Heat coils in her belly, gathers and liquefies into a core of molten need, heavy and viscous. It crawls up her spine and through her veins in tendrils of pain and pleasure, makes her skin burn like the caress of a lover. She holds back, lets the tension build, the strain in her muscles and the throbbing ache in her bones. When she relents, she dissolves in agony and fulfilment. The furious release of change is her salvation.
Her self burns to ashes until nothing is left but fresh, twisted, unexplored power. A new world enforces access to her senses in a vortex of impressions, sharper and wider than everything she has known before.
The world is hers, and she’s on the hunt. She’s hunted for ages in this eternal game, every night anew, unrelenting and joyous. It’s the fulfilment of power, lust and satisfaction, full of hunger and thrill. It’s her game, and her prey plays with her. They’re alike and equal.
The grace of the chase is the most beautiful thing in the world.
She relishes in the strength and the speed, the flurry of movement through her realm, the feeling of life and earth beneath her feet, in the rustling flurry of the small ones, too meagre to be worth her attention. Saplings and branches snap under wide steps, broad swathes torn through the undergrowth. She’s not silent. The world is hers, and it may know that she’s here. Her senses guide her, the wingbeat of a moth, the impact of a snowflake, the whispering drift of a leaf.
But only the smell of her prey stirs her soul, the scent of its blood and fury and fear. The sound of its heartbeat is the rhythm of her song, her blood coursing wild and free and yearning.
Her voice carries far over the hills, echoes back from the rocky slopes, unanswered.
She has chosen her prey ages ago, and it knows of its fate. It plays the game with her, throws its life into the balance of chase-and-get-chased. Every night anew it challenges her and pays, never submitting, eager to please her. Every night it’s there, renewed and ready to give her what keeps her alive.
And when the light dims, when the air is viscous and hot and smelling of iron like the blood she devoured, when the red globes glow above her in eternal twilight, calling and drawing her in, the horned hunter waits for her, beautiful and savage. She’s his reward and amusement, and now he teaches her the thrill to be prey.
There was no blood, and the dim light was silver, not red. Only the crisp coolness of the air, the earthy, heavy smell of the ground beneath and the familiar scent of the man beside me. They were dull in comparison with the dream and still strangely clear.
My eyes snapped open, only inches from Farkas’ face. Only inches from his golden gaze, wide awake and flaring, staring at me.
“Where have you been?” A growl, mingling with a whimper from further away. Snowback stood, fangs bared, tail between his legs.
I rolled to my back, looked up into the sky, the heat in my spine cooled by the dampness of the earth. The stars faded out in the first light of the new morning.
“Hunting.” I didn’t know anything else. The images were vibrant and sharp. I never remembered dreams as vivid as this.
Gold altered to silver, but I could feel the tension in him. His hand reached out, felt for the ring on my finger. “A nightmare?”
“No.” Of course it was the ring. And it was just me. I guided him to the warmth of my skin. “Far from it.”
His palm came to rest in the hollow beneath my ribs. “You woke him. He wants to join you.”
“What’s happening, Farkas?”
“You tell me?”
“Something has changed.” I felt tight, as if I had to burst. As if something wanted to break out. “Can you feel it? Can he feel it too?”
“Because of… ?” The rubies glittered in the dim light.
“Perhaps. You’re part of the pack, after all. Perhaps it brings you… closer.”
“But I’m just a whelp. He has never reacted like that before.”
“You’re not just a whelp, Qhouri. Not for him.”
I rolled to my side and propped my head into my palm. A shiver ran down my spine. “What do you mean?”
He mirrored my position, looked as if he listened into himself. “He’s simple, you know? People are either prey or they’re not. The pack has to be protected. There are the whelps… and those that are kin. Aela, Vilkas and Kodlak. And you.”
“But… how can that be? I’m no wolf!”
He shrugged. “It’s always been like that. Since the night after Dustman’s Cairn. I told you what happened. That he has… approved you.”
