A/N: Collaboration with digipup.deviantart.com.
Selene sniffed the air, but the wind had turned up, and she couldn’t get a sense of who or what was behind. She decided to do a little recon, but they needed a hiding place first. Looking ahead, she saw the road curved to the left and was obscured by a rocky slope, and she pointed toward it. “Up there.”
When they rounded the bend, she climbed down from her horse. “Go on for a ways and keep Brann with you; just don’t go so fast that I can’t catch you. I’m going to see if I can find out who it is, and then I’ll try to catch up.”
Blanche raised a brow. “Yes, my queen.” She took the colt’s reins and urged her horse onward with a low, “Hyah!”
Selene sighed regretfully as she realized what she had done. It was too late now, though, so she would have to apologize later. She placed her hood on and ducked behind a tree, turning completely invisible in the shadows under the leaves, and backtracked until she came across their pursuers. There were five bandits, making an unsuccessful attempt to be sneaky, as they constantly hissed at each other to be quiet. By their scents, she placed them as three humans (two with similar scents, probably brothers), an orc, and a Dunmer. They smelled of mead and sweat, and one had vomited recently. Selene rolled her eyes and sprinted back to Blanche.
The road curved around again, and she was able to cut across and gain ground. “I’m sorry,” she said, pulling back her hood when she caught up with the Redguard, who was still mounted. “I’m used to taking charge, and I just did it without even thinking. I didn’t mean to offend.”
“I didn’t expect Ulfric’s power behind the throne to be much different.” Blanche smiled wryly. “But sentiments later. What do we have on our plates?”
Selene nodded. “A full meal—five bandits. Evidently they saw two expensively-dressed women on horses in the middle of the night and thought we were easy targets. Should be fun teaching them otherwise.”
“Agreed, this should be very fun. Five, you said? There must be twins, because I only guessed four.” She skirted past the opportunity for questions and slid down from her horse’s back. “We should set up an ambush. We may be night predators, but there will probably be a lot of blind swinging on their parts, and that means the chance of a stupidly bad wound or two. Best to pick off as many as possible, no?”
Selene grinned. “Oh, definitely. Shall we?”
“With pleasure.” Blanche took a set of reins in each hand. “I’ll get the horses out of the way. You look around for a good place to hide, and I’ll be back in a minute.”
She led Brann and Shadowmere away, and Selene found a group of fallen boulders next to a slope not too far down the road. One good thing about Winterhold—there were lots of hills, logs, fallen rocks, and evergreens to hide behind. She positioned herself behind one of the rocks and waved Blanche over when she came into view. It wasn’t long before the bandits caught up with them. Blanche was right about twins; when they got a bit closer, they could see that two of them were the spitting image of each other. Selene had a soft spot for twins, but it wouldn’t save these two. They all carried swords and daggers, but none of them had a bow. Good. She and Blanche could shoot, but the bandits would have to come to them.
“Where in Oblivion did they go?” one of the twins wondered aloud.
Selene trained her arrow on him as Blanche pulled out one of her blessed arrows and also took aim.
“They just got a little farther—” the other twin began, but he was cut off when Blanche’s arrow hit him square in the chest. A white glow flashed across his body and he staggered but kept his footing.
Selene let her arrow fly, and her twin went down.
“No!” Blanche’s twin cried. He and the orc drew swords and started in their direction. The third Nord threw up a ward with one hand, and an orange spark flickered in the other.
Fire again. Lovely.
“I’ve got the mage,” Selene said, firing an arrow in his direction. It hit, but he didn’t go down. He threw his fireball, and it struck Selene almost full in the face; she shrieked in pain and fury, and Blanche shied away from the passing blaze. Blanche lowered her bow for a moment and summoned a frost atronach somewhere behind the party, and then whipped her bow back up to aim at the orc. Even when another arrow lodged in his chest, he kept coming. They were getting too close. “Hold your ears,” Selene told her. “Fus . . . ro dah!”
Blanche’s reaction was a little slow, but she managed to save her ears from the bang that sent the bandits flying through the air. Selene was disappointed when they all got up. She had recently re-read the book she had picked up in Apocrypha that augmented her Shouts, specifically Unrelenting Force. It was supposed to be powerful enough to Shout some opponents to pieces, but it hadn’t worked this time. Still, they were now a comfortable distance away and right under the bludgeon-like hands of the atronach, and the orc and mage were soon crushed. The Dunmer made his final charge, and Blanche dropped her bow and pelted him with lightning as he found himself stuck between her and the Daedra. Before long, the dark elf died with a pathetic groan.
“That was beautiful,” Selene boasted with satisfaction as she dug in her pack for her trusty burn ointment. “But damn that mage . . .”
