I was on my own and dependent only on myself, the strength of my arm and of my will. My own perseverance.
Odahviing had dropped me off a short distance beneath the looming walls of Skuldafn, and his farewell had been short and taciturn.
“We will meet again if you return, Dovahkiin,” he had said. “And if you don’t… Alduin will reward me for bringing him his greatest foe.” And then he was gone before I had opportunity to answer his challenge.
Before I could even get the glimpse of an overview of the enormous complex, I was already attacked, the dragons that had seen us coming from afar shooting down on me. Two dragons at once without any distraction or help… I needed cover, and fast, and the only way was the broad ramp leading up to the huge gateway. Which led directly into the ruins. Which were without doubt populated by more dragons and whatever Alduin deemed worthy to man his most important bastion with.
No use in trying to sneak through this first onslaught – far too many creatures knew that I was here, Odahviing’s approach hadn’t been exactly subtle. The two dragons roared their fury into the night sky when I darted into the cover of the first archway, an icy blast covering my backside with a layer of frost, arrows raining down from the coping and recoiling from the shield I held above my head.
So far, for the first seconds, I had been lucky. But I had only another few seconds to catch my breath when I heard the typical erratic shuffling of approaching steps. Three draugr attacked out of the courtyard, and now I could also make an educated guess of what kind the archers on the wall were. Dragons and undead, what an unholy alliance, and I was attacked from several sides at once.
When the first group of draugr lay in a heap at my feet, I took care of the worms. They both circled above my position and tried to reach me with their blasts, but as long as I hid beneath the thick outer wall I was safe. As were they. A new shower of arrows hit me as soon as I left my hiding place, but my Shout hit the first of the beasts right into its chest and forced it to land, and I darted back into my shelter.
Impossible to get close, the archers would lard me before I’d reach him, but at least he couldn’t take off any more. Now I was glad that I had spent a fortune on the bundles of arrows that were stuffed into my pack. I needed many of them for this first challenge, fired arrow after arrow, many simply recoiling from his scales when he writhed against the power of Dragonrend, but more and more found their target in his open throat, his eyes and his neck. Finally a single shot somehow pierced into his brain, the dragon twisted his neck backwards as if he wanted to break it, and then he collapsed.
A sigh of relief escaped my lips. I had survived the first challenge of this trip.
The second dragon was brought down in a similar manner, and after his body had dissolved as well, I looked wistfully over the scene of the slaughter – a heap of naked bones, and around it the ground was strewn with dozens of precious arrows I really didn’t want to leave behind.
A careful glimpse into the courtyard revealed a narrow staircase that led to the top of the wall and further over a brittle bridge to a crumpled watchtower. The archers didn’t expect me, their glowing gazes still directed towards the yard outside, and they were lousy melee fighters when I came over them as silent as possible.
Hunching on top of the wall in the shadow of a protruding pillar I could for the first time assess the sheer size of this complex. Skuldafn was built against and into the mountainside, but even the visible part was enormous. The centre was a four-level building, massive and menacing, surrounded by a maze of ramps, bridges, watchtowers, smaller buildings and stairways that filled the huge courtyard I overlooked now. And from the top of the main tomb… or temple… orcrypt, whatever it was, a brightly gleaming lance of light shot up into the sky. It looked unearthly, and it drew me in. This was my destination.
But my convenient overlook revealed another detail. The whole complex crawled with life and unlife, with another dragon sitting on top of a crumpled watchtower in the far corner of the yard, groups of draugr patrolling the floor and the upper levels, dozens of archers standing guard on bridges and walls. Odahviing had been right, Alduin had gathered all his remaining strength to protect this place, and if I delved right into this fortification and drew attention in the wrong moment, I’d have at once all of Alduin’s forces at my heels. And even if I made it through the outside area, I didn’t even want to think what awaited me inside of the main building.
No, to fight through Skuldafn would be madness. I knew my metes and bounds. But it lay in a valley, sheltered and hidden and surrounded by the peaks of the Velothi mountains. Mountains that towered much higher than even the highest building. And nobody could tell me that draugr were good at climbing, not with the way they already stumbled over their own feet on even ground.
I would go around it. It would be hazardous as well, to climb the steep mountainside, slippery with snow and ice and now in the depth of night, but it would still be much safer than the direct way.
It didn’t look that hard from below, it really didn’t. Of course I had to cross through steep, icy, unpathed terrain, but it didn’t look that hard, and a confident grin spread around my lips when I unpacked the rope I never left home without. Your pathetic forces won’t even know that I’ve been here, Alduin.
The northern slope looked marginally less steep than the other side, and it also looked as if it would bring me a little bit easier to the roof of the temple. But whatever it looked like, it was a false promise. At first I didn’t mind that the only way up led away from Skuldafn. My climb was far from soundless – every rolling pebble seemed to trigger an avalanche and made enough noise that I expected to have woken the attention of the army not too far away.
