A Song And A Ribbon--Part One
Laure eased the front door open and slipped through, a small frown creasing her brow. Vilkas had not moved from his seat, but he held one of the letters Bryn had left sitting on the table in front of him. Numerous couriers had left their personal marks on its outer folds, tracing its journey. He slid it to her with an encouraging smile. “This one might cheer you up, if I read it correctly.”
Laure examined it briefly before giving a small cry of delight and opened it immediately. Vilkas watched her eyes dart over the letter rapidly, once, then twice.
“Well, is there word from home?” asked Vilkas when she dropped to her chair, staring blankly at the wall.
“Aye, but it isn't cheerful in content. Nisinah writes to say that the Thalmor are becoming more persistent. They contemplate fleeing for a while and she asks about the border conditions. She says if the Thalmor apply much more pressure, our clan may not be able to protect them anymore. If Nisi is asking about shelter, it must be more troubling than she is saying here. She also mentions that Aheia and Belarym have already fled to the Imperial City, taking their children and mates. Oh Vilkas, what will we do? I suppose they would be safe enough here, but the Thalmor are still crawling all over, and if they could be found amongst all our kin in the jungles, then how long before they are found here?”
“I suppose we would need to figure out where to hide them,” Vilkas pondered, rubbing his chin, “although it may be difficult to explain a sudden increase in the Bosmer populations here in Skyrim. Do they have trades? That should help them blend in a bit. Not to worry my love. We'll just have to expand Breezehome a bit more if they arrive, and stack them up like kindling.”
“We could have Aheia and her boy stay here, and Belarym and his family could stay awhile in Solitude—Proudspire is just sitting there empty anyway. Plenty of room for the three of them and the baby. Although Da'avi isn't such a baby anymore, and Zavi must be walking by now. Oh, Vilkas! It would be lovely to see them again, even if they are running away.” She sat back with a wistful, worried expression.
“The Thalmor surely know where you live by now, as well as having a good idea of your assets,” he warned in a low voice, as if the Thalmor might have their ears pressed to the walls of Honeyside.
In her usual manner, she changed the subject, deciding to worry later. “They think they know. We'll just have to cross that river when we come to it. Here, come with me.” With that, Laure rose from her seat and took his hand, leading him downstairs. She reached behind a bookshelf, flicked something unseen, and heaved the whole shelf aside smoothly. Behind the shelf was a small locked door. “Behold, the hiding place and repository of nearly all my fluid assets. Keep in mind I have invested all over Tamriel, so my total worth is much higher than what you are about to see.” She gave him a kiss, then pulled a set of lockpicks from her sleeve, settling down in front of the door. He watched as she assumed the look of concentration she always wore when tickling a lock.
“Do you not have the key?” he finally asked. This seemed to be taking much longer than normal.
“Ssh!” she breathed, ear pressed against the door now.
“Sorry,” he whispered irritably.
Minutes ticked by and still the lock had not opened. Vilkas was leaning against the wall, considering making a jest about having some other thief come open the vault, when she bounced to her feet again, scrubbing her hands together, eyes alight with satisfaction.
“Perfect. I still can't pick it, and everything was still set as I left it. Paid more than you make in a year for that lock. Worth every septim.” She glanced his way and shrugged. “You get what you pay for, aye? So, ready to be dazzled?”
“Oh, aye. Quite ready. But about the key?”
“Oh, that whole door is fake. The real door only unlocks when the bookshelf is locked in where it is. Then I pivot this corner of it out--like so--and this triggers a mechanism under the floor, then I push here, and there you have it! Books are the key, so to speak.”
Sure enough, a hidden door, invisible to the eye, swung in quietly. Laure picked up a candle and ducked through the low doorway, with Vilkas right behind. She held the candle high and smiled happily, surrounded by her hoard.
