The mild warmth of Solitude gave way to frigid wind and ice as the trio traveled further north through the mountains and made their way closer to the Sea of Ghosts. Even with the frost resistance of their Nord Blood, the Companions shivered inside their armor. Farkas’s teeth chattered beside her and Luthien’s own jaw clenched so tight against the impulse she could feel her temples throb with a tension headache.
At one point even proud Vilkas muttered, “I never did see much use for magic so long as I could reach for my weapon, but this cold is like to freeze my hammer in my hands. I could see the usefulness of a good warming spell right about now.”
“Just give me a warm mug of mead to take the edge off and I’ll be fine,” Farkas mumbled.
Luthien silently agreed.
She watched as Northwatch Keep became visible in the distance and began searching the horizon for signs of an encampment where they might find Avulstein and his men. There were no columns of camp smoke spiraling toward the sky, and under her breath she blessed the gods that the man wasn’t stupid enough to build a fire.
Luthien stopped atop the hill overlooking the frozen valley and scanned the landscape. There wasn’t much that far north, save for tundra and dangerous sea, but her eye caught the distant shadow of an ancient castle and she immediately felt tremors of dread rumble through her as her gaze lingered over it. She took out her map, squinting against the pelting ice that swirled relentless around their faces. She tapped her nail against Northwatch Keep on the parchment and then surveyed the land again to judge the distance of that castle, but when she returned her gaze to the map there was no castle marker indicating any structures beyond the Keep.
She didn’t know why that castle made her feel so strange, but it wasn’t until she felt Farkas’s gloved hand on her shoulder that she tore her gaze away.
“What is that castle up there?” she asked, gesturing toward it with her head. “It’s not on the map.”
“Search me,” he shrugged.
Turning to look at Vilkas, he followed the length of her finger northwest, tilting his head before shaking it and leaning over her opposite shoulder to look at the map. “It’s probably nothing important,” he said. “Nothing for us to worry about. I’ve hunted in these parts before. It isn’t on the map, but there is a cave just west of here.” His fingertip tapped the parchment to indicate the cave’s location and Luthien turned over her shoulder to search for signs of it. “He was never smart enough to come in from the cold, but perhaps Avulstein and his men wait for us there.”
“It’s a start,” she agreed, and folding up the map to return it to her pack, the three of them headed further west to search for Avulstein.
Guarded by a great white bear that immediately smelled them for exactly what they were, it charged forward on its hind legs, roaring warning before dropping down on all fours and rushing out to meet them. The Companions made short work of the beast, Luthien hunching down to cut off its claws for potions before climbing the craggy slope leading into the cave.
A Redguard bandit lay frozen at the gaping entrance, the claw-wounds on his chest stiff with crystallized blood and his ever-seeing eyes wide in glassy horror as they stared toward the cloud-obscured sky. His tongue was dark blue and swollen in his mouth and his preserved skin was only a bright shade lighter in color. “This guy’s been here for a while,” she bent over him, sniffing.
“See if you can find out how long,” Vilkas ordered. “We’ll have a look inside. What better place to hide than in a cave guarded by a dead man?”
Luthien nodded agreement and while the twins delved into the cave she searched the body to try and determine how long he’d been dead. The corpse was frozen solid, the stiff leather of his armor embedded so deep into the ice that she couldn’t wrench him over, but in cold like that he could have been dead anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks.
Turning back toward the ledge, she narrowed her eyes and scanned the tree line below for signs of life and movement. From that vantage point she could see all the way to the keep, which was shadowed in the blizzarding snow, but then she caught it. A flicker of movement. Raising her face into the wind, she breathed deep, sniffing until she caught subtle hints of leather, sweat and ale.
“Guys, I think I found something,” she called back over her shoulder into the cave.
Moments later Farkas poked his head out of the dark cavern. “You say something?”
“I think I found them.”
He emerged and stepped up onto the overlook beside her, following her finger toward the distant figures hidden amongst the trees. Much like she had done, Farkas lifted his nose into the wind and sniffed, wide nostrils flaring with every intake of breath. “That’s them all right,” he nodded, stepping down and leaning back into the cave. “Vilkas, we found them.”
