"The music of the Divines is the material of creation, from which is spun the Aurbis of all that we can comprehend. The Dwemer managed to manipulate a shard of their own tuning into the music, and with it created the unknowable craft they called Tonal Architecture. The Ansei of the Ra Gada sung swords into being that could shatter the earth itself. And, perhaps most famously, the Nords harnessed the Thu'um, and shouted their own voices into the music, reshaping reality with naught but their tongues. The music of the Divines is their message to the world."
-Kurmuk of the Imga, Enlightened Baron of Broken Falls, Introduction to Warp and Weave of the Wheel
"Anyone who tries to tell you how the Aurbis works is inevitably insane, lying, or a fool. Sometimes all three."
-Dealean Endermond, High Wizard Emeritus of the Northpoint College, Ramblings
Chapter 1 – Northbound
"My Thane, a question if I may."
"After all you have done, it is for a question that you want permission? Ask."
"Did you truly hate Skyrim so much when you first arrived?"
"Ha! You know, I did. But consider my position. Caught in a trap by the Empire, accused of being a Stormcloak of all things, and then only spared the block by a dragon attack. How would you feel if that were your introduction to a new land?"
"Fair enough, my Thane."
"And the land was infested with Nords, on top of that. Truly a deplorable scene."
"And you wonder why they were going to kill you."
The wind began in the land that was once called Elsweyr, born out of the desert badlands. It raced north, ruffling the fur of the soldiers who patrolled the border with the Empire. Raj'haara had been gazing south, towards the village from which she hailed, as the wind came upon her. She tasted the flavors of home, sun and stone and bright sweet sugar, and then the wind was gone. She turned back to the north with a sigh, and resumed her watch, lest the Empire break their fragile peace.
Sweeping into the heartland of Cyrodiil, the wind rippled the banners over the walls of the Imperial City and pulled at the cloak of Titus Mede as he surveyed his city from high atop the White-Gold Tower. The warm breeze led his mind to wander, but his thoughts soon returned to the many challenges facing his Empire. Rebellion in Skyrim, the entire province of Morrowind beyond his control, and of course the looming threat of the Thalmor and their Aldmeri Dominion. Below, his Empire waited, and Tamriel waited with it. The wind left the old man there, deep in thought.
Ever northward raced the wind, until it left Cyrodiil behind, and entered Pale Pass. Now bitter cold and howling bleak, it wrapped around ancient ruins and took from them the scents of long ages and distant lands across the sea. The wind roared down the northern slopes, and towards a burning town, where it lifted the wings of a great black dragon as it rose into the sky, its first battle in untold ages over too soon. As the dragon roared away to the north, its wings propelled an eddy of the wind downward, where it curled about the mouth of a cave, and the figures who stumbled out. The final gift of this long-traveled breeze was spent on a ragged Dunmer, clothed in rags, in bloodstained boots and a singed cape, with a sword on one hip and a bow slung across his back.
Shielding his eyes from the sudden light, Velandryn Savani, for a brief moment, felt a warm wind upon him. It smelled of ash and ruin, of fire and blood. To be greeted with an ashen wind here, in Skyrim, was something he had not expected. He shut his eyes and thought of the home that he was growing increasingly unsure he would ever see again. All too soon, however, the wind died away, and the maddening chill that seemed omnipresent in this wretched land returned. And with it, as ever, came the Nords.
"Shor's bones! It truly was a dragon!" The Imperial Legionary was named Hadvar, if Velandryn recalled correctly. He had been halfway decent to the Dunmer, which almost made up for his ridiculous accent and blindingly obvious observations. Thus far, he had managed to notice giant spiders, a locked gate, and a bear. The list of allies Velandryn had in this blighted land was short, however, so he would just have to make do.
"You two, what do you know of this? Speak!" Ralof, by contrast, for all his bullheaded bravery, seemed to have a certain shrewdness to him. He had reacted quickly when the dragon attacked, and when the three of them had met up during the chaos, he had been willing to work with them to navigate an escape. Now that they were free, however, Velandryn could not help but see the Stormcloak colors the man wore and worry. Those who had followed the Jarl of Windhelm into rebellion often shared his view on mer: that they were unwelcome in Skyrim, and should be encouraged to leave by any means necessary. Although Ralof had not yet said anything overtly hostile, he bore watching.
"Less than you, traitor, but I wager your Jarl is mighty happy it showed up." Hadvar, clearly, was also less than enamored with Ralof's allegiance, and not even a dragon could mend that divide.
Ralof snorted. "As if we need a dragon to drive out the Empire. You and your masters will not hold the Nords of Skyrim to your craven treaty!"
"Hah! We captured Ulfric once, we will do it again, and all you rebels will get the block like you deserve!"
"You're dreaming, Hadvar. We are the Sons and Daughters of Skyrim, and already thousands are marching beneath our banners. In every village and town, they raise glasses to the true High King. Ulfric Stormcloak is the champion not only of Talos and Skyrim, but of all mankind!"
Hadvar's angry retort was lost to Velandryn as he took stock of where they had emerged. Helgen was above and behind them, burning well by this point. They had emerged near the bottom of a cliff, the cave entrance half-hidden from the road below them by low brush and scattered rocks. Assuming they did not want to return to Helgen, the only other choice was downhill, into the valley. By the look of the sky, it was nearing midday, and, now that there was no immediate risk of death by Stormcloak, Imperial, or dragon, he realized he would soon need to find food and drink. The Imperials had given them bread and water on the wagons, but the last of that had been nearly a full day past.
Velandryn noticed the silence suddenly, and looked at the humans. They had ceased their bickering, and were watching him. Hadvar looked expectant, Ralof skeptical. No doubt they were expecting him to say something. Fitting, considering he had grabbed the two of them and argued them into submission when the idiots had tried to split up entering the keep.
