The stablemaster insisted they pay for nearly three months' care of Honeysuckle and Chestnut, and Harjid had to step away to let Vilkas deal with it; she'd slept so heavily that the incident felt much further back than it was, but Vilkas raising his voice with the stablemaster made the faces of the soldiers permeate her mind and quicken her breath.
He came around the corner of the stable, leading only Honeysuckle.
"Oh." Harjid awaited an explanation, but Vilkas just scowled. "What happened?" she prompted.
"Damn Khajiiti ways is what happened." Vilkas strapped their packs to the saddle. "I sold the big one to him. He owed me, then."
"So, can we e de her breathingeat?"
"If it's soup. Get on the horse."
Harjid shook her head.
"Get on the horse, woman, or I'll throw you on the horse."
"Please," she managed, and he drew a slow breath while giving her a once-over. She supposed the silence got to him because he dropped it, and they both took to the road afoot.
Her arms felt like they were strained with exhaustion despite nothing weighing them down. Her heart buzzed in her ears, though she didn't exert herself. And her neck was stiff, as if she'd been tense all the night.
Vilkas was soon abreast of her, on the other side of the horse; Harjid lifted her hand to pet Honeysuckle, but her palm was wet and her fingertips cold, so she scratched at her other arm and let it hang down again.
"You need to let it go, missy."
"I know." She looked up from the road and found him watching her, brow furrowed.
"Look how green it is down here," he continued. "How did I never see how bright it is?"
She looked up at the treetops above them, shielding them from a sky whiter than Hrothgar's virgin snows. He watched her, she knew, but she couldn't look at the pity on his face. Nor any judgment, which was likelier.
"We aren't going that way."
Her eyes flitted to the road sign. "'Whiterun,' it says."
"No, missy," he said, his patient smile crinkling his tired eyes. "Windhelm."
They made camp near a series of pools where a trio of hunters clustered, soaking in the steam. Coin was exchanged for a pelt, pub bread for venison.
"We've a stout fire and plenty o' mead," said the wife, husband nodding.
Vilkas declined for both of them, stating he lately gave up drinking and that Harjid was dull enough in her exhaustion.
"Might put some color to her cheeks," added the wife's brother, but Vilkas said he liked her cheeks that way, and when he met her eyes, he nodded discreetly: I won't let them intrude, he seemed to tell her.
Thank you, she tried to reply, but her cheeks were too tired to lift in a smile.
As they settled in for sleep, the sky danced above them, flickering greens and golds and violets unlike even the most precious jewels. Harjid pressed her lips together, whetted them, and pressed them again. She swallowed, coughed, and swallowed again. The night is too bright.
"Skjor will have run his first night with Hircine."
She looked over at Vilkas, his arms beneath his head.
"He only ever wanted to go to his plane," he explained. "Said Sovngarde was for men, and he was wolf all through."
Harjid's fingers played at the loosened knot of her linen shirt.
"They've probably burned him already."
"Poor Aela," she managed.
Harjid furrowed her brow. "Poor you," she said, her face all bewilderment as she sat up to regard him. "He was like a father, you said."
He nodded. "More than Jergen, anyway."
Harjid wrapped her arms over her chest and tapped her elbow for a long time. "He seems to have really influenced you," she said. Stupid.
"He and Kodlak."
"And they taught you history?"
"Oh, yes. He does seem the type."
She saw him wince; it was plenty bright enough. "Were I an Imperial," he said, glancing sidelong at her, "I would not ask him about history."
"Stormcloak, is he?"
"Through and through."
Vilkas shot a look of doubt at her. "Am I what?"
"Are you a Stormcloak? You hate Imperials."
"I don't hate Imperials. I hate one Imperial."
Harjid rolled her eyes. "And I hate you."
He chuckled, teeth white even in the night. "You don't."
"Made it difficult, have I?"
Harjid met his gaze, steady but burning. "You've made my entire life difficult from the moment you dropped a book in my lap."
Vilkas grinned, which made her too, in turn. She wiped her hands, then lay down and turned away from him, yawning.
"Harjid," he said, though she'd whispered.
"What would the Stormcloaks want with me?"
She heard him inhale deeply. "Ulfric practiced the Way of the Voice years ago."
"Then why would he need me?"
"We should ask him."
That made her turn, eyes seeking his in the growing darkness. "But are you sure about this? What about Skjor?"
"I can't bring him back by returning to Jorrvaskr."
She sat up on her side. "But we have to regroup and take the battle to the Silv—"
Vilkas had pressed his fingertips to her mouth to hush her. This time, she did knock his hand away, and a laugh rumbled out of him.
"A part of me really hates you," she grumbled, a grin of her own spreading.
"And I can smell what parts of you don't. Ow!"
Though her thoughts kept her awake much of the night, Harjid rested peacefully, for she had come to a decision: to avoid any such outbursts as with the Stormcloaks, she resolved never to speak again. Using the Thu'um in battle may then seldom be necessary, if it grew in might the less she used her human voice.
If naught comes of this but his mood's improving, she thought as her Companion rose, it'll be worth it.
Morning dawned greyer than the day before, with no shadows to speak of and the hunters having already gone from their camp. Harjid left her bedroll and stripped off her socks, her greaves, her shirt. She braced herself and slipped a foot into the water, but it was hot, and she drew back.
You watched it steam in the moonlight, she chastised herself. Get in before Vilkas returns.
Into the pool she waded, finding a submerged ledge to rest her head on, her back to their camp. She let her eyelids fall and remembered, as a shrouded sun warmed her face, that she'd intended to invigorate herself.
She heard him sniff, strap something to the horse, and approach the pool. Do not shrink. He will speak to you if you react to him.
Shrink she did, but speak he did not. Peeking at his backside, Harjid watched him slip into the water, rub his beard with it, dip his head back in it. His hair was curling in its length, tracing droplets down the middle of his muscled back to roll over his rump. Even his arse is swollen with muscle. She bit back a grin.
This is absurd. I've seen as much of him as he's seen of me.
But never this close, some part of her interjected, memorizing the scars woven into his skin. Never so clearly.
Worried her quickening pulse might ripple the water around her, Harjid opened her mouth to embarrass him about snubbing Lynly Star-Song; then she closed it, remembering her decision.
This will never be easy, she thought, not with him. Then Arngeir was in her head, insistent and bothersome as a mouth sore. Yes, I'll conquer it, you withered old thing.
Vilkas spoke only after he got out and dressed again: "Don't fall asleep, missy. We can beat the moons if you ride."
She turned to climb out, and he was holding her breeches out for her, face steady.
Either he looked while I dreamed, or he didn't care to look at all.
Harjid was uncertain which bothered her more.
She knew he'd have something to say about it when he figured it out; she just didn't think it would take him so long. He was a smart man, after all, the smartest she knew; and because his rejection of her vow of silence surely was inevitable—of course it was—Harjid nearly broke the vow so she could tell him and get his fit over with. He really is a child.
Vilkas yanked a stem of snowberries from its bush, holding it out to her, but when she shook her head, he began to eat.
"You didn't care when I called your horse 'Chestnut' this morning," he said, having stopped walking and turned to her. "I startled you in the pool, and I offered you berries you hate, which you know that I know you hate. You've said nothing."
"Missy. You never say nothing."
Harjid could not contain a sarcastic series of claps for him.
