We had to get out of here, out of the reeking, dripping darkness, out of the misery. I wrapped myself into my cloak and pulled him with me, our fingers still entwined, Farkas still clenching my hand. We both didn’t let go of each other, desperate to have something to hold on to.
Back in my room, in our room, I leant against the door, closing my eyes. What now? I didn’t feel threatened. He had never threatened me. We were buried beneath a mountain of violations, insults and rejections, we had hurt each other ruthless and thoughtless, neither of us knew how to go on, but I still felt safe with him.
Farkas stood in the middle of the room with his back to me, his head lowered, his shoulders bunched up and coiled tight.
“I didn’t want that.” A barely audible, strangled whisper.
I stepped before him. He stared at me with wide open eyes full of shame.
“Do… not… apologise. Not now.”
It didn’t matter who was wrong or right. It didn’t matter who betrayed whom. We wouldn’t lose each other, we could be weak together and become strong again, stronger than either of us could be alone. And together, we would deal with everything outside of this room.
I led him to the bed and urged him to lay down, against his will, against the tension in his muscles, held him until he stopped to shiver. Only when I heard him sigh deeply and felt his arms come around me in the embrace I was so used to, firm and still so careful as if he was afraid to break me, I could relax.
To curl against his chest, to feel his hands on my skin and his skin beneath my fingers was what held me in reality during these hours. Light touches, just an affirmation that the other was still there, and whispered nonsense carried us through the night, sheltered us from the horror outside.
We stayed like that until the morning light started to pour through the windows, drifting in and out of a light sleep, listening to each other’s breath, savouring the warmth and closeness.
I lay with my back against his chest when he whispered into my hair.
“I didn’t want that, Qhouri. I’m sorry.”
I tensed and turned so I could face him. “I told you not to apologise.”
Guilt was etched deeply into his features. Again. “But I used you. I forced you to…”
“No. You didn’t.” I poked him firmly in the chest. “You didn’t force me. You’d never do that… and I wouldn’t let you. You just… made your point.”
“But it was… Why didn’t you stop me? You could have just shred me to pieces.”
“Yeah, I could.” My hand lingered on his cheek, stroked through the stubble. He looked horrible, exhausted, bleary-eyed and scrubby. “But I knew you didn’t want to hurt me.”
“No.” He took a deep breath. “I didn’t want to. But it still happens. I missed you so much, Qhouri. All the time while you were gone. And then you came home and I just wanted to take you and run away. And then I was such an ass.”
“But you were right. And Kodlak too.” He turned his head to me, a question in his eyes. “You’re the one I belong to. You’re not just an excuse, Farkas. Please believe me.”
His eyes widened, and he was silent for a few moments. “You even thought about it… what I said. Although I was such an ass.”
“Of course I did. And even an ass can be right, once in a while.” I lowered my gaze, tugged nervously at a braid. “I’m sorry… for the things I said. I wanted to hurt you… just because I was so afraid you’d hurt me. I expected you to, and so I provoked it. I’m sorry.”
He loosened the streak from my fingers and buried my hand between his palms. His voice was soft. “I didn’t want to leave you that night, Qhouri. To see you like that, with that panic in your eyes, it tore me apart. And everything I said only made it worse.”
“I didn’t want you to leave.” I bit on my lower lip to keep it from trembling. “But you were right. I needed that boot up my ass, and I needed it from you.” I paused for a second. “And, Farkas?”
“Please do it again. Kick me when you think I need it. I’m… I know I’m stupid sometimes.”
He exhaled audibly, but finally a smile formed on his face. Gods, how I had missed that smile. “I will. If you promise me something.”
“What?” I gave him a curious look.
He touched the bitemark on my shoulder and the scratches on the back of my hand. “Never submit like that again. Promise.”
“Hm…” I turned my face into the pillow to hide my smile. “Why not? Perhaps I… liked it?”
