There had once been a time when Luthien couldn’t even begin to imagine sleeping anywhere outside her father’s house. One day, maybe she would come to know that same safety in her husband’s home, protect her own children the way her mother and father had worked to protect her all her life. The comfort of her parents in the next room, the promise of their protection had made her feel safe, but after that comfort had been torn out from under her, she learned pretty quickly that if she was tired, she had to sleep and it didn’t matter where she was.
But even as she lay in the dark bunkhouse of Jorrvaskr, Torvar’s soft snores and the sound of Ria grinding her teeth as she rolled over in her bed almost felt as comfortable as home. She felt safe, sleeping among the Companions, and as she closed her eyes she tried to discourage her wandering thoughts from returning to the fury she’d seen in Vilkas’s eyes.
He barely knew her; how could he already hate her? And why did she care so much what he thought of her anyway? If she had any sense whatsoever, she’d take the damn blade he wanted sharpened and leave town, hocking it at the first trader she came across. But she wouldn’t. She didn’t know why or how, but he’d lit a fire inside her and she wanted nothing more than to prove to him that she was worthy of the Companions. She would bring them honor and glory.
She rolled onto her side, faced the wall and closed her eyes, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of Jorrvaskr. Every once in a while she heard footsteps, quiet voices, laughter from the mead hall above, but for the most part it was quiet, and she let that peaceful interlude carry her away from her troubles long enough to get some much needed sleep.
Come morning, she awoke feeling refreshed, the lingering bitterness she felt about the way Vilkas had taunted her in the yard fading away as she yawned and stretched the ache from her muscles. She’d take his sword to the Skyforge and secretly hope that this Eorlund, who was supposed to fit her with new armor, dropped it into the forge and let it melt.
After she dressed and helped herself to a bit of bread and cheese, she headed outdoors and lifted her face against the bite of the bitter wind as it conflicted with the light of the sun streaming through the heavy clouds. Farkas was just coming up the stairs, and when he saw her with his brother’s sword in her hand, he smiled.
“I’m taking it to the Skyforge,” she said, “just like he told me to do.”
“So I guess that means you’ll be sticking around then?”
“For now,” she nodded.
“Good to hear.” He grinned. “So, when you finish with Eorlund, come back and see me. I might have a job for your, if you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty already.”
“If it involves taking your sword to the blacksmith…” she started.
“You would do it,” he teased. “Just because I told you to and you’re the new blood, but don’t worry. This isn’t a sword run. It may not be the most glamorous job, but it’ll put a little gold in your pocket.”
“All right. I’ll come and find you then.”
She made the trek up the hillside, stepping back and gasping when she first laid eyes on the Skyforge. She’d heard stories from her father about that too, how Ysgramor and the original 500 companions had come in search of it, to harness its power for their own weapons.
She hardly had a chance to take in its glory when the man hammering at the forge looked up, the dripping mane of his long grey hair sticking to his cheeks with sweat.
“I’ve heard rumors that you are the best blacksmith in all of Skyrim,” she said. “And though I wanted to come and see you on my own, Vilkas sent me to drop off his sword.”
“You must be the new blood,” he grunted, reaching out to take the sword from her. “Let me tell you now, don’t let those old bloods push you around. The next time Vilkas asks you to run and get him his mead, tell him to get off his lazy ass and do it himself.”
“No buts about it, girl. Trust me. He’ll respect you all the more for it,” he assured her. “You’ve got to stand on your own two feet to prove your worth down there, or they’ll run roughshod all over you. Have you running to fetch their shoes and polish their armor. Sure, they test all the new bloods this way, but sometimes they forget that they were young whelps once too.”
“Are you a Companion?”
“Me?” He had a powerful laugh, the taut bare muscles of his chest rippling as he threw back his head. “No, not me. I just make their arms for them. I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy here at the Skyforge.”
She nodded, glancing down at the eternal fire, its power drawing her in and holding her in thrall for a moment.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting new armor as well,” he drew her back to the moment, gesturing toward a set of wolf armor not unlike that which Vilkas wore. “Go on, take it. It’s yours. And say, if you’re headed back down to Jorrvaskr, would you mind doing me a small favor?”
“Sure, what can I do for you?”
“Take Aela her shield,” he reached back and grabbed it from the work stone, holding it out to her.
She started to reach for it, and then drew her hand back, realizing that he’d just told her not to let the Companions take advantage of her. “Wait a minute,” she tilted her head, a slow grin lifting the right corner of her mouth. “Didn’t you just tell me not to be an errand girl?”
He threw back his head and laughed again, great booming chuckles that echoed off the stone. “You catch on quick, new blood, but if you would do me this one favor, I’d greatly appreciate it.”
“Okay,” she nodded, taking the shield and tucking it under her arm.
“You’re going to do just fine, girl,” he told her, watching her walk away for just a moment. The clanging hammer banged the anvil again, the comfort of its repetition reminding her for a moment of home as it followed her down the stone walkway that led to Jorrvaskr.
She sought out Aela first, finding her downstairs talking with Skjor in his room. She didn’t know what they were talking about, but they quickly quieted when she knocked and then walked in to hand over Aela’s shield.
“Eorlund asked me to give this to you.”
“Excellent,” she beamed. “I was hoping he’d be finished with this soon.”
“I guess Kodlak thinks you have what it takes, new blood,” Skjor said. “Have you gone on your first job yet?”
“Only if running errands for Vilkas is considered work.”
“This one’s got a bit of a tongue on her,” he noticed, nodding toward Aela.