"This imbecilic idea would have nothing to do with that soldier, would it? Of course it does," he said when she felt herself flush. "Listen to me, woman. Some people you kill are worth carrying with you. Forever." Vilkas shook his head, pointing back the way they came. "Not him."
She shrugged, really not wanting to cry. Why does he always have to ruin being nice with aggression?
"You know if you don't talk, I'll just make you scream at me."
She stuck out her tongue at him.
"Please, missy. You're a bard. A damn good one, to tell it true. Are you going to let fear keep you from ever speaking again? That's folly and you know it. You have more control than you credit yourself."
Harjid couldn't take it anymore: she jabbed him in his chest.
"What about me?" he growled.
She imitated tipping a drink to his mouth, and much to her annoyance, he began to laugh.
"Drinking is not talking." He rolled a snowberry on his tongue. "Do you know that, if not for the beast blood firing me awake when you Shouted that night, I would've been too drunk to defend myself?"
She considered where she would be at this moment if he'd fallen to the blade of the boy who attacked him; she remembered peeking up at grins glowing in the dying candlelight, the force of the Thu'um already hammering in her chest and then past her lips, decimating one of her own attackers, and then Vilkas, brows knitted and sword drawn, standing before her, steady as a stream.
"Aye, I thought not." He rubbed his face and began a bit more reluctantly: "I started drinking years ago, to quiet the wolf enough to let me sleep. Thank the Divines for sending me to the Throat, where I could get out of the habit." He picked off the last of the berries and tossed the stem at the roadside. "Even if it was annoying . . . your talking was . . . never a problem. But I really hated it." He licked his lips, stepping up to her and cocking his head, his shadow draping her from head to toe. "And if that doesn't inspire you to speak, then I'm out of ideas."
Harjid met his scowl fully, something of a smirk on her lips before Vilkas' thumb was, his fingertips rough on the skin beneath her ear. She shuddered, and his eyes darted back up to hers beneath his black, furrowed brows; she felt heat rise in her cheeks the longer she waited for him to release her—from his gaze and his hold, but he only slid his palm down to her neck and pulled her closer.
Harjid parted her lips for his, her heart screaming to release—something. He's going to kiss you; please do not Shout him apart.
But Vilkas stopped just short of kissing her, his words hot on her mouth: "And you thought you couldn't control it."
She shoved him away, then stepped up again to slap him. "I could kill you if I wanted," she blurted, voice hoarse and face tingling from his beard.
"Might not be a bad way to die, that." He laughed at her at first, then sobered and lifted her chin. "Your heart was beating just as much as it was the other night. Did you know? But you didn't obliterate me. Even with that little mouth open."
She bit her lip, then grimaced. "You taste like snowberries."
Vilkas grinned, popping the last one into his mouth. "So do you, now."
Lunch was a rabbit haunch with a soft cheese she bought from a Khajiit traveler, whom Vilkas eyed the whole time. She handed him his rabbit, and he took it, but scoffed at how sticky it was.
"Does he think he's funny?" he grumbled.
"Who? The merchant?"
Before she let herself swear at him, Harjid tore at her rabbit with her teeth.
"'Warm sands,' says he," Vilkas continued, careless that he had a mouthful of meat.
"It's just an expression, you idiot," Harjid sighed, less at him as to herself about him.
"You don't say." He looked over Honeysuckle's saddle at her. "You're angry."
She rolled her eyes.
"The only thing I can conclude from your silence—" He ripped off the last bit of meat and threw the bone into the wilderness, admiring how far it went. "—Is that you're embarrassed."
"You disdain the Khajiit."
"Not about that, missy."
Harjid's heartbeat seemed to stutter, and she cursed Vilkas silently for having the ability to pick up on it.
"You wanted me to kiss you," he said.
"I hate snowberries," she said as evenly as she could. "And even if I didn't, the last thing I want on my mouth is yours."
He laughed. "What's second-to-last?"
What an animal. "That's last," she huffed. "Making your mouth second. A close second."
"'That' wouldn't taste like snowberries."
"I will eviscerate you if you put it anywhere near my mouth." She hated the grin he wore. "What?"
"Just nice to hear that sweet little voice again."
He only wanted to get you to talk. She struggled with whether that disappointed her, or if she was touched that he liked talking with her. Then there was the matter of if she should stay quiet to annoy him, which he would claim was her attempt at getting him to kiss her in earnest, or if she should continue to talk with him when all she wanted was to put her fist through his teeth.
"I can't kiss you, you know."
He chuckled. "Companions are discouraged from kissing one another."
"Then maybe you should stop thinking about it."
"I can't stop thinking about it if you're still stewing about it."
"You are, all morning."
Harjid finished her rabbit, then. "Maybe you're imagining I'm stewing because you want me to want you to kiss me."
"Quite a stretch, Dragonborn."
"No more than what you're insisting. Maybe you're jealous your brother has a little Imperial girl." She laughed. "Maybe you want one for yourself."
Vilkas tutted. "He'd be expelled if I were Harbinger."
She felt something tighten in her abdomen. "Are you so hateful that you would expel your own brother?"
"Companions shouldn't be together. It complicates everything."
"You were fine with Skjor and Aela."
"But you'll convince your poor, sweet brother that his love for Ria is folly?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Because you control him."
"I don't. He asks me my opinion and I give it."
"Which he follows," Harjid insisted. "To the letter." She scowled and watched her feet. Farkas and Ria deserve better. How can someone be so cruel to the nicest people I've ever met?
At least Vilkas was fuming. Were Harjid in a better mood, she would have smiled.
Vilkas convinced Harjid to ride so they would arrive before sundown, but as the day wore on, Vilkas never led Honeysuckle at more than a canter; more than once, Harjid privately mused her walking would have kept them at a steadier pace and possibly they would be farther along; he seemed determined to employ an amble more often than not.
"Are you tired?"
She wondered if he hadn't heard, and asked again. Silence, until a stiff, "No."
"Perhaps if you took off some armor—"
Harjid hadn't realized she'd upset him so. But, she supposed, his brother is his only soft spot. How unalike they were! Farkas certainly was as fearsome as his brother in combat; Harjid heard tales enough to prove that. Yet in the banquet hall, with mead flowing and plates of venison lining the table, Farkas was the gentlest Companion of all. Even Tilma outranks him. She had seen a tenderness about his eyes from the beginning, and remembered with a smile that she'd hoped to study the Nordic tales with him. But what a different set of eyes those would be.
Vilkas she remembered looming over her, suspicion all about him; he'd watched her without blinking, not approaching until propriety insisted, and took her hand with as much force as a bird landing on a wildflower. Cautious, she thought, like I'd already hurt his feelings.
But who had?
His shoulders hung over his every step, like they had to hold up more than just a man. Plodding forward, step and step and step, until on the horizon glittered a gem as big as a dragon's shadow.
It stood not as tall as Whiterun, but it was a mountain of its own, with stone walls winding in and out of view from their precipice, the fires of a hundred hearths stacking smoke as high as Hrothgar.
"Built by Ysgramor himself," Vilkas mumbled.
She had to take a breath. "It's a wonder you don't live here."
"It's worse on the inside," he said after a time. He pointed outside the city, to the white wastes beyond the ability of their eyes. "He buried his son up there. Yngol Barrow."
Harjid's stomach lurched. "He outlived his son?"
"Aye." He wrapped his hand in Honeysuckle's reins and tugged her forth. When they stopped before the stable, he didn't hold her hand down as normal, but jerked her down by the hips, making her clutch at him in surprise.
