To the Amusment of Mara

Chapter 2: First Step Forward

A simple misunderstanding leads to the courtship of two very different women. Their road to love is long, twisted, and littered with obstacles and mistakes. Good thing the rest of Whiterun and the Companions are around to help.

"It wasn't the hardest dragon to kill, really," she was saying, a barely touched flagon of mead cradled uncomfortably in her palm. "though he liked to dive in and blast the frost shout at me before pulling up again, made it nearly impossible to get a shot in, I'm lucky to be a nord, otherwise he would have frozen me right to the ground," she shivered slightly, the memory ghosting through her eyes as she glanced downward. "turned me into a Dova-cicle for afternoon snack."

Uproarious laughter blundered out of the tight crowd surrounding the dragonborn, making her look up and glance around in confusion, an uneasy smile pulling across her lips. Some of thralling bunch spilled mead from their generous cups as they swayed drunkenly.

She cleared her throat, and went valiantly on. "After a bit of cat and mouse between the trees, I headed towards the flats and retaliated with fire breath, managed to make it mad enough to lure it to the ground. After that, it's a deadly dance to get sword strikes and spells in without getting bitten in half."

She laughed suddenly, the sound like clear silver bells over the rumbling crowd. "That was the first time I managed to shoot a dragon in the eye with an ice spike. That was a neat trick, gave me a whole new blind spot to exploit. Then," and she set her tankard down on a nearby bench and raised her hands as though wielding her swords, a confident smile breaking across her face. "I swung in around his head," she twirled, arching her arms up in the air; the crowd had to step back from around her. "caught him under the jaw, but not enough to get his throat. Still, he didn't like that, so he tried to swing his head around to knock me down, but I was ready for him. I just twisted right over top of his snout," moving like water, she twisted through the air and landed silently back on her feet, there was a chorus of gasps and impressed whistles, the crowd instinctively moved further back, slack faces filled with awe. "and drove dawnbreaker straight into his other eye. That should have been the end, but damned if I didn't drive my sword too deep and get stuck on bone. Before I could let go, he jerked his head up and tossed me straight into the air, I landed a good ten yards away, all aglow with soul absorption, which, let me tell you, was probably the only reason I didn't snap my rib cage in half," she shuddered, "I landed hard, didn't break anything, but it still hurt like the blazes, had to grab onto Frost's saddle to get back on my feet, and then I had to yank Dawnbreaker out of the skull, ended up having to freeze the bone and shatter a part of it to get the sword out."

A chorus of overloud cheers erupted from the knot of people as she finished and gracefully retrieved her tankard, a slightly more comfortable smile gracing her lips.

"You havvee the best storiesss, Draden…!" someone slurred and a heavy hand clapped the shoulder of the Dragonborn, the weight enough to tilt her thin frame to one side.

"Tells us ag-another stor-ee, harbinger." Tovor slumped against the Gildergreen, grinning like an idiot, a goblet of mead in each hand.

"Um, well…" Draden squirmed under the leering looks, lunar amber eyes flickering about the crowded ring of the Wind district, fingers drumming against the metal tankard. "I-"

"Now folks, leave the Thane alone," Uthgard the unbroken stepped up and clasped Draden's other shoulder, the slack faced crowd of Whiterun natives protesting against the interruption, "I'm sure she's got other things to do besides boasting to a bunch of idiot drunkards," the mercenary then leaned in close to Draden's ear, probably close enough that the younger woman could feel her warm, mead scented breath, and purred. "don't you, Sparkles?"

The rest of whatever Uthgaurd whispered was drowned under the groan of protesting metal, and Aela glanced down to see her own empty tankard crushed inwards. Her long fingers and knuckles pale from how tightly she gripped the innocent object.

Forcing a calming breath through her lungs she loosened her grip and looked back at the center of the celebration, the Harbinger now mostly obscured by a wall of bodies, her head of bright blonde hair the only occasional glimpse of the woman.

"Enjoying your drink, shield-sister?"

She barely repressed the urge to groan, of all people in the companions, -in Whiterun-, why did it have to be him?

"Of course, the winter cider is always excellent." She replied flatly as Vilkas leaded on the opposite side of the archway, his arms folded.

"Mmm, and the fact that your tankard resembles a lump of raw ore is due to your excitement over how good the drink is."

She could hear the smirk in his words, and glanced over to see him track her line of sight, his expression annoyingly knowing.

"Seems like our sister is popular, do you think it's because the she is Dragonborn, or because she's thane? Harbinger doesn't seem like a title to draw admirers in, unless Kodlak was secretly spiriting off in the middle of the night to woo tavern wenches."

Aela didn't' answer, her steely gaze turning back to the cluster, watching Draden as she attempted to back out of the drunken grips and slurred cajoles, only to literally run into Athis and be pulled back into the crowd with an arm slung up over her shoulders, the dumner standing on tip-toes to get his arm high enough.

"Does it matter? Everyone is making a fool of themselves trying to get her attention, and they're all so drunk they might only be doing it because she's pretty." The resentment in her tone burned thought from her brain, and it took her a split second to realize what she had just admitted.

Vilkas was too quick by half, damn him.

"Pretty?" He glanced her way, his smirk stretched his war paint in strange ways, "Yes, I suppose she is pretty… beautiful, radiant even, the catch of the century."

"What are you, a dictionary?" she snarled, and then glared when his eyes narrowed in a smug look. "Is there a point you wanted to make, or are you just here to anger me?"

Vilkas hmmed and took a swig of his own tankard, reminding her that she was terribly sober and should probably grab another drink, or five.

"No, just giving our Harbinger the credit she's due."

Aela snorted and off-handedly tossed her ruined tankard into a trash barrel. "That's rich, coming from the man who thought she'd quit the Companions within a month."

He smirked and tipped his drink to her. "because she was as skinny as a twig and clearly a mage, still is, but you're changing the subject."

"Which was?"

"You think she's pretty."

Aela jolted and set her jaw, turning to face him with her arms crossed over her front. "And? As you pointed out, she is, and all of Whiterun thinks so."

"And that bothers you." The victorious gleam in Vilkas' eyes told her that she had stepped neatly into his trap. "Or is it the fact that all of those," he gestured in a broad sweep at the crowd "milk drinkers have bravery enough to make their interest in the Harbinger known while you skulk in the shadows that sets your teeth on edge?"

She suddenly wished she hadn't already tossed the tankard, it would have been the perfect missile to bash that smug look on Vilkas' stupid face. "I do not skulk." She spat, grinding her teeth and clenching her fingers painful y tight around her biceps.

"Ah, that's right, 'A huntress stalks her prey', forgive me, shield-sister, I do so often forget your catchphrase. So why is it you're stalking our harbinger?" Vilkas took another swing and Aela was sorely tempted to strike the tankard mid-drink. Let her stupid, too insightful shield-brother deal with a wet and sticky face all night.

"I am not stalking her either!"

"No?" and he had the audacity to pretend to appear confused. "then what exactly would you call staring at the woman and privately growling to yourself whenever some new drunkard stumbles against her the wrong way? Because that's exactly what you've been doing all afternoon, and as entertaining as it is to watch Draden dodge questions about that conveniently missing amulet, I'm beginning to suspect that even you are going to lose control of, well, yourself, if she gets pawed too many times more." He shoved his great bulk away from the wooden frame and she felt it shudder under the strain.

"I doubt I have to remind you, but once the sun fully sets on this lovely Solstice party, the song and dance will get underway, and that's when everyone decides to get down in their cups and throw caution to the wind." Vilkas grinned toothily as he walked by. "So you might want to decide if you're going to make a move sooner rather than later, before every available man and woman in town asks Draden the Dragonborn for a rather close and personal dance, and you know she's too nice to turn anyone down."

She snarled at his retreating back, weather more angered at his impudence or his too correct observation, she didn't know –though his amused chuckle didn't help his case-.

Lips curled, Aela turned her sights back to the crowd and scanned for the Dragonborn, looking for a glimpse of her bright blonde hair, or the sky blue Tunic she wore to the party.

It was stupid, she should be with her shield-siblings in the crowd, sharing in valiant tales of battle and hunts, drinking herself into a happy stupor and imbuing the fine feast provided by the joint efforts of the Dragonsreach kitchen and the Companions (mostly her own) hunted kills, not prowling the edges of the celebration like an uninvited beggar.

