In the crisp, cold air of the pine forests, everything seemed fresh and clean.
Ready to begin life anew when spring arrived. Or now, as an infant's piteous cries filled the otherwise quiet air and the mother of the child shushed her gently, bouncing the babe in her arms as she sang a quiet lullaby to her bairn, her voice lilting and soft, beautiful in its simplicity.
Are you, are you
Coming to the tree?
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.
The steel and fur, armour clad man hesitated out front of the small rundown shack, listening to the mournful lyrics.
Smoke drifted through a hole in the roof pale grey against the darkling sky. And the warm, rich smell of venison stew emanated in the air, mingling with the smell of blood in the frosty pine needles, and the stench of hides being tanned.
The man ran a hand through the rough mane of dark hair on his head and walked to the door of the shack, one hand on the door frame as he peered in at the nursing mother, dressed only in a simple tunic made of dressed furs, despite the biting cold of the night.
The woman looked up on his entrance, her lips turning up in a smile.
"Jergen, my love. I knew you would come."
The man, Jergen, nodded and stepped into the interior of the shack, which was furnished with a wooden table pressed to the far wall, and a pile of straw in one corner, covered with more hides.
His lover lived a simple life, outside of the constraints of society.
"Aye Sköll, I came as quickly as I could. I didn't want the others to follow me..."
Jergen hesitated briefly, and then crossed the few feet between them and embraced the flaxen haired huntress, wrapping his arms around her and gently crushing the two of them to his chest.
Sköll smiled up at Jergen as he released them, her silvery eyes gleaming as she offered him the fur wrapped bundle.
"Say hello to your daughter."
The warrior stared in awe at the delicate creature, tentatively accepting her and holding her as if the slightest jolt would send her crumbling into pieces.
The baby stared up at her sire with a solemn expression on her round, pudgy cheeks. Her forehead crinkled as if she were trying to remember his face.
Jergen laughed in delight at her look of consternation and Sköll grinned,
"She gets that look from you. In fact, she takes after you in many ways."
Jergen glanced up at Sköll with the dopey smile stretching his rough, chiseled features.
"Aye? Well she has your eyes love, big and calm."
The mother peered into the little face and couldn't keep the smile off of her own.
This child was her life now, everything she did was to keep the babe alive and happy. And the duties of motherhood brought her a sense of fulfillment and contentment that she never could have imagined.
"Hircine has blessed us Jergen. This child is as much his as it is ours, and I plan to raise her here, show her the ways of the hunt. Teach her the meaning of the blood." The mother stared up into her love's eyes, "But I want you to be a part of her life Jergen."
"I will be."
Came his resolute reply, as he shifted the infant, ever so gently in his arms.
Sköll's expression became one of hope, and she clasped her scarred hands together, the flesh gouged by accidents with a skinning blade.
"So you will come and live with us here? As we discussed?"
Jergen started, "Sköll, we discussed nothing of the sort. I have obligations at Jorvaskr, I am a member of the Circle. The warriors rely on me! And what of Farkas and Vilkas? I'm a father to them!"
Sköll's eyes flashed and she drew her arms across her chest with a furious expression.
"And what of our child? Are you not her father as well? Her sire? Her blood? Would you have me believe that we mean less to you than that drunken rabble means more to you than us?"
"Of course not!" Jergen exclaimed, "Its just that-"
The blonde woman snatched the babe from his arms in a fury, cradling the now whimpering child to her breast and glaring daggers at Jergen.
"Get out of my sight you bastard. Don't ever think of coming back here."
Sköll was trembling now, with a combination of rage and anguish.
"Sköll, I-" Jergen took a step towards them and Sköll's voice rose into a scream, that set the baby to wailing lustily.
"I said, get out of here! Go!"
Jergen stumbled out of the shack, staring in dismay at the entrance as his daughter continued to howl in distress.
Unable to think of anything else to do, he turned on heel and began to trudge away, his heart laden with guilt.
Sköll pressed the baby closer to her body, shushing and rocking the little girl, while all the time tears dripped down her cheeks and splattering hot and wet onto the baby's bright red face.
