It was the day the bard came that I realised that the endless frost would make way for spring and that life would return.
Something was different that morning. Snowback’s familiar weight on my feet was missing when I woke up, and the sun shone under my ledge, causing bright flecks to dance behind my lids. And it was accompanied by a breeze that for once didn’t sting like needles on my bare skin. It was still cold, but it was a gentler cold, and it carried something with it that wasn’t yet a scent, something sharp and invigorating and still held a promise. The hint of a promise of life returning. I heard the soft crackling of a fire and an even softer melody drafting into my half-slumber, and it made me smile.
For a moment. Until I opened my eyes, suddenly wide awake.
Outside a fire was burning merrily, a kettle boiling above it, and a man sat on an old fur with his back to me, legs crossed, a lute in his lap. A lute, and Snowback’s head. Traitor.
He didn’t even flinch when I pressed the tip of my dagger between his ribs, his fingers continuing to wander over the strings of his instrument, but he turned his head to me. Bright green, strangely innocent eyes, a smiling face under a thatch of curly white hair, crinkled from weather and laughter and age.
“Who are you?” My voice was raspy from disuse.
“Good morning, M’lady. Hope you don’t mind? Your companion here,” he fondled the dog behind his ears and was rewarded with a happy yelp, “invited me to rest for a moment. That’s a beautiful spot you have here.”
Of course I did mind, a dagger between his rips should have made that clear enough. Intruders weren’t welcome. “Answer my question. Who are you?”
“Talsgar’s the name, Talsgar the Wanderer people call me. Delighted to meet a kindred soul, M’lady.”
Kindred soul? Was he insane? He could be glad that I didn’t cut his throat first and asked later. But he wasn’t afraid, not even a little bit. The cheerfulness never left his attitude, radiated from his eyes. No mocking, no teasing, no sarcasm, just contentment to be exactly where he was.
“You’re not welcome. Snowback!” I pointed to my furs at the back of the ledge and made the sign to stay. At least he obeyed.
“You call him Snowback?” The man chuckled. “That’s not very kind!”
“He just earned it. Stupid dog,” I growled. I was confused. Puzzled. It had been so long since there had been someone else, since someone spoke to me, with me, I didn’t know any more how to react with anything but scared anger. But it didn’t impress him the slightest, and the amused, friendly smile never left his face, his fingers still dancing over the strings.
For a moment, only the soft tune was audible while our eyes were locked, his merry bright gaze never leaving my dark frown. Until I realised what it was that he played. Until I recognised the melody.
“For the darkness has passed…”
It hadn’t passed, it was still there, all around me and rising through the numbness of my mind. I cut the strings with a single move.
“Leave,” I hissed, “now, or I’ll kill you.”
He still didn’t move, with the blade now pressed to his throat. I felt the fury boil within me, fury and hate and helpless fear of the demons I had locked away for so long now. He had no idea what it cost me to keep these locks shut close. I would not allow him to open them with a bloody song.
I nearly consumed myself in the attempt to stay calm and to steady my hand, heard my own teeth gnash and my heart hammer in the effort to suppress the violent shiver that ran through me. A thin red line appeared on the bard’s neck. The smile never left his lips and his eyes.
“Go.” More a sob than an order.
Slowly, very slowly, like facing a wounded predator, he put the lute away, laid it slowly beside him, stroking its body, caressing it despite my violent act. His eyes never leaving mine, he turned to face me completely. His fingers encircled my wrist carefully, moved it away from his neck, took the weapon out of my clenched grip. I didn’t know why I let him.
“I’m sorry, M’lady.” I wanted him to go, to vanish, to never have appeared here, and he stood up without a further word. But instead to leave, he took a mug, filled it with the contents of the kettle, brought it over to me and folded my hands around it. The brew smelled invigorating, of flowers and the fresh tips of newly sprouted herbs.
“Here. There’s nothing better in the morning to make a bright day even brighter.”
Instead to leave, like I had asked, pleaded, begged, he sat down again, across the fire, and looked at me, let the silence build. The silence I had savoured for so long, that had hidden me from the world and from myself, that had covered me like a cloak during these icy times. No sound, no word, no song, no voice. No thought that had to be expressed, no meaning. And suddenly, this silence got a new quality, now that there was somebody who shared it. Now that there was this bard to share it.
I couldn’t bear it any more. Not with him sitting there. It was mine. He didn’t have the right to claim it.
“Why don’t you just go?” The despair dripped from my words like honey.
