[A/N] A little background here: this is to be my first (most likely) novel-length fanfic. It was to be the first new Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim fanfic I posted, but then my gaming file that I used for inspiration got deleted and I got sidetracked with the oneshots "A Twisted Sort of Sister" - and subsequently, its sequel, "Out of the Ashes" (which I am still working on) - and "True Lies." But I still planned to post it in little bits and pieces, instead of waiting 'til it was all done because I'm not that patient, at some point. This is just the prologue; I'll post the rest after the completion of "Out of the Ashes."
When I first started reading Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim fanfiction, I gravitated towards those dealing with the Civil War questline, especially those with Ulfric in them, because it's a really fascinating issue - one of the things that I love about the game itself that you could cast either the Empire or the Stormcloaks as the "bad guys" because it's really all in shades of grey - and because Ulfric is an intriguing character himself. So I wanted to take a crack at writing him myself, as well as seeing how he would interact with Kajsa Red-Blade, my morally and legally dubious Dragonborn.
As it turned out, writing the first few chapters was great fun. But only time (and my in-game experiences) will tell where this fanfic leads me...
[DISCLAIMER] I do not own The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or anything related to it; that's Bethesda's deal, not mine (sadly). However, Kajsa Red-Blade is my original character and she belongs to me.
PROLOGUE - Helgen
The hoofbeats, mingled with the snorting of horses and the jingling of harnesses, were the first things Kajsa heard as she stirred.
Her eyelids, heavy with a restless, nightmarish sleep, struggled to lift. At first, everything blurred together in shades of black and green, but as her eyes opened further, her surroundings slowly began to take form.
In the early morning, mist shrouded everything: the road ahead, the nearby rock crags and the mountains in the distance, the towering pines. The only distinct things were the back of the Imperial soldier sitting in the front seat of the cart and the wagons ahead.
The young woman frowned, suddenly suspicious and afraid. Glancing down at her hands, she found her wrists bound before her with secure loops of scratchy rope. Her torn and muddied clothing, as well as the weapons and the knapsack she had been carrying, were gone; a tattered tunic and footwraps were in their place.
Kajsa's jaw tightened, and she winced as she felt the scabbing cuts on her face twinge. Her last memories came rushing back to her.
Oh, gods... Kugrash. Faelwen. Tariq. Her head jerked up and she squinted at the cart ahead, trying to make out a familiar form in vain. No – no – it's all my fault...
"Hey, you. You're finally awake."
The man's voice caught her attention and she glanced over at him. He was a Nord in his late twenties with shoulder-length blonde hair, adorned with a braid on one side, and stubble on his face. Muscular biceps bulged from the chain mail sleeves of his bronze and grey-blue uniform; he, too, had his wrists bound.
"You were trying to cross the border, right?" he questioned. "Walked right into that Imperial ambush, same as us, and that thief over there." The man cast a baleful glance at the prisoner next to him, a nervous-looking, scrawny man in rags similar to the young woman's.
"Damn you Stormcloaks," he cursed with a scathing look at the first man. "Skyrim was fine until you came along. Empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn't been looking for you, I could've stolen that horse and be halfway to Hammerfell!"
Kajsa shifted in her seat so she could get a better look behind her and then realized that there was another in the cart: a powerfully built Nord with long, neatly groomed hair that was a dark goldenrod color. He wore a fur-trimmed robe with bracers on his wrists and fine boots. His profile, obscured only by a thin braid falling across his face, was rugged and chiseled; his light blue-green eyes were piercing. Not only were his large hands tied, but a cloth gag covered his mouth as well. Unlike the two arguing men across from her, he leaned over his knees, his gaze distant.
A solder, a thief, a nobleman... and me. She swallowed. What's wrong with this picture?
"You there." The horse thief tried to get her attention. "You and me – we shouldn't be here. It's these Stormcloaks the Empire wants."
"We're all brothers and sisters in binds now, thief," the first man, the blonde soldier, remarked darkly.
"Shut up back there!" the Imperial driver ordered sharply.
Stormcloaks. A lump rose in her throat as she took a second look at the man across from her. How could she not have noticed his armor, the obvious conclusion from the colors?