She had done so at first, joining the then less inebriated crowd and enjoying the carefree atmosphere in her own quiet way, looking forward to the dancing and general revelry under the canopy of the Gildergreen's laden branches, but then she'd caught a glimpse of her Harbinger coming up the stairs - All lean muscles and dancers grace, loose golden hair and form fitting tunic waving slowly in the breeze. Magic kissed skin glimmering ever so slightly in the spring sunlight- and her full attention had been stolen.

It made no sense!

True, she'd been good friends with Draden for many moons now, and the two of them shared many battle together, as shield-sisters and as pack-sisters, and she held a sort of slight affection for the woman's odd charisma, but that had been all between them both as her time as a whelp and once she had risen to Harbinger.

They'd shared one conversation by the outskirts of town, and a simple dinner at the Bannered Mare, so why did she suddenly feel uneasy about being around Draden? The woman had made it quite clear that not only was she not looking for romance, but that she had no idea that's what the amulet had been telling everyone.

The fact that not a single person in town had yet to either get the message, or pay attention to what it meant, should have had Aela laughing alongside the rest of the Companions, enjoying the way everyone fumbled and tripped over themselves to get an uncomfortable Draden's attention.

Instead, a stinging brand of annoyance flushed across her skin each time another idiot slurred a terrible compliment or pressed a hand against Draden's back.

She supposed she should be grateful that the Twins had quickly noticed her temper – and its cause- and had mostly avoided giving Draden any unwelcome comments, being feared by the two did have its advantages. Too bad the rest of the Companions weren't so observant.

Wait, no!

Aela had no claim on Draden! Nothing anyone else did should be bothering her at all!

A flash of blue drew her eyes to one of the food tables and she narrowed her eyes at the sight of Ysolda leaning against Draden and laughing.

She was half way to the tables before she realized what she was doing, and she resisted the urge to growl at herself as she quickly diverted to the drink table.

It was easily the most crowed of the three massive oak tables, but she shoved her way through with ease, snagging a full tankard as her ears easily picked Draden's voice through the buzz of the crowd.

"-No, thank you Ysolda, I think one will be my limit tonight, I'm helping to lead the performance tonight and perhaps even sing a bit if everyone tires of Mikeal, I can't perform nearly as well if I've had too much to drink."

"Oh I'm sure it won't be long at all before you're called up to sing! I didn't even know you could sing! Is that another talent that comes with the Thu'um?" Ysolda never sounded as breathy or nervous as when she spoke to Draden.

Aela slipped carefully away from the table and quietly positioned herself near the twins as they boasted of some great battle, tuning them out in favor of Draden's laughing reply.

"No, not at all! I've been trained as a bard since I was fifteen, been performing almost my whole adult life."

Suddenly a heavy hand clapped her on the back. "I tell you, that bandit was taller than either Vilkas or I, and he wielded a hammer as big as a grown man! Isn't that right, Aela?" Farkas grinned slightly at her, the interruption breaking her concentration and preventing her from hearing any more of Draden's conversation.

She shot him a deadly look and reluctantly turned to the group protesting the claims. Taking a quick drink, she wracked her memory for the fight Farkas was boasting about, and was relieved when she managed to recall a recent raid on a small bandit camp –honestly she probably could have just made things up and gone along with it, but her pride would have been offended at such a slip-.

"Mountain of a man," she agreed with a forced grin, "every time he missed us that hammer he made a new crater in the earth."

"When he got tired of Aela shooting at him, he went to swing at her and when she dodged him, the rock she was crouched on shattered!"

She'd hardly call the impressive way the boulder spilt in two a 'shattering', but Farkas always was wordier with a few drinks in him, and it wasn't like the small gathering was going to argue, they all listened with jovial drunkenness.

Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed that Draden and Ysolda had moved away from the table, and Colleta had joined them.

Her view was blocked when a thick arm draped heavily over her shoulders and Farkas pulled her bodily forward.

"Tell'em how you managed to take him down Aela." Farkas shook her slightly with a small giddy grin on his normally stony face.

He was lucky not to get a fist right in the center of said face for grabbing her. She grit her teeth through a smile and grabbed his wrist tightly, shoving his arm off and stepping a pace away. "Not much to tell, you distracted him and I fired a shot through his eye, and he was dead."

Her audience groaned like a child whose surprise has been spoiled, even Farkas 'hrmped' in her direction.

"Well, yea, but you could tell the story with a bit more flare." He allowed, shrugging one massive shoulder.

"Where did you even hear that word?"

"Flare? Harbinger Draden says it a lot, 'specially went she's talking about stories."

"Well, I'm not the harbinger nor am I drunk enough to tell a story right, so if you'll excuse me." She ignored the protests and Farkas' invitation to share more tales, quick to slip back into the crowd and find some other source of entertainment. Vilkas casually tipping his drink in her direction, she resisted the urge to throw him a vulgar hand gesture.

From the looks of Mikeal and the various numbers of Whiterun residents who could play an instrument -and weren't yet drunk-, the music and dance part of the solstice was going to be underway soon.

Only it didn't look like Draden was part of the group now crowded in front of the Talos shrine, and when she glanced around -looking for the tale tell flicker of blue or blonde-, she found nothing.

Damnit.

She should not let the Dragonborn's presents (or lack thereof) effect her enjoyment of the party.

Or at least, she kept telling herself that as she continued to slowly weave through the crowd, exchanging a few pleasant greetings with the townsfolk as she scanned for her Harbinger.

"Enjoying yourself, huntress?"

The crackly voice of Fralia Graymane came from her left, startling her from her search –though she didn't jump or blanch, thankfully- and she paused to look down at the woman sitting on the bench under the gildergreen, noticing the amused twinkle in her eyes.

Aela managed a small, sincere smile. "I am, thank you Fralia, what about yourself?" the sly little grin on Fralia's face made her instantly uneasy, it was far too similar an expression to Vilkas' for her comfort.

"Enjoying myself most thoroughly, the entertainment is very lively this year."

She narrowed her eyes in confusion and was about to open her mouth to ask what entertainment the blacksmith's wife had seen, given the musicians were still setting up, when she recognized the look she was getting.

Sighing, Aela sank down on the bench next to the elder woman, slumping slightly. "Is my concern that obvious then?"

Fralia chuckled slightly, the tone low and amused. "Well, I wouldn't say you were the only source of entertainment, and you've been considerably more subtle than most."

"Apparently not enough to keep people from noticing." Aela frowned, not liking the idea of the town knowing about this awkwardness

Fralia patted her hand. "I wouldn't worry too much about that dear, everyone here has too many other things to enjoy to be watching everyone who is watching the Dragonborn. Well, besides myself and Vilkas I suppose, but that lad was always much better at understanding people than he let on."

"And you?"

Fralia chuckled again and sipped from her goblet, Aela's noise twitched at the sharp scent of wine. "Once you reach my age, it's far more enjoyable to watch the drama of life than to get too involved with it, although I'm less inclined to give people a bad time than your shield-brother."

They sat in silence for a moment, Aela drinking some and mulling over Fralia's words, then-

"I will intrude enough to say this, Huntress," Fralia's tone had hardened, steel beneath the soft old woman voice, making Aela come to attention and turn to look at her, though Fralia just continued to look at the partiers. "Draden is a rare being, not just for her Dragonborn nature, but for her heart as well. She returned something very precious to me, at great personal risk and with no real reward." Fralia turned to look at her now, and only her pride kept her from flinching at the look in those eyes, Fralia was a Greymane in more than just name. "and she's rapidly become one of the single most loved people in town, much to her embarrassment. I'd caution you to remember that the one who breaks her heart will not be popular in Whiterun."

"I… see." Damnit, she was not going to be made nervous by an old woman, no matter how threatening her tone. "and may I ask if anyone else has gotten this… message?"

Fralia smiled politely and looked away again, her tone cheerful. "No, not from me, but that's because everyone outside of Jorrvaskr already knows."

"Outside?-"

Fralia chuckled softly. "Jorrvaskr is as much its own little world as any guild, you Companions live within the city walls, but not in the city itself. You enjoy the parties, come to the aid of any of us who need help, but you aren't aware of many of the goings on." She waved a hand at the clustered people, "it's quite understandable really, why bother drinking at the Bannered Mare when you have mead in the hall and your shield siblings to play with?"

