LotS: Frost Moon Chapter Eight - In Search of Truth

  • Chapter Eight

    In Search of Truth



    A bottle of nightshade extract glimmered in the torchlight, the strange purple substance sloshing against the sides of its container as Kjeld walked. It was his free pass, permission to go into the deeper rooms of the Palace of Kings and bypass Jarl Ulfric and his aggressive housecarl altogether.


    Kjeld held the bottle firmly, but he took care not to crack the glass or snap the neck. Occasionally, he had a problem grasping delicate things without chipping or cracking them; when stressed, his strength tended to get away from him. He watched the quilted texture of the palace guard’s uniform come to light as they passed under the sconces lining the long, dark passage to the court-wizard’s quarters.


    “Court-wizard?” Said the guardsman. “Someone here to see you.” The guard didn’t knock on the metal door—too thick—but opened it a crack, risking wrath and ruin if the wizard proved to be in a foul mood.


    There was no answer, barring the low grinding tawk tawk tawk of a mortar and pestle.


    “It’s the nightshade extract he wanted.” Kjeld supplied quietly, raising the bottle level with the guard’s eyes for proof.


    “It’s the nightshade extract you requested!”


    That got the wizard’s attention. Tools were abandoned, papers were cast aside and left to settle as a tall, black, shapeless figure strode to the door and thrust it open without ceremony.


    “Ah yes, the extract, good.”


    The guardsman brushed past Kjeld, returning to his post and leaving him with Wuunferth the Unliving.


    Every story or rumor of wizards in black robes and casting spells seemed to be true, in the case of this man. He was old, old enough that Kjeld did not feel confident he could accurately guess the mage’s age—but he seemed old past a typical Nord’s lifespan that the epithet the Unliving had stuck.


    Wuunferth’s eyes were colorless, and his skin was wrinkled most heavily around the eyes, a thick beard, looking yellowed with time flown by, surrounded narrow papery lips and a strong chin. He did not wear a cloak, he let the cloak drape over him like borrowed shadow, and it was nearly touching the floor, the hem dissolving into the darker corners of the wizard’s quarters.


    He radiated power; not the benign earthly wisdom of Storn Crag-Strider, but something else. Something Kjeld couldn’t put his finger on.


    The bottle was passed from his hands into the long, bony fingers of the wizard, who studied the liquid.
    “Poisonous, of course, but it has its uses.”


    Kjeld had not asked, and before he could clarify the wizard was already setting the bottle aside and pressing a fistful of coins into his palm.
    “I suppose you want something for your trouble? Here.”


    “That’s not why I’m here,” Kjeld set the coins on the table (it wasn’t as if he had to walk far to deliver the extract. The wizard had definitely overpaid him), unable to think of money with something else so heavily on his mind. “I need your help, if you can give it.”


    The wizard’s tufted brows quivered, and he turned back to his alchemy table. “If this is another request about getting a ‘bigger warhammer’, then you’re wasting your time! If you want ‘enhancement potions’, you’re better off pestering Nurelion at the White Phial.”


    Kjeld raised his eyebrows. “Uh, no, that’s not why I’m here. And Nurelion couldn’t help me.”

    The White Phial had yielded no fruit, but a woman in the marketplace, overhearing his search for a man or woman of magic, had directed him back to the Palace of Kings. On one condition—that he bring the wizard the nightshade extract she had grown and brewed at the wizard’s request.


    “Good.” Snorted the wizard. “Then if you can convince me this isn’t a job for some middling conjurer who doesn’t mind getting their time wasted, I’ll see what I can do.”


    The aged spellcaster directed that piercing, colorless eye at him, the hood casting the rest of his face in shadow.


    Kjeld was grateful the nightshade extract was out of his hands; they had tensed without prompt.
    He hated saying these words aloud.


    “I’m a werebear.”


    Oh? Well that’s almost interesting. You need ‘divine’ help in that case, boy.”