Vilkas spun around in the only small open space of the room. Two walls were lined floor to ceiling with shelves and chests, one long wall had several armor stands with fantastical armor displayed on them, while behind were neatly hung weapons of every type. Cases with glass tops perched atop finely carved tables, strange statues, artifacts and neatly stacked bolts of cloth vied for space in the corners. Piles of cloth sacks and smaller chests seemed to be embracing an ancient worktable and two leather-cushioned chairs in the center of the room. Vilkas spotted a sword that could only be the fabled Chillrend in a case on one of the shelves. Other than that, he didn't see much more than the weapons and armor that were blatantly valuable. He felt a vague sense of disappointment until she flipped open a lid. The coffer—no, trunk- he thought to himself, was full to the brim with gold coins. She moved to the next and revealed more gold, yet another showed itself to be full of an assortment of gems, sapphires, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, a rainbow of glittering stones. Vilkas was rapidly adjusting his hasty judgment.
“The chest upstairs by the bed is really just bait. I put a quality lock on it, but lets face it, it's an easy one to tickle. I make a nice pretty stash in there, and the idea is that if anyone should happen to get in the house and past Iona, they'll think they hit the jackpot and hastily take what they can grab, making for the nearest exit. So far it seems to have worked on the few occasions someone was bold enough to ignore the marks around my house. Ah, here are some nice ones!” She tipped the lids of two chests, each large enough to put a child into. In one, nothing but emeralds; the other, sapphires. Further investigations by Vilkas revealed carefully sorted gems, each type in their own case. Magical rings and necklaces took up still more room; neatly folded enchanted garments filled a chest of drawers; loose pearls spilled from dwarven metal coffers' and behind amber-tinted glass doors, row upon row of books, scrolls and maps, some ancient, some new, some that Vilkas recognized, some that he itched to cautiously open and devour with his eyes.
Laure came to one last safe. Unlocking it, she drew out two large, cloth-wrapped objects. “These are my favorite pretties. None of the crowns or weapons in here are the measure of the Eyes of the Falmer. See?” She unwrapped one and handed it to him, grinning when she saw the way his eyes seemed likely to jump from his head.
Dazed, he took it from her, surprised at the weight of the thing. He looked around the crowded, mostly tidy room, trying to estimate the value of it all, and blinked. “I wouldn't have believed you if you had just told me. What are you planning on doing with all of this? And did you steal it all, truly?”
“I didn't need to steal it all. I make plenty of money adventuring, trading, and investing. The stealing is just for fun.”
“Did you steal these?” he lifted the Eye in his hand, glaring at the glittering stone suspiciously.
“Well, I prefer to think of it as timely relocation of historical artifacts from a temple that was being destroyed. They would have been lost for all time under a mountain of rock and half of an icy lake. So, no. I didn't steal them. In fact, I paid a sizable amount for one of them.”
Vilkas gave her a stern look, complete with lowered brows.
“What? I bought it from Bryn after we made it out of Irkngthand as it flooded. That was where they were, the Eyes. In a lovely old statue of a snow elf. I used to despise the Falmer for being so nasty, but now I feel sorry for them. They were beautiful and intelligent once, long, long ago. That statue was all they had left of their heritage and now the last temple is drowned and destroyed.”
“Paid for or no, bad things come to tomb robbers and despoilers of holy places. It may have been better to leave these in the statue where they belong.” In spite of his reproving words, he tilted the gem in both his large hands to catch the candlelight on its broad facets.
“What could be worse than being made to fight an endless succession of dragons, my love? Would it help you to know that I did not actually remove them, that it was the bastard who tried to stab me through the heart who did the actual pillaging?”
“Not terribly, but point taken. However, what are you going to do with it all?”
“Buy an island. Open a meadery of my own. Build a mountain fortress and gild it all with gold and jewels. Retire and write tawdry pillow books for Aldmeri ladies . . . not sure exactly. Maybe I'll fund a private army to overthrow the tyrants across the world, one at a time.”
“You could buy a very large island, open a meadery on it and write all the books you pleased while underlings ran your army with what I see here. And this isn't even all of it.”
“Not even remotely. I'm disgustingly, filthy rich. Don't worry, I won't ask you for an allowance.”
Vilkas snorted, handing her back the Eye. “I think it will be the other way around. I understand why you're so free with household expenses, letting your housecarls have access to pots of gold and the like.”
