Ma would probably kill him herself if she knew he was traveling without a companion, but Ben set out alone from Winterhold the next day. When she admonished him about it and he arrived in Whiterun without incident three days later, he would say, “See? Nothing bad happened.” She’d never believe him. But it was true; he had a fairly uneventful trip from Winterhold to Whiterun.
Okay, except for the bear. But it wasn’t like he’d never killed a bear before.
And those bandits. But she and Da had taught him well. He snuck by them, and they never even knew he was there.
Besides, he knew she had traveled alone when she was younger. In fact, she had lived alone, out in the wilds, for years. What was the difference?
Ben arrived in Whiterun mid-morning and made his way through town, up the stairs to the Wind District, and through the big doors of Jorrvaskr. He’d been here before, of course; the Companions were family. He hadn’t been here since Rowan had joined, though, and he couldn’t wait to see her again. He missed his sister.
She was the first person he saw when he walked in. She was sitting at one end of the big, U-shaped table, wearing the leather and dragon bone armor Ma had made for her and talking quietly with some guy. In fact, she was talking a little too quietly with him and didn’t even look up when Ben came in.
Vilkas, did look up, however, and he greeted him warmly, getting up from his seat at the other end of the table and coming up the stairs with his arms out. “Ben!” he called as he embraced him. “It’s good to see you, lad!”
“You, too, Uncle.”
“Ready to join us?”
Rowan looked up at the mention of his name, and when she saw him she squealed and rocketed out of her chair. She vaulted over the steps and patted Vilkas on the shoulder. “All right, Uncle, it’s my turn.” When Vilkas let go, she wrapped her arms around Ben and hugged him tightly.
Her friend came up the steps behind her and ceased to be “some guy.” It was Dolff Stormcloak.
“What are you doing here?” Rowan asked him as she pulled back.
“I came to visit my big sister. And see if you wanted to run an errand with me.”
“What kind of errand?”
“The kind where we enter a fort crawling with rogue mages to get back some books that were stolen from the college.”
“Ooh, sounds fun. Uncle?”
“It’s fine,” said Vilkas. He clapped Ben on the shoulder and went back to his breakfast.
Dolff stepped up behind Rowan, but before Ben could greet him, Rowan said, “Ben, this is my friend, Dagur Ice-Shield. Dagur, my brother Ben.”
“Good to meet you, Ben,” Dolff said as if they’d never met.
Ben could take a hint. He held a hand out for “Dagur” to shake. “Aye, you, too. What brings you to Whiterun, Dagur?”
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to join the Companions.”
He had. It had been his dream since they were lads. But Ben never thought Ulfric would actually allow him to do so. But here he was, wearing wolf armor and using a false name. And what was more, he was resting his hand on the small of Rowan’s back.
“You two, uh, get to know each other while I go pack. How far are we going?”
“Fellglow Keep, just north of here. Less than a day’s walk.”
“Great.” She reached up and kissed Ben on the cheek, then squeezed Dolff’s hand as she walked away.
“Come in, sit down,” Dolff urged him. He led Ben to the seat Rowan had occupied. “So how are you faring at the College of Winterhold?” Before Ben could answer, the only person within earshot walked away, and Dolff leaned in, grinned, and whispered, “Surprise.”
“I can’t believe your da let you come!” he replied softly.
“It was a battle for the ages, believe me.”
“At Jorrvaskr, just Rowan and Vilkas. So how are you faring at the college?”
“I love it. I’m learning a lot, and I’m actually being allowed to work on a major project. And the women are . . . not what you’d expect at a college full of mages.”
“Still girl crazy, are you?” Ben shrugged in response. “So you’re getting busy, then—sorry, keeping busy.”
“Aye, that, too.”
“What’s this major project?”
“We found a giant orb in a Nordic ruin, and I’m helping with research.”
“Getting back stolen books is research?”
“Okay, I suppose it’s grunt work. Or maybe ‘hired thug’ type work. There will probably be fighting. I was just glad to get to come south for a few days and see my sister. And speaking of getting busy, what are you doing with her?”
“What makes you think I’m doing anything with her?” Dolff asked innocently.
“Oh, I don’t know, the way you were talking when I came in, your hand on her back, her taking your hand before she walked away.”
“You still don’t miss a thing, do you?”
He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “Dolff, you’re one of my closest friends, and I love you like a brother. But if you hurt my sister, I’ll melt you from the inside out.”
“Can you do that?”
“Your sister is a big girl, Ben. She can take care of herself, believe me. But I have no intention of hurting her.”
Rowan came up the stairs with her bow, two swords, and a knapsack. She stopped next to Vilkas and said goodbye, then walked over to Ben.
“I have to stop at the General Goods Store before we leave town,” she said.
“Well, whenever you’re ready.”
