After stopping in Solitude the next night, Ben, Coranil, Rowan, and Dolff headed back to Windhelm. The trip seemed to take forever, mostly because it was so quiet. Ben tried to engage the others in conversation, but aside from Coranil answering his many questions about the Thalmor and his past, they barely spoke. Relations between Rowan and Dolff were colder than the winds on the Throat of the World, and Ben had no idea what had happened. Well, he had some idea. He thought maybe they had fought because Dolff was jealous of Rowan’s dotage on Coranil, but they weren’t talking about it, so he could only speculate.
They finally arrived in Windhelm on a sunny morning about a week after they rescued Coranil and turned the Jagged Crown over to the High King. Ulfric gave the crown to Jorleif, who locked it up in the palace safe, then instructed the party to meet him in the private conference room after taking some time to get out of their armor and clean up. Over lunch, they gave him the details of the mission and Coranil’s rescue. Ben could have sworn the room grew colder when Rowan was telling about how they had healed the elf.
When everyone was finished eating and was relaxing with tankards of mead, Ulfric reached for a rolled-up sheet of paper that was resting on a sideboard. He unrolled the paper, which contained several sketches. “Coranil and Selene have been working on a mission to locate and retrieve a collection of artifacts called the Coat of Storms. Seven items, seemingly unrelated but each powerful in its own right, which, when combined, give the wielder the power of a god.”
“Seven?” Coranil echoed with surprise.
Ulfric nodded. “Seven. Selene was speaking to one of her contacts about the collection, and they mentioned that our intelligence was incomplete.”
“Who was this contact?”
“She hinted that it was Nocturnal herself.”
Rowan chuckled. “Remember I said Kynareth was the only Divine who spoke to Mama?” she asked Coranil. “She also has a direct line to two or three Daedric Princes.”
“But if they’re unrelated, how do they confer that much power?” Dolff asked.
“We don’t know,” Coranil replied. “Honestly, we are not even certain the story is true, but this was something we could not ignore.”
“One of our sources suggested that the collection was imbued by a higher being—either Divine or Daedra—to grant such power,” said Ulfric. “We can’t even begin to understand why. As of now, we have three of the seven.”
Ben studied the items on the page saw one he recognized. “Is that . . . the Staff of Magnus?”
“It is,” said Coranil. “After you rescued it from Labyrinthian, I stole it from the College of Winterhold.”
He gave the elf an angry glare. “So you let Blanche and me do all the heavy lifting?”
“Not at all. Although we knew about the Coat of Storms beforehand, we only identified the staff as the Staff of Magnus after it was in the college’s possession.”
“I recognize one, too,” said Rowan. “That’s the White Phial.”
“Aye,” Ulfric replied. “And thanks to your trip to the Throat of the World, it has now been repaired.”
“Did you steal that too?” she challenged Coranil.
“Nurelion succumbed to his illness and passed away two days after you took him the Phial,” Ulfric told her. “I purchased it from Quintus shortly thereafter, and he discovered a way to repair it.”
“What are these others?”
He pointed to a drawing of a sword, which was forged in the style of ancient Nordic weapons. “This is called Stormthorn. It is rumored to have been wielded by Talos himself when he was still a human and is also thought to be indestructible. We believe it is in a dungeon somewhere in Skyrim, but we haven’t pinpointed an exact location yet.
“The shield,” he said, indicating an elaborately appointed shield, “is Spellbreaker. It’s a Daedric artifact of Peryite.”
Dolff made a face. “Isn’t he the Lord of Pestilence?”
“Among other things,” Rowan responded.
“The shield protects the bearer from all manner of physical and magical attacks,” the High King said, “and it is one of the oldest artifacts in Tamriel. It was given to a Blades agent by Peryite when he went to the Daedric Prince asking for power. Lore has it that the Blades agent slew a vampire ancient for the shield. It has passed through many hands since then and doesn’t stay in one place for long.”
Ulfric pointed to the next item, a garish amulet with several stones. “This is the Amulet of the Guardian, and it has been our biggest challenge. We don’t know what it does, and we’re not even sure if the amulet is in Skyrim.”
