Sonja’s body gave a violent jolt and she fell forward; her knees connected with the hard floor of the cart and her forehead smashed into the corner of the bench across from her. She let out a low moan and she heard the muffled grunts of a man’s voice straining against a gag. “Hadvar,” said another voice, “This one’s fallen over. Help her.”
A horse galloped to the side of the cart. With a lurch they came to a halt and the man on horseback dismounted. “How did she fall?” he asked and she felt the cart sink with his weight.
“I don’t know,” another voice answered, “She was fine a moment ago and then she started shaking until she tumbled forward.”
Large, rough hands grabbed her by the shoulders and hefted her back into her seat. “Gods,” Hadvar breathed, “Did you have to hit her so hard Skjan? No wonder she’s shaking. You split her head wide open.”
“She’s a traitor,” another man replied, “She deserves far worse.”
“I swear, Hadvar,” said the man in the cart across from her, “I’ve never seen her before. She’s not with us.”
“Or me,” said the man sitting beside her, “I don’t know what she was doing out there—but she was on her own business.”
“That’s for the General to decide,” Hadvar sighed, “It might not matter, though. She might not make it to Helgen in this state.” He withdrew, mounted his horse and the cart jumped forward, creaking.
It was night and two soldiers had to carry Sonja off the cart. “What in Oblivion happened to this one?” this man spoke with a distinctive Imperial accent; Sonja recognized it, but was unable to open her eyes or speak.
“In the heat of battle, Skjan struck her a little too hard, sir,” Hadvar explained, “He said she pulled a weapon on him when he approached. She did leave his face a little worse for wear, but…” he trailed off.
“But what, soldier?”
“We don’t even know who she is, sir,” Hadvar continued in a low tone, “I don’t think she’s one of Ulfric’s and she doesn’t appear to be associated with the horse thief, either.”
“Then what the blazes was she doing out there?”
“I don’t know, sir—but she might be innocent…” Hadvar began.
“I’ll decide that when you reach Helgen,” the other man interrupted, “In the meantime, I’m leaving Captain Rila in charge. I’m riding ahead tonight, to greet the Thalmor emissaries at Helgen in the morning. I expect to see you by late afternoon, tomorrow.”
“Understood, sir,” Hadvar replied, “Should I do anything about the girl in the meantime?”
There was a long pause. “Tend to her wounds, if it will ease your conscious,” he said at last, “But don’t waste too much time.”
“Of course, sir.”
Sonja had fallen unconscious while Hadvar tended to her head injury. The pain was a great deal more intense than she had been prepared for. She did not wake again until the next day. And then she was able to open her eyes and could make sense of the sounds and smells surrounding her. Before, her senses had been a tangled and confused mess of pain and static. She coughed and moaned at the dull throb in her head. “Gods,” she breathed and she leaned back. The afternoon sun was a bit too bright for her eyes, but she managed to look around. Snow. Frigid air. The scent of the alpine wilderness. She had finally made it to Skyrim—in the worse way imaginable.
“Hey, you. You’re finally awake,” said the blonde Nord seated directly across from her.
“How long was I out?” she asked, her voice raspy and barely above a whisper.
“Three days,” answered the dark-haired man beside her, “The entire time we’ve been traveling.”
“You were trying to cross the border, right?” the Nord in front of Sonja asked.
She looked at him dubiously. “Aye.”
“Walked right into that Imperial ambush, same as us, and that thief over there,” he jerked his head in the direction of the man sitting to her right.
She turned to look at the man, frowning. She didn’t care what he was stealing as long as he wasn’t the reason she was tied up in the back of a wagon with a throbbing headache. “Thief?” she repeated, eyebrow raised, “Of what?”
“Damn you Stormcloaks!” he growled at the blonde, “Skyrim was fine until you came along!” He shook his head and leaned back, scowling, “Empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn’t been looking for you, I could have stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell. You there,” he turned to Sonja, “You and me, we shouldn’t be here. It’s these Stormcloaks the Empire wants.”
Stormcloaks. That was a name Sonja knew. News of the Civil War in Skyrim was not easy to come by in Cyrodiil for the common individual. Generally speaking, all they knew was that there was some overzealous Nord lord who took issue with the terms of the White-Gold Concordat and started a war over it. That it was bad enough to put traveling and trade restrictions on the borders of Skyrim. But Sonja still had friends in high enough places to catch a bit more than the average Imperial citizen. Enough to know the war was far worse than the Empire let on—that the Stormcloaks were winning. She glanced at the small caravan of wagons bearing bound soldiers all dressed in the same blue armor. A dozen Stormcloaks, at least. “I doubt the Empire will be so merciful as to discriminate at this point,” she soberly observed, “Not with so many captured.”
“They’ve been waiting a long time get their hands on us,” the blonde Nord added apologetically, “We’re all brothers and sisters in binds now.” He shook his head, frowning.
“Shut up back there!” the carriage driver snapped, though no one afforded him more than a dark glance.