“Sometimes one has to be glib if she wants to keep from getting tormented by the likes of you,” Aela teased. “I hear Farkas has a job for you. When you finish with that, ask around for more work. He mentioned last night you were looking to make some quick coin, and there are always plenty of jobs to go around.”
“Okay,” she nodded.
As she backed out of the room, they resumed their conversation, but she tuned out what they were saying as she made her way through the bunkhouse and back upstairs to find Farkas. Instead of Farkas, however, she found Vilkas sitting at the table by himself munching on a crust of bread. He barely looked up when she came in, but she swore she saw him mutter under his breath before hiding his lips behind that crust.
“I’m looking for Farkas,” she told him.
“I am not my brother’s keeper,” he said. When he looked up at her, she felt bare and exposed, as if he could see everything inside her. And he was judging her; she could feel it in the nervous clench of her muscles under his careful scrutiny. “Did you take my sword to Eorlund like I told you to do?”
“I did,” she answered, drawing her lower lip between her teeth and gently biting down to keep herself from telling him what Eorlund had told her to say.
“Good,” he leaned back in the chair and reached for his mead. “You should be out in the yard training,” he said. “Working on that sword arm of yours. As it stands right now, you fight like a girl.”
“Farkas said he had a job for me.” She bit down on her lip harder, resisting the urge to remind him that she was a girl. She didn’t think that would go over very well, and the last thing she needed was even more tension between them if they were going to be working together.
“Farkas isn’t here,” he shrugged, as if that settled the matter. “He was called on for guard duty and won’t be back until just after supper, so I advise you to use your time wisely and get some training in.”
“Will you train me to better use my sword?”
The left corner of his mouth twitched, a slight flicker of a smile showing there before he obscured it with his tankard and took a long drink. He lowered the cup to the table and pushed his chair back to stand. “Better me than some other fool who will show you how to do it all wrong, I suppose. Let’s go.”
She followed Vilkas out into the training yard and stood at his back as he drew into his gear. He reached out and grabbed a heavy, two-handed sword from the rack and turned to pass it over to her hilt-first.
“Which is your dominant hand?” he asked. “The hand you eat with, write with… assuming you can even hold a quill.”
She squinted at him, already feeling her anger welling up inside her like a storm. “I write with my right hand,” she said, emphasizing the verb in that sentence to assure him she wasn’t stupid.
“Good. Now show me how you hold a sword.”
Resisting the urge to remind him that he was supposed to be teaching her, she wrapped her fingers tight around the high end of the pommel, squeezing her grip as she fitted her left hand underneath it. She flexed her fingers, stretching them outward before curling them back in around the leather.
“You’re holding it too tight. A grip like that will send shocks ringing through your bones and muscles and tire you out long before you follow through with your first strike. Loosen up,” he instructed.
She loosened her hands, the heavy weight of the sword dropping a little and causing her to tighten her fingers again.
“Still too tight,” he shook his head. “You’re holding it like a giant holds his club. Looser.” Her reached out and curved his fingers around hers, the muscles of his grip tightening until he pried her fingers loose and then applied just enough pressure to show her how to hold it. “Like that,” he nodded. “And when you hold a two-handed blade, the pommel should hover here.” Unwrapping his fingers from hers, he pointed at her stomach, just above her belly button. “When I step back, show me your swing.”
She nodded, watching as he took two, three then four steps back. When he gave her the silent go ahead, she swung the sword and felt its weight tug her forward so hard she stumbled a bit. Vilkas sucked air through his teeth, his mouth tightening into what she could only assume was an annoyed scowl.
“You are guiding with your left hand and forcing with your right,” he said, tilting his head to the side. “Reverse that. Guide with your right, make the blade an extension of your dominant arm. Try again.”
She swung again and again, the muscles in her arms screaming under the heavy weight of that sword each time she lifted it back up at his command. And every time he shook his head with disappointment, she felt her face grow hotter with embarrassed anger.
“Don’t move,” he instructed, circling around behind her. She was surprised when he came in close, his chest pressing into her back, knees nudging hers until they bent the way he wanted them to. He tapped the back of her right foot forward a step and brought his arms around her. His strong hands curled around her fingers, grip loose. As he leaned his cheek against her face, she could feel the rough scrape of his chin when he moved, feel the heat of his exhaled breath rustle through her hair.
“Put all your weight on the ball of your left foot,” he said. “When you strike, push off left and draw your right foot forward to guide the movement of your whole body, like this.” He followed through, moving her body against his to demonstrate, guiding with her right, forcing left as they brought the blade down hard together. “Again,” he said, repeating the movement from behind her over and over until she felt like her arms would drop from her body.
“Now, show me.” He unclenched his fingers from hers and stepped back. “And remember, it’s all in the swing.”
She hadn’t realized how much heat his body had been putting off until he moved away and the cold wind swept in beneath the gaps in her armor. A shiver moved through her as sweat trickled down her spine, her whole body suddenly feeling cold.
She waited until Vilkas moved back around to stand in front of her, arms crossed over his chest in hopeless anticipation. She moved the way she’d moved when he’d been behind her, pushing off her left foot, drawing her right foot forward with her sword as she struck hard, metal clanging as he connected with the stone beneath her feet. Lifting her gaze to his in hopes of finding approval there, she did not find what she sought in his eyes. He was a blank slate, unmoving and with no obvious intentions of giving her the praise she sought from him.
“Keep practicing,” he said. “You still have a lot to learn, Whelp.”
He left her alone in the practice yard, walking back into Jorrvaskr. With the dull ring of Eorlund working the forge above as her motivation, she repeated the movements Vilkas had shown her until her arms felt like wilted leeks and her lungs burned every time she drew a breath.