"What is going on with you?" she snapped.
"Nothing." He unwound a clinking sack from between his pack and hers and started down the bridge to the gates.
"Don't you lie to me, Vilkas of Jorrvaskr."
He halted and turned back to her, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her ear up to his lips. "The less you say in a place like this, the better."
She struggled from his grasp. "You employed some underhanded tactic to make me say more not so long ago. What exactly do we need to know here? A man bold enough to kill the king in cold blood certainly has the stones to kill m—"
Vilkas shook his head. "That isn't Ulfric. He's capable, but that was a duel. He always knows exactly what he's doing."
"But how could Torygg have refused? And in Skyrim, where a man is judged by his honor—"
"He couldn't. A lesser man would have, and Ulfric knew that."
"You certainly seem to know him."
"Since I was a boy."
She felt her lips tug at the corners. "You looked up to him?"
"He looked down on me." With that, he strode up to the gates and nodded her inside after him.
Ancient stones rose around her, windows gilded with firelight peeking out from sagging, snow-covered roofs. A hammer beat against an anvil somewhere, echoing the ringing across the city and the smith's curses with it. Almost like home, Harjid thought.
She nearly lost Vilkas, who'd taken off ahead of her, passing an inn and a graveyard without a glance. She wanted to look at everything, but she worried if she took her eyes from his back, he would melt into the walls themselves and sneer at her every attempt to find him.
"Can't go in there," said the guard posted at the castle doors.
"Then stop me," Vilkas said, pulling the door open. "In, missy."
Harjid apologized to the guard, who shrugged and said, "Your funeral pyre." She learned why pretty quickly: inside, two men were at odds, and upon her and Vilkas' intrusion, the larger of the two bowed his head and stood to attention at the side of the King.
A fur collar beckoned werewolves to mind, and his own mane resembled that of a Hammerfell lion. He sank into his throne with sickening ease and regarded them both with nonchalance. "Name yourselves," he barked.
His man-at-arms eyed them with fury; Harjid couldn't decide if he was just very good at his job or if he was truly livid that they had been interrupted; it seemed the best kind of conversation to interrupt.
"You know who we are." She hadn't meant to blurt that out, but there it was.
Ulfric Stormcloak put his cheek on his knuckles. "My lady, if I knew, I would not hesitate. You would have been thrown out already."
"Or dead," scoffed the man-at-arms.
"That is the Nordic way of greeting, isn't it?" Harjid said; she could feel Vilkas dying beside her.
"Enough, Galmar," said Ulfric with boredom. "You must be of some note to walk in here as you did."
"You need better guards." Vilkas sniffed when Ulfric looked at him head-on.
"I don't post guards for my safety," Ulfric said flatly. "I post them for their eyes and ears. Now. Tell me who you are, or I will kill you."
Harjid's heart jumped; he said it so simply, as if it would take no effort. If he studied the Way of the Voice, he can probably Shout someone apart without undoing a thread of their clothing.
"She is the Dragonborn."
Ulfric glanced at her, but his attention remained on Vilkas. "And you, my good man?"
"Her sword and shield."
"A disappointing Dragonborn, then."
"She could Shout you apart," Vilkas insisted, sending the hand of Ulfric's man-at-arms to his axe.
"Then she wouldn't need a protector. Perhaps," he smirked, nodding at the sack Vilkas held, "you carry all her cloaks."
Harjid scowled at the man Galmar for having snorted. "You have that animal beside you at all times?" she asked, but her voice quaked.
Ulfric Stormcloak went perfectly still, his eyes steady on hers. "What did you come here for?"
Vilkas upended his burden, and three helmets crashed to the floor, one caked with frozen blood. "Your men. Waiting for her—" He pointed with a trembling arm, "—at Ivarstead. They attacked her, when she has no affiliation to the Empire or to anyone you would consider your enemy."
Galmar knelt to the bloody helmet and looked up at her and Vilkas with a red face. "You killed them!"
Harjid drew a breath to release something more fierce. But he'll kill Vilkas too.
"Sons of Skyrim lay frozen in the earth for the likes of you?" He unsheathed his axe, and the word "Aaz" filled the throne room, and Galmar fell to his knees, looking up again with more rage, as if the Shout had come from her or Vilkas.
"You are dismissed, my friend," said Ulfric gently from the steps of his throne. "I will handle these dissenters."
Harjid's blood whistled in her ears; she knew Vilkas could hear it. They watched with hands itching for their weapons as Galmar gathered the other helmets and stomped away, slamming a door behind him.
"I must apologize for the Stone-Fist," Ulfric said. "The lives of the Sons and Daughters of Skyrim mean more to him than any guest rights. But you are not guests, are you?"
Harjid caught Vilkas looking at her, and she turned her scorn up to the King. "Why would your soldiers think they could come back in your good graces by capturing me?"
"They were exiled? Then anything would tempt them. A Stormcloak wants to fight the Imperials. If they were in Ivarstead, they were not fighting anything but elk."
"So you deny you had any order out for the capture of the Dragonborn?" Vilkas said evenly.
Ulfric descended his steps and opened his hand to his banquet table. Harjid sat awkwardly in the second seat, Vilkas standing at the chair beside her until Ulfric had seated himself across.
"The Dragonborn would make a powerful ally—No, not physical power," he said when Harjid opened her mouth. "Though your accent tells me you are no true Nord. Narrow features, but fair. You are from Cyrodiil, certainly, but too fair to be an Imperial."
"My father is an Imperial."
Ulfric nodded. "That complicates matters, though you have the Nordic look, and you have studied with the Greybeards. I came back as skinny as you are now, many years ago."
Vilkas nodded as if remembering.
"You are Vilkas of Jorrvaskr."
She felt him tense up beside her. "He is."
"Can a man not speak for himself?"
"A man isn't paid to speak," Vilkas grumbled.
Ulfric grinned, and Harjid found it handsome, though much more unsettling than that of Vilkas. "I never liked mercenaries," he said, looking over his hall. "A Son of Skyrim believes with his spirit that our country belongs to us. You cannot pay him to believe otherwise."
"My beliefs are secondary to what keeps bread on my table."
"Then you are not living, Vilkas of Jorrvaskr, but surviving." His eyes were on her again. "And who are you?"
"She's a bard," Vilkas interjected.
"Harjid the bard. So you've a Nordic name, but not a Nordic title. Have you completed the Trials of the Way?"
"Now a woman cannot speak for herself, and she was taught to Shout." Ulfric sat back and tugged a grape from its bunch on the plate. "I wonder if you both are more than bard and bodyguard."
She straightened and hadn't meant to look at Vilkas; he hadn't meant to look at her either and blushed. "I am . . . Vilkas is my . . . Kodlak Whitemane sent him with me on my journey to Ivarstead."
"Wise. But Whitemane is grizzled and dying, whiling away his remaining years poring over books older than Jorrvaskr itself."
Harjid's heart felt hard beneath her breast, and she knew Vilkas would answer, and were she religious, she would thank the gods that he could not Shout.
"The Harbinger," Vilkas began, slow as cold honey, "offers wisdom and guidance. Such things come from experience—of which he has plenty—and books. Where else might he find wisdom to share, at his age?"
"I have heard the wolves howling," Ulfric said, "about one of yours having lost his life."
"Aye," Vilkas said, "Skjor of Jorrvaskr . . . he is with the spirits, now."
"He died in battle?"