    “I’m not like other werebears. I was born with it. My father had it—”


    Wuunferth straightened, turning to Kjeld to reveal the full force of his pondering frown.
    “What is your name?”


    “Kjeld White-Paw, sir. Son of Leiv White—”


    I knew it. So, you’re one of those warbears, eh? Why would you want to cure it?”


    “Because I hate what it does to me.” He retorted flatly, unsettled by the wizard’s knowledge despite coming here for that very thing. “I don’t want to be a werebear or a warbear. Can you fix me?”


    “I can do a lot of things, boy, but fixing that might be a true challenge.”


    His heart tightened, stomach turning hard as three-day old porridge.
    “But not impossible.” Right?


    “But not impossible. I will make no promises. It will be tricky work, your father explained to me once that he was not bound by the lunar cycle—which means we’re dealing with a different magic entirely. There may be side-effects. And my services do not come cheap.”


    Kjeld scowled. He’d been dreading as much; that his cure would cost him money he just didn’t have. It was why he’d brought his tools. By the All-Maker, if this wizard could fix him—he’d craft a thousand swords, tan a thousand hides. It didn’t matter the cost. If his father’s gift could be removed for good—no more Daedric seals, no more nightmares—then how could he say no, whatever the price? Especially if Wuunferth was his only chance at an unmonstrous life.


    “I’ve been trained as a blacksmith. I can craft something for you if you’ll take that as payment.”


    Wuunferth dismissed it with a sniff.
    “Oengul War-Anvil works as well as he always have. I don’t need a smith.” The wizard’s arms folded, studying Kjeld as if deciding whether or not to pity him or think him strange for wanting to be rid of an unusual power. “If you don’t mind getting your boots muddy, you can try to search for Mor’vahka.”




    “Yes. A Khajiit—strange fellow, even by their standards. Last I heard he was wandering around Hjaalmarch, hunting ghouls and whatnot. This ‘problem’ of yours is more his realm of expertise, not mine.”


    He had no idea where Hjaalmarch was, and he had never seen a Khajiit in his life. But this meant he had alternatives. A better option, perhaps, than Wuunferth the Unliving.


    “And he works for free?”


    “I didn’t say that. He’s strange, make no mistake, but he dabbles in arcane dealings not even I know much about. You may end up agreeing to unusual terms, Bearsson.”


    Kjeld ignored the nickname. “Where’s Hjaalmarch?”


    “Do I look like a steward to you? Ask the nearest tavern or buy a map.”


    “I will. How will I know him?”


    Wuunferth fixed him with a cold stare. “Magnus above. Have you nothing inside that head of yours? How many Khajiit do you think there are in Hjaalmarch?”


    Knowing he’d get no further information from the cantankerous mage, Kjeld picked up the coins where he’d laid them; he was going to need these.




    The wizard said nothing in return, having already gone back to his mortar and pestle.




    “You mean you really don’t know the story?” Ludvik’s brow was furrowed.


    Reidar’s insides had turned to cold fire, burning and chilling him at once.
    “No.” He forced the words out. “Tell me.”


    A look was passed between Mitra and Ludvik. But Ludvik quickly began.


    “The story goes that Leiv White-Paw was the housecarl of Hoag Stormcloak—Jarl Ulfric’s father. You know what a housecarl is, don’t you?”


    I’m not an idiot. Keep talking.” His elbows met the scoured tabletop, Reidar blocking out the noisy patrons behind them as he leaned in. His father had been a Jarl’s personal guard! Despite being on the receiving end of bad news, Reidar couldn’t help feeling a little proud of that fact. He’d tuck away that pride for later, though.


    “This was before Jarl Ulfric was the Jarl, obviously, and he was imprisoned by the Thalmor—you do—”


    “Aye, we’ve met!”


    “Just tell him what he wants to hear, Ludvik.” Said Mitra.


    Ludvik cleared his throat and did not pause again.


