A black cloak fell over the field, a fearsome storm of unnatural fury that howled like the most vicious daedroth in all Oblivion. The officer led his centuria up a steep hill without a word, mud sloshing under their leather boots. Lightning illuminated the top of the hill for a brief moment, just long enough to give him pause. He raised his shield, and the men behind him acted in turn. Straining for a glimpse of what he had seen, he realized what it must be. His voice nearly trembled, so early in his martial career he was, but it came out with a commanding baritone. "Boreous! Illuminate the hilltop!"

A half-Nibenese man, bronze-faced and light-haired, ran to the front of the formation, clanking in the steel links of his hauberk. He stopped beside his commander, and raised a staff that bore a large, unwavering, open wooden eye at its apex. A blinding aurora burst forth from it, covering the hilltop in beams of blue, green, and red light. The splattering hail of rain began as shapes became visible ahead, interrupting the battlemage's rays with each step. "Form testudo!" the officer shouted over the wailing storm. The mage's light flew over the hilltop, shining down upon a writhing mass of moving bodies, otherwise unseen. The legionnaires hefted their shields together ahead and above themselves as well as their brothers-in-arms.

Flames splashed over their shields as the centurion and the battlemage backed into the formation, both wraith-green and the same red as the diamond pattern they impacted. The rain licked feebly at the wisps of mage-fire until the battlemage raised his staff high above the testudo. None of the other men of Cyrod could see it, but the wards he placed upon their shields sapped the flames somehow. The centurion saw his soldiers' defenses holding, and called for the rear to attack their craven aggressors. "Cast pila!" Javelins cut through the rain and flames, appearing to stop in mid-air before tumbling abruptly to the murky ground. The illuminated silhouettes were two spear lengths away when the order resounded from the front. "Second wave!" The men holding their shields and spathae kneeled briefly as crossbows launched over their heads with loud *thunks,* muffled under the uninviting sky's roar. The vanguard of the column saw blood gush out and mingle with the torrential rain, revealing wounded shapes that cried out just in front of them.

Their centurion needn't say a word. His spatha rose above his shield, and an uncharacteristically savage war-cry grew from a whisper to a rumbling of the ground as more joined him. The short charge uphill met with half-seen bodies, many of whom were maimed by bolts. Hot blood ran crimson over the leather, metal plates, and scale-mail of the legionnaires. Elven screams resounded clearly in their ears, drowning the few wails of their own wounded and dying. The unmistakable crack of their crystal armor was music to the officer's ears in his disciplined fury. A great swathe of flame glided headlong towards his men, only for their battlemage to send a pilum of solid ice back to its source. The bodies of bleeding and angry elves were revealed to their eyes then, golden-skinned and armored. With their dying mage's magicks dispelled, the elven formation was visible, and therefore far more vulnerable. Boreous' staff poured arcs of lightning down onto them then as he raised it high in both hands.

The cunning of elves was not spent yet, however. The wounded lit themselves ablaze with arcane flame and leapt wholeheartedly unto the Imperial Legion's young marching men, searing flesh and peeling it back from bone with their grasp. The crimson that pooled out on chests and shoulders did nothing to stop the burning; only the knife-ears' deaths gave any chance of respite. A crystalline spear sailed over a dying elf's shoulder and into the centurion's shield, reflex being his salvation. The amber eyes that met his gleamed with a malice beyond the intent to kill; the hunger for the death of Man shone behind a golden-helm. The moonstone-forged helmet offered no protection from the impact of a cast iron bolt upon an exposed face, nonetheless. The centurion dashed the length of the fallen spear in a mere moment, and pushed the dying elf backwards. The mer behind him fell under his comrade's weight, then shoved him off his chest with both hands, only to receive over a foot of steel through his tender face and into the pointed skull beneath. The centurion wiped his blade upon his greaves as he fell back, noticing a new man to his left, holding a bloody pilum. Elven corpses still outnumbered Human ones in both of the corners of his vision. The line held, and their battered ambushers began retreating slowly, with shields, spears, and swords of once-bright golden-bronze crystal rendered dull by the ever-present rain. The centurion cracked a rare grin then, and led the march of his shielded formation up the crest of the hill, pushing the Elves further back.

