The Northern Maiden floated calmly up the White River Bay, propelled by neither sail nor the oars of the crew, but only by the rowers of the small boats that pulled it to the docks with taught hempen ropes. The rising sun reflecting off of the subdued waves and seemingly everpresent snow outlined the dull grey of Windhelm's walls. The small crew of the ship busied themselves while Yjorrik sat at the prow and watched the city grow larger until it encompassed everything he could behold. As the ship was secured to a pier, the Cyro-Nord rose and watched the lively scene before him.
Bundles of fur, often layers of deerskin and rabbit pelt, trundled back and forth carrying crates and sacks between warehouses and flat-bottomed trade ships, though at this early hour they were going back empty handed more often than not; few vessels had come to port so early, small fishing boats notwithstanding. The lizard-men within the furs rushed franticly, maintaining a fragile balance between preserving their body heat borrowed from cook fires, and remaining conscious through exhaustion.
Even to one unfamiliar with the docks, it was obvious that they rushed back into their dwellings shortly after every few trips and others of their kind emerged, taking brief shifts to avoid freezing to death. All that for the pittance paid to them by the owners of the warehouses, the minimal wages that were inevitably spent on furs, fire wood, and fish to keep them alive. In turn, they were more likely to steal and thereby live up to the reputation the Nords and Dark Elves gave them. The somewhat rare cargo carried by the ship on which he sailed, his own treasures far surpassing even those Dark Elf goods, would surely tempt a scaled dockworker.
Yjorrik stepped off the gangway onto solid ground for the first time in nearly a week. An Argonian wrapped in bear skins, likely a foreman among his kind, approached the ship and the cyro-nord raised his hand to halt him. He looked over his shoulder and gave an order of his companions on the voyage that left no room for dissent, "No one touches my cargo. Not you, nor the dock lizards." He flipped a coin into the porter's scaly hands before walking on to the gates.
The lizards wouldn't be of much use to him even if he wasn't feeling restless; a single webbed toe crossing through the gate into the Grey Quarter could be cause for a murder or riot. The fragile peace between the three races relied on impassable barriers drawn in the snow by the mind. With few exceptions, Argonians, many employed by the Shatter-Shields, loaded and unloaded the ships, Dark Elves carried the contents on carts and by hand from the gate or the side entrances of warehouses, and Nords bought, sold, and traded the goods at their destinations.
Past the Nord guardsmen at the port's gatehouse, only one of whom seemed to recognize him, the streets forked and he took the northmost route, through the heart of the once-Snow Quarter. The other path skirted the periphery of the squalid district, providing a more comfortable path for the native-blooded. Passing through the place made apparent the conditions of the Dark Elves: the entire district was at a lower elevation than the rest of the city, leading to snow banks building up in the gutters, ditches, and streets themselves. Besides that, the poor quarter seemed much the same as any other part of the old capital. The buildings appeared just as recently built, the law against live animals within the city walls in full effect, the fish mongers roamed the streets in the morning before their catch could rot.
The merchants of the other districts of the city often refused to allow the elves within their inns and shops, the blacksmiths refrained from selling them anything sharper than a plow both to prevent a revolt and to conserve arms for the Stormcloaks, but farmers at stalls or with carts brought just inside the gates rarely denied them their produce, nor did the demands for taxes seem to come to their merchants from the steward more often than they did for any others by the looks of the elf traders he passed. Firewood was always plentiful around the capital, feeding chimneys all over the city, the portside section being no exception.
The Nord families that remained in the district had slowly converged into a tightknit community, an enclave within the enclave, living in a cluster of homes who's surrounding streets always remained well lit into the late hours of the night. Yjorrik passed the mouth of a street leading there and nodded to the world-weary man sitting outside his home, balding head held low in a mixture of relaxation and feigned unawareness, a large seax leaning against the wall inconspicuously yet easily within reach. The guards made their rounds, but this was likely a more unofficial watchman, volunteering his free time to protect his neighbors and their homes.
A lively intersection greeted Yjorrik a few streets further with wet cobblestones, melting frost crushed underfoot by porters, peddlers hawking their wares, wives seeking out their families' daily meals, and rickshaws serving the nominally affluent remnants of Great House nobility to be found in the city. He trudged on through a slush of mud kicked up by foot traffic, and nearly passed a narrow crevice between two walls when raised hairs on the back of his neck gave him pause.
A shadow began forming in the corner of his vision. He gripped the pommel of his sword and it faded back into the alley from which it came, gleaming red eyes shrinking to pinpricks. He pondered rushing after the figure and putting them down, whether cutpurse or cutthroat; instead he gave a nod, a small yet threatening grin, and carried on.
He passed by yet more Dark Elves in alleyways and on porch steps, some minding their own business, others avoiding his gaze in the most conspicuous way possible, failing to hide their envious intentions towards his coinpurse. A wizened elf brewer shouted to him as he passed by, "Nord! Yes, you there! You look like you enjoy a strong drink. I will personally guarantee, this mazte here will get you drunker than any mead ever could!" Yjorrik went on his way without sparing a glance.
He passed a dozen narrow streets and more until he came to the New Gnisis Cornerclub and considered stopping for a mug, but the taste of sujamma had worn on him while he was away, and he walked on towards home. The honeyed mead that awaited would suit him. Then again, he might need a clear head more than a drink for what he was pondering.
