Ria’s boots moved almost inaudibly at his back. Surprisingly, she hadn’t said anything at all since they left Whiterun two hours earlier, and he’d barely even known she was behind him. He felt guilty for having terrified her, but glad for her silence. He’d only brought her along to keep himself in line. As badly as he wanted to rampage in beastform across the southern plains between Whiterun and Falkreath, having a shield-sister beside him would keep the beast at bay. Would keep him from breaking the eleven-month resistance he’d endured at Kodlak’s behest.
His shield-sister’s presence did not, however, curb the endless stream of angry thoughts rolling through his mind. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d thought about gripping his brother’s thick neck and choking the very life out of him, or better yet tearing that throat out with his teeth.
It was a stupid nickname, one only his dimwitted brother would think to call her. Shortening the beautiful flow of her full given name to something easy enough that he’d be less likely to forget who he was bedding probably felt like a brilliant strategy to Farkas. Vilkas thought it was a grave injustice that made her sound more like a four-hundred pound horker than a pure and delicate flower from some distant elven land. Her parents probably cringed in their graves every time he called her that.
He was probably defiling her as they walked. Suffocating her under that big, hairy body of his and murmuring promises he’d never keep. Setting her up for a life of loneliness and despair. Gods, the worst part about it was that he only needed to close his eyes in order to see them together. Her slim, toned body writhing beneath his brother, eyes half-closed in exultation, fingernails digging into his back, swollen mouth slightly open as whispered moans of pleasure escaped her.
It made him want to vomit, and once more Vilkas could feel both hands clenching into fists at his sides, knuckles throbbing under the pressure of his rage. As a child his overactive imagination had brought him and his brother endless hours of excitement and adventure. As a man that imagination would surely be the death of him, or at the very least a gateway into madness.
After nearly four hours of silent walking the city of Falkreath rose in the distance and Ria finally spoke. “I thought we were hunting.”
“I changed my mind.”
“Oh,” she said softly. “Well, okay then.”
Damn right it was okay. But he said nothing else to her, only walked straight into Falkreath offering a nod to the guard who called out, “Hail Companions,” as they passed through the open gates into the city. “You didn’t happen to see a dog on the road, did you?”
Vilkas’s hackles immediately went up. The Companions’ curse may have been the best kept secret in all of Skyrim, but everyone seemed to have something clever to say about it. Most guards asked if he had fur coming out of his ears, and the authorities in Whiterun liked to rib them about keeping the dogs up at Jorrvaskr from howling all night, but if even one of them knew what they were really dealing with it wouldn’t be pretty for anyone.
“No,” Ria shook her head. “No dogs. There were a few wolves just north of the road, but we didn’t see any dogs. Why do you ask?”
“Oh,” the guard shrugged. “The blacksmith, Lod, is looking for a dog or something. Asked us to keep an eye out. He’s offering a reward to anyone with information. You should stop by his shop if you’re interested.”
“All right, we’ll stop and see him,” she said in that gentle, friendly tone of hers. “Thank you.”
Vilkas wasn’t in the mood to help anyone, and for the first time in a long time not even the promise of a hefty coin purse could persuade him otherwise.
When he walked right by the smithy without stopping, Ria cleared her throat behind him and said, “I can go and talk to him if you want.”
“I’m not a dog catcher,” he barked over his shoulder at her and she flinched.
“I know, but I just thought… We’re the Companions,” she reminded him. “Helping people is what we do.”
If she saw his gaze arc sarcastically skyward, she didn’t acknowledge it, only stared at him blinking those big brown eyes of hers. “You can go chase down stray dogs if you like. I’ll be at the tavern having a drink.” Turning away from her, Vilkas marched toward the Dead Man’s Drink and climbed the stairs. As he reached for the door handle he saw her still standing in the street, her face twisted in confusion, loose hands slightly twitching at her sides as if she didn’t know what to do.
“Welcome Companion.” Valga Vinicia leaned across the counter as he approached, the relaxed angle of her body and the low cut of her tavern dress exposing enough cleavage that even the most wretched and impure of men might have blushed. “I haven’t seen you down here in a while. You after another dangerous escaped criminal?”
“I’m after a drink, actually.”
Valga always flirted with the Companions, and at least half of them had bedded the wench, including his brother. He wondered if Luthien knew about that. If she had even half an idea about the kind of man she’d committed herself to for the rest of her life. If she realized how easily Farkas got bored.
“One mug of mead coming right up.”
“And a shot of Colovian Brandy.”
“Well,” she pushed off the counter with an astonished grin. “Someone’s drowning his troubles today. You guys lose another Companion?”
“Something like that.” He scowled, snatching the mead as she slid it toward him. “Keep them coming, Valga. I’m very thirsty.”
“You’ve got it.”
