The Sun's Despite: Chapter 5
The Dying of the Light
It was early morning when Brandon ran away.
With him he took a wedge of cheese, half a loaf of bread, and the bow his father had given him for his fourteenth birthday, two weeks ago.
His mother had died of the Coughing Sickness the week after his birthday, and his father no longer smiled, but talked again of the Legion and a new campaign in the West.
The rabbit he killed for his meal was scrawny, but the roasted meat was delicious, and kept the hunger pangs at bay. Nevertheless, it was a costly feast: he had lost an arrow shooting the rabbit.
A week later he had no more arrows, and he had eaten the last of the bread and cheese he had taken from the house pantry. The bow lay broken at the foot of a ravine near a pool of blood, and Brandon himself, nearing starvation, stumbled out of the woods into a large town that bustled with activity.
No one paid him any attention as he limped his way through the cobbled streets, and he never remembered how he ended up lying against the wall of a tavern. When he woke, his vision was filled by two pairs of well-used boots.
"Hey boy," said the boots.
Brandon rolled over. Talking boots would not ease his hunger.
"Boy." Brandon felt something nudge his leg and sat up, half turning to look at his molester.
Two tall men stood over him, watching his movements appraisingly.
"Whaddya want?" he murmured. They ignored his question.
"You hungry, boy?" Brandon mumbled something to the affirmative.
One of the men scrounged in a pocket and tossed him a crust of bread; Brandon pounced on it, forgetting all his father's warnings of the dangers of charity.
"What're you doing here, boy?"
"Mmf. Ran away," said Brandon around a mouthful of crust. The two men shared a look.
"Work's hard to come by these days," was one man's vague reply. The other squatted down beside Brandon.
"You know what a mercenary is, boy?" Brandon shook his head, crumbs dripped from his mouth. "A sell-sword?" Understanding bloomed in the child's eyes, and he nodded his head vigorously.
"Well, my friend and I are looking to recruit some men from this town to join our company. You interested?"
Brandon looked the man over, and then switched his penetrating gaze to the man's companion. Swallowing down the last bit of bread he asked, "Why me?"
The squatting man glanced up at his still-standing friend and looked back at Brandon. "I asked the same question when Lucius pointed you out, but he says there's something special about you. He's got the Eye, does Lucius, so I'll trust his judgement on this.
"Pay's not great, but you get to keep whatever loot you take, and we'll train you and equip you."
"It's not like you have any other prospects, is it boy?" said the other man. "And is it that much of a choice: starve to death, or have a place in a company of men? Think, boy. You've got the strength in you, I know it."
They were true to their word. Two days later, Brandon found himself in a small camp surrounded by thirty other men, some hard, some fresh.
They trained him, taught him to fight on horseback and dismounted, how to ambush an enemy and take him unawares. Two months, by Brandon's tally, did they spend on training before leaving their encampment.
It was a warm day, and Brandon was sweating profusely beneath his padded quilt gambeson; residual heat from the razed village still reached them even here.
Brandon lay in the dirt with his buddy Silus. The rest of the company was spread out along the treeline, where the highway bent at nearly a right angle, and the foresters had not been active in cutting back the growth. There were perhaps ten yards between the outlying trees and the road itself.
There were five notches on the butt of Brandon's crossbow – one for each man it had killed – and Brandon pulled it firmly into his shoulder, sighting down the stock.
In the distance, they could hear the Imperial detachment marching up the road: the clank of armor and gear and the shouted orders of the centurion echoed along the forested lane. Next to him, Silus spat and shook his head disgustedly at the amount of noise being made by the Imperials. Silus took a certain pride in the skill of his enemy, and turned his professionally critical eye on everyone.
All along the line, the only motion was the eyes of the mercenaries as they followed the march of the Imperials along the road, their blue armor glinted garishly in the sun. Silus spat again: evocati; his professional opinion did not rate Imperial reservists particularly highly. Brandon ignored him, and concentrated on his sector.
The loosely ranked formation reached the center of the mercenaries' ambush, and the captain gave the signal.
Brandon depressed the trigger of his crossbow and sent the thick, stubby quarrel thudding into the chest of the optio. The first volley was devastating, and at such close range the crossbows ripped through the chainmail armor of the legionaries. The left column collapsed, and Brandon threw off his concealing cloak of leaves and underbrush, Silus right next to him. Weapons drawn, they charged into the ranks of the reservists along with the rest of the company.
Brandon shifted around the screaming, supine body of a wounded Imperial, and slammed into a panicked legionary, knocking the soldier off his feet, and allowing Brandon to quickly dispatch him.
