Njada greeted me only with a stern nod when I crawled out of my tent in the middle of the night, sitting on a dead log with her back to the glowing coals to avoid the blinding of the light while she kept her senses on the darkness around us, her axe and shield lying beside her. She was alert, keeping watch over us.
I couldn’t sleep. Although I had a tent of my own, the noises of three sleeping people around me kept me awake, not used any more to so many so close. That, and a maelstrom of thoughts that whirled through my head.
I sighed deeply when I hunched down at the fire and put a kettle with water on the coals. The mixture of Tilma’s herbal tea was crumbly and dry between my fingertips, dead leaves from last year, but the smell rising into my nose when I dropped them into the hot water was still fresh and invigorating.
The mountain of decisions had by no means become smaller during the last day. Perhaps it felt even larger, even more threatening, because the choices were so frighteningly one-sided. Why did everything seem so inevitable again?
Since… forever, I had been pushed around. People had always told me where to be and what to do. People always wanted something of me… my body, my life, my skill, my help.
Sometimes, they meant well. Sometimes, the decisions they made for me were indeed the best. Sometimes, there was indeed no other way. And sometimes, nothing else was reasonable.
But that didn’t change the fact that all these decisions weren’t mine. I hadn’t chosen to get my family killed and become a whore and neither to be Dragonborn, had become a warrior because I had to survive and a Companion because at one point, it seemed impossible to leave Jorrvaskr again. And to leave them had been a necessity again.
Once, Aela had said that this decision was final. But had it really been mine, or had others pushed me into it? Vilkas had manipulated me, shameless and obvious. From all of them, there had been pressure – gentle, but still.
And now, the Companions again.
When I brought a mug of tea over to Njada, she took it with a grateful half-smile, flexing her fingers around the warmth. No words were spoken when I sat down beside her, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, but she gave no indication that she minded my presence – four eyes saw more than two, and we had already fended off one unwelcome visit that night.
And I could always think best in the quiet of a nightly watch.
There was no denial that I was comfortable here, in this camp and with these women. That this day had given me the feeling that I had never stopped to belong to them, and to know that they had actively searched for me filled me with warmth.
And still, I felt pushed. Perhaps they had been too persuasive, too convincing. But again, there seemed to be no alternative – no reasonable one, at least.
Am eerie screech behind me startled me from my thoughts, both of us jumping to our feet, weapons drawn and ready to attack. When we realised that it was only a falcon sitting in a crippled tree by the pond, we were both slightly abashed. Njada sat down again with a lopsided grin, patting the wood beside her.
“Bloody bird,” she muttered, and I snickered. She sat relaxed now, her elbows on her knees. “Did you know that some people hunt with them? The Redguards, I heard.”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. Amren told me. They can be trained, but only on prey that they’d hunt naturally anyway. And they never become tame.”
That sounded fascinating. I liked falcons, their weightless elegance and deadliness. And they were Kynareth’s bird. “I’d like to see that, one day.”
She gave me a sidewards glance. “Hammerfell is right around the corner. Just gotta get over the border.”
I snorted. “Didn’t have much luck with that last time.”
“No, you didn’t.” She cocked her head. “But you could. Not much holding you here, right?”
No. Only the fate of the world and a bunch of people who were a nuisance and a constant challenge with their demands and expectations. People who wanted me to rely on them, expected me to take their backing and support. People who only wanted my best. Because they knew everything about me, and because a couple of shield-siblings was always more than the sum of its parts.
She was one of them, this stern, often aggressive woman. “What would you do, Njada?”
“Me?” She seemed surprised by my question, but then her face closed down, and her voice came out as a low growl. “I would hunt him down and kill him.”
My breath caught. “Vilkas?”
She stared down at her feet. And then her gaze came up and locked on my face, with defiance and a darkness that was old and scarred and usually hidden deep inside of her. “I was seventeen,” she said quietly, “and he was my uncle. The lover of my mother and my stepfather. My father died when I was too small to remember him, and he had taken us in.” She let out a bitter grunt. “I caught him… on my little brother. And to keep me quiet, he took me too. I thought if I let him, he would leave the little one alone. But he didn’t, and… when it became too bad, I killed him and ran away.”
