Luthien watched him blow across the steaming stew heaped atop his spoon before shoveling it into his mouth. She watched his jaw flex as he chewed, something so mundane and yet so fascinating to her that she realized with a breathy sigh she was stalling. She had to tell him because if something came up and she got into trouble, he’d be even more angry not knowing what she’d been up to.
“You all right?” he turned his head toward her and watched her tear a hunk of bread from her crust. “That’s the third time you’ve sighed like that since we sat down.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She dipped the bread into her stew, letting it soak the juices in deep before lifting it to her lips and stopping before she could take a bite. “No, I’m not fine.”
The arch of his brow furrowed with concern and he lowered his spoon into the bowl. His hand came across the corner of the table and rested over her arm. “More work will come.”
“It’s not that,” she shook her head. “Though that is a problem, I guess. It’s just… It’s that business with Fralia Gray-Mane I mentioned this morning.”
“Oh.” The squeeze of his fingers softened and he withdrew his hand back to his spoon. “Is that all? Look, Lu, I know you just want to help, but it’s an old family feud. No one even remembers anymore what started it, and I have a feeling it’ll go on long after our children’s children are dead.”
“Not if the Battle-Borns have anything to say about that,” she murmured.
He’d started to lift another bite of stew toward his mouth, but stopped midway, a thick droplet of broth dripping onto the wooden tabletop. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I shouldn’t be telling you this.” She stared down at the drop on the table as if it were the most incredible thing in the world because she was afraid of the disappointment that surely waited in his eyes. “I made a promise, but I don’t want to keep secrets from you. And what I’m about to tell you can’t leave this house, you have to promise.”
“Telling me what?”
“All right,” he nodded. “I promise.”
“Avulstein Gray-Mane isn’t dead,” she said those words so quietly, a part of her actually scared her voice would carry beyond the walls of their home and into the streets.
“Come on, Luthien,” he rolled his eyes. “Even Eorlund thinks his sons are dead, and his wife’s mad ramblings aren’t making it any easier for their family to move on.”
“Well, Eorlund is either a really good liar, or he’s blind because I saw Avulstein today.”
“He’s here in Whiterun and he told me what happened to his brother.”
“Wait a minute,” he lowered the spoon again. “You spoke to Avulstein Gray-Mane today?”
“He’s hiding out up at House Gray-Mane, and he asked me to help him find evidence that the Battle-Borns know what happened to his brother. He thinks Thorald is still alive, and so does Fralia.”
“Shor’s bones, Lu!” He pushed his bowl away, a sure sign that he was upset. Farkas never pushed unfinished food away. “I told you not to get involved in this.”
She was surprised at how quickly her temper flared to the surface as she shot back in a huff, “And I don’t understand how you can call yourself a Companion and not get involved, Farkas. Eorlund is like family to everyone in Jorrvaskr. He breaks his back to outfit us with strong armor and weapons, and to make the whole thing all that much more outrageous, Avulstein and Thorald are Vignar’s own nephews. How can we all just sit around pretending there’s no work to be done when Thorald is out there somewhere? We should be combining our resources to search for him.”
“Who else knows about this?” He ignored everything she’d just pointed out. “About Avulstein? Did you tell Lydia?”
“No, and I’m not going to. I swore to Avulstein I wouldn’t tell anyone he was here and I debated long and hard about even telling you. I can see now I made the wrong decision in that.”
He winced a little, as if hearing she’d hesitated in trusting him had hurt him more than she would ever know. He’d stood behind and beside her in battle more times than she could count, he trusted her with his life, his secrets, his heart.
“Luthien.” She was surprised by the calm in his gruff voice when he spoke her name, as if he were trying very hard not to lose his temper with her. “The Companions don’t involve themselves in political matters and they never have. This is a political matter. Stormcloaks, Imperials… We don’t choose between them and we don’t stick our noses in where they don’t belong. Vilkas is going to be furi–”
She cut him off before he could even finish his sentence. “You’re not telling Vilkas anything, Farkas. You promised.”
“And you told me this morning you were just going to talk to Fralia. If I’d known then you were going to tangle yourself into their affairs, I would have forbidden you from even going at all.”
That was an unexpected blow, the beastblood in her veins pushing her temper to boiling point. He’d never treated her as anything but his equal before, and to hear him say such a sexist thing was almost more than she could take. Pushing away from the table, the chair nearly toppled over behind her with the quick force of her movement.
“You won’t ever forbid me from doing anything.” Before he could respond, his own temper obviously flaring to its limit judging from the flash of anger in his ice-blue eyes and how hard he gripped the spoon in his hand, she added, “And if you even think about telling your brother anything I just told you, you might as well get comfortable in your old room at Jorrvaskr because I will not welcome you in my house or my bed tonight.”
