Straag Rod: Book 1: Fate Goes Ever as it must, Part 1
Chapter 5: The Mission
Balgruuf’s eyes lingered on the small village icon that represented Helgen on the parchment map in Farengar’s study. ‘Twas a finely drawn map, mounted on an ornately carved wooden screen, with many details other than towns and cities; hold borders, roads, places of interest, ruins. A scholars map, sort of there to show off, Balgruuf guessed. The mage’s study was crammed full of such things; piles of scrolls, shelves of books, bottles of who knew what, soul gems, shelves of alchemy ingredients and jars of animal parts preserved in alcohol and alphabetized. It was a part of his palace that made him rather uncomfortable, for all of its magical energy, but it had more chairs than his war room and Farengar wanted to be in this room to discuss his “theories” on their current situation, because the Nord mage had diagrams to display. It was better, always, in his long experience as Jarl, to accommodate the mage. He could handle any of his guards in combat, possibly Irileth too, but damned if he could shake off one of Farengar Secret-Fire’s fireballs.
“Helgen…” He said quietly.
The Jarl grunted in response, not ready to answer his Dunmer Housecarl quite yet. He was trying to think. “Do we know for sure what happened in Helgen?” He finally uttered, still studying the map.
“We can’t be certain.”
“A dragon is certain enough for me, Avenicci.” Irileth shot back. “We will need to see to our defenses.”
“We don’t even know it is a dragon. I still say we wait. Wait for real news to come in, not hearsay and frightened gossip.”
The two sides of Jarl Balgruuf’s coin. Action and inaction. Irileth and Proventus Avenicci, Housecarl and Steward. Staying between them helped him plan what he felt was the correct course of action for the people of Whiterun. It helped him stay neutral and keep his hold relatively prosperous during this dark time of Civil War. Helgen was in Falkreath, and what young Siddgeir did in Falkreath was his own damn business. He disliked the self-serving little shit since he made his auspicious debut as Jarl, in a move that shocked the entire gathered moot. Worst thing Dengeir ever did was hire that Witch Elf as his steward, Balgruuf was sure she had something to do with Dengeir’s fall. Our land is a mess right now and that is exactly what they bloody want, he scowled.
What he did know were that troops from both sides, including the Thalmor, had been on the move for several days. His finger traced a line from Helgen to Darkwater Crossing. Darkwater Pass, something had happened there. A convergence of forces from what his scouts had told him. There were rumors that Ulfric had finally been captured.
He was both relieved and saddened, part of him even hoping that the news was not true. Relieved that this Civil War could now end, and Skyrim could move on. Dismayed that Stormcloak’s path had led to such ruin.
One more moot and you would have been king, old friend, Balgruuf sighed. It was true. Torygg was young and while Balgruuf was a reasonable sort, willing to give the new king a chance, his lack of combat experience bothered some of the more veteran jarls. He himself had voted for Ulfric in the moot, putting aside their rivalry for the good of their Homeland. It made sense; the man had paid his dues, proven himself, and he wanted it more than anything. Some people want to be king; some people want to just serve. The Great War, Markarth. Ulfric’s deeds made him ripe for kingship and the thu’um spoke volumes. A leader Nords could rally behind and young enough that he could still be flexible. That he managed to not have Windhelm plunge into chaos despite the continued influx of both Dunmer and Argonian refugees was testament to his skills in keeping Skyrim’s Nords in check. Dunmer and Argonians were not the problem in Balgruuf’s eyes. The real problem was much further south.
Whiterun, Eastmarch, Winterhold, and the Pale voted Ulfric. Hjaalmarch, Haafingar, The Reach, and the Rift voted Torygg. Falkreath was the big surprise. For the first time in many seasons, the proud Dengeir of Stuhn did not come when summoned. The self-serving little shit did. Balgruuf would never forget the smug grin on Siddgeir’s face when he cast his vote.
And Torygg won the day.
His advice to the angry bear was to bide his time, wait for the young king to either prove himself or make a costly mistake. Even so, Balgruuf was planning a trip to Riften with Ulfric, putting aside their own rivalry yet again, to talk some sense into Law-Giver. If she stopped clinging to Blackbriar’s skirts for a moment and honored the memories of her father and husband, honorable men who died at Red Ring, there could be grounds for another moot, another vote.
