The big black shepherd scented the elk ahead of them in a cluster of tundra cotton, and flattened himself to the ground, looking back at them with the whites of his eyes showing and his big pink tongue lolling out of his mouth.
Braith held her hand out at him, palm down. Stay flat, be quiet.
Lars reached him first and gave the hunting dog a handful of dried beef as a reward. "We could keep him with us," Lars said. "We're downwind of them. Moth can circle them in this brush and make them break towards us."
"A stalk's better, if it's just us two," Braith said, and petted Mothboy between the ears.
"Then let's get the others - Pease and Athel'll be shitty if you don't at least get them. Plus we need the archers. Elk don't travel in twos."
"It'll take half the day getting them back here," Braith said, and stood with a sigh. "And let me deal with Pease'n Athel. What's wrong? You've been bragging about getting better with that bow."
She looked at home in the novice Stormcloak uniform, more that he ever would, Lars reckoned, even though she was a foot shorter than him, and a foreigner, and a girl. "I don't want to hear you've been hiding in that girl's skirts," his father had said, on the day he and Braith had enlisted, "I want to hear you were in there for other reasons." When Lars had blushed at that, his Dah had slapped him across the head. "Is the Battle-Born crest a pretty, blushing maiden?"
It wasn't. And even worse, Lars was the first Battle-Born for generations to join up with the Stormcloaks and not with the Empire's force in Solitude, which made him look even more of a craven following some girl's whims to everyone in Whiterun. Well, everyone his father wanted to impress.
But he didn't want to hide in Braith's skirts, like his father and everyone else thought. Maybe it was hard to see - but he wanted to protect her. With Braith, that mainly meant protecting her from herself. The arrogance, rebellion and pride that warred in her brought her into all kinds of grief, even as it garnered her a good reputation among the ever fight-loving Nords. If he had to look weak to stand beside her and guide her impulses, to be the subordinate one and thereby protect her, so be it. Shields Are Splintered, read his families words, beneath a dark green double-axe crest which was definitely not a maiden blushing. Shields Are Splintered. Is that why I feel so bashed-in by the world? Lars often thought.
"Moth!" Braith called the hound's attention away from Lars' hip, and the pouch of dry-treats strung there. He broke away with a whine, then sniffed ahead of them, to where the elk would be. "No, Moth," she said. "Hook! Hook, Moth!"
Mothboy's head and ears lowered in disappointment, but he obeyed quickly enough, and sauntered off the other way with a yawn. East, back to the kennels in Windhelm where there would be a fresh joint of mutton waiting for him from the houndmaster, Abel Hook.
It took them another hour or so to find the gang of elk. A modest one really, twenty or so members, all of whom had stopped to observe two of the larger males in a fight for dominance. Two brooding females stood nearby, both of them with calves still at the teat; dear little snow-white things on shaky legs, with big black eyes and twitchy ears. Nobles prized their pelts in Ulfric's court for the mantles over their cloaks.
Braith made a closing net motion at him and swept out to the right, leaving him alone behind the ridge to wait and nock his first arrow. The others he stabbed into the earth at his knee, like his new archery master had taught. When Braith gave a yip like a mating whippowill, one of the younger males raised his head to listen. Lars took aim and let fly in one fluid motion.
He missed, but the whole gang of snow-elk still observed the clashing males, and remained oblivious; until Braith's first arrow struck one of the fighting males in the upper chest. Then they broke in all directions.
"Watch your crossfire!" they both yelled at once, trying to get a lead on anything moving for their next attempt. Lars thought he hit something and nocked another shaft, the fletch sliding between his fingers like silk, his new oaken bow creaking as he bent it in. He had a clear shot at a calf, but took the fear-paralysed juvenille standing next to it instead.
One less over-dressed noble to endure, he figured.
Braith ran out onto a ridge for her last shot, and brought down the elk as it tried to disappear down a small ravine. It skidded into the river reeds that it was breaking for with a pitiful, shivering lurch, spraying a bright-red rain of blood over the rushes. It bleated and squawked at them, until he and Braith both added another arrow to speed it on its way to Hircine.
A few months ago, seeing that would have given Lars bad dreams; but a keep like Windhelm went through a lot of meat, and Galmar Stone-Fist made all the Raincloak novices hunt to restore its frozen larder. Lars had never killed so many things before, but he knew this was nothing compared to what he would be called-upon to do because of his vows. Men didn't just bleat when you shot them down and they saw you nock another arrow. Men begged.
"I got five!" Braith said, almost jumping for joy. "Five! See my little white-dot on the fletching? They're all mine. I think you got... two." Her tone was sympathetic, like a mother trying to act proud of a slow child.
She hadn't hit any of the newborns either, he didn't fail to notice, but bringing that up would only provoke some blustering excuse from her, so he let it go. They each shouldered a carcass and headed for home. Halfway there, they came across Pease, Fat Gorga and Athel, ordering around a couple of white-cloaked boys as if they were full Stormcloak Commanders, and had squires and servants.