The steps leading up from the Grey Quarter lead him onto Valunstrad, "The Avenue of Valor." It was the oldest street in the city, passing by the Palace of the Kings and leading to his home. The avenue passed to the North of the main thoroughfare between districts, home to an old inn and a temple to Talos. He passed the gatehouse and barred courtyard of the Palace of the Kings, sparing a glance at the guards in their implacable helms. A few minutes' walk further down Valunstrad brought him to the most affluent district of the city, where the steps up to his house soon met his feet and seemed to welcome him back from a long trip. The light of a fire burned invitingly through the windows of his home.
He pushed the oaken doors open with a sigh of relief, only to be greeted with a an axe blade under his chin. The mutton-chopped face behind the handle of the blade, that of Calder, twisted from the image of a set jaw and determined gaze to embarrassment and a wide smile. He leaned his axe against the door and stepped aside graciously, clad in a plain wool tunic. "My apologies, my thane! It is great to see you! How was your journey?"
Yjorrik shrugged off his rucksack and clasped the fellow's upper arm. "You as well, Calder. I'll tell you of it after you help me bring in the treasures I've gained." Calder reached down to heft the discarded backpack from the floor, but Yjorrik stopped him with a sweep of his hand. "Leave it."
Half a dozen trips later, the Dragonborn was recounting his tale over a wheel of cheese and a horn of cider, while his red-haired "host" hung on every word of the adventure. Yjorrik noticed that his húskarl had kept the place clean, the fire well fed and largely sootless, the timber beams free of dust. The man was no servant, but keeping the house in order was hardly beneath his station. Yjorrik's tale had reached its conclusion, and afterward they had exchanged questions back and forth. Calder had little to say about the state of the war; the peace had held and the farmers had complied with the would-be-king's crop demands.
"You really fought the ghost of a frost giant?"
"I did. Claimed its service as well."
"Next you'll be telling me you found snow elves."
Yjorrik gave a small chuckle and sipped from his horn. "Well, there was my journey to The Vale. . . But there has been no news of dragons or vampires since I left?"
"No, my thane."
"It truly has been peaceful then in my absence, at long last."
The older warrior spared a glance at his liege's furrowed brow and inquired, "You do not look very relieved. What else has you worried?"
The returned traveler took a moment more staring up at the beams of the ceiling in concentration before slouching forward and looking at his own hands.
"There is something weighing on my mind. I have a choice to make. One that will have drastic consequences either way I decide." He balled his fists, then unclenched them and joined his open hands.
"What is it?"
Yjorrik said nothing, leaning forward with his palms together below his chair, eyes wandering over the floorboards from the rucksack by the door to the fire in the hearth and back. The flames crackled mildly in the silence between them until he finally looked up at Calder with a set jaw, his mismatched eyes commanding the húskarl's own to stare back. "Listen to me carefully. Where do your loyalties lie?" The gaze of neither wavered.
"To you, my thane."
"Above all else, you are loyal to me, and to no other?" Yjorrik stressed that last part, watching for the slightest hint of doubt.
Calder held his gaze, unflinching. "My word is my honor, my honor my life. I have sworn loyalty to you. I will serve no other so long as we draw breath."
The stare didn't abate for a long moment, and then Yjorrik leaned back in his chair, giving the man his space. He turned away to look into the fire burning steadily in the hearth again, then glanced back at his huskarl and cracked a small yet toothy grin. "You know, a simple yes would have sufficed." Some of the tension left the older man's frame and his smile returned. Ingvarsson slowly rose to his feet and stretched his arms overhead before making his way over to the pack laying on the lukewarm floorboards. He brought it up to eye level and tossed it underhanded to the seated man. "I'll be back shortly, or not at all. If Ulfric stops by or sends his men, give him this satchel. Otherwise, await my return or my word."
Confusion knitted the sworn warrior's brows, but he nodded his assent and managed a "Yes, my thane." Yjorrik opened the doors of his home for what might be the last time, then strode with purpose out into the chill morning air. Whether Calder would dare to take a look inside the bag for himself, he couldn't begin to say.
Yjorrik reached the now open gatehouse only for men in blued leather cuirasses with axes and swords to bar his path. He stared beneath their visored helms and met their implacable gazes, until after a few moments, one of them said "Wait, I know you." The guard stepped aside and offered an apology. The other stood fast until his compatriot stated: "He is the Thane Ingvarsson, the Dragonborn."
Yjorrik brushed past them as a third man, one of many in the courtyard, made to rush ahead through the doors and announce his presence. The Dovahkiin spoke as he strode forth, "No need. I shall not stay long as a guest. No preparations need be made." The guard hesitated, regular protocol clashing with his reverence for the man giving contrary instruction to it. Those standing closest to the doors pushed them aside as he reached them.
Beyond the threshold were a great many full tables of men attended by servant girls, with watchful sentries round the perimeter of the stone and tile hall. It was as he feared: Ulfric had assembled a war council. He intended to break the peace soon, just shy of a year since Yjorrik himself had brokered it. Couriers in light jerkins sat closest to the court's doors, yet the throneroom of the palace was so large that they were still a few empty tables away from the entrance. Their short seaxes, large knives really, hung prominently from their chests and lower backs, likely intended more for their own throats in case of capture than to be used on the enemy.
Bards and scribes filled the next long table, their animal hides, parchments, inkwells, quills, and instruments sprawled before them, ready to record the words and edicts of their high-king-to-be in word and song. Next were priests and priestesses of Talos, of whom he recognized Lortheim and Jora from the temple in Windhelm, as well as those devoted to Arkay, Akatosh, Stendarr, and Kynareth, advisors upon matters of the spirit in regards to war, all without any official ties to the established Cult of the Eight Divines in Cyrod.
