5E 20, 26 Sun’s Height
Ben took the time to enchant a black hood to give himself some protection from the sun; and he, Rowan, and their parents set out for Riften the next day. Since Odahviing couldn’t carry four people, Selene and Brynjolf borrowed horses. Ben teased his father, who was in his mid-fifties, about such a long journey on horseback.
“Are you sure your bones can handle the ride, old man?”
“I can still kick your arse, little boy, especially during the day. You’re in a weakened state till sundown, so you’d better watch your mouth. I haven’t turned you over my knee since you were ten, but that doesn’t mean I won’t still do it.”
Ben chuckled, happy to be spending time with his ma and da. Leaving Serana had been difficult, but not as difficult as the tearful goodbye between Rowan and Dolff. He really felt for them, being separated again so soon after reuniting. Selene tried to get Rowan’s mind off of him, but in Ben’s view, she picked a poor topic.
“All right, little ones,” Ma said, “we want to hear all about your time in Coldharbour.”
He understood why she asked, but that didn’t mean he wanted to talk about it. “It was cold, dark, and scary,” he said coolly. “That’s about it.”
“Uh-huh. Try again.”
“It was rough, Mama,” Rowan admitted. “We’ve never been through anything like that before. I guess we’re still coming to grips with what happened to us.”
Ben shrugged. “At least we’re out of it. Now we can move on.”
“Easier said than done,” Da remarked.
With some prodding, Selene got more of the story from Rowan, but Ben tried his best to stay out of the conversation. Having to put up with nightmares was bad enough; he didn’t want to relive what had happened when he was awake.
They stopped to rest at sundown, just east of the Aalto. While the others settled down for the night, Ben went hunting. A keep at the southern tip of the volcanic flats was a notorious bandit hideout, and he figured he could probably find a sentry outside to feed on. He was in luck and found just such a guard, and though every fiber of his being told him to kill the guy—he was a bandit, after all—he took only what he needed and left him dazed but alive. He and his family were resting nearby, and he wouldn’t take the chance that the bandits would track them down and attack them in the night. They could handle such an onslaught, he was certain, but there was no use courting disaster.
When he returned to the campsite, Rowan and Da were sound asleep, and Ma was sitting by the fire. “Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked.
“Easy as pie.”
“Have a seat.” She patted the ground next to her, and Ben sat down.
“If you want to get some rest, I’ll keep watch,” he told her.
Selene shook her head. “I may rest a bit later, but I’m long used to only getting two or three hours of sleep a night. The beast blood doesn’t let me rest much more than that.”
“I never understood that growing up, but I kind of get it now. I mean, not that being a vampire keeps me awake, but other things.”
“So you’re having nightmares too?”
“It’s really not that big a deal, Ma. I think it would be strange if I didn’t have nightmares. But otherwise, I’m dealing okay. Besides, Rowan and I have each other, and we can commiserate. Nobody else can understand anyway, except for maybe Coranil.”
“But Rowan says you’re not commiserating. She said you won’t talk about it at all.”
Selene chuckled, then took his hand. “Look at me, little boy.”
“Ma, you know I hate it when you call me that.”
“You will be my little boy when you’re a hundred. Now, look at me.” Ben met her eyes, and she said, “You can’t do this on your own, sweetheart. True, I can’t understand exactly what you went through, but I have seen a lot of pain and anguish in my day, and I know that ignoring it is not going to make it go away. You should be feeling grief, anger, anxiety—something—and you need to let that out or you’ll never heal.”
“I don’t need to heal. Rowan needs to heal, and I need to be strong for her.”
“And there it is. That was easier than I thought.”
“Ben, you can be strong and still grieve. To say what you’ve been through is traumatic is a gross understatement. You do need to heal, and the only way you’re going to do that is to let it out.”
He looked away, but she reached up and turned his head back toward her. “We did this when you were growing up, remember? You would be upset about something that had happened with Rowan or one of the children in town, and I would have to pry it out of you. But you always felt better afterward.”
This wasn’t fair. Growing up, he could never lie to her and could never get away with mischief, and he certainly couldn’t brood for long, because one look in her eyes and he crumbled. Well, he wasn’t going to crumble this time. He couldn’t. She could tell him to let it out all she wanted, but if he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
“No, Ma. I’m not . . . I’m not ready to . . .”
He swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut, but it did no good. In an instant, he ceased to be a mage, an adventurer, a man, and was once again a scared little boy seeking shelter in his mother’s arms. Everything he had been ignoring, all the pain and anguish and the gods-awful terror, rushed to the surface and exploded. “Oh, Mama,” he whimpered as he laid his head in her lap and bawled.
Selene wrapped her arms around him and whispered words of comfort. “You’re safe now, my baby. Just let it out.”
