Serana stood over Vingalmo, who knelt in the prison cell with hands bound tightly behind his back, impatiently willing him to answer her questions. She had waited for days while he had lain unconscious, wondering if he would ever even recover from the trauma of a trip to Coldharbour. And now that he was finally awake, he wasn’t cooperating. Orthjolf stood by, his hands balled into fists, just itching for the chance to hurt the Altmer.
“You can stare at me all you want,” Vingalmo stated. “I’m not giving anything away.”
“Come on, Vingalmo,” said Serana, “we all know what a coward you are. If I let Orthjolf loose on you, you won’t stand up to a moment’s pain. Let’s not do this the hard way.”
“Do you think there’s an easy way? I tell you what I know, and I’m dead.”
“Or you don’t tell us what you know, we kill you anyway, and we figure it out on our own.”
“Yes, well, good luck with that.”
“You idiot!” Orthjolf snarled. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time a portal was opened between Tamriel and Coldharbour?”
Serana looked up at him in confusion. “This has happened before?”
“When you were entombed. Molag Bal tried to merge Coldharbour and Tamriel.”
“Well, there was more to it than that,” Vingalmo threw in.
Serana stomped her foot in frustration. She didn’t have the patience for interrogation. “Gods damn it, Vingalmo, what is going to come through that portal!”
The elf momentarily looked confused before realization dawned on his face. “It’s still open?”
“What, you didn’t know?”
His already pale skin blanched even more, and his eyes took on an expression of sheer terror. “Gods, no, it was supposed to close behind me.”
Serana glanced over at Orthjolf, who said, “Are you telling us you went to Coldharbour? Intentionally?”
“Yes, and I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a dreadful place, and coming back through was . . . well, unpleasant.”
“‘Unpleasant’?” Serana echoed. “It’s Coldharbour! It’s the worst place in—well, everywhere! What reason could you possibly have for going there?”
“You won’t believe me if I do tell you.”
He shook his head vehemently. “No, you’re better off not knowing.”
“How do we close it?”
“I don’t know! It was supposed to close behind me, I told you. Damn spell didn’t work.”
“Well, you’d better figure out what went wrong so we can reverse it before something decides to come through.”
Vingalmo chuckled again. Orthjolf stepped in and began pounding on his face. The elf screamed like a little girl, but the Nord just kept hitting him until Serana put a hand out to stop him.
“If you break his jaw, he’s not going to be able to speak.”
“Call off your attack dog!” Vingalmo whined.
“I’ll show you an attack dog, you filthy elf,” Orthjolf snarled.
“What is the portal for?” Serana asked again. “Why did you go to Coldharbour?”
“I told you, you don’t want to know!”
Although she didn’t need to breathe, Serana took several deep breaths to calm herself before she started pounding on his face. “I do want to know, Vingalmo. Let me judge for myself.”
“For safekeeping,” he replied with a sigh.
“You went to Coldharbour for safekeeping?”
“No, I took—look, this is just not worth it. You want to know? Fine, I’ll tell you. I was in possession of something that belonged to the Thalmor.”
Serana’s mouth dropped open. “What? You were helping the Thalmor? What in the name of Molag Bal were you doing that for?”
“I didn’t say I was helping them. I never intended to give it back to them.”
“Give what back?”
“It’s a sword. I was hunting on the mainland shortly after your little boyfriend torched Northwatch Keep. One of their ships was moored there, and I struck up a conversation with the senior agent.”
“You were supposed to bring the Thalmor agents back here.”
“I did bring them back. It was the second batch I brought back, thank you very much. One of them was chatty, kept talking about a sword they had been looking for in the fort. I decided to go over and see if I could turn it up.”
“And you found it, I assume.”
“You know, your boyfriend really burned that place to the ground!”
“Would you stop calling Ben Stormblade my boyfriend?”
“Okay, whatever you say.”
Serana slapped Vingalmo hard across the face, but he only laughed at her. “Your strings are too easy to pull, Serana. Yes, I found the sword, buried amid all that rubble. It looked just like a normal ancient Nordic blade, except it radiated with a magic like I’d never seen. So I brought it home.”
“And what prompted you to take it to Coldharbour?”
“Chatty Thalmor, remember? Turns out this blade is part of some collection of magical artifacts that they were trying to get their hands on. It was the whole reason they were sneaking back into Skyrim.”
“What does the sword do?” Orthjolf asked him.
“Fire and shock damage, as far as I could tell, but this is not a normal magical sword. There’s something else, something I couldn’t figure out. That thing is dangerous.”
“Dangerous enough for you to hide it in Coldharbour?” Serana prodded.
“I tried to think, what would be the last place anybody would look for it? I’m a greedy bastard, and even I think nobody should have it.”
“But how did you get there in the first place?”
“Oh, I’ve got spells and incantations to go to all sorts of places.”
“Go and come back, apparently, but not to close the portal. What were you thinking?”
“I told you it was supposed to close when I came back!”
“Maybe Blanche will know how to close it.”
“You sent for Blanche?” the elf groaned.
