“While you’re up at Dragonsreach I’ll head over to Jorrvaskr and check in with Vilkas and Aela, see if there’s any work for us.” Farkas ducked behind her in the marketplace where she’d paused to browse Anoriath’s selection of fresh meats. His hand lingered on the small of her back as he headed left, pausing long enough to kiss the back of her head before hiking up the stairs into the Wind District.
Her stare lingered almost casually, and she grinned to herself as she watched his backside flex beneath the tight leather of his breeches, the shield on his back bouncing with every step. If they didn’t find work soon, they’d wind up staring a family much sooner than either of them planned to. All that time in the bedroom was bound to have consequences, but he was too hard to resist.
“The venison’s been smoked and salted,” Anoriath told her, but she felt herself nodding even though she hadn’t drawn her attention away from her own husband. “Which makes it perfect for traveling if the two of you are heading out again.”
“Here’s hoping.” She rolled her gaze back over to the elf, the red flash of Imperial armor catching her eye. Idolaf Battle-Born, who’d always been kind enough to her despite her affiliation with Eorlund Gray-Mane. “I hate sitting still for too long, but there hasn’t been much work lately. I’m on my way up to the see the jarl right now, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”
“You should come out hunting with me sometime. My brother and I have some excellent spots I’m sure you and Farkas would appreciate.”
If only you knew, she thought, the intrigued beast perking up inside her at the thought of the hunt, but the beast was soon distracted by the gruff sound of Idolaf’s final words to Fralia Gray-Mane, “Your son is dead, old woman, and it’s time you accept that and move on.” He stalked away from her kiosk with his father Olfrid on his heels.
Gray-Mane or Battle-Born? It had been the first words Idolaf had ever said to her after she’d come to Whiterun. She’d told him quite frankly she didn’t want to take a side. “We all have to choose in the end,” he’d said, and she had a feeling his words went much deeper than a feud between two families. The Battle-Borns were staunch supporters of the Empire, railing desperately against the Stormcloak rebellion more vocally than anyone else in town. The Gray-Manes weren’t nearly as forthright about their leanings toward Ulfric Stormcloak’s agenda, but they didn’t deny it when asked where their loyalties were laid at the end of the day.
Fralia had been in mourning since Luthien had come to Whiterun, her husband Eorlund often asking Farkas to clean up around the Skyforge so he could go home early and attend to his grieving wife. When she asked Farkas one night in Jorrvaskr who in her family had died, he’d traded uneasy glances with his brother. It was Vilkas who answered, “No one’s died, at least not yet anyway. She mourns because she knows her sons are both as good as dead.”
“Shame too,” Skjor had interjected. “I thought for sure Eorlund would have convinced Thorald to join our ranks. We could have used a warrior like him among us.”
Returning her gaze to Fralia, Luthien tilted her head and let her emotions get the best of her for a moment. She’d never seen the woman smile, and she was often quiet while selling her wares. Judging from Idolaf’s final words, the old woman was devastated. She could barely hide the tears swelling in her eyes and Luthien’s heart wrenched inside her chest.
Anoriath was talking again, but she held her hand up and said, “I’m sorry, excuse me for a moment.” Walking slowly toward the kiosk, she drew up a handkerchief and handed it across the jewelry case. “Lady Gray-Mane, are you all right?”
Startled by the gesture, she drew back wide-eyed and surveyed Luthien with distrust. “I’m fine,” she said and then lowered her head while shaking it back and forth. “No, that’s not true. I’m not fine at all. I haven’t been fine for a very long time.”
“What’s wrong? Did Idolaf do something? Would you like me to get one of the guards?”
“All I can think about is my son,” she sniffled, reaching out to accept the handkerchief. She dabbed at her swollen, bloodshot eyes and then her nose before curling the fabric inside her hand. “My Thorald… They say he was killed, but I know better. I know my son is alive.”
“Who says he was killed?”
“Those Battle-Borns. They’re in with the Imperials. They know the truth, and yet they lie to my very face. They taunt me with it. How could they be so cruel? He’s my son, my boy…”
Luthien lowered her hand over Fralia’s and glanced over her shoulder at Jon Battle-Born leaning against the post outside Belethor’s General Goods. Of the whole family, Jon was the kindest, often stopping her to talk poetry whenever she was heading out from trading with Belethor. “How do you know they’re lying?”
“I’m his mother,” she snapped, withdrawing her hand. “I know it in my heart that he’s alive.”
“All right,” Luthien nodded. “But do you have any proof that they’re lying? I just want to help.”
Shaking her head, Fralia glanced left at Anoriath and then trailed her eyes right, toward Idolaf and his brother-in-law talking in front of Belethor’s General Goods. “It’s not safe to discuss it here, but if you truly wish to help, please meet me at my home. I’ll tell you the whole story.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “I was just on my way to meet with the jarl, but I can meet you there in an hour.”
“Oh, thank you,” the older woman nearly wept when she said those words.
