Nazeem was insufferable; Coranil had felt that way for years. But today, he was worse than normal—or maybe it was just because he wanted the Redguard to leave so he could talk to Kaawenyth, who stood at the end of the counter, leaning on her elbows and playing with the two amulets that hung around her neck while he and Nazeem argued over a price for a pair of gods-forsaken candlesticks. The man never let anyone forget how wealthy he was; one would think he wouldn’t bother quibbling over a couple of septims.
“Belethor would have given me a discount, Coranil,” he said in his haughty, condescending manner.
“You know as well as I that Belethor never discounted anything, and you know I do not haggle over my lower priced items. The price is as marked.”
“I know how much these cost. You have doubled the price you paid for them. It’s exorbitant!”
“Oh, for Divines’ sake,” Kaaley grumbled. “Even Brenuin the Beggar wouldn’t call five septims exorbitant. Coranil is a merchant, Nazeem. He’s in business to make money; he’s not doing it out of the kindness of his heart. And it’s not like you need charity anyway. Just pay him the gods-damned five septims and get over yourself!”
Nazeem gaped at the Bosmer, as did Coranil. Her audacity was unparalleled, and Coranil didn’t know whether to applaud her or tell her to mind her own business.
“Never in my life—” Nazeem began.
“Well, it’s time somebody did, then, isn’t it? I mean, if you don’t like his prices, you can always go to the Riverwood Trader. But I think you’ll find Cornelius, or whatever his name is—”
“Lucan,” Coranil put in.
“Okay, Lucan—will charge you the same five septims or more. And you’ll probably get attacked by wolves on the way.”
“Kaawenyth, it is not your place to say such things. My apologies, Nazeem.” He practically choked on the words. She may have been out of line, but she was absolutely right.
The Redguard slapped five coins down on the counter and picked up his candlesticks. “If you’re planning on hiring her as an assistant, Coranil, I suggest you rethink it!” He turned on his heel and stormed out of the shop.
“What in blazes was that?” Coranil demanded.
“Oh, don’t tell me you weren’t thinking the same thing.”
“Thinking and saying are two different things. Did it occur to you that next time, he might indeed go to Riverwood instead of coming here?”
“No. He would rather come here and argue with you—and probably remind you of this little incident over and over in the hope that you’ll finally give him a discount—than trek all the way to Riverwood. S’wit knows I was probably right about getting attacked by wolves.”
“Well, I will thank you to mind your own business in the future.”
“Oh, there’s no need to thank me.”
Coranil took a deep breath and counted to ten before saying, “I assume you are here to discuss our arrangement?”
“Mm-hmm. I hear I’m to be your second, although I’m really not sure what that entails.”
“You’re to be Ulfric’s eyes and ears in Whiterun when I am out of town. Did he inform you of my mission?”
“Yes, he did. And you’ll be happy to know that Nightcaller Temple is no longer a problem.”
“He sent you?”
“He said he wanted as few people to know about this as possible. While you were here researching the cloak, I went up there, killed the Thalmor you had missed—which were only two, by the way—and torched the place. That really was a good location for them, right there next to the ocean and all. Damn n’wahs. So. What do I need to know, boss?”
“There will be none of that.”
“What, the Dunmeri swearing or calling you ‘boss’?”
“Both—or neither,” he sputtered. “Confound you, woman, you know what I mean!”
“Breathe, Coranil. You were telling me my duties.”
“Well, you already know that I come and go while working on the mission to find the Coat of Storms. I need someone here to take care of the day-to-day tasks of an in-town operative. There is not much to it, really, just talk to people and listen to what they are saying to each other. Keep an eye on strangers coming into town, especially those who do not just trade and leave. If it comes to it, your job is to actively protect Whiterun from enemies.”
“And report everything to the High King.”
“And report everything to the High King,” he confirmed. “I have a spare bed upstairs; you can stay here if you would like, although I imagine you will be more comfortable at the Drunken Huntsman. Being a tavern and home to Whiterun’s hunters’ guild, it is likely a better place to stay informed than the General Goods store.”