Stunned by this sudden, unexpected revelation, a groan escaped me. “Divines…”
“But life goes on. At least I could fight… and I swore to myself I would never again fail someone I had to protect. I found a job with a caravan and learned to survive on my own. One day, I came to Whiterun and stayed. Found a new home. And from there, I could even get back to my family.”
She fell quiet, abruptly, as if everything that mattered had been said. Or as if she had already said too much. Only the sounds of the night were audible around us. Eat or get eaten, that was how life worked out there. But it didn’t work with us humans.
“Why did you tell me all this?” I asked finally, hesitating.
She bared her teeth in a grin didn’t reach her eyes, taxing and with a hint of her usual snide. “Perhaps… because someone has to tell you that you’re not so special. But you’re a Companion. Don’t forsake us all just because one has turned out to be a bastard.”
The mocking expression flashed into a full-grown grin when she saw me blush furiously. “I didn’t mean to…”
She interrupted me harshly. “I get it, Qhouri. You have doubts, everyone would have. After all, you have brought all this chaos to Jorrvaskr.” She ignored my gasp. “And no one will blame you. You were just a trigger. But I’d like to know… what did Aela tell you? About… the state of the Companions?”
I answered carefully. “That it’s hard. Too much work, not enough people who do it. She said that Kodlak and Farkas… don’t care any more.”
“Did she now? And did she also tell you that she doesn’t care either?” The corners of her mouth quirked downwards, full of derision. “I tell you what is wrong with the Companions, Qhouri. The Circle is wrong. The Circle has failed. Kodlak and his damned studies… I mean, let him research his afterlife, okay? But he’s still our Harbinger and not dead yet, and he cares a shit for the mess around him! That Farkas doesn’t… can’t even blame him. But instead to spend his time hunting and howling to the moons, he could go out and kill something and get paid for it. A boot up his ass, that’s what he needs. That Skjor got himself killed… that was bad luck as much as stupidity. But Aela’s vendetta against the Silver Hand now is nothing but stupid and dangerous on top.”
My dumbfounded expression made her snort. “Of course she didn’t tell you about that.”
“Do you mean… she lied to me?”
“Lied? No. She works hard, and she does her best. But she wears herself out, and she’s never really there. Neither with her head nor with her heart, obsessed with her revenge.” She breathed deeply. “This here… it was Ria’s idea, and it was brilliant. But we had to force her to join us, and in the end she only came because of Wilhelm’s message and the sidetrip to Ivarstead. If you hadn’t agreed to come here… I think she would be razing a Silver Hand hideout now.”
The silence between us was heavy and laden, mostly because I didn’t know what to say. This was a totally different point of view on the Companions – dry and unsentimental, but nothing less depressing.
“Don’t see how I can be of any help with all that,” I said finally, shrugging helplessly.
She eyed me appraisingly. “You’ll hate me for this, but you know what we need most?” I shook my head. “Someone like Vilkas. No, listen. Don’t get me wrong, I hope Hircine chases him for eternity through the Hunting Grounds he hates so much. But let’s be honest, he was the one who kept us going. Not only the organising stuff… he always pushed through, clenched his teeth and did what had to be done, no matter how hard. He saw the Companions as a whole, and he pulled everybody with him, even if we hated him for it.”
I saw the truth in what she said, from her point of view, but I couldn’t share it. “Hope you don’t mind that I don’t wish him back. Not even someone like him.”
“Sure. But we’ve lost our focus. Especially the Circle, they all only see their own troubles and sorrows. It’s understandable, but it tears us apart.”
“You seem pretty focused.”
She gave a short laughter. “Yeah, but I’d break my toes if I tried to kick Farkas in the ass. Or get a poisoned arrow between the eyes if I told Aela what to do. But you… you’re Dragonborn. You just have to yell at them.”
She nearly made me laugh. “I could never do that.”
She became serious again. “You’re proof that life goes on, Qhouri. You’ve clenched your teeth and pushed through and started to kill Dragons again. Just to see that it’s possible… it would do us good.”
“Okay, Qhouri, let’s talk straight. What you’re gonna do now?”
Ria had prepared breakfast for us all, to the huge discomfort of Tilma, but Aela had waited with this question until we had finished. When the others were busy packing, she drew me aside. I knew it would come, but it was awkward nevertheless.
She looked serious. “Will you come home with us?”
Come home. It sounded far too irreal to believe. But although I didn’t sleep much that night, I felt more unwound than I did for weeks and months, because I had made up my mind.
