Rowan and Ben arrived in Riften a couple of days later and gave Selene the vial of snow. They left the next morning to go back to Whiterun, and Selene and Brynjolf headed for Windhelm. She called once again on Odahviing, who, as always, was happy to give them a ride; and they arrived in Skyrim’s capital city in a few hours.
Ulfric had stepped up security. Extra guards patrolled the streets, and some of them who didn’t recognize Selene and Brynjolf glared at them suspiciously. Selene could sense her husband’s unease as they approached the Palace of the Kings, but it wasn’t the extra guard that made him uncomfortable. Although he respected Ulfric as High King, his animosity toward the man had never waned. He hated him with a passion, and Ulfric was none too fond of him, either. Still, they were men of integrity in their own way, and they tolerated each other enough to work together when necessary.
“Stormblade,” the palace guard said as he unlocked the door and opened it for them.
“Afternoon,” she replied, then stepped inside. She and Brynjolf walked through the great hall until they reached the throne, then bowed respectfully to the High King. Selene noticed immediately that the Jagged Crown, which he usually wore when court was in session, was not on his head.
“Selene. Brynjolf,” Ulfric said.
“What happened?” Selene asked. “Security is pretty tight throughout the city.”
“We had a break-in. The Jagged Crown was stolen.”
“What! Holy Talos! Do you have any leads?”
“Nothing yet, but I have a reliable operative looking into it.”
“I have something for you.” Selene reached into her pack and brought out the bottle of Unmelting Snow.
Ulfric nodded his thanks as he took the proffered vial. “I heard you sent your children after it.”
“Aye, it’s time they took up the torch, don’t you think?”
“Yes, especially since they were the ones who retrieved the artifact in the first place.”
“And when you bring them in, will you tell them what’s going on or just expect them follow you blindly?” Brynjolf asked accusingly.
With a smirk, the High King replied, “I wouldn’t expect either of them to follow anyone blindly. I had hoped to keep them out of this altogether, as well as my son, but it is proving to be a bigger endeavor than I had imagined. I assure you, when we bring them in, they will be well informed.”
“How many of the artifacts do you have?” Selene asked him.
“Only two, and one is broken. This is what the Unmelting Snow is for. The alchemist believes that it, along with a few other items, can be used to repair the White Phial.”
“Any word on the other artifacts?”
“We’ve discovered that the shield is a Daedric artifact, and we believe the amulet may be somewhere outside of Skyrim. Those are the only bits and pieces we have. Speak to your contacts again; see what you can turn up.”
Selene glanced at her husband and then turned back to the High King. “Ulfric, are you sure you want to do this? Having all of these artifacts in the same hands could be extremely dangerous.”
“Better in my hands than the Thalmor’s.”
“Better scattered across Skyrim, like they are now.”
“Selene, we’ve already discussed this. What do you think the chances are that they will remain scattered if we don’t intervene? I’ll hear no more of this. These are my orders.”
“Aye, Your Grace. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I,” he confessed.
* * *
5E 20, 20 Rain’s Hand
Dolff, Rowan, and Ben stood in the great hall of the Palace of the Kings facing Ulfric after he had sent a letter summoning them. Vilkas had been unhappy about the summons, which had been in the form of a written request delivered by the High King’s personal courier, asking that the three be sent to Windhelm on loan for an undetermined length of time, and specifically naming Rowan and Ben as Dragonborn. No other information was given. While the request had been worded politely, there was little doubt that the Harbinger had no choice but to send them.
Ulfric, who had been warm and friendly the last time Rowan had entered the palace, was all business. After a curt greeting, he said, “I’m glad you came so quickly. I need your help with a matter of utmost importance.”
“What would you have us do?” Ben asked simply.
“Follow me.” He got up from the throne and led them through the war room and upstairs to the residences, where he had them sit in a small conference room, closed the door behind them and sat at the head of the table.
Although it didn’t seem different from any other conference room Rowan had been in, Dolff raised his eyebrows in surprise at the use of the chamber. “Da, just how serious is this?” he asked.
“Honestly, I’m unsure, but I’m not willing to take chances. The Jagged Crown has been stolen. I sent an operative to locate and retrieve it, but this was well over a month ago. There is a very good chance the operative has been captured, compromised, or killed.”
