You know the Graybeards must have been the ones to dress your wounds when they first found you on the summit, that it was their careful hands that washed away the blood and grime and stitched your broken pieces together. But now that you are awake you can - and must - do it yourself.
You tell them that you need this, that it is just as important to your recovery as the bandages and salves are. It is only partly a lie. They can tell, you think. It is hard to live for so long and not recognize when a person is twisting the truth, but they allow you this small dignity.
Your right arm - the arm they tell you is the arm you carried your shield upon, though you would have never thought of it as such - is still mending, still wrapped tightly in a sling around your neck lest the bone heal unaligned. You make do with your left, sitting with your knees up to your chest in a wooden tub filled with lukewarm water. There is soap, scented with modest wildflowers, and you lather your sore body with it carefully.
It takes longer than you would like to bathe. You do not like to see yourself naked, and try not to let your eyes linger on the scars that litter your sun-blistered skin. They tell the story of a free spirit, more adventurous and wild than you feel, and though you have not said such aloud to the Graybeards, you think they suspect you are not the same person who supposedly left their monastery a few months ago to seek the inevitable end of a predestined fate.
There are fifty-six.
Fifty-six scars varying in dimension and intensity. There are the most recent ones, still healing from an apparent battle to the death with Alduin - whoever he was. The pain from those is still fresh and present, but it is the older ones scars you dislike the most. The ones on the underside of your forearms look to be burn scars, mottled and faded by time. There are three sharp punctures on your hip that must have been either from arrows or spears, as well as another two between your shoulderblades. Your back and legs are crisscrossed with whip marks, your wrists marked with the echoes of shackles, and you cannot imagine what kind of criminal activity you could have gotten yourself into to deserve them. And then there are other cuts, long and deep, thin and silvery against the warm hue of your skin. Swords, daggers, the like.
You do not remember where any of them came from, and it bothers you more than you would like. You want to know, and yet, you simultaneously do not. The contradictory desires have you roaming the halls of your empty memory, scarred hands reaching out to knock on doors, but pulling back at the last minute, scurrying away before you let loose something you cannot force back into a locked room.
At long last you stand from the tub, shaking off droplets of water with ungainly, stilted movements. You rebandage your arm and the other gashes that apparently carried over from the land of the dead. Your belongings are meagre, the pack that had been strapped to you having been made for a short trip, but there are wool tunics at High Hrothgar that Arngeir says were yours. You wear the darkest, simplest ones, as though mourning the person whose body you feel like you have invaded.
They still call you Dragonborn. You asked them not to, asked what your real name was, but the question received only a puzzled silence from all four Graybeards. Their confusion led you to the realization that if you once had a name, it has since been overwritten by your mythical title. And so you hold your tongue when they call you Dragonborn, even if every time you hear it you have to resist looking over your shoulder as though they are talking to someone behind you, and you should step aside so as to not get in the way.
The stronger you grow, the more you roam the halls of High Hrothgar. You are restless, though you don't know what for. The silence is stifling.
"Meditate with me," Arngeir says. "You may find that it will calm your mind."
"I don't know how," you say, and even after days have passed the sound of your own voice still shocks you. Have you always sounded like this?
In response, one of the other monks - his name is something about a wolf? You can not remember, it is hard to think about one thing for too long - spreads his sleeved arms wide and a wave of sound and power knocks you backwards. Glowing runes carve themselves into the tiles at your feet and a rush of nausea overwhelms you. The runes appear distorted through the barrier of the magical ward you do not know how you created, but some instinct within you allows you to dispel it as easily as you conjured it in your fear.
You stare at the runes for a long time, fighting the bile rising in your throat and the sharp pricks of a migraine at your temples.
"I... I think I will rest instead," you say, and you flee back to your room with unsteady movements. You understand, with a kind of dark humour, why the Graybeards call them Words of Power. They always make you feel small and insignificant, and like the face of a tyrant leader, you cannot look at them for long. Whatever Voice the Graybeards claim you had, you doubt more with every day that passes in this coffin of a monastery.
There is a note with the next batch of supplies that Arngeir says come from a small town named Ivarstead at the base of the mountain.
"Rest assured, Dragonborn," it reads. "Your housecarl is on her way to take you home."