The initial shock of the volley and the devastating charge that had followed broke the Imperials. Their leadership gone, they wavered and ran, only to be cut down from behind by the fleet-footed mercenaries.
As Brandon began moving through the dead and dying, he killed the wounded and stripped the dead of any valuables they carried. By chance, he found himself within earshot of the captain and their company's employer.
"We're making a statement – that's the whole purpose of this little…diversion. I thought you understood that, Riln."
"Yeah, I understand," returned the captain, "but there's making a statement and being stupid. You know how long it'll take to do what you want."
"I finance this expedition, and you will obey my orders."
Grumbling, the captain gave way, and began giving the necessary commands. The high elf turned away, and busied himself with examining the papers of the dead centurion.
When they left the road, the highway was lined on both sides by crucified legionaries, their skinless, outstretched limbs were nailed to the trees alongside and their equipment was piled in a smouldering heap at the road's middle.
Two months later, Brandon was running for his life, chased by an Imperial cavalry patrol across the provincial border into Skyrim.
When Serana woke, a harsh, biting chill was in the air, and a pale, dim, sickly light suffused the cramped spaces of her tent. She and the rest of the Dawnguard had slept beneath the shadow of Castle Volkihar, looming across the open water from its high hill perhaps a mile distant. But even so separated, Serana could feel its malign influence and almost taste the pain and horror which seemed to emanate from its walls. She wondered how she had once lived in such a place.
Sliding out from under her blankets, she dressed herself, and girded about her waist the elven dagger she had worn for - Brandon informed her - some three thousand years of slumber. She imagined the dagger sinking into her father's flesh and piercing his ancient heart - she grimaced, and closed her eyes in despair: if not by my hand, then whose? It should be mine: who else bears the responsibility?
Brandon had told her of a saying among the Britons of Highrock, and her mind turned towards those words as if seeking comfort, but there was none to be found: the sins of the father shall visit harm even unto the third and fourth generations.
The chill air burned as it passed through her nostrils and down her throat. She forgot what had awoken her; she remembered hearing . . . something . . . in her dreams - something of great power, tinged with sorrow and anguish, yet she could not grasp the fleeting memories, and they vanished beneath her hesitant examination.
Pushing the canvas flap aside and stepping out into the early morning, Serana saw that there had been a frost during the night: tiny drops of dew clung to the tent-stays and grass-blades and shone in the silver light like tiny, perfect diamonds. Her breath fogged the air.
She noticed that the entire camp was awake, and it seemed not entirely by accident. Serana wondered if they had felt the Power as she had, and unconsciously awoken in desperate reply.
There. Striding through the camp like a spirit of the morning, his eyes alight with pale fire, came Brandon, and all fell away before him, like shrunken leaves before the North Wind.
"Serana," he said. And in his tone was all that needed to be said. She did not know how to respond, so many were the things which called to her from that simple greeting; she could not even smile.
But Brandon smiled his own small half-smile and looked up into the brightening sky. "There will be fog."
"That is good," was all she could manage. She did not want to think about the coming battle.
"Yes." They stood amid the rising camp, looking one at another for a long, heartbreaking moment.
"Brandon . . ." she said, and broke the silence which had come to rest between them.
"About my father," she paused, collecting herself, formulating the words and phrases which seemed to slip like quicksilver between the fingers of her mind. "I should be the one to face him, not you," Brandon drew away, shaking his head, not looking at her, "he is my father, my charge: it is I who must atone for his sins."
"No, Serana, that is not true."
"It is, it is true," she insisted, her voice raised and angry, now, "I will face this on my terms, Brandon - you cannot stop me."
Brandon raised his hands in surrender, "That is fair to say," he answered gently, but Serana knew that he was merely appeasing her.
"At least," she continued, more softly now, "at least promise me that you will not face him alone."
Brandon smiled his tragic half-smile once more and said, "That is an oath I could not keep, Serana, so I will not make it."
They stood together, motionless, watching the camp dissipate and prepare for action.
Brandon had been right, though, a fog rapidly descended, and the camp was soon enshrouded in it. Castle Volkihar, which had once, only minutes ago, been seen so clearly from across the divide, was now invisible - a malevolent, unseen presence which could somehow still be felt.
The Dawnguard and their Vigil allies began making ready to cross the channel and take the castle. The plan - if all went well - was for Brandon and Serana to infiltrate the castle through the undercroft and open the gate, allowing the main force entrance into the keep. Once there, no one was quite sure. Win or lose, the matter would be decided here, one way, or another.
