The face above her was a blur, and even though she blinked several times to clear her vision, it remained hard for her to focus. “Vilkas,” she murmured, reaching up to touch his cheek. Why was he there with her? Where was she? “Vilkas?”
“Well, that’s the first time I ever had a girl in my arms and she mistook me for my twin.” a gruff voice began. “I guess that says it all. If I ever hear you try to say you’re not in love with my brother again, I’ll bash you in the face with my shield to knock some sense into you.” He cleared his throat and brought a bottle to her lips, making her sip slowly until she could feel her strength coming back to her.
“What happened?” she muttered, leaning up on her elbows and ignoring what he’d just said.
“Best I can figure is, you hit your head when the draugr shouted at us that last time and the blow made you woozy.”
“Draugr,” she nodded. “Right.” It all came trickling back to her, like a slow water leak through cracked stone. “The fragment.”
“Here,” he held it over to her. “As soon as you get your strength back, we’ll take that back to Skjor. There’s gonna be a huge celebration in your honor, shield-sister.”
It took a few minutes before she felt strong enough to stand, and as she made her way to her feet, Farkas drew her arm across his shoulder, holding her up as they climbed through the back exit and into the oncoming dawn. She didn’t know how long they’d been underground. Hours, days, but the fresh air felt good on her face, cooling her burning skin until she felt almost like herself again.
“All right,” he nodded. “If you feel a little dizzy, don’t be afraid to lean on me.”
She didn’t want to think about what had happened in the cairn, the word wall and that strange feeling that swept through her right before she lost consciousness, but even more than that, she didn’t want to think about the fact that her closest friend, the guy who’d had her back in there, had been a werewolf all along and she’d had no idea.
“What’s it like?” she asked.
“What’s what like?” he glanced down at her as they walked.
“Being a werewolf?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s hard for me to put into words. It just is what it is.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s not so bad,” he said, then slumped his shoulders. “But Vilkas says it’s like a curse, and I guess in some ways it is, but it’s gotten me out of tight spots more times than I care to admit. It’s just really hard to control sometimes. Like this fire inside you that needs to be fed by the hunt. Aela and Skjor live for that, and I thought I did too, but lately… I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right anymore. Kodlak says it isn’t the way things are supposed to be and Vilkas says there isn’t any honor in it. Maybe he’s right.”
They didn’t say much more as they finished the journey home to Jorrvaskr, but they both had a lot on their minds. It was late into the morning when they arrived at Jorrvaskr, and though she wanted nothing more than the fall into bed and catch up on a few hours sleep, she immediately sought out Skjor as Farkas admitted he was going to take a short nap before the celebrations began.
“You’re back,” he nodded, sitting up in the bed before climbing out and stepping toward her. “Come in, how did it go?”
She held up the shard, stepping back as he marveled at the feel of it in his hand after taking it.
“You did well, girl! Better than any of us expected.” She was surprised when he wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground in a huge, bear-like hug that nearly squeezed the life out of her as he spun her around. “Tonight, we celebrate and welcome you to our ranks, shield-sister!”
Aela appeared in the doorway, clearing her throat, which prompted Skjor to lower Luthien back to the floor. “Is that…” she stepped toward them, snatching the fragment from Skjor’s hand. “She did it! You really did it!” Her arms came around them both, drawing them in close. “I knew you would.”
She didn’t think about them being werewolves then, though the thought never lingered far from her mind now that she’d learned the truth. Glancing up from their embrace, she saw Vilkas waiting at the edge of the hallway, his brow furrowed and his mouth drawn tight.
“I won’t lie,” she began, regaining her footing. “It wasn’t easy, and I couldn’t have done it without Farkas.”
“That’s what family is all about, girl.” Skjor grinned, clapping her hard on the shoulder. “And you’re part of the family now. Go, get some rest. You’re going to need all your strength for the long night of drinking that lies ahead of us.”
Vilkas was still standing in the hallway when she came out, and she thought she saw his face soften a little when she met his eyes. “I hear you did well, and you brought my brother back in one piece.”
“You learn quickly,” he grinned. “You look tired. You should get some sleep before the celebration starts.”
“I think I will.”
“The bunkhouse is liable to be busy, and it’ll make it hard for you to rest. I’d like to offer you my private room for a few hours, if you’ll take it. Consider it… a reward, for a job well done.”
“A little peace and quiet would be a nice change.”
“This way then.” He nodded left, and she followed him across the intersection in the hall to a small, private room on the right. She didn’t know why, but she’d expected to find the place packed with weapons and armor, not books. There was a small desk in the corner with quills and inkwells, spare bits of parchment and a few bound scrolls. He reached over to close the open book on the desk and then gestured toward the bed. “It’s yours as long as you need it.”
As he left her alone there, she sat down on the edge of his bed and looked around the room again. He was tidy, everything in its place. Even the books on the shelves were neatly lined in a perfect row. Peeling off her boots, she set them on the floor and lifted her legs into the bed as she reclined on his pillow and drew the blankets up around her neck. She brought it against her face and breathed in, recognizing his familiar scent. She’d never noticed it so strongly before, but now that it was all around her, she wondered why she hadn’t. Vilkas smelled of fire smoke and lavender, with an underlying hint of musk and honeyed mead that stirred strange feelings in her belly, the kind of feelings she refused to believe she had.
Farkas was not right. She didn’t like Vilkas, and she certainly wasn’t in love with him, even if all she seemed to think about was finding ways to make him smile, to make his intense eyes soften and glimmer with approval… and want. She closed her eyes, but even then all she could see was his face. The small scar just below his bottom lip, the way the edges of his hair curled slightly, especially when he was damp with sweat in the practice yard.
Why? When he’d never been anything but cruel to her until now? Why would she want to think about him at all?
But the longer she laid there, her body relaxing within the comfort of his presence all around her, mind drifting near the edges of dream, she remembered the heat of his body behind hers in the practice yard, his strong arms melding into hers, knees pressed into the backs of her legs as they moved together and brought down her sword again and again. She could almost feel the whisper of stubble rush against her cheek, his warm breath fluttering through the loose strands of her red hair as he whispered, “Then perhaps you shouldn’t whisper them in my brother’s ear… Whisper your secrets to me instead.”
As those thoughts melded into dreams, she felt strong, unafraid as she turned her face into his and said, “I’ll tell you my secrets, if you tell me yours.”
He somehow managed to turn her in his arms, their roles reversed for the moment as he sought her face for the approval she’d worked so hard to get from him. He wanted something from her, something she’d never given to anyone before, but what? What could he possibly want?
His hard mouth came down on hers, fingers pressing into her flesh so hard the promise of bruises lingered in his touch. She gasped against his kiss, her open mouth inviting him inside, and he didn’t hesitate to answer that call. The damp velvet of his tongue passed between her lips, caressing, circling dancing with her own in ways that made her entire body shudder and tremble.
But the moment shifted, so quick she couldn’t catch it and draw it back the way she wanted it to be. She was standing in the middle of an open field alone, wisping flakes of snow drifting through the streams of light from the full moon high above her, the other moon a slivered, purple crescent. Behind her, she heard a guttural growl, and then a long, lonely howl that wrenched the heart from her chest. When she turned, a pack of wolves had gathered around her, their mouths open, eyes burning in the moonlight, and they had come to take her down.