She stalked toward the door, not even sure where she was going. It was difficult to ignore the desperation she heard in his voice when he called her name, but she did, slamming the door behind her so hard the entire house probably shook. She was halfway to the Wind District when she spied Lars Battle-Born cowering in the alleyway behind Belethor’s General Goods, Amren’s daughter Braith looming over him.
“Give me all your money right now, Baby Battle-Born!”
“Honest, I don’t have any money Braith, please, just leave me alone.”
“And if I don’t? Huh? You gonna go and cry to your papa?”
“No, I mean… er… uh…”
“That’s what I thought. You better give me five Septims or I’ll bloody your nose.”
“But I don’t have any money. I already told you,” the boy protested. “I promise, I’ll give you ten Septims tomorrow, Braith, just… just don’t hurt me.”
“Ten Septims tomorrow Battle-Born, or I’m gonna bloody your nose and your lip. Got it?” She half-charged him with both fists raised and he flinched back in terror.
“All right, okay. I promise. I swear it.”
The girl marched away with both hands clenched tight at her sides, only looking back long enough to glower at the boy she’d just terrified. For a moment, his problems seemed so much larger than her own, and Luthien’s heart drew her toward the child. The children in Whiterun all adored her, probably because she was the only adult within the city walls who bothered to pay attention to them. She was always playing hide and seek or tag with them, Farkas leaning against the front door of Breezehome smiling and shaking his head while he watched her race up and down the cobblestone streets with a horde of kids behind her.
He staggered back in terror, relief flooding his face when he looked up and realized it wasn’t Braith come back to torment him so more. “Oh, hi Luthien.”
“You okay?” She tilted her head to look down at him, wondering how such a sweet and unassuming little boy could have possibly come from Idolaf Battle-Born’s loins. By all rights, Lars should have been the bully, or Jon should have been his father. He was a gentle soul, like his uncle, and no amount pressure from his father to man up seemed to deter him from his love of books and imaginative adventure.
“My friend Olava, the seer, she says things will get better for me once I start sticking up for myself.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“I’m tired of Braith always pushing me around,” he whined. “Every day, it’s the same old thing. She pushes me and pulls me hair, and now she’s going to punch me in my face if I don’t give her ten Septims by tomorrow. I don’t have ten Septims,” he shrieked. “And my father will tan my hide if he finds out I’ve let her push me around again. All the elders think I’m a milk-drinker because I won’t even stand up to her, but you’ve seen her. She’s a monster. They just don’t understand.”
A lightness welled up inside her, making her forget her troubles for the moment. She had to fight with herself to keep from laughing. It wasn’t that long ago that she’d been a kid herself, and she could still remember how difficult it could be to get along with other children.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a monster, but Braith can be a little mean sometimes.”
“A little mean?” he his eyes bulged at the understatement. “I just want her to leave me alone.”
“Do you want me to have a talk with her?”
His large blue eyes widened with possibility. “You would do that for me? Really? I’ll give you my whole life savings, two whole Septims, if you can get her to leave me alone.”
“Tell you what, you keep your money and I’ll see what I can do.”
“If you can get Braith to leave me alone, I’ll be your best friend… forever!” He threw his arms around her legs and squeezed tight. “Oh, thank you, thank you so much.”
After disentangling herself from his overenthusiastic embrace, Luthien walked the long way around the general goods store, behind Arcadia’s Cauldron and the Bannered Mare, up the hill toward Jorrvaskr. Instead of hiking the stairs to the mead hall, where Farkas was sure to go, she cut across the square and passed the Gildergreen, wandered by Heimskr and the Temple of Kynareth.
She came upon Braith outside her family home, tugging on her father’s hand before he could slip inside the house.
“Papa, I want to talk to you for a minute.”
The Redguard’s handsome features softened with affection and he lowered a hand to the top of her head. “Hmm? What about, sweeting?”
“Well, there’s this boy and he…”
“Listen, Braith…” An uneasy chuckle escaped him. “Why don’t you talk to your mother about this? Boys are more her area of expertise. There’s a good girl.” And just like that he slipped into the house, leaving the girl alone and distraught in the front yard.
Luthien watched her kick a stone so hard it flew up and bounced off Uthgerd’s house next door. Fortunately for Braith, that woman never left the Bannered Mare, otherwise she’d probably have barreled through the doors, both fists cocked and ready to fight.
Her heart went out to the child, but she really was a terror. Her father was a mercenary, never around longer than a day or two at a time and Saffir, her mother was so pre-occupied with her own witless fantasies, Luthien wondered why she’d ever even bothered to disentangle herself from the book she was reading long enough to conceive and bring a child into the world in the first place. Braith was nothing but an inconvenience, as far as Saffir was concerned, and that made Luthien so sad.
