Warning: Sexual Content. NSFW, not appropriate for children.
I stood stock-still in the entrance, our packs dropped to my feet, and looked from face to face. Torvar avoided my eyes, Ria’s face showed anxiety and pity, Tilma hid in a corner behind a pillar. Only Aela finally stood up and approached me.
“What’s going on here?” I hated that my voice trembled.
Her embrace was warm, but she didn’t show any joy that we were finally back, so much later than originally planned. She mainly looked tired.
“Good that you’re finally back. We’ve been waiting for you.”
“What’s the matter, Aela?” Sudden fear constrained my breath. “Has something happened? With…”
“No, Farkas is fine,” she said with a forced smile, “can you come with me? Kodlak wants to speak with you. Or are you too tired?”
“I’m okay. Just tell me what happened.”
I didn’t even get opportunity to put my pack away, her grip on my elbow unrelenting while we descended to the living quarters. As if she feared that I’d bolt out of the door once she let go.
Farkas just left Kodlak’s quarters as she led me through the long corridor. He looked as tired as Aela, exhausted and worried, his warpaint standing out against his pale skin much more clearly than usual. But his face lit up when he saw me, his embrace clasping me so tight as if he never wanted to let go again and his kiss holding nothing back.
“I missed you so much,” he muttered into my ear. “I love you. Never forget that I love you.”
He was afraid. He was afraid, and I didn’t know why. I felt a shiver creep up my spine.
“What happened, Farkas? What’s this all about? You scare me!”
“Don’t be afraid. Everything will be good. Let’s speak with Kodlak.”
Kodlak’s face was stern when we entered, not a trace of the usual amused twinkle in the corners of his eyes. He only offered me a hand without standing up, then gestured towards the chair opposite of him.
“Have a seat, Qhouri. I’m sorry that we assault you like this right after your return… but we’ve just waited for you. And I didn’t want the gossip hurlers to get you first.”
But I refused to take the chair he offered, stood stiff and anxious at the door. When Farkas laid an arm around my shoulder, I leant into the comfort of his warmth.
“What happened, Kodlak?”
He sat slumped back in his chair, looked weak and exhausted. “We should have spoken about this earlier,” he said calmly, but I could see a muscle twitch in his cheek. He was nervous, nearly as nervous as I.
“About Vilkas.” I felt their eyes on me, and a lump formed in my throat and made it hard to breathe. My head became dizzy, Kodlak’s face blurring before my eyes. It couldn’t be. I had been so glad to come home. And now, in a blink of an eye… all gone.
I closed my eyes, tried to calm myself, but my breathing was shallow, beads of cold sweat forming on my forehead and running down my spine. When Farkas’ embrace tightened, I shrugged him off with a violent jerk. I wanted to shut them out. I wanted to shut everything out, tried to deny that this was happening.
But I couldn’t, not with Kodlak’s quiet voice in my ear. “We found him, Qhouri. And now we have to…”
I interrupted him, made a shaky step towards him. “Is he here?”
“Of course not!” Farkas blurted out, and Kodlak nodded in the affirmative.
“No, he isn’t. He can’t come home.” The Harbinger gave Farkas a look over my shoulder. “Please leave us alone,” he said gently, but the other Companion didn’t move.
“No. I won’t leave her alone,” he said bluntly, determination below the despair. Always so protective of everyone he cared about. When would he learn that he couldn’t have everything?
Kodlak regarded me with a probing gaze. It felt as if he looked directly into my soul. “Listen, Qhouri. I know this is hard, so off-guard. But…”
He had no idea. This was worse than another fist to the gut. The fact alone that they still called Jorrvaskr his home made clear in an instant that I had already lost. I didn’t know what Farkas and Kodlak had stipulated in my absence, but it felt so awfully like the betrayal that I had always anticipated.
Kodlak spoke on, urgency in his voice. “I know what you feel now, that you wanna run away and deal with this all on your own. I ask you not to do that. You’re part of this family, and you two,” his gaze shifted to Farkas, “belong together. We will stand by your side. You don’t have to face this alone.”
I didn’t want to face this at all. Not alone, not with Farkas, not with anyone. “Keep him away from me,” I whispered. “If I mean anything to you, you keep him away from me.”
Farkas sucked in a sharp breath, but the final confirmation of my fears came from Kodlak. “We can’t.”
