Eyes on the Enemy: 3. One Step at a Time

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I hated him. What a pretentious, ungrateful, horrible old man.

At least the feeling was mutual.

Esbern frowned deeply when we finally left the sewers. “Great, first drinking games with a bunch of thieves, and now this… why don’t we simply stay here? After all, we’re as good as dead already.”

But I dragged him to the inn. “Keerava, we need rooms, meals and most of all a bath. Both of us.”

Esbern made his stubborn face with the trembling lower lip. “Don’t tell me what to do, I’m fine as I am. There’s more important things to take care of.”

I took my time, relished in the hot water and rinsed away all the mud and filth that had gathered on my skin. Everything was so much easier when I didn’t smell myself… unless it was my travelling companion instead. Esbern outright refused the bath that was prepared for him, which made me refuse to eat at the same table with him. And he dared to be offended about it!

“Ale? ALE!? We need nothing but some bread, cheese and water! What do you plan for this journey, have a party?” Really? Really? By the gods, this man was a Nord, but he made a fuss that I packed some bottles of ale together with our rations? Rations I paid for? I couldn’t believe it.

“Yes, Esbern, I know a nice cosy bear den where we’re gonna spend the night. And I plan to get shitfaced drunk tonight while you keep watch over me. Any objections?”

“Falkreath? Why Falkreath? I wanna go to Whiterun! It’s nearer, and it’s nearer to Riverwood from there too, and it’s nicer anyway! Why don’t you ask me before making such stupid decisions?”

I cringed at his whiny voice.

I glared at him. “I won’t go to Whiterun, and if you think you have to get there, you’ll have to do so alone. End of discussion.”

He challenged every single decision I made, out of principle it seemed. Perhaps he thought it to be funny. Or perhaps he had simply no idea how annoying he was.

But now I had enough.

“Divines, I hope you don’t intend to take that verminous cur with you?”

After less than a day in his company, I had ultimately enough of his whiny complaints, enough of his arrogant attitude and hollow threats, of his insults and his constant bickering. I pulled out my pouch, took out some septims and threw them at his feet.

“Here. Take your carriage wherever you want, we’re done. This dog is more loyal, helpful and friendly than any human, and I’ll choose his company any time over the one of a senile, presumptuous geezer like you. Good luck.”

I called Snowback to my side and left the stables. If the world needed this man to be saved, it was probably better to let it end. His yell sounded after me, and I could vividly picture how he stomped his foot like a spoiled child without turning back. “You need me, woman, you need me much more than I need you! Nobody but me can help you!”

We’d see. He had the attention span of a 3-year-old and a very weird view on the reality around him, but he wasn’t crazy enough not to make his way from Riften to Riverwood alone. Perhaps she could knock some sense into his twisted mind. I wasn’t willing to look after and be insulted by him any longer.

But it didn’t take long for the carriage with its lonely passenger to pass me. “Where are you heading now?” I called up to the driver.

“Falkreath, with a break shortly after Helgen!” he shouted back. I couldn’t suppress a grin. Seemed someone was scared to spend the night alone, out here in the wilderness.

As I had suspected, Esbern waited for me not far after Helgen. What I didn’t expect was the state of shock I found him in. He sat on a rock by the roadside, eyes wide open, staring into the distance and babbling hysterically into his beard. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did nobody tell me? Oh Delphine, how could you do this to me? After so many years! I’m not in the state for this… there’s more important things… but this! Look at this! How horrible!”

I had no idea what he was was talking about until I followed his terrified gaze. The ruins of Helgen.

I bowed down to him. “Helgen, Esbern. Look at it closely, this was Alduin’s first greeting to us mortals after thousands of years. Impressive, hm? Such a nice village, so many nice people. Nobody can say he wasn’t thorough. Though, I should probably be thankful… after all, he saved my head from the imperial executor.”

He lifted wide eyes to me.

“You? You’re a criminal? And Alduin saved you?”

I snorted in disgust. Of course he thought that, he was basically an employee of the Empire that had tried to behead me, had been all his life. Of course he would think that imperial justice was infallible.

“Yes,” I spat, “and he also saved Ulfric. Alduin did a lot for Skyrim that day.”

“Ulfric?”

“Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm. The rebellion leader.”

“There’s a rebellion?” he gasped.

Gods, he was so oblivious. “More than that. A civil war. And that’s why we should get going. The folk living up there,” I pointed towards the ruins, “have made themselves pretty comfortable, with no regular forces keeping them in check.”

