Vilkas tried to forget that he had told Rowan he would take her on a mission, but she wouldn’t let him. Anything would do; she just had to get out there and prove herself. Besides, it wasn’t like she was helpless with a sword. She could fight with one if she had to; she just wasn’t the best at it. But let her fight from a distance, and she would be every bit as good as the older Companions.
In the meantime, she continued to train and tried to learn all she could. She found Dagur/Dolff a distraction, though, because he clearly didn’t like her, and she hated to be disliked. He would glare at her, especially when she smiled at him first, snap at her when she spoke, and ridicule her swordsmanship. It didn’t go quite so far that he seemed to be picking on her—after all, everybody ridiculed her swordsmanship—but he let her know without saying a word that he had no use for her whatsoever. She thought at first it was because she knew his secret, but she was starting to think it was something else. Whatever it was, Rowan found him very intimidating, and when he was in the practice yard, she found it difficult to concentrate.
One night a month or so after he joined the Companions—again, after she’d had too much mead—she cornered him on the stairs down to the living quarters.
“You don’t like me,” she challenged him.
“They always said you were smart.”
“Why not? What did I ever do to you?”
“Rowan, why are you here?”
“I want to be a warrior.”
“You want to be. Everybody else here already is a warrior. You’re just playing, and we all know it. The only reason you’re here is because Vilkas thinks you hung the moons. He tells me I should leave if I can’t pull my weight, but you’re not pulling yours.”
Rowan gaped at him in stunned silence. When she tried to speak, all that came out was, “Uh . . . I—”
“You’re spoiled, Rowan. You were when you used to come to Windhelm, and you still are. You smile and flash those baby blues, and everybody around you crumbles. You always get what you want, whether you deserve it or not. Well, don’t bat your eyes at me and expect to get what you want, because it’s not gonna happen. Now, get out of my way.”
She stepped aside, and he shouldered past her and went down into the living quarters. Rowan stood there for a few moments, trying desperately to hold back tears and thinking just how right Dolff was. She had been here two years, and how much had she accomplished? Not much. Maybe it was time to go back home.
* * *
Rowan found Vilkas in his office the next day. “Can I talk to you?” she asked, rapping gently on the door jamb.
“Of course. Sit down.”
She walked in and sat down across from him, and he regarded her expectantly. He was so beautiful, his salt-and-pepper hair perfectly combed, his face smoothly shaven, and his armor immaculate. His silvery eyes gleamed when he looked at her. When she was little, she had always said she was going to marry him when she grew up. Of course, he had a wife, and he was nearly forty years older than she was, but that didn’t deter a starry-eyed youngster with a crush. That was ages ago, though, and the crush had long since gone by the wayside. Now he was just her big, stodgy uncle who wanted nothing more than to look out for her best interests. He wasn’t going to take her news well.
“Uncle, I think it’s time I went back to Riften,” she said unceremoniously.
“I don’t belong here. I can’t fight; you know that.”
“Rowan, you can fight. You’re right: you don’t need a sword to be a warrior. Perhaps I’ve been too overprotective of you.”
“Dagur says I’m not pulling my weight.”
“Dagur needs to mind his own business.” Vilkas sighed. “Very well, if it’s a choice between sending you on a mission and sending you home, I’ll choose the mission. We have been hired by a resident of Kynesgrove to retrieve his family’s shield from a ruin in Eastmarch. There should be plenty of draugr, at least enough for you to get your hands dirty. I’ll go with you, of course; I already established that.”
Rowan squealed and practically leaped from her chair. “Thank you, Uncle! When do we leave?”
“We’ll leave in the morning. Pack your supplies and get some rest, and we’ll head out at first light.”
* * *
The next morning, Rowan and Vilkas loaded up a couple of horses and started for Ansilvund, a ruin in the southeast corner of Eastmarch. Even on horseback, the journey would take four days. They made good time as they rode around the Throat of the World, and the trip was uneventful until late on the third day when a Nord in fur armor stepped onto the road just ahead of them and smiled grimly.
“Get down, Rowan,” Vilkas whispered, “quickly.”
They both leapt from their horses, and Vilkas drew his sword. Rowan took her bow in hand as well.
“What’s that for?” the Nord asked. “I’m just stopping to say hi.”
Vilkas’s eye twitched, and he suddenly ducked as an arrow whizzed over his head. The horses whinnied and bolted, and Rowan turned toward the origin of the arrow as Vilkas charged the Nord ahead of them. She could see a figure outlined in the shadow of the bushes, a woman with a bow trained on her. Quick as a flash and without thinking, Rowan pulled an arrow, drew and shot. The woman dropped instantly.
