“Listen please,” Valleri retorted, “I know what you saw and I don’t know what you’re making of it. But I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with Vilkas.”

Kodlak laughed heartily, “Why not just ask him? Chances are this could just be a misunderstanding.”

“It probably is,” Valleri muttered half to herself. She turned and started to leave, “I’m going back to bed. There’s no point in being tired all day.” She waved a quick to good bye to Kodlak and ambled back to the shared bunkroom at the end of the hall. She knew he was right and unsure guilt began to eat her up as she flopped on the bed.

This trip was bound to be exciting, whether she wanted it to be or not.

“Madam Ambassador, there’s a visitor waiting for you in your office. “

The Thalmor ambassador paused and gave the guard a confused glance, “Oh? I wasn’t aware I had an appointment today. You let them in?”

“No, ma’am. He just sort of let himself in,” the guard stammered, “I asked that he wait in the lobby but he barged right on into the room.”

Elenwen could feel a headache coming on. She closed her eyes and mumbled, “Of all the days for him to show up.” She glanced back at the guard and frowned, “Did this visitor have burn scars all over his face?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“By the eight. You’re new here I take it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the guard stammered loudly, making Elenwen wince.

Sighing, she crossed her arms. “Next time you see this particular visitor, take him to the dungeon, lock him in a cell, and I’ll see to his business there. I can’t have all these distractions.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Elenwen didn’t say anything further as she entered the room in front of her. The ambassador began to rub her temples in frustration as she saw the younger Altmer sitting lazily in her chair, feet propped up on the desk separating them.

He looked up at her with a wide grin, “Ah, now I get to see you.” He threw up his arms dramatically, “I’ve been waiting no less than half an hour. Half an hour!”

“Get out of my chair, Cyrenial,” Elenwen ordered. She watched him slide the chair backwards then move around to the other side of the desk and take a seat there. The ambassador wanted to sigh in defeat. She wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction though. “Now what are you doing here?”

“Getting my mail. The old coots in Alinor have seen fit to just send my correspondence here and your lackey doesn’t have the patience to send a courier to find me. It’s very frustrating.”

Elenwen groaned internally; Cyrenial didn’t know anything about frustrating. She pinched the bridge of her nose, “I specifically asked that Ondolemar send what ever information he finds here for safe keeping.”

“That’s rude.”

“Rude or not,” Elenwen’s tone turned bitter, “I would personally like to make sure that you are still alive and doing your job. I am sure our commanding officers would appreciate that as well.”

Cyrenial narrowed his yes suspiciously, “You love reading my mail, don’t you? Especially since I asked Ondolemar specifically to report to me only.”

“Please don’t treat my Justiciars like your personal assistants.”

Cyrenial shrugged, “Fine. What did he say?”

A small smile grew on the ambassador’s lips as she went around to the other side of the desk and retrieved a small envelope from inside. Cyrenial watched with anticipation as Elenwen pulled the letter out of the envelope. Cyrenial looked at her with furrowed eyebrows, “Well?”

“Ondolemar says that the apprentice you’ve been keeping tabs on in Markarth has been getting letters from a woman by the name of Valleri. She was the woman who knew Alastaros, correct?”

“Yes, she was. Still is actually.”

Elenwen glared at the younger Altmer, “I thought she told you to stop tailing her. Can you even still rely on anything she’ll tell you?”

“There are ways to get her to tell me where Alastaros is.” Cyrenial paused, staring back at Elenwen. He stood up straight, no longer sitting on her desk, “Why are you so concerned though? I don’t take orders from you.”

“I’m aware that we have the same rank. I’m very aware of that, Cyrenial.” Elenwen put the letter down as she too stood up from her chair, “But do not think for a moment that I won’t report your blunders back to Alinor. I know they have something on you, and though I don’t know what that may be, I’ll find out.”

Cyrenial’s previously annoyed expression turned into a deep scowl, “They probably have something on you too, Elenwen. Otherwise they never would have shipped you off to this backwards country.”

Elenwen breathed out sharply, “I suggest you make your way Markarth, otherwise you won’t be in this backwards country any longer.”

Cyrenial muttered something as he left the room, leaving Elenwen all by herself in the office. She could still feel the stiffness in her joints. The ambassador crossed the room and poured her self a tall glass of brandy only to down it in one go. She wiped the excess liquid from her lips. There were no words Elenwen could use to describe how much she hated Cyrenial.

Chapter Text

Valleri wrapped her journal up in her spare pair of socks before placing the bundle in the bottom of her pack. Alastaros’ journal was still on the table next to her, waiting to be wrapped up as well. The pack itself was relatively empty and Valleri was sure that Vilkas would say something when he inevitably found out.

Athis came up behind her and picked up the tattered journal. He held his disinterested expression as he flipped through the pages. Valleri glanced at him from the side of her eyes, hands no longer in the pack. “Anything interesting in there?”

“Not at all,” Athis mumbled to himself, still scanning the pages, “I can barely read the thing. The hand writing is so bad it almost physically hurts.”

The Imperial woman sighed and took the journal from the Dunmer next to her. “I can relate unfortunately.” She wrapped it up in spare tunic and placed it on top of the socks. Snapping the top of the pack closed, Valleri took a seat at the table.

“You’re just waiting for Vilkas now?”

“Yep.”

Athis took the seat opposite of the Imperial and propped his head on his arms. “I’m surprised you’re even going to be honest. I figured the Harbinger would only send one person.” The Dunmer began to gesture wildly, “What in Oblivion would he even send you for, huh?”

Valleri shrugged, “You’ll have to ask him that. I just need to go to Markarth. Are you jealous?”

“Not at all,” Athis muttered. “So basically, you’re only tagging along then?”

“Well, no. Kodlak asked me to go to Solitude.” She paused, “I’d figured I’d go since I have business outside of Whiterun anyhow and I’m not keen on getting kicked out of the Companions right now.”

Athis narrowed his eyes questioningly, “Wait, is that a thing? Does this have anything with the fight you had with the Harbinger?”

Valleri blanched in horror, “What fight?” she paused again, biting the inside of her lip in annoyance. Taking a deep breath in, Valleri tried to explain, “If you’re talking about the disagreement I had with Kodlak a few weeks ago, I hate to disappoint but that was just a difference in opinion. Nothing else.”

The two went quiet as Valleri tried not to slouch back in the chair. She could hear two pairs of footsteps behind her quite suddenly and turned around. Both Vilkas and Kodlak were talking as they made their way to the table. Anxiety ramping up, Valleri tried to see if Kodlak caught what she said, despite the fact that Kodlak hadn’t even been around. Her chest tightened when she saw the tired look on the old man’s face.

Vilkas shrugged his pack onto the floor and approached the table. He gave the Imperial woman an awkward glance, “I tried looking for you downstairs.”

The Imperial woman tried to muster a smile but to no avail. “I figured I’d wait for you up here since you’d have to come up this way.”

Vilkas shook his head in annoyance when Athis spoke up, “Hey, Kodlak, where are you sending these two anyhow?”

“They’re going to Solitude to pick up a book,” Kodlak bellowed. Athis glanced at Valleri and Vilkas in suspicion. Valleri looked away trying to avoid any questions. Kodlak gave Vilkas a hard pat on the shoulder and grinned. The younger Nord gave him a sharp glare that the old warrior ignored. “I almost forgot to give you this,” he said before producing a nicely folded letter from a pocket and held up in the air.

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows when Vilkas took hold of the paper, “What is that?”

“Letter of intent. The officials at the East Empire Company are bound to need that when you pick up the book, otherwise you’ll have hard time getting them to give it to you.”

“Oh right,” Valleri muttered, “I remember some people complaining about policies like that when picking up shipments in Anvil.”

All three of her friends looked over to Valleri before Athis spoke up, “I keep forgetting Anvil’s on the water.”

“Yep, it sure is,” Valleri murmured sarcastically. She could see a small grin on Vilkas’ face as he tried to look away. Something about seeing him try not to lose his composure made her feel less anxious.

