Eyes on the Future: 14. Duty-Bound

eotf_14_duty-bound“Dovahkiin,” Paarthurnax greeted me, and his voice rang over the mountain as if he aimed to be heard down in Ivarstead. He sat on top of his wall as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn’t moved for weeks and waited for me. Perhaps he had.

I was sore and tired from the way up, but the physical ache was numbed by the determination to get the answers I needed.

“What now, Paarthurnax?” I asked, passing over the greeting, and my voice was steady, although hoarse from the shouting. “Where is he? Is he in Sovngarde?” Alduin’s taunts were clear in my memory, how he mocked us with the many strong souls he had fed on.

The ancient dragon didn’t answer immediately, and he sat motionless on his outlook above me, his gaze directed over my head and into the distance. Somehow, he looked… old instead of ancient. Different. Tired.

Finally he started to speak. “I do not know, Dovahkiin. Sovngarde is his feasting ground, he hunts there to gather his strength. But if he is there now and how he gets there… only his closest allies will know. But you have the true voice of a Dovah. You can ask them.”

Ask a dragon, of course. One of Alduin’s allies. Very helpful. The scorn on my face must have been evident, for he finally deigned to bend his head down to my eyelevel.

“One of his allies? Don’t play with me, Paarthurnax. I need answers, not more riddles.”

“You have shaken their loyalty, Dovahkiin,” he said. “Your krongrah… your victory here…”

The deep growl that formed in my throat made him stop. “Don’t you dare! Nothing that happened here can be called victory! We lost, and Alduin escaped!”

The dragon didn’t answer, and his features gave no hint of his thoughts, but I knew he disagreed. When his legs tensed and he rose into the sky I thought he’d fly away and leave me behind, but he just circled the peak, roaring at the clouds in mournful words I didn’t understand. Powerful flaps of his wings held him on the wind, and when he landed directly in front of me in a powdery cloud of snow, his breath hot on my face, he didn’t look old any more. Ancient, wise… and patient, and he locked my gaze in the unreadable depths of his eyes in an effort to make me understand.

“You still live, and that makes it a victory. Not even the heroes of old were able to defeat Alduin in open battle. But you still live, and he had to flee – despite his pahlok – his arrogance that always made him take domination as his birthright. You won, and his allies will think twice now.”

I stood before him with gritted teeth and balled fists, shaking from his words. To think of this fight as a triumph over the Worldeater… it nearly broke through my shell. It was an accident that I still lived, and most of all – it wasn’t worth the price I had paid. It could never be worth it.

Paarthurnax’ fangs opened again only inches from my face, I felt his voice rumbling through my stomach. “It was a victory not only because you live, Dovahkiin. That you came back here… it’s your true prevalence. He could not break you. You’re stronger than Alduin.”

It was his acknowledgement of what had happened that made me choke, that let me make a step back, away from his presence. He had no idea. The way he made everything that had happened here look as if it was part of a greater plan made me sick.

I didn’t know if I was stronger than Alduin. But he was right – I would try, go on and find out.

“How do I find one of his allies? And how do I make him help?”

“It will not be easy to convince one of them to betray their master.” His intense gaze watched me as if he was curious for my reaction.

“Whiterun, Dovahkiin. The hofkahsejun – the palace of the Jarl. Dragonsreach. It was built to house a captive dovah, to serve as a trap for one of my brethren. Ask the Jarl about Numinex. Convince him to use it again. “

Whiterun, where I never wanted to return. Where I knew that scents, voices and faces would haunt me.

I closed my eyes, tried to force back the images of Jorrvaskr and Breezehome, of Dragonsreach’s silhouette against the horizon, the Skyforge, the Mare and the Gildergreen and all the familiar faces that awaited me there. The pity, sympathy and curiosity I’d have to endure, the questions they would have. There was the skull of a dragon, hanging on the wall above the Jarl’s throne. I never asked for its meaning, but I remembered it. It was all that mattered now.

“And who?” I managed to force the question through gritted teeth. At least Paarthurnax had this answer as well.

“Odahviing, the Winged Hunter in the Snow. Alduin’s right hand… in fact, my successor in this position. He’s prideful, belligerent and curious… he will not refuse the challenge, not if you call him. And he is close enough to his master to see his weakness clearly and lead you to him.”

