“I know you have the best intentions, Meraxes, but you can’t be bringing vampires into Jorrvaskr. There’s a certain—“
“Can you hear yourself speak, Aela?” The half-Nord rose from her seat, drowned in three times her usual helping of wine, then pointed an accusatory finger at the huntress. As if someone had strapped a massive weight to Meraxes’s back, she stood like a hermit, unbalanced. “Because it sure fucking seems like that’s the only reason you’re talking.”
Aela’s face turned awry as she snorted with contempt, her nose beginning to contort with the slightest trifle of anger. At feeling the monster within her grow disturbed, the huntress felt helpless inside. Those were feelings she wouldn’t dare convey to someone who’d fought in any of Skyrim’s wars, even if she’d been battling the beast inside herself for as long as she could remember. All she could think about was Skjor. Getting over herself had been difficult enough, but her mourning hadn’t stopped.
“I’m sorry. I’ll take her outside if you’d prefer it.”
The voice had come from behind Meraxes, and when she turned, there stood the taller Nordess, clad in the robes of Clan Volkihar. Anywhere she went, the Daughter of Coldharbour was unmistakable. Aela caught her brilliant eyes for a fraction of a second before the vampire turned to Meraxes. In the air, the huntress could smell tension so thick she could snap it like an arrow, a musty twinge of disgust, and powerful curiosity.
“Serana.” Meraxes turned to her companion with a half-sunken face; the kind one could only have after a long night of drinking.
“Oh, save it,” The vampire retorted bitterly, and instantly, Aela could identify the source of the disgust. And the tension. “I hate it when you’re like this.”
Weighed down by her steel armor, the drunken Whitemane grasped the edge of a table to prevent herself from falling—no, it was a chair, but she thought it would have been the table—and it seemed there were four chairs there, when somehow there had originally been two. Her mind must have been playing some sort of dirty trick.
“There’s an idea. Take her outside, and why don’t you do us a favor and get lost with her?” Aela could feel the anger she thought she’d suppressed swelling up inside her; threatening to bite. “You shouldn’t have come here to begin with. Your kind isn’t welcome.”
Serana’s expression, despite the hue in her eyes, which remained alight like boiling gold, was as frigid as her blood.
“Tell me why. Why do we have to leave? This is the only home Meraxes has, and you already heard her story. We have to move, anyway, before—“
“We don’t want the Dawnguard here. That’s certainly a part of it. While they’re not much for numbers like their Silver Hand counterparts, they certainly make up for it with their technology.”
Motioning towards the door with a frustrated wave of her hand, the huntress led Serana, who practically dragged a staggering Meraxes with her, to Jorrvaskr’s little backyard. Outside was empty. Quiet. The sounds of new-bloods calling to Eorlund, announcing they had weapons ripe for sharpening, was shot to Oblivion. Farkas was absent, a feat about which Meraxes would have remarked if she were capable of paying attention. He was usually at the training site, swinging his greatsword to slice the head off a hay-and-flax dummy. Instead, Farkas remained in Kodlak’s quarters, locked along with his brother, Vilkas, as the Harbinger wished to prevent them from murdering Serana out of cold blood.
“You really don’t understand, then? Vampires and werewolves have always been at odds. The Circle, save Kodlak, are bound to see you differently. And that’s not even the half of it! There are a number of larger issues present which tell me only that you need to leave immediately.”
Aela’s expression grew increasingly unforgiving as she spoke, hardening with disappointment as Meraxes’s face twisted stupidly askew. The huntress blamed both the alcohol and her companion’s insolence.
What an idiot...though I have to admit that I miss her sober days.
She shook her head, clearly having lost some belief in her Shield-Sister. Shield-Sister. Sometimes, Aela didn’t even feel like granting her that formality.
“At least there’s hope for one of you. Meraxes won’t remember a damn thing I say, even if I swore it on Hircine’s hide.”
No matter how frustrated Aela grew with Meraxes, she could never bring herself to hate her. The huntress was the reason Kodlak took her in; Meraxes had been a mercenary who’d lost most of her humanity. She still feared, after all these years, that the veteran would never regain her remorse.
