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Rise of the Last Dragonborn

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Sonja’s body gave a violent jolt and she fell forward; her knees connected with the hard floor of the cart and her forehead smashed into the corner of the bench across from her. She let out a low moan and she heard the muffled grunts of a man’s voice straining against a gag. “Hadvar,” said another voice, “This one’s fallen over. Help her.”

A horse galloped to the side of the cart. With a lurch they came to a halt and the man on horseback dismounted. “How did she fall?” he asked and she felt the cart sink with his weight.

“I don’t know,” another voice answered, “She was fine a moment ago and then she started shaking until she tumbled forward.”

Large, rough hands grabbed her by the shoulders and hefted her back into her seat. “Gods,” Hadvar breathed, “Did you have to hit her so hard Skjan? No wonder she’s shaking. You split her head wide open.”

“She’s a traitor,” another man replied, “She deserves far worse.”

“I swear, Hadvar,” said the man in the cart across from her, “I’ve never seen her before. She’s not with us.”

“Or me,” said the man sitting beside her, “I don’t know what she was doing out there—but she was on her own business.”

“That’s for the General to decide,” Hadvar sighed, “It might not matter, though. She might not make it to Helgen in this state.” He withdrew, mounted his horse and the cart jumped forward, creaking. 

It was night and two soldiers had to carry Sonja off the cart. “What in Oblivion happened to this one?” this man spoke with a distinctive Imperial accent; Sonja recognized it, but was unable to open her eyes or speak.

“In the heat of battle, Skjan struck her a little too hard, sir,” Hadvar explained, “He said she pulled a weapon on him when he approached. She did leave his face a little worse for wear, but…” he trailed off.

“But what, soldier?”

“We don’t even know who she is, sir,” Hadvar continued in a low tone, “I don’t think she’s one of Ulfric’s and she doesn’t appear to be associated with the horse thief, either.”

“Then what the blazes was she doing out there?”

“I don’t know, sir—but she might be innocent…” Hadvar began.

“I’ll decide that when you reach Helgen,” the other man interrupted, “In the meantime, I’m leaving Captain Rila in charge. I’m riding ahead tonight, to greet the Thalmor emissaries at Helgen in the morning. I expect to see you by late afternoon, tomorrow.”

“Understood, sir,” Hadvar replied, “Should I do anything about the girl in the meantime?”

There was a long pause. “Tend to her wounds, if it will ease your conscious,” he said at last, “But don’t waste too much time.”

“Of course, sir.” 

Sonja had fallen unconscious while Hadvar tended to her head injury. The pain was a great deal more intense than she had been prepared for. She did not wake again until the next day. And then she was able to open her eyes and could make sense of the sounds and smells surrounding her. Before, her senses had been a tangled and confused mess of pain and static. She coughed and moaned at the dull throb in her head. “Gods,” she breathed and she leaned back. The afternoon sun was a bit too bright for her eyes, but she managed to look around. Snow. Frigid air. The scent of the alpine wilderness. She had finally made it to Skyrim—in the worse way imaginable.

“Hey, you. You’re finally awake,” said the blonde Nord seated directly across from her.

“How long was I out?” she asked, her voice raspy and barely above a whisper.

“Three days,” answered the dark-haired man beside her, “The entire time we’ve been traveling.”

“You were trying to cross the border, right?” the Nord in front of Sonja asked.

She looked at him dubiously. “Aye.”

“Walked right into that Imperial ambush, same as us, and that thief over there,” he jerked his head in the direction of the man sitting to her right.

She turned to look at the man, frowning. She didn’t care what he was stealing as long as he wasn’t the reason she was tied up in the back of a wagon with a throbbing headache. “Thief?” she repeated, eyebrow raised, “Of what?”

“Damn you Stormcloaks!” he growled at the blonde, “Skyrim was fine until you came along!” He shook his head and leaned back, scowling, “Empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn’t been looking for you, I could have stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell. You there,” he turned to Sonja, “You and me, we shouldn’t be here. It’s these Stormcloaks the Empire wants.”

Stormcloaks. That was a name Sonja knew. News of the Civil War in Skyrim was not easy to come by in Cyrodiil for the common individual. Generally speaking, all they knew was that there was some overzealous Nord lord who took issue with the terms of the White-Gold Concordat and started a war over it. That it was bad enough to put traveling and trade restrictions on the borders of Skyrim. But Sonja still had friends in high enough places to catch a bit more than the average Imperial citizen. Enough to know the war was far worse than the Empire let on—that the Stormcloaks were winning. She glanced at the small caravan of wagons bearing bound soldiers all dressed in the same blue armor. A dozen Stormcloaks, at least. “I doubt the Empire will be so merciful as to discriminate at this point,” she soberly observed, “Not with so many captured.”

“They’ve been waiting a long time get their hands on us,” the blonde Nord added apologetically, “We’re all brothers and sisters in binds now.” He shook his head, frowning.

“Shut up back there!” the carriage driver snapped, though no one afforded him more than a dark glance.

“What’s his problem?” asked the dark-haired Nord to Sonja’s right. He gestured toward the gagged and bound man across from him.

“Watch your tongue! You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King of Skyrim!” the blonde Nord nearly bellowed.

“Ulfric, the Jarl of Windhelm?” the thief said with surprise, “You’re the leader of the rebellion. But if they’ve captured you…oh gods! Where are they taking us?”

“I don’t know where we’re going,” the Nord replied evenly, “but Sovngarde awaits.”

“No! This can’t be happening! This isn’t happening!”

Sonja remained silent, her eyes sliding shut for the briefest of moments. She was not yet terrified of the prospect of execution, largely because waking up in the back of that wagon felt like some sort of warped dream. Any moment now, she could wake up and find herself back in her bed in the Imperial City, the entire misadventure nothing more than a vivid nightmare. But when she opened her eyes again, there was only the cold mountain air in her face, the chill of snow on the slope, the scent of pine on the wind, the rough and uneven texture of the wooden bench beneath her body, and the company of her fellow condemned. It wasn’t a dream. The pain in her head and in her bound wrists silently declared her unfortunate situation a reality. She was going to die and maybe she deserved it after the life she had lived. Maybe it had been a long way coming.

“Hey, what village are you from, horse thief?” the blonde Nord asked.

“Why do you care?” he replied bitterly.

“A Nord’s last thoughts should be of home.”

“R—Rorikstead. I’m from Rorikstead.”

“And you?” he turned to face Sonja again, “Where are you from? You look like my kinsmen, but you don’t speak as we do.”

“I have no home now,” she paused, “But my mother was a Nord of Skyrim. From Whiterun.”

“So you came to honor your mother’s family?”

“Aye,” she replied curtly. It was more or less true. At least, her younger sister Anja had come to Skyrim to honor their mother’s final wishes and bring her ashes to rest in the Hall of the Dead in Whiterun. Sonja hadn’t thought Anja would make it to the border before turning around and coming back home, but the younger sister proved she was made of sterner mettle than Sonja had credited her with and made it into Skyrim alive. Sonja, herself, had only come to find her sister. Whether to bring her back to Cyrodiil or make a new home in Skyrim, she hadn’t decided yet. There was nothing left for them in the Imperial City, nothing to go back to.

“Then you die with your kinsmen this day,” the blonde Nord offered, no doubt thinking it would be a comfort to her when all it did was remind her of the family she no longer had. “And go with us to Sovngarde.”

“To Sovngarde,” she echoed softly, thinking of her mother. Sonja had never been particularly religious. She had gone to Temple with her father when she was younger because he had insisted upon it, but as soon as she was old enough to refuse, she did. From her mother, she learned of the Nordic faith, of Shor and Talos, but felt it little more than superstition. She wondered if believing in Sovngarde granted the Nord greater peace with dying than her absence of belief gifted her.

“General Tullius, sir! The headsman is waiting!” a female Imperial officer said urgently to a man accompanying two high elves in dark robes. The suddenness of the officer’s voice caused Sonja to start and she looked away from the man sitting across from her, aware now that she had been absently staring at him.

“Good, let’s get this over with,” General Tullius growled. Sonja recognized his voice. Vaguely she remembered slipping in and out of consciousness earlier and marking the accent. He was an Imperial amongst Nords. He might have known her father.

“Shor, Mara, Dibella, Kynareth, Akatosh, Divines, please help me!” the thief exclaimed as he rocked back and forth in his seat.

“Look at him! General Tullius, the military governor,” the Nord sneered, “And it looks like the Thalmor are with him! Damn elves. I bet they have something to do with this!” The procession entered a small town that seemed to have sprung to life around the large fort at the far end. The Nord looked around. “This is Helgen. I used to be sweet on a girl from here. Wonder if Vilad is still making that mead with juniper berries.” He grew quiet and mused, “Funny. When I was a boy, Imperial walls and towers used to make me feel so safe.”

“I know what you mean…” Sonja said, but it had been a long time since Imperial walls and the soldiers patrolling them made her feel anything but dread and remorse.

The townspeople gathered along the road, coming out of their houses, the inn, and the shops. A father and his son came out of their home and the boy raced to the rail of the front porch. He climbed it and leaned over, examining the soldiers and their prisoners. “Who are they, da?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Go inside, little cub,” his father said sternly, his face hard and concerned.

“Why? I wanted to watch the soldiers.”

“Inside the house! Now!”

The boy sighed and turned away. “Yes, father,” he said grudgingly.

The carriage turned the corner and lurched to a stop just outside the courtyard of the fort. The thief looked around anxiously. “Why are we stopping?” he asked, nervously.

“Why do you think?” the Nord shook his head, “End of the line. Let’s go. Shouldn’t keep the gods waiting.”

“No, we wouldn’t want that,” Sonja muttered darkly.

The soldiers were beginning to unload the prisoners from the other carts. “No wait! We’re not rebels!” the thief exclaimed, desperately.

“Face your death with some courage, thief,” the Nord snapped. Ulfric disembarked with as much dignity as his bindings would allow.

The thief had to be forcibly removed from his seat. “You’ve got to tell them we weren’t with you! This is a mistake!”

“Come along lass,” the soldier barked beckoning to Sonja.

She took one last look at the Nord across from her. “I never asked where you were from,” she said as she rose to her feet.

“Riverwood,” he replied, “Just down the road aways from here.”

“A Nord’s last thoughts should be of home,” she said as she jumped down from the carriage.

“Aye, kinswoman,” he said when he stepped down beside her, “That they should.”

“Step toward the block as we call your name,” the female officer instructed, “One at a time!”

“Empire loves their damned lists,” the Nord muttered under his breath.

“Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm,” Hadvar called, consulting the list in his hands.

“It has been an honor, Jarl Ulfric,” the Nord said as the gagged nobleman stepped forward and strode toward the execution block, coolly.

“Ralof of Riverwood,” Hadvar said with an obvious frown.

Halfway to the block, Ralof paused and turned toward Hadvar. “I want you to take my body to Gerdur, yourself, Hadvar.” The other man nearly refused, his face bunching up in a scowl, but abruptly his expression softened and he nodded his consent. “I want you to see her face so you can see what the Empire is really doing to the sons and daughters of Skyrim.”

“To the block, prisoner!” the officer barked, “Don’t speak to the prisoners, Hadvar.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hadvar returned his attention to the list as Ralof took his place at Ulfric’s side, but he looked troubled, “Lokir of Rorikstead.”

“No! I’m not a rebel! You can’t do this!” the thief pleaded with every nearby soldier before he sprinted back the way the carriages had arrived.

The female officer bared her teeth, “Halt!” she growled, but the thief continued to run, nearly disappearing around the bend near the house where Sonja had seen the father and son.

“You’re not gonna kill me!” Lokir yelled triumphantly over his shoulder. He thought he was home-free.

The officer raised a hand, “Archers!” The hand fell, the arrow was loosed, and Lokir fell dead just shy of the porch where earlier the boy had been watching with anticipation. Sonja exhaled sharply, unsure if she pitied Lokir for his cowardice or was envious of the brief freedom he felt before the arrow pierced his heart. “Anyone else feel like running?” the officer addressed the group at large, but her eyes bore into Sonja’s face.

“Wait, you there,” Hadvar pointed at Sonja, “Step forward.” Sonja clenched her fists tightly before moving toward Hadvar. “Who are you?” he asked.

It would be easy enough to give a false name. One that wouldn’t catch any attention and she could go quietly to the chopping block with the rest. The prospect thrilled her a little. Was it wrong to desire an end to everything? All the suffering she had endured? The painful memories she wore as scars across her body? “I am Sonja Draconis of the Imperial City, daughter of Captain Remus Draconis of the Imperial City Guard and Freydis Ironheart of Whiterun,” she replied, honestly, feeling a weight settle heavily in her stomach when recognition sparked in both the General and Hadvar’s faces.

General Tullius marched over to Hadvar and looked Sonja over. “I knew Remus,” he stated, “He was a good man and died bravely.”

“I know of her mother,” Hadvar muttered, “Her family still lives in Whiterun.”

“Hmm,” Tullius was silent a moment, “Why were you found in the company of traitors, Draconis?”

“Inconvenient timing,” Sonja explained, “I’m here in Skyrim to find my sister.”

“A likely story,” one of the Thalmor emissaries interrupted, gliding over to join the conversation, “We cannot trust the word of any of these prisoners. They would say anything to avoid death now. What proof is there that she is who she says she is?”

“Well, she certainly looks like Remus,” Tullius offered, but he paused, “So what do you suggest? Send her to the block with the others?”

“It is the only way to ensure the complete destruction of Ulfric’s rebellion,” the Thalmor said, turning hateful eyes upon Sonja, “If she is innocent, then she is a regrettable casualty.”

Tullius was obviously outraged by the Thalmor’s tactless attitude toward the innocent, but Sonja realized that he didn’t have much of a choice other than to comply. He was not in charge of this summary trial and execution. “Captain Rila, Hadvar, please continue,” the General ordered through clenched teeth.

Sonja straightened and held her head high; she wouldn’t face her death cowering and whimpering, and she had done what she could to save her own life short of running like Lokir. It would all be over soon. “You picked a bad time to come to Skyrim,” Hadvar said sadly, “Kinswoman,” he added quietly.

“To the block prisoner,” Captain Rila commanded.

Sonja turned stiffly and moved toward the block; she stopped beside Ralof who greeted her with a sad, half-hearted smile. “I’m sorry,” he whispered; she didn’t answer. There wasn’t anything to say.

Tullius stood in front of the crowd of prisoners and addressed the bound Jarl. “Ulfric Stormcloak, some call you a hero,” he said, “But a hero doesn’t use a power like the Voice to murder his king and usurp his throne. You started this war and plunged Skyrim into chaos! And now the Empire is going to put you down and restore the peace!”

A loud, throaty roar tore through the sky and everyone’s faces titled upward with surprise. “What was that?” the captain asked, searching the skies. It could have been a troll or a bear. Helgen was nestled at the base of a mountain pass. The cries could echo for miles.

Tullius’ gaze lingered on the clouds. “It’s nothing,” he said at length, “Carry on.”

“Yes, General Tullius!” she turned to the Priestess of Arkay, “Give them their last rights.”

The priestess nodded, raised her hands above her head in worship, and began, “As we commend your souls to Atherius, blessings of the eight Divines…”

“For the love of Talos, shut up and let’s get this over with!” A Stormcloak soldier from one of the other carts barreled through his brothers-and-sisters-at-arms to the front.

“As you wish,” the priestess replied indignantly and she backed away from the execution block.

“Come on! I haven’t got all morning!” he bellowed fearlessly. Sonja’s stomach tightened. He reminded her of her brother. Foolish. Proud. Fearless. And so young. Too young. He dropped to his knees and Captain Rila forced him forward, onto the block, with her foot in his back. He grinned triumphantly at her and the headsman. “My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials. Can you say the same?” The headsman gave his answer in the heavy fall of his axe and the young soldier’s head fell into the waiting basket. Blood sprayed everywhere, leaving a fine mist of it on the ground.

“You Imperial bastards!” one of the female Stormcloak soldiers shrieked; she was crying.

“Justice!” yelled an onlooker.

“Death to the Stormcloaks!” cried one of the Imperial soldiers.

“As fearless in death as he was in life,” Ralof said to the weeping Stormcloak woman, “Your brother has gone to Sovngarde.”

Sonja felt a profound pain in her chest. She knew what it was like to lose a brother. To watch him die right before her very eyes. She looked to the grieving sister, wanting to say something but failing to find the words. Nothing could ease her pain and the poor girl would face execution soon anyway. “May Talos watch over him,” she said at last. The girl wiped her tears and nodded her gratitude to Sonja. Ralof offered a look of approval.

“Next, the Imperial!” Captain Rila yelled. Some of the onlookers yelled with approval and excitement. They were only there for a show. All they wanted was to see someone die. But a second roar covered the crowd’s cheer and drowned it out. Sonja took the first few steps confidently, almost longingly as she approached the block, but the second roar had caused her step to falter slightly, her eyes searching the sky above. In the pit of her stomach she felt cold—not because she was headed for the chopping block, but because she sensed something drawing ever closer.

“There it is again,” Hadvar exclaimed, “Did you hear that?”

“I said, NEXT PRISONER,” Captain Rila repeated angrily.

“To the block, Sonja, nice and easy,” Hadvar instructed kindly, as if coaxing a frightened animal to slaughter. Sonja took a few more steps, lingering a second longer on the last one. Her thoughts were of her family and of her failings. She thought wistfully of her younger brother and sister with remorse. Who would honor Thornir’s memory and look after their sister once she was dead? Corvus drifted through her thoughts as well and she closed her eyes in a moment of profound regret and wished she could apologize to her deceased parents. It’s all too late now, she thought darkly, It can’t be undone.

As soon as she was close enough to the block, the captain grabbed her roughly and forced her to her knees. Just as she had done before, she forced Sonja’s head onto the block with her foot in her back. Sonja’s head made a dull thud when in smacked against the thick wooden block. The blood from the last prisoner coated her face and she slid a fraction of an inch further. She looked up at the headsman and held her breath. The large man adjusted his grip on his axe and prepared to heft it above his head, but just before he lifted it, Sonja spied a terrifying and unbelievable sight. Over the headsman’s left shoulder, Sonja could see one of the towers of the fort and soaring just above it was a giant winged beast with smoldering eyes and sharp fangs and claws. It was larger than anything she had ever seen and cut through the sky like a fish through water. Sonja’s eyes widened in disbelief and she gasped in surprise, unable to formulate the words necessary to describe what she was seeing. The headsman raised his axe, unaware of what flew behind him.

“What in Oblivion is that?” Tullius yelled out, spotting the beast. The headsman paused and looked over his shoulder.

“Sentry, what do you see?” the captain asked as she moved to find a better position.

“It’s in the town!” a woman screamed as the beast landed on the tower just behind the headsman. The force of its wings knocked the man over and his axe fell harmlessly to the side. Sonja struggled to sit up from the block.

“Dragon!” The town was a chaotic mess of terrified people and panicking soldiers. Everyone was either trying to run away or engage the dragon in battle. The dragon cut another terrifying roar and the sky above its head darkened. The wind picked up and flaming stones and lightning pelted the earth forcefully. All thought of willfully embracing execution was pushed clean from Sonja’s mind and she struggled to flee with the rest of the panicking prisoners and villagers. She was halfway on her feet when the dragon roared again, knocking her sideways. She hit her head, her ears rang, and her vision blurred. It took her several moments to realize someone was calling her name.

“Sonja! Get up! Come on! The gods won’t give us another chance!” Ralof shouted. Sonja shook her head and pushed herself to her feet. Ralof was in the doorway of the southern tower, waving frantically for her to come toward him. She ran, dodging the falling rocks as best she could, but the last one sent her tumbling forward, through the door into Ralof’s arms. He kicked the door shut and set her on the floor. He was free of his bindings. “Hold still,” he said, “Let me cut you loose.” Sonja obeyed and was soon free. She rubbed her wrists and looked around.

Ulfric was also in the tower, unbound and pressed against the curve of the wall for cover. His dark piercing eyes briefly fell upon Sonja, his expression strange and unreadable. For a moment, it looked as if he was about to say something to her, but then Ralof spoke, claiming his attention. “What is that thing?” the younger Nord exclaimed, “Could the legends be true?”

“Legends don’t burn down villages,” the Jarl replied coolly, but he glanced again in Sonja’s direction thoughtfully. Again he was distracted as the dragon’s tirade intensified and shook the entire tower. “We need to move! Now!” he ordered.

Sonja’s eyes darted to Ralof. His loyalty lies with his Jarl, she thought frantically, I can’t depend on any further help from him. Before Ralof could turn around to address Sonja again, she was already on her feet, scrambling up the stone steps to the second level of the tower, hoping some elevation would grant her some much needed perspective. She didn’t know Helgen’s layout, after all. “Hey, wait!” Ralof called after her.

Just before she reached the top of the stairway, a roar announced the arrival of the dragon. It burst through the weakened wall, killing two Stormcloak soldiers, one of which Sonja recognized as the woman whose brother was executed earlier. The dragon breathed fire into the opening and Sonja retreated several steps, her right hand up to shield her face; the heat seared the skin of her forearm and she snarled in pain. Her retreat was halted by Ralof who had trailed after her up the stairs. He wrapped his arms around her to protect her from the heat. “Stay down,” he commanded; she didn’t dare disobey and clutched her injured hand to her chest. The fire stopped and the dragon flew away, apparently content that it had killed whoever was in the tower. Sonja and Ralof continued up the stairs and looked out through the giant aperture. “Look!” Ralof pointed to the ruined roof of the adjacent home—the home of the boy. “Jump through the roof and keep going!”

Sonja nodded and prepared to jump from the tower, but stopped. “You’re not coming with me?” She hadn’t expected him to earlier, but he did follow her up the stairs.

“My place is with Ulfric,” he said sternly.

“Come with me,” she pleaded.

“Go!” he said, “Before it’s too late.” Sonja groaned and hurled herself from the tower into the burning roof of the nearby house.

The smoldering patches of straw thatch broke her fall. “Damnit!” she cursed and she grit her teeth against the pain. The stench of burnt flesh filled her lungs from her own limb and throughout the village as others sizzled in the dragon’s flames. The smoke thickened in the upper level of the house, stinging Sonja’s eyes and she stumbled forward, her good hand clamped over her mouth and nose. There was an opening in the floor where the floorboards had collapsed under the weight of falling debris and fire. She fell through it, unable to see where she was going. Sonja hit the floor with a loud thud that pushed the air from her lungs.

“Sonja?” It was Hadvar. He ran into the burning house and pulled her out, coughing and sputtering. “Are you alright?”

She wheezed and tried to answer him, but the boy caught her attention. He was standing out in the open, trying to shake his father’s mangled corpse awake. “The boy,” she coughed, pointing. Hadvar followed her gesture and ran toward the child. He stopped short as the dragon came swooping low to ground. Hadvar called to the boy, gesturing to him urgently. It took longer than anyone would have liked, but the boy relented and gave up his father’s body to join Hadvar just before the dragon could claim him.

Sonja let out a long low sigh of relief and leaned back against what remained of another destroyed house. She winced and took a look at her arm. The skin was melted and painful, but not bleeding or otherwise oozing; Sonja was surprised that the injury was not much worse. The adrenaline pumping through her body went a long way toward staving off the worst of the pain, but she still took a moment to refocus her energies and heal her injured arm. The healing magic rippled across her arm and she felt the pain ease, but the flesh did not smooth over and heal. Sonja flexed her hand stiffly and frowned. Damned thing’s nearly useless…But she couldn’t afford to concern herself with her hand much longer. With the pain under control, she stumbled to her feet and ran as soon as the dragon had taken to the sky again. Hadvar followed and yelled to her to stay close to him since he was armed. Sonja scoffed and did little to stay near the soldier. It hadn’t appeared that the other armed men and women were having much effect on the dragon and she forged ahead, searching for a way out of the town.

The gates had been closed. Why in Oblivion did they do that? It flies! You can’t keep it out with a damned gate! Growling in frustration, she was forced to change direction and headed for the fort proper with Hadvar close on her heels. In the courtyard, Ralof appeared again, crawling out from beneath some fiery debris. “Ralof! You damned traitor! Out of my way!” Hadvar bellowed.

“We’re escaping this time, Hadvar, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us!” Ralof yelled back.

“Fine! I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovngarde!” Hadvar retorted. The two men glared at one another and continued shouting, each beckoning to Sonja to follow him. Without thinking, she took Ralof’s hand and sprinted toward the fort.

Just before she was able to duck through the door after him, she heard the strangest and most terrifying sound. The dragon spoke. “Hi nis Viik dovah, joore! Zu’u los dinok unahzaal!” Its voice was monstrous, and the tone of it grate against Sonja’s bones, awakening a very basic instinct to fear, to run, to hide. She bolted inside then, slamming the door shut behind her. 

“We’ll meet again in Sovngarde, brother,” Ralof sighed, bending over the corpse of his fallen brother-in-arms and placing a hand across his forehead, brushing some of his dark hair from his face.

Sonja listened to him mutter a prayer over the body. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, feeling the urgency of the situation build outside the door with every shudder of the building, knocking dust and loose gravel from the cracks and pits between the stone. It clashed with the tender reverence Ralof was affording his fallen comrade.

“Many have died already,” he said, standing, “And more will die before the end. It is the way of things.”

“The way of war.”

Ralof cast her a sideways glance and nodded. “Aye, the way of war,” he agreed and then he looked Sonja over in full, appraising every injury to decide how useful she might prove in a fight. “You might as well take Gunjar’s gear. He won’t be needing it anymore.”

Sonja looked at her traveling gear, singed by fire and stained by blood, but still warm, still useful, and still bearing the enchantments she needed to bolster her magic use. “I’m fine,” she said, crossing her arms defensively over her worn fur and leather armor.

Ralof was obviously not convinced. “Take his weapon at least,” he insisted. When Sonja didn’t move, he shrugged, “Suit yourself, but I can’t protect you all the time.”

“I don’t need your protection,” she assured him.

Again, Ralof did not seem convinced, but he didn’t say as much. Instead, he went to the gate that led deeper into the fort and experimentally tried the latch. When it didn’t open, he shook the bars and grunted in frustration. “This one’s locked.” He glanced back at the other gate on the opposite wall. “Let’s see about that one.” He rushed to it only to meet with defeat a second time. “Damn. No way to open this from our side.”

Sonja frowned, beginning to think she should have gone with Hadvar instead, and looked around the room. She wasn’t much of a thief, but she had known her fair share of them, Corvus not least amongst them, and had learned a thing or two about lockpicking. Unfortunately, her lockpicks had been confiscated with the rest of her gear when she was captured and from the barren look of the room, she doubted there was anything she could use to force either gate open.

Before either Ralof or Sonja could come up with another way forward, the sound of heavy booted footsteps, clinking armor, and a commanding voice shouting orders echoed down the hall. “It’s the Imperials!” Ralof hissed, “Take cover!” Sonja stepped back in the shadow of the doorway they had come through and waited, hoping the Imperial soldiers could be reasoned with considering they had bigger problems soaring the skies. But as the soldiers drew closer and the sounds of the officer’s voice grew clearer, Sonja recognized her as the captain overseeing the execution. Captain Rila didn’t strike her as particularly reasonable.

Sure enough, the moment the gate release was activated and the Imperial soldiers saw Ralof, they drew their swords. “DIE STORMCLOAK!” the captain bellowed and she lunged, her eyes murderous.

Sonja knew Ralof needed her help. He was a good soldier, an excellent fighter, and managed to hold off attacks from both Captain Rila and her underling with sheer quickness alone, but he couldn’t keep it up forever. Eventually, he’d slip up, move too slow, or miscalculate a reaction time and when they were done with him, they’d go after her. She knew this and still she hesitated because for all the danger and necessity of the situation, they still wore Imperial armor. Uniforms her father and brother fought and died in. “SONJA!” Ralof yelled.

His desperate cry for help was enough to spur Sonja into action and she ran out into the middle of the room, catching the edge of Captain Rila’s sword with her conjured one before it met Ralof’s flesh. The purple flames of conjuration licked at the cruel edges of the Daedric weapon and cast an ominous glow across Ralof’s surprised expression. She conjured a second sword and leveraged her weapons against Rila, kicking her backward with her boot firmly planted against her belt. Ralof continued to fight the other soldier while Sonja battled the captain.

At some point during the struggle, Captain Rila managed to catch the edge of the blade in Sonja’s left hand and sent it flying from her grip. The conjured weapon disappeared in a flash of light before it hit the ground. The soft aftershock caused by its shift back into its realm caused the dirt and dust to skitter across the stone floor. But the second Sonja’s hand was relieved of the sword, she gathered flames in it and released several blasts in quick succession into Rila’s face and chest until the captain crumpled beneath the heat of her magic, dead.

The smell of chard flesh filled her nostrils once again as she stood over the dead woman’s body, her Imperial armor chard, but still red and the Imperial crest and rank still visible on her chest. It was a horrifying reminder of how her brother died and she felt her stomach heave. She turned away and leaned heavily against the wall, releasing her remaining conjured sword, as she tried to vomit, but nothing came. She had been unconscious for the last few days and had not eaten. Suddenly, she felt very weak and shivered against the stone. She was revived somewhat when she felt a pair of rough hands grip her shoulders. Gaining momentum by pushing off the wall, she swung her elbow back to catch the nose of whoever had put hands on her. “It’s me!” Ralof declared, narrowly avoiding the force of the blow as he ducked.

“Oh,” Sonja stopped trying to cause him bodily harm and glanced at the second Imperial body Ralof had hacked to death with his axes. She forced herself to look elsewhere.

“You’re a mage.” It wasn’t a question.


Ralof’s expression darkened. “Like those with the Imperial Legion?”

“No, I’m not with the Legion,” she answered sternly, “I’m a spellsword.”

It was obvious from his expression that he did not believe her. “Be careful who you tell that.”


“Nords are not fond of magic.”

Sonja frowned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Ralof searched her expression for a long time, noting her unease after killing Captain Rila. “You’ve never killed anyone before?” he asked.

“Too many,” she replied.

“Then why…?”

“We should keep moving,” she interrupted before abruptly kneeling beside Rila’s corpse and searching it for keys. When she found what she was looking for, she tossed the ring to Ralof to open the gate forward while she lingered over the captain’s body. “Forgive me,” she muttered softly. Whether her apology was meant for Ralof for failing to come to his aid sooner, for Rila for taking her life without mercy, or for Thornir for dishonoring his memory, she didn’t know, but she followed her Stormcloak ally deeper into the fort the instant she heard the gate swing back on its hinges. There was nowhere to go now, but onward. If nothing else, she had to fight to find Anja. She couldn’t fail her sister. Not again. 

Getting through the fort had not been easy. Despite the presence of a fire-breathing dragon terrorizing the village outside, the Imperial soldiers and Stormcloaks found themselves too consumed by their desire to kill each other to set aside their differences long enough to save the villagers trapped inside Helgen or to get out themselves. Sonja had been forced to fight her way through more Imperials who only saw her has an ally to a Stormcloak. But she and Ralof made it through the fort and into an adjoining set of tunnels where the wall had collapsed in the dungeons.

Once they stepped out into the bright sun of the afternoon, Sonja raised her hand to shield her eyes. There was another monstrous roar and Ralof grabbed her around the waist, pulling her down beside him behind a large boulder. Overhead, the black dragon soared away, cutting through the air with dangerous grace. “I think it’s gone,” he whispered.

“Let’s get a move on before it decides to come back,” Sonja replied and she stepped out from behind the rock, beckoning for Ralof to follow her. “Where’s the nearest town?” she asked.

“Just a ways down the road,” he answered, “My hometown of Riverwood.”

“Lead the way, then,” she insisted and the pair of them made their way down the slope of the hill to the road. 

Sonja had been reluctant to meet Ralof’s sister. She preferred to part ways as soon as they made it to town instead, hoping to take what meager supplies and armor she had scavenged from Helgen to the blacksmith and the general store. “Gerdur can help us,” Ralof insisted, “Get us food and a place to sleep.”

“Her help is for her brother,” Sonja argued, “Not for a stranger.”

Ralof’s brow furrowed. “You are not in Cyrodiil anymore, Draconis,” he said, “All Nords are kinsmen here and we take care of our own.”

“When you’re not busy killing each other, of course,” she pointed out.

Ralof frowned. “Gerdur has enough to spare for the woman who saved her brother’s life,” he continued, “It’s the least I can do.”

Sonja hesitated. Her alliance with Ralof had been conditional on their mutual need to escape the dragon terrorizing Helgen and the Imperial soldiers baying for their blood. Now that the immediate danger was passed, what did she really know of the man offering her food and shelter? Was he trustworthy? What was he playing at, trying to lure her into his family home? “I’ll think about it,” she replied stiffly before pushing passed him to barter with the blacksmith.

After Sonja had made what trades she could and little coin there was to be had, she set out for the inn to see how much a room might be. Night was fast approaching and Skyrim was far too cold for her to consider curling up under a tree somewhere. As she made her way, she caught sight of Ralof sitting on the giant tree stump near the mill where he had met with his sister earlier. He was leaning back on one hand, tossing pebbles into the slow moving waters of the river, sipping mead and picking at the assortment of food Gerdur had brought out to him: a loaf of bread, salted meat, an apple, and some soft cheese.

Silently, Sonja jingled her small purse of a scant few coins. She had sold everything that remained of her father’s estate when she left to find Anja. It had been the only way to raise enough coin to go after her at the time, but she’d lost it all at the border. Now she was reduced to the handful of gold she carefully haggled into her pocket. Definitely not enough to afford the inn and a proper meal. Her stomach growled in agreement. She hadn’t eaten in days. Taking Ralof up on his offer of food and shelter was looking more attractive by the second. Swallowing her pride, she abandoned her plans for the inn and made her way to the lounging Stormcloak soldier. “Glad to be home?” she asked as she approached.

Ralof chuckled, “Earlier today, I didn’t think I would live to ever see my home again.”

“I’m not sure if we were lucky to be attacked by a dragon in the middle of our execution or not,” she replied, “What kind of luck sends a dragon to raze a village?”

“And yet, here we are,” Ralof pointed out.

“Indeed,” Sonja actually smiled, surprised that she was genuinely pleased to be alive, despite her earlier death wish. It was the first time Ralof had seen such an expression on her face. Though, to be fair, there wasn’t much to smile about in the midst of an execution and dragon attack. Still, he thought her an attractive woman when brooding, but even more so when she finally cracked a smile. “I was just headed to the inn for the night,” she continued, “When I saw you sitting here and I thought—I might take you up on your offer.”

Ralof’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I didn’t think you keen on my hospitality.”

Sonja’s smile melted into a frown. “I changed my mind,” she replied defensively, “But if the offer’s no good, I’ll go to the inn.” She turned to leave, but Ralof caught her arm.

“Of course the offer’s still good,” he sighed, “Sit. Eat with me. Let’s give thanks that we are yet breathing to enjoy this meal at all.”

“Alright.” Sonja felt a little of her unease dissipate as she sunk onto the tree trunk beside him. The sun was low, nearly set and some enthusiastic torchbugs were already out. The meal laid out did look very appetizing. She accepted the mead he offered her and drank deeply. Her mother being a Nord, their house had never been in short supply of mead, but it tasted better in Skyrim, somehow.

The golden sunset reflected off the river as they ate, casting a warm glow over their faces. It had been a long time since Ralof had been in the company of a beautiful woman. He had given so much of his life over to Ulfric’s cause that he had quite forgotten about everything else. But, on that day, he could forget about Ulfric and the Stormcloaks. He had just had a brush with death and managed to escape it with Sonja’s help. On that day, he could pretend that his life was simpler. That there was no civil war or injustice. On that day, he could just enjoy a meal with a lovely woman without worrying about the next day, or all the days before it.

They ate and laughed. Ralof didn’t dare ask her more about her past than he had already. It was obvious to him that she was the sort to keep to herself and that was fine with him. He didn’t want to spoil the mood. After the sun went down, they laid back across the stump and stared up at the stars. Ralof told Sonja many stories about the constellations he knew and she compared them to the ones she heard growing up in Cyrodiil. In the cool night air, she felt almost giddy. It must be the mead…she reasoned; she had had plenty. “Do you fancy a swim?” Ralof asked her jokingly, fully aware of how cold the water would be. There were several lanterns lining the walkways and some of the riverbanks, and in the dim light, the softer currents of the river seemed inviting.

“You know, I think I would.” Sonja hopped off the stump and skipped to the water, shedding her clothing as she went.

She waded into the water in her small clothes, shivering from the cold. Ralof grinned, thanked his lucky stars, and followed her in. Sonja cast a few Fire Runes upstream to warm the water has it flowed toward them and soon enough the pair began to splash and horse about like the drunken louts they were. When the play got too rowdy, Ralof quieted Sonja by pulling her close and kissing her, silencing her loud laughter. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise before she allowed herself to enjoy the moment and deepen the kiss. They stood there, waist deep in the river, kissing, until Sonja’s runes expired and the current became abruptly cold. They yelped, shivering, and staggered out of the river, gathering their shed clothing and armor along the way.

Not wanting to return to his sister’s house and wake the whole family with their drunken spectacle, Ralof stumbled toward the mill. There was a small shack in the recess near the sawed logs. He opened it and inside were an assortment of storage containers, a bedroll, lantern, weapon rack, and wood axe. “Gerdur set it up for me to use whenever I needed to lay low to avoid the Imperials,” he explained when Sonja looked inside, perplexed, “You can stay here as long as you like. Store what you like, sleep here. Neither you nor your things will be disturbed.”

“Where will you go?” she asked, edging closer to the door, to block the cold from abusing her mostly naked body.

Ralof hesitated. What he really wanted was for her to invite him to stay with her or follow him to the inn, but didn’t think luck was on his side when it came to that. “The inn,” he answered eventually, “Delphine likes me well enough. She’ll let me pay her in the morning.”

Sonja nodded absently and looked inside the small shack again. It wasn’t particularly well insulated, or large, or clean, but it offered protection from the elements and safety from wayward threats. Best of all it was free; she didn’t have to shell out coin for it or give her body over to his enjoyment for the night if she didn’t want to. She saw it for what it was: Ralof’s attempt to respect her boundaries, her preference to be alone. It erased the last of any of her lingering doubts. “Thank you,” she said, tossing her things haphazardly over the barrels at the back of the shack, “It’s—cozy.”

Ralof handed over the key to the shack. “It’s warmer than it looks,” he assured amused and he turned to make the embarrassing trek to the inn, soaking wet, and in his smalls when Sonja caught his arm.

“I think we could make it warmer with two of us in here, don’t you?” she asked, smirking mischievously as she stepped backward, pulling Ralof in after her. 

Chapter Text

Vilkas awoke feeling exhausted. The Beast Blood prevented those infected from resting peacefully. It begged for transformation every night—but it demanded it on bright, moonlit nights and the last night had been trying. The Call was seductive and easy to give in to. If Vilkas had been a weaker man, he might have given in to the Beast entirely. As it was, he felt that he had a disturbing understanding of how some became feral creatures, devoid of all humanity. The Wolf was hungry. It could devour everything if I let it. Every day and night felt like a constant struggle against the animal urges warring within his body.

He went to the ceramic washbasin in the corner of his room and splashed water on his face. He had not always struggled with the Beast. It had always been a part of him. He was as much Wolf as he was Nord. It was essential to his identity, but lately he could feel a rift begin to form between the two parts of himself. Steadily, it began to grow. He didn’t understand why, nor did he speak to anyone of it—not even Farkas. His brother was very dear to him; his closest friend and confidant, but Vilkas could not bring himself to tell his brother of such shameful feelings.

“Vilkas,” it was Aela, her voice muffled from behind the door, but still recognizable. Her scent was unmistakable and she carried with her traces of Skjor, as always. The two were rarely separated.


“Kodlak calls for us.”

“I’ll be there.” She didn’t respond and simply left. Vilkas donned a clean tunic and trousers. He already felt trapped within his own skin; the idea of putting on his armor was unappealing. He stalked out into the hall and made his way to the mead hall above. There were only a few Companions awake at that early hour and they sleepily nursed breakfast in the firelight, yawning. Njada had a particularly sour look on her face, even for her. And Torvar looked to be milking a particularly nasty hangover from the night before.

Without muttering so much as a good morning to anyone, Vilkas slipped outside into the cool Skyrim morning air and stretched. The sun had not yet risen, but its rays were lightening the dark night sky from black to blue. He went to the Underforge and pushed the stone door back with a mighty shove. It was generally too heavy for any of the Unblooded Companions or whelps to open. Even Eorland struggled with it from time to time, but the weight prevented unwelcome visits. The strength of the Wolf allowed the Circle to access it with ease, however. Kodlak, Farkas, Skjor, and Aela were all inside, waiting. Vilkas took his place beside his brother and patiently waited for Kodlak to begin speaking. Skjor and Aela grew restless, but remained silent, nonetheless—regardless of how much they tended to disagree with Kodlak, he was still their Harbinger, their Alpha, and they would not disrespect him.

“Now that we’re all here,” Kodlak said at length, “I can begin.” No one responded. “As some of you may have noticed, I have been spending less time with the sword and more time reading.”

“Aye, we’ve noticed,” Vilkas acknowledged, carefully.

“I’ve been researching our lycanthropic legacy,” Kodlak explained, “I’ve learned a great deal of its origins, history—and consequences.”

“Consequences?” repeated Farkas, slowly. He was not the keenest of the group, but he understood well enough the degree of danger 'consequences' could imply.

“Aye, lad,” Kodlak nodded, “Every curse has its consequences and we have not fully understood our own.”

“This is not a curse!” Skjor exclaimed defensively.

“Hold your tongue,” Vilkas barked, “Let Kodlak explain what consequences he speaks of before you defend a Wolf that will only turn on you.” Skjor and Aela growled.

“We do not only serve Lord Hircine in this life as werewolves,” Kodlak continued once the room quieted, “When the time comes, the Wolf within each of us will carry our souls to the Great Hunting Grounds of Oblivion where we will serve Lord Hircine in the afterlife for all eternity.”

Vilkas’ blood ran cold. He had not felt such a sensation in a very long time. His Nordic and Beast Blood vented so much heat through his body that he hardly noticed when the air was chilled. But at that moment, Vilkas thought all the heat had been sucked out of the room, out of his skin. “We are denied Sovngarde?” he asked, quietly.

“Indeed, we are.”

“I relish the hunt,” Aela declared defiantly, “I will gladly serve Hircine in the Great Hunting grounds after my death.”

“As will I!” Skjor exclaimed. Kodlak seemed displeased, but he remained silent as he turned his gaze to Vilkas to gauge his reaction.

Vilkas looked away and began to pace slowly, thinking. Everything he believed in as a Nord seemed to be at odds with everything he was as a Wolf. He knew now why he struggled with the Beast lately. It was no longer content merely being a part of him; it wanted more. It wanted his soul. It wanted to take Sovngarde from him. “I will not give up Sovngarde,” he said at last, “I am a Nord warrior. Sovngarde is my birthright!”

“I cannot accept it either,” Farkas answered, taking the lead from his brother.

“Nor can I,” Kodlak conceded. Skjor and Aela exchanged uncomfortable glances, “I have been looking for a cure to free me from the curse. I wish to join my ancestors in Sovngarde when I pass from this life. The Hunting Grounds are unacceptable.”

“And once you’ve found a cure,” Aela began, “Must we all take it?”

“No, your lives and souls are your own,” Kodlak answered, “If you wish to keep the Wolf, keep it. I will not fault you for it. As for myself, I am giving up the transformations starting today. I will no longer live as a beast. Regardless of whether or not I can find a cure, I will live out my days without the Wolf.”

“I will abstain from transformations as well,” Vilkas offered in support.

“Me too,” chimed in Farkas.

“I am grieved that you will not share the night with us any longer, Harbinger and Shield-Brothers,” Aela said, “But I respect your decisions.” Skjor merely grunted.

“Return to Jorrvaskr. A new day greets us.” Kodlak dismissed them and the Circle retreated to the mead hall to contemplate events in the Underforge. Vilkas went to his room and locked himself in. He tried to sort through his feelings, but found only anger and betrayal. He had been a werewolf most of his life. Had he known the consequences, he would not have elected to pay such a high price—or allow Farkas to, either. He seethed, alone in his room, pondering with a heavy heart and an angry scowl.

Chapter Text

It was the clatter of newly cut planks being stacked on the wood pile behind the shack that woke Sonja. She nearly jumped out of her skin and immediately regretted the quick motion as the throbbing in her head intensified. “Ugh,” she moaned into her hands and rubbed the sleep from her face, still tasting the honey on her tongue now staled from sleeping with her mouth open. Carefully, she shifted in an attempt to sit upright in the narrow space afforded her body between the shack wall and Ralof’s larger frame. The slumbering Nord stirred at her movement and flung a heavy arm around her midsection, weighing her back down against his naked body. Trapped.

If she didn’t feel so ill, she might have found the situation amusing. The way he held her so tightly as he slept like a child with a stuffed animal. It was a comfort. Something real to hold onto through the murky and sometimes treacherous waters of slumber—to stave off the nightmares. He was a soldier after all, and war was always a bloody mess, but it was harder when you were fighting your own. She thought of Hadvar and his list. The way he and Ralof looked at each other when the latter demanded the former take his remains back to Riverwood, to his sister. Familiarity. And not just the passing kind when you’ve seen the same face pass you by every day. It was the kind that led to them slinging barbed insults at each other instead of crossing blades. Why else had they chosen not to fight one another when the rest of the Imperials and Stormcloaks couldn’t wait to spill each other’s blood? There were some lines that were harder to cross than others. So she stayed put, letting him hold on a little longer.

Ralof sighed heavily, his breath hot against the back of her neck and his chest hair tickling her spine. “Good morning,” he growled into the thick of her messy black hair.

“You’re a heavy sleeper,” Sonja replied, suddenly aware she had been tracing circles across Ralof’s arm. She ceased immediately.

“You sleep too light.”

“How long will it take to travel to Whiterun?”

There was a long pause as Ralof blinked the sleep from his eyes. “About a day on foot,” he replied, his tone carefully trained to sound uninterested one way or the other, but Sonja caught the edge of reluctance in his voice.

“I should get going, then.” She sat up and Ralof’s hand trailed across her body, wordlessly asking her to stay, but she couldn’t. She had to find her sister. He caught the groove of one of her many scars and followed it over her hip to the lower curve of her back. She stiffened against his touch, waiting for the inevitable question, but he didn’t ask how she earned such a horrific scar. Sensing her unease, he dropped his hand onto the floor between them and silently watched her maneuver the tight space of the shack to get at her clothes.

If she was half Imperial as she had claimed, she certainly didn’t look it. As tall as Ralof with the sturdy build of a warrior, it was easy to forget she was a mage. All muscles and curves and scars. And deep, blue eyes. Hard like ice and difficult to read. She was a little darker than fair-skinned Nords tended to be. Olive like an Imperial, tanned burnt honey from long days spent out in the sun. But if it wasn’t for her accent, he never would have guessed she was anything but pure Nord. “It’s late to head to Whiterun today,” he said casually as Sonja struggled to untangle her smalls.

Sonja cast him a sideways glance. “I can’t stay here,” she stated firmly.

“The mill is running,” Ralof continued, “It’s mid-morning at least. Maybe almost midday. Even if you hurry, you won’t make it before the gates close for the night and you’ll be locked out of the city.”

Sonja frowned. Shivering outside the city gates was not an option in Skyrim’s climate—even in the warmer tundra valley Riverwood sat on the edge of. And there was still the case of her light coin purse. Even if she managed to get into Whiterun before nightfall, where would she stay? In the inn she couldn’t afford? With whatever family still lived in the area, but that she knew nothing about? With Anja, wherever she was, and who would undoubtedly be no less than furious to see her when she did arrive? “I need work,” she said abruptly, “And gear. Most of my things were taken by the Imperials.”

Ralof propped himself up on his elbows. “We lost a lot of men at Helgen,” he said, “A lot of brothers and sisters that won’t be going home to their families. And there were more than those of us brought in with Ulfric. There were the prisoners in the dungeons and the torture chamber.”

“Helgen was a mess,” she agreed, unsure why Ralof had abruptly changed the subject, “It’s a miracle we got out alive.”

“I want to go back,” he informed her, “Before scavengers have a chance to pick the place over.”

“Why in Oblivion would you want to go back?” she asked, dumbfounded, “If scavengers haven’t already descended on the place, there could be Imperials there gathering their dead—or that damned dragon might come back!”

“Why would the beast come back to a village its already burned to the ground?” he asked, “There’s nothing for it there, now. And the Imperials won’t go near Helgen until Tullius orders it and he might not have made it out alive. Then they’ll wait for his replacement’s orders.”

“What is it you hope to find, exactly?”

“I can’t return the bodies of my fallen brothers and sisters to their families, but the Imperials should have records of who was imprisoned there.”

“The Empire and their damned lists,” Sonja replied echoing Ralof’s sentiment from the day before, “To give their families closure.”


Sonja nodded curtly and tugged on her trousers. She had been and still was a grieving family member who had lost treasured loved ones. Nothing really made the pain go away, but at least she had had her brother and father’s bodies to make her final farewells to and bury in peace. She couldn’t imagine having nothing, never knowing if they were about to walk through the front door at any moment—or never again. “You want my help.” It wasn’t a question.

“I do.”

“Alright,” she agreed, “Let’s go back to Helgen.”

The fires were still burning inside the city walls and the scent of cooking flesh permeated the air for miles around. Wolves circled the edges of the tree line, drawn in by the smell of meat but wary of the fire. In their experience, nothing good ever made fire: humans, giants, atronachs, and now dragons. Their hungry eyes watched as Sonja and Ralof approached the town on horseback, a pull horse borrowed from the mill. They rode up to the front gate which was mostly burned down and kicked in the remaining debris.

Once inside, they milled about a bit, navigating the destruction that had occurred after they had made it inside the fort. Sonja kept an eye out for the ledger Hadvar had been reading from before the dragon attack, sure it had not made it to safety in the ensuing chaos, but found nothing. Ralof identified those of his fellow Stormcloaks that he knew as he removed identical bone pendants hidden amongst their armor. Sonja had seen similar identifying jewelry amongst the Legion. Metal cutouts of the Imperial crest with a soldier’s name and place of origin etched into the back. The more precious the metal, the higher the rank. The Stormcloaks used polished bits of bear bone, carved with the same information. Captains carried fangs and Generals wore claws. One by one, Ralof gathered the bones of the fallen, whispering prayers to the gods to guide his comrades to Sovngarde.

Sonja watched with a muted expression, but Ralof’s efforts on behalf of his brothers and sisters were touching. The night before, she had more or less decided that he was descent man, at least good enough to sleep with, but watching him now, his mettle was obvious. Ralof was a good and honorable man, and she was glad she could help him with such an important duty. But the Imperial bodies laid untouched, unless she gently patted them down for gold. She knew it wasn’t Ralof’s responsibility to see to the dead of his enemy, but they had families too. Most of them even shared kin with the Stormcloaks.

After a brief moment of indecision, Sonja began to perform the same rites for the fallen Imperials, taking their crests, cutting them loose from their cords, and stowing them in a large pouch she had taken off one of the soldiers. She felt a little like a fraud, praying over them since she didn’t think anyone but Ralof could hear her, but it didn’t matter what she believed in. The dead deserved to have prayers whispered over them at the very least. “You commend their spirits to Sovngarde,” Ralof said when he realized what Sonja was doing, “But they have forsaken the Nord way and do not deserve it.”

Sonja looked up at him from where she was hunched over a blonde, blue-eyed Imperial soldier. He looked a little like Ralof, in fact. Not as broad or tall, and not enough to be family, but there was a passing resemblance. “You said you wanted to give closure to the families of the dead,” she said as she removed the Imperial pendant from the soldier’s neck, “How many of those families have one son or daughter fighting for the Stormcloaks, and the other fighting for the Imperials?”

“You don’t know what this war is like,” he snapped, “You grew up in the Imperial City, far from the traditions of our people.”

“Don’t pretend to know anything about my life in Cyrodiil,” she objected defensively, putting the pendant in the pouch with the others, but something else glinted beneath the collar of the soldier’s armor and caught her eye, “My mother honored her heritage.”

“But did you?”

Sonja scowled and stood from the ground to level with Ralof. She didn’t speak, not right away; she held her fist out in front of his face, an amulet of Talos dangling from her grasp. “It was the soldier’s,” she said as Ralof’s eyes followed the swing of the religious medal through the air, “He wore it next to his Imperial crest.”

Ralof took it from her and ran his thumb over the nearly pristine metal, polished from the thousands of times the soldier ran his own fingers over it, whispering prayers for his loved ones, for his fellow Imperials, for his own safety and glory in battle. He would have been arrested or worse had his commanding officer or the Thalmor seen it, but so strong was his faith, it had been worth the risk. Ralof closed his fist around the amulet and looked down at the dead Imperial. “His name was Bormir,” he stated stiffly, “His family owned a mill outside of Falkreath. They did business with my sister.” He finally returned his gaze to Sonja. “It’s easier to believe they turned their backs on us than it is to fight our kin.” He covered his heart with his closed fist, the one still holding the amulet. “May Talos guide him to Sovngarde.” And then he walked away.

Sonja watched him as he returned to tend to the fallen Stormcloaks. He slipped the amulet of Talos over his head and continued the rites without another glance in her direction. She wondered how eager he must have been to join up with the Stormcloaks. How easy had it been then to believe the world was black and white, red and blue? When did it change for him? When did he notice that no war was ever so simple? That empires reduce it to its simplest terms to make it easier to take the lives of others who believe they are in the right as fervently as their opposition believes themselves to be? How many more Imperials lying on the ground around them does he know and what lies does he have to tell himself to keep the horror at bay? She could guess from experience. Knew only too well what war could do to a person, to a people—what it did to her. Suddenly the pouch filled with Imperial crests felt very heavy, indeed.

When she collected every last crest she could find and muttered her last prayer, Sonja waited by the fort for Ralof. He wasn’t long and when he came around the bend of a crumbled stone wall, she nodded her head toward the entrance that Hadvar had tried to take her through the day before. “Shall we?” she asked and Ralof nodded, drawing his weapon in case there were any overeager scavengers inside.

“This is a barracks,” Ralof observed as he looked around the dimly lit chamber. Bunks with chests at the foot of each bed lined one wall of the room and the opposite contained a long table to take meals. Weapon wracks took up every spare inch of wall, some of them still containing Imperial issued swords.

“Any prisoner manifests would be kept in the captain’s quarters,” she said, kicking around the debris for anything valuable and finding a few coin purses in the chests by the bunks.

“You know your way around an Imperial fort.”

“My father was Captain of the Guard, of course I know my way around an Imperial fort,” she pointed out, her roving eyes drawing to a halt at the end of the feasting table. The ledger Hadvar had been reading from teetered on the edge. “Looks like they got their precious list to safety after all,” she mused, striding to it and cracking it against her knee, “No luck, though. Our group of prisoners is the first entry in here. They just started in this one.”

“But the older ones will be in the captain’s quarters?” Ralof asked, looking over Sonja’s shoulder to read the names on the page.

She nodded. “Should be.”

“Let’s get moving then.”

The captain’s quarters were at the base of the stairs across the way from the store room. They had ignored it before, having to choose between to the two doors when the roof collapsed and fortuitously selecting the one that led through to the other side. Sonja’s pouch of crests was two heavier by then. They’d stopped for Gunjar, Captain Rila, and her underling, Ivar. Sonja felt particularly guilty giving Rila her last rites. She wasn’t certain, but it seemed to her that it had to be the worst kind of omen for the killer to pray for the soul of her slain. Regardless of whether or not she believed in such things, it didn’t sit well with her conscience.

As they approached the door to the captain’s room, they heard noises coming from inside, like someone was haphazardly rifling through every drawer, chest, and cabinet. Their pace slowed to silent footfalls as they took position on either side of the door. Sonja edged closer to the door frame, peeking between the jamb and the door to catch sight of the intruder. It was hard to make out who or what it was through such a small slit, but when it seemed to have its back turned to them, Sonja nodded to Ralof and he kicked in the door. They rushed in and got the jump on a very mousy and very nervous Breton mage who instantly hurled ice spikes at them.

Before Ralof had the chance to react, the jagged spear of ice was ripped clean from the air and flung into the adjacent wall, shattering it. Apparently Sonja’s doing, but he had no idea how. She continued to charge forward, her left hand splayed in front of her generating a ward. The mage panicked in the presence of a superior wizard and began to furiously fling more spells only to break against Sonja’s magical shield. When she sensed his magicka reserves drop below half, she cast another spell, the likes of which Ralof had never seen before, and drained the rest of it from his body, her eyes growing cerulean blue. The color drained from the mage’s face and he drew his weapon: a Skyforge moonstone dagger. “That’s mine!” Sonja snarled, dropping her ward and ending the spell, she kicked the smaller man in the gut, sending him stumbling backward. When he righted himself, he met Sonja’s conjured weapon at his throat. “Give it back, or I’ll take it from your corpse.”

The Breton was clearly an idiot, but even he didn’t like his chances against Sonja’s Daedric sword and greater magical talent with his casual practice and much smaller blade. He handed it over with trembling hands. Sonja’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Scabbard too.” Fumbling, the mage loosened his belt and produced the sheath, sliding the dagger inside it and offering it to Sonja. She took it in her damaged hand and lowered the conjured weapon. Seeing a chance at freedom, the Breton tried to dart passed her, but she dropped her sword and caught him by the throat, pulsing the draining magic through her fingertips to keep him from using magic against her. “What else have you taken?” she demanded.

He squirmed against her grip and managed to choke out, “Nothing. I swear!”

Sonja almost believed him until she caught sight of the ring on his middle finger. She hadn’t noticed it before, but there was no mistaking the family crest carved into the gold and silver ring. The eye of the serpentine dragon winked back at her, ruby red. Her father’s ring. “I don’t believe you,” she growled.

Realizing that he was caught, the Breton quickly handed over the ring. “That’s it. I swear!”

Sonja snatched it from him and then let him go. “Get out before I change my mind.”

Terrified, the mage ran from her, skirting around Ralof who followed him with the tip of his sword until he was gone from the room. “You should have killed him,” he said, stepping out into the hall to be sure the Breton had indeed left.

“I didn’t want to make a mess,” was the simple reply as she slid the ring onto the forefinger of her left hand, her right too damaged and swollen to for it to fit the finger she preferred.

“That really your blade?” he asked, eyeing her skeptically.

“My mother’s,” Sonja confirmed, tucking the dagger into the back of her belt, “She gave it to me before she died.”

“It’s Skyforge.”

Sonja nodded, uncomprehending.

“Was your mother a Companion?”

She shrugged. “If she was, she never told me.” There were a lot of things her mother didn’t like to talk about. I guess some things run in the family...she thought, darkly.

Ralof sighed heavily, aware that he’d get no better answer from her. “Let’s get what we came for, then.”

Ralof watched Sonja pray over the last Imperial in the last chamber of the fort. They had found what they were looking for in the captain's quarters and now he had two ledgers tucked protectively beneath his arm. But something was bothering him about the confrontation with the Breton mage and he had spent the last hour plucking up the courage to mention it to Sonja. “You’re a powerful mage, aren’t you?” he asked suddenly when he saw that she was finished.

Sonja hesitated as she stood, dusting her knees off. “What makes you say that?” she asked, feigning disinterest.

“The way the scavenger looked at you,” he replied, “Like he was staring down the Mangus, himself.”

She shrugged. “Not powerful, just well trained.”

“I’ve never seen a battlemage use the spells you did,” he objected, “Your eyes glowed like a daemon.”

Ralof had already warned her that Nords were leery of magic, but it was one thing to be told and another to see the discomfort in the eyes of a man she had shared a bedroll with the night before. “It’s flashier than it looks,” she assured in an attempt to alleviate his unease and then she gestured to a nearby rock; it began to float toward her on her command, “Telekinesis. Only works on small objects and is too weak to overpower resistance.” She nodded to it. “Go on, pull back on it.” Ralof looked at her like she was mad. “It won’t hurt you, I promise.” He didn’t look convinced. “Oh, alright, jab it with your sword.” He complied, having reached an agreeable compromise. The second the tip of his blade nudged it a fraction of an inch, the rock fell out of the air. “See? It’s not strong enough to disarm an enemy or send him flying off a cliff or anything, but it’s enough to tug an ice spike into a wall if your timing’s right.”

He poked at the inert rock a second time, just to be sure. “And the glow?” he asked, apparently satisfied with her explanation.

“Ah,” she sighed somewhat guiltily, “Less innocent, I’m afraid.”


“Drain magicka,” she explained, “I absorbed his magic into myself so he couldn’t cast anymore spells.”

That certainly was unlike any magic he had ever heard of and it made him intensely uncomfortable. Especially the way she looked. Wild and fierce. Otherworldly. And she snarled at him like—like a dragon. He hadn’t meant to make the comparison, but it sprung to his mind unbidden and he shook his head. “Just promise to never use that witchcraft on me,” he said, chuckling nervously.

She smiled mischievously then. “Don’t give me a reason to.” Ralof had no intention of ever doing so.

“There you are!” Gerdur exclaimed when Sonja and Ralof rode back into town just before nightfall, “I was worried about you! Leaving without saying a word! And with my horse!”

Sonja glanced back at Ralof over her shoulder. “I thought you asked to take the horse?”

Ralof shrugged. “She was busy.”

She hummed her disbelief and slid out of the saddle. “I’ll leave you to face your sister’s wrath alone then,” she replied, hefting a large sack onto her shoulder: pieces of steel armor and what remained of her things that she could find scattered amongst the mess the Breton mage had made of the captain's quarters. She was still missing the bulk of her gear and had been unable to recover any of the gold that had been taken from her. But she’d scavenged enough to purchase what she needed—or so she hoped.

While Ralof received the reaming of the era from his sister, Sonja returned to the shack to sort through her treasures, distracted by the scenarios she was running through her head of what she would do once she reached Whiterun. Halfway through her efforts, she was interrupted by a soft knock at the door. “It’s me,” Ralof’s voice called through the wood.


Ralof peeked inside the shack and grinned down at her. “You look busy,” he said.

“Not too busy for food, if that’s why you’ve come.”

“It is.”

Sonja hastily tucked her gear at the back of the shack and joined Ralof at the stump again for a far more filling meal than the night before with a noted lack of mead. “Did we drink Gerdur out of house and home last night?” Sonja asked, picking at the leg of goat between them, “Where’s the mead?”

“You drink like a Nord,” Ralof chuckled, “No, Gerdur is punishing me for taking the horse without asking.”

The thought of Gerdur chastising her adult brother made Sonja laugh heartily. “Did she ban you from the inn as well?” she prodded, “I’m sure Delphine likes you enough to sell you drink.”

Ralof smiled, his eyes soft. “I didn’t try my luck.”

She hummed her disapproval, but didn’t pester him further. Truth be told, she was glad for the lack of alcohol since she couldn’t afford another late start to the day. But she could tell there was something else on Ralof’s mind; he had an easy face to read. “What’s wrong?” she asked, polishing an apple against her tunic.

“Nothing,” he replied, “I was just wondering if it was the mead that invited me into your bed last night or you.”

Sonja grabbed the front of his shirt and yanked him forward, smashing her lips against his in a graceless kiss that was more teeth than anything else. “The mead helped,” she admitted, “But I enjoy your company.”

Ralof laughed and tangled his fingers in her hair as he pulled her in for another kiss. He didn’t know what to make of this strange woman. This mage from the south who could drink like a Nord and fight like a warrior. Who radiated a strength unbeknownst even to herself and who was beautiful, not only because her eyes twinkled like gems or her smile dazzled when she had occasion to laugh, but because—she asked him where his home was moments before they were supposed to die; because she chose to go with him despite growing up Imperial; because she stayed when he needed her help; because she laid the dead to rest when he could not; because she tried to ease his fear of magic when she knew he was bothered by her abilities. Because she was dangerous and powerful and brave. She was beautiful for so many reasons and it was easy for a man like him to get caught in the gravity of her presence. When she led him back to the shack again to fill the small space with heated skin and desperate gasps of pleasure, he wondered if she had any idea of the affect she had on him.

Chapter Text

Sonja woke to the soft, but persistent knocking on the door of her shack. She groaned inwardly and disentangled herself from Ralof’s arms; he hardly moved. “Who goes?” she called through the door, noting the blue light pouring in through the cracks. Predawn light. It was far too early for a casual visit.

“I-it’s Gerdur,” came the unexpected reply, “Is Ralof with you?”

“Aye.” Sonja pinched Ralof’s side until he stirred.

“What is it, woman? I’m sleeping.”

“It’s your sister.”

“Gerdur?” Ralof called uncertainly, rubbing his face, “What’s wrong?”

“Come out and speak with me,” she insisted, “I’m not going to shout at you through the door.”

“Alright, alright,” he grumbled and both he and Sonja did their best to dance around each other as they dressed.

Once they were decent, Ralof tapped the door open with his boot to find his sister pacing by the fence, looking grim in the dim, early morning light. “What’s the matter?” he asked, now doubly concerned.

“The courier I sent to Whiterun was killed by bandits on the other side of Ebonvale,” Gerdur said flatly, “The guards just came down the hill now.”

Sonja blinked a few times, confused. “Why now?” she asked, “It’s not even dawn yet.”

“There was a witness, a girl on the same road who saw the whole thing,” Gerdur explained, “She was caught in the fight and they took her with them back to their camp in the mountains. She escaped and made it back to Ebonvale in the night, beaten and bloodied, poor thing.”

“And the guard came straight down,” Sonja concluded. Gerdur nodded. “How many were there?”

“Guard said half a dozen.”

“Shit, how’d she make it out alive?”

“Said they were too drunk to follow her.”

“Those bandits need to be dealt with,” Ralof insisted, “Can Ebonvale spare men?”

Gerdur turned stern eyes on her brother. “That message needs to get to Whiterun. If the Jarl doesn’t know about Helgen, how can he protect us?”

“So send another courier to his death,” Ralof shot back, “Those milk-drinking bastards need to be taught a lesson! Preying on unarmed messengers and girls?”

Sonja looked between the siblings as they bickered over what course of action should be taken next. “I’ll go,” she interrupted, drawing Ralof and Gerdur’s argument to an abrupt end.

“What?” Ralof demanded.

“I said, I’ll go after the bandits,” she clarified, “Me, you, grab a couple more if you want to, but they’re bandits. They’re thugs. They barely know which end of a blade to hold onto.”

“Don’t underestimate them,” Gerdur warned, “The jarl’s had a bounty on them for weeks and no one’s gotten near them.”

“Don’t underestimate me,” Sonja replied, “I’ll take care of your bandits.”

“And what of the message to Whiterun?”

Sonja nodded. “I’ll take care of that too.”


“Because it needs to be done.” Because she was about to overstay her welcome in Riverwood. Because one more night straddling the handsome, blonde Nord was only going to lead to more trouble than a couple of casual nights were worth. Because she had to keep moving forward and find her sister. Because she had a penance to pay.

Sonja plopped down on a rock just outside White River Watch and smeared the blood over her armor in an attempt to wipe it away. It didn’t work. She made a sound of disgust and dropped her head back to stare into the clear blue sky, breathing deeply. Ralof had managed to find two more willing and able-bodied volunteers to join the party against the bandits. A Bosmer hunter named Faendal and a bard from the inn named Sven who was far too good looking for his own good and was only too aware of it. The pair bickered the entire way over who deserved the attentions of a lovely Miss Camilla until Sonja snapped at them to save their fighting for later, if they were both yet living.

Inside, Faendal had a close call with the bandit chief, but Sonja had managed to drop him with a slurry of ice spikes before he overwhelmed the Bosmer. Sven mostly danced around one bandit until Ralof rescued him which only made the entire party like him even less. Afterward, they stood outside to catch their breath and decide their next course of action. Ralof dropped onto the ground beside Sonja, staring off across the valley of Whiterun Hold. “The Jarl needs to be told of the dragon,” he said at length, “We’ve already lost two days.”

“I told your sister I would go and I will,” Sonja said, intentionally keeping her gaze glued to one point in the sky. “I was planning to move onto Whiterun today, anyway.”

Ralof nodded. “I had hoped you were thinking about staying in Riverwood—for a while,” he admitted quietly, not wanting to be overheard by Faendal and Sven.

She smiled humorlessly. “A tempting offer, but I didn’t come all this way only to shack up with the first handsome Nord I met,” she pointed out, “No offense.”

“None taken.” He truly understood why she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—stay and he couldn’t blame her. Family. Kin was always important enough to risk everything; it wouldn’t be right if she stayed in Riverwood. No matter how badly he wanted her to. And it was a bit of an unreasonable desire when he thought about it. A whole three days he’d known her and he was acting like a lovesick boy pining for his first love. She hadn’t even left, yet! Still—he’d felt more alive with her the last couple of days than he had in a long time. Maybe it was escaping Helgen with their lives or maybe it was the way her eyes looked into his in the sleepy moments after sex, when she curled her body against his for warmth and lack of space. Looking through him instead of at him.

Suddenly, he didn’t care if Faendal and Sven overheard their conversation or saw his affection for her; he wrapped his hand around the back of her neck, turning her head to meet his as he leaned in for a hard kiss. She squealed in surprise. Not loud enough to hear, exactly, but he felt the whisper of it in the back of her throat when it vibrated against his tongue. When he pulled away, Sonja looked back at him with slightly rounded eyes and kiss-bruised lips; it made him want to kiss her again, but he leaned his forehead against hers instead. “I can’t go to Whiterun,” he said, “Jarl Balgruuf has declared the city neutral in the war. Neither Stormcloak nor Imperial is welcome.”

“Ralof, I…” she began.

“You need to be careful,” he continued, almost urgently, “This place is dangerous. Skyrim is nothing like Cyrodiil. And no one takes kindly to a mage. Carry a weapon if only for show. Don’t give anyone the opportunity to pick out your weaknesses.”

Her brow furrowed. “I won’t,” she promised.

“Good.” He kissed her again. “Whiterun is just west of us,” he said when they parted and pointed in the general direction of the city, “You can see Dragonsreach at the top of the hill from here. The Jarl lives there.”

She nodded. “Thank you,” she muttered, squeezing his hand briefly, “For everything.”

“I’ll write to you when I make it back to Windhelm,” he said, “After the attack on Helgen has quieted and we know where we stand in the war again. To see how you’re settling in.”

She hesitated, considering discouraging his letters, not wanting to form stronger attachment than she could easily break. But she found herself caring enough to want the confirmation of his safety that the letters would bring. So she nodded instead. One short, curt jerk of her head in consent before she hauled herself to her feet and trudged down the slope to her bag propped against a nearby tree. “You’re going alone?” Faendal asked when Sonja shouldered her bag.

“Aye. Ralof can’t enter the city and you two have to get back to underwhelming Camilla, so…” She shrugged.

“I’ll go with you,” the elf offered, “I owe you for saving my life in there.”

“You don’t owe me anything…” Sonja began, dismayed by the rate at which she seemed to be gathering life debts. She had only just managed to part ways with the first man whose life she saved only to be saddled with the honor of a second.

“I owe you my life,” Faendal contradicted, “At least let me accompany you to Whiterun, then you can decide whether or not you want me around.”

“You realize that leaves the lovely Camilla exposed to the charms of Sven, here, right?”

Faendal glared at the bard who was smiling back at him rather smugly. “How could I forget?” he grumbled.

“And you’re alright with that?” she asked, hoping the threat of losing his love to a man he clearly loathed would be enough to tempt him back to Riverwood.

“No, but—I don’t leave a debt unpaid, so…you lead, I follow.”

Sonja quirked an eyebrow at the Bosmer and then glanced back at Ralof who was listening to the exchange with great interest. More uninvited company, though she had to admit she admired the elf’s pluck. “Alright,” she allowed, “I could do worse for company.” Faendal scrambled down the slope to join her and they made their way back to the main road.

“May the gods watch over your battles, friends,” Ralof called after them.

“Talos guide you,” Sonja called back and then she disappeared through the trees. 

They reached Whiterun by early evening. Upon approaching the walled city, Sonja’s attention was drawn to one of the nearby farms just across the path from the stables. There were several people in the field fighting with a giant. Sonja had never seen a giant before. They weren’t common in Cyrodiil; she had only read about them in books at university. The old tomes didn’t do their sheer size justice. “Quickly now,” she said to Faendal and the two of them sprinted down the road to the edge of the farm property. Faendal was already loosing arrows as he ran along. He wasn’t kidding about his skill; he was decent with a bow. Sonja’s injured hand made it impossible for her to use a bow properly and she was useless with one anyway, so she gathered ice in her hands, frost crawling up her forearms as she prepared to launch ice spikes at the giant’s body. Before she could do anything, Faendal caught her hand. “They are Companions,” he hissed, “No magic unless you want to brawl with them afterwards.”

Sonja rolled her eyes. “Think they’d care if we save their lives?” The look on the elf’s face suggested they would. “Fine. We do this the hard way,” and she drew the steel axes hanging off either hip. Faendal had taken them off the bodies of a couple of the bandits at White River Watch to sell when he got back to Riverwood, but after Ralof’s impassioned plea that Sonja carry a weapon at all times, he offered them to her and she grudgingly accepted. He didn’t know how well she could handle a weapon since she had mostly used ice spells against the bandits, but she certainly didn’t seem uncomfortable with the notion as she gripped the axes in either hand with a confidence that bespoke experience.

Sonja sprinted along the edge of the group of warriors gathered at the giant’s feet, skirting the range of the heavy club that crashed into the earth every so often as the creature attempted to defend itself. Giants were thick-skinned, so most quick strikes glanced off its hide with no effect. The large, powerful Nord with the greatsword had had the greatest success, but that only made him the primary target of the giant’s club, so he was too busy avoiding it to inflict further damage. I need his strength…she thought, trying to formulate the best way to give the Nord the opening he needed to bring down the giant. Circling around the back of the distracted creature, she spied the soft plane of flesh behind its knees. Her body tensed like a taught bowstring and then released in a whirlwind of power, pushing the strength of her core into each blow as she cut through the tendons in the back of the giant’s legs.

An earsplitting roar of pain issued from the creature’s mouth as it fell forward, catching its fall with its massive hands. On its hands and knees, it was largely defenseless and the large Nord with the greatsword seized the opportunity, hefting his weapon high and lopping the giant’s head clean off in one, swift movement. The great creature slumped, lifeless and hit the ground with a loud thud and puff of dust. “Glory to the Companions!” declared the Nord and the others with him cheered their approval.

Splayed across the ground, it struck Sonja how very human it looked and she wondered who had started the fight: the warriors or the giant? “That was amazing!” Faendal called as he jogged over to Sonja who still stood behind the giant, silently examining the ritualistic scars carved into the creature’s flesh. “Sonja?” he prodded, unsure why she looked so sullen when she had just helped the famous Companions fell a giant. She merely grunted in response.

“Well, you two handled yourselves well,” said one of the warriors, a Nordic huntress from the looks of her. Tall, but lean with a wild look in her white-blue eyes made only more intense by the dark green war paint smeared across her features; her wind-swept red hair tumbled down her bare back. She wore very little armor in open defiance of the cold weather, but Sonja didn’t doubt it was light and silent and perfect for stalking prey over great distances. She favored a bow, unsurprisingly, and slung the beautifully carved wood and ebony weapon across her body, gently knocking the quiver of matching arrows on her back. Skyforge by the looks of them. At least the carving of knots along the limbs and on the arrow tips matched those on the hilt of Sonja’s own Skyforge dagger. The Huntress crossed her arms over her chest and looked both Sonja and Faendal over with a critical, almost predatory, eye. “You could make for decent Shield-Siblings,” she said after her brief appraisal.

“Shield-Siblings?” Sonja repeated, glancing at Faendal for clarification.

“It’s what the Companions call their brothers-and-sisters-in-arms,” the elf offered; Sonja nodded, understanding.

The Huntress raised an eyebrow. “An outsider, eh?” she said, picking up on Sonja’s ignorance, “Never heard of the Companions?”

“Vaguely,” Sonja admitted, “My mother told me stories when I was a child.”

The Huntress hummed her disapproval, but continued her explanation. “We are an order of warriors. Brothers and sisters in honor and glory. And we show up to solve problems if the coin is good enough.”

Mercenaries? That certainly didn’t keep with the stories her mother used to tell. “The fiercest warriors in all of Tamriel,” she called them. But honor and glory didn’t put food on the table and Sonja was no stranger to accepting gold in exchange for her own set of highly trained skills with spells and a weapon. She hadn’t been lying when she told Ralof she had been a spellsword—for the last couple of years anyway; she needed to make a living after all. So the promise of coin for familiar work was appealing. “How does one go about joining the Companions?” she asked, gesturing between herself and Faendal, “Could we join?”

The Huntress shrugged. “Not for me to say. You’ll have to talk to Kodlak Whitemane up in Jorrvaskr. The old man’s got a good sense for people. He can look in your eyes and tell your worth. If you go to him, good luck.”

Sonja nodded. “Thanks…?”

“Aela,” the Huntress finished.

“Sonja—Ironheart,” she said, choosing to use her mother’s name instead of her father’s, thinking it would illicit a friendlier reaction than an Imperial surname. “Good to meet you.”

Aela’s brow furrowed in disbelief. “Did you say your family name was Ironheart?” she asked.

Sonja hesitated, exchanging glances with Faendal, and hoping that she had not made a mistake in declaring herself an Ironheart. “Aye,” she confirmed, carefully, “My mother was Freydis. Her family lived here in Whiterun.”

“The Killing Frost.” The Huntress’ words were almost spoken with reverence.

“What are you on about?” Sonja asked, bewildered and looking to Faendal who seemed equally confused.

“Farkas! Come here!” Aela barked at the Companion with the greatsword, he was lingering by the main road with a much shorter, tanned woman—another Companion bearing a Skyforge shield and axe.

They were waiting for Aela to be done speaking with the strangers, but when the large man heard his name called, he came. “Stay here,” he said to the woman, who merely nodded, but watched with dark curious eyes as Farkas joined the Huntress. He was tall, even for a Nord, and broad, almost mountainous. His shoulder-length black hair was pulled back out of his handsome face; his nose was a little crooked from being broken many times, and from the smear of black war paint, the same hungry white-blue eyes as the Huntress peered down at them. He wore heavy, steel plate armor, chased with knots of ebony and trimmed in black wolf fur, depictions of the wolves edging his pauldrons, collar, gauntlets, belt, and boots. The same depictions that decorated the Huntress' leather armor, but not the girl by the road who carried Skyforge weapons and wore far less magnificent however well-crafted and maintained steel-studded armor. “What do you want?” he asked when he joined them, his voice a deep growl.

“She claims to be Freydis Ironheart’s daughter,” Aela said, pointing to Sonja.

Farkas looked at her in disbelief. “The Killing Frost?”

“What in Oblivion does that mean,” Sonja demanded, “Did you know my mother, or not?”

“Barely,” Aela answered, “We were children when she left.”

Sonja felt realization prick around the edges of her understanding. “L-left what? Whiterun? Skyrim?” she stammered, already knowing what their answer would be.

“The Companions,” Farkas grunted.

Sonja removed the dagger from the back of her belt as if staring at it would suddenly make everything clear again, but it didn’t. She knew her mother had secrets. She spoke little of her life in Skyrim before she left to marry Remus and settle in the Imperial City. Though she raised her children with an understanding of their Nordic heritage, she never told them of the family she had left behind. Even her tales of the Companions were heavily edited into bedtime stories for children. Sonja wondered what knot of regret was so painful, Freydis couldn’t untangle it even on her deathbed nearly thirty years later. “My mother was a fucking Companion,” she breathed in disbelief.

“She never told you?” Faendal asked gently.


“Come to Jorrvaskr and speak with Kodlak before you go to your family home,” Aela urged, taking the Skyforge moonstone dagger to be confirmation enough that Sonja was who she said she was, “He can tell you what you want to know.”

“Better than her family can?” Sonja asked incredulously.

“Did she tell you stories of her sisters?” she asked, pointedly.


“Some wounds heal faster than others,” Farkas stated.

“Aye, when Freydis left, it wasn’t on good terms with her family,” Aela agreed, seeming to understand her Shield-Brother’s cryptic statement, “The Companions lost a fierce and brave warrior, but we do not rule over our Shield-Siblings. If they wish to leave, they can; no one tries to stop them.”

It was all a bit much for Sonja who had only come to find her sister. She had barely come to terms with the idea of meeting her mother’s family when she found out she still had living relatives in Whiterun. Now discovering there had been a feud made Sonja reluctant to meet them at all. “I have business in Dragonsreach, first,” Sonja said at length, “Afterwards—perhaps…”

Aela and Farkas exchanged glances, obviously curious as to what business Sonja could have with the Jarl, but they didn’t pry. “Honor and glory, Ironheart,” Aela nodded in farewell, and then she and Farkas turned to walk up the hill to Whiterun’s gates.

“Ay,” Faendal said, tapping Sonja’s elbow, “You alright?” he asked.

Sonja glanced sideways at him and shrugged him off. “Let’s go,” she said, stalking off up the hill after the Companions who reentered the city without incident.

When she and Faendal reached the gate, they were halted and denied entrance. “The city’s closed with the dragons about,” the guard stated, “Official business only.”

“We have an important message for the Jarl,” Sonja explained, “Riverwood needs protection.”

“Alright,” the guard said with some disbelief, “I’ll let you through, but we’ll be watching you.”

Sonja hummed her indifference, and the guard unlocked the gate, allowing the pair to enter Whiterun. She hesitated only a fraction of a second before entering the town that her mother had been born and raised in. Would Whiterun somehow reflect Freydis? Would she see all the pieces of her mother’s personality scattered across its residents and their homes? Was her determination hiding in the tree she tried every day to climb? Was her strength lingering around the forge where she learned to smith? Was her courage imprinted on Jorrvaskr? In the end, it turned out she hardly knew her mother. Could Whiterun change that?

And Anja. She must have made it as far as Whiterun, at least. Was she inside, drinking at the inn, charming the coin purses off every obliging belt? Or was she with their mother’s family, having somehow repaired whatever rift existed between them and Freydis when she left? Or had she kept to herself, quiet and careful? Had anyone seen her? If she passed through, would anyone remember her?

When Sonja finally stepped through the gate, she stopped at the top of the small bridge over the water that ran through little canals all through the city, and took it all in. It was dark now and most of the people had gone inside for the evening meal so it was quiet, but large braziers and lanterns lining the walkways had been lit, casting warm, dancing firelight across the row of houses and shops edging the main road. It was a charming city that reminded Sonja of Bruma: sturdy homes built to hedge against the cold and nudged against each other as if huddling for warmth. They weren’t so tightly packed alongside as they were in cities like Skingrad or the Imperial City, itself, but close enough to perhaps know a thing or two about your neighbors’ business that they preferred you didn’t. Sonja wondered which of these was the one her mother grew up in. Was it the one just beside the forge or the one across the street? In every spare space between houses, in their gardens, and along the walkways, plants, flowers, and trees from the tundra grew in abundance, nourished by the encouragement of the residents who needed them for food or alchemy and the close proximity of good clean water. It was an ideal Nordic village, but Sonja had a hard time conjuring the ghost of her mother to walk the streets of Whiterun.

“She really never told you about any of this?” Faendal asked as he watched Sonja’s eyes glide across the city with a disappointed frown.

“No,” she sighed, “Not a damn word.”

“Come, Dragonsreach is this way,” he said, nodding to the staircase on their left, leading to the next district. The houses were fewer and larger on that level with more space and privacy between them. As they approached the far end, Sonja’s attention was drawn by the large, wilting tree at the end of the path. It was apparent that the tree had once dominated the district, its branches reaching high over the carved wooden beams encircling it and providing shade for those who sat beneath it. But it was bare and shrunken now, a spiral scar wrapped around it from the tip of the tallest branch down to the roots, cutting deep into the bark and exposing the softer, fragrant wood. Sap hemorrhaged from the wound, thick and sticky.

Beyond the tree and up a small flight of stairs was a large building, easily one of the oldest in Whiterun. The ancient Atmoran architecture jutted at sharp, intimidating angles in the braces the walls. The roof was the most fascinating feature however, as it was a large boat, overturned. Through the cracks in the ancient bow, firelight peeked through, turning the curve of the ship into a reflection of the dome of the starry night sky. “Jorrvaskr,” Sonja stated, recognizing it from her mother’s stories.

“Aye, you can hear the singing from here,” Faendal nodded.