Maybe it has something to do with my splitting headache, Kajsa thought dryly, angrily. She wished her hands were free – not only to throttle the unsuspecting Imperial soldier manning the cart, but to rub her temples. If I make it out of this alive...
"And what's wrong with him, huh?" The horse thief jerked his chin at the nobleman, who raised his head, his eyes suddenly cold as steel.
"Watch your tongue!" the soldier snapped. "You're speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King."
The young woman gasped involuntarily, stunned. Ulfric Stormcloak? Gods and Daedra, are all things Divine conspiring against me?
The horse thief had the same reaction. "Ulfric? The Jarl of Windhelm? You're the leader of the rebellion! But if they've captured you..." He stared at the jarl, horror-struck. "Oh, gods, where are they taking us?"
"I don't know where we're going," the soldier said grimly, "but Sovngarde awaits."
"No – this can't be happening! This isn't happening!" The horse thief began to panic, his eyes full of fear.
Kajsa craned her head around. The walls of a village, fortified with wood and topped with a thatched walkway for guards, lay at the end of the road. A single, plain tower, also of stone, loomed behind them.
Is this where I am to die?
Ulfric observed the woman, his eyebrows furrowing. She was surprisingly young, perhaps in her mid-twenties; even though she looked to be a Nord, her high cheekbones and small, slim figure were more characteristic of a Breton. Straight hair the color of raw umber, fraught with tiny braids, hung in a raggedly cut line to her chin. The dried blood from three scabbing slashes on one cheek matched the color of her full lips.
She wasn't a Stormcloak, that was for certain; the jarl knew which of his soldiers had been with him in the ambush. Besides, she had been loaded on the cart, unconscious and in bloody rags that probably weren't hers, by an Imperial patrol after they'd been captured.
"Hey. What village are you from, horse thief?" Ralof addressed Lokir, the other man in the cart, with a softer tone than before. The voice jerked the jarl out of his thoughts and back to the present moment.
"Why do you care?" the man said scathingly.
"A Nord's last thoughts should be of home."
Lokir paused. "Rorikstead. I'm... I'm from Rorikstead."
Windhelm. Ulfric thought of his city: cold and harsh and unforgiving to any outsider, but strong and ancient, the pride of Ysgramor. Built of stone, laid down by those who had long departed from the mortal plane, and ice. The towering, forbidding gates, the Temple of Talos, the Palace of the Kings... the city would never be just a city to him; it would always be his home.
An Imperial's voice rose over the steady sound of the horses' hooves. "General Tullius, sir! The headsman is waiting!"
"Good," came the brusque reply. "Let's get this over with."
Underneath the cloth tied over his mouth, the jarl scowled. That puffed-up milk-drinker is lucky that his men had enough brains to gag me. If they didn't, I'd break every bone in his body with my thu'um... as a start.
A shadow passed over the cart as the horse pulled it through the gates and into the village. Small wooden houses with thatched straw roofs were scattered along a worn cobblestone street, choked with untamed bushes. Craggy mountains, covered in ice and snow, enclosed the outpost. Several villagers paused to watch the carts roll in with a loathing in their eyes.
"Shor, Mara, Dibella, Kynareth, Akatosh," Lokir prayed in a frantic undertone. "Divines, please help me."
The young woman bowed her head slightly as the cart started down the village road. For a brief moment, Ulfric wondered which gods she was praying to.
By the gate, General Tullius sat astride a magnificent bay stallion, talking to a haughty Altmer woman who was also on horseback. Even from here, the jarl had only to observe her snooty mien and perfectly put-together appearance to realize it was Elenwen.
Ralof seemed to hear his thoughts. "Look at him. General Tullius, the Military Governor," he spat with obvious disgust. "And it looks like the Thalmor are with him. Damn elves. I bet they had something to do with this."
Ulfric couldn't have agreed more. As the cart pulled further into the village, he kept his eyes on the pair of them. A bloodthirsty, treacherous combination... and I am at their "mercy."
The soldier gazed at the houses in recognition. "This is Helgen. I used to be sweet on a girl from here. Wonder if Vilod is still making that mead with juniper berries mixed in..." He trailed off, shaking his head. "Funny. When I was a boy, Imperial walls and towers used to make me feel so safe."