The disappearance of Vilkas had changed everything. Nothing would have made me set a foot into Jorrvaskr if I had to face him there. But now it was different, and I refused to feel guilty about it. And the unexpected reunion with my shield-sisters had also appeased another gnawing fear I hadn’t even been aware of: that I wouldn’t be welcome any more, after the chaos I had caused.
Aela had made pretty clear what she expected from me, and Njada had done the same. It wasn’t the same, there were troubles ahead and quarrels to fight out, but that wasn’t the point. Both had been honest with me, hadn’t painted the picture brighter than it was. And in both of them, I had found an unspoken understanding that let me hope that Jorrvaskr could become the home it once was again.
And I had to stop fretting, or Athis would kick my butt.
I managed a feeble smile. “Yep. Nowhere else I gotta be right now.”
The broad grin on her face was reward enough.
“Girls, let’s get going! I’ve just recruited another back to carry our stuff, so we’ll be faster today!”
Ria’s bright laughter came from inside the tent, and Njada looked up from the complicated task to pack the cooking gear as space-saving as possible. “Came to your senses, hm?” But her smile was friendly and sincere.
Aela set a fast pace to make the whole distance in a single day, but it was long dark when we finally crossed the bridge at Honningbrew, all of us quiet and tired. The torches of the guards patrolling the street and the lights of the city in the distance looked so familiar it choked me. Aela laid an arm around my shoulder. “Don’t get cold feet now, sister. You’ll see, the boys will be thrilled.” She snorted out a laughter. “If they’re sober enough to recognise you, that is.”
They were. And not only sober. If we had thought we were the only ones with a surprise, we couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first surprise waiting for us – and especially for Tilma – was the general state of the hall; it was tidied up and practically gleaming in a way I had never seen it in before. Everything was clean, everything was at his place, no empty bottles, no leftover food, no used dishes, the long tables were polished to perfection, the weapons mounted on the wall shone, the windows were cleaned, even the stone floor and the long carpet had been given a laundry.
The second surprise were Athis, Torvar, Vignar, Brill and Eorlund sitting side by side by the fire, bathed and clad in clean clothes, looking expectantly at the door as if they were waiting for us. Only Kodlak and Farkas were missing. And the third surprise was the chaos that ensued immediately on our entry. Tilma squealed and nearly passed out with amazement and delight, Njada and Ria threw away their packs while Aela shoved me to the front of our group, but seeing eyes grow wide like saucers and jaws drop to the ground left me frozen and with tears in my eyes on top of the stairs.
I wanted to hide from the stares, but at least my first retreat strategy wasn’t back out of the front door, but down to the living quarters. Of course that wasn’t gonna happen – Athis captured me in an embrace I didn’t think the slender man was even capable of. He held me close, then pushed me at arm’s length and took a long look.
“That surprise tops ours by far. It’s good to see you, Qhouri, but you look horrible.” His red eyes sparkled.
Gods, I had missed that knowing smirk. “I know. ‘t was the first Aela told me,” I muttered. Something hurt inside of me. I didn’t know that joy and relief could hurt.
Njada had shouldered our knapsacks. “You should have seen her yesterday, before she’s soaked for hours! Qhouri, I’m gonna take your pack downstairs, your old bunk is still free, okay?”
“My turn, greyskin, get out of the way!” Torvar’s grin was boyish and light-hearted as always, and he was absolutely sober. Incredible. His embrace was bearlike.
“We missed you, shield-sister. No need to run away from us like that, you know?”
“I didn’t run away from you, Torvar.” My grin was sheepishly stuck to my face.
“I know. But it was stupid regardless. Good you came to your senses!”
Aela tried to bring some order into the turmoil. We were hungry, but the men had even prepared a meal for us, and it didn’t take long that we all sat around the fire again. Even Tilma was forced to join us, the elderly woman had tears in her eyes.
“And I was afraid this would be a battle-field! You guys are crazy! And awesome!” she sobbed.
Torvar nodded gravely. “Oh yes, we are. This was worse than cleaning an ancient tomb of draugr, believe me. And I think it was the first time in history that the Companions have begged outsiders for help to get a job done.” He grinned at Eorlund, but the smith only showed a faint, tired smile, not the booming laughter I expected.
