It had been a week since the Courier brought word from his brother, a brief missive confirming Farkas had found her in a cave near Fort Fellhammer. She was alive, recovering from the trauma of her own dark deeds against the Silver Hand and trying to find the courage to face the Companions again.
They would be home soon.
And when she came home Vilkas was finally going to say the words he’d been afraid to say to her since the moment he realized she was an inevitable truth in his life. He loved her.
He’d known it from the day she’d first walked into Jorrvaskr, but she’d terrified him. Tentative, almost shy as she lingered in the shadow of the doorway like some ragged angel of redemption sent by the Gods to set him free, he’d looked up to find her there and he knew. His heartbeat thumped inside his chest so loud he was sure even Kodlak could hear it, could smell the surge of desire coursing through him just looking at her.
Her sudden appearance in the opened door startled him and wondering what she might have overheard made him nervous and defensive. When she’d asked Kodlak if she could join the Companions he’d made the unintentional mistake of humiliating her.
“Master, you’re not truly considering accepting… her.”
The Gods may have gifted him with more brains than his twin brother, but Farkas had always been better when it came to talking to the fairer sex.
Ria had been their most recent recruit, a young, ambitious huntress with only slightly more brains than his brother, but she was fierce in battle and usually the only time he regretted that they’d let her join them was when she made eyes across the mead hall at him or followed him around asking endless questions about everything that popped into her fragile young mind.
But Luthien he regretted for a whole other swarm of reasons he still didn’t quite understand.
There was nothing fragile about her, save for the underlying trauma she hid behind her long, dark lashes, which he would later come to learn from Skjor was silent longing for vengeance. The Imperial Army stormed her village after Ulfric Stormcloak escaped. They’d accused her father of harboring the Jarl of Windhelm, refusing to believe when he insisted he’d never even met the man. After running him through in front of his wife and daughter, Luthien attacked. They took her prisoner and carted her to Helgen to make an example of her.
He would rely on her obvious longing for vengeance to hold him at bay at first, but on the inside he knew better.
She was breathtaking. Almost as tall as he was, she was a little on the scrawny side, but the muscle beneath her skin spoke of hard work. The tattered Stormcloak armor she wore hung loosely from her frame and the handle of the war axe dangling from her belt was stained with old blood. He wondered how much of that blood had been shed by her hand. Judging from the doe-like innocence of her gaze, he guessed she’d wielded it well enough to get her through whatever hardships brought her to their door.
“I am nobody’s master, Vilkas.” The old man humbled him immediately. “And last I checked we had some empty beds in Jorrvaskr for those with a fire burning in their hearts.”
“Apologies,” he lowered his eyes from the Harbinger, but he could feel the young woman staring at him with eyes that burned like the very fire Kodlak spoke of. “But perhaps now is not the time,” he’d said. “I’ve never even heard of this outsider.”
“Tell me, Luthien,” Kodlak began. “Why do you wish to join the Companions?”
She’d said all the right things to the old man when he questioned her. She felt she had much yet to learn, and hoped the Companions could teach her to be a strong, capable warrior. Those words had touched a part of his heart more than she would ever know. Most people came looking for honor, glory, gold, but not her. She wanted to learn the way of the warrior and quiet the burning of her vengeful heart, and though he was too proud to admit it he knew right then and there he wanted to be the one to teach her.
Kodlak sent her outside with Vilkas to test her mettle, and while her sword arm was in definite need of strengthening she had natural form and an affinity with one-handed weapons that astonished him. She throttled him hard enough with that old war axe to make his shield rattle the bones in his wrist so they throbbed and ached that night while he lay alone in his bed playing over and over all the things he should have said to her before he’d called her a Whelp and sent her running his sword to the Skyeforge for sharpening.
He regretted having told her it was probably worth more than she was, felt guilty for the hurt look his cruel words had brought to her beautiful face.
He’d found plenty of women attractive in his day, but few of them held his interest long after opening their mouths. Most of them often went after his brother anyway. Farkas was much simpler in mind and more likely to get to the point about what he wanted from them.
And his brother wanted this one too, the same way he wanted every pretty thing that moved through Whiterun.