Vilkas audibly swallowed, so Harjid stepped in: "Skjor of Jorrvaskr would never die in a bed." She felt Vilkas' eyes on her cheek and his arm on her chairback.
"You have the heart of a Nord, Harjid the Bard."
"And the heart of an Imperial," she said, emboldened by Vilkas' warm gaze. "Do not diminish me to make your cause seem grand."
"My cause is grand."
"Aye," said Vilkas, breaking his silence. "So why should your cause have need of her?"
Ulfric ate his grape, and Harjid could feel Vilkas seething at the arrogance of it. "I have no need of a bard. But the sleeping people of Skyrim might be stirred awake by the Dragonborn's allegiance to the Stormcloaks."
Vilkas shook his head. "The Companions do not get involved in politics."
"Nor do Companions couple," Ulfric chuckled. He focused on her, then. "Harjid the Bard, I invite you and your mercenary to stay in the Palace of Kings as my personal guests."
"We have a place to stay already," said Vilkas with impatience. Harjid questioned him with a brow, and he shrugged uselessly.
Ulfric raised his brows at her.
Oh, dear. "We have a place to stay," Harjid repeated.
"Then I ask that you return to break your fast at my table."
Vilkas stood, and she found herself following.
"Thank you, um . . . Sire." Do not look at me, Vilkas. He's inviting us to eat, and we have no money.
Ulfric, after pushing in his own chair, drummed his rings against it. "The best place to stay otherwise is Candlehearth Hall in the square. You would have passed it coming here."
Vilkas' hand was at her back, and Harjid was scrambling for something polite to say when he barked over his shoulder, "I know where to stay." He opened the door and ushered her out and down a dark alley off the courtyard.
"The inn was that way. Vilkas!" She shrugged his hand off her.
His eyes positively glowed beneath the walls and the painted sky, and Harjid's breath hitched as he loomed over her, his breath fogging with hers. "This way."
She followed him back in the courtyard, over slick cobbles and under winding walls, and finally down stairs so caked with snow, he had to clear each step before he'd guide her down, his hands covering hers with warmth.
"Looky there, Aval! Two mighty Nords come to grace us with their presence."
"Shut it, Mal," Vilkas said, looking up at the Dunmer who sat on a ledge lit with torches.
"Oy! Which one are you?"
"That's Vilkas, Malthyr," said the Dunmer called Aval, who, despite the calm of his voice, held a mostly empty bottle.
"Where's your twin brother? I liked him better."
Harjid saw the white of Vilkas' grin flash before Malthyr was on him, hugging him sloppily and smacking his back.
"Who's your little strumpet?"
"Actually," Vilkas laughed, "in a way, I'm hers."
Malthyr laughed from his belly, and Aval shook Vilkas' hand, then kissed Harjid's.
"He'll want to see you, Farkas or no."
Harjid put her hand on Malthyr's shoulder. "He isn't my—"
"No, love, course not," said Malthyr, coming in to hug her too. "But any friend of his must be worth her salt. Welcome to the Cornerclub."
"New as the sun under Azura's star!" Malthyr said, his eyes glittering with drink and an audience. "Not a fingerprint on it. Would reflect Sanguine back, it was so clean. And what happens? I hid it in me chest, think I won't lock it, who would touch it? And this little shit—" He pointed at Vilkas with the hand that held his mazte, "—wormed his way into my room, plucked it out of its sheath, and attacked the timber on the Cruel-Seas' house with it."
Harjid threw her head back and laughed, but Vilkas waved away Malthyr's words.
"That was Farkas."
Malthyr swallowed a gulp of his drink and cocked his head. "Was it, then?"
"Aye. I told you what he'd done and led you to him."
"Aye. Then you hammered his head and made him cry."
More laughter rang from the bar.
"He let me keep that blade, you know," Vilkas said, grinning over his cup of cider at Harjid.
"Made a lot of money with it, too, didn't you?" said Ambarys.
Harjid looked sidelong at Vilkas, noting the hints of a blush on him. "How did you manage that?"
His brows flickered upward, his cheek rose in a half-smile, and he looked up at Ambarys in what seemed supplication.
Harjid's heart sank. "Oh."
"Not what you think, missy," Vilkas blurted.
Aval ordered a sujamma and asked her again if she wanted one; she declined.
"The twins were a great team," Ambarys said, twisting the cork out of the bottle for the blurry-eyed Aval. "Farkas would gather a crowd, and Vilkas would perform tricks with that beat-up blade."
"My beat-up blade."
"You didn't want it after!" Vilkas laughed.
"Looked better with you anyway," Malthyr replied, winking at Harjid.
"He really was talented," slurred Aval to Ambarys' nod. "You'd never seen a more capable ten-year-old wield steel."
Harjid leaned over the counter, her hand in her loosened hair. "What sort of tricks would you do?"
Vilkas shrugged, and Malthyr chimed in: "All sorts! Toss up an apple and cut it three times before it hit the ground."
" Only twice," Vilkas interrupted, holding his finger off his drink, "but not easy with a blade that I didn't know how to sharpen."
Harjid laughed and patted his arm. "But that speaks to your talent, doesn't it?"
He shrugged and hunched over his cider again. "Any fool with hands can hold a blade. Your talent is much more refined, missy."
Aval set down his cup. "What is it you do, Miss Harjid?"
She shook her head and made some puff of exasperation as Vilkas spoke of her vocal talents. "You sing my praises well enough," she retorted, "that my singing can go unheard."
"I think not!" scoffed Ambarys.
Malthyr rapped on the counter in agreement, rallying the rest of his friends to convince her to sing a tune. Harjid's pulse flickered with the hearth fire, and suddenly Vilkas held up a hand in supplication to his oldest friends.
"It's been a long journey," he finished, "and snapping at me has taken a toll on her voice, anyway." He peered over at her drink. "Are you out?"
"I'm fine," Harjid insisted, covering her empty cup, heart folding its wings back again.
"Get her a mazte," Vilkas said finally. "You'll like it."
"No!" said Malthyr, elbowing Vilkas. "Do a flin!"
"She cannot handle a flin," he laughed, then turned to her. "Sorry, missy, but you really do not want a flin."
S he thanked Ambarys for popping the top off her mazte, withdrawing into herself as the topics wound from cultural delicacies to historical animosity between Nord and Elf. She heard Vilkas grow menacingly quiet with his rebuttals while Ambarys got only louder; but Harjid was back in that little room, screaming life out of someone before she even saw his face.
"The Night of Tears was a tragedy for both sides," Vilkas seethed.
"But your people consider it a prelude to the magnificent cleansing of the Snow Elves."
"When did this become about my people and yours? We have never made such a distinction."
"No," said Malthyr. "It was always you boys and us, wasn't it?"
"And the people of the city treated us the same way—"
"No!" Ambarys crashed down his bottle and stuck his finger in Vilkas' face. "How dare you suggest you were treated the same! You left and cleansed your reputation of us Dunmer filth. And even before! Do you think Nords would throw coins at two Dark Elf boys? No. They thought you were finally becoming true Nords and leaving the Grey Quarter behind. They encouraged you, and you followed them."
Harjid's hand twitched as Vilkas stood; his shoulders rose and fell quickly, but she'd drunk too much mazte to form words to stop him.
Ambarys' eyes twitched from Vilkas' shoulders down to his hands and to the hilt of his sword, but recoil he did not.
Vilkas put his palms on the counter and leveled his face down at the elf. "Is that how you feel?"