Yes, he had told me of that connection that had formed that night, but I didn’t understand what it meant. He could feel something I couldn’t, and something had remained from that night, the first night ever I had spent in his arms. The only one for a very long time. He was more beast than man back then, torn apart by foul magic.
“I didn’t know.” But it was important. And confusing. “I don’t understand. What is it… with him and you? Is there a difference? Does he feel different things than you?”
“No. It’s just easier to speak of him.” A small grin curled his lips. “He’s not someone else. Not like Snowback. He’s me… a part of me. His senses and reflexes and what he wants… that’s me. Only that sometimes, he has his own head. And sometimes he knows things I wouldn’t know without him.”
“And you always know what’s the wolf and what’s the man?”
“There’s no difference, Qhouri. Sometimes I have to fight with myself. With this part. But everybody has to. It’s like… when you have to get up in the morning and don’t want to.”
He was really serious. He compared the beast in him with a hangover over simple sleep deprivation. And suddenly I understood why Farkas had so little difficulties to deal with the blood. When he had to, he’d clench his teeth, treat the headache with a healing potion and a pound of bloody steak and tackle whatever duty he had waiting for him. But he knew when it was enough, when he had to give himself a break, and then no amount of promises or threats would make him come out of his room.
He knew when to listen to his instincts.
“Are you fighting him… right now?”
“No. But he’s curious.” His finger stroked along my jaw. “I’m curious. Tell me what you feel. What has changed.”
“I don’t know. I dreamt of a hunt. It was… free. Powerful. It was me, but different. And… dunno… everything’s sharper. I can smell you. I mean… I always could. But now it’s… clearer. Perhaps it’s just imagination.”
“You know it isn’t. It’s the ring. Hircine.”
“But I like it,” I said quietly. “It feels… weird, but good. But it isn’t good if it’s just the curse.”
His arm came around me when I inched closer to him. “You said yourself something will happen.”
“Mmh.” I was never good at waiting when I didn’t know what to expect. And to know that a god was preparing his punchline for me was more than a bit disconcerting.
We spent the day in the camp, waiting in tense silence. Farkas went out, came back with a fawn. I couldn’t stand the thought to kill. My hunt had still to come.
The air was sated with scents. Predator and prey, freshly shed blood, the briskness of squashed leaves and wet soil, streaks of ash and smoke. The air was sweltry and hot, no wisp of wind disturbing the sensations. When I cut my palm with the whittle, I could smell myself.
When the moons rose and we settled to rest, I lay aquiver in anticipation. The wolf beside me was wide awake. I could feel his attention. He was pack-brother and mate, acknowledging me, not just his wolf any more. Perhaps he had been right, back then.
But I had to hunt alone.
I was ready when the white stag appeared ghostlike and silent at the edge of the glade. The glowing outline shone through the shadows, teasing me only for a single moment before it vanished again. It was no surprise. I had found my prey as it had found me, and it was waiting for me.
The night was darkest, Masser dipped beneath the horizon and Sekunda hidden by clouds. The beast didn’t sleep, it never slept, and the man stirred when I freed myself from the furs. He sat up as I unbuckled Dragonbane’s sheath from my belt. I wouldn’t need it.
I hunched down in front of him and pressed my lips to his mouth. He tasted of home, something to come back to. His hands clasped my head.
“Go,” he murmured. “I’ll find you.”
My prey led me into the darkness, through the woods, over the gently rolling hills and along a gurgling creek. I knew the terrain, these hunting grounds had kept me alive long enough. It didn’t hurry, was always visible, sometimes nibbling at some fresh sprouts in all its glory as if it wanted to tease me. Beautiful and regal presenting itself, and then it was gone with a single swift motion, just a faint shimmer in the corner of my eye remaining. But I never lost it.