"Well?" Ralof had clearly asked a question, but Velandryn had no clue what. He said as much, and Hadvar responded.
"We need to warn people that there is a dragon loose in Skyrim. We should go to Riverwood first. My uncle Alvor is the blacksmith there. He can give us food and gear. Will you come with us? This is not your land, but I don't know how many survived Helgen. We will need every voice to speak of the dragon. Even…"
"Even if it is an elf doing the speaking." Ralof, at least, did not beat around the point. "I am with you as far as Riverwood, but my sister Gerdur is the one we should speak to. She runs the town, and is a true friend to the Stormcloaks. Riverwood is a good distance from Helgen though, and it will be several days travel at best."
Velandryn considered for a moment, taking the chunk of bread the Imperial offered him from his pack and chewing thoughtfully. This Riverwood, even from the little he knew, sounded like his best option at the moment. These Nords were willing to work together for the present, and even if the situation deteriorated to fighting, their primary ire seemed to be each other. Plus, these two seemed to know the area passing well, and any bandits or beasts would think twice before attacking three where they may not hesitate to take on one alone.
Valendryn swallowed, wishing he had thought to grab something to drink during his flight through the keep. "Very well. I will travel with you as far as Riverwood to spread news of the dragon and use my story to corroborate your tale." And then I will be gone so swiftly you shall feel the wind as I pass. Stormcloaks, Imperials, dragons, none of it is my concern! Coming to Skyrim was a mistake, and the sooner I am gone, the happier I will be.
Dusk found the three survivors of Helgen strung out along the road to Riverwood. The legionary led the way, with the Dunmer just behind, eyes flitting to the rocks and trees that flanked the road. When a thrush took flight from a tree, Velandryn's left hand dipped to his waist, pulling an iron arrow from its quiver, while his right dropped the worn wooden bow from his shoulder. In one movement he brought the bow to bear, nocked the arrow, and let fly.
The shot missed the bird by nearly a foot. Wings beating, it pulled for the sky…only to drop as another arrow pierced it cleanly through the breast. Spinning, Velandryn saw Ralof grinning as he trudged past to retrieve his kill. "I thought elves were supposed to be archers of renown."
Velandryn twanged the string and tested the pull, as he had seen the archers at practice do so many times. I missed! By so much, too. And in front of Nords! He had to make this right. "Nordic craftsmanship, if I had to blame something. Shoddy wood and a poor cut, and I think this string might be rotten. A poor bow, fit only for kindling."
"As is mine. We took them from the same rack" Ralof's smile seemed to mock Velandryn, and his ears burned as he looked desperately into the darkening woods, searching in vain for something else to bring down. He was a Dunmer of Morrowind, and would not be shamed by a Nord. Closing his eyes, Velandryn inhaled deeply, and twisted the magicka within him, funneling it into his eyes. When he looked again, the trees were illuminated as though there were ten thousand lights about them, and shadows had all fled. Now, he could easily make out a rabbit crouched in what should have been a dark alcove within a boulder. He had more than enough time to line up a perfect shot.
As he retrieved his kill, he heard Hadvar come up to where he had been standing. "How did you make that shot? Are elven eyes able to see in blackness?"
Ralof snorted. "Magic, I would wager." He looked at Velandryn. "No?"
Velandryn nodded as he worked the arrow out. "Night-eye." The shaft was cracked, and the arrowhead had deformed on the bone. "The School of Illusion has many uses." He tossed the useless arrow away. "A sadly overlooked path of magic by many." Rabbit in hand, he started down the road once more. "A fire to eat beside and then camp for the night?"
Hadvar started the fire, flint and dagger quickly igniting the gathered kindling. The elf watched impassively.
"No doubt you would have liked to do the honors, elf?" Ralof did not like that look the elf had on his face. He recognized it. Superiority. This Dark Elf thought he was better than them, by virtue of his blood, or age, or one of the other ridiculous things elves loved to prattle on about.
"I could have. But so could he." Velandryn Savani inclined his head at the Imperial, and handed him the rabbit. "You have the knife, and I killed it, so you prepare the food."
Hadvar gave the Dark Elf a frown. "You did not grab a dagger at Helgen? They are useful to have on the road."
Ralof paid them only half a mind, cleaning the bird he had brought down. The two of them were well suited for each other. The Imperials would rather bow to the elves then stand up and fight, and the elves were convinced that men were uncivilized brutes. Ralof would prove his worth, without relying on the elf or his magic.
As they ate, and Hadvar and the elf talked in low voices, Ralof considered the events of the day. Jarl Ulfric had certainly escaped. He had a good solid core of men about him, even if Ralof had not been by his side. When last he saw his comrades, they were breaking for the gate that led to the Rift. That would get them back into Stormcloak territory, and Ulfric should be back at his palace in Windhelm within the month.
Soon enough, full dark had fallen, and the light from their fire had begun doing more to kill their vision than illuminate their surroundings. Hadvar banked the fire from the road, and brought a bottle of water over to Ralof, from which the Stormcloak took a measured pull. The last of the provisions from Helgen, it would have to do for the night. Fortunately, they should reach the White River tomorrow, and the forests at the foothills of the mountains were rich in game. They might be a bit hungry tonight, but they would not starve before Riverwood.
Ralof capped the bottle, and returned it to Hadvar. He may not have liked the other two overmuch, but they deserved a chance to drink. He stood and, stretching, grabbed his bow. "I have first watch, so get some sleep. Who should I wake for second?"
The elf grunted what could be taken as assent, and Hadvar volunteered for the third. So, as the two of them tried to get comfortable, Ralof busied himself finding a good place to hole up for the next several hours. Fortunately it was Last Seed, at the tail end of summer, so the night would be relatively short and warm. The embers of their cookfire would warm the sleepers, and Nords were hardy against the cold in any case. Briefly, Ralof wondered how the elf would fare through the night. Well, it was no concern of his. If the elf couldn't stand the cold, he should never have come to Skyrim.