Kodlak cleared his throat as he gave Vilkas another pat on the back. “It’s about time you two are on your way. You’ll want to start early so you can make it that good campsite tonight.” Vilkas nodded his head in agreement as he picked his bag up again. Valleri lazily got out of her seat and followed Vilkas to the door.

The younger Nord turned around before leaving, “We’ll see you in about a month then. I’ll try sending a letter when we get your book.”

Valleri could see Kodlak sigh in relief. He smiled again, “Much appreciated, Vilkas. Stay safe.” Vilkas muttered something Valleri couldn’t hear and went outside. Valleri was about to follow when Kodlak called her name, “You stay safe too. Don’t do anything drastic to translate your book so you can tell me how it goes when you get back.”

The Imperial woman nodded her head before closing the door. She wanted to say something to reassure the old man, but couldn’t think of anything. What was the point in saying something that had already been said?

Valleri felt a bit better when she saw Vilkas waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs leading to the plaza. He didn’t say anything as she caught up to him. The two of them continued down to the market place without so much as a word. Still Valleri still couldn’t help but tense up again as they drew nearer to the main gate leading to the tundra outside.

She stopped suddenly and took a deep breath. Vilkas turned his head to look at her, frown apparent on his face. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Valleri paused, biting her lip, “Vilkas, can we talk?”

“I don’t see why not, though make it quick. We really should be leaving.”

Valleri looked at him before continuing hoping to gauge more of his reaction. She felt herself wither a bit when she was only met with a blank expression. She sighed, “It’s about what happened at the feast last week.”

Vilkas’ blank stare turned nervous, “Oh, right, that.”

“Yeah, why did that happen?” Vilkas didn’t say anything for a moment as Valleri held her breath. “It just an impulsive mistake, right?” Valleri continued. The Imperial watched him as pain flashed through Vilkas’ eyes before his face turned to stone. She gulped.

“Is that what you think happened?” he asked.

“Well,” Valleri paused, mouth going dry as she tried to think, “We were drunk and then Farkas and Ysolda kept making those comments.” Valleri stopped speaking when she exchanged an uneasy glance with Vilkas again.

“I was the one to make that mistake, Valleri. Remember?” Vilkas questioned.

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows, “I kissed you back.” Valleri didn’t say anything as she watched the Nord’s face fall, a hint of red now on his cheeks. “Vilkas, I’m sorry. You’re my best friend here and I don’t want to lose that.”

Vilkas didn’t say anything as he walked closer to her and took hold of her shoulders. He was hesitant at first, but spoke in clear voice, “I think I can say I feel similarly. After what you did for me in Falkreath, I don’t want to lose you either. You’re an oddly strong person I can trust with my life. You can’t find people like that easily.”

Valleri felt a weight lift from her shoulders as she looked up to Vilkas with a grinned. “Are we good then? Everything’s back to normal?”

The man smirked as he let her go and continued to the gate. “As normal as it ever has been!”

Valleri still felt the uneasiness in the pit of her stomach as she ran to follow him. If she were honest though, Valleri was glad she brought it up. Kodlak was right, what happened was just a misunderstanding. Everything was fine.

Valleri nearly stopped in her tracks as she caught a glimpse of the harbor at the bottom of the hill below. The first thing she saw were the tall masts of the larger ships peaking over the side. Her heart began to beat with eager anticipation as she tried to get a better look. Without thinking, the smile on her face grew into a grin as the Imperial woman finally saw the ships and boats sitting docked in the harbor.

Vilkas paused when he realized his traveling companion was distracted. He sighed with exasperation, though he wasn’t even the slightest bit annoyed. If Vilkas was honest with himself, he was already betting on this happening. He walked back and grabbed onto her wrist and Valleri’s head snapped back to him with wide eyes.

“Sorry about that, I’m coming.”

The Nord shook his head, “It’s fine. We’ll be going down there later. You’ll have a better look then.”

Valleri sighed and nodded her head in agreement. Vilkas’ grip on her wrist lightened and moved down to her hand. Valleri didn’t protest and instead took comfort in the small gesture as he led her to the blue gates of Solitude.

She was glad to see them after so long, despite their trip north being shorter than she anticipated. The two Companions were able to catch a carriage at Rorikstead that offered to take them to Dragon Bridge. Vilkas had the happiest look on his face when he realized they wouldn’t be walking the entire way. The walk from Dragon Bridge to Solitude hadn’t been horrible either but did take almost two days. The sun was already beginning to set as they finally made it to the gates.

The Imperial was still struck with amazed awe when she saw the inside of the city. Everything was made up of dark polished stone, cracked by long vines of green leaves. Dull, weathered banners were hung lazily from building to building while the lamps were already lit.

Vilkas caught another look of Valleri’s amazement and tried not grimace. “Here, I’m gonna go get a room. We can grab the book tomorrow.”

Valleri looked back at him, “Oh, yeah. I forgot we needed that.” She pulled her hand back from Vilkas and looked around.

The Nord sighed, “How about you take a look around? I can get the room myself and meet you there in a few hours.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve been here before,” Vilkas shrugged. “You have fun, I’ll be at the inn.” Valleri rolled her eyes as he walked away. She sighed and walked off in the opposite direction. Who was she to have another person ruin her fun?

The stalls in the markets were already starting to pack up when she got around to that part of the city. It still much busier than the market in Whiterun despite it being closing time. Valleri meandered slowly, still taking in the sight of the busy square. It was when she got to the fruit vendor that Valleri stopped.

Valleri leaned onto the table and tried to get the vendor’s attention. The older woman sighed when she came up to the stand. Valleri almost reeled back when the woman scowled at her. “I can come back,” Valleri stuttered.

The older woman waved Valleri off, “No, it’s fine. I didn’t expect anyone else to stop by. You’ll have to be my last customer though.”

Valleri allowed herself to breathe again. “Oh thanks. I was wondering if you had any oranges?”

The woman gave her a confused stare, “An orange?” She paused and looked down, “I didn’t think I’d hear someone asking for one those.”

Valleri shot her a hopeful look, “Do you have one?”

“I typically don’t order them, since they don’t keep too well. But,” the woman paused as she turned to look in a crate behind the stall. She continued, “I do have one. Someone must have accidentally tossed one in with my apples. Didn’t bother to put it out since half of Solitude would think it’s some sort of rotten potato.”

“That’s unfortunate. I haven’t had an orange in months,” Valleri said. The woman came back with the fragrant fruit and handed it to the awestruck Imperial. Valleri started to go through her small bag for some coins when the vendor stopped her.

“You don’t have to pay since I wanted to get rid of it anyways. Just go ahead and take it,” the vendor said with a wave of her hand.

Valleri nodded her head and waited for the vendor to turn around before putting some of the golden coins on the wooden table. She hurried away before the vendor could catch her in the act. Valleri walked up the to the second story of the city, past the forge into the training yard. Legionnaires were packing away their bows and swords while the captain stood around still giving orders. Valleri stuck close to the wall as she passed by. Finally, Valleri made it to the stairs leading up to the parapets and took them two at a time. Valleri could feel a breeze as she walked towards the edge of the walkway.

She stopped when she could see the ocean spread out before the walls of the city. Scanning the scenery in front of her, Valleri once again caught sight of the boats in the harbor while the Sea of Ghosts opened up at her left. The sun was making its final descent into the ocean, turning the sky a bright orange. The sea in front of her was mixed green, the whitecaps turning pink in the last vestiges of sunlight. Valleri didn’t have to wait long before purple melted into red as the night sky descended.

Valleri felt cold all of a sudden as she pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. She wasn’t lonely, was she?

She looked over the harbor one more time as she got ready to leave. The harbor was empty now and eerily dark. Valleri looked farther into the distance, trying to find any sort of light house. When she couldn’t see any structure on the shore line, Valleri sighed and shrugged.

She had to show the orange to Vilkas before she ate the entire thing herself.

“You could have just you didn’t like it.”

Vilkas was visibly nervous as he and Valleri walked down the steps to the docks below. The Imperial could only laugh when he continued to speak. He looked down at the steps exasperatedly, “You hyped it up so much I couldn’t say anything.”

