Chapter 22

Magus, keep thy vigil eternal. Serve now in death as you did in life. By these seals our realm preserve. From traitors three and their charm of strife.

They were resting in the next room from the presumed arch-mage's bier. The draugr in the bier room and this room had all been the high-level shouting type. Tariq was exhausted and hoarse, Lydia's left arm was broken by a shout slamming her against some rubble, and Argis's right leg and hip were broken. Rodina was the only uninjured one because she had stayed back in a cleared area. And she was now staggeringly exhausted from using her limited healing ability to take the edge off Argis and Lydia's pains.

"We can't continue; time to go back," said Rodina. "If all the draugr here are this powerful, you shouldn't explore, either, on your own."

"We can't continue; time to go back," said Rodina. "If all the draugr here are this powerful, you shouldn't explore, either, on your own."
He agreed and half-carried Lydia back to the entrance. Wilhelm and his friend were topsides, one to keep watch in the cave and the other to do some fishing. At this hour, it was Wilhelm's turn to sit in the cave with the rope ladder since the entrance to the tomb was a long drop into a pool of water. They got Lydia up. Tariq cut some flexible saplings down to make a litter, and then he and Wilhelm went down to fetch Argis. Eventually, they were all topside. Once back in town, and after putting the two under the town's trader-slash-healer, Tariq and Rodina went back to the inn to review what had happened.

Rodina was still frowning as she looked up at Tariq. "The writing is Atmoran; the form is, I'd say, early First Era. Probably within the first 500 years. Now, from that 'Legends' book on the skeever killed explorer's corpse, that there was Arch-mage Geirmund, the Royal Battlemage of King Harald — if that legend is true."

"Truth of memory," said Tariq. "It is called Lake Geir, is it not? And the locals call that Geirmund's Cave, although they do not know who this Geirmund."

Rodina nodded. "Aye. Most locals I've talked to think he may have been someone important back when this area was known as Sunguard in the Second Era, thousands of years after King Harald's time. But if this book is correct, I wouldn't be able to find any reference to this arch-mage in Windhelm's official records because of Harald's decree. There might be records to be found in High Rock or Summerset if it was true that Gaulder was respected even by the mer. They wouldn't have cared what a barbarian king decreed. And if it's true Lord Geirmund was buried where he died, then I'll bet this Sigdis, the youngest of Gaulder's sons, is somewhere in that same tomb with his magic piece. Can't guard someone if they're not in the same location, right? I… Oh, hey!" she suddenly called out to someone behind Tariq.

He looked. "Hey! Hey!" it was Aela and Ria. Ria bounced over and hugged them.

Aela clapped him on his left shoulder before taking a seat beside him. "So, how was High Hrothgar? They teach you anything up there?"

"I learned two more words and that I detest snow. So when winter comes to Whiterun, I want all the southern jobs."

"Hah! Seniority gets first pick," said Aela.

"So, is it 'Companion Ria' and not 'wet-eared whelp' anymore?" asked Rodina.

"Yes!" said Ria.

"She did good," said Aela. "The only thing I had to do was comb my hair. They were supposed to be a tough bunch. But she yelled 'sit!' and they sat. So boring for me."

Tariq grinned at Ria, pleased. "An opening attack, then? Slowing down their reaction time?"

"Yes. They were not a nice bunch. I used my voice to take out the magic users. Like you said, take out the magic user first."

"And beat down the rest, I see." Rodina pulled her down and examined the red lines of Ria's new scars. Deep ones, but evidently they'd made it back to Whiterun after the job and she'd gotten the Kynareth priests to heal the worst ones, but not completely. When these healed, there would only be faint white lines, not the ugly puckering of wounds inadequately bound or sewn in field care. There wouldn't even be white lines if Ria had let the priests complete the healing, so this was a cosmetic choice she had made.

"Where's Argis and Lydia?" asked Ria.

"Getting seen by the local healer and resting," answered Rodina. "We got back last night from exploring an ancient tomb. Didn't make it through all the way and had to turn back because they had some serious injuries after encountering a tough bunch of draugr."

"Where was this?" asked Aela.

They were back at Geirmund's tomb the next day, Aela and Ria instead of Argis and Lydia. Today, Klimmek and two fishing buddies volunteered to stay topside.

