He spun around. “Why, Qhouri? Why can’t he just… stop being an ass?”
The question was so absurd, and at the same time he was heartbreakingly serious. Vilkas could stop being an ass just as little as the sun could stop to rise in the morning. But it broke my heart to see him like this. His armour was a messy pile on the floor when he crawled beside me and curled into my arms.
He buried his face against my shoulder. “I don’t wanna lose him, Qhouri,” he muttered. “Have I lost him?”
Perhaps he had lost him long ago and just refused to believe it. I shook my head sadly. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know what to do now.”
I nudged my finger under his chin until I could look into his face. “I know you’re used to fix the mess he leaves behind. But sometimes you can’t do anything, love. You have given him so much… it’s his turn now. If you mean anything to him, he will have to come to you now.”
I was aware that this disaster had at least partly taken its course because I was here. It had taken ages to prepare myself for this visit – and for Vilkas, it had been a surprise. But even if I had been willing to make a step towards him, that he lashed out with so little self-restraint against his brother killed this sentiment once and for all.
“I will leave him alone. We’ll go back to our last solution.” I threaded my fingers through his hair. “Perhaps he’ll come to his senses one day. Perhaps he really has to start over somewhere else… even if it’s in Morrowind.”
“I don’t understand him, Qhouri. I thought I did… but I don’t.” He had believed in him, had believed there could be a solution and that his brother had learned something. That something could change for all of us.
If he did, he didn’t show it, and none of us could force him. Not even Farkas.
He was exhausted and restless at the same time, barely falling into an unsettled slumber, startling up over and over again. Deep inside, he waited for Vilkas to come to him. To make things right before it was too late. His nervous turning and shifting kept me awake as well.
I tried to free myself carefully from his embrace when I sensed that it was shortly before sunrise, but his hand found mine before I could get up.
“Where are you going?” he mumbled.
“Just need some fresh air. And a bite to eat.” I stroked a strand of unruly hair out of his face. “I’ll wake you later, okay?”
A crease formed between his brows. “You should bully me to get up.”
I gave him a soft smile. “I will. When I come back and you’re still asleep.”
He lay on his front and had cushioned his head on his arms, the pillow clenched between them. Now he propped himself on an elbow and rubbed his good eye with his fist. “Screw it,” he muttered, “let’s just leave, okay?”
“And give him that satisfaction?” We would not flee this place like thieves in the night. Each of us had at least as much right to be in Skyhaven as Vilkas. “Have you ever watched the sunrise from here?”
He gave me a feeble grin. “I don’t do sunrises, Qhouri. Not if I don’t have to.”
“But you should. It’s beautiful.” I pecked him on the mouth. “Take your time. We’re not in a hurry.”
I snatched an apple on my way out, not especially hungry. Quite the opposite, a queasy feeling had settled in my stomach, probably due to exhaustion and the constant boiling anger. I could understand Farkas’ frustration and sadness, but I had come here without any expectations and had difficulties to share them. I was only furious with Vilkas. He could ignore and insult me all he wanted, but to treat his brother like that…
It would be good to leave, and it would be good to know he was gone from Skyrim altogether. I didn’t need any further distractions.
There was a small cove in the rocks lining the edge of the back yard, only a niche that opened towards the cliff, providing shelter against the wind and a breathtaking view over the River Karth and the landscape.
The Reach was dangerous, harsh and hostile, but it was also beautiful as it awoke now to the new day. The dark blue velvet of the sky only began to change into lighter shades, the first tendrils of the morning light crawling over the rugged horizon. It was a stunning spectacle as the peaks of the steep, bare mountains lit up as if they were set on fire while the valleys stayed in the darkness. Being alone with myself, I felt as if it were a drama performed only for me, as if colours and light unfolded their beauty solely for my eyes.
Farkas’ loss that he didn’t do sunrises. I smiled when I heard someone leave the building and didn’t bother to get up. He would find me anyway.
But the steps stopped abruptly in the middle of the yard, and they had a wrong rhythm to them.
Yes, Vilkas was an early riser too.