Ambarys blanched but nodded.
Vilkas let out a quivering breath and shook his head. "I should've come back sooner," he whispered. He pawed at an eye and licked his lips. "You knew we would get on our feet, but you fed us anyway. And I trivialized your struggle, and therefore your sacrifice. For us." He grabbed Ambarys' shoulder with a trembling hand.
Instead of mirroring the gesture as Harjid expected him to, as a Nord would, Ambarys settled his long fingers over Vilkas' like a moth landing on a flower. "You boys have a better life," he smiled. "That's all that matters in the end."
Harjid awoke to Vilkas telling the grinning Ambarys to stop—her cheek was pressed into the sticky counter, and Vilkas brushed off a line of bottle caps that were climbing up her arm.
"Vilkas never did like that game!" laughed Malthyr as Ambarys shrieked in protest, claiming he was winning.
"That's because Farkas was much better at it," replied Aval.
"Of course he was!" said Ambarys. "This one never could stay awake after his first sujamma."
"Enough," Vilkas barked, though even with bleary eyes, Harjid could see he wanted to grin. "The Dragonborn is off limits."
"But that just leaves you."
"And you're much better at holding your liquor now."
"Come along, missy."
Harjid felt her arm lift, and then her whole body was rocking through the air, passing under a brazier and into a cold, dark somewhere. Her bedroll was ready for her, and she smiled when her pillow settled beneath her neck.
"I may vomit," she cooed.
"Aye," came Vilkas' rumble beside her ear, "so try to point it away from my bed."
Harjid screwed up her face. "Stop moving."
Vilkas chuckled. "I'm not moving."
"Please—you're making me dizzy."
"Your eyes are closed, missy."
Harjid huffed. "Then are you sleeping, too?"
"In a minute," he said softly. "I'll be right back."
"No." She reached out for him and managed only to plop her hand on the floor and make him snort again.
"I'll just be a minute, little miss."
But he was much longer than a minute; or perhaps he was not—Harjid was staring up at the bottom of stairs and wondering how Vilkas would have reacted to his argument with Ambarys if he'd been drinking. Then she lurched, but caught herself before anything came out.
Not drinking, she thought. He's learned to control his anger and be mindful.
Harjid thought of the Khajiit, and her cheeks warmed, but when she touched them, they were cold on her fingers. She turned away from his bedroll lest her stomach acted on its own, and there she met her pack, slouching against a barrel.
When finally her Companion returned, following the publican, he put his hands on his hips and asked her how she'd managed to light a candle and find her journal.
Ambarys and Malthyr laughed at her determination, bid their guests goodnight, and went up to bed, their steps creaking above Harjid and making her pause, nauseated. "I need to write," she managed after a bit.
Vilkas bunched his shirt at the back of his neck and pulled it forth, the candlelight flickering over his hairy abdomen. "I'm sure he'll have more important things to say at breakfast."
Harjid eyed the muscles of his thighs as he pulled on a pair of sackcloth pants. "Who? Ambarys?"
"The King," Vilkas said with a nod to her papers, slipping under his covers. "They serve it early there. It's a military thing. So put the light out."
"I'm writing," she replied without looking at him again.
He rolled over, and though she couldn't see his face, Harjid could tell by the tenseness of his shoulders that he was awake, listening for her each time she paused for inspiration and happened to glance at him.
She hummed the beginnings of her melody, scratched out the word "war," and replaced it with "battle" to fit the rhythm. The image of Vilkas looming over Ambarys like a storm roiling over a plain spurred her onward, and with more elegance than she believed she possessed, Harjid captured the desperate sincerity of a privileged adopted son appealing to his outcast of a father. Harjid looked over the nouns in particular, verifying twice and thrice that each could mean the literal man sleeping beside her and, metaphorically, the Nordic race.
As she settled on her side to sleep, facing Vilkas' back and sighing into her pillow, Harjid, with tired eyes, traced and retraced his strong arm from shoulder to wrist. Heat between her thighs stirred images behind her eyes, beckoned her fingertips, pleaded for him; his breathing had evened out into sleep a while ago, and so she slid a hand beneath the covers to satisfy herself. She imagined him above her, fearsome, his eyes glowing with need. Harjid quaked to an end that weakened her so, a little purr escaped her lips, and as she drew her hand back up, the smell of her own sex wafting from her fingers as she tucked her blanket beneath her chin, her last sight before her eyelids finally fell for the night was Vilkas' tensed shoulders.
Harjid followed Vilkas out of the great doors of the Palace of Kings, holding her breath while his puffed out from flared nostrils. She opened her mouth, but he held up a hand while rubbing his forming beard with the other.
"Just don't," he said. "I can't talk to you right now."
He pointed to the dark corridor that led to the Grey Quarter. "I can't even look at you. I need to go, and I need you to stay."
Harjid stopped short as he passed under the gate. "Where?"
Vilkas scoffed as he faced her again, jabbing two fingers up at the giant doors of the palace. "Your new friend offered you a royal bedchamber."
"That is not what he meant, and you know it! He even said the Cornerclub didn't have enough beds. That isn't being mean, that's just being honest—"
"And you think it's a good thing, do you?—that he knew where we stayed? How did he know that? I didn't tell him. You, for your plentiful words, didn't tell him. So answer this, missy. What honest person trails another? You think about that while eating your bowl of berries and cream?" Vilkas snorted, shaking his head. "Honesty doesn't have to sneak."
"Why does everything have to be about that with you? What's wrong with a king keeping tabs on what could be a threat to his movem—"
"Shut up, woman." Vilkas hovered on a step.
"I will not! I have nothing to hide. Let his people know."
"We don't want another Ivarstead—"
"No!" Vilkas had been approaching her like a sabre cat stalking prey; she could feel her heart trembling, and when he'd come too close, she'd yelled. "I am done feeling afraid!" she said at last, looking up at him through hot tears. "I have nothing to hide."
"Nothing?" He'd said it low, as a growl, menacing but almost silent. Only for her to hear.
Vilkas backed her against the wall, hiking one of her legs up and over his backside, the other pinning her wrists as one above her, the stone pressing into the backs of her hands. His lips were fire against her temple. "I know what you've been hiding, missy."
"Say it," she choked out, not meeting his eyes.
He answered in grinding against where she'd rubbed the night before, hissing when she whimpered into his chest. He grabbed her by the chin, and her leg fell stupidly away from him. "Stay here tonight," he snarled. "Use your new little ax if you find any trouble."
Swallowing pride and tears, Harjid watched him away, but he didn't look back before ducking into the shadows of the shrine. Her chest heaved the longer she stood there, so she pressed her lips together and picked up her bag to find her way back to the Cornerclub, rubbing her stinging hands as she replayed his outrage over in her head.
He'll hint at it all without speaking it. That's as cowardly as sneaking is.
She felt the familiar ache as acutely as if she hadn't touched herself in weeks. She considered following him into his sanctuary to defile it with him. But she was a traitor to him, now.
It's a glorified delivery. And who cares if anyone thinks I'm in Ulfric's pocket? A token with his seal might keep some people at bay around here.
The Shout bubbled briefly in her breast. No. Conquer it.
She closed her eyes there on the steps, digging her nails into her palms, but the image of Vilkas storming out of the royal hall just flashed before her again.
We were getting so much better.
Malthyr was sweeping something off the edge of the Cornerclub landing; he called out a hello to her, so she could not turn around now. But where would she go, anyway? Some other pub?
