The Smell of Alcohol
A man came to Windhelm and died in the snow. Not just any man. A man who carried Hircine's blood. A wolf. Like you.
As your stomach tightens into a ball a cloak of ice wraps around your body. The cauldrons flames are bright but you feel no heat from them. The woman meets your gaze. She's a hand taller than you, broad shouldered with ice blond hair scrunched into a bun. It's not just this Nord woman who returns your look. You know beyond her lapis eyes Hircine stares back.
You swallow back your fear. Why would Hircine send help? No point asking, you'd get no straight answer. But you're not foolish, you can take a stab at a guess. Hircine's sent help so you'll owe him, you'll be forever indebted to the Prince of the Hunt.
For a moment the woman disappears. When she returns, she is carrying a bundle of clothes which she holds out to you and says, 'these were Torbar's. Smell them.'
Scabs of dry dirt cling to the clothes like barnacles on a boat. Ripped material smattered with blood coloured brown by time. Your nose wrinkles, you can already imagine the stink of body odour and death.
'There is good reason,' the woman says, eyebrow arched and corner of her mouth twitching.
Sweat. Blood. The scent you get when your clothes have been out in the rain and there has been little time to dry them. All the scents you expected from the garments of a man who'd been on the road for a while.
'You see mud so you smell the earth. You see blood so you smell death. Don't see. Smell. Smell past the obvious. Call on the wolf.'
The wolf lurks inside your body, coiled around your bones. If you call on it will you be able to pull it back? Your bottom lip is cracked, you wet it with your tongue. Hunger. You don't feed the wolf so it wants to feast on you.
'For Vilkas,' the woman says.
Vilkas. Vilkas ragged and bruised inside the cell. Vilkas who everyone believes is a murderer. Vilkas who will be executed if you do nothing.
You're breathless. Your heart hammers. A bit of the wolf that's all you need. The wolf yawns, uncurls itself from your heart, creeps as you encourage it close like an old woman beckoning her cat.
Blood. Earth. All these expected smells rise up to greet you. Search beyond the obvious, just like the woman told you.
There's a scent knitted together with all the others; floral and familiar. Alcoholic. You untangle it from the aroma of death. Wine.
'You've found it,' the woman smiles. 'It might mean nothing. It might mean everything.'
The perfumed aroma from the alcohol Torbar consumed lingers in your nostrils, but Nine be damned if you know which spirit it belongs to. What does it matter anyway? All it shows is Torbar had a drink before he died, most likely at Candlehearth Hall. Still, you have nothing else to go on and if you could just retrace his steps, it might lead you to some clues.
Elda peers at you through eye sockets weighted by lack of sleep. 'Make it quick.' She wipes out a cup with a cloth she keeps tucked into her belt.
You order a mug of every alcohol Candlehearth Hall offers, which thankfully for your purse isn't much.
Elda says, 'Don't want much, do you?' After uncorking a bottle she snorts, keeps pouring even when the contents rises, spills over the rim of the mug and saturates the counter. Her eyes never leave yours as she wipes the counter clean. 'Bit early to get drunk. Or are you expecting guests?'
You ignore her questions and instead fire back one of your own. Torbar.
'Rumour has it you're doing some digging into Torbar's death.' Gossip travels fast in Windhelm. Elda looks you up and down. 'He was a stranger to Windhelm, like you, but a true son of Skyrim. Not like some around here. Awful what happened to him.' She looks at the back of her hand and picks at a nail. 'If you ask me, suspect it was one of those Dunmer. Go poke around the Grey Quarter, wager you'd find the real murderer soon enough.'
You ask if Torbar was in the night he died.
'He had one drink, but didn't sup here like he'd done other nights. Looked in good spirits, he was smiling. He came through here and I said, "what's with you? You have a grin on you like a hound who's just found a bone." He said, "Edna, my fortune is about to change." Then left. Next I hear he's dead.'
In the tavern space upstairs you take a table in the corner of the room away from the bustle of the morning kitchen, and the pipe playing bard whose voice this morning sings of the frost capped Velothi mountains glistening in the sun.
When circumstances appear impossible we cling to what hope we can find, regardless how small it is. We gather it to ourselves, press it to our chests and hope it will grow. You look at the drinks with the hope they will tell you something.
