I want you to serve me.
We’re closer than others. Closer than friends, siblings, even lovers.
He tries to hide, from you and from me.
We’re equal. All of us.
I want you to join my pack.
You will join this bond.
Hunt him down. For my glory.
Ripped flesh beneath me, his taste on my tongue. The taste of his blood, the blood that we share. Pack-mate.
I stare down on the wolf beneath me, bleeding and pliant, the hiss of his panting breath hot in my fur, his head turned to the side.
Pack doesn’t hunt pack. Pack doesn’t kill pack. Never.
The scent of defeat and the taste of his blood. Fury and betrayal, relief and amusement break out in a howl. Utterly human amusement. The god’s punchline. I see it in his eyes. He understands.
Who’s in control now? I am not, but neither is he.
I hear the buzz of bowstrings and the dull thud of the impacts before I feel them, twice, hitting my shoulder and thigh only because I jerk away. Burning, mind-melting pain, spreading like fire through my veins with every beat of my pulse. This is what silver feels like. My own roar is echoed by Vilkas’, he throws me off and shoves me away, turns his back to me, like a wall against the onslaught.
They’re there, the others. New smells replace the scent of defeat. He fights and holds them off, a flurry of muscles and fur. He fights for me, and the threat in his growl replaces the laughter in my head. I rip the arrow out of my thigh, break off the shaft of the one stuck in my shoulder. The pain becomes sharp and clear. Nothing counts but survival.
Pack fights together. The wounds we took from each other release new strength, the wounds we take for each other now strengthen our bond. He guards my side where the arrow protrudes, my left arm hanging limp and powerless. We have no choice but to trust each other.
They come from everywhere, our hunters, our prey, naked throats and soft flesh offering themselves. Human game, encircling us with cruel smiles and hateful glances, certain of their victory. They’re many and they’re strong, but we have our backs and we fight together, relish in bloodlust and frenzy, instincts merge with unconscious remains of our training, attentive and alert. Claws and fangs glitter with blood. With every wound we take, every drop we spill for each other we free ourselves. Pack-siblings, joined in the blood and the spirit.
They won’t get us. He won’t get us.
But the god was there when the soil of the clearing was soaked in blood, when it was over and the screams died down, far too sudden. He was waiting for me in the shadows of the trees, polished bone shimmering in the red light. Nausea and weakness shook me when the colours were back and the moons lost their sway. The man cowered at the edge of the glade, naked and bleeding and silent, as weak as I.
“I served you,” I said, “and I failed you.”
Hircine tilted his head. “You did.” He said no more. Shining dark lights pierced my soul in silent examination. I fought to stand, not to fall to my knees. My side was numb, and his gaze sucked the last strength from my core.
He made that last step. Claws tangling between my fingers, like before, feeling for the ring. “But you amused me, little hunter. And you impressed me. My pack is strong… and today, you’ve made it even stronger.” He lifted my hand, showed me the head of the wolf. The ruby eyes were dull. I swayed in his grip, my vision hazy. He held me, his grip firm.
“Go forth with my blessing. We will meet again.” And then he was gone, from my sight and from my mind, and it was over. I fell, someone caught me and everything went black.
A scream that pierced my ears woke me. It was my own, and blinding, searing pain ran in ripples from my shoulder through my body until it curled my toes.
“Shor’s balls, Icebrain, hold her!” a voice yelled, Aela’s furious face a blurred spot in front of mine. I was clamped in a vice, unable to move, an arm pressing my back against a human wall, a firm grip around my chin holding my head. She jerked and pulled, pierced my skin, ripped something out of my flesh, and when I screamed again and slipped back into the darkness, a bitter liquid dripped down my throat.
The world was covered in clouds when I came round again, heavy, impenetrable mist shrouding my senses. Liquid fire burned my insides, but everything else shivered with cold, and the throbbing in my shoulder found an echo in my skull. Red sparkles danced behind my lids. Someone held a bowl to my lips, delicious, clear, cold water running down my throat. I choked and swallowed, felt it run down along chin and neck, fell back against the arm that held me upright.
I tried to focus. Wooden walls around me, sunlight beaming through the gaps, hay wrapped in rough linen beneath. Everything hurt, excruciating pain radiating from my shoulder through every single muscle. I tried to move and couldn’t, someone pressed me gently back against a pillow.
A wet cloth washed sweat and smear from my face, cool and soothing. A familiar face hovering above me, lips on my forehead. “You’ve a fever. Sleep now.” I obeyed.
I had no idea how much time had passed and where I was, the scents and sounds all wrong and strange. But beneath the confusion I could smell him even before I opened my eyes, and ease washed through my dazed brain. That smell meant safety, and it meant that it was over.
The way Farkas crouched on the small chair beside the cot I lay on, fatigue carved into his features even while he slept, I knew every single joint would ache him later. The sight brought a small smile to my face. But the raw wooden bed frame creaked and alerted him when I tried to roll to the side and prop myself on my good elbow. Or perhaps it was the pained grunt I let out, but he was awake in an instant.