Probably not many of his friends at that Candlehearth place, she thought. Before she reached the front of the club, she thanked herself for having put the ax inside her bag; it wouldn't do much good in a Dunmer establishment, she knew.
"He's making lunch inside," Malthyr said when she crested the stairs.
Harjid forced out some sound that implied gratitude, and luckily, Malthyr didn't ask about Vilkas or the color she felt on her face.
Ambarys did, though. He stood behind the counter chopping some trama root beside a bowl of yams that looked rotten, and the whole room smelled of some pungent vegetable that was boiling beyond the Dunmer.
"King cut out your tongue, girl?"
"Sorry, no." Harjid's voice shook.
Ambarys wound his hands around the trama pieces, clearing off space between the pile and the bowl. "You crying, or just don't like Dunmeri food?"
She tittered, glad to have something to blame her unshed tears on, then cleared her throat. "What is it you're making?"
"A favorite of my missing pup. Ash yam soup."
"I've never had that."
Ambarys tapped the counter with his blade as she slid onto a stool and unslung her bag onto the floor. "Well I have some bread and a tomato if you find you can't stomach it. So where's the boy?"
Harjid snorted. Boy. "The Shrine."
Ambarys' tongue hovered between his dark lips. "Uh-huh. Are you going to tell me what you fought about? Or should I get you a mazte?"
The tears bubbled up into her throat again, and she said thickly, "Mazte, please."
After he'd taken the top off for her, Ambarys began peeling an ash yam, revealing a plummy flesh that looked much more appetizing than its skin had. Next, he took a little ceramic jar from a shelf and scraped some orange paste from inside into the pot over the fire. "Cuttle," he said. "Comes from kwama. You don't want to know how."
She smiled through tears and sipped a while longer. By the time she was ready to speak, every yam was peeled and Malthyr had come in and sat beside her, complaining loudly of some Nord called Rolff. Ambarys met her eyes when she'd hunched over her drink, and he bid Malthyr go to the market for a wedge of Eidar cheese.
"But we're having yam soup," Malthyr said, looking over at her.
She smiled sheepishly, darting her eyes down.
"Oh," he said, and Ambarys scoffed. "I'll see what they have at the fish market, too. Back in a bit!"
Once the door shut, Ambarys flipped the sign in the window to read "Closed," then leaned on the counter in front of Harjid. "Look here, missy," he began, and Harjid heard Vilkas in his words, "I know you don't know me from anyone, but by the Mad Queen, I know you."
You do not. "You do?"
"Of course I do. I've had letters every moon from those boys since they left home. Farkas writes a line or two, but Vilkas? Pages and pages. And since you came into his life, those pages are all about you."
Pressure built in her forehead until she began to sob. Somehow, Ambarys' dabbing of her cheeks with his kitchen rag made her calm, though she didn't feel as if he wanted to keep her quiet necessarily. Certainly, this aged elf must have lived twice the lifetime of her own parents, were they still alive, yet he looked not even Tilma's age. And he's known Vilkas since before I was born.
"You don't have to tell me what happened," Ambarys continued. "Just know that Vilkas…well. Farkas likes everyone. Until he has a reason not to, that is."
"Vilkas isn't like that," Harjid interrupted after a thick laugh.
Ambarys grinned and let out a little chortle. "Yes. Vilkas is the opposite. Everyone is suspicious until they prove their mettle. I like to think he got that from me, somehow. It's a Dunmer trait."
Harjid offered a weak smile.
"I'm sure that, no matter what happened, an hour or two praising his Talos will be enough. He's always been a cold boy. I realize that anyone would be, growing up in this wretched place. But when you consider what the Butcher did to his sweet mother…" Ambarys shook his head, but he hesitated when Harjid stiffened and met his gaze. "Oh, Ambarys Rendar, you s'wit. Vilkas didn't tell you, did he?"
"What happened to their mother?"
The elf sighed heavily, searching all around his pub for the words. "Nille. She was a…well, we consider them concubines, but there aren't any decent words in your language for what she was. It's a respected practice in Mer cultures, even if you don't hear us talk about it. But the way she was looked at here…" Ambarys shook his head again. "Shameful. Of them, not her. Nille was a bright star in a bleak sky. She was a proud Nord, but she wasn't like Ulfric or the Stone-Fist. To her, there was poor people and rich people. And she didn't even hate the rich people! And not because half of them were her customers," he laughed. "She was kind to anyone who deserved it, just like Farkas. And once in a while, she took the wrong person to bed. She was robbed once, and they had to live here for a while. The boys stayed here on the nights she worked, anyway, but she hated being a burden. She was only ever a pleasure to have, really."
"You sound like you loved her."
Ambarys swallowed. "I could have. I may, still. Anyone who knew her loved her. She had the open heart of a child even when she had lines on her face before her time. Her life wasn't easy, and she wouldn't let us do more to help her than letting her sleep here. She even paid for their meals, but I insisted she didn't. But she wanted to make sure I didn't have to cut Mal's pay while they stayed here." His eyes were wet, and he knocked the counter as if to distract her from looking at them. "That's the kind of woman she was."
Harjid caressed the top of his hand. "A name like the Butcher is very telling."
His demeanor darkened; he lifted his knife. "A butcher cuts meat. Meat has a purpose, right? But this was…obscene. They finally had a home of their own. She'd been sick for weeks leading up to it, so it wasn't a client. He killed a lot of women up Valunstrad way, and I never had any reason to care. She wasn't really one of them. Until she was, that is." Ambarys had to compose himself. "Nille wasn't just murdered. He painted the walls with her blood, carved her up like he was a thrall of Malacath. That filthy n'wah. I'm sorry, but that's what he was."
"Was he executed?"
"He was never found. He could still be here. B'vek, if he is, I hope I'm the one to find him. Can't imagine what the boys would do if they were."
Harjid crossed her arms, remembering Vilkas' words about her new ax. But he wouldn't let me be alone if he thought I were in danger. Unless he really is angry enough to no longer care.
"Farkas has come back a dozen times since they left. His brother, though…Vilkas is a cold boy," Ambarys repeated, "but that's how I know he likes you. Before I die, I want to see him married. And once he takes the matrimonial lead, Farkas will follow suit with the first girl who smiles at him. Nille would want dozens of grandchildren to dote on."
"Well, I'm sorry, but…it's against the rules for a Companion to wed another."
Ambarys scoffed. "The rules. The rules of what? Some dead warrior? Let me tell you something." He'd begun spooning the finished soup into a couple of bowls. "People only use the rules when it isn't worth it to break them. And you? Vilkas would break the rules for you."
Harjid chuckled through her tears down at her bowl. The ash yams had sweetened the smell of it, and the bittergreen, once boiled down, had become mild and even added a much needed kick to the ugly soup. "I suppose we'll see."
She'd brought her journal outside so that her waiting for him seemed more like writing poetry in the sunlight, but daylight had long since died. Harjid had not taken a full breath since settling against the wall, so aggravated was she by Vilkas' absence. Had he always been so devout?
Spending three months with monks who abuse you might make anyone pray…or deny the gods altogether.
Could he really still be angry at her? She didn't sign up to work for the Stormcloaks—it was just taking an ax from one Jarl to another. That was hardly a political move; even the thugs who'd attacked her and Vilkas in Ivarstead could have handled such a task.
