An Orphan’s Tale Twelve – Redemption

Chapter 12 - Kodlak

Selene opened Jorrvaskr’s heavy, wooden doors and lugged the sack of heads inside. She was surprised they didn’t stink with decay, but they actually smelled better than the witches did when they were alive. Maybe their body composition somehow kept them from rotting. In any case, it had been encouraging to walk into Breezehome and not be attacked by the odor of dead hagraven. She was sure Lydia was just as glad. She wasn’t sure, however, if walking into Jorrvaskr would be as heartening. She still had no idea what she was going to say to Vilkas or even if she was ready to forgive him. Besides, who knew if he was ready to forgive her? She had said some hurtful things to him too. Fortunately, he wasn’t in the mead hall when she entered, giving her at least a few moments’ reprieve.

Aela came up the steps to meet her, arms out. “Greetings, shield-sister,” she said as she hugged Selene.

“I missed you.”

The Huntress pulled back and looked her over. “You’re looking well. Did you find what you were looking for at High Hrothgar?”

“I did. And I know what I need to do next. Are Farkas and Vilkas around?”

“They’re in the training yard.”

“Can you get them and meet me in the Underforge?”

“Of course.”

Selene went to the tiny room beneath the Skyforge, dropped the bag of heads on the floor, and waited for the rest of the Inner Circle. When they came in, Farkas came straight to her and gathered her up into a bear hug, planting a warm kiss on her lips. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming back at all.”

“I’m not staying long,” she informed him, “but we have unfinished business.” She reached into the bag and pulled out one of the heads.

“Pretty,” Farkas joked.

“She’ll look better when you find out what she can do. I believe we can still cure Kodlak.”

“How?” Vilkas asked.

“Before I went to the Glenmoril Coven, Kodlak told me that the witch’s head, thrown into the brazier in Ysgramor’s tomb, would release his wolf spirit and we could defeat it. I was told that it still might work, even though he’s dead.”

“Told by who?”

“Don’t ask,” she replied. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“But we can’t even get into Ysgramor’s tomb without Wuuthrad,” Aela protested. “And even if we get the pieces back, it’s still just that: in pieces.”

“Not necessarily,” said a voice from the door. The Circle looked around to see Eorland Gray-Mane standing in the doorway. “Kodlak kept a piece of the blade in his room. If you get the other fragments back, I will have all of them. Wuuthrad is a tool, and tools were made to be broken and repaired. If you bring me the fragments, I will give you Wuuthrad.”

“Done,” Vilkas declared. He turned to Selene. “We were going originally; go with me now.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Vilkas.”

“It’s your mission,” said Farkas. “Kodlak confided in you about the Glenmoril Coven; he chose you to cure him. You should see it through. Vilkas will behave. Won’t you, brother?”

She hated to admit it, but Farkas was right; even the woman in her dream said it was her responsibility to cure Kodlak. But why did Vilkas have to go with her? Anybody else would have been preferable. Going alone would have been preferable. Selene locked eyes with Vilkas for a very long, uncomfortable moment, all the peace, all the enlightenment she had attained at High Hrothgar melting away. She wasn’t ready for this. It was too much, too soon. It had been more than a month, but when his silvery-gray eyes bored into hers, it felt like yesterday. She could even feel her eye throbbing. When Vilkas broke the stare first, she knew he felt the same. She also knew from his reaction when she had turned the blame for Kodlak’s death on him that he was feeling responsible. He needed to go, needed to do something to make it right, and she couldn’t deny him that. It was going to be a long trip.

Selene went to the Drunken Huntsman to buy arrows from Elrindir, and she and Vilkas got on the road. They hadn’t gotten very far when, with great apprehension in his voice, Vilkas uttered a single word. “Selene—”

“Don’t,” she interrupted, putting a hand up to stop him. “At this point it’s best if we just keep our discussions on the task at hand. I’m not ready for anything else.”

“Understood,” he said with a discouraged sigh. “Aela traced the fragments to a Silver Hand outpost at Driftshade Refuge in The Pale. That’s where we’re heading.”

They hiked north out of Whiterun, barely speaking as they passed farms and towers and crossed from Whiterun Hold into The Pale. They made camp just before they reached the snow line, laying out their bedrolls and building a fire but not bothering to pitch a tent. Selene took the first watch while Vilkas slept. She sat for hours, listening to him talk in his sleep, snarling and growling at his imagined prey. He sat up suddenly with a startled gasp and looked over at her, eyes wide.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Aye. Just the same old dreams. Get some rest; I’ll keep watch.”

