Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Bethesda Studios and I own nothing at all except for the OC and plot. There is no profit made at all, really.
Summary: Because there was a deeper, darker version of Dragonrend… Now Alduin must learn to live again, not as a devourer of worlds, but as a man...
A/N: Epilogue my ass. When I got past the five thousand word limit, I realised I could no longer use that term. So here it is guys, the very last chapter of Dragonrend. Please remember to leave a review if you read and enjoyed this, even if only because we are finally at THE END! It has been a wild, glorious, sometimes painful, headbangingly frustrating ride but I am incredibly grateful to have been on it. I learned so many things and it was such a rich experience to be able to interact with you all using this platform and also some of you who also have Tumblr. Thank you for coming on this journey, for all the encouragement, for kicking the Muse, for reviewing and for making me realise that I can write, and not just write fanfiction.
For those of you who are interested, I am writing an original novel. Now that I can go back to that, I am estimating finishing it at least by this time next year. So if you enjoy the writing and love the fantasy genre, and if you want to know when this is done, please find some way to keep yourself alerted to updates on Dragonrend because I will make the announcement here and also on my Tumblr page (myrielleglassman is my username). I don't know if I will write fanfiction again but never say never. I love playing in the sandboxes others have built. It's time now though, for me to make my own.
CabooseHelpsU: Well, I hope you are happier with this chapter than you would have been with an epilogue. I didn't have much space to play around with Big Bad, as you named him, but I'm glad that you found him somewhat to be sympathised with, which is what I like to do with villains, not that it's not obvious. :P Guest: Er, well, I guess he is okay? Scroll down and check out what happens to him. Okay fine, he's alive. I love that horse too much to do bad things to him even in stories. HatakePuppy: Hmm, can Freyja somehow make herself immortal? I've put hints and foreshadowing about that at the end, something to leave the door open for things to be dreamt about even if there is no sequel. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm and your lovely reviews! As always, it was a pleasure to hear from you. LissaRegan6: You would pick up on the Matrix allusion! I did have it on my brain when I wrote that scene. And you are right about Alduin: he wouldn't care. 99.8%. *L* I hope you thoroughly enjoy this Christmas present and yes, it's a lovely coincidence and a full circle in terms of timing. Rho67: Oh, thank you so much. I was a little nervous about the chapter so it was really nice to hear that you appreciated that. And that will be the last time I will ever make any of you wait that long. See, this came in a week! Jodles: Firstly, thanks for coming to the story and catching up with the mammoth number of additional chapters. I love that you pointed it's really two stories intertwined: the growth of their relationship and their own individual growth as well. Thank you for telling me that I'm not predictable! And bless you for your well-wishes. :) PureHappenstance: I laughed when I read your comment about the ship of terror. And I have to thank you for sending thoughtful, detailed reviews that let me know what I've done right so I can keep building on it and making myself a better writer. And please, have this whopping 11K word-long chapter (so not an epilogue). It's entirely my pleasure. Gehanna79: Thanks for leaving those reviews. I hope you enjoyed the story and are still reading it. Maplemare: Thank you and thank you for your wonderful compliment. I think Bethesda would have a problem with that but I'll take it! I can't publish this, although I do dream about this becoming a telly series. But I can publish my own work so do hang in there for the novel. Ragez: Aw, you. That was incredibly sweet. Thank you for writing all that and now that we are here at the end, I must confess that I did make it a personal goal to write so well that I would get a longer comment out of you. And it happened! Yay us. Thank you for the consistent encouragement and your wonderful praise.
And last but not least, MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR in advance to all of you!
I could feel grass beneath my fingertips. The sun was warm on my face and a breeze was blowing stray strands of hair across my face, tickling my nose. By virtue of the fact that there wasn't screaming and gnashing of teeth, I decided right there and then, though my eyes were still firmly shut, that I couldn't be in the Void. I could hear the sound of trees rustling in the wind, smell flowers and clean air. Nocturnal was the mistress of Shadow, and the Evergloam a realm of twilight; there would be no sun there. The books I had read said much the same about Moonshadow, where Azura reigned from. It was covered in twilight, although it had a lot more flowers, roses specifically. Apparently, I wasn't in any of the realms that I had assumed my soul would be snatched to the moment it left my body.
Tentatively, I moved my hands. Then I wriggled my toes. So I was in one piece, presumably; nothing hurt. Equally astounding was the fact that I was alive. 'How in the world did I survive that?' I thought groggily. It had taken every ounce of my strength to send the magic spiralling up and out of the city; the temple foundations had been torn out, its towering walls blown to smithereens and the last thing I recalled was falling down into darkness as the earth groaned and shuddered all around me like a huge beast being flayed to pieces.
Cracking open my eyes, I winced and narrowed it to no more than a slit as the bright robin's egg blue of the sky blinded me. Turning on my side, one hand lifted to shield my face, I froze when I caught sight of the edge of a black robe. 'A mage's robe,' I thought dumbly. Shiny black boots poked out from beneath it, graceful tanned hands were clasped around knees and the owner of said knees was...a rather handsome Breton mage. My mouth dropped open. "Oh, so I am dead then. How did you manage to steal me away from Nocturnal, Azura and Sithis?
Sam Guevenne, or rather Sanguine, chuckled. "Really, is that what you think?"
Pushing myself up on my elbows, I blinked rapidly, trying to adjust to the daylight as I scanned my surroundings. We were lying on a slope overlooking a low valley; lush trees dotted the hillside, more covered the lands around. A flock of birds sped overhead, the shadow of a falcon not far behind. "It's a bit pastoral for you. Where are the tits and wine?" I sniped sourly as I pulled myself into a seating position. "And where's my sword?"
The Daedric Prince disguised as a handsome Breton mage threw his head back, glossy hair shining like the richest dark honey, and laughed uproariously. "I brought the wine." Reaching behind him, he pulled out a beautifully carved dark bottle studded with gold and rubies. "You can provide the tits." He grinned at me, slicking out a quick tongue over his full lower lip with lascivious intent.
"On second thoughts, don't give me my sword. I'll cut your hands off and something far more precious if you try anything on me," I growled, not meaning a word of it. If Sanguine had harboured more malevolent intentions, he would have done his worst when I'd been alone with him and utterly helpless in Misty Grove. Besides, he wasn't Molag Bal. "So this isn't one of your realms?"
Pulling out the stopper with his teeth, Sanguine tossed it to the side and took a long drink that made me very aware that my mouth and throat were dry. A stamina potion wasn't water or mead but since I had my pouch with me and my potions, I opted to take one, ignoring the Prince's dismissive sniff. "You know I'll never accept another drink from you again."
