It's just a dedication,
It won't be very long,
It's given to a special voice,
That made me write A Song.

The Opening Bars

It is with great pain and an overwhelming feeling of grogginess that I begin this narrative. You can call me Valentine if you like, though my friends often call me Val. My last name is Florian and there's something special about it. It's a last name which my ancestor, my great grandmother adopted after she had been told by her grandmother what our true lineage is. But I suppose I will have to explain that now. Not that I've got anything better to do. I'm still recovering from that nasty blow to the head, and the only things I am aware of right at present are the clopping of horses hooves on a poorly made cobblestone highway, the rattle of metal reinforced wheels, and a rather jogging ride on a bench which happens to be part of this wagon I'm in with . . . oh looks like three other people. Four if you count our driver, but he's no one we're liking right now.

You see, once upon a time, there was this fellow, named Martin. Turns out he was the illegitimate son of the Emperor at the time, of the Septim line. But my three greats . . . Umm . . . Screw it . . . My ancestral founder called him Martiboo. You see, before he became a Priest of Akatosh in the city of Kvatch, and was nearly killed by the Daedra during the Oblivion Crises, he himself had flirted with Daedric magic, and that included not a few parties and deals with Sanguine. Well my ancestral founder was apparently quite the pleasure girl and she slept with Martin not a few times. When he became a priest he gently broke it up. Not that my ancestor actually minded. She was way too far into the Sanguine thing to care that deeply for the departure of Martin for the 'boring' life as she called it. So naturally a few days after the break up, she discovered she was at least three months pregnant (she never could count that well and had been wondering for close to sixty days where her period was). My ancestor didn't bother to tell him. She was convinced he would want to marry her and then she would be a boring wife of a priest. At the same time, she thought it would be fun to have a kid. Sort of like having a pet.

Naturally, as you all know, Martin went on to become the last Emperor of the Septim line and sacrificed himself to save Tamriel from the machinations of Mehrunes Dagon. Some say he turned into a dragon and still guards Tamriel from Aetherius. Others say he simply provided the means by which Akatosh could come down and deal with Mehrunes Dagon. But either way, I'm supposed to be the legitimate heir to the Imperial throne . . . If the Septim line still counted, which it doesn't. So I'm no one. Thanks to the fact that my ancestor was a superficial slut.

I don't know if I'm okay with that or not. Actually, I'm not. I wouldn't be here if she had possessed a modicum of responsibility.

So what is this about Florian? Well there's this association with flowers and fire with the name, and during the Oblivion Crises, there were these flaming gates which reminded you a bit of flaming flowers all over the landscape. You can still see some of the wreckage, even to this day, in parts of Tamriel, black ugly rocks and on rare occasions, this red tubular grass which still sometimes grows around them. But only around them.

Damn these bumpy roads. Ever since the war the Empire has gone to oblivion in an omnibus.

So far so bad. Now that you know where I come from, I suppose you want to know what I am doing in this cart with a soldier, a rogue in clothing as ragged as mine, and a noble ass of some sort that has a gag over his mouth.

It starts out with the fact that my father, had a wife before my mother, and she died in childbirth leaving him with a young son and two young daughters. So he married again, and that was my mother. My father was a noble in the Imperial City, an advisor to the Imperial Council at times. I mean I should have had it made. But once again, my fate was to be no one in particular. It's not that my mother didn't plot and plan to have me supplant my father's son by his first wife. That's Aurelian, he's a nice enough guy actually, always did right by me. And it was the fact that he genuinely treated me as a real brother that I decided to do what I did. Since it was clear he was the oldest, I didn't learn how to lead and fight, I learned music, and a bit of magic. The clean kind of course. Daedric magic is one of the reasons why I'm not anyone of importance. The Daedra can rot in Oblivion. But mother was fit to be tied when I refused to take fighting lessons. She even threatened to paint me yellow, throw me into the arena, and let the blue team rip me to shreds. But I stood my ground. Aurelian was going to be heir and I was going to be behind that. But mother would not take no for an answer, and she began to think about Night Mother rituals. That really bugged me. I went to my dad and told all.