Dolff closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. “You’re sending us up against the Thalmor, aren’t you?”
Rowan’s heart came up into her throat when Ulfric nodded.
The king must have noticed her apprehension, because he looked her in the eye and said, “I understand your trepidation, Rowan, but I have eyes and ears in Whiterun and I’ve been watching your progress. I have little doubt that two Dragonborns and my well-trained son are more than up to the job.”
“I can’t believe they stole the Jagged Crown from right here in the palace,” Dolff mused.
Ulfric narrowed his eyes. “I assure you, the individuals who allowed it to happen have been reprimanded.”
Rowan couldn’t help wondering if he had let them live. “Where do we need to go?”
“My operative narrowed it down to two locations, both in Haafingar. The first is the former Thalmor Embassy just outside Solitude. While I didn’t believe it likely that they would take up residence in such an obvious place, the operative’s intelligence was fairly reliable. If it isn’t there, Northwatch Keep would be the second choice. It was also a Thalmor installation in the past, and it has the advantage of being located directly on the ocean.”
“What are these two places supposed to be?” Ben asked.
“For a while, the East Empire Company owned Northwatch Keep, but it has fallen into disrepair and is reputed to be home to bandits in the past few years. We got this information from our friends at Castle Volkihar.”
“‘Friends?’” Dolff echoed.
Ulfric rolled his eyes. “I know. But my own personal feelings aside, they are allies of the Crown. Now, the embassy is used for storage and to house visitors to Solitude. It should be well guarded by Elisif’s people, but my alliance with the jarl and her staff has always been tenuous. I cannot trust that they haven’t allowed it to fall into enemy hands.”
“Surely she wouldn’t turn it over to the Thalmor,” Rowan protested.
“No, but she might turn it over to the Empire. In any case, it’s a starting point.”
Ulfric paused, reached out, and placed a hand over Rowan’s. “I know the danger I’m placing the three of you in,” he said sincerely. “If I didn’t believe you were fully capable, I wouldn’t be asking this of you. And be assured, I am asking. This mission is voluntary.”
Dolff chuckled mirthlessly. “Voluntary? You’re getting soft in your old age, Da. Or senile if you believe for a second that we’ll say no.”
The High King glared at his son but didn’t respond.
“We’ll get the Jagged Crown back, Your Grace,” Rowan promised.
Ben nodded his agreement.
“What about the operative?” Dolff asked.
Ulfric locked eyes with his son and stayed silent for a long moment. Finally, he sighed and said, “Use your judgment. Truly, I doubt he’s still alive. If he is and you find he has been compromised, kill him.”
“He wouldn’t break, Da.”
“Everybody breaks. But I’m not talking about giving up information under torture. You know what I mean.”
“I thought you trusted him.”
“I do. But—I do. But it’s still worth mentioning.”
* * *
5E20, 26 Rain’s Hand
The former Thalmor Embassy was a bust; it was exactly as it was purported to be, and a tedious search of every office, bedroom, chest, crate, and box turned up nothing. Thus, Rowan, Dolff, and Ben moved on to Northwatch Keep.
They arrived on the beach outside the keep a couple of hours after sunset, and on first glance it appeared deserted. No guards stood outside, and no light shone in any of the windows. But the marks in the snow—footprints, drag marks, and general wear and tear showed that there was definitely activity here, and a lot of it. They also noted a single column of smoke rising from one of the chimneys. Whether it was bandits of the Thalmor, they would have more to do here than just search boxes and crates.
As they snuck around toward the back entrance, Ben nodded toward the imposing castle just offshore. “I guess that’s Castle Volkihar,” he murmured.
Rowan giggled. “Aye, and she’s probably in there right now, pining away for you.”
“Shut up, Ro.”
“Who are we talking about?” Dolff asked.
“Serana, Ben’s childhood crush. She lives over there. She came to Riften to visit Blanche a few times when we were little, and Ben followed her around like a lost puppy the whole time she was there.”
“You have a crush on a vampire?”
“Don’t scoff, my friend,” Ben replied. “You haven’t seen her. Now, can we get back to the mission, please?”
“Sure, little brother,” Rowan said affably. “No problem whatsoever.”