"That's your loss, not mine. And no, this isn't one of my realms, or rather, a part of my Myriad Realms of Revelry. Although I will now extend a standing invitation to you, and your husband, should you both ever want to visit when you get bored. Think of it as a 'pleasure pocket' if you will, completely customisable to meet your needs and his." He grinned widely, dark eyes intent upon me.
"Stop imagining me with my clothes off—"
"Too late! Your husband looks quite fetching without his on as well."
I couldn't help the tiny snarl that escaped me when I heard that. "Give me back my sword. Now. Please," I added.
With a sigh which declared that I was absolutely no fun at all, Sanguine reached behind him again and pulled the Daedric blade from seemingly out of nowhere. "See, all bright and clean with nary a bloodstain or nick. Since I've polished your sword, perhaps you'd like to return the favour and do mine."
I couldn't help but laugh at his shameless eagerness which oddly, was part of his charm. "Go back to Narri or pay Dibella's priestesses a visit. I'm sure they could teach you a trick or two." The weight of the weapon as I rested it on my loosely crossed legs felt reassuring. I couldn't believe I was alive.
"It's you that needs to learn a trick or two, or did you think reading one paltry sex manual—" I tried to protest that I had no idea what that book was when I opened it but Sanguine steamrolled over me with all the determination of a Dwemer Centurion. "–written by Dibella and not even yours truly, would suffice instead? There's theory and then there's practice and you my dear," he scolded, sounding like an aggrieved tutor stuck teaching an obtuse student, "are woefully lacking in the latter. I cannot believe that you sprang from Martin Septim's loins—"
"Line. I sprang from Martin Septim's line," I corrected dryly.
"Martin Septim who, before Akatosh led him astray with all that talk of discipline and piousness and ugh, celibacy, was a most promising student of debauchery and seduction. There wasn't a virgin within a hundred miles who was safe from him! How did you think he came into possession of the Sanguine Rose?" Sanguine, wringing his hands, ended on that passionately aggrieved note. He would have made a fine actor, the best in all of Tamriel.
"Firstly, that's far too much information. Secondly, you're just sore that Akatosh came for his own, in his own way, and you think that seducing me is going to bring me back into the fold, so to speak. It won't. Thirdly, thank you for saving my life." With anyone else I would have added that I was in their debt but with a Prince, one had to think very, very carefully about what words came out of one's mouth. "Why did you do it?"
Warm brown eyes lost some of that mischievous sly sparkle; Sanguine took another sip from the bottle. I could smell the faint spicy scent of the mead and knew it was the same as what he had offered me that night, which seemed another lifetime ago. "I like this world," he finally said. "I'm quite fond of things as they are now and if the world were to start all over again," he frowned, "I'd have to start building my cults from scratch, competing with the others and the Divines for high places and worshippers and," he ran a lazy hand through his hair, "it's just too much work. So you helped save me the trouble by changing Alduin's mind. Besides, I feel a sense of responsibility for you."
I tried not to look too alarmed then, especially since Sanguine was looking at me the way an indulgent master does an apprentice.
"If I may, I too had a hand in making sure the Septim line continued unbroken and then the time came when you were to be unleashed upon the world and I sent you off on your way. Alduin may have foreseen your existence but I bet he never expected for you to turn his upside down and then some." Smug didn't even begin to describe the look on Sanguine's face.
"Did you?" I asked suspiciously.
"I catch a glimpse of things to come now and then. I too don't think that prophecy is as literal as most simpletons take it to be," he drawled. "But you, I have to say, exceeded all my expectations." He chuckled, and then again, and soon the chuckling became giggling. "Your husband might have to eat this world someday but I didn't expect for you to swallow the stars and head right for Aetherius' doorstep." The giggling blossomed into laughter. "It's been quite a while since I've seen the Divines in that much of a panic. Zenithar looked frightened enough to piss on his robes and you should have seen all the dirty looks Tiber Septim was getting." Wiping away tears from his eyes, Sanguine continued to chortle. "I thought finding you a husband would be the highlight of my year but I freely confess to being wrong. It's been ages since I've seen an entire city brought to the ground. Last night will keep me entertained for the next century or two!"
For the first time I wondered if Sheogorath and Sanguine were related. I thought I would vomit. So not only had I attempted to eat Aetherius, I had managed to completely destroy Alinor...a shudder ran through me, despite the warm sunshine and breeze. But then again, Sanguine was a Daedric Prince who revelled in chaos and mischief. His priorities, his perspectives differed vastly from mine. "So this was all a prank then?" I asked carefully.
Irritation marred his handsome face for a moment. "What is it with you Nightingales and your Lady? The Daedric Lord of Debauchery does not deal in pranks. Although I am possessed of a better sense of humour than most," he added almost sagely before fixing me with unnaturally bright eyes the colour of ebony. "Your destiny was written but you alone charted your course. Maybe a little influence from me helped adjust that course a bit but..." He reached out, coiled some stray hairs around his finger before tucking them behind my ear. "The world would be awfully boring without you, Freyja Dragonborn. Perhaps Tamriel could use a break from your antics and there are many corners of Nirn that could do with some livening up."
I looked down, turned away. "I wouldn't call the destruction of Alinor and the murder of hundreds 'antics'." If Tullius kept his word, Alinor would not be invaded by the Imperial armada. It would be up to the other ruling cities on the Summerset Isles to help the survivors rebuild. The Psijics would intervene, given their active recruitment in recent years. At least I hoped they would. Getting Tullius to swear off an invasion of the Summerset Isles was the best I could do.
Sanguine ran his knuckles down my cheek, pushed my chin up and made me look at him. "Yes, you murdered hundreds who in turn would have murdered others, most of them. You saved thousands in the city itself and ten times more those numbers by removing the Second Eye from the Thalmor. You are a killer and a hero, a monster and a saint, a horror and a wonder. I suppose it depends on which side of the looking glass you want to see. My advice is to look at both, on good days." He patted me on the cheek, a reminder for me to close my mouth, which had dropped open in shock. Sanguine, offering me counsel and advice? Maybe the world had come to an end after all.
Getting to his feet, he made a show of dusting his robes. "If you ever grow bored of Alduin, you know how to reach me." He pointed to the wedding band that sat on my finger. "Or the two of you could share me, I'm generous that way." I reached for the bottle he left behind, intent on chucking it at his head when Sanguine snapped his fingers, vanishing it into thin air. And at that moment, an indignant ear-splitting neigh echoed down the valley. I turned, felt the softest pressure of lips pressed to my cheek and the whisper of Sanguine's laugh as an enraged Shadowmere came thundering down the hillside, bearing down on me like an avenging Daedra.