He leant back against a log, folded his hands behind his head. An image of utter relaxation, as if he wanted to emphasise the upheaval raging in me.
“Because… don’t you smell the air? This is a wonderful time and place to sing. Or to tell a story. It could make a story all on its own, our… encounter.” That unquenchable smile morphed into a wide grin. He grabbed an empty pot, turned it upside down and placed it between his feet. The slow rhythm he started to drum was mesmerising, calming some of the turmoil he had caused.
“Nothing of me is worth a story.”
“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong! Everyone is worth a story! Only that sometimes, it needs a wandering minstrel to find the tale beneath the veil. Love and success, or pain and sorrow… always unique and always worth telling.” His hands changed the rhythm, only slightly, but it held my attention. His attention was solely on me, though, and I cringed under this curious, searching gaze. “I always find the best tales when I don’t look for them. I’m good at finding things, you know?”
“Some tales are better forgotten.”
This man already looked as if he were at home, here, in my camp. He was dangerous, his threat to find my story and the way he took control. The revulsion against his presence had to be written into my face. And my fear, probably. His grin faded.
“No need to be afraid, friend. I will leave you alone. But you know, a story that wants to be told will always find someone to tell it. Someone will someday be at the right place at the right time and find what people are looking for.”
He wrapped his destroyed lute into a waxed piece of cloth and slung it to his back, alongside with a knapsack that looked remarkably like the ones the Companions used. I clenched my teeth, looking mutely after him as he vanished into the forest without a further farewell, humming a soft melody. His words poisoned the silence long after he was gone.
It had taken me weeks to steel myself for this way, weeks full of doubt and hesitation and refusal. But as nature around me woke from its torpor, as the days became longer, slowly, barely noticeable and still undeniable, I woke with it. Against my will, but I couldn’t change it – the world started to turn again, and when the very first green sprouts poked through the snow and the ice on my water bucket was only a thin layer in the morning, I knew I had to go with the change.
And still it was so incredibly hard to convince myself that my decision was right. Many little things had led to this move – Talsgar’s visit and his words that I couldn’t get out of my head. A hunter setting up his camp far too near to mine, a friendly, companionable man who brought me a freshly slain rabbit and a small flask of brandy to drink on good neighbourhood. And, as the last straw, the dragon circling above the trees for a whole day, his shouts echoing through the sky like mournful thunder. As if they were meant only for me. I couldn’t hide forever.
Memories dwelled up, unasked for but relentless. The Greybeards, their wisdom, their understanding and their trust that I would be able to do what they had prepared me for, their confidence that had fuelled my determination to face whatever lay ahead. The peace of mind I had found in High Hrothgar. The first dragon at Whiterun’s watchtower, the power of his soul. And, the hardest and gravest of them all, Kodlak’s words when he offered me a home.
“You need to learn some trust. You will make mistakes, but you’d have a chance to learn from them too. And you will become even stronger if you try.”
Even if he had been wrong in so many regards, this was still true. I had made more mistakes than I could count, and I had paid for them with everything that was precious to me, but I had also learned to trust myself. My strengths, and my weaknesses. I wasn’t ready to deal with what I had lost, but I still lived, had survived all on my own. And now I had to go ahead, on the only path open to me. The camp I left behind was secured and stocked with some long lasting supplies, ready to use when I’d need it again.
My heart hammered in my chest when I came near Riverwood – less because of the decision I had made, but because of simple fear. The thought that I’d have to deal with people again, that I’d have to talk and argue, cooperate and rely on them, it filled me with panic. But it was deep in the night, and at least I met no one until I stood on the doorstep of the Sleeping Giant Inn, a trembling hand clenched around the knob.
Only Snowback’s reassuring presence made me open the door.
The woman sitting in the corner behind the counter looked weary, skimming absently through the pages of a book. She looked up when I entered, with a frown about the brazenness of a stranger with a dog to disturb her at such an ungodly hour. When she saw me, she arched an eyebrow at the figure in fur and rags, face hidden under a crude cowl.
“The kitchen is closed, and I don’t give mead to beggars. Come back tomorrow. And leave the dog outside.”
Delphine, charming as ever.
I couldn’t expect anything else. But her eyes grew wide when I brushed the cowl into my neck, first impatience, then slow recognition and in the end utter disbelief in her features. It filled me with strange satisfaction.
“I’d nearly given up hope you’d come back, after all this time,” she said finally.
