Chapter 1: Before the Storm
It was a long road to Helgen. Mara shivered in the back of the cart. She was used to the cold from growing up in Bruma, but the wind that gusted through the mountain pass had a bite to it that cut straight to her bones. The fact that her belongings had been stripped and replaced with a simple shift of rucksack did little to help. The man sitting beside her was not so inconvenienced. He was a Nord by the look of him, and his cloak was fine and trimmed with fur. Across the way were two others, another Nord who didn’t seem to be bothered by the wind in the slightest despite his arms being bare, and a Breton who shivered worse than Mara.
The Nord across from her was particularly talkative. His tone was friendly, his posture relaxed, the whole of him apparently not bothered by the fact that they were being carted to the nearest Empire-controlled town as prisoners of war. Other than their being Stormcloaks, Mara had no idea what the other men had done that earned them a place here, but she knew her particular crime. Imperial citizen or no, she’d been caught crossing the border into Skyrim with an ancient relic from Cloud Ruler Temple. Normally, a ring would not have attracted much attention, but a signet ring from the order of the Blades in the possession of a common blacksmith was as good as contraband.
Mara knew that her name would have meant nothing. Long past were the days when learning one was a Stendarius would have turned heads. She could claim descent from the Champion of Cyrodiil, the Nord crusader that had saved Nirn from the Oblivion Crisis. That was centuries ago. The generations since had given their fair share of competent warriors that continued the fight against vampires and daedra, but most in recent years had been content to carry on the other family business. Mara had inherited her father’s forge upon his death. A letter from a nameless stranger in Skyrim had been enough to make her risk giving it up.
The writer of the letter claimed knowledge of her lineage and knew that their family had safeguarded what remained of one of the last Blades strongholds to be ransacked by the Thalmor. The instructions had been simple: travel to the village of Riverwood and ask for the attic room in the Sleeping Giant Inn. Mara hadn’t anticipated running into Stormcloaks so close to the border. She especially hadn’t expected to encounter them at the same time the Imperial Legion had staged an ambush.
She looked at the cloaked man beside her out of the corner of her eye. The talkative Nord across the way was admonishing the Breton for not knowing who he was, that this was Ulfric Stormcloak, the true high king of Skyrim and the leader of the Stormcloak rebellion. He was the only one of them to be gagged and apparently for good reason. He had killed the previous high king with the Voice, an ancient Nord power that Mara had heard about mostly through legend.
Ulfric did not have the same interest in her, preferring to stare at the wood of the cart bed. That was just as well. Mara’s attention shifted further back to one of the Imperial soldiers behind them. He was clad in light leather armor and had opted to ride without his helmet as though to keep his range of vision more open. His nut brown hair had fiery sheen in the early autumn sunlight. He was tall and had the broad shoulders typical of the sons of Skyrim, but though his eyes were ice blue, there was a softness to them that Mara hadn’t expected to see.
She also hadn’t expected to find him staring back at her.
The flush that rose on her cheeks was the first tinge of warmth she’d felt in hours. Quickly averting her gaze, Mara turned back toward the front, watching with a numb sort of indifference as the walls of Helgen drew nearer. The Nord across from her was still talking, telling them all about how he was familiar with this place, that he had been sweet on a girl from here once. Mara would have felt a pang of sympathy for him had he not been part of a movement that was further fracturing an already fragile Empire. Ralof, his name was, and he even had the audacity to point out how General Tullius was speaking with one of the Thalmor. The Thalmor, the actual threat, not some petty squabble over who was the true high king of a single province. A province that had a king until someone was rash enough to kill him.
Mara didn’t have time to dwell on it. Their cart drew to a halt in the central square, and she caught sight of the young soldier from earlier as he dismounted. A woman in a captain’s uniform handed him a bit of parchment and a quill. He went down the list of names, reading them off one by one. Ulfric and Ralof moved off to the side without incident, but the Breton, the moment his name was called, made a run for it. He didn’t get very far. Imperial archers were well trained, and it only took a single arrow to bring him down, greeted by the death he had been desperate to avoid.
“Wait...who are you?”
Mara’s hazel eyes shifted from staring at the body of the dead Breton back to the Imperial soldier. Hands bound before her, she carefully stepped down from the back of the cart, rag-wrapped feet landing on cold cobblestone.
“I am Mara Stendarius,” she replied, just loud enough for those in the immediate vicinity. “I’m a citizen of Bruma.”
The man’s looked over to his superior in earnest. “Captain, what should we do? She’s not on the list.”
“Forget the list,” the captain snapped in reply. “She goes to the block.”
“By your orders, Captain.” His words were recited more by reflex than actual agreement. Blue eyes fixed upon Mara again as though pleading with her to forgive him. Orders were orders, and he had no choice but to carry them out.
She couldn’t begrudge him anything. As the remaining prisoners were ushered toward the executioner’s block, Mara caught a glimpse of the Thalmor emissary as she was preparing to leave. The tall and elegant Altmer was accompanied by two armed elven guards, and all three pairs of golden eyes were fixed upon her. She thought she was mistaken in it, that perhaps they simply had a morbid interest in watching humans systematically cave to their influence. Here were two outspoken Talos worshippers being silenced along with a woman who had the bad luck to be nearby. But as they stood there to hear their sentences announced by General Tullius himself, Mara noticed that the emissary’s focus wasn’t on Ulfric or Ralof. It was her.
It wasn’t the Empire acting as her judge and executioner. It was the Aldmeri Dominion.
Mara’s eyes narrowed at the elven woman. Golden lips quirked upward in the faintest ghost of a smile before she turned her horse toward the town gates and rode away.
The Imperial sent up a silent prayer to Stendarr that justice may yet be served even if it could not be by her hands.
The Thalmor wanted to put an end to the protectors of the Dragonborn Emperors just as much as they wanted to put an end to the worship of Talos. There was a rumble like distant thunder in the skies, and, in that moment, Mara couldn’t see how her predicament was all that different from that of the Stormcloaks. Certainly, it was a poorly timed civil war. But its root cause ran deeper than Skyrim simply wanting independence. All of this came back to Talos and how the Dominion couldn’t bear the thought of a human achieving divinity.
But it couldn’t be as simple as that.
Mara took a hard shove in the shoulder as she was summoned to the block. The Imperial soldier was still nearby, just at the edge of her vision near his captain and General Tullius. She couldn’t focus enough to see the look on his face. Her knees fell to the cold, bloody snow before the chopping block, and her face was pressed into the sticky essence that was still warm from the hapless man who had the misfortune of losing his life less than a minute ago. The shadow of the executioner loomed over her, a dark form before the stone walls of one of Helgen’s old watch towers.
A darker shadow appeared over him. There was another roll of thunder as the whole earth shook, and just as everyone turned to look, an ear-piercing roar knocked those nearby off their feet. Mara was frozen as she was when she suddenly found herself staring up not at a human executioner but a giant winged beast. A dragon.
But that was impossible.
The dragons had been killed off ages ago.
“Today is not your day.” She heard a familiar voice as someone pulled at her arm to get her to stand. “We have to move, quickly!”
Disoriented, Mara turned just in time to see Ralof begin running off in the direction of the main keep. Ulfric Stormcloak was already several paces ahead with other prisoners who were either sympathetic to their cause or not caring whose lot they fell in with in an attempt to escape.
Mara set to putting one foot in front of the other. Slowly at first and then with greater speed, she rushed to catch up with the others before the dragon circling overhead decided that she was the weakest of the herd. She kept her focus on where Ralof stood near a doorway, his hand eagerly waving at her to follow.
Her head whipped around at the sound of her name. The Imperial soldier from earlier was pointing toward a narrow alleyway that went deeper into the town proper.
“Follow him, and you’ll be as like to end up in chains again as live,” Ralof called out over the growing din of chaos.
“You’re one to speak of treachery, Ralof,” the soldier replied with no attempt to disguise the venom in his tone. “I recommend you leave before I remember that I saw you or your false king.”
“Why do you let the Empire continue to hold your leash, Hadvar? You owe them nothing.”
A surge of dragonfire lit up the sky, making everyone look up in alarm.
“There is no time for this, Ralof!”
Mara didn’t wait to hear more. Deciding that she would rather take her chances with a familiar uniform than a swath of unknowns, she ducked her head low and moved to follow Hadvar. He led them through the narrow streets as though he knew them well. At one point, his arm flew out to press them against the wall. The air was nearly knocked from Mara’s lungs, but the reflex had come just in time. The dragon had landed just above them to breathe fire down the alley they had just been about to take. Very human screams carried to their ears as wings beat and lifted the beast away once more.