"That's a sure way to never earn your claws," Braith said to them. "You lot act like you deserve them already."
"If you said that in Bravil, my Lord father would-"
She cut Athel off. "We're not in Bravil," she said, "and I heard you caused so much trouble for your Lord father, he had to ship you here." Her breath misted in the air heavily, after the exertion of lugging the elk. "I heard you gave half the highborn ladies in Bravil pelt-lice, actually."
Athel's mouth gaped. Everyone in Windhelm knew the boy's story, but everyone also kept quiet to his face about it, scared to offend him and his wealthy family. Everyone but Braith. Athel said some unlordly words and came for her himself as his lackeys stood there frozen to the spot. In his eyes, Lars could see the boy already thought he'd won, the outcome of his attack already assured in his favor.
Braith waited until he got within two feet of her and then heaved the elk-carcass off her shoulders, over her head, and into the teenager's unguarded belly. It only made him stumble to one knee, but that was all Braith needed. Boys, elders, dogs - there was nobody she wouldn't fight.
She wrenched the boys head back from his pretty hairline, until he bowed back on his knees and screamed like a girl. Out of nowhere, there was a short, bright-polished knife in her other hand. "Are we done here?" she looked down at him, "or do you need a haircut?"
"Done!" Athel screamed. "Stop!" She let go of his fringe and pushed her knife back into its slip. "Good boy. Now go collect the rest of the meat. You can't miss it. It'll be crawling with sabrecats by now."
"Was that a good idea?" Lars asked her as they walked to the bridgegate.
"Idea? Pssh. You're assuming I thought about it," she said.
"He'll get you back - did you ever think about that? You did it infront of the Snowcloak boys. He'll wanna kill you."
"He calls us Sister-Born and Freak Girl. Are you happy just putting up with that?"
Lars ignored her. "I'll worry about it for both of us, then."
They trundled over the dock-crossing, built along the foot of the main bridge at nearly water-level. Normally the planks were wide enough to walk two abreast, but not if you were carrying an elk over your shoulders. The Argonians who lived along the city wall saw them coming and were sharpening their butcher knives before they even got there.
"Happy hunting?" the black-and-green striped lizard asked. If Lars remembered it right, his name was Smokes-Through-Gills.
"She shot more than me," Lars nodded at Braith, dropping his carcass at their scaled, taloned feet.
"How many? How many did these ones shoot? Smokes-Through-Gills gets a septim for each elk."
When Lars told him "Seven," the group of Argonians erupted into argument in their native, throaty Jel, with a lot of pointing and clutching of clothes. Lars guessed it was about how they divied-up the butchering work and the pay.
"Don't forget," Braith cut in, "seven. There are seven elk coming."
"Why did you do that?" Lars asked her, as they walked away to the sound of an even more heated argument.
"To keep Athel honest. If he brings anything less than seven bodies, he'll look a fool now." They crossed the stone wharf to the sidesteps, Braith taking them two at a time as he struggled to keep up. Breathless at the top, Lars could see over the main, league-long stone bridge to the shipyard. The Seabear - Yrsarald Thrice-Pierced's ship - was manuevering to dock, home at last. The setting sun was caught behind her blue sail, and glinted off the roaring golden bear on her prow. There was no sign of a captain on her deck, though. Lars had heard a rumor that after Yrsarald had paid Jorlief's ransom in Valenwood, the two of them had decided to return north over land. The Seabear had beaten them home.
"Where d'you two think you're going?" Robin Free-Winter asked, as they took the path to the mess room. They stopped and saluted him, hands on their hearts.
"To the mess, my lord," Braith said.
"Everyone's gathered in the Great Hall," Robin told them. "Jorlief is expected to return within the hour, and Ulfric is feasting him."
"Those elk won't be going into the freezer, then," Braith said to Lars.
"Wash up and get in there quick," Free-Winter said. He was Commander Brunwulf's illegitimate son, but he had risen to become the Commander of the novices - the Snowcloaks - by the age of twenty; at which point Ulfric had given him the choice to become Brunwulf's legitimate heir, or to choose his own new lordly name and crest. The boy had chosen the former, reclaiming his father's name. Most thought to shame him.
As Lars pumped water for Braith to wash in, the kennels over the wall erupted in barking and growls. "It's not their feed-time, what's going on in there?" Braith said, splashing water over her face and combing her black curls up into a bun.
"They can probably smell the lizards butchering on the docks," Lars said. He took the soap from her hand and threw a towel at her. When they were both clean, they dusted off each others clothes and made their way up the Palace steps. Night was fast falling, and a fine drift of snow had begun to fall with it. It's bad luck to return from a journey as snow falls, Lars thought, if you believe in that sort of nonsense.
