The shadow looming on top of the tower behind the headsman was of the blackest black I had ever seen. It moved, and its roar echoed through the air, but beneath the flaps of its wings and the writhing of its neck it was only impenetrable darkness. The creature was a mass of scales and spikes that didn’t only not reflect the light of the sun, it seemed to swallow it, and it reeked of molten iron and rotten flesh. And it brought destruction and death. The headsman was the first who fell to its roaring blast of fire.
Someone jerked me up, pulling at my bound wrists and drewing me with him, one of my fellow prisoners, fear written into his face. I didn’t know what he was afraid of – we would die anyway, did it really matter to what? There was chaos around us, dead bodies and flames, people with burning hair and flailing limbs, buildings ablaze, screams and yells and dying whimpers, and above all that the heavy flapping of wings, the darkness of the creature, this stench I would never forget and the earsplitting shrieks and roars that released devastation over the village. Its screams nearly sounded like words, sinister and dark, a screeching sound that ached in my bones. The soldier in his blue armour pulled me with him into the shelter of walls where he cut the ropes that bound me and handed me the dagger he had used. More people were there, more soldiers, a bearded man in an expensive cloak who gave commands. I had seen him before, he sat on the same carriage as I, and he had been gagged.
“Dragon,” I heard the incredulous whisper over and over again, “is that really a dragon?”
Dragons were only a legend.
“Legends don’t burn down villages,” the bearded man said sternly, but helpless fury seeped from his voice when he peeked out of the sheltering tower.
We escaped through underground tunnels, my saviour and I, fought and killed the soldiers of the Legion who were still on duty and eager to stop us, stupid, mindless discipline in light of the devastation above, and his face twisted in disgust when I dispatched one of the corpses of its armour, took bow, quiver and sword with me. But I was trained in survival and would take what I needed, and his loyalties meant nothing to me.
He tried to tell me what the Stormcloaks were and that his leader, the man we had seen in the tower, was the future High King of Skyrim. And he asked who I was, where I came from and why I was caught so close to the border. Didn’t everybody know that it was shut down due to the civil war in Skyrim?
I knew of a war in the province, had heard people talking about it, the complacent, comfortable talk of men pleased over the rising prices for iron, steel, weapons and armour and concerned about the rising insecurity on the merchant routes. But it didn’t concern me, not more than the dragon, and I let him talk. I just wanted to go home.
He left me alone when I didn’t answer his questions. We fought side by side with the discipline of soldiers, gathered and shared supplies when we found them, saved each other’s lives, and I felt his gaze on me. It was a look of respect. He didn’t care if I was man or woman, and I felt selfconscious under his scrutiny. It was a long escape through the darkness under the destroyed village and the keep, through prisons and torture chambers, through collapsed tunnels and an underground stream, a spider nest and a bear den, and despite my exhaustion the dangers and fights provided a strange comfort. It was new to me, to be able to do something to keep myself alive, and when the bear towered above me, his claws scratching over the iron plate I wore, I felt a glimpse of freedom. No thought was spent on what would come later.
Daylight greeted us when the cave finally opened to a mountainsite, seemingly friendly and peaceful. A treacherous peace it was though, the looming shadow of the black creature still circling above us, slowly vanishing into the east. The man followed its flight with anxious eyes.
“Riverwood,” he said, pointing down into the valley where in the distance a few columns of smoke rose into the sky, “it flies to Riverwood.” He turned to me once more. “Come to Windhelm,” he said, “we could use someone like you.”
A mirthless laughter formed in my throat. Nobody would use me again. Never again.
He ran down the mountainpath without looking back and I let him go, discarded the stolen armour and turned away from the path and into the woods. I knew the name he had told me – Riverwood – and I knew in which direction I had to turn. I had reached my homeland, and that was all that mattered.
I realised that I was free when I crouched in the brushwood at the edge of a glade in a dense pine forest, the lights of a small cottage blinking homey through the encroaching darkness of the evening. A fenced garden, neat rows of leeks, cabbages, potatoes and onions, sunflowers in the corners, a cow and a horse shuffling in a shed. A girl and a boy, obviously siblings, stood at the well and turned the crank, thin arms strained under the weight of the full bucket. Their laughter sounded brightly through the evening air, and they hurried up when their mother called them, the opening door releasing a broad stream of light into the yard.
