She’d put it off too long, and she knew it as soon as they were on the road. The trip to Ivarstead took days, the two of them traveling east across the mountain in search of the path to the 7,000 steps. They stopped for fresh supplies before hiking up the stairs, neither of them saying much, which allowed Luthien to get lost in her grief and her thoughts. Lydia was often a quiet companion, content with listening to Luthien talk if she needed to vent, but she hadn’t felt much like unloading her burdens on anyone and Lydia didn’t push her.
She’d thought of Vilkas as they traveled, more often than she would have liked, a part of her feeling strange and glad that he’d set out to look for her after Aela came home without her, another part of her letting her guilt get the best of her. Why had Vilkas, of all people, gone searching for her? Farkas, she would have expected, Lydia even, but Vilkas? Why would he care if she’d gone missing?
Still, she shouldn’t have left without at least telling Farkas she was going, and she knew that. It was just too hard to imagine facing the others feeling the way she did. Guilt, self-loathing, shame… She needed to sever herself from all that had happened, at least for a little while. Even if it did mean severing herself from the Companions until she got back.
To distract herself from her thoughts, she tried to count the steps as they took them, but she lost count and interest somewhere around nine-hundred. Muscles in her body ached that she hadn’t even known she had, and a part of her kept longing to transform into her beast form to sprint up the steps at high speed. But she was denying that part of herself, as hard as it was. She didn’t even know why Vilkas hadn’t wanted her to take the blessing, but thought she was starting to understand why he felt like it was a curse.
When they finally arrived at High Hrothgar, she stepped inside and felt a great peace wash over her. It was unlike anything she’d ever felt, and all the darkness and anger she’d been carrying around with her over the last few months seemed to melt away.
She was greeted by Master Arngeir, who called her Dovahkiin and told her they’d been waiting for her to answer their call for quite some time. While Lydia lingered in the shadows, she asked for their guidance and begged them to help her understand what it meant to be Dragonborn. Why did she hear those strange chants when she came upon the word walls? Why did they make her feel dizzy and strange and what did all those words mean? Why were the dragons returning, and what was she expected to do about it?
Master Arngeir actually laughed, “So many questions, child. So many questions, and I don’t know how many of them I can actually answer for you. Come, show us your power and we will share with you what we can.”
Over the next few days, they helped her understand as best they could, and taught her how to harness the power of her shout so the word walls wouldn’t make her feel so weak when she came upon them. They gave her a new shout that they hoped would help her in an important quest they needed her to carry out for them. She was to head to Ustengrav and reclaim the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, and then maybe they could tell her more about why the dragons were returning and what it all meant.
“That is all I can teach you for now, Dovahkiin.” Arngeir bowed his head to her in the yard behind the monastery. “Return with the horn, and perhaps then we will have more information to help us understand why the dragons have returned, but at this time, there is just no more that we can do.”
“I will bring you the Horn, Master Arngeir.”
“In the meantime, you and your servant are welcome to take rest here in the monastery as long as you need, Dovahkiin. I see great weariness in you, and a troubled heart. Perhaps the peace and solitude will bring you comfort.”
She and Lydia stayed in High Hrothgar for nearly a week. By day, she studied the Way of the Voice and practiced using her Thu’um with Master Borri and Master Wulfgar. At night, she meditated in the private hallway, trying to quiet the spirit of her restless beast and come to terms with her grief and shame.
A part of her dreaded leaving the peace she felt within the monastery. There, and only there, she’d been able to silence the snarling wolf that wrenched at her soul as if trying to overtake it forever. She carried some of that peace with her, as she and Lydia made their way back down the 7,000 steps and back into Ivarstead. She was calmer inside, though she could still feel the beast, but it didn’t seem to have as much power over her as it had when she’d been driven by hate and vengeance.
She knew she needed to go home, even if she wasn’t offered a warm reception. She needed to seek out Kodlak and ask for guidance, apologize to Farkas for leaving him to worry, offer Aela her comfort, but more importantly, she needed to face her feelings for Vilkas.
