“It's dead then?” Falk Firebeard asked the guard bringing news of the latest dragon attack on Solitude. It was the third this week, and even with Castle Dour's soldiers in the city, they were suffering. Elisif didn't even want to think about how the rest of Skyrim was doing. Badly, she suspected. A whole month since the Helgen attack, and the dragons were everywhere, it seemed. The attacks had started in the east, but since then, they'd spread. Nords were tough, Nords were brave, Nords were fighters. But what could even Nords do against foes that seemed to rise again days after they died?
Elisif didn't know, but she hated feeling so helpless. She was supposed to be queen in waiting, she was meant to be a Jarl! And yet her guards were barely holding it together, the Legion was stretched because of the war and Tullius kept brushing off her concerns. Elisif had a definite feeling she was being given the run-around, but she didn't know how to confront Tullius directly. Wasn't there anything she could do? There had to be something.
“Where's the body?” Elisif asked, interrupting the conversation, and that was another thing, the surprised and slightly annoyed look on Falk's face whenever she ventured an opinion. He was her steward, he was meant to answer to her! And yet somehow she always ended up giving in to him because he was older and experienced and had served as steward to both Torygg and his father.
“Out in the market, my Jarl,” said Falk, gritting his teeth a little. “For now, anyway.”
“I want to see it,” said Elisif, feeling a little reckless, more so than usual. Ever since the dragons had come back, she'd felt restless. Penned in. Feeling like she was meant to be doing something, she didn't know what. And the dreams, always the dreams, dreams of flying, soaring through the air with the whole of Skyrim below her. She liked those dreams.
She was less keen on the dreams of blood and death and fire and screaming, especially the ones where she was not an innocent bystander on the ground, but descending from the sky causing it.
“My Jarl,” Falk began, “you don't need to see the body for yourself, they all look much the same.”
“I agree,” Sybille put in, “I've already thoroughly examined the body of two previous kills, you're not going to notice anything I missed.”
Elisif could really slap her court mage sometimes.
“I. Want. To. See it,” Elisif snapped, her voice coming out in a ferocious low growl that surprised even her. Falk flinched back, Sybille looked a little nervous, and even Erikur had reacted. Good. She'd have to raise her voice more often if that was the result. “In fact, I'm going to see it. I am Jarl and I can go where I like in my own city.”
Without waiting for an answer, she got up and strode off, making for the door.
“Oh for Divines' sake,” she heard Falk cry before snapping at Bolgeir to get after her. Elisif allowed herself a small smile. She'd won this victory at least. Falk might be used to getting his own way, but he couldn't actually override her.
She made her way out of the palace, down the Avenue and past the Hall of the Dead, before passing under the bridge and into the market place. The dead dragon was lying up ahead, taking up virtually all the space. They were a lot bigger close up. Elisif had seen them from her window in the Blue Palace, but they'd moved too fast for her to get a good look at. She wasn't sure now that was such a bad thing. Even dead it looked frightening, with its tough scales and teeth the size of her arm and wickedly sharp claws and spines. There was quite a crowd standing around it, guards, citizens, soldiers, children. The muted chatter fell quiet as they all saw their Jarl approach.
“It's dead then,” Elisif said to Captain Aldis, who was standing over it, wiping his forehead from exhaustion.
“Quite dead, ma'am,” said Aldis wearily. “Up until it comes back to life in the night.”
“Aldis,” Elisif snapped. “I said not to say that around citizens.”
“Not talking about a thing doesn't make it not true, my Jarl,” said Aldis, but he did drop the subject. Elisif knew it wouldn't solve anything, but it was important to at least sound like they knew what they were doing. Maybe dismembering the body would help, although how any weapon, even ebony, was meant to hack a dragon to bits, Elisif had no idea. Then it happened. The dragon started to smoke, burning from within, scales and flesh crackling as the body fell apart in fire.
“What's happening,” Elisif gasped. “What's it doing?”
“I – I don't know, I've never seen one do this before,” said Aldis, confused. “Everyone get back! Don't touch it!”
