Vilkas didn’t slow his pace until they were almost a mile north of Whiterun, and he didn’t say anything in that time either. It was as if it had taken him that long to find the courage to look at her, or maybe he was trying to find the right thing to say.
“You should have been there.” He stopped and spun around to fully face her and for the first time she saw there were tears on his face he’d worked desperately to hide.
“Ysgramor’s beard, woman,” he cursed. “What were you doing? I told you to stay home, to stay in Whiterun until we came back. Why didn’t you listen?”
“Kodlak begged me to go,” she defended. “He believed he’d finally found a way to cure the Companions of the beastblood, and he said he felt like death was near. I told him I should wait for you, but he said there wasn’t time. I shouldn’t have listened to him…”
“If Kodlak said there was no time to wait for us, then you did the right thing.”
“Kodlak is dead because of me.”
“You really think you could have saved him?” There was ice in his voice, his tone cutting through her and leaving her feeling anxious and raw. All she wanted was for him to hold her, to feel his strength and a small sliver of hope that even though their world was spiraling out of control around them, they would find a way to get through it and come out okay. He didn’t reach for her, and though she wanted to make the first move, to offer him the comfort she knew in her heart he needed, she was afraid.
“No,” she shook her head. “But if we hadn’t instigated the attack with our rampage after Skjor…”
“They would have found another reason eventually.” He turned back onto the road then, saying nothing more to her except, “And that is why they will taste my steel and die screaming and bathed in blood. Every last one of them.”
She wanted to avenge Kodlak too, but the fire in Vilkas terrified her. She kept telling herself that the longer they traveled, the more time he would have to come to his senses and realize he was headed down the path that had swallowed Aela and herself whole after Skjor’s murder. But the further they went, the more righteous his anger grew and the less he spoke at all.
They came to Driftshade Refuge at dawn on their second day of travel, the cold wind whipping against their faces as Vilkas lingered in the shadows of the snow-heavy pines and surveyed the stronghold with squinted eyes. The jagged war paint around his eyes brought out the ice in his stare and made him look savage. Luthien was in awe of him then, his vengeance lighting her own fire and readying her for the long, bloody battle that lay ahead.
“Sight your bow and take out the man on the roof,” he whispered. “I’ll take care of the two on the ground.”
She nodded, thinking he was going to sneak in to dispatch them, but no sooner had she lined her target in her sight when Vilkas charged forward with a raging battle cry that startled even her and made her arrow slip. She restrung, taking advantage of the fact that the man on the roof was peering down over the edge as he strung his own bow and tried to figure out what was going on below.
Her arrow found his eye, and she watched as he tumbled over the side of the wall, landing with a hard thump just in front of the door of the Refuge. Vilkas moved for the door, pausing only long enough to look back and make sure she was right behind him.
The sound of battle outside had stirred the Silver Hand within, and they were met with a charge of soldiers on the stone stairs they had to hack their way through as they moved. Luthien battled a vicious orc all the way down the stairwell. He managed to slash his blade across her cheek, which only seemed to pour fuel on the fire that burned within. She held up her sword to block him when he came at her, staggering him with a hard blow until he lost his footing and tumbled backward down the stairs. Vilkas shoved his sword through the orc’s throat when he hit the floor. Blood gurgled in the broken chamber as he gasped and sputtered in surprise, flecks spraying from his green lips as he reached up with his bare hands and tried to dislodge the blade. Vilkas twisted it and Luthien watched as the large body blocking her path twitched in protest before falling slack.
They crept quietly through the hallways, slipping into quarters and hacking Silver Hand who’d slept through the attack in their beds and painting the walls red with blood. The pungent, coppery scent was almost more than she could bear, the beast inside her snarling with delight as it realized how close she was to embracing its darkness and letting it overcome her. To tear them all, limb from limb… To feed on their warm flesh and fuel her vengeance with their blood.
The beast in Vilkas must have sensed how close she was to giving into the transformation; he turned over his shoulder, his sharp gaze boring deep into her soul as he said nothing more than the word, “No.”
He was her Alpha, and she knew that, but his dominant command didn’t make it any easier to resist. She had to focus instead on the pain, feed on her own adrenaline to keep moving, lest the beast would overtake her, and she would fail him, fail herself… fail Kodlak, who they’d come to avenge.
One by one, they took out their enemy, and when they came to a torture room and saw the remains of their wolven breathren splattered on the floors and walls, that was nearly the final straw. Once more, Vilkas turned to her and said, “No,” but this time there was more softness in his command. The Alpha edge was still there, but also the voice of a lover and a friend who knew how far into the darkness she would descend if she let the beast win.
She only nodded understanding, and then drew her sword back up to fight with honor the way Kodlak would have wanted.
There were so many of them, which made her feel even more the fool about thinking she and Aela had actually put a dent in their numbers. She felt some of the guilt subside as she and Vilkas let all the wolves they were holding prisoner go free, falling into battle with them as they tore their captors to shreds in ways her own beast wished it could do.
