Blanche and Selene had restocked their food supplies and made it out of Winterhold by noon. The sky behind them threatened a snowstorm, but if they moved quickly they would probably be able to outrun it, so they rode hard for a while. When it looked like they were south of the storm line, they slowed to give the horses a break. Deciding to rest in the evening and ride through the night, they stopped just north of Windhelm and made camp. They were close enough to town that Selene thought Blanche might want to stay at Hjerim for the night, but she shook her head.
“It is hard on them when I leave. I would rather not put them through it again so soon.”
Selene munched on dried venison and cheese, washing it down with a bottle of Black-Briar Reserve. She watched as Blanche picked gingerly at her food.
“You don’t eat much,” she noted. “So what’s your story, Blanche? You’re so mysterious; curiosity is killing me. I don’t bite, you know. Come on, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours. I’ll even start. I was born in Whiterun, orphaned at five, lived at Honorhall Orphanage ’til I was ten, and spent the rest of my childhood sneaking around Cyrodiil and learning to be a thief. I came back to Skyrim the day Helgen fell.” She stopped and thought back for a moment, took a long drink of mead, then murmured, “Boy, was that a big day.”
“Considering you were part of the Companions’ Inner Circle, I’d think you do bite,” Blanche replied, in good humor but with just a hint of cynicism. She stuck her teeth into her piece of bread and gnawed on it unbecomingly. “I don’t try to act secretive; I just don’t have much to say. Unless you ask, of course.” She twitched up her eyebrows briefly. “I was raised nomadically on the borders of Skyrim. I was sort of . . . dragged into civilization by the Imperials. My first taste was their prison, for robbing a traveling caravan of nobles.” She gave up on the bread and put it aside. “Life here is different, but it is better. There are things hiding in every crack and crevice, waiting to be found. Very . . .” She hesitated, searching for the right word. “. . .addicting.”
She shook her head and changed the subject yet again. “Tell me about the World-Eater, Alduin. Was he everything he is said to be?” She peered at Selene from under her hood.
“He was.” Selene shuddered. “He was huge, and black, and powerful, and he could do things no other dragon could do. I couldn’t defeat him on this plane; I actually had to go to Sovngarde to fight him, but you probably already knew that; word gets around, right? They said he could devour the souls of the dead, and until I saw him do it, I couldn’t imagine it was true. Imagine being dead, actually in Sovngarde and thinking you’re on your way to eternal redemption, and then a monster swoops down in the mist and eats you. What happens then? Are you just nothing? Does your soul live inside Alduin the way the dragons’ souls live inside me? Blanche, it’s . . . chilling. I still have nightmares about it once in a while.” She opened another bottle of mead and took a swig. “But even he could be defeated eventually, much to his surprise. I think it was his arrogance that finally got him—well, that and the Dragonrend shout. I’m just glad I didn’t absorb his soul. That’s a presence I do not want in my head.”
“Hmm.” Blanche shifted and readjusted in her seat. “Sometimes I wonder why that dragon did what he did. He was the ‘World-Eater,’ but why? Why bother eating it? Just because he can?” She chuckled drily. “If it all went away, he wouldn’t have any more humans to enslave, and what would happen to Sovngarde? Would he be eating that, too? It’d be suicide.” She let her eyes drift back to the fire. “What happens to everything, anyway, if the world were to end? Maybe a new one would start and we’d all be reborn.”
“That’s what the Graybeards thought. This world would end and a new one would begin.”
Blanche thought for a moment, then said, “Sometimes I catch myself pitying him. Don’t get me wrong, I know he would have killed me without a second thought and I’m very glad he’s gone, but . . . he was the firstborn of Akatosh. An immortal dragon. And he was defeated by a human.” She smiled darkly. “I don’t think a dragon would easily live that down.”
Selene chuckled mirthlessly. “Trust me, if you’d met him, you wouldn’t pity him. No, I think if he was in my head, I would go utterly and incurably mad.” She folded her hands together. “I’ve encountered evil before, but never so complete. Mehrunes Dagon, Molag Bal, Namira, all these stories you hear, and they have nothing on Alduin.”