Blanche agreed with a distracted, “Yeah,” as she regained her bearings, casting a sideways glance at the elf’s oozing wounds while Selene’s back was turned. The frost atronach lumbered over to Selene and leaned its faceless head toward her, as if concerned.
“I’m all right, big fella. Blanche, can you keep an eye out while I treat this burn?”
While Selene pulled off her cuirass and treated her blistered skin, Blanche went through the bandits’ satchels and pouches, pilfering everything and anything of value and recovering what arrows she could.
“At least there was no serious damage,” Selene mused, listening to the Redguard’s shuffling and shoving of the bodies. “Blisters, I can handle. I’ve been burned so many times, I’m fairly dripping with fire protection gear. Even my earrings are enchanted with it. My hair used to be down to my arse, but it got burned off. Takes a while to grow back.”
“I prefer short hair, myself. Less of a hassle,” Blanche grunted. “Sofie and Lucia keep telling me I should let it grow out a little, though.” She returned to Selene’s side with around fifty septims, a few silver rings, and a ladle, and she held out the surviving dragonbone arrows to Selene. “Those five must have been pretty desperate. There was almost nothing on them.”
Selene shook her head sadly at the paltry take, and the frost atronach suddenly despawned with a groan, as if it agreed. “Bandits,” she sighed. “They spend all that time and effort chasing, ambushing, fighting, and killing, and they live like little more than beggars. And do you want to know why? It’s because they don’t know how to pick their targets. Any respectable Thieves Guild member would have taken one look at us and said, ‘no way.’ Well, aside from the fact that the Guild just doesn’t assault innocent travelers on the road in the first place.”
“That’s true,” Blanche agreed. “If you went around assaulting people, you’d get a nasty reputation, like those Summerset Shadows.” She sat down on the ground next to Selene. “No surprise they were cleared out after a while. It’s not as if you’re all very anonymous down in Riften’s Ratway, but those elves made more of a nuisance of themselves than your Guild ever did.”
“Good, Farkas did tell you I was in the Guild, or you figured it out for yourself.” Blanche nodded to this. “Aye, Brynjolf and I were the ones who cleared the Summerset Shadows out.” Selene rubbed another dose of the burn ointment into the side of her face and grimaced with discomfort. “You know what? They were living in a cave, no better than bandits. At least we have the decency to live in a sewer.” She broke into a sly grin. “You know I’m a Guild member; do you know I’m Guildmaster? That’s another reason I’m used to taking charge. But we don’t even bother trying to stay anonymous in Riften. All of the guards and most of the jarl’s court are in our pockets, so there’s no real point. We’ve also stopped striking in town for the most part. But in any case, the rule is ‘keep your blade clean, or else.’”
Blanche smiled lightly. “Guildmaster, too? Why am I not surprised.”
A distant memory crossed Selene’s mind, and she chuckled. “You know, when I first joined the Companions, Farkas gave me all sorts of grief over my hair—it made a good handhold for an enemy; it was going to get caught on something—and I never listened. The first thing he said when he saw me after my hair was burned off was, ‘See? I told ya.’ When Vilkas married Lydia, and when it didn’t work out between him and Aela, I worried that he would be alone. I’m so glad you’ve made him happy, Blanche.”
Blanche looked away, and did another one of her lip-twitching smiles at Selene’s words. “I hope I make him happy.”
There was a pause, and Selene shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, so. Do you want to head back to the horses and take a rest?”
The soft look that had flitted across Blanche’s amber eyes vanished, and she turned businesslike again. “Yes, let’s, but we should keep a watch. Five decently armed bandits with no leader? As if. There may be more nearby.” Despite her serious face, she motioned rather comically toward the road with the ladle in her hand.
They went back to the horses, and Selene gathered some wood for a fire, which Blanche lit with a fireball. She sat back as far as possible from the fire, and Selene offered to put it out, but she declined, saying there was no need for them to freeze to death.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Selene said presently. “I’m tired, but I don’t sleep much, and I want to write a letter to Brynjolf.”
“All right.” Blanche snuggled down into her bedroll and closed her eyes. Almost instantly, her body became still as stone.
She’s an odd one, Selene thought. Everything about Blanche was subtle. She didn’t smile; in fact, she even spoke with her lips pursed together, as though she didn’t want her teeth to show. Perhaps she just had really bad teeth; who knew? But it wasn’t just the smile. Her facial expression hardly changed at all; she rarely gave more than a turn of the head or a quirk of the brow. Her eyes were more expressive than the rest, but even they showed very little emotion. Cats showed more emotion than Blanche. She didn’t talk loudly, either, preferring to speak in little more than a murmur. She was almost the exact opposite of Farkas, who expressed his emotions vividly and loudly. What an unusual pair they made.