Nothing was left of the fire, the violence and the death that had ruled here so many years ago and ended my childhood, but to be here in this place, to see the lights and the happiness in the children’s faces called up the memories. These people had built their own home on the ruins of mine, and now it was theirs, there was nothing for me to come back to. I didn’t know what I had expected… what exactly I had longed for since that moment on the block, but I knew that there would be nothing to come back to. I didn’t belong here, I didn’t even have the right to be here, hiding like a thief in the night.
It was so peaceful, and they were so normal. Just like we had been, and I didn’t have the right to intrude.
The strange longing that had carried me here was already fading when I left the glade, and I buried it ultimately when I found the graves of my family on the graveyard of Falkreath, one stone for my father, one for my sister, the names of my mother and of the newborn brother engraved together on a third. I buried my longing, and I buried the memories. Someone had obviously taken care of their funeral. Perhaps someone remembered the girl that had been missing back then, the corpse they didn’t find. But it had taken too long to come back and say farewell, they were gone for too long and I had been gone for too long. I was alone and homeless, belonging nowhere and to noone, but also free and safe.
I made myself a home in the depths of the forest, in a hollow that wasn’t quite a cave not far from a lively little creek, enough of a shelter for me and the few things I owned. I didn’t need much, but it was a place to come back to. It wasn’t hard to survive and to learn the wilderness again – I was the child of a hunter after all, and my father had taught me the ropes of surviving when I could barely walk. I knew this forest since I had been a child, unchanged and familiar over all the years, and the memories of this life came back, sometimes haunting me, more often guaranteeing my survival. Now I remembered how to make traps and where to place them best, how to read the tracks and trails and how to sneak on my game. I hunted for my life, for meat and furs, found berries, roots and a nest of wild honey, made myself a sturdier bow and fur armour to replace the prisoner’s rags. I didn’t freeze and seldom starved, and I didn’t need much.
It wasn’t hard to survive, but at first, it was hard to be alone. I just wasn’t used to it. I had never been truely alone before in my life, there had always been some kind of company… my family, my master, the other girls, servants and the other guards. There had always been someone near, a breathing, talking body, not really close but still there. My mind was glad to be alone, to have escaped, that there was nobody who disturbed my chosen life, nobody who told me what to do. This was what I wanted. But habits of a lifetime died hard, and I hated myself when I woke up and felt unconsciously for the warmth of another body beside mine, when I listened for voices and waited for the stroking hand to wake me, only to feel relief flare up that nobody was there as soon as I became aware.
Nightmares that promised a treacherous escape plagued me, dreams in which I had everything I was used to, warmth and food, shelter and luxury for the sole price of abandoning myself. I dreamt of feasts and of the gifts I had received, from my master and from others, and when I woke freezing and starving and the question emerged why I had left all this behind, I hated myself for it.
It was late at night when I came back to my camp after a long hunt, dirty, sweaty and tired, a fawn slung over my shoulder, when I found the man kneeling on my furs and rummaging through my sparse belongings. I froze at the edge of the glade, let the animal slip silently to the ground and pulled the bow from my back. I could smell his stench of old sweat and stale ale over the distance, scrubby blonde hair hanging unkempt into his neck, and the sight coiled in my stomach into a lump of dread and anger. I drew my bow and pointed an arrow at him before I stepped out into the open.
“Stop that, or you’re dead,” I pressed out between gritted teeth, my voice hoarse. It sounded strange even to me, I hadn’t heard myself speak for so long.
Slowly the man turned around, staying on his knees, bloodshot eyes taking in my appearance. The way his gaze wandered over my body caused a wave of nausea. A lewd grin appeared on his face, and his hand moved to the hilt of the sword at his hip.
“My, such a pretty,” he drawled, “and living here all on her own. Poor thing.”
Slowly he rose and stalked towards me, drawing his weapon, a predatory glimpse in his eyes, as if he expected me to submit to his mere presence. He didn’t question his superiority even for a second, although my grip on my weapon didn’t falter.