The back door seemed to be barred from the inside, so they moved around toward the front, staying close to the wall in case someone came out. No one did, though; whoever was in the keep seemed to be sacrificing an exterior guard in the interest of subtlety. However, the blood stains in the snow outside the front door did little to help their cause.
Rowan found her hands trembling as she waited for Ben to pick the lock. She didn’t know why the Thalmor scared her so. They were elven mages, nothing more. She had fought elven mages before, no big deal. But she knew they were more than that. They were organized, ruthless, and patient, the type who thought nothing of waiting twenty years before striking at their enemies. And if they caught her, Ben, and Dolff, their deaths would likely not be swift and painless.
“You okay?” Dolff whispered.
“You’re very pale.”
“I’m scared,” she admitted. “Don’t worry, I’ll still do the job.”
He reached out and stroked his finger along her cheek. “I know you will, love.”
Ben popped the lock, and they entered the keep quietly. The rooms on the main floor were dark and mostly empty, with only a few pieces of old furniture tucked into corners. However, a light glowed at the bottom of the stairs to the lower level. They crept down the stairs in a single line, Rowan at the head carrying a shortbow and with her swords strapped to her hips, Dolff in the middle with his twin blades, and Ben bringing up the rear with a sword in one hand and a spell in the other.
The stairs descended to a hallway crossing. The room to the right was in ruins, and the corridor straight ahead ended in a closed door. The one to the left, however, led to a well-lit room with an Altmer standing guard outside. He wore golden elven armor and stood tall, his chin more visible to Rowan than his eyes. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Ben and Dolff were still on the stairs, so they were covered. Rowan, however, was in the open. She was also in shadow, though, and the elf hadn’t yet her.
This was it. That Altmer was no bandit. She swallowed hard, then took a step back and drew her bow, aiming at her quarry’s exposed head. She let the arrow fly, and it pierced his forehead. With a strained, “Oh,” he crumpled to the floor and perished. Rowan motioned to the others to move on.
The next group they encountered didn’t die as easily. The Companions did battle with three armored soldiers and a gray-robed mage that left no doubt they were fighting Thalmor. He lobbed lightning bolts at Ben, who sent his own right back while Rowan and Dolff engaged the soldiers. Dolff held his own against two of them, twirling and dancing with his swords as he darted in close for a jab and then stepped back to avoid their retaliatory strikes.
Rowan drew on the one who engaged her, but he dodged her arrows nimbly as he advanced on her with his blade.
“Your bow is too slow, little human,” he taunted with his haughty, high-born accent. He managed to reach her and attack, catching her across the midsection. It hurt, but the worst of the blow bounced off her armor.
In the second he took to come back around, Rowan dropped the bow and drew her swords. “How about this?” she asked.
The elf chuckled in response and came in for another swing, but Rowan blocked it with one sword and jabbed with the other, aiming for the soft leather around his hips. The blade went into his hip and out the other side as if he were made of butter. The Altmer snarled in pain and tried to back away, but he was thoroughly impaled and could do nothing but swing wildly to ward off Rowan’s blows with her other sword. Worried that it might be a mistake, she let go of the sword protruding from the elf’s side anyway and took the remaining blade in both hands, swinging it like a greatsword. It was awkward, but the elf was already impaired, and he couldn’t fend off the blows. She finally caught him in the throat, and blood spurted as he collapsed and died. She pulled on her sword to remove it from his hip, but it was stuck on something and didn’t come out easily. She finally had to put a foot on his body to hold it down as she jerked the blade out with both hands. When it broke free, the momentum carried her backward, and she landed on her bottom with a jolt.
“Only me,” she muttered.
She looked over to see that Ben had killed his opponent and was just helping Dolff finish his two. She sheathed her swords and retrieved her bow, then walked over to them, noticing that Dolff had a deep slice in his shoulder. Ben had a healing spell in his hand and was holding it over the wound, which was partially obscured by Dolff’s armor, but they couldn’t risk removing the armor until they had cleared the keep. When Ben had done what he could to stop the blood flow, Dolff drank a healing potion.
“Let’s go,” he said, but Rowan didn’t move. She simply stared at him. “I’m all right. Now, come on, we’ve got to get through this.”