“What’s his problem?” asked the dark-haired Nord to Sonja’s right. He gestured toward the gagged and bound man across from him.
“Watch your tongue! You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King of Skyrim!” the blonde Nord nearly bellowed.
“Ulfric, the Jarl of Windhelm?” the thief said with surprise, “You’re the leader of the rebellion. But if they’ve captured you…oh gods! Where are they taking us?”
“I don’t know where we’re going,” the Nord replied evenly, “but Sovngarde awaits.”
“No! This can’t be happening! This isn’t happening!”
Sonja remained silent, her eyes sliding shut for the briefest of moments. She was not yet terrified of the prospect of execution, largely because waking up in the back of that wagon felt like some sort of warped dream. Any moment now, she could wake up and find herself back in her bed in the Imperial City, the entire misadventure nothing more than a vivid nightmare. But when she opened her eyes again, there was only the cold mountain air in her face, the chill of snow on the slope, the scent of pine on the wind, the rough and uneven texture of the wooden bench beneath her body, and the company of her fellow condemned. It wasn’t a dream. The pain in her head and in her bound wrists silently declared her unfortunate situation a reality. She was going to die and maybe she deserved it after the life she had lived. Maybe it had been a long way coming.
“Hey, what village are you from, horse thief?” the blonde Nord asked.
“Why do you care?” he replied bitterly.
“A Nord’s last thoughts should be of home.”
“R—Rorikstead. I’m from Rorikstead.”
“And you?” he turned to face Sonja again, “Where are you from? You look like my kinsmen, but you don’t speak as we do.”
“I have no home now,” she paused, “But my mother was a Nord of Skyrim. From Whiterun.”
“So you came to honor your mother’s family?”
“Aye,” she replied curtly. It was more or less true. At least, her younger sister Anja had come to Skyrim to honor their mother’s final wishes and bring her ashes to rest in the Hall of the Dead in Whiterun. Sonja hadn’t thought Anja would make it to the border before turning around and coming back home, but the younger sister proved she was made of sterner mettle than Sonja had credited her with and made it into Skyrim alive. Sonja, herself, had only come to find her sister. Whether to bring her back to Cyrodiil or make a new home in Skyrim, she hadn’t decided yet. There was nothing left for them in the Imperial City, nothing to go back to.
“Then you die with your kinsmen this day,” the blonde Nord offered, no doubt thinking it would be a comfort to her when all it did was remind her of the family she no longer had. “And go with us to Sovngarde.”
“To Sovngarde,” she echoed softly, thinking of her mother. Sonja had never been particularly religious. She had gone to Temple with her father when she was younger because he had insisted upon it, but as soon as she was old enough to refuse, she did. From her mother, she learned of the Nordic faith, of Shor and Talos, but felt it little more than superstition. She wondered if believing in Sovngarde granted the Nord greater peace with dying than her absence of belief gifted her.
“General Tullius, sir! The headsman is waiting!” a female Imperial officer said urgently to a man accompanying two high elves in dark robes. The suddenness of the officer’s voice caused Sonja to start and she looked away from the man sitting across from her, aware now that she had been absently staring at him.
“Good, let’s get this over with,” General Tullius growled. Sonja recognized his voice. Vaguely she remembered slipping in and out of consciousness earlier and marking the accent. He was an Imperial amongst Nords. He might have known her father.
“Shor, Mara, Dibella, Kynareth, Akatosh, Divines, please help me!” the thief exclaimed as he rocked back and forth in his seat.
“Look at him! General Tullius, the military governor,” the Nord sneered, “And it looks like the Thalmor are with him! Damn elves. I bet they have something to do with this!” The procession entered a small town that seemed to have sprung to life around the large fort at the far end. The Nord looked around. “This is Helgen. I used to be sweet on a girl from here. Wonder if Vilad is still making that mead with juniper berries.” He grew quiet and mused, “Funny. When I was a boy, Imperial walls and towers used to make me feel so safe.”
“I know what you mean…” Sonja said, but it had been a long time since Imperial walls and the soldiers patrolling them made her feel anything but dread and remorse.
The townspeople gathered along the road, coming out of their houses, the inn, and the shops. A father and his son came out of their home and the boy raced to the rail of the front porch. He climbed it and leaned over, examining the soldiers and their prisoners. “Who are they, da?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Go inside, little cub,” his father said sternly, his face hard and concerned.
“Why? I wanted to watch the soldiers.”
“Inside the house! Now!”
The boy sighed and turned away. “Yes, father,” he said grudgingly.
The carriage turned the corner and lurched to a stop just outside the courtyard of the fort. The thief looked around anxiously. “Why are we stopping?” he asked, nervously.
“Why do you think?” the Nord shook his head, “End of the line. Let’s go. Shouldn’t keep the gods waiting.”
“No, we wouldn’t want that,” Sonja muttered darkly.
The soldiers were beginning to unload the prisoners from the other carts. “No wait! We’re not rebels!” the thief exclaimed, desperately.
