Downtime in Solitude
After Mjoll had changed from her armor to casual clothes, they made their way to tavern. Max had declined changing, insisting he remain in his armor for some reason. Old habits die hard, they supposed.
The Winking Skeever was actually much nicer than the name would lead on. Serana glanced around the room self-consciously, watching curious looks. She and Mjoll sat at a table in the corner of the room, facing what looked like a stage. Serana could smell pine and soap, a telltale sign of a very profitable night for the tavern. She smirked at the passed out patrons that lay strewn about the tavern. Some slept half sitting up, while others obviously landed and continued to lie askew on the floor. The occasional groans and snores at least showed they were still alive.
Mjoll snickered and pointed to a woman passed out on the floor who was snuggled up to a cheese wheel as if it were the finest feather pillow. Serana nodded in the direction of a man who slept sitting up, his back to the wall and a half-eaten meat pie sitting his lap. The crumbs of food still hanging in his beard and dancing about as he snored. Mjoll chortled as she moved towards the table and took a seat at the end. Serana followed suit and made sure to sit down in the darkest corner. She continued to look at the small stage. Various musical instruments were lined along a wooden trunk, presumably containing sheet music. Serana tried to remember the names of all of the instruments. A lute, a flute, and a… lyre? Serana tried to remember what the U shaped instrument was called. She wanted to say a harp, but she knew this was incorrect. Her thoughts were interrupted by a pewter tankard being placed before her. Serana realized Max was sitting right in front of her. His arms were crossed and resting on the table as if cradling his drink.
Max had a ghost of a smile on his face when he spoke, "Nothing but whiskey for you, my friend." He said, looking at Mjoll with a smirk. His attention turned to Serana, "And mead for the lady." He said sliding a drink to Serana. He didn’t seem to know if she would drink it, but the gesture was kind.
"Here's to friends, old and new." Mjoll said with a smile.
They all clinked their tankards together, the froth dribbling down the sides as they all took a swig.
The mead was sweet but had a bite. Serana remembered it had been a long time since she drank anything, alcoholic and otherwise. She sat her tankard down awkwardly watching the condensation from her companions' ice cold drinks drip down the sides. Her drink however was slightly below room temperature, chilled perhaps. She realized that Mjoll and Max were still chugging away.
They sucked in a large breath as they pounded their cups down. Max smiled at Mjoll, Serana noticed it was a genuine smile. An especially rare occurrence in Serana's experience, though it seemed to be in good supply around his 'old friend'. Part of her wondered just how this profound bond was formed between the two warriors.
Max took Mjoll's tankard. He looked at Serana's drink, realizing she hadn't finished. Serana looked at him rather sheepishly. He only chuckled lightly, "Fear not, neither of us expect you to keep up with us. And I can always get you something a little more watered down…" he teased.
Serana took a moment to take in how handsome Max really was. Especially now with that slight sparkle in his eyes. He seemed relaxed. Going a whim, Serana decided she wasn't going to pass up this chance to get to know Skyrim's greatest hero.
Her tone was playful and sarcastic, bordering on sassy, "Don't threaten me with a good time." She said with a wan smile.
Max had returned to get refills several times… More than necessary to be at least happily drunk. The tavern had livened up significantly and laughter could be heard all around.
Serana decided this was good opportunity to pick Mjoll's liquored up brain. Serana had forgotten that alcohol had no effect on her, one of the many things that saddened her about her condition.
"So Mjoll, you and Max go back a ways?" Serana asked carefully.
Mjoll nodded, "A ways back is an understatement. We met when we were only toddlers."
Serana blinked in surprise. "Wow." She tried to remember anyone besides her parents that she had known that long, but then she realized the comparison wasn't exactly fair.
"Max's mother was out and about quite a bit as a legionnaire so he spent a good amount of time with my family. We kids would always beat up on each other. Max was always small so I had to keep an eye on him. That was until he grew… finally." Mjoll said with a drunken chuckle. Her words were surprisingly clear for being under the influence. "I was the youngest of five brothers…" Mjoll stared at the table as if processing what she had just said, her brow furrowed, "I mean, I was the only girl… and the youngest child." she laughed at her own misstep.
