'You aren't with the Thalmor Embassy, are you? No, it can't be right...'
The Imperial soldier falters, his eyes darting from the record book in his hand to my face and back again, as if he appeals to this list of his in search of an answer why I lack the obligatory sleek, arrogant look of my kind.
I give him a reassuring smile, 'Oh no, sir, I am not with the Embassy. Far from it. You can be sure of that'.
The captain glares at me - I wonder vaguely if this is the same look she gives her children when they are misbehaving at dinnertime, 'Speak only when you are spoken to, prisoner!'
The soldier makes a quiet sort of sheepish, apologetic sound - he must be afraid that his superior's attitude is not doing a lot of good to the image of the Empire, 'Uh... What is your name... I mean,' catching the captain's eye, he hurries to clear his throat as authoritatively as he can, 'State your name, prisoner'.
My smile reaches it broadest, 'Baldr, sir. My name is Baldr'.
He frowns, clearly taken aback, 'I warn you, prisoner, that providing false information will not do you any good'.
'What makes you think it's false, sir?' I ask pleasantly, glancing out of the corner of my eye at the captain, who is now positively steaming with quiet rage - perhaps she is thinking that I am doing this on purpose, buying time for the Stormcloaks' grand escape or something of the sort.
The soldier mumbles something incoherent about Baldr being a Nord name, not elven; I interrupt him in the same even, polite tone, 'Oh, but you may rest assured, sir, that this is the name I have been known under all my adult life. I have no other'.
As a matter of fact, I am not being fully truthful; I was born Aurelion, but I discarded that name when I was eleven, under the circumstances which still live on in my heart but might seem totally irrelevant to any outsiders, especially to outsiders who are in the middle of deciding whether I am to go to the block or not...
I can still remember the northern lights. A band of softest, finest silk stretched across the sky, a rainbow in the middle of the night, a spell cast by the mightiest sorcerer imaginable, they were the first sight of the kind I had ever witnessed in my life, and the most vivid impression I still have left of that long, excruciatingly monotonous journey to Skyrim, where our father had been appointed as Justiciar several months before and where he wanted us both to be, close by his side, learning the trade, so to speak. I was awestruck when I looked up from the carriage and saw the otherworldly glow high above me, and, quite naturally, frightfully over-excited. I remember fidgeting in my seat, at the risk of falling out, and tugging violently at the fur pelts in which my elder brother, languid and listless and utterly bored, had wrapped himself.
'Look, Lemmie, look! Isn't that grand?' I shouted right into his ear, pointing at the magically shimmering lights, which had just started to change their shade, as if especially to provide proof for my words.
'Yes, yes,' he replied with a yawn, swatting at me like at a bothersome gnat.
I have not yet managed to find out what he has grown up to be, but regardless of what he might look like now, in my mind he will always remain as I last remember him, a lank, snooty youth, immensely self-satisfied and patronizing towards those select few whom he deigned to notice at all... and - funny that such little details should remain stuck in my memory - proudly cherishing his very first chin hairs.
'Don't crawl about like that - you have mud on your boots, you will smear it all over the place. And for the last time, don't call me Lemmie! Our nursery days are long since over; I am here to help Father, and you are here to enrich your education by seeing with your own eyes how the might of the Thalmor triumphs over these primitive barbarians...'
I still know some of his lectures by heart... He had not been such a bad sort when both of us could be counted as boys, but being included into the adult world must have gotten to his head, and thus Lemmie, who used to sail toy boats with me and play hide-and-seek in the garden and tickle the soles of my feet to wake me up in the morning, turned into Ondolemar, reserved and solemn and haughty, and filled to the brim with long speeches on the subject of elven supremacy. But I digress; this story is not about my relationship with my brother, but about quite a few other things.
I never got Ondolemar to take a look - even one teeny-weeny little look, as I pleaded him - at the northern lights, and when he finally poked his head out of his furs, it was to say, 'Ah, the Embassy. We have finally arrived. Aurelion, straighten your clothes and brush your hair. You look like a human'.
Pouting, reluctant, I turned away from the sky to catch the first glimpse of the grey square building that was looming, shadow-like, ahead of us. I remember shuddering at the sight of the spiked fence that encircled its walls; as the Embassy drew nearer and nearer, the northern lights gradually faded away and large, soft snowflakes started falling from the darkening clouds. At the time I, with childish intuition, regarded it as a bad omen; years later, I am still of the same opinion.
Our father came to meet us at the gates, his tall, robed figure outlined sharply against the rapidly thickening snowy murk. I can still recollect the awkward feeling that stirred within me when I stumbled out of the carriage and trotted up to Father in Ondolemar's wake. I knew that I was supposed to be happy to see him, and partly I was, for I had missed him terribly, but the haunting sense of foreboding never left me; it gnawed at my heart while we were being introduced to stone-faced, hooded grown-ups and conducted along endless gloomy, winding corridors to what was to be our quarters. I can't really be sure, but I think it quite plausible that when, after an eternity of tossing and turning, I finally fell asleep, I had my old nightmare - the serenely blue waves lapping at my feet and mother's face looking up at me through the water, ghastly white and twisted almost beyond recognition, her eyes wide open and her long golden hair swaying in the gentle current like seaweed.
This vision would taint my sleep regularly throughout my boyhood, especially when I was ill or upset, and it still comes back to me every now and again - the only memory I have of my mother... As far as I understand, judging by those snatches of grown-up talk that I would manage to overhear and understand as a child, she was constantly plagued by the voices of humans she had killed as a battlemage in the Great War; over the years, her condition steadily grew worse and worse, and when I was three, she could stand listening to those voices no longer and escaped from them into the blue stillness of the bay into which the terrace of our house opened... And I was the one to discover her body... But yet again - that is rather beside the point.
