Luth chuckled, then stood and aimed at the gourd. She held her stance, giving him a few moments to observe the way she stood and held her hands.
“Could be… ” she said, then let her arrow fly. There was a zipping sound as it tore through the air, followed by a dull thunk as it embedded into the gourd, which wobbled but stayed upright on the fence.
Luth smiled as she looked at her arrow sticking out of the abused fruit, then she turned to Frithjofr and pulled another iron arrow from her quiver. “Or it could be that you just need a little more practice.” She grinned and held the arrow out to him.
Frithjofr stomped over to the gourd to check, but he was forced for admit that Luth was right. There was nothing unusual about the gourd. It didn’t look much different to any other and it wasn’t glowing, only covered in a small smear of its pulp where Luth’s arrow had hit it. He pulled it out and rejoined her.
‘Right,’ he said, nocking another arrow. ‘This time I’ll hit it. I just got to take it slowly, aye? Really concentrate. Slowly…’
This time his arrow thumped into the post beneath the gourd. It wobbled and fell off, and Frithjofr glanced at Luth out of the corner of his eye.
‘That’s good enough, isn’t it? I mean, if that’d been a person stood on a pole, they’d’ve fallen off and I wouldn’t have to worry about ‘em any more.’
The priest grinned; it seemed the fish was biting, even if he seemed reluctant, at first.
“I can teach you anything you want,” he replied, clutching the books tighter. “I’m no master at the restoration school—you wouldn’t see me in Winterhold, but it’s a kind of magic I can easily say I know in and out. I can teach you some…tricks, perhaps. And if you’re but a beginner at the art, I can instill some good habits.”
He tapped his chin thoughtfully at his offer, grinning widely. “It would be wrong for me to ask payment for a favor, love. But how about we play it as a favor for a favor? Would that be all right with you, sir…oh, what do they call you, mercenary? I’m Brother Anders, from the Temple of Kynareth in Whiterun. They say I’m the most handsome bachelor in the hold!” To which, he waved a hand dismissively. “A pity that my reputation precedes my work, but I’ve no qualms with being renowned for my aesthetic appeal.”
As usual, he didn’t offer his hand, but instead dipped his head down in a shallow greeting. “Anyway, charmed.”
Frithjofr nodded along, warming to the idea. It was bringing back a few delusions of grandeur, the thoughts that maybe, if he really tried, he might manage to become a proper Nord one day. If someone was mistaking him for a mercenary he couldn’t be that far off.
Buoyed up by this, he jammed his stick into the ground, out of the way. The priest seemed like a friendly enough person, as well. Frithjofr, who judged character by whether somebody tried to kill him on first sight, placed Anders firmly in the Not Potentially Murderous category and couldn’t see any harm in doing a favour for a favour.
‘Depends on who they is,’ he said. ‘Some theys call me Hey You, and some call me Stupid. Most of ‘em call me Frithjofr, though. If they can pronounce it.’ He mimicked Anders’ nod, which in his case looked less charming and more like he was trying to shake something off his head. ‘Well met.’
“Venison sounds perfect,” she said, following him towards the stairs. She nudged him gently so he would continue upwards and once in the kitchen she looked around.
“I should have some potatoes and cabbage around,” she murmured and began searching, her brows furrowed. “Haven’t had cabbage in the longest time.” Once she had found what she had been searching for, she turned to Frithjofr.
“The venison is over there,” she said, motioning to where she was speaking of, “bought it earlier this morning, but hadn’t cooked it yet cause I was worried about you.”
While Tortulja looked, Frithjofr rummaged. The contents of shelves spilled across the floor and a stack of utensils started to pile up on the table, until it looked more as if he was preparing for surgery than cooking a meal. The glint in his eye didn’t help matters.
‘Worrying-about-me time is over,’ he said, and selected a metal pot from his collection. Further tools included a bowl of salt, some garlic and a potato, which he started to cut into cubes. ‘If you worried about me whenever I might be in trouble, you’d never stop. No, ‘s more important you take care of yourself. You got any butter?’
Hrokr looked around, seeing people he slightly recognized, but no one with red hair like his. No one that could be his father. But the innkeeper, they always knew people around town, always had news and gossip. So he slowly made his way up to the pale Argonian woman, and shuffled his feet.
“Um…” He got her attention, and she looked at him with her reptilian face in a pleasant expression.
“Can I help you?” She asked, and Hrokr shrugged.
“I j-just… h-h-have you, um, seen… seen a m-man named H-Hr-Hrulgar?” He felt his rage rekindle as he spoke the name, and he awaited her answer.
By this point, most of the inn’s sweet rolls usually would have been swept none too stealthily off the tables and into Frithjofr’s pocket. Today he kept his hands to himself and followed behind Hrokr, only pausing to mutter as his knee hit a table.
He was watching carefully and saw, or felt, the moment the anger resurfaced. Keerava must have done as well, because her eyes widened and her tongue flicked across the scales of her lips while she thought. Frithjofr slid his hand forwards over Hrokr’s, pressing shoulder to shoulder, while they waited for her answer.