“Face your death with some courage, thief,” the Nord snapped. Ulfric disembarked with as much dignity as his bindings would allow.
The thief had to be forcibly removed from his seat. “You’ve got to tell them we weren’t with you! This is a mistake!”
“Come along lass,” the soldier barked beckoning to Sonja.
She took one last look at the Nord across from her. “I never asked where you were from,” she said as she rose to her feet.
“Riverwood,” he replied, “Just down the road aways from here.”
“A Nord’s last thoughts should be of home,” she said as she jumped down from the carriage.
“Aye, kinswoman,” he said when he stepped down beside her, “That they should.”
“Step toward the block as we call your name,” the female officer instructed, “One at a time!”
“Empire loves their damned lists,” the Nord muttered under his breath.
“Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm,” Hadvar called, consulting the list in his hands.
“It has been an honor, Jarl Ulfric,” the Nord said as the gagged nobleman stepped forward and strode toward the execution block, coolly.
“Ralof of Riverwood,” Hadvar said with an obvious frown.
Halfway to the block, Ralof paused and turned toward Hadvar. “I want you to take my body to Gerdur, yourself, Hadvar.” The other man nearly refused, his face bunching up in a scowl, but abruptly his expression softened and he nodded his consent. “I want you to see her face so you can see what the Empire is really doing to the sons and daughters of Skyrim.”
“To the block, prisoner!” the officer barked, “Don’t speak to the prisoners, Hadvar.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hadvar returned his attention to the list as Ralof took his place at Ulfric’s side, but he looked troubled, “Lokir of Rorikstead.”
“No! I’m not a rebel! You can’t do this!” the thief pleaded with every nearby soldier before he sprinted back the way the carriages had arrived.
The female officer bared her teeth, “Halt!” she growled, but the thief continued to run, nearly disappearing around the bend near the house where Sonja had seen the father and son.
“You’re not gonna kill me!” Lokir yelled triumphantly over his shoulder. He thought he was home-free.
The officer raised a hand, “Archers!” The hand fell, the arrow was loosed, and Lokir fell dead just shy of the porch where earlier the boy had been watching with anticipation. Sonja exhaled sharply, unsure if she pitied Lokir for his cowardice or was envious of the brief freedom he felt before the arrow pierced his heart. “Anyone else feel like running?” the officer addressed the group at large, but her eyes bore into Sonja’s face.
“Wait, you there,” Hadvar pointed at Sonja, “Step forward.” Sonja clenched her fists tightly before moving toward Hadvar. “Who are you?” he asked.
It would be easy enough to give a false name. One that wouldn’t catch any attention and she could go quietly to the chopping block with the rest. The prospect thrilled her a little. Was it wrong to desire an end to everything? All the suffering she had endured? The painful memories she wore as scars across her body? “I am Sonja Draconis of the Imperial City, daughter of Captain Remus Draconis of the Imperial City Guard and Freydis Ironheart of Whiterun,” she replied, honestly, feeling a weight settle heavily in her stomach when recognition sparked in both the General and Hadvar’s faces.
General Tullius marched over to Hadvar and looked Sonja over. “I knew Remus,” he stated, “He was a good man and died bravely.”
“I know of her mother,” Hadvar muttered, “Her family still lives in Whiterun.”
“Hmm,” Tullius was silent a moment, “Why were you found in the company of traitors, Draconis?”
“Inconvenient timing,” Sonja explained, “I’m here in Skyrim to find my sister.”
“A likely story,” one of the Thalmor emissaries interrupted, gliding over to join the conversation, “We cannot trust the word of any of these prisoners. They would say anything to avoid death now. What proof is there that she is who she says she is?”
“Well, she certainly looks like Remus,” Tullius offered, but he paused, “So what do you suggest? Send her to the block with the others?”
“It is the only way to ensure the complete destruction of Ulfric’s rebellion,” the Thalmor said, turning hateful eyes upon Sonja, “If she is innocent, then she is a regrettable casualty.”
Tullius was obviously outraged by the Thalmor’s tactless attitude toward the innocent, but Sonja realized that he didn’t have much of a choice other than to comply. He was not in charge of this summary trial and execution. “Captain Rila, Hadvar, please continue,” the General ordered through clenched teeth.
Sonja straightened and held her head high; she wouldn’t face her death cowering and whimpering, and she had done what she could to save her own life short of running like Lokir. It would all be over soon. “You picked a bad time to come to Skyrim,” Hadvar said sadly, “Kinswoman,” he added quietly.
“To the block prisoner,” Captain Rila commanded.
Sonja turned stiffly and moved toward the block; she stopped beside Ralof who greeted her with a sad, half-hearted smile. “I’m sorry,” he whispered; she didn’t answer. There wasn’t anything to say.
Tullius stood in front of the crowd of prisoners and addressed the bound Jarl. “Ulfric Stormcloak, some call you a hero,” he said, “But a hero doesn’t use a power like the Voice to murder his king and usurp his throne. You started this war and plunged Skyrim into chaos! And now the Empire is going to put you down and restore the peace!”
