Chapter 16

Lydia of Riften had black hair, grey eyes and was a sturdy, handsome woman. She seemed to prefer heavy steel armor and favored the longsword and shield combination. Nord style, which relied on sweeping actions, momentum, and force. She was also competent with their favored two-handed weapons. Tariq switched to Legion style, shield and short sword, in-your-face, close combat. She matched him, so she'd had exposure to that style. He went to Redguard style. She put down her sword and took a short spear from the weapon racks. That surprised him. She wasn't familiar with Yokudan-style, and so she'd countered with a style that was obviously one meant to keep him at a distance. Still, he could tell it wasn't an entirely familiar style for her. If she had more skill, she could have kept herself out of the reach of his sword. He beat the spearpoint down and succeeded in rushing her. Afterward, she explained it was something she'd picked up from Dunmer caravan guards.

The Dragonborn had not yet accepted Balgruuf's offer to become a thane of Whiterun. He was going to join the Companions, though, which meant he would be living in Whiterun. And he wanted to hire her as a guide for his trip to High Hrothgar. He was clear that he would be paying her, not Balgruuf. She was not to try to persuade him to become a thane. If she couldn't agree to that, then he'd find another guide. Argis told her it had been the same way for him — hired on a trial basis while the lord took his time to decide. Tariq ibn Zayad was of an ancient noble line in his own homeland after all, and he had no need for titles or wealth in a foreign land from foreign lords, nor did he want unacceptable obligations that might come with a title. And despite all that, once he accepted, he held himself to a duty that too many born to a title did not ever acknowledge was there; they believed everyone else owed them a level of comfort they need never repay.

She was willing to try it, but first, she needed to gain Irileth's permission. She didn't want some freelance work to endanger her standing on the housecarl list if, in the end, the hero decided against being a thane of Whiterun.

"Have you ever thought of being a Companion, Lydia," asked Tariq. The mediocre bard had just finished "The Dragonborn Comes." A song that had Tariq frowning. It drew unwanted attention to him.

"What true Nord doesn't? But when it comes down to basics, they are mercenaries for hire. Their code of conduct prevents them from taking any job that hints of politics, and so it limits what battles they fight. I know the jarl allots a sizable amount of the city's treasury to keep them hunting and fighting bandit groups for those who can't afford the mercenaries' price. The Hold doesn't have enough of us to spare to handle everything. There's a Legion officer assigned to Whiterun, but it's mostly an advisory post, and he only has a token squad, not a garrison like in Falkreath."

"I've been told Jarl Balgruuf refuses the Legion a garrison because he does not want the Dominion demanding an embassy post in Whiterun," said Tariq.

"That is so. The jarl plays a complicated game. H e's distinguished himself in his years of service during the Great War, and his refusal is a rebuke to the Emperor, whose side he fought by to retake the Imperial City." Lydia shrugged. "That's how I see it. But it's probably best not to rely too much on my opinions. I'm going on gossip I overhear from nobles during parties, and sometimes their housecarls will talk. And these are battles and politics before my time, so it's all old, re-chewed hearsay. All I know is either the Empire or the military governor could force the issue, but they don't. The Dominion demands it, but still, the Empire holds back."

"What do you think is the jarl's position on the Stormcloak rebellion," asked Tariq.

"That Ulfric forgets how much of Skyrim still serve in the Legion. That he is willfully and ignorantly destroying Skyrim in the name of freedom. Jarl Balgruuf does not like the Dominion, and he does not approve of the Medes' handling of affairs, but he does not want to burn ancient ties with the empire Talos built. Traditionally, many emperors, before they ruled the empire, ruled in Solitude to re-affirm their ties with Skyrim."

"Until the Medes."

"Aye. Until the Medes. Maybe the Stormcloak is right that the Medes don't properly respect Skyrim. But this isn't the time to divide us when the Dominion wait like hungry wolves looking for the weakest members to take down and devour."

"I heard the Stormcloak is the descendant of your hero-king Ysgramor. Does that give him an undue influence?"