It was Serana’s turn to chuckle. “Did you think you could open a portal to Coldharbour inside Castle Volkihar and I wouldn’t send for Blanche?”
Orthjolf sneered at Vingalmo. “Maybe this will be enough for her to finally let me kill you. Rip you into little pieces and scatter your dust all over the Sea of Ghosts. Or throw you back through that portal right before she closes it.”
Serana rolled her eyes. “Orthjolf, you’re not helping.”
* * *
5E 20, 8 Midyear
When Dolff walked into the Palace of Kings and saw Brynjolf in the great hall, his heart sank. Ulfric wasn’t on the throne, and Rowan and Ben’s father was sitting at the long table, speaking quietly with Ralof. Dolff froze, suddenly unable to move his feet.
“Oh, gods,” he muttered, barely above a whisper.
Ralof looked up, saw them standing just inside the door, and got up to greet them. “Dolff, I’m glad you’re back.”
“Is he . . . ?”
“He’s still alive, but he’s very ill. He’s been asking for you.”
“I’ll go see him at once.” He squeezed Rowan’s hand, then dropped his gear on the floor and ran through the great hall, war room, and the corridors upstairs to reach his father’s bedroom.
Ulfric was asleep, and Selene was sitting beside the bed, holding an unopened book.
“How is he?” Dolff whispered.
“Weak. He’s been asking for you.”
He knelt next to the bed and gently shook Ulfric’s shoulder. “Da? Da, I’m here.”
Da opened his eyes and smiled. “Help me sit up,” he said faintly. As Dolff helped get him into a sitting position and propped a couple of pillows behind his head, he regarded Selene sheepishly. “I fell asleep on you again. Sorry.”
“The book’s not going anywhere, love. I can read you more later. Take some time with your son.” She stepped out of the room and closed the door.
Ulfric had deteriorated even more in the few days since Dolff had left the palace. His skin was pale and even looser than it had been before, and he seemed to have trouble even lifting his arms. His hands, which clutched a handkerchief, trembled slightly. But his eyes were clearer than they had been, and the sharpness of his gaze had returned.
“Da, I’m sorry we fought.”
His father waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve lost count of how many times you’ve stormed out of the great hall. Emotions were running high, and I was . . . confused. The apology is mine.”
“You don’t seem confused anymore.”
“They made me take off the Jagged Crown.”
“I think that was best.”
“Indeed. I couldn’t do it myself; Ralof held me down while Selene forcibly removed it from my head. My mind cleared right away, but the physical damage is already done. When you inherit the crown, do not, under any circumstances, put it on anywhere near those other artifacts.”
“Don’t talk about my inheriting the crown, Da. You’re not going to die.”
“There are things you need to know. As my heir—” Ulfric raised the handkerchief to his face and coughed, rasping and sputtering until the cloth was spattered with blood. “Water,” he choked out.
Dolff retrieved a cup of water from the nightstand and held it to Ulfric’s lips. He drank a few sips and turned his head away, and Dolff put the cup down.
“Things you need to know,” his da repeated. “When I die, you will automatically assume the role of Jarl of Windhelm. The jarls of Skyrim will hold a moot sometime in the next year or so to determine a new High King, and as my son, you will be the most likely choice.”
“Da, I’m seventeen years old. Why would they even consider naming me High King?”
“Because none of them want the job. There has been chatter for several years about who would replace me. Elisif may oppose you, but the other jarls will likely back you. The woman is too flighty to be High Queen. Everybody knows she’s just a figurehead and Falk Firebeard runs Solitude.
“The more immediate necessit for you, however, is to get your house in order. Jorleif will stay on as Steward until you have chosen a new one. He’ll train his replacement, and then he plans to retire.”
“Who do I pick?”
“Ralof’s wife Kira would make a good steward. She has helped Jorleif out on many occasions, so she knows how court business runs, and she’s trustworthy. I would recommend keeping Ralof and Coranil on as housecarl and lead intelligence agent. They both love you and will serve you as faithfully as they’ve served me. You’ll need to appoint a court mage as well. I didn’t bother finding another one after Wuunferth passed on, and it was a poor decision. Ben might be a good choice; he’s very skilled for his years, and since you’re so close in age, he can grow into the job with you. Also, though I’ll deny saying it if you repeat it to anyone, I believe Blanche would be an excellent court mage. You might even take Farkas on as Captain of the Guard.”
Dolff chuckled. “I never thought I’d hear you say that about Blanche or Farkas.”
“Coranil has been harping on me for years that people should be judged by who they are, not what they are. I think back on so many people I’ve met over the years, good people I could have known better, if I had only been able to get past my own prejudices. You’re younger, more idealistic, and you don’t have those prejudices. I thank mighty Talos that you got your mother’s good sense in that regard. Nilsine loved everyone, even me. I was never very good at returning her love.”
“You did your best, and she knew that. Da, how am I going to do this? What if I’m too young and idealistic to assume the throne?”
Ulfric shook his head. “That is exactly why you will be a good jarl, and a good High King. You have spent time in the world, although not as much as you had hoped for, I’d wager. You’ve experienced pain and loss, fought battles, had your adventures; but you never really learned to hate. I hope you never learn that.”
