The wagon creaked. A strange complaint to have, maybe, but the sound seemed to aggravate the splitting headache I had more than the chattering of the others --at least for the moment. Until the mouthy one spoke directly to me as soon as I opened my eyes. His voice grated like the bindings on my wrists, but at least his opener explained those.
“Hey you, you’re finally awake. You were trying to cross the border right? Walked right into that Imperial ambush same as us and that thief over there.” He gestured his blonde head at the other man in the cart.
Was I trying to cross the border? I couldn’t remember. Some details were filtering in, like how the man who had spoken was obviously a Nord, a native, with his blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Slight accent. And the Imperials. The war. Thinking about it too much made my head hurt. I glanced at the “thief” currently ranting about “damn Stormcloaks” (after admitting he was indeed a horse thief, though indirectly). I tuned in just in time to be addressed again. Must be a talent of mine.
“You there, you and me, we shouldn’t be here. It’s these Stormcloaks the Empire wants.”
“We’re all brothers and sisters in binds now,” the first man answered coolly. I couldn’t argue, even if I couldn’t remember why exactly I had been thumped on the head, tied up and dumped into a cart of criminals. Though I did find the idea that I might be a criminal more amusing than alarming, so at least there was that.
They had moved on, arguing amongst themselves about the one prisoner that was actually gagged. Ulfric Stormcloak, “the true High King” according to the blonde. That sounded somewhat familiar. With the leader of the rebellion in the cart...I didn’t need the soldier’s call about the headsman waiting to know what was awaiting us.
The horse-thief, also Nord as it turns out (red-headed with green eyes but just as pale as the rest of them), began to panic. His display did not surprise me, nor the others I think. What did surprise me was the blonde’s comment about the “damn elves” present. You’d think with a knife-ear sitting across from him he’d be more tolerant. Though technically I’m Altmer, not Thalmor, so I guess there’s a bit of a difference. I don’t give a Skeever’s ass who worships Talos or not, and I think their civil war about it is rather stupid. Horse-thief’s litany of the Divines (minus Talos and a couple others, I noticed) did remind me of my preferences: Kynareth’s name provided a sense of comfort, and the absence of Stendarr’s irked me. When going to the headsman, leaving out the god of mercy’s name was probably a mistake.
The cart comes to a stop and we’re ordered out before I learn the names of the chatty prisoners: the blonde is Ralof of Riverwood and the horse-thief Lokir of Rorikstead. Instead of approaching the soldier when his name is called to form an orderly line in which to march into death, Lokir freaks out even more.
“No! I’m not a rebel! You can’t do this!” His panic is unsurprising, but his running is. He taunts the captain with a “you’re not going to kill me!” tossed over his shoulder after she yells at him to halt. I glance between his running form and all of the soldiers (and especially archers) in the yard of this little hamlet and sigh. It’s an easy bet.
“Archers!” The captain’s voice rings out and the archers need little time to aim. Lokir dies in the dirt, head still attached to his neck. They don’t seem keen on moving the body until they’ve killed the rest of us. The captain glares at the orderly lines we’ve formed. “Anyone else feel like running?” No one moves.
“Wait, you there!” The soldier that escorted us here looks directly at me for the first time. “Step forward. Who are you?”
I step forward obediently. Watching Lokir running brought back some memories. Memories of being shot with arrows in the past. I’m not keen to repeat them. “Emmeryn,” I say without thinking. The surname doesn’t come as easily, so I shrug.
“You’re not with the Thalmor Embassy, are you, high elf? No, that’ can’t be right…” He turns to his captain. “Captain, what should we do? She’s not on the list.”
Thank the Divines.
“Forget the list,” the Captain answers. “She goes to the block.”
Fuck this bitch.
“By your orders, Captain.” The soldier turns back to me, barely hesitant but sympathetic. “I’m sorry. We’ll make sure your remains are returned to the Summerset Isle. Follow the Captain, prisoner.”
Great , I think as I stand in line for the headsman’s block. Which is already stained. Perfect . The situation is only getting worse as I count how many of the guards have bows, and how many people I’d have to jostle with bound hands to make a break for it like the unfortunate horse-thief.
One of the generals is harassing the “High King” when a noise like a weird shout draws my attention. The noise also seems to have stopped the grandstanding for a moment. From the mountains? Avalanche? I’m not sure I’d know enough to know what an avalanche sounds like, or if I’ve heard one before. They’re onto the last rites by the Priestess of Arkay when the next interruption hits.
