It was deep in the night, and yet Whiterun was beautiful and alive. I heard the firm steps of the guards, someone running down the steps from Dragonsreach and a drunkard staggering away from the inn. I heard children cry and a mother singing a lullaby, snoring and yelling and laughing, the guttural moans of arousal, drunken arguments and hushed chatter. I spied on them, all these people that lived behind the thick walls and firmly closed doors I passed during my aimless stroll through the city. In one way or another, all of them had belonged to my life since I had come here. I had been a part of this community only for a bit more than a year, but it felt like a lifetime. And now I wandered through the streets and alleys I knew so good, my feet carrying me without plan or purpose from the gates to the market, from the Mare to the Gildergreen, from the Temple to the Halls of the Dead.
I said farewell to these places, I realised as I found myself in front of Jorrvaskr, my fingertips brushing over the worn carvings and the heavy rivets holding the iron bands, furbished by countless hands that had pushed these doors open. Now it seemed quiet, empty and lifeless, not even my sense of hearing reaching down into the living quarters where the Companions slept, where I had spent so many nights myself. As if the building itself shut me out, and I turned away and climbed the stairs to the Skyforge instead.
I had always loved this sight, the lights of the city beneath me, Dragonsreach rising behind the eagle and the endless waves of the plains in my back, and I never loved it more than in this moment, as the view changed before my inner eye.
The image was layered with the foreboding of what was to come. The hushed chatter and laughter became screams of pain and death, the flickering, homey lights turned into an inferno, flames roaring in a storm of devastation. The stars above me would fade out and vanish once and for all, replaced by darkness that would never again be lit up by another morning. A bottomless maelstrom, deep enough to swallow the world.
And on top of the smouldering ruin that had been the Jarl’s palace would loom that shadow, blacker than the darkness, its cause and its origin.
I saw it, the images coming alive and concrete with everything I knew, from Helgen, from Kynesgrove and from the Throat of the World.
I knew how it would be, the end of the world. Knew what would happen and how it would feel like, when the world was annihilated by hate and destruction. The insatiable maelstrom filled not only the sky, but it filled my mind and my soul. I knew how it felt, an aching hole in my chest, dark, cruel and empty. Bottomless darkness where once had been… something else. Life, and love, and laughter.
Only Alduin was left to fill this hole now, his darkness and his hatred. He was the reason for my existence and for every step I had taken. He had led me here and lured me in, my nemesis, the arch-enemy, had taken everything that was precious. The depth of my pain, the urge to destroy – they all were fuelled by this hate that yearned fulfilment, an abyss as deep, dark and devouring as the sky over Whiterun. I was his match. It gave me strength, this hatred, gave me direction and purpose. It gave me a goal.
I didn’t listen any more to the sounds of life when I returned to Breezehome, didn’t look at the stars and didn’t return the guards’ greetings. And I slept deep and dreamless until Adrianne started her workshift and woke me, and when I pushed the doors of the palace open, I was calm and determined to catch me a dragon.
But my concentration was broken in an instant as soon as I entered, the sight making me want to turn and run. Why in Oblivion couldn’t they leave me alone?
Not only the Jarl and Irileth were already waiting, no, Farengar, Avenicci and Hrongar stood beside the throne as well. And to the side, like an audience, waited Kodlak, Aela and Vilkas.
When I reached the gathering, my face had twisted into a deep, frustrated frown, in stark contrast to the broad, complacent smile the Jarl wore and the irritation on the faces on the Companions.
“He has asked us to come here,” Kodlak whispered when I had reached the group. “You know what he wants?”
Now I looked as confused as he and shook my head. But I wasn’t here for secret-mongerings and idle chatter, whatever the Jarl had planned. There was a dragon waiting for me, and I wanted to start.
“What’s going on here, Jarl Balgruuf?” I asked sharply, perhaps sharper than intended. But Balgruuf didn’t let himself get worked up. He stood up and looked radiantly into the round, obviously bathing in the feeling that he knew something we didn’t. My eyes narrowed in frustration, the last I needed now was a surprise, but finally he started to speak.
“Friends… Companions… Qhourian! I apologise for the rashness of the invitation, but I have come to a decision I want to announce before… whatever is going to happen today will take its course.” He nodded to the Circle-members. “I’m glad you as Qhourian’s closest companions were able attend this little ceremony.” The low growl from Vilkas’ throat evidently escaped him when he presented me a beaming smile and breathed in deeply, as if he was going to say something very grave and substantial. I felt every eye in the hall on me, the attention making me cringe inwardly. Holy Kyne, please let this be over. Soon. Now.
“Qhourian, over the last months you have done great services for Whiterun and Skyrim. You have accomplished tasks nobody ever thought possible, and lately you have also proven that you’re as gifted to deal with delicate diplomatic tasks as you’re skilled as dragon-slayer.”
I knew Jarl Balgruuf as a rational, sometimes harsh but overall reasonable man. But this proclamation and the solemn tone in which he presented it was simply ridiculous, and I looked at him full of confusion.