You hold the note in both hands, when your right arm has finally healed enough to be let out of its sling. You fold and unfold the paper so many times that it begins to tear at the creases.
None of the Graybeards seem bothered by the fact that you apparently have a housecarl, or that there is somewhere you supposedly call home. The maps tell you that you are in the province of Skyrim, but you look into the mirror and see something else entirely, and it is hard to place your lineage. How did you come to find a place for yourself in Skyrim?
And will it still be yours when this housecarl arrives and finds a stranger in place of a Thane? Only time will tell. Arngeir says travel is slow during the winter. It will be some time before your visitor comes to take you away from here. Part of you hopes she will do it in the dead of night, so you do not have to say goodbye to these men who have known you longer than you have known them.
There is something else in the supplies for you.
A sweetroll, wrapped carefully in paper and tied off with a pretty green ribbon. A note is attached - to the Dragonborn, for everything she has sacrificed for us. The sweetroll is glazed with sugar, so much that the paper tears when you try to pull it apart and your fingers are gross and sticky. Sugar is expensive in wartime, and hard to find. You know this much. Whatever this town of Ivarstead is like, it's clear they adore this Dragonborn of theirs.
You limp out to the courtyard, holding the sticky parcel, and throw it off the mountain. It lands closer than you'd wanted, leaving a sweetroll-shaped hole in the snow.
It doesn't make you feel any better.
You watch the hard-faced Nord warrior that comes for you from the shadows. Arngeir greets her as warmly as a Graybeard is capable of, but it is clear that the woman in finely crafted steel armour has little patience for pleasantries.
"Where is my Thane? Has she healed enough to leave her bed?"
"You'd best come with me, Lydia," Arngeir says gravelly. "There is something you should know."
You linger in the darkened edges of the hallway as your housecarl follows Arngeir down another, towards a room filled with a long table and cold stone thrones. You must stop thinking of the woman as 'housecarl' you tell yourself. Her name is Lydia.
You do not realize you were hoping for a spark of recognition when you met until Lydia's broad back disappears down the corridor. There is only disappointment as you silently retreat to your room. You sit on the bed, hands in your lap, and wait for Arngeir to break the news.
Lydia does not storm off in search of her real Thane, or try to force you to remember a life you can hardly believe that you lived. With a gentleness rather unexpected from the hardness of her jaw or the seriousness in her eyes, Lydia only introduces herself, and says she will wait until her Thane is ready to travel.
"Travel where?" you ask.
"Wherever you would like," Lydia responds simply. "In our past travels, you set the course, and I merely followed. I am sworn to your service."
You skim your fingertips over the map that you found in your pack, lingering over places where blank wilderness has been marked by ink. In some places there are only little symbols to hint at their worth, in others there are notes like 'vampires, bring fire' or 'ugh, not worth the smell.'
"Can you tell me the story behind this?" you ask Lydia, turning the map towards the Nord woman and pointing to the Northwest corner, where a section of the map as large as your thumb has been angrily scratched out and hidden with ink blots.
"That was the Thalmor Embassy," Lydia says uneasily. "I'm afraid that's one of the few places I did not go with you. I only rejoined you when you were done your mission, and you never spoke of it. Would you like to try somewhere else?"
It is very frustrating to not know the mysteries of one's own life. You gnaw at your lip, and then point to a crude drawing of a dragon outside of the town called Whiterun, labelled simply as 'idiot'.
"Why, that's where you discovered you were Dragonborn. You brought down the dragon Mirmulnir that attacked Whiterun's watchtower, and when you absorbed its soul, the Graybeards summoned you here."
You do not know how to respond to that. Were you calling Mirmulnir the idiot, or yourself? The puzzle pieces that your past self has left make little sense. Instead of replying, you point again. And Lydia tells you the stories of your supposed exploits and conquests.
"There's no sense to this madness," you say at long last, nearly throwing your hands up in despair.
"I have something that may help," Lydia tells you carefully, seeming to choose her words nervously. That something turns out to be a tattered, leather-bound journal no larger than your palm. You open it eagerly, tearing open the clasp and leafing through yellowed, stained pages to the first entry. It is written in the same spidery scrawl as the notes on the map, but your excitement fades when you realize it offers little more information.
