Rowan and Dolff took a few days to enjoy being married, and though she dreaded the coming journey, she was happier than she had ever been. Farkas and Vilkas took some time to get reacquainted before Vilkas and Athis returned to Jorrvaskr, with the promise that they would stay in touch. Ben spent his time working on extra magic protection gear for himself and the other Dragonborns, especially for fire, in anticipation of whatever assault the Coat of Storms might throw at them.
Used to being in charge, Selene took over leadership of the party that would go to the Throat of the World. After some argument, she finally reached a compromise with Farkas, Brynjolf, and Serana, who had insisted on accompanying them on the trip. They agreed that the three would go as far as High Hrothgar, where they would wait while the Dragonborns went the rest of the way. Rowan suspected, though, that they would put up a fight when it finally came to parting ways.
If, that is, Dolff let them go at all.
For the most part, Rowan’s new husband seemed deliriously happy; but when he sat on the throne, he became broody and terse. If someone tried to discuss the Coat of Storms with him, he grew downright hostile. And Divines forbid suggesting taking it away for destruction. He actually threatened to have Ben arrested if he mentioned it again. Thus, they planned in secret. If they had to sneak the set out of the Palace of Kings, then so be it.
Five days after the wedding, they were ready to leave. Selene, Ben, Blanche, and the others went to the vault to retrieve the pieces of the collection while Rowan, Coranil, Ralof, and a couple of palace guards went to see Dolff in the great hall.
“We need to talk, love,” Rowan said.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s time to take the Coat of Storms to the Throat of the World and destroy it.”
Dolff rolled his eyes. “Rowan, we’ve been over this. Nobody is going to destroy the Coat of Storms; we need it here.”
“For what?” she challenged him.
“To . . . keep it away from the Thalmor.”
“It’s dangerous, remember? It killed your da, and it’s hurting you.”
“No, that’s not right. It . . . gives power to the . . . why does this sound wrong?”
“Because it is wrong,” Coranil told him. “We are not telling you anything you do not already know, Jarl.”
“Destroying the set was partly your idea,” Rowan reminded him.
“Rowan, it’s not going to happen,” he snapped. “I won’t hear another word about it. I might be your husband, but I’m still your jarl; and if you don’t drop the subject, I’ll have you confined to our quarters.”
She noticed movement out of the corner of her eye and glanced over to see her parents, brother, and the others bearing the pieces of the Coat of Storms. Well, there wouldn’t be any sneaking the collection out. She was going to have to continue the confrontation.
“But you will hear more about it, because we are taking the collection.”
“You’re what? No!”
The party came into the room.
“This is theft!” he cried, noting the pieces. “You become Nightingales, and you think you can just come in and take my artifacts right out from under my nose. Your parents’ thieving ways have finally rubbed off on you. What? Did you marry me just so you could get your hands on it?”
“Dolff, you know better than that.”
“Do I? You’ve always had a wild streak, haven’t you? Ben’s was even worse. I could never tell what either of you were going to do. Well, now I know, don’t I? Ralof, arrest my wife and her thieving family.”
“No, Jarl,” the housecarl replied.
Dolff’s eyes widened. “‘No’? You dare?”
“You said yourself that the collection had to be destroyed, even if I had to lock you up to get it out of the palace. I don’t want to, but I will if I have to.”
Dolff looked over at the two guards, who refused to meet his eyes. He turned his attention back to Rowan with an expression so malicious and full of fury that she it made her take a step back.
“It’s only going to get worse, Ro,” said Ben. “We should go.”
“I love you, Dolff,” she said.
With that, he exploded. He launched off the throne and came at her with a vicious snarl. Ralof and Coranil caught him by the arms, and he struggled to get free. “You never loved me, you manipulative bitch! It was all a ploy to get the Coat of Storms from me. Well, go on, take it if it means that much to you. But don’t ever come back, ‘cause if you do, I’ll kill you myself!”
“Get out! All of you!”
Ben grabbed Rowan’s arm and pulled her along, not letting go even as she struggled against him. As soon as they were outside, he released her arm and she collapsed to the ground and squalled.
Brynjolf knelt beside her and laid an arm across her shoulder. “He didn’t mean it, little one,” he said softly. “It was the Coat of Storms talking.”
“I know that on some level, but he was so full of hatred. What if he doesn’t change back after we destroy it?”
“We haven’t even been married a week.”
“Aye,” said Ben. “I wouldn’t have expected him to threaten to kill you for at least a fortnight.”
“Ben, not now,” Mama scolded him.
The quip got Rowan’s attention, though, and she looked up to see them all standing over, peering down. Even a couple of the guards stood there. She wiped her eyes and started to pull herself to her feet. “Gods, I’m such a baby,” she muttered.
“I think we can let this one slide,” said her daddy, helping her up.
“I need to go back in. I can’t just leave it like that.”
“You can, and you will,” Serana said, stepping in and handing her the Jagged Crown. “He’s going to feel very guilty when you return. It could be highly profitable.”
Selene chuckled. “She’s right. Let’s go, little one. Get this over with.”