From the porch of the inn, a young boy sat cross-legged on the steps and watched the procession. "Who are they, daddy? Where are they going?"
"You need to go inside, little cub," his father said gently, scooping him up.
"Why?" he protested sulkily. "I wanna watch the soldiers."
"Inside the house. Now." The father's tone was sterner and his son reluctantly obeyed with a muttered affirmative.
Ralof snorted. "And this is the welcome we get. They treat us like a damn freak-show."
"No child should see death with their own eyes." It was the young woman. Her voice was low and slightly hoarse, but distinctly feminine.
Ulfric glanced over at her in surprise. The soldier opened his mouth to retort, but the cart suddenly slowed by a severe stone wall, surrounding an open courtyard dominated by red and black Imperial banners and one of many squat towers.
"Get those prisoners out of the carts!" shouted the harsh, authoritative voice of an Imperial captain. "Move it!"
"Why are we stopping?" Lokir asked fretfully.
"Why do you think?" Ralof said grimly. "End of the line." The cart jerked to a halt and he stood up. "Let's go. Shouldn't keep the gods waiting for us."
Kajsa stood unsteadily, her cramped legs threatening to give out and the wounds on her back stretching to the point of tearing; it took all she had to grit her teeth to keep her screams from shattering the chill morning air. Beside her, Ulfric also rose, though with somewhat more grace than she.
"No! Wait! We're not rebels!" the horse thief protested, still planted in his seat.
"Face your death with some courage, thief." With distaste, the soldier planted his foot in the other man's side and pushed.
Nearly toppling from the cart, the thief managed to stand, but kept on with his stream of objections. "You've got to tell them we weren't with you! This is a mistake!"
The soldier rolled his eyes with exasperation as the young woman carefully stepped down from the cart. To her left, a line of captured Stormcloaks had already formed in front of two Imperials with lists. Ahead of them stood a disagreeable-looking Imperial captain, one hand resting threateningly on her sword, and a broad-shouldered soldier with a scroll and quill pen of his own. Kajsa narrowed her eyes when she saw he was a Nord.
"Step towards the block when we call your name!" the captain ordered sharply, folding her arms over her armored chest. "One at a time!"
Behind her, the soldier sighed as he jumped from the cart and landed on the cobblestones. "Empire loves their damn lists."
The Nord with the list made a brief note on it and then called the first name. "Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm."
"It has been an honor, Jarl Ulfric," the blonde soldier murmured respectfully as the rebel leader crossed over to the courtyard, head held high.
"Ralof of Riverwood."
The Stormcloak – Ralof, she reminded herself – stepped away to follow Ulfric. For a moment, Kajsa thought he stared angrily at the Imperial soldier with the list, but she dismissed it. He obviously harbors no affection towards the Legion, even less so to the man who announces his death.
"Lokir of Rorikstead."
"No!" the horse thief cried. "I'm not a rebel! You can't do this!" All of a sudden, he dashed forward and past the startled Imperial captain.
"Halt!" she commanded, regaining her composure.
"You're not going to kill me!" Lokir taunted as he ran up the road.
The young woman shook her head. There's a fine line between brave and stupid, and I have a feeling he just crossed it.
From the doorway of another stone tower, a trio of Imperial archers smoothly nocked their arrows, aimed, and let them fly. The escaped thief collapsed on the cobblestones, three arrows piercing his back.
"Anyone else feel like running?" the captain demanded, a scowl on her face.
"Wait. You there." Ignoring the bravado of his superior, the Nord with the list gestured at her. "Step forward."
Kajsa inched over cautiously, ignoring the impulse to fight her way out.
"Who are you?"
She swallowed, but fixed him with a cold stare. "Kajsa. Kajsa Red-Blade."
He furrowed his brow, but checked his scroll all the same. "You picked a bad time to come home to Skyrim, kinswoman."
Despite herself, the young woman's mouth quirked up in a rueful smile. Unfortunately, it wasn't of my choosing. It never was.
The soldier glanced over at the still-glowering captain. "Captain, what should we do? She's not on the list."
"Forget the list," she snapped in return. "She goes to the block."