Selene lay down on her bedroll and turned away from him. She slept better since her time at High Hrothgar, but her restless dreams were still filled with the hunt. After too short a time, she sat up and said, “Let’s pack up and go.”

“You too?”

She shrugged. “I’m used to it. Let’s just go.”

They almost died in Driftshade Refuge. The going was relatively easy until they entered the last room, where the leader and two of his lieutenants sat around a table with the fragments between them. The three Silver Hand bandits were experienced, and she and Vilkas were hard pressed to keep up. One of Selene’s foes bashed her in the face with his shield, sending pain radiating through her eye.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” she roared as she maneuvered her sword around his shield to jab him in the ribs. A lucky hit to his throat finally cut him down, and Selene turned to see Vilkas fighting off the other two. One of them had his back to her and didn’t see her come up and sink her blade into his side. He screamed as he turned toward her, battleaxe swinging wide and yanking the sword out of her hand, and almost connected with her neck. She managed to duck out of the way just in time to save her life, although he did manage to scrape the axe across the top of her head. Selene managed to grab the hilt of her sword and dragged it across his midsection, doing further damage as it carved through leather, skin, muscle and organs, as well as pulling him away from Vilkas, who used the extra space to maneuver and finally drop the Silver Hand’s chief. Selene’s opponent still fought, hanging frantically to life, but again a blade slipped into his back and Vilkas’s greatsword took his last spark.

Selene sat on the floor and placed her hand gingerly on her head. It hurt, but not as badly as she had expected, and it wasn’t bleeding much.

“It’s a very shallow cut,” Vilkas told her. He knelt down and looked at the bruise forming on her face. “Looks like he missed your eye.” He reached out to her, but Selene pulled back.

“Don’t touch me. How are you? Are you injured?”

“I think I could use a couple of stitches in my arm.”

Selene scrambled across the floor to her pack and pulled out a healing potion, which she handed to Vilkas. “Did you bring a needle and catgut?”

“I didn’t.”

“Then we’ll just have to hope the potion works. Can you move?”

“Of course.” She climbed the steps to the table where the fragments lay. The Silver Hand had been piecing them together like a puzzle, and it was almost perfect, save for the piece hidden in Kodlak’s drawer. Selene wrapped them carefully in linen cloth and placed them in her pack, and she and Vilkas left the fort and headed for home.

It took two days for Eorland to repair Wuuthrad, and Selene took the time to unpack from her trip and repack for the next one. They would be on the road to Ysgramor’s tomb one night each way, and she made sure she had a change of clothes, extra straps for her armor, plenty of arrows, a full stock of potions, and food and drink. The plan was to spend the night at the inn in Dawnstar, so she didn’t pack as much food as she normally would, only lunch, a snack, and rations in case they got stranded somewhere.

The morning they were to leave, Selene took Liska to Jorrvaskr, where the Companions would care for her while she was gone, and then met the rest of the Circle at the Skyforge to pick up Wuuthrad.

Eorland handed Selene the axe. “I think the one who returned the fragments should be the one to carry the weapon into battle,” he declared.

Selene looked over at Vilkas, who was just as responsible for the return of the pieces as she was, but he nodded his assent, and she took the axe. “I’ll carry it with honor,” she said, her voice breaking.

Selene and Vilkas weren’t the only ones who were quiet on the trip; Farkas and Aela barely spoke, either. They were on a grave mission to the tomb of one of the most important people in history, and they carried with them artifacts that would hopefully save the soul of the man they all saw as a father. It was a tremendous honor, but it was also frightening. What if they were unsuccessful? What if it didn’t work, or if the repaired Wuuthrad wasn’t sufficient to open the tomb, or if they couldn’t defeat Kodlak’s wolf spirit? What if they were too late? Selene had spent a month at High Hrothgar. The spirit in her dream had said Kodlak was hiding from Hircine in the tomb. What if she had waited too long and Hircine had found him? She would never forgive herself, and the others probably wouldn’t either, especially Vilkas. Although she was still angry with him, the thought of him despising her and resenting her failure cut her to the quick.

They stayed the night in Dawnstar and got up before sunrise to complete the trip. On the last leg, they had to walk across dozens of icebergs to reach the island. They drank frost-resist potions in case they fell into the icy water, and they came in handy when Aela and Vilkas each lost their footing and got submerged. The potions weren’t enough, though, and they walked the last few hundred yards to the tomb with blue lips and violent shivers. When they reached the tomb, Selene and Farkas did their best to warm them up. Skin-to-skin contact was the safest way, and because Farkas was trying to make a clean break from her before she left, he took Aela, leaving Selene to warm Vilkas. Removing their shirts and replacing their cloaks, they wrapped their arms around one another and held each other close. The proximity to Vilkas’s naked chest made Selene very uncomfortable, and it wasn’t just the chill of his skin. She was still uncomfortable with him touching her, but she couldn’t ignore the scent of his sorrow and regret. He felt awkward too, but only because he knew how she still felt about him. She also couldn’t ignore the feel of his body. He was so thin, having lost maybe ten kilos, but his muscles still seemed strong and solid, making him more wiry than bulky like Farkas. His bare skin against hers caused sensations she shouldn’t be having.

