The Sun's Despite: Chapter One
The Last Good Men
A cold wind howled across the low, slumping hills, and the prone, silent form nestled snugly against a snowy hillside. Winter had come early to Skyrim, and as he pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders, Brandon again cursed the day he had ever set foot in the wretched province. In the fading twilight, he could see torches flickering in their sconces atop the fortification's walls, and Stormcloak campfires twinkling beyond. A slight rustling disturbed the silence of his careful, militant observation, and he glanced to one side, seeing Janek – one of his scouts – crouching down beside him.
"Sir, it's bloody cold out here. Can we head back to the camp now?"
"Have you mapped your side of the fort? Gotten an accurate count?"
"Has Holden checked in with you?"
"Then why are you bothering me, Janek? You know the answer. Get back to your position."
There was a heavy sigh and then a weary "yessir."
Once Janek was out of earshot, Brandon heaved his own sigh, and waited.
… Nahshulyol felt his wings billow under him as a warm updraft carried him aloft. Since his first waking, no greater pleasure had he taken than in the unmatched joy of flight. Even now, five centuries from the Making, he still felt the same boundless exhileration as when he had first spread his youthful wings and taken to the skies. Letting a great roar surge from his throat and echo across the sky, he folded his wings and dove towards the mountaintop…
Brandon shook his head, trying to clear the wool from his mind.
"Sir, are you all right?"
Janek's presence finally registered, and Brandon nodded slowly in response.
"Is everyone back?"
"Yessir." Brandon gave his small team a quick once over, counting silently in his head. Everyone was there; nobody missing.
"What's the word, gentlemen?"
Silently, the members of his team handed Brandon small pieces of parchment, covered in sketches of the Stormcloak fort and estimations of strength and equipment. Taking a few moments, Brandon carefully checked them against his own observations and formulated a quick picture of the fort's entirety and its garrison. The centurion would expect his full report as soon as he returned to camp, and Brandon wanted to be prepared.
Nodding slowly in approval, Brandon motioned for the team to return to camp. The four of them spread out and moved stealthily through the snow-driven terrain, their white cloaks blending smoothly into the frigid surroundings.
The pronouncement from the head of the table was accompanied by the clatter of discarded cutlery, and the noise shattered the companionable silence which had – until that moment – settled over the dining hall.
Gunmar sighed internally, and shot a wearied look at Sorine. They both knew what had prompted their leader's declaration, and it wasn't the food. Hoping that Isran would leave his tirade unfinished, Gunmar returned his attention to the deliciously aromatic lamb stew that had been prepared for the night's meal.
"What is, Isran?"
Gunmar sighed again and abandoned his spoon into its bowl, knowing that he now had no chance to finish his meal in peace. He looked up reluctantly towards the table's head. There, the leader of the Dawnguard was leaning back in his chair, staring desultorily at his own stew. Agmaer, the young nord boy who had spoken up, was still earnestly watching Isran, waiting for a response.
"The way he carries on with that… thing."
Agmaer looked at the others seated around the table, plainly confused. "The way who carries on with what?" he questioned.
Isran remained silent. Finally, Gunmar answered for him. "Isran's talking about Brandon and Serana, boy."
"I agree," piped up Beleval from the table's end, her dark eyes roaming furiously over the assembled company, "it's disgraceful; we're supposed to be killing vampires, not fucking them."
"Nobody asked you, Beleval." Shouted a man from one of the other tables.
"Oh I don't know," sighed Tilde, "I think it's awfully romantic—"
"'Romantic?' Don't believe that bullshit for one minute. The bitch is just trying to draw him away so she can turn him without us noticing – and then they'll both come back for the rest of us!" Beleval was warming to her subject now, her dark Dunmer skin flushing with emotion as she stood; her voice raised to carry to the entire company. "We should throw him in the dungeon, and kill his little vampire whore before they hand us all over to Harkon!" There were a few murmurs of approval; others were not so favorably impressed, and said so.
"Sit down, Beleval!"
"Yeah, sit down and shut up!"
"Where I come from, Dunmer know their place and keep quiet at table."
"Piss off, Jenssen," retorted Beleval, and the big Nord stepped up from his seat; a fight was brewing.
Gunmar raised his voice and shouted over the tumult. "All right, lock it up!" When the shouting had died down he turned to the dark elf. "Please, Beleval, think about what you're saying. I think Brandon can handle one little vampire. And even if he couldn't, he wouldn't betray us – not even for Serana."
There were a few shouts of approval, and a few of the men drummed the table with their fists in applause.
As he returned to his seat, Gunmar had already forgotten the exchange and his mind had turned once more to his meal. But as he settled into the bench once more, Sorine gestured to him, dragging his attention again away from his stew.
