AUTHOR'S NOTE: Yay I am finally waiting to post a story until the entire story is complete! I will post a chapter every other day. I had so much fun writing this story, I hope you like it! Also I will respond to any reviews in the next chapter. Reviews are much appreciated!
Vilkas pulled his cloak tighter around him as he trudged through the fluttering snowflakes towards the Bannered Mare. Nords may pride themselves on their resistance to cold, but that didn't make freezing temperatures pleasant. The weather was making Vilkas regret his short trip to the inn, especially considering he could get cheaper and greater volumes of drink back at Jorrvaskr, but he had decided he needed a break from the Companions, and he was sticking to it. Jorrvaskr would always be home, and the Companions always his shield-siblings, but sometimes their raucous gatherings were a little too much for him. Sometimes he just needed some time to himself.
Vilkas pushed the heavy door to the inn open and shut it closed behind him as quickly as possible, not wanting to let too much of the weather in with him. Hulda smiled at him and sent him a welcoming greeting from behind the bar, and by the time he reached her she'd already poured him his drink.
"Of course. Nice to see you again, Vilkas."
Hulda didn't say any more, familiar as she was with her guest and the moods that typically brought him through her doors. Vilkas took his drink to his favorite table at the back corner of the inn, thanking Shor that no one had taken his customary seat.
Two drinks in, and no one had bothered him. Vilkas called that a good night. He was contemplating whether he should start on a new drink or head on home when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder.
"Ffff...Vvvvvilkas of the Companions," a harsh, feminine voice slurred with no small amount of bitterness.
Vilkas looked behind his shoulder and immediately recognized the strawberry-blond woman in heavy steel armor behind him. It was Uthgerd, supposedly "the Unbroken." She'd killed a new blood in a spar, and somehow expected the Companions to just let it pass. Vilkas turned back to his empty tankard, deciding he would take that next drink after all. He'd liked Aksel. Vilkas had truly believed the young, idealistic Nord would have a long, glorious future with the Companions, but instead this woman's carelessness sent him to an early grave.
"Don't ignore me!" Uthgerd yelled, shoving weakly into his back.
With a sigh, Vilkas moved his seat around to face Uthgerd, worrying that if she felt he was disregarding her, the situation might escalate. Usually Uthgerd avoided the Companions, the shame and embarrassment of her accident motivating her to keep a wide berth, so she must have been deep in her cups to be confronting Vilkas. Facing her did seem to placate the woman, and a goofy smile rose to her lips.
"Now that's more like it," she said. "You're one of the honorable Companions, aren't you? Why don't you tell us a story? Share with everyone your exc-schiting adventures."
Uthgerd's loud proclamations had attracted a good amount of attention, and Vilkas could see more than a few pairs of eyes around the inn on him. He'd come here to avoid exactly this kind of situation, but Vilkas supposed he should count himself lucky for the good hour of peace and solitude he'd already enjoyed. He'd known it would have to end eventually.
"Yeah, Vilkas. We haven't heard any new exploits from the Companions for a while now!" Sigurd shouted from his seat by the fire. "Why don't you tell us a fresh one?"
"If it's good enough, I'll even write a song about it," Mikael chimed in.
A quick story might be enough to satisfy the group, though they had already heard most of his old standbys. Vilkas thought about his latest mission, about the kind of tale it would tell. He had been with the Dragonborn, and the assignment had actually been unrelated to the Companions, but any work he did assisting the Harbinger Vilkas filed in his brain under "Companions business."
It had been gritty, nasty work. They'd gone to rescue a farmer's daughter from a group of necromancers holed up in a cave somewhere in the Pale. The daughter was already dead—twice dead after they'd dispatched of her reanimated corpse—but they could at least tell the farmer that they'd sent the necromancers to Oblivion where they couldn't do any more harm.
Vilkas had always disliked mages. One might think that a man who used to transform into a wolf on a regular basis wouldn't be squeamish about the darker aspects of the mystic arts, but even Vilkas had things that scared him. He didn't remember much from the time before Jergen had found them, when he and Farkas had been held captive by a group of the rogue necromancers, but the experiences of his youth had built in an automatic response of fear and disgust at anything related to the art of summoning the undead.
Helping the Harbinger exterminate the necromancers had been necessary, and Vilkas wasn't ashamed of what he'd done, but neither did he feel great honor or excitement in the task. It had mostly just made him feel sick. And it didn't help that it was hard to feel like the Harbinger had even needed him there.