    “After the Markarth Incident back in 176, Ulfric was imprisoned by the Thalmor. Jarl Hoag and Leiv were traveling in secret to have a word with the elves about freeing Ulfric, but they never made it. Leiv rode back to Windhelm with Jarl Hoag’s body, claiming they’d been ambushed by Thalmor.”


    “So? How does that make him a disgrace?”


    Ludvik sat back, slate-gray eyes grim in the tavern light.
    “What kind of a housecarl outlives their Jarl? They went by themselves, so no one but Leiv can confirm the attack. Guards couldn’t find any elven bodies, even with two days of searching. Your father didn’t have a scratch on him, so you can see how that must look.”


    “But you have no proof! And why would he kill Hoag Stormcloak?”


    “Proof? Your father gave us proof when he took his family and left Windhelm; he didn’t even stay for the funeral. A lot of people suspected him of wanting the throne—Hoag was old, Ulfric was in prison, and no one else was ready to lead Windhelm.” Ludvik shook his head, as if ridding his mind of these unpleasant thoughts. “The old families would know better than I do. If you’re brave enough, ask them.”


    Reidar’s mind was reeling. He knew from Helmi that his parents had left Windhelm in a hurry—that they had rushed to Solstheim, to the Skaal village where none but the most dogged could find them. He knew this, but he refused to think Leiv was some sort of criminal. His heart was screaming liar at Ludvik, but his head wasn’t so sure. Of all their siblings, Reidar had the least amount of time to get to know the measure of the man. Barely his fifth birthday had passed when Leiv drowned, and anything he learned of his father thereafter had been from the Skaal or the Thirsk warriors.


    Yet none except for his mother knew what Leiv had been like before Solstheim. He snapped out of his brooding when he felt Ludvik’s hand on his shoulder.
    “I know that’s tough to hear, Reidar. Whatever he did or didn’t do, that’s on his shoulders, not yours—”


    “Jarl Ulfric sent my Pa a letter, inviting him to join the war council.” Reidar said hotly, brushing Ludvik’s hand off. “Why would he do that if he thought Leiv killed Hoag?”


    Ludvik and Mitra again exchanged glances—but it was obvious they didn’t know why.


    “I don’t have a damned clue, Reidar. If Jarl Ulfric doesn’t think he killed Hoag, then he probably didn’t.”


    “Or maybe he wanted to lure him here, to settle matters once and for all,” Mitra added, unconcerned with his anguish.


    Reidar glowered at her, and then at Ludvik, and lastly at his tankard, staring hard as if trying to transmute the iron into silver through concentrated force of will.


    What if he could find proof that Leiv was innocent? What if there was a way to clear his father’s name, once and for all? If he just searched hard enough…


    “Do you know where he used to live?” His family had deep roots in Windhelm, their mother still had family here somewhere. If he could find their old homestead, talk to their neighbors, find out what Leiv was really like, he could—


    “Aye,” said Ludvik, interrupting Reidar’s thoughts. “But you aren’t going to like it.”




    “How much to take me to Morthal?”


    The snowflakes danced before Kjeld’s eyes as he stood near the carriage front, a thickly-bundled coachman leaning over the ledge of his seat to speak above the wind.


    “A hundred-and-twenty Septims’ll getcha to Morthal. No stables to be had, and the road thataways is nothin’ to write home about.” The driver, as if picturing the unpleasant journey already, drew his hands up to blow warm air through the knitted mittens preemptively.


    Kjeld’s eyes nearly bulged. A hundred-and-twenty Septims!


    “How far will eighty Septims get me?” And the winds forbid he need to pay for two passengers!


    “Look, I can take you as far as the Hall of the Vigilant, but that’s it.”


    The first thing Kjeld had done when he’d finished seeing the court-mage was buy a map. Sadri’s Used Wares had a few to choose from—and Kjeld picked the least-tattered, least charcoal-marked, least stained one he could find from the pile. It had obviously been well-used, and what had happened to the owner, Kjeld chose not to ask; if the owner had died, he didn’t want to know. Maybe it was bad luck to use a deadman’s map—so he preferred to think the shopkeeper had found it.