She tilted her head slightly like an animal pricking its ears into the air to listen for predators and caught the boisterous melody of a drinking song. Going to Jorrvaskr after she was done at Dragonsreach suddenly seemed a lot less appealing. There were a lot of voices singing that song and she wasn’t in the mood to deal with a bunch of drunken warriors. “Come on,” she nodded and they turned away from Jorrvaskr to climb the long stairway to Dragonsreach.

The massive Nordic palace loomed over the city of Whiterun with a commanding grandeur that was visible from anywhere within the lower two districts and farther still. It had been the silhouette of Dragonsreach that had guided them to the city from the mountains, the sharp jutting of rock upon which Whiterun sat towering over the flat valley floor. It reminded Sonja of White-Gold Tower glistening in the sunlight like a beacon visible for miles at the heart of Cyrodiil—somewhat tarnished since the Great War and no longer the inspiring symbol it had once been.

Guards milled about outside, patrolling, changing shifts, and coming and going from the barracks beneath the keep. Sonja and Faendal caught the attention of several of them and received a few threatening warnings. “Disrespect the law, and you disrespect me,” growled one guard.

“Cause trouble in Whiterun, and I’ll haul you into the Dragonsreach dungeon myself,” sneered another.

Sonja glared, but otherwise did not respond as she and Faendal approached the great wooden doors into the palace and entered. At the far end of the hall, they could hear voices arguing. Sonja exchanged glances with Faendal and made her way toward the wooden stairs. Before she took more than a couple of steps, Faendal touched her elbow, softly, “Would you like me to stay by the door, or…?”

“I didn’t think you asked to come along just to wait at the door,” Sonja replied, “Besides, how often does a citizen get to meet his Jarl? That would be something to tell Camilla, wouldn’t it?”

Faendal smiled. “It would, indeed.” So he followed her. As soon as they came over the top of the steps a Dunmer woman who stood beside the throne noticed them; she drew her sword and approached. Sonja and Faendal slowed their pace and raised their hands slowly to show they meant no ill will.

Once the elf was near enough, she spoke, “What is the meaning of this interruption? Jarl Balgruuf is not receiving visitors.”

“We have news about the dragons, about Helgen,” Sonja informed the elf, “The people of Riverwood sent us to seek aid from the Jarl.”

“I can see why the guards let you in,” the elf replied, surprised, “Come on then, the Jarl will want to speak to you personally.” She turned and gestured for them to follow her back toward the throne, passed the feasting tables and the huge, roaring fire.

“Who’s this, then?” the Jarl asked as Sonja propped her foot on the lowest step of the dais.

“That’s close enough,” the elf growled. Sonja put up her hands and halted.

“I am Sonja and this is Faendal of Riverwood,” Sonja answered, about to bend at the waist to bow before the Jarl when she caught herself. It wasn’t very Nord-like. So, she mimicked the gesture of respect she had seen Ralof make: a closed fist over the heart and a nod of acknowledgement.

“Sonja,” the Jarl repeated, thoughtfully stroking his blonde beard, “What is your family name?”

She shifted her weight between her feet and reluctantly replied, “My father was Draconis and my mother was—Ironheart.”

“So Freydis would be your mother,” he said, nodding slowly as if confirming his own suspicions.


“You look like her.”

First she’d ever heard of it. She’d always thought herself to resemble the severe features of her father more than the fierce beauty of her mother who was every inch a typical Nord woman: blonde, blue eyed, and fair-skinned. “Did you know my mother?” she asked, intrigued just how much influence her mother had on Whiterun before she ran off with her father.

“You could say that,” he smiled softly, but did not elaborate, “Whiterun welcomes the daughter of one of its highly regarded warriors.”

“Thank you,” she bowed her head uncertainly.

“Now why have you come to Dragonsreach? Irileth wouldn’t have let you through without good reason.”

“I have news of the dragon attack on Helgen.”

The Jarl leaned back in his chair and considered Sonja. “There were few survivors from Helgen,” he said, “But enough to spread word. Other smaller settlements have been attacked also. I am not opposed to believing a dragon is on the loose, but until I can be sure, I must assume man, mer, or beastfolk are behind these attacks. All I have is hearsay, so, unless you’ve seen this dragon with your own eyes…”

“I have,” Sonja interrupted, “I was at Helgen.”

Jarl Balgruuf straightened in his throne. “You were at Helgen?” he asked, eyeing her skeptically.

“I was—a guest of the Empire when it attacked,” she answered carefully, “I escaped, but last I saw, it was headed this way. If it hasn’t attacked Whiterun, yet, I’d wager it soon will.”

“By Ysmir, Irileth was right!” he exclaimed, thumping his fist on the arm rest of his throne. He turned to the Imperial man standing to his right. “What do you say now, Proventus? Shall we continue to trust in the strength of our walls? Against a dragon?”

The man he addressed seemed to be taken aback by the Jarl’s words, but Irileth spoke instead, “My lord, we should send troops to Riverwood at once. It’s in the most immediate danger, if that dragon is lurking in the mountains…”

“The Jarl of Falkreath will view that as a provocation!” Proventus exclaimed, suddenly able to speak, “He’ll assume we’re preparing to join Ulfric’s side and attack him…”

The Jarl held up his hand, “Enough!” he hissed, “Irileth, send a detachment to Riverwood at once.”

“Yes, my Jarl.” She bowed and hurried from the hall.

“We should not…” Proventus began.

“I’ll not stand idly by while a dragon burns my hold and slaughters my people!” the Jarl interrupted.

Proventus bowed his head. “Very well,” he said, “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my duties.”

The Jarl nodded, “That would be best.” He dismissed Proventus with a wave of his hand before returning his attention to Sonja. “Well done. You’ve done Whiterun a service, and I won’t forget it.” He stood from his throne and rubbed his chin, trying to decide what would be most appropriate for Sonja’s service. “I’ll see you both properly outfitted with better armor and weapons,” he said after a pause.

Faendal’s surprise was apparent on his face, but Sonja merely raised an eyebrow. A full, well-made set of unenchanted armor for one person could easily cost several hundred gold, at least, never mind outfitting them both. It was an unusually charitable gift that made Sonja wonder if it was also advanced payment for a favor the jarl had yet to ask. “Very generous of you, my jarl,” she observed, “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me just yet,” he warned with a touch of good humor as he stepped off the dais, “There is something I want you to do for me. Suitable for someone of your particular talents, perhaps?”

There it is. “How can I refuse after so fine a reward?” she replied, pointedly.

Her response earned her an amused chuckle. “Freydis’ daughter you most certainly are,” he commented. “Come back tomorrow morning. My Court Wizard is working on a special project that may require your assistance.”

“If we are capable of helping, we will,” Sonja assured.

“Very good.” He was pleased. “Your reward will be ready when you return.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Sonja and Faendal bowed their heads before turning to leave.

Chapter Text

Sonja frowned in the evening air, glaring down from the perch of Dragonsreach at the lower districts. She was trying to decide what her next move should be. Anja? Jorrvaskr? Relatives? Sleep? Her stomach growled, noisily adding food to her mental debate. “At least we have work,” Faendal said brightly, tucking his thumbs in his belt as he joined Sonja on the top step of the stairway, “The jarl’s already paying well. What do you think he needs us to do?”

Sonja glanced sideways at him. “Faendal?”


“Why are you here?” she asked.

“I owe you a life debt…”

“Aye, but we’ve made it to Whiterun and I don’t really need you following me around,” she said, turning fully to look at him, “And, despite the way you bickered with Sven like a child over a toy you didn’t want to share, you don’t strike me as a fool. You know I don’t want you around and yet you’ve lingered.”

The Bosmer only seemed slightly put off by Sonja’s directness, but shrugged his indignance away. “Delivering that message to the jarl was important,” he answered reasonably, “I wanted to see it through.”

“And after we’ve completed whatever little task he has planned for us tomorrow?” she pressed, “Will you take your reward and go back to Riverwood to continue your less than thrilling romance with a disinterested Camilla?”

Faendal narrowed his eyes. “Why do you keep saying things like that? ‘Underwhelming.’ ‘Less than thrilling.’ ‘Disinterested.’ You don’t know what she’s like, what her heart wants!” he snapped defensively.

Sonja smirked. “That’s it, isn’t it?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I might not be able to pick Camilla out of a line of trolls, but you know her better than anyone else, don’t you?” she prodded.

“I don’t follow.”

“She’s bored. You’re bored. All of Riverwood is bored, but no one dares to leave, except you. Sven's songs of honor and glory would pale in comparison to the elf who actually lived it.”

Faendal crossed his arms over his chest, but didn’t try to refute her. “All I know is that in the one day that I’ve known you, I’ve killed bandits, met Companions, killed a giant, and met a jarl,” he replied.

“If you want a flutter, play cards, race horses, bet on a fight, but don’t risk your neck following me around because, yes, I attract all sorts of interesting trouble and one day, it will catch me,” she said as she started down the stairs at a breakneck speed, “When it does, what do you think will happen to you? You’ll never see Camilla again.”

“You’re dramatic.”

“And you’re infuriating!”

“You need a guide,” Faendal stated sternly when they reached the bottom of the stairs, “I don’t know why you came to Skyrim, but I can help you find what you’re looking for.”

“Who says I’m looking for anything?” Sonja asked, spinning around at the base of the Gildergreen to glare suspiciously at the Bosmer.

“Everyone comes to Skyrim looking for something,” he said, “Opportunity, safe haven, long lost family, adventure, fame, fortune…” He paused, looking her over. “You don’t strike me as the kind to run from her problems, so I’m guessing you’re chasing them.”

Sonja shrugged. “Maybe I’m searching for fame and fortune, and I just don’t want to split the coin with you.”

Faendal shook his head. “Not convinced,” he replied, “When we spoke to the jarl, you failed to collect on the bounty for those bandits. A hundred gold? That’s not something you forget about unless your mind’s elsewhere. And when the jarl said he was going to give us better armor and weapons, you hardly blinked.”

“You’re observant.”

“I’m a hunter. It pays to notice things.”

Sonja chewed on the tip of her tongue thoughtfully. “Alright, fine,” she sighed, “Let’s say I am looking for something. What makes you the best for the job?”

“I traveled a lot before I settled in Riverwood. I know Skyrim’s wild country better than anyone in the hold.”

Her gaze narrowed, thoughtfully. “I’m not paying you,” she said, “I don’t have the coin.”

“Something tells me coin won’t be an issue with the trouble you attract.”

She hummed her agreement on that before forcefully extending her hand. The gesture made the smaller Bosmer jump, much to her amusement. “Fine. You have a deal.”

The elf grinned and gripped her forearm, shaking firmly. “I knew you’d see reason.”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes. “First order of business: guide me to the inn.”

“That’d be the Bannered Mare. Owner’s Hulda,” Faendal prompted, happily taking the lead and strolling into the lower district, “Right this way.” 

When Sonja and Faendal entered the inn, their senses were immediately flooded with the smell of hot food and good drink. There was a bard singing and playing a lute by the fire and many of the patrons were singing along, drinking, and laughing. Sonja scanned the customers, looking for any sign of Anja amongst them, but found no sign of her. Only loads of happy drunks. She wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved, but followed Faendal to take a seat at the counter.

The Nord woman behind the counter grinned at them. “What can I get for you? Food? Drink? Both?” she asked in a thick Nordic accent.

“Both,” Sonja nodded, “Stew and ale for me.”

“Same,” Faendal said.

“Right away,” she nodded and then called across the inn to the woman in the other room at the cooking spit, “Two stews, Saadia.”

“Yes, Hulda,” the Redguard woman replied.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” Hulda asked as she put the bottles down on the counter in front of them.

“That obvious?” Sonja asked, popping the cork and taking a swig of the ale.

Hulda chuckled. “Small town,” she explained, “We notice new faces.”

“Notice any others recently?” Sonja asked, casually tapping her fingers against the bottle.

The barkeep’s eyes narrowed in mistrust. “A lot of people come and go,” she said slowly, “Why?”

Sonja flashed what she hoped was her most winning smile. “Just making conversation,” she assured.


It was obvious Hulda didn’t trust that the newest patrons at her bar weren’t up to no good, but before Sonja could do anything to allay that concern, their food arrived—and a fight broke out. So mesmerized was Sonja by the steaming bowl of hearty venison stew, that she didn’t immediately register the angry voices coming from the corner of the room. It wasn’t until one of the regulars, a homeless man named Brenuin with coin to spare only for mead, was thrown backward into her, causing her to spill the precious food onto the floor, that she realized anything was wrong at all. “For fuck’s sake,” she growled, kicking her stool back and shaking the remnants of the stew from the front of her armor.

“Got a problem, milk-drinker?” taunted a very angry, very tall Nord woman wearing steel plate armor from the corner of the room.

It took Sonja a moment to process that the woman was talking to her. She was still trying to cope with the abrupt loss of her food and how an inebriated beggar figured into the situation. Once her brain caught up, she realized everyone was staring at her, waiting to see how she’d reply. “Are you talking to me?” she asked dumbly.

“Milk-drinker and an idiot.” The crowd laughed and Sonja’s face grew hot with anger.

“That’s enough Uthgerd,” Hulda chastised, “You’ll scare off my customers.”

Uthgerd ignored the innkeep. “What say you, whelp?” she sneered at Sonja, “Have you a problem?”

Sonja ran her tongue along the inside of her teeth and stooped to grab the beggar off the floor, hoisting him forcefully to his feet, but it was a gesture far less kind than it appeared. Sonja had intentions to pound out Uthgerd’s face and she didn’t want to trip over a beggar in the process. “Not like the one I’m going to give you, Skeever-shit,” she snapped. The room cheered, ready for a fight. A drunken Brenuin hobbled off unsteadily, confused and thinking the cheers were for him.

“Take it outside!” Hulda insisted, “I won’t have more of my things broken by you drunken blowhards!”

“With pleasure,” Uthgerd growled, glaring daggers at Sonja as she pushed passed her, headed for the door.

It took more self-control than Sonja would have liked to admit to keep from slamming the bitch’s face into the countertop. She could be very cranky when she was hungry. Instead, she sucked on her tongue and glared at Faendal who had watched mutely through the entire exchange. “What?” he asked defensively, “I’m your guide, not your bodyguard.”

“If there’s betting, put coin on me,” she hissed, before turning on her heel to march out into the market square.

“How much?” he called after her, digging into his coin purse.

“All of it!”

The inn all but emptied behind her when she stepped outside. Uthgerd was standing by the well, already stripped of her armor from the waist up, the cool night air blowing through her thin, stained tunic and pieces of steel plate piled at her feet. She was grinding her fist into the other in anticipation.

With harsh, impatient motions, Sonja removed her own armor and weapons, shedding them onto the ground until Faendal appeared to watch over her things. The night air nipped at her bare midsection where half her tunic had been torn away to make a bandage on the fly once, long ago. The cropped garment revealed the cruel twist of many scars, not least of which the long, gnarled one that coiled around her waist like a snake. The ragged V of her collar was loosely knotted shut over the weave of the breast band binding her chest, exposing her neck and collarbones. In the shadow of her chin, one could barely make out the whisper-thin scar that marked her from ear to ear. Yet another painful reminder of misplaced trust.

She removed her father's ring and handed it to Faendal. "Don't lose it," she warned and the elf slipped it onto his own finger for safekeeping. “Terms?” Sonja asked, returning her attention to Uthgerd and cracking her knuckles ominously.

Uthgerd scoffed at her, though where this confidence was coming from, Sonja couldn’t fathom. They were more or less a straight up physical match. Uthgerd was taller, but leaner. She didn’t know what training the surly warrior may have had, but Sonja knew what kind of punches she, herself, could throw and Uthgerd was seriously underestimating her. “Just fists,” the cocky Nord replied, “First to yield loses. No weapons, no magic, and no crying.”

“Fine words for your tombstone,” Sonja taunted and the rabble goaded them on.

The Nord woman glowered, a muscle flexing along her jaw as she clenched her teeth. “How about we make this interesting?” she asked.

“You talk a lot for someone who wanted to put me on my ass.”

“A hundred gold says I knock your hide to the ground,” Uthgerd proposed.

“I’ll take that action.”

When Uthgerd charged Sonja, she ducked, causing the raging warrior to clock one of the onlookers clean across the jaw, staggering him. And the crowd loved it. Sonja capitalized on the momentary confusion and punched Uthgerd hard in the gut. She doubled over in pain, but recovered quickly, “That the best you can do?” she sneered before taking another heavy swing at Sonja and connecting. The wench has got an arm after all, Sonja thought as she took a few steps back to put some distance between them. Uthgerd had a longer reach than she did and more power from hefting a massive steel hammer around, but Sonja was quicker and didn’t lack for strength, herself.

So, they danced around each other, getting punches in where they could as the bets for and against them mounted until they were sweaty and breathless. In an effort to put an end to the fight, Sonja darted in close to attack Uthgerd’s weak side, but the Nord was ready for her. She blocked Sonja’s attack with her forearm, opening up her chest, and then proceeded to wail on her face before Sonja could put her guard up again. Each blow was like a hammer and Sonja staggered backward into the well, her vision blurred and her nose was definitely broken. “Had enough, yet?” Uthgerd demanded, pulling back a few punches short of knocking Sonja out cold.

Sonja spit blood onto the cobble and chuckled, a little punch-drunk. “You hit like an old woman,” she taunted and Uthgerd’s face screwed up in murderous determination. She bolted at Sonja again, ready to wring her neck. Her hands wrapped around Sonja’s throat and Faendal was calling for an end to the fight, trying to struggle passed some of the onlookers who had crowded in too tightly.

Before anyone could pull Uthgerd away or the guards could be called, Sonja brought her fists down on Uthgerd’s elbows, breaking her grip and causing her to lean too far forward. Sonja jerked her head sharply into the Nord woman’s face and felt her nose give way against her brow with a satisfying crack. Coupled with a swift knee to the gut, Uthgerd was on her hands and knees, cupping her bleeding nose.

The market square went silent. Only the thudding footfalls of the guards could be heard echoing through the night as they approached the scene. “What’s going on here?” one of them demanded of the group at large.

When no one immediately answered, he turned his attention to Uthgerd who had rolled onto her back and was pinching her nose in a daze. “Uthgerd the Unbroken,” he scoffed, “You look pretty broken to me down there in the dirt. What’d you do? Finally pick a fight you couldn’t win? It’s about time someone knocked your sorry hide to the ground, ya bloody snow-back.”

“We didn’t haul you in for killing that boy up at Jorrvaskr out of respect for the Companions, but you’ve assaulted a citizen now, Uthgerd,” the second guard warned, “Nothing to do now but take you to the dungeon to rot like you deserve.”

The guards took a collective step toward Uthgerd while the crowd stepped back. Sonja was dazed and bleeding and in pain, but she wasn’t about to let the poor warrior get dragged up to Dragonsreach for a fair fight she had agreed to. “Now wait a moment,” she slurred through the blood as one of her eyes began to swell shut, “There’s nothing to see here, but a little disagreement between friends. Right, Gerdy?” Uthgerd winced, though it was hard to tell if it was from the pain in her face or the shame of having a stranger come to her rescue.

The guards paused and looked Sonja over. “You call this friendly?” the first one asked skeptically as he pointed to the rough condition of Sonja’s face.

She shrugged then winced from the pain of shrugging before groaning from the pain of wincing. Fully aware she was a mess, Sonja leaned over and offered Uthgerd her hand. After a moment’s hesitation, the woman accepted it and Sonja hauled her to her feet with great effort. “Gods, you’re heavy,” she grunted before Faendal finally pushed through and helped her support Uthgerd’s weight. “See? We’re all friends here,” she said, nodding to the guards.

Though their faces were hidden behind their faceguards, it was easy enough to imagine the unconvinced looks on the guards’ faces, but as long as Sonja kept to her story that nothing untoward had happened, they couldn’t arrest Uthgerd unless someone else stepped forward. “Is that the truth of it?” the second guard asked of the crowd. There was a general grumbling of the affirmative. “I guess that’s it then,” he sighed, looking to his comrade.

“Stay out of trouble,” the first guard warned before returning to patrol.

“We’ll be watching you, Uthgerd,” the last guard added, “Mind that temper of yours or it will get you killed.” And then he, too, was gone.

Sonja groaned and then awkwardly moved back toward the Bannered Mare with Uthgerd’s arm flung across her shoulders. “See what I mean by trouble?” she grunted to Faendal who shouldered Uthgerd’s other arm.

“Trouble?” he repeated, “We made four hundred gold tonight.”

“Did everyone bet against me?”

Faendal laughed. “All but me.”

Uthgerd and Sonja returned to Uthgerd’s usual spot at the corner of the dining room and sank into the two chairs beside the small table. Faendal went about collecting his winnings from the other patrons before he went outside to retrieve the ladies’ armor from the market square. Sonja kicked her feet up on the table and hailed a barmaid. A pretty blonde Nord with green-hazel eyes came over. “Oh Uthgerd,” she sighed, taking in the sorry sight of both women, “Not again.”

“It’s not as bad as it looks, Olfina,” Uthgerd slurred through a fat lip, defensively.

Olfina shook her head. “What can I get for you?” she asked Sonja.

“Couple of meads and another bowl of stew, some bread and cheese,” she replied, leaning her head back against the wall. “You hungry?” she asked Uthgerd. The other woman shook her head. “That’s it then,” Sonja concluded and Olfina walked away.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Uthgerd said after a moment’s awkward silence.

“Do what? Order food?”

“Lie to the guards.”

Sonja shrugged. “I picked the fight as much as you did.”

Uthgerd grunted her disagreement. “Best fight I’ve had in years, though,” she admitted.

“You throw a good punch, yourself.”

The warrior extended her hand. “Not that you don’t already know, but the name’s Uthgerd.”

“Sonja.” They shook firmly as Olfina returned with food and drink.

“Not starting any more fights tonight, I see,” she commented, visibly relieved.

“Night’s still young,” Uthgerd replied cheekily, but her heart wasn’t in it.

Olfina chuckled. “Stay out of trouble,” she chided and then darted off to serve another customer.

Uthgerd grunted again and Sonja was beginning to wonder if that was the woman’s main form of communication. “I tore your face up pretty bad, didn’t I?” she said as Sonja sank onto the floor from her chair to be closer to the food on the short table.

“You’re none too pretty, either.”

“Good luck eating around that bleeding mouth.”

Sonja paused, considering her food thoughtfully; Ralof’s warning against her magic echoing through her mind. “You’re not going to like this,” she said, looking up at Uthgerd from the floor.

“What?” She watched as Sonja raised her hands to her face and the bright pulse of healing magic glowed off her fingertips, engulfing her features. “Ysgramor’s balls, you’re a fucking mage?” she sighed, disheartened.

Sonja’s pretty and completely healed face grinned up at her in response, a few new scars the only indicator that she had recently been in a fight. “No weapons, no magic, no crying,” she said, repeating Uthgerd’s earlier words, “Want me to toss a little your way?”


Shrugging, Sonja dug into her stew. “Suit yourself,” she said through a mouthful of food. Uthgerd grumbled to herself and watched as Sonja tugged the cork out of one of the bottles of mead and started eagerly chugging the golden liquid down. “This one’s yours,” she said, sliding the second bottle toward Uthgerd.

“I don’t want your pity.”

“Shut up and drink with me.” Reluctantly, Uthgerd snatched up the bottle, uncorked it, and tried to find the least painful way to get the alcohol past her split lip with little success. “Here,” Sonja said after watching Uthgerd struggle for a few moments, “Take this. You’re putting me off my dinner.” She plopped a chunk of conjured ice into Uthgerd’s hand.

“More magic?”

“It won’t hurt you any, just put it against that mess of a face of yours.”

Uthgerd looked ready to refuse again, but thought better of it. A chunk of ice was a lot less direct than allowing Sonja to cast spells on her, so she gingerly pressed the slick disk against her broken nose. She’d see Danica in the morning for proper healing—not that Sonja seemed incapable judging by the nearly flawless way she mended her own wounds. Just faint scars through her eyebrow, under her eye, and across her lips. Hardly noticeable. She wondered why she hadn’t finished the job and left no marks at all. Though if the rest of Sonja’s body was an indicator, perhaps there was a simpler answer: she wasn’t vain enough to care to. Uthgerd, herself, preferred to ache a little while longer at least. Pain was a part of the fight. She needed to feel it. She needed the punishment. A way to mitigate her near constant anger at the world for her own failings.

“So why you in trouble with the guard anyway?” Sonja asked between bites, pulling Uthgerd out of her mental self-flagellation, “They didn’t like you none too much.”

“Few months ago, I had some trouble at Jorrvaskr.”

“Big trouble from the sound of it.”

“All I wanted was a chance to prove myself against a Companion like anybody else who goes to join,” Uthgerd growled, “‘Too hot-headed,’ they cried. Weak, pathetic cowards the lot of them!”

“You killed a Companion?” Sonja asked, sucking meat from between her teeth.


“And they didn’t strike you down where you stood?”

“They wanted to,” Uthgerd assured, “That Huntress had an arrow ready for my heart, but the big one—one of the twins, I think—Farkas stopped her. Their Second sent me away, saying I wasn’t Companion material—and neither was the Whelp if he couldn’t last five minutes against me.”

“Poor lad,” Sonja muttered and then downed the last of her mead, signaling to Olfina that she wanted another.

Uthgerd groaned to think of the whole horrible event all over again. “It wasn’t my fault!” she insisted, “I told them over and over that it was an accident! They wanted me to prove my worth, so they threw me up against this young whelp of a lad, hardly old enough to grow his first chin-hairs. I guess they thought a woman wasn’t strong enough to hurt him. I-I didn’t mean for him to die! Why would I want that? I just—I just lost control.”

Sonja chewed on her last bite of stew and considered Uthgerd. “Like tonight?” she asked at length, referring to the woman’s attempt to strangle her.

“Aye,” she sighed miserably, “Like tonight.”

Sonja nodded absently and tore her bread into smaller pieces to sop up the remaining liquid in her bowl. She hadn’t ever lost control the way Uthgerd had. Maybe lost her temper a time or two, but she was always aware of where that unspoken line was and never crossed it. But mistakes she had made in the past had been both directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of innocents—even loved ones. She pursed her lips, on that she could see eye to eye with Uthgerd and understand that pain, that rage, that unquenchable desire for violent action just to ease the ache in her heart. She needed to move passed it. They both did. “You needn’t worry that I pity you,” Sonja said casually, “You pity yourself enough for the two of us.”

“Oh, what do you know?” Uthgerd snapped.

“My life hasn’t exactly been milk-drinking and skipping through fields of blue mountain flowers.”

“Now who’s whining?”

“Still you, my friend,” Sonja laughed, “But a few more drinks will fix that. Then you’ll let me fix what I’ve broken of your face and you’ll be back to your surly, beggar-tossing self in no time.”

Uthgerd glared at her sideways. “And you? What are you doing here in Whiterun?” she asked before taking a massive swing of her mead.

Sonja considered dancing around the question, preferring to keep to herself, but decided against it. Uthgerd had been honest with her and she needed to ask somebody about her sister. A local and regular of the inn wasn’t a bad start. “I’m looking for my sister,” she explained, “She may have come through. Our mother was born and raised here and when she passed, she wanted us to bring her ashes back. Anja didn’t wait for me. She came alone and I’m worried for her.”

The warrior considered Sonja’s words. “There’ve been a lot of travelers through here recently on the way to Solitude,” she said, thoughtfully, “What’d she look like?”

“She’s a few years younger than I,” she replied, hoping for a lead, “About a head shorter, Imperial, slight frame, blonde hair, blue eyes. Favors maces, of all things. Might go by the name Kit.”

Uthgerd snapped her fingers. “That’s it,” she said, “Kit. I remember her. Charmed all the regulars into paying for her drinks and popped Mikael a good one when he got fresh with Carlotta.”

Sonja smirked. “Sounds like Anj, alright.”

“She didn’t stay long. Said she had business at the Hall of the Dead and then skipped town. You might check with the priest, Andurs, and the carriage drivers that pass through, but I don’t know which she left with or where she was going.”

It wasn’t much, but it was more that she had five minutes ago. Sonja raised her bottle to Uthgerd. “Good on you. I’ll check into it in the morning.”

Just then, Faendal walked up to the table and dropped a sizable purse in front of Sonja. “From throwing punches to raising drinks,” he said, amused, “You’ll get along just fine in Skyrim.”

Sonja picked up the purse and weighed it in her hands. It, along with the purse she collected from Uthgerd, was a good start, but she’s need more if she was going to find Anja. Gold coins could buy information that silver tongues could not. But she didn’t have any plans to go around starting fist fights for coin. First, it was that job for the jarl and then steady work through the Companions, if she was lucky enough to pass their little test, of course. “If all I have to do is fight and drink, I think I can manage,” she joked, setting the gold back on the table.

“The heat of battle is the fire that forges the strongest blades,” Uthgerd said, “It’s an old Nord proverb. A true Nord never misses a chance to test her worth. That’s Skyrim. That’s the Nord way. Remember that and Skyrim will become your home.”

“Words to live by,” Sonja said, raising her mead a second time and drinking deeply.

Chapter Text

“IRONHEART!” Hulda bellowed, her voice carrying through the inn and disturbing many of the drunks passed out at various tables—or in Brenuin’s case, under one. Guests who paid for a room remained undisturbed, sleeping soundly behind closed doors, except for Sonja who had rented the loft room and left the door to the gallery open.

She sat bolt upright in her bed, snorting loudly and grasping for blankets to cover her bare legs. Her hands clutched at naked air, so she forced one weary eye open and found that Faendal had hogged them all, wrapped into a warm little cocoon with pointed ears and a sandy brown pony tail sticking out the top. She glared at him. He was definitely sleeping on the floor next time.

Vaguely aware that someone had called her name and that’s what had dragged her from sleep, Sonja flung her legs over the side of the bed and retrieved her trousers from the floor, hopping on one leg as she attempted to don them while walking. Of course she tripped and stumbled forward, stubbing her toe on the frame of the open door. “Mara’s bleeding heart,” she cursed loud enough to disturb the patrons downstairs. But not Faendal; he slept like the dead. She did draw the attention of Hulda, however, as well as the older woman she was speaking to with far too much enthusiasm for the morning.

“You alright, Sonja?” Hulda asked. Her expression silently declared that Sonja looked a mess.

“I thought you called for me,” was the confused, somewhat garbled response.


“Oh…” Sonja scrunched up her face, thinking. What had she heard when she woke up? It hadn’t been her first name and she hadn’t given Hulda a family name…oh…Her eyes darted to the woman. A shield-maiden, covered in ebony mail and black wolf fur, and armed with a fine ebony and steel sword and shield. She was a severe looking woman somewhere in her fifties, if Sonja had to guess, but her hair had already turned to silken silver and was braided back from her face like a crown; the loose half of her tresses hung over her shoulders and down her back into the hood of her black cloak. The way Sonja’s mother used to wear her hair. And startlingly familiar blue eyes stared up at her from beneath hawkish gray eyebrows with the same intimidating suspicious glint Sonja knew only too well. This woman had to be one of her mother’s sisters.

“How about some breakfast then?” Hulda asked, drawing Sonja’s attention away from the woman who very likely was her aunt.

“Aye,” Sonja nodded, “That’d be good.”

“I’ll send Saadia up right away.”

“Good morning, Hulda,” the woman said suddenly, tearing her gaze away from Sonja, “There’s much to do today and naught but me to do it.”

“But you only just got back, Hera!” Hulda insisted, “You didn’t even tell me how your visit to Markarth went.”

“Later, Hulda, I promise,” she assured and then she was gone. Sonja watched her disappear from the inn in a flash of silver as the sunlight struck her hair before the door snapped shut behind her. Hulda looked put out and snapped at Saadia more harshly than she meant to. The waitress jumped and went about trying to prepare Sonja’s breakfast more quickly.

Sonja melted back into the room, frowning. Suddenly, the sight of the sleeping elf was a bit more than she could bear at that moment and she planted a foot in what she assumed was the small of his back. “Wake up,” she hissed, shoving him clean off the bed.

The Faendal-cocoon hit the floor with a dull thud and a strangled cry of surprise. “What in Oblivion did you do that for?” he asked, fighting against the twist of the blankets as he scrambled to his feet.

“You stole the covers,” she replied irritably.

Faendal looked at her, bewildered. “And you snore like a troll, but I didn’t throw you out of the bed!”

“Shut up and get dressed,” she snapped, “Saadia’s bringing breakfast.”

Faendal grumbled to himself a few moments longer as he cast about for his tunic. It was stuffed under the pillow. But Sonja did catch a few words: “So much for sharing a bed like adults…damn harpy…tossing and turning all night…”

Sonja tuned him out before he incited her anger again, but her thoughts turned to other things no more pleasant. There was no doubt that Hera knew who she was—or at least was suspicious. The way she looked at her and then all but bolted from the inn. It wasn’t exactly a warm welcome. Aela had spoken true. There was bad blood between Freydis and her sisters, and Sonja couldn’t help but wonder if Anja had gone poking around in the old family feud before leaving—if that was the reason she left. Maybe Hera knew where she’d gone. 

Sonja tucked the hem of the new tunic she purchased from Belethor’s General Goods Store into her trousers as she kicked the door of the bathhouse open, stepping out into the mid-morning air. Her long black hair was messily twisted into a large, wet knot at the back of her head. A chill ran through her when a breeze blew over her warm, damp skin, but she was glad to be clean. It had been a long while since she last had access to bathwater and clean clothes. The soaps, lotions, and other hygienic sundries she bought at Arcadia’s Cauldron bathed her senses with a pleasing mixture of lavender and mint. Perhaps it was a little unnecessary to buy such soft items, especially with the hard work she had ahead of her, but it certainly felt worth the extra couple gold coins to feel civilized again.

She and Faendal made their way down the walkway, circling around Arcadia’s, headed for Dragonsreach. Sonja was still dressing, her belts caught in her teeth and her armor slung over her shoulder. She wasn’t really looking where she was going, only catching the general presence of others in her peripheral so she didn’t bump into anyone. “I didn’t take kindly to your sister poking around,” said a voice only recently familiar. Sonja turned so abruptly, Faendal ran into her, but before he could utter a single complaint, he turned to see at who Sonja was staring. Hera leaned against one of the carved beams of Arcadia’s covered storefront, an intricately carved ivory pipe caught between her teeth. “What makes you think I’d like you any better?” she finished, stoking her pipe with the magical flames dancing off the tip of her forefinger.

“We’re not poking around,” Faendal objected, but Hera gave him a chilling look.

“I’m not stupid,” she snarled, “Why else would you be here?”

“Hera, right?” Sonja asked cautiously.

“You know that’s my name.”

“Not ‘til this morning.”

“Don’t play dumb. At least your little whelpling sister showed me more respect.”

Sonja’s brow furrowed. “I think you’re confused about why I’m here.”

“Anja was clear enough,” Hera shrugged, “Wanted to make amends on behalf of your mother. Tried to get me to read one of her old journals. ‘It will explain everything,’ she said.”

Sonja had no idea to what journal Hera was referring, but it seemed that Anja was far better informed than she was when it came to their mother’s family. “Did you read it?” she asked.

Hera scoffed. “No,” she answered, “I told her to leave. If Freydis wanted to make amends, then she’d have to drag her cowardly ass back to Skyrim and do it herself instead of sending her daughters.”

“Freydis is dead, Hera,” Sonja informed her coldly, “She died a few years back. I didn’t come here for you.”

The storm gathering in the older woman’s face cleared briefly as realization sunk in. “How—how’d she die?” she asked, her eyes softening.

“Clearing a mine outside Anvil of goblins for the Fighters Guild,” Sonja answered, wondering how much of the grief filtering through her aunt’s expression was real.

“She died with honor, then?”

“Took as many of them with her as she could.”

Hera nodded and straightened from the beam. “Was she buried in Cyrodiil?”

“No. She was burned on the pyre.” Sonja remembered that day well. After the death of her father, she and her mother took jobs with the Fighters Guild, picking up bounties, or taking whatever halfway decent work came their way to pay the taxes on their home in the Imperial City. When Freydis didn’t check back in with the Guild Hall in Anvil, Sonja got nervous and convinced a friend in the guild to go with her to the mine to see what was taking her mother so long. In hindsight, she knew what she would find when she entered that mine, but she still wasn’t prepared to find her mother’s corpse. The only solace she had was in ridding the mine of every last goblin. Then she took Freydis’ body back to Anvil and they built a pyre for her on the shore. It rained, and Sonja and Anja spent the rest of the day huddled under the same blanket, standing vigil until the flames went out and all that remained of Freydis was a pile of ash and bits of bone. That was the last time Sonja had been close with her sister. “Anja brought her ashes to rest here,” she concluded softly.

“So she’s come home, then?”


Hera sighed heavily and the action made her look older. “I wondered why the letters stopped coming…” she admitted, “I thought she just—finally gave up when I never wrote back.”

“Letters? What letters?”

“Your mother wrote to me every month for nearly thirty years,” she explained, “She told me what Cyrodiil was like—why she left with your father—when you were born—when Anja and Thornir were born—your schooling, your training—how beautiful you all were—when you were hurt and Thornir was killed—when Remus died. All of it—until the very end.”

“You read them all?”

“Every last one.”

Sonja’s hands balled into fists at her side. “And you never once wrote back?” she asked, remembering how hard Thornir’s death had been on them all. How hard it was on them still. Sonja had been too injured to be of much use. Anja had been devastated. Remus had been consumed with the need to avenge his son, and Freydis—she was the strongest of them all, but felt the loss of her child in a way only a mother could. Her baby was dead. She could have used the support of her estranged sisters; they all could have.

“No,” Hera replied, bitterly, “I was too proud.”

“A-and the others?” Sonja asked, her voice raising dangerously high, “Your other sisters? Were they all too proud, also?”

“It’s not that simple…”

“The hell it ain’t!” she nearly bellowed, “She lost a son! And you couldn’t take the time to pick up a quill? What about when da died? All because you were afraid to lose face!” Her face was very close to Hera’s now and she could smell the fragrant tobacco from her pipe on her breath. “Tell me, aunt, who’s the real coward? Ma for leaving or you for never allowing her to come back?”

Hera glared silent daggers at Sonja, but made no attempt to speak. There was nothing to say. Even if she broke down, tore her hair, and begged for forgiveness, Sonja wouldn’t have listened to her and Hera wasn’t the type for a show of remorse of that degree anyway. She was too proud. Too damned proud. “Sonja, we shouldn’t keep the Jarl waiting,” Faendal reminded her softly.

Sonja blinked, her fury momentarily smothered. “Aye,” she agreed, turning away from Hera, “We’ve a job to do.”

“What business have you with the jarl?” Hera asked before she could stop herself.

“None of your concern,” Sonja snapped, and she and Faendal disappeared through the crowded market square, headed for Dragonsreach.

The smell of the morning meal wafted through the main hall of Dragonsreach and had they not already eaten, the smell would have been torturous. “Do you think we could eat again?” Faendal asked under his breath.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” she muttered, still in a foul mood from the unexpected family reunion she had just moments before. They mounted the steps and made their way down to the Jarl at the end of the table on their right. He was nearly finished with his meal and was drinking deeply from a goblet. “My Jarl,” Sonja greeted, “Sorry to disturb your meal. Should we come back later?”

The Jarl waved her off. “It’s no trouble,” he said and he stood from his seat, “Have you eaten? Please help yourself to my table. There is plenty.”

“Hulda fed us well,” Sonja assured, but she did pluck an apple from a bowl. Faendal helped himself to a snowberry turnover.

Balgruuf smiled, amused, and gestured to the man sitting at his left. “This is my brother Hrongar,” he introduced, “A thane of my court. He will show you to the armory where you can claim your reward.”

Hrongar stood from his chair to greet them, nodding first to Sonja and then Faendal. He was a handsome man, much like his brother. Younger, broader, clad in scaled horned armor and carrying a fine steel greatsword. His head was shaved, but he sported the same impressive blonde beard, only his was tied with a bit of leather cord. “Come with me,” he beckoned and they followed him as Balgruuf settled back into his meal.

Halfway to the armory, they crossed paths with Balgruuf’s steward, Proventus. “Ah, are these the mercenaries the jarl’s hired to help Farengar?” he asked, casting a disinterested glance at Sonja and Faendal.

“This is Freydis Ironheart’s daughter,” Hrongar responded, pointedly.

“Hera’s niece are you?” Proventus spared a second glance for Sonja.

Sonja crossed her arms over her chest. “And my friend, Faendal of Riverwood, a skilled ranger,” she added, irritated that everyone seemed to forget the elf existed when they addressed her.

Proventus’ eyes flit toward Faendal briefly. “Farengar will be pleased to have some real help this time,” he sighed and then turned to continue into the main hall.

“Walk with me,” Hrongar said before Proventus could get too far.

Confused, but mildly intrigued, the steward complied, falling into step beside the thane. “Something on your mind, Hrongar?” he asked.

The thane nodded. “You must help me,” he said, “We need to convince my brother to do more for the war effort.”

The steward cast a nervous glance back at Sonja and Faendal. “This would better be discussed in private, don’t you think?” he asked severely.

“So you can avoid me when next I ask?”

“What would you have me do, Hrongar?” Proventus snapped, “Your brother is the jarl. You know I can’t question his judgement.”

“I’m not asking you to defy the jarl,” Hrongar assured in a conspiratorial whisper, “Just to open his eyes. Use subtlety and suggestion to turn his thoughts to the war. You’re his steward, he’ll listen to you.”

“Leave me out of your intrigues,” Proventus said haughtily, “If you have something to say to the jarl, say it with your own tongue.” And then he abruptly turned on his heel and marched off, pushing passed Sonja and Faendal, and muttering, “Good day.”

“Fool,” Hrongar hissed, but continued to the armory, unabashed. Sonja and Faendal exchanged looks and shrugged, unsure what to make of Hrongar’s lack of discretion in so openly discussing court intrigue in front of them. It wasn’t really surprising that there would be some friction amongst the jarl’s court in the midst of a civil war, but that Hrongar was flirting with overstepping his bounds was worrisome. Sonja didn’t know much about Nordic politics, but her impression of Skyrim so far did not lead her to believe Balgruuf would go easy on his brother if he found out. There’d be a fist fight, at the very least…she thought.

When they entered the armory, several odds and ends of armor had been laid out for them to choose from. There weren’t many full sets. “Take what you need.” Hrongar leaned in the doorway while they browsed their options.

Faendal lucked out and managed to find a sleek leather and steel mail set that would require very little alteration to fit his lean frame. “You wouldn’t happen to be any good at making armor, would you?” he asked, checking the chest piece against his body.

“A little,” Sonja answered, abandoning her examination of a battered elven cuirass to see what Faendal had gotten his hands on. “Oh, this is an easy fix,” she assured, “I can have it done in a couple of hours.” She handed it back to him and he carefully gathered the entire set up in his arms.

“Where did you learn to smith?”

Sonja didn’t answer right away. “From my mother,” she replied, “She had a talent for it. Said she studied with the greatest once…” She produced the Skyforge dagger from her belt. “Made things like this.”

Faendal looked impressed. “Then she must have studied with Eorlund Gray-Mane,” he said, letting out a long low whistle, “Best damn steel in all of Skyrim, but only a very select few wield his Skyforged weapons and armor.”

“The Companions,” she finished, “Yes, I noticed that. Guess I know why she never said anything, then. But I’m not any good at the forge. I can make repairs and a few simple weapons, arrows and daggers and the like, but ma was something else.” She sighed and returned the dagger to her belt before browsing through the armor again to find something she could use. Faendal watched the persistent frown tug at the corner of her mouth and felt his own expression morph to mirror hers.

“I’m—sorry about your aunt, for what it’s worth,” he said, “I know that can’t be easy.”

“I just wish ma had told me about them,” she muttered, irritated, “I’ve had this whole other family I know nothing about—and they’re pissed for gods know what reason.”

“Maybe it was for the best.”

“What good could have possibly come of her saying nothing?”

Faendal shrugged. “What good could have come of her telling her children they had family that wanted nothing to do with them?”

Damn him, he’s right. Sonja chuckled humorlessly. “You’re not as dumb as you look, friend,” she replied.

“Too bad you are.”

His response earned him a good-natured punch to the arm and a real laugh. Hrongar cleared his throat loudly, wordlessly encouraging them to finish their business so he could get back to his. “It’s enchanted, by the way,” she informed him before they refocused their attention on the task at hand, “The cuirass is, at least. It will help you to recover quickly.”

“Enchanted, ay?” He looked the armor over again. “I don’t think I’ve ever owned anything so fancy my entire life.”

Another pointed throat-clear issued from the doorway. Sonja rolled her eyes, but made an earnest attempt to find suitable armor while Faendal turned his attention to the weapons, particularly a nice elven bow. After a few moments more, Hrongar impatiently cleared his throat a third time. Perhaps Sonja was being too picky, but she was having a difficult time finding anything suitable amongst the mismatched pieces of armor. It wasn’t until she noticed a shining quicksilver and ebony gauntlet edged in familiar runes sticking out of a chest pushed against a wall and covered in cobwebs and dust, forgotten, that she found something not only worthwhile, but unexpected.

When she kicked back the lid of the trunk, Hrongar came storming into the room. “You’re only to touch what’s been laid out for you,” he insisted, but he calmed some when he saw what Sonja was looking at, “Oh, that. It’s pretty enough, but too thin to take a beating and ill-fitting.”

Sonja smirked and reached into the chest, removing the cuirass. “Do you even know what it is?” she asked, running her fingers over the row of runes that curved over the chest.

“Some garbage a battlemage was wearing,” Hrongar shrugged.

“It’s not garbage; it’s witchplate,” she replied, “And well-made, too. No battlemage worth his salt would let this go willingly. How’d you come by it?”

“He was causing trouble in town,” Hrongar explained, “Something about a gambling debt, I think. The guard dragged him in after he attacked the man he owned money. Killed him outright. We held him in the dungeons until my brother turned him over to the Legion for sentencing. Kept his gear though, as recompense for the death of one of his citizens.” He scratched his chin, thoughtfully. “Too bad it’s useless. We’ve had every smith in the hold take look at it and no one can repair it.”

Sonja raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t think to ask your Court Wizard about it?”

Hrongar shrugged. “What does a mage know about armor?”

“Only a mage can use it properly.”

“And how would you know that?”

Sonja answered him by way of pulsing magic into the cuirass, causing the ebony runes to glow bright cerulean blue and Hrongar to take several steps back. She smiled, vaguely satisfied that he found her powers unsettling and tugged at the buckles of her armor. “It’s made almost entirely of quicksilver,” she explained as her leather harness fell to the floor, “A soft metal unless reinforced with something stronger like moonstone or malachite, but witchplate uses magic.” She pulled the new cuirass on over her head. The armor was comically large and shapeless on her torso, but another charge of magic remedied that immediately. The witchplate easily conformed to her body like liquid, solidifying at the proper fit. “Like a glove.”

“Y-you’ve used this armor before, then?” Hrongar asked uneasily.

“Aye,” she confirmed, “Had a set just like it at university. It’s expensive and usually reserved for—advanced classes. It belongs to the school until you graduate, but I left before then, so I had to return it.” That was the heavily edited version of events, anyway. “I’d like this one if you don’t mind. I don’t think you’ll miss it.”

Hrongar nodded a little too readily. “Help yourself.”

Jarl Balgruuf was reseated at his throne by the time Sonja and Faendal returned to the main hall. When he caught sight of Sonja dressed head to toe in witchplate and sporting an elven sword, he did a subtle double take before looking pointedly to his brother who merely shrugged. Apparently satisfied with such an inadequate response, Balgruuf cleared his throat and stood from his throne. “I’m glad you’ve found suitable reward for your efforts,” he said, taking curious note of how snuggly the witchplate hugged Sonja’s curves when it had previously fit no one else. “Come,” he said, beckoning for Sonja and Faendal to follow him to the Court Wizard’s chambers just off the great hall. “Let’s go find Farengar. My Court Wizard. He’s been looking into a matter related to these dragons and—rumors of dragons. He can be a bit—difficult. Mages. You know.”

“Totally insufferable lot,” Faendal said in feigned agreement. Sonja punched his arm again. “Ow,” he muttered, “That one hurt a little.”

“Insufferable or not, we’d be in a lot more trouble without them,” the Jarl allowed. They entered the mage’s study. A Breton man in a blue robe stood behind the desk, pouring over volumes and papers. “Farengar, I think I’ve found someone who can help you with your dragon project,” the Jarl said to the man, “Go ahead and fill them in with all the details.”

Farengar looked up and Sonja instantly felt the subtle aura of his magicka. He was definitely a Master Wizard. Of which school in particular, it was hard to tell, but he didn’t have the distant gaze of a conjurer or illusionist. No, he moved with purpose and focus, absent softness. Destruction, if she had to guess.

The Court Wizard looked her over as closely as he had examined his own books, his eyes trailing over the runes faintly glowing across her armor. Then his eyes flit to Faendal and gave him an equally intense study. “So the Jarl thinks you can be of use to me?” he asked, his gaze shifting briefly back to Balgruuf, “Oh yes, he must be referring to my research into dragons.” He whipped the book in front of him shut and crossed his arms thoughtfully. “Yes, I could use someone to fetch something for me,” he admitted, “Well, when I say 'fetch,' I really mean delve into a dangerous ruin in search of an ancient stone tablet that may or may not actually be there.”

Sonja and Faendal exchanged glances. And then Sonja shrugged. “Alright,” she said, “But what does this have to do with dragons?”

“Ah, no mere brute mercenary, but a thinker—perhaps even a scholar?” the mage asked, pointedly.

“You could say that,” Sonja confirmed vaguely, unwilling to get bogged down the specifics of her education and training.

Farengar hummed knowingly, but whether he found her answer unsatisfactory or not, she could not tell. He circled around to the front of the desk and leaned against it, crossing one leg over the other casually. “You see, when the stories of dragons began to circulate, many dismissed them as mere fantasies, rumors. Impossibilities,” he continued, “One sure mark of a fool is to dismiss anything which falls outside his experience as being impossible. But I began to search for information about dragons—where had they gone all those years ago? And where were they coming from?”

“So what do you need us to do?” Faendal asked.

“I, ah, learned of a certain stone tablet said to be housed in Bleak Falls Barrow—a Dragonstone, said to contain a map of dragon burial sites,” Farengar elaborated, “Go to Bleak Falls Barrow, find this tablet—no doubt interred in the main chamber—and bring it to me. Simplicity itself.”

“Right. Simple,” Sonja frowned, “Fine. We’ll get your stone for you.”

“This is a priority now,” the Jarl interjected, “Anything we can use to fight this dragon, or dragons. We need it, quickly. Before it’s too late.”

“Understood,” Sonja nodded, “We’ll leave as soon as we’re able.”

“You seem to have found me able assistants, Jarl Balgruuf,” Farengar said, casting another glance over Sonja’s witchplate armor, “I’m sure they will prove most useful.”

“Succeed at this, and you’ll be rewarded,” Balgruuf promised, “Whiterun will be in your debt—I will be in your debt.”

“We won’t fail,” Sonja assured.

“May the Nine watch over you,” Balgruuf said, and Sonja and Faendal took their leave.

Chapter Text

Sonja had to admit that she was feeling a lot better encased in the silken weight of the witchplate armor. The cool metal was familiar, made her feel safer than her ragged leather garb had, and reminded her of a time when her days had been filled with the wonder and excitement of scholarship and training. Before everything had gone horribly wrong. And then she was quickly backsliding into melancholy again. That deep, dark hole that pressed in on her like a tomb until she thought she’d be crushed beneath the weight of it. “Hey, are you listening to me?” Faendal’s voice pulled her back and she looked at him, eyes rounded as if she was surprised to see him walking beside her.

“Yeah—no, sorry—what?”

Faendal’s brow furrowed in concern, but he repeated himself. “I said, we’re getting a late start to the day, so we’ll need proper gear to make camp. Belethor’s should have what we need.”

“Right. Sounds good to me.”

Quick, hawkish eyes still examined her face. “Why don’t you work on my armor while I get what we need?” he suggested, “Warmaiden’s is down by the gate. Adrianne might be persuaded to let you work in her shop if you’ve got the skill.”

Sonja nodded. “Right. I’ll do that.”

Faendal still seemed a little unsure, but shrugged. She was a grown woman and obviously very capable of taking care of herself. He’d add ‘nursemaid’ to the list of things he wasn’t to her right after ‘bodyguard’ and ‘bedmate.’ Shifting his pack off his shoulder, he traded her for her coin and then parted ways. Sonja hefted the bag onto her back and made to cut through the Wind District to the staircase nearest the gates, but caught a flash of silver on the other side. It was Hera. She and the older woman locked eyes briefly and then she made a beeline for Sonja.

Not wanting to engage in another heartwarming familial encounter, Sonja glanced around for an excuse to go anywhere else and her eyes settled squarely on the doors of Jorrvaskr. “Sonja…” Hera began when she intercepted her near the base of the Gildergreen.

“Don’t,” Sonja snapped, “I don’t have time for you.” And she darted up the steps to the mead hall.

“You’re a stubborn wench just like your mother,” Hera called after her, but she did not follow. If she wanted Sonja to hear what she had to say, then she’d have to wait until her niece was less pissed off. Though, if she had even an ounce of the infamous Ironheart temper, Hera could be waiting for a very long time.

Upon nearing the building, Sonja could hear the clanging of swords and shields coming from around the back and wondered if perhaps she’d been too hasty in selecting an exit strategy since training at Jorrvaskr seemed to be in full swing. She hesitated to go inside. Instead she veered left, thinking of viewing the Companions practice as an excuse to come and go without causing much fuss. Surely they were used to onlookers. The Fighters Guild certainly had its fair share of admirers, but when she rounded the corner and saw only sweating warriors beating the Oblivion out of assorted dummies and each other, she sighed heavily. She just couldn’t catch a break.

Before she could slink off unnoticed, one of the older warriors saw her. “Keep fighting,” he growled at the pair sparring in front of him, “I’ll be back.” And he stalked toward Sonja with a powerful, predatory grace. “What do you want, whelp?” he sneered when he drew near.

He was only an inch or two taller than she, but he still managed to somehow stare down his nose at her, his cold white-blue eyes glaring amidst smears of black war paint. “Is this how you greet everyone who comes to Jorrvaskr?” Sonja asked, shifting her weight to one hip and steadily returning his gaze.

“Aye.” He crossed his bulging arms over an equally strong chest, causing the inked skin of his right bicep to stretch taught over the muscle beneath it. The motion wafted the scent of sweat and sandalwood into Sonja’s face, but it wasn’t altogether displeasing. The man, himself, was easy on the eyes even with his expression twisted into such a persistent brood. A handsome Nord man with short black hair and a strong, square jawline. Sonja was certain she had never met him before, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he somehow looked familiar. “Answer the question,” he said, drawing Sonja’s roving eyes back to meet his.

Something in the way he looked at her or hidden in the tone of his voice, she felt that he was somehow issuing a challenge. An arbitrary test of her will. A subtle assertion of dominance, and her pride—nay, the very mettle of her being—wouldn’t allow her to back down. She could tell he was used to intimidating others and he certainly cut an impressive shape through his sweat-soaked tunic, but she’d taken on bigger and scarier in her time so she didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. “Eorlund,” she replied, remembering it was Faendal’s gear that sat heavy across her back.

The warrior pointed at the ridge above their heads. “Skyforge,” he said simply.

Sonja kept her eyes glued to his and nodded. “Man of few words.”

“Don’t need many.”

“Or know too few?” His gaze narrowed to hostility and she grinned, the undeclared winner of the unspoken tug-o-war. “Thanks for the help,” she said brightly, “On about your day, Companion.” And she took several steps backward, maintaining eye contact as long as she could before sprinting up the steps to the Skyforge. 

“Again!” Vilkas barked at Torvar and Njada as they performed the moves he had just taught them for the twentieth time. They were amongst some of the oldest Companions, not yet part of the Circle and nor would they ever be, but they were good, strong warriors. Training with Vilkas was a refresher to keep their skills sharp more than anything else, so they were completely frustrated that the surly warrior insisted on running them ragged like newly recruited whelps. Still, they paid their longtime friend and mentor the respect of doing as he commanded. In the training yard, Vilkas was king—even above Skjor who no longer trained with anyone but Aela. “Feet further apart!” he snapped, smacking the flat of his sheathed greatsword against Torvar’s calf. The man winced, but did as he was told—for now. There were limits.

Vilkas continued to growl irritably as he watched his fellow Companions run through it again. They’d been going through it for hours now and moved with sureness and skill. But it wasn’t perfect. It was never perfect. And he needed it to be perfect. He took a steadying breath and leaned against his sword. No, he didn’t need perfection, he needed release. It’d only been a week since he and Farkas had agreed to give up the change with Kodlak and he was already feeling the consequences. He felt hungry and restless, taught like a bowstring, and it made his skin itch. What he needed, what every last fiber of his body yearned for, was to Change. To give in. To let go and shed his humanity like the second skin it was.

He shut his eyes, disgusted. Those were not the thoughts of a true Nord, but of a coward. What good was he if he couldn’t keep his word and control his Beast? How had he not suffered before? Had he been a slave to his basest desires in order to keep the Wolf well-fed and happy? He used to relish the slaughter, the hunt, the grit of the job under his fingernails as he struck down whatever unworthy he was paid to, all the while touting honor and glory. It seemed false now. Just pretty dress for an ugly truth. Now, he was painfully aware of it all and did everything he could to starve the Beast inside him.

And that’s what he felt like: a starving scavenger. Thin and paranoid. He hadn’t taken any jobs to feed the Wolf’s thirst for blood. He hadn’t taken a woman to his bed to mindlessly rut into until he was spent and subdued. And he refused to let the Beast out of its cage. So he was a mess. A tangled knot of tension and it spewed at the others in the most frustrating ways. Like in the training yard when he was too hard on Torvar and Njada or when he snapped at newcomers. Like the woman from earlier…

He hadn’t exactly been polite when he caught the scent of someone new approaching. Lavender, mint, and tobacco smoke. The oils and waxes on her armor and blade. The smell of a woman, of a warrior. Just another whelp looking to prove herself…he had thought and he might have ignored her so someone else could take her to Kodlak had not the Wolf been so insistent he look out of pure carnal curiosity. Just a glance…he thought, Just one. Her armor glinted brilliantly in the sun and she looked like some shield-maiden from a story: whole and perfect and glistening. Damn his Wolf. It would not due to have her anywhere near Jorrvaskr, today. Not with eyes so blue he could make out their color from halfway across the training yard. So he went to send her away, to scare her off, to make her think twice about wanting to join the Companions because if, in the unlikely event, she should pass Kodlak’s test, she’d just be one more burden to bear against his humanity and he couldn’t stand it.

Usually, his presence alone was enough to menace inexperienced whelplings into nearly messing themselves. But she stood her ground as he approached, watching him with interest, and when he was close enough he realized he was not dealing with a typical bright-eyed, foolish hopeful. She wore strange armor the likes of which he had never seen before, but being near it made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. It was definitely enchanted and the runes chased into the metal smoldered blue. She was either a mage or wealthy enough to afford enchanted gear; either way, it was unusual for her to show up at Jorrvaskr. Neither set Vilkas’ mind at ease because it meant she was poking around where she didn’t belong or about to offer a job of which he likely wanted no part. Skjor handled the rich.

And her face…She had too many scars to be anything but lucky or good. Her right temple bore a jagged knot of puckered darkened skin, curved against the invisible hilt that once struck her. Chasing her jawline from left ear to chin was another scar, deep and smooth and deliberate; someone took their time giving her that one. The rest were small and superficial, the day to day marks of someone who trained hard and fought harder. Nearly invisible scratches over the bridge of her narrow nose, through the sharp slant of her dark eyebrows, in the cradle of the lines under her eyes, across her high cheekbones, and over the pout of her full lips. Brawler’s marks, most of them.

“What do you want, whelp?” he growled, allowing some of the hunger of the Beast to creep into the glint of his eye. Not enough to give himself away, but enough to put her off. On a basic level most people knew when they were prey in the eyes of a deadly predator. But not her. She didn’t flinch or look for an escape. Her heart didn’t even flutter with the thrill of fear. His eyes flit to the small V of her collar, but she didn’t gulp or swallow to alleviate a mouth suddenly gone dry.

She was unafraid and stared back at him unabashed by his tone. “Is this how you greet everyone who comes to Jorrvaskr?” she asked. Disregard. An open challenge.

“Aye.” He felt the Wolf gnaw on the back of his neck, urging him to accept her test and show her who was stronger. She was already sizing him up; her deep blue eyes taking in his height and girth as if trying to determine what good he’d be in a fight. Or in the sack…he almost groaned to think of it and he hated himself for being reduced to such a base and stupid animal lusting after flesh. Didn’t matter how pretty he thought her; there was a time and place for such thoughts and it certainly required knowing her longer than five minutes. “Answer the question,” he snapped in an effort to push the conversation forward, closer to its end so he could be rid of her.

She quirked an eyebrow at him. A short twitch of a gesture, come and gone in a blink of an eye as she locked back onto his gaze. “Eorlund,” came the simple answer.

An outsider…he realized. Everyone in Skyrim knew where the Skyforge was and the name of the man who worked it. But even still, she should have seen the massive stone hawk on the ridge above them. Was she playing dumb? Or had he simply caught her when she stopped to watch the Companions train on her way to Eorlund? He pointed. “Skyforge.”

She didn’t look. She didn’t blink. Those big blue eyes staring through him instead of at him. “Man of few words,” she observed.

“Don’t need many.”

“Or know too few?” He felt his brow furrow and the Wolf growl in the back of his throat. An unexpected insult to his intelligence, but before he could respond, she was already moving, taking her small victory and retreating. “Thanks for the help. On about your day, Companion.” And she was gone, leaving Vilkas somewhat flummoxed and sourer than ever. He stalked back to the training yard and proceeded to vent his frustrations out on Torvar and Njada for the next couple hours.

“Food’s ready,” Tilma’s small voice called over the din of the yard, but no one heard her except the Circle.

Vilkas’ eyes snapped open. The other Circle members were already headed inside to take the afternoon meal with the other Companions trailing after them, and he considered the sweating and tired Shield-Siblings he had worked over all morning. “Go inside,” he ordered, “You’ve done well. Get some rest.”

Torvar didn’t need to be told twice, but Njada lingered a moment, her hard face glaring up at him. “You alright?” she asked.

“I’m fine.”

She nodded, obviously not satisfied with his answer, but it wasn’t her way to pry. Instead, she slapped his shoulder forcefully, as close to a gesture of affection as it got for Njada, and went inside. Tilma stood by the doors to Jorrvaskr, staring softly at Vilkas; her expression wordlessly bid him to join his Shield-Siblings, but he had no desire for food. Not when he was wound so tight, he thought he might snap. So he drew his greatsword instead, tossing the scabbard into the dirt as he approached the nearest training dummy and proceeded to thrash it to pieces.

Sonja had never seen a forge the likes of which Eorlund Gray-Mane had the honor of working. It wasn’t just its sheer size, though that was part of it. The massive hawk with wings outstretched seemed to fly right out of the stone itself and perch on the lip of the great hearth. The white hot smoldering coals cast a warm orange glow across its body, sharpening the cruel curve of its beak with shadow. It almost looked alive. And the heat was something else. Intense. It reminded Sonja of the dragon’s breath. Not the fire itself, but the sweltering air that shimmered around it—hot and heavy—with that same tingle of magic dissolved in the subsequent clouds of smoke.

And standing in the middle of this ancient wonder was a great Nord man wearing simple hide armor, exposed to the heat and the spark of hot metal between the head of the hammer and the face of the anvil. The rhythmic clang of raw metal the very heartbeat of the forge. The bulk of his shoulders was covered in a fine sheen of sweat and soot, and a long, glorious mane of white hair hung over them. It was obvious that he must be none other than the famous Eorlund Gray-Mane because he was the only one working the Skyforge, but Sonja thought she could have picked him out from a crowd in the market place. It was his arms and shoulders that gave him away and not just for their impressive size, but for all the little pockmarks from an errant ember or searing spark. The man looked carved of stone and metal himself; no less a fixture than the hawk that presided over his work.

When she approached, he caught sight of her in the corner of his hazel eye. “Got a lot of steel to shape,” he stated, having little interest or concern for any who were not Companions.

“I—I just wanted to talk for a moment,” she said, suddenly realizing what a bad idea it was to bother the smith. The man was obviously busy. With steel as renowned as his, it almost seemed sacrilegious to interrupt.

“I ain’t much for talkin’.”

Sonja sighed heavily. “Right.” She looked up at the hawk again. “This forge is incredible,” she said more just to state aloud how impressed she was with the Skyforge than to goad Eorlund into speaking with her, but that was the result nevertheless.

“Aye,” he grunted, pausing to take a swig from the clay jug balanced on the seat of the nearby grindstone, “My clan-fathers have worked it since the first Gray-Manes came to Whiterun. Skyforge Steel is all the Companions will use, for good reason.”

“So I hear.”

Eorlund took another sip from the jug, draining it and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. He looked at her sideways as he did so. “Skyforge Steel is my art and honor,” he said, “The Companions need the best so they come to me, but I work for no one else. Skyforge blades are gifted upon a warrior for honorable deeds, not how much coin is in their purse. You want little knick-knacks or simple blades, see my wife in the market. She’ll sell you whatever you want if you have the coin.”

“Look, I just wanted to use your workbench,” she assured, sliding Faendal’s bag off her shoulder, “I have some repairs I need to make…”

“Adrianne not letting other smiths use her tools anymore?” he asked incredulously.

“Well—no, I didn’t ask her.”

“Bother her before you bother me.” He turned his attention back to his work.

“Wait!” She dropped the bag and removed her mother’s dagger from her belt, holding it out in her open palm for him to see.

Eorlund looked at her again, prepared to deliver a response even more blunt than the last—if such a thing were possible—when the moonstone scabbard of the dagger caught his eye and he squinted at it. “Bring it here,” he beckoned and Sonja obliged. He plucked it out of her hand and turned it over, examining the craftsmanship carefully. “This is the work of an old apprentice of mine,” he said after several agonizing seconds of silence, “How did you come by it?”

Sonja stared at the small weapon in the blacksmith’s large hands, almost wishing she had allowed him to dismiss her. “Freydis was my mother,” she answered and her eyes darted to his face to watch his expression register recognition.

“Freydis is back in Skyrim?” he asked, surprised and pleased.


He frowned, confused, thinking he had misheard her when it clicked. Sonja had spoken in the past tense. “When did she die?”

“Three years ago.”

He pursed his lips and handed the weapon back to her. “That’s too bad,” he said, “She was a talented smith and honorable Companion—a good friend.”

“She was a good mother, too,” Sonja returned the dagger back to its place on her belt.

“May Shor watch over her soul in Sovngarde,” he prayed and then he gave a little decisive nod, “You can make your repairs here. Just don’t bother me while I work.”

“You won’t even notice me,” she promised and then she took Faendal’s gear to the workbench and began to make the adjustments the elf needed.

Sonja worked silently and deftly which suited Eorlund just fine. He did cast a few glances her way every now and then to see how well she handled the armor. She seemed to get along well enough; it seemed her mother had taught her well, but there was no outstanding demonstration of intuition or creativity in the way she approached the repairs. She didn’t have her mother’s knack for it and that was too bad. Sonja found herself struggling now and again with the more delicate work because her right hand was still so stiff, but she managed.

As time wore on, the heat of the forge got to her and she paused long enough to remove her cuirass and pauldrons. The cool air blowing through her sweat-soaked tunic felt amazing and she took a moment to enjoy it and the sounds of combat drifting up from the yard before completing the work on Faendal’s equipment. When she was finished, she carefully set about cleaning and oiling the metal links to protect them from rust and the leather gussets and ties to guard against mildew. Before she could pack the armor away back into Faendal’s bag, her attention was drawn again to the training yard when she heard the monstrous roar of a man before the heavy thwacks of his weapon against wood. Eorlund seemed unperturbed by the disturbance, but Sonja wandered to the edge of the ridge and curiously peered down.

The yard was empty but for one man, the one that had greeted her. Well, ‘greeted’ is a strong word…Harangued, harassed, hassled, insulted, yes. But not greeted. He was attacking one of the practice dummies with his Skyforge greatsword. The massive blade swung through the air, singing, crashing into the poor, inert dummy over and over again. He handled the weapon with a fluidity and ease that Sonja had to admire; he made it look so easy. Each move precise and powerful, and every muscle of his body working in concert to channel the force of his entire body into the swing of the blade. It looked like a dance, graceful and effortless. The way Anja would handle a dagger or Sonja would cast spells. It was natural talent honed by training. All control and speed and strength.

The effort of the exercise heated his body until, he too, felt the need to strip away a layer of clothing and tossed his shed tunic where he had thrown his blade’s scabbard. Then he continued to assault the dummy with a renewed vigor that seemed to be about more than just training. “That’s Vilkas Jorrvassen,” Eorlund said without looking up from his work, “Training master of the Companions.”

“Jorrvassen?” Sonja repeated, “After Jorrvaskr?”

“Aye. He and his brother came to the Companions with no family name. So Kodlak named them sons of Jorrvaskr.”

“He do that for everybody?”

“No. He does not.”

“He must have been very impressed with them, then?”

“Something like that.”

Sonja nodded, but continued to watch as Vilkas finally shattered the training dummy with a mighty blow. Splintered wood skittered across the dirt, but he caught a few on his arm and across his face. The vibration from the blow rippled through the sword and made his elbow ache. He snarled, chest heaving from exerting himself, but he seemed calmer than before, like he finally worked something out by obliterating the dummy. Then he abruptly looked up at her as if he’d known she was watching all along.

She blinked, surprised, and stared back a little guiltily, suddenly feeling that she had trespassed on a private moment. He nodded to her. A proper wordless greeting. Perhaps even an apology? And she nodded back. Acknowledgement. But then he looked away as if he’d heard someone or something approaching Jorrvaskr. “SONJA!” Faendal called, coming around the side of the mead hall with a well-supplied pack on his back and another in his arms. She waved to him, wiping her hands on a rag as she returned to the workbench to gather up Faendal’s armor. “There you are,” he was saying as he leaned against the wall and looked up at her, “I was looking for you at Warmaiden’s.”

“I came here instead,” Sonja replied, slipping back into her armor and shouldering Faendal’s bag. The pulse of magic drew Eorlund’s attention.

“I can see that.”

Sonja scoffed and then turned to Eorlund. “Thank you for letting me use your tools, Master Blacksmith,” she said, extending her hand.

Eorlund gripped her forearm firmly, the heat of his hands warming her skin. “A mage who knows something about smithing and wears armor, ay?” he said, “I’ll be damned.”

“I’m full of surprises.”

The blacksmith grunted, amused, but not put off by her magic use. He worked the most magical forge in all of Skyrim, after all, and so had more of an appreciation for things mystical than other Nords tended to have. Though he’d never admit as much. “Come back when you need repairs again,” he said, “Maybe I’ll teach you a thing or two Freydis didn’t show you.”

Sonja smiled. “I’d like that.” And she turned to leave.

“Wait,” he called her back and tossed a small blue vial at her. She caught it and turned it over in her hands. “Moonstone doesn’t rust, but it does tarnish,” he explained, “One drop of that will keep your blades clean.”

She nodded. “Thanks.” And then hurried down the stairs to Faendal who traded her one heavy bag for another.

“We should get going,” Faendal said before he shed his bag and started changing into the new armor Sonja had just fixed for him, “It’s already midday.”

“As soon as you’re ready then.”

“I take it you told him about your ma?” he said, nodding to the Skyforge.


“I thought so. Eorlund doesn’t usually like sharing.”

“I wouldn’t either if I worked such a forge.”

Faendal hummed his agreement. Sonja’s gaze wondered back to the training yard, but there was no sign of Vilkas. He must have gone inside. “Ready?”

Sonja’s attention snapped back. “As I’ll ever be,” she said and they made their way down to the city gates.

Chapter Text

“Is somebody there?” the voice of a frightened man echoed down the corridor, anxious and a touch hopeful, “Harknir? Bjorn? Soling?”

Sonja and Faendal exchanged glances. “Another bandit?” he asked.


“Oh gods! Don’t let it get me! Please! HELP!”

They sprinted down the hallway, following the sounds of the man’s cries for help to the next room. The entryway was closed off with thick columns of spider web, stark white and sticky. Faendal swung his weapon at it before Sonja could stop him and the steel blade stuck in the stiff strands, useless. He tugged at it, but could not pull it free. Sonja unceremoniously yanked him back by his belt and melted the web with a fistful of flames.

The web easily relented to the fire. It sizzled, releasing its grip on Faendal’s sword. “Leave it,” she hissed and charged through the opening, stepping over the heated metal.

Inside, the chamber was covered in an intricate weave of silken thread. At the far end, the Dunmer who had been crying for help was snuggly tangled in the web, squirming helplessly. As soon as he saw them, he wriggled more vehemently. “Thank the gods!” he whimpered hysterically, “Quick! Before it comes back!”

Before either Sonja or Faendal had the chance to move toward him, they heard the approach of the giant spider above them. The hard plates of its exoskeleton sliding against each other as its many legs lowered it out of the funnel of its web and onto the stone floor. Its grotesque venomous mandibles clicked hungrily at the newly arrived food: Sonja and Faendal. “Keep it away!” the Dunmer started screaming, terrified, “Oh gods! Get it away! Don’t let it get me!”

The spider twitched angrily in the dark elf’s direction as if momentarily torn between silencing a very annoying, very helpless prey and engaging two armed enemies. “Fool, stop screaming!” Sonja snarled, conjuring two Daedric swords and rushing the spider, dodging its numerous legs as they stabbed at her. Faendal began unleashing several arrows into its face to cover Sonja’s approach, but one of the horrible, hairy legs caught her hip and left hand, pinning her to the ground. She gritted her teeth against the pain and tried to wriggle her hand out from under the sharp claws of the spider as they clicked dangerously across her armor.

Having caught prey, the giant arachnid moved forward to descend upon its food, putting more weight on Sonja’s wrist and hip. Her armor groaned beneath the pressure and she sliced at the spider with her damaged right hand to no avail. It was too weak. “FAENDAL!” she bellowed, her eyes widening in terror as she felt the full weight of the spider against her wrist and then the bones promptly give way beneath it. She screamed, the pain giving her enough strength to stab through the spider’s leg. The wounded limb retracted and the spider’s mandibles spread, issuing a skin-crawling screech. While Sonja scuttled away, cradling her broken wrist, Faendal took careful aim between the spider’s fangs and let fly an arrow.

The spider’s fangs and forelimbs twitched frantically in an attempt to remove the arrow stuck in its face, but Faendal loosed several more, killing it. The giant creature went limp, its body thumping loudly against the floor. “I hate spiders,” Sonja muttered, shuddering against a web-covered wall.

The Dunmer they had raced to save momentarily forgotten, Faendal rushed to Sonja’s side, dropping to a knee. “Are you alright?” he asked. She glared at him in response. “I mean, how bad is it?” he amended, realizing he had asked a stupid question.

“Just broken,” she hissed, wincing as she tried to move her injured hand.

“Oh, is that all?” was the sarcastic reply.

“Hey!” the Dunmer called from behind the giant spider, hidden by the massive arachnid carcass, “What about me?”

“Shut up!” Sonja and Faendal called in unison. The Dunmer grumbled obscenities under his breath and flexed against the web impatiently, but otherwise remained silent.

“I can heal it, but I need your help,” Sonja continued.

“Whatever you need,” Faendal agreed without hesitation.

Carefully, she extended her injured hand toward him, holding it in precise alignment with the rest of her arm. “Hold it just like this,” she instructed, “Very still.”

“‘Kay,” he breathed, barely moving his mouth as if a larger action would unravel Sonja’s wrist right before his eyes. She appreciated his concentration because the healing magic absorbed all of hers as it mended the crushed and displaced bits of bone.

When she was done, she rolled her wrist experimentally while Faendal held his breath. “Good as new,” she assured and then hobbled to her feet, casting a bit more magic at her bruised hip to ease the discomfort of walking.

“Close call, though,” Faendal added as he retrieved his sword now that it had time to cool, relieved his traveling partner wasn’t grievously injured.

“Aye,” she agreed, kicking around the spider to get to the Dunmer on the other side, “Thanks for having my back, though. You could have run and left me to my fate.”

“Hey, I said I wanted this, remember?” Faendal pointed out, “You’re more use to me alive.”

Sonja smirked as she ducked under a heavy leg that stuck out at an odd angle, pausing to hold it aloft so Faendal could pass through. A small kindness for saving her life. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me since I arrived in Skyrim,” she said.

“Ralof no good with pillow-talk?” he teased. She glared and dropped the leg on his head. “Ouch! I was only joking!” She rolled her eyes, but was amused, not truly offended by his ribbing.

When she finally approached the Dunmer, he looked thoroughly irritated to have been left hanging for so long. “You did it. You killed it,” he grumbled irritably, “Now cut me down before anything else shows up!”

“Not so fast,” Sonja tutted, “Were those your men we had to fight through to get here?”

A cloud passed over the Dunmer’s face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lied, “I came here alone.”

“Harknir? Bjorn? Soling?” Faendal repeated the names they had heard him call out earlier.

“Yeah, alright, fine,” he sighed, “What of it?”

“Lot of thieves like you?” Sonja said, crossing her arms, “What’re you after?”

“Cut me loose and I’ll tell you.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you after the Dragonstone?” she demanded.

The Dunmer looked genuinely confused. “I don’t know what you’re on about,” he admitted, “I’ve come here for treasure—but I’ll share it with you if you cut me loose.” He paused to see how well received his bribe was, but when it was apparent that they did not believe him, he added, “Can’t expect to get through the rest of this crypt on my own, can I?”

“He might know something we don’t,” Faendal pointed out.

“Yes, the claw!” the Dunmer exclaimed, seizing on the opportunity to prove himself useful, “I know how it all works: the claw, the markings, the door in the Hall of Stories. I know how they all fit together! Help me down and I’ll show you. You won’t believe the power the Nords have hidden there!”

“Claw?” Faendal repeated suspiciously. “What claw?”

“A golden claw that—came into my possession recently and…”

“You stole it from the Riverwood Trader!” he accused, “They were robbed a couple weeks ago and the only thing missing was that claw! You bastard! Camilla was devastated!” Sonja raised an eyebrow. She had only visited the general store once during her stay in Riverwood—apparently while Camilla had been out with Sven—and the only thing the owner could talk about was the missing family heirloom.

Realizing that he’d made a mistake, the Dunmer quickly tried to backtrack. “N-no! It’s not that claw, I swear! I-it belonged to my—it was a family—I bought it…”

“Let’s cut him down so I can kill him!” Faendal declared.

“Wait! Wait! You can have the bleeding claw after you cut me down!”

“Not good enough!”

“Now, now Faendal,” she admonished, “He might know something we don’t.”

The Bosmer glared at her. “Fine! But I want the claw first!”

“Does it look like I can move?” the trapped elf snapped, “You’ll have to cut me down first!”

Sonja cocked her head to one side, thoughtfully. A ‘door in the Hall of Stories’ had sounded promising, As in a door that could lead to the main chamber and the Dragonstone. “Fine,” she relented, “Let me see if I can get you down.”

“Sweet breath of Arkay!” the Dunmer chuckled, “Thank you!” Sonja grunted in response while Faendal fumed on behalf of his love’s honor. She began to light the edges of the web on fire, trying to control the blaze as much as possible to keep from harming the mer trapped in the strands.

Her efforts didn’t stop him from whimpering when the flames got too close, however. “Stop sniveling, a little fire never hurt a Dunmer,” Faendal said irritably.

“Easy for you to say,” the dark elf complained, until he felt the tension in the web slacken, “It’s coming loose! I can feel it!”

“Just a bit more,” Sonja muttered and then the Dunmer fell to the ground in a heap. Neither Sonja nor Faendal moved to help him upright, but he didn’t seem to notice as he scrambled to his feet, yanking threads of silken web from his armor in the process. The moment he righted himself, he cast one half-crazed look at Sonja and Faendal before bolting down the corridor behind him. “You fools!” he taunted, his voice carrying back to them, “Why should I share the treasure with anyone?”

For a single, stunned heartbeat, they stood confounded by the mer’s irking mixture of greed, dishonesty, and pure stupidity before charging after him. “Faendal,” Sonja said as they ran to the next chamber, “You can kill him.”

“I was planning on it.”

The deranged mer didn’t get very far. When they reached a large burial chamber filled with desiccated Nord bodies, they arrived in time to see him run through by a walking corpse with an ancient greatsword. “Draugr!” Faendal exclaimed. Sonja gathered flames in her hands and, together with Faendal, attacked the undead.

“Why can’t the dead stay dead?” Faendal groaned as he took several steps back from a particularly dusty draugr coated in cobwebs. He was trying to shake the webs from his armor, but only succeeded in getting them stuck to his fingers. He took another step backward and the heel of his boot caught the edge of a large circular stone set into the floor. The sound of stone scraping against stone whispered through the air as the pressure plate sunk down, kicking up a soft puff of dust, and then the groan of ancient metal as an entire wall of barbed iron swung around out of the shadows to impale whatever poor soul had triggered the trap. But Faendal wasn’t there anymore. He was on the floor several feet away with a bloody nose from Sonja’s forehead striking his face when she leapt across the room to push him out of the way of the murderous wall of jagged, rusty spikes.

“Hircine’s ass, that hurts!” he whined into his hands, trying to staunch the bleeding.

“What happened to ‘I’m a hunter. It pays to notice things’?” Sonja asked jumping to her feet, slurring her words together in a voice low enough to be somewhere in Faendal’s register.

He glared up at her. “Is that supposed to be an impression of me?”

“Watch where you’re going,” she chastised as she pulled him up from the floor, “A dead guide is a poor guide.” Faendal grumbled, but did not disagree. “Here, let me see,” she ordered and he grudgingly removed his hand from his face. His nose was a little crooked; definitely broken, but not severely. “Not so bad,” she assured him.

“Oh, would you like one to match?”

Sonja answered him by way of firmly grabbing his nose and forcing it into place while casting a healing spell. He cried out and tried to jerk away from her, but her other hand caught him behind his neck, steadily holding him in place. “There,” she said when she was finished, “You can’t even tell.”

Faendal squirmed out of her grasp and wriggled his nose experimentally. “Huh,” he grunted, “Doesn’t even hurt.”

“I have a light touch.”

“Nothing about you is subtle.”

Sonja’s brow puckered slightly, but she shrugged. “True,” she agreed and then she went to the dead Dunmer’s body and searched for the claw. “Here,” she said, tossing the golden statue to Faendal, “You can give it back to Camilla yourself when we’re done here.”

Faendal caught it and smiled gratefully. “Thanks.” He nodded. Sonja straightened with a small, leather-bound journal in her hands. She turned it over thoughtfully and cracked it open. “What’s that you got there?”

“Arvel the Swift’s journal,” she answered.

“The Swift?” Faendal repeated, “That would have been good to know before we cut him loose.”

“Like he would have given us his real name had we asked for it?”

Faendal scoffed, agreeing. “So what’s it say?”

Sonja frowned. “Lot of nonsense mostly,” she replied, “Wanting to make it big, set up for life, blah blah blah. And then one day, he’s in Riverwood, getting supplies for his crew and he’s passed a note by the innkeep—what’s her name? Delphine?”

“Aye.” Faendal inched closer to read over her shoulder.

“Said she didn’t know who it was from,” Sonja continued, “But the note set up a meeting for later, after dark, in the woods south of Riverwood.”

“Then what?”

“He went, of course. Met a woman who hid in the shadows and wore a hood so he never saw her face—but he’s reasonably certain she wasn’t elven—anyway, she told him about Bleak Falls Barrow and all the treasure inside—that there was something else there too.”

“She hire him?”

“Aye. He could have all the treasure inside, but she wanted what was interred in the main chamber…”

“The Dragonstone?”

Sonja shrugged. “She didn’t say what it was specifically and Arvel was sold as soon as he heard the word ‘treasure,’ so…”

“He didn’t ask.”


“She told him about the claw?”

She nodded. “And where to find it.”

“He was set up.”

“Or we were.”

Faendal’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Farengar wasn’t exactly forthright about how he learned of Bleak Falls Barrow,” Sonja pointed out.

“Aye, but we didn’t ask, either,” Faendal argued, “You don’t think Jarl Balgruuf’s Court Wizard would really do something like this, do you?”

Sonja shrugged. “Maybe not,” she allowed, “Or maybe he paid the wrong person to find the Dragonstone before us. It certainly sounded like he had had a hard time finding good help recently. Maybe whoever he hired before turned out to be capable of far worse than Farengar had intended.”

