Farkas was far more animated as they traveled than he had been during their last excursion, babbling on for what felt like hours and hours about everything that had happened in the time she’d been off running jobs for Vilkas. Supposedly Ria had killed a bear, and Torvar had gotten into a drunken brawl with some Redguards who’d come into town looking for a woman. The Redguards had gotten kicked out of Whiterun, and Torvar had spent the night in a cell, sleeping it off.
“Vilkas and I had to run over to Riften to take care of some thieves.”
“Sounds like you kept yourself busy.”
She wasn’t purposely trying to shut him out, or give him the cold shoulder, but she was still angry about what Vilkas had said to her. The worst part was, she didn’t even know why she was angry. So what if he knew about her past. It wasn’t like she’d ever really tried to hide it, or asked Farkas not to tell anyone, though the greater part of her had hoped he would keep their conversations to himself. She’d shared a lot of private things while wallowing in her cups with him, but she supposed that was her own fault for not asking him to keep it quiet. Besides, he probably would have still told Vilkas. He seemed to tell his brother everything.
“I guess you and Vilkas had a lot of time to talk on your trip.” She stepped up onto a boulder to stretch her gaze out over the land they were headed into.
“Well, yeah, though he was pretty quiet. I think there’s something heavy on his mind, but he hasn’t wanted to talk about what’s really bothering him for a while now. I’ve never seen him like this. I mean, he’s always been moody, but it’s been really deep lately.”
She had to bite her tongue to keep from lashing out that Farkas seemed to have no trouble flapping his gums about anything and everything that popped into his mind. It was getting harder and harder to remember that it wasn’t him she was annoyed with, even if he had unwittingly played a small part in instigating her irritation.
It always came back to that one little thought. Vilkas, and why she gave a damn what he thought about her. Sure, she worked with him, well… for him, and if she passed this little trial Skjor had set her to, there might even come a time when she and Vilkas had to work side-by-side for the Companions, which could pose a problem if they couldn’t find a way to resolve whatever it was stirring the air between them.
She jumped down off the boulder and started sprinting across the land, not even looking back over her shoulder to make sure Farkas was keeping up. Vilkas would have loved that, her leaving Farkas in the dust to fend for himself. She just wanted to run, to get away from her thoughts, which no matter where she turned lately always seemed to somehow revolve around Vilkas. The worst part was the more time she spent with Farkas lately, the more being around him seemed to remind her of his brother. The twins might have had very obvious differences, but they were still twins, and every time she looked into Farkas’s eyes, she saw Vilkas lurking in him.
Gods! She hated him… no, that wasn’t quite it. Loathed him, maybe? But that didn’t feel right either. What was it about that man that made it impossible to shut him out of her mind?
By the time Farkas caught up to her, the stone circle surrounding the underground cairn was just within view, a small lip beckoning from the horizon. She slowed down to catch her breath. She felt like she’d been running nonstop for weeks. Digging a bottle of mead out of her pack, she swigged it down, allowing its warmth to course through and refresh her.
“You’re eager to dive into this,” he noted, bending down to rest his hands on his knees as he steadied his own breathing. “That’s good.”
“What can we expect in there?” she asked.
“Good,” she nodded, smearing the droplets of mead from her lips with the back of her hand. “I’m in the mood to smash skulls.”
“So I noticed,” he said, holding out his hand to take the bottle from her. Tilting open the shield on his helmet, he slugged back a few deep swallows, returned it to her and stood up straight, arching his back to stretch his muscles. “Something on your mind you want to get off your chest before we head off to meet with Death?”
“What are you now, a priest?”
“Talos be praised,” he grinned, but Luthien didn’t laugh. Her lack of amusement quickly burned the smile from his lips, and though the others might have believed he was slow to the uptake, his heart made him far more intuitive to the feelings of the people around him. She’d seen it time and time again when they were drinking together. He felt things other people didn’t feel, though he didn’t like to admit it too often, for fear it made him look like a sissy. “What’s wrong, Luthien? You’ve been quiet since we left Whiterun. Are you worried you won’t pass Skjor’s little test?”
“Then what? Is it me? Did I do something?”
Only tell your brother everything you know about me so he could turn it around and use it against me… she thought, glancing away from his fretful gaze. He really was like a puppy sometimes, his fierce loyalty and eagerness to please making it impossible to look at him without feeling guilty for thinking a single bad thought about him.
“It isn’t you, Farkas. It’s just… It’s nothing. I’m fine.” She crouched down, her armor clattering in protest of that unnatural stance. She scooped a handful of dirt and pebbles into her palm and allowed them to sift through the cracks between her fingers.