Balgruuf blew a gust of air. He is his name, however, and storms are never patient, they never wait. And here we are. War and now this.
“And your plan, Farengar?”
The mage sat down to take a sip of watered down wine, adjusting the fit in his dark robes before scratching at a mutton chop. He tilted his head to the side and set his goblet down. “I still maintain that if indeed a dragon was sighted—”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
The Jarl raised his hand to stop his steward. “Avennici, let him finish.”
The Imperial made a tiny huff that elicited a low growl from Irileth. Sometimes, it was like having two extra children, Balgruuf sighed, finally pulling himself away from the map to sit down as well. Honthjolf, a guard, one of the few who did not wear the guard’s standard closed helm, stepped just a hair away, to give the Jarl the appropriate space, adjusting the position of his great longbow that was unstrung and by his side.
“You’re fine, son.” He whispered. Honthjolf’s stance relaxed somewhat and a warm brown eye gave the Jarl a look, asking if the distance was fine. He acknowledged the lad with a nod, it was. Who else did Captain Caius bring with him to their meeting? Honthjolf was one of the Captain’s best archers. Came in second place in this year’s tourney, giving the Companions’ Huntress a run for her money. It seemed the Captain brought all his best today. It looked like Torbar, Jurgen, and Lydia based on their heights and body shapes. Balgruuf’s men always prided that he could tell them apart, even with their helms on. Nowhere near all his guards, but this was the group the Captain was going to trust to relay the information learned from today’s meeting.
He studied the room while Farengar spoke of his plan. The latest plan, one of several outlined during this lengthy meeting, consisted of searching Bleak Falls Barrow for an ancient stone tablet. A tablet that showed dragon mounds scattered throughout the land. It was a solid idea, to locate these mounds just in case anything happened. Perhaps join with other holds in destroying them? Or provide the villages and towns near them with a warning system? Bells. He could easily see bells installed in the watchtowers throughout the hold. Sound them when a beast was sighted? He would have to discuss this further with either Eorlund or Adrianne.
At any rate, searching for this tablet was the best of Farengar’s plans and the mage did well, considering all of his ideas were hastily drawn just after they heard the disturbing news this morning. Unfortunately, all involved risk and deferring precious manpower to Bleak Falls Barrow without a confirmation of a dragon sighting, was asking too much.
Besides, Ulfric’s capture was also a rumor and until it was an absolute fact, he needed his men working to protect the hold from both the Imperials, the Stormcloaks, the Thalmor, and the bandits that now seized the opportunities of plunder that war caused. White River Watch was a particular thorn in his side, the bandits there particularly ruthless.
But he would not cave like some of the other Jarls and have Imperial soldiers garrisoned in his Hold. He did not like what it could imply. That he was incapable of solving his own problems. It was not an image he wanted to send to either the Empire or the ever-watchful Aldmeri Dominion.
An extra hand would then be needed to execute Farengar’s plan, perhaps a Goldpact Knight? The Imperial, Ser Decimus Merotim, the Gold Pact leader himself? He was certainly extremely capable and had easily done several private bounties for the Jarl, mostly criminals and bandits. Balgruuf shook his head. Far too expensive and probably, he smirked, not even awake yet. Gold Pact were like the summer flocks of geese that graced the tundra ponds, a flurry of feeding activity and then spending their winters roosting, cooped up in their great fort in Riften.
No, he needed a Winter animal on this, an ice bear or a wolf, which pointed his thoughts in the direction of Jorrvaskr. The Companions. Balgruuf nodded to himself, the Companions. He liked that idea. He could pay Whitemane a visit tomorrow and see if it was a job Skjor would take, maybe Vilkas as well. The young lad had a knack for learning and was studying to be their lore master, and it seemed that the search would need some scholarship to really see it done well based on Farengar’s details. Ruins were full of traps and puzzles. The only problem is that they were also expensive. Hiring both, and possibly their Huntress would be a strain to their dwindling coffers, but the task needed to be done, on that Balgruuf was convinced. If dragons have returned, knowing anything about them would be an advantage.