Wrapped in fog, Serana stood for what felt like an eternity, gazing out into the distance to where she knew her father awaited, like some fat spider at the center of his web: all strands led to him, and all prey was ultimately his.
She turned, and there was Brandon, still at her side. "Ready?" she asked.
They walked together towards the boats, where the rest of the Dawnguard awaited them.
The chill sea rolled onto the beach and wetted Serana's feet in a desultory effort to deter her trespass. She took no notice, and climbed carefully into the makeshift boat, taking her seat on the planks.
Their muffled oars made little noise, and combined with the fog, the small armada made no sound to announce its passing.
The crossing was swift, the little boats riding the swells and wind with surprising agility to beach themselves on the opposite shore. Brandon and Serana soon separated from the rest of the little fleet, and found themselves quite alone in the fog's chill embrace.
Somewhere on their right, the Dawnguard crept forward, feeling the grim presence of Castle Volkihar, now only a dim shadow in the distance. They inched towards the gate, silently, carefully, and then they waited, weapons readied, for their moment to come.
Serana watched as the shore receded into the heavy fog that had settled so suddenly over them. The sounds of their oars, and even her own breathing were muffled by the hazy covering, and she wondered what god had seen fit to bless their passage in this way. Toward the middle of the boat, working deftly at the oars, sat Brandon, a sword and a bow slung across his back, armored only in a light suit of padded leather.
There was not a breath of wind, yet Serana felt as if they were moving inordinately swiftly across the channel, and soon they found themselves bumping up against the ancient stone of the abandoned Volkihar docks.
They disembarked carefully, stepping lightly on the crumbling flagstones. Serana edged her way along a wall to its corner, mindful of the sentries which had stood here on their last visit. The fog was too much even for her, but something told her that somewhere out there was a watcher - a cold sentry of remorseless vigilance. She turned to Brandon and shook her head to indicate her uncertainty. He nodded and un-slung his bow - even in the fog its silvery surface gleamed brightly. Putting his foot on one curve he bent the bow back and strung it; Serana watched with some surprise as Brandon's muscles corded and bunched beneath his clothing.
Taking his bow in hand and drawing an arrow from its quiver, he moved past Serana to the corner, whispering as he went.
"What?" she asked, she had not heard him clearly, but he looked back and merely shook his head. Brandon put arrow to string and then sat silently at the corner for a long minute, as he watched something that Serana could not see. Finally, he stood, drew the bow, and loosed; the arrow flashed from its string like a star from heaven, and disappeared into the mist. Five times he repeated this motion, in less time then Serana could complete a brace of breaths, each arrow inevitably followed by a bright flash which illuminated the docks, as if the fog had drawn aside and let through the warming rays of the sun.
When the last arrow had been loosed, Brandon looked back and nodded to her: it was clear. With some trepidation, Serana stepped forward out from behind the sheltering wall, and followed Brandon forward towards the undercroft's entrance.
Brandon had already made it to the door and was fussing with the lock and cursing under his breath as she approached; he had already broken at least two of his lockpicks trying to bypass the door. Serana tapped him on the shoulder.
"Would you like some help?" she asked, somehow cheered by this display of humanity, her voice was full of mock-concern. Brandon muttered something in response, and looked up at her.
"Be my guest," he replied, and held out a pair of lockpicks. She moved past him without acknowledging the proffered tools, and held up a hand towards the lock, index finger extended. A spark of energy flicked between her fingertip and the lock, and the mechanism clicked, whirred, and released; the door swung open to reveal a darkened interior.
"What - how..."
"Just learned it," Serana answered primly, without turning, and walked unconcernedly into the castle's cellar.
Heaving a sigh, Brandon shouldered his weapons and followed her through the door and into the half-dark of the undercroft. Un-lit torches hung forlornly in their sconces as the wind whistled gently through the open portal, and Brandon turned to heave the heavy wooden door shut behind them.
Serana led the way, and they crept through the dark and gloomy interior, brushing aside the massive accumulations of web and dust which had somehow gathered together since their last visit. Slowly, carefully, they passed through the darkened passageways, encountering not a single watchful guardian, until they finally emerged into the castle interior. There, ahead of them, was the gatehouse entry; inside that tower would be the controls to open the castle's gates.
But Harkon was ready for them, and the castle was filled with his servants: ragged bandits and their vampire masters, gargoyles, and death-hounds patrolled the hallways. To reach the gatehouse was an impossible task; they would die far short of their goal.
"You must go back, Serana." He did not look at her, but she rounded on him fiercely.
