Winterhold was a frozen, hopeless, useless wreck of a city. Even in such a godsforsaken corner of Skyrim a city that wasn’t even able to come up with a halfway decent breakfast deserved to collapse into the sea.
I had barely slept and woke with the first light, a dull ache lingering in my bones and a queasy feeling in my stomach. Everything grated on my nerves, the snowflakes whirling in erratic patterns outside of our window, the chilly dampness of my armour and the stiffness of the straps, Vilkas’ amulet that I shoved between cuirass and tunic where I could ignore that it was there.
And especially the bowl full of thin, watery, lukewarm slime the inn-keeper sold us as porridge. Disgusting.
“If you leave out on breakfast something is really wrong, Qhouri,” Farkas said.
“I should’ve gone hunting tonight,” I scowled, “this stuff isn’t edible.” When I shoved the bowl away, he started to empty it, but his face was concerned. “Come on,” he said finally and pushed back his chair, “let’s pack our stuff and get off.”
But when the door of our room had closed behind us, he pulled me against his chest. He sighed when he saw my uneasy smile. “I hate it when you’re like that. So unhappy.”
“I’m just tired, Farkas. So tired. I hate that you got injured, and I don’t wanna return to Jorrvaskr. This whole trip was a disaster so far.”
His face softened, and he looked down on me with a warm smile. “Riften wasn’t.”
I felt my lips curl, somehow against my own will, and rested my head with closed eyes against the wall of his chest. Gods, I was so tired. “If you’re honest, even Riften was a disaster,” I chuckled lowly.
But his hand curled around my chin and forced me to look up to him, his gaze locking into mine. “No, it wasn’t. It was wonderful. It was the best day of my life, and you better never forget that.”
I felt much better when the village finally vanished behind us and we climbed the first hills on the road towards Windhelm. Even the weather got better when we left the vicinity of Winterhold, and soon I was throwing snowballs at Farkas and had lots of fun with his clumsy attempts to catch them. He shook himself like a wet whelp and cursed violently when icy water started to leak under his armour, but he appreciated the change of mood from brooding to mischief at least as much as I. This was training, after all.
He turned the tables though when suddenly a strong arm slung around my waist and he pushed me head first into a snowdrift, holding me up only by my ankles until I choked and gasped for air. His whole body shook with unbridled laughter. “That’ll teach you not to make fun of your husband, woman,” he snickered.
“That teaches me nothing but not to get caught next time,” I grinned, shaking the lose snow from my hair and rubbing my cheeks, bright red from cold and exertion.
When he managed to ward himself against a snowball and the missile burst on his bracers into a fog of white powder, we both wailed in triumph.
We made more than half of the distance to Windhelm on the first day, and it was an easy trip. In this Stormcloak territory we didn’t have to fear to meet rampaging Thalmor patrols, and other distractions were few – a few bandits, a thief we sent back to Riften with greetings instead of gold, the occasional pack of wolves and a couple of sabrecats. Nothing spectacular.
But I knew something gnawed on Farkas when he became suspiciously quiet for more than a few minutes and I felt his boring gaze on me.
I turned to him. “What’s the matter? What’s the staring for?”
He flashed me a sheepish grin. “Nothing.”
“Doesn’t look like nothing. Something’s bothering you.”
“It’s just… you wanna take Athis to Blackreach?”
“Yeah,” I shrugged. “If he has time.”
“I know you’re good together. But perhaps you should go with someone else.”
“Why?” Of course I wanted to go with Athis. He had already explored Dwemer ruins when he still lived on Vvardenfell.
“Because with his daggers, he’d be useless against something like that giant. And you can’t shout all the time.” He gave me a fleeting grin. “You need something badass.”
“Athis is badass!”
“Of course he is. Just not against a giant heap of steaming metal.”
I didn’t want to discuss this now. “We’ll see. Perhaps I’ll take Ria or Torvar.”
He chewed pensively on his lip. “Or Vilkas.”
I stopped dead. I must have misheard. “You can’t be serious.”
But he nodded slowly. “He’s the best. And he has the most experience of us all with this Dwemer and Falmer stuff. Even more than I.”
As if that was important. My voice was icy. “Your brother hates me, Farkas! Are you crazy?”