Six-year-old Lŷke huddled in fear between a crack in the rocks near her and her mother's home, listening to the terrible screams that tore into the quiet night.
The men in furs had come to their house not very long before, and even though her mama had tried to fight them off, there had been too many of them.
They tied her mother up and tried to catch her too, but she was small and slippery, and she had managed to escape them, if only just barely and not without receiving a cut from bond of their daggers.
They hadn't chased her far and so she had been able to hide, her heart pounding like a drum in her chest.
It seemed like the screams would go on forever. Lŷke pressed her palms to her ears and sobbed quietly at the sounds, her tears cutting tracks in the grime that coated her cheeks and splashing warm and wet onto her neck.
The men who had invaded their home were loud and boisterous. And, from the sound of it, they were getting drunk on her mother's homebrewed mead. Their laughter mingled with her mother's screaming and made a nightmarish symphony in Lŷke's mind.
She thought that it would never end, and then suddenly came a thundering of hooves and a roared battle cry as newcomers burst through the undergrowth.
The pillagers weren't expecting company it seemed, for the sounds of debauchery faded quickly, in turn becoming exclamations of surprise and hostility.
Clashing and ringing of steel echoed into the night and the little girl remained huddled in her crevice, staring upwards at the moonlit sky, waiting for silence and safety.
Her mother was silent, and little Lŷke wondered what had happened to her. Maybe she had been saved by the other strangers. Surely she must have been.
When the sounds of battle faded away and were instead replaced by the crunching of boots on earth, and quiet conversation, Lŷke stood up and began to clamber out of her hiding place, her bare toes clinging easily to the jagged rock as she pulled herself into the clear silver moonlight.
From here she could see the fire blazing on the hilltop just outside of her home, with dark shadows of men tramping around it, the steel of their blades glinting at their sides.
"Is that all of them?" A deep grumpy sounding male voice called across to his fellows, and was answered by another, this one slower, more thoughtful sounding.
"Aela and Jergen went after the last one. They'll bring him to heel."
Lŷke crept up towards her home slowly, her eyes fixed on the nearest man. As she grew closer she could see by the fire light that they were both dressed in carved armour, skirted with thick dark wolf's fur.
The man across the fire nodded towards the man she was crouched behind and he spun around swiftly immediately catching sight of her. His face creased with concern as he looked her over,
"Damn the Hand..." he sighed, and gave Lŷke a small, reassuring smile. "Hello little one. Don't worry we're friends."
Lŷke took in his scarred visage silently, his eyes were the same quicksilver shade as her mother's and didn't seem to hold malice.
"Where's mama?" Lŷke asked with wide eyes, "Is she okay?"
Kodak's smile faded and he drew a deep breath.
"Little one, your mother is in a better place now-"
Lŷke's eyes stretched wide and she jumped to her feet, "She can't be dead! Mama can't be!"
Before Kodlak could finish speaking, or stop her she ran past him as fast as her feet could take her, jumping over a couple of bodies and bursting into the shack with her chest heaving.
The cloying smell of blood was overwhelming and Lŷke nearly gagged on it as she stumbled over a body that lay across the floor before her and her mother's bed.
"Mama?" She whispered to the inert form that lay lifeless across the hay. Tears filled her eyes and a choked sob escaped her throat as she dropped to her hands and knees beside her mother's body.
A dagger was sticking upright from her throat and blood had pooled around her, glistening darkly.
"Mama... Come back! Come back Mama!"
Her desperate plea went unanswered, by her mother at least.
While she knelt beside her mother's corpse, Jergen and the young woman Aela returned. The two of them were breathing heavily, the weapons in their hands stained with blood.
"There is a child here." Kodlak spoke quietly, nodding his head briefly towards the shack, where soft sobbing could be heard.
"I'll deal with her," he volunteered quickly, though not too quickly he hoped, none of his comrades knew about Sköll or his daughter.
"Aye, you're best equipped to deal with children." Kodlak nodded, referring to his daily interaction with his adopted sons.
No one recognized the look of hope and guilt that flashed over the warrior Jergen's face as he stepped towards the door, hesitantly.