“I’ve caused my share of devastation in this hall over the years, only fair that I helped to clean it up once.” He pushed back his chair, stood up and looked into the round. “Gotta get home. I’ll be back at the forge tomorrow, if you need something.” He turned to me. “Come see me some time, Qhouri. I’d like to have a look at that sword of yours. If you don’t mind.” I nodded, and Vignar brought his brother to the door. I saw him pat his shoulder reassuringly, both men looking concerned and sad.
I leant over to Athis. “What’s the matter with him? He’s never been in a hurry to get home!”
“Long story,” he whispered back, a sudden frown on his face. “His son is missing. Thorald, and Fralia freaks out and tells everybody it’s the Battle-Born’s fault. But nobody knows what happened.”
Gods. Another disaster. I remembered the young man with the distinctive blue warpaint in the colours of the Stormcloaks. And I knew how his mother always fretted over her children, despite them all being grown up.
But I had been prepared that it wouldn’t be all sunshine and roses in Jorrvaskr. “And where’s Kodlak? And Farkas?”
His expression was concerned. “Kodlak didn’t feel well, he went to bed early. Better not disturb him now. And Farkas… he’s helped us today, but now he’s probably out hunting, like most nights. Not much holding him here lately.” He looked me in the eyes, with his intense blood-coloured gaze. “Don’t get me wrong, you know how glad I am that you’re here. But to him, it will mean even more. Much more.”
I savoured this first evening back in Jorrvaskr, the familiar scents, everyone sitting in his place, the food and drinks, the banter I was so used to. But it was undeniable that some of the usual easy-going cheerfulness was missing from this improvised feast, the mood somehow subdued and chastened. And after Athis’ honest words I realised that I didn’t have really an idea what to expect here. There were wounds that had to heal slowly, in me and in the others. Wounds not least my actions had caused, even if nobody blamed me. I could only hope that we had already reached the point where it couldn’t come worse.
But despite the growing tension in me the later it got, Farkas’ return got me totally unprepared. Our round was smaller in the meantime, and I didn’t react at first when the back door clapped – only Aela’s wince made me look up.
He looked like a living dead, unwashed, shaggy hair tangled around a face smeared with warpaint and blood on sickly pale skin. Lifeless eyes stared at me, and for a single, endless moment of surprise I didn’t even recognise him, so unfamiliar his features that another face layered above it, the one that looked the same and that I had seen last. For a single, endless moment his eyes met with mine, and something flared up in their depths. Goosebumps erupted on my arms and in my neck, my mind fogging with panic. And then he turned and was gone again.
I had to suck in a breath to free me from the shock of his appearance. All cheerfulness was gone at a moment’s notice. I looked helplessly from face to face, but nobody said a word. Just Aela, finally.
“Go after him, Qhouri, please. Talk to him.” I felt how it hurt her to see her shield-brother like this, but she still managed to give me an encouraging smile.
He sat on the bench right behind the door where the shadows were deepest, and although his silhouette tensed visibly when he sensed me coming, he didn’t show any reaction when I took place beside him. Aela had said he wasn’t himself any more, but I had been looking forward to seeing him anyway. But now… I didn’t know what to say. How to act. The silence around us thickened like fog.
When he finally moved, grabbing my arm in a bruising grip, the other hand clenching like a vice around my chin and turning my face into the light of the torches, it was like an attack. He had to see the sudden alarm that made me jerk, but he didn’t care, searched through my face as if he had never seen it before, never meeting my eyes and finally coming the rest on the scars on my cheek. The scars his brother had caused.
“You should never have come here.”
He looked so forlorn and broken, so withdrawn into his own sorrow, all of a sudden I realised what Aela had meant. He had suffered more than anyone else. Perhaps even more than I.
To cut my bonds to Jorrvaskr had been my own decision. A necessary decision at the time, but still a decision. There had been a choice. But he never had a choice. He lost two of his shield-siblings and above all his twin in only a couple of weeks, and nobody had asked him how to live with it.
At least I had to try to get through to him.
I turned to him, grabbed his shoulders. “Look at me, Farkas. Look at me!” I forced him to look me in the eyes. His were dark from pain and despair… and still something else. Something warm. “If you mean that… if you really mean that I will be gone tomorrow, and nothing Aela can say will convince me otherwise. Look at me and say that again.”
He slumped forwards, his shoulders trembling.
