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Not Drake but Jill: Act 1

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The ground shook, just as Taran knocked his arrow, and the large buck he’d been stalking took off in a panic.  He swore and gave chase.  Given its current terror, with a little luck, he should be able to drive it off a nearby cliff to its death, or at least a broken leg.

As he crested the rise he saw that the buck, too panicked now to change direction, was barreling towards a woman in leather armor.  Worse she was facing away from them, apparently unaware of the danger.  “Look out!” he called out to her.

The woman turned and loosed an arrow at the charging buck.  The animal fell and slid a little way downhill.  Taran noted that she didn’t move to follow it or to notch another arrow as he continued to run towards her.  He came to a stop on a rocky outcropping about two arms lengths from her, leaning over, hands on his knees, gasping for breath.

The ground shook again. “Are earthquakes common around here?” she asked.

“Not uncommon,” he answered between deep breaths.  “But twice in one day is unusual.”  He looked up and his breath caught in his throat. She was only a year or two older than he, he saw, and her eyes were a color blue he’d never seen before: pale and deep all at once.  Her mouth quirked slightly but she didn’t comment on his reaction.

“You’re no Reachman,” he told her.  Why hadn’t she shot him?  Didn’t she know the Forsworn killed intruders in their land on sight?

“No Nord either,” she smirked.

Ah.  “Breton then?”

She nodded.  “I was intending to explore the Dwemer ruin up the hill there,” she pointed to where the top of a Dwemer tower was just visible behind a rocky outcropping covered with trees.  “Know anything about it?”

He shook his head. “Forsworn aren’t typically interested in such things.”

“Are you?” she asked with a sideways glance.

“Why do you ask?”

“I was intending to go alone but, after the earthquake, I am uncertain it would be safe to do so. Since you’re here, there’s no harm in asking, right?”

He shrugged.  “Could be interesting.  Just, um, help me get this deer someplace scavengers won't get it while we’re away.”

“Fair enough,” she looked around her.  “Inside the ruin seems like the best bet anyway.”

“Then we should gut it here to reduce the weight before we try to carry it,” he told her, pulling out his knife. 

“I have a better idea,” she interrupted, hefting an ebony mage staff.  “Stand back and hope for something small.”  She fired the staff once at the deer carcass.

There was a pink puff of smoke and the deer was replaced with a dead rabbit.  “Perfect!” she laughed as Taran stared at her in shock. She leaned over and picked up the rabbit.  “Come on then.  The effect only last about six or seven minutes.”

“Is that a normal thing for Breton mages to do?” Taran asked, following quickly.

“Not at all,” she replied. “I’m special.”

“I suppose that explains why you think you can explore Dwemer ruins on your own,” he conceded.  “Hey, what’s your name anyway?”

She smiled at him. “I’m sorry, you’re right we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Alexa.”

“Taran,” he told her, with an answering smile.



“So, tell me about the Forsworn,” she huffed, as they dragged the deer up the stairs.  The transformation she’d used had worn off just about the time they reached the ruin and she seemed unwilling to try it again.

“Not a lot to tell,” he replied.  “If you ask our elders they would tell you that we, not the Nords, are the natives of the Reach; that all this was our land until the Nords came and put chains on us and forbid the worship of our gods.  They say the Forsworn are those Reachmen who refused to bow to the ways of the invaders – refused to turn their backs on the old ways – and, they claim, that if we remain true the old ways will lead us back to having a kingdom of our own. Until then they say we must cut a bloody hole into the Reach so that we may be free.”

She frowned at that. “I thought all humans were native to Atmora and that Skyrim belonged to the Snow Elves, and dragons, before man came to Tamriel.”

“I suppose that’s true…” Taran allowed.  Truthfully he’d never actually considered what the Forsworn’s claim to be “native” meant. “I guess our actual history, as a people, begins with Faolan uniting the ten kings of the Reach.  That was in the first era.  Since then we usually have only one king even if there are still, notionally, ten tribes.  Or so I’ve been told.”  They didn’t speak as they hefted the deer carcass through the ruin’s door.

“Lunch before we explore?” Alexa asked, jerking her head back in the direction of the door outside.

“Sure,” he replied, following her out into the sunshine.

She settled in a sunny spot on the edge of the stone porch overlooking the valley below them and started going through her pack.  Unsure of what the protocols involved in having lunch with a non-Forsworn were he stood awkwardly a few feet away.  She glanced up and raised her eyebrows at him questioningly as she gestured to the space around her.

He tried not to blush as he settled near her facing the same way she was to take in the view.

“So who’s the Forsworn king now?” Alexa asked, offering him an apple.

“Madanach, my grandfather,” he replied, accepting the apple.  “He was imprisoned by the Nords after the Markarth Incident.”

“I’ve read the Imperial report on the Markarth Incident,” she said, softly.  “They found Ulfric’s behavior, after the surrender of the city, to be a war crime.  If they ever manage to capture him they’ll probably take his head for it… among other things.  A man like that probably has more than one skeleton in his closet.”

“If they knew what was happening, why did they hand the city back to the Nords?” Taran demanded, shocked.

“All the Empire’s soldiers had been recalled to Cyrodiil, the year before, to re-take the Imperial City from the Aldmeri Dominion,” she replied calmly.  “Most had not yet been redeployed as the Empire did not trust the Dominion would fully withdraw from Cyrodiil as it had promised. 

“It takes months to march an army from the Imperial City to Skyrim.  Given the damage to Markarth, that had occurred in just a few weeks under Ulfric’s control, the Empire – according to the report – thought it would be best, for the Reach, to get Ulfric out of the city as quickly as possible. So they gave him what he wanted in the hope that he would leave and take his people with him.  A miscalculation, in hindsight… placating bullies is never a good decision.  As the current state of Skyrim proves.”

Taran sat, dumbly, beside her for a moment.  It had never occurred to him that the all-powerful Empire simply couldn’t have reached his people in time to save them even if they had wanted too.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking off into the middle distance.  “It’s a terrible answer.”

Taran shrugged again. “It’s not like I was there.  I wasn’t even born at the time.”

“Still, it can’t be easy growing up in a culture as embittered by recent events as yours must be. It is somewhat ironic though that Ulfric’s current political aspirations are based upon promising Nords the same self-rule and the right to free worship he slaughtered the Forsworn for attempting to obtain.”

“I’m not sure self-reflection is a common trait among Nords,” Taran snorted.

“In my experience it’s not a trait common to any of the sapient races,” Alexa chuckled.  “Too bad too.  I think we’d all get along better if it were.”

They ate in silence for a bit.  “So what about you?” he asked finally.

“What about me?” she returned archly, her smile playful.

“Do all Breton mages explore ruins?”

She chuckled and shook her head.  “If they did that you’d be more worried about the Breton invasion than the Nords. Magic ability is almost as common among Bretons as it is in mer,” she explained in response to his surprised look.

“So what’s growing up in High Rock like?  I mean, I assume it involves less living in old ruins and killing Nords than growing up Forsworn does.”

“I was born, the eldest of four children, to an old and wealthy merchant family which claimed, among other things, that it could trace its lineage back to the Ayleid Diaspora. Complete horse shit if you ask me, but that’s the sort of things wealthy Bretons do to make ourselves sound more interesting and… well our family clearly had significantly more elf blood than average.  Better to claim it was a result of careful breeding rather than a more modern indiscretion.

“My gift for magic was discovered early and was great enough that my extended family saw me, and specifically negotiations around an arranged marriage, as an asset to be used to the family’s political advantage.  My early life, therefore, revolved around the education and training necessary to be a Breton political wife.”

“What kind of training?” he enquired, throwing his apple core downhill.

“Magic, alchemy, etiquette, art, music, history, persuasion, stealth, and the use of both bow and dagger.”

“Stealth and weapons training?” Taran enquired with a frown.  It didn’t seem to fit with what he’d always assumed the life of the wealthy was like.

“Breton politics is cutthroat on the best of days,” she told him with a wry little smile.  “On the worst of days a noble lady needs to be able to protect herself, and eliminate her enemies, preferably without breaking a sweat or chipping a nail.”

He chuckled at that and then glanced furtively at her left hand.  No ring.  “So, uh, I take it the arranged marriage didn’t work out?”

She nodded.  “Things change.  My family fell out of favor and were, eventually, slain.  I don’t know the exact details.  I was at school in Cyrodiil at the time.”

“I’m sorry,” he offered a little worried that he might have just upset his new friend.

She shrugged slightly. “Anyway, let's take a look at this ruin, shall we?”



(Three days later.)

Katria’s ghost vanished again and Alexa placed the second piece of Aetherium in her pack.

“Hey,” Taran began suddenly. “If I were to decide that I like exploring Dwemer ruins…”

“I’m heading back to Cyrodiil for the winter,” Alexa told him.  “I’ll look for the next two Aetherium pieces when I come back next summer. But if you want to leave me a message, to let me know you’re interested in joining me, my first stop in Skyrim will be the Bee and Barb in Riften.  If that fails a runner from the Bard’s College in Solitude can usually find me.”

He nodded.  “Bee and Barb, Riften.  I’ll remember.”

She smiled.  “Then I look forwarded to seeing you next summer.”



By spring Taran was preparing to undergo the Trial of Hircine and, after that, he was far too busy being a Hunt Master, and prince of the Forsworn, to explore the world beyond the Reach.

Chapter Text

Strange things had been happening of late.  Two Forsworn camps had been hit in the last week, but not in the usual way.  Though the camps had been pretty thoroughly looted the only casualties were one hagraven and one briarheart.  The only connection between the incidents he had found was that both camps had been looted within two days of taking a trade caravan bound for Markarth.

That was why he, the only Hunt Master1 the Forsworn had, since Madanach was still imprisoned, was here at Lost Valley Redoubt.

Taran was half asleep when he felt it, a subtle shift in the air of his tent, as if the flap had been opened for just a moment.  Opening his eyes he saw that the enchanted dagger, from the caravan, he had left on top of the chest beside his bed, as bait, was missing.  Clearly whatever had happened at Serpent’s Bluff and Bruca’s Leap was happening here.  He picked up his bow and slid silently out of his tent.

Thanks to his daedra enhanced eyes he soon found footprints, difficult to discern in the moonlight and hard to follow as their creator took pains to keep to shadow and stone, winding their way up the hill.  He followed them, from one terrace to another, up the stairs. 

When he reached the top he paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the sickly glow of the taproots strung around the ritual space off to his left.  Immediately he could see that the Hagravens were down, elven arrows protruding from their bodies.  As he crept closer he saw a dark figure standing in front of the chanting wall, a hand placed upon the stone.  He drew his bow, took aim, and faltered.  Blue light streamed from the wall into the figure before it as a soft female voice added itself to the chant. 

“Nafni raised stone in memory of his father Rognvald, whose spirit will forever guide his clan and haunt his enemies.”

Then the figure raised a hand and simply disappeared.

Taran smiled.  His prey, it seemed, was a mage.  That would make the hunt more interesting.



The indistinct tracks he’d followed lead to a single small tent under cover of a rocky overhang about a mile southwest of the Forsworn camp.  Sensing no movement in the surrounding area Taran drew his knife and slipped noiselessly into the tent, his daedra enhanced eyes allowing him to see easily in the light of the twin moons.  He froze.

The single occupant was a woman.  Lithe body mostly bare in the summer heat she lay on top of her bedroll her dark hair haloed around her head.  He swallowed hard as he looked her over, double-checking what his gut already knew. It was Alexa.  He frowned noticing several silvery pockmarks, on her otherwise unblemished skin, that seemed to shimmer silver in the pale moonlit darkness of the tent.  One beneath her left collarbone, one on her right thigh…

She moved, a summoned, spectral, dagger suddenly appearing in her hand.  He rolled backward out of the tent and to one side, catching her off guard as she followed him.  He was larger than she and probably twice her weight, so it wasn’t long before he had her pinned to the ground.

“Taran?” she gasped.

“Alexa…” he grinned down at her, still breathing a little hard.  “It’s been some time.”

“Three years,” she replied with a soft laugh.  “You going to let me up?”

“You promise not to attack me?” he asked, glancing at the bound dagger still in her hand, and settled more of his weight against her.

“Ooof.  Yes,” she groaned, banishing the summoned weapon. “If I had wanted to kill you I could have done it in your tent earlier.”

He thought about that for a moment, expression serious. 


“I’m enjoying the view,” he told her softly.

She rolled her eyes. “Wow, someone’s learned some bad lines in the past few years.”

“Like you didn’t notice I was attracted to you the first time we met.”

“True.  That whole forgetting to breathe thing was a dead give away.  Now get off of me before I use a flame cloak spell to light you on fire.”

“First tell me how you got these,” he touched the pockmark beneath her collarbone with reverent fingers.

“Hircine was being an asshole,” she replied.2

Fair enough.  He didn’t expect most people, outside of the Forsworn, would willingly sign up to be hunted by a daedric prince.  “How many do you have?”


Taran swallowed hard. He had two and that was considered nothing short of a miracle.  Before his trial there hadn’t been a Reachman with more than one in several centuries.

“And that makes you what?” he asked, his voice sinking into a low growl.

“A Beast Master.  And I meant it about the flame cloak,” she replied squirming a little.  “Get off me.”

“As you wish.”  He stood but did not move away, watching her carefully as she sat up.  In the half-light of the two moons, and to the eyes of a Hunt Master, Alexa was a being of silver and darkness.  She was utterly breathtaking. 

Taran offered her a hand and pulled her to her feet using just enough force to make it seem like an accident when she stumbled into him.  He wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her and leaned in, his other hand darting up to cup the back of her head, fingers digging into her hair.  He pressed his mouth against hers.

She froze momentarily and then began to laugh pushing gently at his chest.  He pulled away confused.  “That usually works for you, doesn’t it?” Alexa asked, patting his shoulder in false sympathy.

“Usually,” he muttered, letting go.

“Welcome to girls who don’t care about your rank among the Forsworn, Taran,” she told him as she wandered away to grab a lightweight robe out of her tent.

“And what is it that the only living member of a Breton merchant house cares about?” he asked as she settled the robe over her shoulders.

“That is a damn good question,” she told him.  “If I figure it out I might even let you know.” She settled down in front of the tent. “Now tell me what you’ve been up to the last three years.”

“You first,” he told her, more sharply than he’d intended.  “I’m sure it’s more exciting than what I’ve been up to,” he added hurriedly.

“Alright,” she answered without apparent offense.  “Let’s see… I moved to Skyrim for good about two years ago - after the people who killed my family finally caught up with me in Cyrodiil.  Joined the Dawnguard a couple months back after a nasty run in with a vampire…”

“When were you hunted by Hircine?” he interrupted.

“About two months ago.3

He remained silent, waiting for her to continue.

“Hircine called his hunters to kill a werewolf?” she asked, eyes flicking to his face.

Taran nodded. “I recall the event.”

“Thing is I was working with the werewolf in question when that happened.”

Taran was suddenly very glad he’d been too far away to join the hunt when he’d heard Hircine’s call. “What happened?”

“The werewolf and I killed the hunters,” she told him matter-of-factly.  “Then Hircine congratulated me on my hunt and I got mad and told him where he could shove it.”

“You’re insane,” Taran breathed, rubbing his forehead as if in pain.  “How’d he take it?”

“He told me if I would not be one of his hunters I could be his prey.  Then He shot me four times, over the next hour or so, and finally drove the last one in by hand before just leaving me there to bleed out. Charming fellow really.  I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to invite him over for tea.”

“Honestly I’m surprised you survived,” Taran told her.

“Why do your people worship him again?” she asked pointedly.

“Because we’re not all willfully stupid like you?” Taran suggested.  “If he just left you there, how did you survive?”

“I was saved by a talking dog,” she told him.

“You’re joking,” Taran pleaded.  “Tell me you’re joking.”

“Not joking.  I did a favor for Barbas, Clavicus Vile’s dog, about a year ago.4 Thankfully Barbas decided right then was a good time to pay me back.  Though the help came with quite the lecture if that makes you feel any better.”

“Clavicus Vile’s dog?”

“Barbas is by far the most reasonable daedra I’ve met,5 she told him sternly.

“You’re insane,” Taran repeated.

“Not impossible,” she agreed.  “I am the current champion of Sheogorath.”  She chuckled at his dumbstruck expression. “See, these are the sorts of things you want to learn about a girl before you kiss her, Taran.”

“I will take that under advisement,” he sighed.  “I suppose you have an equally wild story that explains the necessity of killing every hagraven and briarheart you come across?”

“I do.  But mostly it’s because they’re assholes,” she answered. “Vengeance just breads more vengeance. Embodied spirits of vengeance, doubly so.  The current state of play in the Reach is a frustrating waste on every conceivable level even without their help.”

“Some things are necessary,” he told her.  “But I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Have you looked at me Taran?” she demanded in a low, heated, tone.  “I’ve got enough elf blood that Ulfric Stormcloak would probably kill me on sight while delivering a stern lecture to his men on racial degeneracy.  And I can’t go home or even use my family name for fear of ending up dead like the rest of them.  I think I know quite a bit about being unwelcome in the place one lives, thank you very much.”

“And what would you suggest we do?” he demanded.  “Don’t simply criticize people without a better solution to offer!”

“And if I did have a better solution?” she enquired, head tilted to one side.

He looked at her angrily for a moment before sighing slightly.  “Alright… Let's hear it.”

She was quiet for a while, her eyes focused past him, or maybe through him.  “It seems to me that the fact that Jarl Igmund is a weak and terrible person, and a worse Jarl, provides something of a unique opportunity for a Forsworn prince,” she suggested quietly.

Taran rolled his eyes, for which he was flicked in the forehead, hard.  He grimaced at her while rubbed his smarting forehead.  “What kind of opportunity?”

“Be where your foe is not,” Alexa instructed him.  “Do for his people what he will not.  Brand yourself not as aggressor but as savior.  Speak with gentle voice and rule not with sword but with law applied equally to all.  Care for your land and all the people who dwell in it. Prove yourself the better king.”

“You sound like a bard,” Taran laughed.

“And so should you,” she answered seriously.  “There is no better background for a life in politics than one of history and speechcraft.”

“You know we tried that justice for all irrespective of race thing, right?  Ulfric Stormcloak all but destroyed us for it.”

“Yes.  It is unfortunate for everyone that ignorance of the larger political situation in Tamriel lead to some miscalculations on the part of the Forsworn.  If your grandfather had been paying attention to what was happening outside the Reach he would have known the Empire was in no shape to be of help to him.  He might even have seen the inevitability of Ulfric’s choice, to build his personal mystique by kicking the shit out of you, and been prepared to face him.  Too bad Madanach didn’t have enough contact with the wider world to be prepared for what it would throw at him.  A cautionary lesson his grandson might do well to heed.”

Taran was silent for a while.

“So, how have you been the last three years?” she asked finally.

“My father is dead and I am a Hunt Master of Hircine.  If my grandfather were to die tomorrow I would be the king of the Forsworn the day after.  But, as things are, I can do little but watch as the Silver-Bloods drive more and more Reachmen from their land and homes.  Any time we fight back it is we who are branded the monsters.”

“Then choose a different path,” she suggested.  “Not only for yourself but for your people.”

“You make it sound easy,” he said with a wan smile.

“A thing is hardest when you don’t even try.”

“Try for what Alexa?” Taran demanded.  “Even if I learn to play their game, even if the hearts of the people are mine, what will that get me?  The Forsworn will still be outlaws in our own land!”

“Not if you become a thane of the Reach and gain influence in the Jarl’s court,” she countered. “Believe me Taran, if you could hide the fact that you are Forsworn, you could become a thane in your sleep.”

Chapter Text

“The girl with the bow,” that’s how Ondolemar thought of the little human he’d first noticed delivering a dwarven artifact to Markarth’s crazed, Dwemer obsessed, court wizard. It was an elegant thing - her bow - almost elven in design and white with dark silver tracery.  If he were an archer he might have tried to buy it from her. 

The bow wasn’t the only thing he noticed though.  She wore black shrouded armor, with deep blue leather fittings1, and that had caught his attention.  There were very few acceptable reasons to wear armor meant to make you difficult to detect.  Especially when it came with a masked hood that covered everything but your eyes.  So he’d had one of his men trail her, and her traveling companion, until they disappeared into the old Dwemer city beneath the keep.

The report, when it came, indicated that she and her companion were vampire hunters.  While neither wore the pretentiously named Dawnguard’s distinctive armor, they did display their connection to the organization via a pin they each wore.  The need for stealth armor explained – Ondolemar assumed it was easier to kill vampires when they didn’t see you coming – he put her out of his mind.

The next time he saw “the girl with the bow” was just two days later.  She was alone this time seated at one of the stone tables at the top of the keep’s main stairs writing in a notebook.  She was not wearing her masked hood and he could see that she was not only Breton but also attractive – for a human.  He decided, after some reflection, that it was her unusual coloration that rendered her more than simply pretty.  Raven black hair, skin so white she could be mistaken for a particularly pale skinned Nord – if not for the high cheekbones and the slight upturn to the corners of her eyes that indicated her mer heritage - and eyes the blue color of glacial ice. 

She ignored him completely the first two times he walked past her on his errands to and from different parts of the keep.  The third time he stopped and, looking down at her, crossed his arms over his chest. “You have the honor of addressing a member of the Thalmor,” he announced to her.  “Bask in it.”

She looked up and gave him a slow once over before her startling blue gaze met his.  The corners of her soft, bow-shaped, lips tugging into a smile and her eyes filled with laughter.  “That sounds important.”

“The Thalmor are the ruling body of the Aldmeri Dominion, saviors of Mer, and victors of the Great War,” he announced smugly.

“The ‘saviors of Mer'?” she questioned, eyebrows raised slightly in apparent surprise.

“The Thalmor saved all of Elven-kind during the Oblivion Crisis,” he told her.  “We’ve been watching over our lands for two hundred years.”

“Less than whole Mer lifetime?” she breathed, eyes wide with obviously false admiration.  “You must be very pleased with such an accomplishment.  Though,” she added, looking away from him to close her journal and stow it in her pack, “I have heard much the same claim made about House Redoran.  They, however, do not claim victory via ‘deep and subtle magics’ but by strength of arms.  Still, I am sure you have the right of it.  After all, the mysterious nature of your success story is so much more interesting than theirs.”

Ondolemar blinked in surprise.  That had been… unexpected.  He was so used to dealing with uneducated Nords that he was actually caught off guard by her ability to respond verbally to his provocation.  “We were also the victors in the Great War,” he repeated and then decided to bait her further.  “The Empire exists because we allow it to exist.”

“Oh, no doubt,” she agreed easily, glancing back up at him with a winning smile.  “But the Empire also exists because the Dominion does.  Remove the external threat of the Dominion and – now that the dragonfires of the Emperors are unnecessary – the Empire would lack purpose.  Really the Mede dynasty owes the Dominion a debt of gratitude for enabling it to last as long as it has.”  She leaned back slightly openly inviting him to continue the discussion.  He suddenly realized she was having fun.  The realization startled him enough he actually failed to respond.

“But you were telling me about Thalmor?” she encouraged.

“The Thalmor re-founded the Aldmeri Dominion, an alliance between the Altmer and our Bosmer cousins. You might know them from their common name: Wood elves,” he informed her mechanically his mind still trying to adjust to the unexpected experience of conversing with someone who could hold up their end of a discussion.

“Hmmm, yes, and that has worked out well for them, hasn’t it?  You are so loving and inclusive after all,” she returned, smiling laughingly up at him before sobering and looking away again.  “Though, I gather, what is happening in Valenwood now isn’t all that different from what happened in the Summerset Isles a century ago.2  I suppose predictability is a virtue…” she wrinkled her nose slightly “… of sorts.”

He felt as though he’d been slapped in the face.  “I don’t know what you think you know Breton but I assure you the Thalmor only want what is best for everyone.”

“Oh, I know nothing, I assure you,” she laughed merrily. “But I see a great deal in my travels. And I think times must be very hard in Valenwood if so many Bosmer find Nords to be reasonable company.  Curious, also, that the Nords would find the company of your cannibalistic cousins preferable to your own.  But then I suppose there’s no accounting for taste.”

“And are you here because times are hard in High Rock?” he asked archly.

She laughed again apparently delighted with his response.  “Oh no.  Obviously I’m here because Skyrim is the best place to be if you want to be paid to kill Nords!  They are all rather odious after all.”

He gaped at her.  It was obviously an evasion.  What was she hiding?

“So, Justiciar, now that we have established what am doing here, what is it you doing in Skyrim?” she asked, her voice warming and deepening slightly.

“I intend to prove the superiority of Mer over Man, one century at a time, beginning with the heresy of Talos worship,” he replied attempting to goad her into a reaction that could be used to put her in her place.

“Ooh, I do like a man with goals,” she murmured.  “Well, as long as he isn’t so focused on the future that he fails to take proper advantage of opportunity when it presents itself.”

Was she flirting with him?  Him.  A mer of the most superior bloodlines?  Surely not…

Her expression hardened. “Besides, it would be ever so disappointing if the Thalmor were to allow something as trivial as the truth to stand in their way.  So much like the Stormcloaks in that regard.  No wonder you can’t stand each other.”

He blinked at her stunned.  That suggestion was beyond insulting.  “The Dominion is here, Breton,” he hissed at her.  “And we’re watching you.” 

Smiling at him again she rose gracefully to her feet, hoisting her pack over one shoulder. “Then I hope you like what you see,” she murmured, her voice low and sultry.  And then she walked away from him with a provocative sway to her hips. He noted with irritation that she never once looked back to see if he was actually watching or what her effect on him had been.

The next morning he wrote the order to have her fully investigated and was more than a little annoyed when he realized he didn’t have a name to put on it.

Chapter Text

It was mid-afternoon and the Winking Skeever was all but deserted.  Taran sipped his drink and considered the contents of Nerevar Moon-And-Star, which Giraud Gemane had assigned him for the night’s reading. While he wasn’t sure what the exact usefulness of Ashlander legends would be to him it was difficult not to see parallels between their situation, and their hopes, and those of the Forsworn. Perhaps the disenfranchised everywhere, no matter their race, had the same relation to their past glories and the same concepts of what salvation from their current situation would look like. It was an interesting idea.

He didn’t bother to look up when he heard the inn’s door open and then close.  But the smell the gust of cold damp air brought with it caught his attention.  Blood.

“Miss Alexa,” Corpulus stammered, his voice full of concern.

“I’d like a room, please,” she told him, as she stepped up to the bar, her voice a little raw.

“And some hot water, I think,” Corpulus offered.  “Follow me, I’ll show you to your room.”

Taran waited until Corpulus came back to the bar before going to check on Alexa. 

It wasn’t hard to figure out which room the old man had put her in.  Taran pushed the door open softly. 

Alexa was standing by the washbasin, facing the door, in just her underwear using a damp cloth to wipe the blood from her skin.  She flinched, a conjuration spell gathering in her hand, before she saw it was him.  This close he could see she was covered in partially dried blood.  Even her hair appeared to be saturated with it.

“Stendarr’s mercy,” he whispered, closing the door behind him.  “What happened to you?”

“Vampire lord,” she replied, snuffing the spell.  “His shrine to Molag Bal was a blood fountain… a literal fountain flowing with blood…” she stopped on a slight gagging noise. 

“Here,” he said, taking the rag from her hands.  “Let me help you with that.”  He rinsed the rag in the washbasin and began to work on her right arm.  “Are you injured?”

She shook her head and took another shuddering breath.  “Healing spells took care of that.  Magic can’t do anything about the smell though.  Or the way it feels in my hair.  It wasn’t so bad until it started to rain…”

Taran looked at the water in the washbasin and winced.  It was already more red than pink.  “We need more clean water.  And you need a bath.  Or, maybe, two.”

“Corpulus said he’d get one started in the basement near the kitchen,” she told him.

Taran nodded.  The proximity to the kitchen was a good idea. That way the bath water would still be hot, not just lukewarm.  He turned back to her and, noticing she’d already done her legs, gestured for her to turn around.

“I didn’t know you had tattoos,” he noted conversationally as he began on the back of her neck.  The moment the rag touched the skin of her back his hand slowed.  The tiny silver and lavender flowers, cascading artfully from her left shoulder to right hip, fluttered and blew away as if his touch were the wind.  “Alexa?” he asked softly.

“Grand Master of Restoration and Blessed of Kynareth1,” she told him her ragged voice barely more than a whisper.

“You’re one of the most powerful mages in all of Tamriel?” he hissed back at her.

She turned around, grabbing his wrist, her eyes searching his face.  “Taran, please… you mustn’t tell anyone.  My family’s killers, they’re still looking for me.  If you tell…”

“Don’t worry, Beast Master,” he said with a wry little smile. “I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

She let him go her eyes still wary.

“You go get clean,” he told her, pulling a blue robe out of the closet against the wall and holding it out to her.  “I’ll take your armor to Beirand and see what he can do with it.”


“Feeling better?” Taran asked Alexa when she appeared back in her room nearly an hour later.

She nodded sitting across from him at the small table in the corner of the room.  “Thanks,” she smiled wanly accepting the brandy he offered her. “It’s been… a long day.”

“Where’s your friend?” he asked.  “The vampire girl you came through with a few months ago.  Shouldn’t she have helped you with this?”

“She did.  But she needed to stay behind for a bit.  She and her mother had a few things to work out.  But I… needed to get away.  And, frankly, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a vampire hunter.”

“If not a vampire hunter, what then?” he asked.

She shrugged slightly. “The last time I was through Whiterun some of the Companions mentioned they were looking for new recruits.  With them I would have a place to stay and work that would not require me to be quite so nocturnal.  I find I miss the sun.”

“The greatest healer in the world is thinking of joining a bunch of mercenaries?” he asked, surprised.

“It’s an unlikely place to look for her, right?”

“I suppose…” he allowed, with a slight frown.  “Do you really have nowhere to go?  No family, or friends, or…” his voice died away as Alexa arched an eyebrow at him.  “Right… sorry.  Let me try again.  I think you should become my blood-sister.”

“What?” she blinked in surprise.

“That way, if you need a place to hide, even if I’m not there, the Forsworn will take you in,” he explained.

“Taran…” she began, clearly about to refuse.

“Look,” he interrupted her, “because of you I am here in Solitude learning about things I could never have imagined and seeing things from perspectives that would never have occurred to me existed.  Even if a better understanding of the Nords is all I gain from coming here it will make me a better king than my father ever could have been.  You helped me, changed my life for the better, but the only thing I have to repay you with, at this point, is my station among the Forsworn.  Let me help you,” he told her quietly.  “Besides,” he added, “I’ve always wanted a sister and you have no family.”

She nodded slowly. “Alright, what does this entail?”

He smiled at her as he drew a dagger from his belt.  “For the greatest Restoration mage in the world, it shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“You realize that I used to beat the snot out of my little brothers on a regular basis, right?” she asked as he nicked his left wrist with the point of his dagger.

He grinned at that. “I look forward to it.”


Sybille Stentor looked up from the enchantment she was working on. “From the smell of you I assume the fool is dead.”

“He is,” Alexa replied.  “I have something for you, and an invitation from the lady of Castle Volkihar.”  She placed a Potion of Blood, and a letter, on Stentor’s bedside table.  “Something about fostering friendly relations between like minded individuals, I think.”

“And do you think I should accept, vampire hunter?”

Alexa smiled slightly at that.  “We both know my motivations are more complicated than that title implies.  You are still your own person, not simply a puppet of Molag Bal.  I admire that.  Besides, now that the threat to the sun is past, I think I will be moving on from the Dawnguard.”

Stentor’s eyes narrowed slightly.  “The court is always pleased to see you, Alexa.  We will not forget what you have done for Solitude.”

The younger woman smiled. “And it is lucky to have you, Sybille.”

The vampire nodded once. “I wish you luck in your next endeavor. Come see me again sometime.  Your grasp of destruction magic is terrible.

Alexa inclined her head politely before turning and leaving the Blue Palace.

Chapter Text

Vilkas looked away from Kodlak at the sound of a stranger’s muffled footsteps.  The woman coming down the hall towards them wore light armor of a type he’d never seen before, black with royal blue leather, and, even to his ears, she moved with very little sound. Shrouded armor, he thought.  Expensive.  And there was the bow.  A bow unlike any he had seen before.  Vaguely elven in design it was white with dark silver markings and, in the dim light of the hall, the whole thing seemed to shine slightly.  Given the obvious value of her equipment, odds were she was the daughter of some wealthy Breton merchant looking for adventure in Skyrim, he decided.  That sort never lasted.

As she drew closer he could smell the magic on her like lightning before a storm or the wind off a wildfire.  He’d encountered Thalmor mages that smelled less of it than this Breton. She also smelled of smoke, and fire, and blood… so much blood.  Enough to drown in, he realized.  And that was unexpected given her appearance. 

She was small, only a little over five feet he’d guess, and lithely built, her skin – what he could see of it on her face and hands – was unmarked: unscarred.  There was no way she was a warrior.  A mage, maybe, but even a battle mage got scars.  Her eyes were ice blue, her hair raven wing black, and her skin clearly hadn’t seen enough sun lately.  She looked not unlike an expensive doll.  It really would be best for everyone if she went home to daddy as soon as possible, even if Kodlak apparently didn’t see it that way.  So, when the old man told him to test her arm, he decided to put her down hard.

Aela flung an arm around his shoulder.  “Don’t look so down!  Just because a little thing with a dagger in each hand made you dance like a puppet doesn’t…”

“I won, didn’t I?” Vilkas growled.

“Sure.  Against someone half your size clearly using their secondary weapon…”

“You know what the best part is?” Athis grinned.  “When they were done he gave her his sword!”  The Dunmer waggled his eyebrows at Aela.

“So soon Vilkas?” the Huntress gasped in completely contrived dismay.  “But you don’t know anything about her!  Don’t you think you’re moving a little fast?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he growled at them.

Just then, as if summoned by his discomfort, the new blood appeared at the top of the stairs looking comfortable and relaxed in a pair of buckskin breeches and a form-hugging knit wool sweater her dark hair loosely braided over one shoulder.  She smelled less of blood now that she had shed her armor but the smell of magic still hung heavy in the air about her making him edgy. He repressed a growl as Aela waved for her to join them. 

“Do you think you could handle Vilkas in a real fight?” Aela asked the new blood as she settled beside the huntress.

The pretty Breton gave him a calculating once over and then smiled softly.  “At range, certainly.  But up close he has greater reach, weight, strength, and training, as well as heavier armor and weapons.  So, if it were a real fight for my life, I’d probably be reduced to doing something underhanded.  But it is my hope that here I can learn the things I need in order to face such a warrior on equal footing.”

“Well said,” Athis laughed. “With a tongue like that you might almost be an Imperial!”

Finished with his dinner Vilkas pushed away from the table.  Finally he’d be able to put some distance between him and the new blood.

“Something I said?” he heard the new blood ask Aela as he all but stormed out to the training yard.

“No,” Aela replied with a disgusted snort.  “Vilkas just takes a while to warm up to people.”

“The first thing you should do now is introduce yourself to our senior members,” Aela informed Alexa as she dragged her across the room.  “Skjor, Vignar, allow me to introduce our newest hopeful.”  She clapped Alexa on the shoulder. “Introduce yourself, New Blood, I’m off to find Farkas.  A messenger came from Falkreath today with a job he needs to look into.”  And then Alexa was alone facing two rather elderly warriors.

“I hear you gave Vilkas quite the beating earlier,” the man Aela had called Skjor nodded with approval.  “Where do you come from, New Blood?”

“Before this?  The Dawnguard,” she replied.

“The vampire-hunters?” he asked, eyebrows lifting in surprise.

She nodded.

“Why’d you leave?” Vignar inquired, frowning slightly.

Alexa felt her eyes dilate and the blood drain from her face.  She swallowed against the sudden nausea.

“To soon to talk about it?” Skjor asked, in an understanding tone.

“A week ago the Dawnguard slew a thousand-year-old vampire lord,” Alexa told them, her voice harsh in her throat.  “He had retreated to a chapel he had built for Molag Bal.  It was…” she swallowed hard.

Skjor nodded.  “Enough said.  Welcome to the Companions, New Blood.  Given your recent history, I suggest you take it easy for a bit.  Take some jobs from Aela or Farkas for a while. Then, when you’re ready to get back to real work, come see me.”1

Chapter Text

“Why can’t I train with Aela?” Ria half whined at Vilkas as she tried to shake the feeling back into her right arm.  They had been running two-handed blocking drills out in the yard when he had become distracted resulting in his last blow being far heavier than he’d intended.

“Because you wanted to learn the longer blades,” Vilkas replied, gritting his teeth in frustration with himself as much as with the situation.  “Aela’s never used anything bigger than a dagger.”

“It's just...” Ria began in an obvious attempt to defuse his rising anger, “I think our fighting styles are similar.”

“Well, you can either get better with a bow or try to learn from me,” he snapped as the cause of his distraction – his brother’s laughter – floated by him again.  Not for the first time in the last few weeks Vilkas wished the Companion’s training area were not quite so near the Skyforge.

It had come out, within a few days of her arrival at Jorrvaskr, that the new blood knew quite a bit about the theory of dwarven smithing1 and was interested in trading the knowledge for further training in how to better maintain her equipment.  To this end she’d started joining Farkas in his lessons with Eorlund.  The two were quickly becoming friends.

It seemed almost sacrilegious to Vilkas that someone who was neither a Gray-Mane, nor a real Companion, should work the Skyforge but even the normally dour Eorlund seemed to like the new blood.  He was not alone in this folly.  When the new blood wasn’t out on a job for Aela or Farkas, or training with Aela or Athis – since Vilkas refused to have anything to do with her – she spent her time doing odd jobs around Whiterun and learning alchemy from Arcadia.  She had made quite a few friends in the process.

Which reminded him of yet another irritation.  If one were going to take time away from weapons training to learn alchemy one should, obviously, spend one’s time on something useful, like learning to make a decent healing potion.  Not the new blood though.  The only thing he knew for certain she had made herself was some sort of salve which she rubbed into her skin every evening to help shield her delicate Breton skin from Skyrim’s cold.  It was preposterous.  The woman couldn’t even handle a little cold and she wanted to be a Companion?

The real problem with the new blood’s foray into alchemy was that, now that the smell of blood had dissipated from her armor, the new blood smelled… delicious.  Two nights ago he had actually had to resist the urge to lick her.  A circumstance he blamed in equal parts on too much mead and on the salve, which smelled of beeswax, lavender, peppermint and something sweet he couldn’t put a name to.  Adding to his troubles was the fact that he couldn’t even complain about it.  The salve’s scent was soft enough that Tovar claimed he couldn’t really smell it, a situation which would make complaining about the smell, to anyone outside the Circle, both suspicious and awkward.  But, to his werewolf senses, the sweet smell of honey, lavender, and peppermint now permeated the sleeping area beneath Jorrvaskr providing a constant reminder of the Breton girl’s presence within his territory.

Compounding his frustration with the situation was the fact the other werewolves didn’t seem to mind. Farkas had even admitted he found the smell soothing.  Worse Aela had allowed drunken curiosity to get the better of her and tried the concoction herself.  The next day she’d demanded to know if it could be made with a different scent. Two weeks of ingredients gathering and experimentation later Aela now smelled of beeswax, juniper berries, and dried tundra cotton.  She’d forced both Vilkas and Farkas to admire her significantly less chapped hands so many times over the next week it had provoked Vilkas into asserting that real warriors used bear grease to relieve chapped skin and only milk-drinkers would wish to smell like flowers.

Aela had punched him and stormed off and Farkas, far from defending his brother, had shaken his head and commented that even he was smart enough to know better than to complain about the way Aela wanted to smell.

At least Ria and Njada hadn’t joined Aela in her foolishness…

A gasp of pain brought him back to the present.

“Everything alright out here?” Skjor asked, standing up from the table where he’d been seated.  Vilkas realized, to his chagrin, he’d been so distracted he hadn’t noticed the older man arrive.

“Of course, sir,” Ria smiled feebly, clearly trying to hide the fact her left wrist was already beginning to swell.

Skjor nodded.  “I think you’ve had enough practice for today, Ria.  Practicing too much can be as bad as not practicing enough.”

She nodded mutely before quickly retreating inside.

Skjor leaned up against one of the posts supporting the porch roof and crossed his arms.

Vilkas met his gaze, solidly, but said nothing.

“Something bothering you, boy?” Skjor asked him with a quick glance towards the Skyforge.  “Our new hopeful, perhaps?”

Vilkas gritted his teeth, irritated that his mood was apparently both obvious and cause for amusement.  “She should not be here much less under consideration,” he ground out.  “Magic is not an honorable endeavor for a Companion.”  

Skjor nodded.  “Not all magic is trickery and pain, pup. Every Companion visits Danica when they are injured.  No doubt Ria is doing so now.”

Vilkas flinched at that. “I did not intend to hurt Ria.  I will apologize the next time I see her.”

“You were distracted,” Skjor told him.  “Would you like to tell me what it is about the new blood that has your hackles up?”

“That first day… she reeked of magic, old blood, and death,” Vilkas told the older man angrily. 

“Aye,” Skjor agreed.

“And why doesn’t that bother anyone?” Vilkas demanded.  “For all you know she might practice necromancy!”

“Do you know what kind of magic can still be smelled days after it was cast?” Skjor asked him.

“Does it matter?” Vilkas snapped.

“Restoration magic,” Skjor informed him.  “She had been injured, boy.  Badly.  If she weren’t a healer herself she probably would have spent her first week in Whiterun under Danica’s care rather than joining the Companions.”

Vilkas stiffened in surprise.  The new blood was a healer, not a battle mage?  “Being a healer doesn’t explain the smell of blood and death,” he finally answered.

“Actually it does.  Why don’t you ask her about it if you’re so worried?” Skjor suggested.

Vilkas snorted.  “Like she’d give an honest answer.”

“She answered me easily enough,” Skjor told him.  “Convincingly too.”

Chapter Text

Vilkas was reading at the small table on the second floor of the Bannered Mare when the new blood arrived. He told himself it didn’t bother him. It wasn’t likely the Breton would find him up there much less choose to talk to him.  His generally unfriendly behavior towards her had quickly resulted in her staying away from him as much as she could.  Still, he watched her a little warily as she sat next to Carlotta Valentia by the fire.  This seemed to please Mila who immediately began telling the Breton girl everything she knew about fruit while Carlotta smiled indulgently.  It didn’t really surprise Vilkas to see that the new blood had managed to make friends with Mila; Mila always seemed a little lonely to him and the new girl was friendly with everyone.  In fact, if she had been a Nord, it would have been considered positively unseemly how willing she was to talk with and listen to people, he reflected.  Still, everyone knew allowances on that front had to be made for the strangely sociable ways of Bretons and Imperials.

Vilkas was about to return to his book when he spotted trouble.  Mikael, apparently having given up on trying to get Carlotta’s attention with his lute playing, had decided to shoulder his way into the women’s conversation. Literally.  The ice brain was actually talking to Carlotta with his back to Mila and the new blood.  Vilkas sighed.  Joining their conversation would have been one thing, but even an idiot like Farkas would have known better than to literally stand between a woman and her child and expect the resulting conversation to go well.

“I’m not interested, Mikael,” Carlotta snapped.  “What do I have to say for you to get it through your thick skull?  Leave me alone!”

“If you were not interested you would not have come here tonight to see me,” Mikael insisted.

Vilkas rolled his eyes. The Bannered Mare was the only place in town the average citizen could get a hot meal they hadn’t cooked themselves. If Carlotta wanted a night off the inn was her only option.  That Mikael worked there was beside the point.

Given his own level of annoyance with Mikael, Vilkas was not at all surprised when the new blood stood up and tapped the bard on the shoulder. 

“What?  Can’t you see we’re talking?” Mikael demanded angrily of the Breton girl without any apparent sense of irony.

“I believe Carlotta told you to go away,” the new blood informed him pleasantly. 

“Jealous?” the bard smirked. “I suppose I could make time for you too.”

Vilkas almost laughed at the startled, and slightly repulsed, look that crossed the Breton girl’s face.  She recovered quickly though.

“Wow,” she murmured. “You’ve really misread this situation, friend.  Let me clarify it for you: leave or risk spending the rest of your life as a soprano.”

“I don’t have to take that from you!” Mikael declared petulantly, stabbing at the new blood with a finger.

Vilkas leaned forward in his chair.  Against all expectations the new blood’s heart rate and breathing hadn’t risen in anger over the man’s invasion of her personal space.  If anything it had slowed…

The girl moved, jabbed Mikael hard in the solar plexus and then grabbed ahold of his shoulders, as he doubled over, to knee him swiftly in the crotch.  Hard.  She then grabbed him by the hair, as he slowly crumpled to the floor, and kneed him again, this time in the face, breaking his nose.

The sudden silence in the inn was deafening.

The new blood dusted off her hands and sighed dramatically.  “Men. Always trying to stick it where it’s not wanted.  Seriously boys, ‘no’ means ‘get lost’ not ‘try harder’.” 

The women in the room cheered loudly.  Which was why Vilkas was probably the only person who heard what she said when she leaned over and whispered to the whimpering Mikael.  “Next time you won’t be able to stick it anywhere, at all, ever again.  You got me?”

Mikael made a small whimpering noise and the whelp straightened back up, apparently satisfied.

Ulfberth cleared his throat and stood up from his seat across the fire.  “I’ll um… take him to the temple of Kynareth?” he suggested a little timidly.

“That’d be lovely of you Ulfberth,” the whelp replied with a particularly sweet smile for the large man. “Thank you.”

Vilkas smirked, almost laughing, at the mixture of fear, respect, and arousal the other man was exhibiting.  With any luck, after delivering Mikael to the temple, the War-Bear would run home to Adrianne and their little spat over his gambling debts would be resolved the old fashioned way.

As Ulfberth hauled Mikael out of the inn the Breton girl leaned over, picked up Mikael’s lute1, and gave it a faint strum.  “Seriously?” she complained to Carlotta.  “He doesn’t even have it tuned right…  the frets are all wrong.2

“Can you play?” Mila asked, as unflappable as any Nord child would have been when it came to violence.

“All Breton girls are taught to play,” she told Mila as she settled back down beside Carlotta and began to fine-tune the instrument.

“Will you play me something?” Mila begged.  “I’m bored of all the songs Mikael sings.”

“Is there something you would like to hear?” the whelp asked, her fingers plucking the strings in what Vilkas recognized as a fast-paced Breton dance.3  She was actually rather good he had to admit, if only to himself.

Mila’s eyes grew wide. “Mikael never plays like that.”

“Well Mikael didn’t finish his bard training,” the new blood told Mila conspiratorially.

“Could you teach me to play like that?” Mila wanted to know.

“Hmm…” she replied clearly pretending to think about it. 

“Please?  I’ll be good for a whole year if you do!” Mila exclaimed bouncing up and down on her toes.

The Breton girl laughed. “Alright, alright.  Let's find you a low enough stool to sit on so you can rest the lute in your lap.

Vilkas smiled slightly as he went back to his book.  If the whelp could make Mila that happy maybe there was something to all that Breton friendliness after all.


“There you are!” Aela called out as Alexa arrived at breakfast the next morning.  “I hear you damn near castrated a man last night!”

“I’m sure his testicle retrieval went fine,” Alexa replied primly as she looked around her for a clean mug to put tea in.  “Danica is an excellent healer.”

“What happened?” Ria asked blearily from her seat at the table.

“It was a basic damsel in distress situation,” Alexa told her.  “I got to play the hero and everything!”

Aela crowed with laughter. “Seems the men around here may take to wearing steel undergarments!”

“Chainmail or plate?” Alexa enquired.  “I ask out of consideration for my knees.”

Aela thought about that for a second.  “Chainmail, I would think.  It doesn’t have to be fitted with quite the same precision as plate.”

“Now that’s just cruel, Aela.  Think of the pinching that will result!” Alexa reprimanded the huntress with a smirk.

“Oooh, pinching…” Aela murmured as Athis crossed his legs uncomfortably and Tovar began inching away. “Hadn’t thought of that...”

“And to think I was a little afraid kneeing a man like that might be considered ‘underhanded’,” Alexa remarked.

“You gave him fair warning,” Aela pointed out.  “And I’ve been itching to floor him for months but he always behaves when I’m around.”

“Ahh,” Alexa smiled. “So the fact that you’ve been itching to knee him in the crotch make my choice to do so not underhanded?”

“You catch on fast,” Aela approved. 

“I think I understand now why the men of the Circle wear those supper manly fur skirts and armored dancing-girl belts,4” Alexa drawled.

Aela roared with laughter, Athis grinned, and even Njada snickered.  Ria just looked confused.

“You up for a job today?” Aela asked after she’d caught her breath again.

“Ready and waiting,” Alexa replied.

Aela nodded.  “Good.  Given your display last night I think you can start taking jobs further afield...” she explained, rifling through a pile of job requests for the one she was looking for. “How does a sabre cat that has taken up residence in a house in Karthwasten sound?”

“Like I should get going if there’s going to be any house left by the time I get there,” Alexa replied.

Chapter Text

Ondolemar was working at the desk in his private quarters when the door to his room opened and the ‘girl with the bow’ – Alexa, if the agent he’d tasked with asking around about her was to be believed – sauntered in holding a bottle of Colovian brandy and two Dwemer cups.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, wondering where his guards had gotten to as she dropped her pack on the floor.

“Currently, I believe, I am doing as you suggested, the last time we met, and basking in your presence,” she laughed, pouring him a cup of the brandy.

He did not reach out for it. She rolled her eyes at him and took a sip from the cup before offering it to him again.  Vaguely recalling that an offer of drinks was a polite Breton way of indicating interest in a prolonged conversation he accepted it and took his first sip.  It was a surprisingly good vintage.  Perfectly aged.  Ondolemar made a mental note to check and see if there was some subtler set of Breton customs, as there would have been in Alinor, which correlated the type and quality of the drink to the topic to be discussed.

He heard her snicker slightly as she settled into a chair with her own cup.  “For future reference,” she told him, her voice warm with mirth, “having me taste test things for you will not help you avoid being poisoned.  I have an unusually high natural tolerance for such things.”

“Lucky you,” he muttered. “How’d you discover that?”

“Dark Brotherhood assassin last year.  He lived just long enough to express his surprise.  I took his armor and had it replicated,” she added gesturing at herself.  “Except with blue leather rather than red.  It’s quality stuff, and makes my ass look fantastic.”

“You’ve survived a Dark Brotherhood contract?” he enquired, studiously ignoring the second half of her statement.  True though it may be he’d rather die than let the little man-mer know he found anything about her attractive.

“Mmm.  I did.  I can’t say I was particularly impressed.  But they had sent a trainee.  Perhaps one of the masters would have been more interesting.”

“You know they never give up?” Ondolemar asked, eyeing her over his cup.

“So I hear.  Though I think the ones in Skyrim are going to have to for a while.”

Right, he’d heard someone had destroyed the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary here in Skyrim.  “That was you?” he asked, trying not to sound impressed.

She wrinkled her nose at her drink.  “I think I missed one; a woman, or a girl, from the things in her room.  She must have been out at the time.1


She nodded.  “It seems Sithis looks out for his own a bit more than expected.  Or I was just unlucky - also a possibility - Nocturnal and I are not on the best of terms.” 

Ondolemar snorted. “You say that like you’re on any terms at all.”

“As bad as the Nords are about worshiping Talos it should not surprise you that their insistence on daedra worship can be equally robust and I have been in this frigid country for some time now, Commander.”

There was nothing to say to that, so he didn’t try.  Eventually, he was sure, she’d get to the purpose of this visit.  Unless, of course, there wasn’t one and she was simply here to socialize…  Is that at all likely? he wondered.  Most humans went out of their way to avoid Justiciars. 

The silence was verging on uncomfortable when she finally looked back up at him, that small sly smile lingering around her mouth and eyes.  “You are not from Markarth, I take it?”

“As if this craggy, wretch of a city could give birth to a superiorly bred mer such as myself,” he snorted.  “No, I am not from Markarth.  I was sent here to lead the Thalmor’s interests in this corner of Skyrim.”

“Are the Thalmor’s interests in Skyrim limited to the repression of religious freedom or is there more too it than that?” she enquired in a tone so polite it took him a moment to realize how hostile her word choice had been.

“It’s my mission to root out all Talos worship in Skyrim beginning in this city,” he told her sternly. “I cannot speak for others.”

She cocked her head to one side like a small bird.  “The Thalmor seem to be devoting a surprising amount of time and effort to a rather minor religious issue.  Surely even if the Nords are egregiously wrong in their assertion of the divinity of a dead man that mistake is no worse than their assertion that skeevers are edible?  It is simple enough to not worship Talos, or eat skeever, if you do not agree.”

Ondolemar tried not to choke and was suddenly very glad that Understone Keep employed a Breton cook rather than a Nord one.  “The Thalmor do not recognize Talos as a god.  He was only a man, and does not deserve a place in our pantheon,” he told her, sidestepping the very idea of eating skeever.

Again there was that slight tip of her head.  “But he was never only a man,” she disagreed. “He was dragonborn, a dragon soul in a mortal body - a child of Akatosh.”

Ondolemar snorted again. “Do you truly believe in such foolishness?”

She shrugged.  “Surely being the son of Akatosh is no stranger than being the son of Kyne.  Or was Morihaus only a man as well?”

“No one worships Morihaus,” Ondolemar pointed out acidly. 

“The Dunmer once worshiped Vivec and the rest of the Tribunal.  Do the Thalmor believe they were not gods?  Or does the fact they were born mer make their ascendance acceptable?”

Again her tone was so polite, indicating only sincere curiosity, that he nearly missed the aggressiveness of her word choice.  Was this merely the way she spoke or had she had serious speechcraft training at some point, he wondered.  Ondolemar cleared his throat.  “The False Tribunal are no longer worshiped in Morrowind making it unnecessary for the Thalmor to have any opinion on them whatsoever,” he told her.

“Fair enough” she laughed, relaxing slightly back into her chair.  Ondolemar found he was forced to suppress a smile of his own.  Her laughter was surprisingly infectious.

“Surely though the worship of Talos could be conceived of as simply another dragon cult?” she suggested. “A religious choice in keeping with Nord history and culture?”

“Dragons no longer exist,” he informed her sternly.  “Even if they did still exist they would not be worthy of worship.  The Dominion will not tolerate such foolishness.”

Again he saw that flicker of amusement that his most mundane comments seem to elicit in her.  “Forgive me.  I had no idea the situation in the Dominion was such that simple foolishness could be so threatening,” she drawled, toasting him with her cup.  “You have my condolences.”

His mind reeled at the implications of her statement.  Was that really how the natives saw his work?  Could they really believe that the Thalmor response to Talos worship was because Talos, somehow, posed a threat to the Dominion?  “We seek only to guide the people of Skyrim to a better future,” he told her primly.

“And you thought religious reform was the best place to start?” she asked with a skeptical arch of an eyebrow.  “Rather than, say, introducing them to the concept of soap?  If that is the case I’m afraid I really must question Thalmor priorities, Commander.”

“You would have Justiciars checking for dirt behind children’s ears?” he asked, unable to resist pointing out the absurdity of the situation she was proposing.

“Think how popular you would be with mothers everywhere!” she laughed.  “Though, given the general level of hygiene around here, you might be forced to begin with an educational program…” she mused and then began to snicker her eyes dancing wickedly.  “Timmy, don’t forget to scrub behind your ears or the Thalmor will come and lecture you!”

“I’m beginning to think you delight in making ridiculous statements,” he observed.

She gave him a secretive little smile.  “One must find humor in absurdity, Commander, or one will go mad.  Still, if the purpose of the Thalmor presence in this country is to shepherd the people of Skyrim into a new and better era, I can think of dozens more beneficial things you could be doing with your time than hunting heretics.”

“I will admit that the priorities set in Alinor are not what they might be had anyone in charge ever spent a winter in this wretched place, but the Empire has agreed to accept our beliefs, and so its citizens have a responsibility to uphold that agreement.”

“Ahh, so you agree with me?” she asked, leaning towards him in a most familiar way.

Ondolemar considered her for a long moment then changed the subject.  “You’re awfully inquisitive, aren’t you?”

She shrugged again as she pulled back and he found it necessary to focus his attention on her face rather than on the effects of the shrug.

“I… like that,” he told her, managing not to choke on the words.  No mer of his station should ever admit to liking something about a human, particularly if it were true.  “Perhaps you’d care to solve a little problem I’m having?”

“And how can a lowly human help a mer of your superior breeding?”  She was looking at him with those laughing, ice blue, eyes and the sarcasm in her words was more playful than biting.  He repressed the sudden, insane, urge to kiss her.  He must be drunker, or lonelier, than he’d realized if the simple, coincidental, resemblance between what he assumed was a Breton being friendly and an Altmer showing interest, could trigger such an impulse.  He carefully, deliberately, put the cup of brandy he’d been sipping down.

“Ogmund the skald,” he told her.  “He’s old, respected, and I know for a fact that he worships Talos in his home.  But the Jarl has been hesitant to call for his arrest.  I want you to break into his home and find evidence.”

“Are you asking me to commit a crime, Justiciar?” she teased.

“I… sometimes these things are necessary.”

She sobered her eyes searching his face for a moment.  “Truly?” she finally asked him.  “The ancient, half dead, skald?  Are your superiors really pressing you hard enough to make that sort of thing worthwhile?”

He stared at her coldly, refusing to answer or look away.

She shrugged.  “If all you need is to produce a few confiscated amulets of Talos now and then I’ve got some in my pack.  I’d be more than willing to give them to you.”

“You what?”

“That’s actually what I came to talk to you about.  Some Stormecloaks took out one of your Justiciars, and his guards, just south of Karthwasten.  I came upon the bodies early this morning.”

“And you got the amulets off the dead Stormcloaks,” he finished, with a sigh.  “Well, thank you for informing me.  I’ll send someone to retrieve the bodies.  And I’ll take those amulets.  Wouldn’t want you walking around with contraband like that.”

“Mind if I keep one?” she asked as she handed two over.


She shrugged. “They’re pretty.”

He glared at her coldly his hand still outstretched.

“Fine,” she sighed handing him a third amulet.  “Have it your way.”  She closed up her pack and lifted it over a shoulder.

“I expect you will be bringing me the skald’s amulet as well.  Rather soon, I hope?” he called to her as she moved to leave.

“It wounds my heart to disappoint you, Commander.  But I am confident that, living as long as you have, you already know that disappointment is an inescapable part of life,” she replied.  “I am certain you will soon recover.”  Then, before he could respond, she had sauntered out the door closing it firmly behind her.

Ondolemar sat for a time staring at the closed door and wondering how he was supposed to interpret what had just happened.  Coming to no conclusion he turned his attention to wondering about the two Dwemer cups and the bottle of brandy she had left behind.  Had she simply seen no point in taking the brandy and cups away with her?  Were they a gift?  If so, what type of gift were they?  He sighed. It was clearly time for him to brush up on Breton etiquette.

Chapter Text

When Maven Black-Briar requested the help of the Companions they sent their best.  Which was how Vilkas and Aela came to be walking from the Sea of Ghosts to Riften with Maven’s eldest son in tow.