At first, I also didn’t mind that the ascend went slowly – better safe than sorry. But it went too slowly, time went by far too fast, and when the moons finally descended behind the horizon in my back I was still far from the height I had to reach.
When I finally got to admit to myself that the whole idea had been insane, it was far too late.
I could have just sneaked through that army, shot a few draugr in the back if they came too close, and whatever awaited me inside the temple, there were certainly no dragons. After all, I had sneaked through Korvanjund as well, and quite successfully. And if worse came to worst, I could have always shouted my way through. There was so much I could have done… when I hang as a shivering clump of pain in a vertical rock, held only by the tips of my fingers pressed into narrow clefts and a ledge that only provided enough room for the toes of a single foot, the direct way through Skuldafn suddenly looked like a walk in the park.
Upwards. Always upwards. Cursing between clenched teeth I clinged to a few rocks that protruded in front of me, tried to catch my breath and glue myself to the rough surface. Every once in a while a violent squall threatened to blow me into the abyss below me, every muscle burned in agonising fire from the unaccustomed exertion, my fingers were raw and bloody even through the thin leather of my gauntlets, and the sweat froze in my braids and ran down my spine, leaving soreness and chill behind.
And I couldn’t even turn back. A descent would have ended in an inevitable crash and many broken bones. Only to look down to the yard where Odahviing had landed and I had started my insane climb made me feel dizzy.
When I pulled myself on top of a ridge, the muscles of arms and shoulders bursting in an outbreak of pain, I lay prone for a few endless seconds, panting and heaving, whimpering when I pulled off the gauntlets and cooled my hands in the thin layer of snow covering the rocks. And when I finally opened my eyes again, already steeling myself for the next stage, I had reached my destination – I lay directly above the roof of the temple, and nobody knew that I was there.
I was too tired to be relieved. When I turned to my back with a heavy sigh and saw the first tendrils of a faint morning light quiver over the top of the mountain, still high above me, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t slept for nearly two days. And beneath me waited already the next challenge – two dragons sitting on top of enormous columns, waiting and watching, their heads slowly swinging back and forth, their wings neatly folded to their backs. Half a dozen heavily armed draugr patrolled the lower level of the area, and on an elevated platform in the centre, accessible only over a broad stairway, lingered a dragon priest similar to the foe Athis and I had faced at Forelhost, the crude mask clearly recognisable even from the distance.
Even the dragons themselves looked like friendly pets against this enemy. It was the guardian of a hole in the ground, but beneath it wasn’t the interior of the temple. There was light and shadows and matter, swirling around in a maelstrom that made my head spin, and from its centre protruded this beam of light I had already seen from below, this piercing brilliance that tore into my eyes and fought back the gentle light of the morning.
I had found the portal to Sovngarde.
Despite my exhaustion and the ache in my bones, so close to my destination somewhere deep inside I found the strength to start my final attack. The draugr were taken out by a few well targeted arrows when they passed through the ditch between the central platform and the mountain slope, their corpses hidden from view where they fell. The dragons would be a bigger problem, though – impossible to take on them one by one, and as soon as they took off the priest would be alerted as well. To try to fight all these foes at once, alone and in my current spot quite exposed would be suicide.
My only hope was that the guardian of the entrance to Alduin’s refuge took his duty seriously, that he wouldn’t leave his spot and that I’d be able to lure the dragons out of his reach. In one of the walls at the opposite side of the roof I spotted a small doorway, probably the entrance to the temple’s interior. It formed a shallow niche I could perhaps hide in, not much cover but better than nothing, and in the worst case I could flee inside – provided that the door wasn’t locked.
My heart beat ferociously when I slipped down the remaining distance and landed between the remains of the draugr, noisy and open, bow already drown. One of the dragons had already risen from his resting place and hovered above me when I came to my feet again, his roar waking the thrill of the fight. He got an arrow into his throat, and a shout
brought me out of his immediate reach. I felt the adrenaline of the fight pulsing through my veins. Everything so far had been only exhausting and tedious, but I wanted to enter Sovngarde like a warrior, not like a thief. Instead to cower into the niche of the doorway I turned, faced him and charged with a yell, and Dragonrend forced him to land. My hazardous charge surprised him, Dragonbane piercing into his eye before he was able to react, hot blood gushing out of the socket. With a violent jerk he freed his head from the blade, his fangs snapping shut only inches from my face, but the rabid movement made him slip and glide on the limited space of the roof, he lost his footing, and slowly the huge body slipped backwards over the edge of the temple down into the courtyard, his last shriek cut off abruptly when he broke his neck.
