* * *
5E 11, 20 Second Seed
Ten-year-old Rowan Stormblade crept through the Cistern slowly, silently, hugging the wall as best she could. She would do it this time; she just knew it. Her daddy was distracted, talking to Rune about a job he had done. He didn’t even know she was in the Cistern. Just a few more feet. She slipped across the doorway leading to the vault, and she thought she saw Rune’s eyes flash in her direction—they were hard to miss these days, their golden glow unmistakable even in the dark—but he didn’t show any sign that he had seen her. Then she was right behind her daddy. Slowly, carefully, she eased forward and reached for the coin purse that hung from his belt. She took hold of the string with one hand and started to cut with her dagger. She had done it!
Brynjolf raised his hand and placed it over hers before she could cut the string.
“Oh, horker poop!” she spat.
Daddy looked down at her with a smile. “Ah, so close.”
“When did you know?”
“I’ve been doing this a long time, little one.”
“When you crossed in front of the vault. You let Rune see you. You should have waited till he walked away.”
Rowan sighed dejectedly. “I’ll never get it right.”
“You’ve picked nearly every pocket in the Guild,” Rune reminded her.
“Aye, except for Mama, Daddy, and Delvin. And I’m never gonna get them.”
Brynjolf wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kissed her curly red hair. “It’s all right, lass. You’re too hard on yourself. Now, go play.”
“Can I stay with you for a while?” She smiled up at him appealingly.
“Oh, very well. But our conversation will probably bore you.”
“Maybe Rune can give me a sweet to keep me occupied.”
“What makes you think I have any sweets on me?” the handsome Imperial, who had become a vampire several years ago so as not to age and die before his Dunmer wife, countered.
“Because you always do.”
“Maybe I want to keep them for myself.”
Rowan glared at him. “You don’t eat sweets. The only reason you carry them is to give them to me and Ben. Please?”
Rune stared at her for a moment and then rolled his eyes. “You know you have the entire Thieves Guild wrapped around your finger, don’t you, kid?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Rowan said innocently.
After a while, she did get bored, so Rowan hugged her daddy and Rune, went to the ladder that led up to the cemetery entrance, and climbed up to the surface. She found her brother Ben in Mistveil Keep’s training yard, fencing with Maurice, a boy from the orphanage. Maurice was her age and adorable, with short, blond hair and big, gray eyes. Rowan had a crush on him, but he hadn’t discovered her yet, and she supposed that was for the best. Daddy would kill her if she got a boyfriend at her age. He’d probably kill Maurice, too, or Uncle Farkas would.
At eight, Ben was already showing aptitude with the sword. He was only using a wooden sword, of course, but he seemed to know what he was doing. Daddy had been teaching them both since they could walk, but Ben was better at it than Rowan. Then again, she was a better archer. Mama said it was as though she had been born with a bow in her hand. Rowan did hope she would improve with the sword, though. Maybe when she joined the Companions, Uncle Vilkas could help her. Daddy was a good teacher—he was the reason she had picked nearly every pocket in the Guild—but his sword instruction just didn’t click with Rowan.
He swung his wooden sword at Maurice, who jumped out of the way. Where Rowan looked like her mother but had her daddy’s red hair, Ben was a little Brynjolf with black hair. They both had Mama’s blue eyes. Her brother was just as sneaky as she was, although not as far along in his training. Rowan loved Ben, and they went most everywhere together. Then again, there was a whole group of them who played together. Several of the kids from Honorhall played with them as well. Rowan and Ben spent half of their time inside the orphanage, which Uncle Farkas and Aunt Blanche, who were their parents’ best friends, had bought when she was just a baby. It was a really happy place, which Mama said was unusual for an orphanage, but Blanche and Farkas loved kids, and they took good care of them.
“How’d you do?” Ben asked her as she stood by with arms folded.
“Got almost all the way there, but Rune saw me.”
“Not your fault. The man can see in total darkness.”
“Daddy said I should have waited till he was gone.”
“Maybe you should try again,” Maurice suggested.
“So soon? I don’t know.”
“Yeah, now is the perfect time,” Ben argued. “He won’t be expecting you to come right back.”
“Well, all right. Bye, Maurice.”
Maurice responded by sticking his tongue out at her. Hmm, she thought, maybe he did like her.
She went back to the cemetery entrance, down the ladder, and around the wall. Slowly, silently. She passed her mama, who was practicing at the archery range. Her mother winked at her, and she almost lost her concentration. It was okay, though, she told herself. Mama could smell her coming a mile away, so there was no use worrying over it. Besides, she had a different target.
Around the wall, silently, slowly. Across the doorway. Daddy was alone now, sitting down, writing in a ledger. She moved forward, took hold of the string, and cut it.
She had done it!