How Hemming Black-Briar could possibly have been kidnapped and dragged from Riften all the way to the Sea of Ghosts, without one of his mother’s toddies catching on, Vilkas would never know.  In fact, given the last few hours in the Hemming’s company, Vilkas was half convinced the man had taken himself out of Riften to meet the bandits in the wreckage of The Winter War, in a failed attempt to outsmart his mother, only to discover bandits were (surprise, surprise) not to be trusted.

They were approaching Kynesgrove when Vilkas stopped short, gesturing roughly for Hemming to be quiet. He inhaled deeply, scenting the air. Vampires.  Quite a few of them.  Coming from the river.  He pushed Hemming down between two rocks.  “Don’t move,” he growled.  And then the vampires were on them.

Under other circumstances Aela might have taken on her beast form and the two of them could have disposed of the vampires with relative ease.  But Hemming was watching and there was no way the ungrateful ass would fail to use the knowledge to blackmail the Companions.  As it was, two Companions, against more than a dozen vampires, was looking pretty bad.

The only thing currently in Vilkas and Aela’s favor was the fact the master vampire of the group had yet to engage.  Instead the vampire was standing, slightly elevated, on a rocky outcropping and looking frantically about him.  For what, Vilkas was unsure, but he didn’t really have the time to think about it.

Suddenly a bright white arrow flew past Vilkas, embedded itself in one of the three vampires that were practically on top of him, and exploded in a silent burst of golden light. All three vampires caught in the gentle explosion burst into flame.

Vilkas heard the master vampire laugh above the sudden screaming of his minions.  “Ah, Miss Alexa.  Thank you for joining us!  I had heard you were more than just a pretty face!”

“Aw, you think I’m pretty, that’s very sweet!” she called back, her voice coming from behind Vilkas and to his left.  Another of the white arrows hit the master vampire full in the chest.

The master vampire snarled, pulling the arrow from his flesh and throwing it away.  “Where is the traitor, the Lady Serana?” he demanded, advancing on the whelp, without bothering to put out the flames engulfing him.

“If you don’t know, then I’m not telling,” the girl replied, loosing another arrow.

The arrow missed as the vampire exploded into a flock of bats only to reform a few feet away.  A ball of bright golden light hit him as he solidified necessitating his dispersal into a dark mist to put out the flames again.

Then the whelp was standing behind Vilkas, a hand flat on his back.  “Stendarr’s mercy surround you and shield you from your enemies,” he heard her whisper as he found himself engulfed in a glowing orb of light.  He almost laughed as the first vampire to contact it caught fire.

After that the fight was over rather swiftly.  Aela got the final blow in on the Master Vampire, coming up behind him and cutting his head off while the whelp kept him occupied. 

Vilkas checked the bodies to make sure they were well and truly dead, and to give himself a moment for the battle-high to leave him, before turning to face the Breton girl.  “Magic is not considered a particularly honorable method of fighting, New Blood,” he told her sternly.

“Perhaps an exception can be made for when one is overrun by vampires?” she asked.  Then, clearly sensing his continued disapproval, she shrugged.  “The spells I used are part of the school of Restoration.  They’re useless against living opponents.”

“The vampires knew your name,” Aela stated, coming up to them.

“Not surprising,” the girl replied, tossing the two companions cure disease potions.  “I used to work with the Dawnguard.  I’ve killed a fair few vampires in the past two years.”

“And the person they asked about?” Vilkas asked, downing the potion.  It wouldn’t do to let the whelp know that, as a werewolf, he didn’t need it.

“Serana,” the whelp answered, simply, but seemed unwilling to continue.

Aela crossed her arms over her chest and gave the whelp a long level stare.

“Serana is a friend of mine, and… a Daughter of Coldharbor: a pureblooded vampire,” the whelp told them as she exchanged her quiver of glowing white arrows for some normal elven ones.  “It wasn’t exactly her choice, in that she wasn’t aware she had a choice in the matter when it… happened.”

The expression on Aela’s face darkened to one of rage taking Vilkas by surprise.

“Wasn’t aware she had a choice?” Vilkas interrupted, quickly, before Aela could say anything. What had gotten into her?

“Serana says it was simply expected of her and it was considered an honor for her whole family.  If she had said ‘no’ she would have lost them all, if they didn’t kill her for it.”

Vilkas could see the topic was making the whelp deeply uncomfortable and Aela’s rage was turning icy but he still didn’t understand.  What was he missing that they both knew?  “I don’t think I understand,” he admitted.

“Serana’s father worshiped Molag Bal,” the new blood tried to explain.  “He dedicated both his wife and his daughter to his lord as living sacrifices so that the prince would grant him immortality.  It worked, he got the immortality he wished for, and both women survived, which is… very unusual.”

“And they were alright with it?” Aela demanded.

“Well, as I understand it, things between them went downhill after that.”

That Vilkas could believe. He didn’t know exactly what went into being dedicated to Molag Bal but he could imagine it was pretty horrible.

“But Serana seems to think it was less about the vampirism itself and more about the fact her father was the type of person who would do that to their wife and daughter in the first place.”

Aela’s eyes took on a golden sheen a low growl growing in the throat.  Vilkas cleared his throat at her.  She snarled, turned away, and began bashing at the trunk of a tree with her sword.

“The vampires called your friend a traitor,” Vilkas noted, turning back to the whelp.

She nodded, her eyes still on Aela.  “I assume you’ve noticed my bow?”

“Yeah.  It’s hard to miss something so shiny.  Not to mention that thing it does to vampires.”

“It’s a relic, of sorts. Serana and I… we went looking for it so that we could kill her father, and his followers.  That was… right before I came to the Companions.”

Vilkas suddenly recalled their first meeting and the overwhelming smell of blood and death that had suffused her person.  “Oh.”


“And where is Serana now?” he asked a great deal more gently than before.

“She’s with the Dawnguard. I think, by the time she’s done, vampires in Skyrim will be somewhat better behaved and a good deal more reclusive.”

“And her mother?”

“Living in seclusion. I visit her sometimes when I have questions about alchemy Arcadia can’t answer.”

“You are what then – friends – with two Daughters of Coldharbor?” he demanded, shocked.

“I think so, yes,” she replied warily.

“The fact that they’re vampires doesn’t bother you?”

“It does, in a way. But there is more to them than the vampirism.  So, as long as they are not harming anyone, I don’t see why I can’t be friends with them.”

That made him stop.  “You… see a lot of grey in the world, don’t you?”

“The world is made of shades of grey,” she told him.  “Only people too lazy to think see in black and white.”  She sighed and looked around them her eyes falling on the still cowering Hemming.  “Want some extra company on your delivery?” she asked.

“Sure,” he shrugged looking up at the sky.  Twilight had turned to night and they still had a long walk to Riften.  If it had been just him and Aela he would have kept going but, especially after what had just happened, it seemed unlikely Hemming was going anywhere.  He sighed.

“Kynesgrove is just up the hill there,” the whelp informed him.  “It has an inn.  I was intending to spend the night there anyway and your ‘package’ doesn’t seem like the type to walk all night.”

Vilkas nodded slowly. “Why don’t you take him and see if you can’t at least get him fed before we make any further decisions.  I need to check on Aela.”

She nodded again and went to roust Hemming from his nook with the promise of food and possibly even a bed.

Vilkas squared his shoulders and went to deal with Aela.  “What’s gotten into you?” he asked the huntress bluntly.

Aela glared at him, saw his confusion, and relented, drawing a deep, slow, breath.  “You don’t know what she was talking about, do you?”

Vilkas remained silent. The question was obviously rhetorical.

“Do you remember our first assignment after I became a member of the Circle?” she asked.

“We took out a nest of vampires, if I recall.”

“I found a book on vampirism on one of their shelves.  It contained a description of the ritual she was talking about.”

“Okay.”  Finally, someone was going to explain.  “What did it say?”

“Her friend’s father? He summoned Molag Bal and let the daedric prince of domination brutalize, and rape, his wife and daughter.  And, apparently, he told them it was an honor they couldn’t turn down.”

Vilkas felt bile rise in the back of his throat. 

“Sometimes I understand where the Vigilants are coming from,” Aela muttered, going back to savaging the tree.

Vilkas cleared his throat. “The Whelp says she’ll join us to Riften and back to Whiterun.  I thought it might be safer.  Looks like we’ll be spending the night in Kynesgrove.  I don’t think Hemming is walking any further today.”

“You go ahead,” Aela told him, sheathing her sword.  “I… I need to run this off.  I’ll see you back at Jorrvaskr.”

Vilkas opened his mouth, to object to being left alone with the whelp, but Aela cut him off before he could say anything.  “She’s a good person, Vilkas.  And whatever your problem with her is it won’t be worked out by never dealing with.”

He nodded morosely. She was right… and it did seem he had been unfair to the whelp. 

“Good luck,” Aela told him, already beginning to change.

Vilkas stood silently in the moonlight, watching until the red-brown wolf disappeared into the darkness across the hot springs flat.  Then he turned and made his way, slowly, towards the Braidwood Inn.  The next few days were going to be awkward.

 The next morning dawned bright and clear allowing for a good, early, start to the day.  Or it would have if it hadn’t taken over an hour to rouse Hemming and another to get him fed and ready to go.  Though the tea Alexa had finally brought Hemming in bed, Vilkas noted had helped a surprising amount.

“So what were you doing this far from Whiterun?” Vilkas asked the whelp.  Alexa, he reminded himself since, if he was going to try being friendly, he figured he should probably start thinking of her by her name. 

“Skjor has me on a Family Heirloom retrieval because – having once worked with the Dawnguard – I must be good against things that live in crypts,” she replied with a small smile.

“Well, from what I saw last night, that could easily be true,” he conceded, keeping one unenthusiastic eye on Hemming who, suspiciously, rather than dragging behind and complaining the way he had the previous day, was walking ahead of them down the road and even seemed unusually chipper about the whole thing.  “But shouldn’t you have been back from that trip yesterday?”

“Well, while I was out this way, I thought I’d also finish up an errand for Danica,” she said, jerking a thumb at the sapling sticking out of her pack.

“A replacement for the Gildergreen?” he asked.

“Yes, the Eldergleam Sanctuary is just on the far side of the hot springs flat,” Alexa answered, with a sidelong glance at him.  “And did you just compliment me Companion?”

“A statement of fact,” he assured her.

She arched an eyebrow at that before going back to watching their surroundings.  “Yeah well, too bad this particular crypt turned out to be full of necromancers.  Still, most of them weren’t smart enough not to set off their own traps.  So there’s that.  And the spirits who lived in the tomb were so pleased to have the necromancer’s gone they gave me a strange sword… it weighs almost nothing and is nearly transparent.1  Very cool, if a little creepy.”

Vilkas glanced sideways at her, startled.  “You took out a coven of necromancers?” he asked, not quite believing her.  “By yourself?”

“I’m a Breton with an affinity for sun magic,” she told him.  “Skyrim’s home-grown necromancers don’t seem to be prepared for the combination of magic resistance and their thrall’s inability to get close enough to hit me.”

Before he could respond, Hemming started to sing.  The song was one he was clearly making up on the fly on the fascinating topic of his mother and her scheming.  The song’s contents were not only revealingbut also imprudently detailed.

“Did you give him something?” Vilkas hissed to Alexa.

“The tea contained ingredients for prolonged stamina and health regeneration,” she replied quietly. “I created it for the Dawnguard as needing to stay up all night, and remain alert, is an occupational hazard for them.  I thought it’d make him walk longer, and faster, with less complaining.  I had no idea it’d make him manic.  Or so informative.”  She gave Hemming a worried look.  “I’m beginning to think he’s not very bright.”

“You think?” Vilkas asked in exasperation.

“I say if he’s still doing this when we get within sight of Riften we knock him out before presenting him to mummy dearest.”

“Agreed,” Vilkas muttered. “Still,” and he cocked his head slightly to listen to Hemming for a moment, “I think we might talk to Sabjorn about that Honningbrew incident when we get back.”

Alexa’s smile had a vicious little edge to it.  “Leave it to me.”

 It was nearly ten o’clock at night when they handed a completely exhausted Hemming over to Maul just outside Black-Briar Manor in Riften.

“So,” Vilkas began, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.  “Stay here or start back?”

“I’d rather not stay in town if it’s all the same to you,” she said, looking around her.  “I’m on somewhat awkward footing with the Thieves Guild and Maul will probably tell them I’m here once he’s delivered Hemming to his mother.”

“Oh?” he asked, starting towards the Southern gate.

When she didn’t answer he turned to look at her.  She was standing, frozen in place, staring into the shadows, off to the left, where a footpath ran between the manor and the keep.

A man in sable armor materialized out of the shadow and stepped into the moonlight.  “Observant as always, lass.  Introduce me to your new friend?”

“With you dressed like that?” she snapped, her hand shaking slightly as she indicated his darker than black armor.  “No.  I am not stupid enough to reveal the names of the trinity.2  You may introduce yourself if you feel it is necessary.”

The man in the black, black, leather armor chuckled indulgently. “Isn’t it about time you came home, lass?”

“Cyrodiil or High Rock?” she retorted spitefully.  “Because this,” she paused to gesture around her, “was never home.”

The man seemed to blur slightly and then he was standing directly in front of Alexa.  To Vilkas’ surprise she’d already reacted, knocking the man’s hand aside with her forearm the moment he reached for her.

“What about the Guild?” the man asked her, drawing his hand back slightly.  “They miss you, lass.”

“The Guild?” she laughed. “I’m sure Vex is ever so saddened by my absence.  Besides I was never part of the Guild.  You helped me, you hid me, and, in return, I lent you my magic and my skill with potions.  Considering everything that happened I’d say it was a fair trade.”

“And what about me?” the man asked, his voice dipping lower.

“I’m afraid I’m not following…”

“I miss you.”

Alexa’s mouth fell open in surprise.  “You what?

“I miss you,” he repeated.

She closed her eyes briefly and re-centered herself.  “I see. And I’m supposed to pretend that it’s not at all strange that you never found a time to mention that in the, what, year and a half since I left?”

“We’ve been busy and you’ve been extremely hard to find,” the man replied, clearly attempting to be reasonable.  “There were several weeks when even Karliah couldn’t find news of you!”

“Well there’s a lesson for you.  If you’re going to take up stalking people you’ve clearly chosen the wrong daedra,” Alexa noted sarcastically.  “Maybe try Azura next time?”

“This isn’t funny, lass.”

“No, that’s exactly what this is,” she snapped.  “I don’t know what job you have lined up that you think would go better with my help but this is a very odd choice of recruitment strategies.”

“The way I feel about you has nothing to do with the Guild.  If you’d only listen…”

“No,” Alexa interrupted him, holding up one finger.  “We are not doing this in public.  If you want to talk, you can come see me, like a normal person.  I’m with the Companions in Whiterun at the moment.  Come, or don’t, I don’t care.”

“Alexa…” he reached out to her, a second time, as she stepped around him.

There was a sudden green flash and the man stopped moving.3  Alexa pushed past Vilkas and walked out the south gate without a word.

 “You ok?” Vilkas asked after about twenty minutes of walking in dead silence.

“I… yes.  Or I will be, when I’m less tired and have had some time to get over being angry” she answered, turning down a path heading east from the main road. 

“Whiterun is this way,” Vilkas told her, pointing west.

She looked over her shoulder at him.  “True, but the closest safe place to sleep around here is this way.”

Vilkas knew of absolutely nothing in that direction but she seemed very certain.  He shrugged and followed after her.

There was silence between them again for another quarter mile.  “He wasn’t lying,” Vilkas offered.

“What?” she asked, clearly unsure to whom Vilkas was referring.

“Your friend in Riften. He does care for you.”

“And you could tell that how?” she asked suspiciously.

He shrugged but didn’t say anything since “I could smell it on him” would have lead to questions he didn’t want to answer.

“Guy thing?” she suggested after a moment.

“Guy thing,” he confirmed.

Alexa was silent for a while.  “You know, that actually makes what happened worse, not better.” 

That seemed like a comment best not followed up on.  So Vilkas changed the subject.  “You want to tell me how you became entangled with the Thieves Guild?” he asked.

She stopped, turned her face up to the stars, and took a long, slow, breath.  “I came to Skyrim, for good, in the fall of 198,” she began so quietly he almost missed it.  “I was… being perused.  My pursuers caught up with me near the boarder with Cyrodiil and I took an arrow, poisoned with lotus extract, in the back.”

Vilkas hissed in sympathy.

“I don’t remember much about anything after that.  I’m told I was nearly dead when the Thieves Guild’s second in command found me.  He nursed me back to health and they let me stay with them until it was safe for me to move on.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry, I really thought we could be in and out of the city before they realized I was there. Should have known better.”

“No harm done,” Vilkas told her, a little grudgingly.  “I’ll just let the others know not to give you jobs out this way for a while.  You said you were being perused?”

“Breton merchant houses have enemies.  My family was no different.”

He nodded to himself. It made sense and explained a few things about her, like how well educated she was.

The silence returned but was far less loaded than it had been before.  After another few minutes Vilkas broke it again.  “The Thieves Guild is involved with a daedra?”

“Nocturnal, and only some of them,” she replied.  “It used to be a big secret but it kind of got blown wide open when it was discovered their last Guild Master had betrayed both Her and the Guild.”

“So what’s the difference between being friends with a Daughter of Coldharbor and an agent of Nocturnal?” he enquired.

“The Daughters of Coldharbor never looked like they were about to forcibly recruit me.”

“Oh.”  Well, shit.  Given the conversation he’d over heard he probably should have seen that coming. “Not a fan of daedra?”

“I’m not a thief. Aside from the moral issues I have with steeling from hard working people the lifestyle doesn’t interest me. Becoming an agent of Nocturnal would have made it impossible for me to be anything else.  I… didn’t want that.”

“So you left before they could knock you over the head and present you to their prince?”

“I suddenly found it necessary to complete the project I’d been working on before I was nearly killed, which took me almost to Ivarstead.  Since there was only a very limited window of opportunity with Nocturnal they had to go ahead without me.  I did go back to see how everything had turned out but I didn’t stay.”

They crested the last rise and Vilkas saw where they were going: a tower overlooking the passage into Morrowind.  He stopped dead in his tracks.  From their garb it was clear the tower’s inhabitants, at least the three of them he could see, were Vigilants of Stendarr.

“Alexa!” the man beside the fire pit called as he stood and came towards them, arms open in greeting. “It has been some time since we last saw you.”

“Vincentius,” Alexa smiled, at the middle aged Imperial.  “This is Vilkas, of the Companions in Whiterun.  It has been a very long day and I was hoping we might take advantage of your hospitality for the night.”

“But of course.  You and your friend are welcome,” he replied. “Do you require food or simply a safe place out of the wind for your bedrolls?”

“I think I’m too tired to eat,” she told him.  “But thank you for the offer.”

“You are looking rather pale,” Vincentius commented.  “Even for you.  Go get some rest.”

Alexa gave Vilkas a questioning glance.

“You go ahead,” he told her. “I think I’m going to take him up on the offer of food.”

She nodded and disappeared into the tower.

Vilkas followed the Vigilant back to his fire and accepted some bread and a bowl of stew from him before sitting.  There was silence between them as Vilkas ate, cautiously eyeing the man across from him. 

Vincentius gave him a wry half smile when he noticed Vilkas staring.  “You needn’t worry Companion.  I am not interested in killing those who do not harm others.”

Vilkas choked. “What?”

Vincentius snorted. “You think that, at my age and doing what I do, I cannot see what you are?”

“What about the others?” he asked a little dubiously.

“You travel with Alexa,” Vincentius replied.  “That is all any of us need to know.”

“You trust her that implicitly?” Vilkas asked, surprised.

“She is, of course, daedra touched herself,” the older man told him.  “But she has earned our trust and our respect.”

Vilkas blinked at that. Thinking back on it he realized Alexa hadn’t actually answered his question on her feelings about daedra. “She is?”

Vincentius nodded. “Meridia has gifted her with power against the undead.4  But it is clear to anyone with eyes that the only power Alexa revers is Kynareth…  She is no daedra worshiper drunk on the power they offer and willing to harm others to gain more of it.”

Vilkas thought about that for a moment.  “Do you know how she came to join the Dawnguard?” he asked, carefully. 

“Isran, the head of the Dawnguard, is a hard man.  But even he’s not so pigheaded as to turn away someone with her proficiency in sun magic, daedra augmented or no.  Why she sought them out, I don’t know.”

“You… seem to respect and trust her a great deal.”

“She achieved a great thing while with the Dawnguard.  It is a shame she has chosen to leave them.”

“What did she do that was so impressive?” he asked, slowly.

Vincentius gave him a surprised look.  “She has not told you?”

“The only thing she’s told me is that she, and her vampire friend, retrieved an artifact and killed the vampire’s father.”

Vincentius chuckled quietly. “Of course it is.”  He sighed and leaned his forearms on his knees, staring into the fire.  “Sometime in the Second Era a vampire lord learned of a prophecy that indicated it was possible to blot out the sun – plunge Nirn into eternal night.  Freed of the Sun’s ‘tyranny’ he believed he could conquer Skyrim, enslaving its lesser vampire clans, and reducing its human and mer population to cattle.  Obsessed, he sought out the specific Elder Scrolls that would reveal the prophecy to him.  Luckily for the world the prophecy was written across multiple scrolls, which gave his wife and daughter time to betray him, hiding away both themselves and the scrolls.

“About a year ago now his people managed to locate his daughter, Serana.  Luckily for us the increase in vampire activity near her location caught the Dawnguard’s attention.  They sent Alexa to investigate.  Alexa managed to convince Serana to trust her with the reason she’d been buried with an Elder Scroll and the Dawnguard to trust that a Daughter of Coldharbor was telling them the truth.  In the end they managed to prevent Serana’s father from fulfilling the prophecy and we all get to continue living in a world with a sun.”

Vilkas considered the story for a while.  “There must be more to it than that,” he said finally.  “Convincing people with the same goal to work together is hardly worth the deference you show her.”

Vincentius shook his head in amusement.  “You do not know Isran.  But you are right.  There was a great deal more to it… but that is not my story to tell.”

“So because she saved the sun you are willing to overlook her connection to a daedric prince?” Vilkas enquired carefully.

“The Vigilants, on the whole, do not see a lot of gray in the world,” the Imperial admitted.  “We excuse our lack of nuance by saying that it is better to kill a vampire, or a werewolf, before it can harm others than to risk letting it commit mass murder – which our members usually see as inevitable.  Truthfully it is simply that many of us cannot imagine that a person, infected by a daedra, will not seek to do harm.  Two years ago I would not have thought it possible that a Daughter of Coldharbor could be a reasonable person, or that the fate of the entire world might turn on the ability of Meridia’s champion to work with a vampire.  Yet that is what happened.  The Vigilants, I have come to believe, too easily forget that the daedra are not known for presenting their victims with choice.”

“I chose this life,” Vilkas told the man softly.  “Even if I think now that I was too young to fully understand the consequences.  Even if I wonder if I would have chosen differently had acceptance of the beast blood not simply been expected of me. Either way, I still chose it.”

“You regret?” Vincentius asked in surprise.

“If there were a way to undo what has been done, I would take it,” he replied.

Vincentius was quiet for a moment.  “From Serana I have learned that we are not always responsible for the things that happen to us.  What we are responsible for is what we do afterward.  The daedra have not taken your free will, Companion.  They only changed the trials you face in asserting it.” He gave a self-deprecating chuckle. “There was quite a bit of prayer and reflection involved in that little epiphany, young man.  Don’t let it go to waste.”

Chapter Text

“Taran!” someone was yelling.  “Get out here and call this bitch off before I kill her!”

Taran made it through the cave entrance just in time to see a very agile woman in familiar black and royal blue armor dodge one of his forager’s sword swings and then land a punch to her face hard enough to knock her down.  The two lookouts, he noted, seemed to be taking bets.

“You want to explain why someone attacked my sister?” Taran asked the lookouts, giving Alexa time to collect herself.

The first lookout blinked. “She’s your new sister?  I suppose that explains why she did not attempt to hid her approach or draw her weapons.  Maybe Lyse didn’t recognize her from your description?”

“Or maybe she did and was jealous?”  The other lookout suggested giving Taran a none-too-subtle leer.

Taran bit back a responding smile as he turned back to Alexa.  “Beast Master, it is a pleasure to see you again.”  He heard the title echoed from several incredulous lips but went on before Alexa could say anything.  “What brings you to our encampment on this,” he squinted up at the clear blue sky, “rather lovely morning?”

“Business,” she snapped. “But first, you tell me, Hunt Master, why in Oblivion I was just attacked?  I thought being your sister was supposed to end random acts of Forsworn violence on my person.”

“Perhaps Lyse found you threatening?” he suggested mildly.  Though, he acknowledged to himself, it was far more likely the Forager had simply thought the Beast Master would be easy prey and hadn’t realized who she was.

“I walked up the path in full view of your lookouts with my weapons sheathed.  Surely your guards could have spared the time to ask me who I was and what I wanted?”

“And it appears most of them did just that,” he noted dryly.  “Perhaps, if you displayed your scars…” he offered with a smirk.

The glare she gave him was everything he’d hoped it would be.  “You’re suggesting your harridan wouldn’t have attacked me if I had been half naked?”

“Nah,” Lyse said, sitting up and holding her bloody nose.  “I wanted her bow.  Didn’t know she was a Beast Master... or your blood-sister.”

He shrugged.  “See, Alexa, you should display your scars. They are proof of an impressive achievement!”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I like not having frostbite.”

He gave her a long, level, look.

She rolled her eyes and began undoing the leather piece over her left shoulder.  “You know, most people don’t take pride in having been shot.”

He laughed at that. “It depends entirely on who is doing the shooting,” he told her.

She glared at him as she bared her collarbone and shoulder revealing the silvery pockmark created by a daedric prince’s arrow.  “Good enough?”

“For now,” he smirked.

Her eyes narrowed and she began refastening her armor.  “You know what, never mind.  I came here as a courtesy to you, since we’re family now, but, since you’re apparently not going to take me seriously, I think I’ll just go to Red Eagle Redoubt and kill anyone who even looks at me funny.”

“Whoa, wait!” Taran closed the distance between them in a single leap and grabbed her arm.  “If that’s the case maybe you should come inside and talk.”  He saw her hesitate a moment.  “Don’t worry, there are no briarhearts, or hagravens, among the people here.”

 “So, what can the Forsworn do for you, Beast Master?” Taran asked, settling onto what clearly passed for a Forsworn throne.

“Firstly, stop calling me that,” she replied tartly.  “‘Alexa’ will do fine.  Secondly I’ve been asked to retrieve a bunch of Dwemer schematics from Red Eagle Redoubt. As it is a Forsworn encampment I thought you might appreciate the chance to retrieve the schematics for me rather than have me get them myself.”

“And the rest of the shipment?” he enquired.

“Keep it if you want. Or I’d be willing to pay you for it.”

“And will you be paying us for the schematics?”

“Do the Forsworn use crossbows?” she asked.


“Then a schematic for Dwemer crossbow bolts won’t be all that useful to you.  I’ll pay ten gold for your runner’s time, fifty for the schematics, and fair trade for any of the rest of the shipment you wish to be rid of.”

“So my options are you pay us for a shipment we liberated from bandits or you go and – quite possibly – slaughter an entire camp of people to retrieve an item worth about fifty gold pieces?”

“I hear the antiquities business can be rather cutthroat,” Alexa deadpanned.

Seriously?” he demanded.  “You expect me to believe that?”

“The bolts in question are particularly good for killing vampires.  Not many people have that interest, but those that do place great value on their equipment.  They are also rather strapped for cash.”

“I thought you were done with vampire hunting.”

“I am doing it as a favor,” she replied.

Taran sighed.  “It seems I would be a fool to turn down your generous offer.  Give me a description of the item and I will send someone to procure it for you with your offer of fair payment for the rest of the shipment.”

Alexa removed a single piece of paper from her pack.  “Item description,” she told him, handing over the piece of paper.

Taran handed the note, to one of his men.  “Go to Red Eagle Redoubt and talk to the Briarheart in charge.  Tell him he may keep what he wants of the shipment except the schematics.”

“Oh,” Alexa interjected, stopping the man before he could leave.  “Also, please inform the Briarheart that should he succeed in raising the briarheart know as Red Eagle that, as Meridia’s champion, I would be compelled to pluck the briar seed from his chest before reducing Red Eagle’s walking corpse to a pile of ash.  A situation that would, no doubt, place my blood-brother, his prince, in an awkward position.”

The man gave Taran a wide-eyed look.

“Perhaps phrase it a bit differently?” Taran suggested.

The man nodded once and hurriedly left the cave.

Taran laced his fingers together in front of him.  “Would you like to tell me how you know about that particular pet project?”

Alexa rolled her eyes. “Please, what else would a Briarheart be doing at Red Eagle Redoubt?  I can practically hear the rousing, if historically questionable, parallels one could draw between the Reachmen of the late first era and the Forsworn of today.”

“Historically questionable?” Taran asked, arching his brows at her.

“Unless you’re going to tell me that hagravens are brilliant archivists fully invested in the accurate preservation of historical event, I am prepared to bet the entire contents of my pack that your records of the first era are no better than anyone else’s. By which I mean damn near completely fictional.”

Taran burst out laughing, and continued laughing until he ran out of breath and tears streamed from his eyes.  “No,” he answered finally, wiping his streaming eyes.  “I don’t think I will try to convince you of that.”  He heaved a soft sigh and looked around him.  “It will take my man the rest of the day to get to Red Eagle from here.  I wouldn’t expect him to return before late tomorrow afternoon.  You may stay here, of course, but I will understand if you would rather spend the next two days in Markarth.”

“If those are my choices I think I’d rather stay here.  I hate Markarth.”

“Do you now?” he asked, gesturing for her to take a seat near his.

“Markarth is, quite possibly, the worst city in Skyrim,” she replied, dropping into the seat with a slight groan.

“Truly?  I’ve heard Riften is pretty bad.”

“Riften’s got the Thieves Guild so it’s corrupt as anything but so is Markarth.  No the thing that set’s Markarth apart is that it stinks of death.  Riften just stinks of fish.  That said, if I ever figure out what’s going on in Rorikstead1 I might have to revise the standings on my ‘worst place in Skyrim’ list.”

“Rorikstead?” Taran asked baffled.

“I’m not sure how you would choose to explain a human farming settlement with, literally, no adult human women in it, but something there gives me the creeps.”

“Yes, that would be… very odd,” he admitted.  “And to think I had been hoping you might have stopped by to see me,” he smiled at her, changing the subject.

“I did stop by Solitude on my way here,” she admitted.  “Speaking of which, Viarmo says you will soon be ready to enter high society.”

“And what does my sponsor have in mind for me after that?” Taran asked, his tone lightly joking.

“Will you be returning to Solitude in the near future?” she asked.

“After the Summer’s Hunt in about a week,” he replied, regarding her through slightly narrowed eyes.

“Then I will come by and introduce you to Falk Firebeard, at the Blue Palace, sometime after that.”

“You know the High King’s steward?” Taran blinked.

“I do.  What’s more, he owes me a favor.  I shouldn’t think it too much to ask that he take on an assistant. Especially since that assistant comes with the advantages of being free, educated, intelligent, and motivated to learn.”

“Stop, you’re making me blush,” Taran groaned.

She grinned wickedly. “Just reminding you that you have other qualities than being ‘Forsworn’.  No need to let only one quality define you.”

He considered her for a moment.  “You’d know something about that I suppose.”

“I would,” she admitted, watching an elderly woman approach them with a look of determination on her face.

“You’re the Champion of Meridia now?” Taran asked.

“As of spring of last year2,” she answered.  “Found something of hers in an ice-cave, full of ghosts, just north of Dawnstar. Killed a few necromancers and suddenly I’m her champion.  Go figure.”

“You seem to have an uncommon amount of contact with daedric princes,” he noted.

“I’m a powerful mage,” she reminded him.  “I think it makes me more noticeable from their point of view.”

The old woman pointedly cleared her throat for their attention, still scowling at Alexa.

“Agrona, the greatest – non-hagraven – shaman among the Forsworn,” Taran acknowledged, introducing the woman to Alexa before giving her his full attention.  “Was there something I can do for you, shaman?”

“I would speak, privately, with the woman our prince has taken as family,” she told him.

“I would be honored,” Alexa replied, politely, as she stood up, following the old woman to the back of the cave and into her tent.

“Are you truly a Beast Master?” Agrona asked, seating her self on a pelt on the ground.

“I am,” Alexa replied, sitting on the dry earth across from her.

“And why would Lord Hircine bestow such a rank upon one who is already claimed by Meridia?”

“I cannot claim to know the mind of any daedra, much less a daedric prince,” Alexa replied, politely. 

“And how did you come to gain his favor?” the old woman asked.

“I hunted the White Stag,” she answered simply.  “The conversation, and events, that followed did not go as either of us planned.  He was amused by the outcome.  I was not. He offered me a place among His hunters. My refusal was… less than polite.”

“If you are not hunter then you are prey,” Agrona nodded.  “How did you survive?”

“As I fled from Him I set traps, used the land to my advantage, and tried to turn the hunt against Him.  I took four arrows before He finally caught me.  The fifth,” she undid the shoulder on her armor again and pointed to the scar beneath her collarbone, “He it drove in by hand, told me I was a Beast Master, and left.”

“How did you survive four arrows from a daedric prince?” Agrona enquired, softly, running wizened fingers over the pockmark beneath Alexa’s collarbone.

Instead of answering Alexa drew off her gauntlet, and cast “Healing”.  As the golden light pooled in her palm silver and lavender petals appeared on her skin floating across it as though her arm was at the center of a whirlwind.  She snuffed the spell and the petals faded away.

Agrona nodded slightly before leaning forward and taking Alexa’s face between her bony hands, her eyes searching.  After a long moment of consideration she let go and sat back again in what appeared to be deep thought.  The silence between them was growing uncomfortable when Agrona finally spoke.  “I have watched over my people for many seasons but never have I seen a thing like you.”  She paused again, squinting up at Alexa.  “So much strength and power but as yet unformed…  It seems you do not yet know yourself and yet you seek to influence what we are?  What is it you think to achieve here, Beast Master?”

There was another short silence, as Alexa considered her words carefully, before she spoke.  “The path the Forsworn now tread leads nowhere,” Alexa told the older women softly. “The world moves on around you while you stand still.  Like a rock in the middle of a river you will be worn away.  This state of being can only lead to extinction.  If the Old Ways are to continue, if the Forsworn are to survive, they must not succumb to the obsolescence that is the eventual effect of time on all stationary things.”

“And what would one so young know of the ways of time?” the shaman enquired a little dismissively. “You do not have the years to have witnessed them.”

“I taste it in my throat, feel its tug upon my skin, hear its tones upon the wind, and sense its colors all around me,"3 Alexa told her softly.  “Fate is a gorge and Time the river that flows between its walls...  But in this time, in this moment, some among you have a chance to harness the wind that blows down from the mountains and free the Forsworn to move with the river rather than stand, impotently, against its flow.  It is important to me this moment not simply pass you by.  The old ways must be remembered.”

“Must they?” Agrona asked, surprised.  “It is an odd idea to hear in the mouth of one who is not Forsworn.”

Alexa closed her eyes.  “Did you know that the Dwemer believed that all creation could be conceived of as music; every element a note and every stable alloy a chord… all harmonizing together to create the world as we know it?”  She opened her eyes and met Agrona’s stare fully.  “Something is wrong.  Discord has entered the melody.  Some notes have shifted while others that never existed have been entered into the score. Others are simply missing. Creation itself is being corrupted.4

“And how do you know this?” Agrona enquired with a puzzled frown.

“I feel it,” Alexa answered.  “For years I have ventured into the deep cities in search of a touchstone, a memory of what creation once sounded like.  Nothing.  The corruption was present even at the Dwemer’s height.  Perhaps they were unaware of it and so took no account of it in their devices.  Maybe that is why their greatest invention – the Numidium – failed in its intended purpose and, instead, broke Time itself.”

“You think the Old Ways – our ways – may be free of these ‘discordant notes’?” Agrona asked, frowning.

“I do not know,” Alexa replied.  “All I know is that I am driven to preserve previous understandings of Truth against the growing discord.”

“You realize that many would label you as mad for what you have said to me?” Argona pointed out slowly.

“But not you?” Alexa asked.

“No.  Not I,” Agrona sighed.  “The hagraven who taught me my craft spoke as you do, though with less eloquence.  What plans do you have for our prince, Beast Master? How does he play into your machinations?”

“I hope that he will save you, but I know he cannot do it without help.” 

“And you think you can help him?”

“As king of the Forsworn there are many paths Taran may take but only two directions in which they lead,” Alexa answered.  “There is the way of the petty tyrant and the way of the great king.”

“And you would claim to know the difference?” Agrona snorted dismissively.

“In High Rock there is a saying: The difference between a petty tyrant and a great king is breadth of view,” Alexa told her, ignoring the older woman’s incredulity.  “A petty tyrant sees only what is directly in front of him and so makes no allowances for the actions of others.  In the end he will always be blindsided by outside forces. A great king sees the whole of the landscape before him and knows that he, and his adversary, are but two players among many.

“In Daggerfall they would tell you that this is why Madanach lost almost before he began.  The game he played only encompassed the Reach and so he did not ready himself for Ulfric Stormcloak or understand the situation the Great War had left the Empire in.  His world, his breadth of view, was so small, so narrow, he believed he had won with the taking of a single city.  Foolish and tragic in equal measure.  When his accounts are reconciled I fear he will be found to have done more harm to his people than good.  

“If Taran is not to repeat the mistakes of his grandfather he must learn to see beyond the Reach and even beyond Skyrim.  Now that he is ready to interact with them, on their terms, I intend to put him in the path of those who can teach him these things.”

“That seems very altruistic of you,” Agrona noted dubiously.  “Compulsion to preserve our ways or no.”

Alexa snorted.  “Did you know that the Thalmor call the Great War ‘The First War with the Empire’?”

Agrona raised her brows at that.  “And what if they do?” she asked.  “What does it matter to the Forsworn?”

“And that is exactly my point about the dangers of thinking small,” Alexa replied.  “The Thalmor are zealots wholly devoted to the restoration of mer supremacy across all of Tamriel.  Only, this time, they are not likely to repeat the mistakes of the Aylids and simply enslave mankind.  Slaves eventually rebel and they already have enough slaves in the beastfolk and ‘lesser’ elves.  No, this time they will simply exterminate us.

“In this greater conflict mankind is at a disadvantage.  The mer are better than we in every conceivable manner, if only because they can devote lifetimes to any pursuit they undertake.  They can employ long-term strategies that we, because of the shortness of our years, could never hope to match.  They can outwait us and sew seeds of discontent for centuries before striking.  Our only defenses against them are unity and numbers.”

“And how do you propose unity be built on ground soaked in blood?” Agrona demanded.

“All ground is soaked in blood,” Alexa told her.  “The issue is to decide which is more important to you, the blood that has already been lost to the earth or the blood that has yet to be spilled upon it.  In my opinion, it is craven to sacrifice one’s children in the hope of a better past.  The past cannot be changed, no matter how much blood is poured on it.”

“You would have the Forsworn give up hope of ruling their own lands?” Agrona asked.

Alexa considered her for a long moment.  “I suppose that depends on your definition of ‘rule’.  Would a Forsworn becoming Jarl of the Reach – acknowledged by the other Jarls and the High King of Skyrim – count as self-rule?”

Agrona stilled.  “You think that is possible?”

“I see several paths that may lead to that destination.  But first Taran must prove himself to the powers that be in Skyrim.  He must show them that he is not only capable of holding the position but also that he is not simply a less bad choice than the alternatives but a better one.  This is why he must learn to present himself in a fashion the other Jarls will understand. And why he must learn the game of politics and armies as it is played outside the Reach.”

Agrona was silent for a while.  “Perhaps the gods put you in Taran’s path for a reason, Beast Master. His time away has not hurt him… so far. So, for now, I am content for you to play your game.”

Alexa considered the shaman for a moment.  “Eventually Taran will need the help of the Forsworn to complete his rise to power.  I hope that when that time comes he will have your support.”

“Speak, Beast Master.”

“While your costumes are all very impressive, and fear-inducing, they also make you appear… inhuman,” Alexa began.  “If you are not human then your claims are easy to dismiss.  After all, one does not worry about a bear’s claim to the cave it lives in.  If the other Jarls are to accept Taran they, and their most powerful subjects, will need to believe the Forsworn are a people like any other. 

“The ground has not yet been laid for anything big, but beginning to spread your roots beyond the Reach now, before anything obvious has begun, could prove useful.  To this end I would suggest the slow deployment of a handful of carefully chosen representatives.”

“As isolated as we are, I doubt my people would know how best to go about such a thing,” Agrona pointed out.

“If I were you, I would begin by sending a warrior to the Dawnguard and a hunter to Falkreath,” Alexa suggested.

Agrona cocked her head at that.

“The reason for sending a warrior to the Dawnguard is simple. Vampires threaten us all.  Show that the Forsworn are willing to work with others against a common enemy and you open the door for further cooperation. 

“The purpose in sending a hunter to Falkreath is a little more… subversive.  There is room in Falkreath’s Jarl’s household for a master of the hunt.  Who better than a Forsworn?  Are you not uniquely favored by Hircine himself?  If he acquits himself well then you have won the good graces of one of nine Jarls with very little effort.”

Agrona nodded in understanding.  “And what kind of person should these ‘representatives’ be?”

“The Dawnguard is willing to train its recruits,” Alexa replied, mulling it over.  “All that is necessary is an interest in killing vampires and the ability to take the role seriously.  Frankly, given that group, the more dour your ‘representative’ the better, as long as they don’t have a problem with authority.  For Falkreath… Jarl Siddgeir is an ass but not a particularly demanding one.  I would suggest a young man who is a skilled hunter, likes to drink and have a good time, but knows enough not to outshine the Jarl.  I can even see to the introduction personally, given that you find the right person.”

The shaman smiled.  “I believe I have just the persons in mind.”  She sighed.  “I see no harm in your plans thus far, Beast Master, but I wonder if you can deliver the results you claim.”

“I have not claimed I could deliver anything,” Alexa disagreed. “Merely that I see a possibility and feel it worth the risk.”

 “Calum,” the hunter with shocking red hair and enormous grin introduced himself.  “Agrona asked me to take you hunting while we wait for our runner to return.”

“Alright,” Alexa said, standing up from the table she’d been having breakfast at.

“Do you know how to hunt and track?” he asked, as she gathered her things.

“I have never been a hunter, per se,” she answered.  “But I’m good with a bow and can move silently when I wish.  I do not think I will prove too much a burden for you.”

“How do you feed yourself when you travel, if you cannot read tracks?” he asked, leading her towards the cave entrance.

“The Detect Life spell works pretty well in a pinch,” she answered. “And I’m rarely away from a town for more than a few days.”  Alexa squinted, shielding her eyes from the sun with a hand, as they adjusted to outside light.  “Which way are we going?”

“West, I think.  Away from the river,” he answered, turning uphill.  “That’s not the same bow you were carrying yesterday.  Your other one was rather fancier than that.”

“True.  This is Zephyr.  It has a very fast pull but does not do as much damage as the other one.  It also doesn’t light things on fire, so I prefer it for hunting.”

“Why’d you bring that funny black staff?” Calum asked, eyeing the Wabbajack strapped to her back.

“In case of multiple bears,” she replied, not wanting to say she simply hadn’t felt leaving it behind was a good idea.  “Don’t ask,” she laughed, responding to his quizzical look. “Did Agrona tell you why she wanted you to take me hunting?” she enquired as they crested the hill above the encampment.

“Nah.  I just assumed she wanted you out of camp and chose me because she knows I’d like the chance to ask you what things are like beyond the Reach.”

“You’re interested in traveling?” Alexa asked in surprise.

“Yeah but it’s not like I’m going to get the chance,” he laughed, pointing at the rather obvious Forsworn tattoos on his face.  “I’d never pass as anything but Forsworn and we aren’t particularly popular these days.”  He was silent for a moment as they took in the rugged landscape of the Karth valley. “I, uh, hear prince Taran once traveled with you for a bit.”

“We explored a Dwemer ruin, or two, together back before he became a Hunt Master.”

“And now he’s spending time in Solitude,” Calum commented wistfully, before scuffing a foot against the ground in embarrassment.  “You know there are rumors that you’re trying to steal him away from us, Beast Master?”

Alexa laughed at that.  “I’m afraid I prefer somewhat older men.”

“What do you want with him then?” Calum enquired curiously.

“I want him to be a good king,” she replied.  “I think he has the potential to actually improve things for the Forsworn, and the Reach.”  She gave him a wry little smile.  “I’m a Breton.  With us this sort of politics – conflict between groups most outsiders cannot tell apart – is bred in the bone.  We are raised to it the way you are raised to the hunt.  In Taran I see the possibility for something better than what is.  Given that what is could use some serious improvement all around why would I not choose to help?”

“And he will learn to be a good king in Solitude?” Calum asked.

“To learn to see beyond the valley it helps to have been beyond it.  A good king must understand the world beyond his kingdom so that he can predict how events unfolding on his borders will affect his people.”

Calum thought about that for a moment.  “I suppose that makes sense.  A good hunter knows the land around him so that when his prey bolts he can anticipate which way it will run and what path it will take.” 

Over the last several hours Calum had shown himself, at least in her estimation, to be a gifted hunter.  By the early afternoon they had felled two foxes, three rabbits, and a deer, even though, it seemed to Alexa, the young man had been a little preoccupied the entire time.  

“Now to drag this thing back to camp,” Calum muttered, holding her arrow, which he had just pulled from the deer carcass, out to her.

“I think I can help with that,” Alexa smiled at him, a purple sphere coalescing in her hand.

“Woah!” Calum exclaimed, jumping away from Alexa, as Arvak appeared a few steps from them.  “What is that?”

“Arvak?  He’s a… very special horse,” she laughed, patting the flaming bone stead tenderly on the nose.  “He’s easy to feed and house, he never tires, and troll and bear attacks just send him back to Oblivion rather than killing him.  I thought he could carry the carcass back for us.”

“I’ve never seen anything like him,” Calum muttered, holding a hand out for the bone horse to scent, which Arvak dutifully did before presenting a nonexistent shoulder for scratching.  “He’s just like a real horse then?”

“He was a real horse once,” she answered, a little sadly. “I’m not sure he knows he’s not anymore.”

“Did you do this to him, Beast Master?” Calum asked, suddenly wary.

“No.  I found him… in a very bad place,” she told him.  “We got out together.”

“You must have been a lot of places, Beast Master,” he noted, with a shake of his head, his wariness leaving him.  “Will his flames… harm anything?”

“So far I haven’t found anything that catches fire from them,” she replied.

There was another silence between them as they struggled to tie the deer carcass to Arvak’s bony back.

“I was wondering,” Calum began suddenly when they were finished. “Could you help me the way you helped Taran?”

“You and Taran are different people.  I doubt joining the Bards College to learn history and speechcraft would make you happy,” she began, but, seeing the sudden look of dejection on his face hurried on.  “There may be something else I could do for you though.”

“Truly?”  The hope in his eyes was almost painful to look at.

“Given that the runner has returned when we get back I will be leaving, in the morning, for Mor Khazgur to pick up one of my adventuring companions.  From there I intend to travel to Falkreath via Dragon Bridge, Rorikstead, and Hunter’s Rest.  There is a group of bandits with a rather substantial bounty on their heads at Pinewatch. And, after that, I have a delivery to make at Largashbur in the Rift.  You are welcome to join me, if you wish.”


“The best way to deal with wander-lust is to actually try traveling,” she told him.  “And you’re skills are definitely good enough to keep you alive through most of the things Skyrim throws at people.”

 Agrona rubbed one ear thoughtfully.  “Calum could not be more excited,” she remarked dryly, holding out the Dwemer schematics.

“You said you had someone in mind for the Dawnguard?” Alexa asked.

“I do.  But they are at a different settlement.”

Alexa nodded.  “Have them deliver those then.  It should make for a good first impression.”

Agrona gave her a reproving look.  “It is not particularly safe for our warriors to simply wander Skyrim.”

“Where is this person coming from?” Alexa enquired, accepting the schematics.

“Serpent’s Bluff Redoubt,” Agrona answered.

“Then have them meet me at Gjukar’s Monument four days from now. I’m headed to the Rift anyway.”

Chapter Text

The Ragged Flagon

Delvin nearly had a heart attack when Alexa appeared sitting in the chair across from him in the Ragged Flagon.  “There you are young lady,” he greeted her affably once his breathing was back under control again.  “Brynjolf will be pleased to see you.”

“I’m here to see you, Del, not Brynjolf.”

“Oh.  I… uh… see,” he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  “What can I do for you then?”

Alexa placed a silver mold on the table.1  “I assume you can tell me to whom this belongs?”

“Aye.  That I can.  Silversmith in Markarth, Endon I think ‘is name is.  ‘E’s been lookin’ for that little beauty.  Says ‘e’s willing to act as a fence for us if we retrieve it for ‘im.”

“I’ll probably be headed out that way in the next few weeks, if you want to pay me for delivery as well as the finder’s fee,” Alexa offered with a meaningful look.

The older man sighed. “You sure you don’t want in the Guild, love?” he asked, tossing her a rather heavy purse.

“Please, we all know I’d rather shiv Maven in the kidneys, repeatedly, than work for, or with, or even around, her,” Alexa smiled. 

“Aye,” Delvin admitted heavily.  “Speaking of which, you wouldn’t know anything about how that Sabjorn fellow got his meadery back, would you?”

“I’m sorry Del but I can’t stay to chat,” Alexa smiled apologetically at him, and ignoring his question, as she put the silver mold back in her pack and got to her feet.  “My friends are reporting to Largashbur that we killed the giants just like Malacath wanted.  I really should catch up to make sure nothing goes wrong.”

“‘Old your bloomin’ ‘orses right there, young lady!” Delvin objected.  “You just did what now, and for whom?”

Alexa laughed and kissed Delvin on the cheek.  “See you ‘round, Del.”  Then she cast invisibility and disappeared.

“You going to tell the Guild Master she was here?” Vex asked, “Or am I?”

Delvin sighed.  Why did Guild life have to be so complicated?

 Jorrvaskr (five days later)

“Who’s the lovely piece of man-meat?” Aela asked Farkas, tipping her chin to indicate someone who had just arrived in the training area from inside Jorrvaskr.

“Don’t know,” Farkas replied, remaining focused on the training dummy in front of him.  “I haven’t heard anything about a new recruit.”

“That’s not a new recruit,” Athis hissed at them.  “That’s a real problem.”

“What do you mean?” Aela demanded.

“That’s black Thieves Guild armor he’s wearing.  Black means inner circle.”

“Thieves Guild?” Aela hissed back in shock.  “What would one of them want at Jorrvaskr?”

Farkas sighed and turned around.  “Something we can do for you, Friend?” he asked, stepping a little away from Aela and Athis.

“I certainly hope so, lad,” the man replied with a friendly smile.  “The folks inside said one of the Circle would be able to tell me where Alexa is.”

“She’s out on a job for Vilkas,” he replied.

“And which one is he?” the thief asked looking around him.

“Brother!” Farkas called out, waving Vilkas over.

“The name’s Brynjolf,” the man said, holding out a hand to Vilkas.

“Guild Master,” Vilkas greeted the man with a nod, ignoring the outstretched hand.

The man grimaced slightly. “Let’s try to keep that between us, shall we?”

Vilkas crossed his arms and waited.

“I’m looking for my lass,” Brynjolf told him. 

Your lass?” Vilkas snorted.  “From what I overheard in Riften she’s more ours these days than yours.”

“Well that’s what I’m here to talk to her about, isn’t it?” Brynjolf replied reasonably.

Farkas frowned at his brother.  Vilkas was spoiling for a fight.  Had something happened during the Black-Briar job that hadn’t made it into the official story?

Vilkas shrugged slightly. “Sent her to collect something from some bandits holed up in Duskglow Crevice, in the Pale, about three weeks ago. Under normal circumstances I would have expected her back within a few days but she had a request to fill for the Dawnguard and a delivery for that orc settlement southwest of Riften.  I’m afraid I don’t know when she’ll be back.”

“She was in Riften five days ago,” Brynjolf told them.  “So, if my luck holds, I’m betting she’ll be back before dark.”

Vilkas snorted at that.

Brynjolf grinned at him. “My luck always holds, Companion.”

Farkas cleared his throat. “Can I get you an ale while you wait?”

“Certainly, lad,” Brynjolf answered following Farkas over to the outside table.

“I take it that’s the reason we are not to send Alexa on jobs in the Rift?” Aela inquired softly of Vilkas.

“Her request,” Vilkas snapped, certain he wasn’t comfortable with where Aela was heading with her question. “I just agreed.”


After the rather annoying incident with Malacath and the giants, the Forsworn girl, Virene, had left – schematics in hand – for the Dawnguard, and Alexa, Borgakh, and Calum had gone back to Falkreath.  Borgakh had spent the trip in a pleased daze over her new hammer, and having actually spoken to Malacath, and Calum was beside himself with glee over his first real adventure.  Though he admitted that it wasn’t something he was likely to try alone.

In Falkreath Calum – and his Black-Briar mead – immediately hit it off with Siddgeir causing Nanya to sigh dramatically and glare at Alexa.

A day and a half later Borgakh had left Alexa at the Whiterun stables saying she would take a cart to Solitude as she wanted to show her father she had won Malacath’s favor.

Alexa’s suggestion that being the wielder of Volendrung really should entitle Borgakh to being chief of her own stronghold, and multiple husbands, was met with laughter and a contemplative expression.  “Father will certainly be pleased he allowed me to leave with you again.  If nothing else I will be the most sought-after bride in Skyrim.”

Even with the several rather pleasing outcomes of her last three weeks of adventuring, something was bothering Alexa as she made her way up to Jorrvaskr.

“Aela,” Alexa began, dropping her pack by the door as she entered.  “Have you ever seen a female giant?”

Aela blinked at her. “Now that you mention it…”

“They must exist, right?” Alexa continued.  “But where are they all?  And for that matter, are trolls even gendered?  How are there so many of them when they don’t appear to be very social?”

Aela gave her a look that said she was being mage-y again and should stop before someone noticed. “Never mind that,” Aela cut in. “You’ve got more pressing issues to attend to out in the back.”

“In the training area?” Alexa asked in confusion.

“Yes,” Aela told her, taking Alexa by the shoulders and shoving her through the door on the opposite side of the mead hall from where she’d entered.

“And your luck holds, thief,” Vilkas announced as the door closed behind Alexa.

“Bryn…” Alexa blinked.

“Surprised to see me lass?” he grinned, standing up from where he’d been seated at the table, apparently drinking, with Farkas and Vilkas.

“Yes,” she replied, frowning at the three men.  There was something more than a little worrying about the idea that the straight-talking, rather guileless, twins had spent any time at all in Brynjolf’s company.

“Even after your kind invitation?” he asked, moving to stand in front of her. 

“I didn’t think you’d really come,” she sighed, annoyed by the situation.

“Why not?” he asked, his voice lower and a little breathier than usual.

“Aside from the fact I’m no thief?” she asked, taking a half-step back.

“Tonilia’s no thief either, lass,” he reminded her.

“Says you.  I’ve seen the prices she charges regular folk. Come on, let's go talk someplace else.”

 “You ok?” Aela asked a few hours later.

“Lets just say that my life can be thought of as a string of decisions in which I seem to choose ‘interesting’ over ‘smart’ or ‘safe’ or even ‘good idea’,” Alexa replied as she switched her dagger to her off hand and went back to savaging the practice dummy.

“And that redhead was an example of ‘interesting’?” Aela prompted.

“More the result of it. Spending some time with the Thieves Guild after they rescued me from near death seemed ‘interesting’.  Bryn, the one who’d actually done the rescuing, was nice and the others taught me things like the finer points of how to pick locks, identify and not trigger traps, go unnoticed in a crowd, and how not to be seen even without being actually invisible.  Eventually though they thought I should join up.”

“So you left.”

“There were other reasons as well,” Alexa admitted, pausing to push a lock of hair back from her face. “But yes.  I did what I thought was necessary to repay them for saving my life, and then I left and joined the Dawnguard.”

“I had no idea the scenery at the Thieves Guild would be quite so good or the atmosphere so heated,” Aela remarked.

“The man can smolder,” Alexa agreed.  “It’s kind of his best trick actually.”

“Well that’s a little disappointing,” Aela sighed.  “Speaking of smoldering hotheads… Vilkas is talking to Kodlak right now.  You might want to join the conversation.”

“Shit,” Alexa swore, sheathing her blades.  “Thanks for telling me.”

 As she entered the sitting area outside the Harbinger’s room Alexa glanced quickly at Vilkas who glared back at her.  “Entanglements with the Thieves Guild are not particularly honorable, New Blood,” he told her coldly without any sort of preamble.

“If my past was going to be a problem, Companion, surely we could have discussed it when you found out about it more than a month ago,” she replied as reasonably as possible.

Kodlak’s eyebrows lifted. “A fair point, Vilkas.”

“At that time your past had not followed you to Jorrvaskr,” he told her, crossing his arms over his chest.

“What in Oblivion did Brynjolf say to you?” she wondered aloud.  “I suppose telling you that he is an exceptional liar would be pointless?”

“Then you have something in common,” Vilkas snarled his tone visibly surprising Kodlak as much as it did her.

Alexa turned to Kodlak. “Permission to punch a member of the Circle?”

Kodlak smiled softly. “You do not need my permission for that. Though I would ask that you take it outside.”

“I don’t brawl with honorless whelps,” Vilkas snapped, as he stomped past her.

“Why?  Are you afraid I’ll beat you this time?” Alexa called after him.

“Go home Breton.  The Companions aren’t for you,” he called back without turning around.

“Ignore him,” Kodlak advised with a worried look.  “I’ll speak to him again in the morning.  Now, why don’t you tell me your side of the story?”

“I was never a thief,” Alexa began, taking the seat Kodlak had indicated.  “About two years ago I was badly injured outside Riften. Brynjolf saved my life.  The Guild hid and protected me while I recovered. But my debt to them was paid before I joined the Dawnguard.”

“And yet he sought you out?” Kodlak noted.

“It can sometimes be difficult to convince a man that his feelings are not returned,” she replied, meeting Kodlak’s eyes squarely. 

“Very true,” the old man replied with a faintly wry expression.  “Emotions do not always come easily to us.  What best to do with them, even less so.”

 It was late now.  The others had all gone to bed – except, of course, for Aela and Skjor who were out enjoying a moonlit hunt – but Vilkas was still out in the training yard.  Under the moons the beast-blood burned in his veins feeding his agitation.  

Vilkas grit his teeth at the memory of the red-headed thief with all his smiling self-assurance, half-finished sentences, and the wry twitch to his lips that indicated when he was being euphemistic. 

She’s always been good at making friends.

The beast clawed at his insides begging to be free.  And it would be so easy to simply let go and be free of the thoughts that currently plagued him, keeping him in the training yard until he’d worked himself to exhaustion. The beast had no such insecurities. Its world was simple; it ate when hungry, slept when tired, and – when an appropriate mate appeared – bonded for life.  Simple.

Seems even the Dawnguard couldn’t handle her extracurricular activities for more than about a year, the redhead’s voice whispered in his mind.

Vilkas snarled and the training dummy went flying.  With a heavy sigh, he sat down at the table, took a long swig of ale, and wiped the sweat from his face.  He needed to get himself under control. 