It turned out that Tariq, Argis, and Lydia had managed to clear the majority of draugr because they only encountered single sentries.

Sigdis was entombed in the final chamber. He was an archer with the ability to create functional copies of himself that could fight and shout. The area was also not meant for sword fighting; it was partially flooded with standing areas spaced around the perimeter and platforms in the center. Shoot a copy down, and all of them disappeared and reformed, strong as ever.

This was Aela's arena, and Tariq had no choice but to kneel down in front of Aela and brace his shield to protect her. He also practiced his shouts on targets that appeared on the platform closest to them, getting some satisfaction when the targets were flipped off their platforms. Ria's archery skills were less than Aela's but still far better than Tariq's, so she ducked behind a pillar between her shots. Rodina stayed in another room. It had a partially crumbled section with an iron-barred window into this chamber through which she watched the fight.

He wondered what musical nonsense she would make of this.

"Ria! Have you spotted the target by now?" shouted Aela.

"Yes! The one with the different helmet."

"Good girl! Don't forget to keep track of the others. While he's still standing, they're just as deadly. There's a delay after one falls before they all disappear and reform. Use that delay to shoot him."

"Got it!"

If the draugrs weren't frequently shouting, the killing would have been faster. Still, the two downed their target, and Aela triumphantly claimed the ebony bow. Rodina claimed the writ pinned to Sigdis's body and the amulet he wore, the amulet piece he and his brothers murdered their father for. They returned to Lord Geirmund's room, Tariq insisted, to inform him they'd taken care of Sigdis and that he could consider his vigil over. He also took the bow and amulet to the enchanter's table to reveal their attributes, if any. The amulet piece added a large reserve to the user's stamina. The bow's enchantments were equally impressive in harvesting and transferring magicka. Like many First and Second Era enchantments, these effects were exclusive and permanent, meaning they could not be transferred to another object and never needed recharging.

"It's a good bow as ebony bows go, Aela. But if you were a mage or spellsword, this would have more value. It drains magic from its target and transfers it to the user. I can see its benefit to a battlemage. Running low on power? Then shoot a few enemies to replenish without the bother of carrying potions that can upset one's stomach and give headaches from overuse. But as you aren't a magic user, you do not get the benefit."

"Well, I don't need that," said Aela, scowling. "I suppose I could sell it to a mage, unless you're interested?"

"You know that's not my style of weapon, Aela."

"I have an idea," said Rodina. "I'm sure once you find a buyer, the gold would be good. But I'm more in mind of buying favors with it. I'm thinking of the legate. He may not be a battlemage, but you heard him confess to using magic to enhance his health recovery, stamina, and speed during battle. He would understand the value of such a weapon. Tariq, do you think he has combat and armor skills he can teach you? I know the Companion has Farkas as the heavy armor instructor, but still, the legate has a century of experience. Plus, it's more likely he and his legionnaires will be the first defense of Ivarstead if those dragons start acting up. The people here know it. They also know that he's keeping most of the local bandits suppressed.

"There's also information he may be willing to share with us and possibly some other little benefits. One favor I've already asked of him was to send a letter to Whiterun via Legion courier. It will go first to Legate Quentin in Dragonsreach, who will pass it to the jarl. And in the Rift, the only place to find courier services is in Riften, and they are favorite targets for the Thieves Guild. Never send money or anything valuable by Rift couriers. For one, the veterans know not to accept anything that makes them targets.

"Though there is one downside that you might not want. This could bring you to the attention of the provincial governor, General Tullius. If the stormcloaks find out, you could be considered a spy. And as you become known as the Dragonborn, the Legion be tracking you. And with Dominion spies in the Legion, they'll be watching you as well. Now, I'm sure Fasendil wouldn't mention you specifically to General Tullius as a favor to us. But we both know he's probably got eyes watching him since he is an Altmer in the Legion. During the war, the Dominion were vicious about killing or capturing Altmer legionnaires for public torture and execution as race traitors. Not to mention, a lot of Legion Altmer became the despised minority and were abandoned or shoved into the worst fighting by their fellow legionnaires to prove their loyalty. That's how Fasendil became such an expert at behind-the-lines solo missions.