Serana laughed lightly. She didn't think there was much to the usage of past tense in referring to her family, but as it lingered, Serana grew curious.
Mjoll's face told nothing of what she was about to say, "My family was killed by bandits." Mjoll paused for a moment she was surprisingly calm considering the subject.
"As was Alessia, Max's mother. We were twelve. Bandits set fire to our village. I actually saw a bandit laugh as he ran my brother through. Alessia put up a hell of a fight, but she didn't make it." Mjoll said sadly. She gazed off into the nearby hearth, the blaze a painful metaphor.
Serana's eyes fell to the floor. Max had no family. She understood now why he had been reluctant to discuss his family, particularly his mother. Now Serana knew why.
Having a loved one die was one thing, but to witness their death at the hands of violence must be horrific. Serana couldn't imagine losing her parents to such malice at such a young age. Now, well, she was basically aiding in overthrowing her father…Which most likely entailed his demise.
Serana took another swig, this one much larger than the last few.
The sound of tankards clunking on the table brought Serana back to the present.
Max sat down across from them. He eyed both Mjoll and Serana. He knew something was up. They both had peculiar expressions on their faces.
"So…" Max said rather awkwardly, trying to break the silence.
"Did I miss something?"
Mjoll was the first to respond, "Serana was asking me how we knew each other."
Max smirked, "Oh and I'm sure you told her about how you were my babysitter for most of our youth?"
Mjoll laughed, "More like protector." She corrected
"More like a bully. And then a swooning admirer." Max said playfully.
Mjoll's faced reddened slightly despite her war paint.
"Oh come now, Max. We were kids. Not like you and Aela.” Mjoll said with a laugh, trying to deflect Max's jab. Serana perked up, she had heard the name before.
Max's laugh was noticeably disheartened.
"Can we not talk about that?" Max said uncomfortably. His eyes avoided looking at either of women seated across from him.
"What? Our stupid teenage years?" Mjoll said, taking another poorly coordinated swig of her drink, nearly missing her mouth entirely. Serana was getting the impression there was more to it than that.
"You know damn well who." Max said bitterly. Serana noticed Max's behavior was similar to the last time this Aela came up.
Max's mind was racing, his temper was especially short given the number of drinks he'd consumed. He didn't understand why Mjoll was putting him on the spot like this. Perhaps she was simply drunk or he had embarrassed her in bringing up their past flings. Max decided it best to go for a leak, though he didn't really have to go all that badly.
Mjoll appeared to come to her senses, "My apologies. The drink appears to have soiled my social filter."
Max's expression changed into a slight, forced smile, "It's alright. Now, if you'll excuse me for a bit."
He didn't wait for anyone's approval, taking his drink in his massive hands and standing. His shoulders were drawn back and tense as he walked away, somewhat in the direction of the restrooms. The crowd appeared to gather and swallow him up so Serana could no longer see him.
Well, this has been sufficiently…awkward.
Serana noticed a woman walked up on the stage. She sat down the chair she carried and began to look over the instruments. A bard.
The hungover crowd collectively began to orient themselves so they could see the stage clearly. Most were tearing into the various platters of finger foods. Serana noticed she was the only person who sat upright. Everyone else, Mjoll included, was hunched over the long central table. Serana glanced around nervously and made sure she didn't call any attention to herself. Mjoll appeared to be a lot less cheery than she had been a few minutes ago. The fun they had been having was now dissolved.
Serana decided it better to watch the bard like everyone else. She found it hard to tell whether the woman was Nord or Imperial. Then again, Serana herself didn't appear definitively one or the other.