The mood was broken in an instant, anger coiling in my stomach again. I tensed when he didn’t come closer and didn’t say a word, stayed out of my sight and still far too near. When he cleared his throat, I shot up and turned furiously to him.
“Gods, can’t you leave me alone?”
His hands were clenched into whiteknuckled fists as he stood there, stiff and tense. A muscle twitched in his jaw.
“That spot was mine.” His voice was flat, and he lowered his head, avoiding my glare.
“Yours?” I scowled, my brows furrowing. “Oh.” Without a further word I turned to leave. If he insisted that this place was his, I would certainly not argue. Especially not if he sought to provoke me by this ridiculous claim. Somewhere in the endless hallways I’d hopefully find a place for myself, even if the view wasn’t so stunning.
But his hand reached out when I passed him. “No.”
He said something else, but it was lost as my mind went blank. I froze to the spot the moment his fingers closed around my upper arm, blinding panic surging in a crushing wave through my senses. He held me, his grip unrelenting. He dared to touch me. He dared to threaten me. It was wrong.
I broke free with a vicious jerk and stumbled backwards, away from him. The apple fell from my hand, and I stood stunned, motionless and watched it roll towards the edge of the cliff. It vanished soundless without a trace, as if it had never been there.
“Divines…” A choked voice broke the silence, and when I turned stiffly, unbelievingly, Vilkas was staring at me, open hands held in shoulder height in a stance of helpless apology.
I didn’t want an apology. I wanted to make him scream to drown out the scream in my head.
The red haze blurring my sight was welcome, it numbed the chaos of thoughts in my head. The pain flaring from my knuckles through my arm into my brain when my fist collided with his jaw was welcome too, it proved that I was still alive. It numbed panic and disgust and the instinct to run.
I wanted more of this, and I hit him without a word or a sound, just my fists and my body speaking for me. They crushed into his jaw and temple, his stomach, waist and ribcage. His hands came up, his forearms protecting the face, but it was more an unconscious reflex than a deliberate reaction. I hit them as well and felt the bones of his fingers break under the impact. The dull sound of my fists on his body, the way his flesh sagged and his skin split under my strikes sent shivers of satisfaction through my spine. The heat blazing through my veins was neither the dragon nor the wolf. This was just me.
He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even defend himself. He stood like paralysed, swaying under the barrage of my strikes, and his blood had the same colour as my fury.
“Fight, coward,” I growled between clenched teeth, but he didn’t react. He just fell to his knees, arms still in front of his face, cowered, doubled up, head down with his hands in his neck. My fingers were slick with his blood. My boots produced a dull thud when I kicked his ribs, once, twice, and finally a wail broke from his throat. I broke off suddenly, blood dripping from his jaw. The next kick made him slump limply to the side where he stayed, bleeding, curled into a ball. No sound was audible but his ragged, laboured breathing and my own breathless sobs as I stood above him. He didn’t move.
I stumbled away, but there was nowhere to run, tears blurring my sight and bile aching in my throat. I fell to my knees, crouched with my arms pressed into my stomach, retching, coughing and crying. So much pain, inside of me and everywhere. Nothing left but pain and guilt and hate and fury, and I had nothing to let it out on and nowhere left to hide it in.
I was alone, lying in the sand of the training ground of Skyhaven Temple, curled together into a lump of sorrow and pain. The sun just rose over the horizon in a fiery ball. I was alone with all the darkness I had buried for so long and that had broken free now. My own outbreak of unbridled violence against Vilkas had shattered me to the bones, left me raw and bare.
And then strong arms closed around me, Farkas knelt down and pulled me into his lap, a firm, gentle grip pressing my head against his shoulder.
“Cry, girl. Finally. Let it all out.”
He stayed with me for what felt like hours, sheltered me from the world and made himself my very own place to hide in. And he let me cry until I dozed off from sheer exhaustion, just to start up again with new sobs. Until I was an empty shell with nothing left but soreness.
The next I knew was the soothing comfort of dark stone walls around me, a dimly lit room and Farkas’ presence near. He sat on the edge of the bed, watching me, and he raised his hand and cupped my cheek when our eyes met.
His voice was gentle. “Hey. How do you feel?”
