A Good Man Goes To War, Ch 9: Alteration



    Kodlak wasted no time bustling the twins off to Bleak Falls Barrow, and with only a few short hours to prepare, it proved a daunting task. Farkas worked with Eorlund to get new armor fitted and find a new weapon. And Vilkas – over Farkas’s halfhearted objections – scrounged a satchelful of potions from Arcadia and even a few scrolls from Farengar, just in case they met up with something their weapons couldn’t best.


    They planned to leave Whiterun before the sun rose the next morning. Jarl Balgruuf warned the council to keep what they’d heard and seen in Dragonreach’s great room to themselves, but he knew the rumor mill would turn, regardless. Too many people in Skyrim had either seen the dragon or knew someone who had, and it wouldn’t be long before worried villagers started to panic. Balgruuf wanted at least a few answers before that happened.


    With that sobering thought in mind, Farkas and Vilkas tumbled out of bed hours before dawn, and found themselves veering west from the White River and heading up the slushy mountain path south of the town of Riverwood by mid-morning.


    “Better keep your sword handy,” Vilkas said, nudging Farkas and slipping an arrow from his quiver. “Athis saw bandits on the path last week, on his way back from Riverwood.”


    “What was Athis doing in Riverwood?”


    “Contract. Tanner kept finding wolves sneaking around his drying racks.” Vilkas watched Farkas pull an ebony sword and equip a matching shield. “New sword, eh? Different.”


    Farkas gave it a swishy swing. He’d lost his greatsword back in the Pale, and thought a one-handed weapon might be more useful in the current climate. Not to mention its companion. “Balance is good,” he grumbled, watching the cresting sun glint off its wicked edge. “Thought I’d get a little better with my shield. Dragonfire and all. So, Athis?”


    Vilkas shrugged – his giant of a brother made that blade look more like a parrying dagger, but he wasn’t about judge the relationship between a man and his sword. “He and the tanner tracked the wolves back to their den, but didn’t have the heart to kill them all. Too many cubs, he said. So he helped build a high plank fence, instead, with a good, strong lock. Everyone wins.”


    “Until summer, when the cubs aren’t cubs anymore,” Farkas said. Beasts would be beasts after all, and Farkas understood their needs better than the average man, having been a werewolf until the spring prior. “But I suppose that’s more work for us, eventually.”


    “Njada said the same thing, with a little more cursing. And punches,” Vilkas said, grinning with a wry shake of his head. “Of course, everyone knows what’s really going on, there. Everyone but her and Athis, that is.”


    Conversation lulled while they rounded the next bend. No bandits yet. Farkas grunted and pulled at a loose buckle on his shield. “Yeah. It’s got to be tough on them both, especially with her coming from a family of Stormcloaks. I was a little surprised to see her still at Jorrvaskr, after Ulfric-”


    “I asked her right after we got the news if she was leaving – we had to know what we were facing, right? She looked at me like I’d called her a troll. But have you ever heard her talk about her family?”




    “That’s right. I had no idea it was a sore spot. But, turns out, she hates Windhelm and has no intention of going back,” Vilkas said. “You should have seen the look on his face – Athis, I mean. I think he might have braved Ulfric’s wrath and joined up himself had she actually gone.”


    Farkas chuffed under his breath. Athis and Njada’d joined the Companions a few years back. Athis didn’t talk much about his past either, only that he’d narrowly escaped the ashlands of Vvardenfell and didn’t want to relive it. He’d passed through Windhelm on his journey, glad to see the back of it and thankful he had a way out. Too many Dunmer who’d settled in Skyrim after the Red Mountain erupted in Morrowind weren’t so lucky.


    Vilkas stopped in his tracks and held up a fist, motioning with his bow to the rise of the next bend. The tiptop of a crumbling lookout tower peeked out over its apex. Farkas closed his eyes and listened. Times like these, he missed the beastblood – hearing and smelling danger a mile away had its uses. Not worth the uncontrollable rage or constant exhaustion or knowing that his soul wasn’t his own – but helpful. And unnecessary this time: a loud, drunken guffaw rang out from the ruined cupola, and Farkas inched over to let Vilkas pass, his back flat against the cliff wall and his bow drawn.


