It had seemed a strange impulse, at first, this urge to settle down. It was no time for starting a family, even if he hadn't been Dragonborn and doomed to catch the eye of every petty merchant and Daedric Prince who needed an errand-boy. The world was too uneasy for soft things, simple things. He could feel the strain of change like lightning in the air, could taste it on his tongue. And yet he already had a family, he realized, all unexpected. He had Lydia, always Lydia, and she was all the family a man could want.
At least, until he came upon Lucia. Skyrim made orphans as an apple tree made apples, he knew it did. Men and women broke upon the land; families splintered into pieces. There was no sense in getting soft about it. But Lucia's bright eyes followed him with such hope after he gave her the coin. One coin. What could it buy, really?
But the little girl's hope weighed on him like the hand of a god, and he traded ingots for gold and then gold for a doll, and when he rode back to the half-finished manor by the lake, Lucia rode behind him.
"She calls you Papa already," Lydia said, blowing out the candle and joining him in bed. The room went dark until his eyes adjusted to the moonlight and he could make out the lines of his wife's face. "You must have made quite an impression."
"I should have talked to you before bringing home a child," he admitted, wishing he'd had as much wisdom hours ago when it would have mattered.
Lydia made a thoughtful noise. "Perhaps. A little warning might have been nice." He could hardly see her smile, but he could hear it in her voice. "But you've brought home stranger things, I believe."
"I would have…" He groped for the words to explain but they eluded him, slipping off his tongue and leaving only naked truth behind: "I couldn't leave her there."
She was quiet a long moment, so long he wondered if he'd made a greater misstep than he'd realized, but at last she settled back into the linens, rested against his side, and said, "I know."
They worked the next day, all of them, digging the new garden as the sun beat down on their shoulders. Too late for a decent crop of anything this year, he thought, watching Lucia scramble after a frog, but maybe they could put aside some radishes and onions by fall, if they were lucky.
"I caught it!" Lucia cried, and held up her prize for inspection.
The frog wriggled in her hands, filthy and grumpy as a frog had ever been. "And what are you going to do with it, now that you have it?" he asked, and had no idea why her face fell.
Three days of peace and he couldn't put it off any longer. No matter how much he'd like to turn away from duty, duty wouldn't turn away from him. In the gray mist of dawn he saddled up the big palomino, checking his supplies until he caught sight of Lucia by the stable-wall, watching him with a frown. "Thought you were sleeping," he told her, buckling up the saddlebag.
"Mama said you were going away," she said, hesitating at the wall like a cat that couldn't decide if it wanted to be in or out. "But she didn't say where."
"Sky Haven Temple."
Confusion flicked across her face like she ought to know the place, but didn't. "Can I come with you?"
"Oh, no. It's much too dangerous."
Her frown only deepened. "Then why do you have to go?"
He hesitated but there was no way to explain it to a child, not even if he'd been a bard with all the right words ready on his tongue. "I just do," he said, and finished up his preparations.
When he led the horse out to the road Lucia was still following, all that terrible hope in her eyes blotted out by fear. Fear for him, he thought, the idea so strange he hardly knew what to do with it. "It'll be all right," he told her, and she nodded dutifully and gulped air, looking miserable until he said, "Lucia."
When she hurtled toward him and wrapped her arms around his middle his reflexes almost betrayed him. His hand strayed for his axe a moment until he caught himself and patted her thin back awkwardly instead.
Glass, he thought, holding to the idea like a lifeline as the great dwarven constructs in Blackreach pummeled him. Lydia had asked him to get glass; he could not die without bringing it home.
He dragged himself back aboveground with the Elder Scroll in his pack, and then from there he dragged himself to Solitude, where he found glass and then found Blaise, sleeping unwanted in the straw. It was a measure of how bad things must be, he thought, that the boy would attach himself so fervently to the first person who showed him the littlest bit of kindness. After the matter was decided they walked the streets of the capital together, eating in quiet until Blaise asked, "Are we going to go to your house, now?"
"Ye—no. Not yet," he decided, wisdom winning out for once, and together they hunted down a courier to carry proper warning back home to Lydia.
