Luthien had been in Whiterun a little more than nine months. She’d run errands for Eorlund a few times, and had scolded Lars Battle-Born for trying to tip the Gray-Mane’s ox, but she’d never been inside House Gray-Mane. She’d never been in House Battle-Born either, come to think of it.
Pausing at the door, she admired the intricately carved dragon pillars that flanked the entrance, her hand reaching out to trace the maw of the dragon on her right. A momentary flash of dread pulsed through her, and she withdrew her hand just as quickly as she’d raised it, remembering the last dragon she and Farkas had gone off to fight together.
Just the thought was enough to trigger that eerie feeling she got whenever she absorbed a dragon’s soul into her body. She still didn’t fully understand what it meant to be the Dragonborn, and the only people who could explain it to her in great detail were the Greybeards. They had summoned her to High Hrothgar just after she’d arrived in Whiterun and faced her first dragon, but she hadn’t answered the summons. She hadn’t meant to put it off, but then she’d joined the Companions and Vilkas had kept her so busy those first couple of months, she’d barely had time to sleep, much less think about making the journey east.
Maybe that was why the work had dried up, she thought. Maybe the gods were trying to tell her something.
Before she could dwell any further on that thought, the door opened and Fralia appeared, her eyes redder than they’d been an hour earlier, the obvious remnants of tears still glistening on her cheeks.
“I wasn’t sure you would come,” she admitted, stepping aside to invite Luthien into her home. “There are so very few in this town who seem to care at all about our family woes, and I’d all but given up hope of ever finding anyone to help us. Please, come inside. Welcome to our home.”
The spacious interior made Breezehome look like a shack, and for a moment Luthien envied the Gray-Manes. If she and Farkas ever wanted to have a family, they were going to have to rebuild or add on because there was no way they’d be able to cram any more people into that tiny little house.
“You have a lovely home, Lady Gray-Mane.”
“Please, call me Fralia, dear. Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, thank you.”
Those words no sooner left her lips when the closed door immediately to her left burst open and a tall, brawny man who looked so much like Eorlund it was impossible to mistake his parentage rushed into the room. He wielded a war axe made from Skyforge steel, the craftsmanship unmistakably his father’s.
“Mother, what’s the meaning of this?” he demanded. “Who have you brought into our home?”
“Avulstein, put that down!” Fralia wailed. “This is Luthien. She’s one of the Companions. She’s here to help us find your brother.”
“The Companions have already made it perfectly clear they have no intention of getting involved in our troubles,” he growled, raising the axe a little higher to show he meant business.
“Because your father was too proud to ask them.”
“How do we know she’s not spying for the Battle-Borns? This was foolish, Mother. We can’t trust anyone. You know that. Who knows what they’ll do if they find me here?”
“I can’t take anymore of this violence,” the woman cried, reaching a desperate hand out to her son. “No weapons, please. Let’s just talk, Avulstein. We won’t know if we can trust her if we don’t take a chance.”
“All right, Mother,” he yielded, lowering the axe and securing it over his back as he relaxed his stance.
Luthien didn’t know what to think. She’d just come to talk, maybe offer a little comfort to a poor old woman grieving over the loss of her children. Last she’d heard, both of the Gray-Mane’s sons had gone off to join the Stormcloaks and there were rumors both were dead, Avulstein’s sudden appearance definitely suggested otherwise.
He looked her up and down, his crystalline blue eyes narrowing as he met her face. “So, you’re here to help, huh?”
She could hear Farkas in the back of her mind insisting that it wasn’t the place of the Companions to get involved in the feud between the Battle-Borns and Gray-Manes, that they had no interest in politics or the war, but the desperation in both of the faces before her was almost more than she could bear.
“Yes,” she nodded. “Absolutely. What can I do?”
“I know Thorald isn’t dead,” Avulstein insisted. “I just know it. The Imperials captured him and they’re holding him captive somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
“You know for a fact he was captured?”
“Haven’t you been listening?”
There was a desperate madness in his stare that was hard to ignore. Every warning bell inside her seemed to be screaming walk away, better yet, run, but she turned her eyes toward Fralia again and for the first time since she’d come to Whiterun she saw something in that woman’s face she’d never seen before: hope.
“My brother and I were on a scouting mission for Kottir Red-Shoal and I saw him get captured.” His face fell with regret, fist clenching atop his thigh before pounding into the muscle there as if punishing himself for that failure. “It should have been me,” he went on. “Thorald is definitely the better soldier. I followed the trail for days, weeks, but I lost it. I don’t know where they took him, but those damned Battle-Borns, they know something. They’re hiding it. They practically taunt us with it every chance they get, so they must have some kind of proof.”
“Okay,” she nodded slowly. “Okay, what kind of proof do you think they have?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged and backed into the chair behind him, slowly lowering himself to sit. “They’ve probably got something up in that house of theirs, but I don’t dare leave the house myself to look for it. I just need help, someone to do a little digging for me until I find the proof I need that my brother is alive.”
“What sort of proof are we looking for here?”
“Anything that confirms that Thorald isn’t dead, but being held captive somewhere.”
“What makes you think the Battle-Borns are involved?”
“Are you kidding me?” he balked, his eyes widening with disbelief. “They are the Emperor’s biggest bootlickers here in Whiterun. Their connections to the Imperial Legion are well-known. After my brother was taken, there was no doubt in my mind they were somehow involved. I’ve already told you, they taunt us with it, but they’re hiding it real well. They may be Imperial supporters, but they wouldn’t want it to get out that they’ve been lying this whole time. It might damage their precious reputation.”
