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All Danger is Near to Death

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…before the headland
Thou findest, and doom of a fool;

In the water shalt drown if thou row ‘gainst the wind,
All danger is near to death.

 

--The Poetic Edda, from Fafnismol, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

 

Ever with grief
and all too long
Are men and women
born in the world;
But yet we shall live
our lives together…

 

-- Poetic Edda, from Helreið Brynhildar, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

 

+

 

She never thought her first glimpse of the home country in over a decade would be from the back of a cart, mistaken for a rebel and in the company of a Jarl, a soldier, and a horse thief. There was, Sigrid thought, an almost perfectly grim humor to the entire situation, a bad tavern joke. If she had no idea what was coming, she would have been amused. Even so, she couldn’t help laughing, though there was no pleasure in the sound.

Skyrim was a pretty land: after the hot, wet forests of Cyrodiil and Elsewyr, the crisp pine scent in the air felt good in her lungs. Lighter. Almost light enough to forget the ropes cutting into her wrists.

“Hello, you’re finally awake. You were the one they caught trying to cross the border, aren’t you?” Wide blue eyes examined her curiously—the yellow-haired Nord sounded kind—a kinder voice than she’d expected to hear this day.

Sigrid couldn’t quite bring herself to answer right way: the pain of her own stupidity choked the words in her throat. Distracted by her own damn thoughts, she’d walked right into an ambush that a child would have seen yards away. Of course they’d thought she was a Stormcloak: why else would a Nord have been crossing the border right at the site of an Imperial ambush? It all tied up so damn neatly. And now she’d lose her head because of it. Fitting.

Lokir the horse thief scowled at the soldier. “Skyrim was fine until you Stormcloaks came along. The empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn’t been looking for you, I’d have gotten away with the horse. Halfway to Hammerfell by now.”

His whining voice grated on her ears and Sigrid attempted to tune him out. It took her a few seconds before she realized that Lokir was still talking. “You there—you and I aren’t supposed to be here! It’s these Stormcloaks that the Empire wants.”

She curled her scarred lip at him, disdainful. Of course, a man as cowardly as a horse thief wouldn’t be able to face his death with anything approaching composure. In the recessed corners of her memory she could hear her father saying: my dear, all you have in this world and the next is your honor.

“We’re all brothers and sisters in binds now, thief,” the Nord replied philosophically.

“Be quiet back there!” said the cart-driver.

Sigrid allowed the jolting cart to lull her back into the state of half sleep she’d lingered in that morning, eyes unfocused as the trees began to give way to neat little stone houses, well-tended and cozy-looking. A boy ran after the cart; his father called him back. Sigrid made what she hoped was a frightening face at the child, and that seemed to do the trick: he went running back to the safety of his parent, while she laughed again—she knew she was not a beautiful woman, but she must be looking rough these days indeed if it was so easy to scare a child. More dirt, more scars to add to her collection. The black war paint around her eyes had smudged and blood still caked her face beneath her nose and down her chin. Some of it was hers. Some of it belonged to the Imperial soldier she’d head-butted before they took her down. She spat on the floor of the cart at the memory, and the man with the rag in his mouth glared at her.

“What’s with him?” Lokir asked, eyeing the big Nord, who was richly dressed and gagged with an incongruously filthy rag. He had the glow of health about him, used to good food and soft beds, Sigrid imagined. Men like him oozed wealth even when unclothed.

“You watch your tongue,” the soldier said, disgusted that Lokir would even presume to address his—captain? “You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak—the true high king of Skyrim!”

Sigrid couldn’t decide whether to groan or laugh again. Fate truly seemed to be playing some sort of cosmic joke on her, the culmination of a life spent dancing at the edge of death.

“Ulfric? Jarl of Windhelm? But if they captured you, then—oh, gods, where are they taking us?”

“I don’t know where we’re going, but Sovngarde awaits,” the soldier replied.

Sovngarde. Would Tsun welcome her across the whalebone bridge, or would she wander forever on the plains, lost and alone? Grimly, she began to weigh the deeds of her past, one against the other. She had tried to live up to her father’s expectations, but such a thing was not always possible. There were things she had done that would not have made him proud. Did not make her proud. She’d tried to kill only those who deserved it, but such a luxury was not always available, not in these times.