Flanking the inner courtyard in immaculate uniforms, ten graduated Stormcloak soldiers made an honor-guard for Jorlief's return, their bears-head pikes pointed to the sky. One of them was Meryth Stone-Fist, Commander Galmar's teenage daughter. At just sixteen summers she was the youngest novice to be stormcloaked in the last ten years, and so fair-of-face it was said she rejected an offer of marriage daily - from man, mer, beast and woman alike. Braith idolised her, along with most of the novice girls, and she actually behaved herself as they walked past, giving the guards a northerner's salute with her hand over her breast.
"That was Meryth," Braith whispered.
"Yeah, I know. I'm not blind."
"Your archery suggests otherwise," Braith laughed, and made a twirling, your lordship gesture with her wrist, before she shouldered open one of the Palace of the King's towering main doors.
They were late-comers, alright. The Great Hall was nearly full, and stifling hot, so hot that they both pulled off their gloves and wool caps as soon as they entered. Braith was saying something to him, but the three-hundred or so soldiers made it hard to hear her over the din. She rolled her eyes and tugged his sleeve instead, drawing him towards two surprisingly vacant chairs.
Some whitecloaks entering after them had to stand in the aisles or against the walls. Lars saw one novice Dunmer lean against a tapestry and get clouted across the head by the castle's mage, who Lars only knew as 'The Unliving.' "That weaving's probably older than your family name, you idiot!" Lars heard him scream, even over the others talking. Just as he was about to tell Braith about it, something hit his cheek and fell to the table. A mushed-up chunk of bread. Lars looked to where it had been thrown from and locked eyes with Athel Little-Creek, smiling his creepy smile. Lars noticed he and all the boys around him were mouthing the same words. As more joined in, it cut through the wall-of-voices and became understandable, and the other tables around them fell silent.
Baby Battle-Born, he said "Daddy,
Of gifts you gave me three,
For my birthday, and they all are marked 'from thee'!
The Battle-Born Dah he said 'Laddie,
Of gifts I gave you three,
For your Uncle, Dah and Pa, they all are me!
There was no doubt he had hired some bard to help him write the verses, but it still stung. Badly. Lars felt like his cheeks were on fire.
"Wouldn't it be fun to kill him?" Braith said, so sudden and serious that it pulled him out of his own shame.
"That's not... don't say things like that," Lars told her; but she didn't apologise, or even seem to hear. He was about to say something else when a roar went up among the soldiers close to the throne dais. With no trumpets or proclaimations, Ulfric Stormcloak, Highking of Skyrim, strode from his war-room and gave the hall a serious, considering look, his hand raised in greeting.
"Stormcloaks! Raincloaks! Snow!" he boomed in that voice of his; thunder wrapped in silk. The room fell into total silence. "Jorlief is returned to us! Yellow blood... is on his spear!"
The room erupted into deafening applause. Pease stuck two fingers in his mouth and performed the only admirable skill Lars had ever observed in him, a shrill, ear-prickling dogwhistle.
Ulfric quieted the hall with a slight lowering of his head, like an actor drawing his audience in for the next line. Braith liked to make fun of his dramatics when they were alone, and did a pretty good impression of Old Stormcloak himself; portraying their leader as a lecherous fey, always half-drunk, and lusting after snowcloak boys. It made Lars laugh.
"Yes, as you will have heard, we ransomed him back," Ulfric looked around the room, looking his soldiers in the eye one-by-one. "But what did we really buy? Twenty Stormcloaks upheld our honor against over a hundred of the Yellow Elves, in their homeland. Honor, revenge, five-score dead elves. We have bought them all, with twenty men and a handful of septims. And we have our victorious Commander back as well. A good weighting - wouldn't you say - my blue brothers?"
Even Braith cheered for that.
"Whatsay we drink to the news of his arrival?" Ulfric seemed to honestly be asking them all.
A cacaphony of voices filled the stone chamber. The ayes had it. Mead was something they too-seldom got to enjoy.
"Iron-Kettle, serve my Sturm-kiin!"
Serving boys emerged from the cellar, wearing new ceremonial silk tunics bearing the Bear of Eastmarch on shimmering blue, but the army only had eyes for the wooden cups they bore. When Ulfric had made a toast and skulled with Galmar, the two of them walked up the centreway and out to the courtyard, to meet Jorlief on the Palace steps and escort him inside. Galmar flicked mead froth off his steel Officers claws as he passed Lars, looking no-more amiable after a drink than he had before.
Braith had taken a sip for the toast, then made a face and presented her cup to Lars. "Want mine?"
He swallowed it in two gulps, and relished every drop. In his father Idolaf's house there had been no drink of any kind allowed. Maybe because his Dah thought that being pious about mead and drunkeness made up for his other failings and shames, or maybe it was just another facet of his overall mean-mindedness. Lars wasn't sure, and nowadays he didn't care. After a few months out of that house, and now cloaked in snow as a Windhelm novice, he'd already discovered that good mead could warm you in ways a family never could. He sometimes joked with Braith that he'd already half made up his mind to become a drunk in his later years.
