Aventus Mero is Nord save for his name - which his mother, a native of Cyrodil, gave to him. But his father was Nord through and through. He likes his mother's people, and he likes his name but he tends not to use it because although he looks Nord, with a name like Aventus people presume he's Imperial, and some who live in Skyrim look down on Imperials.
'You gonna finish your story Broger?' one of his audience members ask. Broger, he took his father's name after the old man died. The only thing of his father's he owns (because he didn't inherit his looks - his genes favouring the willowy form of his mother rather than the strong, broad silhouette of his father), that and the old silver sword.
'I am.' Aventus known as Broger runs a whetstone down the side of the sword. The sword is blunt to Oblivion and back and past its best but Broger keeps it because it reminds him of his father and it's a good prop when telling his stories. And it works. Look at them. His audience members sit on the edge of their seats, eyes wide, lips dry because they haven't touched their drinks and they're thirsty for more story not ale.
'Is it true you used to be a member of the Silver Hand?' a Bosmer asks. She's a pretty little thing, with big wide eyes the colour of honeydrops. Broger would like to talk to her more personally if he could get a moment alone. But he doesn't want to show he has a softer side. People take in his lack of muscles and think he's weak, so he makes up for it by scowling and not hiding the scars on his left arm which he got from colliding with a scythe when he was six.
'Yes,' he growls as best he can. 'Now do you want this story or not?'
Broger paints a scene for them of a howling wind that whips through his hair and heavy snow that blasts his skin. 'So he stood in front of me and I shouted, "Only one of us is leaving Windhelm alive."' Broger talks in cliches because he's discovered his audience appreciate that. He lifts his sword and the firelight glints off the blade. 'I would not give him a chance to change, so I swung my sword but…'
One Nord turns to another. 'Was there a full moon the other night, Errol?'
'Don't werewolves only turn at a full moon?'
The Bosmer shushes them and Broger notes he really must pay her a compliment later on.
'Just making sure he's telling the truth, that's all.'
Truth? What would these two know about truth, Errol and his friend after all are merchants.
'Ever hear of the Circle?' Broger asks.
His audience shake their heads. No.
'What about the Companions?'
Everyone nods. Yes. They've heard of them.
'My father,' Broger says, 'used to tell me tales of the Companions, that a few of them were werewolves. Only they weren't tethered to the cycles of the moons and could change at will.' He has them now, his audience can't take their eyes off him, so Broger continues from where he was interrupted. 'I swung my sword, but his arm had already transformed, his skin covered in hair, his nails now long claws.' He turns the sword in Errol's and his friend's direction.
Errol sniffs, slaps down his cup and says, 'Thought werewolves changed completely. Not bit by bit.'
'Let him finish,' the Bosmer snaps. 'Storytellers embellish certain bits. Matters not as long as the story being told is a fine one.' She beams at him and Broger feels a flutter in his stomach. Now here is a beauty who knows how good stories work. He'd like to tell her more. And Broger has hundreds of stories. But by the end of this one there will be none left for him to tell.
On horseback you, Farkas and Alvari gallop further into the night. Your heart pounds, synchronised with the clatter of hoofbeats from your horse. The horse snorts, tosses its head, it's mane rippling. You lean forward in the saddle, tighten your grip on the reigns so that the horse can't fight your control.
And then Farkas is reaching out for the reigns, drawing the horse into a canter with his, and then a trot.
'Woah,' he grunts. 'Easy.'
You turn towards him, blinking back the tears created by the cold air clipping your face.
'I know.' He draws the horse in closer, leans over to pat its flanks. 'I want to find him too. But if we break our necks, we will be of no use.'
'Farkas is right.' Alvari steers her horse to walk the other side of you. 'It's getting much too dark to continue riding.' She stops, lifts her leg over the saddle and jumps off then throws the reigns up at you.
Where's she going?
'You two find shelter. I'll go ahead, scout him out.'
Farkas says nothing, not one to argue with anyone unless he thinks something is particularly stupid (and then he'll use his fists not words), so it's you who asks her how, for she doesn't know what this former Silver Hand member looks like.