“We’ll cut through the inn,” Hadvar panted as he reassessed their options. “But we’ll have to be quick. Do you think you can make it?”
The woman looked up at the burning building in front of them before turning to her companion and nodding a single, determined time. There was no choice. She was not going to die here today if there was anything she could do about it.
Hadvar took the lead as he shouldered his way through the wooden door. The ground floor was completely in flames, and that forced them up the stairs. The wall had fallen away at the far side. The soldier rushed ahead with Mara doing her best to keep up. With her wrists still bound, keeping her balance had become precarious.
Just as Hadvar leaped down to the ground below, smoldering eaves collapsed above Mara’s head. She cried out in alarm as something struck her temple and knocked her to the floor. Her ankle smarted, and, in a daze, she struggled to push herself up and twist around to get a look.
The beam had landed on her leg, pinning her down and searing her flesh. With a cry, she kicked out with her other foot. She beat at the burning wood until she was able to pull herself free and limp to the edge of the floor. Hadvar still waited below. One hand was outstretched toward her in anticipation for her to jump.
She landed hard and stumbled forward, but he caught her easily. Pressed against the leather of his breastplate, Mara gave herself the space to catch a few breaths while she tested exactly how much weight she could put on her ankle. The sharp pain was testament to how little that would be.
Hadvar must have heard her hiss, and he gripped her more tightly about her shoulders to support her.
“It’s not much further,” he breathed into her ear, helping her to hobble as quickly as she could across what looked to be a courtyard. “We’re nearly to the barracks. There should be some supplies inside that will help.”
They pushed their way through one last door. The silence that greeted them when the heavy oak and iron was shut again was almost more ominous than the commotion outside. Hadvar helped Mara to sit on one of the cots that lined the room they found themselves in before he knelt to get a look at her head and ankle. She winced when calloused fingers touched her brow, and the tightness she felt near her eye revealed that blood had already begun to dry where it had trickled down her cheek.
“That’s going to need to be seen to before we go anywhere,” Hadvar commented as he got up and quickly began to look about him. He rummaged through drawers and along shelves and dug into the chests at the foot of each cot. He grabbed anything that could possibly be useful if he didn’t find potions or bandages, even going so far as to holding up a set of light infantry armor that looked to be sized for a woman. “You’ll also need to be better equipped.”
He laid out his load on the cot beside her and drew out a knife. With a few quick cuts, he freed her from the coarse rope tied about her wrists. Mara reached for the single healing potion he had managed to find and uncorked it.
“You don’t even know why they arrested me,” she said as she raised the glass vial to her lips. The liquid tingled as it flowed over her tongue and down her throat. “Now, you’re arming me?”
“So far as I’m concerned, you’re a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I heard Ralof talking in the cart. He didn’t even know who you were. It’s not possible that you were the one they were to meet to smuggle them across the border.”
Mara closed her eyes while the magic of the potion took effect. Already, her head ached less, and she could wiggle her toes without pain. It wouldn’t be enough to completely restore her to normal, but that would come in time. Once she had enough strength back to call on her restoration magics, she could manage a little better.
“I have no loyalty to the Stormcloaks,” she said at last, glancing over at the armor and weapons he had managed to find for her. It was all standard issue so far as the Legion was concerned. Serviceable but nothing fine. It would do. “But I would caution you in thinking my reason for being in Skyrim was a simple matter of trade or visiting an ailing relative.”
He pulled a sword down from the rack on the wall and tested its heft. His own weapons had apparently been lost with his horse.
“Are you a loyal citizen of the Empire?”
Mara looked up at him, meeting his eyes from across the room. She nodded. This was the one thing she was sure about.
“As all my ancestors have been.”
“Then, that’s all I need to know. See if that armor works for you, and I’ll make sure we both get out of here alive.”
She didn’t waste any time. Hadvar kept his attention fixed on the corridor that led deeper into the barracks while Mara tugged off the roughspun shift and traded it for the softer red wool of a Legionnaire’s tunic. The leather breastplate and girdle were easy to buckle on, and the cuffs and greaves didn’t give her too much trouble. She purposely made the greaves a little snug, using the leather straps to keep the bandages tight about her wounded ankle and give her better support. Sword, quiver of arrows, bow, belt pouch in case they found anything else useful--within a few short minutes, she was at Hadvar’s side and ready to go.
He looked over at her when she neared him, a surprised look on his face. His eyes took her in from head to toe.
“Have you ever thought about joining the Legion?” he asked. “The uniform suits you.”
Mara smirked as she tucked the disheveled braid of her black hair up under the helmet.
“I’m no stranger to it,” she said as they began to make their way through the abandoned barracks. “I’ve been the smith in Bruma since my father died, and our family has helped to arm the Legion for generations.”
“Stendarius,” Hadvar stated with a smile and shake of the head. “I thought that sounded familiar.”
“You know the name?”
“More like I know the work. My uncle is the blacksmith in Riverwood--a village not too far from here. He tried to teach me, but it wouldn’t stick. The moment I lost all hope was when he asked me to copy an iron helm forged by Berngard Stendarius. Light as leather, strong as steel, and far beyond my talents.”
Mara’s smile widened. “When we get out of here, I can show you how it’s done.”
A tremor gave them pause as it shook the stone around them. There was a rumble, a crash, and dust clouded the air from somewhere up ahead. They were immediately reminded of how dire the situation still was, that the stillness and security the walls had seemed to afford was just an illusion. The dragon was still out there, vicious, relentless, and inexplicably bent on tearing Helgen apart. Hadvar jogged a little further up the corridor to take stock of what had just happened. He returned shaking his head.
“We’re not going to get out that way. We’ll have to find another route...possibly through the prison and the tunnels below.”
“Because no one expects that they’ll have to escape through the sewers,” Mara quipped, following Hadvar along another hallway and down a flight of worn stone steps.
“These...aren’t quite sewers.” He winced at the thought of it. “More like catacombs.”
It was not easy going. They were not the only ones to seek the shelter of the keep to escape the dragon, and Mara and Hadvar found themselves more likely to deal with Stormcloak soldiers than any Imperial remnants. Mara favored her bow until they managed to find another stash of potions in one of the store rooms. Downing the entire contents of one of the vials, the woman finally found the strength to call upon her healing magics, relieving the pain in both her leg and head.
She found a shield leaning against a barrel and wouldn’t be held back after that. It was on account of these Stormcloaks that she was here and not at the Sleeping Giant Inn to meet her contact. Every ounce of anger and frustration that she had bottled away was loosed, the brunt of which rained down heavily on any rebel Nords that came between her and the elusive exit.
Stone and mortar walls eventually gave way to tunnels of sheer rock as the constructed keep ended and the caves and catacombs began.
“You’ve done this before,” Hadvar commented as they followed the rushing water of an underground stream.
“Escaped from execution?”
“I don’t mean that. It’s the fighting. I would expect a smith to have some knowledge of how to use the weapons she forges, but there’s discipline in the way you move. Are you with the Penitus Oculatus and just can’t say? I recognize some of the training, but the rest….”
Mara actually laughed. “If I were a spy for the Emperor, do you really think General Tullius would allow me to be executed?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him, to be honest. The situation has been getting desperate in places between the Stormcloaks and the Thalmor. Sometimes, it’s better to let certain things be buried than used as a weapon later.”
“I would argue the opposite,” she replied as they came to an old iron grate that was the water’s exit into the world outside. It would be theirs as well if the pull chain still worked. “Some weapons should always be kept keen even if they must spend years locked away. The enemies they were forged for don’t always stay defeated.”
Rusted iron groaned loudly as an ancient mechanism came to life. The grate slowly lifted and finally gave them a way out and back into daylight. They were still blinking to let their eyes adjust when a great roar sounded overhead. Hadvar and Mara barely ducked behind an outcropping of rock in time for the dragon to pass overhead. It sailed almost gracefully through the air and tilted downward to vanish behind another mountain in the distance. They held their breaths for another minute, listening and waiting to see if it would return. There was nothing. A few minutes more, and birdsong could be heard from the surrounding trees.
“I think it’s gone for now,” Hadvar heaved a sigh of relief. “But it flew north. We’re going to need to get warning to Whiterun.”