The warm tendrils of his soul still enveloped me when I span frantically around, searching for the other dragon, but he was gone. No, not gone, only out of my reach, circling high above the complex, no danger for the moment. With a furious yell I took the steps to the upper level two at a time, to my final foe, the priest already awaiting me in front of the unearthly beam. The lightning strike hitting me right into the chest only made me stumble, and I charged with everything I had, blood pounding in my ears and pumping through my veins, fuelled by the frenzy of my beast. He retreated from my onslaught while he sent a barrage of magic against me, but nothing would have been able to stop me now, and I chased him around the whirling light, my senses awake and alert like never before, every single fibre set on this last challenge. I knew he was frail, his strength lay in his magic and I only had to reach him, and a last
and I crashed into him with swinging blade, my shield making him stagger and hurling the staff out of his grip, stopping my own unrelenting movement.
“Zu’u Nahkriin,” he snarled, the voice sounding hollow from behind the grim mask. “Zu’u uth naal thurri dein daar miiraad.”
“Your guard will end now, Nahkriin,” I answered between gritted teeth.
Clawlike, naked hands reached for me, pulsing with magic, their touch making me scream and my heart flutter. But I would not let him escape again, my shield fell away when I searched for a grip in his tattered robes and only grasped nothing, and then my fist closed around his neck, I lifted him even higher, the weightless creature still shooting lightning from its fingertips, and finally the tip of my blade found an opening between his armour and mask and pierced through rotten flesh.
He shoved me away with unearthly strength and a last violent flare of his unlife, and I braced myself for the impact. An impact that didn’t come.
I fell for an eternity, flailing and tumbling, my scream fading into the nothingness around me, no colours, no light, no shadows left. Panic clenched my chest, but there was nothing I could do. The gods didn’t even trust me to make this step on my own, and now it was too late to prepare, to take a last breath, too late to greet the light of my world once more and too late to say farewell.
I wasn’t ready, but when had I ever been? Fury flared up and overrode the panic as I shouted my ire into the void. But I was mute and deaf and senseless in this in-between, my own scream inaudible even to myself. Fighting was futile, and I closed my eyes, let the darkness behind my lids fill me.
It was weird to sense my own eyelids flutter, hesitantly, as if they didn’t want to allow the sensations of the outside to enter to my mind, and when they finally opened I couldn’t blame them. The maelstrom that had devoured me was still there, it surrounded me and was everything I saw, the colours of dusk and dawn, pink and purple, orange, red and blue swirling towards a blindingly bright centre.
Only slowly I became aware that there was more, that the hooded faces of gigantic, faceless statues looked down on me, that I lay flat on my back, with soft grass and warm earth beneath me. My fingers clenched into the soil, and this very substantial feeling of solid earth beneath my fingernails finally made me move. My body ached when I propped myself on my elbows and flexed my muscles against the stiffness, but it was a different kind of ache than the one I remembered from before. I felt as if I had slept for days, rigid and sore and tired from resting too long, but at the same time strong and relaxed.
And alive. I knew beyond any doubt that I was still alive.
Except for the strange, unearthly sky above me, my surroundings looked remarkably normal. Normal for an after-world, that is… it was still far from everything I had ever seen, a scenery of a truly unearthly beauty. A landscape of harsh mountains and green valleys, wood-covered hills rolling into the distance and streaked by lively streams, and far away a gigantic building seemingly hovering above an abyss. But most of all was it the light that made everything so completely different than my world, every colour looking much brighter than it should, and it gave the whole scenery an unsubstantial, magical feeling.
Sovngarde was beautiful, and still it was a tainted beauty. A path led from my position down the mountain, and when I lowered my view and tried to follow it, it vanished into a valley not only covered, but filled with mist. Impenetrable mist, dark, devious and sinister… this was Alduin’s hunting ground, the snare of a coward, picking his prey out of a trap instead to hunt and to fight it openly. The sight let my neck hair stand on end, and when I entered the shadowed land with hand on my hilt and the light vanished in the thick haze that was nearly tangible, lying like cotton around my senses, a cold, determined fury awoke in me.
“LOK VAH KOOR!”
Shouting was easier here in Sovngarde than it was on Nirn, I realised with delight, less painful and exhausting. I didn’t know why, but my body seemed to offer less opposition to the powers I released, and the mist cleared before me, revealing a paved path. From above the familiar roar answered my challenge with anticipation and wrath, the sound scratching at my innards. But I couldn’t see him, the World-Eater, he didn’t show himself. I shouted my way free with joy and with pride, I wanted him to hear me, wanted him to know that I had come for him and that his snare wouldn’t detain me.
But I wasn’t alone, and not only Alduin heard me. There were souls wandering through the mist, lost and frightened, Alduin’s prey, unable to find a way out of the doomed valley and to Shor’s hall, and they were hopeless and scared. They pleaded that I’d lead them, that I’d show them the way, but every time I shouted, Alduin answered and I looked behind me, they were gone again. Lost souls, trapped not only in the gloom around them, but even more in the sheer terror the Worldeater evoked.
I would not fall victim to this terror, although I felt the atmosphere tug on my determination, how it tried to drip with helpless anger and frustration into my mind. If I couldn’t help these people now, I’d end this menace once and for all.