I knew I wasn't his target, but I jumped nonetheless when he snapped at the air next to me, lips writhing in a furious snarl. "Whoa, what did he do to you?" Shadowmere growled, prowling around the spot where Sanguine had been, as though hoping the Daedric Prince would return so that he could attempt to separate his head from his shoulders. And then I realised exactly what Sanguine had done to Shadowmere. "Are those...why are your mane and tail braided?" Shadowmere whipped his head around and glared at me, telling me without words to drop the topic. So of course I made no mentioned of the blooming roses that spread from his hindlegs all the way up his haunches or the fact that he was beautifully perfumed. Obviously Shadowmere had been locked up in one of Sanguine's pocket realms.
'Doesn't deal in pranks indeed,' I thought wryly, gathering Shadowmere's reins and promising that we could try scrubbing out the floral patterns once we reached the nearest stream. "I'm just glad you're safe," I murmured, planting a kiss on his muzzle, to which Shadowmere gave a disgusted snort. Looking around, I was wondering where we were and why Sanguine would plonk me in the middle of nowhere near the Valus Mountains—
I froze. Valus Mountains. I gasped so loudly that Shadowmere whirled, almost yanking me off my feet, looking for an assailant who had snuck up on us. "Valus Mountains." I almost choked on the name, bent over to try to catch my breath. I knew those mountains. I knew their name. After swimming in darkness for so long, after not knowing for so long, living and sleeping with nothing but a yawning abyss of nothing where memory ought to have been... I clutched Shadowmere's reins so tightly my fingers turned white. He stood perfectly still, let me lean against him as I trembled. "Oh," I breathed.
I remembered. I was starting to remember.
And home. Home was less than two miles away.
... ... ...
The farmstead was abandoned, with a plethora of weeds and wild flowers growing where the vegetables ought to have been. Rabbits stood up on their hindlegs, long ears pricked forward, soft noses twitching before they fled at my arrival. The dirt path was similarly overrun, so much so that if I hadn't remembered how to get there, I might have missed it. The edge of the woods had grown closer, almost right up to the cottage itself because no one had cleared them. Unlatching the fence gate, I pushed it aside as Shadowmere and I stepped in.
My father's name was Bjorn and he had been a Nord mercenary. My mother was Catia, an Imperial of mixed heritage. She had died in childbirth and it was from her that I inherited my fair hair. My blue eyes were my father's though. They were both buried side by side at the back of the house; I had planted milk thistle and monkshood at their graves and erected simple gravestones for them. As we passed through the garden, I could see, if only in my mind's eye, my father tending to it, broad arms covered in scars, the silver in his brown hair like a crown as I rode on his shoulders while he went about his chores.
The lock was pathetically easy to pick, the silence deep as I pushed the door open, musty air wafting out. How could I have known that the family I'd been dreaming of wasn't here anymore? There was a small hall with a hearthfire where I used to play with the toys my father brought back from his travels. Stepping in, I ran a hand over the mantlepiece, now rusty from disuse and lack of care and covered with a thick coat of dust. I'd kept them in a box he had made: a wooden horse, a steel dragon, beads on spider-silk that I could whip back and forth, pretending that it was a weapon and I a fierce warrior. He never liked that game but would humour me, using a blunted training sword to engage in mock fights. "Ladies do not fight," he would remind me even though he put a dagger in my hand to teach me to defend myself. "Only the basics," he winked. "We'll have enough one day to move to Cheydinhal and you'll marry a nice tradesman or merchant, someone who can take care of you." I never told him I didn't like that idea.
When he was away, he sent me to a small village near Lake Arrius where I received lessons at the local orphanage and boarded there until he came back for me. Then one day, during my eleventh summer, he didn't. The merchant caravan that he and several others had been escorting had been attacked. No one came back alive and none of the culprits had been caught. Adria Belloni, the stern-faced young woman who had run the orphanage while managing not to get attached to any of the children let me stay but all of us earned our keep by doing chores and selling whatever garden produce or spare eggs the chickens laid. She hadn't been Constance Michel, but at least she hadn't been Grelod. When I had been old enough, she apprenticed me to the local blacksmith she had been sleeping with. From him, I picked up where my father had left of in terms of training. In return, I worked for a pittance.
Maybe that was why Aventus' performing the Black Sacrament had disturbed me so much. I hadn't been able to get the boy's angry despair out of my head, the fact that he was left to fend for himself in a city all alone. Sitting down on a bench at the only table in the place, I rested my head in my hands. No doubt the Night Mother had played a part in the insatiable curiosity which had driven me to investigate that rumour but a great deal of that had been to do with myself, with the past that I hadn't remembered reaching out to shape the present that I had been in.
Sanguine had said some influence from him had helped adjust the course of my life by a bit. If I had remembered any of this, I would have fled right back here or the village at Lake Arrius instead of following Hadvar simply because I knew no one and nothing else in what had been at that time a strange hostile land filled with magical flying beasts and people who wanted to lop my head off simply because I'd been near a man named Ulfric Stormcloak. "Gods," I muttered, rubbing my eyes with the heels of my hands. 'Uncle' Sanguine was in all probability responsible for the amnesia that forced me to stay in Skyrim and set me on a headlong collision course with Alduin. Maybe I ought to have tried eating the planes of Oblivion which he had ruled.
But the memory of that filled me with terror and I shrank from it, wrapping my arms around myself. At the doorway, Shadowmere lowered his head, pushed his way in, laid his muzzle on my shoulder. "I wonder what Father would say if he saw me now," I whispered, tasting the salt of tears on my lips. I hadn't turned out a proper lady after all. I was the Dragonborn with a sword that sang in my hands, whose Voice could shape the world. Sanguine had called me a horror and a wonder. There were no clean hands in war, that much was true and only naïve idiots and minstrels paid to sauce history would proclaim otherwise. But there was such a thing as how much and whose hands were dirtier. That mattered, that had to matter.
We stayed like that, Shadowmere and I, until evening cast long shadows through the doorway. For the first time in years, a fire burned in the hearth, the moth-eaten sheets were beaten and dusted out, the rabbit I had hunted down roasted on a spit. I hardly tasted any of it. That night, I locked the doors, bolted all the windows shut. Shadowmere stood in the hall like a sentinel while I retreated to one of two small rooms. Within the confines of the narrow walls, I tried to meditate on Drem: peace, restraint, the withholding of aggression. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of stars, of a world made of magic, of faraway lands over seas I crossed on wings that I didn't have in the waking world. I dreamed of maps laid out on tables where the fires of war raged at borders. More often, I awoke to find I had been weeping in my sleep.
