Over the next three days the Companions made their way west through the Pale and into Hjaalmarch, stopping in Morthal to refresh their supplies and sleep for the night in an actual inn before heading northwest into Haafingar.
Luthien was grateful for the bed, but knowing that Vilkas lay unsleeping in the same room made her more uncomfortable than she ever imagined, especially when beneath the quilt she felt the calloused palm of her lover sneaking into her simple cotton shirt.
Desire shivered through her blood at his touch, and she realized as he lowered his trembling lips against the hollow of her throat and began to kiss her that it had been five days since last they’d made love—the longest they’d gone without touching each other in that way since they’d come together the first time. The mere thought alone of the pleasure she knew he could inspire with his touch made her shudder, and though they’d made love countless times with Lydia no further away than Vilkas was then, there’d been walls and doors between them.
She couldn’t stomach the idea of Farkas touching her that way while his brother was in the same room.
“Stop it,” she whispered almost breathlessly, grabbing his hand inside hers and pushing it away.
Farkas lifted his head to look down at her, gentle blue eyes imploring her to let him touch her, but Luthien widened her eyes, pinched her lips tight and gestured with her head toward the bed on the other side of their almost private room.
She watched his eyes roll, head shaking in protest as his hand moved back down to her hip, fingers gathering the fabric, tips brushing along the tight, sensitive flesh of her belly as he dipped lower to caress the center of her body in ways only he had ever done. Gods, his touch was divine, she closed her eyes and let the feeling roll through her as parts of her longed for him to just take her and make her his without a care.
But it wasn’t right, and no matter how wonderful his fingers felt as they teased and caressed her, she just couldn’t go through with it knowing his brother was so near. It felt strange and wrong. She grabbed his hand again and shook her head no as she drew it up to rest against her hip, then laid her head down on the pillow. Farkas stared down at her for a moment and then released a frustrated sigh before dropping his head beside hers with a huff.
That night he didn’t sleep any better than anyone else, his heavy weight flopping around in the bed for hours, dragging the blankets away from her body as he tossed and turned before finally throwing them off completely and getting out of bed.
Luthien listened to him slipping back into his pants and boots, and then his heavy footsteps led him out of their room and into the bar. Just beneath the constant strum of the bard’s lute, she heard him order a tankard of mead and then she closed her eyes again. She fell asleep at some point, only to find herself wrapped in the tight and painful confines of troubled dreams, and when she jerked awake with a startled breath the bed was still empty.
She rolled onto her back, her gaze turning toward the bed on the other side of the room, but it was empty too. Sighing, she thought about getting up, but then Farkas stepped through the door and made his way toward the bed. He sat on the other side and yanked out of his boots again before settling in on the edge with his back to her. She scooted across the vast space between them and snaked her arm in beneath his, curling it across his broad waist and drawing her knees in to rest against the backs of his. He felt so stiff at first, still angry that she’d refused him, but when she kissed his shoulder he softened and lowered his large hand to rest over hers. He squeezed her fingers gently, and together they lay that way until morning.
They rose before the sun that morning, breaking their fast with fresh bread and cheese. She expected him to still be angry with her, holding the worst kind of grudge when they finally crawled out of bed, but despite how little he’d slept, he was his normal, jovial self as he dressed. He smiled gently at her across the table, offering a wink before washing down the last bite of cheese with a healthy swig of mead and though try as she might to act natural, she couldn’t help but sigh relief to know he’d gotten over the one and only time she’d ever denied her husband’s advances.
“Unless we run into trouble on the road, we should make it to Solitude before sundown,” Vilkas tapped his fingertip on the seat of the Imperial Legion in Skyrim. “We can rest there for the night and then head out to Northwatch Keep tomorrow morning to meet with Avulstein, assuming he actually made it.”
“What kind of trouble do you think we should expect?” Luthien glanced across the table at him and watched as he stroked his fingers through the shadow of stubble on his chin. “Legionnaires? Stormcloaks?”
“Possibly,” he nodded. “The Stormcloaks are more likely to ignore passing travelers, but you know as well as anyone that the Legion isn’t so kind. They rarely ask questions before taking prisoners, and as we move into their territory we put ourselves at risk of capture.”