((I mentioned on boarchasers that the only friends Haaki seems able to keep are of the shiftier kind.
Here’s one of them, who may or may not be introduced properly at a later date.))
Luth feigns a serious look, frowning and knitting her brow together. “A very suspicious gourd, indeed.” Then she laughed. “He’ll make for fine target practice!”
She straightened her back and aimed at the gourd, then cut her eyes to Frithjofr to wait for him to get into position as well. “You aim like this, looking down your arrow. Take your time, for now. When you’re ready, just open your fingers and let it go.”
Frithjofr returned from setting up the gourd and picked up his bow and arrow, doing as instructed. The first part of the exercise went surprisingly well. He drew his fingers back until they were grazing against the stubble beneath chin, started to breathe more slowly and narrowed his eyes, giving the gourd such an intense stare that it was possible he expected it to jump into the line of fire through sheer fright.
A twang signified the moment everything went wrong. The gourd, intact, sat in the same place, glowing in the afternoon sun. A tree branch overhead had not been so luck and was now hanging by a thread of bark, arrow tangled up in its leaves. Frithjofr lowered the bow and glared at it.
‘Why’d it do that?’ he demanded. ‘I was looking at the gourd and everything. D’you think it’s got some kind of magic powers so’s it can’t be hit with arrows? It looks smug to me. Got an air of smugness about it.’
Anders listened carefully, fighting the urge to scoff and laugh.
“Ahh, so you’re practicing,” he remarked, eyeing the Nord’s blade. “Things make a little more sense now, I suppose.”
Well, in truth, they hardly did; the man’s lack of confidence was hardly what he would’ve expected out of a mercenary. At least, the few mercenaries he’d had the pleasure to speak to, if not bed, seemed to be of a stronger disposition. The priest gripped his chin, eyeing him skeptically for a while longer.
The man hadn’t said he was a mercenary, exactly, but it was mercenary work, to some respect. Gah, at any rate, he was overanalyzing the situation. Anders hardly cared about bandits, or a man keen on eliminating them. Well, he was somewhat interested in the man…naked, anyway. Suddenly realizing the direction his mind was taking, the priest shook his head adamantly, clearing his throat.
“You want to get better, do you?” His smile was weak and a bit sheepish as he tried his best to wipe his dirtier thoughts from his mind—being a lusty mess right now was hardly what he wanted, especially after having a week’s worth of books to read. “The Companions in Whiterun might be able to teach you a thing or two, then.”
Anders whetted his lips nervously—a good part of him didn’t want to let the man out of his sight, lest the priest change his mind about sharing a bed for the evening. So with a sigh, he added, “if not, I could teach you a thing or two about restoration, which will come in just as handy.”
On both of the whole two occasions Frithjofr had entered Jorrvaskr he hadn’t exactly been met with the warmest of welcomes, and had gathered from the experience that he was lucky to leave with only his pride insulted, rather than a collection of swords and axes sticking out of his person. Running away from anything larger than rabbit apparently did not fit their heroic ideal.
He scuffed his boot back and forth across the ground, creating a cloud of dust. Boasting about his prowess in Restoration magic didn’t sound as appealing as usual, either. The spells were there, sure enough, but in practice Frithjofr hadn’t quite mastered the art of healing anything worse than a pale bruise.
Which left the final option of doing nothing. That didn’t even deserve consideration. He frowned deeply while he ran through the circular arguments, paying little attention to Anders’ expression or discomfort, and mumbled to himself occasionally until he reached a conclusion.
‘What sort of things could you teach me?’ he asked, raising his head. ‘That’d be helpful, and I could pay you back somehow, probably.’
Luth chuckled. “Yes, I’ve brought some iron ones as well. You should save the glass arrows for when you’re taking down game.”
She smiled as she pulled two iron arrows from her quiver and held one out to him. “So, you said you made some of your own? Once we’ve used these up, we can get the ones you made. I’d like to check out your craftsmanship.”
She set her own arrow on the string, and took her stance again, her eyes scanning the area around them before glancing back to Frithjofr. “What should we shoot at?”
He took the arrow, only to put it down again while he rushed off in search of a target.The nirngoats trailed after him for a short way before ambling off into the garden again, losing interest in the humans and their funny sticks with so much interesting grass to be chewed on.
Frithjofr returned holding a gourd in his arms. With a bit of effort, and some scaffolding from a few unused posts and wooden planks, he balanced it on top of the fence.
‘We can use this,’ he said as he worked. ‘I decided I didn’t like it. Looked suspicious, y’know? So I banished it from the other vegetables.’
Luth chuckled, and thought of their own misadventures in sneaking, the memories bringing a smile to her face.She was pleased to see he already had the basic gist of it, though.
“Well… even if you struggle with something, if you just keep practicing, keep chipping away at it, you’ll eventually get better. Here..”