Daddy chuckled, and her heart sank.
“You let me do it, didn’t you?”
With a look of sheer innocence, Brynjolf replied, “Now, would I do a thing like that?”
“Aye, Daddy, you would.” She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and hugged him. “But thanks.”
* * *
5E 16, 1 First Seed
“How do you do that?” Rowan asked Ben as he puffed his chest out smugly. The fourteen-year-old boy had just used a spell he had learned on his own to calm a snarling skeever. The nasty creature was just sitting there, looking placidly up at them, waiting to be skewered, which he did without hesitation.
“It’s a gift,” Ben bragged.
A few years ago, Ben had seen Aunt Blanche casting a spell and had taken an interest. He had talked with her, and she had given him some books to study. With minimal help from the sorceress, he had become very proficient for a lad his age. Rowan liked to tell him he wasn’t as good as he thought he was, but he knew better. Mama had said his magical talent was impressive, especially for a Nord, a race not typically adept at magic. Da liked to tease that he was the black sheep of the family, but he was only such where magic was concerned. Larceny was in his blood, and he couldn’t imagine growing up to be anything but a thief. The spells he learned, the Shouts Mama taught him, and the hours he spent studying and experimenting were no more than a different means to the same end. He wouldn’t need a potion or a blessing from Nocturnal in order to become invisible; he could just cast a spell.
Well, after he perfected it, anyway. He hadn’t successfully cast the Invisibility spell as yet.
No, if there was an odd man out in the Stormblade family, it was Rowan. Sometime during their childhood, she had decided she wanted to be a warrior, which was completely hilarious because she had such a gentle soul. Ben told her a hundred times that killing an animal wasn’t the same as killing a person. There were even some animals she wouldn’t kill. How was she going to kill a person who was looking back at her, begging for mercy? Rowan had said Uncle Vilkas would train her, but Ben just didn’t see it happening. Then again, Uncle Farkas was a gentle soul, and he had no problems with cutting his enemies down.
“You’ve gone off to your own little world again,” Rowan said critically as she cut off the skeever’s tail and stuffed it into her knapsack. “Crap, I forgot to wrap it up to keep the blood from getting everywhere.” She brought it back out, along with a piece of deerskin, and wrapped it. “What were you thinking about?”
“Thinking about you being a warrior. My gods, Rowan, you can’t even stand to get blood on your knapsack!”
“I am not having this conversation with you again. Mama and Daddy say I can do whatever I want. Besides, if I don’t do well with the Companions, I can always come back to the Guild.”
Ben sighed as they continued through the woods, finally realizing he was going to have to admit the truth. “But I’m going to miss you, sis.”
“I’ll be back to visit, and you can come join us in two years.”
“But I won’t. You know that. I’ve even been thinking of asking Mama and Da if I could go to the College of Winterhold.”
Rowan stopped dead and drew her bow. Although he didn’t see what she saw, Ben did the same. She nodded toward a copse of golden bushes, and just on the other side was a small deer. Ben aimed and stood utterly still, waiting just a moment before Rowan whispered, “Now.”
They released their arrows, and both hit the deer, Ben’s catching its side and Rowan’s tagging it right between the eyes.
“Yes!” she squealed, jumping into the air. She started across the meadow to their quarry.
“Sis, you truly are an artist with that thing,” Ben said, following her.
“You hit it too.”
“Aye, but yours was the kill shot, and you know it.”
Rowan shook her head. “We both killed it. Besides, if I killed it, you have to skin it. We made a deal.”
“Oh, yeah, you’re right. Okay, we both killed it.”
With a grin, Rowan pulled out her dagger and said, “And we’ll skin it together.”
* * *
5E 18, 24 Sun’s Height
It was just after lunchtime when Vilkas sat down in the Harbinger’s quarters with the Companions’ new whelp. Dagur Ice-Shield had just arrived from Windhelm and was anxious to get started. The boy was sixteen years old, golden haired and green eyed, and full of confidence and no small amount of attitude.
“So you think you have what it takes to be a Companion,” Vilkas challenged him.
“I’m the best swordsman of my age in Windhelm,” he boasted. “I’ve been training since I was big enough to hold a sword.”
“If you’re so good, why do you want to train with us?”
“Because a warrior can always learn more. My da says you’re one of the best instructors in Skyrim.”
“Your da.” Vilkas sighed heavily. “Let’s get one thing straight right now, Dagur. I did not agree to train you because of your da. If you show your worth to the Companions, you can stay, but you will not get special treatment because of who you are. And if you don’t deliver results, I will send you packing, understood?”
“Oh, I don’t expect any special treatment, Harbinger. You and my da might not get along, but he holds you in the highest respect, and so do I. I won’t let you down.”