“I’ve never been so scared, so hopeless,” he sobbed. “When she was done with us, she was going to send us to Molag Bal, and it would be a hundred times worse, and we were going to be there forever. The things she did—and the things she threatened to do—gods, Mama. And as bad as it was for me, watching Rowan go through it was—she hurt her so bad, and I couldn’t protect her.”
“You’re so much like your father,” she cooed. “No matter what you’re going through yourself, you’re more worried about the others. You’re so protective of her, even though she’s just as strong as you are. Brynjolf was the same with me, and he found it so frustrating that he couldn’t always protect me. He brooded about it for weeks before I finally pried it out of him. Are you ready to talk about what this Dremora did?”
“Just what Rowan told you,” he said, sitting up and wiping his eyes. “She stripped us naked and starved us or gave us foul blood, and she cut on us, burned our feet, made us watch while she hurt the other. That was the worst, watching what she did to Ro. But she threatened—well, promised, really—to do so much more. Things you can’t imagine.” With that, the tears came afresh and he laid his head back down and wept some more.
“My sweet baby,” Selene whispered as she held him. She was trembling, crying along with him.
He sat up and swiped a thumb across her cheek, wiping her tears. “I’m sorry,” he sniffled.
“Making you cry.”
“Nonsense. No parent wants to hear of her child’s suffering, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be here for you. I just wish I could have protected you. I’d have gone in your place if I could have.”
“A werewolf instead of a vampire? I can’t imagine what they’d have done to you there.”
He heard stirring in the tent, and after a moment, his da stuck his head out. “Everything all right?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he sat down next to Ben and wrapped his arms around him.
Ben held him too but refused to break down again. This was a much-needed catharsis, but he would die before he made his da cry. He’d seen it a few times growing up, and it was heart-rending. “Aye, Da, it’s all right now.”
“Of course it’s not all right,” said Selene, laying a gentle hand on his back. “It won’t be all right for a while; we know that. But maybe this helped a bit.”
“Why don’t you lie down and get some rest,” Da suggested. “I’ll stay out here with your ma until she’s ready to turn in.”
“Okay.” He got up and ducked into the tent, lying down on one of the two bedrolls. Rowan lay next to him, pretending to sleep. “I know you’re awake,” he murmured. “Why didn’t you come out?”
“Because that was for you and Mama and Daddy. You and I can have our own good cry later.”
“I love you, sis.”
“I love you too. Hey, do you know what happens in a couple of days?”
“We get fancy new armor like Mama’s and Daddy’s!”
Ben chuckled. “You always loved their Nightingale armor.”
“So did you.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Now, go back to sleep.”
Ben closed his eyes. He didn’t expect to sleep, much less sleep well, but when he next opened his eyes the quality of the light and shadows had changed. It was early morning, not quite dawn, and Rowan was up with Ma and Da, eating breakfast. He stepped out of the tent and sat down with them, picking a piece of bacon off Rowan’s plate.
“Hey! Get your own! Or drink a blood potion. Some of us have to eat, you know.”
“Why don’t you make yourself useful and break down the tent?”
“Ma! Are you gonna let her talk to me like that?”
“I certainly am,” his mother said. “You’re all grown up now; you don’t need me to fight your battles for you.”
Da just laughed.
Ben rolled up the bedrolls and broke down the tent while his family finished breakfast and packed up the rest of the camp, and they got on the road before sunrise. He enjoyed the ride south much more than the previous day, and he supposed he did feel better after last night. No, his nightmares weren’t gone, and no, everything wasn’t all right, but maybe a healing process he hadn’t even realized he’d needed had begun, and everything would be all right eventually.
* * *
They arrived in Riften two days later and stopped in the Cistern to check in and pick Karliah up before heading out the south gate and making their way to Nightingale Hall. Rowan was prickling with anticipation. They had never been allowed into the Nightingales’ sanctuary, and she couldn’t wait to see what she had been missing. She should have expected to be disappointed.
Aside from a lavishly appointed living area where Karliah and Rune made their home, it was really just a big, well-lit cave. “I thought it would be more . . . I don’t know—”
“Upscale?” Brynjolf suggested. “Because the Cistern is so extravagantly decorated, right?”
“Don’t make fun of me, Daddy.”
“You know we don’t parade our wealth for all to see. We might run Riften, but that’s no reason to flaunt it. We have to maintain some measure of secrecy.”
“That being said,” said Karliah, “did your parents explain the duties of the Nightingales to you?”
Ben nodded. “Protect the Twilight Sepulcher and the Skeleton Key in life and for twenty-five years after.”
“Yes, but there’s more. At one time, we existed only in rumor and shadow. Those days are long gone, but like the Guild, we also maintain a measure of secrecy.”