There was emptiness, but also a surprising lightness. A knot had dissolved, the loose strands tingling in my stomach. But then, with sudden impact, the memory of what had happened, of what I had done flashed back, and I cringed and hid my face, shying away from him into the corner.
“Don’t do that,” he said softly, “it’s okay.”
Nothing was okay. I didn’t dare to look at him. “Vilkas,” I whispered, “is he…?”
“He’ll live. And he would be a lot better if he had allowed Esbern to heal him.”
My eyes burnt with tears again. “I wanted to kill him, Farkas.” Nothing justified this outbreak. I felt only revulsion with myself. How could he be so calm?
“Yeah. So what? You wanted to do that for months, and he got away with a good thrashing. I’d say he’s lucky.” He drove with his fingers through his hair. “I sent him out there to you, Qhouri. I thought…”
“You sent him? Why did you do that?”
“He came to me this morning. Wanted to talk, and I told him that he will have to speak with you first.”
“But he didn’t … !” That weird encounter replayed in my head. I had felt offended and threatened. But perhaps I had misunderstood him. Perhaps he didn’t want to chase me away. Perhaps it hadn’t been an assault, but an attempt to hold me back when I wanted to leave. Perhaps he just wanted to make conversation.
“What did he do, Qhouri? Why did you freak out like that?”
I rubbed the knuckles of my right hand. They were sore and bruised, and the blood under my fingernails made my stomach churn. “I thought he… that he wanted me to leave. And I was angry but didn’t want to argue, and then he held me back.” I grabbed his arm just like Vilkas had done it with mine. “But he just wanted to speak with me. And I nearly killed him. For nothing.”
He took my hand and loosened my grip on his arm. “Yeah, because you felt threatened. No one can blame you. But at least you fought, Qhouri. You didn’t let it happen and you didn’t run away. I guess he didn’t expect that.”
“But I snapped, Farkas! That’s not how I handle stuff. And everything was under control before. Everything was fine.” I buried my face in the crook of my arm. “What if I had shouted at him? Or changed?” That it didn’t happen was a miracle all in itself. I didn’t know what I was doing. The memory of his blood slick between my fingers sent a shudder over my back.
He stood up and seated himself on a chair, his hands clasped behind his head. His face was serious.
“Nothing was ever fine with Vilkas, Qhouri. Not for you. Why are we here at all? You were so angry that you wanted to shout me into the sea when I made this stupid suggestion. And next day, you alone decided to take the carriage to Markarth. Why?”
I sat curled together, knees drawn to my chest. Three days ago in Windhelm, I thought it was a good idea. I didn’t really want to come here, but I thought it made sense. It didn’t, obviously.
“Because… I thought perhaps you’re right. If you believe in him… I thought… perhaps it helps me too to meet him, if you think it’s a good idea. And you wanted to come here.” I met his gaze. “But we know already that I was wrong.”
“And that’s what your gut told you right from the start. Why don’t you trust it once in a while? We’re just here because you thought that I thought it’s a good idea.”
“But you know me, that’s my way to deal with stuff! What you said about him made me think. If I just did what my gut tells me, I’d get nothing ever done!”
“But you never trust your feelings. You always think things through and listen to others and argue and justify everything, and you never just act on your feelings. You only do what’s best for me, or for us or for the Companions. Or for the rest of the world.”
He spat out the last word with so much disgust it made me smile, even if it was feeble.
“And then you joke about it. You wear yourself out and laugh about it.”
“But if I think you’re right, why not do what you say? It’s not that you’ve given bad advice so far.”
“Gods, Qhouri… there’s no right or wrong when it comes to Vilkas. You told me how much you hate him, but that’s just it. You only told me, and then you talked yourself into believing that’s enough. You never allowed yourself to let it out, to let him feel what you feel or to do anything that would make you feel better. You only did so much to make me feel better!”
“Should I have killed him just because I felt like it? You know it doesn’t work that way. I can’t just do something and stop caring, for you or for others. That’d just make everything even worse!”
“But that’s exactly what you did today… when you beat the shit out of him, that was just you. You didn’t think of me or of the consequences, and it was long overdue that something like this happened. And don’t try to tell me you didn’t feel fabulous when you beat him to pulp. I know you did.”