“We’re going to need to get some rest, first,” Mara replied, leaning heavily against the stone. The boost she had given herself through the potions and magic was wearing off, and her leg was going to require more attention than a quick healing spell. “With how fast that creature was flying, it could probably reach Solitude before we get even halfway to Whiterun.”
“Divines help us all if that’s true.”
Hadvar helped her back to her feet and led her along the road that took them on a gentle route down the slope of the mountain and into a valley thick with fir trees. That underground stream that had helped to lead them to freedom cascaded alongside them until it joined a broad river at the valley floor. The pair stopped to rest briefly at a set of standing stones. Mara touched a hand to the one engraved with the image of the Warrior to plead for strength.
“We’re nearly there,” her companion informed her, pointing down from the ledge they currently stood upon to where the river appeared to split around a small island.
In the gathering gloom of twilight, Mara could see sparks of golden light coming to life as lanterns and sconces were lit. Small shadows moved between larger ones, people walking amidst a cluster of buildings. The river was a border to one side. A great mountain cradled the village on the other.
“Riverwood,” Hadvar said. “This is where I grew up. You will have friends here, don’t worry. My aunt and uncle would take you in just for my asking, but I have a feeling that if he gets a single hint you’re a Stendarius, he won’t ever want to let you leave.”
That guess was not far off the mark. Alvor, Hadvar’s uncle, was surprised but glad to see his nephew. Tidings of what had happened in Helgen, however, called immediately for everyone to get inside the house and converse in hushed voices. There was plenty of food and drink to spare for the unexpected guests, and Alvor and his wife, Sigrid, were keen to learn what was happening outside their little hamlet.
“We need to get a message to Whiterun,” Hadvar pressed urgently, eyes stealing over to where Mara sat at the end of the table. “Helgen fell with a full battalion of soldiers inside. Have you seen anyone else come this way?”
“We have not, I’m afraid,” Alvor replied. “If fleeing Helgen by road, it’s more likely any other survivors headed toward Falkreath. Some in town claimed they saw something big fly over, and it went in that direction.”
“I saw it head toward Bleak Falls Barrow before it disappeared.”
“That would be it, then. Circled the mountain then headed off west.”
The younger man sighed. “Then we still have some time. If we can just get to Whiterun--”
“Neither one of you is fit to go anywhere,” Alvor interrupted, shaking his shaggy blond head. “The young lady is pale as a ghost, and did you even notice that gash in your arm? Running from dragons, fighting Stormcloaks, racing like fools down the mountainside--you’re at least going to get a full night’s rest before you think of going anywhere. I’ll make sure one of the guards on patrol knows what happened. Let them do their job and report it to the Jarl. It’s more likely they’ll be allowed in to see him, leastways. He’s worked too hard staying neutral in this war to let two Legion soldiers come through the doors of Dragonsreach.”
“But Mara’s not Legion,” Hadvar protested. “She’s the blacksmith from Bruma.”
A low chuckle rumbled in Alvor’s barrel of a chest before it erupted from his throat in a great bark of laughter.
“He’d be likely to grant audience to a blacksmith even less. Let the guard go and take the news, madness that it is. You two get some rest, and we’ll see how things look in the morning.”
There was a bed in the main room given over for Mara’s use. Dorthe, Alvor’s young daughter, joined her parents in their bed instead, and Hadvar piled goat skins on the floor near Mara with a rucksack to use for a pillow. Sigrid had found Mara better clothes to wear, an old dress that had spent many a year in the bottom of a chest. It was blue linen and comfortable, the shift simple with long sleeves and the overdress apron-style with a square neck. Shoes were a bit harder. The Legion boots would have to do.
Mara sat on the edge of the bed with a poultice Sigrid had mixed up for her. It was a simple herbal remedy, but it was good for soothing burns. Sigrid had a good deal of experience treating burns, it turned out, with Dorthe’s insistence on helping her father at the forge, and Mara felt how effective the treatment was almost immediately.
“I shouldn’t have gone running ahead,” Hadvar scolded himself as he watched her apply the poultice to blistered and oozing skin. He was sitting by the fireplace in his Legion tunic with a tankard of mead in his hand. “I should have cut your bonds sooner.”
“There’s no need to punish yourself,” Mara said gently.
She allowed herself another attempt at the healing magic. Light spread from the palm of her hand across the wound on her leg. It took a good deal of effort, but she got some of the redness and swelling to diminish. Magic was one of those talents she should have spent more time refining. However, with no mages guild and her mother lost at a young age, there had been no one able to properly teach her. What she knew came from the few books her father had helped to rescue before the Thalmor attacked Cloud Ruler Temple. One book he claimed was written by her namesake, a journal of simple spells any adventuring crusader should know.
Of everything in that tome, Mara had learned a few of the easier restoration spells and one for throwing balls of flame over short distances. If it wasn’t useful in her forge, she tended not to bother.
“What if no one else made it out? What if it’s just us?”
“Then we’ll have to add Solitude to our list of destinations.” Mara reached for a strip of clean cotton that had been left for her to use as a bandage and carefully wrapped up her ankle and calf. “We need to make sure the Jarl knows about the dragons and that the Legion knows about both the dragons and the escape of Ulfric Stormcloak.”
Hadvar sighed and slumped back in his chair. He drained the rest of his tankard in one go.
“It would be too much to hope that Ulfric would have died by dragon’s breath. There are many who claim he has more than skill in the thu’um . Some think he is also Dragonborn.” His eyes suddenly widened. “Gerdur. Gerdur will need to know about Ralof.”
“Ralof’s sister. She owns the lumber mill on the island. We all grew up together. I have to tell her that I’ve at least seen him.”
Mara had stood up while he was fretting to himself. It was just a few short steps to the other chair near the fire, and she sat down across from him. She lightly plucked the tankard from his hand and poured him another drink from the flagon nearby. He stared at her almost like he were seeing her for the first time when she held the mead out to him. It wasn’t that his eyes held no recognition. It was that summer warmth to the ice blue. It was the same look she had caught when she was in the back of the cart, and it held her just as thoroughly captive.
She broke eye contact in order to reach for the ladle hanging nearby, hoping that the glow from the embers was enough to mask the burning in her cheeks. She filled a clay bowl with steaming water and soaked a clean cloth to begin tending to the wound on Hadvar’s arm. It wasn’t severe, but it was deep enough that it could easily fester if not treated thoroughly. Hadvar downed more mead the instant the hot cloth was pressed to the gash. Dried blood and grime gradually came away. When the wound was clean, Mara couldn’t see that it would need anything more than a good binding. She found another strip of cotton and set to work.
Hadvar’s fingers brushed the locks of hair away from her brow. Mara had left her hair loose once she took the helmet off, any attempt at making another braid just pulling at the goose-egg that had formed near her temple. The Imperial soldier gingerly traced the outline of the bruising. His touch was light, almost hesitant, and it sent a tingle down Mara’s spine when his hand curled around the back of her neck.
His mouth closed over hers just as she finished tying off the bandage. Breath sweetened by honey mead, Hadvar cradled her head in his big hands. Mara didn’t even try to pull away. Her fingers slid up the front of his tunic and gripped the fabric at his shoulders, drawing him closer and answering his unasked question in kind. He understood. The kiss deepened with a fervor neither of them had expected. Whether it was from the excitement of the day or the relief at still being alive, it didn’t seem to matter. Mara relished the low burn she felt build in her heart and spread through her limbs when Hadvar’s strong arms enveloped her.
Hadvar stiffened and broke away at the sound of someone coughing downstairs. He sat still for a minute, his attention cast over his shoulder as he waited to see who else might be stirring in the house. There was nothing.
“I’m sorry,” he said lowly when he turned back to her. “I shouldn’t have--”
Mara pressed a finger to his lips and smiled. “Life can be as short and uncertain in Cyrodiil as it is in Skyrim.”
“That may be, but you didn’t come all this way just to settle down in Riverwood.”
She leaned back in her chair. “That isn’t entirely true. The journey might not be at all what I expected, but I’ve arrived at my destination all the same...or nearly.”
Hadvar’s brow furrowed, perplexed.
“I was coming to meet someone at the Sleeping Giant. The arrangement was for several days ago, so I have no idea if my contact is even still around.”
“Are you able to give me a name?”
“I don’t have one.” She shrugged helplessly. “More than that, I don’t have anything that I left Bruma with. The Legion confiscated all that, and I can’t even begin to guess where it might be, now.”
“We can always talk to Delphine in the morning. She owns the place. She’ll know who’s come and gone.” The look he gave her was as hopeful as it was curious. “Will whatever this business is keep you in Skyrim long, do you think? Do you know?”
