Standing in the great hall of the Palace of the Kings with Rowan and Ben, Dolff gaped at his father in shock. Ulfric had aged fifteen years, practically overnight. His hair, which had been silvery and shiny, was now a dull, creamy white. His skin was ashen and grayish, and the lines and age spots on his face were much more pronounced. He had lost weight, and his flesh seemed hang off his bones. Even his eyes, which had always glimmered with spirit and intelligence, were milky and dim, peering back as if he didn’t recognize him. The Jagged Crown didn’t so much rest on his head as grip it in a stranglehold.
“What is it?” Ulfric demanded as they stood before him. “What do you want? No, wait, I remember. You’re back from The Reach.”
“Da, what happened to you?” Dolff asked. “You don’t look well.”
“I’m just tired. And old. Let’s not forget that. Is that the shield?”
“Aye.” Dolff handed Spellbreaker to Ralof, who stood next to the throne. The housecarl nodded silently and went to place the shield in the display case.
“What’s next, Your Grace?” Rowan asked, as though she didn’t notice how feeble he had grown.
“We’ve heard from your mother,” the High King replied. “She is convinced that the Amulet of the Guardian is in Vahlok’s Tomb on Solstheim.”
“Da, shouldn’t we go to the conference room to talk about—”
“Don’t interrupt me, boy! If they hear, they hear. Coranil just got back from a wild goose chase and getting caught in a trap the Thalmor set up, so the race for the last two pieces is on and there’s no time to lose. The Northern Maiden is docked here, and Jorleif has already made arrangements with Captain Gjalund to take you to Solstheim as soon as you’re ready. As far as we know, they’re the only ship going back and forth between Skyrim and Solstheim.” He turned to Jorleif. “Do you have the letter?”
“It’s in your chambers, Your Grace. I’ll retrieve it.” The steward left the hall and strode through the war room toward the residences.
“Any word on Stormthorn?” Ben asked.
“Aye,” said the High King, “but the information is questionable. One of our operatives found a note that said it was in Northwatch Keep, which has been destroyed. This was also the note that sent Coranil on his folly.”
“Was Coranil hurt?” Rowan asked with concern—more concern than she had for Ulfric, it seemed to Dolff. Or maybe he was still just jealous.
“No, no, he’s fine,” Ulfric assured her. “He’s gone back to Whiterun to do more research on the sword.”
Jorleif hurried back into the room and handed Dolff the letter. “We received it yesterday,” he said. “The original was in the dragon language, of course; this is the translated version.”
After extensive research, I am certain that “the Guardian” refers to Vahlok the Jailor, a dragon priest who fought against Miraak ages ago. The Amulet of the Guardian is most likely buried with him. Vahlok’s tomb is hidden somewhere on Solstheim. Unfortunately, with the materials I have, I was unable to ascertain the exact location, but Tharstan in the Skaal Village should be able to help the operatives with that. He knows the history and geography of the island better than anyone. When the operatives arrive in Raven Rock, they should speak with Glover Mallory, who will give them directions to the Skaal Village. Glover and Tharstan are friends of mine, so if the operatives give my name, they should be much more accommodating.
“We’ll get ready and leave today,” Dolff told his father as he handed the letter to Rowan.
“Dine with me before you go.”
* * *
Dolff had lunch with Ulfric, and it was one of the most disturbing meals he’d ever had. To say his father was not himself didn’t begin to cover it. He would mumble, forget what he was saying and go off on a tangent, and often he would just stare at Dolff wordlessly. A few times, he sat back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and sighed wearily. He ate very little. When Dolff asked him about it, he would repeat, “I’m just tired. And old. Let’s not forget that.”
He asked Ralof about it later.
“His condition gets worse every day,” the housecarl told him. “Jorleif and I know the Jagged Crown is doing it, but when we mention it to him, he implies that he’s being forced to wear it. He says he can’t seem to take it off, and he never does. I can’t imagine how, but Jorleif says he’s even sleeping with it on. We’ve discussed removing the display case with the other artifacts from the great hall, but he says he needs them there.”
“I thought these things were supposed to give power, not take it away.”
“Well, if they’re supposed to give the power of a god, it must be a very feeble god, because it’s killing Ulfric.”
Dolff nodded. “Very well, I’m ordering it. Get the other artifacts out of the great hall, and do it today, while I’m still here.”
“Where should I put them?”
“Lock them up in the vaults, and make sure they stay there.”
“You know how stubborn your father can be, Dolff.”
“I don’t care. I’ll not let the Coat of Storms slowly drain his life away.”
“It’s not so slow.”
“No, I can see that.”
Ralof clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll take care of it.”
Dolff told Ulfric what Ralof was going to do, and the High King was none too happy about it. “You don’t have the right to come in here and tell my housecarl to get rid of those artifacts!” he bellowed.