It was one rotten Sundas I'll tell you. You think the Imperial City going up in flames by the Thalmor was bad? You should have seen my mother throw a fit when she was confronted with that nightshade and dagger in her shopping bag. Dad was remarkably restrained. He didn't throw her into prison. He merely locked her up in the attic of our home which overlooked the Arboretum beyond the wall. It was a nice view really. And as for me? I suggested that it might be a good idea to travel abroad and study my music, collecting songs from all over Tamriel until such a time as mom got over her obsession with me being the heir, or dad died and Aurelian took over. Aurelian nearly cried when I left, as did dad. They really have missed me. But I was also my mother's son and sooner or later I was afraid she'd get to me. I left.

I traveled east, then south, then west. I've been all over really. Collected a lot of music. Learned to play the lute, the drum, and the flute. And then I turned north, and traveled into the frozen backside of the Empire known as Skyrim. Lokir was the first guy I met. He was traveling north. Never did tell me where he got that nice horse, but now that I've had a chance to talk with him, I suspect he was thinking of appropriating mine as well. I would have fried his face off of course had he tried, but you know how it is with thieves. He would not have come up like some stupid Khajiit or Argonian and given me that 'your money or your life' line. He would have simply slit my throat in my sleep and run off with it. Not that he'll have the chance now. The Imperials took both our horses when they jumped those Stormcloaks.

Yes, the Stormcloaks. Idiots the lot of them. Bad enough that the Thalmor kicked our asses in Cyrodiil. Ulfric was there. He of all people should have known just how much blood and struggle was spent just to fight those damn bastards to a standstill and thus manage to save something. But no! He had to get all bent out of shape over Talos.

Now don't get me wrong, Talos is a god, one of the nine. I've worshipped at the shrines, I've seen his divine power manifest itself. The Thalmor are bigoted twits who think they can render a deity not a deity by treaty? Like a piece of paper is going to take away divine prerogatives? What is it with the powerful that make them think they can alter reality like that? Oh well, that's one advantage to not being Emperor, I don't have to deal with that sort, or thank the nine, turn into one of them. Yes The Nine. Screw the treaty. I might be all nice and pretend I agree with the Thalmor when I have one over to dinner, but the moment his back is turned it's The Nine.

We could have bided our time, built up our strength, recovered from that blow, and then, ripped those bastards a new one and sent those pointed ear jerks back to Summerset and see the sun set on them come another summer. But that's not going to happen. Ulfric and his Stormcloaks are going to rip the Empire apart and keep us weak so that the Thalmor can recover their strength and finish us off and then we'll not only be without Talos, we'll be without our liberty. It's no secret that the Thalmor think us inferior creatures.

"Hey you?" said a kind and noble Nord voice. "Finally awake?"

"Yeah," I groaned. "Wasn't expecting an Imperial rap on the head. Where's my horse?"

"You were trying to cross the border, right?" The man was blond with a gentle soft beard on his face. Something about him told me he was a good man. But he was in a Stormcloak uniform, that cheap scale armor and hide boots and gloves, hardly worth the effort, especially against my fire. "Got caught up in that Imperial ambush, same as us. And that thief over there."

That was Lokir, who probably was still alive because he had not tried to steal my horse and get his face burned off.

"Damn you Stormcloaks," he snapped. "Skyrim was fine until you came along. Empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn't been looking for you, I could've stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell by now."

So he was planning on stealing my horse. I grinned. It was nice when suspicions are confirmed, it tells you that your survival skills are growing.

"You there; you and me, we shouldn't be here," added Lokir looking at me. "Its these Stormcloaks the Empire wants."

"You're right about that," I agreed. "If it weren't for all sorts of things, you would be a fried crisp from trying to steal my horse and I would be riding towards Whiterun with a second horse in tow."

I help up my hands, bound before me. "I'm somewhat proficient in destruction magics," I continued. "And these hands have burned more than a few people to ashes."

"We're all brothers and sisters in binds now, thief," said the Stormcloak.

The Imperial driver, without so much as looking back snapped "Shut up back there."

"So what's wrong with him?" queried Lokir nodding towards the noble sap in the gag.

"Watch your tongue!" ordered the Stormcloak. "You're speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King of Skyrim."

"Ulfric? Jarl of Windhelm? You're the leader of the rebellion!" gasped Lokir.

"They got him!" I jumped. "They got him?" I looked over at the noble man, the sap, The Ulfric Stormcloak.