“Even if my original task no longer matters, I’m still a Stendarius. The Thalmor may think I’m dead, but they have a presence in Bruma and at every border crossing. It’ll be safest for me to lie low.”
“Does your family...still worship Talos?”
“It’s bad enough that you know who I am. I shouldn’t say anything more that would endanger you further.”
“Mara.” Hadvar reached out and grabbed her wrist before she could stand. “I made my choice before I even knew your name. We survived a dragon today. The entire Thalmor army is nothing in comparison to that.”
She inhaled a deep breath before slowly letting it out. His eyes and his grip reflected his determination, but Mara had known too many Imperial soldiers more than willing to wholeheartedly accept the requirements of the White-Gold Concordat. This generally tended to result in such things like what had happened earlier that day. General Tullius had been little more than a pawn in a greater game, and Mara didn’t know enough about him to guess if his motivations truly went in one direction or another. Legate Morius who was in charge of the Legion camp near Bruma had been of a less common mindset, but he claimed that those who shared it were closer to the Emperor’s inner circle. The White-Gold Concordat, he claimed, was nothing more than a cease-fire. It was the Empire buying time to recover, to rebuild, to grow strong once again and push the Aldmeri Dominion out.
That position was severely weakened if the civil war in Skyrim couldn’t be brought under control. And it was hard to gather strength with so many citizens blindly believing that caving to the elves was not only necessary but preferable to the alternative. This was no longer her father’s generation, her father who had fought in the Great War.
“You say that never having faced the Thalmor army,” Mara replied softly, resting her other hand on top of his. “Let me see what I can learn from the Sleeping Giant. After that, I’ll do my best to answer your questions.”
Chapter 2: Blades and Barrows
The morning dawned bright and clear. Mara wasn’t sure what it was that actually awakened her: the smell of fresh bread that Sigrid had just baked or the familiar rhythmic ring of hammer on anvil from outside. Her head ached, but it wasn’t nearly so bad as it was. After she stretched some of the soreness from her shoulders, she swiftly plaited the mess of her hair back away from her face.
“Mama, she’s awake!”
Mara looked over just in time to see Dorthe spring up from her seat at the table and go rushing for the front door.
“Dorthe,” Sigrid called out sternly from where she stood minding the cookpot, “you’re to stay in here and help me.”
“But Cousin Hadvar said--”
“It doesn’t matter what he said. I’m your mother, and we have breakfast to get on the table. Are you done peeling those potatoes?”
“Then you’d best finish.”
Dorthe threw Mara an expression that was half apology and half pout as she slunk back to her place on the long bench. Her feet took to swinging back and forth as she picked up her chore again.
Mara carefully stood and stepped over to the fireplace.
“Do you need any help?” she asked, taking stock of everything Sigrid had spread about her. The bread was on a wooden plate at the edge of the hearth, just close enough to the coals to keep warm. The pot bubbled with a savory soup of apples and cabbage, and an iron skillet was heating up on a grate directly over the flames, likely for the potatoes that Dorthe was peeling.
Sigrid smiled at her. “I think we’re sorted well enough. It won’t be much longer, though, if you’d like to call in the men. Once Alvor gets into a rhythm, it’s hard to break him from it.”
Mara knew exactly how that was. She stepped outside into cool air fragrant with pine. Several people were already out and about, some walking with purpose down the main street, others sitting out front of their homes chatting with one another. None of them seemed to be aware that a town only a few miles away was destroyed or that it had been done by a dragon. If what Alvor had said the night before was true, that no one was even really sure of what they saw, it was no wonder. There were more real things for these people to concern themselves with than shadows. As if to prove this further, an elderly woman across the way waved at Mara from where she sat outside her front door. The Imperial waved back politely.
The ring of the hammer and anvil called to her like a siren’s song. She walked along the covered wooden porch until she came to the forge. It was an effective set-up in the open air with a vented roof to keep off the rain and snow. There was a workbench and tanning rack sitting near the grindstone with the pit of the forge on the far side. Alvor stood there, moving back and forth between firing the metal and beating it into shape on the anvil. Just beyond, Hadvar leaned against the railing, arms crossed over his Legion tunic. The two of them were deep in conversation that Mara couldn’t make out over the heaving of the bellows.
Something sitting on the workbench caught her eye. She stepped over to find a soldier’s helmet of the Imperial style. It was iron but had a sheen to it that normally required particular alloys. It was also remarkably familiar. Picking it up, she wasn’t surprised to recognize the maker’s mark stamped inside the crown: the horn of Stendarr framed by the diamond shape that once represented the Septim Dynasty.
“Stendarius,” she heard Alvor’s voice say in the break between working the bellows and picking up his hammer again. “That’s not a common name even in the heart of the Empire.”
Mara turned to see him regarding her over his shoulder. He winked, a grin peeking through the bush of his beard, and he went back to his work. The woman went over to stand near Hadvar, the helmet still in her hands.
“Hadvar told me you had something my father made,” she said, a wistful smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Holding something he had crafted sometimes made it feel like he wasn’t dead these past five years. “The Tribune helms weren’t usually for sale.”
“Oh, he didn’t sell it to me,” Alvor explained. “I won it on a bet. Old Berngard told me that he could stomach more Cyrodiilic brandy than I could. Now, these were the days before the Concordat, and we were still fiery young men with more pride than sense. He put his own helmet up for the prize and would have to wear something crafted by the camp smith if he lost. Well...he lost.”
“Did he tell you how he made it?”
“That I couldn’t get out of him no matter how drunk he was. After the war, I never got the chance to see him again, either. I like to think that life treated him well, and we might drink together once more in Sovngarde when the time comes.”
Mara’s smile widened as she held the helmet close to her heart. She barely knew Alvor, but his connection to her father made her automatically want to regard him as family. That was the Nord in her, she knew. He had already welcomed her into his household without knowing a thing about her, but they were swift to find the common bonds. There was no denying, however, that Hadvar had also done something to orchestrate this.
The young soldier had been silent thus far, but Mara could feel his eyes on her. She remembered what he had told her, that he had given up his apprenticeship when he couldn’t figure out how her father had made iron armor as light as leather and as strong as steel. She had originally thought that her father might have truly passed on that knowledge. There had been several smiths he’d held in high enough regard to discuss trade secrets with. That might not have been one of them.
The requirement of daedric elements might have been part of it.
“You work in only iron and steel?” she asked, glancing around at a few of the tools and simple weapons he had hanging on racks ready for sale. Daggers, axes, tools for about the house, bits of hardware, everything had the look of a common shop where soldiers rarely frequented. What weapons there were looked to be more useful against rabbit and deer than bandit or Stormcloak.
“No reason to bother with much else. When I have the luxury of working with anything more exotic, I can only hope to sell it if I travel to Whiterun.”
“No,” Mara agreed, stepping forward and setting the helmet down on the stone edge of the forge. “No, there’s no reason to bother with much else. Might I show you something?”
“You’ve piqued my curiosity. What do you have in mind?”
She nodded toward the bellows. “Make the fire as hot as you can. You opened your house to me knowing that I have no way to repay you. But I can give you this. For your kindness to me and your friendship with my father, I can teach you the secret of the Stendarius forge.”
Eyes wide, Alvor did as she asked, pumping the bellows until the coals were white-hot. Hadvar helped by tossing in more fuel. The men didn’t stop until the flames were high and sweat glittered upon every brow. When Mara determined that the forge was ready, she pushed her father’s helmet into the flames.
“Have you gone mad?” Alvor exclaimed. He spun to try to find his tongs in order to rescue the relic.
Mara held out a hand to stop him.
She waited a minute more. Any other piece of iron--even steel--would have begun to redden and glow at that temperature. The helmet remained conspicuously dark in appearance. When it seemed like Alvor would not be able to hold still any longer, Mara took his tongs and fished out the helmet herself. She set it down on the anvil and rested her bare hand directly upon it.
Hadvar sucked in a breath of panic, but she held up her other hand to calm him.
“It’s quite cool,” Mara confirmed.
Alvor’s gaze shot up to meet hers. Blue eyes glittered with excitement and wonder.
“What enchantment is this?”
“No enchantment. Just three ingredients.”
Alvor nodded for her to go on, suddenly finding himself unable to speak.
Mara pointed at the forge, the anvil, and the water trough in turn. “Fire salts to raise the heat. Void salts to temper the metal. And frost salts for the bath. It makes common iron light as leather and strong as steel and resistant to all sorts of things.”