For three days I remained there, foraging and ranging far and wide, remembering the places my father had brought me, the hunting skills he had taught while trying to forget about the world outside. I killed a wolf and Shadowmere a bear; both pelts I took and that night was passed with more warmth and comfort. Sanguine's ghastly enchantment on Shadowmere wore off and my equine friend's temperament immediately improved. I thought of returning to the Greybeards but Arngeir's stern and unforgiving face made me quail. I had violated too many of their commandments, had disappointed them repeatedly. Paarthurnax would take me in but then word would get out and I didn't want Tullius and Ulfric beating down the door of the monastery in an effort to get me back into the war or to use me in whatever plans they had hatched. The dragons would be wondering if I was alive and soon I would have to make contact if I didn't want them rampaging over Tamriel in a mad power grab or in a bid to carve out territory for themselves. I only hoped the humans wouldn't disappoint me in that aspect too. Otherwise, everything I had done to the Aldmeri Dominion would have been for nothing. But perhaps that too was the nature of life, the implacable Wheel that kept turning. Slay an evil, stop a catastrophe and there will only be a short respite until the next struggle. What was the point? I lay in bed at night, thinking about it, realising that with each passing hour, I didn't want to know what was happening out there.
On the fourth day, in the dark hours before dawn, I awoke to find Shadowmere tugging at my arm. Walking to the door, he whickered softly. Something was out there. Pulling the ancient cowl on and unsheathing my blade, I opened the door and followed him out. The moon was full and high, cold and bright as a watchful eye. Shadowmere paused, growling loudly. As if on cue, figures emerged from the darkness of the wood, a dozen of them, one significantly shorter than the rest. Babette had done away with her usual girl's dress; now she wore robes of black and red, a hood adorning her auburn hair, gloves her hands. "It looks lonely here," she called, mockery lacing her words. "Wouldn't you rather come back to the Sanctuary?"
"Is it still at Dawnstar?" I arched a brow at her. "I hardly think so. One missive from me and the Jarls and High King would send enough soldiers there to finish what the Penitus Oculatus failed to. Maybe I'll even send a dragon or two to make sure it's done."
Babette's hands twitched slightly, or it might have been the wind.
"That's why Nazir is not here tonight. He's the only one you trust to oversee the move to a new Sanctuary. But even if you all stayed, I would do no such thing. The Night Mother promised to leave me alone and so far, she has kept her word." That much was true. The place she had occupied inside me was no more than a hollow haunted space. "I know you made no such promise. But you'd best follow her lead. I survived Alduin and the Aldmeri Dominion." I narrowed my eyes at her, twisted my sword so that it caught the full light of the moon. "What makes you think you'll survive me?"
All the assassins were reaching for their weapons when Babette stopped them with a single gesture. "This isn't why we came. Maybe one night," red eyes gleamed at me, "I will have an answer for you. But for now, taking a piece of my property back will suffice."
I had no idea what she was talking about until Shadowmere took a step forward. I couldn't help it; I grabbed his bridle, pulled him up short. "No," I blurted out. "No," I repeated, more fiercely this time. "You don't have to."
"He belongs to the Void and the Dark Brotherhood. And the Night Mother has ordered him to serve me." Babette turned her attention to Shadowmere. "You've been testing her patience, so much so that I've been told to come and fetch you."
Shadowmere snorted contemptuously at Babette then turned to me, nudging my arm. He wanted me to let go. "Are you certain? If you don't want to go with her-"
Swords and daggers flashed, I heard the stretch of bowstrings as arrows were nocked to them. "Please tell me you're going to try to keep him," the vampire purred. "I think stealing from the Night Mother would nullify any promises she made you."
So that's what this was, a last-ditch attempt to ensnare me by using Shadowmere. And by the Nine, it might succeed. If he didn't want to go, I couldn't let them drag him away. "What do you want?" I asked softly. Shaking his head gently so that I let go of the bridle, he pressed his muzzle against my cheek, my ear, sliding his head over my shoulder to pull me in close. Then he stepped away, looked me straight in the eyes for a long moment that told me everything I needed to know. This time, when he walked away, I let him, straightening my spine and shoulders even though inside, my heart was breaking. He was an assassin and ultimately, his allegiance was to the Dark Brotherhood no matter how much we cared for each other. He might chafe at the demands put on him, but it wasn't something he would loath with all his soul, unlike me. That didn't mean I wouldn't miss him for the rest of my living days.
Babette pouted as the assassins adjusted the length of the stirrups and reins for her. "What a pity you decided to be sensible." She took a long hungry inhale that reminded me of the way I did whenever I could peel back this mortal world and touch all that magic underneath. "I've always wondered what your blood would taste like. You have the most delicious smell, unlike anything I've ever met." Her expression dripped with cunning. "Maybe just a few drops. I'll let Shadowmere stay for several hours more. Call it a trade-off..." Her voice petered off, her gaze swivelled from mine to a space somewhere high over my shoulder. I didn't look away, didn't trust the Dark Brotherhood to take my eyes off them for even half a second but in the next moment I knew what it was that distracted my successor.
High above and from behind me, the shadow of a dragon passed over us. Then, in front, over the edge where the darkened forest canopy melded with the night sky, another dragon flew to meet it. Beneath the light of the moon they danced, one the colour of fire, the other like a dark opal. My breath caught sharply. The green dragon was unfamiliar, with a huge crown of horns. More importantly, it bore a rider. And my heart, which stopped moving for a moment, began to beat a fierce uneven rhythm in my chest. It had been forever since that moment he had walked away from me and flown off on Paarthurnax. The days had passed into months and I had stopped counting them. The last time we had seen each other had been in a dream before Sithis ripped us apart. But he was here. Now. He had found me.
The dragons dove lower, weaving in tight menacing circles. "How about this? You take your assassins and leave this place as quickly as you can. In return, I'll persuade those dragons, one of whom has not sworn allegiance to me, to spare your lives. Call it a trade-off."
The she-vampire hissed, the savage glint of long canines glinting beneath the hood. "Remember whom you will always belong to. Whatever powers you gain, whatever forces you control, you are still bound for the Night Mother's embrace." Snatching the reins, she sprang up on Shadowmere with unnatural speed and grace. "Enjoy your fleeting borrowed time," she taunted. With a sharp tug, she turned Shadowmere, who glanced at me before obeying his new mistress and galloping away into the night, swift as a dark flame. It came to me then that I would never see him again. "Good-bye, old friend," I whispered.
I knew full well how a person could leave and take a piece of you with them, never to return. I thought of all the times I had emerged, wounded, weary, footsore from exploring tombs and caves, and always Shadowmere had been there, waiting. All the foes we had felled, the cold freezing nights when a fire was not enough and the shelter too meagre, and how he would use his body to block the winds. All the times he had rescued me, and the times when he would not leave despite the danger to himself. Sure as the rising of the sun and the fading of the moon at dawn, he had always been there. I ached with remembrance, trying to hold it in with every breath as the dragons swooped down, battering the trees, making the long grasses part like waves upon a verdant sea.
