We're all falling and we need a place to hide
A safe place in the woods, where we can start the fire
All we know is that would be our home
We will stay 'till the break of dawn
She knew she was dreaming on the very moment she opened her eyes. The changes in her vision were so distinct it was impossible to overlook them. She could, to an extent, see in the dark – all bosmer could, used as they were to the Green, where no fires could be lit even in the darkest nights. There was no mistaking that for what she had then – red blurs danced on the edge of her vision, trailing heat marks between the trees of the forest.
Embla knew she was dreaming, but she could not wake. She knew how it would play out – she’d had that dream hundreds of times before. And so she let herself move forward, not because she wanted to but because she knew struggling would be futile. She felt the flurry of bodies around her, far too many to be so eerily quiet. She would have closed her eyes if she could.
Next to her, two bodies collided, their heat signatures clashing and never pulling apart. She heard more than saw them melt into one, two lives fusing into a single unspeakable horror. The crunches of bone and slurping of flesh stitching itself together were the only things heard. And then the thing reached out to another being – which one of them had that been? – and another, until there were none left but her and that – the creature with too many eyes, too many mouths, too many fingers.
We have no shape other than the one Y'ffre bestowed on us, her mother used to say. Respect the Green and respect the Pact, lest you lose it.
But she did have a shape. It was not her shape, not as she knew herself, but it was a shape, one she could not quite make out, even as she tried to look at her not-hands and not-feet. The Thing – and she knew what it was, even as she rejected it – turned to her and reached out, raw muscle and blood and veins visible, and it smiled, an open invitation to join it. She could hear it – not its footsteps, but rather the tendons and blood vessels tying together in a slow agonizing process.
Embla took a step backwards, and another. She was the body missing in the ooze, she knew it, but something compelled her away from it, despite how its mouths sang songs of joy and pleasure and the sheer euphoria they felt in forging that ultimate connection. She saw it for the horror it was, although she could not see herself, and a creeping coldness in her heart wondered what horror she was in turn - what horror could she be, enough to keep her from joining them.
She took a step backwards, and she walked away. The Wild Hunt paused for a split second, confused, and her mind was torn from her body, her sense of self blurring as she saw things through the creature’s eyes – wonderful and bright and exciting, and how could she walk away from that, when she’d never have to be alone again? How could she walk away from the chance to be one with her tribe and one with everything else that crossed their path?
And then the moment was broken as something within her, something even more visceral, pulled her back to herself. There was a final wail from the Hunt, a sound that held no anger but a raw, sincere sadness. The thing morphed once more, taking the shape of wind itself, and then it flew away, leaving her behind. The emptiness she felt then was crippling – a disconnect from her people and from the forest itself, as if she had betrayed the Green and cast aside by it in return.
Embla fell to her knees, and then rolled down on the damp earth, finally able to control her body again. She closed her eyes and gradually recovered the feeling in her skin, enjoying the cool raindrops that fell on it as if each one of them was a blessing. There was a sound in the distance, and her eyes snapped open –
Masser and Secunda shone in the sky, their lights reflecting on the metal of a single, simple yet cruel axe.
It fell on her head and sliced her neck right through.
She sat up with a gasp, hands reaching to her throat, feeling the smooth, unscarred skin around her neck. Her pulse hammered under her fingers, her heart beating so hard it ached. She made a conscious effort to pause and take a deep breath, then another, until she was sure the trembling in her body came from the cold rather than from the panic.
She crawled out of the tent and into the snow. The Rift wasn’t the coldest area of Skyrim by far, but at that time of the year, a thin layer of ice reached even the areas most to the south of the province. She reached out to it, holding it in her hand. There was no ice in Valenwood, not even in the highest peaks, and seeing it was always a reminder – both comforting and anguishing – of her distance to the Green.
Embla held the ice until it melted, not letting go even when her fingers burned. Once it was gone, she stared at the reddened skin, her fingertips blue with the cold, and that finally snapped her out of her trance and made her roll back inside the tent, cursing, casting a quick healing spell that brought warmth from her chest all the way to her toes.