He explored my face, searching and probing. “Bullshit, Qhouri. Vilkas doesn’t hate you. And he knows if you even suffered so much as a scratch, I’d make his death longer and more painful than everything he could ever think of.”
“Oh, and you think that’s a good basis to work together? To rely on each other? Because he’s afraid of you? Gods no!” I shook my head, still not believing he really made this suggestion. Vilkas, of all people!
I stared into his face. “You really expect me to trust him with my life? You’d trust him with my life?”
“Yes. I want to know you’re safe, and I’d trust him to keep you safe.”
“But I don‘t. End of discussion.” That proclamation didn’t impress him in the slightest.
“But you trusted him against the hunters in Hircine’s cave. You said he saved you then.”
He was really serious. He really tried to cajole me into this madness. “Farkas, please. He had to save me to save himself. He didn’t have a choice, and I didn’t either.”
“He would have died for you in that cave.”
I snorted. “How touching! And you know that how?”
“He told me. And I believe him.” Utter conviction sounded from his voice.
“You know exactly that he’d tell you everything. Don’t be so naïve.”
“He wouldn’t lie to me!”
“Of course he would, the bloody coward! Have you forgotten what he’s done?” One of us was missing something, and I was sure it wasn’t me. “He left me to die on that godsforsaken beach. He ran away from you all when he vanished from Jorrvaskr, he ran away from us in Falkreath, and he didn’t even have the balls to show his face when we came to Rorikstead. For him. After I dealt with Hircine. How much more proof do you need?”
“He didn’t run away from you in Rorikstead. He wanted to speak with you. Really. He only kept away because I told him to leave you alone. You were so badly injured… and I knew you didn’t want to deal with him.”
I exploded. “But I still don’t want to deal with him, don’t you get it? And I certainly don’t want to spend days or weeks in some bloody cave with him, alone and dependent on each other. That’s insane! Can we please end this ridiculous discussion? Keep… Vilkas… out of my eyes!”
I turned on my heels and strode down the street, not waiting if he followed. He lowered his gaze, defeated.
I was seething. Curse those twins. Curse this man who tore himself apart by trying to protect those he cared for. As if we hadn’t enough problems to deal with. But when I looked over my shoulder and found him standing where I had left him, staring after me with this torn, beaten look, I waited for him.
“Okay. You’ve got to get that off your chest. What happened after Rorikstead? What makes you so certain?”
“It’s not important.” He refused to look at me.
“It seems that it is.”
“No, it isn’t. Not for you. If you really wanted to know, you’d have asked long ago.” His gaze was cold and distant. “Forget it, okay? I’ll keep him out of your eyes.”
Now I stopped my walk and watched after him. He distanced himself from me, didn’t want me to share in his experiences and what occupied him so obviously. Of course he didn’t. I had told him more than once that I had no interest in his relationship to his brother.
My hand went to the amulet at my throat. I wore it, Vilkas’ gift – even if I had to block out that it was made by the same hands that had touched me so violently. But Farkas wore the other half, and he had given me the happiest smile when I fastened the band around his neck and he did the same for me.
But perhaps this gift wasn’t meant as two parts that belonged together. Perhaps it was just a reminder how easy it was to split something that seemed to be whole.
I hurried to catch up to him and grabbed his arm. “It’s important if it bothers you,” I said imploringly. “Tell me what happened. Please.”
His answer was curt and meaningless. “We went to Morthal first. That’s why I was late. Then to Markarth and then to Skyhaven.”
He turned sharply to me. “What do you wanna hear? That it was his idea to escort Erik to Morthal because he wanted to see his nieces? That we’ve hunted together and that it was like in old times? How much time he spent with Calcelmo for you or how thankful he was that he had a place to stay, even if it was with Delphine?” He clenched his teeth. “You don’t want to know all this. All you want to know is that he suffers, and all you will get from this is that he doesn’t suffer enough. You told us before… Kodlak and me, that there’s no solution. That it will never end.”
He wasn’t just miffed. So much frustration radiated from him that I took a startled step back.
“I don’t know what you expect from me.”
“Nothing!” he snapped. “No one expects anything from you! I will keep him out of your eyes, okay?”
“Godsdammit, you made this idiotic suggestion!”