Neither dragon greeted me as Thuri, something I fully expected but which nonetheless rankled, however momentarily. Odahviing was a master of self-preservation and he would rather risk offending me than Alduin. The green dragon, slightly larger than even Odahviing, stared at me with unconcealed intense interest. But what I found rather startling was the faint yellow patches that marred mighty wings whose membranes were worn, almost thin in places. There was the faintest smell of rot in the air. How was that possible...?
Odahviing bowed deeply, signalling acknowledgement that at least I was his superior. Alduin leapt off the lowered neck of the strange dragon. After all that time of longing for him, I was strangely dumbstruck. I didn't know where to begin. Where did he find that dragon? Since he was here, the vampire crisis in Skyrim had been resolved, hadn't it? What did he think of the fact that I had attempted to consume the fabric of existence in a bid to get to Aetherius? He seemed well enough, though I couldn't say the same for myself.
Stopping several feet away, he turned slightly over his shoulder, a clear signal for the dragons to depart because at once, they took to the air. They wouldn't leave, I knew that. Alduin would have them ensure that the Dark Brotherhood were truly gone, that this landscape, unfamiliar to him, was completely safe and would remain that way. When they were far away enough, he turned back to me, looked me over quickly, as had always been his habit whenever we had spent time apart. I guess he didn't like what he saw because he frowned, concern warming his golden eyes. "I never thought I would say this but I am sorry to see that beast leave. If only because you will miss him."
Suddenly, everything was too much, was happening too quickly for me to keep up with. I felt stretched thin, fraying at my brittle core. I could either bawl my eyes out, throw my head back and howl at the moon, grab my sword and annihilate something or cling to Alduin before I got swept away and never came back.
"I have something for you," he said before I could do anything. Detaching a small pouch from his sword-belt, he loosened its neck, reached in and held its contents out to me.
Sitting in his large palm was a rosy apple.
She had no idea that he had found her two days ago. Shadowmere had known. Freyja had been unlocking the door when the horse had looked back and stared directly at the copse which he had been concealing himself behind. Alduin had expected the latter to come charging over and attempt to trample him into the dirt. Instead, Shadowmere had not made a sound but simply followed Freyja inside the cottage. On hindsight, now he knew why: that four-legged pestilence must have known that he would have to leave her eventually. Even if there was no love lost between them, he was compelled to acknowledge the fact that Shadowmere could put aside his ego for Freyja's sake. As much as they disliked each other, they could agree on one thing. In her current condition, she could not be left alone.
To say she looked brittle was an understatement. Her eyes were ringed with dark smudges, the sharpness of her cheeks and jawline indicated she had lost weight, and there was a wildness, an air of bewilderment she wore now which reminded him of those first few weeks when he had been transformed into a man. The fear, the uncertainty, the loathing, the inability to escape what was now a permanent part of him. She had set out to save the world, to protect Skyrim and the Empire only to find that she was the worst threat, apart from himself and the Daedric powers that were, that it could face. She had changed, his Dragonborn, and she was struggling with coming to terms with what she was. And while it had been easy enough to sense her, for as a god of dragons he could sense each and every Dovah in the land, it had stunned him to see how burning and bright she shone now, one of a handful suns in a night sky, the lesser powers as stars that paled before her.
She stared at the apple and for a sickening moment he wondered if she had forgotten. He was not entirely sure of what had taken place in Alinor, despite summoning Odahviing and interrogating the red dragon. Durnehviir had explored the Temple ruins and offered his own theories. How Freyja had survived a cataclysmic explosion that levelled an entire city to the ground was a mystery. How it might have affected her was something he was here to find out. Then the corners of her lips curled, the barest sliver of a smile. Those wild blue eyes softened. Reaching out, she plucked the apple from his hand, careful not to touch him and it took a substantial amount of self-control not to show how much that hurt.
"Why this place?" he asked instead. "It is half the size of the one you have in Whiterun."
She folded a second hand over the apple, as if drawing warmth from it. "It's where I grew up with my father. He died when I was eleven, and my mother even before that. She passed after giving birth to me."
He remembered the scene as if it had happened just the day before. He had been nursing a bottle of mead, Freyja had been combing out her hair while studying a map and Shadowmere had been guarding her while glaring at him. She could not remember her past but had spoken of going home, of family with hope and eagerness. This quiet place was bereft of all of that.
He wanted to take her in his arms to hold her but instinct warned him that she would not welcome it. "How did you remember?"
Her answer stunned him. "Sanguine. He's also the reason why I survived. It's a long story." One she was not interested in telling apparently, because she turned around and headed for the door. "Come in," she said softly when she realised he wasn't following. The interior was small, with just enough room for a hearthfire, cooking spit, a square table and two benches. Two cramped bedrooms lay to the right but the Dragonborn was unbolting another door at the back of the tiny hall. It opened to another garden, similarly overrun by weeds and he caught sight of a pair of fleeing foxes. The only thing that was neat and tidy were the twin headstones, unadorned save for the names of her parents, and the pink and purple row of flowers growing around them. "There they are. The people I was hoping to come back to," she said flatly. "Only I had forgotten they were already gone."
Daedric Princes never did anything for free, even one as seemingly whimsical and playful as the Prince of Debauchery. The fact that he had played a part in Freyja's past alarmed Alduin, but he pushed those concerns aside. There would be time later to think on those. Despite her dispassionate tone, he sensed anger boiling near the surface and decided to stoke it. Anything was better than the grieving husk of a woman he had been watching for two days. "So is that why you have been hiding here? So that you can bury yourself too?"
She glared at him. Then that spark died and in its place was deep despair before she shuttered her gaze and that careful mask slipped back on. "Did you hear about what I did at Alinor?"
"I was at Alinor."
She flinched. "Then you know. Before I killed him, the Head of the Thalmor told me I should fall on my sword and rid the world of myself. Maybe he was right—"
Before he really knew what he was doing, he grabbed her roughly, hands clamped on her forearms, pulling her against him so that they were face to face. "You will never say that again," he seethed, the words tearing out through his teeth in a vicious snarl. "Do you hear me? Never."
He didn't know he was shaking until she put a hand on his cheek, her fingers cold against the heat of his skin. Her eyes were wide, pale lips parted as she searched his face, as though she were truly seeing him for the first time in that hour. The thought of her harming herself, taking her own life made him wild with rage but the fear that lay beneath that, it was an abyss unto itself that would swallow him forever. "Okay," she whispered, so softly it seemed to vanish into the air. The liquid shine of tears filled her eyes, darkened her lashes. "I'm sorry." Her hand tightened on his face, with the other she clung to the apple. "I'm sorry."