“It was rumored to not exist at all, but so were most of the other artifacts,” said Coranil.
“So the picture might be inaccurate,” Ben surmised.
“It was drawn from the description in the lore, but aye, it could prove to be inaccurate,” Ulfric confessed. “Selene has been doing some research, and she believes the ‘Guardian’ might be the subject of a Skaal legend describing Miraak’s corruption by Hermaeus Mora. It’s still just speculation at this point.”
He tapped a circled question mark, which seemed to have been drawn on the page as an afterthought. “The final artifact is Willshroud, a cloak or cape rumored to have been created by Boethiah for protection from Molag Bal. At this time, we have no information whatsoever on Willshroud, but I have Selene and several court historians looking into it.”
“That’s a lot of Daedric princes,” Ben noted.
“Which is why we suspect one may be involved.”
“Why the Jagged Crown?” Dolff asked. “It doesn’t have any enchantments.”
“None per se, but it is thought that the many great warriors and rulers who wore it left a bit of themselves behind—a shade or aura perhaps—making every wearer more powerful than the previous one. Although there is no specific enchantment on the crown, it is said to have enough magic of its own to bind the other six items together to confer immense power.”
“The drawback is that it can be dangerous to the wearer,” said Coranil. “The lore suggests that the spirits inhabiting the crown—the same ones that make it so powerful—can intrude upon the psyche, their emotions and ideas spilling over into the wearer’s mind and causing unpredictable behavior, damage to physical health, and possible madness.”
“At least there’s something to temper all that power,” Dolff murmured.
“I hate to be impertinent, Your Grace,” Rowan said with a dubious expression on her face, “but nobody should have that kind of power. Even you.”
“Your mother said the same thing, of course, but I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that. This is not just a mission to attain the collection for myself. Coranil obtained this information while scouting a Thalmor installation in Falkreath. We thought they were making plans for an invasion, but it appears, at least at this point in time, that they are in Skyrim solely to acquire the Coat of Storms. As you can see from the theft of the Jagged Crown, they have been at least somewhat successful.”
“Do they have any more of them?”
“That is uncertain.”
“I will check with my order and see if they have come across anything new,” said Coranil. “There is also one installation in The Pale that I have yet to infiltrate.”
“So after all that, you’re going halfway back across Skyrim?” Rowan asked.
“I think he’s capable of traveling on his own,” Dolff grumbled.
Although he and Rowan didn’t speak much, Dolff had been baiting Coranil for a week, spoiling for a fight; but Coranil had nimbly dodged every insult, dare, and veiled threat. He completely ignored this minor jab. “Had the events at Northwatch Keep not been so significant, I would likely have stopped there before returning to Windhelm. Had I done that, however, I would not have learned of the seventh artifact.”
“Do you know anything about Willshroud?” Ulfric asked him.
The elf shook his head. “Not offhand, but I have heard of it, and I believe I have a book at home with some lore.”
“Does anyone have any questions?”
“Where do you want us to start?” Rowan asked.
“The only significant lead we have at the moment is Spellbreaker. There is a shrine to Peryite in The Reach. Go there and speak to the resident priest.”
“And take lots of Potions of Cure Disease,” Ben quipped.
Ulfric chuckled. “Hopefully, by the time you return, we’ll have more for you to go on with the other artifacts.”
When Ulfric dismissed the meeting, Rowan got up quickly and left the room without a word.
“Everything all right?” Ulfric asked Dolff.
“Lovers’ spat,” he replied sheepishly.
“Hmm.” The High King nodded and left the room without further discussion.
Ben grabbed Dolff’s arm and said, “Wait.” He pointed at Coranil. “You, come here too.”
“You need to stay out of this, Ben,” Dolff warned him.