It was a dark possibility and Faendal didn’t like it. “We shouldn’t make assumptions about the jarl’s court,” he said at length.

“We should tell Farengar about the woman, anyway,” Sonja insisted, “Just in case. He should know there was someone else looking for the Dragonstone, too.”

“Yeah, I guess…”

“We’ll worry about it when we get what we came for,” she assured him, though it was a small comfort. Faendal nodded and fetched his bow. It had gone tumbling across the room when Sonja tackled him. Then he joined her, carefully stepping around the pressure plate.

“At least Arvel wasn’t wrong,” Sonja commented as the ancient Nordic puzzle door slowly sank into the floor, clearing the way into the main chamber. They had fought their way through room after musty room of undead sentinels. When Sonja had asked Faendal what ‘draugr’ were exactly, his only answer had been, “The stuff of Nordic nightmares.” Not quite the answer she had hoped for, but the draugr certainly seemed to live up to their terrifying reputation. Lying in silent, grave slumber until someone walked passed, then their ancient bones groaned when they suddenly sprung to life. But Sonja and Faendal had made it through to the Hall of Stories.

The scholar in Sonja had wanted to stop and closely examine each beautifully carved relief on the walls, but her nerves had been raw from constantly jumping at the smallest of sounds, thinking it might be a draugr. She could only focus on getting the Dragonstone and leaving as soon as possible. The puzzle door had been straightforward once they realized the correct combination was on the claw itself.

Sonja stepped through and climbed the stairs into the large cavernous main chamber. She looked around and let out a long, low whistle. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Don’t get too distracted,” Faendal muttered, “After what we went through to get here, I don’t want to know what’s guarding that Dragonstone.” They advanced on the large stone wall at the back of the chamber. Sonja ascended the steps, casting careful glances around the room, searching for a threat. She saw nothing, but as she reached the top of the platform, she heard whispering and paused. “You alright?” Faendal asked.

“Yeah,” she breathed, “Check the chest over there. I’m going to look at—some—thing…” Faendal nodded and went to the chest near a large stone coffin. Sonja made her way toward the wall. The curved stone seemed to beckon to her like open arms. Ancient carvings swirled over its surface like ripples from the center carving where two large eyes glared down at her. As she approached, the whispering grew louder, blossoming into full-blown chanting.

“It’s not here,” Faendal called.

“Can’t you hear that?” Sonja asked, “I think—it’s coming from the wall…”

“I can’t hear anything, Sonja…Sonja?” She didn’t answer. Instead she moved closer and her eyes trailed down from the ominous carving to the smoother lower portion of the wall etched with what looked like claw marks. But the marks were organized and arranged into groups. Words? Sonja was mesmerized and stepped into the shadow of the wall.

The chanting was so loud that it reverberated in her chest; her heart was as loud and rhythmic as the drums. The strange characters began to glow and pulse, faster and faster until she was inches from them. Then all the words but one darkened. The room around her seemed to melt away into the darkness until the only thing Sonja could see was the solitary word glowing hot blue in front of her face. Tendrils of blue and gold light snaked out from the pointed edges of the foreign characters and reached for her. She took an instinctive step backward, but no further. She watched—half amazed and half terrified—as the light touched her chest, passed through her skin, and filled her core with a torrent of force. Fus. The foreign markings on the wall began to make more sense. She still couldn’t understand them, but they began to seem less alien to her, the longer the light poured in and pumped through her veins.

Sonja felt so full that she was dizzy, her head light and spinning. Then it all came to an abrupt end. The word ceased to glow, leaving her in the darkness alone until she felt two strong, but oddly delicate hands take her roughly by the shoulders and shake her. “Sonja!” She recognized the voice, but had trouble putting a name to it. “Sonja!” It existed somewhere beyond the word, beyond the darkness. “Sonja, wake up. Open your eyes!”

“Faendal?” Sonja said weakly and she opened her eyes, unsure of when she had closed them. Faendal was standing over her in the curve of the stone wall, his hands on her upper arms. “What happened?”

“You were hearing things,” he said, his face pale, “You were looking at the wall and then all of a sudden you went rigid. There was a light and you…floated.”

“I what?” Sonja said, sitting up a little too quickly. Her head spun.

“You floated a few feet in the air,” Faendal continued, “And then you just fell—collapsed.”

“Divines,” Sonja breathed and she struggled to get to her feet; Faendal helped her. “I—I thought I was—I don’t know what I thought…”

“We should get out of here,” Faendal said, “The Dragonstone isn’t here. We need to get back to Whiterun and tell Farengar what happened.”

Sonja sighed and rubbed the dull ache in her head. “You’re right,” she agreed, “I—I don’t feel well…” She slid sideways, suddenly feeling very nauseous and weak.

Faendal caught her and sank a little, unprepared for her weight. “Easy,” he grunted, ducking under her arm for better leverage, “You good enough to walk?”

“Aye,” she snarled irritably, “Let’s just get out of here.”

They took two steps back the way they came, but no further. The stone lid on the coffin popped up and slid off with a crash. A well-armed draugr sat up and took a deep rattling breath; its dead eyes glowed blue like the words on the wall. Its ancient bones and mummified flesh creaked and stretched stiffly as it flung its decayed body from its tomb.

“Gods be damned,” Sonja whispered, “This is never going to get easier, is it?”

Faendal shook his head. “We’re not that lucky.”

The draugr screeched at them, drew its weapon, and charged. Faendal blocked the brunt of its attack with his shield while Sonja moved unsteadily to flank it. The draugr was more powerful than the others they had faced, but it was still slow and cumbersome. It wasn’t until the undead warrior opened its mouth and roared, “Fus!” at Faendal that Sonja realized just how powerful it was. The force of the shout hit the elf square in the chest and knocked him clean off his feet, sliding backwards into the wall and striking the back of his head. The undead took a few halting steps toward Faendal to finish him off, but Sonja pelted its back with weakened ice spikes the consistency of snowballs. It was enough to get the draugr’s attention.

It took far more effort than it should have to concentrate on the draugr when it charged her, but Sonja was able to sidestep the swing of its great sword and coat the creature in a slurry of ice and snow. Frost was the specialization of the Destruction School she was most comfortable with which was why, in her weakened state, she found it easier to cast than anything else, but in the fight against the draugr, it was a mismatch. The undead warrior was mostly immune to the spell’s damaging effects because it wasn’t made of live flesh that could suffer frostbite; its body couldn’t die of hypothermia, but the hardened ice could slow its advance and Sonja was able to put distance between her and it. She went to Faendal and tried to shake him awake, but he merely groaned, his eyes fluttering as his head lulled to one side. Blood clung to the back of his skull, staining his sandy brown hair. “Shit,” she breathed and hastily tried to cast a healing spell only to feel the dangerous drain of it against her magicka. She was barely conscious herself—which gave her an idea.

The ice slowing the draugr melted and Sonja staggered to her feet, using both hands to cast a drain spell. The undead responded by squaring its shoulders to her, taking a deep, rattling breath, and shouting, “Fus!” once more. The air was nearly knocked from Sonja’s lungs, but she was not thrown the way Faendal had been. Unsure if the creature was weakened by her spell, she continued to suck energy from it to sustain herself until she was able to conjure a weapon.

She caught the edge of its blade with her own, her other hand continuing to drain the draugr until she could toss a sloppy healing spell back at Faendal. With a jolt, the mer sat bolt upright, revitalized by the spell and scrambled to his feet. He charged into the draugr and viciously bashed into its neck with his shield while Sonja forced herself to cast flames, too weak for more powerful pyromancy. The desiccated flesh easily caught fire and soon it was entirely engulfed, screaming and flailing in its attempt to reach for Sonja. She stepped back beyond its grasp and continued to push the spell out with all her might until the flames burned blue. Faendal raised a hand to protect his face from the heat and retreated several steps. “That’s enough Sonja!” he called to her, stranded by the wall of her fire, “It’s dead!”

The spell was released, but it had been too much in her weakened state. The last thing Sonja saw before she fell unconscious was the scorched stone of the floor, a pile of ashes that was once the draugr, and a carved pentagonal stone nested in the midst of it. The Dragonstone.

Tiid Unslaad. A moment that lasts eternities stretches long against my back, sliding over the scales and catching on my wings. It hurts, this curse the joorre have laid upon me with twisted Rok se Suleyk. I feel the tightness on my being. The limit where once I was boundless. Kreh Joor Thu’um. It is more than I can fathom for I am beyond such small boundaries of existence. But the ache of it lingers.

I do not enter this new kalpa easily. Vennesetiid pulls on my being, wanting to wash me away with it, but I claw at the fissure when it comes and I am born into this new time, roaring, speaking my flame across the skies. Yol Toor Shul! Then the tiid se dez catches up to me. The millennia that have passed like seconds; the events that have left their mark upon the world, shaping it into something so similar and so irrevocably different than before. Joorresil Tahrovin. I do not see them as they happened. I do not experience them as they were lived, but I feel them pressing in, crowding time with a deep, mortal stain. Nid Lingrah. It has gone on long enough. I must take back what is mine. Rel Thur Du!

The first joor village calls me down from the skies. Something lurks there. Kos se Suleyk. I can smell it on the air and descend upon the joorre. I revel in their fear! Faas Ru Maar! But in the smoke, roiling in the panic of the joorre is something familiar. Meddovah. Something dangerous. I want it. Piraak Al Krii. I want to kill it. I need to, but I don’t know what it is. I can only feel it pulling on my bones. Daan. Doom.

I turn my gaze upon those below me and my eyes fall upon a joor. Bron. Female. Gro Zahrahmiik. My claws ache to tear into her flesh. She trembles before me. “Dragon!” Even after millennia they still know what I am and I toy with their insignificant lives, ending them as I please. Raining molten fire from the skies to crush their brittle bodies. They try to fight me in their terror, defending their pointless existences and invoking the names of gods that will not hear them. It is my birthright to consume them all in this life and the next! Zu’u los Dinok Unslaad! Motaad us Alduin!

Sonja sat bolt upright in the bedroll beneath her, upsetting the thin blanket draped across her middle. For a few confusing seconds, she looked up into the vaulting ceiling of the chamber as if she expected to see a dragon looming above her, but then she blinked away her terror and stilled her breathing. It had only been a dream and it was quickly fading from her memory until only vague flashes of black scales and teeth remained.

She was still in Bleak Falls Barrow, though relocated to the first room where she and Faendal had found some of Arvel’s bandits had made camp. In fact, that’s where she had woken up: in the midst of the encampment. Her own bedroll and been laid alongside one that must have belonged to one of Arvel’s crew. It was worn and a bit dirty, but provided adequate padding between her and the floor. Across the fire, Faendal’s bedding remained neatly rolled and propped up his bag. She glanced around the darkened room, but he was nowhere in sight. The only light came from the fire which meant the sun must have set since no outside light filtered through the smaller windows near the ceiling. Beyond that, she could hear the howling wind whistle through the cavern, cold and snowbound, and wondered if the storm was bad.

“Faendal?” she called, uncertainly, but only her voice answered. She flung back the blanket to stand only to discover she was not wearing trousers. Her armor and pants were piled neatly by the chest on the other side of the fire. Unsteadily, she pushed herself to her feet and padded over to her belongings, grabbing at the waist of her pants. They were mostly covered in spider goo and draugr dust. Making a face, she shoved her legs inside them, hastily doing up the laces and shoving her feet into her boots before fetching a cloak from her bag. She wrapped it snuggly around her body and then made for the door at the far end of the chamber.

As she approached, the door swung open and blew in a slurry of snowflakes and a small, hooded figure. She raised her hands, prepared to throw spells, though she was still feeling a bit weak. When the figure righted itself, it flung back its hood to reveal Faendal’s face, rosy from the cold. “You’re up!” he observed, “I was starting to worry.”

“What happened?” she asked, shivering and pulling her cloak tighter around her body.

Faendal sniffed and rubbed some feeling back into his cheeks. “You passed out,” he stated as if she didn’t know, “I carried you most of the way back, but you started to wake up a little bit and fight me. Made it damn difficult to keep carrying you. So, you sort of stumbled your way up here, mumbling under your breath, and I made sure you didn’t hurt yourself along the way.”

“And then what? You thought it was a good time to undress me?” she asked pointedly.

The Bosmer scoffed. “Nope, that was all you,” he assured and headed back to the little camp, “You felt the warmth of the fire and stopped dead. Started pulling off your armor like you couldn’t get it off fast enough and got so close to the flames, I had to pull you back because I was afraid you’d burn yourself.”

Sonja blinked owlishly. “I don’t remember that,” she said.

Faendal looked a little worried, but not surprised. “You weren’t right when it happened,” he agreed, “You fought me for a little bit, trying to get back to the fire, but you eventually stopped and drifted off right in my arms.” He shrugged. “So I made camp,” he concluded, “You weren’t in any shape to go back down the mountain. I thought maybe I could find help in Riverwood if Ralof hadn’t left for Windhelm already, or at least Ebonvale has a healer, but…”

“The storm,” she finished.

“The storm,” Faendal agreed, “Damn Skyrim weather is unpredictable sometimes. I got down to the tower at least. The snow was so thick, I was afraid I’d lose my way.”

“Why’d you go to the tower?”

He held up a brace of rabbits she hadn’t noticed before. “Dinner,” he responded, “I saw them earlier when we first came through and planned to grab them on the way back down so we wouldn’t have to hunt, but with the storm moving in, everything’s gone to ground or bed down until it blows over, so…”

“Can’t hunt in a blizzard.”

“I’m good, but I’m not that good.”

Sonja nodded. Food sounded very good at the moment, but she still felt exhausted so she made her way back to her bedroll and plopped down on top of it, tenting her legs to keep the spider entrails from smearing on her bedding. “Did we get it?” she asked as Faendal kicked around the camp looking for a pot to cook the rabbits in.

“Get what?”

“The Dragonstone.”

“Aye, it’s in my bag,” he said, returning to the fire with a large stewpot. He rooted through his bag with one hand and removed the heavy stone tablet. Sonja sat up to take it, resting her forearms against her knees. Faendal had wrapped it in scraps of linen to protect it from chipping away against the other items in his bag. She pushed the rags aside, sloppily folding and tossing them to the foot of her bedroll, and held the stone in her hands. “I’ll admit, I thought the Dragonstone would be some sort of gem or made of solid gold, or something,” Faendal sighed as he set to work preparing the rabbits, “Not a hunk of rock. Doesn’t seem particularly valuable to me.”

“Maybe it isn’t,” Sonja said, “But whatever is carved on it might be.”

“I can’t make heads or tails of it,” Faendal shrugged, “Let’s hope Farengar has better luck.”

Sonja hummed her agreement. She ran her fingers over the lines etched into the stone’s surface, caked with dust and ash from its draugr guardian. The contrasting dirty white against the gray made the images easier to make out and she turned the face of it toward the firelight to better see them. The shape was still hard to decipher, but it seemed vaguely familiar. She blinked a few times feeling more tired than before. Perhaps after some sleep and in better light, the Dragonstone would make more sense. She turned it over in her hands and stared at the inscription on the back. The same kind of markings covered the stone in the main chamber, but she didn’t know what to make of them. Not yet. But strangely, it felt as if she were on the cusp of understanding. That their meaning lurked beneath the thinnest veil comprehension. As if it were a language she had merely forgotten how to speak.

That thought made her skin crawl and she laid back across her bedroll, setting the Dragonstone on the bedding beside her and staring up into the ceiling absently. Soon enough, the smell of food wafted through the chamber, exciting her hunger until her stomach was growling loudly with impatience. She sat up and peered into the pot at the bubbling rabbit stew. Faendal had even managed to find some proper vegetables amongst the bandits’ stores to add to it: an onion, a couple potatoes, and a few carrots. He always carried his own provisions of salt, frost mirriam, elves ear—and garlic—which she thought was weird at first until they made first camp together and Faendal prepared the best meal she’d ever had out in the wilds. A bit of seasoning and the flavor of a pungent bulb really went a long way toward making camp dining a new and enjoyable experience for her. They had yet to crack into the hardtack they had purchased.

When the stew was ready, Faendal served her a hearty helping and they ate in content silence, drinking what remained of the bandits’ cheap ale. After Sonja had her fill, she decided that she had had the right idea about her trousers earlier and kicked them and her boots onto the pile of her gear again before slinking back to her bedroll. She haphazardly flung her blanket and cloak over her body, her bare shins and feet poking out but warmed by the campfire. Her right arm cradled her head as she traced the jagged characters on the back of the Dragonstone with her left hand until she fell asleep.

Faendal stared at Sonja from the other side of the campfire. She was sleeping soundly now which he decided was a good sign. At least better than the restlessness before. She had tossed and turned fitfully, sweating a vivid nightmare. Teeth gnashing and hands clawing. He hadn’t told her about that and he didn’t want to. She seemed fine now; that’s what was important. Whatever strange magic took hold of her in the main chamber seemed to have faded and she slept easy, the Dragonstone cradled against her thigh.

He silently cleaned camp while she slept. Taking the remaining stew off the fire to keep it from scorching. They could have the left overs for breakfast before heading down the mountain in the morning—provided the snow storm was over by then. Then he laid out his bedroll and removed his gear, settling comfortably with his back propped against a chest of the bandits’ equipment and his bare feet warmed by the fire. He wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet and instead rooted around in his bag until he removed a leather bound journal he newly purchased from Belethor’s before they left Whiterun the day before last.

He’d already started writing in it the first night they camped out on the tundra, recording the strange chain of events that had led him to accompany such a bizarre and enchanting woman. His eyes flit across the fire to her again. Her expression was slack and peaceful and the curves of her body shimmered through the heat mirage of the fire. Yes, he saw what the appeal was. There really was no mystery to her beauty. At least, not for him, even if his heart belonged to another woman. Powerful in body and will. Smart and practical. Intimidating. She had a presence that could dominate a room even when she tried to remain anonymous. That’s why Ralof fell into bed with her; why Uthgerd wanted to fight; and he was sure that’s how Hera figured her out so quickly.

But, even for all that, she had her softer spots. Her sister being the most obvious of them all, but he knew she had gone with Ralof back to Helgen. He had seen the bag of Imperial crests amongst her things. All she needed was the coin to hire a courier and those souls would finally be laid to rest. He knew she had volunteered to go after the bandits and deliver the message about the dragon to the jarl. Sure, she needed to get to Whiterun anyway, but she didn’t have to complicate the journey by looking for fights that had nothing to do with her. And that’s what it was that made her so alluring. That strange, semi-suicidal compulsion she had to help people. But it didn’t make him melt the way it did Ralof, or bristle the way Uthgerd had. It made him want to follow her. Not just to bask in the glory of her future victories or the honor of her deeds, but to pull her ass out of the fire when she needed it because she wasn’t as indestructible as her attitude suggested.

He inked his quill and wrote ‘Bleak Falls Barrow’ across the top of a new page, but instead of starting at the beginning of their adventure in the crypt, he started with the end and drew her as he saw her through the fire, sleeping, across the bottom of both pages. The careful crosshatch of the sketch took hours to complete and when he was done, he paused to admire his artwork and let the ink finish drying. Looking at it, an old saying drifted through his mind and, thinking it more than appropriate, he penned it down the slope of her arm and over the rise of her hip: “Let sleeping dragons lie.” And then he drifted off, himself.

Chapter Text

Vilkas sat dour at the feasting table while his Shield-Siblings drank deeply and shared stories of their conquests. Little jobs, most of them, but honest work. They had a right to be proud, if not a bit boastful. But Vilkas was in no mood for it. The moon was full outside. Even with the blizzard blotting out the sky, he knew. He could feel it. All the Circle could, but he was the only one in agony. Skjor and Aela Changed often enough that brief restraint wasn’t difficult. The weather was too poor, even for werewolves to go for a run. And Farkas wasn’t bothered by the Blood one way or the other. Vilkas was envious of his brother’s resilience. The larger twin never seemed put off by anything, whereas Vilkas felt he suffered enough for the two of them. He couldn’t even enjoy the mead at the table, afraid that too much alcohol would relax him enough for his control to slip. So he ate his supper, barely taking pleasure in the taste of it and washed it down with cup after cup of water.

His sour temper had been noticeable to all of Jorrvaskr over the last couple of days and not just to the Circle, either. Companions and whelps alike steered clear of him in the training yard if they could help it. Most of the time they couldn’t and so had to suffer his wrath from dawn ‘til dusk, their only reprieve at meal times when Tilma called them in. Farkas had taken to sparring with him more frequently to take some of the edge off before training sessions with the Newbloods. It helped a little, but not much.

Now, he was hot and anxious, and the howl of the wind outside seemed only to taunt him. Frustrated, he stood from the table in the middle of one of Torvar’s drunken slurs. “Where you going?” Farkas asked, tearing his attention away from his Shield-Brother’s story.

“I need some air,” Vilkas grunted.

“But it’s snowing.”

“I saw the storm roll in too, brother,” he snapped irritably, “I know it’s snowing.”

Farkas sighed heavily. “Do you want me to come with you?”


“You sure?”

“I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Alright,” the larger twin relented.

Though everyone was pretending to listen to Torvar’s story, every pair of eyes was on Vilkas as he stalked to the door. Even Torvar watched him go. No one tried to stop him or rebuke him for not feasting with his Shield-Siblings when he disappeared through the front door. Snow briefly fluttered inside the mead hall until he slammed the door shut behind him. There was a brief moment of silence in his absence as the Companions exchanged troubled glances, but then the next story began. Only Farkas’ eyes kept wondering back to the door, waiting for his brother to return. Kodlak was better at hiding it, but he, too, worried for Vilkas.

Outside, Vilkas rolled his head back in the snow, letting it collect in his hair and on his face. It helped a little, but he could still feel the call of the Blood so he began to pace. He wore the snow down until his feet shuffled against the stone of Jorrvaskr’s steps. It didn’t help the ache, so he wondered the town in the snow and wind, enjoying the whip of the cold against his face because it gave him moments of clarity—though clarity didn’t necessarily make him feel much better.

Abstaining from the Change wasn’t working for him. He was getting worse and began to harbor a genuine fear that he might slip and become feral. The thought repulsed him, but he acknowledged that he had to find a way to cope. There had to be some way to sate the Wolf long enough to give him peace so he could think clearly, so he could be a proper Companion and perform his duties without wanting to eviscerate Newbloods for their inexperience with a weapon. Beating the Oblivion out of the training dummies helped, but not as much as he would have liked or needed. It was a short-lived release and he needed something stronger.

He hadn’t exactly intended to show up at her door, but his feet and led him there nevertheless and once confronted with the decision to knock or walk away, found his hand rapping against the wood. It took her a moment to answer. She hadn’t been sure she had heard properly through the sounds of the storm, but she cracked the door an inch or so to guard against the cold invading her small home. “Vilkas?” she said, surprised, and opened the door a little further to look him over.

Vilkas sidled up next to the door to block the wind with his body. “Ysolda,” he said, “I’m sorry for stopping by unexpectedly…”

“Nonsense. Come in,” and she stepped aside.

Vilkas pushed through the door and closed it behind him. He brushed the snow from his hair and off his shoulders roughly until he heard Ysolda come up behind him with a towel she must have purchased from one of the Khajiit trading caravans. “Thanks,” he grunted, accepting it.

She nodded mutely and watched him with expressive brown eyes. She looked confused, but pleased to see him which only made him feel guilty. He hadn’t come to rekindle their long-dead romance. They had been an item once in the year before. It had started as a one-night stand that grew into something more. He hadn’t been in love, or anything, and it hadn’t been serious—at least, not for him. More or less, he considered their previous relationship a courtesy. He enjoyed her company, enjoyed sharing her bed, and in return for availing himself of those things, he paid her the respect of not frequenting other beds. And he had liked her, he supposed. She was soft and sweet and kind. In the tender moments of their sex, she had been a balm to all the aches he hadn’t even known he had. But he had grown bored as he tended to. His visits to her bed became less frequent until they stopped altogether. Their affair never really had a proper end to it; it just faded away.

And that’s what he needed now: a balm. A salve for the mounting tension in his chest and to just disappear afterwards without complaint or guilt. “I-I missed you…” she said softly when he set the towel aside.

This is a bad idea…he thought and in a moment of panic, his eyes flit toward the door. His discomfort must have showed openly in his face, because she was quickly backtracking. “I mean—my bed’s grown cold without you in it,” she amended, steering the conversation away from emotional and more comfortably aiming at the physical, “Especially on nights such as this.”

He should have done the right thing. He should have left and found some other way to vent his frustration, but his head was so twisted with the Wolf’s desire that he couldn’t think straight and his mouth was crashing into hers. Easy and willing as she had always been. He felt his body slide into familiarity as he did the little things he knew drove her wild. Her small hands fumbled with his armor, but she remembered where all the buckles were without looking, without breaking the contact of her lips against his or the roving of his hands down her back. And soon they were all heavy breathing and a trail of shed clothes and armor as they stumbled backward to her bed.

The blizzard stopped sometime during the night and Vilkas considered returning to Jorrvaskr without waking Ysolda, but then he looked at her sleeping face in the dying light from the fire on the hearth and thought better of it. She deserved more than he had given her when they had shared something resembling a commitment and she deserved more from him now. He’d wait until morning to make his apologies to her face; it was the least he could do after she had given him so much peace.

Chapter Text

“Oh! There once was a hero named Ragnar the Red

‘Who came riding to Whiterun from ole Rorikstead!”

Faendal sang boisterously at the top of his lungs as they neared Whiterun. The Bosmer had been glowing with effervescent happiness since the day before when he returned the golden claw to Camilla and received an enthusiastic kiss for his troubles—though Sonja had collected seven hundred and fifty gold from her brother afterward, despite Faendal’s insistences that they had retrieved the claw out of the goodness of their hearts.

“And the braggart did swagger and brandish his blade

‘As he told of bold battles and gold he had made!”

After they had restocked their supplies, they poked around the inn for Delphine to ask her a few questions about what they had learned from Arvel’s journal, but the innkeep was out and Orgnar didn’t know when she’d be back, so they left despite Faendal’s attempt to convince Sonja to stay a day longer in Riverwood to see where things went with Camilla. In retribution for cutting his time short with his beloved, he sang loudly and off key the entire way back. Though Sonja tolerated it because she was convinced Faendal’s singing scared any nearby wolves and sabre cats away.

“But then he went quiet, did Ragnar the Red

‘When he met the shield-maiden Matilda, who said…”

He paused, sucking in a massive breath of air.

“‘Oh, you talk and you lie and you drink all our mead!

‘Now I think it’s high time that you lie down and bleed!’”

Sonja groaned at the wheedle in his voice at the end of that particular phrase and dragged her hands over her face in exasperation. “When will this end?” she pleaded theatrically as they approached the stables.

“And so then came clashing and slashing of steel

‘As the brave lass Matilda charged in, full of zeal!”

Faendal answered gleefully,

“And the braggart named Ragnar was boastful no more—

‘When his ugly red head rolled around on the floor!”

The horses whined with displeasure as Faendal concluded his song, wavering so violently on the last note that it caused Sonja’s skin to crawl. “I don’t know why you insist on singing that song,” she declared, “What does lopping the head off a blowhard have to do with kissing Camilla?”

“Absolutely nothing!” Faendal laughed, “It’s just fun to sing!” He took a deep breath. “Oh! There once was…”

But Sonja slapped her hand over his mouth before he could continue. “I will end you if you start up again,” she warned, but she was smiling.

“Oh, you’re just in a foul mood because Ralof’s already left for Windhelm,” Faendal teased, batting her hand away.

Sonja groaned. “Careful, friend, you’re starting to become more trouble than you're worth having around…” She had been a little disappointed that she had missed the handsome Nord before he left Riverwood because, at the end of the day, she had enjoyed the brief time she had spent with him and cared how he was getting along, but she hadn’t been in any mood to tolerate romantic overtures. Hence why Faendal didn’t get the extra half-day with Camilla before they left. That and the Jarl had stressed how important it was that they return with the Dragonstone as soon as possible. ‘…before it’s too late,’ to be exact.

Faendal disregarded her warning with a careless wave of his hand. “You like having me around,” he insisted and it was a little true, though she’d never admit it.

As they turned up the road toward Whiterun, Sonja slowed and eyed the carriage driver parked outside the stables. He was an older gentleman with a shaved head and he was absently humming ‘Ragnar the Red’ to himself now that Faendal had gotten the tune stuck fresh at the forefront of his thoughts. A different carriage from the one that had been there when Sonja and Faendal had left Whiterun days before. She had stopped to ask him if he remembered picking anyone up matching Anja’s description, but he hadn’t. According to Faendal, there were only five carriages that traveled between cities, so if Sonja hung around in Whiterun long enough, she’d be able to speak with them all and possibly have a better idea of where Anja was headed next—hopefully.

So, she approached the carriage driver who smiled welcomingly at her. “Need a lift?” he asked, brightly.

Sonja shook her head. “I was wondering if you remember picking up a young Imperial named Kit?” she asked, “About a head shorter than me, blonde, blue-eyed, carried a mace—could charm the club from a giant?”

The carriage driver chuckled. “No, sorry. I think I’d remember a girl like that.”

“Right,” she sighed and glared up at him; not threateningly, but intense. Searching his features for dishonesty. The man had an open, friendly face. He didn’t look the part of a liar, but then again, the truly talented liars never looked the part. Even still, she doubted he was false with her and so flashed a brief, friendly smile to make up for openly scrutinizing him and nodded good-bye. “Thanks.” She patted the horse and then she and Faendal headed up the hill.

Out of respect for Sonja’s disappointment, Faendal made a sincere attempt to stop grinning from ear to ear. “I’m sorry about your sister,” he said as they neared the gate, “But now there’s only three drivers left. One of them’s got to remember her, right?”

“What if they don’t?” she asked, her expression twisted with visible worry which was an unusual departure from her stoic frown, “Are there other ways of leaving the city?”

“Besides just walking out the front gate like we do?”

“Anja wouldn’t do that.”

Faendal looked at her sideways. “I know she’s your sister, but—how can you be so sure?” he asked, “Maybe she was so pissed at Hera, she couldn’t wait around for a carriage and just left.”

“Anja’s—small,” Sonja said carefully, “Petite. Avoids confrontation, sticks to the shadows sort. Her mace isn’t for bludgeoning; it’s for grappling. Put a bow in her hands and she’ll put one between your eyes from a hundred paces off in poor light.”


Sonja nodded mutely.

“Not the type to go charging off across the open tundra alone.”


Faendal hummed thoughtfully. “Well, there’s not many ways for the common folk to travel between cities besides the public carriages. Unless she bought or stole a horse…” He looked pointedly at Sonja who did not deny that it was beyond the realm of possibility for Anja to have made off with such a valuable prize. But they hadn’t heard of any stolen horses lately, and even with the civil war raging and dragons destroying Helgen, horse theft was still noteworthy news. “Before the war, it wasn’t uncommon for people to travel with the trade caravans,” he continued, “Especially out of Whiterun’s Great Marketplace.”

Sonja snorted. “Great Marketplace? I’ve seen that tiny little square outside Hulda’s. I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘Great’.”

“I sometimes forget you’re not from Skyrim,” the elf admitted, chuckling to himself, “The market inside the city isn’t the Great Marketplace. Jarl Balgruuf’s father didn’t want to—muck up his city with the riffraff and thieves that followed trade caravans, so a huge market was built across the road from where Honningbrew Meadery is now. That’s why that old draugr, Sabjorn, built his place out there. Dozens of hungry and thirsty merchants, hundreds of customers? It was perfect, until trade started to dry up because of the wars. The Market’s all overgrown now. Can’t even tell it’s there anymore.”

“The Great War hobbled the Empire at large, but I didn’t realize it had such a permanent impact on trade in Skyrim,” Sonja stated, her voice oddly flat as if she were trying not to sound emotional about it one way or the other.

“Hammerfell accounted for a large chunk of the goods that passed through here, so when the Emperor released them from the Empire, Whiterun lost half its trade. The Civil War, a few bad winters, and a few bandit attacks took the rest. Shipments are guarded by troops now so no one just travels along anymore.” He shrugged. “Unless she left with one of the Khajiit caravans.”

He laughed. It was meant as a joke, but Sonja stopped short of the gate and stared at him. “The what now?”

“Khajiit caravans?” he repeated, confused as to why she looked so irritated, “There’s a group of Khajiit that travel between cities, peddling their wares. The only ones not afraid to travel Skyrim nowadays.”

“I haven’t seen them in the market…”

Faendal shook his head. “You wouldn’t. They’re not allowed inside the city. They camp outside the walls.”

Her expression darkened. “Why?”

He winced. She was from the Imperial City. Though largely populated by Imperials, Cyrodiil was still far more diverse than Skyrim tended to be. Nords were leery of outsiders as a general rule, but especially if they were mer or beastfolk. That didn’t mean there weren’t plenty roaming all over Skyrim, though. Mer, at least. He was proof. Admittedly, beastfolk were kind of rare and kept to themselves in traveling caravans or were forced into assemblages. Khajiit in particular had a bad reputation for stealing. It set citizens on edge. “They—well, they make the people of Whiterun—nervous, so they…”

“Aren’t welcomed.”

“More or less.”

Sonja kept her face very blank, but he could see it in her eyes: the outrage. “How often do they come through?” she asked.

“Depends. If they have good business in one town, they won’t close up shop right away unless they’re chased off early, so…”

“You don’t know.”

“No, but—someone in the market might know. They are the only line of trade between cities that isn’t an Imperial or Stormcloak shipment.”

She nodded and they resumed walking into the city. “If Anja didn’t take a carriage out of here, then she probably tagged along with the Khajiit.”

“What makes you so sure?”

Sonja didn’t answer right away. “She used to run with a Khajiit back home,” she answered, “Spent more time with him and his family than she did at home. She knows their customs. It would have been easy for her to befriend them. Even here where they’re no doubt a little wary of the humans they do business with.”


“I’ll ask around the marketplace later,” she continued, irritably, “We should get up to Dragonsreach first.”

Farengar had a visitor with him when Sonja and Faendal arrived. An older woman in leather armor. Sonja couldn’t quite make out the features of her face because she had her hood drawn up which only made her suspicious after reading Arvel’s journal. So she inched closer to catch some of their conversation without immediately alerting them of her presence. The two of them examined a text open on the desk. “You see?” Farengar said to the woman, “The terminology is clearly First Era or even earlier. I’m convinced this is a copy of a much older text. Perhaps dating to just after the Dragon War. If so, I could use this to cross-reference the names with other later texts.”

“What’s the hold up?” Faendal asked, leaning around Sonja to see inside the mage’s study.

“He’s with somebody,” she hissed, pushing him back before they noticed his head poking into the room, “Looks like we’ll have to wait.”

“Well, I’m going to wait by the bottles of mead over there,” Faendal said and he wondered over to the table laden with mead, ale, and wine.

Sonja rolled her eyes and resumed eavesdropping on Farengar’s conversation. “Good,” said the woman, her voice deep and stern, “I’m glad you’re making progress. My employers are anxious to have some tangible answers.”

“Oh, have no fear,” Farengar assured, “The Jarl himself has finally taken an interest, so I’m now able to devote most of my time to this research.” Sonja’s brow furrowed. Is Farengar working for her?

“Time is running, Farengar, don’t forget,” the woman replied, “This isn’t some theoretical question. Dragons have come back.”

Farengar waved her off. “Yes, yes,” he said, “Don’t worry. Although the chance to see a living dragon up close would be tremendously valuable—Now, let me show you something else I found—very intriguing—I think your employers may be interested as well…”

He turned to rifle through his desk drawer, but the woman looked up and spotted Sonja. “You have a visitor,” she said, drawing Farengar’s attention.

“Hmm?” he looked up from the drawer, “Ah, yes, the Jarl’s protégé! Back from Bleak Falls Barrow? You didn’t die, it seems.”

Seeing no way to excuse herself so their conversation could revert back to whatever else the woman’s employers might be interested in, Sonja strode into the room, crossing the study with swift, powerful steps. “I’ve got a present for you, Farengar,” she said.

“Ah!” Farengar rubbed his hands together excitedly as Sonja set her bag on the edge of his desk and reached inside to remove the Dragonstone. “The Dragonstone of Bleak Falls Barrow!” he declared gleefully when Sonja removed the linens protecting it and handed it over to him. “Seems you are a cut above the usual brutes the Jarl sends my way.”

He meant it as a compliment, Sonja was sure, but that didn’t stop her from smiling sourly. “I’m glad I could be of service,” she said with a heavy dose of sarcasm, but the court wizard either did not pick up on it or ignored her, he was so wrapped up in the examination of the Dragonstone. She snapped her fingers at him until he looked up. “We got your stone for you, now what?” she asked.

“That is where your job ends and mine begins,” Farengar stated matter-of-factly, “The work of the mind. Sadly undervalued in Skyrim. If you are seeking a reward for your services, I’m sure the Jarl will see to it.”

Sonja nodded curtly, more than a little disappointed she wasn’t privy to the information on the Dragonstone, but hoping she might be able to speak with the Jarl about it later. Perhaps if she expressed an interest, he’d let her in on Farengar’s research. What in Oblivion am I thinking? she wondered, momentarily surprised by her own motives, I don’t have time to chase dragons! I have to find Anja! But she couldn’t shake the feeling that the Dragonstone was somehow important to her.

Before excusing herself, Sonja’s eyes flit toward the woman who was still standing behind Farengar’s desk, though she was leaning her hip against the edge now, arms crossed, and looking Sonja over with an intense, calculating scrutiny. Farengar noticed the women eying each other and gestured to the woman. “My…associate here will be pleased to see your handiwork,” he said, “She discovered the Dragonstone’s location, by means she has so far declined to share with me.”

“Must keep some professional secrets,” the woman said quietly.

“I’m sure,” Sonja added darkly, now certain that she was the woman Arvel mentioned in his journal.

“So, your information was correct after all,” Farengar continued, “And we have our friend here to thank for recovering it for us.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed at Sonja. “You went into Bleak Falls Barrow and got that?”

“Me and my associate,” Sonja gestured over her shoulder toward Faendal who was drinking deeply from a bottle of mead, “Only ran into a bit of trouble while we were there. A group of bandits after treasure.”

“The draugr are capable of warding off most grave-robbers,” Farengar stated, “But an entire bandit clan might prove troublesome. They didn’t destroy too much of the crypt, did they?”

Sonja shook her head, mildly irritated that the court wizard showed more concern for the crypt than for Faendal and her safety. “They hadn’t gotten very far by the time we showed up,” she explained, “Faendal and I took care of them ourselves, but their leader—as fortune would have it—had the key to enter the main chamber in his possession—recently stolen from the home of someone in Riverwood.”

Though Farengar was surprised and was going on about what the presence of the bandits could mean for the course of his research, the woman didn’t so much as blink, but Sonja saw the slight tightening in her jaw. “Nice work,” she said, stiffly, while Farengar continued to rant, “Just send me a copy when you’ve deciphered it, Farengar.”

The Court Wizard stopped mid-sentence and nodded a little brusquely. “Of course,” he assured.

“I’ve got to go, now,” she said and she swept out of the room, passed Sonja and dodged glances from Faendal.

Farengar hummed a bit of disappointed surprise that his associate didn’t linger long enough to hear his breakthroughs in person, but returned his attention to the Dragonstone. “Watch out for her,” Sonja warned once she was sure the woman was out of earshot, “I think she might be more invested in your dragon research than even you are.”

“Your concern is unwarranted and unwanted,” the court wizard scoffed, “Leave such speculation to your betters.”

Sonja frowned. “Suit yourself,” she sniffed and dropped Arvel’s journal on the corner of his desk, “What do I know, anyway? I’m only a better brute than those the Jarl usually sends. Read it and see for yourself.” Farengar barely spared a glance for her or the journal when she turned to leave. But as she left, she glanced at the massive map of Skyrim covering a wooden partition dividing the room in half. Vaguely, something fit together in her mind, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, so she left the study, pensive and irritated.

The main hall was largely empty but for Jarl Balgruuf’s kids running amok, a poor elderly cleaning lady who attempted to tidy up after them, and the usual guards. The Jarl and his court were nowhere to be seen. Sonja approached the nearest guard. “Where’s the Jarl?” she asked.

“War Council,” the guard replied.

“When will he be done?”

The man shrugged. “Any minute? Hours from now? Depends on how irritated he is with his steward.”

Sonja sighed. “I’ll come back later.” And she turned on her heel, nodded to Faendal to follow her, and promptly left Dragonsreach.

“So, what do we do now?” Faendal asked through a mouthful of apple as he leaned against a fruit and vegetable stand, thoroughly irritating its owner, Carlotta. She shooed him away angrily and Faendal scuttled off, apologetic.

Sonja watched the exchange and had she not been so wrapped up in her own thoughts, would have found the situation amusing, but she chewed thoughtfully on her own apple instead while Faendal gave Carlotta and her stand a wide berth. “No one knows shit about the Khajiit caravans,” she said more to herself than Faendal, “Nothing to do for it now, but wait until they come through again.”

“We could go to the Hall of the Dead,” Faendal pointed out, “Speak to the priest there.”


The Bosmer raised an eyebrow. “Why not?” he asked.

“Because I said so,” she snapped. Because she wasn’t ready. Because she was afraid that walking into that temple and finding her mother’s ashes interred so far away from her father’s would hurt. It was a silly fear, she knew, and she would go to the Hall of the Dead eventually. Just not yet.

Faendal put his hands up in mock surrender. “Fine, no need to take my head off over it,” he said, “We’ll wait for the drivers and the caravans. In the meantime, let’s get a room at the Mare again and toast to a job well-done.”


The elf’s eyes lit up with an almost mischievous smile. “You want to join the Companions?”

“It’s familiar work,” she reasoned, “I did as much for the Fighter’s Guild back in Cyrodiil. If Anja’s traveled far, I’ll need the coin to chase her and loosen a few tongues along the way if she proves elusive.”

“No honor and glory in it for you?”

“Honor and glory won’t find my sister.”

“Well, there are worse reasons for wanting to join the Companions,” Faendal sighed, “But hopefully it’s enough to get us in. They say the Harbinger can look at a warrior and know his heart—who knows, maybe he won’t mind having a battlemage join his ranks. Stranger things have happened.”

“My magic was never a problem back home.”

“You’re in Skyrim now,” Faendal reminded her, but he nodded his head toward the stairs and they made their way to Jorrvaskr.

As soon as Sonja and Faendal stepped into the light of the great fire of the mead hall, a fight broke out between a stout Nord female and a lean Dunmer male. The dark elf didn’t stand a chance. A mismatch. The Nord threw all her weight behind every punch and her fists came down on him like hammers. He was quick, at least, and able to dodge most of her attacks, but she connected more often than not. “What in Kynareth’s name?” Faendal exclaimed, though he sounded more amused than surprised. He and Sonja exchanged glances as the rest of the hall converged on the fighters and surrounded them, cheering and goading and making bets.

The Dunmer lasted longer than Sonja thought he would, but the brawl ended with a heavy punch from the Nord across his chin. He went down, heavy and loose. The Nord grunted her victory and wiped the sweat and blood from her face before helping the fallen elf to his feet. “Remember this the next time you mouth off to me,” she said good-naturally. The Dunmer spit blood from his mouth on the floor and chuckled, nodding. Sonja smirked, reminded of her own fight with Uthgerd a few nights prior. There were just some things a person had to work out with a good fight.

An older man with silver, balding hair laughed harshly, pleased with the brawl, and clapped the two fighters on the back. “Take Athis to get patched up,” he commanded and then his focus changed. He turned his one good eye on Sonja and Faendal, “We have newcomers,” he growled. The elf, Athis, and the Nord, Njada, walked away while the older man stalked over to them. “What business do you have with the Companions?” he asked.

“We’re here to join,” Sonja answered, “Are you the man we speak to?”

He laughed, hoarsely. “You want Kodlak,” he said, “I’m Skjor.”

“Where can I find Kodlak, then?”

“Below,” he gestured toward a staircase at the far end of the hall, “I’ll take you to him.” The three of them made their way to the staircase and descended to the lower level of Jorrvaskr. “His chambers are at the end of the hall.” He pointed.

Vilkas frowned at the game board in front of him, considering his next move and finding his mind wondering. At least it was better than the fugue the Blood usually left him in. After spending the last couple of nights with Ysolda, he was able to think more clearly. Though just barely and it did nothing to make him feel any better about using her—despite her insistences that she wasn’t looking for anything serious, just a little nightly company. He didn’t believe her. Not with the way she looked at him. Irritated, he moved one of his game pieces carelessly. “Come now, Vilkas,” Kodlak sighed, “It’s like you’re not even trying.”

“Forgive me. My mind is elsewhere.”

“After a move like that, I’m tempted to give you another try like I did when you were just a boy learning to play Tafl,” the Harbinger teased, “But I won’t.”

Vilkas smirked at the memory. “I would be insulted if you did.”

Kodlak barked out a laugh and then turned his attention to the board, planning his next move. Vilkas watched him. The white-blue eyes of the Wolf steadily pouring over the board as if they were tracking prey. Even in Kodlak’s aging face, they looked as fierce as ever and Vilkas wondered if abstaining from the Change was any harder for Kodlak than it was for him. “You are elsewhere again,” the Harbinger said suddenly without looking up from the board, “What is troubling you this day?”

“The Wolf,” Vilkas admitted, “I feel it grow stronger every day.”

“It’s hungry,” Kodlak nodded, “When did you last Turn?”

“Two nights before we met in the Underforge.”

“You have been true to your word, Vilkas.” Kodlak nodded approvingly. “But it is not going to be easy.”

“I didn’t expect it to be,” Vilkas brooded, “I just didn’t think it would be so damned hard.” A soft breeze pushed through the hall from the open door at the base of the staircase and slipped beneath the door to Kodlak’s chambers. On the heels of the draft was the foreign scent of strangers, and Vilkas’ concentration shifted. Two of them.

“It will become easier in time.” Kodlak said distractedly, also picking up on the scent of the strangers. A man and a woman. Elf and Nord.

“But I still hear the call of the blood,” Vilkas growled. He scented smoke, lavender, and mint. The woman from the other day…he realized, The mage. Sonja. He sniffed the air again and picked up the scent of oiled leather and animal blood. The elf was with her too.

“We all do,” Kodlak sighed heavily, finally pushing his game piece into position, apparently already content with what his sense of smell could glean of the strangers coming down the hall, “It is our burden to bear. But we can overcome.”

Vilkas hesitated, his concentration still torn between the unexpected return of the mage woman, the game he was losing, and his conversation with Kodlak. “You have my brother and I, obviously,” he assured, “But I don’t know if the rest will go along quite so easily.”

“Leave that to me,” Kodlak nodded, confidently, “But, not now. We have a stranger in our midst.” Sonja paused just before her fingers wrapped around the latch, surprised; she had only caught the tail-end of Kodlak and Vilkas’ conversation and had not thought either of them aware of her presence on the other side of the closed door. “Enter,” Kodlak called, his voice stern, but not unkind.

Sonja pushed back the latch and stepped into the room with Faendal directly behind her. Vilkas looked her over. He couldn’t see her face. She wore a black hood embroidered with the same strange runes covering her armor; the silver thread pulsed the same bright blue as the metal. But there was no mistaking her scent or that bizarre, magical harness. Across her back she sported the same elven sword he had seen her with last time.

“I’ve heard a lot about the Companions,” Sonja said sparing a brief glance at Vilkas before giving her attention over to Kodlak, “I even had the pleasure of witnessing them in action against a giant. And we’ve come here, before you now, to join your noble ranks.” Vilkas grunted with laughter. The gall of this woman! A mage join the Companions? The very idea made his skin crawl.

Kodlak leaned back in his chair, a good-natured smile on his face. “Did you, now?” he asked, “Here, let me have a look at you.” Sonja stepped forward and pushed back her hood. Her long plaited black hair slipped forward out of the hood and dangled over her shoulder. A determined frown trained her features. The Harbinger gasped. Not loudly or obviously. Just the softest, sharp intake of air at the back of his throat. If Vilkas had not the hearing of the Wolf, he would not have heard it. “What is your name, lass?” he asked

“Sonja…” she replied, her mouth halfway through forming the first syllable of her family name before she caught herself, “Just Sonja.”

“We don’t take criminals,” Vilkas warned, thinking of no other reason why she would refuse to give her full name.

“There are other reasons for silence, Vilkas,” Kodlak chastised softly as he looked Sonja over thoughtfully, “It wouldn’t be the first time that someone joined to escape the long shadow cast by a legacy, good or ill.” Vilkas grunted his acknowledgement, but held his tongue otherwise. “And you?” Kodlak nodded to the Bosmer, “What name do you go by?”

“Faendal Willowbrook of Riverwood.”

Kodlak smirked. “No past to outrun there.” Faendal shook his head and Kodlak’s eyes turned again to Sonja. “Hmm, yes, perhaps,” he said thoughtfully, “A certain strength of spirit.”

Vilkas turned to Kodlak, bewildered. Surely, his Harbinger wasn’t serious. “Master, you’re not truly considering accepting her?”

“I’m nobody’s master, Vilkas,” Kodlak corrected, “And last I checked, we had some empty beds in Jorrvaskr for those with a fire burning in their hearts.”

“Apologies,” Vilkas conceded, “But perhaps this isn’t the time…” Because Kodlak didn’t know everything. Vilkas had felt the magic when she donned her armor days before when she was working at the Skyforge, had heard Eorlund call her a mage. There was no place for magic at Jorrvaskr. Kodlak had to know. “What business does a mage have joining the Companions?”

Sonja stiffened and glowered at Vilkas. “I won’t deny it. I am a mage,” she growled, “But I am also a warrior. I do not rely on spells alone to protect myself.”

“So you say,” Vilkas argued and then gestured to her sword, “I’ve yet to see a mage who knew what end of a blade to hold onto.”

Her eyes flashed, but her voice was eerily flat when she spoke, “Let me take your little test and we’ll find out, won’t we?”

Kodlak stroked his beard, thoughtfully. “Spell-slinging does not befit a Companion,” he said at length, “We honor the old way: the warrior traditions of Ysgramor and rely on our strength and skill with a blade to see us through.” Vilkas nodded and crossed his arms over his chest, thinking Kodlak was about to turn her away. “But…” The younger man looked to his Harbinger, not liking the tone in his voice. “She claims to be a warrior. So, let’s give her the chance to prove it.” A smile of relief twitched at the corners of Sonja’s mouth.

“Harbinger…” Vilkas began.

“How are you in a battle, girl?” Kodlak asked, ignoring the Companion.

“Good enough to stay alive, but I have much to learn,” she said sternly, “And I am eager to learn it.”

“That’s the spirit,” the Harbinger said approvingly, “Vilkas, here, will get started on that.” He gestured to the surly Companion. “Take her out to the yard and see what she can do,” he paused, “Test the elf as well, if he is willing.”

“Aye,” Vilkas grumbled reluctantly, standing from his seat; he left the room with Sonja and Faendal on his heels.

Sonja didn’t much care for Vilkas’ attitude. Their first meeting hadn’t exactly left a great impression and meeting him for a second time did nothing to change that, but it was up to him whether or not she and Faendal were worthy enough to join the Companions, so she’d do as he said…For now…she decided as she rearranged her hair and pulled her hood back over her head. She followed him out into the yard where some of the younger members were practicing against dummies, targets, and each other. Vilkas strode out into the middle of the practice yard and growled or barked at the others to clear out. “The old man said to have a look at you, so let’s do this,” he said loudly for the sake of the onlookers, “Just take a few swings at me so I can see your form. Don’t worry, I can take it.” There was collective laughter from the crowd. Skjor leaned against the stone wall on the other side, arms crossed, smirking and watching.

Sonja removed her pack and handed it to Faendal. “Take my sword,” he muttered, drawing it and holding it out to her, “You do better with two when you’re not using magic.”

She almost didn’t take it, but thought better of it. “Wish me luck,” she said, and with a sword in each hand, she advanced on Vilkas. The Companion was amused; he had been certain she would take her friend’s shield, instead, so she had something to cower behind when she was overwhelmed, but that thought was pushed clean from his mind when she launched her body at him, the swords in her hands barreling down on his raised shield in quick, even strikes. Her muscles were trained in strength and rhythm and her blows were calculated, strong, and unrelenting; they came, one after another without pause.

But the injury on her right arm severely restricted the force of her power swings. He spied the pink sear of burned flesh covered by her gauntlet. Her tendency to favor that side was easily exploitable, so he stepped forward, countering her attack with his full weight behind his shield. She was knocked off balance for an instant and Vilkas took advantage of the opening to slide up next to her and pull her hood from her head. “Lose the hood,” he growled in her ear, holding her swords against her chest with his shield, “It narrows your vision.”

“Get off me,” Sonja snarled and she shoved Vilkas away.

Testing her defensive abilities next, he attacked her. She caught the edge of his sword with her blades. No matter how viciously he came at her or what feints he tried to pull, she didn’t flinch or panic. She just watched. Those big blue eyes of hers taking in every move he made, learning, anticipating; she was always ready for his next attack. But she was tiring. Whether from lack of experience fighting without magic or simply from a lack of proper physical conditioning, he didn’t know.

In her exhaustion, her defenses slowed and Vilkas was able to relieve her of both swords, knocking her to the ground with his boot in her ribs. She landed on her back and grunted painfully, but scurried to her feet almost as soon as she had hit the ground, prepared to fight him unarmed if she had to. By all rights, he should have ended the test right there, but something nagged inside him to keep pushing her, to see how far he could push the little mage before she broke. He feigned at her again and her eyes flit to follow him, her body tense and balanced on the balls of her feet, but he came at her from a different angle. For a moment, she was caught off guard and stumbled in the wrong direction, catching Vilkas’ shield with her hip, but then she was free and clear, ducking under his extended sword arm.

That’s when he felt a hard, sharp jab between his neck and the collar of his armor. He paused long enough to see what it was and even then, it took him a moment longer to process what it meant. She was poking him with her sheathed dagger. Had the fight been real, the naked blade would have caused fatal damage. The crowd fell briefly silent, themselves unsure of what to think and half anticipating Vilkas to lose it on another recruit. He was actually impressed with her determination and quick-thinking. Not a grand demonstration of strength or skill, but definitely clever, and he certainly had never known a mage to handle a beating half as well as she. Though no master swordswoman, she had potential with a bit of proper training.

He dropped his arms and sheathed his sword, nodding. “Not bad—for a mage,” Vilkas said, “But, next time won’t be so easy.”

Sonja raised an eyebrow, her hand absently drifting to her sore ribs, “You call that easy?”

A twitch of amusement tugged at the corners of his mouth, but he did not smile fully. “You might just make it,” he continued, “But for now, you’re still a Whelp to us, Newblood. So you do what we tell you.”

A muscle twitched along Sonja’s jaw, but she didn’t move. “So I’m in?”

“Aye, Whelp. You’re in.” She smirked and went to retrieve her weapons, returning Faendal’s. She didn’t particularly like being referred to as ‘whelp,’ but she knew what it was like joining a group like the Companions. You had to work your way up from the bottom, earn respect, and prove yourself. She didn’t have a problem with it. Her skills would speak for themselves, even if she had to downplay her magic a little bit. Vilkas turned his attention to Faendal, “How about it, elf, did you want to give it a go?”

“You bet,” he answered eagerly and Sonja took a seat at one of the tables on the porch to watch Faendal’s trial.

That night, Sonja enjoyed a particularly long visit to the bathhouse to soak her aching body after her spar with Vilkas, but the hot water seemed to sap her remaining energy. She was too tired to do much else. I’ll go to Dragonsreach in the morning, she decided as she ran water through her long hair. “Why didn’t you tell them your family name?” Faendal asked suddenly from halfway across the bathhouse where he soaked in the large stone tub.

Sonja nearly jumped at the sound of his voice, sloshing some of the water from the bowl she was using to rinse her hair. “Can I not do as I please?” she asked.

“They’ll find out anyway. That Huntress and the big one—what was his name? Farkas?—already know,” he reminded her, “You don’t think it will come up when they notice you walking around Jorrvaskr?”

She was quiet for a long time as she worked a comb through her hair. “I used my mother’s name because not everyone is friendly with the Empire,” she said, “I didn’t know she had an entire life and family I knew nothing about—that I would have to tell so many people of her death and see fresh sadness.” She paused and loosely plaited her hair at the nape of her neck. “It’s heavy, this life of hers. I didn’t want the Companions to welcome me because I was her daughter. I wanted to prove myself.” Perhaps it was silly wanting the approval of the Companions. She had accomplished much on her own in Cyrodiil. She knew herself and her abilities and had never wanted for validation from others. But there was something intimidating about meeting the Harbinger—just one man—who could look at a warrior and see her worth. If she was to be weighed and measured, she wanted it to be for what she was and not for who her mother was.

“The Companions wouldn’t take you if you weren’t worthy,” Faendal assured, “Even if you were the Jarl, himself. They’ve no use for milk-drinkers.”

She shrugged. He was probably right, but she didn’t have the luxury of growing up with the Companions' reputation. Just bedtime stories her mother used to tell. “That may be so, but they called my ma the Killing Frost,” she replied, “I wonder what deeds earned her that title?”

Later, they trudged back to Jorrvaskr, hungry and tired. When they returned to the mead hall, the Companions had already begun the evening feast and they happily joined their new Shield-Siblings. “Ironheart! You’ve come to join us, after all,” Farkas declared approvingly when he caught sight of Sonja as she walked through the door.

Sonja winced. Though it had been inevitable, she was still not completely prepared for the looks of interest and surprise. The entire Circle looked her way at the mention of her surname. The other Companions too, but not with the same comprehension, having joined after Freydis had left Skyrim. “Aye,” Sonja nodded, feeling uncomfortable beneath the gaze of so many eyes, “Well met, Farkas.”

“This is Freydis’ daughter?” Kodlak asked, looking to Sonja for confirmation. Her mouth thinned and she gave one curt nod in response.

Vilkas had been very young when Freydis left the Companions, but had admired her battle prowess as he had admired all the Companions of that time. She was larger than life to him. A legend of his childhood. And though Sonja had impressed him earlier, something did not match up. How could the daughter of the fearsome Freydis Ironheart, the Killing Frost of Jorrvaskr, be a mage? And why, for Talos’ sake, did she seem ashamed or, at least, embarrassed of her heritage? He looked to Kodlak to see how the old man would react for he had loved her dearly as family and was sorriest to see her go.

Kodlak looked Sonja over curiously. His eyes reexamining her face and picking out familiar features until he could assemble a likeness to her mother. “Did you know two of your aunts were also Companions?” he asked, “Hera, the eldest, and Hilde, the second youngest. And your grandfather before them. One of his brothers and their uncle? There has been at least one Ironheart in Jorrvaskr since they settled in Whiterun.”

Sonja shook her head. “No. I didn’t know.”

“She never spoke of it?”

“She didn’t speak of a great many things.”

The Harbinger nodded, his expression soft and sad. “Freydis always had a silent way about her.” He cleared his throat, his tone stern again. “How did she die?”

“Clearing out a mine of goblins. She went down fighting.”

“A good death, then.”

She bit her tongue. It was the Nord way to die a glorious and noble death, but being picked apart by goblins had not been the end Sonja had wanted for her mother. It had not been quick or valiant. It had been bloody and violent. “Aye,” she replied, numbly, “A good death.”

Kodlak raised his mead tankard. “To Freydis!” he declared and the Companions raised their own drinks, “One of the fiercest warriors Jorrvaskr has ever seen! A woman so deadly, they named her after the icy winds of Skyrim! Shor has guided another daughter of Skyrim to Sovngarde!”

“To Freydis!” they all echoed. “Glory in battle; honor in life; Sovngarde in death!” They all drank deeply from their mugs, toasting a long since passed Shield-Sibling. Sonja drank also, watching the others over the rim of her cup. With the exception of Kodlak, they were all too young to have really known Freydis; they drank, instead, to the memory of the warrior they had heard stories about, the Killing Frost. Even still, Sonja was touched that her ma inspired such reverence merely with the recollection of her actions and wondered why she would have left this life behind.

“It is an honorable tradition you carry on, lass,” Kodlak concluded.

“Be worthy of it,” Vilkas added.

Rather than glare or otherwise take offence as he expected her to, she pursed her lips, an unreadable gleam in her eye, and nodded curtly. “I will,” she said, tipping her mug in their direction and sipping. Vilkas looked at her, unsure of what to think, but one thing was for certain: he might be wary of this outsider, this mage who fought like a warrior, but she definitely left an impression.

Chapter Text

Fire raining from the sky. Pelting the ground with heavy fists of flaming stone. Dancing flames racing across the plains, climbing higher up the walls. Consuming everything. The world melts beneath the heat and hunger of it. Thick, dark furls of smoke rise out of the chaos, curling into the orange, angry sky. The smell of it chokes and smothers and the roar of the fire can only be matched by the roar that tears through the air. And the screams. A thousand voices praying, crying, and begging for mercy.

It all degrades into an oppressive weight of sound, stench, and light, and it presses down on her until it’s so heavy she feels like she’s about to break, shatter into so many pieces she won’t be able to ever put herself back together again. Then, just when she thinks she’s about to give way, it all gets worse. Louder. Brighter. More toxic.

And through the din vibrating her skull until she’s stumbling, disoriented, she hears a voice. Just one, small voice that grows louder by the second, calling her name with mounting urgency. “Sonja! Sonja! Sonja!” It’s Thornir. It’s her baby brother. Alive and whole and walking through the flames unharmed. She wants to cry and hold him and tell him she loves him, but her head feels like its split in two from the assault on her senses. “Sonja,” he says, “You have to wake up.”

But she’s confused. She doesn’t understand. He touches her face lovingly and she feels his hand on her cheek. He’s real. He’s really with her. But he just keeps looking at her with sad blue eyes. Eyes that match her own. She wants to tell him they have to run to safety, that they have to get away from the fire, but her mouth won’t move. “Sonja,” he whispers, kindly, “You need to go.”

She wants to tell him that she wants to stay with him. That she doesn’t have to go anywhere. But she can’t. So she just grabs at his arm, trying to hold him to her body and tell him she remembers when he was a baby. But he doesn’t go to her. Instead, he grips her arms and shakes her hard. “SONJA!” he yells, only it’s not his voice anymore, “WAKE UP!”

Sonja jolted awake, her head spinning, and blinked blindly in the darkened room. It was the middle of the night and she was lying in the bottom bed of one of the bunks of Jorrvaskr’s barracks. The voice she had heard and the hands on her shoulders belonged to Vilkas who loomed over her, still dressed in his Wolf Armor. He was irritated and the moment she looked at him with any kind of lucidity, he straightened and glared down at her. “There’s a messenger here for you,” he growled, “From Dragonsreach.”

“Wha…?” she slurred, kicking off her blankets and rubbing her eyes. Her face was wet. With some horror, she realized she had been crying in her sleep and glanced at Vilkas, wondering if he had noticed, but he was turned away from her. Farkas had just stumbled down the hallway, wanting to know what was going on.

“It’s nothing,” Vilkas assured, “I’ll handle it.”

“The Jarl’s men are here,” Njada answered. The whole of the barracks had awakened in the ruckus. Vilkas had not been quiet or gentle in his attempts to rouse Sonja.

“Why are the Jarl’s men here?” Sonja asked as she grabbed for her trousers which had been kicked under the bed when she disrobed to go to sleep.

“I was sent to escort you and Faendal Willowbrook to Dragonsreach,” a guard said from the hallway, poking his head into the room, “It’s urgent.”

“You were told to wait upstairs!” Vilkas snapped and the guard took a couple uncertain steps backward.

While Vilkas ordered Njada to take the guard back up to the mead hall because she happened to be standing closest to him, Sonja stifled a yawn as she yanked on her trousers and grabbed at the hem of her tunic to tuck it in only to realize she was wearing her torn one because it was the only clean shirt she had. Making a sound halfway between defeat and exhaustion, she threw her cloak around her shoulders to cover up the poor state of her clothing and tried to push past Vilkas, but he caught her arm. “Whatever business you have with the Jarl, it does not follow you here,” he warned, “We do not deal in politics. We do not pick sides. We are Companions and we follow the legacy of Ysgramor only.”

She narrowed her eyes at him and roughly pulled her arm loose from his grip. “No one asked different of you,” she replied, “My business at Dragonsreach will stay my own.”


She turned away from him, headed for the hall. “You coming Faendal?” she called to the other side of the barracks were the Bosmer was hopping on one leg into his own trousers.

“Aye,” he grumbled before catching his own cloak in his teeth and stumbling out behind her, lacing up his pants as he went.

The air inside Dragonsreach was electrified with anticipation and anxious motion. The guards went about their patrols anxiously and the Jarl’s children sat at one of the tables, blurry eyed, and eating sweet rolls, wakened by the commotion of the night that demanded their father’s attention. But the Jarl was not at his throne. The messenger led them to the staircase leading to the second level of Dragonsreach. As they passed Farengar’s study, Irileth, a guard, and the mage were walking out of his private rooms. He was looking quite disheveled, having just been roused from sleep himself, but bright-eyed and excited. “A dragon’s been sighted nearby,” the Housecarl was saying to him.

“A dragon?” Farengar asked, barely containing his obvious glee, “Are you sure?”

Irileth nodded gravely. “I’ve already sent for Ironheart and Willowbrook.” She nodded to Sonja and Faendal in greeting and the pair exchanged glances.

“A dragon?” Faendal repeated.

You sent for us?” Sonja said at the same time.

“How exciting!” Farengar almost squealed, bursting with enthusiasm, “Where was it seen? What was it doing?”

Irileth raised a critical eyebrow. “I’d take this a bit more seriously if I were you,” she chastised as they ascended the stairs, “If a dragon decides to attack Whiterun, I don’t know if we can stop it.”

“Of course,” the court wizard grumbled with disregard.

“The dragon that attacked Helgen had no fear of cities,” Sonja pointed out gravely, “An entire Imperial garrison was stationed there and it laid waste to the town in less than an hour.”

“Were the soldiers able to wound it at all?” Irileth asked as they reached the top step.

Sonja shook her head. “No,” she answered, “I saw it fly off afterward. Not a scratch.”

“Damnit,” the Dunmer cursed.


Irileth looked at Sonja sideways. “What?”

“The Imperials efforts were divided at Helgen,” she said, slowly, “Half of them were trying to fight the dragon and the other half were trying to keep the Stormcloaks from escaping. The dragon had surprised them all. It was chaos.”

Irileth stopped abruptly just before the huge wooden doors leading to the Great Porch and turned to glare up into Sonja’s face with her intense red eyes. “If you had the manpower, could you take that dragon down?” she asked, her voice deep and deadly serious.

Sonja’s eyes widened slightly. “I was a prisoner,” she objected, “I ran. I didn’t stay to fight it off…”

“But you escaped.”

“I had help.”

“You’ll have help now.”

Sonja hesitated.

“Can you do it?” Irileth demanded.


“Good,” the elf nodded and pushed the door open. Sonja, Faendal, and Farengar followed her through.

The Jarl was waiting by a large table at the far end of the long, stone porch. The dramatic view from the balcony of the valley and the mountains beyond was cast aglow in the shifting auroras of Tamriel’s northern skies. Not quite enough to see clearly for miles, but enough to mark out the vague edges of the distant mountain peaks. The table was covered in maps and blue and red flags marking the movements of nearby Stormcloak and Imperial troops. He looked worry worn, but hardened and ready to manage whatever chaos had come through the door with his Housecarl. As soon as his eyes alighted on the guard accompanying them he spoke, “So Irileth tells me you came from the western watchtower?”

The guard looked terrified. “Tell him what you told me,” Irileth coaxed, “About the dragon.”

“R—right,” he stuttered and then he took a deep breath to regain his composure, “We saw it coming from the south. It was fast…faster than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Balgruuf crossed his arms and began to pace. “What did it do?” he asked, “Is it attacking the watchtower?”

“No, my lord,” the guard replied, “It was just circling overhead when I left. I never ran so fast in my life…I thought it would come after me for sure.”

Balgruuf clapped the guard on the shoulder reassuringly. “Good work, son. We’ll take it from here. Head down to the barracks for some food and rest. You’ve earned it.” The guard nodded nervously and allowed himself to be guided away. Balgruuf addressed his Housecarl, “Irileth, you’d better gather some guardsmen and get down there.”

The elf nodded. “I’ve already ordered my men to muster near the main gate.”

“Good,” Balgruuf said, “Don’t fail me.”

“I also sent for Ironheart, my Jarl,” she continued.

Balgruuf nodded, smiling faintly at his Housecarl’s efficacy, for if she had not summoned Sonja, he would have. “Irileth was wise to send for you,” he said, “There’s no time to stand on ceremony, my friends. I need your help again. I want you to go with Irileth and help her fight this dragon.” He drew closer, his voice becoming even more sincere as he addressed Sonja. “You survived Helgen,” he said, his voice almost an entreaty, “So you have more experience with dragons than anyone else here.”

Sonja nodded curtly. “I told Irileth that I would do what I could,” she informed him, “I make the same promise to you.”

“Good.” He nodded approvingly. “You will be richly rewarded for all you have done for us. I swear it.”

“I should come along,” Farengar blurted out, “I would very much like to see this dragon.”

“No. I can’t afford to risk both you and Irileth,” Balgruuf objected, “I need you here working on ways to defend the city against these dragons.”

Farengar frowned, but conceded. “As you command.”

The party turned to leave, but Balgruuf’s words halted them. “One last thing, Irileth,” he said, “This isn’t a death or glory mission. I need to know what we’re dealing with.” Then softer, “And I need you to survive this.”

“Don’t worry, my lord. I’m the very soul of caution,” Irileth assured, “I will return, muthsera.” She used the honorific like a term of affection and Balgruuf at once softened in the eyes and tensed in his shoulders. His Housecarl was his oldest and most trusted friend. They had gone into battle together a hundred times before he became Jarl. He’d never get used to sending her in alone without being there to fight at her side. Then she turned away from him, striding across the Great Porch in quick, purposeful steps, Sonja and Faendal trailing behind her.

“Should I alert the Companions?” Sonja asked as they neared the door.

“Would they come?” Irileth asked skeptically.

Sonja thought of Vilkas’ warning before she left Jorrvaskr. He had been very clear that the Companions are and will remain a neutral party in matters of state. But dragon hunting had nothing to do with politics. There were no sides to choose between the dragon and the safety of Whiterun—a city the Companions called home as much as any other citizen living safely within its walls. The only thing that might give the Companions pause to join them against the dragon was a lack of coin. There was no money to be had. Defending Whiterun was not a job. It was a duty. No one would reward them for their efforts unless the Jarl decided it was appropriate. But the glory to be had in defeating a dragon? A creature unseen for centuries? They might actually be upset if I didn’t ask them to help…“It’s their home too,” Sonja said reasonably, “They are strong and competent warriors. Our chances of success only go up if they agree to help.”

“I don’t like it,” Irileth stated, “They love drink as much as they love to fight. But you’re right. Go, gather your Companions if you think it necessary.”

Sonja nodded to Faendal and the pair ran ahead, zipping through the remainder of Dragonsreach on their way to Jorrvaskr. “Sonja,” the Bosmer said as they reached the stairs leading to the Wind District, but she didn’t respond; she just kept running, “Sonja!” She ignored him, “Sonja! Stop!” he caught her arm at the foot of the stairs and tugged hard, causing her to her stumble.

“Steady on,” she snarled, righting herself, “What’s your problem?”

My problem?” he repeated, irritated, “What’s yours?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Dragons? Are you serious? What have you gotten us into, now?”

“If you don’t have the stomach for it, stay here.”

“Like Oblivion I’ll stay here,” he snapped, “But tell me the truth, Sonja, do you really know what you’re up against this time?”

Sonja hesitated, images from her dream in Bleak Falls Barrow flashing through her head. She remembered next to nothing of it. Just vague feelings and impressions. But it was more than just her dreams. It was more than escaping Helgen. It was more than just being observant of a dragon’s weaknesses. It was something she could feel in her bones. “Yes,” she admitted, meeting her friend’s gaze evenly, “I do.”

Faendal narrowed his eyes at her, but nodded. It was good enough for him. “Alright,” he said, “Let’s go.” They hurried into Jorrvaskr.

Vilkas, Farkas, and Tilma were the only ones in the mead hall when they entered. Tilma was puttering about, unable to go back to sleep now that she was awake. Vilkas was speaking in hushed, angry tones with his brother. He was awaiting Sonja’s return so he could lecture her about messengers coming to Jorrvaskr all hours of the night. She’d only been a Companion less than a day and already she had done something to aggravate him. Farkas was attempting to counsel him against it, but the dour twin had already made up his mind. “There you are,” he said when Sonja approached them, “I don’t know what your business is with the Jarl and I don’t care to know, but…”

“Shut up and listen,” Sonja interrupted, waving him off.

“Watch your tongue Newblood!” he growled.

“I don’t have much time,” she said over him, “There’s a dragon attacking the Western Watchtower. That is my business with the Jarl. No politics. No complications. He asked me to help and I, in turn, am asking the Companions.”

“A dragon?” Vilkas repeated, nearly struck speechless by the information Sonja fired at him.

“Yes,” Sonja nodded, “A flying, fire-breathing dragon from ancient times.”

The twins exchanged skeptical glances. “That’s impossible,” Vilkas insisted.

“I saw it with my own eyes at Helgen,” Sonja objected, “It’s not impossible.”

“You were at Helgen?” Farkas asked, surprised.

Sonja spared him a glance, but was not prepared to go down that line of conversation. “Any of you who will fight should meet me at the gates,” she said as she headed for the stairs to don her armor and wake the others, “This is not a job. There will be no coin. I can only promise you a good fight.”

When she entered the barracks, she and Faendal made a ruckus waking the others and Sonja explained the situation to them while she changed into her armor. “Is this a joke?” Torvar asked when she was finished.

“No joke,” Sonja shook her head, “We need blades and bodies. If you don’t want to help, then don’t, but we have to go.” She barreled out the door, frustrated, thinking she had failed to convince any of them to go with her. But when she returned to the upper level, the entire Circle was waiting for her. She hadn’t even heard them walk by when she was in the barracks.

“We protect our own,” Kodlak stated, “Whiterun will not burn if we can help it.” He nodded to Vilkas. “You and Farkas are responsible for the Newbloods,” he said, “Keep an eye on them all. Bring them back safe. Keep your brother and he’ll keep you.”

“Yes, Harbinger,” Vilkas nodded.

Sonja couldn’t help but smirk at them all, something sort of edgy and dangerous. It struck Vilkas as almost wolfish. The sound of the others coming up the stairs behind her made her bark out a single, harsh laugh. She wasn’t expecting to have such a show of strength and support, even if they were mostly motivated by the chance to fight a dragon. “Honor and glory,” she said, smiling wryly.

“HONOR AND GLORY!” the Companions all but bellowed in response and then they all, with the exception of Kodlak, marched out of Jorrvaskr to join Irileth at Whiterun’s gate where a group of guards was standing, waiting for her instructions.

The Dunmer Housecarl looked surprised to see the Companions, but they were more than welcome. Not just for numbers, but for the morale boost their mere presence provided her men. “Alright, now that everyone’s here,” Irileth continued, casting an approving glance over the well-armed warriors gathering around her, “Here’s the situation: a dragon is attacking the Western Watchtower.” The guards responded with surprise and whispers of unrest. “You heard me right. I said a ‘dragon.’ I don’t care much where it came from or who sent it. What I do know is that it’s made the mistake of attacking Whiterun.”

One of the guards spoke up, “But Housecarl, how can we fight a dragon?”

“That’s a fair question,” Irileth conceded, “None of us have ever seen a dragon before or expected to face one in battle. But we are honor-bound to fight it. Even if we fail, this dragon is threatening our homes, our families. Could you call yourselves Nords if you ran from this monster? Are you going to let me face this thing alone?” The men cried out that they would not. “There is more than our honor at stake here,” Irileth continued, “Think of it: the first dragon ever seen in Skyrim since the last age! The glory of killing it is ours! If you’re with me! Now what do you say? Shall we kill us a dragon?” The men and the Companions roared an affirmative.

The party made their way out of the city and toward the Western Watchtower. The orange glow of the fires was visible from the gates, reflecting against the thick furls of black smoke spiraling upward. They gathered by a boulder just across the path from the tower while Irileth took in the scene. The tower was one attack short of rubble. “No signs of any dragons right now,” the Housecarl observed, “But it sure looks like he’s been here. I know it looks bad, but we got to figure out what’s happened. If that dragon’s still skulking around somewhere. Spread out and look for survivors. We need to know what we’re dealing with.” The group broke up into pairs and spread out to cover the area. “Ironheart, what are your thoughts?” Irileth asked, turning to Sonja who stood to her left, silently observing the watchtower.

“Something’s off,” Sonja admitted, “The dragon that attacked Helgen wouldn’t strike a single, lonely tower with a handful of guards in the cover of night and then disappear.”

“You speak of it as though it thinks,” Irileth observed, “It’s a beast.”

“Even beasts have habits,” Faendal interjected, “Sabre cats stalk their prey, pick off the weakest of a herd. They don’t look for unnecessary trouble. Cave bears scavenge unless provoked. They don’t look for a fight if they don’t have to. Elk travel in herds on the move and follow their food. They don’t poke around where they shouldn’t.”

“I get it,” Irileth snapped, “But what does that have to do with a dragon?”

“Do you know why all those beasts behave the way they do?” Sonja asked.

Irileth hesitated, thinking it a trick question. “Because they’re scared,” Faendal answered, “Afraid of other predators. Of being prey. Of hunters. Man and mer villages with hunting parties and torches. They’ve learned to stay away.”

“The dragon I saw had no fear,” Sonja concluded, “The more fire, the more destruction, the better. This all feels wrong.”

“Your feelings aren’t helpful,” Irileth responded, but her eyes narrowed towards the sky, expecting to see the figure of a dragon descending upon them.

Sonja shrugged. “You asked my thoughts, I gave them,” she said, “Without a dragon attacking us, I can’t exactly tell you the best way to kill it.”

“Noted,” the Housecarl nodded, “Keep your eyes peeled.” And then she moved out to join the rest of the men and search the area for clues as to what happened to the dragon.

Sonja watched her go. “You think there are more of them?” Faendal asked when Irileth was out of ear shot.


“More than one dragon?” he clarified.

“No one’s seen a single dragon in centuries,” Sonja replied, “Let alone more than one.”

“You keep referring to the dragon at Helgen as though it’s different from whatever did this,” Faendal pointed out, gesturing to the tower as they approached.

Sonja hadn’t realized she was doing it, but he was right. Somewhere at the back of her mind, she knew it to be true. She didn’t how or why; it just was. “Looks like there are guards still in the tower,” she said, changing the subject, “Let’s go check it out.” Faendal opened his mouth to argue, but quickly shut it, aware that it was no use pursuing a topic she had no wish to discuss. So they approached the tower, one eye warily on the sky.

“No, get back!” cried one of the guards when he caught sight of Sonja and Faendal climbing over the rubble to get into the tower, “It’s still here somewhere. Two of us just got grabbed when they tried to make a run for it.”

“What did you see?” Sonja demanded, climbing the stone ramp, “What did it look like?”

The guard didn’t respond; he was looking up, terror written on his face. “Kynareth save us! Here it comes again!”

Sonja’s eyes shot skyward just in time to see the dragon swoop above them. It let out a bloodcurdling roar and circled the tower. “It’s not him,” she breathed when the dragon flew by close enough for her to make out its size, shape, and color, “It’s not the dragon from Helgen.”

“How can you tell?” Faendal asked as he began launching arrows at the dragon’s underbelly.

“I just can,” she said and she gathered lightning in her hands. “Aim for its wings!” she bellowed at the surrounding soldiers, “They’re soft. Tear them up badly enough, it can’t fly. Force it to land!”

Everyone launched into action, sending wave after wave of arrow into the sky after the dragon. Most of them bounced uselessly off its scales, but enough of them hung fast in the membranes of its wings to cause the dragon pain. It landed at the base of the tower and breathed fire at those nearest it. Vilkas, Farkas, and Skjor charged the beast as soon as the fire died down, Torvar, Njada, and two Newbloods, Hroki and Tor, on their heels while Aela, Athis, and Ria provided cover fire with the other soldiers. Sonja leapt off the tower and sprinted toward the wounded beast, flanking it with ice spikes and lightning bolts, while Faendal loosed arrow after arrow into the small spaces between scales. The twins kept the dragon busy while the others made short work of its wings, crippling its ability to take off again.

The beast roared in pain and snapped ferociously at Vilkas and Farkas, forcing them to retreat several yards to stay out of the way of the dragon’s fierce fangs. But with the twins removed from the fight, the others were exposed to the fury of the beast. “Fall back!” Vilkas roared, but he was drowned out by the dragon as it gnashed, snapped, and clawed at his Shield-Siblings.

Torvar half dragged Njada back, out of the range of the writhing spiked tail. But the Newbloods were too slow. The dragon caught Hroki in its mouth, shaking vigorously, crunching through his body and instantly killing him. Tor was nearly crushed beneath its claw, but Sonja tackled him out of the way. They tumbled, sliding sideways from the force of her momentum. “MOVE!” Vilkas bellowed, sprinting toward them.

The dragon had flung Hroki’s body from its mouth and was clawing its way toward Sonja and Tor. The Newblood was paralyzed by fear, but Sonja was already on her feet, grabbing him by the front of his armor and hefting him upright before pushing him toward Vilkas. “RUN!” she screamed at him. He was still stupefied, but he managed to take a few stumbling steps forward, enough to get out of the way. But Sonja wasn’t so lucky.

She had made to follow him, to run to safety, but in the precious seconds she spent in saving his life, the dragon closed in on her. Its hideous mouth opened, revealing thick, sharp fangs and a wicked tongue. Fire exploded from its gaping maw. Sonja felt the heat of it as the flames raced toward her, the hot air blowing forcefully against her body. She only had a split second to think, to save her own life, and she flung her hands up to protect herself.

“SONJA!” Faendal cried in horror as he watched the flames envelop his friend.

Vilkas pulled Tor the last few steps and out of the way before sprinting forward. He didn’t have a plan. All he could think was to do something. Anything. The Newbloods were his responsibility. He couldn’t let Sonja die—even though it was unlikely she survived the flames. But he stopped short, the heat too intense to get any closer.

The dragon’s breath ceased and much to everyone’s surprise, Sonja was still standing, sweating and char clinging to the edges of her face, but whole and unharmed, the warbling magic of a ward shimmering in front of her outstretched hands. Even the dragon seemed confused and in the brief moment of its hesitation, she was moving. She charged it, covering her approach with an ice spike to one of its large, golden eyes. Its head rolled back as it roared out in pain and its clawed wing scratched at the ice lodged in its eye. While its neck was exposed, Sonja drew her elven sword and struck at it will all her might. The dragon’s roar was cut short and its head fell forward.

It was still alive—but only just. The beast sputtered, choking on its blood and gasping through the wound in its throat. It glared at Sonja with its good eye. “Dovahkiin,” it growled and it seemed to Sonja that it was surprised, “NO!” Sonja’s brow knit with confusion, but she didn’t puzzle over it too long; the dragon tried to snap at her. She dodged it, grabbed a hold of one of the many ridges on its snout, and hoisted herself onto its head, carefully avoiding the sharp spikes that snaked down its back. A terrifying roar tore from her lips as she drove her blade deep into the dragon’s brain. The beast went limp. Sonja jumped off the dragon and wiped the blood from her sword and the sweat from her brow. The blood was hot to the touch, but did not burn. She rubbed the slick liquid between her fingertips thoughtfully before trying to wipe it away, suddenly revolted.

Vilkas could hardly believe what he had seen. We took down a godsdamned dragon! It bruised his pride that Sonja had been the one to strike the killing blow, especially since he had been forced to call a retreat in order to protect his Shield-Siblings, but after the stunt she pulled saving Tor and despite her magic use, even he thought she’d earned it. She hadn’t lost her head or become paralyzed by fear. She had come up with a solid strategy to drag that fire-breathing lizard down where it belonged. And then she…the way she climbed that dragon’s head…Fearless. Absolutely fearless. He was impressed. She hadn’t disappointed. She had promised them a good fight and she had delivered. Even though they had lost a Newblood, they could have lost much more. It was sad, but the death of Whelps was not uncommon. He would be honored properly at Jorrvaskr, but dying while facing the first dragon to be seen in Skyrim in centuries—there were worse ways to die. He looked at Sonja who was still standing over the dragon with a look of shock on her face. She isn’t like the other Newbloods…he thought, but he’d never admit it, least of all to her.