“We’ll see. Let’s go out to the training yard and test your arm.”
The sun was cresting in the sky when Vilkas and Dagur stepped out the back door. His niece Lucia and Rowan Stormblade—who also called him “uncle”—were sparring, and the younger woman was getting her arse handed to her. Poor lass. She had been with the Companions two years and had yet to go out on a mission. No matter how much she trained, how hard she tried—and she did try—she just couldn’t get the hang of the sword. She was a master with the bow, possibly even better than her mother. She also did pretty well hand to hand, and she was as quick and graceful as anybody he’d ever seen. Also like her mother, she could disappear into the shadows before anyone realized she was gone. But put a blade in her hand, especially if you put a shield in the other, and she became an awkward novice who rarely showed improvement. Vilkas had tried training her with an axe, and she couldn’t get the hang of that either. He was starting to come to a conclusion that she would find devastating: Rowan just wasn’t a fighter.
When Lucia struck her hard on the back and Rowan yelped in pain, Vilkas decided to break up the lesson. “All right, you two. Lucia, Rowan, this is Dagur Ice-Shield, our new whelp. Lucia, why don’t you give Dagur a go, and let’s see what he’s got.”
Rowan came up on the steps and stood beside him while Dagur met Lucia on the bricks below and drew his sword. Lucia stepped over to the wall and picked up a shield. “You’ll want this,” she said, holding it out to him.
“I don’t use a shield,” he told her. “I have two blades.”
“Well, you’re going to have to learn to use a shield, so you might as well take it now.”
Dagur took the shield, and they began sparring. He had been right: he was very skillful with the sword. He bested Lucia his first go.
Next to him, Rowan sighed. “Looks like I’m gonna be a whelp even longer, Uncle.” She smiled up at him. “It’s my hope that someday you’ll realize I don’t need a sword to be a fighter. Mama fights with a bow. She even said she wasn’t good with sword when she first joined the Companions.”
She wanted to go on a mission so badly, but he wasn’t ready to put her in that kind of danger. Not if she didn’t have all the resources she needed. But he looked into her shining blue eyes and crumbled. “Oh, all right, perhaps something small. But I’ll go with you.”
Rowan squealed and threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Uncle! I promise I won’t let you down.”
Vilkas chuckled. He had already heard that once today. So many whelps wanted his approval. But these two probably wanted it more than anyone.
Lucia and Dagur finished up and came over. “He’ll do,” Vilkas’s niece said nonchalantly.
“Do?” Dagur countered. “I’m better than you are.”
“And arrogance will only get you in trouble. You might be good with a blade, but you’re still a whelp, and you’ll do what we say. Now, take my sword up to Eorland at the Skyforge and get it sharpened.”
Dagur glared at her and then looked up at Vilkas, who merely shrugged. With a grumble, he took the sword and stalked away.
Lucia chuckled. “I love to do that.”
* * *
There was a grand celebration that night after Njada and Athis came home from a particularly harrowing mission. Then again, in Rowan’s view, there was always a grand celebration. The Companions needed no excuse to party.
She sat next to Athis, who was plying her with drinks and giving a greatly embellished account of the mission, but she was only halfway paying attention. She was busy watching Dagur. He was around the corner of the table in an earnest discussion with Kerr, Vilkas’s oldest son. At seventeen, Kerr towered over the rest of the Companions, only his father excluded. He was a hulking mass of muscle with black hair, ice-blue eyes, and a razor-sharp wit. They had a friendly rivalry, wherein each asserted that they should be in charge of the whelps. Rowan was the oldest of the latest batch; he was the biggest and had been here the longest. He had been born in Jorrvaskr, and he never let anyone forget it. It was all in good fun, though, and she loved Kerr dearly. At the moment, she was sure he was giving Dagur all the information he needed about living with the Companions, but she couldn’t help wondering how much Dagur would give him in return. She smiled.
Dagur looked across the table and smiled back awkwardly, probably mistaking the grin for something else. But she wasn’t flirting. She was smiling because she knew who he really was. Her family had visited his a few times when she was growing up, and a false name could only hide so much.
After two more mugs of mead than she should have drunk, she sashayed around the table and leaned on Kerr’s shoulders.
“Rowan!” Kerr greeted. “Have you met our new shield-brother?”
“You mean the new whelp?”
Kerr chuckled. “Well, we’re all whelps, no? Or were at one time. So we might as well call him our shield-brother.”
“You’re right. Why don’t you let me sit down?”
“But we’re talking.”
She squeezed the big brute’s shoulder. “You’re going to have plenty of time to talk later, brother. Trade me places.”
He glared at her for a moment and then sighed. “All right. Dagur, watch out for this one. She’s a charmer. Sometimes I think it may be an actual magical power.”
