Luthien found herself actually dreading every sign that pointed them toward Ivarstead. From Karthspire Canyon, it was seven days before they reached the small, milling town below the mountain, but every day leading up to their arrival only served to sadden her more. She and Ulfric had spent nearly every waking moment together in the last few months; parting ways with him, even if only for a little more than a week was going to be difficult.
That time they spent together had revealed to her a side she had always known was there, but feared she would never get to see. He’d taken great efforts to be the man she needed him to be, proving himself to her just as he’d promised he would. She looked down at their hands together, her eyes stinging with unshed tears before she raised her strong stare to his and gave him a smile.
“I will see you again,” he promised, releasing her fingers and lifting a hand to tuck her braid behind her ear as he looked down on her with eyes like soft, molten steel.
“Always. I will stay off the road as I travel, and send a courier to Ivarstead as soon as I arrive at the Palace of the Kings so you know I made it home safely.”
“Thank you.” She pressed her cheek into his wide palm, closing her eyes and just enjoying that final moment together.
“I know they probably won’t allow it, but if they let you see him, tell my son to be strong.” Leaning forward, he held his lips to her brow for a long time and then drew back to look at her again. “Talos watch over you, my heart.”
“And you, my love.” He kissed her then, a deep kiss that lingered and tingled on her lips long after he’d turned toward the road north and begun to walk away. She watched him until he was so small she could barely see him and then Farkas appeared at her side.
“Let’s get going.” He nudged her shoulder. “I told that old guy we’d deliver his supplies to the Greybeards, and he said it’ll probably take us at least two days to get up there if the weather holds. If the snow comes, it could take three.”
“I’m surprised no one at the college has devised a spell for instant travel yet. Teleportation…” She grinned over his shoulder at him. “You know, you just close your eyes and imagine where you want to be, and poof, you’re there.”
“That would be perfect,” he agreed, walking toward the path. “I feel like slipping into a warm mug of mead. Mm, I’m in the Bannered Mare.”
She chuckled, falling into step with him.
It had been a long time since she’d climbed the steps. Counting on her fingers, she realized it had been almost four months since Hundr had been born, and five months before that, she and Ulfric had made the journey together. It had been the first time she’d left High Hrothgar feeling more troubled than she did at ease. The presence of the Greybeards had always comforted her; even if she hadn’t always understood her purpose.
Before Vilkas’s died, the two of them had traveled to High Hrothgar more times than she could count. He’d always insisted she come home for him if she had to climb the seven thousand steps to ask for help finding a Word of Power, and while she trained with the Greybeards, he learned to meditate and enjoy the stillness and peace of his own soul. Master Arngeir had been impressed with his dedication to the silence and began to teach him the Way of the Voice, but for many people it took years to learn a single word. In two years, Vilkas had barely mastered FUS, but he’d been very proud of his own progress.
She realized, as she braced herself against the cold wind spiraling down the mountainside, she had never made that journey with Farkas. The only time he’d ever been to High Hrothgar, he’d gone alone, and not in search of inner-peace. Though she was certain, considering all he’d been through in the last two years, he would benefit from a little inncer-peace. He’d always been content to leave the deeper mysteries to his brother, but as they came upon the first stone on the pathway, he moved away from her, jaunting over to read it.
“What are these tablets?” he called back over his shoulder.
“They are the Principles, the Way of the Voice.”
“You mean they’re sort of like guide stones?”
“Sort of,” she nodded. “There are ten of them that mark the path to High Hrothgar, and they tell the story of the Voice.”
“Before the birth of Men, Dragons ruled all Mundus. Their word was the Voice and they spoke only for True Needs. For the Voice could blot out the sun and flood the land,” he read those words slowly out loud. “What does that mean?”
“The Voice is a powerful tool, and it should only be used in times of true need.”
“So the Voice should only be used if you really have to?”
“More or less.”
“But you’re different, right? Because you’re the Dragonborn?”
She sauntered up to stand beside him, reading over the words for the first time in years. She hadn’t even looked at the sigil stones when she’d been there with Ulfric, but she still knew by heart what was written on every single one of them. “Yes, but also no. Just because I have the soul of a dragon, it doesn’t give me the right to use my voice to bend the world around me to my will.”
“Makes sense,” he shrugged, returning his attention to the stone once more and staring at the words for a long time before he finally picked up his feet again and began to move forward.