Perhaps he was right. No. It wasn’t because he was right. It was simply true, it did feel fabulous to beat Vilkas up. To break his bones and make him bleed, to cause him pain and most of all to feel his fear. He had been scared of me. It felt fantastic, this simple revenge, something so plain and yet so powerful. Without the guilt, it left only contentment behind. It did me good, this payback. I should do things that did me good more often.
“It would’ve been much more fun if he’d fought back.” He answered my twisted grin with a chuckle. “How do you understand me so good?”
His smile was faint, but he looked at me with so much warmth that it made my stomach flutter.
“Experience, love. I’ve spent my whole life with someone who is stubborn to a fault and who does nothing without thinking it through. Who makes his decisions once and for all and would never do something just because he feels like it… and who clings to what he thinks is right until it breaks him.”
He came over and sat down beside me, taking in my speechless stare. His calloused fingers stroked my cheek.
“You and Vilkas… sometimes you’re so much alike, it’s scary. I don’t wanna see you break, Qhouri. Don’t be so hard to yourself.”
I leant in the doorframe to Vilkas’ room and looked curiously around. The small chamber looked nearly like his quarters in Jorrvaskr – with his own alchemy table, a desk full of cluttered papers and parchments, some well filled bookshelves, a weapon rack and an armour stand with his Blades armour. The man had turned to the side when he sensed me coming, his face to the wall. But he didn’t have the decency to draw up the blanket, showing off the bandages around his hand, shoulder and ribcage. Silent proof, reminder and accusation.
I was here because I wanted to, not because I had to. Not because I felt obliged, neither to him nor to Farkas. He had tried to hold me back, said that it would be pointless and that we’d just clash again. And that I should let it go.
But I couldn’t. My husband had once said that he hated his brother for what he had done, but that he couldn’t only hate him. I had come to this point as well.
I didn’t know when exactly, but at some point Vilkas had stopped to be my nemesis. It wasn’t only that I wasn’t afraid of him any more, that I could cope with him and that he owed me. With every meeting, with every reaction from him and everything I got to know about him I learned something – about him as well as about me, no matter if I wanted or not.
He had become a person again. Something else than just a monster, hateful and loathed, and he had begun to evoke more than just the raw hate I had known for so long, a hate that left no room for anything else. Now, there was pity and curiosity, and sometimes, with Farkas’ assistance, a glimpse of understanding.
And now I had done wrong by him, and I wouldn’t run away from it like he had done it. We needed to start some kind of communication that was more than mental or physical violence. I wanted to make this step, and I could make it only because I knew that Farkas wouldn’t let me down, no matter what happened. Vilkas didn’t have this safety net. He never had, because he wasn’t able to trust his brother the way I did.
This visit was something I had to do for my own peace of mind, even if I came here with little expectations. The whole situation was so messed up, nothing I could try would ease it. But at least it couldn’t become any worse. We had already arrived at rock bottom.
I entered the room properly and took the chair behind his desk. Not that he started to think this was just a casual visit of his sickbed.
“I heard you wanted to speak with me,” I said calmly.
I let the silence build, knowing exactly that he was just waiting for me to lose my patience and leave. He was pathetic. I placed the dirty, dusty heels of my boots on top of his desk and folded my hands behind my head. He would hate it.
“You know, Vilkas… I had thought about making you an offer. A one-time-offer to try…”
He spun around and interrupted me with a derisive snarl. His face was a battered landscape of bruises, bloodshot lumps and cuts, one eye swollen shut, the other flaring with anger. “What? Continue where we left off? Behave like adults? Become friends?” Disgust and contempt dripped from his voice.
I shrugged. I came here with no expectations, and so I wasn’t really taken aback by his rude answer. “No. I don’t know either. Like… I was willing to start something new. To give you a chance you don’t deserve. But it won’t work anyway.”
“You’ve always been naïve.”
“As if you knew me good enough to judge.” I stood up and went to the door. Farkas had been right again, this was utterly pointless. But I turned once more, locked his glare into mine. “I’m sorry for today, Vilkas. It’s usually not my way to beat people up without reason, and… it shouldn’t have happened.”
