“Gonna keep you company for a while.”
I didn’t want his company. I wanted this night to be over, I wanted to get out of here, and most of all did I want to shut down my own brain, stop the mad maelstrom inside the hollowness of my skull. Vilkas was no help with any of this.
A kingdom for a bottle of mead. Or three. Or many.
“You won’t tell no one, Vilkas.”
He sat across from me, the sharp sound of his whetstone scratching over the metal of his sword screeching in my ears. Now he looked up from his work with a small grin. He really found this amusing.
“You can’t hide it for long anyway. Especially not if you’re with twins… and chances are high that you are.”
“Why are you such an ass? You think this is funny?” My voice was shrill.
“Funny? No. But it’s also not as horrible as you seem to think.”
I shut him down. “You’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
He put his sword to the side and leant forward with his elbows on his knees, as if he wanted to crawl into my mind.
“Qhouri…,” he sighed, “I know I’m not entitled to give you advice, and perhaps I should just shut up and leave you alone, but for once I won’t. I’m gonna be the uncle of this child, I’ve a right to have at least an opinion. And no one else is here.” He laid a finger over his lips when I wanted to interrupt him.
“You, girl, are a healthy young woman with a loving husband who has already passed the test that he’s a fabulous father. You know as good as I that he’ll explode with joy when he gets the news. And you have a bunch of people around you who will completely freak out over your whelp. Or whelps. From Kodlak to Tilma, all of them. Especially Tilma.”
“No but! Yes, there’s still this little Alduin problem. Gods, I’ve lived with Esbern under one roof, I know probably more about this bloody prophecy than you! So what? You expect the world to stop spinning until you’ve done your job? It won’t, Qhourian… people bring children into the world all the time, despite the dragons and despite the war. If they can do it, you can as well.”
“Yes, but they’re not the ones who have to stop him.”
“No, they’re not. But does it really make a difference if you have to expect to be killed by Alduin himself or by one of his brethren? Or by a rampaging soldier patrol, a gang of bandits or a rabid sabrecat? Life’s dangerous, you’re a Companion, you should know best. The only difference between you and us is if you fail, then the game’s over for all of us. Then it really doesn’t matter any more. But if you really think that’s an option, you can just as well give up right now.”
A lecture from Vilkas. Exactly what I needed. I groaned and hid my face in my palms.
But perhaps it was indeed exactly what I needed, if only to give me the time to calm down. Absentmindedly I realised that he had lost his ability to rile me up with every word he said. Instead I listened to him, and believed that he meant what he said.
“A few months ago you would’ve talked differently. You would’ve cursed me for being reckless and irresponsible, for forsaking my duties and for ruining your brother’s life.”
He didn’t appreciate the reminder. “My priorities have changed,” he said curtly.
I buried my hands in my hair. “Farkas and I… the night before we left Morthal… we’ve spoken about this. About having a family.” It felt as if that night had been an eternity ago. I missed him so much that it clenched my chest. “Some day. When all this is over.”
I remembered Farkas’ expression when I had asked him this stupid question. I had been jealous… jealous of this part of his life I knew I couldn’t share. Of the happiness that beamed from him when he was with his girls. I was jealous… and selfish, because I knew what he wanted, and I coaxed the confirmation from him that he wouldn’t exclude me.
And now I was selfish again. I knew that Vilkas was right and that he’d be happy. Despite all difficulties and doubts, despite Alduin and the uncertainties regarding our future, he would be unconditionally happy. And I wanted nothing more than to give him this happiness.
Just to think of the hope in his eyes, of his joyous smile and his amazement when he answered my question let my stomach flutter. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to be a mother. But I wasn’t alone, I had the best father of the world by my side to learn from.
“Well, seems like you screwed up your schedule.”
Vilkas muttered his remark with his usual deadpan expression, and it tipped me over the edge. As if anything in my life had ever gone according to a schedule. I stared at him, into these piercing light eyes, so awfully familiar and with none of the malice I still expected to find in them, and the chaos of emotions, all the fears and doubts, hope, anticipation and joy suddenly changed completely, needed and found a release. Or perhaps… it was just the mood-swing of a mother-to-be, but I started to giggle. A giggle that soon turned into a laughter that coloured my face in a bright red and let my eyes water, that let me slump over helplessly and made my sides burn with lack of air.
“Screwed up our schedule,” I sobbed and panted, bent over, gasping frantically for breath, “gods, you’re such an ass!” and his thinlipped scowl only made me laugh harder until he couldn’t help it any more and his lips curled up in an amused grin.
“I’ve no idea what’s so funny,” he said with a chortle, watching me curiously, “but I’ll take that as a compliment.” As if he couldn’t believe my outbreak of cheerfulness. I couldn’t believe it myself.
