After Rowan and Dagur left the shop, Coranil thoroughly inspected the robes, checking every stitch, every secret pocket, every toggle. The Thalmor were pretentious, and there was usually some feature to indicate who the owner was; but there was nothing unique about these robes. They were identical and completely generic. But the fact remained: they were Thalmor robes, and they had been found within Skyrim’s borders.
As he was folding one of the robes in preparation for storage, a piece of paper caught his eye. It was lying on the floor just inside the door, probably dropped by either Rowan or Dagur. He picked up the paper and read the list of names, a cold chill running down his spine. He knew many of the people named on this list, but that wasn’t all. One of the names was his, or rather, had been his long ago. It was a name he’d abandoned, one he never thought he’d see or hear again. And depending on who knew it, that name could be his undoing.
Coranil locked the door to the shop, then took the robes and the list upstairs. He placed the robes in a trunk, made a copy of the list and placed it in the trunk with the robes, and then quickly packed for a trip. After stopping in at the Mare to tell Sigurd he would be out of town for a few days, he left Whiterun and headed west with all speed.
He rode through the night and arrived at a small farm in Rorikstead the next morning. The owners were outside, working in their field. A married couple, both Altmer, both fair-haired and green-eyed, used hoes to loosen the dirt around their cabbages. Such an act seemed foreign to Coranil, who had seen them in vastly different circumstances.
The male, who was calling himself Mithtar these days, looked up and saw him standing at the edge of the field. “Coranil!” he called, dropping his hoe and heading toward him. “Well met, my friend. What brings you to Rorikstead?”
“I’m afraid it’s more than a friendly visit. Can we go somewhere and talk?”
His wife Valinia came over as well. “What is it?” she asked. “Trouble?”
They led him into the house, where he wasted no time telling them what was going on. He pulled the list out of his satchel and handed it to Valinia.
Her eyes widened as she read the list, and she looked up at Coranil with a scowl as she handed it over to Mithtar. “Where did you come upon this?”
“It was found in a Forsworn redoubt, along with six sets of elven armor and two Thalmor robes.”
“Whom did they belong to?” Mithtar asked.
“There were no markings.”
“And what redoubt was it?”
“The Forsworn from the camp?” Mithtar asked.
“Killed to a man, or so I was informed. And there were no elves present.”
“So are the Forsworn working with the Thalmor or against them?” Valinia wondered. “I find it hard to believe that all that evidence was there by coincidence.”
“Yes, but is there a way to find out?”
“We’ll get someone on it right away,” said Mithtar.
“We can’t afford to put you on this, especially with your name on the list.”
“You cannot be serious. Surely you don’t think I would be involved—”
“Go back to Whiterun, Coranil. If you’re needed, we will let you know. And if you come across any more information, get it to us immediately.”
Coranil glared at them for a long moment before turning and leaving the house, slamming the door behind him. His anger didn’t cool until he was almost back to Whiterun. He couldn’t figure if they were trying to protect him or if they suspected him. It was their way to be suspicious, but after everything they had been through in the past twenty years, he couldn’t fathom a lack of trust now. And if they were trying to protect him, well, he could take care of himself.
Fine. He would do his own investigation. After all, he had resources of his own.
When he arrived back at home, he retrieved the list from the trunk, and he got the book of Dovahzul from the shelf. He made a copy of the list in the dragon language and placed it in an envelope, along with a note explaining where it came and asking for assistance. Then he went to find a courier. Luckily, there was one having a drink in the Mare. He handed him the letter and 500 gold pieces, and told him to deliver the package to his contact post haste.
Coranil opened the shop the next morning as usual. At this point, there was nothing to do but wait and just hope whoever made that list didn’t show up on his doorstep.