Aela began to protest, her mind reaching out for those among her shield-siblings spent time in the town proper (not counting herself in the least, she wasn't very social even among the companions), but came to a silent halt when she realized there was really only one among their number that was known throughout the town as more than just 'Companion', Draden.

"Even my husband is guilty of loosing himself in the glory and steel and forgetting that he has friends in town as well." Fralia went on mildly, slowly swirling her wine.

"So, have you given this warning to anyone else from Jorrvaskr?" Aela asked dryly. "Torvoar would do well with some warning."

"No, not from me," Fralia turned to face her again, amusement glittering in her eyes. "because as sweet as your 'Whelps' are, I don't think any of them have much of a chance with their harbinger as some others do."

The implication was clear.

An unpleasant feeling that felt suspiciously like panic wormed through her gut, and she took a quick drink to quell it, but the burning trail of mead only exasperated the feeling. "It isn't like I have inclinations towards her." Aela half explained, half protested. "I know she doesn't like all the attention the amulet drew to her, so I'm watching out for her, just to make sure no one takes it too far."

Fralia raised one brow. "Of course dear."

"She's my shield-sister, and our Harbinger, one of us has to look out for her. Seeing as how my siblings are already deep in their cups, the task falls to me."

"So I see."

They sat in silence for a moment, Aela tapping her nails tunelessly against her tankard, the boisterous nose of the party growing as the musicians tuned their instruments.

"She's too polite to tell them off herself," she supplied in a firm tone, "I'm making sure it doesn't get out of hand, the last thing we need is for our Harbinger to beat someone to death because they pushed her too far."

"Whatever you say, Huntress."

Annoyed, though keeping her face blank, Aela rose to her feet. "Well, thank you for the… conversation, and I might suggest giving the twins your, warning as well. They've both been hanging off her words since the amulet."

"As opposed to shadowing her footsteps?"

She was going to bend another tankard into uselessness if she didn't walk away.

"Aela?"

It was only the use of her name that stopped her quick footsteps, but she only favored Fralia with a narrowed glance over one shoulder.

The Gray-Mane Matriarch swirled her wine once and took a sip before saying. "Personally, I'm rooting for Ysolda in this, I've always enjoyed the underdog story, but since you're not going to enjoy yourself tonight without some help," she inclined her head towards Jorrvaskr . "Draden sneaked off up the hill there some minutes ago, she'll have to be back down in a short while when the music starts, so if you want a moment alone, you'd better hurry."

Aela's mouth fell open very slightly and her mind struggled sluggishly with a reply, a protest, or question, failing at each and only managing to look foolish with her mouth agape.

Fralia smirked very slightly. "I've known you since you were a little girl, all scraped knees and wild hair, and I know you are a good person at heart, but even after all these years you are more than a little withdrawn, and if it takes a noisy old lady to prod you towards what it is you want but aren't admitting to yourself, well, I suppose I don't mind stepping in for a bit."

Closing her mouth, Aela mutely nodded and walked swiftly away, pretending not to hear Fralia's amused chuckle as she quickly dodged through the crowd.

Still stewing on the words, their meaning, and the irritable fact that everyone seemed to be misreading her concern, she found herself walking up the Jorrvaskr steps and didn't pause to think about what she was doing.

Her harbinger and shield-sister was obviously bothered, and Aela wanted to make sure things weren't getting so out of hand that Draden was suffering for it, she owed the other woman that much at least.

Aela followed the light scent of lavender and the ozone of magic (as common in and around Jorrvaskr as the smell of mead and sweat and blood), around the side of the hall, thoughtlessly taking another drink as she went. She hesitated at the edge of the training yard when she spotted Draden sitting on the back patio steps, her legs extended and upper body resting on her elbows as she leaned back and gazed blankly at the sky. Then shook herself and walked closer.

"Hail shield-sister, you seem to have been mislead, there is no party up here tonight."

Draden started and sat up straight, her burnished silver eyes wide and very slightly panicked. "Oh, Aela" she breathed out, slowly reclining back again. "It's just you." She puffed a breath of relief.

Just you? She tried to ignore the unpleasant stab of hurt that came at those words. "Yes, I'm afraid I'm not Ysolda to flitter about and shower you with sweet compliments, nor am I Carlotta to run hands up and down your arms and speak lurid things in your ear." she said dryly, moving up to lead against the awning pillar then shrugged one shoulder. "Sorry to disappoint."

Draden gave her a harried look. "That's not what I meant and you know it, I much prefer your company on any day of the week. Especially now." She tapped one heel idly on the ground and looked to the sky again. "It's not just those two either, Uthgerd keeps asking me to train with her, though she seems to have taken the hint better than others, and thankfully been pretty good about it, I haven't lost her friendship over it at any rate."

She snorted and her face grew taut. "Why you would want to retain any friendship with that unpleasant old war horse, I'll never know." The memory of Uthgerd losing control in this very training yard and cutting down a whelp less than half her age had never left the memoires of any of the Companions.

"Both the Hunting brothers have approached me too, even though I didn't see either of them when I was wearing the amulet." Draden went on, ignoring Aela's prodding comment. "At the same time no less! At first they wanted to talk about a business investment, then Anoraith starts complimenting my muscles, and Elrinder casually mentions how elegant and well build half elf children are! If I didn't know any better, I would think they were leading to a shared marriage. Still happens in Valenwood from time to time from what I know, but here?" she shook her head bemusedly.

"Shared….? As in marrying them both? At the same time?" Aela felt sudden irritation at the wood elf bothers, how dare they think such vulgar things would appeal to Draden? To any woman?

"Yes, that's what the term means. I don't know though, perhaps they were flirting at the same time to see which I had a greater interest in, clear up some fights later maybe?" she shook her head. "I truly have no idea, regardless; every single and unclaimed person in town has made the effort to speak with me today, at greater lengths and with greater interest in my personal being than has ever been shown before." She looked at Aela tiredly "I suppose the information about me wearing an Amulet of Mara got around town pretty quickly. It would be flattering if it was not so tiring, and embarrassing."

"Mmmm, have you not explained your ignorance on the matter to anyone? As further embarrassing as it would be, it would probably save you from more of those encounters in the future." she listened to the sounds of the party below for a second, picking out a few voices here and there among the general racket. "Ysolda and Carlotta could probably do with hearing your confession more than some others." She continued, remembering the way both women had stayed at or near Draden's side since she had appeared.

Draden nodded and ran a hand distractedly through her hair. "I've explained the situation to them both a couple of times, though it seems like they think I'm playing some kind of game, one they would like to compete in."

Aela shrugged one shoulder, though she knew both women were aware of the truth, choosing instead to make use of a convent excuse. "Have you tried telling them that you are courting someone? Perhaps that would keep them from attaching themselves to you."

Frowning, Draden shook her head. "I'd rather they believe me a liar, than make them believe a lie."

"Do you always talk like that?" well, that wasn't what Aela had meant to say, but she covered up her slip with a teasing grin.

Draden shot a wry grin back. "As long as you've known me, and for years before that, I am always a bard, not just when I sing and I dance, just as you are always a warrior weather your weapon is sheathed or not."

"You ever think about trying to talk like the rest of us? Might earn you more friends if you weren't making everything more complicated than it has to be?" banter was easy between them, fun even.

"I don't seem to have trouble making friends, believe me, the fact that I have friends is what's causing me problems, ironically enough. But as to your question, I assume you mean I should speak like a Skyrim native?" the blonde grinned thinly.

"Well, you were born here."

Draden's face smoothed into blanked stoicism and she fell quiet, just looking up at Aela with no emotion.

It lasted long enough that Aela began to worry she has misspoken when-

"Good hunts, Sister?" Draden said in a very deep tone. Her expression didn't waver, but Aela did catch the gleam of amusement in silver eyes.

Unsure where this was going, but playing along anyway, she nodded. "Many, there is much game to be had."

Draden grunted, actually grunted! And folded her arms, leaning slightly over her knees. "Good meat with good mead, nothing better." She grinned cheekily and straightened, folding a lock of hair behind one ear. "So, what do you think? Shall I endeavor to speak more like Farkas?"

Aela chuckled, and realized that laughing was easy and came to her often when around Draden. "I don't think that sounds much like Farkas."

"Really? How about Vilkas then?" Draden stiffened her shoulders and adopted a slightly snobbish look, her voice deepened again but took on the rumbling nord accent, "Hail, shield-sister, find some strange creature in your travels?" she relaxed again and tilted her head to one side, her voice going back to normal. "How's that?"