"I don't know, Gunmar, Beleval may have a point. He is young, and she is very beautiful; what if he let himself be turned… it could be the end of everything we've worked for." Gunmar opened his mouth to respond when Florentius broke in.
"I like her, for one. She's been a big help – and not just to Brandon. Arkay likes her too." Seemingly regarding this endorsement as the last word on the subject of the vampiress' trustworthiness, the one-time priest lapsed again into silence and returned to his stew with gusto.
Beleval rolled her eyes in exasperation, and slumped back into her seat.
There was a pause, and Gunmar finally spoke up. "She came here on here own, willingly, and has been living with us ever since. That takes a lot of trust on her part – we could have decided to kill her on sight. But she's stayed around, helping us fight her own father… No. I think we can trust her. Besides, if we tried to kill her without cause, I'm sure Brandon would take her side – and I'm not certain we could handle him."
Beleval made a vaguely obscene noise of disagreement.
"He may not look like much, Beleval, but he's more capable than you realize."
"Gunmar's right," put in Celann.
"Besides," Gunmar chuckled, "I think the boy's earned a little relaxation."
Tilde smiled, and an amused silence spread over the assembly. Agmaer looked at each of them, clearly confused. "I don't understand. What are you talking about? What do you mean, Gunmar?"
Durak chuckled lasciviously and looked over at the boy. "What, you didn't think he followed Serana up to the roof so they could play cards, did you?"
"What? Oh." The young nord blushed furiously and stared at his toes as a roar of laughter erupted from his fellows and echoed throughout the interior of the keep.
The thick iron hinges screeched as Brandon shouldered open the heavy oaken door and felt the cool wind blow across his face. It was a dark night, and the stars shone palely in their celestial fixtures; the vague shapes of battlements and the further, darker, outline of the surrounding mountains was all Brandon could make out.
Turning to close the door, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Shapes of supplies and equipment distinguished themselves from the cool rock, and Brandon saw now a dark shape, standing silhouetted against the sky: a dark void in the night.
"Serana?" Though he had barely spoken in a whisper, his voice carried far in the still night air. In silent response, the dark shape shifted, and two new stars joined their fellows – but these were of a different hue: firey and more alive than the cold fastnesses of distant suns.
Brandon moved forward and stood beside her, and she turned again to gaze out across the mountains. He turned his head to look at her, but she did not return his glance.
"They're planning it, aren't they?" Her voice was quiet and soft, but beneath the restrained tone Brandon could sense a tense, anguished emotion; he hesitated.
"Tomorrow – yes." She stirred, but said nothing. "Serana—"
"You don't have to come; Isran will be sure to leave a detail to guard the fortress while we leave – you could stay with them; one person won't make any difference one way or the other." At this she turned and looked directly at him, her clear voice tinged with anxiety.
"Could you say the same for yourself?" she accused, but Brandon merely shook his head, and waved his hand in dismissal.
Serana stared at him. "How? How is it 'different?' Do you want to go?"
Brandon winced, and looked away. "Of course I don't want to go. But it has to be done; I have a responsibility to finish this. Call it 'duty' if you like – I couldn't abandon Isran and the others now."
"But I could. Is that what you're saying?"
"No, that's not—" Brandon shook his head in agonized despair, everything he said went amiss. He paused for a long moment while Serana merely stood, watching him. "Serana, he's your father."
She didn't answer, and at first Brandon thought she might not have heard him. But then in a cold, harsh voice she said, "Not anymore." When Brandon turned to look at her, she was staring levelly across the walls out to the mountains beyond and her face was frozen and hard.
Brandon placed his back against the thick stone of the battlements, and slid slowly down into the loose mattress of straw at its base. He was bent with his knees pulled against his chest, looking back at the door into the castle. Setting his arms to rest on his upright knees he opened his mouth as if to speak and then hesitated. He closed it and then spoke very quietly, "Don't say things like that Serana, please."
The vampiress turned and snapped her fingers, sending a spark flying to ignite a torch hanging from a sconce in the wall. Suddenly the pair were bathed in a flickering orange light, and Serana sat down next to Brandon, looking at him gently. All harshness was gone from her face, replaced by a quiet concern.
"You've never talked about your parents." Brandon looked away and gave no answer. Suddenly, he felt cool fingers wrap themselves around his own hand. His heart leaped in his chest, but he kept his gaze fixed ahead.
"How can you ask me to let you go alone – to face him without me? He may have been my father, but he forsook me long ago. Could you best him alone? He is terrible."
Brandon was intensely aware of her presence: the feel of her hand in his, the sound of her breathing, the rise and fall of her breasts. She was so close, and the flickering torchlight played across her features as her eyes shone like twin suns. Brandon's tongue was frozen in his mouth; a long silence fell between them.