“Yes, because you’re not honest with me!” He spun around, grabbed the leather band around my neck and pulled the amulet from beneath my cuirass. It dangled from his fist as he held it accusingly in front of my face. “Why do you wear this thing?” he barked, one eye flaring with fury. “You hate it. You loathe it. You hated that I spent those weeks with him and still you sent me off. And if you don’t wanna know the answers, then don’t ask!”
I snatched the trinket from his grip and pushed him back. “What would you like instead, that I tell you to never see him again?”
“Yes! At least then I’d know where you stand!”
“You know exactly where I stand!” I yelled. “Gods, if it weren’t for you he’d be long dead!” I shoved past him, the claws on my pauldrons scratching his arm. A small boulder I kicked furiously down the slope towards the sea took a small avalanche with it, and I had to blink against the sting in my eyes. We had had so much fun only a few minutes ago. What had gotten into him that he made such a fuss suddenly? Why did he have to bring this nonsense up at all? He knew beforehand how I’d react.
This time, I didn’t look back as I stomped down the street. A carriage would take me from Windhelm to Whiterun, and I had more important things to take care of than the stupid ideas my stupid husband had about his stupid brother.
Eventually he caught up, but he went quietly half a step behind me, staring into the distance, his jaw set. The silence was oppressive and cold and made me cringe inwardly. I couldn’t keep up my anger when he was like this, so distant and withdrawn into himself. No fight about Vilkas was worth that we didn’t speak with each other.
When I let my hand slip into his, I felt him hesitate for a moment. But then he grasped it firmly, returning the press of my fingers.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. I’m just a selfish fool.”
I rolled my eyes. “Farkas, please.”
He chewed on his lower lip. “Have you noticed that every time we fight, we fight about Vilkas?”
Especially when he came up with stupid ideas. I had no idea what this was about. I shrugged helplessly. “Yeah. But at the moment I really don’t get why you freaked out like that.”
“Because I’m selfish.”
“No, you’re not. What’s the matter?”
His gaze was set on the ruins of a tomb that we passed in the distance. He took a deep breath. “Perhaps this is how it has to be. That there’s no solution for you and him. Perhaps you’re right.” He looked tired as he became quiet for a moment, rubbing his forehead. “But every time you do something like that… like wearing that amulet, or asking questions about him as if you really wanted to know… I start to hope that it could perhaps be different. That perhaps, one day, you’ll find a way to deal with him that’s not for me, but for yourself.” He gave me a sidewards glance. “And then I come up with stupid ideas, and we end up fighting.”
I had to let this settle for a moment. Yes, Vilkas stood between us, we still stood on opposite sides when it came to him. But it had always been this way, and we lived with it – ignoring the fact whenever possible, finding compromises when not. Trying not to hurt each other. Only that it didn’t always work.
“I thought… we have a solution. You do with him whatever you want, and he leaves me alone.”
“But we fight about him, and it’s not worth it. I won’t allow that he comes between us.” He let go of my hand and stood before me, his finger trailing along the leather band around my neck. I had stuffed the amulet back between armour and tunic. “I will not see him again, Qhouri. And you should take this off. You don’t have to wear it for me.”
I didn’t know what to do. He knew me so well and was so insistent in what he thought was right. Perhaps he was indeed. Perhaps I should just rip it off and throw it away.
But I couldn’t rip Vilkas out of my life, and he couldn’t either. He was there, in his head and in mine, in stupid ideas and so many little things. He didn’t leave me alone in so many ways. There were Farkas and the pack, bonds that included us both, but this little trinket was the only tangible connection I had to him. I could only touch it with revulsion, and still I wore it. It wasn’t only for Farkas. It was something between Vilkas and me, a constant itch in the back of my mind that he was still there. A challenge I didn’t understand and couldn’t ignore.
I didn’t ask questions about him only to appease his brother. I asked because I wanted to know.
I couldn’t help these questions. I couldn’t help the morbid, unhealthy curiosity I felt for this man and the uneasy feeling that I didn’t know him as good as I should, considering what we had been through together. If only to have a weapon against him.
Perhaps I’d need it, perhaps not – I didn’t know.
And I had to acknowledge Farkas’ opinion, even if it was hard to share it.
But so much had happened and so much had changed since that fight in the shipwreck – I had changed, had gained strength and confidence. I owed a lot of this strength to the man beside me. Farkas had always believed in me, unfaltering from the very beginning. He had taught me to believe in myself – and to trust in others.
