Alone together, Katja and her two companions shared smiles of satisfaction. They had done it! Clearly, the vampire “menace” still existed as did the one presented by dragons; but their efforts had averted a major crisis and put paid to a truly evil man. She gave each of them a hug and a kiss, then said “shall we go?” She could not put a count to the minutes or hours that had elapsed since her bath at the Suite this morning, but she felt in need of another one. Proximity to Lord Harkon, living or dead, had left her feeling soiled.
They fast-travelled back to the Suite and soon the three of them were soaking in the tub. They talked about their recent quest, then conversation moved to the future. “So,” Wyll remarked with a twinkle, “I guess Lydia and Argis will be getting married soon?”
Katja smiled at the thought. “Let’s go see them after we’re dressed,” she said. “I need to talk about a few things with them, and there are some preparations I want to make before the wedding.”
Anders eyed her sidelong. “What about our wedding?” he asked. He still wasn’t completely convinced it was going to happen. Would Kat continue to elude them both without making a commitment?
She looked thoughtful. “I still haven’t figured out exactly how we’re going to do that,” she admitted. “And aside from that issue, I want us to have our own place together. I love it here in the Suite, but this is more like a public trust than our personal property – and there are always strangers wandering through. But I don’t want to move too far away from Whiterun. I like this area, and I want to be close to Anja while she’s growing up. Maybe you guys could look around while I’m running my errands and see if there are any places available? I’ve got all that loot I just polished up ready to sell, and that should bring a fair amount of gold…”
Wyll and Anders exchanged a glance over Kat’s head as she was momentarily abstracted, thinking about her plans. Both of them were getting some ideas. They hoped their family would be growing, so a house in town was a bad idea – no room for expansion. But there was a lot of open space in the countryside near the Suite, and a couple of farms that, perhaps, might come on the market if the price were right.
After a pleasant soak they got out, and dispersed to their sleeping areas to get dressed. Though Katja kept a few things down in Wyll’s basement “bedroom,” most of her stuff now lived in the master suite. And over the months, that had become Anders’ space as well. She decided on a compromise between armor and frippery, donning her handsome set of Blades armor. It was made of supple leather and comfortable, while providing a fair amount of protection. The weather this afternoon was fine, and she felt like walking into town.
Anders, taking a cue from her, put on a lightly armored leather vest over a shirt and trousers, and wore boots instead of soft shoes. He carried a Vampiric staff, which might double as a walking stick in a pinch; and in any case he, like Katja, carried deadly weapons with him even when stark naked. He could not be disarmed of his Destruction spells, and she had her Shouts – though they weren’t as effective. She slipped a dagger into a sheath at her belt.
They met Wyll in the common room, dressed in soft, casual clothing and unarmed. Looking them over with mild surprise he said, “Are we expecting a battle of some sort?”
“I thought it would be enjoyable to walk into town, since the weather’s so nice,” Katja replied.
“I’ve been walking back and forth for weeks, and it’s been perfectly safe,” Wyll said smiling, “but if anybody attacks us I’ll just rip them apart with my bare hands.” She rolled her eyes at him. He was joking, but she didn’t doubt he could and would do it.
They gathered up some supplies and food items from Lane before setting out. “I want to throw a little celebratory dinner at Breezehome this evening,” Katja told her men as they started. “I feel like this is the start of a new and better life for all of us.”
“Good idea,” Wyll said. Then he added, “Can I cook it?” Katja halted her stride and turned to stare at him.
“I beg your pardon,” she told him. “It sounded as if you just asked to cook us all dinner.”
Wyll gave her a grin that was half cherub, half formidable warrior – both of which he was, when you came down to it. ”I never mentioned I like to cook?” he asked as if surprised. Anders, too, was looking at him in mild disbelief. During the years the two had spent together as employees of the Suite, all of their meals had been provided for them. Katja had that feeling again, as if she had stepped into some unexpected alternate universe where everyone she knew was harboring hidden talents.
“You realize the facilities at Breezehome are pretty limited, right?” Katja asked him, trying to take a more businesslike approach. “And do you have a menu in mind?”
“I think I can come up with something we’ll like from what we’re carrying right now. And if I need anything else I can run up to the market and buy some more supplies.”
She resumed walking, saying offhandedly, “I’ll leave it up to you, then. And thanks.”