“Nocturnal calls on us from time to time to protect the Sepulcher in ways we hadn’t even thought of,” said their ma, “and there will likely be things you will have to keep from Dolff, Serana, and other friends and loved ones.”
“We’re operatives for the Crown—the jarl,” Rowan said, correcting herself. “We’re used to that.”
The veteran Nightingales led them to a small room with three stone pedestals bearing the Nightingale symbol. Two of the pedestals gave off a faint glow.
“Touch the symbol,” said Karliah.
Rowan and Ben each touched one of the glowing symbols, and a drawer holding Nightingale armor popped open out of solid rock. She smiled as she pulled the cuirass out of the drawer. “Been waiting for this for a long time,” she mused.
“Well, put it on,” said her mama.
She and Ben changed out of their old armor and put on the new leathers, which magically molded to their bodies. “Who made it?” she asked.
Selene shrugged. “Nocturnal, I guess. I never thought to ask before. Shall we?”
Rowan and Ben followed the others down a hallway to a large chamber with three platforms connected to a larger, central one by short footbridges. “You two stand on the western circle,” Mama said, and she and her father went to the eastern circle while Karliah took the middle. Rowan and her brother did as they were bidden.
Karliah raised her arms and spoke. “Nocturnal, Queen of Murk, Mistress of Shadow, we call upon you.”
First a blue nimbus appeared over the large platform, and then a beautiful, scantily dressed woman materialized. A black bird perched on each of her outstretched arms.
“Wow,” Ben whispered.
Nocturnal nodded to the older Nightingales and then turned to Rowan and Ben. “Are you ready to take the oath, then?” she asked without preamble.
“Aye,” said Rowan.
“Aye,” Ben echoed.
“It is very simple, really. Do you vow to protect the Twilight Sepulcher in life and in death, until I see fit to release you?”
Ben shook his head. “The deal was twenty-five years, wasn’t it?”
The Daedric Prince chuckled. “Very good.”
“It was a test,” Brynjolf said. “She does that.”
“Yes,” said Nocturnal, “you will defend the Twilight Sepulcher for twenty-five years after your death, at which time you are free to take your own path. Do you so promise?”
“We do,” Ben and Rowan said in unison.
“Then the deal is struck. I hereby name you Nightingales.” She turned to their parents. “I believe I owe you some information.”
“Aye, our lady,” said Selene.
“The Coat of Storms can only be destroyed with dragon fire.”
“We can manage that.”
“A Dragonborn’s dragon fire.”
“Still. Not a problem.”
“It will not be as easy as you would like it to be, Selene. Obviously Mephala made this collection with you in mind. You have a dragon fire Shout, but one will not be enough. There are four of you now, yes? You, your children, and that other vampire—Beatrice or something.”
“Blanche,” Selene corrected her.
“Yes, Blanche. The four of you must take the artifacts to a place of great magic and burn them with your dragon fire.”
“Is there a particular place?” Ben asked.
Nocturnal swung her head around and peered at him. “You do not fear me at all, do you?”
With a shrug, he said, “I didn’t feel like I needed to. Should I?”
Again, Nocturnal chuckled at him. “You are much like your father. Yes, you should fear me, although I do not believe knowing that will make a difference. As for a place of magic, there are a few locations in Skyrim from which to choose. The first is the College of Winterhold; another is the peak of the Throat of the World. Skuldafn and Labyrinthian round out the list. But know this: when all the pieces are together, the Coat of Storms is a living entity, and it will not take kindly to attempts to sunder it.”
“Are you saying it will fight back?” Selene asked.
“I am indeed. You should protect yourselves against fire—especially the vampires—and other types of magical attacks. The immediate area will likely take damage as well.”
“Just the sword flattened a village,” Ben remarked.
Nocturnal looked over at Rowan. “You have been much quieter than your brother, but I had heard you were the one gifted with speech. Have you nothing to add?”
“I’m, uh, a little . . . intimidated,” she stammered. “But he’s right. We used the sword in Coldharbour, and the blast was unbelievable.”
“I would expect no less now. Prepare yourselves well, Nightingales, and you may survive. If not, well, I look forward to seeing your spirits in the Twilight Sepulcher.”
With that, she dissipated into blue mist and vanished.
“Well,” said Brynjolf as he and Selene crossed the bridge to the center, “I guess that’s that.”
“‘That’s that’?” Rowan countered as they met up. “That’s all you have to say?”
“That’s better.” She leaned toward him, and he kissed her hair.
Selene took one of Rowan and Ben’s hands in each of hers and said, “I know it sounds strange, but welcome to the family.”
Ben squeezed her hand. “Thanks, Ma.”
Karliah congratulated them as well, and then said, “We’re not finished yet. We must take the portal to the Twilight Sepulcher, and you must choose your path.”
