Luthien passed Vilkas in the stairwell on her way out of Jorrvaskr to talk with the Gray-Manes and tell them what she knew. The smirking sneer of his lips when he saw her did little to reassure her Farkas would actually be able to convince his brother to help them, and maybe it was better that way. Some people just didn’t like each other, and that was just the way things were, but it still got under her skin every now and again because there seemed to be no reason for just how much her brother-in-law seemed to loathe her.
She’d always done everything he asked of her, including running his sword to Eorlund for sharpening after he’d humiliated her in front of everyone in Jorrvaskr the night she’d come Whiterun. Which wasn’t to say she didn’t give back everything he threw at her when he was being a total ass. The night he’d accused her of trying to get his brother killed when the two of them went off to explore Bleakfalls Barrow for the Jarl’s wizard, claiming Farkas followed her around like some lovesick pup and her very presence made him reckless and stupid, she’d had no qualms about telling him exactly what she thought of him or how hard she would crack his skull if he ever called his brother stupid in front of her again.
Maybe that was why he didn’t like her. Or maybe he just didn’t like people with red hair. That was how ridiculous their rivalry felt to her most days.
Winding down the stairs, she headed right at the bottom and into the Wind District, passing Heimskr and rolling her eyes as he shouted about how the people of Skyrim were maggots writhing in the filth of their own corruption. She loved Talos just as much as the next Nord warrior, and as the Dragonborn she certainly felt a special connection to the god, but one day someone was going to sew that priest’s lips together while he was sleeping, and it wouldn’t be pretty.
She stopped for a moment to chat with Olava the Seer, the old woman telling her what a kind soul she was for helping her dear friend Lars and inviting her to stop by her home for a reading sometime. Promising she would, she pushed onward, arriving in front of carved dragons standing guard outside the Gray-Mane’s home.
Lifting her hand to knock, the door whipped open before her knuckles rapped the wood and Avulstein quickly gripped her arm to yank her inside before anyone could see him.
“Paranoid, much?” she wrenched her arm out his grip and rubbed the throbbing flesh where his fingers had been just moments before. “Shor’s beard, Avulstein. You practically pulled me arm out of the socket.”
“Of course I’m paranoid,” he snapped. “You’ve been gone for hours. I thought for sure you’d turned me into the guards.”
Luthien cocked her head to the side, her loose braid rustling against her shoulder. “I said I was going to help you, didn’t I?”
“Trust no one,” he said. “Ever.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but if I’m going to help you get your brother back, you’re going to have to trust me.”
“Do you have news then?” he softened, a flare of hope rising in his bright blue eyes. “Did you find something?”
“I found proof that Thorald lives,” she told him.
“I knew it!” he almost shouted, his hope shifting to excitement. “Let me see, please.”
She retrieved the missive from her bag and handed it over to him. He unfolded the parchment, scanning the text while chewing nervously at the inside of his cheek. He raised his eyes to her, all the hope fading just as quickly as it had arrived.
“The Thalmor?” His shoulders slumped. “By the Nine. This is worse than I thought.”
“I know it sounds bad, but there’s still hope.”
Nodding slowly, he glanced back down at the letter, his lips silently moving over the words as he read through it again. “So, Northwatch Keep,” he said. “Then I know where to hit them.”
“Avulstein, you can’t assault Northwatch Keep on your own.”
“I’ll do anything if it means saving my brother.” When he looked up from the letter again, there was unspoken pleading in his eyes. “You will help us, won’t you? Thorald can’t be left alone to those… monsters.”
“Of course we’ll help you,” she nodded. “My husband and I will both be there. Possibly even his brother.”
“Your husband?” He squinted uneasily, his jaw tightening as if she’d threatened him, rather than offering help.
“Farkas,” she explained. “I know you asked me not to tell anyone, but I don’t keep secrets from him. I just can’t. And you can trust him just as you trust me. We want to help, Avulstein.”
