That night when they made camp in the frigid woods near Frostmere Crypt a few miles south of Dawnstar, she must have looked as tired as she felt because Vilkas insisted on keeping first watch so she and Farkas could get some sleep. He knew as well as she did that no amount of rest would purge the exhaustion from her soul, but Farkas slipped easily into slumber and for a long time she just laid there listening to the fire crackle outside their tent while his steady breath lifted and lowered her across his broad chest.
Eventually she grew tired of finding no respite from her own exhaustion and begrudgingly rolled out of his arms. Even in sleep he held onto her so tight that she had to gently pry her clothing from his fingers, which caused him to mumble and smack his lips before he rolled onto his side and resumed a steady flow of breathing.
She didn’t know how he could sleep the way he did. The constant ache in every muscle combined the endless turning of her thoughts made it impossible to yield to that one prized comfort. Sometimes it just wasn’t fair.
Wrapped in warm furs, she quietly emerged from the tent and surveyed their small campsite. Vilkas still sat in front of the fire and barely looked up when she joined him. He only continued poking the sharpened edge of a long stick into the fire, pushing the logs around to keep it burning an even heat that radiated outward to warm her where she sat.
“I can’t sleep,” she told him. “I’ll stand guard if you want to take some rest.”
“I haven’t slept in seven years,” he muttered softly. After what felt like several long minutes he finally said, “It’s the beastblood that makes us restless, you know.”
Almost as if in response to that assessment Farkas snorted against his own snores, his heavy body rustling in the bedroll for a few seconds before quieting again.
“Maybe someone should tell your brother that.”
He actually laughed, a throaty chuckle he accompanied with an appreciative smile as he rocked back on the stump he sat on. “It’s never bothered Farkas,” he confessed. “Perhaps because he simply accepts it as a part of him while the rest of us rail against it like starved, caged animals.”
“Was it always like that for you?”
“Not so much in the beginning. When I was young I embraced it the blood even more than my brother does now. I was thrilled by the power that came with the responsibility, but over time the more I grew to resent the monster inside me the more it thought to prove just how much stronger it was than I.”
“I think you may finally be winning that battle. Farkas says you haven’t hunted in more than a year.”
“Aye,” he nodded. “It has not been easy, but I will never hunt again so long as I can help it.”
“Even if Kodlak never finds a cure?”
Vilkas was silent and Luthien watched him, eying the leaping strands of orange light from the fire as they danced across his sharp, handsome face. He dragged his stick out of the fire and across the frozen ground, the tip sizzling and steaming as it melted a path through the snow.
“Kodlak will find a solution. I’ve never met a warrior more deserving of Sovngarde, and he will not embrace death until he finds that peace.” There was an edge of determination in his tight voice, as if he’d hinged so much on that belief he wouldn’t allow anything to call it into question. “He will set us all free.”
“Good,” she muttered, returning her gaze to the fire. “I don’t want to live the rest of my life this way. It’s a nightmare.”
“You should have thought of that before you so willingly accepted the curse from Skjor when he offered you Aela’s blood,” he countered almost bitterly. He softened then, confessing, “If only you had come to me beforehand I would have spared you the grief and told you to run away from them and their accursed gifts as fast as your feet would carry you.”
“Right,” she snorted against her own laugh. “You’ve never exactly made me feel welcome at Jorrvaskr, or as though I could actually come to you with anything.”
“That isn’t true.” He leaned back in surprise, as if her words had actually bitten him. “I’ve never been cruel to you. I’ve done nothing but help you grow into the fine warrior you’ve become.”
“Vilkas, you humiliated me in front of everyone the night Kodlak told you to test my mettle.”
“How was your inability to properly hold a blade in any way my fault?”
“It wasn’t my inability that embarrassed me. It was the way you mocked and ridiculed me in front of the others. As if I had no business even climbing the stairs to your hall, much less attempting to join your noble faction of warriors.”
“And yet here you sit,” he gestured toward her with his hand. “A member of the Inner-Circle, a sworn shield-sister, a dragon-slaying warrior. If I’d truly made you look the fool that night, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
“If that’s supposed to make me feel any better about the fact that you obviously can’t stand to be in the same airspace with me, it doesn’t. I just wish I knew what I’d done to make you hate me so.”
“Hate you?” Again, he drew back in utter astonishment at her choice of words, his brilliant blue eyes shining in the firelight. “Luthien, I couldn’t hate you if I tried.”
Before she could address that statement with a rather snarky you could have fooled me, the scent of danger roused both of them, their heads turning simultaneously into the woods at their back. Reaching across her waist, her fingers curled around the hilt of her blade, slowly drawing it free as Vilkas rose from his seat in a quick, silent movement she would never have seen if she hadn’t been sitting right beside him. He’d drawn the warhammer from his back and positioned it in front of him, ready for whatever came their way.
He gestured over his right shoulder, and when Luthien scanned the darkness she caught the dull flash of eyes and the blade of a silver sword within the tree line, her attuned sight immediately noting the runic inscription along the blade. Only one faction of warriors she knew carried such weapons.