“Do I have to expect a dagger to the chest?”
The corners of her mouth twitched. “No. You never had. I just need to talk to you.”
“Well, I’m here now.” I rubbed my neck nervously, not sure how to go on.
“Yes.” It clenched my chest, this reference to my last visit, and I swallowed heavily. “I will listen to whatever you have to say. Under one condition.” She looked astonished, as if it didn’t befit me to make demands, but she slowly nodded.
“Speak, Dragonborn.” I didn’t mind the address. It was why I was here.
“You will tell nobody that I’ve been here. That you saw me. Especially none of the Companions.”
She looked curious. “That won’t be a problem. They’d certainly like to know… but for all I care, no need to involve more people than necessary.” I was glad she didn’t ask further, and I wouldn’t satisfy her curiosity.
“Involve in… what?”
She didn’t answer, instead went into the side room with the hidden stairs to her hideout. “I’ve guests who can wake up any time, we can’t speak safely here.”
Delphine locked the door behind me and lit the candles and lamps lined up on the walls. Leaning against the table, her face fell when she took me in in the bright light. “Divines, what happened to you?” Her face fell into a frown. “And when have you last eaten?”
I cringed under her scrutiny and shrugged. My stomach had stopped to announce its emptiness months ago. I could imagine that I looked pretty wrecked, but why would she care?
Delphine pointed at a cot in a corner. “You stay here. You will eat, bath and sleep before we do anything else.”
“I’m fine,” I said defiantly. I wouldn’t take orders from her.
“No, you’re not. In that state, you’re useless. And you need armour and weapons, am I right?”
I blushed deeply and shrugged again. The blunt dagger and crude willow bow wouldn’t do, of course. I hadn’t considered that. But the last I wanted was to be dependent on her. Or in her debt.
“You don’t… just tell me what you want,” I muttered.
“I will.” She gave me a dismissive gesture and hurried up the stairs, just to come back a few moments later, carrying a plate that was laden with bread, butter, cold meat, cheese and an apple.
The mere sight made my mouth water, and she recognised my longing gaze with a satisfied smirk. “Let’s just pretend that I don’t mind to keep the innocent innkeeper act up for a bit longer. And we have a day or two to let you rest.”
“A day or two until what?” I asked suspiciously.
“Until we find out what causes the rising of the dragons.”
I looked at her with wide eyes, the meal forgotten for the moment. “You know what causes it?” I narrowed my eyes at her. “You won’t give me that Thalmor nonsense again, will you?” They didn’t have the power to bring the dragons back. Not even a single one, I knew that for a fact.
“It’s not nonsense. But no… not right now, at least.” She took place at the table and beckoned me to sit down opposite of her, shoving the plate in front of me. The first bite of fresh bread nearly brought tears to my eyes, just to settle like a rock in my stomach. “Not so greedy, Qhourian, or you’ll eat it backwards. It’s not hard to see that you haven’t had a proper meal for some time.”
I nodded. Some time, indeed, and I was glad that she didn’t ask further. “So, what causes the rising of the dragons?” I asked, chewing carefully.
She unfolded a piece of parchment between us, and again I was dumbfounded. It was my map, the one I got from the Greybeards. Or one that was frighteningly similar to it, the signs marking the burial sites more than familiar.
“You know this, don’t you?” she asked with a smirk. I nodded. “I don’t have your connections, and I had to work hard for this – although you’ve been a great help with it.” My questioning look caused a chuckle. “It’s a transcription of the Dragonstone you brought Farengar from Bleak Falls Barrow.”
“So, you’re his mysterious source of information?”
“Farengar has sources of information even I don’t know about. But yes, we’ve worked together.” She eyed me intently. “You have a similar map, and you’ve used it. And I have tracked your progress, visited some of the sites, asked around and drawn my conclusions… obviously something your Companions never thought of.”
“They never thought of what?”
“That there’s a pattern in it. Where they rise, when they rise.”
No, we had never thought so far. It didn’t seem possible to witness the rising of a dragon, not after the first failed efforts.
I swallowed heavily. “You think…”
“…that I know where the next one will occur. Yes.” Her grin was full of smug complacency.
“And we will be there.”
“Exactly.” Her gaze became intense. “The rising of the dragons… it’s not a simple appearance, Qhourian. It’s a reappearance. They’re resurrected, the dragons of old.”
I cut her off. “I know that. They’re the same dragons people fought thousands of years ago, and they only stay dead now if I take their souls. The most important question – no, the only important question is what causes it. Which power is behind it.”