The Deadman’s Drink was a depressing place; it was one of the reasons he’d headed there to wallow. He couldn’t get drunk at the Bannered Mare without criticism from everyone who knew him and even though it was a little closer to home the mead at the tavern in Riverwood was rotgut awful. But Valga always had good mead and the atmosphere of her tavern coincided perfectly with his mood. Maybe he’d even pick a fight after he had a few more in him and pound out his frustrations on a stranger.
He was on his third round when Ria came tentatively inching into the tavern, excusing herself as she pushed shyly past a brawny Nord on his way out and scanning the small crowd of miserable faces until she found his. She smiled, a sight that should have tugged some string inside him and cheered him a little, but it only made him scowl. Nothing ever got Ria down.
Bumping through the thinning crowd, she signaled for Valga to bring her a drink and lifted her leg to climb over the bench across from him. “So I talked to the blacksmith and he gave me some scraps of meat to lure in this dog he lost. I felt sort of sad for him, you know? He’s so lonely, doesn’t have anyone else, so I told him I’d do it.”
Vilkas didn’t say anything, just stared at her over his tankard and tried to remember why it was so important that he’d brought her along with him in the first place.
Even though he didn’t respond, Ria kept talking, going on about how she went out to the road and laid out these scraps of meat then ducked back in behind the trees to watch and wait. “And then this huge hound comes running up the path to sniff them out, and I swear on Shor’s good name, Vilkas, he looked around like he was waiting for someone to come out and trick him. Then he saw me and he said he was waiting for me to come along and he wanted me to help him.”
Leaning back in the chair, Vilkas looked down into his half-empty cup and then shook his head. “Valga, I need another drink.”
“I guess his name is Barbas and he has a problem. Him and his master had a bit of a falling out and he wants help trying to make amends. He’s the cutest little thing. I can’t imagine why anyone would send him off into the world by himself like that… I mean, he is a bit rough around the edges and all, but…”
“And I was starting to think I had too much to drink,” he sneered across the table at her.
“I knew you’d think I was crazy,” she chuckled good-naturedly and reached for the tankard the barmaid lowered onto the table in front of her. “I thought I was crazy at first too, I mean a talking dog and all that. That’s certainly not something you see every day… or ever, really, but then he told me who his master was and I lost all doubts. Turns out he belongs to Clavicus Vile.”
“Oh, good grief,” he muttered, swallowing what was left in his cup and reaching for the full one. “How many times have I told you not to get involved with the Daedra, Ria?”
“Oh, I didn’t get involved,” she said, sipping daintily at her mead. “I remembered exactly what you told me and I told that dog I was real sorry, but he was on his own. The last thing I need right now is to get on some Daedric Prince’s bad side. Anyway, I told the blacksmith I couldn’t catch him and he paid me anyway for my efforts. Said I was the only one who even offered to help him at all, which I just don’t understand. I mean, I know as Companions helping people is our sworn duty, but if more people just put a little bit of effort into lending one another a hand, this world would be a lot better for the living.” She lowered a hefty sack of coin onto the table and pushed it toward him. “Five-hundred gold Septims. I figured it was only fair that I turned this over to you so you can make sure the treasury gets a cut.”
He just stared at the gold on the table, trying to bend his mind around her logic. “Keep your money, Ria. You earned it.”
Two tankards and three shots later, the sun was going down and for the first time since he’d climbed the steps of Jorrvaskr to find his oblivious brother standing next to the woman he loved, Vilkas felt very little pain. He was just holding his hand up to have Valga bring him yet another round when Ria reached for his wrist and lowered his arm to the table with a gentleness meant to keep him calm.
“Vilkas, you know I’d never question you on anything, but you’ve had an awful lot to drink today. More than I’ve ever seen you put away in one sitting.” The thing lines of her brow furrowed over her dark eyes, flares of worry lighting inside their depths as she tilted her head to look at him. “Is something bothering you?”
“Everything bothers me,” he growled, tugging his forearm out of her grip. “Right now you’re bothering me.”
“You know I don’t mean to.” Her tentative fingers curled on the tabletop, but her eyes never left his face. “It’s just that I’m getting worried about you. You’ve been acting so very strange all day…”
“And that is your business because…”
“Because I’m your friend, Vilkas. If something’s bothering you, you can talk to me.”
Laughter scuffed through the rawness in his throat. “Talk to you…” he muttered. “Yeah right.”
“No, really, you can. I’m a good listener,” she said, those curling fingers inching across the table until they lowered once more over his forearm. “And maybe you don’t think I’m very smart, but I know what you’re going through.”
“You have no idea what I’m going through.”
And how could she possibly understand the raging blood boiling inside his veins, the longing to just give into a beast he could never control if he let it run wild and free the way it wanted to. He’d rampage all the way back to Whiterun and storm the gates, hunt his brother down like prey and tear him apart in a savage disaster…
Her gentle hand smoothed up the bare skin of his arm, through the soft hairs there before drifting back down to rest over his hand. “I know you liked her,” she murmured so softly it almost wrenched his heart from his chest.