    Aside from Aela, Vilkas was the Companions’ best archer and rarely missed a shot, so Farkas wasn’t surprised to hear three thuds in less than a minute, and Vilkas’s whistle signaling the all-clear. They finally rounded the last bend up to the barrow, and Vilkas nudged him again. “Look at that. What do you see?”


    Farkas looked up just as the sun peeked from behind a passing cloud, its dazzling beams glaring off the snowy mountains. “Fuck,” he swore, pressing the heels of his hands against closed eyelids. When the shadows and burned-in images faded away, he glanced back up, shading his eyes this time. Towering arches and buttresses crowned the steep pathway up the cliffside, and snow-capped animal sculptures crowned the arches.


    The stone had eroded just enough to blur their aspects, but Farkas assumed they were part of the ancient Nord pantheon – hawks, eagles, wolves…maybe even dragons. A shiver flickered up his spine. Anticipation or fear, one, he wasn’t sure which. But he could find answers here, he knew it.


    He needed answers.


    “I see it,” he said, his fist clenching around the hilt of his sword. “Looks like Dragonsreach to me, just stone instead of wood.”


    “Yeah,” Vilkas said. “Spot on.” Farkas sprinted up the first set of stairs and took out a bandit who rushed them from behind one of the arches. Vilkas drew his bow and took out two more on the next staircase. “Why have we never been up here before, anyway?”


    Farkas shrugged. “No one paid us, I guess.”


    “Makes sense,” Vilkas said, and wrenched open the door.




    After clearing a bandit lair out of several large chambers, they’d taken their time searching every urn and chest, but found nothing of use – no scrolls, texts, or carvings. Not even passable loot. Vilkas kept reminding himself that sweet, sweet gold wasn’t what they’d come for, anyway. They’d even opened a few coffins before the dust became insufferable, clinging to their skin and hair and coating their throats with dry, powdery death. They’d drained nearly half a waterskin by the time the small anteroom containing a puzzle, one dead bandit, and not much else came into view.


    “You know,” Vilkas said, pulling a lever on top of a stone plinth and opening the barred gate to an inner chamber, “I figured the Ancients’ security measures would be a little more…challenging.”


    Farkas surveyed the room. He had to agree with his brother. It didn’t take much intellect to match animal sculptures on revolving pillars downstairs to tablets on the second-story ledge. One had even fallen to the ground, crumbling with age, but it still looked like a snake to him. “Well, that guy would disagree,” he said, nodding toward the dead bandit lying between the plinth and the gate. “But maybe you don’t have to have much. Maybe whoever gets in just needs to be able to think. Like a human. Or elf, or Khajiit. You know...”


    “Sentient. Yeah, you might be right,” Vilkas said, and headed through the door, decapitating a lone, shambling draugr on the way down a dark corridor. He lit a torch and lifted it up and around, illuminating coffins lining stone walls and biers piled with burial urns. “Not too many things to kill in here, we might have gotten lucky.”


    “Wait,” Farkas said, and pointed to a wispy mass of webbing covering an archway. “Why’d you have to say that? You know it’s bad luck, and now look. Damn spiders.”


    “Sorry,” Vilkas said, and paused, tilting his head to the side. “Did you hear something?”


    Farkas frowned and tried to ignore what awaited them in the next room. Nothing much got under his skin, but he had to admit frostbites were on that very short list. Hairy, jumping bastards. All those eyes. Disgusting.


    But above the sound of his skin crawling, he heard what had his brother on alert – someone groaned behind the wall. He nodded, and Vilkas sheathed his sword and nocked an arrow to his bow.


    The groan turned into a wail, and then a scream. “Help! Help me! I’m in here…help!”


    “That idiot’s going to wake up every draugr in Skyrim,” Farkas growled. “That sort of stupidity deserves to get eaten by spiders.”


    “Someone! Anyone, please!”