Rowan nodded reluctantly, and they began navigating the halls and rooms. They found another lone Altmer, whom Rowan downed with an arrow, and traded ranged attacks with a pair of archers who shot at them from a mezzanine level in a wide chamber. Dolff battled a wizard who emerged from an office at the end of the chamber and sustained a nasty shock for his trouble.
Upstairs past the mezzanine, they found the prison, but there were no captives incarcerated there—no live ones, anyway. A robed mage emerged from a room at the other end of the hall and attacked, using a Chain Lightning spell to send Rowan and Dolff to the floor, twitching in agony, while Ben exchanged a few spells with the mage.
Rowan was just starting to sit up when Ben growled in frustration and said, “Aw, fuck this. Yol . . . toor shul!” With a loud bang, a huge blast of fire burst forth and incinerated the mage. Ben knelt next to her and dug into his pack for a magicka potion, then readied a healing spell.
“I’m fine,” she said. “It was just a—”
Dolff sat up and said, “No, she’s right. It was painful, but it didn’t really cause any damage. It occurs to me that he would rather have captured us than killed us.”
“You may be right,” said Ben. “He was powerful; that Chain Lightning spell could have obliterated both of you, so he must have been holding back.”
A further check of the keep showed that there were no more Thalmor present, so they began their search for the Jagged Crown. Along with scads of valuable documents to take back to the High King, they found the crown in a locked room with a master-locked chest; but they discovered something else that staggered Rowan to her very core.
The room belonging to the last mage they had killed turned out to be a torture chamber. An unconscious Altmer was chained to the wall. He wore only a pair of ragged trousers, and he was emaciated and covered in blood and bruises. Very short hair covered his head, but there was so much blood in it, it was impossible to tell the color. The tip of one of his ears had been cut off. His arms, torso, and midsection were rife with deep gashes, bruises, and scorch marks.
Ben stood back and folded his arms. “Do we let him go, or put him out of his misery?” he asked objectively.
Rowan knelt before the prisoner and said, “Just because he’s a high elf doesn’t mean he’s Thalmor. I mean, why would they do this to one of their own, anyway? Besides, he’s helpless; we can’t kill him.”
“That’s our operative,” Dolff said, his voice flooded with relief.
“Your da has an Altmer operative?” Ben asked incredulously.
“It’s a long story.”
She placed a hand gently on the elf’s shoulder and shook it. The Altmer groaned a bit and began to rouse. “Can you open your eyes?” she asked him.
He didn’t look up, but he did speak. In a voice full of venom, he muttered, “Eat. Shit.”
Ben chuckled. Ignoring him, Rowan put her hand under the elf’s chin and lifted it so she could see his face. There wasn’t much to see; his eyes were all but swollen shut, his lips and jaw were also badly puffed-up, and his nose was crusted with blood. Three jagged scratches ran down his left cheek, and a burn mark covered his right cheek and neck. “We’re not your captors,” she said. “We’re going to get you out of here.”
The elf grunted. “Of course you are,” he retorted with more spirit than she would expect someone in his condition to have. “Who sent you?”
Rowan looked up at Dolff, who nodded, and she turned back to him and said, “The High King sent us.”
The Altmer made more of an effort to open his eyes and focus, and he actually managed to look surprised through all the swelling. “R-Rowan?” he stammered. Then he chuckled. “Somehow, I knew. If anyone would come to my rescue, it would be you.”
Something about the way he said her name, his tone, even his words—she knew that voice. But it couldn’t be him. She looked more closely at the Altmer beneath the bruises and scars, his white goatee caked with blood but still distinctive, and at an angry burn on his chest shaped exactly like an amulet of Talos, and gaped in shock. “Coranil?”
Thanks to the following deviantART stock artists for use of their brushes:
Seiyastock – http://seiyastock.deviantart.com/art/seiyastock-wound-ps-brushes-110317365
zummerfish_s – http://www.deviantart.com/art/Zummerfish-s-Blending-Brushes-394130816
trisste-brushes – http://www.deviantart.com/art/wounds-25145474
ninja_ryo – http://ninja-ryo.deviantart.com/art/PS6-BRUSHES-Wounds-192618472