When first he saw her, Vilkas expected a deeper, more sultry tone to waft from her mouth. The voice of a bard was meant to carry its tales through a room of drunken Nords; as he approached the banquet table, however, he saw rather than heard her speak, and Kodlak and Farkas each drew back and laughed. Finally, dropping the book in front of the Harbinger, Vilkas heard her words, little and light as a bell—"From what I see, the Companions seem to embody the rowdy spirit of the truest Nords, don't you think?"
"No truer words were ever spoken," Farkas agreed with a sip of his ale.
"Although I must say, I hardly expected any of you to read."
Kodlak slapped a paw to Vilkas' arm. "Aye," he said, "young Vilkas is our resident historian. He'll be helping you with your notes, miss."
"Harjid, please." She held her hand aloft, which Vilkas supposed he should grab. She saved him from wondering if he should put his lips to it by drawing it quickly away, as if she was afraid he'd smear it with the dirt from his morning training session in the yard. He was afraid of that, too.
Vilkas nodded once at her, then knew by the look Farkas gave him that it wasn't enough. "Hello," he grunted.
She looked up at him and then over to his brother. "He might be more handsome than you are."
Farkas grinned like a fool, but Vilkas, knowing that she awaited a reaction, was inclined to silence and crossed his arms.
"I'm afraid the warriors of Jorrvaskr have never thought much of sarcasm, miss," said Kodlak to Farkas' nod.
"Me an' my brother like words to be straight." She opened her mouth with a glint in her eye, but Farkas interrupted her thought: "And you're sitting in his spot."
"Oh! I'd no idea the Companions enforced arranged seating. How orderly."
Vilkas ran his tongue over his molars, and Kodlak leaned his elbow on the arm of his chair.
"Harjid is a bard from the College in Cyrodiil," he said to Vilkas pointedly. "She's studying Nordic lore to compose a book of songs."
"I thought bards just sang songs."
"Aye, Farkas," Vilkas said, breaking his silence again, "but writing a book of songs is a more economic way to spread the tales."
"You're absolutely right, Vilkas." She sipped her wine. "I confess, my love lies with Morrowind's history, but with the war, and now dragons and the death of the High King, the tales of Skyrim's heroes are in high demand. So it seems this is where the drakes are, pardon the pun."
"You came to a war-torn province to weigh down your pockets, little miss?" Vilkas eyed her green smock and soft shoulders. "You should weigh down your arms with sword and shield instead."
"Oh, I'm sure I can handle myself." She paused before taking another sip from her goblet. "If not, I can always hire you, yes?"
Farkas grunted in the affirmative, but Vilkas scoffed. "You just said you're here to make money, which means you don't have enough. So what will you do? Can you even lift a lute high enough to strike a man?—a Nordic man?"
She looked him in the eyes then, her soft little face stern as it could be. "I have strength enough to slip a blade through a vein." She didn't blink, but a smile warmed her countenance again as she said, "Especially when it throbs so eagerly out of a man's head."
Farkas laughed heartily, Kodlak only politely, and Vilkas not at all.
Kodlak found an appropriate time to excuse himself and even managed to distract Farkas from the newcomer, though Vilkas thought that hardly necessary; she wasn't half as pretty as the lasses in Whiterun who threw themselves at his younger brother, but Farkas always did have a hard time pulling himself away from the ones who stroked his ego.
Vilkas watched her leaf through The First Five Hundred with little more than contempt; her eyes darted over it too fleetingly, her little noises too practiced for her to truly be considering the material.
"This is beautiful binding," she said finally, and that was proof enough. But he wanted to see how long she kept it up, so he offered more than he had the first half of the morning.
"It isn't really," he said, arms folded on the table. "The original disintegrated more every time it was opened, so I ripped out the rest and rebound it in a new, sturdier cover."
Harjid's eyes leveled on him as if she awaited an explanation. But he'd already given her one, so when she wouldn't stop, he grew testy and grumbled, "What?"