Farkas quickly attached himself to the girl, befriending her the way a lost dog might follow a stranger until she eventually felt sorry for the beast and offered it the scrap of affection it so desperately sought. Night after he night he watched her sit in the mead hall with his brother and Torvar, guzzling mead, trading stories, jokes and laughter. He just listened, learning everything he could about her, becoming hopelessly infatuated with her until he realized she was a terrible distraction and he should just send her away.
A beautiful, red-haired distraction with eyes like molten amber and a laugh so beautiful it made him melt inside every time he heard her giggling over one of his brother’s stupid jokes. For the first time in his adult life Vilkas actually found himself resenting the ease and confidence with which Farkas handled himself around women. Resented his brother for making the girl of his dreams laugh while he sat in the corner scowling at them all for not even asking him to join in their merrymaking and fun.
He’d have given anything to make her laugh, to feel her lean into him with her mead and say, “You’re so funny, Vilkas.”
Instead of making her laugh, he made her uncomfortable. Farkas even told him he’d made her cry at least once that he knew of and then scolded him for almost scaring away a perfectly good warrior who would surely bring honor to them all. While Farkas made her laugh until she snorted—the most adorable sound he’d ever heard—Vilkas made her doubt herself and then he made her question her innocent friendship with his brother.
Of all the Companions, Farkas had actually welcomed her and made her feel like she belonged. He’d been the only one to offer to help her finish a task for the Jarl that nearly got them both killed. If she’d come to him and asked for help, it might have been different, but instead he’d insulted her for enticing his brother and making him reckless and stupid. She’d threatened to crack his skull, his skull, if she ever heard him call Farkas stupid again, a threat that made him even harder on her than he was before.
A quick pupil who wasted no time in winning over Athis, Luthien was always in the practice yard training when she wasn’t working. The ornery elf offered to spend his free time out there teaching her to fluidly handle one-handed weapons in combat situations. Sometimes he found himself watching her from the porch, the way her muscles flexed behind the open spaces in her armor, how she’d huff in frustration before swiping her forearm through the sweat gleaming on her brow. And sometimes when the sunlight would catch in her hair, the thick copper strands glowing red and gold, Gods it took his breath away. Whenever she ever caught him staring at her, instead of being kind he offered criticism.
“You hit an Orc with a swing like that and you’ll bust your own damned arm.”
Once he swore he heard her mutter under her breath, “I’ll bust your damned arm if you don’t shut up.”
That just made him want her more.
She was fire. Pure fire scorching through him every time he was near her; he had never wanted to burn so badly in his life.
She completed every job she was given, only questioned him when he was overly critical of her, and the quivering of her angry lower lip only made him want her more. But no matter how hard on her he was, she was determined to succeed among them, to impress him and win his respect.
And then she’d killed the dragon at the watchtower, absorbing the beast’s soul and garnering the attention of the Greybeards up on High Hrothgar. She was important, a Dragonborn who would bring more glory to the Companions than they’d seen in centuries. The very notion of bringing her into the Inner-Circle made him feel sick, but Skjor and Aela insisted they needed her. When the two of them started to move in on her, Vilkas had done everything in his power to keep her away, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once. He couldn’t protect her from a truth she should never have been exposed to.
She found out about the beastblood from his idiot brother, of all people. The night they returned from retrieving the fragments of Wuuthrad Kodlak named her Companion and Skjor offered her Aela’s cursed blood.
The rest… Well, the rest was tainted history.
She was one of them now, a full-fledged member of the Inner-Circle, and there was no turning back. Her first night out, Skjor had gotten tortured and maimed, murdered by the Silver Hand. His death sparked vengeance between the She-Wolves and they rampaged across Skyrim on a killing spree so brutal they were all surprised the Silver Hand had yet to descend on Jorrvaskr demanding a heavy blood price.
Aela returned without her. She’d lost her at some point and couldn’t pick up her scent again. Believing she was dead, she made for home, but Vilkas knew she was still out there. A part of him knew that he would have felt her death to his very core.
He and his brother spent weeks trying to track her, and Farkas finally found her. He was bringing her home.