It was quiet for a moment, then a chuckle rumbled through his chest.
“You’re insufferable, woman.” His hand was under my chin, his face serious. “I didn‘t like it.”
“Oh yes, you did,” I snickered. “The poor guard was terrified when he heard you.”
Impossible to tease him now. “No, I didn’t, and you did even less. It was horrible, terrible sex. And it was the peak of the most spectacular failure we’ve ever gone through.”
My fingers trailed patterns on his chest. “Aye, that’s true. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.”
His arms closed around me. “We should stop that.” He swallowed heavily. “And you shouldn’t have come here alone. When Kodlak told me where you’ve gone…”
“He did? I told him…”
“That I’d not go anywhere with you, I know. That you thought you had to do this alone. I thought I have to go nuts, first our fight, and then you run off… I yelled at him to tell me where you are.”
“You… fought with Kodlak?”
“Yeah.” He groaned, closing his eyes briefly. “He… didn’t want me to come here.”
It was quiet for long moments. “Because of Vilkas. He didn’t want you to see him like this,” I whispered finally.
Farkas nodded, his teeth clenched. “Yeah. But I can’t lose you, Qhouri. Not even for him.”
And there it was, the shadow that loomed outside of this room, waiting for us. There was no escape. It became quiet between us, but his eyes held mine. Pleading to believe him, pleading for trust. I believed him, that he had truly made this decision. And I knew it wouldn’t be so easy.
We still stood on opposite sides, and this dilemma wasn’t resolvable by decisions or promises. I remembered how I had relished in Vilkas’ torment, how free I had felt seeing him so powerless. I didn’t feel guilty.
And I remembered Farkas’ tears.
When he rolled away from me to his back and covered his eyes with his forearm, I knew his mind was back down in that cell, reliving the horror we had watched. And again I wanted to reach out for him, wipe away these images and relieve him of this torment.
No amount of suffering his brother endured would free me from the pain it caused him.
His voice was weak and small when he finally asked.
“What will you do now, Qhouri?”
I laid my head on his shoulder. “I want this to end. I don’t want to be a victim any more.”
“Will you kill him?”
My breath hitched. I had no answer to this question. I didn’t even know why he still lived. Why I hadn’t drawn my bow and shot him as soon as I entered the jail for the first time.
Killing him would be ultimate. It would rid me of him. It would be the end.
Killing him would be a mercy he didn’t deserve.
And killing him would give his shadow the power the man didn’t have any more. It would haunt us forever.
Killing him would only end him. But what were the alternatives? Were there any?
I had no answer to these questions.
“It would be a mercy,” I said quietly. “The way he is now… I would do him a favour.”
He nodded, still hiding his face. His voice was so low that I barely understood him. “Please, Qhouri… I know I told you I wouldn’t leave you through this. And I won’t. I promised.”
He didn’t speak on. His hand was ice-cold and damp when I closed my fingers around it. “What is it, Farkas?”
And now his arm fell away and he lifted his eyes to me, haunted, pleading, dark with distress. “But when you do it… let me wait here for you. Please.”
He didn’t beg for his life, didn’t argue, didn’t question my decision. He only asked not to be forced to witness when I killed his brother.
It hurt. I didn’t know that it could hurt so much to love someone, but this simple request tore me apart. I imagined him staying here in this room while I went down to the prison, bow strung and poisoned arrows in my quiver. He’d wait here for me to come back and we would never speak of Vilkas again, and he would try to go on and love me like before. He would keep his promise, and it would tear him apart.
It would tear us both apart.
I couldn’t lose him either. I couldn’t watch him suffer, and even less could I make him suffer. If it meant that I had to live with Vilkas – or at least not kill him myself – , that was how it had to be.
I didn’t know where it came from, but all doubt was gone. “I won’t kill him.”
His voice was shaking. “Because he will die anyway?”
“No.” I rested my hand on his cheek, and he turned his head into the touch. I could feel how he shivered.
