Vignar proved to be invaluable before we even entered the palace. While I would have just strolled in and hoped to find a way to speak with the Jarl, Vignar wrote a note as soon as we arrived at Candlehearth Hall, asking officially for an appointment. The courier returned while we sat in the main room over our dinner and brought a personal invitation to the palace for next day, signed by Ulfric himself. Vignar’s smile was pleased.
“Now he knows that we don’t just drop by,” he said with a content nod and stashed the folded note into a pocket of his cloak.
I was glad that he had taken the initiative. “Guess it’s not a good idea to take him by surprise?”
“No. Let him wonder what we want – and be prepared when we meet him. I guess we’ll surprise him in any case.” The old man was an epitome of aplomb as he leant back and spread his arms over the backrest of the bench he sat on. “And if we do… don’t challenge him, Qhourian. It’s crucial that you keep your temper in check, even if he doesn’t.”
“Okay. I’ll try not to shout at him.” I grinned feebly. We both knew that the part with my temper would be the hardest. I hated that I needed that moron’s cooperation so badly.
“That would be appreciated,” he snickered. “Also try to avoid to get into an argument about the war. We’re not here because of the war, but because of Alduin. His war is irrelevant for the time being, that’s the point we have to make clear.” He chuckled lowly. “He won’t like to hear it. He won’t like to assist in something he has no influence in, especially when it goes against his own plans. We have to make him listen.”
“I’m glad you’re here, Vignar.” His confidence was as astonishing as reassuring, although I prayed that he didn’t misestimate his own influence. And he was evidently much more adept in the adequate handling of people with aspirations on the High Throne than me.
“We will make him listen, girl.” His smile was gentle.
Next day, when we stood in front of the huge, impressive metal door-wings that fit so perfectly into the dark walls and the gloomy atmosphere of the courtyard to make every visitor feel small and insignificant, I pushed them open and waited for Vignar to take the lead. But he didn’t move, not even under the scrutinising looks of the guards.
“Your cause, Dragonborn,” he said earnestly and beckoned me to go on. I took a deep breath, straightened my shoulders and set my face to hide the nervousness that pulsed through me, and it helped. Ulfric was just a man, he would only see what I showed him – in contrary to me. I reached for my wolf senses and the feeling of power they provided and made my way through the long hall with firm steps, Vignar only a step behind me.
Ulfric Stormcloak lingered on Ysgramor’s throne in the same entirely relaxed stance as the first time I had met him here, freshly released from his prison. But now I could see that it was at least partly a farce, that there was a tension in his body that would enable him to attack – or flee – any second, that nothing under this wide, vaulted roof escaped his attention. He was as alert as the man standing beside him, a burly Nord in heavily reinforced leather and fur, the bearded face shadowed by the threatening, open jaw of a bear skull he wore instead of a helmet.
This had to be Galmar Stone-Fist, Ulfric’s general and the brother of the man I had beaten to pulp. Didn’t seem he had forgotten – or forgiven – the incident, but I was surprised to see that he regarded Vignar with nearly equal contempt as me. The contrast between the two men couldn’t be larger, though – a battle-hardened warrior in dirty, heavily used armour and with a big waraxe slung to his back against the white-haired, cultured patriarch by my side, holding himself straight despite his age and aware of his importance in his expensive, elegant clothes.
I was never so glad not to wear my old leathers as in this moment.
The eyes of both men were fixed on us, following our approach until we stood in front of the stairs to the Jarl’s throne. Vignar bowed his head respectfully, and I followed his gesture while we waited for him to address us.
“Your visit is an unexpected pleasure,” Ulfric said finally, his voice smooth, not addressing one of us personally. “It is good to see you again, old friend,” he nodded to Vignar, “and you, Dragonborn.” His eyes bored into mine, not smooth at all.
“That’s still to be seen,” his housecarl grunted, “an unexpected visit from Whiterun can mean everything. Has Balgruuf given the city to the Imperials? Or are the Companions ready to join our cause?” Galmar’s gaze lingered on Vignar’s Skyforge sword, a weapon I had never seen him use but a visible sign of his affiliation.
Ulfric waved at him to lay low. “Neither is very probable. No. To see you both here… it makes me hope that you’re ready to deliver on your promise… Dragonborn.” His gaze didn’t leave my face for a single moment. And I already felt my blood heat up.
I knew what he meant. He talked about his prediction that I would have to choose a side in this war, sooner or later. And he knew as well as I that I didn’t promise him anything – not that I’d choose a side at all, and even less that I’d choose his.
“We aren’t here to speak about matters of the past, promises or arguments,” I said, failing to force a smile on my face. “It’s our future that’s at stake now.”
“What are you talking about, woman? Speak clearly!” the housecarl barked, but now Ulfric interrupted him more openly.
“Galmar!” The man shut his mouth with a scowl. “Our future? Yes, I remember us talking about our future… the future of our land and our people…”
“I’m… we’re not here because of your war, Sir,” I said firmly, “respectively… only indirectly.”
His eyes narrowed into an angry frown. “My war? Why does this sound as if it was just my silly personal shenanigans when it comes from you?”
