Selene picked up the horses from Hofgrir while Blanche kept back in the shadows, and then they set out for Dayspring Canyon. “I think Valindor didn’t like me much when we first got there,” she mentioned as they rode. “But after he found I could hold my blood potions, he warmed up to me. Is he head over heels for you, or is it a thrall situation?”
“Oh, he’s no thrall. I am responsible for . . . his condition, and I believe he feels indebted to me for that. And between you and me, he’s pretty upbeat about most things.” She gave a quick laugh. “He’s enthusiastic about what he does, isn’t he? He likes when he makes others happy, especially through his craft. Funny creature.”
They rode through the night and arrived at Dayspring Canyon in the wee hours of the morning. “See, this was what I was saying about horses,” Selene grumbled as they stood outside the entrance. “What are we going to do with Brann and Shadowmere? If we leave them here, they’ll be detected by anyone returning to the fort.”
“I suppose it would be best to rope them together and leave them in the bushes. Shadowmere is a good horse, and she knows when to keep quiet. Maybe she’ll teach Brann a thing or two.” Blanche scratched at her hair. “That’s the best we can do, I think.”
Selene agreed, and they found a secluded spot to leave the animals. Before heading into the canyon, Selene stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Listen,” she said, “I’ve never been here before, so I’ll need to follow your lead. Is there anything you can tell me ahead of time, things about the terrain and the fort I need to be aware of?”
“They keep dogs in the fort, for one. Huskies. Personally, I dislike having to kill dogs, but these will smell you and alert the entire fort. If you see one, snipe it before it detects you.” Her lip twitched slightly. “Also, the Dawnguard are by no means organized. They leave their weapons and money lying out, so help yourself.
“Oh, and they have . . .” She took in a little breath. “. . . pet trolls. Wearing armor. Not roaming out and about, fortunately,” she added quickly, “but they’ll let the things out when they know we’re there.”
“Pet trolls?” Selene repeated, eyes wide. “Who keeps a troll as a pet, let alone puts it in armor?”
“A very creative man, I guess.”
“All right, we’ll snipe those if we see them, too.”
“The canyon is a little barren and hard to hide in, but the fort is just a maze. Plenty of things to duck behind and corners to lurk in.” Blanche started to walk on, but Selene put a hand out again to stop her. “Hey, I need to know now. Do we sneak in and sneak out, or do we fight our way through? Gonna be hard to sneak with two little girls and your big lug of a husband, and considering what Nocturnal said, it may come down to killing them all. How far are you willing to go, Blanche?”
Blanche’s eyes glinted in the falling darkness. “As far as it takes.” The look disappeared as quickly as it had come, and she lowered her eyes briefly. “But let’s avoid bloodshed until we have no choice. These men may not be the best fighters, but they have potent weapons and armor, and the zeal of the gods. If they want us dead, they’ll do everything they can to make it so.”
“I can’t see us getting in and out without bloodshed, especially if they’ve hurt Farkas and the girls. And if it means protecting Nocturnal and her realm, I will kill every last one of them. You understand that, right?”
“Without a doubt.”
They stepped through the cave entrance and walked into a deep trench. The narrow passage stretched as far as their eyes could see and was flanked on either side by high, sheer walls of rock. There was nowhere to hide, and if anybody came down the path, they would be caught. But they encountered no one. The mile-long path opened up into a canyon dominated by a rippling lake and four majestic waterfalls; the air was crisp and delicate, as if even the snap of the fingers would shatter it like a thin piece of glass, and there was no fog; the rising moon hung as a crystal. A stag drank quietly from the lake and paused to lift its head and watch the women, and a doe darted past them a second later. Selene could smell rabbits in the foliage as well. This place was a paradise. The trail was still narrow, but now it was flanked by trees, grasses, and boulders. About half a mile farther, they rounded a bend and saw the fort.
They could only see one tower at first, but it was beautiful as well, made of smooth stone with the battlements flared out at the top. It resembled a castle more than a fort. They didn’t see anyone standing on the battlements from this distance, but they ducked into the brush on the side of the road anyway. As they neared the fort, they spotted a guard. He was standing on a sort of reviewing platform just over the top of a high post fence, holding a torch. With that guard, avoiding bloodshed went out the window. No way would they get past him with Blanche’s family. He’d have to die.