Surely if the girl were as promiscuous as the thief had implied she would have made a pass at one, or the other, of the two most eligible bachelors in Whiterun.  Not that it would matter.  If she were looking, she’d look to Farkas, not him.  He’d made his dislike of her clear from the moment she’d walked through the door.  The fact that she’d caught his wolf-spirit’s attention had only deepened his distrust of her.

Disliking her, keeping her at arms length, had been easy.  But their time together on the Black Briar job had complicated things. The revelation that she was a vampire-hunter, not a necromancer as he had first feared, had, it seemed, removed the single factor that had made it easy to keep his guard up around her.  So now, even though he still didn’t trust the wolf inside him, and its unusual interest in the Breton girl, he was finding it hard now not to wonder. His dreams were not helping either. The one, only two nights ago, of her, stretched out beneath him, had been uncomfortably vivid.

Just because you can see yourself bedding her doesn’t make her qualified to be a Companion, he told himself.

He froze in sudden surprise when Alexa’s cool, narrow, fingers slid around his throat from behind. He had been so distracted she’d snuck up on him unnoticed.   He held still, listening to the slow rhythm of her breathing, taking in the scent of her – lavender and mint and honey. The smell that had haunted him for months now, and had recently begun to fill him with longing, was not, he noted, tainted by fear or excitement. Her heartbeat was calm and, as far as he could tell, there wasn’t even any anticipation to her current emotional state.  This, then, was meant as a display of skill, not a threat. 

“I could kill you, you know,” she whispered in his ear.  “I have the training – the skills.  Do you deny it?”

“It doesn’t matter, you won’t,” he replied, and was pleased that his voice was low and steady and sure. “Because, if you did, you’d prove I was right about you.”  He grabbed her wrist as he surged to his feet, intending to haul her over his shoulder and bring her down, hard, on the table in front of him.

Instead she planted her knee between his shoulder blades and arched backward, twisting out of his grip. He swung around only to find that she was still behind him.  She was fast, and nimble, he’d give her that. 

She cuffed him across the back of the head.  He swung around again, and again she moved with him only to cuff him on the back of the head a second time.

“Stop it,” he growled. “You’ll make me angry.”

“And what about me?” she snapped, cuffing him a third time.  “Am I not allowed to be angry after that bullshit you pulled with Kodlak earlier?  And to think I was beginning to believe that you weren’t a totally unreasonable person and that maybe, just maybe, you’d let me have a place here!”

He caught her wrist, as she went to cuff him a fourth time, and pulled her around to stand in front of him. “You wouldn’t need a place here if you hadn’t been thrown out of the Dawnguard,” he growled as he jerked her wrist up and across, pulling her almost against him so that he could stare down at her from his greater height.  Her face was pale in the moonlight, her pupils blown wide with anger, not fear. 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alexa told him coldly.

“Don’t I?” he demanded, tightening his grip on her wrist until the bones creaked.  “Being a Companion is for life, girl, not something you do for a year and then tire of.”

“You say that, but I know about Hestla and Arnbjorn.  Arnbjorn was even a member of the Circle, before he joined the Dark Brotherhood, unless I’m mistaken.  Though they’re both dead now so I can’t ask,” she gave a one-shouldered shrug wincing slightly as his fingers tightened around her wrist.

“How do you know about them?” he growled.

“The Companions have a membership book, s’wit,” she snapped.  “It doesn’t take a genius to figure things out from there.”

Vilkas snarled.  “Why did you leave the Dawnguard?” he demanded. “Did they throw you out?”

“If you’re looking for my dirty secrets you won’t find them with the vampire-hunters,” she told him, wincing as he further tightened his grip on her wrist.  He could feel the bones bending slightly beneath his hand. Any more and they would break. “They always knew I’d leave them when I did,” she gasped, through the pain.  “And the reasons are simple: they don’t need me anymore and I felt there should be more to life than hunting vampires.”  She jabbed suddenly for his chin, taking him off guard.  For a moment his world greyed out around the edges as he staggered and let go of her.

She danced away, a healing spell tinkling in the air around her, drew both daggers and sank into a fighting stance.

“If you weren’t happy, why join in the first place?” he demanded, taking his sword from the table and falling into his preferred “ready” stance.

“I joined them because I had been infected,” she snapped, circling him slowly. 

“Infected?” he repeated in surprise, turning with her.

“That’s what I said,” she replied.

“Shouldn’t you be a vampire then?”

“I’m a good healer, and the Dawnguard know a thing or two about vampirism.”2

“So then you stayed, even though you hated it, because you owed them?” he scoffed.  “Isn’t that what you said about the Thieves Guild?  I think you need to come up with a new excuse.”

“It’s not really any of your business why I stayed,” she pointed out.  “But it wasn’t because I owed them.”

“Then should we be prepared for more of your conquests coming to Jorrvaskr?”

“What?” she asked, her steps faltering with surprise.

“Are you expecting the Companions to entertain every man you slept with in your time there, regardless of how their presence here will reflect on us?”

“What in Oblivion are you talking about?”

“I’m just glad the rest of the Companions got to see what kind of person you truly are, what kind of man you’ll take to your bed, before we decided to accept you among us,” he snarled.

“Oh that is it!” Alexa snapped.  There was a brilliant flash that momentarily blinded him and then her arm was wrapped around his neck from behind, choking him.

He snarled, deep and feral, dropped his sword and smashed backwards into the nearest porch column. The second time he did so he heard one of her ribs crack with the impact.  She gasped in pain and her hold on him loosened slightly.  This time his attempt to pull her over his shoulder worked and she landed hard on the table, knocking the wind out of her.  He doubled over, bracing himself against the table, as he struggled with his own breathing.  Annoyed he realized she’d actually been very close to choking him out.

When his vision cleared he found that he was leaning over her, his forearm on her chest, pressing her firmly into the table, his other hand by her head, his face only a few inches from hers.  Lying there beneath him in the moonlight, even with the split lip and rising bruises, she was breathtaking.  His mind immediately provided him with several other scenarios that might lead to them being in this position.

“You cheated and still lost,” he told her gruffly as he jerked away suddenly very aware of the stirring beneath his armor.  “Go home to your parents, girl.”

“I can’t,” she whispered, staring up at the porch ceiling, unmoving.  “They’re dead.”

He didn’t respond to that, simply walking away in the direction of the Underforge.

He heard the girl slide off the table and pass through the door back into Jorrvaskr even before he’d rounded the end of the building.  He stopped. Aela and Skjor were standing there.

“How long have you been here?” he asked.

“Since you all but broke her wrist and she hit you in the jaw,” Skjor replied mildly.

“Then you know that I fought fairly.”

Aela gave a low, bestial, snarl, closed the distance between them in two swift strides, and delivered an impressive uppercut to Vilkas’ jaw.  This time Vilkas dropped like a stone.

 When Vilkas came to he was lying on his own bed.  Kodlak was seated in a chair near the foot of the bed and Skjor was standing near the partition by the door.  “Aela hit me,” Vilkas noted, rubbing his jaw in surprise.

“That she did,” Skjor acknowledged.  “And you deserved it too.  Given the way you were treating Alexa you’re lucky Aela only punched you out.”

“It’s not jealousy, if that’s what you think,” Vilkas muttered.  “She makes me uneasy.  There’s something… different, unnatural, about her.  I can’t explain it.”

“And that’s why you picked her sex life as the subject of your brawl?” Skjor snorted.  “Try again, pup.”

Vilkas gritted his teeth and glowered at Skjor.

“What did the man from Riften say to you?” Kodlak enquired earnestly.

“Nothing,” Vilkas groaned. “He said nothing… he may have implied she’d been asked to leave the Dawnguard because her personal life was disruptive.”

Kodlak sighed and Skjor just shook his head.

“You ever notice Alexa making an inappropriate pass at anyone?” Kodlak asked Skjor.

“No,” Skjor answered. “And, if the pup were thinking clearly, he’d realize that if she ever walked through Jorrvaskr after being with a man all the Circle would know it.  He’d know it.”

Vilkas stiffened at that. It was true.  But since she’d started taking jobs further afield Alexa was often gone for two or more weeks at a time.  Who knew what she was up to while she was away?

“Alexa is an attractive and talented woman and you do not yet have a mate,” Kodlak sighed.  “Given how closely we live here, and how much we rely upon one another, such issues are bound to occur from time to time.  I suggest you stay busy for a while.  Clear your head.” 

Skjor nodded.  “I can help with that.  I’ve got a few jobs lined up I could use his help on.”

“Good,” Kodlak nodded. “I also suggest, Vilkas, that you apologize to Alexa as soon as possible.”

Two days later Alexa was talking to Kodlak at the table in the lower hall when Vilkas, Njada, and Skjor, arrived back from their latest job.

“The rogue mages have been cleared out of For Amol,” Vilkas informed Kodlak as he dropped a book beside Alexa without stopping on the way to his room.

Alexa looked at it in surprise.  It was a spell tome for a bound bow.  “Thank you!” she called after him.  “I don’t know this one yet.”

Njada snorted, but said nothing, as she passed into the sleeping quarters. 

“A peace offering?” Kodlak asked.

“I hope so,” Alexa admitted, smiling at the old man.  “I’m not a fan of being at odds with someone I live and work with.”

Kodlak smiled. “Vilkas can be a bit of a hot head. Don’t take it personally.”

Alexa nodded at that. “I don’t blame him for what happened really.  I blame Bryn.”

“You do?” Kodlak asked in surprise.

“I’m… not the kind of person that pretends those I care about don’t have flaws,” she told him. “Just because we were friends doesn’t mean I didn’t see Bryn for what he was.  He is a masterful liar and a better thief.  These things I knew.  I even accepted that, from time to time, he would probably lie to, or about, me…  At the time I felt his bad qualities were outweighed by the fact that he’d rescued me – a complete stranger – from certain death, is loyal to a fault, and would have had my back under any circumstance.”

“If you were willing to accept that much, what happened?” Kodlak asked with a worried frown.

“He believed the fact he loved me gave him the right to… make certain choices for me,” Alexa answered quietly.  “He thought he could make me the person he wanted me to be even if what I wanted for myself was something else entirely.  That sort of betrayal is a hard thing to get over. Especially when the other person refuses to see it as betrayal at all.”

Kodlak smiled a little sadly and patted her on the shoulder as he stood up.  “Well I think you’re doing well here.”

Chapter Text

Alexa was helping out at the Skyforge in one of her, and Farkas’, afternoon lessons with Eorlund when a courier came running up the stairs and handed her a note.

Alexa –
Arkay has some grave news. Your friend, Marcurio, has been kidnapped!
A vicious nightstalker ruling over a group of lesser vampires, seeking to gain leverage over the righteous, has taken him to Mara’s Eye pond!
Arkay’s never clear on life and death.  Is he still alive?  There’s always hope…
- Florentius Baenius 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Alexa groaned.

“Something wrong?” Farkas yelled above the sound of Eorland pumping the bellows. 

“The Dawnguard tells me a friend of mine has gotten himself kidnapped by a vampire,” she answered, turning to leave.  “So I’m off to rescue him.”

“You should let Kodlak know before you leave,” he called after her.

She waved to show she’d heard him as she ran down the stairs.

 Vilkas was standing by the door when she came back up from the sleeping quarters.

“Kodlak has asked that I accompany you,” he informed her.

She nodded once.  If forced reliance on each other was Kodlak’s solution for whatever the ongoing problem between Vilkas and herself was she could play along.  “Let's get going then.”

 Given their late start, it was nearly dark by the time they made it to Valtheim Towers.  The bandits, who’d recently taken up residence, were too stupid to let two heavily armed people simply pass by. 

Vilkas was impressed by how quickly Alexa took care of the archers on the bridge and tower killing all three of them before he’d even made it to the tower door.  Following behind him she’d taken out a fourth one on the other side of the river while he engaged with the bandit’s leader.  It was all over surprisingly quickly.

“Stay here for the night, or keep going?” he asked, squinting up at the first stars appearing in the sky.

“Lets camp here,” Alexa sighed.

“You sure?” he asked. “Your friend could still be alive.”

“If he is, our showing up too tired to rescue him won’t do him any good,” she replied.

He looked around them. There was a rather narrow area on the bridge level of the southern tower where bedrolls could be placed safely and still be undercover.

“I’ll take first watch,” he told her.

“Don’t bother,” she said, dropping a bunch of caltrops on the walkway and the bridge.

“You… travel alone a lot, don’t you?” he noted.

“Not always alone, but often with only one other person,” she answered, dropping her pack.  “Setting watches when there’s only two of you inevitably means someone didn’t get enough sleep.  Not a good state in which to be fighting something as intelligent as vampires.”

She riffled through her pack, pulled out bread, cheese, an apple, and some dried meat, and then climbed to the top of the tower.  When, half an hour later, she wasn’t back he climbed up after her.

“Something interesting about the waterfall?” he asked, after a moment or two of waiting for her to acknowledge his presence.

“Just thinking that it’s one hell of a portage point,”1 she commented, tossing an apple core downstream and watching it ark into the darkness below.  “I’m surprised the Companions even tried.  Though I assume the downstream river was deeper then… you’d be lucky to get a rowboat up this far today.”

“I doubt much of the original ship is left in Jorrvaskr,” he told her.  “The shape of the roof is too deep for a real Atmoran longship.”2

She nodded slightly at that. “I had wondered.”

The uncomfortable silence returned.  After about a minute he broke it again.  “This friend of yours…  I don’t think I’ve ever heard you mention him.”

“He’s a pain in the ass Imperial mage who does mercenary work out of the Bee and Barb in Riften. He’s ridiculously high maintenance, for a mercenary, but he’s good with a lightning bolt, and a staff, and knew enough about the Dwemer to be a competent research assistant.”

“Research assistant?” Vilkas interrupted, frowning.  He hadn’t heard anything about that before… “Is that how you learned so much about Dwemer smithing?” he asked, suddenly putting two and two together.

She nodded.  “I started coming to Skyrim, for the summer, in 194,” she told him.  “According to the Synod – the group of mages funding the excursions – my purpose was the ‘Initial exploration of Skyrim’s Dwemer ruins to evaluate their potential for furthering our understanding of Dwemer technology’,” Alexa intoned with a slight eye roll.  “So Marcurio and I explored Dwemer ruins together for four out of the five summers I traveled here from Cyrodiil.  I’m… fortunate to have found him when, and where, I did.”

“Four out of five?” Vilkas asked, carefully.  Could it be this mercenary was one of Alexa’s many jilted lovers the thief had implied existed?

“Year three, it seems, he got a better offer before I arrived,” Alexa explained, smirking slightly. “He left me a note at the Bee and Barb saying something about how, while he was certain traveling with me would be more intellectually satisfying, charging twice his normal rate was far too appealing an opportunity to pass up.”  She chuckled to herself.  “Boy was he pissed when I found the first two pieces of a set of singular Dwemer artifacts, that summer, without him.3  Which meant he did not receive any credit for their discovery when I returned to Cyrodiil.

“The next summer, when I got to Riften, I found him awaiting my arrival.  ‘Well look what the horker finally dragged in!’” Alexa said, clearly mimicking the Imperial.  “I expected you a week ago.  Out of friendship I won’t charge you extra for keeping me waiting.  When are we leaving and where are we going?” she laughed, shaking her head.  “It was nearly ten o’clock at night and I had already been walking all day.  At least he’d already gotten the standard provisioning for our trips out of the way, though he made me pay him back.”  She was silent for a moment, staring out over the waterfall. “I haven’t seen him since I started avoiding Riften.”

“Hell of a circumstance for a reunion,” Vilkas offered.

“True,” she agreed, softly.

There was yet another awkward silence between them.  He wanted to break it but had run out of topics that seemed appropriate.  He shifted uncomfortably.

“Vilkas,” Alexa began, finally breaking the building tension, “I understand that you don’t care for magic but, is there something I have said, or done, that I should apologize for?”

Vilkas glanced over at her, startled.  “No.  Why do you ask?”

“You just seem remarkably willing to think the worst of me.”

Vilkas sighed heavily and scratched at the stubble on his chin.  He’d been dreading this but, given the way he’d been acting, she deserved an answer.  “It’s… not about you.  Not really. Farkas and me… we came to the Companions as children.  Jergen, our father, he found us while destroying a coven of necromancers.  The only thing I remember about that time, the time before coming to Jorrvaskr, is the smell: magic, blood and death.  The day you came to Jorrvaskr you had the same scent.”

“We had killed Serana’s father four days earlier.  I’m not surprised that a vampire clan smells like a coven of necromancers.  I’m impressed you could still smell it though.”

He shrugged slightly. “Because of that it was hard to be around you at first.  The smell brought back flashes of things I’d rather not remember.  Later, when I’d had time to try to rationalize my initial reaction, it was hard not to wonder how anyone could smell like that and not be guilty of something horrible.”

“You could have asked, you know?”

“I know.  And I had pretty much figured it out on my own by the time you helped with the Black-Briar job.  But…” he sighed running a hand through his hair.  “I apologize for jumping to conclusions.”

“And Bryn?”

Vilkas shifted uncomfortably.  “He knew just what to say to make me think your presence among us might be detrimental to the Companions,” he replied slowly.  “Once I’d had some time to think it over I realized I’d seen no sign of anything resembling what he was insinuating and that he would not be trying to convince you to return to him if what he’d said about you were true.”

She nodded and stood up. “Thanks for being honest.  Next time you conclude something horrible about me, please just ask me about it.”

“I will,” he promised.

“Thank you.”  She turned and descended the tower again leaving him alone with the roar of the waterfall.

 “Really Marc, a vampire?” Alexa smirked at her former traveling companion still locked in the partially submerged cage.

“As far as I remember I went to sleep in my own bed – aloneI might add– and woke up here,” the man huffed. “And I object to your insinuation that I might fail to notice the signs of late-stage sanguinare vampiris in either an evening ‘companion’ or a patron.”

“I’m sure you do,” Alexa smiled, taking the cage key off a dead vampire.

“Besides,” he sniffed.  “This is your fault.”

“Oh?” she murmured as she opened the door for him.

“They kept asking me about you and that parvenu you replaced me with.”

Parvenu?” Alexa chuckled.  “You mean the woman that’s several thousand years older than you?”

The mage sniffed again and refused to look at her as he waded out of the pool.

“If it makes you feel any better the only Dwemer ruin we explored together was the one under Markarth. Mostly it was just vampire stuff and…” her voice died away.

“… And?” Marc demanded, turning back to face her, his eyes narrowed.

“One ancient Falmer temple to Auriel,” she muttered.  “An Ancestor Grove and two trips to the Soul Cairn.”

What?” he demanded incredulously.  “And you didn’t think that maybe, just maybe, I’d be interested in any of that?”

“Interested enough to wave your fee?” she enquired, archly.  “The Dawnguard wasn’t really in a position to pay anyone.”

Marcurio opened, and then closed, his mouth a few times.  “No,” he admitted finally.  “Probably not enough for that.”  He looked around them.  “Time to carry off everything of value?” he asked.

“Unless you are going to reimburse my traveling expenses,” she replied.

“Not in your life,” he answered, going to stand, shivering, in front of the fire.  “So who’s tall, dark, and brooding, over there?” he asked indicating Vilkas with a sideways jerk of his head.

“Vilkas,” she answered him simply.  “Of the Companions in Whiterun.”

Marcurio cocked an eyebrow at that.  “You joining up?”

“Trying to.  Vampire hunting is so last year,” she joked, beginning the process of systematic looting.

Marcurio nodded. “Good.  You haven’t seemed happy since you stopped going back to Cyrodiil. I’ve been worried.  Still don’t know why you haven’t simply joined the College of Winterhold though.”

“Why haven’t you?” she asked.

“Because I am a man of action,” he replied with dry humor.

Vilkas snorted at that but said nothing.

 “You’re not one of Alexa’s ex-lovers, I take it,” Vilkas offered, glancing at the obnoxiously attractive Marcurio over the evening fire.  In his experience the mage was just the kind of pretty that women seemed to go for.

“No, gods no,” Marcurio shook his head.  “Traveling companion only.  Not that she’s not a lovely person and all but…”

“Not your type?” Vilkas enquired in slight surprise.  It seemed to him that almost everyone believed Alexa was their type even when those types were radically different from each other.4

The mage shrugged noncommittally.  “More to the point I don’t think I’m hers,” he answered.  “To be fair, I’m not sure anyone is,” he added after a moment’s thought.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s… driven,” Marcurio answered slowly.  “Obsessed may be a better term.  I didn’t get the impression there was room for much else in her life when we were traveling together.  I don’t know. Maybe that’s changed.”  He shrugged.  “It has been a rather eventful few years for her, as I hear it.”

“Obsessed with what?” Vilkas asked, confused.  He would certainly never have thought to apply the term “obsessed” to Alexa. “Busy” certainly, but not “obsessed”.

“Don’t know exactly,” Marcurio answered.  “Even after four summers following her into every Dwemer ruin we could find I never figured it out.” 

“Why’d you stick around?”

“She paid well, the work was interesting, and the breakthroughs she was making in understanding Dwemer tech were truly phenomenal.”  Sensing his audience was going to require more explanation than that he went on.  “These days you’re considered good with Dwemer tech if you know how to scavenge parts from one Dwemer spider to fix another.  You’re considered an expert if you can alter your newly repaired spider to not attack you on sight.  Alexa though… she may very well be the closest thing there is to a living tonal architect. She’s the only person I’ve ever met whose ear and voice are good enough to sing Tones.  I once saw her sing open a tonal gate with a broken mechanism…”

“Impressive,” Vilkas allowed.

“I’d be more impressed, of course, if I weren’t so jealous,” Marcurio admitted, grinning at Vilkas.

Vilkas frowned.  Tonal architect didn’t fit with what he knew about Alexa.  At least sun mage, vampire-hunter, and champion of Meridia all fit together in a neat little package.  Tonal architect and exploring Dwemer ruins also fit together but in an entirely different box than the first.  The only hint he’d seen of that side of her was the knowledge Farkas said she’d traded to Eorland in return for lessons.  “So you weren’t part of the Dawnguard?” he asked.

Marcurio shook his head. “I knew her before whatever-it-was happened that convinced her hiding in the Riften Ratway for nearly a year was a good idea.  That was before…” Marcurio swallowed hard and stopped talking.

“She was infected?” Vilkas finished softly.

“… Yeah, that.”

“How’d that happen?”

“You’ll have to ask her,” the mage replied, refusing to look at him.  “I’d rather not talk about it.”

That was interesting. “So you explored Dwemer ruins together?” Vilkas asked.

Marcurio nodded. “When I first knew her Alexa was a researcher for the Synod – mages out of Cyrodiil – who made her traveling money as a bard.  She’d come to Skyrim in the spring when the passes opened and return to Cyrodiil before the snows closed them again.”

“And you say she was looking for something?” Vilkas prompted, putting aside the bard comment for later questions.

“At first I thought she was looking for the Aetherium Forge,” Marcurio admitted.  “Not that she wasn’t, she was, and we found it, but it became clear to me that, for her, finding the forge wasn’t the actual goal. It was more like she was hoping that, from it, she would learn something that would fill in the missing pieces in her understanding of Dwemer tech…”

“Not of Dwemer tech,” Alexa told them, arriving back from the lake.  “Of the world.”  She settled next to the fire.  Vilkas noted the spot she chose was somewhat closer to Marcurio than to himself.

Marcurio rolled his eyes. “She’s always been an odd duck,” he began teasingly.  “All that magical ability but she uses a bow rather than destruction spells.”

“It’s a nice bow though,” Vilkas offered, with a faint, encouraging, smile for Alexa.

Marcurio laughed at that. “Yeah, haven’t seen the one she was using earlier before.  Back in my day it was an elven bow and then a standard looking Dwemer bow with, she said, a surprisingly fast pull.  Couldn’t prove it by me one way or the other.”

Alexa sniffed. “Zephyr is still my second favorite bow. I mostly use it for hunting these days.”

“So what about you?” Marcurio asked Vilkas.  “Have you been traveling with her long?”

Vilkas shook his head. “This is only our second time on the road together.”

“Then I am honored that you chose to help her rescue me,” Marcurio smiled.  “I shall try to avoid necessitating a repeat performance.”

“See that you do,” Alexa laughed.

“Hey, you still avoiding romantic complications?” Marcurio asked Alexa softly, with a glance over at the sleeping, apparently dead to the world, Vilkas.  He’d even dropped something loudly a few minutes ago just to be certain.5

“Yes,” she answered, just as softly.  “I slipped up once in Riften, as I’m sure you’ve heard, and I’ve had ample chance to regret it since.  So now the ‘no sex with anyone I live or work with’ guideline is a hard and fast rule.”

Marcurio sighed. “Then you might want to watch it around Mr. Brooding over there.  His first question was whether or not we were lovers.”

Alexa snorted at that. “I do wish he’d stop looking for excuses to hold me in contempt.”

Marcurio blinked at her in surprise.  “Firstly, I take exception to the suggestion that being my lover would make you contemptible, and, secondly, that’s what you think his interrogation of me was about?”

“Wasn’t it?”

Marcurio buried his head in his hands.  “Lexi…”


“I know Nords only have a limited range of emotional expression, especially the men, but… you’d do well to learn the difference between someone who finds you generally frustrating and someone who finds you sexually frustrating.  Given the way the guy over there looks at you I’d definitely say that, with him, it’s the second option.”

She gave him an unconvinced look.

“Next time you smile at him, watch and see if his pupils dilate,” Marcurio advised.  “If they do, I’m right, and you owe me a bottle of something nice.”

“I have no intention of sleeping with any of them,” Alexa informed Marcurio.  “The Companions are too small and tightknit a group to make anything but the most committed of relationships a good idea. Since I can’t commit…” she shrugged. 

Marcurio nodded.  “You still managing to remain unnoticed on that front?” he asked.

“I think so… but I’d feel better if there were a way to know for certain.”

“You could always take up living in Windhelm,” he pointed out with a smirk.

“Not for all the realms in Oblivion,” she groaned.  “Stormcloaks take the general Nord surliness and bigotry to new levels.”

“Can’t deny that,” Marcurio sighed.  “Still, I suppose you’ll be safe enough in Whiterun.”

“Are you worried about me?” she asked teasingly.

“What?  You think I spent four summers watching your back and didn’t come to think of you as a friend?” he demanded a little indignantly and then yawned widely.

She laughed quietly to avoid waking Vilkas.  “Get some sleep Marc.  I’ll watch the fire.”

He nodded sleepily. “It’s been – good – to see you again.”

Alexa smiled and kissed the Imperial mage on the cheek.

Chapter Text

My Jarl, we need to discuss Markarth’s collapsing trade with the other Holds,” the steward was saying as Alexa and Taran crested the stairs in Understone Keep.

Of course there’s a collapse in trade,” Igmund snapped.  “The Stormcloaks stalk every road and the Forsworn attack every caravan!”

Not to mention the rebels completely control Windhelm and all of Eastmarch,” Faleen added helpfully.

Why do you pester me with battles we can’t win?” the Jarl demanded angrily.  “I need my steward to plan for victory, not nag me with every ill account!”

Forgive me for worrying about the future of Markarth,” Raerek replied almost managing not to sound as angry and frustrated as he must feel.  “The lifeblood of the city is gold, Igmund, and it doesn’t stop beating because there’s local unrest.”

“I’ll wait for you here,” Alexa said, settling herself against one of the stone tables and gesturing for Taran to go, alone, into the throne room. 

From where she stood she could watch Taran’s interactions with the Jarl’s small court, and interrupt if necessary, but he was on his own, facing down the man whose family had done so much to his people.  From the set of his shoulders and the tone of his voice Taran was handling it well. Well enough that she felt safe in turning her attention to another matter.  “You’re lurking, Commander,” Alexa announced without turning to face the Altmer standing off to her left and just outside her peripheral vision.

“I do not lurk, insolent Breton,” Ondolemar replied crisply.

She turned slightly and smiled at the sight of the Jarl’s dogs grouped around Ondolemar’s feet staring adoringly up at him.  “One might almost suspect you of kindness to animals,”1 she laughed.  “Or of carrying treats in your pockets.”

“As if I would need to stoop to cheap gimmicks to gain the respect...”

“Naturally due someone of your superior breeding?” she finished playfully.

“Just so,” he agreed easily as he pushed through the dogs and came to stand beside her.  “So, what brings you back to Markarth?”

“Work,” she sighed. “You know how it is.  Winter draws closer and I’ve realized that if I am going to hibernate through it I need to take as many jobs as possible before the weather turns.”

“I had no idea Bretons were a hibernatory species.  Perhaps that explains why all of High Rock is so ill-tempered in spring,” Ondolemar mused.

“Please, Commander, it is well known there are only three seasons in High Rock: scheming, fighting, and feuding.  None of which are known for their good temper.”

“I had not heard that,” he replied slowly.  “But it seems an accurate observation.  I will make note of it in my next communication with the Thalmor ambassador in Daggerfall.”

“Do you communicate often?” she enquired, glancing up at him.

“No.  Never.”

Alexa laughed. “Touché, Commander.  I believe this round is yours.”

Ondolemar bowed ever so slightly in acknowledgment before returning his gaze to the throne room.

“The Companions seem to send you out this way with some frequency,” he remarked, in an off-hand manner.

“I believe they consider it best not to send their non-Nord members into Stormcloak territory.”

Ondolemar looked down at her in slight surprise.  “Is it really that bad?”

“For me, or for the drunk bastard who insults me?” she asked.

His lips twitched slightly with repressed mirth.  “Ah.  I think I see their point.”

Alexa noted that Taran had emerged from the throne room and, seeing her engaged in conversation, had stopped some distance away so as not to intrude.  She smiled and waved him over.  “Taran, allow me to introduce Ondolemar, Commander of the Thalmor Justiciars in Skyrim.  Commander, this is my current traveling companion Taran.  He’s trying to decide if adventuring, and mercenary work, are a good fit for him.”

Ondolemar arched an eyebrow at her.  “Surely there are safer ways to do that than traveling with you?”

“You wound me, Commander.  I have not, as yet, had a traveling companion die on me,” she objected.

“Yet I have never seen the same one more than once.  Why is that I wonder?” he mused.

“I had no idea you were watching me so closely.  Should I be flattered or concerned?”

“Who says you should not be both?”

She laughed again at that. “It has been a pleasure, as always, Commander.  But I think we have taken up enough of your time.”

“Until next time then, Companion,” Ondolemar replied, inclining his head first to Alexa and then to Taran.

 As they left the Keep Taran opened his mouth to say something but Alexa waved a hand cutting him off sharply.  “Not here.”

It was not until they were out of the city that she spoke to Taran again.  “So, what did the Jarl task you with?”

“He wants me to kill the Forsworn that have taken Kolskeggr Mine!” Taran hissed to her.

Alexa gave him an unimpressed look.  “And?”

“What do you mean ‘and’?  I can’t do that!”

“I didn’t say you should,” she told him.

“I told you this was never going to work!”

Alexa sighed.  “Taran, what is it Igmund actually wants?”

“He wants me to kill Forsworn!”

“Does he?  Or is that just the method he assumes you’ll use to achieve what he wants?  Actually, no, forget what he wants for now.  Tell me what he needs.”

Taran frowned, eyebrows drawing together.  “Trade.  He needs trade.  They were talking about it when we arrived.”

“And that means?”

“That he needs to be able to ensure the safety of the caravans coming from other holds.”


“And ore from the mines to trade in return.”

“Can you get him those things?”

Taran looked at her in surprise.  “Yes.  I can even vacate Kolskeggr Mine in the process.”

She smiled.  “Excellent.”

Ondolemar watched Alexa go. The Thalmor handbook on the current social norms in High Rock indicated that, while Alexa’s conversational style would certainly be considered odd by any standard, her actions were a simple mixture of aristocratic manners and friendly disposition.  They were not, it turned out, obviously flirtatious whatever they might look like when compared to the laconic Nords or when viewed in terms of the carefully structured interactions of his own people.  Even though he was trying to be careful to assess their interactions by Breton standards now, to avoid misinterpreting them, he still felt himself leaning towards reading more into her playful banter than was probably reasonable.  That irritated him.

There was also something about the rather beautiful young man currently traveling with her that rubbed him the wrong way.  The boy moved like a hunter, not a warrior, and, though he spoke well, his faint accent indicated he was a Reachman not a true Nord.  Still it didn’t seem likely he’d see the boy again so Ondolemar made a note in his journal and promptly put Taran out of mind. 

The next time Ondolemar took note of Taran was just a few weeks later when the young man delivered a shield to the Jarl.  The Jarl was so pleased with it he awarded the young man the right to purchase property in the city and “take the next steps in becoming a thane”.  Given that the only house available was Vlindrel Hall Ondolemar thought it unlikely the boy would ever manage it.

He was actually surprised – a thing that almost never happened – when, the following spring, Taran purchased Vlindrel Hall and took up partial residency in Markarth as its newest thane.

Chapter Text

“Someone’s gone missing up by Shimmermist Cave again,” Skjor announced over breakfast.  “Vilkas, I want you to take Alexa with you to check it out.”

“I can handle it on my own,” he argued, after a swift glance over at Alexa’s surprised face.

“Take her anyway,” Skjor ordered.  “One of the guards claims to have spotted Falmer in the area.  You may need a little ranged help and Aela is already on a job.”

The day, as they left Jorrvaskr, was overcast, warm, and unusually humid, for the planes around Whiterun, even in late summer.  By the time they’d reached the Battle-Born farm Vilkas was sticky and uncomfortable inside his heavy armor and it was making him grouchy.  Alexa, in her odd light armor, however, seemed unbothered by the heavy oppressive feeling in the air.  Worse than the mild discomfort, however, was the fact that the added humidity made the scents around Vilkas more intense, including Alexa’s.  “Storm coming,” he noted gruffly as he led them off the road onto the footpath towards Shimmermist.

She nodded.  “We’ll have to hurry if we want to get to the cave and back before it hits.”

He raised an eyebrow at that.  “You’re not afraid of a little thunder, are you, whelp?”

“I love summer storms,” she replied looking up at him with shining eyes.  “I just assumed you’d rather not have to clean the rust off all that armor.”

“Good point,” he growled, more to himself than to her.  “Let's get moving.’

“Do you know what this place is?” Alexa whispered reverently, staring up at the glowing domed ceiling.

 “A glowing cave probably full Falmer,” Vilkas muttered dismissively as he kicked the corpse of a small chaurus out of the way.  “There were totems outside.”

“Well, yes,” she agreed, though he could almost hear the eye roll that went with it, “but it’s also a dwarven mine.”

“If you say so,” he snorted, glancing around at the completely unimproved cave they were standing in.  There wasn’t a dwarven pipe or carved stone in sight.

A moment later, as they passed through a narrow passage into a second cavern, an arrow flew past his ear and embedded itself in a Falmer he hadn’t even noticed.  The Falmer dropped to the ground, dead, without a sound.

Alexa, it seemed, had surprisingly good night vision for a normal human.  The realization actually annoyed him a little.  The more he knew about her the more it seemed she was good at everything.  At least she couldn’t even lift a greatsword, or wear heavy armor, he reminded himself.  He still had that.

When they reached the Dwemer metal doors, seven caverns in, he stopped and turned to look at her.  “How did you know?”

“The glowing blue crystals in the rock.1  It’s a rare ore the Dwemer used extensively.  That much of it in one place…” she shrugged. “I’d read about it but, until I came to Skyrim, I had no idea the crystals would be so densely distributed… But also not occurring in veins like metal...  It’s supposed to be highly harmonically unstable,” she continued.  “So uh… try not to hit it and don’t make too much noise, just in case, alright?”

“Ok-ay,” he agreed, giving her a funny look, which she either ignored or didn’t notice.

“I’m more than a little surprised plants could grow through it the way they were in the last section,” she added, thoughtfully.

“That why you collected some?” he asked.  He’d wondered at the time why she had stuffed several handfuls of the ghostly root-like structures into her pack.

She nodded.  “It’s weird.  The tendrils look infused with the ore, or something…  What kind of plant could live under such conditions?”

“Don’t know.  Maybe one of your alchemist friends can tell you,” he grumbled, not needing the reminder of yet another skill she seemed to be acquiring with ease while he’d struggled to understand even its most basic principles.2  He pushed open the door.

The Centurion was finally down.  Vilkas sheathed his great sword with a heavy sigh and, with a terse nod to himself, went to untie the two merchants trussed up in the large Falmer tent.  Alexa, however, made a high-pitched noise of delight and ran straight over to the still steaming automaton.  “Let’s see,” she began, peering at it from different angles.  “As I thought… clearly from the workshops of Avanchnzel3...”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw her dropped her pack and walk over to look at the housing the armature had stepped out of.  “Hmm, late third or early fourth-century design,” he heard her murmur to herself. “Probably installed here after the Dwemer civil war to discourage independent operators from reopening the mine.” She turned back to the rapidly cooling Centurion and took a few tools from her pack.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.  “We’re here to take these people,” he gestured to the two merchants still cowering in a corner, “back to Whiterun.”

“Don’t worry,” she reassured him, glancing up with a quick smile, as she began to remove the Centurion’s chest plate.  “I just want the core.  It won’t take more than a minute!”

He rolled his eyes and leaned up against the stone worktable in the center of the room his arms crossed over his chest.

“What?” she asked, catching him staring.

“Seems that mage friend of yours was right… I don’t think I’ve seen you so interested in anything before.”

“Marcurio?  You thought he was lying to you?” she asked, pulling the Centurion’s chest-plate off and dropping it on the ground.  “He may embellish his stories a bit but outright lying isn’t really his style.”

Vilkas shrugged slightly but, since she was now fully focused on the inside of the Centurion, she didn’t see it.

Watching, he saw her grimace as she reached into the Centurion and pulled out a soul gem.  “And the Dwemer claimed they had no use for magic,” she muttered derisively, dropping the soul gem into her pack.  “But if this shit isn’t necromancy then someone needs to rethink the definition of the word.”

“Necromancy?” he demanded sharply.

She nodded without look up at him, still focused on disassembling the Centurion.  “Ever wonder how Dwemer automatons can be smart enough to continue to maintain the Dwemer’s incredibly complex technology thousands of years after their masters disappeared?”

He frowned.  The question had actually occurred to him once or twice.  “I just assumed it was magic,” he answered.

“It is.  Specifically necromancy,” she replied.  “Each automaton has a soul gem inside.  I believe the Dwemer found a way to capture not just the energy of a soul – like enchanters do – but some portion of its intellect.4  This allowed them to imbue their automatons with some level of intelligence while still, obviously, depriving them of free will by making them into a construct.”5


“Horrifying, I know.”

“I didn’t even know that was possible.”

“I believe it is one of the necromantic ‘lost arts’. Certainly the only necromancer I’ve run into who was attempting anything like it6 had no idea what he was doing.  Laughable really.  He had trapped his own soul in a soul gem, in an attempt to gain immortality, somehow missing the fact that, if the gem were to fall into the hands of another necromancer, he could have become an immortal slave.7  Also… his results were unstable.  I could have dumped his gem in a lake and the energy requirements of his spell would have consumed his own soul entirely within a year or two.8  The gems created by the Dwemer, however, have lasted for millennia.”

“I assume you killed him rather than wait,” Vilkas prompted.

“I did.  But, my point is, I don’t think anyone knows how to trap sentient souls anymore, except, maybe, the Sload… unless, of course, the Order of the Black Worm is still active somewhere, though maybe not even then. Mannimarco didn’t exactly run around sharing his secrets with people – even his own followers – and, aside from the Dwemer, he’s the only person I can think of who might have regularly used such a technique… 

“Though the lady Vastarie is known to have created a similar technique her purpose was the immortalizing of knowledge not the creation of slaves.  She is said to have left Mannimarco’s service over their disagreement on proper uses for the technique she’d discovered…"  

There was a strange noise from inside the automaton and Alexa stopped talking, turning her full attention to what she was doing.  “Here,” she said, after a moment of silent concentration, and tossed him a vial of dark liquid. 

He caught the vial automatically and then gave her a curious look. 

“Dwarven oil, for your armor,” she explained.  "Should take the rust off, help waterproof it, and reduce the ware, and noise, of the plates rubbing against each other.  Also, it won’t catch fire like the stuff people usually use.”

“Thanks,” he said, smiling slightly, as he pocketed the vial.

She shrugged and went back to digging in the automaton’s chest cavity.  “Anyway, if Mannimarco did make a habit of using fully sapient souls in his magic, or even of using their energy – and knowledge – to strengthen himself, it would certainly explain why Vanus Galerion found Mannimarco’s practices so offensive…”

“But the soul gem you just removed wasn’t black,” Vilkas pointed out.

“True, the Dwemer soul gems are white, not black, and the souls within do not appear to be fully sapient. So it can’t be Vastarie’s technique they employed… unless the souls weren’t fully sapient to begin with.”

“So the Dwemer found a way to make animal souls understand their technology enough to maintain it?”

“Doubtful," Alexa agreed. "Could be they only captured part of a sapient being’s soul,” she suggested evasively.9

“How many techniques can there be for capturing souls?” Vilkas enquired.

She shrugged again.  “The questions of possible techniques gets involved in issues of the fundamental nature of the soul and how many distinct pieces there are to it… which, not being a necromancer myself, is something I truly don’t know enough about to have an opinion on…” she answered. “Though I can tell you, from my understanding of the issues concerning the use of black soul gems, that it is most commonly believed the soul has three distinct parts: vitality, emotion, and intellect.”10

“Black soul gems can hold the souls of people,” Vilkas reminded her.  Surely that was reason enough to forbid their use.

She glanced quickly up at him.  “True, though that’s not really the issue.  If – like with other soul gems – the vitality was all that was affected by being soul-trapped and the emotion and intellect – the part of the soul that makes a person who they are – were free to move on to the afterlife… The morality of soul-trapping a person – of using black soul gems – would be a discussion about the morality of murder not of necromancy.  Around here, if you could prove that you only soul trap bandits, it’s unlikely anyone would bat an eyelid.”

That was hard to deny. “But that’s not how it works,” he guessed.  “Black soul gems are different somehow?”

She nodded.  “When a black soul gem is used the emotion and intellect – the part of the soul that makes you you - of the person captured does not return to Aetherius – Sovngarde or wherever – but is sent, instead, to a realm in Oblivion called the Soul Cairn…” her voice died away as she wrestled with something in the Centurion’s chest.  There was a brief groaning of metal and a sharp clanging noise that made him wince.

“And, here we are!” Alexa exclaimed, pulling out something about the size and shape of a Dwemer gyro. “Isn’t this the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?” she demanded, grinning at him.

He peered at it.  The glowing red crystal, and its spinning casing, were oddly mesmerizing. “What’s it do?” he asked, interested almost in spite of himself.

She leaned over the Centurion again and removed a small lever from next to where the core had been seated.  She then held the lever up to the dynamo core.  As the lever drew closer to the core the spinning of the casing slowed and the core began to radiate heat.  “It powers the Centurion and is how it creates its steam attack,” she explained. “I don’t know how the crystal works to produce heat, or how they were made – anything this unstable couldn’t possibly exist in nature – but, unshielded, they’re far hotter than any fire. Even at only half speed you can bring a large kettle of water to a boil in under a minute.  Just don’t slow the rotation all the way or remove the casing,” she added, dropping the core into her pack and slipping the lever into a pocket. “The resulting explosion isn’t fun.”

“Do all of the Dwemer automatons have cores like that?” he enquired, motioning for the two merchants to follow.  “I don’t remember seeing one before.”

“They do but the smaller ones aren’t shielded and so don’t survive the deactivation of the automaton,”11 she explained, picking up her pack and turning to smile winningly at the two, stunned-looking, merchants.  “Shall we go?”

Vilkas grimace.  The sabercat had gotten a swipe in, across his thigh, and he was bleeding slightly, but not enough to worry about before returning to Jorrvaskr.  He’d sent Alexa on with the merchants when the cat attacked.  No reason to have them around and getting in the way.

He turned, not bothering to skin the cat or harvest its eyes and teeth, and started back to the road. In the time they’d been underground the light on the plane had taken on a definite greenish-yellow tinge and the wind had picked up.  The storm would break soon and Alexa had been right about his armor and rain.

He was about two-thirds of the way back to the road when he saw Alexa coming towards him.  “What did you do with the merchants?” he demanded of her with a reproving frown.

“I escorted them as far as the road,” she answered, her hands beginning to glow with golden light. “The road is patrolled by the guard. They’ll be fine from there by themselves.”

“I can handle a sabrecat by myself, whelp,” he told her as he felt the wound on his leg close and his fatigue vanish.  “You didn’t need to come back for me.”

“Clearly,” she answered, dropping her hands.  “But I thought it might be rude to just leave you.”

There was a distant crack of thunder.  The Breton girl smiled at the sound and, turning to face the wind, held out her arms. Tiny flashed of purple lightning gathered along the edges of her fingers as if sparked by the wind passing through them. Smiling with a childlike joy she spun slowly leaving a trail of purple sparkles in the air around her.

“You know, this is the first time I think I’ve seen you use a destruction spell,” he remarked, realizing too late that his tone had been sour and disapproving.

“I’m terrible with destruction magic,” she confided.  “Particularly with lightning.  But in weather like this the lightning almost jumps out of the air on its own… it’s the only way I’ve ever been able to summon even this much.”

“Why are you trying to join the Companions when you so clearly enjoy being a mage?” he asked her, attempting a more gentle tone.

She sobered, her smile fading away.  “I need a job and a place to stay,” she answered.  “Being a mage in Skyrim doesn’t really get you either of those things.”

“There’s always the College in Winterhold,” he reminded her.

“The people who nearly killed me outside of Riften know that I’m a mage.  I would hate to learn that they’re keeping an eye on the College just in case I show back up.”

“Are they really so persistent?” he asked.

“They must be,” she answered, still not looking at him.  “Or I wouldn’t be the only member of my family still alive.”

“That is…  I’m sorry,” Vilkas told her, unsure of what else to say.

“Yeah…” she sighed, pushing a stray tendril of hair out of her face.  “Anyway, it’s not like I won’t enjoy being a Companion too.”  She smiled a little sadly, back at him. 

He closed the distance between them, put a hand on her should, and looked searchingly down into her face.  “You alright?” he asked softly.

Their eyes met. 

Her breath hitched and she went still.12  His focus sharpened, his mind noting her quickening pulse and the way her scent – strengthened by the humidity in the air – shifted... It hit him so hard his mind went blank, his hand shifting to cup her cheek, his eyes still locked with hers. 

The moment held.

And then a large, fat, raindrop hit Alexa’s upturned face breaking the tension.  “Times up!” she laughed, puling away.  “Race you back!” and then she was running towards Whiterun and away from him.

Stunned, Vilkas simply watched her go.  What, in the names of all the divines, had just happened?  One moment he’d been focused on not sticking his foot in his mouth, again, and the next…  Mara have mercy.

He rubbed at the back of his neck as he started walking.  His attraction to Alexa clearly wasn’t just going to go away no matter how much he tried to get past it.  At least now he knew it wasn’t entirely one-sided.  That was something…

Suddenly he was smiling. It wasn’t one-sided.

“So, now that you’ve been on a few jobs with her, do you think Alexa’s Companion material?” Skjor asked Vilkas as he attended to his armor that evening.

“She is a competent warrior,” he answered slowly.  “But I don’t know how long she’ll stay.  Her heart belongs to her mage studies.  I think the same thing that drew her to Skyrim will someday draw her somewhere else.”

“And until then?”

“The Companions could do worse,” he muttered, refusing to meet the older man’s eyes.  He wasn’t ready for Skjor to see the revelations of the day on his face.

“Then I will keep an eye out for a suitable trial for her,” Skjor declared, clapping him on the shoulder. “I’m glad you’ve come around, boy.”

Vilkas gritted his teeth as Skjor walked away.  His continued resistance didn’t have anything to do with his feelings about Alexa, he told himself.  At least, not anymore, he amended, trying not to smile foolishly.  No, his concern was for the Circle.  And that concern hadn’t been negated by the fact that the attraction he felt for her seemed to be mutual.  After a moment’s thought he stood and made his way down the hall to Kodlak’s room.

“I wish to speak to you, one last time, about your plan to admit a mage into the Companions,” he explained when the Harbinger looked up at him enquiringly.

“Alright,” Kodlak, acknowledged, putting down his book.  “Say your piece.”

“I believe that having her among us increases our risk of discovery,” he said.

Kodlak nodded.  “And, if she were to discover our secret, what do you think her reaction would be?”

“You believe our secret would be safe with her?”

“I do,” Kodlak answered him. “I even wonder if, as a mage, she may be able to help those of us who wish to be free.”

“She is hiding from someone, Harbinger; someone powerful enough to get away with killing her entire family.  Are we prepared for that?”

“She would be gaining our enemies as well,” Kodlak reminded him gently.

Vilkas nodded once. “As you say, Harbinger,” he conceded, turning to leave.

“Vilkas,” Kodlak, called him back.  “I agree with you.  Alexa is unlikely to remain among us forever.  While not a reason to deny her a place here it would be well to remember it when deciding just how close to her you wish to become.”

“I understand.  Thank you, Harbinger.”

That night Alexa lay in bed listening to the soft breathing of Ria and Njada and Tovar snoring, loudly, across the hall.  It seemed that Marcurio was right about Vilkas’ interest.  Worse it seemed that she was not exactly disinterested herself.  

She sighed, leaned out of bed, pulled some beeswax out of her pack, and stuffed it in her ears.  Well… maybe a bit of distance would help.  It wasn’t like the Companions didn’t have enough jobs to keep her busy, and away from both Jorrvaskr and Vilkas, for as long as she wanted.  

She ran a hand restlessly through her hair.  Staying busy had always been easy for her.  Avoiding being lonely, less so.  Overreacting to not having a friend around to talk to, by jumping into bed with someone, probably wasn’t the healthiest of responses.  Maybe she should take a few weeks worth of jobs and go see if Serana wanted to join her for them.  The vampire was one of the few people Alexa had met in Skyrim who shared some of her interest in trying to understand the world and, unlike Marcurio, didn’t require payment for her time.  Though… visiting Fort Dawnguard would require passing by Riften.

She groaned quietly, rolled over, buried her face in her pillow, and pulled her veil-cat fur blanket over her head.13  It doesn’t matter how turned on you are by the way Vilkas looks at you, she told herself firmly.  There are reasons you decided to avoid romantic complications.  Given that you know you can’t stay, breaking someone’s heart when you leave would be selfish.  Besides, it’s not like – outside of the physical attraction – you have that much in common.  Stop it.

Sometimes it seemed like acting responsibly was more trouble than it might be worth.

Chapter Text

It was becoming evident to Alexa that the best route from Dawnstar to Rannveig’s Fast, via Labyrinthian – to store a few things that she didn’t feel comfortable leaving around Jorrvaskr in the weird dragon shrine1 – wasn’t via the path that led up the mountain from next to the former Hall of the Vigilant.  Still, at the time, it had seemed easier than getting bogged down – literally – in the swamps around Morthal.  Also she’d been up part of the path before, when looking for Dimhollow Crypt, and had felt fairly certain it wouldn’t hold too many surprises for her. Or, at least, fewer than the swamp. That, of course, had all been before it started to snow.

Alexa pulled her cloak tight around her.  She needed to find shelter, or at least someplace out of the wind, before the whiteout became so bad she accidentally walked off a cliff.

The shelter she found was not ideal but, as the wind was coming out of the northwest, serviceable enough.  No sooner had she settled into the sliver of space completely out of the wind then someone began talking to her.

“You.  Mortal,” the voice reverberated through her head.  “You are worthy of speaking to.”

If this had been the first time something like this had happened Alexa might have been really frightened.  As it was, she found herself mildly irritated instead.  Maybe if she just ignored the daedra it would go away.

“I am Mehrunes Dagon, lord of change,” the voice declared.

Nope, Alexa thought, standing up.  I’m out. She took a step or two away from what was apparently a shrine to Mehruns Dagon only to get blown back into its shelter. Fuck.

“Dagon has a task for you,” the voice continued as if it hadn’t noticed her attempt to leave. “Seek out the man Silus Vesuius in Dawnstar.  Help him complete his collection and I will reward you.”

Only a complete jerk refers to themselves in the third person, Alexa thought, adjusting the mask on her cowl and pulling her cloak’s hood tighter around her face.  Not that anyone needed any more confirmation that Dagon was a jerk.

“You dare ignore Mehrunes Dagon?” the voice demanded after a few seconds of pregnant silence.

Alexa remained silent, ignoring the daedric prince in preference for getting some rest.

“Perhaps you believe that Dagon is weak?” the voice suggested after another brief silence.

Still Alexa refused to respond.

“Know, mortal, there are many who still follow Dagon.  Even now they work to destroy the servants of Lorkhan in order to prepare the way for my return!”2

Well… that was interesting, but hardly surprising, and certainly not interesting enough to tempt her to converse with Mehrunes Dagon.  Alexa stayed silent.

By the time the storm let up an hour later she was pretty certain Dagon was as frustrated with her as she was with him.

There probably wasn’t a list of Dagon’s agents hanging around in one of Whiterun’s bookshelves, Alexa reasoned, but the prince had made it sound like his people were still very active in the world and, apparently, repressing cults of Lorkhan wherever they could find them.  That should be fairly obvious, shouldn’t it?  Just find a cult of Lorkhan and then see who was repressing it…  Which begged the question: who even worshipped Lorkhan any more?  Even the Nords had given up on shrines to Shor ages ago.

She sighed and looked up into the branches of the Gildergreen sapling.  It would be so peaceful here, in the early fall sunshine, if Heimskr would just shut up.

“And there it is, friends!  The ugly truth!” Heimskr was calling out to an audience intent on ignoring him.  “We are the children of man!  Talos is the true god of man!  Ascended from flesh, to rule the realm of spirit!”

Wait, what?  God of man?  Wasn’t that a traditional title of Lorkhan?  Alexa lowered her head and turned to look at Heimskr standing in front of the shrine of Talos.  The statue – depicting a man standing over a writhing snake his sword about to pierce the snake’s heart – suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

“Fuck me,” Alexa whispered reverently.  If Talos had truly slain Lorkhan – as the statue seemed to indicate – it would certainly put a new spin on Talos, the Thalmor, and Dagon…

“Careful sister,” Aela laughed, dropping onto the bench next to her.  “Say that too loudly and someone might take you up on the suggestion.”

“Like you?” Alexa asked playfully, putting aside Dagon and his claims for another time.

“Pish,” Aela answered waving a hand dismissively.  “Sorry, sister, you’re not my type.”

Alexa sighed dramatically. “Ah well, my hopes are dashed once again.  I suppose I should be used to it by now.”

“I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing,” Aela said with a penetrating look.

“I’m not.”

“What about that redhead from Riften?” Aela asked.

“What about him?”

“He seemed… nice.”

“Been there, done that.  It got weird, I moved on.”

“Oh.  Well then…” Aela slid and arm through Alexa’s and leaned in to whisper to her.

“Does Vilkas know you talk about him like that?” Alexa asked, a moment later, not nearly as shocked as she probably should have been.  The discovery that Aela could be extremely crude was not particularly surprising.

Aela just grinned at her. “Come now.  Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.”

“I can honestly say that ninety percent of my thoughts that include Vilkas are wondering what I’ve done to make him so grouchy.”

“See,” Aela interrupted her. “You just not making friends right! You should start by make friends with little Vilkas,” she waggled her little finger at Alexa.

“Aela…” Alexa groaned.

“What?” the huntress asked. “His sword could use a good polish and I know you’re not getting any…” then she paused, frowning.  “Unless there’s some reason you’ve been taking all those jobs in the Reach?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I have a thing for masked madmen in fur?” Alexa asked dryly.

“Ha!  Good one!” Aela exclaimed slapping Alexa’s thigh in amusement.

“Hey, what are you two laughing about?” Farkas asked, sitting down beside Aela.

“Just telling Alexa here she should take one for the team and find out if screwing Vilkas’ brains out would improve his mood,” Aela announced loudly enough Alexa was fairly certain everybody in the square had heard her.

Farkas blinked at Aela. “It probably would.  Right up until he discovered you’d arranged it.”

That silenced her. After a moment Aela pouted slightly, “Fine, fine.  Still, I think they’d make a good couple.”  She stood and walked off leaving a very uncomfortable Alexa alone with Farkas.

Farkas didn’t watch Aela go. His eyes remained locked on Alexa instead.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” she told him.  “It wasn’t my idea.  I was just sitting here enjoying the sunshine when Aela came by with plans.  Don’t know where she even came up with the idea.  It’s not like Vilkas and I are even close.”

“He does like you, you know,” Farkas told her intently.  “He’s just not very good at showing it.”

“I know,” she smiled at him. “He likes me fine.  He just doesn’t trust me.”

"He's working on it, shield-sister," was all Farkas could say to that.

Chapter Text

The atmosphere of the Silver-Blood inn was subdued that evening as few of the usual patrons seemed willing to intrude upon the Thalmor Commander sitting in front of the fire his two, ever watchful, guards stationed against the room’s eastern wall.  Almost everyone else had already given up on their usual evening at the inn and taken themselves elsewhere leaving only the innkeeper, his wife and children, one oblivious drunk and one uncomfortable looking mercenary to intrude upon the Commander’s thoughts.  He glared at the mercenary until the man got uncomfortable enough to go to his room and stay there.

It had been a hard couple of days.  Elenwen had called him to the Embassy to demand an explanation as to why he was not doing “whatever necessary” to permanently close the temple of Talos in Markarth. Just what she expected him to do he had no idea.  The statue was far too large to move through any of the doors1 and defacing stonework in Markarth was a serious crime even his position couldn’t protect him from. The fact the law was meant to protect Dwemer artifacts, not giant statues of false gods, would not matter. It was just the sort of slip up the Jarl was waiting for.  So Ondolemar had just sealed the place shut, and watched, and discovered that, while true Talos worshipers appeared to have moved on, the temple was now being used as a meeting site for Markarth’s malcontents.  Since most of their ire appeared to be aimed at the Silver-Blood family he’d been ignoring them on the basic premise that increased social tensions in Skyrim were good for the Dominion no matter the source.  Elenwen, apparently, disagreed.

A dark figure dropped into the chair closest to his without any apparent hesitation or sign of concern. “Good evening, Commander,” a soft voice he vaguely recognized, began.  “What brings you down from your rocky heights?”

He looked away from the fire and frowned at Alexa for a moment before remembering that he was the reason his guards had not reacted to her approach.  After their second encounter he’d added her to the list of “important assets” allowed to meet with him at any time.  It had seemed like the path of least resistance where she was concerned and he was almost willing to admit to himself that he enjoyed conversing with her.  “There are so few pleasures in life as fine as your company,” he told her affably, ignoring her question, as the barmaid handed her a drink.

Alexa blinked at him momentarily frozen in place.

“Something wrong?” he inquired, enjoying her surprise.

“Is that a common greeting in Alinor?” she asked.

“Only in the very best circles,” he assured her with a slight smile.

“Ah, then ‘hello’ to you too,” she replied, settling back in her chair.

“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked politely.

“As a matter of fact, there is.  I was rather hoping you might explain to your Justiciars that people eating their lunch on the side of the road do not pose an existential threat to the Dominion.”

