5E 20, 2 Last Seed
After months of hearing nothing but secondhand information and idle gossip about Rowan and Ben, Vilkas had decided it was time to find out for himself what was going on. He knew Ulfric had passed away and Dolff had taken the throne as Jarl of Windhelm, but he hadn’t received so much as a letter from any of them since it had happened. Rumors were rampant, of course, and when Coranil and Kaaley—whom he’d had suspicions about for quite some time—suddenly disappeared from Whiterun for several weeks, he began to plan a trip to Windhelm. Athis had refused to let him travel alone, so the two of them had set out a few days ago, and they arrived at the Palace of the Kings just after noon.
Dolff sat on the throne, looking bored as jarls always seemed to do, and he smiled and got up to give his Harbinger a warm greeting when they entered. He hugged Vilkas and gave Athis an amiable pat on the shoulder.
“Harbinger!” he exclaimed. “It’s so good to see you.”
“You too, my young friend.”
“Jarl of Windhelm,” Athis drawled. “I suppose you think you’re special now, don’t you?”
Dolff chuckled. “Terrified is more like it. What brings you to Windhelm?”
“We hadn’t heard from you—any of you—in a long time,” said Vilkas. “We came to ascertain that everything was all right. Where are Rowan and Ben?”
The jarl motioned toward the long table, and the three of them sat down. The steward, whom Dolff introduced as Kira, brought them tankards of mead.
“Rowan and Ben are in Riften at the moment,” Dolff told them. “A lot has happened since we last spoke.” He swiped a hand down his face, and Vilkas noticed the dark circles under his eyes. He looked tired, and his eyes had a kind of wild look to them.
“Dolff, what has happened?” Vilkas demanded.
“I don’t even know where to start. Da brought us to Windhelm originally to help him obtain a set of artifacts. He’d heard they would confer the owner with the power of a god and that the Thalmor were also trying to get ahold of them. But we had been misled as to just what their powers were. They killed my father.”
“How did they do that?”
Dolff ran a hand through his hair and sighed heavily. “That’s what they do. They cause weakness and madness, and eventually death. They’re starting to affect me now as well. We have all the pieces, and now we’re looking for a way to destroy them.”
“What can we do to help?” Athis asked.
“Nothing, at this point. Nocturnal told Selene and Brynjolf she knew a way, but she demanded that Rowan and Ben become Nightingales before she would tell them. That’s why they’re in Riften.”
“Nightingales, eh?” Vilkas repeated, raising an eyebrow. “It seems almost impossible for a Companion to enter Sovngarde these days.”
Just the way he said it gave Vilkas chills. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know what more there could be. “What is it?” he asked, dreading the answer.
“They went to Coldharbour to get the last piece and were captured there.”
“Shor’s beard! How did they escape?”
“A few of my operatives went in and rescued them.”
“Let me guess: Coranil and Kaaley.” Dolff’s eyes widened, and although he didn’t verbally confirm what Vilkas had said, he knew he was right.
“You should know something Vilkas: Rowan and Ben became vampires before they went.”
He had been right; he didn’t want to know. He closed his eyes and took a quivering breath. “How? Why?”
“The portal to Coldharbour was inside Castle Volkihar. Serana, one of the vampires there—”
“I know who she is.”
“She turned them to give them more protection. Now, Rowan was cured, but Ben decided to stay a vampire.”
“Damn boy. What was he thinking?”
“He’s in love with Serana.”
Vilkas rested his head in his hands, swallowing hard.
“I’m almost afraid to ask this,” said Athis, “but is there anything else?”
As if on cue, the palace doors opened and a large group came in. Vilkas looked up to see Rowan and Ben, Selene and Brynjolf, Blanche—and his brother. His heart practically came up in his throat.
Dolff got up and went to Rowan, taking her in his arms. “Thank the Divines you’re back,” he breathed.
Vilkas and Athis got up as well and went to meet the group. Selene immediately came to him and threw her arms around him. “Didn’t expect to see you here,” she said.
How, after all this time, could she still make his heart pound so? He’d been happily married to Lydia for many years, but the briefest kiss on his cheek from Selene made him feel like a giddy youth. He supposed he would never completely get over her. Then again, who did? He was sure Ulfric had loved her till the day he died as well. “Athis and I came to find out what was happening with our shield-brothers and sister. We got more than we expected.”
“Isn’t that always the way?”