“Da, he’s not getting rid of them. He’s just putting some distance between them and the Jagged Crown. It’s starting to affect your health.”
“Nonsense. I’m just tired. And old, let’s not forget that.” It was the tenth time Ulfric had said those exact words. “I want them put back.”
“No, Da, it’s not gonna happen. If you won’t take care of yourself, I’m going to do it for you.”
“You always were an insolent little whelp, you know that? Never knew your place. Wanted to go off and join the Companions. We’ll just see about that.”
“Wait, is that why you put me on this mission? To get me away from the Companions?”
Ulfric gave him a grim smile but didn’t respond.
“I can’t believe you did that!” Dolff roared. “You knew how much it meant to me!”
“Oh, relax, I didn’t do it to separate you from the Companions. You were just the best man for the job, you and the other two. The other two . . .” He yawned and leaned his forehead on his hand.
“Da, you’re tired. Why don’t you get some rest?”
“I know why you want to move the Coat of Storms. You want them for yourself!”
“No, I really don’t. Not if they’re going to do this to me.”
“They’re not doing anything to me. Now, just do as you’re told and go get me that amulet.”
“I’m going,” Dolff said impatiently. “We’re leaving as soon as we resolve the issue of keeping the artifacts in the great hall.”
Ulfric slammed his hand on the arm of the throne. “Fine, gods damn it! If it means that much to you, take the fucking things out of here! Now get me that amulet, and don’t come back until you have it!”
“Fine!” Dolff shouted. He turned on his heel and left his father in the great hall, seething as he stomped up the stairs to the residences to get Rowan and Ben.
An hour later, he and his friends boarded the Northern Maiden and headed for Solstheim. He stood on the deck, watching the city as it shrank in the distance behind them. Rowan came up and stroked his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around her.
“You all right?” she asked him.
“Aye, I’m all right. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve stormed out of the palace after a fight with him. But he was so different this time. I’m . . . worried about him.”
“I’m worried, too.”
“You didn’t act like it.”
Rowan pulled back and glared at him. “And what would you have had me do? Sit on the throne with his head in my lap? Of course I’m concerned, love. But Ulfric isn’t the type of man who wants people fawning over him.”
“You’re right,” he said with a sigh. “I’m sorry.”
“Ralof and Jorleif will take care of him, Dolff.”
“If he lets them. But I don’t think it will do any good.”
She sighed and pulled him closer, and he laid his head on her shoulder, half-tempted to go to the captain and tell him to turn the ship around. He didn’t need to be on this quest. He needed to be with his father. Da hadn’t meant it when he had said not to come back without the amulet, and Dolff should be there with him.
But he didn’t. He stayed quiet and let the ship sail farther away from Windhelm.
* * *
The Northern Maiden docked at Raven Rock the next morning, and Rowan, Ben, and Dolff debarked and headed into town. The shops were just opening up, but they went to the inn first to get some food and rest before going to find Glover Mallory. They walked across the quad to his forge just as the afternoon sun was beginning to sink on the western horizon.
“Are you Glover?” Rowan asked the Breton, who sat at a grindstone working on a sword, although there was no question in her mind. He was much younger than Delvin, but he looked almost exactly like his crotchety older brother—totally bald, with nondescript features, except for the mischievous glint in his eye.
“Depends on who’s asking,” he replied with a gruff voice.
“I’m Rowan. This is my brother Ben, and that’s Dagur. Ben and I are Selene and Brynjolf’s children.”
With that, Glover’s face lit up. He stood up and extended his hand for them to shake. “Well, well, how’s everyone back at the Guild?”
“Fine, as far as we know. We haven’t been back there in a while.”
“We’re not actually working for the Guild right now,” Ben told the blacksmith. “We have something else going on. Our ma told us you could help us out.”
“Absolutely. I haven’t worked for the Guild in years, myself, but they’re still family. What can I do for you?”
“We were sent to find the Skaal Village,” said Dolff. “We need to talk to someone named Tharstan about an artifact we’re seeking.”
Glover frowned. “Tharstan, eh? I’m not sure he’s still alive. He was getting on up in age the last time I saw him, and that was several years ago.”
Rowan looked at the boys helplessly, and Dolff shrugged. “We’ll still give it a try. It’s all we have.”
“Sure,” said Glover. “Well, they’re near the northeast corner of Solstheim, but you’ll want to head south first. The road will take you out of town, then around the Bulwark and up the center of the island. That way you don’t have to hike over the mountains. Hold on a sec.” He stepped inside his house, where Rowan noticed a Thieves Guild shadowmark next to the door, and came back out a moment later with a map.