“Do that, Vilkas. Do that.” I forced myself to calm down. “And thank you. Gods, I needed that.” I gave him a broad, genuine, relaxed grin. Nothing had changed, but I felt as if a mountain was lifted from my shoulders. The smirk on Vilkas’ face proved that my change of mood rubbed off on him.
“You’re welcome,” he grinned cheekily, “though… you know what? I don’t know about my brother… no, that’s wrong, I do know about my brother, and that’s exactly the problem, but I would have thought that you’re at least a bit more… careful. If you already have a schedule. I mean, there are potions for that, after all.”
A new wave of giggles overwhelmed me. “Uncle or not, that’s really not your business any more.” I couldn’t believe it. I sat here and discussed the most intimate details of my life with the man I hated most in the world. Only that he wasn’t that man any more, and I wasn’t the same woman either. He had made me laugh, even if it was only by accident, and I was tired of being cautious with him, tired of being wary and holding myself in check. He was just my brother-in-law, the one person who knew my husband at least as good as I. Uncle Vilkas. “I’ve just a guess anyway. Of course I’ve taken those potions Arcadia hides under her counter.”
“Together with the stallion pots, I know,” Vilkas threw in with a snicker.
“Stallion pots. You didn’t know about them? Beefed up stamina potions… something like the antidote to the stuff you took.”
“Holy Daedra, no! Don’t think…”
I bit my tongue and felt my cheeks grow hot. Of course I knew them, they were just called differently in Cheydinhal. Bull’s brew, for example. But this went too far, I wouldn’t discuss Farkas’ stamina with his brother. His smug grin showed that he knew exactly what I wanted to say, but he was smart enough to refrain from a remark.
I took a deep breath. “Believe me, I’ve been thorough with them. But I think… well, my guess is they don’t work when I’ve changed. I think… well, they make that something in my body doesn’t work as usual. In a way, they’re like poison, and I guess the wolf neutralises them. It must have happened after I took the blood.”
He tilted his head, contemplating my answer. “Yeah, that’s possible,” he said finally. “Aela never had this problem.”
“No. She would have warned me. And of course none of you guys thought so far.” I gave him a cheeky grin. “But if you ever woo a werewolf girl, you should keep this in mind.”
Now I had made him blush, and deeply so. Served him right for his curiosity. He stood up with red ears and a grunt and retreated into his bedroll, lying down with his back to me. “Don’t forget to wake me in a few hours.”
“How does this work, for Daedra’s sake?”
I kicked the innocently blinking control panel furiously when the damned construction in front of us swung back into its original position again. This thing made fun of me. It were only lousy four buttons I had to light up and press in the correct order. Only that the correct order was a different one every time I tried.
And Vilkas stood behind me, leant relaxed against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, his smirk… no, it wasn’t condescending. Just amused. But I would have liked to kick him as well.
I never imagined that one day Vilkas’ good mood would strain my nerves. But now he was downright cheerful, and had been since he woke me for the hopefully last stage of our journey.
We had finally found the Tower Mzark, an endless bridge leading over a foaming abyss of water and rocks towards its entrance. When I pushed the huge golden double doors open, I relished in a feeling of triumph, as if the Scroll was just a single step away.
It was premature, this feeling. Of course, it was never so easy. But I knew exactly that we had in fact reached the end of our search when I found the slot for Septimus’ cubic lexicon right beside the panels.
The lower part of the tower was filled with a gigantic sphere, metal with an inlay of gems, that blocked our view when we opened the door from the antechamber. Only a narrow ramp led past it and upwards, until we could either step on the arched surface of the sphere’s uppermost part or follow the ramp to a higher platform, where we stood now.
From here, we had a marvellous sight upon the construction that filled the huge circular dome, an intricate web of metal bars, lattices and several blue and green crystals tugged under its ceiling. The whole contraption, the whole room seemed to come to life when we approached, the crystals suddenly releasing a soft, turquoise light that was accompanied by the low hum of active machinery. And on top of the ramp, we found the control panels to move the whole construction.
Four identical buttons on pedestals stood in front of me, two of them lit, in the middle a glass display panel that showed something completely incomprehensible – perhaps a celestial map, perhaps the correct alignment of the gems hidden in the metal chaos above our heads, perhaps just the spawn of a mad mind.
With a lot of trial and error I had figured out that when I pressed certain buttons, either other buttons lit up or the whole metalwork started to move, the bars swinging low and wide and unfolding towards the platform below them. But never at the same time. Either… or, and no matter what I did, the whole thing folded itself neatly back into its original position over and over again. It was driving me crazy. On purpose.
When a finger tipped on my shoulder, I stepped back deliberately and heavily on Vilkas’ toes. Curse these steel-plated boots, he didn’t even feel it.