It would always be him and me and Vilkas. Nothing would change that. There was a feeling of defeat, of disbelief with myself that it was so easy to make this decision – and of lightness. He had no power over us. I closed my eyes and let my forehead rest against Farkas’, felt his hands stroke along my arms, a touch light like feathers, until his fingers laced between mine.
“Why not?” he asked after a long time, his breath warm on my face.
Because I love you, I wanted to say. Because I want you to be happy and whole, and you won’t without him. But I wasn’t ready to argue my decision, and I didn’t say it out loud.
“He’s defenceless. He has no power over me any more.”
“You will… leave him here?”
“I don’t know.”
“I want you to be free of him, Qhouri.”
I lifted my head, withdrew my hands from his grip and propped myself up on his chest. His palms came to rest on the small of my back.
“I can’t. Not as long as I love you.”
His gaze was quiet and dark. “You’re my woman. I will always love you.”
“But we can only get through this together. I can’t make this decision alone.”
He grabbed my shoulders. “Of course you can! It’s your right!”
I sat up and swang my feet out of the bed. “That’s bullshit and you know it. Stop pretending this is only about Vilkas and me. It’s just as much about us and about you and him, or you wouldn’t have reacted like that down there.” When he sucked in a sharp breath and shook his head, I leant over him and kissed him fiercely. “I love you. We will get through this together or not at all. If you wanna be my backup, you will accept that I’ll be yours. And now I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten for more than two days.”
We sat opposite of each other in the inn’s main room, a bowl of hot stew and slices of bread before me, and slowly the growling of my stomach subsided to a comfortable feeling of warmth and fullness. With the feeling of normality, sitting here between the other patrons, I also gained the strength to deal with the world outside again.
I felt strangely lightheaded. A load had been lifted from my shoulders with this first decision. It felt as if I had been bound and freed myself, as if a path had opened up before me that I could follow, even if I didn’t know where it would lead. Everything was better than not to move at all.
“Tell me what happened with him. He’s not simply feral, is he?” I whispered, not wanting to be overheard.
Farkas was quiet for endless moments, his chin propped into his palm as he watched me eat, and then he answered with another question. “Can’t you guess?”
“You just helped to put a madman out of his misery who messed with a Daedra.”
I nearly sputtered my stew. “What? He has…?”
“He thought he could outwit a god. Fool that he is.”
“How do you know?”
He took a deep breath. “Aela found him… accidentally, when she spent a night here after a job. And… did you see the ring he wears?”
I nodded. Yes, something silver with rubies on Vilkas’ finger had caught my eyes. Mostly because it was silver, and because Vilkas never wore any jewellery.
Farkas sighed. “It’s Hircine’s ring. Aela recognised it. She’s always been interested in stuff like that, artifacts and totems. Items.”
“Is it something like Azura’s star?”
“Yeah. We don’t know how he got it… but during his research, Kodlak has come across information what it does.”
“It gives the wearer absolute control over his beast. That’s probably why Vilkas has taken it in the first place. He must have been desperate, usually he would never touch such a thing. But it seems there’s a downside.”
“There always is.”
“Yeah. If Hircine doesn’t approve someone wearing it, it gets the opposite effect. The beast gets control over the man. And it seems he doesn’t approve Vilkas at all.”
Works like a charm. I refrained myself from saying it out loud.
“And that effect is permanent?”
“As long as he wears the ring, and he can’t take it off. Someone would have to take it from him, and who would be so stupid? He can’t even ask… so yes, it’s permanent.” His voice was strained.
“This is what Kodlak meant with a fate worse than death.”
Vilkas was caught in the grip of Hircine. He didn’t simply go feral, but the Daedric Prince who owned his soul had claimed his body and his mind as well.
It was ironic. Brilliantly, wonderfully ironic. And so incredibly cruel.
“What’s gonna happen now? With him?”