She laid her own bow down and stood behind him, gently guiding his arms into the right position. “You need to hold them more like this… see?” She nudged an elbow up a tiny bit higher. “And then look here, where your hand is on the bow.”
She took a step back and waited to see how long he could hold the position. “Think you might wanna try with an arrow?”
Not very long, as it turned out, although it was mainly thanks to her question. He nodded with so much enthusiasm that he almost dropped the bow.
He reached down to the quiver Luth had given him and stopped. The glass arrows were incredible, catching the light in their heads and balanced with absolute precision, unlike the sticks he crafted himself. They looked strong, but know his luck he would shatter any he tried using without considerable practice.
‘But maybe with iron arrows?’ he said slowly. ‘I got some inside, I made ‘em. I don’t want to waste these when I’ve only just got ‘em.’
Hrokr stood beside Frithjofr, holding his hand and feeling his heart hammering away in his chest. He was closer to his ambition than he’d ever been in his entire life, he knew, and it was scarier than he’d expected. He gripped the older Nord’s hand for a moment, and then turned to look at him.
“I… c-check the i-inn.” He supposed that was a reasonable place to start. Any regular Nord, which he assumed his father to be, would probably be drinking right about now. So he started inside the gates, hands and shoulders shaking ever so slightly.
Frithjofr walked beside him. If there were any appropriate words for a moment like this, which he doubted, he didn’t know them. All he could offer was the simple fact of being there. That said, he did lift a hand to his sword hilt, where it was bumping heavily against his leg with each step.
The inn was dark when they arrived. Too early for candles, too late for the sun to get through the dust on the windows. Frithjofr blinked several times and waited for his eyes to adjust. Rather than look around the room he watched Hrokr, relying on his reaction over anything else.
Hrokr didn’t push Frithjofr away, didn’t even consider it. In fact, he opened his hand and gently grasped the others, holding it firmly, for it gave him strength when he felt that the only thing that kept him breathing during this whole thing was rage. If that faded, he felt that he, too, might fade.
Hrokr did not sleep, replaying his plans and his reasons for hating this man over and over in his mind. He slowly brought an arm around Frithjofr, head still down. He was glad that Frithjofr had peace enough in his mind to rest. Until he ended this matter with his father, he doubted he’d sleep peacefully at all…
The carriage soon arrived, and Hrokr gently shook his partner awake. “Frith-Frithjofr.” He muttered.
It normally required a bucket of Riften’s canal water to the face if the carriage driver wanted to wake Frithjofr up, but as soon as he heard Hrokr speaking again he opened his eyes. In only ten minutes he looked just about awake.
‘All right,’ he mumbled, as he pushed himself up. His hand tugged Hrokr up behind him and he only let go in order to scramble out of the carriage.
Riften looked like it always did. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting. An angry mob of citizens, maybe, or a party of guards waiting for them on the gate. All he could see were the usual two, dozing at their posts, and the gates of Riften, left slightly ajar for travellers. The afternoon was too pleasant even to demand taxes from the more naive arrivals.
Frithjofr reached behind him for Hrokr’s hand again.
‘Where do we start?’ he asked quietly.
Luth had knelt down, petting the goats and admiring the odd green tint to their fur. She laughed as she listened to the harmonized bleating. Animals always made her happy, but Frithjofr’s unusual goats were particularly amusing.
Finally she looked up as she realized he’d been talking to her and was expecting a response. “Oh! Yes! Let’s get started.” She stood back up, still holding her bow, and took a proper stance. Her feet apart, holding the bow with one hand and pulling the string back with the other, as if she had an arrow. “See how you hold it?”
Frithjofr mimicked her. Given how poorly his attempts at following Luth’s lessons usually went, he did remarkably well for a first time, even if his arms weren’t quite in line and he struggled to keep the string drawn. It was partly explained when he nodded and said,
‘Aye, I can do the basic bits. My…’
During the falter, he lost his grip and the bow twanged back. After he had shaken the sting out of his hand he grumbled and tried again, squinting at Luth’s feet and shuffling his own into the same position.
‘My brothers-in-law, they’re good hunters, ‘n they tried to teach me once,’ he continued. ‘Not as good at teaching as you, though. When they tried to teach me to sneak I accidentally fell in a pond.’
Luth squeaked with excitement as the goats came up to her. Their bleating was possibly the strangest sound she’d ever heard. Her eyes never left them as Frithjofr made introductions. She giggled and patted the top of Pelagius’ head when he butted her knees. Then ran her hand down the length o
“My goodness! Frithy! They are just wonderful… and such odd creatures. A grey person gave them to you? Fascinating. All the greyfaces ever give me are unwanted pregnancies.” She pouts a bit, but quickly goes back to smiling as she pets Pelagius.
The first bleat from Pelagius was followed by another and another, the whole trio of goats joining together in a joyous harmony and, now that they were up close, a faint green glow. Frithjofr dug a carrot from the ground and held it out towards Something Else, which cut the melody short.