* * *
They road south toward Ivarstead, Selene, Ben, and Blanche each carrying two pieces of the Coat of Storms and Rowan bearing the crown. The longer she had it in her possession, the worse she felt. Her energy drained away and felt exactly as it had when she had been a blood-starved captive in Coldharbour. Occasionally, she would see something out of the corner of her eye or hear a whisper in her ear, but when she turned, no one was there.
She had enough awareness to realize that she was experiencing the effects of the Coat of Storms. Apparently, it had chosen her as its new owner and had begun to torment her, but that understanding didn’t make it easier to take. If anything, it was harder. She had seen what it had done to Dolff and the High King, and she was terrified that the set would drive her mad before they had the chance to get rid of it.
Then again, she was beginning to feel a burning desire not to get rid of it. Perhaps this was what Nocturnal had meant when she had said the collection would fight back. Maybe it would make the owner fight back. What if she couldn’t go through with it when it came down to destroying it? How far would she go to keep the others from doing what had to be done? How far would they go? She knew she couldn’t expect Ben and her mama to do anything drastic.
“Blanche,” she said.
“If we get up there and I try to stop you, you have to stop me.”
“Ro, what are you saying?” Ben demanded.
“I’m starting to feel it.”
“Shadows preserve us,” Brynjolf muttered. “Perhaps I should carry that crown.”
“No, Daddy, it’s my duty, and you know it.”
“It’s your duty to destroy it. That doesn’t mean you have to carry it.”
“I feel like it does. It has been our quest, our destiny, from the very beginning, and we need to bear the artifacts. Besides, I’m going to have to carry it after we leave you at High Hrothgar anyway, so I might as well get used to it.”
Farkas chuckled. “That’s so cute, how they still think they’re gonna leave us behind.”
“We know we are,” said Blanche. “We have too much to lose for you to put your life on the line as well.”
“She’s right,” Selene concurred. “If something happens to Blanche and you, who’s going to take care of the orphanage?”
“Yeah? Well, what about him?” he asked, crooking his thumb at Brynjolf.
Mama sighed but didn’t answer. Rowan knew Farkas was right. Daddy’s whole family was going up there, and if something happened to them, he would feel he had nothing left to live for. That still didn’t mean Mama would let him go. She wouldn’t risk getting him killed.
“I will do what’s necessary, Rowan,” Blanche assured her, getting back to her original question, “and so will my husband, your father, and Serana.”
“Whether they like it or not,” Mama declared.
Aside from a group of bandits that shouldn’t have even bothered trying, the trip was uneventful. They camped on the road for two afternoons and spent one at Ivarstead before making their way up the mountain to High Hrothgar. The Dragonborns spent some time with Master Lodur, getting to know the youngest Greybeard and explaining their quest.
“You say this collection of artifacts gives the power of a god?” he asked incredulously.
Selene shrugged. “We haven’t actually determined if that’s true. All we do know is that it drives the owner mad and then kills them.”
“Aye, we are very distressed to hear what happened to Ulfric Stormcloak, especially my older brothers who knew him as a boy. It sounds like this is a very dangerous set of artifacts. Is there anything the Greybeards can do to help?”
“Just keep our loved ones safe,” said Blanche.
“We may need some healing when all is said and done,” Rowan remarked.
“Of course,” said Master Lodur. “You’re all welcome here, and we’ll be happy to host the others until you return. But please, stay the night and rest up before you continue on up the mountain.”
They rested for a day, socialized, and on the Greybeards’ recommendation, they meditated to prepare themselves for the task ahead. They finally said goodbye to the Greybeards; and Brynjolf, Farkas, and Serana walked with them as they made their way through the courtyard to the gate leading up the mountain.
Brynjolf hugged Rowan and Ben, then held his wife possessively. “It’s been a long time since you left me for Dragonborn duties,” he said, his voice breaking.
“I’ll come back, love. I promise.”
“You can’t promise that,” said Serana, who stood with her arms around Ben.
“Aye, I can,” Mama told her. “I always have.”
“I do too,” Ben said. Serana whispered something in his ear that Rowan couldn’t hear, and he closed his eyes and rested his head against hers.
Blanche and Farkas said nothing, just held each other for a moment before Blanche withdrew with an awkward expression on her face. Rowan knew Farkas wanted more than that, but she also knew he was long used to his wife’s stoicism. She didn’t love him any less than he loved her; she was just less comfortable showing affection, at least in public.
When everyone had hugged everyone else, they finally couldn’t put it off any longer. The Dragonborns stepped up to the gate and Selene used the Clear Skies Shout, the first of many they would use to dissipate the dangerously cold mists that would dog their steps. But when the mists cleared, Rowan found she couldn’t go through the gate.
This was insane. They were going all this way, making an incredibly perilous journey, to destroy a bunch of inanimate objects. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. Even if they did destroy it, why did they have to go all the way to the top of this ridiculous mountain to do it?
“Rowan, what is it?” her mama asked.
“This is stupid, and I’m not doing it.”
Selene took her arm. “Aye, you are.”
“No, I’m not!” she cried, yanking her arm away.
“Stay focused, sweetie. Your reticence is just the Coat of Storms fighting back.”