"It's just lists," you tell Lydia dully. "Of things I had to do. And I crossed out all the tasks I finished. There are no answers to be found in these pages."
"I am sorry, my Thane," Lydia says.
And so are you.
Lydia is not the key to unlocking your memories. As she settles into High Hrothgar to await her Thane's recovery, she relinquishes all the information she has, but it is precious little.
"You were a very private person," Lydia tells you as you work side by side preparing potions. You throw ingredients together haphazardly, not knowing what they will make ahead of time, but somehow guessing what you used to pair together. "You never spoke of your life before you came to Skyrim. As far as the world is aware, you only began to exist when Helgen was devastated by Alduin. You once told Balgruuf that you saw his arrival from a headsman's block, but no one could tell if you were joking."
"Did I joke a lot?" you ask as the brewing potion in front of you begins to smoke and smell peculiarly of roasted pheasant.
"Not really. When you did, it was often very dark. You were very efficient about the way you went about life, running from one place to another to achieve your goals. I thought you were possessed, at first, what with the intensity with which you hunted down clues to defeat Alduin."
"It's very strange, hearing about myself like a separate person," you admit. "...I feel different now."
"You seem different, too," Lydia says, albeit rather awkwardly.
You glance sideways at the Nord woman as she says this, raising one arched eyebrow.
"You seem... Softer now. But not in a bad way!" Lydia hastily adds. "Before, we did not speak much beyond our duty. You were always on the move, always preoccupied with the next step. It may have been my fault we got off on the wrong foot. I was... shocked to say the least, when I was told I'd been assigned the Dragonborn as my Thane, and you showed up instead of the powerful Nord I'd been expecting. I never truly got the opportunity to apologize for my prejudices, despite all the time we spent together."
"That's all right," you say. "I can't very well bear a grudge for something I can't remember, can I?"
"I hope that even if you do remember..." Lydia begins, "That we will still... Have this. This friendship we've begun. It's much more pleasant than the silent nights we spent around a campfire."
"It seems I was a fool not to enjoy your company," you reply. "Don't worry, Lydia. Of course we will be friends. You've been very kind to me."
You mean to say more, but just then the potion you had stopped paying attention to explodes, and your focus turns to cleaning up the aftermath before Arngeir returns to check on you like the ever-hovering mother hen he is.
Though it is clear that you cannot remain in High Hrothgar forever, you put off picking a destination. You can tell Lydia tries to keep from calling Whiterun home whenever you speak of it, mindful of the fact that her Thane is still not sure where her place in this cold land is. You are grateful for that.
When you have healed enough that leaping about no longer causes you to wince and lean against walls to catch your breath, Lydia shoos you out into the courtyard. The sword that came with you from Sovngarde - Lydia calls it Dragonbane, and frowns dejectedly when she sees its remains - has snapped clean in half from some great force, and so Lydia lends you one of her own.
"No matter where you choose to go, the path will be full of bandits and wild animals and evil creatures," Lydia says. "I will be there to protect your back, but you must protect your front yourself. And you can't do that if you haven't held a blade in two moons."
You are apprehensive about training at first even though Lydia assures you that you sparred together all the time, especially when your housecarl has to correct your grip on the sword's hilt three times before the bout even begins.
But when you cross blades, something within you seems to take over. And even though your mind has forgotten all technique, your body remembers hours of work. Muscle memory, Lydia calls it with a satisfied smile. She has a very nice smile.
"I yield, I yield!" Lydia cries in between laughter when she is disarmed and pushed up against the wall of the monastery. "Well done, my Thane!"
The praise rings in your mind that night as you twist and turn on the hard cot, tangling yourself in thick fur blankets. Eventually you rest on your side, staring ahead in the darkness at Lydia's faint silhouette and wondering if perhaps the reason your past self seemed to care so little was because you were scared to care too much.
"Where is the Dragonborn known least? Is there any city I didn't go to?" you ask one morning, spreading the worn map on Lydia's bedspread. The Nord woman looks over, her hand resting on one corner of the parchment.
"Riften," she says after a long pause. "You said you didn't want to stay there because it stunk of fish, but I always thought it was because you had a grudge against the Thieves Guild for making you do a few jobs before they'd let you into the Ratway. And we never set foot in Shor's Stone or Dragon's Bridge at all."