It was also personal. Balgruuf wanted to see Kodlak Whitemane. Talk to him. The man had all but disappeared from Whiterun society. Old Tilma reassured the Jarl on several occasions when they ran into each other at market that the great warrior was still hale, not sick as the rumors suggested, only very busy with a pressing matter to the Mead Hall, but Balgruuf knew the old woman, she was hiding something. Perhaps the prospect of a grand task such as this would convince the Captain of the Jorrvaskr to venture out of his ship for a breath of fresh air, maybe a game of cards at the Bannered Mare.
Farengar finished, Balgruuf could tell from all the chairs shifting, the many, yet hidden sighs of relief. He moved his hand from the arm of his chair and gave a gentle push, nudging Vingar Grey-Mane awake. Another reason why he had selected Farengar’s study for this meeting. A comfortable chair for Vignar.
The old Nord’s eyes flew open and he immediately straightened. Vignar leaned closer. “My apologies, my Jarl. Was just closing my eyes, the mage burns something here, an incense and it’s really irri—”
“You were asleep.” Balgruuf whispered.
“A fuck it, you’re right.” Vignar admitted, giving up with a shrug of his thinner shoulders. Vignar had aged noticeably within the last year and Balgruuf had to force himself to not think on the old man’s mortality. “I miss anything?”
“Not really. Though I’m thinking about talking to Whitemane.”
“For Bleak Falls?”
At least the Nord had been paying attention to Farengar. Considering all the talk of ancient relics and magic, Balgruuf was surprised. Vignar Grey-Mane was a Nord’s Nord.
Vignar frowned. “Well, good luck. Don’t know what’s put the man’s knickers in a twist lately. Been keeping to himself. No jobs coming, save the giant at Palagia’s farm. And you know what happens to warriors when they don’t have something to do, right? They drink, get rowdy. Poor Tilma’s been doing more than her fair share cleaning up after them. So much that I’ve had Brill help her. I may ask Olfina too. I’m sure the girl will step in and help.”
Balgruuf turned to the older Nord. “Is it really that bad?”
The old Nord shook his head. “It’s not that it’s bad,” he scratched his head, a troubled expression on his deeply lined face, “it’s just not Whitemane. I know how he runs the Hall, and this isn’t it.”
“Has he confided in you?”
“No. That’s what’s worrying me, he hasn’t, and he used to come to me for everything, Balgruuf.” Jarl Balgruuf felt Vignar’s hand on his shoulder. “Maybe a visit from you will get the old wolf talking.”
“My Jarl?” Irileth interrupted. “We need to know your course of action.”
Another pat from Vignar and one of his big grins. “Go get ‘em, Balgruuf. I’ll tell Tilma to make some apple dumplings. She’ll be very happy to see you again. Hopefully your Nix-hound will let you come over and play.”
The Jarl smirked at Vignar’s dig and rose from his seat, rubbing his beard. Two out of his three thanes were in attendance and it was clear from Olfrid Battle-Born’s long face that he did not like that the Jarl was favoring Gray-Mane today. At least in his eyes. In truth, Balgruuf didn’t favor one or the other, all of them knew battle and had fought together, all knew Red Ring. The Civil War caused a feud between the two eldest clans of Whiterun, not between them and their Jarl, though he knew his brother Hrongar wanted things different. Younger and hotter in the head, Hrongar wanted a decision made regarding the Civil War and while Balgruuf had been considered impatient in the past, he was more than willing to be patient now.
“For now,” he started, knowing no one would be totally happy with his answer, but that is always the result of steering the middle course and thinking of his people first. “For now, until we know for sure, I request that the city walls be closed to travelers unless they have news of this dragon sighting. Keep our people safe inside. Captain, Caius?”
“Yes, my Jarl.”
“Tomorrow, you are to send an escort to the courier and deliver this news to Rorik of Rorikstead. Advise him to reinforce his village’s defenses and that I will consider augmenting his company of guards. In addition, I want you to see if we can conscript more of the able bodied and have your men take inventory of our weapons, armor, and arrow stores. Tomorrow, I will take a tour of the wall and battlements and see what else can be done to bolster our own defenses.”
“So no one enters or leaves the city?” The Captain asked.