* * *
5E 19, 13 Sun’s Height
Rowan and Dagur spent a lot of time training together over the next few months. Once she found her niche, she improved quickly with the swords and grew more comfortable using them in combat, although she still favored the bow. Dagur stopped picking on her, and they became close friends—more like partners, because they went on most missions together. They still argued, and at times Rowan stomped away, calling him big piece of horker dung, but for the most part they fought fairly and their spats didn’t last.
It was usually Kerr who broke up the arguments, and he told Rowan once that the reason she and Dagur still scuffled was because they had passion. “You two will never do anything halfway,” he told her. “You’ll either be bitter enemies or best friends. Or more.”
“I can’t ever see us being more than friends,” she replied, but it was a lie. She thought about him all the time, and she often caught herself watching him. She just hoped he never caught her.
Sometimes she wasn’t sure what he thought about her. At times he would give her the strangest stares, as though he were trying to figure out some puzzle. At others, he seemed uneasy with her, weighing his words before he spoke. As the spring wore on, he did this more and more, and Rowan couldn’t figure out where the tension came from. Still, he seemed to want to be with her. She finally decided that whatever it was, it would work itself out.
In mid-summer, Rowan and Dagur went hunting to celebrate his seventeenth birthday. They traveled into The Pale, using an abandoned mine that the Companions owned a base camp. Even in the middle of Sun’s Height, it was still snowing in the north, where the temperature rarely rose above freezing, and they were grateful for the walls of the cave, which kept the warmth of the fire inside.
They stayed up late, drinking mead and discussing a cryptic letter he had received from his father. On the surface it had seemed like Ulfric’s standard letter to his son, just catching up with goings on at the Palace of the Kings and in Windhelm in general, but there was an undercurrent of tension in his wording that was hard to miss. He had warned of extra security in Falkreath and Markarth but didn’t elaborate, and he had asked if any questionable merchandise had shown up in the General Goods Store.
“Something is going on,” Dagur said as he sipped his mead.
“If it were anything serious, he’d call you home, wouldn’t he?” Rowan asked.
“Probably. But I get the feeling there’s something he’s not telling me. And the fact that he asked about Coranil’s store had to be intended to make me suspicious.”
“He knows Coranil is Altmer, doesn’t he? Maybe he suspects he’s into some illicit activity.”
“No, that—well, I guess it could be.”
“Whatever it is, it may be too sensitive to put in a letter. You know, we had planned on spending a few days here, but we could always go to Windhelm instead.”
“No. I want to enjoy this hunting trip, and that’s what we’ll do.” He paused for a long moment, as though he was weighing his words. “Can I ask you something?” he said finally. “Do you miss him?”
Rowan was taken aback by the abrupt change in subject, but she answered anyway. “Coranil? Sometimes, but I’m so used to him never being around that it doesn’t bother me much anymore. Sigurd has been at the shop more than him for months, and the last time we spent any time together was over a fortnight ago. Even then, it was just a couple of drinks at the Mare. I think he’s been pulling away. Why do you ask, and where did that question come from?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just sort of popped into my head. I’m gonna get some sleep.”
“Okay. Good night.”
He climbed into his bedroll and closed his eyes, and Rowan sat and watched him doze for a while, until she realized what she was doing and looked away. But she found herself looking back. She liked the way he mumbled in his sleep. She could never understand anything he said in his dreams, but it was fun to try to make out the words. And then there was the way his thick, blond hair curled around the nape of his neck.
She rolled her eyes. Oh, just go to sleep, Rowan, she groaned to herself.
* * *
They set out the next morning and explored the hills and woods of The Pale, searching for a bear. They didn’t find one, but they did manage to drop a majestic, sixteen-point buck. They were too far away to drag the whole thing back to the mine, so they set about gutting and skinning it where they were.
“What about the antlers?” Dagur asked.
“Leave them. They make nice ingredients for Arcadia, but they’re too big to carry all the way back to Whiterun, and I don’t know how to grind them down.”
As she spoke, a swift gust of air wafted past them and an enormous shadow blocked the sunlight. Rowan looked up to see a dragon soaring overhead, and her heart practically came up into her throat.