Damn. A single false word, and I effortlessly got on his wrong side. I tried not to cringe too obviously.
“Our war. This war. Don’t start to split hairs, Ulfric,” Vignar’s calm voice chimed in.
But the contemptuous smirk on the Jarl’s face put me off my stride. “Then stop trying to be diplomatic, Dragonborn,” he grinned with barely concealed pretension. “Just say what you came for.”
He was openly amused, and his amusement only grew when I glared at him. But I bit back the remark on my tongue that was so undiplomatic that it would have sent me back into his dungeon, met his piercing gaze and complied with his wish. “I need Whiterun safe from you until I’ve slain Alduin,” I said bluntly.
The man showed impressive self-control, he showed neither surprise nor anger. Only a single eyebrow arched slightly as he propped his chin relaxed into his palm.
“Explain yourself,” he said dryly.
“I fought Alduin once, and he escaped. To find him again, I have to trap one of his allies in Dragonsreach and force him to lead me to him. The keep has been used to trap a dragon before.”
“Yes, Numinex. I know the story,” Ulfric nodded.
“I need your warranty not to attack Whiterun while I try it.”
Only Galmar’s derogatory snort broke the silence while Ulfric Stormcloak scrutinised me from head to toes. I endured his stare as I endured the general’s derisive laughter and that his master didn’t stop him this time. But I felt relieved when his gaze finally turned to Vignar.
“Nice try, Dragonborn,” Galmar spat in my direction, “but you should have tried to find something a bit more plausible than this abstruse tale.”
“You support her in this madness, Grey-Mane?” Ulfric asked calmly.
“That’s why I’m here, yes.” The old man didn’t falter.
Ulfric’s eyes narrowed. “I could put you under arrest for treason.”
“You have no reason to do so. I’m no traitor, and you know it, Ulfric.” Vignar was as serene as in the moment we had entered the hall.
“Perhaps you’re no traitor. But it seems a pretty face and a well thought out story are easily able to give you a run-around, old friend.”
To see Vignar blush slightly made me cringe, but he didn’t react openly to the barely veiled insult. “This is no story. It’s our history come alive. Don’t tell me you don’t believe in the danger of Alduin the Worldeater, after everything that happened during the last months.”
“Oh, but I do. I just don’t believe it possible to trap a dragon in Whiterun again, not to speak of forcing him to help in killing his master. The idea alone is insane, and the possibility that this is a ruse of Balgruuf to escape or delay our march on his city is evidently much higher than the substance of this old wife’s tale.”
“Especially as our Dragonborn here is known to be a close friend of sworn Imperial allies,” Galmar added with a smug grin.
“What are you talking about?” His reaction to my bewildered glare was an even broader smirk.
“Idgrod Ravencrone of Morthal,” he spat full of disgust. “You are friends, aren’t you? One of the staunchest supporters of the Empire in all of Skyrim. Personal friend of General Tullius, she even has her own pet Legate,” he sneered, triumph written into his face.
I froze. This was a low blow, lower than I had expected. I hadn’t been in Morthal for months, and even then… she had declared more than once how much she liked Farkas and how much she valued his presence in her city. I had just been his wife. Only once, when I really needed her help, she had given her support without asking, and for that I cherished her. I wouldn’t allow that she was belittled by this brute now.
I clenched my teeth as I met the Stormcloak’s stern gaze, ignoring his subordinate. “Idgrod Ravencrone supports the Empire, that is true. But she’s also the only one who doesn’t let her loyalty blind her common sense, and she’s the only one among you lot of Jarls who dares to stand up openly against the Thalmor.”
“Against the Thalmor? That hag?” Galmar barked. “She licks their feet…”
“You have no idea!” I wanted to smash my fists into this complacent smirk, beat it into a bloody mess like I had done with his brother. The bitter taste of anger and hate puckered my mouth. “Only with her help I was able to infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy and find…”
Now it was Ulfric’s turn to be surprised. “You? That ruckus in the Embassy last winter, that was you? Ambassador Elenwen wasn’t seen in public for months after that!”
“Not me alone, no. But yes, I was… there.”
“Our intelligence spoke of an assassin. No one mentioned the Dragonborn.”
No, because everyone who had heard me shouting was dead shortly afterwards. And Delphine… yes, she had worked like an assassin. She was good at it.
“Your intelligence is incompetent. And I can prove it.”
“Qhourian…” Vignar said appeasingly, but I ignored him. This conversation had long evolved beyond diplomatic politeness. Perhaps it would have developed differently if Ulfric had kept his watchdog on a tighter leash, but now I would use what leverage I had. I drew a stack of parchments out of the small bag slung over my shoulder and threw it into Ulfric’s lap.
“I’m not a bit surprised that they still regard you as an asset. Zealots will always understand each other,” I spat.
At first Ulfric only skimmed through the document, but then something caught his eye, and he read carefully. Several times. And he gave me the satisfaction to blanch before he regained his composure and looked up again.
“This is only a transcript.” His voice was calm and menacing.
“Of course it is.”