“For the love of Talos, shut up and let’s get this over with.” One of the prisoners walks forward without prompting, and I find myself smiling at his phrasing. The Priestess allows herself to be interrupted, demurring with a somewhat snide “as you wish” as she steps aside. The general’s boot on the prisoner’s back as he kneels down is probably unnecessary, but it informs me that squirming away at the last second will be nigh impossible. “Come on, I haven’t got all morning!” The cheeky bastard continues as he appears to get comfortable. “My ancestors are smiling at me Imperials. Can you say the same?” He’s beheaded before he can get another word in, but I think the damage is already done. The executions have a different energy about them now, even with the mixed jeerings from fellow prisoners and bystanders.
“As fearless in death as he was in life,” Ralof says quietly at my side.
“Next,the high elf!” The Captain calls out. I glare at her and she holds my gaze as the soldiers around us duck a little bit when the sound from earlier returns again, closer. Not an avalanche .
“There it is again, do you hear that?” The sympathetic soldier mutters.
“I said, next prisoner!” The Captain yells. I think she knows she’s losing this match even though she’s getting to behead some of the pawns.
“To the block prisoner, nice and easy,” the nice one says softly.
I think I’d like him if he wasn’t helping them kill me. I approach the block.
“What in Oblivion is that?!” The general’s voice has some fear in it, and I regret that my field of vision has been forcefully narrowed to the headsman’s dirty knees as they force my head against the block. The pool of blood on it has already started sinking into the wood, but what’s left on top is already cool and somewhat sticky. Gross. It’s gross.
“Sentries! What do you see?” There might be a hint of panic in the Captain’s voice, and it makes me smile.
“It’s in the clouds!” A soldier yells back.
Whatever was in the clouds lands with a thud I can feel in my bones on the tower behind the headsman. I force my head up, and I can feel my mouth dropping open.
“Dragon!” The prisoner is just verbalizing my stunned thoughts.
The dragon opens its maw and suddenly everything is white light and a crushing force. The headsman goes flying somewhere above me and I have a brief thought to spare about wishing not to collide with his dropped axe before I’m spinning through the dirt with his corpse.
“Don’t just stand there!” The general screams. “Kill that thing! Guards! Get the townspeople to safety!”
“Hey, high elf!” Ralof’s voice is booming in my poor ears. “Get up! Come on, the god won’t give us another chance!” I think it’s sweet he came for me as he grabs an arm and drags me to my feet. “This way!” He knows this town and soon we’re under cover in another small tower free of guards and filled with other prisoners in varying states of distress and injury. I have enough senses regained to realize that what killed the headsman didn’t seem to do any lasting damage to me.
Ralof is addressing Jarl Ulfric, asking if the dragon legends are true. “Legends don’t burn down villages,” the so-called High King answers and I start to laugh. They both give me a quizzical look before Ralof is talking again.
“Up through the tower. Let’s go! This way, friend!” He begins to move up the stairs. I pause to look at the other prisoners who don’t seem to be joining us. At least two are on the ground and most of their blood is on the floor instead of inside them. I hear mutterings about needing to carry them before Ralof is yelling “Move!” at me. I shrug--hard to carry anyone with bound hands and so far no one is offering to help with that though they’ve all somehow slipped their bindings.
“Just need to move some of these rocks to clear the way!” A prisoner further up the stairs calls to us as we approach. There’s a giant pile that seems to have fallen from farther up the tower. I’m just thinking that they’ll have to help me get my hands free if they want me to move stones when more stones rain down on us and I’m knocked back on my ass. When I look up there’s a dragon head glaring back at me from the whole it made in the tower’s wall. Time seems to slow down and my brain is having a hard time keeping up anyway. I’m thinking about how dubious I am about the continued structural integrity of the building I’m climbing when the dragon opens its mouth.
“Get back!” Ralof shouts, and I roll out of the way as a jet of flame shoots up the stairs. The smell of burning flesh and hair makes me gag, but over the screaming and the simple noise of the inferno I think I can almost make out words from the dragon’s throat. Then just as suddenly the dragon’s gone.
Like that stupid kid’s game , I think, ears still ringing. Smack the weasel, or whatever. When my hearing comes back Ralof is speaking to me again. I don’t like what he’s saying.
“See that inn on the other side? Jump through the roof and keep going! Go! We’ll follow you when we can!”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I mutter, but I turn and jump anyway before I can convince myself otherwise. There’s some heat and splinters as I literally miss the landing and go through a couple of wooden boards that are on fire. I’m out of the inn before I think I probably could have burned the fucking ropes off in a few seconds.
