Grief was a strange thing, and some said everyone dealt with it differently, but if one of the great scholars had ever wished to write a book about the stages one went through after losing a loved one, they would only have needed to follow Luthien in the weeks following Vilkas’s death.
The first week, she spent hours in her dark room staring at nothing, wrapped in his clothes and breathing in his scent, refusing to believe her lover wasn’t going to walk through the door again, as if it had all been some kind of elaborate hoax. She thought of no one at that time, no one but Vilkas. When the shock and disbelief began to wane near the end of the second week, she was overwhelmed with guilt. She could have done something, couldn’t she? If she’d only saved her magic…Farkas hadn’t even really been hurt that badly. If she’d just carried more potions, she could have healed him and he would have been there with her right now, making love to her, whispering to her in the dark about their future, their unborn children.
As the fourth week came and went, she began to tell herself she should never have taken him with her in the first place, but who was she to think she was any stronger? That she could have actually protected him… saved him…
And then as she neared the sixth week, she felt anger begin boiling slowly inside her, and it was a familiar anger… an anger she recognized as soon as she felt its sting. The Imperials had taken everything she’d ever loved away from her. First her father, then her mother… now Vilkas. If only she’d gone north, like she’d planned three years earlier, none of it would have ever happened. Vilkas would still be alive; Farkas would still be whole. Maybe she would have died on one of Ulfric’s battlefields… but then she’d never have even known Vilkas at all.
Would her life have even been worth living without him in it? Would it ever be worth living again?
She’d barely spoken to him since the funeral, and even then it had been impossible to look at him without seeing his brother’s face. Lifting her hand to rub the tension from her forehead, Luthien nodded and said, “Send them up.”
Farkas appeared first in the doorway, unshaven and haggard, the bags beneath his eyes so large she knew he’d slept about as well as she had in the last two months. He’d lost his brother, but even worse than that, a part of his soul. There were some who believed twins shared a special bond others could never comprehend. She’d thought so little of anyone else’s grief but her own that she’d never even imagined what Farkas must be going through. Seeing him, her heart broke all over again, but instead of drawing back into the shadows with her grief, she rose and went to him, letting herself fall against his strong chest as his arms came around her.
“I’ve been worried about you,” he said.
“I’ve been worried about you too.”
“I haven’t been sober much.” A sad grin jerked at the right corner of his mouth. “It seemed to take the edge off for a little while, but not enough to really dull the pain.”
The man behind him shifted his feet, gently clearing his throat and causing Farkas to take a step back from her. As he moved, she saw his companion for the first time and knew him at once. She hadn’t seen the man in over three years, but she’d never forgotten him, or the fact that he’d saved her life.
“Luthien? Is that you? I never thought I’d see you again.”
“You two know each other?” Farkas moved aside, looking between the two of them.
“This woman saved my life when Helgen fell under dragon fire three years ago.” Ralof stepped forward, hand out to shake hers, but then he thought better of it, drawing her into a warm hug and clapping her hard on the back. “I waited for you to come to Windhelm, told Ulfric you would bring glory to his army, but you never came.”
“There was too much for me here in Whiterun to run off to war.”
Ralof nodded, stepping back to look her over. “I heard about your husband. You have my deepest sympathies.”
“Ralof here was the prisoner up on the mountain, the one the Imperial guard was leading to execution the night…”
Luthien felt her brow furrow. “That was you?”
“I ran as soon as the skirmish started, though I wish every day since I hadn’t. Those Imperial bastards got what was coming to them, but at a price no other should have had to pay. If only I’d stayed behind… I might have…”
“I’ve been running over the things I might have done every day since it happened.” She lowered her gaze to the floor.