Luthien swallowed hard at the thought of coming face to face with the Imperial Legion again. They had come into her village without warrant or reason, accused her father of harboring Ulfric Stormcloak and murdered him in cold blood right in front of his wife and daughter. Luthien’s rage had almost gotten her killed, and though there was very little in the way of fortunate about what took place that day, she counted her blessings that they’d knocked her out and thrown her into the Imperial death cart before hauling her off to Helgen for execution, rather than killing her in front of her grief sick mother.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Farkas said, his stare lingering on Luthien as his hand reached across the table to rest atop hers in an act of comfort. “We probably won’t even see the Legion until we get to Solitude, and even if we do I doubt they’ll recognize you. You said yourself that nearly everyone at Helgen died that day.”
“If we don’t run into General Tullius himself, we should be in the clear,” she nodded, but she still couldn’t help the nagging feeling of dread that gripped her from within.
“And even if we do, I would die before I ever let them touch you.” Farkas’s promise was meant to comfort her, but he couldn’t possibly have any idea that his dying at the hands of the Empire was exactly the thing she feared most. More than the beast inside her, more than the Silver Hand, more than dragons…
“As would I,” Vilkas said almost softly.
Swallowing against the burn of bile rising in her throat, Luthien grimaced and nodded. She didn’t want anyone else she cared about to die because of the Imperial Legion.
But they didn’t run into General Tullius, or any of his men on the road to Haafingar. They met with a Blood Dragon just below the cliffs leading into Solitude, and though the presence of Solitude’s Imperial guardsmen assisting in the battle almost completely threw her off her game, their combined efforts saw the dragon exterminated and the guards all watched in awe as Luthien absorbed the beast’s soul into her body.
“You… you took its very soul,” one of them exclaimed as she started to back away from the body while Farkas carved out the bones so they could sell them inside the city.
“I’ve heard rumors,” another mentioned, “that the Dragonborn returned with the dragons, but I never thought I’d see the day…”
“Is it… really dead then?”
She half-expected them to follow her toward the gates of the city, asking questions, remarking about what they’d seen, but as she slipped away to walk the hillside into Solitude, they were all still mesmerized by what they’d seen they didn’t even seem to notice she’d walked away.
“Nice work,” Vilkas complimented her. “And these bones will fetch a decent price if we can find a smithy who wants to buy them.”
“If they weren’t so damn heavy, I’d say we take them back to Eorlund and have him show me how to make Dragonbone armor.” Farkas hefted the bag over his shoulder, rearranging its weight until it was comfortable.
“There will be other dragons, brother, never you worry about that.” Vilkas laughed, nodding to the guards who moved to open the doors into the city for them.
As soon as they stepped into the city, Luthien felt the oppressive crowd gathered around the gallows. A small, desperate child exclaimed, “They can’t hurt Uncle Roggvir. Tell them he didn’t do it.”
“What the Void is going on here?” Vilkas muttered under his breath so that only Luthien and Farkas could hear him.
“Go home, Svari. You don’t need to see this.”
“You should tell her that her uncle is scum who betrayed the High King. Best she know now, Addvar,” a haughty woman proclaimed.
The man named Addvar pushed the little girl down the street, muttering, “You’re all heart, Vivienne.”
Luthien drew her gaze toward the executioner as he began to speak. “Roggvir, you helped Ulfric Stormcloak escape this city after he murdered High King Torygg. By opening that gate for Ulfric, you betrayed the people of Solitude. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“He doesn’t deserve to speak!” A gruff, angry voice cried out.
The dread welling inside her was almost more than she could take. Luthien felt her knees begin to tremble, her stomach quiver with nausea.
“There was no murder!” Roggvir raised his voice above the mob. “Ulfric challenged Torygg. He beat the High King in fair combat.”
“Kill the traitor!”
“Such is our way,” Roggvir cried out. “Such is the ancient custom of Skyrim, of all true Nords.”
The mob booed and threw rotting vegetables at the man about to lose his life for assisting Ulfric Stormcloak. Luthien’s dread turned cold in her veins, entangling with the bitter rise of righteous anger in her heart at what they were about to witness. Farkas lowered his heavy hand on her shoulder and started to steer her away, “Come on, Lu,” he murmured. “You don’t need to see this.”