By the time they made it back to the manor afternoon was slipping into evening. There was no sign of Lydia or Lucia in the house or the stable, in the garden or the clearing. Fear sharpened itself on his insides a moment before he heard voices carried thin on the wind, and he headed down the path to the lakeshore, where he found the pair of them fishing. Lucia leapt up at the sight of him and cried, "You're back!" before she seized him around the middle and squeezed.
Lydia got to her feet with rather less scrambling. "And you brought…" Her eyes rested on Blaise, uncertain. "Company?"
He hesitated. "I sent a courier, this time." Lydia's eyebrows rose. "To give warning," he went on, when his explanation didn't seem to help. "But..." He watched understanding and amusement dawn across his wife's face, and guessed. "He didn't make it."
Lydia looked at Blaise again, considering. "Not company, then."
"No," he admitted.
The courier found his way to the manor three days later to warn Lydia that her fool of a husband was bringing home another child. She kept a straight face until he left, but when he was gone she doubled over and laughed so hard she could hardly breathe.
Life settled into a comfortable routine, then, so easily he could hardly believe it. The children played and fought and played again, but when it came time to work they couldn't be quicker with a "Yes, Pa!" and a pair of willing hands. Proving themselves, most likely. Keep me, keep me, they said, over and over in a hundred small ways.
"Or maybe they love you," said Lydia, when he brought it up.
He grimaced. "So soon?"
"I did," she reminded him, and he didn't have a response to that.
The suspicion that their eagerness was probably half fear did nothing to blunt the force of their affection when it came his way, and it did, from morning to night and back again. Lucia showered him with love and trinkets of all kinds, every flower her eye fell upon, every rock that sparkled, and every creature too slow to escape her.
"How many back at Dragonsreach would laugh themselves sick if they knew the Dragonborn had a mudcrab for a pet?" he muttered, once.
"I won't tell if you won't," Lydia swore.
Blaise's affection was a quieter thing, slower-growing and less showy. The boy was like a young pine, straight-backed and still when he wasn't galloping after Lucia.
He caught Blaise in the stable, his little shoulder wedged up against the palomino's as he picked out a hoof nearly the size of a plate. "You don't have to do that," he told the boy. "I didn't bring you here to make you tend the horse."
"I know." Blaise didn't look up from his work. "But it had to be done. And I don't mind."
He rested his shoulder against the wall, watching bits of packed mud fall to the ground as Blaise finished one hoof and moved to start the next. "I thought you didn't like stable work."
"I didn't, before," Blaise admitted, and his quick glance up was almost shy.
It wasn't a still sort of life, not when the world seemed as poised to fall as it was, not when it seemed the whole of Skyrim expected him to hold the land together all on his own. But in between the journeys and errands there were homecomings, bright spots of color in a world of gray. Collapsing into Breezehome's creaky slat bed before dragging himself back out again had been a poor sort of relief, in comparison. Now there was ease, a true ease, and the new experience of lying rested in the early-morning dark and listening to his people wake up around him. The children's voices drifted up from below, high and thin, along with the very domestic scrape of chair legs on a floor…
He woke from dozing, startled to have fallen asleep again, to find Lucia trying and failing to set a tray at his bedside without making a peep. "I didn't mean to wake you—"
"You didn't," he assured her, and sat blinking at the strong light of late morning.
She handed over a cup of milk, still warm, and then a plate with a misshapen lump of sticky-looking dough, only half-cooked. "I made you a sweetroll!"
He hesitated, looking at the thing. It resembled no sweetroll he'd ever seen, nor any other cake or pastry. "Did you."
"Yes!" she said, her whole face lit up with pride and expectation, and there seemed to be no decent thing to do but eat and try to smile. When she scampered off, he offered the remainder to the mudcrab lurking under the bed.
The mudcrab didn't want it.
Most mornings didn't lend themselves to lying about. There was no shortage of tasks to do, even without setting foot off his own land. It took all four of them to finish digging out the cellar, and a dank and nasty job that was, especially when they got an infestation of skeevers right after for their trouble. Clearing land for a new wing was no easy task, either, but with four sets of hands to work, it went faster than he expected.