The outer wall was made of wood rather than stone, odd for such a formidable fortress. Selene wondered if arrogance kept them from building a stronger wall. Perhaps they just didn’t think they needed it. They crept silently along the fence, passing so close that Selene could smell the guard’s breath. A little way farther and they found the outer entrance. There were barricades at the opening, but they weren’t even blocking the way. They were moved off to the side, and the gate was wide open. Maybe they were arrogant, just so confident that no one could invade their fort that they didn’t bother with outer defenses. Or, Selene thought, they’re expecting Blanche and want her to get inside.
Selene peered carefully around the gate, and finding the way clear, she turned back and nodded to Blanche. Once they had crept inside, Selene pointed toward the reviewing platform where the guard still stood and, with a questioning expression, made a throat-cutting motion.
Blanche nodded and crouched to pull a creepy-looking dagger from her boot, and without making a sound, she crept closer to the watchman’s turned back. One swift slice and a gurgle later, the sentry dropped. Blanche peered briefly over the edge of the platform before dragging him off and hiding his body beneath it. She returned to Selene, her voice barely audible as she whispered, “This would be a good place to call the dragons from, if we can get to it.”
They hugged the fence and the fort wall all the way up to the inner gate. One guard stood on the wall, but there was still no movement from the handful of towers around the fort. Selene took the guard this time, sneaking up from behind and slashing her fire-enchanted dagger across her throat. The guard gasped, choked, and fell dead; and Selene rolled her body off the side and nudged it under the platform.
There were many different scents in the area as they snuck past a chopping block and garden, but the scents were several hours old. In the middle of the night, nobody was outside. They went around a bend and came to the path up to the front door, which was more open. Large braziers lit the way, and the closer they got to the door, the harder it was to hide. A single guard, an orc, stood on the wide staircase. Selene held up a finger to Blanche, then nocked an arrow and shot the guard. She hit him in the chest, but he took it like a shield.
He fixed his eyes on them and snarled. “You’re going to die, bloodsuckers!” He yanked the arrow out and charged down the steps.
Blanche whipped out of the way, fingers clawed as she sent two handfuls of electricity at the orc. He was meaty, however, and although it slowed him down, it still didn’t stop him as he brought out his weapon—a silver warhammer that would seriously wound the two night creatures if it came in contact with them. But with an enemy on both sides, he had to pick one to focus on. He chose the one with the vampiric eyes.
He grazed Blanche’s hood once and she skittered backward, hissing and narrowly dodging his swings as Selene pelted him with dragonbone arrows from behind. He was a klutz; Blanche’s nimble movements left him burying his warhammer into every brazier and tree, and stripping every bush in the vicinity, until he suddenly staggered and fell onto his knees, and then his face, his back looking like a pincushion. Blanche’s electricity fizzled out and she crouched there for a moment, staring at him.
Selene lowered her bow and came over to sniff him. “I know this guy,” she whispered. “He tried to recruit me for the Dawnguard a long time ago. I remember thinking at the time that he had a distinctive scent, so it stuck with me. Let’s get him into the bushes.”
Blanche lugged the huge body out of sight, and Selene plucked some of her arrows from his back and looted him for a few Septims. When all was done, they headed for the door. They were fairly certain no one else was around, but they scanned the area carefully before stepping into the bright light of the front steps. Selene sniffed at the wide, double doors that comprised the entrance, but they were too thick to tell if anybody was standing on the other side. She took hold of one of the heavy brass rings. “You ready?” she whispered. Blanche nodded, and she pushed the doors inward.
They opened onto a dark foyer leading to a circular room with a high, domed ceiling and a second-floor balcony, with three ground-floor doors opening off from the front hall. Moonlight shone through a broad window in the ceiling and illuminated a large circle on the floor that took up most of the room. From the view the door straight ahead provided, Selene assumed that the room across from them was the living quarters. No one was around, and the keep was quiet. It was around three o’clock in the morning; they were probably all in bed, sleeping comfortably with the knowledge that the guards wouldn’t let anyone get this far.
