The interior of Northwatch Keep was eerily quiet, the wall sconces lighting up the stone walls and offering a sense of warmth they could all feel immediately flushing their cheeks and trickling through to thaw their frigid blood inside their veins. Arms at the ready, they took out two Thalmor soldiers just inside the doors and then slunk down to make their way two by two stealthily through the silent corridors and down the stairs.
From time to time she found herself glancing toward Farkas and he would meet her gaze, eyes alight with adventure and thirst for battle. She was still so new to the ways of the warrior, and yet he’d taught her so much in such a short time, stood beside her while she honed her skill and prowess for battle, grown confident enough in her abilities that he didn’t feel the need to linger over her shoulder whenever they faced an enemy.
Catching Vilkas’s gaze over her shoulder before she returned her stare forward, she felt secure in the knowledge that with her shield-brothers beside her they could face anything and come out triumphant.
The beast within caught the archer’s scent and paused, holding her arm out to stop her pack and then gesturing forward. One by one, they nodded, and Farkas drew out his bow, coating the tip of the arrow in his hand with more magicka poison and then lining the sight. They watched, waiting for the patrol ahead to shift position and pause near the door again so he could take a good shot at her, but there was no telling what or who waited beyond that door frame.
He loosed the arrow and it whistled through the air before connecting with the shoulder of the elven archer and damaging her best chance at attack. She spun around, her good hand alight with dull magic as she called out, “I thought I heard something,” and started into the hallway to face them.
The minute she confirmed their presence she unleashed a fireball, but Farkas had already lifted his shield to protect himself. Luthien swung into battle, cutting the woman down before her magic could recharge. In the distance she heard more soldiers coming to inspect the trouble. Vilkas pushed past her with his warhammer drawn, Avulstein beside him as they tore into the reinforcements before they even knew what hit them.
“All right?” she asked Farkas, who was shaking the burn of his own shield off, wiggling his fingers until he could feel them again.
He nodded once, and then joined her in pursuit of his brother, but by the time they’d arrived in the tavern room, Vilkas and Avulstein had taken out the three elves who’d been leisurely relaxing there. They headed into the chamber and up the stairs, scanning the hallways until they heard sounds of life just up ahead. Luthien headed right, following those voices until she found herself in a hall filled with cells, two Thalmor Justiciar’s standing guard.
She cursed under her breath, ducking back into the shadows before they could see her and muttering the word, “Justiciars,” over her shoulder to Farkas, who passed the word down the line. She held up two fingers to show them how many and glanced back to find Vilkas scowling over his brother’s shoulder.
Soldiers were one thing, but the Thalmor Justiciars were ten times more dangerous, their skill with magic not easily thwarted by poisons, the only advantage the Companions would have against them was their obvious lack of protective armor. Justiciars wore only robes, enchanted to bolster their magical affiliation, but if they could just get close enough there was nothing but fabric between their weapons and Thalmor flesh and bone.
Backing up into the hallway, the four of them huddled together to create a gameplan. Arrows tipped in magicka poison would only do so much, but if they each coated every weapon they had, they might make an impact. They silently readied their weapons with the last of Luthien’s supplies, and then Vilkas gestured that he and Avulstein would take out the first guard while she and Farkas focused their efforts on the second.
Her heart thundered inside her chest, every breath feeling so loud in her ears she swore her fear would give them all away and get them killed. With trembling fingers she lined the divet of an arrow along the string of her bow and centered it on the Justiciar near the far door. Farkas did the same, turning a smile toward her that bolstered her confidence and made her feel like she could do anything, and then he nodded that he was ready.
She let her arrow fly less than a second after he unleashed his, but both hit the mark. Hers lodged into the right shoulder, Farkas’s in the man’s left thigh. He spun around, electric heat sizzling in the balls of white magic that formed in his palms and without aim he began shooting in their direction. She braced herself for it, gritting her teeth against the pain and charging forward with her sword arm at the ready. She hacked and battered at the man, who kept shooting bolts of lightning through her, never backing down until he was on the ground. She hacked off his hand, and Farkas fell in on her left, sinking the blade of his axe into the Justiciar’s chest.
At her back she could hear Vilkas battering and slamming his warhammer into the dead Thalmor he and Avulstein had taken on, a surprising anger overtaking him as he shouted, “Skyrim…belongs…to the… NORDS!”
“Vilkas!” Farkas ran toward his brother. “Vilkas, I think you got him.”
Luthien approached slowly, turning her head away from black and gold-robed pile of pulp and bone that was no longer distinguishable as man. She’d trained with Vilkas, had seen the meticulous fury of his sword arm in battle against the Silver Hand and the dragon they’d faced on their travels, but this was the first time she had ever seen the extent of his power. When he lifted his eyes to meet with his brother’s, there was nothing but darkness and unrestrained animal hate inside him and Luthien knew then what would happen to her if she ever gave up the hunt and tried to hold her beast back.
