The Legend Yet Grew
"Your Thu'um is still too strong, you say?" Eorlund asked, swirling his mead thoughtfully.
"That's right. I thought it might be some lingering effect, from Sovngarde, but now..." The man grimaced. He ill-looked the part of the legendary Dragonborn, in his unassuming armor of studded leather, with his stubbled face devoid of clan markings and plain, dark hair that fell in clumps, but then, that was part of the mythos. He was supposed to be a Nord of Nords, the first among Men, but he hardly felt the part, and had never felt a need to live up to it. "It's strange."
"Is it? Stories I've heard of the Thu'um, whether it be the Greybeards or the ancient Tongues, always had them, oh, knocking down whole castle walls, or moving the very earth. What was it you said you did?"
"I used the shout of Unrelenting Force, and caused an avalanche all the way at the top of the mountain." Thank the Divines there hadn't been a settlement there.
Eorlund hummed and stared into his drink. "It might seem impressive to you, but that's small potatoes for any story with the Thu'um involved. Shor, why do you think no one bothers the Greybeards? They're respected, true, but they can also shout your house down from halfway across Skyrim, and have, if you believe some of the darker tales."
Absently, he piled another log into the Skyforge, which, while mysterious, needed fuel as much as any other forge. "Perhaps 'too strong' is the wrong phrase. Before, the most I could do with the FUS-RO-DAH-" He took care to say it, not Shout it, and even then it came out loud; a shadow of its true intent. "-was tip a mammoth over. I always thought I would reach the strength of the Greybeards over time, that it was a gradual thing."
"Well, that's silly. The Thu'um isn't a muscle, nor a spell. You're tapping the very root of magic and commanding it. It's barely even you directing it so much as you releasing it in a certain direction and manner. It doesn't matter who is using it - the effect is the same."
The young Harbinger scowled. "Since when do you know about the Thu'um?"
Eorlund grinned. "One of my companions is a Tongue, from the old times, when they still fought. Loves to harp on about it when he's not shouting fire and thunder. Challenges Tsun every day, but I think he loses on purpose - likes to help newbloods like me get situated. Good fellow." He scratched his beard. "Mayhap you should see the Greybeards. Or even call one of them like you did me. I know Jurgen Windcaller resides in the Hall of Valor."
"I was exiled from High Hrothgar. And I did call Jurgen Windcaller. He said he'd shout me off a mountain if he ever saw me again."
"My. What did you do to earn that?"
He sighed. "I killed one dragon too many. Are you going to finish that mead or raise it as your son?"
At this point, Eorlund raised a bushy eyebrow. "Boy, you do remember that I am dead? Can't take anything back with me. I appreciate the thought, though - I do miss the taste." He drank a mouthful, swirled it around thoughtfully, and spat it over the edge of the wall.
The warrior flushed. Even with the slight glow of Eorlund's skin, his mentions of Sovngarde, and the fact that he looked years younger than he'd ever seen him, it was easy to forget that only the Thu'um allowed him to exist outside the afterlife. It was proof of the increase in the strength of his Thu'um that Eorlund had been able to linger this long, longer than any heroic spirit he'd ever summoned in battle.
Eorlund waved his words away. "Don't apologize, it's unsightly, and it was my decision to fight, regardless. You're the Harbinger now, you have a image to maintain. Ideally, you would have had Kodlak to teach you such things. You should call him, one of these times."
"I will." He promised. "Have you seen him? I thought I did, when I was there, though it was too misty to be sure."
"No, I haven't talked to him, but he's there, all right, don't you worry. Was the first in line to challenge Tsun after it was all settled. Passed on the first try, too." Eorlund chuckled. "Bastard. But I'll see him sooner or later."
And the Hero hesitated, then, for he had reached the very question he had summoned Eorlund to ask.
The legendary smith looked at him with sad eyes. The warrior drained his horn through gritted teeth.
"I'll keep an eye out, of course." Eorlund assured him. "You know, there's talk of a raid into the Hunting Grounds, to take back those bound unwillingly by the Huntsman. There's Companions yet to enter the Hall I could convince to join it. We could look for her."
"No! As Harbinger, no!" The Dragonborn bellowed, bringing his legendary volume to bear. He heard the splinter of glass as several unfinished pommel stones cracked under the sound. The bellow smoke of the forge came apart. Eorlund winced. The warrior moderated himself, and sat back down, having risen unknowingly. "No. I would never think to command you, Eorlund, but if you loved me ever, you will heed me. I won't have Companions sent on a doomed errand into Oblivion, not even dead ones."
Eorlund searched his eyes. "You seem sure."
Bitterly, he poured the contents of Eorlund's untouched horn into his, and drained it. "I am. No force of Companions will ever be great enough to save the soul of Aela the Huntress." His voice, so used to shouting, dropped as far as it could, a despairing rasp. "Not with her taken by Hircine himself."
Eorlund laid a meaty, rough hand on his back. "You know she'd have given up the wolf for you. It was bad fortune." He said softly.
The man felt his rage renew, churning with black hatred like an alchemist's concoction in his stomach. "It was treachery." He spat.
He flinched, and quickly glanced to his side. Eorlund had vanished instantly, as he had initially requested in case someone show up. The power of that shout wasn't something he wanted spread around. It could be taken wrong. Nords were ill-tolerant of necromancy.
It was Ria, his shield-sister. The warrior hid his surprise with gruffness. "Long winter, Ria, we practically entered the Companions at the same time. You were there at Skuldafn Temple. You've more than earned the right to call me by name." He'd practically holed himself up here in Jorrvaskr just to escape that name. A bit desperately, he asked, "Even 'Harbinger' would be more pleasing to me, if only just."
She ignored him, eyed the horn in his hand. "Drinking alone?" Ria had the odd talent of combining deference with mulishness. Once she was decided on something, she was the politest Companion to ever tell you to scag off. Wisely, he abandoned the hopeless effort.
"Musing alone. The Skyforge is mine, now - I was the closest thing Eorlund ever had to an apprentice, and with him gone, I'm the only one left who knows how to smelt Skyforge steel." Absently, he rubbed the warm white stone. "I'll have to pass that on to someone, soon. Never know when something might happen to me." Not to Adrianne Avenicci, though she had the skill for it - her father was too wily to let an opportunity like the secret of hero-metal slip through his fingers. Someone else, who thought more with heart than mind. His mind drifted to Riverwood.
Ria bristled, taking offense. "Any assassin foolish enough would have to cut through every shield in Jorrvaskr to reach you. We'd never allow it, Dragonborn."
"I can't stay cooped up any longer, Ria. There are tasks I can leave undone no longer."
Grimacing, he rose, feeling his mostly-healed wounds stretch beneath his armor. The surgeon had been dumbfounded by the variety of wounds covering his body after the last battle; from burns, to cuts, to patches just gone missing. But then, some of the things Alduin had called down upon him simply could not be explained. Fire from the sky. Claws which drew rents in the very air. Breath which froze the skin like long winter.
The doctor had said the nightmares would fade with time, but how could he ever forget, with his body a tapestry? He could still hear the World-Eater's laughter ringing in his ears. He awoke from dreams of black wings in the cold with the taste of blood and ethereal mist in his mouth.
"Time. Akatosh has yet to grant a man enough." He muttered. "There's a thousand hooks in my flesh, Ria, pulling me in every direction. There's much to be done, if the Companions are to return to their former glory; recruiting to be done, halls to be bought and renovated. The war has resumed, and the sons of Skyrim spill their own blood once more; something must be done about that. The Mages College has sent a dozen summons in the last month. The Daedric cults grow more restless in the hills. The Forsworn rampage nigh unchecked across the Reach."
The Harbinger reached into his belt pouch, retrieving a crumpled letter with a broken seal of expensive red wax, which he tossed onto the tool table beside the forge. The wind threatened to blow it away, and he pinned it under a pair of tongs. Ria blanched upon recognizing the heraldry. Whiterun was no backwater, and the Imperial royal signet was known well enough.
"Even the Emperor sends his missive - he's due in Solitude soon." He waved a hand in disgust. "He'll want something. Rulers always do. And worst of all, dragons still roam the land. Most are too disorganized from Alduin's fall to do anything, but those who do, the Blades can barely beat back, and only briefly - I must be personally present to put them away for good. No, Ria, I cannot tarry, not even an hour longer."
Ria's lips pursed, and she set her shoulders. She had decided upon something. "Take me with you then, or another Companion. Swear you will keep one of our shields always at your back."
"I can give no such oath. I must travel fast, and the ways I tread do not well support others."
Her eyes flashed. "Do you think us too weak?"
"Never." He swore solemnly, then cracked a pale grin. "But I doubt Odahviing would tolerate two upon his back."
He is born a Nord, sullen-eyed and black-haired, under the sign of the Warrior in a land far from his destiny, the one-hundred seventy-eighth year of the Fourth Era; the second day of Last Seed.
When he was small, his grandfather taught him letters before any of the other children. In the way of children, the other legion brats mocked his skill. Pen-Born, they called him. His grandfather taught him fists, and they mocked him no longer. Wroth-Born, grandfather called him, the old skald teasing. The name stayed.
Cyrodiil was a wet, warm place, with no true mountains, the kind to build a family's back against; no place for his grandfather, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky. Sickness claimed his life in the boy's ninth year.