Ralof's watch began quietly enough. He was well-situated on an outcropping of rock shadowed by a leaning tree, and commanded a view of the road in both directions. Anyone who saw their fire would be seen in turn. It was unlikely anyone would come, though. Those who were headed to Helgen overnighted in Riverwood, lest they be caught on the road after dark. So Ralof relaxed, and allowed himself to think of his brothers and sisters who had fallen today. May The Hall of Valor ring with their songs tonight, and Shor's Table crack from the thunder of their cups.
It had been a hard thing, leaving his kin in the tunnels beneath the keep. Beaten and hungry from Imperial interrogation, they had nonetheless risen up and attacked their captors. When he called out to them to follow, they had ignored him, intent only on vengeance for their imprisonment. He had struck down one of the Imperial guards himself, but the Dark Elf had kept moving, and the Imperial had followed, rather than move to the aid of his fellows. Ralof could not do less, the mission had to come first. Ulfric himself had told him to leave by another path, and bring word to the Stormcloaks of what had transpired. If not for the need to escape and carry out that mission, he gladly would have stayed. He hoped some of those brave souls had made it out of the keep. And I hope those bastards who chained and tortured them are rotting in unhallowed squalor!
Overhead, something flew across the moons. Ralof started, panic rising in his throat. Then, another, and another. Small, fast, flitting. Bats. Just bats. He contented itself with the fact that if it had been the dragon, whether or not he noticed it would not make the slightest difference. If it saw them, and deigned to descend, they were dead. It got him wondering, where had the dragon come from? They had been extinct for thousands of years.
He worried that thought like a bone as the moons rose higher. Either a single dragon had been hiding, and emerged, or else a dragon had managed to come back somehow. And if there was one, there could be more. They had to be ready. The dragon had been heading north and west, towards Whiterun and Solitude. Suddenly, Ralof had a beautiful thought. Ulfric Stormcloak was free, the people of Skyrim would take heart from his escape, and Imperial holdings would have a dragon to contend with. Talos, Ysmir Dragonborn, thank you for sending the dragon to free your chosen king and to bring ruin to the foe. I bless your name and will fight on for you, God of Man.
The remainder of his watch was untroubled. Even in the dark, Talos could see his children, and he would not forsake them.
Velandryn Savani woke when the Stormcloak shook him, none too gently. His home melted away before his eyes, replaced with the dark rocks that sheltered them from the mountain winds.
"Your watch, elf."
Velandryn pulled himself from under the singed and ragged cloak he had wrapped himself in, already regretting his decision to take the second turn of the night. If he had been thinking clearly, he would have fought for first or third. As he was now, he was burdened with both the memory of sleep and the reality of his fatigue. Add to that the blistering cold that the fire only barely kept at bay, and some part of the sullen mer considered telling Ralof that he could go burn himself. If the Nord wanted a watch kept through the night, he was free to keep it.
But he found himself on his feet, and words were rising to his lips. "As you say, Nord." That was good. Not doing him any favors, but not beholden. It set the correct tone. He hoped.
Looking out towards the road, he realized that unless he moved away from the banked fire, even its feeble light would kill his vision in the dark. And trying to use night-eye for so long a time would drain him sufficiently that not only the meager sleep he had gotten, but any he would manage to get after his watch was done would be useless. So, he leaned against a tree, letting the dark surround him. And the cold. The cold was worse. It bit into him, and under him, and all he had were rags. The Empire had taken his clothing, armor and pack, little as they were, when they had thrown him in the cart with the Stormcloaks. He had pulled the cape he wore now off a smoldering corpse in Helgen, and the Imperial red was marred by scorch marks. Truth be told, he rather liked the look of it, but it was little protection against the chill. No wonder the Nords are so wretched, coming from a blighted land like this! He shuddered to think of what horrors must await should he ever venture to the northern end of the province.
He quickly decided that he would not pass his watch like this. He had been beyond the fire for mere minutes, and already his feet tingled, and his hands felt thick and clumsy. I am a Dunmer of Morrowind, and I will not freeze like some barbarian! He glanced back at the fire, and made to move closer, when he spied something off to his left. A glint of red, in the bushes. Almost without conscious thought, his hand snaked out and pulled it in. That could have been foolish. It was nothing though, just a few red berries. He almost dropped them, but then he remembered. On the ride to Helgen, high in the mountains, he had seen berries just like these. Half-buried in snow, but growing. Thriving in weather such as this.
He returned to the fire and huddled over it, studying the berries, though he couldn't quite figure out why. Something was important about them. He ran them between his fingers, thinking. His thumb brushed one, and he knew it then.
The Prelate had been immensely aged, and though his step was strong and his voice clear, his hair had become as grey as his skin, which had begun to sag. It was unusual to see one so old offering to speak. Generally, the elders of the Temple preferred to spend their days in meditation or study, and let their ambitious subordinates take on the thankless job of teaching the novitiates and ministering to the faithful. However, Eris Telas had announced that he would speak on the nature of alchemy and its relationship to the blessings of the Three Good Daedra, which, if nothing else, was bizarre enough to draw an impressive crowd. Kitaiah had speculated that the old priest was giving this speech to the Temple at large because the alchemists had refused to humor him. She was going because Telas was supposed to have served at the High Fane in Vivec before the Red Year, and Kitaiah was angling to be assigned somewhere on Vvardenfell. Velandryn went because he rather liked the irreverent acolyte, and figured that as long as he was sharing her bed, he could at least make an effort to share her passions outside of the sheets as well.