    “Aw, have a heart, big guy,” Vilkas said, creeping around the doorway. A giant frostbite spider dangled from a thick thread of silk, its forelegs and fangs twitching toward a white lump on the far wall. Three arrows later, the monster curled up and fell with a soft thud onto the stone floor, scattering bones and desiccated bodies in its wake. Vilkas lowered his bow. “Ok, let’s go help the moron.”


    They crossed the room, carefully avoiding a few grates on the floor – obvious trapdoors – and stepping over swaths of sticky silk. On the south wall, his face barely peeping over a thick, white web, hung a Dunmer male. His red eyes flickered over the twins with a mixture of desperation and curiosity.


    “For Azura’s sake, you imbeciles, cut me down!”


    Imperious little shit. Vilkas grinned over his shoulder at Farkas before sauntering up to the spider’s erstwhile lunch. He leaned against the wall. “So, what’s your story?”


    “Having a laugh, are you?” The Dunmer struggled against his silk bindings. “I’m obviously stuck here, injured and in mortal peril. Anyone with a shred of decency would cut me down without interrogation.”


    “Let’s say we have that shred, but it’s buried deep. Real deep, under a huge pile of common sense and the desire to stay alive. Why’d you come down here, anyway? You probably couldn’t look a draugr in the eye without soiling yourself. What made you think you could kill one?” Vilkas knew it was bad form to taunt the poor guy, but he couldn’t help it. In fact, he considered it his duty to knock arrogant pissants down a peg or two, and who was he to ignore a calling?


    The Dunmer spat and spluttered, reddish purple splotches flushing his gray cheeks. “I might ask you the same question!”


    Vilkas raised his brows and his bow, and motioned to Farkas’s still-bloody sword. The Dunmer’s eyes widened and quickly narrowed, his lips curving in a shrewd grin. “Oh. Yes, of course. Perhaps I’ve been too hasty in my…well, bygones, as they say. You wouldn’t be averse to a, ah…partnership, now would you? I had an arrangement with the bandits you two obviously took care of, if you managed to get to me alive. But my guard got themselves killed by draugr, and the rest of them scurried back upstairs. But you two,” he said, sizing up the twins, his eyes lighting on Farkas’s bulk under dusty carved Nordic armor, “yes, you two could be of use.”


    Vilkas snorted. “What’s in it for us?”


    “Look. I’m Arvel. I’m no warrior, true, but in my many years as a thief and general ne’er-do-well, I picked up on a few things. Books have value far beyond their market price. And this barrow?” Arvel allowed a dramatic pause, and shifted his eyes between the twins. “It’s – “


    “What does a Dunmer care about ancient Nord relics?” Farkas had to admit he felt a little guilty pawing through what might be tombs of his own ancestors, even for a worthy – and urgent – cause. But the thought of a foreigner desecrating burial sites just to scoop up treasure had him bristling.


    “Plunder knows no pedigree,” Arvel said, his grin twisting into a sneer. “And I know how to get though this dump. I even know how to get through the locked door at the end, and beyond that –“


    Farkas stepped up, guilt and anger forgotten. He and Vilkas had found nothing, so far, to help them figure out why dragons had invaded Skyrim and how to stop them, and with every empty urn and bookcase and every dusty shelf, Farkas felt the hope he’d entered the barrow with slowly ebbing away. But if there really was a locked door with a secret key…


    “You know how to get through? Do you have the key? We were told -“


    Arvel’s eyes shuttered at the eagerness in Farkas’s tone. Vilkas nudged his brother, but the damage was done. No way any self-respecting treasure hunter would tell them what the barrow might contain if he thought they’d come with a purpose, a goal in mind. He sighed. “Pay no attention to my brother. Let’s hear more about this partnership – exactly what do you propose?”


    “Cut me down and I’ll tell you,” he said, his eyes shifting between the twins, this time with suspicion rather than showmanship.


    Farkas and Vilkas exchanged a look, and Farkas shrugged. If the little shit ran off, they could always catch him, maybe even before the draugr did. “Fine.” Farkas used his sword to cut away at the webbing, trying to avoid the Dunmer’s twitching body. “Be still.”


