“So I threw the witch’s head into the fire, and there was this big explosion, and my body hurt all over,” said Farkas. He sat in a chair by Sofie’s bed, where she and Lucia sat side by side. Their beloved dog Arbuth lay between the girls’ feet, also gazing up as though he was just as interested in the tale as Lucia and Sofie. Vix, Sofie’s pet fox, was curled up at the end of the bed. Every once in a while, she gave a short grunt as if she thought Farkas was just making the story up.
“Why did it hurt?” Sofie asked, big-eyed.
“Because my wolf spirit was fighting me. He didn’t want to leave, and I had to force him out, and . . . well, it hurt.”
“But you did,” Lucia prompted him.
“Aye, I did. He came out and stood before me, this big, blue wolf that I could see right through. He was almost as tall as me, and we had to fight it.”
Sofie gasped. “Weren’t you scared?”
“Sure, but I had your Ma with me.”
“Because being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared.”
“Right.” Farkas smiled as Lucia stated his favorite lesson. “It means that you keep fighting even if you’re scared. I was more afraid when we had to fight your Ma’s wolf spirit.”
“Because it was trying to kill her, and I didn’t want to lose her.”
“But you defeated it in the end,” Lucia alleged confidently.
“You bet we did. Both of them.”
Sofie rubbed Arbuth’s back with her feet. “Miz Selene is a werewolf, isn’t she?”
Farkas feigned shock. “Why would you say that, Sofie?”
“Because all the Companions are werewolves!” Lucia interjected. “That’s what Brenuin said.”
“You’d believe the word of the town drunk over your own Pa?” The girls looked back at him, their eyes wide and trusting. He didn’t last long against those faces. “Not all the Companions are werewolves,” he sighed, “but aye, some are. You’ll have to ask Miz Selene yourself.”
“So she is, then, and you just don’t want to tell us,” said Sofie.
Farkas groaned audibly. He hated it when the girls got the better of him. They were smarter than he was, and they knew it.
“Papa, why didn’t you want to be a werewolf? Are they bad?”
Farkas shrugged. “No, they’re not bad. It’s complicated.”
Lucia glared at her father. “Papa, we’re almost ten years old, and both of us grew up on the streets. If we can stand to hear about how you defeated your werewolf, we can know the rest.”
“You really want to know this stuff?”
“Aye!” both girls squealed.
“All right, all right. See, the wolf spirit is strong within the werewolf, and they can’t always control their temper or the need to hunt. Sometimes a werewolf might do bad things because they just can’t help it. They’re not evil, just . . . wild. Also, werewolves are bound to the Daedric Lord Hircine; and when they die, instead of going to Sovngarde, they go to his Hunting Grounds.”
Sofie nodded slowly, taking in the information, while Lucia prodded for more. “Did you ever bad things when you were a werewolf?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
The girls looked at each other and shook their heads. “What about Mama?” said Sofie.
“She’ll have to tell you that story herself. Now, off to bed with you two.”
Lucia groaned. “But we’re not tired!”
“Maybe not, but I am.” He kissed each of them on the forehead. “Goodnight, girls.”
“Goodnight, Papa.” Lucia wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Night,” Sofie said, already closing her eyes.
Farkas blew out the candles and left the girls in the dark, stopping at the door to look back one last time. He was always reluctant to leave them at night, and he’d even taken to going back into their room once in a while to make sure they were breathing. He had never imagined he could love anyone so much. Sure, he loved Vilkas, but that was different. They were a part of each other, they always had been, and always would be. Nothing could compare to the overwhelming joy he felt when he was with Blanche and the girls. He would do anything to make sure they were safe and happy.
He went upstairs and read for a while, struggling through A Brief History of the Empire as best he could. He wasn’t a very good reader, but Blanche was, and although she never demanded anything of him, Sofie and Lucia had insisted that he practice to get better at it (and so that he could read to them), so he read anything he could get his hands on. But by the Nine, this stuff was boring! Farkas liked fiction better, action-packed stories of battles and adventures that kept his interest much longer than all these dates and facts. It wasn’t long before they started to blur together, and he found himself nodding off.
He undressed, threw his clothes on the floor, and then blew out the candles and lay in the dark; but as soon as the lights were out, his eyes flew open. It was weird, not being able to see anything in the dark anymore, and he turned onto his side uncomfortably. He missed Blanche. Between her enchanting work and her business in Solitude and Winterhold’s college, she was a busy woman, and he knew she had to travel a lot, but he stilldidn’t sleep as well when she was gone. If he reached out, he could almost feel her soft skin and taste her lips. But it wasn’t to be. Not tonight. He just hoped she wasn’t gone too long. Exhaustion finally took over, and he drifted off to sleep with her name on his breath.