"His family rules the city that Ysgramor built, but no, you heard wrong. Ysgramor's direct line died with High King Borgas. The High King died by the Wild Hunt of the Bosmer. He was a disgrace to all Nords because he followed the prophet Maruhk and outlawed all our gods; he burned our shrines, murdered our priests. Kyne let him get what he deserved for his blasphemy. The Stormcloak's line comes from King Wulfharth, the Ash King and spirit of the Nords."

"Ah. Interesting. You say 'Kyne,' but you do not mean 'Kynareth?'"

"No. No disrespect to the healing priests of the Temple of Kynareth of our city — their skills have been a blessing in this time of conflict — but Kynareth of Cyrodiil is nothing like Kyne of Atmora. Kyne is the wild hawk on the wind, the storm that rolls off the mountain. She is the mother of battle, the lady of the shield and spear who continues the fight after Shor, her mate, has fallen.

"Kynareth of the Imperial Cult is a distant, shy maiden who was raised in a foreign court with foreign manners and taught nothing of her heritage, all the while her cultists claim Kyne's domain as hers." Lydia's smile was hard as she said, "Many detractors of High Queen Elisif say she is more Imperial than Nord. She is the perfect, civilized lady of delicate manners, modesty, and gentle rearing taught to depend upon and defer to her Imperial lord. The Empire wants Kynareth when we need Kyne."

"This togetherness between Skyrim and the Empire sounds like a confused marriage," Tariq ventured, curious about her reaction.

She frowned. "Hardly. Kyne is for Skyrim. St. Alessia is for Cyrodiil. St. Alessia's mate was Morihaus, the son of our Kyne. Without his strength, Alessia could not have successfully destroyed the Ayleids. The Imperials like to forget that. Their beloved saint should not have had to rely on a half-animal demi-god for their freedom and great empire. When they must depict him, the Imperial Cult gives him the face and body of a man. They like the story, though, that she convinced Auri-El, the chief of the mer gods, to her cause, causing him to forsake the mer and give patronage to the new empire of Man."

Tariq choked on his wine as he laughed. "I haven't heard that version before."

Lydia shrugged. "The gods of the Cyrodiil Empire are a compromise of the gods of Summerset and the gods of Atmora. The Imperial Cult likes to say they are the same gods, just different names and aspects of the true gods — the true gods as they define them. I think if you asked the elves their true opinions, it would probably be the same as ours: sad shades of the originals. Has the Imperial Cult tried to tell you Redguards that your gods are just another name for theirs? They tell you your chief god is merely another name and aspect of Almighty Akatosh? They name our Shor the Mad Lorkhan, or Sheor, or Shezarr. That's the elven view of course."

"Ah. Yes, they've successfully convinced too many that their Arkay and our Tu'whacca is the same god because both protect the dead," he admitted. "You have an interesting view of the gods, Lydia. I like that. So many just settle for one fixed view."

She shrugged. "I spent time with Dunmer from Morrowind. They are not shy about discussing gods, although theirs are Daedra. Their views on the Aedra are interesting. Their views on the Atmorans, well, none of us get paid if we kill each other over personal opinions of gods who are perfectly able to fight their own battles."

Tariq laughed again. "I see we're going to have many interesting discussions on the way to High Hrothgar, Lydia. I'm looking forward to them."

"I don't want to disappoint you, my lord," Lydia said deprecatingly, blushing slightly. "I'm just very good at recalling old gossip and stories. My reading and writing are just enough to read orders and make simple notes. I'm no scholar."

"Well, we'll see if you just repeat gossip or if you can go beyond the rote drills.

"Now, can you give me your impression of the Companions? I still intend to join them, and I'm sure they have their records and tales they tell of their history, but I want an outside opinion. You said, 'what Nord doesn't' want to join the Companions. Why have you not tried?"

She eyed him a long while before she spoke. "Politics," she answered bluntly. "I know when the serpents ruled the empire, the Companions were the only military group that was not outlawed and forcefully made to disband; the snakes did not want all of Skyrim to rebel because the Companions were at the heart of all that is Skyrim. And then there was the fact that the Companions were not the private army of the Jarl of Whiterun in that time when private armies were outlawed because the snakes wanted none but themselves to be armed. The snakes looked them over, saw a sloppy, loud-mouthed band of disorganized mead-swilling sots, and let them escape the ban."