“And therefore, by my right as Jarl and as a token of my esteem, I name you Thane of Whiterun, the greatest honour within my power to grant. I assign you Lydia as a personal Housecarl and this weapon from my personal armoury to serve as your badge of office.”
Irileth handed the Jarl an intricate one-handed axe which he presented to me with outstretched arms, but I was stunned. Speechless. Unable to react.
As if there wasn’t enough madness going on. Thane? Housecarl? Badge of office?
But his expectant expression made clear that this was an offer I couldn’t deny. It wasn’t an offer at all.
I felt the looks of everybody around on me and the heat of the blood shooting into my cheeks. Something was expected from me now, some kind of reaction, but I had no idea what to do. In the end, I took the offered weapon hesitantly, if only to keep my hands and my eyes busy while I inspected it. It was a steel blade with silver inlays and an enchantment I couldn’t identify right away, it was beautiful and precious, but… gods, an axe? The only weapon I had no idea how to use. And with silver? I swallowed heavily, not sure how to hide my bewilderment.
Everything became even worse when a young, brunette woman in heavy steel armour emerged from the back of the hall, took the place beside Farengar and observed me from taxing brown eyes. I knew her by sight as one of the Jarl’s personal guards… this had to be Lydia, my new housecarl.
This was crazy.
Slowly I turned my attention to the Jarl who had taken seat on his throne again, open curiosity on his face, trying to keep my expression as vacant as possible.
“It’s an honour, my Jarl,” I said sternly, “and not at all what I anticipated for today.”
He showed me a small smirk. “You don’t seem to be… thrilled, exactly,” he remarked.
I blushed even harder, but managed to answer without stammering. “Just… surprised. This came unexpected.”
“Maybe, yes. But you earned it,” he said flatly. I couldn’t disagree more. Balgruuf was a rational man and a good leader, and he didn’t vest someone with such a title without ulterior motives. I couldn’t imagine that he indeed wanted me as an advisor in his court, not when he had people like Farengar, Irileth or even Kodlak at his disposal. It was a titular title, bestowed only to make me feel obliged to him and his city. A political asset, and I had been given no choice but to accept it.
The Jarl tried to use me when he made me Thane, his motivation wasn’t hard to decipher, and beneath the bewilderment grew the anger about another decision that was taken out of my hands. But not like this. I didn’t have a choice, obviously I never had a choice and nobody ever was cared for my wishes, but I didn’t want others involved in this weird game of power and influence I didn’t have any interest in.
“I accept, Jarl Balgruuf, although I don’t know yet if I will stay in Whiterun,” I said sternly, “but only under one condition.”
He arched an astonished eyebrow. “A condition? And what would that be?”
“No housecarl.” My eyes turned to the woman that stood so eagerly beside the throne. I had visited enough courts and knew enough Jarls and Thanes to know that housecarls were usually not much more than better servants who were furthermore sworn to protect their master with their lives. They devoted themselves to someone else, and the thought to have someone I didn’t even know in such a relationship to me let me shudder with discomfort.
“I’m sorry, Lydia,” I said to the young woman whose face had fallen into disappointment. “It’s nothing personal… but I don’t need a housecarl, I don’t need a protector and I don’t want the company of a stranger.” My blunt words hurt her, and I could understand her reaction… she was young, very young, and to be assigned to a new Thane must have been an exciting prospect.
But if I wanted the company of an eager, naïve young girl, I’d rather take Ria. As soon as the thought formed in my head, I dismissed it impatiently, virtually slapping myself. The habit to trace everything back to the Companions as the centre of my life finally had to stop.
“I understand,” the Jarl said and directed his gaze to the Circle. “As a member of the Companions and with your history, you really don’t need a protector. It’s entirely against the traditions, though… Lydia is already ready to move to Breezehome and prepare everything for your triumphant return.”
Oh gods, no! Of course she wanted to move to Breezehome, that’s what the word housecarl stood for. To stand on my toes for the rest of my life. Something like panic bubbled in my stomach, and I shook my head frantically.
“I don’t even know if there will be a return at all…” I said weakly, and finally someone else intervened. Aela. I could have kissed her.
“Qhourian will stay in Jorrvaskr anyway when she comes back,” she said calmly and without blushing. “She won’t live alone when her due date comes closer. I don’t suppose your Lydia here is trained as a midwife, and she can’t stay in the hall anyway.” She lied for me… or at least made assumptions that were by no means warranted. Vilkas’ face twisted in surprise, and Kodlak let out a low chuckle.
The Jarl regarded us thoughtfully. “Well… of course. Okay. But if you’re ever in need of a housecarl, I request that you come to me immediately.”
Not in this lifetime. I didn’t say it out loud. “I will, my Jarl. Just don’t put her on hold until then. And now… are your guards ready? Can we go and trap this dragon?”
My impatience was probably discourteous, but I hoped he would understand. He had to be aware that he had caught me entirely off-guard with this whole Thane thing, and I had neither the nerves nor the time to deal with the consequences right now.
