Alexa was still feeling bad for Salma, and the treacherous Beem-Ja, when she made her way to the Nightgage Inn, a rare book for the Arcanaeum, new talking wall, and quite a lot of loot heavier than when she’d left the College. Retrieving Shalidor’s manuscript from the Forsaken Cave, the next day, meant that it was already late when she reached Windhelm.
Not wanting to spend time in the Stormcloak capital she paid the carriage driver at the Windhelm stables to take her to Riften. It was early morning, two days later, when she arrived. Since the market was not yet open Alexa squared her shoulders and went to the temple of Mara.
“Alexa…” Dinya began before pausing, a slight frown wrinkling her brow. “I feel as though I should be angry with you, but I cannot remember why… It is the oddest sensation.”
“It is possible I was part of something, not too long ago, that has left Mara a little irked with me,” Alexa admitted. “I was hoping you might know how I could make it up to her?”
“What did you do?” Dinya asked, real concern coloring her voice.
“I’m unclear on the details but I was under the influence of Prince Sanguine at the time so I figure that, whatever it was, it was offensive.”
“I see…” Dinya murmured her frown deepening.
“I wasn’t intentionally under the sway of Prince Sanguine,” Alexa explained hurriedly. “You know how adventuring around here can be. You touch the wrong thing and – boom – daedra.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Dinya conceded her frown lifting slightly.
“You wouldn’t know of something I could do to regain Mara’s good graces, would you?” Alexa pleaded.
“Perhaps if you were to act as her hands in the world I might bless you and all would be well?” Dinya suggested after a moment’s thought.
“Can’t hurt to try, right?” Alexa asked, a little worried. Being a god’s “hands” could mean just about anything.
“Are you prepared, then, to help bring the light across this land?” Dinya asked her in what was clearly some sort of ritual formulae.
“I am,” Alexa replied.
Dinya lifted her face and hands slightly in invocation and stood silently for a while. “Mara has reflected an image to me…” she began, her voice oddly empty of inflection. “At the foot of the throat a young woman... almost a girl... her fickle love must resolve itself. The village is Ivarstead. The woman, Fastred.” She let her arms drop and opened her eyes.
“This is the prayer heard by the goddess and relayed to her servants. Return when she has seen her path. I will entreat Mara on your behalf.”
“Thank you Dinya. I am headed in that direction already. I will do my best.”
This time she made it out of Riften without interacting with the Thieves Guild. Thank the divines for small blessings.
Even riding Arvak most of the way, it was fully dark by the time Alexa reached Iverstead. Clearing the ‘ghost’ out of Shroud Hearth Barrow, the next morning, took far less time than listening to Fastred and her parents. Surely if Nords would just learn to talk to each other none of this would have been a problem… Or maybe it was the listening portion that was the issue? Either way by lunchtime Alexa didn’t care anymore.
“Have you spoken to Fastred yet?” Wilhelm was asking Bassianus when she returned to the inn for some food.
“No. I’ll tell you, Wilhelm, if I could sweep her away from here tomorrow I’d do it, but Klimmek still has so much to learn.”
“Klimmek is doing just fine,” the older man replied. “You should follow your heart.”
“You know,” Alexa said joining their conversation, “her mother supports you. Though given the quality of your excuses for not stepping up, I’m a little surprised by that.”
“I always had a feeling she liked me,” Bassianus admitted. “More than that brute Jofthor, at least. Jofthor... what about him? He’ll come after us and... it will be unpleasant.”
“A man who has never left Ivarstead?” Alexa asked. “He won’t. Boti will see to it.”
“She would?” Bassianus asked her, wide eyed. “If she’s willing to deal with him, then everything would be all right. I’ll... I’ll go speak to Fastred!”
“Well done stranger,” Wilhelm told her as he watched Bassianus stumble hurriedly out the door. “I’ve been trying to get that lad moving for months.”
“Nothing like having a stranger in town to stir things up,” Alexa replied with a smile.