Harjid let her head fall back against the stone wall. Why had she let herself think of them?
Had Vilkas ever been gone this long after one of their disagreements? He must have been gone for hours that night they were attacked by the frost troll, she decided, but that had been a full moon, and tonight was not. Was it that she had acquiesced to a favor for Ulfric, a man Vilkas despised? He had no qualms about Ulfric's cause, as he had said before, but the man himself…Harjid squeezed her eyes shut. Even I find him smug.
Could Ambarys' thinking be right, though? He had known Vilkas as a boy, but what did he know of the man? The wolf? The Vilkas she knew would never have let someone close to him be killed without investigating the murderer. He was a child, remember? But surely in the years since he'd reached manhood…No, Vilkas was not someone who could allow such a murderer to go undiscovered. He doesn't like feeling powerless.
"You shouldn't be here, missy."
Her heart caught in her throat, and she damned his wolfblood that he was able to sense it. She didn't open her eyes, though he must have known she was only feigning nonchalance when she said, "I had to disappoint you."
"That I don't doubt. You should be up in some feather bed by now."
She opened her eyes finally, too annoyed at his jab to respond to it. He leaned with his arms crossed against one of the pillars, the sky ablaze behind him in hues of green, violet, and gold. "Are you done being angry with me?"
"Never," he scoffed. "Where's the fun in that?"
She couldn't see much of his face, but his eyes glowed blue. "You're angry that I got involved with Stormcloak."
Harjid lifted her head up, grimacing up at him. "So you sat in a shrine all day because of it? I thought you were a Stormcloak sympathizer."
"I wasn't in a shrine all day."
"Oh. Then where were you?" She suddenly wished she hadn't asked, remembering having seen a cemetery the direction he went today. She interrupted the silence. "Don't you want the Stormcloak cause to be furthered, Vilkas?"
Though she couldn't see the whole of him, she somehow felt him bristle. "Perhaps if someone more worthy were at the helm."
"More worthy? I don't like him much, either, but you have to admit, he loves Skyrim's people."
"He loves the Nords," Vilkas said, "and only the Nords who agree with him."
She couldn't help but smile. "Does that make you more worthy, then?" You are.
"But someone else?"
Vilkas was silent for a time, the sky dancing above and beyond him. Finally: "Kodlak."
"Kodlak. That's a strong choice. But I'm afraid Companions don't interfere with politics."
A laugh rumbled from him. "You know, missy, with your dragon blood, you could actually wear the Amulet of Kings and make this whole war a moot point for us."
Harjid drew her knees up and hooked her hands around them, her journal forgotten at her side. "I could be Empress?"
"Aye," said Vilkas, unlocking his arms to press a fist against his hip. "One foot in the Nord camp, the other in the Imperial. A firsthand relationship with either culture and a daughter of both. What would My Empress command first?"
She knew instantly—she had said it for years, letting it fall on the deaf ears of Tonilia, Vex, Brynjolf. But she enjoyed feeling Vilkas watching her, so she moistened her lips and heard him shift his weight from foot to foot.
"Ultimate power is all it took to make you speechless, Dragonborn? At last?"
She couldn't help but grin. "I would ask that all scrolls, books, and oral histories be brought to my palace so that my royal steward might copy them for my imperial library."
Harjid heard him inhale deeply, the same noise he made when he awoke every morning that he had a restful night; he hadn't made that noise this morning, had he?
"That's an idea worthy of inscription itself."
"And so my steward shall carve it into the sky," she rejoined.
Vilkas looked over his shoulder. "The only canvas worthy of your many deeds, Your Imperial Majesty."
Harjid took his proffered hand to watch the aurora lights with him. "I just hope Farkas accepts the position."
There's that laugh again, rumbling low like distant thunder.
Vilkas' grin shone white in the lights of the sky. "My brother isn't exactly the family wit."
"Nor's mine." She hadn't meant for it to come out.
He furrowed his brow. "Didn't know you had a brother."
"I don't anymore." She looked down at her feet to avoid his attempt at pity, but she could see in her periphery that he nodded.
"I'm sorry," he said at last.
"Don't be," she said. "It's the best he hoped for, and I hate that. He didn't have many prospects, but he had the supreme tragedy of being just smart enough to know that."
Vilkas was quiet as a tomb beside her; he was urging her on, in his way.
"My father was a smith. Imperials always have need of weapons and armor, right?" She gave a halfhearted laugh. "I watched him craft helm after helm after helm. The orders never stopped. He probably outfitted the whole army.
"When my brother went off to fight, my father made him the finest set of armor he could. It was a work of art, sturdy and fitted, a true heirloom. His spear was made for his exact height, and his sword was balanced perfectly. And you know what? After all that, the only thing that returned to us from Quintus was a letter. It wasn't important, either. Just updates on the march, a raid on a bandit camp, things like that. His armor, his blade, his life…this little bit of parchment outlasted them all. You'd never have known he ever existed, and since my mother couldn't read or write…I can't help feeling that, if she had, then maybe I would've known her, too. I would have some idea of where I come from." She brushed aside her tears. "What draws you to history, Vilkas of Jorrvaskr?"
His eyebrows jumped, and he sheepishly shook his head, looking everywhere but at her. "I don't know how it started. Maybe with Vignar. Maybe Jergen. I remember sitting in Jorrvaskr at dinner, with someone playing a lute, and others drinking mead, and Vignar and Skjor arguing about training Farkas and me. Skjor didn't think making two pups read about Ysgramor or anyone else was important. But Vignar's words still ring with truth today."
Harjid folded her arms over her herself, suddenly feeling the chill. "What did he say?"
Vilkas met her eyes again. "You'll never read about someone who did nothing."
She felt tears streaming down her cheeks. Hold me. Please.
"Come on, little miss. It's time we get you to bed." Vilkas was behind her, tugging at her little finger on her left hand, and she felt a wave of arousal shiver through her body. Yet he tugged her not to the door, but to the stairs.
"I can't stay with you?" she sniveled.
Another rumbling laugh wafted back to her. "I can't stay with you," he corrected.
Harjid laced her fingers around his; the snow glowing a hazy pink crunched beneath their steps. She tried to make hers silent, but every Grey Quarter window yawned dark above them, with not even snores or the sighs of secret lovemaking to distract. Harjid tugged Vilkas' hand back, and he slowed, releasing her hand to wrap an arm about her waist. She didn't know what to do with her hands, suddenly feeling very much a girl and not at all a woman. At least he was warmer, and she let her head rest against his shoulder.
It came to an end too quickly. His warmth was gone, and she lifted her eyes for the first time since their walk began. He brushed cold tears off her cheek with the soft, top part of his fingers.
"The sky's gone to sleep too," she murmured. "Only a symphony of dancing colors could make the stars so dull."
"Ah, missy," he said. "Stars have stories woven between them."
"And you know every one, I bet."
Vilkas took her hand again, leading it up to the sky and brushing his other gently across the soft of her back until his fingers rested on her other elbow. He was behind her, now, his breath at her ear. "You see those two stars there? One's brighter than the other?"
She searched the heavens, but she took too long, and Vilkas' hand guided her eyes to their celestial counterparts. "I see them."
"Those are the eyes of the Warrior. The brighter one is the planet Akatosh. Farkas and I were born under that sign. The stars below the eyes, all in a row? Those represent his ax. His charges are the Lord, the Steed, and the Lady. She's there, just four stars."
Harjid couldn't contain a smirk. "Ah, there I am. The Lady."