There was frost on the ground the morning they dug clay for the walls. He hadn't expected it to be a clean job by any means, but once the morning chill faded and they hit on a pocket of wet clay that oozed more than clung, it got filthier almost at once. Blaise pitched a handful of the slop at Lucia, who stood aghast as the muck dripped down the front of her dress and plopped back to the ground.
The sharp chide on his tongue faded the second Lucia shrieked indignation and flung a handful of clay back at Blaise's face, and it was all over from there. They slipped and scrambled and fell in the clay, laughing and shouting with such equal fervor he couldn't be sure if it was play or war or both. When he tried to catch Lucia from falling as she stumbled, she only pulled him face-first into the muck. He froze, up to his elbows in slime, hardly able to believe it—staggered by a little girl, when legions of draugr couldn't manage the job—and when he looked up at the sound of shocked laughter Lydia was both the only one upright and the last one clean, so it seemed only right to seize her by the ankle and pull her into the mess, too.
But as he was laughing at the look on her face the dark swoop of a shadow sliced past them, the rattle in the world that meant dragon shook around them, and the moment's foolishness died all at once. He reached for his axe but it wasn't there, and his stomach dropped at the realization. It was inside, by his armor, a hundred paces away. Four sets of hands, he thought dimly, and none of them held a weapon. "Inside!" he snapped, and the children scrambled to obey.
The slippery clay had been entertaining moments before but now it seemed a malign thing, working against them from spite. Lucia scrambled free, then Lydia, but as the dragon wheeled above them and Shouted to set the trees over their head crackling like new torches, Blaise slipped and fell, and couldn't make it to his feet before the air went hot and licks of flame came down from above. "Pa!"
Torn between lunging in the direction of his axe and in the direction of his boy, he only hesitated a moment. A Shout in the dragon's direction iced the trees over so they hissed like snakes above, and he seized Blaise and ran him toward the house so quickly the boy's feet hardly touched the ground.
Lydia was waiting in the doorway with his axe, and there was nothing to do but fight. He'd run into more difficult battles but not unarmored, not with the dragon setting fire to the roof he'd built with his own two hands. Chickens clucked alarm as he backed away from a gout of flame and he almost tripped over them into the pen, his arms flying out wide to catch himself.
Once he forced the dragon to land, the fight went faster. When it was done the dragon fell—on top of the woodpile, he thought tiredly as the dragon's soul fused into his own, the world skewing hot with colors he had no names for, what a chore that will be to haul off. It seemed a strange thought, more bitter than he knew how to take. The half of him that belonged to the war and the half of him that belonged at home made for an ugly whole, forced together like this, too small for the task before him. He could be strong enough for one side, or for the other. Both sides together, now. That was different.
This has to end, he thought as he took in the sight of his shaken children. The burden of responsibility weighed like a mountain on his shoulders. It has to end.
In the dark before dawn he stole away from the manor, quiet as a sneak-thief. Once his gear was stowed in his saddlebags he looked in on Blaise and Lucia, sleeping soundly even over the whistling of the wind that blew in through new gaps in the roof above. He pulled the blankets over them more securely and watched them nestle down into the warmth, and after a long moment's quiet he headed back down the stairs without waking them, to where Lydia waited with his axe. "I'll be back when I can," he promised, and didn't say, if I can. "It might not be soon."
"I'm not going anywhere," she said, and with lingering look at his axe added, "But I have to say, I wish I could."
"I wish you could too," he admitted, already weary at the thought. It had been simpler before, fighting together, knowing with every step he took into danger that he wasn't alone. There would be no such reassurance in the battles ahead of him. "But…"
She followed his gaze upward to where the children slept, and sighed. "But." When they said their goodbyes she handed over a parcel with the usual array of salves and poultices, and afterward he headed for the road, toward High Hrothgar, and an end.
It seemed like something out of a legend, when he heard talk about it later: the peace accord forged, the dragon yoked, Sovngarde welcoming him in. The bards left out rather a lot, he thought: they didn't sing of the icy bite of winter as it roared in early and snarled his progress, or the miserable state of the roads that ate up days at a time, or how impatience had whetted his temper. In the bard-song and gossip there was no mention that he'd been so disgusted with the delay he'd nearly dragged Ulfric and Tullius both back to High Hrothgar like pigs on a rope, or how every day that passed had sharpened him to a strange bleak sternness, as foreign a thing as the dragon souls stretching themselves against his insides.