Selene sat down next to the fire and dug some paper, quill, and inkwell from her pack, then settled down to write.
Dearest Brynjolf and Rowan,
I miss you both so much. It turns out the events in Eastmarch are pretty serious. Something made the sun disappear from the sky for several hours. I’m reluctant to give any more details in this letter in case it falls into the wrong hands, but just know that I’m not alone in my investigation. I stopped in to see Farkas and meet Blanche, and she has come along with me. She’s mysterious but personable, and she’s an excellent fighter; she’s an archer and a battlemage. We make a good team.
We’re on our way to the College of Winterhold to speak with some of the members and see if we can get some answers. I will write you again as soon as it’s practical. I love you so much.
* * *
When Blanche woke, Selene snoozed fitfully for a couple of hours, and then they made their way to Winterhold. They arrived at the college late in the morning. Blanche, unaffected by the frigid cold, called a greeting to one of the villagers and made for the college.
She liked it here. It was one of the few places she felt truly at home. Maybe it was really more faux comfort than anything else; no one here really knew her, and her friends were few, but something about the coolness of temperature and attitude alike kept her at ease . . . maybe it was because she fit in very well. No one bothered her about where she was from or who she even was. Just a calm Redguard. That was all anyone cared about.
As they headed up the ramps and across the bridges, Selene said, “You’re familiar with the college, right? I was thinking the best place to start would be Urag, unless you have a better idea.”
“Yes . . . if anyone would know, Urag would.” As they ascended the stairs to the arcanaeum, she asked, “How often do you visit the college? I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I’ve only been here a few times. I came originally to get help from Urag in finding an Elder Scroll, but I also visit Enthir occasionally. He’s a friend. More often than not, though, I see him at the Frozen Hearth instead of in the college.”
“You were the one that donated the Elder Scroll?” Blanche looked at Selene with renewed interest. “Well, then. I hope you’ve gotten some privileges here.”
“Well, ‘donate’ isn’t the best word to use; Urag paid me pretty well for it. But aye, I’m allowed to use the facilities whenever I need them.”
They entered the arcaneum and approached Urag gro-Shub, who sat behind the counter perusing a book. He looked up at them and gave some sort of facial expression; whether it was a grimace or a smile, Blanche could never tell.
“Well, if it isn’t the Nightingale. Didn’t realize you two knew each other. So, Dragonborn, what brings you to my library this time?”
Blanche looked at Selene once again with her eyebrows raised. Nightingale, too? She had always thought the Nightingales were a myth, but the little Nord didn’t correct Urag, so he must have known what he was talking about. Well, I learn something new every day.
If she was honest with herself, Blanche wasn’t sure whether to like the woman or just regard her on the basis of earned respect. Trust was out of the question, shield-sister or not, but if Farkas liked her, there must be something gold in her. Selene’s reputation in Windhelm preceded her, and so far it had proved to be true: she was bold but not brazen, strong but not meaty, gave tongue-lashings if they were deserved, and if one wanted to put it in a negative light, she was the type that naturally bossed others around when she was convinced she was right, regardless of status or relationship. Ulfric never admitted it (and why would he?), but she had been his ruler, and in some ways, she still was. She wondered if Selene was aware of just how much influence she exercised over the High King. Blanche had seen some kindred spirit in her, but . . . it was more in body than mind. This one wasn’t afraid of anything. She liked being in the dark, but she didn’t care if she was seen and dared enemies to even try to touch her. And if they did, they would lose a hand. And probably their entire body.
“Something happened in Windhelm,” Selene was telling Urag, purposefully oblivious to Blanche’s eyes on her. “Apparently the sun just disappeared from the sky in the middle of the day and stayed that way for at least several hours. Blanche and I thought a Daedric Prince might be involved, but otherwise we don’t have a lot to go on. Whatever it is, it’s some powerful magic, so I was—we were—hoping you or the others at the college might have some ideas.”
“Hmm, word about that is spreading pretty fast,” Urag grunted, closing his book and setting it aside. “Glad it happened there instead of here. I don’t think the college would recover if it was held responsible for the sun disappearing.” He leaned forward and rested his arms on the desk. “There aren’t many books on that—not books I would let you touch, anyway—but I’ll tell you one thing: Daedric Princes have a real fondness for having a trademark of some kind. Nocturnal is focused on birds; she even named her cult after them.”
“Cult?” Selene echoed, insulted.
He ignored her. “Molag Bal will gladly have anything to do with slaughter of innocents and brutal domination.”
Blanche hoped no one noticed her eye twitching at the comment.