Aela leaned against the porch pillar and smirked down at Draden. "A good imitation, though not what I meant."

One eyebrow quirked, and Draden's voice deepened again, though not as far as before, and this time added a rich hum to the words. "Perhaps I should speak like you, Shield-Sister? All low notes and lingering vowels? Talks about the moons and the beasts of this land?"

"That's not all I speak of!"

Draden didn't drop the imitation. "Of course not, what kind of nord would you be if you didn't speak often of mead?"

"Careful with that smart mouth, I've got a nearly full tankard of mead I could talk about for the next hour if I'm inclined."

Draden laughed aloud, dropping the accent and leaning back, arms hooked around one bent knee. "I do not doubt it, but as to your original question, I've always endeavored to speak truthfully and with eloquence, even before I began my bard training. I read a great deal when I was young and became frustrated with the blunt and simple way my family communicated, so I learned as many words as I could and incorporated them in my speech as often as I could."

Aela narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. "If you can say the same thing using shorter words you spend less time talking and more time doing."

Draden inclined her head, "True enough, however, common words often have multiple meanings and inclinations that change with tone or situation, taking the time to form a thought using precise words and dictation will almost always ensure your true intent." She shrugged. "That and using short words and descriptions to tell a story leaves for a very unsatisfied audience."

"So you speak so flowery to keep people entertained?"

"And to ensure my meaning is clear; mean what you say, say what you mean."

"Except when no one understands the words you're using."

"Which is why it is a good idea to have a large vocabulary, and to include the 'shorter' words when necessary," Draden shrugged and glanced to the stone wall, "or when I'm very tired and irritable, I'm sure you've heard me use short words then."

"Plenty of times as a matter of fact, despite being such a scholar and a 'damned mage', you have a terrible temper on you." She returned with a raised brow and a small smirk of her own.

"Well I do have the soul of a dragon, several actually by now, it must be a matter of inherent nature," Draden shot back with a grin that showed of her elongated canines "or maybe it's the broody wolf spirit you introduced me too that leaves me a terror when I am angered."

"Aha," she pointed one finger down at the blonde, using the hand that held her drink. "Not so, you had your moments of broodiness before we drew you into the circle. Perhaps it comes up quicker now with the beast blood, but it didn't give you a darker temperament."

"No I suppose you are right, and you would know, having the most terrible of tempers and broodiness among us siblings. Even the twins, mountains of men though they are, quail before your legendary fury."

"As well they should." Aela replied firmly, but with an amused smile.

Draden chuckled warmly and Aela joined her, enjoying the relaxed feel between them.

A short, quick fingered ditty drifted up the hill to them, likely Mikeal showing off his skills before the show was to get underway.

Sighing, Draden pushed herself to her feet and brushed her tunic free of dust. "I suppose that is my queue to venture forth from hiding and go meet up with the other performers, double check to make sure my instrument and my voice are in-tune." She stepped up to Aela with a mild grin. "Hopefully, being in the middle of a performance will keep some interested parties back for a while."

"At least until you're turn is over and you are open for dance requests." Aela supplied in a neutral tone, her eyes studying the slightly taller woman's face for a reaction.

"Ah yes thank you for reminding me of that, Aela. How could I have forgotten?" she sighed again in a long suffering tone. "Come on, the show must go on I suppose, even if I'm not too fond of my current role." She started to walk past Aela, mouth twisted in a sour look, but Aela reached out a hand and gripped her wrist to stop her.

Draden froze and looked between her hand and her face, expression confused.

"Save a dance for me, will you Draden?" She asked in a tone that was far calmer than she felt.

Her harbinger smiled warmly at her and twisted in her grip to brush her fingertips along the underside of Aela's arm. "Aela the Huntress dances? Sings beautifully and dances? I don't think you will ever stop surprising me."

Aela's grip slacken and she felt a blush ghost along her cheeks, she fought it off by drawing her face into stoic neutrality, which did her no good when Draden leaned closer and practically breathed into her ear.

"I would save them all for you if you asked."

Then she drew away and walked down the path, her golden hair glittering in the bright rays of the slowly setting sun "Come on, we'll both miss that treat if we don't rejoin our happy little town in celebration."

It took her a second to crush the sudden confusing surge of emotion in her guts, long enough that Draden was almost out of sight around the side of the Hall before she regained the use of her legs and hurried after.

"So, what do you think you'll be playing tonight?" she asked through a heavy breath when she caught back up to Draden, the two of them starting their decent down the stairs.

Draden's face had become a pleasant mask, face smooth with just the barest hints of a smile around her lips, eyes very slightly lidded but still welcoming, -personality, Aela found it a bit eerie that she seemed to so easily control her expressions, but she supposed it was a standard part of bardic training-. "A mix of things, if the crowd is willing, much as everyone enjoys a classic Nordic ballad they aren't the easiest to dance to, probably some of the more familiar High Rock songs, the quick ones that fire up the spirit."

"There you are!" Mikeal shouted over the hubbub of the crowed square, waving one hand high above his head "We were about to get started without you!"

"And I'm sure that would have been a fine performance my friend!" she called back easily, eyes glittering with real enjoyment, her step turning light and fluid upon the stairs. "A worthy batch of skilled musicians for a fine city and her proud people!"

The few in the crowd that had been listening in cheered their approval at her words, clapping or toasting the air.

Draden stilled a few steps above the wind district ground level, just high enough for most of the crowd to see her, and spread her arms out to the sides. "Is everyone having a fun Solstice Festival?" she called in a trilling tone, the mask fading and becoming a genuine expression of open warmth.

This time the whole crowd around the Gildergreen turned their attention to her, dozens of eyes -both drunken and sober- settling upon the Dragonborn. Their cheers rousing from them as one, nord, imperial and elf alike.

Even though most ignored her presence or only shot her a curious glance, Aela fought the urge to shirk away or to curl her lip in a defensive snarl at the attention. Just off to her right, Draden stood firm and unwavering, her joyous expression only growing further, her whole body perfectly at ease as it always was in these moments.

"Wonderful! As we celebrate this, the Spring Solstice, and welcome the warming days, short lived though they may be," a general chuckle rippled from below.

"Short only to some who's lived elsewhere, the warm days last just long enough for us natives!" someone yelled amusedly from the crowd below, after a moment of searching Aela spotted Jon Battle-born standing next to his brother and grinning half madly.

More laughter from the crowd and Draden chuckled along as well, before forging on as though she had not been interrupted.

"we look ahead to the renewal and awakening of the earth, it is the time of rebirth and joy! The time of new beginnings and new love!"

The cheering gained a few new sound levels as the crowed gained a few new faces, people hurrying into the square from elsewhere in the city to listen to the impromptu speech.

Aela cast a sidelong look at her friend and saw Draden's smiled slip slightly, her voice becoming quieter "Things have been grim of late, and much has changed in a short time, there have been losses, and there is fear," the crowd below mirrored the dragonborn's expression as each recalled the unspoken moments that the words brought to their minds, her shield-siblings in particular becoming grim and somber.

Then Draden's smile was back, strong, determined, and she motioned one hand to the huge Gildergreen, its branches laden with newly bloomed pink leaves. "But just like this tree, the symbol of this city and her people, we will not bend, we will not break! We will grow stronger and bloom brighter, and together, under the sun and with new courage in our hearts, we will stand strong and we will carry on!"

Aela almost flinched at the roar that echoed out then, everyone shouting at the top of their lungs, clapping their hands or stomping their feet in approval, not a single person was quiet or still.

"All right!" Draden cheered with them after a long moment, shaking one fist in the air, she waited a bit longer until the cheers had started to die down before she gestured out around herself. "But all of that can wait until tomorrow, because tonight we party!"

Around round of cheers was mixed with a general laugh, Aela herself chuckling as she folded her arms and watched Draden from the corner of her eye. The Dragonborn glanced at her, eyes glittering.

"Well said, well said." Came a single strong voice from the front of the crowd, making the two of them break eye contact to look down, spotting a man in ornate clothing and gemmed circlet.

"Jarl Balgruff." Draden greeted cheerfully, taking the last steps down to the landing as the Jarl stepped under the archway and over the short bridge to them, Irileth trailing a few foot steps behind and looking to the world like his annoyed shadow.

