"Wait, Qhouri. I gotta show you something."
Aela grabbed my arm and held me back when I turned straight for the dorm. I gave her a scornful look. The journey from Rorikstead had been horrible. I was covered in a grimy, reeking layer of sweat and dust from the road, my barely healed wounds throbbed and every bone ached after a whole day on the uncomfortable carriage bench. Nothing was as desirable than to fall into my own bed.
"Yeah. Now." Her smile was weak. "Don't worry. I'll make it quick."
I gave her a desperate glance but followed her as she went towards her own quarters.
We stood in the hallway, but she made no move to enter.
"What is it, Aela?" I asked impatiently.
"This." She opened the door opposite of hers. "You're a member of the Circle now. You should have your own room," she said with an insecure, awkward smile.
My exhaustion was instantly blown away.
Skjor's room. It had been unused and unchanged since his death, the only one entering it from time to time was Aela herself. We all knew she wanted to keep it, she needed it to keep the memory of him alive, and nobody ever questioned her right to decide what happened with his legacy. And now she was willing to give it up, and she presented it to me as a fait accompli.
As if she had known right from the beginning that everything would go well.
The room had changed. Most of the old furniture was gone, instead a new, colourful rug decorated the floor, a bookcase, a large chest and a desk stood ready to use. My armour was neatly mounted on a pole in a corner, Dragonbane on a weapon rack beside it, and the bed was covered in new furs - one of them the hide of the white stag that had led me to Hircine. I recognised it at once.
I was speechless for a moment, and when I turned to her, my eyes were wet with amazement and emotion. "It's... amazing. Are you sure, Aela?"
She just nodded, smiling when she saw the tears in my eyes. "It was about time. It'll be good to know it's you in there and not some ghost."
I barely dared to step through the door. My own room. A door I could close behind me, and everything inside would be mine. A space of my own, just for me.
I loved my siblings, and Jorrvaskr would always be the first to come to my mind when I thought of home. But if there was ever any kind of complaint I had about it, it was the lack of privacy. Not so much the fact that everyone always knew everything about everybody else - when people lived as close together as we did it, they learned very fast to look away and not to mess with things that weren't their business. It was more the fact that someone was close all the time, without the possibility to retreat, even if it was only for a few hours. I had never had a room of my own before - not as a child, not in Cheydinhal. But I had always felt the need for my own little clearances. Not to have the opportunity to back out when necessary, when everything around me became just too much often made me feel like being trapped.
That was why I insisted to keep my own bunk in the dorm even after I started to spend most of my nights in Farkas' quarters. I remembered the heavenly seclusion I felt when Vilkas had offered me to use his room for my studies, a lifetime ago, when I still thought that he wanted to help me. And I had found it in my little camp.
And now I had my own room. Aela's gift. I was overwhelmed.
But it would take some time to get used to it. I hadn't slept alone for ages. It wasn't just that Farkas wasn't there, but I was used to people breathing, snoring and moving around me, getting up and laying themselves to rest. But now I had four walls around me and no one near, and although I could hear Aela across the corridor, jagged coughing from Kodlak's quarters and Torvar and Vorstag snoring behind the wall behind the wall, it was just too quiet around me. When I startled for the third time from a restless half-slumber and far too vivid dreams, I was itchy and angry with myself.
And I was still cranky, tired and restless when I got up with the crack of dawn, hoping for a quiet breakfast before I went to visit the temple. It would be of no use anyway. But Ria and Vorstag were already up and ready to leave for a job. Her cheeks dimpled in a broad smile when she saw me coming up the stairs.
"Hey," she said, "I heard you last night. How you're doing?" Her gaze fell on my arm that still rested in a sling. "What happened?"
"Arrow in the shoulder," I said curtly. "Aela had to cut it out."
Her face twisted in concern. "Are you okay? Does it hurt?"
I shrugged. "Not much." I ladled some porridge from the large pot over the fire into a bowl. But my grip wasn't firm enough, and when it slipped from my numb fingers and fell into the embers, I cursed violently.
Ria shot up and fished it out before the wooden bowl could catch fire. It was blackened with ash. "Let me help you." She went to get another one, but I snatched it from her fingers.
