The next few weeks were filled with routine, and the structure of the militia didn’t bother Selene nearly as much as she had expected. The twins trained her with swords, both one- and two-handed, and they worked with her on fighting multiple opponents and using her armor to protect herself. Aela gave her instruction with the bow. Skjor taught her battle strategy, and Kodlak offered wisdom. He talked a lot about leadership, mentoring, caring for others, taking responsibility for a group, and other topics of that nature. The things he told her made her believe he was preparing her for something, but when she asked about it, all he gave her were vague answers.
She and Farkas didn’t sleep together again, but their relationship had taken a turn. Sometimes she would catch him watching her; other times he would catch her. They shared secret smiles, and sometimes he would reach out impulsively and caress her arm or her cheek. They went on missions together, and they had long talks about life, religion, and their hopes and dreams. Often, when they were camping and she was standing guard, she found herself watching him sleep. But Selene had meant it when she told him she wasn’t ready to be in love. She still believed that at some point, she would have to leave Jorrvaskr. It would break her heart when it happened, and she didn’t want to risk the pain of losing a lover as well, for her or for Farkas.
The others acted as her shield-brothers and sisters as well, most often Vilkas. While she and Farkas talked a lot about personal things, Selene’s conversations with Vilkas were usually about intellectual subjects, comparing books they’d read, politics, battle strategy, and survival techniques. He refused to discuss being a werewolf except to say it was a curse and he would do most anything to get out of it. After the time in the training yard when he gave her a glimpse into his soul, he shied away from more intimate lines of conversation. Even so, Selene felt close to him. Oddly, even though he was a better and more experienced fighter than she was, she felt as though she had to protect him. Something tormented him, something deep and long-standing, and she resolved to stand in its way as best she could.
Although she spent most of her time with the Companions, Selene became friendly with some of the other townspeople as well. She adored Belethor, and she believed he had as much fun haggling as she did. She also became friends with Saadia, the lovely Redguard cook in the Bannered Mare. Outwardly, she seemed like a simple bar wench, but there was more to her than met the eye. Her past was shrouded in mystery. At this point, she wasn’t talking, but Selene hoped to draw her out eventually.
Spending a lot of time at the Temple of Kynareth, she also got to know Danica Pure-Spring, the priestess. She wasn’t really fond of Danica because she tended to whine. She was unhappy having to spend most of her time tending to the sick instead of lifting up joyous praise to her goddess. Selene did develop a grudging respect for her, though, because no matter how unhappy she was, she never faltered in her dedication. Danica was also upset because the Gildergreen, the once-majestic tree that dominated the Wind District, was dying. The Gildergreen, which had grown from a sapling of Eldergleam, which was believed to be a physical manifestation of Kynareth herself, hadn’t bloomed in several years, and this year she hadn’t even sprouted leaves.
Late in the month of Frostfall, Selene was praying at the shrine when Danica approached her. “I would like to propose something to you,” said the priestess in her thick Nordic accent. “I’ve been thinking of a way to save the Gildergreen, and I may have come up with something. Perhaps some sap from Eldergleam would help. The problem is that Eldergleam is older than metal and not just any sword or dagger will tap it.”
“What will you do, then?”
“There is a dagger that a coven of hagravens use to sacrifice spriggans. It’s called Nettlebane. I believe the enchantments on the dagger will enable the user to tap into Eldergleam and retrieve some of the sap.”
“And you’re telling me because…”
“I’m terrified of the hagravens,” Danica admitted, “but you’re a warrior. Perhaps you’d have enough courage to fight them and retrieve Nettlebane for me.”
It briefly occurred to Selene to charge her for the job; after all, she was part of a guild of mercenaries. But this was a mission for her goddess, a holy quest to help repair a sacred symbol of Kyne. “I’ll be glad to help,” she replied.
“I’m leaving for a couple of days,” Selene told Farkas as they sparred in the courtyard the next morning.
“No, no. Danica at the temple has an idea to help bring the Gildergreen back to life. I’m helping by going to Falkreath Hold to get a dagger for her.”
“What’s the catch?”
“Wanna come with me?”
“It’s not a good time,” he said regretfully. “I’ve been riding herd on Torvar about his training, and we’re finally making some progress, but I still can’t trust him to keep up with it while I’m gone. Why don’t you ask Vilkas to go with you?”
“I can do that.” She found Vilkas in the mead hall, giving advice to Ria. “I have a quest, and I wanted see if you’d like to go with me.”
“Perhaps. Where would we be going?”
“I’m retrieving a dagger that might help Danica revive the Gildergreen.”
Vilkas gave Ria an apologetic nod. “Of course. Let me pack a few things.”