'Oh I'll know,' she says, and doesn't elaborate any further. You watch her leave, plaited hair swaying as she disappears into the thickness of the black night.
Farkas slides out of his saddle, clucks at his horse with his tongue and says, 'I like her.'
The snow has been left behind in Windhelm, but the air is still cold, and the cliffs that cut through the valley are sharp and rugged having been chiselled by the wind. Snow smothered fields have given way to vistas of grey and muted blues. Fir and deciduous trees stripped naked speckle the land.
You and Farkas leave the uneven cobblestone road, leading the horses down a dip in the valley and past brown, shrivelled shrubs. The cliff side will provide you with shelter from the wind and anyone looking for trouble.
Farkas leaves the horses with you and slumps off to find firewood. You settle the horses down, and they bow their heads to nibble tufts of grass that stick up from the rocky ground.
When Farkas returns you've already set up camp - what there is to set up. You left Windhelm in such a hurry that your provisions are back in the rented room at Candlehearth Hall, and all you have is what Farkas carried with him which comprises a bedroll and two furs.
The logs and branches Farkas has found he stacks in the middle of the fire pit you've made and doesn't blink when you use the Thu'um to light them.
Instead he smiles, chuckles to himself and sits next to you. 'Just like a dragon.'
Farkas doesn't like magic much, nor those who wield it. But you, you he likes so he tolerates your use, and every time you use it there is a distant look of fascination that lights up his eyes. His delight in your use of dragon words is infectious, and you smile to yourself despite the chill in your stomach.
Farkas unravels the bedroll next to him. 'I'll keep first watch.'
You protest, after all Farkas rushed to Windhelm and then rushed out again. When did he last sleep?
'Go on, I'll be fine.' He pats the bedroll. Once lying down Farkas throws the blankets over you, and the fur brushes against your cheeks. 'Sleep well, New Kodlak.' He pats your shoulder, his touch warm and reassuring.
Sleep doesn't come straight away.
In the distance there's a rumble, at first you think it might be thunder, then you hear the trumpet of a mammoth. A herd must be near by and the rumble is from the giant who watches over them.
Farkas turns his iron greatsword by one hand, the point digging into the ground, face relaxed and it is obvious he sees the nearby herd and giant as little threat. Which is true enough, the general rule for dealing with giants is to stay away from them and their herd and they will ignore you.
The sky is clear, a mass of stars scatter across the velvet night.
How can you sleep when your heart ceases to calm? Adrenalin charges through your veins, your legs twitch and you feel you can't sit still.
But you must try. Vilkas needs you, and you won't be any help to him if your mind is dulled with tiredness. You close your eyes. No good. No good.
You can't lie here knowing Torbar's killer is out there and Vilkas in prison awaiting his death.
Your eyes snap open. Tree branches reach out and up and obscure the sky as if they wish to offer you shelter. You sit up.
A wood has sprung up and grown around you whilst you slept. How is this possible?
The tree trunks are thick and gnarled and tall. Despite the darkness of night their leaves are a vivid green, highlighted by dappled light not from the sun but from the moon. Not Masser. Not Secunda. A new moon which peeps down on you between the branches.
You're alone. The spot where Farkas sat is vacant, and the cliff side that sheltered you has morphed into a giant oak tree - taller, thicker than the rest. You scramble to your feet and scramble away.
A howl breaks the stillness of the night. Then another, and another, and another.
You spin around, expecting to find a pack of wolves lunging out of the woods towards you.
'Why are you so afraid?'
Your eyes dart to where you lay and the weapons you put down next to you, but they are not there. You reach for the dagger at your waist and find nothing.
The voice - the sound of the earth mixed with the whisper of trees as the wind stirs their branches - laughs. 'A wolf does not need weapons.'
The oak tree you rested in front of moves, untwisting its giant trunk, and its branches and leaves tremble.
Hircine steps out, and the sight of him sends a bolt of fear up your spine. Like the surrounding trees, fear roots you to the spot. Your lungs feel like they will burst with a scream.
'What do you fear? You are the hunter, not the prey.' He holds a hand out to you like he has done before, moonlight shining on his deer dappled skin.
'Me?' There's another rumble of laughter that comes from behind the bone mask he wears.