He groaned. “With this curse, he’s completely at Hircine’s mercy, here and in the afterlife. He has gambled… and lost. But…” His gaze was steady, didn’t leave my face. “You still have a choice, Qhouri. You can just leave him here… and he’ll probably be executed, some day, when they have the courage to do so. Or they’ll just let him rot to death. You could even try to free him.”
Vilkas was doomed, and it was my decision how his damnation would turn out. I could leave him here to die, kill him myself or free him to live with Hircine’s curse. I knew that the last option was none, roaming free he would be a danger to everyone he met. But it was my choice. I would not be a victim any more.
“What would you do, Farkas?”
I knew the question wasn’t fair. I locked him in my gaze, saw the emotions flitting over his face, saw how he fought to appear calm. He lowered his gaze first. “I don’t know. But death would be a mercy.”
“Unless he takes the curse with him into the Hunting Grounds.”
He blanched. “Not even Hircine could be so cruel,” he whispered, horror standing in his face.
I wasn’t so sure.
I didn’t feel like eating any more, shoved the bowl away with a sigh and stood up, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get some fresh air.”
We walked slowly, fingers entangled, along the edge of the huge graveyard, on a wounded path between old tombstones and even older trees. A strangely fitting setting. His thumb drew lazy circles on the back of my hand, but I could feel the tension in him.
His next words surprised me. “If you want I’ll return to Jorrvaskr. If you feel… pressed by my presence.”
“Didn’t I say we can only handle this together?”
“I want you to do what’s best for you. I don’t want to… influence you.”
I stopped in front of him, my hand flat on his chest. “Forget what I need, just for once. What do you want?”
He stepped back, out of my reach, his gaze lowered, and shook his head slowly.
“No. It doesn’t matter.”
Fool. Selfless fool. It doesn’t matter? Did he really think I’d allow that we changed roles, that he became the victim instead of me? I wanted to end this game of guilt and hate, destroy this web we were trapped in. I wanted him to open up to me. I’d show him how much it mattered.
Grabbing his wrist I pulled him with me, back to the jail and down to Vilkas’ cell. He followed me without resistance. I prepared an arrow with the frostspider poison I always carried with me, drew my bow and aimed for the creature on the ground.
“Look at this, Farkas,” I said between gritted teeth, “look at this and tell me you can love me as much as you love me now after I’ve released this arrow.”
He stood behind me, calm and silent, until my fingers started to tremble, until I put the weapon away and leant my forehead against one of the bars. Only then I heard him exhale.
And a whisper. “I want him to live. I want him to be free of this curse. And I want you to be free of him.”
I had known it, but I had to hear it from him. The fresh air of the forest outside cleared my head. He sat down on a trunk, forehead buried in his palms, while I paced back and forth in front of him.
“There’s no best for me without you, Farkas. Don’t you get it? Why can’t you allow me the same responsibility for you that you have taken over for me? Why can’t you allow me to protect you like you protect me?”
“Because… it’s hard enough for you already. To deal with him, and with me.”
“You oaf!” I punched him in the chest. “You really don’t get it, do you? You’re no burden! Gods, and you tell me I’m stupid!”
I breathed heavily. These brothers were exhausting. “Your bloody twin is a damned pain in the ass, for us both. I’m tired of this, and I want to finish it, but I can’t as long as you’re dead set on sacrificing yourself. This won’t work.”
His features became soft. “Then… just tell me what you’re gonna do.”
I forced myself to calm down. “You know there’s another choice. I’m gonna take the ring from him.”
“No!” Farkas shot up and grabbed my arms. “That’s madness! I won’t allow that you get under this curse!”
I glared at him, as cold as possible. “I really don’t need your permission. I’m gonna take this ring from Vilkas.”
Now his eyes showed fear. “But then you’ll be at Hircine’s mercy, Qhouri. Never! I’d rather take it myself.”