    But Arvel kept struggling and finally broke free. He pitched backwards, somersaulting to his feet and sprinting down the hall.


    Vilkas rolled his eyes and clunked Farkas across the chest with his bow. “Great job, man.”


    “Hey, at least we don’t have to listen to him. And what do you think’s going to happen? He’ll be dead in ten minutes, tops.”


    Farkas’s prediction paid out. In the middle of the very next chamber, a draugr loomed over Arvel’s body, shaking its ancient war axe in a gruesome parody of battlefield triumph. Short-lived triumph, as Farkas cleaved its head from its body, and the draugr collapsed in a heap of bones and rusted armor.


    Vilkas knelt to rummage through the pockets of Arvel’s cloak. “Here’s a journal.” He skimmed the pages, flipping through to the end. “Mentions some scholar he talked to in Winterhold – that explains how he knew about the barrow. And a claw…”


    “Well, that would be this,” Farkas said, peering into Arvel’s satchel and pulling out a large claw that looked to be made of gold.


    Vilkas reached out for it and passed the journal to his brother. “There’s three pictures on its…foot, I guess: an owl, a dragon, and a moth.”


    “He wrote ‘when you have the golden claw, the solution is in the palm of your hands.’ Sounds like another lever puzzle to me.”


    “Maybe,” Vilkas said, turning the claw over in his hand. “What sort of beast is this claw modeled from anyway? I’ve never seen the like.”


    Farkas closed his eyes. He crawled from the collapsed embankment, his eyes level with black clawed feet, razor-sharp talons digging into the soft, slushy mud.




    Vilkas’s eyes crinkled with worry. His brother needed answers – they all did. “Journal say anything else?”


    “Only that he stole the claw from a shop in Riverwood. Maybe after we get through this, we can give it back.”


    “Always the gentleman, eh?” Vilkas grinned at his brother, stuffing the claw and journal into his pack. “I suppose that’s the right thing to do. Maybe they’ll even give us a reward for its safe return.”


    A few rooms and what seemed like several dozen draugr later, they came upon a long hallway with ornate murals carved into the walls. It ended in an arched doorway barred by a massive stone circle. Vilkas strolled through the hall, casting torchlight on the carvings. “I’ve seen these in other barrows, and that same circle in one near Ivarstead. I couldn’t get into it, but,” he said, pulling the claw from his pack and motioning with it toward the door, “these talons should fit right into those hollows.”


    Farkas hung back in the dark entryway, hope warring with foreboding deep in his chest. Something about the room, and that doorway, made him feel strange - lightheaded. His heart pounded, and he heard drums of war off in the distance. Roars and screams filled his ears, and visions of dragons and men in masks swam behind his eyes. He shuddered and forced himself to catch up to his brother.


    Vilkas sprinted to the door and examined it under the torchlight. He looked from the door to the claw and back again. “Concentric circles, each with its own band of images. Owl, dragon, and moth, eh? Must coordinate with the pictures on the claw. But how do you get them to move?” He pressed on the outermost circle, and heard an internal mechanism whir to life. The stones ground against each other as the moth slowly moved around to the right, and an owl took its place. “Huh,” Vilkas said, “easy enough.”


    Farkas nodded, and tried to stay calm. On the surface, anyway. Inside, his heart raced and he felt his skin tighten, like it didn’t fit his body anymore. The circles moved too slowly.


    Open. Open. OPEN.


    The circles finally stopped spinning, and Vilkas inserted the talons of the claw into indentations in the middle of the door and grinned over his shoulder. But nothing happened. “Well, shit.” Vilkas pulled the claw away and stared at it. “I was sure that-”


    Vilkas had been too engrossed in the workings of the claw and the lock to notice Farkas’s twitching fingers or darkened eyes. Or the white lines around his mouth. So when his brother’s hand whipped out and snatched the claw from his own, it came as quite a surprise.