The bard's brown hair fell to her shoulders and appeared very carefully styled and pressed so that it was straight through its majority and then curled inwards slightly, framing her pretty face. She seemed to always be wearing a slight smile as she went about her business. Serana had yet to see a bard so happy. Glancing around, everyone in the crowd seemed to recognize her, despite their condition. Serana then noticed a much fresher faced crowd entered. They all cheered as she waved to them. She patiently waited for the cheers to subside before speaking.
"I was originally planning on checking my sound at this time. As I was scheduled to perform to all of you tonight, but as it seems, we have a very special guest in our midst that I would like to recognize.
Mjoll whispered to Serana, "That's Malukah. She's a famous bard, one of the best if I hear correctly. She's been to just about everywhere to perform. Even for the Emperor himself."
"Everyone, please the warmest of welcomes to Skyrim's greatest hero… Maximus, our beloved and legendary Dovahkiin." Malukah said, casting a hand in Max's direction. He reluctantly moved onto the stage, a slight smile upon his face. He looked uncomfortable with the amount of attention he was receiving. Scanning the crowd, he found Serana and exchanged a nervous glance.
Judging by the bard's ability to pronounce Nordic words, she must have been a Nord after all.
Finally the crowd died down and allowed Malukah to speak again.
"In honor of you, Maximus, it would be my honor to perform a song. One in particular that has become popular in Skyrim. Everyone, if you could help remind me of that song?" she asked the audience, a playful smile on her face.
"The Dragonborn Comes!" Many shouted back.
Max appeared to say something to Malukah and pass something to her as they shook hands. She laughed at whatever he said, her smile was surprisingly endearing. For being so famous, she didn't appear in the slightest bit arrogant.
Max shook her hand, and with a much less apprehensive demeanor, he left the stage and made his way towards the bar. There he begrudgingly received a free drink and took a seat, watching the performance.
"Our hero, our hero claims a warrior's heart. I tell you, I tell you, the Dragonborn comes. With a voice wielding power of the ancient Nord art. Believe, believe, the Dragonborn comes."
Serana watched the bard as she plucked away at the lute, she now knew now why Malukah was so famous. She had a way of singing with such a clarity and effortless grace that subtly grabbed your attention. Serana briefly glanced at Max. His attention was firmly on the performer.
"It's and to the evil of all Skyrim's foes. Beware, beware the Dragonborn comes. For the darkness has passed and the legend yet grow. You'll know, you'll know the Dragonborn's come."
The wordless chorus came, in which the bard’s voice rung through the halls. It seemed as though there were multiple voices singing this part, it was then Serana realized there actually were other singers… the audience themselves.
naal ok zin los vahriin,
wah dein vokul,
mahfaeraak ahst vaal,
ahrk fin norok paal graan,
fod nus thon zindro zaan,
Dovahkiin fah hin kogaan mu draal."
With the song concluded and the uproarious applause sounded. Serana found herself clapping madly as the surprisingly modest and shy performer took her bow. The bard glanced at Max and smiled, she then pointed to him, directing the applause to inspiration of the song himself. He nodded curtly and then was swallowed by the crowd.
After carefully searching the bar, Serana found Max outside, but Mjoll was nowhere to be seen. Max's arms were crossed at his chest and his back rested against the Solitude wall. He looked conflicted as he squinted into the light. Serana felt the twinge of the sun, prompting her to pull her hood overhead.
"Are you okay?" Serana carefully asked.
Max's face was apologetic, "You don't need to worry about me. You have enough on your mind. I'm just taking a moment."
Serana smiled at the implication, "You're that soused? Or was that performance too humbling for you to handle?"
Max smiled sadly, "It was great," he said rather quietly.
Serana got the feeling there was more to it.
"I suppose it doesn't feel right to be celebrating, though. Today seven years ago my wife, Aela, died. I wanted to go drink to forget it, but…"
Serana took a moment to process what had been said. She decided it better to let him continue, as this was very personal.
"It seems I'm still having a hard time letting go." He said looking away. He seemed ashamed, but the pain in his eyes was unmistakable. Serana knew it all too well.
Serana decided to provide her perspective, though she wasn't the most proficient in consoling. She decided to speak from her own experience.