She was really something else. The Harbinger carried two short swords and an indomitable spirit, and she swept through the cave like some goddess of wrath and vengeance. And not the beautiful, fearsome kind the bards liked to sing about. The cold, merciless kind you didn't really want to watch but couldn't quite look away from.
Unbidden, the memory of the Harbinger knocking the head necromancer to the ground, placing her two swords at his neck, then removing his head from his shoulders in one smooth motion returned to Vilkas' mind. He shuddered. In his mind's eye, the mask she always wore, with its smoothly-carved, solemn features, watched the execution in cool passivity. Vilkas wouldn't be surprised if that mask made an appearance in the darker dreams that haunted his sleep.
No, there was no shame in the work he and the Harbinger had done. But it wasn't the kind of story to share around the hearthfire either.
"No good stories to tell tonight. Sorry," Vilkas said to the waiting crowd.
Uthgerd snorted in derision, moving closer to Vilkas and invading his personal space.
"Just as I'd thought," she scoffed. "The Companions are all… are all talk. How long will they rest on their legashy, with no one willing to actually… actually do anything?"
Vilkas's eyes flashed, and he felt the fire in him burning. He really shouldn't let this drunken excuse for a warrior bait him, but he had his limits. His temper had tamed somewhat since he'd freed himself from the beast blood, but a good portion of Vilkas's fire was his own to claim, and couldn't be attributed to the beast alone.
Recognizing the danger in Vilkas's eyes, Mikael stepped towards Uthgerd and placed soothing hands on her shoulders.
"Come on, Uth. Let's call it a night, eh?"
Uthgerd shrugged off the bard's hands belligerently, but backed off. She turned and staggered towards the door, muttering drunkenly under her breath.
Hulda made her way over to Vilkas's table with a full tankard in hand, accurately predicting her customer's needs. Vilkas took the drink with a grateful nod and turned his chair back towards the table, hoping that the other patrons of the inn would take the hint and leave him in peace.
Halfway through his drink, the front door opened again, letting a frigid gust of wind into the warm inn that reached all the way to the back of the room where Vilkas sat. He looked up from his drink, worried that Uthgerd may have returned to settle her imagined grievances with him, but the newcomer didn't look like Uthgerd.
As soon as he realized the woman walking into the Bannered Mare wasn't Uthgerd, Vilkas should have just returned to his drink, but something held him back. He squinted his slightly intoxicated eyes at the woman, trying to put his finger on what it was about her that kept his attention, but he couldn't find anything of interest. He hadn't seen her around Whiterun before. She wasn't a Nord—at least not fully. She looked probably Imperial, but she had ambiguous enough features that he couldn't be sure. She was of average height, average age (maybe a couple of years younger than Vilkas), and average beauty. And yet…
The woman walked uncertainly up to the bar, purchasing a drink from Hulda before wandering off towards the fire. Vilkas rolled his eyes as Mikael noticed the young woman and sauntered over to where she stood by the fire. Whoever the woman was, he wished her luck.
Vilkas finished his drink quickly and got to his feet, the heavy weight in his head telling him it was time to go home. He trudged towards the door, already dreading the bitter cold outside and deliberately ignoring the unfamiliar woman. Thus, he did not notice when the woman rose from her seat by the bench and backed away from Mikael, running right into Vilkas.
"Excuse me," Vilkas grunted, bending over to help the woman back to her feet.
"I am so sorry-" the woman started, her words halting abruptly as soon as she looked up and locked eyes with Vilkas.
She was frozen, and seemingly terrified? Vilkas couldn't imagine why she might be afraid of him unless… Did she somehow know he was a werewolf? Vilkas blinked dumbly at her, his mind racing to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
"Are you… alright?" he asked.
The woman's expression cleared, and her gaze sharpened. Those eyes… they were so much more intense than the soft features that surrounded them. They looked like they belonged to a woman much older than this person, who couldn't have seen more than thirty summers. Something about those eyes felt both extraordinary and… familiar.
"Vilkas? You don't recognize me?" the woman said, her voice low as if to avoid eavesdroppers.
The voice, the eyes, the cold intensity—suddenly it all clicked.
"H-harbinger," Vilkas choked out, "Apologies, I… I rarely see you without your mask."
