Vilkas hated picking locks. Even when it came down to saving another’s life, the whole notion of jiggling open a lock without the key that had been made for it felt wrong and dirty, the kind of task only thieves and criminals performed, not seasoned warriors with honor and integrity.
The pick snapped against the tight tumblers and he cursed under his breath, lifting an annoyed stare toward the young woman on the other side of the bars. She swallowed when she met his gaze and shrank back a little as if she expected him to yell at her for getting herself kidnapped, but he said nothing.
“Here,” Ria stepped up beside him. “Do you want me to take a crack at it?” Raising that dark, angry stare in her direction she held up her hands and shuffled back to let him finish what he’d started.
He had four lockpicks left and absolutely no patience at all.
“Don’t worry,” she comforted the girl. “We’ll have you out of there and on our way back to Falkreath in no time.”
“Please,” she whimpered softly. “Hurry. I just want to go home.”
Another pick snapped in his hands and he drew a deep breath in through his nose, holding it in his lungs for several seconds while he counted backwards slowly from ten. The beast didn’t like the backwards from ten game he used to calm himself. It would much rather emerge and hammer at the bars until they bent under the monumental force of his rage, but he would not give in.
Steadying his hand and his temper, he opened his eyes again and refocused his attention on the lock in front of him. He was so close, had found the point where the lock began to give. All he needed was to find the right turning point and… freedom. The subtle click of release was sweet music to his ears and he actually sighed relief before rising from where he knelt, opening the cage door and hold a steady hand to the young woman inside.
“My apologies,” he said softly.
“No need to apologize.” She avoided his eyes as if she were frightened of him and a cold dose of guilt trickled through him as she edged her way toward Ria for comfort. “Just get me home, please.”
As if he could just snap his fingers and transport her magically back to Falkreath.
It was three days’ journey at least, and only if the girl could actually keep up with their steady pacing on the road. Judging from the way she ambled out of the cave, he calculated it would take them at least four days, but more likely five.
Shoulders slumping, he rolled his eyes at Ria when she offered a consoling grin and then she reached out to pat his back before following their charge outside.
The sun was just coming up over the horizon as they kicked their way through the two dead bandits who’d kidnapped the girl on their way out. Pausing at the edge of the cave, he lifted a hand to shield his eyes and scanned to landscape with breathless appreciation. Vilkas had always been a true Nord at heart, the greatest part of him reveling in deep appreciation every time he caught the sun rising over the icy mountains. Its pure white light glinted off endless miles of snow in such a way a lesser man not born of those elements might fear he’d go blind, but a son of Skyrim would never make such a witless complaint.
Glancing over his shoulder he saw Ria squinting, her hand immediately rising to shade not just the glow but the gusts of wind forcing sharp crystals of frigid snow into their faces. A braid of dark brown hair danced and swayed against her round cheek, the frayed tip brushing against the blood red war paint beneath her eyes.
“It’s a good thing we’re walking with the sun at our backs for now,” she said in that vibrant, chipper voice she used no matter the situation. Ria was an optimist, and while her cheerful positivity annoyed him more often than not, for a pessimist like him having her around tipped the scale of his mood just enough to make him feel almost balanced.
“Come on,” he urged them both. “We have a long road ahead of us.”
It turned out his assumption was correct. A trip that would have taken just him and Ria a mere three days to achieve wound up taking five days. The young woman whined and complained almost ceaselessly about how she just wanted to go home and see her father, and yet she refused to move much faster than a slow crawl.
At night while he watched over their camp he had very dishonorable thoughts about leaving the sniveling princess to find her own way home, and several times he swore the ornery beast laughed at the very notion and urged him to do it. Leave her to the beasts and bandits; let a dragon swoop down from the sky and snap her up in its jaws.
She’ll probably just get kidnapped again and you’ll be forced to go and rescue her in a few weeks, but if we let her get eaten, or maybe we could eat her ourselves…
He actually said the words out loud, the sudden sound of his own voice in the silent night startling him where he sat. Fortunately no one else in their little camp heard him, and neither did any of the night beasts wandering nearby. When he drew a deep breath of frigid air into his lungs he felt his nostrils flare a little, but there was no release from tension when he sighed it back into the night in a puffing silver cloud of eternal frustration.