"That's my thought, anyway. All comes down to you, Tariq." She said this lightly, but her eyes watched him. She'd long ago weaseled out of him his hatred of all knife-eared yellow bastards. It persisted even though he'd interacted with honorable dissident Altmer since coming to Skyrim. Her suggestion was a good one. Having an inside in the Legion was useful. If only Legate Fasendil wasn't an Altmer.

"It sounds good, Rodina, but I'm against that," said Aela. "That's too close to politics. As part of the Circle, I can't approve such a trade."

"Oh, of course, Companion Aela. I understand." Rodina shrugged with an apologetic smile. Tariq relaxed. After all, he'd given the bow to Aela, so the decision was hers.

"But I'll take it back to Whiterun and give Jarl Balgruuf the first chance at buying it," said Aela. "He likes collecting enchanted weapons, so I'll likely get a good price. I'll give you a finder's fee if it sells, Tariq."

… … …

"Ustengrav? Thane of Ustengrav? Not a name I've heard of," said Aela. "And the monks say you have to retrieve an old horn from this tomb to prove you're worth. Huh. Strange. How did the founder of the Tongues come to be buried elsewhere? Why not here?"

"Perhaps a matter of ancestry," said Tariq. "While Jurgen Windcaller may be Nord or Atmoran, perhaps, like Tiber Septim, he was originally born outside Skyrim's territory?"

"Maybe. Let Rodina look for it in her dusty tomes once she gets back to Whiterun. And if Whiterun doesn't have it, she can always dig in the even older and dustier papers of the Bards' College. The monks didn't give you the location?"

"One of them pointed west."

They were lounging at the top of a semi-ruined tower at the northeast edge of Lake Geir. They'd come across the fake victim of a robbery. An obvious trap as the ridiculous, self-proclaimed victim had a sturdy bow on his back. The overturned cart and strewn goods were too meager for a peddler, but that could be from a robbery, and yet they left him with a sturdy bow in good condition. And, instead of insisting on an escort to Ivarstead, claimed there was help in the ruins of a tower. He and Aela were casually dressed in cloth and leather, like any other hunter in the area. In truth, Aela was doing all the hunting, and Tariq's role was to gut and carry her kills.

No different here. Aela dismembered a deer to put it on the spit in the outside dining area. He hauled and tossed the robbers down upon the rocky area where they'd thrown all their robbery victims. She'd found a bag of salt among the robbers' cooking supplies and had liberally sprinkled that over the meat. Tariq had his own spice mix that he always packed in his travel bag, a tiny travel jar that he refilled from the larger jar in the supply packs Nimat carried.

"What is that?" Aela asked, her nose wrinkling as she sniffed over the seasoned meat.

"Essences of home. Pepper, cardamom, paprika, cumin, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, and cinnamon." Aela sneezed twice. Tariq frowned, held the skewer over the fire for a bit, then took it back to continue applying spices.

"Eh. I'm fine with just salt."

"Yes. It's a pity Nord food taste favors bland dishes."

"I prefer the natural flavor," huffed Aela.

"Spice is perfectly natural."

"Perhaps. But just keep that stuff away from my portion of meat."

Afterward, they ended the meal with a small barrel of the robbers' mead.

"Now that you've met the Greybeards, what do you think of being the Dragonborn?"

"Truthfully, it's bothersome. While I find myself growing fond of the idea of challenging dragons, I do not like this mantle of being the legendary hero of Skyrim. It makes me a target. And with this civil war going on, it's bound to involve me in politics, something I joined the Companions to avoid. I refuse to be bait-stock for recruitment for either side."

"I hear you, brother. It's hard to keep the Companions neutral from the war. Is the raider suppression request really robbers or soldiers gone bad? If it's soldiers, taking them down would be seen as siding with the opposite side. Same with merchant harassment, robbers, or soldier tactics? It's hard to be sure. It takes time to investigate. And by the time we get answers, the danger could have gotten worse, and we are blamed for indifference. But if we respond quickly and find out afterward we've just attacked a unit, we have to prove we weren't taking sides in this war. Even if we can argue successfully, which, I tell you, is damn difficult because we're talking about changing opinions, there's usually some monetary penalty. No, frankly, we have to bribe them to forget our involvement."