His father was a Legionnaire, an Empire man. The boy's earliest memories of him were of belly laughter and rough, warm hands. His rank rose, and he was busy, a distant figure glimpsed between tents. When he had time, he came to the civilian camp, where the soldiers kept their wives, and taught his son what he knew; of duty, honor and responsibility, then finally of blades. The boy remembered him best by his back, straight and strong as he forsook them for work.
His mother was the daughter of a skald, and her heart still belonged to the old ways. She went with his father for love, leaving behind her clan and other things, things she never told of but in late-night tears and the somber silence of their tent, which suffocated their marriage after her sickly father died. It is what she left him: love, and secrets. Legends from home, passed down through tradition. Recipes unusable in this distant land. A charm for healing, a wierding of fire.
For all their difficulties, they loved, laughed, and lived as any other, and for that, they were forgotten. His father died to battle in his sixteenth year, and his mother to grief, two years later. He sold his home and inheritance, took up his father's sword, and wandered.
He fought. Sometimes for good, other times for ill. It became obvious he had a talent for it, doling out death, never quite receiving it. His childhood ire never quite left him, and those he fought with told awe-some tales of his roaring rampages in their cups. Thunder-Throat, they called him.
In the third year of his journey, his father's sword broke in a particularly gruesome raid. His companions were scum, and the caravan, not worth the loss. When the Legion came galloping up the road, he left them to their fate, sickened with the blood of men.
His mother and grandfather wanted a different life for him, out of conflict - one of parchment and ink stains and stable living. His mind was still sharp, and he stayed a year in an Imperial lyceum before the doldrum of scholastic living overwhelmed him. His wanderlust claimed him, and he left, taking with him nothing but a habit for journal-keeping and the clothes on his back.
First an aimless wanderer, then an adventurer he became. For almost two years, wherever there was something that needed doing, he was there. For human troubles, he plied peace and mediated; for goblins and others, he carried a sword, a new one, of straight, reliable steel. He realized that he had passed fully into manhood when he entered a inn and was offered mead without asking.
His mind traveled to his father for the first time in years, to words he had once said.
A man should know where his blood runs from. For the first time in years, he had a clear destination. To Skyrim, then. To Skyrim.
And so the Hero rode, setting the wheels of the Event into motion.
The warrior stopped at the gate. Then, setting his stance and steeling his will, he spoke.
And all of Windhelm shook.
The gate and bridge guards dropped to their knees, clutching ears stricken with agony. A gray horde rose from Windhelm, all the pigeons of the city fleeing. The horses in the Windhelm Stables a hundred yards back screamed, kicking at their doors, eyes rolling in their sockets.
The full Shout of Throw Voice was not supposed to be used in such close proximity. The Greybeards had used it in conjunction atop the Throat of the World, and all of Skyrim had heard his summons. Used at the very steps of the city, at a target so close? He would be surprised if there was a single uncracked glass left in the city.
It was theatrics, not a typical indulgence of his. But every extra inch was needed, in this case.
The Dragonborn continued, relentless.
"THE DRAGONBORN AWAITS ON THE BRIDGE OF FAHLIIL-KRII. MEET ME, OR I SHALL TEAR VALUNSTRAD DOWN AROUND YOU. THE WAR ENDS TODAY."
Then, he turned on his heel, walked to the middle of the bridge, and sat, on one of two flat stumps he'd brought for the occasion. Jarl Balgruuf had suggested it, when he had consulted him. It was a Nord tradition for pre-battle talks between two warriors. It had no class connotations - hill-warriors and kings alike had sat upon them - and it left the possibility of resolution open.
Perhaps in a fairy tale, this confrontation would have come last among his errands. This was not a fairy tale. The civil war was the greatest danger to the health and freedom of Skyrim, and the greatest obstacle in his way to seeing his other responsibilities fulfilled. It had to come first.
He didn't have to wait too long. It wasn't as if the man had a choice in the matter.
Ulfric came, dressed in fine robes, followed by a promenade of heavily armed Stormcloaks. Galmar Stone-Fist was there as ever, the Jarl's massive shadow, looking more beast than man under his wolfshead cowl. The Jarl laughed lightly as he spotted his stump, taking a seat.
"Oh, this is good. Balgruuf recommended you this, didn't he?" Ulfric smiled. "A good leader, and good man. He remembers the proper ways."
"You're not armed." The warrior noted.
Ulfric shrugged, as if it were of no consequence. "What could I do, if the mighty Dragonborn decided to take my life? I'd be in pieces across this bridge before my sword left its scabbard."
The Harbinger noted the circle the Stormcloaks had formed around the meeting, and the long polearms they bore. Ulfric was a student of the Voice, and he'd rightly know about the recuperation period required between Shouts. If he chose to kill Ulfric, it would happen as certain as the snow fell; just as certain as his death a moment afterwards, when Stormcloak's men skewered him.
He shifted, a mite uneasy. He wasn't much of a mediator, and even he could tell the dialogue coming would be tense. It would be best to eliminate the danger of unknown tempers. "You'll not want them here, Stormcloak. These words are not for their ears."
The Jarl chuckled confidently, seeming as confident atop his stump as he would his throne. "These are true sons of Skyrim, just like you and me, Dragonborn. They decide their own actions, and I mine - and I have no secrets from them."
The warrior watched the smugness in Ulfric's face grow as his soldiers grew taller and prouder in an instance. Even Galmar seemed uplifted by his words. On another day, he would have relished the chance to test them, but today he dreaded it. The future stood dangling on the heights, and the paths were lined with hidden daggers.
The soldiers had to go. Carefully, he fished out a document, displaying the seal. "Not even your time spent in the Imperial City?" He asked, deliberately vague.
Morbidly, he watched, as the arrogant calm of the Jarl vanished like breath in the cold air, replaced by a white-knuckled man in over-extravagant robes, whose foundations had just been bucked from underneath him like a wild stallion. The warrior caught a hint of hysteria in Ulfric's eyes, glancing at his men, and calmly prepared the Voice, reaching for those absolute meanings burned into his mind whose understanding lent him the power of the Thu'um.
But in an acting of epic composure, the Jarl mastered himself before the Dragonborn's eyes, the breaking man disappearing underneath a lifetime of politics and experience. A traitor, a zealot, a racist, Ulfric had been called, with truth in them. But from that moment, never would the warrior know him as a coward. Ulfric Stormcloak was simply not afraid to die for his cause.
"Let us respect the Dragonborn's wish for privacy." Ulfric rejoined smoothly, jerking his head towards Windhelm.
The Stormcloaks hesitated a collective moment, before leaving stiffly in an orderly fashion. For the most part. Galmar Stone-Fist did not budge an inch.
Ulfric turned to him.
"No." The thane said flatly, crossing his arms. The word dropped with all the immovability of a mountain. The warrior doubted any combination of dragon words he knew could move the massive Nord at that moment.
Ulfric sent an urgent glance back towards him. This revelation was one he'd likely spent his whole life convincing himself would never happen, just to be able to sleep at night. It was with little doubt the greatest shame in Ulfric Stormcloak's life.
Not a glance towards him, the Harbinger realized, but the document, which was the greatest danger on the bridge at that moment, holding the power to change the dynamic of all of Skyrim, and by extension, Tamriel - a Thalmor dossier containing a full account of Ulfric Stormcloak's capture, interrogation and defection during the First War. It even listed him as a Thalmor asset, connected to First Emmissary Elenwen, the current Thalmor ambassador to Skyrim. It was little wonder he'd nearly walked out of negotiations at High Hrothgar upon seeing her - who would wish to sit at the same table as the interrogator who broke them?
At once, the Dragonborn knew this was not the way he wanted this. Not with Ulfric cringing from him like a twice-whipped hound. The warrior had never subscribed to high-handed notions of honor, but this, he felt in his gut - this was wrong.
He handed the dossier over. From the Jarl's expression, it might have been a live slaughterfish, but he seized it as if it would disappear like smoke. "I'll keep it short." The Harbinger said. "I retrieved this while raiding the Thalmor embassy. Of-" He considered his wording. "-the fall, your hands are clean."
It was a very short thing, considering how damning the dossier was. Ulfric finished it in less than a minute, and swallowed thickly at the end of it, exhaling a shaky breath. He began laughing, a bit unevenly. Stone-Fist's signature look of sullen animosity had been replaced by one of concern.
"...forgive me, Galmar. If only you knew the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders." Ulfric smiled, and it was a true smile, this time, almost giddy. This was the real man behind the cause and position, freed from a guilt which had poisoned him for over a decade - the belief that the information he had revealed had brought the downfall of the Imperial City. In his voice, the warrior could hear true, warm gratitude. "You've done me a service beyond remuneration, Dragonborn. My hold is yours."
"The Thalmor are the true threat. They always have been." He returned instantly, feeling hope surge within him. "They are maggots beneath the flesh of Skyrim. If we do not direct our full strength to purging them, we will rot from within. This war can not go on."
Ulfric grinned wolfishly, and his hopes soared. "And it shall not. You may send it in writing to Tullius, if you wish. Until the Thalmor are driven from Skyrim, our conflict is suspended. On my honor, Dragonborn - the Mer will fear me as they fear nothing else on Nirn, before I am done."
And all at once, his hopes crashed and burned. "Suspend?" The warrior repeated incredulously. "You still to think to carry on, even it being their wish? More, you believe Tullius will accept a second cease-fire atop the first!" Fury joined his disbelief. "Can you not see that without a decisive end, our land will fall, with all the free races of Tamriel falling beneath the fist of the Dominion? This war must have a decisive end, now more than ever!"