Valleri tried to stop laughing, rubbing tears out of her eyes, “I know I shouldn’t be laughing. I just find the whole thing hilarious.”

“I appreciate the thought regardless,” Vilkas muttered half to himself. He glanced over to Valleri, “Are they usually that bitter though?”

She shook her head, “Not always. Oranges are always best if you let them ripen up on the tree before picking them. That way the juices get all sweet.” Valleri tilted her head, “Maybe I’ll get you to try the next one I come across.”

“What if I’m away?”

“I’ll have it all to myself then,” Valleri said. Suddenly, the Imperial gave him a serious look. “Do you have Kodlak’s letter?”

Vilkas felt around in his pocket, finally procuring the envelope for Valleri to see. “Exactly where I put it this morning. We should be fine.” He paused as they stepped onto the dock proper. “Turn left here,” the Nord muttered as he gestured towards their turn.

Valleri unclasped her shawl and placed it over her arm as she spoke, “Just because you have the papers doesn’t mean the authorities will let you do something.” The Imperial shrugged when Vilkas shot her a questioning glance. “Do you remember the story I told you about Lex and I getting lost in the sewers?”

“Yeah?”

“We may have been finding another way in because the librarian may have kicked us out despite being there for reason separate from our business with Alastaros.”

Vilkas shook his head and sighed. “Valleri, I’m not even surprised,” he said as he walked up to the counter. The woman working the counter took notice of them immediately and offered a chipper greeting. He tried not to look annoyed as he spoke to the woman, “I’m here for a book for Kodlak Whitemane. We got word a week and a half ago that it came in the last shipment.”

A look of realization washed over the woman’s face, “You’re too young to be Kodlak. I’m sure he told you that we only give books from the Imperial Library to those who ordered them directly. Since the company had to get a permit to even ship it, we have to take precautions it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

Vilkas sighed; it wasn’t as though he was asking for an Elder Scroll. He took the letter out of his pocket and handed it to the woman working the desk. “He did, that’s why he sent me up with a letter of intent. His signature is at the bottom.”

The woman took a moment to scan the document before glancing back to Vilkas. “Well he did mention an intense looking man picking up the book. I assume that’s you?” Vilkas looked at her with a frown before shaking his head. The woman nodded affirmatively, “I’ll be right back with the book if you don’t mind waiting.”

Vilkas glanced at his side to see that Valleri had wandered off to the other side of the dock, probably to watch the boats coming into the harbor. He still didn’t understand her fascination with them. Though he supposed that she was used to living right next to a busy harbor. Being in the tundra for so long must have been quite a change.

He could see her smiling towards the sun and Vilkas could almost feel himself start to melt.

In only a moment, Vilkas watched the soft smile be replaced with a look of shock and horror as he heard a horrible groaning noise followed by a sickening cracking. Without thinking, Vilkas ran over only to see a large ship collide into a rocky shore on the opposite side of the bank. Wood splintered as the rocks tore into the hull of the ship. He could hear the screams and yells of the sailors as they scrambled to salvage the situation.

“Stendarr’s mercy, how did that happen?” Vilkas heard the woman exclaim. She rushed to the two Companions watching the disaster.

Valleri glanced upwards toward the lighthouse, “That explains the lack of light last night.”

“I’m going to go get help,” the woman yelled as she hastily shoved the book into Vilkas’ hands. He turned to watch her run up the stairs before looking back at Valleri. The Imperial’s face was locked into an uneasy, stony expression. Vilkas couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

He went back to looking at the disaster across the water. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shipwreck before.” Vilkas said, voice quiet.

“This is the third one I’ve seen,” Valleri paused, “It never gets any easier to watch.” She finally looked up to Vilkas, pulling at his arm, “Do you mind if we go? I don’t think there’s anything we can do to help.”

He nodded his head and slid the book into his pack, “Yeah, we can.” He led Valleri up the stairs to solid ground. Taking one look back, Vilkas noticed that the light house was strangely dark. Wasn't the lighthouse supposed to be lit up?

Chapter Text

The initial excitement Valleri felt the first time she saw the stony exterior of Markarth wasn’t there when she saw the gates for the second time. Valleri certainly felt relief but the small, nagging worry that Aicantar wouldn’t be able to help her was rearing its ugly head for the hundredth time since leaving Solitude. The journal was becoming a constant weight in the bottom of her bag. Only now it was wrapped in smellier socks instead of the fresh ones. Not that it would further damage the pages anyhow.

Vilkas watched her carefully as they made their way further down the road. There was worry in his eyes as Valleri followed him from behind. “You’re expecting me to fall on my ass, aren’t you?” she asked, eyeing him from the side.

“It’s happened before.” He shrugged and continued, “I can count the times I’ve seen you slip on the ice, Imperial. Most of those times have been in the Reach.”

“Right. And if I remember correctly, I promised to throw sand in your eyes if you ever mentioned it again,” Valleri jested with a smirk.

“You had your chance in Solitude,” Vilkas said in a monotone voice.

Valleri furrowed her eyebrows, “Vilkas, that wasn’t a real beach. It was all rocky. You can’t throw rocks at people.”

He turned to look at her with a look of sarcastic, innocent confusion, “What do you mean you can’t throw rocks at people?”

The Imperial woman stared wide eyed at the ground for a moment, processing what her friend said. “Gods, what the fuck are you doing in spare time?” Valleri asked, suddenly concerned.

“Just the usual stuff,” Vilkas muttered to himself. The two walked in relative silence as they approached the gate. Before going in, Vilkas turned back to Valleri, “You realize that was a joke, right?”

The Imperial woman thought about her answer for a moment, keeping her expression blank. Finally, Valleri nodded her head, “Yeah, I know what sarcasm is. You don’t have to clarify.”

“Just making sure. Most of the idiots at Jorrvaskr would get confused.”

“I can see that happening,” Valleri finished as she held the gate open for Vilkas. The market to their right was louder than she expected as a crowd gathered around the central plaza. Valleri looked over momentarily before catching a glimpse of the pool of blood on the ground. “Well, isn’t this absolutely wonderful?”

“Wait, what?” Vilkas asked before peering over Valleri. His face melted with disappointment. “Every single time I come to this city,” Vilkas trailed off. He continued to talk to himself, though Valleri couldn’t hear a single word clearly.

Valleri grabbed onto Vilkas’ free hand and pulled him away from the crowd. The inn was empty since most of the patrons gathered outside to see what the commotion was. An old woman was left sweeping the floor with a sour look on her face. Valleri let go of Vilkas’ hand as they approached her.

The woman took notice of them quickly and placed her hands on her hips when the two Companions were within speaking distance. “I thought I finally had time to myself to get some work done done. But no. You two had to show up.” She paused, standing her broom against the wall. “Now what do you want?”

“We just wanted to know where Calcelmo’s laboratory is,” Valleri said, eyes narrowed in mild annoyance.

“Calcelmo? You mean that Altmer that’s gonna overrun the city with whatever those dwarves left behind?”

“Is this the general sentiment around town? That you really shouldn’t be messing with the ruin?” Vilkas questioned. Valleri could see a hint of smugness on his face when he crossed his arms.

“Any person with a shred of common sense would think.”

The big Nord glanced down to Valleri with a smirk. She shook her head with exasperation. Valleri elbowed him in the side, “Now’s not time for that conversation.” She looked back to the inn keeper with a bitter smile, “Listen, I just want to know where Calcelmo is and maybe get a room. Can you help me with that?”

The woman stepped back and gave her unsure glance. “I can help you with the room if you need one so bad, but I only know that the mage lives in Understone Keep.”

Valleri looked back to Vilkas, who only shrugged. She gave the innkeeper a final smile, “Thanks.”

“What about the room?” Vilkas asked as he exited the inn.

The imperial laughed, “We’ll be back for it later. I want to talk to Aicantar first.”