The beauty of the chase took possession of me. I felt my blood heat up, felt the thrill coil in my stomach and in the nape of my neck. Movements became swifter and stealthier, arrow nocked and ready, lips drawn back to the teeth. This was my game, dithering between control and bloodlust, just the challenge of predator and prey.
I stopped to follow and started to hunt. The stag stopped to lead and started to flee. From now on, everything was possible.
We ran through the night for hours, an ancient contest of endurance, strength and patience, both reveling in the freedom just to be, both doing what we were made for. Nothing existed but the moist earth, soft moss and running water under my feet, my hand trailing along the rough bark of the trees as I passed them, thorns and branches ripping at skin and leather. And the trampling of hooves somewhere in front of me, twitching ears, gentle hazelbrown eyes shining with terror and excitement. The wind cooled the sweat on my skin, dissolved my braids, brought the scents that urged me forwards. The pain in my thighs and my lungs was welcome, the price I had to pay. The reward was worth it.
The world was more sensation than picture.
We reached a small pond, fed by a lively little stream, gushing down the rocky flank of another hill. The stag raced through the opening, along the water, hooves gliding on the slippery rocks, its mouth foaming, coat lathered and shining with sweat.
The moment my focus narrowed over the glittering surface, when the arrow released and my vision constricted to the trajectory of the steelen head, I howled with joy and pride. And a stranger’s voice joined my laughter.
I faltered, winced, stumbled back into the shadows of the trees. I knew this voice.
At a moment’s notice I turned from hunter to prey. The man sat above me, on a fallen trunk spanning the rivulet. He hadn’t been there a moment ago, not before the stag had fallen. I could trust my senses. Could I?
“Well met, little hunter.”
A sound with an irresistible allure, trickling into my mind like wild honey. Pure temptation, in perfect harmony with the sounds of the forest around him, but chortling with amusement.
Just these few words let my neck hair stand on end, let me teeter on the edge between yearning and the urge to run.
He wasn’t a man. He just looked like a man the way he sat there, one foot dangling relaxed above the water, the other leg drawn to his chest, one arm propped onto the trunk, body and head tilted to the side in a posture of innocent curiosity. His free arm rested on his knee, the hand held an intricately carved spear, as long as a man, decorated with feathers and a deadly leafshaped tip cut out of black, shimmering stone. He held it loosely, unthreatening.
He was as beautiful as savage. Clad only in a simple leather loincloth, perfect muscles rippling under tanned, scatheless skin, a relief of shadows and lights moving in the dim light. But his face was covered with the pale skull of a stag, the antlers reaching out wide, wider than the span of his shoulders.
Only his eyes were visible. Dark lakes of shadows and power gleaming in hollow sockets, inviting, ready to draw me in. And I was ready to drown.
“Come forth.” There it was, the faint snicker. He played with me, the Lord of the Hunt. The ultimate predator.
I didn’t have the choice to flee any more, my feet setting one step before another, out of the darkness. The clouds had cleared away, I felt the moonlight on my flesh and his gaze on my soul.
“I’ve watched you, little one. This was a fine kill.”
Finally, I found my voice again. It sounded strange in my ears. “You are Hircine.”
He laughed at me, throwing back his head, a silken sound that tingled my senses. “Cute. I am just… a glimpse of the glorious stalker that your kind knows under this name.” His fingers played idly with the shaft of his weapon. “But yes, you may call me Hircine.”
He rose in a fluid motion, danced along the trunk until he reached the ground, then stalked towards me. Every movement emanated elegance and grace, power and strength, the beauty of his appearance bolstered with threat. The ultimate predator. I felt my mouth become dry, wanted to back away and run towards him.
He came near, far too near, towering over and looking down on me. So near that I could feel the heat radiating from his bare chest. I wanted to touch him.
I could have sworn that he smiled at me like I would smile at a rabbit before I killed it – amused, touched by its cuteness but entirely without mercy. It had a purpose, it was made to feed me. He would tell me my purpose.
“What do you want?” My voice was faint, I didn’t dare to look into those eyes.