As he reached the summit, he couldn't help but gaze out over the battlefield. His small host's flanking maneuver had been intercepted, but the Legion fared well nonetheless. His centuria had landed from their ferry on an isolated southern beach of the isle. The bridge to the West that stretched out across the bay was heavily guarded, while the northern and eastern shores were well garrisoned as well. Unnaturally lit torches and magelight trapped in crystal orbs stretched around the edge of the bay's waters, illuminating the progress of any imperial forces looking to liberate their capital undeterred. Aldmeri Dominion troops were retreating back to the walls of their captured city or dying by the score, encircled by legionnaires.

Wood Elf archers held the walls, raining death upon the stray soldiers who foolishly approached. Their volleys were brief and cautious, however. It was just as the legate he answered to had predicted. The Dominion had underestimated the Legion, and their supply lines suffered for it. Wood Elves traded and pilfered for their munitions, only making their own from bone, stone, and sinew. An ancient custom bound them to this, and ensured that the province of Valenwood would only ever be able to defend themselves, lacking the material for assaults and sieges.

Khajiiti skirmishers from Anequina and Pellitine were called too late to reinforce the besieged High Elves, likely still marching from Leyawiin. Unlike the initial invasion, ape-like Imga and Goblin footsoldiers were nowhere to be seen. The Thalmor cared not for lesser races beyond their usefulness, and the captured Imperial City could prove to be the heart of a new empire of Elves, above the desecration of such unfit beast-folk. The Legion's own Nord reinforcements were on the horizon, loosing iron arrows from their longbows into the retreating Altmer infantry as they reached the shore of the isle.

The legionnaire to his left hurled his pilum down the hill into a bold elf attempting to set the grassy slope ablaze with unquenchable magick. It sunk through the target's throat just as the officer awoke from his appraisal of the situation, sending a crystalline helm tumbling off and launching the nearly beheaded knife-ear into the shields of his retreating fellows. Boreous let loose a gust of freezing air from the very eye of Magnus carved onto his staff. Half a dozen gold-skins froze in place at once, terror and rage etched on their faces. The attack finally sent the elves fleeing, running with abandon rather than slowly backing away behind their wall of winged shields. "Cast pila!" the call came, and the cowards fell bleeding into the mud in their haste.

The walls of the city still held, surrounded by High Elves rallying under the banner of the Third Aldmeri Dominion. Cavalry bore the standards, readying their footmer for one last charge. The sudden horns of the Mede Empire's royalty drew the attention of all those who still had ears with which to hear, and the centurion looked towards the bridge approach over the bay to see a welcome sight. A golden sword could be seen shining brightly through the downpour, even from the centurion's vantage point upon the hilltop. It seemed to glow as if commanding all to witness it, the dull sheen of the High Elves' equipment paling in comparison. The man wielding it was clad in ebon armor, painted true-gold in imitation of the blade he held high. Mighty steeds carried him, his standard bearers, and his charging lancers towards the walls' defenders, galloping faster than the centurion had ever witnessed. It could only be one man: Titus Mede the Second, the emperor himself. The entire Legion roared a preemptive cry of victory and glory then, sprinting at the gold-skinned occupiers with bloody spathae in hand.

The centurion felt an odd sense of dread as he charged ahead of his men, and watched the front of the emperor's column slam into the ill-prepared elvish defense. High atop the ramparts, he saw a tall archer clad in the unmistakable crystalline-white of adamantite armor, the favored protection of the Altmer's own royalty. The elf nocked an arrow headed by the same material, and let it fly into the chest of The Emperor in his golden plate. All this, the centurion saw with unnatural clarity. Titus fell off his stead and onto his back, unmoving and sinking into the muck.