"I don't need help with breakfast."
"Oh yes, you do, don't you?" Her grin was lighthearted.
"No, I don't!" I spun around. "Don't you have a job to do?"
Her look was confused and upset, and even more so when Vorstag stood up and laid a hand on her shoulder. His lips were pressed into a thin, angry line. "Yes, we have. Let's go, Ria. The lady doesn't appreciate our company."
No, I didn't. I grabbed a dry slice of bread and a handful of cheese without bothering with a plate and stormed towards the back door. Gods, I just wanted a bit of quiet.
But Ria's voice came from behind me, sounding helpless. "Is something wrong, Qhouri? With Farkas? Or with your new room?"
I stopped dead. Of course it was the whelps who had done the work to refurbish Skjor's quarters while we were away. Heat shot into my face as I turned to them.
"I'm sorry." Vorstag stood at the door, looking angry and impatient. "Just didn't sleep well. The room is lovely. Thank you."
She nodded, but her smile was worried, and I was glad when they left without another word.
Danica was of no help either. Her expert healing was a relief, the manifold aches from the smaller wounds and bruises just vanishing under her treatment, but it did nothing to my shoulder. "Who did this surgery?" she asked.
"Well, I guess it's the best you could get." Her frown was concerned. "It will take time, Qhourian. You're lucky if nothing remains. A miracle it isn't infected."
No, it wasn't a miracle, and I could just hope that the beastblood would help with the healing. But for the moment I was useless, and to sit idly in the hall and do nothing grated on my nerves. I had been injured before and much worse, but I had never felt so restless and tied down, so bored and irritable and useless. Everything and everybody set me on edge, my siblings' worries and offers to help just as much as having to watch them leaving for or coming back from their jobs. And I took it out on them, refused to let them help even when I needed help, snapped at them when they showed their concern and retreated into my room when they wanted to know what was going on.
They grated on my nerves, and I ticked them off as well. And of course it wasn't just the bloody injury, as annoying as it was. I knew it, and everybody else knew it as well.
But I couldn't give in to the craving of my beast. Not with the injury, and not alone. I wanted to wait until Farkas was back and we could go hunting together.
I remembered the frenzy, the passion and the thrill of the hunt all too vividly, remembered how I relished in the untamed power and in the loss of control. And I longed for the feeling, far too much, in every waking hour and even more in the nights when I tried to rest. I wanted to feel whole and strong again, wanted to become one with my wolf and with myself.
She made herself known with urges and images that I accepted as a part of me, as what they were - expressions of my soul. But I was afraid of the beast taking over, taking advantage of my longing once I let it free. I remembered how Farkas had to fight me to prevent me from killing innocents. First I had to learn control.
That I was constantly watched, that Aela as well as Kodlak watched me closely, watched how I fought and struggled with myself didn't make it any easier. I nearly didn't sleep at all any more, waking every morning from a restless half-slumber with a body aching and throbbing, muscles taut and tense. She tugged at my consciousness as if she wanted to test my boundaries, and I had nothing to let it out on.
When I snarled with bared teeth at Torvar just because he stood in my way and reeked of mead and Athis had to jerk me away from him before we'd end in a senseless brawl, it was obvious I couldn't go on like this.
"Do something," the mer murmured. He didn't let me go, unimpressed by the tension in my body and the growl forming in my throat. I felt the familiar heat coil in my belly.
"I would if I could," I spat.
"You could if you wanted." A malicious grin curled his lips. "You know what Vilkas did when he was like that?" He caught my wrist in a firm grip the moment I rose it. "Exactly. Hit someone."
I blushed furiously, unable to look him in the eyes, and jerked out of his grasp. His gaze turned to Aela who sat across the room and watched us. When I followed his look, she sent me a wry smirk. I wanted to slap her.
Instead I took my bottle and fled the hall, up to my hiding place and lookout at the Skyforge. In the distance a giant sauntered by with a couple of mammoths. Athis had promised me a mammoth hunt, but it didn't look as if I'd hunt anything any time soon.
My hackles rose again when I thought of his provocation. He was wrong, I was nothing like Vilkas. All this was just too new, I had still so much to learn. Aela and Farkas did fine. I would be fine too, sooner or later.
