The sun was high in the sky, and the Companions were enjoying their first warm day of the year. Winters in Skyrim were long, and the warriors were used to training in sub-zero temperatures, but the balmy weather made the courtyard activities much more pleasant.
Rowan was sparring with Ben, whose swordsmanship had improved quickly when he had started practicing again. At this point they were pretty evenly matched, at least if they were fighting with two swords. Rowan still had trouble when wielding one blade.
Dolff, Kerr, and a handful of whelps watched the match. “Lower your arm!” Dolff snapped at Rowan. “You’re leaving your midsection wide open.”
“I know, I know!”
“I know you know. So fix it.”
Rowan shot her lover a dirty look and continued the fight.
After a while, Kerr said, “All right, give the others a go.”
Rowan and Ben were just switching places with Dolff and Kerr when a howl rang through the air. “Dragon!” someone down in town cried out. They looked up to see a huge red dragon soaring overhead.
“Hey, I know that dragon,” Rowan quipped.
The beast circled a few times before descending close enough so they could make out two figures riding on his back. Rowan and Ben were already running toward Dragonsreach when Odahviing landed on the Great Porch. They bounded up the stairs to the Cloud District, threw open the doors to the palace, and dashed through the great hall. They met Jarl Thorald Gray-Mane just as they reached the door.
“Afternoon, Jarl,” Ben said.
“I believe we have visitors,” he replied. He stood by as Ben opened the door for him, and then he walked through, followed by the siblings.
When they stepped outside, they saw Selene and Brynjolf just walking away from the red dragon, both wearing their Nightingale armor, still fit in middle age. “Mama! Daddy!” Rowan squealed as if she were a child, and she rushed over, arms wide. She wrapped her arms around her daddy, who returned the embrace and kissed the top of her head.
Ben, who towered over their mother, kissed the top of her head. He nodded a hello to Odahviing, who nodded back.
When they separated, Selene Stormblade turned to the jarl. “Well met, Jarl. I hope you don’t mind if we borrow the great porch for a bit.”
“I shan’t stay,” said Odahviing. “Simply call for me when you are ready to leave.” With that, the dragon leapt into the air and flew away.
“It isn’t necessary for him to leave,” Thorald told them. “You know that.”
“I think he’s more comfortable out in the wilds instead of here so close to the trap.”
“I understand. What brings you to our city?”
“We’re just here to see our children,” said Brynjolf.
“Shall I have a room made up for you?”
Selene shook her head. “We’re only staying a few hours.”
“Aww,” Rowan whined.
“Sorry, little one,” Brynjolf said, brushing a finger under her chin, “but you’re going to be busy anyway. We have a job for you.”
“Let’s head to Jorrvaskr,” Selene suggested.
When they arrived at the Companions’ headquarters, lots of hugs were exchanged, and Rowan couldn’t help noticing Vilkas held Selene longer than he probably should. They had both been happily married for many years, but there was still something there, perhaps some unfinished business from their past. Nothing would ever come of it, but Rowan couldn’t help feeling a pang in the pit of her stomach when she saw the look on her daddy’s face. He knew it, too, and it wasn’t just with Vilkas. Mama might have picked him to marry, but she would always have feelings for Vilkas and Ulfric—feelings that were reciprocated.
“How is he?” Vilkas asked Selene softly.
“He’s Farkas,” she replied with a shrug. “He never changes. He misses you. Whenever we come here, the first thing he says is, ‘Did he ask about me?’”
Vilkas gave a noncommittal grunt, shook hands with Brynjolf, and started to leave the Stormblade family to their visit; but Selene caught him by the arm. “Vilkas, don’t you think this has gone on long enough?”
“No, I don’t,” he replied shortly.
“I can smell your grief, you know. You act like he’s dead, but he’s not.”
“Of course he is.”
Selene folded her arms and glared at him. “That’s it. Next time I come here, I’m bringing him with me.”
“It won’t matter. He’s not welcome here, anyway.”
She just smiled in return, and he chuckled. “I had forgotten where Rowan had gotten that, ‘I’m going to get my way whether you like it or not’ look. Well, it’s not going to work.”
“Not a lot of conviction in your voice now, Vilkas.”
“It’s good to see you, Selene. Brynjolf.” He turned and walked away before Selene could catch him again.