“Let me try,” he murmured, already bent over the lights and buttons. “There must be a system behind it. We just gotta find it.”
He studied the display, then pressed a button, and nothing happened. He pressed it again, nothing happened again, but he completely ignored my slightly hysterical, gloating giggle. Then he pressed another button, and with a swoosh the bars started to swing and rotate. And the next button lit up. My gasp caused his lips to curl up mischievously.
“You’re just lucky,” I grunted.
He studied the display, compared it with the position of the crystals before us. “Let’s see…,” he drawled, his brows furrowed in concentration before an index slowly came down onto another button.
Swoosh, and the whole construction was back at the beginning. Vilkas’ mouth pressed into a thin, stubborn line. “Keep that grin to yourself,” he growled over his shoulder, and I bit on my cheek to suppress at least the audible signs of my amusement.
“Hey, you were better than I. Do that again. What you did at the beginning.”
He brought the metalwork back into the first position, and this time I chose the next button. Nothing happened. Nothing happening was still better than a swoosh in the wrong direction. Now we leant both over the panels, but while I pointed to the last button that had lit up, he chose the only dark one.
He was faster than me, and he chose wrong. We were back at the start, and he let out an annoyed huff and started over, then he pushed the button I had chosen.
I held my breath and exhaled audibly when the tangle above our heads started to move in a complicated dance until the crystals finally lined themselves up with their counterparts in the floor. Bright rays of light appeared between the upper and the lower part of the machinery.
I looked at Vilkas with a broad smile, but he just stepped back and reached into his pack, retrieving a slim stick of charcoal and a piece of parchment. Hurriedly he wrote down the sequence we had revealed so far.
“Clever,” I laughed, and he gave me a lopsided smirk.
“We’re not finished yet. Now you can reset the thing as often as you want.”
“Smartass,” I snickered, “you mean like this?” I reached out and pressed the first button my finger reached, holding his amused gaze.
There was no swoosh this time. Just a highpitched whistle, a barely audible sound that hurt in my ears, and Vilkas’ growing eyes that made me turn. The colourful lenses swung back, the rays vanished, but from the top descended the last part of the puzzle, a metal ring containing an egg-shaped receptacle, shimmering in the same light as the lenses lined up around it. When nothing moved any more and it had become absolutely quiet, it opened with a whizz and released a piece of parchment, rolled up onto a finely lathed wooden rod.
“That’s it,” I whispered, my throat suddenly constricted. There it was, the fragment of a timeless eternity we had searched for so long and that would send me back in history – or into insanity. I swallowed heavily.
It looked so harmless.
Vilkas stood behind me, his hands coming down on my shoulders… firm and calming.
“Go and get it,” he said, giving me a gentle push towards the ramp. I stumbled down to the floor, over the glowing crystals and through the metal bars that seemed to quiver around me, and took the scroll from the box. It felt light in my hands, much lighter than it should be. Vilkas snatched the lexicon from its slot and came down from the controls until he stood before me, his face again closed and unreadable. I presented him the scroll with outstretched arms.
“Keep it for me? Please?”
He nodded slowly, took it from my hands and wrapped it into a piece of cloth before he tucked it carefully away. I felt relief when it was gone… at least for the moment.
“Let’s go home, brother,” I said, and he gave me a wordless smile, and when I offered him my hand, he took it and let me draw him to the lift that would bring us back to the surface.
“Do you have any idea where we are?”
“No.” Vilkas looked around, his teeth clenched, avoiding my gaze. Startled I searched his face. He lied. He lied to me, and he didn’t even try to hide it.
The dome that concealed the exit from the Tower Mzark was located in a small basin, surrounded on all sides by unclimbable rocks, just a small path leading down the mountain and high enough that the snow that covered the ground had lasted over the summer months. And obviously there had been others in this secluded place, although I was sure they didn’t come the way we had taken – we found the remains of an old, abandoned camp, the furs of a tent, the frame collapsed under the force of the unrelenting winds up here, a cold fireplace and even some abandoned, rusty and rotten pieces of armour.
The man looked at the sky, obviously relieved that the sun was already on its way towards the western horizon.
“Let’s stay here for the night. No need to break our bones by crawling down there in the dark.”
He knew he couldn’t lie to me, turned away and searched through the remains of the campsite, and he didn’t say a word when I dropped my pack and followed the path downwards to see where it led. It was steep, narrow and slippery, turning north first before curving around a huge protruding boulder. But as soon as I came around the ledge and the view towards the south opened up to my marvelling gaze, I stopped with a gasp. Below me rolled the plains of Whiterun to the horizon, already covered in shadows but still so beautiful in their autumnal colours. And in the distance, the wooden pediments lit by the rays of the setting sun as if they were on fire, loomed the familiar silhouette of Dragonsreach. Home.