Vilkas evidently noticed the change in her scent, because he drew away and stammered, “I, uh, feel much better. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

As he dressed, he said, “You should be careful when going through the crypt. Ysgramor is guarded by the ghosts of the original five hundred Companions, and they’re not going to just let you walk through. It’s not that you’re intruding; I’d wager they’re been waiting for you. They just want assurance that you’re worthy.”

“You keep saying ‘you.’ Are you not coming?”

He closed his eyes and drew a heavy breath. “Kodlak was right. He said we should not let vengeance rule our hearts, and I can’t set the hatred for the Silver Hand aside. I am not worthy.”

“Do you think the rest of us aren’t thinking the same thing?”

“But at least you believe you were doing an honorable deed by preventing them from hurting anyone else. In my heart, I know I killed the Silver Hand at Driftshade Refuge solely for revenge. And I’ve done so much more…until I can forgive myself, I can’t enter the tomb.”

Selene nodded and walked past him to join Farkas and Aela, who stood next to a great statue of Ysgramor. “How do we get inside?” she asked.

“Return Wuuthrad to Ysgramor,” Aela instructed. “It should open the door and let us in.”

Selene held out the battleaxe to measure and sort out how she might fit it in Ysgramor’s arms, but the statue suddenly came to life, reached out and took it from her, holding it in the rest position. “Sweet Kynareth!” she cried. But the door behind the statue opened, and she started toward it, glancing back to see if it had moved again, but it was as still as if the whole thing had been her imagination. Aela followed, and Farkas went to Vilkas and clapped him on the shoulder before trailing behind them.

The spirits of the 500 Companions were many, and they were tough. In the first two rooms, they battled a dozen of the ghostly warriors, which glowed with eerie blue light, and sustained a handful of non-life-threatening injuries. Somehow they managed to defeat the specters, drank a few potions and moved on. At the end of a large hall they found a doorway covered in spider webs, and the telltale chitter on the other side hinted that at least three or four frostbite spiders awaited them. Farkas stared at the web for a long moment and even raised his sword to cut through it, but he finally stood back and breathed a heavy sigh. “I can’t,” he confessed. “Ever since Dustman’s Cairn. Everyone has a weakness, and this is mine.”

“It’s okay, love,” Selene said, resting a gentle hand on his arm. “Why don’t you go back and wait with Vilkas?”

He looked down at her with shame in his eyes. “I’m not proud of this.”

“How many times have you rushed in and killed a skeever because they make me cringe, huh? And when we’ve come upon the spiders by surprise, you didn’t hesitate. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Farkas turned to Aela, who simply shrugged. Selene figured Aela didn’t understand, but that was her problem, not Farkas’s. In the end, he nodded at Selene and walked back toward the exit.

“I think it took more courage to admit he was afraid than it would have to face the spiders,” Aela whispered. She had been wrong; Aela did understand.

Selene smiled at her shield-sister and took a swipe at the webs. They waded through half a dozen of the big crawlies and another ten or twelve dangerous ghosts before reaching the expansive hall where Ysgramor was buried. A mezzanine level contained reliefs depicting his adventures with the Companions, including how they discovered the Skyforge and settled Whiterun. At the very end was a platform, which was blocked by a heavy, iron grate, and inside stood the tomb of the man himself. The brazier stood in the center of the room, glowing with blue flame, and standing next to it was a ghost. He didn’t attack when Selene and Aela came in; he just stood there warming his hands.

“Greetings, shield-sister,” he said.

“Kodlak? Is that you?” It was her Harbinger, but he didn’t look like he had the last time she had seen him. He was young, robust, and handsome, although his hair and beard were as white as they were when he died.

“The other Harbingers and I have been warming ourselves here while we hide from Hircine.”

“But you’re the only one here.”

“You see only me because you know only me. I’d wager that Vignar would see half a dozen of my predecessors. But they see you. You have brought honor to yourself and to the Companions.”

“It doesn’t feel that way. I failed you. I didn’t return in time to save you.”

“You failed no one, shield-sister. What was meant to be came to pass.”

“I’ve been told I might still save your spirit from Hircine.”

