Hers was like the voice of reason, staying his brother’s need to accompany them on their final, vengeful task. They could have used his Farkas’s sword, his strong arm and seething vengeance, his undying willingness to protect Luthien and his twin from all things bent on harming them, but this vengeance was personal in ways Vilkas could never explain.
It would destroy Farkas, who did not deserve to be destroyed, who in Vilkas’s mind, despite the number of bandits, Silver Hand and most recently, Thalmor, who’d fallen to his brutish wrath, was still innocent.
No, this was a destruction only Vilkas and Luthien could share.
She was stronger than anyone gave her credit for, especially Farkas, who’d seemingly come to think of her as frail and helpless, trapped within the confines of the beastblood, a burden Vilkas himself could barely handle at the best of times.
Maybe it was selfish, and as they saddled up in the stables just below Whiterun, he felt himself looking almost guiltily in her direction and questioning his motives.
Farkas yielded to her wishes, hanging back after their long kiss goodbye and watching as they trotted away from the stables with such longing it actually made Vilkas feel sorry for his brother.
At least one level-headed member of the Inner-Circle was needed to hold Jorrvaskr steady in their absence; that was what she’d told her husband. Aela was beside herself in ways Vilkas had never seen the Huntress before, and though he was the closest thing to an inner-circle member there could be without crossing that line, Vignar’s mind hadn’t been in the game since long before she arrived at Jorrvaskr. Kodlak’s unexpected death had left the old man almost mute with grief.
Someone had to make sure things were taken care of, that justice and honor were brought to their Harbinger.
And that level-headed someone was Farkas.
It was the first time Vilkas had ever heard anyone call his brother level-headed, and while it wasn’t exactly a term he would have used to describe Farkas under any circumstances, he realized Luthien was right. Farkas would see that Kodlak was taken care of, that the preparations were made in their absence.
But her true reason for refusing Farkas’s wish to accompany them, she revealed in a regretful murmur before stepping into the stirrup and throwing her leg over the broad back of her dappled mare. “I’d rather he never see me that way again, and when all of this is said and done, this part of my life, this part of who I am will be naught but a distant memory.”
Vilkas did not ask her what she meant, even though he wanted more than anything to know how she intended to keep the beast at bay for good. Because he knew that was what she meant. She had a rare and silent sense of hope about her, as if she knew some secret and would hold onto it until the right moment for its exposure. Was it something she’d discovered on the errand Kodlak sent her off on? He was dying to know, but every time he worked up the courage to ask her the irrational grief that overpowered his inner-beast stepped in and refused to allow him to be kind and familiar with her.
They rode in silence, at breakneck speed, for several leagues. Only the steady thump of hooves against earth and screaming wind filled his ears. The ribbon-like streams of her brilliant auburn hair flew from beneath her helmet and shone like streaming blood in the waning moons’ light.
So much blood since she had become a part of their lives. More blood than he believed he’d seen in his entire life before he’d met her. Would the final act they were embarking upon bring an end to its flow, or was he destined to ensure it never ended? She was Dragonborn, after all. Was meant for so much more than the honor and glory of a sellsword, and sometimes he felt she was stooping to work among the mighty Companions.
Through dawn and into midday the two Companions traveled, only slowing when the snow began to fall, and finally stopping at Vilkas’s insistence to take rest as the snow-blurred sunlight slipped slowly toward the horizon. It was at least another three hours ride to Driftshade Refuge. A minor break would see them in the silent camp in the dead of night if they played their hand just right. Lazy guards snoozing at their posts, the sleeping Silver Hand completely unprepared for them to strike—They’d be dead before they even knew what hit them, the cycle of vengeance over before it could destroy another member of their family.
There were only two of them. Two wolves against an impossible number of Silver Hand warriors. But sometimes two wolves was all it took.
She sat huddled beneath her cloak, her gloved hands feeding dried strips of jerked venison between her lips and her eyes staring distantly into the small fire between them. There were so many things he wanted to say to her.
Apologies for his cruelties. Reassurances that Kodlak’s death truly wasn’t her fault, no matter what she’d overheard him say. Utterances of jealousy that he’d withheld his heart instead of wearing it boldly on his sleeve to let her know how he’d felt about her from the moment he’d first laid eyes on her.