Was I cruel? Yes, I was, his terrified look proved it. I knew he had no idea what had happened outside of his cell during the last months and years. His head was so full of old stories that the last spark of common sense had probably fled ages ago.

What he had though were some very clear ideas about the Dragonborn. I wasn’t sure what he expected – a shining knight, someone like Martin Septim who didn’t hesitate a second to sacrifice himself, or perhaps even a reincarnation of Talos himself? That I didn’t fit his ideas – that was his problem, not mine.

When I left the road in search for a suitable camping place, he just stumbled after me and kept quiet. Heavenly quiet. I made a fire, placed his bedroll near it and handed him his rations without a single word from him. And then he slept, restless and uneasy, with little whimpers and suppressed cries while Snowback and I kept watch.

=======================================

“What do you think where we have to go now?”

I sighed. “Markarth, probably.”

His expression was dumbfounded, offended and angry at the same time, something only Esbern managed. “How did you know? Don’t you say you’ve read…”

“No, Esbern, no one has read your papers. It was just a lucky guess. Lately, I’ve travelled from Riverwood to Solitude to Riften and back to Riverwood. The next friggin’ farthest place to send me would be Markarth. And then off to Winterhold, probably.”

The divines bless Delphine’s diplomatic training, or Esbern and I would’ve killed each other. I was seething when we finally reached Riverwood after another day in Esbern’s company. The heavenly silence from his side was over as soon as he opened his eyes, but instead to complain directly, he went over to angry bickering that never addressed me personally, but was of course loud and clear enough not to be overheard. But I clenched my teeth and kept quiet.

My anger boiled ultimately over though when we entered the inn and his greeting was an immediate sulky lament about the outrageous treatment I had granted him. He and Delphine hadn’t seen each other for decades, they had been close friends and thought each other dead, and he had nothing better to do but to complain? Ungrateful jerk.

But Delphine just embraced him closely while sending me a small smile over his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Esbern,” she muttered, “it’s been too long since we met. Far too long. Good to see you safe and sound, friend.” Was that a moist sparkle in the eyes of this tough, disciplined woman?

She led the old man down into her study, and when he discovered the tomes and notes she had gathered through the years, all his anger was suddenly forgotten. He pitched into the little library like a sabrecat into a dead elk.

I sat a bit forlorn at the counter when she came back, giving me a lopsided smile.

“He’s exhausting, isn’t he?” Her face showed understanding. I just sighed.

“He drove me crazy. He had to object to everything I did and said. And he’s mean! I mean, really malicious. And I have no idea why. Perhaps because I don’t meet his expectations of a Dragonborn… but it’s a darned cheek how he treated me after I got him out of that rotten hole!”

She laughed at my indignation. “Yeah, I know how you feel. He’s treated me the same, when I was young and a new recruit at the Blades Academy. He was already a veteran back then, one of the most important scholars and archivists of our organisation. And even back then he had already a reputation of being a tiny bit insane, with the way he delved into certain matters. The dragon prophecies, for example. Perhaps he wasn’t insane, only visionary.”

“Insane or visionary, in any case he’s a jerk,” I muttered. Delphine laughed and poured us some drinks.

“You have to be patient with him, Qhourian. He’s an old man, and he’s dedicated his whole life to something that was never much more than a myth. It’s true, he isn’t interested in you as a person, but that’s because he’s not really interested in anybody, and I’m afraid the years in seclusion haven’t done much good to his… social competence. For him, you’re the Dragonborn, that’s all that matters, and of course you don’t meet his expectations. But he’ll get used to the thought. Don’t let him annoy you.”

I nodded slowly. “Okay. Just tell him to leave Snowback alone.” My eyes burned with exhaustion, and I couldn’t suppress a yawn. “You have a free room? I need some rest. I was forced to walk the whole way from Riften because your friend down there refused to take a bath, and then I stood watch the whole night to let him get some sleep.”

She grinned heartily. “You’re at least as stubborn as he, no wonder you clashed like that. I foresee a wonderful time together!”

We left Riverwood the next evening, but not before a long, boring lecture about the history of the Blades and their predecessors, the Akaviri Dragonguard, and a forgotten Blades outpost somewhere in the Reach. Esbern thought that he knew where it was exactly and hoped to find Alduin’s Wall there, some kind of archive where the Blades’ ancestors had preserved their accumulated dragon lore. If this archive was in fact a real wall or if we’d find something entirely different there, none of us knew. But it was the best clue we had in our search for something that would help against the Worldeater.