"But if they've captured you . . . By Talos . . . Where are they taking us?" blubbered Lokir. He was frantically looking about, straining against his bonds.

"I don't know where we're going, but Sovngarde awaits," answered the Stormcloak.

For you maybe, but not for me. I'm an Imperial, not a Nord. No other Imperial will allow his fellow countryman to go to what ever fate these Stormcloaks and that thief were doomed to. I closed my eyes for a second and leaned back. This would all be straightened out soon enough. There would be paper work which would clear my name. I looked down at my rags. They had taken my good clothing, and my horse. And my instruments. AND MY MUSIC. But once things were cleaned up and cleared out, they would open the evidence chest and I would get my stuff back. That was how it was done in Cyrodil, the Empire, and this was part of the Empire, this Skyrim.

"No no! This can't be happening! This isn't happening!"

"Yes it is," I sighed. "Deal with it Lokir. You should have known this was going to be your fate once you picked the career of horse thief. Every hear of a horse thief who died of old age?"

"Hey," said the Stormcloak looking at Lokir. "What village are you from horse-thief?"

"Why do you care?" retorted Lokir.

"A Nord's last thoughts should be of home," suggested the soldier.

I looked at the soldier. He was such a good man. In such a stupid cause. I hated the fact that he was probably going to die shortly. I looked up. The two wagons were heading for a village, it had that pretend gate over the road with that walkway which crossed it. Seemed to me to be a waste of time without a wall. But wait, there was in fact a wall. Small one perhaps, not particularly impressive. Nothing like Chorral or the Imperial City, more like Bravil, no . . . Bravil was still better though this village lacked Bravil's stench.

"Rorikstead," said Lokir. "I'm from Rorikstead."

There had been shouting from the wall while I was musing. Something about a General and a Headsman.

Lokir started crying out to the nine divines begging for assistance, to save him.

"Julianos is the god of justice," I observed. "Why would he help a horse thief like you? Kynareth? She's for fuzzy bunnies . . . I don't know why you are trying to do that. You should be clearing your mind of trying to escape and start thinking about where you're going once you're dead. You're still alive. You still have a few moments to fix it."

"Look at him," sneered the soldier. "General Tulius, the Military Governor. And it looks like the Thalmor are with him. Damn elves. I bet they had something to do with this."

"Not likely," I retorted. "The Thalmor love what you and Jarl Ulfric have done, bleeding the Empire even more so that their next war will be a more complete war of conquest."

I turned to Ulfric.

"You and your anger may have lost any chance we have of the Empire recovering enough to drive the Thalmor back out of Tamriel, condemning all Nords, Bretons, Imperials, Khajiits, Redguards, Bosmer, Dunmer, Orcs, and Argonians to their rule," I accused.

Jarl Ulfric simply ignored me. The soldier opened his mouth to make a retort, but seemed to have thought the better of it. Death was too close for him to be fighting politics.

"This is Helgen," he said to himself. "I used to be sweet on a girl from here." He paused again. "I wonder if Vilod is still making that mead with the Juniper berries mixed in."

Ugh. Mead was horribly sweet and tasted like honey. It was nice for a dessert wine, but to drink it like the Nords, like eating a bowl of sugar, you got sick sooner or later. Juniper would not be a nice combination.

"Funny," continued the soldier. "When I was a boy, Imperial walls and towers used to make me feel safe."

The wagons were pulling up to a tower. There was the headsman with that big long bladed halberd. Behind him the Imperial dragon banner was flying.

"Why are we stopping?" stammered Lokir.

"Why do you think?" answered the soldier. "End of the line. Let's go," he continued as Lokir got more and more violent in his shaking. "Shouldn't keep the gods waiting for us."

"No!" shouted Lokir. "Wait! We're not rebels!"

"Face your death with some courage thief," replied the soldier.

"You've got to tell them! We weren't with you! This is a mistake!"

All the while we were getting out of the wagon. It felt good to be standing again. There is only so much sitting a man can do before his legs start to itch. Or at least mine do. If only I could get these bonds off and stretch my arms. Oh well, once this was all cleared up I would be free to stretch. Never had trouble with the guards before. Got to know plenty of guards in the Imperial City. Might even be one of them here on tour. There were two Imperial soldiers in front of me. A tall quite man, broad and stocky and a woman in officer heavy armor. She was obviously the commander of the detachment. The tall man had a list.