Myriad scents accosted Selene’s nostrils, not the least of which were those of Farkas, Sofie, and Lucia. They were here. Farkas’s scent was the most prevalent, as was that of his blood. Wherever he was, he was bleeding. But he was alive. By the change in Blanche’s scent, Selene assumed the Redguard knew so as well. Selene started to take a step forward, but Blanche put her hand out. “Don’t walk through the moonlight.” She narrowed her eyes. “I have seen that space on the floor used to execute vampires with some kind of sunlight-oriented magic; a branch of restoration, I think. Let’s not take any chances.”
Selene nodded, feeling exposed as she and Blanche moved quickly along the curved wall to the door on the right. They found a hallway that led to a spiral staircase on the right, another one straight ahead, and another corridor to the left. They tried the right-hand staircase and discovered it led to one of the towers, which was deserted. The center staircase led to the balcony above.
Two rooms opened off the balcony. The first—at least part of it—was someone’s living quarters. A Redguard slept in a double bed, snoozing comfortably as if the tableau on the other side of the room didn’t bother her. As cozy as her bedroom was, just beyond a barrier wall was the exact opposite. It was a torture chamber, and the floor was covered in Farkas’s blood.
Blanche’s eyes widened as she shut her mouth, which had been opened to better take in the different scents. She curled her lip and slunk back toward the Redguard. She stood over her for a moment, and suddenly her razored right hand burst into flame. She seized the woman’s neck and pressed her against the wall. She woke instantly, and Blanche squeezed her throat.
“I’ll kill you.” Her voice was soft, lip still tipped up. “I’ll tear your limbs from your body and rip the tendons out of your back while you’re still breathing.” Her grip tightened. “And paint my face with your blood.”
Selene leaned in close enough to feel the heat of the flames and glared, letting her eyes bleed to black. She wouldn’t shift, but she wanted this soldier to know what she was. “Where. Are. They.”
The Redguard glared defiantly back and forth between the two women. She reeked with fear, but she refused to show it outwardly. She didn’t even cry out at the agony she must be feeling over Blanche’s smoldering hand around her throat. There would be no breaking this woman, not in the little time they had. She wouldn’t tell them anything.
An articulated slice from Blanche’s fingers, and she was done for. She dropped her like a rag doll and turned away, razors glistening. “Follow that scent. If Farkas is still alive, it’s by a thread.” She lowered her voice. “Stubborn creature. He let them draw lifeblood before he’d break.”
She nodded, opening her mouth and breathing in, closing her eyes. “This way.” She slipped out of the room, paused to wait for Selene, and then continued on, eyes two bright points of light in the gloom.
They found him in the next room. It looked to be the same sort of residence as the previous room, but this one only had a table, a couple of chairs, some crates, and a cage. The cage smelled of excrement, both troll and human, and Farkas, who was curled up in one corner, asleep. He wore only a pair of ragged trousers. He was in bad condition, with a black eye and lots of cuts and bruises on his face and chest. The ribs on his left side were a vivid shade of purple.
Selene went to work on the lock as Blanche lunged forward and fell to her knees next to him, throwing off both of her gauntlets and caressing his face as well as she could through the bars of the cage. “Farkas! Farkas! Up, up, up!”
He twitched hazily and squinted at her. “Huh?”
Even that word was enough, and as soon as the door was open, Blanche scrambled in and wrapped her arms around his neck, hands alight with restorative magic even as she did so.
“Hi,” he rasped. He touched his nose to her hair groggily and then blinked up at Selene. “Hi.” He jerked his hand into a little wave.
“Hi,” Selene replied with a smile. “We’re here to rescue you.”
“I don’t need rescuing,” he mumbled. “Got ‘em right where I want ‘em.” He turned to his wife. “Blanche, the girls. They said . . . they said . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence, just buried his face in her wispy hair and broke into a sob.
Blanche took his face in her hands again. “The girls what? Tell me!”
“They’re dead. Isran, he told me. They wanted to know where to find you, but I wasn’t gonna talk. They threatened to hurt them, but I didn’t think they’d actually hurt two little . . . later I heard a scream, and Isran came in after that and said he’d had that stupid pet orc of his kill them. Blanche, I couldn’t protect them; I’m so sorry!”