The Legion's charge around him stopped dead in its tracks, and the Elven counterattack came soon after. Those behind the faltering lancers stood still, jaws agape and eyes painted onto their faces, unwavering in their surprise and disbelief. A healer ran to the wounded emperor's side, even as the High Elves' cavalry began to tear through the men around him. The centurion saw the dying emperor raise his hand towards the frantic healer, before they were overtaken by the pale gold mass of the elves.

The shock that came with the fate of their ruler spread across the battlefield, a sudden gale from the storm that sundered the spirits from men. He saw his countrymen impaled and mutilated on every flank, lightning and wicked green flames arcing out to cut down the empire's steadfast defenders. A barge full of Khajiit, vicious cat-men from the jungles of Pellitine, struck ground on the eastern shore. Victory had been in their grasp merely a moment before, yet now rallying seemed hopeless. A legionnaire with his blood-soaked pilum in hand shouted over the downpour, "What are your orders?" From behind and to the right, the battlemage reiterated, "What would you have us do, centurion?" He spotted the Legion's own reinforcements to the North fully entering the fray, nearly all footmen with axes. Those Nords fought on, emboldened by the tales of their ancestors and determined not to let glory slip from their grasps.

The centurion stared up at the High Elf that had struck his emperor down, and they met each other's gaze from half a league away. The shimmering adamant head of an arrow slowly grew within the officer's sight, as if time was not relevant. His brow was furrowed, features soaked with rain and revealing his hopelessness as the arrow filled his vision, passing through his mind's eye. . .

Tullius woke with a start, sweat covering his forehead and staining his bedsheets. His grey hair was soaked to the point of resembling the same dark shade it had been during the battle, so very long ago. He hadn't dreamed of the Great War in years, and never had he seen the emperor he served to this very day die on the battlefield. His mind focused immediately on the state of the Cyrodiilic Empire and its enemies. The Battle of the Red Ring had been the empire's salvation, forcing the Dominion to come to the negotiation table rather than continue the war. Though concessions were made, the empire was regaining strength far more quickly than the Thalmor's puppet regimes.

The general, as one of the informed elite of the empire, knew that Anequina, Pellitine, Valenwood, and the heart of the Dominion, Alinor, were arming young boys and even training Wood Elf girls as archers to makeup for their losses in the last conflict. The An-Xileel that rule Black Marsh remained cordial with the Elves, trading for arms and armor. Despite the empire's best efforts, few spies had managed to penetrate the lands of their gold-skinned nemeses. The mer on the other hand, had free reign to travel all three of the provinces firmly under imperial control with their justiciars to stamp out the worship of Talos. Legion training exercises often took place in secluded forests due to the risk of prying eyes. Orsinium's royalty had an arrangement with the Mede dynasty ensuring their defense against hostile neighbors, and the ferocity of their berserkers had granted an advantage to the Legion in open battles. Breton spellswords, mages, and knights were counted amongst the auxiliaries, as were Nibenese battlemages, Nord axemen, and Colovian knights. Seven replenished Legions trained and patrolled in Cyrodiil, with another two in High Rock.

In the years following The Battle of the Red Ring, Tullius had risen to the rank of general, and was appointed to end the rebellion in Skyrim himself. Ever cautious, the emperor and his elder council had decided that the conflict did not require detracting from the main garrisons throughout the South of Cyrodiil in Colovia and Nibenay, and so Tullius was forced to recruit from the locals and lead a small group of volunteers. Many of the lesser nobility had died in the Great War, and of those that remained, few had wished to fight in the Legion or as auxiliaries. Thus his Legion had no tribunes, and he was forced to use legates and promoted centurions to fill the role of intermediate unit commanders. His most trusted legates were Rikke, a half-Nord, half-Colovian veteran of the Great War, and Fasendil, a High Elf refugee from the Thalmor's pogroms that had served in the Legion longer than anyone else he knew.