Some of the boys were standing up in their seats, angling for a good view of Commander Jorlief as he entered. Lars was more concerned with the noise he still heard coming from the kennels, himself. Mothboy and his doggy mates were throwing a welcome party of their own out there, howling up a storm and growling like rib-starved wolves. His only consolation was that Moth was probably giving the worst of it. He could act like the High King of the kennels when the others got rowdy, standing up all stiff necked and showing his teeth at the other subordinate mutts. He was surprised Braith didn't like him more.
When Ulfric and Galmar finally threw open the doors, the gust of wind and snow that announced them was a relief from the overheated hall. Whoever is tending the fires is about to get cuffed across the ear, Lars thought, that's way too much kett he's feeding it.
Ulfric paraded Jorlief down the hall, to thunderous applause. When they reached the noble table, they raised another glass of mead to the Stormcloaks and everyone toasted them back. Lars saw Ulfric ask the older man a question and saw Jorlief shake his head, until Ulfric shook one of the man's pauldrons, and said something that made him grin. Unclasping his blue cloak, he hung it over the back of his chair, then strode to the speaking-centre of the dais.
"We lost a lot." Jorlief said without emotion, but loud enough to be heard. "We lost good men... I... lost good men." He paused for a long time, so long that Ulfric nearly stepped in. "When I reached home, just outside this hall just now," he went on, "I offered Ulfric my claws." A murmur of dissent crept through the soldiers, but looking around, Lars also saw some whose eyes gleamed at the news. A demoted Officer? those eyes said, whether hooded, sap-red Dunmer or sky-eyed Nord. A set of steel claws without an owner?
"He refused," Jorlief said, dashing their hopes. "But the fact is, I'm getting old, and other matters are pressing on me. Ulfric may refuse my shame, but according to Nord laws, a right-hand can retire at his own will - to prepare for the long sleep. That is what I ask of Ulfric now."
The Bear of Eastmarch looked up from his tankard of ale, looked at his old friend, and nodded.
"A right-hand is also allowed to have a say in who his successor might be." Jorlief unclasped his Officer's claws from his belt and threw them on the table before him. "Tonight, I'll arm-wrestle the lot of you to decide."
A roar of approval went up and Lars saw Ulfric laughing and dragging his former Officer away for a private toast. Servants began stretchering long boards of whole pork and venison haunches and roast vegetables, and a different kind of din filled the air, of hundreds of men and women filling their bellies with meat and mead, bread and beets, and the boasting already over who would win the arm-wrestling match with Jorlief, and claim themselves an Officership. A fight broke out in front of the table where Jorlief had laid down his steel knuckles, and two Nord girls were kicked out of the greathall for turning over a litter of bread and soup. All in all, a typical start to a Nordic party, Lars reckoned. And they weren't even drunk yet.
After eating all he could, Lars used Braith's cup to get himself two drinks at a time, and made a vow to get as drunk as he possibly could. Maybe he'd forget about that public-shaming song from before, if he drank enough.
Eventually, Ulfric's out-going Officer took up position to accept all-comers in his contest. Male and female alike made a line, most swaggering with mead in-hand and trying to settle their nerves.
Jorlief sent them all packing. "Has NO-ONE got what it takes!" the man bellowed, wine dripping from his plaited beard. "It's like you don't even want my claws!" More failures followed, along with more disdain from the winner. When Galmar's daughter Meryth sat down across from him, Jorlief scowled. "You looking for a broken arm, lass?" Meryth put her elbow on the table and held out her hand.
The man overpowered her, of course. As soon as the wrestle began, Meryth's arm began to fail and shake - Lars was truly amazed she held on for as long as she did. A heartbeat before it would all have been over, he saw the girl's free hand go to her chest, and felt his mouth hanging open, as the laces of her shirt fell apart.
It had a similar effect on Jorlief. In the stunned second he spent considering what the young woman had revealed, Meryth slammed his hand down and won the match.
It took a lot of drinking until everyone got over that, but the night still hadn't exhausted all it's surprises. Yrsarald Thrice-Pierced strode to the speaking star on the dais and introduced some musicians they had met returning from Valenwood. The wild-looking people who filed out from the recesses were dressed like no-one Lars had ever seen. They were of the race of Man, clearly. They might have passed for Nords if not for their bronzed flesh and extravagant, shaved hairstytles - runes and sigils were shorn into elaborate designs along their temples, but on their crown they wore tight braids in string-bound bunches. All of them were young, and fair to look upon. He saw Braith looking at one of the men in particular and felt a stab of jealousy in his stomach.
The longtables were shifted to the walls, and the promised music began. The first song was so ponderous and flute heavy that the audience looked at each other not knowing whether to dance or listen in solemn silence.
Jorlief - the now-retired - had mentioned 'pressing matters' in his goodbye speech. Lars and everyone else got a hint of what that might be, when he began dancing with one of the strange visitors; a young woman, barely of marrying age. He had a wife in New Helgen, and a family there too, but no-one said anything as the man of fourty-odd summers and the new girl slowdanced The Maiden's Offer - a dance even the least-cultured Nord grew-up with - it was danced at the beginning of every season's harvest.