“Don’t be silly. You’d become like him. But I don’t have the blood, he cannot turn me into a slobbering half-beast.”
He pleaded. “You’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Please! He’s a Daedra, and he’s vicious. He loves to play with his mortal prey, and he will make your life a living hell if you try to cheat him. Why in Oblivion would you want to do that anyway?”
I had to admit, I felt a bit uneasy with the idea myself. But what were the alternatives? Everything else would end in disaster. Perhaps this would end in disaster as well, but at least it was a bit less certain.
“If I told you because death would be far too much of a mercy, because I want him to suffer for many, many years to come and with a mind sane enough to know why he suffers and who caused it… would you believe me?”
“You’re scary enough to think like that.” His gaze was enquiring, the lines of his face hard. “But if you do this, you will never be able to take the blood yourself. I still want you to, Qhouri, and you promised you would think about it. Don’t give it up… not for him. Please.”
“I don’t.” His eyes shot wide. “I have thought about it. I want it… with you. But we don’t know what will happen if I take the ring. Perhaps Hircine approves of me and lifts the curse. Perhaps it will be just a ring.” I gave him a feeble smile. “I have to do this, love. I don’t want him to haunt us. Trust me, please.”
We locked eyes, a silent struggle of determination. He knew exactly that he wouldn’t be able to change my mind. But I wanted him to understand. It wasn’t about Vilkas. I didn’t care if he lived or died. I only cared for what his death would do to Farkas, what this curse that held his brother in his grip had already done to him. As long as Vilkas was stuck in Hircine’s grip, there was no way to deal with him, no way to get him truly out of my life.
I was tired of these arguments. We were all stuck. Farkas’ hands came firmly up to my shoulders when I slumped together with a sigh. “I do trust you. But the risk is too high. He’s not worth it.”
No, but Farkas was. I made a step backwards.
“Come with me.”
I led him over the graveyard that surrounded the city, this endless field of headstones and mausoleums and death until we reached an area at its edge, the graves simple, poor and more exposed, less trees spending shadows and seclusion.
I stopped in front of a stone that was overgrown with moss, just like two others standing nearby. No one had ever cared for these graves, they were shabby and untended. I had never felt the urge to come here again, not after that one and only visit right after my escape from Helgen, and least of all with him. But now that I stood in front of my family’s graves, my hand buried in his palm and feeling his curious look on me, it felt a bit like coming home.
I leant back against his chest, my head resting against his shoulder.
“My sister,” I said quietly. His breath hitched in surprise and his grip tightened, and then he turned me around, his searching gaze flickering from my face to the stone and back.
“Your sister? This is the grave of your sister?” I just nodded, my throat constricted.
He let me go and hunched down, touched the stone tentatively, traced the weathered inscription with his index.
“Jara,” he whispered, his head turning to me. “You never told me her name. Jara.”
“Yes. Jara.” My gaze wandered to the other stones. They stood crooked, leant into each other. “And my parents, and my brother.”
I knelt down beside him, feeling strangely detached, and waited for him to say something. But he was withdrawn into his own thoughts and didn’t move, his eyes fixed on the name before him.
Only when I touched his wrist tentatively, he turned to me. “I would have liked to know your family,” he said with a weak, tender smile, and I answered it with a sigh of relief. He knew that for me, this wasn’t a moment of grief, and I was glad that he didn’t make it one.
“They’re my past, love,” I said. “I was only ten, but they made me what I am today. They’re the reason why I didn’t let Athis die and why I was able to start over in Jorrvaskr, and they’re also the reason why I am able to love you. They taught me how it feels to have a home and to belong to someone, and I never forgot it. Not really.”
I quieted, watching the tension in his face, and my hands came up and palmed his chin, my thumbs caressing his cheekbones. “For you, Vilkas is the one who made you the man you’re today. More than your parents, more than Kodlak or Jergen or anyone else. He’s the most important person in your life, and I won’t allow that you lose him.”