She walked around Ben and stood next to Dolff’s chair, and he stood up. “I’ll see you in a few days,” she cooed.
“Take care, and fight well,” he said softly.
“I will.” She reached up and kissed him, and Dolff had the good sense to look embarrassed. She bounded up the stairs and out the door, and Ben patted Dolff amiably on the shoulder and followed her out.
“So,” he said as they descended the steps. “You and—”
“I thought you hated each other. You always did when we were growing up.”
“Is it serious?”
“Well, I’m not going to go out and pick up an Amulet of Mara anytime soon, if that’s what you’re asking. But it’s nice.” She led him to the General Goods Store in the center of town.
Ben remembered Belethor from when he was a child, but the Breton was no longer there. The new owner was Altmer, and he looked at Rowan like he knew way too much about her.
“Coranil, this is my brother Ben. Ben, this is Coranil.”
“It’s a pleasure, Ben. I’ve heard much about you.”
“Have you, now?”
“I was stopping in to see if you had managed to get that circlet,” said Rowan.
“Yes, I have, actually.” He reached beneath the counter and pulled out a silver circlet with a gleaming moonstone in the center. It gave off a faint glow of magic.
“Oh, you enchanted it!” Rowan said as she took it from him.
“Yes, it will improve your archery and protect you from fire. Seems you’re always getting burned, doesn’t it?”
“Cor, thank you. How much?”
“I told you I wouldn’t charge you for it.”
“But this is too much. It’s not a fair trade.”
“I assure you, love, it’s more than fair.”
Rowan slipped the circlet under her bangs and lowered it onto her forehead. “How’s it look?”
“It brings out your eyes.”
With a giggle, she said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to pay for it?”
“You already have,” he replied pointedly.
“Okay, okay, fine. Ben, do you need anything before we go?”
“Where are you off to?” the Altmer asked.
Coranil furrowed his brow. “Truly, now?”
“Why?” Rowan asked.
“The mages from Fellglow Keep come into the shop every now and again. They’re purporting themselves to be a small magic college, but more is going on there than a few classes. I do know they’re teaching necromancy. I’ve heard them discussing their experiments, and I believe vampires may be involved.”
“How so?” Ben asked with concern.
“From their conversations, I would say they were experimenting on the vampires.”
The comment made Ben’s blood boil. Vampire problems were rare in Skyrim. A few powerful vampires policed the rest, and most of them kept to themselves and caused very little trouble. Even when they did, taking down a rogue vampire and using them for magical experiments were two different things.
Rowan placed a hand on his arm. “You okay?”
“You know how I feel about it.”
“Well, if they are experimenting on vampires, we’ll take care of it. Cor, do you know anything else about them?”
“It’s safe to expect ten, perhaps fifteen mages, so you’ll want to proceed with caution.”
“What do you mean? I’m the very soul of caution.”
“Yes, and I’m a Breton maiden. Be careful, Rowan.”
Ben couldn’t help chuckling. “I’ll keep her in line,” he assured the elf.
They said goodbye and left the shop.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Get it over with.”
“I can see that I’m going to have to leave the college a year early and join the Companions just to keep an eye on you. You have something going with him too?”
“Had. We’re just friends now.”
“Maybe you are.”
Rowan stopped in the middle of the street and placed her hands on her hips. “Why don’t we talk about your love life, huh?”
“What? I have no love life.”
“I know you, little brother, and I don’t believe that for a second. So just mind your own business, okay?” She started walking again, and Ben rushed to catch up with her.
“I’m just looking out for my big sister.”
“You’re being a pain, is what you’re doing. I’m the oldest; I’m supposed to look after you, remember?”
“I thought we looked after each other.”
As they walked through Whiterun’s gates and started up the road, she chuckled. “Do you know how weird it feels to be talking about sex with you?”
“So you are sleeping with Dolff.”
“No! Not . . . not yet. We’re taking things slow. So what about you?”
“Well, there’s this one Altmer. Her name is Faralda. She’s an instructor.”
“I think you’d like her.”
“Is it serious?”
“Nah, we’re just having a good time.”
They turned northward at Black-Briar Meadery West as the sun hit its peak in the sky. The conversation dropped off, and Ben began to think about the mages at Fellglow Keep. From what Coranil had said, it seemed like they might have a decent fight on their hands.
“Hey, Ben?” Rowan said after a while.
“Have you ever killed a person?”
“Aye. Blanche and I were attacked by bandits on the way to the college. Why?”
“Because I just wanted you to be prepared.”
“Don’t worry, Ro. I’ve already been through the nausea and self-loathing stage. I’ll do what I have to do. If they’re experimenting on vampires, it’ll just make it that much easier.”
“Still thinking of becoming one?”
“Thinking about it, but it’s not something you jump into without extensive consideration. I’m only seventeen, and I have a lot of living to do.”