Selene shook her head. “No. Farkas, no, he lied. They’re alive; I can smell them.”
Her words didn’t register right away, and he kept talking through his tears. “They thought I’d talk after that, but what for?” He snuffled. “They had already taken away my daughters, and now they wanted me to help them take you away—wait, what?”
“They’re alive somewhere in the fort. We just need to find them.”
“Oh, thank the Divines.”
“This is all my fault,” Blanche whispered. “Who knew what one arrow could do . . .” She shook her head and tilted his face to look him in the eye. “Love, listen to me.”
He didn’t listen. “I miss your gray eyes,” he sighed.
She blinked. “I—not now.” The healing light returned to her fingers, and the worst mars on his skin began to mend under her hands. “We are going to unleash the fury of the gods out there. You have to stay here, or you will get caught in the crossfire, and I don’t think even you will survive that.”
“You two, unleashing the fury of the gods? Give me some more of that healing light; I want to be there for that.”
Blanche smiled wearily. “When—if—we find the girls, we’ll bring them back to you. After that, do not let them out of your sight.”
“Like I really would.”
Blanche looked up at Selene. “Stay with him for a minute, please. I think there is a good place for him to hide, but I want to make sure there isn’t anyone else with the same idea. If I am not back in five minutes, be worried.” She put her gauntlets back on and crept away.
Selene knelt next to Farkas and squeezed his hand. “Is anything broken?”
“A couple of ribs, but she fixed those, and I can handle pain. Besides, I’ve been hurt worse fighting Vilkas. Heh, remember when I broke his jaw? But when I thought they had hurt the girls, I just . . . it’s amazing how quick you can get attached to somebody, isn’t it? I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d lost them. And Blanche . . . do you like her?”
“Aye, I like her quite a lot.”
He smiled. “I’m glad. I figured you’d either love each other or hate each other. You’re alike in a lot of ways.”
“So I hear.”
“Selene, I can’t lose her, either.”
“You won’t, love.”
* * *
Once Blanche was out of sight, she downed an invisibility potion, and a good gulp of a blood potion as well. It was a waste, but she could feel her own hunger starting to overtake her. It was like alcohol, she mused. An addiction that every vampire suffered. Pity.
All from one arrow. Valindor had been right; why had she taken the bloodcursed arrows with her if she swore not to use them? Maybe it was just to remind her clan of what she had the power to do if she wanted to. That didn’t help the situation any, but she had done it to save herself, and there was no crime in that.
She sniffed around several pillars and came across another guard, whose throat she slit quietly and cleanly, and whose body she shoved underneath a staircase close by. And she always kept her mouth open, searching for the scents of her daughters. She caught Sofie’s once, but it ended almost as soon as it began, which didn’t help her nerves any. Keeping her emotions under such a rigid mask was her upbringing, her way of life, but sometimes it made things worse. Her hands were shaking.
If anyone died, she was to blame. Solely to blame. The notion was like a poisoned knife stabbed into her stomach—the venom slowly trickling through her black, vampiric blood, sapping away the vigor of life to be replaced with a cold, still death. There was not much Blanche cared for in this life; she had money, power, immortality. It blurred together after a while, lost its excitement. The exception was her burly husband, who loved her no matter what color her eyes were, and her two daughters, already bruised enough by life’s cruel hand. If they went, so would she.
All for the sake of an arrow.
But no, even the arrow wasn’t to blame. It was her. She would not have needed the arrow if she wasn’t a nightblood, a creature of the darkness. None of this would have happened if she was . . . human. Lycan, even. And Farkas had said he missed her gray eyes. Her human eyes. She sensed those feelings in him often, but there was some unspoken agreement between them that said they wouldn’t shove those thoughts down one another’s throats. It had been his choice to be human again.
What am I, she mused, that I would pursue this path at the cost of everything I love?
She came to the dirt-floored room she had been looking for. It was more cave than fort, and it smelled heavily of the dogs that were chained there. As she drew her bow and trained an arrow on the husky that sat near a pillar, chewing a bone, she told herself, But the consequences are almost past. I will never give up my immortal blood.