"They have no formal command structure, or so I was told," said Tariq.

"So it is promoted." Lydia traced two circles, one within the other. "There is the entire band, and there is the inner circle. If you listen to them talk, they sound like a wolf pack, and their armor even has a wolf head symbol here," she tapped the base of her throat. "They refer to new recruits and junior members as 'whelps.' How a whelp gets promoted to the inner circle, those who handle the administrative tasks and who train and hand out assignments, don't necessarily seem to follow the rules of seniority or skill. I would guess it's only by promotion and voting by members of the inner circle. With that kind of structure, I'd be wary. It only encourages unhealthy competition for the attention of a circle member. Favoritism I could do without. Because without that patronage, your skill and your years of service will never increase your rank.

"Their dedication to neutrality, I can mostly understand. Cyrodiil, I heard, had this fabled group, the Knights of the Nine. A bunch of nobles of different states and countries formed their own league of justice and piety. The group destroyed themselves when members had to choose between family loyalties their loyalty to the ideals of the order. Members found themselves fighting on opposite sides with the powerful weapons and armor their league had recovered from past eras. And so the Companions made the hard rule that your loyalty is to the Companions, or you leave their hall forever.

"I thought about joining them, but I can't bring myself to commit that much to them. They hadn't so good a reputation in the past. Mercenaries. A bunch of drunken bullies. All talk, no bite. At times, only their name carried them as people wanted to remember the glory of the 500 Companions of Ysgramor taking the land from the Snow Elves. People, I guess, want to believe that even if the Companions won't choose a side in this civil war, at least they'll fight with all of us against the Dominion."

"You have doubts," Tariq asked, staring intently at her.

"No, my lord, I don't. They will. But I think by then it will be too late. It will only be a glorious death. Because, the way things look to be going, we'll kill ourselves before then. And all that will be left will be exhausted, demoralized survivors to watch the glorious first and last charge of the Companions. That is if anyone will bother, considering no one apparently had enough money to pay them to care about stopping things before it got that bad. They have influence, but they won't use it except to demand higher than normal mercenary prices."

Tariq drew a slow, deep breath as he considered that. Still, it was just her opinion, and she was clear about that. And he didn't yet know enough about her background, her experiences to judge the value of her opinion. But, as he'd told her, he was still going to join the Companions. Get the inside view while he sharpened his sword skills.

X—X—X—X—X—X—X

"Master, you're not seriously considering him. I've never even heard of him before."

Tariq would not react to this blatant disrespect. He judged the speaker as no older than he, so he could not claim the prejudice of age. Still, he wondered by what outward signs did that arrogant fool judge him by. His race? His equipage? His handsome looks? Sir short Nord was possibly reacting to Tariq's imposing six-foot-plus stature.

Dogs. Yes, that one was barking like a small lone wolf trying to threaten a desert lion.

The old wolf, the Harbinger, had more sense. He sent Tariq and his young, troubled wolf out to the practice yard for them to get acquainted via their weapons.

The Nord went through what sounded like oft-repeated admonishments against enchanted weapons and gear and any potion or spell enhancements.

"Fine. Give me a moment then," said Tariq. He gestured for Argis to help him strip off his Dwemer armor. "There are no skill enhancements on my armor but elemental resistances against fire, ice, and shock. But lest there be any accusations of cheating, I'll set aside my armor. You may also inspect my weapon without insulting me. Yokudan steel by the best weaponsmith of Sentinel."

He was not pleased to see a Dunmer come forward to inspect his weapon. He'd heard … But to actually see an elf here among the Nords seemed wrong. "No magic here," said the elf. He looked at the other weapons Argis had put aside with the armor. "Nice piece of silver there. You face a lot of ghosts, daedra, and vampires? We use a lot of silver weapons in Morrowind."

"I have. Vampires, werebeasts, and other demons in the deserts," he said stiffly. "Argis and I recently had the misfortune to get involved in Daedric Prince Hircine's latest Bloodmoon hunt in Falkreath. We won, naturally. A werebeast fall easily enough to silver."