He took my hand, dispatched it of the gauntlet, gentle and tender and careful, his gaze forcing me to lift my eyes to his hidden face. Clawlike nails scraped torturously slow along the inside of my wrist, searched the callouses on my palm, felt for the wolfhead resting against it. He tilted his head in a gesture of contemplation.
“You have the makings of a fine hunter, little one. But you have made a mistake.” He caressed the ring, sharp nails chafing the soft skin between my fingers. “Or… perhaps not.”
His grip around my wrist burnt my skin. He played with my reactions, the unconscious reflex to draw away and to surrender to his touch. My resistance amused him.
“I want you to serve me.”
I cringed. It was far too enticing. Far too much of a promise. I swallowed heavily. “How?”
His voice got an edge, the menace sharp like the tip of his spear. “The thief tries to hide, from me as well as from you. But he only ends up trapping himself.” He leant in even closer, hands caught between our chests. I noticed that he didn’t breathe when his free hand palmed my chin and his head bowed down to my ear. A threatening whisper, hollow from beneath the bone. “He is wrong when he thinks he can hide. So wrong.“
“What do you want from me?” I could only ask again.
He paused, and a chortle escaped him. “I want… the hunter to become the prey. And the prey to be the hunter.” I looked up to his mask, captive and bound, his nails pressing into my cheek.
“I want you to join my pack. And then hunt him down for my glory.”
The world seemed to stop moving when I drowned in the black light glowing behind the polished bone. He held me, ensnared me, broke my self into tiny pieces and put it together again, in a pattern only he understood. Air compressed in my lungs while I held my breath, my vision darkening until nothing was left but this unearthly, cruel, promising shine.
And then a leaf rustled and a twig broke, the world snapped back with an explosive breath and I found the strength to break free from his touch, to step away from his presence. A groan escaped my throat, answered with a soft laughter. A laughter that sent a shiver down my spine.
“You want it, whelp. You always wanted it.” So gentle. So tempting. He knew me, and he knew how to play with me.
I squared my shoulders, hands balled into fists by my side. I wouldn’t become his toy. “Will you remove the curse if I do your will?”
That snicker again. “Perhaps?”
He turned away. Only two steps, and I already felt the loss. But he looked back once more.
“Oh, and don’t dally. There’s competition for my glory. Fly, little hunter, or your prey will be theirs.”
And then he was gone, lost in the shadows of the trees with few long strides.
I still sat at the edge of the pond, knees drawn to my chest, when the wolf broke out of the trees and into the light. I had heard him from miles away, how he followed the erratic path of my hunt, felt his change back into human form in my bones. He was still wolf, and I knew he would come. He’d find me everywhere.
When he stood behind me, silent, just his fingertips touching my shoulders, I leant against his calves. He was pack, and he was always there.
I nodded towards the carcass of the white stag. “Help me, please. I want this hide. And then we have to return to Whiterun.”
We worked silently and hand in hand, took the coat and some pieces of the best meat. At some point Snowback joined us again, happy to chew on some sinews; I didn’t know where he had been, just that he had fled the werewolf. But apart from that, he was remarkably at ease in Farkas’ presence.
Only when we reached the camp again to gather our belongings, he broke the silence.
“Can’t you tell me what has happened? Or don’t you want to?” His light smile took away the sharpness in his question.
“I don’t want to, Farkas. I’m sorry… but I need you all now. You, and Kodlak, and Aela. Let’s go home, please.”
I was torn apart. I knew what I wanted, and it was wrong. It was just the ring. The encounter with the Daedra burnt in my memory, the power he had over me. He had told me my purpose, and again I had no choice any more. If I didn’t do his will, Vilkas would die and worse, I would be stuck with this trinket, would never know if what I felt and did was my own will or if it was just Hircine’s whim.
