To get down from the mountain was much easier than to get up, now that we knew what to expect and we only stumbled from time to to over the crystalline heaps that had been the icewraiths. It wasn’t really far, after all – it had only appeared so endless a trek that first time. Again every bone was aching from exhaustion when we stumbled into High Hrothgar’s courtyard, but at least I wasn’t on the brink of fainting.
I was reluctant to tell Arngeir what his master and I had spoken about and glad when he didn’t show much interest at all. Only when I asked him if he knew a place where I could find an Elder Scroll, he looked at me as if I had finally lost my mind. And pointed me to the Mages College in Winterhold. Not very helpful, that was an idea I had already had myself. We left High Hrothgar as fast as possible, both tired and withdrawn during the descend.
Only when we entered Wilhelm’s inn again and were greeted by his friendly smile, I could shake off the strange mix of excitement and exhaustion the meeting with Paarthurnax had caused. I was tired to the bones, thrilled by everything he had told us, overwhelmed because it seemed so utterly insane and frustrated because…
“Winterhold,” I groaned into my tankard of hot mead that Wilhelm had served us unasked, “why does it have to be Winterhold?” I let my head fall against Farkas’ shoulder with a sigh.
He laid his arm around my shoulder. “You need a break, Qhouri. You deserve it.”
“We both deserve it. But I can’t.” I chuckled. “Perhaps I don’t have to visit the mages. Perhaps Farengar has such a scroll somewhere in his archive.”
“Yeah, perhaps.” It didn’t sound as if he even listened. He stared into the flames, obviously far away with his thoughts.
“Hey. You alright?”
He startled. “Yeah.” His hand raked through his hair. “I need a break tomorrow. Is that okay?”
“What for?” It was clear that he didn’t want to spend a lazy day.
“There’s a Silver Hand outpost not far, Treva’s Watch. I’d like to… take care of them.”
“Of course. We will take care of them.” He offered me a relieved smile. It would be a nice distraction.
The werewolf hunters had grown bolder over the last months. The enmity between them and the Companions was ancient, but for many years they had been no real danger, an obscure splinter faction of Daedra hunters, comparable to the pathetic Vigilants of Stendarr. But our encounter in Dustman’s Cairn, Skjor’s death and Aela’s campaign against them had revealed a startling increase in manpower and organisation. Small groups of them had spread into hideouts all over Skyrim, and although Aela had made it her declared goal to execute her revenge on every single one of them personally, we couldn’t just watch and let them grow in power. They were a danger not only for the Circle, but for all of the Companions.
Now that we were here, of course we would wipe them out.
Farkas was quiet on the short way from Ivarstead to the abandoned fort, full of tension and nervousness, and when we had dispatched the few guards and were inside, he took the lead and fought through our enemies with a brutality I didn’t know from him, fury and hate blazing in his eyes. He stormed ahead and hardly cared if I kept pace, let out his own beast only short of a full transformation. And he was thorough, much more thorough than he’d be in a regular bandit hideout, searching every mutilated corpse and chest and desk for information about future plans of the organisation.
I understood his fury better when we reached the lower levels. Werewolves roaming the wilds were a danger for their surroundings, especially when they were feral and not able to control their beasts any more. Even Farkas understood that they had to be hunted down, and he’d kill them himself if he was attacked. But what we found down in these moist, reeking cellars weren’t feral lycanthropes, at least not all of them. The torture devices were frightening familiar, the only difference to Northwatch Keep that they were made of silver instead of steel, but the experiments they were used for were just as cruel and pointless.
We found piles of corpses, human and in various states of transformation. On a crude wooden table lay the body of a little boy, not older than ten, who had been forced to transform. His face was contorted, long canines sticking out of a slightly elongated mouth, hands and feet changed into claws. But the body was small and frail and hairless, his belly slit open, his bowels dropped into a bucket. When Farkas found him, he let out a feral roar that echoed deep through the ruin.
I wondered how anyone who performed – or simply witnessed – these practices, this needless, fanatic cruelty, could believe they were fighting for a righteous cause. What made them believe something like this could be justified.