She promised Anoriath that she would return to buy supplies before heading out on her next job, and then walked up the stairs into the Wind District. She could hear the sound of hammer shaping Skyforge Steel, metal on metal in the practice yard behind Jorrvaskr, Heimskr raging through the same self-righteous speech beneath the statue of Talos. Those sounds carried her up the winding stairs to Dragonsreach, where she was welcomed with the same cold scrutiny Irileth often laid over her when she arrived—as if she had some hidden agenda to steal the throne right from under Jarl Balgruuf’s lounging backside.
“Good morning, Thane Luthien,” Proventus Avenicci bowed his head in greeting. “What brings you to the Cloud District on this fine morning?”
“I’m looking for work,” she told him, immediately taking note of the furrow of his troubled brow upon hearing those words.
“I wish I had something for you, but things have been surprisingly peaceful in Whiterun Hold. Not that I’m going to apologize for that, but I do feel terrible not having something to offer you.”
“Things have been surprisingly peaceful of late,” she noted, crossing her arms and glancing up the stairs. Jarl Balgruuf barely even looked up at her, but he didn’t need to. She was noticeable enough when he had an important matter in need of tending to, otherwise she was just another distraction for Irileth to glower at. “I’m afraid the Companions haven’t had much work either.”
“I suppose we should count our blessings,” he mused thoughtfully. “I’m sure it won’t be long before the jarl has need of you again. These short bursts of peace are always welcome, but they don’t generally last very long.”
Nodding, Luthien retrieved her gaze from the jarl and smiled down at Proventus. “If something comes up, you know where to find me.”
“You will be the first one I call upon the moment we are in need of a strong sword arm.”
She thanked him and backed down the stairs, heading out of Dragonsreach and over to Jorrvaskr to see if Farkas had any luck with Vilkas and Aela. The three of them were in the practice yard, Vilkas leaning against the post watching Athis and Torvar conduct a seemingly never ending battle between one-handed and two-handed weapons. The fact that everyone was there didn’t bode well for the prospect of work.
“Hail, Companion,” Vilkas nodded in her direction as she approached.
Farkas glanced up from the mug of mead he was nursing, his bright eyes gleaming when he saw her. “There’s no work here.” A slow smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and she returned the gesture, looking over at Vilkas and then Aela with silent pleading—as if a look alone would make work magically appear. “Did you have any luck at Dragonsreach?”
“No, I did not, and Proventus wasn’t the least bit disappointed about that either.”
“And why should he be disappointed in the fact that we are enjoying a rare bit of peace?” Vilkas challenged.
Luthien felt her stomach clench with dread before she even lifted her eyes in her brother-in-law’s direction. Vilkas didn’t seem to be happy unless he was making her feel small and foolish for one reason or another, and he’d been that way since she’d come to Jorrvaskr. Farkas called him a slow-warmer, said it took him a little while to get used to new people, but it had been months and he still treated her like a skeever with a case of the rattles every chance he got.
“I’d say that your sword arm must be getting rusty, what with all this sitting around,” she began, feeling bolder than usual, “but then I haven’t seen you do much of anything since I joined the Companions, so there’s a part of me that even doubts your sword arm works at all anymore.”
He squinted, eyes so much like his brother’s and yet so cold she wondered how identical twins could look so different. “If you’d like to test my sword arm, Whelp, I’d be happy to step out into the yard with you.”
Tempted, she reached left, across the belly of her armor and stroked the pommel of the Skyforge Steel short sword Eorlund Gray-Mane had forged for her. She’d been training with Farkas and Torvar every chance she got, and fighting bandits and dragons definitely put her skills to the est, but she hadn’t gone blade to blade with Vilkas since the first night she’d come to Jorrvaskr. She’d been green then, barely knew how to hold a sword at all and he’d been sure to humiliate her in front of everyone. His backhanded compliment about her showing promise had been just the beginning of some unspoken grudge between them that only seemed to deepen after she’d taken the blood and even more so when she’d returned from Riften married to his brother.
“Here we go,” Farkas rolled his eyes.
“I’m not sure you could handle me anymore.” Ignoring her husband’s tone, she drew her blade and turned it in the glinting sunlight. There was something so incredibly beautiful about Skyforge Steel, the tint as blue as sheening silver, but ten times stronger. “I’ve been practicing.”
“I’ll be judge of that.” He fingered the hilt of his longsword and gestured toward the courtyard with a jerk of his head.
“Watch yourself, Vilkas. She knocked me on my ass last week and nearly threw my back out.”
“You always were easily distracted by a pretty face, brother,” Vilkas sneered. “Athis, Torvar, clear the yard.”
Torvar took advantage of the distraction to knock his opponent backward, the Dunmer staggering to maintain his balance before calling out, “That was an unfair strike.”
“There are no fair strikes in actual battle, and you know it. Now quit’cher bellyaching and go pour me a mug of mead.”