They passed Battle-Born Farm across the road from the Suite, and a little further up the road Chillfurrow Farm, slightly smaller. Crossing the river on a stone bridge they turned east and passed the Honingbrew Meadery, before crossing again and passing the stables. Katja had once thought it might be a good idea to keep some horses here; but as her travels in Skyrim had marked more and more locations for her on her map, it had no longer seemed worthwhile. Horses took effort and expense to keep, and she was not a very good rider in any case. Plow horses belonging to her farm-dwelling childhood playmates in the region around Pied-de-Puce were the only ones she’d ever had much contact with.
As they passed Whiterun’s main gates, the guards welcomed Wyll heartily. He did mention he’d been coming here a lot. Inside, Katja spotted Adrianne working at her forge, and greeted her. “We just got back from killing the vampire lord that was threatening Skyrim,” she told her.
“I hope that means we won’t be getting any more vampire attacks,” the smith replied.
“Me too,” Katja said, “but there are still vampires around. Let me know if you see any. Oh, and say hi to Ulfberth.” With that, they continued to the front door of Breezehome.
Katja knocked, and the door was opened shortly by Argis. He was wearing trousers and a leather jerkin, and looking more relaxed than ever. Clearly, family life was agreeing with him. Katja gave him a slight hug and a kiss on the cheek, then she and her companions came inside the little house. Lydia was folding some wash on the dining table, and Anja was “helping” her.
They looked up, expressions of delight on their faces. “Auntie Kat!” Anja squealed, and rushed to be picked up and kissed.
“You’ve grown!” Katja exclaimed, a warm squishy wave of affection washing over her along with a hint of regret that she’d missed even a couple of weeks of the child’s life. Anja looked pleased at this pronouncement. What child doesn’t long to grow up, even as the grownups are wishing they could return to childhood?
Katja passed her squirming fire-haired armful to Anders, and turned to greet Lydia. The woman’s eyes were shining as she stood and extended her hands to squeeze those of her Thane and friend. “I’m so glad you’ve returned safely!” she said. “Did you… uh, succeed?”
Katja smiled broadly at her. “Yes. There was an evil vampire lord up north, Serana’s father, and he‘d gotten wind of a prophecy that he thought meant he’d be able to use some divine artifact to extinguish the sun. He looked on everybody that wasn’t a vampire as cattle, but if he’d actually managed to snuff out the sun his “herds” wouldn’t have been around for long! But we killed him – Serana and I did, really, but we had a lot of help.”
Lydia felt a twinge of wistfulness as she heard of these bold deeds. She was a superbly trained and competent fighter, and as much as she loved Anja and her new life here in Breezehome, there were times when she missed the excitement and satisfaction of armed combat in the cause of Good. But now, she was starting to think there might be another reason for her stay away from danger.
Anders had now passed Anja to “Uncle Wyll,” whom the little girl adored. It was he who came to see her almost every day, bringing her treats and playing games with her or taking her around the town to play in the fountains or socialize with some of the other children in town. He gave her a kiss, then seated her in the crook of one massive arm so she could participate as he and Anders began telling Argis about their recent exploits. Argis, too, while happy to hear about the fight, was a little regretful he hadn’t been there participating.
Lydia and Katja sat side by side on the table’s outside bench. “So,” Lydia said, broaching the subject delicately, “now that you’re finished with your anti-vampire campaign, when do you think we might be able to have the wedding?”
Katja grinned. “Eager for it, are you? I need to talk with you about some details and I have some business to take care of first, but I think we could be ready in, say, three weeks’ time? Will that be okay?”
Lydia felt a little bad about pushing her Thane on the matter, after all that Katja had done for her; but if she was right, it would best to get married as quickly as possible. “Three weeks will be all right,” she said. “Will you be able to fast-travel us to Riften?”
Katja hadn’t even considered the possibility that she might not. “We got here with you and Anja, Anders, Wyll, and I and all that furniture and baggage a few weeks ago. I haven’t ever thought to check if there’s an upper limit to the number of people and their possessions that will come along. Maybe I should run a few tests.” At this point Anja, who was finding the men’s talk less than entrancing, wriggled down from her perch on Wyll to run over and join her and Lydia where they sat talking.
“Auntie Kat, I can read now!” the little girl announced.
“Really? That’s wonderful!” Katja told her, glancing at Lydia.
Lydia beamed, the warm smile of a proud mother. “Argis made her an A-B-C book, and she’s memorized it, I think. But it’s a start. Anja, why don’t you get your book and read it to Auntie Kat?”