“Those are...rare ingredients. Where would I even find them?”
“Unless you’re willing to learn our other family trade, I recommend a good apothecary.”
Alvor loosed a low chuckle as he picked up the helmet to examine it more closely. “By Ysmir, you won’t be seeing me hunt any daedra. If Lucan can’t get it in stock, I’ll talk to Delphine. She keeps Riverwood well stocked with potions and remedies.” He beamed over at Mara. “Now it’s my turn to owe a debt. Shelter is nothing in comparison to what you’ve given me. We can finally wear the name Ironclad with pride again!”
“It won’t do you much good if you starve to death.”
The trio looked over to see Sigrid standing near the workbench, hands on her hips. Mara had completely forgotten to relay the message that food was nearly ready. They began to file back into the house, Alvor bursting with enthusiasm as he told his wife that they would never have to worry about having enough to live on ever again. Hadvar fell into step beside Mara.
“I could kiss you,” he murmured in her ear, grinning broadly. He couldn’t help but share in his uncle’s excitement.
Mara smirked up at him. “Is that a threat or a promise?”
“Which would you prefer?”
Breakfast was a jovial affair. Between Alvor’s animated storytelling about his time with Mara’s father fighting the Aldmeri Dominion and the Imperial woman able to contribute some of her own memories, it almost truly felt like a family affair. For a short time, the trials of the previous day were forgotten, and all that mattered was good food and good company.
The one thing Mara would not let herself forget was the need to speak with Delphine at the Sleeping Giant. Before the morning was too far gone, she and Hadvar made the short trip down the road, the soldier introducing her to those whose paths they crossed. Hilde was the old woman who had waved at Mara earlier, and she came hobbling over as quickly as she could to tug at Hadvar’s sleeve.
“Hadvar! Did you hear? The Riverwood Trader was robbed! Lucan tried to tell the guards, but they were more concerned with getting back to Whiterun. You need to do something!”
“Peace, Hilde. Do you know what happened?”
“You need to talk to Lucan. Come, come!” She continued to pull at his arm.
Hadvar looked apologetically at Mara. She nodded in return. By the looks of things, there weren’t any guards still about, and that made the Imperial soldier the next best thing. It was probably best that Mara continue her task alone, anyway. If the letter had anything to do with her father’s own past, involving someone from the Legion might compromise any number of things. Being a Stendarius meant absolute devotion to an old idea of the Empire that was not at all in line with abiding by the White-Gold Concordat. Mara was willing to risk her own life for that. She wouldn’t risk someone else’s unless they were fully of like mind.
The common room of the Sleeping Dragon was warm and pleasant. A long fire pit ran down the middle of the space with tables and chairs all around. In the far corner, a tall, golden-haired man sang and strummed at a harp. The only patrons present were a couple of hunters who apparently helped to keep the inn stocked with venison and rabbit. They sat together drinking their pay and laughing.
Mara made her way over to the bar at the other end of the common room. A tall Nord with dark hair stood behind it talking with a much shorter Breton woman. “Talking” was being polite, it seemed. The more accurate way to describe it was that he was listening while she was berating him over something...apparently ale going bad from sitting in a barrel for too long. They both looked over when Mara softly cleared her throat.
It was the Breton woman who spoke first.
“We don’t get a lot of travellers in Riverwood. What’s your story? Would you like an ale? Orgnar can get one for you.” She looked at the man again. “A fresh one.”
Orgnar said nothing in return. He simply raised an eyebrow, shook his head, and walked off in the direction of the stairs that went to the cellar.
“I’m actually looking for someone,” Mara said as she watched him go. “Are you Delphine?”
“That would be me,” was the trite reply. “I’m the innkeeper. It’s my business to keep track of strangers. Who are you looking for?”
“Has anyone been through in the past several days? Maybe renting the attic room?”
Something in Delphine’s expression changed. It was subtle and hard to identify, but the Breton woman’s sharp features appeared to scowl less. At the same time, she seemed to be ever so slightly on edge, wary.
“We don’t have an attic room.”
Mara couldn’t be misremembering. Even with the letter lost, its contents were too simple and direct to forget. I need to speak to you. Urgently. Rent the attic room at the Sleeping Giant Inn, and I’ll meet you. A friend. She couldn’t afford to actually rent a room here with all her possessions gone. The thought of it being a snipe hunt made her feel even worse.
“What’s your name?” Delphine asked more gently. She leaned forward with her elbows on the counter. “I can let you know if anyone comes through asking for you.”
“I’m Mara Stendarius. It was a long journey getting here from Bruma...and more eventful than I’d care for. I’d rather it not be all for nothing.” She stared at the weathered wood of the bar for a moment before slowly nodding her head. “The Ironclads are letting me stay with them for the time being. If you hear anything--”
“Wait,” Delphine interrupted, leaning forward more as her voice dropped. “Come with me.”
Mara watched in mild confusion as Delphine walked out from behind the counter and over to a door set into the back wall of the common room. She fished around in her pocket for something, a key, and promptly unlocked the way through to another room.
The Imperial followed, stepping through into a bedroom that doubled as an apothecary’s store room. Delphine went to a wardrobe and threw the doors open. She reached up, and Mara heard a soft click. A low, mechanical grumble followed as the back panel of the wardrobe slid to the side. A flight of stairs was revealed, and Delphine didn’t even look to see if Mara was following her before she began to descend.
Mara rushed to close the bedroom door. A breath, two, and she steeled her resolve to follow the Breton woman down into the hidden cellar.
She marveled at what she saw there.
The space was not large, but the walls were lined with maps and banners, weapons, and all sorts of paraphernalia from the old Empire under the Septim Dynasty. There were also shelves lined with artifacts, books, and even more alchemical reagents with a work table tucked away in a corner. The middle of the room was dominated by a larger table strewn with books lying open and a large map with small stones marking various places upon it.
“There’s a rumor that a dragon attacked Helgen.”
Mara nodded, not looking up from the map as she tried to make sense of it. “I was there.”
“You were?” Delphine crossed her arms over her chest. “Is that why you’re late? I expected you days ago.”
“So, you’re the one that sent the letter. I found it in the dead drop--the one between Bruma and Cloud Ruler Temple.” Mara looked up, her eyes narrowing. “Only Blades know about that.”
“I’m surprised you even checked it. But don’t think I’m not grateful. Our numbers are so diminished that the only allies I could think that we might have left were your family. If what I suspect is true, the Blades are going to need your help.”
“You have a problem with daedra?”
“Dragons. And if you were at Helgen, you’ve seen what I could only suspect before. I found a disturbed burial ground in the mountains near Falkreath. That’s the same direction the beast reportedly flew in. The Thalmor presence has also been increasing in Skyrim of late, and I can’t help but think there’s a connection.”
“How does that involve me?”
“When General Tullius captured Ulfric, that was it. That was the war effectively over. Then, I get word from a few contacts that the caravan picked up Ambassador Elenwen on the way to Helgen. Then, there’s a dragon, Ulfric escapes, the war is back on, and it all smells a little too convenient. Now, you’re here when the Blades need allies most. You. A Stendarius. The last surviving member of the Knights of the Nine if your family kept the tradition.”
“Did you bring your armor with you?”
“And risk being so conspicuous? I came as a simple pilgrim, and anything I had was confiscated by the Legion when I got caught in the same ambush that captured Ulfric. That dragon saved me from execution.”
Delphine’s eyes widened. “Execution...for crossing the border?”
The Imperial heaved a resigned breath.
“I think it was at Elenwen’s urging. I had brought a signet ring from Cloud Ruler Temple should I need to prove to you that I was a friend. The Legion had no intention to even keep me prisoner, otherwise. Hadvar was insistent on that point.”
“How much does Hadvar know?”
“Not enough to expose the Blades, if that’s what you’re worried about. He knows I’m here to meet someone, but he fancies that I’m with the Penitus Oculatus.”
Ironic laughter escaped Delphine’s throat.
“If only they were on our side in all this. I managed to keep a few contacts in their ranks, but the Thalmor have effectively blinded them.”
She moved to the table in the center of the room and appeared to examine the map before her. One long finger planted itself on the location of Helgen before shifting to Riverwood and then some place off to the west where one of the stone markers lay. A finger from her other hand came down and tapped near another stone placed off to the east near the mountain pass where Mara had entered Skyrim in the first place.
