The war draws nearer, approaching like clouds.
The general can call it whatever he wants – rebellion, treason, a fool's damn uproar– and the thanes can insist that it's a conflict for jarls and generals. It matters very little which words they use because restless Stormcloak sympathizers are marching on remote villages and rumours spread, talking about both victories and defeats in the countryside while the cities grow harder, closing in on their own borders.
Aia rides to Whiterun, carrying the message of war and she returns there only to find its people tight-jawed and stone-faced, awaiting the storm to break out above their heads.
It's a new, unfamiliar pain to watch them.
"This war is as stupid as a drunken Battle-Born," a serving girl at the Bannered Mare says when Aia sits down at a table, ordering rabbit stew for her hunger and ale for the cold. "You can tell that to your general."
Aia stares at the window behind the other woman, thinks of Castle Dour and its army. "He hasn't started any war."
"Perhaps." The girl looks at her for a long time, as though evaluating Aia's statement. Then she sighs. "The Stormcloaks... they're our people. Our brothers and sisters. Our family. Ulfric may be a traitor to the Empire but the ones following him, they don't deserve to die."
"I know," Aia replies, softly.
Inside Castle Dour this is a lot simpler. The unspoken knowledge that flows between them there: the Thalmor intervention, the old dossiers she's found and given to General Tullius, the history between the Blades and the Dominion, the whole arch of intricate, complicated threads running in and out of their lives. Skyrim is important to the Empire, its people a natural part of it by now despite their best attempts at resisting and despite imperial officers' taciturn complaints. The general may appear callous but the fact remains that he wants a swift and definite end to the bloodshed to decrease the losses. Because she had come to realise this, she had sworn her oath and taken up her sword in the name of the Emperor. There's nothing else to it. There is no secret Imperial conspiracy urging blood and death.
But for the guards outside Whiterun or the serving girl carrying a tray of food to Aia's table, none of this matters because they are killing their brothers and sisters.
It seems like an odd message to carry, this axe that signals war.
Around her the land grows colder, hardens under the rain and snow, and seems to almost want to shut her out. It's a tiresome journey. She is footsore and weary before she has made it half-way and her supplies run out at a speed she hasn't counted on. Whiterun, at least, had offered her warmth and familiarity; there will be no such welcome where she is going now and the road there is long.
"You shouldn't enter Windhelm at night," a legionnaire warns her when she has less than half a day's journey left. He has the accent and appearance of a Breton. "They say the Stormcloaks ambush people outside the city gates."
"Eastmarch Imperial camp is just up that hill," another soldier adds. "We always have room for one more. You're the Dragonborn, aren't you?"
Word spreads fast, travels wide and far. She wonders when she will get used to it.
Yes. Though it's rather less remarkable when you're covered in ashes and burnt bones and have dragon scales piercing your skin and feel that familiar rush of energy wear off, fade out into nausea. Or when you wake up in the night, carrying the fear and fire from a too-vivid dream like a burden you cannot shed. That's a part of it that she keeps under wraps. It's likely for the best.
The Imperial camp is small, merely a handful of tents placed in the direct cover from a steep hill and a thick patch of trees. She's been to many of these, lately. They begin to form a pattern of habitin her mind, a form of life.
That evening they form an unbroken circle of frozen, hungry soldiers in front of the fireplace.
"I just wish this damn fighting would be over soon," the legionnaire to her right mutters into the flames. "I was going back to Bruma when Ulfric went and killed the High King."
The others hum and nod, a collective murmur of agreement.
"We've a third child on the way," the Breton says. "I'm going to ask to be stationed in Solitude when this is over."
The rest of the legionnaires nod, a sense of understanding and mutuality spreading between them as they all watch the fire dance against the dark-blue sky. That's why they fight, Aia realises all of a sudden. That is why anyone ever fights. For family, for their homes, for the quiet times ahead when the battles are done and you are allowed to rest. A few are in it for the fight itself of course – a few others think they are – but the heart of it, the core of every army is made up of those who merely want to make it out alive.
There's an odd loneliness in that thought when it lands in her, a sense of loss despite having nothing to lose.
"You got any family, Dragonborn?"
Aia shakes her head; she's reluctant to let her gaze leave the flames. "Not any more."