Now I had surprised her for a change, but if she had hoped to impress me with earthshattering news, I had to disappoint her.
“You’re right, that’s the core of the problem. Here,” she pointed at a mark south of Windhelm, “Kynesgrove. You haven’t been there yet, and if my predictions are correct that’s exactly the spot where the next dragon will come to life.”
Looking into her excited face, the thrill of the hunt gripped me with sudden force. When I still struggled with myself to leave my seclusion, I hadn’t dared to hope that it would bring anything substantial to visit Delphine at all. In fact, I had only come here because it lay on the way to High Hrothgar. The Greybeards would have been my next destination, to ask them about the mysterious Alduin, the arch enemy of mankind and now strangely the only hint I got from Nahfahlaar.
But this… this was substantial. If she was to believe – and she was so certain of herself and her research that it was hard not to – this was the first real lead I ever had.
I would have liked to leave at once, but she said we weren’t in a hurry, and I had to trust her in that. The meals she fed me with and the first night in a real bed were delightful, even Snowback got some leftover bones when I told her I wouldn’t leave him behind, but by far the best was the bath. Hot water in abundance, with soap and a washcloth… I didn’t even know any more how good it felt to be clean. I hadn’t cared to bath for months. And I had no idea that I didn’t only reek, but stank, and Delphine threw the rags and badly tanned hides I had spent the last months in with a disgusted expression into the fire.
And still she didn’t ask, for which I was incredibly thankful. Instead she fit me out with a simple leather armour, a steel shortsword and a bow, and when I mounted the hazel-coloured gelding behind her and we left Riverwood westwards, I felt nearly human again.
Only the looming silhouette of Dragonsreach that we passed in the distance sent a piercing ache into my chest, and I was glad that I sat behind her and she didn’t witness how I fought down the tears with clenched jaws and clenched fists.
Kynesgrove was in a turmoil when we arrived, after a ride of nearly two days with only a few hours of rest. I was used to rest on cold hard ground and slept like a log, but I was astonished how easily Delphine fell into the hardships of life outside. It was still winter, after all. But after she had changed out of her tavern keeper costume into a simple leather armour and sheathed a sword at her belt, it was obvious that she had changed into her true identity – the one of a warrior, skilled and powerful.
Shortly after we left the outskirts of Windhelm, the horse left at the stables, a frightened farmer nearly ran us down.
“Dragon! In Kynesgrove! Someone help, please!”
Delphine shot me a satisfied look, and without a further word our easy jog turned into a sprint towards the nearby village. Together we ordered the people running frantically around to seek shelter in their houses, then started to ascend the small hill to the burial ground.
But I was only able to make a few steps, Delphine rushing ahead, when I heard it. The deep rumbling sound echoed far over the landscape, through my bones and into my soul, made it quiver with terror and anticipation… not really a voice, so much more than a voice. Sinister words, somewhere between a whisper and a shout, cruel laughter, dripping with malice and barely containing the power of the words it spoke, the stench of molten metal and rotting flesh… I knew it. I had heard and smelled it once before, when my head lay on the block in Helgen. It was unique, incomparable, and for a moment I was back there, waiting for the death that hovered above me.
After a few moments of those memories flooding my mind, Delphine looked impatiently back to me. I shook myself and started to move again. “It’s nothing. Sorry.”
But although I was prepared, I was lost for words when we reached the height of the hill. The creature hovering above us was indeed that gigantic reptile easily twice the size of every other dragon I had encountered, the fiery red eyes flaring out of a mass of jet-black scales and spikes and muscles.
The dragon floated above a hollow, his black wings holding the huge body in place with slow, mighty flaps. And he spoke, but he didn’t speak to us. In fact, he ignored us entirely. We witnessed the resurrection of one of his brethren.
The process wasn’t as frightening as I had expected, although I heard Delphine gasp beside me. The huge bones lying in the pit were ancient, partly covered by earth, but they looked like every other dragon skeleton, and I had seen quite a few of them. But the black one’s Thu’um caused something that looked remarkably like the absorption of a soul, just backwards. The golden, erratic swirls of living energy, coming out of nowhere, rushed into the bones, through them, a blinding ball of life formed the flesh, the wings and the light grey layer of scales until the new dragon cowered before its master – because his master he had to be, with this power at his disposal.