"Magicka is within all matter on this world, and is, in fact, the essence of being. It is through magicka that we not only work our spells and blessings, but speak to the Three as well. And it is this same magicka that has imbued the plants and beasts of our world with their properties that we refer to as alchemical. In organic matter, for instance, alchemical properties stem from qualities that help the plant or animal survive. These properties, often taken for granted by the alchemist, are, in fact, the spirit of the Daedra shining through. Consider the coda flower, which, though commonly known for its negative effects on the mind, actually contains the potential for levitation. Likewise the plume of the cliff racer, now a rarity in our land. Although the plume is, like the coda flower, known to be draining on the mind and spirit, it too contains the gift of levitation. What do these two have in common? They both exist in a state of rising, of transcending their origins to stretch towards the sky. As the cliff racer nests on the ground but lives in the sky, so too does the coda flower rise from the swamp and grow straight up, straining for the light of Azura. Now, to relate this to Moren Fel's third law of Daedric Intervention…"
Organic matter contains alchemical properties inherent to their purpose in the survival of the species. Velandryn looked at the small red berry again. To grow in the snow, it must be able to resist the frost. It would be a hardy plant, but for the berry that would not be enough. To draw out the alchemical potential, I would need to grind it, mix with water while focusing magicka…
It was impossible. He had no mortar and pestle. He could try simply eating it, but the odds of the quality that he needed being so easily accessible were slim to none. He tried anyway, popping it into his mouth and chewing experimentally.
Instantly he realized his mistake. The warmth of the fire seemed to fade, and the cold crept in where once it had been kept at bay. These berries must need to resist fire as well as frost. He was in trouble. He leaned in close over the fire, pulling at it so it flared up into new life, spreading himself above it, trying to feel it on as much of his flesh as he could. It was no good, the cold was behind him, slinking up his arms and legs…
The effect ended as suddenly as it had begun. A heaving sigh left him, and he felt the blessed warmth of the fire in all of its glory upon him once more. That was foolish. He dropped into a squat and thrust his hands into the crackling flames. That was more than passing foolish.
Centuries of life among the ash pits and lava flows of Morrowind had given the Dunmer an inherent resistance to fire. Even now, the flames that licked at his skin merely warmed him, where they would blister the flesh of any man. Were it not for the meager rags that passed for his clothing, he would have thrown himself upon the campfire before. Part of him was perversely proud that he had the presence of mind not to do so. He was already the shabbiest of their little band. Facing the morning's trek with nothing but a cloak and the Lover's garb would have done him no favors. They hate me already, but it is better to be hated and feared than hated and scorned. Not that they would likely fear him. Two warriors, each likely a veteran of countless battles. Only Nords, to be sure, but fools were slower to fear. He sighed. For all that I deny it, I am the fool out here. I should never have come to Skyrim. He could not leave until he brought warning to the cities, however. To stay in Skyrim was unpleasant, but to renege on one's given word was unthinkable.
Sadly, the gift of flame in his blood meant he got less benefit from the campfire, and so he settled on compromise for his position, leaning against the tree nearest to the fire, which still allowed for a decent enough view of the road that, should anyone come, he would likely notice before they were upon them. Not that anyone would though. Who in their right mind would be wandering these godsforsaken mountains at night? Bandits and beasts alike should be sleeping, and…oh.
Vampires. This was not Morrowind, he was not in Blacklight or on the road to Mournhold, there were no Redoran Guard or Ordinators-Repentant patrolling, no wayhouses or shellforts to offer respite from the night. The wretched spawn of Molag Bal would not stay relegated to their crumbling ruins or dark caves here. And with that, I have likely gifted myself a sleepless night. Velandryn sighed, easing back against the tree. In all honesty it was absurd to think there would be vampires wandering the night, this far from civilization. They were well off of the road, and the fire would be only faintly visible, if at all. And, should a vampire fall upon them, he was still Dunmer. The fire within him gave power to the flames without, and the pyromancer's arts had always come easily to him. At the very least, he could give any bloodsucker who assaulted him a good burn to remember him by. There is no shame in death in battle. Blessed Three, see my trial and carry my soul home.
As he thought on the idea of a vampire attack, his mood began to improve. His natural gift with fire would serve him well. Even among his kin, he had always had an especial affinity for channeling flame, a skill that stood him in good stead with the priests. He wondered if it was an acolyte-sanctioned use of a burning hand to ignite a vampire. Perhaps if I dedicate the resulting torch to Boethiah, the Temple Elders would approve. The thought of the Archcanon speaking to a hall lit by vampires in torch sconces made him chuckle to himself, but he quickly stopped when he realized what he was doing. If the Nords wake up to a Dunmer laughing in the dark, they will assume the worst. Also, he didn't feel like explaining the joke.
He had approached something that could, under poor lighting, be mistaken for comfort; although he was still cold, it appeared that after a point it was possible to become resigned to this miserable the night wore on, he inched closer and closer to the fire, until finally he had to accept that, although he could survive a night's watch out here, he was doing nobody any good in his current state. The moons had reached their zenith and begun to fall, and he could pass on the watch to the Imperial with no shame. It is fortunate, however, that we were not approached. It would not have ended well for me. He stood, and stepped over to the sleeping imperial soldier, wrapped in his cloak. His watch was done, and Velandryn Savani was duly grateful.
"Hadvar, your watch." The low rasp pulled Hadvar from a light sleep, and he pushed himself into a sitting position. The Dark Elf was standing by the fire, looking absolutely miserable. His cloak was wrapped tightly around him but couldn't hide his shivers, and the angle of his body made it clear that the fire was the only thing on his mind. When Hadvar stood, he was struck by how small the elf was.
Now that they were not running for their lives or making double time along a road, he could get a decent look at this odd mer. Skinny arms, sharp features, dry red hair pulled back and bound with a cord, Velandryn Savani was clearly neither a warrior nor a hunter. Had he been standing tall, he might have reached Hadvar's chin, but as it was he barely came up to the Nord's shoulder. He only had those thin rags for clothing, and there was no chance he was used to this cold, mild as it was for Skyrim. Hadvar pulled the cloak from around him, and handed it to his companion. "Here, take this. Get some sleep. We should leave at dawn."