‘You can’t’ve met Burd either,’ he said. Since nothing was dive-bombing Luth’s face, and the goats weren’t being drowned out by furious squawking, the chicken was probably perfecting her lurking somewhere. That suited Frithjofr, and he added, ‘Probably a good thing. She’ll show up eventually, though. Can we start archerying now?’
((Work was boring today. Painfully boring. I am going to share the products of my boredom, several blank receipts and a broken biro with you.))
I am only partially sorry.))
Luth nodded her head emphatically. “Absolutely! I was hoping we could start now!”
She walked over to the door and shrugged her satchel off of her shoulders, setting it down against the wall. She noticed the battle axe leaning up against the wall as well. Then she turned towards Frithjofr and waited for him to lead the way outside.
“Did you say nirngoats?”
Gifted with a sense for dramatic timing as well as impeccable hircine harmony, the trio of animals - or biological monstrosities - in question ambled around the side of the house. At the sight of a new visitor they milled, slowly and without any sense of urgency, towards Luth and started licking her hand, bleating in unison.
‘Didn’t I mention them?’ said Frithjofr. He waved the arrow he was holding at each goat. ‘These’re Pelagius, Olav and Something Else. A grey person gave ‘em to me.’
Olav, whose bleat was a slightly grating tenor, tried to eat the arrow. Pelagius butted Luth’s knees gently and Something Else started to chew a tuft of grass outside the door.
“But the mudcrab has been slain! This is a trophy from battle!”
‘I guess… but what if it comes back to life? Y’know, like worms which’ve been cut in half! Then I got to deal with a zombie mudcrab!’
‘I’m not going anywhere near anything with claws!’
((Otherwise, however, spot on. Let’s say you’ll get most of Frithjofr, but his legs will be running in the opposite direction.))
Luth grinned as she watched him inspect his new weapon, her hands resting on her hips. He seemed to like it and that pleased her. Her brow perked up when he said he could fletch arrows.
She waved off his thanks. “No need to thank me. I’m just glad you like it… and I would be more than happy to give you a few pointers.”
She reached behind her back and took off one of the two quivers of arrows she had, then held it out to him. “I brought you these too. But knowing how to fletch will be a big help. It’ll save you quite a bit of coin.” She smiled up at him. “I figured, living out here in the woods, you’d really be able to make use of a bow, hunting game and such. Besides, if you are going to get into a fight, I’d much rather have you fighting from a distance. Safer that way.”
This was almost too much. Frithjofr’s eyes were crinkled with a smile, but it made him look younger, somehow, and there was a hint of tears in them as he reached out and took the arrows. When he took one out, the glass arrowhead caught the sun and cast a green square of light across his boots.
It kept him occupied for several minutes before he glanced up and, apparently, remembered that Luth was there.
‘Can you teach me now?’ he asked. ‘I can chase Burd and the nirngoats out of the way and we can set up a gourd or something on the fence to fire at, or make a target on a tree, or something like that. Please?’
However dry Hrokr’s well of sympathy was for his father, it was bubbling up easily for Frithjofr. He stood and listened, and gave a short nod. He’d let the man talk, let him damn himself, and then cut his head off, so he’d never speak another word again.
“I w-w-will.” he muttered, and then continued up the road, getting to the carriage and quietly asking the driver to get them to Riften as fast as possible, paying him slightly more as an incentive. He was thanked, and then Hrokr climbed up into the back, staring at his hands in his lap, getting ready to face this monster in his dreams, this nightmare of his mind that had been hiding out, letting him think he was safe when he was in so much pain.
He would kill his father, and finally put it to rest.
Frithjofr’s hand fell over Hrokr’s while the latter was staring. Perhaps he would be pushed away, but as Frithjofr scrambled up into the back of the cart and saw his partner hunched over, looking scared and determined and hurt, he had to shuffle as close as possible over the splintered wooden bench. He only regretted not being able to think of anything to say, not even idle comments on the scenery they passed through or his usual ramblings. It made the journey quiet, all the more so for the wheels juddering over rocks and the slap of the reigns against the horse.
Before long, he was dozing off. It was a road he knew well after his visits to Tortulja and Luth and it never took long for the rocking and humming of the driver to lull him. His head drooped sideways, onto Hrokr’s shoulder, as they rattled out of the pines, through Dragon Bridge and down across the plains at the heart of Skyrim.
“You really are too kind,” Gaelle said, not wanting to diminish her thanks but still worried about overstaying her welcome. It was probably her Imperial sensibilities nagging at the back of her mind, she thought.
Suddenly, she added, “I shall have to return the favor, if you ever find yourself in the Rift. You’re more than welcome at our home.”
Magnus looked at the treat with interest. He saw his mother take one of them, offering her thanks, and he did the same, but he wasn’t sure what exactly he was thanking his friend for. He’d never seen these things before.
“Wha’s dis?” he asked, curiously poking at the sweet roll. It was sort of soft, but sort of dry on the outside, except for that white stuff. Was it snow?