The dialogue between the two mighty creatures roared through the sky, a sinister tune, every syllable a word of power. Something beyond mortal comprehension happened here. I felt that I should understand them, some parts of my soul absorbed the strange words, but their meaning remained hidden – only the names they called each other touched a string. The newly resurrected dragon was Sahloknir, the silent hunter of the skies… and his master was Alduin. Aspect of Akatosh, Greatest of them all, Destroyer of Worlds. The Bane of Mundus. Every Nord knew the legends of the great war of the dragons against mankind, ages ago, that had ended with Alduin’s defeat. Nobody knew what was myth and what history, but now he hovered in front of us, their leader and master, like doom itself.
I only started to breathe again when he turned to us. When he turned to me.
“Ful, losei Dovahkiin? Zu’u koraav nid nol dov do hi.”
I didn’t have to understand him to catch the dripping malice in his words, but in the end, he deigned me a single sentence in common language. And accused me of arrogance for the title I didn’t choose myself. Dovahkiin. I could learn a lot about arrogance from him.
I didn’t even have the chance to reply to his challenge, to react to the strange certainty he left behind, the knowledge that we’d meet again, when Alduin already vanished behind the mountains with a few heavy flaps. And Sahloknir attacked with a roar and a blast of fire, knowing that we were about to end the shortest lifetime of a dragon ever.
He was no match for us. Not only Delphine and I faced him, some guards of the village had joined us as well, and even Snowback did his best to provide additional confusion. Brave little critter. The dragon didn’t even try to get off the ground, and in the end, he dropped to arrows and steel like all the others, and the impact of his soul, the feeling of being crunched and pulled apart at the same time until it had had found it place inside of my own – it was still familiar although he had been the first dragon with a name. I felt the awe and the fear in the people around me when I knelt in front of the bones, but I didn’t mind any more.
When only the same bare skeleton was left that we had started with, Delphine pulled me to my feet and dragged me down the hill.
“We need to talk. Now.”
The woman dropped heavily on a chair across from me while the keeper of Kynesgrove’s Inn brought us our drinks. She was still out of breath, sweaty and scorched, an excited gleam in her eyes.
“I knew what you are. But it’s different now that I’ve seen it.” She took a deep gulp. “I owe you some answers, I suppose. Some more than you already have.” Her smile was nearly apologising.
“Yes. I still don’t know who you are. What you are.”
“Okay.” She folded her hands on the table and looked around, assuring herself that no one would overhear us. “I’m a Blade. One of the last members still alive.”
My jaw dropped in surprise. A Blade? The Blades were extinct, eradicated by the Thalmor at the beginning of the Great War. But if she spoke true, it would explain her paranoia.
“We’ve waited for you… for someone like you. Throughout history, the Blades were dragonslayers and sworn protectors of the Dragonborns. And for the last 200 years, since the last Septim emperor, we’ve been waiting for you to appear.”
Divines. Exactly what I needed most. I sighed. “I don’t need protectors, Delphine. And least of all the sworn kind.”
She recognised my unease and doubt with a scowl. “The Dragonborn is the ultimate dragonslayer. Your main concern should be to stop them… at least it is mine. With your help, I hope.”
She had no idea what she got herself into. I had a surprise for her.
“You know that I recognised the dragon that got away? The big black one? He’s the same that destroyed Helgen. And now I also know that he’s not any dragon. He’s Alduin, the Worldeater.”
She paled visibly, sudden fear in her eyes, and I couldn’t suppress a smirk. Perhaps he was really the root of all evil. I had seen the devastation he could spread, after all, and I knew the stories about him. But he was only a dragon, and even if his appearance opened up more questions than answers, I had the feeling that we had made a large step towards the solution of this riddle today. And he hadn’t even faced us, had abandoned Sahloknir to his fate.
“Alduin? By the gods. How do you know?”
“I understood a bit of their conversation. Not much, mainly their names. The one we slew was called Sahloknir, the other one is Alduin.”
“It will only become worse from now on… where does he come from, all of a sudden? And why? I’m still convinced that our best lead are the Thalmor. Even if they aren’t involved, they’ll know who is.”
I looked sternly at the woman. She was about to get carried away. This idea was simply ridiculous.
“Delphine… as far as I know, Alduin is the oldest and mightiest of them all. Look at his powers. He’s ancient, he’s supposed to be dead for thousands of years, and still he’s here and resurrecting his brethren. Tell me one single sensible reason why the Thalmor should release such a power. How they’d even be able to. Even you must admit that it’s impossible that they control him.”
