Dolff and Ben released Coranil from the wall shackles, and Rowan caught him as he collapsed. He was so thin and frail, she thought she could carry him on her own, but Dolff picked him up and toted him to the nearest bedchamber. Rowan figured he must be in incredible pain, but he didn’t wince or groan once.
Dolff went to get some water, and Ben sat down next to Coranil and called healing magic to his hands while Rowan stood back and chewed on a fingernail.
“She’s biting her nails, isn’t she?” Coranil asked without even opening his swollen eyes.
“Of course,” said Ben as he concentrated on the elf’s foot, which appeared to be broken.
“I would imagine you have questions, my love.”
“Don’t talk now,” she said. “Just let Ben take care of you.”
Dolff came back with a pitcher of water, a bowl, some rags, and the tip of Coranil’s ear. “The way it was bleeding,” he said, “I figured it was a pretty fresh wound, so the rest of it had to be there somewhere.”
Rowan took the ear and eyed it critically. “I can try sewing it back on. Won’t hurt to give it a shot, anyway.”
She sat on the opposite side of the bed from Ben need started dabbing Coranil’s wounds, cleaning off the dried blood. She noted plenty of scars that hadn’t been there the last time she had seen him. “Cor, how long have they been at this?”
“I’ve lost track of time. Weeks, I think. He would bring me to the point of death, heal me, and then start over again.” He said it with such clinical detachment that Rowan was taken aback.
With first aid supplies from her pack, she did manage to reattach his ear, although she doubted it would heal. Hopefully it would stay put long enough to get Coranil to the Temple of the Divines in Solitude, where more experienced healers could look at it. She could do a good field dressing, but she just wasn’t a healer. When she was finished with the ear, she started stitching some of his other wounds while Ben concentrated on the broken bones.
After a while, Ben stopped his work and retrieved a magicka potion from his knapsack. He also grabbed a healing potion and said, “Coranil, can you drink this?”
With Rowan’s help, the Altmer sat up and swallowed the potion.
“You know I have to ask,” said Dolff, who stood at the side of the bed. “Did you break?”
Coranil shook his head slowly. “He didn’t ask much, really. He knew who I was, who I worked for, and why I was here. He had a few questions about my order, but in truth, he had other things on his mind. No, I did not break. The bastard got nothing from me but insults.”
“Why are you being so calm about this?” Rowan demanded. “You’re saying all this like we’re just chatting over a drink or something!”
“I told you once there were things about me you didn’t know.”
“Well, this was obviously one of them. An operative for Ulfric Stormcloak?”
“He’s Da’s most trusted operative,” Dolff threw in.
“Next to Selene,” the elf corrected.
“How did you ever manage that?” asked Rowan.
“I thought you weren’t going to make him talk right now,” Ben admonished her as he finished the foot and began to work on Coranil’s broken ribs.
“It’s all right,” said Coranil. “She deserves to know the truth. You both do. Did you find the Jagged Crown?”
Rowan nodded. “It’s in Dolff’s knapsack. Cor, how are you not in complete agony?”
“I am,” he admitted, “but I learned long ago to withstand pain.”
“Not this kind of pain.”
“Exactly this kind of pain.” He paused, as if he was weighing his words, and though his eyes were shut and Rowan couldn’t really look into them, he turned his head away as if he were ashamed. “You see, I was once an interrogator myself. For the Thalmor.”
“Twenty-five years ago, I was Skyrim’s senior justiciar. I spent my days patrolling Markarth, rooting out and punishing Talos worshipers. By then I had been subjected to many tortures. All young Thalmor are trained not only to inflict pain but to endure it. This interrogator didn’t do anything to me that had not been done before—well, except branding me with my Talos amulet. That was new.”
“You’ve had your ears cut off before?” Rowan asked incredulously.
“Not my ears, but I’ve had fingers and toes severed.”
“Oh, sweet Talos.”
“How in the name of the Divines did you end up working for the Stormcloaks?” Ben asked him as he picked up a clean rag and wiped sweat from his face. “I’m not going to be able to heal all your wounds, Cor, but I’ll try to get the worst of it.”
“If you can make it so that I can walk, that is all I’ll need. Between that and Rowan’s field dressings, I’ll be fine.”
Rowan shook her head vehemently. “You’re not fine! You have broken bones, all kinds of burns, you’ve been starved, and I don’t even want to know what he stuck in your shoulder to leave a hole that big!” She squeezed her eyes shut to hold back tears.