“Hey,” he said, relief shining from his eyes. “You’re back.” He knelt down beside the narrow cot, urged me to lie down again. “You shouldn’t move. How do you feel?”
I groaned. “Not sure.” Left shoulder and arm were completely numb, only the fingertips tingling, the upper arm bound tightly to my ribcage and my wrist held by a sling. And the rest of my body hurt. Bandages around my thigh and abdomen, lots of gashes and bruises, a swollen cut above my brow. I felt weak and tired, probably from bloodloss and fever. But at least my head was clear, and this terrible throbbing fog in my brain was gone.
“Where are we?”
“A shack not far from the lake. We couldn’t take you any further, not with all those wounds and more blood outside of you than inside, and with that silver arrow stuck in your shoulder.”
The gods bless the Companion’s knowledge in field surgery. I shouldn’t have survived that.
A small grin curled his lips. “Yeah, wow. That’s what Aela said when she cut it out of you.” He touched my shoulder lightly. “The tip was stuck and hurt the joint. She had to cut pretty deep. If it had pierced the artery, you’d be dead by now.”
“Will it heal?”
“Yeah. But it will take time. Easier with the blood.” His thumb stroked over my forehead. “But you need a healer to look after it.”
“Okay.” But I saw stars the instant I tried to sit up, and he barely caught me from toppling out of the bed.
“Not right now,” he said with a concerned frown as he cradled me against his chest. “You need rest. And food. You were out for more than two days.” He rummaged through a pack, brought forth a small healing potion. “Here, Aela left it for us. And I’ve a broth ready. You’re hungry?”
I nodded eagerly, leaning with my back against the wooden wall. “Where are they? Aela… and Vilkas?”
“In Rorikstead.” His lips were pressed into a thin line as he jumped up and stepped outside. When he came back, he carried a bowl, dried venison, potatoes and a few herbs cooked until they dissolved into a thick sludge. It looked horrible and smelled so delicious that it made my mouth and my eyes water. He pulled up the chair and sat down, stirred circles into the stew as if he wanted to cave a hole into the bottom of the bowl. And he still avoided to look into my face as he lifted the spoon to my mouth, his hand clenched around the handle.
His eyes shot up. “Listen, Qhouri…”
“You don’t have to feed me.” I let him hold the bowl for me, but I was perfectly capable to eat on my own. The first spoonful was as delicious as it smelled, and I groaned with contentment. “What’s the matter?”
“We don’t have to go there, you know?” he blurted out. “I told Aela we’d meet them, but you’re in no condition to go anywhere anyway, and we can go to Falkreath instead and find a carriage, or I just take you home…”
I stopped blowing on the next mouthful. “You’d carry me to Whiterun? From here?”
He stared at me, chewing on his lip. “If you want. If you wanna go home.”
I looked at him, took in his agitation and the concern in his face. It was quiet between us while I emptied the bowl, his gaze levelled on my face as if he had never seen something as interesting as an eating woman. When I was finished, I handed him the dish and patted the mattress beside me. “Come here, please.”
He settled without a word on my good side. To lean into his chest and to feel his arm curl carefully around my waist deepened the feeling of ease and safety. I took his hand and let my head drop against his shoulder, the sudden movement sending a sharp sting down my arm. At least there was some feeling in it left. “What happened?” I asked.
“I wanted to kill him, Qhouri,” he whispered into my hair, his embrace tightening. “I really did. When he brought you out of that cave and I thought you were dead…”
I took a deep breath that hurt in my bruised ribcage and broke free in a chuckle. “You didn’t speak with him, did you?”
He shook his head. “I had other things to do. Keep you alive, for example. And he was about to run off again anyway. Bad enough that Aela gave him one of her potions, you needed it more. He was injured, but it wasn’t so bad. Lots of blood, but most of it was from you, and he could still walk, and he didn’t say anything…”
“The blood was his own. I know it was. I defeated him, after all.” His head jerked around. I gave him a small smile. “You wanna know what happened?”
He looked as if was afraid. But he nodded.
I was amazed how vivid the memories of that fight were. The woman could get lost in the beast, but the beast’s mind carried over into my consciousness. It was as if I relived it, the frenzy of hate and violence, the taste of his blood. The battle afterwards. “I wanted to kill him too. I really did. I thought… no, I didn’t think. Not when I found him. I just wanted it to end. But I couldn’t.”
“Why not?” he asked quietly, his chin resting on top of my head.
“He’s pack now, Farkas. More than just your brother, more than just… Vilkas. I wanted to rip out his throat, but I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t have survived without him when the hunters came. He fought for me.”
Utter surprise stood in his face. “He fought for you?”
“If I had killed him, I wouldn’t have survived either.”
“He saved you?”