The next song had fiddles and drums, and the tension of the first one was forgotten. Men and women fought for partners, anxious not to miss out on a moments fun. Lars felt the same way, they had so few diversions from their soldier's life. He found himself getting dragged into a few of the dances, and was soon red-cheeked and bellowing laughter just like the rest of them. A few circles of Dunmer and Bosmer had formed, and they were dancing their own elvish jigs. Some time after his third syrupy mead, someone produced two axes and made a cross on the floor. Hundreds did the Aellon Whul around them; with pointed toes and many a missed, drunken cross-step that landed them in awkward poses with the opposite sex. Lars reckoned that was why the Aellon Whul had been devised, quietly.
"Dance with me, Stupid!" Braith was urging him, tugging on his hands. He nearly laughed and did just that, was just about to, in fact, but a cold chill suddenly went up his back, and he faded away from her instead, until he had backed into the longtables by the Bear-Throne.
It wasn't the drink. Lars had been all kinds of drunk, on all kinds of drink, from Dwermer Blastwine to that fermented Ee'crem the Khajiit went crazy for. He put his cup down and steadied himself on the table. Have the bakers been kneading old dough into the bread again? he wondered. A few months ago the whole garrison had been seeing things and claiming witchcraft on one another, until the baker confessed it might be the rancid ergot he was 'saving' by blending it through the new loaves. Lars felt like he had then. Am I going to start accusing people of being witches and monsters next?
People swore at him as he groped his way to the door. Ulfric was dancing with one of the visitors, too. A blonde woman with sinuous movements and what Lars thought were two of the coldest, blackest eyes he'd ever seen. His vision doubled and trebled and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. The guards outside laughed as he emptied his stomach into an alley.
"Now I'm not so jealous we ain't in there," one of them said.
"Yes you are," his mate responded. "Ey, fella? Do you need a hand or... ?"
"I'm fine," Lars said.
"Oh, it's that Sister-Born one!" the deeper-voiced guard said. "Look Jaik, it's that Sister-Born one. From the song Athel was doing." Lars straightened up and stared at him, vomit still dripping from his lips. He spat.
"The drink sure is fine in there," he said pleasantly. His mother had taught him that tone. You are stupid. You are nothing, that tone said. "Can I bring you something? Brandywine? A cup of Ulfric's piss?"
"Go fuck yourself," the guard said. "Say that to me when you're sober. See'f you still have the courage. Then see what happens."
He staggered off against the wall, only recognising that he was in the Grey Quarter because he was going down the stone steps, not up. The uproar in the kennels brought some of his senses back. They were still going at it in there. I have to check on Mothboy, he told himself. But first he had to vomit again. When he had, he felt much better. Maybe it had just been too hot in the hall. The swirling snow and keen air on his face felt like a blessing, yet he found himself shivering despite the comfort.
When Lars reached the kennels, Abel Hook was standing at the fence, banging with a steel rod. Hook noticed him. "They won't shut-up," he said, sounding apologetic, as if Lars had been sent to complain by Ulfric. "I've tried feeding them. They tear it to pieces like a fresh kill and go right back to... this."
The black shepherds weren't fighting each other, as Lars had imagined from the sounds he'd heard. To a one, they were repeatedly rushing the fence and snarling, raking their claws on the lower mortared wall the fence was set into; looking more like the den-wolves they were bred from than Lars had ever seen.
"The horses are doing it, too," said a voice behind them. He and Abel turned to see Stablemaster Gyam and some low-born stranger approaching them. The latter was an old man, Lars saw as he came into the lantern-light, with short-cropped, grey hair and a neat grey beard. There was worry in his eyes. Not fear, Lars noted, just worry.
"If the horses are doing it too, why are you here?" the Kennelmaster said.
"I wish I wasn't. I had to get this one past the guards."
The old man stepped forwards. One step, then he stopped. It was the way nobles let themselves be introduced.
"Are you a Snowcloak, boy?"
"I'm nearly a Raincloak," Lars said. "Next Heartfire, I will be."
"The Highking has guests tonight, doesn't he?"
"One of our Commanders returned. We're feasting him. Who are you, sir? If you don't mind me asking."
"I'm the old man who's going to save your Ulfric's life, lad, if you can get me to him."
Even the dogs seemed to quiten a little at the words.
"Why should I believe that?" Lars asked.
"You had other visitors tonight, not just your Commander, didn't you?" the man said. "Foreigners, yes? Or maybe they look almost normal, but they are still strange, aren't they?"
The musicians. The girls dancing with Ulfric and Jorlief. "What if we do?"