But what if he was right? What if I really wasn't able to control myself? What if it got so bad that I became a danger, for myself and for others? I was already an unpredictable bitch who let her erratic moods out on those around me. They cared, they wanted to help, and I treated them like shit. What if the beast really got so much power over me just because I tried to reign her in?
Was this what Vilkas had gone through during all those months? I didn't even dare to imagine how it would feel to deny myself for so long.
When I heard the door clap, I knew my solitude wouldn't last long. And my wolf sensed her sister before I could see her.
Aela dropped down beside me completely relaxed, looking at me with a mischievous grin. She knew exactly what was going on.
"It's the moons, you know," she said casually, "they'll be full soon. They can drive you crazy." She took a long swig from my ale. From my ale. I turned to her with a low growl.
"You need a distraction. Something that keeps you busy. Occupied."
"I am busy. You accuse me of laziness?"
She raised her hands in a gesture of innocent defence. "No, of course not!" she said with the same relaxed smile, "but right now…?"
"Oh yes, I am," I grunted and emptied the bottle before I threw it into the forge. It shattered into a thousand shards. Eorlund would kill me. "Or at least I was until you disturbed me."
"Tsk, tsk," she clicked, "wanna play a game?"
Aela didn't play games. Never. She was never bored enough to play games. She only wanted to provoke me. I ignored her and turned away.
"Let's play tag, Qhouri." Her laughter sounded bright and clear over Jorrvaskr as she jumped to her feet and vanished between the rocks behind the Skyforge, only the light steps of her bare feet giving a hint where she'd gone.
My teeth bared in a feral grin. She wanted a chase? She'd get a chase, and to Oblivion if I was injured.
She would have been invisible to everybody else, but I sensed her in front of me as she vanished in the deep shadows and appeared again, red hair flaring in Masser's silver light. But the rocks behind the Skyforge ended in a steep cliff above the Underforge's back door, and I asked myself where she was heading.
I got my answer when her shadow expanded, when her scent changed into something musky and wild. She transformed while still moving, the wolf leaping down the cliff onto the plains. She waited patiently as I stood at the edge, fighting with myself, fiddling with the laces of my tunic and the knot of the bandage around my ribs. Only when an inviting yelp came from below that turned into a drawn-out howl, the sound crushed the barriers I had built up so carefully. I gave in to the pull with a relieved groan, felt the familiar pain rising and let body and mind finally submit to the beast.
She was already gone when I followed her down, but I could hear and smell her, her track clear like footprints after a rain. I gave chase, and then we chased each other and chased our prey together, shared our kill and hunted again just for the thrill and just because we could, wild and free of any bounds but those that tied us together.
When we entered the Underforge next morning, she handed me a shirt far too big for me. "It's Farkas'," she said, "you should store some clothes here as well. You'll need them." And then she stood before me, her tangled auburn mane blazing in the torchlight like a halo of fire around her face.
"You could've just asked, you know?" she said with a small smile. "This was… fun."
I lowered my head. "Thank you, Aela. I wasn't sure... you always hunt alone. And I wanted to wait for Farkas."
"It's good to see that you can keep control, Qhouri," she said sternly, "but you're also newblood. You have to learn, and it will be hard occasionally. I'll gladly run with you when you feel like it."
I gave her a feeble smile. "I feel much better now. Tired." The feeling of tightness was gone, that I would burst at the seams and something wanted to break out. Instead I felt simply full and sated. No wonder, I had feasted well that night.
Hunting with Aela was the cure. And when I woke because I rolled unintentionally onto my injured side and it hurt as if someone stabbed a red-hot knife into the joint, it was nothing less than a triumph. It meant that the feeling came back and that I finally made progress. Perhaps the change had helped with that too.
When I emerged from the quarters next morning, not even Athis' grin could rile me up. I sat down beside Torvar and nudged my elbow into his side.
He arched a questioning eyebrow, thankfully not speaking with his mouth full.
"For being such a bitch."
He swallowed hastily. "But that's what you are," he deadpanned and took a bite from a sweetroll. It was soaked with the mustard sauce that also drenched the horker steak on his plate. "Literally."
