BOOK ONE --- GATHERING CLOUDS
It had been the fourth skirmish of the day. The few remaining trained longbowmen of the Sixth and Seventh Legions loosed arrow after arrow at the backs of their already retreating enemy. The missiles bounced off a mocking wall of wards and shields, and the Aldmeri Dominion once again fled into the forests. The march had put the Legion within two days of the Imperial City, and they had just crossed the Niben. The air was moist, and soon enough the elves had disappeared into the foggy woodlands.
Arngrimur exchanged a knowing look with Ulfric as a familiar splintering crack emanated from the commander’s tent. Jonna had just smashed another table to smithereens.
The good general was shaking flecks of blood off her skinned knuckles as the two Nords entered the tent. Arngrimur fingered his newly minted badge. It won’t, he knew, cut me any slack with her.
‘If it isn’t the Forked Tongue of the Sixth,’ Jonna snapped. She always spoke in snaps. ‘Are you fully recovered, Stormcloak?’
Ulfric rubbed reflexively at the sores around his mouth, where the Thalmor had run sewing twine through the skin. ‘Enough to kill elves.’
Arngrimur shot him a sidelong glance. The two of them had left High Hrothgar as bright-faced young men, but now, the son of Hoag’s golden beard was wild, unkempt, and there were dark circles under his narrowed eyes. Those same eyes darted to the locket of Valesse’s hair hanging around Arn’s neck. Ulfric’s still-mangled lips tightened, and he did not apologise.
Arn let the moment pass. Jonna had already turned her attention on him. ‘Filling out that Legate’s cloak nicely, soldier. Don’t let promotion go to your head.’ Her voice was even rougher when she gave praise. ‘Well, out with it.’
Arngrimur exchanged another loaded look with Ulfric. This one said do you want to tell her, or should I?
Ulfric gave the tiniest of shrugs. You’re the Legate, Legate.
Arngrimur closed his eyes for a moment before speaking. ‘We’ve, ah, received intelligence about the bands harrying us for the past few days. They’re being led by the Third Division’s Hornets.’
The look on the general’s face made Arn wish the table hadn’t been smashed, just so Jonna could break that instead of something else.
‘Is he there?’ Jonna spat, the scar on her right cheek twitching. The hate radiating off her person was enough for both Arn and Ulfric to take a single step back.
‘The Twinstinger is still stationed in Skingrad, General.’
Jonna pressed her teeth together until they made a distinct clacking. Like Ulfric, she had suffered capture by Dominion troops. But it had been in an earlier campaign, and her captor had been one Commander Larethor of Shimmerene.
‘I know how-’ Ulfric began.
‘You’re a man, Tribune,’ Jonna hissed. ‘You know nothing.’
Arngrimur nudged his fellow Tongue before he could say anything in retort. They waited in silence for half a minute, during which Jonna’s rage sank back beneath the surface.
The general exhaled. A vein still throbbed on her forehead, but her voice was perfectly even. ‘Right. How did we come by this intelligence?’
‘Jorra reported back just an hour ago, General.’
Jonna grunted impatiently. ‘Shadeclaws. What’s Tsukikage doing about our request for more assassination units?’
‘Declined. They don’t want to risk exposure.’
‘Shinobi,’ Jonna cursed. ‘Do they feel nothing over what happened to the Blades?’
‘They’re honourless snowbacks who only know how to run and hide; cowards to the last one,’ Ulfric said coldly. ‘We don’t need their help to win this war.’
‘Spend a little more time in the field, Hoagsson, and you’ll start appreciating their value,’ Jonna replied. ‘Damn it.’ The sudden rise in volume gave Arn a start.
‘Someone explain to me just how a roving band of Altmer is managing guerilla warfare-’ Jonna pounded a savage fist into her own palm, and the metal of her gauntlets rattled. ‘-against the Imperial Legion-’ She slammed her steel-clad hands against each other again. ‘-in the Imperial capital?’
Growling, the general jammed her plumed helmet atop her head and beckoned as she threw open the flap to her tent. ‘Walk with me, gentlemen.’
Good soldiers that they were, Arn and Ulfric followed. Around them, men worked furiously, salvaging what could be salvaged from their camp. Of all the armies of Tamriel, the Imperial Legion remained the most effective at moving troops. Much of that expediency came from the speed with which they could set up and tear down fortification. None of it mattered here. Fast as the Legions were, they were still a standing army. Their Altmer foes could mobilise and strike before the order to respond was even made. The Hornets had stung them once in the dawn, twice as they were making ready to march, and now once again as they started pulling up their tents.