“I’ve known the twins for a long time,” he confessed. “I know I can trust them. I just can’t believe they agreed to help. My father wanted to keep the Companions as far from this as possible because he knows it goes against everything they believe in to get involved in something this political…”
“Well, Farkas and I aren’t just helping you as Companions, and we’re not getting involved in the politics,” she told him. “We’re helping you as your friends. Your father is like family to all of us. Most of us owe him our lives.”
“Thank you.” There were unshed tears in his eyes that he blinked furiously against in order to keep them from falling. “You have no idea how much this means to me, to my mother. And my father may be stubborn and proud, but it will mean the world to him too.”
She lived to make gruff old Eorlund Gray-Mane happy. She’d never said as much to the man, but he reminded her of her own father more than anyone else she’d ever met.
They agreed to meet up just outside Northwatch Keep, Avulstein explaining he had a few forces of his own he wished to gather and admitting it would probably be best if they didn’t travel there together. Splitting up increased their odds of at least one group making it there to save his brother, especially considering Avulstein was wanted by the Imperials and there were bound to be plenty of those on the road to Haafingar.
“We will leave tomorrow before sunup,” she promised him as he led her to the door to see her out. “Wait for us before you storm the keep,” she added, reaching for the door handle. “If we aren’t there in seven days, then think the worst has happened and proceed without us.”
“Same to you,” he nodded. “I can’t thank you enough for this,” he finally said.
Anything could happen on the treacherous roads of Skyrim, and since the dragons had returned they seemed to gravitate to her whenever she was traveling. Heading down the side street and past the Drunken Huntsman, she arrived at Breezehome before Farkas had returned from talking to his brother. She made dinner and excused Lydia for the evening, her housecarl gratefully admitting she, Torvar and Athis were planning a little mayhem at the Bannered Mare.
She’d just finished setting two places at the table when the door brought her husband through the door, his reluctant twin just a step behind him. Vilkas had never been inside Breezehome, and he paused as Farkas closed the door to take the place in. The look he wore was indescribable, almost as if he were suffering a moment of déjà vu before shaking it off and turning his cold gaze on Luthien.
“We just passed Lydia on the street,” Farkas told her, drawing out of his gear and lowering it onto the table near the door. “Does that mean it’s safe to talk openly?”
“As long as there are no raised voices we should be fine.” She looked directly at Vilkas without hesitation and he nodded, a curt, silent agreement before following his brother to the table and taking a seat. “Lydia was meeting with Torvar and Athis up at the Bannered Mare. She’ll be gone all night.”
“I hope you don’t mind, but I invited Vilkas to dinner.”
“Vilkas is always welcome at our table,” she said, setting a third plate for him before going back for the roast. “He’s family.”
She laid the venison roast in the center of the table so Farkas could begin carving into it while she brought a steaming bowl of roasted root vegetables flavored with garlic butter. No one said a word about the rescue until their plates were full, and even then it was Farkas who started laying the terms on the table.
“So, Vilkas wants to help,” he said, ladling a thick spoonful of gravy over his plate. “In fact, he’s wanted to help for a while, but Eorlund kept pushing the Companions away from the whole thing.”
“Doesn’t he trust us?” she asked.
“Of course he trusts us,” Vilkas’s tone held an edge that despite his friendliness still made her feel uncomfortable, “but the feud between the Battle-Borns and Gray-Manes has become such an absurd embarrassment, he barely takes it seriously anymore. Gods forbid he say any such thing in front of Vignar.”
“Well, the fact that Olfrid was actually keeping that missive from them just goes to show maybe Eorlund should be taking their feud more seriously,” Luthien said.
“Perhaps,” he nodded, and then added with an uncomfortable laugh, “but I’ve no desire to call the great Eorulund Gray-Mane a fool to his face.”
“Nuh-uh,” Farkas agreed.
“Avulstein says his father’s pride is all that’s standing in the way, but if we can get his son out of there safely, it’s a favor he won’t soon forget.”