It doesn't take you long to sniff each drink and five minutes and one consumed mug of Honningbrew Mead later you're still none the wiser where Torbar went before he died. All you know is none of these alcoholic beverages matches the scent found on Torbar's clothes.
You allow the last golden drop of Honningbrew Mead to melt on your tongue, conclude that in order for Torbar's clothes to stink of this one beverage he must have been drinking a lot of it. The drink isn't available at Candlehearth Hall, so where else had Torbar been drinking?
You rest your head on your hands and the light spilling in from the upper window becomes obscured by a familiar figure.
'Is it not too early to get drunk? I am surprised at you, I expected better.' Elien drags out the chair opposite, its legs grating against the wooden floor, and sits. What's he doing here? You thought he never left his house, and as for entering a tavern - Elien's top lip curls, and he eyes the bard as if she is using her pipes to shoot peas at people. The tavern's response to an Altmer in their territory is mutual. Patrons scowl at Elien, a rat that hasn't stayed hidden like it's supposed to, but none of them can be bothered to deal with it. Or perhaps they're too scared? It's no coincidence none will meet his eyes, you guess his mannerisms are too volatile, too unpredictable for some.
Elien stares at you, golden eyes unblinking, hands splayed in front of him. 'I have spoken to the guards. They have told me the Jarl has allowed you to investigate this most heinous of crimes.' And leaning forward as if about to impart some great secret with you, says, 'Am I to understand the accused is a friend of yours?'
Though weary of him, it's clear the citizens of Winterhold respect Elien. They see him as an eccentric recluse who talks too much but is knowledgeable so you put up with him. Why else would the guards turn to him for advice on a mangled body, or why Elda would even allow him to step through the doors of her beloved Candlehearth Hall? Someone like Elien would be a powerful ally. So you tell him about Vilkas turning up in Winterhold although there are certain spots in the story tapestry you do not weave into your tale. Things like you feeling the pull of the wolf in the wilderness. Vilkas' rough kiss and warm, delicious embrace, because they are for you and you alone. They keep your soul warm, a cloak of hope of what could be that your wrap around yourself when the night is too dark and there are no stars in the sky.
Elien listens, head tilted to one side. When you've finished telling him about seeing the body and the cuts and - skipping the bit about Torbar being a werewolf (because you need more evidence of this) and meeting the woman because Elien would want you to introduce him and she strikes you as someone who would not want to meet him - how they look more like weapon cuts than bites, he licks his lips, steeples his fingers.
'I have a confession.'
At that moment a cloud blocks out the sun, the ray coming through the window disappears, and is it you but the tavern seems quieter than it was before, as if everyone is listening in on the conversation.
Elien whips his head around, as if he senses this too, and the bard right on cue starts up another song, no pipes this time: 'The homestead is silent now you have flown, whispers of you - dead words in my ears - come back to me as I sit by the sea and wait for you.'
'When Elien thinks he has made a mistake, Elien confesses, tries to right what is wrong. I fear a mistake might have been made.'
You can't imagine what Elien is rambling on about but your breath quickens because you can suspect. You suspect this is connected to Vilkas. In fact you are certain, like you are certain there will be snow on top of the Velothi Mountains tomorrow morning and the days after.
'It was early morning when the guards fetched me, so you will forgive me my errors. I had been up all night studying the legends of Molag Bal and how the first vampire came to be. It is entirely possible, in my excitement at the thought of a werewolf in Windhelm…' He pauses, and for the first time since you met him, Elien can't meet your gaze. 'I might have seen teeth marks where there were none.'
His confession is like the Thu'um. It barrels into your chest. In his excitement… Your anger becomes tangible, a force in your hands which you slam onto the table. Elien's excitement could cost Vilkas his life.
There's no excitement in Elien's eyes when he says, 'Now wait, I can try to make this right, if you allow me to.' There's a pleading in Elien's voice you didn't think could ever exist in someone like him, and this unexpected turn catches you unaware, allows Elien to elaborate when you should tell him to keep his words to himself and stay out of your way or at least respond with a sharp, swift punch to the gut.
Elien's hands come up in front of him as if he expects you to strike out. 'I am very respected around here - as I have said before - known for my study into Manbeasts of all kinds specifically Sanines Lupinus. If anyone can help you and your friend, it is Elien.' He smiles, a little too enthusiastically for someone whose actions has condemned someone to death, but that's Elien for you. Would Elien even admitted to his mistake if no one had been investigating?
