BOOK ONE --- GATHERING CLOUDS
Lightning rent the sky in two as the blizzard raged. Winter storms and freezing rain were a common occurrence all throughout the year in Skyrim, but thundersnow was rare. The storm had blown down from near the northern mountains near Winterhold, and it was tearing through the pine forests. Dead leaves danced. Clusters of evergreen needles pierced the air with enough force to lodge themselves in fur and skin. The hardy animals of the Pale fled and hid.
Growling, the wolf tugged at the cadaver, unwilling to abandon her bounty of flesh. She was starving and without a pack, and just one arm from the human’s corpse would sustain her long enough to hunt again. She tore at the limb with renewed force, half-ripping the arm from the shoulder. Then the wind changed, and the wolf stopped.
It was Evening Star, the dead of winter, but the storm had brought new moisture to the air and scent carried well. The wolf knew this scent. A man had just entered the forest. A Nord, his blood still warm.
Torn between the urge to defend her kill and the drive to hunt fresh prey, the wolf growled a different growl, almost a warning but not quite. The Nord closed. It was morning but black as night, and it took the wolf until they were ten feet apart before she saw him, a figure huddled in wool, his footfalls slow and heavy. Iron armor glinted underneath his cloak.
The wolf pounced, jaws opening. The last thing she tasted was steel. Three feet of it polished until gleaming ramming down and through her gullet.
The man placed a single boot on the wolf’s body and yanked the sword out, wiping it clean on the snow. A second figure emerged from behind him, slimmer but taller, feminine curves showing through thin robes. The woman drew close.
‘Just a wolf, Valesse,’ the Nord called, sheathing his sword. ‘That was, what, two hundred feet away?’
‘One hundred eighty,’ the woman replied, short for breath. Valesse was not cold. Her magic was better insulation than any cloak, but she did not have the same experience navigating deep snow as her companion. She had been in Skyrim for a long time, but her honey-yellow complexion still sang of green summers in Alinor. ‘I’ll detect life again in another hundred feet.’
The Nord scratched his beard, a scraggly mess connected by his jowls to his fair neck-length hair, and his voice grew tender. ‘Blizzard’s fainter in the forest. I can see and hear well enough. No need to use up more magicka until we make it to Finnur’s Barrow. Focus on keeping yourself warm.’
Valesse nodded and brushed an errant lock of hair out of her eyes. Her own tresses were a midnight black, just wavy enough to be noticeable in texture, and they billowed behind her like insubstantial fluid. Her voice grew soft to match as she slipped her hand into his. ‘Thanks, Arngrimur.’
‘You shouldn’t push yourself.’ Arngrimur’s whisper was almost lost in the wind. ‘I still can’t believe you came with me. After all, now I’ve two people to worry about.’
He gave Valesse’s belly a brief stroke, where a slight bulge had begun to form.
Valesse patted his cheek. Like the rest of him, the Nord’s face was pale, but it was warmer than his hand and almost burned her palm. ‘I know our lives aren’t our own anymore. Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.’
Arngrimur chuckled. ‘That’ll be the day.’
The pair stayed locked together for a dozen heartbeats before they moved on to the corpse the wolf had been gnawing at. The body was sprawled over in a snowdrift.
‘Breton male,’ Arngrimur observed, kneeling over the fallen man. ‘Dead before the wolf got to him. Sword through the gut. No armor, no weapons. Just that bag. Wolf chewed on it a bit, but look at that. The Septim dragon. He’s a courier.’
Valesse frowned. ‘By Imperial law, simply assaulting a courier warrants a beheading.’
‘Bandits,’ Arngrimur shrugged, turning the body over and rummaging through the bag. ‘The biggest northern gangs all have members with six-figure bounties. They’re past the point of caring about Imperial law.’
‘Apparently, so are you,’ Valesse said dryly. ‘You’re aware that stealing letters is a capital offense?’
‘Scavenging supplies in times of need is completely lawful,’ Arngrimur replied defensively before cursing under his breath.
‘Let me guess.’ Valesse crossed her arms. ‘No mead.’
‘Some jerky and hardtack. No mead,’ Arngrimur said glumly.
‘We talked about drinking on this one, Arn.’
‘What kind of courier doesn’t carry anything fortifying on the road? Ridiculous.’
‘All right, all right, let us be off,’ Arn said irritably, marching deeper into the forest.
Valesse followed behind him, smiling to herself as she sighed.