"You should have kids." The Breton reaches for his sword to sheathe it. "Buy a house. Settle down somewhere."
"It helps," a third soldier agrees, making a gesture that seems to be intended to encompass the entire camp. "Makes all of this easier."
As a girl all she had ever wanted was a library. There had been ideas of houses, too, but a house in her mind was mostly a place for books and learning, for long hours of uninterrupted studying and solitude. It feels like another life, another woman's dreams.
"You're still young enough for it."
She shrugs, attempting a carefree smile. "Perhaps."
On her bedroll that night, she tosses and turns aimlessly, trying to catch a sleep that keeps eluding her. It's chilly no matter how well she has dressed for the occasion, tucked into several pelts and blankets. The wind makes noise outside her shelter, occasionally raging through the air, stirring dry leaves and trying to unpick her ponytail even as she's lying down. You will never get used to the cold here, it cuts to the bone, someone had told her many months ago when she was huddled close to a fire, teeth clenched. A tankard of mead and a man to keep you warm, another someone - a Nord - had suggested, laughing. It's the only way, Imperial.
There is some comfort in the sound rising from the legionnaires keeping watch, at least. A distant kind of company.
You're different, aren't you? Not like anyone else? A kid in Morthal had asked her that once, with childlike certainty, as she had showed him her sword and he had offered her a bowl of freshly picked snowberries in return.
It's the dream of many children to be different, to stand out. With age it loses its appeal.
She thinks about Morthal when she turns on the ground, cursing the cold and the stones of the earth that prickle every muscle in her back with tiny jolts of pain at every motion. Morthal and the mountains and its dragons; she thinks about all the jarls and guards in every village and city she has passed through, thinks about their resistance and their determination. Whether it's a determination to fight, to be loyal to the Empire or to remain a neutral party in an ever-growing conflict, Aia has stood face to face with plenty of tight-jawed, proud Nords over the past months.
Several inches away from her bedroll the axe stands propped up against her pack and semi-wrapped in cloth. Its metal body shines, glimmering like the moon but without the moon's promise of a new day.
When she was a girl she would practice writing on every surface she could find, obsessively chasing after a language of her own. She'd write on windows, on her father's sword, on the ground, on the mirror her mother had left behind. She wrote her name with her fingers, erased it with an exhale. Wrote it again, erased it, wrote it yet another time.
It was a great delight and comfort to her that it could so easily be regretted.
It is too late for regrets now and the axe she carries holds no promise of anything but more death.
During times like these Tullius envies Rikke's ability to sleep soundly no matter what disturbance that stands in their way. There's almost something magical about how she can go from restlessly pacing his war room, turning over one troublesome thought after the other and then on cue, as though something shifts inside her, she bids him a good night and goes to bed.
And sleeps, he presumes.
He's never been a man who grants himself much rest and it appears this is a habit that he cannot break himself of; the fact is that it only becomes harder the older he gets to fall - and remain – asleep.
Tonight he keeps himself occupied in the quiet castle by going over the dossiers the auxiliary had given him a while ago. Thalmor intelligence, scattered notes on perceived enemies and old stories from a war that has never been forgotten - his desk is barely visible through all the paraphernalia of the past. Much like this damn country, he concludes with a sneer as his gaze falls on one of the books on his end table: Frontier, Conquest and Accommodation: A social history of Cyrodiil.
Most soldiers miss something. It's a detail intricately woven into military life to be longing for something else: warm meals, comfortable beds, the company of someone who doesn't merely see you as currency of war, someone to whom you are not expendable.
Tullius has no family to miss so in its place he misses the reason of the Imperial City and the neutral comfort of Imperial law.
Of course it's flawed. The Empire is far from perfection and much of its former grandiosity has vanished and darkened, but at the heart of it there's a different kind of core than the one running through Skyrim and its people. It's a difference in virtues, in culture, in the way citizens consider themselves and each other and he finds that he longs for it now. Imperial soldiers differ from Nord soldiers and no training or directives in the world can change that.
He wonders how the auxiliary – the Dragonborn, he corrects himself - is faring on her journey to Whiterun. There's a slight discomfort at the back of his mind, a knowledge of her importance that is increasingly difficult to ignore as the war presses on.