He stopped at every sigil stone they passed, reading the words out loud and asking her what they meant. It tacked extra hours onto their journey, but she didn’t mind. Even though she missed Ulfric already, it did feel good to be back out on another adventure, just her and her best friend. The weeks they’d already spent on the road, just the three of them, had given her time to really think about her emotions. She knew that part of her only yearned for Farkas because she could never have him. The snow was always whiter in someone else’s yard… at least that was what her father used to say anyway.
“I’m glad you changed your mind about coming with us,” she told him, the two of them leaning into each other as they walked. It was something they’d done almost as long as she could remember him being a part of her life; leaning on each other for support on the long, weary road.
“Ulfric was glad too,” she interjected. “If you weren’t here, I’d be making this journey alone, and he would worry. No matter how many times he watches me in battle, I think he still feels I need to be protected.”
“I overheard him say he couldn’t go. Why not? Not that I mind just the two of us, out on the open road together. It kind of feels like old times.”
“It was part of the deal we made with the Greybeards.” Wind whipped and whirled down the mountain, cold and biting through their armor. “He turned his back on the Way of the Voice when he left to join the Imperial Legion. Him even asking them for a favor was insulting. They only agreed to take Hundr if Ulfric promised to never enter High Hrothgar again. They are afraid his influence may… corrupt their teachings.”
“That just seems wrong. I understand why you had to do it and everything, but to never be allowed to see your own son… It must be hard.”
“Harder than you’ll ever know,” she sighed. “Even now, it’s going to destroy me just knowing I am in the same space with him and I can’t even look at him or hold him… tell him I love him.”
“Maybe the Greybeards will let you.”
“I doubt it. He is to only know me as the Dragonborn, a traveler in search of their wisdom if I must come to them for help.”
“I’m sorry, Lu.”
“Don’t be sorry, Farkas.” Shaking her head, she swallowed against the lump of emotion rising in her throat.
All the way from The Reach, she’d been trying to callous her heart against what was coming. She feared that being there would draw her back to the same dark place she’d given him away, the guilt and hardship would interfere with whatever it was she needed to do—but she kept telling herself she had to be strong if she wanted her son to live.
“I can’t help it,” he admitted. “I hate the thought of your heart hurting.”
She forced a smile over her shoulder at him. “Thank you.”
They didn’t camp long on the seven thousand steps. They hiked until they couldn’t see anymore, even with Luthien’s wandering magelight to guide them, and then making a small fire to rest by. They allowed themselves two hours sleep each, while the other watched for animals and trolls, and then it was back to the treacherous, icy path. Spending so much time alone with Ulfric, she’d almost expected traveling with Farkas alone again to feel different and strange, but some things never changed. That should have comforted her, but it only seemed to confirm what she already knew in her heart to be true, what Farkas had been trying to tell her since they’d gone on their very first adventure together. They’d always been right for each other; the perfect companions.
That thought only made her long for Ulfric more, as she glanced across their small fire to watch her shield-brother sleep. He was bundled in his bedroll so tight she didn’t know how he could even get comfortable. Underneath the crackle and spark of fire, she heard him murmuring, “No. No.” And then he began to move a little, struggling against the close hold of his own bedroll, still muttering that same word over and again.
Rising from where she’d crouched, she walked over to where he lay and hunched down beside him, hand reaching out to tentatively touch his shoulder. “Farkas.” She shook him gently, but he didn’t wake at first. He kept struggling, growing more frantic until she barked his name so loud he had no choice but to answer. It echoed above the wind, probably alerting every troll within two miles to their location.
“What?” He shot up, his voice rough and irritated, eyes savage and wide as he scanned her face almost as if he didn’t know her. “What is it?” He softened a little, coming slowly back to himself and drawing his dagger and his arm out of the bedroll. “Are we under attack?”
“You were dreaming.”
“Oh.” Lowering his arm, he blinked and shook his head. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she reached up and touched his shoulder, tilting her head to look at him. “I just didn’t want to you leave you in that bad place if I could help it.”
“Thanks.” He pulled out of his bedroll and stood; she rose too, watching him stretch into his armor. “You can sleep if you want,” he mumbled. “I’m done sleeping for now.”
“I already slept. I’m not tired.” That was a lie. Not a moment seemed to pass anymore without her feeling so exhausted her bones ached from constant movement and lack of sleep. She just kept telling herself she would sleep when she was dead, and surely that day was in the offing.