The guards and other Companions started to close in on the massive reptile corpse, curious to see the beast up close. Vilkas approached her to congratulate her and give her a stern reprimand for going in for the kill without back up. Damned dragon could have bit her damned head off, after all, he reminded himself, finding a fault to cling to so as not to give her too much credit. They all stopped short when the dragon’s body suddenly burst into flame, however. The scales and delicate flesh of the wings curled up beneath the fire. Everyone stepped back from the heat. Except Sonja. She was rooted to the spot, entranced by the way the flames looked as the they overtook the dragon’s flesh and bone. The heat didn’t bother her either; she liked how it felt on her skin. The light put off by the fire intensified and took on a force and movement all its own. It reminded Sonja of what happened in Bleak Falls Barrow which only made her all the more intrigued.

“Sonja!” Faendal called, climbing off the tower, his voice strained from worry, “Step back from the fire!”

She barely heard him, but she nodded and took a half step back before the light reared up like the great beast beneath it and struck her full in the chest, lifting her several feet into the air. It felt like her skin was on fire—but it didn’t hurt; it felt good. The vastness of the light entering her body was tremendous, deep, and ancient. His name was Mirmulnir…Sonja roared, half pain and half pleasure, half mourning and half rejoicing. She didn’t know what it was exactly, but she felt something awaken inside her, stretch, and shake off the dregs of a dreamless sleep. And then a torrent of force rattled through her bones, thrumming against her ribcage. She inhaled deeply, gasping, taking in the cold night air until she felt as though her lungs would burst. And then she let it go. A gale roared out of her throat in a single, powerful Shout, “FUS!” The ground vibrated from the force of it. Those nearby took several steps backward and covered their ears in surprise and fear.

When it was all over, Sonja landed unsteadily on her feet, hunched over and breathing heavily. Faendal was at her elbow, saying something to her, but she didn’t understand him. There was a loud ringing in her ears that made it difficult for her to concentrate. He seemed to be concerned about her eyes, but she couldn’t make it out. Suddenly, Vilkas was in her field of vision. He seemed angry and he was gesturing violently until he looked her full in the face, then he seemed confused and concerned. He grabbed her face roughly, peering intently into her eyes. “Are you alright?” he asked and Sonja was finally able to understand him.

“Let go,” she snarled, shoving his hands away. She looked a little crazed, possessed. Draconic, Vilkas thought. Somehow her features looked sharp, cruel even. It wasn’t as if anything had physically changed in her face—except the golden glow of her eyes—it was just a feeling, an impression that her snarling, disgusted expression imparted. It reminded him a little of newly turned werewolves. The gleam of the Beast in the eye. The glint of hunger in the mouth. The rage of an animal, of a much stronger being trapped inside such a weak, inferior body. Vilkas took a decided step back to give Sonja some air, but Faendal stepped closer.

“What happened?” the Bosmer asked, reengaging Sonja’s attention.

Her fierce eyes locked onto his face and she looked as if she were going to snap at him too, but she didn’t. Whatever roiling internal agony was fueling her irritability was lessening. The golden gleam of her eyes softened and something like recognition zipped through her face as if she was realizing where she was and who was with her for the first time. Her eyes flit to Vilkas and then beyond to the other Companions and Irileth.

“Mara’s bleeding heart, what did I do?” she nearly whispered.

“Was—was it like what happened before?” Faendal asked in an undertone. That caught Vilkas’ attention, but Sonja looked around nervously, noticed his interested gaze, and refused to answer Faendal’s question.

“She’s Dragonborn,” said one of the guards, “She has to be. I can’t believe it.”

Vilkas and Farkas exchanged glances and muttered, “Dragonborn?” in disbelief. The word echoed through the crowd in disbelieving and reverent whispers alike.

Sonja turned her gaze on the guard; she felt strangely disconnected from the people surrounding her. “Dragonborn?” she repeated. Dovahkiin.

“In the very oldest tales back when there was still dragons in Skyrim, the Dragonborn would slay dragons and steal their power,” the guard explained, “That’s what you did, isn’t it? Absorb the dragon’s power?”

“His name was Mirmulnir,” she corrected automatically which only served to draw more excited attention and surprise, “Shit, I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t know what happened.”

“But you Shouted! That can only mean one thing,” the guard insisted, “You must be Dragonborn.”

“The Greybeards can Shout and they are not Dragonborn. Ulfric Stormcloak can Shout and he is not Dragonborn,” Vilkas pointed out, refusing to believe so easily—though with some effort. The way she looked after killing that dragon, after the light and the Shout and her eyes? It was harder not to believe. “Where did you learn? Who was your teacher?”

Sonja’s brow furrowed and something like panic was beginning to unfurl in her chest. She looked at Vilkas, her eyes wide and fading back to deep blue. “I can’t Shout,” she nearly whispered, “I don’t even know what that is.”

“What do you mean you don’t know what it is?” he demanded, “You just Shouted a moment ago! You shook the ground beneath you!”

“I did what?”

“Do it again.”

“I can’t…”

“Do it again.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Do it again!”

Sonja’s jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed, but she moistened her lips and tilted her head skyward. For a moment, she just stared into the sky as if a reasonable explanation to her current, bizarre situation would suddenly present itself. But the heavens were silent. Beautiful and full of light, but quiet. So she inhaled deeply through her nose, her ribcage expanding beneath her armor as her lungs filled, and then she felt muscle memory take over as if she had always been able to do what she was now attempting for the first time. “Fus!” she Shouted, the ancient magic rippling through her body from head to toe, forcing out a powerful burst of air skyward. Her eyes widened in muted surprise.

“My grandfather used to tell stories about the Dragonborn,” chimed in another guard now that it was apparent to him, at least, that Sonja really was Dragonborn, “Those born with the Dragon Blood, like old Tiber Septim, himself.”

“I’ve never heard of Tiber Septim killing any dragons,” countered a third man.

“There weren’t any dragons then, idiot,” replied the second guard, “They’re just coming back now for the first time in forever. But the old tales told of the Dragonborn who could kill dragons and steal their power,” he turned back to Sonja, “You must be one.”

“What do you say, Irileth?” the third guard asked, “You’re being awfully quiet. Do you believe in this Dragonborn business?”

“Hmm, some of you would be better off keeping quiet than clapping your gums on matters you don’t know anything about,” Irileth replied coolly, but she kept a careful eye on Sonja as she said so. “Here’s a dead dragon,” she continued, “And that’s something I definitely understand. Now we know we can kill them. But I don’t need some mythical Dragonborn. Someone who can put down a dragon is more than enough for me.”

“You wouldn’t understand, Housecarl,” one of the guards objected, “You ain’t a Nord.”

Irileth turned flashing eyes on him and said with indignation, “I’ve been all across Tamriel. I’ve seen plenty of things just as outlandish as this. I’d advise you all to trust in the strength of your sword arm over tales and legends.” Some of the men grunted in agreement, including Aela. But the rest remained unconvinced. They muttered amongst themselves as to whether or not they believed Sonja was Dragonborn.

“Alright, that’s enough,” the irritated Housecarl growled, “Report back to Whiterun immediately!” There was only the briefest moment of hesitation. “NOW!” The guards fell into formation and marched back to Whiterun, still whispering amongst themselves.

Irileth turned her attention back to Sonja. “The Jarl will want to speak with you also,” she said, “Return to Dragonsreach as soon as possible. He’ll want to hear your report of events. I have to see to the men first.”

Sonja nodded distractedly and Irileth addressed Skjor. “Thank you, Companions,” she said, “Without you, I would have lost many men just trying to knock the damned thing out of the sky. I’m sorry for the loss of one of your own.”

“He will be properly honored,” Skjor responded, nodding to the Housecarl, “He died in honorable combat.” Irileth nodded silently and then marched off after her men. “Come, Shield-Siblings,” he continued, “We must return to Jorrvaskr and tell our Harbinger of this glorious battle.” He looked at Sonja, curiously. “I don’t know what I saw,” he said, “But the Dragonborn is said to be a fierce warrior. You may have given Vilkas a thrashing, but that doesn’t mean you’re worthy of walking the path of Talos.” There was some grumbling both from those who agreed and disagreed with him. Vilkas bristled, obviously insulted by Skjor’s insinuation that Sonja had given him a beating during her test.

“I never claimed to be,” Sonja responded stiffly, “I don’t know…” She was cut off when the ground began to shake violently.

Thunder cracked the night, but there was no lighting preceding it, nor cloud in the sky. The sound of voices calling, imploring, rode the tail of it, declaring, “DOVAHKIIN!

The call drew Sonja’s eyes in the direction of the tallest mountain peak nearby and she shuddered. “What in Oblivion was that?” she demanded, almost desperately.

“The Greybeards,” Vilkas answered, “At High Hrothgar on the Throat of the World.”

The Companions all exchanged bewildered glances. “She is Dragonborn!” Farkas insisted and the others agreed.

Sonja didn’t know who the Greybeards were or what importance they held. All she knew with any kind of certainty was that call was meant for her and she was scared half to death of it. None of it made any sense. She wasn’t in Skyrim because she was Dragonborn! She had come chasing after her infuriatingly irresponsible younger sister. And she only understood the title ‘Dragonborn’ insofar as it applied to the Tiber Septim bloodline of kings. She was related to no royalty! Whatever had happened back at Bleak Falls Barrow and now with the dragon was a mistake. A coincidence. She must have been caught in the middle of bad magic—twice. That’s all. This isn’t…I can’t be…no…why…how…no, no, no… “This isn’t right…” she insisted, but somewhere at the back of her mind—a part she tried fervently to ignore—it felt absolutely right and that terrified her.

The Companions all looked as shocked as she was. Only Skjor and Aela maintained disbelieving expressions, though their skepticism went no deeper than that. “Didn’t I tell you lot to get back to Jorrvaskr?” Skjor barked.

The Companions reluctantly began to drift away back toward Whiterun until only Vilkas remained. “See me when you’re done with the Jarl,” he commanded, his voice stern but not unkind.

“Is that an order?” she asked, sharply.

“We are the Companions,” he replied, “We own no man, mer, or beast. We give no orders.”

“Skjor seems fond of giving them.”

“That’s Skjor.”

Sonja wanted to refuse him if only to regain some of the agency she felt she lost the moment the guards began declaring her Dragonborn. But there was something in his face that made her reconsider. More than the challenge that had caught her attention the first time they met. More than the dour twist of his expression or even the cocky smirk he had during her trial. Understanding. As if he could possibly understand what it was she was feeling. “Yes, Companion,” she agreed finally and he turned to walk back up to Whiterun.

“You alright?” Faendal asked when everybody had gone.

“Do I fucking look alright?” she snapped, but she took a deep breath, gathering all the wayward strands of her emotions and tucking them neatly inside, bottling up all the anger and confusion she was feeling in the wake of such tremendous possibility. “Yes,” she said at length, “I’m fine.”

Faendal didn’t believe her, but he knew her well enough by then to know that he wouldn’t get much more out of her. “Then we’ve a job to finish,” he reminded her.

She nodded as if revived by his words. “Right,” she said, her voice hard and determined, “We shouldn’t keep the Jarl waiting.”

Balgruuf looked anxious to see what kind of news Sonja had to report. “So what happened at the watchtower?” he asked when she and Faendal were near enough, “Was the dragon there?”

“We killed the dragon, but the watchtower was destroyed,” Sonja explained.

“I knew I could count on Irileth,” Balgruuf said fondly, “But there must be more to it than that?”

“There is,” she hesitated, weighing her options in her head; if she didn’t tell the Jarl now, he’d only hear it from one of his guards later. “The men—they called me—Dragonborn.”

“Dragonborn?” Balgruuf repeated, “What do you know about the Dragonborn?”

“Next to nothing,” Sonja admitted, her response marked again by hesitation, “Just what the men were whispering about.”

“So it’s true, the Greybeards really were summoning you.” The Jarl seemed intrigued and leaned back in his throne pensively.

“Yes—I heard them Shouting from the mountain.”

“We all heard them.”

“But no one’s told me who or what they are,” Sonja stated, some of her frustration working its way into her tone, “I don’t like being left in the dark.”

“They are Masters in the Way of the Voice,” Balgruuf clarified, “They live in seclusion, high on the slopes of the Throat of the World. The Dragonborn is said to be uniquely gifted in the Voice—the ability to focus your vital essence into a Thu’um or Shout. If you really are Dragonborn, they can teach you how to use your gift.” He looked too his brother, “You heard the summons. What else could it mean? The Greybeards…”

“Didn’t you hear the thundering sound as you returned to Whiterun?” Hrongar asked, “That was the Voice of the Greybeards summoning you to High Hrothgar. This hasn’t happened in—centuries, at least. Not since Tiber Septim, himself, was summoned when he was still Talos of Atmora.”

“Hrongar,” Proventus interrupted, “Calm yourself. What does any of this Nord nonsense have to do with our friend here? Capable as she may be, I don’t see any signs of her being this—what—Dragonborn?” Sonja didn’t like how they spoke about her as if she wasn’t even there and shifted her weight from one foot to the other impatiently.

Hrongar’s face flushed with anger and Sonja thought he was going to punch the Imperial advisor. “Nord nonsense? Why you puffed up, ignorant—these are our sacred traditions that go back to the founding of the first Empire.”

Balgruuf held up a hand to draw the argument to a close. “Hrongar, don’t be so hard on Avenicci.”

“I meant no disrespect, of course,” Proventus cooed insincerely. “It’s just that, what do these Greybeards want with her?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Sonja interjected, pointedly.

Proventus and Hrongar exchanged barbed glances, but finally fell silent. Their differing opinions on the matter would only spark another argument between them. So Balgruuf spoke instead. “Whatever happened when you killed that dragon, it revealed something in you and the Greybeards heard it,” he answered sternly.

The Jarl was right. She felt it. An awakening. Something that had once lain dormant was now awake, aware, and hungry. It heated her blood in a powerful way and everything felt a little sharper. Not so much that it was immediately noticeable, but she felt the tingle of it across her skin. Whatever change took place inside of her was not yet done. She could sense that there was more to come. Her expression narrowed, closed off and blank, her eyes staring off focus just over Balgruuf’s left shoulder. She didn’t seem particularly intimidating him. A strong warrior build, certainly, but nothing like the presence and bearing of her mother. But her eyes—the eyes were sharp and determined. And cold. They reminded Balgruuf of fire and ice all at once.

He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “If they think you’re Dragonborn, who are we to argue?” he reasoned, “You’d better get up to High Hrothgar immediately. There is no refusing the summons of the Greybeards. It’s a tremendous honor.”

Sonja’s brow furrowed. It didn’t feel like a tremendous honor. It felt like a trap, a sink hole of responsibility she’d never be able to escape, and she still didn’t fully comprehend the gravity of what it meant to be Dragonborn. It was just a word, attached to a strange feeling, attached to stranger magic. “I will consider it,” she replied, darkly, wanting more than ever to disappear into a quiet, dark space so she could think in private, “But for now, I have other responsibilities.”

“This supersedes them all,” Balgruuf insisted, “But—do as you wish. Perhaps it is best for you to go when you are ready so the Greybeards have a willing student.”

He paused, smiled wistfully, and continued in a softer voice, “I envy you, you know? To climb the Seven Thousand Steps again. I made the pilgrimage once. Did you know that?” He chuckled softly. “No, of course you don’t. High Hrothgar is a very peaceful place—very disconnected from the troubles of this world. I wonder that the Greybeards even notice what’s going on down here. They haven’t seemed to care before.” He sighed.

“Times are changing,” Sonja replied blankly, “Perhaps they deem the larger world worth a second glance.”

“Perhaps,” then, “No matter,” he said, his tone hardening to official, “I wanted to reward you for the great service you have done for me and my city.” He gestured to one of the nearby guards who came closer, bearing a steel battleaxe. It looked like one of Eorlund’s. Not the same works of art he turned out for the Companions, but a special commission piece he must have done for the Jarl at some point. Still beautiful and well made. “By my right as Jarl, I name you Thane of Whiterun,” Balgruuf continued, “It’s the greatest honor that’s within my power to grant. I assign you Lydia as a personal Housecarl and this weapon from my armory to serve as your badge of office.” He took the battleaxe from the guard and held it out to Sonja.

For a moment, she blinked at it, unsure what to make of any of it: the dragon, the Shout, the Greybeards, being Dragonborn, the Jarl offering her a title in his Hold. It all felt bound together in some way; if she tugged the thread loose of one, it would all unravel and accepting Balgruuf’s battleaxe somehow meant she was accepting being Dragonborn. Don’t be stupid, she chastised herself mentally and hefted the heavy weapon from his hands before enough time had elapsed to make it insulting. “Thank you, my Jarl,” Sonja nodded.

“I’ll also notify my guards of your new title,” he continued, “Wouldn’t want them to think you’re part of the common rabble, now would we? We are honored to have you as Thane of our city, Dragonborn.”

Sonja winced at the use of the title, but Balgruuf either did not notice or did not care. Instead, he turned his attention to Faendal to reward the elf for his services. The bold Bosmer was negotiating the terms of a land grant near Riverwood, but Sonja was hardly listening. Her mind was full of fire and force. Of thu’ums. Her grip on the battleaxe tightened and the leather on the haft groaned beneath her fingers. Faendal had been right about one thing, if nothing else: she wasn’t the type to run from her problems; she tended to chase them. If she was Dragonborn—gods forbid—there was no changing it. It writhed at the very core of her now. She could feel it.

Chapter Text

“This one is sad to see you go,” the Khajiit admitted as he watched the little blonde Imperial woman pack her small bag.

She glanced up at him, smiling brightly, her blue eyes twinkling in the light from the fire outside their tent. “Aw, come now, Kharjo, none of that,” she teased in a simpering, mocking tone, “I didn’t peg you for a soft-touch.”

He wasn’t. Not usually. But the little Imperial had brought it out of him with her easy smiles, silver tongue, and knowledge of Khajiit ways. She had first gained the trust of Ri’saad in Whiterun, sharing the sweet tobacco cut with the vara of their homeland. They had sipped zrajit and shared stories, and the Imperial had always demonstrated proper etiquette: refraining from drinking or smoking too much and allowing the elder to speak first. She had even taken the Skooma with grace. Slowly and very little, enough to enjoy its effects without degrading into a stumbling idiot. And the next day, she had brought gifts of food from the market they were not allowed to enter. So, later, when she wanted to leave Whiterun and travel with them, Ri’saad accepted.

She had gone with him clear to Solitude, searching. Looking for something, though what, Kharjo didn’t know. When she was ready to move on, Ri’saad gave his blessing to Ma’dran and the Imperial traveled with them until Windhelm. That was where Kharjo had met her, when Ma’dran was vouching for her trustworthiness, calling her a friend to the Khajiit. Ahkari, his caravan master, had been reluctant to allow a human to travel with them, especially since theirs was one of the most dangerous routes. From where it started in Dawnstar, passing through Windhelm, and finally ending in Riften, there were not many friendly to the Khajiit. But her companion, Zaynabi, had convinced her otherwise and the Imperial joined their caravan.

She had earned his trust in retrieving his Moon Amulet for him after the caravan had been attacked by bandits. She’d risked life and limb to track those thieving marauders down, slipping into their camp at night while they slept and taking the amulet off the bandit chief, himself. When she returned victorious, Kharjo was shocked anyone, let alone a human, would risk so much for him. He’d asked her why she had done it and her simple reply had been, “Because I know what it’s like to be homesick.”

Her name was Kit, or so she had said, but she had admitted to Kharjo once, when she was wrapped warmly in his arms beneath the cover of his bedroll, that her real name was Anja. He wasn’t angry with her for lying and did not reveal her secret to the others. Instead, he called her vari because she was sweet to his senses. Their relationship wasn’t sexual, but it was sensual. The difference in their anatomy and mating rituals made such things—difficult. Mostly, Kharjo was afraid he’d hurt her delicate skin with his teeth or claws. She didn’t have fur to guard against the pain of a love bite or the rake of his hands across her back. The anatomy of his mouth made it hard to kiss her, particularly with his fangs. And the act of sex, itself—well, he wasn’t certain it would be as pleasurable for her. So they nuzzled and petted and rubbed, sharing a bedroll, and she dropped little kisses along his muzzle to make him purr deep in his chest.

Though not typically attracted to others outside his own race, he found himself drawn to her and had grown more than a little fond of her throughout the course of their travel. And now she was leaving. Perhaps she would rejoin them someday in the future if she ever tired of Riften, but he doubted she’d ever leave. Not with the opportunity of joining the Guild. Her race didn’t remand her to stay outside the city gates. She was free to walk where he wasn’t, and that made him both a little sad and happy for her. “Will this one see you again?” he asked softly as she hefted her bag onto her shoulder and prepared to leave.

She smiled at him, wide, but her eyes had lost a little of their brightness. “No, kitten, I don’t think so,” she said almost apologetically and she touched his face, tenderly stroking him from chin to pointed ear where she scratched him lightly. His eyes lulled a little, enjoying the sensation. “It’s been good, though,” she promised, winking and tweaking one of his whiskers before she turned to leave.

“Wait,” he insisted, catching her arm, “For you.” He held out a little bundle of goods: a packet of the koomurrka tobacco, two vials of Skooma, a bowl of moonsugar, and a little purse filled with lesser gems and one flawless sapphire that reminded him of her eyes.

She jiggled the bag of jewels and looked up at him, confused. “You need these to pay your debt to Ahkari,” she objected, “I can’t accept this.”

“Skyrim is not kind to Khajiit, but it is also unkind to those without coin,” he pointed out, “It will help you with the Guild.”

Anja hesitated, wanting to refuse his offer, but knowing he was right. “I will repay you, trevan. I promise.”

Kharjo smiled. “Then this one will see you again, someday,” he replied, resting his head against hers.

She smiled wryly and hummed her agreement. “I suppose so,” she allowed.

Sala kha’jay, ishana,” the Khajiit purred when they parted.

Ja’fith khaja,” came the final reply and then she was gone, disappearing into the darkness as she hiked up the hill to the city gates.

“Hold there. Before I let you into Riften, you need to pay the visitor’s tax,” one of the guards at the gate demanded. The other guard made an audible sound of disgust, but otherwise said nothing.

“Visitor’s tax?” Anja repeated, looking between the two guards, “For what?”

“For the privilege of entering the city,” the guard chuckled and held out his hand, “What does it matter?”

Anja laughed and said in a bright, loud voice, “Look, this is obviously a shakedown…”

“Shh!” the guard pleaded, looking around anxiously, “Alright, keep your voice down! You want everyone to hear you? I’ll let you in. Just let me unlock the gate.” He turned promptly and unlocked the gate, propping it open for Anja to pass through.

“Thank you,” she said, smirking and winking to the guard when he stepped aside to let her pass; he grunted and Anja had the sneaking suspicion that his treatment of her was the harbinger of similar situations yet to come. My kind of city…

When she entered the city, she hadn’t walked ten paces when she overheard a conversation between an Imperial man and a Nord woman. The woman—Mjoll—had a run-in with the Thieves Guild that day, only one of many from the sound of it. The man she was speaking to—his name was Aerin—was concerned, but not about the Guild; he seemed to fear someone named Maven Black-Briar far more than the Guild itself. Worst kept secrets of the Thieves Guild. But she passed by them, headed for the inn.

On her left there was a large, imposing Nord man with dark hair and beard standing in the shadows of one of the houses. He was sizing her up with narrowed eyes. She had noticed him when she first walked in and assumed that he might be a thief searching for the right hustle, but she didn’t expect him to speak to her. “I don’t know you,” he growled, “You in Riften lookin’ for trouble?” Oh no, he’s the welcome wagon, she realized.

Anja eyed him suspiciously. “Just passing through,” she replied at last.

“Yeah?” he scoffed, “Well, I got news for you: there’s nothing to see here. Last thing the Black-Briars need is some stranger stickin’ their nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“I see.” Anja crossed her arms over her chest. “And who might the Black-Briars be?”

“They have Riften in their pocket,” the man explained, “And the Thieves Guild watchin’ their back, so keep your nose out of their business. Me? I’m Maul. I watch the streets for ‘em. If you need dirt on anything’, I’m your guy…but it’ll cost you.”

“How about giving me a free sample?” Anja asked softly, “I can be sporting. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. If you got dirt, I’m not necessarily clean, myself.”

Maul’s eyes trailed down the curves of her body and halted at the mace on her hip. He debated whether or not he should take her at her word on that account. She definitely looked the part of a thief, at least, and there was something smooth in her manner of speaking and body language that suggested she could sweet talk a prison guard into a cell, lock it, and throw away the key without once rousing his suspicion. “Then we’re speaking the same language,” he replied at length, “Good. So what do you want to know?”

“I’ve heard rumor of a Facesculptor here in town,” she said in an undertone, “Is there any truth to that?”

“There might be,” Maul nodded, “If someone were lookin’ for her, she could be found in the Ragged Flagon—Guild territory.”

“Splendid,” Anja purred, “And where could I find the Ragged Flagon?”

“In the Ratway. There’s an entrance on the lower level by the orphanage.”

“The Guild looking for recruits?”

Maul nodded. “Always,” he said, “My brother, Dirge, works in their hideout. I used to run with them, myself, but took a job with Maven after they started hitting a rough patch. If you want to get in on that action, find Brynjolf in the market place. I’m sure he could use someone like you.”

“Say you sent me?”

“If it helps.”

“Thanks for the help, big guy,” she replied, smiling sweetly, “A girl sure does appreciate it.”

“Any time,” Maul replied, his voice husky, “I hope you come lookin’ for me again soon.”

I wouldn’t bet on it, Anja thought wickedly, but she winked and said, “I might again, real soon,” before continuing on her way across the wooden bridge to the inn, the Bee & Barb.

There was a woman and a man arguing on the bridge as she crossed. Something about a shipment being robbed and a debt to be paid. Anja’s pace slowed a bit so she could catch the conversation in its entirety. “I’m really getting tired of your excuses,” the woman, a pretty Nord with a very angry expression on her face, said, “When you borrowed the money, you said you’d pay it back on time and for double the usual fee.” Poor sod, never make promises too good to be true.

“I know I did,” the Redgaurd replied desperately, “But how was I to know the shipment would get robbed?”

The woman shrugged. “Next time, keep your plans quieter and nothing would have happened to it.” Anja audibly inhaled and shook her head. Classic move.

“What?” he exclaimed, horrified, “Are you telling me you robbed it? Why? Why are you doing this to me?” Anja actually felt bad for the poor kid. He was too young to know when he was cutting deals with the scheming.

The woman smiled wickedly, arms crossed firmly over her chest, wordlessly declaring her indifference to his plight. “Look, Shadr,” she said, “Last warning. Pay up or else. All I care about is the gold. Everything else is your problem.” Then she sauntered off into the inn, leaving poor Shadr to his thoughts.

Anja knew better than to get involved. She really did. Not only was it poor manners to disrupt another thief’s con, it was downright dangerous, but even she could tell just from looking at the guy that there was no way he had the money to pay off his loan. It was a bad job. Can’t squeeze blood from a stone…she thought darkly before she strutted over to Shadr and plopped down onto the bench beside him.

He cast a sideways glance at her and saw that she was staring intently at him, her arms splayed across the railing of the bridge and her legs crossed and stretched out in front of her, lounging. “Hello Shadr,” she greeted brightly.

His eyes narrowed, suspiciously. “What do you want?” he asked, defensively.

Anja wasn’t offended by his tone. After the conversation she had just overheard, the poor kid was entitled to a little snark. “I’m about to make all your troubles go away,” she replied. Again, she watched another man’s eyes rake over her body, but this time, he was obviously confused. He had misconstrued her reply. She rolled her eyes and sighed, “With your debt, sweetie. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Oh,” he said, sheepishly avoiding her eyes, “How you gonna do that?”

“Well, first, why don’t you tell me what happened?” Anja rolled her hip, angling her body toward him and resting her chin on the heel of her palm, the other arm now gracefully draped along her leg, resting on her knee, “And I’ll see what I can do.”

“I was able to work out a deal with the stables in Whiterun to sell me some of their tack and harnesses,” he explained, “I borrowed some gold from Sapphire to pay for the shipment, but it got robbed before it even arrived. Now Sapphire wants her money back and if I don’t pay her, I think she’s going to kill me.”

“Who were you going to sell them to?” she asked.


“Who were you going to sell the tack and harnesses to?” she repeated somewhat irritably, “If you borrow money to buy something, you gotta sell something to make the money back to pay the loan off. And from the sound of it, you were intending to make quite a bit if you were promising Sapphire double her investment.”

“Uh, well—the Stormcloaks don’t have the same resources the Empire does…”

“And they won’t buy from shady or disreputable sources?”

“Their honor forbids it.”

Anja hummed her interest. That’s an angle I can work. “Work at the stables, do you?” she asked, checking her nails for dirt as if she was unconcerned with Shadr’s fear for his life.

“Y-yes,” he answered, unsure why she was changing the subject, “Horses are all I know. I’ve been riding since I could walk. Back in Hammerfell, I helped my family raise horses at our farm. I hope to open my own stables one day, but with Sapphire baying for my blood…”

“Right, right, I get the picture,” she waved him off and looked him over carefully. She’d already made up her mind to help when she took a seat beside him. Everything else was theatrics. Damn her heart if she didn’t have a soft spot for people like Shadr: those barely scraping by. They hardly had enough to feed themselves more often than not, there wasn’t much left over to steal. And Sapphire was asking for more than she could reasonably expect. It was a bad con, if nothing else. Poorly planned and executed. From a professional standpoint, something had to be done. Anja clicked her tongue. “Alright,” she said, “I’ll help you.”

Shadr instantly brightened. “You will?” he said in disbelief, “Oh, thank you!” He made to throw his arms around Anja in gratitude, but she was already on her feet and safely out of his reach.

“No touching,” she warned.

“Right. Sorry.” Shadr turned sheepish again. “I’ll be at the stables if you need to find me,” he informed her, “And be careful with Sapphire. She mixes with all sorts of nasty people.”

She watched him make his way back to the city gate before disappearing inside the Bee & Barb, herself. Upon entering, she was greeted by the rantings of an impassioned Priest of Mara in the middle of the dining area entreating all citizens of Riften to give up their sinful lives and embrace the charity that Mara teaches. Anja blinked, not expecting such an ironic welcome and somewhat charmed by the futility of it all. She scanned the room, hazy from the smoke of tobacco and noisy from the priest and the patrons speaking amongst themselves, ignoring him. Sapphire was at the bar, ordering a drink and speaking to a Nord man dressed in noble finery. Anja made her way toward her.

Just before she reached them, the man stood from his seat, tipped the barkeep, and laughed at Sapphire. “Be it on your head to sell those harnesses, lass,” he warned, “Tonilia wants none of it. No takers.”

Sapphire growled and waved him off. “I’ll think of something. Don’t worry.”

“I never do,” he assured, chuckling and striding off for the exit into the market square.

Anja watched him go, noting the quick, fluid movements that marked him as a thief, before taking his vacated seat. “What can I get for you?” the Argonian woman asked from behind the counter.

“A drink for me,” she answered, throwing her arm around Sapphire, “And for my friend.”

“I’m not your friend,” the other woman growled, shrugging Anja’s arm away and pushing away the ale when it was served.

“You will be,” Anja promised as she took a deep drink from her own bottle.

Sapphire glared at her. “And why’s that?” she asked.

“I’m going to give you a little business advice that will solve your equine woes.”

“My what?”

Anja rolled her eyes. “The little snag you’re running into with the stable boy,” she clarified.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do,” she coaxed, “You paid out a pittance with the promise of fortune, only you got too greedy and ended up with nothing.”

“I got the shipment,” Sapphire snapped, “That’s hardly nothing.”

“Right. Congratulations on stealing a shipment of specialized equipment only a select few can use or otherwise afford,” Anja scoffed, “It’s too bad you’re not an honest, if naive, little stable boy with the right contacts to generate some coin off them.”

Sapphire’s eyes narrowed. “What do you want?” she asked.

“Well, first, to tell you how spectacularly bad your scheme was,” Anja teased delightedly, “I mean, you need to know your mark. There’s no way Shadr’s going to be able to lose the shipment and pay you back. You’re just wasting his time and yours making demands he can never meet. Might as well have killed him when you asked for the money, but I’m guessing the price for murder is greater than what you can get trying to push those harnesses. With sloppy work like that, it’s no wonder the Guild’s hit a rough patch.”

Sapphire’s mouth thinned into a straight line. “Who said I’m with the Guild?” she asked.

“Every lovely inch of you, darling,” Anja answered, batting her eyelashes at Sapphire and blowing a kiss, “Might as well wear a sign.”

“Was there anything else? Or were you just going to sit there and insult me?” She was beginning to look murderous.

“It seems to me, the best thing you can do and still come out ahead is give Shadr the shipment you stole, let him make his sales and pay you back,” she reasoned.

“I could just beat the information on his contacts out of him,” Sapphire returned, “Keep everything for myself.”

“You could,” Anja agreed, “In fact, why don’t you do that instead?” She downed the rest of her mead, dropped a couple of coins down on the bar and prepared to leave a very confused and angry Sapphire to sit alone and surly. “Oh, wait, that’s right,” she said, slapping her hand to her forehead, “I forgot. The Stormcloaks will never buy your ill-gotten goods, will they? Damned Nord honor and all that. In fact, they might even be honor-bound to kill you for even trying to sell them stolen merchandise.”

Defeat began to creep over Sapphire’s features. “He was going to sell to the Stormcloaks?”

Anja hummed her confirmation. “Who’d you think he was going to sell to?” she asked, “Not a lot of folk buying horses these days, are there?”

“Nocturnal’s tits,” Sapphire swore, “Fine. Tell Shadr to expect his shipment tomorrow, but I want my gold at the beginning of next week.”

Anja smiled and held out her hand to shake on it. “You’ll get paid as soon as he does, sugar, no need to fret,” she promised and Sapphire reluctantly took her hand, “Pleasure doing business with you.” She turned to leave, but Sapphire yanked her back.

“The only reason I didn’t carve that smart mouth of yours from your face is because you’re getting me paid,” she snarled menacingly, “Next time you go meddling in my business, I’ll gut you. I swear.”

Anja laughed out loud which only enraged Sapphire more. “Oh honey,” she sighed, “I’ve faced down bigger and badder bitches than you before.”

“Why you!” Sapphire’s hand reached for the dagger on her belt, but Anja kicked the barstool out from under her while slamming her head against the edge of the bar.

“Oops!” Anja exclaimed, looking down on a disoriented Sapphire, “You really should be more careful, love! I’ll see you around!” And she calmly sauntered out of the Bee & Barb to tell Shadr the good news.

Later that night, Anja was sleeping peacefully in a room she purchased for the night at the Bee & Barb—or as peacefully as she was able after bashing the head of a Thieves Guild member into a bar. The innkeep had slid her a bit of a discount for knocking Sapphire silly, apparently having no love for the Guild. Anja took advantage of the Argonian’s generosity while secretly relishing the fact that she had every intention of seeking out and joining the infamous group of thieves in the morning. Her dreams were uninteresting and mundane at first, but at some point during the night, she began to dream of her twin brother, Thornir.

He is alive and whole and happy again, and it fills her with joy to see his smile. But then the sky darkens and fire begins to rain from the heavens. She is scared and calls out for her twin, but he is nowhere in sight. She wonders through the debris, looking for him, until she stumbles upon the remnants of a city marketplace. Sonja stands at the center, blue eyes glowing brilliant gold, and bellowing into the sky, desperately trying to stop the storm. But she can’t and the hailing fire intensifies, filling the air with smoke until Anja is choking on it. She tries to call out to Sonja for help, but she can’t speak. And then Thornir’s voice fills her head, “It’s only just beginning.”

Anja stirred so violently in her sleep, she fell of the bed, landing on her side with a dull thud. Rubbing the sore spot, she stood from the floor and looked around the darkened room. Just another stupid nightmare, she reminded herself and instantly she missed Kharjo’s company. The large Khajiit had made her feel safe at night, even through the dreams. Briefly, she entertained the idea of sneaking back out to the caravan camp for the night, but dismissed it. She’d only go back to repay him and nothing more. No point stringing him along with false hope. So she sighed and rubbed the tense muscles of her neck, preparing to go back to sleep when her world spun.

It was as if the room had shifted. Suddenly, she was staring up at the ceiling, unsure of how she’d lost her balance. And then her body was on fire. Every inch of her skin ablaze with heat with no apparent source. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she heard the faint sound of drums in the distance, echoing up through the floor boards. Then it was over. Just as abruptly as it had begun. Weakly, she staggered to her feet and dropped down onto her bed, too exhausted to figure out what had just happened to her. A few moments later, she was asleep again.

She didn’t slumber long. Sometime after she had shut her eyes, the entire inn was shaken with the rumble of thunder and unified voices crying out together, “DOVAHKIIN!” Anja jolted awake, still hazy, and didn’t immediately register the sound of her room door crashing open, covered by the sound of the call.

Sapphire, the man dressed in finery at the bar earlier—though now dressed in dark leather armor—and two other unknown Nord men barged inside uninvited. Anja was slow to react and jumped out of her bed sluggishly, tangled in the linens. Her unwelcomed visitors were momentarily distracted by the rumbling walls, but Sapphire only had eyes for Anja. She stormed across the room and punched her square in the jaw. Anja stumbled back, but the strange men grabbed her arms and held her upright. The angry thief struck her again, this time in the stomach, and she doubled over in pain. “That’s enough, Sapphire,” the man by the door said, refocusing his attention on the task at hand, “We didn’t come here to kill her.”

“Why not?” Sapphire snarled and she drew back to hit Anja once more, but the man caught her arm.

“I said enough, Sapphire,” he repeated.

“Fine.” She yanked her arm free of his grasp and stormed off to pout by the doorway.

Satisfied Sapphire was done throwing a fit, the man turned his attention to Anja. He was handsome. Tall with laughing green eyes and hair such a warm brown, it looked a little red. That quick, intelligent, and dangerous look about him. Anja might have instantly liked him if he hadn’t ambushed her in the middle of the night. “Sapphire says you meddled in a con she was working,” he said, his accent thick and foreign—maybe a little Breton.

“Aye. So?”

The man smirked. “Didn’t your ma ever teach you it was bad manners to stick your nose in other people’s business?” he asked mockingly waving a disapproving finger at her.

“What I lack in manners, I make up for in good business sense,” Anja replied sharply, “More than you can say for your woman over there. Running a shite hustle like that? All your people that incompetent?”

“Watch your tongue,” snarled one of the men restraining her, but the man she had been talking to seemed amused.

“Aye, Sapphire said she was finally going to get paid,” he replied, “I can’t complain about that. Coin in her pocket is coin in mine.”

“Brynjolf, I presume,” Anja smirked, “What a pleasure.”

The use of his name tugged an open grin from his face. “Asking around about me were you, lass?” he asked, “Looking to make a bit of coin?”


“Funny way of getting my attention, don’t you think?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Aye and you got a few new bruises in the process.”

“Finder’s fee.”

Brynjolf chuckled and eyed her thoughtfully. “Never done an honest day’s work in your life have you, lass?” he observed.

“That obvious?”

“I can tell,” he replied coolly, “It’s all about sizing up your mark, lass. The way they walk. What they’re wearing…” His eyes drifted down Anja’s body; she was hardly dressed, sporting only her smalls and an old, torn tunic. “Not much, in your case. But it’s a dead giveaway.”

“Sounds like Sapphire could learn a thing or two from you.” She blew Sapphire a kiss and the woman tried to charge her until Brynjolf cut her off.

“You don’t know when to quit, do you?” he asked, amused.

“It’s part of my charm.”

“Quite charming, indeed.”

Anja smirked and did her best to look cute through the growing bruise she felt blooming on her jaw. “Alright, I admit, I may have overstepped my bounds a little,” she allowed, “But it gets you paid, by my thinking, that makes us even.”

“It does, does it?” Brynjolf laughed, “But you interfered with a Guild job. Intruded on our territory. Right in our very backyards, in fact. We don’t take kindly to freelancers. Now lass, by my thinking, you still owe us.”

“Can’t you slide a girl a break?” she pouted.

“Not even for one as pretty as you.” At his comment, Sapphire made a sound of disgust.


“I’ve been called worse.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“An audition,” he offered, “Wealth is my business. Maybe you’d like a taste?”

Sapphire’s eyes flashed with anger. “You can’t be serious, Bryn!” she nearly shouted, “You said you were going to make her pay!”

“All in good time, lass,” he replied impatiently, “All in good time.”

Anja quirked an eyebrow at him. “Sounds to be more in my favor than yours,” she agreed.

Brynjolf shrugged. “If you’re half as good as you make yourself out to be, then we both benefit,” he reasoned.

“Gold in my pocket, puts gold in yours?”


“What’s the job?”

“I’ve got a bit of an errand to perform and I need an extra pair of hands.” Over Brynjolf’s shoulder, Sapphire seethed.


“Meet me at my stall tomorrow morning in the market and I’ll fill you in.”

Anja narrowed her eyes playfully at Brynjolf. “Tease,” she simpered.

The thief grinned at her and winked. “Vipir, Thrynn, let’s go,” he nodded to each man holding her arms and they released her, casting menacing glances her way before heading out the door.

Sapphire glared daggers at Anja. “Watch your back,” she warned and then stormed out of the room.

Brynjolf lingered and nodded, still smiling, “It’s been a pleasure,” he said and then he, too, was gone. Anja staggered, sore and exhausted, back to her bed and laid down. Her mind so full of the conversation she had just had that she had almost entirely forgotten about the strange event that preceded it. Soon she was asleep again, this time the whole night through.

Chapter Text

Arngeir woke suddenly, the darkness of High Hrothgar pressing in against his eyes as he blinked away his sleep. He heard his brothers stir around him. They, too, awakened by the disturbance, the shuddering in the stone, the vibration in the air. It could only mean one thing. Wordlessly, they left the warmth of their beds, dressed in their thick woolen robes, and gathered in the center chamber before the altar of Kyne. They stood on the corners of the stone compass in the floor marking the cardinal directions and raised their hands and faces in worship. They listened. Opening their minds to the whisperings of Skyrim; the Voices of all living and undead beings called out to them, but there was only one that sang, bright and clear and powerful. Effortless. It hummed like a heartbeat in the chest of a great winged beast. So, it is time…and they began to pray.

Ulfric Stormcloak was not asleep. He was in his war room, pouring over a map of Skyrim flagged with red and blue markers, trying to decide on his next move. “I think we both agree that taking Falkreath is the next step,” Galmar sighed, running his big hands over his face in exhaustion. They had been debating for the better part of the night.

“It would seem so,” Ulfric agreed, “Turning Falkreath would increase our territory and place us within striking distance of Whiterun.”

“So what’s stopping us?” the Housecarl demanded, “If we act now, we might be able to take the Hold before Tullius even knows what happened.”

“Are you sure he even made it out alive?” the Jarl asked.

“Reports confirm he yet lives.”

“That man is hard to kill; I’ll give him that.”

“Falkreath is still reeling from the attack on Helgen, if we move in through the pass…” Galmar continued.

“We don’t have enough men in the area to make that push,” Ulfric objected, “Not after your little rescue party.” Upon hearing of Ulfric’s capture, Galmar had launched a large scale rescue attempt to intercept the Imperials before they even made it to the pass into Cyrodiil, but Tullius and his men had had a head start. If they hadn’t doubled back to Helgen, Galmar’s men would have never been able to catch up with them. They had been in the midst of infiltrating the fort to surprise the Imperials and save Ulfric when the dragon attacked.

“Would you rather I had left you to die?” Galmar asked incredulously.

Ulfric smirked. “Of course not, old friend,” he assured, “But that dragon did as much damage to our men as it did to Tullius’.”

“Aye,” the Housecarl agreed, “That it did.” Between the Imperials and the dragon, itself, they had suffered greater casualties than they had anticipated, hobbling their efforts along the Rift-Falkreathian border—at least, for now.

Ulfric scratched his dark beard thoughtfully. “Have you heard back from Ralof, yet?”

“He made it out alive,” Galmar replied, “Him and Draconis. I received word this morning. His on his way back now.”


Galmar nodded. “He’s a good man. A good soldier,” he said, “It’d be a waste if he died at Helgen on a fool’s errand.”

Ulfric glared at his Housecarl. “Have you something to say, Galmar?”

“I don’t understand why you sent him back to protect the woman,” the general stated, “We were all but home-free and you sent him back into that hell. Did you know her?”

“I knew her mother.”

“We all did, but that doesn’t explain why you wanted her safe.”

Ulfric hesitated. “Do you know why we returned to Helgen instead of pushing through to Cyrodiil as Tullius had originally planned?” he asked.

“Ran into trouble on the border. That horse thief and Draconis, right?”

“Aye,” he confirmed, “Tullius’ men were wound so tight, waiting for an ambush on the pass that they mistook that milk-drinking snow-back for a threat.” It had been chaotic. Imperial soldiers leaping off their carts to search the area for attackers. Ulfric and a few others had taken advantage of the situation and tried to escape, cutting into the forest in the hopes of losing the Imperials. It wasn’t a particularly well-conceived plan. There was only two ways to go: up the pass or back down it. And Ulfric had pushed through the tree line, running smack into a very confused young woman.

She had conjured a weapon to defend herself and gathered flames in her offhand, but hesitated when she realized he was bound and gagged. Her deep blue eyes looked him over and apparently decided he was worth trusting. Whatever stayed her hand, he wasn’t certain, because in the next moment, an Imperial soldier flew through the trees at him. She pushed him out of the way and was tackled by the soldier instead. They wrestled while Ulfric struggled to regain his footing, bound as he was. When he finally righted himself, he was too late. The soldier had knocked the woman’s head open and was about to cut her throat. So Ulfric had done the only thing he could and flung his body into the soldier, knocking him sideways and saving her life. More soldiers arrived, he was recaptured, and Sonja was taken into custody.

“She saved my life,” he concluded, “I felt honor-bound to return the favor and she trusted Ralof.” He had heard her plead with him to go with her before she leapt from the tower. There had been no glimmer of recognition when she looked at Ulfric; she didn’t remember what had happened before the soldier had bashed her head in.

“So you sent him back in.”

“And they got out together.”

Galmar scoffed. “Luck.”

“Talos smiled on us all that day,” Ulfric replied, “But yes—they were lucky.”

The Housecarl growled like the old bear he was and rubbed his face. “It’s late and there is much to do tomorrow,” he said, pointedly.

Ulfric clapped him on the shoulder. “Get some rest, old friend,” he urged, “I will be a while longer yet.”

Galmar opened his mouth to make argument, but quickly shut it. He was tired. So he nodded and left Ulfric to stew over the map alone. As soon as his old friend was gone from the room, Ulfric took the opportunity to rub his own exhaustion from his face. He was feeling a little humbled after his capture at Imperial hands even though everything had turned out almost entirely in his favor. He had his life, the Imperials lost an important foothold in Falkreath Hold, and his men were emboldened by the rumor that he had summoned a dragon to free him from imprisonment. Even when he refused responsibility for the dragon, his men happily amended their rumor to say the beast was sent by Talos, himself, to free a True Son of Skyrim. That was harder to refute since he didn’t know the minds of the gods. Perhaps it was true. Perhaps it was not. It was not his place to decide.

What he really needed at that moment was inspiration. Something to leap out at him from the map so he could get back to fighting a war. So he stayed awake, staring at the red and blue flags, silently willing them to show him his next move. Absently, he began to pray. To Talos. Silent thoughts, repeating in his mind, Talos guide me with your might. Show me the way. And there was an answer in the tremor of the air, disturbing the stillness of the night.

A thu’um.

Wide and powerful, as deep and ancient as any from a dovah—but it wasn’t. The soft, almost fatalistic note of mortality hummed beneath it, declaring the shouter to be earthly, to be finite. And feminine. But it was so loud. Even he, after years of neglecting his Greybeard training, could still hear it, still feel it and know what it was. There were few beings in all of Tamriel that could call across the country and be heard like that. If it wasn’t a dragon and it wasn’t a Greybeard, then it could only be one thing, but he was almost fearful to admit his suspicions even to himself. He felt it, though, in the pit of his soul, where he conjured up the strength of his thu’um, that it was the very sign for which he had been praying.

Wordlessly, he left the war room and entered the main hall. His guards greeted him with respectful nods or bowed heads, but they did not otherwise speak to him unless spoken to. It wasn’t until Ulfric neared the doors leading out into the courtyard that a guard asked if she should fetch his Housecarl for him, but Ulfric refused her, assuring her that he was only looking for a moment of fresh air, and stepped out into the night.

It was snowing. Typical Windhelm weather. Fat snowflakes falling lightly through a windless sky, coating the ancient, stone city in a fresh, soft blanket of white. The heat of his breath hanging heavy in the air in front of him as he walked just outside the radius of the light from the braziers. Just far enough to be out of the reach of their warmth and the glare of their fires. He looked up, in the general direction of High Hrothgar, though he couldn’t rightly see it through the darkness and the gathered clouds, and waited. If he had heard the strange thu’um, then surely they had heard it too, and if it was what he thought it was—if she was what he thought she was, then he needed to know. He needed to hear it declared from the Throat of the World.

Their praying concluded, the Greybeards dropped their hands to their sides and filed one by one out the front of the ancient temple. The wind was always cold at the top of the mountain and the thin, brusque air nipped at their faces, but they did not care. They moved with purpose down the steps and to the edge of the path where it dropped down into sheer cliffs. They looked west, in the direction of Whiterun where they had heard the thu’ums of the Dovahkiin. Without any outward indication of when to begin, all four men breathed as one, pulling the chilled, eddying air deep into their cores where it was warmed by the heat of their bodies, and thu’umed across the country in a single voice, “DOVAHKIIN!” The call was made. Now all there was to do was wait for an answer.

Ulfric felt the power of the Greybeards’ combined thu’um rattle against his chest. It almost made him want to join in, but he didn’t. Instead he laughed out loud and happily informed his guards and anyone in the immediate area who trembled with fear at the sound of the call that the Dragonborn had returned to Skyrim at last. It was exactly what his cause needed: divine vindication. He was supremely confident that the Dovahkiin, a True Nord, would never join the Imperials. That she would join his cause and the Stormcloaks would be able to take Skyrim back from the Empire once and for all.

But first she had to learn from the Greybeards. Her power needed to grow and when she was ready, she needed to find her way to Windhelm and join him. So, he went back inside the Palace of Kings and headed straight for his bedroom. Galmar caught him in the main hall, asking what had happened. “The Greybeards have called for the Dragonborn,” he answered as he mounted the steps to the next level, “Talos-kin walks amongst us once again.”

“Are you sure?” the Housecarl asked, flustered.

“I feel it in my bones.” And he disappeared into his room.

Galmar followed and watched, curious, as his Jarl inked his quill and selected a blank sheet of paper. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Writing a letter to a friend,” was the only reply.



You caused a bit of a stir in Whiterun when you demonstrated the power of your Thu’um. Not everyone is anxious for the return of the Dragonborn.

I, for one, desire to see you grow and develop your talents. Skyrim needs a true hero these days.

You should turn your attention to Shalidor’s Maze. I understand it holds a mysterious source of power that can only be unlocked by the Dovahkiin.


Aan Fahdon

Chapter Text

Sonja returned to Jorrvaskr to speak with Vilkas as he had asked of her, but she couldn’t bring herself to go inside. Not yet. It was all a bit more than she was prepared to handle at the moment. But she had few places to go instead. Almost unbidden, her feet carried her to the last place she had felt safe before she had left town for Bleak Falls Barrow and started this whole mess: the Skyforge.

The perpetually smoldering embers glowed warmly against the underbelly of the great stone hawk. Though Eorlund wasn’t there at that early hour to stoke the hearth with the bellows, she was vaguely aware it must have been just as hot as it had been before because Faendal skirted the edge of the outcropping in an effort to put a little cool air between him and the forge. But Sonja didn’t feel it. Not anymore. The heat was pleasant now and did not cause her to so much as sweat. She ran her gloved fingers over the corner of the workbench where she had worked on Faendal’s gear only days before, oblivious to the change headed her way. It was a surreal feeling to stand there and look back: how the days stretched out like decades forever separating her from the person she had been then.

Her fingers slipped from the workbench. The faint whisper of her leather glove gliding across the hard surface murmured like a secret of a moment when she touched a point in time that had seemed so insignificant before, but was now startlingly important. She turned away and moved to the edge of the platform where she had stood on the outcropping and watched Vilkas fight. But she didn’t go there to think of him or how his body moved. From that jutting of rock, she could better see over the city walls, down into the valley below where everything was soft and quiet in the predawn light. The world still slept. Oblivious and unchanged.

Sonja’s eyes followed the waters of the White River as they snaked calm and silver around the curve of the mountains, disappearing into another corner of Skyrim she had yet to explore. Her gaze followed the valley floor, carved and rocky, as it vaulted upwards, leaping into mountain peaks where the soft wisps of low hanging clouds and morning mist caught on the jagged edges of stone faces. She followed the pointed peaks ever upward until she was staring up at the tallest of them all: the Throat of the World. Stoic and unmoving as mountains are, covered in a cloak of snow and mist, but she felt it almost glare down upon her, heavy, as if it knew who and where she was. As if it could think. As if it had been the mountain that had called to her and not the Greybeards. Real, solid dread gripped her then; the grasping fingers of it clutching at her ribs to crush the courage from her. She heard it in the weak flutter of her heart. Felt it in the tremble of her body. Everything was different now. Everything had changed.

The rising sun cast new, yellow light across the Throat of the World and Sonja’s eyes were pulled back down the serrated edges to the fold of the mountains in the distance where the sky had turned golden and rosy. The sun had not yet breached the cold silhouette of the horizon, but it was close and Sonja unconsciously held her breath in anticipation. A brilliant sliver of light brooked the sharp V of mountain ridges, setting the sky on fire and swallowing up the night. Sonja felt a knot develop in her throat and her eyes sting with unshed tears; she exhaled, releasing the breath held captive in her lungs, and felt relief wash over her. Yes, everything was different now; everything had changed; but it was never more than she could handle. She was too strong and had come too far to crumble now.

Over her shoulder, she heard Faendal jump. “Get some rest,” said a gruff voice and Sonja turned to see who was intruding on her moment of solitude. It was Vilkas. He had startled Faendal who had begun to doze off against the workbench.

“‘S that?” the Bosmer snorted and then looked around confused, “‘M ‘wake.”

“No you’re not,” Sonja sighed, “Go back to Jorrvaskr and get some sleep. I’m not going anywhere today.”

Faendal rubbed his eyes and glanced up at Vilkas who stood over him, silent and surly as ever, his arms crossed over his chest. “Ya sure?” he asked, suddenly feeling protective.


He pressed his hands flat against the stone to push himself upright when a large Nord hand suddenly shoved itself in his face. Vilkas was offering to help him up. Deciding it better to take his hand than deny it, Faendal gripped his forearm, but before he could position himself to stand upright, the larger Companion was already pulling him to his feet as if he weighed little more than a bag of potatoes. He stumbled a bit, but then dusted himself off. “You know where to find me,” he said to Sonja before heading down the stairs.

Once he was gone, Vilkas turned his attention back to Sonja who was staring off into the sunrise again. He wasn’t sure how to speak to her. There was a disconnect he was having problems reconciling between the tough little mage girl he thought her to be and the image of the unstoppable Dragonborn about whom he had heard stories during his youth. After she had struck the killing blow and absorbed the dragon’s soul, it had been easy to see her as otherworldly with her gnashing, draconic features and glinting golden eyes. But she was back to normal now. Human. A far cry from the legends he had heard.

And she seemed painfully aware of it. The anxiety etched across her face and her eyes staring blankly into the distance. Though she was feet from him, she was miles away, trying to fit together the pieces of this new existence laid before her. He had wanted to help her because she reminded him of a scared animal, of a newly turned Wolf. But that desire had waned by the time he had reached Jorrvaskr and realized it was folly to involve himself in something he had no business meddling with. It was only at Kodlak’s urging that he was there now. His Harbinger had thought it best he spoke with her instead, and so there he was, trying to make good on Kodlak’s advice. “What did the Jarl say?” he asked.

“It’s not Companion business,” she replied sharply.

“Not why I was asking.”

She glanced at him. “What do you care?” she asked, “I’m just a Newblood.”

“And the Dragonborn.”

Her mouth twitched into a frown. It was going to take some time before she could hear that title without flinching, she was sure of it. “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”


“Well—there’s nothing to say. I didn’t know I was—Dragonborn—I didn’t lie to you.”

“I didn’t say you had.”

She fidgeted, irritated by his unusually cool disposition. From what little she knew of Vilkas, he seemed to always run hot and moody. “He told me that if I really was the Dragonborn, I needed to go to High Hrothgar as soon as possible,” she answered.

Vilkas nodded. “Only they will be able to tell whether or not you are truly Dragonborn,” he said.

“I didn’t think sucking the soul from a dragon left much room for debate.”

“It is the way of things.”

She barked out a dry, sour laugh. “Why are you really here, Vilkas?” she asked, “Are you kicking me out of the Companions?”

He chuckled humorlessly. “You really do know so little, don’t you?” he said, “I could see it in your eyes at the tower. Fear. Afraid of what it meant to be Dragonborn. Afraid of the power you’ve been granted.”

Sonja looked at him then. “Oblivion take you, of course I was afraid!” she exclaimed, “I don’t know anything about being Dragonborn! I wanted to argue with them, deny it. Insist that they were wrong, but—I can feel it.” She ground her closed fist into her chest where she felt the dragon. “I could feel that dragon’s soul slither into my body.” She looked momentarily disgusted. “He had a name. It was Mirmulnir and he was powerful, angry, and cruel. That’s what’s inside me, now. Writhing like a snake. Do you know what that’s like?”

“More than you know,” came the startlingly unguarded reply. He was thinking of the Wolf and how it tore at his insides, making demands of his time and ruling over his thoughts and feelings. He didn’t know if it was exactly the same. If having a dragon inside you was any more or less painful, but he understood the alienation. The break between what was and what would forever be.

Sonja let out a little strangled cry of relief. She didn’t know if he was lying for her sake or had wrestled with his own demons in the past, and it didn’t matter. It was nice to know she wasn’t alone. That someone might be able to conceive what she was feeling. “So what do you want from me?” she asked.

“It takes about a week to get to Ivarstead on foot,” he said, “The fastest route is through the pass by Helgen. And then the climb up the mountain? I’ve heard the Seven Thousand Steps are treacherous for those who are not prepared.”

“You want me to leave.”

“Skyrim is not kind to the weak…” he began.

“I am not weak,” she interrupted indignantly.

“I didn’t say you were!” he insisted, “But you are inexperienced.”

She scoffed. “I got along fine enough before. I will get along well enough now.”

“I heard you at the watchtower, that dragon was not the same as the one that attacked Helgen,” he replied, his patience thinning, “There are more out there.”

“They can be killed.”

“But not by you alone.”

Sonja hesitated, her jaw grinding her teeth against each other painfully. “What are you saying? Speak plain.”

“Even Talos was an accomplished warrior before he went to High Hrothgar,” Vilkas replied, “I fear what may become of you if you go unprepared for the trials ahead. I will train you, if you let me. I will make you stronger.”

“Why do you care? Why do any of you care?”

He answered her by way of unfolding his arms and holding out a book to her she had not realized he had. It was thick and worn. An ancient tome. Musty with brittle, yellowing pages and the Imperial emblem embossed on the front cover. “Because I am a Nord,” he said, “And when the gods send a Dragonborn, there is a reason.”

Sonja accepted the book and cracked it open to the first page.

The Book of the Dragonborn


Prior Emelene Madrine

Order of Talos

Weynon Priory

Year 360 of the Third Era,

Twenty-First of the Reign of

His Majesty Pelagius IV

“Where did you get this?” she asked, bewildered by the excellent shape the old volume had been kept in.

“It’s Kodlak’s,” he answered, “Return it to him when you are finished.” And then he left her standing there, in the sunlight, staring down at the book with a furrowed brow.

Those blessed by Akatosh with “the dragon blood” became known more simply as Dragonborn.

Sonja pinched the bridge of her nose wearily. She had tried to get some sleep before tackling the book Vilkas had given her, but she was restless and filled with strange dreams. She ended up fishing the book out from under her bed and propping it against the headboard. Faendal slept soundly on the other side of the barracks, snoring so loudly Sonja was considering smothering him with a pillow. As if sensing her murderous intent, Faendal gave one last particularly harsh snort before rolling over and falling silent. Only taking a brief moment to enjoy the sudden quiet, Sonja skimmed through the page to find her place, but her eyes caught on the first sentence of the next paragraph.

Because of this connection with the Emperors, however, the other significance of the Dragonborn has been obscured and largely forgotten by all but scholars and those of us dedicated to the service of the blessed Talos, Who Was Tiber Septim. Very few realize that being Dragonborn is not a simple matter of heredity—being the blessing of Akatosh Himself, it is beyond our understanding exactly how and why it is bestowed. Those who become Emperor and light the Dragonfires are surely Dragonborn—the proof is in the wearing of the Amulet and the lighting of the Fires. But were they Dragonborn and thus able to do these things—or was the doing the sign of the blessing of Akatosh descending upon them? All that we can say is that it is both, and neither: a divine mystery.

“Well that’s clear,” she muttered sarcastically to herself and then skipped down a little further, avoiding the following paragraph that described how the Dragonborn Emperors were not related to each other, but then a shocking realization completely stole away her attention: the gods were real.

She was a student, a scholar, a mage. And her education had included a lengthy history course covering the important events of millennia passed and mythic histories. But a huge part of her had never fully believed, never completely gave herself over to faith in otherwise silent beings. Even when she took her Conjuration courses, she acknowledged the existence of the planes of Oblivion and the creatures that dwelled there. She knew they existed because she was pulling them through Aetherius. She could see them, touch them, smell them. But any talk of Daedric Princes she had chocked up to the same mythos as the Divines. It was just a story. It had to be. Because what gods of mercy and love would let Thornir die in their father’s arms?

She squeezed her eyes shut. It wasn’t just a story anymore. She was living proof. She could feel the truth of it in her bones that she was connected to something larger and timeless. The Divines were real. The Daedric Princes were real. And all of them, in their combined power and influence had looked upon Mundus and wreaked havoc on its inhabitants. They had looked upon her in her darkest hour, saw that her doomed brother needed saving, and did nothing. It had hurt feeling like she could have saved him if she had simply been quicker. It was worse knowing she was born the Chosen of Akatosh and still failed to protect her baby brother.

She rolled onto her back and lay the open book flat across her belly as she stared blankly into the bedframe of the bunk above her. This Dragonborn business was heavier than she thought and she hadn’t even made it halfway through the first chapter. Suddenly, she felt tired beneath the weight of it and finally closed her eyes, drifting off into a blissfully dreamless sleep.

Lastly, we come to the question of the true meaning of being Dragonborn,” Faendal read aloud, startling Sonja from sleep with the volume of his voice, “The connection with dragons is so obvious that it has almost been forgotten—in these days when dragons are a distant memory, we forget that in the early days being Dragonborn meant having “the dragon blood.” Some scholars believe that was meant quite literally, although the exact significance is not known.

“What are you reading?” she groaned, throwing her arm over her eyes.

There was a shuffling of papers as Faendal checked the first page. “The Book of the Dragonborn,” he answered with a bit of over dramatic flair.

I’m supposed to read that, not you,” she growled, but she didn’t move to take it from him.

“Funny. I didn’t know you could read with your eyes closed.” He flipped back to the page he had left off at and scanned the text to find his place again.

“I’m sleeping, you ass,” she muttered, “I was up before dawn, same as you.”

“And I’m up already.” She could practically hear the shrug in his tone.

You didn’t absorb the soul of a dragon.”

There was a long pause before Faendal spoke again. “You really did, didn’t you?” he said quietly, “I admit I thought it was a dream when I first woke. Just the feast not sitting right.”

Sonja’s face screwed up in consternation beneath the drape of her arm. “You and me both, friend.”

She heard the snap of the book as he closed it and set it on the floor. “Come on,” he said, “The feast is almost ready. You need to eat.”

Her arm moved a fraction of an inch so she could peek up at him. “I’ll be up,” she assured him, “Save a place for me.”

“Always.” And he left the room.

In his absence, she rolled onto her side and picked the book up again, cracking it open against the linens to the page Faendal had been reading from. She found where he had left off and continued reading.

The Nords tell tales of Dragonborn heroes who were great dragonslayers, able to steal the power of the dragons they killed. Indeed, it is well known that the Akaviri sought out and killed many dragons during their invasion, and there is some evidence that this continued after they became Reman Cyrodiil’s Dragonguard (again, the connection to dragons)—the direct predecessor to the Blades of today.

I leave you with what is known as “The Prophecy of the Dragonborn.” It is often said to originate in an Elder Scroll, although it is sometimes also attributed to the ancient Akaviri. Many have attempted to decipher it, and many have also believed that its omens had been fulfilled and that the advent of the “Last Dragonborn” was at hand. I make no claims as an interpreter of prophecy, but it does suggest that the true significance of Akatosh’s gift to mortalkind has yet to be fully understood.

Sonja experienced only the slightest sense of trepidation before allowing her eyes to drift further. It was an eerie feeling, reading a prophesy that may or may not refer to her. She didn’t know if she was the Last Dragonborn, after all. There could be more to follow, or possibly more existing simultaneously if the bit about the line of succession was credible. Unconsciously, she held her breath as she read the final paragraph.

When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world,

When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped,

When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles,

When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne, and the White Tower falls,

When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding,

The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn.

Sonja flexed her fingers against the sheets of her bed and then slammed the book shut. She was already teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed, adding that fresh hell would only make things worse. She had to draw the line somewhere, a point at which she could close off and feel nothing. And that was it. That last paragraph of vague prophesy she would not heed. Wordlessly, she flung herself from her bed and yanked on her boots, doing her best to forget the last words she had read, but they were seared into her memory.

Sonja joined the feast that night after she had gone to Belethor’s to buy some new clothes. Having only one pair of trousers and two tunics—one of which was torn in half—was becoming tiresome when she wanted to change her stinking clothes for a set of less stinking ones. She hit the bathhouse for a quick rinse and then returned to Jorrvaskr. Her Shield-Siblings were already enthusiastically enjoying the food, but they all cheered when she entered. They were relishing the defeat of the dragon the night before and it was only fitting the Dragonborn sit at a place of honor: right between Kodlak and Vilkas, apparently.

She had tried to steer towards Faendal, but Farkas gleefully raised her onto his shoulder and carried her to her seat. She did her best not to squeal girlishly in surprise and ended up making a weird sound halfway between a squeak and a cough. The mountainous twin took his seat beside his brother, laughing. Even the usually dour Vilkas had a small smirk, apparently amused by Sonja’s obvious discomfort. When she was settled and Vilkas had filled her cup with mead, Kodlak raised his own mug and the rest of the Companions followed. “Of our conquests, we have many,” he said, “Of our triumphs, only few are as glorious as slaying a dragon!”

The Companions roared, but Sonja felt a little half-hearted. Of course, to them the hunt, the kill, had been glorious and exhilarating, but to her it earmarked the beginning of a new, unknown chapter.

“And if that were not enough, the gods saw it fit to guide the Dragonborn to join our ranks!” Kodlak continued, tipping his cup to Sonja.

“Dragonborn or no, she’ll have to prove herself just like the rest of us,” Skjor added and there was some nervous laughter in the wake of his words as his Shield-Siblings were unsure if he was making a joke or not.

A flash of irritation tugged at Kodlak’s expression, but he chuckled good-naturedly instead. “Of course, of course,” he assured, waving his Second off.

“I would expect no less,” Sonja replied, digging her nails of her free hand into the wood grain of the table, “As one of the Circle said to me before, ‘Be worthy of it,’ and I shall be. How could I call myself Ironheart, Companion—or Dragonborn, otherwise?” She almost choked on the last title, but managed to hold it in.

“Fine words,” Kodlak approved, “With finer intent attached to them.”

“Let’s see it turned to finest action,” Vilkas added.

Sonja raised her cup. “Honor and glory to the Companions,” she said, taking her cue to make the final toast since she was Dragonborn, “And to the memory of our fallen Shield-Sibling, Hroki Fjormundson.” She paused. “May T-Talos watch over you,” she concluded.

“Glory in battle; honor in life; Sovngarde in death!” came the usual response and then they all drank deeply from their mugs.

The feast began in earnest then and Kodlak was calling for someone to tell the story of what had transpired at the watchtower. He had already heard it from the Circle, of course, but that was not the point. Storytelling was an honored tradition of the Companions. “Tell the Harbinger, Sonja!” Ria urged, her face open and bright, “It is your story, after all.”

Sonja might have been irritated with the girl if she were not so young and asking out of an honest desire for a good story. “I am a poor storyteller,” she replied, “You would be bored.”

“You were in the thick of it!” Torvar objected, “Struck the killing blow!”

She opened her mouth to refuse again, but Faendal cut her off. “Stories are told about the Dragonborn; she does not tell them, herself,” he said. She gave him a silent expression of gratitude.

“Perhaps you should tell it then,” Athis suggested, “Since you follow her around everywhere she goes.”

Faendal hid his indignity well by taking a deep swig of his drink. “Who am I to refuse?” he asked with mocking humility before clearing his throat and launching into the story of what transpired at the Western Watchtower. Sonja ignored him, or at least did her best to do so, but occasionally Faendal’s voice would rise with the action and draw her attention. She had to hand it to him, he was a very good storyteller.

Vilkas watched Sonja from the corner of his eye as she ate and tried to ignore Faendal’s retelling of the events at the watchtower. She seemed more at ease than she had been before, still wound so tight she looked as if she were expecting an ambush at any moment, but it was an improvement over looking so terrified she was about to bolt like a frightened rabbit. She hid it well, he’d give her that. Lounging in her chair, resting heavily on one armrest and looking as disinterested as possible. She was dressed down to a short blue tunic, off the shoulders and the color of her eyes, tucked into the waist of a black pair of trousers, and cinched in with a soft, quilted black corset. Casual. Comfortable. Low key. Her knee-high boots tapped absently against the floor, punctuating Faendal’s story with the soft beat of her sole against the stone he could hear only because of the Wolf. The only real thing that gave her away was the forefinger of her damaged hand which was scratching at the armrest with such determination, she was beginning to carve a groove into it.

“Have you considered my offer?” he asked in an undertone so as not to disturb others who were listening to Faendal speak.

She glanced at him. “I have,” she confirmed.


She paused, thinking. “I knew someone back in Cyrodiil a little like you,” she said at length, “Uthgar Frost-Hammer. Big man, built like Eorlund. Strong. Dour. Sharp mind.”

“Sounds Nordic.”

“He was originally from Markarth, I believe,” she nodded, “Old battleaxe, he was. Used to drill us over and over until we could act without thinking. Anticipate. Pushed us until we thought we were spent and then pushed us a little farther. Made us strong.”

Vilkas nodded approvingly. “He was your combat trainer?” he assumed, guessing that Sonja had learned to fight as part of her education. She was too disciplined to be self-taught and too good to have received casual, sporadic training.

She snorted with laughter, but drew no one’s attention. Faendal had apparently just said something funny, so everyone was chuckling. “He was my Restoration professor,” she replied, amused, and she drank deeply from her cup, chuckling lightly into the bottom of it.

“I—did not expect that,” he admitted, unsure of how to feel about her comparing him to a mage.

“He was a total ass, too,” she continued, “Real Nord traditionalist. Served in the Great War. Expected a lot of us.”

“It makes you better,” Vilkas responded defensively.

“It does,” she agreed, “He and I didn’t always get on, but I wouldn’t have traded that old troll’s tutelage for the world.”

Vilkas actually smirked. “I understand the feeling,” he assured.

She looked at him fully, then. “I told Kodlak I was eager to learn more when I arrived,” she said, “I didn’t speak false then and I haven’t changed my mind since. If—if you are willing to train me, I am willing to learn.”

The Companion nodded, surprised, but pleased. “Tomorrow, then.” She agreed and he let her enjoy the rest of the feast in peace.

Sometime during the late hours of the night, after all of the Companions finally stumbled down the stairs to their beds, Sonja, too awake and restless, decided to slip out into the night. She threw back her covers and grabbed her boots from the end of the bed, flinging a ratty cloak around her shoulders as she stepped out into the hallway as silently as possible. Her bare feet padded over the rug to the door and she stepped lightly over the creaking stairs to the upper level. The warm, hazy sleep induced from too much mead and full bellies prevented most from noticing her departure from Jorrvaskr. Not bad for a heavyfoot, she thought. She imagined Anja might be proud of her success if she was there—and if they were getting along.

In the stillness of the night, she made her way through empty town streets to the gates. A few guards nodded to her, but they had no interest in disturbing her since the story of the Western Watchtower had already spread through their ranks like wildfire. Indeed, as far as the Whiterun city guard—and really, most of the town by then—was concerned, Sonja was unquestionably Dragonborn. “Out for a stroll?” the gateman asked, more conversationally than with interrogational intent.

“Aye,” she answered simply, pointedly failing to elaborate. She hadn’t exactly set out with the intention of leaving the city, but she had wondered there nevertheless, the vague idea of a destination in her head.

The gateman nodded, apparently expecting such an answer, and pounded his fist twice against the wooden gates. The guards on the other side pulled the giant, heavy doors open and Sonja stepped through. “Careful out there, Dragonborn,” he said, “It’s dangerous to go alone.”

“I won’t be long,” she assured and waved him off.

Outside the city walls, a cold wind blew in off the snow-covered mountains and she made her way back toward the watchtower. She could see the ivory bones from the stables. The dragon skeleton stood stark in the moonlight like a ghost. It made her shiver. For a brief moment, she thought better of her unscheduled walk. Perhaps it was better to look at the corpse in the light, after all. But it wouldn’t change anything. Dead was dead and she had a morbid curiosity to see the bones of the creature whose soul she had—devoured? Absorbed? She wasn’t sure, but she wanted privacy. Wanted to be left alone with her own thoughts.

Once she finally reached it, she ran her hands over the bones of its ribcage and recalled how the beast’s hot blood burned her hands. The soft whorls of her fingertips were melted smooth and the pad of her left hand was a little scarred, but otherwise undamaged. Just a vague reminder of the beast whose blood she had split.

“Mirmulnir…” she whispered and she placed her damaged hand on the dragon’s snout. The maw snapped shut and one of its fangs fell to the ground with a dull thud. She knelt to pick up the tooth and ran its razor edge along her thumb, slicing it open. She hissed in surprise and stuck the injured digit in her mouth to stop the minute bleeding. She hadn’t been expecting it to be so sharp and bent to carefully pick it up from the ground where she had dropped it in her surprise.

Turning it against the flat of her palm, she marveled how they managed to kill the dragon in the first place. She looked down the length of its body and at the shattered remnants of its wings. The skeleton only a shadow of its living girth. With thick muscle, tough hide, and hard scales, the dragon had been much larger. No wonder it was a terror of the skies. It was built to fear nothing, to dominate, to rule. That’s what Mirmulnir desired most; she had felt it—could still feel it echo through her, nagging, reminding her that it was there. And she wondered if all the Dragonborn Emperors had felt the same drive for power—if their reigns had less to do with heredity or legitimacy and more to do with the nature of the beast.

She weighed the tooth in her hand thoughtfully and recalled what it felt like to take Mirmulnir into herself. The awakening she had experienced. The fullness. The sheer vastness of it all. There was no mention of that in the book Vilkas had given her; nothing to explain away her fears. There hadn’t even been a single mention of the Greybeards. “Dovahkiin,” she muttered softly and then decided that Prior Emelene Madrine didn’t know the first thing about being Dragonborn.

Chapter Text

Anja stared at her reflection in the little hand mirror she had stolen off a noble woman in Windhelm. The pretty little golden glass revealed the dark bruise across the left side of her face. She frowned, then winced from the pain of frowning, then whimpered from the pain of wincing. “Wench’s got a good swing,” she mumbled irritably to herself and then lifted her tunic to check the damage to her abdomen where another mark bloomed over her belly. “Ugh, there’s got to be a better way to make a living,” she groaned insincerely before digging into her bag and producing a small, travel alchemy set.

Humming her favorite Breton lament under her breath, she arranged the alchemy instruments on the dresser top. Once that was done, she picked through her waning supply of herbs. She sucked on her lips worriedly. Time to go shopping, she thought, making a mental note to drop in on the local alchemy shop—afterhours. In the meantime, she carefully gathered the remainder of her blue mountain flower and wheat into the small mortar to grind them into a fine powder. Sonja might have been the mage of the Draconis family, but Anja exceeded her skills in potion—mostly poison—making. Sure, her older sister’s brews would get the job done, but Anja’s were works of art in a bottle.

With a little flick of her wrist, she lit the stove mechanism beneath the alembic with the sputtering sparks of a fire spell. Hissing sharply, she withdrew her hand and sucked on the tip of her forefinger. She’d burned herself again. Magic was not her strong suit. Still, she’d learned one or two vaguely useful spells from a childhood friend and Sonja’s training buddy, Cullen, but had varying degrees of success in casting any of them. Case in point, her pitiful attempt at a fire spell. At least it was enough to light her alembic which was all she needed it for. She busied herself brewing the potion, humming again. The sad, lilting tune of the lament at direct odds with her bright mood.

When she was done, she carefully poured a dose of the purified crimson liquid into a small glass she kept for such purposes and promptly medicated herself. The healing potion took immediate effect, the tingle of it dancing along her jaw and over her ribs. The remaining potion she poured into two vials, then cleaned the set and put it away. Once she was dressed, she collected her things, slipping the vials into the empty slots on her belt where she kept an assortment of others she had created to help her with her craft, and left the inn.

Brynjolf’s stall was the one closest to her when she walked out the southern inn doors. “Ah, glad to see you weren’t put off by our little—business meeting—last night, lass,” he said as she approached.

“After such an appealing offer, how could I refuse?” she asked, leaning casually against his stall as if she owned it.

Brynjolf raised an eyebrow in her direction, smirking. He liked her pluck. “Your face has healed well,” he observed, leaning into her space, but not touching her, “Unless Sapphire didn’t hit you as hard as I thought.”

Anja ran her fingers over her chin as if she was touching up some cosmetic cover-up she had applied to hide an invisible blemish. “Your woman throws a good punch, but it will take more than that to keep me out of the game.” She winked.

He smiled at her, but didn’t correct her when she called Sapphire his woman for the second time. “That’s good to hear,” he said instead, “Are you ready to make some coin?”

“You were saying something about an errand last night?”

“I was.”

“What kind?”

“The simple kind. I’m going to cause a distraction and you’re going to steal Madesi’s silver ring from a strongbox under the stand.” His eyes flit in the direction of a stall attended by an Argonian. Anja followed his glance. “Once you have it, I want you to place it in Brand-Shei’s pocket without him noticing.” He nodded toward the stall across the way where a Dunmer was selling odds and ends and Anja flipped her blonde hair playfully to sneak a peek in Brand-Shei’s direction without being too obvious about it.

“What’s the poor elf done?” she asked, running her fingers through her curls until they laid into a semblance of order.

“There’s someone who wants to see him put out of business permanently,” Brynjolf explained, “That’s all you need to know. You are just an extra set of hands, after all. Now, you tell me when you’re ready and we’ll get started.”

“Best hands you’ve ever seen,” Anja promised, grinning. “I’m ready,” she said before strutting off across the market square for Madesi’s stall.

“Well, aren’t you a gem?” Brynjolf clucked before continuing in a louder voice to draw everyone’s attention away from Anja, “Everyone! Everyone! Gather round! I have something amazing to show you that demands your attention!”

As he watched Anja intentionally view the armor stand run by Grelka instead of going straight for Madesi’s wares, he was beginning to wonder if maybe he had picked the wrong person for the job. She was smooth alright, stealing coin purses off passersby as they moved in to hear what all the fuss he was making was about. With every successful lift she cast a little glance back in his direction; she was showing off. He liked cocky, provided she could deliver on that confidence. That wasn’t the problem. And she had far better business sense than half the people who called the Cistern home. That had been abundantly clear when she meddled with Sapphire’s con. A simple fix, really. One that he had seen from the beginning but was trying to let Sapphire figure out for herself. That wasn’t an issue either.

No, this brash new thief had the same problem Vex often had: too pretty. It was hard not to notice an attractive face when it walked by you. Sure, it could be useful in pickpocketing and investment schemes. A mark was too wrapped up in looking at your face to notice your hands in his pocket, and people in general tended to trust beauty—or want to buy it. But the job Brynjolf had recruited her for required a certain subtly he wasn’t sure she could pull off in broad daylight. Especially with those brilliant blonde curls of hers. The way they caught the sun no matter where she stood was maddening. Obvious. Glaringly noticeable. That’s why Vex preferred infiltration work: sweeps, shills, heists, and general burglaries. Jobs that required the cover of night to hide all those pretty features.

Well, there’s nothing for it now, he thought, Either she’ll pull it off or she won’t. Either way, he planned to extend an invitation to the budding thief. Even if she wasn’t the right fit for the job at hand, she’d more than proved her worth in all the gold she lifted off unsuspecting citizens. Delvin always had plenty of work for those with a light touch. “Gather round, all!” he continued, making sure everyone was facing him and not Madesi’s stall, “This way everyone, over here!”

The people of the marketplace proved to be far more curious than Anja would have guessed and they quickly converged on Brynjolf’s stall with great interest. As soon as Madesi came out from behind his stall to join the crowd, Anja slipped in behind it, pulling her hood up as she went to cover her shining hair, and dropped to her knees before the guard came around on patrol to see her. From little slits in her bracers, she removed her professional lockpicking set. Delicate, yes, but far more permanent than the fragile iron ones most novice thieves used. They were made of ebony; the handles of the torsion wrench and the tumbler pick were padded with black leather for comfort and larger to allow for easier manipulation and the application of greater force. A gift from Corvus when she used to run with the Guild in the Imperial City before—well, before everything fell apart. It was still possible to break the pick if she was careless—or a fumbling idiot. Anja was neither. She fed the tools into the stall door and turned the pick as quickly as the complexity of the lock allowed. There was a soft click and the lock gave way.

Anja slid the wooden door to the side and started in on the strongbox. Brynjolf’s exclamations about Falmer Blood Elixir punctuated her movements. The strongbox popped open. She sifted through its contents, procured the ring which she slid onto her forefinger for safekeeping, and then emptied the remainder of the loot into her various pockets. Then, relocking everything, she slipped away, unnoticed, and approached Brand-Shei who was standing, arms crossed, listening to Brynjolf’s advertisement. Pulling back her hood again, she palmed the ring and pressed her hand into Brand-Shei’s side with little pressure. “Pardon me,” she said softly and politely, passing a shy smile at the elf.

“Oh no, pardon me,” he replied, shifting sideways to allow her passed, but not before the ring concealed in Anja’s hand made its way into his pocket, “Sera.”

“You’re too kind.” Another shy smile and a forced blush, and then she was passed him, catching Brynjolf’s eye and winking to signal the success of the drop.

“Well, I see my time is up,” Brynjolf declared abruptly, “Come to my stall if you wish to buy.” There were many groans and mutterings about wasted time, but the crowd dispersed without incident. “Looks like I chose the right person for the job,” he said when Anja approached him, doing his best not to sound as impressed as he actually was.

“I told you I had the best hands you’ve ever seen,” she bragged, crossing her arms and leaning against his stall again.

Brynjolf chuckled, but didn’t validate her boasting. He liked to keep the braggarts thirsty for praise. It kept them on point. “The way things have been going on around here,” he continued, “I’m just glad that our plan went off without a hitch.”

Anja looked him over, pensively sucking the tip of her tongue. “Is it true?” she asked at length, curious for the inside explanation, “What I’ve been hearing about your outfit?”

The Master Thief was too good to wince or otherwise show his frustrations in his expression or tone, but Anja caught a little of it. Just a hint in the micro-tightening of his jaw. “My organization’s been having a run of bad luck,” he answered and waved her off, minimalizing the Guild’s troubles, “And I suppose that’s just how it goes, but never mind that. You did the job and you did it well. Best of all, there’s more to come, if you think you can handle it.”

“Oh, I can handle it.”

“Alright then, we’ll put that to the test.” He began to pack away the bottles of fake Falmer Blood Elixir into a large chest under the storefront. When he was done, he slipped out from behind the stall, closing up shop early for the day. He looked at Anja, intending to extend an invitation into the Guild, when he noticed the guards closing in on Brand-Shei’s stall and abruptly turned toward the inn. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll buy you a drink.”