He taught me his knowledge of the Words that formed the dragon’s name, the knowledge I’d need to call him from wherever he was. And he made me another gift after urging me to sit down in front of him, between his huge body and the wall. Again I felt the subtle warmth that radiated from him.

“Steel yourself, Dovahkiin,” he said and inhaled in the unique way that could only be followed by a Shout. But it wasn’t the fire blast I expected.

“FUS.” It was nearly a whisper, a hiss, his tongue curling behind the impressive fangs in front of my face, and I felt the force in my stomach and in my bones, the sound itself resounding through my skull. Of course I knew the Word, but now it felt different. I felt the strength behind and its power, able to turn the world upside down if used in the right way.

Paarthurnax lowered himself onto his belly when the sensation had ebbed away.

“This is the force to push the world aside, Dovahkiin. Think of how it may be applied effortlessly, imagine only a whisper pushing aside all in its path. That’s FUS. Let its meaning fill you. Su’um ahrk morah. You will push the world harder than it pushes back.”

I slept where I was, on top of the world and under the shelter of the ancient dragon, and I learned how to push the world away when necessary.

To sit in Breezehome at the cold fireplace, the house damp and dusty after all these weeks and with all those reminders in my view – Farkas’ soft leather boots still standing below the hook where his cloak used to hang, all the things we had bought in Windhelm together, the pole with his wolf armour in the corner and his favourite mug standing on the sideboard, ready to be used again, his scent still wafting through the silent rooms – and to ponder over the politics I had to get involved in now… it was surreal.

The contrast between what I had wanted for my life, what I had worked for and we had dreamt of and what I had gotten in the end couldn’t have been greater. And it had something strangely ironic.

I was detached from my surroundings, looked at the things around me with a cold distance that was astonishing even for myself. “Never submit,” I whispered to myself, and the pain stayed where it was, buried deep inside where even I couldn’t reach it any more.

The Jarl didn’t outright refuse my plea to let me trap a dragon in his palace. It took a lot of convincing and some argumentative help from Farengar, but in the end he took the old tale of the dragon Numinex who had been held captive in Dragonsreach seriously, and he understood the seriousness of my request.

As I understood his objections. He was the Jarl, and he would not weaken his city by luring a dragon into its heart while under the threat of an enemy attack. So far, he had managed to remain neutral in the civil war, and while this stance on the conflict had certainly contributed to Whiterun’s position as the thriving centre of Skyrim, it had also led to the result that both leaders regarded him as a traitor now, and his city as a prize still to score.

And now it was my job to convince Ulfric Stormcloak and General Tullius to leave Whiterun alone while I made sure that they still had a future to spend with their silly war.

When I asked Jarl Balgruuf which faction he considered the greater danger, he didn’t hesitate for a moment with his answer.

“That’s easy,” he laughed mirthlessly, “the biggest danger is Ulfric. We know each other far too long and far too good, and especially because we have a history together, he will never forgive that I don’t take his side. And for him, everybody who isn’t for his cause is automatically against him. I expect him to try to take Whiterun, even sooner than later. Of course he has his… contacts in my city, and he would jump at the chance in an instant.”

Jarl Ulfric. My own history with him was short and unpleasant. He had forgotten me once, but certainly not a second time. I knew I’d need assistance to convince him to leave Whiterun alone for the time being, and Balgruuf’s remark about his contacts gave me an idea whom to ask. For once, the everlasting family feud in the heart of the city would perhaps prove to be useful.

On my way out of Dragonsreach, I had asked a patrolling guard to send word to Jorrvaskr and ask Vignar Grey-Mane to visit me in Breezehome. He had given me an odd look, as if questioning why I didn’t go myself, but in the end he remained quiet and complied.

I didn’t have to wait for long. What I didn’t expect was the loud, furious pounding against my door. This wasn’t Vignar.

I didn’t want to speak with Vilkas, but he was hard to ignore. When he started to shout at me from outside – “Open the fucking door! Now!” – I let him in without a word.

To see him standing at the doorstep, clad in his wolf armour again and seething with anger and sadness, to look into this face… I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth so violently that I heard them grind against each other. I could deal with old boots and tankards and discarded armours… to deal with people was harder, much harder. And to deal with Vilkas was perhaps the hardest of all.

“I asked for Vignar, not you,” I said and turned away from him, sat down again at the cold firepit.

The door was kicked shut with a bang.