“Aye,” Vilkas sunk his fork into the food on his plate. “And there’s not a one of us who can say Eorlund’s armor hasn’t saved our backside more times than we could count. So what’s our plan?”
She was surprised by how amicable and calm he was, as if there’d never been a drop of bad blood between them, never an ounce of tension or competitive cruelty. For some reason she’d expected Farkas to come home telling her Vilkas was petitioning Kodlak to have her expelled from the Companions for sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong.
“Avulstein is gathering what men he can to meet us. We’ll travel separately, to ensure at least one of our groups arrives safely at Northwatch Keep and I’ve told him if we’re not there in a week, he should proceed without us.”
“Good thinking,” Farkas said, shoveling a forkful of food into his mouth. “You never know what kind of trouble we’ll run into on the road.”
“We leave before sun up tomorrow morning.”
In agreement, the three of them enjoyed their food in silence for a time, and though it was the first time Vilkas had ever come to Breezehome for dinner, or anything else for that matter, it felt natural. As if he’d sat on the bench beside his brother hundreds of times while she looked between them feeling blessed to have such a strong family in her life again.
“This is very good,” Vilkas noted with approval, adding, “you almost give Tilma a run for her money.”
“Thank you,” she blushed a little, and wasn’t sure why. Probably because she’d waited so long for Vilkas to approve of something, anything she did.
“Tell me something, Luthien,” he began, “have you ever faced Thalmor?”
Her inexperience shamed her, and she immediately felt the heat of embarrassment rush into her cheeks to replace the glow of his approval. “No,” she confessed, “but there were Thalmor justiciars there the day the Imperials stormed my village and killed my father, and again the day I escaped the dragon attack in Helgen.”
She expected him to chide her, but he didn’t. Instead he rested his elbow on the edge of the table and nodded thoughtfully. “Everything you’ve ever heard about them was true. The Thalmor are vicious, ruthless, conniving foes, and they rely almost entirely on magic to do their fighting.” He said the word magic with such distaste that Luthien actually felt momentarily horrified that anyone would ever use magic, even though she herself had always been fascinated by it.
“We should stock up on magicka poison then before we leave, coat as many of our arrows and blades as possible before we infiltrate the Keep.”
And though she would never admit it to anyone, not even Farkas, a part of her soared when Vilkas nodded agreement and said, “That’s a very good idea, Luthien.”
Vilkas brought an old map of the Keep, and after dinner the three of them poured over it together while piecing together an infiltration strategy and theorizing approximately how many Thalmor soldiers they could expect in each area of the building.
“They’ll post a heavy guard in the courtyard.” Vilkas tapped the tip of his fingernail on courtyard area of the map. “The Thalmor are nothing, if not incredibly protective of the secrets they keep and a strong outward guard will give the interior patrols plenty of time to get rid of any evidence of foul play that might call their reputation into question if they are routed.”
“So we’ll need to be careful,” she surmised. “Hit the outer guard hard and fast to avoid alerting the soldiers inside the Keep that we’re there.”
“Precisely,” he nodded. “Otherwise, Thorald Gray-Mane is as good as dead.”
“Gods,” she muttered, pushing her back into the sturdy chair behind her and lifting a hand into the loose layers of her dark auburn hair. “Maybe I should have told Avulstein to stay behind.”
“Perhaps that would have been for the best,” Vilkas agreed, adding, “but we can’t change that now. We’ll have to work with him and his men the best we can to avoid tipping off the interior guard to our arrival.”
It felt a little hopeless when he put it that way. She needed only to reflect for a single moment on Avulstein’s enthusiastic quest for vengeance and liberation, and the hopelessness spread like clawing fingers through every fiber of her being. And yet how could she possibly have denied him the opportunity to assist in his own brother’s rescue? She’d seen the guilt in his eyes, heard the dread in his voice.
As if he’d read her fretful thoughts, Vilkas reached across the table and laid a hand atop hers in the most bizarre gesture of comfort he’d ever displayed. “We will make this work,” he promised, staring at his own hand resting over hers with distant blue eyes that slowly rose to meet hers. His stare was so intense, so fueled by righteous passion that for a moment Luthien’s blood surged through her veins. “We will rescue Thorald.”