Finnur’s Barrow was magnificent, even for a hero’s tomb. It sat flat where the forest opened into a clearing and towered above the two adventurers. Valesse studied the construction. Flowing arches and exquisite stone carvings with Nord animal motifs graced every side of the burial mound, and she knew that there was an extensive network of tunnels and crypts right beneath their feet. The thought of draugr only slightly dampened her spirits.
Arngrimur was occupied with something a little more immediate.
‘Tent. There’s a camp behind the barrow,’ he muttered. ‘Valesse?’
A red glow suffused Valesse’s hands as she concentrated. The magicka flickered down her fingers to run across the golden Thalmor threading on her gloves. A brief second later, she shook her head. ‘Nobody there.’
‘Nobody alive, at least.’ Arn shifted in his cloak and adjusted his sheath. ‘Come on, we need to check for ourselves.’
Valesse ended her spell and followed. There were moments where Arngrimur’s Legion training took over, and although Valesse had military experience in her own right, she knew better than to second-guess a footslogger’s instinct.
The camp was set up on the edge of the clearing, against the back of the barrow, a snug corner safe from the harsh winds of the Pale. Valesse could feel the blizzard ebb the moment she stepped into the ring of tents. The tents were simple, almost crude. Leather and animal hides. Swords and axes hung above makeshift cots. Someone had been hardening wooden arrow-points by the campfire and left them stacked lazily against each other.
‘Bandits?’ she murmured.
Valesse chuckled. ‘In that case, let’s leave it. We can handle any number of them together.’
‘Normally, I’d agree with you,’ Arn cautioned. ‘Common rabble. But…’
‘I know,’ Valesse acquiesced. ‘The baby.’
‘The baby,’ Arn said wistfully.
They moved back around to the front of the barrow and went in. Valesse had excavated Nord tombs before. The inside was just as she had remembered. Cobwebs and the smell of dust, rotting moss on a bed of stone, the base structure still standing strong after millennia. Corridors crisscrossing each other, with burial urns and offering jars on each side. Eras past, Nords would have come to pay homage to the fallen heroes entombed within. Now Finnur’s Barrow lay all but forgotten, and the heroes themselves-
Valesse saw the first bloodstains after they passed three corridors from the entry hall. Following them another corridor in led them to the first body. Grey, dry and desiccated, with eyes she knew would have glowed a deathly, whitish blue when animated. She didn’t recognise the charring around the mouth at first.
‘Bandits killed it with fire,’ Arngrimur observed. ‘Held it down and shoved a torch down its throat. Dragged out their own dead as well. Sloppy work, but they know their draugr.’
Valesse detected life again. Other than a few rodents scurrying about the walls, nothing else in the barrow had warm blood. ‘They’re not inside. Could they have cleaned the place out already?’ She went over to an offering jar and tipped it over. Empty.
‘They would’ve packed up camp if they had. No, I’d wager they’re still close by. But let’s worry about the draugr for now. Keep your guard up.’
They advanced deeper into the barrow. More burned draugr littered the corridors. ‘All right,’ Arn said grudgingly. ‘They’re a little more organised than I thought.’
The barrow’s lanterns and candles, which the draugr normally maintained, had gone out in one of the corridors. Valesse raised a finger as they entered and conjured a small orb of magelight, feeding it slowly to avoid the sudden flash that so often blinded inexperienced casters.
‘Woah,’ Arngrimur called as the light washed over the corridor. ‘They didn’t finish this one properly.’
The draugr in question had been dismembered. The cuts were poor but did the job – it was missing both legs. It crawled slowly towards Arn, raising itself with one arm and swinging an ancient grey sword in the other.
Arn raised his leg slightly and kicked the blade away with an iron-toed boot. The draugr’s arm faltered and it fell to the side. Then Valesse incinerated it, jettisoning a short but intense burst of flame from her right palm. The draugr released a groan as it burned.
They came across two more fifteen minutes later, guarding the tomb’s central altar. Valesse took the initiative and hurled a fireball between them. The draugr to the right of the altar was closer to the explosion and practically naked. It crumpled immediately, skeleton coming apart under the air pressure. The wight to the left was more sturdily armored, but only with piecemeal bits of chainmail. It staggered away from the fireball, recovering its balance just in time to see Arngrimur wrench off its ill-fitting helmet and decapitate it with a backhand stroke. The Nord caught the snarling head with his free hand and casually tossed it towards Valesse, who caught it by the temples with both hands and blasted it point-blank with fire. The body went limp.
‘Weak and frail,’ she noted.