"Who was your father?" she probed gently, "Did he live in Skyrim?" Brandon gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and stood suddenly – faster than he had intended – tearing his hand roughly from Serana's. He stood over her, not meeting her eyes as stared up at him, confusion writ across her face. When he spoke, his voice cracked. "Good night, Serana."
"Good night," she whispered as she watched him walk across to the door and disappear down the stairs.
The door shut behind him with an air of finality, and Brandon leaned against it. He breathed out heavily, and tried to wrench his mind out of the haze of distant memory and purposeful forgetfulness.
"It's all right, boy."
The screams of the wounded and dying echoed in the background.
"It's all right."
Brandon felt forgotten emotions well up from where he had buried them years and years ago. He sobbed softly and clenched his hands into fists. It was a long time before he could bring himself to leave the stair and re-enter the castle.
Opening the door, he came face to face with Gunmar, who quickly took in the young man's condition.
"What's wrong, son?" Brandon just looked at him. Gunmar shook his head knowingly and put his arm around Brandon's shoulders. "Women, huh? What're ya gonna do?" Brandon wasn't sure if this was a rhetorical question or not, and decided to remain silent. "Well," continued Gunmar, "I have the solution to all of life's problems. Just you stick with me, boy, and we'll forget all about her."
Gunmar's "solution" turned out to be six bottles of Colovian Brandy hidden behind Florentius' workstation: "four for me and two for you. Sound fair?"
Halfway through the first bottle, Brandon tried to stand. "Gunmar, I know you're trying to help, but we have to plan our movement to Volkihar tomorrow." Gunmar gave a bark of laughter and slapped him on the back.
"And what would you know of such things?"
Brandon looked wounded. "I was in the Legion."
When he did not continue, Gunmar made a noise of appreciation, and at this prompt, Brandon stared hard at the bottle of brandy (which was now empty). He nodded in unsteady affirmation before responding. "Mmm. Four years as an antesignani; had command of my own unit for the last year: sixty men. I was in five major engagements, and countless smaller ones; I was there with Legate Tullius at Windhelm, and it was my men who captured Ulfric's standard – I struck down Igmund Doom-Seer himself, and threw down his banner into the mud of the field."
Gunmar raised his eyebrows: now he really was impressed – if it was true. "Where were you positioned?" Brandon lifted his gaze up to the rafters, remembering.
"A few of the officers had proposed driving on Windhelm from the South and crossing the Yorgrim at the bridge near the city's foot. Folly, of course; Ulfric could have brought forces up behind us and pinned us against the river. Might have lost us the war if they'd been in charge, but the legate wasn't having any of it. He sent first and second cohorts along the East-West Road to take the forts in the pocket formed by the Three Rivers.
"You can't cross the White River East of Windhelm, so if we took those forts, the city would be cut off from the South. The balance of the legion would then proceed to surround Windhelm from the North. Our scouts reached the city nearly a week ahead of the main body, and we settled in to observe.
"Ulfric certainly was expecting something; by our estimates he had gathered a force in excess of fifteen-hundred troops of various capacity. If Ulfric had decided to sit behind his walls he might have made a fight of it.
"But like most Nords, he could never back down from an open challenge. When the legion appeared, he didn't draw his force behind the walls; for whatever reason, he came out to lead them. I can still remember the sight of his banners flapping in the chill breeze. Does it always snow in Windhelm? Sure as hell seemed like it.
"My unit was screening the left flank of the army when the Stormcloak cavalry fell on us from out of the trees. We were too dispersed, so they chopped us up real bad; must've lost half my unit in the first few minutes, though I managed to get some of my guys together and we were able to make a stand. The equites came up real quick – which's to their credit – and rode off the Stormcloaks, but by that time the main body of Ulfric's army was too close, and I barely had time to get my men formed up before the lines made contact.
"It's a miracle I survived, really; I have some skill with a blade, but I was a questor, not a legionary. I don't know how long the battle lasted – it's all just a blur in my memory. I remember Igmund though. He was a terror, slaying all about him; Ulfric's standard didn't slow him down a bit. By that time I'd expended all my javelins, and my spear was lying broken under a horse somewhere behind me. I'd drawn my sword and had just killed a Stormcloak – I remember he was an old man, maybe fifty years old. As I looked up from his body, I could see a path through the melee to Igmund – I don't know where Ulfric was, I suppose he must have been separated from Igmund and the standard at some point. I don't know what I was thinking, but I rushed towards him. Before I got there, an equite came riding past and slashed down at Igmund, but the man just dodged it and knocked the horse to the ground, rider and all. A few of my men were still with me, and we fought our way towards Igmund. While he had his back to me – finishing off the equite, I presume – I stabbed him through the back.