Coranil reached up and stroked her cheek, and she took his hand. “Are your fingers broken too? Gods, Coranil, you have to lie still!”
Ben called the healing magic to his hands again and aimed at the Talos-amulet-shaped burn in the center of Coranil’s chest, but the Altmer pushed his hand away.
“Not that one,” he said. “Leave it. After he branded me with it, he melted my amulet. Now I don’t need it.”
Rowan stroked a gentle finger down Coranil’s freshly stitched cheek as Ben took Coranil’s hand and started working on his fingers. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Dolff shifting uncomfortably, and she knew he didn’t like the affection she and Coranil were showing for each other; but he didn’t say anything and she pretended not to notice. This was something she had to do. “Ben wanted to know how you became a Stormcloak. I just want to know how you came to worship Talos.”
“I doubt you’ll believe me. They’re the same story, really. By the time Ulfric killed High King Torygg and began the Civil War, I had become disillusioned with the Thalmor, and the Aldmeri Dominion in general. All that hate takes so much energy, and I had grown weary of it. There aren’t many gentle souls in the Dominion, but my mother is one; she is a priestess of Kynareth. She split with my father—who was not so gentle—and is now living in High Rock—or at least she was the last I heard from her, which I confess was more than a quarter century ago. I believe some of her teachings stuck with me even through my indoctrination with the Thalmor. I railed so often about the superiority of mer over man, but somewhere along the way, I stopped believing it. I had seen humans do many great things, brilliant things, and I had seen rampant ineptitude within my own race. After many years—many years—I came to understand that neither race was superior over the other.”
“But you didn’t leave the Thalmor.”
“One does not leave the Thalmor. Even when I escaped Markarth, my only thought was to get to the embassy in Solitude. I didn’t know there was an alternative.
“I thought I was being so stealthy. I traded my robes for rags, stayed off the roads, hid in shadows, and I never even knew I was being followed until a couple approached me my second night on the road. They knew who I was and said they’d had their eye on me for some time, even before Markarth fell. If no one else knew how disenchanted I was with the Aldmeri Dominion, they did. They took me in, and over time, as our trust in each other grew, I became aware of their secret. They were part of an order of Altmer who quietly opposed the Dominion. While they stayed out of the civil war, which the Thalmor secretly supported because it weakened the Empire, the order worked behind the scenes to thwart the Thalmor at every possible opportunity.” He chuckled. “They thought your mother’s infiltration of the embassy was magnificent!”
“But people just don’t suddenly change like that,” Rowan protested.
“It wasn’t sudden. As I said, I’d been having doubts for years, and even after this couple took me in, I didn’t just join them overnight. It must have been . . . oh, three years before I started actively working for them. Even then, I had my doubts about them.”
“They were Talos worshipers,” Dolff mentioned.
Coranil nodded. “That was the subject of many an argument, I assure you. The female was very devout, and she told me many things I had never known. And I had heard things, seen things, when I was interrogating Talos worshipers. Faith is an amazing thing. But two centuries of indoctrination are difficult to overcome. It actually happened faster than any of us would have thought.”
“They finally convinced you?” Rowan asked.
“Not exactly,” he said. He turned to Ben, who was drinking another magicka potion. “Ben, take a rest. None of this is life threatening, and you’re looking very pale.”
Rowan looked at her brother, and her eyes widened. He was exhausted, his hair and armor soaked with sweat and dark circles forming under his eyes. “Oh, Ben.”
“Maybe I could rest for a few minutes.” He got up and went over to a table, where he sat down. “I’m just gonna lay my—” He didn’t even finish the sentence before he laid his head on his arms and went to sleep.
“Perhaps I should let him have the bed,” Coranil said mildly.
“Will you stop?” Rowan chided.
“Are you hungry?” Dolff asked the elf.
“When is the last time they fed you?” Rowan asked him.
“Just yesterday. My torturer would make sure I was healthy before starting in on me again.”
“Sweet Talos, Coranil. Did all this happen today?”
“Last night and today, yes, except for the brand.”
Dolff went to a sideboard holding breads, fruits, and cheeses and got a plate with some bread cheese. He brought it back to Coranil, who sat up with Rowan’s aid. She broke the food into bite-size pieces so he wouldn’t have to try to break it off with his broken fingers, and he accepted the plate gratefully.
He took a bite, absently fingering the brand on his chest as he ate. The food energized him a bit, and he propped up on the pillow and continued his story.