Kodlak raised an eyebrow. “Have you, now? In that case, cast the head into the flames, and we will defeat my wolf spirit together.”

Selene removed the head from the sack and threw it onto the brazier. It popped and crackled for a moment before exploding, the blue flames intensifying and a wail like that of the hagraven resounding through the hall. With a groan, Kodlak lurched, writing in agony and falling to his knees as he wrestled with his wolf spirit, an enormous animal made of red light instead of ghostly blue. It attacked the Harbinger, who was incapacitated and unable to fight back, so Selene and Aela set upon it. It wheeled about and snapped at her, but she managed to step back to avoid being bitten before it turned on Aela, who wasn’t so lucky. The beast took a hefty chunk out of her forearm, and she snarled in pain and rage. They flanked it, one of them defending against its teeth while the other attacked its midsection and back, and they were ultimately able to put it down.

When Kodlak recovered, he beamed at them proudly. “You have defeated my wolf spirit and made it so that I may enter Sovngarde. For this you have my gratitude. But the other Harbingers still take solace here, and it is my hope that the heroes of old will return with me to rescue them. It will be a battle for all time. It is also my hope that someday you will take up that fight as well, but for now, return to Jorrvaskr and celebrate your grand victory, and lead the Companions to further glory.”

“What do you mean, lead?” Selene asked, but Kodlak was gone. She turned to Aela.

“Did he just say you were to lead the Companions?”

“Surely he doesn’t mean I should act as Harbinger.”

“Your honor and leadership ability are apparent to all, and I am proud to be the first to call you Harbinger. Let’s go tell the others.”

“But—”

Aela went to the back of the room and up the steps to gaze upon Ysgramor’s tomb, and Selene followed. As they stood there, a large chest opened off to the right, and Selene went to investigate. Inside lay a shield made of steel and carved with intricate patterns. It glowed with magic.

“Ysgramor’s shield,” said Aela. “It appears someone wants you to have it.”

“Or you.”

“I don’t use a shield; you do. It’s meant for you.”

Selene took the shield, and they made their way back to the front hall, where Farkas and Vilkas awaited them. “It’s done,” Selene told them. “I cured Kodlak.”

“This is good,” said Farkas.

Vilkas sighed with relief. “I was afraid it wouldn’t work.”

“I have four more heads back at home, you know. One for each of us.”

“No,” Aela declared as she dug through her pack for first aid supplies.

Farkas shook his head, but Vilkas regarded her, eyes wide. “It’s true,” he murmured.

“You should return here,” Farkas said, laying his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I’ll come with you.”

“When I feel I am worthy. Will you come too?” Vilkas asked her, but Selene shook her head.

“I’m leaving when we get home.”

“But Kodlak said you should be Harbinger,” Aela protested.

“What?” Vilkas and Farkas exclaimed together.

“Aela, I don’t think that’s what he meant. What kind of Harbinger would I be? I’m twenty years old, and I can barely lead my pet fox out of the house so she can do her business.”

“You’re a better leader than you think,” said Farkas. “How many scrapes have you gotten us out of?”

“Just as many as you have. No, I don’t want this. One of you will have to do it. Or all of you can do it. Is it written anywhere that there only has to be one Harbinger?”

“This is a great honor, Selene,” Vilkas commented.

“Granted, and don’t think I’m not honored. But it’s not my destiny, and I know this.”

“Why do you have to be so gods-damned stubborn?”

“Vilkas, you don’t want to do this here,” she warned, her voice steady and her eyes cold.

“Let’s just go,” said Farkas. “We’ve done what we came to do—rather, you have—and now I feel like we’re intruding. We can work this out when we get home.”

Selene followed the Inner Circle out the door and across the icebergs, her head reeling. Harbinger? Surely that wasn’t what he meant when he said she should lead the Companions. The entire Circle did that, right? He had meant to continue to lead with the Circle. The spirit in her dream had said to save Kodlak, not replace him. But if she left, they would believe she was letting them down.

A gust of wind brought the faint sound of a howl, miles and miles away. The others probably didn’t even hear it, but Kynareth made sure Selene did. The black dragon was out there along with who knew how many others. Only she could stop him, and she couldn’t do that if she lived at Jorrvaskr and never ventured farther than the next job took her. If she didn’t go out to meet the threat, it would come knocking on her door eventually; and by that time, it would be too late. She would stand helplessly by and watch her friends perish before succumbing herself.

No. She wouldn’t let them down by leaving. She would let them down by staying. Master Arngeir loved to say, “Winds guide you.” Even the spirit in her dream had said it. Thus, that was what Selene needed to do. When they reached Whiterun, she would say her goodbyes and go where the winds guided her.

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