The Harbinger quickly pulled Vilkas to an empty corner of the inn, her expression unreadable.
"Please don't call me that here," she murmured, "they don't know that it's me."
Vilkas felt his eyes bug out of his head.
"What? Why would you want to come here in secret?"
Alba (that was her name, though Vilkas rarely used it or even thought it), avoided Vilkas's steely gaze, shifting uncomfortable. Without her eyes to focus on, Vilkas's gaze fell down to her outfit—a plain but attractive blue dress with a white undershirt. It felt strange and unnatural to see her in such feminine, unarmored clothing, but by far the most startling thing about the outfit was the large, gaudy necklace that rested on top of her chest.
"Ysmir's beard, Harbinger, is that an Amulet of Mara? What could the Dragonborn and Harbinger of the Companions possibly be doing in a tavern with an Amulet of Mara?" Vilkas hissed, now just as concerned as she that they not be overheard.
Anger glinted in the Harbinger's eyes, and she glared up at Vilkas defiantly, having thrown off her embarrassment for the moment.
"I may not be your master, Vilkas, but neither are you mine. It's not of your business why I am here. I might ask you how you did not recognize your own Harbinger?"
"I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen your face, Harbinger."
Alba was practically never without her mask, something she said had once belonged to a Dragon Priest. It seemed odd to Vilkas that she should wear the faces of such monstrous beings, but he supposed she wouldn't be the first to don a token of their defeated enemy's power. Additionally, if the intention of the mask was to intimidate, it was certainly effective.
She took it off to sleep and to bathe—that much Vilkas knew from his travels with her and her time in Jorrvaskr. She might also take it off to eat, but that was difficultun to judge. She rarely ate in front of others, even at feasts. He'd spied her once at a celebration for Torvar's birthday gingerly lift her mask away from her face to take a bite of a sweetroll, but she hadn't fully removed the mask all night. It was strange, and certainly not endearing behavior to the rest of the Companions, but Alba had become Harbinger through the sheer undeniability of her strength and intelligence, and not at all because of her social skills. All of the Companions were learning to adapt to the new Harbinger and her eccentricities—it was a social group as well as a band of warriors, after all.
Alba flushed and crossed her arms across her chest self-consciously, perhaps realizing that this was the first time Vilkas had ever gotten a good look at her face.
"Well… well never mind that. I'm going home. You should, too." she said.
"I was already on my way home."
"Great. Then, great. Let's just not talk about this ever again."
Vilkas narrowed his eyes at Alba, then nodded. He did not verbally agree to never bring it up again, though, so he could have been just agreeing to go home. The distinction was important in his mind.
By silent agreement, Vilkas left the hall first, and judging by the creaking in the hallway he heard from his room back home, she'd followed suit maybe ten minutes later.
The footsteps faded away in the direction of the Harbinger's quarters, and Vilkas rolled over in his bed trying to get comfortable. He felt like he'd made some important discovery today, but he'd think more on it tomorrow. Right now he was too tired and his brain too foggy with mead to come to any conclusions. His conscious thoughts faded away to the image of cold, sharp eyes in a gentle, soft face.
Just as Vilkas had expected, Alba went about her day as if nothing had happened, donning her mask and hood once again and wandering about Jorrvaskr like a ghost. Vilkas tried to catch Alba's eye at the breakfast table, but she steadfastly avoided him, though that could perhaps have been his imagination, considering how difficult it was to meet someone's eyes through a mask.
Initially, Vilkas decided that going along with Alba's strategy of avoidance was probably for the best. He didn't know why she'd gone to the Bannered Mare last night, but it wasn't really his business. However, as the day progressed Vilkas's thoughts kept turning back to his mysterious Harbinger over and over again. It didn't sit right with him that she would show up in a tavern, dressed like a common woman, wearing an Amulet of Mara. It was baffling. It was one thing to go to an inn in search of temporary comfort, but to go to a building full of near strangers looking for marriage? What exactly was she trying to do?
All day, through training, polishing armor, eating lunch, and sparring with the new bloods, Vilkas mulled it over. Vilkas really didn't know what to make of it, but the more he thought about it the more certain he was that he needed some kind of explanation. Alba was the leader of the Companions. The way she behaved in public reflected on their association.