I heard him suck in the air with a surprised hiss as I left the room.
Farkas more lay than sat on the stairs to the training yard, propped on his elbows and a bottle of ale beside him, and watched Delphine’s archery training. I knew he could do that for hours and be happy. I ignored her suspicious look and hunched down beside him.
“What did you tell her?” I asked lowly.
Farkas shrugged. “Nothing. That it’s not her business and that she should ask Vilkas.” That would be a conversation where I’d like to be a fly on the wall. He eyed me curiously. “How did it go?”
“You were right. He’s a spoiled brat.” I pressed a kiss on his cheek. “I go out. Gotta kill something. And tomorrow we’re definitely off.”
The ragged terrain surrounding Skyhaven was perfect for a hunting trip. It provided excellent cover, and one never knew what to expect behind the next hill – a couple of sabrecats bathing in the sun, a Forsworn camp, goats climbing over chasms nothing on invisible, unreachable paths or just a breathtaking view.
To be alone out here, without backup and all on my own was my way to relax and to clear my mind. It challenged me and every bit of my skill, required full attention of body and mind. Not possible to chase a rabbit, save the world and deal with stupid relatives at the same time – and now, the rabbit had priority over everything else.
I worked myself out, crawled through the gorges and over the craggy peaks around the Temple that sloped steeply down to the river and gathered a scratched collection of small game – some rabbits, a pheasant, a few keats I knew Esbern would love and even a fox, more for the pretty pelt than his meat.
The rushing noise of a small waterfall at the bottom of the former Karthspire camp the Blades and I had so thoroughly erased lured me to a secluded little pond. I was flushed, sweaty and gritty, dust had crawled through the seams of my armour and chafed my skin. A shower would be perfect.
I stood under the gushing waters, groaning with contentment as the icy spray rinsed away the layers of dirt when I heard the yelling. Angry, hostile yelling in a language I didn’t understand. A shattered Forsworn patrol had tracked me down and attacked on sight.
No way I’d get into my armour in time, but at least I had the foresight to place sword and shield on a rock within reach. I dived out of the water and waited for them at the edge of the pond. My warcry easily matched theirs.
Three warriors to take on alone were exactly the challenge I needed to bring this day to a lucky end. A woman wielding two swords that looked as if they were carved out of a monstrous spine charged ahead with a furious scream and tried with fast strikes to get behind my cover. Another fighter aimed his bone axe at my neck, and the third came after me with two daggers.
I had to fight for my life, and everything else became insignificant. An injured husband? He would heal. An insane in-law? Not much more than a nuisance. A world-eating dragon? Irrelevant. Nothing of all this was worth bothering when their weapons slashed at me. Their life or mine, that was all that mattered. I felt my wolf stir, but kept her on a tight leash. This was my job.
If they had hoped I was defenceless just because I was naked, they were wrong. The missing weight was an advantage in dodging their frantic attacks, and my shield still provided more protection than the weird assortment of furry rags they wore. The woman reached me first and slashed at me with a flurry of movements. I backed away along the waterline and bent backwards, her blades scissoring harmless in front of my chest. She was swift and agile and gave me no break, but her fighting style relied on fast attacks only, and she took neither in account that Dragonbane had the longer reach nor that my shield was a weapon as well.
She died with red hot blood bubbling out of her mouth and silencing her scream.
The other two came both at once. While my shield protected me from Twin-dagger’s fast attacks and Dragonbane tried to find a way around it and into his flesh, the axe of the third nearly connected with my neck. Holy Daedra, that guy was fast. And fierce. And crazy. When he didn’t bare his teeth and snarl obscenities, he babbled unintelligible syllables of which I was quite sure that they didn’t form coherent words, let alone thoughts. But he was fast and strong, and unsettling unpredictable.
When his companion finally fell from my blade, the gaze of the last one followed the plunge of the body into the water with clear insanity in his eyes, drivel dripping from his chin. An earshattering yell followed, and he darted towards me, his crude axe held in both hands high over his head like a twohanded weapon, ready to split my skull. I caught it with my shield and wrenched it from his grip as the blade got caught between the talons. His expression when Dragonbane slashed his throat was one of utter confusion. No wonder the Forsworn were also called the Madmen of the Reach.