"And it shall!" Ulfric's eyes gleamed feverishly. "Join us, Dragonborn. It was foretold in ancient verse you'd be the savior of men; Men, Dragonborn, not this wretched Empire of mer and beastmen. With your strength on our side, we could be at Solitude's gates in a month! Less!" He reached foreward and brought his hands down on the warrior's shoulders, squeezing through the studded leather. "It's your destiny, Dragonborn."
It was then that he knew with the horrible finality of fact that Ulfric would not be dissuaded. Yet still, he persevered, wrath claiming him in his frustration. "The Empire is the onlyhope of defeating the Aldmeri Dominion. You are mad to think men alone could succeed where all the lands of the Empire failed. The Empire must be whole again, and Skyrim, the cradle of Men, must be the ones to lead the reformation; no one else can, with Hammerfell too weakened and High Rock too divided." He leaned back roughly, breaking Ulfric's grip. "No, Ulfric, I shall not join you."
Ulfric's face turned cold. "So be it. We will free Skyrim, with your blade or without it."
"No, Ulfric." The warrior snarled. "I did say this war would end today. And it will! For if you choose to continue, you will face not only the Empire, but me and all my power! And then it will not be a war, but only a matter of time, until my blade finds you."
"You would betray Ysmir, and all of Skyrim?" Stormcloak spat, venom infused in every word.
"I would honor Talos with every stroke of my sword!" The Dragonborn roared, rising from his stump. Stone-Fist shifted in front of his Jarl. This was the end of negotiations. "Skyrim may be his birthplace, but the Empire was his greatest work! And if he were alive today, you'd have two Dragonborn your enemy, instead of one. But we both know even that wouldn't dissuade you, would it? This was always a power play. Using the Voice to kill the king who lacked it, raising hell over the worship clause in the Concordat even though you knew well it would not, could not be enforced. Can't you see you are making the dreams of the Thalmor a reality?"
"The Thalmor will pay, just as the Empire, for their treachery." The Jarl retorted, chin high. "Starting tomorrow, every Thalmor stronghold in my territory will find a host of Stormcloaks beating down their doors."
The Harbinger gaped. "You would attack the very people who supply you? Do you think to win with the Empire pushing from without and the Thalmor destroying you from within? You hardly broke even when you were fighting a war on onefront. On two? Are you determined to lose? You'll die, Ulfric."
The man stood. His face was set in icy disdain. "Then Ulfric Stormcloak will die without regret. Begone from Windhelm, traitor. And it's Jarl Stormcloak to you."
The warrior shook his head. "Dead men can't be Jarls, Ulfric. Nor kings. We will see each other soon."
Walking back southwards across the Bridge of Fahliil-Krii, he drew his sword, testing it's edge. To his eyes, it seemed stained, red with the blood of Men, too many he'd been forced to kill. He viewed their loss with regret. Perhaps in another life, he could have owned a farm, been someone who brought only good to the world. But he'd long ago accepted his role - sword replacing sickle. A farmer, not of crops, but of men.
And there were weeds to pluck in every field.
In the keep of Helgen, he spilt Empire blood for the first time. In his father's memory, never before had he raised his sword against them, but it'd been long - near a decade - since he last lived among the Red Legions. Time and necessity had a way of weakening sentimentality's hold, and he had never taken to the cause as strongly as the other army brats. Perhaps a better son would have gone with Hadvar.
But it'd been long.
All he felt as his pilfered axe reaved through the captain's throat was a rush of guilty satisfaction, revenge on the woman who had so casually ordered his death, for nothing more than antipathy's sake. It was disgustingly simple to take up the killing of men again - under their armor, their flesh was soft, and parted much easier than slimy goblin, or hairy troll. Ralof laughed, and complimented his skill, and he was sick with himself.
These feelings disappeared in a rush as the dragon roared, and then it was all horror and running and dark tunnels. They ran into several Legion patrols, and spiders besides, but with a proper sword in hand and desperation at their back, he and Ralof were an unstoppable force. Even a fully grown cave bear could not stop their flight.
They made their way to Riverwood. Their nerves were too shot for much talk. They passed an unruly lot lounging by the mouth of a mine, but they were not stopped. These highwaymen were wiser than most. There were easier targets on the road than a pair of warriors covered in blood and stolen steel.
The adrenaline caught up. They were weary and covered in wounds, some too bad for his mother's humble healing charm, meant more for scratches than sword-blows. Ralof's sister Gerdur fetched them needles and gut for stiching, and her husband listened to their story. An accord was reached. The Jarl needed to know.
The warrior's wounds were a bit much for traveling immediately, and Ralof begged off the task, citing a need to return to his cause. Personally, the warrior thought it a poor choice - what time had they for wars while a dragon rampaged unchecked? - but held his tongue. With food and rest the Stormcloak was renewed, his zealotry unmasked by the blood or shared cause. Even the warrior, not overly cultured, recognized it would be impolite to defame his chosen lord in his family's house.
Instead, he tried to keep out of their way while he took the week to heal, plying his meager healing charm to hasten the process in private. The village was small, but held the potential for growth - there was room yet on the other side of the river for expansion.
"It's the bandits." The blacksmith, Alvor, confided, working his forge. The warrior helped where he could, learning where he could not. The sleepy hamlet was a mess of activity with the news - the resources of the mill had been given to walls and arrows, and the smith forged shields and arrowheads. The mistress of the inn and one of the lumberjacks, Faendal, knew something of archery, and endeavored to teach their fellows. It was an inspiring show of community. "In the mine and up the mountain in the abandoned tower. With the weekly tribute to both of them, we haven't the means to build."
Something stirred in him. "Those ones there?"
They approached from up the road. Alvor cursed and stood, pulling a fearsome axe from one of his barrels, waving his daughter inside the house. Work stopped. The inn lady and Gerdur went to meet them. Their leader gestured at the barricades, his green features contorted in a toothy scowl - a man of Orsimer, then. An orc. Voices were raised and gold was exchanged. After they left, the barricades were dejectedly broken down. The blacksmith snarled.
"Bastards. Nervous about us being able to defend ourselves for once, no doubt." The smith spat off the edge of his porch. "The green one's my own apprentice, if you can believe it. If I were a younger man..." He glared impotently at his gut, which hung heavy from years of happy living.
The warrior decided. "Lend me a shield, and armor." He said, taking a seat at the grindstone with his sword. He'd bartered it from the blacksmith for the mismatched equipment he took from Helgen. Straight steel, good and true, it was, and it would break flesh - but with an extra hour at the grindstone, it would break men.
Alvor started to protest. For all his fire, he was a man of peace, forged in peace.
The warrior set the stone to spinning and brought his blade to the edge, sending up a spray of sparks. He met the gaze of the peaceful blacksmith through the curtain of fire, and let his conviction carry silently through.
Alvor found himself with nothing to say, and left to scrounge up his best work from the stores.
The warrior waited until nightfall. Strategy. He gathered himself and his forces for battle. Faendal the lumberjack seemed constantly surprised he was there with them, stalking alongside him, even though he himself had volunteered. The bartender, Orgnar, was the stoic type; silent, steady and strong, hefting his mace and squinting through the darkness. The inn lady put him to the job, though the warrior wouldn't have minded the mistress herself joining them - intuition told him she could handle herself.
His father's words rang distantly in his ears.
When you come to battle, come not as a man, for men are weak.
There was a single sentry at the entrance, his only company a lantern and stout ale.
The warrior came as a rolling stone against the sentry; smooth and unstoppable. Faendal's arrow took the sentry high in the chest, too high for a mortal blow. It mattered not, for he was upon the floundering man in half a breath, halting his cry with the edge of his sword. They entered. He dispassionately noticed a tripwire, and they passed it unimpeded.
Two bandits, crouched around a campfire.
Then the warrior became as a sudden shout; fast and unexpected. He vaulted the wooden bridge and landed in the cave water with a splash. The first came at him with a searching blow, expecting the shield's block and the sword's return. He blocked with the flat of his sword, and spun, attacking with the shield's edge, clipping the bandit's temple. Faendal's arrow finished it, leaving him gurgling his last into the cave-water. The second was engaged with Orgnar, and the warrior rushed him, batting away his frantic thrust with a sweep of his shield and impaling him.
There was a drawbridge, of decent design. They found the control and lowered it, and two bandits rushed across, the probable builder one of them, a muscular man wielding a warhammer of considerable size.
They met a fortress wall; unfeeling and impassable. The two bandits made a good pair, one slow and strong, the other quick and cutting. The cutter scored a shallow line along the his sword arm, and the hammer's blow would without a doubt leave purple bruises on his shield arm. But he was a wall, and walls did not retreat, and then there was Faendal's arrow in the giant's calf, and Orgnar's mace at his crown, and the cutter was alone, no match for the wall as it came down upon him.
Across the bridge, there was a vault of loot, and a guard with a key. A forest fire took her, consuming all and leaving no trace; killing the guard with one terrific swing, they took back the band's ill-gotten gains.
Finally, they came upon the mining chamber, a large cavern across which the bandits had built bridges.
The warrior spotted the traitor apprentice below, working a forge much like the one he had under his master, and with a roar, he let his rage run free. He was the storm itself, thunderous and inescapable.
When he recalled it, he could not remember where he was in that fight. Was he storming the high ledges, catching arrows on his shield? Or did he leap down, cutting down the orc as he tried to flee?