Two arrows later, the huskies were dead, and she went to an opening at the rear of the room and gave the corridor a sniff before going back the way she had come.
* * *
When she returned to the balcony, she found Farkas lying on the floor of the cage, pretending to be asleep while Selene crouched behind a large crate. When she smelled Blanche, she stepped out in the open. “We heard footsteps a minute ago and decided we should probably be more subtle. Did you find what you were looking for?”
Blanche nodded. “Yes, it’s all clear. Now let’s see if we can get this barrel with legs down there without alerting the entire fort.”
Although he wasn’t built for stealth, Farkas managed to keep quiet as Blanche led them down the stairs and through the cave-like chamber. She led them through the narrow doorway and down a short, winding tunnel until they emerged in a large cave with waterfall plummeting down the center, a treacherous drop to the depths below. The placement of rocks and boulders provided several excellent hiding places in addition to some protection if dragon fire happened to reach that far.
“This is great, Blanche,” Selene commented.
Blanche and Farkas kissed—a humorously one-sided affair, though Blanche almost seemed to enjoy the surprise—and they left him in the cave while they went to search the rest of the fort. They backtracked through the dog pens and down the hall past the large room across from the domed entry hall, which indeed turned out to be a dormitory. They counted six Dawnguard soldiers sleeping on cots in the room, but there was no sign of Sophie and Lucia. Although she hated leaving anyone alive behind her, Blanche motioned to Selene to move on. Their objective was the girls at this point, and if a fight erupted, someone might get to them before Blanche and Selene did. Blanche still couldn’t imagine them hurting the girls, but they couldn’t take chances.
They crept through a dining hall, where Selene slashed the throat of a soldier who sat at the table eating an early breakfast. They were starting to move on to the next room when they heard a soft whimper. On the other side of a barrier wall in a storage area, they found the cage holding the girls. Their captors had provided more comfort for them than they had for Farkas; two soft bedrolls had been placed in the cage, and empty plates on the floor suggested that they had been fed. The bedrolls had been moved close together, and Blanche’s daughters clung to each other, sleeping fitfully. They appeared uninjured.
Blanche looked them over carefully, making a point not to wake them. “At least the Dawnguard have some decency.” She dug in her satchel and pulled out a lockpick, but her best efforts were in vain, and she broke five picks before giving up and turning to Selene. “I am a fair lockpick, but if you can’t open it, then the key must be on one of the guards around here.”
It was a tough lock and Selene broke a couple of picks, but she finally managed to get the door open. She kept watch while Blanche slipped into the cage to her daughters.
She touched each of them on the shoulder. Sofie woke instantly. “M-Mama!”
“Shush.” Blanche covered her mouth with her non-razored hand and gave a yawning Lucia the fisheye. “Come with me and don’t make a sound.”
The girls rolled and bumbled to get up, and Blanche herded them out of the cage. Lucia broke away, evaded Blanche’s grab for her, and scampered over to a table, where she picked up two dragonbone daggers. She returned with a sheepish look and handed one to Sofie, who tucked it into her belt. “I didn’t want to lose them. They have Papa’s helmet somewhere, too.”
“Actually, I get the feeling that most of my valuables that haven’t been pawned off are somewhere around here,” Blanche sighed. “Now hush.” After a minute’s consideration, she looked at Selene. “It may be easier if we carried them on our backs. Less chance for tripping.”
Selene nodded and motioned for Lucia, who was closest. “Okay, come here. Just be ready to drop and hide if we have to fight.”
Nothing was ever easy, of course, and they met two Dawnguard soldiers coming around the corner. Selene dropped Lucia and drew her sword, advancing on a burly Nord.
“You! You’re not supposed to be here!” he snarled.
“No shit.” She swiped at him and got a blow in before he drew his own weapon. He was fast, though, and he was already swinging at her when she was coming around for a second blow. She blocked the worst of it, but the blade caught her forearm and blood spurted. Lucia yelped behind her.
He came in for another blow, and Selene caught his blade with hers in a circular motion and swung wide, yanking the sword out of his hand. With one quick jab in the chest, he was down.