“But you said he’s not here!” I was shivering, and my voice sounded whiny and panicked. I leant heavily against the door to have at least something solid to hold on to, my hands trying to claw into the wood as they closed convulsively into fists. I felt Farkas’ hands on my shoulders as he pulled me against his chest, and I wanted to hide and scream and get back to the time when it was only the two of us.
But this time was over. “Qhouri, please… at least listen.” He was so helpless, looked at me from bloodshot eyes full of the same sadness and guilt they always showed when his brother was involved. I knew this sadness. It was for Vilkas, not for me.
Seeing him like this, blazing fury rose beneath the shock and the panic that was familiar. It would burn Jorrvaskr down if I let it, and it would keep me going. Fury that he was so damned predictable, that I had been right, that he couldn’t get out of his skin. Not even if he wanted. And fury because I was betrayed although I had wanted so much to believe that it would be different. I pushed him off with a forceful shove and turned to Kodlak.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to do, Kodlak. Why I have to be here.” My voice was trembling.
There was pity in his eyes. “Don’t be afraid, girl. It’s just… we can’t leave him where he is. He has to account for what he’s done. And we thought it should be your decision what happens with him.”
I pressed my lips into a tight line, shaking with anger. “You thought? Well, I think that I give a shit what happens with him as long as you keep him out of my eyes.”
“It’s not so easy.”
“Oh yes, it is.”
“It isn’t!” Farkas flared up, “he’s…”
“Farkas!” The Harbinger’s sharp voice let him fall silent, his face scrunching up in pain. Kodlak leant forward, his hands on his knees, as if he wanted to creep into my mind. “Listen to me, Qhouri. At the moment, it’s not important what will happen with Vilkas. But we worry for you. You can’t go on and ignore him. What he did… he did it because he was afraid, and you have to understand what fear can do to someone. Don’t run into this trap as well. You can’t go on like this, and you will have to face him if you ever want to find peace.”
When he became quiet, the world became quiet. No sound in this small room, no sound anywhere, no breath, no word, no heartbeat. Just this helpless hatred that welled up, filled and replaced everything else with impenetrable darkness.
“Oh no, Kodlak,” I said strangely calm. “Don’t you dare to compare me with him. He did what he did because he’s a sick bastard who loves to see others suffer. If we had found his bare bones, yes, that would have given me peace. But the gods don’t even grant me this small mercy.”
“There are worse fates than death, Qhourian.”
I bared my teeth in a mirthless grin. “Are there now? Glad to hear that. Perhaps he’ll still get what he deserves.”
“Qhouri, please.” There was so much despair in Farkas’ voice that it constricted my throat. But again, it wasn’t for me. Everything told me that he was pleading for him. “It will help you. And you won’t be alone.”
“No!” it broke out of me before I composed myself, clenching my teeth so hard that it hurt. “It’s not your bloody job to decide what would help me, and I didn’t ask for it! Once and for all, I will have no dealings with Vilkas!”
“And how much longer do you want to run from him?” Farkas yelled back.
I glared at the man who would always be his brother first. “I wouldn’t have to run at all if you didn’t force me! You’re a fool to think that this is something I can come to terms with. To peace!” I snorted derisively. “You’re both fools if you still believe that one day, we can all live as one big happy family again. Not gonna happen, Milords!”
I didn’t know how I made it out of the room, past the heads poking out of the dormitory, through the stares in the hall and up to the Skyforge. But there I found myself, curled together against the warm stones, and felt my world drip away. It wasn’t earthshattering, this betrayal. I had known it would come. It was more like an icicle melting in the sun, something beautiful that simply vanished and left nothing behind, as inevitable as the spring following the winter.
But of course he didn’t leave me alone. Farkas’ steps could be heard through the silence of the night as he left the hall and climbed the stairs, but I didn’t move when he finally came around the corner. As much as I had missed him before, now I didn’t have the strength to face to him. Not now, not with my head full of Vilkas and so many things not worth to argue about. So many things neither of us could change.
He sat down in a safe distance, knees drawn to his chest.
He shook his head. “No.”
“The time of bliss is over, Farkas.”
He actually managed to show a crooked, lopsided smile. “Life’s not meant to be bliss all the time, and I had my fair share lately. We both knew that this could happen.”
“Yes,” I spat, “we both knew. The difference between you and me is that you have waited for it. Eagerly!”
He leant forward and stared at me, his hands clenched around his knees. “Why don’t you trust me, Qhouri? Or Kodlak? You don’t even know the whole story. And I promised I wouldn’t let you down.”
