Rowan snuggled up to her lover beneath a mountain of furs in the loft over Whiterun’s general goods store. There were actually too many covers for her taste, but he was cold natured and required the extra warmth. He lay on his back, naked except for the amulet of Talos that he never took off, sound asleep. It was early morning, and she would have to leave soon and get back to Jorrvaskr for training. She liked to get out to the training yard by dawn; she did her best work in the early hours. But she didn’t want to leave Coranil in bed asleep, so she scratched him under the chin.
“Hmm,” he mumbled, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips.
“Good morning. Divines, it’s freezing!” He pulled her close with an exaggerated shiver. “Are your feet hanging out from under the furs? Are you mad?”
“You know,” she said, “I hear heat escapes your body through your head. If you let your hair grow, maybe you wouldn’t be so cold.”
“I have been shaving my head since before your parents were born,” Coranil reminded her with a haughty, high-born accent that didn’t match the rest of his personality. “I don’t like the feeling of . . . hair.”
“You like my hair.”
He ran his fingers through her red curls. “Yes, but it’s not growing on my head.”
Rowan had been seeing Coranil since shortly after he’d purchased the general goods store from Belethor six months ago when the Breton had decided to retire and go home to High Rock. Coranil was an Altmer, with golden skin and emerald-green eyes that slanted at just the right angle to accent his strong nose. His only concession to hair was a tidy goatee of pinkish white. She didn’t know exactly how old he was, other than it was well over a century, but he never made her feel like a flighty youngster. Even the men her own age did that. But Coranil was quiet, unassuming, and humble, always willing to impart some sort of wisdom or just listen when she needed to vent. He was secretive about his past, never saying much more than there were many things he needed to atone for.
It didn’t matter to Rowan. She liked his company, and he enjoyed hers. It was nothing steady or serious, just comfortable. More than a lover, he was a friend. She supposed he was her best friend. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t incredibly sexy.
“Very well,” Coranil said, “I’m warmer now. But we got sidetracked last night and you didn’t finish your story.”
Rowan giggled and kissed him, remembering the acrobatics of the night before. Sidetracked. Good word for it. They had gone to Secunda and back last night.
Coranil flipped her on her back and kissed her deeply, and they got sidetracked again.
Half an hour later, spent and satisfied, they lay in each other’s arms. Rowan giggled.
“What is it?”
“We forgot about my story again.”
“Yes, we did. All right, I’m listening. No more distractions.”
“You sure about that?”
Coranil chuckled. “If you try to change my mind, we’ll be here all day.”
“You’re right,” she conceded with another giggle. “I actually finished most of the story last night. It’s just that my uncle and I argued about his brother all the way back from Ansilvund. I wish he would see reason. You don’t turn your back on family.”
“But in Vilkas’s mind, one doesn’t turn his back on his beliefs. It is hard to change after so many years. Certain ideas and practices have been deeply engrained in his psyche, and those things don’t change overnight.”
“It’s been nearly twenty years.”
“To an Altmer, that’s just a moment.”
She raised her head to glare at him. “Vilkas isn’t an Altmer. He’s a Nord, and he’s been estranged from his twin brother for nearly half his life. And you can’t lie there and tell me twenty years is nothing. Even for an Altmer, that’s a chunk of time.”
Coranil sighed. “Yes, it is that. Much can happen in twenty years, even for a mer.” He was quiet for a few minutes, and he finally said, “It sounds as though it wasn’t a very good trip for you—the argument with Vilkas, your distress over killing . . .”
“Have you ever killed before?” she asked impulsively.
The elf stiffened and took a deep breath. “Yes. I have.”
“More than once?”
“What was your first kill like?”
“I didn’t have the liberty to express my emotions over it. It was just what was done, and I had to accept it without argument, without hesitation, and without remorse.”
“But you still felt it.”
“Yes. It was terrible. Later, when I was alone, I wept. And I remember the face of the first person I killed to this day.”
“That’s more than you’ve ever told me about your past.”
“And I’ll not tell you anything more. It isn’t something I care to talk about. Besides, we were talking about you. Did anything good come out of your trip?”
“Well, we got the shield back to its rightful owner, and I got a bit more respect within the Companions. I’m officially no longer a whelp. Even Dagur raised a glass when they finally initiated me.”
“Something they should have done long ago.”
“No, Dagur was right. I hadn’t proven myself. This trip might have been painful, but I did do that. I had thought about leaving the Companions and going back to Riften, but I guess I’ll stay awhile.”
“I would miss you if you left. I do enjoy your company.”
Someone banged on the door downstairs, and Rowan jumped.
“Just ignore them and they’ll go away,” Coranil said. But the caller didn’t leave, just knocked more insistently. The elf groaned, kissed Rowan’s forehead, and slid out of bed, pulling on a pair of trousers and tying the laces and grumbling about the cold floor as he ambled down the stairs.