Anja cast a sideways glance at the Dunmer as one of the guards began demanding he turn out his pockets. Usually, she liked to stay and watch a shill job play out. When she first started her career in the shadows, shills were the hardest for her to cope with. Sure, she tended to be a little—flexible—with her morality, but even she had trouble framing the innocent. Until, one night, Corvus had gone out of his way to show her why they were running a shill on a particular mark: an elderly woman with no family—because she had murdered them all. Unable to prove it, someone had paid the Guild to frame her for an unrelated crime and while the Imperial guard was tossing her home in search of some spoiled noble’s jeweled necklace, they uncovered the bones of a string of husbands and her many children in her basement. It was justice, in a twisted way. The only kind Anja ever meddled with since her profession tended to place her on the wrong side of conventional laws. So, every time she completed a shill, she liked to stay and watch the scene unravel. Watch as all their secrets were laid bare. There was always something. Everyone had at least one dirty little secret…

But Brynjolf was waiting at the door. So, she moved away from the market and followed the Master Thief into the Bee & Barb. He took a seat at a table this time and after an unnecessarily long time, Talen-Jei came to take their order. “Is there something I can do for you?” he asked, obviously displeased to see Brynjolf and casting pointed glances in Anja’s direction as if trying to warn her off or ascertain whether or not she needed help. She had become a bit of a hero to the Argonian couple after giving Sapphire the whatfor, and they had been aware of the Guild’s late night visit to her room, but had been too afraid to do anything about it with so many of them. Subtly, Anja flashed a brief smile at him to assure him she wasn’t in any trouble, though she doubted the Argonian would be much help if she had been.

“I’ll have one of those special drinks you’re always on about,” Brynjolf replied, noticing the small exchange between Talen-Jei and Anja.

“Which one?”

“What are my options?”

Talen-Jei sighed irritably. “First is the ‘Velvet LeChance’ which is a mixture of blackberry, honey, spiced wine and a touch of nightshade,” he recited, then he got a devilish look in his eye, “Perfectly safe, I assure you.”

Brynjolf smiled good-naturedly. He wasn’t about to give the Argonian the chance to poison him. “What else?”

“Second, we have the ‘White-Gold Tower’ which is heavy cream with a layer of blended mead, lavender, and dragon’s tongue on top,” Talen-Jei continued, obviously a little put out by the missed opportunity to inflict a little pain back at the Guild, “Last, and only for the bravest of souls, we have the ‘Cliff Racer’ which is Firebrand Wine, Cyrodiilic Brandy, Flin and Sujamma.”

“Cliff Racer.”

The Argonian looked to Anja. “A Velvet LeChance for me,” she replied, deciding to go for a more expensive drink than the usual mead or ale since Brynjolf had offered to pay. Talen-Jei nodded and then left to fill their orders.

“Been here less than a day and already you have the trust of some of the locals?” Brynjolf commented as soon as Talen-Jei was out of earshot, “How do you do it?”

Anja shrugged. “I wouldn’t call it trust, exactly,” she objected, “They’re too worked over, and rundown to trust anyone. They like me because I stood up to one of your members and they’d like to see it again. Should I die in the attempt, they’d only mourn the opportunity to repay the Guild for its many kindnesses.”

“Bit of a simple explanation for an Argonian who was prepared to poison me.”

“He’d want to poison you whether I was here or not,” she chuckled, “But people do tend to like me.”

“Sapphire doesn’t like you.”

“Sapphire’s not my problem.”

“She might make herself one if you don’t behave.”

“I never behave.”

“What a handful you must have been to your previous employers.”

Anja raised an eyebrow. “I ran alone.”

“I doubt that,” he scoffed.


“You’re too good to have escaped the notice of any Guild worth its salt.”

Her eyes narrowed and she smirked. “Suppose there’s no use hiding it,” she replied, “Yes, I used to run with a Guild before.”

“Which one?”

“Why does it matter?”

“I’m curious.”

“Curiosity killed the Khajiit, or haven’t you heard?”

Brynjolf cocked his head to one side, grinning, and looked her over carefully. Pinning down her origins was difficult. Petite, blonde, blue-eyed, and an alabaster complexion. Her lack of pointed ears dismissed any suspicions that she was Breton and her accent betrayed her as Cyrodiilic—definitely Nibenese—but, aside from her small frame, her features looked very Nordic. Her dark leather armor was worn, but meticulously oiled; light and made for stealth, but not to guard against the cold—so not Bruma—and cut in a style that was vaguely Dunmeri. Cheydinhal, maybe? And her weapons were fine, high-end grade. Ebony to cut down on light reflection. There was nothing worse than a blade of brighter metal catching errant moonlight and giving away an otherwise concealed thief. So, she was smart, experienced—had had enough jobs tossed her way to afford the expensive gear. He’d checked with his man at the gates about her arrival; she’d been seen with the Khajiit caravans which meant she must have given them damn good reason to trust her. Lot of Khajiit in Leyawiin. Argonians too. Lot of sneak types in Bravil.

The diversity in her appearance was bordering on frustrating, but then it struck him suddenly that such variety generally only came from one place: the Imperial City. “No matter,” he sighed, keeping his revelation to himself to spring on her later when she wasn’t expecting it. He’d get more truth out of her that way. “I’ll get it out of you one way or another.”

“I look forward to it.” She made eyes at him, playfully, over the top of her Velvet LeChance as she took a sip.

She was baiting him and oh did she make for a pretty temptation, but he didn’t like mixing business with pleasure—no matter how attractive he found her. “Careful, lass,” he warned, “That will get you in trouble.”

“I’m counting on it.”

“You’ll have plenty of trouble with what I’m about to ask of you next.”

Anja hummed. “Am I in then, boss?” she asked mockingly.

“One more hoop.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve already done your dirty work in the market,” she objected, “Where’s my pay for that, by the way?”

“Ah, yes.” He patted a fat coin purse hanging off his belt. “Right here,” he assured, “But I did promise Sapphire that you would pay for sticking that cute nose of yours where it doesn’t belong.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Anja declared, setting her drink back onto the table a little harder than she had intended.

He grinned. “Tell you what,” he proposed, “You make your way down to our hideout and the gold’s yours.”

Anja eyed him suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch. Just ensuring you’re properly motivated.”

“I don’t think your woman would like it.”

He smirked. “I’ll deal with Sapphire,” he assured.

“Alright. How hard could it be?”

He laughed and produced a golden timepiece from his pocket. “You’d better leave now, lass,” he warned, checking the time, “If you want to get there before I change my mind.”

Anja’s eyes darted to the watch. “How about we make things interesting?” she suggested.

“I thought we already were.”

“I get there in record time and that pretty trinket of yours is mine.”

Brynjolf grazed the bezel of the watch with is thumb fondly. It was a gift from the former Guild Master—or rather, he had stolen it off Gallus before he was even a part of the Guild—and the elf was so impressed that he let Brynjolf keep it and offered him a job. He wasn’t typically the sentimental sort, but there were a few things he held dear. “And if you lose?” he asked.

“I forfeit my payment for this morning’s job.”

“Winner takes all, is that it?”

“Unless you’re afraid?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “I’m not afraid, lass,” he said, “But I’m not usually a gambling man, either.”

“Please say you’ll make an exception for me,” she pouted.

Against his better judgement, “You have one hour.”

“Plenty of time,” she purred and then she downed the last of her drink, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand. “See you there.” She winked and unfolded her legs from beneath the table with a sort of lanky grace that belied her short stature.

“One last thing before you go, lass,” Brynjolf called before she got too far.


“What’s your name?” he asked, “So that I know what to write on your tombstone when your cocky ass gets killed in the Ratway?”

She smirked. “Tyv.” And then she was gone. Another alias. Another false name, but she was full of them. And Brynjolf was well aware that she was probably lying to him. That was half the fun.

Chapter Text

Maybe I was too cocky…Anja thought as she hurried to squeeze between the bars in the floor and drop down to the level below. And she had started off so well, too. Locating the entrance to the Ratway was simplicity itself. She was sure there had to be multiple hidden entrances leading into the dank underbelly of Riften, but the most obvious and highly used was right where Maul said it would be. She entered with no small amount of confidence that the test—if it could even be called that—was going to be laughably easy. Though, in hindsight, she was well aware of how naïve that assumption had been. Why would a man who never gambled make a bet with a woman he hardly knew? Because he wasn’t betting at all. It was a sure thing.

Voices echoed down the humid tunnels of the Ratway and Anja’s pace slowed. Perhaps they were the test? But it seemed strange to her that a Thieves Guild would initiate members through a physical encounter. A thief’s goal was to avoid confrontation, not seek it out. So, she edged closer to make out their conversation. Perhaps they were just a couple of wayward guards poking around where they didn’t belong. Or new recruits like herself, puzzling over the same test. “I dunno, Drahff,” said the large, lumbering warrior, “They’d skin us alive if they found out we were doing this.” She froze. Nope, not Guild after all.

“Why do you always have to act like such a big baby, Hewnon?” demanded his smaller companion, “I’ve gotten us this far.”

“This far?” came the incredulous response, “We’re livin’ in a sewer. You said we’d have a house as big as the Black-Briar’s by now.”

“You just worry about bashing people’s heads in; I’ll worry about the Guild, okay?”

“Okay, okay.”

“I’m going to check the entrance. Be right back.”

Light! Everywhere she looked there was light. Torches bracketed to the wall and the flicker of what Anja assumed was a sizable campfire in the room where Drahff and Hewnon were scheming. Even illumination from a brazier and more torches glowed upward through the grates in the floor in the alcoves on either side of the hallway where Anja stood, momentarily paralyzed for lack of a better hiding place. But Drahff was coming; she could hear him approaching the mouth of the passageway, his footsteps echoing off the stone. Seeing nowhere else to go, she stepped into the alcove on her right, dropped onto her rump and lowered herself through the widest of the spaces between the bars. It was not as graceful or quiet as she wanted it to be, but it was quick and by the time Drahff rushed to the grate to see what was making all the noise, she’d already stolen into the shadows of the nearest adjoining room.

“Who’s there?” the bandit’s voice called through the bars, but he couldn’t see her, pressed flat against the wall just outside the door.

Soon Hewnon’s voice joined him. “There something wrong?” he asked.

“I thought I heard something.”

“Prolly just a Skeever.”

“It wasn’t a Skeever, you half-wit!” And then their conversation devolved into bickering as they walked back down the hall.

Anja waited, her body tense as she listened, and when their voices grew faint enough, she took a deep breath, let some of the tightness ease from her shoulders, and then looked around. She was in a large room with a vaulting ceiling. Thankfully, the only light came from the torches lining the opposite wall on the upper walkway. A wooden railing lined the stone ledge and a draw bridge, intended to span the gap between the entrance of the adjacent room and the walkway, was drawn up, the short edge of it brushing the archways of the ceiling.

A bit odd for a sewer. Out of place against the stone. It must lead to the Flagon, she realized and then her eyes darted around to see if there wasn’t some other way up to the ledge. There wasn’t, of course. That defeated the whole purpose of having a drawbridge. She frowned and walked around the room, looking for an another way forward that wasn’t bathed in terrifying amounts of light. Another doorway at the base of the ledge, half cast in shadow, half cast in light from the torches above, caught her eye. She edged toward it carefully, her footfalls silent as she slipped into the darkness.

The other end of the passageway was gated, but there was very little light coming through and it looked to be going in more or less the right direction. When she reached the gate and tried the handle, it was locked, but that was hardly a challenge. She dropped to one knee to get a better angle on the lock and produced her picks. As soon as she fed her tools into the keyhole, someone popped out around the other side and jiggled the handle to get her attention, scaring her half to death.

It was Brynjolf. He was grinning at her between the bars and leaning heavily on a rusted iron coal shovel. “It appears I am headed in the right direction,” she observed coolly, hiding her surprise.

The Master Thief nodded, scratching his chin with his free hand. “Aye, lass,” he confirmed, “You’re not the first recruit we sent down here who was lucky enough to stumble upon this little shortcut.”

“Shortcut?” she repeated dubiously, suddenly picking up on his ominous tone. He had promised her a test. Shortcuts were cheating. Apparently even amongst thieves.

If it was possible, Brynjolf’s smile broadened just a touch more. “That’s it lass, now you’re catching on,” he said, catching the glint of understanding in Anja’s eye, before he gleefully jammed the shovel under the gate latch, wedging the blade of it in a crack in the floor. Anja’s jaw tightened and she unconsciously clenched her hands into fists. He produced the coveted golden watch then and checked the time. “Better hurry,” he said mockingly, “Time’s running out. You’ve only got—oh my—forty minutes left to get through the Ratway, now.” He tsked at her playfully. “You’re going to have to do better.”

Anja glared at him, infuriated, but forced a smile anyway. The resulting expression looked a bit menacing. “I like a challenge,” she insisted haughtily before she turned abruptly and glided back down the way she came. Brynjolf watched her melt into the shadows of the next room. He liked a challenge too.

Balls, Anja mentally cursed, wincing as the bear trap snapped closed on a Skeever. The metallic clang coupled by the dying peels of the rat rang loudly through the musty air, waking the room’s only inhabitant. The inebriated Imperial at the other end of the room staggered to his feet from the pile of rags he used as a bed roll and spotted Anja before she could get out of the treacherous glow of the candles swaying in the fixture overhead and disappear into the nearest dark corner. He made a beeline for her, fists raised and eyes a little crossed.

Anja moved to put space between herself and her attacker, but the room was small and there were few options for escape. Running back the way she came would only draw the attention of the others she had successfully and harmlessly bypassed, but charging forward through the rest of the Ratway without taking the time to search for traps would likely get her killed just as quickly. The safest bet was through the drunken pugilist who was now chasing her around the room, taking swings at her as she dodged away from him. Each swing becoming more desperate and frustrated as he failed to make contact with anything but naked air.

But she couldn’t dance around the confrontation forever. The Imperial had to be dealt with. Screwing up her face in determination, she made her move and darted back towards the doorway, kicking one of the open bear traps behind her, right into the path of her pursuer. The rusted jaws slammed shut over the Imperial’s foot and he cried out in agony, all thoughts of chasing Anja pushed temporarily from his mind as the pain in his leg jarred his attention away. He was immobilized for the moment, but Anja couldn’t have him screaming, either. He might draw unwanted attention, so she doubled back, plucking a potion bottle off her belt and wrapping it in the corner of her cloak for lack of a better alternative. She crushed the bottle in her hand, spilling the contents onto the dark material and soaking it into the fibers, then she shook the glass free from her grip.

“Shhhh!” she hushed impatiently, stepping around the panicking Imperial and slipping her arm around his neck from behind. With all her strength, she wrenched him backward, squeezing until he choked for air, and then placed the damp section of her cloak over his nose and mouth. The fumes from the potion smothered him before he had the chance to fight her. The second he went limp, she stepped away from him, guiding the direction of his fall with a sharp tug so he didn’t set off any more bear traps, and he hit the stone floor with a sickening thud, unconscious.

Anja’s head fell back in relief and she wiped her stinging hand against her trousers. She had cut herself on the broken bits of the vial and some of the potion had gotten into her wounds, but aside from being annoyingly painful, it was nothing to worry about. The dose was too small to do little more than make her fingers tingle and go numb for a few moments. Instead, she focused her attention on calming her heartbeat and stilling her breathing so she could listen for nosy, unwelcomed visitors. But for the labored breathing of the unconscious Imperial, it was quiet. No one had heard their struggle. Thank Mara’s bleeding heart! She cleared her throat nervously and tugged on her armor until it was straight, then she made to step over her attacker and paused.

The man had tried to kill her. She had already been unnecessarily merciful in choosing to render him unconscious instead of killing him. It was only right that she left him there to suffer whatever fate awaited him in his current incapacitated and injured state, and yet she felt uncomfortably guilty at the prospect of leaving him so helpless. Hesitating, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, trying to conquer her indecision before finally throwing up her hands. “Shite,” she swore aloud before bending over and prying the jaws of the bear trap loose. This was not good business.

She squinted at the man’s injury and sighed, mentally cursing the tender spots of her heart before producing one of her healing potions. Clenching the vial loosely in her mouth, she patted his pockets down for valuables and found nothing but a few coins. “Eh,” she shrugged and pocketed the sparse gold. He had tried to kill her after all. Then she gripped his shoulders, preparing to roll him onto his side to keep him from choking should he vomit while unconscious, when his gloves caught her eye. They were the only scrap of armor he wore: dark leather and neatly maintained. The only part of his appearance that wasn’t ragged or stank of alcohol and despair. And enchanted too…she observed when she turned his palm up and saw the enchanting runes neatly embossed along the seam by his wrist.

Anja was loathed to admit it, but one of the random benefits of growing up with a mage in the house was the bits and pieces of magical knowledge she picked up. It was impossible not to learn a thing or two when Sonja left her books lying around and pestered everyone who had a spare moment to quiz her before exams. Though she was useless with spells, Anja could at least identify them and gage a mage’s skill from their effectiveness. Rune literacy was a bit loftier, but she had a very basic understanding, even if she had burned a hole through her favorite boots during her first and only attempt to enchant them when she was younger. Sonja hadn’t let her live that one down for months afterward.

At any rate, the enchantment on the gloves in question were designed to add a little extra hurt to the Imperial’s punches. Anja was sincerely happy she had managed to avoid experiencing that magic firsthand. “I’ll take teesh, tank you,” she quipped brightly around the vial still caught between her teeth as her quick fingers quickly relieved him of his gloves and tucked them into the waist of her trousers. Then she removed the potion from her mouth and uncorked it. With careful, calculated movements, she poured no more than a fourth of its contents into the man’s wound and then sprinted to the locked gate. Now she was working against a more immediate clock.

The little dose of potion she provided to undo the damage of the bear trap was just enough to get the job done, but slowly. Even introduced directly into the injury as it was. The unwelcome side effect was what fueled Anja’s sense of urgency. The healing potion would most likely reverse the effects of the paralytic she had used on him earlier and she didn’t want to still be around when he woke up. So she hurriedly picked the lock and stepped through before the Imperial began to twitch awake, darkly chastising herself for healing a man who had attacked her and hoping it wouldn’t come back to bite her later.

Getting through the Ratway proved to be one of the more difficult experiences of Anja’s life. The Guild had turned the damp tunnels into an obstacle course of traps, locked doors of varying difficulty, and the roving and irregular patrols of the Ratway’s more colorful inhabitants. But, Anja managed to disarm or avoid every trap she came across, pick every lock between her and the way forward, and avoid the notice of every muttering crazy that lurked in the dark corners of the tunnels—the pugilist, excepted. She made it to the Ragged Flagon unharmed, but thoroughly irritated with how long it took her to arrive, certain the timeframe she and Brynjolf had agreed to had already elapsed.

The tavern was situated in the back of a large cistern on wooden platforms. Voices were echoing off the stone walls and rippling across the water, but she couldn’t make any of it out. She could spy Brynjolf by the bar, though, speaking with the barkeep. When she drew close enough to overhear their conversation, she couldn’t help but crack smile; the Master Thief was bragging about finding new talent. “We’ve all heard that one before, Bryn, quit kidding yourself,” the large, blonde bouncer said. Anja guessed he was Dirge. He certainly looked like the only one in the tavern imposing enough to be related to Maul.

“It’s time to face the truth, old friend,” the barkeep agreed with a sigh, “You, Vex, Mercer. You’re all part of a dying breed. Things are changing.”

“Dying breed, eh?” Brynjolf said as Anja leaned against the bar and winked at him, “Well, what do you call that, then?”

“A whole new breed,” Anja replied, grinning.

“Well, well…” Brynjolf let out a long, low whistle as Anja dropped into the seat next to him. “Color me impressed, lass. I wasn’t certain I’d ever see you again.”

“Oh, it was easy,” she sniffed playfully, belying the trouble she had run into along the way, and ordered a mead, “Everyone was perfectly cooperative and the crazies you have wondering around down here aren’t particularly observant.”

Brynjolf chuckled. “Reliable and headstrong? You’re turning out to be quite the prize.”

“I do good work,” she said before taking a big swig of her drink.

“Just not quickly.”

She frowned. “What’s the damage?” she asked.

“Quarter hour passed.”

“Fuck,” she cursed.

“Not bad,” he assured her, “Most recruits don’t make it much farther than Drahff and Hewnon.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Friends of yours?”

“Annoyances,” he corrected, “Tried to join a while back and failed. Miserably and repeatedly. Still think they can find a way to weasel into our ranks. It will get them killed one day, but they keep unwanted visitors away.”

Anja hummed her irritation and tapped the bar for the keep’s attention. “He’s buying, by the way,” she said, jabbing her thumb at Brynjolf who raised an eyebrow at her. “Least you can do is buy a girl a drink if you’re going to take her pay,” she insisted, her voice low and warm.

“You gambled and lost, lass,” he reminded her, but he nodded to the barkeep and accepted the tab.

“And you’d just take my coin? Just like that?” she pouted, her eyes rounded and shining up at him, her lips a little puckered, “You don’t feel even a little bad?” She knew it was a long shot, but she had gotten out of many a debt before with only a proper application of coy looks and pouty lips.

Brynjolf laughed somewhat nervously and glanced meaningfully across the bar at his associate who was suppressing a smirk. “Caught myself some trouble with this one, didn’t I Vekel?” he joked and the barkeep shrugged noncommittally. Anja had a way about her that was hard to deny. If he were a weaker man, he would have let the pretty little lass off her debt, just like that—just like the dozens of men and women who fell for that sweet voice and pouty lip before. She was aware of her appeal and how to use it to get what she wanted. That was good. It was useful. But it wouldn’t work on him. “I’d be a poor thief if I regretted every coin I took,” he pointed out, sipping his mead and regarding her thoughtfully, “How about I give you a chance to earn it back?”

Her expression darkened briefly and she half rolled her eyes. “Another hoop to jump through?” she drawled.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I had you confused with someone who liked getting paid.”

The corner of her mouth twitched, but whether it was in a frown or a smile, it was hard to tell. She merely fixed him in her gaze, now hardened from the cute, pleading, roundness when she tried to charm the gold from his pocket. Such a stark and dangerous difference. From kitten to saber cat in less than a moment. “What did you have in mind?” she asked, her tone businesslike.

Oddly enough, Brynjolf found her new attitude more appealing than the saucy pout. “How about taking care of a few deadbeats for me?”

“Isn’t that what your bouncer is for?”

“Dirge is a creature of the Ratway,” he waved her off, “He doesn’t venture topside unless he has to. No, the people I want you to deal with owe our organization some serious coin and they decided not to pay. I want you to explain to them the error of their ways.”

“Mmm, I can be rather enlightening when I want to be.”

“Of that I have no doubt.”

“Who will I have the pleasure of chatting with today?”

Brynjolf smirked. “Keerava, Bersi Honey-Hand, and Haelga,” he answered, watching Anja’s expression carefully when he listed the Argonian innkeeper. To her credit, she schooled her emotions very well—but not good enough. There was a visible tightening in her jaw. She didn’t like the idea of confronting Keerava after she had endeared herself to the Argonian couple. “Do this right and I can promise you a permanent place in our organization.”

Anja drank deeply, taking the time to consider all the graceful ways to decline Brynjolf’s newest job offer without damaging her chances with the Guild, but there was no good way around it. She was stuck. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, exposing her injured palm. Brynjolf’s eyes darted to observe, but he did not ask what had happened. “How much?” she asked at length.

“Hundred gold a piece.”

She wrestled with a bit of surprise she struggled to keep off her face. A hundred gold per small business owner in a less-than-profitable town? That was a bit steep. She doubted any of them kept more than a few hundred gold in their tills at any given moment. Especially Keerava who only handled small amounts: ten gold for a room, five for food, and the like. “Where can I find them?”

“Bersi Honey-Hand owns the Pawned Prawn General Goods Store next to the meadery, in the shadow of the inn,” Brynjolf supplied, “Haelga is proprietor of the bunkhouse near the gates. And Keerava? Well, you know where to find her.”

Anja’s expression became openly sour, but she nodded, acknowledging the unspoken unpleasantness. “How do you want me to handle it?”

“Honestly, the debt is secondary here,” he admitted, “What’s more important is that you get the message across that we’re not to be ignored. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to accomplish that. A word of warning, though, I don’t want any of them killed. It’s bad for business.”

“Won’t be a problem,” she assured, “Got any leverage I could use to ease my way?”

“I do,” Brynjolf nodded, “But, I think I’ll keep it to myself for now. Let’s see what you can dig up on your own.”

Anja tapped her fingers impatiently against the bar, but then shrugged. “Fine,” she sighed, “I’ll play along.”

“On your way then.”

She hesitated. “I do this and we’re square on the bet?”

“Like it never happened.”

She nodded as if making up her mind, drained the rest of her drink, and then hopped off the stool. “See you tonight,” she said, “And have my gold ready.”

“Dirge, show Tyv the entrance for guests,” Brynjolf called to the bouncer as Anja passed him, “I don’t want her wasting time getting around the Ratway again.”

“Sure thing.” The large Nord nodded to the Master Thief and then grunted to Anja, “Follow me.” Anja cast him a sideways glance, but did as he bid her, and followed him out of the Ragged Flagon.

Protection rackets were easily Anja’s least favorite scam. They made her feel dirty. They were also rare in Cyrodiil. For the most part, the city guard was prolific enough in any of the Imperial cities to keep violent crime and noisy burglaries under control. That’s why the Guild there prided itself on its ability to operate as a rumor, undetected, but it required avoiding certain schemes that were generally too public by nature. The Imperial Thieves Guild was protected by anonymity. This was not the case in Skyrim where the Guild was protected by its notorious reputation. They were the worst kept secret of Riften, as far as Anja could tell. So little public demonstrations like the protection racket she was about to enforce or the investment scheme Sapphire tried to run, and even the storefront hawking fake goods that Brynjolf tended were all necessary for keeping the Thieves Guild fresh in the minds of Skyrim’s citizens and safely out of the reach of the city guards. Not the way Anja preferred to operate, more like a gang than the Guild she was used to, but she couldn’t argue if she wanted in, so she kept her mouth shut.

She started with Bersi Honey-Hand. When she visited the shop, she was greeted by its very welcoming proprietor. “Welcome to the Pawned Prawn!” the balding Nord boomed warmly, “Pickings may be a bit slim today, but if you see anything you like, I’ll make you a good deal.”

Anja smiled and ran her fingers through her hair, shaking her golden curls out in that distracting way she did when she was about to start in on a mark. Bersi was not immune, but did not look at her with the same hungry eyes unattached—and some attached—men did. Just curiosity and a hesitant appreciation of an older man for a younger woman. “Got anything in the way of jewelry?” she asked brightly.

“Aye,” Bersi nodded and gestured for her to approach the counter from under which he produced a display case filled with a few necklaces, a couple of rings, and a handful of gems, “Were you looking for something for yourself? Or a friend…?”

Anja smiled lopsided at him. “For myself, of course,” she said gently and then cast her eyes soft against the display case. She liked shiny objects. Like a magpie, pretty things always claimed her attention—like that blasted watch that landed her in this mess in the first place—and the glittering jewels in the case were particularly appealing. Out of habit, she discretely examined the lock to determine how difficult it would be to pick. Shamefully easy. “A girl likes to be spoiled,” she purred.

Bersi flashed a hesitant smile. “You should find a rich man to spoil you,” he joked.

“Or woman,” she added.

The pawnbroker barked out a laugh and nodded. “Certainly treat you kinder,” he agreed, “My wife, Drifa, is the soul of generosity.”

“Mmm, lucky man.”

“I think so.”

Anja smiled at him again and leaned over the counter, propping herself up on her elbows and hovering over the display case. She caught a strand of her curls and wrapped it around her finger, coiling and uncoiling it playfully as her big blue eyes scanned the case. “Mmm, so which of these would you pick out for your lovely wife?” she asked.

Bersi leaned a little closer, flirting along the edges of her space without really entering it; he maintained a polite distance as he pointed to a humble silver pendant with a small, imperfect emerald set into it. Anja looked up through her eyelashes at him, wordlessly chastising him for his lack of bravado. “It matches her eyes,” he explained, defensively.

His response made her smile. “Hmmm, she might be lucky, too,” she hummed and then she looked back at the jewelry. “That one,” she said, pointing to a large golden and sapphire ring, “It matches my eyes.”

“Excellent choice,” he agreed and he unlocked the display case, “If the fit needs work, Balimund can adjust it for you. Best damn blacksmith this side of the mountains.”

Anja tutted at him. “I want to feel the weight of it first,” she objected, “It’s got to have the right feel.”

“Of course.”

She made a big show out of handling the piece, rolling the cool metal between her fingers and sliding it over each knuckle. Bersi was patient, accommodating; he didn’t rush her, but the sharp movement of his eyes betrayed his anxiety. That, coupled with the shabby state of the store, it was obvious that the Pawned Prawn had seen better days. “So, what kind of name is the Pawned Prawn, anyway?” she asked, casually.

Bersi brightened. “Catchy, isn’t it?” he asked, “In my youth, I was a fisherman. Had a beautiful ship named The Brawny Prawn.” His tone was nostalgic and his gaze seemed to stare off into some distant memory. “But the years have a way of creeping up on you.”

“They always do.”

“I ended up selling that ship to open this place,” he continued, nodding, “Seemed only fitting to name it after her.” He sighed. “Well, changed it a bit, I suppose. If I had been smarter, I would have kept my boat.” He looked older then, sadder; his face drawn with regret. “Coming to this city was a big mistake.”

Anja’s brow furrowed slightly. The tug of it bunching above her nose. “Oh, come now. It can’t be all that bad,” she prodded.

Bersi scoffed. “This city is corrupt,” he insisted, “Rotten to the core. No one cares about anything except themselves and how much they can make off the misery of others.”

“Mmm, that’s just business, love,” she hummed, burying her sympathy for the down-on-his-luck shopkeep before it became a problem, “It’s like that everywhere.”

“Not in Dawnstar! Not on The Brawny Prawn!” he objected, but it was sort of half-hearted.

“Sure it was!” Anja replied, chuckling, “You just didn’t see it then.”

His expression seemed to suggest that he agreed with her. “At least I could trust the authorities there,” he sighed, “No help from the guard here. They’re all dirty. Every one of them. The only way to get things done in this city is to keep your head down and pay off the right people.”

Anja smirked and slid the ring onto the forefinger of her right hand. “Like the Thieves Guild?” she asked pointedly.

Bersi scoffed. “They used to be pretty feared around here,” he shrugged, “I mean, you’d whisper the name and it’d send chills down your spine. Now, they’re nothing more than ruffians and thugs trying to pry a few extra coin from honest people. All it would take is a small force of guard to go into the Ratway and flush them out.”

Anja raised an eyebrow in amusement. She didn’t doubt the Guild had seen better days. It was obvious from the general attitude Riften had toward the gang of Thieves, but she knew better than to write off an underworld crime network so easily. They were notoriously difficult to kill. It was such a shame the Guild didn’t have a better relationship with the people of Riften, however. Not that there was ever anything amiable between a thief and his or her mark, but part of what made the Imperial Thieves Guild so hard to locate was the unwillingness of the citizens of the Waterfront to cooperate with the authorities. The Guild in Cyrodiil had an entire population willing to protect it—whereas the Guild in Riften had an entire city ready to turn on it the moment the scent of blood was in the air. That wasn’t good for business and it made the Guild too dependent on its only patroness. “My, how the mighty have fallen,” she sighed and then she fixed her eyes on Bersi with all manner of menace, “I aim to change that.”

A cloud passed over the pawnbroker’s face. “I don’t know what you’re on about and I don’t like it,” he said.

Anja smirked and continued to play with the ring. “I think you know exactly what I’m talking about,” she said.

“Speak plain,” he demanded.

“I have a message from Brynjolf.”

“Oh. You’re one of them,” he said with disgust, “So Brynjolf doesn’t even bother to show up himself anymore, eh?”

“Now, Bersi, come on. We were having such a lovely conversation,” she simpered, “There’s no need to be rude.”

The pawnbroker was not amused. “What’s the message?” he demanded through clenched teeth.

“I think you know.”

“You’re gouging me for what little coin I make and you can’t even protect yourselves?” he scoffed, “Ridiculous.”

Anja glanced pointedly over her shoulder where the limb of her bow jutted out passed her hair. “Do I look like a girl who can’t protect herself?” she asked.

Bersi only hesitated a fraction of a second as his eyes flit between her weapons and the dangerous glint in her eye. “Don’t fool yourself,” he said, crossing his arms, “It’s only a matter of time before you people are run out of Riften.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that, darling,” she objected, kindly, “If it’s not us, there will be someone else. There’s always something to take and someone to take it.”

Before Bersi could answer, the door to the shop whipped open and in walked an attractive woman with red-brown hair and green eyes. She was dressed in fine, warm blue clothes and smiled widely when she looked at Bersi. “Hello, my love,” she said brightly and then her eyes flit to Anja, “Ah! A customer! Welcome!” No guile. Just simple warmth.

Anja turned to face the woman and leaned against the counter, still fingering the ring. “A lovely wife you have indeed, Bersi,” she said, nodding to Drifa in greeting.

Drifa almost blushed, embarrassed by the compliment. “I’ve just come from the wharf,” she said to her husband, “Boli’s put in a special order for a few things.”

Bersi’s expression narrowed as he was torn between addressing the growing threat that was Anja and speaking with his wife. “Don’t mind me, dear,” Anja sighed, “I can wait.”

The shopkeep glared at her. He wanted to shout at her to leave, but he was trying to minimalize the seriousness of the situation to his wife. It was impossible to hide the trouble with the Thieves Guild from her or any of the payments he had made in the past, but he had managed to ease her fears that they were in any danger and he didn’t want to work her up unnecessarily. She always worried about him too much. Besides, there was something important he needed to confront her about concerning Boli’s special orders. “I’ll only be a moment,” he grunted, snapping the display case shut and returning it to its proper place beneath the counter, then he gestured for his wife to follow him into the back room.

Anja smirked. “Don’t take too long,” she said, extending her forefinger toward Bersi so he could take the gold and sapphire ring from her, “I’d hate to have to interrupt.”

Bersi snatched the ring from her finger and disappeared into the next room with his wife. “Who’s that?” Anja heard Drifa ask.

“No one,” Bersi answered before snapping the doors shut behind them.

Now alone, Anja strolled to the door of the shop and quietly turned the lock so as to assure no unwanted customers walked in on her and then she meandered behind the counter, plucking a glass beaker from an incomplete alchemy set on display for sale as she went. When she reached the doors, she could hear the muffled sounds of Bersi and his wife’s conversation, but couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about. So she placed the mouth of the beaker against the closed doors and then pressed her ear against the butt of the glass. “That’s the third special order made this month,” Bersi said.

“So?” Drifa protested, “It’s good for business that we have such loyal customers.”

“I’d agree, but something isn’t adding up.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re expensive orders, but we never see a return.”

“Of course we do.”

“The money’s not adding up, Drifa,” Bersi’s said sternly, “I was looking through our books and there’s an entry for ‘spices.’ Says we spent three hundred septims, but I don’t remember ordering any spices. And the money is gone, I checked.”

“Spices?” Drifa repeated, “I’m certain I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Even through the door, Anja could tell she was lying.

Apparently, Bersi could tell as well. “You sure? It was in your handwriting,” but then he, not wanting to think the worst of his wife, added, “If you can’t keep the books straight then let me do them.”

“Oh, yes…spices,” Drifa said, feigning sudden realization, “That was a special order for someone in Whiterun. Should be along any day now. Don’t let it worry you, my dear.”

But it did worry Bersi. He sighed, sounding defeated. “Alright, my love,” he relented, “Just don’t put any more special orders in without speaking to me first.”

“Of course.” Then they moved back toward the door and Anja soundlessly hopped over the counter before they could notice her eavesdropping.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Drifa said, brightly, “Was there some business you wanted to discuss with my husband?” Anja looked the older woman over thoughtfully, from the twist of her braided hair to the slight tremble of her hands resting on the countertop, and imagined a hundred different reasons the woman could be embezzling money from her husband’s business for. That was a pressure point worth exploiting. All it took was getting the right read from the mark.

“It’s better if you let me handle this, Drifa,” Bersi insisted, trying to excuse his wife from the conversation.

“Now, now, Bersi,” Anja chastised, “This involves her as much as it does you.”

“Leave her out of this,” he declared, “Now you’re going to have to leave. Tell Brynjolf he’ll just have to make due without my coin.”

Drifa looked vexed. “Brynjolf’s demanding more money?” she asked, upset, “I told you we should have paid him on time!”

“I won’t let them use us anymore,” he insisted, “I’m handling this.”

Anja sighed and hopped onto the counter, perching on the edge and leaning her back against the wall while she checked her fingernails for imaginary dirt. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Khajiit,” she said casually as if she were remarking on the state of the weather, “Lovely people. Lots of very colorful rituals and traditions.”

“Get out!” Bersi demanded, befuddled by her sudden change of the subject but wanting to hear none of it.

“Not yet,” Anja waved him off, “I have a point to make.”

“I don’t care!”

“Drifa will.” At that, both husband and wife hesitated. “You know, of all the rituals I’ve witnessed, none is more interesting—or transcendent—than the ceremony that distills Moonsugar into Skooma.”

Drifa visibly trembled. “Oh?”

Anja nodded slowly. “See, to us it’s just a drug. Something to pass the time. To take away the hurt and make the world disappear, but to them,” she sighed wistfully, “It’s a religious experience. Can you imagine?” she leaned forward, stretching out over the counter until she was inches from Drifa’s face, “One little bottle and you could see the faces of the gods.”

“I don’t like what you’re implying,” Bersi objected, but Anja ignored him.

“Naturally, the stuff they brew is much more potent than the swill you get from anywhere else,” she continued, “Skooma’s a passionate thing for the Khajiit, so it’s made with great care. They understand and respect its affects so it’s not something they take lightly or  are even willing share with jetwijijria. Do you know what they call Skooma addicts in Ta’agra?”


Varkuz,” Anja nearly whispered, her breath warm across Drifa’s lips, “Sugar-Tooth.” And then she kissed her. Drifa squealed in surprise; her eyes rounded as Anja’s tongue delicately parted her lips and darted along the inside of the row of her upper teeth.

Bersi snarled and moved to physically separate Anja from his wife when his hand was suddenly pinned to the countertop with an ebony dagger through his sleeve. He stopped short, surprised, and Anja giggled, parting from Drifa and sliding off the counter, tugging her dagger loose along the way. “Too much Skooma and it turns your mouth and breath sweet,” she said, winking at Drifa and licking her lips, “Have you kissed your wife lately, Bersi?”

The pawnbroker was enraged at the insinuation at first, but then his expression melted into guilt and then one of pain. He had not been dedicating as much time to his wife and marriage as he had been to his store and his campaign to dismantle the Thieves Guild somehow. He didn’t want to believe that his kind and generous Drifa was hiding things from him, but it was hard to think otherwise when he thought of her behavior over the last six months. Secretive. Bumbling. An increase in special orders. More frequent errors in their books. Money missing for product that was never really ordered. It all fit. And, shamefully, he had not kissed his wife lately—at least not the way Anja just had. It had been a long time since he had tasted his wife’s mouth or embraced her heatedly between the sheets of their marriage bed. Little pecks in greeting or before sleep. He hadn’t noticed any added sweetness. Just Drifa’s soft, familiar lips.

Slowly, Bersi turned to look at his wife. Her lovely green eyes were wide with fear. He could tell, just by her expression that she was caught. That what Brynjolf’s little errand girl had said was true. “Don’t listen to her, my love,” Drifa insisted desperately when Bersi caught her eye, “She’s lying. She’s just trying to get our money for Brynjolf, that’s all…”

Anguished, he firmly set his hands on either side of his wife’s shoulders and then bent to kiss her with all the hope and fear of a young man kissing his first love for the first time. “Drifa…”

“Bersi, please don’t,” his wife pleaded, “If you love me, you won’t…”

Anja watched silently as Bersi tentatively pressed his lips to his wife’s and after a brief moment’s hesitation, deepened the kiss. The moment he tasted the sweetness of Drifa’s tongue, his eyes squeezed shut and he grimaced, his fears confirmed. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he growled.

“I’m sorry, Bersi,” Drifa whimpered, tears gathering in her eyes, “But you’re always so worried and I…”

Anja cleared her throat loudly and hated herself for it a little bit. “Not that this isn’t touching,” she said, “But there is still the small matter of a little business I’d like to square with you, Honey-Hand.”

“Get out of my shop,” he snapped, tears gathering in his eyes. Couldn’t she see that he was in the midst of a crisis with his wife?

“I will be happy to go once you’ve given me the money you owe Brynjolf,” she replied, firmly, “And then you can continue fixing all the unspoken problems of your marriage in peace.”

“How dare you…?”

“Privacy, Bersi,” Anja continued, “That’s what you need right now. No one need know about Drifa’s little indiscretion. Least of all the guard. Provided you pay for the Guild’s silence in this matter.”

Bersi’s face fell and Drifa began to openly cry. Any foothold they thought they had against the Guild crumbled beneath their feet the moment Anja figured out Drifa’s dark secret. “Get the payment, Drifa,” he said through clenched teeth, releasing his wife so she could run downstairs to their safe.

Anja waited, leaning against the counter while the pawnbroker glared daggers at her. It wasn’t long before Drifa tearfully returned and handed over the weighty coin purse. “It’s all there,” she sniffled as Anja accepted.

“I know,” she assured. They’d come too far to risk stiffing her now.

“I hope Brynjolf chokes on his gold,” Bersi spat.

Anja smirked a little, more wince than smile, and leaned across the counter, plucking the gold and sapphire ring from Bersi’s shirt pocket where he had stashed it in his haste. He didn’t try to stop her, but the tension in his body signaled his supreme desire to. “Pleasure doing business with you, Bersi,” she said, slipping the ring onto her finger as she withdrew, “Drifa, stay sweet.” And then she noiselessly crossed the room to the door, unlocked it, and left without a second look back.

Anja entered the Bee & Barb, her skin still crawling from her confrontation with Haelga at the Bunkhouse. That woman was a piece of work, but none too discrete. Dibellan sacred oils and incense stank the place up and she proudly wore the amulet of her favorite deity around her neck. Her niece, Svana, also obviously loathed her. It didn’t take much to convince her to expose her aunt’s dirty laundry. It cost Anja a little more of her time to go around collecting the Marks of Dibella from Haelga’s late night visitors, but it was well worth it. She had to charm, intimidate, and persuade the gems from their lying, cheating possession, but she was successful in the end, and Haelga was very cooperative when Anja confronted her with the marks, much to the utter glee of Svana. The satisfaction of putting pressure on the bunkhouse mistress went a long way toward washing the awful taste blackmailing Bersi and Drifa had left, but it wasn’t quite enough to make up for what she was about to do next: extort Keerava and Talen-Jei.

She hadn’t taken more than a few steps into the inn before Talen-Jei approached her with a large purse in his hands, fat with coin. “I thought you were better than this,” he said hatefully, shoving the coin into her hands.

“It’s just business,” she said, guilt twisting her gut, “Nothing personal.”

“Get out,” he said, “Nothing personal.”

Anja pursed her lips and nodded, turning back towards the door. “See you next month,” she said, “Have your gold ready, then.” And then she left.

Brynjolf nearly choked on his mead when Anja plopped each payment down onto the bar in front of him before sliding onto the next stool. “I’m really starting to like you, lass,” he chuckled, tossing her the payment from that morning and one of the bags of gold she’d retrieved for good measure. It was more than generous compensation for her services, but Anja was still in bad mood from earlier. It wasn’t as if she was particularly fond of any of the people she dealt with that day, but it left a sour taste in her mouth to go after so many people just trying to make a living. That’s what Anja missed most about the Imperial City. They had rules that kept beggars, the poor, and the small, mom-and-pop stores safe. Bersi would have been off-limits in Cyrodiil.

But, she took her gold and pocketed it with a curt nod. “What now?” she asked, forgoing her usual flippant smile.

“Job’s done and best of all, you did it clean,” he said, smiling, “Well done. And judging from how well you’ve handled those shopkeepers, I’d say you’ve done more than simply prove yourself. We need people like you in our outfit.”

“I’m all yours.”

“Then welcome to the Guild, lass,” he grinned and gestured to the dank tavern, “Larceny’s in your blood, the telltale sign of a practiced thief. I think you’ll do more than just fit-in around here.”

“Please tell me there’s more to this place than just this,” Anja groaned.

Brynjolf chuckled. “Aye. Follow me.” And he slipped off the stool and headed to the backroom. Anja followed him, looking forward to having a place to bed down for the night, a place to sleep, to dream away any lingering guilt, to forget the past and start over.

Chapter Text

They burned Hroki’s body in the Skyforge early one morning. He was not a well-known man with little family, so no one but the Priest of Arkay, Andurs, and one or two guards who had been present when he was killed at the Western Watchtower joined the Companions to honor their fallen Shield-Brother. It wasn’t the smallest funeral Sonja had ever witnessed. The private ceremony she and Anja held for their mother bordered on a pauper’s state of affairs, but they couldn’t afford greater reverence and all Freydis’ friends and family, admirers and mentors were still back in Skyrim, unaware of her death. The thought that her mother had died almost anonymously turned Sonja’s stomach and she did her best to banish that tragic line of thinking before it blossomed into full blown guilt for something over which she had no control.

The ancient forge was noticeably cooler and not just because Sonja’s dragon blood seemed to give her a higher tolerance to the heat; everyone in attendance at the funeral stood comfortably encased in their armors of varying type. The smoldering coals in the massive hearth glowed softer, with less intensity and did not catch the pyre prematurely. How that was possible, Sonja could not fathom. When she commented on this to Faendal, Athis looked at her sideways. “Eorlund never shares his secrets,” he replied in an undertone, “Though they say the Skyforge knows when the Companions have a warrior to lay to rest upon its fires.” He winked at her then, suggesting he was just telling another story that formed the mythos surrounding the history of the Companions; perhaps one he didn’t really believe himself. But, when Sonja looked up at the cruel curve of the stone hawk’s beak, she wondered if perhaps it was true. The place had felt alive with heat and magic the first time she had visited it and even that morning, the tingle of something rippled through the cool air. She glanced at Faendal to gage his feelings about what Athis had told them, but the Bosmer merely shrugged, just as uncertain as she.

The pine planks were stacked into a short platform onto which Hroki’s mangled body was lain. He wore the armor he had died in, though Tilma had removed it the day before for Eorlund to clean and patch while she performed the cleansing rituals over the young man’s body. Sonja had watched the old woman’s practiced hands wash Hroki’s skin clean of blood, sew closed the wounds where the dragon’s fangs perforated his skin, bathe him in oils and smoke, and tenderly redress him in his polished iron armor, muttering prayers to Arkay and Shor. She wondered how many warriors Tilma had performed such duties for, if it pained her poor old heart to lay another young man to rest or if it was just another one of the many chores she was assigned within the halls of Jorrvaskr.

When Andurs was done giving Hroki his last rights, he stepped aside so the Harbinger could address the Companions all crowded together on the platform of the Skyforge. Even in his advanced age, Kodlak was still an imposing figure. The mass of his body had not shrunken with age and his thick facial hair hid most of the wrinkles of his face. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the white of his hair or the distinguished creases around his eyes, he would have been ageless. Easily the equal to any younger man. He did not look haggard or worn thin from years long past. No, the passage of time had not crashed upon him like endless waves upon a rocky shore, the more powerful water eroding away vital pieces until nothing was left; it had flooded him instead, filled him with a wisdom that would have broken a weaker heart.

“Hroki Fjordmundsen of Falkreath died honorably in the fight against a dragon at the Western Watchtower,” he stated, his voice stern and clear, “He was a good man. Pure of heart. And though he relished the thrill of battle, desired the glory of victory, and sought to honor his Shield-Siblings, he did not come to Jorrvaskr in search of these things.” He paused, his gaze passing over the faces of the Circle first, lingering on Vilkas before moving onto the other Companions. “He came before me with a heart full of fire, of strength—of family. Not one that he had, for he was alone in this word before he came to us, but one that he had yet to make for himself. And his arm proved strong enough to defend that wish. Brief though his time was amongst us, he found what he was looking for in his Shield-Siblings and we honor his passing now as the family he yearned for.” Eorlund stepped forward then, offering the torch to light the pyre to Kodlak. The Harbinger accepted it, but instead of turning to face Hroki’s corpse, he offered the torch to Vilkas instead.

From the way the rest of the Companions exchanged interested glances, Sonja got the feeling that it was traditional for the Harbinger to send all Companions, Circle and Whelp alike, on to the next life. That he was offering that duty to Vilkas instead was unusual, but none of the Circle seemed surprised. Even Vilkas seemed to understand what Kodlak was wordlessly communicating and he accepted the torch humbly. Sonja watched as he approached the Skyforge with appropriate mournful expression. “Hroki Fjordmundsen,” he said, “You were not alone in this world, brother.” And he lit the pyre. “Before the ancient flame…”

“We grieve,” came the reply from all but Sonja who did not know the proper responses.

“At this loss,” Kodlak continued.

“We weep.”

“For the fallen,” Skjor said.

“We shout.”

“And for ourselves,” Farkas stated with finality.

“We take our leave.” And the Companions turned away as one, filing toward the steps, Circle members first, but for Vilkas and Kodlak who remained.

Sonja watched the pair of men as she waited for her Shield-Siblings to move passed her so she could fall in line behind them. The elder was saying something in an undertone to the younger and a heavier cloud settled in over Vilkas’ face. “It is still no excuse,” he said to Kodlak, obviously irritated, and the Harbinger sighed with exasperation.

“Train that temper like you train your blade and you’ll find peace, son,” Kodlak commented sagely before taking his leave.

Sonja immediately halted her progress to the stairs to allow Kodlak to go ahead of her. He cast her a kind, but brief smile as he passed her which she returned with uncertainty. Faendal followed him down, tugging on the end of Sonja’s braid as he did so which caused her to roll her eyes. Sometimes the hunter acted more like a younger sibling than a traveling companion. She made to follow him and leave Vilkas to whatever moody thoughts were swimming through that incredibly broody head of his when she heard him speak softly, as if his words were intended only for Hroki, “Keep your brother and he’ll keep you.”

Her step faltered, realization dawning. Kodlak had placed Vilkas in charge of the Newbloods the night Hroki was killed. ‘Keep an eye on them all. Bring them back safe. Keep your brother and he’ll keep you.’ Sonja glanced back at Vilkas. She didn’t know how she didn’t recognize that expression before; it had nearly suffocated her once when she lost someone she couldn’t save—still did, some nights when she tortured herself with the memory of her younger brother: guilt. She pursed her lips, searching for something to say, from one warrior to another, that would ease the burden, but nothing came to mind. It wouldn’t have helped even if she had thought of anything anyway. It hadn’t made a difference when Thornir was killed; why would it make a difference now? So, she left him to his thoughts instead, and Vilkas counted her footsteps until he was sure she was gone.

“Not hungry?” Faendal asked through a mouthful of venison he quickly washed down with a swig of mead so large, Sonja was surprised it didn’t dribble down his front.

Sonja had been pushing her food around her plate with her silverware since the feast started a half hour before. It was long cold by now. A simple spell would heat it again if she seriously wanted pursue her meal, but she was certain it would cost one Companion or another their appetite if she used magic at the feasting table. Sighing, she dropped the fork onto the plate and pushed it away. “Got a lot on my mind,” she grunted distractedly.

“Aye, I can see that,” the elf observed, pausing to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, “You’ve been quiet since the funeral this morning.” More accurately, she had been quiet since the events of the Western Watchtower, but it seemed easier—and safer—to ask her feelings on a funeral for someone she hardly knew than it was to mention being Dragonborn.

Sonja shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

“And I’m High Queen of Skyrim.”

She winced. “That is a mental image I will never be able to unsee.”

“I’d make a lovely queen,” Faendal sniffed as if insulted. A small smile flit across her face at the joke, but she knew he was making an extra effort to make her laugh. The amusement dissolved from her face almost as quickly as it had appeared, tugging the corners of Faendal’s smile downward in the process. “It’s difficult, you know?” he said suddenly, drawing her attention again, for her gaze had shifted into unfocused without her realizing it.


“Reading your mind,” he answered, “I thought I’d get better at it, following you, but it doesn’t get easier.”

“Stick around,” she replied, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out eventually.” But his comment about reading her mind reminded her of yet another friend she had to leave behind in Cyrodiil. Falare Guérisseur. The best—and possibly scariest—Restorations Master she ever had the pleasure of meeting. Adopted daughter of her favorite professor at the University, Uthgar Frost-Hammer, but her magical abilities had surpassed even him. And she had an infuriating ability to read those around her like open books. Seemingly all-knowing and debilitatingly charming, she used her uncanny ability to sense the pain in others and heal it. Sonja had never known a kinder soul—or a sharper tongue. Falare had been the closest thing she had ever known to an aunt, and she hadn’t even said goodbye before she left to chase down Anja. That was unkind. Guiltily, she hoped Falare would make peace with her and Anja’s disappearances instead of being discontented by them, but she doubted it. The half-Altmer’s heart was too big. I should write to her…she thought, but it was a vague promise to herself that was more likely to go unfulfilled.

Faendal smiled and opened his mouth to give a witty retort, but thought better of it. It would only be wasted on her at the moment, anyway; she wasn’t really listening to him. He considered her a while in the silence that lapsed between them because she was too distracted to maintain the conversation. She looked very different when distracted. At any given moment, she was intimidating, but when she wasn’t on guard, when her mind was elsewhere, she looked different. Softer, but not fragile. Just eased. Even with the gentle scowl that tugged across her brow, she, like a certain surly Companion, had mastered the brood to the point that it had become charming. But, serious thoughts were woven into that persistent furrow and, though Faendal couldn’t read her mind, he could hazard a guess as to what was on it. “Are you thinking of your family?” he asked softly, unable to keep himself from prying.

Her eyes snapped back in his direction and he saw her immediately assemble a wall of protection in her expression, her body language was already shifting toward indifference, and she opened her mouth in preparation of delivering the inevitable negative. But in the very next second, she seemed to think better of it and her whole demeanor deflated a little as if she were giving in. As quickly as it was created, the wall disappeared and she looked startlingly vulnerable. “I think you might be better at reading my mind than you think,” she admitted and then she iced over again, not enough to be unreadable, but restrained.

“High praise from you.”

“Likely the only you’ll get.”

The Bosmer shrugged. “I’m a hunter…”

“It pays to notice things,” she finished, smiling ruefully, “Yes, I remember.”

Faendal scoffed. “I won’t ever live that down, will I?”

“Not anytime soon.”

He sighed, but wasn’t put off by her teasing. Silence lapsed between them again, but it felt more companionable than the stark quiet from before. Still, Faendal decided to push his luck a little further. ‘Provide a truth for a truth,’ his mother always said. Her way of reminding him always to be honest if he wanted honesty from others. “I lost my elder sister a few decades back,” he revealed, “She and I were very close—and her death—was not an easy thing to bear.”

Sonja looked at him, her brow puckered with sympathy. “It never gets easier,” she agreed, “I’m sorry.”

He paused. “I still go out to honor her in the old way every spring,” he added, “I think of her every day, but…”

Sonja cocked her head to one side, thoughtfully. “Somedays, it won’t hurt at all and you’ll be glad for the time you had. And other days—it feels like you just lost them,” she stated, her voice pitched low and away from the rest of the boisterous conversation sailing across the feasting table, her hands twisting knots out of her fingers in her lap. An oddly anxious habit of hers that seemed completely out of place against the hard backdrop of her personality.

Faendal’s heart twisted and he nodded, agreeing with her words. “Her name was Aife and she loved the rain.” And she was beautiful and brave and strong. The keenest hunter and kindest woman he had ever known. A true Bosmer of the wilds who had a way with the creatures of the wood that bordered on the divine. But she was dead now; only his memory of all the lovely pieces of her soul kept her alive. He smiled sourly and sighed, suddenly feeling very depressed.

Sonja nodded, sharing her friend’s feelings. “Today is not a good day.”

“No. It is not.”

Her brow furrowed and she scratched at the grain of the table. “I should go to the Hall of the Dead to see my mother,” she said gently, not meeting his gaze. A statement with a hidden question beneath it. She was asking him if he thought she should go.

“There’s nothing wrong with honoring the dead,” he stated. She gave a little nod as if making up her mind. “I’ll go with you, if you like,” he offered.

“No,” she assured, “I—would like to be alone.”

Faendal understood that. Since her arrival in Whiterun, she had been avoiding going to the most obvious place for information on Anja. Her reasons were her own, of course, but it seemed obvious to him that she simply wasn’t ready for whatever feelings seeing her mother’s urn would unexpectedly dredge up. And in light of recent events—well, if there was ever a time anyone wished they had the counsel of a beloved parent, it was in finding out one was Dragonborn. That was no easy burden. “Of course,” he nodded, “Do as you must.”

She looked at him then and smiled weakly, but friendly and patted his shoulder with a touch of affection that was not wasted on him. “Thanks,” she muttered and then she left the table and headed downstairs to change out of her armor.

The Hall of the Dead was easy enough to find; she’d passed it enough times during her short stay in Whiterun that Faendal had pointed it out repeatedly, but Sonja had avoided going in as much as possible. Even as she descended the steps down into the temple in the cool evening air, she wasn’t entirely certain she was prepared to go inside, but her body moved independent of her indecisive mind and she entered the silent temple. Dozens of candles and a handful of torches bracketed to the walls filled the crypt with light, but the stale air of death and underground still hung heavy in the air.

She moved further in, casting uncertain glances around the empty room. At least, she thought it was empty. At the far end by the Shrine of Arkay, the balding, older man she knew as Andurs from that morning’s funeral for Hroki was kneeling in prayer. Unsure of what to do, but not wanting to disrupt the priest’s evening rituals, she hung back awkwardly and waited. It wasn’t long before the priest concluded his prayers and turned to greet her. “I am Andurs, Priest of Arkay,” he said, not recognizing her from the sea of faces that made up the Companions.

“I know. I was at the service this morning…”

“Ah, a Companion, then?”

“A Whelp.”

Andurs nodded. “I’ve seen more Whelps from Jorrvaskr into the arms of Arkay than I care to think about,” he admitted, “So stay sharp, will you? I’d hate to be standing over your pyre next.”

Sonja smiled hollowly. Obviously, the priest had not yet heard what had happened at the Western Watchtower, or that she had anything to do with it. “Of course.”

“Now, how can I help you this evening?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you so late, but I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me?”

“Certainly, I will answer what I can,” Andurs beckoned for her to follow him to a nearby bench and to take a seat beside him.

Sonja settled onto the bench, feeling a bit nervous for the questions she was about to ask. “I was wondering if a young woman had come by here recently with the remains of Freydis Ironheart…?” she began.

“Anja?” the priest interrupted.

“Yes!” she confirmed, “You spoke with her?”

“Spoke with her? I put her up for a couple of nights,” Andurs chuckled, “It was the least I could do after she retrieved my amulet for me. Spitfire that one. Brave girl. Didn’t even flinch when I warned her there would be undead in the crypt.” He smiled. Obviously, in the short time she had spent with the old man, Anja had endeared herself to him. She’d even trusted him enough to give him her real name instead of the alias she had been using all over town.

“Where did she go?”

The old priest leaned forward to peer at Sonja thoughtfully. “You must be her sister,” he observed, “You look a lot like her.”

Sonja nodded and pursed her lips. “Told you about me, did she?”


She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck to ease some of the tension building there. “It’s not all true,” she said, darkly, “But Anja isn’t without reason to hate me.”

Andurs smiled sadly and Sonja half expected, half hoped he would reassure her that Anja had not spoken ill of her, but he didn’t. “She said she was going to take a carriage out of town, but I’m not sure to where,” Andurs replied apologetically.

Sonja nodded, disappointed. “Could I see her?” she asked, hesitantly, “My mother, I mean? Could I go to her?”

A brief smile of warmth and understanding flashed across the priest’s face. “Of course,” he said and then he stood from the bench and crossed to the door opposite the entrance. He opened the door and stepped through. Sonja followed him into the darkened catacombs, nearly choking on the thick, musty air. “This way,” he said and he gestured down the hall to a small chamber where several urns were placed inside loculi carved into the walls, amidst sporadic candles. Andurs stepped inside and gestured to one of the smaller niches, only large enough to house a single urn.

Three small, white candles lined the base of the vessel. Sonja recognized them as the crisp, slow-burning kind that the chapels stocked. Stolen straight from the Imperial City’s chapel supply, no doubt, but she couldn’t begrudge her sister’s theft. Not this time. Not when it was for something so thoughtful. Secured against the wax of the candle on the left was a steel pendant: the Imperial crest given to legionnaires for identification purposes. It was Thornir’s. Seeing it caused an awful twist in Sonja’s chest, and she briefly shut her eyes and took a deep breath as if she had had the wind knocked from her. A raven feather was tied against the candle on the right. A memento of Anja and her affinity for the shadows. There was nothing tied to the center candle and it remained unlit.

The lack of flame made the white candle seem stark and cold, but it was her candle. Sonja knew Anja had meant it for her. That it was bare and unlit was only a sad indicator of their broken relationship. There was no warmth between them anymore and after Thornir died, after everything that had happened, after all the ways they had changed, they were little better than strangers to each other anymore. Anja hadn’t left Sonja’s candle untouched because she had lacked a personal possession with which to honor their mother; if that had been the case, she could have easily stolen one from Sonja before she had left for Skyrim. No, the candle was left blank because Anja didn’t know her own sister well enough to represent her. That realization hung heavily around Sonja’s neck.

“Here rests Freydis Ironheart,” Andurs said. He lingered by the doorway, watching her approach her mother’s ashes as if closing in on a wounded animal: slow and steady and unsure. He’d seen hundreds of families visit their loved ones in the crypt, witnessed a thousand different ways to grieve, held countless hands, and wiped away endless tears during his time as a Priest of Arkay. It had been hardest when he was a young man, fresh to the profession and unprepared for the weight of grief, but even now that he had aged and learned how to grant peace to both living and the dead, the one thing that never grew easier with time was watching that first terrible shudder of the shoulders. That first trembling sob like the soul trying to shake loose from the bones that caged it, from the sharp mortal pain of grief.

Sonja’s hands shook a little when she reached out to touch her mother’s urn and the smallest, warble of a sob escaped her lips, little louder than a whisper and garbled, thick and wet, from the tears gathering in her eyes. And as her fingers fell over the designs carved into the surface of the urn, she felt something give way. Some secret, tangled ball of pain, begin to unravel. There was much she had not yet forgiven herself for and more still she never would, but for a moment, it didn’t feel as toxic as it did before when laid against the enormity of recent events. “Had you not seen her when she was interred in Cyrodiil?” Andurs asked.

Sonja shook her head and angrily wiped away her tears. She was surprised at her lack of control. It almost disgusted her. Pull yourself together! And she buried her pain down deep where she thought it belonged. Where it could fester again. “I—no,” she coughed, clearing her throat, “It’s just—I should have been the one to bring her here.”

“It’s alright, child. You are here now.”

“Yes,” she said, and she stroked the Nordic swirl near the neck of the urn, “I’m here now.” But she had come close to staying in Cyrodiil. She almost hadn’t followed Anja when she left. Sonja thought her sister would fail without her, thought she’d give up and come back home. She wanted her to. So I wouldn’t be miserable alone, she thought, but she couldn’t speak the words aloud. They were too shameful. Instead, she produced a little dancing flame at the tip of her damaged forefinger and tilted it against the wick of the candle, lighting it. But she left the candle blank, unsure of what pieces of herself made any sense to leave behind now when everything felt so alien.

Andurs watched her, but maintained his silence. Whatever words of comfort he could offer would be wasted on her. Besides, there was nothing to say. Nothing with which to fill the silence. Nothing to make the ache less. Not this one, anyway. He could tell. It was old and worn in. Private. “I’ll give you some time alone,” he said sadly, wishing there was something more that he could do.

Sonja listened to his footsteps echo back through the crypt as he left her there, standing in front of her mother’s ashes. “I’m sorry,” she said when she was certain he was far enough not to overhear her and she traced the carving on the urn again, “For everything. For Corvus. For Thornir. For father—for Anja. I know it was all my fault…” Death had such a way of etching the past into stone, of carving mistakes into the unforgiving annals of a memory that only conjures torturous ghosts and remembers only the worst. She closed her eyes, blinking away the tears, and leaned forward, pressing her lips against the cool stone of urn’s lid. “I’ll do better ma,” she whispered. Too little, too late, she thought, but it was the only thing she could hold onto.

As she turned to leave, the flickering of the candle caught the smooth cream color of folded parchment wedged between her mother’s urn and the wall of the loculi. She had missed it before, but now wondered how it could have escaped her notice in the first place. She ran a finger along the spine of the fold; it teetered beneath the weight of the digit and dislodged, fluttering to the floor. Sonja bent to pick it up. It was a letter, neatly folded and sealed with a smear of crimson wax like a bloody rosebud. The symbol embossed in the wax was a shield marked with the head of a wolf. She brushed the ridges of it with her fingertip and turned it over in her hand, reading the name written on the back in beautiful, looped cursive: Freydis.

She popped the seal clean from the page with a flick of her fingers and unfolded it as quickly as she could without tearing the paper. A silver charm on a chain fell loose from the folds and slid onto her open palm. It was engraved with the same symbol from the wax seal. Sonja’s brow furrowed as she turned the pendent over in her hands, lacing the chain through her fingers, and then she turned her gaze back to the letter. Her gut immediately tightened the moment she read the first word:


I know this letter is too little, too late. Decades have passed and the daughter you were heavy with when you first wrote to me has grown into a woman very like yourself. She spits fire and glares daggers just like you. And she reminded me of what a fool I have been.

You said once that the twin of your heart beat in my breast, that I knew you best amongst our sisters. You were right, but it took me much longer to see through my own anger than it should have. You know me best, Freydis. I think you understand. At least, I like to think you do, and now my rage is replaced with mourning.

Always losing you, I cannot undo the years of silence between us and your death prevents me from even trying. All I can do is pray for the glory of your soul in Sovngarde and write the words to you I should have all those years ago.

I understand, Freydis. I always have and I don’t blame you for leaving. I prayed to Mara for the safe delivery of each of your children—and for your marriage to Remus when you finally agreed to marry him. I prayed to Talos and Arkay when Thornir died and lit incense for him at the Hall of the Dead. I even prayed that Shor would take an Imperial to Sovngarde when Remus was killed. I grieved for them and the weight of their loss on your heart.

And your daughters, Ysgramor’s beard, your girls are something else. There’s no doubting you’re their mother. Even the small, sneaky one. Fire in her eyes, too. Especially when she’s mad, and she was none too pleased with me. Either of them. You must have had your hands full raising them. And I’m sorry I refused to be a part of their lives—and yours.

Goodbye, Freydis. Find peace in Sovngarde.


Sonja almost crumpled the letter in her hands, but somehow managed to remind herself that it was not her place to do so. The letter was not written for her. It was not offered in her memory. It was addressed to her mother and its contents were a matter between sisters. Estranged though they were, it wasn’t right for Sonja to put herself between them—but that line of reasoning did little to cool the anger building in her gut. She squeezed the necklace in her hand so tightly, the chain cut into the flesh of her fingers. How dare she? She marveled at the gall of her estranged aunt. She was silent for decades and now, only upon hearing of Freydis’ death, did she feel guilty enough to answer one of, what Sonja assumed to be, hundreds of unanswered letters. She doesn’t deserve peace of mind after what she failed to do…

“That doesn’t belong to you,” an irritatingly familiar voice said from the doorway behind her.

Sonja’s back stiffened razor straight. “What are you doing here?” she asked through gritted teeth.

Hera scoffed and leaned in the doorway, her sharp blue eyes darting between the back of Sonja’s head and the amulet clutched in her hands. “Not your concern, is it?” she stated.

Sonja pursed her lips and turned to face Hera. “You don’t deserve forgiveness for turning your back on her. On us,” she said, “Not from my mother. And not from me.”

Hera’s expression tightened and she made a sound of disgust, but she straightened and stepped further in the chamber, her eyes glaring into the matching set in Sonja’s face. “I heard what happened at the watchtower,” she said, “They say you’re Dragonborn. Piss for brains the lot of them, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what walking god you think you are, you have no right to pass judgement on me, pet. You have no idea who you’re playing with.”

Possessed with a sense of rage so strong that she wanted to strike her aunt. It was heady, intoxicating, and completely uncharacteristic. With profound effort, she choked it back, reminding herself of where she was. If there was ever going to be a fight with her aunt, it wouldn’t be over her mother’s ashes. But she did draw herself up to her full height and move into her aunt’s space, their noses inches apart. “Neither do you,” she growled, “And whose fault is that?” Then she pushed passed Hera, shoving the letter and pendant into her chest as she did so.

“A lot of blame tossed my way by a woman who doesn’t know where her own sister has run off to,” Hera sniffed as she carefully refolded the letter, “Anja never mentioned you when she came knocking on my door. I wonder why?” Tension crept back into Sonja’s shoulders, but she didn’t turn around to confront her aunt. Instead, she stormed off, back through the catacombs and out of the temple, her fists clenched and her expression writhe with intense, draconic rage.

Chapter Text

“Ah, son of whore!” Torvar snarled, his voice muffled by the tent of his hands over his bleeding nose. “You hit like a godsdamned giant!”

Sonja stood a few feet away, resting the tip of one of the blunted practice swords against her boot, the other over her shoulder, and staring at Torvar with an expression that was vaguely apologetic, but mostly irritated since his injury drew their spar to an abrupt end. “You should have ducked,” she stated dully.

“Ya think?” the drunk demanded, some of the blood from his nose mixing in the spittle from his mouth.

Sonja shrugged. “I didn’t think you could feel much pain anymore,” she replied sharply, “Haven’t you drunk yourself numb by now?”

“Why you…!” There wasn’t much said after that that made any sense. Torvar was made irrational from the pain and the sting of Sonja’s insult, so he just went on sputtering incoherent nonsense while she watched him, a little more amused than was strictly necessary.

Their ruckus drew Vilkas’ attention from Ria and Njada who were practicing the new forms he had just taught them against each other. More accurately, it was the scent of familiar blood that captured his interest. When he saw Torvar’s broken nose, he sighed irritably and pinched the bridge of his own nose as if to stave off a headache.

That was the third time that week that Sonja had broken something on one of her sparring partners. She had broken Tor’s wrist the first day when she moved to disarm him. Popped Oghrin’s arm from his shoulder several days later and crushed Nila’s ribcage in the days that followed. She wasn’t allowed to train with the other Whelps after that. For their own safety. But full-blown Companions fared little better. Ria had several of her fingers broken and Athis flat out refused to fight with her. Njada had been game to become Sonja’s sparring partner, but Vilkas had the sneaking suspicion that she had only made the offer for the chance to inflict a little pain back on Sonja—which he wasn’t completely against. Still, he decided it was better not to put the Dragonborn in the yard with someone who had a specific agenda to harm her. Not yet, at least. Besides, Torvar had volunteered himself, but only whilst very intoxicated and Vilkas was sure the drunk thought he was being selected for something else entirely.

If she was anyone else, he’d think she had done it intentionally or at least failed to understand the concept of pulling punches in the training yard. But he’d watched her spar. Saw the consternation in her face when she felt bone or joint give way. Complete accidents. He’d seen that look before in the faces of New Wolves. The struggle to balance new physiology. Increased speed, strength, and senses. He didn’t know if it was the same for the Dragonborn, but, judging by the ease with which she was injuring her Shield-Siblings, it certainly seemed to be the case. “Ironheart,” he barked, “Either set Torvar’s face right or call for Danica.”

Sonja glanced back at him; her amusement melted clean from her face and she scoffed, but did as she was told, closing the space between her and Torvar before he could get the chance to duck away. She gripped his nose unnecessarily hard, straightened and healed it seamlessly. Torvar struggled against her hand, but stilled as soon as he felt the healing magic. He still jerked away as soon as her grip slackened and stalked off to the porch to find himself a drink. Sonja watched him go, dropping the practice swords in the dirt and tugging her bracers loose. As much as Vilkas disliked magic, Sonja’s skills were incredibly useful, especially after all the Whelps and Companions she had hurt over the last couple weeks.

He approached her as she tugged her gloves and bracers off. She was wearing practice leathers instead of her good armor. Apparently, it weighed about the same, despite the lack of metal plates. Sparse bits of paneling, gussets, and ties covering all the important, tender areas: chest, shoulders, and joints. But it left her midsection bare to take a bit of punishment if she got sloppy. And sometimes she was. There were a few deep purple bruises blooming over her side and across her lower abdominal—and a particularly embarrassing one in her lower back where Ria had checked her when Sonja had been overzealous in her offense. But Sonja wore the marks with very little indication of pain or even discomfort. No, she showed greater distress from her injured hand which she was trying to roll the stiffness out of when Vilkas finally reached her.

“Stop breaking my Shield-Siblings,” he grunted.

“Stop pairing me with so many delicate warriors,” she replied hotly, “When you offered to train me, I didn’t think you’d just throw a bunch of Whelps at me like I was any other Newblood.”

“When you accepted my offer, I didn’t think you’d question my every decision,” he snapped back.

“Not every decision. Just the bad ones.”

Mara’s ass, not even the goddess of mercy has enough patience to deal with this woman, he thought irritably and his jaw clenched painfully. “I paired you with Tor because, like you, he dual-wields twin swords,” he stated gruffly, “Oghrin is a heavy hitter and Nila is small, but fast and quick with her daggers. If I’m going to train you, I need to see where you are strong and where you are weak. I won’t get that from a single trial. I chose Whelps because you are still just a Whelp to us. You will pay your dues like everyone else.”

Sonja scoffed. “Like Ria and Torvar?” she asked.

“Ria outclassed you,” he reminded her, jamming his thumb into the bruise on her back. Sonja’s mouth thinned and she stepped away from his hand, refusing to show pain, “Because she practices every day. Trains hard. Does what I tell her to and, most importantly, does not think herself above my instruction.”

The Dragonborn’s mouth twitched in irritation and her eyes narrowed. Sonja hadn’t struck him as the type to be arrogant. In fact, she had proven herself very humble when it mattered most. But she was struggling with something lately. He could tell. She was short tempered and generally irritable. Growing increasingly frustrated with something. If he didn’t know better, he’d think someone had gone ahead and Changed her like…Like…He dismissed the thought immediately, refusing to allow himself to even think her name. Besides, Sonja wasn’t like her. Not really. Too stubborn and moody and infuriating like…Like me. That was an unwelcome comparison, but it was hard to ignore once made and he grumbled to himself in grudging acknowledgement.

“Fine,” he growled, “You think you’re too good for your brothers and sisters? Then let’s see how you fair against your betters.” Sonja’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Aela!” Vilkas called.

The Huntress was on the other side of the yard, making adjustments to Faendal and Nila’s postures as they stood with bows drawn and aimed at the targets down the way. When she heard her name called, she paused, her head popping up like a deer as she looked to her Shield-Sibling. “Yes?” she called back, her voice stern.

“Will you step into the ring with Sonja?” he asked. Aela wasn’t another one of the Whelps or Companions he could just command to do his bidding. She was a member of the Circle, his Blood-Sister.

Aela raised an eyebrow in interest and then nodded. She told Faendal and Nila to keep practicing and then joined Vilkas and Sonja. “Don’t pull any punches, sister,” Vilkas said as he backed up far enough to allow the women room, “Sonja won’t.”

The Huntress seemed eerily pleased at the prospect which didn’t surprise Vilkas, given his knowledge of Aela’s nightly hunts, but made Sonja incredibly uncomfortable. Hurriedly, Sonja retrieved her shed leathers from the ground and impatiently tightened them as quickly as she could before she flicked her discarded swords with the toe of her boot into her hands. As soon as she was ready, the Huntress launched herself at the Dragonborn without warning.

Sonja had expected Aela to be highly aggressive, but she still wasn’t prepared for the shear ferocity with which she was attacked. Archers and dagger wielders tended to be petite and light of foot. Case in point, Faendal and her sister, Anja. Their compact build leant the required dexterity and quickness necessary for dodging attacks or putting enough space between them and their attacker so they could get as many shots off with a bow as they could in the interim. Simply put, longer limbs were harder to move quickly. Though leaner than the rest of the Circle, Aela was not small. Long arms, long legs. Long reach, long stride. She was quicker than any archer Sonja had ever fought before and stronger too.

“She’s faster than you,” Vilkas said, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched the fight, “She will always be faster than you. Stop chasing her. She’ll run circles around you until you’re exhausted. Make her come to you.”

His sideline comments distracted her and the hilt of Aela’s blade connected with Sonja’s mouth, cutting her lip open. She staggered back from the force of the blow and Aela retreated a couple steps to let her regain her footing. Sonja growled and spat blood onto the dirt. Vilkas actually smirked. “Of course, you still have to be ready for her when she does,” he commented dryly and Sonja glared at him, “Try again.”

Sonja spat again and refocused her attention on Aela who immediately attacked her, relieving her of one of her swords and driving her elbow into Sonja’s face, thoroughly breaking her nose. Vision blurring with unshed tears and a new wave of pain, she staggered again, lurching sideways to avoid the body strike she knew Aela was going to deliver in her disorientation. “Aela…” Vilkas said softly, chastising the Huntress.

“You said not to pull punches,” Aela reminded him.

He scoffed, but didn’t respond, addressing Sonja instead, “Come on, Ironheart. Try again.” Gritting her teeth against the pain and popping her nose back into position, but not healing it, Sonja righted herself in time to block one of Aela’s vicious attacks. “Better,” Vilkas acknowledged, “Now parry. Counterstrike.”

Easier said than done. It took a few tries, but Sonja managed to successfully parry some of Aela’s attacks, though counterstrikes were far more difficult. Especially when she was down a weapon. Without a blade or a spell in her left hand, Sonja didn’t know what to do with it. “Make a fist, Ironheart,” Vilkas sighed when he noticed she was awkwardly flexing her free hand, “It’s not useless, even without a weapon.”

Irritating as she found Vilkas at the moment, she still did as he said and the next time Aela attacked, her closed fist came in handy when she finally managed to counter the Huntress and clock her across the jaw. Aela grunted and danced out of reach before Sonja could do more. Vilkas chuckled. “Much better, whelp,” he said approvingly, “Now put her on her ass, Aela.”

A very intimidating, very Wolfish grin spread over Aela’s face and before Sonja could do anything to protect herself, she was on her back, the wind knocked out of her as she stared up at the sky. Vilkas came into view, his smug face smirking down at her. “Stay down there a while,” he grunted, “Gain some perspective.”

Sonja glared and roared skyward as Vilkas walked away from her. She was overcome with a rage burning deep in her belly. She was belligerent. Uncontrollable. It made no sense, but she felt consumed by such palpable anger, it was intoxicating. How dare he? Who is he to slight me? Insult me? Leave me in the dirt? She snarled, scrambling to her feet, and charged Vilkas with only her practice blade clutched tightly in her hand. She wasn’t even aware she was still holding onto it, but her grip was iron on the hilt. “Vilkas!” It was Aela warning her Shield-Brother who was approaching his turned back, but Sonja’s mouth was already twisting to form a Word.

Just as her lips tucked against her teeth in the hiss of the first consonant, Vilkas spun around, his white-blue eyes menacing amidst the smear of black war paint. Fierce. Almost luminescent and he grabbed Sonja by her shoulders, tossing her effortlessly against the back doors to Jorrvaskr and pinning her there. One thick arm crossed her throat, applying enough pressure to keep her from speaking, and the hard muscle of his thigh was wedged so high between her legs she was practically sitting on his knee, her toes grazing the stones beneath her as she struggled to alleviate the pressure against her voice box.

Vilkas growled, his expression warped into a viscous, animalistic snarl as his hard gaze bored into Sonja’s face. He was flirting along the line between Beast and man. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end and his jaws almost ached with a profound desire to bite into flesh. His patience, his control, was thinning and here was this infuriating Newblood testing his resolve. And she was the fucking Dragonborn, no less! When he looked into her face, he saw the same draconic sneer as the night they killed the dragon—saw the same glimmer of gold in her eyes—and he knew that one of them had to reign in their animal before someone got hurt. “I should throw you out on your ass, Ironheart,” he rumbled into her ear, “I’ve beaten Newbloods senseless for less.”

“Do it,” she choked out, daring him with an arrogant glint in her eye. So utterly fearless it bordered on foolhardy.

“We made a deal,” he reminded her, forcing himself to focus on a whorl in the grain of the wood of the door instead of his anger, “And I intend to keep it.”

“Fuck you.”

She was not making this easier on him.

“Damn, stubborn wench,” he snapped, “You’re more dragon than woman, right now! Is this what you want? To give in to it? To let it swallow you whole?” He was speaking as much to himself as he was to her. Maybe if he treated her like a New Wolf, she’d be easier to handle.

Sonja went lax in his grip then. For a moment, he feared he had pushed too hard and deprived her of oxygen long enough to render her unconscious, but when he leaned back to look at her face, he saw the softness of her features, the look of defeat in her blue eyes—and she looked startlingly close to crying. He eased off of her, setting her back onto the floor. “Thank you,” she said dully and he gawped at her as if she were insane, “I think—I think I might need that from time to time.”

“A beating?”

She looked at him, a little cross-eyed, her face still busted up from her fight with Aela, and nodded. “A reminder.” And then she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the door while taking several deep breaths like she had just come up for air out of the depths of an ocean. Vilkas wondered if that’s what it felt like, if she really was drowning in the chaos of it all.

Sonja conjured a hunk of ice in the palm of her hand and promptly held the hard chunk against her broken nose. She still hadn’t healed it, electing for a little self-flagellation instead. As far as she was concerned, she deserved it. Taking a page out of Uthgerd’s book…her transgression had been startlingly similar to the old warrior’s own disgraceful tale. Though she hadn’t actually succeeded in killing Vilkas, it wasn’t for lack of trying. She winced when the ice shifted over her nose and groaned, thoroughly ashamed of herself for that morning’s training fiasco. What on Nirn came over me? she wondered, but it wasn’t really a mystery to her. She could feel the hot breath of the dragon inside her ribcage, the serpentine slither of its scales beneath her skin. It made her shiver.

She’d been feeling the dragon’s wrath since the argument with her aunt, but that wasn’t the source, only the inciting incident, the ignition, and she was still fighting it. Though, she wouldn’t deny that the idea of smacking Hera around gave her a perverse sense of pleasure. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath, steadying her nerves, determined not to be undone by the fire in her belly.

Her silent reverie was interrupted by the sound of the door smacking open against her chair. She grunted first in pain and then annoyance as the force of the action, bumped the arm holding the ice, knocking it hard against her face. Opening her eyes, she glared at the offending intruder only to be confronted with the surly, brood of Vilkas. Without so much as an apologetic glance in her direction, he kicked out the chair across the table from her and sat down with two tankards in his hands, sliding one of the drinks her way. She caught it before it fell off the edge into her lap. The metal was warm in her hand and the liquid inside it steamed hot through the cool air. “What’s this?” she asked, “Pity?”

“Tilma insisted on it,” he replied.

“I don’t want it.”

He shrugged, unconcerned and took a sip of his own. “It won’t fix your face or your pride,” he assured her, “But it will make an old woman happy.”

Sonja pursed her lips, hesitating only briefly before taking up the tankard and sipping. Mulled cider. Sweet, spiced, and heady. It stung her nose and she set it back on the table, blinking the fresh wave of tears from her eyes. “So what happens now?” she asked, wondering if perhaps Vilkas had changed his mind about throwing her out of Jorrvaskr. She had almost used her thu’um against him, after all. It could have killed him. Oblivion take her, that had been her intention when she charged his turned back, blinded by draconic pride.

“You train with me now,” he stated, “And only me. First thing in the morning.”

“You’re not afraid I’ll come after you again?”

“I welcome you to try, Dragonborn,” he replied evenly.

She actually appreciated his arrogance in that moment. If there was one thing she needed in the ring, it was a sparring partner who wouldn’t break beneath her newfound strength. “I am—sorry—for trying to—kill you, earlier,” she said, haltingly, hating the fact that there was anything for which to apologize in the first place.

Vilkas was quiet a moment, his eyes dancing over her face as if he was trying to determine whether or not she meant it. Apparently satisfied that she was sincere, he shrugged, indifferent. “I don’t take it personally,” he grunted.

“The Companions weren’t so kind on Uthgerd,” she pointed out, “What makes this any different?”

“You know Uthgerd?”

“I fought with her.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

“Then drank with her. She’s a good woman.”