“We might have some time,” Delphine said, half to herself. “Of the few dragon burials that I’m aware of, the disturbed ones are in the south. One is very close by and might be where the beast that attacked Helgen came from. Any way we look at it, my goal doesn’t change. I need more information, and the Blades need to find a Dragonborn.”
Mara stepped closer, trying to take note of everything marked out on the map.
“With Skyrim at war with itself, do we really need to overthrow the Emperor, too?”
“No.” The Breton woman shook her head. “The days of the Blades protecting the Dragonborn Emperors are long over. That was us actually forgetting our true calling--being dragon hunters. The Dragonborn is the ultimate dragon hunter, blessed by Akatosh himself.”
“Are you asking me to join the Blades?”
“Do you have a problem with that?”
Mara had to consider that. Her ancestor, the Champion of Cyrodiil, had briefly served the Blades during the Oblivion Crisis in her effort to protect Martin Septim. But there was the official story...and the story told by one generation of the Stendarius family to the next. Serving the Blades was not the same as being a member of them, and Mara the Champion had seen too much beyond the black gates. She had determined that she would always serve the Empire. Her descendents had made the same promise.
The order of the Knights of the Nine had been revived, and one Stendarius in each generation continually served as the Divine Crusader with the blessing of the Emperor. It was even Titus Mede I who gave honor to the accomplishments of the family. The Champion’s son, Stendarr Burdson, had made a name for himself hunting daedric cults, vampires, and werewolves, dark forces that lingered on long after Mehrunes Dagon was banished. When he accepted the mantle of the Divine Crusader, he also took on a new name. Amiel Stendarius continued to serve the Empire until the end of his days.
“Tell me what you need me to do for now,” Mara finally replied. “If I can help, I will. I can’t make any guarantees beyond that.”
Delphine pointed to a spot on the map just outside of the village.
“I have a contact that needs something to continue his investigations into this predicament. It’s a stone carved with ancient Nordic runes--reputedly of the dragon tongue--that may help us locate the other dragon burials. If we can head this off before it gets away from us, the better I’ll feel.”
“And you think this stone is where?”
“Bleak Falls Barrow, just up the mountain across the river.”
“Anything I should be aware of before going in?”
Delphine shrugged. “I saw some evidence that bandits might have set up camp, but I didn’t get a chance to scout that far in. Anything else is just hearsay and ghost stories the locals like to tell.”
She promised gold. That was a decent motivator in itself, and Mara wasn’t particularly worried about bandits. They made their way back to the common room. Delphine went back to work, and Mara left the inn as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. She did manage to get a down payment out of Delphine, though, and she gripped the pouch of fire salts in her hand like it was the greatest treasure.
Hadvar was strapping on his armor when she got back to the house.
“What’s going on?”
“Lucan thinks he was robbed by bandits that fled toward the mountain,” Hadvar replied, reaching for his sword. “I’m not looking forward to going into that barrow, but I don’t think there will be much of a choice.”
“I’ll come with you.” Mara handed her pouch to Alvor where he sat at the table. “Try those in your forge and let me know how it works out.”
His grin was wide when he saw the contents.
Mara didn’t waste time. She changed into her borrowed Legion armor as quickly as she could and met Hadvar outside. Each equipped with sword and bow and some of Sigrid’s bread and venison jerky, they followed the road across the bridge and out of the village. The path they needed was marked by a boulder. It was a hunting trail these days, nothing more, but Hadvar told her what he knew about ancient Skyrim before the Empire, before the end of dragons.
“The dead don’t stay dead in these barrows,” he said lowly as green grass became blanketed by snow the higher they climbed. “Whatever magic the dragon worshippers used is still strong, I hear. Not gone, it only sleeps like the draugr sleep. I had hoped to go my whole life without experiencing it first hand.”
They took a break within sight of the summit when Mara began to limp. Hadvar kept watch while she tended to her leg, healing magics soothing her flesh and easing the pain. She had put a fresh poultice on it that morning, but she could have done without such a strenuous hike so soon after her injury. And that was only the beginning. There were still bandits. Nuisance that they were, Mara didn’t have access to the kind of healing tonics that had been available in Helgen.
Her earlier confidence was already beginning to fade while all they had done was walk along a mountain path.
“Keep your head down,” Hadvar whispered as he crouched lower behind the snowberry bush.
He slowly reached for an arrow to nock to his bow. His eyes were fixed somewhere further up the path and above them, and he sighted along the arrow’s smooth length. He loosed. There was a brief hitching sound--like a breath of surprise--followed by a dull thud. Mara leaned to peer around her companion. A bandit lay at the base of a set of wide stone steps, an arrow through his neck.
“Nice shot,” Mara breathed, impressed.
“That’s the only sentry I’ve seen so far,” Hadvar replied, keeping his tone hushed in order to not carry. “Either there’s only a small handful of them, or they’re stupid.”
It wasn’t difficult to get past the others. Hadvar and Mara delivered the only form of justice they could and then quickly searched the makeshift camp for the golden claw Lucan said was taken.
“Nothing,” Hadvar huffed as he pushed his way back to his feet.
Mara pointed behind him to the massive entrance of what looked like an ancient temple.
“Maybe they thought more could be had within?”
They made their way inside. The chamber that welcomed them was huge, crumbling, and dark. Nature had taken over in nearly every possible way, but the trail of dead skeevers urged the companions to move with caution. They came to a halt and crouched behind a collapsed pillar at the sound of voices.
“So we're just supposed to sit here while Arvel runs off with that golden claw?"
"That dark elf wants to go on ahead, let him. Better than us risking our necks."
"What if Arvel doesn't come back? I want my share from that claw!"
"Just shut it and keep an eye out for trouble."
Mara peeked over their cover to try to see the speakers. Two bandits--both Nord by the look of them--were near another campfire. One paced about while the other was cooking something over the flames. Mara drew forth her own bow and nodded a signal to Hadvar.
He didn’t need to be told twice. Arrow at the ready, he silently shifted away, keeping low as the stalked the tall man impatiently pacing, waiting for this Arvel to return. As soon as he loosed, Mara didn’t waste a moment. Hadvar’s quarry barely had begun to stumble before her own arrow flew through the air. Her aim was not as true. While one bandit fell dead, the second was merely wounded in the shoulder. Hadvar swiftly moved in, sword in hand, and finished the deed.
They looked for clues rather than the claw. Clues of what they might really be up against if the bandits were keen to delve deep into the barrow. Mara also needed to find some hint of this stone that Delphine needed, and she hadn’t the faintest idea of what dragon runes looked like.
The tunnels beyond the hall were empty. Torches and brazier had been lit at intervals by the bandits to better find their way, but there was very little of use or interest. Mara grabbed Hadvar’s wrist as they neared the next chamber. It was bright. More than that, another one of the bandits was inside, reaching up to pull a lever in front of him. To open the portcullis beyond? That might have been the intent, but he sprung a trap instead. Dozens of bolts shot out from different directions, piercing his flesh, poisoning him, and leaving him for dead.
“There’s a reason why we in Riverwood have avoided this place for generations,” Hadvar muttered with a grim look in his eyes. “And it’s not all stories of ghosts and superstition.”
“Do you think he’s the one that ran ahead with the claw?”
“Only one way to find out.”
Cautiously, they moved forward and checked over the corpse. Nothing. Nothing that they needed, anyway. Mara looked up and around to see if she could identify how the trap mechanism worked. Daedric and Ayleid ruins were little different in that regard. Holes were drilled into the stone, uniform in size, and that must be where the bolts ejected. The lever was the trigger. What was the counter?
Pillars were situated above them, each carved with the likeness of an animal. These appeared to be mirrored on the other side. Mara waved to her companion, and they set to work examining the dark gray stone. After a few minutes, she sighed in exasperation and leaned against one of the pillars to rest her smarting leg and give herself the space to think.
The pillar shifted beneath her.
“They move!” Hadvar exclaimed, twisting about the one before him. There was an odd mechanical grinding followed by a click.
Using the other carvings in the room as a guide, the pair worked to turn the pillars until all of them clicked into place. A mechanical groaning echoed from somewhere.
“Was that it?” Hadvar asked as Mara stepped back over to the central lever.
“There’s only one way to find out. Stand clear.”
“No.” The man quickly grabbed her hand as she reached for the lever. “I don’t care how valuable that claw is. It’s not worth your life.”
“The claw isn’t all I’m here for.”
Hadvar refused to let go. It forced the issue where they pulled the lever together. Another click, a grind, a metallic scream, and--much to their relief--the portcullis at the far side of the room opened.