"Have the Companions been losing money?"

"The first year, aye. We've pulled back on many jobs in areas being contested by the factions to avoid accusations of taking sides. Unfortunately, robbers have been quick to take advantage, looting heavily in the aftermath of battles. Most of our income since has been from Balgruuf using us as auxiliaries to the guards to keep robbers and other monsters in the hold in check so that trade caravans can get through. That's kept our coffers enough to cover Jorrvaskr's basic running costs — except when someone kept destroying the practice yard a few weeks past. Vilkas was seeing red after paying the bills. In the account books, that is."

"Ah. I did recover some gemstones and enchanted weapons in the tombs," said Tariq, smiling up at the stars. "Selling them should repair the balance to the books."

It was a warm night, and they decided to sleep outside the tower. Tariq rolled out a mat next to the cooking fire and wasn't surprised when Aela dropped her mat next to his. He noticed that about the senior Companions; they weren't shy about snuggling up during camping. He had to admit, a pile of Companions made for a warm night on the frosted tundra.

"At least these robbers know good booze when they steal it," said Aela, pouring them another serving. The batch came from Greenwood, a town on the other side of the Jerall mountains, and had been part of a trade caravan going to Riften. She shifted position to rest her head on his stomach. Tariq didn't mind. He stroked her hair, and she didn't seem to mind either.

"Did you want the bow to go to this Legion legate?" she asked suddenly.

"Having a contact in the Legion isn't altogether a bad idea," admitted Tariq. "But why bring it up now?"

"Oh, Falkreath. You and my cousin seemed alright working with Legate Skulnar. He and Ingvar seem to be working awfully close to nip and herd a lot of small trouble out of the hold before they can get denned in and get bigger. Of course, for the bands that are already entrenched, that cooperate with that corrupt jarl, all my cousin and Skulnar can do is petty harassment. And when that gets too much for his pets, the jarl will think of a trivial mission he can order Ingvar to attend to. But did you want to make closer ties to this Legate Fasendil?"

"No. As you said, that would be getting into politics, something I do not want."

"Is it just politics, or is it because the legate is an elf? Admit it, Tariq, you don't like elves. It was obvious the way you act around Athis. According to Vilkas, that first day, you stiffened like a spear was rammed up your bottom, and you were snarling. No one's missed that you act like a Windhelm Nord around dark elves."

"Are you going to also quote that irritating Imperial book about Redguards?"

"Hah. Rodina told me if Fasendil wasn't as good as he was, you'd have killed him even if it only meant to be a practice bout."

"She exaggerates. We both were holding well back."

"Were you?"

"Yes, we were."

"But you don't like elves," she persisted.

"I do not. I don't trust them. I spent years tracking Dominion spies, blocking their accursed Fists. Still, their poison spread. You cannot fight their kind of golden corruption with a sword. I was given a hero's title, but invited to leave because I was becoming too inconvenient for certain parties.

"That's when I decided to pursue my dream of becoming an Ansei in earnest. I was advised to do it outside of Hammerfell, where there weren't so many eyes watching me. My teacher, Mehmet, a priest of Tall Papa, read the stars for me and said they pointed to Skyrim as the most favorable start to my journey. The teachers I need were here in this land."

"Have you found them yet? The Greybeards maybe?"

"I am not certain yet. I am sure they can teach me more about this 'Voice' power, but they will not do so unless I pass their test to retrieve the horn of their founder."

"Yes. Some ancient place called Ustengrav. Probably another semi-buried ruin from the First Era. So you have Rodina searching that place for you?"

"I think she would be able to find it faster with all the contacts she has."

"How about other teachers? How is being part of the Companions for you? Are we teaching you anything?"

"I am learning about Skyrim, which was my main objective. As for skills, I reluctantly admit Athis has blade techniques I should learn. Legate Fasendil has armor and shield skills different than what Farkas and Njada teach. Farkas's use of armor is defensive, the Legate, as a weapon. Njada uses her shield in defense and offense, but I confess I do not like Njada enough to learn from her. She and I did not make a good impression on each other when we first met. This has not improved."

"Huh. You could benefit from learning the bow. I'd enjoy teaching you that."

"The bow is not a weapon of the Ansei."