She sighed. "You threw it out? Do you even know how old it was? Even books from the Third Era are worth hundreds of Septims. That you just ripped apart an artifact that could have provided insigh—"
"This was a dirty old cover, missy. What's important is what's inside, and if I hadn't saved it, you'd have nothing to study."
"Well." She let the gilded front fall onto her hand and considered it a moment. "As it stands, that's true. I can't read Ancient Nordic."
Vilkas pressed a finger into the tabletop. "Everything worth reading about Skyrim is in Ancient Nordic, little miss. What's your plan, now?"
She braided her fingers together and lifted her shoulders in a dainty shrug. "If you know it so well—"
"No. Absolutely not. I have no time to rewrite a book. If you want to study Nordic history, you should just learn Ancient Nordic."
"But I'm already studying Dwemeri."
Vilkas scoffed. "A deader language than that of the dragons."
"As is Ancient Nordic."
"It's nothing of the sort. Ancient Nordic is a fine, sturdy tongue that's still spoken at the hearth of every true Nord since before Ysgramor."
"And when was that?—the mythic age, no doubt."
"Your tone is as slippery as you are, little miss. Speak the words in your heart instead of dancing around them."
"I don't know if you can handle my kind of honesty."
Finally, she shrugged and said, "So you're telling me that you believe in a hero who lived thousands of years ago committed acts of such valor that his reputation and words have been passed down through the generations, accurately, to land upon our laps here and inspire your little ones to drink ale instead of milk and fight with ax and hammer instead of magicka and cleverness? A hero whose deeds haven't been equaled since? It's preposterous."
Vilkas swallowed, then pressed a finger into the table. "You're negating the heroes we have in our own time. Who is to say that our present company won't have the same tales ascribed to Ysgramor in our era written in our histories? Consider even the Nerevarine, who is still living in the Ascadian Isles, teaching young Dark Elves about the shattered Tribunal and the power to be gained from small, daily actions. Or even someone from your own province, Martin Septim."
"The Nerevarine could be a liar. All these historians could be liars."
Vilkas allowed that some deeds were certainly exaggerated with each new singer of songs, but even legends are born of some truth, and without a doubt, many heroic deeds of Ysgramor's Companions have been forgotten through the ages. "So if some anonymous adventurer's victories are falsely credited to Ysgramor, or Martin Septim, or the lying Dark Elf, we mustn't lower the mighty to coddle the lesser," he insisted. "Rather, we ought to thank our ancestors and their forgotten contributions to our honorable history, muddled or not."
She watched him for a moment, stroking her goblet with her thumbs. "I admire your faith," she said at last, cocking her head and setting the wine down. "It's more sincere to worship ancestors than some blind allegiance to gods made of marble."
"You have no faith, like many Imperials. Can't you even believe in Talos? He's as real as anyone in your books."
"I worship Tiber Septim in a roundabout way, yes." She dropped a coin on the table.
He scowled from the coin to the girl. "We're done today."
"Are we, now? And who are you to say?"
"A Nord!" he snapped. "Anyone who calls himself a Companion would refuse to translate an account of our history for the likes of some tavern wench who wants to fill her coffers."
Harjid shot up, hardly taller than Vilkas while he sat, but she lowered herself to his face anyway, poking him in the chest. "You have a lot of nerve for someone who needs the coin of other men to tell him where to swing his sword."
He leaned back in his chair and regarded her with the beginnings of a grin. "You need to sit down."
"Who are you to tell anyone what they ought to do?" she asked, crossing her arms over a willowy chest.
Vilkas stood slow as a predator, his shoulders blocking the light of the sconce above her, his eyes aglow within darkened sockets. "I told you what you need to do, and I have the right amount of nerve for someone who knows how to use this sword. Now, should we continue, or are you refusing to sit?"