"Step forward when your name is called!" she barked. "One at a time."

"The Empire loves their damn lists," sighed the soldier.

"Yeah, the lists," I replied. "The thing that will clear my name."

"Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm," snapped the woman who was the captain.

"It has been an honor, Jarl Ulfric," said the soldier.

Damn, I hope I have his serenity when I die. To be facing death like this? I could not help but admire him.

"Ralof of Riverwood," continued the captain.

So that was his name.

"And the same for you Ralof!" I shouted. "I would have loved to have called you friend."

"Lokir of Rorikstead."

"No!" shouted Lokir. He took off running, his bonds in front of him. I shook my head as he dashed down the street.

"Archers!" shouted the captain.

"You're not going to kill me!" were Lokir's last words. Then he was on the ground and silent.

"Wait," said the broad soldier, looking straight at me. "You there. Step forward."

I smiled. Here was where it all got fixed.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"Valentine Florian," I replied. "Imperial City, Cyrodiil. My father is Lord Maximus, advisor to the Imperial Council. I was on my way to Skyrim to research local folk music when I ran afoul of your ambush. Sorry about that. Had I known I would have taken another route. As it is, you can check with the Imperial City Records, they'll let you know I'm who I am and as an Imperial, like your captain there," and here I nodded to the Captain. "You naturally know I would not be part of any Stormcloak uprising."

"What should we do Captain?" asked the soldier. It was clear he believed me. Naturally. We Imperials can be very persuasive when we want to be. It's one of the reasons why the Empire has lasted through thousands of years and more than a few apocalyptic events, such as the Warp of the West and the Oblivion Crises. "He's not on the list."

"Forget the list," snapped the Captain.

Wait a moment. That's not what Imperials do.

"He goes to the block," she finished.

It took a second.

"You BITCH!" I shouted. "You damned bitch! I'm not on that list for a reason!"

She drew her sword and pointed it at me.

"What are you going to do?" I snapped back. "Kill me now and save the headsman the trouble? Either way there's an injustice. Damn you woman! I had faith in the Empire!"

It was all a horrible crashing in. I don't recall clearly what happened just next. I sort of stumbled next to Ralof muttering something about wanting his courage too. Then I could hear General Tullius saying " . . . And now the Empire is going to put you down, and restore the peace."

There was then a strange roar on the wind from above. Someone wanted to know if someone else had heard it too, and Tullius was saying that it was nothing.

I was going to die. I was going to die. I was going to die. I kept saying that over and over to myself. I had to accept it. I had to get ready.

Then there was something about last rites and a priestess starting the final blessings before death and then if someone didn't up and spoil that.

"For the love of Talos, shut up, and let's get this over with!" said a Stormcloak soldier walking up to the block.

"Very well," snapped the Priestess.

"Come on!" he continued. "I haven't got all day!"

Damn that man had guts. Damn that man was wise. Getting it over with. Less time for that ache in the stomach to send those horrible feelings of nausea and dizziness throughout the frame. Talos! I want to die like he is. It's the last thing I get to choose in this life and by the Nine, I choose that. Now if I could only stop shaking.

"My ancestors are smiling at me Imperials. Can you say the same?" he asked. He was kneeling before the block now. Having been pushed down by the foot of the captain. It was standard procedure. The axe came down, his head came off, and I watched every last second of it. That guy deserved a full attention audience.

"As fearless in death as he was in life," observed Ralof.

"I want to die like him Ralof," I said. And I looked at him. Ralof looked back at me. We nodded to each other.

"Next, the Imperial!" ordered the Captain.

"It's Valentine!" I shouted back.

"I said," she said. "Next Prisoner!"

"To the block Valentine," said the broad soldier gently. "Nice and easy."

Yeah, he was a decent man.

"I've got a couple of goodbyes to make first," I replied. "Like are you going to kill me if I wait until then?"

They had no answer to that of course.

I turned to Ralof.

"We should have been brothers," I said.

Then I turned to Ulfric.