He reached out his arm and Draden reciprocated, the two of them clasping forearms in a familiar greeting. "That was quite a speech Thane Draden." he grinned "You managed to get the attention of the whole town with a few words, no small feat given my peoples general disinterest in listening to anything resembling a speech." Jarl Balgruff glanced at Aela as she shadowed close by Draden's shoulder, "Huntress." he nodded a greeting.

"Jarl Balgruff." She returned simply, "Irilieth." She extended, tilting her head slightly to see the dark elf behind the Jarls shoulder.

Irilieth hummed a disinterested greeting, only looking at Aela fleetingly before going back to scanning the area around them, one hand loosely gripping the hilt of her sword.

Draden dropped her hand to her side and shifted her weight from one foot to another; Aela could see her face grow worried. "I hope that I did not interfere with anything you had planned Jarl, I did not intend to steal the show."

Balgruff barked out a laugh. "Hardly planned, I hate that kind of fancy speech giving, speaking to fellow warriors is one thing, trying to inspire a town of common folk is a battle I am ill equipped to take on. In fact, I wanted to thank you for handling that part of the festival, you made everyone rather happy and you saved me the trouble of making something up on the spot."

Draden inclined her head. "The opportunity was there my Jarl, and it is an important skill for a bard to recognize and take hold of those moments when they come," She chucked once. "and I'm sure any speech you would have given would have been met with just as much enthusiasm."

"Don't count on it." Irileth said suddenly, her tone dry. "You weren't here at the harvest festival last fall."

Aela remembered that particular speech quite well, her lips quirking at the corners in an unbidden smile at the memory.

Balgruff harrumphed and folded his arms, giving his housecarl an annoyed look.

Glancing between them with a raise brow and mildly confused expression, Draden motioned with an upwards palm. "I will assume that the speech giving didn't go over as well as it could have?"

"He compared the townsfolk to chickens." Irileth supplied.

Draden's mouth fell open very slightly, and she looked over at Aela questioningly.

Finding the expression amusing, -as well as somewhat cute, but she quickly dismissed that thought- Aela nodded. "He did, a few times actually, left everyone rather confused by the end of it, though most of us were too drunk to care much."

Draden raised her other brow and leaned over slightly to look more directly at Irileth, glancing between her and a blushing Jarl Balgruff.

The barest hint of a smile cracked at the corner of the dunmers lips and she took a step forward to nudge Balgruff with her elbow. "It went something like: 'as we bring in our rich harvests and store them for safety, we shore up our supplies for the winter when we must return to our homes like chickens return to their roosts, we thank the Divines for their blessings upon our crops'."

Aela bit the corner of her lip to keep herself from laughing at the aghast look on Draden's face, one the blonde quickly covered up before clearing her throat.

"Yes, well um, that was certainly an interesting choice of words." She said blinking a few times, the flush across Balgruff 's cheeks growing a shade darker, Irileth chuckling quietly behind him.

"Hey!"

Mikeal's shout made them all start and look over to the stage area.

"Are you coming over here for the opening number or not? The sunset has already started!" the tavern bard called, one hand on his hip and the other gesturing to the sky, the long shadows of the gildergreen playing across him and most of the stage area around him.

"Oh, right." Draden smiled sheepishly, "If you will excuse me Jarl Balgruff, Irileth, I have to go make some last minute preparations."

"Of course Thane Draden, I hope you enjoy the rest of the party. We all look forward to hearing you play tonight." Balgruff bowed slightly and turned to walk back into the main square, his eldest son running up to meet him, Irileth trailing at his back.

"So," Draden turned to face Aela, eyes bright and excited. "I've really got to go now, before Mikeal starts playing some divines awful bar song, but I wanted to say thanks for coming to check on me, and for keeping me company. I think that was probably the most fun I've had at the solstice so far."

"You are welcome, I'm glad I was able to help you enjoy yourself a bit, and hopefully most of Whiterun will leave you be while you play tonight." She inclined her head very slightly.

Sighing, Draden rolled her shoulders and grimaced very slightly. "We shall see about that." she nodded turned to the Talos shrine, and then paused and glanced over one shoulder. "I hope you enjoy the show Aela, don't forget to save that dance for me."

With a smile, the taller woman turned and trotted the few steps to the gaggle of performers, Aela could hear her hurriedly greet them and laugh at the teasing they threw her way as she went for her violin case.

A prickle of warning made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on edge and she glanced towards the crowd to see both Vilkas and Farkas watching her. The former with a smug look, the latter with raised eyebrows.

She bared her teeth at them instinctively, not caring if anyone else saw her then marched over the short bridge and under the arch to where they stood, massive shoulder to massive shoulder. "Not a word." She growled lowly before taking a hefty drink and savoring the rich burn that flared down her throat.

"Wouldn't dream of it sister." Vilkas said with laughter in his rumbling voice, clicking his tankard against hears without invitation.

"I was just gonna thank you for getting the harbinger, saves me from having to leave early, Mikeal 's voice annoys me." Farkas added calmly, taking a swing himself.

"All right!" said tavern bard called suddenly. "Now that we are all finally here," he glanced back at Draden, who just grinned and ran her bow over the violin strings. "the dancing will get underway! So find a partner, pick a spot, or get off the dance floor! You all know how this goes!"

Excited voices and hurried footsteps met hi s words as the crowd parted in waves, those who weren't involving themselves in the dancing moving away from the circle around the GilderGreen, most crowding around the food and drink tables set up at the base of the stairs to Dragons Reach, others crowding together in the path between house grey-mane and the temple.

Aela and the twins moved back over the bridge to linger at the base of the jorrvaskr stairs, Athis and Njada not far behind them.

Now the cobblestone path around the huge tree was occupied mostly by pairs of people, a very drunk Torvor and tipsy Ria among the number, the few stragglers without a partner stood and chatted quietly with one another, all of them watching the musicians. In time, the gildergreen base would grow more crowed as people drank through the evening and grew brave, but for the moment, most were content to continue their conversations quietly while the assembled musical group of Draden with her violin, Mikeal with his lute, Olfina Grey-Mane with a flute, and Anoriath with a drum, settled into position.

"We start with the traditional Spring Solstice dance, Into the Wild plains!" Mikeal announced overly loudly, and then stepped off to one side and let Draden come to the forefront.

Her violin hummed out richly as the tall woman glided to the forefront, eyes closed and a gentle smile across her lips, fingers coaxing out a much slower introduction than Aela was used to hearing. The enchanting notes coaxed calm thoughts as they spilled sweetly through every ear; the tune slowed further and became a single lingering note… then sped up without warning and was suddenly joined by the unified force of the remaining instruments.

The song went on the usual way from there, Draden stepping back again to let Mikeal come up and sing the lyrics, the praises to the land. Their tempo kept quick, even rhythm and the dancers joyously skipped and twirled the traditional moves around the Gildergreen.

Idly, Aela looked between the dance floor and Draden as she played, not much interested in the game of whispered insults towards the crowd that Njada and Athis had taken up or in the twins discussion of who it would take to convince either of them to dance, neither seemed to think there was a man or woman in existence that could manage the feat.

Last year she would have agree with them, but this year…

She glanced to Draden on the stage, watching as she moved with the melody of her violin, looking to the world like a whole other entity than the woman who cleaved dragon skulls in two.

This year Aela would admit to being knowledgeable in dancing long enough to help a friend avoid a few unpleasant dance partners. A favor she more than owed shield-sister and harbinger.

The evening light faded slowly to nothingness, and the torches around the city were lit to keep the night darkness at bay as the celebration went on, Aela content to settle down on one of the jorrvaskr steps and chat with her shield-siblings as all of them drank and ate their fills. As predicated, the drink flowed freely and loosened the inhibitions of many who threw caution to the winds and stepped under the tree, with or without partners. Laugher was common and boisterous amid the ever milling bodies, despite the slight chill in the air, and the music… Aela could not remember a Solstice with better music, not in all her years of living in Whiterun

Draden lead most of the performance after the sun set, managing to mix a few High Rock dance songs and classic Imperial victory ballads in without any protest from the assembled -quite a feat all things considered-, occasionally both playing her violin through parts of the number and singing the lyrics through the rest, Olfina or Mikeal often joining her. In turn, each performer had a chance to sit out a few songs to join the dancing or grab food and drink, every performer save for Draden, and Aela could feel the energy of the celebration begin to slowly wind down.