Tariq flexed his toes into the dirt of the training yard. Bare feet because he wore the thin, light hide boots of stealth and stamina inside his Dwemer boots. He stretched, flexing as he loomed over his shorter opponent.

The Nord — Vilkas was his name, wasn't it? — was in grim-faced battle mode. His choice was shield and longsword. Tariq decided against equipping a shield to favor full use of the sword.

It was a good choice. The Nord's shield was also a weapon. He lurched forward in a shield bash then retreated with speed. Tariq leaped back from the shield while watching for the sword poised like a scorpion's tail to strike. No wasted moves, no threat displays, just focused intent to quickly test for weaknesses.

Tariq did likewise. He twisted and evaded the shield blows; he deflected the sword strikes. Nord versus Yokudan techniques, the shapes of the swords dictating their styles, the avalanche to the cyclone. Vilkas was fast on his feet and rapidly learned to anticipate where Tariq was going to move. He was now moving to herd Tariq to where his sword could strike. The Yokudan grinned. Ill-mannered though he be, Vilkas knew how to fight.

He changed up his style to in-fighting. Less sweeping actions and more to direct slicing thrusts. The spine of his sword would bend to direct blows, and the curved tip would not pierce as easily. Still, a deep slice was as devastating as a stab.

But as Vilkas stopped short of stabbing him, Tariq turned his sword's edge away so that the flat would slide against flesh.

Vilkas rushed him again, shield coming up hard like a gut punch. His sword came up under the shield, hilt first to avoid actual evisceration. Tariq's own sword curved down, edge out, behind the shield, the flat slapping the Vilkas's cheek instead of a downward slice of his throat even as Vilkas's hilted his inner thigh in what would have been a fatal arterial slice.

Fair enough. He didn't take Vilkas's ear, and Vilkas didn't try to nut-punch him.

Mutually satisfied, they stepped back.

"Alright, you're a decent fighter," Vilkas conceded. "But make no mistake, you're still a whelp to us until you've proven yourself." He then shoved his sword into Tariq's hands and told him to deliver it to the master of the Skyforge above the training ground.

Tariq shrugged, refusing to be offended. It aligned with his desire to get a closer look at the famous forge that he'd so admired as he'd descended the steps from Dragonsreach. And delivering Vilkas's sword would be an easy way to strike up a conversation with the equally famous Eorlund Gray-Mane.

He turned around and ordered Argis to move his armor (except for the soft boots, which he could now wear again) and weapons into his assigned quarters. After that, he should check on the horses. He should also take what coins he would need for renting a room somewhere. Vilkas, who had stopped to listen as Tariq issued orders, scowled darkly. The other listeners were rapidly becoming aware that the new blood wasn't a nameless nobody.

The Nord weaponsmith, typical of all smiths, was powerfully built. Also pretty arrogant, wearing nothing but a kilt while working so close to what melted steel and ebony and was a forge point of the world. Forge tanned and tough hide scarred from countless shards of metal that flew from under his hammer blows.

"Greetings, O master of the forge! I bring Vilkas's sword for sharpening."

The smith, who had been resting and drinking from a large mug, silently stood and held his hand out for the sword. He looked over Vilkas's sword and set it aside. Then he held out his empty hand again. His eyes glanced to Tariq's sword, and Tariq promptly gave his sword over. The smith carefully inspected the blade.

"Beautiful," he pronounced. "The ores of Yokuda are hard to obtain as the mines of Yokuda isles, I hear, are near exhausted. Impossible to get outside of Hammerfell. And I hear that since the Great War, there are no more ore ships or mining being done at Yokuda because of the danger of Dominion stealing or sinking ships returning to Hammerfell." He held the blade over the forge. Tariq, normally, would not have allowed that, but he trusted that the man would not do anything that would destroy the blade's temper.

The metal was allowed to heat for a while, then the smith re-examined the blade. He even seemed to be sniffing it. "Just enough orichalcum, yes, for additional strength without compromising flexibility and shatter resistance. Hm, and the tempering … It looks like oil tempering instead of salt. What type of oil? Hm …" He set the blade on the rim of the forge to let it cool slowly. "A hard blade to duplicate without knowing the ore ratios, the sourcing, the blending.