But these changes, they felt just so right. I had long since been a part of the pack, much longer than I had been aware and much more than the other whelps. Farkas had realised it. Perhaps the others had too… I didn’t know, but I would ask them. I knew I wanted to join them, truly join them. It wasn’t a mistake.
When we entered Jorrvaskr, Aela and Kodlak sat together in the main hall over some paperwork. It was good to see them like that, dealing with everyday’s business. I went straight for Kodlak’s quarters, only greeting them and Vorstag with a nod while Farkas asked them to meet us. When I settled at the table in the antechamber of the Harbinger’s quarters, waiting for the three Companions, a tense sense of calmness overcame me. Here I had made the most important decisions of my life, under Kodlak’s watchful, sympathetic eyes. This was just another one.
When the Circle had gathered around the small table, I pulled off my gauntlet and raised my fist so everybody could see the ring. The light of the candles played in the ruby eyes of the wolf. Aela’s eyes snapped open at the sight, and even Kodlak escaped a small gasp.
I told them what had happened, how we had found Vilkas and how we took the ring. How it changed me – the dreams, the way my senses worked differently suddenly, the shift subtle but undeniable. That Farkas sensed it as well. And that I wasn’t afraid of this change. That it felt right, like something that had been disturbed and fell back into place. As if a cloud had been lifted.
And I told them of my encounter with the Daedra, how he had lured me into his trap. I did not tell them what the god had done to me. How I had longed for him, ashamed of myself, how he had played with me and I was unable to resist. How I had been his prey. Just the outcome – his ultimatum.
I clenched my hands in my lap. “Vilkas tries to hide, but Hircine told me where he is. He isn’t finished with him… and with me. And now… he wants me to join his pack and hunt him down. For his glory. And soon, because there will be others.”
Absolute silence, for long moments. It was as if all of them held their breath. My gaze was fixed on the ground.
I tried desperately to keep my voice as steady as possible. “I want to do what he told me. I’ll never get rid of this thing if I don’t, and it will drive me mad. It will change me, and I’ll never know again what’s me and what’s the curse. And Vilkas…” I stared at the ring on my finger, the glowing eyes seemed to mock me. “He will be dead before long, no matter what I do. We have both failed in outwitting Hircine. But the game’s not over yet, and… if I agree to play with him, perhaps I can try to bend the rules.”
No one said a word. When I finally dared to raise my view to their faces, it was Kodlak who caught my eyes first. He sat with his arms on his knees, his pensive gaze boring into mine. At least he didn’t look outright hostile.
“Tell me, Qhouri…,” he said calmly, “if we had asked you if you want to join the Circle… if you want to become like us… without all of this happening, would you have accepted?”
“Yes.” I didn’t even have to think about it. I had thought about it long enough. This was my pack.
He leant back with a sigh. “Although you know what it means?”
“Yes.” Because I knew what it meant.
“But it’s dangerous. Perhaps for you more than for anyone else. You’re different, and you’re wearing that ring.”
“But it’s the only way to get rid of it. I don’t think Hircine would have given me this task just to let me die before I can try it. And if it works… it will make me stronger.”
His lips were pressed into a tight line. We all knew that the immediate dangers weren’t his largest concern. “Perhaps not. But he will claim you. You’d give up Sovngarde for this?”
“Yes,” I answered sternly. “I know where I belong, Kodlak. You have given me a home, for the first time since I was a child. I’d give up everything for this.”
Farkas let out a hissed breath, and Kodlak’s gaze darted over the table, the men locking eyes. His jaws were clenched, something flaring in the depths of his eyes. I watched him for a moment with bewilderment before Kodlak’s voice forced my attention back to him.
“I don’t like the idea to share the blood once more.” He looked at the other Companions. “I guess you’ve spoken about this before?”
“Of course we have,” Aela chimed in. “You know my opinion on this. And we don’t have time for endless discussions.”