I gaped at him with open mouth. He chewed with relish and watched me intently, just like Athis and Vorstag. After a few seconds, he shoved his plate in my direction. "Want something?"
I closed my mouth with some effort and swallowed, trying to keep my composure. The men around me made the distinct impression that they only waited for me to blow up and throw a fit. I wouldn't let them provoke me. Not again. "No," I said, biting my lip to remain serious as I pushed the disgusting melange away. "I had elk last night."
He just nodded and pulled it back, but Athis burst out with laughter. "He's been dying to say that, you know?"
"Of course he has." I grinned as I looked from face to face. Athis and Torvar were openly amused, but Vorstag looked uncomfortable and confused, fiddling with his dagger when I met his gaze.
"What's the matter, Vorstag? It's okay if you think I'm a freak."
He nearly dropped the knife. "I don't...!"
"Oh yes, you do. I know that look since we killed our first dragon at the watchtower."
"I just don't get how you can joke about it."
I propped my chin into my palm. "Why not?"
"Because it's not funny?" he blurted out. "I mean... you're Dragonborn. There's Alduin. And now you're a... you've taken the blood. And your reasons... what I know about them, with Hircine, and this Vilkas guy... all this is not funny!"
"Yeah, it's serious stuff. And if we couldn't laugh about it, I would've long gone insane." I lifted my goblet to him. "Get used to it, brother." He gave me a strained smile that wasn't entirely honest, and I wished I had the time and opportunity to get to know him better. He seemed to fit in well, was a skilled warrior and got along fine with his siblings. I had the feeling I missed out on something, that I couldn't have the same uncomplicated relationship to him I had to the others. We were still far too much like strangers, and I hoped we'd be able to redeem that one day.
I jumped up. "Okay, guys. You're all off, or does anyone care to work with me?"
"You're up to it?" Athis asked astonished.
I grinned at him, concentrated and forced my fingers to close around a dirty butterknife. It fell from my grip as soon as I thrust it in his direction. "Perhaps not. But I gotta find a bloody scroll and cast myself back in time. Can't have Alduin getting impatient, can we?"
When I asked him to help me strap a light wooden training shield to my wrist because I couldn't hold it properly, he shook his head with a devious grin. "No. You need something light, for flexibility."
He was convinced the easiest and fastest way to get me going again was to teach me to fight with two weapons. Perhaps he was right, but I learned fast to hate him. He cheerful, snarky and cruel, everything that made him an efficient trainer, and I learned fast to hate him and his methods.
"Not sure what you're doing there, but it looks... naughty." The haughty, amused voice coming from the porch startled me, and the dagger fell from my grip - again. I suppressed a curse.
"Didn't know you're into knife-play, Njada," I pressed out between gritted teeth. I would have turned if I could have, but Athis' grip was unrelenting. "Wanna take my place?"
"You stay. Njada's turn is later." The mer leant heavily over my back, his knees pressing into the hollows of mine. He had far too much fun testing out my pain threshold. "You do wanna go hunting mammoths with us, do you?"
"Yes," I bit out. Gods, he was brutal. I either clenched my teeth against tears of pain or cursed him with everything I had, but he knew no mercy and forced my aching limbs into the motions against the training dummy that looked so fluid and effortless when he performed them.
"Then stop being cranky."
"I hate you."
Exactly two weeks after we had left Rorikstead, a courier delivered me a package from Markarth. It contained a pile of parchments, lots and lots of pages about the Dwemer and their enslavement of the Falmer, the war between them and the kingdom of Blackreach where these events took place, thousands of years ago. Lots and lots of pages, tightly covered in Vilkas' neat handwriting.
They were excerpts of a couple of books and lots of notes Vilkas had made when the twins had interrogated Calcelmo about Blackreach. There was nothing personal in them, only blunt facts about historical events. But I stared at them for a long time without really realising what they were about.
Because above everything else, these parchments were the tangible proof that Vilkas tried to be helpful. I didn't know why, he probably did it only for his brother. But he could have just as well kept out of it and let Farkas do the work in Markarth alone. But it seemed that Farkas let him participate in this endeavour, he had probably told him everything that had happened over the last months and what I needed this knowledge for. And now they worked together and he helped.