“You did well, brother.” Farkas curled his hand around Vilkas’s shoulder, gripping tight.
Avulstein had already rushed past them and when Luthien turned over her shoulder to start toward him she saw he’d knelt beside a young man shackled to the walls, head buried in his shoulder as he tried to hide his shameful tears.
“I came as soon as I could, little brother,” she heard Avulstein say as she approached and knelt on his other side to release the shackles that held him in place.
“You’re going to be all right now, Thorald,” she murmured, easing him with Avulstein’s help to the stone floor beneath his knees. “We’re friends.”
“Friends?” Lifting his swollen eyes toward her, she reached down inside her for what little magicka she actually possessed and summoned one of the few spells she knew. Healing him with her hands, he relaxed, the wounds and bruises disappearing from his face and shoulders, the cuts that marred his arms and legs dissolving as new flesh grew over them.
With a grateful groan, he relaxed against his brother’s chest just as Luthien felt the last of her magic drain away. She leaned back to look at him, tilting her head as she realized the youngest of Eorlund Gray-Mane’s sons looked more like his father than Avulstein.
“Lu,” Farkas called. “I’m taking Vilkas outside for some air.”
She nodded, watching him lift his brother’s arm across his broad shoulders as he led the man back out the way they came.
“Who are you?” Thorald asked, turning to look up at her again.
“There’s no time for that now. We’ll talk once we get you safely away from here.”
He started to protest, but Avulstein gripped him a little and said, “You can trust her, Thorald. I swear it.”
Together they helped the man to his feet and through the Keep, through the tangled mess of bodies they’d left in their wake on the way to come and find him. When they finally pushed through the doors and into the snowblindingly bright afternoon, Luthien almost groaned out loud when the cold cut through her again. Avulstein and Thorald followed her to where Vilkas and Farkas rested, Vilkas looking much calmer but somewhat ashamed by his own battle-fury.
“I cannot thank you enough,” Thorald turned to her. “I suspect I’d never have seen the light of day otherwise.”
“Hey,” Avulstein grumbled. “I wasn’t going to let you die in there.”
“Brother,” Thorald shook his head. “They told me you were dead, that’d you’d cracked under torture and told them all our secrets. I’d lost all hope of ever seeing anyone in my family again, most especially you.”
“Mother would have killed me if I didn’t get you out of there.” The brothers embraced and for a moment Luthien just stood back watching them with such warmth and peace inside her it almost overwhelmed her.
When Thorald withdrew, he looked to her again. “Why would you risk your life for me? A stranger?”
“Because she’s a Companion,” Vilkas spoke up, rising from where he rested and stalking toward them with Farkas at his side. “And that’s what the Companions do.”
“Vilkas? Farkas?” For a moment Thorald’s tears nearly betrayed him, but he blinked furiously against them and shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re here. The Companions would never get involved. Father wouldn’t let them.”
“Your father doesn’t know we’re here,” Luthien told him. “It was your mother who asked for my help, and even though Avulstein didn’t trust me, I couldn’t let your family down. Not after everything your father’s done for me, for the Companions.”
“I should have known this was al Avulstein’s idea,” he forced a grin. “He never could let me get into trouble. Our mother probably dragged him around by his ear until he agreed to come back for me.”
“She’s so worried about you,” Luthien said. “She’ll be so happy to see you.”
The brothers exchanged wary glances. What little color that had returned to Thorald’s pale face immediately washed from his skin as he looked down at his feet. “I’m afraid it isn’t safe for me to return to Whiterun, Avulstein neither. Our best hope now is to fall into the ranks of the Stormcloaks and take shelter behind Ulfric’s defenses.”
“What about your mother? She’s sick with grief…”
“My mother will understand.”
“I don’t think she will.”
“Please, you must make her understand. Tell her this for me, tell her to suffer the winter’s cold wind because it bears aloft next summer’s seeds.” Before she could protest, he reached out and lowered a hand over hers and assured her, “She’ll know what it means.”
“I will tell her,” she agreed.
“I thank you again, friends,” he looked between the Companions. “You’ve given me my life back.”
“Come on, brother,” Avulstein steered him toward the gates. “There’s a Stormcloak camp a few clicks east of here. Arrald Frozen-Heart and his men are waiting for us to bring them news of our victory here.”
Luthien stood between her shield-brothers, watching Avulstein and Thorald walking through the snow. She felt oddly at peace with what they’d done, and she only hoped Vilkas and Farkas did too. When she turned around to face them, she couldn’t tell and she didn’t know how to ask without sounding foolish.
“We should head home,” Vilkas finally said. “There’s no telling when the Thalmor will send reinforcements to the Keep and I would rather not get caught here any longer than necessary.”
“Are you all right?” she asked him, noting how vehemently he refused to make eye contact when she searched his face.
“I’m fine,” he shrugged. “Come on.”
She looked to Farkas for confirmation, but her husband just shook his head as if to say he couldn’t tell and then he steered her by the shoulder after Vilkas into the snow.