They climbed down from the overlook and moved quietly through the trees, following the scent like a pack of wolves in search of prey. Sneaking in from behind, Avulstein didn’t hear them approach until they were practically on top of them. Paranoia drove the man to rise from where he’d perched and tug the heavy battle ax from his back before dropping his body into a protective stance. The two men he’d brought with him followed suit.
Luthien glanced around the small camp and then met eyes with Avulstein, who relaxed the minute he realized it was them.
“I was about to give up on you guys,” he admitted, lowering the axe over his shoulder again.
“By my calculations, we’re right on time,” she smiled and stepped forward to offer him her hand in greeting.
Avulstein took it, pumping it furiously before nodding greeting over her shoulder at the twins and then breaking free from her grip to gather the brothers into a warm hug. “Thank you so much for this,” he gushed, his voice trembling when he drew back to look between Farkas and Vilkas with tearful eyes. “This means more to my family than you will ever know.”
“Don’t thank us yet,” Vilkas said stiffly and squared his shoulders as he stepped back. “Tell us everything you know about the soldiers guarding the Keep.”
The six of them hunched together in a small circle, enjoying the radiating warmth of their combined heat while they devised a plan of action. Luthien found her gaze lingering over the two men Avulstein had brought with him. Dressed in ragged Stormcloak armor, they were both strong Nord men, but there was an exhaustion in their faces unlike any she’d ever seen.
“There are eight soldiers guarding the exterior,” one of Avulstein’s men spoke up. “Archers, every last one of them.”
“And they’ll be skilled in magic as well, no doubt.” Vilkas spat superstitiously over his shoulder and then nodded to Luthien, who drew out her pack and laid it in the center of their circle.
“I’ve brought magicka resistance potions,” she began pulling out bottles, laying one in front of each man before going on. “This will take the edge off their magical attacks, but it won’t protect us completely and it won’t last for more than a minute or so, so we’ll have to move quickly and take out as many of them as we can before they alert the interior guard to our presence.”
She watched as they reached for the potions, and then she laid a second round on the ground.
“This is magicka poison,” she explained. “Coat your arrows and your blades with it, and a single strike will temporarily deplete the target’s magic reserves and give us a brief advantage.”
“How brief?” Farkas asked.
“Sixty to ninety seconds, at best, and that’s only if we can catch them off guard.”
“We need to hit them where it hurts most if we want to get past them,” Vilkas said, then turned a very serious look to every man in that circle. “I don’t know how many of you have experience fighting Thalmor soldiers, but they are tough as nails and they don’t fight with honor. Stealth is our best course of action,” Vilkas pointed out. “The more of them we can take out on first attack, the more likely we are to get inside that Keep before they’ve been given chance to raise the alarm.” He paused for a moment, as if choosing his next words carefully and then he leveled a steely gaze across the circle at Avulstein. “It is imperative that we get inside undetected, or your brother is as good as dead.”
Avulstein nodded slowly, and then rocked back on his heels. “Let’s show those elven bastards what true Nords are really made of.”
Clapping Avulstein across the back, a rare smile twitched at the corners of Vilkas’s mouth. “That’s the spirit.”
The six rescuers moved as a single, silent unit toward the keep, edging their way through shadows and only breaking formation so that each of them could find an advantageous point of attack. From where she stood several yards away, Luthien watched Farkas draw his bow and line an arrow in the sight and then she reached up to draw the Amulet of Talos from beneath her armor. It was warm in her cold fingers, the otherworldly energy it possessed radiating into her hand and riding up the length of her arm, across her chest and into her heart.
“I know I don’t honor you often enough, Talos, and maybe you don’t even hear the prayers of my kind, but please,” she murmured softly, “see us through this battle with honor, glory and victory.”
She tucked the amulet back into her armor, and then drew her bow. She tugged an arrow from the quiver and rested the notch against the taut string beneath her fingertips. Lining the sight, she scanned the soldiers atop the wall and let it soar. Her keen eyesight followed its length as it soared through the air and connected with the throat of her target, sending the elven woman toppling from the wall and wavering through the air before she landed with a heavy thud beside the guard who lingering near the gates.