"What? No! I will not leave you!"
"You must. I will get the gate open, and when the Dawnguard come through, you may find your father." Still he refused to look at her.
"Go!" he whispered, and pushed her forcefully back down the hallway, "hide yourself, and find your father when it begins; I will deal with the gate."
The heavy fog was being burned away by the rising sun, and the Dawnguard began to feel more and more exposed, lying prostrate within bowshot of the castle. They had been there, silent as the grave, since the sun had crested the horizon, and the waiting was beginning to tell. The dogs bit at each other and whined, and the trolls fidgeted under their heavy armor.
Gunmar wiped his forearm across his brow, sweating despite the chill, and looked desperately at the hazy outline of the castle gate. It had been too long - what would they do if Brandon and Serana failed? Slink back to Fort Dawnguard and await their death? He fingered his axe, his knuckles white with tension, his grip sweaty and loose despite it.
Then he felt something inside the castle tug at him, deep within his core, as if his very soul leapt and yearned to be free at some hidden sound. There was a short, barking yell, then a scream, as a body toppled from a gatehouse window; the chain clattered, and the portcullis slid upwards, and the gates blossomed outwards.
For one long, breath-taking moment, all that Gunmar could think was:
He did it!
And then Isran was standing and yelling for them to charge; the trolls and dogs were barking and howling as they led the way, and Dawnguard and Vigilants burst forward up the stone ramp like the breaking of the tide.
The vampire thralls guarding the gate were trampled under the trolls' advance, and others were brought down by the dogs before they had even drawn a sword or sounded an alarm. But the two statues to either side of the gate were not so easily dealt with, and as the invaders approached, they came alive and blocked the entrance: gargoyles. They and the trolls locked together in titanic contest, but the greater numbers of the Dawnguard soon made the difference, and the gargoyles were quickly brought down. But they had served their purpose and delayed the enemy, allowing the vampires to respond to the threat and rush defenders to the breached gateway.
Their momentum stilled, the Dawnguard stalled outside the gates as the telling power of their trolls could not be brought fully to bear on the enemy. Isran ordered them to draw away, and the mages began throwing bolts of sunlight into the vampire ranks to devastating effect, so closely were they packed. As the second volley of sunlight and quarrels struck the vampire shieldwall, it broke and fell back into the castle.
Isran ordered a second charge, and the trolls once more led the way, forcing their way through the gateway and into the castle itself. Those thralls too slow to flee were trampled underfoot or thrown aside and crushed brutally against the stone walls.
Gunmar took an ice bolt on his shield and buried his axe in the stomach of the offending vampire. He could see bolts of sunlight thrown by Dawnguard mages burst and spatter off the defenses and bodies of their vampire opponents. Isran stood out among them all, wielding his massive hammer, and surrounded by an aura of pure light.
Laying about with his axe, Gunmar killed two more vampires, but the enemy was far from defeated. Inside were the bulk of Harkon's forces, and they put up a fierce defence with all the tools at their disposal; it looked to be a close-run thing.
"Gunmar!" came a shout, and he recognized the voice as Serana's. He pushed his way through the debris and chaos to approach her. She was alone.
"Where is Brandon, girl?"
"I don't know," she said desperately, "He went to deal with the gatehouse alone, but I can't find him anywhere!"
Gunmar cursed under his breath. "Where would Harkon be?" She pointed towards a large staircase that seemed to lead up into the heights of the castle.
As they forced their way through the battle, Gunmar gathered a motley force about him, Dawnguard, Vigilants, even a troll and a pair of dogs. They fought up the stairs and made it to the massive chapel doors. Gunmar and one of the Dawnguard men put their shoulders to one of the doors, but it would not budge. A troll tried next, but even its monstrous strength had no effect.
"It's no use," said Gunmar; the doors were solidly barred and nothing could get through them. "Is there no other way to enter?" But Serana only shook her head. "Then Brandon is on his own," said Gunmar sadly, we can only hope he prevails, and exact vengeance if he does not."
"No!" she shouted, "my father will not have the victory here. Stand back," she warned, and her eyes smouldered with ruin.
The fireball blasted the twin doors into kindling, leaving charred and broken splinters in their place. Serana dashed through, followed soon after by Gunmar and the others. There was no one inside. The noon sun glinted through heavily tinted windows at the chapel's apse. They explored the interior but found only broken silver arrows, scorched markings along the wall, and, last of all, the Bow of Auriel.
"Where are they?" asked Serana, but there was no answer.
The battle was not yet over, and it was some time before the vampires' will broke and they fled, to be hunted down and slain by the pursuing Dawnguard.