Vilkas scoffed. “I don’t pretend to know different,” he replied, “Kodlak thought she was worth the trial and she failed. That is all. If you want to know more, perhaps you should ask the old man about it.”

“I’m asking you.”

He scoffed. “I was out on a job when it happened. I didn’t oversee her trial.”

“Who did?”


Sonja considered seeking the larger twin out, wanting to know why she was spared exile when her friend down at the Bannered Mare was not. Perhaps it was a simple matter of end results rather than intention. Uthgerd had succeeded where Sonja had not—not that she lamented her failure to kill Vilkas. If ever there was a time she was relieved to have been beaten silly, it was that morning. “Perhaps I will speak with Kodlak,” she said absently, taking another stinging drink of cider.

Vilkas sighed and set his drink down a little harder than necessary. “The difference between you and Uthgerd is that she was hotheaded and violent, unfocused and dangerous,” he explained.

“And I wasn’t?”

“You’ve got a dragon in your blood, Whelp,” he replied, “She has nothing like your excuse.”

“You seem to know a lot about dragonborns for a man who’s just met the first one in the last couple centuries.”

Vilkas’ expression became unreadable then, almost morose. “I’ve trained warriors long enough to know when I’m wasting my time,” he said, “Dragonborn or no, I wouldn’t have offered to train you if I thought you couldn’t overcome your own daemons.”

It was Sonja’s turn to scoff. “Besides the Dragonblood, who says I have any?”

“Everybody has at least one.”

She smirked and raised her tankard. “I’ll drink to that.”

Amusement tugged on Vilkas’s features as he raised his drink to hers. There was some quality of companionability to the moment. Relaxed, comfortable. Just two warriors having a drink after training. But it didn’t last long. Vilkas’ demeanor hardened again after the toast and he gestured to Sonja’s broken nose. “That better be healed by morning,” he warned, “I will exploit all your weaknesses.”

Sonja’s mouth twitched into a frown and she tossed the bloodied ice brick into the bushes where no one would slip on it. Gingerly, she felt out the shape of her nose, trying to determine if it was positioned correctly. Satisfied that it was as straight as it was going to get, she cast the healing magic, repairing the break, but doing nothing about the bruising around it. She wiggled her nose experimentally before leaning back in her chair with the mulled cider. “Better?” she asked, irritably.

Vilkas’ eyes narrowed and then flit to her injured hand, cradled in her lap. “Almost,” he said. Then, before Sonja could react, he snatched at her across the table, nearly upsetting the cider in her hands as his fingers closed around her scarred wrist. She let out a low grunt of pain and leaned forward to alleviate the discomfort, but her arm wasn’t quite strong enough to break free of the larger Companion’s grip, not in its weakened state. Vilkas was fully aware of this, he could feel the uselessness of the stiffened joint as Sonja tensed beneath his fingers. Abruptly, he twisted her forearm upward, her swollen palm facing back at her, and earned a strangled cry of pain and surprise from her lips.

The motion ached in every joint from wrist to shoulder. With a loud screech of her chair against the stone floor of the back porch, Sonja scooted closer, spilling some of her cider as she slammed the tankard down onto the table. “Let go,” she growled through gritted teeth.

“It makes you weak. It makes you slow,” he growled, “In a real fight, it will get you killed.”

“I managed against a dragon,” she snapped, clenching her jaw and returning his gaze, refusing to look away, beg, or show any further sign of pain.

“Throwing spells, not lifting a sword.”

“It got the job done.”

“See to it.” And he released her. Glaring at him, she protectively hugged her injured hand to her chest. “If you can’t manage it, go to the temple and see Danica. Or down to Arcadia’s.”

“I’ll handle it.”

Vilkas scoffed. “I won’t take it easy on you tomorrow.”

Sonja rolled her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “I don’t want you to.”

He smirked at her answer, the closest to a smile she had ever seen him make. He opened his mouth to respond, but quickly closed it as a strange look of recognition crossed his face. Abruptly, he looked to the left side of Jorrvaskr as if expecting to see someone come around the edge of the building. Sonja thought his behavior strange, but seconds later, a pretty Nord woman came into view. Sonja’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and she was curious how Vilkas seemed to know Jorrvaskr was about to receive a visitor. She might have asked him about it, if his expression hadn’t grown even stormier with the woman’s unexpected arrival.

Sonja wasn’t the only one to notice the unpleasant shift in Vilkas demeanor. The woman saw it, too. She had had a very happy, perhaps even eager, spring to her step when she came around the corner. Her attractive features brightened with a soft, knowing smile. But the second she made eye contact with Vilkas, she seemed to rethink everything. Her pace slowed and became almost reluctant and the smile faded. Eventually, she came to a halt just shy of the porch, suddenly aware of how much her presence was unwelcome. “Hail, Companions,” she said uncertainly, her gaze briefly acknowledging Sonja before returning to Vilkas.

“Good evening, lady,” Sonja replied, kicking back her chair as she stood. It was growing increasingly obvious that whatever the woman was there for, it was none of Sonja’s business and she had no desire to pry.

“What are you doing here, Ysolda?” Vilkas asked, standing also and stalking toward the woman. His tone was not nearly as gruff as Sonja had expected it to be, but his displeasure was still very apparent.

“I—I was just passing by and I thought—I thought I might stop by to see you,” she replied awkwardly, “I was on my way home and I thought—maybe I could make you dinner…”

“I can’t,” he interrupted.

Sonja winced behind Vilkas’ back and expedited her departure. Their conversation was definitely none of her business, but in her haste, she grabbed for her cider with her bad hand. The smooth tankard slipped right through her weak fingers and spilled over the stone floor, the cup, itself, rolling under the far side of the table. “Balls,” she mumbled, casting a sideways glance at Vilkas and Ysolda before stooping to retrieve it. The Companion was obviously irritated with Sonja’s untimely clumsiness, but Ysolda seemed to appreciate a break in the uncomfortable atmosphere.

“Look, I—I just thought we could celebrate tonight,” Ysolda pressed, “I finally reached an agreement with Ri’saad and, if I’m lucky, I can start trading for the caravans in the market soon and start making some real coin…”

“Ysolda, I…” Vilkas began.

“Caravans?” Sonja interrupted, “What caravans?” The mention of caravans and a very Khajiit-sounding name captured Sonja’s interest, and she was no longer able to keep her nose out of Vilkas’ private conversation.

Ysolda blinked, taken aback by Sonja’s sudden demand. Vilkas audibly growled, but Sonja pointedly ignored him. “The—uh—Khajiit trading caravans that camp outside the cities,” she explained hesitantly.

“They’re here now?”

“Yes. They just arrived today.”

“Newblood…” Vilkas warned, unsure of and unconcerned with Sonja’s interest in the caravans, but wanting only for her to leave him and Ysolda in peace.

Sonja fidgeted, ready to bolt down to the city gates, but stopped herself. Obviously, this woman had had many dealings with the Khajiit, had some sort of report with them; if Sonja intruded on the Khajiit camp and started demanding answers about her sister’s whereabouts, she would likely get nothing but determined silence. “A-and this Ri’saad?” she pressed, ignoring Vilkas’ glare, “Is he their leader?”

Ysolda shifted, crossing her arms over her chest in the process. The basket of goods she was carrying falling neatly into the crook of her elbow. “He is,” she replied, her tone considerably sharper than it was when she had been trying to persuade Vilkas to dinner, “Why do you want to know?”

“Could you arrange for me to meet Ri’saad?” she continued, purposefully skirting Ysolda’s question.

Her dodge was not lost on the merchant woman. “Depends,” she insisted, “On why you want to meet him?”

Sonja sighed and glanced at Vilkas who had crossed his arms over his chest and was glowering back at Sonja, trying to intimidate her into abandoning her line of questioning, but she was not the least bit affected by his disposition. Still, she recognized an obstacle when she saw one, and Vilkas’ surly presence was doing her no favors. “I’ll leave you to it,” she said abruptly, “We’ll speak again, Ysolda. Soon.” And then she turned on her heel and disappeared inside Jorrvaskr.

Ysolda’s brows knit together in confusion. “Odd one, isn’t she?” she said.

“You have no idea,” Vilkas replied, equally surprised by Sonja’s abrupt departure, but halfway certain his scowl had very little to do with it.

“So…” Ysolda said, trying to bring the conversation back around to before Sonja’s interruption, “Dinner.”

Vilkas frowned. He had slowly begun to disappear from her life again over the past week, working his way out of her day to day—and night to night. Regardless of what peace her bed granted him, he could no longer stand the thought of using her. He was doing his best not to string her along anymore, not to break her heart, but she was not making it easy on him. “I’m not hungry,” he stated bluntly.

“Dessert then?” she asked suggestively.

“You shouldn’t have come here.”

The light went out of her eyes then. “But—you didn’t mind before…” she reminded him of their previous relationship. She used to stop by Jorrvaskr frequently with little excuses to see him training in the yard or to spend a few heated moments alone with him in his room. But those days were well and truly over.

“This isn’t like it was before.”

Now twice rejected, Ysolda pursed her lips and looked away. “I see,” she said and she turned to leave, taking a few steps away before stopping. Her hands clenched into fists and she spun around to face him again. “No,” she snapped, her face flush and her eyes stinging with tears, “I don’t see! Why did you come back if you were only going to do this to me again?”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Oh, horseshit! You’re no fool, Vilkas! You knew exactly what you were doing when you climbed back into my bed!”

Vilkas actually winced as if struck. “I am a weak man, Ysa,” he said, dropping all pretense, “And you deserve better.”

He could see her tender heart break in the glint of her eyes, but she wiped her face and sniffed. Undoubtedly, there was more she wanted to say to him, but she seemed to weigh the cost of it in her head and decided it was not worth it. With all the fortitude of a Nord woman, she locked her pain away, stood to her full height, and looked him in the eye with her head held high. “I do,” she agreed, her voice wavering slightly, “Mara have mercy on your cold heart, Vilkas. because you have had none for mine.” And then she stormed off, out of sight.

Sonja tried to rub some of the dried blood from her face before Ysolda came around the corner with minimal success. When she had excused herself from their conversation and gone inside Jorrvaskr to give them their privacy, she promptly went through the front doors to wait for the merchant woman to pass by on her way home—alone. Sonja didn’t know the exact nature of Vilkas’ relationship with Ysolda, but it was easy enough to guess, and she knew a break-up when she saw one. Still, she was not entirely prepared for the completely crushed look on the woman’s face when she came around the corner. Oh for the love of Mara’s bleeding heart…she shook her head. “All men are assholes,” she stated when Ysolda was near enough, “But Vilkas takes the sweetroll.”

The distraught woman looked up. She hadn’t noticed Sonja right away and frowned upon seeing her. “It’s you,” she stated irritably.

“I said we’d talk again, soon,” Sonja shrugged, “Though—I admit, my timing could be better.”

“Leave me alone,” Ysolda groaned as she rushed passed her and down the stairs.

Had circumstances been different, if it hadn’t been her sister that Sonja was so worried about, she would have left the poor woman to nurse her broken heart in private. But that wasn’t the case. So Sonja silently hated herself as she followed Ysolda toward the Plains District. “This is important,” she said to the back of the merchant woman’s retreating head, “I’m—I’m trying to find my sister and the Khajiit caravans are my only lead.”

Ysolda stopped at the top of the stairs leading down into the district below. Despite her own pain, she still found it in her heart to feel bad for a sister just trying to find a loved one. She sighed, hanging her head before turning to face Sonja with a fresh expression. “Look, I can’t help you anyway,” she explained, “I have a deal worked out with Ri’saad that I haven’t delivered on yet and I still need a thane to vouch for my petition for my merchant’s license. So, I’m sorry about your sister, but if you want to talk to the Khajiit, you’ll have to approach them on your own.” And she turned to leave.

“Wait!” Sonja pleaded, following her down the stairs, “Wait! I can help you.”

Ysolda groaned. “I’ve been nice, but you need to take a hint,” she snapped, “Leave me alone.”

“I’ll vouch for your petition!”

“Mara grant me patience! I need a thane.

“I am a thane!” Sonja replied, sticking her hand out toward Ysolda in greeting, “Sonja Ironheart, newest Thane of Whiterun.”

Surprise softened Ysolda’s features and she dreamily shook Sonja’s offered hand. “Then you must be…” she whispered in disbelief, “…The Dragonborn…!”

“So they tell me.”

Ysolda looked as though she was about to faint. “Oh, this is perfect!” she breathed, “Hrongar thinks of nothing but the war. Gray-Mane and Battle-Born aren’t interested in my petition and Ironheart—your-your aunt, I suppose—is always unavailable for an audience.” She flicked all of Whiterun’s thanes off her fingers as she went, talking more to herself than to Sonja. “But you—you would be willing to vouch for me?”

Sonja nodded. “Think of it as a business transaction,” she said, “You scratch my back, I scratch yours. I’ll help you start up your little enterprise, if you get me in with the Khajiit leader.”

“You—won’t hurt him, will you?”

“No. I just need to ask him some questions,” Sonja assured, “Anja—my sister—likely made friends with his caravan. I don’t think they’d hurt her. I just want to know how far she traveled with them.”

Ysolda mentally weighed Sonja’s offer in her head and, as far she was concerned, she was getting a far better deal than the Dragonborn was. “To be fair,” she said reluctantly, “You should know the deal I have with Ri’saad is not a simple one.”

Sonja raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

Ysolda sighed and fidgeted with her basket, making up her mind. “Ri’saad’s condition for our trading agreement requires that I bring him a mammoth’s tusk,” she said, “Easier said than done.”

“A mammoth’s tusk,” Sonja repeated, skeptically.

She nodded. “A mammoth’s tusk,” she confirmed.

Sonja shrugged. “What’s a mammoth to a dragon?”

Ysolda chuckled, blunted. “You sound like…” she began, “…a Companion,” she finished, lamely, but Vilkas’ name hung undeclared in the air between them.

Sonja knew it, but tactfully continued speaking as if none the wiser. “So, we have a deal?” she asked.

“I think we do,” she agreed and the pair of them shook on it, “Looking forward to doing business with you, Dragonborn.”

Sonja found it odd being inside Dragonsreach without an invitation. Regardless of her status as thane, or Dragonborn for that matter, she couldn’t shake the distinct feeling that she was trespassing somewhere she did not belong. But Ysolda had assured her it was perfectly acceptable for Sonja to call on the Jarl’s steward to discuss business matters like merchant’s licenses. So, Sonja went to the bathhouse to wash up and changed back into her witchplate armor since it was the nicest thing she owned before climbing the stairs to the jarl’s palace. She also took with her the bag containing the Imperial crests she took from Helgen. Now able to afford hiring a courier, she intended to send the marks on their way to Solitude.

Balgruuf, himself, was not on his throne so, naturally, Irileth was also absent. Avenicci was also conspicuously missing from the great hall. Sonja frowned and approached the nearest guard. “Where’s the steward?” she asked.

“Hold business with the Jarl, my Thane,” she answered.

Sonja’s brow furrowed. “I have business of my own with him, do you know when he will be done?”

“No, my Thane,” she replied with a touch of nervousness, “Would you—would you like me to find out?”


“Right away, my Thane,” and Sonja watched her hurry up the stairs, unsure if she was excited to be doing an errand for a Thane of Whiterun or eager to get away from the Dragonborn.

Either way, she didn’t get the chance to dwell on it long before a recently familiar woman came down the same set of stairs: Lydia Stormshield, Housecarl. “Greetings, my Thane,” she said, her green-hazel eyes glinting in the light of the fire as she approached.

Sonja pursed her lips and nodded to the housecarl. “I haven’t changed my mind, Stormshield,” she stated sharply, but Lydia didn’t seem surprised.

“And neither have I,” replied the housecarl as she crossed her arms over her chest defiantly.

“Leave it to Balgruuf to assign me the most stubborn housecarl in all of Skyrim.”

Lydia’s mouth twitched into a smirk. “It would be easier if you’d just let me do my duty,” she insisted.

The Dragonborn scowled at her fellow female warrior. It had taken a couple of days after he had named Sonja Thane for Balgruuf to make the arrangements for her housecarl. The other Thanes of Whiterun had provided their own: members of the family or dear friends. People willing and capable of fulfilling the honored roll of bodyguard, but Sonja had no one, so the Jarl took it upon himself to send for one. Lydia Stormshield came from a long line of dutiful and highly skilled housecarls. Though she had been born and spent her childhood years in Whiterun, her education and training had taken her to Windhelm where she had spent the bulk of her life. The joy she felt in returning to her childhood home was dwarfed only by the tremendous pride that overcame her when she learned that she would serve the Dragonborn Thane of Whiterun. So, she was understandably incensed when Sonja had flat out refused the service of a housecarl.

“I thought you’d be happy,” Sonja replied irritably, “You don’t have to wait hand and foot on a stranger you know nothing about.”

Lydia raised an eyebrow. “You look like us, but you know nothing of our ways,” she said, but she hadn’t meant it as an insult; it was more of a blunt observation.

Sonja’s brow twitched a fraction deeper. She hadn’t asked Lydia what being a housecarl meant. It hadn’t occurred to her to do so. Being a servant and bodyguard seemed pretty straight forward, though it made no more sense to Sonja to have the woman along. First Ralof, then Faendal, then Lydia? The number of people who were bizarrely prepared to lay down their lives to protect her made her feel incredibly uncomfortable. At least Ralof and Sonja had had the heat of battle and the bedroll to grant his devotion any degree of sense, and Faendal had his own reasons for tagging along. But who was Lydia to her? What experiences had they shared? What reasons did the intimidating Nord warrior have for wanting to protect Sonja? At least if Ralof had died protecting her, it would have been out of some misguided excuse for love or an attempt to pay a life debt. And Faendal would die in his ongoing quest to prove himself to Camila. But the possibility of Lydia’s death just seemed so senseless to Sonja that she couldn’t accept it. At least the others knew what they were getting themselves into. What chance did this unknown woman have?

“Enlighten me, then,” Sonja invited, hoping to catch some explanation for Lydia’s willingness to serve her.

“I’m your housecarl. Not your maid,” Lydia responded simply, “I am your shield. Not your pisspot. I’ll gladly lay down my life for you, but my honor, my dignity, are my own.”

Sonja looked at her thoughtfully. “You don’t even know me,” she said softly, “How can you be so loyal?”

“I am loyal to the Jarl and he has assigned me to you,” Lydia explained, “It has nothing to do with you. For now.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“If you prove to be worthy of my trust, Ysgramor himself couldn’t tear me from your side, let alone the Jarl. But for now, I am here at his request, not yours.”

“I’ve already released you from your obligation to me.”

“There are only two ways a housecarl can be dismissed: in death and in oath-breaking.”

“Whose? Mine or yours?”

“Either. Both.”

Sonja tilted her head to one side, pensive. “And if you saw me murder someone, steal from an unknowing innocent, or otherwise degrade your Nordic tradition…?” she asked.

“I’d strike you down, myself.”

“Believe it or not, that makes me like you more.”

“That’s a good sign.” Lydia paused, waiting for the Dragonborn to say more. When she didn’t, she took a defiant step forward. “You have my shield,” she said, “Will you take it?”

“I live in Jorrvaskr,” Sonja reminded her, “There’s room in the barracks for you, but I doubt the Companions would take kindly to your presence.”

“I can stay at your family home…”

“Hera and I don’t get on.”

“You must speak with the Harbinger, then.”

You can do it. I didn’t even want you following me around in the first place.”

Lydia smiled sourly. “Fine. I will speak to the Harbinger,” she said, “Does this mean you have accepted my oath?”

Sonja shrugged. “There are worse things than having an extra blade to guard my back.”

“You won’t regret it,” Lydia assured, holding out her hand.

Sonja scoffed and the women shook on it. “But you might.”

“Ah, my lady Dragonborn. It is good to see you again.” Sonja looked over Lydia’s shoulder to the staircase. It was Hrongar with the erstwhile guard en tow.

“Where’s Avenicci?” she asked forgoing pleasantries.

“Busy,” came the simple reply, “He and my brother are discussing matters of the Hold. He cannot be spared, so I have come in his place.”

Sonja raised an eyebrow before nodding to Lydia. “Get your things and wait for me here,” she instructed, “We’ll leave when I’m done with Hrongar.”

“Yes, my Thane.”

“And don’t call me that.”

“As you wish, Dragonborn.”

“Or that.”

“Ironheart?” Lydia asked, uncertainly.

Sonja was tempted to deny her again, but shrugged and nodded. “It’ll do.” The Housecarl nodded and disappeared up the stairs again to fetch her belongings. Sonja returned her attention to Hrongar. “I have some business to attend to,” she explained, “I wish to sponsor Ysolda Snow-Song’s petition for a merchant’s license.”

Hrongar raised an eyebrow. “She finally found someone willing to invest in her little endeavor, did she?” he scoffed.

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Aye, so you are,” he seemed irritatingly amused by the prospect, but shrugged, “I can take of that for you easily enough, if you wish to wait here.” He paused, eyeing the bag clutched in Sonja’s hand. “Unless there is something else you needed?”

She held up the crests and jiggled them slightly. “I also need to hire a courier,” she replied, “And trouble you for some ink and parchment.”

“Follow me.” He nodded up the stairs and she quietly fell into step behind him as he led her to the wing containing the Jarl, his family, and Avenicci’s private chambers. Sonja wasn’t aware where she was until he motioned for her to step into a room that was very obviously his. She paused, expecting to be led to an office somewhere, but Hrongar pointed to his desk. “Take your time,” he said before disappearing from sight in pursuit of whatever paperwork was necessary for Ysolda’s merchant license.

She made herself comfortable in the high-back chair and fiddled with the quills at the head of the desk before selecting one she liked and sharpening it with the small blade by the inkpot. Then she carefully loaded the nib with ink and began her first of two letters. It wasn’t long before Hrongar returned, but Sonja was already signing the farewell of the second letter by then, having chosen to keep her correspondence brief and to the point.

The Jarl’s brother watched her silently from a polite distance at the door so she wouldn’t think he was attempting to read her letters over her shoulder. Watched as her mouth puckered to blow the ink on the page dry before creasing the parchment into crisp edges. He thought her very attractive when he first laid eyes on her, but it took more than just a pretty face to pique his interest. And though his brother might have had a soft spot for Ironheart women in the past, Hrongar certainly wasn’t about to indulge in the same weakness. Until she turned out to be Dragonborn, that was. Not only did his admiration for her abilities increased, but he began to see the possibilities nestled around her, dormant. Power and influence were in her future, whether or not she was aware of it, or even liked the idea. And anyone caught in her orbit would reap the benefits of her rise as well. He convinced himself it was for the good of Whiterun, and who’s to say it wasn’t so? But he certainly didn’t ignore the boon winning her over would grant to himself. So now, Hrongar was tempted.

When Sonja was finished folding the letters, she sealed one with a bit of red wax heated over the candle and pressed her father’s ring into it, leaving the imprint of the dragon rippling through the soft, crimson smear. Then she placed it inside the second letter and sealed it in the same fashion before neatly writing the letter’s recipient’s name on the back. Hrongar was curious about Sonja’s actions, but wisely remained silent until she stood from his desk and approached him. “Do you have the petition?” she asked, tapping the thick parchment against her fingertips.

Hrongar produced the document in question. Sonja cast a long look over the page, skimming the wording as if any of the language would deter her from signing the bottom. She’d already made a deal with Ysolda, so she returned to Hrongar’s desk and quickly scrawled her name. “Your seal, also,” Hrongar urged.

Sonja complied, watching the wax drip onto the paper. “I had no titles in Cyrodiil,” she said almost to herself, “It’s strange to see my name carry weight.” As far as she could tell, thanes were minor lords in the realms they lived in. Perhaps little better than knights. Nobles, nonetheless.

“It is a heavy burden,” Hrongar agreed, stepping closer to her, skirting along the edges of her space.

The motion was not lost on Sonja, but she did little to respond. Instead, she held the signed document up between them, an undeclared barrier. “I’ll find a way to manage,” she stated.

Smiling, Hrongar took the page, intentionally brushing his fingers against hers. “I do not doubt it.”

She raised an eyebrow and examined his face for a moment, her expression mostly unreadable, but Hrongar had the distinct impression that she was sizing him up for a meal. “I should be going,” she said abruptly, “Lydia’s waiting for me. Where’s the courier?”

“I’ll take care of it for you, my lady,” he assured her.

Sonja made no attempt to conceal the roll of her eyes as she stepped passed him, headed for the door. “Don’t be stupid,” she chastised.

“Wait.” Fearing he was losing the moment, Hrongar grabbed her wrist to stop her from leaving the room. He wasn’t rough or possessive with her, but she looked at him as if he had been. Quickly, he released her hand and took a half a step back. “Perhaps you’d like to join me for supper tonight?” he amended, “In private?”

She looked at him with that same critical look as before and then she smiled. “Goodbye, Hrongar,” she purred, “It’s been a pleasure.” And then she left to seek out the courier herself.

As it turned it out, the Companions were more or less pretty clear on the subject of housecarls. They respected the honor, the duty, and the skill the service required and it was not the first time one of their number had become a thane, a jarl, or even a king, thus requiring a housecarl. It was more or less considered a private affair, meaning it was Sonja’s duty to house and feed her own bodyguard, not the Companions. But since she had no home of her own for Lydia to live in or steady income beyond what work the Companions would eventually toss her way, Kodlak acknowledged the unique circumstance. So Lydia was granted permission to stay in the barracks, provided she passed the initiation trial. Undergoing the trial would not make her a Companion, however; since her obligations as housecarl would always precede the duty of a Newblood. “If you want to sleep here, then you have to fight here,” he said, “There is no room in the halls of Jorrvaskr for the weak.”

So Sonja watched Vilkas test Lydia, but her mind was otherwise occupied. She was thinking of Hrongar’s furtive attentions. It wasn’t as if he had been bold. In fact, he had been very reserved. She’d only noticed his interest in the subtle hunger of his gaze, and his attention was not necessarily unwelcome. She was a woman comfortable with herself and her appetites, and, from a purely physical appraisal, Hrongar appeared more than capable of serving her needs well enough: strong, handsome, silent type. Acceptable for a tumble or two in the bedroll and nothing else. But she was no fool. She remembered the Thane’s conversation with the steward that she and Faendal had uncomfortably overheard. Something told her his interest had more to do with the revelation that she was Dragonborn than anything else. She was still wrapping her head around what it meant to have the Dragonblood, let alone what it meant to the people of Skyrim.

Besides, in the gentle swell of the moment when he had asked her to dinner, she felt his invitation pique the interest of the dragon within. Not for companionship or sex; dragons had no use for such things. But to dominate. That’s really why she had refused him. As much for his sake as it was for her own. She didn’t think that Hrongar had what it took to satisfy a dragon—or what that even meant.

A loud, deep battle cry drew Sonja’s attention back to Vilkas and Lydia. The Housecarl was more than holding her own against the Companion, demonstrating just how well her years of training had paid off and deeply impressing Sonja. She was giving Vilkas a run for his money which the Companion seemed to truly appreciate, if his expression was anything to go by. Borderline utter delight. For her part, Sonja always had a soft spot for a woman who could handle a sword. Finally, Vilkas called an end to the trial, laughing, invigorated from the exertion of battle. The smile looked out of place on his face, but attractive. His strong chest heaved as he caught his breath and declared Lydia worthy, and Sonja had a sneaking, salacious thought that she immediately dismissed in the next moment: Now, the Companion might do. He would do nicely.

Chapter Text



I call you so because that is what you were to me. A mercy. I thank the gods for sending you to me, for if they hadn’t, I surely would have died a nameless pile of ash. I know you think so little of your role in our escape, but know that I could think of no one better at my side, fighting through the chaos.

I pray this letter has found you safely in Whiterun, that you have not yet moved on. I have finally returned to Windhelm and resumed my duties. Jarl Ulfric, himself, asked me to pass along his thanks to you for helping to retrieve the marks of my fallen brothers and sisters. Because of you, they have found peace, their memories properly honored.

It is good to be amongst warriors again, though my own thirst for battle has waned. I think often of what you said to me over poor Bormir’s body. Some nights, the memory of it keeps me awake and I don’t have the pleasure of your company to soothe me back to sleep. Or exhaust me. I think of you often.

I return to the field soon, so your reply might not reach me until my regiment’s rotation back to Windhelm. But I would like to hear from you. To know that you are safe and well. Or to see you. I know you walk your own path here in Skyrim, but if there is a chance it might cross mine again, I would be grateful. Until then, I dream of you.

Stay Safe,


Sonja reread Ralof’s letter for the third time over breakfast. She had risen uncharacteristically early and wondered into the main hall to eat something before Vilkas dragged her out into the training yard. The room had been largely empty with only Tilma silently puttering around, moving meats on and off the flames in preparation of the day’s meals. The courier baring Ralof’s letter for her and an unmarked correspondence for the Dragonborn arrived shortly after. She had opened Ralof’s first and became so engrossed in his words that she had all but forgotten about the second letter.

Ugh, you hopeless romantic…she thought teasingly, reading the saccharine lines about her being a mercy to him. She rolled her eyes, but smiled at the sentiment. There was no denying that she had enjoyed his company both in and out of the bedroll. Ralof was charming in that uniquely Nordic way which was why she had been so eager to get away from him. He was more than just a temptation for her carnal desires; he was an enticement for her heart as well. Even reading his sappy letter made her heart flutter in a dangerously endearing sort of way. Worse yet, she found the possibility of seeing him again an exciting one.

Just as she was allowing herself to indulge in the fantasy of a reunion, the door to the backyard snapped open and Vilkas stepped inside. She hadn’t noticed him stepping out while she was awake, so he must have been out in the yard before dawn. “Whelp!” he growled and she looked at him over the top edge of the letter. “Have you eaten?”

She looked down at her half-eaten breakfast. “More or less.”

“Then get your lazy ass out into the yard.”

Sonja fought the urge to roll her eyes as she stood from the table, draining the last of her tea and stuffing her letters into her coin purse. “As you say, Companion,” she replied sharply and followed him outside.

“I can’t reach this last buckle,” Sonja strained as she struggled against the unforgiving, thick metal plate of the oversized chestplate, “How in Oblivion do you move in this shit?”

Vilkas strode over to the frustrated Newblood and tugged hard on the stubborn strap, nearly causing Sonja to lose her balance. “This set is too big for you,” he explained, “It’s my old trainer armor. If you had some proper steel plate, this would not be so cumbersome.”

“I already have my own armor,” she pointed out.

“If you call that armor,” he scoffed, “It weighs less than my gauntlet.”

“That’s the point.”

He pursed his lips. Armor was armor as far as he was concerned. So long as it kept you from dying, then it was worth its weight, light or heavy. But his strong preference was heavy and when he thought of the beating Sonja would be taking in any fight against a dragon, he tended to lean in the direction of girth. Though he was sure she’d disagree. Besides, he was wary of that glowing, shapeless heap of metal she called armor; he felt like he was going to tear through it during her initiation trial. “You need to learn to control your strength,” he explained, “The extra weight will slow you down. Tire you out. Take the hurt out of your swing.”

“That scared I’ll knock you on your ass?” she teased.

“You haven’t yet, whelp,” he reminded her, “And you never will.”

“Something to look forward to,” she replied sharply, but Vilkas scoffed and did not respond. So, she continued, “What’s first?”

“You have descent skill with a blade, but you lack the endurance to support it,” Vilkas said and he retrieved a steel warhammer from the weapon rack, “Spells don’t weigh anything. You’re too soft. Heavy armor, heavy weapon. Practice the forms over and over again until it feels like you’re moving a dagger through the naked air.”

“As you say, mighty Companion.” Vilkas rebuked her with a sharp smack to the back of the head. “Ow!” she growled, turning to scowl at him, her draconic ego already beginning to bruise.

“And no speaking unless spoken to,” he added. Her eyes narrowed; Sonja exhaled long and low, attempting to release her indignity as she did so. They had only just started; it wouldn’t do for her to lose her temper now and she didn’t want a repeat of the day before. So she went out into the middle of the yard and began the meditative combat poses he had shown her before he insisted on strapping on the extra weight.

Vilkas circled her like a vulture, examining her form with a critical eye. Occasionally, he would correct her with a sharp strike with the flat of his blade. If her arms weren’t high enough, he’d hit her upper arm. If her grip wasn’t right, he’d rap her across her knuckles; it took all of Sonja’s self-control to keep from crying out when he struck her right hand. Vilkas had done it intentionally to see if she had done as he had told her to and consulted Danica or Arcadia. Judging by the flush in her face and her sharpness of breath, he was guessing she had not gone to either healing woman. He shook his head, but refused to discuss it further. He had already warned her, after all and she had failed to head his words. She was going to regret neglecting her injuries; he would be sure of it.

He gave her knuckles another sharp, painful rap before moving on. Her legs weren’t far enough apart, so he abused her inner thighs, just above her knees. At that, Sonja’s patience ran thin and she nearly struck him back with the heavy hammer, but Vilkas caught hold of the weapon and tugged it out of her feathery grip, weakened from the weight of an unfamiliar weapon and Vilkas’ blows to her bad hand. “You’ve been disarmed,” he growled, “Now it’s time to run for your life. To the city gates and back.”

“You’re joking.” She was momentarily jarred from her displeasure, surprised by Vilkas’ order.

“City gates and back,” Vilkas repeated, “Now!” Sonja looked as though she was considering disobeying, but suddenly thought better of it. With a resolute grunt, she disappeared around Jorrvaskr. Vilkas smiled smugly to himself. Dragonborn or not, she was determined for a mage.

As he waited for her to return, other Companions came out into the yard for a bit of training or warm up before heading out on other business. Among them was Lydia, who looked around uncertainly for her Thane. “She’s run down to the gates,” he informed her before nodding to a training dummy, “Why don’t you get a few swings in? I might have a use for you later.”

“For what?”

“The Dragonborn needs a sparring partner that won’t quit on her,” he replied, “She broke the last five.” Lydia’s eyes widened slightly in surprise. Vilkas chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll wear her out before she gets to you.” Though Lydia found that hardly comforting, she nodded and began to unhook her steel plate, selecting a practice sword and shield from the wrack.

When Sonja came back, she was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. Still, she took up the warhammer and returned to the center of the yard. “I’m only doing this,” she breathed, “So I can beat you at your own damned game.”

“If it keeps you motivated,” Vilkas said, smirking, and he snapped his sword against the back of her right upper thigh near enough to her rear to cause her to squeal involuntarily. He chuckled at her discomfort. “Speak when spoken to, Whelp,” he reminded her.

“Again!” Vilkas barked at a bleeding, sweating, dirt-covered Dragonborn, “You need to be quicker!”

Sonja growled against the gag in her mouth and strained against the ropes binding her. All part of the footwork exercise. Well, the gag was to keep her from losing her patience and Shouting poor Lydia across the yard. But the bindings holding her elbows against her midsection kept her from properly using her arms to counterattack. The most she could do was dance out of the way of Lydia’s blade and shield. Maybe parry against the flats of her forearms or palms. But nothing more.

It had started out well enough at first. Sonja managed to safely stay out of Lydia’s reach until Vilkas suggested the Housecarl was not trying hard enough to hit her Thane. Then, with a grudging nod of encouragement from Sonja, Lydia suddenly became inescapable. And Sonja found herself on her back in the dirt so many times that she lost count. It was a humbling experience. But she jumped to her feet again, more determined than ever. It didn’t matter how many times she was knocked silly. This was just one more challenge to overcome, one more trial to beat, one more obstacle to surpass.

Suddenly, Lydia’s shield came into view again and it was too late for Sonja to side step it. She was on the ground again, this time sporting a massive gash along her temple. “Good hit,” Vilkas grunted, but Lydia dropped her weapons and rushed to Sonja’s side.

“My Thane!” she sputtered, “Are you alright?” Delicately, she pulled the gag down to Sonja’s chin as if touching her would shatter the Dragonborn.

“Ysgramor’s balls, you should have been a Companion,” she groaned, shifting away from Lydia’s touch and sitting up. Her arms strained against the ropes that bound her, but she managed to touch her hand to her head to inspect the damage. It was not the worse she’d ever suffered, but it certainly was no small injury, either.

“That’s enough for today,” Vilkas declared and he stooped, grabbing the rope around her waist and pulling her upright. It had been a long, hard day and Vilkas had run Sonja through every kind of conditioning he could think of. Sonja was exhausted and sore, and nursing a dark fantasy of making the Companion suffer the same pain every muscle in her body was currently experiencing. “You did well,” he said and Sonja looked at him skeptically as he began to untie her restraints. “Could have done better,” he amended, tugging the rope free, “But you didn’t lose your temper.”

“Didn’t figure you for an optimist,” she replied, rubbing her arms where the ropes had rubbed her raw.

He seemed sort of amused with the idea himself. “Get something to eat and rest up,” he instructed, “Then see Farkas. He has a little job for you to take care of tomorrow afternoon.”

Sonja raised an eyebrow. “Only one day of training and you’re already sending me off on a job?”

“You’re still a Newblood,” he reminded her, “You need to earn your keep.”

“As you say.”

“Besides, if you can’t handle the little errand Farkas has planned, there is no hope for you.”

Sonja’s brow furrowed as she watched the Companion walk away. “What in Oblivion is that supposed to mean?” she wondered aloud.

“Shall I fetch a healer, my Thane?” Lydia asked, catching Sonja’s attention.

“What?” she was momentarily confused, “Oh, no. Don’t worry about it.” She cast a lazy spell at the fresh cut on her head and wiped the excess blood away. “See? Good as new.”

Lydia blinked in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were a mage,” she admitted.

Sonja smirked. “There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me,” she replied, “But something tells me we’re going to have plenty of time together to change that.”

“I am honor-bound to remain at your side,” Lydia agreed.

“Yeah, that,” she sighed and then she headed for Jorrvaskr’s back door, nodding for Lydia to follow her.

“Oh sweet, merciful Mara,” Sonja sighed as she sank further into the steaming water, her eyes closed. Behind the darkness of her lids, she heard Lydia scoff, but then make her own soft sound of pleasure as she entered the bathhouse pool opposite her. Sonja peeped an eye open at her housecarl. “Good to see you’re at least a little worn out too after today,” she observed.

Lydia smirked. “I’ve never met anyone who could take a beating quite like you,” she admitted, “You’re relentless.”

Sonja chuckled. “That’s me,” she agreed, “Fucking force of nature when it comes to getting my ass kicked.”

“Mmm,” Lydia hummed her agreement, “How do you do it?”

“More art than technique at this point,” she shrugged, “Ma always said when you’re good at something, do it well.”

Lydia laughed and then a companionable silence fell between them. They still didn’t know much about each other, but there was something about the nature of combat, whether in the yard or on the field, that tended to melt the barriers between strangers. So, it didn’t surprise Sonja or make her uncomfortable when she heard the water on Lydia’s side of the pool shift with her uncertainty moments before the inevitable question was posed: “Are you really the Dragonborn?”

Sonja didn’t answer right away. Instead, she ducked her head beneath the water and scrubbed away whatever dirt and blood remained on her face. When she broke the surface, she looked at Lydia who was still on the other side, patiently waiting for a response. The perfect picture of balanced hope and skepticism. “Yes,” she said with a surprising amount of sincerity she had not expected herself, “I am.”

The Housecarl’s brow furrowed, but not in disbelief. On the contrary, she seemed intensely curious and trusting, speaking to an honest desire for the truth. “Did you always know?” she asked hesitantly, “Or was it a calling…?”

“I didn’t—feel it until the dragon attack on the Western Watchtower,” she explained, “But when I did—it was like waking from a dream. Something that was always there, but I never noticed it.” She shook her head and pursed her lips, reaching for her soap and wash rag on the ledge of the pool.

“It has changed you.” It was more an observation than it was a question.

“No,” Sonja stated, somewhat despondent as she lathered the bar in her hands, “It’s shown me what I really am.” And that was a far more terrifying prospect than change.

After Sonja and Lydia left the bathhouse, they went to the Bannered Mare to meet with Ysolda and go over their plan for procuring a mammoth’s tusk. Mammoth hunting parties were no joke especially since they traveled in herds and were shepherded by giants. Picking a single one off from the herd was no easy task. “I’ve already spoken with Anoriath and Elrindir,” Ysolda informed the Dragonborn, “They run the Drunken Huntsman and the meat stand in the market? They’re the best hunters in town that aren’t Companions. And Anoriath knows the tundra better than anybody else since he hunts all the meat he sells.”

Sonja nodded, sipping her mead. “I’ve got a friend who’s an excellent hunter,” she added, “I’m sure he’ll jump at the chance to join our party, so that gives us—what? Five?”

Six,” Ysolda corrected somewhat indignantly. The Dragonborn and her Housecarl both eyed the soft, slender merchant woman skeptically. “What? I—I can handle myself!” she insisted haughtily, “This is Skyrim, after all. If I didn’t know which end of a sword to hold onto, I’d be dead on the road somewhere.”

“A sword’s all well and good,” Lydia stated bluntly, “But mammoths are a spear-hunter’s game.”

“Well, I…” Ysolda began.

“And I’d rather you not get yourself killed before you can introduce me to Ri’saad,” Sonja added, “Though I admire your spirit.”

Ysolda sighed, defeated. She wasn’t really one for grand dangerous adventures like mammoth hunting, anyway. She was rather more shrewd than that—and she was overselling her skills with a sword—which was a dagger in reality. Mostly, she only carried a blade while travelling more for show than utility in the hopes that it would make small-time thieves think twice about targeting her; it wouldn’t protect her from serious bandits, regardless of her skill level. Still, it stung a little to be discounted so quickly by the two warriors at the table with her and her sense of honor did demand that she at least try to brave the same danger as those who were joining her little hunting party. She needed to protect her investment somehow, if nothing else. “Fine,” she relented, “But we need a half dozen bodies, at least.”

“More the better in case there’s trouble with a giant,” Lydia added.

Sonja hummed thoughtfully as she cast her eyes over the busy tavern. “Oi, Uthgerd!” she bellowed, drawing the grizzled woman’s attention from halfway across the room.


“You any good with a spear?”

Uthgerd nodded. “Better than you, I’d wager.”

“Want to hunt a mammoth?”

“You jest,” she scoffed.

“Not even a little.”

Uthgerd’s surprise was quickly replaced with excitement. “Aye, I’d relish a Great Hunt!” she replied, quickly abandoning her seat to join Sonja’s table and plopping down into the empty chair beside Ysolda.

“That makes six,” Ysolda said, smiling politely if nervously at Uthgerd.

“Who else you got?” Uthgerd demanded, leaning forward enthusiastically.

“Me, Faendal, Lydia, and the Drunken Huntsman brothers,” Sonja ticked off hurriedly.

“Good lot,” Uthgerd approved, “Too bad the Gray-Mane boys ran off to war. They’d jump at the chance to hunt mammoth again. The last anyone in Whiterun took down was—last winter, I think.”

“What about Olfina?” Ysolda suggested, “She’s a fine shield-maiden.”

“Eorlund wouldn’t allow it,” Uthgerd objected, “Not his darling daughter. Especially now the boys are gone. The Battle-Borns?”

Ysolda made a face. “I can’t stand Idolaf,” the merchant woman admitted.

“You don’t have to like him for him to be useful on the hunt,” Sonja pointed out, “But you’re both avoiding the obvious choice.”

Uthgerd frowned and Ysolda looked a touch guilty. “The Companions want nothing to do with me,” the old warrior insisted.

“And I can’t afford their services,” Ysolda added.

Sonja waved them off. “I’m not talking about inviting all of them,” she assured, “Just Aela and Ria. Maybe Tor since he insists on owing me a life debt.”

“Sounds good to me,” Lydia agreed, nodding as she took another swig of her mead.

Sonja shrugged. “Besides, I think the Huntress would feel slighted if her Shield-Sister didn’t at least make the offer,” she said thoughtfully, “I’ll make sure she understands it’s not a job, but an opportunity. She’ll get paid in flesh, bone, and glory for her efforts, but not a single coin. And Ria’s always on about bear hunting, so I’m sure she’ll be thrilled.”

“It was that one’s lover that had me thrown out of Jorrvaskr,” Uthgerd reminded her, “No self-respecting Companion will join a hunt with me.”

“So long as you both keep your spears aimed at the mammoth and not each other, there shouldn’t be a problem,” Sonja insisted, “I’m sure Aela will make an exception—even if she spends the week pretending you don’t exist.”

“On your head be the consequences.”

“There is another option…” Ysolda said slowly, looking at Sonja like a kid who was about to fess up to a broken vase.

Sonja raised an eyebrow, thinking the woman was about to suggest Vilkas in some sort of half-hearted attempt to see her former lover again. “Go on…” she prodded.

“Last winter’s Hunt Master…”

“Who was…?”

“Hera Ironheart.”

The Dragonborn frowned. “Of course it was,” she growled before aggressively pursuing the bottom of her mead. She had already made it abundantly clear to Ysolda that any support she received from her was not guaranteed by the Ironheart family at large. Just Sonja. Still, an offer from the Dragonborn, a Thane of Whiterun, and a Companion of Jorrvaskr was, by no means, worthless; so, despite the lack of security an old clan name assured, Ysolda had been only too happy to continue their partnership. Besides, Sonja had already delivered on the merchant’s license and Ysolda was not one to switch horses midrace. “I want nothing to do with her,” Sonja insisted hotly, “No.”

“You don’t have to like her for her to be useful on the hunt,” Uthgerd pointed out, using Sonja’s own words against her, “Besides, Hera’s the best shield-maiden Whiterun’s ever seen—besides your ma, of course.”

Sonja made a sound of disgust. “Fine,” she relented, “But I make no promises that I won’t turn my spear on the old biddy once the beast is slain.”

Ysolda choked on her mead; Lydia looked disapproving; and Uthgerd was thoroughly amused. “As you say, Dragonborn,” the old warrior said, “But the odds are not in your favor for that fight. I wouldn’t risk my coin on your arse.”

“As well you shouldn’t, wench,” Sonja teased, “It’s my fists I’ll be fighting with.”

“Aye, but it’s your arse you’ll be knocked to when Hera sets you straight.”

Sonja scoffed. “We’ll see about that,” she growled, smiling. It was only a bit of fun between her and Uthgerd, but the jest still bristled her ego a little. Not that she’d admit it. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough with the four women ordering too many drinks than was wise. Ysolda still wanted to hammer out the finder details of transportation and distribution of goods amongst the hunters once the mammoth was felled, but her planning fell on deaf ears as Lydia and Uthgerd attempted to teach Sonja the words to a favorite Nordic drinking song. Eventually, she gave up and joined in the fun, happy to have a distraction from her injured heart.

At the end of the night, the lot of them escorted Ysolda back to her home, a tangled mess of linked arms and slurred speech. “Lemme ge’ da door fer ya, m-m’lady,” Sonja slurred in a comically high-pitched voice as she reached for the latch, but the door wouldn’t come open.

“I-it’s locked-d,” Ysolda giggled, fumbling with her keys until she managed to get it in the lock and turn, falling inside. Lydia snickered, but helped her to her feet, the least drunk of the foursome. Sonja was wracked with a fit of silent laughter, unable to offer assistance of her own and Uthgerd didn’t care enough to trouble herself. “Thank you, ladies!” Ysolda declared once she was righted, “You’ve been very chiv—chiva—chiv-ral-rous? You’ve been too kind.” She gave a comical little bow, almost toppling over again, but Lydia steadied her.

“Get some sleep, little bird,” the Housecarl urged.

The endearment made Ysolda wince and pout. She had earned the name throughout the course of the night from Uthgerd’s insistence that she ate like a bird, drank like a bird, and sang like a bird when she joined in their drinking songs. It had not been intended as a compliment, though the old warrior hadn’t meant it to be insulting, either; she simply was of the opinion that drinking songs should be shouted more than sang. “I’m-m not a-a bird!” she insisted.

“Ge’ s’me sleeeep-then, mighty troll-slayer,” Sonja teased. They all snickered at the idea of Ysolda slaying trolls.

And with a final slurred “Good night!”, the merchant woman finally closed her door and stumbled to her bed for the night.

Getting Uthgerd home proved to be far more challenging. Lydia had half a mind to let the hot-headed warrior stumble home alone like she wanted, but Sonja insisted on make sure she didn’t run into any trouble with the guard along the way. The struggle to get Uthgerd to her home without starting a fight with a passerby, a random guard, a suspicious looking shadow, a milk-drinking tree, an arrogant chicken, a cowardly goat, or a snot-nosed street lamp surpassed even the rough training day Sonja had by leaps and bounds. “Ugh, gods, taking your shield to the face was easier than getting that drunken wench inside,” Sonja moaned against the closed door of Uthgerd’s house; she was now feeling considerably more sober from the effort, even if the edges of her vision were still blurry.

Lydia leaned against the jamb, laughing to herself. “‘I’ll ‘ave all yer arses, ya ‘ear me? You bleedin’, milk-drinkin’, sons o’ whores!’” she said, mimicking Uthgerd’s last, gruff declaration before they pushed her inside.

Sonja chuckled. “She gets very—Breton—when she drinks, yeah?” she observed.

The Housecarl scrunched up her nose. “She does, doesn’t she?” The pair laughed until they heard a very loud thunk on the other side of the door.

Quickly, Sonja whipped the door open to make sure Uthgerd hadn’t tipped headfirst into her fireplace. Thankfully, the warrior was passed out on the floor of the den, snoring loudly and drooling on the floorboards. “She’s fine,” Sonja waved Lydia off and the pair of them made their way toward Jorrvaskr unsteadily.

“So,” Sonja said as they reached the Gildergreen, “Have I earned your trust through way too much mead, yet?”

Lydia smirked. “If anything, I’ve learned not to trust your judgement. You drink too much.”

“You didn’t stop me.”

“We both can’t be trusted.”

“Probably for the best,” Sonja scoffed as they neared the bottom of the stairs leading to Jorrvaskr. She paused, momentarily indecisive.

“Something wrong, Ironheart?” Lydia asked when she noticed her Thane linger at the bottom step.

A mischievous grin spread over Sonja’s face as she made up her mind. “No,” she assured, “Go on in. Get some sleep. I’ve—uh—other business to attend to tonight.”

Lydia missed the insinuation. “Then I will go with you,” she insisted, “It’s late and you are in no state to go alone.”

Sonja barked out a laugh. “I think I can manage on my own,” she replied as she took a few uncertain steps away from Jorrvaskr, “But—uh—if I’m not back by morning—you know where to find me…” She winked and did her best to calmly stroll toward Dragonsreach. Lydia hesitated, the Jarl’s palace was safe enough, but the walk there was less so. Silently, she calculated the risk factor involved in allowing her Thane to climb the long stair case inebriated and unattended, and relegated herself to waiting at the top of the stairs to Jorrvaskr until Sonja made it to Dragonsreach. What business the Dragonborn had there at such a late hour, Lydia couldn’t fathom, but she knew when it wasn’t her place to pry. Just as there were some things she preferred to keep separate from her service to Sonja, so too did she acknowledge there were many things Sonja wished to keep to herself.

The touch of his fingertips over her bare skin is almost too much. It sends such a pleasant shiver of desire through her body that her breath hitches and she knows no one will ever make her feel the way he does. It’s perfect. He’s perfect. Their naked bodies clinging to each other in heated darkness are perfect, and it makes her heart ache with the swell of love for the man wrapped in her embrace. “Corvus,” she moans out his name and the sound of it is like a prayer to her ears, saving her soul in a thousand ways she didn’t even know she needed.

“Dibella save me, you’re so beautiful,” he groans, his weight shifting over her as he aims to reach deeper within her core. His handsome face is slack with pleasure, dark brunette hair tousled from her fingers when she gripped the wavy locks in her pleasure, but his warm, loving brown eyes bore into her own shining blue ones. There is such intensity, such love in his gaze that it almost scares her. But then the moment approaches and as she feels herself shatter into a thousand pieces against the wave of their shared ecstasy, so too does she surrender herself to the vulnerability of his offer.

“Yes,” she breathes, breathless against the kisses he lines against her throat, “Yes, damn you! I love you, too.”

And then it all goes wrong. Twists in the malleable slipstream of memory, merging joy with sorrow so when he lifts his head from her breasts and looks at her, it is not with the gentle, unguarded expression of adoration—it is with the jagged edge of rage and hatred. He laughs in her face, her words falling on deaf ears before the flash of his dagger slices across the throat he had only moments before paid worship with his lips.

Sonja sat bolt upright in bed, in the darkness, breathing heavy and covered in a fresh sheen of sweat. Somewhere at the back of her mind, she knew it had only been a dream, so she sat, rigid and blinking, trying to calm her racing heart and identify familiar objects in the darkened room. Nothing looked particularly familiar. And, with a jolt, she realized there was someone lying in bed next to her. Suddenly, she felt very cold; it was then that she realized she was naked and the blankets that once covered her had been flung to the bottom of the bed.

Her alarm rose in her chest only to dissipate in the next moment as she remembered where she was and with whom. Dragonsreach. With Hrongar. She looked at him sideways to see if her nightmare had disturbed him, but he seemed unperturbed and snoring softly into his pillow. Relieved, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and slipped out of bed, feeling the weight of her night of drinking shift the world sideways, nearly upending her back onto the mattress. But she steadied herself and willed her vision to stop moving as she crept around in the darkness, fetching her clothes. If she was lucky, she could sneak out before he even noticed she was gone.

She stubbed her toe.

Not so lucky.

Hrongar snorted awake and sat up, a dagger loosely clutched in his hands as he stared around through one eye, the other apparently too tired to open properly. Sonja froze like a deer, hoping her lack of movement would render her invisible. And it might have, if the rest of the world wasn’t moving so damn much. She shifted to steady herself and Hrongar lowered his weapon, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with his free hand. “Sonja?” he said thickly, obviously fighting a yawn.

“Yes?” she said almost guiltily.

“What are you doing?”

She sighed and finished jamming her foot into her boot. “What does it look like?” she asked, turning her tunic over in her hands, trying to determine which hole made space for which limb, before jamming her head through, discovering the fit was wrong, and tugging it off to try again.

“Come back to bed,” he insisted, “It’s late. And you’re drunk.”

She actually snorted, amused with his concern. “Not drunk enough to refuse when I wanted a tumble, am I?” she pointed out, succeeding in properly donning her tunic—she hoped.

“Too drunk to go home,” he corrected, “Which is why I offered you my bed for the night.”

Sonja smirked. “Mmm, ever the gentleman,” she quipped, fumbling with the laces of her corset.

There was marked hesitation through the darkness before Hrongar spoke again. “Are you angry with me?” he asked uncertainly.

Her fingers stilled as it occurred to her that the Thane didn’t know her well enough to know when she was joking and it was too dark to see her amusement in her expression—a fact she took advantage of when she openly rolled her eyes at him. “Of course not,” she assured, giving up on her corset and stooping to pick up her cloak. Then she perched on the edge of the bed closest to Hrongar. He moved over to give her room, but not enough to separate their bodies and his hand slid comfortably over her thigh. “You gave me exactly what I was looking for,” she said seductively, “Perhaps we can do it again sometime.” And then she kissed him almost politely on the mouth before popping up from her seat and heading for the door.

Hrongar watched her leave with a bemused expression. He was still unsure if he had done something wrong or if she really was so—relaxed about such things. Not that sex was a complicated matter in Skyrim. More or less, the general attitude was: if you have an itch, then scratch it. But it was the first time he had ever watched a woman sneak out of his room in the middle of the night. And it only made him all the more curious about the Dragonborn.

As Sonja made her way back down to Jorrvaskr—thankfully running into no one of note along the way—her thoughts were not on her nightly escapades with the Thane (which had been adequate but not outstanding). She was thinking of her nightmare, trying to piece it back together in the shock of waking. It had been about Corvus. That much was certain. And the very thought of him made her skin crawl and her heart ache in such a profoundly painful way that, coupled with her lingering inebriation, she almost tipped into the water in her descent of Dragonreach’s stairs. She had been young and stupid when she met him, but she refused to excuse herself from the events that followed their dangerous affair.

With a sound of disgust, she tried to put him from her mind and returned to Jorrvaskr for some much needed sleep before Vilkas put her through Oblivion again the next morning. “Fuck,” she cursed, realizing that she had failed to meet with Farkas that day to pick up the job he had for her. Hopefully, it was a matter simple enough for her to take care of in the morning before training. Vilkas had called it an ‘errand,’ after all. She rubbed her face and stumbled into the mead hall, expecting to find no one and, to her dismay, spotting Vilkas at one of the chairs in the corner, reading a book with a mug of something steaming on the little table in front of him.

He looked up at her sharply when he heard the door, apparently expecting a vagrant or an intruder because the second he realized it was her, his gaze softened—but only slightly. Awkwardly, she nodded to him, unsure of what he was doing up so late or why he was staring at her so accusingly. “Rough night?” he asked, not setting down his book.

“I’ve had worse,” she replied noncommittally as she headed for the stairs to the lower levels.

“It’s closer to day than it is night,” he informed her.

“Sorry, ma,” she replied irritably, “I’ll send word next time I plan on staying out.”

He shrugged, unconcerned. “What you do—and who you do it with—are none of my concern,” he stated, “Just be prepared to sweat that mead off tomorrow.” Sonja scoffed and made to zip down the stairs. “Oh, and don’t worry about your housecarl,” he said before she was out of earshot, “She’s made herself comfortable with my brother.”

At that, Sonja popped her head back up and looked in Vilkas’ direction. “Truly?” she asked.

“Last I saw her.”

A daedra-ish grin spread over Sonja’s face then and she disappeared to the lower levels. Sure enough, Lydia was not in her bunk when Sonja returned to the barracks and the Dragonborn couldn’t help but chuckle to herself before stripping down to her smalls and falling into bed, haphazardly covering herself with the blanket. At some point in the moments between sleeping and waking, her hand drifted to her throat, her fingertips grazing the old scar there. But she dreamt no more of Corvus.

Chapter Text

“Good morning!” The sound of his voice grated against Sonja’s mind, resounding with the force of a thousand booming echoes. It was all she could do not to roll to the edge of her bed and heave her guts onto the floor. With great effort, she cracked one weary eye open and glared at the intruder on her peace. It was Faendal.

“What do you want?” she groaned, throwing her arm over her eyes.

The Bosmer chuckled. “You’re lucky I’m not the jealous type,” he chastised, “You go get piss-drunk with your new housecarl, but leave me behind?”

“It wasn’t a planned affair, friend.”

“Took you a whole week to warm up to me,” he pointed out playfully, “One night out drinking with her and…”

“To be fair, I made her live in Dragonsreach for a good long while before I finally said she could tag along,” she replied dully, “Which means you’re still my favorite.”

“I’m touched.”

“In the head, maybe.”

Faendal laughed. “You should be kinder to the elf who came to rouse your drunken carcass before Vilkas comes down here to wake you himself.”

Sonja rolled over and groaned into her pillow. “Mead is nothing but daedra piss disguised as honey,” she opined before sitting up and throwing off her blanket, awarding Faendal an eyeful of her in her smalls. Not that it was the first time. Hard to avoid when out on the road together—and there was that one time she stripped down and tried to crawl inside a campfire—but the Bosmer still politely averted his eyes as he stood up to give her privacy.

“Oh, and Farkas was looking for you, too,” he informed her as he walked away.

“Right, he’s got a job for me,” she reminded herself aloud.

“Oh? Mind if I tag along?” he asked from the door.

Sonja shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

“See you after training, then.”

She made a vague gesture of goodbye to the back of Faendal’s head before sluggishly picking through her clothes, which were stuffed haphazardly into the trunk at the foot of her bed, to find her training leathers. A distinct air of reluctance colored her movements as she sloppily piled her hair into a messy knot at the back of her head and donned her armor. Her body was sick from alcohol and sore from her exertions the day before. And there was no promise of her day getting any better.

“Skeevers,” Sonja repeated, scowling up at Farkas, the larger twin filling up the doorway with his massive frame.

“That’s the job,” he nodded, smiling.

He was far more friendly than his brother which made laying any frustration or irritability against him virtually impossible. Something that Sonja found maddening, in itself. Especially when she was trying to express displeasure for the job he had just assigned her.

“In the dungeons,” she continued.


“Where skeevers should be…”

Farkas shrugged. “The Jarl disagrees.”

Sonja pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. Her ego was prickling against the perceived indignity of the task laid before her, but she was aware of how ridiculous that was. “As you say, Companion,” she replied stiffly, “I’ll take care of it.” She turned to leave.

“Have fun!” Farkas smirked.

Sonja pursed her lips. “So much.” And she rushed upstairs to choke down some dry bread and water before she faced Vilkas in the training yard.

Lydia was at the feasting table, nibbling on a sparse breakfast when Sonja surfaced to scavenge for some food of her own. She nodded to the Dragonborn in subdued greeting, not quite meeting her eyes. It wasn’t as if she was ashamed of her actions the night before. In fact, she had rather enjoyed herself. She just wasn’t prepared to explain herself to her Thane. It had been an embarrassingly long while since she had taken a man to bed. To be fair, she had been too busy with her studies and training to make room for social matters. So, when she had gone downstairs to the living quarters to sleep off the mead and ran into Farkas on his own way to bed, she had made a pass at him.

“Hail, Companion,” she had greeted.

And he returned her salutation with a nod of his head and a grunt of, “Housecarl.”

“It’s late.”

“It is.”

“Surely even a warrior as strong as you needs his rest?” Subtle, uncertain, and more compliment than innuendo. More in fun than out of a serious desire to bed the man.

Farkas raised an eyebrow. He was a simple man, not stupid, and had been far more receptive to her compliment than she had anticipated. “You see something you like, Housecarl?” he asked, smirking and crossing his arms over his chest, causing his biceps to bulge in the process.

Lydia wasn’t really the type to blush, but she felt her face grow hot. In that moment, it had occurred to her to bow out gracefully and go to bed alone. She had only just earned the privilege of sleeping in Jorrvaskr, after all, and she didn’t know how her Thane would take to her sleeping with one of her Shield-Brothers. But then again, it wasn’t any of Sonja’s business who Lydia chose to go to bed with—and, yes, the mead had gone a long way toward relaxing her reservations. “Won’t lie, I do,” she admitted, mimicking his posture with the added benefit of drawing greater attention to her cleavage, “And you? You see something you like, Companion?”

He grinned then, dropping his arms to his side, his eyes raking over her body and lingering on her chest as he approached her. “Won’t lie, I do,” he replied, his voice low and husky, “Very much.”

She felt the familiar twist of need deep in her core, but she didn’t move as Farkas closed the gap between them. He leaned into her space, propping himself against the wall behind her with one massive arm, the other gently playing across her arm from shoulder to elbow. She allowed the contact, but refused to acknowledge it as she continued to look him in the eye, his bright white-blue gaze in stark contrast with the dark smear of his war paint. “Are you going to do something about it?” she asked, an unmistakable challenge in her tone.

A soft growl of anticipation escaped Farkas’ mouth as he leaned in even closer. “Do you want me to do something about it?” he asked, his tone eager, but also sincere. He wanted to know what she wanted. He could have easily trapped her there with his sheer size, but he didn’t. Despite the forwardness of their exchange, he was still giving her an out, still leaving the door open for her to walk away. And that consideration made up her mind for her.

Very much.” And his mouth was on hers, kissing her senseless before he took her hand and led her down the empty hall to his personal quarters. He had pushed her against his door as soon as they neared the room, kissing her hard and feeling her up through her rough tunic before they managed to get inside, kicking the door closed behind them as Vilkas exited his room across the hall, a book in hand and a faint smile across his face.

Lydia was abruptly jerked from the memory of her tryst the night before when Sonja spoke. “So, I guess I wasn’t the only one who got lucky last night,” she said as she sipped a mug of hot tea and picked at a slice of bread.

“What?” Lydia glanced around, making sure none of the other Companions had overheard her Thane. Either they had not or did not care, because no one appeared to take note of them.

“You’re grinning like an idiot,” Sonja informed her, amused.

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business, my Thane.”

Sonja snorted aloud, drawing some attention their way. “Got a problem?” she asked Athis severely when the elf looked at her. He frowned and looked away, irritated. “It isn’t any of my business,” she amended, addressing Lydia again, “Just making conversation.”

Lydia hesitated. “You’re not…displeased?” she asked, uncertainly.

The Dragonborn smiled. “My pleasure has nothing to do with it,” she replied, chuckling, “Go to bed with who you like. Dibella knows I do.”

The Housecarl smiled faintly. She appreciated Sonja’s relaxed attitude. Other housecarls were not so lucky in their assignments. There were plenty of haughty nobles in Skyrim who viewed their honored bodyguards as little more than servants whose lives they could dictate as they pleased. Sonja obviously had no interest in meddling in Lydia’s personal affairs. “Thank you, Ironheart,” she said softly.

Sonja’s brow furrowed. “For what?” she asked.

“For understanding.”

A strange expression passed over the Dragonborn’s face just then as if she seemed to realize the nature of Lydia’s position, but it disappeared as quickly as it had come and Sonja was waving her off. “Nothing to thank me for,” she insisted and then she tipped her lukewarm tea to her housecarl before draining it in one go. “Got a lot to do today,” she sighed, “Got to get after it.” And then she arranged her expression into one of determination before heading out the door to the training yard.

She stank of mead and an unknown male. And the scent of her drove him crazy. The Wolf didn’t like the smell of other men invading his territory. Not that the Dragonborn was his, in any way, but she had brought it into his home where the intrusive odor invaded the familiar scents of his den, of his pack. It lingered in the air of the training yard with the booze in her sweat and agitated his bestial urge to dominate. To mark the contested object in question as his own. It made training her very trying.

Despite his high-strung attitude, Sonja was showing some improvement. She’s only had a day’s worth of training with him under her belt, but she was already beginning to sense what it was he wanted, what he expected, and paid better attention to the minute details of her grip and footwork. Her form still wasn’t perfect, but he’d have been surprised if it had become so overnight. To reward her for her efforts, he didn’t correct her with the flat of his blade nearly as often; merely pointing instead. The gesture was not lost on Sonja and she was both pleased with herself and relieved that she was spared a little pain. He did make her run until she puked behind Heimskr’s house, though.

When she came back around Jorrvaskr and into the training yard, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, Vilkas smirked. “Feeling better, whelp?” he asked.

She made a face and held her forefinger and thumb a half an inch apart. “Little bit,” she grunted.

“Get back to it, then,” he ordered and watched as Sonja threw herself back on the ground and pursued the next set of pushups with a vengeance.

Overall, it was a good training session. Sonja had performed reasonably well, especially with the added strain of her hangover. Vilkas was pleased, so he was kinder to her. And Sonja hadn’t lost her temper with the work or with him.

To conclude their morning, Vilkas had Sonja cool down with an easy hand-to-hand spar with Lydia. He watched as Thane and Housecarl circled one another. Sonja was much more confident for that little exercise than any other she had performed that day, and Vilkas quickly saw why. The Dragonborn was a good little boxer. The first time he had met her, he had guessed as much with all the little brawler scars that covered her face, but it was something else to see it. She was quick, agile, and creative with her attacks. Strong defense. Good footwork. It looked as if she had received better training without a weapon than she had received with one. It struck him as strange, and he wondered why she couldn’t take that same knowledge and technique, and apply it to other combat training.

As he was mulling this over, something unexpected happened. Sonja had been gleefully beating on Lydia, for a change, and had grown a touch too cocky—not strange in and of itself, but the housecarl managed to get swing in when Sonja least expected it, clocking her across the jaw and delivering a hard body shot to the gut. Again, not a bizarre occurrence; Lydia was a very competent fighter, herself, but when Sonja recovered, her expression was dark and dangerous, and her eyes gleamed gold.

Lydia hesitated, her guard dropping a fraction of an inch in her surprise and confusion, and she glanced in Vilkas’ direction for guidance. The Companion barely had time to respond before Sonja launched herself at her housecarl, but he managed to get between the two, throwing Lydia in one direction and shoving Sonja in the opposite. Sonja slid backwards, caught her footing, and tried to go after her housecarl again. Vilkas stopped her. “Your fight is with me now, Newblood,” he informed her.

Sonja grinned menacingly. “Even better,” she growled and launched herself at Vilkas.

The larger Companion could have easily ended the fight the way he had the first time Sonja lost control, but he didn’t because it would do nothing to teach her to rein in her own beast. So, he fought with her which was a little like chasing a rabbit all over the training yard since he didn’t shut her down right away. Dodge. Weave. Duck. But she was becoming increasingly frustrated with her inability to break through Vilkas’ defenses. In a frenzied attempt to hurt him, she lunged at him, grappling with her larger opponent until they were a heaping pile of bodies wrestling in the dirt.

Vilkas pinned her to the ground with his weight, straddling her waist and holding down her wrists. “That’s it,” he growled, “You feel it, don’t you?”

“Get off me,” she snarled as she squirmed beneath him, enraged, but unable to find a foothold against him.

“The Dragon,” he continued as if she had not spoken, “The Beast.”

“You know nothing!” He sat too low on her hips for her to swing her legs around and she couldn’t generate enough force from the bottom to push him off.

“I know this fight is not between you and I,” he snapped back, “It’s between you and your animal.” He leaned in. “There’s only room enough for one master and you’re afraid it won’t be you.”

“Shut up!” she demanded, but his words rang true. The Dragon was vast and greedy. It was never satisfied with so little space. It wanted to fill her up until she burst. Wanted to rule her, control her. It had spent so long slumbering beneath her skin only to wake in a body that was not built to dominate the masses. She had no wings or scales or claws. She was soft flesh and brittle bone filled only with determination and a very mortal heart. She felt weak against it. Overwhelmed by its power. It was so easy to give in, to let it claw its way through her.

“So fight it, whelp,” he urged, seeing he was getting through to her in the fearful round of her eyes, “You killed a dragon once before. Tame this one now.” She wanted him to stop talking. She didn’t want to hear him anymore, but she was trapped beneath him. The only thing she could think to do was Shout him off her body. Vilkas could practically see the idea form in her mind, saw the murderous glint in her eyes and her jaw tighten. “Don’t do it, Ironheart,” he warned, about to release one of her hands in favor of her throat, “Don’t let it win.”

Then something changed. In a moment of blinding clarity, the disparate parts of her soul aligned. The Dragon’s wrath was tempered by mortality, by finality. Limits. And all that it entailed. The urgency and beauty of the things that existed within the bounds of birth and death. Connection, friendship, love. Passion. Fragility. There was real power in that moment. Strength like she had never known before, and not just physical prowess but the intangible sense of agency, the knowledge that she could change everything. It was then, covered in sweat and caked in the dirt of Jorrvaskr’s training yard, pinned, helpless, beneath the weight of a larger opponent, that Sonja began to grasp what it meant to be Dragonborn.

Without warning, she wrenched her left arm free and struck Vilkas’ elbow, loosening his grip on her other hand. He leaned forward from the loss of stability and she anchored herself against his chest, sliding down between his legs until she had enough leverage to push upward and forcefully roll on top of him. A few more well placed strikes kept him from pinning her down in the process until she was properly seated on his chest, one knee digging into his bicep and her other foot securing his wrist to the ground. Her left hand clamped down over his throat; not enough to choke, but enough to assert control while her right made a fist, waiting for a reason to strike him. “I always win,” she said triumphantly.

Despite the injury being bested by a Newblood dealt to his ego, Vilkas was impressed and pleased. He actually grinned up at her and barked out a laugh. “Good on you, whelp,” he grunted against her grip on his throat, “Now the real work starts tomorrow.” And he graciously tapped against her thigh, silently declaring her the victor. Sonja smiled and hopped off him, offering her hand in good sport. Vilkas accepted and she pulled him upright. “Don’t let it go to your head, though,” he warned.

She raised an eyebrow and chuckled. “As you say, Companion,” she replied.

“Now, you have a job to do, yes?”

Sonja made a face. “Aye.”

“I suggest you get to it, then.” He glanced at her hand. “And tend to that,” he ordered and Sonja inspected her right hand.

It was bruised all to Oblivion from that day’s sparring. She frowned. It hadn’t bothered her too much in the heat of combat. Adrenaline and bloodlust had gone a long way toward dampening the pain, but she could feel the soreness setting in. “As soon as I’m done at Dragonsreach,” she promised.

“Good.” And he stalked off to Jorrvaskr, leaving Sonja to put away whatever equipment remained strewn about the yard from practice that day.

It wasn’t much. Just a couple swords, and the rope and gag from the footwork exercise. As Sonja returned the blades to the wrack, she glanced in Lydia’s direction. The housecarl still stood mute at the edge of the step, staring at the empty training yard as if still trying to make sense of what she had seen. “You alright?” Sonja asked, tapping against Lydia’s elbow.

The unannounced contact caused the housecarl to jump and take a step back. Quickly, she schooled her expression to one of neutrality, but not before Sonja saw the utter look of terror that was there first. “Fine, my Thane,” Lydia nodded, “You—you fought well against the Companion.”

Sonja’s brow furrowed. She knew what had disturbed her housecarl. It was the first time Lydia had seen her lose control and the resulting rage had been directed at her. Undoubtedly, the honored bodyguard was wondering what would have happened had Vilkas not been there to intervene. If they had been out in the wilds on some job or errand or hunt, would Sonja have killed her? Shouted her to death or tore her apart with her bare hands? It was one thing to swear to lay down your life for another, it was something else entirely for that person to be the one to take it from you. “I’m sorry,” she said, quietly, “I wasn’t—I wasn’t myself when I…” she trailed off, shaking her head and sighing. “Look, you know what you’re in for now,” she stated bluntly, “This is the way of things. I can’t promise I won’t lose it again, but I give you my word that I’m trying. If that’s not enough…”

“It’s enough,” Lydia interrupted.

“Good,” Sonja nodded. “Because, I’ll go punch an old lady or kick a child or something if it’ll free you from your oath,” she jokingly offered.

Lydia smiled nervously. “That will not be necessary.” Sonja nodded again, rubbing the back of her neck, unsure of what to say. Instead of continuing the conversation, she went inside to change into her armor and find Faendal. But she couldn’t shake the image of Lydia’s frightened face from her mind. It was a heavy reminder that a great burden had been placed upon her shoulders. That for every person who gawped at her in round-eyed reverence and astonishment, there was another trembling at the very thought of her. That power was a sword that cut both ways, and change for the better for one person was always worse for someone else. That fear and death and destruction were no less a part of being Dragonborn than the clarity and strength she had felt moments before. From the point of view of a Divine, a dragon might be a thing of beauty, grace, and strength, but from the ground, it was a fire-breathing monster.

Sonja stooped to pick up the dead skeever by the tail and toss it over the city wall outside the door to Dragonsreach’s dungeons. “Do you think Tiber Septim ever had to do such humiliating work?” she asked as Faendal joined her with a couple more skeever corpses.

“I’m not really an expert,” he replied, wrinkling his nose at the stench of the rodents, “But I doubt anyone would tell stories about it, if he did.”

“Good point.” They had made very short work of the skeevers in the dungeons even with Sonja’s injured hand and Lydia’s absence. Sonja had asked her to stay behind since it was a Companion contract and there were some things she felt she should do without her housecarl. Though, it served the double purpose of giving Lydia some time alone to consider what serving as Sonja’s housecarl meant and would entail.

When they were finished, they made their way back around to the front of the palace to inform the Captain of the Guard that the job was done, but instead of Commander Caius, it was Hrongar waiting on the walkway, his hands neatly clasped behind his back. Sonja didn’t bother to hide her displeasure when she saw him and made an audible grunt of irritation. “Something wrong?” Faendal asked. She nodded ahead of them. “Oh.” He didn’t yet know that Sonja had slept with the thane the night before, but he wasn’t overly impressed with Hrongar in general. For her part, Sonja didn’t regret sleeping with Hrongar; she was a grown woman, responsible for her actions, who had consented to sleeping with a grown man and it had been pleasurable. There was nothing to regret. She just didn’t want him to get the wrong idea about their relationship; that it was a relationship at all, for starters.

“Hail, Companions,” he said once Sonja and Faendal were near enough.

“Thane,” Sonja greeted formally, nodding to him.

“Caius had other matters to attend to,” he said by way of explaining his presence in the Captain of the Guard’s absence.

“Job’s done,” Sonja replied, uninterested in Hrongar’s excuses.

“And done well,” Faendal added.

“I expected no less from the Companions.”

“Then we return to Jorrvaskr,” Sonja replied shortly, nodding.

“There is one other order of business, before you go, Dragonborn,” he said before Sonja had the chance to escape down the stairs.

Grudgingly, she turned to face him again. “Yes?”

His hands swung forward from behind his back to reveal he had been holding onto something: her mother’s Skyforge dagger. “I believe this is yours,” he said, holding it out to her.

Sonja pursed her lips and delicately plucked it out of his grasp. “Thank you,” she replied politely. She hadn’t yet noticed its absence, but she hadn’t had the opportunity to miss it yet, either. She didn’t equip it for training and had been a in a hurry to get the job done that she thought she had merely forgotten it in her haste.

“Don’t mention it,” Hrongar replied, then he stepped closer and added in an undertone, “I look forward to giving you another opportunity to leave it my room again.” He was quiet enough that the nearby guards had not heard him, but Faendal had. It was a good thing he was turned away from them, waiting at the top of the stairs, pretending not to listen to their conversation—because his eyes had all but fallen out of his skull when he heard Hrongar’s words.

“Let’s go, Faendal,” Sonja said, pointedly refusing to respond to Hrongar, “We’re done here.” And the pair of them hurriedly glided down the steps to the Wind District.

As soon as they reached the bottom, Sonja risked a sideways glance at her Bosmer friend. “Well?” she demanded, “I know you heard that.”

Faendal put up his hands. “Not my business,” he promised her, fighting the growing smile on his face. Sonja made a sound of disgust and headed for the Temple of Kyne with Faendal close behind, chuckling at her expense.

They slipped into the temple quietly so as not to disturb anyone at prayer, but it wasn’t reverent silence that greeted their ears as they stepped inside. It was the sharp cries of the ailing, agonizing sick and injured. Sonja’s pace slowed to a stop, her attention drawn to the platforms near the center of the room where those in need were laid out to receive treatment from the priestess or her acolyte. The sight of them writhing on the stone, covered with a thin blanket beneath the thick sun beams pouring in through the high cast windows tugged unexpectedly at Sonja’s heart.

The temple, itself, was a beautiful structure with a high ceiling and lilting, carved archways painted gold and blue. Colors of the sun and sky, of Kyne’s domain. Tangled in the rafters hung lush vines of emerald moss, nourished by the sun. And in the planters lining the walls grew thick clusters of sweet smelling lavender. Both ingredients were used in various potions designed to aid the sick or injured in their recoveries, and considered sacred to the Goddess of the Sky. In the center of the floor was a tile mosaic of blues and golds in every shade depicting a large, white bird, its wings spread wide against the yellow and azure halo of the sky. Framing the mosaic were four shallow pools of water carved into the floor and fed in from the streams that naturally flowed throughout Whiterun. The pleasant, gentle babble of the water over the sky-blue tiles beneath it lapped against the edges of the mosaic, mingling in the air with the wailing of the needy.

Healing magicks were alive in the temple, in the wood of the rafters, in the sunlight pouring through the windows, in the water at its heart. But, suddenly, Sonja felt very silly coming for aid when there were others who appeared to need it more than she did. She was about to leave to pester Arcadia instead of disturbing Danica when the priestess looked up from the wounded soldier she was attending to and spotted her. Kindly, she placed her hand on the man’s head and muttered for him to rest. His breathing eased at her touch and he appeared to drift off to sleep. Then the priestess approached Sonja and Faendal, her smile tight, but welcoming. “Greetings, Companions,” she said, “What brings you to the temple this day?”

Sonja and Faendal covered their hearts with their right hands and bowed their heads in humble greeting. “I have come to consult with you,” Sonja explained and she looked over the priestess’ shoulder at the slumbering soldier and then glanced sideways at the expecting mother perched on a bench in the corner. Leaning against the brightly painted panels of the wall was a young boy who looked very ill. Propped in another corner was an elderly woman who appeared to be suffering the late stages of brain rot as she mumbled to herself, drooling and tracing patterns against the armrest of her bench. “But it seems there are others who need your healing hands more than I,” she stated, returning her attention to the priestess, “I will not take up any more of your time.”

Danica waved her off. “All are welcome in the Temple of Kyne,” she insisted, “If you have need of healing, it is my sacred duty to aid you.” She glanced back at the soldier behind her. “Besides, I have done all I can for some of them. The rest is in their hands and the grace of Kyne.”

Sonja glanced at Faendal who nodded to her encouragingly and she removed the gauntlet from her injured hand. The priestess took Sonja’s burned forearm in her hands carefully and examined it closely. “I know a little of the healing arts,” Sonja informed her, “But I am unable to do any more. It seems to be resistant to my spells and healing potions.”

“It is healed well enough,” Danica said softly, her brow furrowing, “At least, the burn has scarred. The condition of the muscle and skin cannot be restored any further.” Gently, she moved Sonja’s hand backward to check the range of motion and noted the sharp hiss of pain that issued from the Dragonborn. When her examinations were done, she allowed Sonja to retract her arm from her grasp. “The poor movement and pain can be managed and hopefully improved with a daily spell to reduce scarring,” she said thoughtfully, “At least—I think so. I’ve never seen anything like it before. How were you burned?”

Sonja hesitated. “I was at Helgen when it was attacked,” she explained reluctantly, “The dragon’s breath melted my skin.”

Danica’s eyes went wide with surprise. “And you survived?” she asked in disbelief.

“Lucky, I guess.”

“The Divines surely smiled on you that day,” the priestess agreed, but she grew pensive again. “I treated some of the soldiers who were injured at the Western Watchtower,” she said, “But none of them had received burns quite like this…”

“You look troubled,” Faendal observed.

Danica sighed apologetically. “I’ve seen many burns throughout my time as a temple priestess,” she said, “All manner and degree of burn. Especially recently. But this is—different—like a marking. Magical scarring so thick, it’s restricting your hand and wrist.”

Sonja looked down at her withered hand and flexed her fingers. The pain was sharp and the digits shook from the exertion. She frowned, her brow furrowing deeply as she remembered that day on the block. The force of the dragon’s roar as she stared up at it, helpless and mortal. Suddenly, there was no doubt in her mind that it had been there looking for her—that Danica had spoken true and her injury, her mark, had only been the harbinger of a much larger destiny. Dovahkiin. She shivered.

“Whatever happened,” Danica continued when neither Sonja nor Faendal spoke, “It goes far deeper than just your skin.”

“How long will she have to treat it in order to regain strength in that hand again?” Faendal asked, sensing Sonja’s mind was elsewhere.

“I can’t say,” Danica admitted, “I’ve never treated anything like this before. But it must be daily to combat the thickening flesh or her hand will just be one thick callous.”

Sonja’s gaze darted around the room again. “You have too much to do without me coming in every day, wasting your time,” she stated.

“It’s not a waste of time,” Danica objected, “Not if you want to keep the use of your hand.”

Sonja shook her head. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she assured, “But if you taught the spell to me, I could treat myself. Besides, as a Companion—I doubt I’ll always be in town to come to temple.”

“I see your point,” the priestess conceded, “I would be glad to teach you, if you have the skill?”

The Dragonborn smiled humorlessly. “I’m sure I’ll manage.”

Danica nodded and beckoned for Sonja to follow her to the bookshelves behind the wooden screens that separated the main chamber of the temple from the small living quarters of the priests. The priestess ran her fingers over the spines of the volumes on the shelves until she found the one she was looking for. She removed it and handed it to Sonja. “Please return it when you are done,” she said. Sonja took the tome and began to lightly skim through the first few pages. “Now, give me your hand again and I will begin the first session.” Reluctantly, Sonja closed the book and held out her hand; she had the sinking feeling that it was going to hurt like Oblivion. She was not wrong.

Vilkas washed himself in the basin in his room. It was cold and inadequate, but he’d go to the bathhouse later, perhaps late at night or early in the morning when no one else would be there to bother him and he could enjoy the hot water in peace. Away from prying eyes, and yes, greatly reducing the chance that he’d run into Ysolda in the market or even in the bathhouse, itself. He’d already hurt her enough, some distance between them was best.

He sighed and removed his tunic, rolling his sore shoulder once he was free of it. His fingers grazed the web of scars on his skin and he winced, the sharp tingle of pain radiating down to his fingertips. It had been years—almost a lifetime, it seemed—since he’d received the injury that brutally scarred most of the left side of his torso, but it still caused him nearly constant pain. The Wolf had made it easier for him to live with it. Regardless of whatever taint that animal left upon his soul, it had made his body stronger. His tolerance for pain was greatly increased when he took the Blood, but he still had need to medicate himself with Arcadia’s potions. To take the edge off. It didn’t help in sparring matches like the one he’d just had with the Dragonborn, however. He’d need another dose to ease that ache.