She’d had plenty of time to meditate on all of those things in High Hrothgar, and while she still didn’t fully understand what it was she felt for Vilkas, she knew it was stronger than anything she’d ever felt for anyone. The words Maramal had spoken to her in Riften continued to return to her during her meditations. Love brought comfort, strength and warmth in a cold, hard world that knew far too little of such things, and Vilkas had offered them all to her the day she’d returned from Dustman’s Cairn with the shard of Wuuthrad. She just hadn’t realized it at the time. She’d seen the spark of something in his eyes that night, as if there’d been so much more he’d wanted to say, but just didn’t know how.
Maybe she had to say it first, and if it was too late… Well, she hadn’t thought that far ahead because it hurt too much to imagine him turning away from her again. She kept telling herself she’d cross that bridge when she came to it, and as the wind swept them down the 7,000 stairs with a vengeance, she felt like it was the gods giving her the extra push she needed to go home again.
They picked up fresh supplies in Ivarstead, and she collected payment from a kind old man named Klimmek, whom she’d carried supplies up the mountain for, and they began the long trek home.
The wind was ferocious, and it rained almost the entire journey, the pelting drops freezing from time to time into tiny daggers of ice that pelted and chinked against their armor. By the time they reached the gates of Whiterun in the late afternoon four days later, she wanted nothing more than to slip out of that armor and into clean, dry clothes again before facing her future in Jorrvaskr.
She relieved Lydia of her duties and told her to head up to the Inn to have a drink. As strong and supportive as her housecarl been through the strange transition Luthien had undergone over the previous several weeks, she seemed just as relieved as Luthien was for a break.
She was just coming down the stairs after having changed her clothes when an urgent rap sounded at the door, followed rather quickly by a heavy hammer. At first she thought it was Lydia, and she forgot her key, so she rushed to the door and pulled it open, ready to tease her, but instead she saw Vilkas standing on the other side, his face drawn into a tight scowl and his eyes ablaze with a fire unlike any she’d ever seen.
“Vilkas,” she swallowed. “I was just coming up to Jorrvaskr.”
He pushed the door open and came in without an invitation, slamming it behind him before he spun around to face her. “Where in the names of the Nine Divines have you been?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but he interrupted before she could even speak.
“I went out looking for you,” he told her. “I was worried that something awful had happened, and I searched for you for days before my brother found me and told me you were all right and that you’d come home. And then, we come back, and you’re gone again without even so much as a whisper about where you were going.”
“I went to the Throat of the World, to High Hrothgar.” She couldn’t look into his eyes, for fear of that fire that burned inside him.
“High Hrothgar?” he bellowed, taking a step back to really look at her. “What the hell were you doing in High Hrothgar, and why didn’t you at least tell someone you were leaving again? You’ve got my brother pacing the floors, and Aela is sick with grief. She thinks it’s all her fault. Kodlak feared the worst and I…” He stopped himself, that last word lingering in the air between them with nothing but the crack and spit of the logs in the fire to hold it there. “Why would you do that? After everything that’s happened? With Skjor and the Silver Hand? How could you just leave without even saying goodbye?”
“I had to go.” She could feel his eyes on her, the fire of his anger mingled with such strong emotion it made her ache inside. She’d imagined this confrontation so many times over the last few days, but the fury in him was nothing compared to her fantasies.
“You had to go without saying a word? It doesn’t work like that when you have people who care about you.” His shout was so loud, she was sure everyone in Whiterun heard their conversation and people at the inn were already discussing it in great detail. “You don’t just leave them hanging in the balance, wondering if you’re dead. Because anything can happen out there, especially without a shield-brother at your back. Didn’t you learn anything from Skjor’s death?”
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, drawing her lower lip between her teeth, chewing at the dry skin nervously and knowing it wasn’t a good time to remind him that she had taken her housecarl with her, and though she may not have been a shield-sister, Lydia could hold her own.
She knew sorry wasn’t enough, but she wasn’t even sure why. All she had to guide the strange feelings inside her was what Farkas had told her when they’d gone into Dustman’s Cairn to retrieve the shard, but how could that possibly be enough to make her feel the way she did? She didn’t even understand the way she felt.
