PART ONE: An Unexpected Request
It happened during a break in the truce negotiations for the civil war, just when Alayne thought her headache couldn't get any worse. She was standing outside in the courtyard with Arngeir, watching the sun slowly sink behind the mountains. It was a shame that clobbering Ulfric and Tullius upside the head with Frost's hooves didn't count as "acceptable negotiation." The door from High Hrothgar opened behind them, and she heard the distinctive crunch of armored boots on thin, brittle snow.
"Delphine," she said without turning around.
"Esbern and I need to talk to you. In private," said the Blade. Alayne at least appreciated that about the older woman; no pussyfooting around, just straight to the point. Blunt, but effective. She followed Delphine back into High Hrothgar, skirting both the Imperial and Stormcloak delegations as they did so. Tullius's eyes were practically boring into her from one side of the entrance hall, warning her not to mess up the negotiations.
Esbern stood next to the great stone doors at the entrance, watching Alayne with more than a little sympathy. "These men of war have no idea what they're up against," he grumbled as she and Delphine drew into earshot. "I commend your patience."
Alayne couldn't help but smile. "I'd save the commendations for now. I might still snap and Shout one of them off the mountain."
"Let's get on with this," Delphine cut in. "We don't have much time before negotiations resume." She looked at Alayne, her eyes cold and calm.
"We know about Paarthurnax. The leader of the Greybeards."
Whatever reaction Delphine anticipated, it certainly wasn't the one she got.
"I know," said Alayne, carefully smoothing any reaction from her face. "But don't you think it's a bit tasteless to ask me to kill him while the Greybeards are hosting a peace negotiation?" She slowly clenched and relaxed one hand behind her back; years of experience in the courts of Cyrodiil kept her rising anger in check. Here she was trying to negotiate a truce, and Delphine just had to throw another wrench into the works.
Still, she almost laughed at the flabbergasted expression on Delphine's face. Esbern, to his credit, recovered more quickly. "I'm guessing you read through my old books at Sky Temple Haven," he said. "You didn't strike me as a scholar."
Alayne managed an almost perfect smile. "I don't do things halfway, Esbern."
"Then you understand why Paarthurnax needs to die." Esbern's jaw was set, his tone final. "It is admittedly unpleasant, but-"
"Didn't I just say it was gouche to kill him the the middle of peace talks?"
"This isn't a game, Dragonborn," hissed Delphine. "Paarthurnax is Alduin's brother. He was his right hand during his brutal oppression of Skyrim. We can't discount the possibility of him turning on us with Alduin's return."
Alayne opened her mouth to respond, but just then, the doors from the courtyard opened, and Arngeir and the rest of the Greybeards stepped back inside. The Greybeard leader's eyes fell on her and the Blades, and she could practically feel Arngeir's displeasure radiating from him. She sighed, plastering on her best diplomatic face. The bells tolled, marking the hour, and the delegations began to make their way back into the negotiating room.
Part of her wanted to just ignore Delphine and Esbern, hope the whole problem would go away. The rest of her knew that it was never so simple.
"If wishes were fishes," she muttered to herself, taking her seat once more at the head of the negotiating table. It was going to be a long afternoon.
By the time Ulfric and Tullius had finally agreed to a semblance of a truce, the sun had set, and the sky was turning a deep, dusky purple. Alayne considered making the two war leaders shake on it, then thought better of it. Not drawing their swords in High Hrothgar was progress enough. Ulfric stormed out the moment the treaty was signed without so much as a glance at anyone, least of all the old Greybeard who sat opposite Alayne.
Arngeir merely shook his head sadly, watching his former pupil go. Privately, Alayne thought someone like the Stormcloak firebrand would never be happy in High Hrothgar, no matter how many praises to Kynareth he Shouted. But no matter how wearing the day had been on him, Arngeir maintained his exceptional manners, even going so far as to escort the Imperials and the Blades to the doors of the temple.
Alayne followed, but only to the threshold. When Esbern fixed her with a meaningful look, she held up a hand to stop him from saying anything.