Elisif found herself hauled back as Bolgeir had finally caught up and pushed between her and the dragon, keeping her from the fire. He couldn't keep her from what happened next though. White light boiled up from the dragon's corpse, spiralling up into a vortex, the wind rushing around, whipping up Elisif's hair, but she couldn't take her eyes off it. She barely heard the screaming as townsfolk ran for cover, and then the light grew brighter, filling her entire field of vision and Elisif closed her eyes, feeling light and heat envelop her. Roaring, shrieking like an outraged dragon, and then something very like a dragon's jaws rose up inside her mind, snapping shut on what had just sunk into her brain.
A memory trickled through Elisif's mind, a memory of happier days with Torygg, of picnicking out by Kilkreath and the old Nord memorial stone there. Torygg hadn't even seemed to notice anything odd about it, just a curved wall carved in the old tongue that no one could read these days, but she'd heard it singing to her, a strange chanting that had drawn her in and she could hear it again now, same chanting, and she remembered the glowing word on the wall, written in another language but she could read it, she knew what it meant and the word was Su. Air. She'd not known what to make of it at the time, but the chanting had subsided and she'd let her laughing husband pull her back to his arms and put it out of her mind. Now she couldn't forget it, and she felt the new power from the dragon pulsing through her and then into the word, if that made any sense but nothing about this did. The word had come alive in her head, and she knew instinctively that if she shouted it with weapons in her hands... she'd be unstoppable.
She opened her eyes and saw everyone staring at her, literally every single person there, from Captain Aldis to that Argonian to the innkeeper's son to a small group of children. Bolgeir was staring at her, amazed, and then she felt Falk's hand on her shoulder.
“Elisif, what happened, are you all right?”
“It's Jarl Elisif to you!” she snapped, immediately regretting it as she saw the hurt on his face, quickly covered up by his usual professional mask.
“Oh gods, I'm sorry, I...” She looked around at the entire city looking at her as if she'd grown an extra head.
“I need to go,” Elisif whispered, and then she was running, fleeing for the Blue Palace and home.
Elisif sprinted up the steps, darting past servants and guards and ignoring Erikur calling to her if she'd sorted out that dragon. She'd sort him out if he didn't shut up, shouting Su and carving him into – oh gods. She ran into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. She didn't know what had happened, but she was scared and terrified and there was this new power in her now, this thing that wouldn't go away and really really wanted to fight, fight them all until they were all on their knees, all calling her Lady Queen and... oh gods, what was wrong with her??
She reached into a cupboard and grabbed a goblet and a bottle of Colovian brandy swiped from Elenwen's last party. Her hand shook as she poured herself a measure... and another... and then she gave up on the glass and just swigged a mouthful straight from the bottle. The taste burned her throat, but she didn't care. She collapsed on the bed, vaguely aware of Falk hammering on the door and shouting her name.
“Elisif! Elisif! Open the door!”
Elisif ignored him. The brandy was making her feel reckless, a warm shield that normally made her feel at ease with the world, but now made her feel just that bit more predatory. This was her palace, her strunmah (what in Oblivion was a strunmah??), the red joor could wait until she was ready (joor??).
“Leave me alone!” she snapped.
“Not until we've talked!” Falk shouted. “Elisif, what happened? What did that dragon do to you?”
Better ask what I did to that dragon, and that was another thing she resented, the implication that it was always other people doing things to her, not her doing things to other people.
“Nothing!” Elisif cried. “It didn't do anything, it was dead. I don't know what happened!”
“Elisif,” Falk called from behind the door, sounding worried. “My Jarl, people are talking. They're saying you took its soul, that you're...”
“DOVAHKIIN!!!!!” The room shook as the great Shout rolled across the sky, causing the room to shake and Elisif to sober up very very quickly. What in the name of Kyne... was that the Greybeards?!
“Falk,” Elisif called, feeling her heart start to pound. “Falk, I'm not... I'm not Dragonborn. Am I?”
Silence. Not a sound, and that was worse than if he'd said yes, because it meant yes, didn't it? She'd taken that damn dragon's soul.
“Oh gods,” Elisif whispered, and she finally lost all semblance of control. Rolling over, she began to cry. Falk clearly took that as an invitation to come in, because he was opening the door, closing it behind him and then sitting on the bed next to her, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. Elisif didn't even care any more. She just turned over and rested her head in his lap, like she used to do with her father as a girl. Falk stroked her hair, saying nothing.