‘If we had just two units of Shadeclaws,’ Jonna spat, apparently tracking Arngrimur’s train of thought. ‘We wouldn’t even be having this problem.’
‘Many of our troops are also fresh Nords who don’t know the province well,’ Ulfric added, scowling. Arn knew just how much the man hated relying on shinobi.
‘Whatever our issues are,’ Jonna said. ‘The fact remains that we’re mired. If we don’t penetrate the Red Ring and link up with Decianus by Loredas, Naarifin will have time to counterattack.’
They were close to the Imperial City, torturously close, close enough to hear the muffled spell clashes and the heavier thumps of trebuchets in the distance.
The three officers strode past a group of Legionnaires loading logs onto horse-drawn carts. The men were new recruits just out of training camp in Skyrim. At least we can still afford to train them, Arn thought worriedly. If there ever comes a point when we have to start using freshly drafted peasants, the Empire is done for.
The Nords stared at Arngrimur and Ulfric in awe. The murmurs of ‘Legate’ and ‘Master Stormcloak’ came a few seconds before they noticed Jonna and followed up with hasty salutes and hails of ‘General’.
‘Overshadowed by a pair of walking siege engines,’ Jonna said, her voice dry and bemused. ‘Wipe that smirk off your face, Legate.’
Arn pushed his own helmet down and tried not to look too proud.
‘At least one of you would have been better off assigned to His Majesty back up north. Attaching the only two Thu’um wielders we’ve ever had to a single legion reminds me of that adage about eggs and baskets. Bah. At least you inspire the bunch of myth-swallowing boys I have to work... with…’
Jonna trailed off. The distant thumps had intensified, deepened. Arngrimur had initially thought them part of the siege in the west, but as they grew louder still-
Ulfric turned to face the south. ‘Sulfur,’ he muttered. ‘I smell… fire.’
Thump. The hairs on the back of Arn’s neck rose. His body knew what was coming even if his mind did not.
Thump. Jonna had spent more time on the battlefield than both of the men put together, and she reached instinctively for the gladius at her hip.
Thump. ‘Wings,’ Ulfric whispered. ‘They’re wings.’
The roar could not be described as sound. It tore through their eardrums, layered with simultaneous pitches of alto and bass no mortal man, mer or beast could have produced. It reverberated in their very bones, made the steel plate of the Legionnaires sing in resonance, cracked the sky open like thunder as clouds parted before the sheer power injected into the atmosphere.
‘Can’t be.’ Jonna’s face was ashen.
‘Dragon.’ Arn reached for the locket around his neck and clasped it until his knuckles turned white. ‘Dragon.’
‘Can’t be,’ Jonna insisted. ‘It can’t be! Not in this Era!’
‘The prophecies,’ Ulfric rasped. ‘Oh, gods, the prophecies…’
They would have stood rooted there along with the rest of the Nords until the end of time, but Jonna recovered her composure in seconds.
‘Go,’ she said. ‘Find out what it was, the two of you – and if it truly is a dragon, deal with it right there. We can’t afford to fight it with our main force. The Hornets have delayed our march for too long. Take four contubernia with you.’
‘If even a tenth of the old stories are true…’ Arngrimur let go of the locket, his hand shaking. ‘We need at least a century, two… Oblivion, we might not make it without a full cohort.’
‘I can only spare one century.’ Jonna shook her head. ‘We’ve lost too many already. We’re barely managing to fend off the Dominion raids, and if I lose an entire cohort to a mythic beast-’
‘You might lose the entire Legion if we don’t make it, General,’ Ulfric said frankly.
‘Then make it,’ Jonna growled. ‘Or die keeping the dragon’s attention. Take two centuries, not one soldier more.’
Ulfric nodded slowly. ‘I’ll rally my men.’
Arn made for his own tent, preparing a speech to break the news to his captains.
‘Tongues!’ Jonna called. The two Nords turned to look her in the eyes. ‘I know the old stories, too. No one else can Shout. This is your fight.’
Between the three Legionnaires, there was enough steel in their gazes to forge a thousand blades.
‘Divines watch over your battle, ye sons of Skyrim.’
Arn and Ulfric had chosen the two centuries in the Seventh closest to full fighting strength and set off at a brisk march to the south. Behind them, the bulk of Jonna’s forces had begun to move west.
The area they were marching through was a sparse part of forest, which was fortunate. The smaller bolt-throwing engines and onagers could be moved behind the infantry. There weren’t as many longbowmen as Arn would’ve liked, and he didn’t think the stones from an onager would do much against a wyrm of legend, but they might stand a chance with a few well-placed shots from the ballistae.