“Where have you been?” he shouted in boiling fury, “you disappeared! Without a word and without a trace! We worried, dammit!” He paced with wide steps through the room, his steel boots battering the floorboards like his gauntlet had battered against the door. As if he thought the noise he made would bring back life into the house.

I avoided to look at him. “Not your business, Vilkas.”

This made him stop dead. I didn’t have to look at his face to feel the rage and bewilderment radiating from him.

“Not… my… business?” he snarled, “not my business? When my sister-in-law loses her husband and vanishes for weeks and nobody knows if she’s dead as well, it’s not my business?” His fist crushed with so much force against the mantlepiece of the fireplace that small pieces of mortar fell down and stirred the cold ash into tiny clouds of dust. “We held his funeral! Without you! What did you think? We have waited and waited, and no one knew where you are and if you still live and if we have to burn two bodies in the end, and… Shor’s mercy!” He spun around. “You bitch! Why weren’t you here? Why are you…”

“Shut up!”

His mouth stood open. The sudden silence roared through my ears. Now I looked at him, took in the familiar armour, his unpainted, cleanly shaven face and the deep, dark fury in his gaze. It only concealed the hollowness in him.

My voice was calm. “You know where I’ve been. You, of all people, should know best.” To see his face contort in horror evoked a trace of cruel satisfaction. “Who cares if I was here? He’s dead. I failed when he needed me most, and now he’s gone. Forever.”

The quiet was eerie. Vilkas propped his arm against the masonry and hid his face in the crook of his arm. I wanted him to go, but I didn’t have the strength to throw him out. When he finally turned to me, he moved like an old man, as if every muscle strained against the motion.

“Yes,” he rasped, “that’s what I thought. That it’s your fault. That he would still live if I had been more thorough.” Silent regret lingered in his voice. But then he made a step towards me, holding my gaze. “I wanted to believe that you killed him, but it’s not true. I’ve spoken with Arngeir… It’s not your fault. He told me what happened. That Alduin killed him and how he found you when the dragon called them for help.”

My breath hitched. This nearly broke through my shell. He had been the one to bring his brother’s corpse home. Of all people, it had to be Vilkas. I couldn’t think about what he had found there, the mangled body in the ice-cold, dark little chamber where I had left him behind.

I shoved the image away as Vilkas hunched down in front of me, stretching out his hand as if he expected me to take it – or as if he needed something to hold on to. But I was the wrong person to ask. “Come home, Qhouri. We’ve waited for you.”

He would always be a pathetic bastard.

It was ironic, only a few weeks ago I had to convince him to come home with me. Now he tried the same with me, but I shook my head, crossing my arms over my chest. “I am home, and I won’t stay anyway. There’s work to be done. I don’t have the time to…”

I didn’t know how to finish the sentence. To dawdle? To mourn? To plunge into the comfort the companionship of my siblings could provide? To share their sorrow? It would just make it harder for us all, we would only remind each other constantly of my failure and of the loss we had all suffered. They would take care of each other. They would even take care of him.

But it all seemed so far away, so long ago, too far and too long to affect me any more. I couldn’t afford to care.

I buried my forehead in my palms, my thumbs rubbing my temples. “Leave me alone, Vilkas. I only need to talk to Vignar.”

But he didn’t move, and I felt his stare on me. “You don’t give up, do you? You still hunt him?”

No, I wouldn’t give up, no matter how tired I felt. “Failure is not an option. Your words, remember? I’ve already proven otherwise, but I should at least try to get the job done.”

“And you’re gonna do it alone.”

“No one else around who could,” I answered with a mirthless grin, “and I won’t drag anyone else into this madness. I’ll sacrifice no one else.”

A dark scowl settled on his face, and beneath the sorrow and anger lingered something sinister.

“But you’re gladly gonna sacrifice yourself. And your child. His child, all that’s left of my brother.”

He was deliberately cruel, trying to hurt me, trying to find release for his own pain that he hid behind anger and malice, but his cruelty didn’t reach me. His eyes locked into mine, a duel of darkness, sorrow and hate, and for a single moment we understood each other. But it was nothing we could have shared.

“Not gladly, but I will if I have to, yes. And now go.”

I had to chase him away if he didn’t go on his own. He wasn’t obliged to me, and the only one who had connected us was dead.

When I broke away from his gaze, blindly staring at my feet, I heard him rise. He left silently, and I only looked up when the door clapped and he was gone.