"I said you were wrong," I started. "And I don't believe otherwise. Talos is one of the nine. But the Empire had a choice, to let the Thalmor live with that delusion or go down in blood and fire. My father lost friends in the sack of the Imperial City, and Titus signed that treaty struggling to not vomit into the Thalmor embassies faces. Now that we are ripping each other to shreds, we are giving the Thalmor more time to regain their strength and finish the job they set out to do. Namely destroy us all."

He merely glared at me.

"But I can no longer hate you for that. I can now understand the anger and frustration you have no doubt felt. I'm sorry I said anything." Then I turned. "I am an Imperial!" I shouted. "And not just any Imperial. The very blood of Tiber Septim runs in my veins! But since the Empire sees fit to not recognize that . . . From now until my head flies off this body, I LIVE AND BREATH A STORMCLOAK!"

I bowed to Ulfric. His eyes seemed to soften a bit. And then I turned and walked over to the block, and got on my knees and bent over. I wasn't going to give that Captain any excuse to wipe her boots off of my backside. For that brief moment, filled with the drama of the thing, I had managed to forget I was about to die. Then it all came back, that horrible gnawing in the pit of my stomach. I hated that feeling. I was so damn scared.

There was that strange grinding roar on the wind again.

I looked up at the headman who was raising his axe.

And if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would have called anyone else who said what they saw utterly out of their skull.

The biggest blackest, spiniest dragon I had ever seen, well . . . To tell the truth I had never actually seen a dragon before . . . Except as a picture hanging over this really fun bar in the Imperial City. He had just flown in between two large mountains, glided gracefully over to the top of the tower behind the chopper himself, and landed wrapping his jointed wings over the sides of that very tower. Damn that creature was HUGE. And then General Tullius was screaming "What in Oblivion is that?"

"Dragon!" screamed some other woman, expressing in her tone more than just the passing observation of the local fauna.

That dragon opened it's mouth and said something.

"RO DA!"

And the sky was filled with boiling ugly dark clouds and flaming bolts fell from them. I was suddenly on the ground, my face in the rocks, and above me was the end of the world.

"Hey Valentine! Get up! The Gods won't give us another chance like this?" It was Ralof grabbing my shoulder and trying to pull me back up.

The Gods? The Gods are presently destroying the world and you think we're going to escape? Besides everything is fuzzy, my eyes refuse to focus, what in Oblivion is happening, oh yeah, when the world ends it's supposed to be all blurry and hot and hard to hear anything with all the screams of the terrified and dying.

He's trying to get me to run to a tower. I've got nothing better to do, die from the great flaming balls which are falling from the sky or from the falling rocks in a collapsing tower. I've been pounded. I've been burned. I pick pound. I follow him. Damn I wish I could see. Damn I wish my hands weren't tied up. Damn I wish I had tried to kiss that cute little Bosmer that worked for dad back a few years ago. Strange what sorts of thoughts run through your head when everyone around you is dying horribly. I run.

We were inside, someone was gently closing the door. Like that's going to help?

Ralof is speaking. "Jarl Ulfric! What is that thing? Could the legends be true?"

"Legends don't burn down villages," Ulfric observes. He looks at me for a second.

"Your head is still attached I see," he observes.

Oh damn. I made that vow.

The dragon outside is still happily playing the Apocalyptic Elder Scrolls Foretold God of Destruction part he's picked for himself.

"We need to move! NOW!" He finishes.

"Up through the tower!" Shouts Ralof. "Let's go."

You know, when the world is going boom, running up a few stories is not the normal sort of sane thing you do. You go to the basement, the cellar, you kiss mother earth and try to bury yourself in it. So why did I run up those stairs? I could conclude that it was the power of Ralof's suggestion. To tell the truth, neither of us were thinking particularly clearly at that juncture. So when that bit of wall explodes in and that big black dragon sticks his face into it I must confess I wet my pants. There's only so much stress that a man can take before his body tells him to screw the loving potty training his mother once gave him. Then of course that dragon, seeing my plight, offers to blow dry my clothing for me. Well, actually I don't think he was being courteous. It was a very hot blow dry you see, mostly flame which left the Stormcloak in front of me a smoking crispy. And so I'm finding myself looking out of a dragon face sized hole and the burning inn beneath me.

"You see the Inn on the other side? Jump through the roof and keep going!" shouts Ralof.

