We two remake our world by naming it
together, knowing what words mean for us
(A.S Byatt, Possession)
A Nord's last thought should be of home, one of the prisoners tells her on the way to their execution.
There are so many strange customs but this one thing she can take into her heart as a truth. One should always think of home so that one's soul might fight its way back there; it's a nice, comfortable thought and she tries to conjure up images of it.
There's a scatter of memories in her at the thought. One of the Imperial City and one of family, one of oaths sworn and regretted and then memories of flight - constant, though occasionally interrupted flight. It's not much, as far as home or comfort goes but she's always suspected she's made for neither.
"If we could just get someone to hear us out," the thief had said over and over on their way from prison. "We could explain ourselves."
She's got half a mind to ask him what in Oblivion they would say, but keeps her mouth shut.
"Odd place to be wandering around, Imperial. Are you a spy or a whore?" These are the only words Ulfric Stormcloak has ever spoken to her and while it seems unfair to die for that, Aia doubts she will be able to prove her innocence. Even the most devout followers of reason and Imperial Law would wave her claims off as a desperate woman's plea at this point.
Home, she thinks again, anchoring herself in her head where the cold isn't tugging at her skin and where the urgent voices don't reach her with their orders of stepping forward, did you not hear me the first time?
She steps forward, her gaze fastened on the soldier – legate, she corrects herself automatically after a closer look – who carries out the general's orders. A Nord, unsurprisingly. There's no mercy in her face, no escape. Aia finds the lack of it vastly more comforting than the soldier holding the list, the man with kind eyes and a voice full of regret, of useless compassion that serves no purpose in this place except igniting false and desperate hopes.
She swallows the last chunk of fear; her breath catches in her throat.
"Get on with it," the general mutters and his voice is low, but not low enough for his words to escape her.
They are a long way from Cyrodiil, this Imperial general overseeing her death and Aia – or at least the filthy, dirty prisoner-shape that she has become as of late - waiting for the executioner's axe to fall. Kin, she thinks with an inward sneer. Or perhaps not. Every origin wears thin though neglect and abuse and hers isn't strong to begin with – she still glances over at the general, as though searching for some trace of something she can remember and hold on to.
He doesn't even seem to notice her.
So many days have passed since she last saw the man who stands in front of her again now, the taciturn general who looks her over like she's a ware to be bought at the marketplace and he wants to be absolutely certain the price is right. She fastens her gaze on him, fortifies herself. Soldiers are the currency of war, after all, and he is a true military man.
"I remember you," he says eventually. "You were at Helgen. You're the Imperial who weren't on the list."
The renegade from Cyrodiil.
"I'm impressed." She folds her arms across her chest. She actually is surprised he remembers her at all, though she supposes the happy few who made it out of Helgen alive will never forget a moment of it, not a single unimportant detail lost in the madness of it all. She remembers him, as vividly as she remembers breathing fire and smoke. He looks the same, perhaps a little older, sterner; if she looks closely she thinks she can see a glint of tiredness in his eyes, hidden beneath his composure. It's a kind of exhaustion she knows well, a kind that does not let itself be concealed, that never rests. The months between then and now have been difficult for everyone. Full of death, red-hot and chafingin her chest. Where it has landed in him, if it has landed somewhere at all, she cannot say. His face doesn't lend itself to examination.
Aia squares her shoulders, waiting for the general to speak.
The castle around them has walls that are thick and cold against the mild Heart Fire evening outside, its grey mass oddly comforting now when everything in these provinces seems to fall to pieces. Aia leans against the table beside her where a large map of Skyrim is spread out, the long roads and coastlines sprawling massively in the light of the candles.
As the heart of the Empire is solid, all of Tamriel is strong, her father reminds her in her head. He had always wanted her to join the Legion. The knights that protect her very heart. She hasn't inherited her father's sentimentality but there's something here, she thinks, looking around at the banners and steel. There's something close to faith in the pattern of soldiers milling about these training grounds, something resembling hope in the habitual phrases.
"Hadvar has mentioned you." General Tullius nods after what appears to be a moment's consideration. "I also hear you are the Dragonborn."
They both know the word, although its shape holds a different meaning, buried in other legends and other lands. As a little girl, she used to find the stories of the dragon-born emperor line so reassuring, filling her child-dreams with wild and fiery pride. Here, in the songs sung in every inn by every bard worth his salt, the Dragonborn comes only with a promise of war.
"If you believe the legends are true, yes."
He doesn't, not in his heart; she can tell from his entire posture that he doesn't believe, doesn't care, doesn't make an exception for her on account of some vaguely relevant prophecy about a mortal with the soul of a dragon and for half a heartbeat, Aia is so grateful a smile nearly slips out of her. There may be no escape from fate, but that doesn't mean she has to go willingly or allow it to drown out everything else. Already there are so many things people will never know about her because of one overwhelming truth: she can slay dragons. In its shadow, she fades away.
"I can be of use," she says, hoping he won't ask why. She would have no sensible answer to offer him, merely a string of unattached emotions all ending up here, at her own feet, in this joyless bloody castle. Nothing in this horrible realm is right and at least this, her standing here, isn't wrong. Currently this is all she can muster up as far as devotion goes. She wonders if the glint of apprehension in his eyes means he can spot her lack of dedication or if he merely considers the possibility of a Stormcloak spy in disguise. "I want to help."
The legate who hasn't taken her eyes off Aia since she walked into the room clears her throat, as though she's about to say something. Aia lifts her gaze. She remembers this woman, too, the harsh voice and the words filled to the brim with duty. A moment passes between them, a flare of recognition.
Aia has walked into Castle Dour as though she belongs here, she realises now. She had told the guards she had business with the general, without waiting for them to allow or disallow her anything. Such is her habit now, this is what the Nords have taught her. If she has learned one thing during this long, wretched year it's that you should never bother to ask. And frankly, there are few arguments as powerful as a large sword and a steely attitude.
Even in here, she realises when she looks at General Tullius who nods again.
"You survived Helgen," he says in a final tone. "That certainly shows resourcefulness. Speak to Legate Rikke, she will have orders for you."
And there's a little noise in her head, a dull thump, like a circle snapping shut.
A/N: So, yes. Eventually this will be a Dragonborn/General Tullius story. Shocked about the pairing? Clearly you've never read my fanfiction before. :)