The man had little time to make sense of the situation because another arrow sailed in, embedding into his armor and striking just below his heart. Another followed, and another, and the man fell on top of his fellow soldier as the other six guards sprang into action.
Bolts of shock magic sizzled through the air, and Luthien quickly chugged down the resistance potion before ducking behind the tree to shield herself. She restrung her bow and leaned around the tree to get a visual of their scattered positions. She loosed an arrow that grazed the face of an Altmer archer, then ran across the space of field between the line of trees and the Keep to join her fellow soldiers. She returned her bow to her back while she ran, drawing out her shortsword and dagger and spinning into an arched attack that sliced through the armor of the first man she came in contact with.
Over her shoulder she could hear Farkas growling out vicious taunts, slamming his shield into the chest of the man he was fighting. Through gritted teeth he told the man, “This ends now!” A final shove and the Thalmor soldier fell back into the snow. Farkas followed with his war axe, driving it down into the elf’s skull before wrenching it free and falling into battle beside his brother. The two moved as a single unit, their years of training together making them an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.
The air pulsed with magic and the cacophony of battle; the smell of electricity and ozone was quickly overpowered by the rich, fragrant stench of death. She spun into battle with an archer who’d dropped his bow and came charging toward her with an enchanted elven sword at the ready to carve into her shoulder. She blocked his attack with her sword, the clang of metal ringing painfully through her arm but she ignored it and brought her dagger in, connecting with the exposed skin between his breastplate and his arm. She twisted it beneath his armor, the warm flood of his blood sticky as it dripped down her hand before she wrenched it free and lifted her foot to kick him backward. Red spattered against crisp white, bleeding into the snow beneath his body as he gasped for breath.
Luthien brought her shortsword down and sunk it into his throat, listening as he sputtered and gurgled in surprise before his body went slack.
Silence, save for the low howl of the bitter wind.
She turned to survey the scene, a grateful leap in her heart as she saw both twins stalking toward her completely unscathed. She scanned the empty battlefield and saw Avulstein leaning over one of his men, their hands clasped as the man murmured gentle words to ease the soldier’s passing. She sprinted toward them, hunkering down on the other side and quickly rifling through her pack for a healing potion, but he drew his last, ragged and gurgling breath just as she curled her grip around it. His head lolled back in the snow, vacant eyes staring toward the heavens.
And then there were four.
“I’ll see you in Sovngarde, my brother,” Avulstein said gruffly, squeezing his slack fingers one last time before pushing himself up from the ground and turning to overlook the scattered bodies that littered the entryway.
“I’m sorry about your friends.” Luthien stepped up beside him and lowered a lamenting hand on his shoulder.
Avulstein nodded, but he didn’t look at her. “We all knew what we were getting into by coming here. At least he died fighting.”
Vilkas and Farkas arrived in front of them, both men still catching their breath as they approached.
“Is everyone all right?” she asked, drawing out health potions and passing them around.
Vilkas refused her offer with a shake of his head, and she returned it to her satchel before guzzling down her own potion to heal the minor wounds she’d suffered and prepare for the next round of battle.
“My stamina is low,” Farkas told her, and she drew out a philter of green liquid, handing it to her husband and purposely stroking her fingers across his before letting go.
Vilkas cleared his throat. “I’m fairly certain we managed to catch them off guard, which bodes well for the final attack, but these old keeps run deep and there’s no telling where they keep the prisoners. We’ll need strike hard and fast, stay on our guard and move quickly to keep them unaware of our intrusion, otherwise this whole venture could turn out very badly for everyone here.”
Avulstein nodded agreement, and then looked toward the door as he drew in a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
Luthien met eyes with Farkas and he flashed a wolfish grin, his crystal-blue eyes alight with mischief and hunger for blood. “I’m ready,” he agreed.
“I’m ready,” Luthien said, turning to look at Vilkas.
“Then let’s show these elven milk-drinkers what happens you mess with the Companions.”