“He destroyed you. And he destroyed himself. And I wasn’t there to stop him!”
I laid a hand between his shoulder-blades. “No, he didn’t. He tried, and he was close, but he didn’t.” I stood up, knelt before him to see his face. No tears, only guilt and bottomless anguish. Never did I feel so helpless. “Farkas, please. Don’t let this… there’s nothing you could have done! No one could see what would happen.”
He wailed. “But I should have known! He’s my brother!”
And suddenly his arms were around me, pressing me against his chestplate in a breathtaking, desperate grip. “I missed you so much. I miss him so much. And I hate you because you left me behind, and I hate him because he left you behind. And I don’t know how to look at your face every day, with those scars…”
I loosened his fingers from their grip, brought the necessary distance between us again. “I’ve the same problem with yours, you know? You look awfully like him, in case you missed that. We both can’t change what has happened. My face is as it is. It’s not pretty, but it’s not your fault. I left you behind. Nothing is your fault.”
He had buried his face in his hands, sat curled into himself, shutting me out. Of course he did. I was the reason that he had lost his twin. It didn’t matter who’s fault it was or if anyone could have done anything to prevent it… no what ifs would change that he had lost his brother. It was all that mattered, all that remained from this whole disaster, and nothing I could say would reach him.
How selfish had it been to come here… and as a surprise? Nothing would be better because I was here. For him, it made everything only worse, like a splinter in a festering wound.
The icy wind blowing through the courtyard crawled into my bones, and I shivered. Taking a deep breath, I steeled myself and held my voice as level as possible. “Okay. I won’t fail you again. If you think I should leave, I will.”
“Will you? Really?”
I nodded. Hesitating, but hardening myself. I wasn’t even sure yet if I really wanted to stay or if I was just here because I had nowhere else to go. But I knew I couldn’t live here as a constant reminder for him. I couldn’t allow that Farkas suffered even more because of my selfishness.
The idea that we would deal with these things together, it had been alluring… but it was only an illusion.
And then I felt his hand under my chin, gentle this time, tilting my head up until I was forced to look into his face. He held my gaze, and there it was, the warmth and openness in his expression that I knew so well. It drew me in, and for a moment, I got the illusion we were close again, as if nothing had changed.
His guard went down, he let his walls crumple before my gaze, and all the pain, fear and despair, all the anger and frustration he had gone through during the last months washed over me through these silvery eyes. And all the love he felt, his affection and trust and unbreakable loyalty, for his family, for his brother… and for me. He showed me how it tore him apart.
His voice was only a whisper. “You sent me to Oblivion when you didn’t come back, and I went there, like I told you. I want to come home now, Qhouri.”
He still trusted me, let me see into the bottom of his heart, after all that had happened. But there was nothing I could give him in return. Nothing to bridge this gap between us.
I lowered my eyes from his face, ashamed.
“I don’t have a home to come back to, Farkas. But yours is here. All of them are waiting for you.”
I heard my own teeth grind, but there was nothing but emptiness. I couldn’t. I couldn’t suddenly start to deal with Vilkas, with the violence, the shame and the humiliation, just to make his brother feel better. I couldn’t heal this discord in him, couldn’t give him what he wanted… what he needed. I couldn’t bring his brother back – not even in memory.
And I couldn’t tear my own walls down, not again, not like he had done it. I couldn’t, even if he deserved it. Even if it tore me apart.
This was torture for us both. I shifted away from him and stood up. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have come here. I’m sorry.”
Aela waited for me when I entered the hall again. I just shook my head, and I knew she saw the sadness in my face, but I didn’t dare to look at her.
“Sorry, Aela. I’ll stay at the Mare. It’s better for us all.”
The Bannered Mare was still full and loud and boisterous when I entered my room, but I couldn’t have slept anyway. Memories kept surfacing, unasked, unwanted and relentless, and sadness lay like a grey blanket over my mind. Farkas, how we had laughed with each other, yelled at each other, fought with each other. Vilkas during our first clash after the Harvest Festival and later, so many occasions when he had shown me his contempt, until his face became the last one I saw before I became unconscious in the shipwreck. They mingled with each other, so similar, impossible to tell them apart.