“It will take as much as time as it needs,” the Harbinger barked, an icy glare in his eyes. She returned it defiantly. He turned back to me. “You don’t have to take the blood to have a home here, Qhouri. You know that. So, for whom are you doing this? For Farkas? For the pack you feel you belong to? For Vilkas?“
The question, the way he put it, was so absurd that I gaped at him with open mouth before I caught myself. “For myself. This is the one decision I can make all on my own. I would have come to you anyway.”
I saw a certain resignation in his face, but I braved his scrutiny. I had to. I needed his consent, couldn’t even imagine to do this against his will. And I felt dizzy with relief when he nodded slowly. “Your instincts have always been strong. I don’t like this… but it’s your decision. From my side, it’s settled. Aela? Farkas?”
Aela just shrugged, but her face beamed. “We’re gonna hunt together, sister,” was all she said.
I turned to Farkas, expecting him to give me at least a relieved smile. He had been the first to bring it up, after all, and no matter what the others said, I’d do nothing without him. But he looked at me from deep, dark, furious eyes, fists clenched, the muscles of his neck strained to thick cords.
“No,” he said barely restrained, “not like this! I want you to be like me… I always wanted to share it with you. But not for him, and not because you’re forced. Not because you had to submit!” His voice had risen to a shout when he stormed out of the room.
I stared after him, the slamming of the door making me wince. I should have told him earlier what had happened.
A strange sound startled me up, and when I turned, Kodlak suppressed a gentle laughter. “I don’t even wanna know what upsets him like that, but you should go and sort it out,” he chuckled.
Farkas demolished a training dummy when I found him, barechested, running with sweat and wielding the largest, heaviest warhammer he could find. I had seldom seen him use such a weapon before, but this wasn’t about training. There was no finesse in his movements, just brute strength, rampant aggressivity and the merciless will to destroy whatever was unlucky enough to get in his way. He knew I was there, he always knew it when I was near, and in this state his senses were even sharper than usual.
I watched him for a few moments, then grabbed a training sword and tipped him on the shoulder. “Hey, handsome. Hit me.” His teeth were bared in a snarl when he turned, already aiming for the first hit.
And he played foul. There were rules to a spar to prevent injuries, accidents and worse. Never hit with a sharp blade. Never attack when the other isn’t ready or already beaten, stop immediately when blood flows. Gestures that enforced a break. These rules were law, even between shield-siblings who knew each other for years. We all had internalised these rules, but now Farkas didn’t give a damn about them.
He wasn’t used to this weapon, but his strength and experience made up for it. He knew how to use its weight and his own, used the momentum of his swings to hit with the heavy steel head as well as with the length of the reinforced shaft, strikes that were far too fast for the weight he wielded. I knew he overstrained himself like this, that he wouldn’t be able to keep upt these attacks for long, but he didn’t care. Only my speed saved me from his hits, but the range of his weapon held me at bay, and only during his backswing movements I had a small chance to attack with swift, short strikes, only to feel my blade glance off the wooden handle or his steelen bracers over and over again. He was merciless, and he wanted to beat me at all costs.
I was doomed when I twisted to the side to avoid a hit that didn’t come. Instead he jerked the weapon back, span around and got me at my back, my own movement not yet finished, the end of the handle colliding with my ribs. I stumbled and faltered, bent over with a yell when the impact forced the air from my lungs. If he had hit me with the head of the hammer, he’d certainly have crushed several ribs. But he didn’t stop like he should have, instead one of his hands dropped from the weapon, captured my shoulder and crushed my back against his chest, making me cry out in pain and fury. His arms came around me, both hands grabbed the wooden shaft again and pressed it painfully from below against my ribcage.
I was trapped, and I hated that I didn’t stand a chance against his pure physical strength, but that didn’t refrain me from kicking and ramming my elbows into his side. He didn’t even flinch when I hit him, but now he let his weapon fall and trapped my arms, dropped to his knees and forced me into his lap, one hand nearly crushing both of my wrists, the other clenching around my neck.
“You’re mine!” he growled into my ear like the angry beast that he was.