I had suffered a nasty gash through the muscle of my right thigh, but my laughter echoed loud through the little valley when I had washed the blood from my skin and donned one of their headdresses – an odd thing made of antlers and fur, the face framed by the fangs of sabrecats. It reeked of sour sweat and rotting leather, but I wore it as my trophy.
It was long dark when I returned to the temple, but inside it didn’t matter, the huge hall always alight in the same, gloaming twilight. Only Alduin’s Wall was brightly lit by a line of torches over the relief, and the impressive carvings greeted me with their familiarity. The huge dragon scooping down on the tiny mortals seemed to follow me with his eyes as I paced out the chapters of the story.
“See that, Worldeater?” I grabbed the antlers on top of my head, stuck out my tongue and let out a giggling sneer from behind the fangs. “See who will come for you, you bloody worm? I’m gonna feed you your balls, I swear!” I poked the stonen snout that just released a fire blast on the men below it. “I really hope you have balls I can feed you. And if not, better grow some! You don’t wanna disappoint me, do you?”
A dark chuckle interrupted my onesided dialogue with the dragon, making me jump back with a yelp.
“Are you drunk, Dragonborn?” Vilkas sat on a stone bench in a dark corner at the far end of the hall, his words slightly slurred. He wasn’t completely drunk, but he wasn’t sober either. Of course I didn’t smell him earlier with that reeking helmet, but that he was able to startle me like that made me angry with myself anyway.
I pulled the thing with a nervous motion off my head. This was the second time that day I thought I was alone and felt good and he destroyed the mood. And he still didn’t know better. “No, I’m not. And you stop being so… bloody exhausting!” Fast steps carried me towards the stairs to the quarters until his low voice let me stop dead.
“Qhourian?” He waited until I had turned, holding up a nearly empty bottle of Colovian Brandy. “Drink with me?”
His face didn’t look any better than a few hours before. But now it showed a plea that seemed entirely strange on these features that were usually frozen in a scornful scowl.
I hesitated. “I prefer to drink with people I like,” I said coldly.
He drew back the outstretched arm and instead emptied the bottle with one long gulp.
“No,” he muttered, “you’ve no reason …” His eyes were fixed on my face. “Please. At least listen. Just a few minutes. You’ll be gone again tomorrow.”
“Why should I let you throw more insults at me?”
His gaze was hazy, flitting from my face to Alduin and back. “Please,” he pressed out.
I seated myself reluctantly at the table, far enough away to be out of his direct vicinity, and nodded slowly.
His brows furrowed from the effort to bring himself to speak, his hands clutching the empty bottle nervously. A muscle in his jaw flexed. “What you said today… you beat me to it. I should have said it. I wanted to… but I don’t know how.”
“I know you wanted, Vilkas,” I said calmly. “And I know you feel bad. You wanted, but you didn’t. You never did, neither to me nor to your brother.”
He swallowed heavily. “Would it make a difference? If I apologised? If I thanked you for everything you’ve done?”
No, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t change that he was a pitiable, arrogant, pathetic ass and that he would always be more sorry for himself than for anyone else. And that his gratitude was utterly worthless, because nothing I had done was for him.
I wanted to tell him that I wished him to Oblivion or into the depths of Red Mountain, that I had found out that revenge was something I could get used to and that he had pushed it too far.
I had the power to kick him even further into this abyss of self-loathing and distrust that he had digged for himself, but it only meant more responsibility. I didn’t want it, and I did not say what went through my mind. I couldn’t. I knew too much about him.
I propped my chin into my palm. “Has Farkas straightened you out that you’re so tame suddenly?”
He blanched, visible even in the flickering light. “He doesn’t know that I’ve waited for you.”
“That’s no answer to my question. Has he?”
He gritted his teeth. “No. He just refused to speak with me tonight.” At least he was honest.
“So he has.”
“I’ve nothing to lose, Qhourian. You’ll be gone in a few hours anyway. It can’t get any worse, can it?”