We separated for the first part of the journey. I still wasn’t willing to go anywhere near Whiterun, but I understood that Esbern needed to take a carriage to preserve his strength. After all, despite his impressive magical power, he was physically quite frail. But even more did I need a bit of time on my own and a break from any company, except Snowback’s of course. I found company, any kind of company, even if it was pleasant and self-sufficient increasingly tedious, and Esbern had nearly pushed me over the edge. Much easier to be responsible just for myself. I wasn’t used to look out for others any more, and I didn’t want to adapt to others’ habits and tempers. The two days with the old scholar had strained my nerves much more than I wanted to admit, and I knew that I had overreacted when I left him alone.

And of course my thoughts wandered back to the year before, to my travels with Farkas and Athis and the others, when I had never been alone. It was different back then… I had been different. I never felt like this with my shield-siblings, so tensed up, so irritable and vexed, although it was nearly impossible to find seclusion in Jorrvaskr. Of course we got into each other’s hair and nerves from time to time, but it never lasted long. The bonds were too tight, we relied on each other with our lives, after all.

And even if I shied away from admitting it to myself – I missed it. I missed to be able to rely on someone else, missed someone having my back.

I had put this time behind me, but with my current habit of travelling criss-cross through the province it was probably merely a matter of time until my path would cross the one of the Companions again.

The thought of that encounter made me cringe. There was no way to brace myself for it, no way to prepare. I had no idea if they knew what had happened, what Vilkas had told them – but certainly not the truth. It would be awkward at best and horribly humiliating at worst. All I could do was to try to evade them as long as possible. And accept that it was over, that there was no way back. I could rely only on myself.

The hike through the pine forests of Falkreath Hold and along the shores of Lake Ilinalta calmed my nerves. Spring was really close now, a sharp, invigorating tang in the air that spoke of new life, of an awakening, but it would still take some weeks until the snow would be gone, plants would start to sprout and the wildlife would be back. Only some rogue mages in a half sunken fort at the lake caused us some trouble, but they stopped chasing us when I gained enough distance. As much as I wanted to rid the area of them, there wasn’t time to fight now.

I met with the Blades at Old Hroldan, a lonely inn near the road to Markarth. If Esbern’s predictions were correct, Sky Haven Temple wasn’t far and lay secluded enough to be reachable only on foot.

But if I thought I could keep to myself and retreat early into my room, I was wrong. For a change, Esbern asked me personally to join them for the evening meal, and when we had finished and he asked Delphine to bring drinks for all of us, I knew this wasn’t meant to be just a relaxing evening with acquaintances.

“Whatever you have to say… get over with it,” I said when Delphine was back.

Esbern’s gaze came to rest on me, strangely grave. “What do you know about Alduin? And about the prophecy that announces his return?”

The question caught me off guard, and the way he asked it, with cold, patient pretension, let me become defensive immediately.

“He’s a badass bastard of a dragon. The oldest of them all, made by Akatosh himself. Or so he claims. He’s called the Worldeater, because… well, because he’s gonna eat the world, I suppose. Without chewing, probably.” I snickered at the metaphor. He was big, but not that big, of course.

Esbern rolled his eyes. “Delphine, have you taught her nothing? Supposed to eat the world?”

The woman just smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you, Esbern. I’m sure your explanations will be much more elaborate than mine.”

He fetched a book from his knapsack, bound in black leather, with a silver, stylised dragon on its cover, well-thumbed and worn. I knew it, the Book of the Dragonborn, Farengar had another copy. It had been one of the first books he had given me to read after the dragon at the watchtower.

And I remembered that it had been underwhelming. A treatise about the covenant between Akatosh and St. Alessia and the Dragonborns of the past, about the lines of Emperors that had been like me, that it could be hereditary or not – of course it wasn’t, at least not always, I was pretty sure that none of my ancestors had been Dragonborn before. And only a short, vacuous paragraph about what it meant to be Dragonborn, more assumptions than facts and concluded by the obscure lines of the “Prophecy of the Dragonborn”, incomprehensible like all prophecies.

But now Esbern skimmed pensively to the last page and read it aloud.

When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world
When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped
When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles
When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne, and the White Tower falls
When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding
The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn.

When he was finished, his gaze was stern and piercing, nothing left of his frantic, enervating behaviour.

“You know what this means?”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “No. No idea.”