Only one of the people I met, a Stormcloak soldier lingering motionless beside the path, his face raised to the sky, shook me to the core. So far I had met no one I knew, not even remotely and was glad about it, but I knew this man, big, blond and burly, a scruffy beard covering his cheeks, clad in tattered blue armour. This was the man who had helped me to escape Helgen, he had faced the dragon with me for the first time, and now he was here, dead and still prey to his insatiable hunger.
“Turn back, traveller,” he said with grim fatigue in his voice, “all courage is vain against the foe who guards this way.” He barely looked into my face.
“Who are you, soldier?”
He didn’t expect an answer to his plea, and now he looked at me, his eyes growing wide with wonder.
“I know you,” he whispered incredulously, “and you don’t belong here.”
“Yes,” I nodded, “you remember too. Once you saved me from him,” I pointed at the invisible sky, “and now I will save you. I am more than just a traveller. What’s your name, soldier?”
“Ralof. Ralof of Riverwood.” His voice was firmer, now he had something to focus on.
“How did you get here, Ralof of Riverwood?”
“Does it really matter?” His laughter was bitter. “A stray arrow in an Imperial ambush, near Giants’ Gap, in the gloom before the dawn. A death neither brave nor honourable… and still I’m here…”
“You risked your life once when you helped me to escape the World-Eater, and perhaps you saved yourself with that deed,” I said. “Stand fast. Alduin will fall, and soon.”
I didn’t even try to make him follow me, but now I nearly ran through the mist, shouted it away whenever possible and let it engulf me when not. This one time I wouldn’t lose my way, and finally the enormous building of Shor’s Hall emerged before my eyes, filling my sight with its glory, greeting me over the abyss that separated it from the rest of the valley. The impressive bridge that led over a gushing river was made of an enormous spine, and in front of it waited the largest man I had ever seen.
“What brings you, wayfarer grim, to wander here, in Sovngarde, souls-end, Shor’s gift to the honoured dead?”
Wayfarer grim? The relief to have escaped the ubiquitous mist and this strange greeting curled my lips into a feeble grin. The warrior had already been impressive from afar, but when I finally stood before him, I barely reached his chest. His bare chest, a landscape of bulging muscles, only his waist protected by a thick belt with iron fittings, broad like the trunk of the Gildergreen, shoulders that would barely fit through a normal door, and strapped to his back was the biggest greataxe I had ever seen. I would probably barely be able to lift it – heck, even Farkas would have had difficulties to wield this monster. And above all this intimidation glanced friendly, grey eyes down on me.
I was by no means small, although with the Companions I was used to be looked down on. But not like this. Not that I had to tilt my head into my neck to see the other’s face.
“Who are you?” I asked brusquely, taking a step back.
“I am Tsun, shield-thane to Shor. The Whalebone Bridge he bade me guard and winnow all those souls whose heroic end sent them here, to Shor’s lofty hall where welcome, well earned, awaits those I judge fit to join that fellowship of honour.”
Oh. A whale, not a dragon, that was a pleasurable change for once. And his sententious words… somehow, they fit for this man, or god, judge of all the souls that passed his way.
But I was no soul, and I didn’t want to join their fellowship, honourable or not.
“I don’t seek entrance to the hall, Tsun. I’m here to pursue Alduin.”
“A fateful errand. No few have chafed to face the Worm since first he set his soul-snare here at Sovngarde’s threshold. But Shor restrained our wrathful onslaught – perhaps, deep-counselled, your doom he foresaw.”
Oh, that was encouraging. Shor forbid the countless heroes of old to hunt the devourer of their fellows just to see me fail first?
Deep-counselled, indeed. Splendid.
But Tsun regarded me thoughtfully. “No shade are you, as usually here passes, but living, you dare the land of the dead. If you’re here for the worm I bid you enter the hall to seek counsel with those whose hearts seek revenge for their doom by the World-Eater.”
“Then let me enter.”
A small smile appeared on his face. “By what right do you request entry?”
I had the feeling he was mocking me. He knew I didn’t belong here, he knew what I was and why I was here. This seemed to be a ritual. Perhaps he was bored, it had to be a long time since someone tried to pass him.
I straightened my shoulders. “By right of birth. I am Dragonborn.”
“Ah! It’s been too long since last I faced a doom-driven hero of the dragon blood. But living or dead, by decree of Shor, none may pass this perilous bridge till I judge them worthy by the warrior’s test.”
With these words, he drew his gigantic axe. The warrior’s test, of course. Nothing better than a bit of blood-spilling to prove one’s honour and mettle. My fellow Nords had a very simplistic concept of competence and how to demonstrate it, and even the thousands of years they had spent here obviously hadn’t helped with that.
I eyed him curiously. “You know that we are all doomed, the living just as the dead, if you cleave me in half now, don’t you?”
He bared his teeth in a grin and nodded.