“Gods dammit, that man is stubborn!”
Ben got mead and wine for them, and they relaxed at a corner table. “We should probably include Uncle in this if it’s a job for the Companions,” Ben pointed out.
Selene shook her head. “This is more of a personal errand for the two of you. I’ve been given a mission by Ulfric Stormcloak, and after some discussion, your da and I decided you would be better suited to carry it out.”
“What’s the mission?” Rowan asked.
“We need you to go to the top of the Throat of the World and collect some Unmelting Snow.”
“Unmelting snow?” Ben asked.
“At the very peak is a patch of snow that has been there since time immemorial, and it’s said to be imbued with magic so that it will never melt. Ulfric needs some of it.”
Ben chuckled. “We’re taking a pilgrimage to the Throat of the World for a magical snowball?”
“Aye, pretty much.”
“A pilgrimage up the Seven Thousand Steps is a bit much for us these days,” Brynjolf said, “so we thought this would be a good time for the two of you to meet the Greybeards and be acknowledged as Dragonborn.”
Rowan gave her daddy a broad smile. “And we’ll finally get to meet Paarthurnax, yes?”
“I would imagine so, aye.”
“Well, then there’s no time to lose,” said Ben. “We’ll leave tomorrow. Ro?”
“Sure. What does the High King need it for?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say,” her mother told her. “Several of us are working on a fairly big project for him, and it’s all very hush-hush.”
“It’s ‘need to know’ and we don’t need to know,” Ben surmised.
“Exactly.” Selene reached into her satchel and pulled out a sealed letter. “This is for the Greybeards, basically telling them who you are. They’re reclusive, but they will open High Hrothgar to the Dragonborn. Dragonborns.”
“So how are you handling your new status as Dragonborn?” Brynjolf asked.
Rowan shrugged. “Well, so far, it hasn’t really come into play. We use our Shouts, but we’ve each only killed one dragon. There was that thing with Ben and the college, though.”
“Aye, but that didn’t have anything to do with me being Dragonborn,” Ben protested.
“It probably did,” Selene told him. “You will find that as Dragonborn, the Divines and Daedra—even human and mer authority figures—will take notice of you and choose you for tasks before others.”
“That wasn’t just a task, Ma.”
“Bad choice of words. My point is that you’re special, and everybody knows it. It’s not just the Shouts; it’s the dragon blood itself. You learn more quickly, and your skills seem to have more punch. You’re also natural leaders and have a penchant for domination.”
Rowan shook her head. “We’re not like that at all.”
“No?” Ben replied. “You bat your blue eyes at anybody—anybody—and you have them eating out of your hand. You were a master archer before you were sixteen years old, and you’re always taking charge when the whelps are training.”
“No, Dolff takes charge.”
“You compete for it. It’s one reason you fight all the time.”
“Well, what about you?”
“My skill with magic, the Staff of Magnus, and honestly, I’m pretty good at getting what I want, too.”
Rowan sighed. “Oh, all right. I still don’t see it, but if you’re going to gang up on me . . .”
“We’re not ganging up on you, little one,” Brynjolf argued. “Were just making a point. Skills and leadership aside, there are things that only a Dragonborn can do. For example, only a Dragonborn could reach the top of the Throat of the World. Unless they’ve trained for many years with the Greybeards or they’re lucky enough to be in the company of a Dragonborn, like I was.”
“What’s it like?” Rowan asked, although they had talked about it many times before.
“It’s cold and unforgiving.”
“High Hrothgar itself is very peaceful,” said Selene.
Brynjolf shook his head. “It’s too quiet. If I hadn’t been absolutely terrified when I was there, I’d have been bored to distraction.”
Selene smiled, reached up and stroked his bearded cheek. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“You keep telling yourself that, love.”
“Maybe while you’re here, you can gift us with some Shout knowledge,” Rowan mentioned. “We’ve encountered some Word Walls in the last few months.”
* * *
When Selene started discussing Shouts with their kids, Brynjolf decided to have a little fun. He found Dolff in the backyard, just finishing up a sparring match with Vilkas’s son, and he sat down at a table and waved the lad over. Dolff obliged, pouring tankards of mead from a keg on the big table and bringing them to Brynjolf.
“You’re welcome,” said Dolff. “Rowan was so glad to see you two.”