Rowan got up and slipped into his tunic, which was so big on her that it looked more like a dress, before stepping out onto the balcony and looking down at the main floor, where Coranil was speaking to a courier.
“A letter from your employer. He said it was life or death, so I figured I’d better deliver it before morning.”
“Yes, thank you,” Coranil replied, taking the note and giving him a handful of coins.
“If you want to respond, I’ll be at the Bannered Mare until midmorning.”
“I likely won’t have a written response. There’s no need to wait.”
The courier nodded and walked away, and Coranil opened the letter and glanced at it, then folded it and put it back in the envelope.
“Everything all right?” Rowan asked him.
He peered up at her, then turned and came up the stairs. “Unfortunately, no. Rowan, I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this short. There is something I need to take care of.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” Rowan said teasingly as she sidled up to him and wrapped her arms around his neck.
He buried his face in her hair and nuzzled her throat but said, “Yes, I am sure. It cannot wait.”
“All right,” she said amiably as she pulled away and went into the bedroom for her clothes. He went into the room as well, making straight for a desk in the corner, where he pulled out a heavy tome and started thumbing through it. He seemed to barely realize she was still there.
“Okay, um, I’ll just let myself out, then.”
“That’s fine,” he muttered distractedly. She kissed his bald head, and he looked up and cupped her cheek. “My apologies, Rowan. This is of the utmost importance. I’ll see you in a few days.”
“Good night, Coranil.” She grabbed her bow and knapsack, and left the store.
* * *
Siivahzen stig lov Fikrin – Ciil tiran ahrk wuth Vul Zeymahmaar gaard. Zrah los nahlot dii zeymah. Kelad naan hask ahrk tal yar wah zey.
After Rowan had gone, Coranil browsed his book of Dovahzul language and began to translate the note from his employer.
Investigate activity near Falkreath-Cyrodiil border and old Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary. Key is silence my brother. Eradicate any threats and report back to me.
Coranil’s heart hammered in his chest at the thought of the mission laid out for him. To be made privy to the passkey for a Black Door was very exciting. He just wondered how his employer had come by it. It didn’t matter, though; what mattered was enemy activity in Falkreath.
He folded the letter and placed it into a hip satchel along with some stationery and a piece of charcoal. He dressed in a dark mage robe that enhanced his Illusion and Destruction spells; then he packed a knapsack with a spare robe, food supplies for three days, and a selection of potions and poisons. He strapped the satchel, an elven mace, and two enchanted daggers to his belt. He donned boots and jewelry designed to boost his magicka and help him sneak, and a dark cloak that would also help keep him hidden. And thank Talos it was warm. When he was ready, Coranil left the house and stopped in at the Bannered Mare.
“Good morning,” Ysolda called when he walked into the inn.
“Good morning, Ysolda. Is your husband up yet?”
“Haven’t seen him yet.”
“I must leave a message for him, then. Tell Sigurd I’m leaving town and the shop is his for a few days.”
“Are you ever going to tell us where you go on these jaunts of yours?” she asked coquettishly.
“Never,” he replied with a smile, then turned and left the inn. It had taken him a long time to warm up to Ysolda. He liked Sigurd well enough, but Ysolda was much too curious for her own good. At one time Coranil would have been suspicious about her curiosity, but he had come to accept that humans—at least the general populace who were just trying to make a living—were basically decent, and very few of them had hidden agendas. Ysolda hadn’t been interrogating him; she had simply been making friendly conversation.
Coranil picked up his horse from the Whiterun Stables and rode south. He went through Helgen just before suppertime and made it to Falkreath in the early hours of the morning. Lod the blacksmith was already up and working, so Coranil stopped in. He liked Lod. The man was sensible, hardworking, and unfailingly loyal. He had helped the smith once—some small pittance of a favor—and Lod had become his friend for life. This morning, he agreed to watch the Coranil’s horse while he went on his mission.
“Be extra careful, my friend,” Lod said. “There’s been strangers about.”
“Strangers? How so?”
“We don’t get many new people in Falkreath, but there’s been a few people coming and going from the jarl’s longhouse in the past fortnight. Elves, like you. I don’t know what you’re up to, and I don’t want to know. But I thought you should know, just in case.”
“Thank you, Lod. You are a good friend. I shall proceed with caution.”
Pulling his cloak up over his head, Coranil left Falkreath and crept through the woods until he reached the province’s border with Cyrodiil. The road was clear, but in the hills nearby he found tracks and debris that suggested someone had been sneaking across. He found a campsite about a mile north of the crossing site, where two humans lay sleeping on bedrolls. Coranil quietly browsed the campsite and finally, convinced that they were simple hunters, he let them be. He found no further evidence near the border, and as the sun started to climb in the sky, he made his way back toward the old Dark Brotherhood sanctuary.