A loud, throaty roar tore through the sky and everyone’s faces titled upward with surprise. “What was that?” the captain asked, searching the skies. It could have been a troll or a bear. Helgen was nestled at the base of a mountain pass. The cries could echo for miles.
Tullius’ gaze lingered on the clouds. “It’s nothing,” he said at length, “Carry on.”
“Yes, General Tullius!” she turned to the Priestess of Arkay, “Give them their last rights.”
The priestess nodded, raised her hands above her head in worship, and began, “As we commend your souls to Atherius, blessings of the eight Divines…”
“For the love of Talos, shut up and let’s get this over with!” A Stormcloak soldier from one of the other carts barreled through his brothers-and-sisters-at-arms to the front.
“As you wish,” the priestess replied indignantly and she backed away from the execution block.
“Come on! I haven’t got all morning!” he bellowed fearlessly. Sonja’s stomach tightened. He reminded her of her brother. Foolish. Proud. Fearless. And so young. Too young. He dropped to his knees and Captain Rila forced him forward, onto the block, with her foot in his back. He grinned triumphantly at her and the headsman. “My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials. Can you say the same?” The headsman gave his answer in the heavy fall of his axe and the young soldier’s head fell into the waiting basket. Blood sprayed everywhere, leaving a fine mist of it on the ground.
“You Imperial bastards!” one of the female Stormcloak soldiers shrieked; she was crying.
“Justice!” yelled an onlooker.
“Death to the Stormcloaks!” cried one of the Imperial soldiers.
“As fearless in death as he was in life,” Ralof said to the weeping Stormcloak woman, “Your brother has gone to Sovngarde.”
Sonja felt a profound pain in her chest. She knew what it was like to lose a brother. To watch him die right before her very eyes. She looked to the grieving sister, wanting to say something but failing to find the words. Nothing could ease her pain and the poor girl would face execution soon anyway. “May Talos watch over him,” she said at last. The girl wiped her tears and nodded her gratitude to Sonja. Ralof offered a look of approval.
“Next, the Imperial!” Captain Rila yelled. Some of the onlookers yelled with approval and excitement. They were only there for a show. All they wanted was to see someone die. But a second roar covered the crowd’s cheer and drowned it out. Sonja took the first few steps confidently, almost longingly as she approached the block, but the second roar had caused her step to falter slightly, her eyes searching the sky above. In the pit of her stomach she felt cold—not because she was headed for the chopping block, but because she sensed something drawing ever closer.
“There it is again,” Hadvar exclaimed, “Did you hear that?”
“I said, NEXT PRISONER,” Captain Rila repeated angrily.
“To the block, Sonja, nice and easy,” Hadvar instructed kindly, as if coaxing a frightened animal to slaughter. Sonja took a few more steps, lingering a second longer on the last one. Her thoughts were of her family and of her failings. She thought wistfully of her younger brother and sister with remorse. Who would honor Thornir’s memory and look after their sister once she was dead? Corvus drifted through her thoughts as well and she closed her eyes in a moment of profound regret and wished she could apologize to her deceased parents. It’s all too late now, she thought darkly, It can’t be undone.
As soon as she was close enough to the block, the captain grabbed her roughly and forced her to her knees. Just as she had done before, she forced Sonja’s head onto the block with her foot in her back. Sonja’s head made a dull thud when in smacked against the thick wooden block. The blood from the last prisoner coated her face and she slid a fraction of an inch further. She looked up at the headsman and held her breath. The large man adjusted his grip on his axe and prepared to heft it above his head, but just before he lifted it, Sonja spied a terrifying and unbelievable sight. Over the headsman’s left shoulder, Sonja could see one of the towers of the fort and soaring just above it was a giant winged beast with smoldering eyes and sharp fangs and claws. It was larger than anything she had ever seen and cut through the sky like a fish through water. Sonja’s eyes widened in disbelief and she gasped in surprise, unable to formulate the words necessary to describe what she was seeing. The headsman raised his axe, unaware of what flew behind him.
“What in Oblivion is that?” Tullius yelled out, spotting the beast. The headsman paused and looked over his shoulder.
“Sentry, what do you see?” the captain asked as she moved to find a better position.
“It’s in the town!” a woman screamed as the beast landed on the tower just behind the headsman. The force of its wings knocked the man over and his axe fell harmlessly to the side. Sonja struggled to sit up from the block.
“Dragon!” The town was a chaotic mess of terrified people and panicking soldiers. Everyone was either trying to run away or engage the dragon in battle. The dragon cut another terrifying roar and the sky above its head darkened. The wind picked up and flaming stones and lightning pelted the earth forcefully. All thought of willfully embracing execution was pushed clean from Sonja’s mind and she struggled to flee with the rest of the panicking prisoners and villagers. She was halfway on her feet when the dragon roared again, knocking her sideways. She hit her head, her ears rang, and her vision blurred. It took her several moments to realize someone was calling her name.
