“I can breathe more deeply now. I can’t smell your heart beating the way i used to. But my mind is… clear.”
Those were the first words spoken after the curse was lifted and the spirit of the wolf was finally laid to rest. Their meaning wasn’t pondered over at the time, just words in the aftermath of an intense battle. It wasn’t until much later, when those words entered her dream, that she began to pore over the possible intentions.
Tossing and turning in her bed in Lakeview Manor, the DragonBorn tried to find clarity within the mysterious declaration. ‘What did he mean by that?’ She wondered, sleep eluding her once again. It wasn’t until the sky began turning gray that she could finally fall into slumber, and Rayya the steward wisely let her Thane sleep as long as she needed to.
It was around mid-afternoon when she finally woke up, and as her golden eyes opened she heard the sounds of Lucia playing outside, along with the semi-distant sound of a pickaxe on stone, letting her know that Rayya was mining the iron ore deposit that was nearby. At least she had the house to herself, which was a good thing in her current mood.
Lucia giggled at something, and the DragonBorn resisted going and looking out the window to find out what had enchanted her daughter so while she stretched out her limbs. Currently clad in only a simple linen shift over leggings, she wondered what people might think if they knew the DragonBorn slept in minimal clothing because it was faster to grab the bow next to her bed than to get dressed in the event bandits stormed her home.
With a small sigh, she flicked a lock of her long midnight hair off of her shoulder and strode over to her wardrobe. As she opened the doors to reveal the contents, she was greeted with various robes and armors hanging neatly. Glancing over to the mannequin in the hallway that was clad in her statement ebony armor, she decided against being so bold today.
There was no one to impress, no Jarl to look good for as she tried to create peace in a town, so she was free to wear what she desired. Rummaging past mage robes, thief garb, and leather gear, she decided on wearing her elven armor today. While it had a definitive green sheen to it, she admired how light it was on her body, and made for accurate archery without being weighed down by her gauntlets or chest piece.
Sitting down on the edge of her bed, she put on the foot wrappings one at a time, then slipped on the boots and bracers. From there she added the waist piece to protect her groin and her thighs, the maille jingling merrily as she adjusted the belt. Pulling the armor over her head, she had the thought that it was certainly ridiculous wearing so much all the time, but her time in Skyrim had taught her that anything less was tempting death from others, let alone the Daedra.
She then put on her enchanted leather gloves, and over that her elven gauntlets. Pulling the helmet on over her hair, she tucked her tresses up inside it neatly so that she wouldn’t catch any arrows and ruin her quiver. From afar, one would think she was a slim male in decent armor instead of the female DragonBorn. That was how she liked it, since a bandit slipping close would catch her unrelenting force shout and then taste the steel of her short sword.
Strapping her glass bow and quiver of matching arrows to her back, she then headed out into the hallway, down the stairs and went outside. “Mama!” Lucia called, running up to her. Her shining face warmed the nord woman’s heart, and every day she was grateful for adopting this child.
“Hello Lucia,” she replied, her greeting warm and full of love.
“Do you have anything for me?” the precocious child asked, and she watched her mother intently as she hoped for a toy or a treat. Reaching into the pouch secured at her hip, she pulled out a honey nut treat and held it out for Lucia. “Thanks!” she called as she trotted off with it, and the DragonBorn chuckled to herself before heading over to the stable.
“Honored to see you, my Thane,” came Rayya’s gentle voice, and she emerged from the shadow of the trees. Her eyes were bright, but wary as the steward flicked a glance around them, always on the lookout for bandits, necromancers, wolves, or dragons. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary her gaze returned, and she smiled.
“Good afternoon, Rayya,” the DragonBorn replied, her tone polite but not cold. “I am traveling to Whiterun today, and should be gone for a few days. I would like for you to look after Lucia while I’m gone, and to purchase another chicken. The wolves ate one last time a pack came through.”
“Of course, I’ll see to it at once,” Rayya said, accepting the gold and putting it away. With that she waved while the DragonBorn hopped into the saddle of her favorite horse, affectionately known as ‘Queen Allie’ and rode off at a brisk trot towards her destination. It was going to be a long ride, and she intended to rest in Riverwood along the way.
Night had long since fallen by the time she made it into Riverwood, and she dismounted Allie by the stables before heading straight to the inn and paying for a bed to sleep in. Thankfully she was so exhausted from all the hours spent in the saddle that sleep found her quickly, and by the time morning came she had a quick meal of cabbage soup and some wine before heading out to grab Allie and continue on her way.