The elf's eyes narrowed, and he gazed at the cloak for a moment before his features softened. "Thank you. Truly." He hesitated, and then nodded over at Ralof, asleep on the other side of the fire. "I was…unkind…to you earlier. There are many Nords like him, and I forget about the ones like you." He took the cloak, and curled up so close to the fire that Hadvar half feared that it would scorch the fine red linen. Now that Hadvar looked at the campfire, it seemed to be burning a little brighter than it had been when he banked it. That was odd, but perhaps the elf had fed it during the second watch. Poor bastard had to be freezing.
Hadvar put it behind him and looked out into the darkness. He had been posting watches for ten years now, ever since joining the Legion. This one was a bit unorthodox, but nothing he couldn't handle. A nice, easy watch until sunrise. And so it was. He enjoyed the mild air, and thought of what had to come. It was likely that there were more survivors from Helgen, especially considering the haphazard nature of the attack. General Tullius and his retinue had likely made it out intact, and sadly it was highly likely that Ulfric Stormcloak and the Thalmor delegation had both done so as well. That meant that the war would only escalate. The unknown entity that was the dragon also complicated matters. Hadvar had to make contact with the legion immediately and figure out where he was needed. Falkreath would serve for that, and he could spread word about the dragon in that direction as well. Assuming the elf could be trusted to get word to Whiterun, and Ralof would run back to Stormcloak lands, they would be able to… what exactly, would we be doing? Spreading panic? Could arrows bring down something like that?
Hadvar sighed. He was a soldier. He followed orders, and protected the people of Skyrim and the Empire. He would bring word to the appropriate authorities, and then serve in whatever capacity was required. May Those above judge me, and Those below take me, if I fail in my duty. He had always vaguely wondered who "those below" were supposed to be. Perhaps the Daedra got offended at a soldier's shirking of his responsibilities. He chuckled to himself, and watched the sky start to lighten.
Behind him, cloth rustled, and stone scraped on steel. He turned, half-tensing should some enemy have slipped past him, but it was just the elf. He was carrying the cloak, and tossed it to the soldier. "Again, my thanks. I think you should have this back though. If the Stormcloak saw us getting along, he probably wouldn't take too kindly to it."
"The two of you do not get along." It was not a question. "The Empire could use your help to bring an end to the Stormcloaks. Come with me to Solitude, and help your people by joining the Legion." The elf was inexperienced in the ways of war, but he had gifts with magic and was clearly no small intellect. Besides which, he was Dunmer. The Dark Elves of Morrowind were fearsome warriors, blending sword and spell to control the battlefield. Traditionally, legions posted in Skyrim had been almost entirely human, in large part thanks to the Nords dislike of the nonhuman races. The rebellion had changed things, however. General Tullius had been trying to diversify the Legion for some time now, recognizing the necessary tactical advantage the other races could provide. What Dark Elf recruits they did have were scattered throughout the camps, adhering to standard military doctrine. There were standing orders to encourage any likely Dark Elves to report to Solitude, and more than that, this one had a fire in him. He had browbeaten an Imperial and Stormcloak into working together to escape a situation where many officers and veterans had not kept their composure. If he could be brought to their side…
The elf interrupted Hadvar's thoughts, eyes narrowed again and mouth a grim line. "Did you forget why I was in Helgen in the first place? Your Empire was going to have my head off for being in the wrong place at the wrong time!" The intensity that had burned through in the muster yard at Helgen was back, apparently rekindled by rage. "Return to your masters, fight for them and die in this miserable land? The Empire abandons my people, then expects us to fight in her wars!"
"What do you mean? The Empire, and Skyrim in particular, helped many Dark Elves after their home suffered its disasters." Hadvar was confused. Certainly Morrowind had suffered its share of misfortune, but that could hardly be laid at the feet of the Empire. Besides which, the few Dark Elves he had known in the Legion were grateful to the Empire for taking their families in after the disasters that had struck their homeland.
The elf's eyes darkened to a deep blood red and the air around them began to warm. Every muscle of his face was taut with anger, and Hadvar could see the muscles of his neck tight with strain. "Your…Empire," he nearly spat the word at Hadvar "abandoned my people once when Daedra poured out from Oblivion, and then again when the Black Tide consumed half of Morrowind. While Ald'ruhn fell, and Skar-that-woke was broken, your legions were fleeing to the mainland, instead of defending the people as they had sworn! Through ancient treaty your Empire pledged to defend our lands as part of your own, but the Eastern Legions pulled back when the Argonians invaded!" He was close to Hadvar now, and the harsh lines on his angular face looked near demonic. The elf's voice was half-growl, the rasp underlying every word only making it the more unnerving. "You accepted those of my people who fled, but what of those who stayed? When the Red Legion rebelled and marched to defend Mournhold, they did so against the orders of the Empire. We survived, despite the Empire, and we do not forget." The last sentence was quieter, more reflection than accusation. He seemed to have regained some control, and took a step back, his face relaxing somewhat. "There is a word in our tongue, you would translate it as 'outlander.' To my people it means more. It means that you have never danced in an ash-storm, or stood beneath the Three Flames with the Chant of Azura about you. It means the Nammuruhn may hold your bones, but no vault ever will. A Dunmer who fled to the Empire and did not return to Morrowind, or who was born here, is an outlander. It is not cause for shame, for life in Morrowind is hard, but I am not the same as them. My voice is harsh because the sky rained ash upon me as I learned to speak, and I know every saint and god of our people, and honor the Three as I surpass the House of Troubles. Do not ask me to join your Empire again; we tell our children that while it may be noble to forgive a wrong, it is inexcusable to forget one." He took another step back and bowed slightly, eyes closed. "My anger overwhelms me, and I speak harshly. I forgive your Empire the sins of the past, and for bringing me to the block at Helgen. To be attacked by a monster out of legend; that is more retribution than even a Dunmer would seek." He opened his eyes, and stood straight once more. "But I do not forget, and I will not join your fight."