He leant back in his chair, the book lying open between us.

“We don’t know where this prophecy comes from, and in the end, it’s not important. All that matters is that it has come true. Line for line, every single prediction. The usurpation of Jagar Tharn, the return of Numidium, the fall of the Tribunal, the Oblivion Crisis and, finally, the war raging in Skyrim. The Snow Tower lies kingless and bleeding.”

He closed the book with a slow motion, as if he didn’t need it any more. “And the Word-Eater has awoken.” He looked at me with burning intensity. “Do you know what the last line means? The Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn?

I swallowed heavily. “That I’m the last? That… the world won’t need a Dragonborn any more when this is over?”

A tiny smile quirked his lips. “Correct. In every case. If you succeed… the dragons will be gone. And if you fail…” He rubbed his palm over his face and fell quiet.

Delphine shifted in her seat, an unhappy frown on her face. “Esbern. Get it out.”

“What happens when I fail?” I asked in a whisper.

Esbern took a deep breath. “Akatosh is the god of time. He has made time, and Alduin – his firstborn, or son, or aspect – has been here since its dawn. And now he is here to end it. He will stop this circle of time and start a new one.” He was withdrawn deep into himself, deep into the knowledge he had gathered throughout his lifetime.

“Alduin is doom. What we see now, his return, the rising of his brethren, all the destruction and death they cause… all this is only an overture to what is to come. An attunement. He feeds on the souls of us mortals to strengthen his power, on the souls of the living, and on the souls of the dead. But all this is only preparation for his final assault.”

He became quiet while his words slowly crushed into my mind, a force like a mountain delving into the sea, overwhelming, drowning me in their meaning. But he wasn’t even finished.

“And if he prevails… it means the end of it all, annihilation, completely and irreversible. Nirn will cease to exist if he succeeds. Nothing will be left. He’s the dragon from the dawn of time, returning now at its dusk. He is the dusk of time, and it will cease to exist when he’s finished with us.”

I found myself locked in his eyes, bright and clear, his gaze seething with curiosity, a question and a challenge at the same time. He challenged me to understand.

This wasn’t just about the end of the dragons. The end of the murdering, of burnt farms and scorched corpses and ruined villages. It wasn’t even about the end of Skyrim. This was about the end everything, the end of Nirn, the end of time, the end of eternity.

The sudden understanding clenched my chest with a force that stopped my breathing, the comprehension of everything I had learned during the last months. Farengar had told me, the Greybeards had told me, Delphine and Esbern had told me. They had prepared me. But it had taken until now for me to understand.

Alduin was doom, and I was the one to stop him. No one but me.

It was impossible, too much for one person alone. It was too much for me. I didn’t doubt Esbern’s words, not for a second. I knew he was right, and a barrage of questions ran in a maelstrom of blinding panic through my brain. Who carved the destiny of a mortal? Who had decided to put that burden on me? Who was responsible? I wanted a culprit, and I wanted to run away.

Only that I couldn’t. Not with the fate of the world on my shoulders.

Self-pity, rejection, hopelessness, despair. And fear, most of all fear, sharp and biting. It washed over me, poured like acid through my veins and into the depths of my being, erased everything else. The purest, sharpest sting of fear, slicing my soul into tiny bits ready to be fed to the Worldeater, drowning everything in the darkness to come.

“Qhourian…”

Delphine’s whisper beside me was barely audible as I sat slumped together in my chair, my face hidden in my palms. Qhourian. That was me, wasn’t it? Only a mortal girl, child of a hunter, former whore, fugitive, prisoner, mercenary and outcast. Former daughter, sister, lover, friend and enemy. And now?

I had taken lives, saved lives and changed lives, more than I could count, more than I’d ever know. It was my action, and my action alone. No destiny, no dragonsoul, just me and my decisions. I had done it to survive, because I wanted to survive. Because I liked to live, I wanted to live, despite all the pain and fear and sorrow this life had brought me. There was still more, and I liked this world I lived in.

If I wanted the world to survive, first of all I’d have to save myself.

Let’s have a test. A test of your confidence, which will also be proof of our confidence in you.

The memory of Arngeir’s words kindled the tiny spark of resolve left under the flood. I had passed that test.

You are Ysmir now, the Dragon of the North.

Yes, I was Ysmir, the Last Dragonborn, in a line with St. Alessia, Talos and Martin Septim, prophesied eras ago. But I was more than that, and most of all a girl that wanted to live. I had to save myself, and I had to believe in myself.