‘That’s kind of you. I’m in the Rift sometimes, visiting people and running away from bears and things, so—’
The question from Magnus interrupted Frithjofr. He seemed to forget what he was saying, thoughts scattering, and when he pulled himself together again knelt back down to Magnus’ level. If it was rude, he didn’t appear to notice, smiling just as cheerfully as before.
‘It’s a sweet roll, for eating,’ he explained. ‘That’s the icing, and that’s the— the bit which isn’t icing. Go on ‘n try it. I dunno, you might like carrots more, but I’ve always said there’s nothing better’n a good sweet roll. So long’s nobody tries to steal ‘em from you, anyway.’
’S doing well, actually. Jala, she’s a person in Solitude, she agreed to buy carrots from me a lot, only that’s probably because she just wanted me to go away, and there was this other person…’
Frithjofr’s chatter continued over the canal, along the rickety bridges and into the heart of Riften. By the time he finished he had managed to move from farming to the importance of carpets on stone floors, but he talked about both with equal enthusiasm, utterly oblivious to whether his audience was paying any attention.
“…when I’m ready to talk, you’ll be one of the people I’d want to listen,” she replied and smiled at him. Tort looked him over, noting how tired and worn out he seemed. Was that because of her? Had he been so worried he had gone without sleep? She looked away from him, feeling guilty. Had she not been so foolish and unprepared, none of that wou— stop. She couldn’t afford to think like that right now. Not when Frithjofr was here. They had so little time to see one another lately, she had to focus on the good.
“Cook dinner?” she asked and offered him a smile. “I suppose that doesn’t sound too bad.
Frithjofr stopped at the foot of the stairs and took his hand off the banister, so that he could plant both fists on his hips. Shadowed and exhausted as he was, to the point where even his beard had grown enough to be noticeable, he smiled.
‘Too bad?’ he said. ‘I’m a good cook! I can cook anything. Venison, or venison, or… venison. Go on, ask me for something. Anything you say, I’ll cook it, even if I have to sort of… make it up as I go along. Can’t be that hard.’
He kept his face buried in Frithjofr’s chest for awhile, and eventually his sobbing died down, just in time for Frithjofr to ask if he was ready. Was he? Was he even ready to face his father, never mind kill him? Well, he knew that one would lead to the other, there was no other way it could go, not with the rage he held inside himself, not with how strongly he hated the man.
But the first step would be walking out that door, and… and he didn’t know if he could. Part of him wanting to hide forever, so that he didn’t have to think about this any longer, but he knew that wouldn’t work.
He pulled away, eyes red and teary, and he nodded.
“I-I’m rr-r-ready.” And he moved to go get his axe. The steel seemed so sinister now…
Frithjofr collected his own sword in silence. The proper warrior thing to do, he supposed, was to hold it up in front of his face, or run a thumb along the blade. He had tried it berfore, in his own fantasies of dragon-slaying and bounty-hunting, and ended up with a bleeding hand.
This time he sheathed it without any ceremony and made for the door. They were halfway up the path to Solitude before he found words again, and they were quiet against Haafingar’s pine forests. He stopped abruptly in the middle of the road.
‘Hrokr,’ he said, paused, took a deep breath, and started again. ‘Hrokr, you know I won’t stop you doing— anything you feel you got to. But will you do one thing? For me? I just… I just want to talk to him first. If we can. ‘Cause… after what happened to my family, what I did to them, and… say they found me, somehow. I know they’re— I know they can’t, but say they did. I’d let them do anything, whatever they thought I deserved, but I’d want them to listen to me first.’
A dartwing flitted past his nose. Usually it would have broken Frithjofr’s train of thought completely, but he kept staring, ridiculously solemn, at Hrokr.
‘That’s all. Just… let him try to explain himself, and let him see what he’s lost. Then I’ll… look away. Y’know.’
She shrugs. “Kind of hard not t’ see dragons these days. They’re everywhere. As for songs, I don’ know any, but I could probably make somethin’ up?”
He leaned forwards again, and after some thought waved in the direction of the Winking Skeever. A few heads turned to watch the gesture, before shaking when they saw the grey-haired Nord and continuing on their way.
‘I could get you a sweet roll or something,’ he offered. ‘Whatever’s proper payment. You don’t have to go and investigate or anything? You can make it up, just like that?’
Luth noticed his deflated look, however brief it was. That was when it dawned on her, that to a human a birthday at this age might be upsetting. She was seventy, and felt as young and healthy as ever… but she was a Bosmer. Years were different for humans. This brought on the realization that she would someday lose Frithjofr. That no matter what, there would come a day where he would be gone. This made her feel suddenly very sad, though she did a well enough job of hiding it. There was just a glint in her eyes, which were a little more watery than normal.
She stepped towards him, his grin was infectious and soon she was grinning as well. She did one slow spin, taking in the surroundings. It was so quaint. Cozy. Perfect, in her opinion. Just the home she imagined Frithjofr living in. It seemed like such a nice little love nest, as well.