“True enough,” he chuckled. “Where do you go next?”
“I thought I’d climb the steps, see what’s up there, anything I should know?” she asked.
“The climb is best attempted in the morning. That way you can get back down before dark,” he replied.
“Noted,” she smiled. “I guess, after lunch, I’ll take that claw you gave me and see if I can’t figure out what Wyndelius was hoping to find in the burial chamber.”
Wilhelm gave her a worried look. “Be careful. No telling what’s down there.”
Draugr. What was “down there” in Shroud Hearth Barrow was, definitively, draugr. Lots and lots of draugr... and a few skeletons for good measure. Thank the divines she had Auriel’s bow, shrouded armor, and all that time with the Thieves Guild under her belt because she was very definitely regretting dismissing Lydia in Winterhold. Though she was also quite grateful that Wilhelm had been willing to watch Meeko. The dog was completely incapable of sneaking.
The look on Wilhelm’s face when she arrived back at the inn was hilarious. “You look like you nearly lost an argument with a sabre cat,” he told her.
“Praise Arkay that draugr are flammable,” she sighed. “I’ve closed up the barrow and locked it tight behind me. They shouldn’t be able to get out now.”
“So what kind of riches did you find in the burial chamber?” he asked.
She sighed and dumped out her pack on the bar. “A sword, some soul gems, a book, and a handful of gemstones.”
“That hardly seems worth it,” Wilhelm noted, putting a bowl of stew and a plate of bread and cheese in front of her.
“Yeah, I wonder where Wyndelius got the idea there was treasure down there.” She flipped open his journal. “He writes about ‘the burial chamber’. And the chanting wall did indicate that the barrow was built for someone important… a woman named Helg, who was a servant of Kyn? Ring any bells?”
“‘Fraid not,” Wilhelm answered frowning at her. “Didn’t know anyone knew how to read those chanting walls anymore.”
She smiled at that. “Sorry, I probably should have mentioned that I’m a mage. Horribly over-educated I’m afraid. Still, what else can you expect from a Breton adventurer?”
Wilhelm laughed at that. “True enough, friend. You’re room’s yours for the night again. I assume you’re still planning to head up the steps in the morning?”
She nodded. “I was wondering if I might use the chest in my room to store some things I’d rather not be weighed down by on the climb?”
“Sure. It’ll cost you another ten gold for the extra day though.”
Alexa handed him the ten gold.
He gave her a terse nod. “I’ll see you for breakfast bright and early then.”
“Passing through on your way to High Hrothgar?” Klimmek asked, early the next morning, when she came upon him, and Gwilin, at the bridge. “I’m about to deliver some supplies to the monastery myself.”
Alexa caught Gwilin’s meaningful glance and smiled. “I am,” she answered. “If you want, I can take your supplies for you.” Gwilin beamed at her as Klimmek handed her the sack by his feet.
On the other side of the river, just up the hill a bit, a man stood with his arms raised in veneration of a small shrine. Curious she stopped and peered at the plaque:
Before the birth of men, the Dragons ruled all Mundus
Their word was the Voice, and they spoke only for True Needs
For the Voice could blot out the sky and flood the land.
“Keep an eye out for wolves if you’re headed up the path to High Hrothgar,” the man advised as she stepped away from him and the shrine. He was dressed in mismatched hide armor but was carrying an Orcish bow and his quiver held elven arrows.
“You know the path well?” she asked.
“I like to spend time up here,” he admitted. “Walk the Steps, meditate on the emblems. Doesn’t hurt when I bag some game along the way.”
Alexa kept her expression carefully blank. Whatever the man claimed his weapons suggested he wasn’t here for game. “Do you visit the Greybeards, or just walk the path?”
“They’re not the sort to take visitors,” he told her with a quick, penetrating, glance. “But I never go that high anyway. Some folk who make the trip leave them food or other essentials,” he added, indicating at the sack she was carrying, “but not to make conversation.”