“Who knows of this?”
“Besides Elenwen, Vignar and me? At least three more persons.”
I remained quiet. To see him finally lose his arrogant composure filled me with satisfaction.
“Speak, woman!” he roared, jumping to his feet and towering above us, his face twisted in wrath. There was a power in his furious yell that I recognised, but I didn’t flinch under his outbreak and returned his murderous stare.
“Don’t you dare to shout at me, Ulfric Stormcloak. I’ll shout back.”
I hadn’t even finished the sentence when I heard the familiar scratching of metal against metal, and Galmar stood in front of the Jarl with his axe drawn.
“Don’t you dare to threaten the rightful High King of Skyrim in his own hall!” His fury was cold and restrained, the features under the bear mask were motionless, but I knew it took only a single false movement and I’d feel his steel instead of his anger. He would protect his master with his life.
But I couldn’t afford to back out now, and Galmar understood only one language. I laid my hand on Dragonbane’s hilt and didn’t move a single inch. Too bad I had left my shield in the inn.
“Fortunately it takes more than your proclamation to make someone High King of Skyrim, Stone-Fist. And I did not threaten him. But I will defend myself.”
“You will be dead before you can move,” the general pressed out between gritted teeth, muscles tensing to strike. “Or breathe.”
“Ulfric.” Vignar’s voice was calm and strong and echoed through the deadly silence in the hall. “Stop this madness. You don’t know what’s at stake.”
The Jarl stood at the top of the stairs, still above us, watching the scene with haughty indifference, and his impassivity let me grow desperate. So much about keeping my temper in check. At the moment it didn’t even look as if he would let us go unharmed, let alone listen to my pledge.
He watched the tense stance of his housecarl, Vignar’s fearless but anxious look, and finally his gaze came to rest on me.
With slow steps he came down from his throne and laid a hand on the general’s shoulder. “Galmar,” he said in his rumbling voice, “don’t scare our guests.” His eyes glinted mockingly when he finally stood before me. I waited until Stone-Fist had strapped his axe to his back again before I removed my clenched fingers from my sword.
“Tell me, Dragonborn,” he said nearly gently, “what exactly is at stake?”
I sighed deeply, stretching the strain out of my back. “I know the plan sounds insane, Jarl Ulfric. But it’s the best we have to reach Alduin. It’s the only one we have.”
“Who is we?”
“You mean, who came up with it originally?”
“Yes. Don’t try to tell me that it was you.”
I wouldn’t let him provoke me. Not again. “Paarthurnax.”
A small smile appeared on his features. “Paarthurnax, yes. I should’ve known that you don’t go any lower.”
“Who is this Paarthurnax?” Galmar’s voice sounded more annoyed than anything, and suddenly he stood beside the Jarl again. “And why isn’t he here now? Perhaps he’d be more convincing than…”
But Ulfric only raised a hand to stop him. “He’s… a colleague of yours, Galmar. Or ex-colleague. One of the best military leaders of all times.” His smile transformed into a nearly conspiratorial grin as he studied my face. Against my will, I felt my lips curl upwards. He had a strange sense of irony, this Jarl.
“You have powerful allies.”
“And powerful foes.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. I didn’t know myself if I even meant him with this remark – and if he’d take it as a compliment or an insult.
“You still haven’t answered my question. What exactly is at stake?”
I watched him for a moment. He seemed relaxed, but he wasn’t. He was alert, even keen to hear my answer, but I had no idea if he’d like it. If he’d believe it. But I would have to try.
“Alduin is in Sovngarde. He feasts on the souls on the dead to strengthen his power for his final assault – and you know what that means, Jarl Ulfric. Only one of his allies can lead me to him… I have his name, I can call him, but the only means to force him to help is in Whiterun.”
“Ulfric.” The Jarl turned to his general who beckoned him to follow him into a corner. Ulfric went with him, hesitantly, and they stopped not far enough for my senses not to overhear them. “It’s madness, but let’s just say she isn’t insane and doesn’t lie,” Galmar whispered. “We have to take Whiterun, and soon, remember what we’ve discussed. Imagine… Balgruuf’s guard busy with a dragon, a dragon she can control…”
Nobody expected the booming laughter the Jarl let out when he slapped his second in command on the back. And he didn’t care to speak quietly. “Galmar… you’re an excellent advisor and an even better strategist. But sometimes you’re a fool. Really.”
He turned back to us.
“Join me for dinner tonight, Dragonborn,” he said, “I’ll have your answer then. And you, Vignar… Avulstein is in the Rift, but Thorald is on duty here in Windhelm, and I’m sure he’ll be glad to see his uncle. Tell him he has the evening off.”
“That didn’t go well, did it?” I was exhausted and frustrated, and I wanted nothing more than to drown my chagrin in a barrel of mead, but all Vignar allowed me was a single mug of hot cider when we were back at Candlehearth. At least it settled pleasing and soothing in my stomach.
“It could have gone better,” Vignar replied dryly, “but also much worse.”