There's fire down there . . . My hands are bound. I can't keep my balance! Oh Oblivion! Screw it, the world's ending and I'm going to die anyway so I might as well die by falling. I leapt and ended up hitting one of those nice double beds with straw and furs who's owner had responsibly tightened up the rope reinforcements underneath and so I bounced and managed to land with both my feet on the floor.

I swear Sheogorath is looking down on me from his palace in the Shivering Isles and has selected me for this week's Mess With Puny Mortal Minds show. I look about. The Inn is only a bit on fire so there's still plenty to grab. Of course my hands are bound, and there's mead just laying about. Yes yes yes I know what I said about mead but at that juncture I really wanted to get drunk and didn't give a flying freak what went down the gullet.

I worked my way down the inn and found that the stairs had gone. Then I got to jump again and found that I was outside and the world had not ended, just yet, it had merely gotten a bit more shabby in the locale. Of course the dragon was still flying around and incinerating everything he could, and then I saw that decent soldier who had stood next to the Bitch Captain. He got a young boy to run to him, passed him off to another man and then turned to face me.

"Valentine? You still alive? Follow me if you wish to stay that way!" he said.

Of course I was going to follow him. We wove our way through the burning village. That black lizard tried to belly flop on us but a wall got into the way and we hid under it for a second while the dragon transformed the rubble and wall blockage in front of us into a nice ash covered pathway for skedaddling like Oblivion itself was after us out of there. We proceeded in our Run Like Our Asses Are On Fire tactic.

Then there was this touching meeting between two villagers who had known each other since childhood.

"Ralof! You Traitor! Outta my way!"

"Hadvar! You're not stopping us this time. We're escaping!"

"Fine! I hope you all burn in Oblivion!"

I turned to the broad gentle soldier, Hadvar. Around me, people were trying to kill that dragon and that dragon was likewise returning the favor, albeit way more successfully. So for a very strange second, with a falling body impacting the ground behind him, I looked at Hadvar and tried to convey my respect for him.

"I'm sorry," I said. "You're a good man. But I have to go with Ralof."

"Fine!" he snapped.

I didn't know if I would ever meet Hadvar again. But I hoped by all the nine that if I did, it wouldn't be on opposite sides of a battle line. Ralof and I dashed into a tower complex together. There was chaos outside and that was reflected inside this building. For by the table of this large round room with two grilled blocked exits, was another Stormcloak soldier. Dead. Ralof recognized him but told me to avail myself of his gear as he would not longer be needing it while he sliced off the bonds which had remained on me up to this moment.

I shook my head and I gratefully waved my hands about and stretched my arms.

"I don't wear armor," I explained. "It gets in the way of my . . ." and I held up my hands and let the fire begin to dance around my finger tips.

"Mage eh?" observed Ralof, showing that Nord distrust of the arcane. "Well, who am I to judge?" he concluded.

I nodded to him and helped myself to the boots and gloves. I may not care for armor, but good boots and gloves are always welcome. Then I was able to avail myself of a nice steel dagger. That was about all I was able to master in terms of hand to hand. A dagger just to hold them off when I had exhausted my mana for my fire. No bow and arrows unfortunately. Problem with my fire was that it was rather short in rage. Great for planting a nice hot orange blossom in the face of an opponent, but rotten if they knew how to stay away from you. And likewise, get an arrow or two off against a bearzerker mudcrab, and it saves the mana for something a bit more troublesome, like a bear or big cat.

Yes yes I know I said I did not study fighting when my mother made me do it. But that was before my wanderings. Since those days I had picked up quite a few skills, mostly superficial of course, but things which kept the septims flowing into my pouch. I had lived a nice life. It was hard at times to sleep in the back of a barn. But I've been rich, I've been poor. Rich is better, or at least a tad more convenient, but there are advantages to being poor. For starters the thieves ignore you. And likewise, you keep starting out with nothing, or keep ending up with nothing, you learn how to turn nothing into something. And in my wanderings, I had ended up with a lot of nothings at times.

Then we heard her, that bitch captain, and another Imperial approaching. Ralof and I promptly hid on either side of the door. Hadvar was not with her, thank the nine. We let into them with all the enthusiasm we could muster. She recognized me she did, before her face was filled with my flames. I was angry, more angry than I could ever recall. Now lest you think I burned her face off, the trick with a gout of steady flame in the face isn't so much the burning, though there is that. The real thing is that fire burns away that essence in the local air which we need to breath in order to live. You fall to the ground, breathless when you are attacked like that. And of course your clothing on fire provides more than a little distraction.