“Sonja! Get up! Come on! The gods won’t give us another chance!” Ralof shouted. Sonja shook her head and pushed herself to her feet. Ralof was in the doorway of the southern tower, waving frantically for her to come toward him. She ran, dodging the falling rocks as best she could, but the last one sent her tumbling forward, through the door into Ralof’s arms. He kicked the door shut and set her on the floor. He was free of his bindings. “Hold still,” he said, “Let me cut you loose.” Sonja obeyed and was soon free. She rubbed her wrists and looked around.
Ulfric was also in the tower, unbound and pressed against the curve of the wall for cover. His dark piercing eyes briefly fell upon Sonja, his expression strange and unreadable. For a moment, it looked as if he was about to say something to her, but then Ralof spoke, claiming his attention. “What is that thing?” the younger Nord exclaimed, “Could the legends be true?”
“Legends don’t burn down villages,” the Jarl replied coolly, but he glanced again in Sonja’s direction thoughtfully. Again he was distracted as the dragon’s tirade intensified and shook the entire tower. “We need to move! Now!” he ordered.
Sonja’s eyes darted to Ralof. His loyalty lies with his Jarl, she thought frantically, I can’t depend on any further help from him. Before Ralof could turn around to address Sonja again, she was already on her feet, scrambling up the stone steps to the second level of the tower, hoping some elevation would grant her some much needed perspective. She didn’t know Helgen’s layout, after all. “Hey, wait!” Ralof called after her.
Just before she reached the top of the stairway, a roar announced the arrival of the dragon. It burst through the weakened wall, killing two Stormcloak soldiers, one of which Sonja recognized as the woman whose brother was executed earlier. The dragon breathed fire into the opening and Sonja retreated several steps, her right hand up to shield her face; the heat seared the skin of her forearm and she snarled in pain. Her retreat was halted by Ralof who had trailed after her up the stairs. He wrapped his arms around her to protect her from the heat. “Stay down,” he commanded; she didn’t dare disobey and clutched her injured hand to her chest. The fire stopped and the dragon flew away, apparently content that it had killed whoever was in the tower. Sonja and Ralof continued up the stairs and looked out through the giant aperture. “Look!” Ralof pointed to the ruined roof of the adjacent home—the home of the boy. “Jump through the roof and keep going!”
Sonja nodded and prepared to jump from the tower, but stopped. “You’re not coming with me?” She hadn’t expected him to earlier, but he did follow her up the stairs.
“My place is with Ulfric,” he said sternly.
“Come with me,” she pleaded.
“Go!” he said, “Before it’s too late.” Sonja groaned and hurled herself from the tower into the burning roof of the nearby house.
The smoldering patches of straw thatch broke her fall. “Damnit!” she cursed and she grit her teeth against the pain. The stench of burnt flesh filled her lungs from her own limb and throughout the village as others sizzled in the dragon’s flames. The smoke thickened in the upper level of the house, stinging Sonja’s eyes and she stumbled forward, her good hand clamped over her mouth and nose. There was an opening in the floor where the floorboards had collapsed under the weight of falling debris and fire. She fell through it, unable to see where she was going. Sonja hit the floor with a loud thud that pushed the air from her lungs.
“Sonja?” It was Hadvar. He ran into the burning house and pulled her out, coughing and sputtering. “Are you alright?”
She wheezed and tried to answer him, but the boy caught her attention. He was standing out in the open, trying to shake his father’s mangled corpse awake. “The boy,” she coughed, pointing. Hadvar followed her gesture and ran toward the child. He stopped short as the dragon came swooping low to ground. Hadvar called to the boy, gesturing to him urgently. It took longer than anyone would have liked, but the boy relented and gave up his father’s body to join Hadvar just before the dragon could claim him.
Sonja let out a long low sigh of relief and leaned back against what remained of another destroyed house. She winced and took a look at her arm. The skin was melted and painful, but not bleeding or otherwise oozing; Sonja was surprised that the injury was not much worse. The adrenaline pumping through her body went a long way toward staving off the worst of the pain, but she still took a moment to refocus her energies and heal her injured arm. The healing magic rippled across her arm and she felt the pain ease, but the flesh did not smooth over and heal. Sonja flexed her hand stiffly and frowned. Damned thing’s nearly useless…But she couldn’t afford to concern herself with her hand much longer. With the pain under control, she stumbled to her feet and ran as soon as the dragon had taken to the sky again. Hadvar followed and yelled to her to stay close to him since he was armed. Sonja scoffed and did little to stay near the soldier. It hadn’t appeared that the other armed men and women were having much effect on the dragon and she forged ahead, searching for a way out of the town.
The gates had been closed. Why in Oblivion did they do that? It flies! You can’t keep it out with a damned gate! Growling in frustration, she was forced to change direction and headed for the fort proper with Hadvar close on her heels. In the courtyard, Ralof appeared again, crawling out from beneath some fiery debris. “Ralof! You damned traitor! Out of my way!” Hadvar bellowed.
“We’re escaping this time, Hadvar, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us!” Ralof yelled back.