Luthien and Vilkas took the yard, both of them lifting their shields and flexing their sword arms as they circled around one another like two predators about to go to war over the last scrap of meat. “There’s still time to back down before you embarrass yourself again, whelp.”
His taunt was meant to flare her temper and send her into an exhausting swing of the blade he’d quickly counter with a bone-jarring block, but training with Athis had taught her a lot about self-control. She didn’t take the bait, but instead shook her head, the corner of her mouth twitching into a knowing grin as she rocked back on the ball of her right foot to brace herself for his first strike.
She’d spent enough time sparring with Farkas that she’d learned how to balance herself against an assault from a man twice her size. She wasn’t small, but she was smaller than Vilkas, and as a warrior he knew where to find his advantages. Vilkas was nowhere near as big as his brother, but every ounce of him was lean muscle mass. When he swung his sword in to stagger her backward, it took everything inside her to stand strong against the ringing agony that surged through her bones.
As they danced around one another, the shuffle of their boots on the stone mingled with their heated breath and the clash of steel in a strange song that never failed to rouse a primal instinct inside her that went well beyond the wolf always lurking just under the surface. It was the warrior within, Farkas said when she told him about it once while they were sparring. Everyone had a warrior inside, most people just didn’t know how to bring it to the surface.
She blocked and countered, while Vilkas charged and battered, as if the warrior inside him wouldn’t be happy until her warrior gave up, but she stood strong, never yielding even when every muscle in her body ached and hummed from the fight. Somewhere outside herself she could hear Farkas calling taunts meant to rouse her fury, but no matter how hard the two of them fought one another, it seemed there would be no victor that day.
Vilkas finally lowered his shield to stop the fight, both them ragged of breath and gleaning with sweat. “Keep practicing, Whelp, and you just might make yourself into a worthy warrior yet.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she rolled her eyes and sauntered back toward the pavilion. Farkas handed her his mug and she gulped down several swallows of honeyed, liquid heat. Its sweet warmth coated a path into her stomach that radiated quickly through her body. She pushed her bracer up her arm and then dragged her right hand through the sweat-soaked tangles of her hair.
“It’s not work, but at least that kept you busy for a while. We can train some more after lunch if you’re still feeling restless.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she nodded, dropping into the seat across from him and watching Aela rise and slip back into the mead hall. The two of them hadn’t spoken much since their rampage, and though the other woman hadn’t said as much, after seeing Aela grieving over Skjor’s maimed, dead body she guessed there had been far more going on between the two of them than either of them would have ever admitted had he lived.
She couldn’t imagine what Aela must be going through, and in a dark flash of agonizing grief, her own thoughts turned against her as she imagined how she might feel to lose Farkas in that way. That thought alone made her heart flutter with anxiety, and she quickly pushed it away for fear of bursting into inexplicable tears.
“She still won’t look me in the eye.”
“Time, Lu.” Farkas lowered his hand over hers on the tabletop and looked up as his brother joined them on the pavilion.
His mussed hair parted where he’d run his gloved fingers through it, a dark slice falling over his cheek. Even with his guard down though, he was steadfast and shielded, as if he couldn’t stomach the thought of anyone getting close to him. Vilkas chugged down several loud swallows of ale and then lowered the empty mug at his side.
“She gave you a run for your money that time, Vilkas.” He beamed with a pride that made her tummy quiver.
“She needs more practice, but she’ll get there eventually,” Vilkas nodded and then without another word he followed Aela into Jorrvaskr.
They were alone in the yard, she realized, and she felt a little more at ease. “He’s never going to respect me.”
“Time, Lu,” he repeated, squeezing her fingers inside his.
“Oh, speaking of time, I told Fralia I would meet her at her house in an hour. I should probably get down there.”
She watched his brow furrow. “Fralia Gray-Mane?”
“Yeah, I talked to her this morning in the market. The Battle-Borns are giving her trouble again. Idolaf gave her a pretty hard time, told her to give it up and let it go, but she says she knows Thorald is still alive and they’re lying to her.”
“Best not to get involved in that old feud,” he said.
“What if she’s right?”
“That’s not for us to meddle in, Lu. Even Eorlund doesn’t want the Companions to get involved in that mess.” He paused for a moment and then added, “And that’s what it is. A mess. Battle-Born, Gray-Mane, who cares?”
“I’m just going to talk to her, that’s all. She was so distraught it broke my heart, and no one in this town really seems to care.” She leaned back in her chair and let the cool breeze chill the sweat on her brow. “You should come with me.”
“I don’t think so,” he shook his head. “I’d rather keep my nose as far from that business as possible. Besides, after watching you and Vilkas spar, I’m thinking I need to train some more. It’s only a matter of time before you really can kick my ass.”
“Are you coming home for lunch?”
Leaning across the table, he nuzzled the tip of his nose along hers and said, “If lunch is anything like breakfast, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Giggling like a school girl, she pecked him on the cheek and muttered, “You’re so bad,” before rising and leaving him alone to train.