“Sheogorath has an obsession with everything royal, from jesters to dinners to food in general. They all have something, but none of them involve blocking out the sun like that.”
“So . . . ?” Blanche narrowed her eyes at him.
“So it’s magic. Strong magic. Maybe encouraged by a Daedra, but not directly caused by one.”
“So somebody’s followers are doing it,” Selene surmised. “Well, Blanche, now that Urag has let the cat out of the bag, you know I’m a Nightingale. We’re bound to Nocturnal. If I didn’t know better, I might look there first, but I can assure you we’re only three and it’s not us.” She chuckled uneasily and her cheeks flushed. How odd that a woman of such experience could blush like that . . . “Then again, if it was us, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Anyway, what other Daedric ‘cults’ are out there that like the darkness? Hircine’s followers live for the hunt, but I don’t know of any werewolves who have that kind of magic. Meridia is probably appalled by the entire thing; Azura has the twilight. Hermaeus Mora has his books, the bastard. He could have blackmailed somebody into doing it, but for what purpose? I could see Sheogorath’s people wanting to blot it out if they thought it was funny. I don’t know much about the others.” She had an idea, and regarded Urag curiously. “Galmar Stone-Fist mentioned vampires, but the High King and I just ignored it. Do vampires worship a Daedric prince?”
“The worst ones do,” he muttered. “They’re descended from Lamae Bal . . . one of Molag Bal’s unwilling lovers.”
Selene leaned on the counter, grimacing. “That means we could probably get some help from the Dawnguard . . . but I’d rather yank out my own teeth than involve them, or the Vigilants of Stendarr.”
“That makes two of us,” Blanche suddenly spoke up. “But then . . .” She looked away, recognizing her outspokenness. “It depends on how many we have to deal with. A few would be nothing to take care of.”
“With magic like this? Bah.” Urag snorted. “There would probably be a whole nest of them, guarding whatever is giving them that power.”
“You’re not helping.”
“But we wouldn’t have to fight them alone,” Selene reminded her. “We have the Companions and the Nightingales at our backs, and believe me, the Nightingales are just as good at fighting as they are at stealing. Some of the Guild members are, too. So, other than the Dawnguard . . . I don’t suppose either of you know any vampires, do you? I know one who might actually be able to help us. She’s a mage, too—it’s Sybille Stentor, the court mage in Solitude, and she’s a friend. She does her best to pass for human, but she keeps pretty close tabs on the vampire community. We might talk to her.”
“I have met a few vampires,” Blanche murmured uneasily, “Sybille included. I would suggest asking her, but she lives on the other side of Skyrim. Still, I don’t think we have many other options, do we?”
“In the meantime, Urag, could you look through what books you have and see if there is any history of this happening before? Or maybe some obscure writings on the subject?”
“Mm-hmm,” Urag grunted. “Enjoy yourselves. And Blanche, where is that book I told you to find?”
“A dragon incinerated it.”
It was mean, but Blanche got just a bit of perverse joy at the unmistakable look on Urag’s face. There was no debating his expression now. “Or not.” She pulled a tattered old book with several strange symbols and lettering etched into the cover from her satchel and held it out to him. “There, safe and sound.”
“It had better be,” he snapped, grabbing it away and giving her a withering look. “I wouldn’t put it past you to feed it to a horker for fun.”
“I am not that cruel. Don’t get your topknot in a twist.”
He gave her a good view of his back as he stalked away.
“Anyway . . .” Blanche turned back to Selene.
“Let me just change my letter to Brynjolf. I want to tell him where we’re going, and I’ll ask him and Karliah to talk to Nocturnal as well.” She went to a table, took out her letter, and began adding something to the bottom.
While Selene wrote, Blanche went to barter with Faralda, who sat in a nook studying a lengthy tome, for some scrolls. When she finished with Faralda, she looked up to see Selene just heading back to the desk, where Urag was paging carefully through the book Blanche had given him. “One more thing, Urag, if you don’t mind,” the Nord said with an appealing smile. The pitch of her voice was just a bit higher, and Blanche could have sworn she batted her eyes at the old orc. “Can you give this to Enthir and ask him to make sure it gets to Brynjolf? I hope it’s not too much to ask; I want to get started right away.”
“Oh, very well,” Urag groaned, taking the proffered bit of paper and sticking it into one of his books.
Selene smiled up at Blanche, who had her characteristic eyebrow lifted again. “All right, then. Are you ready?”
“Yes. To Solitude, then.” On the way out of the library, she snatched up a book and tucked it into her satchel when Urag wasn’t paying attention.
Selene gave her a wry look. “He’s gonna think I took that. You know that, right?”
Blanche smiled calmly. “Yes, I know.”