“Fine! I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovngarde!” Hadvar retorted. The two men glared at one another and continued shouting, each beckoning to Sonja to follow him. Without thinking, she took Ralof’s hand and sprinted toward the fort.
Just before she was able to duck through the door after him, she heard the strangest and most terrifying sound. The dragon spoke. “Hi nis Viik dovah, joore! Zu’u los dinok unahzaal!” Its voice was monstrous, and the tone of it grate against Sonja’s bones, awakening a very basic instinct to fear, to run, to hide. She bolted inside then, slamming the door shut behind her.
“We’ll meet again in Sovngarde, brother,” Ralof sighed, bending over the corpse of his fallen brother-in-arms and placing a hand across his forehead, brushing some of his dark hair from his face.
Sonja listened to him mutter a prayer over the body. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, feeling the urgency of the situation build outside the door with every shudder of the building, knocking dust and loose gravel from the cracks and pits between the stone. It clashed with the tender reverence Ralof was affording his fallen comrade.
“Many have died already,” he said, standing, “And more will die before the end. It is the way of things.”
“The way of war.”
Ralof cast her a sideways glance and nodded. “Aye, the way of war,” he agreed and then he looked Sonja over in full, appraising every injury to decide how useful she might prove in a fight. “You might as well take Gunjar’s gear. He won’t be needing it anymore.”
Sonja looked at her traveling gear, singed by fire and stained by blood, but still warm, still useful, and still bearing the enchantments she needed to bolster her magic use. “I’m fine,” she said, crossing her arms defensively over her worn fur and leather armor.
Ralof was obviously not convinced. “Take his weapon at least,” he insisted. When Sonja didn’t move, he shrugged, “Suit yourself, but I can’t protect you all the time.”
“I don’t need your protection,” she assured him.
Again, Ralof did not seem convinced, but he didn’t say as much. Instead, he went to the gate that led deeper into the fort and experimentally tried the latch. When it didn’t open, he shook the bars and grunted in frustration. “This one’s locked.” He glanced back at the other gate on the opposite wall. “Let’s see about that one.” He rushed to it only to meet with defeat a second time. “Damn. No way to open this from our side.”
Sonja frowned, beginning to think she should have gone with Hadvar instead, and looked around the room. She wasn’t much of a thief, but she had known her fair share of them, Corvus not least amongst them, and had learned a thing or two about lockpicking. Unfortunately, her lockpicks had been confiscated with the rest of her gear when she was captured and from the barren look of the room, she doubted there was anything she could use to force either gate open.
Before either Ralof or Sonja could come up with another way forward, the sound of heavy booted footsteps, clinking armor, and a commanding voice shouting orders echoed down the hall. “It’s the Imperials!” Ralof hissed, “Take cover!” Sonja stepped back in the shadow of the doorway they had come through and waited, hoping the Imperial soldiers could be reasoned with considering they had bigger problems soaring the skies. But as the soldiers drew closer and the sounds of the officer’s voice grew clearer, Sonja recognized her as the captain overseeing the execution. Captain Rila didn’t strike her as particularly reasonable.
Sure enough, the moment the gate release was activated and the Imperial soldiers saw Ralof, they drew their swords. “DIE STORMCLOAK!” the captain bellowed and she lunged, her eyes murderous.
Sonja knew Ralof needed her help. He was a good soldier, an excellent fighter, and managed to hold off attacks from both Captain Rila and her underling with sheer quickness alone, but he couldn’t keep it up forever. Eventually, he’d slip up, move too slow, or miscalculate a reaction time and when they were done with him, they’d go after her. She knew this and still she hesitated because for all the danger and necessity of the situation, they still wore Imperial armor. Uniforms her father and brother fought and died in. “SONJA!” Ralof yelled.
His desperate cry for help was enough to spur Sonja into action and she ran out into the middle of the room, catching the edge of Captain Rila’s sword with her conjured one before it met Ralof’s flesh. The purple flames of conjuration licked at the cruel edges of the Daedric weapon and cast an ominous glow across Ralof’s surprised expression. She conjured a second sword and leveraged her weapons against Rila, kicking her backward with her boot firmly planted against her belt. Ralof continued to fight the other soldier while Sonja battled the captain.
At some point during the struggle, Captain Rila managed to catch the edge of the blade in Sonja’s left hand and sent it flying from her grip. The conjured weapon disappeared in a flash of light before it hit the ground. The soft aftershock caused by its shift back into its realm caused the dirt and dust to skitter across the stone floor. But the second Sonja’s hand was relieved of the sword, she gathered flames in it and released several blasts in quick succession into Rila’s face and chest until the captain crumpled beneath the heat of her magic, dead.