He looked at her blankly.

“You are interfering in official Thalmor business,” Alexa sneered.  “This doesn’t concern you.  Walk away.  Now.”

“Right,” he muttered. From her impersonation he knew exactly which Justiciar to talk to.  “Lunch, not an existential threat, I will let them know.” He topped up his brandy from the bottle the innkeeper’s daughter had simply abandoned beside him.  “I assume you left them alive enough to appreciate the advice?” he asked. 

“Oh, you know me, I’m all about measured responses,” she replied with a sweet little smile.

Truthfully he didn’t really know her, he realized, and certainly not well enough to be confident that she wasn’t being ironic.  “What did you do?” he asked suspiciously.

“I demanded any food they had on them on pain of being turned into chickens.  Which reminds me, do all Altmer have a thing for sweets?  I collected an inordinate number of sweet rolls for three people.”

“It’s a racial failing,” he acknowledged sourly.

“Truly?” she asked surprised.  “If I had known that I would have become a confectioner years ago.  Too bad too, that’s something I’m actually good at, unlike this stupid adventuring thing.”

There was a pause as he let his somewhat inebriated mind work through their conversation thus far. “How, exactly, did you lead a Justiciar, and their guards, to believe you could turn them into chickens?” he asked slowly.

There was that infectious little chuckle.  “I demonstrated on a mushroom!  Don’t worry, I’m sure the transformation has worn off by now.”

Ondolemar gave her a long look.  “I am not aware of a spell, cast correctly, that would turn a mushroom into a chicken,” he told her carefully, half sure she was playing with him and half afraid she wasn’t.

“Oh, not a spell,” she replied, waving a hand in the direction of the ebony staff strapped across her pack.  “I used the Wabbajack!”

Ondolemar choked, brandy burning up the back of this throat and threatening to come out his nose.  “The Wabbajack?” he gasped, just to make sure he’d heard her correctly.  “As in an artifact of Sheogorath?”

“That’s the one!” she replied, toasting him with a smile.

“And that would make you… a champion of the Prince of Madness?” he asked, still looking for some solid footing in the conversation.  Surely he hadn’t let himself become involved with a certifiable mad woman?

She wrinkled her nose at that.  “I don’t think ‘Ann Marie,’ as he told me not to call him when introducing himself, really does the whole champion thing the way some of the others do. Something about already being part of us all… I can’t decide if it makes no sense at all or far too much sense...” She stared blankly into the middle distance for a moment.  “But that’s the way of things when dealing with daedric princes, isn’t it?  Also, he seems to think ‘fish stick’ is a verb.”

“When dealing with daedric princes…” Ondolemar repeated slowly, ignoring her complaint about the linguistic choices of insane daedra.  “How many daedric princes have you dealt with?”

“Let me think…” she murmured, turning in her chair, to face him, and swinging her legs up over one of the arms.  The new position did quite a lot to show off her figure Ondolemar noted before shoving the thought away. 

“Azura was the first, of course,” she told him.  “Some mad wizard had broken her star and I happened across a piece of it… wow, almost a decade ago now.2  It took a while before I was able to collect all of it for her.  I admit I wasn’t exactly devoting all my attention to the task.  Then Sheogorath while I was at the Bard’s College in Solitude.  After that was Clavicus Vile.  I liked his dog Barbas but didn’t trust Vile enough to ask him for anything at all.  I even gave back the creepy axe he offered me.  Can’t say he was overly pleased about it.  Barbas stood up for me though.  Then I barely managed to avoid getting involved in a cult of Nocturnal.  Briefly awkward but since I never actually spoke to her I don’t think it counts.  Then it was Meridia and Hircine about the time I joined the Dawnguard.  They didn’t take no for an answer but Hircine can go play by himself as far as I’m concerned.  Prick.  And finally, last month, I spent about an hour ignoring Mehrunes Dagon.  I don’t think he appreciated it much.”

“Six?  You’ve had contact with six daedric princes?” Ondolemar blurted incredulously.

“I told you I’m terrible at adventuring,” she replied in a maddeningly practical tone.  “Most people find a few broken pots and maybe some gold or stuff to sell.  Me, I find the missing beacon from Meridia’s temple inside an otherwise unremarkable box of junk, in an ice cave,3 and end up with an overbearing daedra yelling incessantly inside my head about how the beacon needs to be returned NOW or else.

Ondolemar thought about that for a moment and then laughed.  This was all too absurd.  “So how’d you meet Sheogorath?” he asked, deciding to play along.

“Got pulled into what I think was a demi-Plane when I was first in Solitude.  He, however, claimed it was the mind of the mad Emperor Pelagius Septim III… Afterwards his highness invited me over to his place, for strawberry tarts, should I ever find myself in the Shivering Isles.  I think I’ll pass on any impromptu planes walking through.”

“What?  Not interested in travel?” Ondolemar smirked.  “New sights, new sounds…”

“New ways to die,” she added, staring glumly into the fire. 

That caught him off guard. She seemed… oddly serious.

“You know there’s a kid in Morthal… I believe he sometimes, spontaneously, passes into Lyg.4  He doesn’t make it sound like a lot of fun.”

Ondolemar stared at her for a full minute.  “You’re serious?” 

“As an arrow in the face,” she replied.

“Now I don’t know which to ask you about.  How a person could pass, unaided, into Lyg or how you actually survived speaking with Sheogorath, Prince of Madness, face-to-face or why he would give a relatively sane person the Wabbajack?”

“I don’t know how Joric passes into Lyg, and he’s not too clear on it either.  And Sheogorath didn’t just give the Wabbajack to me.  First I had to use it to ‘treat’ the mind of an insane dead man or be trapped forever at some weird pantomime of a tea party that was not being held in the Solitude botanical gardens.  Which don’t even exist, by the way, even though they totally should.”

He stared at her, wide-eyed for a moment.

“Speechless Commander?” she asked.

“Completely,” he acknowledged.  “Also unsure as to how much of what you’ve been saying I should believe.”

A slow smile spread across her face.  “The Wabbajack.  You want to try it out?” she asked, her voice low and a little suggestive.

Try out a daedric artifact? Yes!  No.  A well-bred, self-disciplined, mer should never… who was he kidding?  The Wabbajack was, supposedly, right in front of him and its daedra-blessed – cursed? – wielder was offering to let him use it! He threw back the rest of his brandy before grabbing another bottle.  “What did you have in mind?” 

“Look,” Alexa sighed at Ondolemar in exasperation, “surely a mer of your superior breeding does not need my help to walk in a straight line.”

“Did you see it when that infernal, noisy, mutt went poof!” Ondolemar exclaimed, completely ignoring her complaint.

“If I had known you were this drunk I would have sent you to bed hours ago,” she told him, as she disengaged him from the latest wall he’d run into.

“Not drunk,” Ondolemar countered.  “Insane.”  He wagged a finger at her remonstratively.  “You’re trouble, more trouble than I thought, and I still... had fun.”

“Ondolemar, where are your guards?” Alexa asked, looking around her desperately for some help, preferably of the tall and brawny sort.  Or, at least, taller and brawnier than she.

He waved a hand dismissively.  “I ordered them away earlier.  I haven’t sent for them, and it’s after midnight… they’ll be back in the morning.”

“This happens a lot does it?” Alexa asked dryly.

“This?  No.  First time having fun with a daedric champion… that I know of.  Fun…” he looked a bit puzzled by the word and repeated it a few times.

“I meant you ordering your guards away for the evening,” Alexa muttered, pushing open the door to his room.

“Used to,” he admitted, flopping down on his bed without even removing his boots.  “Back when I had a lover.  Thalmor wizard.  Beautiful, but cold.  She… returned to the Isles two years ago.  Arranged marriage.  Probably best.”  He lapsed into silence staring up at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry I asked,” Alexa sighed, placing the gloves he’d discarded over an hour ago on his desk. He seemed not to notice as she pulled his boots off and placed them beside the wardrobe.

He revived a bit when she began to work on his robe taking her hands in his and carefully, deliberately, lacing their fingers together.  “If you are trying to take advantage of me, my favorite Breton, you only have to ask.”

“Ondolemar, when you are sober I will remind you of this moment and you will accuse me of making things up,” she told him flatly.

That made him chuckle but his eyes never left her face.  “Never thought you’d be the boring one in a conversation.”

“No one is more disappointed by that than I,” she smiled.  “Now, let's get you out of your robe and under the covers so you can sleep this off.”

He sighed and sat up. “You’re the eldest, aren’t you? Bossy.  Always wanted a sister…”

“I was,” she conceded, pulling his robe off his shoulders.  “Once.”


“They’re dead now,” she answered softly.

“Sorry.  Was it the war?”

She laughed at that and shook her head.  “I’m not old enough for my younger siblings to have died in the war.”

“Sorry,” he mumbled again, fumbling with the blankets.  “I’m not good with human ages.”

Alexa glanced back at him as she hung his robe up.  Well, if she was ever going to find out, now was probably the time to ask.  “Hey, Ondolemar… why do you shave your head? Every other Altmer I’ve met with white hair wears it long.”

He sighed, snuggling a bit deeper into his pillow.  “Because it’s curly,” he answered drowsily.

Alexa blinked in amazement. Of all the races in Tamriel only humans were commonly believed to have naturally curly hair.5 

Ondolemar, unaware that he had managed to startle her for a second time in one evening, began to snore softly.

And that was how Alexa found herself, completely unsupervised, in the bedroom and private office of the second highest ranked Thalmor agent in Skyrim.

Chapter Text

Alexa was sprawled on top of one of the tables in the main hall when Vilkas and Farkas returned to Jorrvaskr.  “Farkas! Thank the divines,” she gasped, rolling off the table with a groan. 

“Throw your back out again, shield-sister?” Farkas rumbled in amusement.

“Not all of us are large enough to simply walk off being pummeled by a frost troll,” she complained, holding her arms out to him.

“Frost troll?” Farkas asked as he lifted her slightly and squeezed.  “Where’d you run into a frost troll?”

Vilkas heard three distinctive pops and tried not to wince.  What did the stupid girl think she was doing going alone into frost troll country?

“Labyrinthian,” Alexa gasped.  “Shortcut back from Morthal.”

“Better?” Farkas chuckled as he set his now limp shield-sister back down.

There was a brief flash of golden light and she straightened back up and smiled at him.  “Much, thank you.”

“Why didn’t she just use a healing spell earlier?” Vilkas muttered to himself, as he headed towards stairs, trying to squash the jealousy he felt at his brother’s easy friendship with their shield-sister.

“Do you have any idea how much magicka is required to move bones back into place?” Alexa asked him. “It’s much easier to physically put the bones back and then heal the ligaments and muscles when everything is in the right place.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he grumbled, as a dark form slipped out from under the table Alexa had been lying on and pressed itself to the back of her legs.

“New dog?” Farkas enquired, holding his hand out to the rangy husky.1

“Oh!  Yes.  This is Meeko,” Alexa smiled, scratching the dog’s ears.  “I found him on the road between Dragon Bridge and Morthal.  His master was dead, so I told him he could come home with me.  I hope it’s not a problem?”

Farkas smiled sweetly at her.  “Dogs are nice.  Still, you might want to ask Tilma’s permission before you take him downstairs.”

Just then Tilma came bustling up the stairs with a large bowl of day old stew in her hands.  “Here you go, darling,” she said to Meeko, putting the bowl on the ground.  “Let's see if we can’t get some meat on those bones of yours.  As for you,” she turned to Alexa, “you’re going to need a set of dog brushes and some sheers to get those mats out.  If he’s going to be traveling with you, you’re going to have to take care of him!”

Alexa laughed and kissed the old woman on the cheek.  “Of course, Tilma.  The moment he’s done eating I’ll take him out to the back porch and brush him until he’s so beautiful you won’t even recognize him,” she promised.

“And get him a collar too,” Tilma sniffed, patting the dog on the shoulder.  “Wouldn’t want people thinking he’s a stray.”

“I think, maybe, some dog armor would be more useful,” Vilkas heard Alexa murmur thoughtfully.

When Vilkas wandered out onto the back porch, twenty minutes later, he found Alexa attempting to pin a very recalcitrant Meeko to the ground.

“Need a little help, shield-sister?” he asked, failing to repress a grin.

“He’s got ear mites,” she told him between gritted teeth.  “If you could hold his head for me, I’d appreciate it.”

Vilkas took Meeko’s head between his hands and growled softly.  The dog froze.

“Wow,” Alexa commented, kneeling down to swab the dog’s right ear.  “Clearly I should have asked you for help earlier in this process.”

Vilkas shrugged and tilted the dog’s head slightly so she could reach his other ear.  “Couldn’t you just use a spell on him?”

“I tried a calm spell,” she answered, exchanging the bottle of alcohol she’d been holding for a bottle on the table.  “It appears it wasn’t strong enough to deal with the trauma of ear cleaning.2

“What’s that?” Vilkas asked, eyeing the oily liquid she was pouring into her hand.

“That oil Arcadia sells for dry hair,” Alexa answered.  “Should help dissolve the mats that are too close to his skin to cut away and the lavender should help prevent fleas.”

“Where did you learn so much about dogs?” Vilkas asked, settling on the ground with his back against one of the porch pillars.

“My parents had a dog while I was growing up and the uncle I lived with, in Cyrodiil, had six of them,” she answered, running her hands through Meeko’s coat, to distribute the oil along his skin.

Meeko made a slight groaning noise, as she worked the oil into his coat, and went limp with his head in Vilkas’ lap.

“So… you’re taking in strays now?” Vilkas asked.

“His family was dead and he was alone,” she answered.  “Why wouldn’t I take him in?  Besides, I don’t really like traveling by myself.  Now I won’t have to.”

“You know you could always ask one of us to join you?” Vilkas reminded her.

She shook her head.  “Circle members are too recognizable.  Unless you don’t mind the reputation of the Companions changing from “stalwart and honorable mercenaries” to “adventurers” the Circle members can’t be seen getting sidetracked by every cave you walk by the way I do.  Ria and Tovar… frankly aren’t up to dealing with the possibility of anything living in those caves and two weeks with Njada would be worse than traveling alone. Athis…” she shrugged a little dismissively.  “I’ll think about it.”

She wedged a steel comb between Meeko’s skin and a particularly bad mat before attacking the mat with a pair of shears.  The dog held very still.  Vilkas rubbed his ears and rumbled reassuringly.

“Why do you take so many side trips?”

She glanced up at him.

“You’re with the Companions now,” Vilkas elaborated.  “There’re more than enough paying jobs for all of us.”

“Curiosity,” she answered, returning her attention to Meeko.  “The world is a strange and fascinating place.  I like to learn more about it.”

“You explore caves and Dwemer ruins out of simple curiosity?” he enquired.  “What about Nord ruins?”

“Not as much,” she answered without looking up.

“Any particular reason?” he asked.

She paused in her brushing.  “I spent two full days exploring a tomb near Morthal last year.3  The entire time I felt… edgy.  Like something, other than the draugr, was watching me.  The old tombs are bad but the ancient cities are worse.  I can’t even get close to them without getting the overwhelming feeling I shouldn’t be there.”4

“Didn’t you just walk through Labyrinthian?”

“Through the above-ground city, yes.  But I did not descend into Bromjunaar itself,” she explained.  “Not that I could even if I had wanted to.  There’s an extremely powerful ward on the entrance.”

“And the existence of such a ward didn’t make you curious?” he teased.

“Warding magic has two purposes,” she told him with an unusual lack of humor.  “To either protect, or imprison, whatever is inside it.  And that one…”

“Feels like a prison,” he finished for her.

She nodded, nudging Meeko onto his back so that she could start on his stomach.  “Given the strength of the ward, someone powerful was very afraid of what’s down there.  So, as curious as I may be, I’m not particularly interested in finding out for myself.”

“How strong are we talking?”

“Like the only way to maintain it would be with a soul siphon5,” she answered.  “Which means there’s a powerful mage out there, or a group of powerful mages, continuously sacrificing a part of their own life force to maintain the barrier.”

Vilkas considered her for a long moment.  “So you do have your limits,” he remarked finally.

“People that don’t have limits die young,” she told him.

Chapter Text

“… And Farkas is a werewolf,” Alexa thought with a surprising level of calm.  Because, of course he isher inner voice continued sarcastically.  Doesn’t anyone say ‘no’ to daedra around here?

Alexa took aim through the bars and hit one of Farkas’ attackers in the thigh staggering him long enough for Farkas to take his head off.  Her next arrow hit the woman of the group in her stupidly unarmored neck region. Three arrows later the last of them was down and Farkas, the wolf, was grinning at her through the bars.  She rolled her eyes at him.  “Go find the leaver to get me out of here, ass,” she commanded in the tone she had used, to great effect, with her uncle’s dogs.

A moment later the metal of the gate squealed slightly in protest as it was hauled back into the ceiling. Then Farkas – in human form – completely naked and apparently perfectly comfortable with that, trotted back into the room, manhood swinging pendulously between his legs.1

Alexa slapped her hands over her eyes with a groan, “Farkas…” She had yet to meet a man who could make striding around in the buff look anything but ridiculous.

“Never seen a naked man before, New Blood?” he asked.  She could hear his grin as he stepped up to her.

“There is a time and a place for nakedness, Farkas,” she replied tartly, dropping her hands and locking her eyes on his face.  “And an ancient crypt full of things trying to kill us is not, in my opinion, one of them.  If you would like to discuss the number of men I’ve seen naked at some more appropriate time I would be happy to accommodate you.”

“Really?” he laughed standing, at about conversational distance from her, hands on his hip. 

Alexa managed not to slap herself in the face again.  “Farkas! Armor.  Now!” she ordered returning to the voice she used on her uncle's dogs.

He blinked in surprise and then moved to comply.  “Sorry.” 

As Farkas put his armor back on Alexa inspected the bodies of his attackers.  Silver weapons and cure disease potions.  Even if their attacker’s choice of potions indicated a fundamentally flawed understanding of how one became a werewolf the silver weapons2… didn’t look good.

A few minutes later a fully armored Farkas stepped back into her field of vision and stood there shifting self-consciously from one foot to another.  She looked up at him with raised brows.  “Ready to go?” she asked.

“I hope I didn’t scare ya,” Farkas began sheepishly.

Okay… they were going to talk about this.  Alexa stood up and met his gaze, noting his eyes had finally returned to their usual grey color.  “So, you’re a werewolf…” she offered with a slight shrug.

“It’s a blessing given to some of us,” Farkas explained, clearly uncomfortable.  “We can be like wild beasts… fearsome.”

She nearly laughed. The poor man really was afraid the fact he was a werewolf had scared her. It hadn’t really.  Though their interaction after he turned back was certainly giving her something to think about.  “You know one of my closest friends in Skyrim is a Daughter of Coldharbor,” Alexa told him in an offhand manner.  “When compared to being friends with a pureblooded vampire, being friends with a werewolf sounds relatively tame, don’t you think?”

Farkas thought about that for a moment and finally grinned.  “I suppose so.”

“I just hope I’m not expected to become a werewolf myself,” she admitted.

“Oh no.  Only the Circle have the beast blood,” he assured her, clearly unaware that his answer had just explained a few things she’d found perplexing over the past few months.  “Prove your honor,” he gestured at the crypt around them, “to be a Companion.  Eyes on the prey, not the horizon.”

“Right, good.”  She paused for a moment and swapped out half the sunhallowed arrows in her quiver for normal ones.  Just in case they found more of the Silver Hand deeper into the crypt.

“We should keep moving,” Farkas announced, returning to the task at hand.  “Still the draugr to worry about.”

“About the Silver Hand…” she began, as she followed him down the hallway.

“Bad people who don’t like werewolves,” he answered shortly.  “So they don’t like us either.”

Four members of the Silver Hand later Alexa had begun to think Farkas might be sulking. “Something wrong, Farkas?” she asked as they stopped to catch their breath and drink some water.

“About the Circle being werewolves, it’s a secret to everybody,” he confided without looking at her.

“If it’s such a secret, how’d the assholes find out about it?” she enquired, taking the moment to pick open a locked chest.

“Don’t know,” he answered. “They’ve been a problem for longer than I’ve been a Companion.”

She wrinkled her nose at the contents of the chest; hardly worth the lockpick she’d broken opening it. She stood back up and found Farkas had finally decided to look at her.  She met his eyes.

“You really have no problem with any of this?” he asked.

She cocked her head to one side, considering the large man.  He had revealed something to her he clearly should not have and was, just as clearly, agitated about how the rest of the Circle would respond to the news of his slip up.  She remembered her trip back from Riften with Vilkas and knew, suddenly, very clearly how he would react to the threat she might now pose to his brother.  “Would you feel better if I shared a dangerous secret about me with you?” she asked him.

He gave her a measuring look visibly uncertain.

“I admit my secret is not as flashy as being a werewolf but, given that it becoming widely known would bring my family’s killers straight to me, I think it can be considered of equal value,” she suggested, her voice only tightening slightly at the mention of her family.

He frowned at that, and then nodded once.

“Alright.  I’ll tell you after we’ve gotten the pieces of Wuuthrad we came for.”  Hopefully, by then, she’d have figured out how to explain it to him.

“Looks like we’re in the right place,” Alexa said, a few rooms and a half dozen Silver Hand members later, pointing to a red banner hanging from the opposite wall.  If you squinted you could just about make out the remains of a gold double-headed axe emblem on it like the banners hanging in Jorrvaskr.

Farkas grinned at her and kept going. 

There was another of the banners in the next room as well, along with yet another member of the Silver Hand.  If the assholes hadn’t woken every draugr in the crypt yet, she reflected, it wasn’t from lack of trying. Truthfully she was a little surprised more of them hadn’t died in the process.

Inspecting the next – remarkably intact – ironbound wooden door revealed that the lock wasn’t pickable. They would need a key. 

“Someday I am going to figure out exactly what the ancient Nords treated these doors with that has left the wood so well preserved,” she announced to Farkas.  By rights, the door should have been far too rotted by now to provide any sort of barrier at all.3

He gave her a perplexed look as if he couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in such a thing. “The key will be close by,” he told her. “Draugr aren’t smart enough to hide it far away.”

Turned out he was right. It was even in the perfectly obvious chest on display against the wall.  She sighed in slight exasperation.  Draugr were indeed dumb.  She frowned suddenly as a thought occurred to her.  Were draugr meant to serve the same purpose as the Dwarven automatons and the Nightingales?  Had they originally been created to care for and preserve the crypts they had been buried in?  If so, was their current animation due to magic built into the tombs themselves or something to do with the way their bodies had been prepared for burial.  Either way, who had placed the spells, and how? It was something to think about at a later date she concluded as she pushed the door open.

“Skeevers!” she yelled backing away shooting flames from both hands.

A moment later the skeevers were dead.  Farkas, who hadn’t even drawn his sword, gave a bark of laughter when she glanced self-consciously over her shoulder at him.  “Don’t worry, I feel the same way about spiders.”

“You do?” she asked, still a little breathless from her moment of panic.

He nodded, still smirking slightly.  The smirk dissipated a moment later when they passed through the first veil of webbing.

Farkas had been injured, and poisoned, but clearly was not comfortable waiting around in a room full of spider egg sacs to take a potion, or let her heal him.  So Alexa bit her tongue and they moved on into what was obviously the main burial chamber.

“Ah, there it is!” Farkas called, forgetting his injury and his poisoning in his excitement.  He loped towards the table, on the dais at the far end of the room, and grabbed the shards carefully placed upon a raised plaque.

“Farkas!  Wait!” she yelled, running after him, but it was too late. The distinctive popping noise of opening caskets echoed through the chamber. 

“I… um, sorry?” he gave her an embarrassed look as she caught up with him.

“It’ll be fine,” she told him.  “Just don’t move for a second.”  Alexa took a deep breath and used both hands to draw in the magic around her and then, with a quick movement, released it inscribing a glowing circle around them. 

“… Alexa?” Farkas asked, his voice worried and uncomfortable.

“I told you I had a secret, didn’t I?” she hissed.  “I’ll explain in a minute.  But, right now, all you need to know is that the circle should keep most of the draugr out and staying inside it will have the same effect on you as taking a regeneration potion.”

He nodded and they went to work.

Twenty-six draugr later they were done.

“What was that circle spell?” Farkas asked, sheathing his sword.

“Master level Restoration spell called Guardian Circle,” she told him

“Restoration… you’re a healer?” Farkas asked her after what appeared to be a great deal of thought.

Alexa nodded.  “I am, without question, the most powerful healer in all of Tamriel.”

His brow furrowed further at that as he thought a bit more.  She was finding it oddly difficult to concentrate with the stupid wall chanting at her but she waited him out.

“Why keep that a secret?” he asked finally.  “Everybody respects healers.”

“Because the Thalmor have been trying to kill me since I was about fifteen.”

That clearly surprised him. “Why?”

“Not a clue,” she lied. “I assume my father, or grandfather, did something that pissed them off which is why they’ve killed my entire family. But revealing that there’s an accomplished Breton healer in Whiterun would, undoubtedly, lead them right to me, so the fact that I’m the strongest healer in Tamriel has got to be as good a secret as being a werewolf, right?”  She turned away from him to frown reprovingly at the chanting wall. No wonder the draugr in the room had been so grouchy.  They probably hadn’t gotten any sleep in centuries.

For a moment her vision darkened leaving only one group of characters, glowing blue, in the darkness.  “Yol,” she murmured, reaching out a hand to touch the glowing marks.

“You alright?” Farkas enquired, his voice worried.

“Qethsegol vahrukiv kiir jun Jafnhar wo lost ag nahlaas naal yol do lot dovah Lodunost,” Alexa whispered.

Farkas frowned at her. “You can read that?” he asked coming up behind her to squint at the wall over her shoulder.

“I… it’s speaking the words itself,” she pointed out.  This had happened before, of course, but each time the words seemed to mean more than they had before.  Like each exposure wasn’t just teaching her new vocabulary but adding nuance to old vocabulary as well.

Farkas cocked his head. “I suppose…  It doesn’t mean anything to me though.”

Alexa closed her eyes for a moment and listened.  “Stone commemorates the child king Jafnhar who was burned alive by fire of great dragon Lodunost,” she translated.

Farkas snorted impressed. “That some sort of mage trick – understanding dragon?” he enquired lightly joking.

“I… I don’t know,” Alexa replied. 

“Hmm, I think maybe we should tell Kodlak about this.  Don’t worry, he’ll understand.”  He patted her on the shoulder.  “Short cut back to the entrance is this way,” he added.

“Couldn’t you just not use the fancy spells?” Farkas asked suddenly as they started back to Whiterun.

“Tried that for a while in Cyrodiil,” she admitted.  “I joined the College of Whispers under a false name, apprenticed in Illusion magic, and stopped using everything but the most basic of Restoration spells.  It worked for about three years before I was found out.”

“Couldn’t you just claim you were some other Breton mage?”

“Not really.  My eye color isn’t at all common, even among Bretons, and I have some rather distinctive tattoos.  Not my choice, they came with the blessing of Kynareth when I became a Grand Master.”

“Grand what?”

“Sometimes the Divines acknowledge an individual as particularly skilled with magic,” she told him. “These people are called ‘Grand Master’ mages.  I believe there are five of them – us – currently in all of Tamriel.”

He thought about this for a moment.  “So… Aela says your tattoos are pretty purple flowers.”

“She does, does she?” Alexa asked, making a mental note to have a chat with Aela.

“Doesn’t sound all that special.  I mean, there must be dozens of woman out there with flower tattoos.”

She considered him for a moment as they walked then shrugged and pushed up a sleeve.  “They’re not just on my back,” she explained.

He peered at her unmarked arm.  Then looked back up at her questioningly.

She cast “Healing”. As the golden light pooled in her palm, silver and lavender petals appeared, floating across her skin as though her arm was at the center of a whirlwind.  She snuffed the spell and the petals faded away.

“Pretty,” Farkas commented. “I’ve never seen magical tattoos before. Guess that explains why you’re always so covered up,” he added after a moment. 

Alexa laughed.  She could count on one hand the number of days, since leaving Riften, that had been warm enough to even consider wearing short sleeves.  “That and it’s terribly cold in Skyrim.”

“Careful, whelp,” Farkas warned, a little uncomfortably.  “You never know how someone might take a comment like that.”

Alexa’s eyes narrowed slightly.  “Something we need to talk about?”

“No!  I mean… uh, no.  It’s nothing.”

This was trouble, Farkas thought as he watched Alexa walk ahead of him down the road.  Over the last few months it had become patently obvious, at least to him, that Vilkas was smitten with the girl.  Something had happened on their way back from Riften and since then Vilkas had – mostly – been considerate towards her, even if it was rarely to her face or in a way she was likely to notice or understand. When that thief had shown up looking for her Vilkas had all but ripped his head off.  He’d even gone into a jealous rage when the other man had indicated that Alexa was overly free with her affections.  And Farkas had been happy for his brother and pleased with his choice.  Alexa was fun and nice and a skilled warrior worthy of his brother’s affection.

That was until his wolf had gotten a real look at her, felt the pull of her, and she had spoken in that tone that compelled his obedience.  Something was off about that, and dangerous, but he didn’t have any idea what or how he’d explain it to anyone else.

It was well after midnight when Alexa returned to Jorrvaskr, from Arcadia’s, with a basket full of potions and salves.  Vilkas was alone in the main hall when she entered.  Seeing her he pushed back the chair beside him.  Something about his movements made it more of an order than a request.  She settled onto the chair beside him and waited.

“So, now you know,” he offered finally.

“I do.”


“And nothing.”

Nothing?” he blinked incredulously.

“Vilkas,” she sighed.  “As long as your personal life isn’t hurting anyone I really don’t care what it involves. If that means you like to grow fur and hunt mammoth a couple nights a month, good for you.  And, as long as you don’t judge me if I don’t want the same, I see no reason why we can’t be friends.”

He snorted derisively. “It is a curse, whelp, not a pastime. One I entered into without fully understanding how truly a curse it is.”

He was startled and slightly offended when he heard her snicker.  “Did you really wait up just to see if I was likely to run screaming to the Jarl?” she asked, her eyes full of laughter.

“No.  Or at least, notjust.”  He paused, running a hand restlessly through his hair.  “On nights like tonight, the blood calls but I… no longer answer it.”

“And you do not fear Hircine’s anger over a gift denied?” she asked curiously.

“I think the Lord of the Hunt has more important things to worry about than me,” he told her.  “Still, I envy Farkas his ability to sleep through anything.”

Considering the literal bar in Farkas’ room Alexa had serious doubts about the ease with which Farkas fell asleep but decided not to mention it. There was silence between them again for a while.  “Did Farkas tell you about me?” she asked finally.

“He said you are on the run from the Thalmor.  That you know what it is like to be hunted.  That you told him this after he revealed our secret…  Is it true?  Are they the ones you’re hiding from?”

“Yes.  Though it seems they still believe their last attempt to kill me was successful.”

“That’s how you ended up in Riften?” he asked after a moment’s thought.

“That’s how I ended up in Riften,” she confirmed.

“And the Thieves’ Guild put the word out that you were dead.”

The corner of her mouth twitched slightly.  “They sold my research journal which they ‘just happened to find, to the people I’d been working for, for a pretty penny.  Too bad about my body though…  If only they’d known someone was willing to pay to have it properly buried they might have made note of where it ended up.”

He nodded.  Her story made sense…  “Now that you know about us… you still wish to be a Companion?”

She frowned at him for a moment.  “You don’t really think I’d be friends, and traveling companions, with a vampire but turn my nose up at being shield-siblings with a werewolf, do you?”

He smiled at that.  “A fair point.”

There was another short silence between them.

“What did your family do that got the attention of the Thalmor?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” she replied looking away from him.  It wasn’t really a lie.  Just because she had suspicions didn’t mean she knew. And she wasn’t really interested in explaining, especially to Vilkas who had made his feelings on magic clear on several occasions.  She felt him stiffen slightly but before he could say anything else she stood up.  “It is time for me to be in bed.” 

He nodded.  “Big day tomorrow.  You’re to be officially inducted into the Companions.”

“You should go to bed and get some sleep yourself, Vilkas.” She told him dropping softly into command tone. 

He nodded slowly.  “I think I may just do that.”

Chapter Text

Ondolemar rubbed at his right temple.  Thongvor Silver-Blood was yelling again.  In the last month a group of Forsworn had begun lending armed workers to small mine owners, across the hold, to keep the mines open and guarded against Silver-Blood encroachment, routed several small bands of Stormcloaks which had been preying upon travelers, and set up guard posts along the major roads offering to escort caravans safely through the dangerous sections of the Reach for a completely reasonable fee.

Trade with the other holds had been restored and the average man could work without fear for their lives. Life in Markarth was already looking up and everyone knew the Jarl, and the Silver-Bloods, had nothing to do with the reversal of fortune.  Things did not look good for the future of a Silver-Blood monopoly on the Reach’s silver trade and Thongvor Silver-Blood’s reaction was exactly what one would expect of the man.

“What’s all the commotion about?” a soft voice, behind his left shoulder, asked. 

Ondolemar quickly repressed the pleasant shiver that ran down his spine and turned to smile welcomingly up at Alexa as she placed a covered plate on the table and settled onto the stone seat beside his.  Of all the people it could have been she was, perhaps, the only one he was actually pleased to see.  “It seems some of the Forsworn have a new leader,” he replied keeping his voice low. “A new leader means new tactics and new troubles for the Silver-Bloods.”

Alexa raised an eyebrow at that and then leaned forward as if to peer into the throne room.  “How long has this been going on?” she asked.

“An hour and twenty minutes so far today,” Ondolemar replied heavily.


“Three hours yesterday, two the day before… the Jarl is not getting much else done.”

Alexa winced slightly as Thongvor’s voice increased in volume.  “I’m amazed he hasn’t burst a blood vessel yet,” she murmured.

Ondolemar smiled.  “I live in hope,” he informed her.  Their eyes met and he was rewarded with a brilliant smile and soft chuckle.  His heart did something strange in his chest.

Their moment of understanding was short-lived, however, as Legate Admand chose just then to storm past. “What the rebels like to forget, is that the Empire is what's keeping the Dominion out of Skyrim!” the legate growled as he stomped down the stairs.

Alexa turned back to Ondolemar with a look of surprise.  Then extended a finger and deliberately poked him.  “Huh,” she remarked.  “You seem real to me.  Is it possible that this is not Skyrim?”

Ondolemar waved her hand away with a slight growl of annoyance.  “What brings you back to this craggy wretch of a city?” he asked, changing the subject rather than indulge her in further silliness.

“Oh some Nord nonsense,” she replied airily.  “I was paid to come here and punch some guy until he admitted he’s an ass.  He’s a Nord.  They’re pretty much all asses.  But their heads are hard so it took a few good hits.”

Ondolemar treated her to a long, level, stare.

“Don’t look at me like that. I’m trying to avoid real adventuring for a while.  Let my psychological wounds heal from the last few rounds.”

“Do the psychological wounds of a champion of Sheogorath heal?” he enquired.  “It seems a bit counter-intuitive to me.”

“Ah!  So you remember!” Alexa exclaimed, clasping her hands together.  “I was half convinced you were already too drunk at the time.  Excellent.”  A mischievous smile bloomed over her face causing his stomach to clench in anticipation.  “Do you also happen to recall saying that if I wished to take advantage of you all I had to do was ask?”

Ondolemar blinked.  He did remember.  He also remembered the unaccountable regret he’d felt at her rejection.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he sniffed, “but you are clearly mad.”

“I told you you’d say that,” she responded gleefully before sighing heavily.  “Ah well, and here I was hoping to take advantage of your superior tastes in deciding which of my new recipes for miniature sweet rolls is the most delicious.”  She moved the covered plate to in front of him.

Ondolemar bit the inside of his cheek firmly reminding himself that well-bred mer should not laugh at the antics of crazed daedric champions.  “If they are poisoned, Breton, know that I will haunt you,” he warned ominously.

“Really?” she gasped, suddenly wide-eyed and breathless.  “You promise?”

“Uhg,” he groaned at her, covering her face with his hand and turning it away from him so he wouldn’t have to look at the vapid expression she’d assumed. 

She burst out laughing. 

“You are terrible,” he told her sternly as he let go of her face. 

“I know,” she replied, smugly, as she lifted the cover from the plate.  “But you looked so put upon when I walked by earlier I thought you could use something to cheer you up.”

“You made these for me?” he asked, genuinely surprised.

“I did.  And I promise I didn’t just wabbajack something random until it turned into sweet rolls.”

Ondolemar glanced sharply at her as he delicately lifted the first of three, bite-sized, sweet rolls from the plate.  “I have to admit that hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility.”

“That’s what I love about the Wabbajack!” she confessed gleefully.  “Infinite possibilities.  Very few of which are good ideas.”

He carefully placed the sweet roll in his mouth and was rewarded with the taste of butter, brandy, and just a hint of moonsugar.  It was, without doubt, the best thing he’d tasted since leaving the Summerset Isles. He tried not to let his appreciation show on his face but he could tell from her pleased expression that he hadn’t quite managed it.  Ondolemar cleared his throat slightly in embarrassment.  “It seems like a lot of work to go through to no purpose.  Should I assume this is meant as a bribe of some sort?”

“A bribe?” she asked in apparent surprise.  Then her eyes narrowed slightly, “If it were, would it have worked?”

He turned towards her and gave her a reproving frown.

She rolled her eyes.  “Whether it’s a lot of work or not depends on the potential end benefit, doesn’t it?” she asked as she turned on the stone seat, putting her back to the table, spine arched, elbows resting behind her on the table’s surface.  “If I really am considering giving up the dubious glories of adventuring to become a confectioner then there is something of a niche market, in Skyrim, for pastry tailored to Altmer tastes.  But, while I’m certain your personal tastes are excellent, you are only one person and I would need to sample a somewhat broader audience before tailoring my recipes further.  Which would, indeed, render making these, for just one person, a waste of time on my part.  If, however, the point was to spend time with you, when you’re in a good mood, then perhaps it was worth it?”  She gave him a sidelong look.  “Are you in a good mood yet?  Because there are still two more.”

“I am always in a good mood when you are around,” he replied politely and with a surprising amount of truth.

“And there’s those Summerset manners again,” she remarked.  “You must have had a very strict grandmother.”

“Grandmother?  Is that how Bretons learn their manners?” he asked, reaching for the second sweet roll.  This one appeared to have candied apple bits in it.

“Mostly, I believe so, yes,” she replied.  “Though my training was a good deal more exhaustive than most.  Grandmother had plans for me, you see, and they very much included marrying up.”

“Court manners?” he asked out of sheer morbid curiosity.

“Breton, and Imperial,” she confirmed.  “Not that I get a lot of use out of them these days but stuff me into a dress and I’m sure some of it would come back to me.”

Ondolemar eyed her up and down.

“What?” she asked suspiciously.

“Just trying to imagine you in one of those court dresses Breton’s favor.”

“Horrifying isn’t it?” she grinned.  “The sleeves and the shoes.  Quite impossible!”

“I don’t know.  You seem graceful enough,” he demurred.

“Careful, Commander.  Another compliment or two and I may start plying you with sugar on a regular basis,” she cautioned him.

“In that case, have I told you that you look particularly lovely today?” he enquired with a smug little smile.

“Good try,” she snorted lightly, her attention wandering away from him. 

Ondolemar turned to look in the same direction she was and saw that Calcelmo had emerged from his laboratory.  From the looks of things the mage had been headed to the kitchens before being distracted by the ongoing scene in the throne room.

“Did you know that Calcelmo has a thing for Faleen?” Alexa murmured.

Ondolemar snorted. “That is one of the worst kept secrets in Markarth.”

“You think she knows?”

“Faleen is not the most observant of persons,” he replied carefully.  “Especially in regards to things that do not lend themselves to being resolved by an application of force.”

“Great breasts though,” Alexa allowed. 

Ondolemar choked.

“Oh, please, like you hadn’t noticed,” Alexa scoffed.  “You seriously think she stands like that because it’s good for her back?  Or even particularly comfortable in heavy armor?”

“I can assure you that I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he replied primly.

Alexa didn’t bother to respond, her attention returning to Calcelmo who was still standing, irresolute, before the entrance to the throne room.  She frowned a little.  “He must be, what, five times her age?”

“More,” Ondolemar answered. “Does that matter?”

“It is interesting.”

“What is?”

“That he can see beyond what I’m sure he must find an irritating lack of knowledge and wisdom to the person that she is.  Calcelmo does not strike me as someone who accepts ignorance in others with any grace even if the deficiency is due to simple inexperience.”  She paused clearly considering the issue. 

“Perhaps the lack of experience is part of the attraction?” he suggested.

She shrugged slightly. “Just like any Second Seed and Evening Star relationship then.  I suppose the fact I find it difficult to imagine that mer do not see man as little better than perniciously intelligent pets is more my problem than yours.”

He swallowed hard at that. “There are, I am certain, some in the Dominion who feel that way,” he allowed carefully.

“But not you?” she asked, her eyes searching his face intently.  “What happened to ‘proving the superiority of mer over man, one century at a time?’”

He shifted a little uncomfortably beneath her gaze.  “The difference between us is less like the difference between man and dog, and more like the difference between two blades,” he told her.  “The one made of rough iron and the other of moonstone, tempered, refined, and polished.”

Alexa smirked at that. “I see.  So even if we lived as long as you do, and had the same time and care put into our forging, we would still never be as pretty?”

Ondolemar sighed. “You are impossible.”

“Oh no, I completely agree! You are way prettier than I am,” she laughed.  “Now tell me, how is Taran doing?”

“You mean the Forsworn princeling you helped work his way into the court?” Ondolemar asked trying to ignore the strange feeling hearing her call him ‘pretty’ had induced.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re implying, Commander,” Alexa replied primly, mimicking his own earlier denial.

“Implying?” he drawled, smiling down at her.  “Dear lady I wasn’t implying anything.  I was accusing.”

“Oh, well then, I am sure I admit nothing,” she huffed.

Ondolemar considered her for a moment.  “Let us say, hypothetically speaking, a person were to help a Forsworn princeling take a seat in the court of the Jarl who, along with his father, is responsible for a wide range of rather ugly crimes against the Forsworn.  What would be the purpose of such a move?”

“Hypothetically speaking?” Alexa asked.

“Hypothetically speaking,” Ondolemar confirmed.

“Then, hypothetically speaking, it is entirely possible the person in question does not believe that one should be beholden to the mistakes of one’s forefathers and that unending war will render us all orphans and beggars.”

“Well said,” Ondolemar murmured, his eyes searching her face.  “I think I shall continue to pretend I have not noticed the new thane’s identity.  For at least a while longer.”

“And how is he doing?” she asked quietly.

“I would think Thongvor’s yelling would be answer enough.  But he does well.  The Jarl has come to rely upon him a great deal in a short time.  I do not think Taran trusts me though.”

“Well you are quite intimidating in all that severe black and gold tailoring,” Alexa returned playfully. “If I were not quite mad I probably wouldn’t be brave enough to talk with you myself.”

“I find it difficult to imagine that you, young lady, have ever been intimidated by anything,” Ondolemar remarked dryly.

She chuckled.  “Fine, you win.  I promise to bring you something sugary the next time I come to Markarth.”

Ondolemar’s lips twitched in yet another repressed smile.  “You would take a comment on your lack of sense as a compliment.”

Chapter Text

“So are we finally going to see some Dunmer fire dancing1 for the Old Life Festival2 this year, Athis?” Tovar grinned, elbowing the dark elf jovially in the ribs a few times.

“You need special equipment to fire dance,” Athis replied patiently, and clearly not for the first time. “No one in Whiterun even knows how to make the right sort of fuel.”

“Tha’s too bad.  Anyway – if you need me – I’ll be upstairs drinking.” Tovar stumbled out.

“Um, I know how to make fire dancing fuel,” Alexa piped up from where she sat on her bed across the hall. “If you want.  I even have the necessary materials.”

“Why would you know how to make the fuel for fire dancing?” Athis blinked in surprise.

“Hobby,” she answered.

You  know how to fire dance?” he asked incredulously.

“I saw a Dunmer fire dancer once when I was a kid.  After that I was obsessed with learning how to breathe fire like a dragon!  Eventually, my parents relented in return for my promise not to purposefully drive my various tutors to drink.”

“What’s your instrument?”

“The fans.  They, uh, look a little like wings...”

“The fans,” he demanded.  “Set or folding?”

“Set.  I’m not good enough for folding.”

Athis stared at her for a long moment.  “This I’ve got to see.  You think you can make a pair?”

“Shouldn’t be too hard,” she answered.  “What’s your instrument?”

“Jenassa and I both use poi.”

“Then I’ll make two sets of those as well,” she smiled.

A week later found Athis, Jenassa, and Alexa on the plane outside Whiterun in a snowy field just west of the city, in the growing twilight.

“Alright, Breton, let's see it,” Jenassa said crossing her arms.

Alexa nodded and lit the ends of the fan ribs with a flame spell.  “Fuel seems right,” Athis noted.  “Not too hot.”

Alexa smiled at him. “Let's see if I remember how to do this,” she muttered, quickly running through the basic fan manipulation techniques.  Done she nodded once to herself and began in earnest.3

When the fires went out (she’d only used enough fuel for about three minutes) Alexa stood, a little awkwardly, waiting for her critique, with the still glowing metal held out in front of her.

“Some hobby,” Athis muttered.

“Not bad,” Jenassa told her. “Even by Dunmer standards.  With a century or two of practice you might even become a master.”

“If only I weren’t going to be dead by then,” Alexa laughed. 

Athis shook his head. “I’m amazed anyone besides the Dunmer would be interested in fire manipulation of this sort.”

Alexa gave him a wry little smile as she put the fans down in the snow. 

“You really wanted to be a dragon, huh?” Jenassa smirked, revealing that Athis had already told her the story.

“I really did,” Alexa admitted.

“What’s all the excitement about?” Alexa asked, settling next to Athis at the large table in Jorrvaskr, ten days later.

“The twins are back,” he told her, nodding towards the other end of the table.  “Seems they slew a dozen frost trolls in Winterhold last week.”

“Good for them,” Alexa smiled, putting the jar she was holding on the table.

“What’ve you got there?” he asked her.

“Fuel for your poi,” she replied.  “I figure you and Jenassa are going to need to practice together a bit more if you want to do anything impressive.  Since I’ll be leaving soon, and won’t be back until after the festival, I made quite a bit.”

Athis tipped his head slightly to one side as he looked at her.  “You know, sometime you’re going to have to tell me where it is you go all the time.”

“Nowhere and everywhere,” she laughed.  “I didn’t completely cut ties with the Dawnguard when I left them so, sometimes, when I ‘disappear’ it’s on a job for them.  Other times it’s just errands random people have offered to pay me for help with.”

He gave her a funny look. “You really get approached, personally, for help by people who don’t know you?”

“I think it’s because I actually talk to people,” she admitted.  “Of course it could be just the ‘well-armed stranger’ effect.  Though I’ve been told I have a ‘sympathetic face’.”

Athis burst out laughing. “Meaning you’re pretty but also well armed enough to make people be polite.”

She smiled back at that but simply shrugged, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with his assessment.

“So simply talking to people gets you all sorts of extra jobs?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.  “It’s really that simple?”

“Well there are all sorts of problems people don’t want to tell people they know about.  So being a stranger helps.  As you pointed out, I’m well armed, which, I think, makes people think I can handle things they can’t.  So I talk, and listen, to the people I meet, and a surprising number of them have something they’re willing to pay me to do for them.  And traveling with just my dog means I end up talking to more people, in inns and out on the road, than I used to.”

“Makes sense,” Athis nodded. “Not sure it would work for me though.”

Alexa snorted at that. “It might if you learned a little charm, but no, I wouldn’t suggest it as a strategy for you.

Athis leaned into her slightly.  “You know, we’re being glared at,” he murmured.

Alexa cast a sidelong glance down the table and frowned.  “How does Vilkas have time to glare at us when Ria is practically crawling into his lap?” she whispered back.

“Too focused on you, since you arrived, to have noticed her,” Athis answered softly.

“What did I do?” she enquired.

“Maybe ask him that?” Athis suggested, giving her a meaningful look.

“Hey,” Aela began, dropping into the chair next to Alexa.  “I just came over here to see if staring really can change the temperature.”

“Yes,” Athis sighed. “We were just discussing that. Any idea what I did to get caught up in it?”

“You and Alexa have been spending quite a bit of time together lately,” Aela smirked.  “Njada may have said something in Vilkas’ hearing when Ria asked if you two would be joining us tonight.”

“I think I’ll just get going and avoid... whatever this is,” Athis muttered, pushing himself to his feet, and grabbing the jar Alexa had brought him, before making his escape.

“So what are you and Athis up to, at night, these days?” Aela asked.

“Athis and Jenassa are going to do some traditional Dunmer fire dancing for the Old Life festival,” Alexa answered.  “I’ve been helping out with the alchemical fuel they need for the fire.  Also, I like to watch them practice.  It’s pretty.”

“So it’s all ridiculously above board,” Aela sighed, sounding disappointed.

“You know I’m not really Athis’ type, right?”

“You’re not?”

“…Elrindir?” Alexa suggested in a leading tone.

“Really?” Aela pursed her lips thinking about it.  “Huh. I suppose I see it.  Good for them.  So what about you?  Will you be doing anything Breton for the Old Life Festival?” Aela enquired.

Alexa shook her head. “I’ll be celebrating it in Solitude. The Bard’s College has asked that I put in an appearance.  I’ll be leaving at the end of next week.”

“You’re a bard?” Aela blinked in surprise.

Alexa nodded.  “When I first started coming to Skyrim I was told I had to join the College if I wanted to perform for money.  Since I was augmenting my income by playing in the inns I stayed at, and the standards for membership were shockingly low4, it seemed reasonable to join.”

“Makes sense,” Aela nodded. “Too bad though,” she added.  “I was looking forward to celebrating with you.”

“Disappointed that I’ll be taking any poor decision making elsewhere?” Alexa asked, laughing.

Aela grinned at that. “A little.  But it just means I’ll have to think of something fun for us to do before you go!  A sort of pre-celebration celebration.”

Chapter Text

“Since we’re all here for once, and Skjor, Vignar, and Kodlak have been called to Dragonsreach, I thought we’d play a game,” Aela grinned at them all.  “Maybe get to know our new Companion a little better.”

“A game of Tall Tales?” Tovar suggested.

“The point is to get to know each other better,” Aela told him.

“A game of Unfortunate Truths then?” Athis asked.

“Exactly,” Aela grinned, gesturing for everyone to sit around the table she was collecting bottles on. “Tovar, you start.”

“The stupidest thing I’ve ever done, on a bet, was trying to drink my weight in mead… it didn’t go well,” Tovar announced.

“I once ate an entire bag of alchemical components,” Farkas admitted.

Vilkas cleared his throat slightly.  “As a child, I tried to steal all of Skjor’s boots and throw them down the well…”

“Why?” Ria asked, clearly perplexed.

“Skjor used to dress fancier than he does now,” Vilkas shrugged.  “He had a lot of boots.”

“On a bet I stole a silt strider from the son of a member of the Grand Council,” Athis admitted. “Didn’t even make it out of the city before they caught me.”

Aela filled the shot glasses in front of Tovar, Farkas, and Vilkas.  Ria filled her own glass as a sign she didn’t have anything better than that.

“On a bet, I once challenged a khajiit monk to a fist fight,” Njada offered.  Everyone at the table winced. 

“I don’t expect that went well,” Vilkas commented.

“It didn’t,” Njada confirmed with a scowl.

“I tried to kill a mammoth with just a dagger,” Aela countered.

Athis saluted her and filled his glass.

“Did you succeed?” Alexa asked curiously.

“No,” Aela sighed.  “A giant showed up and I had to make a run for it. What about you?  What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done because of a bet?”

“I once tried to sneak through an entire Dwemer ruin without alerting any automatons,” Alexa answered.

“You make it?” Ria asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes, and no,” Alexa grimaced at the memory.  “I didn’t alert any automatons but it turns out Falmer have a ridiculously heightened sense of smell.  Wouldn’t have been so bad if the person I had made the bet with hadn’t confiscated my bow as part of it.”

“Wow,” Ria remarked. “That’s…”

“I still had my knives and a staff though,” Alexa added quickly.  “I’m not entirely suicidal.”

“So, that leaves just the three of us with unfilled glasses,” Aela smirked at Alexa. “Opinions everyone?”

“Hmm.  I think I have to go with Aela,” Ria admitted.  “Things are only stupid if you should have anticipated them ending badly.  Falmer having an acute sense of smell seems less obvious than the possibility a giant will be near a mammoth.”

“Fair,” Alexa smiled, filling her glass.  “What about Njada?”

“The mammoth has a fair bit of weight on a khajiit, and the giant was trying to kill her, not just knock her down,” Athis pointed out. 

Njada nodded and filled her glass and everyone threw back their shots.

“Alright,” Aela grinned, “strangest thing I’ve seen in Skyrim is the wreck of the Silvermoon in Lake Ilinalta.1  How did it get there?  It’s a full sized ship but you’d be lucky to get a skiff up the river as far as the lake.”

“Oh!  I’ve got one,” Tovar exclaimed.  “Do you remember that one courier who went everywhere naked no matter the weather?”2

“Oooh, good one!” Athis nodded.

“I saw my shield-sister read one of those talking walls,” Farkas offered.

Alexa rolled her eyes. “Yes, we all know I’m horribly over educated and must not have had any friends as a child…”

“A necromancer who resurrected chickens,” Vilkas cut in. 

“You’re joking…” Alexa snickered as everybody else at the table filled their glasses in defeat.

“He had built an altar out of mammoth bones and a chicken’s nest.  When I walked by he reanimated the chickens to attack me,”3 Vilkas clarified. 

“That is good…” Alexa murmured, fiddling thoughtfully with her glass.

Vilkas leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.  “You have something better?”

“I’m going with a talking dog.  And no, I was not hallucinating.  I was approached, outside Falkreath, by a talking dog who needed help finding his master.”

“Mages…” Njada groaned. 

“Did you find the master?” Ria asked.

“That is a long story, but yes, the dog is back home now where he should be.”

“Hmm…” Aela tipped her head back in consideration.  “The talking dog is good… but I think I have to go with the sheer absurdity of reanimating chickens to attack a man in armor.”

“I accept that,” Alexa smiled, holding out her shot glass.

“The most dangerous thing I’ve ever killed, without meaningful assistance from another, is a wispmother,” Vilkas stated.

“Spriggan with two bears,” Aela announced.  Tovar, Ria, Athis, and Njada groaned and refilled their shot glasses.

“Hulking draugr?” Farkas asked only to have his glass filled for him by Tovar.

Alexa thought about it for a second before dismissing the undead dragon she’d fought in the Soul Cairn as not believable enough.  Also, it hadn’t really died.  “Vampire Lord,” she answered.

“Damn,” Aela murmured, and refilled her shot glass and Vilkas’.

“Your win,” Vilkas nodded to Alexa.  “I’d forgotten you had that one under your belt.”

“The worst thing I’ve ever eaten is smoked salmon jerky,”4 Alexa proclaimed, picking an easy one. It was getting a little embarrassing how often she was in the final two.

“Fermented horker loaf5,” Tovar groaned.  “The fat had turned dark green and had to be scraped off the outside before you could eat it.”

“Ash Hopper,” Athis countered.  “Even raw it tastes burnt and smells of the Ashlands.”

“Isn’t that a lot like eating frostbite spider6?” Aela asked dubiously.

“Two fewer legs,” Athis replied.  “But it is a giant bug7, so yeah, I suppose?”

“That’s just unnatural,” Njada muttered as everyone but Athis took a shot.8

Athis grinned.  “The most famous, or important, person I’ve ever spoken to is the Archmage of Winterhold.”

Njada snorted.  “I spoke to Maven Black-Briar once, and it didn’t even have anything to do with a job.”

“Ulfric Stormcloak!” Tovar shouted.  “I vomited on his boots!”

“Vittoria Vici, first cousin of the Emperor,” Aela countered.

“Potema, the Wolf Queen,” Alexa groaned.  “If you don’t believe me you can ask Falk Firebeard at the Blue Palace.  Obviously necromancers were involved and the whole thing was a complete nightmare.”9

Vilkas shook his head. He suddenly had no question as to why Meridia might have taken an interest in Alexa.

“The strangest thing a client has asked me to retrieve for them is a spoon,”10 Alexa sighed. 

Farkas was suddenly beat red.  “Oh, this is going to be good,” Aela noted, grinning.  “What’s the strangest thing a client has asked you to retrieve, Farkas?”

“Um… remember when the priestesses of Dibella requested help retrieving a chest of ‘research materials’ that had been stolen as part of a missing caravan from Blacklight?”

Aela nodded.

“Well I got the chest back and was on the way to deliver it when I… slipped and dropped the chest.” Farkas rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment.  “The contents ended up all over the road.”

Athis was grinning and Njada had started to chuckle.  Alexa buried her face in her hands to hide her laughter.  Tovar clearly wasn’t following, Vilkas was inscrutable, and Ria – as always – looked confused.

“And what was in the chest?” Aela asked Farkas, her lips twitching slightly as she repressed her own mirth.

“Things…” Farkas replied faintly, causing Aela to finally lose it in a peal of laughter that left her collapsed forward onto the table.

Alexa took pity on him. “Anyone got a better story than a chest full of sex toys from Morrowind?” she gasped, wiping the tears from her eyes, before filling her glass and holding out the bottle to the rest of the table.

Athis shook his head still laughing as she filled his glass.  “You guys have no idea the sort of toys that are produced by the worshipers of Mephala.11  Those are some brave priestesses in Markarth.”

Alexa frowned at the bottle. Empty.  She looked around the room.  “Are we out of mead?” she asked, unable to believe it.

“More coming in the morning,” Tovar slurred.

“There’s probably some in Farkas’ room,” Aela told her, with a sly smile.  “Why don’t you go see if you can find it?”

Vilkas waited a whole forty-five seconds before making an excuse about “seeing if the girl had gotten lost” and following Alexa down into the sleeping quarters.  The chance to be alone with her, even for just a few minutes, was worth a knowing look, and a wink, from Aela.

The position in which he found Alexa was undoubtedly proof of her intoxication.  Rather than going around the bar to see what was in the shelves underneath, she was kneeling on top of it, and leaning over the far edge to get a look at the shelves now directly below her.  If he’d been sober he probably would have told her, in no uncertain terms, how ridiculous she was being.  As it was he found himself staring blankly at the way her current position…

“Talos help me,” he muttered.

At the sound of his voice Alexa sat up and turned to face him.  “Hey Vilkas, did you come to help look?” she asked, unfolding her legs to sit, facing him, on the bar.  “I’m glad you did because I don’t…”

He closed the distance between them and, taking her face between his hands, kissed her.

After a moment’s surprise, she hummed slightly, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him back.

The discomfort of muscles held in a single position for too long woke her.  She didn’t have to open her eyes to know that the man behind her had all but snuggled her right off the bed.


Man behind her?

Vilkas, her brain supplied after a rather laborious review of the previous evening.

Figures he’d be a snuggler, she thought with a slight sigh.  Was it an unconscious craving for physical contact, she wondered as she considered how best to extricate herself.  It certainly couldn’t be for warmth.  He slept hot enough that the parts of her in contact with him were coated in a thin layer of sweat.