“Ysmir’s beard!” Dagur exclaimed. “Any chance it’s friendly?”
“Sure. Or it just doesn’t see us.”
But the dragon did see them, and it swooped low and pelted them with ice crystals.
“Nope, definitely not friendly,” Rowan said as she drew her bow and searched her memory frantically for the Shout her mama said was the most important one she’d ever learn. As the dragon rose in the air and came back for another pass, she and Dagur shot fire-enchanted arrows at it. It howled and faltered, but it didn’t drop. Instead it soared into the sky and came back down at them.
Divines, please let this work, Rowan prayed as the dragon hovered and took a breath for its next Shout. But she beat it to the punch. “Joor zah frul!”
The blast hit the dragon head-on, and it screamed and faltered, taking flight once more only to crash to the ground. Dagur advanced on it, shooting arrow after arrow as it snapped at him with its enormous jaws.
“Stay back!” Rowan warned him, drawing and shooting at the great wyrm.
The dragon managed another Frost Breath Shout, which hit Dagur full on. He staggered, then shook himself off and drew another arrow. The dragon tried to fly again, but it couldn’t manage to get in the air. Rowan and Dagur continued to shoot until it finally seized up with a groan and fell dead.
“Whoo!” Rowan squealed, grabbing Dagur into a joyous hug. “We did it!”
Dagur wrapped his arms around her and swung her about. “I thought it would be more difficult than that.”
“What do you mean? It took, what, twenty flaming arrows and a Dragonrend Shout. That’s hardly easy.” She started to pull away from him, but he held onto her and she didn’t resist. He stood there with his arms around her waist, smiling at first but then growing serious.
“And . . . um, you took that blast of frost like a champion,” she said awkwardly.
“Rowan, I—” He didn’t finish his sentence; he just leaned in and brushed his lips against hers.
Rowan closed her eyes, threaded her fingers into his hair and pulled him close, opening her mouth to his. He drank her in, and she could feel the racing of his heart. Heat flowed through her body, and for a moment she thought it was just the kiss, but a great whoosh of air made her pull away and open her eyes to see the dragon in flames. She turned and walked toward the conflagration as the dragon’s soul drifted out of its body. For a moment, it was like there was no air, just the heat and the presence that she suddenly felt deep within her soul.
“Dovahkiin,” the dragon whispered to her mind.
“Wow,” Dagur said softly as they watched the dragon’s scales and skin burn away until there was little left but bone.
“Aye,” she said with an uneasy giggle, “that was one heck of a kiss.”
He laughed and came up behind her, slipping his arms around her waist. “Are you going to do that every time I kiss you? I just want to be prepared.”
“So you’re planning on kissing me again?”
He turned her around and gazed into her eyes. “Oh, yes.”
She reached up and kissed him again, and though the heat of the soul absorption wasn’t there, she still felt warmth rising in her face and between her legs. For the life of her, she couldn’t decide which was more significant—the dragon or the kiss. But they couldn’t stand out here in the open and make out all day. She finally pulled away and said, “Let’s get back to camp.”
“I’m right behind you.”
Rowan took a page from her mother’s book and collected one bone and scale from the dragon, as did Dagur. Then they finished butchering the buck and headed back to the mine. The conversation was stilted and awkward, neither of them sure what to say now that the relationship had taken a turn. The uneasiness continued after they got to camp and fixed dinner.
Rowan finally sighed and said, “This is crazy.”
“We’re suddenly walking on eggshells around each other. There’s no need for that; we’re just the same as we were a few hours ago.”
“Huh. Hardly.” She glared at him, and he said, “Suddenly everything I start to say sounds stupid. Just trying to mention that the venison needs more salt is a chore because I’m afraid you’ll think I don’t like your cooking.”
“I . . . I did.”
“So nothing has changed. It’s just that now we know how the other feels. It should make us more comfortable with each other, not less.”