“Of course. My men stand ready, as promised,” he smiled and beckoned Irileth to take the lead. The whole group left the room towards the upper levels and I rushed after them, but before I could vanish through the doorway, a firm grip on my elbow held me back.
“Good hunting, sister,” Aela said quietly, and in her eyes stood sadness, acceptance… and a small, encouraging smile. Perhaps she was the only one really able to understand what was going on with me, and she let out a relieved sigh when I pulled her into a hug. Over her shoulder I saw the other two Companions still stand nearby and watch us, Kodlak with a warm smile, Vilkas deadpan as always.
A sudden grin spread over my face when I remembered a certain incident in Skyhaven temple. “What do you think, Vilkas… will he have balls I can feed him?”
Astonishment that I addressed him flashed over his face, but then he couldn’t suppress a smirk.
“No, he won’t,” he answered. “Imagine he would breed!”
Aela stood before me, obviously puzzled by this short exchange, one hand on her hip, her head tilted to the side.
“I… have to go.” I turned away from them, but suddenly she pushed past me with fast steps and rushed up the stairs before I could hold her back, shooting me a challenging look over her shoulder.
“Exactly. Let’s trap you a dragon.”
“Aela, no!” I couldn’t believe they defied my wishes so blatantly. After a moment of disbelief I ran after her, but she wasn’t to be deterred, and Vilkas’ heavy steps following closely behind were finally the last straw to let anger and distress boil over. I stopped my chase right after a bend in a narrow stairway, waiting for Vilkas to run into me.
He did, heavily, crashing us both to the ground.
“FUS!” I shouted and he flew down the steps he had just ran up, lying motionless on his back as I stood above him, arms folded across my chest, glaring down on him. “You, Icebrain, have no business here,” I said calmly. “You will go home now and take your shield-sister with you.”
Aela stood frozen at the top of the stairs. “Qhouri…,” she said placatingly.
But I had enough, once and for all. “No,” I yelled at them, “get out of my eyes! I don’t want you to be here, don’t you get it? I didn’t want you to follow me to Korvanjund but you did it anyway,” I pointed accusingly at Vilkas, “I didn’t want to be named Thane and meet you here but I had to, and most of all didn’t I want you to make a bloody promise! Your stupid oath and stupid honour my ass, for once you will respect my wishes and leave me alone!”
The silence after my outbreak stretched into infinity, until Aela descended the stairs and offered Vilkas a hand to help him up. His face was petrified, only a single muscle in his jaw twitching uncontrolled. Aela turned to me once more, but I yanked away when she tried to lay a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Qhouri,” she said, and the sadness was back in her eyes, “but I don’t think this is about honour.”
A heavy sigh of relief escaped my lips when their steps finally faded in the distance and the entrance to Dragonsreach clapped shut behind them.
The Jarl waited with Irileth, Farengar and a dozen guards at the edge of the porch, and their expectant, eager yet slightly scared glances finally gave me back the calmness I needed.
“Okay,” I said, walking forward to the edge of the yard, “I will call the dragon from here. But this won’t be an ordinary dragon fight… don’t forget, we don’t want to kill him. We don’t even want to hurt him. He has to be lured to the back where some of you will stand ready to spring the trap.”
I looked into the round. “I need two of you at the lever, you release it on the Jarl’s command who will stay in the back of the hall and stay on top of things.” I didn’t want Balgruuf in the middle of the fight, he wasn’t even armoured properly with his hauberk that looked more representative than protective. “Only Irileth and I will attack him directly, keep his attention and draw him down here.” I looked expectantly at the Jarl’s housecarl, but it seemed she didn’t mind that I had taken over the command over her troops and nodded in agreement. “The archers among you line up on the upper level, between the pillars, you’ll be as far as possible out of the way of his blast there. I don’t know if he will spit fire or ice, but both is unpleasant. You only start to attack if we lose his attention and things run south, and you fire only on my command. I don’t wanna see a stray arrow in his eye or something similar.”
One of the soldiers with a bow on his back raised a hand. “But don’t you need us to make him land? That’s what we did at the watchtower, at least.”
“Very considerate, but no. I can force him to land. When you see… something like blue flames around him, he will come down a few moments later. Promised.” To see all these attentive, anxious faces around me made me grin. They were good guys, these men and women.
“That’s the plan. But the dragon I’m gonna call is the chief lieutenant of Alduin, and we simply don’t know what will happen. If everything goes well, most of you can just stand around and enjoy the show. If it doesn’t – well, then good luck to us all. He will be dangerous, especially in such a tight space, but in the end all that counts is to get him under that thing.” I pointed at the wooden arch tucked under the ceiling. “Even if that means that we have to push him in ass first.” The laughter I got was nervous and weak, but it released a bit of the tension.
When all the soldiers had taken their positions, I turned to the Jarl. “Can we begin?”
He eyed me confidently. “Looks like you have everything under control, Dragonborn. I’m putting my city into your hands, do your best.”
“OD AH VIING!”