The old soldier rose from his bed, pushing off of the layers of bundled cloth with his fists, and walked the few steps to the simple wash basin in his quarters. He dipped his hands in the mixture of soap, alcohol, and water, splashing it on his face and slathering it under his arms. Of Colovian and Nibenese descent, he had the complexion of the average man from Cyrodiil, lightly tanned yet fair featured. His quarters in Castle Dour held only his padded bed, his saddle, his spatha in its scabbard hanging by a bolt on the nearest wall, his shield, a brazier, the basin, a chest for his belongings, and a sturdy desk. Within were parchments, ink, quills, a letter knife, wax, and the seal of a general of the Imperial Legion. The curtain-less window of his chamber faced out to the North of Solitude, revealing distant glaciers on the horizon shining in the orange glow of the rising sun. A letter on his desk caught his eye, its seal belonging to the Penitus Oculatus, the spies and guards of the emperor since the Great War had taken its toll on the old order of The Blades. No one had entered his chambers as he slept, and thus he realized that it must have been dropped off the night before by his personal optio. He picked it up with due haste, cutting it open with his pen knife carefully, yet urgently.

"To Governor-General Constantine Scipio Tullius

From the Office of the Penitus Oculatus, Acting Praefectus Valentius Octavian Crassus

Fifth of Second Seed

As you may have heard, His Majesty did not arrive in Nibenay according to schedule after his journey to Solitude two months ago for the funeral of Vittoria Vicci. Around the Eighth of Rain's Hand, the Katariah was spotted aground between Farrun and Jehenna. Fishermen reported the shipwreck to the local city guards, who investigated and reported this to our nearest office in Shornhelm. Upon further investigation, His Majesty Titus Mede, the second of his name, was found dead in his cabin. The wounds inflicted came from an oddly curved dagger's blade, not unlike the weapons crafted by the Orcs of Wrothgar. All other souls aboard were accounted for, killed in the same manner. In addition, a man in sailor's garb but unrecognized on the crew's ledger was amongst them, knife in hand at the time of death. The investigation does not point to Orcs being the assailants, as there were very few signs of struggle and an overwhelming majority of the treasures onboard were left behind. In light of Praefectus Oculatus Maro's disappearance, we now believe that he was murdered as well, and that this occurred around the time of the emperor's death. The Elder Council have been briefed privately on the murder, as have all relations to the Imperial Family. High Chancellor Caro has recalled the legatus of each legion in Cyrodiil and High Rock to pay their respects. Due to the nature of the conflict in your province, you and your officers are not being recalled at this time. The death of the emperor should not be confirmed if mentioned in rumor, and should especially be denied in the presence of Altmer diplomats and justiciars. Public knowledge should still be extremely minimal. An agent has been dispatched outside of Thalmor oversight, who will rendezvous with you at Castle Dour within a month's time. The agent will give you their orders and place themselves under your command upon arrival."

The news shocked Tullius nearly as much as the arrival of the black Dragon, Alduin, nearly two years ago. If the Thalmor were behind Titus' death, it would mean an invasion within the next few months, likely after the news had spread and cemented doubt in the minds of the aristocracy about the fate of the empire. The Redguards and An-Xileel had no motivations for murdering the emperor, nor did the craven "pacifists" amongst the Elder Council. Some amongst the war hawks, the "neo-Alessians", and the most devout Talos worshippers may have wished to see a more aggressive emperor sit the throne.

Ulfric would never order an assassination, as highly as he held his honor as a Nord. The Jarls under him were a mixed lot: Korir kept true to traditions, and lacked the wealth for such a costly endeavor; Laila "Law-Giver" was only caught up in the conflict due to the will of her subjects; and Skald the Elder, the cantankerous old fool, wished to gain glory through war for his hold and his name. Whomever had him killed was likely behind the foiled plot that pitted the Dark Brotherhood against the Penitus Oculatus those months prior, resulting in the death of his majesty's cousin and one of his body doubles. The infamous cutthroats had been tracked down to their hidden cave in Falkreath Hold and put to the sword afterward, though it was of little solace to the Imperial Family.

