Valga dipped her fingers into the pot of rancid butter. Her nose wrinkled above her pinched lips as she reached for his hand again. “I’m so sorry about the smell, Vilkas. I couldn’t see wasting good butter on something like this. This pot’s gone bad two weeks past, and I’ve been meaning to throw it away. I knew I was hanging onto it for a reason.” Her voice sounded almost as strained as his finger felt, and when she slathered that stinking, fermented butter over his hand again and started to tug at the ring, Vilkas swore his finger popped right out of the joint. “I still don’t understand why you would put a ring on, if you didn’t want to wear it.”
“I already told you, I didn’t put it on.” He ground his teeth tight together and jerked his hand from her slippery grip. He swore the knuckle snapped in the joint, and her sharp fingernails scraped across his already sensitive skin. He hissed and swore under his breath, but Valga didn’t seem to notice.
“Oh, right, it just magically slipped itself onto your finger.” She rolled her eyes and stepped back to cross her arms over her chest, but then after glancing down at her greasy fingers abruptly changed her mind. “You’re damn lucky it didn’t turn you invisible. I’ve heard stories about magic rings that do such things and then they drive you mad because no one can see you except the ghosts of long dead kings.”
“Invisible rings, ghosts, hah! Next you’ll be telling me there’s a great eye of fire somewhere further north and it can see us all.” The right side of his mouth curled into a derisive sneer. “There’s nothing worse than a superstitious barkeep, Valga. You know that, right?”
“That eye is real,” she scoffed and reached for a dirty towel hanging over the edge of the wash basin. “Or so I’ve heard anyway. Just because we haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
“What’s going on? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Ria nudged the basement door open with caution, and when Vilkas looked up from where he sat on the edge of Valga’s table he was surprised to see a look of relief wash over the young woman’s face. “That prisoner, the one they all said was a werewolf, he escaped the dungeons.”
All too often he let himself forget about Ria’s emotional attachment to him. He’d already made it perfectly clear that the two of them would never be anything more than friends, but such a statement did little to quell the burning fires of one’s heart. He knew that well enough from his own experience with his brother and Luthien. From time to time he still caught her looking at him with those big doe eyes of hers, unspoken longing lingering in her stare.
“So I’ve heard.” Lowering his gaze uncomfortably, he twisted at the ring again, edging it against the swelling knuckle of his finger. He huffed frustration and dropped his hand into his lap. “Curse this damn thing!” he bellowed, startling the young woman in the doorway and prompting an appreciative laugh from Valga just before she tossed him the towel she’d been using to clean her hands.
“Give it up, Companion. You’re only making it worse with all that twisting and tugging. Tomorrow when the sun comes up, you can walk over to the smithy before you leave and he’ll cut it off for you.”
A whole night with that ring on his finger, knowing what kind of power it possessed… Vilkas swallowed hard against the anxious lump that rose in his throat and then he shook his head. “I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Do what?” Ria edged further into the room to see what he was struggling with.
“It’s just a ring, Vilkas. One night with it on your finger isn’t going to kill you.”
She had no idea what she was saying, or why his nostrils flared so wide when he leveled a cold, hard stare in her direction. “It could,” he muttered so low no one heard him say it. “You said yourself there’s no telling what kind of curses these things come with.”
“Well, you’re not invisible, so I think you’ll be all right.”
Oh yes, I’ll be all right. The wolf within seemed to cackle almost maniacally, but I can’t say the same for you. Its voice sounded stronger than it had in months, and the thin threads holding the beast at bay felt instantly strained. You’re a right tasty little thing, aren’t you? I wonder what it would feel like to tear the flesh from those bones and sate my endless thirst with your blood?
Panic rose up inside him, his heart clenching and releasing so quickly it felt like it had skipped several beats inside his chest. He had to bite his tongue to keep from sniping at her.
“The inn’s empty tonight. You and your companion are welcome to stay here for the night free of charge, but only if you promise to help the guards track down that murderous lunatic on the morrow so he can be brought to justice. My heart breaks for that family who lost their little girl, but more than that this town can’t afford him making his way back here.”