She had done it! She had killed—
She had killed.
Rowan fell to her knees as an incredible weight settled over her. Darkness seeped in around her peripheral vision, and her head swam. Instead of passing out, though, she vomited the entire contents of her lunch on the ground.
Ben was right. An animal and a person were two different things. Somebody was lying there in the bushes, somebody’s baby, who would never walk in the sun again, never laugh at a joke, never enjoy a tankard of mead—
“And never hurt another human being as long as she lives,” Vilkas said as though he’d read her thoughts. He knelt and stroked her hair. “Had you not killed her, she would have killed you.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“Of course it does. You wanted to be a warrior, Rowan, and this is what it is. I had wanted to break you in on draugr, but this was bound to happen sooner or later.”
Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she leaned against Vilkas and sobbed. He held her for a moment, then pulled back and said, “All right, then. Let’s find the horses and make camp. I think you’ve traveled enough for today.”
Rowan was silent for most of the evening, and when she lay down to sleep, she had nightmares. She awoke with a gasp, and Vilkas, who sat near the fire, said, “It gets easier, I promise you.”
“I’m such a gods-damned baby,” she moaned. “I can just hear Dagur if he finds out how I reacted. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“I’m not sure he didn’t have the same reaction, little one.”
“What about Kerr? He’s killed before. I bet you didn’t have to dry his tears when he made his first kill.”
“You’ll have to ask him about that. You might be surprised at what he has to tell you.”
“What about you? What was your first kill like?”
Vilkas grimaced. “I didn’t experience any shock or regret over my first kill. I killed out of spite and vengeance, and I enjoyed it.”
“It was a necromancer.”
Then Rowan understood. “Ah. Mama told me about what necromancers did to you and Uncle Farkas when you were children.”
The scowl deepened at the mention of his brother, and he said, “Try to get some sleep, little one.”
“Now is not the time, Rowan. Go back to bed.”
He glared her in the eye until she finally sighed and said, “Fine. Good night, Uncle.”
Vilkas didn’t respond. He just stared grimly into the fire. She shouldn’t have mentioned Farkas. They’d had a falling out some years ago when Farkas had made a life choice Vilkas didn’t agree with, and they didn’t speak anymore. Vilkas wouldn’t even talk about him. Not wishing to make things worse, Rowan climbed into her bedroll and closed her eyes.
* * *
They spent the next night in the peaceful Eldergleam Sanctuary, and Vilkas, who was exhausted after getting very little sleep the night before, was grateful not to have to stand watch. Rowan lay awake for a long while, listening to his soft snoring and thinking about the woman she had killed. It was easier with a day behind her. The woman had been a bandit, and she had already shot at Vilkas and was getting ready to shoot at her. Vilkas was right: it was kill or be killed. The night before, she had worried that she would never be able to kill another soul, but as she thought about it now, she realized she would do what was necessary. Daddy liked to say that time made everything easier to handle, and she guessed he was right.
She wondered how much time Vilkas would need to forgive Farkas, or if he would go to his grave estranged from his twin brother.
After getting an early start, Rowan and Vilkas made it to Ansilvund well before lunchtime, but they found more than draugr to deal with. A Breton and an Altmer, both wearing mage robes with skulls emblazoned on them, stood outside the ruin, one of them bent over a cooking pot and the other grumbling about something another mage was doing. Vilkas groaned and pulled her back down the path before the mages saw them.
“A test: what sort of people camp out in draugr-filled ruins and wear skulls on their robes?”
“Necromancers,” she responded grimly. She could see the tension in his shoulders and the concern in his eyes. “Don’t worry,” she assured him, “I’ll be all right.”
“What I’m about to ask you to do isn’t the same as shooting arrows at someone who’s trying to kill you.”
“You’re going to ask me to snipe.”
Vilkas nodded. “Think you can?”
Rowan nodded. She started up the path, slipping behind a tree when she got in range. Vilkas, who barely knew the meaning of the word stealth, hung back. It was just Rowan and the two necromancers. She nocked an arrow and aimed at the Altmer, who was still complaining while the Breton cooked. He was the easier target.
But she found she couldn’t release the arrow. She couldn’t just murder him. What if Vilkas was wrong? What if these two mages weren’t necromancers? Maybe they were just two random sorcerers who happened to camp next to the ruin. They could have borrowed or stolen those robes from real necromancers. Or maybe they were good necromancers. Technically, Aunt Blanche was a necromancer, and she wasn’t evil. And the Altmer was very good looking. Rowan had a thing for elves these days.