Castle Volkihar was searched from top to bottom, but Harkon and Brandon were nowhere to be found; none had seen them, and Serana had begun to give up hope, until a shout came, drawing all outside. And there was Brandon, broken and bloody upon the ground at the castle's foot. A great red dragon stood watch beside him, with smoking nostrils and fiery eyes, who suffered none to approach its charge.
An hour earlier...
The Shout had nearly deafened him. The voice of the dragon tongue reverberating along the stone walls had rattled the teeth in his skull, its Power, he was sure, had been felt for half a mile or more. Yet he was accustomed to such discharge, and recovered swiftly; far behind him, Serana was still stunned where she stood. Brandon took his chance; he would not let her face her father.
His now-ethereal form passed through the stone walls and up the long staircase to where the levers and mechanisms of the gatehouse resided. The effect began to fade, and he felt his body begin to reassert its permanency. A startled guard gave a rattling yell as Brandon confronted him from around a corner, but three feet of steel embedded itself in his belly, and he fell with a crash from a glass window, his death-scream following after.
Brandon reached the mechanism and threw the heavy switch. The portcullis clattered upwards into its housing, and the heavy gates opened with a massive bang that shook the stones beneath his feet. The yell from outside confirmed that the Dawnguard were on their way, and Brandon flew down the stairs, sword in hand, barely touching each fifth step. He burst through the gatehouse door and cut down the startled vampire who had been unlucky enough to stand beside it.
Already the sound and din of battle began to fill the castle.
In the chapel he will be strongest; that is where he will go.
Brandon rushed to the great hall, where already a wild melee was brewing between the vampires and their human enemies. Brandon could not distinguish Harkon from among the crazed combatants, but lifting his eyes to the stairs opposite, Brandon caught a glimpse of a shadowed figure dashing upwards, wearing the same armor as Serana - armor she had told him was reserved for those of the "royal blood."
His weariness dropping away, Brandon cut a path through the melee, and sprinted up the stairs after Harkon; at the top there was no sign, and darkness began to envelop the halls, lit only by secondary light from the spaces below. There, he thought, as he saw a void in the dimly lit walls: the entrance to the chapel.
Whispering a brief prayer, Brandon closed his eyes, sheathed Morrodim, and strung the Bow of Auriel. Even in the darkness, the bow and its silver arrows seemed to shine brightly, and, one arrow nocked, he advanced into Harkon's lair.
A low, deep-throated chuckle greeted him as he entered, and the doors slammed shut behind him. The room was dimly lit by a darkened window, which served primarily to illuminate a fountain which sprang from the chapel's floor. Brandon suppressed a shudder as he realized that what circulated in that hideous fountain was not water. He whispered another prayer.
"She cannot hear you, my friend. It is too dark even for the Whore."
Brandon loosed an arrow towards where the voice had come. It struck the stone wall and gave a weak burst of sunfire before dropping broken to the floor in a forlorn clatter.
"I see the dragon has teeth after all," came a gloating murmur, full of derision; it was the same darkly persuasive voice that Brandon had heard so many months ago. "Why don't you give me the Bow, and I'll consider letting you live - and perhaps my lovely daughter, as well."
"Defiant to the end, hm? You hero-types are so very dull. I have lived thousands of years - do you know how many times I have faced some vainglorious pretender determined to end me?" Brandon did not provide an answer, but Harkon did not require one. "So many that you have become far, far, too predictable. Why, you even left my daughter behind, all alone, out of pure, misguided nobility."
Another arrow loosed, giving off another feeble burst, but revealing nothing. Brandon cursed and drew a third arrow.
"Were you afraid she would turn out like you if she faced me? Full of only rage and sorrow? Do you really believe she could kill me?"
Slow, measured footsteps sounded on the flagstones at the head of the church. Brandon turned towards them and loosed one arrow and then another. The vampire lord, shorn of his human form, was wreathed in energy, covered in vampiric symbols and arcane jewelry. One arrow he struck aside with his sword; the other he plucked from the air between pinched fingers and examined it, as if it were a mildly intriguing insect.
"Do you believe that you can?" The arrow crumpled between his fingers and fell to the ground.
"I will do what I must."
"Give me the bow, and I will let you take my daughter somewhere far away from here. You may even be the last to fall." Another arrow was his answer. Harkon sighed. "Very well," he said, and disappeared; a bright, purple sphere opened up where he had been only a second ago and then closed just as suddenly.