Skalds, húskarls to the officers present, and honored veterans sat past the clerics, filling the seats of three tables in no discernible order. A group of five were sat together who seemed quite familiar, though he couldn't recall any of their names, until it dawned on him: they were the rescuers and the rescued Nords from the Thalmor's secret prison, Northwatch Keep. Yjorrik immediately recognized the war hero Ralof, the same man who greeted and helped him escape at Helgen, seated at the head of the farthest of the three tables.
In the seats of the penultimate table were siege engineers, some legion-trained, others dabblers in magick or once-simple architects, as well as the aides to the commanders, whether simple scribes or optios that once served the Imperial Legion, all of whom scanned over cluttered diagrams, topographics, and logistics scrawled on goatskin.
The Stormcloak commanders sat at the table nearest the throne, speaking amongst each other and with the jarl himself. Low conversations were being held at each of the occupied tables, but the sure voices of the high officers reached him as he approached through the vast hall of the palace, just as their lord finished speaking, though Yjorrik did not recognize any by voice alone beyond their nascent king.
"...with the giants."
"Felgeif won't be fond of that. I am surprised his coffers have not run bare putting bounties on their heads whenever they pass through."
"He's not pleased by much in any case. Armed properly, they would allow for a short siege of Solitude."
"I've heard rumors of the Dawnguard training trolls for battle. Think it's worth looking into?"
Ulfric spoke again: "It is worthy of inquiry, but between the giants and conscripted mages, their walls will crumble in mere days. We will have no need of dragging catapults through the bogs or lashing them together on the cliffs. Send half of the city's to the passes in The Rift where they will be useful. The rest shall be sent along to the front."
"How will we keep reinforcements from trickling in from The Reach?"
"The forests are our element, easy to defend and slip away into. Our men are far less prone to clanking away their positions. More significantly, Madanach is more murderous than ever. For every caravan that makes it through the crags, two more don't."
"I feel uneasy at the prospect of committing all my men to an assault on Falkreath. Balgruuf may just allow them to pass through to our front if we trample over his southern territories."
"Balgruuf's first instinct will be to meet us with cavalry. If our host makes that seem unwise, he'll attempt to hold out in his city. The farmsteads and villages are of far less importance to him. As for the giants, none will suspect or impede them until they are already far into the marshes. By then, it will be too late. If only I could see Tullius' face when he looks down from his tower at mammoths swimming across the River Hjaal."
"Who will lead the attack on the city? Galmar can't take all the glory, nor be in two places at once." Yjorrik had walked close enough to recognize Ulfric's head húskarl by then.
Galmar spoke up, a bear's coat hanging off his back from his head, a drinking horn in his hand. "If the giants cannot muster enough strength to tear down their walls, I'll be joining the fray before it's all over." The Dovahkiin saw the axe-wielder turn to a man with a head of dark, short, yet full hair, with a chin carved from rock. "Hungry for songs to be sung in your name, Gorald?"
The man in question took a pipe by its stem from the side of his mouth before he replied evenly. "As much as you, Stone-Fist."
Yjorrik saw the hungry grin Galmar cracked at that, the anticipation of the rush and glory of battle clear on his face.
The eponymous head of their rebellion spoke up again. "I will lead the attack. We've rooted enough imperials out of the wilderness to have little need for garrisons in our holds. The front and border crossings will remain manned, while internal defense will be left up to the jarls' own men."
As Yjorrik passed, stormcloaks had looked up at him with brief moments of confusion that soon gave way to recognition, awe, and reverence. He was the man who lived through Helgen alongside Ralof and their lord Ulfric, the one who sent scores if not hundreds of bandits to their deaths in roadside massacres, a vampire-hunter who struck fear into their unfeeling hearts, the great slayer of dragons, and more. Every man gave to him their respect; he pondered if they still would mere moments on before he reached the end of the last table and stood before the throne.
". . .Jarl, or should I say King, Ulfric."
Ulfric Stormcloak sat forward in his seat from the casual slouch he was in, before cheerfully throwing his arms out wide at the sight of the dragonslayer. "Yjorrik Ingvarsson?! It is good to see you return! Jorleif! A hero's welcome for this man! I shall join you shortly at the table-"
"-No need, nor time. I must discuss something with you."
The seated jarl took on a more serious expression before he spoke, arms resting atop his throne. "Hmm. I take it you do not come to me lightly then. I presume since you've returned you have finally slain the world-eater, or perhaps you are in need of allies to slay the great beast afterall." He flashed a confident smile at his presumption, then turned to his commanders. "Await me in the war room."
"They should hear what I have to say as well. You intend now to march on Solitude and forsake the peace?" Ulfric's eyes hardened at that as he looked Yjorrik head on.
"I do, and I must. The Legion has not kept up its end of the truce. They send skirmishers with or without insignia to probe and harass our lines. A village was burned near the front merely a fortnight ago! . . . Regardless of that, Skyrim must be free. Nords must not be crushed under the dead weight of an Imperial yoke. All of Skyrim, and all Nords."
Yjorrik took a steadying breath before he replied. "I have thought long on the perils we face and the hardships ahead, so do not take me lightly. You were a hero of the empire, and now continue to champion the spirit of the Nords through their unyielding fight for freedom. You are right to turn away from Cyrodiil when they offer only subjugation on behalf of their weakness. Skyrim could stand on its own feet once more and embrace a destiny greater than the empire's petty conquests. All this is true, but we are not yet prepared for such an undertaking."
"We have no fleet leaving the kingdom open to piracy, our warrior orders are nearly all in disarray, the forts of the land are crumbling ruins manned by brigands at best if at all, we two are the only tongues in Skyrim that do not sit on mountains contemplating sky whales or dwell in burial mounds awaiting Shor's return, our mages are few and their loyalties to Skyrim in doubt, villages of the countryside lie abandoned producing no crops, septims hold little value anymore and the karls suffer because of it, Nords revere the bastardized Eight Divines of the Aedra rather than our true gods, and the entirety of the Eastern Reach is a battleground.