The other soldier whipped out his axe and hacked at Blanche, and she sustained, with a screech, a good blow to the shoulder when she turned it to protect a squealing Sofie. She let the girl slip from her back and blasted electricity into the man’s face as she scrambled back, trying to avoid his silver swings, but between the width of the corridor, Sofie right there, and attempting to keep out of Selene’s way, she was slashed another time before the guard went down. It was only the eyes of the younger girls that kept her fighting halfway civil. She dropped to one knee and panted as the light in her fingers fizzled out. “Ugh.”
“Mama!” Sofie crawled over and reached out to touch her, but she held up her hand.
“Give me a minute.”
“I know you’re hurting,” Selene told her, “but we may not have a minute. It’s near dawn, and people are starting to wake up.”
“If they weren’t already woken up by that commotion, I know.” A golden light swirled around Blanche’s shoulders, lessening the flow of black blood that leaked onto her armor. “Come on, Sof. I’ll carry you in a minute.”
Sofie took the proffered hand while Blanche carefully used her dangerous one to get out a blood potion, which she uncorked with her teeth and downed. “Let’s go.”
Selene appeared to be in quite a bit of pain too, and she stopped to chug a blood potion as well. “Whoa,” she muttered at the head rush it caused her. “Okay, Lucia, hop up.”
Something caught Selene’s eye as the girl climbed onto her back, and she walked over to a weapon rack and took a sword down with one hand while holding onto Lucia with the other. “Hold on extra tight, Lucia. I’m only going to hold you with one hand.”
Lucia wrapped her arms more tightly around Selene’s neck, and she gagged. “Not that tight. I can’t breathe.”
“Sorry,” the little girl giggled nervously.
They managed to sneak past the door of the dormitory even though people were starting to stir. There was no urgency; they evidently hadn’t heard the commotion in the dining hall. But it would only be seconds before they found the bodies. With the girls in tow, Selene and Blanche crept down the hall, through the pens, and into the cave where Farkas waited.
“I was starting to worry,” he groaned. “I hate just waiting here!”
“Papa!” Lucia said, running toward him with her arms out.
Farkas knelt and took her in his arms, wrapping the other one around Sophie when she approached. “Are you two okay? Did you take care of each other like I told you?”
“Papa, you’re hurt!” Sophie cried.
“Shh! Keep your voice down, little lass. We’re not out of this yet.”
“I brought you a present,” Selene told him.
He looked up to see her holding the sword and stepped away from the girls, taking the weapon from Selene and giving it a few tentative test swings. “Thanks.”
Blanche peered out of the cave briefly, and then turned back to the others. “You three need to stay here. Do not come out, no matter what happens.” She gave Lucia a pointed look. “If you see a dog, don’t let it see you. If someone comes to look in this cave, hide. And mind your papa. We’ll be back for you when it’s safe.”
The two girls nodded and snuggled up to Farkas, and Blanche turned to Selene. “Let’s finish off these idiots. I have gotten downright sick of them.”
“Aye. Let’s see which of us can pick off the most bastards while they’re still in their skivvies.”
“A hundred Septims to the winner.”
They slipped out of the cave and back through the dog pen, out to the main hallway just as three soldiers came wandering through the dormitory door, heading toward the dining room. Well, Blanche thought, this is it. If they attacked and killed these three, it would likely wake the whole fort. If they didn’t, they would find the dead man in the dining room and discover the girls were missing.
Selene had drawn an arrow and gave Blanche a quick glance for confirmation, and now she let go of the bowstring. The flame-enchanted missile hit her target in the shoulder and caught his hair on fire. He shrieked and flailed about, knocking the other two off balance. Blanche whipped her bow out and fired a few of her elven arrows as well. Selene quickly drew and shot a second arrow while they were distracted, hitting one of the other soldiers in the knee.
“I love to do that,” she told Blanche with a wink. Blanche returned the smile.
But then the others were rushing in, and her lips curved into a very different expression. She pulled back another arrow.
“Let the games begin.”
Her fingers twitched over the arrow, but she suddenly heard the footsteps as someone stepped into the corridor behind them. Blanche swung around, releasing the arrow in her haste, and then stopped dead as the target ducked, missing the arrow by a hair, and then looked up again, amber eyes meeting hers.
It was Serana.