"I don't think it's so much about letting go, but more about carrying on." Serana said carefully. When she saw Max's puzzled look she clarified. "There's nothing wrong with remembering her and missing her, but you can't let it keep you from living your life." She held her hands up defensively before he could say anything, "I know, I know, coming from a vampire who was locked in a stone coffin for centuries."
Max shook his head and almost chuckled at what she said. "You're right, though."
Serana patted him on the shoulder reassuringly.
"Hopefully saving Skyrim from certain doom can help you take your mind from it."
Max nodded in affirmation, "You'd think so."
Serana decided to change the subject, "By the way, where's your friend?"
"I walked her back. She as well the others should be ready to leave in a few hours. In the mean time I need to make a few purchases." Max looked out at the wooden shop signs that hung along the way as he spoke, trying to form a mental list. He needed some more healing salve for his hand and shoulder, it had been difficult keeping the wounds from breaking open, especially when riding, but using his beast form for the first time in quite a while had enhanced the healing a quite a bit. He also made note to get more bandages and disease resistant potions for Mjoll, Aerin, and Dexion. They could never be too careful with blooded vampires.
"Anything I can do to help?" Serana offered.
"Are you any good with alchemy?"
Serana nodded, "I'm better than most. My mother spent most of her… lives… experimenting with it. I picked some of it up, though it's been a while."
As she spoke Max removed his gauntlet and unwrapped his hand. Serana was a bit surprised that he trusted her resolve enough to reveal a wound with her around.
The less than pleasant sound of a bandage being forced apart from the oozing wound caused Serana to wince a little, more at the sudden scent of blood than the sound.
Max looked at her cautiously, waiting for a response. He seemed to have momentarily forgotten about her condition.
Serana struggled to gain her composure, though she schooled her features to a blank expression. She was a famished vampire. She felt a combination of hunger and disgust. The unmistakable scent of her natural enemy was especially strong and to a vampire, revolting. She knew that Max's blood would taste just the same as any man's in his natural form, making resisting all the more difficult. Serana took a calming breath and looked at the grisly wound. From the looks of things, his hand had been completely impaled. Thankfully, his index and ring finger bones had parted enough so they didn't break, they were surprisingly white as they protruded slightly at the sides of the wound. Serana's eyes shot wide as she realized something.
"How did you get this?" Serana said shakily.
"There was a pedestal in Dimhollow right before I found you. I pushed the button and a spike came out of it. Shortly after there you were." Max said, his voice showing he could tell something was wrong. He gave her a concerned look.
Serana's eyes glazed over as she thought back to the day she first entered Dimhollow Crypt.
Serana remembered the ever-present feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach. "Hurry!" Valerica urged, "There's no time! Your father's thralls aren't far behind us." Serana shuffled after her mother. She was angry though she knew it did not matter in the least. There was no choice in the matter. If she allowed herself to be caught, Serana knew she would die...slowly. Her mother had told her hundreds of times. Serana had been fasting for months in preparation for this day so when she awoke, she would be especially powerful. Today had taken her by total surprise. Her father had made his move. Check. Serana could see metaphorical chess piece move in her imagination. It was her mother versus her father. Light versus dark...the lesser of two evils. Valerica was determined to never allow an endgame move. No matter what, Harkon would not have Serana.
Valerica had been vague in the details but had remained adamant that this was the only thing she could do to protect Serana. "Your father's gone mad." She'd said nearly a hundred times over. She practically lived in her secret alchemy lab the last few months, obviously searching for a solution. Without warning, she was told today was the day.
Serana clutched Francois' hand as they ran together, trying to keep pace with Valerica.
Francois was the only friend Serana had made in her time as a vampire. He had faithfully kept her secret for years. It didn't seem fair that he had to be here. Serana regretted telling him of what was to occur. But then again he was the only person she felt she could talk to anymore. The rift between her parents and their individual obsessions. Her father with the so called 'prophecy' and her mother with the supposed 'soul cairn'. It was all too much for her to handle on her own.