Titus Mede II had met with him in that very castle mere months ago when he came in secret via one of his smaller personal ships. His cousin, Vittoria Vicci, had been murdered during her wedding to Asgeir Snow-Shod. The alliance between the owner of the East Empire Company and a prominent family of Stormcloak supporters would have gone far in cementing peace in the province, as the nearly year old cease-fire agreement was barely holding. They had discussed the ongoing Stormcloak problem, the empire's relationship with Morrowind and Hammerfell, the growing polarization amongst his elder council, and the topic that was on everyone's tongue in hushed whispers, the next inevitable war with the Aldmeri Dominion.

His majesty was survived by two sons, three daughters, four matrilineal grandsons, two matrilineal granddaughters, a patrilineal grandson and granddaughter, and a maternal aunt. The eldest son, Tiberius, held a reputation as a firebrand. Several times had he put down bandits and minor revolts via wholesale slaughter, or solved disputes between nobles via duels. The disgraced Argonian Archeins, House Hlaalu Dark Elves, and noble families of Leyawiin filled his mind with thoughts of expansionary campaigns in the South and East, while the Motierre family of High Rock grew closer to him with every season. Rumors of marriage pacts and naval expansion had reached the late Titus' ears, and the prior had concerned him enough to warrant discussion with Tullius during their last meeting.

The Motierres had always been powerful, but with the sacking of Wayrest by Corsairs and the devastation of Nibenay during the war, only the Mede family themselves held more power now. "Schemers all, with no regard for the lives of those beneath them." The phrase rattled around Tullius' head as if Titus II had just spoken them. Tiberius' first wife had died several years ago, leaving him with two children, both of which were prone to sickness and feeble of constitution. Tullius would rather not think ill of the dead, or his betters, but the woman likely suffered from the inbreeding so common among the depleted noble families, and her children for it.

Titus' younger son of seventeen years, Boris, had inherited Titus' sound mind as a scholar, though he was also capable in the political arena of the aristocracy. His bookish ways and intellectual concerns were oft blamed for his lack of children. The brothers were not distant, nor were they close, born many years apart. A brother born between them, Nero Licinius, had come of age and died the same year, succumbing to a whoresbane, much to the Mede family's embarrassment. Of Titus' three daughters, Tullius knew little. All three had been asked for by the Motierre family, and all three had been refused. The families to which grandsons had been born could not be presumed free of guilt either however, as each had a chance at power through proxy

Regardless of who had murdered the emperor, Tullius realized that the conflict in Skyrim had to be fully resolved soon, whether it be through peace or by sacking Windhelm. Civil war, invasion, or a pre-emptive strike that the empire simply wasn't ready for... All three possibilities raced through his mind.

The general put down the letter with a look of determination that furrowed his brows and shone in his eyes, then donned his lorica segmentata one leather strap at a time, marked with symbols of status to denote his authority. He lit a small fire in the chamber's brazier with two flints and a handful of coals, before placing the letter inside. As he walked out of his chambers, he used a small, unadorned key to lock the heavy iron bolts affixed to the solid pine door, studded and reinforced with steel bars. The stone steps of Castle Dour led him to the war room, with a map of Skyrim's roads, settlements, topography, defensive points, and waterways displayed atop its main table. His legate, Rikke, was already standing at the opposite corner, jotting down information on a roll of parchment. She wore the partial plate afforded to front-line troops and officers of the Legion, even withinin the safety of the keep that dominated the center of the city. It was a subtle reminder of how far the empire had fallen since the days of the Septim Dynasty, when the throne could afford to furnish troops with newtscale or plate armor and full-length arming swords in the Colovian style, rather than the leathers and short spathae they relied upon now.

The half-Colovian Nord raised her head abruptly, giving a professional nod as a greeting. "General. Is something troubling you this morning?"