“Yeah. In a way. He had to if he wanted to survive himself. In the end, we fought together.”
He searched my face. “What does this mean, Qhouri? For you?”
I tried to shrug and groaned when a sharp pain shot through my back. “I don’t know. Hircine has outwitted us both.” I lifted my face to him. “He wants a strong pack, Farkas. All of us. And he made his point. Forced us to prove it.”
“And now? What happens now?”
“Nothing. Now we’re on our own.” My gaze fell on my hand, on the small indentation Hircine’s ring had left. It lay on the nightstand, an innocent, pretty little trinket. “He had his punchline, and he’ll leave us alone now.”
It became quiet between us. I felt his breath in my hair and the tension in him subside. My head felt as if it was filled with Tundra cotton. I closed my eyes and leant heavily against him.
I didn’t know what was waiting for us in Rorikstead. All I knew was that we were alive and safe – all of us – and that I was too tired to think about it.
He helped me to lay down and pulled the blanket and a few furs over me. I felt his lips on my temple. “Sleep now. I’m here when you need me.”
It was the first real sleep I got since the last night in Jorrvaskr, and it was the first real sleep with the beast. She was injured and weak, but since I had woken I felt her like an itch in the back of my head, something new and still familiar, as if I had already lived with it for all my life. She was a part of me, entrenched into my senses, my mind and my emotions, and I had already spent enough time with her to know that now, I could control her.
But as I drifted off now, she filled my mind with pictures, chaotic and incoherent images of a white stag and a flurry of speed through the night, the distinct sounds of splintering twigs, bones crushing between my fangs and the taste of raw meat. Scenes under red moons, screaming throats around me that turned into dead heaps of flesh, my own howl of triumph. She had relished in the bloodbath. I had relished in the bloodbath, when nothing was left but the will to survive and the knowledge that I would prevail. The thrill was addictive, drawing me in, and the familiar heat rose and fought against the weakness of my flesh.
I started up with a cry, struggling against the restraints of the bandages and too many furs on top of me.
“Hey.” Only half awake, I felt a hand stroke a sweaty strand of hair out of my face, and I reached out for him, clenched his fingers as if I was drowning. The shack was dark, and without another word he drew his tunic over his head, crawled between me and the wall and nestled against my back. “It’s okay,” he whispered, his breath warm in my neck. “It will get better.” His arm slung over my waist and I sagged against him, his warmth and his scent enwrapped me and the frenzy calmed down. I listened inside of me and felt the bond between us, not new either. But now it was mutual, I reached out for him and he answered, was my rock in this onslaught of images and impressions. The man smiled against my skin, and I slept.
The small shack wasn’t really comfortable, but it was better than nothing. I slept most of the time, safe under Farkas’ watch, and I healed remarkably fast. To be immune to infections was a blessing, and in the evening of the second day, after he had removed the cotton thread Aela had used to stitch up the arrow wound in my thigh, I refused to play bedridden any longer. He watched me suspiciously as I made the first steps without him holding me upright, and we settled at a little fire outside.
Two rabbits were roasting over the glowing embers. I gave him a curious look. “You were out hunting?”
“Of course not.” He gave me a gentle smile. “A hunter came by, he said he knew you. That you saved his life not far from here. He left them for us.”
“A hunter? He told you his name?”
“Yeah. Valdr. Nice guy. Told him to stay, but he didn’t want to. But I gotta give Athis greetings from him.”
It was cool in the evening breeze, but I relished to be up again. To be out here, the silent forest around us, it was something so normal, so ordinary… I sighed with relief. I was clearly on the road to recovery, and Farkas was eager to keep me warm, carefully avoiding to strain my injuries. After our meal he settled behind me so I could lean against his chest.
“Hngh.” He nibbled at my ear, and the weird sounds he made as well as the tickling made me laugh. He shot me a stern look. “That’s not funny, woman.” He buried his face in my neck. “You smell so good. Different, but good.”
“I know I need a bath. But this time I’ll decide when and where.”
He hummed against my skin. “That’s not what I meant. And you know what you need most? Some days off. A nice, long vacation, just the two of us.” I felt him grin. “With a big bathtub.”
“Hm… why?” The thought was tempting, of course. And we had earned it. But what we had right now was like a vacation too, and it took already far too long for my liking.
“Because…” his grin was twisted, “the last time I’ve seen you naked was when my ass of a brother carried you in his arms, and he was naked too, and you were more dead than alive.” His indignant expression made me chuckle. Really not gonna be embarrassed because of that incident.
But he wasn’t finished complaining. “And I can’t even remember a night with you that wasn’t spoiled.”
“Spoiled? Our time together is spoiled?” My eyebrows rose to my hairline.
“Yes, spoiled. We’re either terribly at odds,” he counted the points he made on his fingers, “or something awfully exciting is gonna happen and we both can’t really relax, or we have only a few hours until we have to part, or one of us is injured.”