Trust! This wasn’t a question of trust. This was a question of… inevitability. “I don’t care for his story, don’t you get it? And you’ve always made far too many promises. Didn’t Vilkas tell you that already? And didn’t he also tell you that sometimes you have to choose?” His aghast expression filled me with cruel satisfaction. “But no, you try to foist it off on me instead. And you expect me to trust you when we both know exactly what’s gonna happen?”
“Do we, now?” A dangerous undertone crept into his voice. “Tell me, what do you know is gonna happen?”
I groaned. It didn’t matter any more. “Go on, Farkas. Reunite with your brother. We’ve discussed this already, haven’t we? It’s not that you can leave him now, not again. It’s not that I didn’t know what to expect.”
Silver eyes flared up with fury and frustration.
“Oh no, Qhouri, you won’t get away so easily. Don’t make things up for me! Yes, he’s back, so what? All the twin bullshit my arse, what does it change between us? I fought for you so long, you really think I wanna lose you now just because my ass of a brother has been found in some rotten hole? You really think I wanna lose you to him?”
The bitterness in my mouth puckered my cheek. “Yeah, my knight in shining armour, so selfless, so noble, just here to save this poor, broken soul. Stop lying, Farkas. Don’t try to tell me that you can not choose him.”
His voice was threateningly calm. “Be careful, woman. You flail around and don’t care who you hit, but you will regret what you destroy now.”
I glared at him. Smooth-mouthed traitor. “As if I could hurt you.” I gave my voice a whiny tone. “I miss him so much, Qhouri. Remember? What have you done while I was away, held his hand and told him everything will be fine because you will take care of me? Because I gave you freely what he had to take?”
He jerked back as if I had stabbed a dagger between his ribs, his face blanching to a deadly paleness.
“You’re a coward, Qhouri,” he pressed out. “You know how much I love you, but for you, I’ve never been anything but just his brother. Just his better half. And now you thrash out against me because you don’t have the guts to deal with him. This is not about me.”
“Of course it is, you bastard!” I didn’t care any more if all of Whiterun could hear me. “You’re the reason why I’ve been so scared of this day. For months I’ve tried nothing but to come to terms with you, and now you dare to tell me it doesn’t matter? If it’s not about you, what in Oblivion are you still doing here?”
“I don’t know.” The silence after these words was earthshattering.
“I thought you trust me. I thought we trust each other enough to handle this together. But it seems I’ve been wrong. If you did, you’d know that I’ll have your back, no matter what you do. I haven’t even seen him yet, but you scent betrayal everywhere. But in the end, Kodlak is right. This is only about Vilkas and you.”
“I hate you, Farkas.” I felt the heat of my rage rising along my spine. It didn’t take much more and I’d burn him down to ashes. “If it wasn’t for you, I could just kill him. If you really loved me, you would kill him for me. And you dare to call me a coward?”
Suddenly, he was very quiet, and although he didn’t move, I could feel how he retreated from me. His voice was so frighteningly calm that it sent a shiver down my spine. “If you have to kill him to put it behind yourself then do it. But it is your decision. You’ll have to make it.”
I jumped up and went to the edge of Eorlund’s workspace, stared down the precipice where the rocks fell down to the plains. I was freezing, and his presence in my back was unbearable. “The only one who has a choice here is you, and if you cared only a bit, you’d know that.”
Despair and fury mixed in his voice. “Gods, there’s so much you can do. Go ahead and kill him. Leave him to rot, speak with him, forgive or forget him, have your revenge or make your peace with him. Anything. But you prefer to bathe in your misery and let it out on me just because I’m his brother. You will break yourself if you go on like this, and then nobody will be there to catch you.”
I spun around. “There never was,” I spat. “No one has ever caught me. I’m not so naïve to believe that this has changed.”
He made a step towards me, but then he stopped. The distance between us was an abyss, and he wouldn’t cross it. But he was trembling, hands and teeth clenched tightly. “I can’t if you don’t let me. If you can’t bring yourself to believe me. I thought… what we had was stronger.”
“You’re the one who tries to push me. You’re the one who can’t decide what he wants. I just want this to be over, but it’s either him or me. You always knew that, and I always knew how you would choose.”