The smell of chard flesh filled her nostrils once again as she stood over the dead woman’s body, her Imperial armor chard, but still red and the Imperial crest and rank still visible on her chest. It was a horrifying reminder of how her brother died and she felt her stomach heave. She turned away and leaned heavily against the wall, releasing her remaining conjured sword, as she tried to vomit, but nothing came. She had been unconscious for the last few days and had not eaten. Suddenly, she felt very weak and shivered against the stone. She was revived somewhat when she felt a pair of rough hands grip her shoulders. Gaining momentum by pushing off the wall, she swung her elbow back to catch the nose of whoever had put hands on her. “It’s me!” Ralof declared, narrowly avoiding the force of the blow as he ducked.
“Oh,” Sonja stopped trying to cause him bodily harm and glanced at the second Imperial body Ralof had hacked to death with his axes. She forced herself to look elsewhere.
“You’re a mage.” It wasn’t a question.
Ralof’s expression darkened. “Like those with the Imperial Legion?”
“No, I’m not with the Legion,” she answered sternly, “I’m a spellsword.”
It was obvious from his expression that he did not believe her. “Be careful who you tell that.”
“Nords are not fond of magic.”
Sonja frowned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Ralof searched her expression for a long time, noting her unease after killing Captain Rila. “You’ve never killed anyone before?” he asked.
“Too many,” she replied.
“We should keep moving,” she interrupted before abruptly kneeling beside Rila’s corpse and searching it for keys. When she found what she was looking for, she tossed the ring to Ralof to open the gate forward while she lingered over the captain’s body. “Forgive me,” she muttered softly. Whether her apology was meant for Ralof for failing to come to his aid sooner, for Rila for taking her life without mercy, or for Thornir for dishonoring his memory, she didn’t know, but she followed her Stormcloak ally deeper into the fort the instant she heard the gate swing back on its hinges. There was nowhere to go now, but onward. If nothing else, she had to fight to find Anja. She couldn’t fail her sister. Not again.
Getting through the fort had not been easy. Despite the presence of a fire-breathing dragon terrorizing the village outside, the Imperial soldiers and Stormcloaks found themselves too consumed by their desire to kill each other to set aside their differences long enough to save the villagers trapped inside Helgen or to get out themselves. Sonja had been forced to fight her way through more Imperials who only saw her has an ally to a Stormcloak. But she and Ralof made it through the fort and into an adjoining set of tunnels where the wall had collapsed in the dungeons.
Once they stepped out into the bright sun of the afternoon, Sonja raised her hand to shield her eyes. There was another monstrous roar and Ralof grabbed her around the waist, pulling her down beside him behind a large boulder. Overhead, the black dragon soared away, cutting through the air with dangerous grace. “I think it’s gone,” he whispered.
“Let’s get a move on before it decides to come back,” Sonja replied and she stepped out from behind the rock, beckoning for Ralof to follow her. “Where’s the nearest town?” she asked.
“Just a ways down the road,” he answered, “My hometown of Riverwood.”
“Lead the way, then,” she insisted and the pair of them made their way down the slope of the hill to the road.
Sonja had been reluctant to meet Ralof’s sister. She preferred to part ways as soon as they made it to town instead, hoping to take what meager supplies and armor she had scavenged from Helgen to the blacksmith and the general store. “Gerdur can help us,” Ralof insisted, “Get us food and a place to sleep.”
“Her help is for her brother,” Sonja argued, “Not for a stranger.”
Ralof’s brow furrowed. “You are not in Cyrodiil anymore, Draconis,” he said, “All Nords are kinsmen here and we take care of our own.”
“When you’re not busy killing each other, of course,” she pointed out.
Ralof frowned. “Gerdur has enough to spare for the woman who saved her brother’s life,” he continued, “It’s the least I can do.”
Sonja hesitated. Her alliance with Ralof had been conditional on their mutual need to escape the dragon terrorizing Helgen and the Imperial soldiers baying for their blood. Now that the immediate danger was passed, what did she really know of the man offering her food and shelter? Was he trustworthy? What was he playing at, trying to lure her into his family home? “I’ll think about it,” she replied stiffly before pushing passed him to barter with the blacksmith.
After Sonja had made what trades she could and little coin there was to be had, she set out for the inn to see how much a room might be. Night was fast approaching and Skyrim was far too cold for her to consider curling up under a tree somewhere. As she made her way, she caught sight of Ralof sitting on the giant tree stump near the mill where he had met with his sister earlier. He was leaning back on one hand, tossing pebbles into the slow moving waters of the river, sipping mead and picking at the assortment of food Gerdur had brought out to him: a loaf of bread, salted meat, an apple, and some soft cheese.
Silently, Sonja jingled her small purse of a scant few coins. She had sold everything that remained of her father’s estate when she left to find Anja. It had been the only way to raise enough coin to go after her at the time, but she’d lost it all at the border. Now she was reduced to the handful of gold she carefully haggled into her pocket. Definitely not enough to afford the inn and a proper meal. Her stomach growled in agreement. She hadn’t eaten in days. Taking Ralof up on his offer of food and shelter was looking more attractive by the second. Swallowing her pride, she abandoned her plans for the inn and made her way to the lounging Stormcloak soldier. “Glad to be home?” she asked as she approached.