“You know nothing.”
“I used to watch you watching her in the practice yard, the way you’d follow her with your eyes, the smile you tried to hide from everyone whenever she would walk into the mead hall after returning from a job…” Drawing in a deep breath, she held it for a long time and then she sighed it free. “I wanted to hate her for that, for catching your eye in a way I knew I never could, but even more than that I wanted to hate her for the pain she seemed to cause you without ever even realizing it.”
Discomfort mingled with his pain and he knew he should have pulled his arm away from her touch but it sent chills rippling through him, sparked something inside him he had never allowed himself to give into with any woman because women were a fatal distraction. Their softness dulled a warrior’s senses and made him weak, a weakness he couldn’t afford to embrace until he was sure she was a woman worth dying for. He’d seen the way they made his brother stupid, how difficult it was for Farkas to focus after he set his sights on one of them.
Vilkas always told himself when the right distraction came along he would give in without regret because he loved her, but now that distraction belonged to his brother.
“But I’ve also seen the two of them together, Vilkas,” she went on. “I watched them just the same, and this is different. I’ve never seen Farkas act this way with anyone else. He really cares for her…”
“If your aim was to comfort me, you missed your mark.”
“I know there’s no comfort in knowing the one you love loves someone else.” Her voice was so soft, filled with so much pain that for a moment it touched him in ways he’d never expected. “Believe me, I know that better than anyone because I’ve loved you for so long, Vilkas, and it broke my heart when I realized how you felt about her.”
Maybe it was the mead, but when her gentle mouth came into his Vilkas let her kiss him. His stiff mouth softened, lips parting against hers in the most inappropriate display of public affection he should have been ashamed, but instead he let the peaceful calm of her devotion to him quiet his raging spirit. She tasted of mead, bitter and sweet and when the smooth velvet of her tongue pressed into his mouth the electricity of excitement burned through him.
It was wrong. Everything about it felt wicked and cruel because he didn’t love her, would never love her, but he wanted her. Wanted to escape into the welcoming warmth of her and bury his sorrows until they were little more than a dull, throbbing ache inside him.
He should have stopped it, but when he felt the smooth palm of her hand on his thigh beneath the table it awakened a whole new side of his beast and that monster would not be denied. Hand lowering onto hers, he squeezed her fingers so tight it must have hurt, but she didn’t shy away from his cruelty. She embraced it, gasping eagerly against his kiss.
When he finally drew back to look at her, he knew she was his. That she would let him do whatever he wanted without protest, would let him lay his sorrow inside her and forget for just a moment.
“I… I don’t love you. I never will.”
There was a flash of hurt in her eyes, a momentary twinge of regretful acceptance and then she nodded her head and said, “I know that.”
After dropping ten Septims on the bar, he led Ria into the private darkness of the room on the left and closed the door. He’d barely latched it into place when she drew his body close to hers, her eager mouth seeking his while desperate hands worked the straps and buckles on his armor. In the dark he could pretend she was someone else, imagine she was the woman he loved and he was finally giving the most sacred part of himself to her just like he’d dreamed of doing every night since he’d first laid eyes on her.
Pushing her back into the soft hay mattress, he fell in above her and lost himself completely to the moment. The fleshy crush of her thighs as she wrapped herself around him and drew him in, the heated murmur of her breath against his face. He fell into rhythm with her, ignoring the guilt of his own conscience and letting the feral part of himself take control.
Furious, savage… He was more man than beast for the first time in so long and the beast did not heed to notions of remorse or regret. It spoke only of hunger and need, of freedom from self-inflicted pain and brutal release from restraint.
Her whimpering cries told of the most pleasurable pain, a sound that only seemed to spur the beast on until he could literally feel himself outside the act itself, a prisoner enslaved to his own dark passion. He never imagined something so wrong could feel so good, that giving into his own darkness could temporarily free him, and yet every time the guilt tried to rear its ugly head he bore down harder, crushing her soft frame beneath him until at long last he roared triumphant release and let his exhausted body fall into hers.
The moment he let it all go, reason resumed and he guiltily rolled away from her, onto his back on the other side of the bed. He’d never imagined he would finally give himself over to a woman he felt absolutely nothing for. Some romantic fool inside had always believed it should have been sacred, only with a woman he loved, but that woman would never touch him, never be his.
His heavy head swam between inebriation, remorse and bitter sorrow. His conscience rose slowly through it all as he listened to the ragged sound of her breath in the dark. She laughed a little, a playful, sated sound and then he felt her body shift atop the mattress. Her arm draped across his bare chest, fingers tracing softly across his skin, but he did not hold her. He barely even acknowledged that she was there.