‘And slow,’ Arngrimur added. ‘No dragon priest in the area to regulate their strength. Even Finnur himself shouldn’t be an issue.’
With that, he pushed his way through the heavy stone doors of the altar. The central area was small, with a single elevated sarcophagus sitting atop a flight of stairs. Valesse didn’t need to understand Old Nordic to know that the inscriptions around it read Finnur, Son of Eluf.
A moan issued from the inside of the sarcophagus. Narrowing his eyes, Arngrimur gripped the lid with both hands and heaved it off.
‘Found you,’ he said, triumph lighting his face for an instant before it changed.
Finnur Elufsson lunged out of the sarcophagus-
Or, rather, he tried to. The draugr’s wizened hands rose by a fraction of an inch, then dropped uselessly back onto his chest. His knees twitched above immobile legs. His decayed face moved from side to side, but his head remained anchored to the bottom of his coffin.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ Valesse whispered.
‘They buried him in full armour.’ Arngrimur gestured at the suit of interlocking dwarven plate encasing the draugr, along with the two-handed axe lying across Finnur’s chest. ‘Truly a shame. Now that he’s wasted away, he can’t even move, much less fight.’
They stared silently at the remains of the Nord warrior, gnashing his teeth in his dual prisons of Nord stone and Dwemeri metal.
Arn was the first to move, reaching into the sarcophagus not for the axe, but the sidearm at his hip. ‘I’ll be taking this, Elufsson,’ he said gently, and withdrew the sword.
It was a simple thing, and Valesse still couldn’t figure out for the life of her why they were being paid so much to recover one blade. The scabbard was a long chute of some dark metal – unusual, to be sure. With proper enchantments laid inside, metal scabbards allowed for smooth draws without dulling the blade, but there were plenty other treasures in the barrow worth more than a good sword. The sheath had no decorations whatsoever and the straps attaching it to Finnur’s belt had long since rotted away, along with the wrapping around the hilt and half of the wood of the hilt itself. The guard was an oval disc. The hilt was long, despite the shortness of the three-foot blade, and there was no pommel. A short line of runes was carved into the side of the sheath. She couldn’t read it, but she knew from the distinctive swirls that the language was Eastern Akaviri.
‘Katana?’ Valesse mused.
‘No, it’s an older design called a chokuto. See, it doesn’t have a curve.’ Arngrimur pulled on the hilt. Then he frowned and pulled again. ‘What on…’
He yanked several times at the hilt as his frown deepened. ‘The blade is stuck fast.’
‘Let the client worry about that,’ Valesse said, holding up her hands nervously. ‘Don’t break anything.’
‘I know, I know,’ Arn huffed. ‘It’s just… the client’s a friend of mine, and I don’t want him going away disappointed.’
‘Who is he again? Some collector?’
‘No, a gardener,’ Arn grunted. His arms were bare underneath his cloak. Veins bulged and rippled across his biceps as he strained. ‘Come on.’
‘All right, enough!’ Valesse cried. ‘You’re cracking what’s left of the hilt!’ It was the most worthless part of the sword and easily replaceable, but she had no desire to damage it any further.
‘Fine,’ Arn huffed again. He wrapped the chokuto in linen rags and belted it next to his own sword. ‘Well, that's that, then,’ he exclaimed. ‘Gods, I need a drink.’
‘I’ll buy you one after we get back to civilisation – Arngrimur!’
Valesse’s smile faded off her lips as her husband reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a single, distinctive bottle.
‘Where on Nirn did you get that?’
‘Swiped it from a shelf a few corridors back,’ Arn grinned as he popped the cork and quaffed it before Valesse could slap the bottle out of his hands. The Nord belched, and Valesse felt her eyes water.
‘Do you realise you’ve just drained mead that was at the very least centuries old?’
‘Good stuff,’ Arngrimur hiccupped. ‘Bit tangy.’
‘Throw it back up!’
‘I’m going to learn Illusion magic for the explicit purpose of making you vomit.’
‘Go ahead.’ Arngrimur produced another bottle.
‘Don’t even think about it!’ Valesse froze it solid.
‘Cold,’ Arn complained, shaking his hand.
‘Walk it off, you drunk of a Nord,’ Valesse seethed. ‘I can’t believe you.’
‘Duck!’ Arngrimur shoved her out of the way an instant before a volley of arrows whistled past where they had been standing a moment earlier. Valesse stumbled and reflexively braced her arms against her belly before regaining her balance. A couple of the missiles skittered off Arngrimur’s iron breastplate. The tips were fire-hardened wood, the same arrowheads Valesse had seen at the campsite.