It became silent between us, Farkas kneeling motionless, his face buried in his palms. Only when I stood up and laid my hands on his shoulders, he leant against my shins, looking up to me. His eyes were dark with distress. “This is worse,” he said lowly. “I was afraid of having to choose between you. But now I have to choose to let him die or to bring you into mortal danger.”
My grip on his shoulder tightened. “No, you don’t. It’s not your choice, it’s mine. And my chances are better than his.” I stretched out my hand, and he let me pull him to his feet. “Let’s go, okay?”
He pulled me close and let his chin rest on my head. “I can’t talk you out of this, can I?”
“Do you really want to?”
A shiver ran through his body. “No,” he whispered, “but I’m scared.”
I gave him an encouraging smile. “I’m not. Not as long as you have my back.”
“At least talk to Kodlak first. And Aela. They know more… about this stuff.”
I drew out of his embrace. “We don’t have time to return to Whiterun, you know that. It won’t become easier if we wait. Come on, I need your help.”
“You know I’ll always…”
“No, I don’t just need your… support. You’re the only one who can still reach him. His mind. Perhaps. If anyone can make him give the bloody thing away, it’s you.”
We approached the cell together. I didn’t hide, I didn’t have to hide, this was something we could only do together. Try to set his brother free. Farkas squatted down in front of the grate, as close as possible, his elbows on his knees, his hands reaching behind the bars – a silent offer of contact.
To watch them, to watch Farkas how he fought to pierce the curse, to find the last tiny bit of reason and sanity left in Vilkas, to untangle the frail thread of brotherhood that still had to exist between them showed me ultimately the depth of his trust in me.
He bared his heart to reach his brother, to get access to his trapped humanity, and he wasn’t afraid to bare it to me as well. He revealed all his anger and his grief, his mortal fear to lose him, his incomprehension how it had come so far and his hate for what he had become. The connection between them was evident, even now, even while I listened to this onesided communication.
And finally I understood that it took nothing away from us. That he wouldn’t love me less just because he wanted his brother back. That he didn’t betray me, not now and not before. While I watched how he broke out the memories that were the most precious to him, how he recounted moments and episodes of their life in his dark, rumbling voice and when I saw that the relentless shifting of the beast ceased, how it became calmer, stopped to crawl around and hunched in the middle of the cell, staring at him with its bland, unreflecting eyes… in these moments I understood that the suffering these few moments in the Orphan’s Tear shipwreck had caused didn’t just affect Farkas and me. I understood that Vilkas had suffered as well, perhaps from the moment I heard him running and howling on the shore, perhaps even earlier.
It was the first step to free myself from him, and I knew that what we did here, that we tried to set him free together was right.
Farkas didn’t ignore me during these hours, he was aware of my presence and every movement I made, but his gaze was fixed on Vilkas, he didn’t release him even for a second of his attention. The link was there, frail and brittle, and every reaction of the beast was precious.
It crouched motionless on the floor, directly in the spotlight coming from the single opening above. And now it seemed to listen, seemed to pay attention to the man at the other side of the bars. Not to his words, there was no understanding, but to his voice, this deep, rumbling, soothing voice that always carried all his emotions.
Slowly it came nearer, with barely visible motions, crawled from the daylight through the shadows into the circle of flickering light from the torches behind us. It stared at him… at us. The light played in its irises. Perhaps it was a real change, perhaps it was just the reflection of the flames… but suddenly they looked alive.
“Vilkas,” Farkas said calmly, “I want you to remember home. Remember Whiterun. Remember Jorrvaskr. Remember the hall and your room, the evenings when we had so much fun, the stories at the fire, and the training. Remember your siblings and Kodlak and Tilma. And Eorlund and the Skyforge, and the Underforge.”
He reached out for me, pulled me close and into the light, his arm curled around my shoulder, but his gaze never left his brother.