“Shall I set up an account for you, dear? Once we are wed, it will be your treasure as well.”
Vilkas harrumphed and shook his head. “If I ever come up short for mead money, I'll let you know. What I want to know now is can you actually wear all of these armors?” He pointed to one particularly scant set with a hopeful expression.
“Let me see if I can remember how to put all of that on.” Laure donned the armor, and swiftly found herself pressed up against the table, with her mate's eager fingers and lips exploring the many places the armor didn't cover. When he bore her down and discovered the many sacks on the floor were full of unsorted coin and gems, he laughed, and took her with the tinkling of coin and gems as a subtle, exotic music they barely noticed after a time.
* * *
The next morning, Laure and Vilkas were having a quick breakfast before taking to the road once more, at last headed back to Whiterun. She looked through the letters still stacked on the table as she chewed, paying barely any attention to most them. The last one caught her attention, however. A letter from the Jarl of Falkreath Hold invited her to become a thane, pending her ownership of a house there. Laure liked certain areas of the hold well enough, but it was not as central as Whiterun, therefore, less than ideal for her needs. She set the letter aside and finished eating in thoughtful silence. The jarl had explained that while there were no available houses for her to purchase, he did have a piece of land that offered a suitable building location. It was a temping offer, given the thought that she might need to help her children relocate sometime in the future.
Worry twinged the muscles along her spine in a shiver as she considered the dangers to them here in Skyrim. They would be trading one danger for another, and perhaps even compound it. At least if they were in the north, I would be able to protect them a little, she thought. Still she had difficulty shaking the grim awareness that the Thalmor would probably expect her family to seek shelter with their mother. And the dragons, while more reluctant to openly attack the cities now, still raided caravans and small settlements about Skyrim. One thing after another and another. . . .
Finally, she cleared her throat and announced, “I have one more thing to do before we leave, love. It won't take long at all.”
“Can I help?”
“No, I am merely going to the Bee to gather someone up. She has few belongings, so I imagine she will be ready to leave presently.”
“She?” quizzed Vilkas, puzzled and fairly sure he had missed or forgotten something.
“She,” confirmed Laure from the front door. “The bard I mentioned last night. She is coming to Whiterun with us to sing. She has a voice to bring tears to your eyes, and she's easy on the eyes. She is eager to earn her way, but seems to meet with misfortune more than not. I thought she could sing at our wedding.”
Vilkas shrugged and accepted this with aplomb, knowing his mate well enough not to waste time with pointless questions. He was also delighted in the little things she kept putting together for the ceremony. He had anticipated a grudging participation from her, but she seemed bent on doing it properly, even if the whole thing set her into sudden fits of shivering in the middle of the night. A bard to sing was a magnificent idea, to his mind. Whatever gave her peace and comfort and kept her from running away in a panic back to Valenwood.
Before mid-morning Laure, Vilkas, and Autumn the bard were well on their way. At midday, they stopped to rest the horses and stretch their legs. Autumn gratefully slid off her horse and hobbled around in little circles, working out the cramps that tightened every muscle in her back and upper thighs. Vilkas and Laure, much more accustomed to such journeys, raced to a nearby out-cropping that overlooked the Aalto flats. In the far distance, barely seen through the fumes rising from great vents and steaming mudflats, was the great hill which protected the Eldergleam Sanctuary. It was there that Laurelin and Vilkas had first traveled together, in willing service to a goddess. A goddess the couple respected, if not revered. It seemed their good deed had not gone unnoticed, and She had dipped her hand to pluck the strings of their lives.
Laure gazed off toward it, remembering the dragon she had fought there a few months ago, and wished she had taken the time then to stop and sit for a while under that radiant tree, even if only for a short time. A new set of worries for her family had settled atop the already heavy burden she carried, but Eldergleam offered an otherworldly peace that was soothing and rejuvenating.
Vilkas took in the wistful expression on her face, the drawn lines where her skin was stretched tight over sharp bone, squeezed her hand and observed, “We could take a bit of a short cut through and visit the sanctuary, if you like.”
