“Sorry I wasn’t here earlier to give you that job,” he said.
She lowered the heavy blade to the ground and tried to catch her breath.
“It’s fine,” she assured him. “Your brother thinks I am an atrocious swordsman, and he’s had me out here practicing my swing all day.”
“Practice is good,” Farkas said simply. “I should probably practice more.” After a few minutes, during which she didn’t know what else to say, he finally asked, “Have you eaten yet?”
“Not since this morning.”
“Let’s eat. I’ll give you the details on that job.”
“All right,” she agreed, glad to put that sword back in the rack. The muscles in her arms vibrated and hummed agony, and come morning she had a feeling she wouldn’t even be able to bend a fork to her lips to eat breakfast.
Inside, the hall bustled with life and warmth, bodies filling the chairs around the great table, laughter and voices carrying out to welcome them in from the cold. She glanced up and saw Vilkas sitting in the same chair he’d been in when she found him that morning. He barely even looked up, but for a moment their gazes met, and then he glanced at his brother.
“You look tired, Farkas. What news from the gates?”
“Someone said they saw a dragon over by the Western Watchtower.”
“Bah,” Vilkas grumbled into his mead cup. “Now that they’ve said a dragon destroyed Helgen, that’s all we’ll here now. Everyone will see dragons everywhere. It’s ridiculous.”
“They don’t just say a dragon destroyed Helgen,” Luthien interjected. “It actually happened.”
“Is that right?” Vilkas returned his gaze to her, his sharp eyes afire with challenge. “Did you actually see this so-called dragon?”
“Yes,” she said simply, lowering into the chair in front of her and reaching for a wedge of cheese. “I did.”
The table grew quiet, as if they were expecting her to elaborate on her story, but she said nothing as she began to eat. After a few minutes, conversation resumed again, but even after Farkas took his seat, she could still feel the burn of Vilkas’s stare. She looked up only once, met with those strange, sad eyes and held his gaze without fear until he finally shook his head and looked away. It was only a few seconds before he pushed back from the table and left the hall, disappearing down the stairs.
Luthien watched him go, thought as he reached the stairs that he glanced back in her direction, but she couldn’t be sure.
“So,” Farkas began, “about this job…”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I’m listening.”
“We got a letter this morning about someone right here in Whiterun who needs a little muscle. I don’t know what the deal is, and I don’t care. We just need someone to go down there and scare this milk-drinker into submission.”
“That sounds easy enough,” she shrugged. “Where do you need me to go?”
“The Drunken Huntsman,” he said. “Just scare him, rough him up a bit if you have to, but that’s it. Got it? I don’t want to hear anything about a killing. That wouldn’t look good for the Companions.”
“Right, no killing.”
“No killing,” he repeated.
“I’ll take care of it tonight,” she said. “Right after I finish this cup of mead, and then I think I’m going to head over to Bleak Falls Barrow. The Jarl asked me to fetch something for him there, and there’s a guy in Riverwood who lost something important to him. I promised I would help him find it.”
“You’re going over there alone?” She watched as his brow wrinkled in confusion and wonder, his eyes shining with concern.
“Unless you want to go with me,” she shrugged.
“I could tag along,” he said. “The draugr up there are dangerous and I hear bandits like to hide out there. Not really a place you want to go wandering around in by yourself.”
“Well then, let’s go kick some draugr ass,” she swilled the last gulp of her mead and scraped the legs of her chair across the floor as she pushed back from the table.
After stopping by the Drunken Huntsman to rough up Elrindir, who packed one hell of a punch, she and Farkas headed along the road south. They passed through Riverwood, and had a quick drink at the Sleeping Giant Inn, and then headed up the northwestern road that cut into the mountain. Her companion wasn’t exactly a deep conversationalist, she learned that rather quickly, but he made her laugh a lot and put the hurt on a pack of wolves that came at them. When they met with a rough group of bandits holding up in an old abandoned watch tower, she was grateful to have him at her back.
She hadn’t thought about how tired she was until she drew her blade from the last bandit, the backward jerk of her arm reminding her that her muscles ached from all that practice. She dropped down onto an old chest and felt her shoulders sag a little.
“Maybe we should rest here awhile,” she suggested, rifling through her pack for a bottle of ale. Wrenching the cork out, she tossed back a few swallows then held the bottle to her companion.
“Sounds good to me,” Farkas shrugged, sitting down on the floor across from her.
After a long silence, during which she could hear the howling wind whispering through the tower above, Farkas cleared his throat and leaned forward a little, hands rested on his knees.
“So, did you really see a dragon destroy Helgen?”
A long, weary sigh deflated her chest as she leaned back into the wall behind her and drew her knees up. “Right before the Imperials were about to chop off my head,” she said. “They’d captured Ulfric Stormcloak, and were going to put all of us to death, and this dragon just came out of nowhere and started tearing the town apart.”
“Wow,” Farkas nodded. “That sounds pretty intense. Why were the Imperials gonna chop off your head? Were you some kind of criminal? Not that it matters, I mean… I’m just curious.”