It did not matter. For the battle was over, and the warrior was a man once more, a grim scarecrow among the field of dead. A manslayer reborn.
"My patience with this business of personal transport is near it's end, Dovahkiin. Beyn ahmik dukaan." Odahviing rumbled, as the mountain peaks raced by beneath them. "You mistake the nature of our relationship."
"Oblaan smoliin zin, dovah. Do not doubt my appreciation, Odahviing, nor my comprehension of our deal." The Dragonborn replied impassively. "And I mistake nothing. Ofam prem ov. You know the duties I am honorbound to discharge. The stakes are dire. I cannot move with anything less than the speed of the wind. If it is a matter of remuneration, name your price, and I will see it paid, if it is within my power."
They touched down a short distance from the Tower of Mzark. His accord with Odahviing was among the larger secrets he kept by necessity. Despite being foretold to be 'kin to both wyrm and the races of man', his reputation was as dragonslayer. The reaction of the general populace was nothing, compared to if word reached Sky Haven Temple. Delphine and her Blades were zealots. She, at the very least, would not hesitate to cut him down if she thought he stood in the way of her duties as a Blade, which she viewed with a religious fervor. But she was a problem for another day.
And he did stand in her way. He had once agreed with her genocidal intentions, but the events of the prophecy had reforged his opinions.
He had been fated to stop Alduin, and given the soul of a dragon to further that end by Akatosh, Alduin's own father. The Dragonborn did not typically ponder questions of theological intent, but in this, he had a vested interest. A warrior who did not think was merely a tool. A honed sword could cut through men, but a honed mind would conquer all. A hard lesson learned, but learned well, from many teachers. His father. Kodlak. Jarl Balgruuf. Paarthurnax.
If Akatosh was father of dragons, would he send a mortal to devour them all, for the tyranny of his firstborn alone? Would any father purposefully orchestrate the slaughter of his children?
Dragons were ancient beings, full of wisdom beyond the grasp of short-lived races. The murder of a dragon was no better than the murder of a man. Occasionally, it was even worse. That lesson had been Paarthurnax's alone, and a bitter one indeed.
Was it his fate to kill them all? Was it right? Once, he would have answered surely. Now, the warrior found himself conflicted. He could not leave them to their own devices, for when he passed away, there would be none to challenge them if they went again to war; of the dragonborn, he was the last - on that the prophecy was clear. But to ignore his feelings and destroy them all would be wrong, his heart said, and likely anger the chief deity of the Nine Divines besides.
An alternative solution. That had been the price of Odahviing's allegiance. When he learned of Paarthurnax's death, it had nearly driven him away. But the promise had anchored him. The Harbinger would try to find another way of dealing with the dragons other than complete annihilation, and Odahviing would assist him to that end.
Flying him all across Skyrim stretched the terms, true. But both the Dragonborn and Odahviing knew the alternative. If the choice was Dragons or Man, he would devour the wyrms' souls to the last, and let Akatosh's judgement fall upon him as it may. The warrior knew that Odahviing would do his best to sway that decision. And he would let him. Odahviing's method of convincing involved giving as much aid as he could, and lessons in the Thu'um besides, even if he grumbled.
"Pah, a worthy payment would be silence." Odahviing's voice rumbled, and the warrior had a paranoid fantasy of him bringing the mountain down on them by accident. "Folas zul rotmulaag. Your Thu'um is strong, but your accent atrocious. If you even find Vulthuryol in the skyless depths, he will be too busy laughing to fight."
He peered out through the curtain of snow which dusted the mountaintop. He could make out the excavation camp in the distance. "You are sure he will be there, Odahviing?"
"Sizaan vahrukt tiid! I am sure of nothing. The Deep One left us to live among the Lost Elves so long ago it fades even in my memory. Fahliil brendon dahmaan. The undercity was the center of the dwarves' culture, with knowledge enough to draw even a dovah, albeit the most scholarly of us, from the open sky. If he lives, he will be there." Odahviing's pupils dilated as he tracked a pack of dire wolves idly, their forms like ghosts against the snow. "You must find him, first."
"Arniel Gane thinks he's found a way to summon him in one of the records. That won't be a problem. Peaceful skies to you, Odahviing. I'll be back soon."
"Dovahkiin." Odahviing rumbled, and arose into the sky.
It was a long trudge down to the camp, which surrounded the main lift. The camp was made up largely of paid mercenaries, contracted by the College of Winterhold - what they lacked in manpower and reputation, they made up for in their coffers, as they held a monopoly on magical products and services outside of court. Torvar, one of the warrior's own shield-brothers, had been hired as their captain at his suggestion.
An entire company of mercenaries to protect scarcely four mages seemed paranoid at first. But the dangers of the Blackreach were not to be underestimated. In their subterranean exile, the Falmer's minds had degenerated to near that of beasts, but even beasts were to be feared in the dark. And for every trap and defense left by the Dwemer that was found and marked, it seemed two more were overlooked.
Lydia was waiting for him in the camp, as he had requested per his missive a few days prior. He recognized her tent by the great black charger tied to a post outside, something he'd given her; less a gift than a necessity. More often than not, he had her seeing to tasks he wished done but could not set aside time doing, and she needed a fast horse to get to the places he needed her to be. One would be hard pressed to find a more harried housecarl in all of Skyrim, and she had no qualms about reminding him as such.
"My Thane, how honored I am to see you." The Thane of Whiterun winced involuntarily. The tone of icy venom she used when angry was out in full force, today. Likely, it had something to do with having to ride all the way from the Reach and spend several days in a cold camp with leering mercenaries. "What duty may I see fulfilled this time? Shall I raid some ancient burial mound in search of some rumored artifact? Perhaps I could break up some band of Forsworn for you in search of a legendary sword. You need but ask, my Thane, and see your wish granted. Certainly my Thane is too mighty to require the traditional duties of a housecarl, of staying by his side and protecting him."
Her face could have been carved from ice. The warrior grinned humorlessly, the way he often did when staring into a dragon's jaws. "Actually, that's exactly why I need you here. We're going to face a dragon, and there's no shield I'd rather have at my side than yours. Good work, Lydia."
It worked just the way he thought it would. "I-really-well, good! Yes." She sputtered, flushing. Lydia was a stoic, no-nonsense shield-thane, or at least strove to be - and there was no living woman he'd rather have fighting with him. However, her constant dedication to being the perfect servant left her seemingly unprepared to deal with appreciation, or praise. This made poking fun at her very, very easy. "Thank you, my Thane." She added, after a brief hesitation.
They called the lift, which arrived after a short wait, and boarded it. The elevator trip down the shaft was long and claustrophobic, with only the torch stands left by the exploration team for illumination. He was used to it, but Lydia became uncomfortable after a minute.
"So, a dragon. Do we have a plan?" She asked, removing a fresh bowstring from her pouch and counting her arrows. "Does it breathe ice or fire?"
"The plan is simple." The Dragonborn responded, unmoving. "I will summon the great beast, and subdue it. You will stand guard, and if the dragon errs, you will take your sword-" He gestured to her hip, where the brand of Red Eagle hung. "-and correct him. We're not here to fight, housecarl mine. I mean to speak with the wyrm."
He expected her to object, or at least to question. The warrior's face must have revealed his expectation, as the shield-maiden spoke.
"It is enough that I am with you again, my Thane." She might have meant it stiffly, but it came out soft. "I am your sword and shield. Mine is not to question, but to obey."
The Dragonborn felt a rush of emotion, gratitude and guilt intermixed. Lydia, for all her bluntness, was a companion without flaw, and it was foul of him to put his needs before the duty she had been trained for. But there was no other choice. He had a mountain of obligations, and too few people capable of seeing them through in his stead. Fewer still that he could trust.
The lift touched down into a scene of mild pandemonium. A centurion - an old one, gods be praised - had gotten reactivated, and the mercenaries had formed a wary circle around it, each distracting it in turn while another thrashed it with a war-hammer from behind. They took care to avoid the centurion's deceptively slow attacks. Perhaps they had encountered one of the more well-kept ones before, with unbroken armor and steam left in their throwers, which could melt skin like butter from your flesh. Absentmindedly, the warrior rubbed a splotchy scar on his neck in remembrance.
Nearby, Arniel Gane was hollering at them, attempting to bring order to the situation.
"Just banging away won't do you any good! Attack the joints, they're the weakest parts! Dibella's smallclothes, you think you can dent dwarven plate with an iron hammer! Idiots!" He took that moment to notice the legendary hero watching from behind him. "Oh, Dragonborn! I received word you would come. This is beyond a simple embarrassment-"
"Easy, mage." The Harbinger reassured him. "I'll handle this. Lydia, you have my back."
He drew his sword of straight Skyforge steel, and approached it from behind, laying his shield to the ground. Some of the mercenaries abruptly recognized him, and thought him much more interesting to gawk at than the ancient construct trying to kill them.
"Eyes forward!" He roared, startling them back into military efficiency. "Give me its flank!"
The mercenaries complied, sidling to the side slowly. The centurion, programmed to follow the greatest perceived threat, lumbered slowly after them, crushing a patch of eerily glowing fungi beneath its golden heels.
As soon as its side was exposed, the warrior sprang into action, grabbing a weaponized arm and ramming a dagger into the elbow joint, locking up the deadly appendage. It reacted predictably, swinging its other limb around, the deadly axe-blade gleaming.