“I’m sorry, Vignar. I… didn’t listen to you,” I said contritely. “But this Galmar…”
“He makes your blood boil, I know. Mine too. He is an excellent strategist, and Ulfric needs him… but he’s also a peerless bonehead.”
I had to grin at his blunt words. “I wish you’d come with me tonight. But you’re explicitly not invited, aren’t you?”
The old man smiled. “No, I’m not. And honestly… I don’t think he really needs time to think over his decision. I think he has already made up his mind, and that he’s just interested in you.”
“Interested in me? Why?” My forehead furled in confusion. “Have I still not made clear enough that I won’t join his cause?”
Vignar chuckled. “Yes, you have. And I think even Ulfric has gotten by now that you’d make a lousy soldier. No… he’s interested in you. As a person, not as an asset. Perhaps he’s bored of all this devoutness around him.”
Despite Vignar’s light-hearted words I was nervous and confused when I made my way through the dark city to the palace. And my nervousness was confirmed when I found the throne deserted and Ulfric nowhere to be seen. Holy Kyne, I really didn’t want to meet this man anywhere else than in this huge hall where someone was always present, even if it were just a few servants. But I steeled myself when the Jarl’s steward came to greet me and led me through long, dark hallways that looked exactly as barren as the ones that led to the prison.
But finally he knocked on a pair of intricately carved wooden doors, and they were opened immediately, as if Ulfric had waited behind them. “Thank you, Jorleif. We have everything we need,” he said curtly and gestured me to come in before he closed the doors firmly.
I felt like being trapped.
Ulfric Stormcloak’s quarters were nothing like I had imagined them. I expected luxury, expensive furniture, luscious carpets and sitting accommodations, perhaps a select collection of choice weapons or other signs of his power and merits. But although the room was warm and cosy, mostly due to the blazing flames in the gigantic fireplace, it was only sparsely furnished. A huge bed that looked as if it were only seldom used, a desk cluttered with parchments, a wardrobe and another table with two chairs that was now waiting for us.
Ulfric regarded me curiously while I took in my surroundings.
“I had hoped you’d wear something else tonight,” he said with a small smile.
I showed him an arched eyebrow. “Something else?”
“Something… less martial.”
“I’m afraid I don’t possess anything less martial and suitable for an occasion like this, Sir,” I answered.
The Jarl grinned broadly. “With all due respect for Eorlund’s excellent work… honestly, that’s a shame.”
He led me to the table and bid me to sit down, holding the backrest of my chair before he took the place at the opposite and started to serve us. His manners let my nervousness shoot through the ceiling, but he ate heartily while he watched me poke the tender pheasant roast, crispy potatoes and the tiny, dainty cooked carrots on my plate.
“Isn’t the food to your liking? Perhaps some more wine?” he said with a small smile. I hadn’t even touched my goblet so far and swallowed hard.
“It’s delicious,” I muttered, “it’s just… have you come to a decision, Jarl Ulfric?”
He leant back in his chair and took a sip from his drink. “Call me Ulfric… Qhourian.” It came out as an order. I cringed and couldn’t hide it, and he noticed my shying away with a scowl.
“What’s the matter with you, woman? Holy Talos, you look as if I’ll grow black scales and eat you any moment! Relax!”
My face petrified. “Don’t jest about the Worldeater, Sir.”
He leant forwards sharply. “Is there anything else in that head of yours? Or is he all you can think of, Alduin and the end of the world?”
Slowly I shook my head. “I didn’t know you were just looking for pleasurable company. I thought we have… business to discuss.”
“If I wanted pleasurable company, I’d get a whore in my bed,” he barked out, not caring for my reaction. “No, for once I wanted interesting company.”
He refilled his goblet with an impatient motion, took it and held it in the centre of the table. His gaze held a challenge. “Tell me, Dragonborn… what would you like to toast to?”
I took mine and turned it between my fingers, considering an answer that would please him and sound sincere at the same time.
“That Alduin may swallow Alinor before I kill him,” I said with a small grin, and the Jarl laughed in a mixture of genuine amusement and astonishment before his goblet touched mine.
“You really think of nothing else.” He pushed his plate away and stood up, beckoning me to follow him and taking seat in a cushioned armchair in front of the fire. On a small table beside him lay the stack of papers with the Thalmor Dossier.
“Let’s talk business then. I guess I should thank you for this, even if you probably regret that you gave that trump so rashly out of your hands,” he said dryly, tipping on the parchments. “But it doesn’t mean anything for your trustworthiness. It doesn’t mean that you’re not affiliated to the Empire.”
“I am not, Jarl Ulfric. Just as little as Vignar. He would have given the documents to you anyway if I hadn’t done it… later. The Grey-Manes would never betray you.”
He showed me a small smile. “I’m not so sure, honestly. You’re very convincing. And it seems you’re always Companions first and everything else second.”
The thought he had phrased as an expression of his suspiciousness clenched my chest. Perhaps he would’ve been right a few weeks ago. Now being a Companion came far behind my duties as Dragonborn, and my affiliation only counted as long as it was useful.
“I wouldn’t bring another Companion into such a predicament.”
He skimmed again through the pages again, and his face became pensive, lost in thoughts. “You know what’s most important in this document?”