He shook his head, bottomless sadness in his face. I could see how tightly wound he was, how much it cost him to retain his composure. “What we have is good, Qhouri. It is strong, and still you throw it away just because you’re scared. He would love to know how you cower before him. How much power he still has, after all this time.” He turned with a sharp movement and went towards the stairs.
“I do not cower!” I yelled after him, boiling with fury. How dared he!
He turned back to me, one foot already on the steps down. “Oh yes, you do. Nothing will ever be over as long as you let him control your life. I love you, and if you ever decide to be more than just a victim, you can count on me. But you’ll have to want it. I want to be more than just your excuse not to deal with him.”
His steps faded away until I heard the door to Jorrvaskr fall shut. He had done what I had asked of him and left me alone. I deserved nothing else.
Tears streamed over my face, and the wooden frame of Eorlund’s grindstone splintered with the first purposeful heavy kick.
Yes, I deserved nothing else, but that didn’t give him the right to treat me like that. His words swirled around in my head, pacing in mad, frantic circles, mingling with my helpless fury to a melange of anger, hate and self-pity. They made no sense!
Of course they made sense, but he knew… gods, why was it my fault? What an ass. An excuse! He was no excuse! He had made me fall in love with him, and I fell in love with him despite his brother. And I also fell in love with him because he was Vilkas’ twin. Because he wouldn’t be the man he was without his brother. If he wanted to deny the influence his brother had on him, if he didn’t want to be compared to him, why in Oblivion didn’t he kill him himself? And he dared to call me a coward? What did he expect? That I marched straight into the wolf’s den and killed him?
I didn’t want to deal with this man. With this beast. He couldn’t force me.
But it wasn’t because of him that I wasn’t able to confront Vilkas. Of course it was, to hurt Vilkas would mean to hurt him. But it wasn’t the only reason, and it wasn’t the most important. It took some time until his accusations had fully sunk in, time I spent raging and crying under the wings of the stone eagle until I was hoarse and dry and had hit the masonry so often that my knuckles were bruised and bloodied. But when they did and took full effect, when I cowered motionless at the edge of the platform, drained and sore and tired and watched the moons wander over the plains, I knew that in a way, he was right.
Of course he was utterly, totally wrong in so many regards, when he claimed that this was only about Vilkas and me and that it had nothing to do with him and when he accused me of throwing away everything we had built up. He was wrong.
But he was right when he said that Vilkas had control over my life, and he was right too when he called me a coward. The mere idea to meet his brother face to face terrified me to a point where I couldn’t think straight any more, and so far, I had found no way to overcome this fear. Not even his promise had been enough.
In this he was right, and it didn’t matter at all. I was no coward, and I would prove it. And then he could get lost if he really thought he was nothing more than an excuse.
I hated him because he had left me like that. And I loathed myself, as weak as I was, because he was right and I had allowed Vilkas to take control over me, something he had always tried and never accomplished until that fateful day when he imprinted me with his hate and my helplessness. The fear I felt of him crippled me, and I hadn’t even been aware of it. Farkas had seen it, recognised it as what it was, and now that I pushed him away because he dared to point it out, he couldn’t bear it any more. I couldn’t even blame him. I would’ve rejected myself as well if I were in his place, and I hated him because he had done it.
I had no idea how to get this control back, but I would try, and if it was the last I’d do.
A good start would be to kill something.
Jorrvaskr was sleeping – or at least quiet – when I entered the living quarters, fetched my old leather armour from my trunk and crept out again, hoping I didn’t disturb the other whelps’ sleep. But when I stood only in worn-out pants and a thin undershirt in the main hall, the dragonscales left in a heap on a table, I was startled by a soft cough. Athis leant at the wall beneath the fragments of Wuuthrad, eyes small with sleepiness and his hair open and tousled, and watched me as I fumbled with the clasps and buckles of the jacket.
“You want me to kill him?” he asked, entirely calm and entirely serious.
A sound escaped me, something between a sob and a laughter. I loved this mer.
“You know where he is?”
He narrowed his brows briefly, then let out a snort. “Of course I know. Down there,” he pointed towards the stairs, “drinking himself to Oblivion. His brother is still your job, though.”
After a moment of speechlessness, I swallowed thickly. “You’d really do that?”
He shrugged. “He’s an ass. He loves you and you love him, but he’s still an ass. He shouldn’t have left you alone.”
I lowered my gaze and bit my lip, remembering what we had thrown at each other. We had both been vicious, had let out all the frustration and unspoken things that had boiled between us for so long. I knew that, and I could just hope Farkas knew it as well.