But once it was over the numb gray fog of war began to lift, relief drained away the worst of it, and he set his sights for home. Of course, after that, everything went wrong. Snow in the southern pass was so high and thick he couldn't ride through up by Helgen and had to turn back around. The horse went lame. Bears attacked, then spiders, then vampires, with numbers and ferocity unlike anything he'd ever seen. He limped into Whiterun sore and hungry, gave the Jarl the shortest report of his life, and was back on the road in an hour.
The brief afternoon thaw didn't last, and the land began to freeze again as the sun slid toward the horizon so that the snow crusted over with ice as the cold wind skimmed down from the hills. He navigated the last stretch of road with all the care he could manage, leading the poor horse slowly, the pair of them frozen and exhausted as they'd ever been. The sight of the manor through the trees seemed almost a dream, some paradise nestled in the hollow of the hills like it rested in the palm of a great hand, sheltered from the wind and the world.
"Pa!" he heard, and Blaise hurtled down the slope toward him, face lit with happiness. "You're back!"
He didn't get a chance to respond before the boy dashed off to the house, and in a moment Lucia and Lydia both emerged in a hurry. Lucia launched herself at him with a shout of "Pa!" and hugged him so hard he had to catch himself from falling over. He patted her shoulder, clumsy with fatigue, and when he looked to Lydia he could couldn't tell if the expression on her face was happiness or disbelief or both.
"Where were you?" she muttered when she finally made her way into his embrace, into the crook of his arm and then under it as she steered him toward the house.
Any number of answers would have been honest, but the one that made if off his tongue was, "Sovngarde."
She hesitated, the disbelief on her face draining away slowly as she looked at him. "I think you'd better come inside."
He made to sit down in the first chair they passed but Lydia led him on, up the stairway to bed. "You fixed the roof," he noted distantly, the lights beginning to waver in his vision, and then he fell into bed and slept until the next afternoon.
When he woke the house was empty, and silent save for the crackling of the fires. When he ventured outside he heard the children's voices through the trees, close and cheerful, and he found Lydia on the porch with a cup of hot wine that steamed in the air.
"You shouldn't have let me sleep so long," he told her, and took the wine when she offered it.
"I was going to let you sleep for longer," she said, wrapping up more warmly as he settled beside her on the bench. "You should have seen yourself. You looked half-dead when you came in."
He tried to smile. "Only half?"
The children burst from the clearing and thundered up the steps to the porch, brimming over with questions: did he really fight more dragons and how big were they, and did he really ride one like they said in Whiterun, and they fixed the roof and it took days and days, and was he staying this time and would he play tag? A yes was on his tongue but Lydia said, "No," with a sternness any jarl would envy. "Let him rest. You two run along—unless it's time for chores?" It sounded like scamper. They scampered.
"I would have played," he protested under his breath once they ran off.
Lydia looked him over. "I thought you might need more time to rest."
Which meant he probably still looked at least a quarter dead, he considered, but if it meant rest, he couldn't complain. From up there he could see the children playing beneath the pines, weaving around the trunks in endless patterns of catch-and-chase-and-repeat. They scrambled over rocks and under boughs, dodging and shouting at one another and laughing all the while. When he caught sight of their faces they were flushed, and bright with joy. So different, he thought, from how they'd been when he'd seen them first. All their fear, all their hopelessness had melted away like snow under the warmth of home and family. He relaxed against his wife's side, content as a cat, and took in the sight like a balm.
When the children's game brought them around again they galloped up the steps so the whole porch rang with the noise, and this time he reached out and seized hold of them both so they shrieked with surprise. "Got you!" he shouted, and Blaise wriggled loose almost at once.
But Lucia only laughed and watched him, and demanded, "Now what are you going to do?"
He hesitated, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"What are you going to do now that you've caught us?" she asked, face expectant as she hopped in place. Hopeful, he realized, even as the question brought him up short.
Run, he thought, she means are you going to run after them, but it was a different kind of truth that stirred inside him. Live, he thought as he got up to chase them, I'm going to live, and he did.