I shook my head. It contained a lot of information about him that could be important – or dangerous. They believed they had broken him during his imprisonment after the war and that everything he had done since then served a purpose only they knew about. Certainly he was aware of that, but his gaze was fixed on a single page.
“That it wasn’t my weakness that caused the fall of the Imperial City. I broke under Elenwen’s torture… but in the end, it didn’t matter.”
This was thirty years ago, and it surprised me that he regarded this fact as the most important. But perhaps… guilt didn’t know limitations.
“You seem to have a habit of overestimating your importance, Jarl Ulfric,” I said with a small, ironic smile and got an unreadable expression in return. At least my impertinence didn’t kindle his anger again.
“Have I now?”
“Yes. You haven’t been a factor in the fall of the Imperial City,” I said calmly, “and all your efforts now will be equally irrelevant if you don’t let me do my job. You know that. You know that my war is more important than yours.”
He leant with his elbows on his knees and stared into the fire as if it could reveal a deeper truth.
“We’re humans, Dragonborn. And as humans, we form our destiny ourselves. We’re able to change the way of the world. The Nerevarine, the Hero of Kvatch, Martin Septim – all of them were humans. Talos, the only mortal who ever ascended to godhood was a human. Others have tried, but they failed… the Dunmeri Tribunal, for example. I guess… perhaps we can wreak havoc in the ways of the world because our lives are so short, because we don’t have to bear the consequences. The elves? They just adapt to the tide of times. But I believe that destinies can be changed, that we forge our own fortune and that prophecies don’t have to come true. That is important.”
“But that’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” I said quietly. “I try to change the way of the world, and I try to make use of the abilities the gods have given me. What would you do if you were in my place, Jarl Ulfric?”
His head turned to me, and a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “That question isn’t fair. I left High Hrothgar long before my time was up.”
His gaze wandered over me again and rested finally on my face.
“May I ask you something? Something personal?”
I nodded hesitantly.
“Do you think you’d come back? From Sovngarde?”
“Yes.” I didn’t know if I’d come back, but I hoped and prayed that I wouldn’t have to stay there, even if it was the last step I made. He didn’t have to know that my place was elsewhere.
“And… the father of your child… he lets you go?”
I stared at him and had to remind myself that he wasn’t deliberately cruel. That he only wanted a bit of interesting company. “The father of my child is dead. Alduin killed him at the Throat of the World.” I took a deep breath. “But yes… he would let me go.”
Ulfric took in my clenched teeth and wide open eyes, and then he rose abruptly and turned to his desk, stood there motionless for long minutes, propped on his palms, his back turned to me.
“My apologies, Dragonborn,” he said stiffly before he gathered himself and took a sealed parchment that lay on top of a stack.
“Here,” he handed it to me, “this decree will become valid as soon as you get something similar from Tullius. Just don’t forget to inform me when that’s the case.” The small, ironic smile of his was back when he saw me clutch it to my chest. Vignar had been right, he had made up his mind even before I entered this room.
Be careful with the Thalmor, their headquarter is within the walls of Castle Dour, he had said. You’ll need a disguise if you march right into the lion’s den, he had said. Try to get in contact with Legate Rikke, he had said. She’s a real Nord and the General’s closest advisor. Tullius himself is just an Imperial pighead with no understanding of our culture, he had said.
As if my task was his as well suddenly, as if he felt responsible. But perhaps someone like Ulfric Stormcloak always felt responsible. Or he hated the feeling not to be involved, not to be in control. Or he wanted me to feel obliged to him. Or he actually cared for the souls of his soldiers that had become Alduin’s feast. Whatever.
When he led me to the door where his steward was already waiting, a heavy hand came to rest on my shoulder, and a grin flashed up in his face. “Always a pleasure to make business with you, Dragonborn. Although Galmar will kill me for this.”
“I guess he’d prefer to kill me instead,” I said with a weak smile, and he smiled back, genuine and open.
“Good luck, Qhourian,” he said, and he meant it.
While Vignar and Brill returned to Whiterun, I took the carriage directly from Windhelm to Solitude instead, my armour hidden beneath a lose, shabby dress and a thick cloak, boots and gauntlets changed against simple leather items, my hair unbraided, tied back in a bun and hidden under a simple cowl. I felt strange, nearly naked without my braids and my warpaint, but I had to avoid attention at all costs.
The wagon took me to Dragon Bridge from where I made the rest of the way by foot, and when I entered the gates of the city with a group of merchants and farmers in the early morning, I looked easily exhausted and dirty enough to pass off as one of them. None of the guards only gave me a second look.
But I still didn’t have a plan how to get access to the General. I couldn’t take a room at the Winking Skeever – not many people in Solitude knew me, but I had spent enough nights at the inn for the innkeeper to recognise me if he took a closer look. I couldn’t simply write a note to General Tullius and ask for an appointment, like Vignar had done it with Ulfric. And I didn’t dare just to stroll into the castle and search for him there. What reason would a simple peasant woman have to do this? I had no contacts, no starting point in Solitude I could use.