“My torturer spent a great deal of time trying to get me to renounce Talos. He had no idea just how wasted his efforts were.”
“What do you mean?” Rowan asked.
“There were tales about your mother, you know. Some said she was in direct communication with the Divines, that they spoke to her in dreams.”
Rowan nodded. “Just Kynareth, but aye, that’s true. She told me once that she even met me in Kynareth’s garden before I was born.”
“Then she and I have something in common. To this day, I don’t know if it was real, or if it was just a potion, a spell, or a dream; but I sat on a hill and had a conversation with Talos that was as realistic as the one we’re having now.”
“Oh, my—Coranil, that’s amazing!”
“I do have my suspicions about a spell or a potion, actually. I wouldn’t have put it past my friend to cast some sort of Illusion spell to make me think I was seeing Talos. Whether she did or not, the images and sensations were so vivid that I began to see things differently. It was still another year before I embraced him as Divine—as my Divine.”
“What did he say?”
Coranil smiled at her. “That is between him and me.”
Rowan nodded her understanding. “Did he ever speak to you again?”
“Once, and I will tell you what he said that time. He said to go to Ulfric Stormcloak.”
Dolff laughed. “I will never forget that day as long as I live.”
“Why, what happened?” she asked.
“I was very small, maybe six years old. I’d heard a lot of discussion about the Altmer, arguments between Da and Ma, between him and your ma, and others. I’d built them up to be just short of gods—or daedra, I wasn’t really sure. But whatever they were, they were something other than people.
“It was midmorning, and although I wasn’t usually allowed in the great hall when court was in session, I was there that day for some reason. I was sitting on Da’s lap when Coranil came in. Da froze as this golden giant walked up to the throne. I mean, he was so big! Da handed me off to Ma, and I remember him putting his hand on his axe. A couple of guards stepped in front of us, too. But no one expected Coranil to bend knee, which is exactly what he did. He said he was there to offer his services, which I had no idea what that meant, but Da just laughed at him. That’s when Ma took me upstairs.”
“And when Ulfric sent me to the dungeon,” Coranil said. “I don’t mean to put your father in a bad light, Dolff, but I went through quite a bit of pain at his interrogator’s hands, as well.”
“Da tortured you?” Dolff asked with shock in his voice.
“Of course he did. I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. An Altmer who shows up at his door, claiming to be a Talos-worshiping ex-Thalmor who wants to work for him must be a spy. Well, I say he did. The High King never actually laid a hand on me, but I wouldn’t have expected that, either. I told him everything I’ve just told you, leaving out only the part about my order. We went through it countless times, and my story never wavered because it was true, and frankly, I had suffered worse pain at the hands of my own people. The Stormcloaks have nothing on the Thalmor when it comes to inflicting pain.”
He paused for a moment, reliving some memory or another. Finally, he said, “Several months after I arrived at the palace, the interrogator asked me about my order. Apparently, they had come looking for me.”
“And Ulfric didn’t throw them in the dungeon?” Rowan asked.
“No, and to this day, I do not know why. I told the interrogator what I could about the order without giving away anything damaging. I also told him that had Ulfric released me to them, I would not have gone. A few days later, the High King himself came down to the dungeon. He set a chair outside the door to my cell and said, ‘My jailer tells me you seem to truly want to be here. Only a fool or a madman would willingly submit himself to this kind of treatment. Which are you?’”
“Da can be blunt,” Dolff remarked.
“Yes, he can. I replied that I was a bit of both. I told him that I didn’t know why, but I knew it was where I was supposed to be. He left, and for a while, things went back to normal. The interrogator would question me, and I would tell the same story, although the torture was much less frequent and severe. Ulfric came down to visit occasionally as well, more often as time went on. He asked me many questions as well, although they had more a feel of curiosity than a demand for information. I’ve often wondered if Talos had spoken to him too. He can be blunt, but he can also be private, and he would never share something like that.
“One day, after more than a year, a guard let me out of my cell and told me I was free to go. He gave me back my clothes and the things I had brought into the palace with me, and he turned me loose. My first thought was to run back to the order, but I knew what I had to do. I got a room at Candlehearth Hall, bathed, had a meal, and went right back to the palace. Again, I offered my services to the High King, and again, he laughed. This time, however, instead of sending me to the dungeon, he sent me to one of his lead operatives for training. It took a long time for him to really come to trust me, but we eventually became friends.”
“Da adores him,” Dolff confirmed. “Their friendship has gone a long way toward helping him get over his hatred of elves.”