“I want to be reasonable; I understand trade still must be done, but for now, yes. Hopefully, we will hear more soon, and I can revise my decision, consider opening Whiterun to trade and travelers again.”
It was a compromise. Irileth would have wanted the city sealed like some sort of forgotten Ayleid tomb, guarded by an army of guards and many ballistas. Proventus would want him to wait. The compromise did not please any of them, but it would work to protect the people for now.
Captain Caius turned to Honthjolf. “You and Morgen will be stationed at the gate today. Unless they have news, let no one through. Travelers have the Ram’s Head tavern just outside the city if they need a place for the night. Point them there.”
Honthjolf nodded. “Aye, Captain.”
The young lad bowed in respect and left Farengar’s study, followed by the other guards.
“Anything else, my Jarl?” The Captain asked.
Balgruff shook his head slowly, suddenly feeling very tired. Meetings such as this always drained him, and he considered sneaking away to the Bannered Mare later tonight to relax over a pint, maybe see if any of the locals picked up any additional news. Irileth did not like him going, but aye, it was the place for news in his hold. Balgruuf’s eyes found his children, eating their midday meal just outside Farengar’s study in the great hall. It would be time for their afternoon studies soon. A good enough reason to move this meeting along.
“Do we speak with the General? Send word? Something?” Hrongar asked.
His brother’s brow lowered. “Oh?”
Balgruuf’s eyes were still on his children. “I do not need General Tullius to solve my problems, Brother.”
“And what of Bleak Falls, my Jarl?” Farengar asked.
“I think it’s time I paid the Jorrvaskr a visit tomorrow.”
“Not the Gold Pact?” asked Battle-Born.
“Those milk-drinkers are probably tucked away in their warm little beds already, by my reckoning.” Quipped Vignar.
“I would not call them milk-drinkers.” Cautioned Balgruuf. “Ser Merotim has done service to us in the past, but Vignar makes a valid point, Olfrid. Besides, why send word all the way to the Eastern Rift, when we have capable warriors already here. I will speak with Kodlak Whitemane about hiring the Companions to retrieve the stone tablet. I’m thinking at least Skjor and Vilkas, but possibly the Huntress as well.”
The Wizard’s features pinched with disapproval. “It is a task that requires more than brute strength, my Jarl. As capable as they are, a different sort of intelligence and knowledge of Nordic ruins, puzzles, and of the undead would be prefer—"
“You want to go?” The Jarl snapped, beginning to lose his patience.
“Well, my Jarl, may place is here, drawing up attack scenarios.”
Balgruuf had a hard time deciding if Farengar was frightened to go or really thought he was supposed to draw up attack scenarios.
“There is also the matter of the coffers.” Of course, Avenicci would bring up money. “You want to conscript new guards, close the city to travelers and trade, and spend on hiring the Companions? The food stores are low enough as it is. I am not sure we have the mon—”
“My word stands. It is your job to find the coin, Proventus.” Jarl Balgruuf interrupted again.
Of course, all of what they said was true, but he was tired. He had been thinking on this matter since late morning and he felt a dull, throbbing headache beginning to form just behind his forehead. Aye, unless someone with the needed skills happened to walk right through their bloody door who was willing or desperate to work for cheap, they would have to spend the money. In general, there was a shortage of independent mercenaries in Skyrim, Belrand of Solitude, Stenvarr of Windhelm, and Vorstag of Markarth were the only ones he could recall off the top of his head. They were seasoned men who would see the job done well and done for less, but they already had their base cities and tended to not stray too far from them. Otherwise, most mercenaries either joined the Gold Pact or the Companions or left for the greener pastures of other provinces when the two groups starved them of jobs. It was a large reason why the Fighter’s Guild could never secure a solid foothold in Skyrim since the second era.
“This meeting is adjourned. All are dismissed. You know your tasks,” he set his jaw, “now do them.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hrongar shoot a frustrated glance at Avenicci before bowing. “I will take my leave then, my brother.” He knew Hrongar was trying to convince Avenicci to convince him to commit to some sort of decision on the Civil War, but now was not the time. Hrongar was followed by Battle-Born and Gray-Mane who paused from his exit to smile, clasping his hand to Balgruuf’s arm.