“Remember the Underforge. Remember what you did there… that night when you brought me back. Remember how I was lost, and you brought me back. You weren’t afraid then. You believed I would find my way, and you were right. You two brought me back, and you both showed me the way. I was afraid, but you weren’t, and she wasn’t either. I could come back because you both believed in me, brother.”
Vilkas… the wolf… something changed in him. He was full of rapt attention. If we just knew if he understood.
Farkas didn’t stop. He wouldn’t stop until he had reached him.
“We can do it for you now, Vilkas. You’re strong. You can fight. Show us how you can fight. Remember the night in the Underforge. We can bring you back. Trust me, brother. Trust us. Fight the curse, you’re stronger than it. Show us you’re still there. You’re not lost. You can come back, because we believe you can do it. You’re strong enough, you can find your way. We will guide you, just like you both guided me. Don’t be afraid. We will show you the way.”
Farkas’ arm was still stretched out between the bars, as if he expected Vilkas to grab it. The gaze of the wolf wandered, conscious now, from Farkas’ face to mine, back and to the hand that was offered. He was there. He heard us, but did he recognised us? Did he recognise his brother? And did he know what we wanted from him?
He did. The wolf bent over, cowered on all fours, a whimper coming from his throat. “I’m here,” Farkas murmured, his voice rough. “You’re strong. Come back, brother. You can do it.” And then the beast shifted, agonisingly slow, fighting against invisible forces that wanted to hold him back, the beastly features twisted in agony. But he changed, became human, more human than I had ever seen him during the endless circles of transformations I had witnessed. He changed, and then he stood before us, the man who had determined my life for so long. But he still wasn’t himself; his eyes gleamed with the unveiled feral light that Farkas’ showed as well when he had to suppress his wolf. He looked at us as if he had never seen us. No words, no communication. Only his fingers touched briefly the hand of his brother before he flinched back.
“Give me the ring, Vilkas,” I said quietly, “please. Give me the ring.” But he didn’t move, didn’t leave the gaze of his brother, and Farkas didn’t loosen his grip on me. We were a strange triangle, we three, connected through invisible threads of hate and love, trust, disappointment and madness. I held my hand through the bars.
“Give her the ring, brother. We want you to come back.”
A strange authority lingered in his voice. Now I could understand how only Farkas was able to tame his temper.
Vilkas reached out, but he didn’t touch. He waited until I took his hand in mine and drew the ring from his finger.
Everything happened at once.
The ring melded around my index as soon as it had left Vilkas’, the finely worked wolfhead looking at everything I pointed at, ruby eyes gleaming as if they were alive. I felt at once that it was much more than just a piece of jewellery. It greeted me, and something – someone – snickered in the back of my mind as its spirit took possession of me.
At the same time Vilkas jerked back, left our proximity, stumbled backwards to the middle of his cell. He looked terrified, pleading, and then he shifted back into his wolf form, explosive and intentional like a change should be. An earshattering howl echoed through the prison, and then he was gone through the hole in the ceiling with a single forceful leap.
When the guard came running, we greeted him with a furious scowl. The poor man looked horrified, the door to the pit firmly locked, but the werewolf gone.
“You fools,” I snarled at him, “who had the braindead idea to leave the beast in this cell?”
“But… but…” the young man stammered, “it’s the safest we have! With the best lock… and the sturdiest bars… that thing was strong!”
Farkas played along. “Safe?” he barked, “it has an escape route! How convenient!” He growled, pushed past the man and strode through the hallways towards the exit with long, determined steps.
I followed him, turning back only once. “The Vigilants will be very interested in these events. This will have serious consequences.” My voice was calm and threatening enough to let him blanch.
But he didn’t follow, and he didn’t question us any further.
Only when we were back in our room we started to laugh, hysterical relief clearing off the tension that had held us for hours. Farkas palmed my face and smacked a kiss on my mouth, his lips still twitching with amusement.
