From where the morning light was rising, it set a long shadow on the two strangers standing in front of them. The air in the Plains District was pleasant with the chill of the morning still noticeable. The light glinted off of their stone masks, an almost blinding streak of light that made Aeiron squint her eyes at them. She licked her lips. A confrontation was coming, there was no denying it.
"You don't look from around these parts," Vilkas said. "You lost?"
Aeiron tensed beside him. Their smell assaulted her nostrils, one that she struggled to recognize.
"You there!" one of them, a man, called. He pointed a finger at Aeiron. "You're the one they call Dragonborn?"
She tightened her grip on the battleaxe. Vilkas and Aeiron shared a look. She looked down in concentration. Even with mulling over every possible enemy she could have: vampires, the Thalmor, Imperials, the Dark Brotherhood, the Morag Tong, these strangers were not them. She shook her head.
Aeiron could hear wind chimes that loudly rang in the wind. The laughter of children, the buzz of the city around them. And yet, none of it dared to touch them from where they stood. She knew she shouldn't be nervous, but she was, and she didn't know why.
"Solstheim," she muttered. Vilkas turned his head to look at her. Aeiron looked up at him. "They're from Solthsteim."
"Speak now! Our patience is growing thin!" the man shouted again. Definitely a Nord. What was going on?
Aeiron could smell Solstheim ash on them and the residue of whatever Daedric influence was on them. Her father had been to the island once before, and she had memorized the scent of the ashlands there when he saw her again. It was one that was not easily forgotten.
A low hum filled her ears. Aeiron found herself lulled by it. Her eyes began to grow heavy. Her grip on the battleaxe weakened despite herself. She could almost feel the ash on her skin and the sting of its smell inside her nostrils.
"My wife and I live here," Vilkas spoke up. "We're with the Companions of Jorrvaskr." He put a defensive arm in front of her and tried to push her back inside. Aeiron snapped out of her trance as she stumbled backward. "We don't know who you are or what you want, but you won't find it here. I suggest you both leave before you find trouble."
The man unsheathed a dagger while the one standing in back of him summoned fire into their palm. The second the blade was out, Vilkas stepped more in front of her. "Your lies fall on deaf ears, Deceiver!" the one in the back, a Dunmer woman, said. She pointed an accusing finger at Aeiron. "We know you are the False Dragonborn! You shall not stand in the way of the true Dragonborn's return. He comes soon, and we shall offer him your heart! When Lord Miraak appears all shall bear witness. None shall stand to oppose him!"
Aeiron shoved Vilkas out of the way and ducked as the Nord swung his dagger at her. She dived down to the ground and swept out the man's legs. He fell to the ground, back first, dropping the dagger. Aeiron quickly turned and stood up one knee before swinging the axe down. It cleaved into the Nord's chest with the bones of his rib cage cracking and the flesh being sliced deeply. He screamed as the axe embedded itself into his chest.
Vilkas made quick work of the Dunmer woman. He dodged out of the way of her flames spell and lobbed her head off with one clean swipe of his sword. Her body fell onto its knees and then onto the ground as the head rolled away. Aeiron stopped it with her foot. She bent down to pick it up, stare into the swirls that were eyes.
"Poorly trained, whoever they were," Vilkas commented, eyeing the dead elf disappointedly before looking up at her. "They said something about another Dragonborn."
Aeiron continued to stare at the mask. She could feel some dark magic pulling her somewhere, the hum of another world closing in around her. She felt herself being pulled back.
"Aeiron!" Vilkas called again.
She blinked, startled. She looked up at him. "What?" she asked.
He came closer, standing right in front of her. Vilkas eyed her head to toe, checking for injuries. His hand came down on her shoulder as if to keep her from drifting away. "Do you know what they were talking about?" Vilkas asked. His voice was low and his breathing was still harsh from the fighting.
Aeiron shook her head, letting the head fall from her hand. She looked around. None of the guards seemed to care about the mess at their feet or the blood that was flowing over the stone street that they stood on.
Vilkas brushed away the matted strands that were on her face gingerly. "Even when you aren't looking for trouble, it seems to find you."
Aeiron smiled at that. Vilkas' lips twitched into one. She bowed her head. The blood on the street had crept up to her feet. "The guards didn't stop them," she said, more to herself than to Vilkas. "And Lydia wasn't here."
She continued to look around, turning in place as if to absorb where she was. Everything felt vastly different now. She felt herself sobering up, the morning air stinging her lungs with the coldness of it. "And they spoke of another Dragonborn."
"They mentioned a name. Never heard of it before," Vilkas spoke up. "Miren, Meran,"
"Miraak," Aeiron corrected.
Vilkas paused, eyeing her. "Right." He leaned against his sword. "Perhaps we should ask Kodlak about this. Or your father."