All of the Companions gathered for their evening meal, and while Torvar and Ria regaled the group with their latest exploits running a family of bears out of the Jarl's summer hunting lodge, Vilkas watched the Harbinger. She sat back in her seat and passively enjoyed the lively atmosphere, and Vilkas couldn't help but wonder what she might be thinking—what she might be planning.
The Harbinger retreated to her living quarters not far into the night, and soon afterwards Vilkas excused himself as well. He made his way to the Harbinger's quarters and rapped twice on the heavy door, still unsure of exactly what he would say but certain that he needed to say something.
"Who is it?" the Harbinger's voice sounded from the other side of the door.
Vilkas heard shuffling and muffled movements, then the door opened.
"Harbinger," Vilkas said, nodding as he walked into the room.
She shut the door behind them and turned towards him expectantly. Alba wasn't wearing her mask, which surprised Vilkas at first, but then he realized she was wearing her nightshirt already. Even she wouldn't wear the mask to bed.
"What's on your mind?" Alba asked.
Vilkas stared at Alba for a long moment, almost forgetting what it was he'd come for. His eyes caught on the gold chain at Alba's neck, which must lead to that same Amulet of Mara tucked under her shift.
"Harbinger, I'm… concerned about the reputation of the Companions," he blurted out.
Alba's eyebrows rose in confusion.
"...What? Has Torvar done something again?"
"No, it's not that. ...I don't think it's wise for you to go to the Bannered Mare looking for a spouse," Vilkas said, knowing somewhere deep inside that what he was saying was ridiculous, but stubbornly saying it anyway.
Alba's expression shifted from confused to angry in an eyeblink.
"What did you say?" she asked sharply.
"Approaching strangers in a tavern like you are looking for marriage—it's strange. What would the people of Whiterun say about the Companions if word got around?"
Alba's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Vilkas began to feel nervous. He knew perhaps better than anyone what she could do to someone who displeased her.
"You didn't even recognize me, Vilkas. What makes you think anyone else in the tavern would have known it was me? And even if people did know it was me, I don't see how my personal life could possibly be relevant to the Companions."
Vilkas grimaced. He could already tell he was picking a losing fight, and at the end of the day he didn't even really know why he'd picked it in the first place. His brain scrambled to sort itself out, to find some exit strategy that would satisfy them both.
"Forgive me, Harbinger, you are right… But Alba, what were you doing? I want to understand."
Alba crossed her arms across her chest and hunched her shoulders, making herself as small as possible.
"Does it matter? Don't people wear Amulets of Mara all the time? Why should it be so astonishing that I would as well?"
"The Amulet is usually used to signal your intentions after you've already come to know someone, after you've already courted, at least in some simple way," Vilkas said, realizing that perhaps Alba's Imperial heritage meant that she did not quite understand all of Skyrim's customs.
As the words fell out of his mouth, it also occurred to him that perhaps Alba already had met someone, already had established a relationship with someone in that tavern to the point that they might expect her overtures. Somehow this thought made everything worse.
Alba grimaced, then lifted her chin defiantly.
"Well I didn't know that. I still don't see the harm."
"The harm is that you, the Harbinger of the Companions, could end up marrying some random milk-drinker you found in a bar!" Vilkas said, his voice raising.
"Well it's not like I wanted to marry anyone!"
"For Talos' sake, if you didn't want to marry anyone then why were you wearing the Amulet of Mara!?"
"Because I don't want to die having never kissed a man!" Alba shouted.
Vilkas jerked away from Alba like he'd been slapped, completely taken aback. Initially his brain stuck on the second part of the exclamation: Alba had never kissed a man? How was that possible? How old was she exactly? A couple of reactions to her statement almost made their way out of his stupid mouth, but thankfully he caught himself and kept his undoubtedly unwelcome opinions to himself. Then, his brain finally returned to the first part of the sentence. Something about the way she said, "I don't want to die," didn't feel quite right, like she was referencing an immediate concern rather than exaggerating to emphasize her point.
"Do you… have reason to think your life in danger?" Vilkas asked carefully.
The fire in Alba's eyes dimmed, and her gaze fell to the floor. The tension that had filled the room dissipated, she sighed, and when she met Vilkas's eyes again she was back to the business-like Harbinger.
"I actually wanted to talk to you about that. Take a seat," she said, pulling a chair from the round table in the corner out for him.
An unsettling feeling of apprehension filled Vilkas's belly as they sat across from each other. If he didn't know any better, he'd think that his Harbinger was frightened, and he didn't want to imagine what might scare her.