“How good do you know Ulfric Stormcloak, Vignar?” I asked and earned the most surprised face I had ever seen on the old Companion.

But he wasn’t only a Companion, he was also the patron of the Grey-Mane family, the staunchest and most open supporter of the Stormcloak rebellion in all of Whiterun. I had rescued his nephew from the Thalmor, and I hoped he’d help me now with my problem.

“Well,” he drawled as if not sure how to answer, “I know him, of course…”

“Please, Vignar. Everybody knows that you Grey-Manes are his eyes and ears here in Whiterun. Believe me, I don’t care. I just need to know how good you know him… personally.”

The long tips of the man’s moustache quivered like the ones of a horker. “Well enough, I suppose.”

“Well enough to give him advice? Well enough that he listens to you?”

Now I had woken his curiosity. “What’s the matter, Qhourian? Do you need to get in contact with him? Don’t forget, you’re a Companion. No politics.”

He showed me a small smirk. From all the people I had met in the city so far, he seemed the least changed. Perhaps he had seen too much death and too much sorrow in his life, but he was one of the few people who seemed to accept the fact that even for me, life had to go on. I was thankful for his dry, unsentimental attitude.

“It’s not about politics. It’s about the dragon business.” I took a deep breath. “You know my story, Vignar. Everybody does. The thing is… I have to find a dragon who can tell me where Alduin is, and Dragonsreach is a dragon trap. I’m sure you’ve heard of Numinex. Balgruuf is willing to help, but only if I make sure that neither Ulfric nor Tullius will take advantage of a dragon sitting in his backyard. I need to convince them both to leave Whiterun alone until I’m done.”

The grey eyes under the white mane, still braided in a warrior’s style, watched me calmly. Vignar barely left Jorrvaskr any more, but he had kept track of my proceedings in pursuing the Worldeater as closely as all of my siblings. He knew enough of this endeavour to not be too surprised.

“Trap a dragon, eh? In Dragonsreach?” He nearly snickered because of this crazy idea, but then he became earnest again. “You want my help to convince Ulfric?”

“Yes. Please. I know nothing about him, and our encounters so far were… unpleasant. But I need his cooperation.” No need to beat around the bush. Seeing his quizzical face, I added, “I just need something to back me up. A letter… dunno. Something from someone he takes seriously. Perhaps… if you explained to him how important this is…” My voice trailed off, and I shrugged. “I don’t care for his war. It’s just that there won’t be anything left to fight for if I don’t do my job.”

The old man folded his hands on top of the table between us and regarded me pensively. “Balgruuf is a fool,” he finally said, “a fool and a coward. You could just help Ulfric to take Whiterun for the Stormcloaks. There would be others who aren’t as hesitant as our Jarl, and Whiterun would be free as well. Win win, so to say.”

I groaned audibly, my forehead creasing into a deep frown. This was exactly what I wanted to avoid, and Vignar read my expression correctly. He gave me a lopsided grin. “Can’t blame you that you’re not thrilled. But you can’t blame me either for trying… Ulfric would make me the next Jarl of Whiterun if I brought him the Dragonborn to join his forces.”

I sighed. “No, I’m not, Vignar. I won’t get involved into this war, and not only because Kodlak told me so. Even if I wanted to sign up with the Imperials, the Thalmor have put a bounty on my head, and they would lock me up for one of their special treatments as soon as I came near Solitude. And your Ulfric… he’s an arrogant jerk, sorry for being so blunt, and perhaps he has to be with his ambitions. But he’s also a fanatic, and I don’t like fanatics.”

“Tell me how you met him.”

“Once in Helgen. And then… well, I spent a night in Windhelm’s prison because I beat the shit out of his housecarl’s brother when he insulted Athis. You know how he treats the Dunmer in his city, and his attitude spreads over to his citizens. The true ones, that is, the Nords. After that, he tried to call on my duty as Nord and Dragonborn to make me join his forces.”

Vignar’s lips quirked upwards. “Do I assume correctly that you refused?”

My grin was twisted. “Of course. He didn’t like it at all that I told him that my war is more important than his. And that’s why I need your help.”

“You told him what?” Vignar’s grin was genuine. He looked a lot like his brother in this moment, his whole expression as open and honestly amused as the smith’s. He just lacked his booming laughter. He tilted his head and eyed me curiously.