“I haven’t been exactly nice either,” I muttered. It was quiet while I fastened Dragonbane’s sheath to my belt and closed the strap that held the quiver to my back. And then I heard the padding of his naked feet and felt his hand under my chin.
“You’ll do the right thing, Qhouri. Both of you. He’s an ass, but you’ve gone through so much already… give him some credit, okay? And don’t give Vilkas too much.”
I gave him a feeble smile. “What would I do without you, Athis?”
“Lose your head.” His lips curled into a grin, and now I really had to laugh.
“True. Go back to bed. You’re not healed yet.”
“Okay.” He turned towards the stairs, giving me a gaping yawn over his shoulder. “Good hunting, sister. Find us a mammoth, okay?”
I looked after him. What could happen with friends like this? What was I afraid of?
I’d think about it later. First I had to kill something.
Snowback joined me at the stables, running after me with a happy yelp when I whistled for him. Ria had taken him under her wings during all the time I wasn’t in Whiterun, and she loved him dearly, always said he reminded her of a dog she had had as a child. But I was glad to see that he still followed me without hesitation.
I wanted to hunt, but in the end I just wandered through the landscape, up into the mountains where I had been with Aela, and spent hours watching a giant at his camp. It didn’t look so different from mine, just that everything was so much bigger; a roaring fire, a pile of furs under a ledge in the cliff, some enormous leather casks with fermented mammoth milk. Somehow they made a living, just like we, but they were always alone. For them, it worked.
I took the shortcut over the mountain that Aela had shown me, sneaked past Bleak Falls Barrow, passed Riverwood and made my way up the path along the river. The fisher’s camp where I had once spent a night was abandoned, only a few empty lines strung between the trees and a few blank fish bones reminding of the friendly couple. I hoped that nothing bad had happened to them.
And I made a break at the Guardian stones, realising that I had never chosen. In the meantime, my path seemed obvious, only the warrior the correct choice. But I hesitated to touch the engraved monument.
Last time I had been here, I was running from Whiterun, from the Companions and from Vilkas. I had been running from him so often… perhaps I was no warrior. Perhaps I was more of a thief, stealing away and hiding from everything that threatened to haunt me. I had always liked better to fight from shadows and distance than to meet my foes head on.
Lately, I had been hiding behind Farkas’ back. It was tempting, and he had always sheltered me the best he could. But this refuge was gone now, he had pushed me out, and I was on my own. I could either run and try to hide somewhere else or turn around and fight the shadows in my head. Give him the credit he deserved and had a right to claim.
And in the end, I reached a large cave entrance in the mountainside. A familiar location, the place where I had truly entered Skyrim for the first time. Where daylight greeted me again, unexpected, surprising but somehow welcome, after Helgen, after that Stormcloak soldier whose name I didn’t even know had helped me to escape Alduin’s terror.
I had been someone different back then. Just a woman with a broken past and no future, with nothing to lose and nothing to gain, clinging to her bare life with every little bit of strength and stubbornness she had. Until Athis had taken things into his cold fingers and snagged me out of my solitude. In the meantime, I had made experiences and gained memories that were far too precious to be abandoned. I couldn’t just start anew over and over again. To start anew would hurt more than to go on and fight.
I knew Farkas was right, but that didn’t make it any easier. As much as I wanted, this was nothing I could handle with a blade, an arrow or a wellplaced Shout. I simply didn’t have the means to deal with Vilkas. I hadn’t been able to do it before, and now, without Farkas’ support… I had never really realised how important it was. How much I relied on him, and how much the fact that he simply knew all my weak spots helped. But I was spoiled. I wasn’t used to be judged like that, so merciless and brutally honest. He had never judged me before, and now he had drawn his consequences and was gone.
He demanded too much, but he had every right to do so and to claim the same unconditional trust he gave himself. He was so much more than just an excuse… but I knew I had to prove it. I’d have to free myself of Vilkas before I could face him again, alone and vulnerable and with nothing but my bare hands.
Kodlak wasn’t surprised when I entered his quarters. His door stood invitingly open, and he even seemed relieved to see me.
“Qhouri,” he said, bowing his head. “You’ve been gone.”
I knew my smile didn’t leave my lips. I didn’t feel like smiling. “I haven’t been gone. Just made a… short excursion into my past.”