“Yes, but I fear it will never go away completely. The High King is old and set in his ways.”
“This, coming from the two-hundred-year-old Altmer,” Ben said from the table, where his head still lay on his arms.
Rowan ran a finger softly through Coranil’s silvery hair. “I’ve never actually seen you with hair before.”
“Well, enjoy it now, because as soon as I get to a razor, I’m shaving it.”
“Coranil, I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you forgive me for lying to you.” The pain in his voice was tangible, and it rent Rowan’s heart.
“You didn’t lie. You had a job to do, and you couldn’t tell me.”
“That’s all well and good for you,” Ben said, lifting his head, “but I’m pissed. How could you keep something like this from me after all we’ve meant to each other?”
Rowan laughed. “You’re an idiot.”
He got up and came over to the bed, where he sat back down. “Cor, we’re used to secrets,” he said earnestly. “Our parents run the Thieves Guild, plus they’re also operatives for the High King. You did what you had to do, and will continue to do so, and there’s no need to apologize for that.” He clapped him amiably on an uninjured part of his leg. “You’re already looking better. I think the healing potions have been working on your face. The swelling around your eyes is going down.”
“Perhaps, but I fear I may be blind in my left eye.”
Rowan seethed. “I wish that interrogator was still alive so I could kill him!”
“Well, don’t worry. If His Grace is bringing you in on this project, I suspect there will be more Thalmor on whom to exact your revenge.”
“What is the project?”
Coranil deferred to Dolff, who shook his head. “He hasn’t told us anything.”
“Then I am not at liberty to say. Ulfric will let you know when the time is right.”
She leaned closer to him and gave him her most appealing smile. “I think he just said that so we wouldn’t be in danger of the Thalmor finding out. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you told us now.”
With the one eye he could open, Coranil regarded her for a long moment and then laughed. “Weeks of torture at the hands of a Thalmor interrogator, and I come closer to breaking just by looking into your eyes. No, my love. My faith was greater than any pain he could have given me, and my respect for my king is greater than any feelings I may still have for you.”
“Ha, she’s finally met her match!” Dolff said with more venom than was probably necessary.
Rowan glared up at him. “You just hush! We haven’t even talked about all you’ve kept from me.”
“Rowan, you know I couldn’t tell you!” he cried defensively. “You can’t be angry at me for—”
“I know, love,” she said, going to him and wrapping her arms around his neck. “I’m only teasing.”
He stiffened at first, but then he wrapped his arms around her waist. “I have to keep secrets too, you know.”
“I know, I know.”
Ben called magic to his hands and started again, this time working on Coranil’s eyes. “I have to tell you,” he said to the elf, “I knew you were up to something, but I had no idea you were a super spy for the High King. I’m thinking Rowan should dump Dolff and get back together with you.”
“Hey,” Dolff snapped, “that was uncalled for.”
Ben either didn’t notice how unhappy Dolff was at the moment, or he did notice and was playfully ribbing him about it. Whatever the case, his jab struck a chord with Rowan, and she pulled away from Dolff and turned to Coranil. “Tell me that’s not why we were together.”
“No, my love. The High King was very much against our relationship, I assure you. When you showed interest in me . . . your charms are hard to resist.”
“But you were supposed to keep an eye on me, weren’t you?”
“I was already in Whiterun when you arrived. Each major city has at least one operative who lives in town and relays information back to Ulfric. He assigned me to Whiterun after his previous in-town operative retired.”
Rowan’s mouth dropped open. “Not Belethor.”
Coranil laughed. “No, no, although I must admit he’d likely make a good one. Belethor’s retirement was a convenient way for me to make a permanent home in the city. But yes, when you joined the Companions—each of you—Ulfric charged me with keeping an eye on you.”
“Does anyone else know?”
“In Whiterun? No, although I’m certain your parents know. Ulfric places an incredible amount of trust in them.”
“It’s well deserved. Mama’s loyalty to him is unwavering.”
“As is his to her. And to her children, truth be known.”
“What did he do to your eyes to make them swell up like this?” Ben wondered.
“That was caused by nothing more than a few strikes from strong and well-placed fists.”
The swelling around Coranil’s eyes began to shrink as Ben applied his healing magic, stopping more often to drink magicka potions. He finally ran out, and he asked Dolff to search the keep for more. After another hour, he dropped his hands and took a few deep breaths, wiping sweat off his brow with a forearm. “I’ve got to rest again, Cor,” he apologized. “I’ve never done this much healing before.”