“Nah, that’s bullshit. I get that you’re fighting over Ro’s concern for Coranil. I don’t know what exactly happened to put you all at such odds, but I don’t care. My sister doesn’t stay mad at anybody, ever, and you’ve barely spoken for a week. She’s in pain, and I’m certain you’re responsible, so fix it. And you two—we have a mission here, and we all have to work together. Hostility between the two of you is not going to make it easy. You and Coranil were friends before all of this happened, and you’re going to be friends again if I have to lock you in a room together until you make up.
“I’m going to my room to get cleaned up, and then I’m heading to Candlehearth Hall for some mead and female companionship. If you’d like to join me for a drink later, you know where I’ll be. But if you’re still involved in this quiet little war, I don’t want to see any of you.”
“Are you done?” Dolff barked.
“Aye, I’m done.” Ben let go of Dolff’s arm, turned on his heel, and left the room.
* * *
As Ben’s footsteps echoed down the hallway, Dolff glared up at Coranil.
“I’ll begin, then,” the Altmer said when Dolff didn’t speak. “I was too familiar with Rowan at Northwatch Keep. It was not my intention to cause bad blood, between you and myself or you and Rowan. I was obviously out of sorts, but that is no excuse, and I apologize.”
Did he have to do that? Dolff was still enjoying being angry at him! The animosity he had been nurturing melted away and he sighed. “You don’t need to apologize, Cor. She was taking care of you, and you focused your attention on her, something you normally do, anyway. I know you still have feelings for her, and I know she has them for you too. Usually I can deal with it.”
“Do you not see how she looks at you? Do not mistake her concern for me, or any other part of our friendship, as any sort of threat to you.”
“Still, I’m not telling you to stay away from her, but if you could just back off a bit . . . and stop calling her ‘my love’!”
“Old habits die hard, but yes, I will do my best to refrain. I do value our friendship, Dolff.” He extended his right arm.
Dolff reached out and grasped the elf’s forearm. “As do I. I’m sorry for my behavior this past week.”
“I believe Rowan is the one to whom you should apologize. This has been difficult for her.”
“You’re right. Somehow I don’t think we’ll make up as easily as you and I did.”
“You may be surprised.”
They left the conference room together and split off when Coranil reached his room. Dolff worried that Rowan had gotten a room of her own instead of planning to stay in his chambers, but he tried his door anyway and found her lying on the bed. She had been crying.
“I didn’t know if you’d be here,” he said softly.
“I can get my own room if you want,” she said tearfully.
“I don’t.” He crossed to the bed and sat down next to her. “Rowan, I’m so sorry—for the way I treated you at Fort Hraggstad, for the way I’ve been the last few days—I hurt you, and I’ll do whatever I can to make it up to you.”
Rowan sat up and wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his shoulder, and she started crying anew.
“Why are you crying?”
“Just . . . emotions running away with me. I’m sorry too. I was overly affectionate with Coranil, I know.”
“Which you apologized for long ago. You don’t owe me one now. But me—I’ve been a fiend.”
“Aye, you have. Dolff, in bed that night . . . you didn’t hurt me, but you hurt me. And honestly, you scared me a little bit. I’m not a piece of property you can lay claim to.”
“I swear by each and every one of the Divines, Rowan, I’ll never treat you like that again.”
Rowan sniffled and said, “If you do, it’ll be the last time you ever touch me. Now, kiss me and all is forgiven.”
“I can do that,” he replied softly as he lifted her chin and pressed his lips against hers.
* * *
Later that day, Coranil met privately with Ulfric over dinner. “As much as you are away,” the High King began, “do you think it best that I send another operative to Whiterun for now?”
“Perhaps someone to work as my second would be a good idea,” Coranil agreed. “I would like to keep the city as my base because it is in the center of the province, but while looking for the Coat of Storms, I cannot pay as much attention to what goes on there.”
“Will do. I actually have someone in mind. Have you met Kaawaenyth?”
Coranil’s eyes widened. “Do you mean Kaaley? I didn’t know she was one of yours.”
“So you have met her.”
“Oh, yes. Is she not one of Selene’s?”
Ulfric chuckled fondly. “Selene always sends me such good operatives. What do you know of her?”