Aeiron picked up her head. Her cramps flared again as she felt more blood trickle out from inside her onto the gauze she wore between her legs. She pursed her lips and looked down at the bodies lying on the ground. "Maybe," she mumbled. Paarthurnax would know if anyone did. Perhaps it was time she took Vilkas to High Hrothgar.
She turned around at the sound of footsteps approaching. "By the gods!" a Stormcloak guard yelled. "What happened here?"
"You not properly doing your job," Vilkas spat. "We were attacked by some fanatics and you failed to protect your thane."
The guard balked and eyed Aeiron. He placed a fist on his chest and nodded at her. "My apologies, Stormblade. It won't happen again."
Vilkas kept his glare trained on the guard.
Aerion nodded towards the bodies at her feet. "Would it be too much trouble to ask for help cleaning this up?"
The guard shook his head and smiled. "No trouble at all."
"Good," she said, throwing her battleaxe over her shoulder. "I'm going to get dressed. It looks like going back to bed won't be an option, today." Aeiron kicked the door out of the way and walked back inside the home. "Tell Vignar I want a word with him, too!" she threw over her shoulder.
"Anything you want to add, Companion?" the guard asked.
Vilkas sighed. "We already told you what happened. They knocked on our door, yelled at us some, and then tried to skewer and roast us for their first meal of the day."
The guard nodded his head. "I'm sure Jarl Vignar will want to speak with you, as well. You should head up there with the general when she leaves."
Vilkas gave a curt nod of his head. He had already been planning on tagging along, regardless. The thought of leaving her alone now of all times was one he couldn't stomach.
"Men! Over here!" the Stormcloak yelled.
More guards arrived at the scene. Vilkas took that as his cue to enter the house as well and close the door behind him. He leaned his sword against the bookcase to the right of the door and then trotted up the stairs. When he entered the room, he saw Aeiron donning on the last of her armor. Her battleaxe was already slung over her shoulder and her head of hair was a near matted mess that he could tell she hastily ran her fingers through.
"Really, Vilkas?" she asked, clearly frustrated. Aeiron hastily slid on her gauntlets and placed her hands on her hips, looking at him with clear annoyance. "Your wife?"
Vilkas scoffed. "How else am I to explain my situation? It's indecent for a man to stay at a woman's home if he isn't married to her."
"But you're not," Aeiron said. "And I've seen the women that walked out of Jorrvaskr floating on a cloud as they sighed your name."
"I still never stayed in their bed," Vilkas said. His brow narrowed slightly.
"Not even Ysolda's?" Aeiron asked.
Vilkas looked at her sharply. "What are you insinuating, Woman?"
Aeiron threw another smile his way. "I find it humorous you should think to explain your situation to a couple of cultists before beheading one of them."
Vilkas snorted at that. His posture relaxed.
Aeiron spoke up again, "I know how you people here in Skyrim do it. Amulet of Mara and all."
"As far as I'm concerned, Love, I don't need any of that," Vilkas said. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe. "Hircine himself can tear that door down and he still wouldn't be able to keep me from you."
Aeiron stopped. Her throat went dry at the name. She swallowed and exhaled. A moment later, she tsked and rolled her eyes. "I told you to stop calling me that."
"And you wonder how I feel when you choose not to listen to me," Vilkas smiled.
Aeiron rolled her eyes with a small smile and walked towards the doorway. "I'll wait for you downstairs, Sir Grump." She paused, eyeing him. "Don't take too long."
"Are you sure you still wish to go?" Vilkas asked.
"To Dragonsreach?" Aeiron sighed tiredly. "No, but I don't want anyone to be attacked on my account."
"I'm sure Sinmir would be more than happy to hear about it from you." Vilkas took a step forward. He lowered his head to look at her gently. "You don' have to go if you don't want to."
Aeiron nodded her head and looked down at the floor, pursing her lips. "I know," she said quietly. "I already know what might happen."
"And you still wish to go through with this?" Vilkas asked. He placed a hand on her shoulder, the other cupped her chin and tilted her head up to look at him. "Your father just returned home after being away for a very long time. And it took a great toll on you."
"He deserves to rest," Aeiron smiled gently. Her eyes began to water once more. "Damn period," she muttered and blinked back the tears. "It's making me soft." She raised a hand to rub at her eyes.
Vilkas brushed away the one that was trickling down her face with his thumb. "The choice is yours."
Aeiron searched his face for a moment. "Come with me?"
Vilkas smiled at her softly. He brought his lips to her forehead. "Always."
Aeiron smiled up at him as he moved in to kiss her. It was slow, sweet, the type she always dreamed of getting when she was a little girl. Her heart fluttered in her chest as he pulled her close. Vilkas was as warm as inferno and it made her head feel fuzzy.