“You ass,” I spat when I slung my pack on my back again and draped a fur over my shoulders. The wind was icy, and we were used to the humid warmth of Blackreach. “Do what you want, but I’m going home.”
Gods, I was ill with homesickness, and he deliberately tried to keep me away? I’d march through the night if I had to, now that I knew how close we were.
I was barely out of sight when I heard his steps behind me.
“Wait,” he called after me, resignation in his voice, “you can’t climb down there in the darkness.”
I pointed at the horizon. “It won’t be dark for at least another hour. Don’t try to stop me!”
He gritted his teeth, but he pushed past me and took the lead on the steep, treacherous path. Such a gentleman, all of a sudden. I snorted into his back.
“What was that for, for Ysmir’s sake?”
He just raised his hands, didn’t deign me with an answer. Only when we reached the end of the climb, the mountainside turning into the gentle hills of Whiterun’s plains and we were able to walk side by side again, he suddenly stopped.
“Qhourian.” I looked over my shoulder, hoping he would hurry up. Gods, we were so close.
But he stood in the near darkness and didn’t move, shadows concealing his expression.
“I can’t go with you.” His voice was rough.
“Why not?” I spun around and made an impatient gesture towards the city. “I wanna go home. Please.”
He stretched out his hand. “Loreius’ Farm is over there. You just have to follow the road.” The silhouette of the windmill stood clearly out against the sky.
Only now the meaning of what he was saying sunk in. My thoughts were already in Whiterun, the surprise to get out of Blackreach so close to home flaring up in anticipation and happiness.
But he didn’t want to come with me, and he didn’t try to hold me back either. This was a farewell.
I want a home again. 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.
He had started with me, and he had proven himself. Many small steps, many of which we had made together. But this journey had to come to an end, we both knew it, and I had never longed more for anything than to get out of Blackreach.
We had never spoken about the afterwards. I had never thought about it, just assumed he’d be as happy as I to get this done as fast as possible.
But that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t happy that it was over, because he had nowhere to go now. I had forgotten that Whiterun – and Jorrvaskr – wasn’t his home any more.
“I thought you want to return,” I said weakly.
He didn’t answer, just stood there, and I felt his gaze in my back as mine was glued to the silhouette in the distance, fighting with myself. It pulled me in with a promise of rest, safety and recreation. Farkas was there, waiting for me. And he was a grown man and had to make his own decisions. I couldn’t force him. I didn’t even want to force him.
But the Vilkas I left behind was lost, lonely and scared. I couldn’t leave him here, so close to home and still so far away, although I didn’t understand what bothered him. I tore my eyes from Dragonsreach and turned back towards the steep path we had descended. He looked as if he wanted to dash it up again and vanish back into Blackreach.
“What’s the matter, Vilkas?”
“I held my promise. You’re safe, and you got your scroll. That’s all that matters, doesn’t it?” His lips were pressed into a thin, stubborn line, and he avoided my eyes.
“You’re stupid. Even more stupid than I.” I sighed. “If that was all that mattered, I would have gone with Athis. I thought… didn’t we have a good time, down there?” I pointed at my feet. “I mean… we didn’t kill each other. Why can’t we finish the job now together?”
Vilkas stood rigid and stiff, but I could literally smell his insecurity and the turmoil that raged in him. The effort it took him to keep his composure.
“Yes, we had a good time, and that’s exactly the problem.” His voice was strained and low, but then it broke out of him. “That’s what you would like, don’t you? That I return at your mercy, dependent on you?”
“My… mercy? Are you crazy?”
“Yes, your mercy, sister,” he growled, taking a step back. “Have you forgotten what happened? I raped you. I sent you through hell, and with you my brother and all of them. I have no right to return, and if I could, it would be only because you speak for me. We both know that I’m in your debt, too deep to have ever a chance to pay it back. Perhaps you need this, perhaps you need it to feel safe from me… I don’t know. But I’m at your mercy. Always have been, always will be.”
I felt I should get angry, furious, yell at him for being such a damned egoistic coward. But I didn’t. All traces of pride, anger and alertness had left his posture. He just looked… frail. And stubborn. And desperate.
I laughed lowly, and he raised his head, taken aback by the sound.
“You’re such a fool.” I shook my head, turned on my heels and sat down on a narrow boulder. Whiterun still lured from the distance, but this was something we had to clear up first. We could just as well make ourselves comfortable.
I looked up to him as he kept standing with his pack at his feet, shoulders bunched up and his gaze lowered to the ground.
