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Under the Winter Sky

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The Dragonborn came to Angi’s camp in the last days of Evening Star, just as Skyrim began to slide into the coldest, darkest time of the year. Angi didn’t fear the winter, however, despite the frigid mountain winds and the drifts of snow that could make the path almost impossible to traverse for weeks on end. Quite the opposite, really - she had always loved the season. Autumn was difficult and exhausting, the time to roam the mountains in search of game whose meat needed to be smoked and their hides cured, and the time that wasn't spent preparing food was spent gathering firewood, but winter - during winter, she could rest. She could build up the fire and keep her cabin nice and warm while the Aurora blazed in the dark sky, their light shimmering green and gold on the pure white drifts of snow. Others might dread the endless nights and bone-deep cold, but Angi knew to respect and appreciate them.

She didn’t get many visitors between Frostfall and First Seed. Back before Helgen was destroyed by dragonfire the occasional lost, desperate traveler would show up from time to time, but those were much rarer now. Now only the boldest adventurers braved the Southern mountains in search of ancient tombs holding long-forgotten caches of gold or enchanted treasure. And of those few, none was bolder than the Dovakhiin.

The early afternoon shadows were just starting to lengthen into darkness when Angi saw the Dragonborn’s armor-clad form toiling up the final incline toward her cabin. She stopped pulling together a bundle of wood and waited, her eyes crinkling up in a smile when the slender figure raised a hand in greeting. She had only met the Dragonborn twice before, but twice was enough to form a friendship up here in the wilderness of Skyrim’s mountains.

The first time was after the attack on Helgen Keep. The Dovakhiin had been new to Skyrim then, and had gone astray on the way to Riverwood after the border town burned to ash. She’d been new to the bow, as well - the Dunmer tended to prefer the destructive power of magic to combat their foes - and so Angi had spent five days putting her through her paces. By the time the elf left camp, she was skilled enough to take down large game at fifty paces.

The Dragonborn was a legend the second time she arrived at Angi’s doorstep. In the time since the attack on Helgen, stories about the Dunmer woman who had the power to absorb the souls of dragons and speak in their monstrous tongue had spread all over Skyrim, even to Angi’s tucked-away camp. That time the Dovakhiin had been on her way to Falkreath; she’d told Angi with a laugh that she still wasted far too many arrows when she went up against dragons and could use more practice. They spent a week shooting at targets and drinking warm Black-Briar Mead before the elf was once again on the move.

And now here she was again, some three months later.

“You can’t possibly need any more of tutelage,” Angi called once her friend was close enough to hear. “From what I’ve heard, you have plenty of opportunities to use that weapon of yours.” She nodded at the finely made elven bow that was strung over the Dragonborn’s shoulder.

The Dunmer’s teeth flashed white in a smile. “I’ve gotten better with the dragons,” she acknowledged. “But the bandits are still surprisingly difficult. Besides, do I really need a reason to visit a friend?”

“I suppose not.” Angi smiled in return. Few travelers found their way to her, and fewer still returned. It was good to see a familiar face.

“Welcome back,” said Angi, and reached out to clasp the Dragonborn’s hand in greeting.

* * *
They didn’t go down to the targets that day. The shadows were already starting to turn purple and lengthen by the time the Dovakhiin arrived, so they chose to sit close to Angi’s fire and watch the stars come out. The silver-white sparks were at their most beautiful during the cold months, shining bright and fierce and seeming to be impossibly close. Angi’s mother used to tell her all the old stories that were written in the stars. Even now, years later, she could still remember them all.

“The Civil War is over, by the way,” said the Dragonborn after they’d sat in companionable silence for a while, working their way through bowls of Angi’s thick, spicy stew. “It ended about two months ago.”

Angi’s heart thumped painfully in her chest and her fingers tightened on her mug of warmed wine. She’d never forgotten the faces of the Imperial soldiers who had killed her family, two drunken men who thought they were above the law. They’d assumed they could run their cold iron swords through the bodies of helpless merchants who had done nothing more than fail to get out of their way quickly enough, and suffer no consequence. And they’d deserved to be shot in the throats with her arrows, no matter that it had forced her into exile lest she come under the executioner’s blade.

Angi took a deep breath. “And?”

“Ulfric Stormcloak rules Skyrim from Windhelm,” said the Dragonborn. “Elisif continues to serve as Jarl of Solitude, but has formally renounced her claim to the crown. The Thalmor and the Imperial legions have already begun to depart Skyrim for Cyrodil.”

Angi closed her eyes and let her breath out in a long sigh. She’d hated the Imperial army for years - even before her family’s murder, they had always been arrogant and cruel, lording themselves over the people of Helgen, taking what and who they desired whenever they wanted it. To hear that they were leaving was to feel as though a burden had been lifted from her shoulders, one she had not realized was unbearably heavy until it was suddenly gone. “And so now...”

“Ulfric’s issued a blanket pardon to any citizen of Skyrim who’s had...altercations with the Imperial army.”

“Including murder?” asked Angi skeptically.

“Apparently. A broad measure, but the new king felt it would send the message that this is a new beginning.” The Dragonborn smiled. “You can leave the mountains now, if you want to. You can go anywhere you like without fear.”

“Leave the mountain,” breathed Angi, and laughed in equal parts disbelief and wonderment. Her mountain camp had been her home for so many years now, keeping her safe and hidden. The idea of leaving was both terrifying and exhilarating. “I hardly know what I would do out in the world.”

“You’re not lacking for skills,” said the Dragonborn. “Any hunter’s camp would take you, and you’re good with leather.”

“i suppose.” Angi sipped her mead. “I’ll think about it. There’s no rush.”

“No,” agreed the Dovakhiin. “There’s not.”

* * *
The Dragonborn stayed for the better part of a week. She told Angi of her adventures in the months since her last visit - most of it had been spent in Winterhold, where she’d joined the mages at the College and aided them with some sort of crisis involving an ancient artifact of great power. She also helped Angi gather firewood and patrol the slopes for signs of ice wolves or the great sabre cats that sometimes came too close for comfort, and Angi was glad of the company. The Dovakhiin said that she’d heard the roar of a dragon on her way up the mountain, but Angi had never seen any signs of one, nor did they now.

It was clear that dragons were on the Dovakhii’s mind, however, and when she shouldered her pack and turned toward the mountain path to depart, she told Angi to watch the skies.

“Alduin has been resurrecting dragons,” she said, her dull red eyes serious. “There are more and more of them spreading across Skyrim now, and it’s better not to be caught unawares.”

“I’ll be careful.” Angi, and hefted her bow. “I’m still a better shot than you, remember.”

The Dragonborn laughed. “I always do,” she said, and set off down the trail.

Angi watched her until the elf’s slender form was swallowed by the shadows, then went back into her lonely shelter and gazed into the dancing fire.

* * *
Four months later, when winter finally began to release its grip on the land, Angi took one last look at the humble wooden hut and cluster of arrow-pocked targets that had been her home for so long, then turned her back on them and started the descent into Falkreath City.

She didn’t intend to stay there long - Falkreath held bitter memories for her, after all, even if the Imperials had finally left Skyrim and gone back south - but it would be a place to trade some of her goods for coin and get her bearings. She had always wanted to see Markarth, the city high up in Skyrim’s western mountains that had been carved out of the living rock by the ancient dwarves. And travel would be good for her, after she’d spent so much time in one place.

Besides, there were dragons to be slain, and Angi had always been a good shot with her bow. Feeling hopeful about the future for the first time in far too long, Angi tilted her face up to the sun and let herself smile.