“Stendarr’s bloody Vigilants, that was friggin’ hilarious, Qhouri!”
I grinned. “I know. But now we’ve got to get away.”
This wasn’t the time to celebrate; the Falkreath officials would come soon and question us about Vilkas’ escape, and we knew we couldn’t sustain the façade of being acquainted with this weird order of abomination hunters. The Vigilants of Stendarr hat a bad reputation in Skyrim with their inquisitive fanaticism with which they hunted werewolves, vampires and everybody they suspected of Daedra worshipping, but they were mostly harmless; Farkas and I had met several of them during our travels, and they wouldn’t recognise a werewolf unless he transformed right in front of them. And then they’d probably run in terror.
Instead to wait for the inevitable questioning, we told the inn-keeper curtly that the Companions would take over the hunt for the feral werewolf, now that the Falkreath guards had proven to be incapable to deal with such a threat, and left Falkreath as fast as possible, Snowback at our side. We had already brought a few miles between us and the village when Farkas finally stopped and asked.
“How… does it feel?” He took my hand, dispatched it of the gauntlet and eyed the ring curiously. “Can you take it off?”
I shook my head. “Of course not.” None of us had really expected that it would be so easy.
Of course I had tried it already. I could circle the intricate wolfhead with the tiny ruby eyes around my finger and hide it against my palm, but I couldn’t take it off. Every time I tried to slide it along the digit, it hurt as if it were a part of my flesh, and I heard that faint snicker in the back of my mind.
Someone had fun with me. How about you all start a club and charge for entry?
“I don’t think this is finished yet,” I said.
“You think we will… see Vilkas again? Now that he’s gone?” I heard the anxiety in his voice.
I shrugged. “Dunno. Probably. But now that I have the ring, Hircine won’t miss out on this punchline.” None of them ever missed out on a punchline at my expense. I tipped at my temple. “And he knows. Something will happen.” I was sure about it. But I wasn’t afraid… what we had done was right.
Farkas didn’t share my optimism. “You can feel him? Inside your head?” he asked with wide open eyes.
I laid a hand on his arm. “Yes, I can. But if he gets too obnoxious I’ll set one of my dragon souls on him.” I put the gauntlet back on. “Hey, don’t look like that! Athis has survived his encounter with his Prince, I will survive mine with yours.”
“Yes, but only because he had you to watch over him,” he muttered.
I grinned. “Yes, and I have you to watch over me. That makes my chances at least equal.”
I took the lead on our further way, and I watched Farkas’ bewilderment when I led him to a fully functional camp that had obviously been used not too long ago with a light smile. He just stood at the edge of the small clearing and watched me unpack, watched how Snowback settled contently on his old fur and how I broke out the jars with dried meat and berries, firmly sealed with last year’s beeswax without having to search for them. He took in the furs that were neatly stored away, the spare, unstringed bow leaning against a rack and the pile of firewood waiting to be used.
“Is this… what I think it is?” His voice was shallow.
I knelt in front of the fireplace and peeked at him over my shoulder, nodding.
He dropped down onto a trunk. “Not much more than a day’s march from Whiterun…”
He didn’t look as if he ever wanted to move again, but when I passed him with arms full of our bedrolls, his arms slung around my waist and he pulled me into his lap, pressing me tightly against his chest, his forehead resting on my shoulder.
“Qhouri?” he muttered.
I stroked the back of his head, raked my fingers through his hair. “Hm?”
His voice was so quiet that I had difficulties to understand him. “What you said about Vilkas… that he’s the most important person…”
I palmed his chin and tilted his head up, my lips touching his softly. “It’s okay. Really.” I felt calm. Nothing would change what Vilkas was to him and what he was for me. We would live with it, because it was worth it.
“Why have you brought me here?” The look in his eyes was of burning intensity.
I smiled. He knew we weren’t just here because it was convenient.
I rested against his shoulder. “It was about time. This is a part of my past too, and you should know it.”