* * *
Farkas sensed the change in the air rather than the footsteps that crept into the bedroom. For a moment, he thought it was the girls, but then his warrior’s senses took over and he realized that whoever it was, they were much bigger than a couple of ten-year-old girls. His first thought was that Arbuth hadn’t barked. The mutt was usually a good watchdog; what had happened? Farkas reached a hand under the bed for his sword.
“I wouldn’t,” said a male voice.
Screw that, he thought, and he grabbed the weapon and rolled out of bed, on his feet in a second. In the early morning light that streamed in through the windows, he could see four of them, three Nords and an orc, all heavily armored with cuirasses of leather augmented with steel plates and heavy buckles, and all wielding greatswords and axes. One of the Nords had a crossbow, which was trained on him.
No problem whatsoever. He could take these bastards, even in his loincloth.
Until the orc said the magic words. “We have your daughters.”
As if to prove the point, Sofie’s scream rang up the stairs. “Papa!”
Farkas’s heart wrenched in his chest. “You harm one hair on their heads, and I’ll make you wish you were never even born.”
“Where is the vampire?” the orc, who seemed to be the leader, demanded, ignoring the threat.
“Don’t play coy with me, Companion. We know you have a vampire living under this roof. Now, where is she?”
He glared. “You’re mistaken.”
“You know he won’t talk like this,” the Nord with the crossbow said.
“Then he’s coming with us.”
“If you think I’m going anywhere with you—”
“We’ll kill your daughters if you don’t cooperate.”
“You’d kill two little girls? What kind of sick bastards are you?”
“Where is the vampire!” the orc roared.
“I told you there’s no vampire here!” Farkas attacked, but the orc parried his blade and advanced on him, swinging his greatsword. Farkas ducked beneath it and spun around, slicing at the soldier’s side, but the blade bounced off the steel plates. “Gods damn it,” he snarled. Blanche’s magic enchantments had always made him uneasy, but right now he wished this sword had one.
“For Stendarr’s sake, don’t kill him!” one of the others warned. “We need him.”
“If you think I’m gonna let you take me alive–”
Lucia screamed, and there was a loud thump, like the sound of a child falling to the floor.
“Cooperate and we won’t harm the girls. Resist and they die. Now, drop your weapon.”
Farkas gripped the hilt so tightly his hand hurt, resistant to letting it go. He had never surrendered in his life, and every fiber of his being told him not to do so now. But when he thought of what would happen to the girls if he fought, especially if they managed to kill him, he knew he had no choice. He released the sword, and it clattered to the floor.
The soldiers were on him in a second, wrestling him to the floor and binding his hands behind his back, then pulling him up roughly.
“We can’t take him out of here in nothing but his loincloth,” the Nord with the crossbow argued.
The leader pressed the point of his greatsword against Farkas’s throat. “We’ll untie your hands so you can dress, but before you see this as an opportunity, just remember what’s at stake. Say it.”
“All right, all right! I won’t fight!” They untied his hands, and he threw on the clothes and boots he’d tossed there the night before, wishing he had some opportunity to conceal a weapon or even an enchanted ring. But with a set of eyes watching from every angle, there was none.
“Now. Hands behind your back.”
He put his hands behind his back, and they tied him up again and pushed him out of the room and down the stairs. Three other soldiers were on the ground floor, waiting with the girls, who were bound and gagged. Arbuth lay just beyond them in a pool of blood, a crossbow bolt protruding from his ribs. Farkas looked around for Vix, but the little fox was nowhere to be seen. Hopefully she was hiding.
“Papa!” Lucia cried through the gag.
“Just do what they say, girls, and they won’t hurt you. Don’t worry, I’ll get us out of this.”
“Gag him too,” the leader ordered, and one of the others stuffed a cloth in his mouth and yanked in a knot behind his head. As they herded him and the girls toward the door, the leader said, “Search the place; dig up anything you can on where she went. Tear this place apart if you have to.”
The town guards were conspicuously absent as the soldiers dragged them through Windhelm. Even the ones at the gate were missing. Farkas wondered if they were away intentionally or if these men had taken them out. Who in Oblivion were these people? Were they the Dawnguard? The Vigilants of Stendarr? They had mentioned the Divine upstairs . . . Blanche had never expressed fondness for Stendarr, and Farkas was beginning to share her sentiments as the soldiers forced them into the back of a carriage. The girls huddled close to him; but tied and gagged as he was, Farkas couldn’t offer anything to comfort them. He glared at the orc, who had sat across from him, his wary eye fixed on every move the three prisoners made.
Dawnguard, Vigilants, whoever. Farkas didn’t care who they were. All he cared about was his family. If these people hurt his girls or his wife, he swore to the Nine, he would gleefully kill them slowly and painfully.