“I hate the Thalmor.”
“I’m sure there are others you say you hate as well, but you don’t know the seething, burning rage that comes from the kind of hatred I’m talking about. You’ll be fairer and more objective than I ever was. But always be careful—very careful—of whom you trust. There is still an innocence about you that could be detrimental. That won’t last long on the throne, but be sure to listen to those you do trust. Take their advice, let them help you, and let them protect you. But don’t let them or anyone else control you. The moment I leave this world for Sovngarde, you will become the most powerful man in Skyrim. Don’t let anyone forget that, especially the other jarls.”
Ulfric drew a raspy breath and started coughing again. Dolff held the handkerchief for him and helped him get some water, and his father finally sighed wearily. “I need to rest now.”
Dolff helped him lie down. “I’ll stay right here, Da.”
His father drifted off quickly, and in just a couple of minutes, he was snoring quietly, leaving Dolff with a lot to think about. The man had already given up. How could he do that? As long as there was life, there was hope. Wasn’t that what people said? Or was he just too tired to care anymore? Besides, Ulfric was a warrior, and Sovngarde did await him. That had to be preferable to wasting away in this bedchamber.
Dolff reached into his pocket and pulled out the Amulet of the Guardian. Da hadn’t even asked about it, more interested in having a moment with his son and preparing him for the future than getting a report on the quest that was killing him. He studied it for a long time, thinking about the Coat of Storms, the lore they’d heard, and the effect it was having on his father. He believed more and more that something wasn’t right. Surely the souls clinging to the Jagged Crown wouldn’t be this harmful, this quickly. Good men had worn the crown, too—young, healthy men. The lore was incorrect, or it was an out-and-out lie. It didn’t matter, though. They still needed to get their hands on Stormthorn, the last piece of the collection. They could decide what to do with it once they had the whole thing, even if it was something as simple as splitting it back up. If they did that, at least they would know where all the pieces were.
Ulfric slept through the night, although he would occasionally rouse briefly with a coughing fit, and Dolff maintained a constant vigil. Rowan brought him something to eat and sat with him for a time; Ben, Selene, Ralof, Jorleif, and even Brynjolf visited as well. Jora, the priestess of Talos who was monitoring the High King’s care, came in every couple of hours to check on him. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Coranil came in and pulled a chair up next to Dolff.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t arrive in time to speak with him again,” the elf whispered. “How is he?”
“They managed to get the Jagged Crown off his head, and his mind is clear. But he’s so weak, Cor. He’s been resting comfortably for a while, though.”
“Jora doesn’t expect him to last the night.”
“No,” Dolff protested with a tremulous voice. “He’ll make it through the night.”
* * *
And he did. Ulfric opened his eyes just as the morning sun began streaming in the chamber windows. Dolff helped him get a drink of water and offered to get him some breakfast, but the High King shook his head.
“Coranil,” he said softly. “And Selene.”
“I’m here, Your Grace,” said the Altmer, taking Ulfric’s hand.
“Did I ever apologize for the way I treated you when you first came to me?”
“Several times, yes.”
“Then let me do it again. You’re my dearest friend, Coranil.”
“And you’re mine, Your Grace. Ulfric.”
While they were talking, Dolff left the room to go find Selene. She and Brynjolf were having breakfast with Rowan and Ben in their suite, and they all hurried to Ulfric’s room.
Coranil squeezed Ulfric’s hand and stood back while Selene and Brynjolf stepped closer. He gazed down at Dolff and shook his head sadly.
Dolff closed his eyes and swallowed hard. It couldn’t be happening. Not now. It was too soon. It would always be too soon. He felt Rowan’s arms around him, and he laid his head on her shoulder.
Selene sat on the bed and took Ulfric’s hands in hers. The High King, however, looked up at Brynjolf.
“We were never friends,” Ulfric said, “so I never told you how much I respected you—as a man, as an operative, and as Selene’s husband. For loving her as much as she loves you. Thank you for that.”
“I find myself at a rare loss for words,” Brynjolf stammered.
“You don’t have to answer. Just let it be.”
“You should rest,” Selene whispered.
“Not yet. Let me say goodbye.”
“No, Ulfric,” she protested with a sob.
“I look up at my ceiling, and I see Sovngarde. It’s just as you said it was, Selene. I can even hear the distant singing. I said I would love you till the day I died, but I believe I’ll love you a while longer.”
Tears streamed down Dolff’s face, and Rowan held him tighter. He watched as Selene bent and gave Ulfric one last kiss on the mouth before backing away; then he pulled away from Rowan, sat on the bed next to his da, and took his hand.
“We will, Your Grace,” Rowan replied with a nod.
He turned back to Dolff and smiled, squeezing his hand. “I’m very proud of you. Having you in my life was the greatest joy I could ever have, and I love you, son.”
“I love you too, Da.”
“Time to rest now,” Ulfric whispered. He closed his eyes, released his grip on Dolff’s hand, and breathed his last.
It was over. Ulfric Stormcloak was gone.