The hideout made use of the vast complex of cellars usually present beneath such abandoned ruins. We had encountered the majority of enemies in the upper levels in their living quarters, beneath them we found torture chambers, laboratories and storage rooms. The prison where their captives were held until they were needed otherwise were located in the deepest part, more a cavern than a building.
When we entered a long, pitchblack hallway lined by iron cages, their size barely adequate for a human prisoner but far too small for a transformed wolf, Farkas froze. No enemies were left, these people and creatures were left alone to hunger, darkness and madness, each of them chained to the wall with silver shackles.
He ripped a torch from a holder and held it in front of him, his gaze icy. His gesture to stay back was unmistakable, and a look into his face made me obey. This was his mission first and foremost, the Silver Hand was his enemy, it was his fate we saw in every single of these cages if they ever caught him – his, and that of the other Circle members.
The other Circle members. When I observed him how he searched the corpses, put the torture victims out of their misery and fought with a feral wolf, when I saw the blazing fury and frantic fear in his eyes, when he had completely forgotten about my presence, I finally realised that this job wasn’t just about wiping out the Silver Hand or getting information about their plans.
It was about finding his brother. And it hit me like an iron fist.
His head snapped around when I made a step backwards, away from the corpse in the last of the cages to my face. A small whimper escaped me and I pressed my palm to my mouth when I saw the infinite relief that shone from his face. The torch he held was a small island of light in the darkness of this room, everything between us hidden in shadows, separating us, the distance of this corridor a barrier impossible to overcome.
He slumped against the bars of the cage, his face hidden in the crook of his arm.
“I miss him so much, Qhouri.”
I shouldn’t have understood him, his whisper so quiet. But somehow the words echoed through the silence, multiplied and pierced my brain until I knew nothing any more but my own pulse roaring through my ears and this sentence. I miss him so much.
He always said what went through his mind.
I wanted to scream and cry and hit him for doing this to me. Instead I turned and found my way through the devastation of the ruin, the one of the Hand and the one we had caused, left him alone in the darkness, with heaps of dead flesh and the stench of piss, vomit and the cold sweat of terror, with his relief, his loss and his loneliness.
Only when I stumbled through the exit and took the first breath of fresh air, a sob escaped me and startled me from my numbness. It felt as if I had held my breath for hours as I leant with my back against the heavy wooden door, burying my face in my palms.
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I knew it, had known it since I had seen the twins together for the very first time as they sat at one of the tables on the porch of Jorrvaskr with their drinks, their dark heads stuck together, laughing about jokes no one else understood. Back then, I had envied their bond. Now, I cursed it. Farkas had told me, had even asked me to accept it. His brother came first. He was always honest.
But what if we had found him, in one of those cages? What if he had been alive? What then?
It wasn’t the cold breeze that made me shiver. It was terror, untamed, bottomless fear of the moment I’d have to look into those eyes again, full of hate and triumph and loathing and that were the same eyes that could look at me with so much love and warmth.
And it was jealousy. Bitter, acrid jealousy of this bond between them that I couldn’t share, that was unbreakable no matter what happened and that made everything else insignificant. Vilkas’ last and most cruel revenge.
Curse the twins. Curse them being twins.
I wandered for hours along the Treva River towards Lake Honrich, away from Ivarstead. I didn’t want to run away, just wanted to be alone. Alone with this disappointment, with the revelation that we were stuck in a situation with no escape. That there was no solution, none anyone of us could live with.
But Farkas had at least a choice he could make. I didn’t have even that.
When I stepped accidentally on a mudcrab, it pierced its pincers through the leather of my boots and I crunched it with an angry step of my heel, I realised how far I had gone. I felt numb and hollow, my thoughts running around in frantic, fruitless circles. Farkas was probably already back and waiting for me, and I would have to return although I didn’t know why. Just to wait for the next disappointment, the next betrayal? It could only become worse, because it had been so perfect. When I turned back towards Ivarstead, the Throat of the World towered again like a wall in front of me, ready for me to crush into.
Wilhelm tried to hold me up when I entered the inn, called after me, but I ignored him. Better to get over with it right away.
But our room was empty. Not only was Farkas not there, but all his gear was gone as well, the spare clothes that had been draped over the backrest of a chair, the map he had studied in the morning and left on the table, his knapsack. No trace was left that he had even been here.