Vilkas didn’t say anything further as the two of them climbed the stairs to the upper portion of the city. The crowd below them had already dispersed, no longer clogging up the small market near the gate. Valleri could now see the dead body of a young man laying prone on the ground with more guards around him. The hike up to the keep was steeper than she imagined. Vilkas had no problem with the climb however.

The exterior of the keep was unassuming and Valleri almost missed it. Having the entrance to an important public building behind a waterfall seemed to be a bad idea to the Imperial. Though the White Gold Tower was out for everyone to see and not even fifty years ago it was almost destroyed for what could have been the hundredth time. Valleri didn’t exactly know how many times the Imperial City had been under siege. So, there was that.

The inside was less appealing. The old Dwemer ruins looked gaudy to the Imperial. It was nothing like cold white marble of Ayleid ruins Valleri was used to. The keep didn’t have the rustic coziness of Dragonsreach either. Beyond that, the keep was just plain messy. Rubble lined the edges of the wall and dust floated freely in the air of the ruins.

If she wasn’t careful, Valleri was sure she could choke on the air.

She watched Vilkas almost trip on a spare piece of stone. The Nord only gave her an exasperated shrug, “Every single time I come in here. I swear they never clean this place.”

“Makes me wonder if they haven’t renovated since the Dwemer disappeared,” Valleri quipped dryly.

After asking for directions, the two made their way up to a cavernous room on the left side of the keep. Valleri could see the exterior of the ruin Markarth was built on carved into the back wall.

Valleri and Vilkas paused when they caught sight of a familiar purple clad Altmer. He waved at them to come down to his work station with a wide grin. Valleri felt a bit relieved walking down to the work station. Aicantar got up from his seat to greet his friends, taking Valleri’s hands into his own, “I didn’t expect you to get here so early!” He paused looking at the Nord behind Valleri, “I also didn’t expect Vilkas to tag along either.”

“Is something wrong with that?” Vilkas asked, sounding more offended that he probably meant too. Valleri elbowed him in the side again.

The Altmer laughed, “Well, no. It’s just that when we parted last, you said you’d rather die than come back to Markarth.”

“Don’t give him any credit, Aicantar.” Valleri paused, taking Aicantar by the shoulders, “I’m sorry about coming too soon; but I just don’t have time to waste.”

The elf’s face grew grim. “This is about that necklace, isn’t it?” He nodded his head with understanding when Valleri didn’t say anything. “What happened to not wanting to lose people?”

Valleri bit her lip nervously, “It’d take a bit to explain and it’s a really crazy story.” She looked back up to Vilkas. He shrugged again making Valleri shake her head with fond exasperation.

“It can’t be that complicated.”

“It really is,” Vilkas spoke up. Aicantar rolled his eyes, eliciting a groan from the Nord. “As it turns out, Alastaros and Lexius are alive,” Vilkas blurted out. Valleri turned back to her friend with in shock. He crossed his arms with a look of smug satisfaction.

Aicantar gave him an equally shocked expression. “Lex is alive? Where is he?”

Valleri put her hands up in defense, “We don’t know. We just know they’re alive.”

“And the journal?”

“We’re assuming they’re going after the necklace. It’s the only lead I have,” Valleri explained.

Aicantar sighed and rubbed the side of his face. He looked at Valleri with a serious expression. “So, you have to the relic to find them.” Valleri nodded affirmatively. “I assume that you have the journal with you? Follow me.”

The two Companions followed Aicantar down to a lower work station. The tables were covered in stacks of papers and small bits of Dwemer metal hung about. The area was dark like the rest of the room, despite the oil lamps lining the walls. The smell of burnt oil and dust filled the air and if Valleri wasn’t choking already, she certainly was now.

Aicantar pushed a precarious stack of papers and books to the side when he sat down at one of the tables. He held his hand out and waited for Valleri to bring out the journal. She watched as he handled the journal with care, flipping through the pages with a feather light touch.

Aicantar looked up momentarily with another groan before looking back down at the table. Curious, Valleri looked over her shoulder. A shorter, purple clad Altmer was walking down steps to the work area. He was wearing a distinctly stern looking expression on his face.

“Aicantar, I thought you were sorting through those papers we found?” the old Altmer asked. Obviously, he knew Aicantar wasn’t sorting through anything, but just wanted to make him feel guilty for taking a break. Valleri tried not scowl

The younger Altmer sighed with frustration. “No, I got caught up with a favor for a few friends.”

“Friends? Since when do you have friends?”

“Uncle, this is Valleri and Vilkas,” the Altmer said, gesturing to the two standing awkwardly between the two elves.

Calcelmo regarded Vilkas quickly, unimpressed with the Nord. However, he paused when his eyes landed on the Imperial woman. His expression turned dark when Valleri glanced back at him. “I know who you are, girl.”

“And who might I be?” Valleri countered. She could feel her heart beat quicken and the tension in the small works space turned palpable.

“Valleri Alastarim. You two need to leave.”

“Wait, what?” Vilkas spoke up from the back.

“It’s a well-known fact that Valleri is Alastaros’ apprentice. She took his name for her own even.” Calcelmo began to wave them away with his hand dismissively. He pushed past Valleri to meet his nephew still sitting at the desk, “Alastaros is research thief with no integrity to speak of. I will not work with someone who associates themselves with such a lout.”

Valleri bit her lip before finally speaking, trying her best to sound civil, “We’re not here on Alastaros’ business. This is personal.”

“You people mixed personal and business so much until you couldn’t differentiate between the two! Leave me and my work be.”

“No, this is ridiculous. Our business isn’t even with you.”

“And what did you need my nephew to do for you anyhow? The last time one of Alastaros’ lackeys came here, they ran off with his research notes and Aicantar’s been floundering since.”

“That wasn’t even me! Besides, if you gave Aicantar the credit he deserved for spending all that time learning how to translate Falmeri.” Valleri stopped momentarily, stepping closer to the old Altmer, “No! If you gave all of your research assistants the credit they deserved, maybe you wouldn’t have so many problems!”

“How dare you? You don’t have the right to tell me what to do with my laboratory’s research!”

“I don’t even know why I’m talking to you! I just want Aicantar to translate this damn journal!” Valleri snapped, face contorted in rageful frustration. Vilkas almost panicked when he saw the Imperial try to go for a slap at the Calcelmo’s face. He pulled her back sharply by the shoulders and didn’t release her, even after Valleri seemed to calm down.

Aicantar stood up from his seat, “Will you two shut up? Of course, I’m gonna translate the journal. It’s the only way to find Lexius.”

Calcelmo didn’t say anything. Instead, he stared hard at the ground, rubbing his eyes in contemplative exasperation. Valleri shook her arm loose from Vilkas’ grasp and didn’t break her glare away from the old Altmer. He sighed, “What do you mean find Lexius?”

“Both Lexius and Alastaros have been missing for several months. Valleri found their journal and have been trying to track them down.”

Calcelmo looked between the Nord and his nephew for a moment before his eyes finally landed on Valleri. He sighed again, “That can’t be right. Even if you’re telling the truth, why would you need Aicantar to read the damn journal?”

“Because Lexius wrote the stupid thing in Falmeri,” Valleri explained. “I don’t know Falmeri, but your nephew does. Why are you being so obstinate about this?”

The Altmer rolled his eyes, “I’ve known Alastaros much longer than you have, Valleri. He’s crafty and I’ve seen him try to pull similar stunts to get what he wants. I just can’t find it myself to believe you.” He looked back to his nephew, “I’m not going to let you translate anything for these people. You already have work to do.”

Aicantar’s eyes grew wide as Calcelmo began to walk away. Vilkas unexpectedly began to follow him, dropping his pack behind Valleri. “Listen, we can’t exactly leave until Aicantar can look through that journal. There’s got to be something we can do for you to convince you otherwise.”

Calcelmo looked down at Vilkas with a blank expression. “What was your name?”

“Vilkas.”

“And what do you do, Vilkas?”

“I’m with the Companions.”

“I should have guessed. I assume you’re good in fight?” Calcelmo asked, voice softer.

“I’m the Master at Arms at Jorrvaskr, if that means anything.”