He shook his head and replied, "Just dreams about the war. How are you faring, legate?" He met her cerulean gaze with his own aged grey-blue eyes.

"I'm worried about the flow of supplies through The Reach. The Forsworn rarely attack convoys guarded by legionnaires, but we have too few men to guard every merchant caravan that leaves High Rock."

Tullius nearly smirked, the slightest curve evident at the corner of his lips. "Always focused on the task at hand. That's why you'll be commanding the campaign that topples the Thalmor in a few years."

Rikke's eyes grew wide at that, and she all but whispered while looking around at the exits of the room, "General?! Their representatives are still in the city!"

"Oh I know, but it's too early for them to be up attending to their functions. They have to sleep in till noon in their posh castle suites on the empire's septims to live so long, don't you know?"

"Aye sir." Rikke passed him a stack of parchment sheets, scrolls, and goat hide-bindings across the rectangular table. The general shuffled through notes on logistics, casualties, and troop movements. "What's the situation at the trenches, legate?"

Rikke glanced down at the map, taking in the wooden markers denoting the many positions of deep, spiked pits in the waterways, alchemist's fire traps, and light siege artillery emplacements arranged about the impassable, strategic crossroads of the swamps. "More have died in Hjaalmarch from sickness. Thankfully, it isn't a plague since it hasn't spread any further, but sanitation efforts haven't helped. There have been disappearances also, and a legionnaire was discovered that had drowned in the muck, weighed down by his armor. The Dawnguard seem interested in the area, but they haven't volunteered why."

With keen eyes she followed the meandering line of shallow trenches, ancient stone keeps, bear-trapped forests, and wooden hill-forts that stretched from the peaks of The Pale's mountains, along the edges of Whiterun Hold, and curved in and out of the eastern marshes of the Hjaal River Delta until it reached the northern shores of the province. "A few organized raids behind the lines in The Pale, Falkreath, and around the edges of the swamps have been reported since Tirdas. None were particularly damaging, but at this point I don't think we're dealing with any actual highwaymen. Ingvarsson likely dealt with enough brigands and deserters to make them think twice about banditry as a profession."

"And what of this 'Dragonborn'? Any sightings?"

Rikke cleared her throat and faced the general. "None yet, not for the last few months. I know you're skeptical, but he's proven himself to be Dovahkiin many times now. Our Legion has felled one dragon and driven off four. The Stormcloaks claim to have slain three, though I doubt they've managed any at all. Nearly every other drake's corpse found in the province has had his handiwork all over it, and more witnesses than we can reasonably discredit."

Tullius scoffed, "You Nords and your tall tales. I won't deny that this man those mountain hermits are calling 'Ysmir' is a great warrior, with a keen mind as well. That doesn't make him 'Dragonborn.' Saint Alessia. Tal-, Tiber Septim. Martin Septim. Those were Dragonborn. Those were the men who possessed 'the soul of a Dragon.' I have yet to see him strike down one of the beasts, and he still hasn't delivered on his oath to slay Alduin. Until either of those happen, he's simply a gifted fighter with a bit of old Nord magick to me."

"There have been far fewer attacks from 'the beasts' over the last few months. Perhaps he has slain the World-Eater already, and simply does not want to end the cease-fire?"

"Perhaps... It would certainly be a wise choice on his part, if peace is indeed his goal."

"When he does come forward with its head, I would advise that we focus on recruiting him as an auxiliary. He could face Ulfric alone and likely triumph."

"If he slays the winged lizard, I'll agree with you. As it stands, he is thane of nine different holds, four of which are in open rebellion. His loyalties are hard to discern, if he has any at all."

Rikke and Tullius reviewed battle-plans, contingencies and possible weak-points in the Stormcloaks' defenses for the next few minutes. After a time, Tullius cut to the chase. "Today's the twenty-second, isn't it?"

"Aye, two days till the anniversary of the cease-fire."