'Lemmie, I am bored...'
'What? Oh, Aurelion, can't you see that I am busy? Go outside and play, will you?'
'But it's snowing outside!'
'Well, then, read a book or something!'
'I've already read all the books Father gave me... And he won't let me read anything else! Please... Can we at least play hide-and-seek? This place has plenty of dark corners to hide in! Please, Lemmie...'
'I told you I am busy! Go bother someone else! And don't call me Lemmie!'
A dialogue of this kind was the common conclusion of my evenings at the Embassy. I would spend hours on end loafing around, physically sick of the oppressive atmosphere of the place, getting into the grown-ups' way and constantly ending up in rooms I wasn't supposed to enter and corridors I wasn't supposed to turn into. At times I would venture into the frozen world beyond the Embassy walls, but I was not allowed to stir out of the gates into the wilderness, and my single attempt to sneak off in what I believed to be the direction of Solitude resulted in a scandal. So, quite naturally, caged in a bleak new world I could barely understand, by the end of the day I would feel so utterly miserable that I just had to find Father or Ondolemar and whine for entertainment.
At times, they did try to keep me occupied somehow, by showing me around the Embassy or giving me books to read, but I felt even more averted to the things they showed me than to simply doing nothing. I never could grasp the thrill of elven supremacy; humans, beastfolk and the so-called 'lesser mer' fascinated me, and I wanted to learn more about them beyond the fact that they were species inferior to us. Something inside my mind, persistent like a throbbing sore, kept telling me that my father and brother were wrong, but at the age of eleven I just did not have any arguments to oppose them. When they finally saw that I was not in the least bit interested in what they were doing, they took to ushering me out of the room whenever I appeared with my pleas to be relieved of my ever-present boredom.
And so it came to be that one day I yet again found myself wandering aimlessly, bored, neglected, along the countless identical passageways, climbing up and down flights of steps and trying to turn one door handle after another, not missing a single one, not so much out of curiosity as to give myself something to do. I did not expect any of those doors to be open, so I leapt back, startled, when one of them gave way to my listless tug and slowly creaked ajar.
What I saw inside, when I finally plucked up enough courage to poke my head through the gap that had appeared, looked much like the places out of which I had previously been shooed by angry adults: a chair and a writing desk in the front, smaller part, separated from the rest of the room by a row of thick icon bars, fastened to the floor to form a sort of makeshift cage, full of rotting straw and dirty rags and chains and other unpleasant things. When I stumbled upon one of such rooms before, there had always been a grown-up inside, sitting at the desk and scribbling something on a roll of parchment, glancing up every now and then at whatever there was in the darkest, farthest corner of the cage that I would always be prevented from seeing. But this time, for reasons which I never bothered to delve into, the desk was unoccupied. And it is only too natural that I suddenly felt myself bold enough to step inside and settle myself in the chair, pulling an imaginary hood over my face and mimicking an adult the best I could. But my little game did not last long, for when I peered more closely inside the cage, I whizzed up with a little terrified squeak. There was something stirring in the darkness.
Or rather, someone - a boy about my age, most likely a Nord, judging from his blonde hair, long and unkempt, and grey eyes, surrounded by dark circles and looking almost unnaturally enormous on his pale, hollow-cheeked face. He wore a ragged robe made out of some kind of crude sacking, and his limbs were so thin and frail that I felt terrified looking at him. He stared at me, not making a sound, like one of the little wild animals that I used to drag home from the wilds and try to tame, and as I came closer, I could see a vein pulsing frantically on his long, bird-like neck.
I pressed my face against two of the cage bars, not too sure what to do next; the boy kept staring at me, his expression horrified and at the same time incredulous.
Finally, he parted his lips and said, in a hoarse half-whisper, 'You are an elf'.
I nodded, feeling a bit awkward; coming from him, it sounded almost like an accusation.
'But you are a kid,' the boy went on, his voice gradually getting louder and firmer, 'There ain't no such thing as an elf kid'.
'Yes, there is!' I protested vehemently.
The boy did not appear to be too convinced; he shook his head as determinedly as his strength could allow him, 'There ain't no way someone as mean as that could be little. Ever'.
Stung as I was, there was nothing I could possibly say to defend my people; and the more I mulled over the boy's words, the more truthful they seemed to me.
Finally, I managed to produce some sort of reply along the lines of, 'Well, I am not like that. I will go and ask my father to let you out of this horrible place so we can play together!'
The boy smiled, with such unchildlike bitterness that I felt like bursting into tears, 'They won't let me out, oh no. Not until my Da tells them where our folks gathered to pray to Talos. And he'll never tell them, he won't,' his eyes lit up with a strange fire the likes of which I had never seen before, 'Because he is a true son of Skyrim! The elves said that if he won't talk, they'll starve me to death. And I am ready to starve, for my Da and for Talos! I sure hope Shor will let me into Sovngarde for that... Cause if he does, I will get to meet my Granda, and my Uncle... And Ysgramor!'
He concluded his speech by hitting the floor of the cage with his tiny, bony fist.
A little stupefied by the sudden torrent of unfamiliar names, I exclaimed, 'I don't know what this Sovngarde place is, but if to get there you must starve, I won't let you! I will bring you some food and things, and...'
He snorted, rather feebly, but still, 'Fat chance you're gonna find this here door open again! They lock it up at night, and at daytime there's always an elf hanging about'.
'I will creep in here when everyone's asleep! I know a Khajiit servant who has lockpicks; I will borrow them and pick the lock!'
The boy, apparently impressed with my persistence, cocked his head to one side curiously and asked, his tone suddenly much friendlier, 'What's your name?'
'Aurelion,' I replied, 'What's yours?'
'Baldr. My name is Baldr'.