At least his excessive cuddling had resulted in one useful thing, she realized.  She was already perched precariously enough on the edge of the bed that leaving it would be more a matter of letting gravity have its way than anything else.  She slid out from under his arm, onto the floor, and took stock.

Her internal clock told her that it lacked about five minutes to five.  Tilma wouldn’t be up for another half hour so, daedra willing, the bathing room12 would be all hers for a while at least.  She began to slip on her clothes. 

Vilkas stirred, a hand instinctively searching for the missing body in the bed beside him.  Alexa cast a sleep spell and he stilled returning to deep sleep.  There was no reason to complicate the morning with awkward small talk.  Especially when she wasn’t really sure what she’d say.  There wasn’t a lot of point to a “where is this going” conversation under the current circumstances.

She winced slightly at the ache between her thighs as she slipped out of Vilkas’ room, closing the door softly behind her and started down the hall.  The evening had been a bit rougher than she was used to.  Not that the sex hadn’t been good, she reflected as she entered the bathing room.  It had been and that wasn’t just her recent dry spell talking. 

She stuck a hand in the tepid water of the bathing pool.  Given the amount of firewood required to heat water the bathing pool was only hot for about an hour a day (in the evening).  Thankfully she was a mage and, even though she wasn’t much good with destruction magic, a flame spell worked fine to bring the water up to a reasonable temperature.

She stripped, grimaced at the bruises rising on her skin and cast fast healing, before slipping into the not quite warm enough water.  Vilkas’ technique, in her opinion, relied far too much upon his werewolf stamina and not enough on foreplay.  Still…

She shivered slightly at the memory of the golden tint to his eyes as he’d approached his peak and the way he’d…

Alexa groaned and slipped fully under the water.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  You shouldn’t complicate your relationships with the people you live with!  Alexa admonished herself as she surfaced again and made a grab for her soap.

Still… this was probably retrievable.  Right?  Falling drunkenly into bed with Vilkas was a rather different situation from the way things had gone with Brynjolf. 

For one thing she’d known Brynjolf was interested in altering their relationship even before her suspicions about Mercer had caused her to tail him, and Sapphire, to Snow Veil Sanctum, while, ostensibly, doing a favor for Vekel.  By the time she’d helped Karliah translate Gaius’ journal, she’d been gone from Riften for more than two weeks.  Which, it turned out, was more than long enough for Brynjolf to panic, go looking for her, give up, and begin to grieve.  Mercer’s smug assurances that, having been gone for more than a week, she was never coming back hadn’t helped the situation.  It was a prediction, it turned out, Mercer had felt secure in making as he had performed the Black Sacrament to make sure of it.13

So it wasn’t surprising that when she’d walked into the cistern, unharmed, Brynjolf had spoken briefly with Karliah, sent Sapphire off to raid Mercer’s house, and then practically thrown himself at her. 

It had been first of only two nights together.  His betrayal had come the very next morning. 

In retrospect she really owed Karliah, for pulling her aside and telling her why Bryn had asked her to meet them outside Riften at dusk, and for being so understanding when she’d suggested Karliah ask Sapphire instead, before grabbing Marcurio and leaving town as quickly as possible.

After that, if she hadn’t been infected with vampirism… 

What? her inner voice asked.  You would have stayed

Not likely, she had to admit.

If you hadn’t been infected with vampirism you probably would have still been too angry with Bryn to sleep with him the second time, she reminded herself.  Which might have avoided giving him the impression you’d get past his attempt to bind your soul in eternal service to a daedra without giving you a chance to say no.

She climbed out of the bath and scrubbed herself dry.

Vilkas wasn’t Brynjolf. Given his feelings on his own daedric prince he wasn’t likely to attempt to bind her to Him.  Vilkas also wasn’t a liar and a thief.  So, perhaps, they would be able to get past a single drunken night together like reasonable people?

Are you really expecting Vilkas to be reasonable about something? her inner voice asked acidly.


“Where’s Alexa?” Vilkas asked Aela as she handed him his morning coffee. 

“Came upstairs around seven this morning, took a job, and left around eight, same as usual,” Aela replied.  “Said she won’t be back until after the New Life Festival.14  I was surprised.  I was certain you had other plans for her this morning.”

“I did,” Vilkas replied frowning.

“Vilkas…” Aela began as a terrible thought occurred to her.  “Is it possible you failed to tell her how you feel?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” he asked, brow furrowed in confusion.

“It means she probably thinks last night was just a drunken one night stand, ice-brain!” Aela hissed at him.  “And she seems fine with that!”

“It’s certainly what I’d think in her place,” Njada informed him grouchily as she made her way over to where Tilma left the coffee.  “You haven’t been exactly clear in your intentions.  Before this very moment I was uncertain whether you actually liked her or had just chosen sex as a way to deal with the weird thing between you two.”

Vilkas stared at Aela in horror.  “What do I do?”

“Oh no,” Aela shook her head.  “I’m not helping you out of this one.  And nobody else is to help you either,” she announced loudly.  “He’s got to fix this one himself.”  She lowered her voice, speaking directly to Vilkas, “Besides it would serve you right if she really does have a man in the Reach.”

Chapter Text

Elenwen had put in only the briefest of appearances on the first evening of the Solitude winter festival leaving Ondolemar the formal representative of the Thalmor for the event.

He was standing around hoping, against hope, that the performers from the Bard’s College, had been arranged in reverse order of competence when his male bodyguard – Cyril1 – returned from procuring spice wine and held a small cotton bag out to him. “From Miss Alexa,” Cyril explained. “She says to tell you that only an idiot would attempt to poison you with candy they’d personally handed to your guards.”

“She is here?” he asked, accepting the bag.

“She is,” Cyril confirmed. “She apologizes for not being able to greet you in person, but claims she is rather busy and will not have time to enjoy the festivities for herself until after her set.”

Ondolemar arched an eyebrow at that.

“It seems she will be singing later,” Cyril explained.

“Truly?” Ondolemar asked in surprise.  The dossier he had compiled on her indicated that she was a member of the Bard’s College but he’d always assumed her actual connection to the organization had been one of convenience and was, possibly, no longer relevant as she was part of the Companions now.  After all he’d never seen her so much as look at an instrument or heard her even hum to herself.

“Sometime around midnight if the bard I asked is to be believed,” Cyril informed him.  “She sends the gift now as she does not expect you to still be in attendance at that time.”

He frowned slightly and undid the drawstring on the bag.  Small white candies met his eyes.  He drew one out and was surprised, a moment later, by the subtle flavor of violets.  He shook his head slightly.  He knew for a fact that flower flavored candy was not available in Skyrim.  Who, he wondered, had the sneaky Breton found to advise her on such a specific cultural preferences of the Altmer?

In retrospect it shouldn’t have surprised Ondolemar, when he returned to the Thalmor Headquarters in Castle Dower around one in the morning, to find Brelas sitting on the bed.  “Is there some reason you are here?” he asked the Bosmer woman loftily as he drew off his gloves and tossed them onto the small round table beside his chair.

“The Ambassador doesn’t approve of fraternizing,” Brelas murmured, standing up and coming towards him, “but she doesn’t control my nights off.”

Ondolemar tried not to scowl at that.  Did Elenwen really think he didn’t know Brelas was one of her personal agents?2  This was clearly a trap.  If he accepted Brelas then he’d given a spy reason to believe she could pass off being caught in his room, in Markarth, as behavior appropriate to one’s lover.  The fact that rifling his room would produce nothing of note would, likely, only further convince Elenwen that he was hiding something.  But if he turned Brelas away Elenwen would suspect him of having a lover, or a secret, and begin digging in earnest. 

He gave the Bosmer a scathing once over.  “On your knees,” he ordered.

Ondolemar waited to hear the tower door close behind Brelas before dropping into a chair with a heavy sigh of annoyance.

He didn’t feel bad about his response to Brelas supposed confession of interest.  Her skill indicated this was not her first assignment of this kind, while her cool smirk, as she’d taken him in her mouth, had told him she’d expected, and been prepared for, this reaction to her offer.

He pulled off his boots before making his way over to the wardrobe.

He wasn’t disgusted with himself either.  His actions had been within the range of what could be expected of a Thalmor agent with better things to do than let themselves be distracted from their duty to the Dominion by a comely woodelf.  He was, however, disgusted with Elenwen. Her little tests were not only a waste of time but required near constant vigilance to navigate.  He pulled the bag of candy from the pocket of his coat and dropped it on the bedside table as he passed it on the way to the wardrobe.

He finished undressing, snuffed the candles with a flick of ice from his fingers, climbed, naked, into bed and closed his eyes.

Alexa, smiling as she sang in a voice that had left him breathless, blossomed into being behind his closed lids.

He opened his eyes and glared at the bag of candy in the moonlight.

The champion of Sheogorath certainly seemed to have an eclectic skill set.  The most breath taking singing voice he’d ever heard was certainly not something he’d expected in a mercenary adventurer.  Especially given that it had never once come up in conversation.  But she downplayed, or was simply dismissive of, everything, he realized, including her current connection to the Companions. 

If, then, the frequency with which she mentioned things was not an accurate indicator of her skill, or a thing’s importance to her, then what else about her was he missing?  Were there other areas in which he’d underrated her ability or, worse, simply written something off, just because he’d seen no evidence of it beside an off hand comment in one of their nonsensical conversations?

Was, for instance, it truly possible she’d had contact with Daedric Princes other than the Prince of Madness, as she had once claimed?  And how would one check on something like that?  It wasn’t like he could just walk up to a Daedric Prince and ask who they were spending their time with… at least, not safely.

I think I’ll pass on any impromptu planes walking…  Alexa’s voice whispered in his mind, he doesn’t make it sound like a lot of fun.

The boy in Morthal was, without doubt, among the most outlandish claims she’d ever made, and one that shouldn’t be too hard to check on.  He could even do so on his way back to Markarth.

And if the child really was passing into Lyg unaided, he asked himself.  What then?

Then it would be time to do a complete reevaluation of a certain Breton adventurer. 

And the child?

Surely the College of Winterhold would be interested in such a thing, though whether or not they were qualified to deal with it was another question entirely.  He pondered that for a moment.  Failing that the University of Summerset would almost certainly find Adjacent Place travel worthy of study.  The only issue would be convincing them that a human child might be capable of such a thing.

And if the child wasn’t  displaying some sort of weird magical talent?

Then it would be time to distance himself from Alexa.

Ondolemar sighed.  For someone who wasn’t one of his assets, or even really a “person of interest”, Alexa took up an inappropriate amount of his attention.  Perhaps some professional distance would be wise in either case.

Chapter Text

Ondolemar, and his bodyguards, had taken a rowboat from the Solitude docks through the marsh almost to the town itself.  In that time he’d become slowly, creepingly, aware that there was something unnatural about the marsh.  The subtle wrongness was an indefinable, persistent, itch in the back of his mind.  How had no one ever reported it? Ondolemar wondered as he crossed the bridge into town.

Morthal, he discovered, was even muddier and bleaker than most of Skyrim and didn’t so much as have a blacksmith of its own.  Looking around him he found it hard to imagine it was considered a large town much less a hold capital.

“Did she send you?” a boy asked, running up to Ondolemar.

“I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Ondolemar told him somewhat bemused by the child’s audacity.

“The woman with the ice blue eyes.  The one who’s not like anyone else?” the boy clarified as if it should have been obvious.

That caught Ondolemar’s attention.  “What makes you say Alexa’s not like anyone else?”

“Because she’s not.  Anyone can see that,” the boy answered simply.  “You’re just pretending you can’t because it’s easier and less frightening,” he added in a tone that suggested he was used to calling adults on their idiocy.

“Why would I be frightened of Alexa?” Ondolemar asked, genuinely perplexed.

“Not of her, for her,” the boy corrected him with a roll of his eyes.  “She’s so nice and it’s already been so hard and it’s only going to get worse.  I hope she’ll be alright.”

A chill settled over Ondolemar.  “What makes you think she might have sent me?” he enquired, seating himself on the raised walkway in front of the Alchemist’s shop so as to be on eye-level with the boy.

“We talked, and then she talked to my sister, and then she came back and we talked some more and she told me she didn’t think I was crazy.  She told me that she thought something was happening to me but she didn’t know how to control it or what was causing it.  So she said she would ask some of her friends about me.  Then mama made her a thane and she went away.  I haven’t seen her since.”

Alexa was a thane of Hjaalmarch?  That was interesting.  “And what makes you think I’m one of the friends she spoke of?”

The boy cocked his head at that.  “You’re her friend and you’re here.  No… not friend,” he screwed his face up in concentration, his eyes searching.  “You’re falling in love with her but you won't tell her. I don’t understand...”

Ondolemar felt as if he had been kicked in the chest.  Auriel help me... he thought and glanced quickly in the direction of his guards still standing at the end of the bridge.  Hopefully their lack of reaction meant they hadn’t heard what the boy had just said.  He cleared his throat, shoving away any further thoughts about his relationship to Alexa, and reminded himself why he was here.  “Why don’t you tell me what you told her?” he suggested gently.

“I get lost sometimes.  I’m not sure where I go, but I’m not, I’m not here,” the boy replied, clearly lacking the vocabulary to fully explain what he’d experienced.

“And how do you know that the place you go is different from the place we are now?” Ondolemar asked.

“When I’m there, now is then.  But the then there happened differently than the now here will.” Clearly recognizing he’d confused his audience the boy continued.  “There Alexa was a really bad person – the leader of the Dark Brotherhood – but here she’s nice.”

“Joric!” a young woman in a burgundy dress ran towards them.  “I’m sorry Justiciar, I hope my brother hasn’t been bothering you.”

“Not at all,” Ondolemar replied in what he hoped was a reassuring tone.  From her response it seemed he was somewhat out of practice.

“He’s friends with the new thane,” Joric told his sister.  “She sent him here to talk to me.”

“Joric,” Ondolemar interposed before Joric’s sister could speak again.  “When you go to this other place, how do you get there?”

“I don’t know.  I just do.  One moment I’m here and then I’m… not here.”

“It’s not what it sounds like Justiciar, I assure you,” his sister began, half pleading.  “He just runs off some times.  It’s not like he actually goes anywhere else.  He just forgets to watch where he’s going and gets lost in the marsh.”

“And does he manage this even though you’ve been watching him?” Ondolemar asked, careful to maintain a neutral tone.

“Sometimes,” the young woman admitted blushing a little.

Ondolemar stood up. “Thank you Joric.  I believe your thane is right, you are not mad.  Now where can I find the court mage?”

“Falion?” the young woman asked.  “His house is the second house on the right, just over there.”

“If you have come here to accuse me of sacrificing children, or eating the hearts of the dead…” the man in the hooded blue robes began without turning around from the arcane enchanter he was working at.

“I have no such intentions I assure you,” Ondolemar cut him off mid-rant.  “I have come to discuss Joric.”

“Joric?  The Jarl’s son?  What about him?”  Falion turned around and froze.  “Justiciar?” he croaked.

“Commander, actually,” Ondolemar corrected.  “Ondolemar, Second Emissary and head of the Justiciars in Skyrim.”

The Redguard swallowed hard. “I’m afraid I don’t see what a Justiciar’s interest would be in the boy.  He certainly doesn’t worship Talos.”

“The interest is personal, not professional.  What do you make of this wandering condition he has?”

“Not you too,” Falion groaned.  “The boy isn’t mad.  I don’t know what’s wrong, but Sheogorath’s hand isn’t upon him.  And the only danger he appears to pose is to himself.”

“That I gathered,” Ondolemar drawled, as he took a look around him.  The contents of the wizard’s home, he noted, suggested an unusually high level of magical accomplishment, for a human.  “What is it that brought one with your level of training to this backwater?”

“As anyone will tell you, Morthal can be a dangerous place,” Falion huffed.  “My... talents... are useful here.  I help maintain order, even if it goes unnoticed.”

“What kind of order?”

“The kind that other places take for granted!” the mage snapped.

Ondolemar frowned at the mage but decided to let it go in favor of the real reason he was here.  “Is it possible the boy is passing in and out of Lyg?”

“Lyg?” Falion froze, a look of shock on his face.  “That… had not occurred to me…  ‘here, but not here.’  If that’s the case then the situation in the marsh is worse than I thought…”

“You believe it is possible?” Ondolemar asked, suddenly feeling a little adrift in the conversation.

“More than possible. I am a fool!  We must speak to the Jarl at once!”

“So, life has brought you to Morthal, and to me,” Idgrod began, her dark, shadowed, eyes looking Ondolemar over carefully.  “What purpose this serves, we will no doubt see.  Welcome, Commander.”

“Jarl,” Ondolemar inclined his head slightly.  “It has been some time since Elenwen’s last soiree.  I hope I find you well.”

“Well enough in this time of strife when too many focus on what might be instead of what is.”

Ondolemar repressed an inward sigh.  He always found talking to the Jarl of Morthal a little trying.

“But you did not come all this way to exchange greetings with an old woman,” the Jarl observed.

“Some time ago your new thane mentioned the strange condition of your son to me,” Ondolemar explained.  “She thought, perhaps, someone with a different perspective, and training, might see something in him others had not.  She hoped I would be able to confirm, or deny, a suspicion she had,” he lied.  Alexa had, in fact, only mentioned Joric to him in passing and had not, in any way, indicated that she hoped he would take an interest in the situation.

“Tamriel is full of wisdom and magic, if one is willing to look for it,” Idgrod noted, her eyes narrowing slightly.  “Few have their eyes open.  My new thane is one that does.  Are you?”

“Given the strength of the Sight in your bloodline, my Jarl, it would take more than simply being observant to conclude there was a second condition at play in what your son experiences,” Falion objected indignantly.

Idgrod ignored him her attention remaining on Ondolemar.  “My thane spoke.  You listened.  Now you are here.  What is it your Altmer eyes have seen and ears heard?”

“Your son is capable of disappearing even under the careful watch of his sister and even when he does not wish to.  When he does so he claims he passes from the here-and-now into what he can only describe as a there, like here, where now is then.”

“These things we know,” the Jarl told him.

“Are you conversant with the concept of Adjacent Places?” Ondolemar asked.

“The teachings of Vivec, sermon twenty-six,” she told him. “But to move between Places the non-cardinal points must be disrupted.  If it is, as you suggest, then they are either being disrupted repeatedly or their disruption, in Morthal, is constant.”

Falion cleared his throat.  “The Drajkmyr marsh is a liminal space,” he began.  “A place in which the barrier between Nirn and other planes is relatively weak.  Such weakness could be caused by a disruption of the non-cardinal points.  How such a thing would be… is what I came here to study.”

“So you really do fight monsters in the marsh?” Joric gasped, from behind them, causing Falion to jump.  “It’s not just in my head?”

Everyone looked to find Joric standing just inside the door with Alexa beside him. 

Of course she’d show up just now, Ondolemar thought with resignation.  At least she didn’t seem to be questioning his presence.  That was good or, at least, less awkward than the alternative.

“Please continue,” Alexa smiled to Falion.  “I am quite interested to hear what you have to say.”

Falion looked embarrassed.  “After what happened with Phinis Gestor I… I realized something was off in the Drajkmyr marsh.”  He turned back to face the Jarl.  “You must understand.  Phinis should never have been capable of doing what he did.  He hadn’t the training or the power for it. So, knowing that, I left the College and I came here.  It was my hope that I could fix any remnants of Phinis’ mistake and see what I could discover about the larger issue that had made the mistake possible in the first place.  I had hoped to fix it without drawing attention. The locals fear magic enough without being told that a large swath of countryside is, for want of a better analogy, magically unstable.”

“Hiding the truth will only increase the people’s fear of the unknown,” Idgrod told him.  “If a mistake has been made we must attend to it.”

“Forgive me, Jarl, but no mistake has been made,” Falion almost snapped at Jarl Idgrod.  “Whatever is wrong with the swamp is either natural or carefully crafted and of long standing.”

“Of long standing?” Alexa asked, voice soft but somehow cutting through the raised voices in the hall.  “Would it be possible the marsh has been this way since the time of Ysgramor?”

“If you have something to add to our discussion,” the Jarl smiled, “then speak.”

“Talsgar the Elder saw similarities between the folk tales, in the Morthal region, of the ‘Pale Lady’ and the ancient records of a being called ‘Aumriel’,” Alexa informed them.  “It is said that the heirs of Ysgramor could not defeat Aumriel and were forced to seal her away instead…  The site of her binding would be nearby, would it not?”  She turned to Falion.  “Is it conceivable that some being might be capable of disrupting the non-cardinal points, or that her existence on this plane, and in this place, could be proof that an ongoing disruption is very, very, old?”

“Without knowing what this ‘Aumriel’ is, I couldn’t say for certain,” Falion replied.  “But the stories of the Pale Lady, in all likelihood, describe a wispmother. Wispmothers are denizens of Nirn not one of the Adjacent Places or Oblivion…” He paused for a moment. “Though a nearby wispmother might explain the nightmares many of Morthal’s inhabitants have been suffering of late, not just Joric.”

“Alright,” Alexa nodded once.  “Let's say, for the sake of argument, that ‘Ysgramor’s heirs’ sealed away a particularly powerful wispmother, somewhere in the vicinity of Morthal.  Where would they have bound her?”

“If she is still bound it would have to have been someplace not easily reached by treasure hunters or others that might disturb such a binding without knowing what it was,” Falion muttered, pondering the problem.  “Maybe deep underground?”

“Frostmere Crypt,” Gorm, the Jarl’s housecarl suddenly chimed in. “Someone’s been digging it out.”

“They’ve only been at it a couple of months,” Aslfur disagreed. “Joric’s been getting ‘lost’ for years.”

“Can’t hurt to check out,” Gorm grumbled.  “Idiots disturbing things best left alone.”

“How about Gorm and I go check out the crypt for any bound wispmothers,” Alexa suggested.  “Might as well deal with it, and the nightmares it’s creating, before it gets strong enough to start actually calling children to it.  You wizard types can continue discussing the disruption of non-cardinal points… or whatever.”

Gorm looked to the Jarl for permission.  She nodded once.  He grinned and hefted his warhammer. 

“This is insane,” Aslfur objected as Alexa turned to leave. “We don’t even really know if the boy is passing into one of the Adjacent Places.  All this is nothing more than conjecture!”

“Only a fool claims a thing impossible simply because he has never seen it,” his wife replied dismissively before turning her attention back to Falion.

The Moorside Inn was actually nicer, or at least cleaner, than Ondolemar had expected.  He was in the middle of composing a letter to a friend at the University of Summerset, to ‘suggest’ he take a field research position that would bring him to Morthal, when Alexa settled across the table from him.

“Run into any daedric princes while you were out?” Ondolemar asked without looking up.

“No.  But Falion was right.  There was a wispmother, bound to an altar, in an underground forest that was accessible only through the crypt.  It was kind of amazing and beautiful actually.  Anyway, with any luck, it was her call that was causing the locals to have such terrible nightmares.”

“And did your companion survive?”

“He did.  Though he may choose to move on from here after our little heart to heart about his attitude towards his Jarl and her children.”

Ondolemar gave her a startled look.  She shrugged slightly but offered nothing further.

“Was there something you wanted?” he asked.

“You mean other than to thank you for taking the time to look into this?” she smiled.  “No.  I am grateful.  I hadn’t expected it.”

“You tell me that a child is naturally passing into Lyg and expect me not to show interest?” Ondolemar asked archly.

“You can’t blame me for not knowing if your interests extend beyond stamping out heresy, Commander,” she countered with a laughing smile of her own.

She was flirting with him again, though whether that was her intention or just the way his social training told him to read her friendly demeanor, he still couldn’t be certain.  He squashed the sudden urge to find out.  “There are people in Alinor who would give a great deal for the chance to study such an unusual phenomenon,” he told her, with a slight smile. “I expect the gifts sent my way in the hopes of further information, and continuing updates, will be interesting,” he added dryly.

Alexa choked on her tea. “Surely a Thalmor Commander would not stoop to accepting bribes?”

“I only accept baked goods,” he replied, glancing up at her.  “As you know.”  Their eyes met, and he held his breath, waiting for her to acknowledge, in some way, the sudden tension in the air between them.

Her eyes dropped to the drink in her hands.  “Well, if you need me to taste test them for you, to make sure they’re not poisoned or terrible, you have but to ask.”

“And here I had thought hiring a Bosmer alchemist to test my food for me would be a poor notion,” he drawled, covering splendidly for the tension of the moment before.

“See, now that’s just culturally insensitive of you,” she reprimanded him.  “Unless it was your intention to give up eating anything but meat, which I would not suggest.  I would find it difficult to bribe you under those circumstances.”

Ondolemar chuckled. “Alright, Breton, this round is yours. Now let me get back to my letter.”

“Forgive me, I did not mean to distract you,” she purred before standing up and sauntering over to where an Orc was speaking to the innkeeper.

A moment later the Orc started in on the worst rendition of “Ragnar the Red” Ondolemar had ever heard. Which, given the general skill level of bards in Skyrim, was truly saying something.  He sent a glare in Alexa’s direction and she grinned wickedly at him before disappearing out into the night. 

He caught himself before he could smile foolishly in return and sighed wearily instead.  Oblivion take him, it really did seem it was past time to insert some professional distance into their relationship, even if he didn’t really want to.

Chapter Text

She had thought the ride from Morthal to Whiterun would be long enough to get over the lingering sensation of Ondolemar’s eyes on her face.  In the end, even the uncanny speed at which Arvak could run1, and the bite of snowflakes on her face, were only momentary distractions from the questions tumbling around in her head like a dog chasing its tail.

Her continuing interactions with the Thalmor Commander were not at all what she’d planned when she’d gone out of her way to be friendly to the Second Emissary.  Initially, she’d hoped to get a read on the man and maybe even find out what he knew about the status of Thalmor order for her death.2  What she’d discovered was… unexpected.  A Thalmor commander who had never sent anyone to Northwatch Keep; who believed, wholeheartedly, that his people could be a force of good in the world; and who seemed, beneath the offensive rhetoric, to be a nice – possibly even a good – person.  How, by all the daedra in Oblivion, had a person like him reached the rank of Emissary?

Family connections, she wondered, as she passed through Whiterun’s empty market.  Possibly.  A well-chosen lover or two?  He didn’t seem the type.  Something he’d accomplished previously?  That… seemed the most likely.  But what could he possibly have done that would result in his advanced rank, and deployment to Skyrim, that had been justifiable, from his point of view, in a way suppression of Talos worship was not?3

She paused, placing a hand on the trunk of the Gildergreen sapling – it had become almost a ritual for her every time she returned to Whiterun – and took a long slow breath to center herself.  Unprompted her mind provided an image of Ondolemar, from the previous evening in Morthal, a soft smile playing around his eyes, as he changed the tone of their exchange from her sincere attempt to thank him back to their usual banter.  His eyes betrayed him, she realized.  Even when he managed to pull off the ‘appropriate’ tone for a Thalmor Commander his eyes… she shook her head to clear it and started up the steps to Jorrvaskr.

Vilkas was standing in front of the fire pit, with his back to the door, when she entered.  He was, as was so often the case at this time of night, alone.

“Welcome back, shield sister,” he said, without turning to see who’d entered.

“Vilkas,” she acknowledged him as she moved towards the stairs.

“Can I get a moment of your time?” he asked, gently, as she passed by him.

She stopped and turned to face him.

Silence stretched between them as Vilkas continued to stare into the fire.

“Was there something you wanted to say?” she asked, finally.

“Yes,” he rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortably.  “I’m uncertain where to begin.”

Alexa crossed her arms and waited.

“The night with your mage friend… I wasn’t asleep,”4 he told her, finally.  “I overheard your conversation.”

“Alright,” she said, propping herself against the table.  “And?”

“You didn’t believe him, but he was right.  You were right too.  The tension between us has been disruptive.  I’d rather spending the night together didn’t make things worse.”

“If you overheard the conversation, then you are aware of where I stand on such things,” she pointed out.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” he admitted, finally turning to look at her.  “I realized leaving the way you did was not really about me.  It was about being on the run.  Not leaving anything behind you when you go.”

“And?” she asked.

“The Companions are a family.  We could be here for you – I could be here for you – even if it’s only for the short time you are with us.”  He reached out, cupping her face with one hand, and bushed a calloused thumb across her cheek.  “I’d like the chance…” he murmured, pulling away, and stepping back.

She shivered under the intensity of his gaze her skin burning with the memory of his touch.

“Give it some thought,” he suggested, before walking past her and disappearing into the sleeping quarters below.

She waited to hear the door close behind him before slumping to the floor with a low moan of frustration.

Chapter Text

“There you are, shield-sister!” Aela grinned, draping an arm over Alexa’s shoulders.  “I have a job in the Reach, I thought you could come along.  It’s about time we hunted together!  And about time you gave up on trying to hibernate.”

“But it’s so cold out still!” Alexa whined theatrically.

“I also thought you could introduce me to your man,” Aela added, dropping her voice suggestively.

Alexa didn’t miss the way Vilkas stiffened slightly and turned to look at them.  She sighed dramatically.  “How many times must I tell you, shield-sister, that Ido not have a man in the Reach?”

“We will see…”

Alexa sighed.  “Well I have a daedra heart to deliver to Markarth anyway.  Might as well make a trip out of it.”

“Are you really one of the five best healers in Tamriel?” Aela asked, two days later, as they followed the river, rather than the road, south from Dragons Bridge.  “Did Farkas get that right?”1

“I am the most gifted healer in Tamriel,” Alexa hedged slightly. “I have no doubt there are those that know more about the school of Restoration, or how various diseases and injuries affect the body, than I do.”

Aela gave her a look.

Alexa rolled her eyes and sighed.  “I am, without question, one of the five mostgifted mages in Tamriel and my initial school of interest was Restoration.”

“So you’re actually even stronger than Farkas indicated,” Aela clarified.

“Yes.  Or, I am likely to be, if I don’t die first.  Power or strength with magic is as much about experience as it is about natural talent.”

“School of initial interest?” Aela enquired with a sidelong glance.

“I have since picked up an interest in self-preservation,” Alexa explained, dryly.  “So knowledge of both Illusion and Alteration became necessary. As far as intellectual pursuits go Calcelmo, the court mage of Markarth, maybe the world expert on Dwemer history but, I have reason to believe, my understanding of tonal architecture far exceeds his.”2

“So why join the Companions rather than the College of Winterhold?” Aela asked, mystified.

“Because the College is the first place in Skyrim someone would look for a Grand Master mage.”

“Right,” Aela sighed. “Your family...”  There was a short, slightly awkward, silence.  “So, um, why did you come to Skyrim?”

“My study of the Dwemer brought me here,” Alexa replied.  “Some of their greatest works – not within Red Mountain itself – are believed to be here, in Skyrim.  I thought I’d try to find them and see what I could learn in the process.”

“You were looking for specific Dwemer ruins?” Aela asked, surprised.

“The Aetherium Forge and then the city of Fal Zhardum Din, specifically.  Though Mzulft was a fascinating surprise...”

“And did you find what you were looking for?”

“Yes, actually.  I found the Aetherium Forge about a year and a half ago – just before joining the Dawnguard.  My excitement over the discovery was probably responsible for my failure to notice the vampire lying in wait for me as I left the ruin… stupid really.”

Aela winced.  “And the other one?”

“I think I’ve found two entrances to it but the door mechanism requires a tonal key of a kind I’ve never seen before.  So far I haven’t been able to find a key and, as I have no examples of anything similar to work from, I’m not holding out a lot of hope that I’ll be able to fake one.”

“What if you never find one of these keys?” Aela asked.

Alexa shrugged. “There are a few places I haven’t had a chance to look yet.  If those don’t pan out I’ll probably give up and move on to Morrowind.  I’d like to see what’s left of Red Mountain for myself.”

“How long are you expecting to continue looking, before you move on?”

“A year, maybe,” Alexa replied.

“A lot can happen in that time, shield-sister,” Aela remarked.

“Don’t I know it,” Alexa laughed but sobered quickly.  “But if you’re trying to suggest that it’s a long enough time to make a relationship with Vilkas worthwhile, I’ll remind you that I am a mage and that he hates magic.  I don’t know what you’re definition of a healthy relationship is but mine doesn’t include a partner that hates, and fears, something I can’t change about myself.”

“He has reason for his fear, shield-sister.”

“I know,” Alexa replied. “Perhaps he should remember that the next time he decides to bed somebody.”

“Welcome Companions!” a voice called to them from a little way up the hillside, away from the river. “We have been expecting you!”

Meeko gave a happy bark of recognition and loped up the hill.

Aela gave Alexa a questioning look before lowering her bow.  Alexa just rolled her eyes and muttered, “I should have known,” under her breath.

Climbing to the first bench they found three Forsworn seated around a small fire.  Their leader, Aela noted critically, was a tall and beautifully built man in his early twenties.  Interesting, perhaps her shield-sister really did have a thing for masked madmen in furs.  Frankly she was beginning to see the appeal herself.

“Taran,” Alexa began, addressing the leader in a resigned tone, “this is my shield-sister Aela the Huntress.  Aela, this is my blood-brother Taran, Hunt Master of Hircine, thane of the Reach, and prince of the Forsworn.”

Taran grinned at them. “Hircine told me of your coming. We have awaited your arrival so that we might hunt the beast together.”

“Five seems like an awful lot of people for a bear that should still be hibernating,” Aela noted.

“Not a bear,” Taran told her.  “A werebear for whom the gift has become a curse.  His mind is lost and he can no longer take human form.  The only thing we can do for him now is send him to Hircine’s Hunting Grounds.”

“He’s living with a group of cave bears not far from here,” the oldest hunter in the group informed them. “We will probably have to kill them to get to him.”

Taran gave Alexa a measuring look.  “Unless, of course, you can help out, Beast Master?”

“If his mind is truly gone, then I doubt it,” she replied.  “Though I admit I’ve never tried.”

There had been a total of six bears in the cave, including the former werebear.  It had been a hard fight.  One of the Forsworn hunters had taken a rather grizzly swipe to the chest. It might even have been fatal without a skilled healer in the group.  Still the job was complete and Aela had a new bear pelt for her room.

“What’s that, over there?” Aela asked Alexa softly, as they left the cave, pointing to a strange, ghostly, figure standing beneath a tree further up the hill.

“Oh, hells no,” Alexa muttered when she saw what Aela was looking at.  “Uh-uh, no way.”

“Looks like someone would like a chat with us,” Taran murmured to Alexa.

“Asshole can take his leopard spotted, wolf-loving, ass somewhere else,” she hissed back.  “I’m not talking to him again!”

Taran grabbed Alexa’s arm as she turned to walk away.  “Why don’t you all go back to camp and we’ll catch up?” he suggested to the other hunters before pulling Alexa towards the line of trees.

Aela watched the Forsworn prince drag her shield-sister away, a small frown creasing her forehead. 

“Well done, hunters,” the apparition congratulated them.

“I am not one of your ‘hunters’!” Alexa snapped.  “I belong to Kynareth, marked, stamped, and sealed since I was twelve.”

The daedra turned his gaze on her.  “Auriel, Azura, Sheogorath, and Meridia have also laid claims upon you.  Why not myself as well?”

“Because I said ‘no’ to you. And, unless you’ve been taking lessons from Molag Bal, that’s supposed to mean something!”

“And it did.  I did not make you a lycanthrope, did I?  I have placed no claim upon your soul, Beast Master… for now.”

Before she could respond Taran wrapped his arm around her head and covered her mouth with his hand. “Was there something you needed, your highness?”

“I thought to relay a warning to the Beast Master,” the apparition informed him.  “Those that once hunted her have learned she is not truly dead.”

“How?” Taren enquired.

“They finally asked one of their informants the right questions,” the daedra answered.  “Though it will take some time for the answers to make it to the right people.”

“Hoping that, with enough warning, I might turn the tables on them, prince?” Alexa asked when Taran took his hand off her mouth so that she could respond.

Hircine grinned displaying teeth that were more wolf than human even as his form began to fade.  “I shall enjoy watching you hunt, Sikendra. As always.”

“That… doesn’t sound good,” Taran commented, after the daedric prince had fully disappeared and Alexa’s bout of creative profanity had come to an end.

“It’s not,” she sighed tiredly.  “Seems like I’ll be leaving for Morrowind somewhat sooner than I was planning.”

“Why’d he call you Sikendra?”

“Because it’s my name. My real name.  Sikendra d’Arthe if you want the whole thing.  Alexa’s a diminutive form… a nickname of sorts.3  Only a fool continues to use their real name while on the run.  Don’t… don’t tell anyone, please.”

“I won’t,” he assured her. “It’s pretty though.”

“Thanks,” she sighed, scrubbing tiredly at her face, and started down the hill.

“Hey, there is something I’ve been meaning to ask you when we weren’t surrounded by other people.”

She stopped and looked back over her shoulder at him.  “Yes?”

“Why, given the feelings you’ve expressed about the Thalmor, did you introduce me to the one in Markarth?”

“The Thalmor are the single most powerful political faction in Tamriel,” she told him.  “To act anywhere, without taking them into account, would be foolish.  Especially when they are quartered in the same city you seek to influence.  Additionally the Thalmor in Skyrim, and elsewhere, keep track of ‘disruptive’ influences.  While the Forsworn are certainly already on their list of factions whose rebellious natures are to be subtly cultivated, and influenced, it was unlikely, at the time, that enough was known about individual Forsworn, outside of Markarth, for you to have been named.  I introduced you in the belief that, when you do make it on to said list, it would be best to already have a passing, positive, acquaintance with the Thalmor’s highest ranking, local, representative.”

“Is that why you’re so well acquainted with him, Grand Master?”

She shrugged noncommittally. “The Commander is something of an intellectual puzzle for me.  He is brilliant and devoted to his people, yet he has never once ordered the arrest of a person of political prominence or personally forwarded a prisoner to the Thalmor prison at Northwatch Keep.”

“You mean he’s bad at his job,” Taran stated.

“Not at all.  Rather it makes me wonder what his job actually is. Or what he thinks it is.”

“That’s… troubling,” Taran admitted.  “Any suggestions on how to handle him?”

“The Commander’s besting sin is pride,” she told him, after a moment’s thought.  “Which means you should avoid ever making him appear foolish. It also means, once given, he is unlikely to break his word, even to a non-elf.  That may be useful to you at some point.  His most dangerous character traits, from your point of view, are that he has a curious mind, is relatively observant, and is frequently bored.”

“Meaning he as a lot of time to analyze anything he sees or hears,” Taran summarized.

She nodded.  “While you should assume he already knows who you are, and has a good guess as to what you’re trying to achieve, it would probably be best to pretend otherwise for as long as he continues to do so.”

“So follow his lead for now?”

“For now,” she agreed.

“Does he know who you are?” Taran asked her.

“No.  But I am a far more experienced liar than you are.  I have also placed a great deal more distance between myself, and the portions of life I’m attempting to keep hidden, than you have. You, however, now know enough about me to endanger us both.  You should keep that in mind.”

“What’s the story there?” Aela asked, pulling the older Forsworn hunter aside.

The man glanced in the direction she’d indicated to see that Taran and Alexa were walking back to camp together.  “No story I know of,” he answered, and then gave it some thought.  “At least, not like that.  Not saying he wouldn’t like there to be but she’s been pretty clear that the life of the Forsworn isn’t for her, even if she is his blood-sister.”

Aela raised an eyebrow at that.

The man shrugged.  “The last time she visited she got into an argument with a hagraven that nearly destroyed the camp.”

Aela smiled slightly. “That sounds like her.  Why’d he make her his blood-sister?”

“I assume because she’s a Beast Master.”

“What’s a Beast Master?”

The hunter gave her a startled look.  “You don’t know?”

Aela gave him a long, level, stare in return.

“Look,” he began, scrubbing at his scalp with one hand, “the cult of Prince Hircine, at least among the Forsworn, models itself after a grand hunt.  The titles – and powers that go with them – are given by Hircine himself. Hunt Masters lead the hunt and can summon His man, mer, and beastfolk cultists to participate.  A Hound Master is like a Hunt Master for werewolves and is, usually, a werewolf themselves.  Beast Masters4 though… it’s a very rare title.  They are granted stewardship overall man-beasts.  They protect and care for any lycanthropes they come across and bring issues regarding them to the attention of the Hunt.  It is also said that they can command lycanthropes as if they were Hircine himself.”

“And Alexa is one of these Beast Masters?” Aela asked, carefully, a chill running down her spine.

“So I’m told.  Though I’ve never heard of one that wasn’t also a member of the Glenmoril.”

“And the title can only be bestowed by Hircine himself?”

“In order to gain such a station one offers oneself to Hircine, on his summoning day, as quarry,” the hunter told her.  “The longer the hunt lasts the greater the boon.  If you survive.”

“And Alexa went through that willingly?” Aela demanded, surprised.

“Don’t know,” the hunter shrugged.  “You’d have to ask her.”

“So… You’ve actually met Hircine,” Aela began, conversationally, the next morning, as they headed south along the road to Markarth.

“I have,” Alexa answered, shortly.

“What’s he like?  In person, I mean.”

“Pretty average, for a daedra, I guess.  Not the worst but…” Alexa paused trying to think of a tactful way of putting it. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience and really didn’t go the way I was hoping it would.”

“Oh.”  Aela was silent for a little before beginning again.  “So, after you learned what we are, why didn’t you tell us about you?”

“I don’t know,” Alexa sighed.  “It raised questions for me about whether the fact that I am a Beast Master had somehow influenced Farkas’ willingness to change in front of me or even, possibly, driven him to react in a more extreme manner to a threat to my life.  Both possibilities strike me as dangerous.  It also made me wonder if being a Beast Master was, somehow, responsible for the tension with Vilkas.”

“Can you really command werewolves as if we were hunting dogs?” Aela enquired.

“I… I don’t know,” Alexa replied carefully.  “Hircine wasn’t clear on the scope of the abilities he ‘gifted’ me with and, thus far, I’ve only ever used it for simple commands.  I’m… not comfortable with the idea of depriving someone of their free will.”

“What kind of commands, shield-sister?” Aela asked, her voice low and a little dangerous.

“Well, the first time, I didn’t even know I was doing it.  It was in Dustmann’s Cairn.  I was trapped behind a gate and Farkas was in werewolf form just staring at me through the bars and grinning like an idiot.  So I ordered him to find the lever and let me out.  I then, almost immediately, found it necessary to order him to put his armor back on.”

Despite herself Aela snorted with laughter at that.  “Didn’t like seeing him naked shield-sister?” she smirked.

“Didn’t like the idea of more Silver Hand showing up while he wasn’t wearing his armor,” Alexa grumbled.

“You know,” Aela began with a sly smile.  “Skjor says that when Farkas was little he would often refuse to wear clothing unless he was cold.”

“But he’s a Nord...” Alexa objected.

“That he is, shield-sister,” Aela agreed in an appreciative tone.  “I’m also told that there is a strong family resemblance,” she leered.

Alexa just rolled her eyes in response, refusing to dignify that comment with any sort of answer.

Aela laughed in delight before sobering again.  “And how much is the fact that you’re a Beast Master playing into your decision to keep Vilkas at arm’s length?”

Alexa frowned at her. “You know, it strikes me as a little weird that I’m the only person who seems to have a problem with the idea of me entering into a relationship with someone who treated me the way he did when I first arrived.”

Aela cocked her head at that.  “Surely you realize, by now, that his initial reaction to you was based on the fear that you might be a member of the Silver Hand or that, as a mage, you would be able to discover the Circle’s secret and expose us?  Since you clearly aren’t and haven’t done so, it only makes sense that his other, obvious, feelings…” Aela’s voice trailed off, as she face-palmed.  “You’re not a werewolf,” she groaned.

“I’m not?” Alexa gasped in contrived dismay.  “How long have you known?”

“No, I mean… you don’t know,” Aela explained obtusely.  “You can’t tell.”

Alexa rolled her eyes. “Tell what, Aela?”

“As werewolves, the Circle, we can hear the way his heart races, and breath quickens, when he’s near you.  Not to mention the way you’ve begun to react to his attention.  We don’t have a problem with the change in your relationship because we’ve known for months that it was headed that way.”

Alexa blinked at her, stupefied.  “And the fact that I can’t stay doesn’t bother you?” she demanded.

“Why should it?” Aela asked. “You’d have to be a werewolf to be his wolf-spirit’s life-mate, which you’re not, so, when you leave, no harm done, right?  And I believe I’ve always encouraged you to make friends with ‘little Vilkas’.”

Alexa rolled her eyes again. 

Aela stopped in front of her and took Alexa by the shoulders.  “Seriously.  You don’t need to take the rest of the Companion’s tender feelings into consideration when deciding to fuck Vilkas.  In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the more regularly you do so, the better.  Just… remember that we all sleep under the same roof and some of us have unusually acute hearing.”  She grinned, wolfishly, and pinched Alexa’s chin.  “Now that we’ve cleared all that up, what’s in Markarth?”

Chapter Text

Aela knew the moment the Justiciar noticed her shield-sister.  She heard the slight catch in his breath and the change in his footfalls as he altered course, ever so slightly, to pass by where they stood. As he drew near Aela could hear his heart rate quicken.  The elf, she realized with amusement, was pleased, perhaps even excited, to see them. 

“There are few pleasures in life as fine as your company,” the elf began, addressing Alexa, with the faintest ghost of a smile.

Smooth, Aela acknowledged, and handsome tooNo wonder she comes out here all the time. It was then that Aela noticed the change in Alexa.  Her shield-sister had straightened, shoulders down, head held high, poised, the younger woman had somehow settled into her surroundings becoming their focus as if she were the center point of a tableau.  When she spoke her voice took on an unfamiliar singsong lilt as she gestured gracefully first to the elf and then to Aela in what was clearly some sort of prescribed motion. 

“Commander,” Alexa began, addressing the elf.  “Please allow me to introduce Aela the Huntress, of the Companions in Whiterun.” Alexa turned slightly to address Aela. “Shield-sister, may I introduce to you Ondolemar of the Thalmor, Second Emissary and Commander of the Justiciars in Skyrim,” Alexa finished with a small hand flourish.

“It is my pleasure to meet a shield-sister of my dear friend,” the elf replied bowing slightly and holding out his hand to Aela with the exact flourish Alexa had just used.

Alexa gave Ondolemar a death glare before taking Aela’s right hand and placing it in his.

“My heart is gladdened by meeting any who call my shield-sister friend,” Alexa deadpanned, speaking for Aela while still glaring at Ondolemar. 

“What is going on here?” Aela hissed to Alexa.  Clearly whatever this was Alexa had not meant for it to continue beyond the initial exchange.

“Shush,” the Thalmor commander reprimanded her lightly, his lips twitching slightly with amusement. “We are being introduced in the style of the Imperial Court.”

“You’re not funny, you know that, right?” Alexa asked acidly.

“I know.  But you more than make up for my deficiency,” he replied, his voice a little smug.  “I believe you were introducing me to your friend?”

“There’s more to this?” Aela demanded incredulously.

“Much more, my henna-haired huntress,” Ondolemar replied casually.

Alexa rolled her eyes at the alliteration.  “Yes, well, I think I’ll skip straight to introducing a topic of conversation you have in common.  I chose your love of sweet things.”  She removed a glass jar from her pack on the table and held it up for them both to see. “Think fast!” she ordered and then tossed the jar into the air.

Ondolemar, to Aela’s surprise, simply reached out and caught it.  “I don’t recall ‘think fast’ as being part of the protocol,” he mused.

“An innovation from somewhat after your time,” Alexa informed him coolly.  “I believe it was introduced by Tiber Septim himself.”

That actually caused one of the Justiciar’s guards to choke back laughter.  Ondolemar raised an eyebrow at Alexa, ignoring his guard’s breach of protocol.  “I suppose I deserved that.  I will give you a seven out of ten.”


“Your grade.  While your introduction displayed technical proficiency with the form I feel your performance lacked sincerity.  Also, it should be noted that food is never an appropriate introductory topic.”

“Thanks grandma,” Alexa grumbled.

Ondolemar looked down at the jar in his hands.  “Candied canticle flowers?” he asked in surprise.

“Yes, the pink ones though. The red don’t grow this far north…” Alexa’s explanation trailed off as Ondolemar took possession of her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist.

“You are a goddess,” Ondolemar told her with a genuine smile.

That finally did it. Aela heard Alexa’s heart flutter.

Alright, Aela admitted to herself, the mer was damn sexy when he smiled.  Too bad he seemed to know it.

“Should I have someone make us tea or are you ladies merely passing through?”

“Just passing through,” Alexa replied.  “We had a delivery for the keep’s smith.”

“I see.  Then I shall not detain you further.  Travel safely, Companions.”  He bowed slightly to them both.

“Seems I’m not the only one to take liberties with protocol,” Alexa grumbled under her breath as they walked away.

Aela gave Alexa a questioning look.

“While Imperial protocol allows for a kiss to the fingers the inside of the wrist would be considered highly inappropriate,” Alexa explained.

Really?  Aela glanced back over her shoulder. 

The elf was still watching them. 

She gave him a saucy smile before wrapping one arm around Alexa’s waist.  “Play along,” Aela whispered as she pulled her surprised shield-sister in for a kiss.

“What in Oblivion was that about?” Alexa demanded as they settled into their room at the Silver-Blood Inn about twenty minutes later.

“Just wanted to see how the Justiciar would react.  Incidentally, you could have a man in the Reach.”

“You really think I’d do well as the secret lover of a man who could never publicly acknowledge our relationship?” Alexa snorted.

“If you’re not interested in the elf, why the present?” Aela enquired.  “I don’t even know where you’d get canticle flowers at this time of year.”

“I got them from an Ancestor Glade near Falkreath,” Alexa replied flopping down on her bed and then wincing as her head hit rock a little harder than she’d expected.  “Seasons don’t really seem to apply there.  As to why… it occurred to me, while I was with the Dawnguard, that my various activities traveling around Skyrim were strange enough they might draw attention.  Given my situation with the Thalmor in Cyrodiil and High Rock, I figured being friendly with the head of the Justiciars in Skyrim would mean that, if the Thalmor found me, I might just see them coming.”

“Oh I’m sure you’ll be given the opportunity to see one of them cuming, sister,” Aela smirked.1

Alexa groaned as Aela laughed.

Chapter Text

Vilkas, it seemed, was responding to her failure to immediately take him up on his offer by spending a great deal of time with Ria.  As a result, the Imperial girl was now walking around in a rose-colored haze that was driving both Aela and Njada insane.  Vilkas had even gone so far as to take Ria out with him, and Farkas, on their latest dangerous beast hunt… a situation that had Athis grumbling about Ria not being nearly ready for something like that yet. It seemed Aela was also, far more quietly, of the same opinion.  Alexa didn’t know, or particularly care, either way, and was just happy to have had two full days in Whiterun in which she wasn’t avoiding someone.  Yes, she’d admit, it wasn’t the most adult way to handle the situation but Vilkas wasn’t exactly making things easy.

Aela’s sudden alertness drew Alexa’s attention to the doors a scant second before they opened.  Alexa took one look at the group stumbling in and, throwing caution to the wind, immediately cast Grand Heal.  Ria staggered as the spell hit her, and whimpered in relief. “Spriggans, three of them!” she sobbed as she sank to the floor.  “Farkas said not to take them to Danica but to bring them here?”

“Tilma, we’re going to need a lot of hot water,” Alexa called out.  “Everyone else, clear and clean two tables and get Farkas and Vilkas out of their armor.” Alexa looked around her.  “Tovar, I need my chest from downstairs.  Not the one with all the books, the other one!” The man ran to comply as Alexa moved around the table to get a better look at the three injured Companions. 

Ria was the least hurt of the group and the only one who could still walk.  “Athis, take Ria to Danica,now. And ask Danica to come here as quickly as possible,” she ordered the dark elf.  He nodded and slung an arm around Ria’s waist, practically hauling her out the door.

Tables cleared the Companions took the twins from the city guards, Kodlak thanking them graciously while herding them quickly out the door.  Njada and Vignar began stripping Farkas, while Eorlund held him upright; Aela and Skjor were doing the same with Vilkas.

Farkas’ wounds were severe and, from the extent of them, deadly if left untreated for much longer. Vilkas was worse off, unconscious, and already very near death.  She pulled an empty black soul gem out of her pack, still by the door where she’d left it earlier in the evening, and partially soul-trapped Vilkas.  Then she cast Sleep on both brothers.

“This is too much damage to heal with just magic,” she told Kodlak as she dug through her pack for her alchemy journal and ingredients bag. 

He nodded.  “Get them on the tables, and get their wounds cleaned, so our resident healer can get a better look,” he ordered briskly.  “Aela, Tilma, and Skjor may stay to help. Everyone else, find someplace else to be.”

Tovar held her chest of things out to her.  “Where do you want this, before I go?” he asked, his voice tight with worry.

“On the chair there, will do nicely.  Thank you Tovar.”

He nodded, clapping her on the shoulder encouragingly, as he left.

As Aela and Tilma set about cleaning the twin’s wounds Alexa flipped through her journal quickly, marking pages by turning down the corners and penciling in the number of potions she’d need.  “Skjor, please take these to Arcadia.  Tell her I need the potions from the pages I’ve marked, in the number requested. Ingredients are in the bag.  She may pay herself from what is left over or we can settle up later.”  He nodded and disappeared out the door.

“I’m going to need a cotton, or linen, flat sheet and a wool blanket.  Both need to be large enough wrap all of Vilkas in,” Alexa announced to the room as she pulled a heavily embroidered full-length skirt and matching, sleeveless, shirt, heavily enchanted belt, necklace, and circlet out of the chest.

“I will get those,” Kodlak informed her, hurrying off to the sleeping quarters.

“They probably won’t survive what I’m going to do to them.  So don’t bring the sheets off anyone’s bed!” she called after him as she stripped out of her armor and redressed quickly; pinning her already braided hair to the base of her skull with a few vicious twists.

She cast Grand Heal again to buy a little more time.  And then Kodlak was back with the sheets.  “Give me the flat sheet and take the blanket outside and soak it in water. Then wring it out.  Aela, go with him.  I need it wet the whole way through but not dripping.  Bring more water back with you.”

Once Vilkas was wrapped, first in the dry cotton sheet and then in the wet wool blanket, Alexa used one of her few destruction spells – Frostbite – to freeze the water in the blanket and hoped the dry sheet between Vilkas and the wet blanket would be enough to protect his skin from contact with the ice.  That he was a Nord would clearly help.  Asleep, chilled, and partially soul-trapped, Vilkas should now keep long enough for Danica to arrive and take over care of Farkas.  What she had done would make healing Vilkas more difficult, in the end, but hopefully nothing she couldn’t handle.  She cast Grand Heal again before finally turning her attention to Farkas.  As she did so she caught Kodlak watching her. 

“I have never seen a healer freeze a living body before,” he told her solemnly.

“He is not living,” she answered, casting Candlelight to help her see Farkas’ wounds more clearly. “He was already near death when they arrived.”  Tilma, unsurprisingly, had done a very professional job of cleaning Farkas’ wounds. “I have trapped him between life and death.  It is not a simple thing and if left too long it could become permanent.” 

She unrolled her surgical implements and used a mild flame spell to sterilize the thin, curved, needle she chose.  “But I could not do what is needed to stabilize Vilkas – by the usual means – in time to save Farkas,” she continued to explain as she threaded her needle with fine silk thread.  “And, not knowing how long it would take Danica to get here, I took the risk.”  She gestured for Aela to hold the largest of Farkas’ wounds shut.  “I have bought us time but Farkas and Vilkas both must be stabilized quickly or we will lose them.”  She rearranged the huntress’ hands slightly to more evenly align the torn edges of his wound.

“And you are certain you can manage this?” Kodlak asked.

“I was twelve the first time I attempted this procedure,” she told him.  “The patient suffered no ill-effects.”

Tilma glared at him as she stood by with a clean rag to sop up Farkas’ blood so that Alexa could continue to see what she was doing.  “It’s a little late to be questioning the healer now,” she admonished him.

The door banged and Skjor was back, breathing heavily, a large basket of potions in his hands. “This is what Arcadia had on hand,” Skjor announced, placing the basket on the table between Farkas and Vilkas. “She says she’ll bring the rest up when she’s done making them.”

“Thank you,” Alexa murmured choosing a lock-picking potion to steady her hands - it had been some time since she’d done anything like this - and a potion of vigor.  It was going to be a long night there was no point getting tired at the outset.

Then she began to sew and did not speak again until the last of Farkas’ wounds were shut.  She dropped her needle into a bowl of vinegar Tilma had provided and accepted a wet rag from Kodlak to wipe Farkas’ blood from her hands.  She glanced worriedly at Vilkas.  “Does anyone know where Danica is?” she asked, reaching for Arcadia’s basket again.

“Probably assuming Ria is the worst hurt,” Skjor muttered.  “I’ll see if I can’t hurry her along.”

Alexa selected another regenerate stamina potion and a fortify restoration potion and downed them both wincing at the combined flavors.  She then placed her hands on Farkas’ chest and began the process of curing the bone break fever and rockjoint that would complicate setting his bones or using magic to finish healing his wounds.  His werewolf immune system would have dealt with both in under a day, but right now they didn’t have the time to wait.  When she opened her eyes again Danica was standing across from her an expression of awe in her eyes.

“Grand Master,” Danica whispered, bowing low.

“Do you think you can take over Farkas while I see to Vilkas?” Alexa asked, cutting Danica off before she could say anything else.

“You’ve stitched his wounds and cured his fever?” the other woman asked.

Alexa nodded.  “He has several broken bones I have not yet set, but they, and his wounds, should respond to magic now.”  She pulled a poison of weakness to magic out of Arcadia’s basket. “I would still suggest you dose him with this first.  I’ve noticed his innate magic resistance is unusually high, for a Nord.”  Probably because he’s a werewolf, she thought to herself.  “I’ve cast a sleep spell on him.  It should last a while longer.  It might be best to set his bones before he wakes.  Feel free to make use of the potions.  More are coming.”

Danica nodded and called Skjor over to help her set Farkas’ broken bones.  Alexa turned her attention to Vilkas.

Partially soul trapped meant Vilkas was, for all intents and purposes, partially undead.  Healing magic didn’t work on the undead.  That meant each healing spell she used, before returning his soul to his body, would be only partially effective.  Alexa grimaced and took a magicka restoration potion. She was about to attempt the same thing that had garnered her the title of Grand Master (sort of1) only this time she understood the risks.

“Broken bones first, I think,” she said to Aela.  “He won’t start bleeding again until he’s thawed a bit and we shouldn’t try to stich his wounds until his flesh is a bit more malleable.”

The Huntress swallowed and stepped up to the table.

It was two hours later, Vilkas’ bones had been set, wounds stitched, the diseases he’d caught from the sabrecat that mauled him had been eradicated from his bloodstream, and Alexa had paused to cast another sleep spell on Vilkas, and take a few more potions, when Farkas suddenly woke.  He sat up so fast he actually bashed heads with Danica.

He looked around him frantically until he saw Vilkas.  “How is he?” Farkas demanded hoarsely.

“Not out of trouble yet,” Alexa replied, without looking up.  She hadn’t returned Vilkas’ soul yet and was beginning to worry.  The Ideal Masters didn’t approve of this sort of thing and, if they noticed, might make his soul difficult to retrieve.  Every minute was another minute in which they might catch on and she didn’t fancy making a trip to the Soul Cairn to get him back it if they did. 

