Selene and Brynjolf spent the night in the Greathall as guests of Fanari Strong-Voice. A few of the villagers came in to introduce themselves, thank Selene and Brynjolf, and hear their story. They were fascinated with the Dragonborn and her defeat of Alduin, as well as the quest she and Brynjolf were currently on. The Skaal were unlike any Nords Selene had ever met. Frea had talked about how they lived with the land instead of from it, and talking with the others, Selene finally began to understand what she had meant. They took only what they needed from the land and gave back whenever they could. They were as likely to plant a tree as to cut one down, and they made a point of thanking the All-Maker for everything they consumed, even water.
Most of the Skaal were personable, but Wulf Wild-Blood, who introduced himself as the Skaal’s First Hunter, stared at Selene as though she were prey he was stalking. It was disconcerting, as were his scent and the odd kinship she felt with him. He was human, but true to his name, there was a wildness to him that defied description. He was part of the Skaal, a long-standing, well-respected member of the community; but he was also separate. Much of his time was spent alone, and he was happy that way. He mentioned a brother, Toirkild, whom he said was missing.
“I fear he has fallen in with a pack of werebears,” he told Selene. “If he has become one of them, he may be lost to me.”
“Not necessarily,” she commented. “Not all weres are feral.”
He gave her a hard stare. “So I understand,” he said pointedly. “Still, in your travels, keep an eye out for him. Even if he is lost, it would mean a lot to know what has happened to him.”
One man was distinctly out of place. He was a Nord but not a Skaal, well dressed and intellectual. “You’re not from the village, I assume,” Brynjolf asked him.
“Oh, no. I hail from Solitude originally. I’m here to learn about the history of Solstheim. I’ve been here…oh, my, I guess it’s been nearly a year now. They think I’m a bit odd, but they’ve been very hospitable.”
Fanari patted the elderly man’s hand. “We’re actually very fond of Tharstan. While he has been here to study us, he has been more than willing to help out wherever he can.”
The next morning, as they were starting to head out of town, Wulf Wild-Blood stopped Selene. “The Beast Stone is south of here, near Thirsk Mead Hall. The Nords who live there were once part of the Skaal, but they have grown fonder of filling their bellies with mead than serving the All-Maker. They should not give you any trouble, but beware: Rieklings also prowl that area.” He gave Selene a quick bow and started to walk away but stopped and turned back. “You have the blood of a wolf and the heart of a bear. You understand the hunt like few others.”
“Aye, I do.”
“Safe travels and good hunting, Dragonborn.”
“Thank you, Wulf.”
“What was that about?” Brynjolf asked as they left the village.
“I think he knows I’m a werewolf.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “He’s human, but he’s…different.”
“They’re all different. I was talking to their woodcutter, and he only cuts up dead trees. He won’t take down a living tree.”
“They are very particular about their relationship with the land.”
“I mentioned Glover in Raven Rock, and he got such a look of distaste on his face. He said big cities like that are a blight on the All-Maker’s land.”
“Big city? Raven Rock?”
Brynjolf shrugged. “See what I mean?”
They headed south/southeast over rocky, snow-covered terrain and reached Solstheim’s eastern shore around midday. After stopping for lunch and a brief rest, they continued southward until they happened upon a camp on the beach. Several tents had been erected around a large fire pit, but the site didn’t appear as if it had just been thrown up for the night. The half-dozen Nords that moved around the camp had been there for a while and didn’t look like they were leaving any time soon.
A woman in leather armor was talking to a man who appeared as though it had been a while since he’d been in a good fight. His armor was rugged, but he was a little soft and flabby. “How are you holding up?” she asked him.
“It’s rough out here, but I’m getting by.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “Not everyone was built for this kind of life. There’s no shame in that.”
Brynjolf looked at Selene and rolled his eyes.
The woman went to the fire and sat down next to a man with a red Mohawk, beard, and warrior’s braid. He was solid, much more muscular than those around him. “I wish you could relax a little,” he said, patting her knee.