Their nighttime reverie was rudely interrupted when, almost as if summoned by the conversation, the scream of a dragon rang over their heads. It was echoed by another, lower one, and an ancient dragon landed heavily on a rocky spike jutting from the ground some fifty yards away. The gust from his wings practically extinguished their fire, and it blew Blanche’s hood back and took all of Selene’s hair out of her face. “Norok nivahrii,” it bellowed, malice glittering its eyes. “Wo ru ko rahgol!”
The other dragon—smaller, slimmer, a female—hovered nearby just long enough to add, “Ahrk dovahkiin, quahnaarin, kriid se Alduin!” With a flap of her wings, she looped up to a higher altitude, circling over the party below.
Selene reached for her bow and stood up, but she didn’t attack, and stared down the dragons as she spoke softly to Blanche. “They know who I am. They also said something about someone running in rage, but I haven’t a clue what that means.” Louder, she called to the dragons. “Fahdon uv paal? Friend or foe?”
Blanche wordlessly drew her bow and coolly eyed the dragons.
“Paak, paak, Dovahkiin,” the landed dragon scolded sardonically. “To have allegiance, mirr, with your cowardly sister. Her voice must be silenced.”
“What in Nirn are you talking about?” Selene yelled back. Blanche, however, curled her lip as rage suddenly permeated her scent. “Go to Sithis!” She pulled an arrow back and zinged it straight into the dragon’s eye. The arrow gave off a white light as it struck, and the dragon screeched in pain. “Munax nivarii!” It took to the air, clearly intending to fight, and so did its mate, who swooped down and breathed out a lungful of frost.
“Joor zah frul!” Selene shouted at the female as she hovered. The blast hit her hard, and she screamed, attempting to make her escape but failing and crashing to the ground. Selene drew an arrow, aimed, and shot again, taking a brief second when she reached for another arrow to glance around and check on Blanche. The Redguard was a fighter, but Selene didn’t know if she could take down a dragon by herself, especially one so old. She prayed she knew what she was doing.
Blanche was taking on the other dragon furiously. It had landed again to fight her on the ground, but she had summoned another frost atronach, which was taking the worst of the dragon’s wrath while she pelted the wyrm with arrow after sun-blessed arrow and hid in the atronach’s bulky shadow when the dragon attempted to breathe a wave of flame over her.
Satisfied that Blanche was holding her own against her dragon, she turned, aimed, and shot again. The dragon spat frost at her, and she dodged as best she could, but she took the brunt of it. As a Nord she was resistant to cold, but getting hit with a full blast of Frost Breath was still not her idea of a good time. Her Thu’um had recharged, so she shouted again, “Joor zah frul!” The dragon shrieked and seized up, collapsing as Selene pincushioned her with another couple of arrows. Her body began to flame as her soul merged with Selene’s.
As she sank into her consciousness, she chuckled coldly. “You are about to get a surprise, Dovahkiin.”
“Show her, Nivahrii!” Blanche’s dragon snarled, spitting flame at her again and ending her atronach’s incarnation. “Show her your true nature!”
She ducked behind a rock and sent out her last arrow. “With your death!”
The dragon had almost seemed to welcome his demise, and he gave up his last breath and died. Of course, his body began to burn, and his soul departed; but it went into Blanche, who lowered her bow and stood motionless, eyes narrowed as the spirit flowed into her.
Selene watched, agape with shock, as Blanche absorbed the dragon’s soul. Her mind went briefly back to Miraak, who had appeared several times and taken souls from her. But Blanche was no long-dead Dragonborn trying to return to the world of the living. She was flesh and blood, Redguard, archer, possibly an assassin—Selene wasn’t sure, but the Sithis comment nagged at her—and married to her oldest friend. And . . . Dragonborn? She couldn’t be. Selene had entertained the possibility that she wasn’t the only one, especially after Miraak had surfaced, but she supposed she had never really believed it. She still couldn’t believe it. She stood speechless for a long moment, astonished, unable to form the simplest of words.
“Uh, Blanche?” she murmured, finally finding her voice. “Is . . . is there something you want to tell me?”
“Yes, I used all of my sunhallowed arrows on that damn thing.”
Selene narrowed her eyes at the Redguard, snapped out of stupor by the blatant diversion. “You know what I’m talking about. Those dragons knew you. They called you a coward. And then you—you absorbed that one’s soul! What in Oblivion, Blanche! Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think I deserve to know. Are you Dragonborn?”