"I saw your silver sword and your Dwemer armor. I would like to examine them in the future."

"I would be pleased to allow it, sir."

"Eorlund. And just so you know, I am not a member of the Companions though it has been my honor to serve as their smith. An obligation, rather, if I was to fulfill my dream to work the Skyforge."

"An acquaintance of mine has called the Skyforge the 'forge point of the twelve worlds,' for it was here when Mundus when spun together. If the White-Gold Tower is the axis point, then the Skyforge is where the belt of the world comes together."

The Nord snorted. "Fanciful nonsense. This place is old, true, and we'll never know who built it."

"What powers it?" asked Tariq. "Clearly not wood or coals. For an open forge this big, I would imagine the coal pile would fill the training yard. It also does not appear or smell like volcanic magma or gas such as the Dwemer forges use that still burns in their ruins."

"No. None of those. It's a mystery no one has ever explained. I've always fancied the great stone bird gathers the sunlight and wind to heat the forge and feed the flames. As good as any explanation of magic as I've ever heard from the mages."

Tariq stared up at the bird. If this forge was from before the Merethic Era, and the bird too, what kind of stone was the bird carved from, or this forge, if time had not succeeded in weathering it to crumbling lumps and sand? It wasn't quite an eagle, perhaps a juvenile one, or a hawk.

They talked for a while. Tariq was surprised that the smith's world experience was so limited. He'd apprenticed with his father, the Companion's previous forge master. His own journeyman years were spent in Solitude, where he was introduced to styles and metals that don't often come to Whiterun, the heart of Skyrim. But when the Great War broke out, he returned to Whiterun to help his father equip the warriors and horses being gathered by Prince Balgruuf to meet the Emperor fleeing north as the Imperial City fell to the Dominion. Yes, and many Companions who went and never came back. In the years after, he studied the foreign equipment brought back, intuiting the metal compositions and the non-Nord designs.

"There is no other place like the Skyforge," Eorlund would tell him days later when they had gotten to know each other better. "Give your heart to it, learn its ways, and it will teach you how to read the color of the fires. When you melt the ores on the forge, when you grind, you seem more sensitive to the smell of the different types of ores, and the taste, even to the different grades. Working at other forges is duller, like having a cold. The colors seem wrong. I could never work anywhere else. I wouldn't want to."

His talk with Eorlund ended with the smith asking him to deliver Aela's shield back to her. Tariq was happy to do that. Although he'd seen her and Skjor in the feast hall when he'd first entered, they hadn't been in the audience to watch his match with Vilkas.

"Congratulations," said Aela as she took her shield and tossed it onto her bed. "I hear you gave Vilkas quite the beating."

"He has potential to be a great master," said Tariq, shrugging. "I am impressed by how quickly he picked up my style and developed counters. We should spar with wooden weapons so that we don't have to hold back so much."

"So you think you could take him in a true fight?"

"You've seen me fight, Aela, and you've certainly seen him. What do you think?"

She and Skjor laughed.

"Yes, we've seen you fight," said Skjor. "It won't take you long to prove yourself. Having the Dragonborn in the Companions — you'll be part of the inner circle soon. Your strength will join with ours."

"I haven't even gotten to High Hrothgar, Skjor," said Tariq dourly. "I believe only they can officially name me this Dragonborn. But as I told the Harbinger, I wanted to join the Companions before I climbed that mountain. And, as I have said to Jarl Balgruuf, I am not pleased about this Dragonborn legend, and I do not need a new title. I must know what I am supposed to fight for before I commit to it. And you may thank Ria that I even came. She made charming arguments of how the Companions could help me understand Skyrim and gain new experience and skills.

"Aye. Stay with us, and we'll show you everything a Nord and Companion is meant to be," said Skjor.

Tariq's lips flattened in irritation. "As I said, I look forward to seeing what skills the Companion can teach me. Now, a thousand apologies, but it's been a long day, and I would like to rest a bit before dinner. May I be shown the quarters available to me?"

At first, he thought Aela was going to escort him, but she only stepped past him to below out the room door, "Farkas! Get over here."