One step at a time. If I wanted to survive, never more than one step at a time.

When we left the inn next morning, I was tired out and wide awake at the same time, full of anticipation. Something hard had formed in my chest, a coil of determination I could hold on to, desperate and aching and still something I knew I could rely on.

All that counted now was Alduin’s Wall. The next step.

=======================================

“Shor’s Bones, that’s a lot of them…” Delphine muttered. We lay flat behind a rock above a cave entrance that we hoped would give access to Sky Haven Temple, and the camp below us was buzzing with the activity of people. Very strange people in a kind of armour I had never seen before and exotic headdresses made of fur, fangs and antlers. It looked like some kind of tribal garb.

“Forsworn,” Delphine whispered, answering my questioning look. “They’re some kind of… partisan group. They… their people, the Reachmen had a little kingdom here 25 years ago, but only for a couple of years until Ulfric Stormcloak drove them out of Markarth and freed the Reach for the Empire. You see,” she pointed to a group of warriors below us, “they’re no Nords, and they fight for the independence of their land and their people. Not sure what they hate more, the Empire or Ulfric.”

Delphine was a wandering encyclopedia, and I was sure she could have lectured me for hours about the history of the Reach and its natives. I had heard about the Forsworn, but only as a special breed of bandits unique to Skyrim’s far west. Nothing did I know about the history of this people, that it was a people of its own at all, and how closely it was intertwined with our own. But now wasn’t the time to study them further; they blocked our way to the temple, and it didn’t seem they’d let us pass friendly.

“If it were only the two of us, I’d say we wait till night to sneak inside. But that won’t work with Esbern, so I’m afraid we’ll have to fight our way in. And after all, we’ll have to get out again as well.”

I nodded. “Let’s get going.”

We had left Esbern – and Snowback as his guard – down at the road, but when we told him about the upcoming fight, he was eager to start right away. “Yes, let’s get this scum out of the way. Don’t want to wait any longer!”

Delphine gave him a sharp glance. “They’re no scum, Esbern. They’ve lived here for ages and have the same rights on the land as the Nords. It’s a shame they have to live like this.” She looked up the steep path towards the camp. “And it’s a shame we have to fight at all. I wish we could reclaim the temple without a bloodbath, but it won’t be possible.”

She looked concerned, but then she straightened herself and nodded at me.

“It won’t be easy, they’re known to be capable fighters, and they know terrible magic. Have you ever fought a hagraven?”

My eyes shot wide. “Yes.”

She nodded contently. “We have to expect at least one. They’re… dunno, it seems they have a pact, the hags and the Forsworn. They’re their matriarchs, and they use their magic… pretty terrifying. Anyway, I’d prefer to lure them out of their camp, far too much cover inside with all the barricades and huts.”

“There’s a bottleneck on the path up there, we can use that. Esbern can hide between the rocks above and throw his fireballs from there, so we don’t have to protect him.”

Unfortunately, it became indeed a slaughter. Our tactic to lure them out was more than successful, and I wondered why. If they really were some kind of guerilla force, they should know how to make use of the terrain they operated in. But perhaps they were just too certain of their superiority when only the arrows of two archers felled their guards, or the derogatory term Madmen of the Reach wasn’t entirely unjustified.

We had prepared our trap well, with rockfalls and a secure hiding place for Esbern. It also helped that their armours were more a sign of their affiliation than real protection. Delphine and I only had to go into melee when some of their warriors started to climb the steep slope, but they were easy to dispatch from our higher ground.

The camp was full of deadly silence when we finally entered. Apart from the staked animal heads all over the place which threw eerie long shadows in the evening sun, it looked like an utterly normal settlement – sturdy huts, sparsely furnished, cooking stations and camp-fires, a training area and a forge.

The cave entrance didn’t lead directly to the temple, though, and Esbern let out a relieved sigh when we discovered that the Forsworn had only occupied the first chambers. Most of them had joined the fight outside and were already dead, and my dragonfire made short work of the hagraven and the small group of fighters guarding her.

Deeper in the tunnels, traps and puzzles blocked our way, all of them ancient and all of them construed around the idea of the Dragonborn. Esbern had fallen into a state of frantic agitation as soon as we entered the cave, all frailness and exhaustion forgotten, and the carvings on the wall fascinated him to no end. Every sign, every sculpture, every relief had to be examined closely, and he identified the different construction phases of the whole complex easily. When he stood in front of a large wall full of ancient scribbles for minutes, mumbling his insights into his scruffy grey beard, Delphine finally grabbed his wrist and dragged him along.