Until these problems are addressed, the kingdom is in no condition for independence. What's more, the empire, though it lashes out at us like a mad dog, is the land of our brothers in Bruma, our cousins in Colovia, and all the other men who trace their lineage from The Return. If we abandon them, they won't simply lose territory in the next war. The Thalmor will treat them just as the Ayleids did, with thralldom, torture, and slaughter. If a peaceful solution to this war is not found, we will be condemning them to that fate. Call for the moot, and I will support you in ending this conflict. At the very least, the lines could hold, with rule of the East being yours."
Ulfric saw conviction in Yjorrik's untwinned eyes rather than insolence. "Wise words, Dragonborn, but I will not split the kingdom once more as fools did long ago. I seek to embrace the glories of our ancient forebears, not the mistakes of their middling descendants. Your fears for the folk of Cyrod are understandable, and may well be justified, but we shall not fight their battles for them when they spit in our faces and pillage our lands. When the Dominion marches North, the wise shall see that the Medes are not worth serving, and Skyrim shall expand South once again. The fair people of Bruma will gladly swear fealty to the throne of Windhelm, and all true Nords will return to our kingdom, with fields aplenty to stake their claim."
". . . I shall also tell you why I have not raised a fleet, and not just that it would be a waste of resources until all of Skyrim is rightfully ours. Tullius' mages destroyed the fleet in battle North of Solitude at the onset of this war, and in losing control of the storms they conjured, lost their own small force as well. Perhaps now you see why so many are mistrusting of magick, and why we have little need of it. The Emperor will not divert more ships to the general's efforts for fear of weaknesses in their coastal defenses against the elves, and our warriors are better served by their own small vessels for raids along our imperial-held shores. Ever since that battle, Tullius has been seizing merchant ships to bolster his supply lines and threaten our own, with Haafingar natives' taxes paying back the owners. Not only does this stir up dissent against the occupiers, it weakens trade as well, leading more captains to dock here in Windhelm."
"As for the East Empire Company, I am not blind to the reality of trade after the war. We will still be selling goods in Cyrodiil's markets after a time, and they in ours to a certain extent. That is why I allow them in our ports, albeit closely scrutinized." Ulfric signaled to the bards to play, a stirring melody of lutes and drums beginning on cue, and waved Yjorrik in closer to the throne. "Just between us, I also allow it because valuable treasures wind up in our markets after their ships depart, undoubtedly changing hands with Dark Elves. I tolerate them for a reason, you see, so long as they don't grow too bold. Though that doesn't mean they don't serve their time in my dungeons." The seated man looked up once more to the distant bards' table after a long moment, and silenced them with a wave of his hand.
His voice rose with clear intention as he next spoke: "As for our warrior orders, all who are worthy of the title are in the field or defending their homes, as sworn Stormcloaks. The armistice could not hold in any case; the empire feigns honor, holding to the treaty in the light of day but as I have said, sending skirmishers by night. Solitude will be ours in a few mere weeks. The mountain passes at our borders shall be made impenetrable. No imperial shall ever again set foot into Skyrim." His piece spoken, the jarl relaxed into his chair once more.
The Dragonborn was not abated. "What then of the next war? Will you aid the empire against the elves?"
Ulfric grew incredulous. "Return their insolence with comradery? Never. The Medes have chosen to scorn their allies in the name of a pathetic and temporary peace." He breathed a deep sigh at the warrior's continued questioning before replying with his own. "Have you slain Alduin?"
Yjorrik's gaze had gone low, a shadow cast over his face, before he raised his head again. "I have, long months past. I did not wish to see the peace that had been made to strengthen against the dragons and for my own labors crumble. Surely you can see that without the empire or any other allies, it is only a matter of time before the elves conquer us as well. Their slave races outnumber us, and only the Nibenese battlemages can match their mages in open battle."
Ulfric scoffed at this. "You do not trust in the strength of Nords. It is foolish of you to underestimate your own folk."
Yjorrik sighed, looking into Ulfric's eyes and imploring him to reconsider. His mind raced as he scrambled for some peaceful solution. "What about. . . Dragons? With Alduin defeated, they obey me. We can force the empire out with the threat alone."
Stormcloak raised his eyebrows. "I have no reason to doubt you, but that is quite the claim. . . " Yjorrik did not falter under Ulfric's incredulous gaze. "If you can truly control them, we can end this war in a fortnight and keep the empire out without losing a single man. What say you, Yjorrik? Lead your wyrms against our enemies and I will grant you lands, wealth, even jarldom as we expand. Songs will be sung of your praises for eras to come."
Yjorrik scowled. "I already have wealth, and songs for that matter. My only interest is ending the bloodshed in the kingdom. I will gladly stand behind you and command my drakes to raze the elves' lands when the time comes, but I will not burn the men who should be our allies against them when it can be avoided." A part of Yjorrik's mind, the part that he worked hard to ignore, urged him to command Ulfric, to enthrall the man's spirit. If he could do so to a dragon, a mere man would have no chance of resisting. To do so would mean sinking to the depths of draconic impulses, becoming a tyrant who controlled mortal souls against their will.
Ulfric, oblivious to the Dragonborn's inner turmoil, conceded nothing. "You will stand with us, or you will stand aside. Our cause cannot be diverted."