"The sewers under the city where criminals and skooma addicts live."
"What on Tamriel was I doing there?" you ask.
"Looking for an old Blades member that helped you find the Shout that brought Alduin down," Lydia explains.
"Curioser and curioser," you respond, trailing your fingers along the worn edges of your map. "What would you say to a trip to the Rift, Lydia?"
"I would say that it's about time we got some real food," Lydia says in an exaggerated whisper, clutching at her stomach and giving the bowl of untouched porridge at your feet a significant look. Despite the fluttering you feel in your stomach at the thought of this trip into the unknown, you smile at her antics.
"Does Riften have good food?" you ask.
"The best," Lydia promises, and she reaches over to pat your hand where it lies limp on the map. Her fingers remain on top of yours afterwards, and neither of you move away. Her hand is large and warm and strong.
At first you are sure there is no way that the two of you won't be found, that people will look on Lydia's proud, sharp-jawed face and immediately recognize her, and connecting the pieces when they see you standing at her side, but you realize after observing the midday crowds that amble along Riften's winding, narrow streets that not everyone watches Lydia like you do.
You are not entirely sure what to make of this. Even when the crowd separates you, your eyes are drawn to her like lunar moths were drawn to the campfire you made the night the two of you decided you were too exhausted to set up two tents, and shared one for the first time. She is tall, tall enough that she had to curl up in the tent lest her toes brave the cold outside your fur bedrolls, but not tall enough that she stands high above the heads in the crowd.
And yet, despite the overwhelming suffocation you feel when presented with the most people you have seen since you left High Hrothgar, she is astonishingly easy to find.
When her frown melts into a relieved smile as you push past a shouting peddler and enter her field of vision, your gut twists painfully and you think it is the stuff of tragedies that you have grown to know this woman better than you know whatever remains of yourself.
You should sit down with a bard one day, you think as she chastises you for straying from her side, and let them make sense of the swirl of giddiness and anxiety that picks you up and tosses you to the ground every time she gives you a smile like that.
"You look like you could use some peace and quiet," she says when she notices you have barely responded to her. You can only nod, feeling small and constrained by the movement of the noon market. "Follow me, I know a place."
You do. It's funny, she's supposedly your housecarl, but you would do whatever she asked of you.
The place Lydia says she knows turns out to be a temple, and though you are a bit wary of standing before the shrine of a Divine you don't know if you've ever prayed to before, you have to admit that this Mara, as the Nords call her, radiates a serenity you didn't know was possible in the middle of a city.
"She's beautiful," you say quietly, hands held neatly in front of you.
"She reflects the potential beauty inside all of us," Lydia says, her eyes soft as she twirls a mountain flower in her fingers.
"This isn't what I imagined when you told me to picture thieves and fish," you admit. Lydia cracks a smile at that. You turn to leave, but Lydia's arm at your shoulder pulls you back. She presses the flower into your hands, and you cradle the crinkled blue petals like it might fall apart in your palm any second now. Blue for healing, you think, remembering your occasionally explosive alchemy experiments in High Hrothgar, away from Arngeir's watchful eyes.
"You should put it on the shrine." Lydia says, and there's no denying the twinkle in her eyes as she adds. "For luck."
"Do you think I need luck in my endeavors at love?" you respond, trying to mimic the playfulness of her tone.
"It never hurts," your dear housecarl responds, and you surprise even yourself when you take her hand as you return, the flower placed securely at Mara's feet. Her hand feels much the way you expected it to, calloused, but warm and heavy against yours, enveloping your scarred fingers entirely. "Where do we go next, my Thane?"
You shrug as the doors swing open and the two of you blink away the bright shock of daylight after the dim fires of the temple.
"I don't really have anywhere urgent to be," you say softly.
And it's true. There are no dragons demanding your blade, no armies calling for a figurehead, no couriers delivering pleas and commands. The gaps in your memory are in the past, where they belong, and you can fill in the blanks with the future instead. Whatever piece of you was Dragonborn, it must have died back in Sovngarde with the demise of the World-Eater. Because for now, all you are is a young girl aching for a chance to explore your new home with this strong woman at your side.
And that is all you want to be.