“I attacked them after they killed my father for colluding with the Stormcloaks.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time, and then he asked, “Was he? Working with the Stormcloaks?”
“No,” she shook her head. “My father was a blacksmith. An honest man who minded his own business, even though he was a true Nord at heart and would have taken up one of the swords he forged to fight by Ulfric’s side if it wasn’t for my mother and me. But he never even met Ulfric, and the Imperials accused him of harboring the man. When he wouldn’t confess they killed him in cold blood right in front of us, and then they went for my mother…”
Her voice trailed off into the shadows, her mind carrying her back to that day. She’d never known such hate in her life, such agonizing, heart-wrenching pain. She could still see her father’s face, his desperate eyes pleading with her to run for cover just before their light flickered out and the last breath eased from his chest.
“One day I will go to Windhelm and lay down my sword for Ulfric and show him I am a true Nord,” she sat up straight, no longer feeling tired. “I’ll die for Skyrim’s freedom if I have to. It’s what my father would have wanted.”
“Is it?” Farkas’s question was surprisingly thoughtful, though not as deep as she made it out to be. When he’d asked it, he was seeking confirmation of her statement, but it made her think beyond the words, about what her father would have really wanted for her.
A strong, loving husband…probably a man like Farkas who would provide her with a comfortable, safe home where she could raise her own children and live out the rest of her days never wanting for anything.
What would he think if he saw her there, a bloody sword tucked into the scabbard at her side, cold armor pressed up against her skin? Not but the clothes on her back and the cold walls of an abandoned tower to keep the wind at bay.
“Tell me about you,” she said, tilting her head to look at him. The wall sconces didn’t provide much light, but she could still see him, make out the edges of his strong jaw, the shadow of stubble on his chin and neck, the loose wave of hair resting against his cheek, warpaint around his eyes. “About you and your brother. How did you two become Companions? You said your father was a Companion…”
“I don’t know, really. Maybe he was. Vilkas says he remembers a time before Jergen and Jorrvaskr, our parents. A little cottage just under Windhelm. I don’t. I always thought Jergen was our father, but I guess I don’t know if Vilkas says he wasn’t. He says Jergen rescued us from necromancers, but he doesn’t say much else about it.”
“He doesn’t say much at all, does he?” Though she supposed that wasn’t entirely true. She’d known him less than two days, and he’d already said plenty of critical things in that time to make her feel small and insignificant.
“Vilkas?” he shrugged. “He talks to me all the time, though mostly I don’t understand half of what he says. He’s real smart, my brother. Skjor says Vilkas has the brains of Ysgramor, and I have his strength.”
“You are pretty strong.”
“Like an ox.” Farkas smiled almost shyly, glancing down at his hands. “Why don’t you get some rest. I’ll stand guard.”
“Maybe for just a few minutes. I want to get in and out of Bleak Falls Barrow and back to Whiterun.”
“So you can collect your reward from Jarl Balgruuf and make your way to Windhelm, right.”
“Something like that.”
He stood up, stretching the muscles in his back before turning to face the window. “I may not be the smartest man, and I know you didn’t ask for my advice, but maybe running off to Windhelm isn’t such a good idea right now.”
“No? And why’s that?”
“You’re angry and sad.” He leaned against the window frame and gazed out into night as a whirlwind of snow swept by. “And I get that, I really do. If something ever happened to Vilkas…” he paused, his left fist clenching at his side so tight she heard the knuckles crack, “or one of my shield brothers or sisters, I don’t know what I’d do. It wouldn’t be pretty, I know that much. But I think maybe later I might regret it if I didn’t take time to think it over and weigh out all the options. You know?”
She drew in a deep breath through her nose and released it through her mouth, her cheeks puffing and deflating as she rolled her forehead into the cold stone of the wall beside her. “You shouldn’t let the others make fun of you for being dumb, Farkas,” she said, closing her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
Chuckling, for the first time in weeks she genuinely smiled. “That’s a smart thing you just said.”
“Oh,” he glanced back over his shoulder at her, his eyes shining in the torchlight. “You seem like a smart girl, Luthien,” he said. “I just don’t want to see you go looking for glory and honor in the wrong places, or for the wrong reasons and wind up finding nothing but trouble.”
She didn’t understand what he meant, or how he could think there was no glory or honor in fighting to avenge her father’s death. Inside it felt like she could make all the pain go away if she watched every last Imperial die on the end of her blade. The only problem was, according to Vilkas, she barely knew how to hold a sword, much less wield one. If she rushed headlong into battle for Ulfric now, she’d likely end up dead long before the real fighting even started.
But if she kept training, kept taking in everything Vilkas and Farkas and the other Companions had to teach her, running jobs for them and honing her skills, maybe in a few weeks she’d be ready to ride for Windhelm and take her place among the Stormcloaks.
In the meantime, she would be a sponge, soaking up everything around her, learning everything her new Companions had to teach her about fighting… and living.