“You’ve talked to Blanche?”
“Aye, and she’s all for it. But I need to talk to a vampire who’s against it before I made any decisions. And I’m sure Ma and Da will want grandchildren.”
They found the fort up a steep slope near a shrine of Talos just after sunset and had to fight two mages and an atronach on a tower south of the main keep. Rowan shot a flaming arrow at one of the mages, who retaliated with fire of his own, and Ben was glad his sister was wearing the fire protection gear because the blast hit her head on. She was fine, though; she just swore and shot another arrow at him.
Ben took the other one, who charged him with a sword. He threw up a ward and swung his blade at her, missing her by less than an inch.
“You will die this night,” she snarled as she jabbed her weapon at him. She was inexperienced and the move was awkward, and Ben blocked easily and came back around for another hit with his own sword, slicing deeply into her side. She fell to the ground and died with a groan.
Rowan had just sent an arrow at the atronach, but unfortunately all the arrows she had were fire enchanted. The arrows themselves did damage, but the magic was wasted. Ben hurled a Freeze spell at the atronach, and she fell to the ground and exploded. Ben wasn’t much into the Conjuration school, but he thought he would like to be able to summon a flame atronach. They were pretty and graceful—at least when they weren’t attacking him.
Just past the atronach, they found a flight of stairs that led to an underground entrance. Once inside, they trudged through partly submerged ruins. They entered a room that was hip-deep in water and found a mage standing on a balcony with two frostbite spiders.
“Ah, new test subjects. Go, my pets! Attack!”
Rowan squealed as the spiders came down the stairs at them, but her arrow shot true, and the first spider went legs up in the water. Ben took the other one out with a firebolt, then exchanged lightning with the mage as Rowan dashed up the stairs and out of the sizzling water. His robes protected him from shock damage, but he still took a couple of painful burns on his chest chest before he managed to drop the wizard.
Rowan used a Become Ethereal Shout and went through a lightning rune and into a dungeon where a mage was waiting with a Freeze spell. She dodged the spell and put an arrow between the sorceress’s eyes, and they entered the room to find three vampires locked in the cages.
“Hold on,” Ben told one of the vampires. “I’m going to get you out.”
“Begone, food,” she snapped.
“Oh, just shut up.” He started to pick the lock, but Rowan tapped him on the shoulder.
“There are levers over there.”
“That’ll help.” Ben went to the wall and threw the levers, and the vampires stepped out. The one who had called him food nodded her thanks as she followed the others through a door into a dimly lit room, where they were attacked by two mages.
“Look out,” one of the mages cried. “The prisoners are loose!”
The room was small to join the fray, so Ben and Rowan stood in the doorway and watched. In the end, both mages and only one of the vampires remained alive. She came over to Ben.
“Why would you help us?” she asked.
“We have friends who are vampires, and I know better than to attack you on sight.”
“Well, you have my thanks, Nord.” She started to leave.
“Wait,” he said. “Can I ask you something?” She looked at him expectantly, and he said, “Do you like being a vampire?”
“Who are you to ask me such a thing?” she huffed.
“I’m someone who’s considering doing it.”
“Well, don’t. It’s a living hell.” Without another word, she walked past him and back through the dungeon.
“Okay, that didn’t help much.”
“Think we should go after her and tell her Falion has a cure?” Rowan asked.
Ben shook his head. “I don’t think she wants our advice.”
Ben and Rowan looked around the room and found three other vampires lying dead on tables. By the marks on their bodies, Ben surmised that the mages were indeed experimenting on them. He growled ominously.
As they continued on, they began to hear the howl of a wolf. They found two of them in a large chamber with three prison cells. An Altmer stood in one of the other cells. “Help!” he cried out, alerting the wizard who was sitting in the living area on the opposite side of the room.
Rowan shot the mage with one of her flaming arrows, and she and Ben approached the cell.
“Thanks for not giving our presence away,” Ben sneered.
“Please! Please let me out of here. They’re going to do something dreadful to me!”
“Are you Orthorn?”
“Yes, yes! Arch-Mage Aren sent you to rescue me, didn’t he?”
“Not at all. Urag sent me for the books you stole.”
“What? The boo—oh, my. I shouldn’t have taken them. It was stupid, and it won’t happen again.”
“Urag wanted me to show you the error of your ways.”
Orthorn’s eyes widened, and he said, “No, no, you have to help me. Please!”
“Where are the books, Orthorn?”
“I don’t have them anymore. The Caller took them.”
“Why are you even in here?” Rowan asked him.
“They threw me in here until they were ready to use me in one of their experiments. This wasn’t supposed to happen; I thought they wanted my help, not to use me as a test subject!”
Rowan looked up at Ben. “Do we let him out or just leave him here to rot?”