The city drove me insane. It was too big, too full, too loud, full of rampaging gangs of children, yelling merchants, drunken veterans slurring the stories of their lives to themselves and every passer-by who did or did not listen, the neat lines of soldiers parading through the streets, their cadence thundering a violent rhythm on the cobblestones. And in between all this, over and over again the dark figures of grey-robed Justiciars or the gleaming armours of their guards, always in pairs or threes, unpredictable, appearing behind a corner or in a doorway where I expected them least.
I needed a place for a rest and some quiet to think, to come up with a plan, and I found it in the only place only Nords would ever enter voluntarily. The Halls of the Dead were cool and dark, a large narrow room, only dimly lit by a few candles. The Shrine of Arkay was placed prominently near the entrance, but I ignored it, ignored the stench of decay and of the alchemical substances used to prepare the bodies, ignored the elderly priest who knelt quietly in a niche and found a place at the back of the room, hidden between coffins and urns.
Nothing disturbed the silence down here, the world above shut out by heavy doors and the instinctive fear the living harbour for the dead. I had lost this fear with the excess of death in my life, I knew they would not haunt me, and I let the silence fill me.
Perhaps this was my place in the world, among the dead and alone with myself. The thought brought a strange peace to my mind, and for a moment the life above me was forgotten.
The priest ignored me, perhaps he thought I prayed. I didn’t, at least not to Arkay, and perhaps he even forgot about me, because he resumed his work after his own prayer without shame, oiled a naked corpse lying on a stone platform, the waxen skin becoming glossy and smooth. The fragrance of the essences he used rose into my nose with the scent of incense and cedar wood, and the movements of his hands had something strangely familiar.
He was a priest, and as a priest, he was also a healer. His movements, his carefulness and the admiration in his face as he treated this lifeless body reminded me of Danica’s treatment of the injured soldiers in her temple or of the things the Khajiit woman had done to me. Bodies that needed care, that was their concern.
Healers were needed everywhere, especially during a war.
And the door to the small chamber where he spent his resting hours was out of his sight but easily approachable by me, crouched into the shadows, the steps in my soft leather boots inaudible. He didn’t even have a closet, but a single spare robe hang on a hook right behind the door.
When I left the Halls as silently as I had come, a the simple brown robe with long sleeves and a large hood was stuffed into my pack. I would bring it back, but now I needed it more urgently than he.
Nobody paid any attention to the figure in a long, distinctive robe, hood drawn into her face, hands folded and hidden in long, wide sleeves as she hurried through the garrison, head lowered but with swift, firm steps.
Not even the Thalmor I met on my erratic way through Castle Dour gave me a second glance, although every single one of these encounters sent shivers of fear and fury down my spine, my senses full of the stench of magic and cruelty.
I couldn’t ask where to find the General without raising suspicion, and so I let myself lead by my instincts, avoided the dark, sparsely lit hallways and searched along the well populated areas, where soldiers and officers hurried along on their way to their next duty, to their cot or to drinks and whores.
But in the end I found him, and this time the goddess of luck smiled down on me, because the stern Nord woman in his company had to be Legate Rikke. The warroom of General Tullius looked astonishingly similar to the one of Ulfric Stormcloak in the Palace of the Kings, Tullius pacing in front of a table with the familiar huge Skyrim map that was adorned with the familiar allocation of red and blue flags. The heavily armed woman leant with her palms on the table, following the General’s pace with a subtle movement of her head.
The weirdest thing about the whole scene was the human skull that was used on one corner of the table to keep the map flat.
“He will march on Whiterun,” the woman said sternly, “he has to, or his alliance will break apart. And he needs Balgruuf’s resources.”
“Rikke… he doesn’t have the men to take Whiterun. It would be insane, especially now in winter!”
“Whiterun is warmer than Windhelm at the moment,” the woman snorted. “We should prepare for his attack. We have to convince Balgruuf to let us garrison our troops in his city. Or take it by force, if we have to, but we can’t afford to lose it to the Stormcloaks.”
I stood in the doorway and cleared my throat audibly.
“No, he won’t.”
Both heads spun around sharply, and the Legate had her sword drawn in an instant, but the confusion about the intrusion of a nameless priestess was obvious in both of their faces.
“Who are you?”
The Legate retained her aggressive stance as I pushed back the hood of my robe, but the General’s eyes grew wide, sudden recognition flaring through his features. I eyed him curiously, somehow he looked different than I remembered him from the event at the Embassy. Not only didn’t he wear the heavy ornated plate he had worn then but a lighter leather cuirass, his white hair was cut even shorter and accentuated his receding hair line, and he looked… smaller. More tired.
“Qhourian, from Whiterun. You know me as Dragonborn.” I bowed my head. “General.”
He straightened himself with a frown. “Whatever you want, you’re a fool to come here. I should arrest you right here and now and pass you to the Thalmor.”
He didn’t even show a tiny little bit of curiosity about the reasons for my hazardous visit, and it was to assume that nice words wouldn’t change that. I tried it with bluntness.