A massive Nord with familiar features blocked the doorway. He wasn't much taller than Vilkas, who had to be his brother, but he was broader with more muscle. "Can it wait, Aela? I just got back from the Pale."

"And I have a job to get to, icebrain. Show this new blood where the rest of the whelps sleep," Aela ordered, waving at Tariq.

Farkas glanced at his with interest. "New blood? Oh, hello. I'm Farkas. Come on, follow me."

"Farkas Icebrain," asked Tariq, falling in step beside him.

"No. Skjor and Aela like to tease me, but they're good people. The only family name my brother and I have is Jergenson, for Jergen, the man who was the nearest we had for a father for a few years before he died in the Great War." As they walked to the opposite end of the — Hall? Deck? What do you call the interior of an overturned warship? — of the building, Farkas snagged a whole apple pie and a bottle of mead from a side table that had food on it. "The quarters are up here. Just pick a bed and fall in it when you're tired. Oh, I see the other whelps are here to meet you. Tilma will keep the place clean. She always has.

"Alright, so here you are. Come to me or Aela if you're looking for work. Once you've made a bit of a name for yourself, Skjor and Vilkas might have things for you to do. Good luck. Welcome to the Companions." He walked away while scooping a chunk of pie into his mouth. Tariq smiled after him. He liked the man. Hopefully, when he wasn't so obviously punch-drunk tired, he wouldn't turn to be as dour and hostile as Vilkas.

The sleeping quarters for the whelps was a group room with no separation of the sexes. The women, however, did claim a third of the chamber as theirs as marked by modesty screens. As the Harbinger had said, there were plenty of empty beds.

His general impression of the male recruits were of young, rowdy boys from different Holds with dreams of glory. Most were younger than him. The two standouts were the Dunmer and one older "whelp" who seemed to be between 30 and 40, and who was already staggering drunk.

There were half a dozen women, all young. Njada was still sullen and openly hostile, Ria was bubbly as ever, and the others had the sober, intensity that reminded him of Lydia. Except for Ria, all the women were Nords, either from Whiterun or the Pale.

He dutifully introduced himself to everyone. The last one he talked to was the Dunmer, asking him the same question he asked everyone else: What brought you to the Companions?

"Fortune and glory, friend. Fortune and glory."

"Is that what you told the Harbinger," Tariq challenged.

The Dunmer sat back and considered him. Tariq knew this elf was likely older than anyone else here, possibly as old, or even older, than the Harbinger. An elf whose life could go to 300 and maybe beyond didn't consider young elves true adults until their 50th year. "I crawled out of the wastelands looking for some meaning in life. I'm an Ashlander; we're all Ashlanders after the mountain blew and the Tribunal fell, but the Houses still had no use for me. The Companions offered me a place; I never thought they would actually let me join, but now it looks like they're letting anyone in these days," he concluded with a humorless grin.

Tariq grinned right back. "And what does it mean to you to be a Companion?"

"It means signing on for the Nord ideas of how to live your life. Honor, battle, glory, all that. 'Even an elf can be born with the heart of a Nord,' Skjor said when I joined. I think he meant is as compliment."

Tariq grimaced. It would never be a compliment to me, he thought.

"And are you happy with that, considering the history between your races?"

"If the Nords let a shrine to Azura be built in Winterhold, I think I can keep peace with the Companions."

"Are you a worshiper of Azura?"

The Dunmer didn't answer immediately. He did get to his feet though. He was shorter than the average Nord men here, coming only chest-high to Tariq. "I pay my respects to Azura, Mephala, and Boethiah, friend," he said evenly, then challenged, "You got a problem with that?"

"I suppose if the Harbinger and other Companions don't object, I'll just have to abide." Tariq turned his back on him. Argis had brought his equipment here and left it piled on a bed. That was on was unacceptable. He gathered his things and moved to the bed furthest from the Dunmer.

"Let's be clear about this," Athis called after him. "You came to join the Companions, right? Not the Vigilants of Stendarr?"

Tariq looked for somewhere to store his gear. There was a small chest of drawers for each bed. Other than that, most of them seemed happy enough to shove their armor and weapons under their beds. He wondered if there was a house nearby available to rent. This was no proper way to store and organize one's equipment.

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