Oh, for Talos’s sake, Rowan, she thought to herself. Of all the reasons not to kill someone—
“If Lu’ah fails,” the high elf said, “I may give it a go.”
“You have no reason to raise the two people in that tomb,” the Breton reminded him.
“Hmph! I’ll do it for practice. They’re nothing to me. Just a couple of corpses ripe for the picking.”
Okay, maybe they were evil.
Rowan made a decision. She blinked, held her breath, and sent the arrow flying. It hit the elf in the chest, and he cried out and collapsed.
The Breton snarled, and purple lightning appeared in his hands. “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, girl! I’ll kill you myself and raise your corpse so you can do my cooking.”
With that, Vilkas charged him. He swung his sword just as the mage sent the first lightning bolt, and it hit him in the chest, knocking him backward. But Vilkas had been shocked before, and he recovered quickly, advancing on the necromancer and slicing a fatal gash across his waist.
The Altmer was beginning to recover, and he struggled to his feet and called magic forth in his hands. Rowan was ready with another arrow, and she sent him to his death with no more hesitation.
She exhaled as she stepped out of the brush and walked toward Vilkas, where he was checking the Breton’s body. She knelt down to loot the elf.
“Are you all right?” Vilkas asked her.
Rowan nodded. “I guess it does get easier. Knowing the evil these people were perpetrating made it easier too.”
A check of an exterior tower turned up nothing useful, so they went inside. Major excavation was underway. Tunnels had been dug and reinforced with heavy wooden beams. In a large room just down the first tunnel, a draugr patrolled scaffolding above their heads. Rowan stood back, aimed, and shot the draugr in the head; and it tumbled from the scaffolding and landed at their feet. She crinkled her nose as she looted the smelly creature for a handful of gold pieces.
“I don’t know what it is,” Vilkas mused, “but the draugr always have gold on them.”
They trekked through a maze of scaffolding to find a mage sitting in a chair in the center of a room, watching two draugr pick away at the cave walls. Rowan aimed at the necromancer and caught him in the shoulder. He hurtled from his chair and swung around, calling ice spells into his hands, which he immediately threw at Rowan.
She screamed when an ice spike hit her, but she managed to draw another arrow and shoot him again, catching him in the chest. While Vilkas engaged the two draugr, the necromancer charged Rowan with a dagger. She didn’t have time to nock another arrow; with a squeal, she pulled one from the quiver and stabbed the mage in the head with it.
Vilkas, who had just put the second draugr down, chuckled. “Clever.”
“Not really. I panicked.”
“Well, keep it together. You can’t afford to panic; it will get us both killed.”
The earth shook as they started through the next tunnel. Rowan looked down to see if she had triggered a trap, but there was nothing. There was a painful gasp farther up the tunnel, and after they turned a corner they found the remains of a falling rock trap, a dead necromancer, and a draugr standing next to a pressure plate, looking as innocent as a draugr could. Rowan took it down with two rapidly fired arrows.
The earth shook again, and a female voice rang through the air. “I am Lu’ah Al-Skaven. Who are you to disrupt my work? Begone, or I will add you to my army of the dead!”
Rowan grinned up at Vilkas. “Shall we continue?”
Rowan got lots of archery practice as they navigated the ruin, because there were dozens of draugr, sometimes accompanied by taunts from Lu’ah. If Rowan could get them in the head, one arrow would take them out. The mages weren’t so easy, and she didn’t handle killing them as easily. Killing a mage usually required a few moments for Rowan to recover. After a while they entered a small room with stairs at the other end. Rowan started to step in, but Vilkas yanked her back. She had almost stepped onto a pressure plate.
“Watch where you step. You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times, not just at eye level, but above your head and at your feet.”
They continued on, killing more draugr and necromancers until they came to a room with a closed gate, a lever, and four puzzle pillars on an upper level.
But they didn’t find the key anywhere in the room. The only thing there was an altar containing Lu’ah’s journal and a copy of the book Of Fjori and Holgeir, a romance Rowan had read several times. “I love this book,” she said, paging through it, “but it’s very sad.”
Vilkas picked up the journal and read. “It seems Lu’ah is the widow of an Imperial soldier. She’s trying to use the body of Holgeir, who is apparently buried here, to bring her husband back to life. She wants to seek revenge against the Empire for his death.”
“Hmm.” Rowan looked at the pages of the book and up at the puzzle pillars. “I wonder . . .” She took the book and dashed up the ramp with Vilkas following.