He also believed in his brother. Perhaps he always had, but he wouldn’t have made this suggestion if he didn’t mean it. Ha had known how I’d react, but he also knew his brother better than anyone else. Was it right to call him insane? Perhaps Vilkas owed him as much as I.
Perhaps more change was possible if I could bring myself to allow it.
He watched me expectantly.
“I’m not sure that will change anything,” I said lowly. “I shouldn’t force you to find a solution for me.”
“You’re my wife. He has no right to make demands.”
“Yeah, but he does. He expects you to take care of him, and he knows he has to share you with me.” I grunted annoyed. “Gods, that sounds horrible. As if you’re a sweetroll we can split between us.”
“Sometimes I feel like one.” A small smile quirked his lips. “But you got that wrong anyway. It’s not about me.”
“Of course it is. He must hate that we’re together.”
He shook his head. “You said he doesn’t have to get through you to get to me. But that’s not what he’s trying.” He pointed at my throat. “This thing… he made it for us. But most of all did he make it for you. He tries to use me to get to you, not the other way around.”
I was dumbfounded, and a shiver crept up my spine.
“Why would he do that?”
“He needs you.”
“No one on Nirn needs me less than Vilkas,” I said with a snort.
“Oh yes, he does. If he ever wants a chance to start over, he needs you.”
When the meaning of his words dropped in, the shiver became a full-grown shudder. It wasn’t a shudder of fear.
Of course he did. He owed me his life and his sanity – me and Farkas – and of course it wasn’t enough. He wanted back what he once had and was, esteemed Master-of-Arms of the Companions and designated successor of Kodlak. I could give it to him – or deny it. The thought made me giddy with amusement, revulsion and a rush of power.
And I had no idea how to deal with this – with this ridiculous demand he dared to make, even if it was only to his brother, and with the responsibility that came with it.
“Give me a single reason why I should help him to get back on his feet,” I said curtly.
Farkas didn’t answer.
“You can tell him that for all I care he can throw himself into Red Mountain.”
“Perhaps you should tell him yourself.”
“Yeah, perhaps I should.” I had a lot of ideas what Vilkas could do to himself, and the thought to spit them into his face was tempting. I gave him a crooked grin. “If I really did that… would you like to be there?”
The corners of his lips quirked up. “Not sure if I’d like it. But the last time I let you run off alone to see him, you ended up with the curse of a Daedra. Of course I’d be there.”
The carriage driver at the Windhelm stables looked confused from Farkas to me and back. And Farkas looked confused at me.
“Where to, now?” the man asked finally. “First Whiterun, then Markarth?”
Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to return to Jorrvaskr, lock myself in the empty rooms of Breezehome or hide in Dragonsreach’s dungeon.
My lips were pressed into a firm line. “Markarth, directly. We’re gonna get off in Karthwasten, though.”
“Fine with me, as long as you pay the full fee,” the man muttered and beckoned us impatiently to get onto the benches. At least it was gonna be a long journey. A long journey to think things over.
I would never understand how someone like Farkas, someone so straightforward and uncomplicated could make me think so much. Especially about things I didn’t want to deal with.
We didn’t argue very often, but when we did, it was exhausting and arduous. And sometimes all hell broke lose. It was hard to fight with Farkas. I was tempted to start an argument much more often than he, simply because talking about something helped me to clear my mind, but he hated it. And so he usually backed off, laughed at me when I lost my temper and made more than clear that he didn’t think it worth the effort. He gave me the feeling I had won, if there was something like winning at all, just to keep the peace.
But there were still these big questions he thought worthy to have an opinion on. And if such an opinion had once settled itself in his head, it was thought through, based on his gut and his mind and stood firm like the Throat of the World, unwavering and solid. Once he was certain of something, he wouldn’t back off a single inch. He’d listen to me, he’d try to understand, but he wouldn’t give in. He’d quietly agree to disagree, and no shouting and cursing from my side would change his mind.
The problem was, time had proven more than once that he was right. And with his unfaltering certainty, he made me think. Hard. Painful. He saw me struggle, he argued with me in his calm, confident manner, but he didn’t fight my battles for me. And he never backed off when something was important to him, never let me win in these cases.