“Aye, Ro,” said Ben. “You’re stronger than this. Remember what Peryite said about you being the strongest of all of us? You can get past this.”
Rowan regarded her brother and tried to clear her thoughts. Aye, this was right. They knew this would happen; she had been fighting it all the way from Windhelm. “Of course,” she said with a nod. She stepped through the gate and followed the others.
After a few minutes, she nudged Ben. “You’re grinning from ear to ear,” she said. “What could you possibly have to be so happy about right now?”
“She said she loves me. She hasn’t said it before now. I guess she just had trouble, but she finally did. It gives me that much more reason to finish this so I can get back to her.”
They took turns with the Clear Skies Shout as they ascended, but the mists weren’t their biggest problem. All of them were plagued with doubt at one time or another, and they spent more time encouraging and reminding each other of their mission than they did Shouting. To make matters worse, the artifacts that weren’t stowed in knapsacks started moving on their own. Ben kept dropping the Staff of Magnus; Selene’s belt mysteriously came undone, and Stormthorn clattered to the ground; Spellbreaker kept flying up and smacking Blanche in the face. At first it was like slapstick comedy, but it quickly grew tiresome, and by the time they reached the pinnacle, they were exhausted from fighting with the pieces.
Paarthurnax sat on the Word Wall as usual, and while the others set about placing the pieces into a pile, Selene told the old dragon what was going on.
“It is a set made and cursed by the Daedric Prince Mephala,” she told him, “and we need to destroy it.”
“And you had to bring it here, I would wager, because of the magic present in this place?”
“Aye. If we can keep them from killing us first.”
Like the other Greybeards, Paarthurnax was magnanimous. “What do you require of me, Dragonborn?”
“Only that you get to a place of safety. I don’t want you getting hurt, Master.”
“That is kind of you, Selene. I will maintain a safe distance.”
Rowan and the others placed the sword and staff on the ground, then covered them with the shield and placed the amulet and White Phial on it. They covered that with the cloak and set the Jagged Crown on top, and then they stepped back and waited.
The collection did nothing, just sat there, inert.
“Maybe the fighting-back part is over,” Ben mused as Paarthurnax flew away and their mother joined them.
As if in answer, a frigid wind blew up, turning into a whirlwind that threw up ice and snow into a cloud that coalesced into a Dremora, who stood before them bearing all the pieces of the collection. The cloak was about his shoulders and the shield was slung over it, the amulet hung around his neck, the sword and phial were on his belt, the staff was in his hands, and the Jagged Crown sat on his head. He gave them a wicked, toothy grin.
Rowan swiftly drew her bow, as did her mother and Blanche, and they all fired arrows at the Daedra. Ben brought spells to his hands, but before he could get one off, the Dremora leveled the staff at him, stealing his magicka.
“Shit,” Ben snarled, drawing his sword and advancing on the creature.
The women couldn’t very well shoot with Ben standing so close, so they dropped their bows and drew swords as well. With four against one, it should have been an easy fight, but the Dremora seemed to have endless energy and speed. So rapidly that they couldn’t even see him move, he switched the staff for the sword and shield, and he began swinging at them with all his might. Rowan took a slice to the shoulder, and Blanche took one to her left arm, but they kept fighting. He matched stroke for stroke, moving in a blur from one to the other, leaving many shallow cuts in the Dragonborns but taking few himself. He managed to get the blade all the way through Selene’s shoulder, and she howled with pain.
“Fucking left shoulder!” she cried, swinging her sword, which was in her right hand, even harder, although Rowan could see she was clearly in agony.
Ben finally managed to get one good strike and practically severed the Dremora’s arm. The creature dropped the sword, and though his power was still substantial, one less piece and one less limb weakened him considerably and the tide turned. He must have panicked, because with a furious growl, he dropped the shield and reached for the staff, lessening his power even more and leaving himself open to Rowan, who delivered a fatal blow to his heart. The Daedra fell to the ground with a groan, and the Dragonborns stepped back.
“Now!” Selene shouted.
As one, they all cried, “Yol toor shul!”
Flames spread over the Dremora and the collection, but they extinguished themselves quickly.
After taking a minute or so for cooldown, Selene said, “Again!”
“Yol toor shul!”
This time, the collection caught fire and stayed that way, incinerating the Dremora in the process. But still, the conflagration didn’t seem to damage the artifacts. It burned itself out again after a few minutes.
“One more time,” said Rowan.
“YOL TOOR SHUL!”
Fire again erupted from the Dragonborns and engulfed the Coat of Storms, which suddenly burst into flames. The fire was so hot that they had to take several steps back, and they didn’t dissipate quickly this time. Instead, they grew, creating a windstorm that swirled fire high into the sky. The flaming pieces were borne aloft, rotating around the column of fire, clashing together and growing even hotter, until they finally exploded into a white-hot cloud that shot out in all directions.
Rowan screamed as searing heat washed over her body, and she was vaguely aware of the others’ shrieks as well. Her skin felt like it was melting, and her head swam as the smell of charred flesh reached her nostrils.
Oh, gods, she thought, we’re all going to die.
It was the last thought she had as she slipped out of consciousness.