“It may be small, but it is lovely. You’re a lucky man, Frithy. You have a nice little home and someone inside it to love. And!” She held her hand up, pointing her index finger up, as her other hand reached behind her back to remove one of the bows she was carrying. “…you have a new bow.”
She stepped closer and held the ebony bow out for him to take. “It is a special day because it’s the day you arrived. Happy birthday! I’ll teach you how to use it if you don’t know how.”
After being prepared to agree that he was lucky, and he did love his home, unexpectedly having a gift presented to him threw Frithjofr off. He stood gaping for a second or two at the bow, and when he reached out to touch it his hands moved slowly.
The bow felt smooth and his fingers slid across the riser, running across engravings and the grip. Only on very rare occasions did people trust him to hold a weapon this expensive, this finely crafted, and although Luth was giving it to him he still didn’t hold it too tightly, as if she might change her mind and snatch it back.
‘It’s… for me? Really for me?’
He held it up, experimenting. His stance and arms were abominable, but the bow was still evidently suited for him, the right shape and weight. He peered at Luth around the string.
‘Uh, I’m not the best shot, so you might need to teach me a bit. I can fletch arrows, though, and… this is kind of you, Luth. I mean, really kind.’ He stared at the weapon in his hands again. ‘Thank you. A lot. More— more’n I can say.’
She pauses to think for a second. “Can’t say I have. Most of th’fish I’ve run into are just sort of swimmin’ around an’ mindin’ their own business, an’ they’re scared of people. An then there are th’ fish that’re mean and mostly just like to bite people. Then again, I can’t say I spend much time underwater, so maybe there are fish heroes an’ they jus’ stay way, way deep in th’ sea or somethin’.”
‘Hmm… aye, I like that idea. I wonder if there’s a way to find them.’
He looked over the square, towards Solitude’s marketplace. At one point he leaned forwards, as if he fully intended to go over and ask the merchants to lend him their longest fishing pole and some kind of bait, but then he settled back against his space on the wall.
‘Guess we’ll never know, though. Not unless they start attacking us. Like dragons, only wetter. Have you ever seen a dragon? Or d’you know any songs about ‘em? That’d be even better. I saw a dragon once and it ate my boot. Songs’re much safer.’
Frithjofr leaned against one of the cobbled walls in Solitude, hands in his pockets and a cheerful if rather vague grin on his face.
‘Name’s Frithjofr, and well met. Y’know, I haven’t seen that many bards since I moved to Haafingar, and you’d think they’d be all over the place. Writing poems about the grass and the clouds and the fish and all that stuff… guess that’s not very heroic, though. At least, I don’t think it is.’ He watched Eibhilin with sudden interest, standing straight. ‘Maybe I’m wrong, though. Have you ever seen a heroic fish?’
‘No point waiting around, then.’ Frithjofr heaved his legs off the table and stood up, stretching, before holding an arm out to Tortulja. ‘On me, of course. I’m sure I owe you a sweet roll by now.’
‘Course. That’s what I do best.’
All he did, at times, but Tortulja’s laughter had left Frithjofr too cheerful to add that. He nodded towards the door.
‘Speaking of comfort food, want me to go ‘n fetch a sweet roll or something? It feels like a sweet roll sort of day to me.’
He stared at her with mock serious - not that much different, in truth, from his normal seriousness - and nodded slowly.
‘Aye, I think I can accept that. For now, anyway. But if it turns out that one of them’s the Emperor and the other’s, I don’t know, Clavicus Vile or something, then I might be forced to have Words with you.’
‘Not even if you get married? Then I’ll be a spy,’ answered Frithjofr promptly. ‘I got people teaching me about stealthy things. No secret is safe from Frithjofr the Sneaky.’
After a short but definite pause, Frithjofr shook his head, smiling again.
‘Fair enough. So long’s I get to know one day, I won’t ask any more questions. Interrogation’s over for now.’
‘Don’t worry about it too much. These things usually end up sorting themselves out, and that’d probably be quicker if you didn’t have me around muddling things.’ Still, he returned the hug just as tightly, and patted her back as she stepped away. ‘But I will keep an eye on them. From a distance, y’know. Who are they?’
Frithjofr rubbed his beard while he pondered the question, leaning back and looking at the ceiling.
’S’all right, if that’s what you’re asking,’ he said. ‘Can’t choose who you like, can you? But if you want to know what you should do, how you choose between them, that’s harder. Only you can make that choice.’
He pursed his lips in deeper thought and absent-mindedly swung his legs up onto the table.
‘I know it’s not always very good, but if you want my advice anyway… I’d tell you to think about who’s going to look after you best, and who you don’t mind looking after yourself. Who makes you happy not just when you’re out adventuring and stuff, but when you’re sat around not doing anything at all, just ‘cause you like being with ‘em that much.’
After a moment, with a grin which wasn’t entirely joking, he finished,
‘And I could always inspect ‘em for you. Got to make sure they’ll treat you right.’