He had left without me. I had left him behind in the ruin, and now he had done the same and gone home without me. He didn’t want to face this. Perhaps he couldn’t. This was the moment I realised that he’d always decide against me when it came to his brother, even when there wasn’t even a choice to make. Not yet.
What we shared… perhaps it was built on a lie. We had pretended that Vilkas didn’t even exist, had blocked him out and ignored his shadow hanging over us. Sunshine and roses. Perfect and so deceptive.
Stiffly I closed the door and turned, went through the main room and addressed Wilhelm, my voice calm. “Has he left a message?”
Wilhelm shrugged, helplessness in his face. “No. He just left.”
I exhaled slowly and with clenched teeth, my thumbs rubbing my temple. “Please wake me with sunrise.”
But of course I couldn’t sleep, and I spent hours crouched on the narrow window sill, a trembling clump of human misery, staring up the mountain. Sometimes I thought to make out a flicker of light up in the heights and imagined the Greybeards shuffling through the darkness of High Hrothgar, carrying a candle or a torch past the windows that shone down to me. It was nonsense, of course, but now I yearned for the silence and solitude I had once found up there. Perhaps Arngeir’s Way of the Voice wasn’t so stupid at all. Perhaps it was really the best to retreat from the world and to stop caring.
When the last guests left the inn and the noise from the main room subsided, I dozed away into the void of a restless half-slumber, my forehead leaning against the cold pane, and I dreamt of these men whom I had allowed to determine my life, in one way or another. Who could hurt me like no one else, both in their own, unique ways. Who had far more power over me than I wanted to allow anyone ever again.
And then they were there, eyes like a glacier gleaming down on me in silent victory, hands gripping unrelenting and firm, and I screamed and fought and struggled, but there was no escape. There was never an escape. I fell and he caught me, and he let me yell and cry and hit him. But he smelled right, caressed the scars on my face, and his kiss was fierce and messy and tasted of home.
When I finally dared to look into these eyes, they revealed a sorrow that reached deep into his soul. Sorrow and guilt.
“I’m so sorry, Qhouri.” Farkas buried his face in the crook of my neck, but his voice contained all the emotions he always hid from me. He could hide only things that I didn’t want to see. “I’m so sorry.”
I clung to him desperately, powerless, relief clenching my chest. Arngeir was a fool. “I thought you’ve gone home without me.”
“I’d never do that. I was searching for you.”
I waited for him to tell me how stupid I was. He didn’t. He didn’t have to.
He was just there, through the struggle, the confusion, my shame and his own. It was all he could do, just be there, until I recovered a bit of my ease and fortitude. Until we were alone in the room once more, until the night was finally over and we could look at each other again.
And when the first rays of sunlight streamed over the horizon and Wilhelm knocked on the door of our room, Farkas opened and ordered breakfast as if nothing had happened.
Breakfast was the most important meal of the day. No matter if I was out in the wilderness, in an inn or at home, if I didn’t get at least a slice of bread and some cheese, the day could try as hard as it wanted to, it would be a mess. I did not get any breakfast from Paarthurnax. Perhaps the reason why the last day had ended so disastrous.
Farkas seldom ate in the morning, unless he had to cure a hangover. Nobody could eat like him after a drunken night when everybody else just sipped on Tilma’s herbal brew, plates full of meat, the bloodier the better. But now he paced restlessly through the room, from the door to the window and back. When he leant against the window sill, he was just a broad, spiked silhouette against the morning light.
It was also easier to apologise while busy with something else. Chewing, for example.
“Sit down, please,” I pointed at the chair, “you make me nervous.”
Instead he dropped down beside me where I sat cross-legged on the bed and picked nervously some crumbs from the pillow.
“I’ve been silly,” I mumbled, mouth full with a bite of berry pie.
“And I’ve been a fool. Again.”
His grin was weak, as was mine, but it was there.
“That’s new, hm? That we fail each other so spectacularly?” he said softly.
“Yeah… seems we’re as good at it as we’re at everything else.” I looked at him. We had survived worse, after all. “It will happen again, every once in a while. Better get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it. Can I… apologise in advance? Or can you just not take me seriously?”