“You don’t seem fine.” He stood above her, his shadow fallowing across her. “Did Vilkas say something to upset you when you were talking out in the yard?”
“Vilkas always says thing that upset me.”
“I don’t think he means to,” he said. “He likes you. I know he does.”
Her mouth tightened into a scowl, and though she tried to hide it from him, it was too late. He’d already seen it.
“He really does. He told me.”
She pushed up from the ground and wiped her dusty hands on the skirt of her armor. “He has a real funny way of showing it then.” Picking up her feet, she headed toward the cairn, Farkas following behind her.
“What are you talking about? I don’t try to please him.”
“Yes, you do. Running his sword to the forge for him, practicing in the yard until your arms nearly fall off just to get his attention, jumping at every job he gives you. You like him, don’t you?” Before she could respond, telling him he was being a complete idiot, he went on. “And I don’t mean like him, like you like me and Torvar, or Skjor and Aela, even. When we first met, I kind of hoped you might like me like that someday, but after all the time we’ve spent together this last couple months, I realized you didn’t and you probably never would. I’m okay with that. At first I thought it was just because you were so dead set on joining the Stormcloaks, you didn’t want to bog yourself down with some dumb guy’s affections, but you stuck around anyway, and I think I finally figured out why.” He seemed so proud of himself that it took him a minute to actually share his revelation. “You’re in love with Vilkas, and you’ve been trying so hard to get him to notice you.”
“Okay, now you are being dumb, Farkas,” she sneered over her shoulder at him.
“So you do like me like that?” he jested, wagging his eyebrows, a hokey grin spreading wide across his face. “That’s why you really stuck around. I noticed you were wearing an amulet after you came back from that job a few weeks back. You want to go down to Riften when we finish up here? Head into the temple of Mara and tie the knot with me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snorted, hiking down the stairs. “Where is this even coming from?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious. You brood almost as much as he does after you’ve been in a room with him too long. It’s like you two were made for each other.”
“I think you should shut up now, before I bash my shield into your face.”
His grin widened even more, and as she turned to reach for the door handle, he said, “If it’s any small comfort, he notices you every time you walk through the doors. Sometimes I think he sits up in the hall all night drinking alone and waiting for you to come back.”
“Shut up, Farkas.”
“He thinks you’re pretty,” he went on, as if she hadn’t even spoken. “Though I think the word he used was breathtaking. As in… you take his breath away.”
That strange tightening in her stomach was there again, like a clenched fist wrenching her guts. She couldn’t imagine Vilkas ever saying anything of the sort. Maybe how bad she was with a sword made him gasp, or how insolent she was when he gave her orders stunned him, but there was no way he’d ever said she took his breath away.
“I mean it, Farkas. Shut your mouth right now, or I’ll shut it for you.”
“All right, but I just thought you should know,” he shrugged, the shoulders of his armor creaking. “Since we’re going to our death and all. You can die knowing your whole campaign to get his attention didn’t fail.” They stepped into the cairn, all joking quickly shoved to the side at the sight of a draugr corpse lying crumpled in the middle of the floor. Moods quickly shifted, both of them shifted their frame of mind to the task at hand. “I don’t think we’re the only ones here,” he noted.
“It would seem that way.”
“Be careful,” he muttered. “If you ever want to profess your undying love to my brother, we need to get through this alive.”
“I do not love your brother,” she said, scanning the interior for clues and danger.
“You just keep telling yourself that, sister.”
He followed close behind her as they headed in through the entry chamber and down a quick set of stairs that led into a second chamber. She couldn’t let herself think about the ridiculous conversation she’d just had with Farkas. They immediately met with two hungry draugr in the winding catacombs, which they quickly dispatched. As they came into a cavern, she scanned the room and turned back over her shoulder.
“It looks like the gate is blocking the way forward. Is there a lever somewhere?”
“Have a look around,” he said. “I’ll check over here.”
She found a small off room with a lever inside, and called out, “I think I found it,” drawing the lever as she spoke.
The gate dropped down on her, trapping her inside the off room and bringing Farkas running toward her. “What the hell did you do that for?” There was a hint of playful mischief in his eyes. “I should leave you in there until you confess.”
“Quit messing around, Farkas, and get me out of here.”
“All right, all right.” He started away from the chamber, heading left in search of the lever that would open the gate. “I think there’s a lever over he…”
He never got to finish that sentence, as a band of strange foes came into the outer chamber, the one leading them tapping the blade of his sword on the palm of his hand.
