"Absolutely not!" I thundered. The rafters shook under the force of my Thu'um—my shout—but I didn't care. There was no way in Oblivion I was going back there. Not back to Riften. Not even for Ulfric Stormcloak.
The Jarl of Windhelm slouched comfortably on his throne, clearly at ease. His Nordic drawl still echoed through the Palace of the Kings, but had only recently been chased away by my accidental Thu'um (which I found odd, because I wasn't even using the dragon language). Ulfric himself was not a tall man, more stocky and strong in the Nord way. His blond hair was braided in parts the traditional way, his goatee was well-trimmed given the time of day, and as always, he had a steel war axe in his belt. But it was his eyes that unnerved me. Those dark eyes saw through to a man's core (or woman's, in my case), and could size up your worth in a matter of seconds.
"We know you hate the place," his steward, Jorleif, tried to placate me. "A lot of Dunmer do."
"But it is still Stormcloak territory," Ulfric's general and second-in-command, Galmar Stone-Fist, continued. Galmar was a big brute of a man, and always wore the Stormcloak officer's uniform, complete with the bear cap on his head that I so detested. He favored an iron battleaxe, which as always was slung across his back. He was getting on in years in comparison to Ulfric, his beard graying and his eyes always tired. But he was mentally astute as he'd ever been, hence why Ulfric still kept him around. "And needs to be held."
"I need someone I can trust down there," Ulfric tried to reason with me. "This… problem… has gone on long enough."
"Find someone else," I growled, making a herculean effort to keep my voice down. "Anyone else."
"There is no one else," Ulfric said ominously. "Believe me, I've gone through the ranks multiple times. I keep coming back to you."
"Morwyn, don't be unreasonable," Jorleif began to plead.
"We're in a war!" Galmar interrupted, slamming his fist down on the table as he spoke. "A soldier does what she's told!"
I whirled on Ulfric, coolly staring down those unnerving dark eyes of his with the sort of ease I only projected, never felt. "This war would be over in a week—two tops—if you'd just let me storm a few forts, crack a few skulls, and infiltrate Solitude. I could bring you General Tullius' head on a pike! Hell, I'll bring Elisif's too, since you were so kind as to widow her."
"Watch how you talk to your Jarl!" Jorleif sounded personally offended.
But Ulfric merely waved him off. "Morwyn," he said slowly, "you are too important to the war effort to be thrown off on suicidal missions. This is why I can't send you to just 'storm some forts, crack a few skulls.'" He threw my own words back at me.
Humph. As if that would faze me. "I'm the Dragonborn, Ulfric," I retorted. "If you don't think I can handle myself around a few Imperial idiots, what in Oblivion do you think I did in Sovngarde?"
My exploits concerning Alduin and my trip to Sovngarde were well known in Windhelm and the rest of Skyrim, which is why I felt no shame or boast in bringing it up. I had killed Alduin years ago, brought peace in that aspect back years ago, but Skyrim was still engulfed in this great civil war. Ulfric was like a dog with a tenuous grip on a juicy bone, but one that refused any help to get it. It was infuriating to watch, to be apart of. I may not be a Nord, but Skyrim is my home. That's why I joined the Stormcloaks in the first place.
"Morwyn," Ulfric said with greater force, "no man here denies your accomplishments as Dovahkiin, but this isn't a dragon we are trying to slay, but an Empire. A strong one, at that."
"Two weeks," I huffed, folding my arms over my chest.
"Oh, do hush up," said Wuunferth the Unliving, Ulfric's court wizard. The old man almost never showed up to war meetings (informal as this one was), and even Ulfric seemed surprised. Upon noticing everyone's shocked expressions, he sighed enormously. "Can't an old Nord cast spells in peace?" He huffed before stomping back to his quarters upstairs.
I almost laughed at that.
"Morwyn, we know your distaste for Riften," Ulfric began, "but I need you down there."
"Yes, yes, you've mentioned that," I said acidly. "You've yet to say why."
Ulfric lowered his voice to the point that I nearly had to strain to hear him. "The Thieves Guild is building a presence in Riften."
My brow furrowed. "That's it? You want me to keep an eye on some cursed thieves?" Everyone knew the Thieves Guild was running low on luck these days. It was falling apart at the seams.
"No," Galmar said, "we want you to join the Guild and break it apart from the inside."
"Is this some sort of joke? Very funny, accuse the Dunmer. I'm no thief."
"This isn't up to debate," Ulfric said firmly. "And no one accused you of being a thief. You're one of the few honest Dark Elves I've met, actually." I wasn't sure if that was an insult or not, so I let it pass without comment. "What we're saying is, join the Thieves Guild, earn their trust, and then break it. And Riften can be freed, once and for all."
That sounded way too easy. "What aren't you telling me?"
"This entire operation needs to be done in secret," Galmar told me. "We can't have all of Skyrim knowing their Dovahkiin is in the Thieves Guild."
Wait, this was starting to sound promising. "You mean to say, I'd move to Riften as a refugee from Morrowind, eh? Start off as a nobody?"
"It makes the most sense," Jorleif said, sounding like the epitome of reason. "No one will question another immigrant from Morrowind like they'd question a Nord moving to Riften. Besides, the city is close to the border. You'll blend in."
"There are few Dark Elves in Riften," I said, tightening my arms across my chest, thankful the Stormcloak Cuirass I wore was modest enough to do this.
"Aye, the last time you were there," Jorleif said gently. "Which was what, at least six or seven years ago? Before Alduin?"
"Roughly," I admitted.
"It is your duty as a Daughter of Skyrim to serve your Jarl," Galmar reminded me.
He's not my Jarl, I wanted to say. He's the stubborn ass I work for. My Jarl is Balgruuf the Greater, in Whiterun. But I didn't, because I rather enjoy life with my head firmly attached. "Since this was clearly decided without my consent," I said, voice dripping with loathing, "when do I leave?"