Fury flared up, a red haze lying over my eyes, and the arrow flew and buried itself into his chest. He recoiled with a scream of pain and disbelief, fell to his back with flailing arms. When I stood before him, blood bubbled out of his mouth, the arrow had pierced his lung, but still his hand tried to clench around my ankle.
“Bitch,” he muttered with hatefilled eyes. I stepped on his wrist and broke it with an audible crunch.
“Told you you’re dead,” I said, watching calmly as he writhed in pain. The dagger I wore was only made from iron, a worn, blunt thing, but it was sharp enough to pierce between his ribs. I discarded the corpse of its weapon and dragged it away, far into the woods.
He wasn’t the first man I had killed, I had fought and bested the soldiers during my flight from Helgen before, but he was the first that counted. I didn’t think if it was murder, if it was necessary, if I could have fought him, defeated him and let him live. He had threatened me, and he died for it.
The nightmares stopped, no more nights that left me yelling and gasping, covered in cold sweat. No more nightmares of others who came too close, no more nightmares of being used. When I stopped to dream, I was safe with myself and my solitude became my true shelter. I had proven that I could rely solely on my own strength and skills, and I forgot how it was to have company. I forgot how to speak. In the end, I didn’t even talk to myself any more.
I was only a silent hunter, taking the lives of my prey for my own. Sometimes I saw others from afar, roaming through the forest, hunting like me and living their solitary, free lives. But they always moved on, I avoided them whenever possible, and they left me alone. Sometimes I also looked at windows in the distance when I went too far and reached the edge of the forest, brightly lit and strangely inviting. But they were always too far away, and their invitation wasn’t meant for me.
I didn’t know how many weeks and months I spent like this, living with my thoughts and my eyes on the prey, clad in its furs, the tips of my arrows made from its bones. I had everything I needed, but the days became shorter and the nights colder. I knew survival would become harder, and I had to prepare for the coming winter.
When I found the hunter bleeding out from a bear bite, the beast lying dead beside him, I fought with myself. He was injured too severely to survive without help, blood pooling under him and his skin ashen, and when I watched him from afar, I knew it would be easiest just to let him die. He wouldn’t live through the night, and then not only the bear pelt would be mine, but also his gear – fine leather armour, at least those parts that weren’t shredded from the beast’s paws, a bedroll that looked soft and clean and so much warmer than my raw furs, arrows with steelen tips and two of the most beautiful daggers I had ever seen tied to his belt.
He was a Dunmer, bow and quiver lying beside him, white warpaint on dark skin emphasizing his strong features, red hair tied into a high tail. He still looked fierce and strong, despite the wounds, the sickly pale tone of his skin and the obvious pain that highlighted the alien angles of his face.
The decision to let him die or to help was taken out of my hands when the skeever crawled out of the brush, sniffing at him, the mer too weak to chase it away. Skeever, the reeking vermin of the woods, feeding on carrion and stealing the game of others, strong only in groups and against prey unable to help itself. I hated them with a passion, and when there was one, there would be more of them soon. I would not bear them to come close to another hunter.
My arrow let the beast fly backwards, and I kicked the corpse further away from the mer. Its brethren would take care of it. Weary crimson eyes full of astonishment and pain looked up to me when I approached the motionless figure. I helped him first, let the healing draught drop carefully into his mouth, cleaned and bandaged his wounds, gave him to drink. When I started to skin the bear, he had recovered enough to watch me curiously, a silent smile in his face.
“Do you have a name, my nameless saviour?” he asked finally, his voice rough from pain and exhaustion.
I gave him a look over my shoulder, my gaze again caught by his weapons, bloody hands buried in the carcass of the beast. His daggers were so much better than the blunt, worn iron thing I used, finely smithed steel with an intricate shine. He followed my look, reached for his belt and offered me one of the blades, hilt first. “You’ll never finish with that butterknife of yours,” he said with a weak grin.
“Qhourian,” I said hesitantly, reaching for the dagger. “My name’s Qhourian.” My voice was hoarse and rough and unfamiliar even for me, I hadn’t used it for so long.