“No, I studied with the Graybeards since I was a little girl. Of course I’m Dragonborn!” she sneered. “I have the voices in my head; the new one is laughing now. I speak their language, and I know their insults.”
Selene could only pace back and forth, trying to make sense of it all. Blanche had asked about Alduin; the dragons had called her a coward. How had they known? Did they have some kind of network like all the town guards seemed to have? Or could they somehow smell it in her? “When did you find out? How did you find out? Do the Graybeards know?”
“I killed a dragon.” Blanche shrugged. “Probably the same way you found out, no? The Graybeards know.” She blinked uneasily. “But that shouldn’t affect you.”
“How do you figure? It does affect me—it did affect me. Damn those Graybeards; they didn’t even tell me! I asked Master Arngeir directly if I was the only one, and he gave me this vague crap about not knowing everything. Well, let me guess: those dragons called you a coward because you chose to sit this one out, let the other Dragonborn fight Alduin. Well, a little help would have been nice, you know! I put my entire life on hold, dragged my poor husband all over Skyrim half a dozen times—I even dragged your husband around Skyrim once or twice—we were all almost killed more times than I can count. How could the Graybeards not tell me there was another one?” Tears began streaming down her cheeks, and she asked, “Why, Blanche? Just tell me that. Why?” She sat down on the ground in the great shadow of the dragon’s skeleton and sobbed.
Blanche backed away, a small hiss emitting from the back of her throat; but when Selene’s anger turned to despair, her hackles lowered a little. “Don’t blame the Graybeards. I told them to leave me alone, forget me, on the promise that I wouldn’t join the Blades.” Her lip twitched slightly at the words. “What would you have done if they had told you? Track me down? Demand my help? You would have been disappointed.” She put up her hood and went to pull one of her broken arrows out of the skeleton behind Selene. “You get the glory, and you get the credit. You might call yourself one with the shadows, but that isn’t really true. You’re the one everyone will remember.”
“I don’t care about that. I’ve never cared about that. The attention I get makes me uncomfortable. I’ve had people kneel before me like I was a queen or a . . . or a goddess. That’s just too big a weight to put on somebody’s shoulders. And even the ones who don’t say anything still look at me in awe. Maybe that’s why I’m so good at hiding in the shadows. Because then they can’t see what I am. I wouldn’t have demanded your help, but aye, I would have asked for it. There were times I was so tired . . .”
Selene got up abruptly, wiped her eyes, and began to loot the dragon. She and Blanche each wrestled one bone and scale from it; and Selene found a rather large amount of gold, half of which she handed to Blanche, who accepted it without a word. Then she walked back over to the fire and sat down, dug in her pack for a handkerchief and blew her nose. When she discarded the rag, she picked up her bottle of mead and chugged it. “Well, I wanted to know more about you. I guess I should be careful what I wish for, eh? I need some sleep. Can you take first watch?”
“Anytime,” Blanche agreed quietly. After a moment’s pause, she grasped the ribcage of the dragon and nimbly climbed to the top, where she settled into a groove of its spine for a good view. There she perched, her eyes reflecting the glow of the firelight.
Selene dozed fitfully for a few hours, her wolf spirit restless after she had gotten so upset. Still a bit antsy, she got up to relieve Blanche. When they finally broke camp and got back on the road, she was quiet and pensive, still trying to sort it in her mind.
Maybe Blanche didn’t know about me, either, at first, she thought. Then when she found out, well, I had already taken up the job, hadn’t I? Maybe she thought I wouldn’t like her butting in. Even with this possibility, Selene she imagined it all came down to fear. I mean, she must have been terrified—I certainly was. But does hiding from the World-Eater make her a coward? Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. What would I have done if Kynareth hadn’t come to me?
After several hours of silence, she said, “I get it, you know. If I’d had a choice, I’d probably have done the same thing. I put it off as long as I could, as it was. I was nineteen, a rogue, cynical and rebellious—or so I liked to think, anyway. But I had a Divine whispering in my ear, and she wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Blanche laughed, a little bitterly. “I envy you. I’m fairly certain the Divines wash their hands after even thinking of me. I worshipped Dibella once, but not anymore.”