'A guard,' Elien begins. 'A guard came and fetched me the other morning. The sun had not yet risen, and I had retired to bed for a grand total of twenty minutes. He hammered on my door, and I told him to go away. He said that someone had reported an attack, and I said, well you're a guard that is your jurisdiction. The guard said that I - Elien - did not understand. Talked to me like I was a simpleton. The person who had reported the attack claimed to see a wolf. Not just any wolf, a creature that moved on its hind legs, as tall as a man if not bigger. Sound like any normal wolf to you?'
It doesn't, but you do not speculate on what the person saw, but instead that there was a person to witness it at all. Someone had been there. Seen this happen. Who?
Elien witters on. 'I could only go on by what I was told, and already influenced by the idea of a werewolf attack I admit I might of -' His brow furrows. '- Got it wrong. It is hard for me to admit. I am most proud when it comes to my studies. However, if I have got something wrong, then it is right for me to do the most courteous of things and admit it.' Elien raises an eyebrow. 'Have I lost you?'
Elien's words tumble through your mind. You can't focus on any of them for long because that one detail - a witness - dominates all other thoughts. A witness.
'The guards didn't elaborate,' he says when you ask who the witness is. 'But it could help your cause if you found out who they were. Ask them, did they see what they think they did?'
You nod in agreement.
'As for me,' Elien drums his fingers against the table. 'Would it help if I took another look at the body?'
The bard's song ends. Her lover is dead in a war fought overseas and she'll never see him again.
There is nothing to show where Torbar died. No trampled bushes where the werewolf apparently came crashing through, but this is the spot according to the guards, in front of the row of farmsteads by where the White River cleaves the lands. As for the witness, the guards don't know who they were. You curse them under your breath for their incompetence, but they sight the war and lack of personnel and with so many things to do and too few people, things get overlooked. They can't even describe the person save the witness was a woman wearing a hooded cloak as is customary in this frigid weather. Unless by luck you stumble across them then, the witness is a dead end.
Your heart sinks. Hope seems further away now than it did yesterday. The clues are there, but there is no way of getting to them. A raging river blocks your path but you don't have the materials needed to build a bridge.
You ask around at the farms but it is what you expected, no one saw or heard anything. Suprising as werewolves aren't the most subtle of creatures.
But there is silence. Silence in the words they speak for their words mean nothing. And this silence follows you as you trudge back into the cloying embrace of the heart of Windhelm and the tall walls that choke it. A silence that sucks the sound from everything. The wind blows but you do not hear it, only feel the rush of snowflakes against your cheeks. People might talk as you pass them in the streets, but you only register their movements, shake your head if someone holds out their hands - a coin to spare? No. This rate you might need all the coin you have to bribe Vilkas' way out of prison and away from the executioners axe.
Back at the prison Vilkas sits in his cell on the naked stone floor, legs drawn up and back against the wall. There's a look on his face that suggests he knows you haven't been successful in your endeavours but he masks it with a weary smile - he doesn't want to talk about that. Instead he opts to talk about Jorrvaskr and what the Companions might be doing. He mentions his brother, no ill will in his voice which is surprising considering the night before he suspected you and his brother were together.
'Think Farkas will have bested Aela in hunting?'
You smile at the memory of Aela betting Farkas he couldn't catch breakfast because he couldn't be quiet enough and therefore couldn't hunt. Aela was so certain Farkas' hulking form would scare off any prey in the immediate vicinity. Farkas however, proved her wrong.
Vilkas chuckles to himself at first and then looking up catches your eye and you share the laughter together.
He strips off his shirt and bends over a bucket and splashes water in his face. Slicks back his hair with his wet hands and droplets of water roll down his face, his bare chest. The charcoal he favours under this eyes has washed away, and a beard replaces the usual favoured stubble. A different man looks at you then the man Vilkas was the night before last. A man who looks different, and a man who views the world differently.
You ask him if there is anything he needs.
'A better place to sleep? Look at this…' He pokes his finger through a tear in his shirt. 'If I don't get executed Old Tilda will kill me anyway. She only repaired another shirt of mine a few weeks ago.'
There are three marks on his cell wall, a line through one. Vilkas already given up on this day.
You console your disappointment with mead, nurse the mug in your hands with your head downcast. Just the one, though you were tempted to order a few jugs, see how long it took you to drown your feelings. But you need a clear head. Sod what you're feeling, it's not about you. It's about him. Vilkas.