“It’ll be good to see you in the Mead Hall again, Balgruuf.”
“Let us see what fate brings us.” Balgruuf replied, clasping the old Nord’s arm in return...
Äelberon stood at the doorway to Dragonsreach and waited, keeping his breath steady, trying to ignore the near-constant pain. His right hand was at his side, the long fingers spreading instinctively. The tiny movement was rewarded by the softness of dense fur, the curve of his boy’s ear, begging for another rub, and he obliged. The husky pressed his head against Äelberon’s thigh and the Elf held the dog’s head there for a moment, close to him. A contented sigh escaped from his boy.
Aye, I am content too, my little one.
He knew deep in his being that it was his Koor who had given him the strength to push forward to Whiterun so he could deliver their request for aid. The villagers of Riverwood, especially the smith’s daughter, Dorthe, deserved at least that much for reuniting them when Äelberon had given up hope after the horror of Helgen. She had found the animal, gave him water, food, and a warm place to sleep by her father’s forge.
“I will go in.” Ysolda spoke up, stopping at the imposing carved double doors to Dragonsreach, a large Nordic palace perched atop the hill of Whiterun City. “Let them know you have news. I sell flowers there all the time to the Jarl’s servants, they will let me approach.”
“Thank you,” he managed a smile. “Flower maiden.”
“No, thank you, Sir Knight.”
Wrong title, but the Altmer ignored it. Nords did not know Altmeri titles and she seemed to be stuck on calling him a knight, even though she did not really know him. It’s the noble brow and hawk nose, Old Mer, it must scream ‘knight’ to these people. Also doesn’t help that you gave her all your pretty Third Era speak.
He watched the Nord maiden disappear into the palace and waited outside, liking the icy snap of the air against his burning skin. It was after dark and flashes of lightning on the Eastern horizon heralded a storm. Curious, he tried to use the light from the flashes to test Ralof’s assertion about Bleak Falls Barrow, but the pounding of his head made him stop his search for the Nordic ruin.
When the guard that escorted him through the city’s gates did not want to further abandon his post, Ysolda was quickly commandeered to see Äelberon the rest of the way to the palace with his news. Probably one of the guard’s close friends and someone that could be trusted. The escort then morphed into a brief tour of the city from a young woman who perhaps talked too much for Äelberon’s current ability to concentrate, but did everything with an enthusiasm that he admitted was almost as helpful to him getting through this grueling day as Koor’s presence was.
He had made it and Riverwood would be safe, he sighed, allowing himself some rest, letting his mind replay the events of earlier today to see if he could figure out something new. The dragon, the destruction. He had not experienced something so devastating since Red Ring, though the type of destruction better matched that of the Great Anguish or the Purge of Dusk. People frozen on the streets, screaming, covered in black soot, faces melted off, blood everywhere. He blinked, trying to remove the horrible images from his mind, but it was impossible. He could even still smell it, the stink of burning flesh. No weapon seemed to hurt it and his ward had nearly failed. An unstoppable monster.
After hugging her brother in relief, tears shed by both, Gerdur took their news of the dragon as calmly as she could, though she immediately walked briskly to the smith’s forge and involved him. They both then disappeared into the inn for some time, emerging later with a petite blonde Breton woman, the publican of the inn, Äelberon had presumed.
Publican my big fat white arse, he recalled now with a knowing smile, his body already really wanting to sit down, but he knew that such an action would make him look a damn fool to the guards by the door, or worse, he would not be able to get back up. So, he opted instead to lean against one of the support beams of the beautifully intricate wooden moat bridge they crossed to reach Dragonsreach’s entrance and rest his eyes. Koor’s head found his thigh again with a demanding snort and his hand found his husky’s head.
“Alright, more ear rubbing…” He murmured. “Such a snowberry…” Another snort and he chuckled, which set him coughing. He could feel the eyes of the guards on him while he succumbed to the fit, heard them step away, closer to the doors, probably thinking he carried a pestilence. It was his fifth fit since arriving at Whiterun. He worked through it, rubbing his chest, trying his best to suppress the cough. It passed, leaving him weak, and short of breath. He drew the threadbare cloak tighter around him and pulled the hood lower over his eyes, his other hand still on his boy.