The trip was a relatively easy one, save for the wolves that tried to make a meal of her. Merely galloping out of their reach, she then slowed down to a trot so that she wouldn’t tire her horse out too quickly. She crossed a few rivers and streams, noting the plentiful game and the mudcrabs on the banks while she traversed the land. Hunting would be good, should she need to.
It was nearing sunset when she finally broached the stables of Whiterun, and she dismounted with the casual skillfulness of a seasoned warrior while a stable hand grabbed Allie’s reins to lead her to a stall for a rubdown and feeding. Nonchalantly flicking her hand in a wave, she strode up the stone path towards the gates with the confidence of someone who knew what they were doing.
As the Thane of Whiterun, she was greeted by many people while she passed by Breezehome, and waved to her Housecarl Lydia on the way past. She continued onward and upwards, up to the first marketplace. Turning left, she ascended the stone stairs that led her to the great tree in the middle of a circular area, in front of a statue the Servant of Talos preached at all day every day.
Ignoring his words while he yelled about maggots writhing in the dust, she picked up her pace into a slight trot while turning towards the steps that led to Jorrvaskr. Pushing on the doors to head inside, the difference in light caused her to squint and so she couldn’t see for several moments when she slipped inside the hall.
“Hail, Harbinger,” said a voice, and she shifted to see who had managed to get the drop on her while she was momentarily blinded. As her vision cleared, she was greeted with the sight of Aela the Huntress standing before her. One look told her that Aela had recently transformed, and looked a little exhausted from it. Whatever she had been doing, it had clearly taxed her in some manner.
“Hail, Aela,” she replied solemnly, but her face was pensive. “You look tired. Perhaps you should rest before going on the next mission, and eat to regain your strength.” Aela nodded without replying, and left to go to the sleeping quarters. With that she shifted her attention to see who was inside the main hall, and who was missing.
Surprisingly, aside from Aela the place was empty. Either people had already headed off to bed, or they were still outside training. Walking past the great tables filled with food at all hours, she opened the doors leading to the courtyard that was often the training arena for new prospects and greenhorn recruits.
Torches glowed brightly, and the thumps of impacts on the mannequins let her know that indeed there were still Companions out here honing their skills under the watchful eyes of those that remained of the circle. Heading down the steps, she noted that some were practicing with bows on the targets, while others were swinging blades wildly at the dummies.
“Watch your footwork, Ria, or you’ll fall right over.” The honeyed drawl of an accented voice she knew too well graced her ears as she drew nearer, and she saw him standing there watching the recruits. His arms were folded against the silver wolf armor that gleamed in the rosy light, but his attention was solely on his students.
Vilkas, one of the leaders of the Companions. She knew without seeing his face that he was frowning, his silver eyes intense while he observed his shield-sister practice her two-handed skills. Ria had been the new recruit before she had joined the Companion guild, but while she had managed to become Harbinger and take over after Kodlak Whitemane’s death, the other had fallen behind thanks to the Silver Hand’s attack before they’d been weeded out for good.
Ria whined about the sword being heavy and throwing off her technique, and Vilkas chastised her before showing her the proper form for the swing she was attempting on the mannequin. A smile crossed the DragonBorn's face before she was rudely bumped into, and she stumbled a bit from being caught off-guard.
“Hey! Watch it there milk drinker!” a surly voice snarled at her, and the man who had bumped her eyed her with disdain. Before she could utter a shout that would send this pompous ass flying across the courtyard, a gloved hand plopped onto the man’s shoulder and spun him around. The DragonBorn's eyes flicked up to take in Farkas, a man of few words but who took honor seriously.
“That’s the Harbinger you’ve just spoken to so rudely, mongrel whelp,” he growled at the man, before cocking back a fist and sending it flying into the khajiit’s face and sending him sprawling across the stones. Farkas then spat on the cat’s body while he moaned in pain, stepping over him to their leader.
“You alright?” he asked, his drawl showing his satisfaction at putting someone into their place. He hated it when people were dishonorable around him, especially to women or those he saw as his friends. Nobody spoke like that to the Harbinger of the Companions though, no matter who it was. Kodlak had been revered by all nine holds in Skyrim, and the DragonBorn was reaching equal levels of respect and admiration.
She nodded tightly, pursing her lips to hold back the Shout she was itching to release in her irritation. The khajiit on the ground moaned again, then sat up while holding his face. “You broke this one's nose,” he complained, and she noted the dagger at his side. “It’s not this one's fault that little she-nord was in the way while this one was--” he was unable to finish his sentence.