He walked slowly through the door and into the close space, his eyes well attuned to the darkness as he approached the shivering, fur clad child.
Softly he called out, "Whelp."
And the little girl turned around, her mane of coarse black hair was wild around her dirty, bloody face.
There was a long cut across her nose and down her cheek that seemed to have closed up, and her brilliant blue eyes were puffy with tears.
"I want Mama."
Jergen crouched beside her, giving the slight child a comforting look.
"Aye. I know you do. But your mama is gone little one. It will be a long while before you see her again."
The girl's lips trembled and she ducked her head into her hands, her shoulders shaking with silent tears. The twinge of guilt that Jergen felt became a wave and he pulled the child against him.
"I'm all alone!" The little girl wailed, pressing her face into his neck, her tears and snot wetting his skin.
Jergen rubbed her back gently, shushing her quietly. By the gods, I don't even know her name. What kind of man am I¿
"You aren't alone child. You have me. I'll take care of you."
The little girl sniffled loudly and looked up at him with red rimmed eyes, looking like a lost lamb.
"Really?" she hiccuped, seeming doubtful. She really reminded him less of a lamb and more like a wild wolf cub, distrustful of outsiders.
"Aye little one. On my honour."
The child studied him for a moment and then frowned.
"My names not little one. Its Lŷke."
The tone of annoyance was clear and Jergen had to suppress a smile.
"Of course Lŷke. And I'm Jergen."
He almost expected her to recognize the name. But then, why would Sköll tell their daughter about a man who left her fatherless, because he was too selfish to give up his own personal gain?
Lŷke nodded and took a shaky breath, standing up and sniffling one last time.
She whispered, as if speaking any louder would send her into tears once more.
"Aye lass, Lŷke." Jergen reached down and took the little hand. Leading his child out to where the rest of the Companions were waiting.
Aela, a ginger haired whelp in her first year with the group, looked impressed as he reappeared.
"Looks like the big bad warrior is a big softie." She teased, her painted face split in a grin.
"Say that again and I'll show you 'soft'." Jergen returned in an obligatory manner, Lŷke clung to his leg as the other three warriors studied her closely. Jergen prayed that they wouldn't make correlations between him and the girl, for the sake of his own pride.
The man Kodlak coming up to them and looking her over, and then glancing at Jergen in disbelief.
"What will we do with her Jergen?" His tone was neutral, but by the expression of disappointment in his eyes Jergen knew that Kodlak recognized Lŷke as his child.
The dark haired warrior fixed Kodlak with a serious look, begging the other man with his eyes not to reveal the secret.
"I say we take her to Jorvaskr, raise her like Farkas and Vilkas."
There was an audible expression of disdain from Skjor, but Kodlak ignored it.
"Do you really think she has what it takes?"
Jergen nodded, entirely certain.
"Aye Harbinger. She's got the blood of a fighter. I can tell."
Kodlak was quiet for a moment, and then with a deep sigh, he nodded.
"Fine. We will take this help back to Jorvaskr."
"My name isn't whelp!" Lŷke interrupted, detaching herself from Jergen's leg and standing stoically in front of the towering, grey haired man. "Its Lŷke."
Kodlak looked down at her and smiled despite himself.
The expression of disdain written across her face was an exact replica of Jergen's. You would have to be blind not to see that they were related.
"Aye Lŷke, but you're also a whelp. And so whelp you shall be called." He looked her over again, she was slender but sturdy, with obvious muscles in her arms.
"Can you use any weapons whelp?"
Lŷke nodded, "Mama showed me how to use a bow and a sword. I'm a huntress."
Kodlak nodded, pleased that she wasn't entirely helpless. He wouldn't have thought that a child of Jergen would be inept.
"Good, then we'll test your arm when we get back." Kodlak turned to Aela, "You ride with the girl whelp."
Aela nodded, "Aye Harbinger, I'll tell her everything she needs to know."
"Good. Lets head out. I want to be back at Whiterun by the morning after next."
Lŷke was scooped onto the back of a horse before she could protest, and moments later they were riding off into the night.