“Strange name for a Nord.” But he didn’t ask any further, let me work in silence, and when I had finished and the pelt lay neatly folded beside me, he slept.
I should have just gone and left him. I had done what I could to help him, I only wanted the fur and I could have even taken the dagger and his arrows with me. It wasn’t my concern any more if he survived the night. But I stayed, I didn’t know why, and watched over his sleep and his restless dreams, and when he woke from the pain I gave him more of my precious potions.
Next morning, he was gone. I fell asleep sometimes during the night, I wasn’t used to keep watch over someone else. But he only took a few herbs and fresh bandages from my pack, and he left a note behind – pinned to the rough bark of the pine tree I leant against with that weapon I wanted so badly.
“Thanks for your help. If you ever come to Whiterun, seek me out – ask for me in Jorrvaskr, the hall of the Companions. Stay safe. Athis.”
I nearly laughed out loud when I read it, crumpled it together and threw it away. He was either mad, ravenous from pain and infections, or he made fun of me. Jorrvaskr! A Companion! Every Nord knew the history of Ysgramor, the legendary founder of our culture, the first human on Tamriel ever, conquering the land for my kind in a war against the elves. Every Nord knew the Companions, his successors, this nearly mythical group of warriors. A bond thousands of years old, men and women bound by blood, honour and history who until today represented the true Nordic way to live, to fight and to die.
Never would they let a mer join their ranks. Never would they let a nameless fugitive come near them.
I didn’t care what became of the stranger, perhaps I’d find his frozen corpse or his blank bones some day somewhere in my hunting grounds. But I had gained a warm pelt that would serve me well during the months of winter and a new dagger from the encounter. The few potions he had cost me were a small price for these treasures.
Perhaps I had become too confident in my own skills, perhaps hunger and exhaustion had weakened my reflexes, perhaps I was just too desperate to free the rabbit from my trap, trying to untangle the slippery, wet leather strips that had strangled it without destroying the snare. But in the end, it was only carelessness.
The wolf was alone, and I simply didn’t hear him coming. A loner, perhaps an old beast expelled from his pack, struggling for survival on his own. A woman, hunched down in the middle of the forest, oblivious to her surroundings, was far too easy prey even for old muscles and dull fangs.
But I was lucky. Lucky that the impact of the enormous body let me topple over, and his fangs snapped shut in the air instead of around my neck. Lucky that the heavy weight that crushed into my back let me fall so convenient that I only broke the wrist of my left hand, . And lucky that I reacted instinctively when the pain shot into my brain, throwing back my head and hitting his sensitive nose, irritating him long enough to crawl away from him, just a few steps, turn around and face him.
I was even able to draw my weapon and stab him before he was over me again, the sharp steel of the blade piercing the fur without resistance. But I had no leverage and no time to target my attack, and it slid off a rib, but it provided enough distraction to cause his fangs to close around my shoulder instead my throat.
The pain from the bite made me scream, his canines easily sharp enough to pierce through the furs of my simple armour. The beast stood above me, silent triumph in his golden eyes.
I didn’t know where I took the strength from, but I let the dagger fall away and clenched my fist around his throat in a desperate effort to keep his muzzle away from mine. He jerked and snapped in my grip, drivel flying and his claws tearing through fabric and skin, and I knew that in the end, he would kill me. The pain from the bites and the broken wrist already numbed my thoughts while the uninjured arm that tried to keep the beast away already trembled from the effort, his monstrous head coming closer and closer.
It was strange how a few short moments could stretch into eternity. Strange how it was possible to make decisions in a split second when it’s life that hangs in the balance. Strange how the lines of thought that led to such a decision seemed so incredibly inevitable and logical afterwards.
With the last bit of power my tortured muscles could muster I gave him a violent shove, hard enough to lift the huge body far enough to squeeze my broken arm between him and me. I offered it to him and he took the bait, and I nearly blacked out when his jaws close around the forearm, the hand dangling useless in the grip of his teeth. But I had gained a precious moment, and now the broken bone was my least concern. I used the second I had to remove my other hand from his throat, grab the dagger that lay discarded beside me and jab it to the hilt into his eye.
He died with his teeth in my flesh, his weight crunching my ribs, and finally everything became black.