I couldn’t turn my head in his grip, he would have broken my spine if I had tried. “Let me go, Farkas,” I snarled.
“No.” A predatory smirk appeared on his face, white teeth flashing in the dim light of the torches. “Never.”
Now I was in trouble. But even if I couldn’t cope with his strength, he’d have to learn that a dragon can never be forced to surrender. Especially not by a mere werewolf.
The moment I breathed in he knew what was to come, the sudden alarm in his face making me grin. “TIID,” I whispered, and he went limp instantly as the seconds slowed down. I slipped easily out of his unrelenting grasp and pushed him away, flat on his back, and when he gasped for breath again I stood above him, my boot planted on his chest.
“Never try that again,” I said, “next time I will hurt you.”
He looked up to me and a grin slowly curled his lips, not a tiny bit humiliated, mischievous, mirthful and dangerous. “No.” He inhaled deeply. “No, I don’t think so.” And then I felt his body tense and the muscles of his abdomen become hard like steel, he grabbed the ankle that held my balance with both hands and shot up in one fluid motion, ramming his shoulder into my stomach, and I found myself slumped over his back like a sack of grain. He was so incredibly fast, and his laughter rumbled through my aching ribcage.
“Stop cheating, Qhouri.” I couldn’t answer, was completely occupied to force the next breath into my lungs.
He carried me through the Underforge and out into the plains to the river where I was unceremoniously dropped onto the cobbles on the bank. At least he didn’t take the way through the city, and at least he chose a secluded place. But in the end, it didn’t matter.
He would learn his lesson.
“You reek, woman,” he said with a grin nearly splitting his face and a dangerous growl in his voice, “of sweat, blood and a horny god. You will wash before I take you into my bed.”
I sat on the wet stones, crosslegged and propped on my arms, glancing up at his towering form. No chance to get away from him now, and I knew he could just force me into the icy water, but I’d not make it any easier for him than necessary. I wasn’t sure what this strange game was about, but it seemed he had guessed more than good for him about my dealings with Hircine. Just that it wasn’t his business.
“I think I prefer to sleep in the dorm tonight, dear.” I grinned at him.
An amused smile played on his lips. “You sure, love? It will perhaps be your last night with truly restful sleep. You really wanna spend it alone?”
“Oh, but I won’t be alone. I’m sure my siblings will keep me company. And Torvar snores even louder than you.”
That hit a nerve, his face scrunching up in frustration. “You’re silly. Torvar!”
“Nothing sillier than your remark about my… scent, honey. Torvar is a fine guy. After all, I’m his favourite drinking buddy.” My smile couldn’t have been sweeter.
His eyes narrowed. “Will you bathe now? Or do I have to help you?”
“Oh, of course I will. Now that you said it… it’s true, I reek. Of sweat, blood and a brute Nordic dog.” This was just cold water, after all. I crawled backwards without moving my gaze from his face. And without undressing. Eorlund would kill me for soaking his armour deliberately, but that was a price I was gladly willing to pay. I only stopped when the water reached up to my chest, then leant backwards and dipped my head under the surface, rubbed my scalp and my face in a demonstration of diligence.
Farkas still stood at the bank and watched, in a wide, confident stance, arms crossed over his chest. But then he started to follow me. He shouldn’t have done that.
I pointed at him. “I don’t need help!”
“Oh yes, you do. You will wash properly.” A grin with far too many teeth. Oh no, wolf. Not like this. Time for the next lesson, and this time you will learn.
I let him come closer until the water reached his thighs and he had to struggle against the current. The moment he reached out for me, a whispered “FUS” sent him flying to his back. It wasn’t a strong Shout, but he crashed hard enough to be dazed for a moment.
“Sleep well, love,” I whispered into his face as I stood above him, dripping and giggling, “next time I’ll kill you.”