Yjorrik breathed deep as the inevitable conclusion became clear, before his unmatched eyes took on a steeled gaze. "Though your reasons are just, I cannot abide this war of yours. Since you will not keep the peace or forge one anew, I, Thane Yjorrik Ingvarsson, challenge you, Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak, to a duel for your throne and for leadership of the Stormcloaks."
Silence reigned for long moments, both men's gazes locked, until The Stone-Fist dispelled it. "You insolent foreigner! How dare you challenge the High King!"
The berserker began to step forward, rage etched onto his features, but Ulfric stopped him with a sweep of his arm.
"Relax, my old friend. The challenge has been issued. I have always fought my own battles."
The two warriors' eyes remained locked, as the claimant to the throne of kingship called out to his men. "Guards! . . . Move the tables aside. Then stand at attention at the doors. No one enters or leaves until the duel is completed." The Stormcloak commanders and the rest of the court required no orders. They converged outside the war room in a loose crowd, waiting to see what would become of the revered combatants. The servants retreated hastily to the kitchens, nosily peeking out from the threshold moments later. The scraping of long tables came to a halt and the hall was then clear of all but the two combatants, staring each other down.
Ulfric rose from his throne and stepped methodically down the short steps, his footfalls echoing in the resumed silence. His cuirass of leathers lined with thick furs only served to exaggerate the bulk of his muscle; ruling and strategizing had not taken away from his warrior's physique. The challenger still wore the same suit of scalemail, fashioned of dull bronze dragonscales, that he had donned to delve into Apocrypha. Stormcloak drew his sword and Ingvarsson did the same in kind, both hefting high their Nordic blades, the hilts level with their chins. The would-be-king's was shining skyforged steel, just shy of knightly arming-sword length. His challenger's shone a pale blue like layered permafrost in the light filtering in from the high glass windows, made of exceedingly rare stalhrim, magickally unmelting ice.
The Jarl did not waste even a breath after unsheathing his sword, loosing a shout that sent the Dragonborn off-balance for a mere moment before he recovered and replied with a single syllable. Ulfric's furs were ruffled by the force rushing past him, lending him the appearance of having dragon's spikes on his back.
The Bear of Markarth stepped back from the gale for an instant before he lunged forward with the breath of Kyne at his back, a swing intended to split Ingvarsson from shoulder to hip. Yjorrik backpedaled before countering with a thrust that was swatted away with the flat of The Stormcloak's blade. The rebel leader followed up with another diagonal swing, but the Dovahkiin did a quarter-turn back and away, swinging low as he retreated and splitting the leather shin-guard of Ulfric's boot.
The claimant to the throne allowed him no time to fully regain his balance, ramming him with shoulder, elbow, forearm, and hip. As his sworn warriors looked on, he made to bring his blade down upon Yjorrik's kneeling form. An unexpected headbutt broke his attack and nose, followed by a rising knee that took the wind from his sails, and ending with a pommel strike that picked up where the headbutt left off. Blood gushed down the would-be-king's face as he latched onto Ingvarsson's sword arm, then broke the grapple himself with a swift kick to the knee and a one-handed push. The Colovian-born Nord shouted, not with power, but in pain as he stumbled back, parrying a thrust that was too slow from his attacker's lack of breath.
The former greybeardling summoned Kyne's blessing into his lungs once more however, enough to shout his foe into a stunned stagger. He brought his blade down to cleave through the younger man, but his attack was turned aside to merely draw blood from a scale-mailed shoulder. Battle rage took hold of Yjorrik; he dropped his blade to grab the usurper by the furs, then launched Ulfric with both hands and a mighty shout that sent his foe sailing across the vast room. A resounding crack echoed through the court hall of the palace as The Stormcloak was embedded into the tiles and stone of the far wall.
Breathless moments passed for the onlookers before their claimant pulled himself free with both hands onto the floor. Sweat, blood, and pieces of tilework clung to him, his chest rising and falling rapidly. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, meditating to refocus his body and mind's energy, before standing tall and calling to the guards. "Bring me my axe." His challenger awaited him with sword in hand.
As soon as the axe was within his grasp, he moved to close the distance with a brisk march. Just before steel might be swung, a disarm shout tore the blade from Yjorrik's hand, and then Ulfric's axe was on its way to sever his head. The Dovahkiin charged forward, ducking the swing and tackling the Bear of Markarth to the ground. A second swing grazed the younger warrior's head just as his grip immobilized his foe's axe arm, and he battered the wielder with a clenched fist to the jaw.
Ulfric gave no sign of pain beyond gritted teeth as his knee rose to drive the air from the Dragonborn's chest, but he failed to notice the dragonbone dagger his adversary drew until it was being plunged into the flesh of his collar. He howled in pain, clutching the fingers holding the small blade, and threw himself headlong into a headbutt that drew blood from Yjorrik's nose as his own crimson ichor bubbled up around his neck, heat and cold alike rushing through his senses.
Ingvarsson twisted the dagger in retaliation, still clutching The Stormcloak's wrist with his other hand to keep the axe at bay. The jarl's desperate shout propelled the axe in his hand toward the ceiling, splitting hairs and the cartilage of Ysmir's ear as it flew; no time was wasted in following it with a quick fist to the throat, the force of which, combined with the lasting power of the shout, pushed his foe back onto the cold tiles of the floor.
Ulfric rose with a pained grimace, yet without delay, and caught his falling axe in one hand. Yjorrik got to his own feet just in time to catch the axe between his ribs, both arms braced desperately against The Stormcloak's own to keep the blade from sinking further. Blood poured down his side, his leg awash in it, as his gaze remained locked onto his potential slayer's own. He fought through the pain to bring his knee under Ulfric's wrists, his elbow joining it to create a momentary vice grip that cracked bones like kindling.