What you wouldn’t give for a good strong smoke and a hot cup of tea right now, Old Mer...
The Breton was far too smart, quickly dismissing the smith’s--Alvor’s idea that Ralof go to Whiterun.
“They are Stormcloaks, their armor says it all. City will kill them on sight and Riverwood won’t be heard.”
For a moment Ralof and Jyta looked as if they would consider fighting their way out of the village for their freedom, but the Breton’s hard features then softened. “But let them go, they deserve that at least for giving us this news. Dragons… I’ll be damned.” She turned to Ralof and Jyta. “Gerdur, call your husband to get these two geared up with fresh supplies.”
“Good seeing you again, Delphine.” Ralof smiled. “Missed the ale.”
“You too, Ralof.” She acknowledged. “Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to send a few bottles along with you. Thank you for coming to us, you didn’t have to.”
“It was our duty.”
And just like that, Ralof and Jyta were ushered by another Nord towards a house to the south, the small village briefly forgetting Skyrim’s Civil War in their gratitude.
But he was not allowed to leave.
It was always difficult for him initially in a new place. Äelberon had to work, especially since the Great War, twice as hard to earn anyone’s trust. Humans saw the height, the eyes, the ears and they remembered. He understood, the Thalmor’s Alinor had a lot to answer for and people always feel most keenly the last war fought, sometimes forgetting the full history in the process.
The Breton then approached him and their eyes locked. Her light blue eyes widened, almost imperceptibly and Äelberon could detect her uneasiness, the fine lines in her forehead creasing, as if trying to decide something.
She then broke her glare to face Alvor and Gerdur. “I want to speak with him… alone.”
“Are we sending him then?” The smith had asked. “He’s dressed like one, but he’s no Stormcloak.”
“Maybe he’s something else.” Gerdur frowned.
Äelberon was already beginning to prepare his ‘I am not a Thalmor’ argument, but something in his gut told him to shut his mouth.
“Don’t be silly, woman. You think your brother would be traveling with him otherwise?”
Before Gerdur could speak, the Breton raised her hand to stop them. “That’s enough.” Her eyes narrowed as she gave him a once over. “We don’t know what he is. His kind isn’t common here. In the meantime, get everyone gathered. We’ll meet about sending word to the Jarl. Sleeping Giant in about two hours, alright with both of you?”
“As good a place as any.” The smith answered, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Excellent, don’t forget to tell Faendal and Lucan. I think they’re still cleaning up the shop after what happened yesterday.”
Alvor and Gerdur went back to their jobs and to spread the word about the village meeting. The Breton gestured that they move towards the mill, towards the noise of the rushing water.
They sat at a large stump in the lumber yard, behind the mill, away from everyone’s line of sight. There was quiet between them for several moments. She demurely fiddled with her skirts, her head down. His hand, he didn’t know why, was tensing, wanting to reach for his gladius.
Without warning, like a viper, she then turned quickly to face him, a blur of golden metal with a distinct purple braiding in the hilt, slid under his throat. Not cutting yet, but all she had to do was slide and it would be done. His eyes traveled around, searching for anyone, but the place had been well-selected. They were alone. Äelberon relaxed his sword hand and let it fall where she could see it, knowing he had no chance against her physically, so he used the one weapon he had left.
“Hid that under your skirts, eh?” He started, breaking the silence. “Should have seen that coming.” A sigh escaped his lips. “Well, it’s been a day…A fine piece, your dagger. Not so easily earned.”
“He died as well as your people can die.” She hissed, her hand tightening around the hilt of her weapon.
She did not need the katana or the plated Akaviri armor to tell him who she was, or rather, once was. Her skill at taking him by surprise and the Thalmor dagger said it all because for a human to even possess such a blade meant only one thing. That she had killed the bastard Justiciar that owned it herself and there were few in the world who could go toe to toe against a Justiciar who had achieved the rank to have earned that weapon.
The Breton was a Blade.
“Then what is holding you back, Blade?” He asked. “All the Blades I ever knew killed without hesitation. I know, I have had to defend myself. Some of the best fighters in Tamriel.”
“Murderer…” she hissed, pressing the blade against his skin and he felt a bit of blood.
“I never said I killed them.”