“So have I,” Farkas admitted. “And I realized I can’t go back and change it, but I can avenge him. That’s why I’m here. I wanted to let you know… I’m going to Windhelm with Ralof.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t think I’ll rest again until my blade is slick with Imperial blood. Lots of it. They killed Vilkas, Luthien. I can’t just… I can’t. I didn’t come to say goodbye. I came to ask you to come with me. I held you back once from avenging your father’s death, and maybe I was wrong to do that, but now those bastards have taken your father and my brother…”
“You’re joining the Stormcloaks?”
“I’m leaving with Ralof at dawn. Come with us.”
“Vilkas wouldn’t…” She didn’t even know what she had started to say, it quickly faded when Farkas interrupted to remind her of the facts.
“Vilkas is dead, Lu. The Imperials took him from us, and we need to make them pay. It’s what he would have wanted.”
“No, it isn’t what he wanted, and you’re lying to yourself if you really believe that, Farkas.” She’d known her husband, probably as well as his brother knew him, but he’d shared parts of himself with her that he’d never shared with anyone before. Not even his twin. “Vilkas did not believe in revenge, and you know that, but…”
Swallowing against the tight ache in her throat, Luthien nodded her head. “Then I’m coming with you. Vilkas told us to look after each other.”
“I remember.” A slow, sad grin worked at his lips. “That’s why I want you to come. It’ll be easier to look after you, if you’re with me.”
“I was just thinking the same thing about looking after you.”
“It’s settled then,” Ralof interjected. “We leave at dawn.”
“Where are you staying tonight?”
“I ran into Farkas up behind Dragon’s reach. I’ve been waiting for the right time to approach you both, camping outside the city walls these last couple months because I lost my unit and have to make my way back to Windhelm to face Ulfric. I didn’t want to alert any of the Imperial sympathizers here in Whiterun of my presence, but I wanted to thank you for saving my life and ask you both to come with me to Windhelm.”
“There are plenty of Imperial sympathizers hanging around.”
“Battle-Borns,” Farkas grumbled.
“Battle-Borns,” Luthien agreed. “You’re welcome to stay here tonight. I’d like to hear more about Ulfric’s victories, though I hear they are few and far between.”
“It would seem that way, but the Nord armies grow stronger every day. More and more people grow tired of Imperials meddling in affairs that are none of their concern and they come to Ulfric looking for answers. He tells them the answers lie with the strength of their blades, and that only when the Nords unite and lift those blades against the Imperials, will they know true freedom.”
For the first time in a very long, she thought of Skjor as she led Ralof and Farkas down the stairs. In the weeks before he’d been slain, Skjor had spoken to her about Ulfric Stormcloak and his cause, saying that while it was noble, Ulfric Stormcloak himself might not have had the noblest of intentions. He’d warned her not to dive into war without all the facts, lest she choose a side too quickly and wind up regretting that decision… No one had actually thought the war would go on as long as it had, months passing into years, and neither army with any great victories to show for it. Maybe it was time to bring some victory to Skyrim, but she had a feeling that Skjor would still tell her she was making the wrong choice.
Skjor was dead, just as Vilkas was dead. She’d avenged Skjor’s death, righteously so, and yet she’d regretted the choices she’d made then. Vengeance had driven her into a frenzy so close to madness, she’d never thought she would know peace again, but then she’d met with the Greybeards, began studying the way of the voice and then… Vilkas.
He had filled her heart with joy again and given her hope… but that joy was gone. She hadn’t loved Skjor even half as well as she loved her husband. In certain terms, he’d been her shield-brother, brother in blood… but in the end she’d barely known him. She owed everything she was to Vilkas and even though everything in her heart told her he would not want them to avenge him that way, her heart had become a wasteland of despair without him and it had only been weeks. How would she feel in another month’s time? A year? Ten years?
Blood would not bring him back; she knew that, but perhaps with its shedding, she would feel something again.
She filled mead cups for everyone, inviting Lydia to sit with them as well, and listened as Ralof spoke of Ulfric’s glories. She was right. They were far too few, but he believed the war was on the cusp of changing hands.