He wasn’t vain enough to be embarrassed of the hideous scar that snaked over his shoulder and pectoral; he just didn’t like the stares it drew in the bathhouse or in the training yard. People always wanted to know the story, but it was no thrilling tale of honor and glory. He was lucky to have survived the attack let alone walk away with a scar and some discomfort. Some nights, he could still feel the electricity dancing over his skin. On the rare occasion that he managed sleep deep enough to dream, he dreamt of that day. No, he would never tell that story. It was between him and Farkas.

Experimentally, he flexed his arm and watched the smooth motion of his muscle ripple beneath his scarred skin. More painful than usual, but not the worst he’d ever felt. And he trudged across the room to his dresser where the daily draughts were neatly lined up. He selected one, popped the cork with his teeth, and then downed the contents of the small vial in one gulp. When he was done, he stood there, half dressed, eyes closed, and his head leaned back, waiting for the medicine to take effect. When it did, he exhaled long and low, unaware he had been holding his breath.

Outside his door, he heard someone approaching. The heavy gait announced it was his brother, but the larger twin knocked on the door anyway. “Enter,” Vilkas commanded as he busied himself with looking for a clean shirt.

Farkas opened the door and leaned against the jamb. “Just spoke with Lydia,” he said.

Vilkas glanced at his brother. “You didn't talk with her before you took her to bed?” he quipped.

Farkas was amused the ribbing, but didn't have anything to answer it with. “She seemed troubled.”

“That’s because Ironheart nearly took her head off during training today,” Vilkas explained sighing.

“Hotheaded, that one?”

“No. Just a pup looking for something to sink her teeth into.”

“Was that something you?” Farkas asked, nodding to the empty vial on Vilkas’ dresser.

“Not today.”

Farkas cocked his head to one side, curiously. “You like her?”

Vilkas made a face. “What?” It wasn't as if he didn't find Sonja attractive, but it was a little hard to indulge carnal fantasies when his head was full of so many other dangerous things.

“Lydia said you spoke to her when you were fighting,” Farkas clarified, “You didn't just put her on her ass and have done with it.”

“She reminds me of us when we first took the Beast.” He paused. “Of me.” And if he could help her control her Dragon, then maybe there was hope for him, too.

Farkas nodded, seeming to understand. “And if the Blood still calls to you when she’s moved on?” he asked, “What will you do when she’s gone to High Hrothgar?”

Vilkas’ frowned. “Let me worry about that,” he said, finally finding a tunic stuffed down in the back of one of his drawers, “You go comfort your woman. Tell her Ironheart didn't mean anything by it.”

The larger twin smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “I like her.”

“You like them all,” he reminded his brother, chuckling. Vilkas never hurt for feminine company. Generally speaking, his good looks and charming brood paved the way into any bed he wanted—and there was something just a little bit dangerous about his disposition that tended to make a woman curious. Though Farkas shared his brother’s face, he had a different way with the ladies. Open and friendly where Vilkas was aloof and dour. There was no thrill of danger with him; passed his rough exterior, he was too gentle. But the price of his tender heart was an unguarded enthusiasm for each lucky lady with whom he spent the night. Farkas, of course, didn't see it as a down side. He liked women and they liked him, and when it was time to say goodbye, he was a little reluctant, but no one got hurt. Vilkas worried for him regardless; feared that he was too generous with his affections; that there would be one woman who would leave and take his brother’s heart with her.

Farkas shrugged, scratching the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t hurt you any to be a little kinder to your company,” he pointed out, “I saw Ysolda in the market today. Wouldn't even look me in the eye.”

Vilkas pursed his lips. “It was for her own good,” he insisted, “She’ll see that someday if she doesn’t already.”

“A warm bed never hurt anybody.”

“Unless you’re sleeping next to a Wolf,” Vilkas pointed out, shaking his head, “No. I will speak no more of this.”

“As you say,” Farkas relented, “But Ysa kept your head straight when you needed it and now she’s gone.”

“Like I said, brother: let me worry about that.”

Til min bror, jeg er trofast,” Farkas replied, pleased with himself for remembering the proverb the way Vilkas had taught it to him.

The smaller twin made a face. “Your pronunciation is terrible,” he chastised.

But his criticism did not unseat the smug smile from Farkas’ face. He had worked for days trying to memorize it and say the words at least recognizably correct. “It’s Atmoran, brother. Not many alive left to care about it.”

Vilkas scoffed. Farkas’ simple logic never ceased to amaze him. What he would give to see the world so plainly. “True enough,” he allowed, “But Kodlak might say otherwise.”

“I didn't practice it for him.”

That was with practice?!?”

Farkas barked out a laugh and waved off his brother, retreating down the hall to leave Vilkas in peace and perhaps seek out Lydia as he had suggested. Vilkas listened to him walk away, counting his footsteps out of habit. A practice that had begun in childhood not long after they had arrived in Jorrvaskr. Vilkas always counted his brother’s steps, that way he always knew how far he’d have to run when he needed him.

“Are you alright?” Faendal asked as they left the temple, “That didn’t look like it felt good.”

“It didn’t,” Sonja grunted.

“I didn’t think healing spells were supposed to hurt.”

Sonja chewed on the tip of her tongue indecisively, trying to decide how much of her magical knowledge she should demonstrate or if Faendal would even care. “Most healing spells are painless or even pleasurable,” she acknowledged, “But this—this was different.”


“There are a lot of other spells healers use that don’t give immediate relief,” she explained, “Like rebreaking bones.”

“Why on Nirn would you want to rebreak a bone?” Faendal asked, horrified.

“A broken leg not set straight becomes a crippled leg,” Sonja pointed out, “Sometimes things need to be undone before they can be put back together again.”

“That sounds fucking awful.” The Bosmer looked a little green.

Sonja nodded. “It is,” she agreed, “I learned the basics of the spell back in Cyrodiil, but I’ve never had to use it on anyone. Don’t know if I could even properly use it, honestly. It’s not as if we had a lot of volunteers lining up to have their bones broken. I’ve seen it performed on someone before, though.”

“Mara have mercy,” the elf shook his head, “Who?”

There was a moment of hesitation before Sonja finally answered. “On my younger brother,” she said softly, “When he was just a boy.”

“What happened?” he asked, unsure if Sonja would be willing to discuss her brother any further. He had noticed it was a sore spot for her.

A vague smile tugged at Sonja mouth. “We were climbing trees in the Arboretum. He was trying to climb as high as I could,” she paused, remembering the bright expression on her brother’s face as he grabbed at branches always just out of the reach of his small hands. “And he fell. Lost his footing as he reached for a higher branch. Fell like a damn rock straight out of the tree.”

Faendal actually smiled. “I’ve fallen out of my fair share of trees,” he said fondly.

“Well, Thornir fell straight out of love with trees after that,” she chuckled, “Refused to climb another from then on.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Broke his leg,” she confirmed, “And some half-wit first-year mage saw it happen. He was only trying to help, but he didn’t know what in Oblivion he was doing and didn’t set Thornir’s leg straight before he healed it. Caused him more harm than good in the end.”

Faendal winced. “Yeah, I think that might cure even a Bosmer of a love affair with trees.”

Sonja grunted her agreement. “Luckily, ma had friends at the Universtiy and Thornir got some proper healing attention for his leg. Took a couple of days, but he was back on his feet, running through the Waterfront, playing with the other kids in no time,” she smiled, but it was sad and distant. As his older sister, she had felt responsible for his injury, convinced there had to have been something she could have done to protect him. Now an adult, Sonja knew she wasn’t to blame for the accident—but the feeling lingered. Her guilt was no longer bent over the broken leg he suffered when he was seven years old. No, she held herself accountable for something far more serious and unforgivable: his death a decade later.

“You never speak of him,” Faendal ventured cautiously.

“He’s dead,” Sonja cleared her throat, “Died nine winters ago.”

Faendal’s brow knit with concern. “How did he die? If you don’t mind my asking…”

“I do mind,” she replied bluntly.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked,” he amended.

“Trying to protect our father,” she blurted out unexpectedly, but she was unable to say anything further. It had taken a great deal of effort for her to say those first five words let alone all the painful ones it would require for her to tell the whole sad story. So, she sniffed unconcernedly as if she had just made some unimportant observation about the weather, and her eyes dropped to her sore hand. She flexed her damaged digits and waited for Faendal to respond.

He touched her elbow lightly, prodding her to look up at him. When she did, she saw the most heartbreaking expression of sympathy on his face. “Aife died protecting me,” he revealed. ‘I know how you feel,’ hung undeclared in the air between them.

That had not been the answer she had expected from him. Though what, exactly, she had been expecting was unclear. A strange strangled cry that was half gasp, half forced cough escaped her lips and she looked away abruptly, suddenly extremely fascinated with the sad state of the Gildergreen. “Mors rapit bonum, et relinquit malignans,” she muttered sadly.

Faendal looked at her, confused. “What?”

“Old Imperial proverb,” she clarified, “Death snatches away the good and leaves the wicked.”

“And are we wicked?” he asked, pensively considering the question himself.

Sonja thought of the beast roiling inside her. Of the blind rage that consumed her earlier that very day. How it had disturbed Lydia. How it felt to take Mirmulnir’s soul into her own. The heavy existential fugue that now draped itself over her life, despite the shining moment of clarity she had grasped that afternoon. “You tell me,” she replied and then she walked passed the Gildergreen, headed for Arcadia’s.

Chapter Text

Vilkas woke early, as usual. His eyes felt heavy and tired, but there was no use in trying to get back to a restless, dreamless sleep, so he rolled out of bed, splashed water on his face, and dressed for the day. The Wolf was uncharacteristically quiet and he wondered if perhaps it was growing weary now that he had left it to starve for so long; it had been a long time since he last Hunted. Whatever the reason, its presence gnawing on the back of his mind was not missed. Walking through the slumbering halls of Jorrvaskr, he ran through a mental checklist of all the things he was going to run the Newbloods through. He was expecting more than just Sonja for that day since the others had completed their own jobs and were eagerly awaiting new ones.

In the mead hall, only the crackling of the fire and Tilma’s warm, motherly smile greeted him. She was sitting at the far corner, picking at a small breakfast of buttered bread and runny eggs. Assembled before the seat beside her was a much hardier setting comprised of a large flaky venison pie. His favorite—which was very suspicious. He narrowed his eyes playfully at Jorrvaskr’s matron. “Are you bribing me, old woman?” he demanded tenderly.

Tilma gave such a convincing performance of shock and indignance, Vilkas almost bought it, but guilty amusement lurked in the corners of her mouth and at the crinkle of her eyes. “Do I need an excuse to dote on you?” she asked severely, “Practically raised you and this is how you treat me? With suspicion and accusations?”

Vilkas cracked a wide, warm smile. The first in weeks. “If you call chasing us all over Jorrvaskr ‘raising us’…” he trailed off pointedly as he took his seat beside her.

He received a sound smack to the back of the head for his teasing. “If I didn’t chase you, then who would have?” she reminded him sharply, but she wasn’t angry. Vilkas put his hands up in mock surrender, but she waved him off as if he was the most ridiculous thing she had ever seen. With the warm touch of a mother, she inched the pie a little closer to him as if he hadn’t seen it steaming in front of him. “Eat up,” she said in that particular tone he had learned long ago to abide.

Happily, he ate, fully aware that there was likely a price attached to the decadence he was consuming, but finding it incredibly difficult to care as he licked the thick gravy from his fingertips. Tilma openly watched him with unabashed amusement as she sipped her tea. She was genuinely pleased to see him enjoy her cooking, regardless of whether or not she intended to use the meal as payment for services yet to be rendered.

When he was finished, he leaned back in his chair, swirling the last few sips of the wine-water in his cup and letting the heavy meal sink low into his belly. “What is it this time?” he asked, “Farkas already hauled your choice cuts up from the butcher for you yesterday. I brought the grain from the mill the day before.”

Tilma smiled sweetly at him. “Fetch me the Throat of the World?”

“Might take some time.”

She chuckled. “I just need more wood for the fire, dearie,” she assured, but Vilkas was not convinced.

He narrowed his eyes at her again, the corner of his mouth curling. “A pie just for firewood?” he said incredulously, “I don’t buy it.”

“And a new haul from Carlotta,” she added, “And potions from Arcadia.”

He scoffed. “I’m to do your shopping now?”

“I can’t lift the boxes.”

“As you say, ma,” he readily agreed without further argument. Her words saddened him more than he let on. A stark reminder that she was getting older. That the woman who had chased him and his brother around Jorrvaskr, fed them, clothed them, bandaged their wounds when they fell, dried their tears when they were sad, laughed with them when they were joyous, and sang them to sleep at night would one day pass into the next life. That Jorrvaskr would no longer have a matron. It made his heart ache in an old, familiar way, as it did in the early months of his new life with the Companions when he was only a scared scrap of a lad who missed his mother. It tied a knot in this throat that he swallowed hard against as he leaned over and brushed a rare kiss against her forehead. Like she used to do to him when he was a child. “All you have to do is ask,” he added, “You don’t have to bribe me every time.”

Tilma touched his face lovingly. “I like spoiling you,” she confessed, “Now scoot!” Vilkas chuckled and allowed himself to be shooed away by the old woman. “Axe is in the back!” she called after him.

“I know, I know,” he assured, waving her off as he stepped out the backdoor.

He liked Whiterun in the early mornings when everything was still and quiet. Not even the flutter of a breeze blowing through the air. It was peaceful and he liked the silence. It felt as ice applied to an aching head: a sliver of relief against the constant growl of his inner beast. Often he spent such mornings running through his own exercises without the distraction of Newbloods to train or jobs to assign. Sometimes he tended to his armor or read in the flicking light of a candle. Alone. Always blessedly alone. But not that morning.

There was someone else already out on the porch, seated at one of the tables with her legs stretched into the opposite seat. Sonja was wrapped snuggly in a thick, black cloak to guard against the chill Vilkas hardly felt; her hair loose and hanging soft over her shoulders. Those brilliant gleaming eyes of hers slowly passing over the words of the book she had propped open against her left forearm. Her injured hand, now bandaged in white linen and encased in a long, fingerless glove that ran from palm to elbow, rested lightly against her temple. Floating inches above her head and illuminating the page, a disembodied orb of soft, white light pulsed gently as if breathing.

Vilkas was momentarily taken aback by the sight of her. Not only had he not been expecting anyone to be up so early, she looked so different in the morning light. More at ease, but perhaps that was simply because no one was trying to attack or otherwise claim her attention. Perhaps he had caught her in a rare moment of unguarded solitude and the woman who sat before him was what Sonja Ironheart looked like when she was alone. But the moment didn’t last long.

He hadn’t been quiet when he stepped through Jorrvaskr’s backdoors; he had had no reason to be. She heard him, but did not immediately tear her gaze away to look at him. Upon the conclusion of the sentence she was reading, she looked sideways at the door to see who was intruding upon her peace. Seeing that it was him, her right hand reached for the orb of light slowly, her fingers wrapping around it one after the other until she snuffed out the glow in the palm of her hand. A curtesy, he realized. Since she knew he did not approve of magic. “You’re up early,” he observed aloud as he mentally kicked himself. What he had wanted to say was, ‘Don’t let me disturb you.’ If he liked his mornings to himself, then she was allowed the same.

She shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Something troubling you?”

A long pause. “No.”

He didn’t have to know her well to know when she was lying, but that was her prerogative. If she didn’t want to share, she didn’t have to. Least of all with him. “What are you reading?” he asked, changing the subject as he approached her table.

She flipped the tome closed over her fingers to show him the cover: the distinctive golden binding embossed with the figure of a bird with its wings spread wide. A Restorations spellbook, if he was not mistaken. He’d seen plenty of them in the Temple. The title was a little hard to make out in the dim light, but it appeared to be, ‘On Scars and Other Unhealed Injuries.’ It made him think of his own sore shoulder. “It’s for my hand,” she explained, “Danica leant it to me.”

“It is good you saw to it,” he nodded.

“Didn’t have much of a choice after yesterday,” she replied, “Could hardly close my fist.”

“Most Nords around here are always wary of magic, even in the hands of a priest,” he observed, “For a mage, you were oddly reluctant to get proper healing.”

She shrugged again. “More to do with pride than anything else,” she admitted ruefully and flexed the injured hand, “I received enough Restorations training to be able to handle my own injuries, great and small, but this—this was different.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. A naturally comfortable position for him. “How so?” he asked dubiously.

“Long story,” she said as she sat up, dropping her feet from the chair across from her and kicking it out with the toe of her boot. She nodded to the newly emptied seat, offering it to him. An invitation. “Better sit down if you want to hear it.”

If it had been any other morning, he might have joined her. “Tilma needs firewood,” he objected, “Another time, maybe.”

“Need some help?”

She was different that morning. All those sharp edges not yet settled in. Less draconic. Maybe the control she gained during training the day before was longer lasting than he realized. “Alright, Newblood,” he relented, “Grab an axe.”

She nodded, cracking her borrowed book open one more time to memorize the page number before closing it. Before she took one of the two axes propped against the side of the mead hall, she set the book down on the nearest side table inside Jorrvaskr. Then the pair of them headed for the Plains District. “So, how were you burned?” he asked, trying to pick up the conversation where they had left it.

“At Helgen,” she replied, “The dragon’s breath.”

He looked at her sideways. The only time he had seen her fight a dragon, her magic had saved her from such injury. How, then, she was burned at Helgen and unable to heal it afterwards was odd. “A Nord always appreciates a good story,” he said simply.

“I don’t know if there’s anything good about it,” she admitted, “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“There are many rumors surrounding Helgen.”

She smiled sourly. “Yes, so I’ve heard. Both Legionnaire and Stormcloak alike claim Jarl Ulfric called a dragon down from the sky to free him.”

“Angry that someone else is taking the credit for your deed?” he asked, dryly. A joke. Since she was the Dragonborn, it was a striking coincidence that she had been present the day Ulfric almost faced the block. The look on Sonja’s face, however, suggested that she had not interpreted his words to be amusing. On the contrary, she looked momentarily flustered.

She glanced sideways at him, uncomfortably readjusting the axe slung over her shoulder. As soon as she as realized he was kidding with her, she scoffed and shook her head as if she had not been briefly disturbed by his words in the least. “That dragon was there for nothing but itself,” she replied, “I was lucky to get out alive.”

“Yes, you must have been very close to it if your magic could not protect you,” he said as they reached Belethor’s.

Sonja nodded and leaned her axe against the side of the general goods store so her hands were free to unclasp her cloak. “I was,” she confirmed, tossing her shed garment over the branch of a nearby tree, “It broke through the wall of the tower I was taking cover in. No time to get a ward up. Everyone in front of it was either crushed by the collapsed wall or incinerated by its breath. Two more steps and it would have been me, as well.” She raised her burned arm. “It gave me this instead.” Pursing her lips, she wiggled her fingers to demonstrate the range of motion. “It still burns, sometimes,” she confessed softly, her brow furrowing, “At night. I can feel it in my dreams.” Vilkas was surprised by her sudden candor and, judging by her expression, so was she because she immediately cleared her throat and hardened her features, busying her fingers with plaiting her loose hair. “It was different, the dragon at Helgen,” she continued, “I knew right off that the Western Watchtower couldn’t have been attacked by the same beast.”

Vilkas nodded. “I heard what you and Faendal told Irileth that night,” he said, “The housecarl shouldn’t have discounted your instincts. They proved true.”

“You have disturbingly good hearing,” she replied, her tone odd, caught somewhere between irritation and curious observation, “But, we were lucky that it was not the same dragon. With a roar, it turned the sky dark with storm clouds and rained fire upon us. Unlike anything I had ever seen before. Magical or otherwise.” She struggled to tie off her braid at the end with her stiff fingers, but managed it with the help of her teeth.

Sonja did not seem the type to exaggerate or Vilkas wouldn’t have believed her and there was such stark honesty in her voice and expression, it sent chills down his spine to think of it. What she described was nightmarish. The stuff of legends and end-times. But then again, so was the Dragonborn and she happened to be standing beside him, prepared to help with the mundane early morning chores Tilma had assigned him. Which was stranger? The reappearance of the dragons? Or the woman with the blood and soul of a dragon chopping wood for the cooking fire of Jorrvaskr?

He watched as she selected a log from the pile stacked neatly against the side of the building and set it upright at the center of one of the nearby stumps, lining it up just right. She hefted the axe onto her shoulder, set her feet, and fluidly swung the axe down, letting the weight of the blade do most of the work. It required very little effort on her part now that she was—altered—by the dragon within her. She was wearing that torn ratty tunic she seemed so fond of, exposing the scars and bruises of her torso to the cool morning air. The sunlight glinted over the silvered skin of the largest, most disturbing of her marks as it snaked over her spine and around her body.

It wasn’t the first time he had seen it. Her training leathers had revealed much her first day in the yard and, predictably, every Newblood and Companion wanted to know the story that came along with it. She had refused their questions flat out and after having broken a couple of bones of her Shield-Siblings during sparring, the matter was dropped entirely. Regardless of her silence, every scar on her body silently declared that there had always been someone or something in her life trying to kill her, and nothing had succeeded yet. Luck, skill, Divine intervention? Whatever it was that had kept her alive, could it hold out now against a dragon? One that could rain fire from the sky and erase entire towns from the map?

“It’s still out there,” he stated as if realizing for the first time that whatever luck kept them from facing the monster from Helgen, also ensured that it was still free to continue indulging its own dark nature.

“Aye,” she nodded, pausing in her work.

“You will have to kill it,” another blunted statement.

Her expression darkened, her mouth thinning to a straight line. “If I do not, then who will?” she said more to herself than Vilkas, as if it had just occurred to her also.

“Hail, Companions!”

Sonja started at the greeting and glanced over her shoulder to see who had called out to them. It was Severio Pelagia coming down the rise from his house, no doubt headed for his farm outside the city gates. The Imperial waved a cheery good morning to them which Vilkas returned with a nod and a grunt of, “Pelagia.”

When the farmer continued on his way to the gates, Vilkas returned his attention to Sonja who was selecting another log. “Better get at it or we’ll be here all day chopping wood for that fire,” she said dismissively.

“Aye,” he agreed, allowing the seriousness of their conversation to ebb away, “We better.” He took a log from the pile to the other stump and side by side, they chopped wood for Jorrvaskr in contemplative silence, the rhythmic fall of their axes punctuating the morning air with purposeful percussion until others began to rise and greet the day.

“You’re up early,” Faendal observed as he plopped down in the seat beside Sonja at the feasting table.

She smirked, glancing at him sideways. “Popular opinion,” she stated.


“Nothing,” she grunted, sopping up the last of her breakfast with a bit of bread and stuffing into her mouth. She had risen in a good mood that morning and helping Vilkas complete a few simple chores for Tilma had given her a sense of normalcy she sorely needed—even if their conversation had gotten a bit heavy while they were chopping wood.

“Newbloods,” Farkas barked as he approached Sonja and Faendal.

The two of them looked up from their meal in time to catch the purses of gold tossed their way. Well, Sonja did, anyway. Faendal’s landed right in his lukewarm bowl of porridge, splattering it across the front of his armor. “Ysgramor’s hairy ass,” the Bosmer cursed, plucking the coin purse out of his bowl and shaking it off.

“For the job at Dragonsreach,” the large Companion explained.

Sonja tipped her cup in Farkas’ direction. “Thanks.”

Farkas shrugged. “You do good work, you get paid,” he stated simply and then walked off to hand out other payments.

She hefted the weight in her hands. Bit weighty for a few skeevers, she thought, but she wasn’t about to complain. Instead, she tugged the strings of her own purse off her belt to replenish its contents before storing the rest in her chest in the living quarters, but she paused at the sound of crinkled paper. She had forgotten about Ralof’s letter after everything that had happened the day before. Swiftly, she pulled the pouch open and removed the folded, slightly crumpled pieces of paper jammed inside. The second letter she had not even bothered to open fell out onto the table, two words scrawled across the back in sharp handwriting: Dragonborn, Whiterun.

Ralof’s letter momentarily forgotten, she turned the paper over in her hands and popped the unremarkable seal. Her eyes poured over the jagged characters on the page. Though the letter was written in common, the penmanship reminded her a little of the markings she had seen in Bleak Falls Barrow. Sharp, pointed like it was written with a claw.


You caused a bit of a stir in Whiterun when you demonstrated the power of your Thu’um. Not everyone is anxious for the return of the Dragonborn.

I, for one, desire to see you grow and develop your talents. Skyrim needs a true hero these days.

You should turn your attention to Shalidor’s Maze. I understand it holds a mysterious source of power that can only be unlocked by the Dovahkiin.


Aan Fahdon

Upon finishing the letter, she crumpled it in her hands, her brow furrowed as she considered the implications of its contents. Whatever sense of normalcy that morning’s chores had provided her was completely eclipsed. “You alright?” Faendal asked, noticing her distress.

She looked at him, her concern obvious and handed him the letter. “What am I to make of this?” she asked.

The Bosmer accepted the missive and quickly read it over. His head cocked to one side. “And you don’t know this—Aan Fahdon?” he asked, scrunching his nose up at the unfamiliar syllables, “Divines, what kind of name is that?”

Sonja shook her head. It sounded familiar and, for whatever reason, she had a vague warm feeling associated with it, but she was certain that she had never met such a person in her life. “No. I received it yesterday morning with Ralof’s letter,” she explained, “Didn’t look at it ‘til just now. Could it be from Windhelm?”

Faendal shrugged. “Depends. What kind of courier delivered the message? Some are sent directly. Others have a route…”

It hadn’t occurred to Sonja to take note of what the messenger looked like; it wasn’t as if she had been anticipating receiving such puzzling correspondence. Her eyes narrowed as she struggled to recall anything useful. “He wore no colors,” she said after a long pause, “No crest…”

“Then he was probably a civilian courier,” Faendal sighed, “He has a route. Probably wouldn’t even remember who gave him the letter in the first place after making so many stops through the holds.”

“Whoever sent it…” she trailed off, “Called me Dovahkiin…”

“Does that mean something to you...?” It sounded vaguely familiar to him, but he couldn’t place its meaning or where he had heard it before.

Sonja’s mouth twitched into a frown. “When the Greybeards called for me, they called for the Dovahkiin,” she informed him, “It means Dragonborn, I think, in—in whatever language was written on that wall in Bleak Falls.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.” At the back of her mind and in the pit of her stomach, in the way that she just knew how to Shout.

“You think this person knows something? About you? About the dragons?”

“Has to. Why send the letter otherwise?”

“Alright,” Faendal relented, “So what do you want to do about it?”

Her options were limited. It wasn’t as if there had been a return address written on the back and without the courier to question, they had no solid lead to follow the letter back to its source. Whoever had sent it didn’t want to be found. The only thing she could do was look to the message, itself. “Go to Shalidor’s Maze,” she replied, “See what’s there.”

Faendal raised his eyebrows and let out a long low sigh. “Could be a trap,” he pointed out, “And even if it isn’t, those ruins are not safe. Whispers of spirits and draugr. It’s far enough into the mountains to run into other, more dangerous game than you do on the tundra. Bears. Snow sabers. Frost trolls.”

Sonja gave him a look that very clearly stated she did not care. “We’ve fought draugr before; we can do it again. And you can’t tell me the hunter in you isn’t eager for bigger game than the rabbits you’ve been snaring lately.” She paused. “As for the ambush—what reason would they have to ambush me?” she asked, “I’m the Dragonborn. Isn’t that—sacred, or something, to Nords?”

“Yeah, but…” the Bosmer looked uncomfortable as he chose his next words carefully, “The Greybeards have called and you have yet to go to High Hrothgar to confirm that you are Dragonborn. The people of Skyrim can be slow to trust.”

“If they weren’t there to see it for themselves, then it’s only a rumor,” Sonja stated, following his train of thought.

“Precisely, and…” he leaned in, lowering his voice, “Nords do not like their traditions made a mockery by an outsider. It’s good your mother was the Killing Frost and that you look far more Nordic than you do Imperial, but—the tales always told of a warrior, a man rising as the next Dragonborn…”

“And I am neither.” She frowned. The letter, itself, had even indicated that there were some who were not ‘anxious for the return of the Dragonborn.’ But how far would someone go to prove she wasn’t Akatosh’s Chosen? “Fuck,” she growled, “I didn’t even want this godsdamned power in the first place!” Faendal looked momentarily startled by her outburst and she realized she must have been silent much longer than she thought. “Alright, if whoever sent this note is stupid enough to ambush me, Dovahkiin or not, I’ll make them regret it,” she insisted, “But if there really is something in Shalidor’s Maze that I can use, that might shed some light on what’s happened to me, then—I have to go.”

Faendal nodded, folding up the note. “Alright,” he agreed, “When do we leave?”

Sonja hesitated. Admittedly, when she first thought of going through with visiting the maze, she had expected Faendal to go with her, but upon reconsideration, she found herself reluctant to risk her friend’s life. “You don’t have to come,” she said, the slightest hint of pleading in her tone.

“I thought we got passed this already.”

“It might be dangerous.”

“It’s always dangerous.”

“Like you said: it could be a trap.”

“All the more reason you need me there watching your back.”

Sonja smirked. “Alright, but don’t get killed.”

“Dead guide is a poor guide, remember?”

“Mmm, just stay clear of any traps this time, alright?”

“Can do,” Faendal assured and he leaned back in his chair, “So, when do we leave?”

“Soon—after the mammoth hunt.”

The Bosmer raised an eyebrow. “Mammoth hunt?” he repeated, “What mammoth hunt?”

Sonja’s eyes rounded in surprise and guilt as she realized that she had never actually invited Faendal to join the hunting party. Between training and half the crazy thoughts constantly floating through her mind, she had simply forgotten. “Forgive me. I forgot to ask you, but…” and she rushed through a hurried description of the events leading up to her agreeing to hunt down a mammoth for Ysolda.

“Two things,” he said holding up two fingers to reiterate his point after she had finished speaking, “One: you have no problem volunteering me for a mammoth hunt, but tagging along on a dangerous journey is somehow cause for greater concern? I think the threat of being crushed to death is a little more immediate in the former than the latter.”

“I thought you’d like a good hunt, Huntsman. Was I wrong?”

“Absolutely not. I’m ready to head out this moment to start tracking the beasts’ habits,” he replied gleefully, “I just want you to remember this the next time you try to excuse me from another dangerous adventure.”

Sonja rolled her eyes. “Fine. And second?”

“There has to be a better way of getting information from the Khajiit than hunting down a godsdamned mammoth.”

“I could approach the caravan leader on my own,” Sonja allowed, “But—I don’t exactly have the same way with people that Anja does…”


“…And I am not as well acquainted with their ways, either. Having Ysolda make the introduction is a great advantage for me. If I only have one shot at speaking with them, I don’t want to ruin it by accidentally insulting them in the process.”

“Fair enough,” he relented, “Just seems a little—complicated.”

“Didn’t say it wouldn’t be.”

“And if it doesn’t pan out? What then?”

Sonja chewed on the tip of her tongue, pensively. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” she said, “Right now, this comes first.”

It occurred to the Bosmer to remind Sonja that Skyrim was a dangerous place. That there was a very real chance her sister might already be dead, killed in one of any number of horrible and terrifying ways of which the unforgiving territory and it inhabitants were capable. But he didn’t, because even the Dragonborn needed something to hold on to. “As you say,” he conceded, “But there is one other thing that’s just occurred to me.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Have you ever been Hunt Master before?”

“Well, no, but there will be others with us. One of them could…”

“You’re Ysolda’s partner in this and the Dragonborn,” he pointed out, “There can be no other Hunt Master. No one will challenge you for the position.”

Sonja took a deep breath. “Fine. How hard it is to lead a hunt?” she asked, realizing there was no point in arguing with Faendal about it.

“In Cyrodiil? I wouldn’t know. In Skyrim, it’s an honored tradition. There are a few ceremonial duties that you are required to perform.”

“What must I do?” she grunted reluctantly.

The mer grinned at her. “I’m so glad you asked,” he said and he launched into a very enthusiastic and animated explanation of her duties.

“You want to practice spear throwing today,” Vilkas stated incredulously, his arms crossed over his chest as he glared down at Sonja and Faendal.

“Aye,” Sonja replied, unconcerned by his tone.

“Dragons fly out of range of spears.”

“I’m not planning to take a dragon down with it. A hunt approaches and I…”

“What hunt?”

Sonja’s mouth twitched into a frown. “Ysolda has hired me to lead a hunt for a mammoth,” she replied honestly, forgoing putting the matter delicately for the Companion’s sake.

Instead of getting angry with her for buddying up to his former lover as she had expected him to, he just looked confused. “Why does Ysa want a mammoth?” he asked.

“A business arrangement between me and her,” Sonja replied, “I help her and she helps me.”

Vilkas looked as if he wasn’t satisfied with her answer. He opened his mouth to question her further, but thought better of it. Instead he nodded as if making up his mind. “A Great Hunt is no easy undertaking,” he said, “Your prey is massive, powerful, and intelligent.”

“Not unlike a dragon,” Faendal offered, making an attempt at helping to persuade Vilkas.

The Companion glanced at him and nodded curtly. “A mammoth cannot fly or breath fire, but it will not lie down and die in the dirt, either,” he continued, “It will be a worthy fight.”

Sonja hesitated. The line the Companions drew was a thin one and often hard to see. Even she found it difficult to balance the obedience Vilkas expected in the training yard with the liberties of her free time. It was due, in part, to the Companion’s domineering attitude; it tended to foster a need to ask for permission—even in Sonja. But, mostly, it the small nagging voice at the back of her head that made the differentiation difficult. Wheedling at her, it constantly accused her of wasting her time if she wasn’t working to become faster and stronger in order to survive Skyrim both to find her sister and face whatever pitfalls were sure to come her way as Dragonborn. “I am free to lead the hunt…?”

“Did you think I would deny you?”

“I was prepared to fight with you over it, yes.”

“I am your trainer, not your master. Your Shield-Sibling, not your nursemaid,” he stated gruffly, “Your time is your own and none of my concern.” He scratched his chin. “And the hunt will be a good opportunity to sharpen your skills. If you have room enough in your hunting party, you should ask your Shield-Siblings to join you.”

“I will bear that in mind.”

“Good.” He gave her a look that wordlessly informed her that he did not require an invitation. He knew his presence was not welcome. “The art of spear throwing is not my specialty,” he continued, “You need Aela’s guidance in this.” He paused. “Begin your footwork exercise while I speak with her.”

“As you say, Companion.” Sonja watched him head inside Jorrvaskr and then exchanged glances with Faendal.

“Went better than expected.” The Bosmer shrugged.

“I suspect I’ll pay for it in training,” she predicted, darkly as she went to the rack where a rope was looped over the hilt of one of the practice swords. Grabbing it, she turned back to the training yard just as Lydia stepped out onto the porch.

“My Thane,” the housecarl greeted.

Sonja tipped the rope to Lydia in salutation. “You’re just in time,” she said, cautiously, unsure if her bodyguard was still troubled by their previous training session.

Lydia’s eyes darted to the rope in her hands and she nodded. “As you wish,” she agreed and then she helped to secure Sonja’s arms to her side. Her movements showed no indication of fear or discomfort as she made the firm knots against Sonja’s skin, but the Dragonborn wasn’t completely convinced her housecarl had gotten over her last outburst. When she was bound, the the pair of them walked out into the yard.

Sonja readied herself for Lydia’s attacks, but stopped short. “Oh, the gag,” she said, realizing what was missing, “It’s on the table.”

The housecarl glanced over her shoulder at the dirty bit of cloth they had been using to gag Sonja. A cloud passed over her face as she appeared to be making up her mind about something. Then she looked back at the Dragonborn, jaw set and gaze determined. “You don’t need it,” she said, “I know you will not hurt me.”

A small, appreciative smile plucked at Sonja’s mouth. “What made you change your mind?” she asked.

“It is my duty to serve you,” Lydia explained, “To have your best interests always in mind—whether it is defending you with my last breath or beating the living Oblivion out of you. And right now, what’s best for you—for both of us—is for me to trust you.”

Sonja pursed her lips. “I will be worthy of your trust,” she promised sincerely.

Lydia scoffed. “You better be,” she warned, “Because if you go mad again and try to murder me, I damn well will not make it easy on you.”

The Dragonborn smirked. “Good to know,” she said and then Lydia launched herself at her thane.

“Throw with your whole body,” Aela instructed, “Your arm alone does not have the strength to pierce a mammoth’s hide.” She circled around her students with a sharp hawkish gaze as they chucked blunted spears at straw targets with varying degrees of success and skill.

For some, it was easy. Faendal moved better with a spear in his hand than a sword. Lydia didn’t match his grace, but her throws and thrusts were accurate and powerful. “Is there a blade you’re not good with?” Sonja asked under her breath as she watched the housecarl’s spear impale the target near dead-center.

“Daggers,” she replied, “Can’t do a thing with them. Too light. Too small.”

Sonja hummed her disbelief. “And Faendal’s the High Queen of Skyrim.”

“Like I said before: I’d make a lovely queen,” the Bosmer stated with mock defensiveness.

“Shut your mouths and concentrate, whelps,” Vilkas snapped, effectively dissolving the friendly banter between the three of them. They fell silent, exchanging pointed glances between them before focusing on the targets in front of them.

Vilkas watched his Shield-Siblings under Aela’s instruction. It occurred to him that his own skills needed to be honed, that he should join in his Blood-Sister’s lesson. But before he could even select a practice spear from the rack, however, he caught a familiar scent that drove the thought from his mind entirely: Ysolda. He turned in time to see her hurrying around the side of Jorrvaskr, her gentle eyes scanning the Companions in the yard as she searched for someone in particular. He didn’t stop to think who she might be looking for. Before that day, he knew of no other reason for her presence in or around his home, so he assumed she was there for him and swiftly strode across the yard to intercept her. “You should not be here, Ysa,” he growled in an undertone so they wouldn’t be overheard.

“I just…” she began, vaguely pointing toward the group of training Companions, but Vilkas did not notice.

“It is over between us,” he continued, hating himself for his words as he gently, but firmly grabbed her arm. But if being cruel to her now is the only way to spare her heartache later…“You need to let it lie.”

Glaring up into Vilkas’ face, her eyes blurring with unshed, angry tears, Ysolda wrenched her arm free of his grip. “I’m not here for you,” she snapped and then she pushed passed him. He watched her make a beeline for Sonja and frowned, feeling very foolish for thinking she was too lovesick to be there for anyone else but him—and embarrassed for how much it wounded his ego. Of course the pretty merchant woman was there to speak with the Dragonborn, undoubtedly about their new business arrangement. An agreement that had provoked his anger at first when Sonja and informed him of it; he didn’t like the Newblooded Dragonborn poking around in his private affairs. But Ysolda wasn’t his affair anymore. Her business was her own and if Sonja was capable of doing something, rendering some service, running some errand, or striking some bargain that would bring the budding merchant closer to her dream—to the promise she had made her deceased parents—he wasn’t so selfish as to stand in the way of it. No matter how much it frustrated him to have her so near to him and still so far out of reach.

When Ysolda caught Sonja’s attention, she started speaking in an animated rush the Dragonborn obviously did not understand. “Little bird!” Sonja exclaimed, glancing over Ysolda’s shoulder at a very grumpy looking Vilkas, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m sorry! I know I shouldn’t have, butyouweren’thappyaboutaskingher so Ithoughtitwouldbebetterif I did…”

Sonja’s brow furrowed. “Slow down,” she commanded gently, “I don’t understand a word you’re saying.”

“She’s upset. Really, really upset,” Ysolda continued, “Said if you didn’t have the guts to face her yourself, she’d come to you…”

“What are you talking about?” Sonja demanded, “Who’s upset?”

 Before Ysolda could make herself understood, the reason for her unexpected, unannounced visit arrived. “If this is all the Companions have to offer these days, perhaps it is time for an old warrior to return to Jorrvaskr,” Hera declared loudly, drawing everyone’s attention, “To show you what a real Companion looks like.” Moments later, she was joined by her own housecarl, a burly, dark haired Nord called Rengeir if Vilkas remembered correctly.

None of the Circle had even heard her coming or scented her on the wind, but that was not surprising. An old Wolf like Hera knew a few more tricks than most of the Circle did, with the exception of Kodlak and Skjor, of course. “Hail, shield-maiden,” he greeted. Affording her the respect of a former Circle member, he covered his heart and bowed his head to her. “The Companions are always glad to welcome back one of their own,” he continued, “What brings you to Jorrvaskr this day?”

Hera raised a silvered eyebrow in his direction. “Not always glad to welcome former members, are we?” she said pointedly, but her words only found meaning in the hearts and minds of Vilkas, Farkas, and Aela who knew the faces of more than a dozen dangerous and disgraced former Companions—some more recent than others. The resulting sharp inhalations and dark glares announced that her message had been clearly received, but reminding junior members of the ghosts that silently haunted Jorrvaskr was not why she had come that day. Instead, her brilliant blue eyes leveled at Sonja. “I have come to speak with my kin,” she continued, “A matter of bad blood has come between us and she seeks my help before resolving it.”

The look of utter fury on Sonja’s face prompted Vilkas to place himself squarely between aunt and niece. “Name your kin,” he stated.

Behind him, he heard Sonja scoff. Faendal attempted to shush her, but was unsuccessful. “Don’t play stupid,” she growled, “You know she speaks of me.”

It was Lydia who answered. “Thane Hera is calling for a prøve against you,” she explained, “A trial in the Old Way. By declaring your disagreement publicly, she is offering it to Jorrvaskr for judgement.”


“And Vilkas is volunteering to be your skala,” Ysolda added meekly, “He is the scale and will weigh the consequences of your argument.”

“Your arbiter,” Faendal clarified, “It’s his duty to make sure you don’t kill each other.”

“Then I need no skala,” Sonja sneered, glaring murderous daggers at her aunt.

It was Hera’s turn to scoff. “Idiot whelpling doesn’t even know our ways!” she accused, “I can hardly call her kin any more than I can call her a true Nord! Milk-drinking Imperial wench!”

Sonja took several menacing steps toward Hera, stopping just short of passing Vilkas. “Nord, Imperial. Whatever blood flows through my veins it is that of a Dragon!” she declared, her fist clamping down on the spear shaft so tightly her knuckles went white, “If it’s a fight you want, skeever shit-sucking snow-back, I’ll gladly give it to you!”

Demonstrating the infamous Ironheart temper, Hera nearly started her own prøve prematurely, but Vilkas’ persistent presence between the two warriors stopped the fight from progressing any further than a few very heated glares. “I said: ‘Name your kin,’ Hera,” Vilkas insisted, one hand extended far enough to discourage Sonja from getting any closer.

“Sonja Draconis.” Hera intentionally used Sonja’s Imperial surname to demonstrate her unwillingness to share even a name with her, and spit it out as if she had tasted something foul.

“Full name, titles too,” Vilkas insisted.

Hera’s gaze shifted off Sonja and narrowed at the Companion who stood unmoved by her anger. There was some silent dispute she was trying to win in the stubbornness of her gaze, but Vilkas would have none of it. “Dragonborn Thane of Whiterun Sonja Ironheart Draconis, daughter of my sister Freydis Ironheart, the Killing Frost of Jorrvaskr, and Captain Remus Draconis of the Imperial City,” she replied reluctantly, the string of titles tumbling from her mouth in direct defiance of her earlier insistence that Sonja was merely a half-bred bastard daughter of Skyrim, lowly and weak.

“And you, Dragonborn,” he said, turning his head slightly to address Sonja without taking his eyes off Hera, “Do you acknowledge the blood ties that bind you to Hera, Fire-Spear of the North, Shield-Maiden of the Circle of Jorrvaskr and Thane of Whiterun and Markarth, sister of your mother, Freydis Ironheart, the Killing Frost of Jorrvaskr, and daughter to Owain Ironheart, Companion of Jorrvaskr, and Maev Frost-Shield of Morthal?”

Despite the long-winded introduction, Sonja was eager to answer. “Aye.”

To Hera, he said, “You wish to call a prøve this day?”

“Aye. I do.”

“What grievance do you lay against the Dragonborn?”

“She seeks to deny me the right to honor my sister’s death while also seeking my help in the Great Hunt to come,” Hera stated, “As last winter’s Hunt Master, she seeks to take the mantle and spear from me without honor to our traditions or respect to me as an elder of our bloodline.”

Vilkas frowned. Hera’s complaint was not a strong one, at least not by modern standards. But the prøvewas an old tradition. Ancient tribes would have found her accusations appalling and worthy of serious consideration. And though he was tempted to dismiss the whole thing as little more than a familial squabble, he couldn’t guarantee he wasn’t doing so because he was biased one way or the other. This fight was between his Shield-Siblings. One of whom was a Blood-Sister. No, he had to do his best by both of them. “What answer do you have to these accusations, Dragonborn?”

“My answer is my own,” she spat, “She knows what grievances I have to lay against her. She knows what wrongs she has done me and my mother!”

Not a typical response, but Sonja was well within her right to answer as she pleased. “And you have tried to resolve this between yourselves, by your own means, meeting only failure?”

A unanimous, “Aye,” answered his question.

“What manner of prøve do you seek then, Thane Hera Fire-Spear?”

Prøving av kamp,” she replied readily, “Trial by combat.”

That was precisely what Vilkas feared her answer would be. There were two ways Hera could pursue justice for the perceived wrongs laid against her: trial by combat and trial by peace. The fire in her eyes and the weapons on her back and hip made her intentions clear enough when she first called for a prøve, but there had been a small, vain hope at the back of his mind that wanted to believe an old warrior of the Circle would not be so foolish to go as far as Hera had gone already. “Is this acceptable to you, Dragonborn?” he asked, “It is within your right to object and call for prøving av fred, instead.”

“Trial by peace,” Lydia translated, “Debate or prowess of the mind.”

Sonja raised an eyebrow and all but snarled at her aunt. “We are beyond words. Her terms are acceptable.”

Vilkas nodded curtly. “Weapon of choice?”

Spyd,” Hera sneered.

Before Vilkas could waste the breath required to ask Sonja if she agreed upon the chosen weapon, or even before Lydia could offer a translation for the word Hera had used, the impatient Dragonborn was already spitting out her answer, “I accept.”

A prolonged silence filled the training yard before Vilkas continued. “Trial by spear,” he grunted, “Magic and Shouting are forbidden. First to yield forfeits their claim. Battle binds only the Dragonborn and Thane Hera Fire-Spear. Honorable housecarls cannot defend or avenge their thanes. This is the way of things.”

Sonja’s jaw tightened in silent reprimand for her premature agreement to terms she had not fully comprehended. She wasn’t terrible with a spear, but she had very little experience and far less natural talent with it than any other weapon. There hadn’t been much in Cyrodiil that had ever required the use of a spear. But she was not about to back down now. The urge to wipe the smug look off Hera’s face was simply too great. So, she waited as Vilkas cleared the yard of her Shield-Siblings to make room for their contest.

Silently, she examined Hera from head to toe, taking in the minute details of her armor and where she might find weak spots, of her weapons and what might be the best way to disarm her, of her hands on her weapon and how they might slip. And as she stared at her aunt, Hera stared right back, only it was far easier for the old warrior to pick out all the flaws and weaknesses in Sonja’s meager training leathers and imperfect grip. Suddenly, Sonja felt very exposed, more aware than ever just how vulnerable she was compared to the fully armed and armored former Companion standing across from her. But she wasn’t the only one to notice.

“You have challenged the Dragonborn to honorable combat, Thane Hera Fire-Spear,” Vilkas stated once he had finished shooing their Shield-Siblings to the edges of the yard, “As skala, I declare it must be on even footing. Shed your armor and take up a practice spear and shield. Meet as equals and the trial can begin.”

Hera glanced sideways at him before she began to quickly undo the buckles and ties of her armor, handing it off to Rengeir the moment she was free of it until she was stripped down to basic garments. At Vilkas’ order, she was provided a set of training leathers, a practice spear, and a shield. The moment she was ready, she faced Sonja again, looking considerably smaller than she did beneath the weight and girth of her armor, but fierceness had not faded from her eyes.

Faendal fetched Sonja a shield while Lydia tried to give her a few last-minute pointers before the trial began. “Single combat is different than hunting mammoths,” she warned, “Don’t ever throw your weapon. You’ll only be disarming yourself for her. Stay behind your shield as much as possible and be mindful of your footwork and hers. If she’s going on the offensive, you’ll see it there first.”

“Anything else?” Sonja asked, half listening.

“It’s a spear, not a sword,” Lydia said and though her comment earned her a roll of the eyes from Sonja, she continued, “You can’t slash through the air with it. You’ll waste energy and open yourself up for attack. Thrust. Keep your balance and ground your back foot to put more force behind your weapon.”

“And your reach is longer,” Faendal added, “You like up close and personal skirmishes, but the spear is not made for such combat. That’s both a disadvantage and a boon for you. Make it work in your favor.” Sonja nodded absently, so focused on staring at Hera, that she hardly heard when Vilkas called for their contest to begin.

All the beatings in all the world could not prepare Sonja for her fight with Hera. The old warrior was thirty years her senior and still moved as if she was hardly a day older than Sonja herself. Strong, swift, smooth movement. As simple and effortless as breathing. The years she worked the memory of combat forms and defense stratagems into the very fiber of her muscle did all the work for her. Sonja felt as if she were fighting with smoke that constantly swirled around her, never where she expected it to be, always slipping through her grasp, and reacting to every movement almost before she could make it. The seamless transition from action to reaction, from offense to defense, from parry to counter. Like waves battering a coast. The ebb and flow of it left her bruised and bloodied, eroded flesh, soft and vulnerable and breathless.

The strength of her Dragon was not helping, either. Unbridled, guided only by anger and her dislike for her aunt, it was directionless and more of an obstacle than help. It made her overconfident where she should be cautious, arrogantly indifferent where she should be calculatingly aggressive, and blind with hubris where she should be observant. It was almost too easy for Hera to exploit her foolish, draconic conceit and use it against her. Sonja was fighting practically half-blind, her pride eclipsing so much of her quick mind and training. Disoriented amidst the roar of cheers from her divided Shield-Siblings; some of whom cheered for a local legend of Jorrvaskr’s halls and others who chanted the name of the recently awakened Dragonborn.

Half dazed, she raised her shield arm to block the next attack only to realize it was not there. When had she lost her shield? How had it happened? Did she drop it in her stupor? Or had Hera relieved her of it? Desperately, she tried to use her spear shaft to take the brunt of the blow and had succeeded in deflecting the attack at the expense of breaking the weapon in half. Splintered wood flew in all directions and before Sonja could react to the shock of the shattered spear, Hera’s shield sailed in from her peripheral, knocking her to the ground.

“You are better than this,” a voice growled somewhere from beyond the vision of her rapidly swelling eye.

“As skala, you are to remain impartial,” Hera accused, retreating several steps back from Sonja to better address Vilkas.

“We both know this isn’t a fair fight,” he hissed back low enough so only Hera could hear, but Sonja had caught his words and glanced angrily in his direction. Obviously, he did not think she was strong enough to win and, regardless of how beaten down she was at that moment, she was determined to prove him wrong. But his next words confused her perception of him. “Get up,” he urged, “She is no dragon. Just an old wolf flashing her teeth. All bark and no bite. Make the fight yours. Take it from her.”

“It’s been a long time since we sparred, Vilkas Jorrvassen,” Hera scoffed, “But I remember kicking the Oblivion out of you more than once in the yard. When I’ve finished with this whelp, I’d be glad to refresh your memory, Master Trainer. I taught you everything you know. Don’t forget it.”

“That was a long time ago,” Vilkas replied coolly, but he did not doubt any fight he had with Hera would not be an easy one. If there was anyone who could test the limits of his abilities, it was she. Hera laughed in response.

Sonja’s grip on the broken bits of shaft tightened and she hauled herself to her feet, vaguely aware of how terrible she must look, bruised and bleeding. Hera looked her over, faint amusement tugging at her expression. “Do you yield?” she asked, tapping the edge of her spear against her boot.

“Never.” And she felt it all slide into place again. The mortal and the Dragon needed each other. Without one to strengthen the other and the latter to control the former, it was all just chaos. Useless and unfocused, garnering only destruction and pain. But together, she was something else entirely. The gleam of it flashed in her gaze, causing Hera to hesitate.

Recalling Lydia and Faendal’s advice, Sonja launched herself at her aunt. Dodging thrusts here and there, deflecting the spear tip away with the shorter bits of wood in her hands, she made Hera’s long reaching weapon her downfall and closed the gap between them. Not completely unprepared for such a situation, Hera dealt a few very strong shield bashes for her efforts, but it did not stop Sonja from pulling the spear clean from her grip, sending it sailing through the air to land harmlessly on the other side of the yard. Still, years of training did not render the older Companion incapable of compensating for the loss of her weapon and she used both fist and shield to push Sonja back on the defensive. What she had not been prepared for was her niece’s renewed and inhuman strength.

As a Wolf, Hera knew what power was. Her physiology granted her advantages no other mortal could possibly achieve. Speed, strength, agility, sensory acuity. And though she had hated what the Wolf had made of her, of what it had reduced her to, she could not deny that it had saved her life more than once, that it had become as much a part of her as being a Nord or a woman. She had learned long ago how to tame her Beast; how best to make it work for her; how to get the most out of the gifts and curse she had been given. But Sonja was no mere mortal. No peer to the Unblooded whelps. There was something inside her greater than the Wolf. She was not weak or fragile, so when the Dragonborn launched herself at Hera once more and viciously relieved the older woman of her shield, breaking her arm in the process, the resounding snap of that broken bone echoed through every last one of Hera’s heightened senses.

She cried out in pain and sluggishly moved to put distance between her and Sonja, but was abruptly stopped and thrown to the ground by the Dragonborn’s iron grip. She coughed in the dirt and moved to scamper away, trying to use her broken arm to assist her despite the pain, and felt Sonja’s broken spear shaft strike her repeatedly. Across the face. Against her ribs. On her back and stomach. Until she had no choice to but to use her broken arm to protect her head. But then the assault stopped abruptly and Sonja allowed Hera to pull herself to sit upright, cradling her injured limb. “Good on you, Dragonborn,” she sneered, blood sputtering from her mouth, “You have the chance to avenge the wrong I paid your mother, my sister.” She watched as Sonja paced back and forth, considering what her aunt had just said. “Will you take it?” she asked, “Will you take up the fight I never allowed Freydis?”

Sonja’s brow furrowed. Though her understanding of Nordic tradition was limited, she was reasonably certain that the prøve was not a contest to the death. Vilkas had very specifically stated that it was the first to yield that forfeited their claim. Not first blood. Not to the death. But something about the way defeat hung about Hera’s shoulders declared the underlying meaning of her words. The elder warrior laughed darkly, wiping blood from her mouth and looking up at Sonja expectantly, her hard gaze very clearly stating her intention not to yield, regardless of how much more pain was to be inflicted. That familiar semi-suicidal glint of determination woven from years of unspoken loss and a thousand silent unspeakable acts of self-preservation. Selflessness born of self-loathing.

Suddenly, Sonja did not see the cold, arrogant, heartless woman she had imagined her aunt to be. Suddenly, she was staring her own dark future in the face. It wasn’t for Hera whom she harbored so much resentment. No, her ire was directed at herself. For every transgression for which she felt she had yet to pay. Anja. Remus. Thornir. Corvus. Each sin had a name and a victim shackled to the painful, bloody memory of it. And a scar etched into her skin. That’s why meeting Hera had hurt so damn much. Sometimes, it was hard to look in the mirror when you knew how ugly your reflection would be. Who was she to judge her aunt for turning her back on her mother when she had been guilty of far worse?

“You will not yield,” Sonja stated.


The Dragonborn nodded and let the broken shaft pieces fall from her hands and clatter in the dirt. “Then I will,” she replied, rubbing her sore jaw and taking a step backward.

“WHAT?!?” Hera demanded.

Sonja looked to Vilkas who watched her with an unreadable expression. “I yield,” she said, “Pass judgement as you will.”

Vilkas nodded slightly and looked to Hera. “The prøve has concluded. The Dragonborn has forfeited her claim,” he said slowly, giving Sonja plenty of opportunity to interrupt, not that it would make a difference. She had already spoken her piece. “What resolution do you seek for your grievance, Thane Hera Fire-Spear?”

Hera glared up from the ground. “Nothing,” she said, “I want nothing from her.”

Disquiet descended over the training yard as the onlookers struggled with the outcome. There were no victors. Though the prøve technically ruled in Hera’s favor, her defeat was painfully obvious. And the Dragonborn had yielded. Spoke the words aloud and dropped her weapons in such a forceful manner it felt like anything but forfeit. In the stillness, all looked to Vilkas to see what his final judgement would be. But before the Companion could speak, another voice weighed in on the argument. “Then go home, Hera,” Kodlak said suddenly, claiming everyone’s attention. No one had noticed when he had stepped out onto the porch to watch the fight between Hera and Sonja or for how long he had been standing there. “Lick your wounds and think on the events that led you here. Tomorrow, give the spear and mantle to Sonja, and then go your separate ways. Or don’t. I think all the bad blood between you has been spilt upon the ground by now. Does the skala agree?”

Vilkas nodded. “I do.”

“Then it is so.”

Hera had stiffened when she heard Kodlak’s voice and the tension did not dissolve from her shoulders as she stiffly pulled herself upright. Rengeir helped her. “Aye, Harbinger,” she said, “As you say.” And then she nodded to Vilkas before leaving.

“This prøve is concluded,” Vilkas announced. Awkward grumbling started up as the Companions returned to their training, unsettled, and Lydia, Faendal, and Ysolda quickly converged on Sonja.

“I am so sorry!” Ysolda said breathlessly, her brow a tangled knot of sincerity, “I thought it would be better if I spoke to her for you since you said you didn’t want…”

“I know, I know,” Sonja waved her off and set to healing her injuries from the fight, “It’s not your fault.” She sighed, her emotions feeling raw. “It’s mine. I should have spoken to her myself, sooner.”

“So she could strike you on the threshold of your family home?” Faendal asked, “It’s better for you this way.” Sonja tried to glare at him pointedly through her swollen eye, but failed and that communicated her intention far better than success would have. “Point taken.”

“At least it’s over now,” Ysolda offered, hopefully, “Hera won’t defy the ruling of her own prøve.”

Sonja shrugged. “We shall see.”

“Dragonborn,” Kodlak called from the porch, “I would have a word with you.”

Feeling slightly like a child about to get into trouble for starting a fight she shouldn’t have, Sonja nodded and followed the Harbinger inside, leaving her friends behind in the training yard to yammer amongst themselves in her absence. Kodlak strode purposefully toward the stairs to the living quarters without a word, save a few he had for Tilma in friendly and surprisingly gentle greeting. Then his white hair disappeared beneath the plane of the floor with Sonja close behind.

Once they had made it to his chambers at the end of the hall, Kodlak took his favorite seat at the table in the corner. The very same place Sonja had seen him when they first met. Politely, he gestured to the chair opposite him and after a brief moment’s hesitation, Sonja accepted, allowing her sore body to sink gingerly down. For a moment, he simply looked at her, his white-blue eyes kindly searching her face for something unknown. A few uncomfortable seconds passed and Sonja opened her mouth to ask what he wanted from her when the door opened and Tilma entered, carrying a bottle of mead, two mugs, and a plate of bread, cheese, and shavings of meat. Kodlak thanked her with an affectionate squeeze of her hand and when she was gone, he poured the mead first for Sonja and then for himself.

“Like most of those who call these halls home, I came to call the Companions family after losing my own,” he said as he slid the filled mug across the table to Sonja, “I traveled the length and breadth of this land, learning all I could of the sword and the axe.” He smiled faintly and looked to Sonja to gauge her interest, finding her confused, but attentive. “I was just a boy,” he continued, “But I had the fire of a man in my heart.” He chuckled. “Eventually, my body caught up to my spirit.”

Sonja had a difficult time imagining Kodlak differently from the man that sat across the table from her. He seemed immutable. Unchangeable. Timeless even. The thought of a younger, overeager whelpling bearing the same name was completely ludicrous. “My predecessor, Askar, found me in Hammerfell,” he stated, the former Harbinger’s name rolling off his tongue with the slightest hint of regret, “I was serving as bodyguard for some weak-necked lord out there. He brought me back here—and I realized that I was actually coming home.”

He saw the softened round in her eye at his words, the delicate knot of confusion begin to give way to something more solid like regret as she recollected her own private ghosts from her past. “I’m sorry for what happened in the yard,” she said suddenly, “That was between Hera and I…”

Kodlak waved her off. “We used to have a prøve every week in my day,” he informed her, “Twice before Sundas.”

Her mouth briefly tweaked in amusement at the idea, but it quickly died away. “Then why tell me this?” she ventured, “If I’m not in trouble for the trial…?”

The Harbinger took a deep swig of his mead before he answered. “Because I work to bring honor to this family and the family that I lost,” he said, “For my mother, my father, and my grandfather. For all my Shield-Siblings. And one needn’t look hard to see half the battle you fight every day is against yourself for the family you lost.”

Sonja’s gaze dropped to her mug. “That is my business,” she said softly.

“And it always will be,” Kodlak assured, “I will never ask more of your story than you’re willing to tell. But understand the reason you are here. Accept the path that led you to our door. Family and honor. That’s what it means to be one of us, girl.”

She looked up from her mead again, her eyes narrowing. “You think I should forgive her,” she stated.

“If not you, then who?” he asked, “Your mother is dead, child. Shor preserve her. She cannot grant Hera the peace for which she yearns.” Sonja looked away again, unable to meet his gaze. “The decision is yours, but ask yourself what Freydis would have done and whether or not you have the strength to follow in her footsteps.”

“What does it matter to you?” she asked, her voice wavering between genuinely touched and indignant, “If I resent her for the rest of my life?”

“I knew Freydis since she was a girl, chasing after Hera, wishing only to be a Companion like their father,” he said, “And when she joined my family—our—family, I loved her as a daughter—Hera as a sister. The Freydis of my time would not desire so much hate left in the wake of her passing. Especially from her daughter for her favorite sister.”

Sonja nodded curtly and drained her mead in three large gulps. “I’m not my mother,” she said sharply, rising from her seat and taking several steps toward the door to leave.

“No, you are not,” Kodlak agreed, sighing and leaning back in his chair, “But if you did not have it in you to forgive, then why spare her? Why yield?”

She halted at the door, her fingers resting on the latch. “For my own sake,” she admitted, “Not hers.”

“Is not that forgiveness?” he asked heavily.

“I don’t know,” she muttered, her fingers scratching against the door thoughtfully before she finally stepped through, ending her conversation with Kodlak. The Harbinger watched her as she walked along the hallway, lingering at the end as if trying to decide whether or not to return to the training yard or go to the barracks to take advantage of the silence. After a brief mental deliberation, she disappeared inside the empty room and he heard the faint groan of wood and leather straps as her weight sunk down onto her bed. So much like Vilkas, he thought fondly, So much heart. And then he sat back to enjoy his lunch, hoping his words had taken root somewhere in that stubborn mind of hers. That perhaps two of his Shield-Siblings might find the peace they didn’t even know they needed.

Chapter Text

Siúil, siúil, siúil a rún

Siúil go sochair agus siúil go ciúin

Siúil go doras agus éalaigh liom.’


Siúil, siúil, siúil a rún

Siúil go sochair agus siúil go ciúin

Siúil go doras agus éalaigh liom

Is go dté tú mo mhúirnín slán.”

Tyv’s voice was so sweet, Rune wanted to forget the job and listen with the rest of the mesmerized tavern, but he hadn’t asked her along to Windhelm just to listen to her sing. And her favors were too expensive to waste. He liked working with her. She was unusual. Played by a different set of rules than the rest of the Guild. At first, he thought it would only get her into trouble. Mercer had a certain way of doing things; Brynjolf, Delvin, and Vex all had their ways: every thief for the Guild; every man for himself. In that order. Maximize profits by minimalizing shares. So, members didn’t often volunteer help without requiring a hefty slice of the action of themselves. Except Tyv. She preferred to be paid in favors, in intel, in juicy gossip—in lady’s first choice of lucrative jobs. Opportunities to make more coin than taking half another thief’s payment.

And that’s what Rune had promised her. First pick of Delvin’s new assignments when they made it back to Riften in exchange for her lovely singing voice and demure smiles. All she had to do was distract the paranoid owner of the tavern, Ambarys, long enough for Rune to do a bit of rewriting in the ledger upstairs. As luck would have it, he happened to know the Dunmer was a fan of the arts and had heard Tyv lead enough drinking songs in the Bee & Barb to know she was precisely what he needed. And she didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t long before she had Ambarys eating out of her hand, lured out from behind the counter to listen to her songs. A feat in and of itself since the Dunmer didn’t take to anyone who wasn’t a Dark Elf.

I wish I was on yonder hill

‘Tis there I’d sit and cry my fill

‘Til every tear would turn a mill.’


I’ll sell my rod, I’ll sell my reel

I’ll sell my only spinning wheel

To buy my love a sword of steel.”

While she was charming the room with a Breton song, Rune easily slipped upstairs, creeping passed the sleeping Dunmer on the third floor and locating the ledger. Simple work, really. The only thing that had made it difficult was Ambarys’ paranoia which was now being seduced into submission by the sweet sounds of a siren. When he was finished, he made his way back down to the tavern as Tyv neared the end of her song.

I’ll dye my petticoats, I’ll dye them red

And ‘round the world I’ll beg my bread

Until my parents shall wish me dead.”

But poor, silly Rune was too busy listening to the lyrics that he miscounted his steps between the stairs and the doorway, and stepped directly on the particularly squeaky floorboard he had been trying to avoid. Ambarys’ head tilted slightly to catch the sound, but, as he turned to see who was hiding in the shadows, Tyv slipped off the table she had been perched on and approached him, reclaiming his attention. Her bright blue eyes bored into his ruby ones, the golden curl of her hair bouncing against her shoulder as she seated herself on his lap and snaked her arms around his shoulders. She looked at him through her lashes and concluded the song as if she were singing him a lullaby.

Siúil, siúil, siúil a rún

Siúil go sochair agus siúil go ciúin

Siúil go doras agus éalaigh liom.”

Ambarys was so entranced, he forgot all about the noise from Rune’s misstep. When she was finished, she smiled sweetly at him and asked in perfect Dunmeris, “Shall I sing another, sera?”

The elf swallowed hard as his patrons catcalled, but Tyv ignored them, her gaze unwavering from his as he stammered to give her an answer, “Do you know Azura’s Lament?” he asked, also in Dunmeris, finding it refreshing that an outsider had made the effort to learn his native language.

“A sad, pretty tune,” she bluffed, nodding, “I know it well.” She smiled sweetly. “And if I sing it for you, what will you give me in return?”

“Anything you want,” was the almost endearingly shaky answer, drawing more laughter from the onlookers.

Tyv laughed, deep and throaty, and put on a big show of making up her mind to give Rune the time he needed to escape. “Such a generous soul,” she simpered. There were grumblings of good-natured disagreement from the customers and Tyv rearranged her skirts while twirling the mer’s hair around her finger, delaying singing the song as long as possible because she didn’t rightly remember all the words. As soon as she caught sight of Rune leaving the tavern from the corner of her eye, she grinned mischievously, planted a wet and noisy kiss on Ambarys’ cheek, and then hopped off his lap. “Time’s up, sera,” she lamented, speaking common but affecting a thick Dunmeri accent and winking at him. She was out the door before he could offer argument for her to stay.

Outside, Tyv found Rune leaning against a frosted wall at the corner. She hiked the hem of her dress out of the slurry of mud and snow in the road and trudged over to him gracelessly. “Novice mistake, Rune. I’m disappointed,” she chastised, “I should charge you double for saving your hide.”

Rune chuckled. “Hardly difficult for you,” he insisted, “Had the whole damn lot of them wrapped around your finger.”

“Beside the point, darling.”

He shrugged. “I have nothing you want.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

The handsome Imperial crossed his arms over his chest, his green eyes twinkling. “I thought you were all business and no pleasure,” he replied, smiling seductively.

“You heard right,” she said pointedly, “I’m talking about information.”

Rune’s brow furrowed. “Oh? I don’t have many sources of my own,” he admitted, “If there’s something special you’re hunting for, Delvin’s your best bet.”

Tyv waved him off. “The only thing I’m looking for is a bit of dirt and you’ll do nicely.”

“What did you want to know?”

“About Brynjolf.” It had been a couple of weeks since she had joined the Thieves Guild and everything was going along well enough, but Tyv wasn’t satisfied. The good thing about the Guild was they assigned jobs based on merit. The more talented you were, the more lucrative the work; didn’t matter if you joined up a year ago, ten, or five minutes ago. No, the only disadvantage to being the new recruit was not yet knowing what made the veterans tick. Tyv usually had a good read on the people around her, but Mercer, Brynjolf, Delvin, and Vex were proper professionals. There wasn’t much she could get from them they weren’t already willing to disclose. And Brynjolf in particular seemed keen to keep her at arm’s length.

“Looking for a bit of pleasure after all, then?” Rune teased.

Tyv rolled her eyes. “Hardly,” she replied, “Just looking for an in. Delvin and Vex keep us all busy, but Bryn handles the truly delicious jobs—the decadent work—assignments you can really sink your teeth into…”

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘dangerous’,” Rune supplied as he tried to convey a disapproving expression, but his features betrayed him. He didn’t outright disapprove of her desire for upward mobility. He was troubled by it.

“I’m nothing if not gluttonous.”

“That work’s for Guild Masters only,” he reminded her, “Doesn’t matter if you find your way into Bryn’s good graces. Mercer has a short list and you’re not on it.”

Tyv smirked. “Let me worry about that, love,” she insisted.

Rune frowned, but nodded. “What did you want to know?”

“Everything you do.”

The thief looked less than enthusiastic, but before he could think of where to start, shouting issued down the street that caused both Rune and Tyv to pale. “Stop thief!” bellowed a guard.

There was an awkward moment between them where they looked at each other in confusion, unsure of which thief the shout was addressing, if either of them. One look down the walkway at the guard who had called out confirmed the accusation had been directed at them. Though which one still remained unclear. Tyv’s eyes widened slightly and she looked down her body with a hopeless expression. She wasn’t dressed for a run through the frozen streets of Windhelm. Her part in Rune’s little scheme required more of a delicate touch than Guild armor and ebony weapons made possible so she had left her gear securely stored in an abandoned Guild safehouse at the far end of the Gray Quarter. Luckily for her, but unluckily for Rune, the guards only had eyes for him. “Shitshitshitshitshit,” Rune cursed as he turned on his heel and bolted up the walkway. He knew it was a mistake to take a job in Windhelm so soon after his narrow escape a few weeks before. The guard was still on the lookout for him. Tyv watched him go and tried to come up with a reasonable distraction that might give him time to get out of the city, but nothing immediately came to mind.

Several guards ran passed in pursuit and she jogged after them, desperately looking around for a stall to knock over or a fight to start. But the chase didn’t last long. They caught up to him just outside the inn in front of the city gates. “Damnit,” she swore under her breath as she watched Rune struggle with the guards. He gave up the fight when one of them punched him in the gut. The Imperial doubled over, grunting in pain.

“You’re coming with us, scum,” the offending guard growled as he half-dragged Rune toward the Palace of Kings.

“WAIT!!!” Tyv nearly shouted, taking several steps forward.

Her outburst drew the guards’ progress to a halt, but they all turned suspicious eyes on her. “Is there a problem?” the nearest guard asked.

Tyv’s mind went blank frighteningly. Rune looked at her, his expression torn between hopeful and urging her to save herself. There was nothing she could do for him at the moment and she wasn’t sure there was much she could do for him later. Well, there is one thing I could do…Quickly, her expression rearranged itself into one of utter horror as she pressed her palm against her chest in counterfeit shock. “He stole my coin purse!” she said breathlessly, patting herself down as if searching for her coin—while carefully avoiding causing her own purse to jingle against her hip. The hope completely died out of Rune’s face as he thought the worst of her and he glared with complete betrayal seething in his eyes.

The guards didn’t look entirely convinced, but they patted Rune down anyway, finding his coin purse, and, after a moment of silent deliberation, tossed it to Tyv. She caught it. A lot lighter than she had been anticipating, but that wasn’t important; she just wanted it out of the reach of the jailer. Valuables had a habit of going missing during lock up. Especially off thieves. Then she watched them drag poor Rune away. As soon as they were out of sight, she hurried back to the safehouse to change.

Anja had no intention of letting Rune rot in the Windhelm dungeons. Though Brynjolf had made it abundantly clear that the Guild was in no way responsible for getting her cute little ass out of trouble should she find herself in a similar position, it just wasn’t her way to leave a fellow thief behind and that wasn’t likely to change any time soon. Regardless of who her employer was. The Guild back in Cyrodiil didn’t operate that way, either. We were a family, but that was about the only good thing the former Guild Master had done before toppling the Guild headfirst into politics, ruination, and blood. She growled to herself and rubbed her face. The very thought of it, of him, put her in a foul mood and she had other things to worry about.

It took her a couple of hours to find the loose stone in the wall and pry it free. In the hollowed-out cavity behind it lay a single rolled up parchment. Oh good, she thought as she removed the piece of paper, Delvin wasn’t pulling my leg. There really was a map that marked the hidden thief caches and passageways all over the city. Sort of. It was a bare-bones drawing of the city of Windhelm. Old, a little outdated, smudged, and dotted with Shadowmarks.

Scanning the crude document, Anja quickly located her position on the map and searched for an entrance into the sewers beneath the streets. Windhelm’s very own Ratway. More or less. The tunnels were smaller and far less hospitable, used only to drain snowmelt and waste into the sea. Most of the grates throughout the city were sealed shut except for a maintenance shaft near the city gates that was under constant watch. There was another, far more private and accessible entrance, however. One that the Thieves Guild, itself, had installed back in its glory days when it could afford the work required to carve escape routes beneath ancient cities. And one end of it was hidden in the Temple of Talos.

Smirking, Anja rolled the map back up and returned it to its hiding place for the next thief who might have need of it. Then she gathered up her weapons, quickly securing them tight against her body so they didn’t slip and make unwanted noise. After sorting through a few potions she had made the night before and tucking the most necessary into the pockets on her belt, she left the two room hole in the ground that served as the Guild’s safehouse, climbing the ladder to street level as quickly as she was able.

Rune hadn’t expected Tyv to do anything to save him from the guards. That would have been stupid and possibly suicidal. It was every thief for himself. That was the way it was, the way it always had been. But he had expected her not to make matters worse for him. Accusing him of stealing from her just to get her hands on his coin purse was a new kind of greedy he had never seen before and it pissed him off to no end. Grounds to get kicked out of the Guild if ever there were any and he would take extreme pleasure detailing her transgression to Brynjolf when he got out. It was almost poetic since she had been trying to pump him for information on the roguish Nord only hours before.

Until then, he’d mope. He was lucky enough to sneak a lockpick passed the guards when they relieved him of all his gear, but his luck ran dry after that. The broken remnants of the pick sat discarded in a corner of the cell where he had tossed them after his failure to force the lock. Out of options, he had no choice but to make himself comfortable on the dirty bedroll in the corner of the cell and serve his time—which would have been shorter had Tyv not added pickpocketing to the list of charges already lodged against him. He glowered at the ceiling, seething.

After a while, the guard on duty came around to do a cell check before dousing the nearby torches for the night. Then he returned to his post near the door where he read a copy of The Lusty Argonian Maid, Vol. 2 by the light of the remaining torch and hummed an off-key version of The Age of Oppression. Rune’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and he traced patterns against the expressionless ceiling, contemplating sleep more out of boredom and a desire to block out the guard’s awful humming than real exhaustion. He rolled over and stared blankly through the bars and that’s when he saw something unexpected.

It was dim, so it was hard to tell, but it looked like fingers were poking through the sewer grate in the floor at the base of the wall opposite the guard post. He blinked and then glared through the darkness. A moment later, a pair of hands popped the small, circular metal cap out of the floor with the faintest metallic whisper, not loud enough for the guard to hear over his own incessant humming. Carefully, the grate was set aside and then the narrow and flexible body of a woman clad in dark leathers came into view as she soundlessly hoisted herself out of the sewer. She looked around a moment, spotted him as he watched her, and then held a finger to her lips. Rune’s eyes widened in disbelief. It was Tyv. She came for him.

Nearly leaping to his feet, he rushed to the bars of his cell eagerly, mentally taking back every hateful thought he had had about her when she thought she had screwed him over and abandoned him, but she only made the gesture more vehemently. He stilled and watched as she moved the grate back into place over their escape route. Confused, he tilted his head and pointed to the sewer. She ignored him and stooped to pick up an errant stone that must have been knocked loose from the wall some unknown time before. Weighing it in her hand, she seemed to be making up her mind about something before chucking it has hard as she could through the bars of the door next to the reading guard. The rock skittered loudly, bouncing off the slope of the hallway and causing the guard to jump. He stopped humming, set aside his book, and got up to investigate.

Rune wanted to shout at her for being so stupid, but before he could even silently convey his dismay, she was noiselessly sprinting across the room toward the door, downing the contents of a vial as she went. A second later, she was completely invisible and slipping through the door the guard had left open behind him when he went into the hallway to see what had made the noise. Rune blinked again, dumbfounded. She was either running another job while she was in the palace or she was going after his gear. He wasn’t sure which was a worse idea. The chest containing his things was tucked in a corner of the barracks, and when he had been marched through there earlier, there was far too much light to make a clean lift. She was going to get herself caught and then they’d both be forced to wait out their sentences—if she was lucky. They might just kill her for trespassing on the Palace of Kings.

Anxiously, he counted the seconds she was gone and strained his ears to catch even the slightest hint of a struggle elsewhere in the castle. But it was silent. Eerily silent. After the on-duty guard finished taking his sweet time thoroughly investigating the rock Tyv had thrown, he came back into the dungeon, confused, but unable to find anything suspicious, chalking the misplaced stone up to the constant state of disrepair the palace existed in. He returned to his seat, closing the door behind him. Rune’s heart sunk when he heard the groan of the hinges as the bars slammed into place. Even if Tyv was successful in getting his gear, she’d have to get back through the gate and he doubted the guard would fall for the same rock twice. Just as he was mulling that unfortunate reality over, she suddenly materialized just outside his cell, her arms laden with his things.

He inhaled sharply, almost forgetting himself he was so glad to see her. Silently, she set his things on the ground and produced her own lockpicks to set to work on his cell door. Before she could even touch the lock, however, a commotion broke out in the barracks. Both thieves froze and Rune could just make out the fear in Tyv’s eyes. Had she left some mark of her presence behind when she retrieved his things? Quickly, she stowed away her lockpicks and scooped up Rune’s gear from the floor. Rushing to the corner of the room, she hid his things behind a couple bales of hay stacked in the corner and then downed a second invisibility potion just in time to narrowly avoid being spotted by the handful of soldiers that entered the dungeon with a new prisoner.

“What’s this?” the on-duty guard asked, eyeing the beaten man barely standing upright between the three Stormcloaks.

“Imperial scout,” answered the tallest of the soldiers and he tossed their prisoner forward onto the ground, “The Jarl and his housecarl are coming to question him. Chain him up until they arrive.”

The guard hesitated. “The Jarl is coming personally?” he asked in disbelief.

“Do as you’re told,” snapped the second soldier, a woman with a thick Nordic accent.

Irritated, but wanting no trouble, the guard quickly complied and, with the help of the third soldier, dragged the injured scout to the center of the room where a few metal loops were bolted into the floor. He fetched some chains and soon had the Imperial scout securely restrained. “Keep an eye on him,” the tall soldier warned and then he nodded to his comrades, “We have to return to patrol.” And then they left. The guard returned to duty a little more alert than he had been previously. He did another room check and Rune pretended to be asleep. When he returned to his seat by the door, all his attention was focused on the soldier chained in the center of the room.

A few painful heartbeats later, Tyv reappeared at Rune’s cell again and started in on the lock. It didn’t take long before he was a free man and was gleefully slipping out into the darkness to join her. She jerked her head toward the sewer entrance she had used earlier and the pair of them crept toward it, careful to avoid the lone guard’s detection. Once they reached the manhole, Rune helped her to silently remove the grate and realized some of the bars were movable and had been shifted to form a very welcome Shadowmark: escape route.

The way out now open before them, Tyv motioned for him to go first. Impressively, she helped to lower him down, proving herself far stronger than he would have guessed or she even looked. He landed in the bottom of the sewer with a little splash, the sound of which was thankfully swallowed by the echo of the tunnel. Looking up, he saw Tyv disappear briefly as she fetched his gear and then she was back, dropping the overstuffed bag down the shaft to him. He caught it and set it on a nearby platform where Tyv had left most of her weapons since they were too bulky to allow her to fit through the narrow manhole without making too much noise.

Returning his attention upward, he expected to see her climbing down next, but he didn’t. Instead, he saw the soft orange glow of a torch as someone drew nearer. He held his breath, but the on-duty guard appeared at the edge of the sewer entrance with a torch in his hand, peering down in disbelief. Before he could call for reinforcements, however, Tyv attacked him from behind, choking him with one arm while covering his mouth and nose with the other hand. After a few moments of struggle, the guard passed out and the torch dropped down the manhole from his limp grip, extinguishing in the two or three inches of ice water at the bottom of the tunnel.

Tyv tossed him sideways, haphazard, away from the sewer. “Hurry up,” Rune hissed, deciding that it was relatively safe to vocalize now that the immediate threat was unconscious, but Tyv didn’t scurry down the shaft as he had expected. Instead, he heard the rattle of chains and his face went white. “Nonononononononononono!” he muttered, pulling himself halfway up the manhole to stop her from doing something stupid. But it was too late.

Anja wasn’t sure exactly what it was about the injured Imperial scout that reminded her of Thornir. They didn’t share any particular resemblance. They weren’t even the same age—well, they might have been if Thornir had survived—but the scout was a full-grown man and Anja’s twin had been scarcely out of boyhood when he died. Seventeen. Thinking of him brought an unpleasant mixture of feelings to the surface that Anja didn’t have the time or inclination to deal with, so she buried it all back down where it belonged—with the exception of one persistent urge to save the poor soldier from imminent torture and imprisonment, or possible execution.

It was beyond bad business. Rescue mission in and of themselves weren’t profitable practices. Dangerous, difficult, and far too much opportunity for things to go sideways. Hence why the Guild in Skyrim didn’t condone them. The general rule was that, at the end of the day, all a thief had was her own skill. So they provided things like escape routes to tempt that desperate focus, that eleventh hour luck, to produce results. Earn your freedom, as it were. It was bad enough that she had decided to stick to the rule of her old Guild and gone after Rune—something she was firmly not regretting—but to make a move on the soldier? She was just asking for trouble at that point.

So of course, trouble answered.

The guard by the door picked up on her movements when she drew closer to the soldier. He hadn’t outright saw her, but his eyes had detected movement in the shadows. With the new, high-priority prisoner housed in his dungeon, he wasn’t about to dismiss it as a trick of the light. He had to be sure. So he took the torch off the wall above his head and went to investigate.

Anja barely had time to hide behind the hay bales before the treacherous glow of the fire exposed her. It wasn’t the best hiding place; if the guard gave a more thorough search, he’d easily find her. But it didn’t matter. She just needed to stay out of sight long enough to get the drop on him. There was no other option. He had made himself an obstacle between her and her freedom. So she waited, listening to his footsteps and watching the shadows change on the wall as the torch drew closer to the sewer grate.

Letting him discover the Guild’s escape route wasn’t ideal. Half its usefulness came from the general ignorance of its existence, but she hadn’t had the chance to put the grate back in place and she was all out of invisibility potions. It was a game of cat and mouse now, and cowering behind the hay bales in the corner of a dungeon didn’t make her feel particularly in control. But she waited and prepared one of her potions for use, dumping its contents directly onto her glove; as soon as the guard made it to the manhole, she made her move. Slipping out soundlessly from behind the bales, she sneaked up behind him, snaked one arm around his throat, and pressed the other hand flush against his mouth and nose, suffocating him with the fumes soaked into her glove. She hadn’t had a rag and had left her cloak down in the sewer with her weapons because she didn’t like loose clothing when on a job. Too many things to catch it on—or be caught by it. Her leather glove soaked enough of the potion up to do the job, only now she had to be careful not to accidentally inhale the fumes herself until she was free to clean it later.

