Lydia came back a few minutes after Vilkas had left and knelt by Selene. “By the eight, what happened?”
“Lydia, could you take some fresh water up to my room for me?”
“Did Vilkas do that to your face?”
“I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“As you wish, my Thane.”
When Lydia came back with water, Selene went upstairs, undressed and washed up. Her left eye throbbed and her vision was fuzzy, and when she looked in the mirror she saw that it was swelling shut and a terrible bruise was forming on her cheek. Vilkas had hit her hard—in more ways than one. She put on a clean dress and lay on the bed, trying to blot out the day’s events, but they bombarded her mind relentlessly. The Silver Hand had attacked and taken the fragments. Kodlak was dead. Vilkas had struck her.
Vilkas had struck her.
She’d been hit by guys before. She was a warrior, for Kyne’s sake; she fought all the time. But this was different. It wasn’t some bandit or a thug in a bar picking a fight; it was Vilkas. No one else could have hurt her as badly, not even Farkas.
Selene had waited for this day for months now, the day when the happiness she had found at Jorrvaskr would be shattered. What did she do now? Did she leave? Did she stay with the Companions and pretend nothing had happened? Did she kick Vilkas’s ass? As if she could. Well, she certainly couldn’t pretend nothing had happened. Things had been tense with Vilkas for months; they would be intolerable now. But she didn’t know if she wanted to leave altogether. Selene had never felt so at home in her life. The Companions were her family, her brothers and sisters. Torvar and Athis were her drinking buddies, and she had spent many nights sitting up gossiping with Ria and Njada. Aela was her forebear, and they had a connection beyond friendship. Of course, she didn’t want to leave Farkas. They had managed to keep things from getting too serious—little more than friends with benefits, really—but Selene hadn’t completely discounted the notion that they might actually have a future together.
She needed time to think, to piece things together, weigh the possibilities, and figure out her priorities. Was the security of the Companions worth having to live with her broken relationship with Vilkas, or was it time to move on? She should have known better than to get so close to them. How many times had she said everyone always lets you down in the end? True, it was only Vilkas who had let her down, but now that he had, how long would be before the others did, too?
Selene smelled Farkas before he pounded on the door. Lydia let him in, and he came up the stairs without even speaking to the housecarl. His scent was filled with grief, anger, and concern, and one look at him told her everything else she needed to know. His left eye was red from tears, and his right was bloodshot, the skin around it swollen and purple.
“We match,” she quipped.
“Let me see.” He examined her face, pressing her swollen eye gingerly. “How bad does it hurt?”
Selene shrugged. “I’m tough. What happened to you?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Let’s just say he got worse than he gave.”
“How did you even—”
“Damn it, Lydia! So you retaliated? Defended my honor?”
Farkas nodded with a chuckle. “Broke his jaw.”
“Farkas, you shouldn’t have done that.”
“What happened? Why did he hit you?”
“I’d rather keep that between myself and him, if that’s okay.”
“Of course.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead, then lay down next to her and took her in his arms. “What are you gonna do?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you, Selene. You’re not just gonna let this go. You’re gonna see it as a betrayal, refuse to forgive him, and leave or something.”
Selene closed her eyes and lay her head on his chest. She didn’t like that he knew her so well. “I think I’ll go up to High Hrothgar and see the Graybeards. I should have done that months ago.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No, I need some time to myself so I can sort all this out.”
“You know he’s sorry he hit you.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Why? I don’t understand that. You were fine until this one thing.”
“Farkas, if this one thing sent me into such a spiral, maybe I wasn’t fine after all. All I know is I need some time to myself. High Hrothgar is supposed to be really serene. Maybe I can find some peace up there.”
He ran his hand comfortingly over her back. “Then take what time you need, love. Just take care of yourself.”
“You, too. And take care of him. No matter what I’m feeling right now, I know he needs it.”
When Farkas left, Selene picked herself up and began packing for her trip. There was no point putting it off; might as well get out now instead of brooding over it. Besides, it was a long trip around the mountain to Ivarstead and then up the Seven Thousand Steps to High Hrothgar; so she might as well get started. There was little chance spring had come to the mountain, so she could probably expect snow; and she couldn’t forget the possibility of frost trolls and ice wraiths. Good. Something to take out her frustrations on. Besides, the sooner she got away from Whiterun, the better.
“When will you return?” Lydia asked her as she walked through the living room wearing her armor and carrying her weapons and backpack.
“I don’t know. Part of me wants to say ‘never,’ but I know that’s not true.”
“I’ll take care of things here,” she assured her thane.
“Come on, Liska.” Selene left the house—her house—the only thing she had ever really owned, and marched to the city gate, waving at Adrianne Avenicci as she passed.