The Silver Hand.
Every one of her senses came alive, and though she hadn’t shifted the beast within flared to the surface of her skin as if clawing from the inside to get out, to tear them all apart limb from limb. She could smell the sour stench of old ale and body odor mixed with leather and steel. Could taste their adrenaline and fear. Sniffing at the air again she knew how many were out there: five and even with Farkas asleep she knew she and Vilkas could take them.
Their leader stepped out of the trees to make himself known, his grizzly black beard hiding the lower half of his face until he grinned—two gleaming white rows of arrogant teeth flashing in the darkness.
“Well, well, well, what have we got here?”
“Looks like a dog and his bitch.”
“Careful boys,” Vilkas warned. “I marked my territory very carefully when I set up camp. You’re about to cross my lines.”
“What are you doing all the way up here, Companion?” The man with the black beard took another step toward their camp. “A little far away from the comfort of your mead hall.”
“Where I travel is no business of yours. We want no trouble with you.”
“No trouble, eh?” The bearded man posed. “Your bitch should have thought of that before she mutilated the Skinner and his men, before she tore apart every living thing at Treva’s Watch.”
“It’s one of the twins,” she heard a woman’s voice and shifted her eyes toward the sound, her vision narrowing in on the woman, but not as keenly as her sense of smell. She was bleeding, the salted-copper musk of her moons’ blood like a vaporous aura all around her. “He’s the one who killed Yrsi, Ranmir and Gregor at Dustman’s Cairn.”
Vilkas lifted the hammer and allowed it to drop heavily into the open palm of his hand with a cocky slap. “Are you sure about that?” he asked, toying with the woman. “Did you see me there?”
There was doubt in her voice, even as she stammered, “Oh, I saw you all right, just before I ran away, but we’ve got you at the disadvantage this time, dog. There are five of us and only two of you.”
Lifting an eyebrow, once more he asked, “Are you sure about that?”
His voice was so calm, but she could hear her shield-brother’s heart raging like thunder in his chest. It matched the rampant thudding of her own vessel, and she felt the beast inside him begging to be set free, pleading to tear them limb from limb like the pathetic excuse for men they were. As wolves they could tear through such a minor threat without breaking a sweat, but when Vilkas turned a wary look in her direction, his eyes spoke in silent command her beast had no choice but to obey.
“We’ve got this,” he said softly, and then spun into action, the Skyforge steel hammer arcing upward, gathering so much weight and momentum as he swung it through the front line and staggered the three who’d been brave enough to come out of the shadows. They scattered backward, the largest of the three—old black beard himself—the only one who managed to hold his footing.
Luthien drew her dagger into her left hand, spinning into action with both blades flashing to cut down the woman as she charged into battle with a fierce, undulating war cry. Her dagger sliced across the woman’s cheek, fresh blood rising to the surface, further tempting the wolf inside her but she could not go against Vilkas’s unspoken order. With a swift arc of her right hand, she brought her sword down through her enemy’s chest, gurgling bubbles of blood spraying from the woman’s lips as her eyes widened with shocked desperation. Clawing her hand down the front of Luthien’s armor, there was no time to admire the blood smear she left behind.
She backed into her next enemy, a hard jerk of her elbow pushing the man back and allowing her the space she needed to whirl around to face him. She leered in the darkness, more beast than woman when she rolled forward and scissored her sword and dagger across the man’s throat, kicked him to the ground with a heavy boot and then plunged her dagger into his heart for good measure.
It was a quick, yet fearsome battle, Vilkas cutting down the last man standing with the war axes he’d tugged from his belt. He was still poised over him as Luthien withdrew her shortsword from the dead body beneath her foot. Raw hatred boiled in her veins, making it nearly impossible to fight the growing urge to embrace the beast and run rampant through the night in search of prey.
“Well fought, sister,” Vilkas nodded approval, wiping the blood from his axes.
Her ragged exhales puffed out in sharp silver clouds of steam, combined with the pattern of Vilkas’s breath. In the distance a wolf howled and then another, the chorus of their voices echoing through the night. Only then did Farkas snort and mumble as he shuffled in the tent.
The nearness of the beast left her whole body trembling and weak. Shaking her head, she couldn’t stop the smile drawing at the tight corners of her mouth, and when Vilkas started laughing it was impossible not to join him.
“I swear that man could sleep through a dragon attack.”
He slid the axes back into his belt and lifted a hand through the loose strands of hair that had fallen into his face. A speck of blood smeared across his forehead, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. “Acceptance is quite obviously key. I just don’t know if I ever can. I’d rather be at war with myself then enjoy so fleeting a peace.”
Embrace the beast. Give in to the hunt. Thrive and feed the untamed spirit.
It was easier said than done and they both knew it, but neither of them said another word as they resumed their watchful places beside the warmth of the fire and listened to the peaceful sound of Farkas sleeping until just before the sun came up.