Luth chuckled to herself as she listened to his singing, and his footsteps approaching. His initial expression surprised her. She’d expected to see his happy grin, and the troubled expression, though brief, caused a pang of concern in her chest, a tightening in her stomach. When he smiled she smiled in return, feeling relieved, and threw her arms around him as his voice trailed off, not waiting for him to finish.
“I’m here to see you, Frithy!” She pecked his cheek, then let him go and walked into the house, looking around as she spoke. “You come to visit me all the time, I decided it was high time I saw where you lived. Besides, a little birdy told me that you’re birthday is coming up soon.” She turned to face him, smiling big and putting her hands on her hips. “I brought you a present! One that I… stole.” She lowered her voice and arched a brow as she spoke the last word of her sentence, for emphasis.
It didn’t last for long. It was barely even noticeable. But for a second, just a second, Frithjofr’s chest deflated and he sighed, just after Luth mentioned his birthday. That, it seemed, was the source of his earlier trouble.
After that he was smiling again, bouncing on his feet and looking for all the world like an overgrown five-year-old. He started to wave an arm behind him again, already edging backwards into the shack.
‘You shouldn’t’ve worried,’ he said. ‘Only a day like any other, aye? But ‘s really kind of you, Luth. Course, I wouldn’t’ve expected anything else, you’ve always been kind. Come in. Hrokr’s out at the moment, but maybe that’s a good thing, it’s kind of a small place and there might not be room for everyone otherwise…’
The last words came from inside. Frithjofr took advantage of the last few seconds alone to neaten up the room, although for the most part it was surprisingly clean already, given the bumbling Nord who lived in it. With the furs on the bed hitched into place and the bunches of vegetables pushed to one side, it was actually tidy. Nothing to be done about the slightly patched window, and he left Hrokr’s battleaxe untouched where it leaned beside the door, but Frithjofr stood in the centre of it with a proud grin waiting on his face.
That gave him pause. Frithjofr would come with him, was willing to bring a weapon and do… do whatever rash thing Hrokr wanted to do. He was willing to endanger his own life, for Hrokr’s cause.
He absently thought that he cried too often, as he pressed his face back into Frithjofr’s chest and sobbed. Large, heaving gasps of air and wailing cries, hugging the older Nord close like a protective shield. His whole body shook and he shook his head.
He felt terrible, furious, upset, horrified, guilty, monstrous, murderous. He couldn’t decide which emotion was stronger, which one was more important, which one he should listen to. So he cried.
Understanding this, at least, Frithjofr wrapped his arms around Hrokr and waited. As he stood there he looked around the room, at the comfortably unmade bed, at the carrots tied in bunches, at his sword propped up over the fireplace.
Strange how detached he felt. They were planning - well, he didn’t know what yet, how far the rage that anybody could hut Hrokr so much would take him, but they were planning to find this man with sword and axe. It wasn’t a scenario that had much chance of ending well. And yet he was looking at things as if they weren’t quite there, as if they were unreal, and none of these decisions really seemed to mean anything.
‘Ready?’ he said after a while. ‘We… we don’t want to lose him. If he’s there. Which he might not be, that woman could still be wrong.’
Hrokr didn’t believe any of Frithjofr’s pitiful reasons any more than he believed that the moons were made of cheese. His father was in Riften, he knew that now, and he couldn’t just sit around with information like that and not do anything.
At Frithjofr’s suggestion, a rage reboiled in his stomach, and he let out a strained, heated sigh through his noise.
“I’ll g-g-go too. I n-n-need to re-return his axe.” That sounded highly threatening, and Hrokr was clearly imagining burying it in his father’s head.
Frithjofr broke off again. He wasn’t even sure who he was trying to convince any more, and then there was Hrokr’s hot, angry breath against his chest. How was he going to argue with that?
‘All right then,’ he said quietly. ‘Together. If we get a carriage now, should get there by nightfall. I’ll— I’ll bring my sword, in case we— meet anything. On the road. Y’know.’
“E-even if it’s n-n-not tr-true,” He began, surprised slightly by the noise Frithjofr had made, but not willing to lift his head from it’s protected, warm place on the man’s chest to see his expression.
“I s-sssstill… he mu-must be liv-li-living th-there!” That was logic that was hard to deny.
Frithjofr tried anyway, shaking his head enough to tousle Hrokr’s hair.
‘No,’ he insisted. ‘No, he… she probably saw somebody else, who— who looked a bit like you, from a distance, and got the name muddled up, and… no, wait, maybe she saw you and somebody mentioned your name only she didn’t remember it properly and…’
The theories didn’t last for very long. Whether he wanted to admit it to himself or not, Frithjofr clearly knew how futile his protests were, and after a long pause he closed his eyes.
‘It can’t be right. It just can’t be. I’ll even go to Riften and check myself if I have to.’
“I-I a-a-a-asked her wh-why, and sh-s-she said I…. I…” He seemed pained at this point, and his voice wavered with unshed tears.