When he arrived, he found a guard stationed outside. The guard was Altmer, and he was wearing dark elven armor. The rumors of activity had been true. Coranil secreted himself behind some rocks and bushes up the hill and watched. He spent the whole day there, and although only a few people came and went, it was a simple matter to ascertain that they were the threat his employer spoke of. Late that night, when the moons were starting to sink on the horizon, he kissed his amulet of Talos for luck and left his hidey hole.
When training for this job, he had been taught extensively in the art of stealth. Utterly silent and well hidden by his cloak, he managed to sneak up on the guard without ever being detected and slit his throat. Then he approached the Black Door. It was hardly black, really just dark stone with an eerie red glow and a relief of a skull that glared balefully at him. There was also a faint hum that emitted from the door and a lingering fear spell. Just standing there gave him chills.
Coranil almost jumped out of his skin. He had known he would be asked for a password, but the sudden question along with the fear spell nearly made him bolt. He shook his head to clear it and took a deep breath in an effort to calm himself, annoyed that such a phenomenon would rattle him so.
“What is the music of life?” the door repeated.
“Silence, my brother,” said Coranil.
“Welcome home.” The door opened, and he stepped inside.
The sanctuary was quiet; hopefully everyone was in bed asleep at his hour. He crept through a winding tunnel until he came to a wide room with several bookshelves and a desk. A closed door stood to the left of the room. He rummaged through the papers on the desk, took a few letters, and stuffed them into his satchel. Inside the desk, he found dossiers on Ulfric Stormcloak, his son Dolff, Elisif the Fair, and Selene Stormblade, as well as Jarl Jorgen Red-Mane of Falkreath. A quick scan of the documents confirmed that their whereabouts and actions had been tracked for some time. They currently had no idea where Dolff Stormcloak was, but—at least as far as Coranil knew—the dossiers on the others were fairly accurate. Nothing in Selene’s dossier said anything about her family, a notion in which he found great comfort in.
The Jarl of Falkreath might be a problem; it seemed he was actively helping the enemy, probably why there was so much activity in this area. Coranil couldn’t assassinate a jarl without his employer’s blessing, though, and he wouldn’t get that without more concrete evidence. Thus, he would pay the Jorgen a visit when he left the sanctuary. In the meantime, he had work here.
He placed the dossiers into his knapsack and opened the side door. It was a bedroom, and one occupant slept there, snoring loudly. He never even woke as Coranil cut his throat.
A further search of the sanctuary turned up four more individuals, who all died silently at Coranil’s hand. He looked through desks, dressers, and cupboards, but he found nothing else that he could take back to his employer. A Word Wall dominated the center of a large common area, and he stood there for a long moment, pondering the script written there and trying to decipher it. It was a lost cause, though; those words were for the Dragonborn, not him. Rowan had said she didn’t know if she was Dragonborn, and he wondered if she would understand the scratches on the Word Wall.
When he was satisfied that he had everything he had come for, he called spells into his hands and began shooting fireballs at furniture, banners, anything that would catch fire. The last thing he did before he left was drag the guard inside.
The conflagration raged as he walked away from the Black Door. For the second time in twenty years, the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary burned.
Coranil made his way to the jarl’s longhouse in Falkreath and snuck past the lone guard. For someone who was in possibly in bed with the enemy, Jorgen Red-Mane didn’t have very good security. It was nothing more than the arrogance that came with having such a powerful ally. In the jarl’s mind, he was untouchable.
Once inside, he found the steward’s office and rummaged through her desk until he found what he was looking for—solid evidence that the jarl was working for the other side. A letter from “The Emissary” thanked Jorgen for information he had provided and confirmed that they had set up a unit inside the old Dark Brotherhood sanctuary. It also cautioned him to be on the lookout for spies, advice he obviously hadn’t heeded. Coranil folded the letter and placed it in his pack, then slipped back out past the guard.
He worked his way through the woods and entered Falkreath through the main gate, then went to Lod, who was just starting work.
“How’d it go?” Lod asked him.
“How did what go?” Coranil asked cryptically.
The blacksmith smiled. “Your horse is fed, shod, and ready to go. Have a safe trip.”
It was too early for Gray Pine Goods to be open, so he would plan on stopping for supplies in Riverwood. It was a long trip to his employer. As he left Falkreath, he pulled his cloak around himself with a shudder. Although he had long since been welcome in his employer’s home, the thought of going there still made him uncomfortable. They were allies, colleagues, possibly even friends, but how long ago had they been bitter enemies? His words to Rowan rang through his head. Twenty years—just a moment to an Altmer.