Aela thought of her love lost, and the frustration she felt melted into a partial sadness. He fought in Skyrim’s wars, too. I don’t want to send Meraxes away. Not like this. But if the vampire stays, Farkas will kill her.
“What are those issues? I don’t know Skyrim anymore, but I’ll find somewhere to take her, if you can explain,” Serana thought it was within her rights to know, yet, if it somehow wasn’t, she’d be more than fine with uprooting to leave. After all, her and Meraxes had only been at Jorrvaskr for a couple of hours. Those hours, however, had been dreadfully eventful. “I don’t intend to harm anyone here.”
At how disturbed Aela’s countenance became when Serana said she didn’t know Skyrim anymore, she grew slightly concerned. Perhaps the vampire should have refrained from commenting. After all, not many would believe that she’d been trapped in stone for several generations.
“Did you notice that Kodlak took two of our members downstairs?”
Serana’s eyes shifted as Meraxes fixed her gaze momentarily at a butterfly, groaning when she realized her head hurt too badly to follow it with her eyes. The next morning would be a tough one, if the half-Nord lived to see it. Serana wasn’t sure whether she should have felt anger or pity towards her.
“Yes, but I didn’t think much of it.”
Aela’s brows furrowed as, like an unwelcome neighbor, her frustration returned.
“You might not have, but our family gathers at the table for each dinner. What went on was out of custom. If Meraxes were sober enough to see straight, she would have certainly thought it odd.”
Serana gave Meraxes’s shoulder the lightest shake, an experiment to gauge her consciousness, to which her shorter companion didn’t respond. For a moment, the vampire stared. How much of the time she spent with Meraxes did the veteran even remember? She’d been drunk so often.
“As I was; Farkas and Vilkas are their names. And, if you take a single step in what they could remotely consider their territory, they won’t hesitate to kill you. Especially not Farkas.”
“Well, it’s not like I’m not already dead.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do, but why?”
Aela’s gaze drifted to the hills of farms beyond Whiterun walls as she thought of fabrications that might have made the world just a bit more livable for Serana. As much as it was difficult for the huntress to grasp her own emotions, sometimes, she simply didn’t agree with Farkas and Vilkas, even if they were her Shield-Brothers. She held steadfast to the thought that, no matter what an individual’s alternative form, the true tell of a monster resided within its personality.
Serana didn’t seem monstrous to Aela at all.
Her resolve hardened at the belief. She had to tell the vampire the truth.
“Farkas and Vilkas’s father fought in a war with many casualties. I’m sure you’ve already heard about it, being in Meraxes’s company for a moment, although she wasn’t old enough to fight in that conflict. We call it the Great War.”
“The Great War.”
Serana repeated, as if she were reading a book aloud. History fascinated her, and she’d missed so much of it.
“...Right. To continue, their father...”
It had never been easy saying goodbye to Jergen, either. Another upstanding man lost to a war which, over the years it raged on, began to seem less and less Great. “He never came home.”
Aela had a harder time telling this story than she’d remembered. The one thing Meraxes had been good for in that moment—that ice-brained drunk—was smiling like an idiot, as if she couldn’t hear the painful words that danced macabre around her ears. She’d managed to mask the whole world with a violet veil of wine.
“Jurgen was a member of the Circle. A werewolf, like me. Like Meraxes.”
She continued as Meraxes slumped over in Serana’s grasp, nearly unconscious. “Later, after investigating Jergen’s death to see if the Silver Hand had any involvement, I discovered—“
The back doors of Jorrvaskr slammed open, banishing the peaceful silence of moments ago. Standing before the tables, one of which had already been knocked into a wooden derelict on the ground, were Farkas and Vilkas.
“You! Why are you taking to that fucking leech?”
Farkas’s voice contained within its deep majesty a horrific and unusual hiss, which struck Meraxes as out of the ordinary even in her half-conscious state.
Inquired their drunken Shield-Sister, or, rather, she attempted to, as Farkas advanced with his greatsword drawn. Serana was tempted to shake her, although she supposed that it wouldn’t do much. Meraxes looked as helpless as a child, so the vampire would have to defend herself. The promise Meraxes had made—that she wouldn’t get in Serana’s way if Serana didn’t get in hers—was equal parts hilarious and disappointing, now.