The beast was enormous. Although I had hoped it would be just an ordinary dragon I should have expected it, and the gigantic red creature that came flying around Dragonsreach with heavy, nearly leisurely slow flaps of his wings some anxious minutes after I had called him was beyond every expectation. He flew by close to the porch, as if he wanted to present himself in all his glory, turned in an elegant curve and attacked. Irileth and I were barely able to dart out of his fire blast, and we didn’t have time to admire his mighty presence for more than a few seconds.
His next approach was even slower, and then he hovered in front of us, the slow motions of his wings causing a storm that nearly swept us off the platform. I wouldn’t let him hold his comfortable position for long.
“JOOR ZAH FRUL!”
And there he was, landing with a crash and nearly filling the space between the walls of the porch even when he had folded his wings to his back, a roaring, writhing mass of muscles and wrath. Never before had I seen a dragon like him. It wasn’t just his sheer size, he wasn’t even quite as large as Alduin or Paarthurnax. No, it was his colour, the scales shimmering in every imaginable shade of red, from a light orange to the darkest burgundy, the leather of his wings iridescent into rich purple tones. And it were his eyes, huge, green pupils around the familiar black slits that didn’t show only the ignorant blandness I was used to, but eyes full of conscience, full of intelligence, pride, fury, surprise… and curiosity.
It was nearly too easy. Of course he fought and struggled, tried to bathe us in his fire, and once my heart nearly stopped when his fangs snapped shut only inches in front of Irileth. But he was entirely focused on us, and with every step we made backwards he followed us a step forwards, deeper into the hallway. I couldn’t imagine that he didn’t realise the weirdness of this fight, not with the archers waiting idly at the edge of the hallway above us, our attacks relentless but remarkable inefficient, with Irileth backing off far too fast after each ineffective, shallow thrust of her sword and Dragonbane’s slim blade slashing out against his neck instead to pierce between the scales.
He had to wonder, but perhaps he underestimated us, perhaps he thought he could play with us while he herded us slowly along the hallway. Perhaps he had as much fun as we.
Until Balgruuf’s sonorous command sounded through the air, drowning out even the noise of the fight and the rush of adrenaline fuelled blood pounding in my ears.
“Get away from him!” My yell got lost in the earth-shattering noise from the springing trap and followed by a moment of absolute silence when everybody – including Odahviing – tried to get a hold of the situation. A nearly equally earth-shattering roar erupted from the dragon’s throat when he realised what had happened, and he released a final, powerful fireblast, filling the back of the hall with flames, smoke and heat.
“I think it’s holding.” The astonished, incredulous whisper of one of the guards broke the silence, and suddenly everything was turmoil and laughter, backslapping and relief. Yes, the ancient trap was indeed holding, even against Odahviing’s struggling and furious shouts. He made the wood creak and strain against the steel bindings and bolts, but it stood the test and held.
When the dragon realised that he couldn’t break free, he relaxed… slightly, at least, his long neck stretching and winding to get an overview of what was happening around him. And when he started to speak, it was more or less just an annoyed rumble. “Horvutah med kodaav. Caught like a bear in a trap…”
His head swang from side to side, but everybody had now taken position somewhere where neither his fangs nor his tail could reach them, all of the people who had helped standing in a wide circle around the dragon. Finally his eyes fixed on me.
“Dovahkiin,” he said, his rough, sonorous voice filling the hall with a vibrating power, “zu’u bonaar. You went to a great deal of trouble to put me in this… humiliating position.”
“It’s not my intention to humiliate you, Odahviing,” I said sternly, “and I suppose you know already why we were forced to… take such unusual measures.”
“I assume… you want me to betray my master.” He bared his fangs in an expression either threatening or amused. “Hind siiv Alduin, hmm? No doubt you want to know where to find Alduin?”
“I know where he is. The coward fled when I bested him at the Throat of the World, and now he hides his sorry hide in Sovngarde.” I tilted my head, didn’t even try to avoid the scrutinising, arrogant look of the ancient dragon. “Only a coward calls a coward his master.”
My insolent remark was answered with a quiet murmur from the people around me and an angry hiss from the dragon.
“You dare to call me a coward?”
“I am Dovahkiin, dragon. Prove to me that you’re not.”
I talked large, but subservience and devoutness would earn me neither his respect nor his cooperation. And I had to earn his respect, to have him trapped wouldn’t be enough. This wasn’t a wild animal I could try to tame, and despite his position he still had the advantage – I needed him desperately, but he could just wait until his master came back or I died of old age, and I had to assume he knew this very well.
He stretched his neck as far as possible, his fangs coming closer and closer until everything I saw was this long scarlet snout and these green eyes, gleaming with suppressed temperament. He could have roasted me with a single breath, but I didn’t move.
“Rinik vazah. An apt phrase. Alduin bovul. He fled, and some of my brethren have begun to question his lordship and the strength of his Thu’um. Among themselves, of course. Mu ni meyye. We’re no fools, and nobody was yet ready to defy him openly.” I saw his tongue curl behind the fence of his teeth, his breath swirling hot and sulphurous around me. “But I am not one of them.”