She shifted through her stuff until she found a chunk of salted, dried meat, which she chewed on without much pleasure. She wasn’t strictly adherent to the Pact, not since she’d enlisted in the Dominion, but habits died hard and she still held a preference towards meat-based products.
A lot of the Altmer – hell, most of them even – would not miss a chance to passive-aggressively pick on her people’s habits, but they were all wise enough to not turn down any help they could get, supposedly inferior elves included, and so the bullying was kept to a minimum and she got the food she wanted more often than not.
She unrolled the parchment in her pocket and read it over again, focusing on the map on the back.
Lost someone to the vampire menace? Looking for a worthy cause to prove yourself to? Join the Dawnguard today!
Embla had not, in fact, lost anyone to vampires – whomever she had to lose was long gone – nor did she feel the need to prove herself, but the Dominion had assigned her to the task of figuring out the uproar in the local vampire clan’s politics, and so she would follow her orders like the good soldier she was. Except –
If everyone who knows you deserted is dead, then by all practical means you didn’t desert at all.
A theory she had promptly put to test as soon as she had escaped the smoldering ruins of Helgen, leaving a massacre behind her. She presented herself to the Thalmor Embassy with her story – they had captured the Stormcloak leader in an ambushed planned by her truly, only to have his execution interrupted halfway by a beast no one had heard of in eras.
There was skepticism, of course, and she was held in a cell until Dominion agents could go back there and verify her story. Embla spent the good part of a week praying to the Twelve that they wouldn’t find any evidence of the moment in her tale she had omitted – the one in which she changed her mind and tried to set the man free, the reason why her head too was in the chopping block that day.
They didn’t, and when her story matched, right down to the details of the cave she used to escape, they set her free and had her promoted from Pellan to Adma’agea – from outsider to full-fledged spy, which was three ranks above justiciar and in reality one of the highest positions a bosmer could hold in the Dominion, since the core leadership roles were taken by altmer. And then, promotion or not, they had her off the dragon investigation and reassigned to this – local politics.
Embla didn’t complain. As Pellan, she had control of a small band of khajiiti and city-bosmeri, and while her current position granted her no underlings, her wage was higher and the job involved remarkably less bloodshed. Her work now consisted of schmoozing around, sneaking into places and picking pockets, often under the guise of a generous offer from the Dominion - a physician, free of charge. It was the perfect cover. And then the vampire situation came up, and now there she was, better off after committing a treason no one would ever know about – only herself and Ulfric Stormcloak, but there was no reason they’d take his word over hers, not with her spotless record.
She packed up her tent, rolling up the furs and squishing them into her backpack. She traveled light, confident in her ability to find most things she’d need at a moment’s notice. Her survival skills took some adapting, granted, used as she was to the plentitude of the Green and of Valenwood in general, but she’d been in the Dominion for over two decades already and as such she’d had plenty of time to adapt to the most diverse situations.
The cold bit into her skin, just enough to be uncomfortable, just enough to keep her awake, and she broke into a quiet jog.
She followed the map to a passage, and just as she entered the valley and started on the road that would lead her to the fort, she was joined by a young blonde with long hair and a silly goatee whose name was Agmaer. Embla didn’t mind the company; she wasn’t particularly extroverted but her travels were lonely and it was nice to have someone there for a change, even if the boy did tend to talk a bit too much.
“So hey!” he spoke up after they had been walking together for a good hour or so. “I was wondering, you’re an elf, right?”
“Right,” she replied, considering whether she should point to her ears.
“You’re a bit small for an elf, though,” the boy babbled on. “Uh, no offense. It’s just that the elves I’ve seen –”
“I’m bosmer,” she interrupted. “Wood elf. You’ve probably seen altmer. High elves. They’re the tall ones. Wood elves don’t usually leave Valenwood, and city bosmeri are almost always mixed.”
“Oh,” Agmaer’s face lit up, and then his eyes widened. “Oh! Oh, wood elves. Um. Is it true that you, uh, um –”
Embla fought back a smirk. “Yes?”