“Okay!” chimed the exuberant youngster, and ran to the “spare bedroom.” The nook with the extra bed in it had become the family’s library, a quiet corner in which to read.
Anja returned in a moment lugging a book about a foot square, with thin boards for covers. The boards and the pages within them had been pierced with holes, then bound with strips of rawhide. “Argis is amazingly handy,” Lydia remarked. “We picked up a few tools from Belethor’s and he’s set up a sort of work area out behind the house. He’s been building all kinds of things.” Katja glanced around and realized there was now a painted wooden rocking horse standing over in the corner near the spare bed.
Anja squeezed in between Kat and the woman she was coming to think of as “Mama,” and rested the book on her lap. The first page showed a remarkably lifelike painting of an apple. “A is for apple,” the gamin pronounced sagely. Then she flipped the page over. “B is for Boy,” she said, then added “that’s Lars. Sometimes Argis takes me to play with him.” Katja was certainly impressed, not only at the bright child’s leap toward literacy but at the beautiful artwork in the book. Argis might be a hell of a fighter but his talents were being wasted if he did nothing but wield an axe all day.
They sat there listening and admiring the pictures as Anja “read” all the way through to “Z is for Zombie” – which she then told Katja was another name for draugr. Where in heaven’s name had this small child learned anything about draugr?
Lydia, sensing her unspoken question, explained, “I told her about them. Argis and I can keep her entertained for hours with tales of our adventures. And, I made friends with Farengar while I was living up at Dragonsreach. He lets me borrow books from the castle library.”
The “reading” session concluded, Katja smilingly thanked her young ward, giving her an affectionate squeeze and a kiss on the forehead. Then she resumed her discussion with Lydia. “I need to know how many people I will need to move around,” she explained. “I think we’ll have a big party at the Suite after the wedding, so I’ll need to gather anybody you want to be at the ceremony in Riften at the Suite, then move you and us and whoever else back to the Suite afterward for the party.”
Lydia considered thoughtfully. She could hardly believe this was happening. When she’d pledged her service to Balgruuf, she had expected to lead a life of service to the Hold, and probably give it up while still a young woman in some conflict or another, fighting to defend the life of her Thane – whoever that might turn out to be. Now, a completely different future was opening up before her, though her obligations to the Hold had not ceased. As long as her Thane wanted her to live at Breezehome and look after Anja, that was her duty as well as her delight.
But the life she had chosen for herself after her parents had died had not led to her forming a lot of close friendships. She looked back on the last few years, before Anja – and later, Argis – had opened her heart; and she could not relate to the person she had been. I was so serious then, she thought. She didn’t realize how serious she still was, though the focus of her seriousness had changed. Whatever Lydia set herself to, she put all her soul into it. But now, it was paying her back in warmth and joy and feelings she had never before experienced.
“I have a few friends at the Suite, and I’ve made some friends around town since we’ve been living here in Breezehome,” Lydia said, “… I would love to have them come to the party afterward. But as far as Riften is concerned, the only person I really think should be there is Jarl Balgruuf. He holds my oath, and I think he should be present at the wedding. I don’t have any family.”
“You do now,” Katja told her, squeezing her hand. Lydia looked a bit flustered.
“I’ll see if I can get the Jarl to join us,” she promised. “And please give me a list of any other people you want at the party, and I’ll make sure they get invitations.” Katja just sat there for a moment, her arm around Anja – who was taking all of this in with a certain amount of interest. What little girl isn’t interested in weddings? Well, that’s sorted, she thought. She still needed to pose a similar set of questions to Argis. Would he want Jarl Thongvor to attend?
Realizing that the afternoon was getting on, Katja turned to Lydia once again. “I thought we might have a little celebration here tonight, in honor of the fact that we’ve defeated the evil vampire lord and also because of your forthcoming nuptials. Is that okay?”
“I didn’t really have any plans,” Lydia assured her.
“Good! I hope… I have to warn you, Wyll has said that he will be cooking for us.”
