It was five days before she returned to Jorrvaskr. She and Lydia had stopped at a tavern in Markharth after delivering the girl to her family, and spent the night there drinking, feasting and finally catching up on all the sleep they’d lost over the last weeks. She was still tired when they arrived in Whiterun, a part of her believing she would never know the comfort of true rest again, especially if Vilkas had plans to run her right back out of town on another job.
He wasn’t waiting for her outside, as he had been the last few times, and though she expected him to nearly tackle her as soon as she walked through the doors, it was Farkas who grabbed her instead.
“You’re back!” His whole face seemed to light up when he saw her, a nice change from his brother’s annoyed expression whenever she walked through the doors. “I was starting to think you finally made good on those threats to run up to Windhelm to join the Stormcloaks, but Vilkas said you were out running a few jobs for him, bringing honor to the Companions and all that.”
“Something like that,” she mumbled, scanning the mead hall for his brother. “Where is he? I finished the last job he sent me on, and I want to collect my pay.”
“He’s out back in the yard, but Skjor wants to see you first. He said if I saw you anywhere, I was to bring you to him immediately and that whatever else you need to do, it can wait.”
“Skjor? What does he want?”
“He has a job for us to do, a final test for you to prove yourself worthy of becoming a true Companion.”
“Oh.” She brightened, probably a little more than she should have, at the prospect of telling Vilkas no if he asked her to run headlong into a ruin filled with Falmer who wanted nothing more than to poison her to death and feast on her flesh. “Where is he?”
“Out in the yard, come on.”
She and Lydia followed Farkas through the back doors into the yard behind Jorrvaskr. She was immediately drawn to Vilkas, who looked up from deflecting a one-handed attack from Athis that actually caught him off guard and sent him staggering backward and stumbling over his own feet just a little.
“Ha! I got you that time.”
“It was a lucky shot, that’s all.” Vilkas shrugged it off, rolling his shoulders beneath his armor and righting himself again. “I’m taking a break. Keep practicing, Athis.”
“I thought you said a true Nord never takes breaks?” Athis grinned, but Vilkas was not amused. Nothing ever seemed to make him smile, or laugh. It must have been miserable being him, she thought, and while that was supposed to amuse her, it actually made her feel a little sad.
He started walking toward them, but stopped in his tracks as Farkas led her straight to Skjor, who was running a whetstone along the edge of his blade. “There you are, girl. We were starting to think you got lost on your way back from Markharth. I trust your last job went well.”
“It did,” she nodded.
“Good. After you tie up any loose ends you have here, I have a very important job for you. A job that will determine your future among the Companions.”
“What is this job, sir?”
“Send your housecarl home,” he nodded over her shoulder. “This is official Companion business, and you won’t be needing her.”
“Lydia,” she turned toward the woman, who just nodded dutifully and promised that she would wait for her back in Dragonsreach.
Skjor didn’t speak again until Lydia was gone from the yard, but then he cleared his throat. “We had a visitor last week, a scholar who’d been out in the field doing a bit of research for us on the missing fragments of Ysgramor’s Blade. It seems he’s located one up in Dustman’s Cairn and we want you to go and retrieve it for us. Farkas will be your shield-brother.”
“Is that everything? We just retrieve the shard from the Cairn?”
“As if that’s not enough of a job,” Skjor shook his head. “You’ve been running jobs for us for quite some time, proving yourself, but this is your last trial, New Blood. Your final chance for glory before we decide whether or not you’re worthy of naming yourself a true Companion. Head up there now, get in, get the job done and report back to me immediately.”
“I can do that.”
“Good,” he nodded. “I’m counting on you, Luthien. We’re all counting on you.” It was the first time anyone but Farkas had actually called her by name. She’d been New Blood or Whelp since she’d first come to Jorrvaskr, but the fact that Skjor even knew her name at all made something inside of her swell with pride and a newfound willingness to please.
“I won’t let you down.”