“You know… thirty years ago, when we fought in the War together, I was an officer of the Imperial army and Ulfric wasn’t much more than a whelp. A strange whelp with his shouting and his attitude, but he made his way, and I have watched him closely since then. I’m not blind, I know he’s not flawless, but I know how he’s become the man he is today. And I honestly believe that he’s the right man for Skyrim.”

He saw my frown deepen and covered my wrist with his hand, the skin of his palm rough and dry like brittle paper. His smile became paternal. “Don’t worry, Qhouri. I believe in the righteousness of Ulfric’s cause, but I also believe in the old Nordic traditions, in our history and our prophecies. Alduin the Worldeater is a bigger danger than the Empire or even the Dominion. And you’re right, your war is more important than his. “

I sighed with relief. “Does that mean… will you tell him that? Write him a letter? Something I can give him?”


My face fell, but Vignar’s smile was warm. “I will not write him a letter. He knows he can count on me, and he knows that I’d never betray him. I think we should try to convince him together.”

My eyes grew wide. “You would join me? To Windhelm? And speak with him yourself?”

“What? You think I’m too frail to spend a day on a carriage?” he chuckled.

I blushed. “Of course not! But…”

He cut me off. “I have a good life in Jorrvaskr, Qhouri. Some people may even call me lazy. But I know when it’s necessary to get going again.”

I felt my shoulders slump forwards in relief. I’d never be able to deal with the Stormcloak all on my own. That the old Grey-Mane was willing to put his influence into the balance, and that he’d do so personally… to know that he’d be there when I had to face the Jarl let a weight drop off my shoulders.

“Thank you, Vignar. You’ve no idea what that means to me.”

His hand grabbed my wrist a bit firmer. “Oh yes, I do,” he said with a warm smile. “You’re a tough girl, Qhourian. And even if I weren’t as convinced of your cause as I am… I’m still a Companion, and we don’t let each other down. Never.”

He stood up with an ease that was astonishing, as if the prospect of the coming action was already invigorating him, and his smile became a grin.

“Give me a day or two for my preparations, okay? I’m too old just to grab a bedroll and a sweetroll and be off. And while we’re at it… perhaps we can check up on Thorald and Avulstein? I’m proud of the boys, but they’re so lazy with writing, Fralia will go crazy if she doesn’t hear from them more often.”

I spent the days of waiting for Vignar to send word that he was ready to leave in the loaded silence of Breezehome, every view, every step fraught with reminders I could not escape. The time I had spent here before was so short, and still so precious. All the things Farkas had said, his smile, his warmth, his touches, his entire presence was moulded into every single one of these profane items that surrounded me. I watched myself, regarded with absentminded astonishment how I touched all the things in the house and called forth deliberately the memories that were bound to them.

Our laughter and excitement in the shop in Windhelm, his warm smile when he prepared a meal for us, our conversations at the fire, his joy over my pregnancy, the evening when he forced me to wear that flimsy dress and I felt so awkward and he couldn’t stop laughing until it lay discarded on the floor, his tenderness and passion and how our bodies fit so perfectly into each other. So many moments of happiness. We had made this little house our home in the few days we had spent here together, and although we didn’t dare to put it in words, I knew our dreams were the same, and they came alive inside of these walls. A future, a family, a life together. Something so simple and so impossible.

Every single one of these small memories was a token of our love, and to rouse them hurt like cuts with a dull knife, but I couldn’t stop. I injured myself in this exploration of the past, and I tried to say farewell to them, consciously and once and for all, but I couldn’t. As much as they hurt, they were too precious to be discarded, and I cherished them, even if it tore me apart and left me exhausted and hollow, even if I never felt so alone.

The house was dark and cold when Athis came, no fire and no lamps lit, only a thick Dunmeri blanket wrapped around my shoulders keeping me from freezing. When the door opened, I cowered curled into a ball on the narrow windowsill and watched the daylight disappear until only the flickering light of the guards’ torches passed by occasionally. The mer didn’t knock, he just came in and stood there, looking at me, crimson eyes bright and unreadable. And then he took my coat from the hook and held it in front of him.

“Let’s have a walk,” he said, making an inviting gesture towards the door, and I followed him without question.