Lydia stepped inside the stroke fearlessly, stabbing her nord blade into pivoting gears. The blade entered and the ancient steel snapped, the forearm buffeting her in the chest with a great clang, knocking her on her back. The golden titan raised its foot to crush her, and Lydia rolled nimbly out of the way, clambering to her feet as she tried to catch her wind. The construct made to swing its axe-arm and slay her, but it locked, whatever remained of Red Eagle's sword holding it in place.
"Back! All of you back!" The warrior hollered. "I have it now!"
With that, he set his sword in his teeth, and grabbed hold of the centurion, clambering up its form. It made to bring its appendages to bear and end him, but the gears groaned and failed. Its only recourse then was to attempt to spin and shake him off, but it moved far too slow to do more than cause mild unbalance. Straddling the machine's great shoulder pauldron, the Dragonborn curled his fingers under the lip of the expressionless helmet-face, and pulled, exposing a space between breastplate and head into which he could see countless tiny gears and pistons moving together under a red light. Taking his sword in hand, he plunged it violently into the gap.
There was a flash of hellish crimson beneath the metal skin of the automaton as the warrior's blade struck the dynamo core, extinguishing it. The construct instantly lost all presumptions of animation, teetering backwards under the Dragonborn's weight, forcing him to leap awkwardly off as it crashed into the moist soil, silent as the city it protected.
The mercenaries let up a small cheer, and Torvar left them to pat him on the back. "An impressive work, brother." He said jovially. His hands had become much steadier since the Harbinger had confronted him about his drinking. "I'll tell of it the next time I'm in Jorrvaskr."
He nodded in acknowledgement, kneeling to take up and refasten his shield. "I'd recommend spears if you're staying any longer. Have one of the College apprentices slow it down with a physical weirding - frost, not lightning, mind you, lightning makes it flail. If you can even nick the core inside it'll finish it." From his side, Lydia approached, mourning her lost sword.
"Damned relic." She sighed, tossing the broken hilt aside. "I would have sold it to a collector but for the enchantment against undead on it. Made clearing crypts like killing mudcrabs."
Torvar grunted, and unslung his axe, a two-handed, wicked thing of Skyforge steel, offering it to Lydia. "Use mine, till your 'matter' is put to rest, then - I've had precious little use for it, ever since we collapsed the Falmer ambush tunnels."
The housecarl seemed aghast. "I'm no sworn of your order, honored Companion - the right to wield hero's metal is not mine."
"Horseshit." Torvar snorted indelicately. "You're the shield-thane of the Harbinger, and you need a weapon. Besides, as far as I'm concerned, any woman hard enough to brave these depths is welcome to bear my axe." Lydia uneasily took the axe. He glanced upwards, at the fragmented panes of white which made up the ceiling, and shivered. "Every time I look up at that false sky it makes me uneasy. You lose track of night and day here. Mark me, Harbinger - see your business and begone from this place. There are older and fouler things than Falmer in these depths - an evil that does not sleep. Mark me."
"I mark you, Torvar. I have enough memories for a lifetime of darkness and death. No need to add more. With all luck, we should be out of here within the hour."
The Companion nodded and acquiesced, gathering his men with a great shout. The Dragonborn waved to get Arniel's attention, where he was fussing over the felled centurion, having pried off the golden breastplate through some means, exposing the messy tangle of warped gears left of the metal golem's innards. The mage retrieved a metal probe and prodded one red shard of broken core with dismay.
"If only you could have left the dynamo core intact." Arniel sighed. His hands glowed briefly with magicka and with a gesture, the dynamo shards and several tiny components whose importance the warrior could not begin to guess rose into the air, flying seemingly of their own accord into a sack tied at his belt. "There are not nearly enough left intact for proper study."
"Focus, Arniel. The summoning?" The Dragonborn reminded him.
"Ah, yes. Follow me."
The mage led them on an ambling path through the Blackreach, marked off with torches and illuminated by the flora and false light of the cavern ceiling. There were traps marked with red magelight, and they passed two corpse piles yet unburned, mostly Falmer. Mostly. The Harbinger stopped briefly to close the eyes of one man, perhaps missed among the slaughter.
They came to the center of the chamber, where two buildings stood upon a great stone plaza, build in the stolid Dwemer style of stone and dwarven metal. A titanic golden orb in a cast metal frame shone light down upon the cobbled white stone, suspended by nothing visible. More of the mysterious magicks of the Dwemer, no doubt.
Arniel led them into the smaller of the two, slipping into a lecture as naturally as a pair of boots. "From what I've learned from the scant texts I could find, this building was known as the 'Hall of Rumination', or some close translation. The other building you saw was used for debate. It's rather exciting, for me, at least - the Blackreach, or 'Blackest Kingdom Reaches' as it was mentioned in Dwemer Inquiries, used to be a sort of metropolis of learning; a college-city, if you would."
"Mm." The warrior offered eloquently. The professor continued as if he hadn't spoken at all.
"The Dwemer's greatest scientists and inventors were instructed and built their laboratories here. What I've found will already make history, and there's yet an archive and library to found, if I've read correctly. It was even recorded that an Elder Scroll might be housed in the Tower of Mzark."
The mage glanced at him shrewdly, and the Dragonborn understood immediately the point of his speaking in the first place. Arniel Gane was not the doddering academic he appeared, it would seem. But then, it wasn't as if the warrior had put the observatory he'd retrieved the Scroll from back in order before leaving. He wondered how the professor would react if he knew the Dragonborn had hid the priceless, omniescient archive of prophecy under his smallclothes in his bedroom chest at Jorrvaskr.
Poorly, no doubt. Scholars were always so reverent of such things.
"Did you find it?" The warrior asked, tone perfectly bland. Arniel waited a moment longer and shook his head, his face falling. The Harbinger smiled quietly to himself. He knew little of cultured ways; the gilt, the craft and the lie were alien to him. But he'd learned to keep a straight face dicing and playing cards in Jorrvaskr. It'd earned him many septims, if the occasional black eye.
"My Thane called me here because you said you'd found something, Breton. What was it?" Lydia prompted, having kept silent the majority of the walk.
"Yes!" Arniel exclaimed, perking back up. He led them through a door into a flight of stairs, which they began to climb. "When the Dragonborn's request came in, to look for references to a 'Vulthuryol', I almost suspected you'd used the Voice to read my mind! I just happened to be investigating the very same thing. A later text I found, one nearer to their great disappearance, mentioned a keeper of the archives. Now, his description as a 'son of Akatosh' leaves little to the imagination, but I must regardless ask: he is a dragon, correct?"
"Correct." The Dragonborn admitted reluctantly. He'd hoped to order Arniel away before the summoning and keep the knowledge, but it seemed it would be futile.
The mage seemed to quibble with himself for a minute, arguing internally, before coming to a decision.
"I wonder if it would be possible for you to hold off slaying it, just to ask it a few questions?" Arniel asked hesitantly. "The reason I sought Vulthuryol myself was in pursuit of the lost repositories; he was archivist and librarian of the Dwemer, before they vanished. It is written that he entered a mystical dragonsleep, waiting for when the Deep Elves would return to Mundus. If the archive or library still exist, he would know where to find him." The mage wrung his hands worriedly. "Please, Dragonborn. It is sung that you challenged a wyrm to single combat at Dragonreach and mastered it, and forced from it knowledge of the World-Eater - if you could do the same here, the insights gleaned could change the very world as we know it." His eyes seem to gleam, as the professor began what promised to be an impressive rant. "Imagine city walls manned and repaired by metal spiders, imagine plows pulled by centurion-"
The Dragonborn's composure broke, and he laughed, long and hard from his gut. It was simply too ridiculous. Arniel stopping indignantly and Lydia eyeing him perplexed only made it worse.
All his worrying about how his negotiating with dragons would be taken by the populace, and now he was being begged to do it. But then, if rumors were to be believed, the College of Winterhold had always been home to odd birds. He thought of how Odahviing would take the lyrical interpretation of their confrontation at Dragonreach, and laughed still harder.
"You should know, mage, that if I slew Vulthuryol, I would be able to tell you such things and more." The Harbinger said, wiping a mirthful tear from his eye. Arniel blinked in confusion. "But twice fortune for you, I too have boons to ask of the serpent. I will consult Vulthuryol for you, and you will speak of our consort to no living soul afterwards."
"Ah. Well." The professor said, seemingly shocked into terseness. "I accept your bargain, Dragonborn. Thereafter this meeting my lips will remained sealed."
The stairs reached an end at door, and Arniel opened it out onto a brightly-lit mezzanine. They were high above the plaza, now, much closer to the orb, which nearly hurt to gaze at now, so close and enormous. The warrior wondered if it were meant to resemble the sun.
They strode with care down a stone catwalk clear of railings or handholds to a large circular viewing platform - large enough for a dragon, he noted. The orb now eclipsed all other things; rather than the urge to avert the eyes, the bright light seemed to have softened somehow, making it difficult to look at anything but the sun-which-was-not. The Dragonborn turned back to Arniel, who seemed mesmerized along with Lydia by the golden light, his sunken eyes thrown into stark relief. "The summoning?"