“How do you always do that?” she asked quietly.
He shrugged—knowing precisely how, and she knew too.
She turned to see how Autumn was faring. The young bard sprawled on the edge of the road with her back to a boulder, staring balefully at her mount. They allowed the already saddle-sore girl a few minutes more rest, then Laure began picking her way across the familiar landscape, leading her horse. Autumn took the middle position, grateful to be off the horses for a little longer, while Vilkas brought up the rear, his piercing gaze always casting about, looking for threats.
Their passage was slow but uneventful, and in short order, the three travelers reached the earth-shrouded shrine to Kynareth. Laure led the way once more, letting the heady, light scent pull her down the path. It smelled of blossoms and bird down, moss, and her grandchildren's hair after being washed. Pollen drifted by on slow wafts of warm air, and she felt the peace of the place seeping into her skin, her heart, her very soul.
Autumn followed Laurelin down under the mound, sniffing curiously, head swiveling about to catch glimpses of the birds flitting in and out, filling the passage with bright song. “What is this place? Somehow it feels comforting, even though we march under the earth and the way is dark!”
“This is the outer passage to the Eldergleam Sanctuary. Follow me; I think you will be amazed when you see it. One must travel the darkness before coming to appreciate the glory of light.”
Autumn was a bit baffled by the sudden lightness in the Dragonborn's manner, but she nodded anyway, for she saw the truth in her words. She followed the elf down the twisting passage, trusting that she knew what she was speaking of.
As they threaded their way further in,Laure caught wisps of other scents mixed with the green smell of moss and water: warm bodies, hot blood, baked road dust, metal and bone, leaf mold and ripe fruits, hot in the sun and heavy with juice. A smell so familiar, so reminiscent of home that she nearly laughed aloud.
She rounded the final bend in the tunnel, picking her way over the piled stones tangled with roots. Soft light filled the tall cavern, stretching down in long, slanting beams.
Autumn came to a stop, eyes moving in wonder over the marvelous space, but Laure and Vilkas bounded forward with cries of surprise and happiness. Crouched on a boulder near the path, Farkas looked up from the iridescent beetle he was examining and waved.
“Wondered if we were going to need to track you over the whole country. Glad we didn't.” He stood and embraced Laure and his twin fiercely, then turned to lead them deeper in. “I have a surprise for you, Laure.”
The path Laure had cleared remained open, winding steeply up the rocky hillside, but she scarcely took note of where she put her feet. “Farkas, what are you doing here?” she exclaimed, delighted to see him, but concerned as to why he was here and not seeing to Whiterun's defenses. “Is all well in town?”
“Town's fine. Balgruuf gave us all leave, given who we are escorting around, looking for you.” Turning the last corner Farkas gave a broad wave with his big hand toward the large group of people resting in the sun-dappled shade under the Eldergleam. His rough voice was full of triumph as he said, “Surprise! They came looking for you in Whiterun right after you left.”
With the exception of Vignar, every one of the Companions was present: Aela, Athis, Erik, Keiran, Njada, Ria, Serith 'Za, and Torvar. Lydia was with them, speaking with Erik as she sharpened her sword. Among them, rising gracefully to their feet to greet her with open arms and relief on their angular, familiar faces, was her family. Her children, Nisinah, Belarym, Aheia, their mates, and there swarming down from the massive limbs of the Eldergleam came her grandchildren—the oldest two girls helping the youngest down with playful calls.
Astounded to find them here, Laure was stunned speechless, as her beloved little ones tackled her legs, and the older girls waited patiently. Finally she managed to gasp out to Nisinah, who was standing nearby with an indulgent smile, “I don't understand; you're here! You made it over the borders safely, and all of you? How? Sweet Mara, I never thought to see you all here in truth, nor so soon!” She squeezed the youngest, Zavarym, tight and stroked his temple softly.
The young Bosmer lad gave her a tentative hug and light kiss on her cheek, murmuring, “Ama Laurlin?”