Indoors was no safer than outdoors, and so long as he was in such close proximity to so many people, he was in danger. Shaking his head, he slid quickly off the end of the table and dropped to the floor. “That’s a generous offer, but I cannot stay here. My fellow Companion and I are headed back to Whiterun tonight.” To the comfort of Kodlak’s wisdom. The old man would know what to do. Surely he’d heard of such curses and would know how to hold the beast at bay.
“We are?” Ria squinted in confusion. “But I thought…”
“We have been gone long enough. There’s no telling what havoc my fool brother’s wrought in my absence. Valga,” he turned toward the barkeep, “thank you for your kindness. If I come across that murderer on my way back to Whiterun, I will bring him back here for justice.”
“Are you sure you won’t stay…”
He barely even gave her time to finish, shoving past her and grabbing the meat of Ria’s arm to guide her through the doorway in front of him. He pushed her quickly up the stairs, through the bustling tavern and straight out the door, where she stumbled down the steps leading into the street.
“What in the name of Oblivion is going on with you?” Ria finally dug her heels into the dirt and refused to budge against his urgings. “You said it was too late to head back to Whiterun tonight, so why the sudden change of mind?”
“It’s nothing. I just… I need to get home. If Aela’s not back, Farkas will surely have made a mess of everything.” It was getting harder and harder for him to think clearly.
“Vilkas,” she tugged her arm from his heavy grip and pushed her chest forward in tentative challenge. “What’s really wrong?”
“Nothing for you to worry about.”
“It’s that ring. It’s cursed, isn’t it?” She glanced down at the band around his finger, intricately carved Skyforge steel with a wolf’s head digging into the skin of his swollen hand. “Where did you get it?” And when he didn’t answer right away, she went on to ask, “What’s it going to do to you?”
“It’s not going to do anything to me.” He wouldn’t let it. He’d fight himself tooth and nail if he had to. He was not going to transform and give into the beast he’d been battling for so long.
Grinding his teeth hard together, he started toward the gates leading out of Falkreath. The sun had already settled into the trees in the west, and it wouldn’t be long before the moons lifted slowly into the sky. The moons, their great pull always wrenching at his restless soul… He would never get back to Whiterun before the moons had risen, but he had to try.
“I don’t have time for this, Ria. We need to get home.”
“But why?” she stubbornly demanded.
“Curse your stubborn stupidity, girl!” he spun around to face her just outside the gates, ignoring the curious glare of the guard posted there.
Lowering his voice, he closed his eyes and willed himself calm. It didn’t work, not the way it usually did. The ring was already affecting him, making him more ornery than usual, and that was saying a lot. Vilkas knew how testy he could be, how tightly he was wound at even the most relaxed of times, but the possibility of losing control made every muscle in his body feel as if it had been wrung and stretched to the point of snapping.
And then it occurred to him that so long as she was with him, she was in danger. He wouldn’t be able to control himself if the wolf consumed him, not even in the company of a friend.
“You know what,” he started, “never mind. You stay here and represent the Companions. Help the authorities in Falkreath track down the escaped criminal. You might even earn us a bit of coin.” That last statement sounded so much like something he would say under ordinary circumstances that she almost hesitated in questioning his order.
“You’re just going to leave me here? On my own?”
“You are a big girl, Ria. A Companion and you’ve been a Companion for more than a year now. You are more than capable of handling things on your own.”
Chewing at the loose skin of her dry lips, her vibrant eyes filled with doubt. “That may be so, but are you capable of handling whatever it is you have to do on your own?” She shook her head and took a step toward him. Vilkas flinched back from her when she reached out to touch his arm. “You obviously need… someone.”
Not her, never her, and she knew it.
“Isn’t there something I can do? Some way I can help you?”
“Just do as I’ve asked of you and leave me alone! Return to Jorrvaskr when the criminal has been apprehended.”
Rushing through her, she staggered backward, but didn’t chase him. She only called out to him. “Vilkas!” He sprinted as fast as his legs would carry him, her second call a distant echo against the wind in his ears.
So long as he was running, so long as he was distracted from the beast’s temptation, he wouldn’t change. He couldn’t change, not if he didn’t want to.