"You know that I am Dragonborn, right?"
Vilkas nodded. They'd never really discussed it, but pretty much all of Whiterun knew. She'd eaten up a Dragon's Soul in front of the entire city guard, after all. Still, the significance of Alba's identity as Dragonborn wasn't entirely clear to him. He knew the Dragonborn could use the thu'um, and he'd guessed the Dragonborn's return must be related to the recent dragon attacks, but he still had only a vague idea of what the Dragonborn's responsibilities might be.
"The Greybeards, they tell me that means I have to defeat Alduin, the World-Eater. In a few days I'm going to the Throat of the World to learn a shout that should help me defeat him, then I will confront him. I'm… not sure what will happen, but I have a feeling I may not survive."
Vilkas's brow furrowed.
"Why must it be you? How do you know what the Greybeards are telling you is true?" he asked.
Alba shook her head.
"I have no option but to trust them. They have studied these prophecies their entire lives, while I know next to nothing about my own destiny. And besides that… I feel that what they are saying is true. It is difficult to describe, but I know I must defeat Alduin."
"Well then take a shield-brother or sister with you!" Vilkas said, growing agitated, "it is not the Companions' way to face an enemy alone."
"I appreciate that," Alba said, gracing Vilkas with a genuine smile, "but this is something I have to do alone."
It took a moment for Vilkas to formulate a response, distracted as he was by the first of Alba's smiles he'd ever witnessed.
"Based on the legends, if you do not defeat Alduin our very world may end. Surely accepting assistance would be worth the blow to your pride if it would ensure victory," he insisted.
Alba glared at him, and Vilkas winced. How did he always end up insulting her? And they said Farkas was the ice brain.
"I will be bringing Lydia with me, but I do not wish to involve the Companions. I do not want any of my shield-siblings to die fulfilling my responsibilities."
"I would go with you, even if it is your business and not the Companions," Vilkas said.
"No! No, you most of all I would not bring with me."
Vilkas flinched, hurt at her dismissal hitting him unexpectedly hard, but he refused to look away from her. Recognition lit Alba's eyes, and her stony features softened.
"I meant to say that… if I fail I do not want to leave the Companions leaderless. This is why I wanted to talk with you before I go to High Hrothgar. If I do not return, I want you to be the next Harbinger."
Vilkas's grip on his knees tightened, and his chest constricted. The Companions did not have a master, and Vilkas knew it was not appropriate to desire the position of Harbinger, but he could not deny that it was something he'd always wanted. But not like this.
"You will return," he said staunchly.
Alba smiled at him again. The second smile.
"I certainly intend to, but I need to plan for every possible outcome. I'm writing a letter naming you Harbinger, and it will be in my bedside table, should the need arise."
Vilkas swallowed thickly and shifted in his seat.
"If… if the need arises, I would be honored to take up the mantle of Harbinger. But for now I want to assist the current Harbinger. Is there anything I, or any of the other Companions, can do to help you prepare?" he asked.
Alba shook her head.
"No. No, I will spend the next few days gathering my equipment, preparing supplies, and repairing anything that needs it, but I will have plenty of time to do that on my own. On Fredas I'll set out for High Hrothgar."
Alba's voice betrayed a sadness that didn't suit her warm, soft features, and Vilkas felt an urge to lighten the mood.
"No more trips to the Bannered Mare?" he asked with a weak laugh.
Alba chuckled, and shook her head. She grasped the chain around her neck and carefully pulled it over her head, holding it in front of her and gazing at it for a long moment before carelessly tossing it to the side.
"I think it's pretty clear I didn't know what I was doing. And now isn't the time, anyway. Maybe it will never be the time for me," she said with a shrug.
Alba rose to her feet before Vilkas found any words to respond with (probably for the best), and turned towards her bedroom.
"That will be all for now. Thank you for talking with me, Vilkas."
"Of course, Harbinger."
Vilkas stood respectfully and watched as Alba walked to her chambers and shut the door behind her, staring at the door a long while after it had closed. Eventually, a bawdy laugh from upstairs shook him from his stupor, and he turned to leave. Just as he was about to cross the threshold, his eyes fell to the Amulet of Mara that lay forgotten on the ground. Without really thinking about it, he stooped to pick the trinket up, stuffing it into his pocket before retiring to his own chambers.