Brynjolf approached and held his arm out in greeting and Vilkas grasped his wrist; but his eyes were on Farkas, who stood silently at the rear of the group, staring back at him, his yellow eyes glowing in the light of the great hall. It had been ages since he had seen his twin, but other than the eyes and a pale cast to his face, he hadn’t changed a bit. He even still wore the Companions’ wolf armor. Vilkas had thought he would never see him again, and he had thought he wanted it that way, but he found himself walking slowly toward him. Farkas approached him as well.
“You got old,” Farkas said when they met up.
But Vilkas didn’t give him time to finish. He threw his arms around his brother, tears welling in his eyes as Farkas hugged him back. “Farkas, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he replied, his voice thick with emotion.
“Oh, thank the gods!” Selene sighed with relief.
“Why don’t you two go somewhere and catch up?” Blanche suggested.
Vilkas pulled back from Farkas and looked down at his sister-in-law, someone else he had never intended to see again, and smiled. “Hello, Blanche.”
“Vilkas,” she said with a polite nod.
“She’s right,” said Farkas. “Let’s you and me go to Candlehearth Hall while they talk business.”
“In a moment,” Vilkas replied, walking over to Ben. “First, I want to see—Ben, what did you do to yourself?”
“I didn’t exactly do it to myself.”
“And you’re happy with this?”
“I am, Uncle. I know you don’t approve.”
With a sigh, he said, “I may not approve, but so many of my family are making this choice that I’m going to lose everyone I love if I don’t accept it.”
“Well, I didn’t stay that way,” said Rowan, stepping in and wrapping her arms around his neck.
“Thank the Divines for small blessings. But now the two of you have pledged yourselves to Nocturnal. Can’t I leave you alone for five minutes?”
“The pledge to Nocturnal is temporary. I’m sorry we haven’t kept in touch, Uncle. But we’ll talk later. For now, we have to go over a few things with the jarl.”
“I think we’re being dismissed,” said Farkas.
Athis, who had stood by silently, piped up. “I have a feeling they’re going to send me with you to Candlehearth Hall.”
“Sure, Athis. You’re welcome to come along.”
Vilkas kissed his niece’s forehead and said, “Very well. But I want to hear all this from you, little one. Understand?”
“I do, Uncle, and I promise.”
He pulled away and went back to his brother, clapping him on the shoulder. “Let’s go and let them talk.”
* * *
As soon as Vilkas, Farkas, and Athis were gone, Rowan went back to Dolff, who said, “All right. What? And why is Blanche here? Hello, Blanche.”
“Jarl. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. Now, tell me.”
“Blanche is here because it will take all four Dragonborns to destroy the Coat of Storms,” Selene said.
At the words, “destroy the Coat of Storms,” Dolff paled and his eyes widened. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked with an edge to his voice.
Rowan’s heart sank. She knew the collection was having a detrimental effect on him, but by the look in his eye, she realized it might be worse than she had thought. “It’s dangerous, remember?” she said patiently. “It’s what killed your da.”
“No, he was just old. And tired, remember? I don’t want to—wait.” He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them, then looked at her. “Gods, Ro, you’re right. How could I forget that?” He turned to Kira, who stood near the throne. “Send for Coranil, Kaaley, and Serana, will you? Have them come to the conference room.”
“Certainly, my jarl.” His steward left the hall through the south stairwell, and Dolff led the rest of them through the war room (her mama stopped to hug Ralof as they went through) and upstairs to the conference room.
“Has there been a lot of that?” Ben asked him as they crowded around the conference table.
“A lot of what? Your ma hugging members of my court? It’s been going on for years.”
Ben chuckled. “Actually, a lot of you wanting to keep the Coat of Storms.”
“I—I don’t know. It is on my mind quite a bit, and I . . . it seems like I’ve gone into the archives to look at it a lot.”
“He has,” said Kaaley as she and Coranil came in, followed by Serana.
Ben got up, went to Serana, and kissed her. She wrapped her arms around him and returned the kiss, then pulled back and regarded his new garb. “I like the armor,” she said warmly. “I can feel its power.”
“Can you really?”
“Can we get back to this?” Dolff asked impatiently.
“Sorry,” said Ben. He and Serana came to the table and sat down, Serana perching on his lap.
“So. How do we destroy it?”
“The Fire Breath Shout,” Rowan told him. “We need to take the collection to the Throat of the World and destroy it with the Shout.”