“We were glad to see her as well. But I wanted to speak to you while I was here.”
Dolff paled just a bit and said, “Uh, sure, what did you want to talk about?”
“I want to know what your intentions are toward my daughter.”
Although Brynjolf was sure he had prepared for the conversation, he was at a loss for words now. “I, uh . . . we just—”
“Are you bedding her?”
What that, the poor boy lost all composure. It was hilarious. He stuttered and stumbled over a few platitudes, and Brynjolf just sat back and enjoyed the show. He really shouldn’t have been so mean, but the lad was such an easy target!
“So yes, then?”
“Brynjolf, I . . . oh, for Divines’ sake.” He took a deep breath, looked Brynjolf squarely in the eyes, and said, “All right, though we’re too young now, it’s my intention to someday marry her.”
“You’ll likely inherit the throne. Do you think she’ll be happy as queen?”
“I hope she’ll be just happy with me. The rest can work itself out.”
“If you hurt her, you know that your status as a royal won’t save you, right?”
“Oh, believe me, I already got that speech from Ben and Vilkas. I love her, Brynjolf. And she loves me. That’s the most important thing right now.”
“Right now, aye, but you’re heir to the throne and she’s Dragonborn. You have to keep that in mind, even at your ages.”
Dolff narrowed his eyes at Brynjolf. He was beginning to realize what was going on. “You’re just doing all this to torture me, aren’t you?”
With a chuckle, Brynjolf said, “Somewhat. Everything I said was absolutely true, but aye, there was mischief involved. I’ve waited since the day Rowan was born to have this conversation, and I always told her I would scare the oblivion out of any boy she brought home, so there it is. I’m not really surprised she picked you. Just take care of her, all right?”
“I will, as much as she lets me. She can be headstrong.”
“Don’t I know it,” Brynjolf said as he clapped him on the shoulder.
* * *
Selene and Brynjolf stayed the afternoon and socialized with their children, as well as the rest of the Companions. Rowan didn’t know what Brynjolf had said during the talk he’d had with Dolff, but she was certain her daddy threatened his life. He had joked about it when she was growing up. She supposed every father had the right to threaten his daughter’s lovers, and apparently no real harm was done, because Dolff seemed to be in a relatively good mood when the chat was over.
Just after supper, they made their way back to Dragonsreach, and Selene called Odahviing from the Great Porch. Rowan and Ben embraced their parents, and Rowan hugged the dragon’s neck for good measure, and then Selene and Brynjolf flew off into the sunset.
Rowan sighed. “That was too short a visit.”
“I concur. But we’ve got to prepare for our trip anyway.
Rowan prepared for the trip by packing quickly and then sneaking away to the Bannered Mare with Dolff, where they spent the night in each other’s arms. There was no privacy in Jorrvaskr, and they had become regular customers at the inn. Ysolda often joked about charging them a flat monthly fee and just letting them move in.
Ben was also a regular customer, although his choice of partner changed fairly often. When Rowan kissed Dolff goodbye and emerged from their room an hour before dawn the next morning, she wasn’t surprised to find Ben slipping out of the next room.
“Morning,” he whispered.
“Morning.” She pointed to the door. “Who?”
“Greta. And Camille.”
Rowan’s mouth dropped open. “Ben, are you serious? By the Nine, you are such a whore!”
“Hey, at least I’m quiet. Do you think I want to hear the noises you make when you’re in bed with Dolff? Nuh-uh.”
“I don’t make noises!”
Ben snickered in response but didn’t say anything more.
* * *
5E 20, 9 First Seed
Whiterun might be enjoying an early spring, but winter was still raging on the Throat of the World. Rowan and Ben pulled their cloaks around themselves as they trudged through the gale-force winds that ravaged the mountainside. The trip had been easy and uneventful as they rode to Ivarstead, and they’d had no trouble until they stabled their horses in the village and started up the mountain. A couple of Clear Skies Shouts helped their progress but did nothing to alleviate the biting cold. By the time they reached High Hrothgar, they were exhausted and frozen. And the doors were locked.
“Crap,” Rowan muttered. “Now what do we do?”
“I guess we knock.” Ben pounded hard on the door with the hilt of his sword.
Nothing happened, and Rowan began to think no one would answer. Ben knocked again, though, and after a few moments, the door swung open.