I flew backwards with a surprised yell, but fortunately I landed on soft earth and it took only a moment to get up again. With gritted teeth I drew my sword and put it away again in the same motion. Dragonbane’s long, slim blade looked like a toothpick against his weapon, never would I be able to beat this divine giant in an ordinary fight. But it seemed he wanted to play a game I was familiar with.
No one would stop me now. Not even Shor’s lackey, as impressive as he was.
But my opponent was stronger, faster and more cunning than every other living man I had ever fought, he gave no quarter and stretched my skill to the limit. Tsun charged, nearly too fast for me to react, and I knew at first I had to protect myself from the devastating blow of his axe.
“FEIM ZII GRON!”
I felt myself become ethereal and the razor-sharp blade of his axe cleave through the non-substance of my body. Ouch, that would have ended badly. I had only gained a few seconds and had to use his surprise, but I still needed some time to catch my breath, to get rid of the weird dizziness in my head, and the effect of the first shout ended before I was ready again. I had only one chance as Tsun swang at me again, muscles of arms and shoulders bulging, had to make use of the one trait that could perhaps match him and darted around him as fast as I could.
But he was faster, and I wasn’t as fast any more as I once were. His weapon’s hilt caught me in the side, made me stagger and stumble and sent me to my knees. I crouched in the shadow of the giant and pressed air into my lungs with a pained breath.
It was a risk, I didn’t even know if it would work, if time functioned the same here in Sovngarde as in my world. But fortunately it did, and the wide arc of Tsun’s axe that was aimed for my neck swung into nothingness. I was long gone, behind him, and a
accompanied by two powerful kicks into the backs of his knees made him stagger and fall this time. When time flipped back into its usual pace, my blade was pressed against his throat and I only removed it when he laid his own weapon away.
He bowed his head respectfully.
“You fought well. I find you worthy. It is long since one of the living has entered here. May Shor’s favour follow you and your errand.”
A man stood at the foot of the stairs when I pushed the heavy doors of the Hall of Valour shut behind me, as if he was expecting me, but he was just one of many, and first I had take in the breathtaking sight in front of me. The Hall of Valour was… the first comparison that came to my mind was like Jorrvaskr, just bigger. Majestic and homey all at once, just like my first impression of the Companion’s Hall had been. I had to smile at my own thought.
Of course it was much more awe-inspiring, if only due to its size. And of course it wasn’t just a ship turned upside down. The stone ceiling vaulted the gigantic hall in elegant arches, so high above my head that I could barely discern the colourful frescoes adorning it, supported by massive pillars that were covered with intricate reliefs. Large, ogival windows gave access to broad beams of light from the outside, and it mingled with the warm glow of many dozen fire-bowls, lamps and torches.
In the centre blazed a huge fire, sizzling fat dripping from three entire oxen into the flames. Endless rows of large festive tables stood around it, laden with food and drink, while on one side a slightly elevated area was bare of furniture, serving as training yard and brawl room, a playful wrestle taking place right now. Two bare-chested fighters were clasping at each other, a circle of audience around them, yelling and drinking, whooping and betting. Yes, they really bet, and I asked myself what their wager was. In the background of the hall countless aisles and rooms branched off, the whole complex certainly much larger than it looked from the outside, and the scent of roasted meat and other food, fresh ale and sweet mead rose into my nose, making my mouth water.
And through all this wandered the endless hosts of warriors, heroes of old eras and younger times, feasting, eating, drinking, playing and fighting. Valiant souls in the eternal merriment they had earned through honour, glory and bravery.
Finally I noticed the man who seemed to wait patiently that I came to my senses, scrubby blonde hair falling into his face, a scruff beard under friendly blue eyes. He was an impressive figure in his ancient, gleaming armour, with the posture of a born warrior and leader, the axe he had strapped to his back nearly as large as Tsun’s. A beautiful piece of craftsmanship, and only on a second, closer glance I recognised it with a gasp, although I had ever only seen it in pieces.
The weapon was Wuuthrad. And this man was Ysgramor, the founder of the Companions.
“Ysgramor,” I whispered, slowly descending the stairs towards him. My chest constricted with awe. This was the man in whose name we vowed and cursed and lived.
I would never stop to think of myself as a Companion. And gods, how I wished the others could share this with me. Mostly Kodlak, Vilkas and Vignar, the scholars among us, but all of them would be as dumbstruck as I.
And our ancestor greeted me with a friendly smile, an amused twinkle in the corners of his eyes.
I bowed my head respectfully, not sure what to say. There were hundreds of questions I would have liked to ask, but this wasn’t the time. And I would probably never again have opportunity to meet him. I swallowed heavily.
But he already spoke on. “For far too long has our door stood empty, Dragonborn, since Alduin set his soul-snare here in Sovngarde. It was Shor’s command that let us sheathe our blades, and my heart weeps for the souls the worm has devoured since that time.”