She looked slightly desperate.
“Dragonborn… you’re a warrior, and you obviously know already much more about the whole story than I thought, but it seems you lack some understanding of politics. Sorry for my open words.”
She breathed heavily, her face stern and angry.
“The Thalmor are the worst enemy of mankind in all of Tamriel. They don’t hate the Empire… they hate us, mankind as a whole. Yes, after the Great War only thirty years ago they established the traitorous White Gold Concordat, but this was still a mutual treaty, not the glorious triumph the Dominion strived for. The Empire still exists, and it’s a constant thorn in their side. They certainly intend to make the next war the real victory.
“I don’t believe that Alduin’s appearance in Helgen and Ulfric’s escape were just a coincidence. For them, a powerful rebel like him and this cursed civil war must be like a dream come true, the way it weakens Skyrim and with it the whole Empire. Add the dragons on top, and this land will soon be ready to be picked like a ripe cherry. They’re ruthless, in their goals as well as in their methods, and they don’t care to shred something to pieces if they can’t take it for themselves. They wouldn’t hesitate to release an army of dragons just to tear Skyrim and the Empire apart.”
She had a point, I had to confess. I had never thought about it that way. And apart from that… even if I didn’t believe that the Thalmor were the key, I didn’t have any better idea.
“So… any clue how to find out what they know?”
“I like that. Straight to the point.” Her grin was back. “I’ve a few ideas, but I have to talk to some people first. Make preparations.” She paused and bit her lip, searching my eyes. “Qhourian… do you need help? Protection?”
“Why do you ask?” I replied warily. She had never called me by my name.
She squared her shoulders. “What has happened here tonight will spread like wildfire through the province. You’ve been missing, people thought you dead, and now you’re back. I just wanna know if I have to expect the Companions to burn down my inn in search for you.”
I blanched. Would they? I hadn’t thought so far, had managed to push everything that had to do with Jorrvaskr far and deep enough to ignore questions like this.
And it had been so long… they had certainly gone on, like they had always done it. People died or went missing all the time, and I had only been a Companion for a few months, after all. And Vilkas had certainly provided them with a reasonable explanation. He was good at explaining things.
I forced down the memories, the faces of the people that once had meant something to me – Athis’ mischievous smirk, Aela’s stern scrutiny, the sadness and laughter in Farkas’ eyes, and tried to keep my voice as steady as possible. I couldn’t suppress the bitterness. “No. I don’t think they care.”
Sympathy flashed over her face, but then she shrugged, the usual sternness back. “Okay. Meet me back in Riverwood a week from now, please.”
I spent the days in the Eldergleam sanctuary, using the solemn quiet under Kynareth’s tree to recover, to gain back the strength of body and mind I would need. The events in Kynesgrove had been a fresh start, an unexpected success. But it took these days of contemplation to truly come to terms with my own decision to leave my solitude and start over. I knew it was something I had to do, I couldn’t think only of myself, I had a responsibility – taken over back then when the Greybeards acknowledged me as Dovahkiin. Nothing I could get rid off, like I had shed everything else. Even if nothing else was left, I would always have the soul of a dragon.
And again, I felt Kynareth’s grace upon me, a subtle affirmation that she watched over me, the feeling of guidance and shelter, and I left the sanctuary with a new sense of determination. I could do this, I would deal with the dragons and Alduin and Akatosh himself if I had to. So much lay behind me, so much that had been distraction and hindrance. No bounds would restrain me now.
Again I entered the inn only shortly before sunrise, but Delphine was waiting for me, an excited gleam in her eyes when she led me down into the hidden room.
“You’ve come up with something?”
“Yes! I hope so, at least. We must get you into the Thalmor Embassy, their operation centre in Skyrim. Tell me, Dragonborn… what do you think of attending a nice little party?”
She met my disbelief with a smirk. “A… party?”
“Yes, a party. Elenwen, the Thalmor ambassador in Solitude, hosts regular meetings to strengthen their standing in Skyrim’s noble society. Or to give those nobles an opportunity to cosy up to them, whatever. I can get you an incognito invitation to the next event.”
This was so crazy, I burst out with laughter, her utter look of confusion just adding to my amusement.
“Incognito? Delphine, with all due respect to your excellent contacts… this is crazy. Sorry for the open words.” I grinned. “You said yourself that I have no understanding of politics. And you said yourself that I made quite a name for myself. What do you think, how big are my chances to blend into such a party without catching attention and without being recognised?”