Vilkas pulled away and let his eyes flick over her and smirked. "Keep looking at me like that and we'll both be late heading to Dragonsreach."
Aeiron's face turned red at that. She pushed him away and swatted at his arm. Vilkas chuckled at her. "Stop that!" she yelled.
Vilkas leaned in, almost grinning from ear to ear. "No," he said. He gave a small peck to her nose and shooed her outside the door. She turned around to point a finger at him as she made an inhuman noise.
"You!" she shouted.
"I won't take long," he said, closing the door behind her.
When they stepped outside, the bodies were being thrown into a cart. Aeiron was quick to move out of the guards' ways as they labored with picking up the fresh bodies. She took Vilkas' hand for a moment to lead him away from the scene. They would take the scenic route up to Dragonsreach where they would pass through the slowly opening market area and the Gildergreen.
Aeiron moved to let go of Vilkas' hand only for him to seize it up again. She gave him a light-hearted glare with a pout. "Really?" she asked.
"Just making sure you don't run into any more trouble, is all," Vilkas said, side-eyeing her with mirth in his eyes. His lips twitched when she huffed.
"Shouldn't that apply to you, as well?" Aeiron asked. "With the poison you were sick with in Blackreach and that mouth of yours and all?"
Vilkas gave a quiet laugh. "You know what this mouth is capable of, Love."
Aeiron blushed furiously again. She snatched her hand away from him and smacked him on the arm. "Stop it!" she nearly yelled.
Vilkas laughed in earnest. "You're so easy to upset, Little Lioness."
"I'm going to mount your head on a pike and deliver it to the Companions if you keep it up, Wolfy!"
Vilkas gave her a look, still smiling as he raised an eyebrow. "I'd like to see you try."
Aeiron shot back a glare as they continued up the stairs to Dragonsreach. The guards outside the large doors pushed them opened and they walked inside. Aeiron released the air she had been holding in her lungs as the doors closed behind them. She marched up the stairs ahead of Vilkas, making her way around the table surrounding the hearth in the center of the room and standing before the throne.
Vignar stood up from his throne as they approached. "Ah, Aeiron, how are you this morning?"
"Fine considering I just survived an assassination attempt," Aeiron huffed and crossed her arms.
Vignar shook his head and blinked at her. "W-What?" He narrowed his eyes at her. "Was is the Thalmor? The Dark Brotherhood?"
"Worse," Vilkas spoke up. He stepped forward to stand beside her. "We don't know who they were."
Vignar turned to look at the Companion, eyes narrowed and face scrunched up. "You were with her this morning?"
"Aye, I was," Vilkas said. "And while I have no doubt of Aeiron's capabilities, these strangers were able to walk in without so much as a guard batting an eye in their direction. The Khajiit are more sociable than these fanatics were."
Vignar laughed nervously. "The Khajiit cannot be trusted with their thieving ways. You should know this better than anyone, Vilkas. You're a son of Skyrim. They work for the Thalmor."
"Not all of them," Aeiron spoke up. She shot Vignar a warning look. "If you ever bothered talking to them, you might learn that."
Vignar's hand clenched into a fist and then opened it again. He slammed his palm onto the arm of the throne and licked his dry lips.
"So," the Jarl spoke up. "Do you have any idea where these would-be assassins came from?"
"Solstheim," Aeiron answered.
"Sols…" Vignar's voice trailed off. "That's a far distance from here." He leaned back in his seat and propped his head up on his hand. "Whoever wanted you dead must have quite a bit of resources."
"City guard patrols should be doubled," Vilkas spoke up. "Lest you want them attacking someone less capable next time."
"Our guards are spread thin as is," Vignar shot back. "I'll discuss it with Sinmir, but I can't promise much."
"Where is Sinmir?" Aeiron asked.
"Down in the jail interrogating someone." Vignar began drumming his fingers on the wood of throne's arm. "He'll return as soon as he's finished."
"You're not aware of how many guards Whiterun has?" Vilkas arched an eyebrow at the Jarl.
Vignar shot him a look. "What are you insinuating, Vilkas?" He eyed the Companion for a moment. His mouth twitched as he looked at Aeiron, and then him again. "You're sweet on her?" He nodded his head towards Aeiron. Aeiron pursed her lips
Vilkas glanced at Aeiron to see her bow her head. He straightened his posture, raised his head to look Vignar in the eye just as she was about to protest. "I am," he said. "and I have no shame admitting that."
Aeiron looked at him, her cheeks turning pink. She felt the familiar sting in her eyes come back. She blinked her eyes hard and willed the tears away.
"But whether I am or not does not change the fact that there's a lapse in the Guard when your thane is attacked. It should be inexcusable, regardless of whether your old war buddy has returned."