His fingers cradled my neck. Not that he avoided conversations like this. But he always searched the contact, as if he needed some reassurance that he wasn’t rejected. He used these touches like he used expressions and gestures, they were natural to him. And they were to me. Words alone were never enough.
I leant into his touch. “But you meant it. That you miss him. How can I take that not seriously?”
“I don’t want him to haunt us.”
“But he does, Farkas. We’ve been lying to ourselves. Nothing will ever change what Vilkas is to you, and what he is for me.” I swallowed the last bite and turned to him. “We can just try to live with it. Trust each other in this. If you think it’s worth it. ”
He lowered his head, his fingers stilled, retreated, and his words were only a whisper. “Do you think it’s worth it?”
This was exactly the question I had asked myself over and over again. It would be so much easier to deal with Vilkas if it wasn’t for his brother. If I didn’t have to care for his feelings. The thought alone immediately clogged in my stomach into a sore, hard ball of dread. Perhaps that’s what I would have done a couple of months ago. But too much had changed since then, and going the easiest way, cutting myself away from everything wasn’t an option any more. Farkas had taught me to be honest with myself, even if I knew beforehand that it would result in more pain.
He had also tried to keep it away from me, to shelter me from his brother’s shadow, but we both knew now that it didn’t work. Not for him.
I had to face it and we had to stop lying. As long as there was a chance that Vilkas still lived – and nothing spoke against it – I would have to deal with it. With my fear of him and that perhaps, one day, he would reappear in our lives. And that I didn’t know what would happen then.
I didn’t know what Farkas would do. He probably didn’t know himself. We could just try to trust each other.
I set down the tray on the small end-table and turned to him, my fingers under his chin forcing his gaze up to my face. It contained guilt, and hope, and a doubt I could not stand.
“You are worth it. I love you. Never forget that, no matter how phenomenally we fail. You’re worth everything, even your godsdamned brother.”
My open bluntness caught him off guard, but I cut his response with a finger on his lips.
“Later. You know what we’re gonna do now?”
He shook his head.
“Take a break. We earned it. And I need a hot bath.”
“Tell me about him.”
I needed to know. Needed to know where he stood, where we stood. And floating here in the hot pool, lying on my back, eyes closed and with the sun gazing down on me, I could finally start to deal with it. Or so I hoped.
Farkas’ voice came from somewhere beside and behind me, but I was too lazy to move and look for his expression.
“What do you want to know?”
“Have you… searched for him before?”
“You mean, like we’ve searched for you? No. He can’t be found. He has expelled himself from his pack.”
“How do you know he’s still alive?” I was glad he kept the distance between us. It was easier like this.
“I don’t. I hope so. I hope I’d sense it if he were dead. The same way I sensed that you weren’t, against all reason. He may be not himself any more, but I believe he’s alive.”
“What would you have done if you had found him… yesterday?”
“I would have cried. And then I’d have beaten him to pulp. And then I would have let you beat him to pulp.”
“And if I had killed him?”
It was quiet for an eternity. “I don’t know,” he said finally, a pained strain in his voice. “I really don’t know.”
“What would the Circle have done with him… if he hadn’t gone himself?”
“He couldn’t have lied to us… he knows it’s impossible to keep secrets in the Circle. Secrets like this. We would have smelled the lie. I… I don’t know what we’d have done. In the end, he punished himself.”
No, he didn’t punish himself. He just ran away, the coward.
“I wouldn’t have come back if he had been in Jorrvaskr.”
Now he moved behind me, pulled me on top of his chest and held me there with his arms around my waist, the gentle movement causing small waves to wash over my body. I relaxed into the embrace, my head lying against his shoulder, realising how strange it was that I could. That I could be so close to him and speak about this. That we had both finally found this strength.
“I know, and that’s the only reason why I’m glad that he left. I don’t know what would have happened… if I had to choose.”
“He’s your brother, Farkas. I know you can’t let him go. I wish you could… but I can understand that you can’t. And if he ever comes to you, you won’t have a choice. I know that I can’t change that.”
He swallowed heavily. “Trust me, Qhouri. Please.”
“I try. I have to. But… please don’t lie to me. I’ve seen you, yesterday, down in that lair. You forgot everything but to find him. If he ever comes to you, you will not let him go again.”