Perhaps the bard would manage to play on stage until the end and avoid the advances of her would-be-wooers, most of them already at least tipsy if not blind drunk. It would save the poor harbinger some awkwardness.

And save her from having to keep her promised dance, a thought that was strangely relieving and disappointing in one breath.

A painful elbow in her ribs drew her attention from a mild disagreement she was having with Njada and she whipped her head around to scowl down at Ria, who was drunkly sprawled on the stair just below her own.

The imperial only grinned at her expression and waved one hand towards the Talos shrine.

Another song had just begun, but she hadn't noticed that this one was without the violin. She certainly noticed now as Draden quietly set her instrument aside and slipped around behind the other musicians, padding across the stones towards them with a soft smile.

"If it isn't the lady of the hour!" Athis greeted from several steps above Aela, his voice very slightly blurred on the edges. "Come down from your high and mighty pedestal of admiration to walk almost us lowly warriors?"

"Hardly," Draden laughed as she stopped to one side of the stairs, "more like taking a break from demanding work to visit with good friends. Is everyone enjoying themselves?"

"Mmmyesss, thank you!" Ria slurred, stretching herself out further on the staircase in a posture that looked highly uncomfortable. "You look like a queen up there, y'know," She cracked a wide sincere smile. "we all think so."

"Thank you, I have practiced for quite a few years to look professional on stage, so it's very nice to hear that it's working." Draden inclined her head slightly with a smile. "You are all completely wasted aren't you?" she asked after a moment with amusement in her tone.

"Not completely." Njada protested mildly, staring out into space with a mellow expression.

"Aela's hardly had any." Farkas noted blearily, a grin playing across his mouth.

Draden's eyes met hers, golden brows lifted. "Really? The drink not good enough Shield-sister?"

"Hardly, as I've said, the winter cider is excellent, but for once, the entertainment was worth watching this year. Having a bard who knows what she is doing beyond the standard fair of bar songs was a huge improvement." Aela replied truthfully, "so it wasn't as necessary to dull my senses to tolerate the evening."

"As necessary?" Draden prompted.

"You try keeping this company during a party without a drink or two in you and see you long you can tolerate it." She said mildly, taking a quick drink.

She caught sight of movement out of the corner of one eye and glanced over to see Elrinder, one of the bosmer hunting brothers, stumbling his way through the crowded square and right towards them.

In one moment, Aela set aside her drink and got to her feet, then deftly made her way around the bodies of her shield-siblings strewn across the staircase until she stood before Draden on the ground. "Do you have very long before you are needed back on stage?" she asked breezily, ignoring the startled way Draden watched her.

"Ah, not for another song or so, then I've agreed to lead the final number. Why?" Draden replied, tilting her head.

Aela dropped her voice until only the two of them could hear. "Because it looks like one of your admirers is coming this way, and were there's one…"

"the rest will soon to follow." Draden glanced very briefly into the noisy crowd, frowning deeply. "I had hoped to simply sit a rest for a moment…"

"Then do it." Aela encouraged, noting from the edge of her vision that Elrinder has paused before the archway. She couldn't see what he was looking at exactly, but she could guess.

"I would love too, but courtesy dictates I accept at least one dance tonight," Draden sighed, "and I suppose I haven't had much opportunity to practice lately, so it isn't all bad."

Aela glanced at the pile of shield-siblings, at the crowd, and then back to Draden, who was muttering more to herself than anyone else "I also don't have time to accommodate them all so I have a good reason not to be able to accept more than the one dance, at least I won't have to feel guilty for that..."

"Would you care to dance with me?" Aela overrode Draden's quiet words with the firm question. "You did promise to save me one."

Draden started slightly and blinked. "You… really?" she asked, her eyes wide and brows high, lips parted. "I thought you were joking, I…" she glanced around once too, her voice dropping a bit. "You don't have to feel obliged Aela, if you'd really rather avoid it I perfectly understand."

"One dance is all you will need to cover your appearance, and one dance is what you promised me, so," and she held out on hand, palm up. "would you care to dance with me?"

Draden glanced between her face and her open palm once, and then smiled warmly. "I would be honored to dance with you." She replied, sliding her long fingered hand into Aela's, her pale skin warm even through Aela's gloves. "Ah," she glanced backwards toward the stage, the last few notes of the previous song playing themselves out, "and just in time too, the Red-handed Roundabout is supposed to be next, I hope you know this one."

"Oldest bar dance in the land." Aela cracked a grin a very slight grin, "of course I know it, I'm surprised you do." Their hands clasped, she lead the taller woman across the short bridge and under the tree, briefly gratefully that most everyone around them was too drunk to really notice her and decidedly too drunk to be able to accurately remember the evening by tomorrow morning. She turned to face Draden, the tiny enchanted light orbs hanging from the Gildergreen's branches highlighting the very faint shimmer across the dragonborn's skin, a side effect of intense magicka use. "Considering how little you seem to know about your own culture."

"I learned this one from my father as a child," Draden said as they slipped their free hands together, taking up their starting positions "if I hadn't known this one, you all would have been well within your rights to mercilessly jest me until the end of time."

"I think we already have enough to tease you about for the rest of your days, bard, not that we don't appreciate new material." Aela raised one brow and smirked very slightly, her heart quickening in anticipation as the first few cords were struck, the rest of the dancers quickly moving around them to ready for the dance.

"Of that I have no doubt, but I'll choose to ignore that depressing thought for the moment, I'd much rather concentrate on the beautiful woman who was kind enough to rescue me tonight."

"Concentrate on dancing well and not making more of a fool of yourself instead, I don't think you can withstand more irritations without losing control and wounding someone." Aela shot back, ignoring the faint warm flush that rose in her cheeks, knowing the bard was in her element and weaving pretty words as easily and as fluidly as water rushing downhill.

Draden laughed. "Oh I can dance just fine, huntress, the question is whether or not you can keep up with me. "

Any retort she may have had was lost as the lute strummed the starting notes, the drum and flute joining in a second later, quick-paced and demanding in rhythm. As one, the crowd began to move.

They spun around the Gildergreen, steps bouncing and light, hands clasped as they moved close together and then apart again. The dance coming back to Aela better than she had hoped, old memoires guiding her feet without clouding her mind, the smile Draden was giving her was much too enjoyable to lose.

The music lulled, and they stopped in their tracks to release each other's hands and clap twice, the whole town unified in the sound and the movement. And when the lute struck a strong reentry the whole crowd fractured, the two of them splitting apart to cross forearms with the dancers off to their respective rights.

Aela met the deep brown eyed gaze of Adrianne as the two of them turned a quick circle together, arms raised, long stalking steps in time with the music. The blacksmith, though her eyes were slightly glazed from drink, glanced over at Draden (who's arm was crossed with the older Battle-Born brother) and then back to Aela, the smallest of smiles across her lips and one eyebrow quirked.

She didn't have time to give the other woman a look, the notes changing again to cue the moves, and she twisted away as the crowd resumed the steps around the base of the Gildergreen. She reached out and her forearm was immediately met with another.

Draden smiled at her as their hands clasped and they pulled close, steps in perfect harmony. Aela grinned back as Draden spun in a tight circle, raising their joined hands up and briefly letting go to make the turn without hurting either of them, then clasping them back together and lowering them as she faced Aela's way again.

Draden winked at Aela as she moved into her own spin, repeating the same motions in reverse, the two of them splitting apart once more before she finished her spin, hands raised to clap twice.

The lyrics and the dance were the story of two lovers, ones who had at once both loved and despised each other, and they had often taken new partners, new lovers, to move on with their lives and forget the other, but no matter how hard or how many times they tried, they always came back together. Caught red-handed in love.

It was a fun dance, nothing too intimate or complicated.

And yet when they moved off to another partner for a moment, Aela felt a spike of irritation, barely glancing at her partner as they crossed forearms (Nazeem, he gave her an unpleasant smirk) she focused instead upon Draden, who had her arm crossed with that of Ysolda and was laughing.

Fighting the strange spark of irritability, she focused back on the motions of the dance, managing to rein in her temper enough to keep from punching Nazeem into unconsciousness as he openly leered at her breasts, though when they separated to go back to their partners, she subtlety hooked her foot around his ankle and pulled a bit harder than necessary.