    Unfolding it section by section, Kjeld used the carriage as a windbreaker, and frowned over the dashed lines outlining each hold. He found the Hall of the Vigilant at the foothill of the mountainscape; Morthal’s symbol, three connected half-spirals, appeared on the other side of the mountains, a good two, maybe three days’ walk from the Hall. Provided he didn’t get lost, of course.


    Kjeld had no fear of the wilderness. He had a healthy respect for it, but he was also Skaal. Snow would not deter him.


    Coin, on the other hand…


    He was going to need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.


    All that’s well and good, he reasoned, but I have to convince Reidar that going to Morthal will be worth his while.


    He’d grouchily barter with shopkeepers all day, but his brother was something else.


    Maybe he’d have better luck if mead was involved; weary from his game of back-and-forth in and out of the city, now seemed like the perfect time to track down Reidar and get some hot food to chase off the cold.




    He’d barely turned back to the city bridge when his brother’s shout rode the wind up to the stables, and he furrowed his brow in surprise, craning his neck to watch Reidar stride down a cobbled path leading away from the farmhouses dotting Windhelm’s outskirts.


    Well that’s convenient. He didn’t know what Reidar was doing out here, but he was glad to see him (and in one piece, too).


    “Kjeld,” Reidar’s face was flushed beet-red from the cold, great splotches of color under his cheeks, nose and forehead. He had been out here a long time.


    “You need to see this.”


    Mystified, Kjeld followed his brother onto the cobblestones. This would give them a chance to talk, though he preferred a warmer setting. As they walked, he cleared his throat to start:
    “I need to go to Morthal, to see a Khajiit about my—”


    “I asked around about Da.” Reidar didn’t seem to have heard him, his voice rising with the incline as if his lungs and his legs were interconnected. “Everyone thinks he killed Jarl Hoag Stormcloak—Ulfric’s father. They think that’s why he ran away to Solstheim!”


    “What?” Since their arrival, Kjeld had been preoccupied with tackling the other mystery their father had kept to himself; he had thought woefully little of the actual meaning behind their father’s letter. He let the icy wind snatch away his guilt, the shock slowly giving way to bitter acceptance. So that’s why…


    “It’s a load of bearshit!” Snapped Reidar, “Did you know he fought in the Battle of the Red Ring alongside Ulfric and Galmar? He took out hundreds of Thalmor, and when he came home, Hoag made him his housecarl. He wasn’t a coward. He must’ve left for different reasons.”


    The only way to find out the truth was to ask the man himself, but that was impossible. Kjeld bared his teeth. “Cool your fire, Reidar. We don’t know one way or the other what happened back then.” Admittedly, that fit with what he thought of Leiv White-Paw. But Kjeld couldn’t pretend he wasn’t a little biased against the man…


    “Are you joking?” Reidar turned on him, Windhelm to his left and another farm to his right. “You knew him better than I did. What makes you think he’s a murderer?”


    “Nothing, nothing. You’re probably right. Da left for different reasons. What are you trying to show me?” He didn’t want another argument.


    The countryside road they had found was implied more than it was seen; occasionally, a gust would peel away the first layer of snow enough that they saw a hint of worn, sun-bleached stone. Snowberry bushes dotted the landscape, and being out among the tall conifers and hardy winter shrubs took away some of his heartache for home.


    Reidar seemed to be saving his answer for their arrival, because his pace increased, and Kjeld quickly lengthened his stride to catch up.


    Together, the brothers followed the shambling road to a higher elevation, gulls screaming overhead and surefooted mountain goats bounding away as soon as they heard footfalls. It was a long walk, and he quickly understood Reidar’s flushed face; slowly but surely, a two-story house, much bigger than the farmhouses they had passed on the way up here, rose into view.


    “What is this place?” Kjeld looked at the gaping holes in the thatched roof and wooden siding, the weather-battered homestead obviously once a fine looking property—but time had not been kind to it.


