He wears his armor—he doesn't have anything else anyway—and smears war paint around his eyes with a practiced hand, but he leaves his sword in his room, to show he's not fighting. He feels naked without it. In less than a minute he's out on the steps.
The smoke is rising just past the gates. Thick and black and gray, blocking out the sun as it rises. The barricades outside the walls have fallen and the drawbridge is up, that means. He can hear the distant battle as soon as he gets outside, clangs and shouts and the screams of the dying, but he can't see anything from Jorrvaskr's door except waiting Imperials and barricades, so he runs up to the Skyforge. From up there, he has a better view down into the Plains District, and that's where the fighting is, right inside the gates. Right by his house. Catapult fire hails over the walls as he watches. Fire and smoke where it lands—that's burning pitch they're firing. He wonders if the Stormcloaks know that the Dragonborn has a house on the main street and are avoiding it, or if the fire just falls where it falls.
Soon he gets his answer, because a shot hits the priest's house right near Jorrvaskr and the earth shakes as the flames erupt. The priest who's always yelling about Talos. Farkas guesses they didn't hit him on purpose. Whiterun's guards rush in with their buckets of river sand, but it'll still burn for hours where it falls. The Stormcloaks are leading their foot soldiers with the catapult fire, probably trying to distract the guards and hide their rush up with the smoke. It tells Farkas that they must be badly outnumbered; otherwise Stormcloak would have his troops do all their killing face-to-face, if he's as true a Nord as he claims. You honor your enemy by wearing his blood. But maybe a man who would shout his opponent to death in a duel doesn't have much use for honor.
The Imperial archers have the high ground in the Wind District, but the Stormcloaks push up the steps anyway until they meet the enemy steel to steel around the tree. Farkas runs back down to Jorrvaskr, scanning the melee for Matilda.
He picks her out easily at the head of the crush. Not by the armor—the generic steel isn't much different from what the blade-swingers on both sides are wearing—but by the way she moves. And he knew she'd be at the front. The Dragonborn never uses a bow (can't, someone less loyal might've said); does her killing up close. That's not a bad blade he gave her, he notices with professional interest. Good balance: not so much heft that it's hard for her to swing, but enough reach that she's not at a disadvantage. The first time he's actually seen something he made in action.
Lydia is staying close to her side, trying to redirect some of the blows. They're both moving well. Not badly hurt, then. He wonders how many faces they recognize.
They're fighting well, too. Lydia knows the Whiterun guards and turns their training against them; Matilda's sloppiness from that night in the yard is gone. But it's hard to watch them stagger back under swords and arrows, right herself and then stagger again as another enemy closes in. He swore that his sword stood ready to meet the blood of his wife's foes. Instead it's propped beside his bed.
A hand falls on his shoulder; Farkas looks back and sees his brother standing behind him. They watch the fight together, moving back up the hill alongside the battle so he can follow Matilda. As the Stormcloaks break the ranks of the Imperials in the Wind District, he sees her helm turn toward him, and in that instant he wants to jump down and take up a fallen sword and fight right there at her side, damn Vilkas's history books. But then she turns forward again and charges on toward Dragonsreach.
They get swarmed again in three paces, at the base of the steps up. Imperials must've had reserves inside Dragonsreach. He counts ten or a dozen to the two of them: fine odds against bandits; something different when they're fully armored Legionnaires with the high ground. Matilda gains a step, loses it, brings her knee up to take it again and is slammed back, and if he can't always read her face or her tone of voice, he can read the pain and frustration in the way she reels under the force of the blow.
He feels the Shout in his chest more than he hears it: Wuld Nah.
She's past them, through them, as fast as he can blink, and Legionnaires tumble off the edge of the great staircase and die in the water far below on either side. Hitting them that hard must've battered her through her armor, but it doesn't matter, because the battle changes after that. The Imperials still have their swords raised, but they're barely swinging, because they know now who they're fighting and they know they'll condemn their families if they kill her. She almost walks up the rest of the steps.
It gets them safe to the door, but it leaves the same sour feeling in your gut as what Ulfric did to Torygg.
Sometimes we have to loosen our death grip on our honor to save it, Farkas hears the housecarl saying. He glances at Vilkas's grim expression and wonders whether he'll make this part better when he chronicles it.
And then the great doors of the keep open and Matilda disappears behind them with Lydia on her heels, and there's nothing more Farkas can do but wait to see which bodies get carried out.
Most of the dying has already been done by then. The last few skirmishes resolve themselves in cries, and it's the Stormcloaks who hold the city when they're over. Some of them move up into the Cloud District to reinforce the ones inside Dragonsreach. Others begin moving around, tending their wounded, closing the eyes of their dead. A few fall to their knees—in exhaustion or prayer, Farkas isn't sure.