I had no idea how to open the entrance to the Underforge from outside, and it must have been a sight for the gods when I went through Whiterun on my way back, soaking wet, with chattering teeth and grinning like a maniac. The guards let me enter the city without a word, but I heard them mutter behind my back, and not even Brenuin dared to ask for a coin he could change into mead. The memory of Farkas lying on his back in the cold stream let me giggle maniacally. He deserved nothing else.
Aela shot me a very odd look when I entered the hall, and Athis nearly spit out his ale when he burst into laughter, but I just crossed the room with a crooked grin and vanished into the living quarters. I needed to get out of this dripping armour, and anyway, Farkas had been right in one point – this was perhaps my last night with undisturbed, human sleep, and I intended to make the best of it. Njada already snored peaceful on her cot, and Ria just gave me a sleepy smile when I draped the soaked pieces of my armour over various pieces of furniture to let them dry. When I snuggled into my furs and let my mind drift away, I missed nothing, and I knew there wouldn’t be any disturbing dreams that night.
There were no dreams, but there was a disturbance. A large one, with a chest like iron and arms that lifted me effortlessly out of my bunk before I was even awake. When I fully realised what had happened, we had already reached Farkas’ room.
“You are suicidal, aren’t you?” It wasn’t healthy to rip me out of a peaceful deep slumber. For no one.
But he just grinned and lowered himself to the mattress without losening his grip. The way he hovered above me, every thought of escape was rendered futile – unless I shouted at him again. He caught my mouth before I could complain, nibbled gently at my lip, explored and deepened the kiss until I clung to his shoulders, breathless and flushed.
“You know why I love you, woman?” he mumbled against my ear. “Because you’re so godsdamned stubborn. Because you’ll never stop challenging me.” A low chuckle rumbled through his chest, and he let himself fall to the side and pulled me flush against him. “And because you’re mine.” A warm body curled around me, and I felt his lips at my temple.
I relaxed into his embrace, savoured how perfectly we fit together. We hadn’t been together like this since I set out to Winterhold, without the shadows of the outside world threatening to bury us under death and doom, mistrust and hurtings. There were still shadows, but not between us. I didn’t really understand what had happened tonight and his methods were more than questionable, but this was his way to show me that everything was okay. And even if I’d never admit it, I was glad that I was here and not in the dorm.
When I turned to face him, his eyes were bright in the dim light of the oil lamp on his night stand.
“I will not do this without you, Farkas.”
His index painted slow circles on my back. “And I don’t want you to do it because you’re forced. It should be your own decision.”
“But it is.” I kissed him softly. “When I came home with Athis… I wanted to tell you. Perhaps not like this, so fast and with the ring and all. But… well. Now I’ll need you to watch over me.”
“I will. Always.” He propped himself on his forearms when I rolled to my back and pulled him with me. I closed my arms around his neck.
“So… this is the last night like this?”
A small smile settled on his face. “Yeah. You should savour it.”
“Tell me what will change.”
He tilted his head down. “You will hear better – no more sneaking up on you. And smell better – I’ll have to bathe more often.” He made me giggle. His stubble tickled as he murmured against my neck. “You’ll be stronger and faster, and no one will be able to lie to you.”
“She will have a temper even worse than yours. You’ll have to learn to deal with it.”
His grin flashed up. “Yeah. I’ll go hunting with you if it becomes too bad. You’ll sleep worse, but you’ll also need less rest. You’ll be even more disgustingly awake every morning than now.”
I laughed out loud, and he bit my earlobe when my nails trailed along his sides. “And what will I do with all the extra time?”
I felt his lips curl against my skin. “I’ll keep you busy, of course. There’s nothing worse than a bored werewolf.”
“I’m easily bored, love.”
“Not with me.”
“No. Not with you.” The bickering came to an abrupt end as I held his gaze. “And between us? Will anything change?”
“No.” His voice was rough. “Nothing will ever change between us. And now stop asking questions.” I pulled his head down, and his kiss was fierce and sloppy and tasted of longing.