Smirking very slightly as she heard him stumble and drunkenly curse, Aela ignored the quirked eyebrow Draden gave her as their hands met up again.

"You dance almost as well as you perform." She commented mildly over the music and the revelry of the crowd. "I'm surprised you remember this dance as well as you appear to."

With a trilling laugh, Draden inclined her head. "I suppose I should thank you for the half compliment? Though to be honest, I'm surprised at you more so than I am at myself."

"Oh? And why is that?"

The drum suddenly picked up the pace, and they skipped faster along with it, still continuously flowing with the wheel of people that swirled around them.

"Because you dance with all the same grace that you hunt with," Draden replied, her sharp eyes looking at Aela with an odd amusement. "and it's rather enchanting, how many other beautiful things do you hide under that war-paint and tough exterior shield-sister?"

Aela blanched very slightly. "No more than I've already let you see. What about you, how much more power and battle-skill do you hide behind your instruments and your pretty words?"

There was a lull between them, the music spinning faster and faster as the climax was reached, but the world seemed to catch between them for a moment, hanging up on the small barbed challenges they cast each other.

"None beyond what I have already given to the world." Draden whispered so softly that Aela could hardly hear her, the dragonborn's oddly colored eyes suddenly very far away…

"HUZZA!" the town roared the final line of the song as one, the lover pairs crashing their lips and bodies together in raptured celebration, friends moving to hug and clap one another on the back, all laughing uproariously and cheering in disharmonic ways.

The two of them blinked back to awareness, then slowly, awkwardly, untangled their hands and arms.

In near unison, they both cleared their throats.

"Well Huntress, I wish a heartfelt thank you for the most enjoyable dance," Draden smiled easily and bowed in an eloquent way that involved both arms and a shift of feet. "I do believe you have saved me a most uncomfortable situation, and most certainly granted me the rare gift of your dancing companionship."

She hummed an agreement. "You are welcome Harbinger, it was enjoyable to remind you of one of the better traditional dances of our people."

Draden chuckled as they made their way back to the Jorrvaskr stairs and their shield-siblings.

"I'm sure, now if you will excuse me, this last number is one the Jarl himself requested, and I should not be late to the closing ceremonies, lest the whole town fall asleep." She included her head to the form of dozing forms of Ria and Athis.

Aela started to move to take a seat on the stairs again when Draden gently caught her wrist.

"Aela, thank you. Really." She said once with a soft smile, then turned and glided back to the stage area, speaking in soft tones to the others when she got close enough, the words blurred too much for Aela to hear them correctly.

With an edge of tiredness, Aela settled down on the staircase, her gaze trailing after Draden.

Her view was very suddenly blocked as Vilkas leaned forward into her line of sight, one dark eyebrow raised.

"Don't even start," She snapped, leaning back on the stairs with a scowl.

He smirked broadly and opened his mouth-

"Ladies and gentlemen!" Draden's smooth voice rose above the hubbub with little effort, her feet planted firmly in the front and center of the stage, her arms held wide. "I hope that you have all had a most enjoyable Spring Solstice Celebration! I know we up here on stage have enjoyed performing for you this evening. To close out the evening we will perform one last song, requested by our fair Jarl Balgruff, to whom this hold owes much."

Aela caught a glimpse of Jarl Balgruff standing and waving a tad bit awkwardly as the crowd cheered his name.

"So without further ado, we present to you, The Dragonborn Comes."

If Aela hadn't known Draden as she did, she would have missed the tiny twitch of Draden's eyes as she announced the song, the sign of discomfort was one Aela had quickly come to recognized in the other woman. She chuckled privately to herself -not the only one to do so either-, knowing that Draden had very likely hoped to avoid that particular song at all costs this evening.

But it didn't look as though she disliked the idea, her face held poised grace as Mikeal started to strum, the tone lower and slower than Aela had ever heard, Anoriath beginning his drum a second later.

'Our hero, our hero

Claims a warrior's heart.

I tell you, I tell you

The Dragonborn comes'

Draden's voice was several tones lower than she had been using the rest of the evening, and it made the whole town grow silent.

'with the voice wielding power

Of the ancient Nord arts

Believe, believe,

The Dragonborn comes…..'

The words vibrated through the air like a spell, lingering in the suddenly still air with haunting intent, Olfina's flute aiding the feeling along.

'its an end to the evil

Of all Skryim's foes

Beware, beware

the Dragonborn comes'

Draden move hypnotically across the stage, take long flowing strides with each word and skipping her feet with the quicker pace of the flute, her eyes moving past and through the crowd.

'for the darkness has passed

and the legend yet grows

you'll know, you'll know

the Dragonborn comes…'

That should have been the end of the song, but Olfina dropped her flute and took a step forward, Draden stepping back to lift up her violin as the Grey-mane woman carried on the song with a sound that was like sighing, the violin playing perfect harmony.

This was clearly a version Draden had mixed together, the old traditional ballad turned captivating and beautiful with the changes.

Olfina smiled as she finished her part and stepped back to raise her flute once more, Draden, sans her violin, taking forefront once more.

But what she sung next was nothing Aela expected.

Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin

Naal ok zin los vahriin

Wah dein vokul mahfaeraak ahst vall

Ahrik fin norok paal graan

Fod nust hon zindro zaan
Dovahkiin, fan hin kogaan mu draal…..'

The final notes lingered for long seconds after the dragon words faded away, the group of performers closed their eyes and bowed their heads as the torches illuminating the stage dimmed down to almost nothing.

And then the silence was shattered when the crowd roared and clapped up a storm, cheering and whistling as the stage lights grew brighter again, all four performers standing front and center their expressions open and joyful. They looked out on Whiterun with slightly flushed faces as nearly the whole of the town stood from their chairs or benches and applaud as loudly as Aela had ever heard.

Ignoring the weak applause from the Shield-sibling s around her, Aela pressed her palms into her knees and stood up, allowing herself a small smile as she clapped her hands. Much to her surprise, Farkas lumbered to his feet and joined her in applauding, whistling once through his teeth in appreciation, then Vilkas was up and whooping once, one fist raised in the air.

Up on stage the group linked hands and bowed deeply. Mikeal wearing an expression of beaming pride, Olfina wore one of blushing glee, Anoriath golden eyes glittered over his smile, and Draden stood tall and totally confident.

Powerful, in a way that Aela had never considered before.

Draden looked over and caught her eye, quickly flashing her a wink before throwing both hands in the air and crying. "Happy Solstice to you all and have a good night!"

A slightly quieter round of applause met her words as the town started to break off and trickle away, staggering and swaying as they wandered back home, or to the nearest comfortable corner if they were too drunk to remember where they lived, no one would be up to any kind of judging by tomorrow morning.

"Well," Farkas rumbled out, "I'm off to bed myself, good night everyone."

"'Night brother, anyone else feel like one more drink before bed?" Vilkas glanced down at the sprawled whelps and then at Aela as his brother ascended the stairs.

Aela shook her head disinterestedly as she watched Draden bid her farewells to the other musicians and start to move towards them.

"I think you've had enough to make a mammoth pass out." Ria giggled in reply to Vilkas.

"Look who's talking." Njada slurred back, smirking over at the imperial.

Ria blinked slowly for a moment, then frowned and shoved the Njada. "I can't look at myself without a mirror."

"And I think we've all had quite enough to drink." Draden cut in cheerfully, walking up to them and taking position between Aela and Vilkas, her violin case slung over one shoulder, "Your hangovers are going are all going to be rather unpleasant in the morning as it is, adding another drink now will only prolong your misery later."

"Aye!" Torvor toasted the air with his flagon, then belched. "But drinking now is enjoyable!"

"Right well," Draden sighed and shook her head. "Far be it for me to tell you how to spend the rest of your night, but know that I won't be here in the morning to help ease your suffering."

Aela looked up sharply. "You aren't coming to Jorrvaskr tomorrow?"

Draden hadn't lived within the hall since before she had taken the Wolf-blood, stating that she much preferred the quiet of Breezehome for her studies, but she had always been good about spending some time in the hall to trade stories or pick up work. As Harbinger, she was very careful to take extra time the in hall to sort out or head off any problems that might arise, either in the ranks or between the Companions and their clients. If she wasn't going to be in the hall at all tomorrow than that meant-

"I'm departing Whiterun in the morning." Draden said with a slight shake of her head. "There have been some," she hesitated "developments that I need to follow up on."