"Snob. But if you're going to fight dragons, you should have some skill in ranged weaponry. Bow, preferably. Or magic staves. Are your current subordinates any good in that area?"

"Argis manages with a hunting bow for close range despite only having one eye. Lydia is good with her Imperial bow, although her skills are better with blades. Rodina is good with light bows and hunting birds and small animals."

"Enough to shoot the wings of a dragon? Once it's down, you can take it from there."

Tariq laughed. "Ambitious. But, no, I don't think they can do much more than just annoy a dragon. But why do you ask? You hungry to try to shoot down another dragon, my fierce Aela?"

"Of course! It is a great challenge, is it not? One worthy of our skills. Do you have any useful information about the two dragons that showed up? Their strengths? Did the Greybeards teach you how to gauge their power?"

"That was not discussed."

She sat up and stared down at him, frowning. "For shame, Tariq. You are a hunter of dragons, yet you do not know the characteristics of your prey? Do all the dragons attack the same way? Is there any significance to their colors? Where do they prefer to nest? What prey do they prefer to hunt? How large is their territory, and how do they mark it? Gain control over it?"

"These are not simple animals —" he began to say. She interrupted him.

"So they are intelligent? Even so, they are still prey, are they not? Bandits, robber groups, assassin teams, attack units — what is their command structure, organization setup, numbers, abilities, and resources?"

"Yes, yes, fierce wolf of the plains, I understand what you say. I have been lax in my studies. Oh, but why that odd expression? I see my lack of attention must disappoint you. My apologies."

"You have such odd expressions at times, Tariq. 'Wolf of the plains,' where did that come from?"

"It seemed obvious enough. The wolf armor of the Companions, the plains of Whiterun. Was I mistaken? Was it, perhaps, an insult?"

"No, no." She laughed. "You have such a flowery way of speaking at times, Tariq. Sometimes it's like those flouncy high-born Bretons you might find in Solitude." She refilled her tankard and flopped back down onto his stomach.

"I say we go look at one of those dragons. We don't need to try anything with it. Just look it over. It might also be fun just to see how close we can get to it."

"I would agree, but Ivarstead town is too near."

"Like I said, just look it over."

… … …

It was a smallish, dull brown dragon draped across the top of a ruined tower. The place appeared to have been a small fort in the past, with only two crumbling towers remaining. The only thing that looked pristine was the word wall set against the hillside above the taller of the two towers; and a stone bridge connected the top of the tower to the platform of the word wall. The old hunter hired to watch the dragon said the dragon used frost magic. According to him, the dragons so far just hunted bears and the cattle the locals pastured in the mountain areas. But, after losing too many cows to the dragons, the farmers were bringing their herds back to their farms. That wouldn't be good. The dragons would start hunting closer to town and the farms.

The legate had anticipated this and bought cows to remain in the high pastures for the dragons, but it was only four, and they had to be guarded against the bears. So far, the dragons were acting like lizards and snakes. Once stuffed, they preferred to sleep and digest. It was hoped they continued to behave like that, unlike a cat — or man and mer — who killed for the sport even if they weren't hungry.

Tariq found him an amusing old man, dedicated to original Atmoran folk religion rather than the Divine versions. The old man was gruff and dismissive of non-Nords, but Tariq didn't mind. Aela got along well with him. The hunter's grandson lived with him, and the boy was a Helgen survivor. He'd seen his parents crushed under collapsing, burning buildings. The child alternately clung to and rebelled in small, fussy ways, to which the old man just grunted. He kept the coarser language he used towards Aela and Tariq in check. Tariq could see the wood toy sword and shield were well made. The child-sized bow and arrow set were also well-crafted and had Aela's praise.

Aela and the hunter discussed local hunting and the dragon. Tariq and the boy went outside and practiced swordplay. The boy remembered him as one of the people attending the wounded. Tariq had bandaged his arm and had pulled him away from his mother's body so that others could carry her off to the side for the next wounded person's treatment. The rest of his memories of Helgen were hazy until his grandfather picked him up in Riverwood and brought him here. His mother's crazy old da who lived in the mountains. His other grandparents were with his parents.