Yes. Him. When you catch the attention of a Daedric Prince anyone with an ounce of sense would - should - fear the worst. For the Daedric Princes are unpredictable and unfathomable. They are not tied to the same emotions mortals are and therefore think and act in ways inhabitants of Nirn can't possibly understand.
His near to you now. So close you can hear the rattle of his breath as it hits the inner wall of the mask. Do Daedric Princes even need to breathe, or is it a habit they adopted from mortals? Those eyeless sockets look down on you. Hircine reaches up behind the back of his head and unhooks the deer skull from his face.
What horrors lurk behind the mask? You don't want to see so you snap your eyes shut.
The wind stirs around you, the shush of the breeze as it rushes through the reeds and long grass, and the branches and leaves. You feel the tickle of hair upon your face, and when you open your eyes again, you realise it isn't yours but Hircine's brushing against your skin. For Hircine has a mane of dark brown hair that trails down his back and rests on his shoulders when it is not being whipped up by the wind.
How many others have seen Hircine's face? How many have lived to tell the tale? You lock your breath in your lungs feeling like a rabbit trapped beneath a fox.
Hircine's face is a man's face - mostly - for he has a firm straight nose, and a distinct angular jaw. Sharp cheek bones and a beard the same colour as his hair. But any similarity to a mortal stops there. It's true, he might pass as a man for a mere five seconds, before your gaze wanders to the large antlers protruding from his head, and that's before you've even met his gaze. For his eyes, his eyes are devoid of iris and pupils. They are as black as nothingness and when his sight falls on you (you can't help but know he is looking at you. You just know) it feels as if you are staring into the abyss, a void that sucks at your soul.
'One that speaks Dragon, do you think they will allow you two to stay together?'
Your mind drifts to Vilkas.
Hircine stands inches from you, hands clenched by his sides, chest protruding proudly out. 'They will expect too much of you and keep you both apart.' It is then he touches you, his finger coiling around a strand of your hair. Then his hand moves to your face, he cups your jaw, presses and moves his thumb across your lips. 'Vilkas will join the hunt soon enough. Suppose I picked him as another champion of mine.'
There's a knot in your stomach, an anchor of curiosity Hircine has planted. He pulls on it, and you find the fear fading. What would happen if you remained here? There's a certain appeal to no longer being Dovahkiin. Not having a responsibility to Skyrim, not having to worry about meeting certain expectations.
You meet Hircine's gaze. He's smiling.
But someone is saying your name. No, not saying - shouting.
Again Hircine holds out a hand. 'Stay here with me. Hunt.'
Someone is shouting your name.
You reach out for Hircine's hand, his fingers arched and ready to curl around yours. 'Submit.'
Someone is shouting your name.
The wolves are howling again, their calls getting louder and louder.
Someone is shouting your name.
A river of sweat trails from your forehead down the side of your face. There's snarling and snapping, and once your vision has focused you sit bolt up, the realisation of what is happening dawning on you.
There's blood, large blotches splashed across rocks and staining the straggly grass. Farkas stands in a circle of wolves, beating them back with his sword.
For a second his eyes meet yours. 'You're awake.' An obvious statement, one he makes as if to reassure himself.
There's no time to draw your weapon, instead you give yourself to the dragon.
A small ball of fire strikes the nearest wolf's rump, sending it skittering off with a blazing tail, the smell of burning fur following it.
The pack turn from Farkas, their eyes now on you. You roll sideways as the first one pounces, gathering up your sword as you do so. Farkas rushes forward, his sword swinging low, and he swoops two up into the air with his blow. Farkas' victims yelp as the hit the floor. They roll over. Once. Twice. Then scrabble to their feet, and yipping, follow the blazing trail of the first to flee.
It doesn't take much for you to subdue the other two. A blast of fus to knock one back, whilst swinging at the other one - your blade cutting into his leg.
You watch them run, but do not give chase. Even if they come back for another go later, it's not like you're still be here.
Farkas pants, wipes sweat from his brow, and sits by what remains of the fire taking a swig from his flask.
'Don't know where they came from.'
You do. Hircine sent them, to kill you whilst you slept.