“I’d like to say, ‘oh, you’re wrong about that,’ but I have to admit it’s nice to have Kynareth as an ally. She gave me direction when I needed it and even got me through some rough times by dropping hints about my future. Haven’t seen her in a while, though. I must be doing what she wants me to do.”
“I see.” Blanche was quiet for another few moments and then added, “But I did some thinking last night – you have every right to be finished with me after we part ways.” She gave her a sideways glance. “I owe you more than I have to give.”
Selene waved a dismissive hand. “You’re here, helping me resolve this disappearing sun business. That’s good enough for me. Or did you have something else in mind?”
“Eh, no,” Blanche replied quickly, “Nothing in mind, just . . . just a thought.”
They rode all night, talking little as they tried to make better time. As they neared the border between The Pale and Hjaalmarch, Selene stretched and yawned. “I could use a break. Do you want to make camp or stop at the Moorside Inn for the day? Or we could use the Circle’s mine. It’s not too far off the path, and I still have a key. Better than camping in the snow again, and nobody has to keep watch.”
“I haven’t been to the Circle’s mine in a while. Let’s stop there this time.”
They made their way to the abandoned mine, which the Companions’ Inner Circle often used as a base when hunting in beast form, and Selene let them in. Locking the door behind them, they went down the main shaft to a little living area with a fire pit, bedrolls, and a supply of dried food, mead, and water—or rather ice, which could be melted over the fire. Selene couldn’t ever remember eating any of the food; they usually ate whatever they hunted. Still, this time it came quite in handy. There were fresh logs on the fire pit; a quick “Yol” ignited them, and soon the two were relaxing with food and drinks.
Selene didn’t talk to Blanche about the first time she had been in the mine, but she couldn’t help thinking about it. It was her first full moon, and she was with Farkas. Their relationship, previously a tense friendship at most, had taken a turn that night; and they had launched into steamy affair that had spanned several months. There had been no love; they had strictly been friends with benefits, and they had parted amicably.
Aloud, she chuckled. “Here we are, two women, traveling alone together for days, and we haven’t really talked about the men. How’d you and Farkas get together? Or is that too personal?”
Blanche had settled down on her bedroll with her legs crossed and sat with an arm on each knee, staring into the fire. She smiled a little more genuinely than she usually did when Selene mentioned Farkas.
“Oh, him. That’s certainly not too personal; Vilkas would gladly tell you the story if you asked him.” She clasped her hands together and leaned a little closer to the fire. “When I joined the Companions some three, four years ago—not long after you left, actually—Farkas and Aela had just split. He kept more to himself and Vilkas after that.” She blinked once. “But he saw me. According to Vilkas, he watched me whenever I walked through the room. I’m sorry to say I was a little more airheaded then and didn’t notice.”
Selene smiled. “And Vilkas pointed it out to you? Talos bless him. As gruff as he is, and as private, he certainly worries a lot about his loved ones’ relationships. I think that for the longest time, he just didn’t know how to be happy, and it made him feel better when other people were.”
“He sort of played matchmaker, though he did it more for his brother than for me, especially after he and Lydia were married. I actually annoyed him most of the time.” She gave one of her brief twitch-smiles. “I’ve always loved exploring and had a habit of disappearing for days on end; that annoyed him too. But when I ended up meandering around Riften, Maramal put the childish fantasy of getting married into my head.” She cleared her throat. “Where I was raised, marriage was . . . nonexistent. The idea that two would go through a ceremony—which in my mind was much more taboo than it really was—and stay together until death was remarkable to me. So I wanted to try it.” She snorted. “And Maramal got an extra sack of coins for a shiny new amulet.”
“Well, Farkas is a catch, and I’m glad to see him so happy.” Selene smiled. “Honestly, I’m glad to see you adopted Sofie, too. I used to go by her stand and buy up every flower she had whenever I was in Windhelm. I felt so sorry for the kid. I thought about adopting her once or twice, myself; but Brynjolf and I were so busy with the Guild, and then Alduin, and then Miraak, that we wouldn’t have been good parents. Then I got pregnant and . . .” Selene’s voice trailed off and she didn’t finish the sentence.
“Be glad.” Blanche buried her teeth into a piece of bread and tore a bite out with a vengeance, and then grimaced slightly and spat the piece into the fire. “We adopted her and Lucia because I am infertile. I couldn’t have my own children if I wanted to.”