She nodded. “I hear the view from just below the monastery is amazing and Klimmek needed some help with his delivery, so...” she shrugged.
“Were you here when the Greybeards broke their silence?” she asked.
“I was,” he answered uncomfortably. “Strange days when the monks will do that. I wonder what it means.”
“I don’t know,” Alexa replied. “But I admit I had thought that there would be more people here hoping to find out.”
“The Greybeards don’t talk much,” he reminded her. “Better to wait at home and see. Dragonborn are supposed to be hard to miss, right?”
She nodded, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Thanks for the warning.”
“Sure thing,” he called after her as she started up the hill.
Alexa continued to read the emblems as she climbed eventually rounding a bend to find a woman seated in front of the fourth emblem.
Kyne called on Paarthurnax, who pitied Man
Together they taught Men to use the Voice
Then Dragon War raged, Dragon against Tongue.
That was odd. The Emblem seemed to indicate that the gift of the Voice had been relatively new at the time of the Dragon War and yet she was fairly certain members of the Five Hundred Companions had been capable of Shouting.
“Keep an eye out for wolves if you’re headed up the path to High Hrothgar,” the woman said, glancing at Klimmek’s sack of provisions as if to indicate that carrying a sack of food with you might catch the attention of the local wild life.
Alexa cocked her head at that. Like the previous man’s bow this woman’s “don’t ask” tone and posture, and the way she was carefully taking in every detail about Alexa, felt out of place. “If you’re not taking up provisions, what are you doing this high?” Alexa asked, even in late summer the air up here was pretty cold.
“Walking the Steps,” the woman answered curtly. “Meditating on the emblems. I make this trip every few years.”
“I see. Were you here when the Greybeards called out the way they did?”
“I was just outside Ivarstead when it happened,” the woman admitted with a brief smile. “It’s an exciting moment. Nothing like this has happened in centuries. But, exciting moment or not, I guess people still need supplies, huh?”
“That they do,” Alexa agreed, nodding a good day to the woman. By the time she’d reached the next emblem Alexa had concluded that, while the jarls of Skyrim may not have sent representatives to Ivarstead to watch for the new dragonborn, she was willing to bet she’d just spoken with agents of the Stormcloaks and the Imperial legion. She paused to read the fifth emblem.
Man prevailed, shouting Alduin out of the world
Proving for all that their Voice too was strong
Although their sacrifices were many-fold.*
Alduin? The dragon from the Dragon Stone inscription? That was interesting. Alexa took a moment to stand on a rocky outcropping looking northwest to the Sea of Ghosts and took a deep long breath of the thin alpine air. The view from up here really was amazing. Her blood sang in her veins as Mirmulnir’s memories indicated exactly which part of the territory below her killing him – back before the Dragon War – would have allowed her to claim. She smiled and shook her head at that. Then turned away from the view and continued up the steps.
“And so the art of Shouting became the practice of a select few,” Alexa murmured to herself, after reading the eighth emblem. Seventeen disputants… she reflected, grimly. At least the current debacle only had two claims to the throne. Seventeen must have been a complete mess. She stopped in front of the statue of Talos.
For years all silent, the Greybeards spoke one name
Tiber Septim, stripling then, was summoned to Hrothgar
They blessed and named him Dovahkiin.
“Dovahkiin is a title not a name,” Alexa told the statue before turning back to the climb. Coming around the next bend she saw High Hrothgar for the first time. It was built like a fortress baring the path forward as if to say: “If you want to be part of the history of the Voice you must pass through me first.” There was one final shrine to the right of the stairs.
The Voice is worship
Follow the Inner path
Speak only in True Need.
“These people sound like fun,” Alexa told Meeko, ironically, as she put Klimmek’s supplies in the offering box and started up the final set of steps.