All Vilkas had been able to think about over the last seven days was how he’d almost lost her, almost lost the chance to tell her he was sorry, that he would have done everything to protect her if only he’d known… that he loved her. Yes, he loved her and had felt that way about her since the very moment he first laid eyes on her. He wanted to be with her, laugh with her and care for her, stand beside her in whatever battles she had to face as more than just her shield-brother, but more than anything he wanted to give himself to her in ways he’d never done with anyone else.
She’d probably never believe him. She might even laugh in his face, but that was just a chance he had to take. He had to tell her. He’d tell her in front of everybody if he couldn’t get her alone. She just needed to know that all his cruelty, every harsh word he’d ever said to her had been a mistake, a defense against the breaking of his own heart he should have never put in place.
The commotion upstairs caught his attention and combing his fingers through the loose tangles of his hair, Vilkas stepped out of his quarters and glanced up the hallway. “What’s all the racket?” he called to Njada as she walked by.
The woman shrugged. “Apparently Farkas and the Whelp are back.”
His chest tightened, heart skipping inside it as he curtly nodded. Vilkas drew in a deep breath and started to follow her, slowing his footsteps so he didn’t appear too eager. He glanced up and saw Aela disappear into her room, closing the door behind her but not before turning her regretful eyes to meet with his. He scowled at her. She deserved his scorn after everything she’d done, but a part of him actually felt a little guilty upon realizing she knew that. She accepted it, had been punished enough and chose to wallow in her grief alone.
Pushing through the double doors, his brother’s deep voice had never sounded more like music to his ears. He took the stairs two at a time, coming up into the mead hall and seeking them out, his skipping heart now pounding doubly fast inside his chest. He stopped at the top of the stairs and just listened, the hammer in his heart making it difficult to focus, but when he saw her it just grew louder.
He’d expected to find her looking as sullen and downtrodden as Aela, the guilt of their rampage still devouring her from the inside out, but she was smiling almost shyly and staring up at Farkas with the softest, most loving eyes while he spoke.
“…so we’ll be moving into that house down in the Plains District.” Farkas was saying to Tilma.
“It’s just so exciting,” Ria gushed, grabbing Luthien’s arm and tugging her into a warm hug that made the other woman appear even more uncomfortable than she looked before. “But not the least bit unexpected. I always had my suspicions about the two of you. I’m just happy to see I was right.”
“There he is.” Farkas looked up and saw him standing near the stairwell. “Come brother, and share in our good tidings.”
“Good tidings?” There was a heavy, sour feeling in his gut. Every muscle in his body clenched tight as a fist. He wondered if his voice sounded as stiff as it felt in his throat, if his tone gave away the terror he felt upon surmising what good tidings they brought.
“Lu and I just came from Riften,” his brother said with so much pride. “From the Temple of Mara.”
“Is… is that so?”
Vilkas turned to look at Luthien and she shrank a little before lowering her eyes to the floor as if she’d known how much this news would hurt him. She couldn’t have known, couldn’t have possibly guessed. She thought he hated her. The shame she wore was most likely tied to the storm of darkness she and Aela had wrought against the Silver Hand, or the submission of her inner-beast to his as she realized his obvious power over her.
“We’re on our way to talk to Proventus up at Dragonsreach. The Jarl offered Lu property here in Whiterun when he made her thane and we figure since we’re married now, it’d be best if we had our own place. Close enough to Jorrvaskr, but just far enough to give us some privacy.”
Vilkas didn’t know what to say. Didn’t feel like he could offer his brother the praise and congratulations he seemed to be searching for. Both fists clenched at his sides so tight he heard his own knuckles crack and when he swallowed against the dry ache in his throat he swore it felt like he was suffocating.
“I’m sure you’ll both be very happy there.”
Happy. Yes, he was sure they would be very happy and it would only be a matter of weeks before his oblivious brother got bored with the spoils of his latest conquest and moved on to break her heart. He wanted to throttle him, throw him back onto the table behind him and choke him until his face turned blue.
He hadn’t told his brother how he felt, but Farkas knew him better than anyone. He should have known. He should have seen it.