Balgruuf of Whiterun was captaining the contubernia at the front of the van, along with his Dunmer housecarl. Arn was glad to have people he knew at his side, and he was sure Ulfric felt the same way. The rest of the one hundred and thirty-three Legionnaires were formed out of equally tight-knit tent groups. The men were mostly Nords, and not fresh recruits, but veterans of campaigns all across Tamriel.
Losing them would hurt – and we will lose many, Arn thought grimly. If not every single one.
The dragon roared again. And he spoke in the Tongue.
‘BO, JOORRE. ZU’U LOS HET.’
Birds too slow or foolish to flee dropped out of the sky in terror. Leaves fell, newly dead, shaken from branches in the thousands. As the veil of green fell over them, every Legionnaire stopped. Even Ulfric paused, turning white. All four Greybeards together could not hope to match the calm fury behind the Words.
Arn drew in a shuddering breath, and his fingers found her locket once more.
She was here. With him. Always.
‘Forward.’ He infused the Thu’um into a rallying cry. It echoed across the woodlands. ‘Forward!’
The Legionnaires shouted themselves, and together, the fighting men of the Imperial Legion answered the challenge with their own roar.
It was a good roar, raw-throated and fierce, proclaiming the spirit of warriors passed down through the bloodline of every soldier under Arn’s command.
The dragon simply laughed.
Trees tore themselves out at the roots and snapped. Half of the Legionnaires were flung off their feet as the forest itself parted around the centuries, revealing a sky dark with clouds. From the lowest point of the darkest cloud dropped a winged shape with fiery scales and glittering eyes. And the men fell into the shadow of the beast.
The size of the wyrm defied comprehension. The mammoths of Skyrim could not hope to compare. Every beat of his wings pressed against the Legionnaire’s ears, crushed their boot-heels into the ground.
‘Tinvaak.’ The dragon’s maw burned. ‘TINVAAK.’
Balgruuf dropped his javelin as the bottom of his shield thudded against the earth of the newly made clearing. ‘There’s no way.’ Beneath his armor and the braids of his beard, he was still a boy, younger even than Ulfric. ‘There’s no way we can fight that thing.’
The captain’s men mirrored his horror, and so too did the rest of the Seventh. Nord, Imperial, man, mer, those distinctions no longer mattered. On that day, in that instant, the mortals remembered the despair of their ancestors. Every soldier stood frozen, sharing the same hollow eyes, pinpricked pupils sunken into their sockets, staring out from the same mask of skin pulled taut across their skulls.
Every soldier but one.
Arngrimur, too, remembered. Images poured forth from the very core of his being, flashes more numerous than stars in the night sky. He remembered the intake of breath from across widening reptilian nostrils. He remembered the slight in-folding of the wings to brace for the recoil of the Shout. He remembered the curling of the lips over the fangs to exhale the first vowel of the Word. He remembered the grips of countless weapons pressing against his hands across a million lifetimes.
He remembered killing dragons.
The Legionnaires were terrified, in disarray, some even weeping – but they were still Legionnaires. At their Legate’s command, they acted out of pure muscle memory, slamming themselves immediately into a pack and locking their shields together in the phalanx they had drilled day after day after day.
The fire that bathed them was the equal of a dozen battlemage contingents put together. At the head of the formation, Arn could feel the hairs on his arm crisping and falling off. But his scutum held. And so did every other shield, even as the dragon dove across their heads to bombard them from above.
‘Brit grah, bahlaan hokoron.’ The dragon was enjoying himself.
Before Arngrimur could issue another order, the wyrm Shouted again.
‘IIZ SLEN NUS.’
The Shout devastated the centuries, and even Arn was knocked off his feet. He had heard the Words before, and so had Ulfric, from the mouths of Masters Arngeir and Borri. Ice in its purest expression, the ideal of cold made solid. He had simply never seen it on such a ridiculous scale, never heard any being chain two Shouts together that quickly-
No. No, I have.
In a single, massive burst of ice spikes, the Shout had cracked the tortoise from within. Legionnaires lay dead and maimed, strewn across the upturned dirt. The cries of the wounded filled the air.
‘Irileth! Get up, get up-’ Balgruuf was kneeling over his bodyguard, shaking her limp frame.
‘My legs, my damned legs…’ The wave of shattering cold had caught an Imperial below the knees. All that was left of his feet were jagged shards of white bone.
‘Skjor! Oh, gods, look at his eye-’
A hand clasped Arngrimur’s and pulled him to his feet. The son of Hoag was bleeding from a cut above his forehead, but he was still steady on his feet, and the spark of his life still burned bright.