"Hmm? Oh, of course." The professor patted himself down until he had produced a scrap of paper, which he tilted to read in the light. Lydia shook herself from her trance and hefted Torvar's axe, adjusting her dented breastplate. "I have the translation of the passage here. Ahem. 'And the Chimer came to the Blackest Kingdom Reaches, seeking the powers of their lost allies, and were rebuffed; Vulthuryol, Philosopher-King of the Great Library and Overlord of the Starry Archive yet remained in-Mundus, for he was not of the golden deep but a son of the Dragon God of Time-"
The warrior closed his eyes and willed his voice civil. "The ritual itself, Arniel."
"Of course. 'And Vulthuryol spake unto the Chimer: begone from these hallowed halls of learning, betrayers, or see them lost to you evermore! I will remain in vigil, watcher and keeper of the histories of the Dwemer until their return. Their coming will be like the forceful shout of my father to the sun, as he calls it to rise each dawn-"
The Dragonborn heard the words 'forceful shout' and immediately understood, tuning the mage's droning out as he reached deep inside his own mind.
It was strange, the feeling of preparing the Thu'um. Paarthurnax, in his teachings, had said it was a form of meditation, and that visual cues helped - the golden dragon, for example, imagined himself far above the clouds, so high he could see the stars; there, he found the words of the Shout among the constellations.
The Dragonborn closed his eyes, and found himself on the peak of the Throat of the World. Skyrim stretched out like a map before him, all the swooping cliffs and soaring peaks and the endless blue sky which caught and held his soul. The word wall was before him, chipped and faded with the passing of seasons unending.
Arngeir had told him once disdainfully that the word walls did not list the full range of Shouts known, merely the once used in battle - that the word walls were leftovers from before the Jurgen Windcaller and the Way of the Voice, when the Thu'um was used for war, which explained why he found them in old crypts among draugr Tongues. Barbarian scribbles, the Greybeard had called them. That was fine, for the warrior was a barbarian, and proudly so; better a barbarian, he thought, than a delusional old man, willing to martyr the world to a dragon in order to satisfy his ideology. The word wall was enough for him.
The words he sought were there, glowing softly with azure light, blue like the sky which named the land. He touched FUS and thought Force, touched RO and knew Balance, touched DAH and felt Push.
And then the souls rose around him in a surge of light, a thousand upon a thousand years of stolen memory and contemplation of the Shout, gorged from the essence of immortal beings. The words rose and locked together and he understood, and the scene disappeared and he stood in the black depths before a false star with a truth rising in his throat with a force he could not contain.
An unrelenting force.
The Shout was supernaturally loud by nature, echoing painfully the chamber, exploding from his mouth in a wave. Arniel cried out in fear and surprise. Lydia bore it with the strength of experience. The Shout tore its way through the short distance, uprooting the very fabric of the air with an almost imperceptible blue shimmer, and struck the orb, sending a thunderous gong through the Blackreach, shaking the canopy of mushrooms and rattling the teeth in his mouth.
The silence afterwards was more deafening than the Thu'um itself. Arniel, unable to contain himself, opened his mouth to speak-
A screeching roar in the darkness rose, a being awoken of shadow and flame.
"Back!" The warrior howled, and they retreated up the ramp, just barely in time. With a great crash, Vulthuryol alighted upon the platform, his talons screeching upon the stone.
The dragon's scales were a bloodless grey, his wings pale and membrenous. A growl rose in Vulthuryol's throat, smoke leaking out of the edges of his mouth, and the warrior noted his teeth - perfect, unbroken, as if never used. The most unnerving was its eyes; instead of flesh, two golden orbs of dwarven metal revolved furiously in the wyrm's sockets, engraved with the red glow of Dwemer technology. The Dragonborn was struck near dumb by its appearance, so strange and apart from the other kin of Akatosh.
The dragon did not care for his speechlessness. "Atmora." Vulthuryol rumbled, and the warrior felt the hateful dragonfire smoldering in preparation. It seemed there would be no dialogue had willingly.
That was fine. Lydia let out a warning shout as Vulthuryol's jaws opened, fire blooming, and the Dragonborn called upon the one Shout he could use with no preparation; a Shout of Men, by Men, for Men to wield.
It was like no other Shout in the Harbinger's arsenal. Instead of launching fire, or ice, or changing some other material thing, it forced the realization of a conceptual truth on a being not meant to understand it.
It seemed like such a harmless and high-handed thing, when explained - simple mortality, more a point of philosophy than an attack. But the sons of Akatosh were born immortal, meant to live unchanging for all of time. The concept of death, of ending, was not merely alien, but unknowable to the dov. Paarthurnax had said the words by themselves were difficult to pronounce. The Shout itself was an existential agony.
Mortal. Finite. Temporary. Perhaps because he was a mortal man; no, not even a man, but a warrior, who dealt and lived with death constantly, there was no Shout he better understood than Dragonrend. Only once had it failed him, and it did not today.
Vulthuryol screamed, the flames of his Shout disappearing as his mind failed him, unable to deal with the knowledge he was not meant to know. The Dragonborn approached the thrashing creature calmly, heedless of Lydia's dismayed warning.
Then, taking his shield of banded iron in both hands, the warrior dealt the dragon a thunderous blow across the snout.
Vulthuryol reeled back - from the pain, rather than the force, naturally; the Harbinger was strong, but not that strong. The underwyrm's talons scrabbled on the platform, and for a moment, the Dragonborn thought he might topple right off. But Vulthuryol righted himself, his twitching ceasing, and the warrior found himself caught under the dragon's gaze, two pinpricks of artificial red light traveling lazily over his proportionately tiny form. A rumble of wrath rose in the immortal's maw, but his lowered head and cautious stance spoke of disbelief, and fear. Good. The fearful made excellent listeners.
"Speak you the common tongue?" He asked, his tone betraying nothing.
The dragon's voice was harsh, and grated strangely, as if echoing - nothing like the mellow rumble of Paarthurnax or the proud roar of Odahviing. "Of course. My spell of dragonsleep took into account such things. The exact mechanics are unimportant and likely far beyond your grasp." Ocular gears whirred. "Who are you, to wield such a monstrous thu'um against I, Vulthuryol? Who are you to dare?"
A rush of smoke came forth from the dovah'scracked nostrils, buffeting the warrior in the face. His eyes watered, but he forced himself to neither blink nor cough.
"I am Dovahkiin, the last." The Dragonborn announced in level, strident tones. "You may have heard of me."
Vulthuryol responded to this at once in a strange way. The tension in his minute movements vanished, and he settled down on his fore-talons, a calm, steady smog drifting from the corner of his jaw as his breathing steadied. "Alduin is dead, then? And you wish to parlay. So be it; I will hear your words."
The warrior frowned, unnerved by his rapid shift in moods and seemingly prescient foresight. "How could you know my intent? Or of Alduin?"
"Is it not obvious?" Vulthuryol asked, seeming...peeved? "Your confrontation with the Eldest Son was indeed long foretold, and you stink of Shor's realm. I predicted many ages ago while analyzing the prophecy - a purely theoretical exercise, naturally, while Alduin yet lived - that given his power, the only place he could be defeated would be Sovngarde, where he could be denied the chance replenish himself on mortal souls. A defeat in any other location would be meaningless, as the possibility of wounding Alduin beyond his capability to retreat was considered extremely unlikely."
"Further more, if you did not insist on interrupting me, if we accept your being Dovahkiin and Alduin being dead as true, then one must assume that you had the means to kill Alduin, as you are unlikely to have received Divine or Daedric help due to the treatises preventing such, being that Alduin was a deity, albeit one not of the pantheon. Since I do not consider myself to be stronger than Alduin, I must accept that it is highly likely that you possess the ability to kill me beyond rational doubt, a theory which your previous...actionslend credence to." The dragon shuddered in brief recollection.
"Therefore, being as it is that you are Dovahkiin, Alduin is dead and I yet live, I can only assume you are here for a reason other than devouring my immortal soul. Likely because you want something." Vulthuryol snorted derisively, and the Dragonborn was forced to cough slightly - there was simply more smoke than air. "They always do. So out with it. I'm perfectly willing to negotiate for my continued existence. Unless you have any more inane inquiries to make. About my voice, perhaps? Much like my eyes, I have modified it to allow me to reproduce a wide variety of sounds without strain." His near monotonous voice was unmistakeably smug. "Unlike my brothers, I can converse cleanly in all known dialects, not merely that of the dov."
The Harbinger found himself momentarily at a loss for words. This discussion had deviated wildly from what he imagined. He had known that attempting a discourse with a dragon awakened from likely hundred years of sleep would be difficult. He hadn'tdreamed the dragon could be so annoying.
Ignoring Arniel's attempts to catch his eye, he spoke. "What you suspect is true. The World-Eater is slain, and I have need of your services. The remaining dragons - Viinturuth, Nahagliiv, and Vuljotnaak - marshal their forces of jills and nameless ones in reaches unknown. I wish not their destruction, but I cannot leave them be. An accord must be met, and they will not hear it from me."
"Aam? Then Paarthurnax is dead as well, if Second-Sons lead the host." Vulthuryol rumbled. "Know that your position worsens, Dovahkiin. The Old One's wisdom is a grave, senseless loss." Several metallic rings in the wyrm's eyes rotated, narrowing the beam angrily. "Truly, only a mortal could ruin antiquity so callously."
"I did what I felt I must." The Harbinger retorted shortly. The regret still tugged at him, even now, but he would lose a limb before admitting it to this creature. "You called them the Second-Sons. What does that mean?"