Her face fell. “Have you ever met Elenwen? How can you be so sure that she’ll identify you?”
“No, I haven’t, but that’s not the point. First, I’d stand out like a mammoth in the Imperial Palace. Second, there has only to be a single guest who recognises me, and my precious cover is gone. I know a lot of people in Skyrim, and unfortunately even more people know me. Gods, I’ve fulfilled contracts for nearly every Jarl in the province. No, the risk to go incognito is far too high.”
Her disappointment about the shattered plan was so obvious, I almost felt pity, but I had no idea how it was possible that she just overlooked its flaws. Thirty years of doing nothing but serving mead to the local drunks seemed to have taken their toll on her strategic abilities.
“Delphine, if you say I have to get into the embassy and that this event is the best opportunity, we will have to find a way. But there must be better plans than this one.” She just stared at the parchment in her hand.
“What do you have there?”
“The guest list for that evening. Believe me, it was hard enough to get.”
“Let me have a look.” When I read over the list, I was astonished how top-class the names on it were. Some Jarls and their relatives. General Tullius, the military governor of the Legion in Skyrim. A cousin of the emperor himself. Impressive.
When I came to a particular name and title, a very vague idea formed in my head, and I fought down the unease it caused.
“You will probably call me crazy, but… you’re something like a spy, aren’t you? I mean, the Blades have been called the hidden eyes and ears of the Empire. I understand your fondness for secret identities, but it simply wouldn’t work with me. But it could work with you – you’re used to it, and I could provide the necessary distraction.”
At least I had made her curious. I pointed to a name on the list.
“Jarl Idgrod of Morthal. By no means one of the most important names on here, but she’s known as loyal to the Empire.” I swallowed. “I know her. And I think… well, I could ask her if she’d let me accompany her. It would lift her reputation as well, after all. And as I’m not officially affiliated with any of the important factions in Skyrim, I see no reason why Elenwen shouldn’t be delighted to meet me. At least she won’t risk to ruin her chances with the Dragonborn.” I gave her an insecure grin.
Delphine’s gobsmacked expression was hilarious, I nearly could hear her brain work.
“I hoped I could stay out of this entirely,” she muttered finally. “It’s crucial for the Blades not to attract any attention. We’re an illegal organisation, after all. To march directly into the lion’s den now…”
“Nobody asks you to give up your cover. What has worked for thirty years will work for another evening, don’t you think? We just have to find a foolproof way to get you into the Embassy as well.”
Her face lit up. “Malborn! He’s my only contact in the embassy itself. Acts as a servant boy. Not very reliable, but as a Bosmer he has plenty of reason to hate the Thalmor. I will ask him to find me a job.” Excitement took her over. It seemed she just needed a little push to dismiss the comfortable life she had lived for so long for a bit of action, even if it came with a risk.
Now, she suddenly became busy. She scheduled the whole evening, showed me a blueprint of the building, made plans for every eventuality – what if she didn’t make it in, what if her cover was unveiled, what if she couldn’t leave her duty, what if somebody revealed that we knew each other? I calmed her down, even suggested to take Snowback with me; he’d provide an extra layer of eccentricity to my charade and could serve as an excellent additional distraction if necessary. I swore that as long as I attended this party, nobody would pay any attention to the servants.
After hours of planning and discussing, she showed me a content smile. “One could think you enjoy this, Dragonborn. Your celebrity role.”
My grin was weak. “No. Believe me, it’s not fun to stick out like a sore thumb everywhere you go. But I also have to live with it, I’ve decided to live with it as long as necessary, and when it becomes useful once… I’m gonna make the best of it. I will provide them with a show they’ll never forget.”
When the Jarl entered her hall early in the morning, she looked astonished at the cloaked, hooded stranger sitting at the long table. I had counted on her to rise early and slipped into the hall in the dead of night, when only a maid was tiredly sweeping the floorboards and a small boy brought baskets of freshly baked bread to prepare breakfast. The single guard had left me alone when I told him that I’d wait for the Jarl. Hood and warpaint concealed my features well enough.
She rested her hand on the dagger strapped to her hip, her eyes flitting to the soldier at the door and back to me when I approached her, but suddenly, before I had reached her or said a single word, she relaxed visibly.
“Qhouri,” she said so quietly that no one but me could hear it, not a trace of surprise in her features, and it made me stop dead, hands clenching into fists. No one had called me Qhouri for ages. No one outside of Jorrvaskr had ever called me that. And then a small smile quirked her lips, and she bowed her head. “Dragonborn,” she said equally calm, turned on her heels and made a small gesture to follow her.