The bandits numbered twenty-six. They were garbed in furs, and their weapons were even cruder than Valesse had expected. Wooden clubs and jagged axes. She readied her magicks. Arn swayed on his feet as he drew his sword and unslung a banded iron shield from his back. On a good day, either of them could take that number on their own. But the pregnancy was really beginning to slow her down, and Arngrimur had, as usual, chosen the most convenient of times to get drunk. Valesse waved her hand, sending a jolt of Restoration magic into Arn’s system. It wouldn’t steady him immediately, but he would at least sober up more quickly.
The bandit was headed by a hulking Orc. Like Arn, he was wearing an iron breastplate with his arms bare. Unlike Arn, there was a very large collection of scars across both of his arms. Some were new and still inflamed. He was clutching a two-handed hammer that looked like it had been fashioned for a giant. The head was a reddish ball set in the middle of three spiked prongs.
‘He has a Daedric weapon,’ Valesse said flatly. ‘Common rabble my foot.’
‘I’ve got him,’ Arngrimur said. It would have been threatening had the alcohol not garbled his voice.
‘I’ve got the rest.’
‘Shoot the witch, quickly!’ the Orc roared as he squared up with Arngrimur.
Valesse flicked her wrist. An emerald aura enveloped her slender frame as the bandits drew on their bows and loosed. Their aim was horrendous, and the few arrows that made it through simply splintered on her Ironflesh. The bandit chief bellowed out a second set of orders.
‘She’s hardening herself. Maces and clubs, break her arms!’
‘Arn, can you shut him up already?’ Valesse hissed as the motley crew rushed her.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Arn said, shuffling his way towards the bandit, covering his head and upper body from the left with his shield raised, his sword angled slightly to the right behind it. He moved slowly, his feet still unsteady. The tip of his sword twitched towards the Orc. ‘You,’ he slurred. ‘You call shots good.’
Valesse had to resist rolling her eyes even as she decimated the entire front row of the bandits with a barrage of ice spikes before they could make the stairs.
The bandit leader snorted. ‘You would know, wouldn’t you? That’s a Legion stance, and that’s an Imperial gladius. Deserted, did you?’
‘I’ll have you know I was honourably discharged-’
The Orc didn’t let Arngrimur finish, attacking with a rapid horizontal swing with a wide grip for leverage. Arngrimur grunted as he received the blow with the shield. The Orc let the hammer sink in before bouncing back into a guard, and Valesse could see Arn’s arm give a little from the corner of her eye.
‘Wait a minute,’ one of the bandits’ archers mumbled. ‘Wasn’t he one of the Legates…?’
‘Do you really have time to worry about anyone else, young man?’ Valesse conjured an advancing wall of fire and sent it rising in a wave through the bandits’ ranks. Most of them avoided the flames well enough. Their training was either poor or nonexistent, but their instincts and reflexes were sound enough. Still, now they were split down the middle.
‘Aagh,’ Arngrimur grumbled. ‘My arm. My head.’
‘Won’t have to worry about that for much longer!’ the Orc cackled, swinging out with another three successive strikes. His stance was grounded, firm, and he attacked without overextending or overcommitting. Unlike his underlings, he had formal instruction. Arn blocked every attack with his shield, but the Orc had far greater reach with the hammer, and Valesse could tell even from the side that he was unbelievably strong. A crack began to run down the shield. It was iron, unyielding but brittle.
‘Arn, for the love of Mara,’ Valesse yelled, exasperated. ‘Get serious already!’
The Orc shifted his footwork, lowering his centre of gravity before swinging out with a massive blow from above, adding gravity to the already formidable power behind the attack. Arn raised the shield again, angling it to help disperse and deflect force, but the prongs of the hammer focused the strike directly downwards and through the shield. It split, snapping in half along the crack, and Arn groaned as he fell onto one knee, massaging his forehead. ‘Urk. Dizzy.’
‘Legate? Don’t make me laugh,’ the bandit chief spat, bringing the hammer up and down one last time to open the Nord’s skull. ‘Just another drunken fool!’
Arn raised the sword, one hand on the flat of his blade, and stopped the finishing blow before it could gain any momentum. The gladius was steel, and while it flexed, it did not snap even as the Orc pressed down on him.
The Orc sneered, trapping Arn’s blade beneath the ball of the hammer and one of the prongs. He opened his mouth to mock him again.