I huffed. “I’m not that often injured. At least not badly.”
“It adds up.”
I turned sidewards so I could look at him. “That bad?”
His face expressed everything he felt. “No. I just wanna sulk for a bit.” His lips danced over my mouth, smiling when my hand curled around his neck. “And I’m still recovering, you know.”
“Sure. You are recovering.” I sighed with ostentation.
“Yes! You were just unconscious, that’s easy. But I had to sit there and watch you and wonder if you’ll ever wake up again.” He searched my eyes. “I was scared like never before, Qhouri. And I’m not easily scared.”
My hand drove through his hair, causing a content grunt. My scary, cuddly werewolf. “And I don’t die so easily, dear.”
“No, you don’t. Thank the gods that you don’t.” His face darkened as he lingered in the memory of the last days.
“It’s over, love. I’m okay. In fact… I think we should leave tomorrow. Aela will go nuts if she has to wait much longer.”
“You’re not ready to leave!”
“I’ll be fine. As long as we don’t try to make the whole way in one day.”
He shifted slightly. “We don’t have to go to Rorikstead, Qhouri. I told you. If you don’t wanna meet him again…”
Images rose in my mind. The man-beast in Falkreath, broken and cursed. The wolf in the grotto, mortal enemy, fighting against me with everything he had. And the pack-mate, fighting for me. Protecting me.
It was confusing. I needed a vacation from Vilkas.
But the twins had to find a solution for themselves. “No, I don’t want to. And it would be pointless anyway. But you should speak with him, Farkas. You’d never forgive yourself if you don’t see him now.”
I felt him exhale deeply. “He doesn’t deserve this. That I drag you through the province in your state. We should just go home and let Danica have a look at you.”
“I could go to Falkreath alone and take a carriage from there. But I guess you won’t let me.”
“Well, then I guess I don’t have a choice but to go along with you for once. Usually it’s the other way around.”
“You’re okay with that?”
“I’ll just get shitfaced with Aela while you deal with him.”
He gave me a small grin. “You think it’s so easy?”
“Of course it is.”
“No, it’s not. You’ll see.” His smirk was mischievous and relieved.
But we were both nervous when we climbed off the carriage to Solitude. It had passed us on the road, and the driver gave us a gracious lift when he saw me limping along. I was grateful, I wasn’t really in a shape to walk longer distances yet, but it also shortened the length of this journey considerably.
“Perhaps he’s already run off again,” Farkas muttered as we approached the Frostfruit Inn. Despite its proximity to the Reach and although it lived in constant danger of Forsworn attacks, Rorikstead made the impression of a small, but thriving village. The land was fertile, and most of its harvest yields ended up on Whiterun’s market – a service Jarl Balgruuf rewarded with regular patrols of his guards to keep the border safe.
It was already dark when we arrived, and from inside the inn, we heard laughter and shouting. Farkas looked over his shoulder as he grabbed the doorknob. “I’ll keep him out of your eyes. I promise,” he said earnestly and pushed the door open.
But the only familiar face in the main room was Aela’s, brooding with a deep scowl over an ale.
“Finally!” she snapped, “gods, what in Oblivion took you so long?”
“So nice to see you too, sister!” I grinned and set off to fetch us some drinks. It looked as if we’d need them.
Farkas was full of tension when I came back. “Where is he?”
Aela shot him an angry look. “Sitting in his room. If he hasn’t gone off through the window, he hasn’t left it since we arrived.”
He stared at his mead, then emptied it with a single long gulp before he stood up. “Which one?” he asked with a deep scowl.
Aela pointed to the stairs. “Third to the left.”
We watched him as he climbed the stairs, with stiff steps, fists clenched and his shoulders working. Aela said, “he doesn’t look very…”
The bang of a wooden door crashing against a wall and a roar so full of fury that I barely recognised it as Farkas’ interrupted her.
I flinched so hard that the mead sloshed over my hand. A dull thud followed, a cry and another bang when the door slammed shut. The shouting continued, muffled now and unintelligible.
And Aela wore a pleased, malicious grin. I watched her with bewilderment. “Finally,” she chuckled. “I wanted to do that since we arrived. Thought I’d leave it to you. Or him.”
“But…” I tried to understand what was going on. “I thought he wanted to speak with him.” This didn’t sound like a conversation.
“He will. Later.” She laid a hand on my wrist. “This is not about you, Qhouri. Farkas has his own bone to pick with him. Let him blow off steam.”
I took a deep breath and a deep gulp from a my mead while listening for the noise from upstairs, then gave her a grin. “He’s scary when he loses it.”
She laughed. “Yeah. ‘t will do Vilkas good to be scared by his own brother.”
“You’ve no idea how glad I am that I don’t have to deal with him.”
“No one will force you. You’ve really done enough.”
I raised my hand. “It’s not that I had a choice. But now I’m over with it. He’s Farkas’ job now.”