And yet she’d thought of him so often, even when she wasn’t thinking of him, it was like he was always there in the back of her mind, waiting to be remembered and missed. And she had missed him, more than she’d ever missed anyone she’d been parted from in her life. He stood in front of her in plainclothes, fists clenched at his sides and an uncontrollable rage inside him she wanted so badly to take away. She saw a flash of bronze beneath his shirt, an Amulet of Mara hanging around his neck and wondered if he’d always had it and she just hadn’t noticed, or if he’d gone to Riften after he’d seen hers the night she became a Companion.
“You’re sorry?” he laughed then, a sarcastic chuckle that sounded more like he was choking than laughing. “And I guess that is supposed to make everything all better, is it?” he asked. “You say you’re sorry, and the anguish I’ve felt since you left just goes away? The nights spent walking the floors, waiting for you to come walking into Jorrvaskr…”
“Anguish?” she took a step toward him, wanting to reach out and touch him, but afraid he’d push her away. She didn’t know if she could bear it, him pushing her away anymore, when all she wanted was to be near him, to give into the ache in her heart and let him love her.
“Yes.” Her eyes stung, but she refused to let the tears burning inside them fall. “Every day, I wonder if my mother is still alive. If I’ll ever see her again.”
For a moment, she thought he softened, but then his fist clenched at his side, full lips tightened again and he shook his head, a long strip of hair falling out of place to lay across his cheek. “Then if you know how it feels, how much it hurts, how the hell could you do that to me?”
“You’re sorry, yes. I heard you the first time,” he shook his head. “But maybe sorry isn’t enough, Luthien. Sorry doesn’t take away the pain you caused.”
She finally let her gaze meet with his, and she saw such torment in his eyes it made her heart feel heavy and cold as iron inside her chest. “Please,” she whispered, seizing her courage and reaching out to touch his arm. His skin burned hot beneath her fingers. “Vilkas, I don’t expect you to understand, or even forgive me, but I was scared and I was so confused. I just needed some time to figure things out.”
“What is there to figure out?” At least he hadn’t jerked his arm away from her. That was something. His pulse had quickened, she could feel it thumping just beneath his skin. “Skjor is dead. You and Aela avenged him a hundred times over. It hurts, and it is a terrible thing that happened to him, but we all pick up the pieces and we move on with our lives because tomorrow it could be me.” The impact of those words shattered her, the mere thought of actually losing him before he’d ever been hers almost more than she could bear. How had it come to that? “And for days, I feared that it was you.”
He surprised her then, lifting his hand to rest against her cheek, fingers crawling back into her hair, curling the strands in his grip. He stepped closer, his face just a breath away from hers until he lowered his forehead against her brow and closed his eyes. She could smell him, his scent stronger than it had ever been before, and she could feel his heart beating in time with hers.
“I can’t stand the thought of losing another person I love, Luthien.” He breathed her in, the tip of his nose brushing against her cheek, quivering lips following, gently caressing her skin. “Not if I can stand beside you and protect you.”
She turned her cheek into his, felt the rough scrape of his stubble brush against her skin. He was trembling, she could feel his heart racing inside him, her own escalating to match its rhythm. His fingers swept across the back of her neck, and he reached his other hand up to tilt her chin so she had no choice but to look into his eyes. Those eyes, so filled with depth she could get lost in them, and for a moment she almost did.
“Let me protect you, Luthien.”
The fire inside them wasn’t anger, and she realized it had never been anger, even when they’d first met. There was passion there and hunger, an emptiness she wanted so desperately to fill with light and laughter and love. It was what she’d always wanted, even when she’d thought he hated her. She just hadn’t realized it.
“Vilkas,” she whispered. “I…”
It was better than her dream, his soft mouth moving across hers to silence her, lips slowly parting to draw her in deeper. There was mead in his kiss, the faint taste of honey as his gentle tongue swept in to caress hers. She gasped a little when his strong arm slid down her back and brought her body in closer to his, her open mouth inviting him to explore her kiss in ways she’d never even imagined her wildest, girlish fantasies.
She could feel the taut muscles of his chest ripple beneath her hand when she lifted it to rest over his heart, the heat radiating from his skin like a fire she wanted to burn in until the two of them melted together, their bodies becoming one, hearts beating as one, souls joining, spiraling upward together until they reached the heavens and fell back down to Tamriel like the embers of fallen star.