Bow bent, arrow-feathers brushing against his cheek, Brandon turned in a slow circle, wary and uncertain, afraid of being taken unawares by his enemy, trying to cover all angles.
The muscles in his arm began to ache, and a small part of him began to wonder if Harkon had gone, fleeing to some other part of the castle. But another part, a braver, more rational part, knew that he had not gone; somewhere in the darkness, he waited.
The tear came again, and the awful purplish hole ripped open, and from it spewed a dark stream, squeaking and chirping: bats. Brandon loosed one arrow and another, and another; the sheer mass of bats obviated the need for any aim or finesse. The bursts of sunfire which accompanied each arrow burned and scorched the small furry bodies, and they fell limply to the ground to form a perverse carpet over the stone. But it was not enough; they mobbed him, swarming around him, nipping and biting and suffocating him.
Brandon forced his way from the cloud and sprinted across the room. One of the bats squished beneath his boot, and the slipperiness of its blood and gore caused him to lose his footing and fall. Tumbling to the floor, Brandon felt Auriel's Bow fly from his hands.
The fall had knocked the wind from him, but Brandon desperately tried to regain his footing as he noticed, almost absentmindedly, that the bats were now gone.
A massive, bejeweled hand reached down and grasped him by the throat, lifting Brandon from the ground and two full feet into the air.
Harkon chuckled darkly. "Did you really think that you had a chance? You are barely a man, dragonling - and I have seen more winters than you may dream of.
"You should have taken my offer. Do you have any words to give to my daughter before I kill her?"
Brandon only choked; Harkon's grip was crushing his windpipe.
"A fitting epitaph for the last of your ragged kind."
Harkon's barbed wings curved around and embedded themselves deep in the muscles of Brandon's lower back, just as Brandon's ebony dagger sliced it's way through the tough, leathery hide of Harkon's abdomen and lodged between two of his ribs. Harkon roared in pain and flung Brandon from him, to land bleeding and breathless on the steps leading up to the Chapel's head.
The wind flew from his lungs, and Brandon felt two of his ribs fracture under the impact.
With a sigh of his own, Harkon drew the dagger from his body, and held it up as if in demonstration. "So the dragon has teeth sharp enough, I see. That is as it should be, I suppose." Then his eyes grew bright and fiery, and that fire coursed through his arm and to his hand, and the godsblood burned and melted within his awful grip.
Brandon pushed himself to his feet, gasping in pain, and drew Morrowdim from its black sheath, slung across his back. The blade glinted brightly in the twilit room, and the paleness caught and sang along the edges of the dunmeri runes carved along its surface.
Harkon laughed again. "I do not understand. What stake do you have in this? Do you seek atonement? Do you think that by keeping my daughter and I apart, and preventing her from consummating her revenge, that you will somehow wipe away your own sin?"
A strangely inquisitive look came over Harkon's inhuman features. "That is it, is it not?" It wasn't a question. "This isn't about my daughter at all." He paused. "How intriguing."
Voices sounded from beyond the chapel doors, and the sounds of fighting crept closer and closer.
"Time to go then," Harkon said, and flicked a finger. Purple fire consumed both he and Brandon.
The tear emptied Brandon out into thin air, surrounded by darkness. He fell, striking a hard flagstone surface. Morrowdim clattered from his hands and out of reach. His broken ribs grated against each other and caught at his muscle, making him cry out in pain. He felt the blood leaking from the wounds on his back, and knew that he would die in this place if he did not force himself to stand and make his way out. But he was so tired.
For what felt like an eternity, he lay where he had fallen, gathering his strength and resolve. With one supreme effort, Brandon screwed up his courage and rolled over, using his hands and knees to gradually force himself to stand.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, he caught up Morrowdim and held it before him, his other hand unconsciously clutching the silver moon hung about his neck. Pale light entered the room from a baroque doorway - the only exit Brandon could discover.
Where was Harkon?
Brandon coughed, once, twice, and felt blood smear his lips; he was dying, and he would have to kill Harkon soon, or not at all.
The doorway led to a series of long, stone-lined tunnels; there were no divergences, and they led single-mindedly on. Brandon began having trouble breathing, and his coughing became worse. He turned the final corner and was confronted with a second doorway leading out onto a pristine snowscape, high above the lowlands of Skyrim. The wind chilled him, and the reflected sun blinded him, and the blood from his lips and wounds fell and stuck to the snow like perfect red rubies.
"You are a curious creature." Brandon swung around drunkenly, searching for the voice's source, and there was Harkon, standing on a drift above the door Brandon had just exited.
"Do you still believe She will save you? She will not; You Are Alone.