The Altmer shook his head, “It means nothing to me. How about this though; we’ll make a trade. You do something for me and I’ll give Aicantar enough time to translate Valleri’s journal.”

The Nord looked back to Valleri and gave her a questioning look. The woman gave a quick nod of her head. “What do we have to do?”

“I sent a team of people into the Nchuand-Zel excavation site. It’s been two weeks since they were supposed to report back and we haven’t had enough people to go in there and check up on them.”

“You want us to find them then?” Vilkas finished with an upward tilt of his eyebrow.

“Exactly. If you come back tomorrow morning, I’ll give you the key to the excavation and Aicantar can start,” Calcelmo offered. “This better be worth it.”

The trio watched the bitter, old Altmer walk away. Aicantar breathed out as he put his head in his hands. Valleri and Vilkas looked towards him as he mumbled to himself in frustration. He looked up suddenly, eyes flaming, “Why did you say anything?”

Valleri tried to smile reassuringly, “What do you mean?”

“If you kept quiet, I could have just translated the journal in my free time,” Aicantar explained, gesturing to the hallway where Calcelmo disappeared.

“Well, he was going to find out one of his oldest friends was nearly dead anyways. At least Calcelmo knows what’s going on instead of finding out later.” Valleri looked back to Vilkas for agreement.

“It didn’t seem like they were friends, Val,” the Nord muttered. “besides he didn’t even believe you.”

“Regardless,” Aicantar paused momentarily, “now you two are stuck doing favors for Calcelmo and he’s probably going to dock my pay for the next two weeks. This is great, just great.”

Valleri and Vilkas exchanged a concerned look with each other. “What’s wrong with the excavation site?

“What isn’t?” Aicantar whined, “The place is pretty much cursed! After the spiders were taken care of, Calcelmo sent a small team into Nchuand-Zel with the instructions to check things out. They went in about a month ago and we expected them to only take about a week. Obviously, they never came back. We don’t even know what’s in there”

Vilkas shrugged, “Right, and Valleri and I haven’t been through worse.” He gave Aicantar a nudge on the shoulder, eliciting a nervous smile from the elf. “We’ll be in and out of there before you know it.”

“I hope.”

Vilkas turned around and began to walk back up the steps. Valleri gave Aicantar a final reassuring look, giving him a pat on the shoulder. The Altmer didn’t say anything when she left to follow Vilkas out of the cavernous room. The Imperial couldn’t help but feel apprehensive as she left, only to have the feeling explained when she looked up from the ground in the foyer.

Her blood went cold when she saw him across the room talking to Calcelmo.

The familiar burn scars on the elf’s face caught the dull candlelight like fire, turning the scars bright red. The smug grin on Cyrenial’s face made her sick. He was talking in low tones with Calcelmo. Calcelmo didn’t seem to notice that he should be worried about the more than likely nefarious nature of the Thalmor’s intentions.

Valleri pulled on Vilkas’ sleeve to stop him. His face dropped when he saw Cyrenial across the room. “Fuck, we better leave.”

The Nord started to leave, but Valleri couldn’t move. She watched him end his conversation with Calcelmo, smiling all the while. He turned his head towards her, smile disappearing. Chills ran down Valleri’s spine when Cyrenial smirked knowingly and disappeared further into the keep.

“Valleri!”

The Imperial woman flinched before following Vilkas out the door. She made sure to stick close to Vilkas’ side as they went back to the inn.

Chapter Text

Vilkas didn’t think much of anything when he saw the outside façade of Understone Keep. It was still too early in the morning for him to care. Even when he wasn’t sleeping on a literal rock, the Nord was well aware of how difficult he was in the early morning. The cold spray from the falling water in front of the doors hit his bare face like pinpricks. He hoped that the cold water would have woken him up, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Valleri yawned behind him. The Imperial woman was all but hibernating when he woke up that morning. Even when he got up from the shared bed, she didn’t seem to notice. It took Vilkas nearly ten minutes to shake her awake and even then, then Valleri didn’t seem to be entirely present either.

The guards let them into the keep with out too much fuss. Valleri nearly tripped on loose stone in the floor. She looked back at Vilkas, tired eyes suddenly wide. At least she was awake now.

Both Companions made their way to the work station near the bridge leading to the ruins. Aicantar was already there, joined by his uncle and another Altmer. Vilkas didn’t have to see his face to know he wanted to toss the Altmer off the side of one the cliffs outside of the city. Valleri stuck close to him when she caught sight of Cyrenial.

He nudged her arm and spoke in a low tone, “Hey, you’re gonna be all right, yeah?”

Valleri took a deep breath in. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just hold me back if looks like I’m going to do anything to him though, will you?”

“I’ll see if I can try, but no promises.”

Aicantar looked up from the papers on the work space when Valleri and Vilkas approached. There was a slight smile on his face when Valleri waved. Calcelmo looked over his shoulder with a scowl before turning back to Cyrenial. The hopeful expression on both Aicantar and Valleri’s faces disappeared when the old Altmer refused to acknowledge the newcomers.

Vilkas could see the young assistant place a hand on Valleri’s shoulder, “I’m sure he doesn’t mean it.” He paused and regarded his uncle, “But, he does. He definitely does.”

“What are we waiting for exactly?” the Nord asked. He looked around the cavernous room, eyes landing on the massive bronze doors behind the work station. Mounted sculptures of long dead automatons watched the room like buzzards. Nothing about the ruins made Vilkas feel comfortable.

Calcelmo turned around to face the newcomers, “I came to see you two off so that our deal could be carried out properly.”

“Right…” Valleri muttered half to herself. Vilkas sighed, trying his hardest not to look annoyed. Cyrenial moved to Calcelmo’s side. The burn scars on his face were more obvious than he remembered.

“I can take the journal now, Valleri,” Aicantar said with a smile. He waited patiently as the Imperial woman unwrapped the socks covering the book. Vilkas’ eyes didn’t move from Cyrenial. The Thalmor agent was watching Valleri’s every move and Vilkas didn’t like that.

Valleri tensed up as Aicantar flipped through the pages again, “Please be careful with it. It’s already badly damaged and I can’t lose it.”

“Feather light, then. Shame I can’t just toss it into the canal back there, huh?” the Altmer laughed. The Nord couldn’t help but chuckle at the joke. Aicantar’s attempt to lighten the mood was lost on most of the gathering, but there had to be credit for trying.

Calcelmo gave Valleri a sharp look before glancing between her and Vilkas. He gestured at Cyrenial, “I should tell you now hat this man will be joining you two for the expedition. His name is Cyrenial and he came to me last night asking about Falmeri translations as well.”

“Stop right there, you old coot,” Valleri blurted out. She waved her arms wildly, “We didn’t agree on this!”

“I’m well aware of that, Valleri. Keep in mind this doesn’t change what we decided yesterday,” Calcelmo explained. Valleri crossed her arms in a huff, glaring daggers at Calcelmo.

Vilkas shook his head and put a hand on Valleri’s shoulder in attempt to keep her grounded. “This doesn’t change things?” he asked.

“Not at all. I can vouch for him as well. Shortly after Aicantar came back from his sojourn with you, Cyrenial payed us a visit. He’s a private scholar from Alinor interested in the history of the Falmer.”

“Then why is he coming with us?” Valleri asked. She shrugged off Vilkas’ hand, taking a step closer to Calcelmo and Cyrenial.

The aged Altmer sighed, “He wants to see a project we’ve been working on that could be helpful for figuring out what’s in your journal.”

Valleri looked between Calcelmo and Cyrenial for a moment. She breathed in sharply, “Fine. Fine, it’ll probably be good to have an extra person with us and a magic user could prove useful.”

A smile came to the Thalmor’s face when he offered the Imperial a hand shake. Reluctantly, Valleri took it. Cyrenial spoke with a casually bitter tone, “I’m glad I’ll have the chance to work with you, Valleri. I’ve heard many things about you in Cyrodiil, though nothing about how uncouth you could be. I’ll expect an apology later.”