Ralof chuckled, “Earlier today, I didn’t think I would live to ever see my home again.”
“I’m not sure if we were lucky to be attacked by a dragon in the middle of our execution or not,” she replied, “What kind of luck sends a dragon to raze a village?”
“And yet, here we are,” Ralof pointed out.
“Indeed,” Sonja actually smiled, surprised that she was genuinely pleased to be alive, despite her earlier death wish. It was the first time Ralof had seen such an expression on her face. Though, to be fair, there wasn’t much to smile about in the midst of an execution and dragon attack. Still, he thought her an attractive woman when brooding, but even more so when she finally cracked a smile. “I was just headed to the inn for the night,” she continued, “When I saw you sitting here and I thought—I might take you up on your offer.”
Ralof’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I didn’t think you keen on my hospitality.”
Sonja’s smile melted into a frown. “I changed my mind,” she replied defensively, “But if the offer’s no good, I’ll go to the inn.” She turned to leave, but Ralof caught her arm.
“Of course the offer’s still good,” he sighed, “Sit. Eat with me. Let’s give thanks that we are yet breathing to enjoy this meal at all.”
“Alright.” Sonja felt a little of her unease dissipate as she sunk onto the tree trunk beside him. The sun was low, nearly set and some enthusiastic torchbugs were already out. The meal laid out did look very appetizing. She accepted the mead he offered her and drank deeply. Her mother being a Nord, their house had never been in short supply of mead, but it tasted better in Skyrim, somehow.
The golden sunset reflected off the river as they ate, casting a warm glow over their faces. It had been a long time since Ralof had been in the company of a beautiful woman. He had given so much of his life over to Ulfric’s cause that he had quite forgotten about everything else. But, on that day, he could forget about Ulfric and the Stormcloaks. He had just had a brush with death and managed to escape it with Sonja’s help. On that day, he could pretend that his life was simpler. That there was no civil war or injustice. On that day, he could just enjoy a meal with a lovely woman without worrying about the next day, or all the days before it.
They ate and laughed. Ralof didn’t dare ask her more about her past than he had already. It was obvious to him that she was the sort to keep to herself and that was fine with him. He didn’t want to spoil the mood. After the sun went down, they laid back across the stump and stared up at the stars. Ralof told Sonja many stories about the constellations he knew and she compared them to the ones she heard growing up in Cyrodiil. In the cool night air, she felt almost giddy. It must be the mead…she reasoned; she had had plenty. “Do you fancy a swim?” Ralof asked her jokingly, fully aware of how cold the water would be. There were several lanterns lining the walkways and some of the riverbanks, and in the dim light, the softer currents of the river seemed inviting.
“You know, I think I would.” Sonja hopped off the stump and skipped to the water, shedding her clothing as she went.
She waded into the water in her small clothes, shivering from the cold. Ralof grinned, thanked his lucky stars, and followed her in. Sonja cast a few Fire Runes upstream to warm the water has it flowed toward them and soon enough the pair began to splash and horse about like the drunken louts they were. When the play got too rowdy, Ralof quieted Sonja by pulling her close and kissing her, silencing her loud laughter. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise before she allowed herself to enjoy the moment and deepen the kiss. They stood there, waist deep in the river, kissing, until Sonja’s runes expired and the current became abruptly cold. They yelped, shivering, and staggered out of the river, gathering their shed clothing and armor along the way.
Not wanting to return to his sister’s house and wake the whole family with their drunken spectacle, Ralof stumbled toward the mill. There was a small shack in the recess near the sawed logs. He opened it and inside were an assortment of storage containers, a bedroll, lantern, weapon rack, and wood axe. “Gerdur set it up for me to use whenever I needed to lay low to avoid the Imperials,” he explained when Sonja looked inside, perplexed, “You can stay here as long as you like. Store what you like, sleep here. Neither you nor your things will be disturbed.”
“Where will you go?” she asked, edging closer to the door, to block the cold from abusing her mostly naked body.
Ralof hesitated. What he really wanted was for her to invite him to stay with her or follow him to the inn, but didn’t think luck was on his side when it came to that. “The inn,” he answered eventually, “Delphine likes me well enough. She’ll let me pay her in the morning.”
Sonja nodded absently and looked inside the small shack again. It wasn’t particularly well insulated, or large, or clean, but it offered protection from the elements and safety from wayward threats. Best of all it was free; she didn’t have to shell out coin for it or give her body over to his enjoyment for the night if she didn’t want to. She saw it for what it was: Ralof’s attempt to respect her boundaries, her preference to be alone. It erased the last of any of her lingering doubts. “Thank you,” she said, tossing her things haphazardly over the barrels at the back of the shack, “It’s—cozy.”
Ralof handed over the key to the shack. “It’s warmer than it looks,” he assured amused and he turned to make the embarrassing trek to the inn, soaking wet, and in his smalls when Sonja caught his arm.
“I think we could make it warmer with two of us in here, don’t you?” she asked, smirking mischievously as she stepped backward, pulling Ralof in after her.