An orc stopped her just as she was about to open the gate. “Warrior,” he called. “I’m here to present you with an opportunity. The Dawnguard is reforming, and we are looking for able-bodied men and women to fight for us.”
“What’s the Dawnguard?”
“It is an order of warriors put together to fight the growing threat of vampires in Skyrim.”
“I haven’t noticed much of a threat, really.”
“Then you haven’t been paying attention. Vampires attacked the Hall of the Vigilants and destroyed it, decimating the Vigilants of Stendarr. While they used to keep to themselves and only come out to feed, they have become bolder of late and have started terrorizing the cities and highways. We believe something big is in the works, and we have set out to stop it.”
Selene knew all about the Vigilants of Stendarr. They concerned themselves mostly with daedra worship and didn’t normally bother themselves with other creatures. Then again, as a werewolf, she was bound to the daedric prince Hircine. While she had no love of vampires, joining such a group could be very dangerous for her.
“What about werewolves?” she queried.
“What about them?”
“Do you hunt them as well?”
He narrowed his eyes and studied her critically, and Selene could have sworn he was sniffing her. The Orsimer didn’t have enhanced senses of smell as far as she knew, but her knowledge of the race was far from comprehensive, so who knew? “Why? Do you know any?”
“As long as they don’t pose a threat to the public, we’d leave them alone. Any slip-ups, however, would be dealt with harshly.”
It was Selene’s turn to sniff him, and he wasn’t lying. “I’m on my way to do something else right now,” she said, “but maybe I’ll go check it out after that.”
He nodded curtly. “Fort Dawnguard is in the mountains southeast of Riften. Speak to Isran. Good day, warrior.”
She had told Farkas she needed time to think, and she spent the two-day trip to Ivarstead doing just that. It wasn’t just the fight with Vilkas weighing on her mind now; the Orc’s proposal intrigued her. For him to show up just when she was thinking of moving on to other things was a happy coincidence, but at this point she didn’t think she could trust them to just let her lycanthropy go. In addition, Grelod the Kind started to invade her thoughts again. She was still in Riften, abusing children physically and verbally, and though Selene was having second thoughts about revenge, she still felt the matron had to be stopped.
She discussed her concerns with Liska, who cooed dutifully in response, but as usual the fox didn’t offer anything more than encouraging coos. Selene did ponder the Dawnguard and Grelod, but her thoughts inevitably veered back to Vilkas. She felt hurt, betrayed, hopeless. She waffled between wanting to kill Vilkas and wanting to kill herself. It would never happen, of course; suicide was a coward’s way out, and she was too strong for that. But loneliness was a powerful thing, and she wasn’t used to it. She had been lonely after Ben died, but she had adjusted. Then when she met the Companions, she forgot how to be alone. Now it looked like she would have to get used to it again, because she couldn’t go back there. How could she ever look at Vilkas again? Farkas had called it “this one thing,” as if that made it insignificant. Why couldn’t understand that “this one thing” had changed everything? She wondered if Vilkas understood it.
Selene was skittish during the trip, apprehensive about having to fight bandits or wild animals with inadequate vision; but thankfully, the trip was uneventful. She arrived in Ivarstead late in the afternoon and decided to stay at the Vilemyr Inn for the night. The innkeeper, who said his name was Wilhelm, allowed Liska to stay in her room as long as she didn’t make a mess. He was friendly and accommodating, and he even brought in some fresh water so Selene could wash. She braved a look in the mirror and grimaced at her reflection. The entire left side of her face had turned several shades of purple and blue, the outline of Vilkas’s fingers clearly etched on her skin. It was no wonder her vision hadn’t yet returned to normal; her eye was still severely swollen. Selene was just thankful he hadn’t been wearing gauntlets.
“Does it hurt?” Wilhelm, who Selene didn’t even realize was still in the room, asked her sympathetically. She turned to see him leaning in the door frame, arms folded. He was fiftyish, balding, rather nondescript, with warm, kind eyes that hinted at great compassion. She imagined he was experienced in hearing all sorts of tales from weary, lonely travelers.
“A bit,” she responded coolly, “but believe me, I’ve had worse. Nothing like a good brawl.”
“And your opponent?”
“I heard he sustained a broken jaw.” She didn’t bother mentioning that she hadn’t been the one to break it.
“If you need a potion for pain, I’m sure I have something.”
“Thanks, but I brought my own.”
“Good night, then. Let me know if you need anything.”
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and Selene hoped the good weather would last all the way up the mountain. Seven Thousand Steps. She wondered how they knew. Were they numbered? Had somebody counted them? She figured somebody had counted them at some point; hundreds of pilgrims had navigated the steps. Well, Selene certainly didn’t intend to try. She could imagine getting to 3,500 and thinking, ugh, I’m only halfway there.