"Come," he says to Vilkas. "Many fought well here today." The Companions had to stay out of the fighting, but that doesn't mean they can't aid in the aftermath. For once his brother follows him. They make their way down from the Skyforge back into Jorrvaskr, where Tilma has already beaten him to the idea. She's waiting by the door with sacks of mead and potions and linen, and a dagger. Vilkas, who's faster, takes a torch first and sets out to relight the braziers that have gone out outside the houses. Most of the winter's snow has melted, but the wounded can still succumb to the cold if they're not kept warm. The smoke is still hard to move through, but you can see your way without choking if you stay low to the ground.
The closest soldier is an Imperial, but Great Harbingers says the Companions are "impartial arbiters of honor." He should know; he reread that part five times, looking for loopholes. Farkas goes to his knees next to the man and looks at the wound. A nasty slash to the leg just above the knee. Someone managed to get him around the skirt—knew right where to aim. Could be Matilda's work, for all he knows.
He's done this so many times before that it's almost automatic. Clear the wound. Apply pressure or wrapping. Give a potion. Working gently, he pushes the armored skirt back, peels the slashed trousers back from the wound and works the dagger into the frayed ends to cut the fabric around the damaged area so it doesn't get in the way. You can lose a leg or worse from an injury like this—worse would be if it got infected. Farkas gingerly shifts the soldier's leg up so he can get the wrapping all the way around it. Ties it tight. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see his shield-siblings and the townspeople doing the same thing he is. Or trying to put out the flames from the pitch.
He reaches into his sack and rummages through the potions, feeling for a bottle with slanted sides—the heavy-duty ones. He finds one, bites the cork off and spits it out. "Here. Drink," he says, holding it up to the Imperial's mouth. The man—barely more than a pup, really—seems barely conscious, but he cracks open his lips and Farkas eases the end of the bottle up, pouring the liquid in. The unnerving sound of flesh knitting itself together leaks out from under the bandages.
"There. You should be all right now," he tells the Imperial. The man nods vaguely. Farkas is about to get up and move on when a cry goes up all around him, and then falls deadly silent. Suddenly all heads seem to be turned toward the keep.
He follows their gazes: the doors have opened and figures are appearing. As they come down the stairs toward the city, he sees that Balgruuf is at their head, followed by his people. They're surrounded by Stormcloak guards. Behind them is Vignar the Revered, and Ulfric's general Stone-Fist next to him. Behind them—and for the second time since dawn, Farkas lets out a breath he didn't even know he'd been holding—is Matilda. Lydia is at her side.
At the first landing, where everyone in the city can see him, Vignar raises one fist. Dangling from it is an amulet of Talos.
The Stormcloaks roar.
Matilda's helm is gone and her armor is more red than silver, though only the blood on her face and one arm looks like her own. She lifts her good hand to shield her eyes from the sun as she gazes down over the crowd. Stone-Fist shoves her forward, and the roar grows louder. She holds the hand up in acknowledgement, but keeps turning her head until she's looking in his direction. She's too far away for him to see her face clearly, but the red stain on her cheek moves. It might be a smile.
"Wait." From right in front of him, the Imperial speaks for the first time. His voice is a dry croak. "I know you."
"Yeah?" Farkas asks. He's never seen the man before in his life. At least as far as he can remember. Someone he met on a job? A failed Companions recruit? Not one of the ones who bought something; he'd remember those faces.
"Yeah. You're the Dragonborn's husband."
He's half a second from getting annoyed, but then he thinks - by the gods, better than being the Dragonborn's widower.
"That," he tells the Imperial as he eases himself off his armored knees to move to the next one, "and I own a shop."
But then they go back inside Dragonsreach, and it's hours before he finally sees her and Lydia coming down the great stairs.
Matilda's wiped down her blade and armor, but gore is still caked in the joints where you can't get easily. The wound he saw earlier is high on her lightly-protected left arm. Someone wrapped it badly and the cloth is soaked red. It'll scar now even with a potion, Farkas knows. Another cut across her cheek looks like the work of a dagger. Her helm is still missing, and her hair is matted with sweat and traces of blood. She's limping a little. Even at a distance, she smells exactly the way you'd expect someone to smell after almost three weeks in an army camp and a battle.
He takes a run at her anyway.
She speeds up too when she sees him but Farkas beats her to it, colliding with her in the middle of the street and crushing her so close he could almost dent her armor. He kisses her dirt-streaked forehead and strokes her hair.
When he finally lets her go, she reaches into her pack and holds out a crumpled roll of paper. Farkas rolls it open and sees that she must have drawn a hundred wolves, and the last one -
- still looks a bit like a pup's idea of a Khajiit. But maybe an older pup, at least.