There were mothers in the world who’d do anything for their children, mothers like Fralia Gray-Mane. Saffir should be ashamed.
And then her mind slipped two steps further, back to her argument with Farkas. Of course he didn’t understand. He wasn’t a mother or a woman. He hadn’t seen his mother since he was four years old and barely remembered the woman at all, and while Tilma had done her best to take care of the twins after their adoptive father disappeared, she was not their mother. Only a caregiver who did the best she could to love them. Farkas claimed it had been enough, fondly recalling their childhood, but Vilkas still carried all those old grudges like a stone around his neck.
“Hey, Braith,” she called out, approaching with caution, for fear another vengeful rock would fly off the bottom of the girl’s shoe and bounce off her shin. “I wanted to talk to you about Lars.”
“Oh, now Baby-Battle-Born is sending you to fight his battles for him. That’s so typical.” She crossed her arms with a haughty smirk.
Gods, it was terrible, but she wanted so bad to just grab the girl, throw her over her knee and tan her hide—something she was relatively certain neither of her parents had ever done. All she needed was a bit of attention.
Her parents didn’t seem to give her that either.
Tamping down her temper, Luthien swallowed and found herself nodding. “That’s right, he did. Because I’m his bodyguard, you see. When you mess with Lars, you mess with me. Got it?”
“I’m not afraid of you!” she shouted. “Boys, girls, dogs, elders! There’s nobody I won’t fight!”
“All right then,” Luthien nodded. She’d taken off her armor before lunch, but her sword belt was still strapped around her waist. Right hand reaching across, she curled her fingers around the hilt of her blade, but didn’t draw it from the scabbard. “If that’s what you want we can fight. Up at Jorrvaskr, out in the yard.”
“Okay, okay! I’ll leave him alone,” she yielded, her eyes as wide as saucers as she looked over the sword still dangling at Luthien’s side. “I was just kidding around. Besides, if he’d only kiss me, I wouldn’t have to beat him up all the time.”
“Oh, Braith,” she softened completely, practically melting right there in the street. “Come here,” she hunkered down so they were at eye level, but Braith just looked at her like she was crazy. “I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.”
Tentative steps led her across the stone pathway until she and Luthien stood eye to eye.
“You really like Lars, huh?”
“Well, yeah, but he hates me.”
“I hate to say it, but he has every right to dislike you. You threaten him, push him around, hurt him. If someone did that to me, I wouldn’t like them very much either.”
“I just want him to notice me.”
“Kindness begets kindness, Braith.” Reaching up, her hand lingered against the girl’s sweet, round face as she promised, “If you change your tune, Lars will notice you one day. You just have to give him some time. Boys grow up so much slower than girls, you know?”
Wrinkling her adorable freckled nose, she squinted her eyes. “Really?”
“Yep.” She regarded her a moment longer and then asked, “So, are we good here? You’re not going to bully Lars anymore?”
“Yeah, we’re good. I’ll leave him alone.”
She rose from where she’d crouched and looked down the hill at Breezehome. She wasn’t ready to face Farkas again, not yet. Not after that macho act he’d pulled on her. Just thinking about it made her blood simmer. She started to walk away, toward the Battle-Born homestead, when Braith grabbed her hand and held her there for a moment. “Luthien? Do you think I could be a Companion someday?”
Grinning, she looked down over her shoulder at the girl and said, “Anything’s possible. If you’re really serious, come up to Jorrvaskr and we can train together sometime.”
“Really? Do you mean that?”
“Sure do. I’ll teach you everything I know.”
She’d never seen a smile so big on Braith’s face, and it was hard to walk away from, but she carried the news of his relief to Lars, who was just walking into the house when she approached. She paused after the doors closed, knocking and waiting for him to answer.
He pulled the doors open, grinning when he saw it was her.
“Did you do it? Did you talk to Braith?”
“Yes, I did, and I don’t think she’ll be bothering you anymore.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. This is so wonderful. Wait until I tell Mila.”
Glancing up from his excitement, she looked into the house and saw Jon Battle-Born gently holding a disheveled Olfina Gray-Mane’s forearm to keep her from rushing out the opposite set of doors in order to avoid getting caught together by Lars.
“Don’t go. Damn them all to Oblivion. Let’s just run away, Olfina. What have we got to lose when we have love?”
“Jon, I’m so sorry. I just can’t do this right now. It’s not the right time.”
Squinting at the scene that had just unfolded before her, Lars tugged her back into the moment, asking, “So do you want to come inside and play with me?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Lars. I have some really important things I need to take care of right now. Maybe another time.”
“Okay,” he shrugged. “Thanks again for taking care of Braith.”
Ducking his chin, she stepped away from the door, calling, “Anytime,” before walking away.