The door, surprisingly, was not barred and opened easily. Closing it carefully behind her Alexa set her pack against the wall and pulled off her masked cowl before stepping forward into the open space of the room ahead of her. As she did so an older man, dressed in complicated gray robes, stepped forward, three others appearing out of side rooms. “So... a Dragonborn appears, at this moment, in the turning of the age,” he began while giving her a critical once over.
Alexa frowned at him. From his demeanor it seemed she was not at all what he’d expected. Perhaps he had been expecting someone in particular? “You call me Dragonborn, but what does that mean, exactly?” she asked him.
The monk frowned at her reprovingly. “First, let us see if you truly are Dragonborn,” he instructed. “Let us taste of your Voice.”
“Fus!” she shouted at a clay vessel beside the stairs.
“Dragonborn,” the monk nodded, his tone a fraction less disapproving than it had been a moment before. “Welcome to High Hrothgar. I am Master Arngeir. I speak for the Greybeards. Now tell me, Dragonborn, why have you come here?
“I am…” she paused infinitesimally, “Sikendra de’Arthe, and, I believe, you summoned me,” she reminded him.
“And you accepted that summons. Why?” he pressed.
“I need to know what it means to be Dragonborn,” she answered simply.
Arngeir nodded. “We are here to guide you in that pursuit, just as the Greybeards have sought to guide those of the Dragon Blood that came before you.”
She knew that already, Vilkas had been almost as obsessed with the stories of Talos as he had been with those of Ysgramor. Still, those stories hadn’t been particularly detailed about the part the Greybeards had played in the Stormcrown’s rise to power. “And who are you? What is this place?” she asked, looking around her.
“We are the Greybeards, followers of the Way of the Voice. You stand in High Hrothgar, on the slopes of Kynareth’s sacred mountain. Here we commune with the voice of the sky, and strive to achieve balance between our inner and outer selves."
So these people served Kynareth, not Akatosh. That was interesting and suggested that the dragonborn was only tangentially related to whatever this place, and these people, were. “There are only four of you?” she asked.
“Five,” Arngeir corrected. “Our leader, Paarthurnax, lives alone on the peak of the Throat of the World. When your Voice can open the path, you will know you are ready to speak to him.”
Completing a training period before meeting the master seemed, if not fair, typical. “Are their other Dragonborn?” she asked.
“You are not the first,” Arngeir told her. “There have been many of the Dragon Blood since Akatosh first bestowed that gift upon mortal-kind. Whether you are the only Dragonborn of this age... that is not ours to know. You are the only one that has been revealed thus far. That is all I can say.”
Something about his first statement caught her attention as Mirmulnir’s memories objected to its lack of nuance. She frowned pushing it away for later consideration. “You mentioned destiny?”
“All dragonborn have one,” Arngeir informed her. “What it is, that is for you to discover. We can show you the Way, but not your destination.”
“Then I wish to learn,” Alexa responded with a slight bow of her head.
“Without training, you have already taken the first steps toward projecting your Voice into a Thu'um, a Shout,” Arngeir acknowledged. “Now let us see if you are willing and able to learn.”
“Your quick mastery of a new Thu’um is... astonishing,” Arngeir admitted. “I’d heard the stories of the abilities of Dragonborn, but to see it for myself...”
“I don’t know how I do it,” Alexa confessed. “It just happens.
“You were given this gift by the gods for a reason,” Arngeir told her sternly. “It is up to you to figure out how best to use it.”
“You do not approve of me,” she noted, watching the other Greybeards disappear back into the monastery.
“You have the inborn gift but it has yet to be seen if you have the discipline and temperament to follow the path,” Arngeir sniffed, his tone a little brittle. “But my approval is not necessary. You are the dragonborn and we are the Greybeards. It is our duty to train you.”
She nodded, and took a deep, steading breath. It looked like she was going to be mostly on her own in this. “And, as I said, I wish to learn.”
Arngeir grimaced slightly. “You are ready for your last trial. Retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, our founder, from his tomb in the ancient fane of Ustengrav. Remain true to the Way of the Voice, and you will return.”