A slow smile spread over her face. “By any logic and after all that has happened, you should both be dead by now. Several times. That you’re not, and he isn’t either… well, it gives you at least the right not to care.”
My mug clanked against hers. “Come on, sister. Let them blast each other to Oblivion. I’ve always envied how you take on a hangover, you know?”
She gestured to the barkeeper to refill our mugs. “You wanna find out how a hangover feels with the blood?”
“Farkas says I have to learn a lot. Gotta start somewhere, eh?”
“You’re crazy, Qhouri. How are you doing anyway?”
“I’m fine, Aela. Don’t worry.”
“I think I’m over the worst. Didn’t do much more than sleep anyway during the last days.”
I wasn’t entirely honest. Yes, I was over the worst, but it would have been much worse without Farkas. Of course things were different and difficult, a lot I had to adjust to, and his first lesson had been a shock. The day after I woke from unconsciousness I had left the shack for the first time. I was still feverish and hated how weak I was, his arm around my waist steadying my wobbly legs. His grip tightened shortly before he opened the door. I had no idea what awaited me.
The inside of the single room had been quiet and only dimly lit, even during the day. Now, as I stepped out into the sunlight, I drowned instantly in an onslaught of impressions. We were in the forest of Falkreath, an environment I thought I knew like the back of my hand. But now my senses, especially hearing and smelling, seemed to be attuned to my surroundings like never before. The familiar scent of pines and damp earth was barely recognisable any more, split up into a plethora of singular impressions. A multitude of flowers and plants, all of them different, the cold ash in the fireplace, mould in a rotting tree stump, squashed grass and leaves along a path, the droppings of a hare and the rotting corpse of a fox in the underbrush. A rustling noise revealed a couple of skeever scurrying away, another a fleeing mouse. I could hear the gushing of a creek, running low after a few of weeks with little rain, a choir of different bird songs and could tell the wind direction from the sound it made in the treetops.
It was chaotic, overwhelming and mindnumbing. Closing my eyes didn’t help at all, the impressions only becoming even sharper, as if the loss of one sense only enhanced the others. It was too much all at once, all these new sensations, each of them distinct and unique. They had to be sorted and understood, but they came all at once, like a floodwave, the impact overloading my brain.
I panicked, sagged together with racing heartbeat and an outbreak of cold sweat. Only Farkas’ firm hold kept me from falling as he pulled me close and pressed my head against his shoulder. But he made a step forwards, drew me with him and closed the door behind us. I struggled to get back inside, but he didn’t let me.
“Relax,” he murmured. “I’m here. Concentrate on me.” He didn’t let me go and I did as he told me, and after some time the beat of his heart drowned out the cacophony of sounds and his scent the rush of smells. Everything else became an ambient noise in the back of my mind.
“You gotta shut it out,” he whispered into my ear. “Find out what’s important and what’s not. You’ll learn.”
I took a deep breath. “You could have warned me.”
There was a smile in his voice. “Yeah. But it would’ve changed nothing. You have to experience it.” When he felt me relax, he turned me around so I leant against his chest. “You hear the robin over there?”
He pointed at a tree beside the hut. I didn’t only hear him, the red breast a colourful dot between all the green, but now a certain, distinct birdsong belonged to him alone. I nodded.
“And the pecker?”
This was further afar. “There’s two.” I could easily distinguish the sounds of their hammering, going back and forth like a conversation.
It was like training. I had to train my brain to keep up with my senses and at the same time had to learn to build barriers against everything that was irrelevant. I also had to learn to rely on my beast when necessary, to use her ability to deal with an amount of impressions that were incomprehensible for a human mind. That was what I had seen Farkas do so often and what had always fascinated me – this slight shift when he let his wolf lose, only enough to help him. I always thought he did it to make use of his sharper senses, but that was wrong. He used him to deal with everything his own senses told him.
I learned fast. I had to, or I would’ve gone insane, something that happened from time to time with newly turned werewolves. But I had the luxury to learn under his watch and guidance, with the reassuring feeling that he was there when it became too much. And I had already the experiences of my first days, even if they were buried beneath the uncontrolled haze of Hircine’s reign.
But when we decided that it was high time to leave our refuge and my sickbed behind, I was ready and over the worst.
Which didn’t mean that I didn’t have still a lot to learn. Another lesson was to understand what he meant when he said that it “wouldn’t be so easy” to get shitfaced with Aela.
It was not only not so easy, it was impossible. Drinking with Aela was always fun. She could hold her mead like the best of her siblings – perhaps except Farkas, but just because she had only half his weight – and she changed in a most pleasant way when a bit squiffy, became calm, in an attentive kind of way, shrugged off all the tension and edginess that ruled her so often. And she became more amenable, less fierce and more tolerant towards others.
But now that I thought about it – I had never seen her really drunk. Really wasted. She had brought me home from the Mare more than once, but I had never returned the favour. It was never necessary.