“I’m not here to—“
Serana began, but someone cut her off.
“We didn’t invite Molag Bol to dinner, and quite frankly, none of us want anything to do with him.”
He’d always been kinder than Farkas, but Aela failed to see that kindness now, as he readied his weapon to strike down someone who’d done nothing to him.
Then again, didn’t the Companions do that every day? Surely, not all of the Silver Hand wielded Skjor’s blood, just because one had struck him down. Aela shook her head at her dissonance; at nothing anybody else could see. She’d save those thoughts for some other time.
“Could you all shut the fuck up? Talos have mercy.”
Farkas lowered his greatsword, but not because he inclined to grant Serana any benevolence. It was because the voice had come from Meraxes, who was bound to fall face-first into the broken table if the vampire let her go.
“What’s your Divines-damned problem, Shield-Sister? You must’ve had a whole keg to drink if you think you’re doing something good in defending a leech. Step out of the way so I can—“
Another voice bellowed from behind the twin brothers; one clearly recognizable to all of those in the Companions, and moreso, the feuding members of the Circle:
“By Ysgramor; what is this nonsense I’m hearing? You all are fighting like little children.”
Vilkas crossed his arms after sheathing his weapon. He was the more reasonable when compared to Farkas. At least he chose to stay true to himself then.
Farkas, on the other hand, offered the Harbinger the greeting of a readied greatsword.
“Could someone tell me what happened here?”
When Vilkas opened his mouth to speak, Kodlak silenced him with a wave of his hand. “Someone reasonable. Vilkas, your emotions consume you.”
His gaze fell on Aela. Momentarily, Serana was mesmerized. For a mortal, Kodlak’s eyes shone with a great amount of wisdom, and with the recognition of his limitations. You remind me of my father, before his hands touched that prophecy, She thought, before coming to realize that she’d been staring. Serana promptly averted her eyes.
If only Harkon Volkihar still wore a similar countenance, then perhaps he wouldn’t be so cruel.
“I say we remove these two from Jorrvaskr, but only temporarily, my lord. Meraxes has been drinking since she’s been here, and her friend—“
“I wouldn’t say we’re friends.”
Serana wasn’t too shy to correct Aela’s assumption. She’d only known Meraxes for a short time, and despite the fact that the vampire felt as if she owed the veteran her life, she’d acquired a dislike for Meraxes’ behaviors when she fell deep into her habits.
Aela’s shoulders tensed as she grew exasperated. The huntress continued:
“She’s a vampire.”
Kodlak simply nodded. It was a slow and peaceful gesture; not as frantic as those of the twins or even Aela herself. The brothers watched Serana through narrowed eyes, Farkas staring daggers at even Meraxes, the Sister with which he’d lost Skjor.
“I’m aware. This is why I shut Farkas and Vilkas inside with me. I did not believe they had it in them to rebel physically, but I certainly stand corrected.”
Silence came, and Kodlak spent it deep in thought. That is, until he finally came to a decision.
“For Meraxes’s well-being, she cannot stay here. House Whitemane, though it is safe for Meraxes as a member of the Circle, is not so for her traveling companion. I will, however, pay for a room in The Bannered Mare, but on a single condition.”
What could Meraxes possibly offer this man in such a drunken state?
Serana pondered the few possibilities and turned to her rescuer, who lay almost limp between the vampire’s arm and a table. She wondered who had really saved the other in that moment.
“You could let me slay the vampire. That would fix everything.”
Farkas spoke through gritted teeth, yet Serana didn’t seem afraid. Instead, her own bitterness haunted her mind. To see a man so blinded by the unreasonable reminded her of her father.
Raising his hand yet again, this time to silence Farkas, the Harbinger turned to Serana and announced his wish:
“Tell me who you are, and how Meraxes found you.”
The inkeeper, a mild-mannered Imperial, seemed more than grateful for a share of Kodlak’s gold. She grinned ear to ear as he passed the sack over the bar, and in exchange, handed him a rusted key.