And it would mean that I would lose him. We both knew it, even if I didn’t say it out loud.
I tasted salty tears in the corners of my mouth, but I lay quiet and still in his arms. And then I felt his hands on my hips, and he turned me around, and the salt was replaced by the bitterness of the water as I hid my face in his chest.
“You’re wrong,” he muttered roughly into my hair. “I love you. I will not give you up. Not for him, not for anyone.”
I wanted so much to believe him.
It was quiet for a long time, and when he started to speak again, his voice was low and pleading. “Can you… tell me what he did? I want to know what happened.”
I lifted my head. “You know what happened.”
“Kodlak didn’t tell us much. But I want to know. Can you do that?”
It was strange. Here I was with this man, nestled into his embrace, and had to recall this scene with his brother. It wasn’t as hard as I thought. I had blocked it out for so long, but the pictures were clear and sharp when I relived them.
“I saved his fucking life, you know? Those guys were on Skooma… and one of them should have been dead, but he wasn’t and somehow got up again. Vilkas didn’t notice him, or too late… and I had to shove him out of the way. The strike that should have killed him killed the boy instead. And then he yelled at me that it was my fault and I told him that he could have saved him if he had changed, and… he snapped. I could watch how he lost it. He broke my nose and strangled me so I couldn’t shout at him. At first I thought he’d just choke me to death… but then he fucked me instead. Against the wall, right next to the corpse. And he made me bleed, as if he wanted to rip me open. Didn’t even take off his gauntlets… and I had already that stabwound in my shoulder. I don’t know any more. When I came round, he had left. Only the Skooma kept me going.”
He tensed with every word, muscles stiffening to stone, his grip nearly bruising. His voice was only a low growl, full of shock and anguish.
“I want to make him pay, Qhouri. For this, and for everything else he did to you.”
My voice was quiet and cold. “If he pays, it will be by my hand. You? You can watch. If you want.”
“You hate him so much…”
“He knew exactly what he did, Farkas. He snapped, but he was still sane enough to think about how he could hurt me most. That nothing would be as bad as this, to be used like a piece of flesh. I was used to it, after all, and it made me believe I deserved it. Of course I hate him. And he scares me.”
“You believed you deserved it?”
“Perhaps not deserved, but… that it was inevitable. That’s what happens when you make the same experience over and over again. It doesn’t get easier, it doesn’t hurt less with time. But you get used to it, and you start to believe that this is the way it has to be, and that every form of… kindness must be a trap.” I swallowed. “Vilkas knew… that it would destroy every bit of trust I had. That after this, I would never go back to Jorrvaskr.”
His voice was hollow and horrified. “Divines. I didn’t know…”
I propped my arms on his chest.
“Farkas, please understand. That I hate him… that’s already an improvement. I know now that it wasn’t inevitable and that I didn’t deserve it, no matter how hard we fought. But it will remain a part of me, that I always expect the worst. It makes me stronger, because I know I can survive everything. I’ve done it before, I can do it again, and all on my own.”
I cupped his face, let my forehead touch his.
“I love you. I love how you look at me, and your touches and your patience, the way you let me dump all this crap on you. But something will always remain. If you… did what he did, right here and now, a little part of my soul wouldn’t be surprised, and it would sit there and say “Told you so!” and stay strong while everything else falls apart. And in the end, it would keep me alive.”
His lips desperately sought mine, and he pressed me against his chest with more strength than he was aware of.
“It’s too late, isn’t it? Perhaps I should have just left you alone.”
“Do you regret it? That I burden you with… all this mess?”
“No! No, of course not. I’d gladly take it all from you and carry it myself if I could. But I didn’t realise how hard it must be for you. To bring yourself to deal with me and my demands. I thought we could leave everything behind if we’re together.”
“We always knew that we can’t leave him behind. But you help me heal, in more ways than you know.”
“I want you to trust me, Qhouri. I won’t let you down, and I won’t lie to you. Yes, I miss him. I hate him for what he’s done to you, but I can’t… only hate him. And that he could have been down there…” A shudder went through his body, and he closed his eyes briefly. But then he offered me a feeble smile. “But whatever happens… I won’t let you down. I want that stubborn little part of your soul to retire. You don’t need it.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. Deep inside, I knew that Vilkas still had the power to destroy me. To destroy us both. We would just have to wait and see and try to trust each other.