"By your orders, Captain," the soldier conceded. He turned his attention back to the Nord. "I'm sorry. At least you'll die here, in your homeland. Follow the captain, prisoner."
Shaken, Kajsa listlessly obeyed, trudging along behind the unpleasant Imperial captain. I'm going to die. After all I've been through... this is it. A public execution in my own homeland for being allied with people I don't know. She sighed, slipping into the crowd of bound Stormcloaks surrounding the chopping block. An end fitting of a mercenary.
Her head jerked up. The jarl of Windhelm was standing not five feet away from her, stoic and strong. A stocky man with close-cropped white hair, wearing the ornate gold and leather armor of a general in the Legion, gloating in front of him was the one who had spoken.
"Some here in Helgen call you a hero," the aging general continued. "But a hero doesn't use a power like the Voice to murder his king and usurp his throne."
Ulfric grunted in reply, his mouth obstructed by the gag.
"You started this war, plunged Skyrim into chaos, and now the Empire is going to put you down – and restore the peace!"
As if to punctuate the Imperial's shouting, an unearthly roar echoed over the mountains. Several soldiers looked up in fear, some tightening their grip on their weapons.
"What was that?" the Nord with the list asked apprehensively.
"It's nothing," the general said abruptly, addressing the female captain who was now standing at his side. "Carry on."
"Yes, General Tullius!" She saluted and motioned to the nearby Priestess of Arkay, a quiet woman in dark yellow robes. "Give them their last rites."
The priestess raised both of her hands and began to speak, her impassioned voice carrying over the still courtyard. "As we commend your souls to Aetherius, blessings of the Eight Divines upon you –"
A red-haired Stormcloak lunged forward. "For the love of Talos, shut up and let's get this over with!" he snarled.
Lowering her arms stiffly, the priestess gave an indignant sniff. "As you wish."
The interrupting prisoner strode forward to the chopping block, overshadowed by a bulky headsman wielding an executioner's axe. "Come on! I haven't got all morning!"
Stepping over, the Imperial captain grabbed him by his shoulder and shoved him onto his knees. Placing a booted foot on his back, she forced him to bare his neck for the blade. Retreating a few paces, she nodded at the headsman and he raised his axe high over his head.
"My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials!" the Stormcloak jeered, determined to be defiant to the last. "Can you say the same?"
Any further jibes were cut off by the sickening thunk of the executioner's axe as it cleaved through his neck and embedded itself in the wooden block. With a spurt of blood, the dead man's head fell into a waiting crate. The captain unceremoniously kicked his body away and the corpse flopped to one side.
"You Imperial bastards!" a female Stormcloak screamed.
"Justice!" called one of the villagers.
"Death to the Stormcloaks!" shouted another with hatred.
"As fearless in death as he was in life," Ralof said in a low, sad voice. Kajsa hadn't realized that he was beside her until now.
The Imperial captain swaggered forward. "Next, the Nord in the rags!" The words had barely left her mouth when the unearthly roar came again, louder and shriller than before.
Momentarily distracted from covertly twisting his hands free of his bonds, Ulfric glanced up at the sky, but saw only the pale white-blue color misted over with clouds. What is making that gods-awful sound?
"There it is again," he heard the Nord with the list say in a worried undertone to the captain. "Did you hear that?"
She disregarded his comment. "I said, next prisoner!"
The jarl heard a slight exhaling of breath from beside him. It was the young woman from before. Her face showed no emotion at the mention of her impending death.
With a hint of pity, the Nord nodded at her. "To the block, prisoner. Nice and easy."
Back straight and chin raised, the young woman walked forward with the raw grace of a warrior, still impassive. As roughly as she had done so before, the Imperial captain pushed her down and readied her for the executioner's axe.
Brave girl. Still observing the scene, Ulfric continued to roll his wrists around. The Imperial that had bound him didn't make sure that his wrists were completely slack and pressed together tightly; as a result, the ropes, already slightly frayed from rubbing them against a splintered board on the cart, were looser than normal.
The young woman's neck lay exposed on the chopping block. The headsman raised his axe high over his head and –
For the third time, the unearthly roar sounded out in full force as a black, jagged creature swooped over the mountains in the distance, ragged wings splayed and long, spiked tail trailing after it, jaws open in fury.
