Vilkas walked into the barracks as if he had every business being there. He scanned the perimeter and made eye contact with the guard who’d thanked them for their assistance before starting toward the man to see if he could be persuaded to let him talk to the prisoner.
“What is it, Companion?”
“I’d like to talk to the prisoner,” he said confidently.
“What do you want with him? I’ve already told you his fate is to be decided by the jarl. Now move along.”
“I only wish to talk to him about some of the rumors I’ve heard here in town, to confirm if any of them are true.”
“You mean the werewolf rumors?” The guard quirked an eyebrow. “Just look into that cell and watch the way he paces the floor. If that’s not proof enough of animal madness, what more could you possibly need?” He hesitated for a moment, following Vilkas’s gaze into the holding area and then clearing his throat. “But if you only wish to satisfy some morbid curiosity, I suppose there’s no harm in it. You’ve got five minutes, Companion, and then I’m going to have to ask you to move along.”
“Thank you.” He bowed his head respectfully and followed his feet through the barracks.
The guard had called it morbid curiosity; the man inside Vilkas supposed that was true. He was curious, but he was also terrified. Some part of him had come to fear losing control, the beast inside him growing stronger as it paced the tightly controlled confines of his soul the way Sinding stalked the small space of that cell.
He could tell himself fear for Farkas and Luthien drove his curiosity, but in truth he knew better.
What if the reason the man in that cell lost control was because he denied the beast, tried to hold it at bay? The beast was a bloodthirsty monster who only ever thought of itself, of its own wants and needs. Denying it made the beast angrier than a spoiled child who’d been told to wait until after supper to have a sweet roll. He feared one day it would rise up and punish him, tear apart everything around him? The people he knew, friends, family? What if Vilkas was just two moons away from turning into the man in that cell?
His tongue felt thick and dry inside his mouth when he swallowed.
No. He would never let that happen.
The cell they locked him in was nestled deep in the back of the prison, isolated from the other prisoners and with only a single guard posted several feet away from the door. Solitary confinement, probably for the best because it would force both him and the beast to think long and hard about what they’d done while the jarl was determining his fate. The guard outside his cell barely even looked at Vilkas, and he was just far enough away that he and the prisoner could speak without prying ears.
Good, he thought. It had been a long time since he’d spoken to someone outside the Circle about the beast blood, and while he understood the risk of exposure, he intended to speak plainly and honestly with the monster in that cell.
Approaching the bars, he tilted his head and watched the ragged man stalk and pace the floor like a predator. The dirty, oily locks of his light blond hair hung in his face, barely revealing the hungry slits of his dark blue eyes. He wore nothing but a pair of torn, filthy trousers, his bare feet slapping through the inch or so of water pooling on the floor.
His heavy breathing echoed inside the small cell; everything about him spoke of desperation and regret. Vilkas and his inner-beast watched him pace for several minutes before the man finally became aware of his dominating presence and curiosity. Lifting his feral eyes across the cell, confinement to a cage had triggered a bit of arrogant confidence inside the beast, and he stalked toward the bars. He almost seemed to be smiling, a twisted grin that upon reflection appeared to be a grimace of self-loathing.
“Come to gawk at the monster?”
He kept his distance, one hand twitching at his side, as if he wanted to reach up and grip the bars between them and show his fellow beast he wasn’t afraid. He sniffed the air, his dark eyes flaring with the same recognition that had kept him in check while Vilkas and Ria had been assisting the guards in leading him to the barracks, but he did not yield the same respect or cowardice. “
Or does the noble beast inside you think he’s strong enough to take me down?” He allowed that question to hover between them for a moment, and then he finally hung his head in shame. “Perhaps that’s what I deserve after everything I’ve done, but I won’t go down without a fight.”
“I’ve no wish to punish you,” Vilkas said.
The beast within railed, screaming, Liar! We should tear him to pieces for the things he’s done. Wicked, nasty things. He deserves to die! But that was not for Vilkas to decide; the beast raged again, so strong he could barely contain it. He had to close his eyes and clench his fists to fight against it, a gesture the man in the cell surely understood.
“The people of Falkreath say you attacked a little girl.”
“Believe me,” he began, “it wasn’t anything I ever intended to do. I just… lost control, but you can understand that, can’t you? Even now I feel the monster inside you struggling, fighting the heavy hand you use to hold him down.”
“No,” he shook his head. “I don’t understand.” But that was a lie and they both knew it.
“I tried to tell them,” Sinding said. “But none of them believe me.”
“The deed is done, and the blood is on your hands. Whether you could control the impulse or not, you are still at fault.”
“Perhaps,” he nodded meek agreement. “And they all wish to see me hang, but never will they understand that the punishment for my crimes was killing that girl, and the hand that dealt it was far greater than any jarl or court. It’s all on account of this blasted ring,” he sighed.
Sinding struggled as he wrenched a dirty, silver ring carved into the likeness of a wolf’s head from his forefinger with great effort. The moment his eyes passed over that ring, Vilkas felt its power calling to him and not even closing his eyes and looking away was enough to quell the stirring of his inner-beast. Dark, beautiful, the beast longed to covet it, to yield to the obvious power its enchantment held.