The silence around us was like a cocoon. Not a sound was audible, the world outside of this hall and every other soul blocked off by the thick walls of the temple. In this moment, there was nothing and nobody else but the two of us, fallen back on each other.
“You declined, Vilkas. I meant it when I said I want to start something new. Or try to, at least. But you declined.” I sighed. “Honestly, I don’t care for your reasons. You’ve cost me too much already… I need my strength for more important things than your conscience.”
He shrank under my words, and when I took him in, how he sat there in the dim light, eyes, expression, his whole posture so anxiously fixed on my reaction… something had left him. His nervous alertness, this constant readiness to lash out, to defend himself had drained from his body. He was only tired, helpless and hopeless. And even if he couldn’t say it… he felt the guilt, the grief and the remorse. I knew it was there.
He lowered his head, his gaze directed to the floor. “You think I’m a coward, and perhaps you’re right. I was a coward today when you came and made that offer.” Now he stared at me with wide open eyes. “Gods, you came to me, and I…” His voice trailed off, and I felt the self-loathing rolling off him in waves.
He made me sick with his self-pity and the disguised expectations that were wrapped up in it. The demand to help him, to give him a chance.
“You really think I’m interested in a half-baked apology? Seriously? I don’t care how bad you feel. If you’ve nothing to lose… why don’t you just say what you want? Don’t try to force me to make you an offer by calling upon my pity. That’s pathetic.”
He was hurt. Good. But he also straightened himself, with clenched teeth and his body tense like a drawn bow, full of desperate determination.
“Your pity!” It was spewed with a bitter smile. “No.” He leant forward, his icy gaze piercing. “But you’re right, I want an offer from you. I want a chance to prove myself. I want to be your shield-brother in Blackreach.”
Wow, that was straightforward. My laughter was mirthless. “So, you’ve changed your mind? Again? Give me a single reason why I should even consider it. Only one. After everything that has happened today.”
The hint of a grin appeared on his face. “I’m the best for that kind of job, and you’ll need the best.” But then he averted his eyes from my gaze, fixed them instead on the wall behind me as if he wanted to memorise it.
I rubbed my temples with the tips of my thumbs. “No, I don’t need the best, I can take care of myself. I need someone I can trust. A shield-brother, not a hireling. And I don’t trust you.”
His voice was shallow. “I was a Companion too. I know what you need down there. And I will protect you with my life.”
This man drove me crazy. He sent out so many different, conflicting signals that I had no idea what to take seriously and what not. My wit had betrayed me as often as my instinct when it came to Vilkas, and how often had I already been tempted to write him off, to close this chapter once and for all? And still… I had saved him from Hircine. I had taken his gift. I came for him to Skyhaven Temple, and now I sat here and argued.
My fingers drove through my hair. “For Kyne’s sake, why, Vilkas? Why now? I already know that I’ll regret that I even speak with you. But everything would be so much easier if you weren’t so damned difficult.”
“You’re spoiled by my brother.” There was no malice in his words.
“Smartass. You could learn a lot from him.”
“I know.” It became quiet between us as I watched him curiously. It worked in him, a deep frown creasing his forehead. The knuckles of his fists were white when his head jerked up and he met my gaze. “I need your help, Qhourian. I know I can’t fix what I destroyed. But I want to start over, rebuild whatever possible and go on. I want a home again.” He took a deep breath. “That’s what I want. I don’t know if I’m gonna get it, but I have to start somewhere. I have to start with you, and I need your help.”
Expectations and demands. I looked at him for long minutes, but he didn’t back off, endured my inquiring stare with an expression of determination that was frighteningly similar to Farkas’. With this confession he had given himself into my hands. There it was again, the responsibility I didn’t want. The power over him. That he acknowledged the fact, that he openly asked for my help made it even worse, because it was so utterly out of character for him.
Or perhaps, it was exactly what he aimed for. Because he knew about my feelings, that I didn’t want this burden to be responsible for him. Perhaps he enjoyed to bring me into this predicament, even if it cost him his own dignity. This kind of honesty… it could hurt as much as betrayal.