“You know, Vilkas… one day, when you’re sitting with Farkas in the Mare and you’re drunk enough to talk instead just to boast… ask him what happened when he proposed to me, the morning after he came back from his vacation with you. Ask him how incredibly stupid I was when I rejected him. Ask him how furious he was and what he yelled at me about debts and businesses. Yes, there were flowers involved, but it was probably the least romantic proposal in the history of Skyrim. And we Nords aren’t exactly famous for romance.”
“Why don’t you tell me?” His voice was low.
“I’ll never be drunk enough for that.” At least he dared to look into my face now. “See… there’s someone waiting for me – for us both – to whom I’m indebted to. Deeply, with no chance to pay it back. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Your brother has taught me to take what he had to give… and at the same time he has taught me to give, because he is able to take without fear. Stop being afraid, Vilkas.”
He straightened himself. “I’m not my brother, Qhourian. Never will be. Sorry to disappoint… again.”
“Now you really wanna annoy me. Of course you’re not. The gods forbid!” My eyes narrowed slightly. “What do you really want? You want me to beg? Forget it, I won’t.”
A trace of a grin appeared on his face, but it was gone again as soon as it flared up.
“No,” he said, “you’ll never beg, I know.” Suddenly he was before me, kneeling to be on eyelevel. His fingers came up, traced the scars on my face, the other hand took mine and laid it onto the collar of his armour.
“Why, Qhourian? We had a good time, and you’re not afraid. Tell me why you’ve gone through all this with me.”
I swallowed heavily, felt the blood rush to my head under the touch of his fingers.
Perhaps it was time.
“I don’t need this to feel safe from you. I feel safe from you because I know you won’t do it again… and because I’d shred you to pieces if you tried, and you know it.”
“That’s true, but no answer to my question.”
I gave him a crooked grin. “Because I wanna get rid of you.”
He removed his hand from my face and let it fall on his knee. “What?”
“We’re all our own masters, Vilkas. Yes, I’ve gone through hell, but so have you. And now it’s over, we had a good time, and I want to go on. I have to go on, I need my strength for more important things, and I really don’t want to be responsible for you any more. I don’t have the right to tell you what you can do and what not. It’s high time that you take your life into your own hands again.”
“But you’ve every right…”
“No, I don’t! I’m not alone in this world, and you aren’t either. I’ve never been alone during the last year, not even when I thought I was. We all rely on others… so what? I’m at the mercy of so many people… yeah, so what? Stop being such an egomaniac!” I glared at him. “You said you want a home again, and you didn’t mean Skyhaven. You will have to make your own steps to get it.”
“Skjor would still be alive without me,” he said lowly.
“The Silver Hand killed him. And honestly, I feel insulted that you’re more afraid of Aela than you were of me.”
“I underestimated you.”
“That’s a mistake you make far too often. Perhaps you underestimate her too. You will have to find out yourself.” I looked sternly at him. “We need you in Jorrvaskr. We’re spread too thin, and Ria and Torvar need desperately someone who gets their training straight. Kodlak needs you, he barely made it through last winter, and the next isn’t far. And Farkas… he needs you most of all.”
“You did all this for others?”
I scowled at him. “What do you wanna hear? I want peace in Jorrvaskr, and I need you there for the sake of the people I love. It’s as good a reason as any.” His piercing, unsettling glare didn’t falter. It was time to stop being cautious. “Don’t press me, Vilkas. Once you invited me to the Companions, and I trusted you although you drove me insane. I want to trust you again… but I can’t, not as long as you don’t trust yourself.”
His face became soft, became open, vulnerable and incredibly tired, but he didn’t turn away for some endless moments. I felt uncomfortable under his silent scrutiny and stood up, breaking the contact. “I’m going home now.”
He sighed, rubbing his palm over his face, and when he finally rose and slung his pack over his shoulder, I was certain I had ultimately chased him away. I stretched out a hand. “Give me the scroll, please. Don’t wanna chase it over all of Skyrim again,” I said wearily.
But he shook his head, adjusted the weight and made a few steps towards the city. “Let me take you home,” he said, giving me a tentative smile over his shoulder. “I’ve a feeling I’m not the one you wanna spend this night with.”
“Welcome back, Companions,” the guard greeted us with a friendly nod as he opened the gate for us. These guys were never surprised when we came back to the city at the ungodliest hours, and they barely gave us a second look. The casualness of the greeting seemed to ease the nervousness in Vilkas, at least a bit.
Once inside I looked around, curious and incredibly relieved. Nothing had changed, the torch mounted on the pillar in front of the Warmaiden smithy spreading flickering light, ready to greet Adrianne who often started her workshift long before sunrise. The faint sounds of voices and of the Mare’s door clapping in the distance made me smile. The patrolling guards wore warm cloaks over their armours, it was cold, the scent of morning frost in the air. Fall was nearly over, we’d been away for so long.