“FUS RO DAH!” she Shouted, fury adding to the power of the dragon cry and sending the idiot flying back into the mannequins, knocking them all over with a mighty crash. All battle practice stopped, and everyone turned to look at her as she panted slightly. Vilkas approached her slowly, his hands held high to show he meant no harm.
“Aelinna Storm-Bringer,” he said softly, using her name. “Harbinger of the Companions, Slayer of the Glenmoril Witches, Thane of Whiterun, DragonBorn.” Hearing her titles along with her name helped bring her back to reality, and the rage left her face while the unmistakable aura of magic faded from around her.
As her stance relaxed, she noticed him take a subtle sigh of relief while Farkas let go of the hilt of the sword at his back. The twins were two of the very few who knew her name outside of the Jarls and the Greybeards, the others being Aela and Kodlak, Ysmir rest his soul. “Pay no mind to the insolent whelp, he is a new prospect who will be rejected after his actions of today,” Vilkas continued, his accent lending a lilt to his words and making even the most mundane of conversations sound exotic.
Farkas nodded in agreement, folding his arms across his beefy chest in a stance mirrored to that of his brother’s earlier. “Man comes in and insults the Harbinger, then expects us to sit back and accept that is no man to me,” he said gruffly, adding on to his brother’s words in his less eloquent fashion.
The sound of clattering wood drew the trio’s attention, and they watched as Ria tried to help the khajiit out of the pile of ruined dummies and targets. “Sorry about the mess,” Aelinna said at length, and both men shook their heads at her.
“Don’t worry about it, some men need to learn their place in the world and he’s one of them,” Vilkas replied, humor tinting his words as his mood brightened.
“Yeah, that milk drinker had it coming to him,” Farkas chimed in, looking somewhat amused himself while they watched the show. Ria stumbled backwards when the khajiit swiped at her, but she started yelling at him with enough profanity that they looked suitably impressed.
As he finally got to his feet, blood streaming from his broken nose, Ria managed to pull him free of the wreck he’d made and then began taking him away. “Ria!” Vilkas called to her, and she paused to look at him. “Take him to the Temple of Kynareth for healing.”
“Yes sir!” she called back, and then the pair left without any more issues. Aelinna watched them go, a thoughtful expression crossing her face.
“Can you imagine if he knew the truth of the circle?” she asked, and the twins gaped at her. The mirrored expressions cause a giggle to escape her lips, and then they both frowned at her.
“Do not jest of such things, Harbinger,” Vilkas scolded, but that just caused her to giggle harder, whilst simultaneously trying not to actually laugh and draw attention to their conversation. This of course caused her to look very comical with a fist pressed to her lips while the twin brothers stared her down, but thankfully no one had been looking in their direction so Aelinna was able to compose herself.
“That cat would get us all killed if he knew the truth,” Farkas growled, and Aelinna nodded her acquiescence to his point. “It’s better that he leaves thinking us a rowdy bunch with honor than wolves out for blood.”
His last statement caused Vilkas to snort, and Aelinna once again attempted to drown out her giggling so that anyone nearby wouldn’t hear them and ask what it was they were talking about. “And just what is so funny?” a pleasant voice asked from behind, and Aelinna spun around. Eorlund Grey-Mane stood there, smiling at her.
“Hello Eorlund,” she greeted pleasantly, and he nodded back to her. “What brings you down from the skyforge?” he glanced at the twins before replying, and she immediately wondered if he was up to something that she didn’t know about yet.
“I came to tell you that I have a new axe ready, made from some new steel I got in recently,” he explained, and she narrowed her eyes ever so slightly at him. She didn’t use a war axe, everyone knew that. She heavily favored the bow and the short sword, so Eorlund coming down to talk about a weapon she would never use was quite unusual.
“I see,” she replied, her tone guarded while she began to shift into a stance that said she was willing to grab her short sword sheathed at her hip at a moment’s notice, or her bow if necessary. Seeing her shift in body language, both of the men grabbed their hilts while staring at the long time blacksmith for the Companions.
“Peace, Harbinger,” Eorlund said, making a calming motion with his hand while watching to see if she was going to attack him or not. She moved slightly to a more relaxed position, but her guard was definitely up. Noticing this, he smiled again while turning to face the direction of the forge. “Come with me and see it, in the underforge. Those two can come along as well.”