He pushed back the soft cowl, touched her fair hair, silver and gold by moonlight. With both hands, he framed her face, spreading the length of his fingers over her soft skin, the slant of her jaw, the delicate curve of her ears. Then he leaned down and pressed his forehead to hers, felt her shiver in his arms. Tears slipped down her cheeks and drawing back a little, he brushed them away with the pads of his thumbs. "You are afraid." They were so close he could feel the warmth of her breath on his lips.
"I'm terrified," she choked out. "The prophecy was wrong. You're not the one with a hunger to swallow the world. I am. You destroy worlds when their time has come but me..." She tried to look away but he would not let her and he saw on every line of her face the self-loathing she felt. "I tried to reach Aetherius because it is the source of all magic in Mundus, because I wanted to satisfy my ravening appetites and it felt good and wonderful, and I couldn't get enough. I am not what I thought I was. I thought I could control it, use it to help. I was wrong."
Beneath her skin, through her flesh and at the centre of her being where her soul throbbed, he could feel that power she spoke of, fathomless and slumbering. "You did control it."
Her hand slipped from his face, came to rest somewhere just over his heart. "At the very last moment and only this time. What if it happens again and I can't stop? I've lost myself before, completely, and I did terrible things. I tried to murder the Greybeards—"
He wanted to tell her he could not fault her for attempting that but now was a wholly inappropriate moment to express that sentiment. "But you did not. They were well and welcoming enough when we arrived at High Hrothgar."
"Because they managed to stop me and pieced me back together again!"
"Were the Greybeards there to stop you from tearing a doorway to Aetherius?"
"Well, I did see a moment in time of Arngeir and myself..."
Maybe that was the wrong question, although her answer in itself was intriguing. "Was that the only reason why you stopped?"
She shivered once more. "No." Her throat constricted as she struggled to get the words out. "I stopped because I heard them. Whole lands filled with people, more than I could count. All of them crying out, screaming in terror. The bards sang that the Dragonborn would save men. And I remembered you once told me prophecy tells of what may be, not what should be. So I made my choice."
"Then you passed the test. You remained yourself."
"I'm not sure who that is anymore."
She had always been so certain about her path, so unwavering. It hurt his heart to see her riddled with doubt. "I do believe I know something of what that feels like." He smiled, tucking an unruly curl behind her ear with a gentleness no one would have thought him capable of ever possessing. "Going from godhood to mortality tends to confuse a person."
Regret darkened her eyes. "I'm sorry I did that to you." Both of them knew well enough that it didn't mean she would change events of the past if she could.
"So was I, at that time. Actually 'livid' might be a more suitable description."
A shadow of her old sense of humour surfaced. "That's a bit of an understatement. 'Murderous' may be more appropriate. I thought you would strangle me in my sleep."
He gave a mock sigh. "I did consider that. But I could not even stand on two feet, let alone walk to get to you, so my grand plans came to an early end. But now, ask me if I regret that it happened."
She didn't, because she knew what his answer was. "There were days when I thought I would die, days that were filled with rage and sadness and questions because I was full of fears. But those days have passed and because of what you did, I remembered who I am and what I am meant for. You on the other hand, you have always known who you are. That has not changed, though much else has. The same woman who refused to kill me while I was helpless and unconscious is the same woman who heard those people and gave up power within her grasp."
"I destroyed the city—"
"More than half the citizens survived," he said fiercely, unwilling to let her slide back into the vice grip of condemnation and regret. She was possessed of a conscience that would never let her forget what happened; that would suffice. "From what Odahviing has told me, you never meant to burn Alinor. It was an accident."
"It was the Night Mother. She planned it." Warm light was beginning to shine over the horizon but it was far away and the night air still hung about them, heavy and cold. "I bargained with her, to leave me be for the rest of my mortal life in exchange for destroying the Thalmor and their allies. I had no idea that she wanted the whole of Alinor, every soul inside."
So that was what that encounter had been all about. No wonder Shadowmere had had to leave. He was Dark Brotherhood after all, and he could not serve a woman who had severed ties with the organisation. "You did all you could to stop her."
Freyja gave a contemptuous chuckle, pulled his hands from her face. "I almost did the job for her." She turned away towards the dawn. Silence sunk between them, heavy as stone, deep as the sea. Despair took the moments, stretched them into hours. Alduin swallowed bitterness. Maybe there was no way to bring her back, perhaps she was irreparably broken by destiny and her choices. He wouldn't stop trying, though he lacked his father's wisdom. Whoever heard of the destroyer of worlds trying to put someone back together again? Then she looked up at him. Her expression stole his breath away. "But you are right; I didn't. And that has to count for something."
He had reached her after all. How like Freyja that was, to turn his world upside down, to drive him to the brink of despair and reel him back in with a glance, with steel wrapped in softness within her eyes. For someone who had absolute mastery over words, it was ironic and strangely fitting that he could find none to express the sweetness of relief and the return of hope. "It is everything," he affirmed, speaking words that he would once have thought impossible, once upon a time when he had been a god both young and old, full of the strength of his power. He had known nothing then. "Take it from one who has been defeated by temptation, to the ruin of all who lived to see that age."
Gently she placed the apple down on the headstone, then reached for his hands, turning them slowly over in hers. She brushed the tips of her fingers over the wedding band he wore, twin to the one she had. "You came to me," she murmured, wonder on her face, as if she had truly believed he never would. "You're here now."
He pulled her against him, twined their interlinked arms around her back, felt the sweet weight of her body as she leaned in. "It is not in my power to stay away. And though I left you on the Monahven, I swear to you," he said fiercely, feeling the strength of her grip on him growing, "I will be by your side for all your days."
"All my mortal days." Her smile was dimmed only by the sadness in her eyes that she was trying to push away. "And those are numbered. The blood on my hands cannot be washed out and I am still frightened of what I am, of what I can do." Her voice cracked.
"There is more blood on mine," he reminded her. "Neither can we spend our days trying to seek forgiveness from some who are not here to give it, some who do not deserve our remorse and those whom we have wronged who will refuse us. And there is forgiveness that we must give ourselves. Strength is both beautiful and terrible, and war does not make heroes. Minstrels do, the people whom you fought for do. This fear you have is a fear of becoming a tyrant." Ruefulness edged his smile even as he felt it touch his heart. "If only I had had that. It can be a good thing."
"You've changed." He could see she wanted to know where and why and whom he had met in their time apart and later, when there was time enough for other things, he would tell her. "Paarthurnax told me a very similar thing once."