‘Bastard wants tinvaak,’ Stormcloak snarled, the muscles of his face working. ‘I say we give him tinvaak.’
Ulfric had always had a way of spreading passion, transmitting rage. ‘Aye,’ Arngrimur growled. ‘I’m not losing any more soldiers.’
Together, they drew in a collective breath.
The dragon’s eyes took on a new glow, and for the first time, he spoke in Tamriellian. ‘At last.’
‘Let me taste of it, vunne.’
The Tongues exhaled force. Falling leaves became rapidly disappearing specks of ember. The ears of the Legionnaires closest to the pair spurted blood. Nirn itself bent around the Thu’um.
The dragon jerked in mid-air, his neck twisting backwards. Then he swivelled sideways, one eye peering directly down at Arngrimur.
Ulfric stared in shock. They had broken cavalry charges with their Voices combined. They had Shouted down forts, decided battles in seconds. The dragon was completely unfazed.
‘FO KRAH DIIN.’
Ulfric turned his disbelieving glare on Arngrimur, who, impossibly, was already Shouting again.
Even the dragon was caught off-balance. The wave of frost was countered by a hurried ‘Yol-Toor’.
‘I remember,’ Arn murmured in a daze. ‘I see. I know. I Speak. Every dovah before this… every dovah before me.’
‘Geh, geh!’ The dragon almost sounded joyful. ‘It truly is you. Hi los onik, zeymah. He was right all along. KRII.’
The right Word leapt unbidden to Arn’s lips. ‘GOL.’
A pillar of earth rose, and the hundreds of thousands of insects within the mound withered and died under the dragon’s command, leaving the Nord untouched.
The dragon initiated again. ‘FUS RO.’
Unrelenting force swept down towards the centuries, blowing the Legionnaires off their feet. Arn stood firm. The physical could not sway his spirit eternal.
The wrath of the storm descended, but the lightning was swallowed by the ground and dissipated, harmless.
Poison burned away. Wind faded. Ash sank. An inferno was choked out by a sandstorm. Arngrimur nullified, redirected and twisted the dragon’s offensives with uses and meanings of the True Language he had never known before, never studied under the Greybeard’s Way of the Voice.
This was what it meant to Shout with a dragon.
This was what it meant to Shout as a dragon.
‘Pruzah, pruzah!’ the dragon bellowed in delight. ‘It has been too long since last I’ve had tinvaak with a fellow dovah!’
Arn panted, massaging his throat. He would not last long on the back foot. With a burst of exertion, he howled out three rapid Words, returning the dragon’s earlier Shout in full.
‘KRII LUN AUS.’
The dragon continued to laugh even as the Shout sapped at his vitality and his scales began to lose their lustre. ‘Vofir, kiir. I salute your cheek, Dov-’
As if from a distance, Arn heard Ulfric yell.
Neither of the duel’s participants had noticed Stormcloak rallying the Legionnaires. Masked by the thunder of their Thu’um, the siege engines had rolled into place. And they had finished calibrations five seconds ago.
‘BRUNIIKKE!’ The dragon’s wrath was terrible. ‘YOU DARE? YOU DARE INTERFERE, MORTAL SPECKS?’
A hive of ballista bolts tore through the membrane of the dragon’s wings. Arn’s Shout had eaten away at enough of the wyrm’s scaly hide for even the onagers’ stones to do damage. One missile staved in his snout. Another rock broke off a talon.
Furious, crippled, nose bleeding, the dragon swooped in for one last dive, powering through the second barrage from the engines. And for the last time that day, Arngrimur’s soul flared into his consciousness. Swiftly, as if he had practiced the manoeuvre a hundred times, he tightened his grip on the scutum and lunged instead of ducking, ramming the shield into the dragon’s open jaws as they both skidded to a halt on the ground. With his right hand, he drove the Imperial steel of his gladius into the beast’s malevolent eye.
The orb ruptured and the dragon screamed, falling onto his side, one wing crumpled against his back, useless. Then Balgruuf lowered his pilum and his contubernia followed suit, charging for the exposed belly.
Two javelins splintered on contact with the dragon’s scales. Another glanced off the ribcage. The remaining pila buried themselves all the way up to the middle of their shafts. The dragon’s blood salted the earth. And all was quiet.
‘Tafiirre,’ the dragon said. Even in his dying moments, his voice was clear and strong. ‘Zu’u Mirmulnir dur hi, joorre. I curse you. I curse you all. You have stolen my last hunt. You have besmirched tinvaak. Zinvu pusojurre. So this is what has become of Nords.’