She did know, but she innocently turned to him and tilted her head instead. “What is it?”
“Is-it-true-that-you-eat-people?” He said it all in a single breath, and then blushed. “I’m sorry, that was probably silly of me –”
“That’s okay,” Embla looked away to hide her grin. Of all the things other races found horrifying about them, this and the rite of thieving were always the things that spooked or angered them the most. “And yes. We do.”
“Wh-oh.” He took a step back. Embla rolled her eyes.
“We eat our dead, mostly. We used to eat our enemies as well, but nowadays only the most strict and traditional among us do that. It wasn’t really well seen among the other mer.”
“That’s…” he seemed at loss of words, and she shrugged.
“Ritualistic. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. You bury your dead, don’t you?” It was a rhetoric question, and so she continued. “You bury your dead, we eat ours. Seems equally arbitrary to me, except by eating our dead and using their bones in our tools we make them part of ourselves and of our daily lives, and,” she paused for emphasis, “They don’t get their bodies defiled by necromancers or turn into draugrs or anything of the sort.”
“I won’t eat you,” she snapped, growing annoyed when his face relaxed with visible relief.
She managed to count an entire ten seconds of blissful silence before the boy spoke again.
“Are you –”
“Sneaky, good with bows, sometimes we do grow antlers,” she counted the items on her fingers as she recited them, “We live about as long as any other elf, run fast, talk to animals and grow our houses by singing to trees. Did I miss anything?”
He blinked. Embla shrugged. Valenwood elves didn’t usually leave the Green, and city bosmeri were so distinct they might as well be another species entirely, so she got those questions a lot. Never from other elves – they knew well enough to be aware it was rude – but she’d be damned if a human didn’t bring up at least one stereotype every single time they came across her.
“Oh, I see, thank you!” he paused his walk abruptly, as if something had just crossed his mind, and his hand went immediately to an amulet hanging on his neck. “Um. Are you with the Thalmor?”
“Not really. I work for myself, mostly.” She lied, or maybe didn’t lie, she wasn’t quite sure. “Keep your Talos worship, I don’t really care. Don’t see what all the fuss is over. Bosmeri and khajiiti have their own pantheons and the Dominion doesn’t mind that.”
That, at least, was a truth. She found the whole Talos persecution incredibly childish of the Thalmor, although it was clear how useful that ban was – under the guise of ‘Talos worship’, the Dominion had arrested dozens of otherwise crimeless conspirators, with no judgement and no rights to defend themselves. It was both barbaric and instrumental to keeping up their control of the remarkably frail Mede empire.
“Right! It’s so unfair! My papa used to take me to this temple…”
She tuned him off, occasionally grunting a word or two in acknowledgment and taking mental notes of names and places that might come in handy if Elenwen ever pressed her to catch an agitator. She could see their destination in the distance – a castle large and sturdy enough that it could probably house a couple hundred people and hold out against most siege engines.
The valley itself was a beauty. Despite the cold and the snow, tufts of grass peeked their way out, and she could only imagine how exuberant it got when spring came and the weather got warmer. She instinctively closed her eyes when she spotted a waterfall and savored the input from her other senses: the cold droplets of water on her skin, the crunching of the earth beneath her boots, the hissing of the water as it hit the ground, the smell of damp earth.
They stopped at the door, or rather Agmaer stopped her at the door – she was more than ready to kick it in and huddle by a fire, nature-lover or not. She arched an eyebrow at him, trying to not let her annoyance show too much. The kid grew on her, really. They’d been walking for almost half a day and she’d grown used to his chatter as part of the background, a bit like the chirping of the birds.
"So! I bet you've killed lots of vampires, right?" he babbled.
Embla blinked and took a pause to think about it. “A dozen or so?”
Usually, vampire population was controlled by the dominant clan in the territory; it was a mutually beneficial, unspoken deal that kept the vampires fed and unbothered and the feral attacks to a minimum. Despite that, vampirism spread quickly as a disease, and so it was unavoidable that occasionally small covens of a couple feral vampires and their thralls would form.