Farkas didn’t even seem to notice the way his brother was touching her, or maybe there was no way about it to be concerned about in the first place, but Vilkas’s hand on hers made her so uncomfortable Luthien quickly withdrew. A part of her felt shameful and wicked and she didn’t even know why.
“Yes,” she agreed, pushing her chair away from the table and gathering the dinner dishes. “We will make it work.”
While she did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen area, the twins plotted out the best route to Northwatch Keep over mugs of mead. She found herself watching them together, listening to the patience in Vilkas’s voice whenever he had to stop and explain something to Farkas he couldn’t quite wrap his head around, like the mathematical calculation of distance and how it translated into days when one factored in the average speed at which three warriors traveled.
“Give or take a dragon or two and maybe a couple of trolls.” He smiled over at Farkas, who returned an identical grin before nudging his shoulder into Vilkas with a gruff chuckle that warmed her heart so much she thought it would burst.
It was strange to her that in the last nine months she’d never seen them together like that, never witnessed the calm, rational way Vilkas had of making his brother understand something. One of the first things Farkas said to her when they met was, “Skjor says I have the strength of Ysgramor and my brother has his smarts,” and it really was as if they were two halves of the same whole and could only operate at full capacity when they put their minds, bodies and spirits together.
And yet, that was how she felt with Farkas herself, like the two of them were two halves of the same whole, one spirit broken into two bodies. Did Vilkas ever resent her for that? Was that why he scowled at her sometimes? Because she’d intruded on the intimate connection he shared with his twin?
She was just stacking the clean plates in the cupboard when Vilkas rose from the table with a groaning stretch to announce that he was heading back to Jorrvaskr to pack and get a good night’s sleep. He thanked her for dinner and promised to meet them both outside Breezehome at four a.m., and then departed. Laying the last dish in place, she jumped a little when she felt Farkas slide in behind her, his thick forearms locking across her waist to tug her back into his chest.
A squeal of laughter escaped her and her arms lowered over his to hold herself closer to him.
He edged away her hair with his chin, his hungry mouth nibbling at the sensitive skin of her neck as she arched into him and shuddered. “So… Lydia’s gone for the night, huh?”
Luthien closed her eyes and swallowed softly. “She’s out with Torvar and Athis. We probably won’t see her again until we come back from Northwatch Keep.”
“We should hunt tonight,” he whispered. “Masser’s almost full,” he went on trailing kisses along the curve of her neck, his hand slowing rising to cup and knead the tender flesh of her breast beneath her dress while he teased her with those warm, soft lips. The gentle bristle of his facial hair against her skin combined with his breathy proposition sent prickles of delight through her. “It’s been calling to me for days, pulling at my blood like a magnet,” he added. “Your moons’ blood is near, I can smell it. My wolf spirit aches for his mate and if I don’t answer him, he’ll tear me apart.”
“Farkas,” she felt her eyelids flutter as a soft moan escaped her lips.
Never mind that they’d promised Kodlak they wouldn’t hunt, wouldn’t give into their beastblood in battle no matter how difficult it was to resist, and yet every time the moons grew fat the pull on their wolf spirits was impossible to deny. She wanted to feel the cold wind rushing through her fear, to feel the pads of her feet rushing against the frozen earth, to turn over her shoulder and see him there beside her–her alpha, her equal, her mate.
“Run with me,” he pleaded in a breathy whisper. “Hunt with me beneath the moons.”
“We have a long journey tomorrow. We should re—…” she started to protest, but he lifted a hand to turn her face into his, kissing the words away before she could finish speaking them.
“We never rest,” he growled against her lips. “Run with me.”
Swallowing again, the beast that ruled her blood would never deny him. Could never deny him even if she wanted to. Drawing away from his arms, she flashed a wicked grin over her shoulder at him, quirked her eyebrow and said, “Catch me if you can.”