"We'll be breaching the agreement soon."

"General?"

A knot of trepidation formed in his stomach as he phrased what he had to say. "Cyrodiil needs the conflict resolved as quickly as possible. . . I plan on pushing to Windhelm before Ulfric knows he's being pressed. Keep it under your helm. The centurions will be informed when the offensive is prepared."

"We don't have the men to take Windhelm without leaving half the province open to attack."

"At the moment, no. I'll be writing a letter to Orsinium today proposing that we pay their berserkers a quarter of their weight in silver to help end this rebellion."

"A horde of Orcs won't bode well for the people of Skyrim."

"We have enough resources to give them all imperial colors. There are likely to be a decent amount of ex-legionnaires among them, so discipline shouldn't be an issue so long as we incorporate them as auxiliaries to our cohorts."

The legate raised an eyebrow. "I suppose you'll tax the Silver-Blood family's mines to cover the costs?"

Tullius leaned onto the map room table with both of his tanned, gnarled, bony fists and scanned the approximate locations of rebel encampments as reported by the scouts. "Everyone knows where their loyalties lie. Besides, those Stormcloak sympathizers have enough issues with the Reachmen. They won't dare to rebel against the empire without Ulfric to rally under, just as they haven't done so with a loyal jarl keeping his eye on them."

"Very well then, general."

"Has there been any news from Whiterun?"

She shifted in her partial plate armor, clanking and jangling while crossing her arms and making her way around the table to stand closer to the middle of the provincial map. "None since we fortified the edges of the hold. Balgruuf still hasn't acknowledged our right to march through his lands. Even the buildup of Stormcloaks before the cease-fire made no difference as you recall. Our supporters in the court claim that uniformed skirmishers are all chased off or captured and held at Dragonsreach. He's been reluctant to execute anyone from either side, but those without uniform or documentation are hung outside the gates as bandits. We haven't received any letters of ransom for our men, but I doubt harm will come to them unless The Stonefist convinces Ulfric to besiege the city."

Tullius stared vacantly at no particular spot on the map for a few moments before he replied. "I see. . . " An idea formed, one so unconventional that he hesitated to share it. "We can't pass through the White River Valley without sustaining heavy losses from long-bowmen. If the infantry circle around The Throat of the World, it will extend the march by a week or more, and scouts will spot them far before we can be anywhere near close enough for any advantage. That leaves a frontal assault that we may break our army's spear upon. . . or . . . "

"Or what?"

"The ruins. The ancient Dwemer ruins. The traps and automata are daunting, but an entire army could travel undetected under the mountains. Ulfric's men would be outnumbered and likely unable to rally. Our Orcs can be deployed to harass Ulfric's frontline, or accompany the legionnaires through the passageways. We may even find enough treasure hidden in the depths to pay the Orcs without any tribute from the Nords. If there is a better way, I would like to hear it, legate. No matter what plan we devise, an expedient end to the standoff won't come without risks."

Rikke said nothing, but her expression spoke volumes more than her silence. Incredulousness furrowed her brows and reached her azure eyes below. Finally, one of the seeds of her doubt sprouted into a cautious question. "What of the Falmer?"

"Ha! The Falmer?! You Nords love your tall tales almost as much as your mead. Has a Falmer corpse ever been brought forth and paraded by some braggart through the streets?"

"No. . . But too many stories have been told to be purely superstition."

"If we do encounter some lost elves, we'll trade with them, or put them to the sword if they attempt to impede us. Either way, if they're in hiding, they can't be a significant threat. Otherwise, they would have sought vengeance on Skyrim long ago."

No further concerns or unseen alternatives arose, and Tullius hammered out the plan in his mind, molding it before he would present it to his aide and advisor, sharpening it with her own ideas. A pivotal figure came to mind, and he broke the silence of contemplation. "Have my optio called for. I'll be drafting a letter to Calcelmo of Markarth as well. His knowledge of Dwemer ruins will be vital to the offensive."