The guard rendered unconscious, she tipped him sideways away from the manhole and returned her attention to the soldier behind her who was now struggling to hold himself upright and staring directly at her—or as near to it as he could in the darkened prison. He didn’t see her right away, but as he squinted into the darkness, he could just make out the faint outline of her body in the shadows. The tension in his posture did not dissipate; he didn’t know who or what she was, if she was friend or foe or hallucination. Anja reached inside her hood and adjusted the golden cuff on her right ear. A gift from a Khajiit, Dro’kodesh, she used to run with back in the Imperial City. Best damn friend and thief she had ever had the pleasure of knowing. Taught her everything she knew. He was the father she wished she’d had in Remus: patient, kind, and proud of her. The jewelry was a gift to mark the day she had learned all he had to teach her. “You are skilled like Khajiit Shadow Prowler now,” he had said, “But for one thing…” The ear cuff granted Night-Eye.

Rubbing the little sapphire embedded in the precious metal allowed her to control when she wanted to use it. Abruptly, the enchantment took effect and her eyes caught every last stray beam of light from the hallway, bringing the features of the dungeon into focus, chased in white-blue luminescence. Once her vision adjusted, she focused on the injured soldier who was peering wildly through the gloom. His breathing was ragged and labored and he clutched at his ribs when he inhaled too sharply. She wondered in what kind of condition he was; if escape was possible for him. In the brief moment he had been visible in the light when the soldiers first brought him into the dungeon, he had not looked well. Bloodied, broken, half-conscious.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said softly, loud enough for him to hear her, but soft enough to avoid drawing attention from the barracks upstairs.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Keep your voice down,” she hissed and then she silently approached.

“What do you want?” he asked, trying to pin down where he had heard the voice come from. “Answer me!”

When she was close enough to touch him, the tips of her gloved fingers brushed against his forearm, startling him. He jumped, his head jerking up and his arms pulling against his body to withdraw from the unexpected contact. The chains groaned in response and Anja gripped his wrists tightly to keep him pulling further away. “I’m going to get you out of here, but I can’t do that if you don’t play nice, love,” she soothed, “We’ve got company coming any minute now and I’d like to be gone before they arrive, wouldn’t you?”

The soldier eased a little bit. “Aye,” he agreed.

“Good. Now hold still,” she ordered and then set to work on the locks securing him to the floor.

“M-my name is Hadvar,” he said after a long pause during which he listened to the soft clink of her lockpick.

“Call me Tyv.”

Hadvar made a face. “That sounds familiar,” he breathed and he tried to work out why, “Who sent you?”

“I sent me,” she answered.

“Robbing Ulfric blind, were you?”

Anja rolled her eyes. Damn Nord pride. “So much disapproval from someone who needs rescuing,” she pointed out, tugging the last lock loose.

“To each his own,” Hadvar replied by way of apology as he rubbed his sore wrists. He tried to stand the instant he was free, but wavered dangerously. Anja was under his arm in a heartbeat, steadying him. “Steady on,” she warned, “You’re in no fit state.”

“Company’s coming, remember?”

“Then we better drink all the good stuff before they get here. Open up.”

He hesitated, but, deciding it would make absolutely no sense to poison him after going through the trouble of setting him free, he complied and Anja dumped the contents of a healing potion into his mouth. Recognizing the sweet flavor and thick consistency, Hadvar swallowed hard and took several deep breaths now that his ribs were newly healed. “Thank you,” he breathed.

Before Anja could respond, Rune’s head popped out of the manhole. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

“Who’s that?” Hadvar demanded, his body prepared to bolt. Though where he would go was a mystery.

Anja made a noise of disgust. “My associate,” she muttered and then led him toward the sewer grate, “Now be quiet, the both of you.”

“We don’t have time for this!” Rune insisted.

“Too late. It’s already happening.” But no sooner did the words pass her lips did she hear commotion in the barracks again. “Shite, the Jarl is coming!” She half dragged Hadvar to the manhole and shoved him down on top of Rune.

“Wait!” Hadvar objected, “I was carrying a message! We have to get it back!”

“There’s no time!” Anja hissed trying to push him down the shaft.

“It’s a matter of life and death!” Hadvar insisted, “Please!”

“GO!” she snarled and Hadvar finally relented, but by the time there was enough room for her to get down the manhole after them, it was too late.

“Why are the torches out?” demanded a harsh voice, “Where is the guard?”

“I don’t know, captain…” And there was scrambling to produce fresh torches with which to light the dungeon.

Verging on panic, Anja grabbed the grate and slid it into place. “Follow the marks!” she hissed and then quickly straightened the movable bars, locking the grate back into place, “I’ll catch up to you!” The faint sound of splashing footsteps told her they were heeding her words.

“What’s that?” the captain called through the bars into the dungeon, “Who’s there?”

Mentally groaning to herself, Anja selected another potion from her belt. As soon as the gate was unlocked and the men stepped into the dungeon with new torches, she charged them and smashed the vial onto the stone floor. Plumes of choking gas curled upward, stinging the eyes and noses of the guards. They sputtered, one of them even dropping his torch as she sprinted through them. The captain was the only one who noticed her running passed and he tried to grab for her, but she was too quick. Coughing, he stumbled into the hallway after her, trying to clear his lungs as he went.

The barracks were half empty from a changing of the guard. Luckily. She managed to debilitate those that remained with her last smoke bomb. From there it was a straight shot into the main hall. Not the most ideal of places to be when attempting to escape. Too big. Too open. Too full of guards. But the narrow passageway gave her little choice. She ran full speed at the door leading to main hall, putting all her weight behind it as she barreled through, just in case there was someone on the other side. At least she’d have a chance to stun them. And it was a good thing she did.

The door flew open, striking an older man wearing Stormcloak armor in the face, breaking his nose. He had been reaching for the handle at the time so a couple of his fingers were also fractured in the process. He stumbled back, his hands reaching upward, and Anja thought he would be too incapacitated by his nose to worry about her. But she was wrong. He wasn’t reaching for his face. He was reaching for his battleaxe.

Anja was no longer operating on coherent thought, just a jumble of instincts strung together to form vague commands for her body to follow. She punched his already broken nose before he could draw his weapon, blurring his vision and distracting him long enough for her to knee him in the groin. The poor man doubled over and she ran just as the guards at the door gave chase. She didn’t get halfway across the main hall before another man appeared; he was dressed in fine, noble clothing and furs and carried himself with the bearing of a king. Undoubtedly, he was Jarl Ulfric. And the second he saw her, he drew his weapon. “Bar the doors!” he commanded the pursuing guards, calling them off Anja and back to their posts. He was going to take care of the sneak-thief himself.

The only thing Anja could think to do was move north. Earlier, when she was making her way through the sewer to the dungeon, she had seen a northern outlet to the sea, overlooking the bay behind the Palace of Kings. She could use it to regain access to the sewer and regroup with Rune and Hadvar. Hopefully. With a bit of luck. So, she sprinted toward the northeast corner of the main hall, with Ulfric hot on her heels, and barreled through the door there, praying to Nocturnal that it was not a broom closet.

Blessedly, it was not.

It opened into another hallway, far more open with vaulting ceilings unlike the guards’ barracks. There were fewer sentinels on patrol in this section of the palace which was both advantageous and disconcerting. On the one hand, it was easier for Anja to get around them, partly because Ulfric kept ordering them to block the way behind them to cut off her exit should she try to double back. But it also signaled to Anja that the Jarl knew of no viable escape ahead of them, no doors or windows leading to freedom. He was cornering her. If she couldn’t make it to the outlet, he was likely going to catch her.

A string of creative profanity zipped through her head as she pushed through the last door and found herself in a large, open solarium. If she could have spared the time to be surprised, she would have blinked owlishly at the massive empty space. All the planters arranged through the room were full of hard, frozen earth, but nothing grew in them except a few heartier specimens that tended to be difficult to kill in general. Creep cluster, some graying moss, and tufts of mountain flowers. Light from the brilliant auroras in the night sky danced through the massive glass windows, casting a dreamlike quality over everything. The room opened onto a large, wide balcony that overlooked the northern bay. The sewer had to be somewhere below it. She ran through the narrow walkways between them, but it appeared her luck had finally run out.

Ulfric gained on her and managed to grab the back of her belt, yanking her backwards. “Got you, little fox,” he growled, wrapping his arms tightly around her to restrain her flailing limbs as she tried to fight him. “I was going to kill you for breaking into my home,” he continued, “First, I want to know why you came. Who sent you?”

“Let go of me,” she snapped, aiming for an accent that was somewhere in the region of Breton, but she wasn’t quite on point, “Let go of me and I’ll tell you.”

“Was it Tullius?” he demanded, ignoring her attempt to barter even a little freedom, “Has he finally lost all honor and sent an assassin?”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“No? Elenwen then?” he growled, “She likes to play games.” Abruptly, he spun her around to face him, ripped back her hood, and pulled down the scarf covering the lower half of her face. His brow furrowed as his dark green eyes poured over her features. “You’re just a child,” he muttered and his grip softened. Not enough for her to get away, but enough to ease the harshness.

Anja had never felt so exposed in her entire life. Without something to obstruct her face, she felt practically naked. “Let go,” she insisted half-heartedly, fully expecting him to ignore her.

“Why are you here?” he asked, his voice firm, but less demanding than before.

“Let me go and I’ll tell you,” she offered again.

For a moment, Ulfric looked like he was considering it, but then the sound of reinforcements echoed down the hall, claiming both his and Anja’s attention. He saw fear blossom in her eyes and she tried to squirm away from him again. He didn’t let her go. Instead, he rearranged his grip, grabbing her by the elbow and dragging her back toward the door. She fought him every step of the way, pulling, clawing, trying to kick at him, but his clothing was too thick and he was rather spry for an older man. Through the open doorway, she saw the man she had assaulted in the main hall leading a small group of guards toward them. He looked thoroughly murderous, his nose still broken and walking a little funny from the discomfort lingering in his groin. “I’ll take her from here, my Jarl,” he said when he reached them.

Ulfric looked sideways at Anja, thoughtfully. “In due time, old friend,” he said, “But I need a moment alone with the girl, first.” Anja did not like the sound of that.

“But, Ulfric…”

“Wait here, Galmar,” Ulfric insisted, “We won’t be long.” And he closed the door on his housecarl, sliding the lock into place.

Anja trembled, afraid that her beauty had done her a tremendous disservice and piqued the interest of a man who was not accustomed to taking ‘no’ for an answer. Panicking again, her mind ran through a few different ways of disabling a man with his pants down, but before she could move to enact any of them, Ulfric released her. She paused out of surprise and looked up into his face. He wasn’t going to hurt her. At least, not yet and possibly not in the way she feared. “Did Madanach send you?” he asked softly, “You don’t look Forsworn to me.”

Given a second chance to regain control over the situation, Anja assumed her usual cocky grin and the maddening swagger in her hips. If she could keep the Jarl talking long enough to get to the balcony, then there was a chance she could still escape. Maybe. “So many enemies, my Jarl,” she replied, glancing nervously at the door and taking a few steps away from it, “They say that’s the mark of a good king—or a bad one.”

Ulfric matched her movements, never allowing her more than an arm’s reach of distance between them. “And how many enemies does the King in Rags have?” he asked, pointedly.

“At least one.”

The Jarl smirked and took her slow and steady retreat as an effort to put space between herself and his men on the other side. “Don’t have to worry about them,” he said, “Even if I hadn’t locked the door, they won’t come unless called. It’s just you and I.”

“An interrogation then?”

“A conversation.”

Anja scoffed. “Careful, my Jarl. You’ll give a girl the wrong idea.”

Ulfric actually chuckled. “You have nothing to fear of that, either,” he assured, “I just want to know who sent you.”

“And then what?” she asked, slipping out onto the balcony, “How do I know you won’t tip me into the bay when I’ve told you everything?”

He took a few more steps closer, moving into her space. “Then don’t get so close to the edge,” he warned.

Anja trembled. Oh, the Jarl was good, that was for sure. He knew how to maintain control over a conversation—interrogation, whatever. He was trying to unnerve her and knew precisely how. That was her fault; she had made her discomfort known to him when she should have kept calm and aloof. Now he had leverage. She stepped back until the back of her thighs bumped against the cold, stone railing of the balcony, never taking her eyes off Ulfric. “Maybe we can make a deal?” she offered, “One that doesn’t end with me drowning or spending the rest of my days in your dungeon?”

“A steep price for something I am beginning to doubt you possess,” he replied, “I would require a show of good faith.”

“Name it.”

“Give me yours.”

“Tyv.” She could have kicked herself. Of all her aliases, she had to give him the one she was currently using, the one she had already established in Riften. Damn her nervousness.

Ulfric quirked an eyebrow, amused. “‘Thief’ in Atmoran,” he said, “Is that your real name?”

Anja swallowed hard. “The only one my mother gave me, darling,” she answered which was partly true. Freydis had used it as an endearment when she was a little girl. Though her mother would turn in her grave if she had one, to find out Anja took the nickname as one of her many aliases.

The Jarl seemed to find her answer intriguing and his sharp eyes narrowed at her slightly as he approached her. “No one sent you, did they?” he asked.

Fearing she was about to run out of time very quickly, Anja smiled seductively and tried to cling to her rouse. “What? Why would you say that?”

“The King in Rags did not send you; you lack the markings of the Forsworn, and if Madanach was going to have me killed, he’d want me to know he was responsible,” he explained, “And the Thalmor bitch likes to toy with me, but she wouldn’t send someone like you…” Here he paused long enough to cross his arms over his chest and look menacing. “A girl, afraid,” he said, “You’re not heartless enough to be useful to her. Besides, what Thalmor agent would degrade herself by taking a name from ancient Nordic tradition?” He shook his head. “Your mother was a Nord, wasn’t she? Your face is familiar to me. What is your clan name?”

Damnit, ma…It was hard staying anonymous when one bore a striking resemblance to one’s semi-famous mother, but giving Ulfric her real name was far worse than giving her favorite alias. “What about Tullius?” she prodded, trying to change the subject as she glanced nervously over her shoulder, attempting to line herself up with her memory of the northern outlet.

Ulfric smiled humorlessly. “Tullius lacks imagination,” he sniffed, “Too much the soldier to send someone so young and untried in to do a professional’s work.”

“Who says I’m here to kill you?” she asked, “It’s in the name, isn’t it? I’m a thief, not a killer.” And that’s when she noticed it: the cylinder on Ulfric’s belt emblazoned with the seal of the Empire. Hadvar’s message.

The Jarl noticed her eye movement. “Just a thief for hire, working for the Empire?” he sighed, disappointed, “So it is for Tullius that you work.”

Anja shrugged. “Are there not others who would want to know the contents of that message?” she asked.

Ulfric frowned. “Do you even know what you were sent to steal?”

“It doesn’t matter, love,”

“No? I thought you said you weren’t a killer.”

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me…”

“It could contain troop movements, camp locations, orders to withdraw—or attack,” he responded, “My men’s lives hang in the balance and you don’t care what it is you’ve been sent to fetch.”

Hadvar said it was a matter of life and death…“Have you read it?” she asked softly.

“I have.”

“Which makes me…”


“Come now, my Jarl,” she said meekly, “We were having such a lovely conversation. There’s no need to be rude.”

“You have very little to bargain with as it is and my patience is thinning.”

By her calculation, she had absolutely nothing to bargain with, unless the Jarl was, in fact, willing to accept carnal tender. Anja swallowed hard and backed off the railing, taking a hesitant step toward him. Teasing was easy when she was in control of where it would lead, but she wasn’t in control this time. At least not entirely. Speaking with Ulfric was a little like fencing and Anja didn’t feel like she had the upper hand. Hand…that gave her an idea and put the twinkle of confidence back in her eye. “Haven’t you heard that good things come to those who wait?” she simpered.

Ulfric’s eyes narrowed at her, but he appeared unmoved. “You have nothing I want,” he said firmly.

She looked up at him through her lashes. “Are you sure about that, my Jarl?” she asked, sweetly. Regardless of whether or not he was willing to take the bait, she just needed him to let her get close enough to become dangerous. “It seems such a waste to lock away something as pretty as me, doesn’t it?”

Ulfric’s body stiffened, not with arousal, but suspicion. She had been careful to keep as much space between them as possible during their conversation and he had used her discomfort to his advantage, but now she was advancing on him. Was it out of desperation? Or was she playing at something else? Regardless, he was not tempted by her offer—though he was frustratingly curious…“You made your choice.”

She pouted and reached for his face slowly, giving him ample time to examine and reject her movements. When he did not, she drew a little closer, her hand cupping his face, the other pressed against his abdomen where she could quickly grab at the message on his belt if she needed to. Her mouth poised centimeters from his. “And you? What choice will you make now?” she asked, her breath warming his lips.

She felt his hands anchor against her hips and her blue eyes looked up to meet his green ones, but he started to push her away. “You’ll rot in my dungeon, thief,” he declared.

Anja made a sound of disgust. “I was afraid you’d say that,” she growled and before Ulfric could push her more than a couple inches away, one hand darted for the message on his belt. He moved to stop her, but the hand that cupped his face moved to cover his mouth and nose. The fumes she had soaked into it earlier flooded Ulfric’s senses and he staggered sideways. The glove had had some time to air out while she had been running through the palace, but it was still a strong enough dose to disorient him.

Ulfric fell to one knee, his world spinning out beneath him. He didn’t realize he was on the floor until Anja was rolling him over onto his back and peering into his face, smiling. “You’re going to have one Oblivion of a headache later,” she informed him as she plucked the message off his belt and stuffed it into hers, “But I didn’t want to leave without telling you what you wanted to know.” Cheekily, she flung one leg over his waist, straddling him. Vaguely, he tried to grab at her, but she swatted him away and leaned forward, peering into his eyes. “No one sent me,” she said, “I wasn’t here for you or your message or the scout. I’m just a thief looking for something shiny.” She tilted her head slightly. “So, take a nice long look at his face, Ulfric,” she continued, “Because it’s the last you’re going to see it.” And then she planted a long, teasing kiss on his lips before hopping off him. The last Ulfric saw of her before he lost consciousness, she was jumping off the balcony.

Rune didn’t expect to see Tyv ever again, so he was completely dumbfounded when she appeared out of the shadows near the entrance to the Temple of Talos. “I thought you dead!” he exclaimed.

Tyv smirked and pressed a finger to her lips. “We’re not out of danger yet. Keep your voice down,” she reminded him and then she looked to Hadvar. “Had to take this off Ulfric, himself,” she said, handing him the canister containing the message, “Hope it’s worth it.”

Hadvar looked at her in disbelief. “How did you manage that?”

“I’m good at what I do,” she replied simply, trying to act like running mad through the Palace of Kings was not the single most terrifying thing she ever had to do.

“And no one’s following you?” Rune asked incredulously.

She shrugged. “Not at the moment,” she said, “Ulfric was in no condition to follow me once I was through with him.”

“You killed him?” Hadvar asked, his voice unabashedly hopeful.

Tyv raised an eyebrow. “I’m a thief, not an assassin. I saved your ass and got your message back for you,” she replied irritably, “Be happy with that.”

“Of course, thank you,” Hadvar amended, realizing he had yet to thank her for breaking him out of the dungeon, “It’s just—Ulfric’s death would have ended the war.”

“And so would your superior’s, but I won’t be the one to make that decision,” she pointed out, and then she jerked her head for them to follow her up the shaft above their heads. It opened into a small, dark room. Only Tyv, with the use of her ear cuff, moved through the dim with confidence, handing each of the men robes to wear over their armor. They weren’t perfect disguises, but in the dark, they were enough to obscure the bulkier armor beneath. Once they were dressed, Tyv pressed on a wooden panel and slid it back into the wall to reveal the back side of a wardrobe. She cracked the small doors open and peered through. Apparently satisfied there was no one there, she carefully opened the wardrobe the rest of the way and stepped out into the Temple of Talos. She gestured for them to follow her and once all three of them were out in the open, she secured both sides of the wardrobe and made for the door.

The priests were nowhere to be found, but it was late and they were likely already in bed. In the dim light of the candles illuminating the temple, Hadvar could just make out that his newfound allies were dressed as priests and he was wearing some shabby, gray robe. Once they reached the door, Tyv gestured for them to wait while she peeked outside. Quickly, she ducked her head back inside and pressed herself flat against the door. “Streets are crawling with guards,” she whispered, “Stay at my back. Stay down and stay quiet. Don’t fall behind. I’m going to move fast.” Rune and Hadvar both nodded. Tyv took a deep breath and looked outside again. The instant she saw their opportunity, she was out the door with Rune and Hadvar close behind.

Hadvar wasn’t exactly sure how they made it to the safehouse or even where it was located. Tyv had taken every shortcut, roundabout way, and back alley to get them to safety without the guard noticing; he’d completely lost track of where he was. All he knew was that he was relatively safe when Rune pressed on the marking on the wall and the stone moved over wide enough for them to enter. Down another manhole and into the two room safehouse Tyv and Rune had been using before a bizarre chain of events led them to the dungeons of Windhelm.

Once safe inside, Tyv tugged the robe from her body and tossed it into a corner of the room. “Oh,” she sighed, “Here’s your coin back.” She plucked the purse off the nearby counter and tossed it to Rune. “Just didn’t want the guard to get a hold of it.”

Rune stared at her, completely flabbergasted. “You’ve got to be the best damn thief I’ve ever laid eyes on,” he admitted, “And the stupidest.”

Tyv shrugged. “Little bit of both, I think.”

“You’re thieves,” Hadvar said, stating the obvious for clarity’s sake, “With the Guild in Riften?”

Tyv smirked. “If you believe the rumors,” she joked, “Worst kept secret in Riften.”

“And you were in the dungeon to rescue him,” Hadvar continued, pointing at Rune who nodded in confirmation, “So why save me?”

“Yeah, Tyv?” Rune prodded, “Why?”

She looked momentarily uncomfortable, but then shrugged it off with a careless smile and bat of her eyelashes. “Lady’s prerogative,” she answered which caused Rune roll his eyes. He knew he wasn’t going to get a better answer from her.

Hadvar was less content to let it lie. “You risked your and your friend’s lives,” he pressed, “There must be a good reason.”

“Don’t worry about it, sugar,” she replied sharply, but playfully, “Besides, I haven’t gotten you out of the city, yet.”

The soldier nodded, giving up the matter for the moment. “What’s our next move?” he asked.

“For now? Sleep,” Tyv answered, “There’s nothing more we can do tonight, but not get caught. I’ll shake something loose tomorrow. See where that takes us.” It wasn’t the answer Hadvar had been hoping for, but he understood playing it by ear. Rescuing him had never been a part of Tyv’s plan. She’d risked a lot to save him; the least he owed her was a little bit of patience.

Chapter Text

Sonja’s eyes poured over the pages of the spelltome Danica had given her, but her expression was vacant. She merely stared at the words, but did not comprehend their meaning. Her mind was elsewhere, lingering somewhere in the murk of her mixed feelings toward Kodlak’s advice that she forgive Hera. She was a woman of action. Even while studying magic, she had always preferred practice to study; remaining idle when there was something to be done made her fingers itch. It was time to put everything between her and Hera in the past.

Giving up on reading, she snapped the book shut in her hands and tossed it onto the table with a sound of disgust, startling her companions seated around her. They were at one of the tables on the back porch, enjoying the evening air after the feast. The draw of Lydia’s whetstone across her blade stilled as she looked up to see what was frustrating her thane. Faendal merely raised an eyebrow in amusement.

“Trouble?” he asked. He sat across from her, his legs propped up across the table and his journal cracked open against his knee. The look on his face was one of complete and intense focus: brow knit, eyes narrowed, and tongue caught between his teeth as he made short, calculated strokes with his quill on the page.

“You’re always writing in that book of yours,” Sonja commented dryly, “Writing the next Lusty Argonian Maid?”

Faendal laughed as if she had said something much funnier than she realized. “Oh, if you only knew,” he sighed and then he looked over the top of his journal at her, studying her face intently. “Glare at me, would you?” he requested, “I want to get the eyes right.”

Involuntarily, her face twitched to form the desired expression before she even processed what he had asked of her. “Are you drawing me?” she asked, trying to relax her face and rob Faendal of his model.

The Bosmer scoffed at her attempt to make things difficult for him. “Don’t do that,” he advised, “I don’t recognize you without a frown on your face.”

Sonja rolled her eyes, but then obliged, her eyes narrowing at the Bosmer. “I’ll burn your little diary if there’s anything unsavory in there about me,” she warned.

“Not the best motivation to share my work with you,” he observed, but he wasn’t the least bit worried; Sonja grunted her agreement, but didn’t pursue the conversation further. She didn’t care one way or the other if Faendal was amusing himself with little doodles of her, naughty or otherwise—mostly because it was more likely that the elf was drawing nudes of Camilla than of her. That thought, alone, was almost enough to shake her out of her anxious mood with laughter. “Septim for your thoughts?” Faendal asked abruptly and Sonja realized she must have drifted into contemplative silence.


Faendal nodded and set his quill beside the inkpot by his knee. “You won the prøve,” he pointed out, “What else is there to say to her?”

“Provoking her any further will only make things worse,” Lydia agreed, “The Harbinger advised you go your separate ways.”

“Or not,” Sonja added, but she nodded, “I know.”

“You’re going to speak with her anyway,” Faendal stated.

“I’m going to speak with her anyway,” she confirmed.

“Lead the way,” both her friends said in unison as they set aside their respective tasks.

Sonja shook her head, but smiled slightly, in spite of herself. “I don’t need either of you following me around, let alone both,” she insisted, but their irritated glares wordlessly communicated that going to the home of the aunt she had defeated and humiliated publicly only hours before, alone, was firmly not an option. “Fine. Lydia, come with me.” Faendal feigned insult. “She has an oath that binds her to me. It’s easier to get rid of you.”

“As you say,” he waved her off, “You know where to find me.” The Dragonborn nodded and grunted, throwing herself from her seat and stalking off into the night with Lydia on her heels.

After a moment of hesitation, Vilkas knocked on the door of Kodlak’s quarters and waited for an invitation to enter. When it did not come, he thought that perhaps he was mistaken in thinking the Harbinger was inside and turned to leave when he heard muffled movements. Staggered. Disoriented. Unsteady. If he didn’t know better, he’d think a thief had braved the depths of Jorrvaskr, but even if there was such a fool alive in all of Tamriel, he wouldn’t be living for much longer. Kodlak was aged, not crippled. The Harbinger was still in good fighting condition, still strong and quick; he would have easily dispatched an intruder. But Vilkas hadn’t scented an unknown presence.

Now concerned, Vilkas opened the door without permission and barged into Kodlak’s quarters prepared for a fist fight since he was not wearing his armor or carrying his weapon. But there was no one in the first room. He closed and locked the door behind him, just in case there was an intruder; it might slow them down. Then he stalked to the door to the Harbinger’s bedroom and whipped it open to find a truly heartrending sight.

Kodlak was on the other side of the bed, fallen to one knee, clutching at his head in great pain, and using the footboard for support. Behind him, the carpet was bunched up to one side, revealing a trapdoor to a hidden room below. Vilkas had never been down there, but he knew what the room must be: the archives. Centuries of passed Harbinger wisdom contained in diaries, journals, and documents all stored safely beneath the current Harbinger’s chambers. It was how Kodlak was conducting his research into the Blood. He must have just come up from there when whatever kind of attack was plaguing him now had seized him.

It had been a long time since Vilkas last felt panic. He’d been a boy, he was sure of it, probably after committing some pint-sized sin like breaking one of Tilma’s vases or knocking over a rack of weapons in the training yard. But the fear that seized him when he saw his Harbinger on the floor was unlike any other he’d ever felt. It was the urgent and demanding race of adrenaline through an adult mind that was already thinking of a dozen different explanations for what happened and options to move forward. Without hesitation, he closed the distance between him and Kodlak in two bounding steps. “Harbinger,” he said, his voice strained with worry, “Can you stand?”

Kodlak made a little, semi-irritated grunt of pain and made an attempt to stand, only to waver dangerously. Vilkas threw Kodlak’s arm over his shoulder to steady him. The Harbinger fought him a little, but not enough to deter Vilkas as he heaved Kodlak upright and steered him to lay across his bed. “To a chair, boy,” the Harbinger growled, “I’m not dying.”

Vilkas wanted to argue, but if Kodlak didn’t want to lay down, he was sure to make the process difficult. Grudgingly, the younger Companion relented and shifted their course to the nearest chair by a small table in the corner of the bedroom. Once seated, Kodlak leaned back heavily against the backrest and tilted his head back until it rested against the stone behind him. His tight expression loosened and he breathed easier, no longer in pain. “What happened?” Vilkas asked, kneeling beside the chair, “Should I fetch Danica?”

Kodlak smiled humorlessly. “She will only confirm what I already know,” he replied dryly, “I am sick and it is killing me.”

Vilkas’ brow furrowed. “You can’t be sick,” he insisted, “The Blood protects us from disease!”

Most diseases,” Kodlak corrected and then he sat up to look Vilkas in his worried gaze, “But even a beast grows old and his body breaks down. And I haven’t been feeding mine.”

“I don’t understand,” Vilkas said, confused, “Are you losing the strength of the Wolf? How long have you been sick? How have we not smelled it on you?”

“So many questions,” he said tiredly, but there was fondness too and he placed a heavy hand on Vilkas’ shoulder, “But the simple answer is: I don’t know, son. Not yet. I search for the answer in the archives and in the words of my predecessors. Perhaps they can shed some light on my—situation.”

Vilkas was not satisfied and his expression clearly showed it. “Then I will help you,” he stated, firmly, “You will not have to search alone.”

Kodlak considered denying the younger Companion on the grounds that it was his burden to bear alone—his body that was failing, his soul that needed cleansing. But it wasn’t. Not anymore. When he had informed the Circle of his findings and Vilkas and Farkas agreed to give up the Transformations with him, it had become a burden for them all. And if he wanted to wipe the stain of the Blood clean from Jorrvaskr for future generations of Companions to come, then he could not afford to walk alone, not with his health failing steadily and threatening that goal. “Alright, lad,” he relented, “But fetch Tilma first before we begin. She brews a draught that eases the ache in my head.”

“As you say, Harbinger,” Vilkas agreed, relieved Kodlak agreed to let him help. He rose from the floor and turned to leave and find Tilma, but lingered by the door. “You should still see Danica,” he said, turning to look at the Harbinger again, “She can do more for you than merely confirming you are ill.”

“I do not want the others to know,” Kodlak stated firmly, “We live in a Wolves’ den, son. The scent of blood will drive them wild.”

“You mean Skjor and Aela,” Vilkas guessed, “They would not dare.”

“My age and my health are grounds enough for Skjor to lay challenge to my leadership,” Kodlak replied, “He is my Second and it is his duty to guide the Companions should I fall in battle or grow too feeble to lead any further. If he thinks it in Jorrvaskr’s best interests, he will declare a prøve and in my weakened state, I could not tell you how I would fair against the strength of his well-fed Wolf.”

Vilkas pursed his lips. As much as the very idea of it made him sick, he would not fault Skjor for taking action against Kodlak should it ever come to it. Any good Second would do the same. "If you are too sick, perhaps it is best that Skjor take over..." he began carefully, not wanting to insult Kodlak.

The Harbinger chuckled wryly. "And let the beast out of its cage?" he asked, "Now is not the time for Skjor to lead. Not yet. He's too clouded by the Blood."

Vilkas couldn't disagree. “If I could bring you aide without the others knowing, would you accept it?” he asked softly.

Kodlak smiled, exhausted, and nodded. “Aye, lad, if you can find some way to smuggle the priestess into Jorrvaskr without anyone catching scent of her, I would gladly accept her help.” Vilkas nodded and finally left the room to seek out Tilma. He didn’t think he could successfully sneak in Danica without alerting the others, but he didn’t need to. He had someone else in mind.

Picking out the Ironheart family home was not a difficult task. Their seal was carved into the front door like all the other old families of Whiterun, but the old home was a little larger than the others and surrounded by a thick and fruitful garden of varying alchemical ingredients. Little lanterns lined the walkways through the garden and around the house, casting a warm glow over the plants and the face of the dwelling. In the twining light of evening, Sonja strode up to the heavy oak door without hesitation and pounded on the wood with her fist. “Are you sure about this?” Lydia asked when there was no answer after a few long moments.

“It must be done,” Sonja insisted, knocking again, but then she glanced sideways at her housecarl, “There are things I need to know. Things I need to ask her. And then we can put all this behind us and never speak again if we don’t want to.”

Lydia nodded. “I follow your lead, Ironheart,” she said in support. And then the door opened.

But it was neither Hera nor her housecarl who had answered the door. Much to Sonja’s surprise, it was Hulda and the innkeep looked thoroughly flustered. Her hair was a little mussed and her apron was covered in blood. What was more, she looked none too pleased to see Sonja standing on the stoop. “How dare you show your face here after what you’ve done!” she demanded hotly.

Sonja blinked slowly. “After what I’ve done?” she repeated, “I’ve come to see Hera…”

“To humiliate her further?” Hulda demanded, “I think not! Off with you!”

“Damnit woman, I told you not to fret!” Hera’s voice called beyond the door, irritably. Seconds later, she was visible in the doorway and trying to shoo Hulda away.

“You’re supposed to be resting!” Hulda insisted, putting her hands on her hips defiantly, “Where’s Rengier?”

“I sent him to fetch more potions like you wanted,” Hera reminded her dubiously, “Now let me handle this.”

Hulda’s eyes narrowed and it was clear that she was considering refusing to cooperate before she gave a curt nod and gave the door up to Hera. The older Companion sighed, half relief, half fondness, before turning her attention to Sonja and Lydia. “What do you want?” she asked, gruffly.

Sonja looked her over, briefly. Hera had not seen a healer since their fight earlier. She was still bruised, bloodied, and broken. Hulda must have been attending to her injuries before Sonja and Lydia arrived since some of the deeper cuts had been neatly stitched shut and bandaged and her broken arm had been splinted. Sonja had long since healed her own injuries and wondered if perhaps it was a matter of pride or fear of magic that prevented Hera from seeking proper healing attention. Her appraisal complete, she raised a bottle of whiskey she had purchased from Belethor’s before coming over. “I came to talk,” she said, “And drink if you have a mind to.”

Hera pursed her lips and reached for the bottle, examining its label with narrowed eyes. “At least you brought the good stuff,” she stated curtly and then she jerked her head over her shoulder, “Come in.”

Stepping passed Hera, Sonja entered her mother’s family home for the first time. It was built in the traditional Nord fashion: large, spacious and yet, somehow still cluttered with furniture, books, and the odds and ends of everyday life—mostly weapons and clothes. Hera was a bit of a slob, it seemed. But the house was warm and welcoming. Lived-in. Familial. It was a surreal experience to stand in the den of the house where her mother was born and grew up. Freydis once ran through those halls, barefoot, as a child. She laughed and cried and fought with her siblings in those rooms. Became a woman. Became a warrior. For a brief moment, Sonja was overwhelmed by the golden glow of the firelight on the hearth and the ghosts it concealed. She didn’t immediately respond to Hera until she had said her name for the third time. “Sonja?” Her voice was steel: cold and hard and sharp. But not unfriendly. It was just her way.

“Kodlak thinks I should forgive you,” she blurted out, shaking the dregs of her mother’s life from her mind and turning to face her aunt.

Hera raised an eyebrow and handed the bottle of liquor to Hulda to pour for them all. “And what do you think?” she asked.

Sonja shrugged. “That there are more important things to waste my time on than harboring a grudge against my kin,” she replied, “It’s exhausting hating you.”

“So you agree with the old man?”

“Aye, but convincing my heart to do the same is another matter.”

Hera scoffed and grabbed a leather pouch off a nearby table before she seated herself beside the fire in one of two large, highbacked, and fur-covered chairs. “I understand the struggle well,” she said, nodding to the matching seat across from her, offering it to Sonja, “Every letter from Freydis started it anew.”

Sonja stiffly walked across the room and seated herself across from Hera. Lydia followed her, standing tall and strong beside her chair, in full housecarl mode. “I don’t want anything from you,” she said, sternly.

“Nor I from you.”

“But some answers,” she added.

Hera looked slightly pained by the prospect, but nodded. “A price I am willing to pay,” she confirmed.

“Ma’s letters probably told you everything, but if there was anything else you wanted to know…” Sonja swallowed hard, “I will answer you.”

The older woman studied her niece’s face intently. She was right, of course, Freydis’ letters had been very detailed, but it was one thing to read about the events of her sister’s life; it was something else entirely to have been there to live it with her. And that was something Hera could not ask of Sonja, to detail the minutia of Freydis’ life in Cyrodiil. She had no right to it. Every letter that went unanswered was another opportunity forfeited. She did not deserve it. “Thank you,” she said softly, “I will keep that in mind.”

“And I don’t think we owe each other anything, but honesty,” Sonja continued.

“Seems fair enough to me.” Hera sighed, opening the leather pouch on her lap with one hand and removing her pipe from inside. Hulda returned with a tray full of drinks; she set the ones for Hera and Sonja on the small tables beside their chairs and offered one to Lydia who politely declined. Taking one for herself, the innkeep set the tray aside and scooted a chair from the dining table to sit beside Hera who was attempting to load the bowl of her ivory pipe with tobacco with one hand and making a poor go of it. Without waiting for the Companion to ask for help, Hulda set her drink aside and reached across her lover’s lap, plucking the pipe and tobacco from her grasp and packing it for her. Hera thought to stop her, but thought better of it. The way she had been going at it, half the tobacco would have been wasted on the floor before she properly loaded the damn thing. “So where do we begin then?” she asked as Hulda handed her pipe back to her.

Sonja licked her lips pensively. “Who was my mother here in Skyrim?” she asked, “She never spoke of her life before meeting my father.”

Hera frowned, her pipe stuck between her teeth as she lit it with a small fire spell dancing off the tip of her finger. “Such a wide question,” she said, “Where do I begin?” She took a long drag off her pipe. “Owain wanted a son to spread the influence of our family across Skyrim. Had his sights set on a jarlship, I think. Always said the Ironhearts were destined for greatness. But what he got, instead, was five daughters and one stillborn boy,” she said, exhaling and watching the smoke drift into the rafters, “Blamed ma for that, he did. Accused her of brewing potions to turn his sons to daughters in the womb.” She scoffed. “I think part of him actually believed it.”

“Foolish old man,” Hulda breathed with disdain.

“Was Owain—was he cruel?” Sonja asked hesitantly.

“In his own way, he could be. Just like anybody else. But he never laid a hand against his wife or children,” she answered, “He just didn’t know how to raise girls and he’d come from a family that didn’t think much of women. We couldn’t carry his name on through marriage, so the line of Ironhearts would end with us. He hated that. Thought he’d been cheated out of his destiny.” Hera struggled to make the switch, but managed to hold her pipe between the fingers of her broken arm long enough to take a sip of her whiskey. “He thought to marry us off well when we were old enough,” she continued, “Said it was the only thing left to do with a bunch of girls. I think he took his first mistress not long after the youngest, Rota, was born. Still determined to get a son.”

“Foolish old man, indeed,” Sonja echoed Hulda’s sentiment.

“Aye, but when you’re a child, ma and da are never wrong.”

“But you and my mother are feared and respected warriors.”

Hera chuckled. “Because when you’re a young lass, ma and da are never right,” she replied, “Freydis and I were always in a dozen kinds of trouble together. We were the eldest and had to try our hands at everything first. She was a lot like you in some ways. Stubborn and strong. But she burned hot like that sister of yours. Such a temper. And she didn’t like anyone putting limits on her future, least of all our father.”

“So you joined the Companions?”

“Eventually,” Hera nodded, “We didn’t know how to fight because da refused to teach us. Didn’t want us scarring up our pretty faces and ruining our marriage prospects, I suppose. But Olfrid Battle-Born was sweet on your mother. This was before his parents arranged his marriage to Bergritte. One kiss from Freydis was enough to convince him that he should train us both and once we were good enough, we went to Jorrvaskr. Kodlak was not yet Harbinger then, but he was a member of the Circle and tested us both at Askar’s bidding. We were eighteen and seventeen then, I think. You should have seen Freydis fight to join—it was like she was fighting for her very life. And maybe we were. Da retired from the Companions the next day, refusing to call his daughters Shield-Sisters.”

Hera looked pained by this and took a long drag of her pipe again. “He threw us out of the house after that and forbade our younger sisters to ever speak with us again.” She paused, tapping her pipe against her teeth. “That was what hurt Freydis the most. Not that our father had tossed us out, but that he’d divided us all. Ingrid and Rota were too young and too timid to refuse him. Brynhilde was the only one who gave argument. Ysmir’s beard, she was only thirteen then. Spitfire that one—but ma begged her to be silent, lest she lose another daughter. We lived in Jorrvaskr for years after that.”

Sonja sat quietly for a moment, watching Hera’s expression as the older woman was momentarily lost in a wave of memory. It made a lot more sense why Hera had been so unforgiving when Freydis left for Cyrodiil. The two sisters had only each other for a long time after their father cast them from the house; Hera must have felt abandoned. “Ma never told us about any of this,” she said, drawing Hera’s attention, “She never mentioned her parents or her sisters and Kodlak didn’t tell me Owain had left so disgracefully.”

Hera shrugged. “Why would Freydis want to share her pain with her children?” she asked, “It doesn’t surprise me she said nothing of us. And as far as the Companions are concerned, Owain did not leave in disgrace. He simply retired after many long years of honorable service to Jorrvaskr. He was not a member of the Circle, so his leaving upset no balance. And Kodlak would never speak ill of the dead or bring up the sordid business of others; it’s not his place. He has more love and respect for Freydis—and for me—to do such a thing.”

“I’m almost sorry to make you bring it all up again,” Sonja said and she was surprised at how much she meant it.

The older warrior waved her off. “It was a long time ago,” she insisted, “I’ve made my peace with da since or he wouldn’t have left me this house when he died, now would he?” She smiled sourly. “But to answer your question about Freydis before Cyrodiil—she was the Killing Frost. We lived and breathed the fight. Took job after job. Killed anything Askar pointed us at. Your mother earned her name fighting a half dozen cave bears west of Winterhold. She was half dead when I found her, freezing to death and covered in their blood.” Hera actually laughed out loud. “I’ll never forget what she said to me when I dug her frozen ass out of the snow. ‘Get me a stiff drink, wench, there’s no time for fires to thaw these bones. I think I saw another cave back there.’”

Sonja chuckled. “That was ma, alright,” she confirmed, “Some things never change.”

Hera shook her head. “No, Freydis was like the mountains,” she agreed, “Nothing but an act of nature or the hands of Divines themselves could ever change her.” She paused, considering her next words carefully. “Was she—happy in Cyrodiil?” she asked, “In her letters, she always said she was, and make no mistake, she loved the lot of you dearly, but…”

“I think she missed the fight,” Sonja answered, “Missed you. You wouldn’t ever know it just looking at her, always so full of purpose and fight, but at night, when she told us stories of the Frozen North where she was born—I could hear it in her voice.”

“She used to sing songs of winter by the fire since we were little girls,” Hera said, “I never understood why she ran to a place without snow.”

“We lived in Bruma for a little while when I was very young, during the Great War,” Sonja said, “But when the war ended and ma was expecting the twins, da wanted to return to the Imperial City and help rebuild. Ma said she missed the cold.”

Hera nodded, looking a little sad, and cleared her throat. “There are some things I have for you,” she said, “Her inheritance from our father when he died. He was much changed in his final days and wanted to make amends with those of his children that he still could.”

It occurred to Sonja then that Hera had not even written to her mother to tell her when their parents had died, or that they had left anything to her. It almost sparked her anger anew just thinking of it. “Couldn’t bother to send word of Owain’s changed heart, either?” she asked sharply.

The old warrior frowned and sucked air sharply through her teeth. “What do you want from me, girl?” she snapped, “I cannot undo the past. I robbed Freydis of a great many things by not answering when she called. I was stubborn and a fool, but it does not fill my silence with the words she deserved.”

“Why didn’t you answer her? Really?”

There were a hundred excuses Hera could offer up to answer Sonja’s question and she’d given a few already, but it wasn’t the truth, wasn’t the heart and soul of her pain. No, the reality of it was far more complex than she could rightly give voice to and involved so many pieces of other stories and secrets that were not hers to tell. She doubted she would ever be able to make Sonja understand, even if she could tell her everything, simply because Sonja had not lived through it herself to fully comprehend the depth of it all. But, perhaps it was worth it to try. “I joined the Circle when I was twenty-nine,” she explained carefully, “A year before your mother went off to join the Great War. I’m sure they’ve told you that the Companions are above the politics of nations, that they do not take sides. A whole band of skilled warriors unwilling to fight wars. It didn’t sit right with Freydis. She was always looking for the good fight. An honorable fight and if it couldn’t be had against the Thalmor, then there was no such thing to be had.”

“You resented her for joining the Legion?”

“No,” Hera shook her head, “I resented her for staying. Every Shield-Sibling that died in her absence was just another she could have helped me save. For leaving me behind…”…to mourn the death of my lover alone…to struggle with the Wolf without her…

“Hera…” Hulda warned softly, afraid her lover was about to fly off the handle.

“For leaving our sisters behind!” Hera continued, ignoring Hulda’s stern, pleading looks, “She wasn’t here when Rota discovered da’s mistress and their son. She wasn’t here when Brynhilde died on a job for the Companions. She wasn’t here when Ingrid went missing or when Rota married a jarl. For every birth of her children I missed, she missed of our baby sister’s. I had to take care of our ailing parents, alone, and burn them on the pyre with only Rota at my side.”

“You could have told her!” Sonja spat, “She would have come had she knew!”

“Do you know your mother so well that you can be so certain?” Hera asked, “If she wanted to come back, she would have. If she wanted to know about our sisters or our parents, she would have asked after them. But she didn’t. Freydis always did exactly as she pleased. Those letters were not for me; they were to ease her own guilt over abandoning us. And for what? To live her life as some Imperial’s wife, work at a forge, and raise three babes? She was the Killing Frost of Jorrvaskr! As fierce and unrelenting as the icy winds of Skyrim itself and she melted away in the hot grip of some man, some soldier she had the misfortune of sharing a tent with! She deserved more and she let it slip away!”

“This was a mistake,” Sonja snarled, standing from her seat and heading for the door, her whole body shaking with rage over Hera’s words.

“It’s the truth and it’s ugly, but you said I owed you honesty,” Hera called after her, “You want to know your mother? She was wild and stupid and mad, but she was the best damn woman I have ever known and she as good as cut out my heart when she left me to rot without her. And you, Sonja Ironheart, are easily the best and worst mistake she has ever made. Like it or not, we are all each other has left of her. Walk out that door if you must, but it will no sooner put me behind you than winning the prøve did.”

Sonja hesitated by the door, her fingers poised on the latch. “I don’t forgive you,” she said at length, turning to face Hera again.

“I don’t expect you to.”

“But it’s exhausting hating you.”

Hera sighed. “There is nothing I can tell you that will make this simple,” she said, “My fault? Freydis’ fault? Does it even matter anymore? She is dead and I am still here answering to her daughter who I should have held in my arms at her birth. Assign blame as you wish, I cannot stop you, but it cannot change the things we did—or didn’t do.”

“It’s heavy, this life of hers,” Sonja said, recalling the words she had once spoken to Faendal. She had felt like she would be crushed beneath it then, and now was no different. If what Hera had said was true—and she had no reason to suspect she was lying—then she could take comfort knowing that the greatest difference between herself and her mother was that, despite all the heartache and pain piled between Anja and herself, Sonja went after her sister. So maybe Kodlak had misspoken when he asked if she was strong enough to walk in her mother’s footsteps. The more important question was: Was she strong enough to walk where Freydis could not?

Abruptly, Sonja walked back to the fire and looked down at Hera. “There is nothing I can say to you that hasn’t already crossed your mind,” she said, “And I didn’t come here to throw more insults or scream at you for turning your back on us. I came here because I wanted to know my mother, wanted to understand what drove her to leave Skyrim—why she never told us about her family here. And now I know. So speak no more of her and the hole she left behind. She is no longer here. I am. And, as a friend of mine once put it, I do not run from my problems; I chase after them. Whatever broken pieces ma left behind, I will mend. I don’t have to like you to share blood with you or honor our family name. I will accept what being an Ironheart in Skyrim means whether your like it or not.” Here she paused long enough to hold out her hand for Hera to shake. “I call you kin; do you accept me?”

Hera looked up at the younger woman and smirked, a twinkle of mirth in her eye. What Sonja offered was obligation, not warmth or love or forgiveness. She was agreeing to do right by the Ironheart name, regardless of how she personally felt toward Hera and, frankly, it was far more than the older warrior had expected. “Aye, Dragonborn,” she agreed, shaking Sonja’s hand, “How could I refuse?”

“Good,” Sonja nodded, “Now let me tend to your injuries. You look ridiculous. Like an old dog feeling sorry for itself.”

Hera raised an eyebrow. “I’ve lived through worse.”

“I don’t care.” Grudgingly and at Hulda’s urging, Hera relented and allowed Sonja to cast her magic. In moments, Hera’s injuries were mended seamlessly. The broken arm smarted a bit, though, since Sonja had to remove the splint and adjust the setting before healing it. She was not gentle. “Still pretty pissed off at you,” she reminded Hera when she let out a low growl in complaint.

Rengeir returned just as Sonja finished healing Hera and set the healing potions he had been sent for on the desk now that they were no longer needed. “Fetch Freydis’ trunk from upstairs,” Hera ordered him, “Sonja will be taking it with her.”

“Yes, my thane,” he grunted and then he disappeared upstairs.

Hera turned her attention back to Sonja. “As kin, you are always welcome in this house,” she said, “There is plenty of room for you and your housecarl should you tire of Jorrvaskr’s barracks.”

“Better not to spend more time with you than I have to, Hera,” Sonja replied dryly, “And I happen to like the barracks.”

“As you say,” Hera agreed, “But I had to offer.”

“I understand.” Moments later, Rengeir returned, struggling with the weight of the heavy trunk until Lydia went to help him with it. When they managed the last of the stairs and set the trunk at Sonja’s feet, she looked down at it curiously. The heavy lid had the Ironheart crest carved into it and polished until it was almost shining. “What did Owain leave her?” she asked, looking to Hera, delaying the moment she had to open the chest and accept its contents a little longer.

Hera drained the last of her whiskey and puffed on her pipe. “See for yourself,” she said, gesturing to Hulda for a refill. With a deep breath, Sonja knelt before the trunk and pushed the lid back on its creaking hinges, peering inside.

Sonja walked back to Jorrvaskr numbly, sharing the weight of the trunk with Lydia. There was far more inside it than she had been ready for. A healthy sum of gold, she had been prepared for. A bit of jewelry. A sword. Some family heirloom. Sure. But not an entire house. According to Owain’s will, he wanted nothing more than for the return of his honored daughter, Freydis, and he wanted to leave her a living should she come back to Skyrim. So, he’d purchased a vacant home in the Plains District: Breezehome.

Humble, but separate from the Ironheart house so she would be free to live her life and grow her family as she saw fit. In addition to this extravagant bequeathment, he had also left her a small fortune to start her new life. There was also the deed to a parcel of land outside the city walls beside the Pelagia farm that had been left to all his living daughters and their heirs. Hera and Rota had already built a small farmhouse on it long ago and hired someone to tend the land. The successful little farm turned out enough profit for a comfortable living for a small family.

Amongst the stack of documents listing Sonja’s new holdings, were the traditional bits of jewelry and heirlooms she had been expecting. Most of it had been things Freydis had left behind: some clothes, a matching sword to the moonstone Skyforge dagger Sonja already had in her possession, and a few books on history and combat tactics. There were a few odds and ends from her grandmother, Maev as well. The apparent alchemist in the family, Maev had left behind things mostly to do with alchemy that Sonja had already resigned herself to give to Anja when she found her. But it had all been a bit much and Sonja was happy to leave when the time came.

Lydia said nothing as they walked back to Jorrvaskr, painfully aware there was nothing she could say, but Sonja was glad for the silence. When they reached the mead hall, they walked around to the back to see if Faendal was still there. He was not, but Sonja insisted they set the trunk down on the porch anyway. “You should get some sleep,” she said to Lydia, “It’s late. I think I’ll stay up a while longer yet.”

Lydia looked to the chest and then back to her thane. “Are you certain?” she asked.

Sonja nodded. “Positive.”

The housecarl was reluctant, but eventually relented, respecting Sonja’s desire to be alone for a while and went into Jorrvaskr to sleep. Sonja dragged a chair over to the trunk and plopped down in it, propping her legs over the lid and staring into the night sky, pensively. When it grew colder, she popped the chest open and found one of her mother’s old coats. She swaddled herself in it, pulling up the fur hood to protect herself from the chill, but still did not go inside. Everything felt like it still belonged to Freydis. Even Jorrvaskr. And she needed some time to dissolve the memory of her, to exercise the ghost of her presence from the same halls she now walked and slept in, the same yard she trained and bled in. The simple truth was Sonja was not used to following anyone’s path but her own and knowing how closely she toed the line her mother walked before her made her feel uneasy.

Absently, she began to hum to herself and it took her a few moments before she realized what song it was she was singing. A lullaby that Freydis used to sing to her children. Sonja’s favorite. Suantraí. A pretty little Breton song Freydis had learned from a friend during the Great War. She hadn’t the voice her mother had, or Anja for that matter, but she could carry a tune well enough and the lower timbre of her voice was warmer than the lilting beauty of her sister’s.

Seothó seothú ló

Seothó seothú ló

Seothú ló

Seothú ló…”

Instantly, wave upon wave of memories from her childhood washed over her as she remembered all the little moments Freydis was much softer than anyone but her children had ever known her to be. Every hug, every kiss, every gentle motherly caress. Every lullaby.

Mo ghaol, mo ghrá ‘gus m’eandúil thú

Mo stoirín úr is m’fhéirín thú

Mo mhacán álainn scéimheach thú

Chan fiú mé féin bheith ‘d dháil…”

She wondered how much more she didn’t know about her mother and what dark surprises that ignorance might spring on her in the future. But even for all the inconvenience and trepidation not knowing had already caused her, Sonja didn’t resent Freydis for her silence and mystery, or even the long shadow she cast across Skyrim. The woman who had raised her loved her and her siblings unconditionally. Sonja had had a happy and healthy childhood, and Freydis had raised her well, regardless of all the secrets she had kept from her children.

And in the end, it wasn’t any of Sonja’s business, anyway. Freydis wasn’t just her infallible mother, she was a woman, too. Mortal and frail and capable of grievous mistakes. Capable of breaking the hearts of her loved ones. The woman Sonja knew didn’t have to be incompatible with the one Hera loved. Only Sonja’s childlike refusal to acknowledge her mother’s mortality, her flaws, tied the knot of pain in her gut when she heard Hera say those unflattering things about her. And who could blame her? Does not every child think the world of their parents at some point? Freydis was deeper and more complex than Sonja would ever know and there was nothing wrong with that.

Seothó seothú ló

Seothó seothú ló

Seothú ló

Seothú ló.”

Sonja concluded the lullaby, took a deep breath, and let her mother go with both hands.

Chapter Text

Despite her own advice that Hadvar and Rune rest, Anja could find no sleep for herself that night. She was too nervous. Too convinced that the city guards were going to break into the safehouse at any moment and kill them all. Too afraid she had done a very stupid thing in pissing off a jarl. She sighed and rubbed her face before pouring herself another drink from the bottle of liquor she had found stashed in one of the cabinets. The men were asleep in the next room while she was busy enjoying her misery in private by candlelight. She suspected it would be dawn soon.

Breathing deeply, she lulled her head backwards, her eyes closed. When she was a child and afraid of simpler, sillier things, her mother used to take her in her lap, run her fingers through her hair, and sing to her. Different songs, every time. But she had a favorite. It was Thornir’s favorite, too. Softly, she hummed it to herself, but then the gentle, wordless notes evolved into the lyrics that hours before and not half a country away, her older sister had sung into the stillness of the night:

Seothó seothú ló

Seothó seothú ló

Seothú ló

Seothú ló…”

Frustratingly, it did not have the same effect that it did when her mother sang it, but it was comforting, in its own way, and reminded her of summer nights when Freydis let her children chase torchbugs in the Arboritum.

Mo ghaol, mo ghrá ‘gus m’eandúil thú

Mo stoirín úr is m’fhéirín thú

Mo mhacán álainn scéimheach thú

Chan fiú mé féin bheith ‘d dháil…”

She heard the floorboards creek in the next room and her eyes snapped open to see Hadvar filling up the doorway, staring at her. She sat up, clearing her throat, and turned in her chair far enough to face him, resting her chin on the backrest as she looked up at him through her lashes. “Did I disturb you?” she asked.

“No—I just…” he shifted awkwardly, “You have a lovely voice.”

“Thank you.”

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he continued, “Please, finish the song.”

Anja looked at him, her expression unreadable as she considered his request. She liked singing for an audience, but there were some songs that were more private than others. “Not much left to it, actually,” she answered at length, “Just a lullaby.”

“I’d like to hear it.”

She chewed on the tip of her tongue indecisively for a moment before making up her mind. It was just the nonsense bit of the verse, anyway. Moistening her lips, she obliged Hadvar’s request.

Seothó seothú ló

Seothó seothú ló

Seothú ló

Seothú ló.”

While she sang, the soldier came around to the other side of the table and sat across from her, listening to the pleasant timbre of her voice. When she concluded the song, she raised her cup to him. “Cheers,” she said and drank down the contents in one gulp.

“That was beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

You’re beautiful.”

She snorted. “You always come on this strong?”

He smiled; he had only meant it as a compliment and harbored no designs on his pretty rescuer that she did not invite, herself. “Just stating the obvious, Tyv,” he assured, “Nothing to worry about from me.” She hummed her disbelief and poured another drink. “They say it’s not good to drink alone,” he added, watching her.

Anja tweaked her eyebrows in amusement. “Then grab a cup and pour yourself an early breakfast, friend,” she invited, “I’m not stopping you.”

He went to the cabinet for another mug and rejoined her at the table, pouring himself a drink and refreshing hers. They spent a couple of moments in contemplative silence, Anja’s mind returning to her many anxieties and Hadvar to the importance of his mission. “Thank you for rescuing me,” he said suddenly, startling Anja from her thoughts.

“You thanked me once already,” she waved him off, “That’s enough.”

“I should have thanked you sooner,” he insisted, “I did not mean to appear ungrateful. You gave me back my life.”

She looked at him sideways, studying his face. He was handsome, she supposed, in a harmless sort of way. Good, strong features and kind eyes. He just seemed so out of place as a Legionnaire. “What happened to you?” she asked, “How did Ulfric’s men get a hold of you?”

Hadvar’s brow furrowed and he looked a little guilty. “I’m not sure I should tell you,” he admitted.

She considered his response. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” she offered, “You want to know why I risked my neck for you? I’ll tell you. Honest.”

His expression softened as he looked her over. “You start first,” he insisted, playfully, “I have state secrets to protect.”

Anja snorted, but nodded. “Fine,” she relented, “I’m trusting you’re a man of your word.” Mostly because he had a face that could hide little. If ever there was someone she could read with her eyes closed, it was the soldier sitting across the table from her. Then she grew pensive and reluctant for a moment. “Because I have a soft spot for Legionnaires,” she said at length.

The words she spoke aloud weren’t very informative, but her pained expression and the waver in her voice spoke volumes. “You lost someone,” he said softly and she nodded, “Who?”

“My brother,” she answered. She felt a little odd being so honest with a complete stranger, but that was half the appeal. Knowing she was likely never going to see him again after they parted ways made it easier to say things she hadn’t spoken of in years.

“What was his name?”

She hesitated and cast a glance back into the other room where Rune was still sleeping soundly. “Thornir. My twin. He was the better half of the two of us.” She smiled sourly. “You’d have liked him,” she joked, “He was a good soldier. Honest, brave, dedicated. Everything I’m not.”

“I like you plenty as you are,” Hadvar assured, but he smiled sadly. “Sounds like he was a good man.”

“He died a boy. Not yet twenty.”

“I’m—I’m sorry to hear that,” he said lamely, unsure of what else he could offer.

She waved him off. “It was a long time ago,” she insisted, but thinking of him always dug up fresh pain anew.

Hadvar touched her hand comfortingly. Such a simple gesture of support freely given from a man who was raised not to fear the goodness in himself or others. If there was comfort he could give, then he should give it. If there was encouragement he could offer, he should offer it. He had been taught to be generous with himself and to accept generosity in return. “If he died serving the Legion—why do you not support our cause?” he asked carefully, trying to find how deep the wound went, but his words were clumsy and he knew before she even responded that he had misspoken.

“Because choosing a side was precisely what got him killed,” she replied, pursing her lips.

“Your choice or his?”


“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“But you did. And now your choice has hurt us both.”

He watched her as she fought the tears beginning to well in her eyes and scooted his chair closer to hers, taking both her hands in his tentatively, waiting for her to withdraw from his touch in a fury. But she didn’t seem angry or cocky or mischievous. She just seemed sad. “What do you need?” he asked, thinking maybe she’d like another drink, want to be left alone, or held until the morning; those were things he could do for the woman who had saved his life.

But she looked at him, blue eyes shining with tears in the candlelight. “Make the pain go away,” she said, thickly, the tone in her voice revealing a hurt so deep and poignant it stood in stark contrast with the confident swagger he had observed in her earlier. She was at once shockingly vulnerable and bold in her request that Hadvar felt powerless before her.

“I can do that,” he whispered as he leaned in to kiss her. She accepted his advance and kissed him back with an urgency that reassured him he had clearly understood what she was asking of him. Then he picked her up from her chair, her legs wrapping around him as she continued to hungrily kiss at his mouth as if she was gasping for oxygen—as if she was drowning beneath the weight of her grief—and took her to the bed in the corner of the room. There he kissed her tears away one by one until her heartbreaking sobs were replaced with little gasps of pleasure.

“I was at Helgen when it was attacked,” Hadvar said as he tenderly stroked Anja’s side from hip to shoulder, “One of the few, lucky bastards to get out of there alive.” He was holding up his end of the deal they had struck and telling her how he had wound up in Ulfric’s dungeon.

Anja was lazy with contentment and feeling much better than she had before Hadvar had taken her to bed. Sometimes it helped just to feel another person. To remind herself that she wasn’t alone. Perhaps not the healthiest of ways to deal with grief, but Anja had a habit of being all business and no pleasure. Focusing so hard on surviving that she forgot to live. Sometimes it was necessary to throw caution to the wind and take a page out of Sonja’s book: not everything had to have a commitment attached to it. Besides, Hadvar seemed no worse for wear. In fact, he’d probably be ready for another go if she asked it of him, but only if she asked and that’s what she like about him. He didn’t make her feel guilty for using his body for a bit of comfort.

And she liked the way his voice rumbled in his chest when he spoke to her, his tone pitched low so they didn’t wake Rune with their conversation—if he was still asleep after their tumble in the sheets. Anja had done her best to stay quiet while Hadvar made it a personal mission to make her shriek with pleasure. A happy medium had been the result. Lazily, she lifted her head from his shoulder and looked up at him. “What?” she asked, realizing she had not actually been listening to him.

Hadvar wasn’t mad. In fact, he found it kind of funny and preferred the distracted smile on her face to the tears from earlier. “I said I was at Helgen when it was attacked,” he repeated, “I was lucky to get out alive.”

Anja’s eyebrows shot up. She’d heard about the mess at Helgen. Rumors anyway. Everyone had. Dragons and hellfire and brimstone. The only thing she knew for certain was that not many had made it out. “Lucky, indeed,” she agreed and then she chuckled, “So, are the rumors true? Did a dragon rain fire from the sky?”

“Yes.” She had been joking, but the hard expression on Hadvar’s face suggested he was not.

She blinked several times in surprise and examined his face for the slightest hint of jest only to find unwavering honesty. “You’re not kidding,” she stated.


“Mara’s bleeding heart, how can that be so?”

Hadvar shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, “I thought maybe it was Ulfric who called for the dragon to free him before execution. He used to be a Greybeard, after all, but then a couple weeks later, something incredible happened.”

Anja was captivated now. “What?”

“The Greybeards called for the Dragonborn.”

Her brow knit and she stared at him, confused. “Called for the Dragonborn?” she repeated.

“You must have heard it! Their Voices shook all of Skyrim!”

Distractedly, she gave a vague nod of her head. She did remember that night. The echo of their call had knocked her clean out of her bed and she had been having the strangest dream. Of Thornir and Sonja and fire and drums. It was the same night Brynjolf and the others had broken into her room at the Bee & Barb and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. “Dovahkiin,” she said softly.

Hadvar nodded. “That’s what they said,” he confirmed, “It’s what they call the Dragonborn, or so I’m told.”

“Dragonborn? Like the old Emperors?” she asked uncertainly. Hadvar nodded again and launched into an animated explanation of the Dragonborn according to Nordic mythology. As he understood it, anyway. How it was different from the Cyrodiilic emperors who had grown soft in the shadow of their mighty name: Septim. It was kind of adorable. “Well, who was it?” she asked, “Who did the Greybeards call for?”

“That’s what I was sent to find out,” he admitted, “My family’s from Riverwood so it was easy for me to poke around Whiterun.”

“Did you see him?” she asked intrigued, “The Dragonborn?”

Hadvar shook his head. “Her,” he corrected, “And no, she stays at Jorrvaskr to train. I am not allowed inside the city because Jarl Balgruuf has declared Whiterun neutral in the Civil War.” He paused. “The message you stole back from Ulfric for me is from an Imperial sympathizer inside the city. I think it contains information on the Dragonborn.”

Think?” she repeated, “You didn’t check?”

“It’s sealed. For General Tullius’ eyes only.”

Anja found his dedication endearing, but had their positions been switched, she’d have read the document in a heartbeat without guilt or regret. In fact, she had half a mind to sneak it back off Hadvar when he wasn’t looking and have a peak at it. Something about the whole situation was nagging at her. Then another, more urgent thought occurred to her. “Ulfric read it,” she informed him.


“When I was talking to him on the balcony…”

“You were talking with him?”

“Trying to distract him long enough to poison him,” she corrected, “He said he’d already read it.”

Hadvar’s face paled. “Then I must get out of the city today,” he insisted, trying to sit up, “If Ulfric already knows something about the Dragonborn that Tullius does not—it could be very bad.”

“Calm down,” she soothed, pulling him back down onto the bed, “It’s still early morning. I’ll leave in a little bit, but you have to stay here.”

“You can’t go alone!” he objected.

“Both your and Rune’s faces are too familiar,” she pointed out, “They’d arrest and haul you off before you made it passed the inn.”

“What about you? Did no one see your face?”

She hesitated. “Ulfric was the only one to see me up close,” she admitted, “His housecarl got a look at me too and three of his guards, but the light was poor.”

“It’s not safe for you either.”

“I doubt the Jarl and his housecarl will be in the market on the lookout for me,” she replied, amused, “In fact, I’d wager Ulfric is still in recovery right now.”

“For what? You never said what you did to him, exactly.”

“Bruised ego and a daedra of a headache.” Hadvar rolled his eyes and tried to get up again, but Anja persuaded him to lay back down with the promise of another heated tumble in the sheets. For pleasure, this time. Not comfort. Volume control be damned.

Rune glared at Tyv once he was certain the coast was clear. The racket she was making with that soldier! It wouldn’t surprise him if the city guard had heard them. But who she took too bed was her business, so long as it didn’t get them all killed in the process. He couldn’t help a bit of ribbing, however, when he saw her humming brightly to herself as she attempted to make an exceedingly hard chunk of bread palatable. “Thought you were all business and no pleasure,” he said pointedly as he leaned against the counter.

She shrugged, unabashed by Rune’s open harassment. “This may come as a shock to you, but I have been known to lie from time to time,” she sniffed, “Just something to keep in mind. We are thieves after all.”

The Imperial thief scoffed. “I don’t know if you’re better at attracting trouble or getting out of it, but you have your work cut out for you today,” he said, “How we going to get out of town?”

Tyv sucked her tongue through her teeth thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” she admitted, “I have a few ideas. It all depends on how recognizable my face is and what I can turn up on the docks.”

Rune’s brow furrowed. “What can I do to help?” he asked.

Surreptitiously, she glanced over her shoulder in Hadvar’s direction where he sat at the table picking at his own unsatisfying breakfast of molded cheese and hard bread. “Keep an eye on him,” she muttered, “He’s the sort to play hero and if I take too long, I suspect he’ll have a mind to follow me.”

“And whose fault is that?” Rune pointed out.

Tyv smirked. “What can I say? I’m good at a great many things.”

“Well, what do you want me to do when he wants to go chasing after that cute arse of yours?”

She shrugged. “I don’t care. Hit him over the head, tie him up, knock him out. Whatever you have to, short of killing him,” she whispered, “His lovely mug hits the streets and we’re all dead.”

“Understood,” Rune assured, but he was not looking forward to it if it came to it. Hadvar was quite a bit larger than he was and he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be successful in restraining him.

“Right,” she said brightly and then turned to Hadvar, “Off with your armor, love! We need all the coin we can get and that Imperial red, although striking on you, is as good as wearing a sign around your neck that says, ‘‘Ey Stormcloaks! Fuck you!’ No matter we get you passed the guards, everyone else will see it and know what you are.”

Hadvar looked at her as if she’d just brutally stomped his puppy to death. “But—my superiors will be upset I lost my uniform…” he began.

“At least you’ll be alive long enough for them to be upset with you,” Tyv insisted, “Now strip.”

Reluctantly, he relented and slowly handed off the pieces of his armor to Tyv who stuffed them in a bag. Rune fetched him something reasonably warm to wear from the wardrobe of spare outfits in the next room. “Bit moth bitten, but it’ll do,” he said, handing the garb to Hadvar who grunted in thanks. Then he turned to Tyv. “You sure about this?” he asked as she carefully arranged her clothing over the daggers she had concealed beneath her skirts. Beyond that, she was unarmed, but she dressed warmly to cover the bulk of her basic leathers beneath.

She smiled reassuringly at Rune as she slung the bag over her shoulder and pulled the fur-lined hood up over her blonde curls. “Of course,” she winked, “What could go wrong?”

She hadn’t taken two steps out the door before something went wrong. The entrance to the safehouse was tucked in the courtyard across from the home of a Guild associate. The wooden gates kept entry and exit relatively safe from prying eyes—of course, the unintended side effect was that it was also a prime place to hide from the wind. Unimportant, in and of itself—unless you happened to be an orphan looking for a safe place to sleep for the night.

The young girl scampered back from the wall she had been huddled against for shelter as soon as she felt it move, fear clearly etched across her face. Anja froze as soon as she laid eyes on the girl and for a horrifyingly indecisive moment, they simply stared at one another. But the shock of seeing a stranger walk out of a wall quickly wore off and Anja could just feel the beginnings of a scream form in her young, terrified throat.

Swiftly, Anja shirked her pack and lunged at the child, wrapping her up in her arms and covering her mouth before she could scream. She pulled the girl back against the wall, away from the gate, and hit the marking to close the entrance with her shoulder. The poor, frightened child fought her, clawing at her hands and kicking, flailing. Anja leaned down as close as she was able to the girl’s ear without making her face accessible to her nails. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she soothed, “But I need you to calm down, alright?”

The child was obviously not convinced and continued to kick and stomp and scratch. “Oh, for the love of Mara, girl be still!” Still no luck, then Anja noticed the girl’s little basket. It had been kicked to the corner in their struggle and broken, its contents spilled onto the snow. Flowers of every color, soaked through from the slush on the ground, ruined, and a little coin purse that couldn’t contain more than a few septims at a time. “Listen, if you behave, I’ll buy all your pretty flowers twice over, alright?” she hissed, “A new basket too. Maybe a sweetroll from the inn if you’re very good.”

The promise of food instantly stilled the girl’s movements. “I’m going to let go now,” Anja said slowly, “I’ll keep my word if you keep yours, alright?”

Carefully, she eased her grip on the child and the girl shot from her grasp as quick as lightning, hurrying to put space between them, but she didn’t leave the courtyard and she didn’t call for help. “You mean what you said about the sweetroll?” the girl asked, worrying her little frozen fingers in front of her, clearly worried that Anja’s promise was too good to be true.

“I’ll buy you a whole damn meal if you want, girl,” Anja assured, “Sweetroll’s just dessert.”

The girl looked her over dubiously, still afraid, but far too tempted by the offer of food to do anything stupid. Anja’s heart broke for the little orphan. By the look of her, the child hadn’t eaten in some time. She was thin and pale and dirty. Her little cheeks sunken; her dark hair matted and dull; her crimson dress torn and inadequate protection from the cold; some of her exposed skin on her boney ankles and quivering fingers looked a bit frostbitten, but her eyes were still bright and sharp and critical. She had that lean, hungry look Anja knew too well in the faces of the orphans she used to run with on the Waterfront when she was a child herself. But at least they had the general protection of the Guild protecting them. This girl had nothing but her own young mind and animal instinct to keep her out of harm’s way, and Divines help her, she couldn’t be more than ten or eleven years old.

“What’s your name?” Anja asked and the girl’s eyes shot up suspiciously.

“I don’t have a name,” she lied.

“No?” Anja smirked, “Smart girl. Names only make it easier for others to track you down when you don’t want them to.” She kneeled to the girl’s eye level. “Don’t tell me your name; it’s better that way. I’ll call you—Kit, instead.” One of her favorite aliases on loan. “You like that?” The girl considered it a moment and then gave one curt nod. “Good.” She held out her hand for the girl to shake, but the newly christened Kit jumped at the sudden movement. “You can call me Tyv.”

Kit eyed Anja’s hand suspiciously before risking a handshake. “Are you in trouble?” she asked.

Anja chuckled. “Clever girl, indeed,” she sighed, “Yes. A little bit. You going to turn me in?”

“There a reward?”

She had not been expecting that response. “Probably,” she answered truthfully, “I haven’t checked.” Kit grew silent again, considering her options. “Alright, so here’s the thing, little Kit. You can turn me into the guards if you like and they may give you the reward, but they might not—you are just a kid after all. And you can take that gold and try to hang onto it as long as you can before some thug takes it from you or some merchant swindles it out of your pocket. Again, darling, because you’re a child.” Kit looked crestfallen, the reality of Anja’s words sinking heavily onto her young heart. “Or—you could do a little business with me that will put a little coin in your pocket and food in your belly. You might even learn a few things along the way.”

“How do I know you won’t cheat me, too?” Kit asked, still not completely sold on Anja’s proposal. A giant bag of gold still sounded better.

“Because I don’t have a choice if I want your help, now do I?” Anja pointed out, “I’ll throw in some new clothes too if you agree in the next five…four…three…two…o…”

“I’ll do it!” Kit exclaimed, a little breathless.

“Good,” Anja reclaimed her bag from the snow and shouldered it, “Now, what I need you to do is…”

“Pay me for the flowers first.”

Anja blinked. This kid was harder to negotiate with than Belethor when she tried to get him to drop the price on a copy of Guide to Markarth down a couple coins. “Fine. How much?” she asked.


“You’re having me on.”

“You said, ‘twice over.’”

“Noctural’s tits, what did I get myself into?” She reached for her coin purse and counted out the proper amount, dropping each septim into Kit’s hands a piece at a time so she could confirm the amount. The expense of the girl was coming out of her own pocket, but she was reasonably sure she could get the three of them out of town on Rune’s money and whatever she fetched for Hadvar’s things—maybe. Once Kit had gleefully wrapped her prize in a corner of her dress that she tore off and tied shut, Anja continued. “Go out into the street and see if the guard is passing,” she instructed, “If it’s clear, knock on the gate and we’ll head to Sadri’s first, got it?”

“Got it,” Kit nodded and then disappeared onto the street. A few moments later, she knocked on the gate and Anja took a chance on the girl’s reliability and left the safety of the courtyard.

Turned out, Kit had a knack for Anja’s kind of work which didn’t surprise her. Children often proved more useful than some adults. They were small, easily overlooked, and largely ignored by most of the populace. With no real comprehension of the consequences of failure, they turned everything into a game. No fear, no nerves, no screw ups. And Kit had particularly light fingers.

Her first grab was out of Sadri’s after Anja had paid for all new clothes for Kit—since children’s clothing proved to alarmingly cheap—and a couple other odd and ends. Somewhere between when she had been trying on a little fur-lined hat and fastening her new woolen cloak, she had snatched an Amulet of Dibella off the counter. It wasn’t until they were back out on the street and halfway to the nearest Thieves’ cache where Anja hoped to find a few resources that Kit made her new partner aware of her prize.

There were about a hundred reasons why a child stealing an Amulet of Dibella was just plain wrong, but Anja was too impressed to care. Besides, Kit hadn’t even realized what she’d taken, only that it was shiny. For the time being, Anja let her hold onto it until she had a use for the trinket’s Divine powers of persuasion. At the Thieves’ cache, they were lucky and found a little pouch of gems and a couple of potions at the bottom of one of the barrels near the exit to the docks.

Their next stop was the docks themselves, but Kit was considerably less enthusiastic about going anywhere near Argonians. “They’re scary,” she whispered as they walked down the stairs, the cold saltwater air stinging their faces, “They look like they’ll eat me.”

“Nonsense,” Anja scoffed, “You’re too skinny.”

“Then they’ll eat you.”

Anja stopped short. “Did you just call me fat?” she asked, disbelieving. Kit’s response was to shrug. “Ysgramor’s balls, you’re a mouthy little one, aren’t you?” But that was possibly Anja’s favorite thing about the girl.

When they made it down to the docks, Anja hung back, by the edge of the stairs and watched the workers move about, trying to pick which one would be the most amenable to a bribe. All of them were Argonian. The Nords on the docks either owned and sailed the ships or employed the Argonians. Anja frowned. Her Ta’agra was much better than her Jel. She’d known quite a few of the honorable Saxhleel throughout her life, but found learning their language to be quite the challenge. The words, themselves, weren’t any harder to memorize than Ta’agra or Dunmeris; it was their meanings that eluded her. Flexible and shifting like smoke, Jel required a shift in the speaker’s very perception of reality to make any sense. It relied heavily on context provided not only by the situation, but visual and gestural cues—mostly grunts, hisses, and clicks that Anja’s soft throat simply didn’t have the ability to make and facial expressions she could neither mimic nor interpret. But she spoke a bastardization of it that might be enough to flatter the overworked and underappreciated Argonians.

Here goes nothing…She approached the nearest Argonian as he unloaded the last crate from the boat at the end of the dock. He paused to take a break before continuing his work. “Hist bless you, Saxhleel,” Anja said, spreading her hand wide, palm up, and lifting it a few inches in a gesture of offering, “I wish to speak with your Pakseech.”

The Argonian looked up in surprise—or, at least, she thought he did. The physiology of Argonian faces sometimes made it difficult to read some of their facial expressions, but he seemed jarred to hear some of his native tongue, even if it was from the mouth of a Soft-Skin. But he was cautious. “Shatter-Shield doesn’t come to the docks until midday,” he said, “You might find him in the market, spending the coin he should be paying us.”

“I’m not looking for your employer,” Anja asserted, “I want to speak to the Pakseech of the Assemblage.”

He looked at her thoughtfully—maybe. “You’ll only find lukiul here, Nordling,” he grunted disdainfully, “We are long separated from the sweetness of the Hist.” He paused. “I am Scouts-Many-Marshes,” he answered at length, making the same gesture of greeting Anja had earlier, “If it’s a Pakseech you want, I’m the best you’ll get.”

“I am Tyv,” Anja replied, relieved the Argonian was willing to speak with her, “But you can call me Nhakik.”

Scouts-Many-Marshes smiled, but it looked more like a grimace to Anja. “Finding a naktis in this frozen land is unexpected,” he said.

“I’m not from around here, as you might have guessed.”

“What do you need from me, Wanderer?”

“Shatter-Shield might monopolize all shipping out of Windhelm now that Ulfric’s on the outs with the Empire,” she said, “But you and yours are the real power on these docks. Nothing gets in or out that doesn’t pass through your hands first.”

“You have a wide view of things. What do you want from me?”

“Two things.”

“Name them.”

“I need passage to Solitude. Cheap, fast, and no questions asked. And for you to leave one of those little boats over there unattended this afternoon.”

Scouts hissed with laughter. “Xhuth, Land-Strider, is that all?” he scoffed, “Are you sure you don’t want us to pluck out the sahtee from the night sky while we’re at it? Or lay the xal-Hist at your feet?”

“Come, I thought we were naktis!”

“A friend wouldn’t ask this of me,” Scouts objected, “I can’t give you a boat. Shatter-Shield will make boots of my hide and a belt of my guts if we lose a ship.”

Anja sighed. “Not a ship,” she corrected, “Just that little dingy over there at the end. And you’ll get it back. We won’t be going far. Just across the bay.”

He looked over her shoulder at Kit who did her best not to make eye contact. “I know a smuggler when I see one,” he said, “What are you moving?”

“A friend wouldn’t ask this of me,” she replied softly, but then smiled, “No questions asked, remember? It’s better you don’t know.”

Scouts scratched his scales roughly with a clawed hand. “Gort is the man to speak to if you want to get to Solitude straight from here,” he said, “Small vessel so customs doesn’t hassle him too much. It’s not like he can sneak an entire Imperial battalion onboard.”

“What can he sneak?”

“Usually? Small things. Gems, gold, enchanted gear. Items that can be liquidated quickly. Small item transport.”

“And people?”

“He’s been known to ferry a few here and there,” Scouts confirmed, “But he won’t take kindly to harboring fugitives.”

Anja smirked. “Not a fugitive, just an—escort,” she assured, “He makes sure the goods get into the right hands.”

“If you say so.”

“And the other matter?”

Scouts hesitated. “I can leave a raft at the end of the pier for you, but that’s it and it will cost you.”

“How much?”

“Make me an offer.”

“I’m running a little light on coin at the moment, naktis,” she confessed, fishing out three gems from the pouch she pulled out of the Thieves cache, “Will this do?” Three shining flawless amethysts sparkled in her hand.

Wenjin,” Scouts muttered, dazzled by Anja’s tempting offer, “Generous for a raft. I accept, naktis.”

“Good.” Carefully, she dumped the gems into his scaly hand and then pressed her hand against his shoulder. “If all goes well, may I call on you again, Scouts-Many-Marshes?” she asked, “I could use a contact on the docks.”

Scouts returned the gesture. “You are far more generous than Shatter-Shield,” he said, “I wouldn’t be opposed to doing business with you in the future. If all goes well.”

She smirked. “Hist guide you, naktis,” she said, “Until we meet again.”

“May the earth beneath your feet always be soft, Nhakik,” he answered and then he nodded to a lone Nord sitting at the end of the nearest pier, “That’s Gort.”

Anja nodded her thanks and then made her way to Gort. Before reaching him, she elbowed Kit softly. “Let me have that necklace you found,” she whispered.

“Why?” Kit demanded.

Anja rolled her eyes. “I’ll give it back,” she promised, “I just need to borrow it awhile.” Kit frowned, grumbling, but then grudgingly handed the stolen Amulet of Dibella over. Anja quickly put it on and then sauntered over to Gort.

Hadvar was getting restless. Tyv had been gone a long time and he was beginning to worry that she had been caught. For all he knew, she was already dead, run through by some swine Stormcloak. Or rotting in the dungeons, awaiting interrogation from Ulfric. She didn’t know anything, but that wouldn’t save her from torture until she could produce the scout she had freed or the message she had stolen or both. And though his concern was primarily for her wellbeing, he couldn’t help but worry for himself and the success of his mission should she give him up. His thoughts chased around his head in circles as the minutes ticked by. He just couldn’t take it anymore.

Abruptly, he stood up and stalked over to the ladder, prepared to go out into the cold stone city and look for her himself when Rune cut him off. “Where you think you’re going?” he asked brightly, nonthreatening, but there was a hard glint in his eye. He wasn’t about to let Hadvar leave.

“She’s been gone too long,” he said, “Aren’t you worried?”

Rune shrugged. “Tyv can take care of herself.”

“She could be dead.”

“You will be dead the second you step out onto the street.”

“I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

“Look, I get it. You like her. She saved your skin and you want to return the favor, but you’re no use to her dead or locked up in the dungeons again,” he pointed out, “I don’t think she’s in any trouble, but if she is, the best thing we can do for her is to stay here until nightfall and then have a poke around, agreed?”

Hadvar’s brow furrowed. He didn’t like Rune nearly as much as Tyv. Where he made exception for her thieving, he extended no such curtesy to her partner. If it had been left up to him, Hadvar would stil