“It was hard enough to find you, General. I’ve a proposition to make… concerning Ulfric, the war and the plans of both parties concerning Whiterun.”
The general made a small gesture to the Legate, and the woman sheathed her sword with evident reluctance. But she remained alert, I saw it in her stance and in the way her hand always lingered near the hilt.
“You’re no Stormcloak,” the General said, “my intelligence would know if the Dragonborn had joined the enemy. What can you know about his plans?”
“Nothing, General,” I said with a light smile, “as you’ve said, I’m not involved in this war, and I’d prefer it to stay that way. But I can assure you that Ulfric won’t march on Whiterun as long as you don’t either.”
“And why would he give such a warranty? And even more important – how do you know?”
“Because he has promised to leave Whiterun alone as long as I’m busy trying to stop Alduin the Worldeater. And I ask the same of you.”
The Legate’s stance changed suddenly from aggressive to attentive, but absolute incomprehension was written into the General’s face. His eyes narrowed dangerously.
“Do I understand you correctly? You expect me to plan my war around some obscure Nordic myth?”
“Let me explain, Sir. Please.” I didn’t wait for his reaction and spoke on. “I need Whiterun – Dragonsreach, the Jarl’s palace, to be exact – to trap a dragon, an ally of Alduin. He’s the only one who can take me to him before it’s too late.”
But I knew my attempts to explain myself were futile as soon as I started. General Tullius was no Nord, and even worse, he was a soldier to the core. He had an order to fulfil, and he thought in military units, victories and casualties. The end of the world as predicted in a weird prophecy didn’t matter to him, and his reaction confirmed my worst concerns.
“I have a war to win, Dragonborn,” he said dryly, “and your prophecies and your Nordic sense for honour and traditions have been nothing but a nuisance so far. If it gives me an advantage over that traitor for once, give me a single reason why I shouldn’t use it.”
Holy Kyne. At least Ulfric understood and accepted the danger of Alduin. This man was as oblivious as ignorant, and I had no idea how to break the shell of his narrow-mindedness.
“Sir… perhaps we should listen to her. If it’s about Alduin…” The Legate stood straight and faced her commander, causing his face to frown in confusion.
“Legate? You seriously want to suggest that you believe in this nonsense?”
“Yes, Sir. Alduin the Worldeater. Predicted to come at the end of times, together with the last Dragonborn.”
“Holy Eight, is everybody going mad?” Both ignored me completely in the meantime. “Alduin here, Alduin there, if I hear that name once again I’m gonna go and slay him myself! Gods, he’s only a dragon, and this woman as well as our troops and the guards of every single hold have proven a hundred times that they can be killed, and easily!”
Now it broke out of me. “He isn’t only a dragon, Sir! He’s the Firstborn of Akatosh, the Worldeater and Devourer of Souls! Do you have any idea what that means?”
He stared coldly at me. “I don’t care what that means, Dragonborn. If Ulfric is weak enough to refrain from a move he has to make if he has any strategic reason because of a lousy prophecy, I will beat him to it.” Something sinister played in the corners of his mouth. “Thank you kindly for this information. Let’s see if the traitor stands to his word to leave Whiterun alone when he learns of my move.”
He turned around and beckoned to the Legate. “Rikke, find a guard and remove this woman from the Castle. And give out orders that every priest caught anywhere outside of the sickbay is to be arrested immediately.”
I had not only not been successful, I had made everything only worse.
How could I ever think I could just stroll into the warroom of the Imperial Legion and convince someone like Tullius of my plan? It was madness… and it must have sounded like madness to him.
The Legate’s face was stoic as she led me through the dark aisles of the Castle, but she didn’t stop one of the guards we met to get rid of me and instead held my elbow in a firm grip. And she didn’t lead me to the exit, but to a small chamber, furnished with nothing but a raw cot, a chest and a small desk. As soon as the door was firmly shut, she turned to me with a serious expression.
“I risk my rank with this, Dragonborn,” she said sternly. “Explain yourself. Now.”
I didn’t dare to show the new hope her words kindled in me. “What do you want to know?”
“Alduin. Where is he, what is he doing, and what can you do to stop him.”
“I’ve fought him once, and he escaped. According to Paarthurnax… you know who Paarthurnax is?”
Of course not. “He’s the leader of the Greybeards. Alduin’s brother and his former right hand. He lives on top of the Throat of the World.”
She gasped. “The leader of the Greybeards is a Dragon?”
“Yes. He is… impressive. And according to him, Alduin is in Sovngarde and feasts on the souls of the dead. This war provides him with plenty of prey,” I laughed bitterly.
“My only chance to get to him is one of his allies. He fled when I fought him… and Paarthurnax hopes that this has shaken their loyalty. I have a name, I can call him… but the only means to force him to betray his master is to trap him in Dragonsreach. And Balgruuf won’t help if Whiterun isn’t safe while he houses a dragon.”
The woman dropped heavily onto a chair and stared in disbelief.
“You really mean that. Tullius is right… that is insane.”
“I know,” I said with a feeble grin, “but it’s the only plan we have.” It felt irreal how the arguments repeated themselves, how disbelief and doubts of my sanity were all I met wherever I came. And on some level, I could understand these people.