“You’ve got something?”
“Aye, I think . . . Fjori and Holgeir were warriors who met on the battlefield. They were so evenly matched that they finally wore out their weapons, and they fell in love. It says here, ‘As the eagle finds its mates.’ Then it talks about Holgeir getting bitten by a snake. Fjori sees a whale while she’s on her way to find a cure for the venom.”
“I see where you’re going with this. The pillars. Eagle, snake, whale. What about the fourth?”
“Fjori got bitten by the snake just as she was pouring the last drop of the elixir in Holgeir’s mouth. She died, and he built this tomb for her; then he took his own life so he could be with her. See why I love this book? It’s such a tragic romance.”
Vilkas chuckled and shook his head. “You’re adorable, little one.”
“I’m not so little anymore, Uncle.”
“In my eyes, you’ll always be the toddler who called me ‘Vikeh.’ So the fourth pillar is a snake then. Let’s do this.”
They turned the pillars to the appropriate animals, and Vilkas went to the lower level and pulled the lever. The gate opened with a clang, and they moved on.
They found a heavily trapped hallway leading to a locked room containing a chest. The chest had a difficult lock, but Rowan managed to get it open, and they found some gold, some nice jewelry and a valuable weapon inside. In a large room with a handful of sarcophagi, Rowan found a key sitting on a pedestal. “If that’s not a trap, nothing is,” she mused.
“Aye, but we might need the key.”
“So we dodge.”
Vilkas stood back, and Rowan took the key, ducking instinctively out of the way. Sure enough, poisoned darts bombarded the area around the pedestal, and though she managed to dodge most of them, a couple pierced her side. She immediately felt dizzy, and she staggered back against the wall and sat down. Vilkas didn’t have time to go to her, though, because the sarcophagi burst open and half a dozen draugr crawled out. The ground shook again, and Lu’ah laughed. “I shall have vengeance for the death of my husband. Rise!”
Vilkas fought the draugr the best he could while Rowan vomited in the corner. She managed to struggle to her feet and shoot a few of the creatures, leaving the rest for her uncle.
“Is that all you’ve got?” Vilkas taunted the draugr.
Rowan would have chuckled if she weren’t so dizzy.
After they were all dead, Vilkas dug into his pack for a potion. “It’s a Cure Poison potion,” he said. “Drink up.”
She downed the potion, but it was so foul she almost threw it back up. But it stayed down, and in a few minutes she was feeling better. She noticed Vilkas’s side was bleeding.
He shrugged and swallowed a small healing potion. “It’s nothing. Are you ready to move on?”
“I think so.”
They navigated a series of catwalks and locked gates where the key did indeed come in handy. The farther in they got, the more the earth shook and the more Lu’ah talked to them.
“I could not raise him, but I will raise an army to avenge his defilement!”
“Aye, aye, whatever,” Rowan muttered. “Quit your whining!”
A pair of heavy wooden doors led to a chamber with an altar, lots of candles, and at least a dozen sarcophagi. A necromancer stepped out onto the platform containing the altar, and the ground shook again.
“They burned his body before I could raise him. It should have been returned to me!”
“I’m sorry about what happened to your husband,” Rowan said to Lu’ah, “but don’t you think you’re overreacting?”
“Overreacting? How dare you! You know nothing! I will have my revenge, and you will not stop me!”
Two draugr with horned helmets burst from their crypts, and Vilkas said, “Deathlords.”
“That’s what your mother called them. They’re more powerful than your standard draugr.”
Fortunately, an arrow to the head still killed them. Vilkas had a bit more trouble with his, but he told Rowan to deal with Lu’ah. As she approached the altar, the necromancer laughed.
“I’m going to enjoy killing you, ‘little one.’”
She shot an ice spike at Rowan, who responded with an arrow. They traded projectiles for a couple of minutes, but Rowan was more resistant to the cold than Lu’ah was to the arrows. Before long, the necromancer faltered, fell to her knees, and died. Rowan bent over, hands on her knees, and panted.
“Not so little anymore,” she muttered.
“You did well,” Vilkas told her.
Two ghosts appeared on the platform behind the altar, and Rowan approached them. It was a well-dressed couple, and they were smiling at Rowan and Vilkas. It didn’t take much to realize who the spirits were.
“Thank you for releasing us from her spell,” Fjori said.
Holgeir nodded. “Now we can rest in peace once again. Come, Fjori, my love.”
“Take this with our gratitude.” Fjori took her lover’s hand as a ghostly sword materialized on a pedestal behind them, and then they disappeared.