It was nearly morning when sleep finally claimed me, and it felt only like minutes when a loud knock on the door of my room startled me up again. My head throbbed with a dull pain while I fought with myself if to get up or to ignore the noise and finally freed myself blearily from the blanket. Another knock made me grunt impatiently while I slipped into tunic and pants. And when I finally opened the door, the man standing before me had already raised his fist for the next.
He had washed and changed into simple casual clothes, and now he looked even worse than the evening before. Bloodshot eyes with dark rings under them, deep lines carved into his features, his skin ashen. And an expression of such utter relief that I narrowed my eyes at him in confusion.
His arm fell limply to his side. “You’re still here…”
“Of course I’m here,” I snapped, “do you know what time it is?”
He looked puzzled, then scratched his neck bashfully and blushed. “I’m sorry…” he said, turned and went towards the stairs that led down to the main room.
Divines. What to do with this man? With this wreck of a man, now that he was here? For a moment, Njada’s advice to kick his ass seemed the only reasonable choice.
Instead I went after him, grabbed his sleeve, dragged him into my room and pushed him down on a chair, then settled myself on the edge of the bed.
“Now I’m awake. What’s the matter, Farkas?”
He stared at me from wide open eyes full of confusion, then lowered his gaze and studied his fingernails. I could see how he steeled himself before he started to speak. “Aela yelled at me tonight like never before,” he said finally, with a sheepish, lopsided half-grin that didn’t make it beyond his lips. “She called me childish and selfish and that I should get my shit together… and that it was a sodding pain to find you and make you come home, and if I don’t fix this I don’t need to come home again myself.”
Apparently Aela had done the job and kicked his ass. I wasn’t so sure if I liked the result. “You’ve nothing to fix. And Aela can’t throw you out of Jorrvaskr.”
“I can’t throw you out either,” he said lowly.
Damned. This was such a mess. He was such a mess, the last I wanted was to make it worse.
I buried my forehead in my palms. “You don’t have to,” I said tiredly. “I’ll speak with her. She’ll… understand.”
“No!” He shot up and started to pace through the room, from the window to the door and back. I watched him incredulously. No? No what? No, she won’t understand? Or no, don’t speak with her? Or no, this was a friggin’ shitty idea right from the start? The throbbing in my head increased its rhythm.
I sighed. “Just tell me what you want, Farkas. Tell me, and I’ll do it.”
He stood with his back to me, hands propped on the window sill, stiff and tense. “Stay.” His voice was strangely flat. “When I said you shouldn’t have come here, I meant you could have spared yourself so much grief if you had let Athis just die. But you need a home, and Jorrvaskr is your home the same it’s mine. I will leave you alone, but you shall know that my promise still holds, and when you need a shield-brother I will stand by your side.”
He stared blankly out of the window.
It sounded memorised and forced, this speech. And from him, someone who always said what went through his mind… it wasn’t much better than an outright lie. He didn’t mean it and said it anyway, and it broke my heart. He was here and offered me to stay, and he still offered his help. What it cost him, after all the grief I had caused him, I couldn’t even imagine.
And in sudden realisation I knew what he meant to me. That he was precious, far too precious to burden him with this, and that I couldn’t bear to be a burden for him.
“You kept your promise. I don’t want any more.” I swallowed, tried to keep my voice from trembling. “I know we can’t start over where we left, and I will leave you alone too. I’m sorry.”
He turned slowly, looked at me with bewilderment. “What are you sorry for?”
“For this lousy surprise. For everything.”
“You… are sorry for me.”
I bit my lip and nodded. “Please, Farkas… I didn’t want this. I didn’t think this through, what it would mean for you. It’ll be better if I just…”
But he stopped me with an outstretched hand, made two fast steps and dropped to his knees in front of me, his expression nearly angry.
“Shut up. Gods, just shut up.” I did, holding my breath. And then his features lost their distant harshness, and for the first time, he looked at me. Really looked at me, not only at the scars. “You belong here, Qhouri. That you’re back… I’m glad. Really.” He clenched his hands in his lap. “Please… let’s just try, okay? Let’s just try to go on. It’ll be better… now that you’re back.”
I stared at him. “You mean that?” I whispered.
He nodded, and for a moment, we only looked at each other. I found more grey at his temples and in his beard than the few silver hairs I remembered, more and deeper creases in his face. But the laughlines around his eyes were still there.
And then his hand came up and cupped my face, his thumb stroking along the scars and through the wetness on my cheek. “Don’t cry,” he said softly. “Please. Don’t cry because of me.” His lips quirked upwards, barely noticeable. “Or I’ll have to cry too.”