“Way of the Voice?”
“The Voice was a gift of the goddess Kynareth, at the dawn of time,” Arngeir explained. “She gave mortals the ability to speak as dragons do. Although this gift has often been misused, the only true use of the Voice is for the worship and glory of the gods. True Mastery of the Voice can only be achieved when your inner spirit is in harmony with your outward actions. In the contemplation of the sky, Kynareth’s domain, and the practice of the Voice, we strive to achieve this balance.”
“And Jurgen Windcaller?”
“He was a great war leader of the ancient Nords, a master of the Voice, or Tongue. After the disaster at Red Mountain, where the Nord army was annihilated, he spent many years pondering the meaning of that terrible defeat. He finally came to realize that the gods had punished the Nords for their arrogant and blasphemous misuse of the Voice. He was the first to understand that the Voice should be used solely for the glory and worship of the gods, not the glory the men. Jurgen Windcaller’s mastery of the Voice eventually overcame all opposition, and the Way of the Voice was born.”
“Ah,” Alexa responded. “That I understand the context of.”
“Then you are remarkably well informed,” Arngeir commented, in obvious disbelief.
“Nord culture, in the First Era, was as brutal as that of the Dragon Cult it supplanted,” she informed him. “If the gods eventually sought the destruction of the first it is logical that they would punish the second. I will remember that and seek balance in my actions.”
“That… is commendable,” Arngeir responded, grudgingly. “But the Dragon Blood is a gift from Akatosh. You should not try to deny that gift. Your destiny requires you to use your Voice -- why else would Akatosh have bestowed this gift upon you? If you remember to use it in service to the purpose of Akatosh, then you will remain true to your Way.”
“And what is the purpose of Akatosh?”
“That is not for us to say,” Arngeir told her, motioning for her to follow him.
So the Akatosh vs. Kynareth thing was going to be a problem, Alexa noted to herself as she bowed slightly in reply and allowed Arngeir to show her out. Perhaps he would be more open to speaking with her after she returned with the horn.
So Alexa returned to the base of the mountain, reported to Klimmek that she’d successfully delivered his supplies, and then, over dinner at the inn, set about planning her next few weeks of travel.
Clearly the first thing she had to do was return to Riften, inform Dinya of her success – the young lovers had already left town – and sell the few things she’d picked up in the barrow that she didn’t want to keep.
After Riften she would take a cart back to Winterhold and deliver the book and the manuscript to Urag. While she was there she should send a message to Lydia, asking her to met somewhere, as, given Alexa’s experience the day before, she’d probably want backup for Ustengrav… From Winterhold she could go, over land, to Dawnstar and get a boat to Solitude. She paused, thinking. It would probably be wise to pay her respects to Elisif. It wouldn’t hurt to stay friends with the new Jarl of Solitude. She could meet Lydia at the Winking Skeever and then go to Ustengrav for the horn.
It almost certainly wouldn’t go as planned. Nothing ever went as planned, but at least, this way, she’d have dropped off the important things she’d already picked up before her next foray into a draugr infested tomb.
“That’s quite the journey you’re planning,” the hunter from the morning noted, sitting on the far side of the table from her.
“That’s adventuring for you,” she answered, with a smile.
“Can you really make a living that way?” he asked.
“So far,” she answered.
“Not a lot of adventure to be had on the top of the mountain,” he pointed out.
“True,” she agreed. “But the view near the top was worth every step.”
The plan remained intact as far as her very first stop, in Riften, where Dinya congratulated her on work well done and then said: “Go to Markarth. There you’ll find Calcelmo, wise, acid, and reclusive. Help him to emerge and state his intentions.”
“Oh thank Mara,” Alexa laughed. “That stupid couple has been driving me crazy for months!” In the cart on the way to Winterhold she added “Stupid couple in Markarth” and “apologize to Dibella” to her plan after Ustengrav.