Vignar gripped the arms of his throne tightly. His hands cracked as the knuckles turned white. He glared at the Companion. "While Kodlak and I, as well as the other Companions respect you within the halls Jorrvaskr, you are in my hall now, Boy. Best you mind your tongue."
Vilkas scoffed and raised an eyebrow. He crossed his arms. "Or what, Vignar?"
"For starters, I'll ban you from the city of Whiterun and put a bounty on your head."
"Like you did with her?"
"You insolent-" Vignar moved to rise from his seat when Aeiron stepped in front of Vilkas, putting an arm out in front of him.
"ENOUGH!" the wooden beams of Dragonsreach rattled from the boom of her voice. The shocked look Vignar gave her told her she had made a mistake, but she couldn't bring herself to care. Her eyes began to water up.
"I understand," she began. "That you don't think me as valuable as my father. I feel the same way."
Vilkas saw the first tear stream down her face. "Aeiron-"
"You've made it painfully clear that I will never be held in the same esteem as him. You work me like a dog. 'Go here, Aeiron! Kill this general! Butcher that Thalmor camp!'" Aeiron' voice began to crack. She bowed her head, swallowed. Looked up at Vignar again. "I'm tired of it."
"Stormblade," Vignar called. "We need you. Whiterun needs you. I need you."
Aeiron shook her head. "You need Stormblade? Your Thane? Ice Vein? The Dovakiin?" She scoffed and lowered her arm. "Well," Aeiron said, stepping forward. "too fucking bad. I resign."
Vignar's jaw tightened. "You can't be serious."
"Oh, but I am," Aeiron said defiantly. "At the very least, I'm taking a vacation. I'm done being your puppet or your servant, or your attack dog, or what else you call me. If and when I come back," she smacked her chest with her palm. "It will be on my fucking terms."
Aeiron's gaze never faltered as she stared the Jarl down. She could see he was ready to scream his head off, to yell at her for her insubordination, and she couldn't find it in herself to care.
"Let's go, Vilkas," she said quietly and turned to leave. She felt the eyes of everyone in the hall staring at her. Olfina, the servant women, the guards who were standing at attention.
Aeiron swallowed. Her legs faltered as she walked away from the throne and made her way to the stairs. She didn't want to turn around, but she couldn't hear the heavy thuds of Vilkas' footfalls behind her. She took the first step and felt her legs wobbled as she descended the stairs. She finally heard the familiar sound of Vilkas' armor right behind her. Her lips twisted up into a faint smile.
They reached the great doors where the guards stood. Neither had moved to open the doors for them like they had several minutes ago. Even under their helmets, she could tell they were eyeing her scornfully. She ignored them and pulled one of the doors open by herself. In what normally took two men to do collectively, she was able to do in half the time with little effort.
As soon as the door swung shut behind them she stopped and froze where she stood. It was hard to breathe and the ground at her feet began to wobble. Vilkas wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You did well," he said. "I didn't have to tear out Vignar's throat. You did it by yourself."
Aeiron laughed weakly and nodded her head. She was at the edge of her nerves, yet somehow Vilkas was able to coax her away from the cliff whenever she wanted to throw herself off of it.
"I suppose I should start packing my things," she finally said. "Considering I'm no longer welcome here."
"The Companions will always welcome you with open arms, Aeiron," Vilkas said, turning to look at her.
"There's one small problem with that," Aeiron said.
Vilkas smiled. "There's always another way in." He began guiding her down the small bridge across the moat and down the stone steps that wound back into the city. When they were beside the Gildergreen, she stopped. Vilkas looked at her in confusion. "What is it?" he asked.
Aeiron pulled away from him and eyed him plaintively. "This is where should part ways."
"Why?" Vilkas asked.
"Because I don't know where I'm going and you don't deserve to be caught up in my mess," Aeiron answered with an arm pointing up at Jorrvaskr in a gesture of defeat.
"I'm going with you," Vilkas said in a tone that left little room for argument. "I already said I would."
Aeiron looked at him hopelessly. The tears were threatening to come down her face. "But what about Lucia?" she asked. "I can't take her with me. Someone needs to watch her."
"Lydia already does that. And so do the rest of the Companions," Vilkas said, wrapping his arms around her. "She will be here when we return. I swear it by the Divines."
Aeiron nodded her head and looked up at him. "Are you sure?" she paused in hesitation. "I don't know where we'll be going."
Vilkas laughed softly. "Do you ever?"
Aeiron smiled. "Sometimes, when you're around."
"A fair point," Vilkas agreed. He nodded his head in the direction the city gate was. "So where will we be going first?"
Aeiron thought long and hard, chewing her lip and mumbling to herself. Finally, she beamed back at him. "Have you ever met the Greybeards?"