"I suppose I could simply let you die here on the mountain. You cannot long survive here." He paused, as if in thought, "but that I will not suffer you to endure, you have shown yourself to be worthy of that much at least." Harkon floated gently down towards his adversary, magicka flickering along his fingertips. Brandon tightened his grip on his sword, and clutched his amulet more tightly.
A bolt of lightning flew from Harkon's suddenly outstretched hand, hissing past Brandon and sublimating a patch of snow into steam. Brandon dodged out of the way of another bolt, and only just managed to bring his sword up to deflect a blow from Harkon's own weapon. The two swords screeched and sparked at the contact, and Brandon's arm buckled under the pressure, forcing him to avoid the blow a second time. He shifted his weight and off-balanced Harkon, letting Brandon shift around to the side and bring Morrowdim into a disemboweling cut. But his aim was too low, and the blade struck Harkon's intricate metal buckle and slid harmlessly to the side.
Harkon sidestepped and flung out one of his wings, catching Brandon a glancing blow across his cheek, throwing him back into a snowdrift. Breathing was now a struggle of itself, and Brandon was losing blood far too quickly.
Dragging himself upright one last time, Brandon gripped his sword and charged his enemy, dodging first one, and then another firebolt, before coming to grips with Harkon. They exchanged parries and ripostes, and the sound of their duel echoed among the high walls around them. His last ounce of strength failing, Brandon saw his moment. Parrying one strike, he left himself open to another, and Harkon took it, embedding his sword deep into Brandon's side.
Harkon had counted on a killing blow, but Brandon had already accepted his own death, and with what strength was left in him, he brought down Morrowdim on the head of his enemy, cleaving him down to the torso.
They sunk to the ground together, blood intermingling beneath them, melting the snow, and leaving Brandon kneeling in the gore of his enemy.
It was finished.
He pulled Harkon's sword from his body, and blood rushed anew from the wound. Brandon knew that he would die in this place, and was content; he had done his duty, and atoned for his sins. Brandon leaned back against a snowbank, and looked out over the green and blue landscape below him. A zephyr toyed with his hair, and caressed his face. His eyes fluttered closed.
His eyes jerked open to search for the voice, but there was no one to be seen. Nothing stirred but the wind.
Morrowdim glowed in the sun, and the amulet warmed beneath his hand. He felt soft hair run through his fingers, the feel of another's lips on his, the warmth of another pressed against him.
Brandon sat up, and spitting a mouthful of blood onto the snow in front of him, he Spoke, and the Words boiled and twisted in his throat like liquid fire, moving and shaping his mouth in harsh contortions:
OD AH VIING! HON ZULI AHRK ALOK PEYL HI DII TIID DO PRAAG!
The Words echoed and rang against the mountainside and faded slowly into silence. Brandon waited until finally his strength failed at last, and he slumped limply against the snow bank.
A shadow passed across the sun, and Brandon heard the beating of massive wings, and felt warm breath drifting across him. He held up his hand toward it, and felt the dragon press his nose against his offered hand.
"I am sorry, my friend," said Brandon softly, "to again be such a burden to you."
Odahviing snorted dismissively, and gently, almost tenderly, scooped Brandon's pale body into a massive claw. "Never have you been a burden to me, Dovahkiin. Nor would you be, not were you to have me carry you across all the lands of Tamriel. But your wounds are beyond my skill to heal. Whither shall I take you?"
"Volkihar. I must tell them it is done."
"By your will, Dovahkiin," replied the dragon, bowing his head in sorrow, "I know of this place, but that is where you will die."
"Then so be it."
The rhythm of the dragon's flight lulled Brandon into a dreamless sleep, broken only by glimpses of blinding sunlight and snow-white clouds.
He was deposited at the foot of the castle's ramp, still clutching his sword; all was quiet, and the sky was very blue above him.
Brandon faded in and out of consciousness, as Odahviing stood vigil over his last moments, and suddenly Serana was there, and Gunmar, and Isran, and all the others who had marched with him to face Harkon and his vampires.
Serana gathered him up in her arms, cradling his head in her lap. His hand reached up and weakly took hers. "Serana," he croaked, "it is done."
"Yes, Brandon," she nodded in affirmation, "I knew it would be." A single tear escaped her, and ran slowly down her cheek.
"I am … glad to see you safe." He coughed again, and blood filled his mouth; he was very pale, now. Brandon released her hand and clutched his sword tightly to his chest. "We might have had a life together? Mightn't we?" She nodded again, and Brandon smiled gently as Serana felt her heart break within her breast. "That is a comfort to me."