“We’ll see about that.” A sly grin drew at the corner of his mouth. “Oh, and try not to get Farkas killed, would ya?”
She smiled and glanced back over her shoulder at Farkas, who was already rocking back and forth on his heels, eager and ready to head off on their next adventure togther. “Ready to go, Shield-Brother?” she asked, watching him bounce.
“You bet! Let’s go kick some draugr ass!”
“We’ve done it before,” she laughed. “We’ll do it again.”
Her smile began to fade as she spied Vilkas over Farkas’s shoulder, and he was walking toward them with that self-important scowl of his. “What?” Farkas noticed her sudden lack of enthusiasm. “Not afraid of a few draugr now, are you?”
“No, it’s not that.” She shook her head. “You go get your gear, and I’ll meet you out front in a few minutes. I have to report to Vilkas before we go.”
He approached, clapping his brother on the shoulder just before Farkas parted, calling after him, “May the gods watch over your battles, brother.”
“And yours,” Farkas replied, slipping through the doors.
Glancing around the yard, she suddenly realized they were alone. How did that always seem to happen whenever Vilkas was near her? It was like everyone else saw them approach one another, and they just disappeared to avoid the fallout. Inside, she felt her stomach nervously twist, and for a moment she avoided looking up into his expectant eyes.
“I finished that job you sent me on. Rescued the girl and escorted her safely back to Markharth.”
“So I heard,” he nodded. “Here,” he held out a bag of coin to her. “Your share of the reward.”
She started to back away, thinking their conversation was done, but he began speaking again, the sound of his voice holding her in place. “Keep my brother safe out there.”
“Chances are he’ll be the one keeping me safe.”
He squinted a little, his mouth tightening as he pursed his lips together. “That doesn’t make me feel any better about sending him off on this quest with you. A shield-sister should always put her sibling first.”
“Of course I will,” she stammered. “I just meant… I mean, he’s… Oh, what does it matter what I meant. It seems that no matter what I say, you find a way to turn it around on me so I look like a fool.”
She watched his left eyebrow arch, the right one drop as he took a step backward, stunned speechless for a second. “Is that what you think? That I deliberately look for ways to make you seem the fool?”
“Isn’t that just the way things are?”
“No, it isn’t the way things are. If I’ve made you feel a fool, then it is because you were acting like a fool, but since you’ve come here, I’ve done nothing but try to help you be the warrior awaiting somewhere inside you to awaken.”
“Is that what you were doing? Helping me? It felt more like you were trying to get me killed.”
“We need strong, able-bodied men and women among our ranks, not scared little girls afraid of the shadows that lurk in their own past.”
Luthien’s throat tightened around a heavy lump that made it hard for her to breathe. “You know nothing,” she swallowed hard, “about my past.”
“Don’t I?” he tilted his head, the lack of animosity in his voice catching her off-guard. There was a hint of softness in his tone, almost as if he understood her for a moment and wanted her to know that. “You think my brother doesn’t tell me everything? We are brothers, twins. We share a bond unlike anything you could ever begin to imagine. He couldn’t have kept your secrets from me if he tried.”
“My secrets are my own.” She lifted her face in defiance, hoping he saw the unspoken rage that burned inside her.
“If you wish to keep your secrets safe,” he leaned close to her, so close she could feel that strange heat radiating from his body as his cheek lingered near hers, breath pulsing across the sensitive skin of her ear as he finished, “then perhaps you shouldn’t whisper them in my brother’s ear.”
“I have a job to do.” She stepped back from him, refusing to let him keep her there in that strange space any longer.
“Yes,” he nodded. “You do.”
As she turned her back on him, she was surprised to hear him call out to her just before she opened the doors to head inside. “May the gods watch over your battles,” and then he added under his breath, “friend.” She barely heard it, but she was sure he said it, even if she didn’t understand why.
She swallowed again, her throat burning, her mind churning with such confusion she thought her head would explode. “And yours,” she pushed through the doors and rushed off to find Farkas, who was eagerly waiting for her on the other side.