“I don’t want to get too comfortable here, Kuvar. We need to be back up there.”
“This is a decent spot. We’re right on the water. This could grow into something respectable.”
“Thirsk was respectable.” She looked up as Selene and Brynjolf approached the fire. “Good day, friends.”
“Good day,” Selene replied. “Did I hear you mention Thirsk?”
The woman grimaced. “Aye, it’s just up the hill. It was once our home, until we were kicked out of…some Rieklings have taken it over.”
Brynjolf gave her an amused smile. “You were overpowered by Rieklings?”
“They had greater numbers,” she snapped indignantly. Then she seemed to shrink a little bit and said, “Well, it didn’t help that we’d grown a little too comfortable up there. Too much mead, too few battles.”
“This place could be good for us,” Kuvar said. “Living off the land will toughen us up.”
“No! We must take back our mead hall. I just don’t know how we’re going to do it with this band of lazy, out-of-shape slobs.”
“What if you had two extra warriors?” Selene suggested.
“Are you offering to help?”
Selene looked up at Brynjolf, who shrugged. “Sure, why not? I’m Brynjolf, and this is Selene.”
“I am Bujold, the leader of these layabouts.” She stood up and called out to the others. “Hey, you lazy milk-drinkers, get over here!” The Nords started to wander slowly over to the fire. “You’re already starting to settle in here and let those Rieklings have our mead hall. But we belong in Thirsk, not camped here on the shore. All I had to do was mention our little infestation to these outsiders, and they volunteered in a second. They have more fire than any of you! I want to show them that we still have spirit. Now, let’s get up there and kill us some Rieklings!”
At first, the Nords looked at Selene and Brynjolf like they had horns, but after a moment they started moving back to their tents. They emerged armed, armored, and more enthusiastic than before. When they were all gathered, Bujold issued a battle cry and started up the hill at a dead run. The Nords followed her, and Selene and Brynjolf brought up the rear.
Bujold had called the problem at Thirsk Mead Hall an infestation, and Selene understood what she meant. The place was crawling with Rieklings. The party charged in, still capable warriors even after being softened up by years of complacency, at least against the Rieklings. The eight of them took out seventeen of the little men, inside and out of the mead hall, in just a few minutes with only minor injuries. As soon as everyone was patched up, one of the women started going around and collecting all of the Rieklings’ spears.
“What are you doing?” Brynjolf asked her.
“I’m going to display these in and around the mead hall as a continuous reminder of what happened here. We need to strengthen ourselves and stay strong, lest this happen again. If you fight any more Rieklings in your travels, bring me their spears. The more the better.”
Bujold approached Selene. “That was almost exhilarating! How about you?”
“Oh, I love a good fight.”
“I need a warrior like you to be my second. Will you come with me?”
“Where are you going?”
“Hrothmund the Red founded Thirsk Mead Hall when he took a group and left the Skaal. Each new leader receives his blessing when he or she takes power. I’ve received it in the past, but now that we have retaken the hall, I need to get it again. It should be an easy quest, but I need a witness, and…well, you see the kind of horker-brains around here. What do you say?”
Selene wanted to say, “You should have more respect for your people, you pompous bitch.” Instead she said, “I wish we could, but we’re on a quest of our own. The All-Maker’s stones have been corrupted by Miraak, and Brynjolf and I are cleansing them. The people of Solstheim have been enslaved, so the mission must take priority.”
“I understand. Would that these layabouts had your ambition! Well, the Beast Stone is just up the hill and around the bend. Good luck in your quest, and thank you for your help today. If we can repay you, you need but to ask.”
They left the mead hall and headed up the hill to the Beast Stone, which was guarded by a cultist, who attacked with an ice spike spell. After Selene fired a couple of arrows at the mage, Brynjolf was able to work his way past the ice spikes and finish him off with the sword. Two Rieklings worked on the temple, and when Selene cleansed the stone, they awoke to help them with the Lurker.