He didn’t say anything else, just led the way through the streets of Whiterun, nodding at the patrols, flipping Brenuin a coin, smiling at the priest who was resting on a bench in front of the temple. And he watched me pensively when he caught my gaze lingering on the entrance to Jorrvaskr, but he didn’t stop, continued towards the long stairway up to Dragonsreach. We ascended to the palace and entered, the large hall already nearly deserted. Only Hrongar still lingered with a bottle on a bench, and Irileth sat with some papers at the large table. Athis waved to her with the greeting of old acquaintances.

He exchanged some words with her in a tone too low for me to understand before she made us follow her. I couldn’t help it, but slowly I became curious. Athis was always good for a surprise.

We made our way through parts of the palace I had never visited before, through dark corridors, a large library and a room with a huge table covered with a map, full of red and blue flags. Even neutral, Jarl Balgruuf obviously planned for all eventualities. We went steadily upwards until Irileth stopped in front of a large oaken door which she unlocked with a huge, intricate key.

“Just call me when you leave, okay?” she said with a smile and turned on her heels while Athis already pushed the heavy wooden wing open.

We were outside… or nearly outside, a broad walkway under a high-vaulted ceiling leading towards a porch high above the plains. But Athis stopped me right behind the door when I wanted to walk towards the stunning view.

“Wait here,” he said with a smile and vanished over a few narrow steps behind some columns at the edge of the hallway.

The earshattering noise nearly swept me off my feet when the thing thundered down. A wooden arch, the beam as thick as the stem of the Gildergreen, reinforced and strengthened with steel bands that were wound around it. Skyforge steel, I recognised the special gleam of the metal at once. And now I also saw the massive pillars and braces at the wall and under the roof that held the whole construction in place, and the intricate tangle of chains that had released it.

Athis grinned proudly when he reappeared. “Impressive, eh? The trap is already prepared, Qhouri. Balgruuf had it oiled and tested during the last days.” He pointed towards the arch. “It will take a dozen guards tomorrow to lift it again,” he grinned, “and next time it comes down, there will be a dragon beneath it.”

I still stared in awe while the mer already started to climb the arch, crawling along it on all fours until he had reached its highest point. “Come up here, the view is awesome!” he called.

It wasn’t really comfortable to sit on the curved wood with our legs dangling freely in the air, but the view was indeed stunning. It was freezing, but even Athis wasn’t cold in his warm bear cloak and fur-lined boots. And when he unpacked two slightly squashed but still warm sweetrolls from a small bag, I couldn’t help but give him a small smile.

“With greetings from Tilma,” he said lightly when he handed me one of them.

I sat on top of Whiterun and in the company of my friend, watching a giant with his herd of mammoths leaving a broad track in the thin coat of snow that covered the plains, and I knew he hadn’t brought me here just to have a sweet in an unusual location. But he chewed contently and licked with relish the icing from his fingers, and his silence made me nervous. The sweetness of the treat got a bitter after-taste.

“Sorry, Athis. I’m no good company tonight,” I said finally, getting ready to crawl down the trap, but he touched my wrist to stop me.

“That’s why we’re here and not in the Mare,” he said in a light tone. “Don’t wanna spoil the fun of Mikael and Ysolda, do we?”

I hesitated for a moment, then settled beside him again. “Why are we here, Athis?” I asked quietly.

He tilted his head. “I missed you,” he replied with a small, nearly shy smile. “I wanted to see you.”

He became silent again, and I didn’t know what to say. I had no need for company… not even his. But now that we were here, his presence had something strangely soothing.

“What do you think, why is Balgruuf so hasty with his preparations?” he asked finally, in a casual tone.

His question caught me off guard, and I hesitated with an answer. “Because… he knows that in the end, he won’t have a choice? He’s afraid of Alduin. Everyone’s afraid of Alduin.”

Athis didn’t look at me, his gaze following the slow moving of the giant, but he chuckled lowly.

“Wrong answer. Try again.”

I shrugged. “Because he needs me for his own interests?”

He just shook his head.

“You’re stupid, girl. Of course he’s afraid, of Alduin, and perhaps even of you. Of course he sees the necessity. Of course he wants you to stay inclined to him, and of course he uses you for his own agenda. But all these reasons don’t explain why he transformed a whole company of his guards into craftsmen to get this thing going as soon as you left the palace.”

“He did?”

“Yes, he did. He believes in you. And you know… Vignar hasn’t left Whiterun for years. He barely ever leaves Jorrvaskr. And tomorrow, he’s gonna join you to Windhelm, and he’s excited about it.”

He turned to me, his bloody gaze intense.