“You know about the hunters’ guild? I thought we were keeping that hush-hush.”
“It may be a secret to the general populace at this time, but I am not the general populace.”
Kaaley chuckled. “Oh, right, the all-seeing, all-knowing in-town operative.”
Coranil rewarded her with a smug smile.
“I’ll stay over there,” she said. “Elrindir likes me better than you do.” She paused for a long moment, playing absently with her amulets, but she finally said, “I heard you were Thalmor at one time.”
“Yes, I was.”
“How’d you end up here?”
“That is a very long story.”
“Suppose you tell it.”
“It is not a story I share with just anyone.”
“Do you hate them now?”
“Hatred is a heavy emotion. I got enough of that when I was with them, and they are no longer worth the energy it takes to hate them.”
“I hate them. Every last one of them. I wasn’t so sure I could work with you when Ulfric told me you used to be with them.”
“I assure you, Kaawenyth, I view the Thalmor as my enemy, and I would spend my last breath fighting against them and all they represent.”
“I believe you, and I’m not going anywhere. Besides, I like the way you smell.”
“The way I smell?”
“You can call me Kaaley, you know.”
Coranil furrowed his brow. “Somehow, I do not believe I can. What about you? You are with the hunters’ guild, but you are also a thief, yes?”
“Yep, and a good one. And that’s not gonna change.”
“It would not do for you to get caught stealing.”
“I don’t get caught,” she snapped indignantly.
“I could have turned you in a dozen times,” he pointed out.
“Seven, to be exact, but you didn’t, did you? I doubt you’ll start now. And you only knew it was me because I wanted you to know.”
Kaaley gave him a mischievous grin. “Because it was fun.”
“Taunting me is fun?”
“Few things give me greater joy.”
Coranil shook his head in dismay. For the life of him, he could not understand this little wood elf.
He nodded to her amulets. “You worship both Kynareth and Azura? An odd pair for a Bosmer.”
“I guess I’m not your typical Bosmer. I don’t exactly worship Azura, but my mate did. He was Dunmer. The amulet was his, and it’s all I have left to remember him by.”
“I am sorry.”
“It was long ago,” she said softly, suddenly less enthusiastic about bantering with him. She stood silently for a while, fingering the amulet of Azura, until the moment finally passed and she perked up again. She dug in her pack and pulled out folded-up piece of paper. “I almost forgot. I found that on a desk in Nightcaller Temple.”
Coranil unfolded the paper and read:
Crown, Phial, Staff – Ulfric
Willshroud – Here
Sword – Northwatch
Shield – ??
Amulet – Yngol Barrow
He shook his head. “We searched Northwatch Keep—twice—and the sword was not there. And this Yngol Barrow concerns me.”
“Too easy, don’t you think?”
With a nod, he said, “They would have expected us to return. This is likely a ruse to throw us off the trail.”
“Do we have a trail?”
“Yes, Selene believes the amulet is somewhere on Solstheim. She is presently investigating that avenue.”
“But we can’t take the chance and not search Yngol Barrow,” Kaaley surmised.
“It’s probably a trap.”
“I’ll head out—”
“No. Your job is to stay here while I travel. Besides, I have somewhere else I need to go as well. I did some research on Willshroud and learned a few things, but I still need to meet with a contact.”
“What did you learn?”
“One of my books suggested that Willshroud was made by Boethiah to guard against soul trap and control of the will. Unfortunately, another said it was created to shield the wearer against the effects of the Mace of Molag Bal, which targets magicka and strength. I need to check another source to find the truth.”
“Perhaps it does both.”
“It is unlikely, but I suppose it is possible.”
“Putting it on and trying it out probably isn’t the best way to find out, eh, boss?”
“I would think not. And stop calling me ‘boss.’”
“But Ulfric did say I’m to be your second. There must be a proper word to address—”
“You could just use my name.”
“Somehow, I do not believe I can,” she replied, mimicking his words and high-born accent.
“You will not let this go, will you?”