“I l-looked like h-h-him.” It was clearly devastating to Hrokr to hear such a thing, for more than one reason. How could this shopkeeper know his father well enough that she could identify someone who looked similar? And did he really looked that much like his father? The thought sent ripples of disgust and anger through him, made him want to hurt himself, mar his visage somehow so he would no longer look the same.
The sound which came out of Frithjofr’s throat was both a hiss and a growl, low and gutteral but sharp and fierce. He frowned and, despite the attempts of his scruffy beard to make him look merely miffed, managed a look of genuine anger, over Hrokr’s head at the garden.
‘She was mistaken,’ he said, and found his eyes drifting towards the trapdoor, where the portrait of Hrulgar was hidden. ‘Had to be. Somehow… I’ll tell her so myself, next time I’m in Riften.’
Burd settles comfortably on top of a fence post and preens herself.
((I hope you don’t mind me publishing this publicly. The world needs to see.))
“No, no, I said that,” she assured him quickly. “I just… you said the Forsworn and I’ve no idea why — I mean my mother would have been a Nord, you understand. So I doubt she would have been buddies with those sava— those people.”
‘Because the Forsworn are everywhere in the Reach. Got to get past them if you want to go to Markarth, so maybe they saw her on the road some time.’
He leaned back against the side of the carriage with his eyes closed. The horses were only just plodding up the hill west of Solitude, and already this felt like a long journey.
‘M only trying to help,’ he added reproachfully. ‘You can go on your own, if you want.’
She shrugged, pocketing the sap. She thought of taking a hit of it herself, things always seemed so much clearer, calmer when she drank some of that. Even the worrying things faded into the blanket of rosewater that the sap produced…still…perhaps it was better to be more jumpy. never knew what was quite around the corner.
She reloaded her bow, walking behind him. She didn’t want to be caught with her knickers down should something attack…
There was scrabbling noise, far in the distance. She moved closer to Frithjofr, looking around. the thing they were heading towards was….a lot larger than she expected. Dwemer were the ones who built crazy things like that, weren’t they? Might have been the Left Handed Elves…oh, what did it matter? It didn’t look like decoration at any rate. She moved around it, looking closer at the buildings. Surely one of these damn places could give them a way out?
But which one?
“Which way do you think?” she said. At least if he gave a wrong answer, she could blame him.
‘The way out?’ suggested Frithjofr grumpily. It had already occurred to him, along with several other panicked notions, that there might not be a way out, and they would be stuck in this hole forever, but he stomped onwards. His footsteps came back as distorted echoes in the cold.
After a while they were joined by a hissing noise. He thought at first that it must be water, but while the earth did seem to slope into a bank, and a shadow which might have been a bridge was almost visible ahead, that didn’t feel right. Too fast. Too metallic. Frithjofr stopped, but something else kept moving.
His leg forced him to turn around slowly. By the time he was facing behind him again, there was a high metal arch but no statue inside it, and the ground had started to shake.
((Hm. I turned off my PC, picked up my mp3 player and it chose, rather appropriately, to play ‘Old’, by Paul Simon.
“Down the decades, every year, summer leaves and my birthday’s here, and all my friends stand up and cheer and say ‘Man, you’re old!’ Getting old…”
Sorry, Frith. Even electronics like making fun of you.))
Luth hopped of of the carriage, landing onto the ground with a light thud. She looked around and stretched her legs out. It had been a long ride to Solitude. She looked up at the bright blue sky, and watched as a hawk flew across, wanting to shoot it down but there was no time for that. She needed to start the hike to Frithjofr’s house.
She adjusted her gear before getting started. Aside from her own ebony bow and quiver of arrows, she had a second ebony bow strapped to her back, and a second quiver of glass arrows. A nice set she had managed to pilfer from a wealthy man’s home, where it had only been gathering dust. It would be much more useful to Frithy, she had decided.
Now that it was his birthday, she figured it would be a perfect time for a surprise visit. When she saw the little shack she smiled and hastened her step. Once at the door she stopped, and gave it a firm knock. Then stood and waited.
The sound of singing from somewhere inside the shack was Luth’s first greeting. What it lacked in tune, melody and key it more than made up for in enthusiasm, and the fact that the performer couldn’t remember half of the words didn’t appear to be an issue. It kept up as a chair scraped backwards and the sound of soft leather boots padded across the floor.
‘With a hm hmm hm power, of the Ancient Nord something or others…’
And yet, during the second it took to open the door, Frithjofr’s face wasn’t as bright as usual. Before he could see Luth on the other side he was staring downwards, brow heavy, and watching something far away. As soon as he lifted his head and saw her, however, his expression changed dramatically. First his eyes widened, jaw hanging open, and then he smiled and stood aside.
‘Luth! Didn’t expect to see you in Haafingar. Did you expect to see me? I mean, this is where I live, but I didn’t know if you knew that or whether you just thought it was a house and…’ He trailed off, quite lost but still grinning, and then waved an arm at the inside of the house. ‘Anyway, you want to come in?’