Coranil blinked a bit and then fully opened both of his eyes. “It’s all right. You’ve done much more than I would have expected. I believe you’ve healed all my broken bones.”
“Can you see?” Rowan asked.
“I see fine with my right eye. With my left, I see light but no shapes.”
“Should I try? I have a little healing too.”
“No!” Dolff said sharply. “Your healing spells aren’t strong enough, and you don’t have enough magicka to make much of a dent. You need to save your strength in case more Thalmor show up.”
“We shouldn’t stay much longer,” Coranil told them. “There is daily traffic to and from the keep.”
“Can you travel?”
He flexed his toes and said, “Let’s see if I can stand.” He swung his feet over the side of the bed and placed them on the floor; then, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder for support, he pulled himself up.
Rowan reached toward him as he took a few tentative steps.
“I’m fine,” he assured her.
She crossed to a dresser and pulled out a tunic and trousers, then handed them to Coranil. “Very well. You get dressed, and Dolff and I are going to find the back way out. Plus, I have an idea.” She led Dolff out of the room, and they found the back door just past the row of prison cells. They backtracked to the front, and Rowan took a torch out of its sconce and began setting fire to everything in sight.
“Good idea,” said Dolff, and he grabbed a torch and set to work. After a moment, though, he stopped and said, “Did you have to be all over him like that?”
“I know you were concerned for him, but it’s like you were still together. And the way he was calling you ‘my love,’ and you just let him do it, with me standing right there.”
“Dolff, he called me ‘my love’ before we even got together.” With her free hand, she reached out and took his hand. “I picked you. Do you remember that? I left him for you. I’m not going to lie and tell you there’s nothing left there, but I never loved him like I love you. He was just in so much pain.”
“Just so we’re clear, I was in pain too.”
“Point taken. I’m so sorry, love.”
He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “We’d better get out of here.”
By the time they got back to Ben and Coranil, most of the keep was ablaze. They ignited the rest on the way out, making sure little or nothing was left for the Thalmor to return to.
* * *
Rowan worried about pushing Coranil to walk too far, but they made it to Fort Hraggstad, which was halfway back to Solitude. Dolff identified himself, and the commander graciously provided food, beds, and some further healing for Coranil.
As soon as Rowan shut the door to their room, Dolff pressed her up against the wall and covered her mouth with his, greedily drinking her in. He pulled her to the bed, both of them chucking their armor as they went, and he lay on top of her, placing kisses on her cheeks, throat and breasts. He teased her nipples with his teeth, and then moved his lips up and bit down, not hard enough to break the skin but with enough pressure to leave a florid hickey over her heart. He was rougher than normal, selfish, as if he were claiming her for his own with every thrust. Even though his arms were around her, Rowan felt detached from him, isolated, as if she barely knew him.
“Tell me you’re mine,” he pleaded as he built toward his climax.
Rowan didn’t respond.
“Oh, for Divines’ sake, Dolff, I’m yours! You know how much I love you.”
He released inside her with an almost painful moan, and he moved off of her immediately. She rolled over, turning her back to him, and cried softly; and he reached out and stroked her hair.
“Did I hurt you?”
“Not physically, no.”
“Rowan, I’m sorry.”
She got out of bed and dressed. “I’m going to go check on Coranil,” she said coolly.
“Just . . . don’t.”
She slipped out of their room and went to Coranil’s room down the hall, where she sat in a chair next to the bed and watched him. He slept fitfully, plagued by nightmares. Perhaps he wasn’t as stoic as he let on.
Drama with Dolff notwithstanding, she was still reeling from Coranil’s story. Like Ben, she had always known something was going on, but how could she have ever imagined? Not only a spy, but an ex-Thalmor! It was hard to get her mind around. The things he’d seen and done, the pain he’d endured—and inflicted. She had always heard that the Thalmor were monsters, and what she saw today certainly proved it. But Coranil? Rowan supposed it was a testament to his transformation that she couldn’t imagine it.
Her relationship with the Altmer had been playful, a romp, and she had never thought of him in terms of love—not really, even though he always had and still did call her, “my love.” Even though she was so angry at him she could spit, Dolff was her true love, the one, the man she intended to spend the rest of her life with. She would live and die for him, and he occupied all of her thoughts, dreams, and fantasies. But here in the candlelight, as she watched Coranil tossing and turning and thought of all the pain he had suffered and his seemingly unending courage, especially on the heels of what had just happened with Dolff, she found herself just a little bit in love with him.
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