“I am here to take on him, Ysgramor. I will fight him…” My voice trailed off. I wanted to promise him to fight this battle with the honour the Companions had taught me, but I couldn’t. In this fight, honour didn’t matter.
But the warrior bowed his head and bared his teeth in a grin that took me off guard. “You will fight with honour, and you won’t have to battle him alone,” he said, and my eyes widened in surprise. “Three await your word to loose their fury upon the perilous foe: Gormlaith the fearless, glad-hearted in battle, Hakon the valiant, heavy-handed warrior, and Felldir the old, far-seeing and grim.”
I knew those names, I had seen Gormlaith die against Alduin, during their last battle. And for a brief moment I wondered if some day someone would remember me with equally flamboyant bynames. Probably not.
But Ysgramor had already turned around, and I hurried to follow him through the hall. The people we met barely seemed to take notice of me, although many of them greeted my guide. Everyone seemed to be busy, and I was busy looking around in awe anyway, and only when we had passed the huge fireplace and he steered towards a corner, I saw a group of three watching us approach attentively.
I recognised them at once. The straw-blonde woman with the fierce eyes and stripes over her face very similar to Aela’s, her whole posture alert and eager; the redhaired warrior with the huge battle-axe and deep black warpaint, emphasizing the white milkiness of his right eye, giving me a friendly and curious gaze from beneath a braided mane and thick brows; and the old man with knotted beard and a robe that resembled the one the Greybeards still wore today, his staff strapped to his back, calmness and prudence in his features.
A wave of relief washed over me when I saw those three, battle-hardened, experienced warriors who knew exactly what they got themselves into. Although we had never met before – not really – it felt like meeting old friends, the instinctive bond of brothers and sisters in arms, joining in the final battle against our common foe.
“At long last! Finally Alduin’s doom is ours to seal, Dragonborn – just speak the word, and with high hearts we will hasten forth to smite the worm!” The enthusiasm to get out there spoke out of Gormlaith’s face when she looked from me to her fellows for approval.
“Revenge on Alduin has been too long delayed,” Hakon muttered, “and still my heart burns like a hundred lifetimes ago.” His voice was remarkably soft for such a hate-ridden hero.
Looking at them, I knew we didn’t need council. We just needed our determination and the strength of our blades to finally quell the depth of our hate. We had all suffered under Alduin, had made similar experiences, had seen friends and beloved ones die to his terror. Dead or alive, we were related, and suddenly a strange, stout calmness settled in me, a calmness that transformed the black, abysmal hate I felt for the worm into deadly resolve.
The same deadly resolve I found in the faces of my new companions.
We would fight him, and we would best him.
“Let’s get over with it,” I said and turned to the exit, but Felldir stopped me.
“Hold, comrades – let us not join the battle blindly. Alduin’s mist is more than a snare – its shadowy gloom is his shield and cloak. But with four Voices joined, our valour combined, we can blast the mist and bring him to battle.”
We would fight him together, and of course we would join our Voices. I didn’t think this had to be discussed.
But Hakon encouraged his old friend. “Felldir speaks wise – the World-Eater, coward, fears you, Dragonborn.” To hear it from someone else was encouraging, and I gave him a smile. “We must force him to fight and divest him of his hiding place. Let’s Shout together, and then let’s unsheathe our blades in the last battle with our black-winged foe.”
“And then we will have our well-tempered revenge,” Felldir said with an ironic smile, and Gormlaith finally stormed eagerly past me, the men following her.
“To battle, my friends! Let the fields echo with the clamour of war!” Not very well-tempered, that woman, but I knew that already. Her enthusiasm made me grin.
We ran over the bridge, hectic, nearly frantic, eager to start. Tsun awaited us at the end, arms crossed over his massive chest. “The eyes of Shor are upon you this day. Defeat Alduin, and destroy his soul-snare.”
The god could get lost. This was no spectacle for his entertainment. This was about our worlds and our lives – eternal or mortal, it didn’t matter – and we would take our fates into our own hands.
It was eerily silent when we approached the edge of the mist in a firm line, no moans and screams from the lost souls inside, and not a sound from Alduin.
He hid from us, the coward.
On a hidden signal, our voices echoed through the valley, thundering, overwhelming, a choir of power.
“LOK VAH KOOR!”
The mist cleared instantly, revealed the ethereal beauty of the landscape, and people stood there, hundreds or thousands as far as my view reached, stunned from the sudden clearness around them. Some of them started to run towards us, towards the redemptive bridge they had searched in vain for so long.
“VEN MUL RIIK!”
Alduin’s answer came fast, a sinister scream from far away, and the fog crept back over the land and the lost souls, letting out only desperate screams from inside.
“Again!” Hakon yelled.
We Shouted twice more, and twice more Alduin mocked us, hiding instead to answer our challenge. Gormlaith encouraged her brother who was on the brink of giving up. “Only once more. His strength is faltering, I feel it!”