“I can't be Dragonborn, Falk, I just can't,” she whispered, tears still rolling down her cheeks. “I'm not a mighty warrior or anything, I'm just a foolish young girl who doesn't know what she's doing half the time.”
“No, you're a very brave young woman who's come through a lot and is stronger than she knows, than any of us knew,” said Falk gently. “It's all right, Elisif, no one's going to ask you to fight a dragon on your own. But you just stopped one coming back. That's special. That just saved your city.”
Third dragon attack that week – but not the third dragon and Elisif knew it. Well, it wouldn't be coming back. Others might though, especially if they knew the Dragonborn was here, and thanks to the Greybeards, everyone now knew there was a Dragonborn.
“I'm going to have to go to High Hrothgar, aren't I?” Elisif whispered. “What do you think they want?”
“I don't know, but don't be afraid,” Falk said, squeezing her shoulder. “I think they just want to meet you, make sure you're not going to use your powers for ill. And then I think they're going to train you in how to Shout.”
How to Shout. She'd seen Shouting before, when Ulfric had come and challenged Torygg and... He'd Shouted then, misused everything the Greybeards had taught him, and then the sword had come plunging down on her helpless husband as Falk and Bolgeir had held her back while she'd screamed. Ulfric had stood back, looking satisfied after butchering a man less than half his age, and he'd glanced at her, shrugged and just said that the price for freedom was a high one. A high one! He'd not been the one paying it. She'd lunged at him, but not been able to break free and a good thing too or she'd have been joining Torygg in Sovngarde. She almost wished she had.
Shouting. The power of the Thu'um. It was said to take years to learn even a single word of it. Years, and yet she'd learnt a word off a wall ages ago and just unlocked it in seconds today without even knowing she was doing it. In five minutes she'd learnt a third of what Ulfric knew, and he'd been at High Hrothgar for years.
“I could learn to Shout,” she said, the fear subsiding. “Like... like Ulfric.”
“Hopefully not like him!” Falk said firmly. “But yes, that's the general idea. You take the souls of dead dragons and use them to Shout with.”
Like Ulfric. No, better than Ulfric. Elisif knew then what she had to do.
Falk was still talking, staring off into space.
“Don't worry, Elisif, we can take care of the dragon-killing for you,” he was saying. “I'll talk to General Tullius, get him to spare the men to go dragon-hunting. They can kill the beasts then you can walk in and take the souls.”
“No.” Elisif sat up, not even sure where this determination was coming from, but if she didn't stand up for herself over this, she'd be a slave for life, she just knew it.
“What do you mean, no? You can't possibly mean to start fighting dragons by yourself!”
“I mean to do exactly that!” Elisif snapped. “No dragon relies on others to kill her foes for her!”
“Elisif, you're not a -” Falk began, now completely confused, but the look on Elisif's face stopped him.
“I'm going to need my armour, the good set,” said Elisif, mentally cataloguing the contents of her armoury. “And that ebony war axe with the fire enchantment on it. Get me a sword too, ebony or glass if possible. Suppose I should take a bow and arrows too – decent set of those please, and a big batch of low-end arrows – I never was any good at archery, I imagine I'll miss a lot. Also some healing and stamina potions and some fire resistance potions, and I want five hundred septims from the treasury. And another five hundred set by in case that runs out. And some food as well. And tell Sybille I want to see her before I go.”
“Go?” said Falk, looking a bit frantic. “Go where? High Hrothgar?”
“Initially, yes, but after that, who knows?” said Elisif, shrugging. “Depends what the Greybeards tell me.”
“You – you're not coming back?” Falk breathed, going pale. “But Elisif, Solitude needs you!”
“Skyrim needs me!” Elisif sighed. “There's dragons attacking everywhere and it seems I'm the only one that can stop them. You don't need me here, Falk, you can keep this city going quite well without me for a bit.”
“Elisif, you can't just go travelling off round Skyrim!” Falk protested. “It's dangerous! Quite apart from the dragons, we're at war! If the Stormcloaks got their hands on you...!”
Elisif's eyes narrowed as she contemplated the thought of laying eyes on Ulfric again.
“If Ulfric finds me, he will find he has taken on more than he bargained for,” she said, amazed at just how calmly she was considering the possibility of smashing Ulfric's skull open with an axe. “Now if you'll excuse me, I have a country to save... and a husband to avenge.”