“You can come back later, Esbern, now let’s find Alduin’s Wall. That’s why we’re here, aren’t we?”

The last room of the cave was adorned and sealed by a huge stone face that seemed to look directly into my heart. And in Delphine’s, and in Esbern’s. His eyes grew wide.

“Renan Cyrodiil! Look how the old Blades revered him.” He approached the carving tentatively.

“And here it is. The old Akaviri magic.” He pointed to a twisted circular pattern on the floor. “Look here, Dragonborn. This is the blood seal that will open the entrance to the temple. Renan Cyrodiil has consecrated it, and your blood will open it again. Your blood and nothing else.”

Of course. The strange, desperate determination that had only hardened since our conversation the evening before, it woke with new vigour when I knelt down in the seal and drew my dagger. A swift stroke over my wrist, a drop of blood trickling to the floor and could feel it come to life, something changing in the stone under my knees and all around me, like a breeze without a source. The sound of stone scraping on stone marked the opening of the entrance to Sky Haven Temple.

It was indeed a wall. An enormous wall, spanning the whole long side of the main hall, covered in carvings to tell the story of the Dragon Wars, the Dragonguard and the Dragonborn prophecy. Its magnificence was visible even in the dim light falling in from above, and as soon as we entered, Esbern didn’t waste any more time. Delphine’s amused grin showed that she had heard his excited squeal as well.

While we followed him slowly in the sparse light of our torches, he already tampered around in front of the wall, looking at certain details, then taking back a few steps to admire it in its entirety.

“It’s really Alduin’s Wall, there’s no doubt! And so remarkably well preserved! This must be the finest example of second era Akaviri sculptural relief still existent today…”

Delphine laid a hand on his shoulder to stop his pacing. “Easy, Esbern. At the moment we need information, not a lecture on art history. How about you start at the beginning?”

He calmed down a bit, then gestured us over to the far end of the panel.

“Of course, of course. Let’s start here.” He looked closely at the first part and seemed a bit astonished.

“I must confess, it’s much less cryptic and metaphorical than I had feared. Well, for me at least. You wouldn’t understand much of it, probably.” He shook his head, deep in thought. He just stated a fact.

“Look here, this is the beginning, with Alduin and his Dragon Cult ruling over Skyrim. It was his first betrayal against Akatosh, his attempt to conquer Nirn for himself and his brethren.”

Now I was also able to see that the whole relief was split in several sections, like chapters of a story. A firebreathing dragon loomed threateningly over tiny men, partly riding on horses, partly lying crumpled on the ground, more smaller dragons circling above them.

“And the Dragon War, the rebellion of mortals – of mankind – against their dragon overlords. It is said it was only Akatosh’s – or Kynareth’s – intervention who brought the knowledge of the dragon speech to mortals, the only weapon against their oppressors. But still men fell by the thousands until the dragons and their cult were finally overcome.”

He took a step back, holding his torch above his head. His eyes gleamed like in a fever as he pointed at the centre of the panel.

“This is the centre. The turning point, Alduin’s defeat. But first…” He beckoned to the last third of the relief. “The prophecy. Here… the Oblivion gate. The Red Mountain. It’s all here. See… the sons of Skyrim, fighting each other. They knew, and they understood.” He became quiet for a moment, then pulled himself together. His finger touched a man in Akaviri armour who faced the dragon, but he looked sternly at me. “And this… this is the end. This is now. The hero who will face the Worldeater at the end of times. This is you, Dragonborn.”

The Akaviri of old had pictured a man, a mighty hero larger than life, people bowing before him, facing Alduin straight on with nothing but a sword and a shield and his voice.

No, this wasn’t me. I didn’t give him an answer, didn’t react to his challenge, and after a few seconds of searching my face curiously, Esbern turned to the middle part again.

“Let’s come to the crucial parts. Look here, this is Alduin again, but this time he’s falling from the sky. For us, this is the most important scene of all. Let’s see…”

He knelt in front of the wall, beckoned us to come closer, his frantic agitation back. The outlines of the figures seemed to move in the flickering light. I could feel the impatience in Delphine, but she didn’t dare to disturb the old scholar’s concentration.