And in the window of the small house next to the smithy shone a tiny lamplight, inviting and homey.
Vilkas returned my happy smile when I turned to him in front of the door, laying a finger to my lips. But when I had finally fumbled the key into the lock and we entered, I couldn’t suppress my own gasp. When I had bought the house it had been empty, blank floorboards, a creaking stair, blind windows, vacant rooms, and I could only afford the most basic furniture.
Now, everything had changed. This wasn’t just a house any more… it was a home, beautiful and cosy in its exotic furnishing, a vivid mix of Dunmeri and Nordic style. The chairs at the fire were coated with the plaids in dark red and various shades of brown we had bought in Windhelm. There was a large table with a bronze candle-holder on top and a dark red carpet below it that extended over the stairs up to the second floor, some sideboards to prepare meals on them and with plenty of room for food and drinks, and lots of shelves mounted to the walls, filled with our new tableware, the blue glass shining in the dim light.
And it was obviously occupied. To see Farkas’ cloak hanging on a hook, his boots standing below it and an empty bottle of ale on the table let me swallow.
I caught Vilkas watching me with a small, pensive smile when I beckoned him to follow me. I touched his shoulder briefly. “I’ll show you to your room, okay?”
He nodded and started to unstrap his boots, but when I had showed him the door to the little free chamber, he held me back. “I’ll have breakfast ready when you get up,” he said lowly. “Sleep well, sister.”
Farkas was sound asleep when I closed the door to our bedroom behind me, our coming hadn’t disturbed him. I leant against the door and just watched him for a moment in the dim light of the fireplace, curled into a ball, one hand hanging over the edge of the bed, the other resting flat under his cheek. He dreamt, lips twitching, mumbling some incoherent words, and still his face looked so innocent and peaceful. To see him like that, here in our home, to know that he lit that little lamp every evening trusting that one day I’d come back and see it… I held my breath, my throat constricted with unshed tears of love and relief.
He stirred when I crawled under the blankets and cuddled against his back, when I inhaled his scent and slung my arm around his waist, and finally he turned around, faced me with fluttering eyelids and pulled me against his body, my head coming to rest in the crook of his neck. Only then did he seem to realise what he was doing, and his eyes shot open.
“…Qhouri…” Wonder was written into his face.
“I’m here.” My fingers trailed over his face. “Sleep, dear.”
“I love you,” he murmured, his eyes already closing again, but his lips curled into a happy smile, and he pulled me closer.
I woke to the feeling of a hand stroking my hair, a heavy arm around me, my body nestled into his warmth, skin against skin. For an endless moment, we only looked at each other, our faces only inches apart. I felt his breath on my face and breathed him in, studied his expression full of wonder and calm and happiness. While he gave me time to wake and just held me close, fingertips stroking up and down my spine, everything else fell away, stress and tensions I hadn’t shaken off for weeks. Relief settled heavy and warm in my limbs. I was home.
“I thought you were a dream,” he mumbled finally.
I inched closer to him, he pulled me in and bowed his head, and when his lips closed over mine I drowned in a wave of emotions, tenderness, relief, need and bliss, and I wasn’t sure if it were his or mine. It was a nearly chaste kiss, unhurried and soft, and it could have lasted forever, each in the other’s arms.
His skin was hot under my fingers, I felt the need for him gather in my belly with gentle warmth and his arousal rest heavy against my hip as he stroked the sleepiness from my body. But there was no urgency in the movements of his palms over my skin, exploring and reassuring. I buried my hands in his hair and my face against his neck. We had all the time in the world. The world wouldn’t dare to disturb us now. We barely moved, careful not to break the contact.
But I had to chuckle when I realised what he was doing with his soft caresses. His fingertips lingered at a point at my upper arm where a grazing Falmer arrow had first left a scratch and then a tiny scar. Only a small silvery line, but he found it and examined it thoroughly.
“I’m fine, love,” I murmured into his ear.
His embrace became even tighter. “Never again,” he whispered. “I’ll never let you go again for so long.”
I wiggled against him. “Missed me?”
He looked at me for a moment, and then he claimed my mouth in a smouldering kiss, his tongue demanding entry, nipping and biting, and I felt my desire flare up, the blazing need to touch, feel and taste him. A low groan came from his throat.
I tugged at his hair. “I need you,” and he curled around me, caged me with his body like a treasure, and our caresses became firmer, more intimate and purposeful, their familiarity setting body and mind ablaze.
“I have so many questions.” We lay tangled into each other, savouring the warmth and closeness. My skin still burned with the heat between us, the afterglow of our lovemaking dwelling, lingering, kept alive by his soft touches.
“And I have so many news.” I had to smile. I knew when I told him the most important news of all, all questions would be forgotten. “But you first.”