When Farkas came down the stairs and fetched half a dozen bottles of ale from the keeper and a healing potion from Aela, he flashed me a grin. “Told you so,” he grunted and was gone again.
I broke into uncontrolled giggles. “This won’t work.” I had already downed an amount of mead that should have knocked me out long ago. I felt a certain lightness, found the suspicious looks of the grumpy barkeeper incredibly funny and the ogling of the young man who was busy polishing the goblets, sweeping the floor or being yelled at by his father incredibly cute, but I wasn’t drunk.
She chuckled. “No, it won’t.”
She cocked her head. “You remember what happened when that assassin ambushed you?”
“Of course.” It took me a bit longer than usual, but then I took my mug and studied the content incredulously. I held it in front of her face. “That’s poison?”
She shrugged. “Technically, yes.”
“Torvar will hate me,” I groaned, and when the boy swept by our table again to ask if we needed a refill like he had done it every few minutes throughout the evening, I pushed my mug away.
He was really cute. Although he already showed the muscular build of a man used to hard work, his features under a sparse red fluff that would eventually become a beard still showed the softness and innocence of a child. And the way he watched us wasn’t the lecherous gaze we were used to in such a location – it was more of a longing curiosity, and a shyness that kept him from asking the questions that obviously burnt on his tongue.
Aela was in one of her moods though, and after we had ignored him for the longest time, she beckoned him now to take a seat.
“What’s all the staring for, hm?” she asked casually.
The boy blushed to a bright red. “I’m sorry, M’lady, but… we don’t get many visitors from outside of Rorikstead,” he said. And then he blurted out, “you’re adventurers, aren’t you?”
Aela laughed. “Adventurers? Well, kind of. We’re warriors. Mercenaries. Companions, to be precise, from Whiterun.”
The boy’s eyes gleamed. “You’re Companions? Wow! I’d give my left hand if I could live a life like yours…”
I grinned at him. “Look at me, boy. You’re not of much use with just one hand. What’s your name?”
“Erik.” He pointed at the inn-keeper who watched us suspiciously. “Mralki is my father. He… he always says I have to stay here at the inn or work at the farm. But… I feel like I’m trapped. To spend the rest of my life only here…”
I propped my chin in my palm. “What do you think a life as an adventurer is like, Erik?”
“Exciting!” His eyes gleamed like in a dither.
Aela chuckled. “Yes, sometimes. But mostly it’s uncomfortable, cold and hungry, and some parts of you always hurt. And dangerous, of course – kill or get killed. If you’re lucky like her,” she pointed at me, “you just get an arrow in your shoulder and are useless for a couple of weeks. If you’re unlucky, you’re dead. And if you’re very unlucky, your death is slow and painful.”
“Rorikstead is also uncomfortable, and I’m used to cold and hunger. I’ve seen enough of leeks and potatoes for the rest of my days. If I could just get out of here!”
“There are many ways to get out of here, boy,” Aela said. Erik frowned at the address, but that’s what he was – a boy full of dreams and misconceptions. “If you wanna survive for more than a few days, you have to learn to fight first. Have you ever fought anything larger than a skeever?”
“Yes!” he beamed, “once I’ve fought off a bear! Didn’t kill him, though…” He hung his head.
“Well, that’s a start. You have a weapon then?”
“Yes. An axe, and Rorik has shown me to fight. But no armour. We can’t afford any armour.”
“Well, you need armour. And you need to learn how to fight in it.” Aela eyed him approvingly, and he blushed again as her eyes wandered over him. “Especially if you take metal over leather. But you look as if it would suit you.” The beaming smile he gave her was adorable.
I intervened. “How old are you, Erik?”
“Eighteen.” But he hesitated half a second too long and lowered his eyes under my scrutiny. “In a few months,” he mumbled.
“Old enough.” I could understand him, that he didn’t want to be tied to this little patch of land. Of course we couldn’t take him with us, inexperienced as he was. But perhaps he could get what he wanted if he was willing to work for it. I had an idea. “The guards of Morthal are recruiting. Why don’t you apply to them? I think they would take you. I can give you a recommendation for their captain.”
He looked disappointed. “Guard duty? That’s not…”
“I know,” I interrupted him, “you wanna travel and search through old ruins and find treasures and get famous. Forget it, boy. Those guys in Morthal have an exciting job, believe me, not like the city guards in Markarth or Whiterun. You’d get plenty of action with them – and someone who shows you how to survive it. And when you know what you’re doing and still feel the wanderlust in a few years, you can still visit us in Whiterun.”
He lifted his eyebrows in disbelief. “Visit you? You mean…”
Aela nodded with a smile. He was really adorable. But then his face fell. “But my dad… he’ll never let me go.”
“No guarantees, but I’ll speak with him. If you do me a favour.”
“Prepare me a bath, will you?” His beaming smile was reward enough. My good deed of the day.