Vilkas watched Valleri freeze. All color left her face when her gaze turned steely. Her mouth turned into a thin line as Valleri didn’t break eye contact with Cyrenial. The Thalmor could see that she was about to lose it. Quickly, Vilkas tore her away, taking care to keep a hand on her arm, and gave Cyrenial a pat on the shoulder. Vilkas smirked, “We haven’t heard anything about you, though. It’s only natural to be wary of those you don’t know. First meetings can leave a lasting impression.”

Cyrenial’s smug grin turned sour when Vilkas stepped back. He brushed off his shoulder where Vilkas touched him. The Altmer was obviously uncomfortable. His eyes snapped back to Vilkas in a moment, “Hopefully Valleri will know how to control her Nordic bear. We wouldn’t want an accident to happen in the excavation site.”

“Wolf, actually,” Vilkas muttered. Valleri cracked a small grin when she heard him.

Aicantar sighed and laughed nervously. He gave Valleri a nudge backwards up the stairs, “Well, it’s about time you guys head off. Time tends to fly in those ruins and we wouldn’t want you guys to get disoriented!”

His uncle gave him a confused look before stopping the group. “Valleri, I’m assuming you’re going to take lead here, so I’ll leave the key with you.”
Valleri quickly placed the key in a spare pocket, patting it closed with a hand. “Thanks. We’ll be in there a day or two depending on what’s going on. But when we come back you better honor your end of the bargain.”

Calcelmo scrunched up his nose. “You underestimate me, girl. I’ve been called bitter and unfair, but no one has ever called me a cheat. That word was meant for Alastaros.” Valleri laughed at Calcelmo’s quip as she followed Vilkas up the stairs. “One more thing before you leave, Valleri?”

“Yeah?”

“If Alastaros is alive like you say, I’d like to speak with him once more. There are things I need to clear up. I hope his journal can tell you where to find your necklace so you can find him as well.”

Valleri’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates as she froze in place. Vilkas could hear her stop breathing momentarily and he could almost see the pure panic in her face. In a moment, she began to shake. Cyrenial’s smile grew vicious as he placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Alastaros, he says? I’d heard he died.”

Cyrenial’s grip on her shoulder tightened. Everything but his voice went quiet. The goose bumps multiplied like fruit flies and the same line of thought repeated itself in Valleri’s head.

He knows.

Now everything she told him when he cornered her at Nightgate was outed as a bald face lie. This was the last place that should have come out. The Thalmor presence in Markarth was heavier here than any other place she’d been in Skyrim. He could easily have her arrested. Vilkas could be arrested as an accomplice. Then everything would be ruined.

The Nord slapped Cyrenial’s hand away from Valleri’s shoulder. “Leave her alone, okay? You two can sort out what ever shit you have later. Until then, we have a job to do.” Vikas’ voice was sharper than usual, making his usual catch phrase sound so unfamiliar. Valleri turned towards him with a thankful expression. He nodded his head in acknowledgment and waited for her to start leading again.

The Thalmor agent wore a frown all the way to the door and walked behind the two like a shadow. Valleri tried not to think about him too much. Vilkas was able to open the bronze doors without too much effort. He handed the key back to her unceremoniously as he held the door open.

When he moved forward, the door closed behind them with a slam. Cyrenial flinched, eyes wide. Watching him being startled by a door made Valleri feel better. At least she was sure that there was a way to make the Thalmor unsure of himself.

“Aicantar mentioned they got rid of the spiders, right?”

Valleri looked back at Vilkas behind her with furrowed eyebrows. “I think. Otherwise how’d those other researchers get farther in?”

Vilkas shrugged, “We really should have asked for more details about what this place is like.”

“I thought you were used to going into old crypts with almost no idea what’s in there,” Valleri joked. She paused and waited for her companions to catch up to her before starting into the side passage. Dirt had been dug away to reveal another chamber at the end. Tools and lamps were left abandoned, lining the edges of the tunnel.

“Are you scared, bear?” Cyrenial asked from behind them.

Vilkas looked back and glared at the Altmer. “Listen, if you’re going to call me a bear, you’re not going to last long with us. We don’t know what’s in here for sure, so its easy to pass off another accident.”

Cyrenial smirked, “You wouldn’t actually kill me. Even you’re not that daft.”

Valleri watched the two of them stare at each other, not saying anything. Vilkas’ glare was suddenly replaced with a joking smirk. He laughed before leaving, “You’re right, I’m not an idiot. But I know first hand how painful a broken leg can be.”

Cyrenial scowled as Valleri turned away as well. The chamber was filled with more excavation equipment and Valleri could see a smaller pile of dead spiders in a corner behind some wooden paneling. She gestured towards the rotting pile, getting Vilkas’ attention.

“Aicantar was right then,” Vilkas whispered to himself. He exchanged a look with Valleri who only nodded affirmatively.

Cyrenial crossed his arms, “You sound almost too pleased for a person that kills for a living.”

Valleri watched the hopeful expression melt off Vilkas’ face. He breathed out sharply before turning around to face the Altmer. He spoke calmly, but Valleri could hear a sharp edge in the tone of his voice, “Just because I’m with the Companions doesn’t mean I enjoy killing for the sake of it. I enjoy a good brawl, but no one enjoys taking the life of another with no good reason.” He paused and stepped closer to Cyrenial. “I’d assume it’s the same for the Thalmor.”

Valleri watched Vilkas’ back for a moment while the two of them didn’t break their stare. Cyrenial’s expression was nearly blank but the Imperial was sure that he was livid. From the few times she’d been with Cyrenial, he’d tried to present himself as a smooth, all-knowing Altmer. She’d doubted his persona before, but seeing Vilkas throw him off made Valleri almost pity him.

She nudged Vilkas’ arm to get his attention. “We should go. We don’t know how long it’s going take us to find the expedition team.”

The Nord muttered something Valleri couldn’t hear and turned back to the next tunnel. Cyrenial followed him at a distance. He was still prickly and didn’t say anything as he pushed past Valleri. The woman frowned as she continued after them. Slowing to a steady pace, Valleri looked around her. The tunnel walls were covered in thick, sticky webbing and the Imperial made sure to keep her arms close to her side. There was no telling how long it would take to get a person out should they get eaten up by the webs.

The Nord was cutting through some more of the webbing that blocked the tunnel’s exit while Cyrenial stood behind him. Vilkas was too busy to look over when Valleri approached. The webs were getting tangled around the blade of his knife. Cyrenial acknowledged her with a glance before going back to watching Vilkas.

“Fresh spider webs?” Valleri questioned.

Vilkas sighed as he took a spare stick and spread the opening wide so the others could walk through. He nodded as Valleri walked through. “We should be careful. The spiders are probably back,” Vilkas warned as he waited patiently for Cyrenial.

“That doesn’t bode well for the expedition team,” Valleri said, stepping into the middle of the massive chamber they now found themselves in. she took a wide look around, noting the brass pipes leading to another door at the back of the room. Her eyes caught sight of a lump on the platform near the door.

Vilkas must have caught sight of it too. He gestured over to it before going up to the platform. Valleri went to follow him, only to pause halfway up the stairs to watch him take a closer look. The corpse of a man in legion armor was sprawled out on the stony floor. The Imperial woman could barely see the two puncture wounds in his back.

The Nord turned back to Valleri and shook his head. Valleri could feel her stomach dropped, “That’s a shame. It looks like he was trying to get away from whatever was in the next part of the ruins.”

“It didn’t go well either,” Vilkas paused, getting a closer look at what killed the man. “It must have been a spider. He’s bone dry; not much blood left in him.”

Valleri rubbed her temples, “I don’t need all the details, Vi.” She reluctantly made her way to the body to get a closer look, “I wouldn’t expect to find any of the team alive at this point.”

The two of them looked back at Cyrenial, who shrugged. “I have no say in what you plan to do. I’m only here to follow up on what happens.”

Valleri exchanged an annoyed glance with Vilkas before kneeling down to turn the body over onto the man’s back. The body was stiff and heavy, but with enough force, Valleri was able to flip him over with a thud. His face was contorted into a fearful that made Valleri shiver.