“End of the line. Make it quick! Wouldn’t want to keep the gods waiting…”

And she would go to the headsman’s axe without a chance to make them right.

The soldier was speaking again, but the words almost didn’t make sense: “Look, that’s General Tullius, the military governor, with his Thalmor puppet masters. Damn elves, I bet they had something to do with this.”

“Doesn’t matter now,” Sigrid said, speaking up for the first time.

“No,” the soldier said, softly. “This is Helgen. I used to be sweet on a girl here… I wonder if Vilod is still making that mead with juniper berries mixed in. Funny; when I was a boy, Imperial walls and towers used to make me feel so safe.

“Yes, it does matter!” the horse thief said, before he began praying frantically, to any of the Divines that might have been listening. Sigrid, who had never given the Gods much thought herself, thought that perhaps it would have been a good idea not to invoke Talos in front of those Thalmor in their shining armor and disgusted expressions. Or maybe, she thought, a touch of mischief sneaking in, why not. It’s not as though she would survive this afternoon, anyway.

“Who are they, daddy? Where are they going?” a small child piped up from the street side.

“You need to go inside, little cub…”

Sigrid’s legs screamed in protest as she stood and followed the other prisoners out of the cart; she’d been sitting so long and in such an unnatural position that the flow of blood had stopped. On pins and needles, she forced herself not to stumble, and was more than slightly amused to find that she was a good head taller and broader across the shoulders than Lokir, who looked as though he’d snap if you glanced at him wrong. Oh, children, she thought dispassionately. Ulfric stood proudly next to Ralof, and Sigrid revised her assessment: that one was no child, whatever his sleek health and rich clothing.

“No! We’re not rebels! You’ve got to tell them!” Lokir pleaded.

“Don’t lump me in with thieves, thief,” Sigrid muttered out of the side of her mouth.

“Ugly bitch,” said Lokir, but she refused to dignify that with a response.

A female captain, hardbitten and harsh, stood next to a soft-eyed legionnaire, she all glares, and he looking rather sad to see them there, that the war had come to this. “Step forward when your name is called,” said the man.

“Empire loves their damn lists,” the soldier muttered under his breath.

“Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm.”

Ulfric moved forward with an easy grace, meeting the legionnaire’s eyes without malice.

“Ralof of Riverwood.” She might have been mistaken, but Sigrid thought she saw a flash of recognition between the men—they might have known each other.

“Lokir of Rorikstead.”

“I’m not a rebel! You can’t do this!” Lokir squealed and, bound hands still waving before him, bolted down the road.

“Halt!”

“You’re not gonna kill me!”

And how far do you think you’ll get, thief? Sigrid thought. Not far, it turned out: “ARCHERS!” the captain yelled, and with the soft hiss of feathers in the wind, the horse thief collapsed onto the Helgen road. A bad death. She hoped he had some preferred afterlife or God to pray to, for surely Sovngarde would not open its gates to him.

“Anyone else feel like running?” the officer demanded.

The legionnaire with the list looked at it then looked up again, uncertainty shading his voice. “You. Come forward. Who are you?”

“Sigrid.” She considered appending her family name, Frost-born, or of Winterhold at the end, but it had been years since she had claimed either name, or set foot on the cold, hard ground of the ruined city. She could barely remember the meager buildings of her hometown. But she could still taste the tart snowberries picked fresh from the bush. Hear the howling of the ice wolves in the dark and the lapping waves of the Sea of Ghosts.

“You chose a bad time to come home, kinsman,” the legionnaire murmured. Too soft for this job. “Captain, what should we do? She’s not on the list.”

“Forget it!” the captain said. “She goes to the block with the rest of them.”

“By your orders, Captain,” the legionnaire said, and looked at Sigrid again with sad brown eyes. Like a hound’s, she thought. That liquid sympathy was just as meaningless now. He continued: “I'm sorry; at least you'll die here in your homeland. Follow the Captain, prisoner. I’ll see that you’re given the proper burial rites."

“Thank you,” Sigrid replied, surprised at this small bit of decency. She had hoped that she’d have had longer than twenty-eight years on Nirn, but as she looked at the executioner’s block, she began to reconcile herself to the idea. She couldn’t really blame them. Life came cheap on Tamriel, and in their position, who’s to say she wouldn’t do the same?