“Only that she’s burglarized my shop half a dozen times, even after Rowan supposedly told her it was off limits. When she’s in town, she keeps mostly to the Drunken Huntsman.” Coranil suddenly realized why the Bosmer continually broke into his shop and smiled. “The theft was a ploy, wasn’t it? She has been breaking in to get a look at my research materials.”
Coranil didn’t know whether to be pleased or annoyed. He supposed he was a bit of both. “She’s good. I had no idea she was an operative for the Crown.”
“She’s out of town at the moment, but when she gets back, I’ll send her to meet with you in Whiterun.”
“Yes, and hopefully this will put an end to her robbing me blind.”
Ulfric chuckled. “Moving on, then. Is there anything you wish to add about events at Northwatch Keep that our younger companions should not be made privy to?”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
“And you didn’t give up anything to the Thalmor about our operation?” Ulfric prodded.
“There was not much to give up. His questions were geared toward the order, and his ministrations were aimed at forcing me to renounce Talos. I assure you again, the few questions he did ask about the Coat of Storms went unanswered.”
“I have to ask; you know that.”
“I’m long used to repeating this dialog with you, my friend. One thing you should be aware of, though: Dolff was unaware of the nature and extent of my treatment when I first came here. He seemed rather shocked when we discussed your interrogation techniques.”
With a heavy sigh, Ulfric said, “I fear I’ve shielded him too much. I’ve allowed him to join the Companions to gain experience, but in many ways he’s still too innocent to become High King. Or even to become a jarl. You’ve watched him. Does he have it in him to do what is necessary?”
“I have seen him fight, but I have not really seen him lead. While he shows a great deal of determination, I cannot say if he will be capable of making the difficult decisions. He is brash, but Rowan tempers much of his impudence and helps him channel it into something more productive. She’s helping him do some much-needed growing up. That being said, when it comes down to interrogating prisoners, choosing who lives and dies, and many of the decisions a leader make that are not black and white, she might hold him back.”
“Aye, you’ve mentioned before how gentle she is. Should I discourage the relationship?”
Coranil laughed. “That would be an exercise in futility. Let it play itself out. Dolff made quite an ass of himself this past week, and I don’t believe Rowan will put up with much of that, no matter how much she loves him. I would not put it past her to send him packing if he does not learn to control his temper.”
“What did happen this past week? He said it was a lovers’ spat.”
“Rowan paid an inappropriate amount of attention to me when they found me in the torture chamber, and I didn’t discourage it.”
“You’re saying he was jealous?” The elf shrugged, and Ulfric laughed heartily. “If he has the energy to let a fit of envy go on for a week, he has been too shielded.”
“With all due respect, Your Grace, I know what you are thinking, and I would recommend that you stay out of it.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” the High King said, still laughing.
“Give them time, my friend, and let them work it out on their own, one way or the other.”
“I’m not getting any younger, you know,” said Ulfric, suddenly serious.
“While I am sure you still have years ahead of you, if something did happen, Dolff wouldn’t be the first youngling to assume the throne. If you spend all your energy worrying about his ability to succeed you, your own reign may suffer. We simply have to make sure that his advisors have the wisdom to help him grow into the role.”
“Wise words. I tend to forget you’re three times my age.”
Coranil was silent for a few moments, sipping wine and weighing his words. He finally said, “this Willsroud. Ben is right: there do seem to be an inordinate number of Daedric Princes involved with the Coat of Storms.”
“What would you have me do?” Ulfric challenged. “Leave them to the Thalmor? Don’t forget that some of these artifacts have been touched by the Divines as well.”
“But were they blessed or cursed? No, I do not believe we should allow them to get into the Thalmor’s hands. But we must act with extreme caution, Your Grace. I have the increasing feeling we are in over our heads.”
“Divines help us if we are.”
A/N: The scroll in the drawing courtesy of pixelworlds on deviantART: pixelworlds.deviantart.com/art…. Rowan and Dolff’s clothes are part of the Ambrosia Fashions mod by YamiElisa on Nexus: www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/…?