He didn’t make life as a Stormcloak sound glamorous. At least he was honest. The Stormcloaks spent long nights camped out in the tundra and foothills, freezing and hungry, their armor and boots filled with holes, but they were a proud army and they knew their liberation was coming.
Farkas didn’t even seem to be listening. Luthien was, but she kept her eye on her brother, wondering what was really going through his mind. He’d told her once that running off to join someone else’s cause for vengeance might not be the smartest idea. That she should think about what she was doing, because if she didn’t, she might one day regret it. It had been one of the smartest things he’d ever said to her.
Had he really thought about what he was doing? Did he have even the first clue what Ulfric’s cause was all about, beyond the promise of painting his blade red with the blood of Imperial soldiers? Every one of them wearing the face of the dead man who’d killed his brother?
After he’d fallen asleep in Vilkas’s chair before the fire, and Ralof had gone upstairs to sleep in Lydia’s bed, Luthien gathered an extra blanket from the chest in the alchemy lab. Unfolding it as she walked, she gave pause when she reached him, watching the firelight play across his features.
How many times had she come home in the dead of night from some important task that couldn’t wait and found Vilkas asleep in that same position, half-empty cup in his hand, parched lips just slightly open as he drew in a soft, snoring breath before shifting against the chair’s uncomfortable back. He would stir then, as if the swell of her love alone as she watched him sleep had woken him. Face lighting up, lips curling into a relieved grin, he would say, “I had a feeling you would come home tonight, love. I waited up for you.”
She found her hand reaching out almost against her will, trembling fingers sweeping the hair from Farkas’s face. Beneath the beard, he had the same strong chin, the same nose, the same eyes… same brow. His mouth was different, not as full and the adorable scar just below Vilkas’s lip where he’d been nicked by a sword when he was fifteen years old… It wasn’t there, and she knew she would never kiss that scar again, or feel his mouth against hers as he came down above her in the dark.
Drawing back her hand, she gasped when he reached out for it, bringing it back to his face and nestling his cheek into her palm. His face was damp, she hadn’t noticed until she felt his tears against her skin. “I miss him so much, Luthien.”
“So do I,” she whispered, her voice catching in her throat when she spoke.
“When we used to go off without him, I didn’t miss him because I knew he was always waiting for us here at home, but now…”
“I kept thinking if I stayed away long enough, eventually I’d come through your door and find him sitting here, in this chair, but he’ll never sit here again.”
“I know,” she choked on those two words.
“It’s my fault, Lu. If I hadn’t…”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. Though she had felt her own mind lingering near that madness herself. If she hadn’t used her magic on him… but that was her fault, not his. “If anyone’s to blame, it’s me.”
“No,” he shook his head, as if he’d gained some kind of deeper understanding. “No, we did not kill my brother, Luthien. The Imperials did, and they will pay.”
“Farkas,” she started, trying to choose her words as carefully as possible. “Are you sure running off to join the Stormcloaks is really the right thing to do? You once told me…”
“Forget when I once told you. I didn’t get it then. I get it now. I was wrong to try to keep you from avenging your father.”
“Even though you know Vilkas wouldn’t want us to do this?”
“If it had been the other way around, and it had been me that day, I know he would do the same. Just like I know he would if it had been you.”
He did have a point. Vilkas had been beside himself with grief when the Silver Hand invaded Jorrvaskr and killed Kodlak. That grief had driven him into a violent frenzy, and together they’d wiped out the Silver Hand even though Vilkas knew in his heart Kodlak would have never wanted that. He’d lamented over his actions for months.
“You’re right,” she said, withdrawing her hand and lifting the blanket up over him. “Sleep, brother. Tomorrow, we head to war and hope that Ulfric Stormcloak will have us.”
“He will,” Farkas muttered, drawing the blanket up around his neck. “A man like Ulfric Stormcloak won’t turn away warriors willing to die for him. His ego won’t let him.”