    Farkas ignored his brother’s indignation and shoved the claw’s talons into the hollows. The doorway slowly began to spin, each concentric circle rotating independently as the stones sank into a crevasse at their feet.


    “How the fuck-“


    Farkas let out a ragged breath and charged past him into what looked like an underground forest. Vilkas just stared. He’d never seen anything like it. A waterfall thundered down the west wall and emptied into a river running the length of the cavern, sparkling in sunshine streaming down from skylights far above. Tall, spindly evergreens grew on either side of the river, dragonflies buzzing in their shadowy cover.


    Farkas had sprinted off to the north, but Vilkas was more interested in the waterfall – they had plenty of time to explore. No coffins in the cavern meant no draugr, after all. He followed the river until it opened onto a pool, and noticed something sparkling just beneath the water. He jumped from stone to stone. Spray from the waterfall coated his face with mist when he reached the edge of the pool, and he crouched down.


    A chest with a shining brass lock. Several chests, in fact. Ysmir’s beard, no wonder that stupid thief braved draugr to get here first – who knew what treasure ancient caverns could hold? Their task forgotten for the moment, Vilkas grinned and called over his shoulder. “Hey, Farkas! Get over here, man.”


    He jiggled one of the latches and found it locked. But no matter – ancient chests were made of ancient wood, and he’d make short work of that once he’d dragged it from the pool.




    No answer. Vilkas rose and climbed up an embankment on the north side of the falls. He walked through the trees and when the forest cleared, he stopped in his tracks.


    Farkas stood in the middle of a raised platform, sort of like a dais in a palace throne room, staring at a huge stone wall. Taller than the waterfall, it soared toward the ceiling of the cavern. Sunlight glinted off the whorls and spirals carved into its borders and sides, the latter curved like draping, cloaked arms into the middle of the floor. A sculpted relief of an ornate horned helmet dwarfed the top half, while the bottom was covered in what looked like claw marks. Just…scratches.


    Vilkas walked up a short set of steps and dropped his pack, warily noticing the stone bier and coffin at the platform’s edge. Looked like trouble. “Farkas, what-“


    “Do you hear that, brother?” Farkas’s voice sounded strange. Strained and clipped, like he was attempting to hold back a scream. “I’ve heard it since the door and…and the claw. Like drums in my head. And whispers. Screams.”


    “I don’t hear anything over the waterfall,” Vilkas said, gesturing off that way. “You’re not usually one for hearing voices, though.”


    “No. But…”


    Farkas broke off, hissing in pain. He dropped his sword and shrugged his pack and shield to the ground, holding his head in his hands. “Gods, Vil, how can you not hear this? It’s deafening.”


    “Where’s it coming from?”


    “Fucking wall, the words,” Farkas said, finally turning to Vilkas, his eyes wide. “You really can’t hear that?”


    Vilkas looked from the wall to his brother and stumbled back. Terror lurked in Farkas’s blue eyes. Terror and…need. Desire. Vilkas swallowed hard – his brother didn’t hear voices and didn’t make up tales outside his third mead at the Bannered Mare. But how could both statements be true? “What…words? There are no words there. Just scratches. Chicken scratch.”


    “But I can read it.” Farkas turned back to the wall. “It says ‘here lies the guardian, keeper of the dragonstone and a force of unending rage and darkness.’” Farkas looked at Vilkas again, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. “It’s on fire. Everything’s on fire” he said, his voice barely a whisper. He stumbled toward the wall and laid his hands in the center, his forehead grazing his knuckles.


    Vilkas peered at him through narrowed eyes, and turned to gaze around the cavern. Farkas’s fear and intense conviction almost had him expecting something to happen. But nothing would happen – the very thought was ridiculous. It was just a…wall. Covered in scratches. No voices. No fire.


    But then, something did happen. The coffin on the stone bier cracked, its lid exploding from the bier with a loud snapping sound that echoed through the cavern. Vilkas pulled his sword. A roar sounded from within, and something shot out of the coffin toward the ceiling of the cavern, screaming as it flew.