Next time it remained quiet and clear. And then, finally, the familiar black shadow came flying around a peak in the distance, growing with every heavy flap of his mighty wings, his silhouette dreadful and looming before the beautiful colours of the sky. We watched him in awe. He circled above us, out of reach, but finally he had answered our challenge.
Again it was Gormlaith who broke the silence with a cry of victory. “The endless wait gives way to battle! Alduin’s doom, his death or ours!”
His death, if I had any saying in it.
The World-Eater loomed above us, challenging screams erupting from my comrades, but around me, inside of me it became quiet and dark. I closed my eyes and shut everything else out, the yelling warriors, the screaming of the people running towards the shelter of the bridge, the rush of wind caused by the heavy flap of wings. Nothing was left but the distinctive, nauseating smell of rotten flesh and molten iron and his hateful, screeching scream, and something rose in me, a fire kindled and fed by all my fears, all my grief and sorrow and all the pain I had suffered because of this creature. A silent flame of purest, clearest hate, lighting my mind with bright, calm tranquillity and transforming my will and everything I was into the power of a dragon.
Nothing else mattered any more, not past nor future, not if I lived or died. Only Alduin’s demise. My lust for this battle broke free in a Shout that crushed into the World-Eater and forced him to land.
“JOOR ZAH FRUL!”
The blue flames engulfed him and Alduin screamed in terror and rage when he came down, falling, flailing, plunking into the hilltop across from our position. The four of us charged, blades held high and magic sizzling in Felldir’s palms, and before we even reached him the various effects of our Thu’ums charged the air with elemental power, an ice-blast from Hakon, fire from Gormlaith and blinding lightning from Felldir.
I had never felt so charged, so tense, so focused in my whole life. Every single nerve was set onto this single task and onto this foe, every bit of training, the experience of every fight I had survived, my instincts and the wolfish sharpness of my senses mingling into the trance of this battle. I didn’t miss my shield that I had lost on top of Skuldafn when I lashed out at him for the first time. This wasn’t about protecting myself… it was about giving death.
We pierced and stabbed and hacked at his limbs, wings and neck, and Dragonbane as well as the blades of my fellows found miraculously the small gaps between the plates of his armour, tore through hide and flesh. The beast writhed and flailed against us, struggled against the force of Dragonrend that was renewed over and over again, screaming with wrath and terror, and soon he bled from dozens of small wounds. Our Thu’ums whirled around him in unrelenting assault, covering him in fire and ice, assaulting his life-force and releasing the powers of the elements against him. I heard Gormlaith’s fuelled laughter and Hakon’s roared warcries, both injured and bloodied but unwavering in their efforts, and from behind came lightning and ice from Felldir’s hands and staff.
But the dragon’s reserves of energy and strength were endless and undepletable, and although he was hurt and bound to the ground he didn’t falter or weaken. He not only fended off our assault, but made us dance around him in endless circles of approach and retreat, attacked with teeth, claws and tail, a massive, writhing mass of muscles and fire. More than once I expected to hear that sickening crunch of his fangs tearing through armour, flesh and bones.
When I noticed that our Thu’ums resounded fainter and more seldom, that the mocking and teasing insults and challenges of Gormlaith and Hakon had trailed off, it only hardened my determination. I didn’t even know if they felt the pain of their injuries, the one-eyed warrior limping heavily, his strikes still strong but less agile, and the woman wearing severe scorch-marks on her arms and neck. But I felt them, the burns on my skin, bruises and wounds, the fatigue in my muscles and the painful breaths for smoke-filled air. And still the worm was as strong and fast as he was at the beginning.
The longer the fight lasted, the quieter it became around me and the higher the flame of my hate blazed, fuelled by fury and frustration.
The sky darkened, and I howled with triumph when clouds covered the whirling colours and lightning shot down into the black hide of the Dragon. It was only a short respite though, with Alduin raising his neck and shouting in answer, and his power overruled mine by far. He used my own shout against me, reformed the clouds I had conjured into the dreaded maelstrom of darkness I knew already from the Throat of the World, let fire and glowing rocks rain down on us.
The howl transformed into a scream of rage, and the monster set his eyes on me, the red flame of hate and arrogance glowing in their depths. It was in this moment that I realised that he had set his attention solely on me, that he answered my call, that this fight had become a duel between him and me instead of a battle of four against one. I was his true enemy, it was my job to end him, and he dared to mock me. For a split second I lost my focus, didn’t react fast enough, and a violent blow of his wing made me fly out of his reach and land on my back. The impact shot through my body with a wave of pain, agony exploding in a brilliant burst and forcing the breath from my lungs. Colourful dots swam before my vision, but even worse than the pain was the sound of his laughter and the rasp of voice.
“Pahlok joorre.” He mocked me, accused me of arrogance as I fought myself to my feet.
And he was right. It flashed with the same force through my mind with which the pain shot through my body.
I would not beat him. He was Akatosh’s first-born, sated with the power of millennia. To believe I would be able to beat him at his own game was hubris.