“Perhaps you should, Odahviing.”
“Well…,” his head swang from side to side, “one reason I came to your call was to test your Thu’um for myself. My eagerness to meet you in battle was my undoing, Dovahkiin. I admit, you are strong. Hin Thu’um mul.”
He either wanted to sidetrack our conversation or liked to hear himself talk far too much. Slowly I became impatient.
“Tell me how to get to Sovngarde. Give your master opportunity to prove his Thu’um against mine once more.”
“Unslaad krosis. Innumerable pardons. I digress,” Odahviing chuckled as if he had all the time of the world and enjoyed our discussion tremendously. He probably did, and the red-scaled bastard was nothing less than sorry. “He guards the privilege to feed on the sillesejoor… the souls of the mortal dead jealously. His entrance to Sovngarde is at Skuldafn, one of his ancient fanes high in the eastern mountains. Of course it is guarded… properly.”
Skuldafn, in the eastern mountains. Finally I had a name. I took a step away from the dragon and searched for a certain face. “Farengar? I need a map!” Where was the bloody mage? He wouldn’t have left now, would he?
A shriek, a pained yell, a furious roar and a blast of fire against the castle wall were my answer. While everyone’s attention was directed towards Odahviing and our conversation, the Jarl’s courtmage had fallen victim to his curiosity and grabbed the chance to inspect a living dragon at close quarters. At very close quarters. And he couldn’t even withstand the temptation to rip a flaming red scale out of the dragon’s hide.
Odahviing’s reaction was understandable, I had to give him that, but the utter chaos that broke lose when the hallway was filled with fire and smoke again and Farengar lay unconscious at the foot of a pillar after a whiplash of the spiked tail had crashed him against the wall wasn’t helpful at all. And even less helpful was that one of the guards thought he had to prove his foolish bravery by drawing his sword and attacking the dragon’s neck with a roar.
To see the man’s face contort into confusion and fury when the greatsword slipped from his fingers as if it was covered in soap would have been hilarious if I had had the nerves to laugh. I caught the weapon hilt first and propped it in front of me like a walking stick, glaring at him with at least as much anger as Odahviing. My shout had the instant side-effect of everybody becoming suddenly quiet.
“Out,” I said with a low growl that never failed to have the desired effect, “everyone but the Jarl and Irileth leaves now. Someone take that fool to the temple!” I pointed at the crumpled figure of the mage.
I waited until the door fell shut behind the last man before I turned back to the dragon. A smug grin curled his lips, and he literally beamed with arrogance. Watching him I got the distinct feeling that he knew something I didn’t.
“Zu’u lost ofan hin laan… now that I have answered your question, will you allow me to go free?”
I pondered over his question, made him wait until he jerked back his head in an impatient gesture. “Who is your master, Odahviing?”
He watched me thoughtfully. “Alduin… until he’s defeated.”
“Then give me a single reason why I should believe that you don’t cheat me.”
A chortle broke out of his throat. “You think like a dov, Dovahkiin. And…” he harrumphed into my face, “… there may be a detail about Skuldafn I neglected to mention.”
I knew it. Crossing my arms over my chest, I gave him a challenging look. “Why am I not surprised? Tell me what you know.”
He savoured far too much what was to come. “You, Dovahkiin, may have the soul and the voice of a dovah. But without the wings, you will never set a foot in Skuldafn,” he drawled, his massive head tilting in snotty amusement.
He watched my reaction to this revelation curiously, and I didn’t disappoint. Utter shock was written into my face. “You… treacherous bastard,” I muttered.
“Of course… I could take you there. But not while imprisoned like this.”
The words dropped like honey from his fangs, persuasive, convincing and tempting, but it would take more than that to make me trust the good will and helpfulness of Alduin’s lieutenant. I believed him that he didn’t lie, that Skuldafn was unreachable for me, even without looking at a map. But no way I’d let him go free, and I paced frantically through the courtyard, my mind racing in the hectic search for an alternative solution, for an outlet of this dilemma.
Perhaps Paarthurnax would take me there? But no, the old dragon hadn’t left the Throat of the World for eras. And to force him to face the most loyal defenders of his brother… impossible. Perhaps I could wait until Alduin came back from Sovngarde. Yeah, sated with mortal souls and at the height of his power, ready to devour the world. It would be madness to wait so long.
I gritted my teeth. “We’re at an impasse,” I had to admit.
“Indeed. Orin brit ra. You won’t let me go until you defeat Alduin, which you cannot do without my help,” he said playfully, his lively eyes sparkling with glee.
I turned to the Jarl. “Please post a couple of guards here. I need… some time to come to a decision.” Odahviing’s annoyed grunt was audible even through the closed doors.
Of course I didn’t need time, and I took the shortest way back to Breezehome. This was just another of those issues where the decision was already taken out of my hands. I was dragged along by a destiny that marched with gigantic steps towards its fulfilment. If Odahviing said the only way to reach his master was to fly with him to a secluded, heavily fortified fortress, I had no choice but to believe him and to do what he told me.