“People do this because they like you, Qhouri. Not because you’re a hero arisen from an ancient prophecy or a famous warrior, because they want you to save them or because they pity you. All of this as well, of course. But when they start to get out of their way like Balgruuf and Vignar, it’s simply because you’re a nice person, and because they believe in you.”

A nice person? I didn’t know he was so naïve. People helped me when I asked them because they wanted me to save their happy little lives. Not more, not less. I didn’t expect anything else.

“Athis, you’re…”

But he stopped me with a firm grip to my wrist, and all his casualness was gone.

“No, Qhouri, now you listen to me. I’ll say this only once, and I mean it. At the moment you may think you’re the loneliest woman on Nirn. It’s your right, it’s understandable, and I respect it. But you’re more than the freshly widowed Dragonborn who has to save the world all on her own. You’re also a citizen, a shield-sister and most of all a friend. You may have forgotten it, you may think it’s not relevant any more, but we will remind you. You have a family, and we won’t leave you alone. We’re gonna remind you where you belong until you come back to us. That’s a promise.”

I cringed under his gaze, burning and bright and looking straight into my core. I could never hide from Athis, and he didn’t need beastsenses to look through me. He knew exactly that he pressed me with this declaration, that it was the wrong thing to say, that I couldn’t appreciate it.

And still he made it, this promise that pointed into a future that wasn’t hollow and empty. The promise that one day it would make a difference. I didn’t believe him, and he knew it.

But it also pointed into the past, into a time when I was whole and knew where I belonged. It hurt, and I fought against the dry sob that choked up my throat, the shivers that ran through my body and the pressure behind my eyes. He tried to thaw me with his warmth, and I couldn’t let him. I needed this shell, it was shelter and protection, without it I would just dissolve. But it also encased what little strength I had left, a tiny, raw core of determination. I couldn’t allow him to break it. If I started to cry now, I would never stop again.

He let go of my wrist, but I felt his gaze on me and conscious of myself, strung up as if I’d shatter if he only said another word. I had to get away from him, from this warmth and understanding that I couldn’t allow. I didn’t want him to understand, and I fled this closeness, slipped and tumbled down the trap until there was space between us and I could shut him out and come to rest in the silence inside of me.

I leant over the narrow wall at the edge of the porch, and there was no fear, no coiling in my stomach and no dizziness as I stared into the abyss and waited for my ragged breath to calm down. It wouldn’t take much to lose balance. The railing was no barrier if I wanted to make this step. The option was there, always, and I’d be where I belonged.

I only had to kill Alduin first. When he was dead, I’d finally be able to choose, I’d be free to decide for myself what to do with my life, for the first time ever. The thought made me smile, and with the smile came the awareness of the subtle warmth by my side. Athis leant beside me, his back to the plains and his head tilted into his neck, but he turned his gaze to me when I straightened myself. He took my wrist again and covered my fist with his warm palm, pried it open and straightened my fingers with gentle pressure. Tiny beads of blood emerged from the crescents where my nails had broken the skin.

“You don’t need this, Qhouri.”

This wasn’t a question of needing. It was a question of being able to, a question of choice. I didn’t know how to respond. He wouldn’t understand.

“Let me go, Athis,” I said after a long pause. “Please.”

He tilted his head and pushed himself off the narrow wall. “I’ll bring you home.”

We went without talking, on a winded way through small side-streets and dark alleys. We met no one, the city silent and void of life. When he lifted his hand as we stood in front of Breezehome, bright eyes gleaming in the torchlight from the Warmaiden and the gate, I retreated from him with a step backwards. I didn’t want his warmth, his closeness, his understanding. But he didn’t embrace me, only touched my shoulder briefly.

“Safe travels, sister,” was all he said, and we both knew that it was a farewell. There was sadness in his voice. Sadness, and acceptance.

He didn’t wait for me to answer, and when I looked after him as he went up the street, I felt relief and gratitude well up. Relief that he left me alone, and gratitude that he had been here. That he endured the wreck that I was without shying away.

“Athis!” I called after him. He stopped and turned. “Thank you,” I whispered. He wouldn’t hear it. I didn’t want him to hear it.

But the smile that grew on his face was brighter than the torches that cast a golden hue over his dark face. “We’ll be here, sister,” he said, and then he waved, hopped up the stairs towards the Mare and disappeared. So predictable, my brother. It made me smile, for the second time that evening.