She is valuable, far more so than most high-ranking officers in the Imperial army, far more so than either Rikke or Tullius fully admit, even to each other.
There is tremendous danger in placing too much faith in one individual, he knows, however exceptional her gifts.
Tullius stretches his legs in his chair, leaning forward across the table to grab one of the more recent reports she's left him, outlining the illegal trade from Riften. A fine judge of character and an astute observer, she had warned him about Riften already on the way back from the Greybeards and now that Tullius has had a chance to investigate the city himself, he is prone to agree with her every statement.
There is something amiss in the city, something that spreads around the city border and crosses all lines between thieves and jarls. They have replaced the authorities but corruption runs deep, breeds a particular sort of distrust that's near impossible to quell even among more sensible people than the Nords.
Once this is over and Ulfric's head has left his body, Tullius will need to pay Riften a personal visit.
He empties his wine cup and leans back, shrugging to ease the tension in his shoulders. The downsides to sleeping badly is creeping up on him more than usual as of late and Skyrim's climate does nothing to help.
"Sir?" Rikke's voice interrupts his thoughts and he turns his head only to find her standing behind him, still fully dressed and holding a note in her hand. "A messenger arrived."
With a nod, Tullius gets to his feet to read the note that says precisely what they had predicted any note carried from Whiterun would tell them. The Empire may be in shambles but tradition and obligation are stronger than the lust for foolish uproar. Whiterun stands with the Emperor.
"Jarl Balgruf will send the auxiliary directly to Windhelm, of course."
When he speaks the words, their impact lands heavy in his mind.
Rikke pales a little, beginning to pacing the floor. "Ulfric may be mad, but he still has honour. He wants a fair fight, not a bloody murder."
Let us ask King Torygg about that.
"You will have to excuse me if I don't put any stock in the honour of a usurper and a damn traitor," Tullius says.
He says it tiredly, looking down at his maps again to force his strategic thinking to set in despite the late hour. There's a harsh brand of weariness in him tonight, a dull sense of dread. The high king had been nothing but a figurehead and a weak leader but he had been important, if only in name and Ulfric knows the importance of names better than most people. It is anyone's speculation what a man like Ulfric may or may not do to a Dragonborn.
Rikke gives him a long, stern glance. "I should go to Whiterun, sir."
"Legate," he cuts her off, well aware of how this infuriates her. There is no time to argue tonight and within a few moments Rikke, too, will understand his reasons, regret her protests. He simply does not have the patience nor the luxury to wait for that to happen. Not tonight.
He sends someone in her place - legate Cipius and a large detachment of troops – and then they wait out the rest of the hours of night time together, Rikke silent and seated in a corner of the war room, Tullius bent over his dossiers until his neck aches with such fervour that he finally goes to bed some time at dawn.
Tomorrow is another battle.
The courier from Whiterun arrives in the middle of the night two days later. True to his habits, Tullius is awake and in the midst of going through recent correspondence when the young man enters Castle Dour, out of breath and with an air of self-important duty. In a war even couriers feel their own importance.
As Tullius reads the message, Rikke enters the room while fastening the last pieces of her shoulder pads. She wears a steely expression on her face; these past few nights have aged her several years.
They have both already guessed the meaning of the words that trail away into the dusk of the room, long before he opens the letter.
"Ulfric is marching on Whiterun," Tullius says, all the same. "The Jarl thinks he plans on taking the city with the walls intact."
"Catapults and fire?" Rikke clears her throat, shedding the last remnants of sleep. "Predictable."
"He's certainly no strategist."
He makes the words come out as an insult though he has long ago stopped believing strategy alone can lead to victory. There is, unfortunately, something to be said for the kind of passionate foolishness Ulfric Stormcloak and his likes possesses. Civilians are stirred not by practicality but by speeches and do not realise that the more pompous the words are, the weaker the damn cause behind them is.
"He's confident enough for three strategists," the legate says, sounding exhausted, too.
For a long while they don't speak; they merely look at each other over the table that is still buried in Skyrim's past. The candles flicker faintly, casting short shadows across coast land and mountains.
Eventually Tullius nods his consent to the unspoken question between them; he knows Rikke has been waiting for it in silence.
"Go to Whiterun," he says and his legate is on her way before he has time to add anything else.