Arn tilted his head back drowsily and threw up into the bandit’s face.
The fighting stopped as Valesse froze the rest of the bandits’ feet to the ground with a wave of ice. Everyone around the altar stared in astonishment at the Orc, who was standing rooted to the spot with Arn’s foul issue dripping down his green face.
‘Aah,’ Arn sighed. ‘Better now. Su Grah.’
The gladius buzzed and disappeared, moving faster than air. In a fraction of a second, Arn freed the blade from the bind and completed two slashes with a single thrust – an upward cut with the back edge took his opponent’s left arm off at the elbow, a lateral chop went clean through the Orc’s right forearm, and before the flesh had the time to fully separate, the gladius buried itself under the Orc’s chin.
The Words echoed throughout the chamber even as the two severed limbs dropped to the ground, still clutching the hammer. The archer who had called out earlier paled at the sudden display of the Voice.
‘Gods,’ he stammered, teeth chattering. ‘Legate be damned, that’s the- the-’
Arngrimur stretched his neck and sucked in a deep breath, the cue for Valesse to plug her ears with her fingers. ‘Do I know you from somewhere, lad? Well, never mind. Let me jog your memory. FUS RO DAH.’
Within the confined space of the room, Arn’s favorite Shout was even more devastating than usual. Valesse heard the thunderclap of force through her bones, and the front quarter of the bandits disintegrated outright. Half of them died when they were thrown against the wall, leaving behind red smears as they slid down, bones shattered. The remaining quarter writhed on the ground in agony, the ones not already unconscious groping at ruptured and bloody eardrums.
‘Next time,’ Valesse said. ‘Do that from the beginning.’
‘Love you too, Lesse.’
It said something about how she truly felt that even now, more than a decade after their wedding, his intimate tones still had the ability to bring a flush to her cheeks.
‘Quiet, you. Let’s hurry, I’m sure your mysterious client is waiting on the sword.’
They retraced their steps out of Finnur’s Barrow, bickering even as they held hands, leaving the broken remains of the bandits in their wake.
The Dovah-Sonaak was unhappy.
Or, at least, it was feeling the best approximation it could feel of unhappiness. The Dragon Priest did not truly feel much of anything anymore. Its body was the same fossilised skin and bone as the draugr lying in the sarcophagus, if even less mobile. The few emotions it was allowed were muted pinpricks of sensation, drowning in the constant torrent of magicka fed into its dead nerves through the brilliant mask fused to its skull. It had had many names once, but the only one that ever mattered was the one engraved in glorious Dovahzul across the side of its mask.
‘Master Midzii,’ the attendant prostrated himself before the Priest. It felt a pinprick of something easier to place than unhappiness. Disdain. The attendant was short, a squirrelly Feyfahliil, one of four servants who had followed him into Finnur’s Barrow. Each was a devotee of the Cult from a different land, come to Skyrim for a singular purpose.
The Priest rasped once at the attendant, who lowered his head further. The disdain grew from a pinprick to a faint throb. Memories of a time when the Cult had ruled, prospered, second only to the dragons, even the dragon, flooded the Dovah-Sonaak’s consciousness. Now it was left with incompetents who dared not even use the first and true Tongue.
‘Yes,’ the Priest uttered, finally sullying itself with common Tamriellian. ‘Speak.’
‘Master,’ the attendant groveled. ‘The one who did this is gone.’
The Priest snarled. Bodies littered the floor. The Priest knew them to be bandits – there were men of their ilk in every age. Propped up against a back wall was the youngest of the lot; the last one the Cult had left breathing.
‘T-too loud.’ The young man’s voice was hitching. ‘C-can’t hear… the Voice. The Voice!’
‘We won’t be getting anything else out of this gibbering idiot,’ one of the Cultists said dismissively. The Priest gestured, and the Cultist slit the final bandit’s throat with a black dagger.
The Priest moved, willing the magicks levitating it a foot in the air to propel it forward until it was leaning over the ancient hero in the sarcophagus. Here, at least, was a soul from almost the same era. Of superior stock, and sustained by the same draconic energies. The Priest fed the son of Eluf a trickle of that energy now, and the dim white-blue glow of the draugr’s eyes began to blaze.
The dead warrior understood. The Priest could see it, even as he could taste the peculiar combination of Altmer magic and Nord Thu’um lingering in the air.
The draugr opened his mouth and spoke in the same Voice as the Priest.
‘Dovahkiin,’ Finnur Elufsson whispered. The Priest’s eyes shone in resonance.