“I don’t want to think of him any more.” A soft growl came from the back of his throat when I pressed my lips to his. “Help me?”
He pulled back, but his hand threaded into my hair and palmed the back of my neck. “To get him out of your head?”
“And out of yours. For the moment.”
He watched me pensively, and I wondered what was going on in his head. And then he flicked a strand of hair out of my face, shook his head and gave me a small grin. His palm rubbed circles over my back. “My head is full with a certain woman. A warm, wet, naked, beautiful woman who is driving me crazy. No room for anything else.”
He made me laugh. “Warm, wet and naked? You’re a lucky man, Icebrain.”
He pulled my head down and kissed me fiercely. “I am. I know that I am.”
“You’ve done what? You dared to?” Aela stood in the doorway to Farkas’ room and yelled at him, and she didn’t care if everybody heard her. I stopped dead on the stairs to the living quarters when he rumbled something I couldn’t understand in return.
“That was my job, and I would’ve done it my way. You knew exactly I wanted to take care of them!”
Farkas’ voice, louder now, more agitated. “Yes, and that’s exactly the reason why we took over, Aela! You’re obsessed with them, and you know what Kodlak says…”
Aela’s voice was shrill, like I had never heard her before. “I don’t care what he says and he knows I don’t! You won’t change me, none of you, even if I’m the last one of…” her voice ebbed to frantic whispers, before she stormed around the corner, shooting me a seething glance when she found me standing in the hallway. Farkas only shook his head as a reaction to my questioning look, sadness in his eyes.
When I found her sitting alone and brooding on the porch next time, watching her siblings from afar like she did it so often, I grabbed two bottles of ale and joined her.
“Hey.” I nudged her lightly, aware of the tension in her and between us. Her shoulders were wound tight, and a deep frown creased her brows. “You look as if you needed another hot bath.”
“So what?” she snapped. “What I need is a good hunt, there was one waiting for me in the Rift, but of course you had to steal my kill.”
“Yeah, I know,” I muttered, “you were hard to ignore. Wanna get it off your chest?”
She grunted and took a long gulp of her ale. “I don’t think I wanna talk with you about my quarrel with your sweetheart.”
I grinned. “Sweetheart? He’d gut me if I ever called him that.”
“You should. In the Mare. ‘t would serve him right. Damn protective bastard.”
I laughed and stood up with a pat to her back. She was unbearable in that mood. “You’re silly, Aela. You know he means no harm. Good hunting tonight, and come back safe.” I mimicked a bowshot. Everybody knew she didn’t hunt with bow and arrow.
She shot me a glance, took another long swig from her bottle. Her smirk was nearly… predatory. “Care to join me, sister?”
We met at the gates at dusk, Aela in her usual garb, and I had chosen my old leather armour over the dragon scales. It was a dark night, clouds veiling the moons, it would be foggy in the morning. I let her take the lead, with her sharper senses and all, and we made our way into the mountains south of Whiterun.
We stalked through the woods, searching for our prey. I was good at it, good enough to keep myself alive if I had to. But she was so much better, moving with as little movement as possible, not stirring a single twig or lose leaf where she set her feet. When she stopped she became one with the shadows, became invisible unless she looked directly at me, only her eyes gleaming in the faint light. They were full of hunger and thrill. It was a delight just to watch her, out here in the wilderness where she was so much more herself than anywhere else.
A small herd of deer grazed on a clearing. Aela checked the wind and beckoned me with small gestures to follow her. We understood each other without words, found the perfect spot with enough room and free sight for a clear shot, mutually fixed our targets.
Our arrows flew simultaneously, the buzzing of the strings seemingly the first sound ever that disturbed the peaceful silence. And both found the same target – hers piercing its heart, mine severing the main artery in its throat. The animal collapsed where it stood, the rest of the herd fleeing panicked into the underbrush.
Aela’s laughter echoed through the night, bright and with a hint of glee.
“Just stole your kill, sister!”
I joined her laughter. If that was all it took to ease her mood, I’d not begrudge her this small triumph.