Harjid scoffed. "Are you really trying to intimidate someone my size? I hope you don't embody the Companions' idea of honor."
"And what if I do?" Vilkas leered. "Will you find some other honorable faction to disgrace with your sarcasm?"
"You're the one who called me a tavern wench!"
"Aye, because you came into my hall disrespecting our people. So how will you defend yourself if I decide you're worth the fight?"
She stared up at him as steadily as she had when she stood over him. "With your own honor, Companion. There is none in hitting someone smaller than yourself, so you won't even draw your sword."
"If that were true, I'd have only giants and my brother to hit. Someone picks a fight with me, I treat them the way I would any opponent who's worth the effort. It's the highest compliment I give."
"I'll remember to feel honored when you split open my throat."
"I don't need my sword for that." He'd meant his hands, but her eyes darted down from his, then back up, and she drew away with a sneer.
"You're an animal."
"Then leave my pen, woman. And close your mouth while you're at it. Animals would consider the opening an invitation."
She dropped a little purse of coins on the table, still meeting his gaze with foolish defiance, and he smelled—something, he was sure, as she turned to leave. Harjid shot him a look when she opened the door, and though it was all fury on the surface, it was all the confirmation he'd needed.
She was aroused.
"Vilkas, my boy."
"Kodlak," he replied, and pointed at the chair accompanying the Harbinger's with his eyebrows raised.
"Please," Kodlak said gruffly, offering a bottle of mead. "How went your job this morning?"
Vilkas accepted the drink with a snort. "You couldn't hear her?—couldn't smell her?"
Kodlak opened his palms over his papers. "I get as lost as you do, boy."
"That you do." Vilkas drank, a little appreciative Kodlak hadn't asked about Harjid's smell. "As it was, we barely began before she stormed out."
"That so?" Kodlak brushed the tabletop with half a smile. "I thought—maybe I hoped—you two might get on. She and Farkas certainly did."
"Aye, but Farkas could take a Hagraven to bed before she ever thought to incinerate him. He's a friendly pup."
Kodlak chuckled. "So he is. And Harjid is not so easy to get along with?"
Vilkas recalled her arousal and shifted his thighs together, raising his mead with a bark of bitter laughter. "To understatements."
"Understatements," Kodlak toasted. "What did you discuss, then?"
Vilkas opened his mouth, then closed it and huffed. "She's infuriating."
"Is she, now? Don't allow it to challenge your resolve. If she's as vile as you say, she isn't worth the temptation to give in to the beast blood. A shame. I thought you'd enjoy her."
Vilkas almost laughed again.
The morning dawned chilly but bright, and Vilkas had some whelp called Jelani take a stack of notes to the Bannered Mare, where she was staying. And with that, she was finally off his mind.
It was about time, too, as she'd been there all through the night, dancing on each of his tightly wound nerves while he summarized The First Five Hundred and added his own interpretation to his transliteration. He kept his words professional on the pages despite the urge to give in to disdain, but he would not have her taint his study of Ysgramor. No, she would certainly derive some smirking pleasure from that. Probably even drive her to ecstasy, he thought with a frown.
Farkas asked him if he was hung over, and he shook his head. "Skjor's out back," he offered, and there Vilkas went, sipping at his ale.
He preferred Skjor above all other Companions to train with; he was Vilkas' mentor in battle as Kodlak was in more cerebral persuits, but what Skjor offered beyond his unquestionable skill was silence. When Vilkas sparred, nothing annoyed him more than his brother's insisting he'd made a "Nice hit," or Ria's "Well played, sir!" That kind of frivolous encouragement he cast off as easily as it was given, and he guessed Skjor felt the same. Even Harjid's insults would be preferable—at least those were spoken in honesty.
Vilkas put her out of his mind again as he handed Skjor a tourney sword in question. He nodded and stood and lunged at him before he was ready, and Vilkas appreciated it more than he could say.
"You're thinking too much," Skjor growled, hardly fazed as they met blades again.