You throw your head back, swallow the last drops, and when you're done and focusing on the tavern in Candlehearth Hall once more, your eyes connect with the woman standing in front of your table. Not just any woman. The woman. Hircine's follower.
Swallowing the temptation to say yes, that bad, because your friend faces loosing his life for something he hasn't even done, you instead just nod. That bad.
Where's she been anyway, and how long has she been standing at the table before you noticed her are questions you don't ask. She doesn't strike you as the answering questions type, apart from if they are on her terms and she's humouring you. Nor do you ask her about her allegiance to Hircine, or how she ended up with lycanthropy - because everyone has a story to tell.
The woman seats herself opposite you. By the Nine, what's her name even?
'Alvari,' she says as if she can read your mind. 'My name, in case you are wondering.' She throws her plated ponytail over her shoulder. Unlike Elien no one takes notice of her. She's a Nord after all. Which is ironic because they distrust Elien but he's not the one hiding a beast beneath his skin.
You wouldn't think so to look at Alvari, but then no one would suspect you either.
'How did your investigation go?'
Telling her everything - because there's no point keeping anything from Alvari - you let her know the alcohol Torbar drank isn't sold here and then about how no one saw anything.
'So why do you look so disappointed?'
Because today came to nothing, you are no nearer finding the truth than you were this morning.
'Are you certain? You know Torbar didn't drink here the night he died, that he was a werewolf, and that there was a witness.'
You stop slouching and sit up. Alvari is right. You don't know who killed Torbar, but you have information you didn't have this morning, and more than you thought.
'Seems the best thing to do would be to find this witness.'
Alvari smiles, and then you're interrupted and you wonder if the witness has found you instead, only that's not the case because it's Farkas.
'You're safe,' he says, relief showing on his face.
His words by pass you for a second because all you can think is: Farkas is here. A while ago you left the Companions to keep them safe. If Farkas had turned up then you would have been infuriated, but now… Now things are different, and of all people you wish to see this is one of them.
You're on your feet, speaking his name, well aware there's a daft grin on your face. Both of you open your arms, and Farkas is on you before you can get to him, taking one large stride and nearly knocking the wind out of your lungs. You can feel his breath in your hair, and he's warm and smells of horse and leather.
'Thank Shor you're safe.' Farkas breathes out and you feel him relax, his words still haven't dawned on you, and it is Alvari who, looking at you two hugging says, 'What do you mean, "You're safe"?'
You part, and Farkas meets your eyes, checking to see if it is safe to speak in front of Alvari. In response, you nod your approval.
'Been tracking you since Vilkas left to find you. Told him not to be stupid, you'd be fine. He didn't seem convinced. Mood he was in thought he'd get himself and you into trouble, so I headed out from Jorrvaskr two days after he left.'
You sit back down and Farkas takes the seat next to you. Alvari who brought a jug of ale with her, pours a mug for Farkas who mutters thanks, gulps back the drink and wipes the remnants from his beard. 'Have been riding all night. Couldn't stop. Not since…'
He sucks air in through his nostrils, lets it out slowly through his mouth. 'Last night I joined a group of people around a campfire, we traded and bartered and when night fell swapped stories. The last one of our storytellers was a man. He identified himself as a former member of the Silver Hand.'
The Silver Hand. Your blood freezes over. Werewolf hunters and those who murdered Kodlak. Scourge of the Circle. You and Vilkas, Farkas and Aela and all of Jorrvaskr called war on them. You wiped them out, save for a few fringe groups that scattered across Skyrim.
Alvari looks on in interest.
'He told us a story, how he was on his way back from Winterhold after killing someone suffering from…' Farkas looks from Alvari to you, and you understand this to be him saying, shall I continue, can we trust this person?
His hesitation is unnecessary, Alvari finishes his sentence: 'Like us. Blessed with lycanthropy.'
For once you are thankful for the bard singing and her rowdy spectators because no one save those around your table can hear your conversation.
Farkas and Alvari's gazes meet. There's a quiver of a smile beneath Farkas' beard. 'If you say so.' Then the smile disappears and his attention is for you only. 'I thought… worried it might be you or Vilkas.'
And you are thinking, this man, this former member of the Silver Hand has admitted to killing a werewolf in Winterhold. You think, this man killed Torbar, and you barely hear Farkas ask where Vilkas is.