“We don’t have any two-bed rooms open, but I’d be happy to bring an extra bed roll in for...”
Trying to smile at the drunk heap of armored adventurer that was Meraxes, the inkeeper only swallowed nervously. “...for her.”
The Harbinger nodded, a gesture with which he was more than comfortable, and took the key.
“That would be ideal.”
The rest of House Whitemane were children to Kodlak, or as close as he’d ever gotten to having his own. He would never leave young Meraxes without a place to sleep, even if she’d caused an entire riot in Jorrvaskr. Perhaps his kindness was weakness, but that was never how Kodlak himself saw it. The beast inside of him was one he rejected; his behavior only opposed what he was most afraid of becoming.
In the momentary silence, a bard began to strum the lute and sing:
“I loved a maid as fair as summer
with sunlight in her hair.”
Koldlak was about to chime on his taste for that particular, under-sung tune, but the vampire remarked instead:
“She’s heavy, even for me.”
Serana gripped Meraxes’s legs, letting the drunk’s head rest, unconscious, on one of her shoulders. If the half-Nord dared drool on her, she would be angry. After all, it’s not like she’d been locked in that monolith coffin with an extra change of clothes.
The vampire would have been ready to set Meraxes down as soon as possible, but something felt strange. No. It felt wrong.
Voiced Serana, leaving the words hanging in the air for Kodlak to capture. “The pulse. It feels...off.”
Kodlak turned his head, and that was the first time Serana had seen a frown spread across his face.
“She didn’t tell you why the Imperials discharged her, did she?”
The bard continued, his voice unwelcome to even Serana, who had not heard a song in hundreds of years:
“I loved a maid as white as winter
with moonglow in her hair.”
Serana gracefully hid her confusion, although that didn’t mean it was any less present.
“We’ve known each other for a week.”
Kodlak simply arched his head forward into another nod.
The Daughter of Coldharbour could tell why the city called his House “Whitemane.” His beard, grown from time and experience, appeared pale as snow under the lights of the inn; even paler than Serana’s own skin.
“She never was the most open girl, but I will give her the benefit of the doubt in that we all have our monsters. Some lie within us as dormant beasts, but if we allow them control over us, we will become them.”
Serana owed Kodlak’s statement some thought. Whether or not Meraxes had known a monster too many couldn’t possibly excuse her actions, but perhaps it could explain them. She was slowly losing faith in anyone’s capacity to tame her rescuer’s beast within.
As the innkeeper returned moments later with the spare bedroll, Kodlak tucked his drunken foster daughter gently into it, while Serana perched herself at the foot of the room’s wooden bed. It had been a while since she’d seen a bed, let alone sat on one. The vampire preferred resting in them herself; she hated the small, dark spaces coffins provided her kin. The deep sleep the rest of her brethren could achieve within them would always remain a mystery to her.
“I know. She seems determined to drink herself to death, too.”
Serana’s twinge of sarcasm registered to Kodlak, but as a coping mechanism more than anything. He had his way of seeing through people, and his reading on The Volkihar woman suggested she’d met many beasts of her own. No wonder, even if the two didn’t get along all the time, Serana remained with Meraxes.
“She was not always that way. Not before she enlisted in the War. Although, perhaps she should be telling you these things.”
Kodlak sat in the room’s only chair, etches of determination still present on his aging face. “Serana, is it?” The Harbinger already knew the answer to his own question. He didn’t wait for a reply. “If you tell me how Meraxes found you, and why she of all others brought you to Jorrvaskr, it would help me better understand why the Dawnguard is after the both of you.”
From what Meraxes had told her about Kodlak, if she was remotely trustworthy, than so was he; likely even more so. Serana would have been reluctant to spill such details to questionable characters, but Kodlak had given Meraxes the only home she currently knew.
Serana could confide in him. She had a feeling, which resonated within her bones, and no matter how old her skeleton grew, those feelings were never wrong.
Her porcelain visage hardened to stone.
“It began with a man named Isran.”
End of Chapter 1.
Next: Serana‘s rescuer is not what she expected.