Pressing on through an ice tunnel that brought them out on the other side of the cellar, they stopped, listening to the sound of voices just ahead. Vilkas nudged her to head right, and he went left, the two of them working together to wipe out every Silver Hand they encountered until they made their way back up the stairs and into the back side of the Refuge.
The two of them lingered in the doorway, surveying the room, counting their enemies and listening to the conversation they were having. They were talking about Kodlak, calling him a tired old man who should have died like the dog he was long ago.
In the heat of her anguish, she took a step forward, Vilkas reaching out to hold her back so they could think the evaluate the situation and think battle through, but they’d heard her movement and the woman among them stood up and looked around.
“Did you hear something?”
“Probably just one of those squealing pups whining down in the cellar,” the leader shrugged. “You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to go in there one night and cut them all down in their beds and move ourselves into their hall. That’s a damn nice longhouse they have there, let me tell you.”
“I’d like to tear the damn place down. It’s a disgrace.”
“You’ll have to get through me first.” Vilkas stepped forward without even indicating that he was just going to walk in.
“Well, if it isn’t the dogs, come to meet the same fate their master did.” All three of them stood up then, whipping out their weapons and storming down the steps. “You won’t be running out of here with your tales between your legs.”
Luthien didn’t think, she just fought for their lives, deflecting heavy blasts of shock magic as best she could as she moved through them with fury and vengeance in her heart. The woman went down first, and while the other man backed Vilkas into a corner, Luthien found herself face to face with the man who’d put a blade through Kodlak’s heart.
His face wavered before her for a moment, her imagination playing strange tricks on her until she felt as if she was standing in the dining hall of her father’s home. Imperial soldiers had grabbed her struggling father, held him down while another walked in slowly and slid a blade into him. She could see his face, his desperate eyes, the blood staining the corner of his mouth as he gasped, and for a moment she saw Kodlak in her father’s place.
The old man had died for all of them. She hadn’t been there to protect him, but she could almost hear Vilkas’s voice in the back of her mind. “Don’t guess. Know, Luthien. Know it in here, in your heart and soul. You are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to do. Never forget that.”
“My hounds will pick their teeth with your bones, bitch.”
Luthien swallowed, and knew in her heart she was doing exactly what she supposed to do. “Not today.” She was calm when she brought down her sword, severing the muscle in his shoulder. Shock twisted his face, eyes bulging out in terror, as if he had actually been expecting her to just stand there and let him kill her. Her blade fell again, slicing through his neck like a hot knife through butter, and when he fell it was as if the world had slowed down just a moment to allow her to enjoy watching him fall.
“For Kodlak,” she said, “and Skjor.” And in her mind, she added silently, for my father.
Behind her, the sound of struggle had ceased, and she heard a pained moan that immediately drew her back to the moment.
“Vilkas,” she turned, nearly tripping over the dead body behind her as she made her way toward where he had fallen near in the corner. She knelt in front of him, her attention drawn to his bloody hand and the puncture through his armor. His skin was ashen white, lips trembling every time he drew in a breath. Luthien felt her heart clench tight like a fist inside her chest, but she didn’t let panic overwhelm her.
“Vilkas, you’re going to be okay,” she promised, unslinging her pack and opening it on the floor beside her. She rifled through in desperate search of potions, finding two at the bottom of the bag. She pulled the cork from the first one and held it to his lips. “Drink, please. I’m not going to lose you, not after everything.”
“It’s just a scratch,” he muttered, a slow smiling drawing at his lips for a moment before he groaned and clutched his side again. “The shards,” he muttered. “You have to find them.”
“Drink the potion,” she commanded. “We’ll find the damn shards together when I know you’re all right.”
He reached for the bottle and clutched it in his hand, but he didn’t drink right away, instead, he lifted his gaze to hers, and she saw admiration and softness in him that made her heart ache.
“Do you know why I fell in love with you?” he asked.
“Because you’re a fool?”
He laughed, which turned to a choke that terrified her, but he ignored the pain it caused him and went on. “Because your fire burns like mine. For the first time in my life, I’d met a woman who wasn’t afraid to show me her true spirit.”
“Well, I’m about ready to show you just how hot my fire really burns if you don’t drink that potion.”
“I’m not leaving you here.”
“I’ll be fine. I promise. Go, Luthien. Please.”
She didn’t have to go far to find the shards, and she was glad. It let her keep her eye on him as she gathered them from the table, swiping out to take the full health potion there as well. The Silver Hand wouldn’t be needing it. The Silver Hand were no more.
Vilkas was just tipping the last few drops of potion from the second bottle she’d given him when she returned, the color returning to his face and blood no longer gushing from the puncture in his armor. “Here, here’s another one,” she handed him the bottle, which was twice the size of the other two combined. “Drink it all.”
“Did you find the shards?” She held them out, and he reached his bloodied hand to caress them, fingers drawing back as if they’d burned him. “Keep them safe.”