A load of tension fell off my shoulders as she led me into her quarters and beckoned me to take a seat in front of the fire, but her face fell in shock when I removed the hood, her eyes locking on the scars on my face. I forestalled the questions she obviously wanted to ask.
“Thank you for receiving me, my Jarl,” I said sternly.
“A pleasure,” she said composed. “To what do I owe the honour?”
“I need your help.”
Idgrod was awesome. When I asked her about that invitation I knew she had, she told me outright that she didn’t plan to accept it at all. She was loyal to the Empire because she thought it best for Skyrim, but she detested the Thalmor like everybody else and saw no reason to keep their relationship any closer than strictly necessary. But when I told her that I had to attend that festivity and that I’d like to accompany her there, she changed her mind at once.
Of course she didn’t believe for a second that I just wanted to spend a nice evening in her enjoyable company, but when I thought she deserved some kind of explanation, she cut me short.
“I trust you know what you’re doing. I trust whatever you do, it won’t harm Skyrim in the long run. And if you think you have to mess with those bloody elves, I trust you know what you’re dealing with.”
I had to be honest.
“Jarl Idgrod, I can’t tell you any more, but you know I don’t want to go there to fraternise with the Thalmor. Are you aware of the possible risk if you act as my contact?”
Her gaze was amused and sympathetic.
“Qhourian… Hjaalmarch may be the least important hold of Skyrim, but you don’t stay Jarl for more than twenty years without some insight into local politics and the right connections. I know exactly what I get myself into if I help you, believe me. And it’ll be some change to the daily grind.” Her grin was mischievous, but then her face became serious.
“But I’d like to ask something of you in return.”
I should have known it. “What is it? Another dragon?”
She smiled warmly. Suddenly I wasn’t the Dragonborn any more. Just a… friend?
“No, no dragon. In fact, dragons aren’t that much of a problem any more, at least in my hold. My guards got some special training during the last months, and I must confess that their skills have improved a lot. Hjaalmarch has never been safer, and my men can deal with dragons easily now. Hope you don’t mind that they steal your souls.” She chuckled.
“No, I want something more… personal. Perhaps I shouldn’t meddle at all into this, but somehow… I care for my people, and Farkas has become one of us during the last months. He has helped us a lot… and I like the boy.”
I clenched my teeth, my insides contracting into a ball of dread. I had known beforehand that the odds were high that he was here. What if she called him? What if I’d have to meet him?
“I don’t want to see him,” I pressed out.
She searched my face, sensed my retraction, my resistance. “You don’t have to. He isn’t here at the moment anyway.” But before I could be relieved, she continued, straightening herself, the authority of her age and her title in her voice.
“I don’t know what happened, he never told me, and it’s not my business.” My frown grew deeper, but her gesture stopped my reply. “But I know that you’ve been missing for quite some time, long enough to convince a lot of people that you’re long dead. Even if that was your intention, Farkas is not among them. He lost so much lately, but he still believes that you live, and he won’t give up this one hope until he sees your corpse with his own eyes. Please, Qhourian… I won’t tell him where you are or what we’ve spoken about, but at least let me tell him that you’re alive and well. Just this knowledge would take a load of grief from him.”
I buried my face in my hands, lost for words. There was this cut in my life, and nothing before it mattered any more. Breaking away, forgetting, repressing the memories, it had been necessary to survive. My way of dealing with things. It seemed that I had to live my life in small episodes, short periods of stability until everything broke apart once more and I had to start anew. But somewhere deep inside I had always known that one day, I’d have to deal with the events that had caused this cut, or they would haunt me forever. It was inevitable. That moment had come, it seemed.
I didn’t want to know what Idgrod meant when she said that he’d lost so much. I didn’t want to deal with him or the other Companions and even less deal with the memories of our time together. But I had to face the fact that my act of simple self-preservation had caused pain. It was the last I thought of back then, after the death of the child, after… Vilkas. By cutting myself away from the pain and the world, I had also completely locked out everybody else.
But what I did had an impact on others, the same way the actions of others had such a fatal impact on me. In this moment I realised that I had the power to cause pain… or grief, or joy, because my ties to these people could be cut, but they could not be undone. My actions did matter, and it was impossible to outrun this responsibility.
Only when I felt the older woman’s arm around my shoulders, I nodded.