"His long years in seclusion have made him wise. I forbid you from ever repeating that to him though."
She laughed and that was the sun in itself to him. "Come," he tugged on her hand, pulling her away from the graves towards the low fence. "I have something else to give you."
He led her through a thick wood, alongside a swift clear stream, following the light which was just breaking through the rustling canopy of the trees, tinged with the green of fresh leaves. When they emerged, it was on the side of a hill close to the mountain range. The sun was shining through the mist-crowned peaks, wakening the valley below, turning the winding river that flowed through it to sapphire and silver-gold.
"The sun is a direct link between Mundus and Aetherius, and also the cosmic entity most associated with my father. What I am about to do next, I do before him and in the sight of the other gods." Taking her hands, he held them firmly. "Hold onto me."
There were doorways to Aetherius that had been formed by clashes between Aedra and Daedra, by secret dealings between gods and mortals. There were doorways that could be made should a god so desire and that was precisely what he wanted now. He roared and watched Freyja gazing with wide eyes as the world around them rolled away, replaced by the gleaming sky of flowing lights which coloured the realm of the Nine. They were standing in a sea of stars that rushed by, a flood of iridescence that ran into eternity and back again. "Look Freyja," he murmured and she looked down into its reflection to see the same thing he did.
They were dragons, and she as bright as he was dark, day and night intertwined.
"Once before, Akatosh came to Alessia and bound his blood to hers. No ordinary mortal could have survived that, save one who was blessed by and chosen of the gods. You are no ordinary mortal, and you can contain more than you can imagine. The bond between us breaks upon death. But this new one will last forever."
He let go of her, stepped back and let the power of Aetherius flood him, this part of it that Akatosh had given him, which was imbued with his own strength. The Thu'um still bound him, he felt it, the tug and sway of strange magic like held him to the Dragonborn. But for the moment, here in this place, he could be himself, for the precious span of time that he needed. Black wings unfurled, the sky was suddenly with reach again, lightning flashed, a thousand strikes in a moment, flickering like heartbeats. The Dragonborn stood before him, only slightly larger than the myriad stars beneath her feet, gleaming such that she darkened them.
Lowering his head to her, he spoke. "Brace yourself." That was all the warning he could give as Alduin reached deep inside himself. Soul light, rich as burnished bronze and gold, began to ascend from glistening black scales. Swathes of it tore free, tongues of fire that swirled and looped through the air like the wind before they homed in on the Dragonborn. Her roar shook the sky as the fragment of his soul which he had torn free struck her, the fires blazing, frenzied as they transcended flesh to bury themselves deep inside her soul. Freyja staggered, her eyes turned to gold, she went down on her knees, fingers dug deep in the waves of the star sea, seeking purchase as her body arched violently, fighting to contain the gift of a god.
Gentle luminescence settled over her, lining the curves of her human flesh before vanishing, the last remnants of that part of his soul nestling in its new home. A wave of weakness overcame him, not unlike what he had experienced the first time she used Dragonrend on him. Alduin collapsed as the Thu'um swung back into full force, binding him anew, transforming that which was immortal into mortality. He panted, fully aware of the new emptiness inside, a gentle ache somewhere deep within which he could not reach. Beneath his hands he could feel the smooth blades of wild grass; when he looked up above, the sky of Aetherius was disappearing, the blue of Mundus replacing it. It was slightly paler than he remembered and when he looked around, scenting the air and gazing down the valley, he realised everything was a shade lighter than it had been, less rich and vivid. Even the magic in the air was harder to sense.
It was a small price to pay though, inconsequential he thought, rising to his feet to meet her as she came to him. Flecks of gold gleamed from the ice blue of her eyes, her hands clasped his face. "Why didn't you tell me? Why did you do that? Does it hurt—" She stopped, blinking rapid before sucking in a sharp breath. "Is that..." With practised skill, she unbuckled his cuirass, practically tore it off him with a strength that visibly surprised her. Then she stripped off her armour and taking his hand, placed it on her chest even as she laid hers over his.
Through the soft cotton of her shirt, he could feel her heart. It was beating in tandem with his. When she touched him, the ache in his soul went silent. "It does not hurt," he murmured, taking her hand, pressing the centre of her palm to his mouth. "I did it to establish an equal claim on you as Sithis. And I will always be able to find you now, no matter where you go. I did not tell you because you would have refused for the same reason I would have insisted."
"Because I love you." She was teary-eyed again.
He smiled, caught a tear on the tip of his thumb, wiping it away. "It is not so terrible that you needs must weep over it."
"Shut up, Alduin."
Laughing softly, he kissed her mouth, kissed her with all his heart, lifted her up off the ground so that she was clinging to him and he to her. "I love you," he whispered against her lips, tangling his hands in her hair, tugging her braid loose so that he could sink them into that glorious mass of pale gold. "I will love you all my life. Wherever you are, even in death, trust me. I will come for you."
"For I am yours, as you are mine."
He bore them both down into the soft sweet grass and in his soul, he felt the deep echo of her desire, fierce and hungry and full of a love that was almost more than he could bear. There was nothing slow or seductive, not this first time. Clothes ripped as they tore them off each other, sharp nips formed tender welts which they soothed with eager tongues. Freyja's nails scored red lines down his back, drawing feral growls from his throat as he pushed her thighs apart while she writhed under him. Her scream that ended in a moan as he thrust himself hard and fully into her. The way he shuddered, back bowed, eyes squeezed shut, gasping as he almost came there and then in her tight wet heat that clenched all around him. The rough sweat-slicked rhythm of their bodies grinding against each other in a desperate dance for completion, their world nothing more than pleasure building like a barely leashed storm. And when it did break, the valley quaked with the sound of dragons.
... ... ...
When he helped her to her feet and into her clothes, or rather, the remains of it, Alduin didn't bother to suppress the smug grin which spread over his face as she winced. Freyja, of course, noticed it and scowling, kicked him before casting a healing spell on herself. The golden light had not yet faded when he slipped an arm around her waist, stealing a long lazy kiss that almost had them tumbling back into the grass again.
"It's almost evening," she protested weakly as he kissed a hot path from her throat to her ear and to the corner of her mouth. "And we should be going."
Reluctantly, he drew back, but then his golden eyes grew thoughtful. "Do you want to stay here? It is not as grand as the Monahven—"
"Or as hellishly cold," she countered.
"And the house could do with new furnishings."
"What you mean is you want a bigger house."
"You know me so well. Still, if it pleases you, we will remain here until you are ready."