"No, no." He cupped her chin and tilted her gaze up and over. "You're there. The Thief."
Harjid shuddered with laughter. "I was born under the Serpent."
"Mm," said Vilkas, pressing his cheek against hers and pointing lower and to the left. "You can't see all of it, but the tail of the serpent starts there."
Harjid could hardly breathe; his hand slid up her arm to her neck, and she tilted her face to nuzzle his cheek, but he'd turned too, and she gasped, but his mouth found and covered hers before she could release her breath.
His fingers were in her hair, and he pulled away from her, which made her whimper, and she was glad that he turned to face her fully before he kissed her again. Harjid grasped at the lowest locks of his hair and felt his palms graze the small of her back and her nape as he pulled her closer to him, crushing her chest against his armor. He pulled away, nudged her nose with his, kissed the corner of her mouth, her forehead, her nose, and her mouth again, urging it open by brushing his thumbs in the hollows of her cheeks.
They pulled apart, panting, and Vilkas rested his forehead against hers and finally opened his eyes. Resolutely, Harjid wouldn't blink away. He'd finally shown her what he wanted of her, and even though the sky was twinkling above them, all she wanted to see was how he was looking at her.
Vilkas grinned through his panting, which made her grin, too. He gave her a peck, and then a longer one, and again, until his tongue was inside her mouth, gliding against hers. Harjid felt his nose against hers when he pulled away again. She pressed her hands over his, still on her cheeks, and smiled and gave a satisfied little hum.
"I'm dizzy," she said dreamily.
He kissed her once more. "My mother showed me the stories in the sky," he said hoarsely against her lips. "I'll show you every one if you want."
Harjid felt herself flush and tucked her chin down, but he raised it with a finger and bit at her lip. She pulled away, smiling, then kissed his cheek above his forming beard. "Come up to bed with me."
"I can't," he whispered against her lips.
"But I want you, Vilkas."
"And I want you, missy."
Vilkas pulled her back into a crushing kiss. "I am finding there are only two ways to silence you."
"And you're too cowardly for either. I will not beg, Vilkas."
"I wouldn't want you if you did."
"You don't want me now."
He cupped her mound with a rough hand, making her yelp into his mouth. "I've wanted you since I met you," he seethed against her lips.
Harjid tilted her hips, rubbing herself against his palm, entirely in agony. "Don't go," she pleaded, but he pulled his hand away.
"I have to go. And you have to sleep." He took her mouth again, then, pulling away, panted, "Before we do something foolish."
She nodded, holding one of his hands in both of hers. "You won't—" Her eyes darted to the pub over his shoulder. "Don't take to some other woman's bed. Please."
Vilkas tilted her chin up to him again. "This is your fire, Harjid. Only yours."
She kissed him, and she felt his hand rise up her neck to her cheek, and he pulled away.
Harjid could not remember ever falling asleep, only the endless questions and possibilities rolling through her mind; even upon waking, she knew her thinking had not ceased in sleep, as her head pounded. Or perhaps it was the door.
The leaded windows showed a dull morning, where the lamps in the square were still alight, though she knew dawn had long gone. Despite the sleeping gown laid out for her on the covers upon her arrival, she'd slept in her armor, though her greaves she had unlaced, and once refastened, Harjid opened the door to a servant announcing she had missed breakfast and that a gentleman awaited her in the great hall. Without thanking her, Harjid ran to the mirror to smooth out her hair and assure herself of her own face; finding enough to do but nothing with which to do it, she resolved that he'd found her lovely enough to kiss and torment in the night, and that surely he could in the daylight. Surely.
She slowed her feverish pace on the stairs at the last, ever feigning control and a certain disregard, but upon seeing him, his hands clasped behind his back, tall and broad and proud, Harjid felt the most childish grin warm her face.
He did not smile back.
"Lady Dragonborn," drawled the King from near his throne, "your Companion says you are to depart this morning."
Harjid's smile forgotten, she looked to Vilkas for confirmation. He offered none, as if testing her silently to challenge Ulfric. "Our business here is finished, Your Majesty," she said at last.
"I trust my message to Jarl Balgruuf will be successfully carried out. There are no worthier hands."
"I will keep my word," she said stiffly. Then, slinging her back over her shoulder and turning to Vilkas, "Shall we go?"
A curt nod was the only reply, but following him out today was a far cry from the previous morning's exit.
"Did you sleep well?" she finally asked in the courtyard. Vilkas snorted. "Me neither," she said brightly.
Vilkas walked briskly under the gate and into the square. "The stablemaster here is more reasonable. We can get a decent dinner on the road tonight, but Ambarys packed apples and salted fish for our lunch."
Vilkas turned to her finally. "What's the matter."
He'd said it as a statement; Harjid said "Nothing" before she had a moment to think how absurd it was to hide her disappointment—in not having the chance to say goodbye to Ambarys and the others, in her lonely night, in his demeanor this morning.
He resumed his walk, his shoulders visibly taut, and there was no gentleness in his descent of the stairs this time; he carried on, not looking back to see if she'd managed. After tracing her steps to the street, Harjid looked up again and found him turning right, away from the city gates.
Noise rang from the market just over the walls, but the lower they sank into the snow of the graveyard, the quieter it became, almost pressing on her from all sides. She followed him wordlessly to a withered stone, sunken, the snow pushed off its crooked face.
He was here yesterday.
Harjid barely breathed; the anger radiated heat from him, and she felt any noise she made would set him off. She felt a lump form in her throat, but knew swallowing would be too loud. Finally, she heard him release a quivering breath; she gasped, her eyes welling.
He scowled down at the stone, mouth twisted. "She was sick."
Harjid made no sound, no movement. Any flicker would break his trance, she knew, when it took all his strength just to begin.
"She asked me to. We could go to Whiterun, she said. But we wouldn't leave her." Vilkas' teeth sank into his lip, and he looked up at the cloudy sky. "She sacrificed so much for us. But we would waste our lives caring for her if we stayed."
Harjid hugged herself, too afraid to hug him. "You always remember your first."
"I never told my brother," he admitted. "I made it look like some demon did it. I guess that's so. But some of the blood was mine, once hers stopped." Vilkas met her gaze, finally. "I hate myself every day. But I would do it again. She was hurting, missy."
She was trembling; his voice broke on her sobriquet, and Harjid released a sob. It was too much for a parent to ask of their son, but Vilkas was never truly a child. She watched his eyes flicker over his memory, and she had to bring him out.
"Wafting went I," she sang hoarsely, "a shade or a wight, through stoic pines…pitched ink of night."
Harjid felt his eyes on her. "Ere I came upon the pyre-burning throng, I heard carried on wind's wing their song."
Vilkas sank to a knee, one hand on the back of her leg, and the other he kissed and pressed to the stone.
"Sing high and clear, bandsmen born of the sky," Harjid sobbed. "Let Sovngarde hear, and join our cry."
Vilkas pulled her down to him and sank his face into her breast; she curled her arm over him and cried too.
I hope you all have a happy holiday season. I'm sorry this took so long. I wanted it perfect, and though it isn't, holycrapfirstdraft was awful :D I used a verse from Songs of the Askelde Men in Skyrim, and I used the Skyrim Dragon Language dictionary for Ulfric's Shout.
Next chapter will be Vilkas, but it might be a short one. This one was almost 12k! Words are fun and difficult. Vilkas really is a man of few words, you guys.