Vilkas was one of these questions, and again he had won. The matter was set for Farkas after our argument on the road, and he didn’t press it any further during our way to Windhelm. But as always, the way he had explained himself, how he opened his mind to me and revealed the conflict in him without any fear got me thinking. Hard and painful. And he left me alone with my thoughts, knowing I’d come to him when I needed to talk.
And in the evening, when we sat warm and full at the fire of Candlehearth, when we were a bit tipsy from hot cider and I asked him again to tell me about the weeks he spent with Vilkas, he looked at me from wide, astonished eyes, but at least he didn’t refuse again.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t wanna fight with you again.”
“I won’t fight. I promise.”
He took a swig from his tankard. “I guess you don’t wanna hear how we killed a spider for Calcelmo? A monster. There’s a whole Dwemer city beneath Markarth.”
“No. Though I’m proud of you.” I was quiet for a moment. “I wanna know why you trust him.”
“Why, Qhouri? You don’t. You have no reason to. Nothing I can say will change that.”
No, I didn’t. But I trusted him. Him and his judgement.
I gave him a feeble grin. “Perhaps I’m just curious.”
His lips twitched, but he nodded and relaxed into his chair, legs stretched out and his hands folded behind his head as he gathered his thoughts. “I trust him because he’s my little brother,” he said finally, tilting his head to look at me. “We don’t know who of us was born first, you know? It was probably only a few minutes difference anyway, but back then… before you came, Vilkas was always seen as the elder. He’s the smarter one, and he has so many talents… people always came to him for advice and for help. Everybody thought he would become the next Harbinger.”
I wanted to object, but he shook his head slightly not to interrupt him. “That’s how others have seen him. But for me… he was my big brother, but he was always brother first and big second. He always believed in me, challenged me to keep up with him and he taught me so much…” He shook his head, a wistful smile on his face. “But he needed me as well. To let off steam, to keep his head together, to relax. To make things right with people he pissed off. It’s always been the two of us, and we’ve always looked out for each other.”
“But you still do, don’t you?”
“No. At the moment, he needs me much more than I need him.” A tinge of sadness lingered in his voice. “With you, he lost control… and then he lost himself. And with the ring and Hircine… it happened what he always feared most. He learned how it is to be at someone’s mercy. To be powerless. And it has changed him. After Rorikstead, he asked me for help to go on, something he’s never done before. He asked me for advice what to do. He wanted to know about you and how we live together. And somehow, we’ve changed roles. He’s my little brother now, and he has accepted this change. For the first time in his life, he has accepted to rely on someone else.”
“And what does he want now?”
“What he always wants. The impossible. Turn back time and start over.” He rubbed his palm over his face. “Of course he knows that’s not possible. But it’s still what he wants.”
“He’s a mess.”
“Yeah, that he is. But…” His gaze flitted over my face. He bit his lip anxiously.
“Yes?” I said softly.
“He’s my little brother, Qhouri. I cannot forgive him what he did to you, and we both know that nothing can make up for it. But sometimes… he doesn’t deserve it, but sometimes I wish Vilkas would meet someone like you. Someone who could be to him what you’re to me and just make him happy once. And who’d give him another chance.”
It became quiet between us, and when I propped my elbows on my knees and stared into the embers, his hand came up and cradled my neck, warm and soothing. Everything he had told me now was only about Vilkas. He made no demand, and it didn’t concern me, not directly. But there was still that one question left that I had always shied away from, because it was about me.
To ask for the reasons would mean that I tried to understand him. It would mean to acknowledge that there could be reasons that were worth understanding.
Perhaps it was time to stop being a coward.
I leant into his touch. “Why did he do it, Farkas?” My voice was weak.
His breath hitched, but Farkas never shied away from difficult questions. “Many reasons, and I’m not sure I get them all. Sometimes I think he doesn’t know himself.” His smile was sad and tender. “For a start, he didn’t get why Kodlak wanted you to stay… you were only a whore, after all. And then you saved me and became not only a whelp, but part of the pack and Dragonborn. You brought so much change… suddenly we had a reputation as dragon slayers. And with all our travels and when you fixed the mess in Morthal and I spent more time there… he had no part in it, and he felt left out.”
“But I didn’t fix anything! You fixed it! How could he begrudge you that you were happy with your daughters?”
