The first leg of the trip back to Whiterun was rough because it rained in the morning and they had to deal with a group of bandits that afternoon. Selene was in a lot of pain, her shoulder hurting so badly at times that she had to stop and remove her outer armor to relieve the pressure against her skin. By suppertime they were exhausted, but they had eaten nothing but rations for a couple of days and wanted something more substantial, so they set up camp and went hunting. They found a deer not far from camp. They crouched behind a boulder, and Selene nocked an arrow.
“I should have brought a bow,” Vilkas whispered with frustration.
“It’s all right. I’ll kill it if you’ll cut it up and cook it.”
Selene stood slowly, ignoring the pain in her shoulder as she aimed and shot, and she took the deer down with one arrow. She removed its antlers while Vilkas skinned the animal and cut into its ribs.
“Why do you take the antlers?” he asked.
“I didn’t know you were an alchemist.”
“I’m not. I’ll sell them to Arcadia. Unless they get too cumbersome to carry with my shoulder. I’ll see how it goes.”
When they had enough venison to feed them, they left the rest of the deer for the scavengers and went back to camp. It was a chilly night, and Selene wrapped herself in a fur as they ate venison and cheese, washing it down with bottles of mead. Vilkas was quiet, lost in thought, and Selene watched him. He was brilliant, and his gray eyes and speech patterns reflected that intelligence. She had learned a lot from him during their many discussions, and she didn’t like it when he was silent like this.
“I’m thinking of buying Breezehome,” she announced, trying to draw him out.
“What’s wrong with Jorrvaskr?”
“I love Jorrvaskr, but sleeping in a dorm with four other people doesn’t afford much privacy. I’m also accumulating a lot of stuff, and I don’t have a good place to put it all. Besides, Jarl Balgruuf is pressuring me to buy property. You know, being Thane and all.”
Vilkas chuckled. “That’s right, you’re a noble. Perhaps I should start addressing you as such, my Thane. Or milady.”
“Don’t even think about it!” The conversation died off, and Selene tried again. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why are you so angry?”
“Anything but that.”
“I’m your friend, you know. You can tell me anything.”
He glared at her and opened his mouth to say something scathing, but he stopped and looked away. He thought for a moment and said, “Very well. I’ll tell you why I’m angry if you’ll tell me why you are.”
“I’m not angry.”
“You get a look in your eye sometimes as though you want to kill someone. I know you still plan to go to Riften. Who do you hate so much in Riften?”
Selene closed her eyes and tried to block out the images that came to her mind. They were never too far away, but keeping them private made them less tangible. To talk about them would only aggravate the wounds, and she didn’t know if finding out Vilkas’s secret was worth it.
“I’m your friend, too,” he said softly.
She opened her eyes to see him staring at her. Try as she might, Selene could never keep from comparing him and his brother. He looked just like Farkas, although his constant scowl diminished his attractiveness. He was uptight even when he wasn’t in a bad mood, and she had heard Farkas to tell him to “unclench” several times. He was obsessively tidy, always keeping his hair and beard cut short, his armor and weapons spotless, and his room immaculate. He rarely looked her in the eye—rarely looked anyone in the eye unless he was openly challenging them—but now he gazed earnestly at her, waiting. She stared back for a moment, weighing her options before deciding yes, it was worth it. Farkas knew part of the tale, but Selene found herself wanting to share everything with Vilkas.
“It’s a long story.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“All right. You know I was born in Whiterun.”
“I don’t remember anything about it; I was very small. I do remember my parents, though. They were very loving, and I didn’t want for anything.”
“I was in the marketplace once with Gwendolyn Battle-Born, and you were there with your mother,” he recalled. “Gwendolyn looked at you and said, ‘You can always tell the difference between a happy child and an unhappy child, and that’s a happy child.’”
Selene smiled. “I like that. I was happy. Anyway, my parents hated the Empire, and they talked a lot about it. I didn’t know what the Empire was, of course, but I figured if Ma and Da hated them, they must be pretty bad. When I was five, we went on a trip to Windhelm, and I was really excited because I’d never been anywhere. But we never made it to Windhelm.”
“I remember the rumors. Your parents were killed by bandits.”
“They weren’t bandits; they were Imperial soldiers. We happened upon a group of them, and Ma and Da got into a fight with them. Ma and Da were slain. The soldiers argued for a long time about what to do with me, and they finally decided to take me to Honorhall Orphanage in Riften. I was there five years.”
“Your scent just changed.”
“When you mentioned the orphanage, anger and hatred flooded through your scent. What happened there?”
“Honorhall was run by a matron named Grelod the Kind. She was not kind. I could never understand why she ran the orphanage, because she obviously hated us. She was cruel and abusive, and she wouldn’t let anybody adopt us. Two months after I arrived, she broke my hand when I had reached for something I wasn’t supposed to have.”
“Selene, by the Eight!”