“Come on, pup,” Skjor said to Farkas.  “Let's get you downstairs.”

“No,” Farkas shook his head. “I’m not leaving.”

“I understand that you do not wish to leave your brother,” Alexa responded, finally looking towards him. “And you may stay until he wakes, but first you will let Skjor take you downstairs.  You will bathe, eat, dress, and take the potions Danica has for you and you will make your report to Kodlak on how this happened.  Only after you have done those things will you be allowed back upstairs and then only upon the condition that you do exactly as you are told, do not ask questions, and do not interfere. Do you understand?”

Farkas gave her a mulish look.

“Do you understand?” she asked, dropping into command tone.

Alexa noticed every member of the Circle stiffen slightly at the sound of it.  He swallowed hard and nodded a few times before trying to stand. He stumbled, his legs not yet able to take his full weight.

Skjor wrapped an arm around Farkas’ waist.  “Let me help you,” the older man muttered. 

Kodlak was giving her another measuring look.  “Someday you’re going to have to tell me how you do that,” he told her.

“Someday,” she agreed, as she turned back to Vilkas.  “But not today.”

He was warm.  Strange… he’d been so cold for such a long time…

Someone was holding his hand… Farkas, from the feel of it. 

There was also a hand on his chest…  that hand was smaller and there was a slow, steady, warmth – different from the fire heating one side of him – radiating out from it and suffusing his body. 

A healing spell?  They had made it to a healer then.  That was good.

When Vilkas woke fully it was to find Farkas asleep, his head resting on the table near Vilkas’ knees, and his right hand gripping Vilkas’ as if afraid to let go.  Vilkas also noted that his brother’s left arm was wrapped around Alexa’s waist, much like a child clutching a favorite stuffed toy, his shoulder and chest effectively pinning her against the table Vilkas was lying on.

Alexa smiled tiredly down at him.  “Welcome back.”

“I love you,” Vilkas whispered, reaching up to brush away the strand of hair obscuring her face. Instead his hand, apparently of its own free will, wrapped around the back of her head and pulled her down into a kiss.

Danica was talking softly to Kodlak.  “She needs rest and will probably be lethargic for a day or two after she wakes.  She took far too many potions last night and used more magic, frankly, than could have been mustered by the rest of Whiterun’s magic users combined.  Her body will need to recuperate naturally from the strain. Still, the twins are both alive and, given that they can be prevented from doing anything stupid for a week or two, should make full recoveries.”

“Thank you, Danica. We are, as always, in your debt.”

“Nonsense,” the woman told him tartly.  “Last night I got to watch the greatest healer in all Tamriel work.  I will be back regularly to check on her, and the twins of course.”

Vilkas leaned unsteadily against the doorframe.

“Up already, I see,” Kodlak smiled at him.

“You are very lucky to be alive, young man,” Danica told him seriously.  “I don’t think I’d have been able to save you.”

“It was really that bad?”

“Bad enough she had to soul-trap you to keep your spirit from moving on,” Danica informed him.  “I’d love to know how she did that…”

“Is Alexa really…?”

“The greatest healer in Tamriel?” Danica smiled.  “Yes. Marked by Kynareth herself.  Now I really must go and make sure Jenssen has Ria in hand.”

“Alexa’s asleep in Aela’s room,” Kodlak told him gently.  “Danica believes she may sleep for a full day.”

Vilkas nodded, it was taking all the energy he had just to stand there.

“Go back to bed boy,” Kodlak instructed kindly.  “I’ll have Tilma bring you soup and the potions Danica left for you.”

Vilkas nodded again.  He didn’t have the strength to do anything else.

Chapter Text

Alexa was sitting on the roof of the Lunar Forge drawing in her journal.  The early spring sun, between showers, was pleasant and the roof got her high enough off the ground that she didn’t have to worry about the local wildlife trying to eat her.  

She and Athis had cleared the Silent Moons encampment for the Jarl three days earlier.  Reading the journal they’d found, Notes on the Lunar Forge, had piqued her interest enough that she’d returned, with some supplies, and the intention of staying a few days to study the ruin.  She’d left Meeko with Tilma, in Whiterun, as the dog showed an unfortunate tendency to go bear baiting when she wasn’t paying attention to him.

Earlier she’d climbed to the top of the curtain wall, behind the forge, to get a good look at the upper part of the complex.  The resulting view had left her stunned.  The crescent-shaped curtain wall, with the dome that housed the forge nestled inside it, had, clearly, been constructed to symbolize a full alignment of Masser and Secunda.1  That, at least, seemed to verify the bandit leader’s identification of this place as the “Lunar Forge”.

Alexa gnawed absently on her lower lip as she considered her sketch of the site from the back wall.  “Which would make the forge itself, viewed through the circular hole in the dome above it, a representation of the ‘Dead Moon’?” she asked aloud, glancing over her shoulder down into the fiery pit below. 

She frowned a little in consideration.  That was odd as well.  The fire of the forge had not been fed in the three days since the bandits were driven out. But it still burned...  Well, at least it indicated the forge was magical in some way.  She turned back to facing the stairs and began work on a sketch of the site from the top of the stairs.

The lower baily was interesting as well.  Had it been symbolic or functional,2 she wondered.  And the tower… No.  Towers (two of them, though the western one was now a mound of rubble), along with the little cupola building just off center from the stairs.  Maybe a gatehouse?  Fortified then, she decided making the alterations to the rough site map she was compiling on the next page.

She glanced out over the plane.  There was no further evidence of either worked stone or ground clearing that she could see from here so the forge had been fortified with no attached city.  No city meant no population to guard but also no population to serve as guards.  Yet the presence of towers suggested the walls were not just meant as delineation between the area belonging to the forge and that which belonged to the outside world.  The guards, then, must have come from somewhere else.  Whiterun?  If so the forge must have, at some point, been much more obviously magical to warrant all the work to maintain a presence here.  Especially since Whiterun already had the Skyforge.  Unless the forge had been a fortified religious site and its walls had been manned by warrior priests?  Alexa paused in her sketching. 

What did she know about the ancient Nord pantheon?  Not a lot of makers and builders among them, that was certain.  The Nords theological view of the world, if the books she’d read on the subject were to be believed, was damn near parasitic.  In some ways Nords truly did seem to embody the entropic principle more fully even than the other races of men.  She considered that thought with her head tipped to one side.  It would be interesting to know if their existence in Atmora had been any different.

It was a little depressing how much she actually missed Marcurio at times like this.  But she wasn’t sending to Riften, much less paying his fee, just to have someone to bounce ideas off of during the exploration of a single, relatively small, site.  Did Ondolemar know anything about the ancient history of Skyrim, she wondered idly.  It would certainly be interesting to find out.

Alexa flipped back to her sketch from the back wall for a moment.  Maybe she was reading too much into the design.  Given that the Khajiit were the only modern people to claim there even was a third moon and the ruin was obviously ancient Nordic in origin. 

That doesn’t mean the forge was of Nordic origin, she argued with herself.  The Nordic site could have been built around a forge that already existed, as was said to have happened with the Skyforge. 

Okay, so if both forges were pre-Ysgramorian then what would that indicate?  

She looked towards Whiterun. 

One forge, seemingly, dedicated to Shor and a second clearly dedicated to Kyne and in such close proximity…

Dedicated to or created by? she wondered. 

According to Varieties of Faith in the Empire, Atmoran myth depicted Shor as a bloodthirsty warrior king who led the Nords to victory over their Aldmeri oppressors over and over again until he was finally killed.  Those wars, the Ehlnofey wars, had been fought in Tamriel during the Dawn Era. If the forge had existed for that long then it…

“You should pay more attention to your surroundings, shield-sister,” a familiar voice informed Alexa from somewhere beneath her feet.

Craning her neck Alexa peered over the edge of the roof and into Vilkas’ upturned face.  “I’m high enough up to be safe from anything but giants,” she told him.

“Or someone with a bow,” he pointed out, looking around him.

She rolled her eyes at that. “Was there something you needed, shield-brother?”

“Farkas said I might find you here,” Vilkas explained.  “He said you were interested in something you found when you and Athis cleared out the bandits.  Tilma thought you might need some food.”

“Did she now?” Alexa smiled, not believing a word of it.

“Why are you smirking?” he demanded with a small smile of his own.

She shook her head. “Just realized that you and your brother are more alike than some might think.”

“How so?” he asked, climbing the same debris pile she had to reach the roof she was sitting on.

“You’re both surprisingly thoughtful of others.  You just hide it better.”  She moved over to allow him some space on the part of the roof that looked down the stairs and out over the plane.

“I may have remembered something you once said about your mage friend we rescued and thought that you might need someone to talk to about whatever you found out here,” he admitted settling beside her.  “So… what have you found?”

She waved a hand at the forge behind them.  “This is, apparently, something called the ‘Lunar Forge’,” she told him.  “The bandit leader thought it was capable of imbuing the weapons forged here with an intrinsic enchantment.  It’s a fascinating concept: a forge that automatically enchants the items created in it without needing soul-energy or the smith needing to know anything about magic.”

“And you believe this bandit leader?”

She shrugged slightly. “Either way, it’s an odd enough location to be worth a day or two of my time.  Though I think, if he’s right about the magic being tied to the moons, we’d have to wait for a complete alignment to test the theory.”

“Inconvenient,” Vilkas noted, offering her an apple from the basket Tilma had sent with him.

“Indeed,” she agreed, accepting the apple.  “I’ll have to check an almanac, when I get back to Jorrvaskr, to see when the next full alignment is.”

“I don’t think it’s for another several years,” Vilkas offered.

“Never know, we might get lucky,” she suggested, frowning suddenly as something occurred to her.  “You once said that you’re an expert on the history of the Companions.  Do you know any early history relating to the plane around Whiterun?”

“Our histories don’t say much about it,” he told her.  “Just that when the Companions arrived they found it empty because the elves were afraid to live here.  It is said the Skyforge was already here and older than even the elves could remember and that they believed it to be some remnant of the god's efforts here before the death of Shor.”

“I wonder…” she whispered glancing back towards Whiterun again.  “Could the two forges really be relics of the Ehlnofey Wars?”

Vilkas paused in the middle of opening a bottle of ale.  “Is that possible?”

“If it is, this plane could be where the Wandering Ehlnofey fought the Old Ehlnofey over and over again until Lorkhan was killed and the Wandering Ehlnofey were forced to leave Tamriel.”

“What would that mean?” he asked, frowning slightly as he put the cork he was holding aside.

She shrugged.  “That the Skyforge and the Lunar Forge might be, quite literally, forges built by Kyne and Shor.  Though what that would mean, beyond being an interesting fact, I don’t know.”

“Huh,” Vilkas commented, noncommittally, and took a sip of his ale.

“Speaking of which, why have the Nords given up the worship of Shor?” she asked him.  “You still believe in Sovngarde – Shor’s domain – but do not maintain shrines for him.  It seems odd.”

Vilkas shrugged slightly. “I don’t know.  Maybe he’s been replaced by Talos like Kyne with Kynareth? Or, maybe it just wasn’t useful to pray to a dead god?”

“But no one even knows what Talos’ spheres of influence are!” she objected.3

He chuckled at her indignation.  “What could be more useful than a god that might be good for anything?” he laughed.

“Fine,” she sighed in aggravation.  “I should have known better than to ask.” 

Vilkas chuckled again shaking his head at her.  “So what about this forge grabbed your attention?”

Alexa was quiet for a moment before she spoke.  “You ever look at something apparently insignificant and wonder what it means?” she asked him.  “Or get the feeling something is recurring in your life far more frequently than it should?”

“Usually when that happens I find it best to just go talk with the person who’s on my mind,” he told her, his eyes fixed on her face.

She laughed at that. “Well when you see Jode and Jone, do let them know I’d like a word.”

“The moons?” he asked, surprised.

She nodded.  “Ever since I hunted the white stag the moons have been a recurring motif in my ‘adventures’.  The Lunar Forge is just the latest example.”

Vilkas blinked once in surprise.  “You’ve hunted the white stag?”

She nodded.  “Not my smartest decision, I’ll admit.  But, since then, I have begun to wonder what it truly means to be ‘moon-born’?  Not the curse itself but why Hircine’s ‘gift’ is called that?  What is His connection to the moons - to Shor?  How it is that Hircine choosing to summon his hunters can cause Masser – part of Shor’s body – to appear red4?  Any ideas?”5

“None,” he admitted. “But it is said that His wolf spirits will prevent a werewolf from entering Sovngarde even if they died an honorable death.”

She nodded at that. “It is the same with vampirism. The daedra’s claim upon a soul appears to be stronger than the god’s.”

He was silent for a moment. “You once told me you’d been cured of vampirism.  Do you also know how to free a lycanthrope?”

“I don’t,” she told him softly.  “But I’ll ask around.”

There was quiet between them for a while as Alexa worked on her sketches.  She tried not to be disappointed by the silence.  Marcurio and Serana would have used this time to theorize with her over the possible implications of the site and its history. Aela would have told her bawdy stories about their friends.  Farkas would have, companionably, taken a nap in the sun.  But Vilkas sat beside her and was restless, and fidgety, like a bored child too well behaved to complain. It was putting her on edge.  Finally, giving up, she closed her journal.  It would be getting dark soon anyway, she told herself.

“Done?” he asked, relief clear in his voice.

“For now,” she answered, rising to her feet.  “I’ve got a few things about the forge itself I want to check out tomorrow.”

“You’re staying here?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“I was intending to,” she answered, watching him slide off the roof and onto the landing below.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” he probed, as she handed him Tilma’s basket, before walking over to the rubble pile she’d used to climb up.

“There are a few rooms, in the lower part of the ruin, that are still functional,” she told him, accepting the hand he offered to help her climb down.  “They’re not even that bad now that the bandits are gone.”

Vilkas said nothing as he followed her, Tilma’s basket in hand, down the stairs and through the door on the east side of the ruin. 

“See, perfectly fine,” she announced, indicating the windowless, stone, room, long wooden table and fire pit, with a wave of her hand.

Vilkas frowned at it all disapprovingly.

“You don’t need to stay, you know,” she told him as she took the basket and put it on the table.  “I’ve blocked the back door and there’s a bar that can be lowered on the front one.  I’ll be fine on my own.”

“No.  I want to stay,” he said, going from examining the room to staring at her intently.

She sighed in aggravation and dumped some kindling, and a good-sized stump, on the smoldering embers of the fire. If he stayed…  There was a loud, slightly resonate, thump.  Startled, she looked instinctively towards the sound and saw that Vilkas had lowered the bar on the front door.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” he apologized, coming to stand beside her at the fire.

“What are you doing here, Vilkas?” she demanded suddenly.

“I told you.  When someone’s on my mind I find it best to talk with them,” he reminded her.  “And we’ve yet to talk about what happened two weeks ago.”

“Two weeks ago?” she repeated, as her mind tried desperately to quantify the situation she now found herself in.

“You saved my life,” he reminded her.

“What is there to talk about?” she responded, taking a step away from him, genuinely confused.  “You were injured, now you’re not.  That’s the way seeing a healer is supposed to work.”

“I told you that I love you,” he pointed out.

She blinked once. “Vilkas, euphoria is a pretty common side effect of that much healing.”

Vilkas growled low in frustration and stepped closer.  “And if I meant it?” he asked.


“I understand that what happened between us wasn’t something you planned.  And I’ve heard Aela talking about your lover in the Reach,” Vilkas continued, softly, his eyes intense on her face.  “But I wanted you to know that I meant what I said.”

“Lover in the Reach?” Alexa repeated, confused, and having trouble focusing around how close he suddenly was.  She took another step back, away from him, trying to clear her head enough to think.  “What did Aela say exactly?” she asked.

“Just that he is of high standing and very attractive,” he told her, closing the distance she’d just created. 

Alexa blinked in surprise. “Stendarr have mercy,” she half laughed as she stepped back again.

“Is that not right?” he asked, following.

“Well it’s certainly not how I would have described the Forsworn chieftain who made me his blood-sister back when I was still with the Dawnguard,” she laughed, just as her back hit a pillar.

Vilkas stared down at her, his arm braced against the pillar above her head, his face utterly blank, for several seconds.  He was close enough that Alexa could feel the warmth from him on her face.  She swallowed hard.

“I may have to kill Aela,” he told her very calmly.

“I promise not to interfere,” she assured him, around her suddenly dry throat.

“So… do you have a lover?” he asked gently.


“Good,” he whispered, leaning down swiftly and kissing her.  He pulled back a little when she failed to return his kiss.

“And when I leave?” she whispered softly.

“How much longer do you expect to remain?”

“Until the first snow.”

“That’s a different estimate from the one Aela has,” he noted.

“Things change,” she replied.

“We’ll just have to make it count,” he told her, his voice practically vibrating her bones.

Alexa hesitated only a moment longer before she reached for him.

The interior of Silent Moons camp may not have had a bed but, with the doors barred shut, the main room was safe, relatively warm, and private in a way Jorrvaskr was not.

The first two rounds of frantic, desperate, lovemaking had given way to a languorous third followed by a long period of silent contentment, tangled up together on Alexa’s bedroll, as the fire burned down to embers and the room around them grew gradually colder.

Eventually a slight shiver from Alexa indicated to Vilkas that, even sleeping, as she appeared to be, his Breton companion would not wish to remain naked if the temperature of the room continued to drop.  So he stood, put some more wood on the fire, and took a moment to admire the way the light of the new flames played across the milk-white skin of the woman lying naked on the bedroll before him. 

It had been about a year since Alexa had first walked into Jorrvaskr, he reflected.  Nine months since he’d realized the attraction between them was mutual.  Three months since their drunken night together and two weeks since he’d told her he loved her… and she was planning to be gone with the first snow.  That was… eight months away, give or take a few weeks. His longest relationship to date hadn’t lasted nearly that long – having to hide being a werewolf put a serious strain on relationships – and yet… He leaned over and kissed her temple softly before folding himself carefully back around her to shield her from the cold.  Maybe, if things went well, he could convince her to stay.

She hummed slightly before turning over and snuggled into him.

He tucked her head under his chin with a contented sigh.  The moment seemed eternal but was also over far too soon.

Eventually Alexa pulled away slightly, turning onto her back, to stretch.  Vilkas watched in appreciation as the firelight behind her rendered her small, high, breasts, and the gentle arching of her chest, with the artistry of an ancient relief.

“When Farkas told me you knew what it was like to be hunted I didn’t know he meant it quite so literally,” Vilkas murmured, tracing the silvery pockmark on her thigh with calloused fingers.  “This is a scar from a barbed hunting arrow if I’m any judge...”  His hand ghosted over completely unmarked skin, briefly cupping her right breast, to the pockmark beneath her left collarbone.  “How is it that you have no other scars but these?”

“I’m an exceptional healer,” she reminded him, her voice soft and low.

“So you keep these for a reason?”

“No.  My magic doesn’t seem to affect them,” she replied, cutting off any further questioning by gently kissing his lips.

He kissed her back, long and slow, pulling her tight against him, reveling in the simple feeling of skin against skin.  When they finally came up for air, Alexa started to snicker and then to laugh.

“What?” he asked in confusion.

“Aela always said that if I wanted you to be nicer to me I should try making friends with ‘little Vilkas’.”

“She did, did she?” he grumbled, rolling over on top of her and pinning her beneath him.  “What else did Aela say?”

Alexa smiled at up him.  “Oh, just that I should take up – what was the term she used?  Fucking?  Yes, it was definitely ‘fucking’ – you as frequently as possible,” she purred running her toes up his right leg until her knee slid into place over his hip.

“I can live with that,” Vilkas whispered, rolling them over so that she was on top.

Chapter Text

“Danica says you’re both healed enough to start working again,” Skjor informed the twins as he handed them each a slip of paper with a job on it.  “But you’re each to take an uninjured partner with you, to watch your back.”

“We’re going to go deal with the poachers squatting at Halted Stream Mine,” Vilkas informed Alexa after breakfast. 

“Poachers?” she asked. That seemed a little below the Companion’s notice.

“The Jarl has received reports of travelers being killed by a pit-trap they’ve constructed.  A courier was sent to warn them to fix the problem, and pay a fine.  They killed the courier,” he explained tossing her a set of studded armor.  “You should wear that.”

“Why?” she demanded incredulously.  “It doesn’t even have sleeves!”1

“Are you questioning the judgment of a member of the Circle, shield-sister?” he asked calmly.

“Yes,” she answered shortly.

“We are hunting men, shield sister.  It would not be honorable of us to use magic that hides our presence.”

“What if I don’t wear muffled armor to hide me but because I find the constant jingling of most other armor annoying?” she asked.

“Wear that anyway,” he ordered, kissing her softly to take the sting out of his words.  “We leave in half an hour.

The leader of the Halted Stream poachers turned out to be an Orc berserker.  As his berserk rage had ignited a similar battle-fury in Vilkas, Alexa had left them to each other, choosing to remain on the walkway above to kill the last few poachers before they could interfere.  Finished, she jumped down from the walkway, ignoring Vilkas and the Orc, and made her way over to the table the lead poacher had been standing at. 

This close to the ground the smell of human and mer blood mingled with that of the slaughtered mammoth; the scent of death hung heavy in the air.  Repressing the urge to gag Alexa dropped her pack and began to sort through the various objects on the table.

A moment later she was distracted by the sound of a body falling to the ground.  She turned and looked behind her to see Vilkas step over the body of his defeated opponent and stride up the ramp to her.  He grabbed her by the strap across her chest hauling her the two steps to him.  Surprised by the unexpected action she stumbled slightly, ending up with her hands pressed to his breastplate for balance.  

“You hurt?” Vilkas demanded, his breathing still rapid and shallow, his pupils still blown wide.  

The battle-fury was still with him, Alexa noted clinically before responding.  “Nothing I haven’t already taken care of,” she reassured him, letting her hands drop back to her sides.

His mouth hit hers so hard she thought it might bruise as he snapped the leather strap he was still holding dropping her armor’s single pauldron to the floor.  She kissed him fiercely in return as he tore at the lacing on the front of her borrowed armor and then wrestled the straps off her shoulders, pushing the bodice down to bare her breasts.  This was why he’d wanted her to wear the studded armor, she realized headily, as his hand easily slid beneath the armor’s fur skirting.

What followed could not truly be considered lovemaking.  Vilkas simply took her, hard, as the unexpended energy from his battle-fury, and a repressed change, expressed itself in a combination of frenzy and intense lust.

When it was over Vilkas went completely still, for a brief moment, before lifting his head and kissing Alexa softly; a sensation so at odds with the frenetic pace he’d maintained that it caught her by surprise.  Then he withdrew, with a sigh, leaving her completely alone on the double bed.

She could hear him step away as he put his armor to rights.  She frowned. Something was wrong… Vilkas was, in her experience at least, almost oppressively affectionate after sex.  She sat up and was viscerally reminded of exactly where they were.  Perhaps it was their current location – the smell of blood and death in the air – that accounted for the difference in his behavior?  Certainly she wasn’t particularly interested in sticking around.  She could almost imagine the dead mammoth was staring at her reproachfully.  She shivered involuntarily at the thought.

“I’ll, uh, go check out what’s down that other tunnel,” Vilkas muttered, guiltily, without looking directly at her.

Confused by his tone she watched him descend the ramp to the butchering floor.  No answers there.  She looked down at the studded armor she still, partially, wore.  There was no point in saving it.

She heard Vilkas swear as he set off a swinging mammoth-skull trap.

“You ok?” she called out, as she struggled out of the ruined armor.

“Fine,” he called back.

Alexa pulled her own armor out of her pack and made a mental note to start carrying extra under clothes, when traveling anywhere with Vilkas, no matter how close to home they were staying.

“This is a lot of ivory,” Vilkas noted, about the time she’d finished dressing, his eyes locked on the shelves beside the forge.

“We passed a cart in the upper tunnel,” she reminded him.

He nodded, still without looking at her, and went to retrieve the cart.

Choosing her maskless cowl Alexa pinned her now messy braided hair to the base of her skull before slipping the cowl on over it.

“You ready to go?” Vilkas asked, a few minutes later, as she added the last of the things she’d found, in the various chest and bookshelves around the room, to the ivory in the cart.

“Uh, yeah,” she nodded, with a final look around them.  A few of the books had looked interesting, including an alteration spell book, but, given the smell in here and her companion’s current mood, she’d opted for taking them with her to read elsewhere.

As they left the stockade Alexa took a deep breath of fresh air.  Noticing that Vilkas was having some trouble with the cart she hurried forward to grab ahold of the cart’s front.  As she moved past him Vilkas caught her elbow.  She stopped, turning to look at him. 

“I’m sorry about… in there,” he muttered, still not quite looking at her.  “The Orc was a hard fight and, with the smell of all that blood, and the wolf…  I was rough with you.”

“I could have stopped you had I felt it necessary,” she reminded him frankly.

He blinked at that and she saw his shoulders relax.  “Right. I’d forgotten.”  He gave her a small, uncertain smile, meeting her eyes for the first time since they’d entered the mine.  “Good.”

Alexa watched him with some concern as they started, half pulling and half pushing the cart, back to Whiterun.  He’d obviously meant to use their time away from Jorrvaskr for sex, or he wouldn’t have had her wear the surprisingly easy to bypass armor.  (Did it really count as armor if a stiff wind could negate its protection to one’s thighs?)  So that couldn’t be the issue here.  It was true he’d been a little rough but not unexpectedly so under the circumstances. 

Was his current self-consciousness caused by embarrassment over going into a battle-fury, she wondered?  Surely it couldn’t be his first brush with the phenomena.  Vilkas was a seasoned warrior known for his hot temper; there was no way that it hadn’t manifested in battle before this.  Was it that he hadn’t expected the unspent energy to expend itself the way it had?  Sex under such conditions was bound to be rough… but he hadn’t been so rough that he injured her.  “Have you never worked like this with a lover before?” she enquired, suddenly.

“It wasn’t the same,” he answered after a moment of awkward silence in which he pretended to concentrate on maneuvering the cart around a rocky outcropping.

She cocked her head at him.

“It was before I gave up changing,” he explained.  “I was more in control then.”

“Ah.”  So it had surprised him.  Or he thought it had surprised her?  Maybe his worry was over how he thought she might react?  Having traveled with an Orc before she’d known the signs when she saw them.  “You know, I know battle-fury when I see it, Vilkas. You don’t need to worry that I might see you as less than human because of it.  Or think that it is exclusive to werewolves and Orcs.”

He didn’t respond to that.  So they walked on in silence.

“Why didn’t you stop me?” Vilkas demanded, a short time later, as they finally hit the road near Whitewatch Tower and she dropped back to walk beside him.

Alexa shrugged.  “I admit that you are, generally, somewhat rougher than my pervious partners.  But if I were to use magic on you, I would deprive you of free will,2 even if only for a moment.  Isn’t avoiding such a loss exactly why you have given up changing?”

“I would rather you order me to stop than end up hurting you,” he told her seriously.

“You needn’t worry about that,” she assured him, equally serious.  “I’m not about to simply let anyone, even you, actually injure me.”


It occurred to her, suddenly, that control – control over himself as well as control over the situations he found himself in – was every bit as important to Vilkas as free will.3 It was something to think about.

“In there, I nearly lost control of him…” Vilkas explained a moment later.  “And you’re so fragile...  I worry what might happen.”

“You see me as fragile?” Alexa laughed in spite of herself.

“This is not funny, Alexa,” he told her sternly.  “I could have hurt you today.”

Stopping him, she took his face in her hands.  “I have survived a Thalmor assassination attempt, a Dark Brotherhood contract, vampirism, and not one but two ancient vampire lords very much intent upon killing me4,” she told him softly. “I am fairly certain that, even if I were without magic and you were in hybrid form, the odds on which of us would walk away would not be in your favor.”

Vilkas closed his eyes, leaned his forehead against hers, and sighed softly, the tension flowing out of him.  “Move into my room with me,” he half ordered half entreated.

“Are you certain?” she asked, surprised.

He opened his eyes to look directly into hers.  “Yes.”

Chapter Text

Four days after the excursion to Halted Stream Camp, Aela found Alexa reading a letter on the back porch.  “What did the courier have for you?” she asked, settling into the chair beside Alexa, and looking pointedly at the piece of paper in her shield-sister’s hand.

“The Dawnguard wants me to go check out Cronvangr Cave,” Alexa replied.  “They think there might be some sort of relic of theirs there…” She sighed and ran a hand, tiredly, though her hair.  “I don’t have anything else going on so thought I’d leave in the morning.”

“Excellent timing,” the huntress remarked.  “You can take Vilkas with you.  I think, after three weeks of ‘recuperating’, he needs to be let off the leash a bit more than simply taking out the local poachers.”  She leaned in, lowering her voice to a gentle purr, “In more ways than one…”

Alexa didn’t respond so the huntress continued.  “The two of you have been doing an admirable job at keeping it down, while you’re here, but I know how,” Aela smirked slightly, “hard that can be when you’ve got someone with his ‘gifts’ inside you.”  She grinned again as Alexa flinched uncomfortably.  “Besides, if he’s anything like Skjor, you really should try him in the moonlight, or as a wolf,1 or…”

“Divines, Aela!” Alexa exclaimed cutting off the huntress before she could add anything more. “I’ll take him with me if you’ll stop!”

“Good,” Aela grinned in satisfaction.  She stood and then paused for just a moment on her way back into the hall, “I am glad you’ve finally taken my advice, shield-sister. For both of you.”

Excursion Day 1

The next night Alexa and Vilkas camped in the antechamber of Hillgrund’s Tomb.

“I’d like to go to Lost Knife Cave on our way back,” Vilkas told her, over their evening meal.  “We received word, last week, from the scholar that told us about the piece of Wuuthrad at Dustman’s Cairn, suggesting that the bandits there might have a shard as well.”

“This is the same scholar that might be working for the Silver Hand?”2 she asked him.

Vilkas shrugged slightly.  “He was right about the shard in the Cairn.  And, even if it is a trap, it’s worth it, right?  Besides,” he smiled, taking her hand and squeezing it gently, “it shouldn’t be anything we can’t handle together.”

She smiled at that and pulled out her map.  “We’ll go tomorrow,” she decided, when he pointed to the location. “It makes more sense than coming back to it.”

“If we do we can probably stay the night at Mixwater Mill,” Vilkas said, pointing to the map.

“Sounds good,” she agreed.

Excursion Day 2

“This,” Alexa whispered, looking around her with a puzzled frown, “is odd.”

“It’s a cave with a lake in it,” Vilkas told her dismissively, as he looked about to make sure there weren’t any more archers hidden above them.

“No.  This cavern was created by the Dwemer, either while mining or in the first stage of city building...”

“Silver Hand first,” Vilkas interrupted her, heading towards the exit that would take them deeper into the cave system.  “Then, after they’re dead, you can explore the cave.”

Alexa scowled at him. Did he really think she was going to just stop, in the middle of raiding a hostile camp, to admire the scenery? Surely he knew her better than that?

She followed Vilkas, silently, up the ramp, even shooting the guard, on the switchback behind them, without comment.  They were moving up, she noted to herself.  Which suggested this was most likely a mine, or an unfinished small outpost, not the entrance to a large city.  They moved into the next chamber and Alexa actually stopped in surprise.  A wall of Nordic stonework ran, floor to ceiling, most of the way down the right side of the chamber.  A Dwemer mine with Nordic stonework in it – that wasn’t trying to keep Falmer from reaching the surface – it was a first.

She surreptitiously glanced around her as they moved through the Nord building.  Miner’s barracks maybe?  If so the Dwemer must have left valuable materials behind when they disappeared.  What had they been mining so close to the surface?

She didn’t bother with letting the Silver Hand’s leader get his one on one with Vilkas.  After Vilkas’ discomfort over the Orc incident she had decided such things were best avoided and so simply shot the leader from the ledge overlooking the fighting pit.  Vilkas, apparently more interested in reclaiming the missing piece of Wuuthrad than in her sense of fair play, simply shrugged and went to work sorting through the gang’s treasures and the leader’s pockets.

“Found it!” he eventually declared looking up with a relieved smile, only to discover that Meeko was hiding in a corner with half a wheel of cheese, and Alexa had already wandered off.

Back in the lake room Alexa dropped her pack, stripped off her armor, took a potion of cold resistance, and cast waterbreathing on herself, before jumping in to explore the lakebed. She found nothing but some fish in the lake.  She did find something behind the waterfall: another vein of iron ore.  That was a third vein of iron she’d found, along with two corundum veins and one of gold. Odd that the mine had apparently closed with so much minable mineral left in it, she reflected. 

She used a nearby pickaxe to chip away some of the iron so that she could examine it.  It looked like standard iron ore… but standard iron would not have been worth the level of investment the ancient Nords had made in this mine...  No, the placement of the gold and corundum veins suggested they had been later strikes, not the mineral the mine had been opened for.  She looked the ore sample over carefully before deciding to keep it.  Maybe Sorine, Gunmar, or even Eorlund could tell her something interesting about it.

When she surfaced, back out in the main room, she found Vilkas waiting by her clothes with an annoyed look on his face.

“Find anything?” he asked.

“Iron,” she answered, putting the ore sample in her pack.  “Gold, some corundum.  Nothing that would make building a stone building in here worthwhile.”

“I guess it’s a mystery then,” he remarked dryly.

“I hate mysteries,” Alexa muttered to herself.

“If we’re going to make it to Mixwater Mill today, like we planned, we should get going,” Vilkas reminded her.

“Just let me get dressed,” Alexa sighed.  She could always come back to study the place further when she didn’t have an antsy werewolf in tow.  She reached for her armor only to shriek in surprise as she found herself lifted into the air and then dropped, unceremoniously, over one of Vilkas’ shoulders. “What?” she gasped, grabbing hold of his belt, from behind, to stabilize herself as he started walking deeper into the mine.  “Vilkas, put me down!” she demanded between grunts of discomfort.  His armored shoulder was somewhat painful against her bare stomach.

He chuckled at that and used the hand that was holding her on his shoulder to playfully squeeze her ass. “You took off all your clothes and expected me not to ravish you as you deserve?” he asked her.

“What happened to making it to Mixwater Mill?” she demanded.

“I guess we’ll just have to find out how fast you can walk,” he laughed, dumping her onto the first bed he saw.

The bunkhouse at Mixwater Mill usually had a bed or two open and Gilfre, the mill owner, was only too pleased to let people, like members of the Companions, stay for a few septims or some work chopping wood.

When they arrived, well into the evening, Gilfre surprisingly insisted that Alexa, and Meeko, stay with her, as it wouldn’t be proper for “an unmarried lady” to stay with the men. She then, firmly, exiled Vilkas to the bunkhouse.  Vilkas privately thought that the Imperial woman was teasing them but knew better than to argue.  He could handle a single night without Alexa beside him. 

It was probably better this way, anyway, Vilkas told himself.  With Masser waxing, and only a day or two from full, he wasn’t likely to get a lot of sleep.  No reason his restlessness should keep Alexa awake as well.

Chapter Text

Excursion Day 41

“Good thing Farkas isn’t here,” Vilkas noted, looking around him at the web-covered walls of a fairly typical Skyrim mine.  “Spiders that can capture mammoths are more Aela’s type of job than the Dawnguard’s though.”

Alexa whispered something and lifted a hand glowing red with a spell. 

“Alexa?” Vilkas asked uncomfortably.

“Just looking for undead,” she answered, snuffing the spell.

“Oh,” he breathed in relief. It was just another of her vampire hunting spells.  He was... mostly ok with those.  “See anything?”

“Through that wall,” she pointed, walking over to inspect the area.

When she found the button to open the secret door Alexa frowned at it in disapproval.  It was of Nord design.  What kind of mineral was valuable enough to Nords that they would attempt to hide it in such a manner when, at least in her experience, they didn’t bother with such things even for Ebony?  Unless, of course, the vampires had added the door.  Still it was odd that the door seemed to be blocking off a room rather than, say, an escape route.  Maybe there was another one hiding a back way out in the room beyond… She pushed the button and then stepped aside for Vilkas to go first.

The three vampires didn’t even know what hit them. 

The shield, emblazoned with the symbol of the Dawnguard, was hanging, like a trophy, on the back wall of the shack.  Alexa pulled it down, trying not to look at the dead woman on the table.  She hadn’t been dead long.  If they hadn’t stopped at Lost Knife… If she hadn’t chosen making Vilkas happy over killing vampires… no, it wasn’t worth thinking about.

“Hey,” Vilkas greeted her with a smile, as she stepped out of the shack holding the shield in her arms. “Look up.” 

“Aetherium,” she breathed. Every time she saw it was as wondrous as the first.  A thought hit her.  “Did you see another hidden door anywhere?” she asked, tossing a candlelight up into the air.

“No,” he answered, beginning to look around as well.  “I’ll take the left wall and you take the right one?” he suggested.  “Meet you at the door?”

She nodded and they both began their search.

“Nothing,” he told her, as they reconvened.

“Me neither.  Did you see any ore veins in here?”

“I think I saw some iron in the first room,” he said, clearly surprised by her question.  “But nothing in here.  Why?”

“Iron?  Yes, that might make sense…” she murmured as she made her way back to the first room.  “Do you know anything about the history of mining in this area?” she called back to Vilkas.

“Not really,” he called back, beginning to follow her.  “But it is said that the strength of Eastmarch, in the Second Era, was due to mineral wealth.  But there’s no sign of it now.  If there were Eastmarch would have had a stronger voice in the moot, after High King Istlod died, and the Jarl’s might have made Ulfric the new High King.  Or they still might not have and his cause would have been better funded,” he added thoughtfully.

It’s already remarkably well funded,2 Alexa thought to herself as she looked about her for the iron vein Vilkas had mentioned.

“Why would iron make sense?” Vilkas asked, pointing her in the right direction.

Magic from the Sky,” she answered shortly, following his pointing finger.


“I’m wondering if the wealth of Second Era Eastmarch wasn’t in the quantity of mined ore but the value of it.”

“Like Ebony?” he asked, accepting the shield from her as she took the pickaxe off her pack.

“Like meteoric iron,” she answered.

“Wouldn’t ‘meteoric iron’ come from meteors?” Vilkas asked, frowning.

“Usually,” Alexa agreed, chipping off a piece of iron ore.

“If it falls from the sky, wouldn’t it be found on the surface, not deep underground?” he objected, as she put the iron sample in her pack. 

“I’m wondering if common ore might be altered by long term exposure to aetherium,” she explained, looking around them again.  “Though this vein may be too far away from the aetherium, in the next room, to be conclusive one way or the other.”

“Explain,” Vilkas demanded.

“No one but the Dwemer has systematically mined aetherium,” she told him.  “So why would someone else spend considerable time and effort to improve an old aetherium mine if not for the other ore in it?”

He nodded once.  “With you so far.”

“Lost Knife Cave still had minable veins of iron, corundum, and gold.  Why shut down a mine if there was still minable material in it unless what was left wasn’t valuable enough to keep the mine open?  But if gold wasn’t enough to make the mine profitable, what was?”

“A fair question,” he allowed.  “But, if it was a fully dried up aetherium mine, wouldn’t the Dwemer have taken anything else of value?”

“The Dwemer eschewed magic.  They prized aetherium because, as tonally volatile as aetherium is, it is also completely magically inert,” Alexa told him.

“So the Dwemer would have left meteoric iron behind because it was magical,” Vilkas summarized.  “What makes you think aetherium can change regular iron into meteoric iron?”

“Both this cave, and Lost Knife Cave, have iron in them.  They also both had, or have, aetherium in them.3  The Dwemer believed the tonally volatile aetherium resonated at the same frequencies as Aetherius.  What if prolonged exposure to aetherium resonation can alter a base substance such that it comes to mimic its Aetherial counterpart?  Base iron becomes meteoric iron…” and corundum becomes Dwemer metal? her mind finished.  She stiffened in surprise at the thought.  Could that really be the secret of Dwemer metal?  And how would she ever run tests to find out?

“How prolonged?” Vilkas asked, suddenly actually interested.

Alexa blinked, coming back to herself.  “I… don’t know.  Probably thousands of years, though the Dwemer tonal architects could have found a way to speed the process…  I’ll have to think about it.”

He nodded, clearly a little disappointed.  “Let's kill those mammoth eating spiders and get out of here.”

“Viewpoint?” Vilkas asked, as they stood on the ridge above the cave looking around them, and pointed to a hill that rose out of the center of the hot springs flat.  He’d learned, over the past few days, that she was fond of vantage points. 

Alexa, however, was looking a little to the right of where he was pointing with a puzzled frown.

“Something bothering you?” he asked, looking in the same direction she was and seeing nothing threatening.

“What’s that?” she asked pointing to a circle of finished stone filled with a mound of earth.  “I see them all over the place but I have no idea what they are.”

“Some people call them dragon burial mounds,” Vilkas replied, shrugging to indicate he didn’t know anything more about it.


“Because they think there’s a dragon buried there,” he answered, and almost immediately wished he hadn’t.  “No,” he told her sternly.  “We are not going to go digging in one just to see if there really are dragon bones in it.”

“You’re not even a little interested?” she asked.

“In a thing long dead? No.”

Alexa frowned at that, clearly about to argue with him over something. 

“Come on,” Vilkas said, taking her by the hand and dragging her away. 

After two necromancers, a pack of skeleton’s, and Alexa trying to get him to let her stop and inspect the collapsed entrance of whatever ancient, underground, site had once filled the area, Vilkas was beginning to think the entire world was against him.  It was significantly later in the day then he’d been hoping for when he finally found the perfect spot.  It was a good distance from the giant camp, hidden from the road, and had a bit of old ruin that would keep their stuff out of the mud.  He drew off a gauntlet and stuck his fingers into the water to make sure.  The temperature was good.  He looked up at Alexa and nearly laughed at the quizzical look she was giving him. He dropped his pack and stood up to look down into her face.

“It occurred to me, earlier, that those hunters had the right idea,” he told her. 

“Don’t tell me this is why you refused to dig up a dragon with me,” she laughed.

“Maybe,” he smiled a little self-consciously.

She lifted up on her toes and kissed him softly.  “You’re wonderful, you know.”

Chapter Text

“Aela, is there something I can do for you?” Alexa asked the red headed huntress flopped on the bed in Vilkas’ room.

“A courier just dropped off this job request for you,” Aela informed her.  “It’s from your elf ‘friend’ in Markarth,” she smirked. 

“Something interesting?” Alexa enquired.

“Well… I had no idea you two were quite so intimate.”

“That we’re what now?”

“Alexa,” Aela read aloud in a lofty tone.  “In regards to the events in Morthal, a scholar from Summerset will arrive in Solitude in about a week.  This will be his first excursion outside the Isles in some time.  Please retrieve him from the Solitude Docks and see him safely to Morthal before he can cause any sort of incident.  I will hold you personally responsible for anything that goes wrong.  Ondolemar.”

“Such obscenity,” Alexa murmured dryly.  “I may blush.”

Aela grinned wolfishly and tapped the bottom of the note holding it out for Alexa to see.  “He signedit with his name.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Oh, please,” the huntress snorted.  “I know what it means when Altmer stop using they’re oh so coveted titles.  Also, this message is dated three days ago, so you should probably start packing.”  She paused, briefly, frowning at the missive.  “What’s in Morthal?”

“A child with magical problems.  College of Winterhold was stumped so…” Alexa shrugged, emptying her pack onto the side table to the left of the bedroom door and beginning to sort through it.

Aela nodded, understanding. “Will you be taking Vilkas with you?”

Alexa thought about it for a second.  The truth was that her experience with Vilkas, first at the Lunar Forge and again at Lost Knife Cave, had demonstrated to her satisfaction that Vilkas was out of his depth in research situations.  While he might be interested in hearing about the results, he wasn’t patient, or interested, enough for the actual work.  He also didn’t seem willing to prioritize poking around over sticking to an entirely arbitrary travel schedule.  All of which, given that the scholar would probably want to look around the marsh a bit, made taking Vilkas on this trip a less than stellar idea.

“No,” she answered. “I don’t want to find out how Vilkas would handle spending time with an Altmer scholar freshly arrived from Alinor.”

Aela winced.  “That’s fair,” she agreed, handing Alexa Ondolemar’s note.  “I’m sure we can find something for him to do while you’re gone.”

Vilkas tossed volume five of The Real Barenziah, aside.  Alexa had been gone for three days now and nothing in the current set of jobs the Companions had was particularly strenuous or would take him further than half a day from Whiterun. He was getting restless. 

He had thought meeting Alexa’s friends in the Dawnguard would quiet the few, lingering, insecurities he had about their relationship.  It had not.  Not only had her friends failed to seem even the least bit jealous, impressed, or curious, about his relationship with their former comrade, but he’d gotten the distinct impression that the vampire hadn’t approved.  Though he’d probably gotten off on the wrong foot with her when he’d refused to even shake hand or spend any time talking with her at all during their stay.  He might trust Alexa with his secret but her friends were a different matter and a several thousand year old vampire seemed like just the sort that might recognize him for what he was.

As bad as his interactions with Serana had been his one conversation Isran had been worse.  “You think she’s found her place with you?” Isran had snorted, his eyes glittering mockingly, when Vilkas had, helpfully, indicated to him that Alexa was a member of the Companions now and so would not be returning to the Dawnguard.  “No man can compete with destiny, boy.  I suggest you don’t even try.”1

Vilkas growled to himself. Alexa had made no secret of the fact that she wasn’t intending to stay in Skyrim.  He knew that.  And, if it really was destiny driving her to move on, then there was no reason he couldn’t go with her.  He’d been considering a trip to Morrowind for a while now anyway.  And they could always come back to Jorrvaskr after she was done with… whatever.

He could hear the other Companions laughing upstairs.  He should be up there listening to the latest tales of jobs well done.  But, instead, he was down here, alone, attempting to read and making himself miserable.  Of course he wouldn’t be here at all if Alexa hadn’t gone on her latest job without him; a job that had requested her by name and hadn’t come from the Dawnguard.  It was suspicious.

She’d been headed for Solitude, he knew that much.  The Bard’s College maybe?  Aela said she was a member.  But, if so, why hadn’t she taken him with her?  Unless she didn’t want to introduce him to her friends there.  Didn’t want them to know about him the same way she hadn’t wanted the Companions, or the Dawnguard, to know about her previous lovers. Hell, she still denied having any lovers in Skyrim except the one thief.  Might have even denied his existence if he hadn’t showed up at Jorrvaskr himself.  It was an assertion she was surprisingly consistent about, unlike the other things she told people about her life, all of which seemed to be dependent upon her audience.

While at Fort Dawnguard he’d asked around about her and learned that, as far as those who were willing to talk with him were concerned, she was the champion of Meridia and had had no contact with Hircine2 at all.  Vilkas knew for a fact that she’d never once mentioned Meridia to anyone in the Companions. The Dawnguard also appeared unaware of her standing as a Grand Master – the priest of Arkay believed her to be “competent” with Restoration magic but still in need of practice – or of her history with the Thalmor.  Given that she’d hidden these things from people she’d worked with for nearly a year, was he really ready to believe that she wasn’t hiding anything from him? Especially after the priest of Arkay had suggested that if he wanted to know Alexa’s secrets he’d have to ask Akatosh himself.3

Vilkas rolled out of bed and began to pace.

Furthermore the suggestion that Alexa had been single the entire time she was with the Dawnguard was almost ludicrous.  Added to the time she’d been with the Companions that would mean that Alexa had gone two years without a lover of any kind… Was he really supposed to believe that?  Especially after the way she’d reacted to their first night together.  Clearly she hadn’t been single at the time or she wouldn’t have run off the way she had.

Vilkas punched the training dummy beside the bookshelf.  All this thinking was getting him nowhere.  He had one thing to be grateful for, at least, he told himself.  Alexa’s current job hadn’t taken her to the Reach.  If she really did have someone out there, as Aela had always jokingly implied, she wasn’t visiting him on this trip…

Was she?  He did a quick calculation.  Two days, by cart, to Solitude.  Then a day or two, to do whatever it was she’d been hired for, and two days back.  It was at least a six-day trip.  She’d only been gone three at this point.  No.  There was no reason to start worrying about her, or what she might be doing without him, yet.  This was stupid.  He needed to calm down not work himself up further.

Vilkas inspected the books on his bookshelf.  He’d read them all before.  He turned away from the shelf in frustration.  As he did so the chest beside the shelf caught his eye.  Alexa was always collecting books.  Maybe she had some he hadn’t read.  He lifted the lid.

Inside Vilkas found more than a dozen books, maybe two-dozen journals, and a sheaf of papers wrapped with string.  One piece of paper had yet to be added to the bundle.  He unfolded it.

Alexa - The Solitude Docks

“I say, you are rather pretty, aren’t you?” the Altmer who was seriously underdressed for the climate, and had an impressive amount of matching luggage, beamed at her.  “Can you tell me how I get to Morthal?”

“You must be the scholar from Alinor,” Alexa began, bowing slightly before giving the Altmer a once over. “I am called Alexa, this is my dog Meeko.  Commander Ondolemar has requested that we ensure you reach Morthal safely.”

“Truly?  I shall have to thank Dolly for thinking of me,” he said, holding out a hand for Meeko to sniff.  “I am Adept Earmiel of the University of Summerset.  Will we be traveling through the marsh?  It was my hope to get a feel for the area before speaking with the locals.”

Alexa arched an eyebrow at that.  “Do you have armor or the ability to cast Ironflesh?”

Half an hour later Beirand was fitting Earmiel with leather armor while arguing, good naturedly, with Alexa over the type of boots required for trekking through the marsh.  After that, with Earmiel carrying his new armor himself, they’d stopped by Radiant Raiment to pick up appropriate underclothing and a heavy cloak.

“Ah, Miss Alexa, what a delight it is to see you again,” the Altmer behind the counter greeted them sarcastically as they entered.  “Are you here for yet another piece of sensible clothing?”

“Endarie,” Alex smirked, “charming as ever.”  The two women exchanged air kisses, one to each cheek, before Alexa drew back and gestured to Earmiel.  “Allow me to introduce Adept Earmiel.  He arrived from Alinor just this afternoon.  Sadly the University did not think to warn him about the conditions, or the wildlife, in Skyrim.  He requires both shirts and leggings to wear under leather armor as well as a winter weight cloak.  Also a generous supply of extra socks as he seems to be interested in the marsh.”

“Of course,” Endarie snorted, rolling her eyes.  “Those dolts back home couldn’t be bothered to know anything about the outside world.  It’s a miracle any of the Justiciars they send here live long enough to return home.”

“Maybe that’s the problem, sister dear,” Taarie suggested, coming into the shop.  “Perhaps none of the poor little lambs live long enough to tell their tales?”

“Every Thalmor writes reports, dear sister,” Endarie snapped, coming out from behind the counter, measuring cord in hand.

“I do hope you’ll remain in Solitude,” Taarie smirked, looking Earmiel over appreciatively.  “The city could do with some new blood.”

“Ah, no,” he replied, slightly awkwardly.  “I’m afraid I will be making my stay in Morthal.”

Taarie raised both eyebrows in a questioning look she sent Alexa.  “I was hired to make sure he made it there,” Alexa told her.

“If you are smart enough to know you need help then you may not be quite the fool you seem,” Endarie, sniffed.  “I have your measurements.  Come back in two hours and we’ll have what you need.

“I had heard that Nords were not kindly disposed towards my people,” Earmiel, noted as they crossed the road to the Winking Skeever.  “Little wonder if people like that, and the Thalmor, are all they know of us.”

“While Nords are universally suspicious of outsiders, including Bretons, most are willing to make exceptions for individuals,” she told him, holding open the inn door.  “Just stay out of Stormcloak territory… unless you enjoy being the cause of bar brawls.”

“Ah!  Alexa, my dear, I’d heard you were in town.  What brings you to our fair city?” an Altmer in an expensive – by apparent Skyrim standards – blue outfit hailed them as they entered the inn.

Earmiel followed his guide across the room as the other Altmer rose to greet them.  The greeting, he noted, was far warmer, and more genuine, than the one at Radiant Raiment had been.

“Viarmo, allow me to introduce Adept Earmiel, a scholar from Alinor.  Earmiel, this is Viarmo the headmaster of the Bards College here in Solitude.  Viarmo, Earmiel arrived just this afternoon.”

Earmiel glanced quickly at Alexa.  Was he imagining it or had she just dropped, instinctively, into the tonal patterns of a formal Breton introduction?”

Viarmo chortled. “Your training is showing, my dear,” he told Alexa before turning to Earmiel.  “Welcome to Solitude, home of the arts here in Skyrim,” Viarmo bowed with an extravagant flourish.  “Allow me to buy you both a drink!  I hear Corpulus has purchased some of Evette’s spiced wine.  Perhaps a glass all around to chase away the chill?”

“That sounds lovely, thank you Viarmo,” Alexa replied with a sweet smile Earmiel noted had as little effect on the other mer as it would have had on him.

The bard made a show of pulling a chair out for Alexa before turning to Earmiel.  “What about you my friend?” he asked.

“I never turn down spiced wine,” Earmiel declared, taking one of the other seats at the table.

“He seems friendly,” Earmiel commented, as Viarmo flitted away to deliver their orders to Corpulus.

“Of course,” she answered.  “He’s a bard, which means he’s a professional gossip, and scholars from Alinor are rare as hens teeth in Skyrim.”

“You mean he smells a story?” Earmiel enquired.

“I mean if you have any secrets you wish to keep you should watch how much you drink,” she warned him.

The next morning Earmiel had awoken to find Viarmo already gone.  The next hour had seen all Earmiel’s trunks packed into a cart bound for Morthal accompanied by a note, from Alexa, for the town’s innkeeper. 

The day, as they set out, was blessedly overcast.  Viarmo’s company had encouraged Earmiel to drink more than was good for him.  Even after the remarkably effective potion his Breton guide had pushed on him at breakfast Earmiel was still feeling that the world was somewhat over-bright.  His new clothing was, thankfully, much warmer than the stuff he’d brought with him but his new armor was taking some getting used to.  He felt oddly larger than usual, as if he should start turning sideways to pass through doors.

On a switchback, just below the carriage station, his guide stopped and pointed east, over the river. “The marsh,” she told him.  “Get a good look at it now, it will not be as easy to see once you’re in it.”

He squinted at her. “What do you mean?”

She shrugged slightly before resuming their walk to the docks.  “You’ll understand once we get there,” was all she would say.

The man in the small boat at the end of the docks, who offered to take them to either Dawnstar or Windhelm, gave them a funny look when Alexa simply requested to be taken to the far side of the river.

His guide, Earmiel reflected as he perched, nauseated, in the prow of the small boat, was becoming more of an enigma to him with each passing hour.  Last night, from the chatty Viarmo, he had learned she was both a bard and a mercenary adventurer.  Viarmo had waxed poetic about her skill on a lute, the beauty of her voice, and the worth of the lost items she’d retrieved for the College over the years.  He’d even pressed her into a performance that had left Earmiel wondering why anyone with a voice like that would bother adventuring at all. 

It also seemed, from the tales Viarmo had started in on, after Alexa had retired for the night, that she was a formidable vampire hunter and that she had lately joined some very prestigious band of mercenaries quartered in Whiterun (a three day trip from Solitude if he was remembering the map correctly).

Upon their landing on the far side of the river from the Solitude docks they’d almost immediately been set upon by giant spiders.  During the short fight that ensued Alexa had demonstrated an aptitude with her bow of the kind he’d been lead to believe was impossible for anyone but a Bosmer to achieve.  

Still, all those things aside, Earmiel remained unclear as to why Ondolemar had chosen a Breton vampire-hunting bard to oversee his relocation to Morthal.  Surely any mercenary in Solitude would have been sufficient.  Why had his old friend sent all the way to Whiterun?  And why had someone with her ability, and apparent reputation, accepted such a mundane job?

“Are these things… normal?” he asked, breaking out of his reverie, and nudging a giant spider corps with his toe.

“Frostbite spiders? Nightmarish aren’t they?” she asked with an understanding grimace.  “Sadly totally normal in the wilds of Skyrim.”

“And here I half expected you to tell me they were a type of lesser daedra I’d never heard of… possibly from Quagmire.”

She smiled at that and lifted her pack onto her back.  “So, now that we’re in the marsh, was there anything in particular you wanted to see?”

“How well do you know the area?” he asked, looking around him for any sort of landmark. 

“I’ve been through a couple of times, but never explored it in any sort of systematic manner,” she replied. “But, if you’re looking for things more interesting than the random set of standing stones right over there,” she pointed a little south along the river, “the tomb of Mikrul Gauldurson is just east of here.”


“Youngest son of Arch-Mage Gauldur from the First Era?”

Earmiel blinked at her. “He’s buried here?”

“This way,” she answered setting off, following the spit of dry land south and east before heading north again.

“Are there pillars of worked stone in the water4 or is that my imagination?” Earmiel asked.

“Not your imagination,” she answered.  “I think this part of the marsh was, once, part of the city of Snowhawk.  Destroyed during the Oblivion crisis, I believe.5  That’s Fort Snowhawk over there,” she paused and pointed south and east again to the fort on the hill.

Earmiel turned to look where she was pointing.  The fort’s facing stones had been completely scavenged6 in the last two centuries, which suggested the city hadn’t been moved to higher ground.  “Completely wiped out?” he asked.

“I guess?  I don’t really know what happened.  Either way any earthworks they were maintaining, to keep the marsh at bay, clearly failed during the siege.”

Earmiel considered that for a moment.  A city that supported a fortress of that size must have been large.  Why hadn’t it been rebuilt?  Was it possible the population of Skyrim had yet to recover sufficiently?  It was true that the population of Summerset hadn’t recovered yet but, given the rate at which humans could reproduce, that seemed unlikely to be the issue in Skyrim.  Unless, or course, the mortality rate was staggeringly high.7

A little while later the smell of wood smoke, and the sound of his guide swearing softy to herself, pulled Earmiel out of his reverie.  They’d come upon a fishing camp with the remains of two fishermen their bones recently picked clean and scattered.  “Any idea what did this?” he asked, squatting down beside her to inspect a ribcage.

“Chaurus, maybe…” she answered.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not.  These people didn’t even get out of their chairs before they died.  Chaurus poison doesn’t work that quickly.  And where are their clothes?”

That was an interesting question.  Given the state of the surroundings they didn’t appear to have been burned off.  “Acid maybe?” he suggested.  “Or vampires killed them, took their stuff, and wolves cleaned the bodies?”

“Could be,” she agreed, standing up.  “Still seems odd that they’re still in their chairs.  Wolf scavenging usually moves the bodies around a bit.”  She sighed and picked up both skulls.  “So necromancers can’t do anything to them,” she explained, dumping out one of the food sacks that still marked the camp and stuffing the skulls in it.  “I’ll report it to the Jarl, just in case.”

“Necromancers are a problem here, then?” he asked.

“Necromancers are a problem everywhere,” she told him, tying a knot in the sack.

“I take it you don’t approve.”

“I like to make my judgments on a case by case basis,” she replied.  “But no. I generally disapprove of the things those who rely upon the undead wish to achieve.”

“Fair enough,” Earmiel smiled.

“This way,” she said, starting north again.