They got on the road early in the afternoon and stopped for the night just outside Helgen. Vilkas built a fire while Selene set up the tent and brought out cooking utensils and food, and then they settled down for dinner. Selene was skittish and jumped at even the smallest sounds from the woods. She let out a startled squeal when Liska came bounding out of the trees with a rat in her teeth, and a bird flying over actually made her scream with fright.
“What’s going on with you?” Vilkas finally asked her. “I’ve never seen you nervous before.”
“Too close to Helgen. I can smell the burned homes, the burned…” She closed her eyes and tried to hold her breath, but she could still smell burning bodies and hear the terrible roar of the black dragon.
“It’s more than a mile away. It’s probably just your imagination. Still, perhaps we should move, eh? Maybe it’ll make you feel better.”
Selene shook her head. “No. No, I’ll be fine. It was months ago; I just have to get over it.”
“How do you get over something like that?”
“It’s amazing what you can get over if given enough time.”
Vilkas grunted and changed the subject, engaging her in conversation about a book he was reading. The mundane discussion helped get her mind off Helgen, and soon she was feeling like her old self again. When she lay her head down for the night, however, the ghosts were waiting for her.
She awoke to screaming and Vilkas shaking her shoulders. “Selene, you’re just dreaming. Wake up!”
“No!” she shrieked, and she realized the screams were hers.
“It’s all right. It’s just a dream. Selene, look at me!”
With that, awareness took over, and she realized she was in the tent, safe and sound, and Vilkas was safe. She threw her arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder. “It was the black dragon,” she told him, her breath coming in terrified gasps. “He came back, and he burned you to ash while you stood guard outside.”
“I’m fine, Selene. The black dragon is long gone from Helgen; shh, it’s all right.”
Vilkas brought her some water, and she sipped at it while she shook off the rest of the cobwebs. It took a while, but she finally pulled herself together. “Get some rest,” she said. “I’m okay, but I’m not going to sleep again. Liska and I will stand guard.”
He regarded her dubiously, his gray eyes narrowed with concern, but finally nodded his assent. “There’s a bandit camp south of here,” he warned her. “Probably in Helgen.”
“How could you possibly know that? We’re a mile away.”
“I can smell them. They shouldn’t give you any problem. We’re too far away for them to notice us.” He lay down on the bedroll as Selene stepped outside the tent, snapping her fingers for the fox to follow.
A stillness that could only be experienced in the wee hours of the morning settled over the campsite as the nocturnal creatures bedded down for their rest and the day animals hadn’t yet awakened. In mid-autumn all the crickets and cicadas were gone. Even the wind was calm. She stood as in a vacuum with utter hush around her, so rare in a world full of noise. In the cities, people were always talking, hammers were pounding, doors were slamming, and hooves were clopping on cobblestones. In the woods, the birds sang, the wind soughed through the timbers, animals’ feet crunched on fallen leaves. So much to listen to. And tonight, nothing. The silence was deafening.
Then, soft footsteps as Liska padded up to her. “Wow-wow-wow,” the little fox cooed.
“What is it?” Selene asked. “You can’t be hungry. That rat you ate was bigger than you.”
“I’m not picking you up, either. I’m standing guard. Go to sleep.”
With that, the fox grumbled and went to curl up by the fire. Selene knew she didn’t really understand, but sometimes Liska’s reaction to certain words was uncanny.
Vilkas got up just after sunrise, and they had dried meat and cheese for breakfast before breaking camp and moving on. They skirted through the woods around Helgen so as not to disturb the bandits and made it to Orphan Rock an hour later.
Vilkas sniffed the air and grimaced. “One hagraven up there on that rock. Ugh, she stinks! Four witches down here.”
The free-standing rock where the hagraven had set up her foul altar was some twenty feet high and stood ten feet away from the main land. A fallen log acted as a bridge between the campsite and the giant platform. She stood over a spriggan with a knife, chanting in some long-forgotten language, and didn’t see them yet. The witches guarding the camp did, however, and one of them appeared through the trees and started hurling ice spikes at them. Vilkas charged her, and Selene searched the surrounding area for the others. She found another one preparing to shoot a fireball and aimed her bow, took a deep breath as she peered down the shaft, and shot. The witch dodged the arrow and sent the fireball at her, singing her hair. “Not my hair!” she wailed as she loosed another arrow. It hit, injuring the witch, but she didn’t drop. The wound slowed her down, though, and the next arrow killed her. Off to her left, Vilkas snarled ferociously, and Selene turned her head to see him swing his greatsword at a witch with a dagger, all but cutting her in half. He rejoined her on the path and they looked for the fourth witch, who still hadn’t shown her face.