But he said nothing. Neither of them spoke at all. Only the rising wind keened, speaking with lament and sadness for all the things that had brought them both to that place together.
This was not how he’d imagined his relationship with Luthien. Wrought with grief and tension, unspoken heartaches and resentment. From the first moment he’d laid eyes on her, he’d only wanted to burn in the fire of her soul. And he was burning, burning and blistering and feeling the pain of that fire in ways she’d never be able to soothe with the comfort of her loving touch. Maybe in another life, under different circumstances, things for them could have… been.
He wondered if she was thinking about Farkas, and almost bitterly stood up to leave her alone with her thoughts while he pretended to guard their tiny camp from lacking enemies.
Darkness had fallen by the time they wordlessly packed up, remounted and headed further north into the blinding, blizzarding snow that melted against their Skyforge Steel armor and stung their exposed cheeks.
True Nords did not complain about snow blindness. They road certainly through it and came out in the dwindling, heavy flakes exactly where they’d meant to. True Nords felt the snow and ice upon their cheeks and it made them feel alive.
He’d always liked that about her. That she was a true Nord, daughter of Skyrim with unyielding fire in her heart and soul. Even before he’d learned she was the so-called Dragonborn, he knew she was the kind of Nord who deserved warm welcome into Sovngarde after dying gloriously in battle, not the eternal hunting grounds.
But with Kodlak gone, none of them would ever know a warrior’s welcome, no matter their deeds or the honorable blooding of their blades.
That realization dug his heels deeper into the ribs of his steed, spurring faster through the snow until he was sure he’d lose her in the blizzard. She kept up with him, stride for stride, the steel-blue shine of her armor glinting from the corner of his eye until at last he slowed just beyond Driftshade Refuge, crawling to a stop in a copse of thick pines.
Leaping down, he gripped the reins of his horse and led the beast into the shadows of the trees to tether it there. Lorelei followed his lead, knotting the leather around a low-hanging branch and then taking a step back to rock momentarily on her heels. She inhaled cold air as she drew off her helm and shook the loose, auburn locks of her hair free. She puffed out her cheeks and then exhaled, the clouds of her steaming breath fluttering across his line of vision before disappearing, and then she let her headpiece fall beside her feet.
“What are you doing?”
“Preparing for battle,” she answered simply.
“All that matters tonight is that we take back the fragments of Wuuthrad,” Vilkas said quietly, waiting for her to nod acknowledgment.
“That is not all that matters this night,” she began unbuckling her pauldrons, the cold metal clanking as she lifted them over her breastplate and then her head to drop them onto the ground beside her helm, “and you know it.” She seemed to wait a few minutes, as if expecting him to say something, but when he didn’t she went on. “We are here for more than just the shards of Wuuthrad, Vilkas. We are here to end this thing with the Silver Hand forever.”
She had worked through the buckles holding her mail skirt in place, and then that too dropped into the snow, sending dry flakes scattering through the darkness. Piece by piece, she wrenched it all free until she stood before him in her underclothes, her bare feet disappearing into the snow beneath them. Stretching her neck, he heard it crack almost painfully before she hunched her shoulders upright and said, “I’m going into this with everything I am, and right now everything I am is wolf. Just like Skjor, just like Kodlak.” She paused for a moment to let what she was saying sink in, and then she went on, “Just like you. You can follow with your sword, if you’d like, but I have a feeling there is a much more satisfying part of you that you’d like to set free this night.”
Vilkas’s tongue dragged across his lower lip as he stood back to admire and watch her transform. He realized he had never seen her in all her glory. He’d imagined it dozens of times, while lying in his bed and trying to ignore her feral howl on the wind, but she was more magnificent than his fantasies.
Her bright red fur caught flakes of snow, and they glistened like diamonds before melting against her heat.
Something inside him responded. His own beast stretched against the tight confines of his skin in such a way that he felt almost helpless to resist it. Trembling hands fumbled through the pouch at his waist, curled around the cold metal of the Ring of Hircine. If he was going to give in, he would give in all the way. Without regret, without remorse, he slipped the band over his finger and immediately felt its magic warm through him, the beast within snarling in triumph.
For the first time in more than eighteen months, he would honor the beast without guilt, free it without battling its carnal urges.
For Kodlak, he thought.
She answered in his mind, For Kodlak.
Together they would honor the dead and end the cycle of revenge.