“Look here,” he pointed at an array of men at the bottom of the panel, “these are the ancient Nord heroes, lined up against their arch enemy. The Nord Tongues, Masters of the Voice. And this,” his arms formed a huge circle over the upper part, “this is Alduin in the moment he’s defeated. Perhaps the most important moment in Nord history.” He looked at the wall in deep reverence.

Delphine cleared her throat. “And…?”

Esbern turned to her. “And… what?”

I interfered. “Esbern… does it show how they defeated him?”

For a moment, he looked utterly confused. “Oh… yes, of course, does it? Just a moment, gimme just a moment…” he muttered.

After some seconds, he pointed excited to a certain, unremarkable ornament. “Here! Here it is! Oh, you can’t read it, of course you can’t, but this is the old Akaviri symbol for Shout. They used a Shout!”

He turned to us, his face shining with triumph. I sighed. Heavily and from the bottom of my heart. He was kidding, wasn’t he? But his features showed that he was dead serious. Delphine looked as if she wanted to explode.

“Esbern… once more, very slowly… do you say this scene shows that they used a Shout to defeat Alduin?”

“Yes! Yes, of course! It’s incredible, isn’t it?”

Her voice pitched at least an octave. “And what in Oblivion did you think they would use to defeat him, those Nord Tongues, those Masters of the Voice? Pebbles?

Esbern’s face showed absolute lack of understanding why she yelled at him – the whole situation was so ridiculous, I couldn’t help but break into hysterical laughter. We had found the most important cultural treasure of Nord history, if not of all of Tamriel, and it helped us… nothing. Absolutely nothing. A Shout!

Only when I cringed with a hiccup and tears flowed down my cheeks, Esbern seemed to realise that his excitement was a bit… premature. But I had to ask him nevertheless, breathless and between waves of giggles.

“Esbern… please… does this wall give us any hint which Shout they used? Any at all? Or is all of this just another of Akatosh’s hilarious jests? By the gods, in the next world he can easily do Sanguine’s job!”

His indignant look just caused another outbreak of laughter.

“Of course this is no joke! A bit more respect, please! Now we only have to find out which Shout they used!”

“Yes, because that’s so easy. Do you know how many I know already, and I’m just a bloody amateur? Do you have any idea how many they must have known?” I pointed at the tiny carved figures. Esbern seemed to collapse.

“But… but it must be something specific to Alduin! After all, this is Alduin’s Wall, the archive of everything related to his downfall!” He seemed desperate. I wished for his sake the ancient Nords had been a bit more thorough in their filing of the really important facts.

“No, I don’t think so. Look, Shouts don’t grow on trees. The Shouts I use, the ones those guys here used and the ones the dragons use are all the same. They are dragon speech. Can you give me a single sensible reason why the dragons should create a specific Shout to kill their master?”

While Esbern and I argued Delphine showed her practical side, put torches into every holder mounted on the walls and pulled some food out of her pack. Now she called us over to the long stone table.

“Let’s have a break, you two. I’m sure we will come up with something, later. Here,” she filled some ancient silver goblets with a golden liquid, “Firebrand wine. I brought it only to celebrate this moment.”

I grabbed a piece of bread and some cheese. “Thank you, Delphine. Though it doesn’t seem there’s much to celebrate yet.”

“Oh, I disagree! We’re all alive, we found the Wall, and we found an excellent hideout to start rebuilding the Blades. If you ask me, that’s more than enough reason.” Her smile was a bit lopsided, but she cheered me up nevertheless.

Esbern didn’t eat, and even less did he drink. Instead he rummaged through his pack, tore out papers and notes and books. Soon he was enwrapped in a huge tome, flipping back and forth through the pages as if he searched something special. I eyed him curiously, and it didn’t take long until the triumphant grin came back to his face.

“Here,” he screamed, poking a certain page, “I knew there was something we overlooked. I overlooked, to be precise, because of course you can’t overlook something you don’t even know it exists.” He took a deep breath.

“This is a treatise about the Dragon Wars, written by Torhal Bjorik. Most of it is irrelevant, but listen to this:

When the populace rebelled, the dragon priests retaliated. When the dragon priests could not collect the tribute or control the masses, the dragons’ response was swift and brutal. So it was the Dragon War began.

At first, men died by the thousands. The ancient texts reveal that a few dragons took the side of men. Why they did this is not known.

Ha! You see? Some dragons fought with us mortals against their master! Too bad these ancient texts he refers to have been lost, but one of these renegades must have made this specific shout to defeat Alduin!”