“There,” Vilkas whispered, pointing to a copse near the rock, “hiding.”
Selene took aim, but she could barely make out the dark-robed figure, and her arrow missed. Vilkas moved toward the witch, only to be pelted with huge fireballs from the hagraven. Selene moved closer to the platform holding the repulsive half-woman, half-bird, and shot arrow after arrow at her, drawing as quickly as she could without sacrificing accuracy; but the creature was hardy, and for every arrow, there was a fireball. Selene was able to dodge most of them and sustain only minor burns, but two of them sent in quick succession hit her square in her left shoulder and collarbone and she screamed in pain. The fireballs heated her breastplate as well, further searing her skin, and she burned her fingers trying to get it off. The smell of scorched flesh was nauseating, and the knowledge that it was her own made her gag and choke. Helgen had been her imagination; the reality was far more distressing.
Fortunately the fireballs stopped when Vilkas dispatched the witch, dashed up the hill to the campsite and across the log bridge to engage the hagraven hand-to-hand. Selene managed to discard her sizzling breastplate and run up the hill toward the log bridge, her chest unprotected except for her undershirt.
“Are you mad?” Vilkas shouted. “You’ve no armor. Stay back!” Selene did as Vilkas bade her and backed down the hill while he engaged in a furious melee with the hag, sword against claws. She tried to back up and shoot a fireball, but he chased her relentlessly, never letting her get more than a few feet away; but in so close, the greatsword was unwieldy, and he had trouble getting a good, strong swing. She ducked beneath the blade time and again and dragged razor-sharp claws across his face, arms, and any chinks in his armor. Vilkas roared with pain and rage, but he kept his head. He risked a step back, and before the hagraven could ready her fireball, he spun in place and executed a picture-perfect strike, decapitating the creature. He dropped to his knees, panting, and Selene ran up the hill and across the bridge.
“Are you all right?” she asked as she knelt next to him.
“Aye, just out of breath.” He looked up at her critically. “But you’re not. Let’s get off this rock and get you patched up.”
Selene rummaged through the hag’s things until she found Nettlebane, an ebony dagger that emanated evil magic. She could hardly stand to touch it. She found a rag and wrapped the offensive weapon in it, then followed Vilkas across the bridge to the witches’ camp.
Vilkas dug into his pack for a healing poultice and bandages, then helped Selene out of her shirt. Sitting next to him half-naked made her self-conscious, and she instinctively raised her arms to cover her breasts. Vilkas gave her a wry look. “I understand your embarrassment, but I can’t treat your burns with you sitting like that. I’m much more worried about your injuries than seeing you naked.”
Selene stayed covered while he removed his gloves and opened a jar that contained a pinkish salve and dipped his fingers into it, but she lowered her arms when he raised his eyebrows and regarded her expectantly. She hissed as he dabbed the ointment on her blistered skin and squeezed tears back as he treated the worst of the burns, a line on her shoulder where the edge of her armor had burned through the leather. She skin was charred and shredded, oozing blood and plasma.
“That’s gonna scar,” he remarked.
“Hopefully Danica can use her magic to heal the worst of it.”
He wiped the poultice off his hands and dug into her pack for a healing potion, which he handed her to drink while he carefully bandaged her shoulder. “Can you stand that?”
“Uu-huh. It’s not too bad.”
“We’ll rest for the day before heading back to Whiterun.”
Selene shook her head. “No, I’m okay to walk. I can’t wear my armor, so I’ll have to be more careful if we run into danger, but I don’t want to wait that long. I want to get rid of that dagger. It gives me the creeps.”
They headed back, and Vilkas picked up her armor on the way down the hill and carried it all the way to Whiterun, prepared to drop it if they encountered any enemies, but the trip back was blissfully uneventful. They walked into the temple just before midnight, and Danica looked up in surprise. “Honestly, I didn’t expect to see you again.”
“So you sent me off to my death, then?”
“No, no, it’s not that. I’m glad you made it. But the hagravens are deadly.”
“Aye, I know,” Selene said dryly.
“Let me have a look at your shoulder.” Vilkas excused himself and left for Jorrvaskr, and Danica took Selene to a back room, where she worked her healing magic. She was able to heal all but the most serious burn, although she was able to ease the pain some. “The rest will have to heal on its own.”
“I understand. Here.” Selene pulled the wrapped dagger from her pack and held it out for Danica.
The priestess grimaced and backed away with a shudder. “I don’t really want to touch that,” she said with distaste. “Will you continue the mission?”