“It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been there. And he… he always said they were an accident and that Jonna’s demands were unjust and that they’d just tie me down. And in a way, he was right. He didn’t believe we could make it work, and I didn’t either.” He gave me a crooked grin. “I usually believed what he told me. Until you came and I fell in love with you. I didn’t want to, but it happened and he didn’t get that either. You know that he got my fist when he told me just to fuck you and get over with it?” And amused smile curled his lips.
“You hit him? And you think that’s funny?”
“But it is – in hindsight. We never fought over a woman before. We’d rather share than fight. And now I had to beat some sense into his stupid head for a woman we both didn’t want to bed.”
I buried my face in my palms. “Gods. And I was so oblivious.”
He became serious again. “He was an ass and he earned it. But he felt betrayed. By me, by Kodlak and the pack, by his own beast and by you.” His fingers played with the leather band and the golden chain around my neck. One gift from him, the other from his brother. “I don’t know what pushed him so far, Qhouri. It was so many little things no one took really seriously. I didn’t either. But for him, it became one big thing. Perhaps he thought he has to break you before it broke himself.” He shrugged. “Perhaps this is something you have to ask him yourself.”
“You think he would give me an answer? An honest answer?”
“I don’t know. But if you really wanna know, you’ll have to ask him.”
And now we were on our way to Skyhaven Temple. I felt itchy and uneasy and ridiculous. I didn’t have time for such a detour, told myself I’d send a courier to Jorrvaskr and meet with my shield-sibling – whoever was up to it – in Morthal in a few days.
It didn’t mean that I was entirely sure why I sat on this carriage at all. The carriage to Helgen, the one to Solitude, and now this one. Carriages were the vehicles of doom. Farkas’ incredulous bewilderment when we had left Windhelm in western direction had spoken for itself.
Of course, going to Blackreach with Vilkas was not an option. But I wanted to get these questions out of my head, wanted to confront him and stop to use Farkas as a pawn. Before I fought with my husband over him, I’d rather fight with him personally.
And I wanted to do so now that I had finally gathered the courage. Now when everything Farkas had said was still fresh. I wanted to trust him, wanted to trust his judgement about his brother. If I was honest, I had no idea if and how Vilkas had changed.
Did he deserve another chance? No, certainly not. Did he deserve to be happy? Even less. Did he deserve that I went out of my way and made the first step to confront him? No. He didn’t deserve anything, and least of all did he deserve anything from me. It wasn’t my responsibility to get him back on his feet. Not after all I had already done. I didn’t want to get involved with this man, not again, never again.
But what I wanted wasn’t the same as what would happen. What was possible. I would have to get involved with Vilkas, sooner or later. Because I couldn’t come to terms with him as long as I hadn’t seen him, as long as I didn’t figure out where we stood. And not as long as I lived with his brother and he bared his heart to me, innocent and honest.
And what if Farkas was right? If the events had changed Vilkas really as much as they had changed me? Would it help me to deal with him personally? Perhaps. Probably. Yes, it would, at least in the long run.
We sat opposite of each other while the wagon carried us towards the Reach, quiet for hours. The wooden wheels on the cobblestones rattled my bones through and through, and I felt a dull, throbbing headache approaching. When I looked up from my crouched position on the uncomfortable bench, Farkas stared into the distance, with his thoughts far away.
But he sensed my gaze and turned to me, a small smile curling his lips.
“Back?” he asked, leaning forward and placing a hand on my knee. I covered it with my fingers, reached out for him with the other hand.
“Kiss me? Please?”
A question stood in his eyes, but he lowered his lips to mine, touched them with tenderness and affection before he leant back again.
“You think this is a good idea?”
His gaze was calm and reassuring. “I don’t know, honestly. You’ll have to decide. I just hope you don’t expect too much.” A small chortle escaped him. “Vilkas is still an ass, you know. Still the same know-it-all with his arrogance and his sarcasm. Not that you believe we’re gonna meet a tamed puppy. Old habits die hard. Or never.”
“I’m not afraid of him any more,” I said with a crooked grin and curled my fingers into his. “Don’t worry. I’ll deal with him.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will,” he chuckled, “and I’m not sure if I’m more afraid for you or for him.”