"Hey! You two done talking, let's get moving!" Ralof was awake, and if he had feelings about the two of them being at odds, he hid it well. Hadvar kicked out the remains of the fire, and they were underway once more. He glanced over at the elf, who was peering into the trees. An odd one to be sure, but he burns with a fire that we could sorely use. He did decide, however, not to bring up the fact that Morrowind was still an Imperial province, nor that this particular Dark Elf had clearly left his beloved homeland. Ralof would get a good laugh, no doubt, out of seeing Velandryn try to murder his onetime friend with his bare hands, but Hadvar had a suspicion that the elf might just be the deadliest one of their little band. Anger like that makes a man keep fighting when he should lay down and die. Anger like that can rout a foe, or turn a battle. Anger like that…and I wish he was not angry at us.
The camp was perched under an overhang of rock, little more than a few bedrolls around a campfire, a rabbit roasting on a spit. At the sight of the food, and the smells wafting off the scene, Velandryn's hunger returned full force. He had put it from his mind upon waking, but he could not pretend to be able to walk away in his current state. It had been hours since dawn, and Velandryn finally let his hunger run free, and took a step in towards the succulent roast. Hadvar's hand stopped him.
"Hold up, there, friend. Bandits like this area. Might be one of their camps."
Friend could be a touchy word, after their discussion this morning, but Velandryn did rather like the Nord, and admired the attempt at camaraderie. "Hmm, then we don't have to worry about them going to the guard if we borrow their food." Hunger made him bold, and this bright day, with a bracing chill but not too cold to endure, gave him a reckless courage. He moved past the Nord's outstretched arm, and pulled the rabbit off of the fire. "I am hungry, and am taking steps to solve that situation. You two are more than welcome to join me."
When next Velandryn looked up, Ralof was rooting through the sacks, grinning as he produced various vegetables. "Elf! Roast these with the rabbit, and we'll be well fed indeed!" The Stormcloak brought them over as Hadvar looked on disapprovingly.
"We should not be doing this. This food belongs to someone, and it is wrong for us simply to—"
Velandryn cut the soldier short. "We are fine any way. If they support the Empire, you are procuring supplies, and they can be compensated by the authorities. If they instead are Stormcloak supporters, then this one," his hand swept out and indicated the general direction of Ralof "can explain how they are donating supplies towards the liberation of Skyrim, and if they are bandits, well, then these goods are ill-gotten, and it is our duty as decent folk to relieve them of their foul loot." This was madness surely. Has Sheogorath clouded my mind? To act so boldly, so recklessly, he needed to reign himself in. He could attribute it to hunger perhaps, but he was a Dunmer in human lands. He needed to remember that. However, the Nords did not seem to mind. Hadvar looked amused, and Ralof was laughing outright.
"Ha! Were you a courtier in your homeland, elf? You should have talked at the bird rather than shooting it yesterday, and it would have flown into the fire for you!" The onion speared on his dagger was roasting merrily, and he took a long pull from one of the bottles. "Ahh, the good drink. Take a swig of this, friend elf, and you will sing the praises of Skyrim forever!"
Velandryn took the sloshing battle warily, near as suspicious of the Stormcloak's sudden geniality as of whatever liquid brought on such cheer. He raised it to his lips, and nearly gagged. It was sweet and thick, honey and fire and sunlight. He swallowed, and passed it back. "Strong. I take it that is the famous mead of Skyrim?"
"Not just any mead, but Black-Briar Reserve! From the hives of Riften, a good Stormcloak vintage. And you Imperial! Will you taste what you are missing in your western lands?"
Hadvar had apparently overcome his reluctance to join in, and accepted the bottle of mead. "By the gods, that hits the spot!" He sprawled before the fire, and grabbed one of the apples from the sack. "Shor's bones, I was hungry!" Velandryn didn't reply, his mouth full of rabbit and onion, plus whatever other vegetables Ralof had roasted. Many of the green land vegetables were strange to him, but right now they were as delicious as any roasted ash yam or comberry and trama compote. He closed his eyes and luxuriated in the sensation of the taste and texture. One point in the Temple's favor: I never knew true hunger while I served there. If less than two days with a chunk of bread and a bit of rabbit were enough to reduce him to this slavering state, how wretched must his ancestors think him? He would eat, and enjoy it, but the pleasure must not rule him.
With conscious effort, he swallowed, found his center, and opened his eyes. Ralof was sprawled by the fire, getting steadily drunk. By the noises he was making, the subsequent bottles of alcohol were not up the quality of the first, but it did not seem to faze him. Hadvar was more restrained, drinking from a bottle of what looked like wine at a measured pace, and eating a haunch of rabbit with gusto, but not Ralof's abandon. Looking at the two of them, Velandryn decided that he could live with them until Riverwood, and even further if need be. Ignorant of other cultures and untrusting, but then I suppose the same could be said of me. He knew little of these people outside of the stories about Skyrim, and for all their faults, neither of these two seemed a bloodthirsty conqueror, or a Tongue, calling down a Shout to shatter the bones of their foes. They might be men and worship the wrong gods but they were his allies, and had given him no reason to distrust them. He filled his mouth again.
Ralof rose, staggering only slightly, and moved towards the shadowed part of the camp, eyes on a pheasant hanging from a string. Velandryn nudged Hadvar. "Say what you want about him, but he holds his drink well."
Hadvar grinned. "Or you're a scrawny little thing who gets drunk on a thimble."