A familiar voice is shouting at a stupid little kid staring in horror at the dragon instead of running. “Still alive, prisoner?” The sympathetic soldier calls as I drag myself out of the inn. “Keep close to me if you want to stay that way.” I figure he’s one of those people that always sticks to the rules. Can’t let the prisoner get killed by the dragon, oh no, gotta go to the block like a proper execution. For the moment I’m slightly grateful. Later I might have to hit him over the head and hope the dragon doesn’t eat him so I can escape.
He’s shouting plans at the soldier he handed the dumb kid off to when the dragon flies over us, making us duck as it picks up another unfortunate snack. This time I’m sure I hear words that I don’t understand as another jet of flame comes out of the sky.
“Quickly, follow me!” Soon there’s more shouting, but I don’t care about any of it. The dragon is eating people that not only aren’t me, but were about to kill me a few crazy minutes ago. The shouting I start paying attention to is when Ralof comes back into view.
“Ralof! You damned trator, out of my way!”
“We’re escaping, Hadvar! You’re not stopping us this time!” Ralof yells back.
“Fine,” my escort says. “I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovngarde!”
“Could we do this elsewhere?” I mutter, eyes on the murderous wyrm literally eating people as it flies through the ranks of archers on the walls.
“You, come on! Into the keep!” Ralof yells at me.
“With me, prisoner! Let’s go! Come on! We need to get inside!”
While not keen on following someone who’s taken to just calling me “prisoner”, I have the feeling following Ralof will drag me into an argument about how he saved my life and I should join his little rebellion party. At least with the sympathe--Hadvar, I can knock him out later somewhere without feeling guilty about it. I follow him.
Inside, where the screaming and terror outside is muffled, Hadvar cuts off the Divines-damned bindings and gives me my pick of the gear lying around. He mutters something about finding some ointment for our burns while I wriggle into a dead woman’s armor. There are weapons too, and I pick up two swords and a belt to carry them. I don’t feel much apprehension or fear when I heft them (just a slight sense they feel wrong somehow, like the weight is off), so I figure I know well enough what to do with them. Maybe not against a dragon though …
As if reading my mind, Hadvar ends his search and turns to me. “Let’s keep moving. That thing is still out there. Come on, this way.” The keep we entered is underwhelming, though I am amazed everything still smells like mildew and feels damp even though everything outside is dry heat and on fire .
We run into a bit of Ralof’s party soon after, and I’m glad he’s not with them--though whether it would have saved us the fight or not I can’t say. Hadvar gives them a chance at least.
“Maybe we can reason with them,” he whispers to me as he sidles around the doorway. “Hold on now, we only want to…” and then they drew their weapons. Hadvar sighed. “If you want to die, so be it.”
I help him kill them for three reasons: he knows the way out of here, I’m wearing Imperial armor now and they don’t seem keen on talking and because they started the fight. I don’t feel too bad about it, so I figure I’ve probably done it before, though the weight still feels slightly off on the weapons. Did I use a different type of sword? I wonder, though the lengths of these short swords seem just fine.
“That’s the end of that,” Hadvar says, startling me from staring at my blades like they’re about to tell me why they’re weird . “Let’s see if I can get that door open.” The door is easier to deal with than the ceiling in the next hallway, which promptly collapses nearly atop us. “Look out!” Hadvar yells. “Damn, that dragon doesn’t give up easy.”
I imagine I wouldn’t either, if I were a dragon, but I don’t say anything. We continue to the avenue open to us, kill a few more Stormcloaks, and raid a storeroom. I pick up whatever I can find to shove into a pack--potions, some weird book, a few notes on the counter, some gold. Whatever is in easy reach as I pass by.
The next room is less pleasant but no less fight-y. I feel myself relieved I was originally brought to the block rather than this room--the racks are stained with blood and the cages have mutilated bodies in them. “A torture room,” Hadvar sighs. “Gods I wish we didn’t need these.” The workers here are fighting more Stormcloaks, and our little raggedy band of survivors grows while theirs dwindles.
“You fellows happened along just in time. These boys seemed quite upset at how I’d been entertaining their comrades.”
I wonder how Hadvar would feel if I killed this man.
“Don’t you even know what’s going on?” Hadvar starts in on them, telling them about the dragon they clearly don’t believe in and being called “boy” while he’s told he has no authority. Maybe he’d let me stab them now .
The assistant seems keen on leaving his master behind and coming with us. We’re almost out when Hadvar spots something in the cages.
“Don’t bother with that. Lost the key ages ago. Poor fellow screamed for weeks,” the master torturer says.