Skyhaven’s main hall was empty when we entered, lit only by a few torches centred on Alduin’s Wall. Now I could easily ignore it. Not even Farkas’ firm grip on my sweaty fingers could calm my somersaulting stomach.
We heard the clanking of metal against metal before we opened the exit to the training ground outside, and I steeled myself when Farkas gave me a light smile over his shoulder right before he pushed the large door open. They didn’t notice us at first, and we stood for a few moments, let our eyes adjust to the bright sunlight again and watched the spar.
During the fights we had gotten through together, Delphine had always impressed me with her lightfooted movements and her skill with the sword. Despite her age she danced around Vilkas with astonishing ease, and the man wearing the typical heavy Blades armour wielded his sword with the familiar, precise finesse. But what really surprised me wasn’t that and how they sparred. It was that they had obviously a lot of fun.
I knew Delphine as a stern, serious woman who didn’t give herself much opportunity to let her dry sense of humour break through, her head always on the task before her – and before others. Nothing stood between her and her duty, and she had pushed me along the path to Alduin with unrelenting determination and discipline. Faltering, hesitating, backing off – these were options that didn’t exist.
And now I saw her, circling her opponent, trying to lure him out of his cover with elegant feigned and real attacks, grinning and sweating and throwing friendly, teasing insults at him that proved how familiar they were with each other. And I saw Vilkas repay her in the same fashion.
They had fun. I was speechless.
Farkas looked at me with an arched eyebrow and a shrug, but he couldn’t suppress a grin of his own when he cleared his throat audibly and two heads spun around. He drew his weapon and entered the yard.
“You look tired, brother, let me take over. Do you mind, Delphine?”
Farkas literally vanished from my eyesight when my vision narrowed on the man suddenly standing alone at the edge of the training ground. He stood stiff and tense, his fist clenching in an unconscious struggle around the hilt of the long, slim, slightly curved blade that looked a lot like Dragonbane, only double its size. His shoulders were bunched up and his eyes riveted unbelievingly on his brother, before he turned to me. He stared at me with the same intensity with which I was fixed on him and I felt how he tried to shut down, to back away and protect himself, frustration and anxiety flowing from him in violent waves. But I locked him with my presence and my unyielding glare, and he was frozen, we were both frozen in this place and in this moment. I would not let him get away. Now, it were just the two of us. Again.
He felt my grip on him, my wolf reaching out for her pack-brother and my senses searching for his reactions. I had learned to tone them down, not to let the impressions others forced on me overwhelm me, but now I opened my mind to everything Vilkas sent out, bonded with my wolf to make use of her powers and her instincts. And he knew what I did, he was straitened and trapped, and in helpless defence he tried to bar his mind, to close himself away from my scrutiny.
But I looked through him, and again I felt that rush of power. So much was struggling in him, a barrage of emotions. Anger, frustration, fear and distrust. Curiosity. Pride. The urge to escape. And below all this – a lingering base of regret, relief and compliance.
You can’t hide from me, brother. I know you. And you will know me.
I set one foot before the other, my own pulse pounding in my ears, made my way in slow steps around the place. Around me, everything seemed to be quiet, deadly quiet. Nothing counted but that man I had in my grip and whom I approached now until I stood before him, invading his personal space just like his mind.
He fought, but he didn’t break away. He couldn’t, not against my will, not against my strength. A strength I didn’t know I had and even less where it came from. I forced him to endure my examination, and then I forced him to acknowledge me. My wolf reached out for him and I let her, and his gaze on my face became probing when he took me in. He searched and I let him find, showed him my own frustration, anger and fears, built up and altered over and over again. My own hate and distrust, nervousness and vulnerability.
I had the strength to let him in. I had the strength to show him that I didn’t have to hide any more. That he couldn’t hurt me any more.
I proved myself, to him and most importantly to myself.
The tension broke when he stumbled away with a suppressed gasp, craving for release with a pleading glance. He turned on his heels and vanished into the building, and when he was gone I felt as if a weight was lifted from me, as if breathing was easier suddenly. The noises were back, and I seated myself on a boulder at the edge of the cliff, the stone warm beneath my crossed legs, and turned my attention back to the fight.