“I lived with it for five years before I decided I had to get out. One afternoon when we were out in the yard, Grelod went inside for a nap. I grabbed the nearest kid—Ben—and we went over the wall. The orphanage is by the south gate, and the guard let us out. She had guarded that gate for a long time, and she could hear how Grelod treated us.”
“Why didn’t she ever do anything about it?”
Selene shrugged. “I couldn’t say. Anyway, Ben and I headed south, and we made it all the way to Cyrodiil.”
“You went over the mountains?” Vilkas asked incredulously.
“You were ten years old!”
“And Ben was eight. It certainly wasn’t easy, but we managed it. We did what we could to survive—hunt, steal, beg, do odd jobs for villagers. We did a lot of fighting, too. Every once in a while we’d find someone who would give us combat training in exchange for errands or odd jobs. As you’ve seen, I got pretty good.”
“But it must have been a hard life.”
“Not nearly as hard as living under Grelod’s hand. Ben was the best little brother you could imagine. He was so brave, and he was smart, too. I was always kind of high strung, but he kept a cool head. A fortnight before my seventeenth birthday, we snuck into an Imperial garrison to steal some food and got caught. They killed Ben before he could even put up a fight.” Selene’s breath caught in her throat, and a tear rolled down her cheek as the image of the Imperial’s sword slicing through Ben’s body replayed in her mind.
Vilkas reached out and wiped the tear away. “You don’t have to go on if you don’t want to.”
“No, I’ve gotten this far,” she said with a sniffle.
“How did you escape?”
“There were five of them. Five Imperial soldiers, blind, stinking drunk. They thought it was fun to push me back and forth between them, and when I tried to fight back, one of them backhanded me across the face. My eye was swollen shut for a week. Anyway, after they played catch with me for a while, they drew lots to see which of them would get to rape me first. The winner took me to an empty stall in the stable and stripped me naked. But he was distracted, and he didn’t even notice when I pulled the dagger from his belt. I’m a very good pickpocket. Anyway, he pushed me to the ground, and I struggled against him. While he was fumbling around, trying to hold me still, I stuck the dagger in his side.”
“Good!” Vilkas exclaimed enthusiastically.
“He fell to the ground screaming, and I took the opportunity to castrate him.” She smiled proudly, and Vilkas laughed heartily. “I tried to feed him his testicles, but the bastard wouldn’t be still.”
With that, Vilkas lost all composure. He lay down on the ground and laughed until tears streamed down his cheeks. He rarely even smiled, and here he was, rolling on the ground, cracking up. Selene loved seeing him like that, and his laughter made her painful story much more bearable.
When he finally settled down and was ready to listen again, Selene said, “I realized all his yelling was going to bring the other soldiers, so I gave up and climbed the wall. I found a house not too far away that had clothes hung out to dry, and I was able to dress.”
“They never found you?”
“Selene, I—I don’t know what to say.”
“There’s no need to say anything. Believe me, Ben’s death hurt me more than what that soldier tried to do to me. As you can imagine, I have no love for the Empire.”
“What did you do after that?”
“I lived on my own for a couple of years. I spent some time in the cities, working, stealing, grifting. Grifting was easy because people are basically stupid and greedy.”
“Not everybody’s like that.”
“No, but there are enough to make a good living cheating and conning them. Try not to judge me, okay?”
“You did what you had to do,” he said, his voice devoid of emotion, and Selene knew he was judging her. Vilkas was very big on honor, and what she had done was wrong. But he didn’t understand. How could he?
“Most people will say anything to bend you to their will,” she declared bitterly. “I’m not the only one who lies, cheats, and steals, you know. And that time in the Imperial fort wasn’t the last time somebody tried to rape me. I developed a lot of animosity in those two years—for the Imperials and Grelod but also for people in general.
“I was in the Imperial City a few months ago, and I heard news that Ulfric Stormcloak had killed High King Torygg. There was a lot of talk about the civil war in Skyrim and the worship of Talos, who I’d never even heard of. The more I heard, the more I realized this was where I wanted to be. It’s funny. I meet so many people who want to leave Skyrim because of the war, and they think I’m crazy for wanting to be here, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
“Are you planning on joining the Stormcloaks?”
“I’ve thought about it. I also thought I would do more of what I was doing in Cyrodiil. A whole new batch of people to steal from, to con, to—and then I met the Companions. You all have so much integrity, so much honor. I don’t really feel I deserve to be among your numbers. And now you don’t, either.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because I can read people, too, just not by scent. Your tone of voice has changed. When I started talking, you were my friend. Now you’re not so sure you can be my friend. But Vilkas, you’re an orphan, too. You could as easily have turned out like me.”
He glared at her, and she never took her eyes off his. After a moment, he looked away. “You’re right. I might have. I…apologize for my behavior. I’ve no call to judge anything you do. And yes, I’m still your friend. But you say it all so matter-of-factly.”
“I’ve had to detach myself from it, or I would go crazy. Everyone I’ve ever loved was brutally murdered, and I was abused and tortured throughout my childhood. Would you want to dwell on that all the time? When I think about it, it hurts. So I don’t think about it.”