A sob escaped me and ruined the smile I tried to give him. I leant into his touch, laying my hand over his. “I missed you.” It was easy to admit. And true, after all.
For a moment, his grip on my chin tightened. “I missed you too.” And then he let me go and sat back on his haunches, chewing on the inside of his cheek and lowering his gaze. “I’m sorry… for last night. I tried to force you to give something I have no right to request. Of course we can’t turn back time… it was foolish and selfish, but I was so confused, and so happy to see you, and all the memories came back and I so hoped everything would fall back into place…”
I shook my head as I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. “Don’t lie to me. You were not happy to see me.”
He grinned sheepishly. “Oh yes, I was, my brain just didn’t get the message in time. And you know what happens when I’m so confused. I talk a shitload of rubbish and start to believe in it.”
“I don’t want any more confusion, Farkas,” I said lowly, rubbing my temples.
“It’ll be better… now.” He narrowed his brows. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing. Just a headache. Didn’t sleep well.”
“Or you’re not used to Honningbrew mead any more.” How I had missed that flashy white grin.
He pushed himself to his feet. “You need breakfast. How about I get us something from Hulda?”
No. What I needed was a good night’s sleep and less emotional turmoil. But it was sweet of him, and I gave him a smile. “You don’t do breakfast, Farkas. And I have to see Kodlak.” I dreaded that visit, and he could read it from my face.
“Far too early still to disturb him, and then it’s time for Danica’s visit,” he said gently. “You’re not in a rush, Qhouri. He knows you’re here. And he knows you need some time.”
I sighed. Perhaps he was right. “Okay. Perhaps… I’ll just have a walk. I need some fresh air.” I wanted to see the city and the people living here, stroll over the market place and get a taste of everyday, normal life. And I wanted to get out into the plains.
He cocked his head. “Mind if I join you?”
We had to get used to each other again. “No.”
“Great. But breakfast first, you’re far too thin.”
Oh yeah, that was something else I had nearly forgotten… his very peculiar charm. I frowned at him. “Will all of you please stop telling me how horrible I look? Last time you had a comment about my weight, you said I was far too heavy.” That was a happy day, our trip through the snow with Athis and Torvar.
He chuckled, remembering it as well. “I never said you’re too heavy. Just quite heavy for a lady, but you’re no lady anyway. Nothing wrong with you back then, especially not for me.” He paused for a moment. “And I don’t think you look horrible. Just… different. I’ll get used to it.”
This wasn’t about my weight any more.
In the end we packed some snacks, fetched Snowback from the stables and wandered out into the plains, falling into our usual trot so naturally as if we had never travelled alone. And when we reached the Western Watchtower, we took the opportunity to rest, sheltered from the wind.
We didn’t talk much, because there wasn’t much to talk about. The past, the last months, they had to wait. First, we had to relearn to deal with each other before we could think of dealing with that load. And the times when we could just be together in comfortable silence had always been the best.
But I felt his gaze on me, pensive and curious. “What’s the matter? Stop staring!”
He laughed, and blushed, and then he frowned.
“Never do that again, scare me like that, do you hear me? When Skjor died at least we knew what had happened, and when Vilkas vanished he was just gone, but not dead. But we didn’t know anything about what had happened with you, and everybody kept telling me how impossible it was that you survived, but I didn’t want to believe it, and that uncertainty was the worst…”
I felt guilt surge up. There was no accusation in his tone, just this grief he had never allowed himself and the relief that it was over. And I had no idea. I leant against his shoulder, like I always did it when we rested together.
“I’m sorry, Farkas. I didn’t know… and I didn’t think. Sorry.”
He looked down on me. “Of course you didn’t think. If you had thought and still not given any lifesign, then I’d be really angry.”
And then he shifted, and I leant against his chest, his arms around me, his familiar scent rising into my nose. And suddenly, like a flash, I remembered how safety felt. Here, with him, I was safe. “I’m glad you’re back, Qhouri,” he mumbled. “We’ll be fine. I promise.”
I smiled sleepily, my eyes already closed. He had always made far too many promises. “I’d like that.”
The last I heard before the sleepless night took its toll was his rumbling chuckle. Laugh at me all you want, Farkas, it’s good to be back.