“Then, you’d best understand that I am with you until the end,” Hadvar affirmed. “Whatever end that may be, I will stand at your side until the Divines take us.”
“Eight?” she asked with a feigned indifference in her tone as she turned toward the now open doorway. “Or Nine?”
Chapter 3: Force and Fire
Mara hated spiders, both the sort that walked on eight legs and two. The giant beast of a frostbite spider was more frustration than terror as she and Hadvar worked to cut their way through thick webbing. She had gone at its legs with her sword while her companion provided as much cover as he could with his arrows, but eventually his quiver was empty. With her sword arm on the brink of exhaustion, Mara tapped into what little magical reserves she had and shot a jet of flame at the beast.
It flailed in pain and went scurrying for its nest--instinctively, unthinkingly--and set the webbing in the entire chamber on fire. Mara and Hadvar quickly dove back out into the tunnel they had entered from to avoid being burned alive. Screams echoed toward them, those of a man. Hadvar was the first to his feet, and his arm shielded his eyes as he squinted into the fast-burning blaze.
A few minutes more, and all was silent. Ash drifted through the air as the two stepped back into the chamber. A form was curled into itself on a massive grate in the middle of the stone floor, flesh seared and blackened. The fire had been hot enough to kill him but not enough to destroy the leather of his armor or knapsack. Carefully slicing through the strap to avoid touching the brass buckle, Mara checked inside his pack for something that would tell them who he might have been.
“Would you look at that?” She pulled out a large golden dragon claw and held it up for Hadvar to see. “I think we finally found the one who ran ahead.”
“Bandit, then? Good riddance.” Hadvar hefted the claw in his hand. His brow furrowed as he looked the whole thing over. It was no wonder Lucan wanted it back so badly. The piece must have been incredibly valuable just in material alone. “What do these symbols mean, do you think? More animals--like in that other hall.”
“I don’t know,” Mara replied, leafing through a small journal she had also found in the pack, “but it was enough to make this fellow brave the ruins alone to keep the secret for himself. Something about a treasure? Are these ancient Nordic proving grounds, maybe?”
“It’s a barrow,” Hadvar replied with a shudder he couldn’t quite repress, “a tomb, full of things that should be dead and aren’t. We’ve got what I came for. What about you?”
The woman pocketed the journal and pushed herself back to her feet.
“A stone inscribed with dragon runes. We’ve passed a lot of stone, but I don’t recall passing anything with runes on it of any sort. I can’t help the feeling that I missed it entirely because I don’t know what to look for, exactly.”
“I’ve seen them before. Elsewhere. A few pilgrimage sites are still marked with them, and they’re little more than hashmarks but uniform. They’re also usually the size of your face--hard to miss.”
Mara turned toward the hallway that continued out of the chamber and deeper into the cavelike ruins of the barrow. She wasn’t looking forward to continuing on. The few potions they found were ancient and long spoiled, and she had already gone through what they picked off the bandits. Her ankle was threatening to give out on her. Fighting the spider had worn her down, but this was not exactly the ideal spot to try to rest and summon what healing powers she had.
She tightened her greaves, passed her mostly full quiver of arrows to Hadvar, and pressed on. He was better with the bow, and if they could avoid any further direct altercation, she’d be glad of it.
The draugr were not so keen to give them a respite. Fire proved to be just as valuable a weapon then as earlier, and Mara used a torch to set rivers of spilled lamp oil aflame. When that option wasn’t available, they wrapped the tips of Hadvar’s arrows in old linen strips, lit them, and loosed them at the cursed undead.
The inner sanctum, when they finally reached it, was sealed behind a great circular door.
“Look!” Hadvar exclaimed, his voice a loud whisper. “Those animals look like the one on the claw!”
Following the same logic from the earlier pillars, the two worked together to turn the massive stone rings to match the only clue they had found. The golden talons fitted into holes drilled into the center piece, and a deep groaning echoed through the corridor as a hidden mechanism lowered the portal into the floor.
What lay beyond took their breath away. The cavern was massive, a natural space hewn and repurposed by the ancient Nords to serve as what looked like a burial chamber for someone important. An ebony sarcophagus lay prominently upon a raised platform with an altar to one side and a massive chest to the other. Behind, Mara could make out a tall, elegantly curved wall of pale stone. A dragon’s head was ornately carved at the top. It was what she saw carved beneath that made it difficult to not rush her way over. They forced themselves to move slowly and low to the ground to avoid waking up any draugr that might also rest there.
“Dragon runes,” Hadvar affirmed when they got close.
Mara barely heard. Her heart was pounding in her chest with an excitement she didn’t understand. One of the words pulled her attention despite her not knowing the text. The runes glowed brighter and brighter as she drew close, and there was a swirl of wind about her as she reached out and touched the carving. Everything else went dark. All she saw was the word.
She blinked to find Hadvar holding her as she lay on the cold and mossy stone.
“Mara!” he hissed. “Mara, are you alright?”
“ Fus ,” she breathed, pinching the bridge of her nose as she sat up. “What does fus mean?”
“I don’t know. You can read that?”
“It came into my head…I heard it. I heard it on the wind that blew, and then it was all I could see.”
“We need to get you out of here. You’re tired. Your leg could be infected and giving you fever.” He gently touched a hand to her brow, her cheek. “ Brii , you're burning.”
She didn’t get a chance to respond. Behind them, the lid of the sarcophagus was kicked free, and a draugr crawled out to engage them. His armor was more fine than any they had seen in the barrow, and he hefted a mighty blade in both hands.
Mara and Hadvar found themselves shoved back by some invisible blow. Hadvar stumbled. Mara fell, but she managed to quickly roll out of the way before that heavy sword came slicing down.
“So that’s it, then,” she muttered to herself as she got to her feet and lunged at the undead. “Magic.”
It didn’t work the same for her. No matter how loudly she shouted the word, there was no effect. But if the draugr shouted it, she and her companion had to work hard to keep their feet and not drop their weapons.
They eventually brought it down all the same. Fire hurt it like any other, and they left it a smoldering, immobile corpse before too much longer.
Mara leaned forward and rested her hands on her knees, panting for breath.
“I haven’t had to use that spell...so many times in one day...ever in my life.”
“No?” Hadvar asked as he looked over what all was on the altar and inside the chest. “Battle never called for it before?”
“I normally have significantly better weapons and armor.” She tugged off her helmet and shook out her braid, locks damp with sweat. “The family sword sets things on fire plenty well enough. Magic is for lighting the forge.”
She sat down on the ground and stared up at the massive wall covered in dragon runes.
“How in Oblivion am I going to get this out of here?”
“It might be available in miniature.”
Mara looked over as Hadvar took a seat beside her and spread the loot out before them. Soul gems, gold, a couple of ancient weapons, another spoiled potion, and an oddly shaped stone slab carved with dragon runes on one side and what appeared to be an old map of Skyrim on the other.
“What are these marks?” she asked as she held the map up. “These aren’t the placements of the cities.”
“Villages, maybe? This one is about where I’d put Rorikstead. The whole province is dotted with more barrows like this one, so they might be those, too. I wouldn’t know unless I could get to a legion camp to have a look at one of their maps. The one General Tullius worked strategy from had a great deal of detail.”
“Hopefully the contact I was supposed to meet will know,” Mara commented as she loaded the useful bits and the stone into her pack and let Hadvar help her up. “Finding this stone was all Delphine could tell me.”
“You missed your meeting after all?”
“Yes and no. Delphine said she would let me know when anyone came back around asking for me. She did remember someone--someone asking about this--but they aren’t here. If they wanted this, they’ll be back for it.”
They looked around until they found a passage that led them out of the chamber and to an overgrown path outside and on the far side of the mountain from Riverwood. Mara made immediately for the river, sitting down on the rocky shore and tugging off her greaves to get her bad ankle into the water. It was an icy relief and immediate. She sighed as she let the river wash away the pain.
Hadvar searched through their packs to find clean bandages.
“Which herbs do you need for the poultice?”
“Sigrid used mountain flowers and some kind of mushroom.” She looked about her and then pointed at small, blue flowers growing a few yards distant. “Those ones. Don’t worry about the mushrooms. I won’t risk getting that wrong.”
She examined her wound while Hadvar gathered up the healthiest blooms he could find. It was barely an improvement from the day before, and the recent exertion had caused what little bit that had healed to crack and reopen. Blood and pus oozed, and she slipped her foot back into the water to let it be cleaned a little bit more.