Luthien knew they supported the Empire. Idolaf had joined the Legion long before Ulfric Stormcloak’s uprising, but she had a hard time imagining their political ties going much deeper than support.
“Bergritte Battle-Born is an Imperial,” Fralia offered as if reading Luthien’s mind, her meek voice cracking when she spoke. “Their ties to the Empire run much deeper than you would think.”
“You might be able to butter them up enough to lower their guard.”
“All right,” Luthien nodded, looking toward Fralia again. She reminded her so much of her own mother, it broke her heart. Was she somewhere wondering what had become of her daughter? Was she even still alive? “I’ll help you, see if I can talk to the Battle-Borns and maybe get some information.”
“Oh, thank you, dear,” Fralia reached out to her, her cool hands curling around Luthien’s forearm and squeezing. “This means so much to me. Thorald is my baby boy, and I just know in my heart he’s out there somewhere and I won’t rest until I know he’s safe.”
“If he is out there, we’ll find him.”
“Look, it would probably be for the best if you didn’t mention to anyone that you saw me here,” Avulstein spoke up. “If word got out that I was in Whiterun, it would only make things much worse than they already are for my family. It could even get my brother killed.”
“Don’t worry,” she promised, leaving out the part about how she’d have to tell her husband as Fralia led her toward the front door to see her out. “Your secret is safe with me.”
Farkas was going to kill her, she thought, assuring Fralia once more that she would do everything she could to help before taking a step left and heading down the hill toward Breezehome.
A thousand thoughts rolled through her mind, first and foremost, why shouldn’t she help her friends and neighbors? Whiterun was her home now, and if she couldn’t keep some of the peace in her own neighborhood, what business did she even have calling herself a Companion? The Companions were supposed to help people, bring honor and justice to the people of Skyrim, and if the Battle-Borns were keeping information from the Gray-Manes about their son, something needed to be done.
Farkas had never really been mad at her before. He was generally so passive and peaceful, she could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen him lose his temper and still have fingers left to spare. Still, it had been a terrifying sight to see that hulk of a man in a foul mood. She wondered what it would be like to find herself on the end of that anger.
Fortunately for her, he wasn’t back from training yet, and knowing Farkas he’d be up there until his empty stomach forced him to put the blades back in their racks and head home for lunch. She was going to need all the time she could get to come up with a way to tell him what she’d agreed to do.
Lydia was polishing her blade near the hearth when Luthien walked into the house, looking up to smile at her thane before lowering her whetstone beside the chair. “You’re back earlier than I expected,” she admitted. “I take it there’s still no work from the jarl.”
“Not a job to be found in all of Whiterun hold.” Luthien sighed and tugged out of her armor, grateful for the lifting of its weight from her bones.
“There will be work soon enough,” Lydia assured her. “It’s best to take advantage of the downtime. Talos knows when we’ll see peace again once the calm before the storm passes.”
“True enough,” she agreed, dropping into the chair beside her and stretching her long legs toward the fire. “Lydia, tell me something.”
“All right,” she nodded, her brow wrinkling in anticipation.
“How well do you know the Battle-Borns?”
“Well enough, I suppose. I spent a lot of time with Jon when I was a girl, and Thorald Gray-Mane too. Can you believe the two of them were practically inseparable at one time? In fact, the whole lot of us used to play together, were always running in and out of each other’s homes, getting into tons of trouble. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head. “This whole mess between them and the Gray-Manes… It seems so outrageous.”
“Those families used to be close as kin, you know?”
“So I’ve heard,” she muttered, wondering what Lydia would think of what she’d learned from Avulstein and then remembering her promise to keep his presence in town secret. “I saw Idolaf giving Fralia Gray-Mane some trouble this morning in the marketplace.”
“That doesn’t surprise me one bit. Idolaf has always been a bit… self-righteous, and after he married into the Battle-Borns it just got worse.” She tried that word on for size, self righteous, and decided it fit before going on. “And he’s always had a huge chip on his shoulder when it came to anyone questioning his precious Empire.”
“Okay, so Thorald and Avulstein Gray-Mane join the Stormcloaks, right?”
“Right, and they were killed in battle, or so rumors say.” There was a hint of sorrow in her voice when she said those words, and she leaned back in the chair, tilting her head as if remembering some distant, simpler time in all of their lives.
“What if they aren’t really dead?”
Shifting her gaze toward Luthien, Lydia’s dark-blue eyes widened at the thought, her lips trembling for a minute over unspoken words. “That seems highly unlikely.”
“Maybe, but what if it were true,” she posed. “And what if the Battle-Borns knew something about it, but they weren’t telling anyone? Do you think that’s a possibility?”
After a few moments of silent contemplation, she shook her head and admitted, “I don’t really know. I suppose anything is possible, but how would the Battle-Borns even have access to that kind of information?”
“Idolaf is a Legionnaire, and some have said their ties to the Empire go back much further.”
“True, but being a Legionnaire doesn’t exactly make you privy to that kind of information.”
“No, I guess it wouldn’t, but what if…” She didn’t get a chance to finish that inquiry because she heard Farkas’s voice outside the house and quickly steered the conversation away. “Never mind, thank you, Lydia. I appreciate your insight.”
“Always happy to help,” she murmured. “I think.”
“I need to talk with Farkas during lunch about something private, and Talos knows the walls in this house are paper thin…”
Before she could even finish her request, Lydia smiled knowingly and stifled a quick laugh with her hand that suggested her housecarl overheard far more of what went on between Luthien and Farkas in the dark hours of night than she would ever let on.
“Say no more, my thane. Say no more.”