I spent the night, like the nights before, in the small chamber where the blanket and the pillow still smelled of Vilkas, the last one who had slept here. The main bedroom was the only room I didn’t dare to enter… not now, I told myself every time I passed the closed door, not yet. And when I waited for Vignar at the stables in the morning, the sun only barely rising over the horizon, I was calm and concentrated on the task before me.

He came along with Brill, his shadow, servant and aide, clad in expensive clothes and with the Skyforge sword tied to his hip, and he greeted me with a cheerful smile. And when we had climbed the carriage and stored away our packs under the benches, he handed me a large package.

“You need to make an impression,” he said, “can’t visit the future High King in those rags.”

I looked down on me. I wore my old leather armour, the only one with enough buckles and straps to make it fit, and was armed with my Skyforge mace. On a closer inspection, I had to admit that he was right… the armour would still protect me if we got into a fight, but it looked shabby and worn. I never had to think of things like my appearance before – not since I had come to Skyrim. Armour had to be useful and protective, clothes had to be practical and warm. Nothing else mattered – unless I met Ulfric Stormcloak. Sudden discomfort let me frown.

But when I unwrapped the package, wondering what kind of garment Vignar deemed fitting to meet a future king, my breath caught in my chest. Inside I found the armour I had left behind in High Hrothgar, the familiar dragon scales shining in the dim morning light. And Vignar had also brought the scabbard with the long blade of Dragonbane.

I swallowed heavily when I raised my gaze from the shimmering scales to the old man who leant relaxed against a cushion that Brill had brought for the journey. “How did you get this?” I whispered.

His gaze was piercing, assessing my reaction. “Vilkas brought it back and kept it for you. He always said that you’d need it when you came home.” Of course. Vilkas. The armour was in excellent condition, cleansed and polished, no traces left of the last fight it had seen. Only the cuirass… it had changed, somehow. My fingers trailed over strips and fastenings that hadn’t been there before.

Vignar’s lips twisted into a small, gentle smile. “He also asked Eorlund to make a few adaptations,” he said. “Now it will… grow with you. It won’t conceal your state, but you’ll still look impressive.” My speechlessness made him chuckle. I touched the shimmering scales tentatively. I had left this armour behind like I had left everything behind. Just like the Companions. But they didn’t let me, they believed in me, and they still cared. I didn’t know why, and I felt pressed by their attention. And still I was glad to have it back. Nothing represented my status as Dragonborn better than this armour, it had saved my life more often than I could count, and I felt comfortable and safe in it.

“Thank you, Vignar. This is… awesome,” I said with an honest smile, but he just reached into his overcoat and brought forth something else, a small leather-bound booklet, and handed it to me.

“Vilkas also asked me to give this to you. He just came back when I left.” He waited until I had taken it from his hands with a curious glance. “I read it, of course,” he admitted with a crooked grin, “and if I understand it correctly, it may be even more important than your looks.”

I didn’t recognise the book at first, but as soon as I opened it I knew of its importance. “Thalmor Dossier: Ulfric Stormcloak” was written in neat, convoluted letters on the first page, and I didn’t have to skim any further to know its content. After our assault on the Thalmor embassy, I had no use for these documents, and Delphine had kept them in her custody. There was only one way Vilkas had made the way to Skyhaven Temple and back since I had seen him. He had let his beast out for days just to bring this back in time.

“You read it?” It wasn’t hard to guess that Ulfric wouldn’t be thrilled for the public to know about its contents. That he had been imprisoned and tortured after the Great War, and that the Thalmor made him believe that the information they pressed from him caused the fall of the Imperial city. And that they still regarded him as an asset, because the havoc he spread over the province played perfectly into their hands. A weakened Skyrim meant a weakened Empire, and they’d do everything to keep this war going.

I didn’t know how the little journal would help me now, it was just another proof of the Thalmor’s misanthropic, cynical attitude. Perhaps it would give me some leverage in my negotiations with Windhelm’s Jarl – I just hoped I wouldn’t need it.

“Yes.” Vignar regarded me with a small, thoughtful smile. “I read it, and I understand what it means. I don’t wanna know how Vilkas got his hands on it, but his assessment is right, it could become important.” He leant back and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “I will tell Ulfric about it, Qhourian. That I owe him. But only if you don’t and when Alduin is dead. That I owe you.”

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