Tried to reconcile herself, anyway. And ignored General Tullius’ gloating little speech—it seemed unmanly, somehow, to draw out the death that way. She did not know this Ulfric, but he seemed as much a Nord as she. Sigrid rocked on her heels and was shoved hard in the back by the butt of a spear. She didn’t fall, but she did spit a curse, wishing she had not been stripped of her armor and sword at some point during her capture. In these rags, she felt utterly naked.

The force of that blow again, deep in her bones, but the Imperial soldier hadn’t touched her. No—it hadn’t been a physical force, but a distant roar like the rumbling of an avalanche or the collapse of a gigantic tree—or an enraged beast.

“What was that?” the legionnaire asked.

“It’s nothing,” Tullius said curtly. “Carry on.”

The priestess of Arkay began the last rites, but was interrupted—a Stormcloak rebel walked of his own volition to the chopping block and knelt down next to it. “Come on, I haven’t got all morning. My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials! Can you say the same?”

He never received his answer: the executioner, grinning wildly, raised the axe and brought it down sharply on his neck. One heavy-handed hit, and the head rolled into a waiting basket with a gush of blood. Sigrid could smell it in the air, the metal tang familiar, almost comforting. She knew where she stood now.

“As fearless in death as he was in life,” the other Stormcloak murmured. Sigrid found herself agreeing: despite the situation it was a good death. He had looked it in the face, and bravely.

“You. The Nord in rags. You’re next!”

That roar again: closer this time. Almost overhead. Sigrid looked up sharply but could see only the blinding sun crossed with cloud and shadow. The last sun she would ever see.

“What is that?” another of the Imperials asked. The fear trembled in his voice.

“I said, next prisoner,” the captain snapped, as though she had not heard the same rumbling that echoed in all of their bones.

“Walk up to the block, prisoner, nice and easy,” the legionnaire said.

Sigrid sighed and strode forward. She would not cower, but that did not change the fact that she died a coward’s death, not in battle as she had always thought she’d meet her end. She hoped that would not keep her from the Hall of Valor in Sovngarde, but there was no sense in worrying about this now. Instead, she knelt at the block and placed herself upon it, still wet with blood. And waited, the seconds stretching by at an excruciatingly slow pace. She calculated the time it would take her to move when the axe came down. She could lurch to her feet and throw herself at the executioner—but with her hands bound, she’d be an easy target. Weighing the quickness of a clean chop against the slower pain of being cut down by blades, Sigrid was spared the choice by another roar. It was overhead.

“What in Oblivion is that?” the General growled.

 

And then the world filled with blood and fire and smoke, and everything went mad.

 

“A dragon!”

It was huge: all rippling black scales and bat-like wings and very large teeth, stained with blood, and crazed red eyes that burned through her like the sun. The mighty beast landed atop the guard’s tower and roared, a screech that rended the flesh down to the very bone. And it opened its mouth and Sigrid could have sworn that within the screeching, a deep voice growled words in a language she couldn’t understand but that felt achingly familiar. From her vantage point she could see men and women running through the flames, screaming, wailing.

“Hey, you! Get up! Come on! The gods won’t give us a second chance!” Ralof of Riverwood yelled at her, pulling her arms and dragging her to her feet. Hands still bound together, Sigrid ran madly after him, though every fiber of her being screamed to find a way to cut the binds, to run back towards the dragon, to fight.

Instead, she found herself breathing hard, inside a stone tower with her pupils dilated hugely, staring at Ulfric Stormcloak and Ralof as they held a hurried conference—Ralof had already cut Ulfric’s bindings and the Jarl yanked the gag from his mouth.

“Was that a dragon? Could the legends be true?”

“Legends don’t burn down villages,” the Jarl said grimly. As if to prove the reality of that observation, the tower shook with the force of the dragon’s awful roar. “We need to move. NOW.

“Let’s go before the dragon brings the whole bloody tower down on our heads,” Ralof agreed, and Sigrid began to follow him up the steps, more slowly—her balance off.