He wondered if the beast within his brother ever said such wretched things, and then guessed it probably didn’t considering how at ease Farkas seemed to be in his own skin. It was easy for him to give over to the animal inside. Luthien, on the other hand… he didn’t understand how she could live the way she did—half in, half out, always at odds with herself and her choices.
Vilkas had rampaged before, slaughtered enemies like a berserker with no method to his madness at all, only uncontrollable hunger and blinding vengeance for blood.
At the time he’d thrived on giving over to the beast completely and allowing it to run him almost rampant, but in the end the old man had brought him around to face his deeds with new perspective. There was no honor in the blood, no integrity, and if he did not learn to get the monster inside him under control he would wind up a target—no longer the hunter, but the hunted running for his life and regretting his deeds.
He didn’t want to see that happen to Luthien, or his brother, and yet they both seemed oddly at peace when they were together. As if the balance of their emotional attachment to one another evened out the madness that came with holding a second spirit within the body.
Was that what happened when a wolf found his mate? He supposed he’d never know.
The girl took off as soon as they were within view of Falkreath on the evening of the fifth day of travel, and Ria raced after her to make sure she got home safely, but Vilkas took his time, following a strange procession of guards dragging a man in bloodied rags back into the city while he howled and screamed in lament.
“It was a mistake,” the man bellowed. “I couldn’t stop… I tried…”
“Murderer!” a woman wailed before picking up a heavy stone and lobbing it at the prisoner. “I hope they hang you for what you did.”
Sidling up to one of the guards near the city’s entrance, Vilkas paused to watching the scene. Townspeople lined the streets, hurling stones and rotting produce at the man in the procession, screaming curses and promises that if the executioner didn’t kill him, they would.
“What’s going on here?”
“Werewolf,” the guard muttered, immediately setting Vilkas’s teeth on edge. “That vagrant there turned into a beast in broad daylight and mauled a defenseless little girl out by the lumber mill. Took six of our men to track him down and drag him back here to make him pay for his crime. Her family demands retribution.”
“All right, everyone, go back into your homes and let the law deal with this killer.”
“Ysmir’s beard.” He swallowed hard against the rising dread tightening his throat and chest. “And people saw him… you know… change?”
“Aye,” he nodded, pushing into the crowd in an effort to control it. “It will be up to Jarl Siddgeir to decide his fate now, but these people won’t be happy until they have blood. And can you blame them? I don’t’ know what this world is coming to, but our children are no longer safe in it.”
The mob surged forward, angry arms reaching in to try and grasp at the prisoner through the flank of guards.
Ria had seen their charge safely into the city and was just making her way back to meet with him when he watched her get caught up in the angry mob as they charged the protective unit of guards leading their prisoner to the barracks. She immediately sprinted into action, bringing her shield up to protect the prisoner and assisting the guards in their effort to bring the man to safety. Vilkas cut through the crowd to catch up with her, lifting the bulk of his shield to provide them with added protection, following when they scuffled into the prison and closed the doors to lock the townspeople out.
“We knew it was going to be a gods damned witch hunt,” one of the men growled, jerking the prisoner further into the barracks and dragging him toward his cell. As he brushed by, Vilkas’s keen sense of smell confirmed the accusations, the musk of beast permeated the air between them and for a moment the two monsters regarded one another. He felt the beast’s hackles rise in snarling challenge inside him, and the inferior monster before him shrank into the guard, sniveling and trembling in fear.
“I still say we should have taken care of him outside the city and brought his corpse back to satisfy their thirst for blood.”
The guard he’d been talking to in the streets approached. “Thank you both for your assistance out there, Companions. Without your help, we may not have gotten our prisoner safely into the barracks.”
“If his crime was truly as severe as you say, perhaps you should have let the people have him,” Vilkas mused, a hint of bitterness in his voice that was not lost on Ria, or the wolf within. The beast stirred angrily inside him, pressing against his soul with unspoken warning. “A crime like that deserves to be punished.”
“As much as I agree with you, that is for the Jarl to decide. Here, I know it isn’t much, but reward yourselves with a drink or two over at the Dead Man’s Drink.” He dropped a handful of coin into Ria’s palm and sent them on their way, his fellow companion following two steps behind him as they made their way back into the streets.