Lydia smiled at her broadly, an expression Katja had seldom seen on her face before. “Oh!” she said. “Well that will be all right then.” Katja gave her a questioning look. “You didn’t know Wyll likes to cook?” Lydia asked her, somewhat surprised. “While you and Anders and Serana were off questing, he was here with food a couple of nights a week. He said he never got the chance to cook at the Suite…”
“Well I’ll be dipped in dragon shit,” Katja muttered profanely – then glanced to see whether Anja had noticed. Anja was turning the pages of the book in her lap, her lips moving slightly as she went through them again, and Katja had some faint hope that her expletive had not been heard. If she was about to start spending more time around children, she was going to have to get a grip on her tongue.
Looking over to the men, Katja realized they were still shooting the breeze about their martial exploits, recent and otherwise. Get a bunch of warriors together in a room, and the talk about killing and maiming could go on for hours. Not that she didn’t get positive enjoyment out of defeating enemies, and could certainly enjoy discussing techniques or rehashing past battles. But there were other topics of conversation in this wide world.
Raising her voice a bit to be heard over their masculine banter Katja said, “Hey, Wyll! Do you suppose it’s time to get started cooking?”
He broke his attention off from the discussions that had been occupying him, Anders, and Argis to say, “Hmm. I suppose it is. Excuse me, gentlemen…” They’d dropped their sacks of supplies on the floor when they came in and had then become distracted by conversation. Now he gathered up all they’d brought with them and carried it over to the table saying “Excuse me, ladies… and Kat.” She gave him a mock glare.
Wyll dropped the provisions on the table and began spreading them out to rummage through them. “I wish this place was big enough for a real kitchen,” he remarked as he began assembling his ingredients and seasonings. Katja was intrigued. She, too, enjoyed cooking but was often put off it by the pathetic facilities available in most Skyrim homes.
“Need some help chopping?” she asked, wanting to get some more insights into this latest unexpected facet of her beloved golden warrior.
“Sure,” he replied. Lydia and Anja got up to give them room, drifting over to hang out with Anders and Argis. Katja noticed that Lydia slipped beneath Argis’ arm as if she belonged there, Anja snuggling up against her leg. Wyll produced a large cast iron pot with a wire bale handle, suitable for hanging on a hook above the fire. The central fire pit that occupied such a large part of Breezehome’s main living area was capable of holding two or three such hooks in addition to a three-foot spit for roasting meats.
“I’d like three or four onions, half a dozen carrots, and a couple of apples chopped up about like this,” he said, holding up one of his huge hands and indicating a size equal to about half the smallest joint of his pinky finger. “Those should go in this bowl. Then in the kettle I want more carrots and onions, but about twice as big. And a couple of cabbages, cut up into one-inch pieces, along with about 4 potatoes the same size. Got it?”
Katja goggled at him for a moment, hardly believing she’d been sleeping with this man for the past several months without having ever actually met him. Having also fallen in love with him and promised to marry him, she welcomed this new and unlooked-for aspect of his personality as just another reason for that love. And, having many years’ experience as a scullery maid of sorts (what else are eldest daughters for, after all?) she got right to work on the chopping.
Meanwhile, Wyll produced three dead chickens from one of the sacks they’d brought. Huh, she hadn’t noticed those. With a pot of water he’d gotten Anders to heat for him in a hurry, he soon had their feathers off and back into the sack, along with the heads, feet, and innards he’d neatly removed with a razor-sharp knife. Anybody in the habit of decapitating draugr or gutting bandits had better not be squeamish about poultry, and Katja observed all this with a clinical interest.
As he was finishing with the chickens, she had filled the bowl with the chopped veggies as requested. Wyll added some salt and a few chopped herbs, then began filling the late chickens’ body cavities with the mixture from the bowl. After that he wrapped them up in some twine, and spitted them before placing them over the fire to roast. Katja was impressed, and also felt a little… cheated, somehow. Why hadn’t he ever offered to cook for her in all these months?
After the chickens were sizzling over the fire, Wyll hung the pot in which she’d put the other veggies over it as well, with a good quantity of water added along with salt and more herbs. After that, the two of them were able to relax, sipping some chilled ale (Anders had become quite adept at applying his frost spells to the chilling of beverages, thus making him a popular fellow at any gathering) and relaxing as they waited for the food to cook.
Katja made a move on Argis, dragging him away from the conversation of Wyll and Anders to ask him about his guest list for the wedding. He seemed lost in thought for a while, considering. Like Lydia, he was without family and had spent most of his adult life in service to the Hold. But the Jarl to whom he had originally given his oaths had been supplanted as a result of Katja’s negotiations at the Peace Council some months back. Jarl Thongvor had taken over those oaths along with the rest of The Reach, but it was not to him that Argis truly felt loyalty.