With a crack of breaking stone and the sudden, blistering heat of dragon flame, the wall in front of them exploded in a burst of blisteringly hot debris and falling rock and plaster. A startled yell escaped her lips, lost in the din. Some insane thing inside her propelled her screaming toward the hole, though, just in time to see the dragon flying away again.

“See that inn on the other side? Jump over there! I’ll be right behind you!” said Ralof.

“Are you bloody insane?” Sigrid demanded.

“You’re one to talk, woman!” Ralof said, laughing, “I saw you running at that monster, hands tied behind your back. Would you attack it with your head? It’s probably hard enough.”

Sigrid laughed too, high and clear, and backed up a few steps to get a running start. He was right—maybe she was crazy. But that did nothing to hide the fact that she felt more alive now than she had in days, in fact, ever since she had been stupid enough to stumble into the ambush. Muscles screamed in protest as she bolted for the window, pushing up with her bare feet at the last minute. The brief feeling of flying buoyed her, and then she was falling, falling, hitting the ground hard. The heat of the burning wreckage singed her; the pain of the landing jolting her into wakefulness. Not for the first time she was intensely thankful that she kept her hair cropped short as a man’s: nothing to catch fire—except her own skin. She ran down the stairs, through a crack in the wall, only to be confronted by the legionnaire of the lists, protecting several survivors behind a burning ruin that had once been a home.

“Still alive, prisoner? Stick with me if you want to stay that way,” the legionnaire yelled, gesturing for her to join them.

“The last time I followed you, it was to the chopping block!”

 “That wasn’t on my account, prisoner—follow me, and I’ll keep you alive. Stick to the wall!”

Sigrid, suddenly eager to remain on this plane of existence, followed him, and after a second, felt glad she did so. The force of moving air almost knocked her to her knees again as the dragon landed on the wall above them, the scream of monster and flame deafening, the sheer weight of it above her crushing. “You got it, boss,” she said, and shuddered as the monster snapped a man in half in its jaws as though he were a piece of bread.

She followed the legionnaire as he darted through the wreckage, keeping close to cover whenever possible, the dragon swooping overhead, screaming like a demon that had finally escaped the pits of Oblivion. In the courtyard they found General Tullius and a few surviving Imperial soldiers. At the very least, the General seemed to not be a lily-livered coward lurking on the sidelines—out in the courtyard with his men, attempting, but failing to defend what remained of the town. Sweat poured down his face as he turned to fix them with an intent stare. “You! Hadvar! Take the prisoner into the Keep!”

“Yes, sir!”

Sigrid did her best to keep up with him, though she worried that she might have broken her foot in the fall, and her hands remained tied behind her back. Evidently there wasn’t time to cut them. Of course. Maybe he was afraid she’d go for his throat? As they ran across the courtyard, dodging fiery dragons’ breath, the philosophical Stormcloak, Ralof, stood in their way.

“Ralof, you damn traitor! Out of my way!”

“Get out of my way! You’ll not stop us this time!”

Neither of them seemed eager to fight, however, and Sigrid sighed—this was going to be a standoff unless she intervened. “Look, we’d all like to get away from this damned dragon so let’s get a move on, eh?” She stepped between the two until the swords were sheathed, and then followed Hadvar into the Keep—and unknowingly, towards her Fate.

 

+

 

The wolves ran the plains at night, a beautiful sight from a distance: the graceful, loping movement of their legs and the reflected glory of the moon in their pelts. Move closer, though, and the beauty became terrifying: the three runners were not just wolves. Even on all fours they would dwarf a man. Powerfully muscled arms and legs and huge outsized paws, monstrously stretched faces with glowing red eyes and a disturbingly human intelligence put lie to any pretensions of beauty. There was, nevertheless, a terrible grace to them. To the knowledge that any of these three night-runners could rip a man apart in a few seconds, with ease.

A female led the charge, and behind her two males, marked like mirrors. The three in concert, so close, so controlled. A well-oiled machine, a pack of killers, a trio of dancers: to watch a werewolf run is to observe an awful poetry in motion.

And when they brought down their prey it was with dark blood wetting and whetting their muzzles, and flashing white teeth, and heavy breaths, and that had its own beauty, too.

In the morning the three wolves woke in their beds, unaware of what was to come; soft and hairless and mortal, but no less for it.