At that they all exchanged glances with each other, then decided to see what the old man was up to. There was definitely something afoot here, and the best way to find out would be to play his game until they could get more information. If there was something going on, the underforge was the best place to talk about it since only the circle had access to it.
Following him up the hill towards the underforge, Aelinna couldn’t help but think about Skjor as she passed through the doorway. While his death had been unavoidable, she wondered what would be different if they had managed to defeat the Silver Hand in time, or for that matter had managed to prevent them from attacking Jorrvaskr and killing Kodlak and wounding Athis.
She definitely wouldn’t be the Harbinger now, and it was likely that she and the twins would all still be werewolves. While she had gotten used to the transformations, it had been annoying during the Hunt of Hircine when she had been trying to appease the Daedric Prince and wearing the ring that caused her to shift forms at random intervals.
Eorlund interrupted her thoughts as he paused by the great bowl that was used for the rituals. Aela’s blood had long since dried within the stained basin, but it was burned into her memory as brightly as if it had just happened, not months and months ago.
“I apologize for the subterfuge, Harbinger, but some things cannot be discussed around such open ears,” he began, and he immediately had her full, undivided attention. The silence within the small cavern was nearly painful as she waited for him to continue, wondering what on Tamriel this was about.
“I brought you three here as you know what it’s like to hear the call of the wolf, to be moon born,” he continued after several moments, and he was clearly choosing his words carefully. Aelinna exchanged glances with Vilkas, while Farkas was staring stonily at the old blacksmith. While he had known of their intent and later success on curing Kodlak so he could rest in Sovngarde, she hadn’t realized he knew about the circle being so chosen.
Then again, since he knew about Wuuthrad and about Kodlak keeping one of the fragments in his bedroom, it wasn’t too far of a leap to assume that he knew everything about the Companions, and wisely kept his mouth shut about it. His best customers would only remain such if he kept their secrets, a stance the DragonBorn could understand.
A sudden memory of her in her beast form running past the skyforge caused Aelinna to wince slightly. Then again, he might know because she ran right past his work station at a time when he might have been awake. Which was also possible. Hard to be subtle with all the guards of Whiterun on your tail and a big ass bounty on your head.
“In any case, this is a sensitive issue that only the circle can help with,” Eorlund went on, unaware of the DragonBorn’s wandering mind. “I trust that I don’t need to tell you what would happen if word got out on this.” Triplet glares met his gaze, and Eorlund chuckled. “Good. Now to the heart of the matter.” He clapped his hands together once, then rubbed them a bit.
“In the town of Falkreath, there has been talk of odd killings. Cows at first, then horses and chickens. After the death of Sinding, people got paranoid and one of them contacted me since you were out doing something for the Jarl.”
Aelinna clenched her jaw, remembering. That was why she had ended up doing the hunt, and skinning a werewolf to appease a god so that she could continue to walk on this plane. Now it would seem that more were terrorizing this town, and if she didn’t get her butt down there soon it seems there would be at least one more addition to the massive cemetery.
“I take it I’m supposed to find out just what, exactly, is going on?” she asked, her tone somewhat resigned.
“Well yes, and eliminate if necessary. Can’t have rabid wolves running around killing innocent folk in Skyrim,” Eorlund replied without missing a beat. Aelinna just barely managed to catch herself before she rolled her eyes in response, but the look on her face told more than her stifled action did. Vilkas subtly elbowed her in the side, and she responded by very slightly stomping on his foot.
Message received, Vilkas moved about an inch away from her in defeat while Eorlund absorbed that little battle. ‘Ever the teacher to the newer pups,’ Eorlund thought to himself, but he brushed aside the thought as he brought the meeting to a close. “When you’re done with this little investigation, just come back to Jorrvaskr and see me up at my forge,” he finished, and the trio nodded at him.
As Aelinna turned to follow Farkas out of the underforge, she realized she had told Rayya she would only be gone for a few days, but depending on how well this mission to Falkreath went, that may be longer. Sure it wasn’t that far from her home, well within a few minutes’ ride, but werewolves were not some pithy thing easy to capture or kill. She knew that only too well, having put down rabid souls before, as well as destroying the wolf spirits that had made them beasts in the first place.
Potentially rabid creatures so close to Lakeview Manor though, that was definitely troubling. Aelinna was deeply absorbed in her thoughts about Lucia and Rayya while she headed in to sleep in Jorrvaskr, intending to leave at first light the next morning with a follower to help give her backup. This was gonna get messy.