He looked at me with sadness in his eyes. “You’re not gonna do something rash, are you?”
“Probably, yes. I know I’m good at that. We’ll see.” I let out a short, unhappy laughter. “I want to apologise, Harbinger. My words were inexcusable. I don’t have the right to call you a fool, and I’m sorry. And you were right. I can’t go on like this, and I have to do something.”
He sighed, and I felt remorse because I had brought him and all the Companions into this situation. He beckoned me to come in and sit down, but I refused. I just needed an information, after all.
“You’re safe here, girl, no matter what happens. Is there anything I can do for you now?”
I didn’t want to stay here, and I didn’t want to be safe. “Yes, Kodlak. Please. Tell me where he is.”
His eyes grew wide. “Why? Why do you wanna know?”
I swallowed hard. “I have to do something. Try to finish this. For me, and for us all.”
“Promise you won’t go alone. Take Farkas with you.”
I shook my head, and the mask of a smile disappeared once and for all. “No, Harbinger. Farkas is probably the last person willing to go there with me. He won’t go anywhere with me, and he’s also the last one I wanna see at the moment. I have to do this on my own.”
He stared at me, with his intense, piercing gaze. I endured it, waited for his judgment and felt nearly dizzy with relief when he nodded. “Okay,” he said finally. “But before I tell you where he is, you should know what happened with him.”
I held my hand up in resistance. “I don’t wanna know, Kodlak. I just wanna see him with my own eyes.”
Another long pause, his hands clenched around the armrests. And then he fell back in his chair as if he was defeated. “I hope this isn’t another mistake,” he said lowly, doubt in his face, and took a deep breath. “He’s in Falkreath prison. They caught him… changed. He waits for his trial.”
It took me three days to reach Falkreath, two days and two nights of which I spent in my camp, Snowback my only companion. The only companion I could bear during these days, the only one I didn’t have to hide from, not my tears, my hesitation, my doubts or my rage.
I needed these days to steel myself, to harden my determination. I fasted and didn’t care to do anything useful during this time. Without eating I didn’t have to hunt, and Snowback took care of himself.
Perhaps I hoped unconsciously that Vilkas would already be dead if I took my time, hung to the inn’s pediment or beheaded in the middle of the market before I would arrive. But first and foremost I was determined to come to terms with myself. To find the dependencies that were so treacherously comfortable and yet only nourished my weakness. To unveil the truths hidden in the coppice of my daily habits, to find out what was important and what dispensable. And to find the strength that had let me survive and go on until now, that little part of my soul that would always hold on and carry through. It was still there, and in the end I knew, even if nothing else was left, I could still trust myself. I would still be able to catch myself.
And slowly the feeling of loneliness faded, the overwhelming feeling of being forsaken. I wasn’t forsaken. I could go back and go on, any time, as soon as I had found the strength and honesty to deal with myself. I took in the life around me, nature giving birth, life and death, and the loneliness was replaced by the silence and the tranquillity of the forest surrounding me. I found a quiet content again in being alone with myself. I knew this feeling. It was like coming home. In a way, this was another beginning.
Two days and two nights to find the calmness I had missed for so long and needed desperately. Time to realise that my words at the Skyforge had been inexcusable. I had been driven by my temper and my fears again, the fear to trust and to be hurt in return, the fear to lose the man I loved and the fear to confront what had always stood between us, since my return to Jorrvaskr. Since that first meeting in its backyard. He couldn’t take it away from me, and it had been wrong to expect it from him. I just ran away. I had made these fears my reality, but they weren’t real. Nothing had happened, and I could return to him as soon as I had dealt with myself.
It was time to grasp ultimately how right Farkas had been. This wasn’t about him. I didn’t do it to get him back. When I went to confront Vilkas, I did it solely for myself.
Only that there was no confrontation.
When I reached Falkreath, the morbid little village built around an ancient graveyard, I just entered the inn to rent a room and went straight for the jail. A single, lonely guard kept watch, sitting idly in his little room, a bottle of ale beside him. When I asked for the captured werewolf, he beckoned me to follow him and hurried ahead, impatient to get back as fast as possible and giving me no opportunity to stall. He led me through a maze of aisles to the darkest, backmost cell of the complex, a murky, circular pit, dark save for a single beam of daylight coming through a hole in the roof and a smoking torch above the sturdy iron grate. The cells left and right of the corridors were empty, Vilkas the only prisoner.