"Finally getting your ass in gear and heading off to defeat Alduin huh?" Njada slurred "'Bout time, people were beginning to wonder if you really were the Dragonborn with how long you're taking to actually meet your destiny."

Aela could feel the air around Draden tighten and grow cold, and she looked up to see that the harbinger's eyes had lost all the easy glee in them.

"Yes well… killing a god isn't as easy as it sounds." She murmured, eyes looking beyond them to something only she could see.

Without thinking, Aela reached over and touched her arm softly, drawing Draden's eyes back to the present.

"Yes well, I hope all of you have a pleasant remainder of your night, and I will see you in a few weeks." Draden's smile was small and forced, but only Aela and Vilkas seemed to noticed, the two of them trading glances while the rest mumbled some semblance of a farewell.

"Vilkas," Draden nodded at him, the two of them matching in height.

"Stay safe Harbinger, we will miss your song and dance in the hall." He replied with a bit of teasing, dark eyes glittering with humor. "and I supposed your occasional words of wisdom will also be missed."

"Yes, yes, laugh it up frown clown," she shot back, "Just make sure you don't damage my copy of 'A Complete Morrowind Bestiary' that's a hard book to find. You can do whatever you want with 'Best ways to Polish your Sword' though, there are a thousand copies of that in any barracks."

Torvor burst out laughing, and Ria giggled behind one hand.

To his credit, Vilkas just shook his head and lightly shoved Draden's shoulder, making her lean against Aela for a brief second.

"Go on with yourself then, I'll handle this lot, and Draden?" he looked at her with real concern, poorly hidden under the glacier of his arrogance. "Fight well."

"Come back with your shield or upon it?"

"I'd say that, but you're so useless with a shield that it's better you not have one at all."

Draden chuckled. "Fair yourself well Vilkas, I'll see you in a week or so."

Draden started forward without another word and Aela had just begun to open her mouth, -weather to deliver a scathing rejoin about being forgotten, or to just simply call Draden's name, she didn't know- when Draden's fingers gently came up and tugged at her own, her eyes catching Aela's over her shoulder as she walked.

Their hands separated and Aela wordlessly followed Draden through the thinning crowd around the Gildergreen and under the archway towards the market district. Part way down the stairs Draden stepped off the stone and onto the newly blossoming patch of grass bordering the open water canal. She sat back upon it with a soft sigh.

"Forgive me," Draden smiled wanly up at Aela as she walked off the staircase to join her, "I've been up performing all evening, I've nearly forgotten how tiring it is. Almost as difficult as traveling the land in armor all day."

"I can't really comment on that," she replied, tipping her head slightly. "I've never performed."

"Not for the sake of entertainment," Draden commented, leaning back and looking up at the night sky. "but we all perform one role or another through our lives…."

Aela could think of nothing to say to that, so she just kept watching Draden, the quiet buzz of the last of the partiers an almost comforting background noise.

Though only at half strength, the larger moon Masser cast more than enough light to illuminate Draden's face, highlighting the tracing of worry Aela could see in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," Draden shook her head and dropped her gaze. "I didn't drag you out here for philosophy, I wanted to thank you for the enjoyable evening."

"I think you did at least twice already." She replied mildly, brushing some of her hair behind her ear. "I should say thank you in return, these celebrations… aren't usually things I much enjoy, even with a good deal of mead, but your company and skill made the evening enjoyable."

An awkward beat passed between them, the soft 'rush' of the running water the loudest reminding sound in the midnight air.

"So, um… " Draden cleared her throat. "I was wondering, well… you and I make a pretty good team, and we haven't really ever fought together under circumstances that were…" she made a face "I guess battles are never really 'enjoyable', so I'll say that we've never had a chance to work together when time wasn't pressing our chests to the ground." Draden fiddled with her fingers uneasily, and Aela frowned. "Divines," the blonde sighed "I can stand before a whole town and sing for hours without a single mistake, but I can't ask a simple question."

She ran a hand through her hair nervously, and looked up at Aela with such sincerity in her eyes. "I'm asking… if you aren't busy with work or training or what have you, if you'd do me the honor in accompanying my on my quest for a while. It's not Companion work I know…" she added the last bit quickly when Aela's face went blank. "and I don't think it's really all that honorable work at this point, but it has been a grand adventure with many challenges, and the company is rather good, most of the time." She prodded her violin case with one fingertip, "Slaying dragons and saving the world… it is interesting work anyway." Draden trailed off and glanced away, looking a bit lost.

With a bright bit of glee in her chest, that she did her best to ignore, Aela knelt on the grass and reached out a hand to rest on Draden's shoulder, making the blonde look up and lock their gazes.

"I would be honored to accompany you on your journey Draden." She with quiet conviction, "I can think of no greater place to be in these dark times than fighting at your side."

Draden's eyes glittered and her mouth twitched slightly. "Actually, unless you really relish unending hordes of idiot bandits and mindless quests, fighting by my side isn't a very great place to be, just ask Lydia." She reached her hand up and placed it over Aela's, her burnished eyes full of odd tenderness and she was still for a second before saying, "My complaints aside, thank you for accompanying me Aela. I look forward to spending time with you."

She nodded stiffly once and pulled her hand back with some reluctance, Draden's warmth lingering on her skin longer than it should have. "So, when do we depart? Should I carry anything more than I usually take?"

"I do not believe so, we'll be heading to Riverwood tomorrow, so we can pick up more food and supplies there if we need them." Draden said thoughtfully, then shrugged. "though I'm not certain where we will be heading from there, or exactly how long we will be gone so perhaps it would be wise to take whatever you believe you cannot live without along with us."

"No special tools for dragon slaying?" Aela teased mildly, "no instrument requirement?"

Draden laughed and shoved her shoulder playfully. "No! Nothing like that Huntress, just grab whatever you wish and come to Breezehome at dawn, we'll set off from there." The bard yawned suddenly and shook her head. "Speaking of Breezehome, I should probably head there and try to get a few hours of sleep, dawn is painfully close at hand as it is." she slowly clambered to her feet and then offered her hand to Aela.

Taking the offered support, Aela gained her feet and found herself standing very close to Draden, their forearms clasped in a manner not unlike when they had danced, close enough that she could feel Draden's quickening pulse just under her skin.

Draden started to let go and drop her arm away, and for one crazy moment, Aela's fingers tightened of their own accord, preventing the Dragonborn from removing their contact. And then she realized what she was doing and flinched back.

"Goodnight, Aela." Draden bayed her softly, hand hovering in the air for a moment after Aela let go. "I hope I will see you in the morning."

"You will," Aela assured, "I wouldn't miss the chance to journey with the Dragonborn for all the great hunts in Skyrim."

Draden's lips thinned and her brows furrowed, but she said nothing as they stepped back onto the path, Whiterun silent and finally still.

Stopping as one, they looked to each other and the air felt cluttered with all the unsaid words within it.

"Sleep well." Draden bid after a long pause, her eyes tired and tender. Then she slowly turned and began to walk down the stairs to her home.

"And you." Aela called quietly at her back and then waited until Draden had reached the bottom of the stairs and started through the market place, case swinging at her side, before turning and moving back towards Jorrvaskr.

The journey would be difficult she knew, Dragons were a much greater challenge than almost any creature she have faced and defeated in her lifetime, but they were as much flesh and blood as any on the face of Nirn and she would be standing alongside the Dragonborn, the greatest hero of an age, it was an opportunity any warrior worth their salt would kill for.

She was silently excited for the road ahead, for the glory of the battles ahead and the thrill of hunting the most dangerous predators that had ever existed. And a small, annoyingly insistent part of her brain was glad Draden would be out of Whiterun, away from the unwanted pursuits of the townsfolk.

Only because a focused Draden was an unrivaled force across the battlefield, and Skyrim needed it's savior at full strength.

That and because as her friend, Aela disliked seeing the odd sadness that hung in Draden's eyes.

Moving across the short bridge, her eyes fell upon Fraila Grey-mane who stood next to her husband as he carried on rumbled conversation with Adrianne, the two smiths looking so bleary that Aela highly doubted either of them would remember their talk the next morning.

She gave Fraila a small nod as she passed them by…

And Fraila raised her wine goblet toward Aela with a knowing little smile.

Aela took the stairs to the hall two at a time and pretended that she hadn't heard the amused chuckle that followed her footsteps.