“Can you find Jarl Igmund for me?” he asked. Katja knew just where to find him. The hapless Imperial supporter now whiled away his hours in the basement at the Blue Palace in Solitude, with others who had suffered a similar fall including the former Jarl Siddgeir of Falkreath. She had chanced upon them while fulfilling a quest several weeks ago. “I’m sure he’d be delighted to attend,” she told Argis. “And if there’s anyone here in Whiterun you’d like to invite to the party at the Suite, just give me their names.”
Argis gave her a shy look. Getting up in the faces of Forsworn or standing off dragons, this man knew no fear. Put him into a social situation with women, and suddenly he was tongue-tied. Yet he’d somehow managed to win over Lydia, a woman Wyll had failed to get through to. Katja could only assume the two of them had a bond forged by the similar paths they had taken in life. She gave him a reassuring smile and said, “Just ask Lydia to give me a list with all the names on it, within the next week or so, okay?” He smiled back at her with only a bit of discomfort showing and said, “Sure.”
The chickens were sizzling before long, and done sooner than Katja had expected. They’d each (Anja excepted, of course) had a couple of ales and were beginning to feel pretty mellow. Wyll slid the chickens off the spit and then used a razor-sharp kitchen knife (not a dagger, she noticed – where had he gotten such a thing?) to carve them up into quarters after spooning the now-steaming chopped veggies out of their centers.
That went into a bowl, the chicken quarters onto a large platter. The contents of the large pot, now cooked to bits, were pureed as Wyll used his famously amazing arm strength to beat in a quantity of fresh cream with a Breton whisk, a tool Katja had not seen since coming to Skyrim. Meanwhile the bread rolls, fresh earlier today, were toasting on a curious-looking square grill mounted on four straight legs. Wyll had set it into the fire as he took the pot off.
Katja was fascinated by all of this. Wyll used some techniques she wasn’t familiar with, and the results looked intriguing. As a woman of prodigious appetites in all things, she was eagerly looking forward to the taste test. And for almost the first time since they’d met, she was looking at this magnificent man with an eye to picking his brain instead of just trying to fuck his brains out.
Rousing herself from her reverie, Katja got on the ball and set the table as it appeared it was time for them to eat. The five adults and one small child fairly crowded the dining area as they gathered for the feast. Wyll started them with steaming bowls of the savory cream soup, then presented the chicken with veggies and bread rolls on the side. They washed it down with a pale chilled wine from High Rock. How in all the hells had Wyll managed that? Anja happily drank freshly squeezed apple juice, and as usual polished off far more food than Katja would have thought possible. With an appetite like that, Katja half expected her to be looking Argis in the eye in another few years.
The conversation was animated as they ate, and Anja was a happy participant. With no brothers or sisters she was the only non-adult in her family, and she seemed to accept that socializing with adults was what she was supposed to do. Since every adult there loved her and was willing to indulge her, she was included as a member of the group and her contributions were taken as seriously as anybody else’s. In fact, they all found what she had to say delightful. A five-year-old’s perspective on the world is always worth listening to.
Still, as the evening wore on she began to tire. The energy of small children is concentrated, able to sweep adults off their feet; but that little package cannot have the reserves for a sustained effort. Her stamina abandoned her, and Argis hugged her to him as he noticed her flagging. “About ready for bed, Ani?” he asked. Many children would have resisted, but Anja seemed to have a good sense of herself.
“I’m sleepy,” Anja replied. “Will you read to me?”
“Say goodnight to your Auntie Kat and your uncles first,” he told her. She got down from the bench and went around bestowing hugs and kisses. Then Argis had her select a book from the shelves near the spare bed before scooping her up to carry her to her bedroom on the floor above.
The four remaining continued their conversation, and Argis rejoined them in a few minutes. Katja noticed how peaceful his expression was. She felt a profound sense of happiness that her efforts had brought this family together. She loved Anja and wanted always to be a part of her life, but she knew that Lydia and Argis had truly become the girl’s parents.
The celebration wound down and Katja reminded Lydia that a list of the local people she and Argis would like to have invited to the forthcoming party should be given to Wyll or dropped off at the Suite within the next week, if she was not yet back from her planned errands. Then she, Wyll and Anders made their farewells, stepped outside the door, and fast-travelled back to the Suite.