“Nope. ‘Boss’ it is. One thing I would mention, although I don’t know if it will help find out anything about Willshroud. Molag Bal is a sort of bane to the Dunmeri people. He’s spent a lot of time and energy trying to disrupt bloodlines, creating mutants in Morrowind, and doing whatever he could to thwart Boethiah’s influence.”
“Yes, I know they are bitter enemies.”
“Anyway, for what it’s worth.”
“Thank you. Any information, even the smallest bits, could be helpful. I will leave tomorrow, first to see my contact and then to Yngol Barrow.”
“Want me to mind the store while you’re gone?”
“Not remotely. I would like to have at least a few customers left when I return. Sigurd will watch the shop, so stay out of his way. Just do your job and keep your eyes and ears open.”
Kaaley snapped to attention and pounded her chest in salute. “Aye, aye, boss!” Then she headed for the door.
“Oh, sweet Talos,” Coranil muttered, rubbing his eyes.
* * *
After two days on the road, Rowan, Dolff, and Ben tied their horses to a tree and walked up a steep hill toward the Shrine to Peryite—if it could really be called a shrine. It was little more than a small campsite tucked into a nook in the mountain and surrounded by standing stones. An alchemy lab and a campfire rested to one side, and in the center of the camp, a dead tree jutted out of the ground, surrounded by skulls of many types. A vine wrapped around the tree, healthy and green after having choked the life from its host until there was nothing left. A large urn stood at the base of the tree.
Kesh the Clean, a sickly looking Khajiit wearing Redguard clothing, stood at his cookpot, stirring a greenish stew. At least Rowan thought it was stew. She wrinkled her nose at the odor of the mixture.
“You have returned,” he said, glancing up at her.
“Aye. We have the items you requested.”
“Let Kesh have them.” Rowan handed him the deathbell, ruby, silver ingot, and vampire dust, and he laughed with delight. “Yes, this will create a fine fume! Perhaps one of you could take some of the coals from Kesh’s fire and put them in the urn, yes?” He went to the alchemy lab, picked up a hammer, and chipped off a chunk of the silver ingot, which he smashed into small pieces. After doing the same with the gem, he placed them into a mortar and ground all of the ingredients together, singing softly to himself as he worked.
Using a shovel he found next to the campfire, Ben placed some of the coals into the urn and joined Rowan and Dolff by the fire. “Who’s going to do this?” he asked.
“I am,” said Rowan.
“Why you?” Dolff demanded.
“It’s my turn. Ben sacrificed his pride and his body to get the deathbell—”
“And what a sacrifice it was!”
“Jealous?” Ben sneered.
Rowan ignored their teasing. “And Dolff, you braved Castle Volkihar to get the vampire dust.”
“But that was all of us.”
“It was harder on you than it was for Ben and me, though. Now it’s my turn to do something out of my comfort zone.”
“What I did in Morthal wasn’t exactly out of my comfort zone,” Ben murmured.
Rowan chuckled. She loved her brother so, but she wondered if he would ever completely grow up. “Well, then maybe you can bed Kesh when all this is over.”
Ben held his hands up in supplication. “You get the incense,” he relented.
When Kesh was finished combining the ingredients, he mixed them with water and poured them over the coals in the urn. “This should do. Come. Inhale deeply.”
Rowan squeezed Dolff’s hand and stepped up to the urn, holding her face over it and inhaling. The scent of the deathbell was sweet, but the effect was not so pleasant. Her head began to swim, and she reached out and held onto the urn for balance. It was hot and burned her hands, but she didn’t have the consciousness to remove them. She was vaguely aware of Dolff pulling her hands away and holding her steady, but the rest of her perception was somewhere else. The world darkened as if the sun had suddenly set, and a green mist surrounded her.
“Breathe deep, mortal,” said a disembodied voice. “I would have you hear me, so let these vapors fill your lungs.”
Two ghostly skeevers appeared from behind the tree and began sniffing around the campsite. One of them took particular interest in her, although it didn’t come close enough to touch. It simply stood back and sniffed at her.