As she started across the bridge leading from Ivarstead to the trail, Selene met two men, a haggard Nord who was probably younger than he looked and a cheerful wood elf, leaning against the low, stone wall and having a friendly chat.
“Are you going up to High Hrothgar today?” the Bosmer asked the Nord.
“It would be a good day to go,” said the Nord, “but I find I’m reluctant to make the trip these days. It gets harder every time.” He looked up to see Selene approach and said, “Good morning, lass.”
“Good morning. Did I hear you talking about a trip up the Seven Thousand Steps?”
The elf nodded an amicable greeting and walked back toward town.
“Aye. I take salted meats and supplies to the monks periodically. They’re not ones to come down the mountain to shop, if you catch my meaning.”
“Are you compensated for that?”
“The Graybeards and I have an understanding. Besides, it wouldn’t feel right charging them for a bit of preserved food. The thing is, my legs aren’t what they used to be and the way is treacherous.”
“I’m going up there anyway. Would you like me to take them up for you?”
The man’s face lit up. “I would be much obliged. I’m Klimmek.”
“Well, Selene, this is a great weight off my shoulders. Literally.”
“I’m glad to help.”
“Come with me.” Klimmek led her through town to his house, where he retrieved a heavy satchel and handed it to her. “Too much?”
Selene hoisted the satchel over her shoulder. “Not at all. I’m stronger than I look. Anything I should be aware of on the trip up?”
“Nothing someone like you couldn’t handle. Some wolves, perhaps a frost troll. The stones are icy, so watch your footing, especially with your injured eye. I would imagine you’re not seeing very well out of it, and it would be a shame to slip and fall because of poor vision. And watch out for your little friend, there. Wandering off the path could be dangerous.”
“Will do.” She stepped off Klimmek’s porch and headed back through town and across the bridge. At the base of the mountain was indeed a set of stairs. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Selene had thought “steps” might be a metaphor, but there they were, and they carried the promise of enlightenment as they ascended the hill and curved around the first bend. Selene stepped off the path onto the first step. That’s one, she thought. “None of that,” she grunted and began the long hike.
She had imagined a heavenly staircase leading to High Hrothgar, something one might see in Sovngarde: gleaming white with golden railing and distant choirs singing praises to the gods. She obviously hadn’t thought it through. The reality of the Seven Thousand Steps couldn’t have been further from her idea. The steps were cracked and worn after centuries of exposure to the elements. They weren’t constant; large gaps interrupted the flow, and at times, the steps actually went downhill. The winds were fairly calm, so she didn’t worry about getting blown over the side. The air was crisp and cold, and the sky was crystal clear. If she stood at the edge, she could see all the way to the ground below.
Grottos graced the trail periodically, etched tablets within imparting the tale of the Dragon War and how the Voice was used to defeat the dragons. Selene was delighted to find that the Voice was a gift from Kynareth. She and someone named Paarthurnax had given the Voice to the humans to aid them in their campaign against the dragons that oppressed and enslaved them. Seeing her patron goddess credited with such a gift encouraged Selene and strengthened her resolve. Just when she began to think there was no place for her, no purpose other than to survive, Kynareth gave her a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Whiterun, when it came into view, took her breath away. “Oh, my,” she gasped, taking in the sight of Dragonsreach, resplendent even from this staggering height. She could see Breezehome as well; a sunbeam illuminated the little house like a beacon. And then there was Jorrvaskr, nestled in Dragonsreach’s shadow as the late-afternoon sun began to sink. The fires of the Skyforge burned brightly in the dimming light. Selene could imagine the brothers, having finished their training for the day, sitting on the back porch and sharing a tankard of mead. Well, maybe not today; Vilkas wouldn’t be drinking from a tankard for quite some time. She wondered how he would eat and drink with his jaw sewn shut. Perhaps they could cut a reed in such a way that they could poke it through the stitches so he could drink potions and water. He and Farkas would have made up by now; they couldn’t stay angry with each other. Selene sighed dismally, wondering if she would ever set foot in the mead hall again.
The sun dropped below the horizon, and the light began to wane. Liska grumbled, and Selene tore herself away from the view. High Hrothgar was just ahead, and she might as well get going so she could be inside before nightfall. The monastery was dark and forbidding, the charcoal-gray stone of the walls only broken up by the black of the windows. More steps—conventional ones, this time—led up to the tribute chest, which stood at the foot of an imposing tower jutting out from the main building, then around the tower to two gigantic doors. Selene climbed the stairs to the chest, where she placed Klimmek’s supplies, and then took the left branch the rest of the way up. There was no bell, no knocker, nothing to alert the Graybeards to her presence, so she pushed the door inward.