“Truly?” Coranil asked. “After all that, is it that easy?”
“Nocturnal said it wouldn’t be that easy,” said Selene. “Apparently, the collection is sentient and will fight back when we try to destroy it.”
Dolff furrowed his brow. “Maybe I am going crazy, because I thought you just said the Coat of Storms would fight back.”
“That’s what she said,” Brynjolf confirmed.
“How does that happen?”
Ben shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”
“We shouldn’t wait long,” Selene remarked.
“No, I do understand that,” Dolff assured her. He looked at Rowan sadly. “Are we ever going to get to spend time together again?”
She swallowed hard. “This is almost over, love.”
“I want to go to the temple before you leave,” he said impulsively, without a care that they weren’t alone.
Rowan didn’t care, either. She left her chair and went to him, sitting on his lap and covering his face with kisses. “Absolutely. Can we do it here, or do we have to go to the Temple of Mara in Riften?”
“I asked Jora. She said she can marry us here.” He looked over at Selene and Brynjolf. “With your blessing, of course.”
“Of course you have our blessing,” said Brynjolf.
Rowan’s heart pounded, and her breath hitched in her throat. “Oh, gods, I have so much to do before then! I don’t even have a dress!”
“We’ll go see Niranye,” her mama said. “She should have something appropriate.”
“You can marry me in your armor, as far as I’m concerned,” Dolff said.
“Oh, no. Uh-uh. We have to do this right.”
“Aye,” said Ben. “Remember, Dolff, she’s a girl.”
“You just hush,” she snapped at her brother. “Are we done here? I need to get ready.”
“One more thing,” her fiancé said grimly. “When you said you were going to destroy the Coat of Storms, my first thought was to kill all of you. You must be prepared, not only for the collection to fight back, but for me to fight back. Ben and Coranil, talk to Ralof. Have him warn the guards and make a plan to restrain me if necessary. This has to be done, even if you have to lock me up in order to get it out of the palace.”
“We’re not going to have to do that,” Rowan told him, stroking his cheek. “You’re going to be fine.”
“I hope you’re right, love, but we can’t take any chances.”
“We shall do what is necessary,” Coranil assured him.
“Good. Now, ladies, you go do what is necessary, and I will see you tomorrow morning at the Temple of Talos.”
Rowan leaned in and kissed him, then got up and waved for the women to follow her. She had less than a day to get ready. How in Talos’ name was she going to prepare for a wedding in that time?
* * *
The rest of the day was busy, but they split up the tasks so it wasn’t as crazy as it could have been. Dolff went to the temple to talk to Jora, and the women dashed all over town and met with palace staff to make preparations for the wedding. This wasn’t just a normal Skyrim wedding; it was the jarl, and pretty much everyone in Windhelm would have to be invited, not only to the ceremony itself but to a grand party afterward. Kira posted notices, but she also went to the homes of the city’s more prominent families and invited them personally, apologizing for the short notice.
Kaaley talked with the kitchen personnel to plan a meal that was suitable but could be thrown together overnight, and Serana worked with the housekeeping staff to decorate the great hall for the reception. Selene and Blanche spent their afternoon getting Rowan ready.
Niranye did indeed have a dress that would work. A white velvet chemise with black trim and lacing on the arms was accompanied by a black and white bodice that accentuated her bust.
“It’s lovely,” Mama said when Rowan modeled it for her and Blanche.
“I had always hoped I’d be able to wear the dress you wore when you married Daddy.”
“Me too, but there’s no time. I think Dolff had no idea what he was suggesting when he said he wanted to marry you tomorrow.”
“Of course not. He thought it would just be him and me, and the few of you. He tends to forget things are different now that he’s Jarl.”
“No worries,” said Blanche. “We’ll make it.”
And they did. Although she was exhausted when she retired to Ulfric’s old suite, she did so with the satisfaction that everyone had managed to get their part done. Aside from a single nightmare, she rested well, and she was already awake when Selene and Kaaley came in the next morning. She was in her dress and Kaaley was doing her hair when Blanche and Serana entered the room.
“Dolff is a nervous wreck,” Serana announced.
“He’s not having second thoughts, is he?” Rowan asked with apprehension.
“No, no. He just saw the preparations in the great hall and finally realized what a production this has to be.”
“Just like we thought,” Selene said with a grin.