He tore the axe free as Ulfric recoiled in pain, embedding it into The Stormcloak's chest with enough force to drive the veteran warrior to his knees. The Dovahkiin yanked it free, the ensuing torrent of arterial blood coating both of their chests, then let it clatter to the floor. Ulfric looked up at his soon to be killer, shocked yet unwavering. Yjorrik turned his head, slowly looking around the stained tiles, then marched over to the stalhrim blade he had wielded from the start. As he hefted it, back turned, his defeated adversary attempted to rise, blood silently pouring in rivulets from his mouth. Ingvarsson huffed as he approached, bits of blood flaring out from his nose, his hand clutching his side and casting a healing spell to stem the bleeding from between his cracked dragonscales.
He stared into the eyes of a man's who's life he might just regret taking, a hero of his people and of the empire, and finally spoke his parting to him. "May we meet again in Sovngarde." There was a twitch in Yjorrik's swordhand and in his jaw as he hesitated for a mere moment, sword raised. Ulfric faced his death head-on as the blade of unmelting ice took his head from his shoulders, freezing the stub of his neck and exposed spinal cord in an instant. Yjorrik sheathed his blade with one hand, no small feat, moreso for a wounded man, and began casting a spell of unnatural freezing around the severed head of the jarl. His other hand remained at his side, mending his wound.
Galmar made to step forward, to draw his axe from its leathern loop, to avenge his fallen brother-in-arms and sworn liege, but his compatriots held him back, citing the officiality of the duel. By rights, The Dragonborn was now Jarl of Eastmarch. Yjorrik straightened, standing tall and turning the tome of his mind from what had to be done to what must come next. He walked calmly up to the short steps to the throne, all eyes in the room following him, and stopped at the threshold as he noticed his blood dripping onto the floor. He turned and spoke unabashedly, as befitting his newly gained authority, with frozen head still hanging in his hand. "Stormcloaks and people of Eastmarch, gather before me. Guards, remain at the doors and keep them sealed."
The guards visibly hesitated, shifting and looking to each other for direction, but did as they were bid, and the crowd slowly began to shuffle forth from the entryways to the map-laden war room, the kitchens, and other stone-cut doorways. They came to a stop in a loose throng before the throne, some still armed, some with murderous rage undeniably filling their eyes. Galmar was among them, held back by five huge and grizzled veterans, at least for the moment. Jorleif the Steward glanced back and forth at the pool of blood on the tiles behind the crowd and the slayer of his closest friend standing before the throne, his eyes wide and mouth slack with shock.
"Scribes, skalds, and bards, you may record what I say if you wish, all except for what I shall tell you to omit. Those words you may keep only in your personal notes and poems, to be read and heard by the world only after the White-Gold Concordat is no more, lest you be outlawed." Yjorrik's eyes scanned the faces in the crowd as he spoke and as he paused between words. "Steward Jorleif, when I have finished, have Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak's remains taken to his clan. . . Leave his axe where it lays and let no man touch it. . ."
He continued to scan the throng of mostly angry faces, meeting the gaze of each in turn, before he resumed. "Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak was a good man, and a great warrior, but as a jarl who would be king, he has failed the people of Skyrim. Already the country is nearly ruined, and yet he would continue the war. There is bravery in fighting until the end, no matter the odds, but it is the common people of Skyrim who pay the price of his ill thought rebellion. The villages of the land are deserted and will remain so until peace can reign at last, and no family need be fearful of raids by skirmishers, deserters, and bandits." No one was moved by that; the murderous stares commingled with continued expressions of shock as men and a fair few women gazed in horror at Ulfric's severed, frozen head.
"You all know of me: I am Yjorrik Ingvarsson, Dragonborn, Thane of all the Nine Holds. I did not challenge Ulfric for love of the Empire, nor simply to gain power. I challenged Ulfric so that I could claim kingship in order to forge a peace and strengthen the kingdom once more for the inevitable wars to come against the elves. All of what I shall do as king, after the moot has acknowledged me, follows from this, and this is what I have set my mind to do for the good of Skyrim, and all the realms of man."
"I shall restore the ranks of the thanes and drengrs, the warrior-nobility that have been so depleted since the Great War, with born leaders who have proven their worth in battle. I will strengthen our warrior orders with the knowledge of our ancestors that is now nearly lost, chiefly the thu'um, the voice, the power of the shout. The forts at all of our borders and coasts shall be renovated and properly manned, though not through taxes, but through the granting of these keeps to worthy thanes." Though expressions largely remained the same, some caught a gleam in their eyes at that.
"All boys and girls, sons and daughters of Skyrim old enough to pull a bowstring will be taught by their parents, by Stormcloak warriors returned to their villages and cities, or by those who shall remain in the wilderness. One cannot face ethereal flame with axe and shield alone, and so the youth of the kingdom must all wield the bow, the spear, and the dart with sure skill. It is best to match spellcraft with spellcraft, but indeed I understand why you are all so wary. The Great War, The Night of Green Fire, The Collapse in Winterhold, The Red Year, The Oblivion Crisis, all these have shown only the disasters that may come of ill-use by mad mages. Our own college of magick's masters and apprentices cannot be counted on for loyalty to the kingdom, refusing to fight for the land, its graduates and failures often those who terrorize our countrysides in past years while in the pursuit of power through mad rituals. Yet, here I stand before you, a warrior and a mage, and nearly every one of our restless ancestors, awakened by the dragons, that I have faced has wielded spells against me. The greatest mages once came from Skyrim, and thus I shall found a new order of mages whose loyalties to the kingdom are absolute, whose honor is as undeniable as any true warrior's, who shall do battle with the elves' own when the time comes."