“How did you do? Vilkas and you?”
“We got along. Not always easily, but… yes, we got along. He’s here now.”
His face became pensive. “Yeah, I heard him earlier… he really wants to return? To Jorrvaskr?”
“He’s homesick and scared, that at least I know for sure. Have you… is it possible? What will the others say?”
He groaned. “I don’t know. When I told them that you’re in Blackreach together and that he’ll perhaps come home with you, they were shocked.”
“That you take the risk. That you can bear him. That I let you go with him. Athis was the worst. He said he would kill me if you didn’t come home safe, and he was serious.” He gave me a look full of warmth. “They worried for you, and let it out on me. You’ve no idea how happy they will be to see you.”
I swallowed. As overwhelming the feeling to be home was… I had to hurry up, and I wanted to go on. I wanted to finish what I had started with the scroll and get over with it. Finish this job once and for all, and then I would return to Jorrvaskr and stay and be nothing but a Companion for the rest of my days.
And his wife, and the mother of his children.
“And? What did you tell them?”
He grinned, albeit a bit insecure. “That you’re a big girl. And that I trust you both to find the scroll and come home safe.” He swallowed. “But it took so long. I wanted to go to Blackreach and search for you. Every day.”
“You would have never found us. It’s… incredible. Incredibly huge.” Perhaps, one day, we’d make a trip to the Tower of Mzark and I’d show it to him. It wasn’t far, after all.
“You did find the scroll, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” I didn’t want to speak about it. Not now. He read my face and let it go. “My turn. How are you doing? With your eye?” I stroked his cheek.
He smiled at me. “Much better. I can see dark and light, things when they move. Like shadows. It’s much better in daylight than in dark caves or at night. And you were right, I’ve adapted. Have even been out on jobs again already.”
I sighed with relief. “You’ve no idea how glad I am to hear that. But I would’ve killed you if you hadn’t been here tonight,” I huffed playfully, and he buried me with a growl beneath him.
“I’m no easy prey any more, woman.”
“You’ve always been easy prey for me, love,” I whispered and let my fingers trail along his spine, felt out the familiar scars and the relief of his back muscles. “The house is so beautiful. It was wonderful to come home.”
“The girls have helped me to arrange everything,” he said with a shy smile, his forearms propped on both sides of my head, “and Athis loves it. We even went to Windhelm once more to get some stuff he thought we’d need.” He trailed kisses along my neck. “But the idea with the light was mine.”
“I love you, husband.”
“And I love you, my heart. Any more pressing matters?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes. But not now. I’m so glad to be home, you’ve no idea. And… I have something to do first. And I’m starving. And then… I need you. You’ve time to spend the day with me?”
His face became soft, his fingers tracing over my sides. “Not only this day, Qhouri. I’ve accepted a job for today, but I’ll see to shake it off. These weeks were horrible. So long, and not to know where you are and if you’re fine… I’m never gonna let you leave me for so long again.”
“I never wanna leave you for so long again,” I mumbled. “Come here. I’m starving.”
“Vilkas!” Farkas blustered down the stairs and punched the man standing at the cooking pot into the shoulder. “It’s good to see you, brother.”
His twin blushed when he saw me standing on top of the stairs. “You’re up already? I’m not even ready…”
“That smells delicious,” I said with a laughter, “but if there’s only a trace of venison in it, I’m gonna chase you back to Dawnstar!”
“No venison,” he grinned, pointing the wooden spoon at me, “mostly vegetables and a bit of salmon. Hope that’s convenient.”
Soon we gathered around the table laden with stew, bread, cheese and ham, fruits and sweets. Vilkas had even been to the market and replenished Farkas’ sparse supplies. Both men grinned when I wolfed into the food.
“Sorry,” Farkas said chewing, “but I’ve mostly eaten in Jorrvaskr. Not much fun cooking for one alone.” He looked around with a happy smile. “Finally there’s some life in here.”
“Oh,” Vilkas said with a smirk, “there will be a lot of life in here,” the kick against his shin made him recognise my seething glance, and he stopped for a second, “eh… now that your wife is back.”
Thankfully, Farkas was oblivious to our… exchange.
Our meal was lighthearted, eased by our stories. There would be much to tell later when we’d have to give a more detailed report, but a dragon a mile underground or the description of the huge Dwemer city we had explored were an entertaining diversion until we were all sated.
But underneath the recounting of adventures and the leisurely banter, we were all aware of the tension. We all were aware that Vilkas couldn’t stay here with us. That he’d have to return to Jorrvaskr… and that none of us knew what awaited him there – beside lots of unpleasant questions.
Until a loud knock at the front door disturbed us.
“Farkas?” a female voice called from outside, muffled through the wood, “are you ready?”