A man in gray robes stood before them, not old like their mother had predicted but fairly young, possibly in his thirties, with dark hair and beard and hazel eyes. “Can I help you?” he asked softly.
“Our mother sent us,” said Rowan. “Selene Stormblade?”
The man raised a brow curiously. “You’re the children of the Dragonborn?”
“Aye. Here, I have a letter.” She handed the Greybeard the note, and he read it.
He nodded and stepped back so they could enter, then locked the door behind them. “Welcome to High Hrothgar. I am Master Lodur.”
“We weren’t expecting someone so young,” Ben said.
“I was summoned to study with the Greybeards fifteen years ago,” he told them as he led them into the front hall.
Others started to filter into the room, and they were older like Rowan had expected. “Brother Lodur,” one of them said, barely above a whisper, “what is the meaning of this?”
“They are the children of Selene Stormblade, Master Arngeir. Rowan and Ben, both Dragonborn.”
Arngeir looked them over. “That remains to be seen,” he said. “Let us experience the power of your Thu’um. One at a time, please. Don’t worry about hurting us; we can withstand it.”
Rowan looked up at Ben, who nodded, and she turned back to the old man. “Fus!” she Shouted, reluctant to release the full force on him. As it was, the Greybeard staggered backward.
“Very good,” said Master Arngeir. “Now Ben.”
Ben released his Shout, but he did so in Lodur’s direction, staggering the younger Greybeard.
“Excellent,” Arngeir remarked. “Tell me, have you studied the Way of the Voice?”
“Not so much,” said Ben. “We worship Talos, along with Kynareth; we learned several Shouts from our mother and aunt, but they didn’t teach us much of the Greybeards’ ways.”
“And you are here to learn, yes?”
Rowan shook her head. “We will learn what we can from you in the time we have, but we’re actually on a mission for our mother. We need to go to the top of the Throat of the World and get some of the Unmelting Snow.”
Arngeir’s eyes widened, and then his face twisted into a scowl. “Out of the question. Your mother trained for months before being allowed to go to the mountaintop, and she wasn’t ready even then. What made her so certain we would let you go?”
“You do know our mother, right?” Ben asked.
“Indeed, I do. No, we will teach you, but we cannot allow you to go farther up the mountain.”
Rowan took a step toward him and gazed into his eyes. “Master, I know we’re asking a lot, but Mama wouldn’t have sent us if this wasn’t important. We know about Paarthurnax, and we know the Clear Skies Shout, and we want to learn more. We’ll be happy to come back and spend time studying with you when our quest is finished, but this is something we must do now. Lives could hang in the balance.”
Arngeir held his hand out to Lodur, who gave him Selene’s letter. He read it and then peered up at Rowan. “You understand this is highly irregular.”
“We do, but Mama has always said that concessions needed to be made for the Dragonborn.”
“Do you even know what the Unmelting Snow will be used for?”
Rowan shook her head. “If Mama had wanted us to know, she would have told us. But we trust her, so here we are. Please, Master. Let us complete our quest.”
The Greybeard stared at her for a long moment, his milky eyes filled with uncertainty, and Rowan just stared at him and waited. He finally sighed and said, “Very well. But you must promise to come back and study with us when this is over.”
“We promise,” Rowan replied with a smile. She reached out and hugged the Greybeard, and though he was taken aback at first, he wrapped his arms around her after a moment.
“We need to rest tonight,” Ben told them. “It was a long trip up the mountain.”
“Certainly,” said Master Lodur. “I’ll make rooms up for you, and you can eat and get some sleep.”
* * *
After a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast, Ben and Rowan said goodbye to the Greybeards and started up the mountain. As long as the Clear Skies Shout kept the mists at bay, the trip was fairly easy, although Rowan frightened Ben when she stopped on a rickety bridge to admire the view below. She stood in the center of the bridge, which swayed with their weight, and leaned far over the rope rail.
“Wow, if you do this right, it feels just like flying.” She stretched her arms out at her sides and craned her neck to see past the wood of the bridge.
“Well, you’re going to be flying if you’re not careful. You’re scaring the Oblivion out of me. This bridge isn’t that sturdy.”
“It’s sturdy enough. You’re no fun; do you know that?”