Velandryn hated to admit it, but the Legionary wasn't wrong. Each of these Nords easily had fifty pounds on him, and stood a span or taller besides. And, with this weather, they probably spent half their lives drinking because the alternative involved going outside. Either, he had no doubt, could drink him under the table and then float said table in beer, or wine, or that wretched mead. He grunted. "Lucky for me. I get just as drunk on half the coin."
Ralof heard this and turned. "You call that lucky? When you have done great deeds, and the mead hall rings with cheers, you get to down all the drinks they can buy you! Otherwise, what's the point?" He turned back to the bird, and so the arrow grazed his shoulder rather than burying itself in his chest.
The Stormcloak cursed, and his bow was in his hand faster than Velandryn would have thought possible. In half a heartbeat, he had an arrow nocked and was peering into the trees on the far side of the campfire. To Velandryn's right, Hadvar had hunkered down behind his shield, sword drawn. And so, Velandryn Savani found himself in the middle of what was looking increasingly like a bandit camp; by far the most tempting target.
Velandryn realized this at the same time as the arrow tore a hole in his cloak. He dropped to the ground, and Ralof released his shot. A yell came from the foliage, and a trio of bandits emerged. In the center was a Nord clad in furs and hides, holding a great beast of a battleaxe and charging with reckless abandon, the wound on his chest showing where Ralof's arrow had found its mark. To his left was another Nord, this one all in iron armor with a sword and shield in hand. Behind them was the archer, lightly clad and one of the smaller mannish races, possibly an Imperial by her olive skin. Velandryn had his sword and bow, but he was skilled with neither. Either Nord would overwhelm him, and the archer would likely pierce his heart before he could land a blow.
Hadvar was moving up with shield raised, and Ralof had loosed a second shot into the charging Nord. All three bandits were focused on the two soldiers, clearly having decided that the Dunmer pressed to the ground was no threat at the moment. The two-hander passed him by, closing with Hadvar, bringing the axe up in an overhead stroke, clearly intending to cleave through his guard and end the fight in a single stroke. The Legionary was ready, however, and thrust in with his sword, forcing the bandit to abort his swing and hurriedly parry the blow. By then. Hadvar has his shield to bear. The big bandit could not cleave through it without opening himself to Hadvar's thrust, and Hadvar dared not lower his guard first, lest the big weapon's superior reach open him for the kill.
Across the clearing, the other two were in a similar predicament. The armored bandit was ponderous; hindered by a full suit of iron and a shield, but Ralof didn't have a prayer of breaking through that guard. Likewise, any blow the bandit made was easily dodged by the Stormcloak. For the immediacy, all four Nords were at a stalemate. The archer, however, had other plans. Velandryn noticed her moving out of the trees, bow drawn. By the look of things, she couldn't hit either of her enemies from her current position, and was moving around Hadvar's shield. She stopped, and Velandryn knew she would loose her shot in seconds. If he acted on the plan that had popped into his head, he could well die, but if he didn't, one or both of his companions almost certainly would. And if he fled, what then? If he abandoned them to die? It was unthinkable. He sighed. Nerevar the Redeemer, I ask your blessing. Let my strength be true and my heart unerring, that my enemies and yours may be undone. By the love you bear your nation, I invoke your name. He raised his head and grasped his sword.
"Hadvar! Arrow to the right!" The soldier moved instantly, slamming into his opponent to buy a second, and tucking himself behind his shield as the shot raced towards him. Velandryn heard no cry of pain, so presumed that the Legionary must have caught it. He had no time to look, however, as he was barreling across the ground towards the archer, sword in hard. He saw her turn towards him, and raise her bow once more. He would reach her first though, he raised his sword as she pulled back her shot, he was upon her, and he just had to strike—
Her arrow impaled his arm, sending his sword spinning out of his grasp. He fell to his knees dumbly, not three feet away from the bandit, as she calmly strung the bow across her back and drew a dagger to finish the job. She smiled down at him, and her lips moved. Velandryn presumed that she spoke words, but he could not hear them over the roaring in his ears. I am going to die now. Here, in this nowhere, brought down by a bandit. By scum!
It could not be.
He would not die here, on some wretched n'wah's dagger. She was not worthy. He was Velandryn Savani, a Dunmer of Morrowind and Anointed of the New Temple and he refused to let it end here.
The bandit stood above him and her dagger descended, slowly coming towards his face as he other hand reached out to grab his hair. How dare she! She was nothing, and she would burn!
His left hand, the only one he had at the moment, gripped her wrist and he let his anger flow into her, let it burn through him into the bandit. With it went his magicka, and she screamed as her arm blackened and blistered, flames licking along it outward from Velandryn's death grip. He released her arm, and she cradled it to her chest, and swung the dagger in his direction with a wild sweep. The blade was slow and clumsy, however, dulled by the archer's pain. Velandryn gripped the hand holding the knife, letting the flame flow out of him again and making the bandit's hand unclench, dropping her dagger and leaving them both without a blade.
I have her now. Velandryn pulled the arrow from his right arm, grimacing at the pain. The bandit was reeling back, scuttling away from him. He focused his magicka on his bleeding arm, and called forth the most basic incantation of the school of restoration. His flesh knitted, and the pain lessened. He would hurt like Oblivion tomorrow, but now he had two good arms. He glanced back to where the others dueled. The stalemate was holding, but now Velandryn had the edge. He grabbed the bow from his back and drew an arrow. He was no archer of renown, but the big Nord with the two hander was no challenging shot either.
The arrow punched through the light armor, and the bandit staggered. That was all the opening that Hadvar needed. His shield slammed into the big Nord, and Velandryn saw the point of the Legionary's sword emerge from the bandit's back. As he slumped to the ground, Hadvar looked up, and met Velandryn's eyes. His lips curled into a small smile, and Velandryn nocked another arrow, aiming at the bandit in armor facing Ralof. Hadvar grinned fully, and moved to flank the armored foe.