Farkas hit his forehead with his flat hand. “Gods, that’s Njada,” he groaned, standing up, “I’ve completely forgotten about her.”
He opened the door and drew her inside, ignoring her clueless look. “What’s the matter, where’s your armour? Why aren’t you …”
“So good to see you, Njada!” I interrupted her and pulled her into a hug. Surprise made her go limp for a moment when I appeared behind the broad back that blocked her view, but then she returned the embrace.
“Qhouri!” Her face beamed. “Since when are you…”
Only now she started to look around and found Vilkas still sitting at the table in the back of the room.
Her eyes first grew wide with amazement, then narrowed into a frown. “Vilkas?” I already feared she’d fall victim to her sharp tongue, but she contained herself. Instead she nodded curtly, and he returned the gesture.
“Last night,” I said, “we came home last night.”
“I’m sorry, Njada,” Farkas said, driving sheepishly with his hands through his hair, “we forgot the time. And I wanted to ask anyway… is anyone else available who could take over for me? I’d really…”
“You’d really like to cop out, I get it,” she laughed, but then she became serious. “No, the others are all gone.” She looked apologising from him to me. “I’m sorry… but we’ve got to get this done. Those mages have killed another pilgrim.”
Farkas turned to me, hard lines forming around his mouth. “The Julianos Shrine, north of Shearpoint. Some mages have occupied it and annoy the pilgrims. As in, kill and enthrall them.” He drew me a few steps away and palmed my face, disappointment in his eyes. “I’m sorry, love. I’ll come back as fast as possible.”
I rested my head against his chest. “I know. Companions duty.” I gave him an insecure smile. “Be careful.” This wasn’t how I had imagined our first day back.
Njada watched us attentively from the door, watched Farkas vanish upstairs to don his armour, my disappointed expression and Vilkas sitting stoically apart.
“Qhouri? Can I have a word with you?”
I turned to her.
“I’m sorry… I’m glad you’re back, all safe and sound,” she smiled.
“I’m fine, Njada,” I said slightly puzzled, “just a bit tired. And we’ve a lot to discuss. But it can wait.” I smiled at her. It wasn’t her fault, after all.
“How was your travel?”
“Long and boring,” I laughed, “but we’re gonna give a detailed report when you’re back, okay?”
“That’s not what I meant.” She grinned sheepishly and paused for a moment, letting her gaze wander through the cosy room and over the opulent remains of our breakfast. She pulled herself together. “Do you think Vilkas would… take over for Farkas? So you have some time for yourself?”
I looked at her in amazement. “That’s your decision alone, Njada. And his, of course.”
She grinned. “As far as I know, he’s never been officially dismissed. High time that he gets his ass going again.”
“He has worked hard over the last weeks.” I gave her a small, encouraging smile. I thought this was a fabulous idea, but I was biased and didn’t want to press her. “But… you don’t have to do this just to do us a favour. Not if you feel… uncomfortable with him.”
She looked at me, arms crossed resolutely in front of her chest and her head tilted in contemplation. “You did fine with him, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “Mostly.”
“Guess otherwise he’d be chaurus fodder now.” A giggle broke out of her. “I’d feel much more uncomfortable if I robbed you of your husband today, sister. And I don’t wanna have him around moping for the next two days anyway, he was already unbearable during the last weeks. Although I hope you know we’ll have to have a word about that whole husband thing later.”
She turned on her heels and went through the room, snatched an apple from a bowl and bit into it heartily.
“You come back to Jorrvaskr, Vilkas?” she asked boldly, with an impish grin, and she caught him entirely on the wrong foot.
Impressive, that woman.
He was clearly reluctant to answer at all, actually blushed under her scrutinising gaze, his lips pressed into a tight line. I felt the fight and the obstinacy in him, wanted to yell at him to give in, not to let this chance slip away. And finally he nodded. “If I can.” He’d have to answer this question more than once over the following days, and those that resulted from it. He would have to endure to be judged, and he knew it.
“Well,” she drawled, taking another bite and chewing with relish, “for a start, how about getting back to work? Care to do your brother a favour and hit some necros with me?”
The two warriors locked eyes, a silent battle of wills, eyes unwavering, a small, nearly gentle challenge trying to figure out new intentions and old ties. But Njada was never one to back out when an idea had settled in her head. After all, she regularly brawled her lover to pulp when she felt like it.
And in the end it was Vilkas who broke the contact first, his expression relaxing, and when he stood up, his lips were quirked into a small, relieved smirk.
“If you insist. Give me a second.”
When he went upstairs to get his gear and we heard him call for his brother, Njada turned to me with a lighthearted grin. “He’s unlearned nothing, has he?”
“No,” I snickered, “but he has learned a lot. Thank you, Njada.”