“Blanche, I’m so sorry.” Selene sat quietly for a moment, and a tear slid down her cheek. “Gods damn it, every time we stop to rest, I end up crying. Next time I want to talk about personal stuff, remind me of that, okay?”
Blanche smiled lightly. “All right, but don’t cry for me this time. Everyone has a price to pay; this is mine. And even so, it means two fewer children that would inevitably have ended up starving or freezing to death on the streets. But enough about me. Tell me about you. You’re a Companion, a Nightingale, the good Dragonborn, Ulfric Stormcloak’s obsession, and forgive me if I am wrong but all things considered, I’m willing to guess you’re a prize hound of Hircine’s. Is there anything else you’ve accomplished?” A mischievous light slipped through her eyes.
Selene chuckled, forcing herself out of her melancholy. “Don’t forget Guildmaster. Jeez, you make me sound like an overachiever! But I am not Ulfric Stormcloak’s—well, okay, I guess you’re right, Divines bless him. Aye, I am a werewolf, but I don’t know how happy Hircine is with me. I think Kynareth told him and Nocturnal my soul was my own and I could go where I wanted when I died. Honestly, I’m still not sure. I may actually want to go to the Hunting Grounds.
“Okay, you’ll love this one: I’m Hermaeus Mora’s favorite, too, Divines help me. That one is not voluntary, believe me. There was another Dragonborn named Miraak; that’s what I was doing on Solstheim while you and Farkas got married. He was trapped in Mora’s realm and was trying to get back to Nirn. I helped get rid of him, the bastard. I, uh . . . Rowan is a twin, and I lost her sibling. Miraak was responsible for my miscarriage. I’d like to say he got what he deserved in the end, but I can’t think of a punishment severe enough for him. Anyway, Mora made a big deal out of it, saying I was his champion. I just ignore him.”
She took a sip of her mead. “I’d like to say that of all that, my biggest accomplishment is finally being able to settle down with my husband and my daughter and live a quiet life, but here we are, no?”
“Here we are indeed,” Blanche murmured. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who has doubts about where I’ll go when my time is up.” She folded her hands together and placed them in her lap. “Sovngarde is for the brave and the good, of which I am neither. I lost my faith in the Divines some time ago. Really, I’d rather not die at all.” Her tone turned musing. “I wonder what happens to our dragons’ souls when we die. Do they go with us? Disappear? Or are they separated from us to haunt the same plane we’re doomed to?”
Selene cocked an eyebrow curiously. “Now, there is something I never considered. Perhaps by helping us, they earn their rest, too. Or maybe they go to the Void like all the other cursed. But I have to ask: why do you say you’re not brave and good? I can understand having doubts about your courage over Alduin, but you certainly didn’t run and hide when we were attacked yesterday. And you took those two little girls off the street and brought them into your home. If that’s not good, I don’t know what is. Frankly, it’s pretty brave, too. Did you see what they were doing to Farkas’s hair before we left the other day?”
Blanche snickered. “They love his hair. That man is the most patient, longsuffering one I have ever seen.” She sighed, and her expression melted back into its usual, neutral mood. “I have done . . . terrible things.” She spoke slowly, as if admitting each word was a choice she didn’t like making. “Terrible things. Maybe I try to make up for them with what I do now. Maybe it’s all a facade and I don’t even realize it. Am I even alive, or did my spirit leave me long ago?” Her lips pressed together in a firm line. “But it doesn’t matter, really. All that matters is their well-being. If they’re content, then so am I.”
“The Divines forgive, Blanche. I’m sure of it. I’m not saying to run right out to the temple and start praying, but don’t lose all your faith. We’ve all done terrible things and probably will again. We just have to do the best we can, when we can. I know you’re not just talking about killing bandits on the road, but just know you’re not alone.” She finished her mead and then gave the Redguard a broad smile. “You know what? I like you, Blanche. I haven’t been sure until now, but I really like you. Once in a while, you remind me of myself a few years ago. Are you ready to get some sleep? Or try to, at least. I don’t sleep much.”
The twitchy little smile crossed Blanche’s face again. “Thank you.” She nibbled a little more of her bread, and then put it back into her satchel. “Sure. I think we could both go for some uninterrupted sleep tonight.”