Dust hung densely over the small, unpaved place, the air dry and still. Nothing was audible but the fighters’ erratic steps, the clashing of metal, heavy breathing and the occasional panted curse from Farkas. Delphine was giving him a hard time, attacking him mainly from his blind left side and forcing him to use his shield much more proactively than he was used to. And more often than not he wasn’t fast enough or miscalculated her motions, and she hit him with fast, shallow strikes. His annoyed grunts made her grin, but they were both equally relentless, and it didn’t look as if they wanted to stop any time soon.
I wasn’t surprised that Vilkas returned. He had changed into simple clothes and washed away the warpaint, and the change made him look younger than I remembered him. He approached me cautiously, a blank expression on his face, but he handed me a bottle of ale, careful not to brush my fingers.
He settled down on the ground, leant against the boulder I sat on, and we watched the spar like we had done it a hundred times in Jorrvaskr.
His chin pointed at Farkas. “What happened?” His voice was rough.
Of course his first question would be the one after his brother.
It was a bland, tense, awkward meal we shared in the evening, with the Blades and Vilkas on one side of the long table in the main hall and Farkas and me opposite of them. The conversation didn’t want to get going, none of us knowing what to talk about. Too much was going on that wasn’t their business.
Only Esbern was completely oblivious to the nearly palpable tension in the air, but his probing questions about Alduin, his impatience and his way to remind me that the fate of the world lay in my hands only set me more on edge. And I felt watched, Delphine’s boring gaze not oblivious at all. She knew something was wrong, and when she finally pushed her chair back and told Esbern that they had work to do, I sighed with relief.
“You have certainly much to talk about,” she said with a strained, but friendly smile. “It’s nice you came to say farewell. We will miss him, you know?” She padded Vilkas lightly on the shoulder and ushered Esbern out of the hall. Farkas turned stiffly to his brother, but he waited until the clapping of the door indicated that we were alone.
“What does she mean, farewell?” His voice was only a growl.
Vilkas leant back in his chair. “I’m preparing to leave. To Morrowind.” His voice was flat, his face bare of any expression.
“To Morrowind?” Farkas propped his palms on the table as if he wanted to jump up, barely containing his agitation.
“Yes. I didn’t know I have to ask you for permission.”
“You would have just gone? Just… vanished? To Morrowind?” Farkas narrowed his eyes in anger and confusion.
“And who would care if I did?” Vilkas let out a derisive snort. “You can join me, of course. If you think I need supervision. You’re useless to the Dragonborn anyway.”
He spoke only to Farkas, and the tension rushed from my body with the laughter that broke from my throat. Over the course of the evening, he hadn’t acknowledged once that I was even present, and this situation now… it was so absurd and crazy, worse than anything I had anticipated for this encounter. Perhaps Farkas should really join him. And throw him into Red Mountain.
At least now I knew that this trip had been pointless and that Vilkas was still the same ass he had always been.
“Told you it was a stupid idea,” I chuckled and stood up. “I’m tired. Let’s leave early tomorrow, okay? I gotta send a courier to Jorrvaskr.”
“You still let her bully you into getting up with sunrise?” Farkas’ head shot around, his gaze locking on Vilkas’ face. There it was, the smug, pretentious sneer we knew so good. “Oh, of course. I forgot. You’re a married man now.”
But I heard Farkas’ teeth grind as he stared his brother down, and the grin dripped away, slowly, as if he needed his brothers’ fury to realise that he had messed up. I didn’t dare to move, my hand lying on his shoulder.
“You know, Vilkas… she told me you’re a coward.” His voice was dangerously calm. “The woman you raped has a world to save, and still she came here because I had a stupid idea. But she was right, and I was wrong. You wouldn’t notice a chance if it fucking bit you.” He stood up, towering over his brother. And then he reached into his neck and broke the leather band with a single, angry snap. The amulet dropped onto the table, right in front of Vilkas. “Farewell, brother.”
He covered my hand with his own, but his body trembled under my palm as he turned stiffly and went towards the stairs. Vilkas stared after him, motionless and silent.
Only when we had reached the top, we heard him again. The question came so quiet that everyone else would have missed it.
Farkas froze, his hand already on the handle of the door to our room. But I turned around and looked down to him. He looked small as he sat there, alone at the huge table in the huge, gloomy hall, his hands clenched around his tankard. The flickering light of the torches made his expression unreadable. “To ask you to be my shield-brother in Blackreach,” I said calmly. Not even the dim light could conceal the shock on his face.