At least, travelling on a dragon’s back would mean that I wouldn’t have to waste days or weeks with an arduous journey through the wilderness. And still, while I assessed every single piece of my gear, I never got rid of the nagging suspicion that I’d never be prepared for what lay ahead.
In the end, I left most of my usual equipment behind. It seemed ridiculous to take rations, spare clothes, flint and tinder or a bedroll to Sovngarde. I wouldn’t need it. A few potions, salves and bandages, and apart from that, everything I took only served a single purpose: to kill Alduin. Bundles with every high quality arrow I could get in Whiterun, daggers sheathed and hidden in my boot, at the small of my back and at my upper arm, the Dwemer shortsword I had used in Korvanjund strapped to my hip, a broad leather belt with throwing darts slung across my chest, pouches with poisons at my belt. My armour was in excellent condition, and Dragonbane’s slim blade shone with sharpness.
Many eyes followed me as I passed the market place towards the higher quarters. Fralia and Carlotta, Anoriath and Sigurd, Braith and Mila, Saadia and Brenuin – they all knew of the dragon trapped on top of the city and why he was here. I felt I should acknowledge them, perhaps satisfy their curiosity and say farewell, that they expected something of me, but I didn’t have the strength. Instead I lowered my head, rushed up the stairs and into the temple.
This time, I didn’t feel the goddess’ presence as I knelt down in front of the shrine. Not even Kyne could light up Alduin’s darkness. But as I let the broken light from the colourful windows wash over me and the silence numbed my senses, I found the calm that I needed so urgently. I didn’t pray for success, or absolution, for forgiveness or victory. I prayed for the strength to go on and to do my best. And although the wish was vague and undefined, I prayed that I would arrive somewhere, that this way would finally lead me to a place where I’d finally be able to stay.
Vilkas never knew when it was enough or when it was too much, he had never cared for my sensitivities, and not even shouting at him helped. He was waiting for me when I left the temple, sitting at the foot of the stairs to Jorrvaskr, catching my gaze as soon as I opened the door and blinked into the bright light of the late afternoon.
He was stubborn. He was like me, and to him, I could say goodbye. I had done it before, and this time would be the last.
His annoyed grunt when I settled beside him, snatched the bottle from his grip and took a long swig of his ale coaxed an easy grin on my face. His breath smelled of alcohol.
“I need it more than you, brother,” I said, holding the bottle out of his reach. “It’s medicine.”
His head jerked around. “Are you ill?”
“No. Just pregnant and scared. It’s medicine against fear.” I grinned at him.
“What are you afraid of?”
I shrugged. Perhaps the question should be what scared me most. “Odahviing will take me to the entrance to Sovngarde.”
“He will… you will ride him? Fly with him?”
“Yeah. Guess I have to. Terrifying, hm?”
He sat with his knees drawn to his chest and stared at me as if I had lost my mind. A giggle broke from my throat. “Dragonsoul my ass, brother. I’m scared of heights!”
He shook his head. “Qhouri, I’m…”
“No, Vilkas.” I prodded my elbow into his ribs. He was stiff like a wooden puppet. “Don’t do that. I can’t bear any more demands.”
“But I wanted to apologise! Although you shouted at me!”
“Yeah, that’s exactly the problem. You have a way to make demands even when you say sorry. Let’s just say I owe you a punch, okay?”
For a moment he looked as if he wanted to snap at me, but then he cocked his head in feigned coyness and bared his teeth in a grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m really an ass.”
“Aye. And I’m a touchy bitch,” I snickered.
“You’re a pregnant werewolf. What do you expect?” His shoulder nudged into mine, but then he restored the distance between us. “Don’t think I don’t respect you,” he muttered. “I do. I truly do. It’s just…”
“I know. You just mean well.”
Now he looked into my face, searched my eyes. “What are your wishes, Qhouri?”
“Other than to drink myself to Oblivion, something else I’m not gonna get?” I had no wishes. Everything I had ever wished for was only a memory, swallowed by the darkness coiling in my chest and Alduin’s terror. I laughed, but it sounded hollow. “I want to kill him.”
“You will.” He was quiet for a moment. “And then? What do you want afterwards?”
“There is no afterwards, Vilkas.”
“But you’ll come back.”
“You believe that? You really believe that I’ll come back from the afterlife?”
He swallowed, but he braved my scrutiny.
“Yes.” He didn’t lie. He truly believed it.
I shrugged. “Dunno. Guess I’ll have to start over. Build up something.” I would have to. In a few months, I would be a mother. It didn’t matter.
“You can build on us. On me.” His voice was flat, but I felt the faint shiver in him, and he avoided my eyes. It was more than a suggestion, more than what Athis and Kodlak had said… it was an offer and a promise, not from the Companions, but from him personally. He was as severed as I, broken, lonely and lost, and still he tried to make a promise, offered his strength and his belief in a future that deserved to be called such, still hadn’t given up hope that we would find peace some day.