The jarl's breath caught in his throat. By the Nine... is that a dragon?
"What in Oblivion is that?" Tullius cursed.
"Sentries!" the Imperial captain called. "What do you see?"
"It's in the clouds!" a soldier yelled, pointing upwards.
With an impact that shook the ground and stirred up a cloud of dust, the dragon landed on the top of the tower overlooking the courtyard, digging its claws into the stone. Its scales, burnished and dark, seemed to drink up the light, leaving only darkness in its wake. Demonic black horns crowned its lizard-like head.
The sound of rasping metal as swords were unsheathed grated on Ulfric's ears, as did the cry of one of the Imperials near him. "Dragon!"
The headsman, knocked to the ground by the force of the dragon landing, struggled to stand up. Opening its massive maw, the beast roared and the executioner flew back, his bones cracking sickeningly as his body collided with one of the carts. Vivid storm-clouds swirled overhead and balls of fire fell from the sky.
"Don't just stand there! Kill that thing!" Tullius commanded, his authoritative voice rising over the tumult. "Guards, get the townspeople to safety!"
Forgetting his bonds for a moment, Ulfric spun around. In the chaos, he sprinted for the tower behind him, leaping inside just as a blast of flame bombarded the stones. A few Stormcloak prisoners that had taken advantage of the opportunity as well were already inside, huddled against the stairs and examining the wounded.
One of them, a young, slim Nord with dirty hair, ran over to him. Producing an Imperial sword – no doubt looted from one of the dragon's victims, the jarl thought – he cut through Ulfric's bonds, allowing the man to tear off his gag and take a gulp of the smoky air.
The door slammed open as Ralof, the remnants of his ropes hanging off his wrists, dragged in the young woman who was at the chopping block. Her hands were still bound and her skin was slightly singed, but amazingly, she was still alive.
"Jarl Ulfric!" the soldier demanded. "What is that thing? Could the legends be true?"
"Legends don't burn down villages," the jarl answered grimly.
The young woman doubled over, coughing from the smoke. Snatching the sword from the Stormcloak that had cut him loose, Ulfric grabbed the young woman by the arm and severed her bonds with a single stroke. No sense leaving her tied up at a moment like this.
"Thank you," she managed, rubbing her wrists.
He nodded, still gripping the Imperial blade; his captors had confiscated his sword when he surrendered and if he was to get out of this – this hell alive, he would need a weapon. "We need to move. Now!"
Ralof jumped into action. "Up through the tower! Let's go!"
The young woman was the first to react, scrambling up the winding stone steps until she vanished from view. Suddenly, there was a colossal crash of stone and the dragon's shrieking roar as the shadows of flame danced on the walls. She came staggering back briefly, as Ralof, already following her up, pushed her forward.
"See the inn on the other side?" the jarl heard the soldier shout. "Jump through the roof and keep going! We'll follow when we can!"
A moment later, Ralof rushed back down the stairs. "The girl's gone. Nearly didn't make it, but she got to the inn, all right."
"Good." Ulfric scanned the base of the ruined tower. No one else was in a condition to be moved except for the soldier that had cut him free and Ralof. "We'll move out now. Unless the damn dragon's toppled some of the towers, we should be able to escape."
The blonde Stormcloak nodded. "What about the keep? They're holding some of our people in there; we shouldn't leave without them."
"See if you can get there in one piece. Then save all you can." The jarl held his looted sword at the ready. "Talos guide you, Ralof."
"And you, Jarl Ulfric."
Together, with the other soldier at their backs, the three of them rushed out of the tower into an inferno of death and destruction that threw everything else out of Ulfric's mind.
[A/N] What better way to kick off the story with the same old opening cutscene we all know and love/hate? Again, always wanted to try writing my own take of this scene as well, no matter how tired and unoriginal it's become.
Reviews are always welcome and greatly appreciated! (Yes, the rest of what I have will be posted after "Out of the Ashes" is up, with more chapters probably arriving soon after that. But still: I love reviews. They make my day. So please take a few minutes to drop a quick comment.)