“See if you can get it open with some picks. We’ll need everything we can get.” Hadvar turns to me, because clearly as a man of the law he has no idea how to pick locks and clearly as a criminal I do. I roll my eyes when he hands me the picks but muscle memory takes over and the lock is popped in seconds.
“Sure, take all my things. Please.” The master sighs. Just to spite him I even grab a few books off the shelves and some bowls of salt which I shove into the pack knowing that they’ll spill everywhere and not caring. The torturer and I are glaring at each other, eyes locked the whole time.
“Grab what you can and let’s go,” is apparently Hadvar’s version of hurry it up, you arse .
“There’s no way out that way, you know…” the master calls after us as we continue on our way.
“Alright, let’s see if we can find a way out,” Hadvar mutters.
There’s a lever up ahead and I pull it after a quick look at Hadvar. It causes some boards that had looked like they were a wall to fall into a bridge and I grin. We cross quickly right before a rock comes crashing down and through the bridge.
“Damn it. No going back that way,” Hadvar says. He mutters some more but I’m already moving up ahead. I do not want to be standing here when more rocks come crashing down.
I remember another thing as we slosh through the tunnels which are sometimes surprise streams: I hate giant spiders. I managed to loot a bow and some arrows off of one of the fallen Stormcloaks and I take pleasure in killing the beasties from a distance where I don’t have to hear their scuttling or get hit by their fucking poison or just generally see the gross hairs that cover their gross bodies. My disgust for the beasts almost disguises how the bow also feels slightly wrong in my hands, like it should fit better but doesn’t. And the arrows. It feels weird to be reaching for a quiver and seeing the number of arrows rapidly dwindle.
“What next,” Hadvar mutters as he crouches next to me, watching the beasts fall to my arrows. “Giant snakes?”
“Preferable,” I mutter as I shoot the last arachnid.
No giant snakes but one sleeping (and easily shot) bear later, Hadvar finally has good news.
“This looks like the way out! I was starting to wonder if we’d ever make it.”
I want to run for the fresh air but I make sure he goes out first. I sling the bow across my back and lay a hand on one of the swords. If I need to knock him out….
“Wait!” Hadvar ducks as a large shadow covers the ground as soon as we’re out into the light and air. I duck with him against a rock and the dragon overhead thankfully keeps flying away.
“Looks like he's gone for good this time,” Hadvar says. “But I don't think we should stick around to see if he comes back. Closest town from here is Riverwood. My uncle's the blacksmith there. I'm sure he could help you out.” He smiles at the obvious surprise on my face. “It's probably best if we split up. Good luck. I wouldn't have made it without your help today.” He thinks for a moment, really looking at me for I think the first time. “Listen, you should go to Solitude and join up with the Imperial Legion. We could really use someone like you. And if the rebels have themselves a dragon, General Tullius is the only one who can stop them.”
I snort. “Yeah, no thanks,” I stand up from the rock and brush myself off. “That dragon wasn’t theirs, or if it was none of them seemed to know about it. They were just as surprised as you all. And I’m not gonna join the army for someone who just tried to behead me when I wasn’t even on the list.” I can tell I’m sneering at him and try to gentle my expression. He doesn’t look offended, but I might not have made it out without him either.
He definitely isn’t offended, because despite saying we should split up he still walks with me, commenting on the scenery. “See that ruin up there? Bleak Falls Barrow. When I was a boy, that place always used to give me nightmares. Draugr creeping down the mountain to climb through my window at night, that kind of thing. I admit, I still don't much like the look of it.”
I don’t remember any nightmares I may have had, but I don’t want him knowing about my memory loss so I only hum and don’t comment. I do comment on three weird stones I see sticking up from the ground a bit further down the path, though.
“These are the Guardian Stones, three of the thirteen ancient standing stones that dot Skyrim's landscape. Go ahead, see for yourself,” Hadvar encourages as he stops for a moment to watch.
I approach the stones cautiously, running my hands along some of the cool markings. A masked and hooded figure bearing two weapons. An imposing figure with large axe and shield wearing a horned helm. I go to the center stone last, an old man in robes with one hand outstretched and a staff. The only stone that is decidedly male, judging by the long beard that gets lost in some kind of sash. When my fingers brush across this stone, it lights up with blue light and a long hummmmm that also kinda chimes. If twinkling had a sound , I think in awe as I take a step back and look up, to where the line of blue light is coming out of the stone and going straight up into the sky. I hope this doesn’t draw that stupid dragon back .
“Mage, eh?” Hadvar says behind me, making me jump. I turn to him. “Well, to each their own. It’s not for me to judge.”