Finally, they came upon the correct room. A strange pedestal sat the center, an eerie glow of light from the world above added to the effect. The button at the center of the column glowed an eerie red around the edges. Valerica moved up to it with an air of caution and inspected it.
"This is it," she said with a tone of finality.
Serana could do nothing but stare.
"Get over here!" Valerica ordered, grasping Serana's other hand and yanking her forward. Serana stole a glance back at Francois, his light green eyes held knowledge of something. They carried a strange sense of purpose in them like always, but in this situation it was different somehow. Her intuition warned her, but she couldn't connect the dots in time. He knew she was going away forever and he seemed calm despite all of the chaos around them. His small, elven-like frame was telltale of his bi-racial parentage. He was what the Nords and elves called 'Manmer'. The word was to describe the half Nord, half elf blood the Breton possessed. But 'Manmer' had become something of a dirty slang. Francois found it difficult to fit in with the other Nords and often kept to himself when he was younger, being an outlander from High Rock. He met Serana in the direst of circumstances when he was venturing to Winterhold in his early twenties, aspiring to be accepted in their ranks. She had saved his life from highwaymen.
Valerica turned to Francois, her eyes were purposeful, "Do it."
Before Serana knew what was happening, Francois stepped forward and placed his hand on the pedestal, where the button had once been a spike shot up. Francois cried out in pain as the spike impaled his hand. He reflexively clutched it with the other hand as it shook uncontrollably. The sight of gushing blood overruled the adrenaline as he began to panic and feel the pain in its entirety. As he fell to his knees, purple fire filled the braziers in which Valerica had already moved into place. A monolith rose from the ground accompanied by a horrific scraping noise of stone upon stone. Serana screamed in horror as she watched her friend's misery. Valerica wouldn't allow her much time though.
"Serana get in there!" Valerica shouted, pointing to the stone tomb.
Serana could only look at her friend, "Francois!"
Francois managed to look up to her. She knew he didn't have much time. The magic involved in this ritual was too powerful for his body to handle. It took all he could give. It was then Serana realized that this struggle was more than just about her, Francois was repaying a debt, but also protecting the people of Skyrim from an undeserved fate. Serana mouthed a thank you and a goodbye to Francois, to which he managed a smile. She saw his mouth move, but his voice was barely a whisper. "Now we're even." He said with a pained smirk.
Serana felt tears filling her eyes as she stepped into the tomb. She turned and placed her back against the stone. Valerica reached out and patted her daughter's hand, "I can't let him have you, nor does Skyrim deserve such a fate. I do not know how long it will be. It may even be forever. It may take eons, but you must not let your father win. The only way to free is through sacrifice. It will take one of great character to free you, but even then it may not protect you from Harkon. I'm sorry dear. It's the only way. May I see you again in the dawn." She said as a final goodbye. Valerica slid the stone so it closed the tomb. Serana felt herself sliding downward into darkness, her tears continuing to run down her face. She noticed her breath getting shorter as she used the last of the oxygen within her tomb. Serana fell into a deep sleep, calling to Molag Bol to wake her up someday when the pain of losing her only friend had healed. She hoped the years would change her father, but she doubted it.
"Serana?" Max said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
Serana came back to the present at Max's slight shake. She blinked a few times. Here he was, the protagonist of her own prophecy. She had known it all along, but things really made sense to her now. Her final moments before she began her 'hibernation' per say were becoming clearer.
"Bones," Was all Serana could manage as she connected the dots.
"Were there bones near where you found me?" Serana asked. She realized how futile the question was. It was unlikely Max would remember. And after so many years many things could have happened to Francois' remains.
"No, I don't recall any." Max said honestly.
Serana looked down sadly for a moment.
"Why do you ask?
"I-It took sacrifice to put me into that tomb." Serana said.
Max realized what she meant.
"Oh, I'm sorry I can't be of more help."
Serana finally met his gaze. "It took sacrifice to free me as well. Whether you intended it or not."