That’s when Valleri heard a clattering noise reverberate around the chamber. She looked up to see that Cyrenial had kicked a stone absentmindedly. The stone hit one of the brass pipes and caused the noise. The Altmer looked over to Valleri and Vilkas with mild concern.

Then all Valleri could hear was silence.

Cyrenial looked up behind him. His eyes went wide as he backed up to the bottom of the platform. Valleri could just barely see the tips of the spindly legs from the large web on the ceiling. Her heart began to beat faster and faster as the monster began to descend from its hiding spot. She took a quick look at Cyrenial below her. The expression on his face was mixed with stony rage and absolute terror as he tensed up. All of the golden color in his face was washed to an unnatural ashen color.

Vilkas gave her a quick look before sprinting down the stairs. He haphazardly pushed Cyrenial backwards as he took his sword from his back. The spider hit the ground with a thud. It reared up and waved its front legs in the air menacingly before hissing at Vilkas.

The Nord yelled as he charged at it. He brought his great sword down across the spider’s eyes in a single fluid motion. He paused, stepping back against the platform to see the spider crawl back. Once again, it hissed in pain. It bobbed up and down before bring its spindly legs down on the floor in an attempt to trap Vilkas against the wall. The Nord ran as fast as he could against the side of the platform towards the stairs.

“Get that fucking door open!”

Valleri didn’t hesitate and drug Cyrenial behind her. She fumbled in her pocket for the key as Vilkas finally took a defensive stage between them and the spider. It was only a few moments before the spider was almost over the edge of the platform. Valleri could hear it coming closer as she tried to unlock the door. The palms of her hands were sweaty as she attempted to unlock the door with no avail. Cyrenial and Vilkas were yelling behind her, panic obvious in their voices.

Vilkas made one more slash as the spider clambered to the top of the platform. Its hissing protests sounded more like a pained human scream as it went backwards off the platform. Valleri finally heard a click and flung the heavy brass door open for the others to run in. She could still the spindly legs of the spider poking above the side of the platform.

Without another thought, Valleri shut the door with a slam and fell back wards onto the stony floor with the others, trying desperately to catch her breath.

Chapter Text

Everything went dark when the door slammed shut in front of her and Valleri’s knees buckled underneath her. She found herself falling over onto Vilkas, who was already trying to get up from the ground. The woman’s weight made Vilkas fall again. Valleri landed almost flat on her back and didn’t move until her eyes began to adjust to the lack of light.

“Everyone’s okay?” Vilkas asked as he pulled his leg from underneath his Imperial friend. Cyrenial was already up against the wall, brushing the dust away from his robes. Valleri took a deep breath in when Vilkas offered her a hand. “We need to continue forward.”

Taking his hand, Valleri scowled downwards, “Right.” She looked over to the Altmer, “Cyrenial?” You ready?”

“I suppose I’ll have to be.” Cyrenial brushed away some fly away hairs before following the others. Valleri once again took the lead as they continued. The ruin was quiet apart form whatever machinery survived the centuries of rust and cobwebs. The low hum was new to Valleri; the Ayleids didn’t rely on any clockwork machines to do their bidding. Welkynd stones sometimes made a twinkling sound but they were never this loud.

“Hey, Vilkas?”

The Nord looked over his shoulder, “Yeah?”

“I can’t hear a damn thing in this place.”

He nodded and took the lead. Cyrenial followed closely at Valleri’s side. Valleri held her breath when she was finally noticed change in light at the end of the corridor. It wasn’t far off and she was sure there was a larger cavern ahead of them. Vilkas paused and held his hand up when they stood on the cusp of the lit cavern.

The Nord stood close to the wall, gesturing to a bridge in front of them. Valleri squinted her eyes to get a better look through the gloom. She felt her stomach drop when she made out the long spindly form in the distance. Valleri cursed under her breath.

Cyrenial stood behind them, squinting as well, “It’s not one of those Dwemer machines is it?”

“Falmer,” Vilkas muttered, shaking his head. He glanced down at Valleri, “We should have figured this would happen.”

The Imperial’s eyes didn’t move from the strange creature in front of them. “Do you see any more in there?”

“You just sort of have to assume in a place like this.”

“Fuck.” Valleri looked into the next cavernous room again before turning to glance at her companions. “Sneaking in doesn’t seem all that possible with the three of us. You got a bow or something?”

Vilkas shook his head, “Not at all. Cyrenial, can you help us out here?”

“Perhaps,” the Altmer paused, checking his finger nails for dirt, “Though, as soon as I fire off a spell, the Falmer will swarm us. Again, that’s just an educated guess based off my own abilities.” There was a collective groan as Cyrenial finished.

“Wait here!” Valleri muttered half to herself before running down the bridge. Vilkas and Cyrenial stared at her in disbelief as they watched the Imperial. Valleri slowed down as she approached, sticking close to a pillar that separated her from the Falmer. In a fluid moment, Valleri grabbed the Falmer from behind and drag her dagger across its neck. It made an unearthly shriek as Valleri let the Falmer drop to the ground.

She kicked it down into the fog below as she waved Vilkas and Cyrenial over. Valleri looked over the side when she heard a splashing noise. The growls and grunts could be heard from below and she could feel herself tense up for a moment. The others stood still until she was sure the creatures below went back to what ever they were doing.

Valleri breathed again when she turned back to them, “We need to go. There’s a door over there. It’ll probably head down.”

Vilkas and Valleri were already beginning towards the door when Cyrenial stopped them. “Are we even sure we have to go down?”

Valleri paused and glanced between her companions. “Where else do we have to go?” she shrugged. Cyrenial didn’t say anything as he looked down and followed Valleri to the door.

The brass colored door opened with squeak. Valleri cringed as she held the door open, waiting for Vilkas and Cyrenial to fall closer to the wall. Her surroundings were dark again apart from oil lamps carved into the walls at regular intervals. They followed the hall down to a larger room. Two more Falmer were perched on the edge of the walkway, looking down to a lower floor.

Valleri gave Vilkas a wordless nod before turning back to Cyrenial and telling him to wait. After making sure that the Altmer got the idea, the she and Vilkas didn’t bother to hide themselves as they charged the two Falmer. The Imperial’s arm burned as the Falmer’s jagged blade caught her unexpectedly. There was a sneer on her face as she kicked the Falmer off the side of the walkway. It screamed before Valleri heard a snap when it hit the bottom. The Falmer was still muttering after it’s fall and Valleri’s stomach churned.

She didn’t bother to look around her before going down the stairs. There were no oil lamps, making the Imperial woman go slow as she descended. Only the noises of the dying Falmer were loud enough to let Valleri know where she was going. Valleri could hear heart pounding against her chest as she got closer to the Falmer.

It quieted when Valleri knelt down at its side. The silence and darkness around them were eerie and Valleri could feel a cold chill grip her back as she stared at it. The Falmer’s face was twisted in pain, and somehow the desperation it felt was most obvious as the thing struggled to breath. Whatever color was present in its already pale, placid skin was gone. Valleri almost pitied it but couldn’t bring herself to feel much when she finally killed it.

The expression on its face didn’t change as the Falmer finally died. Somehow though, Valleri hoped that it was an easy passing.

“Val!”

The woman stood from her crouching position to glance upwards. Vilkas and Cyrenial looking down at her with concern. Valleri breathed out sharply and looked down at the Falmer. “I’m fine. There’s another passage way down here.”

“Your arm is bleeding,” Cyrenial pointed out when the two men made their way down the stairs. Vilkas gave the dead Falmer a quick glance before looking around.

Valleri tired to laugh it off, “I’ll take care of it later. We’ve got more important things to do.” She started walking off without another word. Cyrenial gave the larger Nord a questioning glance before Vilkas shook his head exasperation.

Valleri’s eyes were once again adjusting to the darkness when they came to the end of the next hall way. She couldn’t help but pause when she took sight of the tall, withered tree growing in a planter in the middle of the room. This time electric lights hummed around her, highlighting the twisted bark of the tree. Its leaves were pale and shriveled. How it was still alive was beyond her.