I was comfortably tipsy, full with Mralki’s excellent boar roast sandwiches and most of all blissfully clean when Aela had finished helping me with all the bandages and left to her own room. Mine was next to Vilkas’, but nothing but a quiet mumbling was audible through the thin wall when I dropped onto the mattress. I didn’t mind, only glad that I didn’t have to care.
Until there was furious yelling in the hallway, together with more doorslamming that woke me in an instant from my light doze. Farkas had probably just woken the whole inn, and he was fuming when he stormed through the door.
“What an ass,” he shouted, “what an incredible jerk, I can’t believe I’m related to this… bastard!” He paced frantically through the room. “I don’t know what to do! I need some time!” He mimicked his brother in a high pitched, whiny voice, twisting his face into a grimace of utter misery. His performance was so ridiculous that I burst into laughter, especially as it was so… unconvincing. Vilkas would never speak like that, not in a lifetime.
“He wants to travel, Qhouri!” he growled. “With me! Shor’s balls, he’s been out there for months, and no, he doesn’t want to make himself useful. He wants to find himself! And I gotta help him!” He dropped into a chair, one knee hanging over the armrest, his hands buried in his hair, and looked utterly destroyed.
“Everything’s always just about him,” he muttered. “After everything you’ve done, he’s still the same selfish bastard.”
I sat on the bed, leant against the headboard. I could understand his frustration, but… I didn’t want Vilkas to come back to Whiterun either, and Farkas knew that. I didn’t want to deal with him.
“I haven’t done anything for him,” I said, and Farkas’ head jerked up in surprise. “All I’ve done was for me, and you, and for us… and for the peace of the Companions. Not for him.” I showed him an uneasy smile. “And honestly… I’m glad to hear that. You know I’m not keen on having him in Jorrvaskr. Even if I’m selfish now.”
He stood up and started to unbuckle his armour, glancing at me over his shoulder. “You’re not selfish. And even if you were, you’d have every right to be. It’s just…” He shrugged in a helpless gesture, and his pauldrons fell down with a dull thud. “I’ve no idea what to do with him. He feels so… strange.”
“Of course he does. You just beat him to pulp, didn’t you?”
He gave me a crooked grin. “‘t wasn’t fun. He didn’t fight back.” He added breastplate, greaves and boots to the pile with impatient motions. “We should just leave tomorrow. He can get lost.”
“Is that what you want?”
He dropped down beside me. “I don’t know, Qhouri. You’re injured, and he’s such an ass… I don’t know.”
I took a deep breath. “You’d regret it if he got lost again.”
He clenched his teeth. “He has no right to make demands.”
“Perhaps he was just alone for too long. And he has no one but you.” I had no idea why I even said that. Why I tried to understand him. Farkas’ incredulous gaze showed that he thought the same.
“Why in Oblivion should I take responsibility for his well-being? And why in Oblivion are you so bloody sympathetic?”
It was silent for some time. “Perhaps because I know how it feels not to belong anywhere,” I said quietly. It was the worst punishment I could think of.
Farkas’ fingers tangled with mine, his chin resting on top of my head. “He doesn’t deserve this, Qhouri.”
I smiled. “No. But you promised to keep him out of my eyes.”
“But you’re injured. I don’t wanna leave you again. You need someone to take care of you.”
I gave him a light grin. “I’m a big girl, dear. And many people will take care of me while you get the vacation you wanted. I’m gonna visit Danica and get this thing going again,” I wriggled my limb wrist, “and then I’ll hunt with Aela and fetch some mammoth souls with Athis, and Kodlak will teach me what to do with those blasted ledgers that drive everybody crazy.” My fingers stroked the strained muscles of his shoulder, and slowly I felt him relax. “And when I’ve a free minute or two I’m gonna miss you. Like crazy.”
He drew me carefully closer to him. “I hope so,” he chuckled. A warm, calloused hand slipped under my shirt. Concerned eyes searched my face. “Are you in pain?” I shook my head, and his fingers tangled into the hair in my neck, his head lowering, lips brushing over my cheek until they finally met with mine.
His scent and taste washed over my senses, acute like never before. The familiar scent of smoke and oil and wolf, but different now, more than just an odour. A strange understanding. I could smell the lingering anger and the tenderness, his excitement and worry, the desire and his need to be close. And I could sense his wolf lurking under the surface of his humanity, and mine answering the call.
“I can smell what you feel,” I said with a quiet, surprised laughter, resting my head against his shoulder, his heartbeat slow and steady. But I felt him twitch when my hand roamed along his back, and his palms on my skin knew exactly how to send a shiver down my spine.
He searched my face with darkening eyes. “And I can smell that you feel the same,” he whispered with a light smile. With a swift motion he drew his shirt over his head before he helped me to do the same with mine. We sat with me straddling his thighs, nestled up against one another, skin against skin, exploring the sensations. The newness of them, their completeness.