I didn't know why he did that, didn't want to know what he wanted and what his motivations were. But he had obviously teamed up with his brother like he had always done it. Perhaps he thought he had a right to take part in Farkas' life, because that was how it had always been. And with this pile of papers, he let me know that he was even willing to work on my behalf.
I would never get rid of him. It was perfidious, it made me nervous, and I could do nothing about it.
And in contrast to this heap of helpful knowledge Vilkas had sent me, I found a small leather pouch that contained a golden necklace, the pendant adorned with tiny slivers of sapphires. It was wrapped into a note that couldn't be shorter and more concise, only a few words written in scrawly letters.
Will be late by a few days. Sorry. Miss you. F.
While I waited for Farkas, I delved into the information the twins had sent me and compared it with everything I knew already. Blackreach was huge, at least the size of an average hold, and to find something ordinary and small like a piece of parchment down there would be like the proverbial search for the needle in a haystack.
And still, deep inside I knew I would be successful. Paarthurnax had made it sound easy and doable. Blackreach was only a big cave, it couldn't scare me. And I needed this scroll.
The only book I didn't dare to read again were the mad ramblings of Septimus Signus, the tangible proof of a lost mind. This was something that terrified me, only comparable with my fear of the Labyrinthian. And I'd have to overcome it rather sooner than later.
My dreams were savage and powerful after I ran through the night with Aela, the wolf and the woman still close, reliving the experiences together. But nevertheless I felt more rested after our hunts, the sleep deeper and more recreative when it finally came.
We had been out the night Farkas came back, and I smelled his wolf even through the daze of my sleep. I smelled that he had changed and hunted as well and that his beast was still present, calling out for his mate. He woke me with desperate, soundless touches in the darkness, skin on skin, tangled limbs and breathless mouths, all the longing that had built up while we were apart finding release and fulfilment. He came to me with all his need, searching and demanding, took frantically what I gave and gave back what I needed and more. We claimed, reclaimed and rediscovered each other until our bodies were spent and our beasts were calm again. My sleep was deep and dreamless for the first time since Rorikstead.
I didn't want to wake up, not with this warmth and his arms around me. But when he felt me stir, Farkas' embrace became even closer. "Qhouri," he muttered into my ear, and then he woke me with tender, urgent kisses. I drew the blanket with a grunt over my head, but it was impossible to resist his insistence when all I actually wanted was to snuggle against him and stay there for the rest of the day.
His broad, bare chest hovered above me when I finally opened my eyes. The simple copper chain he usually wore gone, an amulet hanging around his neck.
"Will you marry me?"
It was an Amulet of Mara. I was awake in an instant. His words sunk into my mind and left complete, utter bewilderment as I lifted my eyes from the metal disk to his face. Bewilderment and a hard, aching knot in my stomach.
His gaze didn't leave mine, full of certainty, with the same expression he had shown in that shack, the morning when he told me that he had fallen in love.
And I was equally stunned.
"You want to… marry me?"
He nodded slowly, watching my face, taking in the shock and the speechlessness, and his own expression changed gradually, closed down into a disappointed, incomprehensive frown. "Yeah. I want to marry you. I want you to marry me. We belong together."
What did he expect? A blushing bride?
It was an unspoken law between us that we didn't speak about the future. We made the best of the present, of our time together, every day and every hour we could get. We were separated more often than not - that was just the way it was. We lived with it.
We never spoke about it because it was something that could only exist after Alduin. We couldn't make plans – if anything we could only dream, and dreams were fruitless and dangerous.
And now he broke this consent. How could he think about something like marriage, something that meant a commitment for life, with the World-Eater still hovering above me? There was no future with that godsdamned destiny in the way. A destiny that was so overwhelming, so frightening that I couldn't even think about it without losing my mind. Never more than one step at a time.
I dreaded the moment when Alduin would take over once and for all, when he'd determine not only my fate, but also my life. When nothing else would count any more and I would have to abandon everything else. Even Farkas. I dreaded the moment, but I knew it would come – we both knew it would come. I did not know if I'd be able to make that step when the moment was there. But this burden was mine alone, and I'd never put it on someone else – and least of all on him.