And neither would he beat me.
He was sated with the souls of my fellow Nords. I was sated with the souls of his brethren.
We were alike and equal, matching each other in every respect. Driven by the same forces, abysmal hate and the urge to destroy everything the other stood for.
The sudden cognition hit me with physical impact, made me stumble backwards, a wave of terror overwhelming me. Terror of myself, of what I had become.
I was like him. Demise was all that drove us. I had killed and destroyed, merciless and mindless just like him. I didn’t regret it, it was a part of me and had enabled me to survive. “You’re scary,” Farkas had said, long before I had taken the blood. And although he cloaked the words with a smile, he meant it.
My own hatred had brought me here, the darkness that coiled in my chest, empty and insatiable, the hole in my soul he had caused.
But once, there had been more, something to keep the darkness in check. Something I had lost.
Loathing of myself overwhelmed me, and I doubled over, retching and coughing, until suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Dragonborn?” It was Hakon, and he flinched back when I straightened my back and gasped for a breath that hurt, bewilderment in his eyes. I really had to look horrible. “Are you alright?”
“Am I scary, Hakon?”
The concern in his face first turned into incomprehension and confusion. Perhaps he thought I had hit my head when Alduin hurled me all over the place, or that I had simply lost my mind. But then a broad grin settled on his likeable face.
“You’re so full of life, Dragonborn.” He patted my back. “Of course you’re scary. What could be scarier than a mortal fighting for eternity?”
He gave me a gentle smile, squeezed my shoulder and hobbled back into the battle to help his hard-pressed fellows out, another warcry erupting from his throat.
And his friendly laughter made me laugh as well, full of relief and ease.
Yes, sometimes I was a monster, bringing mindless destruction. Sometimes I had to be. But I was still more, so much more. I was a human, shield-sister and friend, lover and wife, daughter and mother and only a mortal girl. My fellow humans proved it. Hakon had just proven it, and this was what distinguished me from Alduin.
Alduin only fought against me, and with me against life and time and creation.
But I had so much to fight for. It wasn’t lost. It was still there, and even if I had never had a choice if to fight, I could still decide for what.
I closed my eyes, and for a moment the stench of the battlefield was erased, and another scent rose faintly into my nose, sweet and fresh. The scent of Kynareth’s flower that still stuck between the scales of my armour, though crumpled and crushed.
I called forth everything that would give me strength, filled my mind with everything that had been good, everything I fought for. I had nearly forgotten them, all these reasons that had kept me going for all these months, but now they poured back like a tide, layered in chaotic, unsorted images on the canvas of the black, writhing mass towering above me.
There was so much of it, and I felt as if I had to burst.
My life passed through my mind, faces emerging from half-conscious memories, voices whispering in my ears. From my childhood up to the last days, and everything only got a meaning because of the people I had met. From my first family to the last, from my parents and my sister to the Companions and so many people between these two poles, people I had used like they had used me, people I had helped and who had been there when I needed them. And in between all those pictures over and over again the one smile that had led me so far, the one face that had always been with me since I had accepted this fate, since I devoted myself to the World-Eater. He was with me even now, loving, caring, trusting, the laughter in his eyes spurring me on.
Now and forever. Never submit.
I clenched to this image and abandoned myself to him, to the unfaltering confidence in silvery eyes, and with the memory of Farkas filling my mind I could finally believe that this wasn’t the end, that there was still an eternity to come.
With a bright laughter I darted back into the fight and towards the creature that was only a monster, hating and hated, invidious and loathed, without a place in this world that was so beautiful and so full of life. He would not take it.
My Shout didn’t freeze him, but the black mass of muscles and scales was suddenly covered in shimmering rime, and the cold slowed his movements noticeably. “You know what, Alduin?” I snickered at him, “now I’m gonna feed you your balls!”
Gormlaith laughed maniacally and Felldir let out another Dragonrend, but I knew it didn’t matter any more. Alduin stopped his writhing and struggling and watched me approach, and then only we two were left, eye in eye, and his burning hate met with my laughter and glee. We both knew it would be over in mere moments and that this was the end, his mindless death and destruction against my life, my own overwhelming desire to live, the life I carried in me, all the lives I would save.
I was stronger than he. And I had by far the better arguments.
I ran towards him and he sat motionless, his neck constricting as he sucked in the air for his last attack.
“YOL TOOR SHUL!”
He released his blast and I ran through the fire, let it engulf me and breathed it in, felt hair and skin sizzle away and the metal parts of my armour heat up until they glowed red and merged with my flesh. I felt neither heat nor pain.
It was only a whisper, no breath left to give it a sound, but I heard Paarthurnax’ voice ring in my head and pushed the world harder than it would ever be able to push back, bent it to my will, and the force of this Word barely more than a thought made Alduin stagger and stumble and scream.
His head jerked upwards, and Dragonbane found its target and pierced through the soft scales under his jaw into his skull.