“Ro, c’mon. Take a step back, will you?”
Rowan sighed and backed up. “Fine, fine. You men are so skittish! Dolff is the same way.”
“We just don’t want anything to happen to you. Now, can we please get across this bridge? The mists are starting to encroach again.”
“Aye, let’s go.” She turned and Shouted at the mists, and they dissipated long enough for them to cross the bridge.
The skies were already clear when they made it to the top of the mountain. The sun was directly overhead, and the winds died down to a slight breeze. The only thing that disturbed the blanket of pristine snow was the Word Wall, which called to them from a hundred yards away. Unfortunately, as prepared as they thought they were to meet Paarthurnax, Ben found that he and his sister were apprehensive about approaching a Word Wall with a dragon sitting on it.
Paarthurnax’s pale scales glimmered in the sunlight, and his eyes twinkled as he bobbed his head at them. “Come forward,” he urged. “I shall not harm you. I am Paarthurnax.”
Rowan stepped forward, and Ben reluctantly followed. “Greetings, Master Paarthurnax,” she said. “I am Rowan, and this is my brother Ben. We’re Selene Stormblade’s children.”
“Ah, the children of the Dovahkiin. And are you Dovahkiin as well?”
“Aye, we are.”
He briefly took to the air and then came down on the ground just a few feet away. Ben believed the old dragon wouldn’t hurt them, but he trembled anyway.
“Tell me,” said the dragon, “vahr lost hi meyz wah dii strunmah? Why have you come to my mountain?”
“Two reasons,” Ben replied. “We need some Unmelting Snow, and our mother thought it was time we met you and the Greybeards.”
“If she sent you, I assume she instructed you how the dov greet each other?”
He turned toward the Word Wall. “I shall go first. Yol . . . toor shul!” The blast of fire hit the wall, the heat radiated over them, and then the dragon turned back to them. “I Shout away from you so that you will not be harmed by the flames, but I need no such consideration. Volaan, each of you speak to me as only a dovah can.”
“Yol . . . toor shul!” Rowan Shouted, and Paarthurnax closed his eyes as the fire blazed around him.
“Good, good! And Ben.”
Ben did the same, and he could have sworn the dragon smiled.
“Yes, yes! You truly are Dovahkiin. I have long lived on this mountain with only a few of the joor visiting me. Although my brothers come from time to time, it is good to speak with others. Tell me, how fares your mother?”
“She’s well,” said Rowan. “She leads an organization in Riften, and they keep her busy.”
“And your father? Does he live?”
“He does, and he’s well too.”
Ma had said Paarthurnax could be chatty, and she was right. He asked many questions about their parents, and about Rowan and Ben specifically, and they stayed and talked with him for a couple of hours before Ben said, “I’m sorry, Master, but if we’re going to get back to High Hrothgar before nightfall, we should get our snow and leave.”
“Krosis. I understand you have a quest. Nox hi, thank you, for indulging me.”
“We’d like to come back when our quest is done and train with you,” said Rowan.
“Of course. Fod tiid orlaav. Return when time permits. But while you are here, allow me to teach you a Shout.” He turned back to the Word Wall and Shouted, “Mul!” A word on the wall glowed blue, and the chanting resounded around Ben and Rowan.
They stepped forward together, and the Word of Power resonated within Ben. Strength. Before he could even consider that he already knew the basic word, the vivid image of himself bathed in gold and blue light passed through his mind. The word conveyed not just strength, but the strength of the dov, and when he used the Shout, his body would be covered in mighty, ethereal dragon armor to protect him and increase his power.
“Thank you, Master,” Ben said humbly. Rowan nodded her thanks as well.
Paarthurnax nodded back, then took flight, soared overhead for a few moments, and landed on the Word Wall. “The Unmelting Snow is just over that low ridge,” he told them. “Take what you need.”
“Again, thank you,” said Ben.
Rowan pulled a large vial from her knapsack and ascended the incline to the ridge Paarthurnax had indicated. She scooped some of the snow into the vial and came back down with a mischievous grin on her face.
“You know, the mountain goes farther up from there. There’s even a sort of trail. We could climb all the way to the very top if we wanted.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Ro, do you have a death wish? I want to get off this mountain before sunset.”
“I mentioned that you’re no fun, right? Very well, let’s go.”