Velandryn's arrow failed to pierce the thick iron armor, or even stagger his target. However, it was enough to draw his focus, and once Hadvar closed, the thick armor did little good. Against two skilled foes, nothing short of exceptional skill could prevail. As Velandryn watched the bandit's guard crumble and his allies begin to overwhelm him, a noise from behind drew his attention.
Behind him, the final bandit had found her feet. Both her arms were badly burned, but either magic or sheer will gave her hands new strength. In her left she held her dagger. Her right held Velandryn's sword. She was mere feet in front of him, he could never draw and loose in time. He dropped the bow. All or nothing. One last strike. The bandit moved slowly, clearly pained, but her gaze was steady and her steps sure. The dagger guarded, and the sword drew back.
Magicka was the essence of Aetherius, Velandryn had been taught. It flowed into their world through Magnus the Architect who was the Sun and the Magna Ge who were his stars. It infused every living being, and was the raw material from which all feats of magic pulled. To do what he would attempt, he would be drained dry. If he took a wound, it would remain. He inhaled. One more step. She raised her foot and brought it down heavily. Now.
Velandryn Savani erupted. His clothes and hair were buffeted by the magicka as it fled his body, and the air around him shrieked as the magicka combusted, roaring outward in a torrent of flame, red and blue and white. He lunged forward, and a battle cry rang out, from where he did not know. "Akkan suad'na vaet, Dunmer fi sholah zah!" Oh, from me. He looked into her eyes as he closed with her, as she swung the blades, as the dagger cut a line of pain into his ribs and he knocked the sword away. He saw her fear as her armor burnt and blackened, her determination as she brought the red-hot dagger up, and her panic as he grabbed her wrist once more. Then he saw something else, what he fancied might be despair, when he pulled the dagger out of her hand and drew it across her throat.
All at once it ended. His flames died out, and his energy went with it. Velandryn collapsed to the ground beside the corpse of his foe, spent. By the time the Nords had dispatched the final bandit and walked over to check on him, he had found his feet and was studying the dagger in his hands. The blade had cooled, but the leather wrappings on the grip were charred black. He looked at the Nords, then back down, at the blade and the woman he had killed. It was her or me. He knew he should feel something. Exalted in victory, or horrified at taking her life. But he didn't know how he felt. The Nords were watching him. Soldiers, they had killed time and time again no doubt. The dagger was still in his hands.
"A dagger has many uses." The voice of Hadvar, from yesterday. Many uses. Clean a bird, start a fire, or open a throat. The blade was dark and sharp, the leather strips burnt black. Crude iron, but it could kill. He didn't feel grief, or anger, right now. Skyrim was a harsh place, full of bandits, and dragons, and who knew what else.
He had passed a night, even if miserable. He had slain a bandit, even if barely. He had saved his allies, and had a task before him.
The bandits had armor and weapons, and Velandryn had little of either. The idea of stripping the dead for their gear was repugnant, but he would not go into battle clothed in rags again. He turned to the Nords. "How far to Riverwood?"
"We can be there by nightfall, if we leave now." Clearly Ralof had no issues with looting the bodies. He had added the round iron shield to his arsenal, and was rifling through the armored bandit's pouches. Velandryn reluctantly pulled the bracers and chestpiece from the bandit he had slain. They fit poorly, but offered some warmth, and as long as he wore them over the rags he had on until he could clean or replace them, he could almost pretend that he was not wearing a corpse's armor. He cinched the belt around his waist, and dropped his sword through a loop. The dagger he slid into a sheath sown in to the belt. Topping off his arrows, he walked back to the camp. One of the sacks around the fire had a strap allowing it to be carried over a shoulder, and he filled it with food to carry, as well as a few trinkets that he could barter in Riverwood. He saw a book in the shadows and added it the bag. The Refugees. Hmm, something to read at least. Finally, he checked the chest the bandits had clearly been storing their loot in, opening the trivial lock with picks that were not six inches away. Did they lose they key? Or is this what passes for security among bandits? Either way, he found a few pieces of cheap jewelry and some furs, as well as a small purse filled with drake coins. At the very least, I will not arrive in Riverwood destitute. He rejoined his travelling companions.
"You ready to move on?" For once, Ralof had omitted the 'elf' at the end of his question.
"Let us go." Courtesy was a virtue, so taught Vivec.
I should be afraid, or guilty, or at the very least uneasy. Velandryn had killed the bandit, aided in the deaths of two more. They were n'wah, they had forfeited their claim to live by their actions. Velandryn knew why he felt no shame or guilt or sorrow. I fought for the innocent, even if they are not my people. The roads were safer, and the towns more secure. Velandryn Savani stepped back onto the road, to Riverwood and wherever he might eventually end up. I feel good. I feel… strong.
A/N Obviously, I am taking some liberties from vanilla gameplay for the purposes of telling a story that has some of the depth that I feel Skyrim lacks. When two options are presented, I adore exploring option C. The world of the Elder Scrolls is rich with stories both mundane and mythic, and I have been sitting on this one for some time. I make no promises as to quality or direction, except that I find a romance makes everything more interesting, and Serana is far and away the most engaging companion in the game. Take from that what you will. On languages: everything important will be intelligible, or made clear through context. Things like Velandryn's battle cry above will be translated at the bottom.
I am happy to answer any questions about intent with regard to story or character, or changes from canon, or even my own opinions about certain aspects of the Apocrypha. I don't promise I will agree with yours, but I am happy to listen and have my mind changed.
Akkan suad'na vaet, Dunmer fi sholah zah! – Pray to your gods one final time, the Dunmer are upon you! Language: Dunmeris
A battle cry whose origins predate the Tribunal, kept alive by the Ashlander tribes. Regained popularity among Great House Dunmer after the Red Year.