    The path curved (still dotted with Reidar’s previous footprints) around to the front of the house, the ground leveling. Reidar marched right up to the porch (the steps miraculously unbroken) and spread out his arms without ceremony, like an agitated priest before an altar he didn’t like.


    “This is our house.”


    “Our house.” What did he mean our house? Kjeld gazed, scrutinizing the ramshackle abode, able to see over Reidar’s shoulder to the bone-chillingly cold hearthroom inside. “This is where…?”


    “Aye.” Reidar dropped his arms, stepping inside. “Where Da and Ma used to live with Helmi before they came to Solstheim.”


    Kjeld followed him inside.


    It was colder than he’d expected, the blustery gusts intensifying the sense of vacancy. It was hard, at first, to imagine anyone living here; hard to imagine that these busted old walls had once held a family.


    The chill was too distracting.


    “Let’s get the fireplace lit,” he murmured, looking at a broken chair near the hearth, its shadow wrought upon the floor like some mangled half-memory.


    Reidar quickly complied, and soon enough orange light and much-needed heat radiated into what was left of the living room. The stones in the fireplace had grown wet, the warmth cutting through the long-resting cold. The fireplace seemed to weep in relief.


    Kjeld found an unbroken chair, and Reidar set his weight on an overturned barrel long-robbed of its contents.


    “I didn’t tell you what they call this place.” Reidar’s trousers scraped against the barrel rings as he shifted, throwing a small sliver of wood into the fire. He tensed his jaw.


    Calm blue eyes lifted from the light to settle on his brother, that untimely sensation in his gut back again. He almost didn’t bring himself to ask, resigned as he was to bad news.
    “What’s it called?”


    “Traitor’s Post.”


    Kjeld pulled his hands free of his gloves, thumb and first finger starting near his temples and rubbing the bags under his eyes, the gesture repeated several times until he pinched the bridge of his nose. Traitor’s Post.


    He scoffed. “They really think he did it. Do they even have any proof?”


    “No. And no one cares enough to find out what really happened.”


    Uh oh. He smelled a well-intentioned, poorly-executed plan in the making.


    “It was more than 25 years ago, if you’re trying to uncover something—you’re not gonna find much.”


    Kjeld never liked being the cold wind at the door, but someone had to stay logical. If there was one thing his burden had taught him, it was to rely less on his heart and more on his head. Less on emotion, more on reason.


    Reidar snorted, and threw another wood sliver.
    “I know. Don’t start lecturing. That doesn’t mean I can’t do something about this.”


    “Oh yeah? And what’s that?” Here it comes…


    “I’m going to join the Stormcloaks.”


    In a heartbeat, his brother was up on his feet, throwing his shadow across the walls as he made his case before the hearthfire.


    “I know what you’re going to say, and I know you’re going to try to stop me—but don’t bother. I’m going to fight for our family’s name, Kjeld! Even if I can’t fix what Da’s done or even know the truth, I won’t let ‘White-Paw’ stand for disgrace! It’s not fair to Da, being branded a traitor, and it’s not fair to us, who have to carry on his legacy.”


    Kjeld kept his mouth shut, afraid of the results if he let his emotions take hold. He knew this day was coming; as soon as they’d set foot in Windhelm, as soon as they confronted the Jarl about the letter, as soon as Galmar’s words had struck Reidar’s ears… He knew he was in danger of losing his little brother.


    But maybe he was meant to, all along.


    This decrepit house… It was a lot like his relationship with his father. What had once been a happy home had become ruined, damaged in a way that didn’t seem fixable. There was a line between reasonable refusal and obstinance. That line could have blurred in recent times...


    Maybe he wasn’t being such a good son, or the brother Reidar deserved.


    I… I’m not the one who can make up for Da’s mistakes. But maybe Reidar was. Just as he was forced to walk this path of transfiguration and anger, to seek peace in himself, Reidar was meant to bring peace to Skyrim. Or at the very least, make peace with their father’s ghosts. It was a mighty undertaking, but they were Skaal.