"The economy of the land, I shall make strong once more and capable of standing on its own feet without the empire and without their perfidious foreign traders. You all know of the Khajiit and the Dark Elves that steal, smuggle, and peddle with impunity thanks to the empire or to the necessity of the cities, and indeed, a great many of the bandits I have slain were opportunists of distant lands." Some in the crowd nodded or muttered their assent at that. "I shall not abide these trespasses: Helgen will be rebuilt and the few survivors of its destruction shall remain to rule it, under the Jarl of Falkreath of course, while all those foreign-blooded who have returned the hospitality of their Nord hosts with suspicion, hostility, and disrespect will make their way there upon its completion, or leave our lands entirely. Traders from foreign lands shall pass no further than Helgen, and those who are grateful for our generosity, safeguarded from the Thalmor, will be our eyes and ears against spies from the Dominion." A few muttered amongst themselves at that, whether in approval or not, Yjorrik could not tell.
"I shall have a great fleet constructed, and alongside it rebuild and restore the harbors and raise lighthouses anew to guide sailors safely through our seas. Any beggar willing to work, I shall personally have fed, clothed, and fared to one of these great projects, and when the labors are completed, they shall be paid generously that they may start anew. The call shall be sent out to all Nords to return to this fair land, that they may farm and prosper. Any clearing, hall, or village that remains abandoned will be given over to whichever family settles it. All those who have fought for the Stormcloaks shall receive a share of the remaining coin from that which has funded the campaigns against the Imperials. The rest shall be returned here to the palace, that the other works I have deigned may be provided for." He looked to the front of the crowd, where the chroniclers of various stripes had largely gathered to best hear him.
"Scriveners, rest your quills." He turned his head to the leaders, the chiefs of the Stormcloak warbands, standing together nearest the map room. "To you, the commanders of the Stormcloaks, I bid you this: return to your encampments with the words I have spoken. I would not ask a man to swear his allegiance to me just after I slew his former lord, and so I shall give you until after I have become king and returned to Windhelm. When that time has come, you shall send word of your pledge with your own mark, or vow to me in person, and you shall return the coin not dispensed to those you lead. Galmar, Jorleif, and Yrsarald, I shall tell you the same as the field commanders; pledge your fealty to me once I reign, or you may step down from your position if you cannot swear an oath to me, but be sure that every warrior, shield-maiden, and craftsman who have loyally served under you, whether they do now, or they did at the very beginning of the war, receives a pension."
"Send all but those most vital, and those who volunteer to train the youth, home to their lands and families, so that only the few that may remain unseen, unheard, as if illusory, shall remain. To all but true Nords, the Stormcloaks will be disbanded; in fact you shall remain hidden in the wilderness. There you will be the scourge of real bandits, acting as them to fill the role of the unseen terror of the Thalmor outside of the safety they find in the cities. In order for peace to return to our lands, I must allow the Thalmor and the Empire to roam freely, and so you shall never reveal yourselves to the Legion, even if they escort the elven dogs to harass the people. That is not all I have to say on that matter, but let me be clear that no man shall face persecution at their hands unpunished so long as I am king. There is the possibility that the Empire will not accept peace, though it is a slight one, and so for now the front shall be maintained and remain garrisoned, but upon the establishment of an end to this war, you who are the commanders of our front lines will do as the others will have done. You will train the youth, while amassing spears, darts, arrows, and bows. You will have respect for the land, for the forests, for the beasts, and for the waters, as all true Nords do. This is how we shall prepare an army so great and so unexpected, that the elves will cry out in terror when they see our banners on the horizon and swear never to challenge us again for another thousand years!" Many of the assembled warriors cheered at that, fists raised where once their arms were crossed or their hands clenched the handles of their weapons.
"Chroniclers all, this too may be recorded." He turned his gaze to the cluster of robed clerics, meeting their eyes as he spoke. "Jarl Ulfric sought to throw off the Imperial yoke and yet remain shackled by the Imperial Cult. Pale, elven imitations of the true gods reign in the minds of Nords, the only true divinities among the bastard Eight Divines being the one most dare not worship, and the watered-down goddesses. Though born in Colovia, my forbears were Nords to a man, my mother an honorable woman who held to The Old Ways, as much as were remembered of them. . . It is one thing to be raised with faith. It is another matter entirely, however, to see your gods before you in life."
He raised his voice higher in a boast that was yet a declaration of faith. "I have seen Sovngarde with my own eyes, bested Tsun and crossed the Whalebone Bridge with his blessing, visited the Feast Hall of Shor and supped with our greatest ancestors! All this I did while in the pursuit of Alduin, who forsook his role as World-Eater in his ambition to rule Mundus. So too did I slay the First Dragon, though he may yet return in another age long distant." He waited for the expressions of the assemblage to change, for his words to reach their minds, and saw a great many express awe and yet others disbelief. "All of this has shown me the truth: the Old Gods of our ancestors live on: Akatosh, the dragon lord of time, is indeed a god, separate to the elven Auriel. Mara, though a goddess, is not the mother of mankind: that distinction belongs to Kyne, to whom Mara is handmaiden. Stuhn and Tsun, Jhunal the Mage, Dibella, and Ysmir; these are who we owe our worship. Every hero of Sovngarde spoke of Shor, though I did not meet him; that honor is surely reserved for the greatest of those who have met their deaths."