All three men looked down at their boots. "On the morrow," Jorleif finally offered.
"By the Nine!" I exclaimed. "You certainly don't waste time!"
"The sooner we stop this threat, the better," Ulfric said confidently. He's always so self-assured. Makes me wonder what would happen if he had to face a mistake.
"I still say we should be focusing on the Imperials," I said. "They're the real problem. We can take care of a ragtag group of thieves later."
"Keep in mind, you will be travelling as a poor refugee," Galmar continued, ignoring my interjection.
Then it hit me. "I'm going to have to leave all my good armor behind, aren't I?"
"It would look odd for a Dunmeri refugee to walk into Riften wearing Dragon armor and using Dawnbreaker," Jorleif said, an apologetic look on his face.
My face flattened out. "Guess I know what I'm doing tonight." Figuring out which weapons I can take and use without raising suspicion.
"I'll send someone up to help you," Ulfric said. He knew what armor I was used to, and therefore was more apologetic than even Jorleif at this turn of events.
Fed up with the lot of them, I turned on heel left the hall without so much as being dismissed.
"You should be good with plain old steel armor," the blacksmith's assistant, Hermir Strong-Heart, told me. "It's good old-fashioned Nord steel; you'll look like everyone else. And it's not too much worse than Orcish armor, which I know you also use."
"I suppose," I said. "What about glass? Is glass too extravagant?"
"You want to look less Elfish, not more, if you want to keep the city on your good side," she reminded me.
Blast, that was right. Nords hated anyone who wasn't a Nord. "Steel it is, then," I said gloomily, with a mental note to enchant it later.
"Cheer up," Hermir said, patting me uneasily on the shoulder, but trying to hide said unease. "You'll be serving the great Ulfric Stormcloak…"
I tuned her out as I went sifting through my swords. One of the few joys in my life I've found since becoming the Dragonborn is the random assortment of swords I get to use. I'll pick a new one for every fight, from Dawnbreaker to Orcish to Glass to Ebony and everything in between. I had promised myself I'd limit myself to two swords (I dual wield sometimes, and others I just use one and cast spells), but I was trying to figure out which two. Years of dungeon crawling meant a wide assortment to choose from. I eventually settled with an Elven and a Glass blade—both popular enough in Morrowind, but strong enough that I wouldn't break them.
I tuned in to Hermir's rant and found her still going strong. She's a good lass, that Hermir, but so enamored with Ulfric it made me a bit sick to listen to. If you only knew, I mused. His temper, his pigheadedness, his inability to look past himself. "Thank you for your help," I said to her, "but I do believe we're finished."
"Oh!" She glanced around, nodded at my choice of blades, then turned back to me. "Don't you need a shield? Or a bow?"
I shook my head. "I hate those things."
"And you've got a full set of steel armor?"
"Bracers, boots, and body, aye."
Hermir's brow furrowed. "Don't you need a helmet?"
I twirled a silver and moonstone circlet around my fingers. "I've got this instead."
She seemed even more confused for a moment, but then she understood. "For your magicka. Got it."
I smiled ruefully. "Need a bit of magical support, or I'll never get through this."
It wasn't too much later that she departed, and I wasted no time hustling down to Wuunferth's quarters to borrow his enchanting table. He doesn't mind my using it, so long as I bring my own soul gems. (To be honest, I think he kind of likes having another magician around. Skyrim must get lonely for Nord spellcasters.) I enchanted the steel armor for Destruction magic support and Magicka regeneration, the Glass sword for frost, and the Elven sword for sparks. The boots helped with stamina, and the bracers with alchemy. I was as ready as I'd ever be.
I was on my way back to my own quarters when I bumped into Ulfric himself. "Morwyn! Glad I caught you." He rummaged around his coat pockets a moment, then produced an Amulet of Talos. "This one was my father's, but I'd like you to have it." He held it out to me by the chain, a peace offering. "A true Daughter of Skyrim should have an Amulet of Talos."
The hammer-like design hung in the air, a weight between us. "Thank you," I said, taking it from his hand and carefully clasping it around my neck. "I…" I felt the power of the Thu'um pulse within me, and recoiled in shock. "What in Oblivion…?"
"I don't know what exactly it does," Ulfric said truthfully, "but it makes the Thu'um stronger."
I couldn't use the Thu'um and keep up my charade, but Ulfric had a point. It would remind me of whom I was—the Dovahkiin—not who I would have to become to make this work.
"Talos guide you," he said, embraced me briefly, and was off.
I was still puzzling over this random act of kindness from the Bear of Markarth when I reached my own quarters. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and couldn't help but wonder who it was that was staring back at me.
She had blue-gray skin, pointed ears, and fiercely red, almond-shaped eyes—but that was to be expected of a Dark Elf. She wore Nord steel armor, boots, and bracers, but looked uneasy in them, like she was unsure of how to move in this cumbersome armor. Two distinctly Elven blades were strapped to either hip, and orange war paint began under her eyes, and fell sharply to below her chin. Her hair was a deep brown, so much so it was almost black, and although pulled back to reveal the widow's peak so common to elves, it was braided and tied off like a Nord woman's.
The bizarre thing about her—me—was the face. It wasn't angular like an Elf's should be. No high cheekbones, slanted eyes, pointed chin for me. No, my face was more rounded off and squared away, like an Imperial, Breton, or a Nord. My coloring and body were entirely Dunmeri, but my face… my face was something else entirely.
I washed the war paint off before snuggling under the covers to ward off the chill that pervaded the Palace of the Kings, not to mention Windhelm itself. After a short prayer to Azura for wisdom and guidance, I slipped off into Vaermina's realm.