“Damn it,” Brynjolf cursed as he dodged the tentacles and inky acid the creature spat. “We’re going to have to fight one of these at every stone, aren’t we?”
Selene fired an arrow at its head. “Most likely.”
They managed to get through the battle without injury, and as soon as the Lurker was dead, the two Rieklings ran into the woods. Brynjolf started to pursue them, but Selene shook her head. “Let them go,” she moaned. “They helped us kill that thing, and I’m tired.”
They went back to the mead hall, where Bujold gave them food and a bed for the night. Brynjolf helped the Nords clean up while Selene rested. Hilund, the woman who was collecting spears, knelt next to her.
“You’re very pale. Are you sure you weren’t injured?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m just exhausted. I’m pregnant, and I think Rowan is telling me I pushed myself too hard today.”
Hilund reached out and touched Selene’s stomach, and Selene realized she was going to have to get used to that. Whenever she said she was having a child, people always wanted to touch her belly. “Best wishes to you and your child. I’ll let you get some sleep.”
When they left the next morning, Brynjolf sighed with relief. “That’s quite a group,” he muttered. “Even after everything we went through yesterday, most of them would still rather sit around and drink and tell stories. Bujold’s not much of a leader. Mostly she just grouses at them. They turn to Kuvar for their real needs.”
“Kuvar. The one with the Mohawk?”
“Aye. He’s married to Bujold. He’s a much better leader, or he would be if she would let him.”
They passed the snowline shortly after they left Thirsk, and for a while the terrain was actually covered with lush, green grass. It wasn’t long, though, before the grasslands gave way to the sandy ash and rock they had grown used to. The air was dry and powdery with a faint, smoky scent, and more ash from the Red Mountain was drifting to the ground. They passed an occasional dragon skeleton on the way, and as they neared the southern shore they began to encounter giant, house-size mushrooms. The largest was Tel Mithryn, which was at least a hundred feet high and could be seen for miles. Storn had told them Tel Mithryn was hollow and the wizard Neloth made his home there. It stood amongst several others where his household staff lived.
Selene and Brynjolf fully intended to visit the wizard to ask for his help with the Black Books, but they weren’t here for Neloth today. The Sun Stone, which stood in the shadow of the great structure, was their focus this afternoon. A handful of bandits slaved on the temple surrounding the glowing stone, and they were less enthusiastic about helping Selene and Brynjolf fight the Lurker than the Rieklings had been. They were getting better at it, though, having taken on several by now and learned how they fought, and they managed to kill it on their own. They both sustained wounds requiring stitches, and the bandits stood around and asked questions as they healed each other.
“What happened?” a male Dunmer in bonemold armor asked. “Why were we building that temple? What was that creature?”
“That was a Lurker,” Selene told him as Brynjolf treated a gash she had sustained when she’d hit her head after a tentacle had tripped her. “They guard the standing stones, and they’re a bitch to fight. A little help wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. As for why you were building the temple, you were enslaved by Miraak, a dragon priest who is trying to come to Nirn from Oblivion and take over the world.”
A couple of the bandits laughed, evidently not believing her.
“Thank you for saving us, then.” The Dunmer in the bonemold pulled a dagger. “Now you can give us your possessions.”
Selene and Brynjolf looked at each other and chuckled. “You have to be kidding,” said Brynjolf. “Weren’t you paying attention just now?”
“Aye, but there are more of us than there are of you, plus you’re injured. I’d say our odds are a lot better.”
“Brynjolf, would you stand back, love?” Brynjolf stepped behind Selene, and she Shouted, “Yol Toor!” The dark elf screamed and wheeled about, flesh and hair blazing. He dropped to the ground and shrieked until he couldn’t shriek anymore, leaving little more than a charred husk. “Anybody else?” Selene asked the others.