When that happened, it was up to the authorities to deal with them, and in Dominion lands, authority happened to be the Thalmor, of which she was a part of.
“Oh, wow! I mean…” Agmaer’s eyes were wide. “I haven't really killed anyone, ever," he whispered. "But I'm ready to be a warrior, Talos knows I am! I got my pa's axe and I've trained, I've trained a lot! I’ve fended off wolves and spiders and when the Dawnguard passed on Shor's Stone, I knew it was my time!”
Alatae Auri-el, grant me patience.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“You think so? We haven’t known each other for long, but you look pretty mean – no offense – and I bet you’re good with a bow and I – I –” He gestured vaguely with his hands. “I'm really unprepared, aren't I? I mean, who am I kidding, a farm boy with a woodcutter’s ax? I bet they have all kinds of barbarians joining up left and right. Not that you’re a barbarian –”
“- I mean the whole eating people thing is a bit weird but it’s like you said, it’s your culture, right? And if you don’t mind Talos then I shouldn’t mind it as long as you don’t eat me –”
He blinked. “I’m sorry. I’m babbling, aren’t I?”
Embla took a deep breath, then sighed. “Look, kid, just… take a deep breath, will you? You’re exhaling nervousness. Yeah? Good. Count to ten.”
She lifted both her open palms, halting him again.
“Listen…” she trailed off, racking her memory for bits of conversation she had half paid attention to. “You said your father was a big warrior and you wanted to make him proud, isn’t that true? And…and all your sisters have already left home to take one job or the other and you’re the only one left.”
“Yeah!” The boy’s eyes glinted.
“That must be a lot of pressure.” She continued.
“Oh, yeah! You have no idea. My eldest sis, she’s so talented –”
“Point is,” she interrupted. “You said it yourself. This is your time, isn’t it? So maybe… comparing yourself to them and all…isn’t helping. Even your dad had to start somewhere, and… they’ll train you... probably. Don't worry. You're willing to learn, aren't you?"
"Yes! Yes, I am!"
"Then, see? That should be enough. You just have to be calm and have confidence in what you know... but also awareness of what you don't. All the rest will come with hard work. No one is born ready, kid."
"Yeah! You're right! My time to learn, my time to shine!” He frowned. “Don't call me kid though. You can't be that much older than me."
“I’m sixty-three,” she deadpanned.
He blinked. “Oh, okay.”
She reached for the door, eager to cut the conversation short, and then hesitated for a split second and looked back at him. “Ready?”
“Yeah. Yeah, let’s do this.”
On the very moment they stepped through the door, they were blinded by a light coming from above. Embla did her best to protect her eyes with her arms, and next to her, someone cursed as Agmaer stumbled, tripped and leaned against them for balance.
"Do you really have to do this every single time?!" the woman muttered under her breath, then looked up to a dark skinned man who used concave mirrors to concentrate the full might of the midday sun on their faces. The heat was so intense, even that brief exposure was enough to make her sweat.
"No vampires here, Isran, for the love of Stendarr, point that thing away!"
She took some measure of relief from knowing she wasn’t undead – or that brand of undead in particular, at least.
"Can never be too careful," a deep voice replied.
The light was finally put off, and with that out of the way, she was able to make out the features of the woman ahead of her. She was, much like herself, a wood elf, though she was taller, and her skin was closer to the Altmeri gray-green than to her own light tan.
City elf, she thought, then took a step forward to greet her. She took the chance to take a good look at the large circular room ahead of her.
“Name’s Beleval. Don’t mind Isran, he can be paranoid, but his heart is on the right place. We’ve been expecting you – our scouts saw you coming hours ago.”
“Embla,” she offered. She figured they’d been seen. The castle towers weren’t too high, but it sat on top of a valley so they didn’t have to be, unless they were planning to fend off attacks from flying enemies – things like the Dominion’s hot-air balloon prototypes, which she’d glimpsed a few times during their test flights in Alinor.
Or dragons. Place wouldn’t stand a chance against a dragon.