"My sword went clean through him, but I might have just kicked his shins for all the good it did me. Igmund roared and whirled on me, striking at me with his huge sword. I managed to get my shield up, but the strength of the blow shattered my shield and knocked me sprawling to the ground. Janek – one of my men – rushed up before Igmund could finish me off, but was killed with a single stroke. I scrabbled for my sword while I was still lying in the muck and snow of the field, and slashed across Igmund's legs in desperation. The Lady was with me, and I caught a weak point in Igmund's armor and hamstrung him.
"I'll never forget the sound I heard the Stormcloaks make when Ulfric's banner slipped out of Igmund's hand and fell into the dirt: it was like a low mournful groan, like the dying breath of a wounded beast; the heart left them, and they fled.
"As I stood over Igmund, panting, he stared at me, full of hate and spite. 'I'm going to kill you now,' I told him. I don't know what made me say that. He just spat at me. I don't remember much after I put my sword through his heart: just vague memories of blood and fear. You know the rest of the story anyway.
A few weeks later, after the war was officially over, I got a commendation and an honorable discharge." Brandon gave a heavy sigh. "So it goes," he said. "Nothing like the songs, huh?" He reached over for another bottle and took a long drink.
"It never is," said Gunmar. After a long pause, the big Nord spoke again. "Do you regret leaving?"
Brandon took a long drink and swayed a little. "I try not to think about it much. It wasn't really my choice anyway; the Legion was the only life I ever really knew."
"What did you do before you joined?"
Brandon became suddenly silent and stared into the fire. "Not tonight, Gunmar."
"As you wish." Brandon took another drink and seemed content to remain silent. "How's Serana?"
Brandon sighed and set down the brandy. "You're not a particularly subtle individual, are you Gunmar?"
The Nord shrugged his broad shoulders. "And you're hard to pin down. Are you going to answer my question or not?"
"No. That plain enough for you?" Gunmar grunted, but said nothing. After that, the pair continued to drink in silence until Brandon began to sway uncontrollably in his seat.
"C'mon youngster, time to sleep it off," said The Voice. Brandon murmured in protest and waved his arm in vague dismissal. The Voice grabbed him by the arms and gently lifted him to his feet, directing him towards a small cot which was very soft and very warm.
The burnished leaves of the trees shone dull grey in the dawning light; the sun had not yet peeked over the eastern hills, and the sky showed only a hint of its imminent arrival. Already birds were chirping, and the night insects had yet to retire, still speaking one to another in the chill promise of dawn.
"That's the way, boy: draw back a little farther… good!"
Brandon sighted down the long ash arrow, taking aim at the makeshift target his father had assembled some fifty yards away. Two of the long-shafted arrows already sprouted from the tree-bole, and Brandon gauged the wind as he breathed out and then released. There was a whiff as the bowstring sprang and propelled the arrow forward to impact solidly in the wooden flesh of the target.
He let his left arm fall as his father clapped him on the back. "Ha! Good shot, boy." Brandon looked up at his father, and they both smiled.
"Breakfast!" Came a shout from the house, and Brandon ran forward to collect his arrows while his father waved at the house in acknowledgement.
Quick as he could Brandon ran back, eager for breakfast. Mother had made his favourites, and when they had sat down, he attacked his meal. His parents had only half finished their own meal by the time Brandon was done, and he watched them impatiently.
"So can I come hunting with you today, dad?" His mother looked stern, but then she smiled and his father nodded.
"'Course you can, son. It's not every day a boy turns twelve, is it?" Mother laughed her quiet, sparkling laugh, and began to clear the table while Brandon and his father started to gather the supplies they would take on their trip.
The sun was high in its course before they reached their chosen ground and began actively tracking the forest's deer. Staring intently at the ground, Brandon nearly shouted in excitement when he discovered traces of their prey. He turned to call his father's attention to the spoor, but there was no sign of him.
"Father?" he whispered, hoping that he had not strayed far. There was no response. Brandon backtracked, trying to discern from the forest floor where they had been separated, but it was beyond his skill. Finally, he raised his voice and shouted. "Father? Where are you?"
Backing up, he continued calling. The forest, which had just a few minutes ago seemed so light and airy now took on a menacing aspect: threat lurked behind every tree and in every branch there was the hint of malice. He took one more step and then froze: something was behind him. Whirling, he ripped his knife from its sheath and dropped into the fighting stance his father had taught him.
Sightless unblinking eyes stared into his own. The flensed body of his father hung nailed to an outstretched tree-limb.
"It's all right, boy," said the corpse.
The screams of the wounded and dying echoed in the background.
"It's all right."