“Here it is,” he said, unfolding the map. He pointed to the trail he had spoken of and showed them where the Skaal Village rested on the northeast side. “House Redoran finally put in some roads and Solstheim is a lot easier to travel than it was when your parents were here, but take the map with you anyway. You can’t be too careful. You can expect one, maybe two nights on the road. We’ve had pretty mild weather these last few weeks, but a storm once you get north of the snowline could slow you down.”
“Anything we need to watch out for?” Ben asked.
“Of course there is; this is Solstheim. You’ve got werebears and werewolves, if you believe in that sort of thing, but they mostly stick to the north and northwest, and they usually don’t bother people anyway. There’s the occasional band of reavers—bandits—and ash spawn, which are rare but still show up. Undead, made of the ash from the Red Mountain. They’re pretty easy to kill, and you probably won’t see any of them anyway. You’re most likely to come across ash hoppers. Giant grasshoppers, basically.”
Rowan closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Why is it always big bugs?” she muttered. “Fine, I think we’re pretty good on potions and food, but I need arrows. What do you have for sale?”
“Got a stock of about two hundred ebony arrows. If you’re looking for a bow, I just finished up a nice glass one.”
“I’ll take a look at that,” Dolff offered.
When they finished trading with Glover, they went back to the inn for some dinner and rest, planning to head out the next morning. Dolff was quiet, not up for the usual banter between himself and Ben, and Rowan worried about him. When they climbed into bed later that night, she wrapped her arms around him and held him close. He rested his head against her breast and sighed miserably.
“I wish there was something I could do,” she said softly.
“You know what I wish? I wish we could just stop looking for the artifacts. I know Da is doing this so the Thalmor won’t get their hands on them, but what happens after we have them all together? You saw what just five of them did to him. And he wasn’t even using them; they were just sitting in the great hall. Part of me thinks we should let the Thalmor have them, especially if they’re going to be this dangerous to the holder.”
“But a high elf is stronger than a seventy-year-old human. They might be better equipped to handle the collection. We have to do this, love.”
“I know. I just hope I don’t lose my father over it.”
* * *
On the first day of the trip back to Whiterun, Kaaley did her best to get Coranil to talk to her, but he was distant and prone to giving monosyllabic responses or none at all. After several hours of false starts and one-sided conversation, she stopped in her tracks and stomped her foot.
“Well, Azura’s tits, Coranil! Are you gonna ignore me all the way back to Whiterun?”
“I am not ignoring you; I simply have nothing to say.”
“I’ve asked you questions. Why don’t you answer them?”
“You did? My apologies; I must have been distracted. What did you ask me?”
“I asked if you would tell me about how you left the Thalmor, and I asked how you and His Grace became friends, and I told you my age and asked how old you were, and I asked what kinds of magic you liked to use, I asked—oh, for Divines’ sake, I don’t remember what all I said. You really are a terrible traveling companion.”
“Did it occur to you that perhaps I do not want to answer your questions?”
“No,” she replied petulantly. “Besides, you owe me. I saved your life.”
“So because I owe you my life, I should tell you all my secrets?”
“I don’t care about your secrets; I just want to know you better. It’s either that, or it’s going to be a very long trip back to Whiterun.”
He regarded her for a long moment, and she stood there, arms folded, glaring back at him.
“Oh, very well,” he said finally, his expression softening. “Where should I begin?”
He opened up after that, and they spent the next couple of days getting to know each other. Coranil spent long hours telling her about his time with the Thalmor, his escape, and his change in philosophy regarding the Thalmor and the Aldmeri Dominion in general.
Kaaley was impressed. She had found him interesting, and he was fun to tease because he would crinkle his brow in just the perfect way when she was driving him up the wall, but she’d had no idea how fascinating his life had been. She got the distinct impression that he was leaving bits and pieces out, but he had essentially given her what she wanted, so she was happy. He became more than a colleague or a target for her teasing; she found she genuinely liked and admired the Altmer, and he was the first high elf she could ever say that about.
And he still smelled good, his scent carrying undertones of elves ear and mint. He was fastidiously clean; perhaps the aroma came from the soap he used. Whatever it was, she often found herself having to resist the urge to sniff him when he got close.
But she couldn’t think about that.
“It was an act of rebellion. Mother spent some time in Cyrodiil, where she got to know the goddess, and she took her beliefs back home with her. In my grandparents’ hope that marrying a Thalmor agent would suppress her rebellious streak, they arranged a marriage with my father.”
“But that didn’t stop her,” Kaaley assumed.
“No. My father did not care what she did, as long as she stayed out of his way. They spent much of their time ignoring each other, at least until I came along. When I was young, they often fought over my upbringing. She taught me the ways of Kynareth, and he groomed me for the Thalmor, of course.”
“And he won.”