But he didn’t understand how I had come to the point where I was now, that everything that had happened since Helgen was connected by fate, strung together with the single purpose to pull me towards this point of no return. This explanation, as dreadful as it was, was the only one that gave everything at least a bit of a meaning.
He deserved better than to be just a cogwheel in the fulfilling of a destiny. We all deserved better. My fingers played absent-mindedly with a strap of my armour.
“Perhaps I can, perhaps I can’t. Dunno. Perhaps I’ll always be just a puppet hanging on the strings of the gods.”
I watched him calmly, watched how distress and pity flitted over his face, followed by sudden, resigned comprehension. “I didn’t believe you… but you really don’t care any more.”
I nodded slowly, holding his gaze against the sadness that built in his eyes. “I can’t afford to care, brother. I can’t afford to mourn, or to love, or to hope. I have a duty to fulfil, and everything’s in abeyance. I can just wait for the gods to throw their dice. Perhaps I’m lucky and Hircine’s are loaded.” His aghast expression and the thick cords of his neck betrayed his feelings. Perhaps he understood. I raised my hand and tucked an unruly strand out of his face. He needed a shave, and he clenched his teeth under the touch. “Let me go, Vilkas. Please. I want to part in peace.”
He let his forehead drop onto his knees, but his hands that had been clamped around his shins relaxed and reached out, and I took them, our fingers entangling. That at least I could give him… something to hold on to, a last moment of closeness.
But when I finally tried to break away he clenched my hand nearly desperately, rose and pulled me to my feet. When he picked a blossom from the Gildergreen and tucked it behind the collar of my armour, the scent rising sweet and fresh into my nose, I held my breath. His palms were warm on my face, as were his lips on top of my head.
“May the gods watch over your battles, sister,” he murmured into my hair before he rushed up the stairs and vanished through the heavy doors of Jorrvaskr without another look back.
The long shadows of dusk already encroached over the endless plains below me when I entered the porch again. Odahviing sat motionless, giving the distinctive impression that he was bored out of his wits, but his gaze followed me when I went around him and to the edge of the yard where we had fought not many hours ago. If I flew away with him to the east, we’d leave the sun ultimately behind… and next morning, perhaps I’d already be in Sovngarde. Perhaps I would never see the sun again.
“You’re ready to take me to Skuldafn, Odahviing?” I asked resolutely when I finally tore my gaze away from the sight and faced the captured dragon.
“So, you have reconsidered my offer, hmm? Onikaan kron? It was about time.”
I was tired to argue with the arrogant bastard. “Yes. I’ll set you free if you promise to take me to Alduin.”
He eyed me curiously, and his rough, sonorous voice revealed a strange respect. “Onikaan koraav gein miraad. It is wise to recognise when you only have one choice. Free me, and I will carry you to Skuldafn.”
They called me crazy, a madwoman and a fool when I asked Irileth to gather the men needed to open the trap. They were right, probably. I didn’t care.
As soon as he was free, Odahviing turned and carried his heavy body out of the hallway and to the large platform, his head twisting back to give me an impatient look.
“Faas nu, zini dein ruthi ahst vaal. Saraan uth – I await your command, as promised. Are you ready to see the world as only a dovah can?”
Without an answer I approached him with straightened shoulders, ignored the stares of the guards and started to climb him like I always did it when I wanted to kill one of his brethren, used his hind-leg as a ladder and crawled along the spine to a notch behind his head that looked as if it formed a saddle, with convenient horns that protruded from his skull in front of me to hold on to. He held perfectly still until I had settled as comfortable and secure as a mortal can settle on the back of a dragon. Jarl Balgruuf, Irileth and the guards stood in the the back with awe on their faces, frantic whispers reaching my ears.
“Zok brit uth! I warn you, once you’ve flown the skies of Keizaal, your envy of the dov will only increase. Amativ! Mu bo kotin stinselok.”
I doubted it. He hadn’t even taken off, sitting at the edge of the porch with his head swinging over the abyss below it, and I felt already the queasy lump of vertigo form in my stomach. But he gave me no further warning, his muscles tensed, one powerful leap, and then we were off and Dragonsreach, Whiterun and the landscape around it suddenly shrank below us. I squeezed my eyes shut with a terrified shriek that was answered by a low rumbling growl I felt more than I heard it. It vibrated with the pleasure to be in his very own element again.
For long moments I felt nothing but the icy wind in my face, piercing the skin with tiny needles and rushing through my ears, and the mighty muscles rippling and working between my thighs. The body below me moved in rhythm with the slow, powerful pushes of his wings, gliding through the air in elegant, rolling waves.
As long as I didn’t open my eyes, I could concentrate on holding on for my dear life and on adjusting to the dragon’s motions, could feel the chill of the wind and the warmth from his body and how he changed direction with subtle tilts of neck and tail. As long as I didn’t open my eyes, it was bearable.