"They're not what they seem. They will try to take Ulfric's life. Or worse." Abel Hook went to say something then, but Lars hushed him with an upraised hand. The old man with the courtly air went on, "Your greathall is stinking hot tonight, isn't it? Too hot. That heat is at your visitors request, I assure you. They need to keep their blood warm. Is that what drove you out here boy? From the look of you, you're a Nordic as they come." He nodded to himself. "It made you sick, didn't it? You Nords really do seem to have a natural aversion to them. And lucky for you. Your stomach got you out of there, even if your mind couldn't."
Lars couldn't find any words.
"They scare horses, they scare deer, they scare hounds; but hounds will track them, and fight them, if pressed. I lost a few good dogs tracking them here."
"What are they?" Lars wasn't sure if he'd asked the question out loud, but apparently he had.
"Don't you worry about that just now. Just get me to Ulfric. Can you do that, lad?"
Even if he is crazy, what could it hurt? was Lars' first thought. I'd only be a messenger. But a deeper, wordless part of him knew better. The man wasn't crazy.
Apparently his face had shown as much, becasue the man went on like Lars had already accepted. "I like you, boy. You think with your gut, and that's a good quality to have these days. Another good thing to have these days is a dog."
"Now just a minute!" Kennelmaster Hook said. The tall Stablemaster dragged him away to talk. Lars guessed he was telling Hook not to rasie any fuss, or call down the guards.
"Bring a dog. Bring your favorite one. One who respects you. "
"That'd be Moth," Lars grabbed a rabbit haunch off a nearby smoking-rack and threw it over the kennel fence as a diversion, enabling him to leash Mothboy on a steel choker as the dogs all crowded for the morsel instead of the open gate. When Lars brought him forward, the old man petted back Mothboy's ears, revealing the white patch of fur on his forehead shaped like a moth.
"Of course," the old man said.
"Of course what?" Lars asked.
"Ever heard of the Elder Scrolls?"
"Now you're living one."
He led the stranger through the backlanes of the Grey Quarter, trying to look like he had a reason to be there, but when the Dunmer smoking in the alleyway spoke he nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Brachus, you crimson bastard."
"Alloise," the old man said back with a nod. They didn't stop walking.
"What brings you to Stormcloak land?" The green-elf asked. Bloodsmoke curled out of his long iron pipe. He was smoking ei'she, less powerful than Argonian skooma, but just as illegal.
"Nothing important," the old man said with a shrug Lars would almost have believed genuine. "Pack me a pipe. I'll be back to grace your hearth with my esteemed presence later, should I get a moment to scratch my arse."
It seemed to satisfy the Dunmer. He even said some elf-blessing as they left. "If we have any trouble at the door, just go along with everything I say."
"Brachus is an Imperial name," Lars said.
"It is. And do you know what the crest of house Brachus is, lad? I'll assume you don't. It's a moth. A white Ancestor Moth. Here's one you will get - what's the crest of house Morndas? That's a Nordic one."
"A black hunting dog, snarling, on a field quartered red-and-white."
"Top marks," Brachus said. He nodded at the dog pulling ahead of them on the choker, and raised his eyebrows. "I've been following signs like that since I set out of my quest. Yes, I'm an Imperial. Don't take me for an enemy, though. You're smart enough to understand the difference aren't you, Lars?"
He spoke like a Commander, in riddles, and read a man's mind from his face like one, too; that was what Lars knew.
Wind sucked them through the opening of the Palace courtyard, as if urging them on faster. Only one man guarded the main doors, and he was staring into the brazier so intently he didn't even notice them until they were upon him. When he did, a bears-head pike centred on Lars' face.
"No re-admittance, you little shit." It was the thinner of the two guards from before. "Pegg! Pegg!" he yelled over their shoulders - Lars imagined to where Pegg was taking a piss in a alleyway culvert, or possibly renting a whore. An extra pike leaned on the stonewall to their right. Mothboy sniffed it and lifted his leg, making the thin guard advance on him in anger. "Sister-Born, get your damned mutt out-"
"Did you know that shields are splintered?" Lars asked him harshly. The man looked at him like he'd gone mad, but it stopped him in his tracks. Good. "Do you know that steel can tear? A Battle-Born, a Battle-Born. Are you ticklish under there?" He kneed the man in the groin as hard as he could, and felt a delicious vengence quelled within him as the guard went down, sucking in lungfulls of air to shout, but only managing a querulous whimper.
"Remember my name," Lars said, and the words he heard in his own ears came out of a man's mouth, not a boy's, and definitely not a stupid boy's. It felt like his whole childhood had slipped off his shoulders in one, deleriously freeing moment. Then again, maybe he was still drunk. Ale Courage will be no defence tomorrow, he knew, if helping out this Imperial proves a fool's errand.
"That's one way of subduing a man," Brachus chuckled. It was the first sign of warmth he'd seen in the old Redcloak yet. Even so, he scanned Brachus for weapons by reflex before admitting him to the hall. Again, the old man read his mind.
"I gave my sword to that tall stableman. Gyam. He wouldn't take me armed."
"After you, my lord," Lars gestured. "Ulfric is within."