    When was anything they ever did easy?


    Kjeld stood up, towering over Reidar but smiling quietly, letting the weight of his realization shape his words.
    “I won’t stop you. I know you feel like you have to do this, and… You’re right. Our name should mean something,” he looked to the perforated rafters, hearing the creak and groan of the house like a creature in pain. “And it shouldn’t stand for this. So do what you need to, brother. And you’ll have my support.”


    Again, his heart was clenching tight, unused to placing so much faith in someone he always felt he had to protect—but his brother deserved more than his obstinacy. His stubborn hold on the people in his life, as frightened for their well-being as he was his own.


    It was safer to think ill of Reidar. Think him incapable of the grand plans Reidar envisioned for himself. But he was doing his brother a disservice.


    Kjeld looked at him with fresh eyes, unclouded by anxious thoughts.


    And Reidar stood there, barely any stubble on his jaw and no world experience to speak of, but with enough purpose for the both of them.


    It was easy to let the past be the past, to get what they wanted from Skyrim and go home, but that wouldn’t satisfy Reidar. It was easier not to care. His brother couldn’t turn back to Solstheim without resolving this; it wasn’t ignorance of youth, the realization struck Kjeld’s brain like the glow inside a torchbug. It was a conscience. It was a sense of honor, even if Reidar didn’t call it that, and even if Kjeld hadn’t seen it for what it was.


    “Do you mean what you say?” asked Reidar.


    “Aye,” said Kjeld slowly. “Aye, and I’ll still mean it a year from now when you come home in one piece.”


    Reidar smiled big.
    “Don’t think I won’t.”


    And despite all of his prior fears, doubts and concerns for his hard-headed little brother, Kjeld believed him.










17 Comments   |   Paws and 2 others like this.
  • ilanisilver
    ilanisilver   ·  March 22, 2018
    I like the diverging viewpoints the brothers have about their father. Great for tension. 
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  July 25, 2017
    I liked the depiction of Wuunferth here. And the rest, of course, but that was a very atmospheric section. Also, Kjeld is a good man.
  • The Wing
    The Wing   ·  May 2, 2016
    It was my pleasure, Exuro. There will always be someone who is utterly obsessed with grammar. XD
  • Exuro
    Exuro   ·  May 1, 2016
    Ahhh! So much snorting! Thanks for expanding on that Rancid.
  • Ben W
    Ben W   ·  May 1, 2016
    I can answer that, the wolf without a pack thing. It's easy: learn on your own  
    I make it sound so simple XD
  • SpottedFawn
    SpottedFawn   ·  May 1, 2016
    heehee, well try to step into our elder Skaal brother's shoes. Imagine being a wolf with no pack, and no one to explain what's happening to you or help you cope with the animal urges. For someone who considers himself quite peaceable and kind...  more
  • The Wing
    The Wing   ·  May 1, 2016
    Exuro, technically you're right (to be honest, I've never actually seen someone snort anyway except for when laughing), but people use all sorts of weird noises as dialogue indicators, even if you can't actually make those noises while speaking. Some exam...  more
  • Exuro
    Exuro   ·  May 1, 2016
    Ah, you can never go wrong with cranky, old wizards. Bethseda always sneaks these frustratingly little mysteries in. What does he use that poison for? Why is he called the unliving? Can't wait to meet Mor'vahka.
    So much respect for Kjeld to have tha...  more
  • Sotek
    Sotek   ·  May 1, 2016
    A lot going on SF and nicely handled too.
    One thing I don't follow...
    Why would anyone want a cure from Hircine's gift. (Gift I might add, not curse)
  • SpottedFawn
    SpottedFawn   ·  April 30, 2016
    Thanks for giving this a read, guys!
    And big thank you to Rancid for noticing the errors.  Just when I think I have it figured out, turns out a miss a whole bunch!
    Haha, Kjeld knew it all along Rancid. Reidar's so stubborn, and he'd rather no...  more