She beckoned me to sit down, uncorked a bottle of mead and offered me another one. She looked astonished when I refused, but her face fell into utter bewilderment when I stretched the lose robe over my body. “You’re pregnant?”
I just nodded. It was a rhetorical question, and it wasn’t important anyway. I had to come to terms with this woman.
“Why have you brought me here instead to throw me out, Legate?”
She looked at me from beneath her thick, brown hair that was neatly braided out of her face, the prominent line between her brows deepening. “I stand loyal to the Empire, but I’m also a Nord, and I know when my superiors are wrong. And at the moment, Tullius is wrong. As a true daughter of Skyrim, I believe that Alduin is much more than just a dragon. And I believe that you’re the only one who can stop him.”
Now a small smile settled in the corners of her lips. “And you’re brave to come here, right under the eyes of the Thalmor. I can respect that, and such daredevilry deserves to be rewarded.”
“And how will this reward look like?” I asked stiffly.
“I will throw my by no means inconsiderable influence into the balance and speak with Tullius – in a few days, when his mood is better because we will have taken another Stormcloak fort for the Legion. That’s what I’m gonna set out for in the morning. And you will use this delay and do me a favour.”
She said it as a matter of fact, as if there was absolutely no doubt that I’d let her rope me in for her cause. All this… it was humiliating. To be dismissed like that by her boss. To be robbed of my mobility, caught in this small room under her guard with no means to escape. And to be pressed into her service.
“Will you force me to join the Legion?” The idea filled me with revulsion, but she had the power to do so. And if I had to, I’d do what she demanded. If it was the only way to get Tullius’ cooperation, I would even help him win this war.
The open hostility in my voice made her grin. “I could, couldn’t I?” She watched my anxiety with superior amusement. “Honestly, I’m surprised that you haven’t taken a side yet. Preferably ours, of course, but I haven’t met many Nords that don’t have at least an opinion.”
“I’ll tell you the same I told Ulfric Stormcloak when he tried to make me join his ranks. That my war is more important than yours.”
The supremacy slowly left her face, and she regarded me thoughtfully. “And you’d do everything to win your war. No matter what.”
I didn’t answer.
“Have you ever heard of the Jagged Crown, Dragonborn?” It seemed she was clever enough to end this argument before it had opportunity to escalate.
“No. What’s that?”
“The Jagged Crown… it’s another of our Nordic myths,” she said with a weak grin, “and that’s why I need your help with it. And no, you don’t have to join the Legion to do me that favour.”
I gave her an arched, questioning eyebrow. “It’s the crown of King Harald, back from the first era, and it’s said to hold a part of his and of his predecessors’ power. But it’s been lost… since about 200 years later, with the defeat of King Borgas during the Wild Hunt.”
Another artefact. I had heard dozens of myths, tales and rumours concerning one or another item from ancient times, each of which granted the wearer some powers not entirely from this world, and I had even reclaimed some of them myself. Tattered pieces of armour, broken swords, enchanted amulets, unique books. Trinkets of all kinds. It seemed another of these things had decided to resurface… as soon as I had freed it from the depths of a crypt or tomb where it was undoubtedly hidden away.
Because I knew the story – or history – of the Wild Hunt, the ritual the Bosmer of Valenwood performed when the need arose to protect their homeland from invaders. Anoriath, one of the local hunters in Whiterun, had once told me about it.
“Borgas died in Valenwood. I won’t be able to make that journey in a few days.”
“It’s only a legend, but legends tend to hold a grain of truth, and this legend tells us that Borgas was brought home and buried here in Skyrim. His tomb was lost, though… until recently, but whoever finds the crown will have a powerful symbol to support the claim to the title of High King, towards the moot as well as towards the people of Skyrim.”
“And now you want me to find this thing for Elisif,” I said dryly, but I felt the fury coil in my stomach. I couldn’t help it, of course she’d made use of her position of power, but I hated to be abused so openly.
She nodded. No use in trying to beat around the bush. “The problem is, the Stormcloaks know about it as well. Don’t ask me how they found out about it, we only got the information because we captured one of their messengers. But it’s only a legend, and Tullius refuses to spare any resources for this search. For this chase after a fairy tale, as he called it.”
Awesome. Snatch a priceless artefact right under the eyes of Ulfric’s soldiers and give it to his sworn enemy and biggest rival. I was by no means duty bound to the Stormcloak, but this felt remarkably like betrayal.
It was betrayal, and it felt like taking a side, no matter if I was forced or not.
“This is no simple favour, Legate. Do I get respite?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. Her smirk showed that I wasn’t successful in hiding my anger, but this woman wasn’t easily to frighten.
“Of course. Until tomorrow morning, and you will stay here till then. But if you refuse, I’ll throw you not only out of the castle, but out of the city. And believe me, I can make sure that you’ll never be able to enter Solitude again.”
She extorted me openly and without shame, and her complacency left me speechless. She had me in her grip.
But my war was more important than hers, and I had to do everything that was necessary to win it.