Kaaley tried several different hairstyles, from braiding to elaborate updos, but she wasn’t satisfied with anything. “Oh, screw it,” she said finally. “It looks best just hanging loose.” She placed a wreath on Rowan’s head and smiled. “Perfect.”
“It’s time,” said Blanche. She squeezed Rowan’s hand and said, “Let’s get to the temple.”
The women accompanied Rowan through the lavishly decorated great hall and across the snowy courtyard, where her daddy waited at the temple door. They offered her hugs and kisses before going inside, leaving her alone with her parents.
“You look beautiful,” Brynjolf said. “I love you, little one.”
“I love you too, Daddy. You too, Mama.”
“I love you too, sweetie. Two minutes, all right?”
“All right.” They kissed her and went in, and Rowan waited a couple of minutes to give them time to get seated. It was the longest two minutes of her life. All the madness of the last day came down to this. Dolff could be nervous if he wanted, but she had been too busy. But as she stood alone in the cold, she had just enough time to be utterly terrified.
But this was what she wanted. She loved Dolff more than anything, and she had known for so long that she wanted to spend her life with him. When she thought about it, she realized she had been in love with him even at the beginning, when they hadn’t gotten along. Every time he had sneered or berated her for something, she had died a little bit inside. He had loved her too, though; she understood that now. He had just been too young to understand what he was feeling and it made him uncomfortable. But no matter; he had figured it out, and they were happy. There was no reason in the world to be nervous. She smiled, took a deep breath, and opened the temple doors.
The room, as she had expected, was packed. The congregation stood up when she entered, smiling at her as she passed them, but she only saw Dolff, standing at the front wearing a black shirt and trousers with an elaborately decorated brocade vest, and a circlet on his brow. He was smiling as well, and he extended a hand when she neared him. She took his hand and stood next to him, then turned to face Jora, who stood before the statue of Talos.
“Friends,” said the priestess, “we come together today in the site of not only Talos but all the Divines, to celebrate the union of Rowan Stormblade and Jarl Dolff Stormcloak. When the jarl came to me yesterday to tell me the ceremony would be today, I cautioned him not to rush into the marriage. But as we spoke, I began to see not an impulsive youth but someone who had been anticipating and planning for this day for a long time. I saw a man who wanted nothing more than to commit himself to the woman he loved. As I gaze upon Rowan now, I see the same look in her eye. This couple has been blessed with an enduring love, smiled upon by the gods, and they are ready to begin their journey together. So much goes on in their lives—Jarl and Dragonborn, both of them nobles, adventurers, and heroes. But at this moment, they set it all aside and stand here simply as a man and woman in love.
“Now, Rowan, in the sight of the Nine Divines, do you promise to give your love and devotion to this man, and this man only, now and forever?”
“I do. Now and forever.”
“And Dolff, do you promise to give your love and devotion to this woman only, now and forever?”
“I do. Now and forever.”
Jora reached into a pocket and produced two rings of Mara. She held them in her open hand and said, “Lady Mara, bless these rings and this marriage.” She handed one to each of them and said, “Exchange these rings as a sign of your pledge.”
Dolff took Rowan’s hand and placed the ring on her finger, gazing into her eyes. “I love you,” he said, barely above a whisper, “and I always will.”
Tears welled in her eyes as she placed Dolff’s ring on his finger. “I love you too, and I always will,” she said, her voice breaking. She swallowed hard, refusing to start blubbering like a baby at her own wedding. She could hear her mother sniffling; that was enough crying for the Stormblade family.
They turned back to Jora, who said, “In the name of the Divines, I declare that you are now husband and wife. Go forth and begin your life together. Jarl—Dolff—you may kiss your bride.”
Dolff leaned in and kissed her, and as she wrapped her arms around his neck, a slight sob escaped her lips. She held it together, though, as he pulled back and took her hand. They walked down the aisle past their applauding friends and family, then outside into the snow, where he picked her up and swung her around joyfully. He kissed her again as the others began to file out of the temple, offering congratulations.
After lots of hugs and pats on the back, he took her hand and said, “Let’s go to the palace and get out of the cold, my wife.”
“Hmm, I like the sound of that,” she cooed as she let him lead her and the rest of the group to the reception.
Tomorrow, things would heat up again. They had a lot to do, and it would be dangerous. But today, for just a while, everything was perfect, and it was the happiest day of her life.