But she became quiet again, unsheathed her dagger and made a skilled first cut through the deer’s pelt. It was gestating, the nearly fully developed fawn curled together in the abdominal cavity of its mother, now nothing more than a heap of meat to feed our greedy siblings. We knelt on opposite sides of the carcass, and I felt her gaze on me, bloody hands at rest in her lap.
“Can you imagine me as a mother, Qhouri?”
Her question caught me off guard, and I had to think about it for a moment. But then I nodded. “Yeah. You’d make a good mother, Aela. Your kids would probably be untameable and a torture for everyone else, but they’d be happy.”
She spoke quietly, more to herself than to me. “I’m the last in my line. For eras the women in my family have been Companions, at least one in every generation, and I’m the last.” She looked at me as if she expected me to ask.
“Skjor wanted a family… we both wanted. He was so much older than me and had seen so much more of the world… he wanted to settle down, in a way. I’ve grown up in Jorrvaskr and the twins as well, we know it would have worked. But I’m barren. Something with internal scars from a stab to the belly nearly twenty years ago…”
My fingers touched her shoulder briefly. “I’m sorry, Aela.”
Her head jerked up. “It’s too late now. But there’s still the pack. I do have a family and Skjor had as well, and I want them to be safe. That’s what he died for.”
She resumed to her work, her dagger hacking frantically into the raw meat. I nearly missed her next words.
“You revenged him, sister, although nobody asked you to. But have you mourned him like he deserves it?”
Now I stilled my hands. No, I hadn’t. Not really, not after that first shock in Ivarstead when she told me about Skjor’s death. There had… never been the time. I never took the time, had been too busy with myself. My lowered head couldn’t hide my shame.
But her voice was soft as she spoke on. “Sometimes, when I wake, I think I wake into the wrong body. As if this weren’t I, not any more. I could never give it up, this gift, and Skjor was the only one who really understood it.”
“Aela… I know I don’t understand all of this. With Hircine and Sovngarde and what the blood means for you. But… you said yourself that the Companions are your family. You can trust them. Stay true to yourself, and we will accept it.”
Suddenly she looked tiny, like a lost child. “I wish you knew what you’re talking about, Qhouri. I wish you understood what Kodlak demands of us. And I wish I could share it with you.”
My eyes grew wide. “You want me… to become like you? A wolf?”
Her lips were just a firm line. She was dead serious. “No… yes. The pack is too small, and I want you to know how it feels, the power and freedom. I want to hunt with you. But it’s not so easy. Don’t believe it’s as easy for everybody as it’s for Farkas.”
With a sudden move she jumped to her feet, all grace and strength. “Take it back home, please,” she pointed at the chunks of meat, folded neatly into the coat, “I’m not done yet.” Moments later she was gone, had vanished soundlessly into the woods.
I spent the rest of the night at the Skyforge, where Eorlund forged our tools and where our bodies were burnt to ashes when these tools finally failed. The coals of the never expiring fire glowed faintly in the darkness. For me this was one of the places that represented best what the Companions stood for, their history and self-conception. They were the best in what they did, just as Eorlund was the best smith in Skyrim, they were unique just as the Skyforge steel, and they were ancient, just like the fire in this forge.
I remembered Skjor, the battlehardened warrior and soldier, eldest of the Companions beside Kodlak and Vignar, as easy to amuse as he was to anger. How he crushed Mikael’s nose to save me from his unwelcome advances. How he had been as a wolf, the one time I had seen him transformed, impressive and mighty as he fought Farkas in the Underforge. How we had gotten drunk together, once and only accidentally because no one else was home, and he had told me of the war and how he had met Kodlak and joined the Companions. I hadn’t known him for long enough, we had never been close and I didn’t have many memories of him, but the ones I had were intense.
They had cried for me when they held Skjor’s funeral. Now I could finally cry for him, and for Aela, her loss and all the other losses the Companions had suffered recently, and I watched the stars wander over the horizon while Jorrvaskr lay below me in peaceful silence.
When I slipped under the blankets with the first morning light, shivering from cold and fatigue, Farkas’ sleeping body curled unconsciously around me. I had found luck, so much more than I deserved.