He can't stop the chuckle in time and she scowls at him through the grime and blood on her face. "Just need more practice!" she snaps. "That's all!" And all of a sudden she's laughing and crying at the same time.
He gets them both inside, holds Meeko off, gives them the drinks and potions he's been saving all day, finds cloths and soap and clean clothes, heats pots of water on the fire for baths, hauls one into the storage room for Lydia, pulls the second one off the flames and helps Matilda get her armor off. He sets it aside; time enough to clean it tomorrow. She strips off the wool underlayers she's standing in only her bandage and wedding ring. They're both quiet as he helps her unpick the braiding in her tangled hair, and she kneels to soak it in the pot. Farkas sees the color of the water as she straightens up again and puts a second pot on.
She lets him take the cloth and wash her after she finishes sponging off the cut on her face. He's good at it, knows how to clean away the worst of the tension with the blood and sweat until her hands fall open and she smiles wearily at him, smelling like lavender. When they finish, she stumbles into smallclothes and a fresh pair of wool pants, but he stops her before she can put the shirt on and starts unwinding the bandage from her arm.
"Who got you?" he asks while he does it.
"I don't know about the arm. Whoever it was is dead now," she says shortly. She points to her cheek. "This was Irileth."
She probably has Irileth to thank for the loss of her helm too. The injury's not bad, but it must've hurt more than the depth of the actual cut makes it look. He knows how much she respected Balgruuf's housecarl. Whiterun's heroes, the two of them, first warriors to kill a dragon in ages. That means something, he knows; made them shield-sisters of a kind. Farkas doesn't ask how Irileth fared in the battle.
He wonders if she thought about that before the battle. Waiting through the siege in Whiterun, he's seen the angry looks, heard the whispers of "traitor." There are people in this city who won't drink to her name anymore, whose grandchildren's doors will still be closed to her. He doesn't think any of that would have stopped her. He just wonders if she's ready.
"So much for the Way of the Voice," she mutters half under her breath.
There'll be time to talk about honor, if she wants, but he doesn't want to do it now. He has to clean the wound on her arm. It's going to hurt. Farkas picks up the bottle of mead from the table and hands it to her; she takes a long drink and wipes her mouth, then nods at him. Right as he's about to start, he remembers something Tilma used to do when he was a pup. "Tell me about being in the camp," he says. Distract her by talking. It never did much for him—took him too long to think of something to say. But it always worked on Vilkas.
"Like—ahh, by Talos, Farkas!"
"Keep talking," he says, sponging the flecks of leather out of the cut.
She clenches her fists and continues, through her teeth. "—like any group of warriors, in some ways. Mead-swilling—foul-smelling—boasting—gah." She gasps as he takes the cloth away. He rinses it, adds a little more soap, and starts up again. "But the waiting—is enough to drive you mad. And you watch everyone's faces in the firelight and wonder—which of them will die." He digs deeper than he meant to. Matilda sucks in air and jerks back against his grip. He thinks those might be tears again, from the fresh pain or from simple exhaustion, but glance up to check and he'll put a finger wrong and make it worse. "Makes me grateful—for true shield-siblings. For you."
"Done," he says, dropping the cloth in the pot. Her shoulders slump in relief. He takes a fresh piece of linen and ties her arm up properly. Matilda reaches for her shirt, pulls it on and half-falls into her chair. He pulls his closer, leaving the pots for now. "Rough few weeks, then."
"Not all of it. We ate better than you did, from the look of it." She leans on her bad arm without thinking, winces and leans the other way. "How was it, Farkas?"
He tells her everything, using more words than normal. The dwindling provisions, the things he gave away, the food he got from the Imperials, Aela's hunts, how he learned to sew. The way he missed her.
"So you gave away all your stock," she says when he finishes.
"All but a few things."
"But your shop…."
"It'll take a while to rebuild my stock. But I'll do it." He puts one hand on her knee, just to be touching her. Warm. Here. And alive. Maybe her god protected her after all. "And, uh…maybe you can help. If you find anything that might sell."
Matilda looks at him with her hand stopped halfway to his. "I thought you wanted to do it yourself."
"Wanted to prove I could do it on my own. Not just be the Dragonborn's husband." Farkas catches her fingers, laces his own into them. "Had some time to think about it, these last few weeks. Doesn't sound as bad as I thought."
As he watches, a smile breaks through the tiredness on her face and she starts to laugh, longer and louder than what he said deserves, but right now that doesn't seem to matter much. "Well, now you're the shopkeeper's assistant's husband, shopkeeper. We'll make our fortunes and retire, if only we can find a damned thing in this city to sell."