But Odahviing startled me to death when he suddenly started to chuckle, the sound rumbling through the muscles I sat on.
“Are you scared, Dovahkiin?” His mocking tone made me cringe.
“I just prefer firm earth beneath my feet. To fall to my death now that I’m on my way to Sovngarde anyway would be quite a waste, wouldn’t it?” I answered, the sarcasm mostly lost in the effort to yell against the wind. But he jerked his neck, in a different way than before, and I let go of the horns in front of me, fell forwards and clenched my arms around his throat instead.
He didn’t like it, shook his head and nearly threw me off. Only my panicked scream let him stop.
“Dovahkiin,” he growled lowly, “sit up. You strangle me.” As if I could strangle a dragon, my arms didn’t even reach around his neck. But he resumed his even gliding, and finally I found the courage to sit upright again, exposed to the elements and the dragon’s unpredictable tempers.
“No stunts, please,” I gasped.
“You should open your eyes. We just pass the Monahven… the Throat of the World. If you want you can wave down to Paarthurnax.” Odahviing’s voice sounded patient, as if he was trying to talk a child into eating its porridge, but still with an amused undertone.
It didn’t help at all. “We’re higher than the mountain?” I shrieked.
There it was again, that vibrating chuckle. “Of course we are. Crashing against a mountainside is at least as unpleasant as falling to death. Not that I have experience with either.”
I couldn’t stand the smug satisfaction in his voice any more. And I wanted to be able to react when he started another stunt… I knew of what insane manoeuvres dragons were capable of. And…
I had opened my eyes and stopped to breathe.
A patchwork of colours spread below me, the relief of the landscape sharply accentuated by the long evening shadows and overhued with the last golden light of the sun. The earth below I was so fond of looked completely different than everything I had ever imagined. Everything I knew, everything I could identify was so incredibly small, and at the same time only this perspective revealed the vastness of the land. Its greatness. We were too high to make out people or animals, but I could still distinguish so much, the gleaming plains of freshly fallen snow in the north, behind them the relief of the mountains, black and grey and white, to the south the colours of the Rift, still retaining their warm autumnal shades, and in the distance the gleaming surface of Lake Honrich. The landscape was dotted with the distinctive square fields around little farms, the smoke from camps and mines and the glittering jewels of small lakes, and it was streaked by the thin lines of rivers and the roads I had travelled. They revealed how incredibly far I could see, that we spanned distances now in a matter of a few hours that I was used to travel in days and weeks.
As fiercely as I had kept my eyes shut before, now I was unable even to blink, and I found myself laughing, spontaneous and overwhelmed by the sheer, unbridled joy to have experienced this. It was like a gift the dragon had made me.
“Told you so,” Odahviing rumbled.
“Odahviing…,” I asked hesitantly, “it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“We’ve lived here longer than you,” he answered. “Yes, it is beautiful. But I see a different beauty than you.”
“What do you mean?”
He chuckled lowly. “You are only a blink of time, little mortal, and you only see the beauty of the moment. What you see now will look completely different in a few months, or in a thousand years, but the change of seasons and eras doesn’t matter to you now. But I see the powers that truly rule this land, the floods forming the rivers, the glaciers ablating the mountains and the volcanoes making them anew, the frost and rain and wind turning eternal rock to dust, the waters of the sea that form the shape of the land. I see the beauty of these powers, the beauty of change that gives birth to something new.”
It wasn’t the answer I had anticipated… but one shouldn’t be surprised to get unexpected answers when asking an immortal being such questions.
“We mortals tend to think it’s us who rule this land,” I said pensively. “We even kill each other for this privilege.”
“Well, you don’t. You only rule each other, which is, honestly, not that much of an accomplishment. The land is only ruled by the tide of time… until Alduin comes and takes his reign, and his power will overcome everything else.”
I didn’t know how, but this short conversation provided me with a deeper insight into the nature of the dragons and into the reasons for the eternal enmity between them and us than everything Paarthurnax had ever taught me. Paarthurnax had abandoned the way of his brethren and discarded his own power for the Way of the Voice, for a life of peace and contemplation. Odahviing however was still an ally of Alduin, although hesitating and doubtful, but he was his right hand and still a typical representative of his kind. He strived for and admired power like all of them… and I could only ask him these questions because he acknowledged mine, the power of my Thu’um over his master’s.
We flew eastwards straight into the deepening night, the last light vanishing behind the horizon, and in front of us loomed the black silhouette of the eastern mountains against the dark blue, star-speckled sky, the rugged horizon adorned by the wafting tendrils of the aurora. It looked as if we flew directly into the curtain of light, and I wondered if it was possible to feel them. Until Odahviing rose me from my musings.
“Look there, right in front of us, Dovahkiin,” he prompted me, a challenge in his voice, “you see that?”
I watched closely, the flickering colours obscuring my view, but finally I saw what he wanted me to see – two shadows circling over a mountaintop, tiny at the distance, with the distinctive motion pattern of dragons gliding on the wind.
“These are only the sentries. There will be more, and they are expecting you.”