    The flying demon was like a draugr, all desiccated skin and bones, but unlike a draugr as well. Vilkas watched it float back down until it hovered just above the platform, its cape fluttering in an invisible wind. Ancient armor crumbled around its ruined body, and its eyes glowed blue underneath the horned mask covering its face.


    Vilkas backed up a step or two and spared a quick glance at Farkas. He was still communing with the damned wall. “Hey, brother. I, ah…I could use a little help here.”


    The draugr floated toward Vilkas and spoke in a strange, guttural language, and suddenly Vilkas found himself on his ass, sliding toward the middle of Farkas’s wall.


    “Farkas!” Vilkas yelled as his head smacked against the stone, and finally his brother broke away, his eyes dazed and cloudy. The draugr said something else Vilkas didn’t understand, and laughed - sort of a growling cackle - and Farkas’s eyes cleared. Without a word, he launched himself at the draugr.


    Vilkas stared, open-mouthed. Farkas had no weapon – he’d dropped his sword and shield in the curve of the wall – but that didn’t stop him from punching the draugr about the head, sunlight glinting off the steel of his gauntlets with each blow.


    The draugr roared and spoke again, and Farkas flew backwards, landing beside a table near the ruined coffin. He got to his feet and looked around for his sword. Vilkas rolled over and grabbed it, sliding it across the platform. Its hilt bounced off Farkas’s boot, and he snapped it up. He ran for the draugr once more, spinning and lopping its head off in one clean stroke before the monster could speak again.


    The body fell to the floor, its bones and armor turning to dust.


    Vilkas pulled himself to sit against the wall once more, his head ringing. That would teach him to leave off his helmet. A shadow loomed overhead and Vilkas looked up.


    “You ok, brother?” Farkas grabbed Vilkas’s hands in his own and helped him to his feet.


    Vilkas gingerly moved his head from side to side, and rubbed the back of his skull with a searching hand. No blood. Didn’t seem to be any swelling. “Yeah. Seems to be all right. What in Oblivion was that?”


    “Draugr. Hopped-up super draugr, maybe,” Farkas said. “Whatever it is, it’s dead now. I’m going to look around to see if there’s any more.”


    Vilkas nodded and screwed his eyes shut, trying to clear his blurry vision. “Hey, what was up with that wall?” But Farkas had already run behind it, and up a shadowy set of stairs. Hopefully it led to a back way outside. Vilkas heard a gate rattle open, and his brother called down.


    “Looks clear, and there’s another way out. There’s some nice loot up here.”


    “Some down here, too. At least we can bring that back,” Vilkas said, relieved they didn’t have to backtrack through the damned barrow. He shuffled over to inspect the coffin. Inside, wrapped in a soiled linen cloth, lay a stone tablet covered in the same chicken scratch as the wall. And several sealed scrolls. “This looks like something Farengar can use.” Vilkas looked around for his pack, and remembered he’d left it near the edge of the platform.


    Farkas jumped down the last few steps and trotted over to retrieve the pack. Vilkas held his hand out for it, but Farkas hesitated. He inhaled sharply, his breath whistling as it rushed through pursed lips.


    “Hey…Farkas? Something wrong?”


    Farkas looked up, and the intensity of his gaze had Vilkas stepping back in surprise for the second time that day.


    “I need you to do something for me, brother,” Farkas said, and slipped the pack’s strap over Vilkas’s open palm.


    “What is it?”


    “Don’t say anything to anyone about that wall.”


    Vilkas swallowed and nodded. He opened his pack and slid the stone inside. The scrolls from the coffin fit in Farengar’s satchel with the fireball scrolls they didn’t end up needing. “Are you,” he began, and glanced back at the wall. Still just an ordinary wall. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”


    Farkas huffed and scrubbed his face with both hands before meeting Vilkas’s eyes. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know myself.”


    I can't find a credit for the amazing pic of the twins in the middle of the chapter. If anyone knows who created it, let me know. :)







1 Comment   |   Karver the Lorc and 2 others like this.
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  October 13, 2018
    Never judge the relationship between a man and his sword. Vilkas gets it, words to live by right there!