She jerked her shoulder from under his grasp, her eyes never leaving the platform. She didn’t know why, but she couldn’t look away even if she wanted to. It was like watching her father die all over again, so much grief and anger swelling inside her she swore the beast within was on the verge of breaking free without her consent.
The executioner pushed Roggvir to his knees. The man didn’t struggle, but before he lowered his head to the chopping block the man called out with pride, “On this day, I go to Sovngarde!”
The headsman’s axe came down in a spray of blood that splashed across those standing in the gasping front row of the crowd, and then they cheered, an angry, bloodthirsty mob temporarily sated by the shedding of an innocent man’s blood. Luthien felt the nausea wash over her, brought on not by the blood and carnage she’d just witnessed, but the grief and injustice of the deed itself mingled with the denial of the beast within for vengeance, the closed-minded willingness of the uninformed to fall in line and go along with whatever the Empire told them was right.
Farkas’s knelt behind her, gentle hands gathering her hair and holding it away from her face as she wretched and heaved, even after her stomach was purged and empty. She remained there catching her breath and waiting for her stomach to settle until long after the vengeful crowd dispersed, and then both of her shield-brothers helped her to her feet.
“We picked a bad time to come to Solitude,” Vilkas said.
“It’s always a bad time to come to Solitude,” Farkas answered. “This place is nothing but an angry void now that the Empire holds it so tight in its fist.”
“Maybe we should camp in the cliffs beyond the city,” Vilkas suggested.
“No,” Luthien shook her head. “I need to sleep indoors tonight,” she told them, “away from the draw of the moons. Otherwise there’s no telling what I might do.”
Vilkas leaned out to regard her with wary crystal-blue eyes and then he nodded understanding. “The innkeeper at the Winking Skeever will welcome our coin and our business.”
For twenty gold Septims, the Companions procured two private rooms for the night and then sat down in the tavern to fill their bellies with warm bowls of creamy salmon stew and fresh crusts of bread. The crowd from the execution had made their way into the tavern, several of them sitting in judgment on the man who’d just lost his head while a beautiful Breton bard strummed her lute to the tune of Age of Aggression.
The woman had a voice almost as striking as her face, and several times Luthien noticed Vilkas admiring the girl in silent appreciation while Farkas filled his belly, completely oblivious to everything but the food in front of him. When he finished his stew, she pushed hers toward him and he tilted his head with worry when she told him she wasn’t hungry.
“It shouldn’t go to waste,” she said, her hand trembling as she nudged it another inch in his direction.
“If you don’t eat, you’ll go to waste,” Vilkas laughed. “You’re already so skinny, Luthien. You should eat more.”
“You sound like Tilma,” she grinned at him. “I’ll be fine.” Her empty belly should have been screaming for food, but she still felt nauseated and weak. “I’m weary,” she finally said, pushing her chair away from the table to excuse herself from the twins. Farkas still hadn’t finished her stew, and the thought of missing out on the opportunity to enjoy the comfort of the tavern’s hearth and mead furrowed his brow with disappointment. “You stay and enjoy your mead,” she touched his arm. “Enjoy your brother’s company.”
“I’ll be up soon.” He reached for her fingers as she passed, allowing them to trail through his grip before he squeezed them and let her go.
She climbed the stairs and opened the door to their private room. Unbuckling her breastplate, she lowered it to the table and stripped off her gauntlets and greaves before lowering and stepping out of her mail skirt. She thought getting out of her armor would make her feel lighter, but the heaviness she felt came from within. Her beastblood wrangled with the overwhelming anxiety of the Imperial army just feet away from where she would be sleeping. A part of her wanted so badly to just give into the urge to hunt them all down and tear them to shreds, feeding and fueling the beast within with their rotten blood until there was no coming back from that darkness again. There was freedom in that kind of surrender, but all she could hear was Vilkas saying, “I’d rather be at war with myself then enjoy so fleeting a peace.”
Running her hand into her hair, she sat down on the edge of the feathered mattress and then lay back in the bed to stare at the ceiling. She was so exhausted, so achy and tired and all she wanted to do was sleep, but no respite came.
Every time she closed her eyes she saw the man, Roggvir’s, face, his pride as he announced that he would rest in Sovngarde—they couldn’t take that away from him. And then Roggvir’s face became her father’s, lips trembling beneath the dark auburn of his full beard as he told her and her mother to run, blood flecking those lips as the Imperial soldier ran his blade through him. His dark eyes flashed with horror and desperation as he realized his wife and daughter would meet the same fate.