Vilkas panted, and Skjor tapped his temple above his blind eye.
"That bloody vein is hammering out of your head, boy."
Vilkas nodded, and they went until Skjor lost interest in his sluggish parries and tossed the blunt blade at his feet.
"Don't fight me if you can't take it, pup," he told Vilkas calmly.
Vilkas spat in frustration and followed him up to the table where Aela had been watching.
"Haven't seen you this winded in a while, Brother," she said after Skjor pecked her forehead. "This silly vow getting to you?"
Vilkas clenched his hands into fists. "Not today, Aela."
She laughed and shared a look with Skjor. "What's got you so tense, then? Surely not the girl from yesterday."
"Looks like that might be so," Skjor laughed upon Vilkas' reaction.
"Hardly," Vilkas assured them. "I stayed awake half the night writing her notes and the other half wondering why I bothered."
"Because you love the legends as much as Farkas loves a brawl," Aela said with a shrug. "No matter how detestable the student. It's a testament to the respect you hold for your subject."
Vilkas rolled his tired eyes. "Can't you talk about something else? She was on my mind all the night, and that's enough for one lifetime."
Aela's eyes darted to the hand encircling his tankard, and she settled a questioning look on Skjor, who was drinking from his own.
"What?" said Vilkas, putting down his ale.
"Nothing," Aela replied. "Just that we can smell how much you thought of her last night on your sword hand."
Vilkas nearly got up and left, for he certainly had not thought of her when he'd done that—who would need to?—but then Tilma shuffled down the steps from inside Jorrvaskr, leading the bard herself.
Aela knocked on the table. "We'll leave you to it," she said, hooking an arm through Skjor's and leading him out into the yard.
He turned to Harjid, whose hair was plaited in a crown that caught the light of the sun like honey.
"Morning," he grunted, tapping his tankard as she took Aela's seat.
"Believe me," she began, folding her hands on the table, "the last thing I want to do is interrupt your day. I just have some questions about the papers you sent me earlier." She pulled them, curled into a roll by Jelani, out of her leather satchel on the ground beside her.
"What questions could you possibly have?" he sneered. "I gave you a summary with a transliteration of all Ysgramor's dialogue. It's all straightforward."
She did not even bother to dismiss his insults; she ignored them entirely. "It is," she said, and he could detect no teasing in her expression. "It's just the matter of the figure himself. I couldn't tell from your notes whether Ysgramor was a braggart or a man of few words, like yourself. I know nothing of his identity but his deeds and his declarations to do them."
A fair question, Vilkas thought. "That's a gamble to answer, missy. Ask any man about the heroes he admired in childhood and he'll tell you they had the same traits he admires most in himself."
Harjid smiled, and the apples of her cheeks flushed an absurd pink. "Very astute, Vilkas. I'd heard the reputation you've built with your studiousness, and I suppose I thought someone along the way just exaggerated the mental prowess of a local hero with half a brain. I'm thrilled to be proven so decidedly wrong."
He felt himself bristling, but she had somewhat complimented him, and he refused to turn to insults first. Though he did have to amend his thought before expressing it. "I don't think you like to be wrong."
She cocked her head as she eyed him, then wetted her lips before she spoke. "You and I work in legends, where every virtue is stretched into sainthood, so forgive me if I tend to believe in the least of other people. So when I'm shown that I'm wrong about someone, it's a fine surprise indeed. As was your delivery this morning."
Vilkas nodded. "Better a definite no than a weak yes."
At that, Harjid lifted his tankard of ale and drank it in toast.
Thanks for reading! I'm afraid Jelani will take the role in the Companions that is usually reserved for the Dragonborn, so we won't see Kodlak sizing up Harjid or Farkas taking her to Dustman's Cairn. This story is less about the game and more about the weaknesses of the characters, specifically Vilkas and my OC, Harjid.
I do not own the Elder Scrolls series.