“It seems you have a new sword,” Vilkas told her.
Rowan took the sword and swung it a few times. It felt strange in her hand, too lightweight. But it would be a nice decoration for her wall.
“If our client is correct, there should be a chest around here somewhere with his shield,” said Vilkas.
They looked around the chamber, and Rowan finally found the shield in a chest on an upper level. “Success!” she called, and she went back down to where Vilkas had been searching.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s get out of here and get some fresh air.”
Rowan nodded, and they made their way back through the ruin. When they reached the outside, they found it was nighttime, so they dragged the two dead mages into the tower, then stoked the smoldering fire and made camp.
“So how’d I do?” Rowan asked when they were settled down with some dinner.
“You did well. Your mother and father will be proud. Do you still want to go home?”
“Only to visit.”
“Good. I blame myself for your reticence. I sheltered you for far too long. You have a quality about you that makes people want to care for you.”
“Everybody except Dagur.”
“Don’t worry about Dagur. You’ve proven yourself on this job, and if that’s not good enough for him, that’s his problem.”
Being only a day’s ride from Riften, Rowan was tempted to ask Vilkas if they could stop in for that visit before going to Kynesgrove to deliver the shield, but he would never agree. Vilkas avoided Riften if at all possible. She could still remember her mother telling her once when she was little why Uncle Vikeh didn’t come to visit anymore. Mama had never lied to her and Ben, and she hadn’t pulled any punches, even when they were small. She had always told it like it was.
“Uncle Vilkas doesn’t visit anymore because he’s angry at Uncle Farkas for becoming a vampire.”
“Buy why? It’s not like Uncle Farkas would bite him.”
“It’s not that. Vilkas doesn’t like vampires because many of them are evil, and he thinks Farkas is making a life-changing mistake. In all honesty, he probably thinks Farkas is abandoning him.”
But it had always seemed to Rowan that Vilkas was the one who did the abandoning.
“Uncle?” she asked tentatively.
“Do you think you and Farkas will ever reconcile?”
Rowan could have sworn the air grew distinctly colder. Vilkas’s face turned grim, and he glared up at her. “No. And we’re not going to discuss it at this time.”
“He just wanted to be together forever with the woman he loves.”
“I said we’re not discussing it!”
“Well, I am.” She gazed into his eyes, and he glared back, but after a moment, his expression softened.
“How do you do that?” he asked with frustration.
She shrugged. “Don’t know. Now, why can’t you forgive him?”
“He cured himself of the beast blood so he could go to Sovngarde. And what does he do? He turns around and becomes this undead . . . thing. For a woman!”
“I bet you’d do it for Lydia.”
“I wouldn’t have to do it for Lydia.”
“He didn’t have to do it for Blanche. Besides, there was more to it than just being in love. Being supernatural suits him. He had been so used to living with the enhanced senses of the beast blood that he was out of sorts without them.”
“He’s not even the same person anymore.”
“How would you know? You haven’t spoken to him in years. I don’t remember him not being a vampire, of course, but Mama says he hasn’t changed at all. Except for the glowing eyes. He’s still the big, lovable oaf she always had a soft spot for. Besides, although Mama would probably disagree, vampirism is a lot more refined than the beast blood. Instead of an inner beast constantly fighting for control, the vampire is always inside you, part of you. And the feeding is a lot tidier than the hack-and-slash gorging of the werewolf.”
Vilkas gaped at her in shock. “You’re not thinking of . . . Rowan, please don’t do it.”
“Well, even if I decide to do it at some point, I’m not going to run right out and do it tomorrow. All I’m saying is that you need to broaden your mind.”
He grunted and said, “A child telling me to broaden my mind. I’ve seen more things than you can imagine, little one.”
“Aye, and you’re jaded. I think reconciling with Farkas would do you good.”
Vilkas shook his head. “Never going to happen.”
“You’re twins, for Talos’ sake! You shared a womb! How can you just turn your back on him like that?”
“I heard this argument years ago, and I told your mother the same thing I’m telling you now: Back. Off.”
Rowan growled and stomped her foot impetuously. “Well, fine! I’m going to bed. But you think about what I said, Uncle.”
“I’ll wake you when it’s your turn to keep watch,” he muttered.
She climbed into her bedroll and turned her back, pouting. After a while, she turned over and regarded Vilkas. “Uncle? Do you at least miss him?”
“Every single day,” he admitted with a sigh and an expression of pure heartache.
With that, Rowan smiled with satisfaction and turned back over, finally able to go to sleep.