“Wh–where did you get that?” He couldn’t ignore the stammer of his own voice, the intrigue, coupled with excitement and dread, rising to the surface of his being. He didn’t know what it was, but he could feel its power.
“It is the Ring of Hircine,” the man explained as if he’d read Vilkas’s thoughts. “I was told if I possessed it, it would help me control my transformations. Perhaps it used to, I don’t know, but Hircine did not care for my taking it and to punish me he threw a curse on it.”
“A curse?” Hircine and curses seemed to go hand in hand, knowledge Vilkas was more than just well aware of. He swallowed hard again, his gaze lingering once more on the ring in the palm of Sinding’s hand. “What kind of curse?”
“I put it on… and the changes just came upon me. I could never guess when, and it always seemed to happen at the worst of times.”
“You mean… you transformed against your will?”
“Aye,” he nodded. “Like… with the little girl. I don’t suppose there’s any point in lying to you. Not if I’m going to die in here anyway. A man like you can surely understand my curse, the call to shift beneath the moons. It is my secret, my shame. And that was why I wanted the ring, you see. They told me it would help me control it, but Hircine’s curse gave it the opposite effect. I may look like a man, but the animal inside me… it’s all I can feel.”
A cold trickle of dread rippled the length of Vilkas’s spine. It was a feeling he knew all too well.
“It paces inside me,” Sinding went on. “Whispers darkness to my heart, and I try not to listen, but I’m not strong enough to resist him. If only there were a way that I could appease Hircine,” he lowered his head. “If I could just return the ring, perhaps he would lift the curse. I would still be a beast, but at least then I could control it again.”
The words escaped him before he’d even realized he was speaking them. “I could return the ring for you.”
“You… you would do that for me?”
No, he wanted to say, but again the words he spoke were nothing like the words he planned to say. “Just tell me what I need to do.”
“There is a certain beast in these lands. Large, majestic. It’s said that Hircine will commune with whoever slays it. I tracked it to the woods outside of Falkreath, but then I had my accident… with the child. Please…” For the first time since Vilkas approached the cell, Sinding stepped up to the bars, desperately clutching them in his filthy, trembling grip. “I want to beg Hircine’s forgiveness, to give back what I stole from him, but while I’m stuck in here the beast wanders free.”
“I will return the ring to Hircine.”
“Oh my,” he gasped, holding out his hand. “You would do that for me?”
Reluctantly nodding, Vilkas uncurled his fingers and Sinding dropped the ring into his palm. It was warm, no, hot against his skin and the moment he possessed it the beast inside him hammered at his heart with longing. But he was not thinking of freeing his inner-monster. He thought only of Kodlak, of freedom. If he returned the ring to Hircine, perhaps the Lord of the Hunt would grant him a boon—freedom from the beast within, if not for himself, for Kodlak at least.
“I don’t want anything to do with the wretched thing anymore. I only wish to be free.”
“That is a feeling I know all too well, my friend.”
“Whatever you do, don’t put it on,” he warned. “Just… just seek out the beast. He wanders these woods. Bring him down and… well, the Lord of the Hunt should smile on you.”
“I will do this thing.” He promised.
“I wish you luck,” Sinding said. “But you should leave here while I still have my skin. Even now I cannot control him and I can feel him rising up inside me.”
Vilkas started to back away from the cell, the ring nestled warmly in his closed hand.
“Should our paths cross again, I will remember your kindness, brother. Farewell.”
Sinding turned back into his cell, and Vilkas headed into the barracks. He’d only taken a few short steps when he heard the snarling rage of a beast unleashed, and when he glanced over his shoulder Sinding was no longer in control of his monster. The beast rushed at the bars that tried to contain it before leaping back and climbing the walls with stealth and determination to free himself. Nearing the open bars near the top of the cell, he tore through them with exceptional brutality and strength.
The guards rushed in from the other end of the hall just in time to watch Sinding escape through the roof into the oncoming twilight. Lost in the shuffle of their desperate attempt to recapture the monster, Vilkas slipped quietly out of the barracks and into the night, not even realizing until he’d pushed his back against the outside wall just how quickly his heart was racing inside his chest.
He breathed deep, quelling both the beast inside and the thunder of his own heart, and when he finally calmed himself enough to gather his senses, he lifted his palm up to inspect the task he’d been given. But the ring was longer clenched within his hand. It was on his finger.
How? He hadn’t even opened his hand in the melee to escape the barracks unnoticed, and even without a warning from Sinding he would never have willingly put that ring on.
Panic seized him and in a fit of desperation he tried to tug it off, but it was no use. It was stuck, and the harder he tugged the more swollen his finger grew around it. Cursing under his breath, he dropped his hand at his side and leaned his head back against the wall behind him. He felt like such an idiot, a part of him wondering if the anxious tightening of guilt stretching thin across his soul was how Farkas felt whenever he realized he’d done something stupid. Then again, Farkas never seemed to realize he was being an idiot.
Clenching his fingers at his side, a heavy sigh escaped him.
“So much for good deeds,” he muttered.