Turning to look at Luthien again, he tried to smile for her, to wish her all the happiness in the world but he couldn’t force it no matter how hard he tried. “You are Inner-Circle now,” he said softly, calmly. “There are even more responsibilities and I’m sure Farkas has already shared them with you, but don’t hesitate to come to me with questions. I know our history almost as well as Vignar by now,” and then a nervous laugh scuffed through him. “Only I can remember it.”
“Hey!” Njada railed. “Why does she get to be in the Inner-Circle? I’ve been here for two years. She’s been here a couple of months. So what, she gets Skjor killed, attaches herself to Farkas and she just gets let into the Circle? That’s bull—”
“Njada,” Vilkas silenced her with nothing more than a look and the woman shrank into herself. “It’s your lack of respect that keeps you from the Inner-Circle.”
“We should go. Lu’s exhausted and we have a lot of things to take care of before we get back to work.” Farkas lowered his arm over his young wife’s shoulder and once more Vilkas noticed how comfortably she seemed to cling to him. As if his very presence was the only thing holding the tattered shreds of her life together. “We just wanted to let everyone know we were home safe and to share our good news, of course.”
“There’s work to be done,” Vilkas reminded them all. “Athis, Torvar, we’ve received a desperate missive…”
And though it looked like he had simply thrown himself into his work, it was all he could do to keep from losing his mind, from allowing the beast inside him to come bursting through his skin to tear apart everything in his path.
His brother. His own twin had swept in and won the heart of the only woman Vilkas had ever allowed himself to feel soft for. Still talking to his shield-brothers about the job he had for them, he glanced up and watched the two of them duck out of Jorrvaskr together, Farkas’s gentleness as he steered her through the doors making him feel dizzy and sick.
It could have been him. Should have been him.
Once he’d doled out all the jobs in his task list, he sat down at the table and poured himself a mug of mead to get him through the next few minutes. He drank it down quick and filled it again while pecking furiously through the rampant train of thought his mind had taken. He could feel the beast pacing the floors of his mind, stalking, huffing, pleading to be let out, begging to rampage across the plains tearing apart everything with a heart that crossed his path.
Had it been just a simple matter of Farkas getting to her first, saving her from her darkness and bringing her back into the light? Or had there always been something between them Vilkas just didn’t want to see? They’d taken to working together whenever they could, and that last job before she’d taken the blood had only served to strengthen whatever bond there’d been between them. He’d watched their friendship blossom from the shadows, brooding and cursing himself for not being more outgoing, for being a tyrant when he should have been her friend.
He slugged back his mug, gulping in furious swallows before filling the mug a third time and staring down into the fire.
“You don’t have any jobs left for me, do you?” Her soft, airy voice dredged him from his anger and when he looked up to see Ria standing beside him Vilkas saw a momentary escape from his sorrows, a fleeting moment of relief from the grief that was sure to overwhelm him.
“No,” he took another drink. “But I’m looking for a hunting partner. Go get your bow and quiver and meet me outside.”
“Really?” Her whole face lit up at the prospect. “You want me to come hunting with you?”
“Sure,” he shrugged, rising from the table. “Why not?” Another mug of mead and he wouldn’t care who came hunting with him, or whether they even hunted at all.
“I know where there’s a great bear den,” she chattered excitedly. “We can bag at least two of the suckers, maybe thr—”
Vilkas grabbed the solid flesh of her bare arms and drew her body against his chest. His hard mouth came down on hers in an angry kiss he thought would momentarily silence the bitterness and anger in his heart, but more importantly silence her before he changed his mind about giving into whatever it was she so desperately wanted from him.
“I don’t care about bears,” he said stiffly. His teeth were clenched so tight it made his temples throb. “I don’t care about anything. Not you, not her… Nothing at all!”
Ria squirmed a little, trying to hide the fear his sudden violent outburst evoked and when he stepped back to look at her he felt ashamed. The apples of her soft, round cheeks blushed bright pink and when he unclenched his fingers from her arms she stammered, “I… I’ll go get my bow then.”
“Yeah,” he muttered, not watching as she walked away. “You do that.”