"It is a title of hierarchy. Of our kind, only Alduin and Paarthurnax were born directly by our father's hand, souls formed by his design; as such, they were the First-Born of Akatosh, given the power of life and death over our kind. Only they have the right to create or resurrect the dovfrom nothing. We, those dragons derivative from them who have earned our Names, are the Second-Sons."
Vulthuryol's snout rose, and he howled, releasing a torrent of fire into the darkness above, jerking the warrior into readiness. Lydia grimly set her shield. However, the dragon merely lowered its head, and to his surprise, he saw in its features not rage, but mourning, as he had seen in Paarthurnax when the dragon had spoken of the war.
"Do you realize how greatly you have erred yet, Dovahkiin? With both the First-Born dead, there can be no new dragons to join our fold. If there is one lesson our father passed down upon us, it is the inevitability of time. Even should we all live, our race shall stagnate in the isolation of our own realm, a fate I myself joined another culture to escape." Vulthuryol shook his great head side to side solemnly, in a very human gesture of denial. "You offer us life, but we are already dead."
The Dragonborn rocked back on his heels, thrown by the weight of his actions, only now revealed. He had sought the safety of his race and home, but in doing so, had doomed another to extinction. What would it be like, he wondered, to lose all the women of a race? All the men? It was something too far from hope for him to grasp, to great and alien a despair for a simple warrior to understand.
Well. Perhaps not so far for him. For a moment, he saw red hair and flashing eyes in moonlight. His hand rose to his breast-buckle, beneath where a worn amulet of Mara hung, and remembered the day his heart had died.
Here was not the place for this, nor now the time. He shook off the melancholia with brusqueness, and let his purpose spur his words.
"Wrong. You are wrong, Vulthuryol!" The Dragonborn barked. "Have you forgotten the value of living itself in this dark abyss? Or perhaps, as a mortal, I simply know it better than you!" He stepped forward, affixing the wyrm with an accusing finger. "You say the dov will decay and perish, left alone in their broken cycle and doomed realm. Then be not alone! Life, I offered you, and life I will give. If the dragons can accept and ensure peace, with all the free races of Skyrim, then they may stay, and live, and grow, and learn, as you did from the Dwemer. That is the offer I make you, dovah; life to live, and a home to keep. What say you?"
"Words and dreams are what you offer, Dovahkiin." Vulthuryol snorted derisively, dark amusement coloring his tone. "If others of my kind could coexist with the mortal races, would I have ever left? And what of the jul, your own kind? How can you assure their cooperation?"
The warrior smiled. "Paarthurnax lived as friend to Men for hundreds upon hundreds years, and was he not wise?" His smile faded. "My people will accept the peace. I will make them see, if need to be."
Vulthuryol let out a wooshing breath, blowing the Harbinger's sweaty hair back in tangles. "It will have to do, I suppose. I will do as you ask, but I warn you - the likelihood of success is outlandish even optimistically. But I will try."
"Try hard, Vulthuryol." He replied, gaining steel in his tone. "Or I will be forced to see you all dead within my lifetime."
The warrior turned to leave, and found himself almost face-to-face with Arniel, who was practically jumping up and down with frustration. He chuckled.
"Also, Vulthuryol, the professor here would like to know if you'd be willing to open the archive and library to him."
In an instant, the dragon's whole demeanor changed. "Professor? A mortal of proper learning? Thank the Divines! Finally, a chance to have a rational, intelligent discussion." Vulthuryol rumbled eagerly, scrabbling forward on the stone. Arniel looked as though he might soil himself. He glanced at the warrior, who stood completely bewildered. "You may take your leave. I have my own means of getting to the surface."
The Harbinger, having no further purpose in the Blackreach, and fully ready to be free of the dark place, did so. On the way back, he heard a rumble, and turned to see a building rising in the distance. It seemed that Arniel was in luck. He supposed that scholars would be scholars, no matter the race.
The lift ride up was quieter than the one down. Unusually, he found himself the uncomfortable one this time, unable for the life of him to meet his housecarl's eyes. It quickly grew unbearable.
"Do you think I'm making a mistake?" He asked softly, watching the elevator grow lighter as they reached the surface.
Lydia cocked her head sideways, considering for a long while. "I think you're gambling, my thane." She answered finally, as the cold hit, and the doors opened to the surface. It was snowing harder now, a true storm. Torvar was waiting, and she handed him his axe. "Long odds, but you've gambled longer."
"It was only my life on the line, then." I replied, as we headed.
"It was all of Skyrim then. And it's all of Skyrim now." Lydia retorted. "Have faith in yourself, my thane. Everyone else does, and not for no reason. I trust your judgement."
The Dragonborn was momentarily humbled into silence, as they reached her tent. "No words may suffice, Lydia. You are my truest companion."
She smiled sadly. "And you're yet sending me away. Again."
"Yes." He admitted. The time for regrets and melancholia was indeed passed, long passed. "No more errands this time, though. A peace cannot be founded on divided ground. The Stormcloaks no longer endanger Whiterun, and lose more ground every day, but their end must come about as soon as possible. The Reach, the Rift and the Pale lie yet in Stormcloak hands - this must change. Bring word to their Jarls."
The Dragonborn handed her his sword. Lydia took it, her face going slightly ashen.
"Tell them the time for squabbling and politics has passed." He whispered harshly. "Tell them that the rebellion is over. Tell them the Harbinger and his Companions are coming, to any hold which flies the Stormcloak banner. Tell them Iam coming, and that I will turn the land beneath their holds and tear the sky down around them." He gazed out through the storm, looking at nothing. "To Dawnstar first, I think - their fishing nets feed most of the Stormcloak host, and an army marches first on its stomach."
Lydia nodded, clutching his blade to her chest as she wrapped her arms around herself, warding off the chill. "And where will you go?"
"The Emperor waits for me in Solitude." The warrior replied simply. "And if I've learned anything today, it's that nothing good comes of being alone."
The great stone antechamber was quiet but for their labored, fearful breathing. The two living men stood in a space between moments. The next would decide their fate.
The draugr's jaw chittered as it looked down at the sword embedded in his dessicated torso, eyes glowing with unearthly pale light. The ancient, enchanted axe clattered from the corpse's fingers, and the undead grasped the blade with one hand, the other arm having been hacked clean off.
The warrior snarled and pushed, driving his sword in a inch further. The overlord's knees buckled, and it wheezed a last grave-breath into the warrior's face before falling limp in a jumble of rotting limbs. The lord of Bleak Falls Barrow, whoever he may have been in life, was defeated.
Faendal collapsed in a heap of exhaustion, muttering half-hysterical prayers to the Divines. The warrior continued methodically, dismembering the draugr at the joints - he had no schooling in magic, but simple logic said that what had risen once could rise again.
"That has to be the last of them." Faendal nearly pleaded. He checked his bowstring and glanced down the way they came. "I don't know if I can deal with any more like that."
"That should be last." He assured the Bosmer, sliding down beside the archer wearily. "Draugr crypts are supposedly built around their overlords and priests. Given the extravagance of this chamber, I'd say that-" He nodded towards the dead overlord. "-was him." Faendal subsided, laying his head back against the cool stone of the strange wall.
The warrior regarded the wall with undisguised wariness, recalling the burst of dizziness and hallucination that had hit him upon approaching, leaving him open to the overlord's surprise attack. The characters were alien and hauntingly familiar all at once.
"Fus." The warrior murmured, and frowned. It was a meaningless sound.
After a short break for bread and cheese, the man and elf took accounts of the Barrow, starting from the entrance. They'd brought sacks and potions of vigor, bought from Lucan Valerius. Even so, it would likely take a horse and wagon to carry all the miscellania. They focused on the items with the highest value and least weight, working downwards from gems and soulstones to good steel and the venom from the great frostbite spider they'd encountered before Arvel the Swift, a rather hapless bandit who'd been trapped by it. A shame he'd tried to run. The warrior honestly would have let him go, if only to carry a message of warning to the other bandits in the region.
Finally, they made it back to the antechamber, and began sorting out the loot evenly. Sifting through an assortment of bronze dinnerware, the warrior came across the golden claw, the family heirloom Lucan had been so disappointed to lose. Catching Faendal eyeing it across from him, he tossed it over. The wood elf caught it jerkily.
"Take it." He said sternly, tallying as he poked his finger through a pile of septims. "You came to woo Camilla, yes? Don't deny it. There's not many merchant's sisters what would marry a woodcutter without means. The claw will do for her and Lucan, and your cut of the loot will do for starting your own homestead."
The lumberjack was speechless. "Thank you." He managed, after a short swallow.
The warrior grunted. "Don't open up a store. Lucan will gut you within a year. Also, I'll want the smaller fare of this, for traveling with. I plan to leave for Whiterun as soon as we're done here." The raid of the Barrow hadn't actually dealt him any major injuries; nothing that couldn't be healed on the way with his mother's charm.
"There's a dragon and war about, Faendal. Keep an eye on the sky, and hold you and yours close." He scooped a liberal pile of coins, a garnet, a ruby and two soul gems into his pouch. After a brief deliberation, he took the overlord's axe and tucked it his belt - respecting the dead was something of a moot point considering he had chopped the previous owner into human firewood, and the enchantment could be useful.
It was far less than his share of the haul, but the warrior had long ago the value of being generous. He had no love overmuch for material wealth, and the benefit of giving was less stabs in the back. Besides, the warrior had already claimed the real treasure of the crypt - an ancient stone map he'd found in the overlord's grave-chest, marked with what were bound to be other barrows, full of their own riches. He swaddled it in cloth and tied it to his back.