“Sure. Tell me where I need to go.” Danica told her where to find Eldergleam Sanctuary, and Selene left the temple and went to Jorrvaskr to find Vilkas. “Are you needed here, or would you want to go to Eldergleam Sanctuary to get the sap?” she asked him.
“I’m all yours,” he replied.
Selene couldn’t wear the steel armor over her burned shoulder, so she borrowed some fur armor from Ria before she and Vilkas set out for Eldergleam Sanctuary. They spent two nights on the road before crossing the White River onto the Aalto, the volcanic sulfur flats at the center of Eastmarch. As they walked across the terraced rocks and skirted around the shallow pools, they heard the telltale whoosh of wings and the dreaded howl. Selene stopped in her tracks.
“Over there,” said Vilkas, pointing to the northeast. In the distance, perhaps a couple of miles away, a dragon flew in circles around a rocky peak. It was far enough away not to be a danger for now, but Vilkas looked at it longingly.
“Don’t tell me you actually want to go fight that dragon.”
“No, we have a mission; I know that. We’ll go on to the sanctuary.”
Eldergleam Sanctuary was located near the south end of the Aalto. The outside just looked like an ordinary cave, dark and foreboding, but the inside was glorious. An ethereal glow from above illuminated moss-covered stones and high waterfalls. Dragon’s tongue and creep cluster grew everywhere, along with dozens of other species of flora, and butterflies and dragonflies flitted from flower to flower. A path led through the sanctuary and up a short hill to a magnificent tree that dominated the landscape. The pink-blossomed tree’s roots splayed out in all directions and stretched far into the gardens.
“By Ysmir,” Vilkas gasped with wonder.
“By Kynareth,” Selene corrected.
As they walked up the path toward the tree, a couple of worshipers stopped to chat. One of them said the roots grew over the path so no one could get to Eldergleam’s trunk. Selene didn’t tell the woman that she knew how to get past the roots. They continued up the path until they came to the first root, which stood taller than Selene. Liska climbed up on the root and peered down at her expectantly. Selene unwrapped Nettlebane and hesitated.
“Vilkas, I don’t think I can do this.”
“We can go if you’re uncertain, but think hard before you do. You came here to heal the Gildergreen. It will die if you go back empty-handed.”
Selene steeled herself and took a swipe at the root with Nettlebane. When the blade connected with wood, the root moved out of her way, and Liska squealed and jumped off. Selene could have sworn she heard a whimper, and it wasn’t the fox. It was the same with the next root, but as she walked toward the third, her legs grew heavy. This tree was the embodiment of Kynareth—Kyne—mother of men, patron of travelers. Her patron. And she was hurting her. Tears welled in her eyes as she cut into the third root, and when it moved out of the way, she stayed put. There was one more root in her way, bigger around than she was yet delicate, and it waited just a few steps away. Better to get this over with. She stepped toward the root, only to stop short.
Vilkas rested a hand on her shoulder, and Liska rubbed against her leg like a cat. She squeezed Vilkas’s hand and took another step forward, feeling as though she were swimming in honey, thick and viscous, restraining her. When she finally reached the root, she raised Nettlebane, but she found she couldn’t lower the dagger. With an anguished cry, Selene tossed the knife away and dropped to her knees, bursting into tears.
“Kynareth, please forgive me,” she begged. “I’m so sorry. I was misguided.” Vilkas sat down next to her and held her as she wailed, and Liska chittered at her, but there was no comfort. How could she ever expect to be forgiven for such a heinous act? Since Ben’s death, Selene knew no real love except for Kynareth, gentle, benevolent, and terrible, goddess of the wind and rain, and of her beloved sky. And she had sliced into her tree like it was a common weed.
A hand tenderly stroked her hair, and it took Selene a moment to realize she could see both of Vilkas’s hands. She twisted her head around, but no one was there. Then she knew. She didn’t hear a voice, but Kynareth was speaking to her. A feeling of warmth and love surrounded her, and the root moved out of the way.
“What the—?” Vilkas muttered.
Selene pulled away from him and got up, walking slowly beneath the root and up the hill toward Eldergleam’s trunk. The light shining on the tree intensified until she was blind to anything around it, and a resonant hum rang through the air, as though a thousand flutes were playing the same note, growing progressively louder until it stopped abruptly. The blinding light faded, leaving a tiny sapling in the soft earth at Selene’s feet.
Selene looked up at the tree. “Thank you,” she whispered. She bent down and gently tugged the sapling up by the roots, then turned to Vilkas.
“Are you all right?” he asked with concern.
“I am now. Hey, wanna go kill a dragon?”
A broad grin crossed her friend’s face. “Do you even need to ask?”