“Is this enough?”
Hadvar had two handfuls of petals. Mara nodded and took them to grind up on the smooth stone beside her. She added just enough of the river water to make a loose paste before gently applying it to her ankle and calf. This had been her mother’s art, and Mara wished she’d had more opportunity to learn it. Most of the plants she had seen in Skyrim so far were familiar to her from the wilds around Bruma, but there were enough new ones here to shake what little herbal confidence she had.
Once her leg was wrapped up and protected in her greaves again, the pair moved on and followed the river upstream until it brought them back around and within sight of Riverwood. The sun was already beginning to set. Mara, in her weariness, followed more the sound of hammer and anvil and the soft, red glow of Alvor’s forge than the cobblestone road to make it back to the house.
Hadvar went immediately to Lucan’s shop. After getting some food and mead into her stomach, Mara forced herself back outside to take the dragonstone to Delphine.
“Magnificent,” the Breton woman breathed as her hand coursed over the intricate carvings. They were in her secret basement, and the stone was laid down next to a current map of the province. “These marks line up with the burials I already found. These others...look how they’re positioned. My contact would know more, but I think this could help us immensely.”
Mara crossed her arms over her chest and watched as Delphine excitedly placed pins down on her map.
“Why do we need to know where all the burials are if there’s only one dragon?”
“All the dragons are dead,” Delphine replied without even looking up. “For there to be a dragon flying around, that stinks of necromancy. Or worse. With everything the Stormcloaks have been up to lately, I wouldn’t put it past them that they might have learned some ancient Nordic magic. You were in that barrow. How were the draugr?”
“I was really missing my Crusader’s sword--I’ll say that much.”
Delphine chuckled. “I might be able to pull a few strings and get you a half-decent replacement. Or, being the smith you are, forge something, and I’ll get you the name of an enchanter I trust enough to work on a Stendarius blade.”
Mara could do better than that.
In the days that followed, she kept herself busy at the forge. The armor she had taken from Helgen was not adequate for what Delphine needed her to do, and there was no way she’d be able to get back to Bruma to retrieve the armor of the Divine Crusader. Common steel and Stendarius ingenuity would have to do. She simultaneously taught Alvor her particular tricks of the trade with the atronach salts she had retrieved. The ring of hammers was constant for as long as light was favorable.
Mara’s voice often joined the rhythm. It was her habit to sing as she worked. The music didn’t just pass the time. Her father had taught her that certain songs were ideal for certain tasks, especially where timing was important. For her cuirass, it was the Ballad of Pelinal Whitestrake . For her new greaves, she required Springheel Jak . The sword she took her time with, falling into more traditional Nord pieces in their original language, her voice trilling out the words as fluently as her familiar Cyrodiilic. Sometimes, Alvor would join in if he knew the song, but he mostly just worked alongside, keeping the tempo.
Deer hides began to pile up near the tanning rack. Hadvar was keeping himself occupied by helping the village prepare for both renewed hostilities between the Stormcloaks and Imperials as well as the fast-approaching winter. This was also when he quickly learned how engrossed Mara could become in her work. With the latest delivery, he also brought a tankard of cool water and set it down on the stone of the forge within her range of vision. When she didn’t immediately notice, he rested his hands on her shoulders and leaned in to leave a kiss on her jaw.
Alvor loosed a bark of laughter when he saw how Mara jumped in surprise.
“Remember to step away from the fire now and again,” Hadvar said near her ear, unable to conceal his own amusement. “Why don’t you walk with me while I check the snares?”
Mara drank water as she considered the suggestion. There was still much she wanted to complete before they made for Whiterun, and there was no telling when Delphine was going to hear back from her contact regarding the find in Bleak Falls Barrow. At the same time, Mara nearly had a complete set of new armor and weapons. They might be shaped and yet unpolished, but there was not much work left to be done on them to be serviceable. What was left could wait for the time being.
She set her empty cup down and nodded. Making sure she left the half-formed sword she was currently working on in a safe place, Mara followed Hadvar as he led her out into the main street and then southward. They followed the road upriver for a time before abandoning it and simply walking along the shore. The sun had not yet reached its zenith, but the day was almost garishly bright. Either that, or Mara had become so used to working in the shade of the covered forge that her eyes were taking longer to adjust.
This didn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful. The river valley was lush and green. The air was mild--even warm--in comparison to the snow covered mountains surrounding them. It was sheltered from the bitter wind blowing through the Jeralls, the same wind that chilled Bruma on any given day. Mara could understand why the people would prefer to live in Riverwood even with it being in sight of a haunted ruin. The flowers, the forest of sweet-smelling pine, the meandering river of clear water, there was a natural sense of tranquility here that was difficult to find.
Mara settled herself down on the riverbank as Hadvar checked the nearby snares within a grove of trees. There was also a net nearby to trap some of the teeming salmon. The woman stayed clear of this as she carefully took her boots off and lowered her injured leg into the cool water. Her wound had mostly healed between her magic and Sigrid’s remedies, but the flesh was still an angry red that would sometimes sting. The water was just as effective at soothing what remained of the burn.
It was only a few minutes before Hadvar returned. He carried three rabbits bound together by their hind legs, and he hung them from a low tree branch before he knelt to check the fish nets. Determining that they could go a bit longer, he came to sit down beside Mara. It was strange seeing him out of uniform, choosing a plain white shirt with dark trousers and a vest of fine green wool, but it suited him just as well.
“How is it?” he asked. He was peering through narrowed eyes as though trying to ascertain the condition of her wound through the rushing water.
“Better,” Mara assured him. “A few days more, and it will be good as new.”
“And then we’ll have to be on our way--me back to my unit, and you...where? Will you be going on to Whiterun after all?”
She inhaled a deep breath, drawing in the combined scent of the pine and wildflowers as if to commit it to memory.
“Your uncle and his family have been very kind, but I can’t take advantage of their hospitality forever. This war with the Stormcloaks is also going to make it impossible for me to get back to Bruma any time soon. If Skyrim is going to be my home for the foreseeable future, I’m going to need to put myself to better use.”
“You could come with me to Solitude. I’m sure General Tullius would grant you a pardon after hearing your story and me there to vouch for you. I’ve seen you fight. The Legion could use you.”
“Hadvar...you know I have no desire to risk being assigned to some fringe outpost or be unable to respond when word comes back on what we found in Bleak Falls Barrow.”
“I know. But I have no desire to risk never seeing you again.”
He was close enough that Mara was able to lean against him, her head coming to rest on his shoulder. Hadvar’s arm hugged her about the waist as he left a kiss in the thick waves of her hair. That was something she had been trying not to let herself be concerned with. However, even as the excitement of Helgen faded away in the wake of dragon-free skies and no reports of other disasters elsewhere, Mara looked forward to every opportunity she had to be with Hadvar. She had first thought the way she was enamoured was due to how he had helped save her life and that his feeling for her stemmed from the same sense of relief. But falling into a mundane routine had diminished nothing. If anything, she actually felt more attachment, not less, She was in love with the Nord soldier. She was in love with this valley. She couldn’t articulate why, and it didn’t bother her.
The kiss in her hair became kisses on her brow, her temple, and Mara twisted to catch his face in her hands and press her lips to his. Hadvar’s arms surrounded her in an instant to pull her close. She soon found herself cradled by tall grass and wildflowers, her lover’s body alongside her own. He carefully helped her pull her leg free of the water. His hand was so warm in comparison, and Mara’s breath hitched as that hand wandered higher, over her knee and beneath her skirts to caress her thigh.
Everything about him was warm, and it set her heart to burning. His kisses deepened when her fingers wove themselves into his hair. His own fingers tugged at the lacings of her girdle as fervor consumed him.
They made love beneath the open sky. They breathed as one, bodies joined in a driving rhythm as they forged an ever deeper bond. Mara clung to Hadvar and pressed her face into his shoulder in order to not cry out. Even the rushing flow of the river would not have masked her voice echoing from the surrounding mountains. When Hadvar breathed her name near her ear, she wasn’t entirely sure that it wasn’t simultaneously an invocation to the blessed Divine.
They remained in each other’s arms long after they finished. Hadvar had drawn his shirt over Mara to keep away any chill, but his being so close was warmth enough. Still, she didn’t refuse. The cloth was soft against her skin and smelled of wind and pine and the man at her side. If the rest of her time in Skyrim were as cruel as her welcome, she could be content if it would also allow her this.