Tariq honestly didn't remember the boy; there had been too many children, too many dead. But he patiently worked with the boy's clumsy, rushed, angry flailing. The old hunter wasn't a swordsman but used a bow and knife, yet he'd made the sword and shield because the boy wanted ones like his father used. Once physically spent, the boy collapsed in tears. Tariq held him.

… … …

Argis's adventuring days were over. His bones hadn't been just broken; they'd been shattered, fragmented far beyond the local healer's ability. He'd done what he could for bleeding, preserving nerves, and easing pain, but this needed a chirurgeon's skills. The apologetic shopkeeper/healer only knew of a face-sculptor in Riften who had the skills with bone and knife. Aela only knew of a retired Legion chirurgeon in Whiterun, a retired healer whose eyesight had clouded and hands no longer steady enough for surgery.

Argis was in no condition to be moved. Tariq and Rodina rode to Riften. Some guard stuttered something about an entry fee, and Rodina demanded to see the official authorization writ with either the jarl's seal or the Black-Briar's. A ridiculous hustle. They went in. Rodina went straight for the nearest stairs to the stinking canal water level. Tariq didn't want to speculate just how she knew which shabby door led directly into the underworld of Riften. It was a sewage system converted into an underground fortress; ancient water pipes and filter chambers became corridors and rooms. Rodina deftly threaded the labyrinth to a large cavern with an open, shallow pool of water.

"Hey, Vekel! Got any sujamma from Raven Rock?"

"Always keep a couple for you, Rodi."

"Anything from Hammerfell for my escort here?"

"I had a special shipment that was packed with some worm juice."

"Let's see it." The man rummaged through a low shelf that had to be on the floor level. Out came a dusty bottle with a small caterpillar floating in it. Rodina glanced at Tariq, who sighed and nodded once.

Rodina paid, and the barkeep popped the cork out of the snake bottle and slid it over to Tariq along with a stone cup. Tariq poured some into the cup. He heard coins being exchanged and bets on whether he'd actually drink the stuff. He tossed the mouthful back. He poured another cup, and Rodina snagged it from his hand and tossed it back. She went into a fit of coughing.

"What the hell is that?"

"Mezcal," said Tariq, taking his cup back and poured himself another serving. "The worm feeds off the leaves bringing back the flavor of the raw leaves into the distillation."

A middle-aged Breton in dark leather armor walked into from a back room. "What brings you around, Fair Rodina?"

"No business with you, Mercer. I'm looking for the face sculptor. Last I heard, she was still around here somewhere." The one called Mercer looked Tariq over. He signaled someone to show them back out to the canal level to one of the unmarked doors. The guide knocked.

"State your business."

Summerset accent from an iron tube in the door frame. Rodina pushed the guide aside. "Customers for the face sculptor. Ten thousand if you come to Ivarstead. Triple that amount if you accept the job." There was a long silence.

"Even if the gold is real, it does me no good if I don't live to spend it."

Tariq nudged Rodina aside. "You will be saving the life of my servant in Ivarstead. Once he is well enough to be moved to my home in Whiterun, you will come with us and collect the rest of your payment. Chose your destination, and I will pay for a Companion to escort you wherever you wish to go in Skyrim."

"Words. How can I know I can trust you?"

"I can give you my name and current titles, elf, but do you have the connections to verify me? Time is of the essence. My housecarl will be crippled for life without your chirurgeon skills. I know you call yourself a 'face sculptor.' Restoring leg, hip, backbones, and muscles should not be beyond your skill. I do not ask for beauty perfection but something he can live with for the rest of his life."

"All right. Tell me your name."

"Tariq ibn Zayad. I was granted the title of Lion of Yokuda for my work in killing vampires and hunting Dominion and spies and assassins. In Skyrim, I have the title of thane in both the Reach and Falkreath. I have been with the Companions in Whiterun for the past quarter year. I am also the Dragonborn."

A long moment of silence.

"Before we can leave, I will need as many healing, stamina, and magic potions as you can buy. Is there an alchemist at Ivarstead? We will likely need to craft more such potions and potions to my specific recipes. Are there other healers or mages there that can assist me? Normally, I work alone, but for the injuries you describe, I will require assistants. Healing experience is preferred, or at least a mage who knows how to support. Lastly, none of this comes out of my pay. So, when do we leave?"

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