“Yes sweet boy, I'm your grand-mama Laurelin. I've not seen you since you were a little tiny baby, and now look at you! So big and strong! Did you have an adventure coming to see me?”
Little Zavarym nodded shyly, toying with the tip of his pointed ear idly, big cinnamon colored eyes straying curiously toward the Companions trying not to crowd the family reunion. He pointed and babbled something she couldn't quite make out and then hid his head under her chin.
Aheia stepped closer and took her son back into her arms for a moment, then released him to play with the others while she greeted her mother. Nisinah was already there, twining her fingers into Laure's as they kissed each other's cheeks and embraced. Belarym wasn't to be left out, and he gathered both his sisters and mother into his arms and squeezed them tightly.
Long had Laure worried in the back of her mind for the safety of her family, and just yesterday that concern had sharpened to a cutting edge that she had to protect herself against by trusting in their own abilities to look after themselves. Now, miraculously, they were here. Whether they would be safer, she could not tell, but at least she knew that at the moment, they were here, healthy and whole, and that eased her mind tremendously. Her many questions could wait, for they now had plenty of time, and they would be able to speak face to face without the impersonal medium of paper and ink as their sole means of communicating.
Absurdly, Laure felt tears beginning to well up in her eyes, relief, fear, and sudden happiness shaking her body into wracking sobs. Her children felt those sobs and squeezed her all the tighter, enfolding her and lifting her up when her legs threatened to buckle, and quietly let the emotions run their course through her. The worry drained, another tension in her heart eased and within a short time, she was steady on her feet again, laughing quietly at her outburst.
Palming tears from her cheeks, Laure looked around in a happy daze, remnants of moisture making the already sparkling light and scenery glitter and wobble. She took several steadying breaths, reluctant to let go of any of her children for even a heartbeat, trying to hold onto three hands with her two.
Aheia grinned, asking, “So you really had no idea we were all going to show up?”
“I only received Nisi's last letter yesterday. I thought that if any of you came to Skyrim it would be in smaller groups, and later.”
Belarym muttered, “That was the plan, but the situation was becoming worse by the moment. We made separate crossings over the mountains, and met near a burned town--Helgen, I think it was called. Anyway after we all made it over, we decided to go to Whiterun and try to join you there, as that seems to be your home these days. Your Companions agreed to help us find you since we were eager and hadn't the slightest clue where you could be. They have been most helpful and kind.”
“And what of my sister? Does she stay in Valenwood?”
“Aye, she and her mate and children cannot abide leaving Valenwood entirely. They will try to lose themselves in the wilds for a time,” replied Belarym softly. He paused, licked his lips, darting a look to Nisinah, who shrugged and nodded slightly. Laurelin's son glanced to Vilkas then continued, “Farkas has told us that we arrived in time for a joyous occasion, aye?”
“Aye, I am to wed my mate Vilkas in just over a week. Here, you must meet my love; he's not at all like most Nords. Now that you are all here, it would mean much to have you there when we are joined. We are having a huge feast after, and in my fondest dreams I could only wish you would be there when we do.” She turned and beckoned to Vilkas, who was speaking quietly with Aela and Athis. Laure watched as he excused himself from his shield-siblings and strode over to her. Laure couldn't help herself and leaned over to Nisinah and added,”See, I have gone and landed myself a younger man after all. Isn't he delicious?”
Nisi sighed and agreed placidly, “Yes, Mother. He is pleasing to the eye--for a Nord--but there are still a few things I would rather not hear from you.”
“I'll spare you the gritty details because I love you. Unless you say you won't come to the wedding. Then I'll scald your ears with with every slippery, salacious thing we've done.”
Aheia laughed from behind them. “Relax, Mother. We've already been through this with your mate's big brother. We are all happy to be a part of your celebration!”
Vilkas arrived just then and bowed politely with his palm over his heart to each of her children.
“Vilkas, these are my darling children, Nisinah, Belarym, and Aheia. Darlings, this is Vilkas, Master-at-Arms of the Companions, a man of rare character and intelligence, tempered with compassion and devastatingly good looks. I would still be lost without him.”