Ben gave her a grim smile. “It’s tempting, you know. Let him starve to death after we kill everybody else in the keep.”
“No, no! I can help you! Please!”
“Oh, all right, is there a key?”
“No, it’s the levers in the center of the room. Just make sure you get the right one. And please hurry. I don’t like being in here!”
Ben thought again of his predicament in Saarthal and his da’s story of jail time. He’d had no intention of leaving Orthorn there, of course, but thinking about it now, he felt bad for taunting him. He went to the bank of levers and threw the one that most likely corresponded with the Altmer’s cell. It opened, and Orthorn stepped out.
“Thank you! I promise to help, and then I’ll go back to the college and beg them to let me back in.”
“I seriously doubt they’ll let you back in. You know how Urag is about his books. Now, where are they?”
“The Caller will have them in the ritual chamber.”
“Ben, we can’t just leave the wolves here,” Rowan said softly.
“No, you’re right, just like we could let our friend here starve in his cell.” He drew his sword, as did Rowan, and he threw the lever. The cell door opened and the wolves lunged out, and Ben and Rowan killed them quickly.
Rowan turned to Orthorn. “You should get yourself to safety.”
“Don’t you need my help?”
Ben shook his head. “This will be easier without you getting in the way. Just go.”
“Well, I was only trying to help,” the Altmer huffed. “Fine. I’ll save myself, then. Thank you for letting me out of that cage.” He shouldered past them and went back through the fort.
On the next level down, they found an instructor walking two apprentices through a series of destruction spells. Their backs were to the doorway, and the first apprentice never even knew Rowan was in the room as she fired an arrow into the back of his head. They exchanged projectiles with the other apprentice and the instructor. Farther below that, they entered a hall with several sarcophagi, and two mages working at the far end. Skeletons burst out of the coffins, and the mages hurled frost and lightning spells at them. Ben took the skeletons, and Rowan killed one of the mages, only to see the other one raise his dead body to fight again.
“Necromancers!” she growled. “I hate necromancers!” She shot the second wizard, and the first dissipated into a pile of ash.
They passed through the living quarters and explored several bedrooms, looting dressers and chests and fighting a few mages and atronachs as they went. They finally came to a small amphitheater with two concentric eight-pointed stars in the middle. A pedestal in the center held a book, and a woman in blue robes stood behind it. Two recesses on the wall each held pedestals and books.
“So you’re the ones who barged into my home and laid waste to my projects. How nice to meet you!”
“We’re here for the books from the college,” Ben said.
The sorceress sighed and jutted out a pouty lip. “So you’re just one of Aren’s lackeys? That’s disappointing; you show real promise. But don’t think I’m just going to give you these books. You come in here, kill my assistants, disrupt my work—you’ve annoyed me, so I don’t think I’ll be giving you anything.”
“What were you doing to the vampires?”
“The vampires? Oh, this and that. Who cares? They’re just vampires, worth nothing.”
Rowan grunted, and Ben sneered at the mage. “I don’t have time for this crap. Turn over the books, and maybe I’ll let you live.”
The Caller laughed out loud. “You think you can defeat me? How dare you!” She raised her hands and called lightning spells to them.
Ben dropped his sword and threw up a ward with one hand, shooting Chain Lightning her way with the other. Rowan moved off to the side and began shooting.
The Caller was tough, and she managed to cause both Rowan and Ben a lot of pain before they finally put her down. But in the end, it was two against one and they prevailed. As she fell to the floor, her hood fell away and revealed a fair-haired Altmer with an attractive face. She looked almost sad as her head lolled to the side. It hit Ben like a blow to the gut.
He sat down on the steps of the amphitheater, breathing heavily, his skin stinging where a lightning bolt had ripped at it, trying not to look at the dead mage. His sister came and sat down next to him.
“Sure. ‘Turn over the books, and maybe I’ll let you live’?” She chuckled. “I know you wanted her dead. What if she had turned the books over? Would you have let her live?”
“She wasn’t going to give us the books. We’d done too much damage to her plans, whatever they were, for her to let us live. Do you need to be patched up?”
Rowan shook her head and said, “I enjoyed adventuring with you, little brother. I’m looking forward to when you come join the Companions for real. It’s late. Do you want to rest for a while?”
“Not in here. We can camp outside if you want or just go back to Whiterun. But I don’t want to stay here, Ro.”
“We’ll camp; it’s a long walk back, so we want to be fresh. Hey, are you sure you’re okay?”
“I said I had killed before and I would be fine. And I was, really. Came through this place without a second thought. But the look on her face . . . I mean, I know she would have killed us, so it was us or her. It’s just hard to look at her.”
Rowan rested her arm around his shoulders. “I’m sorry.”
“Eh, I’ll be okay. Let’s just get the books and get out of here.”