Max's brow squinted in question, "What do you mean?"
"There was magic involved. It takes a strong soul to survive the price that must be paid," Serana explained. "It was very old and powerful magic that made my hiding place possible."
Max glanced at his hand.
Serana touched his hand gently, "It is likely your hand will never properly heal… unless," Serana cut herself off realizing what she was about to suggest. She was amazed that she hadn’t noticed it before. She didn’t recall him favoring it at all.
"Unless?" Max prodded.
Serana shook her head. "I'm not even sure if it would work. Besides you'd never agree to it."
Max seemed a little peeved at Serana's vagueness. "Fine. But as I was saying early I'm going to need some potions for the other three since they have no natural resistance to disease. Particularly vampirism."
Serana obeyed and went about looking for an apothecary. She felt slightly relieved he didn't press her about his wound. She would have to think more on the topic before she was ready to reveal anything to her protector.
Max entered Angeline's Aromatics toting a sack filled with food. He was instantly assaulted by the scents of alchemical herbs. Serana was in the corner looking over the shelves of herbs. They were all neatly organized and individually labeled in alphabetical order.
Max could sense unease in Serana's posture. Angeline and Vivienne both look uncomfortable as well. They both greeted him with smiles and waves. He smiled back, hoping to draw their attention away from Serana. Max looked around the room looking quite impressed.
"This place has become much more organized since last I was here."
"Vivienne spent the last week sorting everything." Angeline said proudly. Serana watched the exchange from the corner of her eye while still making the most of the distraction, gathering supplies for a few potions to help resist vampire venom. This Vivienne was quite the beautiful young thing. She shyly smiled as Max spoke.
"I was never very adept in the ways of penmanship. It would take me months to get everything in order, let alone alphabetize it." He joked at his own expense.
The two women laughed at his plight.
"So, any word from your daughter?" Max said to the older woman.
"Yes we received a letter from Fura shortly after the defense of Whiterun. She says she was a part of it. She talks in great length about how easy you made everything look. Fura said you and Legate Rikke barely allowed the Stormcloaks to get in range of her bow.
Max smiled modestly, "Our units helped too. We kept the pressure on them so the archers could pick them off. It was a combined effort of many brave feats that lead to victory."
Serana stole a glance at the group and could see the enamored looks on the faces of the two shop keeps. It was that damn voice Max had, not only was it masculine and attractive, but his eloquent way of speaking that inspired even the most skeptical and narrow-minded.
Angeline glanced from Vivienne to Maximus before speaking. "You know, Vivienne is a smart girl and still not spoken for," The old woman bluntly said.
Vivienne turned scarlet, her mouth falling open in embarrassment and outrage. "Aunt Angeline!" The sound of a fallen mortar thumping on the floor startled everyone, drawing their attention from the argument.
Everyone stared at Serana as she awkwardly bent over and picked up the fallen pestle and set it on the table.
Vivienne took the opportunity to change the topic. "Are you all set, ma'am?"
Serana stopped silently cursing at herself and nodded, "Yes. How much for these?" she said meekly.
"Seventy gold." Vivienne said with an uncomfortable smile.
Max reached into his coin purse and slipped Serana the cash discreetly beneath the cover of the counter. It was just out of sight of the shopkeepers.
Max decided he would answer Angeline's inquiry for the sake of a decent distraction. He was surprised they hadn't noticed Serana's eyes yet. Her peculiar behavior only added to their suspicion.
"While I appreciate the thought, Angeline, I'm much too busy to consider settling down. It seems Skyrim is my wedded wife, and she's a demanding one."
Angeline laughed lightly, Vivienne even lighter so as she took Serana's money. Serana couldn't help but noticed Vivienne looked a little disappointed, though she hid it well. Max made a point to avoid making eye contact with Serana as she turned and exited the shop. Max decided he needed to delay his exit a bit more.
"Well, I hope that Fura finds herself home soon. Good luck to you both as well." Max said with a courteous smile.
"Good luck to you too, Dovakiin."