Rowan grinned and kissed Kerr’s cheek before he got up. When he walked away, she sat down. “So,” she said, “tell me about yourself.”
Dagur glared at her. “Cut the games, Rowan. I remember you, and I know you know who I am.”
“Don’t worry,” she said sincerely. “I won’t tell.”
“I can’t afford for anyone to know my true identity.”
“Does the Harbinger know?”
“Aye, but no one else. Let’s keep it that way.”
She reached out, squeezed his hand, and whispered, “Your secret is safe with me, Dolff Stormcloak.”
* * *
5E 18, 4 Hearthfire
“Do you have your heavy cloak?” Selene Stormblade asked her son as she watched him pack his bags.
Ben rolled his eyes. “Mama, I’ve been to Winterhold, and I know how cold it is. Of course I have my heavy cloak. I’m sixteen years old, and you’re treating me like a little boy.”
“You’ll still be my little boy when you’re forty years old. Got that?”
“I know, I know. Don’t worry. Enthir will take good care of me.”
“You think that doesn’t worry me?” she replied with a sly quirk of her eyebrow. She sighed, folded her arms, and leaned against the door jamb. “Two years at the College of Winterhold.”
“Two, and then two with the Companions. We had a deal. Besides, you do so well on your own, I still don’t understand why you feel you need to go to the college.”
“Because Aunt Blanche can’t teach me everything. At this point I don’t know if she can teach me anything. I’m almost as good as she is.”
Selene chuckled. “Confidence is good, Ben. Overconfidence will get you killed. And don’t let Blanche hear you saying you’re almost as good as she is. She’ll turn you into a frog.”
Ben laughed at her joke. Blanche had been threatening to turn him into a frog since he was a little boy. For most of his life, he had believed she could do it.
“It’s just going to be so quiet around here,” she said.
Ben grunted. “It’s never quiet around here. You’ve got thieves coming and going, vampires running all over the place, a jarl in your pocket, the occasional job for the High King, or adventure with Aunt Blanche; there’s no such thing as quiet in this house.”
“But my baby is going away,” she whined.
Ben didn’t buy it for a second. “You’re teasing now, Mama. Besides, you’ve still got Da. He’s a big baby.”
“I heard that!” came Brynjolf’s shout from upstairs.
Selene chuckled. She adored her son. They’d always had such a rapport where they could tell each other everything, and they usually did. They were not only mother and child; they were friends. He looked just like Brynjolf, only with her dark hair and blue eyes, and he usually wore his long hair tied into a ponytail. He had already grown a beard and looked older than sixteen, and he was mature beyond his years, practical and determined. He had a brilliant mind—well, he and Rowan both did—and he really had advanced rapidly with his magics.
Whether he was Dragonborn remained to be seen. He and Rowan both learned Shouts easily enough, but they were too young at this point to fight a dragon, so no souls had been absorbed. Selene hoped that neither was Dragonborn. It was a terrible burden to heap on young shoulders.
Ben finished packing just as Blanche knocked on the door. Brynjolf let her in, and Ben equipped his weapons and shouldered his knapsack. With an excited smile, he headed up the stairs.
“You ready?” he asked Blanche, who was going to accompany him on the trip. She was still a member of the college and went up regularly, and it was on her recommendation that Ben had been accepted.
“Of course,” Blanche said with a small smile. “Say goodbye to your parents, and we’ll get going.”
Ben reached out and hugged Selene, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She refused to cry.
“I love you, Mama,” he said softly.
“I love you too. Stay warm.”
He chuckled and hugged Brynjolf. “I love you too, Da.”
“Take care of yourself, and if you need us, you know we’ll be there.”
“I know.” He turned to Blanche. “All right, Auntie. Let’s get this show on the road!”
Blanche squeezed Selene’s hand—a show of affection that had taken years to work up to—and stepped out the door.
Selene looked up at Brynjolf, still so handsome in her eyes even though his face had a few lines and his temples were graying. Then again, she hadn’t come through the last eighteen years completely unscathed, herself. Her eyes were starting to show some lines of their own. But they had been a happy eighteen years. They had finally gotten the peace and quiet they desired, and their children had grown up in a stable environment—well, as stable as it could be for the leaders of the Thieves Guild.
Their children. Both were gone now. Selene sighed, and a tear rolled down her cheek. Brynjolf brushed the tear away and took her in his arms.
“It’s all right, love. He’ll be fine.”
“But I’m not sure I will be.”
“I said the same thing when Rowan left, and I’m fine.”
She reached up and kissed him. “Well, there’s one good thing from all this. We have the whole house to ourselves. We don’t have to worry about being quiet anymore.”
Brynjolf laughed and picked her up, carrying her toward the bedroom. “Then what do you say we embarrass the town guard standing outside the house?”