They wisely began to wander away.
Selene and Brynjolf camped by the Sun Stone and headed to Raven Rock the next morning. They arrived in the afternoon to find the temple almost complete and the whole town working on it. Selene cleansed the stone, and Glover and four guards helped her and Brynjolf make short work of the Lurker. Another appeared on the beach, and they rushed over and killed it as well. They were much easier to kill with six armed warriors and a pissed-off ex-thief slashing away at them.
“What happened?” Glover asked, echoing the words of most everyone they had free from the stones. “I feel…different, more myself. But I don’t know how I got out here.”
“Come on, Glover,” said Brynjolf, placing a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll buy you a drink and tell you all about it.”
They spent the night in Raven Rock and headed north up the beach the next morning. About halfway to the Water Stone, a man in rags came running up to them.
“The secrets! They’re in my head. I can’t get them out!” He grabbed Selene’s arms and regarded her with a maniacal expression on his face. “I know things. Hidden things. Things you aren’t supposed to know.”
“Um, are you all right?”
“No! That’s the point! I can’t get the secrets out of my head.”
“What kind of secrets?”
“The secret kind!” he scoffed.
Selene pried herself from the madman’s embrace. “Do you want to tell them to me?”
First he nodded; then he shook his head. “You don’t want to know them. The Black Book, it shoved them in there with black, slick fingers! But my fingers are too short and I can’t get them out now.”
“You found a Black Book?” Brynjolf asked. “Where?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t find it; it found me! It found me in Benkongerike. I just wanted the treasure. I didn’t want the secrets. And you don’t, either. You don’t!” He stared off into space and wandered away, muttering to himself about secrets.
Selene looked up at her husband. “Another Black Book. We can pick it up while we’re here and take it with us to Neloth.”
Brynjolf closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
“Brynjolf, you know we have to read them. I can’t fight Miraak here, and reading the Black Books should send me to Apocrypha.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.” He drew a quivering breath. “We lost a child last time you went to Apocrypha, and I almost lost you. We can’t know the same thing isn’t going to happen again. Now we find this man who has gone completely mad because of a Black Book. I think I’m going to die just a little bit every time you read one, Selene.”
Selene stepped closer to him and took his face in her hands, kissing him softly. “Let’s see what Neloth has to say about them. Maybe he can give some insight about how I can protect myself better while I’m there.”
“Agreed,” he sighed with resignation.
They found the Water Stone up a short hill from the beach, where a ship was docked just offshore and two dinghies were parked in the sand. A cultist guarded the stone, and Selene took him out with a couple of arrows before cleansing the stone. Three of the four Nords helped her and Brynjolf kill the Lurker, but before they could start asking questions, a dragon appeared over the hill and attacked.
“Help!” one of the Nords cried, and they all ducked behind rocks and carts to hide from the beast.
Selene and Brynjolf had a time of it because of the rocky terrain. She would Shout Dragonrend at it and it would land, but it would drop too far down the hill or on the other side of a ridge and recover and take flight before she and Brynjolf reached it. Then it would hover overhead and spit fire at them. She finally got it to land nearby, and she and Brynjolf were able to take it out.
As the dragon began to disintegrate, Miraak appeared next to Selene. She couldn’t see his face behind his mask, but she just knew he had a smug grin as he said, “This dragon’s soul belongs to me. One step closer to my return.” He disappeared with a flash, and Selene snarled and stomped her feet with fury.
“I am so sick of that bastard!” she growled.
“I know,” said Brynjolf, “but we’re one step closer to defeating him. This was the last stone.”
She looked over at the Nords, who were approaching and beginning to ask questions, and rolled her eyes. Ignoring them, she pulled a bone and scale from the dragon while Brynjolf answered their queries. After a while, they left the area and headed back to their dinghies, and Selene looked up at Brynjolf. “Benkongerike?”
Brynjolf nodded with a heavy sigh, and they headed toward the ruin.