This was new, but it didn’t mean it was any less crazy. I rubbed my eyes. “Perhaps, yes. So my next step will be to go out there and find a friendly Dragon? Wouldn’t it be much easier to start simply a second Dragon War and convince some of those Alduin has already revived to make me an new Shout to drop him?”

Goodbye, Nirn, it was nice to have known you.

Delphine frowned at me. “Don’t get silly, Qhourian. This isn’t funny.”

Oh yes, it was. Incredibly funny. I was sure the gods cracked themselves up about us. But she still tried to make sense of all this insanity.

“Esbern’s probably right that there has been a specific Shout to defeat Alduin, or it wouldn’t have been explicitly mentioned on the wall. None of us knows anything about such a special Shout. I really hoped not to have to involve them into this, but my only clue now are the Greybeards.”

Her scornful frown surprised me. It was a good idea. It was the only idea. And she didn’t have to climb the 7000 steps.

“What do you have against the Greybeards?”

She shot me an irritated glance. “Nothing effective, unfortunately. No, they’re just… a bunch of old men sitting on their mountain and caring a shit if the world collapses around them. They and their cowardly Way of the Voice… they have the power, but they always let others do the bloody work.” She breathed heavily, clearly agitated. “I tell you, they won’t be of much help now either unless you force them. They’ve done nothing yet, nothing to stop Alduin, nothing to stop the damned war. They just hide up there and listen to the sky.”

“But Delphine, that’s not true. They recognised me as Dragonborn. And they taught me, they trained me. I would know nothing without the Greybeards!”

She crossed her arms over her chest, looking as if she couldn’t believe I was so ignorant. “Of course they recognised you, they had to if they wanted to gain influence on the Dragonborn! Don’t be so naïve, Qhourian… they’re scared of you. They’re afraid you could use your powers. Did they tell you what your destiny is? Did they tell you anything about Alduin or the prophecy? No? No, of course not, and not because they don’t know, but because they don’t want you to know. They don’t want you to use your power for a cause they in their endless wisdom have decided to be wrong.”

Her disgust was obvious, and it seemed to be something she didn’t want to argue about. But although Arngeir had in fact warned me not to use my powers unjustly, I had the feeling I had to defend them. And myself. “Perhaps they have a point. Power can be abused. And it’s so easy to make mistakes… What if I fail? What if I make the wrong decisions?”

Her face became softer. “You won’t fail, Qhourian. Everybody in your shoes had to learn to use his power. Those that didn’t… nobody remembers them. There’s always a choice, and there’s always a risk. But the worst you can do is doing nothing.”

I wouldn’t do nothing. No matter how high the stakes were… I had come too far to give up now. And despite Delphine’s accusations, the thought of another visit to High Hrothgar was appealing. I could use a bit of quiet now. Time and silence to come back to myself.

But Skyhaven Temple was a far too interesting place to leave immediately, and although Esbern didn’t seem to like it at all that I rummaged through ancient Blades’ propriety, I explored it thoroughly. Delphine was right, it was the perfect hideout for her organisation, in its seclusion and perfect state of preservation.

When I found the old weaponry and armoury, located deep in the bowels of the temple, it looked as if the last Blades had only left a few hours prior. At least a dozen of the distinctive armours, unmistakably the same type the people on Alduin’s Wall wore, were neatly seated on their poles, and dozens of the slightly curved typical Akaviri blades and their corresponding shields were mounted on the walls. A single sword caught my attention. It was the most beautiful weapon I had ever seen, glittering with a faint magic, blade and hilt inlaid with plain ornaments from pure gold, the grip itself smooth from ages of use. Only the leather wrapping had to be renewed.

“What is this, Delphine? Looks like something special.”

The woman’s eyes grew wide like saucers when I presented the weapon to her. She took it from my hands reverently, caressed the hilt like an old friend. Then she looked at me with a warm smile.

“That’s Dragonbane, Qhourian. The legendary weapon of old, the blade countless Dragonborns have wielded before you. It has its name for a reason, no weapon is as effective against dragons as this one. I can’t believe it’s been kept here. Everybody thought it’s been lost with the sacking of the White Gold Tower.”

She handed the weapon back to me.

“Take it, Dragonborn, it’s yours by right.”

The sword in its simple leather scabbard nestled against my hip as if it belonged there. I’d have to learn to use it efficiently, the long blade so different from the short sword I was used to, but I was glad to take it.

“I will make good use of it, Delphine. Promised.”

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