"I'll handle it," she said.
Esbern looked surprised, but relieved. "You see, Delphine? And here you were worried."
Delphine merely sighed and left the temple, sparing one last look at Alayne, who kept her face smoothly expressionless. As soon as she and the Greybeards were the only souls left in High Hrothgar, Arngeir turned to her.
"You should not have given the Imperials as much as you did," he chided. "This peace will not last."
"It won't last anyway," said Alayne. "The moment news of Alduin's defeat reaches Windhelm or Solitude, the truce is off."
"You knew these men of war would not make honest attempts at peace, and yet you brought them here."
Alayne bit down the sarcastic retort on the tip of her tongue and sighed, rubbing her temples. "I know. And I'm sorry, but I had no choice. I'll make it up to you somehow, I promise."
He fixed her with piercing eyes. "You can start by telling me what the Blades wanted so badly to keep private."
"Esbern was just telling me some information he uncovered in the old Blade archives in Sky Haven Temple. But you don't like the Blades, and they don't like you. Is it any wonder you keep secrets from each other?"
It wasn't a lie. Not exactly. But Arngeir merely shook his head, his voice low with disappointment. "You mix truths with falsehoods and evasions. I have tried to show you the path of purity and truth, but you insist on burdening yourself with the habits of your past."
She'd heard the criticism before, while the Greybeards were training her in the basics of the Voice, but it stung more now that she was out there risking her neck against great flaming lizards. "The world isn't simple or pure, Arngeir. When you find a way to defeat Alduin with pacifism, let me know." And with that, she walked out the door, the gates closing behind her with an ominous thud.
Frost was waiting for her outside, nose deep in his feed bag next to the Greybeards' offering box. She smiled and offered him a sugar cube from her pocket, which he happily accepted. She extracted a small pouch from his saddlebags.
"Head on back to Ivarstead, ok?" she murmured to the stallion, rubbing his nose affectionately. "Klimmek will put you up for the night, and if you're extra good, there might be apples in your breakfast."
He nipped at her hair, then turned and cantered down the mountain path. Alayne watched him disappear into the almost complete darkness, wondering why in Tamriel her horse had more sense than most of the people in power. Thank the Divines the night was a bit warmer than usual for Skyrim, and clear as a still pond. She waited until the lights of High Hrothgar winked out after evening praises before turning her attention to the bag she'd retrieved.
Potions of stamina, rope, a climber's kit, and hooks. She slung the bag over her shoulders and faced the (almost) sheer mountainside up to Paarthurnax's roost.
This was the fun part.
She'd made the climb before; there was an animal trail up the mountain, far steeper and more dangerous than the path the Greybeards used, but it was also unobscured by the barriers of mist and snow. Perfect for getting up the mountain without Shouting her presence to everything within several miles. Only a pale magical light, bobbing a few inches above her head, gave away her position.
And as she moved carefully up the mountainside, she thought about what Delphine and Esbern had said.
Or rather, what they hadn't said. Alayne recalled the books Esbern was talking about, the ones that catalogued all the dragons the Blades had ever encountered. It was awfully vague when it came to Paarthurnax, only saying that the Blades knew of his location and were waiting to punish him for his crimes. Esbern's books had, however, been full of details about the nature of Alduin's first regime over Tamriel. The dragon-priest puppet rulers, the casual human sacrifices, the brutal treatment of any who so much as breathed wrong...it was almost too horrible to be believable.
Paarthurnax was gentle, kind...warm and paternal and safe. He was one of the few people in all of Skyrim who had been nothing but supportive of her. And although Alayne knew there was no reason for the ancient Blades to fabricate their knowledge, she just couldn't reconcile the dragon she'd met to the accounts in Esbern's books.
Her foot slipped some icy rock, and she cursed, dragging herself back into a reasonably safe position on her hands and knees. She whispered a spell, briefly warming herself with a burst of flame, and tried to shove Paarthurnax from her mind.
She'd get the chance to ask him in person, with no one any the wiser, if the climb didn't kill her.