The wyrm raised his head from where he lay, and Ulfric cried out a warning. But the dragon’s final Shout was not an attack.
‘Zul Mey Gut,’ the dragon breathed. And he began to laugh again as the spasms of death rocked his titanic form. ‘It is done. Vonok, Zeymah. He knows. He will see it done. Thuri du hin sil ko Sovngarde! When Doom on black wings comes for you at the End of all things, remember the curse of Mirmulnir!’
Ulfric stabbed his own gladius into the dragon’s neck, but the wyrm was already dead. Breathing heavily, the Tongues stared at each other over the red-hot corpse.
‘How in Oblivion did you Shout like that?’
Arngrimur had no answer. The Legionnaires around them fidgeted, poking tentatively at the dragon with their weapons. They leapt back collectively as the body burst into flame and ribbons of iridescent light.
The light flowed towards Arngrimur, and he gasped. It was a rush of power and memory no mortal should have been able to withstand, but he did.
He drank. He devoured. And he was complete.
‘The prophecy.’ Balgruuf’s tones were hushed.
‘The prophecy,’ one of the Whiterun boys whispered. His awe and fear was giving way to reverence. ‘I know of it.’
‘Aye,’ Ulfric said. There was a new emptiness to his Voice. ‘Misrule has taken its place at the eight corners of the world. The Brass Tower has walked. The thrice-blessed have failed. The Dragonborn Ruler has lost his throne. The White Tower fell last year.’ Looking to the north, his expression grew bitter. ‘And our homeland has long since been sundered, kingless, bleeding.’
Arn met his eyes, blue on blue. And he knew they were brothers no longer.
Ulfric Stormcloak fell to his knee. Around him, one by one, every single Nord followed suit.
‘Hail, Arngrimur Einharsson, Last of the Dragonborn.’
‘Hail him with great praise…’ Arn’s words were beginning to slur again. He took another swig from the bottle.
The other passengers on the carriage looked at him with raised eyebrows. Many wore expressions of shock, others of disapproval, still others of disappointment.
‘What? Didn’t expect the legendary Dragonborn to be a drunken mercenary wrapped in cheap iron?’
‘Now, now, dear,’ Valesse said.
‘Bah,’ Arngrimur muttered. ‘Dragonborn, Dragonborn. Kill one dragon and suddenly you’re a demigod of the ancient tales. There haven’t even been any other dragons, and nobody knows what exactly the prophecy means. The Wheel Turns… saving-the-world hogwash. They don’t even pay me.’
‘Dear,’ Valesse insisted. She was still smiling, but there was that undercurrent to her voice that indicated her patience was nearing its end.
‘Maybe I should have stayed on High Hrothgar,’ Arn said, more solemnly. ‘Some days I have no idea how I’m supposed to deal with… any of it.’
Valesse reached out, and instead of the smack upside the head Arngrimur had been expecting, she simply closed her fingers around his.
‘Together,’ she said quietly, gently. ‘With me.’
Arn looked at her, then at his drink.
He slid the cork back into the bottle and stoppered it.
Husband and wife shared a grin, snuggling closer together on the back of the cart. The driver cracked the reins and spurred the horses onward. The road was long, and Windhelm was another two days away.
*Translations of the Dragon Language as depicted in the longer sentences of this chapter:
Bo, joorre. Zu’u los het. – Come, mortals. I am here.
Brit grah, bahlaan hokoron. – Beautiful battle, worthy enemies.
Hi los onik, zeymah. - You are wise, brother.
Vofir, kiir. – Disrespect, child.
Zinvu pusojurre. – Honourless insects.
Zu’u Mirmulnir dur hi, joorre. – I, Mirmulnir, curse you, mortals.
Vonok, Zeymah. – Farewell, Brother.
Thuri du hin sille ko Sovngarde! – (My) lord (will) devour your souls in Sovngarde!
**Translations of the Dragon Language as used in Shouts and Words:
Tinvaak – Talk; Yol Toor Shul – Fire Inferno Sun; Iiz Slen Nus – Ice Flesh Statue; Fus Ro Dah – Force Balance Push; Vunne - Tongues; Fo Krah Diin – Frost Cold Freeze; Krii Lun Aus – Kill Leech Suffer; Gol – Earth; Zii – Spirit; Strun Bah – Storm Wrath; Golt – Ground; Nihn – Poison; Ag – Burn; Wuld – Wind; Feim – Fade; Kii – Ash; Storn – Sink; Klo – Sand; Pruzah – Good; Bruniikke – Savages; Tafiirre – Thieves; Zul Mey Gut – Voice Fool Far.