I watched him for hours, crouched in front of the bars that separated me from him, so caught in morbid fascination that I didn’t even notice how I became stiff and cold. What I found in this cell wasn’t a man any more, and it had no resemblance with the inner image of Vilkas I had carried with me for so long.
I found a creature that sometimes looked like a man and sometimes didn’t, shifting and changing in front of my eyes. I waited for a sign from him, any hint that he noticed my presence, but there was nothing. Only the telltale transformations from man to wolf and back, abruptly, starting and stopping with no warnings or notice and often staying incomplete, the process turning around before it was finished. Never entirely human, never completely beast. I saw fur sprout and recede, his spine lengthen and contract, face forming into a snout and back, fingers turn into claws and return into human hands. I heard joints snap, bones break and skin tear and smelled the biting stench of sweat and urine that proved that he had lost control over his most basic functions. And then he was whole again, and it started anew.
Only his eyes never altered. Neither did they show the intense, threatening silver glare I knew, the piercing gaze that always found the weakest spot for a successful attack, nor did they turn into the vivid, feral, predatory copper of his wolf. They were of a dull yellow, bleak, bland and lifeless.
And when he didn’t change, he was waiting for the next circle, crawling on all fours through the mud of his cell or cowering motionless in the back where it was darkest, and it didn’t matter at all if he was man or wolf. Sometimes he let out a whimper or a choked wail, hoarse and rough. It was never human, this sound, no matter what he looked like.
He had lost control, completely and irreversibly. What had always been most important to him – control over himself, over his beast and over everybody else – had been taken from him. The pure physical agony he endured had to be indescribable, but most of all I hoped that he had enough consciousness left that his mind could still conceive the torture he went through. I wanted him to know that he had become what he always hated most.
I could only suspect, though. I didn’t know if he even realised that he had a visitor, and I didn’t care. But once or twice, when the relentless shifting stopped, I had the feeling that he tried to hide and watch, just like I watched him. That he stared at me, or perhaps through me. No sign of recognition, no emotions but agony in this face that barely resembled the man I had known. But I had the feeling that in flashes in consciousness, he was aware that I was there.
And he could do nothing against it. He couldn’t hide from me, and I watched him suffer for hours, fascinated, terrified and full with a deep, dark satisfaction. The hate that had determined my life for so long burned bright and clear, welled up in waves and ebbed away again, like the tides, eternal and with so much more power than a flood wave. Vilkas was the anchor that tied me in place, and to see him like this, to compare this thing with the man I remembered, to tug on the massive chain that bound me to him was like scratching an unhealed, scabbed, festering wound open and let it clean itself with fresh blood.
Alone with him I became aware of my own strength, a strength that had led me here and enabled me now to watch myself with the same clinical attention I watched him. He was just a beast, loathed and pitied, lost in the abyss of himself, a miserable creature caught between the halves of his soul. I had seldom thought of him in terms of revenge, but this… this was brilliant. Better than everything I could have come up with. He didn’t need my revenge any more, and I didn’t need it either.
I felt alive seeing him like that. With every shifting circle I felt a piece of my subjection break away, exposing layers of independence that had been suppressed and forgotten. I changed with him, the thick coat of loathing and self-loathing transforming into something different. Something came to life again while I fed my fears to the beast in front of me, one after another.
Watching him I could embrace my own weakness, accept it as a part of myself instead of something that was forced upon me. This thing behind the bars couldn’t force anything on me, and as a part of myself, I could deal with it.
It was already dark when I entered the inn again, exhausted to the bones although I had done nothing for hours but to cower in front of a locked door, and I found my room occupied. The shock to see Farkas lying on top of the threadbare blanket, clad just in some old clothes, made me stop dead in the open door. For endless moments, we only stared at each other. He looked unbelievably tired. As tired as I felt… and for the first time since we were together, there was uncertainty in his eyes.
Finally he sat up, but he stayed in the backmost corner of the bed, curled together as if he needed the protection of the walls around him. Protection from me. “There’s no middle course for you, isn’t it?” he asked. “You either do nothing or you rush ahead, all on your own, without backup and support. You’re at least as stubborn as you’re stupid.”
I was too tired for this, and the last I needed now were more accusations. I slumped down against the wall.
“Why are you here, Farkas? Brought some more salt to rub in? Some more advice how I should deal with my life? Or just to prevent that I kill him without supervision?”
His face closed down. “Don’t do that, Qhouri… please.”