Cyrenial and Vilkas came up behind and stopped when the too saw the tree. Valleri pulled her eyes away and took another look around the room. It was much more opulently decorated with smaller rooms running off the main foyer.

Valleri went around the side of the tree to one of the back rooms only to find blood covering most of the wall. Strangely enough there was no body anywhere in sight. Valleri followed the blood to a table at the other end of the room. There was no reluctance as Valleri sifted through the bloodied accoutrements on the table. Her hands landed on a journal hidden under clockwork parts. She flipped and skimmed through the pages for anything that could be of help.

Cyrenial came up behind her and began to go through what was left on the table. He held up a severed finger, making Valleri raise her eyebrow questioningly. “Is there anything relevant in there?” he asked after tossing the digit away.

“Apparently there were a few more people on the expedition, but they weren’t here when the Falmer ambushed them.”

Cyrenial didn’t anything but took the journal when the Imperial woman offered it to him. He flipped through absent mindedly before pausing. He stood still with wide eyes and Valleri was sure he was holding his breath.

She laughed nervously, “You’re not getting jumpy, are you?” Valleri shut up when Cyrenial placed a hand over her mouth. He gave her a sharp glare before turning around.

Valleri squinted her eyes and saw a shadowy figure hunched over in the door. The woman pushed Cyrenial’s hand away from her mouth, now able to breathe properly again. “Where’s Vilkas?”

“He was on his way to another room.”

Both of them stood still as they watched the hunched figure come closer. Valleri glanced back to Cyrenial. The Altmer’s face was contorted with steely determination as he watched the hunched figure. He slowly picked up a spare piece of sharp metal. Pushing Valleri to the side of the room, he scurried to the other end. The hunched figure, an armor clad Falmer, entered the room, grunting all the while.

Valleri once again unsheathed the small dagger when the blind elf started to walk towards her. Chills went down her spine when the Falmer stopped in front of her. She could smell the sweat and urine wafting off the monstrosity. She blinked slowly before sidestepping the Falmer in order to get a better swing at him when she was sure she was ready.

The Imperial was about to spring on the monstrous elf when she watched a brass colored piece of metal hit the back of the Falmer’s head. It turned around and hissed before running towards Cyrenial. The Altmer looked panicked as he readied a spell. Valleri didn’t hesitate to run at the Falmer, jumping on it’s back to get a grip on the slippery armor.

The Falmer wriggled underneath Valeri in an attempt to free itself. The woman clung onto one of the horns jutting out of the helmet. Her dagger finally slashed at the Falmer’s chest. She could feel the blade go deep. Dragging across the solid flesh was met with resistance. Dull copper blood seeped from the wound when the Falmer screamed in Valleri’s ear. She grimaced and let go after pulling the small dagger from its chest.

“Val, out of the way!”

Valleri looked over her shoulder as she stumbled over to Cyrenial. Vilkas fired the knocked arrow and Valleri heard a went thunk as it found it’s place in the Falmer’s neck. The Falmer fell to his knees in the next moment. A plume of dust rose into the air when the Falmer fell.

Vilkas stood at the door way with another arrow knocked on the rusted bow he picked up. He retrieved the damaged arrow as he spoke, “I found a body in the other room. There was some flesh missing. I figured the Falmer had some sort of meal planned.”

“That explains the finger I found a moment ago,” Cyrenial muttered. “What of the bow, then? That was quite unexpected.”

Vilkas narrowed his eyes, “What does that mean?”

“Nothing really,” the Altmer shrugged. Vilkas didn’t break his accusatory glare. “I mean exactly what I said.”

Valleri shook her head and made her way to stand in between the two of them. “I have to agree with Cyrenial. It’s just the luck of the draw at this point.” She tapped the Falmer with her foot, “I didn’t realize they would craft any sort of armor though.”

Vilkas chuckled to himself, thoroughly amused. “Yeah, who’d have thought?”

“There’s more important matters than these monsters,” Cyrenial cut in with a cough. He held up the journal he and Valleri found before the ambush.

“Oh, right!” the Imperial woman exclaimed. Her smirk was replaced with a colder expression as she gestured wildly, “The man you found in the other room wasn’t the only person in Nchuand-Zel. There were at least three other researchers who were cut off by the Falmer in other parts of the ruin.”

“The researchers were already settled in when the Falmer attacked them?” Vilkas asked. Both Valleri and Cyrenial nodded affirmatively. “Did this one know where his friends ended up?”

“Not at all,” Valleri paused, “Though I’d imagine that after holing himself up, who ever this guy was, he was the last one to get picked off by the Falmer.”

Cyrenial shrugged and began to walk off, “Well, it’s not the worst thing that can happen to a person.” He disappeared into the gloom. Vilkas and Valeri exchanged concerned glance before catching up to him. The three of them made their way back up the stairs to where they found the first few Falmer and didn’t slow down.

Vilkas looked back momentarily, noting a second passage he hadn’t seen before. He spoke loudly, “Shouldn’t we take a look over there before we leave?”

Valleri looked back as well, “There’s be no point in that; we found what we needed here.” She paused, taking Vilkas’ hand to urge him forward, “Besides this isn’t our excavation. It wouldn’t be fair to take over a site that someone else has already claimed. People get in a lot of trouble for taking credit for any person’s discoveries.”

The Nord shook his head with a frown, “That makes no sense to me.”

“It’s a matter of respect,” Valleri finished as she held the door open for Cyrenial and Vilkas. Valleri and Vilkas locked eyes momentarily with an accusatory expression. The Nord didn’t say anything when he looked away. Looking around the cavern again, Valleri spotted another way down. She nudged the Altmer in front of her, “There’s a walkway just behind that plaza there.”

Cyrenial sighed with exasperation, “There are absolutely no hand railings in this place. Makes you wonder how the Falmer just don’t fall of the sides.”

“It’s been a few millennia since they went blind. By now it’s just how the live,” Vilkas explained as he stood behind Cyrenial.

“Ah, much like the Empire’s recent lack of proper government, I take it? They’ll eventually get used to that soon enough too.”

Valleri laughed heartily, “Can’t deny that!” The Imperial gave Cyrenial a sharp, playful smack on the shoulder before rushing down the walkway. She slowed as she approached the middle platform. There was another lamp overhead, illuminating the small area. Leaning against the wall to catch her breath, Valleri watched the others on their way down.

Vilkas pointed at her arm, “How’s it holding up?”

“I think jumping that Falmer probably wasn’t the best thing to do,” Valleri explained, smirk still on her face. Curious, she rolled her sleeve up to check the wound. Dried blood was crusted around the edges of the wound and Valleri started to feel the sting once more. She looked at the watery ground underneath them, “It’s quiet. I was certain there were other Falmer down here. Maybe I was wrong.”

“You can hear them if you listen closely. They’re just hiding for now since they know we’re here,” Vilkas muttered. He turned back to Cyrenial behind him, “We’re gonna take a quick break. Val’s arm needs to be bandaged up before anything else happens to it.”

The Altmer shrugged as he found a spot on the other side of the platform to look at the rest of the cavern. Vilkas gave Valleri a quick look, “Can I assume you still have those bandages?”

“Yeah,” Valleri said, rubbing the blood off with a damp cloth. When she was done, the Imperial began to rifle through the small pouch at her side. She produced a roll of white linen and handed it to her friend. “You’re not going to make a mess of this, are you?”

The Nord furrowed his eyebrows in thought. He began to unravel the spool as he laughed, “To be honest, I think you’re going to need a stitch or two. We don’t have the time for that though.” He secured the wrapping with a tight knot, allowing Valleri to roll down her sleeve. “You’ll be fine.”

“One can hope,” Valleri chuckled.

Cyrenial waved the two over, pointing to another door separated from the main plot of dry ground by a moat. There was still no sign of any Falmer around. He didn’t move his gaze as he spoke, “May I assume that’s where we’re going?”

Valleri smiled widely.

“Absolutely.”