His reverent tone gave way to a triumphant shout as he raised the fist that mended his wounds. "The Old Gods of the Nords shall rule once more in Skyrim!" Some cheered, others continued to show a lack of belief in what he spoke, and the clergy largely looked dismayed. . . "No man should be attacked simply for what he believes. Indeed, the Dark Elves worship demons, yet not all of them pursue malicious aims. Nonetheless, neither should a man be allowed to blaspheme our gods and preach of false, foreign divinities in our lands. I shall not have destroyed a single altar, idol, temple, or any other piece of history. The temples to the Eight Divines shall remain standing, their imperial symbols removed so that the true gods may be worshipped once more. The priests may take their idols and altars with them back to their homes, or if they cannot stomach the return of the true faith I shall personally provide for their transit to whatever land wishes to accept their bastardized faith." The huddle of robed figures among the crowd muttered among themselves animately at that.
"Scribes and poets, cease writing. I shall not exact the empire's fearful condemnations of any son or daughter of Skyrim who speaks of the New God, the Man made Divine, the Hero of Mankind, Ysmir, Talos Stormcrown, Tiber Septim, Hjalti Earlybeard. Instead I shall beat them at their own foolish game of placation. When I am finished, the couriers in this hall shall ride forth through the lands of the Old Holds bearing my words until all know that from this day forth, we shall refer to the New God in public as such, or by his old name Ysmir. Shrines, altars, idols, amulets, and temples to Talos must be taken deep into the wilderness where no one may spy them without showing due reverence. Just as our ancestors revered Ysmir with the symbol of the fox, so too shall we. Chroniclers, you may wet your quills once more."
He held up his hand, one finger raised to accentuate his next proclamation. "My first decree as king, after the moot has decided of course, shall be that anyone who slanders another as a Talos worshipper, whether with evidence or with none, whether they are or are not, shall be outlawed for life." A self-satisfied smile crossed his face at that, his pride in his own cleverness apparent.
"Couriers, the last message you shall carry is to my húskarls. Tell them to meet me in Whiterun. You need not specify when. Unlike what I have asked of the rest, I need certainty now, and so I shall ask you all to swear that you shall deliver my words and then return. Upon your return, I shall personally see to it that you are well rewarded." More than a score of men approached the base of the steps where he stood, hesitating or resolute, then kneeled in a rough line of two rows, though they did not kneel very low.
Three others remained standing and spoke up: "I shall not serve you."
"You are a kingslayer, a Colovian, not a true Nord."
Yjorrik's face kept his even expression. "I will not begrudge you that, even your insult under these circumstances. Jorleif, see that these men are payed for their past services before they go on their way."
The Dovahsebrom watched the three as Jorleif obliged, fetching coin from his own pouch and stating a simple "Aye, I can do that." The couriers who refused were soon on their way, as were the rest who swore to deliver the messages he spoke. The Dragonborn strode forward with purpose, parting the crowd before him, but stopped just before he reached the corpse of The Stormcloak.
He stared at the body solemnly for a moment, before gathering a breath and turning back to the assemblage. Yjorrik glanced at Galmar, who was nearly frothing at the mouth in his barely contained rage. Ingvarsson gave one last proclamation: "This much must be said: between a Dragonborn and a Jarl-who-would-be-King, the outcome could only be decided by the gods."
As Yjorrik walked briskly through the Grey Quarter, he passed by a Dark Elf standing outside the threshold of a doorway. The mer held aloft a jug of some variety of dunmeri spirits and leaned heavily against the stone frame. His grey skin was made to look even darker by the shadows cast from the light inside, a far cry to the slush of morning frost all about. The Nord barely spared him a glance until he heard a slurred exclamation of "Lay down yur' wep-ins, it's not too late for muh' mercy. Ooh, ooh. Come and look upon tha'-", by which point the Nord had his hands balled into fists holding up the elf's tunic.
With a low voice resembling a snarl, he challenged "What did you just say?" His voice took on an odd, throaty tone as he continued clutching the Dunmer by his shirt, nearly hoisting the collar over the hapless drunk's head like a cowl. "Are you threatening me?"
The elf's glossy eyes gained a degree of startled awareness and he replied, "No, sera! Just a song from the homeland, I swear by the Sixth House." . . .
As Yjorrik held high the severed head of Ulfric Stormcloak, the stunned silence of the onlookers gave way to a slow, methodical slapping of feet on stone that echoed in the hall. It grew distinct in its origin as it neared, coming from a small alcove to the left of the hall that lead to a winding staircase. An ancient, crotchety voice cried out, "WHAT IS ALL THIS RACKET AND SHOUTING ABOUT!? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW BOTHERSOME IT IS FOR ME TO RUN VOLATILE EXPERIMENTS WHILE YOU GO ON MAKING ALL THIS NOISE?!"
The wizened old face of Wuunferth "the Unliving" appeared atop a silhouette of robes in the doorway, illuminated by a roaring flame held in his palm, prepared to bellow a cacophony of further complaints when he saw the figure of the Dragonborn standing tall with a bleeding axewound in his side and a frozen head hoisted above his shoulder. They stared awkwardly at each other for a long moment, before the wizard turned and mumbled, "Hmm, yes, well. . . Ah, you there!" and pointed to a nearby guard. He snapped his fingers as he demanded, "Bring me my tea, and two chickens, and a frog. One chicken cooked, the other alive. Oh, and don't cook the frog. And don't burn the chicken either!" He straightened his robes, shuffled back into the doorframe, and ascended the stairs still grumbling to himself. Yjorrik glanced around for a moment before stepping towards the empty throne. . . .
Yjorrik is pronounced like "Yore/Your/You're-Ick"
Yrsarald is pronounced like "Years-Are/R-Ald"
If you had another pronounciation in mind, I'm curious to hear it.
As always, reviews/criticisms are appreciated.