Standing in front of Folgunthur, Earmiel took a look around him.  A mist, that had not been apparent when he’d been looking out over the marsh from the other side of the river, rose from both the ground and the water making it difficult to get a good look at land around them.  No wonder his guide had told him to fix the place in his mind from a distance.  Earmiel wrinkled his nose in concentration.  Ondolemar’s letter detailing the suspicions of the mage in Morthal appeared to have some validity to it.  There was something definitely off about this place.  “I assume the reason you know who’s buried here is because you’ve already been inside?”

She nodded.

“Anything of interest?”

“Lots of draugr, some frostbite spiders, and a wall that chants to itself in the dragon tongue…”

He turned to her in surprised.  “A wall that does what?”

“They’re actually scattered all over Skyrim.  Some of them are even fairly easy to get to, if you’re interested.  There’s one just up the hill from the temple of Meridia. It’s not far from the Thalmor Embassy.”

“I take it you’d rather I visit that one than this one?”

“Much rather,” she affirmed. “I have no idea how long it takes draugr to come back to life after you kill them, but I’d rather not find out.”

That… was an interesting point.  “Alright, anything else you think I should take a look at?”

“A few,” she answered. 

It was mid afternoon when they came to a group of five, rounded, stone pillars centered on a pair of squared pillars that might, once, have been a post and lintel archway.  The strange mist had turned to fog and the fog was threatening to progress to rain.  “I think it was used as a burial ground at some point,” Alexa began, pointing to a burial urn propped against one of the upright stones.  “But I’ve only seen five sites of this sort in Skyrim, and two of the others are on the edges of this marsh8, though the arch in one across from the Solitude docks, as you saw, is even more destroyed than this one.9 Also, no one in their right mind buries people in a swamp unless they like having bloated corpses float to the surface.  Most of the barrows, and burial mounds, in the area are located on somewhat higher ground along the edge of the marsh.”

“But not this one.”

She nodded.  “It’s not my area of expertise, but the fact that there are three similar constructions, in this region, makes me think they could be a set.  Though, of the three of them, this is the only one that was obviously, at some point, used for burial.”

“You think this location was repurposed?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “As I said, Nord ruins are not my area of expertise.”10

“So, if this is not typical, what other kind of burial grounds are there?” he asked, dropping his pack to take a closer look.

“Well, these days, Nords mostly use graveyards or temples of Arkay like everyone else.  But the ancient customs seem to include large tombs, like Folgunthur, that were used either for an important person, and their followers, or by many generations of a single family.  Some of those ‘tombs’, strangely enough, appear to be repurposed underground cities.”

Earmiel raised his eyebrows at that.

“I assume living underground makes more sense when there are dragons flying around,” she offered.  “It’s a bit hard to tell with the roofs missing but I think the size of the exterior arches of the ‘grand entrances’ of Ragnvald and Bleakfalls Barrow suggests they were actually built, not as fancy entrances, but to house a dragon.  I haven’t been inside either of them though, so… I can’t say for certain whether either of the interior locations indicates they were built by the dragon cult.”

Earmiel gave her a skeptical look over ‘dragon cult’ but she merely shrugged and continued on.  “There are also circular stone pits that serve as entrances to slightly less grand underground tombs.  These seem, from their decor, to have been built for guilds, or groups, of warriors.  As far as I know there aren’t any of those in the marsh. 

“Then there are these sort of stone dome structures with holes in the center of their roofs. These days you can still find some burial urns in them but I think if you dug into the ground you’d find centuries worth of bones.  I have no idea who used them originally but they mostly attract necromancers and spriggans these days.  There’s a few of them further south and east of here, I can show you. 

“There’s also something that looks a lot like a shallow version of the stone pit type tomb, only it’s filled with earth.  Some locals call them ‘dragon mounds’ but, as far as I can tell, there isn’t much agreement as to why they call them that besides the possibility a dragon might be buried there.  There’s one of those on a hill overlooking the southwestern edge of the marsh, if you’re interested.”

“Do all of them have these outlying stones?”

“Most, but not all, of the pit tombs and dragon mounds have outlying stones but they’re less common around the domed burial grounds.  Whether that’s by design or simply because the stone has been hauled off and used elsewhere I couldn’t say.  Though it would make sense to mark the edge of a hole in the ground…” she trailed off making a non-committal gesture at the ring before them.

“Intriguing,” Earmiel murmured.  “And the post and lintel set up in the center of these stones is local to the marsh?”

“Surrounded by outlying stones, yes, as far as I know.  Though similar post and lintel arches can be found marking pathways and such all over,” Alexa answered pulling her hood over her head.  The rain had started.  She eyed the abandoned shack on the next islet over.  There were worse ideas, she decided, then taking shelter in that place - like getting caught in this marsh in the rain and the dark.

“Any idea who would have used this place, or when?” Earmiel asked.

She shook her head. “The marsh has probably changed a great deal since it was built.  You’d have to ask an historian to find out who lived in the area.  Even then,” she shrugged.  “If you’re done for now, maybe we should get out of the rain?”

The shack was empty, but the blood of a few former occupants clearly stained places on the walls and floor. The door was still intact though so whatever had done it hadn’t broken in.

“Vampire?” Earmiel asked, inspecting a bloodstain he thought might be several years old.

“Dark Brotherhood,” Alexa replied, indicating a cage in the corner as she hung their wet cloaks up to dry. “They used to use this place for… various things.”

So close to whatever that heap of standing stones was?  Earmiel shivered.  That was unsettling.  “Is it safe to stay here?”

“The Brotherhood in Skyrim was all but eliminated about two years ago.  I don’t think you have to worry about them coming back here for a while.”

He watched her as she busied herself with laying a fire in the hearth.  The black staff strapped to her pack, now leaning up against the woodpile in the corner, had been bothering him all day.  Surely it couldn’t be what he thought it was… 

“It occurs to me that I never asked how well you know Dolly,” he noted, settling himself to one side of the fireplace, which he lit with a flick of his fingers.

“The Commander?” she asked, clearly surprised.

He nodded.

“Better than I know you, less well than I know Viarmo,” she replied evasively.  “Why?”

“Just trying to figure out how you got roped into being my guide.”

“Five days ago I received a very short note saying he would hold me personally responsible for your safe delivery to Morthal.  He seemed to think you might cause ‘an incident’ if left unattended and claimed he would blame me for any resulting damage.  I have to admit I found the idea of an Altmer who might start something, without first getting ambassador Elenwen’s approval, intriguing.”

“Okay… but why you?”

“Perhaps the Commander felt that, as the person who brought Joric to his attention, I might want to meet you,” she replied, drawing her pack over and taking out two bags of ingredients, a loaf of bread, and some cheese.

“You’re the one who told him a child might be naturally passing into an Adjacent Place?” he asked, watching her dice potatoes into the pot over the fire.

“You find that surprising?”

“Yes.  Not many adventurers, I think, would have knowledge of the Lessons of Vivec…” he paused, his lips quirking slightly in response to her expression.  “Yes, before you say it, I am sure you like to read, bard.  And no, I will not believe you if you tell me the Bards College had them just lying about. Or that a simple adventurer was capable of understanding them well enough to identify Adjacent Place travel when they saw it.  But, more than that, mentioning such a thing to a Thalmor Commander, rather than to, say, a member of the College of Winterhold, seems like an odd choice for someone not of the Dominion.”

She gave him a sidelong glance.  “I do like to read and have taken the opportunity in more places than the Bards College.  As to being a ‘simple adventurer’ I do not believe such a thing exists or, at least, not among those who have survived long enough to actually earn the title. And the College of Winterhold already had a representative in Morthal, their former master of conjuration, Falion. You’ll meet him tomorrow I’m sure.”

“And Dolly?”

“Yes, well, the situation came up in a rather silly conversation we were having and, as he was quite drunk at the time, I can’t say I actually expected him to remember.”

Earmiel considered that for a moment.  “You used him!” he suddenly gasped covering his mouth with both hands in contrived shock.  “You dropped the information into a random conversation in the hope he would follow it up.  You used him to gain access to resources you didn’t have!”

She laughed at that. “You have a very suspicious mind, adept.”  She paused to stir the contents of the pot over the fire.  “It is always so amusing to speak with mer.  Nords, you will learn, are almost universally dull conversationalists.”

“I had heard that Bretons nearly rival the Dunmer in their love of intrigue,” he replied, his eyes searching her face.  “I just never believed it could be true.”

“Indeed?  Then perhaps the world should be grateful we do not live long enough to hone our skills to the same extent as you mer,” she smiled slyly.

“But why take the chance?” he asked her, returning to his earlier question.  “Attempting to manipulate a Thalmor Commander...  It seems risky.”

“Perhaps.  But was it more dangerous than the alternative?” she replied.  “After all, if a person can pass from left to right, could not something else pass from right to left?  A doorway works in both directions, does it not?”

Earmiel was shocked into silence.  What would that post and lintel arch on the next island over have looked like other than a large, open, door?  Not that a door was necessary for such travel… but still.  “You are not a comforting person, you know that?” he told her finally.

“You have no idea, adept,” she replied quietly.

He realized suddenly that he had lost track of what she’d added to the pot above the fire.  It smelled good though.

“So you claim you’ve managed to have a silly conversation with Dolly?” Earmiel finally asked in a not so subtle attempt to break the silence that had fallen over them as she served him the chicken and potato stew.  “Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?”

“The Commander and I never have anything but ridiculous conversations,” she told him.  “His fault really for being pompous all the time.”

“You, dear lady, have my full and undivided attention,” he told her, taking his first bite of stew and humming slightly in satisfaction.  “How, by all the divines, do you manage that?”

“I suppose it started when he first approached me and introduced himself by announcing that I should be honored a member of the Thalmor had chosen to speak to me and that I should ‘bask’ in his presence.  I thought the fact anyone would actually say that was hilarious and also indicated a need to be taken down a peg.  Our conversation went sideways from there and has never really recovered.” 

“So you’re what now, verbal sparring partners, friends?”

She laughed.  “No adept.  I fear I am not on the Thalmor Commander’s list of friendly natives so much as his list of potential assets to be ‘handled with care’.”

Earmiel blinked. There was no way that was right. ‘Handle with care’ was a designation meant for people like members of the Elder Council or heads of the great houses of Morrowind, not simple adventurers no matter how well read.  “I’m told most people don’t realize they’re on a Thalmor subversion and recruitment list,” he offered carefully.

“Oh I don’t expect he believes I’ll ever be anything more than a potential asset,” she replied dryly.

Earmiel frowned. “That doesn’t sound like Dolly. He’s not really the type to fail in a venture.  Why would he put you on the list if he did not expect to succeed?”

“I assume because he feels that, while I am not currently a threat, I bear watching.”

“Sounds like he’s doing more than just watching,” Earmiel pointed out. “He seems to have put a great deal of time into you not to expect a return.”

“Perhaps he hopes I will inform him of any strange occurrences I come across?  Or, possibly, because I am a champion of a daedric prince,” she replied lightly.

Earmiel froze and then swallowed deliberately.  “So that really is the Wabbajack strapped to your pack?”

“It is.”

“You seem… awfully sane,” he offered tentatively.

She snorted.  “Of course I am.  What good would I be to the Prince of Madness if I were crazy?  He’s already insane; he doesn’t need my help with that.”  She lapsed into silence again her eyes going distant and unseeing. 

That was both ludicrous and, without doubt, one of the most terrifyingly rational things Earmiel had ever heard.  He put his bowl down carefully.  “Why am I here, Alexa?  Why did you risk yourself for this.”

“Risk?” she came back to herself with a slight start.  “Truthfully bringing something like this to the attention of the Commander is no risk. He is not the kind of man to throw away an asset merely because it is difficult to control.  As long as I pose no direct threat to the Dominion I am safe enough with him.”

“Why not just ask him to do what you wanted then?  Why make him investigate it himself?”

“You have spent several hours in the marsh now, tell me, does it feel completely natural to you?”


“And if yesterday I had tried to explain the uneasy tingle this place causes in the back of your mind, how the mist lies unnaturally thick in places, and tried to tell you that something weird was going on, would you have understood?”


“If the Commander had written his letter to you simply because I asked him to, the urgency of it, the validity, the truth of its content, would have rung hollow because its author would not have understood either.  In all likelihood you would not have come and whatever is happening here would not have been known outside the marsh itself.”

“Whatever this is it seems quite localized.  Is it truly so important to figure out?” Earmiel enquired.  “Is it because of the boy?”

“No,” she answered him softly, staring into the fire.  “It is because I am afraid.”  She sighed and pushed a strand of jet-black hair back from her face.  “The truth, adept, is that the daedric princes – all of them – are worried.  I do not, as yet, understand why.  But I know that each of the princes reaches into the world now, here in Skyrim, to take a champion. Several have even been successful… I do not know what it is they seek to influence but if it worries Mehruns Dagon it should scare the crap out of the rest of us.”

“And that’s why you told Dolly about the child in Morthal,” Earmiel surmised.  “You’re worried that whatever the daedra are afraid of is something that can pass through as the child does or that it is something he may bring back with him from wherever it is that he goes.”

“That and my limited experience with planes walking has convinced me that it is not a suitable activity for children,” she added wryly.

Earmiel burst out laughing. “I see why Dolly likes you,” he admitted with a grin.

“Who said that he does?” she enquired.

“No one,” Earmiel answered, still smiling.  “But how could he not?  You are beautiful, charming, well educated and absolutely deadly with a bow.  If I were at all interested in women I would almost certainly make a pass at you.”

“I’m flattered of course, but I’m afraid you strike me as rather high maintenance,” she replied laughing.

“You, dear girl, have absolutely no idea,” he chortled. “Dolly has lectured me on the subject on several occasions!”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Alright, I must ask… there’s no way the Commander likes being called that, right?”

This time Earmiel laughed until he was out of breath gasping and wheezing on the floor.  “I’m going to take that as a resounding ‘no’,” she told him.

“Wise of you,” he sighed, getting his breathing back under control.  “But no, Ondolemar does not particularly appreciate being called ‘Dolly’.  Even by childhood friends.  Which is, of course, what makes doing so completely irresistible.”

Chapter Text

Vilkas – Solitude

Corpulus gave Vilkas a worried look.  “Alexa? She left Solitude yesterday with some sort of Altmer scholar.  I think they were headed for Morthal.  Must have gone through the marsh if you didn’t pass them on the road.”

“See, brother,” Farkas said. “Just like Aela said.  Nothing to worry about.”

“All sorts of things can happen to a person in the marsh,” Vilkas growled before heading back out to the carriage.

Alexa – the Drajkmyr Marsh

The next day Alexa and Earmiel visited the Apprentice stone – which Alexa showed Earmiel how to activate – one of the domed burial grounds she’d described to him, and an impressive summoning circle.  Disturbingly enough a cartload of supplies just beyond the edge of the stones suggested that someone was using them. 

Earmiel had spent most of the day pushing boundaries.  Everything from the limits of Alexa’s education and interests to attempting to discover the bounds of what would be considered socially acceptable among Nords.

Far from being put off by his antics, Alexa had seemed amused, her responses actually encouraging his flamboyant behavior.  Every time he stepped up his game, she simply found a way to retaliate.  It was late afternoon when it struck him that he was cold, wet, covered in foul-smelling mud, and under constant threat of attack by everything from chaurus to mud-cabs to slaughter fish.  By rights he should have been miserable.  But he was actually having the best time he’d had in ages. Alexa was everything one could want in a conversational partner, well-read, witty, funny, and very fast on her feet. She also managed to hold some intriguing opinions he’d never heard before.  When questioned about this, over a briefly lunch of bread and cheese, she had admitted to a nearly eidetic memory.

By the time they arrived in Morthal, just before sunset, their relationship had evolved into something akin to good-natured sibling rivalry.  Earmiel, a consummate younger brother, was quietly pleased with Alexa’s willingness to step into the role of older sibling in their exchanges.

“It’s… a little gloomy,” Earmiel noted as they crossed over the bridge.

“I think I’m going to have to kill Aela,” Alexa groaned.

“Who?” he asked, as two conspicuously well armed and armored men, standing near the dock, caught sight of them.  The larger of the two waved a friendly greeting at Alexa.

“My interfering, gossip mongering, shield-sister,” Alexa answered him with a heavy sigh.

“I take it this chance meeting is unwelcome?” Earmiel asked, eyeing the approaching warriors.

“Not unwelcome so much as definitely not chance,” she muttered.

“Ah… well you are rather pretty.  I believe I told you as much we first met.”

“Don’t even start with me, mer,” she snapped, holding up a finger at him. 

“Touchy,” he laughed. “So which of these fine specimens are you giving the cold shoulder?”

She glared at him.

“Both?” Earmiel gasped. “My-my…”

“No, not both, and I thought I told you not to start with me.”

“If you don’t want them, can I have them?” he asked, lacing his fingers together in supplication. “I’ve always liked things that come in matched sets.”

“I’m beginning to see how the Commander though you might cause an incident,” she murmured, just as the two very large Nords drew up to them.  He looked them over with a knowing eye.  Yes… very nice.  Brothers, certainly, possibly even twins, and clearly warriors who knew what they were about.

“Shield-sister,” the slightly shorter of the two began, his body language radiating possessiveness over Alexa and barely restrained antagonism towards Earmiel.  “What brings you to Morthal?”

“Simple package delivery,” Alexa waved a hand at Earmiel.  “From the University in Summerset to the Jarl.”

Package?” Earmiel gasped, feigning shock.  “Well if that’s all I am to you…” he turned as if to stomp off in a huff but, instead, faked slipping in the mud and ended up clinging to the larger of the brothers for balance.

“See what I’ve been putting up with?” he heard Alexa sigh.  “And I still have to present him to the Jarl.”

“We’ll wait for you at the inn then,” the shorter of the two brothers replied.  “It’s too late to begin the trip back to Whiterun anyway.”

“So…” Earmiel whispered to her as they made their way to the Jarl’s hall.  “What’s making him so insecure about your relationship?”


“Really?” he drawled, smirking down at her.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Fine.  If I had to guess I’d say that he’s somewhat afraid I’m keeping more than one lover.”

“Are you?”


“Ah.  The comment about gossip mongering shield-sister makes a bit more sense now.”

She gave him a flat look as she put her hand on the door.

“So,” he grinned, pleased by her disapproval.  “Is the other one available?”

“Farkas?  As far as I know.  And I think the next time I see the Commander we are going to discuss you, at length.”

“Good, I like being the topic of conversation,” he declared, as they stepped into the Jarl’s residence.

“Alexa, you’re here!” a boy called out, trotting down the steep stairs from the second floor.  “Is this him?” he asked, skidding to a halt in front of them.

“I don’t know, Joric,” Alexa answered.  “You tell me.”

The boy gave Earmiel a puzzled frown.  “Not an Adept but a Master,” he began.  “The problem here seems interesting.  He is relieved to be away.  He believes he has to reassess ‘Dolly’s’ motivations.  And he is wondering if Farkas would be willing...”

“Miss Alexa said you had the Sight,” Earmiel cut the boy off before he could inform the room exactly what Earmiel was hoping Farkas would be willing to do.  “I see she did not overstate things.”

“Farkas would be willing, if you ask nicely.  And thane Alexa never over states things,” Joric confided with a wrinkle of his nose.  “I can’t tell if she understates things on purpose or if she’s just so different from everyone else she doesn’t know what normal is.”

“I’d give you odds on the second option,” Earmiel laughed, glancing sideways at Alexa who responded with a very rude gesture he was surprised she knew.

“My Jarl,” Alexa began, making her way to the other end of the hall.  “Please allow me to introduce Master, it seems, Earmiel Larethaire of Alinor.  He’s a giant pain in the ass but both knowledgeable and willing to learn. As long as he and Falion don’t burn the place down while showing off to each other I’d say you’re in good hands.”

“I’ll have you know it is very wet around here,” Earmiel hissed to Alexa as he stepped by her to present himself to the Jarl.

“Do not worry young man,” the Jarl chuckled to the Altmer probably more than ten years her senior.  “Coming from our thane that was not insignificant praise. Welcome.”

“Your things arrived this morning and have been stored at the inn,” the man standing by the fire pit added. “If you decide you wish to stay we will rebuild the house beside the Inn for you.  I am sure you must be quite tired from all your wanderings today.  We can save introducing you to the town until the morning.”

“I take it the father is going to be something of a problem?” Earmiel asked, as they stepped back out into the mud and snow.

“Nords don’t trust magic,” Alexa replied.  “Nords that live in liminal, magically unstable, death marshes, even more so than others.  Among the locals there is some feeling that having a Jarl mired in visions could be a cause of worsening local conditions rather than a result of them.  Their fear is being stoked by outside forces.  Aslfur’s reaction to the growing danger to his family is understandable but regrettable.  Standing between the Jarl and her people will not allay fears or ease rising tensions.”

“I can’t imagine having a mage from the College here has helped any,” Earmiel observed.

“True,” she admitted. “Adding a mage from Alinor isn’t going to help much either.”

“Any suggestions on how to win them over?”

“Jarl Idgrod and Joanna, the innkeeper, will accept you until you do something suspicious.  The children should be fairly accepting, candy and some fun with Illusion magic can usually buy their affection.  Idgrod the Younger will probably put off judgment until you prove whether or not you can help her brother.  Falion’s a mage, treat him like an equal and you’ll do fine. Benor’s a local tough.  Drink him under the table once and you’ll be alright in his eyes.  As far as the principle residents go that just leaves Lami and Jorgen…  How good are you with alchemy?”

He shrugged.  “Enough to harvest materials and to know that it’s not one of my strengths.”

“Lami is the local alchemist.  Bring her any reagents you find while in the marsh, and be willing to discuss alchemy with her, and you’ll have a new best friend.  If she likes you Jorgen shouldn’t be a problem.”

“So you’re advice is: win over the women and children and the men will have to play nice?” he asked, amused.

“Just about,” she replied with a smile, pushing open Falion’s door.

Falion looked up as they entered.  “Alexa, it is good to see you.”

She held out the bag with the two skulls in it.  “Two fishermen, dead only a few days,” she informed him.  “Not killed by anything I recognize.”

Falion took the bag from her, up-ending it on the table.  “Where?” he asked, picking up one of the skulls to inspect it.

“Halfway between the standing stones across from the docks and Folgunthur.”

The mage nodded.  “I’ll look into it.  You didn’t tell anyone else did you?”

Alexa gave him a reproving look.  “I’m a thane of Hjaalmarch doing my duty.  There is no need to involve the Jarl as long as the matter is dealt with.  You will deal with it, won’t you?”

“I will certainly try. Though where these things keep coming from…” he threw up his hands and then turned to Earmiel.  “I assume you are the mage the Thalmor Commander sent for?”

“Master Earmiel Larethaire of the University of Summerset, Master Falion, formerly of the College of Winterhold, consider yourselves introduced,” Alexa said with a wave of her hand.

“A pleasure,” Earmiel bowed slightly.

Falion nodded.  “You may not think so in a month or two,” he warned. “As anyone will tell you, Morthal can be a dangerous place.  Attempting to maintain order here is not an easy task.  I… will not turn down any help you are willing to offer.”

“I look forward to the challenge, then,” Earmiel replied.

“She seems fine, brother,” Farkas observed as they settled around a table in the inn to wait for Alexa to join them.  “But I don’t think she was happy to see us,” he added.

“You picked up on that, did you?” Vilkas growled.

“She’s never been the type to take a shield-sibling with her on jobs,” Farkas pointed out.  “She likes her time alone.”

“No,” Vilkas told him sourly.  “She doesn’t. That’s why she picked up Meeko in the first place.”  What she likes is time with attractive and well-educated mages, he thought angrily, remembering the sound of Alexa’s voice before she’d come into view.  He might not have been able to hear the actual content of her conversation with the mage but their tone had been that of playful banter similar to the one she’d used when talking with Marcurio.  It wasn’t a tone he could recall her ever using with him.

He was a Nord, of course. Banter of that sort was not something he had any training in or had ever thought to practice.  Actions spoke louder than words in Skyrim but, once your actions had gained you your love’s heart, what then?  In the last two months he’d come to realize that there was plenty of time, even in the life of a Companion, in which you weren’t fighting, training, or cleaning armor.  Time which living under the same roof, as he and Alexa did, meant was available to interact with each other.  Enough time even that not all of it could be spent in lovemaking, whatever the first week or so of their relationship might have indicated.  Over the last six weeks they’d taken to filling the downtime they spent together, not with talk, but by reading curled up together on his bed. And, until a moment ago, he’d been happy with that. 

But the tone of Alexa’s voice had indicated she was enjoying herself; that, whatever else the conversation had been, it was also a game.  A game Vilkas didn’t know how to play.  Having things to talk about, beyond stories of his daring deeds and offering input on anything that had gone wrong in her latest job, had never occurred to him as being necessary.  It had also never occurred to him that he would fall for someone who, when asked about an altercation with a troll in the ruins of Labyrinthian, would respond with a comment about wards and soul-siphons rather than wanting to get some tips on the best ways to handle fighting in half-melted snow.1  Furthermore, recognizing that Alexa didn’t find him to be an engaging conversational partner only made the time she’d had spent, alone, with someone that was, more troubling.

Farkas gave him a concerned look.  “I don’t think you have anything to be worried about, brother.”

Vilkas glowed at Farkas and took a long swig of ale.  Farkas wasn’t wrong, exactly.  Alexa was safe and she probably wasn’t cheating on him with a mage she’d only met two days ago.  But Farkas’ attempt to imply that she wasn’t intending to leave him was wrong.  She’d been clear, from the beginning, on her intention to do so, in just a few months time.  And, after hearing the amusement, and joy, contained within her interactions with Earmiel, he was, for the first time, uncertain that he would be able to convince her to stay.

Chapter Text

Upon returning to the Moorside Inn, after introducing Earmiel to Falion, Alexa had gone straight to bed.  After two full days with the flamboyant Earmiel she was exhausted.

Vilkas joining her, around ten, followed, less than five minutes later, by the sound of armor enthusiastically hitting the floor in the next room, woke Alexa enough to decide that earplugs might be in order.  Mentally adding yet another correct prediction to Joric’s tally she attempted to sit up only to have Vilkas pull her back down.  The move caught her so by surprise that her only immediate response was an irritated huff and a wriggle of annoyance.  The arms around her tightened pulling her body flush against him.

It was somewhat amazing, she reflected, as she strained slightly against his arms – in an attempt to indicate that she really had wanted to sit up – that he’d managed to fit himself onto the single bed with her.  She gave another huff of annoyance, when the arms around her tightened further, and gave up. She was still too sleepy to really struggle.

“I have to admit,” she whispered, after a particularly loud crash in the next room, “I didn’t know Farkas was interested in men.”

“Farkas’ approach to sex is to say ‘yes’ to anyone who asks and otherwise not think about it,” Vilkas informed her, with a soft chuckle.

That sounded about right, Alexa thought, snuggling a bit deeper under the blanket. 

She gave a small whimper of complaint when Vilkas loosened his grip on her only to tug at the drawstring of the roughspun trousers she slept in.  He rumbled soothingly, deep in his chest, in response as he slipped his hand beneath the waistband, his other hand working its way up under her shirt to palm her breasts.  Alexa’s breath caught as his fingers found their mark between her legs.  Chuckling softly he pressed his lips to the top of her head and rolled his hips. 

Alexa gave up on the idea of going back to sleep and pressed back against him in return.  She could feel him smile against her hair as he rumbled softly with pleasure at her easy acceptance. 

“Shall we see if we can outlast my brother and his new friend?” he whispered to her with another roll of his hips.

They were headed towards Labyrinthian, the next morning, when an amusingly perkier than usual Farkas suddenly stopped.  “Silver,” he told them.

“I smell it too,” Vilkas agreed just as twelve armed men stepped out of hiding on either side of the road.

“I thought those dead frostbite spiders were a little odd,” Alexa noted, eyeing the silver swords each of the men were carrying.

“There are no draugr to distract us out here!” the large, shave headed, man announced, addressing himself to the twins.  “This time you die, dogs!”

“Yeah, um, hi,” Alexa interrupted him.  “I’m not a werewolf.  Does that mean I can go?”

“You knowingly associate with werewolves,” the man snapped at her.  “That makes you as guilty as they are!”

“Right, no, obviously,” she muttered, lifting a glowing hand.  “Sheogorath preserve me, I hate zealots.”

“You won’t risk changing in the open where anyone could see you,” sneered a second man at the twins. “Not with your precious Companion honor on the line.”

“Twelve against three is honorable, is it?” Vilkas demanded as he readied himself. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alexa release a spell and vanish.

“You don’t need honor when you’re just putting down dogs!” the first man snarled just as Alexa reappeared behind him, her left hand catching his forehead and tipping his head back to expose his neck.  Vilkas watched in surprise as she, very professionally, cut the man’s throat, and then vanished again before the body hit the dirt.

The situation immediately dissolved into chaos as the rest of the Silver Hand sprung into action.

“What in Oblivion was that?” Vilkas demanded, turning on Alexa, the moment the last member of the Silver Hand was down.

“That?  An efficient way of dealing with greater numbers,” she told him as she turned away.

Vilkas caught her arm and pulled her around to face him.  “A Companion should have more honor than to fight using Illusion magic,” he growled at her.

“I’m sorry, but we were rather significantly outnumbered by men who had no intention of fighting fair,” she pointed out.

“Honor is not about what your enemy is worth, it is about what you are worth!” Vilkas snapped.

“Says the man who promised his soul to a daedric prince in return for inhuman strength and speed,” she replied, mildly.  “Where’s the honor in that?”

“I thought you didn’t have a problem with werewolves,” Farkas interrupted, his tone confused, his brow furrowed.

“I don’t.  What I have a problem with is the idea that being a werewolf is somehow more honorable than using magic.”1

“It is!” Vilkas snapped. “Being a werewolf affects only yourself. It does not change others.  It does not make them do or say things they otherwise would not!”

“At least I’m still me when I use it!” Alexa snapped back.  “Are you still you when you shift?”

“Why do you think I don’t,” he yelled at her.  “At least I have the self-control necessary to fight like a true warrior rather than resorting to trickery!”

“You call this self-control?” Alexa demanded, gesturing at all of him.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Vilkas growled.

“The fact you’re yelling right now seems proof enough of your lack of control,” she replied, her voice suddenly low and calm.

“Maybe it’s just proof of how frustrating you mages are!”

Alexa drew herself up, her hands balling into fists.  “I am one of the five most gifted mages in all of Tamriel.  A fact I revealed to a fair number of people, endangering my own life, when I saved yours,” she told him coldly.  “A situation you seemed fine with at the time.”

“That was when I still believed you had the sense to restrict yourself to healing magic!” Vilkas shouted at her.  “Illusion is a different thing entirely!”

“You know what, fine! If that’s the way you’re going to be,” Alexa threw up glowing hands and she, and Meeko, disappeared.2

There was silence between the brothers as they stood looking at the spot they could both tell the woman and her dog no longer stood.

“Shit,” Vilkas muttered.

“If not being able to see where she is in the middle of a fight scares you, perhaps you should tell her that?” Farkas suggested mildly.


His twin shrugged. “When she disappeared the second time, you almost panicked.”

“I…”  Vilkas groaned.  “You’re probably right.”

“Perhaps you should go after her?”

“No,” Vilkas sighed.  “At this point I’d just make it worse.  I’ll talk to her back at Jorrvaskr after we’ve both had time to cool off.”

It was mid-afternoon when Kodlak looked up to find Alexa closing the door to his sitting room behind her.  “Something troubling you, child?” he asked.

“I am here to answer the question you asked me the night I healed Farkas and Vilkas,” she told him.

He gestured for her to be seated.  “I am listening,” he told her gently.

“The answer is unfortunately simple,” she said, meeting his eyes squarely.  “I am a Beast Master of Hircine.”

Kodlak raised both eyebrows at that.  “A Beast Master… I see.  That explains much, though not how a Breton Grand Master of Restoration came to participate in a Forsworn religious rite.”

“I didn’t, at least, not intentionally.  I met a werewolf while I was still with the Dawnguard.  He wanted to be free of the curse.  The solution he had come to had made things worse.  The change now came to him unbidden and at the worst of times. He had concluded that his actions had angered Hircine and the prince was punishing him.  He asked that I hunt the white stag for him – since his situation did not allow for it – and ask Hircine what he could do to regain the prince’s favor.”

“You’ve hunted the white stag?” Kodlak asked in surprise.

She nodded.  “When Hircine appeared he told me there was nothing that could be done for the werewolf but that I could earn a prince’s favor by killing him myself.”


“I refused, but Hircine told me he had already called upon a number of his followers to hunt the werewolf in His name.  It was to be a competition for His favor, you see, which hunter could kill the werewolf first.  So I went to warn the werewolf and ended up killing the hunters instead.  I thought Hircine would be mad.  But He was pleased. I had ‘turned the chase inside out’ proving myself a better hunter than His cultists in the process.  To show His favor he gifted me His ring.”  She snorted derisively to herself.  “I had thought I was angry before His little speech about how amusing it had all been.”

“And so you did something foolish,” Kodlak almost smiled.

“I was tired, coming off an adrenaline high, and I had just murdered a dozen men and women because a daedric prince was being an asshole.  The injustice of it all pissed me off… divines help me, I snapped.  I threw the ring back in His spectral face and told Him exactly what I thought about everything that had happened.”

“And?” Kodlak prodded.

“He laughed, took physical form, and told me that if I would not be one of His hunters then I would be His prey.”

“How did you survive?” Kodlak asked softly.

“I ran.  I thought that when Masser set His hold on the world would weaken and hoped it would be enough to send His avatar back to Oblivion.”

“Was it?”

“I don’t know.  When He caught up to me the moon was just sinking below the horizon.  I had taken four arrows and I had been unable to fully heal the last arrow wound.  My magic was gone, and I was bleeding out.”

She closed her eyes remembering the moment.  The feel of the bark as she slid down the trunk of a large fir tree, her legs, trembling with fatigue and blood loss, refusing to take another step.  Her hands, clutching the wound in her side, were sticky with her own blood.  The sound of her breath coming in short shallow gasps and the slight puff of mist her breath made in the cold air.  Her vision blurring around the edges as the prince, in the form of a very tall man dressed like a Foresworn hunter, sauntered towards her twirling an arrow between His fingers.  The searing agony as He drove the arrow into the soft flesh beneath her collarbone causing her vision to go white.

His breath against her cheek as He whispered to her.  It was a good hunt.  It is rare a mortal survives more than one of my arrows.  You have taken five, stood for the hound against the hunter, and even attempted to turn this hunt against Me.  I name you Beast Master.  The moon-born are yours to use as you see fit.  His fingers were scorching in comparison to hers - icy from blood loss and exposure – as He grabbed her right hand and jammed His ring over the first finger. Keep my ring.  Give it to one you favor.

“What happened?” Kodlak asked, his voice drawing her back to the present.

“He skewered me to a tree, told me He’d enjoyed the hunt, gave me His ring again, and declared me a Beast Master.”  She placed the ring on the table between them as proof.  “Then He left.”

“So what has finally caused you to tell me all of this?” Kodlak asked.

“After this morning… I worry that I may be a danger to the Circle,” she told him, her voice suddenly soft.

“This morning?”

“Vilkas and I fought.  What he said… it made me angry enough, almost, to use Hircine’s gift against him.  Given what the Circle are, the simple fact that I am capable of such a thing, urge to use it aside, seems… problematic.”

“I see,” was all Kodlak could say.

She ran a hand, restlessly, through her dark hair.  “If I were not already planning to leave with the first snow I would be taking this as an indication that it was time for me to move on.  As it is…”

“What did he say?” Kodlak interrupted gently.

“Nothing new,” she shrugged. “Though it was more hurtful under current circumstances than it had been previously.  Either way, it is my reaction that bothers me.”  She sighed softly and straightened in her chair.  “My intention to leave, in a few months time, remains the same but, now that you are aware of my – title – I can help you, if you ask.  I am told it is what it means to be a Beast Master.”

“Help me?” Kodlak enquired.

“Vilkas has told me of your search for a cure.  As a Beast Master I am compelled both to help you and to warn you that Hircine may not be pleased,” she informed him.  “Unfortunately I do not, at this point, know how to remove the curse of lycanthropy. But, if you want my help, I will try to give it before I leave.”

Kodlak nodded thoughtfully. “It is said the Glenmoril once knew how to remove the beast-blood,” he told her, accepting her shift in topic.

“The who?” she asked.

“The Glenmoril Wyrd was a coven of witches that worshipped Hircine,” Kodlak explained.  “One of my predecessors, a good but short-sighted man, made a bargain with them.  It is how the beast-blood first came to the Companions.  There used to be a great many of the Glenmoril in the world.  Now… I don’t know.”

“Maybe there are still some among the hagravens in the Reach?” Alexa murmured to herself.  “They live a long time and are known to worship daedra...  I will look into it.”

“If you find an answer, let me know,” Kodlak told her softly.

She nodded in assent before picking Hircine’s ring back up off the table and disappearing back out into the hall.

Farkas’ had insisted that Vilkas not leave talking to Alexa until the next day.  So they’d put their Hircine gifted endurance to the test getting back to Jorrvaskr by about seven o’clock in the evening rather than spending the night somewhere on the plane.  After more than ten hours of walking in full armor they were both feeling the pace they’d kept.

Aela gave the twins a slightly concerned look when they entered.

“Is Alexa back?” Farkas asked her as Vilkas ignored the other people in the hall grabbing a bowl of stew and some bread before heading for the stairs.

“About four hours ago,” Aela answered.  “She’s not here though.  She spoke with Kodlak and then went to Arcadia’s.”

“Good,” Farkas nodded glancing in Vilkas’ direction.

“What happened?” Aela asked, watching as Vilkas disappeared down the stairs without a word to anyone.

“They had a fight this morning,” Farkas told her.  “It was bad.”

“How bad?”

“I thought she was going to punch him,” he admitted.  “He would have deserved it too.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Aela sighed.  “But I’d hoped they were past it.  How’d she get back so far ahead of you?”

“Horse, maybe?” Farkas shrugged.  “I’m just glad she came back at all.”

“Why don’t you meet me in the Underforge, after you’ve eaten, and tell me what happened,” she suggested.

Vilkas was relieved to see that Alexa’s stuff was still in his room.  He ate quickly, bathed, and settled in to clean his armor.  It was nearing nine o’clock when his straining ears caught the sound of Alexa’s footsteps in the hall.

“You’re back,” she noted, coming to a halt in the doorway.

“I am,” he agreed, turning away from his armor.

She nodded but didn’t move to enter his room.

He sighed and rubbed awkwardly at the back of his neck.  These were not the type of conversations he was good at.  “We need to talk about what happened,” he told her, rising to his feet. “Not just as lovers but as shield-siblings.”

“Alright.”  She stepped into his room, closed the doors behind her, and then leaned up against them.

Silence stretched between them.  It seemed he would have to start. 

“Alexa, you snuck up behind a man and slit his throat like you were trained for it.  The Companions are not assassins.”

“Neither am I,” she replied steadily.  “But my first weapons instructor was a Nightblade.  As a wealthy Breton lady I was trained for hunting from horseback and murder in back halls.  I guess I just slip back into that way of fighting when badly outnumbered.”

“It is difficult to watch your back, shield-sister, when I cannot see it,” he told her.  “You should trust your shield-brothers to buy you the time and distance you need, as Aela does.”

“Understood.  I will try to do better in future.”  She pushed away from the door.  “If that is everything?”

He grabbed her hand as she turned to leave.  “No,” he croaked, and quickly cleared his throat.  “No.  I over reacted.  I’m sorry. I just… In situations like that I don’t like not being able to see where you are.”

“I don’t care for yelling, Vilkas,” she informed him.  “And I don’t care for being followed around like I need you to watch over me.”

“What?” he blinked at her, caught off guard.

“There’s been no job request from anywhere near Morthal in months,” she told him.  “I asked. Meaning, that there was no good reason for you and Farkas to be there when I arrived.  Why were you following me?”

“You, yourself, admit to being wanted by the Thalmor,” he reminded her carefully.

“What of it?”

“Ondolemar is an Altmer name.  He asked you to meet someone from Summerset.  It could have been a setup.”

Alexa blinked once. “You read my mail?”

“Does it matter?”

“It’s rude and shows a significant lack of trust in both me and our relationship?” she suggested as if her answer was obvious.

“How can I trust in our relationship when I already know it is going to end?” he demanded.

“By understanding that it will end out of necessity not out of a lack of, or change in, sentiment,” she responded, sadly. 

“From what I read, you could have been in danger!” he countered, unwilling to simply let his hurt, and the worry of the last few days, go.

“Ondolemar is a friend,” she said, dismissing his objection with a wave of her hand.  “I was in no danger.”

“And how would I know that when you’re too embarrassed by our relationship to introduce me to your friends!” he yelled, upset by her dismissing his concern out of hand.

“I introduced you to my Dawnguard friends less than two weeks ago!” she snapped back.

“Exactly!  Why would you introduce me to them and not to your friends in the Reach?  What are you hiding?”

“I wasn’t going to the Reach!”

“Hjaalmarch then!”

“You were rude to Serana!”

“She’s a vampire…”

“And my friend.  If I can’t trust you to at least be polite to my friends why, in the names of all the divines, would I introduce you to more of them?  Besides, if you read my mail, as it seems you did, you should have known that the person I was meeting was a stranger.”

“A stranger that could have been a Thalmor agent trying to capture you!”

“A situation I not only could have handled myself but am better equipped to recognize than you!” she responded heatedly.

“A situation that would have been easier to handle if I was there to help you!” Vilkas argued.  “If you weren’t hiding something then why didn’t you take me with you?”

Alexa went still.  “Has my right to choose whom I take with me, on the jobs I accept, changed, shield-brother?” she asked him finally.

“No,” he answered quietly, very aware that he had just crossed some sort of line, though what exactly that line was he wasn’t certain.

“Do you know, or care, about the theory of Adjacent Places?” she asked him steadily.

“I don’t even know what that means,” he admitted.

“Then tell me how you would have handled two days in a marsh, with an effete Altmer mage, discussing various magical theories and how they pertain to the fact the Jarl of Morthal’s son frequently finds himself on a plane other than this one!”

Vilkas sank onto his bed with a heavy sigh.  “I would have felt useless.”

“You would have been restless and irritable and miserable.  Which is exactly why I went without you.”

She let him draw her to him and rest his forehead against her stomach.  “It was an important job,” she told him gently.  “I know the marsh and I know enough magical theory to know what kinds of things a scholar might need to know about if he’s going to help Joric. I was the best choice of escort. I’m sorry that you were worried but...”

“You would make the same decision again,” Vilkas finished for her, his voice slightly muffled by her sweater.


He sighed heavily and leaned back a little to look up at her.  “You are right, of course, but… I begin to doubt, and to worry, when I cannot see where you are.”

“Vilkas, I’m not embarrassed by our relationship,” she told him a little sadly.  “Nor am I seeing anyone else.  But if your need for control is going to extend to trying to control me, then we should just call it quits now before my need for independence cause us to tear each other apart.”

He tightened his arms around her at that.  “No. I’m sorry.  I’ll try to do better.  Just, if you’re going to leave me behind for future jobs, at least tell me why.”

“No,” she replied gently, but firmly.  “We may be lovers, Vilkas, but we are also Companions.  When I take a job you are going to have to trust that I will chose to take the appropriate people with me just like the rest of the Companions do. That is the only way this is going to work.”

Later, even with Vilkas sleeping contentedly beside her, Alexa found herself staring sleeplessly at the ceiling.  She’d allowed herself to forget, for a while, the concerns she’d had about becoming involved with Vilkas.  But forgotten, she realized, was not the same as resolved.

She groaned and rolled out of bed.  She was obviously still too angry to get any sleep lying next to Vilkas.  But there were still open beds in the whelp’s room.  She put on her nightclothes, and padded out into the hall.

Farkas’ door was open.

At the soft sound of Vilkas’ door closing, Farkas stood up from behind the bar.  “Hey,” he smiled at her.

“Hey,” she answered back.

“Everything alright, shield-sister?” he asked, gesturing for her to come in and take a seat.

“What’s the strongest thing you’ve got?” she asked, accepting his offer.

He handed her a Honningbrew mead.  “You want to talk about it?”


Farkas nodded.  “He didn’t mean it, you know.  He just panicked.”

She nodded.

Farkas gave her a worried look.  “He did apologize, right?”

“It’s not only what he said,” she said, slumping forward onto the bar.  “It’s how he said it.”  And the fact that he was there to say it at all, her mind added.

Farkas cocked his head. “You mean the yelling?  He was afraid, not angry.”

She sighed, raising her head enough to take a swig of mead before resting her chin on her hands.  “I’ve never liked being around people who lose their tempers like that,” she finally confided.  “I don’t like… no, I hate the way I respond to it.”

Farkas gave her a curious look.

“I get the overwhelming urge to beat them into the ground until they would never dare to raise their voice to me again,”3 she told him quietly.

“So you ran away instead,” Farkas said, understanding.

“Better that than trying to kill him,” she replied softly.

“Perhaps not better than just punching him,” Farkas suggested.

“Assuming I stopped punching him,” she countered.

“Vilkas can take a punch or two,” he told her.  “Besides, I would have stopped you from really hurting him.”

“If I’d actually decided to hurt him, I could have ordered you not to interfere,” she told him morosely.

Farkas froze, looking at her with wide eyes.

“Like I told you; not a part of my personality I care for.”

“Vilkas… has a temper,” Farkas informed her slowly.  “Always has. Worse since taking the blood.  Even if he regrets it, he can’t promise it won’t happen again.”

“I know.”  She sighed heavily.  “I suppose it’s true that physical attraction only gets you so far in a relationship.”

“You love him though, right?”

Do I?  she wondered.  Right now she was still angry enough she wasn’t sure.  “Is it really possible he thinks I’m cheating on him?” she whispered.

Farkas’ eyebrows met over his nose.  “When would you have had time for that?” he asked.  “This was the first time you’d been apart since you got together.”

“I think he believes I had another lover before we started sleeping together,” she explained.

“Wouldn’t the other lover be the one you were cheating on then?” Farkas asked.

Alexa smiled softly at that. “An excellent point.  And if he ever asks me directly about my other lover I will remember it.”

“Could be he’s just worried about losing you,” Farkas offered.

“That was always going to happen.  He assured me he understood...”

“There’s losing you and there’s losing you,” Farkas said, shaking his head.  “Could be he’s more worried about feelings – and what you think of him – than if you’re still sleeping together.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, frowning up at him.

“Vilkas, he was the smart one around here,” Farkas told her seriously.  “Until you came.  You though, even elven scholars respect you.  He can’t compete with that.”

“So it’s not just that he doesn’t trust me it’s that he doesn’t trust… the entire world?” she asked, a little wryly.

“You can’t trust the world,” Farkas told her solemnly.  “It’s trying to kill you.”

Alexa stared at him, momentarily stunned, and then burst out laughing.  “I think I shall begin compiling a book of sayings of the great philosopher Farkas’,” she chuckled.  “To remind myself of the bitter truth whenever I get too stuck in my own head.”

Chapter Text

Alexa –
You should know, your friend Taran has been thrown into Cidhna Mine.  Find me in Markarth if you want the details.
– Endon

Ondolemar’s man at the gate had informed him that Alexa was in Markarth but it was unlikely he’d see her.  Elenwen was holding another of her parties, in three days, and so Ondolemar’s presence was required at the embassy.  It was disappointing but there wasn’t much to be done about it.

“There’s been a disturbance in the city,” one of the keep’s guards was telling the Jarl as Ondolemar passed by.  “Seems someone has taken exception to thane Taran being thrown into Cidhna mine.”

“Thane Taran has been thrown into the mine?” Igmund asked, clearly surprised.  “On whose orders?”

“The Guard Captain’s, apparently,” the guard replied.  “Something about him murdering someone in the temple of Talos a few days ago.”

“Someone was murdered in the temple of Talos?” Igmund demanded incredulously.  “Why was that not reported to me either?”

Ondolemar shook his head slightly and continued past the throne room and down the stairs.  If the Jarl was about to discover how much of the city the Silver-Bloods ran without his say so...  No. Elenwen’s party was more important than one, frankly, powerless jarl even on the day he might actually figure it out.

“It’s a good day for you, huh elf,” one of the guards at the front door sneered as Ondolemar approached him. “What with the Guard Captain leaving town and everything.”

“What’s the world coming to when a Nord can’t stand up for what he believes in,” the other guard agreed morosely.

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” Ondolemar informed them both as he passed out of the keep.  As he stepped out from under the portico and onto the stairs down into the city a scream caught his attention, above the sound of the waterfall, as a well-dressed man Ondolemar vaguely recognized as Thonar Silver-Blood stumbled out of the Treasury House and ran for the street.  A ball of dark blue energy hit him in the back before he’d even made it to the stairs.

“Soul trap?” Ondolemar heard his guard – Tantha – exclaim under her breath. 

Weren’t there laws about that sort of thing in the Empire,1 he wondered, trying to remember?

The combination of the man’s inertia, the stairs, and the paralysis spell that followed, flipped him head-over-feet.  He hit the ground hard, gasping for air, and unable to move.  Then Alexa was on him, a dagger pressed against his throat.

“You can’t do this to me!” Thonar screamed at her, loudly enough to be heard over the waterfall, as the spell wore off.  “I’m a Silver-Blood!  Guards! Help!”

“Tell me what you did with Taran,” Alexa growled, voice vibrating through the air in a way that was both unnatural and deeply intimidating.  “Or I will rip out your soul and feed it to the Ideal Masters.”

Ondolemar put a hand out to stop the city guard who was about to step forward.  “I think I would find somewhere else to be,” he advised. “Unless whatever the Silver-Bloods are paying you is worth dying for.”

The guard hesitated for a moment before turning and disappearing into the Keep.

The man, apparently realizing no one was coming to help him, responded but, unlike Alexa, his speaking voice did not carry above the roar of the waterfall.  The tone of panic in it, however, did.

“You had better not be lying to me,” Alexa told him, before knocking him unconscious with a single blow to the jaw.  Then she stood up, dusted herself off, and walked back into the house.

It seemed Alexa was here to handle the situation with Taran.  He should have expected that.  Ondolemar smiled softly to himself.  Elenwen’s party was going to have to wait.

Even before the escaping prisoners had fully entered the room Alexa had the last of the spiders down.

“Taran,” Alexa called out, waving to him before dropping lightly from the ledge to the floor in front of him. “There you are!”

“Who are you?” a large Orc demanded, shouldering forward.

“Taran’s blood-sister, who are you?” she spat stepping aggressively towards him a spectral dagger appearing in her hand.

“Whoa, Beast Master,” Taran jumped in before anyone else could react.  “No need to feel threatened.  We’re all friends here.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly as she banished the dagger, grabbed his chin, and turned his face to the floating light above her head.  She hissed at the bruising on his cheek and jaw.  “How’d you get these?” she demanded, her voice low and deadly, as her hands began to glow.

“Guards,” he answered, as the bruises faded away.  “Thanks. I, uh, didn’t expect to see you here...”

“You going to introduce us, boy?” the eldest member of the group demanded sternly.

“Ah, right. Grandfather, allow me to introduce Alexa, Beast Master of Hircine, and my blood-sister.  Alexa, this is my grandfather Madanach, King of the Forsworn.”

Alexa gave the old man a frosty once over before turning back to Taran.  “I heard what happened and why.  You got this?” she asked, her eyes searching his face.

He nodded.

“Alright.  The surface is this way.”

“How’d you…” Taran began, trotting to catch up with her. 

“Get here or find you?” she supplied, ignoring the rest of the prisoners now following behind them.


“Endon sent a courier when you got nabbed.  After talking to him I had a chat with the Guard Captain and then Thonar Silver-Blood. Thonar told me about this little rat run they’d constructed to move orders between the mine and the city.  I also got a handy dandy little accounts book of all the Silver-Bloods off book expenditures.  It will make for fascinating reading I’m sure.”

“Must have been some ‘chat’,” she heard someone behind her mutter.

“I have to admit though, I wasn’t planning on rescuing anyone but you,” she announced, a little louder than was probably necessary, and cast a quelling look back over her shoulder. 

“Maybe a change of attire and some hoods?” Taran suggested as they passed a newly downed steam centurion. “You?”

She grinned at him. “I love centurion cores.  I take every opportunity to collect them.”

“Meaning that thing was powered on even with people passing back and forth?”

“I’d say Aicantar is a little further along in his studies than he likes his uncle to believe.”

“Good for him,” Taran commented, sounding actually impressed.

“Yeah, I wish I had known. I would have spent more time talking with him!” Alexa laughed as they came around the final corner.  Taran stopped dead in his tracks.  Surprised she looked in the direction he was and saw, up ahead of them, leaning against the dwarven metal doors, arms folded across his chest, a figure dressed in a hooded black and gold robe.

“Problem?” Madanach asked Taran softly as Alexa started forward.

“Hard to tell,” Taran answer as he began walking again, staying a few paces behind her this time.

“Commander,” she smiled at Ondolemar, stopping at a conversational distance, just out of arms reach, from him.  “I can honestly say that this is a surprise.”

“Surely you did not think today's goings on had gone unnoticed?” he replied with a slight smirk.

“Which part?” she asked, playfully.  “The part where I threatened to throw the Guard Captain off a tower if his corrupt, Stormcloak sympathizing, ass didn’t leave town or the part where I indicated I intended to rip out Thonar Silver-Blood’s soul and gift it to the Ideal Masters?”

“While neither event escaped my attention the second one did stand out enough to convince me that I would find you here.  And here you are.”

“And here you are as well,” she pointed out.  “May I assume your presence indicates you’ve decided to play a part in this little escapade?”

He looked, over the top of her head, at Taran and the group of men behind him.  “Do you have a plan for moving six men out of Markarth unnoticed?” he asked as if nothing unusual were going on.

“As I only planned on moving one, no,” she replied easily.  “Are you implying that you might be willing to help with that?”

“For a price,” he agreed.

“I believe we are all listening, Commander,” Alexa told him.

“Among the latest group of Justiciars sent to me from Alinor there is a particularly inept individual,” he informed her casually.  “Normally this would not concern me except that he is also rather overzealous as well as needlessly cruel.  He may even have gone so far as to poison one of the Jarl’s dogs last week simply because the mongrel was attracted to the food he ceaselessly carries about with him.”

“Obviously you need to be rid of him,” Alexa agreed pleasantly.  “I assume, since you have not done so already, he is surprisingly well connected?”

Ondolemar’s lips twitched in an almost smile.  “I would be willing to share the entire sordid story of his family, and their political aspirations, with you at some more opportune moment, but I think we have more pressing matters to attend to now, do we not?”

“I take it your suggestion is that we should move the prisoners from Cidhna mine through the city as prisoners of the Thalmor?  Easy enough I’m sure but once they are out of the city your agents cannot simply let them go.”

“A cart,” he replied. “It will take the road north as if heading to Solitude.  I am certain that, with an hour or two head start, the Forsworn could arrange to rescue their king.”

“That is entirely possible, theoretically.  But one must ask, is this problem of yours also exceedingly stupid?  No Justiciar escorts more than a single prisoner at a time and certainly never without guards.”

“He is very certain of himself and does not yet possess guards of his own.  Therefore my assigning him of the least skilled individuals I have will go unnoticed.”

“Taran,” Alexa spoke without turning around, “they are your people.  The decision is yours.”

My people,” Madanach corrected her.

She turned and looked him over coldly.  “Hircine’s favor has moved on in the twenty-five years you’ve been imprisoned.  And, given your actions over the past decade, I really do suggest you abdicate in favor of your grandson.”

“Are you threatening me, young lady?” Madanach demanded in surprise.

Ondolemar locked eyes with the Forsworn king.  “In my experience, it is best not to argue with the champion of Sheogorath when she gets like this.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Alexa turned back to face Ondolemar.  “When, exactly, have you had experience with me getting like anything?”

“How do I know we can trust either of you?” Madanach demanded.

Exactly my point,” Alexa exclaimed, throwing up her hands in dismay, before turning on the old man and stepping into his personal space. “You’ve been out of the world far too long to make informed decisions for yourself much less for your people,” she told him with enough intensity that the old man took a step away from her.

Taran, on the other hand, step forward and took Alexa’s hand to get her attention.  “You once told me that the Commander’s pride would not allow him to break a promise, even to a non-elf.  Given that you seem to know each other rather well I will accept that you know what you’re talking about.”  He turned to the Commander.  “Swear to me that you are not intending to double cross us and I will believe you.”

“Earlier today Alexa threatened to rip a man’s soul out and feed it to the Ideal Masters,” Ondolemar told him with a soft smile.  “Only a fool would break an agreement made with such a person.  I try not to be a fool.  I swear to you that I will fulfill my part of our arrangement.”

“And your man?” Taran asked. “Do you want him dead?”

“Thoroughly embarrassed will do but if you are forced to kill him I will understand.”

“Then we have a deal,” Taran proclaimed, bowing slightly to the Thalmor Commander.  “We will wait here while you, and my sister, make preparations.”

“Pride?” Ondolemar asked the moment the doors were securely shut behind them.

“The fact that pride is your besting sin cannot possibly be news to you, Commander,” Alexa replied, dismissively.  “And I assume I owe you more for this than an embarrassed Justiciar?”

“We can talk about it later,” he assured her.

“Oh, but I already have a plan to repay you!” she laughed.

“You do?” he asked startled.

“How does never again having to listen to Thongvor Silver-Blood yelling at the Jarl for hours on end sound?” she asked.

“Like you know my heart’s truest desires,” he smiled indulgently down at her.

“Truly?” she cocked an eyebrow at him.  “I shall have to let the ladies at Radiant Raiment know.  Taarie specifically will be most interested to hear about your particular interests.”

“Now you’re just being terrifying,” he told her.  “Surely you have more pressing issues than gossiping about me?”

I may,” she allowed.  “But I do not know that Taarie does.  Anyway, I have a soiree to arrange but I am sure we will speak again when all this is concluded.”

Ondolemar watched Alexa disappear into the dark and winding streets of the city and smiled to himself. Yes, this could work out very well. Well enough that even such a thing as missing Elenwen’s party would be forgiven.

Being chosen for a super secret mission to spirit away several very dangerous criminals to Northwatch Keep, in the dead of night, was just the sort of thing an overzealous young Justiciar dreamed about.  The prisoners were moved through the city, with sacks over their heads, easily enough. The people of Markarth had learned long ago not to notice anything strange going on around them for fear of Silver-Blood reprisal.

The next day the young man, and his guard, had been found naked, and tied together, in the back of their cart.  Even worse the young Justiciar it seemed would now, and forever, sport some rather flashy Forsworn tattoos in a color green that clashed horribly with his golden skin.  Ondolemar privately suspected Alexa of that final indignity and was a little relieved she’d left the young man’s face untouched.  Still, it had been more than enough to send the boy packing.

Three days after that a detachment of the Imperial Legion had arrived to take the Silver-Bloods into Imperial custody.  The charge was treason and the proof was a rather extensive logbook – presented by Taran – of contributions made to the Stormcloaks.

Jarl Igmund, once he had calmed down, had been very pleased with Taran and given him the task of redistributing the Silver-Blood’s many enterprises.  It did not escape Ondolemar’s notice that Igmund now referred to Taran as “my boy” more frequently than “thane”.  It was an interesting development worth keeping an eye on.