Lars kept a few paces behind the old man, and looked over the feasters as he went. Some saw Mothboy and scowled or yelled damnations - what was a hound doing at the feast so early? seemed to be the main sentiment. Dogfights were for later when everyone was fully in their cups, and the septims flowed as easily as the drink. More were dancing and didn't even notice them come in. And in amongst them all, the others stood out, more than ever. Every body in the grerathall was in motion, except them. All of them were stock-still, like mantis' playing at being a sticks, and all of their eyes were on he and Brachus. Dark eyes. Waiting eyes.
This is real.
"Ulfric!" Brachus called out when they were still twenty feet away. The Bear of Eastmarch looked up from the young woman in his lap, and Lars noticed a braid of umber and a braid of dirty blonde were woven over their hands, as was done in the Nord wedding ceremony.
"Guards!" Ulfric roared.
Crossbowmen appeared on the galleys, and two pikesmen were drawing down on them a moment later. He had to give the old man - Brachus - credit, though. He'd basically walked in the front door and right up to Ulfric's face without so much as a bribe or a drop of blood being spilt. There was still time, he supposed, looking at the two spears trained on he and his conspiritor's hearts. He really didn't want to die tonight. He wanted to die even less from a bearshead pike to the chest. That was no way for a Nord to meet Talos.
Ulfric pushed the pale girl behind his chair, and stood.
"I have urgent news for you, Your Grace," Brachus said. "I apologise for the intrusion, but... might we repair to your war-room?"
"You may petition my council for a meeting," Ulfric said, "but that won't assure you of one."
"As it should be. And Hence my rude interuption, Your Grace, I needed to talk to you immediately. The news I bring you cannot wait." Lars could hear something else in the old man's voice then, a kind of wounded confusion. Something he hadn't expected was happening. Was Ulfric meant to recognise him? Somehow, Lars knew that was true.
"Then, come," Ulfric said. "Never let it be said that a Nord feast is unwelcoming!"
Lars expected that to take the tension out of the Imperial's shoulders, but Brachus seemed more worried than ever. "Very good, Your Grace, and many thanks."
The young woman with the dark eyes tugged at Ulfric's bearspelt mantle and whispered something he couldn't hear, as the pikesmen slightly relaxed their thrusting arms and looked at them like something they'd scraped off their boots. The Blood-Nose brothers, they were. He couldn't remember their individual names, but their crest was a bloody-mawed sabrecat with the words 'Where Others Fear' below it. Lars knew all the old families' sigils, and drew copies of the new ones he saw in a book by his bedside.
"Oh, put him off, Ulfric!" Jorlief said as he swaggered over, gripping his new sweetheart around the waist. "Am I being feasted here, or not?" Mothboy snarled and jerked forwards on his chain, yanking Lars with him.
"Get that hound away!" one of the Blood-Nose brothers said, and gave a warning slash with his pike. Later, Lars wouldn't be sure what had happened next, as much as he thought about it, or as many times as he was asked, and that was many; but those words stuck with him. "Get that hound away!" And he thought that was when Jorlief screamed.
Years later, many would say that moment was the opening move in the Serpent War, and marked the beginning of the fourth age of recorded history.
There was some scuffling at his right, and behind him, and someone hit the floor, groaning. When he looked back to Ulfric, he noticed his leash-hand was free, and Mothboy was running full-pelt up the centre aisle towards a scene of utter horror.
The stranger-woman was still behind the Highking, but she had grown to a towering height, her clothes splitting like overripe fruit to accomade the new form. Her face was no longer a face. Scaled frills had burst through her neck and a new set of pointed predatory teeth burst though the human set, and sent them scattering. A snake's head emerged, tearing the woman's face into two hanging flaps of bone and tissue. Mothboy was still running. The serpent's open maw encompassed Ulfric Stormcloak's head in one gulp. And Mothboy jumped.
The hound's teeth closed over one of the woman's arms, and he hung on, his body whipping back-and-forth in the air. The serpent that was once a woman barely seemed to notice. Its gagging throat stretched wider, eyes black and unfocused, and Lars saw its jaw dislocate as Ulfric's shoulders sunk, with obscene slowness, into the monster's almost-splitting head. By that time, Mothboy had completely torn the remaining human skin away from its steaming, plated torso. That belly is soft, Lars had time to think, before Meryth Stone-Fist, wearing her newly earned Officer-claws, punched her way into its guts.
Yrsarald Thrice-Pierced - called Duck by those who knew him - had the thing that had been Jorlief's new mistress by the throat, and holding the twisting serpent in the air, he ran it head-first into a wall, yelling for a blade. Some quick-thinking Snowcloak un-skewered a piglet from the fire, and stabbed the long hot pin down between the thrashing snakes eyes. But others were having worse luck. He saw Fat Gorga pushing himself across the floor with his legs, pants raked down from the rough stone floor, clutching his forearm with an intense look of agony on his wobbling face.