“Don’t do what?”
His eyes were like steel. “Don’t push me away. Think about what you destroy.”
I didn’t push him away, only didn’t want him to come closer. I rested my forehead on my knees, shivering, wanted nothing more than to crawl under these blankets he sat on and let the darkness claim me. Alone.
“I don’t have the strength for you both. Not if you keep lying to me.”
He spun around. “I’m not lying!”
“Oh yes, you are. You lie when you claim you don’t care for him. That you will be my backup. Have you seen him yet?”
He shook his head.
“Then go. Look at him. See what he’s become, and let’s see afterwards if there’s anything left to destroy.”
I got out of my armour and lay down when he had left the room without another word, curled together into the corner of the bed that was still warm from his body. Every bone ached as if it had been broken and knitted together a dozen times, my head throbbing as if something tried to break free. It felt as if my body had shifted its form over and over again. Sleep didn’t come… and to drift in and out of a troubled unconsciousness was more exhausting than to remain awake.
I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted him to come back, wanted him to rage and cry and scream, to share his despair with me, a despair he denied to feel. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to be the only one who was weak.
But he didn’t come back, not for hours, and in the end I locked the room behind me and returned to the jail. The lonely guard in his small room had to reckon us as crazy, two entirely normal travellers spending that much time with the madman behind the bars, just watching in silence. On the other hand, he probably simply didn’t care as long as we didn’t do anything else.
Farkas cowered motionless in front of the bars and watched the creature in the cell just like I had done it. The creature that was his brother, crawling through the mud, not even able to control its most basic instincts any more. Vilkas had not acknowledged my presence during all those hours I had spent here, and neither had he acknowledged the presence of his brother. Farkas sensed me coming, I saw the cords in his neck strain when I leant against the doorway between the cell and the corridor, only a step behind him. But he didn’t move, remained motionless and silent, his whole body tense like a drawn bow and paralysed by the sight.
And seeing him like this, I forgot about Vilkas. He became irrelevant, all the pain and hate and humiliation he had inflicted on me not dissolving, but overlain with the torture Farkas was going through. All that remained was the creature behind the bars and the suffering it caused in his brother. He didn’t hide it from me, not any more. He couldn’t, the traces of tears on his face and the hopelessness in his eyes far too obvious.
I wanted to reach out for him, wanted so much to free him of this pain, and I realised that the bonds between us were so much stronger than the chains that tied me to Vilkas. His brother would not destroy them, and it didn’t matter any more what caused this pain. All that mattered was that he suffered. His sorrow ached in my heart, and I knew I couldn’t ease it. But I could show him that he was not alone with it.
The shiver running through him when I hunched down behind him, closed my arms around his chest and rested my forehead between his shoulder-blades was barely noticeable, but it was there… like the faint tremor of a cliff the second before the floodwave hits. The frail barrier that held it at bay shattered, breaking the tension, and a halted breath broke free with a dark, guttural groan. He was so incredibly fast, shot up and around and pulled me with him, pressed me against the wall, his lips hard and devouring when they crashed down on my mouth, biting my lip. He ripped my shirt out of my pants, his hands searching skin, holding and pushing against me. No tenderness, just need, raw and aching.
His scent, his taste, his warmth and the despair that rolled off him in waves… nothing else mattered any more. He held on to me and I held him, let him pour it out and over me, his desperate, pleading desire erasing every thought.
“I did not lie!” A growl deep from his throat. He shred fabric with unconscious strength, his hands gripping and stroking roughly, his kiss and his weight pressing against me breathtaking. I palmed his head and forced it back, my hands in his hair, forced him to look at me. His eyes were haunted. We were both panting heavily.
“I love you,” I whispered and a choked sob escaped him as he lifted me off my feet and trapped me against the wall, trapped himself in the grip of my thighs and filled me with himself, with his forlornness and his love, his humanity and promises impossible to keep.
His face in my neck, hiding, the last remnants of his control slipping through the desperate grasp of his fingers. He had lost control long ago. We both had. His free hand searched mine, clenched around it when he found it, our fingers entangling and my wrist pressed against the wall above my head. Clenching as if it was all that held him.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered, broken words and jagged breath, over and over again, trembling and bucking. “Don’t leave me.” And I clung to him, surrendered to his strength and his weakness, forced him not to hide and to look me in the eyes. His cheeks were damp, and he screamed his release into the darkness.