Again, Rowan and Ben followed the veterans, this time through a circle of purplish light to a round room with a font in the center, which was flanked by three circles depicting moon phases. Karliah explained the different paths—the Agents of Shadow, Strife, and Subterfuge. Rowan chose Subterfuge, which she figured would help her persuade others or when she was questioning someone for information; and Ben chose Strife, which had a sort of vampiric effect. It was good knowing they could change by stepping on a different circle if they wanted to, although neither of them thought it would ever happen. Being master sneaks and possessing spells and potions of invisibility, they had no real need to become Agents of Shadow. Besides, the Twilight Sepulcher—and Nightingale Hall, for that matter—was a bit out of the way from Windhelm.
When they had finished choosing their paths, Selene said, “Now we need to go see Blanche and Farkas.”
* * *
Blanche showed more emotion at the sight of Ben and Rowan in Nightingale armor than she did at the prospect of Shouting the Coat of Storms back to Oblivion. “I didn’t expect to see this,” she said softly with a quirk of her brow.
“I thought you’d be surprised at my being a vampire,” Ben said.
“I already knew. Serana told me in her letter when she informed me she was going to Windhelm with you.”
“Are you upset?”
“Not at all. If you’re happy, then I am.”
Farkas, however, was more interested in the quest. “It’s not going to be as simple as just Shouting,” he surmised.
“Well, she did say the collection would fight back,” said Selene.
“Fight back?” he echoed. “How do . . . things . . . fight back?”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” said Rowan.
“And the four locations she suggested were the College, the Throat of the World, Labyrinthian and Skuldafn?” Blanche asked.
Selene nodded. “She also indicated that there would be a lot of damage to the surrounding area.”
“Then the College is out. I won’t risk destroying it, or what little is left of Winterhold.”
“Agreed. Skuldafn is all but inaccessible, so that leaves Labyrinthian and the Throat of the World.”
“I think the Throat is best,” Ben said, expecting the grownups to shush him.
But they didn’t. Instead, his ma said, “Why so?”
“Labyrinthian would certainly be easier to get to,” Da pointed out.
“Aye, but there’s more to damage there,” Ben argued. “There are a lot of buildings and tons of crumbling stone, and if what we saw when we used the sword is any indication, that means a lot of flying debris. Sounds like we’re going to be in enough danger without having to worry about getting hit by a big rock. Plus, you have trolls to deal with too.”
Selene regarded Blanche, who shrugged. “Makes sense to me.”
“I’m going with you,” Farkas announced.
“What about the children?”
“Sofie can watch them. This sounds dangerous, and you’ll need me there.”
“Oh, no,” said Selene. “If we do this, it’s just going to be the four of us. I won’t take the chance on you all getting hurt.”
“Do you really believe you can keep us from going?” Brynjolf challenged her.
Selene rolled her eyes. “You men are impossible. Well, you can at least go as far as Ivarstead with us, and then we’ll talk about it.”
“They can stay in Ivarstead with Dolff,” Rowan said, “because I don’t see us being able to keep him in Windhelm.”
“He has to stay,” said Ben. “He’s Jarl now; he’s going to have to get used to it.”
“He’s also stubborn, hotheaded, and not thinking clearly when it comes to the Coat of Storms.”
“Probably wouldn’t do for us to lock him up in the dungeon, eh?”
His sister chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure that would go over well. Ralof would just let him out.”
“We’ll do what we can to get him to stay,” said Selene. “For now, I think we have a plan.”
“When do we leave?” Brynjolf asked.
“Sunset tomorrow,” said Blanche.
“Aye,” Ben said with a smirk. “The creatures of the night outnumber you daywalkers on this trip.”
“Oh, gods,” Rowan moaned. “You’re really going to be insufferable with this vampire thing, aren’t you?”
“‘Vampire thing’? I’ll remind you, big sister, that you were a vampire yourself not long ago.”
“Vampires, Nightingales,” Farkas chuckled. “Anything else you’ve been up to that we should know about?”
“Dolff asked me to marry him,” Rowan told him.
Farkas shook his head vehemently. “Nope. You’re still just a little girl. You can’t get married till you’re at least forty.”
The levity continued for a while before they turned back to the more serious matter of destroying the collection, and Ben came to realize that although the others joked about them still being kids, none of them really believed it anymore. They had never really treated them like children, but in cases where big decisions were involved, they had never allowed him and Rowan much input. But things had changed. He and his sister were Dragonborn, Nightingales, experienced warriors who had gone to Oblivion and back, and they were as much a part of this conversation as the others. Funny, he didn’t feel much like a grownup, especially after crying like a baby a few nights ago.
Fighting the Coat of Storms was daunting, but he was in good company, and they thought of him as an equal—or close to it, anyway. With that thought, he smiled. Rowan noticed and smiled back at him, and he realized she had come to the same conclusion. They were all grown up now.