"We need weapons!" some Raincloaks yelled, backing out of the door, but their terrified eyes betrayed their true reason to depart.
The old Imperial he'd brought in was supposed to be unarmed as well, but suddenly he had a dagger of dragonbone in his left hand. Behind him, some of the Dunmer elves had trapped one of the shapeshifting nightmares into a corner with glowing red brands from the stove, but somehow, it knocked one of the Dunmer off his feet and escaped the circle advancing on it. Lars could see why it had taken a gang of elves to brave the thing; it was truly massive, its ribbed body as thick around as a draft-horse. Lars saw fury in its black eyes, and it saw him - and uncoliled with a burst of speed straight towards him. He saw it's alien, forked tongue taste the air like a purple knife as it reared over Brachus' right shoulder.
"Old man!" he yelled, and grabbed Brachus' knife - glove, hand, and all - and jammed it up into the things gullet and out the top of its head. A killing blow, but the snake didn't seem to realise it was dead yet, until its struggling opened the wound further, shuddering, and it's sphincter let go a putrid stream of black ichor onto his boots.
Now fear was gone, his disgust came back, and Lars threw the serpent away with a bark of revulsion.
Things were finally settling down. Men and women collasped back onto their haunches and let fall their makeshift weapons: a chair, a broomhandle, pokers from the fire. Some Raincloaks kicked the door in, finally back with their blades and ready to fight, all bluster and show. Officer Galmar ordered them to tend to the injured, his tone saying all.
He looked for Braith, and found her looking back for him with the same expression he felt on his own face. Men called it love, but men were idiots. She was part of him. Simply that. Simply that, and also, the immensity of that.
"It wouldn't do, for you to die!" Braith called to him.
"I was just thinking the same," he said.
Pease Fire-Hand suddenly shoved past her then, so hard she almost fell to her hands. Later, Lars would reflect on what that meant, but something else caught his attention then. Under the longtables to Braith's left, something stirred.
Like the snake it was, the male harpist sidled out from under the tablecloths and made for a man near him. Lars stood frozen for a moment, watching, before he could utter an embarrassingly simple "Ah!" sound of warning.
Everyone followed his gaze, and some more able soldier's than him made to attack. The snake had a similar motivation, though, and finding a discarded arrow, it put the point to its neck. The circle of attackers gave pause. It was the last of its party, and if it wasn't getting away, the enemy certainly wasn't getting any information under torture. Lars saw nothing in its eyes, though. Where a man or mer or beast-race might show fear or fury or insanity, the snakeman looked detached and cold, even as it farewelled its mortality. The arrowhead pushed in and began to draw forwards.
Silver pinned it's arrow-hand to the wall, quivering.
No, not silver, Lars saw - a dinner knife. He followed its course back to where it had come, and almost without surprise, saw Braith's hand still extended in the follow-through of her toss. He heard men cursing the thing in four or five different languages and ripping a curtain down to bind the thing up, but after that, he and Braith were embracing, and he shut his eyes and ears to everything. It took the voice of a dead man to open them again.
"Poor man. He played me well. Too well sometimes, for my liking." That voice. The voice of a man Lars had seen caught and snake-bitten, and at least partially devoured. One Ulfric had been. His legs still protruded from the jaws of the monster that had been eating him. But standing over that dead man was another Ulfric, very much alive, and like a poem, good northern sunlight - which is to say, still foggy - shone through the great blue-and-white panes of the greathall, falling across his craggy, salt-and-pepper bearded face.
"Thank Tal-" Galmar began, then changed his mind. "Thank ALL the Gods! Thank every damned one of them! I wasn't sure which... I didn't know if... "
"It's me," Ulfric nodded. "They got the mummer. His wife was against it from the start. Now what do I tell her?" He shook his head as if coming up from underwater, and looked at his men - which is what he called you even if you were a woman, Lars had observed, with amusement.
When his Officers lined up, two were missing; Jorlief and Warren. No-one needed to ask why.
"Everyone in this room is now a Stormcloak, no matter what they wore before," Ulfric said.
"Not you!" Lars saw a Commander cuff one of the late-comer Raincloaks across the head.
I'm cloaked in storms. Lars wanted to be happy, but he also saw it for what it was - with dead Stormcloaks strewn all around him, of course there would, by necessity, be promotions. Ulfric's eyes met his.
"Lars Battle-Born," the High King said.
"Shields Are Splintered, those are your family words."
"I saw some of what you did tonight, Lars. Do you have a lot of experience saving the lives of noble idiots, or were you just lucky?" And the Bear of Eastmarch actually laughed.
"More than luck I'd say," the old Imperial Brachus said. "I'd keep this one close, Ully."
"I agree," the High King said, and knelt at Lars feet. For a moment Lars thought he must be picking something up, then was worried Ulfric was injured and had fallen, until he finally understood. People would now call him Lars Once-Honoured before they called him Battle-Born. The King had knelt for him, for his service to the realm.
- end of chapter -
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