She leaned against him, sliding her arm along his back, an act that was as tender as it was possessive and protective. She was quiet for long moments and he knew she was contemplating what to say to him. As always, she managed to surprise him. "Thank you for even offering. I have been thinking of somewhere—or rather, dreaming of it. Now that you are here, I think..." she paused, searching for the right words, "I feel it will be all right. There are quite a few loose ends and important matters to look into before we leave." He nodded in affirmation; after all, he had flown out of Dayspring Canyon without even telling anyone where he had been going to. "But when that is done, I want to go to Dovahnor."
The last thing he had seen as he had flown away with so many dragons that they nearly blotted out the sky was the sight of the colossal sea towers and fortresses made of white stone, each mounted with a huge snarling dragon's head which declared openly who the lords of that land were. "It has been eons since I last laid eyes on it. What did you see in your dream?"
"Giants with snow for blood and blue eyes that shine like torches. Their armour is ice and the cold of a thousand unending winters—"
"It is the runes." The calm quiet of his tone belied some of the alarm he felt. What she was describing was strikingly accurate, for someone who had never set eyes on that particular race. "The runes enable them to carry winter's chill wherever they go. Without it, they would perish in the warmth of the sun. Because of it, they must return to their lands when their season is up, to hibernate and recharge the magic therein. That way, they may live indefinitely but never be allowed to stray too far too often."
"I'm sensing there's more to this tale, if only because you're trying not to look too worried," she teased, though she tightened her arm around him, as if to assure him that nothing would happen.
"I do not look worried," Alduin retorted. "You simply have the advantage of knowing me better than anyone, Akatosh being the exception."
"Akatosh who had to put up with you since the beginning of Time—"
He cut her off with a bruising kiss that left her knees weak and himself more than breathless. "That's cheating," she whispered.
"I know." He brushed his cheek against hers. The sun hung blood-orange near the edge of the world, the shadows drew long around them. But the wind was warm, kissed by evening's fire and the faint roar of dragons on the wind was reassuring. Odahviing and Durnehviir were keeping watch. "And the person who gave the Iiz Reyliik those runes was none other than myself."
"Why would you do that?" she frowned.
"They were becoming a thorn in my side and in return for not attacking my temples and cities, they demanded immortality." He shrugged. "And I delivered."
Freyja looked torn between outrage and admiration. "In the Second Era, one of their kings led an invasion into Tamriel. He was looking for me." Alduin's jaw clenched. "He saw me in a dream, and I saw him too."
"Really? Did he happen to give you his name in this dream?"
"You can stop breathing fire and smoke, husband mine." She patted his shoulder. "He died during an invasion of Morrowind."
"How fortunate for him. So precisely what part of this tale in which formidable ice giants who were desperate enough to sail to this side of the world away from their kingdom in a suicidal bid to seek you out makes you want to travel to Dovahnor?"
The twinkle in her eye and the sweet smile she gave him was enough to melt his bones. He was, Alduin admitted, an absolute fool in love. Somewhere, Mara and Dibella were laughing at him. "They might have information about what an Ordained Receptacle is meant for, some kind of prophecy, stories even. I thought we might wait for an opportune moment before sneaking into their palace, wherever that might be, and taking a closer look at what they have."
"Failing which we could always kidnap one of them from their frozen tombs, thaw the unfortunate soul out and interrogate him or her."
"Ask them nicely," she corrected. "Interrogation comes only after that fails. Don't worry; I'll protect you." His glare lacked real bite and she chuckled unrepentantly. "And then there's the matter of the dragon." She frowned. "Well, it's some kind of dragon, though I've never seen a dragon with stripes like that on its skin, or one that resembled a sabre cat to some extent."
That gave him pause. "There were some dragons who made the choice to stay behind in Dovahnor. None of them look like what you described. Are you certain?"
"I dreamed of it only once but I saw it very clearly."
Curiosity was often a dragon's weakness; it was what had driven him to dream of lands beyond the one he had governed. "That would be worth investigating as well, since we will be travelling all the way there."
"So glad you agreed to come. I wasn't asking for your permission by the way."
He leaned down and she met him halfway. Just before their mouths met, Freyja's eyes snapped open and she pulled back. "Oh, and I want to go by ship."
"There's no need to shout. It will be fun. I've never been on a ship before."
"Neither have I and I have no intention of starting. Travelling on dragons makes far more sense, is much safer and more status appropriate."
"Fine, we'll compromise. We'll get on a ship first and then call for the dragons when we're halfway there."
"No, absolutely not."
"If we take a ship, I promise we can try out page ninety-seven in that book which all Dibellan priestesses have to read."
It would take a lot more than that to shake his resolve, Alduin thought. There was no way that he was setting foot on one of those primitive man-made contraptions that was more often than not at the mercy of the weather and so painfully slow. "And what exactly," he said coolly, drawing back to fold his arms across his chest, "is on page ninety-seven?"
She leaned up and whispered in his ear. When she was finished, Freyja shot him that same sweet smile that managed to do what thousands of years of fawning kings, priests and dragons failed to, turned on her heel and sauntered off, leaving him staring in her wake. It took him a moment or two, perhaps three, to collect himself. "That is cheating," he growled.
"I know!" she called back.
Fine, a compromise it would be then.
The sands of the shore were pure white, the waters a dazzling cerulean. In the distance, Shavi was riding one the many sea serpents that her people had tamed. With its silver-grey scales, the beast was hardly distinguishable from the wild ocean which it cut through with amazing speed. Even from this distance, he could hear the Tsaesci princess laughing as she kept her balance on the huge creature; she glinted like gold under the sun, a superb rider and an even better warrior.
How long had he been here already? In a strange land with stranger people and fighting a war that he had never been certain of winning but for reasons that he was crystal clear about.
The waves ran up the sands, lapped at his ankles, licked between his toes, cooling his skin from a sun that he found pleasantly warm. Scooping up some seawater, he let it spill from his closed hand, a fistful of liquid jewels. His own skin was so dark against all this brightness and for a moment, he thought about home and the wife he had lost twice over, the gods he had thrown down.
Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply, inhaling. Here, the crosswinds met, winds that brought their own stories, whispered their own tales, dropped their secrets to those who had the skills to unravel their riddles. There was a particular scent winging his way, riding a weary wind that had travelled across the Padomaic Ocean and which was losing its wings. He caught it just in time before a stronger gust came and swallowed up its smaller sibling. Violet eyes slowly opened. It took a few minutes to fully absorb the import of what he had just learned. Rising to his feet, the Nerevarine waited until Shavi turned the sea serpent in his direction. Raising an arm, he let it drop without a wave, a signal that she should return at once.
He couldn't wait to tell her the news, if only to see her stunned into silence, for once. This could be the turn of events that they were hoping for or it would be a great doom. Either way, the dragons of Skyrim were coming home and everything was about to change.