He knew all this. He knew that I couldn't make any promises. And now he wanted to marry?
To look into his face as I shook my head, to see that he knew what was about to come made it nearly impossible to say it.
"I will search for the Elder Scroll, Farkas. Perhaps I'll be irrevocably insane afterwards. I can't marry you. Not now."
"Of course you can. I don't care what will or will not happen. We belong together. I want you to be my wife." His voice sounded hurt and stubborn.
"But it would mean to give you a promise I can't keep, and I don't want you to commit yourself to me. Not like that. Not with such a promise that I can't give you back. You deserve better." The despair in my voice shook me to the core.
He knew exactly what was happening in my head.
"What are you afraid of, Qhouri?"
I was afraid of the future he wanted so desperately and that we didn't have, of everything I couldn't give him and of the insurmountable abyss that had suddenly opened between us. Tears gathered in my eyes, but he deserved an honest answer. I felt like being choked, my throat restricted from unshed tears and the knowledge how much I would hurt him.
"Alduin will always have the first claim on me," I whispered. "You know that. You know that I can't commit myself as long as he's out there. I love you so much, but… I can't give you what you want. I can't take this from you without giving it back. You deserve to be loved without conditions."
His face closed down into an impassive mask, only fury and sadness flaring in the depths of his eyes. He retreated from me, sat at the edge of the bed with his back to me. The demanding, deceptive closeness between us was broken.
But he didn't say another word, and I reached out for him and begged for his love, begged that he wouldn't stop loving me because I couldn't give myself to him as completely as he was willing to give himself. Because I had to love him less than he deserved and so much less than I wanted. I begged him to stay with me, to lend me his strength, to let me use him, even if he didn't get anything in return. I didn't dare to touch him, but I begged for his understanding, wordless and with silent tears. When he finally turned to me, his face was like frozen, he watched me with cold eyes, motionless, the candlelight turning his features into a relief of shadows that gave nothing away.
I begged until I couldn't stand the silence any more and turned away, pressed my forehead against the wall until the cold seeped through my body and I became stiff and numb.
Even the barely noticeable warmth at my back vanished when he stood up and left the room.
I cried myself back into an unsettled, exhausted slumber, the kind of sleep that's just a fruitless escape and doesn't bring any relief. But when I started up, shivering and struggling against consciousness, a strange scent rose into my nose - something fresh and sweet.
Farkas leant silently against the door frame, with steelen eyes, hands clenched into whiteknuckled fists. I didn't sense him coming back, and I wondered why. Perhaps because my mind tried to shut him out. Or perhaps because I was just too used to him. And I wondered about the meaning of the bunch of flowers that lay on the pillow beside my head, red and blue mountain flowers with some white sprinkles of fluffy cotton balls, sloppily tied together with a piece of a torn bowstring. These two things – the flowers and the man – had no connection.
When he saw me move, he pointed an accusatory digit at me.
"I'm gonna kick you if you say a word," he growled. "I wanna start over, and you will listen!"
I heard him grind his teeth when he pushed off the wall, a sound that let me cringe.
"I can't believe you dared to say what you said," he snarled. "I can't believe you're so incredibly… gods, that's worse than stupidity! Are you really such a bitch? You really think this is some kind of business where we can count up the debts or how much each of us gives and takes? You really think we can earn each other?"
His eyes were fixed on my face when he started to pace through the room, radiating fury and sadness, his fingers driving with an agitated, nervous gesture through his hair.
"As you're obviously too stupid to get it I'll make this very, very easy: when I asked you to marry me, I didn't ask for your opinion. It's not your job to decide what I deserve and what I can give you. That you dare to tell me that this is not what I want is an insult in itself, and that you still don't trust me to know what I get myself into is even worse. After all this time, after all those fights we've been through you still act as if I were a lovestruck fledgling on his first crush!"
He was trembling with anger. "You really believe I stumble into your bed and propose without thinking? You believe this is just a whim? If you didn't want me to commit, you really should have thought about that a bit earlier. When you didn't let that stupid elf die from that stupid bear bite, for example."