“What, you can smell a lie, too?” He raised an eyebrow at her, and she growled in frustration. “That is really annoying, you know. Very well, I do my best to remain detached, and I try not to get close to anybody. You and Farkas are the only real friends I’ve had since Ben died, and I worry all the time that I’m getting too close and something will happen to destroy it. I look at Farkas, and I want him so much. I want to love him, but I just can’t let him in like that. And you, you’ve got this huge chip on your shoulder, and my first instinct should be just to stay out of your way, but something in the deepest recesses of my soul tells me you need me.”
Vilkas chuckled mirthlessly. “Perhaps I do.”
“All right, beautiful man. I’ve bared my soul to you; now it’s your turn.”
“You already know my story,” he protested.
“Your adoptive father saved you from necromancers and raised you in the Companions, but he went off to war and never came back.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
“There’s more to it than that, and I know it.”
Vilkas sighed. “What has Farkas told you?”
“No, I want to hear it from you.”
“Necromancers killed our parents and took us when we were too young to remember. To this day, I don’t know what they had in mind for us, but they…did things to us. I don’t remember many of the details, thank the gods; mostly what I remember is them hurting and scaring us. There was one time, though, that I’ll never forget if I live to be a hundred. Farkas wouldn’t stop crying, and one of them cast a spell on him. An Alteration spell.”
“What did it do?”
“It took his mouth away for two days,” he spat.
Selene’s jaw dropped. She couldn’t imagine such horror. “What? You can do that?”
“We were three then, and he didn’t say another word until he was almost eight years old. It’s one of my first real memories. I don’t know if he remembers it; I pray he doesn’t. I think one reason he’s slow to learn is because of something the necromancers did to him. We’re twins; we should be just alike. But we’re not, and that’s the only reason I can think of.”
“When did Jergen find you?”
“We were four. He planned on taking us to Honorhall as well, but when he arrived there he decided against it.” He gave her a wry smile. “Something about a cruel matron.”
“When you said I could have ended up like you, you didn’t know how right you were, eh?”
“What was Jergen like?”
“Driven. The Companions were his life. He tried to be a good father, but he wasn’t up to raising twin boys. He didn’t know what to do. Got a lot of help from Aela’s mother and Kodlak. When he adopted us, he got in over his head, but he was stuck with us. He had too much heart to just drop us on the doorstep of the orphanage but not enough to actually be a loving father. The way I see it, when the war started, he saw it as his excuse to get out. Jergen left us when we were six years old. He had never even heard Farkas speak. See, Farkas will tell you he was our father and he raised us to be Companions. Kodlak raised us.”
He took a deep breath and glowered, his eyes burning. He spoke again through clenched teeth, his voice growing louder and more irate with every word. “I don’t know if he was killed in battle or if he just decided not to come back, but I don’t care.”
Enraged, Vilkas roared, launched himself from the ground and paced back and forth in front of the fire, trying to calm his fury. He ran a hand through his dark hair, his breathing heavy and raspy. “Farkas will tell you he did what he had to do, but no. He had to stay and take care of us. What kind of man adopts a child—two children—and then decides fatherhood is too much for him and just abandons them, leaving them for someone else to take care of? Why? Why would he do that? Did he think we weren’t worth bothering with? That the war was more important than us? For the longest time, I hated myself, hated Farkas, because we obviously weren’t worthy of being loved.”
“Vilkas, that’s not true.”
He looked at Selene, startled, as if he had forgotten she was there. “I know that now. Now I realize he’s not worthy of love. Sometimes I hope he’s still alive and I meet him someday, because I want nothing more—nothing in the world—than to run the bastard through!”
“Will you be all right alone? I have to get out of here.”
Selene nodded, and he took off running. He disappeared into the woods, and after a few minutes, she heard a desolate, mournful howl. She buried her face in her hands and wept for the second time that day. She cried for Vilkas’s lost childhood, for his feeling of abandonment, his anger; but she also cried because he had tried so long and hard to resist the beastblood, and he had given in because she had pressed him too hard.
After a while she lay down and closed her eyes with Liska curled up next to her. She had gotten used to camping with a shield-brother and was a little skittish about sleeping in the wilderness alone, but she reminded herself she had done it for two years before joining the Companions, and she finally drifted into a light sleep, restful but aware of the sounds of the forest.
Vilkas came back sometime in the night, and he lay down behind her and wrapped his arm around her, careful not to disturb her burned shoulder. The closeness was awkward, but Selene sensed he needed it, so she snuggled up to him and covered his arm with hers.
“I’m sorry I left like that,” he whispered.
“It’s okay. I’m sorry I forced you to bring all that out.”
“Don’t be. I feel better.”
“Are you lying?”
He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Yes.”
* * *
A/N: Most of the pictures that go with my story are photomanipulations from two or more screenshots. This one also has a stock photo. Liska the Fox is courtesy of momotte2stocks.deviantart.com.