“It’s still dark yet. Wind is heavy. Clouds over the moons…” He dropped down in front of the fire, huddling in close to warm himself against the wind as he stared into its depths.
“Then we’ll wait for dusk.”
He only nodded, and for a long time the two of them just sat there listening to the wailing winds and shuddering underneath their cloaks and armor. Every time she glanced over at him, she could still see that haunted look in his eyes, mouth twisted as he chewed the inside of his lip behind his beard.
“What’s the story with that beard?” she asked, breaking the silence and trying to lighten the mood.
“Got tired of seeing someone else’s face staring back at me every time I passed a looking glass or window.”
So much for lightening the mood, she thought, glancing down at the fire again, watching orange glow against the black as it snapped and sizzled when a gust of snow flew in with the wind. It had been hard for her to look at him too after Vilkas died, but not because they looked the same. She’d found herself noticing every one of their differences. Farkas’s face was longer, sharper than his brother’s. His lips were fuller, softer, easier to smile and she realized now she’d taken that ever-ready smile for granted.
Farkas hardly ever seemed to smile anymore, and even when he did, it wasn’t the same. So much of his innocent, almost boyish humor had been locked away inside the Hall of the Dead with his brother. Gone forever, just like Vilkas.
“I still miss him too,” she said. “I know maybe it doesn’t seem like I do, but…”
“I know you do.” He brought his gaze up to meet hers, eyes softening with understanding. “It’s why you pushed me away, sought comfort from someone else… I didn’t want to be around me either, but I didn’t really have a choice.”
She felt her face scrunch with confusion. “I didn’t push you away…”
“Maybe not intentionally, but you did.” A sigh escaped him as he drew up his knees, hugging them closer as he leaned nearer to the fire. “I guess it was my own fault, dragging you to Windhelm to join that stupid war, thinking we would both find peace somehow. I just had to get away from that place, all those things that reminded me of him. I should have listened to you…”
“We did what we were meant to do.”
Shrugging up his shoulders, he muttered, “Maybe we did. I don’t know.” He said nothing then for quite some time, only stared into the fire. “I still remember the day he told me you took his breath away.” She thought she heard him laugh a little. “We were on the road to Riften together to take care of some criminal who’d escaped from Markarth. He just brought it up like he’d plucked it out of the sky. He’d never had much interest in girls. He said they were a waste of time, but you… he liked. Everything about that girl is pure fire, he said. I just want to burn with her. I’d never seen him so passionate about a woman before, so I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d had my eye on you since the minute you walked through the gates with Ria, Aela and me after killing that giant down by the farm. I always got the girl. That was just the way things were, and if I would have told him, he’d have stepped out of the picture without a thought.”
“Do you think things would have been different?” she asked. “If you’d told him, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Maybe I’d be dead now and you’d be here having this conversation with him. Either way, one of us would have wound up hurting. I just didn’t want it to be him.”
Twisting a loose string on her cloak between her gloved fingertips until it made a tiny ball she could easily pluck off and toss into the fire. It disappeared in a tiny puff of smoke. She’d never wanted to hurt Vilkas either, alive or dead, but somewhere he was lost and hurting and so alone and she felt like it was her fault. If she’d only pursued her path sooner, instead of wasting so much time, maybe he would still be alive. But then she would never have met Ulfric, never felt her son stretch and tumble in her belly, never heard his first cries or had to give him away… Maybe she would have given Vilkas sons instead. Or maybe, if she’d just married Farkas, everything would have been perfect. They would have gone off years ago to face Alduin and Vilkas would still be alive, brooding up at Jorrvaskr while Farkas chased their toddling children around Breezehome roaring like a dragon as he told them stories of the mighty beasts their mother and father used to slay together before they were born.
It was all too many maybes, too many broken thoughts in a broken world she had to make right again. She needed to remember her place and the moment. She had a husband who loved her, a kingdom at her feet, a son in need of protecting and more responsibilities than one human should ever try to take on alone. More importantly, she had to save their world before Alduin devoured it. By all rights, she shouldn’t have time for her heart to play such nasty tricks on her.
Lifting her gaze back to him, he was already staring at her, waiting for her to find his eyes. “I’m sorry things didn’t turn out the way any of us wanted them to, Farkas.”
“So am I, Lu.”