"Is there nothing we can do?" she asked, her voice panicked and torn with sorrow. But Brandon was still and silent.
"There is nothing, child," rumbled the dragon, "he is gone."
"Aranea, Aranea, Aranea," whispered Brandon suddenly, and Serana feared that at last his mind had slipped into the shadow, but then someone was there, cloaked and hooded, striding forcefully through the crowd of onlookers who were staying well away from the huge dragon standing vigil over their fallen hero. Isran tried to stop her, but she merely pushed past him with a glare. Without sparing the vampiress a glance, Aranea knelt beside Brandon and pried his sword from his hand. He struck out with his hand, trying to regain his weapon, but the dunmer woman caught it with her own hand.
"I am here, my son, I am here. And so is She. We will not abandon you." She stood, taking Morrowdim with her, and fishing a brightly-colored variegated cloth from her voluminous cloak, she thrust the sword into the earth near Brandon's head, and hung the cloth by a tassel from its hilt.
The Vigilants murmured at the sight of the cloth; they recognized a daedric totem. Hands went to weapons, and the Vigilants started forward in spite of the dragon's presence.
"Hold," rumbled the dragon, his eyes flashing with threat and his maw smoking with flame, and the Vigilants quickly subsided.
Aranea, seemingly oblivious to the exchange going on about her, placed a pure white rose petal on Brandon's lips; it fluttered only a little, as Brandon's weakened breath rattled in his chest. She knelt beside him, speaking softly to herself in a strange language that none could understand. All watched with bated breath, and at first nothing seemed to happen. Then, slowly, the rose petal blackened and wilted.
Brandon's chest rose and fell, stronger now, and his face lost the pale luminous quality it had held for so long. The dunmer woman breathed a sigh of deep relief.
"He will live."
Brandon awoke to find himself once again in a chamber at Fort Dawnguard. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun shone gently through the room's small window. Surprised even to be alive, he savored the feel of moving his limbs and the gentle stretching feeling of the lungs within his chest.
He dressed himself slowly and carefully, his barely-healed wounds making themselves known when he turned a little too much, or bent just the wrong amount. Brandon found that even this task was more than he could long endure, and he was sweating profusely by the time he had pulled on his last boot. For a quarter of an hour he simply sat on his bed, recovering. The sparse furnishing he regarded with a small spark of sadness and nostalgia for the time he had spent here, but his job was done:
It was time to go.
Grabbing Morrowdim and his few other possessions, Brandon opened the door and strode out into the open and airy spaces of the fortress. The stairs were a struggle, but after considerable effort, he reached Isran's quarters, and was admitted with a curt "Enter."
"Brandon," said the dour Redguard, by way of greeting, and gestured Brandon towards a spartan, uncomfortable chair, the room's sole acknowledgement of human frailty. "It is good to see you on your feet again."
"How long has it been?"
Isran frowned. "Two and a half, maybe three weeks." The fire crackled in the silence that followed.
Isran looked away, and stared deeply into the firelight. "Gone." Brandon's heart sank; perhaps it had been too much to hope. "She left us halfway through the return journey; we haven't seen her since." Brandon sighed.
"What happened? How did I-"
"Survive?" Isran finished, "some dunmer woman showed up just as we found you. She did some kind of magic over you - saved your life, I'm sure. You looked like cold death when you came back." Brandon smiled.
"It is time for me to leave you, Isran; my work here is done. Harkon is dead, and Skyrim is safe from his plans."
Isran nodded slowly. "You are sure?"
"Yes. I have had enough of death."
"Where will you go?"
Brandon frowned and shook his head thoughtfully. "I cannot say. Perhaps Falkreath? The people are kind there, and it is green; such things are precious to me. I may begin my life there again."
They stood then, and clasped hands together, as friends and companions. "Then I wish you luck, brother."
"And to you as well, Isran," Brandon replied. They parted then, for the last time, and Brandon descended the stairs and quietly exited the fortress.
Lis whickered to him, and nuzzled his face as he released her from the stables and led her down the path from the gate.
And there, seated beside the path on a hewn stump, sat Serana.
"There you are," she said softly, "I'm . . . I'm back."
She stood and approached him diffidently. Her eyes no longer shone with fire, but they were golden and sparkled brightly in the afternoon sun. Brandon smiled, and all his happiness and weariness was wrapped up in that single expression, but it greeted her and welcomed her with feelings no words could adequately express.
Serana smiled joyfully and clasped his hand, pulling him gently on down the path.
"Let's go make some more stories."