Ondolemar sighed, stretched, and then slumped contentedly in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him nearly touching the small fire grate that warmed and dehumidified his room.  The whole thing had worked out rather well.  The Silver-Bloods had been removed from power and Madanach was free to stir up the Forsworn into a new rebellion.  Even Elenwen had been impressed.  And, best of all, Understone Keep was, for the moment, a marginally more pleasant place to live.

“You know…” a soft voice noted from behind him.  “A centurion dynamo core would put off significantly more heat than that tiny fire.”

“You really are very good with Illusion, aren’t you?” he noted, turning to smile at Alexa.

“I sometimes think I would have made a terrific assassin,” she replied.  “But then I remember I find stalking people tedious.”  She held out a green bottle of Cyrodilic Brandy.  “To the overwhelming success of our first caper?”

He sighed dramatically as he accepted the bottle.  “And to think no one ever warned me about Bretons bearing gifts.”

“Well that was a serious oversight,” she agreed.  “You should submit a formal complaint.  Which reminds me, I have a grievance, concerning the Thalmor, I wish to formally submit.”

“And you feel I am the right audience for this complaint?” he asked, as he took a goblet off the small side table against the wall.

“I am lead to believe that Altmer are superior to humans in every conceivable manner,” she began, sitting in the second chair before the fire.

“I’d say yes…” he responded, filling the goblet with brandy, and warming it with a snap of his fingers, before handing it to her. “But I presume this is a setup.”

She rolled her eyes at that but continued anyway.  “I assume this superiority you claim is supposed to include your sense of style and color?”

“Are you going somewhere with this?” he asked, seating himself again and taking a sip from his own cup.

“Has no one ever told you that navy blue and black are not an acceptable color combination?  I mean, the coats, gloves, and boots, are all very striking but the choice to layer them with a navy blue tunic is practically insupportable.”

“It’s symbolic,” he told her, trying not to laugh as the warm feeling of amusement filled his chest.  He had missed her.  Moments like this had become one of the few things that made his current posting tolerable.

“Ahhh, I knew there had to be a reason,” she nodded wisely.  “So what does it symbolize?”

“I have no idea,” he admitted.  “The night sky maybe?  Something about how the Altmer were all stars once?”

“I suppose that would explain the terrible belt buckle,” she replied sounding singularly unimpressed.

“You sound as though you’d rather I took it all off than force you to look at it,” he smirked at her over his goblet.

Oh no.  This room isn’t nearly warm enough to be sitting around in half dressed and chilblains are even less attractive than mismatched clothing.”

Ondolemar chuckled at that. “And to think I almost believed you might be suggesting something… inappropriate.”

Her eyes widened innocently at him.  “Inappropriate?  Me? Dear Sir, I fear you must have gotten me confused with some other Breton.  An understandable mistake.  I hear we all look alike.”

Ondolemar tipped his head to the side and considered her deeply for a moment.  “I’m not sure you could ever be mistaken for anyone else.”3

“Speaking of inappropriate…” Alexa coughed, quickly changing the subject.  “Earmiel is quite the character.”

“Your capacity for understatement continues to astound,” Ondolemar groaned, sinking slightly into his chair.  “But he is the best magical investigator I know, and the most likely to give the problems of a Nord child the attention they deserve.

She frowned at him. “Would another investigator truly have written off Joric’s abilities as not being worthy of their time simply because of his race?”

He fiddled with the stem of his goblet for a moment.  “It will, no doubt, surprise you to learn that the Altmer, not just the Thalmor, take our magical superiority very seriously.  Since no Altmer has ever had Joric’s problem, and the problem is magical in nature, there will be those who will claim it cannot exist.  A rather narrow view given that the environment he has grown up in may be a significant contributing factor to his condition.” He looked over at her.  “You seem surprised.”

“I am.  I never thought I’d hear you speak ill of your people.”

He smiled at that. “Altmer are fallible.  It is simply that, because of the length of our lives, those who have reached adulthood rarely make mistakes out of inexperience.  Our long lives, however, do not protect us from making mistakes for other reasons.”

“You know what I like most about the Altmer I have met?” she asked.

“I dread hearing,” he replied with mock solemnity, as he worked not to return the wicked smile he saw growing in her eyes.

“How remarkably humble you all are,” she said primly.  “It’s refreshing.”

Ondolemar burst out laughing.  “You know,” he remarked thoughtfully, once he’d recovered himself, “you are by far the most interesting person I’ve ever met?”

“Am I?” she blinked in surprise.  “Earmiel will be most upset to hear that.”

“Endlessly distressing is not the same thing as interesting. Earmiel is endlessly distressing.  You, on the other hand, lead an interesting life.”

“My dear Commander, if you are truly so bored that you envy my life, you really should get out more!” Alexa exclaimed.

“Oh?” he asked, arching an eyebrow at her.  “Any suggestions?”

She cocked her head to the side, considering him, for a moment.  “Perhaps...  Give me some time to think about it.”

They sat in companionable silence for a moment before Alexa shifted slightly in her chair to face him more fully.  “May I ask you a question, Commander?”

He glanced sharply over at her.  “Has there been a time in our acquaintance that you have not asked me questions?”

“Touché,” she smiled slightly.  “This one though is somewhat more serious than our usual exchanges and has to do with Thalmor operations in Skyrim.  I am curious about something, but not so curious that I wish to give offense.”

“I cannot promise to answer,” he told her carefully.  “But I can promise not to be offended.”

She nodded.  “I was wondering, the other day, if there is a procedure for releasing a prisoner from Northwatch Keep.”

“There seems to be a theme here,” he noted, dryly, attempting to deflect the question.  “Have you, perhaps, considered having friends who are not engaged in criminal activities?”

“Right…” she rolled her eyes at him.  “Remind me please, since I seem to have forgotten, which of Taran’s many criminal enterprises got him sentenced to hard labor for life?  Still I am glad to know you assume I have friends who both worship Talos, and would be stupid enough to be caught at it, rather than just a question as to whether people sent to Northwatch ever come back.”

Ondolemar sighed.  “First Emissary Elenwen, General Tullius, or myself, could order a release,” he replied carefully.  “But no.  They do not usually come back.”

“Have you ever sent anyone there?” she asked, already knowing the answer was no (unless that had changed since the night with the Wabbajack).

“I… only when it is necessary,” he replied, not looking at her.

She cocked her head to one side considering him, and his reaction, minutely.  “Is there an accurate list anywhere of the people who have been sent there?”

“Are you suggesting that the Thalmor would be so negligent as to not keep records of absolutely everything?” he asked, pretending offense.

She met his eyes coolly and for once, he noted with a sinking feeling, they held no gleam of laughter in their depths.  “Someday you may be asked to prove that the choice of who to detain there was not politically motivated; that individuals were not specifically chosen to deepen resentments and bring Skyrim into full-blown civil war.  At such a time records that at least appear to be accurate will be necessary.”

“Is that accusation being made?” he asked her softly.

“Accusation?  No.  Whispers and some drunken theorizing...” she shrugged.  “But it would take very little to go from one to the other.”

“Meaning you would have no trouble instigating the transition?”

She met his eyes squarely, but did not answer.

“If the civil unrest does intensify…” Ondolemar began carefully, his eyes still locked on her face, “what will you do?”

She looked away.  “I don’t know.  I hear Atmora is nice this time of year.  Or maybe Akavir.”

“You wouldn’t go back to High Rock?” he asked, ignoring her suggestion that an uninhabited ice sheet might be nice any time of year.

“No.  A full-blown civil war in Skyrim would further drain the resources of the Empire.  The Dominion would see such a thing as an opportunity and the Second War between the Dominion and the Empire would follow.  Under those circumstances, I think I’d rather gamble on my ability to peacefully coexist with anthropomorphic snake-vampires than risk what would happen to me if the Dominion wins. No offense, but I like living and I would make a very poor slave.”

A chill ran down his spine. “What makes you think the Dominion would enslave mankind?”

“I don’t.  I think you’ll attempt to exterminate us.  But the Aylids provide compelling historical president for enslavement,” she answered.  “Besides, what is an untempered iron tool but something of little value to be used and thrown away?”4  She stretched and stood up.  “It is late and I must be gone from Markarth before the dawn watch.”

He grabbed her hand as she turned away.  “You know I didn’t mean it like that, right?” he asked, lacing their fingers together and looking up into her eyes.

For a brief moment her expression was one of ageless sorrow her eyes looking down on him with pity. “That is exactly how you meant it,” she told him softly.

Chapter Text

Alexa was working on her armor at the Skyforge when Eorlund came to stand beside her.  “Had lunch with the Battle-Borns,” he told her gruffly.

Alexa glanced at him in surprise but said nothing.

“Seems they tried to do us a favor and find out about Thorald.  Blew up in their faces.”

“I’m sorry,” Alexa replied, still trying to figure out where the usually laconic smith was going with this.

“Say they think they’ve found a way to get him back.  I said I’d give them anything they wanted.  They said they’d cover it.”

“That’s generous of them.”

Eorlund nodded.  “How much is it costing them, girl?”

“What makes you think I know?” she asked, a little incredulously.

“People like you. Talk to you.  Tell you things they shouldn’t,” he explained.

“You flatter me.”

The old man smiled into the fire.

“It’s costing them a thousand gold.”

“A debt he will work to repay.”

Alexa cocked her head to the side, wincing slightly, in response.  “Sometimes these things are easier to hide when repayment is… not obvious.”

“I suppose you’d know,” he nodded, taking the armor from her hands and beginning to work on it himself.

“You know… People are not so easily quantified that a single belief can encapsulate all they are.  Any relationship between two, or more, people even more so.  The continuing hurt of a friendship lost may cost more than the original disagreement is worth.”

“You are Breton,” he responded, tersely.  “You would not understand.”

“High Rock is a country renowned for having split itself, time and time again, over such things.  I do not think we have profited from it.”

“And how much about this land do you know?” he asked her, changing the subject slightly.

“Not as much as I know about High Rock or Cyrodiil,” she answered.

“Perhaps you should learn some Nord history, since you live here,” he suggested.  “Then, maybe, you will understand why our beliefs are so important.”

“I may just do that,” she smiled.

“And I will consider what you have said.  Come back in an hour.  I will have your armor.”

A few days later…

A book went sailing through the air and hit a wall.

“Something wrong?” Vilkas asked, picking the book up and depositing it on the dresser.

“You’ve read the Songs of the Return,” she said.  “Do you truly think those described within were honorable or are in any way worthy of veneration?”

“It was a different time,” he told her, taking a seat beside her on his bed. 

“They took the tongues of captured Snow Elves,”1 she argued, horrified.

“You would prefer that they simply kill the elven mages?” he asked her.  “Even after they’d surrendered?”

“That’s not why they took them,” she disagreed.  “They took them to further empower their own Shouts.”

Vilkas frowned.  “What makes you say that?”

“I didn’t.  The author of Children of the Sky did,” she replied.  “Apparently making ropes of their defeated enemies’ tongues was still common practice for the Nord Tongues at the time Children of the Sky was written.”

“How would that even work?” he asked her.

“Never having met someone who practiced the art of Shouting I have no idea how it works,” she sighed. “But, according to Songs of the Return, the great and honorable Five Hundred maimed sapient creatures to make themselves more powerful. And then they took pride, pride, in how many Snow Elves died building Windhelm for them.2  How is that anything but evil?”

“The Snow Elves attacked Saarthal first,” he reminded her.

“And that was wrong,” she agreed.  “But is it right to repay the slaughter of a single city with the slaughter, enslavement, and further slaughter of an entire race?” she asked him.  “If honor is about what you, not your enemy, are worth – as you assert – then how did Ysgramore and the Five Hundred not lose all claims to honor in this process?  Or are we supposed to believe that Snow Elf society had no civilian population and no children?”

“They were elves Alexa.  All of them could use magic.”

“Athis doesn’t use magic,” she countered.

“Athis isn’t a very good elf,” he told her with a wry smile.

She stared at him in open-mouthed disbelief.

He stood up and pulled her to her feet.  “Let's go for a walk.  Get you out of your head for a bit.”

Taran - Markarth

“Hard day?” Ondolemar asked.

“Hard week,” Taran sighed as he settled across the stone table from the Thalmor Commander.  “I have to admit, figuring out how to best portion out the Silver-Blood’s various mining operations is proving more complicated than I expected.  They seem to have been quite thorough about killing off their competition.  Still, it is good to know the wealth of the Reach will soon be back in the hands of its people.  And, I have to admit, watching Thongvor Silver-Blood get dragged away by Legate Admand, for treason against the empire, may have been one of the best moments of my life thus far.”

“The Jarl seems quite pleased,” Ondolemar noted.

“He does, doesn’t he,” Taran remarked sourly.

“And how is your grandfather?” Ondolemar enquired, politely.

“As well as can be expected,” Taran responded shortly.

“You do not seem happy,” Ondolemar observed casually.

“All my life people have told me how like my grandfather I am.  I used to think that it was a compliment; that he was something to aspire to. But now… I don’t know.  I don’t think I like him very much and I’m a little worried what he’ll do now that he’s back out in the world.”

“You have worked rather hard to be taken seriously.  It would be a pity if it were to come to nothing,” Ondolemar agreed.3

“You know the first thing he did when we got him home was petition Hircine to prove he was still king?”

Ondolemar carefully set aside the report he’d been reading and gave Taran his full attention. “How’d that work out?”

“Not well.  Hircine actually put in a partial appearance – sort of apparition form.  Then He and Alexa immediately started yelling at each other.  Grandfather couldn’t get a word in without them both turning on him.”

“Yelling?” Ondolemar asked in surprise.  “About what?”

“Something technical about lycanthropy.  I… didn’t understand most of it.  That’s not uncommon though.  Alexa says a lot of things I’m not sure I actually understand.”

“Yelling at a daedric prince…” Ondolemar shook his head in wonderment.  “Champion of Sheogorath or not, how is she still alive?”

“It’s a mystery,” Taran agreed.  “Hey, you’re a mage right?”

“I dabble?” Ondolemar allowed, carefully.

“Alexa told one of our shamans that she can taste time.4  Is that a thing mages can do?”

“No,” Ondolemar replied emphatically.  “That is definitely not a thing mages can do.  I would assume she was being sarcastic.  I have noted her sense of humor can be a little odd.”

Taran snorted at that. “I don’t suppose you’d know why she’s looking for witches of the Glenmoril Coven?”

“The Hircine worshipers?” Ondolemar asked.  “No. That really seems more your thing than mine.”

Taran leaned back considering Ondolemar carefully for a moment.  “Speaking of Alexa…  Back in the mine you two fell into that conversational style you have and, in the middle of it, you, a Thalmor Emissary, actually smiled.  Smiled!  A real one too, not one of those threateningly superior grimaces you’re so fond of.”

Ondolemar glanced at Taran, startled.

“Don’t even try to deny it. I was there.”

“Did you have a point?”

“You’re quite protective of her, aren’t you?” Taran continued, his eyes locked on Ondolemar’s face. “You stepped in and shut grandfather down pretty hard when it looked like he was about to threaten her.”

“What of it?”

“Nothing, really,” Taran said innocently.  “Just thinking you’re lucky.”

“Lucky?” Ondolemar asked, now completely baffled by what Taran was getting at.

“Well you probably don’t have to worry about her patting you on the shoulder and telling you she sees you as a brother.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Ondolemar responded, somewhat shocked at what Taran was implying.

“Yeah…” the young man sighed.  “It’s ok though.  I realized a while ago that admiration is not the same thing as love.  Also, I’m not sure how many shouting matches with daedric princes I have it in me to watch.”

“And you think I might be better equipped for such things?” Ondolemar asked returning to a tone of mild surprise.

Taran shrugged.  “You mer live longer than we do.  I assume that means you are made of hardier stuff than I.”

“Human logic never ceases to confound,” Ondolemar murmured, shaking his head, and turning back to his report.

Taran, however, refused to be so easily dismissed.  “I’m not wrong though,” Taran finally stated, leaning a little across the table.  “You do like her.”

“You know,” Ondolemar began, without looking up.  “I was just recalling the days when people around here respected and feared me.”

“Most of them still do,” Taran assured him.

“But not you,” Ondolemar stated, glancing back up at Taran.

“Not since I realized you had the good taste to be besotted with my sister,” the young man grinned.

Ondolemar raised his eyebrows at that.

Taran shrugged. “Knowing you’re capable of that sort of poor decision making… it makes you, I don’t know, more real.  Less like just another faceless member of an organization I believe to be actively working against the good of my country.”

“That was very candid of you,” Ondolemar noted dryly.  “Are you certain such openness is wise?”

“You hurt me, you’ll deal with her,” Taran responded.  “We both know you don’t want that.”  He paused for a second.  “That didn’t sound quite the way I meant it.”

“How did you mean it?” Ondolemar enquired carefully.

“I meant to indicate that I previously had not really seen you as a person, and to apologize for that.  And also to suggest that I would like to be friends… not of the sort that do each other favors but of the sort that occasionally get a drink together and talk about nothing consequential for an evening.”

“Ah.  Then I shall take your offer as it was intended.”

“She likes books,” Taran told him, standing up.  “The topic doesn’t seem to matter much.  She’s interested in everything.  The rarer the book, however, the less likely it is that she’s already read it.”  And then he walked away, leaving Ondolemar to wonder if this was going to be a problem.

Chapter Text

Ondolemar read the report a second time and wondered what he should do about it.  Every person assigned to Northwatch Keep was dead.  Furthermore, both the keep, and the bodies, had been thoroughly looted and all the prisoners had been released. 

Agent and guard alike had been slain by a single strike to the throat.  The investigator’s report indicated the weapon used was probably a short blade, while the angle of attack indicated a shorter assailant attacking from behind.  The shape of the wounds further indicated a blade shape commonly associated with the Morag Tong.

In the investigator’s opinion the most likely suspect would be a pair of independent operators hired for the task.1  Though the Morag Tong had been officially disbanded, more than two centuries ago, it was well known that many of their members had not ceased to ply their trade. Still, in the investigator’s opinion, the possibility that they have reformed, somewhere, should not be discounted. He further indicated that whether their task had been to free a particular prisoner, or simply to embarrass the Thalmor, could not be determined from the evidence.

It was Elenwen’s opinion that very few families in Skyrim had either the wealth or the connections for such a hit and that any further investigations would begin with those that had both.  She was starting with the Black Briars.  Ondolemar, who had not been officially assigned to the case, had someone else in mind.


Come to Markarth.  We need to talk.


“You, I presume?” he asked, tossing the report onto the side table beside the chair Alexa had settled in.

She read it over carefully before looking up at him with a look that was almost amusement on her face. “Me?  Commander, I think my preference for bows is rather well documented.”

“Your facility with illusion spells has also been noted,” he reminded her.

“You are suggesting I would use a calm spell on a person and then walk up behind them and murder them? Surely you realize that the point of coming up behind someone is negated by the use of a calm spell?  Besides, if I wanted to distract people from the possibility of their throats being slit I think I would choose something more dramatic!  Do you have any idea how distracting a person can be when they’re attacking horkers with the Wabbajack?  I mean, if I were going to attempt to be distracting, I’ve got scope.”

“Why do I feel you are not taking this seriously?” Ondolemar complained.

“Is there something here I should be taking seriously?” she asked a little tiredly.

“An entire Thalmor garrison is dead and the search for the perpetrator has begun.  If you know anything about it…”

“Look,” she sighed. “This is clearly the work of assassins. While I personally did away with the local chapter of the Dark Brotherhood they could still be active in other regions of the continent.  They were also not the only assassins guild in Tamriel.  Given that they have been gone from Skyrim for more than two years it would not be particularly surprising if someone from outside Skyrim were attempting to fill the… void.”

“So it wasn’t you?”

“My dear Commander. Even if it had been me I certainly wouldn’t tell you.  If I did, you might have to do something about it and that would ruin our friendship and I rather enjoy our friendship.  Besides, as I have said before, I find stalking people tedious.”  She frowned at the report again.  “Still, if one must already be provably guilty of Talos worship to be sent to Northwatch Keep, I have to wonder what this dead ‘interrogator’ the report mentions was doing for a living.”

“Attempting to ascertain the locations of shrines of Talos,” Ondolemar replied heavily.  It wasn’t the truth but it was the official lie.

“Really?  Your Justiciars are incapable of finding giant statues on their own?  I mean it’s not like the things are exactly subtle.”

He grimaced slightly and sat, across from her, in his usual chair at the fire.  “This is where you tell me about the one’s you’ve seen and I pretend to no longer be suspicious about you and the incident at Northwatch Keep.”

“Of course, Commander,” she replied easily.  “There’s one here in Markarth.  There’s also one in Riften, Whiterun, and Windhelm.  One right outside of Windhelm as well, on the bluffs overlooking the river. One halfway up a cliff face between Autumnwatch Tower and Angarvunde in the Rift; I suggest taking climbing gear, it is quite steep.  And three on the north coast between Dawnstar and Winterhold – watch out for snow bears a-and skeevers.  Believe me, you’re men will understand why when they get there.”

“Those all seem either exceedingly obvious or very remote,” he told her.

“That’s the thing about adventuring, Commander.  It leads to spending one’s time at a certain level of remove from civilization.  I suppose there is also a shrine at the Weynon Stones though I… wouldn’t choose to spend time there.”

“And why is that?”

“It’s a Merethic Era site with an altar – of an appropriate size for sacrificing people – on a raised stone platform surrounded by standing stones.  The air temperature within the stone circle is always several degrees colder then it is outside the circle and there are always ice wraiths in the area.”

Ondolemar frowned at her. “That seems abnormal in Talos worship.”

“The statue itself stands on a much older base which, I assume, once had the statue of whatever entity the circle was built for,” she explained.  “I also assume the shrine of Talos was put there to counteract whatever residual influence still lingered.  If it worked I’d hate to think what the place was like originally.”

“Or what it would be like if the shrine were removed?” Ondolemar asked.

“Come now, Commander, that would imply that I believe Talos is a god.”

“Do you?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” she asked a little incredulously.

“I do.”

“Well then…  While I do not think Talos was born a god, nor do I think he mantled one exactly, I do know that interacting with his shrines produces results similar to interacting with those of a god or daedric prince. Thus one must assume that his shrines are, in some way, connected to a being of great power, even if I am uncertain that being would consider itself Talos of Atmora.”

“It’s never simple with you, is it?” Ondolemar sighed.

She shrugged slightly. “How many names does Akatosh have?”

“More than I care to count,” he replied.

“So does it matter if I worship him at a shrine of Auriel rather than Akatosh?”

“Functionally I believe they bestow different blessings,” he pointed out.  “As far as I know no one has determined what the ‘blessing of Talos’ is good for.”

She grinned at that. “Of course not, because it’s really the sort of thing only Nords would find useful.  It protects your vocal cords from the after-effects of too much yelling.”

Ondolemar stared at her incredulously for a moment.  “I don’t know whether to believe you or not,” he finally told her.

“You say that a lot you know?  Speaking of which, I have something for you.”  She stood and, removing a fair sized box from her pack, placed it on his desk.  “You can open it later.  And I should be going.  As much fun as this was I have some necromancers to slaughter at Fort Snowhawk over by Morthal.  Earmiel was quite insistent.”


“Something to do with planer gates and the arena games that used to be held in the area.”

“Of course,” he sighed heavily, not bothering to get up.

“One last thing, Commander,” she leaned over him, one hand braced against the arm of his chair, her face so close that, for a breathless moment, he thought she might actually kiss him. “If I were planning to take out a keep garrisoned by Thalmor agents I certainly wouldn’t talk with you about it first.”

“And if you weren’t planning on it but ended up doing so anyway?” he asked softly his eyes locked on her mouth.

“I would have burned the place to the ground.  Prisoners the Thalmor play catch and release with have a history of being extremely… troublesome.”  She smiled and pulled away.  “Good evening, Commander.”

Alexa had been gone for several minutes before Ondolemar came back to himself enough to wonder what she’d left behind.  Inside the box he found a journal, a strange pitcher, and an amazing blue jewel.2  Opening the journal he was pleased to find the handwriting inside was clear and well formed.


Chapter Text

It was well after midnight and she was still sitting on the rocky outcropping of the Skyforge, looking down over Whiterun, trying to figure out how she felt about Skjor and Aela going behind Kodlak’s back to try and initiate her into the Circle.  Still trying to think of what she’d say to Aela when she got back from wherever it was she’d run off to, after Skjor had left, and hoping they hadn’t ruined their friendship over this.

She ignored Vilkas as he came to stand, arms across his chest, staring silently down at her.

“You turned down Aela’s blood,” he observed finally.

“I did.  Though probably not for the reasons she thinks. I’ll try to explain better the next time I see her.”

“You say you are not disgusted by what we are, yet you turn down the offer of power, of strength and speed no man can match.  Why?”

“Because I have a personal problem with Hircine,” she answered.  “We don’t get along.”

“You know Him well, do you?” the bitter sarcasm was thick in Vilkas’ voice.

“Well enough.  Not long ago He told me how excited He is that the Thalmor are hunting me again because He so enjoys watching me turn the tables on people.”

“You’ve spoken with Prince Hircine?” Vilkas demanded incredulously.

“Once in the flesh and four times in apparition form.  Let's just say I call it a win if I manage to make it through the conversation without Him threatening to shoot me full of arrows again.”

“… Again?  Meaning those scars you can’t heal away are from the arrows of a daedric prince?”


Vilkas sighed heavily and settled beside her.  “How is it you run into Daedra the way you do?”

“They can sense power…”

“And you are an incredibly powerful mage,” he finished for her.

“It seems it makes me more fun to play with... or something.”

There was silence between them for a while.

“Did you know that the Underforge was, probably, a shrine to Shor?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“Yet another connection to Hircine,” Vilkas said, smiling slightly.  “Perhaps there is more to your question than I gave you credit for at the time.”

“At the time you were rather focused on having a different conversation,” she pointed out.

“True.”  There was silence between them again.  “You are being hunted now?” he asked finally.

“So I’m told, and I see no reason to doubt Hircine’s word, on that subject at least.”

“So you really will be leaving soon?” he asked, taking one of her hands in his and squeezing it gently.

She nodded.  “Just before the first snow, as I told you. With the passes closed behind me maybe I can put some distance between myself and… whomever they’ve sent.”

“Do you truly intend to run for the rest of your life?” he asked.

“No.  I…” she sighed, pulling her hand out of his to rubbed tiredly at her face.  “The Dwemer ruins of Skyrim, at least those I could access, did not hold the answers I sought.  Perhaps the frozen time capsule that is Atmora will.  Failing that maybe Akivir.  I refuse to believe the answers to my questions are not out there and I do not believe those who seek me will travel beyond Tamriel.”

“You do not care for the cold,” Vilkas pointed out.

“I will go in summer.”


“No.  I have invited Serana and Marcurio to come with me.  Maybe one of them will.”

“But not me.”

“No.  Your place is here.  When Kodlak dies you will be Harbinger.”

“You’re having visions now?”

“Not visions… it’s more like, I don’t know, reading the changing currents of a stream to know what likely lies ahead.  The currents within Jorrvaskr are quickening, fastest around Skjor, like the draw before a waterfall rushing him towards death.  You are the logical choice when he is gone.”

A sudden howl cut them off before he could ask what she meant.  It echoed through the Underforge beneath them vibrating up through the stones of the Skyforge.  “Aela,” he breathed as Alexa rose to her feet.

Aela stood by the basin in the center of the Underforge, still in wolf form, panting hard her eyes feral.  She snarled at Vilkas and Alexa as they came through the door.

Vilkas could feel his wolf try to surface in response a growl of his own leaving his throat.

“Aela,” Alexa said in a commanding tone.  “Return to human form, now.”

The werewolf immediately stopped snarling and began to shrink in on itself.  A moment later Aela was fully human, leaning against the font and sobbing her eyes out.  And then Alexa was holding the sobbing Huntress in her arms and cooing soothingly to her.

“So that’s what it’s like,” Aela sniffed wetly.  “Beast Master.  I didn’t understand.  No wonder you turned down my blood.”

“Aela,” Vilkas began, kneeling down beside the two women.  “What has happened?”

“Skjor’s dead,” she whispered.

“What?  How?” Vilkas demanded.

“We’d tracked the rest of those Silver Hand bastards that tried to take out you and Farkas back to Gallows Rock.  Skjor… he went while I was...  But, by the time I got there, he’d gone ahead without me.  As I approached I… I heard the guards talking about…” her voice broke.  “I can’t do this alone, I need the pack.”

Alexa rose to her feet with a soft sigh.  “Give me a moment to get some things and then we’ll go get Skjor’s body.”

“I’ll get Farkas,” Vilkas added.  “I think he’s down at the Bannered Mare.”

Aela nodded dumbly, curling in on herself.  “We won’t be long, Aela, I promise,” Alexa assured her, hurrying from the Underforge.

Vilkas grabbed her wrist as the door closed behind them.  “How?” he whispered harshly.  “How did you know?”

“I didn’t,” she replied. “I just… the currents in Jorrvaskr pulled towards you, not him.  It’s… I don’t know how to explain better than that and we have more pressing concerns right now.”

“We’ll talk later then,” he told her, heading down the stairs into the city.

Alexa ran for Vilkas’ room, Hircine’s words echoing in her mind.

Keep my ring.  Give it to one you favor.

Finished preparing she dug the ring of Hircine out of the locked chest she kept.  If anyone in the world deserved to have it, that person was Aela.

Kodlak looked up as she entered his sitting room.  “Skjor is dead,” she told him quietly.

“How?” he asked, putting down his book to give her his full attention.

“It seems he tracked the Silver Hand to their hideout at Gallows Rock and decided to take them on alone.”

He nodded once, slowly. “I assume Aela is bent on revenge.”

“The rest of the Circle prepares to retrieve his body now.”

“You will join them?” he asked, indicating the bow in her hand.

“I am a Beast Master of Hircine.  I will go and ensure their wrath does not endanger any innocent.”

“Good.  Keep my children safe for me, Beast Master.”

Chapter Text

“Earmiel,” Ondolemar greeted him with pleasure.  “It has been some time.  I was not expecting you.  Is something wrong?”

“Wrong?” Earmiel asked. “No, not at all.  Or, at least, not the way you mean.  More like deeply fascinating, troubling, and maybe even a little illuminating?”

Ondolemar nodded. “Come to my room.  We’ll have tea and talk.”

“Are there candied canticle flowers in this tea?” Earmiel asked in surprise.

“There are,” Ondolemar admitted with a small smile.

“However did you find those in this benighted backwater of a country?”

“After nearly seven years here one would hope I’d develop some ability to acquire a few things,” Ondolemar replied dryly, settling in the chair across from Earmiel.  “So, Earmiel, what occasion brings you to Markarth?”

“You mean besides a need for some decent company?” Earmiel smirked.

Ondolemar rolled his eyes but said nothing.

Earmiel’s smirk deepened slightly before he sobered.  “I came to give you my initial assessment of the situation in Morthal and to ask you about something.”

“Alright,” Ondolemar said, giving Earmiel a slightly worried look.

“Firstly, as I know you have already surmised, there is something definitely wrong with that marsh.  But no creature the human mage has summoned, to question, has been able to shed any light on the subject.”

Ondolemar frowned. “Worrisome.”

“Indeed,” Earmiel agreed. “We are working on a new theory but progress, so far, has been hampered by a combined lack of historical knowledge of the area.  Sadly the locals don’t appear to know much more about their own history than we do. It’s a bit frustrating that two hundred years is such a long time for humans.  Anyway…” Earmiel took a sip of his tea and hummed with pleasure.  “The boy,” he continued, after a moment, “is an unparalleled savant when it comes to planes walking.  I’ve never even read about a case quite this extreme.  Falion and I have him learning some control techniques but he is still very young…”

“Will he be all right?” Ondolemar enquired out of morbid curiosity.

“I don’t know,” Earmiel replied wearily.  “Frankly I’m a little surprised he’s survived as long as he has.”

“I wish you the best of luck then,” Ondolemar said politely.

“I’m sure you do,” Earmiel chuckled.  “Anyway, those things aside, I’m really here about Alexa.  What’s the story there?”

“Breton bard, adventurer, and vampire-hunter turned mercenary?” Ondolemar offered, his tone appropriately bland.

“Yes, exactly,” Earmiel drawled.  “Rather an odd choice of escort, Dolly.  There must have been any number of cheaper or more local options. So why her?”

“She is on good terms with the Jarl and knows the boy well enough to answer any questions you might have had.  She has also never lost a traveling companion.  Under those circumstances she seemed like the best, though not the cheapest, choice.”

“The champion of Sheogorath really seemed like the best choice for something?” Earmiel enquired archly.

“Did she tell you that?” Ondolemar asked in surprise.

“The Wabbajack strapped to her pack was a dead giveaway,” Earmiel informed him.

Ondolemar snorted. “Right.  You would recognize a daedric artifact when you saw it.”

“So…”  Earmiel leaned forward in his chair.  “What’s the story?”

“Story?” Ondolemar asked blankly.

“Oh come now…” Earmiel groaned, falling backwards dramatically.  “There is no way you spend time with the champion of Sheogorath without there being a story.  I mean, I’ve got more than one and I’ve only spent two and a half days with her.”

“In that case, you may well have spent more time with her than I have,” Ondolemar told him dryly.

“Well at some point you must have spent time with her or you wouldn’t have hired her to escort me or have been willing to check out a child in an out of the way place like Morthal just because she mentioned him to you.”

“Alexa is… the most interesting person I’ve ever met,” Ondolemar hedged.  “I thought you might enjoy her company.

“Fair enough, and I did. But that’s not a story,” Earmiel complained.  “Tell me how she told you about Joric.  That’s got to be a good one if she could naturally slip ‘planes walking child’ into the middle of the conversation.”

Ondolemar rolled his eyes but acquiesced.  “It started with a complaint about Justiciars being obnoxious on the roads.  Then we had a few drinks, she admitted to being the champion of Sheogorath, mentioned something about a boy in Morthal, and finally offered to let me use the Wabbajack.”

Earmiel’s jaw dropped open. “And did you?”

“On just about everything in sight,” Ondolemar admitted.  “It was absurd, and childish, and… the best time I’ve had in ages…” his voice trailed off.

“What happened?” Earmiel asked, suddenly concerned.

“It’s a little hazy but I’m fairly certain I propositioned her.  Rather bluntly too.”

“And?” Earmiel gasped leaning forward in his chair again in excitement.

Ondolemar gave him a quelling look.  “She told me that when I was sober she would remind me of the conversation and I would call her crazy.”

“Ouch,” Earmiel winced, leaning back again.

“Which, in the end, is pretty much what happened,” Ondolemar finished.

“Double ouch.  Still, you’ve used the Wabbajack!  That’s something to tell the grandchildren about someday!”

“Right, because ‘I briefly turned a priestess of Dibella into a rabbit,’ is clearly the sort of thing one should tell children.”

“Well, explaining why the adults in the room are suppressing laughter should, at the very least, be educational,” Earmiel pointed out helpfully.

Ondolemar shook his head at that and refilled his tea.

“You’re not really considering it, are you?” Earmiel asked suddenly, his eyes boring a hole into Ondolemar. 

“Considering telling children about the Wabbajack?” Ondolemar asked, certain that couldn’t be what Earmiel was asking about.

The other mer rolled his eyes.  “Considering a sober pass at a pretty Breton adventurer.”

Ondolemar sighed.  “No, I am not really considering it.”

Earmiel nodded, his eyes still locked on Ondolemar.  “The Thalmor wouldn’t be pleased but, I admit, I can see the appeal.”

You can?” Ondolemar demanded, his disbelief practically palpable.

“Oh Auriel yes,” Earmiel confirmed pleasantly.  “She’s aesthetically pleasing – as far as women of any race go – has a lovely voice – have you heard her sing? - a wicked tongue, and if I were not such a snob I might even admit to a growing fascination with her mind.  The things she simply knows off the top of her head, the rapidity and clarity of her deductions… all very impressive in someone only a quarter of a century old.  If my last apprentice had been even half so talented I probably would have run off with him like he wanted.”

“Is there ever a time when you are not engaged in something scandalous?” Ondolemar complained mildly.

Earmiel smirked at him. “Says the pureblood Altmer pining over a Breton.”

“I am not pining.  Any interest I have in Alexa is entirely intellectual, I assure you,” Ondolemar stated primly.

“Of course,” Earmiel agreed airily.  “I often find myself drunkenly propositioning people I find stimulating… intellectually.”

“I am beginning to recall why I stopped going drinking with you,” Ondolemar informed Earmiel.

“It was a wise carrier move,” Earmiel admitted.  “If I’d had my way your reputation would have been far too sullied by fun to allow for your recruitment much less your rise to the rank of Emissary.  Still, now that you’re intellectually acquainted with the champion of Sheogorath I’m sure you’ll have all sorts of opportunities to do interesting things.  It’s almost enough to make me jealous.”

“Good,” Ondolemar interjected quickly.  “Because I was hoping to convince you to keep an eye on her for me.”

“You need me to spy on her?” Earmiel blinked at him in surprise.  “What could you possibly want to know about her that one of your real spies couldn’t find out for you?”

Ondolemar shifted a little uncomfortably.  “You ever get the feeling there’s far more going on than what you’re seeing?”

“Ah, you think she’s using you?” Earmiel asked.  “I mean beyond as a resource to help young boys with magical problems.”

“Using me?  I hadn’t really thought of it that way… But no, or at least no more so she is using anyone else.”

“So why the concern?”

“I’m afraid that I may be greatly underestimating her,” Ondolemar confided.

Earmiel frowned at that. “What do you have her classified as?”

“A level three ‘zero contact’ and a level one ‘handle with care’.”

Earmiel choked.  As he understood it that designation meant that non-uniformed Thalmor agents were supposed to actively avoid Alexa and only rank holding Thalmor, like Emissaries, were allowed to initiate contact with her.  “How is that ‘underestimating’ someone?” he inquired when he had his breathing back under control.

“Because I have rated her threat to the Dominion at a one and her threat to Thalmor operations at a three, meaning I believe she poses no willful threat to the Dominion but her activities may, unknowingly, interfere with Thalmor operations.  A few recent events, however, make me wonder if I have not underestimated the willfulness of her more disruptive activities.”

“You think she is actively anti-Thalmor?”

I believe she is actively in favor of regional stability,” Ondolemar answered.  “But I worry that I have allowed the fact I find her amusing to color my perception.”

Earmiel pondered that for a second.  “How disruptive can a single Breton adventurer be?”

“How many people do you know who’ve had contact with six daedric princes?” Ondolemar asked him.  “What about ‘adventurers’ who are politically active, if mostly behind the scenes, in multiple holds?”

“How active?” Earmiel asked, eyes narrowed.

“Did you see the young man talking with the Jarl when you arrived?”

“Rather hard to miss. I’d love the chance to cover him in...”

Ondolemar rolled his eyes. “Not the point Earmiel.  That young man is Taran, thane of the Reach, advisor to the Jarl, and prince of the Forsworn.”

“I admit I haven’t been in the country long but shouldn’t that last title have made the previous two impossible?” Earmiel asked, suddenly interested.

“He’s also Alexa’s blood-brother.”

“You’re implying that Alexa somehow installed him in his current position?”

“I’m not implying anything. I watched her do it.”

“Did she say why?”

“Something about not being bound by the mistakes of our parents, and unending war leaving us all orphans and beggars.”

“But Thalmor interests include the continued hostilities in the Reach?” Earmiel guessed.

“It has been made clear that anything that increases tension, and instability, in Skyrim weakens the Empire and so is beneficial to our cause,” Ondolemar admitted.

“So why didn’t you stop her?” Earmiel asked.  “You could’ve blown this Taran’s cover at any time.  Unless… unless you’re afraid she’d know it was you.”

“Alexa is abnormally observant,” Ondolemar confirmed.  “I have no doubt she would have known exactly who to blame or that she would have easily deduced the purpose behind it. But that is beside the point.  My real concern is that Elenwen is not known for playing by the rules or for showing her hand even to other Emissaries. If she has operations underway that I don’t know about…”

“You’re worried that Alexa could run into them,” Earmiel finished for him.

“I’m worried that she could entirely upend something and find herself on Elenwen’s bad side.”

“And you think she might do so on purpose?”

“I think it would be a very bad idea to underestimate the apparently sane champion of Sheogorath.”

“Point taken,” Earmiel sighed.  “So why not just report her to the First Emissary?”

“Rulindil is the head of the local Thalmor interrogators,” Ondolemar answered quietly.


“Ah” Ondolemar agreed.

“So why is the Commander of the Thalmor Justiciars in Skyrim asking me to keep an eye on a single Breton?  Surely you have a few personal agents by now.  Why not just assign one of them?”

“Because you are not Thalmor.  She is unlikely to see you as a threat and you are unlikely to report your surveillance to Elenwen.  And because when I tell you she’s ‘handle with care’ you’ll sneak into her life sideways, as a friend, rather than get caught tailing her every move.”

Earmiel arched an eyebrow at that.

Ondolemar sighed.  “There’s a reason the Dark Brotherhood doesn’t exist in Skyrim anymore.”

She’s the one that killed them?” Earmiel asked, sounding impressed.  “Well, damn. She failed to mention that.  Are you sure she’s not a greater threat to your Justiciars than they are to her?”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Ondolemar admitted.

“So how long is using me to keep an eye on her from the shadows supposed to last?”

“Until I can come up with something better,” he sighed a little wearily.

“Hmmm…” Earmiel pondered the matter for a moment.  “Alright, I’ll do it.  But you owe me eight ounces of this tea and a look at your dossiers on Alexa and her known associates.”

“That can be arranged,” Ondolemar agreed.

Chapter Text

It had been two weeks since Skjor’s death when Alexa finally returned to Jorrvaskr.

“And where have you been, young one?” Kodlak asked gently when she entered his sitting room immediately upon her return.

“After Gallows Rock I went to Stendarr’s Beacon where I spoke with the Vigilants – showed them Gallows Rock.  There is no mercy in torture, such a thing goes against the teachings of Stendarr, and so the Silver Hand have been disavowed.  Then I went to the Reach and spoke to a Hunt Master of Hircine.  Prey deserves a quick, clean, death.  Theirs was not the way of the hunt and so Hircine’s Hunters have been summoned.”

“I wish you had not done this.”

“Whether I wish it or not, I am a Beast Master of Hircine,” she told him quietly.  “I have responsibilities not just to a single pack but also to any strays I come across. As such my choices in this matter were limited.”

“I understand,” he replied heavily and there was silence between them for a moment.  “Skjor’s room has been cleared out and your things moved into it,” he said finally.  “You are a member of the Circle now.”

“Is that wise, Harbinger?” she asked softly.

“Wise or not, the Companions have decided.

“I also spoke to a Forsworn shaman about the Glenmoril witches.  She tells me that there are some members of the coven still in Skyrim.”

Kodlak’s eyes widened in surprise, then he nodded once, half acceptance half dismissal.  “We will speak more of this in the morning.  Get some rest, child.”

Alexa had already stripped down to her bra and panties when she heard the bedroom door open behind her. “I don’t want to talk Vilkas, I just… want sleep.”

“You okay?” he asked, closing the door behind him and leaning up against it.  “After Gallows Rock you… disappeared.”

“No,” she answered simply, arraigning her pillows the way she liked them and pulling back the covers. “Vengeance is the way of Mephala. It is not my way.  And yet… it is done.  They are the hunted now.”

He moved up behind her, standing close enough she could feel the heat from his bare chest on her back and his breath on her neck and shoulder.  His fingers brushed the silver pockmark on her thigh.  “The daedra give nothing for free, Alexa.  What has this cost you?”

Alexa froze at the slight brush of his fingers against her.  She closed her eyes against a sudden onrush of tears.  She was so tired.  “By bringing a grievance, concerning were-beasts, to the attention of a Hunt Master and Hircine, I have accepted my role as a Beast Master. Whenever the Blood Moon rises I will be called – even from Aetherius – to hunt beside Hircine in the location of his choice.”

Vilkas opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted by a deep moan followed by the unmistakable thumping of a bed rocking repeatedly into a wall.

Vilkas’ forehead hit her should as he stifled a laugh and all the tension of the moment before bled away. “Farkas,” he told Alexa softly, his hands sliding around her waist to pull her flush against him.  “That Altmer scholar from Morthal showed up here two days ago.  They haven’t left his room since.  I think Aela may kill them if she doesn’t get any sleep again tonight.”

She turned in his arms. “Earmiel is here?” she hissed.

“You can ask him why in the morning,” Vilkas responded before kissing her.

“Oh divines have mercy!” Aela yelled.  “Spider! And it’s huge!

“What!  Where?” Alexa called back.  “I don’t see it!”

“I think it just scuttled under Farkas’ door!” Aela replied loudly.

There was a sudden loud crashing from inside Farkas’ room, followed by swearing.  The bedroom door was thrown open and Farkas went streaking past, completely naked and wild-eyed with terror.

“Earmiel,” Alexa greeted the disheveled Altmer, standing in the middle of Farkas’ now-vacated room, with a scathing once over.  “So good of you to visit.”

He heaved a sigh and leaned against the bar completely unconcerned by his nudity.  “I take it the reason my sex toy just ran out of here is because you are a horrible person?” he asked airily.

“That about sums it up,” she confirmed.  “Would you like to tell me why you feel it necessary to shack up here rather than in Morthal?”

“I had something I needed to discuss with you.  You weren’t here, so…” he shrugged and then smiled wistfully.  “The boy’s got stamina. Not a lot of finesse yet, but there’s nothing like practice!”

Alexa rubbed her face tiredly.  “Right. The Commander did say you were never happy unless you were causing a scene.  Get dressed and meet me at the Bannered Mare for breakfast.  I don’t think I can handle Farkas pouting at me when he realizes there never was a spider.  At least not until after my second, very strong, cup of tea.”

“So, why are you here, Earmiel?”

“Dolly has asked me to keep an eye on you.”

“What?  Why?  And, if true, why in Sheogorath’s name would you tell me that?”

“Well I assume it’s because every time he sees you he wants to throw you up against the nearest wall and fuck you senseless,” Earmiel suggested helpfully.

“You assume that, do you?” Alexa replied dryly, not buying a word of it.  “You don’t think that might be projection on your part?”

“Oh no.  I have no urge to fuck you whatsoever,” Earmiel assured her brightly just as Saadia came over to refill her tea.

Alexa sighed and buried her face in her hands.  There really was no taking Earmiel anywhere.  “Is there a point here, somewhere, Earmiel?”

“You know Farkas talks a lot during sex?” Earmiel asked.

“No,” she replied.  “I didn’t know that and I’m fairly certain I never wanted to.”

“Yep.  Wonderful informant.  Or he would be if I were in the business of following up on such things.”

She arched an eyebrow at that.  “This… is beginning to sound like blackmail,” she pointed out.

“What?  No!” he assured her incredulously.  “Merely an interested inquiry as to your intentions!”

“What intentions?” she asked, mystified.

“Towards Dolly of course!”

“I don’t have any intentions towards him!” she hissed.

“Well you should,” Earmiel told her in an offended tone.  “Dolly is well worth taking advantage of… or so I hear.”

Alexa stared at Earmiel blankly for almost a full minute before she burst out laughing.  “Oh, Earmiel,” she gasped, wiping tears from her eyes.  “Your bad ideas could destroy nations if you put your mind to it.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Earmiel disagreed.  “It’s a very good idea.  Much better than continuing to bed that sour puss of a Nord you’re currently with.”

“You’re bedding his brother,” Alexa pointed out.

“Yes but I don’t have the option of jumping into bed with Dolly,” Earmiel replied reprovingly.  “Not only would it be totally weird but he doesn’t usually go for men.”

“You’d better watch your mouth,” Alexa advised, leaning back in her chair.  “Your ‘sex toy’ just got here.”

“Uh, hi?” Farkas mumbled as he joined them.  “Njada says there wasn’t any spider.  Also I’m supposed to tell you there’s a job near Riften Aela was hoping you could take.”

Chapter Text

Ondolemar was still trying to come to terms with the sheer magnificence and scope of the Chantry when, following Alexa’s strict instructions, he and his guards found their way through the ruined throne room to the last wayshrine.

“Are you Gelebor?” Ondolemar asked the figure glowing faintly white against the evening sky.

The figure turned and Ondolemar felt his stomach drop.  “Greetings Altmer,” the white, white, mer began, inclining his head slightly.  “Welcome to the Chantry of Auri-El.  I am, indeed, Knight-Paladin Gelebor.  Tell me, how did you come here?”

“A dark-haired Breton girl with an extraordinary bow?” Ondolemar replied watching Gelebor’s expression closely to make sure the mer knew who he was talking about.  He saw recognition on the other mer’s face and so continued.  “She felt that I could use a pilgrimage to remind me of the ‘Glory of the Sun’.”

The snow elf smiled very slightly at that.  “Did it work, your pilgrimage?  Has Auri-El’s radiance filled your heart with joy?”

“Joy and sorrow both,” Ondolemar replied, signaling for his guards to set up camp, before following Gelebor up onto the grand balcony.

“You are staring, Altmer,” Gelebor noted casually.

“Apologies, I never expected to meet an untainted Snow Elf.”  He paused, considering the other mer for a time.  “Were all your race as fair skinned as yourself?”

“You wonder if the young lady who sent you here has Snow Elf blood?  I wondered the same when first we met.  Her skill with sun magic makes it likely, though not certain, and she knows only that there was some scandal involving the parentage of one of her great-grandfathers.”

Ondolemar nodded and turned to look out over the valley.  “How did Alexa even find this place?” he asked reverently.

“The combined prophecy of two Elder Scrolls,”1 Gelebor replied frankly.  “I’m told she read them with the help of the ritual of the ancestor moth.”

“Of course she did,” Ondolemar grumbled.  “Reading just one Elder Scroll simply wouldn’t have been dramatic, dangerous, or unlikely enough for her.”

“Spoken like one who cares enough to worry,” Gelebor noted.

“I…” Ondolemar shifted uncomfortably.  “Find her interesting company,” he allowed carefully.

Gelebor smirked slightly at that before relenting.  “I do not think anyone would argue with you about that.  I too enjoy the time she chooses to spend with me.”

“Does she come here often?” Ondolemar asked, startled.

“Twice now she has visited just to talk and to listen.  A curious choice in some respects, but I suppose dragons always were chatty creatures. Though it is my first experience speaking with a female of the species.”

“Dragons?” Ondolemar asked in confusion.  “What do dragons have to do with Alexa?”

“With a dragonborn?” the Snow Elf replied glancing over at him in surprise.  “A great deal I should think.”

“Dragons? Dragonborn?  These things are myths,” Ondolemar objected.  “Even if they were once real they no longer exist.”

“Is that what you have been told?” Gelebor asked in surprise.  “I fear you have been lied to, Altmer.  Only a dragonborn, such as she, can kill a dragon permanently.  Dragons ‘killed’ by others merely sleep in their graves awaiting someone both foolish and powerful enough to return them to this world.”

“And you are certain Alexa is dragonborn?” he demanded.

“The eyes are… telling,” the Snow Elf informed him.  “There is also a certain intensity about dragons, and their mortal brethren, as well as an intrinsic understanding of the patterns within the flow of Time that sets them apart.  Speak to them of history or philosophy and you will soon see how different from the rest of us they are.”

Ondolemar opened his mouth to object and then closed it.  There was no denying that Alexa’s view of the world was unusual.

“I see that has triggered a memory or two,” Gelebor remarked.

“She once told someone that she can taste time,” Ondolemar whispered, aghast.  “I assumed she was being sarcastic.”

“She probably can, in a manner of speaking.  Though I very much doubt the time-sense of a dragon is fully analogous to any of our senses.”

“If she is dragonborn how is it she has gone unnoticed for so long?” Ondolemar demanded incredulously.

“Is she unknown?” the Snow Elf asked him skeptically.  “Are you certain?”

“Well I certainly haven’t seen her leading any armies to conquer the world or overthrow a mer nation,” Ondolemar replied.

“There are other ways to reorder the world than with armies,” Gelebor told him.

The memory of Taran redistributing Silver-Blood assets suddenly popped into Ondolemar’s head and he swore softly to himself.  Alexa had been reordering the politics of an entire hold right under his nose and with his approval even.  And no one, beside himself and Taran, would likely know it had largely been her work.  Were there other places she been involved in such machinations?  “I may need to upgrade her threat level,” he muttered.

Gelebor shrugged dismissively.  “She is dragonborn and has been given The Bow.  She will be Storm-Crowned soon enough.  Then the whole world will know.”

“The Bow?” Ondolemar asked. Why did that sound like it was capitalized?  “What are you talking about?”

“Forgive me, you referred to the bow earlier so I assumed you knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That bow you mentioned, it is Auri-El’s bow.”

“What!  How?”

“It… comes back here, when there is no hero worthy of wielding it.  Usually it disappears again when a new hero arises.  This was the first time a hero came here to take it.  A unique event like that is not to be dismissed.”

“This must have all happened while she was with the Dawnguard,” Ondolemar murmured, thinking the timing out carefully.  “What were the Dawnguard doing with two Elder Scrolls?”

“There was a prophecy: the Tyranny of the Sun.  It claimed the blood of a daughter of Coldharbor could be used, in conjunction with the bow, to blot out the sun. 

“She thought she came here to claim the bow for safekeeping and to kill those that wished to fulfill the prophecy.  But I knew, the moment I saw her, that Auri-El had drawn her here to gift His youngest child with His weapon and prepare her to face her destiny as the Last Dragonborn.”

“And what destiny is that?” Ondolemar asked softly.

“To face the black dragon Alduin in the hope of postponing the end of this kalpa.”

“Kalpa?” Ondolemar asked feeling completely adrift in the conversation.

“An epoch of existence in which time is directional,” the Snow Elf answered.  “Each kalpa both begins and ends in a period of nonlinear time in which the laws of nature are suspended.  A ‘Dawn Era,’ if you will.”

“You are implying there have been several, kalpa… several ‘Dawn Eras’?” Ondolemar enquired, mystified.

“Indeed.  Perhaps only the dragons know how many.”

“And this Alduin is a dragon?”

“A black dragon: first, and strongest, of His brothers,” Gelebor informed him.  “Alduin is Auri-El’s antithesis in all things.  Soon He will return and, when He does, she will be revealed to the world as the Last Dragonborn and a true daughter of Auri-El. As such, it is only right that I, as the last Paladin of Auri-El, help her on her path.”

“And you are absolutely certain of all of this?” Ondolemar demanded.  “I mean, you’re claiming that Alexa is…” a demigod, his mind finished what his voice would not.

Gelebor looked him over coldly.  “For millennia I guarded this place only to have darkness take it from within.  Since then I wondered what guise the final storm would take and if it would destroy what was left or wash away the taint that had perverted all that was once sacred.  When I saw her, I knew.  And so I gave her the light so that she might take it into the world and cast out the darkness.  It is as Auri-El has intended.”

By the time he’d returned to Markarth Ondolemar had concluded that extended isolation had clearly driven the ancient Snow Elf mad.  Three weeks later, however, Gelebor didn’t seem quite so crazy and Ondolemar was trying to decide how to handle what he knew.

Chapter Text

Ondolemar was having trouble concentrating.  It had been five days since a very drunken Alexa had burst into his room while he was sleeping, absorbed the ice spell he’d reflexively thrown at her, taken his face between her hands, and kissed him soundly on the lips.  Then, before he’d been able to respond, she’d pulled away laughing, “I told him you weren’t interested! Now he owes me another drink!” then patted Ondolemar companionably on the shoulder before fleeing his room giggling.1 If he’d had any lingering doubts about his ill-advised interest in the captivating Breton the incident had put them to rest along with any remaining worry that the ancient Snow Elf had any idea what he was talking about.  There was no way anyone as silly and irresponsible as Alexa was some sort of demigod created by Auriel himself and charged with the task of saving the world. The whole thing was preposterous.

He glared at the report he was failing to read.  Surely there had to be some way to stop thinking about it. He had work to do and obsessing about what exactly had been going on, and who the “he” was who knew more than was good for him – it was probably, almost definitely, Earmiel – wasn’t going to do him any good.

Ondolemar was jolted out of his haze of reflection and self-admonishment when an Imperial runner barreled up the stairs past him and into the throne room.  “Dragon!” the man gasped.  “A dragon has attacked Helgen!”

“Who is this madman?” Jarl Igmund groaned.

“Just hold on a minute Igmund,” Raerek chided.  “Let’s see what his dispatch says.”  The old man took the runner’s dispatch and read it over carefully.  “It seems Helgen was, indeed, attacked by a dragon.  And that Ulfric Stormcloak escaped justice in the confusion.”

“What can this mean?” Igmund demanded.  “You there, guard, take this man to the kitchen and get him a drink!”

Ondolemar stood up from the table he’d been sitting at and, unhurriedly, made his way back to his room. Elenwen had been at Helgen in an attempt to have Ulfric released into Thalmor custody.2  If he wanted to hear about the dragon he could hear about it from someone who had actually been there.

Elenwen looked terrible.

“Ondolemar!” she gasped in surprise as he entered the room.  “What are you doing here?”

“The dragon that attacked Helgen,” he asked mildly, “what color was it?”

“Black,” she replied, her voice still rough in her throat.

“Then we are in for a great deal of trouble,” he told her.

She laughed harshly. “I was attacked by a dragon and you… you claim that I should be concerned not by the fact it exists or that it managed to literally rain fire down upon our heads but by what color it was?”

“Yes.  Though the other things are also troubling,” he replied calmly, watching her closely.  It was odd to see Elenwen so frazzled, so open.

She paused, clearly surprised by his calm response.  “Explain,” she ordered as she walked over to the liquor cabinet.

“You recall I went, personally, on a fact-finding mission a few weeks ago?”

Elenwen gave a gentle snort as she filled a goblet with brandy.  “I do.  I also recall that your excuse for said mission was rather vague.”

“It had come to my attention that portions of several local prophecies, concerning the end of the world, have recently been fulfilled.  My source was particularly worried about a prophecy that involves a black dragon.  He called the dragon ‘Alduin the World-Eater’ and the ‘First Son of Akatosh’.”

Elenwen choked and looked up at him startled.  Then her eyes narrowed.  “Do you believe in this prophecy?”

He shrugged slightly. “No.  But the Nords do.  And, once the rumor begins to spread that the black dragon that attacked Helgen is the same black dragon from the prophecies, they will, undoubtedly, become quite panicky. Now I have never seen a large group of Nords panic simultaneously but I think I know them well enough at this point to assume they will become dangerously irrational.”

“They could turn on us,” Elenwen whispered.  “If the world is ending the future of the Empire won’t matter to them.”  She began to pace.  “I can’t ask for the Thalmor to be withdrawn from Skyrim on account of dragons.  The leadership won’t believe me.  They barely believe in the existence of frostbite spiders!  Dragons are going to be beyond what they can imagine or are willing to take on faith.”

“Then you had better find a way to request reinforcements,” Ondolemar told her.  “Because this is going to get ugly.”

The air in the room trembled and the windowpanes rattled at a sudden, earth-shaking, sound: “Dovahkiin!”

Elenwen’s goblet dropped from her hand spilling all over the rug as it rolled under the table.  “First spirit of Tamriel, what was that?”

“I don’t know,” Ondolemar answered softly.  “But I think I should get back to Markarth.”



To be continued…


This… this is going to be fine, right?