She couldn’t even begin to imagine what kind of structure they’d need to resist a dragon, and she shoved the thought out of her mind – she’d been reassigned from that investigation anyway, so it was someone else’s problem.
“Not a lot of our kind here, yeah? You don’t look like city folk. Got that weird wild look to you, you know?” She paused, then added, “And the teeth. Got the teeth. Valenwoodian, I’d guess?”
Embla grinned, making a point to let said teeth show. It was a habit, back in the Green, for the bosmeri to file their teeth to sharp points. It was helpful in their carnivore habits, and every twenty years or so their teeth would fall off and be replaced by an entirely new set. Embla hadn’t filed her newest incisors and molars – most races were too weirded out by an elf with thirty-two pointy teeth and she had a military career to think of. She kept her canines sharp regardless.
“Correct,” she acquiesced.
“Suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Dominion’s been all over Tamriel, been seeing elves everywhere lately.” Beleval gave her a long, full body stare, from the tip of her ears to her toes. “Still, those of us here have as much of an obligation to protect Skyrim as any other, regardless of where we hail from, wouldn't you agree?"
The question was a test, and Embla took a moment to think about how she would reply. “I think,” she said, articulating her words with care. “Most things the ones in power have us kill each other for are just disagreements not worth shedding blood over. I also think life is a thing to be protected. That’s why I’m here.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her, and she nodded. Embla and Agmaer waited back near the door. Soon she heard footsteps, and they were joined by the man who had all but fried them. His thick brows gave him a heavy, intimidating gaze. To her side, Agmaer cleared his throat and shifted on his feet. They were called forward. By then the young Nord was visibly shaking. Embla gave him a reassuring pat on the back as they made their way to the Dawnguard’s leader.
"…They seem decent folk if you ask me," Beleval said. “You cooked their brains and neither one shot you yet. Valenwood bosmer are superb archers, mind you.”
“What is it about wood elves and bows?” Isran grunted.
Embla shrugged. “We catch our food fresh every day, so we just grow learning to use them like you grow learning how to use a fork.”
He scoffed. “Well I’m not complaining. Got any training asides from that?”
“I started off in the army as field medic,” she reported.
“The Thalmor army, you mean?”
No, the fucking Stormcloaks, she thought but didn’t say. “Yes, the Thalmor. I studied in Alinor for nearly a decade and then got sent to the Hammerfell frontlines.” She paused. If he had any opinions on her being involved on the attack on his people’s province, or if he had any bond to Hammerfell at all, he didn’t say it. “Been serving on and off since then. I never had the stomach to really commit to army life, so I sign up for a mission or two whenever I need the money and that’s about it. Currently unaffiliated.”
She lied easily not only because she had practice, but also because it was the life she wished she had. In reality, once one’s name was bound to the Thalmor, it was hard if not impossible to completely cut ties with it. Even if she did manage to retire, her compliance and her loyalty would still be expected.
“Not in the position to be passing down anyone, as long as you don’t make trouble with the Talos worshippers” Isran muttered.
“I have better things to spend my time and energy on,” she replied, trying and failing to keep the bite off her tone.
“Teach that to your Thalmor buddies,” he grunted, then turned to Agmaer. “What about you, boy?”
"I – I have no training, sir, but I am willing to learn." Embla smirked at that. “I'm going to be a warrior, sir! Like my pa and my grampa before him, I got his axe –”
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen next spring, sir!”
Isran deemed the answer satisfactory with a nod, then walked to some barrels on the edge of the room and picked up a crossbow and a bag of bolts. Then he tossed the equipment to the boy, whose reflexes were barely quick enough to catch them.
“My pa’s axe, Stendarr preserve us,” Isran repeated, then scoffed. “Here, take this crossbow and let's see how you shoot."”
“Do I look like a ‘sir’ to you, boy? I'm not a soldier, and you're not joining the army.” He gave her a pointed look. “Watch the recoil. Takes some getting used to. We’ll make a Dawnguard out of you yet, kid. And out of you too…” The redguard shook his head “…thalmor. The things I have to deal with…”