“I just wanna feel you.” Hard fingertips were stroking along my sides, along the wrap around my ribs, his stubble brushing over my neck when I relaxed into his touch. We were never finished exploring each other.
“You lie,” I chuckled and felt his answer rumble against my ribs.
“If you say so.” But my lips already searched his mouth, and he came down to meet me, to taste me and let me taste his need until we both had to gasp for breath.
“I want you tonight,” I breathed into his ear, my hand tangling into his hair. “And she wants her mate.”
His eyes sparkled with mirth and desire when I urged him to his back, and he shifted and stretched, held me on top of him, never breaking the contact. “Be careful, love.”
I lay and watched him sleep, unable to rest myself. He dreamed, he always dreamed, stirring, never completely at ease, his features never completely relaxed. A lot going on in his head that had to be processed at night, and his wolf lay awake just like mine, waiting for an opportunity to get released.
When I touched the tiny scar at his temple, a small smile settled on his face, and he turned over to the side, one hand reaching out, the palm of the other resting under his cheek.
He was so beautiful, in body and mind and in his love for me, I wanted to watch him for the rest of my life.
We had chosen each other, consciously and aware of the difficulties, but now I understood that there was even more that connected us. We were bound to each other, bound in blood and with the duality of our souls. Friends, lovers and mates, and our beasts were at peace when together.
Just that there wasn’t much of a life for us to share. I knew that silly ideas like a vacation were just that – silly. A quiet day or two were already pure luxury, but even then the next challenge always loomed at the horizon. It was always just regeneration and preparation for the next duty, and I knew it would never end as long as I refused to deal with Alduin.
Athis had been right, of course. The mer and his cheeky way to look at things was nearly always right – nobody knew what would happen when a Dragonborn read an Elder Scroll. And even less people knew what would happen when a were-dragon-woman tried it. My spiritual innards were such a mess, if a single part of them went mad I’d perhaps not even notice it.
I had to go on – when I was completely healed, and when Farkas was back.
And I had a very selfish idea how to bring him back faster. The thought let a broad grin spread over my face.
I presented it to my companions when we gathered for breakfast. Aela looked suspiciously at my mischievous expression, but Farkas beat her to it. “Out with it,” he tipped at my temple, “what’s going on in that pretty head of yours?”
I grinned at him. “I’ve an idea. What to do with Vilkas.”
“Ouch,” Aela said dryly, “now it gets bloody. Qhouri’s revenge is finally gonna take its course.”
I snickered and nudged my elbow into her side. She jerked back with a laughter. “In a way, yeah. Not bloody, though. Worse.” I looked at Farkas. “Take him to Delphine.”
His eyes grew wide. “You mean… to Skyhaven?”
I nodded, very content with myself. “Exactly. He can train with Delphine, help Esbern with his studies and slay the occasional dragon or Forsworn in between. And if he doesn’t behave, Esbern will let him work on those inventory lists, and he can count Akaviri chamber pots for the rest of his days. He will be thrilled.”
Aela chimed in with a scowl. “Akaviri chamber pots? What in Oblivion are you talking about?”
“The Blades, sister,” I smirked, “you know, in their temple with the wall about Alduin and where we found the book about Paarthurnax. They’re rebuilding their operation base there. I don’t want those guys,” I nodded to Farkas, “to wander around until Vilkas finally deigns to find himself. We need to find him a place to stay instead. Not that he deserves it,” I mumbled.
Farkas rubbed the nape of his neck. “You really think that’s a good idea? I mean… you think he’s ready for that?”
“It’s a fabulous idea,” I frowned, “and you will make that clear to him. Who cares if he’s ready? He needs company, a place where he can stay and where he can be useful. Gods, they’re scholars and warriors, they’re perfect for him! Delphine will be glad to get help, and most of all will she keep him in check. You know her. She can be atrocious.”
A sly grin appeared on his face. “Aye, she will. If you put it that way… that’s bloody brilliant.”
“I know,” I laughed. “And while you’re on your way… you think you can do me another favour? In Markarth?”
“Sure. It’s not far, after all. I’ll just drag him there.”
“Okay. Farengar told me the court mage there is a Dwemer expert. An Altmer called Calcelmo. Find him and ask him what he knows about Blackreach, please.”
His eyes widened. “You mean… ”
“I give you two weeks, Farkas. If you’re not back by then, I’m gonna search for the scroll alone.”
We said goodbye when Aela and I settled on the carriage from Solitude that made its regular stop in Rorikstead. I was looking forward to going home – I was always looking forward to going home – even if it was without Farkas. His embrace showed that he had accepted to join Vilkas for the time being.
“Get well soon, will you?” he whispered between kisses.
I smiled against his mouth. “I will. I love you.”
Over his shoulder I could see a broad figure behind one of the windows. The man raised a hand when the carriage started to move, as if he wanted to greet me.