They stole a pair of sleeping rolls from the dead bandits and stayed the night in the crypt. Better the company of the finally dead than the freezing cold. In the morning, the warrior bid the woodcutter goodbye at the bridge and watched him trudge back into town, his great sack of valuables slung over his shoulder. Watched the town rouse itself to greet him. Watched Camilla embrace him with open arms.
The hype would wear off. Faendal would amass his fortune in the selling of the haul of Bleak Falls Barrow, and the town would regain its prosperity. He'd settle down with Camilla, no doubt. Theirs might be the first new home to grace Riverwood. The warrior thought Faendal a better man than himself, to be able to lay down his sword and take up such homely things. A life of battle was nothing like the stories sung - it was bleak, painful, and only ever ended one way.
But the warrior could not change his path. He knew to admire Faendal, who would die old in his bed, among his loved ones and family, living a long and full life; knew it in his head, but not his heart. For as Faendal turned, and waved, and beckoned, he could only turn away, trudging down the path towards Whiterun.
He didn't delude himself into thinking he did what he did for selfless reasons. The warrior fought because the burning in his blood demanded it. It was only by the virtue of his upbringing that he killed for the right reasons. Causes were empty, compacts failed, and men were always proven weak. He fought for no one's sake, but for something contained only within his heart.
And still he struggled to contain himself. He passed a pack of wolves on the road, and wished to try them. A patrol of Legionnaires escorting a Stormcloak prisoner, and he burned to test his mettle against theirs.
To kill a wolf is to break a brotherhood, and bring bad luck upon you. His mother's words rang, and he skirted the pack, who moved on in search of easier prey. The Legionnaires came, and he passed them with a polite nod, remembering the face of his father, seeing it in each plumed Imperial helm.
The power of one's own will imposed on the world was the only strength a man had. This was the truth the warrior lived by.
It was a relatively pleasant walk from Riverwood to Whiterun. The sun was out, and coming around the bend and seeing the full plains of Whiterun fully took his breath away. Green pastures for spans upon spans, suffocated by mountain flowers atop rolling hills. He was stolen away to memories of his grandfather.
The warrior, a boy of twelve, dangling his legs over the edge of the supply wagon. His grandfather, hacking a cough away into a kerchief, scowling at the grey drizzling of Cyrodill.
"On my ancestor's bones, this cloudy bog will be the end of me. A man can't rightly live without love of his country, and how's a man to love a land under a shrouded sky?" His grandfather shook his head and died two weeks later. The boy did not understand.
The warrior understood. Skyrim. It was in the name. Heaven and earth as one.
The walk down the mountain was a daze. He didn't feel any need to orient himself - it wasn't as if he could get lost, with the city of Whiterun rising like a crag from the plains. The warrior let his mind drift, and the tension in him melt away. Scenes passed by in a blur. A waterfall. Workers in a field. A meadery. It could not last.
The sounds of battle reached his ears and tore him from his reverie. "Ever the same." He muttered to himself, and charged ahead.
His initiative rewarded him with his first sight of one of Skyrim's famous roaming colossi - a giant.
It stood twice as tall as the tallest man, skin grey and mottled and carved with decorative scars of some unknown significance. It moved slowly, but the wide berth it was given by the trio of fighters harrying it suggested a high degree of lethality, compounded by how the swings of its club shook the cabbages of the field it stood in. It was not a windy day. Anything strong enough to hit that hard was something to avoid at all costs.
Naturally, this drew the warrior like a slaughterfish to chummed waters. He made his approach warily from behind, keeping a careful eye on the giant's backswing.
A measured approach was not to be, though - so focused was one of the fighters on avoiding the club that they forgot to keep an eye on their footing, tripping over one of the cabbages. It was a chance occurrence at the worst time, right when the giant was preparing its swing. It bleated a victory cry as it stumbled forward, whatever intelligence it possessed fully allowing it to recognize the opportunity presented it.
There wasn't any time for thought. The warrior charged forward, seizing at the enchanted axe tucked in his belt, and buried its head in the giant's back.
The effect was instantaneous. The giant flinched back, howling, as the axe's magicks came alight, setting the wound fully aflame. The warrior tugged to release his weapon, but found it stuck fast - the muscles of the creature were nearly as dense as wood, and clenched tight in pain besides. As the giant rounded on him, bellowing in fury, the warrior was reminded quickly of why he preferred swords to axes: they tended to put more distance between a man and the nasty things he was fighting. Things like giants raising their clubs.
He brought his shield up, and for several seconds, and then the world was nothing but spinning colors, rushing wind and painful impact. His head slammed back against the ground a final time, nearly knocking him out, his helmet turning a blow that would have been incapacitating instead to one that made him wish it was. His head ringing, mouth tasting of blood, and something twisted or gone wrong, he wished nothing more than a mug of mulled wine and a fire to sleep besides. Or really, even sleeping right here would do.
But life nor time stopped for wishes. The warrior heard the giant's rumbling footsteps through sluggish ears. If he did not move, he was a dead man. His mind seized upon that thought.
Men were weak. The warrior came as the draugr, without feeling and with singular purpose in mind - the kill.
His limbs lost feeling, and he forestalled planning in favor of reaction. Strategy would not save him now. The warrior rose, noting with detachment a swelling in his ankle. Sprained, badly. His shield was completely shattered, his arm peppered with shards of banded iron. That would need treatment.
The giant's distance, two spans. His remaining weapons, his sword and dagger. His course of action - dodge!
The warrior let himself fall forward easily, the club whistling overhead, the force of it buffeting him in the face with wind. Smoothly, he caught himself on his good leg, drawing his two blades in one motion. Keeping his weight on that one leg, he spun around the giant's follow-up backhand, stopping himself expressionlessly on his bad leg, a lightning bolt of pain shooting up his body.
There was no forethought. Only reaction, and mindless intent to kill.
The giant was too thick to hurt conventionally. Then go for the vitals and arteries. But those were situated too high.
So the warrior brought it low. Throwing himself forward in an affront to all rolls to avoid a smashing blow, he regained his bearings and jammed his dagger as hard as he could in the back of the giant's knee.
It warbled lowly in its gutteral language and took a knee as its leg gave out. The warrior saw the giant's head droop, and leapt into the window presented, jumping forward on his good luck and stabbing upwards with all his might.
The sword punched easily through the soft cartilage and thin bones of the giant's jaw, pinning its tongue to its mouth as it penetrated further, through the roof of the mouth and into the brain and out of the top of the skull, until the sword was buried hilt deep in the giant's skull.
The light faded from the creature's eyes, and it sagged in place. Where once there was a enormous, semi-intelligent being, there was now only fading warmth and meat soon to rot. And the warrior felt nothing at all.
That is, until the giant fell over on top of him. As it turns out, it was just as heavy in death as it was in life, and seemingly twice as vindictive. He gagged at the stench and winced as the giant's belt of mammoth bones dug harshly into his exposed skin.
The warrior remained there pinned, unable (and unwilling) to breathe, until he heard the crunch of footsteps in the frost-hardened soil.
"Farkas, Ria, get it off him." A woman's voice, alto, low and lyrical. Good for ballads, but not battle-chants. The warrior knew the blood-loss was getting to him then - he hadn't thought in musical terms since his grandfather died.
The weight shifted off, and the sun hit him straight in the eyes. He squinted blearily. A shadow overtook him as a woman crouched down.
The woman wore clan paint, great green claw-marks across her face, setting off her long crimson mane of hair, as if her whole crown had been set aflame. She wore armor of an old, old make - mammoth fur and leather holding together plates of banded, engraved iron, set with river stones. The closest he'd seen to its like was the rotting raiments worn by the draugr, but hers was rust free and proudly kept. He couldn't decide on the exact color of her eyes - pale blue or steely grey? Stormy skies or clear?
She looked as if she had stepped straight and whole out of some romantic old battle-hymn. The warrior groaned half-coherently something that seemed appropriate at the time. Her full lips quirked.
"No, this is not Sovngarde, and I am not a shieldmaiden sent by Shor to ferry you there. Sorry to disappoint you." Giving him a once over, she dryly asked. "Do you always pick fights with beings so much greater? We had it under control, you know. We are of the Companions of Jorrvaskr."
The warrior had no idea what she meant, but followed along anyway, not wanting to appear a fool. Propping himself up on one elbow, he responded, as he fished around in his pouch for an unsmashed healing vial. "Helping a fellow warrior is reason enough. Your friend was downed, and it's a sour hunt that sees one of the party fallen in victory."
Her eyes gleamed, and he knew that he had something right. An unnatural flush rushed through his body like a forest fire, and he began plucking the larger shards of shattered bulwark from his shield-arm, hardly feeling the sting.
"Well, one can hardly question your bravery." She rose from her crouch, hair swaying. She carried a longbow in one hand, wood carved and adorned with eagle feathers. "I am Aela the Huntress. The ranks of the Companions grow thin, and Kodlak Whitemane has put out the call for new blood. We could do far worse than someone with your mettle."
The Huntress smiled, and the warrior felt himself drawn, farther and faster than he ever had before, and in so few words besides. He would walk all the way to Whiterun on the memory of that smile.
"Will I see you there?" She asked, and so brought his doom.
"You will." He smiled back, and so sealed his fate.
AN: Occasionally, I like writing a character that can actually speak. I have been doing something in between Game of Champions chapters, thank you.