“Well, well, well. What have we here boys? A stray dog away from his pack?”
The woman directly over the leader’s right shoulder lifted her nose into the air and sniffed. “I thought I smelled wet dog. Turns out it was just you and your little dog playmate.”
“You picked the wrong dog to mess with, scum.” Farkas growled, dropping his sword. As it clattered to the floor, Luthien clenched the bars holding her back, suddenly realizing just how much danger her shield-brother was in. If anything happened to him, she’d never forgive herself, and neither would anybody else.
Farkas arched his back, the armor falling away as he tore through the clothing underneath, his body shifting, changing. Wiry, dark hair grew over every inch of his naked flesh, his back broadening, feet and hands lengthening into strange claws as he lifted his head and howled. The sound was terrifying, echoing through the stone cairn like a nightmare, and then he broke into a frenzied attack, slashing claws and hammering fists. Bodies flew this way and that, one of them landing just outside the cage she’d been locked in, his dying expression one of surprised horror, a wet spot staining the front of his breeches.
It was only a matter of seconds before he’d destroyed them, swiping out with the sharp claws at the ends of his massive paws until their tattered corpses littered the floor, blood spatters dripping down the wall. He disappeared left, the door that held her in groaning open and she stepped back, a part of her wanting to huddle in the corner and hide, for fear the beast would come back for her. Only it was Farkas who returned, pulling into his armor as he approached as if nothing had happened at all.
“What… the… hell was that?”
“Farkas, you just… Are you… You’re a werewolf.”
“Yeah,” he shrugged, as if she’d just obviously stated that he had brown hair. “So.”
“Yeah? So? Mehrune’s Dagon, Farkas!” she hissed. “Don’t you think that’s the kind of thing you might want to tell a person you’re heading into battle with?”
“We would have told you, eventually. If you passed this final test.”
“We? What do you mean? Are all the Companions werewolves?”
“No,” he unsheathed his sword again, ready to move on. “It’s a blessing bestowed on a select few known as the inner-circle.”
Everything was starting to make sense now. Aela that day in the woods. The argument she’d overheard.
“Skjor?” she asked.
“And Kodlak. Aela.”
“Talos!” she muttered under her breath. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” he said, turning toward the open door to their left.
“Are you going to make me a werewolf?” Suddenly, it dawned on her what Vilkas and Aela had been arguing about that night she’d overheard them. He didn’t want her in their circle. Was that why he’d been sending her off on so many jobs? To keep her from the inner-circle?
“That’s up to you,” he said. “And only if we get through this alive and get the shard back to Skjor.”
“What if I don’t want to be a werewolf?”
“Who are the Silver Hand?”
“Werewolf hunters,” he said.
Farkas was right. There were more Silver Hand waiting for them as they delved deeper into the cairn. She didn’t hesitate in lifting her sword against them all, even though her mind was muddled with a whole new set of strange thoughts. Werewolves? Why hadn’t they told her? She guessed it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing one went around advertising, but still… She’d known them for weeks, traveled with Farkas, worked for them, and if they were planning to make her a wolf too, what then?
It was more than her mind could handle, but at least it had distracted her from that ridiculous business with Farkas about his brother. As much as it burned through her mind, she didn’t let it keep her from the task at hand. They battled through both Silver Hand and draugr, until they finally came to the cairn. They had to search the old burial urns for the key to the cairn, and once inside they found themselves surrounded by draugr.
One of them shouted at them in that strange tongue she’d learned after absorbing the dragon’s soul, sending both of them staggering into one another like a couple of loose stones in an avalanche. Getting back up to face the thing was tougher than either of them ever dreamed, as it kept unleashing its Thu’um on them, making it nearly impossible to get close.
Farkas managed to slip in behind the draugr, bringing his sword down into the back of its head and knocking it lifeless to the ground. Luthien gathered her wits and her strength and stood up, shaking the cobwebs from her head. But no matter how hard she shook, she couldn’t stop the rising sound of chanting, which sounded eerily like the voices she’d heard calling to her in Bleakfalls Barrow.
She followed it to the wall behind the crypt, stumbling back a little as her eyes focused on the eerily glowing words carved into the wall. The chanting was coming from the word itself, drawing her closer, and then she felt it rush through her, become a part of her until her head swam with a power so great it made her feel nauseous and dizzy. She swayed, her loose knees buckling beneath her, and as she fell all she could think about was failure.
She’d failed Farkas and Skjor, the Companions, but most of all, Vilkas. His face was the last solid thought her mind wrapped around before everything went dark.