I fought with myself, my thoughts clouded with doubts. Could I afford to take the risk? Farkas was convinced his brother would do a good job. My instinct told me otherwise – he was too skittish, too incalculable. With Athis I’d be on the safe side, and I would have fun. With Vilkas… this was gonna be a long, exhausting, difficult, dangerous trip. Even if everything else went fine, we romped through Falmer, chaurus and Dwemer machines and found the scroll without further problems, we’d probably split our skulls rather sooner than later. What if he snapped again? What if I snapped?
But I had stopped to ask those What ifs long ago.
I pinched the back of my nose, tired and uncertain. We could argue all night, and it would take us nowhere. It would do nothing to resolve my doubts. “Blackreach is a job, Vilkas, not a trip to spend some quality time. When I go down there, nothing counts but the blasted Scroll I have to find. I can’t afford to tend to your conscience. Or other sensitivities.”
He nodded. “I know that.”
I knew beforehand that this wouldn’t work, that we couldn’t just leave everything behind and start over with a blank page. He knew it as well, but perhaps he would at least try.
I took a deep breath. “We will leave tomorrow. Early. You can join us till Morthal. If it works, we’ll take it from there.”
When I stood up and turned towards the stairs, exhausted to the bones, a rare, tentative smile formed on his face. A smile that vanished at once when I couldn’t resist a last remark. “And you should see Esbern, or you won’t be able to keep up.”
“Mmmh, you’ve bathed,” Farkas mumbled and buried his nose in my neck when I crawled beside him, shivering with fatigue. “And you’re cold!” He drew me into his warmth. “Why are you so cold? I thought you were just out hunting?”
I snuggled against him. “Yeah… I’m just exhausted. Had to kill some obnoxious Forsworn. And then I came back and your obnoxious brother caught me. That guy really wears me out.”
“What did he do?” The question came as a low growl.
“At first he wanted to drink with me. And then he tried to argue me into taking him to Blackreach.”
“You’re not serious.”
I shrugged. “I can’t believe it either. Must be the family charm.” I gave him a lazy smile. “He will join us tomorrow. Till Morthal. And you’re not gonna let me alone with him.”
“I can’t believe it.” It was quiet for a moment. “Family charm, hm? And yet you need me to protect you?” he teased.
“Yeah,” I grinned, “because Vilkas has threatened to protect me with his life.” I rolled to my back and stared at the ceiling. “He said he needs my help, Farkas. From Vilkas… that’s scary. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.”
He lay on his side, his head propped into his palm. “I know how you feel. Vilkas has a way to make demands even when he apologises. What does your gut say?” His index trailed circles around my navel. It tickled. And it was distracting. I knew that he knew exactly how distracting it was when a wolfish grin appeared on his face.
“It’s as confused as the rest of me.” I forced myself to lie still, not to twitch under his touch.
“One moment I wanna slap him.” He nodded with faux graveness.
“Then I wanna cuddle him.” The tickling stopped abruptly, and the corners of my mouth twitched as my self-restraint failed.
“You want what?“
I looked innocently up into his face. “Cuddle him. And then I just wanna leave and forget that he exists at all.”
His grin grew even broader when I started to giggle. His lips hovered over mine. “Fabulous idea.” No chance to push his hands away if he liked where they were. Instead he just locked my wrists above my head. “You know…” he chuckled when I tried in vain to squirm away, “that’s a family trait too. Being exhausting.”
I bit my cheek to suppress my laughter and felt his amusement rumble through his chest, a deep noise somewhere between a growl and a purr. “You’re not interested at all in my troubles!”
“No,” he laughed and nibbled at my neck for emphasis, “I’m concerned about something else.”
His gaze held mine with so much desire that it made my stomach flutter and let go of my hands. I slung my arms around his neck and pulled him closer until he had buried me completely beneath him.
“No quality time for us with him around,” he whispered into my ear.
“Shall I tell him that I withdraw my offer?”
“No. We will work it out. We always do.” And then he kissed me like only he could kiss me, tender and patient, fierce and demanding, devoured my mouth as if it was his last meal and nothing was left but his taste, his breath on my face and the feeling of his lips on mine.