He leaned in and kissed her, and she threaded her fingers through his hair. The kiss deepened, and he slowly laid her back onto his bedroll and positioned himself next to her. Rowan wrapped her arms around him, relishing the feel of his muscles and the strength of his hands as they played over her body. She moaned as he cupped her breast and nibbled at her lip, then moved down to kiss her throat. He took her hand and placed it on his crotch, then she gasped and pulled back.
“Dagur, I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
He sighed with frustration and sat up, pulling her with him.
“It’s just, Coranil and I haven’t officially stopped seeing each other, and it doesn’t feel right. I have to talk to him.”
“No, no, I understand.” But he wouldn’t look at her.
“Dagur, look at me.” He turned to her, and she said, “I want this. I want you. I just want to take it slower.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” he said with a smile. He leaned in and gave her a soft kiss. “We have all the time in the world.”
“Hey, you know what?”
“We killed a dragon!”
With a chuckle, he said, “Aye, we did. Dragonborn.”
“No, no. We’ve discussed this before. You are not going to call me that.”
* * *
The conversation wavered from self-conscious to animated on the trip back to Whiterun. Things were different now, and although most of the time they could still be themselves with one another, occasionally they would remember just how different things were and get nervous.
Rowan was angry with herself for feeling so uncomfortable. They had broken the tension and everything should be better now. Besides, it wasn’t like she was inexperienced sexually, and she would bet her last septim that Dagur wasn’t a virgin, either. But they were still young, and some things just seemed so much more important. Maybe she should have just slept with him and relieved the rest of the tension, but something had held her back. She hated to admit it, but part of her didn’t trust him not to break her heart. After all, he was overconfident, brash at times, known to talk about women with his friends, and most of all, he was heir apparent to the High King. Before she jumped into bed with him, she wanted to be reasonably confident that they had the same intentions about where the relationship would lead.
When they arrived in town, Dagur took the spoils of their trip back to Jorrvaskr, and Rowan went to the General Goods Store to see Coranil. He was actually in the store today, and he smiled when she entered the shop.
“Rowan! How was your trip? I heard you went hunting with Dagur.”
“Aye,” she said, sidling up to the counter. “It was monumental. We killed a dragon!”
Coranil’s eyes widened. “Fantastic! How was that?”
“Exhilarating. Having a Shout that could bring it out of the sky really helped.”
“And? Did you absorb its soul?”
Rowan grinned and nodded. “First thing I’m going to do when I get back to Jorrvaskr is write a letter to Mama and Daddy. Well, after I take a bath, anyway. But I need to talk to you.”
“Of course. What is it?”
She absently wrapped a strand of hair around a finger and shifted her weight from foot to foot, not really knowing how she wanted to start. She finally leaned on the counter and said, “You’ve been away a lot, and we’ve drifted apart.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry about that. But I don’t see it changing any time soon.”
“The thing is, I’ve become interested in someone else.”
After a long pause, Coranil said, “I see. Is it Dagur?”
“And he feels the same, I assume?”
“I’m sorry, Coranil.”
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for, my dear. We had agreed our relationship wouldn’t get serious, and I cannot expect you to wait for me while I travel. I only . . . I fear that I’m going to miss you more than I would have thought.”
“But we’ll part friends?”
Coranil came around the corner, took her face in his hands, and mashed his lips against hers in an impulsive, almost brutal kiss. Rowan wrapped her arms around him and leaned into the kiss, her breath catching in her throat as he slipped his tongue in her mouth. For a moment, pressed against him as she was, she almost believed she had made the wrong decision.
“Dagur is just a boy,” he said when the kiss broke off.
“And I’m not much older. Please, Coranil, say we’ll part friends.”
“Of course we will, my love. When you see Dagur, tell him I need to speak with him, would you?”
“No, no, this is unrelated, I assure you.”
He placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I promise.”
Rowan left the shop and went back to Jorrvaskr, hopeful that the elf wouldn’t do anything rash.