He breathed heavily, staring at me for endless moments with burning fury and determination. "And stop to look like a godscursed fawn," he finally barked out, "don't you dare to start crying again!"
He had started his speech quietly, with a dangerous undertone. And now he yelled.
I didn't cry. I sat curled together in the corner of my bed, wrapped into a blanket and stunned by his outbreak, and now I started to laugh, hysterically and jagged, a desperate laughter mixed with breathless sobs. He was so incredibly glorious. And I wanted to believe so much that he was right, that I was really so stupid, that it was really so simple.
It took him only two long strides to cross the room. The blankets were thrown to the side, he grabbed my shoulders and shook me until my teeth rattled. "Stop that! Now!"
The silence between us stretched for an eternity until I became aware that he stroked my trembling back with long, soothing motions, my fingers clenching into his shoulders with so much force that the nails broke his skin, blood pressing forth under my fingertips. Slowly I forced myself to relax and let my forehead drop against his chest.
"I just wanna make this promise to you, Qhouri," he muttered into my ear, desperate to get through. "To stand by your side, whatever happens and whatever you have to do. I want to tell the world and every god willing to listen to me that we belong together." His thumb stroked my cheekbone. "In this life, and in the next."
I stared at him with wide open eyes, slowly exhaling a deep breath. I hadn't been aware that I held it.
"I wish…" The words died in my throat.
I swallowed heavily. "I wish I weren't such a wreck. I can't help it, but I don't feel that I deserve this. If anything happened…"
"Stupid, stubborn and obnoxious. Perfect." He shook his head and cupped my swollen, tear-stained face in a warm palm.
"What do I have to do to make you listen? You're everything I'll ever want in a woman. I know what it means that you're Dragonborn. I know what it means for us. I always knew. Do I really have to write it out for you? Perhaps we don't have a future, nobody knows. But we do have a present that we can make the best of. We have each other, and we're good together. And as long as we have our backs, there's always hope."
"You're really sure, aren't you?"
His eyes sparkled. "Of course I'm sure. I came back as fast as possible and stole that necklace from your trunk just to be able to ask you today." His smile flared up. "If I could I'd let the Greybeards announce it from the Throat of the World, for all of Skyrim to hear it."
Half a smile appeared on my face, and I touched the pendant dangling from his neck.
"That's mine?" Oh, the irony.
"Aye, it's the one we found on our way to Dustman's Cairn," he said with a sheepish grin. "I knew you still kept it, and a trip to Riften to get one would've taken at least another three days. I didn't want to wait so long."
I chuckled. "I kept it because it reminded me of my very first Companions job. It wasn't meant to be used!"
"Well, now I use it." There we were again. His kiss stole my breath away. "And you know that I know you better than you know yourself. You better just do what I tell you." That was a lot of knowing for him. And he called me stubborn!
My hand stroked his face. "Why such a hurry suddenly?"
He became serious again. "Because you nearly died. Because you're my woman, even if you sometimes need a reminder. And... because no fucking dragon should rule our lives. You'll kill him anyway!"
He had thought about it, long and thoroughly. Nothing would change his mind. I loved him so much that I thought I'd burst.
"Let's try this again, okay?" He grabbed the tangled, swatted bunch of flowers and brought it between our chests. Sweet and fresh. His gaze was of frightening intensity. "Qhourian of Whiterun, I want you to be my wife. Will you marry me?"
I looked into his beautiful, exhausted face that was so easily readable and only found happiness, faith, hope and most of all an overwhelming certainty. And I knew I was a fool. This wasn't about safety, dangers or death, and least of all was it about destiny. It was so much simpler. I wanted to marry him because he was the love of my life, my hope and my future, because we belonged together, and because together we'd show Alduin the finger, even if he ate the world afterwards.
"Yes. Yes, I will." The words took such a weight from my mind that I felt slightly dizzy.
"I knew you'd come to your senses." He palmed my head, his smile flashing up with unbridled, unveiled joy. It showed exactly the same relief and happiness that I felt before he devoured my mouth in a promise that didn't need any words.
A/N: And this the end of part 2. Or should I say Volume II? Whatever, stay tuned for part 3 – Eyes on the Future!