So when she was on the floor her face had not been scarred for life. Singed eyebrows of course, and one really messed up hairdo, but otherwise, she would live. If I had decided on that. I was on top of her looking right into her eyes with my right hand holding her down by the throat and my left hand pointing the dagger at her face.

"Mercy!" she whimpered.

"Forget the list," I replied in a slow low tone. "He goes to the block."

I waited just long enough for her eyes to register that she understood.

And then the dagger came down.

In my travels, I've killed a bunch of people. I lost track long ago. I killed them because I had to. I didn't get up that morning and say, "It's a nice day, I think I'll kill a bandit and take their stuff." No, I got up and tried to do what I always did, pay the innkeeper, hang around town, asked about local tunes and music. Hear the local musicians sing. Write down what I heard, learn some of it, and in short, do what I had set out to do. But when the money was scarce, and no one wanted to hear me sing or play, or my instruments had yet again been lost in some unforeseen disaster or another, I would avail myself of an old Alyed or Dwemer ruin, check out that old abandoned Imperial fort, help a local lord take down a bandit king, in short, earn my keep so I might travel to the next spot on the map and hear the music there. I didn't like killing people. They often had hopes and dreams as well. And like Ralof and Hadvar, they were all so decent and honorable most of the time.

But her? I never regretted killing her. Of all the enemies I've fought that were human or mer. She's one of the very few that I am convinced actually deserved it. Even so I did grant her mercy in a sense. If you plunge the dagger at the top of the shoulder at the base of the throat, it goes right down the center of the body and strikes the heart. That kills you almost instantly. She barely had time to feel the pain of the blade before she was in Aetherius.

From there it was a simple Get The Oblivion Out of Here process. We worked our way through the keep's under pathways, killed a torturer and his assistant, a few more imperials later and then to top it off, there was a frost spider nest and the den of a bear. I finally was able to find a longbow and some arrows. And there was a cart full of wine. I'm not sure why it was there, in the middle of the bear's den, but it was still good and I didn't begrudge it. After all, good wine fetches a nice price with the innkeepers since you can barter it for a night's sleep. Two to three bottles is all that it takes normally.

And then we were out of there. We ducked as the big black lizard flew overhead heading off to The Nine knows where and then Ralof suggested two things. The first, that I join the Stormcloaks. The second, I accompany him to Riverwood where his sister Gerdur and her husband Hod ran the local wood mill and would give us aid and sustenance.

That oath . . . That BLOODY Oath. I was bound and I knew it. But just because I swore myself a Stormcloak did not immediately or necessarily obligate me to fight Imperials. I was working hard on figuring out how I might keep that oath and at the same time not have to run off to Solitude and overthrow Jarl Elisif and General Tullius. Just the same, for a brief second I kind of wished that the headsman had taken off my head before that dragon had landed. But in the meantime, Riverwood was maybe an afternoon's walk away and there would be a bed and food. I needed a good meal. And I had wine in a backpack I had appropriated in the 'interrogation' chambers, and a book, The Tale of the Dragonborn. Something to read when I had nothing better to do. Steel dagger? Check. Longbow? Check. Arrows? Check. Backpack with wine and book? Check, and this silly key which opened a door in the tower in what was now a smoldering ruin which used to be called Helgen. Oh well, maybe a souvenir? No matter, I can toss it later if I wish, or play that old trick of sticking it in a barrel for some other sap to discover one day and then wonder which lock it fitted.

I love mind games.

Ralof was busy pointing out the sights we could see from the trail, including an old Nordic ruin on the a ridge of the mountains across the river. It was a beautiful day and I let him talk. Soon we would be in Riverwood, there would be hot food, maybe I could find a tailor to make me a nice suit of clothes, an inn to play in for a few septims, and some rest. I needed rest. Life was looking up now. The worst was no doubt over.

And so we walked down the trail, got on a cobblestone road that ran along that clear crisp river filled with salmon and I figured life was good again. What ever would happen tomorrow, it couldn't be worse than what had happened today.

I'm such a naive idiot at times.