17 Last Seed, 4E 201, Riverwood

Voices sounded, deep and male, just outside the front door. A small girl-child playing in the corner looked up, suddenly excited at the prospect of visitors.

The door slammed open, and three men ambled into the house.

Alvor the smith came first. "Sigrid! We have company!"

Behind Alvor came two other men: both of them big, in Imperial gear, unbuckling sword-belts and setting aside weapons in honor of their host. In their uniforms they strongly resembled each other, but once helms came off they were clearly different men. Hadvar, the smith's nephew, wore a kindly face, clean-shaven, with short hair and hazel eyes. The other was a stranger, cruel and grim in appearance, with a scar under his right eye, his russet hair longer, a full but neatly-trimmed beard, and eyes the color of light on the sea.

A blond woman emerged from the basement, her eyes quickly taking in her visitors. Alvor and Hadvar both smiled at her, but the stranger remained grim and silent.

For the most part. Only she saw the momentary gleam in his eye as he took in the clean lines of her face, the full shapeliness of her body. She frowned slightly and glanced toward her husband, the smith. When she looked back, the stranger had taken the hint and no longer watched her.

She decided to take refuge in hospitality. "Hadvar, we've been worried about you. Come, you two must be hungry. Sit down and I'll get you something to eat . . . and what about your guest?"

The stranger made an odd gesture, a half-bow in her direction. His voice sounded deep but surprisingly gentle. "Men call me Ivar, son of Ragnar the Smith."

Alvor cleared his throat and turned to Hadvar. "Now, then, boy. What's the big mystery? What are you doing here, looking like you lost an argument with a cave bear?"

Ivar pulled a chair out from the table, sat down a few feet away, listening as Halvar told his tale. When Sigrid leaned past him to place bread and cheese on the table, he took a share but paid her no more attention.

"I thought, maybe you could help us out," Hadvar finished. "Food, supplies, a place to stay."

"Of course. Any friend of Hadvar's is a friend of mine. I'm glad to help however I can." The smith cocked his head, watching the stranger. "What's your story, friend?"

"Halvar left out one detail," said Ivar. "When I came to Helgen, I was a prisoner under his guard."

"Nothing to worry about, uncle," Halvar hastened to say. "The Legion carried out an ambush for some Stormcloaks on the border this morning. Ivar here had the bad luck to be crossing into Skyrim on that same road. He got caught up in our sweep. There's no crime on his head that I know of."

"So. Newcomer to Skyrim, then?"

"No. I was born in Whiterun."

Alvor nodded. "You look like a Nord, sure enough, though you talk funny."

"I've lived most of my life in Cyrodiil," Ivar explained. "My father went there when I was a lad, to do smith-work for the legions. I suppose I've picked up their way of talk. To me, you sound funny."

"I don't doubt it," the smith chuckled. "What brought you back home?"

Ivar shook his head. "My father died. I couldn't take up his position. He always spoke of Skyrim with longing. I decided to come see for myself, settle down and earn a living here."

"You've nothing on your track, then?" Alvor asked shrewdly.

"Husband!" Sigrid rebuked him. "This is a guest."

Ivar lifted a hand to make peace. "No. I'm not running away from anything that would do me ill credit. Well, an execution order from General Tullius, but Hadvar says that's an easy mistake to repair."

"I told Ivar he should join the legions here," Hadvar agreed. "He's got a good arm with a blade. With a hammer too, if I guess right."

"Smith's son should be a smith in his turn," said Alvor.

"I have some skill," Ivar admitted. "If I'm going to be in Riverwood for a while, I can help you at the forge."

"You would be welcome." The smith frowned, leaned forward and lowered his voice. "There's something I hope you'll do for me, though. For Riverwood."

Ivar listened, no expression on his scarred face.

"If there's a dragon on the loose, Riverwood is defenseless. We don't even have much of a wall. The jarl at Whiterun needs to know what happened at Helgen. He needs to send soldiers. If Hadvar is heading for Solitude, that leaves us with no one else who saw the dragon."

"I don't know the jarl."

"Jarl Balgruuf? A good man. So far he's managed to keep Whiterun out of the civil war. I worry it can't last, though."

"Which side does he favor?"

Alvor snorted. "I don't think he likes either Ulfric or Elisif very much. Who can blame him? I've no doubt he'll prove loyal to the Empire in the end. He may not approve of the treaty with the Thalmor, but he knows better than to think the Stormcloaks can do better against them than the Empire."

Ivar frowned slightly. "The Empire hasn't done all that well against them so far."

"That's only a matter of time," said Alvor firmly. "You don't like the Thalmor, do you?"

"They were with General Tullius when I was caught this morning . . . and that's not all. Every terrible thing that's ever happened in my life, the Thalmor stood behind it if you look close enough. My father died because of them."

Alvor and Hadvar both stared at the stranger.

Slowly Ivar reached under his jerkin, producing a pendant that had been tucked into a hidden pocket rather than worn around his neck. It glimmered in the candlelight: a tiny war-hammer made of bronze.

Understanding rose in the other men's faces, like the sun into a clear sky.