“Oh, yes. He was not . . . gentle, and she was. They separated after some years, and as far as I know, she is still a priestess of Kynareth. Living very far from my father, I am sure. What about you? Kynareth is not a Bosmer deity, either.”
“Would you believe my father was a priest? It’s funny how you and I have that in common. My parents fled Valenwood when the Thalmor came in, and he discovered Kynareth in Cyrodiil just like your mother did, although he would tell you she came to him in a dream.”
“It is not unheard of,” Coranil said mildly, “and we all come to know our gods in different ways.”
“It’s weird; I know less about Valenwood and the Bosmer culture than I do about the Imperial and Nord cultures. I think there were a lot of things my parents wanted to forget. Elrindir and Anoriath have taught me a lot, though.”
The conversation died off, and Kaaley watched the Altmer as he sipped a glass of wine and stared into the fire with a faraway expression on his face. If she didn’t know better, she might think he was sulking.
“You’re worried about him, aren’t you?” she asked, assuming he was thinking about Ulfric.
He looked up at her with momentary confusion, then nodded and said, “We knew the Coat of Storms could have a detrimental effect on the bearer’s health, but I had no idea it would take such a toll on him. I would never tell him this, but am uncertain we should continue our course of action.”
“Do you not believe the Thalmor will get the Coat of Storms if we don’t?”
“I do. But I also believe it is unnecessary for Ulfric to possess all the pieces. He has five of them, and Dolff has likely left on a quest for the sixth by now. Perhaps we should leave it at that.”
“What would Ulfric do if you told him that?”
“In his current condition? Probably accuse me of treason, and I suppose it would be.”
She shook her head. “You’re not betraying him; you’re trying to protect him.”
“It does not matter anyway. None of my sources have leads on the sword, so it may be a moot point. But something else comes to mind as well. We first got intelligence of the Coat of Storms from some documents I took from the Thalmor. What if those documents were planted? Perhaps the Coat of Storms is cursed but the Thalmor doctored the documentation in the hope that someone would come across it.”
“You mean it doesn’t confer the power of a god, just kills the holder?”
“It has crossed my mind.”
“Then Coranil, we need to warn the High King.”
“I did. I mentioned it to him while we were there. He just waved the notion off.”
“But that’s another reason you don’t want to look for Stormthorn.”
“He is my best friend. I do not want to be responsible for his death.”
Kaaley thought about Ulfric’s condition and Coranil’s concerns, and he was right. She supposed she was shallow; she hadn’t really thought about it in terms of the big picture. She had just resolved to do her job the best she could and let events play out as they may. There was no point in worrying about it. But Coranil’s mood was contagious, and she found herself worrying about the High King as well. Or maybe she was just worried about Coranil.
She reached out and squeezed his hand. He jumped at first, almost pulled his hand away, but he finally took hold and squeezed back. “We’ll do what we can,” she said gently, “and what we have to.”
“Yes. It will have to be enough, I suppose.”
* * *
Serana sat on the throne in Volkihar Keep’s great hall, reading a book and absently scratching CuSith’s head. It was early in the evening and not much was going on, just like she wanted it. The great hall was usually abuzz with activity; and though she didn’t mind the parties, the heated discussions, the tales of glory, and the songs, sometimes she just wanted a little quiet. She often rose early just so she could feed in peace, then sit here and relax before all Oblivion broke loose.
Off to the right in Vingalmo’s lab, she heard several loud pops and sizzles. She hadn’t seen him in several nights and didn’t know what he was working on, but she didn’t really care as long as he stayed out of trouble. All the other Volkihar vampires had accepted her as the head of the house, and they were a fairly close family. Though there was an occasional whisper, no one had really plotted against her since Blanche had put her in charge. Except Vingalmo. The others kept an eye on him, especially Orthjolf, so she didn’t worry about it much. When a loud bang resounded from his lab, however, Serana decided it was time to see what he was up to.
She marked her book and left it on the throne, making her way up to the lab with CuSith padding along behind her, his claws clicking on the floor. She entered the lab to find the elf lying unconscious next to his enchanting table, but it wasn’t Vingalmo who commanded her attention. Floating over the enchanting table was a portal, a gaping hole in the air with a clear view of another place, and a glimpse through it was all she needed to discover where it led. CuSith keened and growled at the nimbus.
Orthjolf stepped into the room. “What was that bang?” He noticed the portal churning before them and gawped at it, eyes wide. “What the–?”
“Did you know about this?” Serana demanded.
“Do you jest? When does Vingalmo tell me anything?”
“Seize him before he wakes up. Bind his hands so that he can’t cast, and put him in the dungeon. I’ll want to speak to everyone in the castle right away and then interrogate him.”
“Serana, what is it? Where does that portal go?”
She regarded the burly Nord vampire with dread in her eyes. “It goes to Coldharbour.”