“Run, Luthien!” It took every ounce of strength he had left to issue that order, but she shook her head in desperation and reached for the blade resting over the edge of the forge. She charged, swinging without aim or directive, the sword slicing across the cheek of the man who’d held her father down while his fellow Legionnaire ran him through.
Her father had gone down fighting, but a single man couldn’t stand against an entire troop of soldiers, not even a well-trained warrior, which her father was not. But a beast could have taken them all, torn every last one of them to pieces until all that remained were pulpy piles of steaming blood and bone.
Trapped between restless sleep and nightmare, Luthien shifted in aggravation in the bed while her mind rolled her through her father’s death over and over and over again. She railed against the images, against the helplessness and despair until a strong pair of hands gripped her shoulders and drew her from the agonizing plague of her own dreams.
“Hey,” he murmured tenderly, squeezing her shoulders and shaking her a little. “Hey, Lu, it’s okay. It’s all right. It’s just dreams.”
Eyes fluttering open, it took a moment for her to make out the features of his face. Dark strands of hair framing his face, white-blue eyes staring into hers with such love and tenderness the hammer of her heart immediately slowed.
“It’s just bad dreams,” he told her, drawing her against his chest until the tension in her muscles relaxed and she let the tears fall. “I’m here now. I’m here.” Heaving and sobbing in her husband’s arms, Farkas soothed her, running his fingers through her hair and whispering apologies into her ear. “We never should have come to this place. I didn’t… I don’t think… We didn’t know.”
Drawing back to look at him, she realized no one would ever truly know what she’d been through that day, how much her hatred for the Empire burned inside her at the thought of what they’d done to countless Nords in the name of their tyrannical and senseless justice. It was why she’d agreed to help Fralia and Avulstein find Thorald in the first place, but she hadn’t realized at the time just how close that task would carry her to the men who’d stolen her life, her family right out from under her.
Farkas was right, they never should have come to that place, but only because she needed to keep everyone and everything she loved as far away from the Empire as she could, or else she’d lose them too. The thought of life without Farkas made her tremble with horror and she lifted her hand to his face. The bristle of his facial hair beneath her palm tingled deliciously as she slid her touch along his cheek and jaw.
How could she ever live without him? Without her mate?
She swept in to kiss him fiercely, her soft lips opening over his, tongue slipping in to dance and circle around his as he pulled her in closer to his body and drank deep from her. With eager hands she wrenched away his cuirass, the clothes he wore beneath and he tugged away her underclothes. Laying back in the bed, he fell in above her, covering her body with his until she could feel the urgent press of his need for her swelling against her hip.
She should never have denied him the night before, should never say no to her mate because there was no telling when one of them might meet their death and she never wanted to have a single regret. That thought nearly strangled her and she found it so hard to breathe.
Kissing a heated trail down her cheek, into the stretched curve of her neck and over her chest, his hand cupped beneath her breast and eagerly squeezed as she arched into him with an almost desperate moan. He kneed her thighs open and positioned himself to claim her, all the grief and tension in her body melting away beneath him as their bodies writhed toward sweet release together.
His essence, his scent, the tickling flutter of his hair as he came down to meet her again and again and again, the gasping echo of their breath, the beating of his heart in time with hers, the fullness of their souls. She’d come to Jorrvaskr a broken girl with so much sorrow and darkness on the road behind her she never thought to be a whole person again. In his arms she was safe, but more than that she was complete.
Come the morrow they were walking into dangerous territory at her behest. She’d brought her mate and his brother to face Thalmor soldiers for a Stormcloak soldier she’d never even met. They’d come willingly, but if anything happened to Vilkas or Farkas because of her… Her father had died to save her, and forgiving herself for that was the hardest thing she would ever have to do, even harder than learning to accept the beast that lived now lived inside her. But no one else she loved would ever die for her again.
She couldn’t even think that thought through. She only knew there would be no acceptance, no forgiveness, no denying the beast that battled within her for her soul.
She would give in to its madness to avenge her new family, tear apart anyone or anything that tried to take them from her. She just hoped it never came to that.