“Have I been poisoned?” she asked the skeever, assuming it was the aspect of Peryite.
“In a sense, but no more than a fool after too much wine. I am happy you were the one to speak with me. I have watched you for some time. Of the three, you are the strongest. One of them just a boy trying to be a man, and the other too concerned with earthly pleasures. They do not see how you lead them. The decisions you have made intrigue me.”
“Thank you, I guess.”
“And now you come to me for Spellbreaker, my shield. Yes, it is the pettiness of mortals to quest for their tokens. Spellbreaker is fine prize, but it is indeed a prize, not to be bestowed for nothing. If you complete a task for me, I shall place Spellbreaker in your hands.”
“What is the task?”
“I sent a blessing to Mundus, a wasting plague that infected a scattering of Breton villages. I sent one of my monks, the elf Orchendor, to gather my Afflicted and shepherd them into Bthardamz for me. But he has betrayed me. You will go to Bthardamz and kill him in my name.”
“What did he do?”
“An impertinent question, and uncalled for. The elf must die, and be assured, you are not the only mortal I could choose for the task. But you are the one who needs my shield.”
He had her there.
Rowan was suddenly struck by the magnitude of the situation. She was talking with an actual Daedric Prince! Her mama did it all the time, but that was different. This was . . . this was overwhelming. And she was challenging him like she would anybody else who gave her a job. “I apologize for any impertinence. I’m just used to asking questions, and I’ve never spoken with a Daedric Prince before. Should I go alone?”
“Your men may accompany you on this task. Go now, mortal. Kill Orchendor.”
The skeevers vanished, as did the green mist, and Rowan’s head cleared. She looked over at Dolff, who was watching her with concern. “I’m okay,” she assured him.
“Are you sure? I’ve never seen you turn such a vivid shade of green before.”
“Aye, love, I’m fine.” She turned to Kesh. “What can you tell me about Orchendor?”
“Yes, Kesh knows him. He is an overseer, a shepherd. Gathers the Afflicted, contains the festering wound. He and his Afflicted are meant to stand ready, awaiting Peryite’s command to cover the world with his blessing.”
“Blessing?” Ben asked.
“It’s a plague,” Rowan told him. “But something went wrong and Orchendor betrayed Peryite, and now he wants him killed. Where is Bthardamz?”
“Not far. This one looks upon it on clear days. It is just to the west, at the foot of the mountain. The dwarven ruin.”
“Wait,” said Dolff, “we’re going to go to this ruin and kill him so Peryite can release a plague on Nirn?”
“It’s never that simple, and you know it,” Rowan said. “And what are we supposed to do? We need that shield, and if we don’t get it, you’d better believe the Thalmor will kill Orchendor for it.”
“You’re right, you’re right. Fine, let’s rest up, feed the horses, and then head down there in the morning. And you need to let Ben heal your hands.”
Rowan looked down at her palms, which were red and blistered. She barely even remembered reaching for the hot urn. “Oh. Look at that.”
“Kesh is happy to offer his food and hospitality this evening,” said the Khajiit.
Ben wrinkled his nose. “We have our own provisions, but thanks.”
Kesh shrugged. “Suit yourself. It only means more for Kesh.”
Rowan sat down at the fire with the Khajiit and the boys, and after Ben applied healing magic to her hands, she opted for some dried venison and cheese instead of whatever Kesh was spooning into his mouth. She couldn’t help wondering if he had made the stew from the vine that was wrapped around the dead tree. Mmm, yummy, she thought to herself as she gratefully took a bite of cheese.
She thought about what Peryite had said about her leading the group. He had said one was just a boy trying to be a man—obviously Dolff, because Ben would be the one preoccupied with early pleasures. And she did always refer to them as “the boys.” But Peryite was wrong about her being the leader. They were all equal partners. Weren’t they?
A/N: Kaaley’s image is from the SR Elf Followers mod by sarrai on Nexus – http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/34063/?
Her armor is from the Unclaimed Delivery mod by SkyrimForDaWin on Nexus – http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/37204/?