As the oldest, Nisinah stepped forward and greeted Vilkas first, hands outstretched. “It is an honor to meet the one my mother has spoken so highly of at last. And it is a relief to know that she has found one she loves and can trust so deeply after the loss of our father.”
She said the words warmly but Vilkas understood the protective nature of the statement, and the intention behind it quite well. “I hope to earn your trust as well, in the future. It is a pleasure to meet you all. I am pleased that you arrived when you did; hopefully, despite any hardships you endured coming over the borders, it will be worth knowing that your mother must be beside herself. She has long worried for your safety, yet felt there was little she could do to ensure it. And she has missed you tremendously.”
Belarym stepped forward and clasped forearms with Vilkas, then turned and clasped hands with the two mer behind him, “Good to finally meet you, Vilkas. Your brother has already told us quite a bit about you. These are my mates, Garyn Briarwood and Arctilyn Feathermoss. One of the children running around over there is ours, the older boy, Da'aviem.”
Vilkas nodded and bowed again before clasping hands with Belarym's mates—Arctilyn was nearly Laurelin's height, but with a slight golden tint to her nut-colored complexion, made less noticeable by the rings tattooed up her arms, while Garyn looked up at Vilkas with a curious gleam in his eye, as if he was considering the idea of climbing the big Nord before him like a tree. Vilkas was mildly relieved when Aheia stepped in and pulled him into a warm hug.
“If Mother loves you, you must be a very special man indeed. Thank you for keeping her safe,” said his wife-to-be's youngest child, who was younger looking than him, but then so was Laurelin.
“I try, but she sometimes throws herself headlong into danger, with nary a thought for her hide.”
Laure grinned as she mocked herself, “That isn't true, my love. I usually care quite a lot about my hide, I just think about it halfway through.”
“Precisely what I was saying, love. However, these days you are becoming remarkably adept at getting yourself out of tight situations.”
“I'll put you in a tight situation,” she muttered, knowing his sensitive ears would catch what her daughters would not.
Promises, promises. He let a hint of a smirk through the polite expression he wore, all the while continuing to exchange pleasantries with Aheia and her partner, a handsome mer named Ossiem.
* * *
After the polite and somewhat cautious initial greetings were over, Laure went and scrambled up the Eldergleam to sit on its broad branches with her four grandchildren for a little while, before little Zavi announced he was hungry. Suddenly everyone was ravenous and they dropped from the tree to go rummage through bags and satchels for something to fill their bellies.
Food was passed around, seats found on boulders and twisted roots and amid the ferns, and Laure basked in the wonder of her day. She and Vilkas sat shoulder to shoulder on the moss, passing bites of cheese and dried venison to each other, sharing a skin of mead, laughing and telling stories, chatting lightly with the crowd of people assembled on the high shelf.
A sudden, wordless song seemed to well up, rising high over the rush of the waterfalls spilling from above. Everyone paused to listen as the beautiful melody echoed throughout the massive cavern, acoustics magnifying the sound until the single voice seemed many.
Aheia, Nisinah, and the two oldest grand-daughters, Lyric and Aaria hummed in appreciation, eyes bright.
“That is my new bard, if I'm not mistaken!” Laure exclaimed quietly. “I think I should go get her before she trips and falls into the stream. I'll be right back.”
Farkas was already up, waving her back to her seat. “You stay and catch up with your family. What is her name? I will go and bring her up here.”
“Thank you, that is sweet, Farkas. Her name is Autumn--pretty little red-head, can't miss her.” Laure smirked and gave Vilkas a satisfied grin before scooping her grand-son Zavi up once more.
Vilkas watched his brother disappear down the path, then shrugged. She was up to something, he could be sure of that, and he had a decent idea what that something might be. So be it, apparently she didn't have enough to do already and needed to play matchmaker for his brother. He relaxed and decided to let what would happen do just that. Da'aviem shyly held up a tiny wooden bow, presenting it to him for approval, and Vilkas leaned forward to admire the qualities of the miniscule weapon with quiet approval.