“Who sent you?”
More questions, but she was not immediately killing him. Something was stopping her. His eyes left the water and he tried to make eye contact with her but the dagger at his throat was making it rather difficult.
“Who sent you?” She repeated and he could now smell the sweat of her worry.
It then dawned on Äelberon. She cared two shits about herself. Cared two shits about him. She had, however, grown attached to the people in this village and a throat slashing in a lumber yard in broad daylight would mean… Well it would mean what it would mean for him. It was clear by how quickly she responded to Gerdur and Alvor, the fairness she showed Ralof and Jyta, the smile she flashed young Dorthe. Just as he had grown attached to the people of Bruma. Unless one was a total monster, even the most hardened and scarred people, the most desperate fugitives, could still form attachments. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“If they are good people,” he started, picking his words carefully, “takes time, but they sort of grow on you, don’t they, Blade? Gradually chip away at the stone wall you build so high around your heart when you live a life on the run. I almost bought a house in Bruma once.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” She growled through gritted teeth.
“Aye, almost bought a house.” He continued, undaunted by the increased pressure of her blade on his throat. “A nice one, a whole two stories, fine kitchen though I do not really cook, but I love eating. A library for all my scrolls and books and I am a mage, there are—were angaids, all over the floor, a virtual sea of them. Three doors down from the Tap ‘n Tack, near the Fighter’s Guild and the Mage’s Guild because I had friends in both places. Friends, Blade. I had friends, not a lot, but a few. And I was ready to stop running. After almost one hundred years, ready to finally fucking stop.” He closed his eyes, hoping his words would reach her. “But they always find a way, don’t they, Blade? They never stop, like bloody hounds that have scented the poor fox, relentless they are. And smart, so, so fucking smart that you can scarcely breathe, barely sleep. So you just keep running, never looking back. Hoping, praying that one day, you can stop running forever. I have been there, Blade.”
The dagger moved away from his neck and both of them released a ragged breath.
“Who are you?” She asked, her eyes narrowing.
He faced her, his hands still up in surrender.
“Someone who understands you, Blade.”
“I still don’t trust you.” The dagger threatened again. “Who are you?”
Äelberon chuckled at that. “I do not blame you, not with these knife ears.” He began to unfasten his jerkin slowly, carefully, letting her see both his hands while he worked the leather buckles and fastenings.
“What the Oblivion are you doing now?”
“Giving you the proof you need, Blade. Showing you who I am.”
It was not the first time showing the scars had saved his life.
“By the Nine…” she had gasped, her eyes on his bare back, her fingers very lightly tracing one of the older clusters on his shoulder. “So many.” She murmured, now understanding who he was. “You’ve survived so many.”
“Aye. So many...”
He was then led, not to Gerdur’s house, but to the Sleeping Giant Inn. Delphine’s Restoration magicks were not strong enough to stay the poison, the infection in his lungs, or the festering of his lashes, nor was he strong enough to steal from her to heal himself. So he reckoned she used the inn’s entire supply of frost mirium to concoct a salve that would soothe his back and maybe control the fever just enough for him to do the job she needed him to do. Then the former Blade proceeded to tend to his many wounds herself, cleaning them, coating them in the salve and then giving him an effective field dressing that spoke volumes of her time spent both in combat and on the run.
They then redid his jerkin, removed a strap here, moved another there until it resembled something far less "Stormcloak" and it was her turn to be surprised at how adept he was at crafting himself a disguise. They spoke casually about their time on the run while they worked, no other names named, no other locations given, save one. He could not help it. She was the first Blade he had seen since 185. He needed to know, so he asked about him. She knew about as much as the Blade from 185 did, and refused to say the name openly, but she thanked Äelberon for his service in the Great War against the machinations of Vaermina and Lord Naafarin, for doing his part to help her fellow Blade secure the safety of the Emperor.
Afterwards, Ordnar served him a decent meal of sliced meats, some bread and fresh water, but he could not hold down the food. Water, however, was drunk and he was allowed some precious time to rest, Koor by his side, in one of the rooms while she attended the village meeting at the Sleeping Giant’s Hearth. Sleep eluded him, but the time to breathe was appreciated. He was brought out later to give his account of the events at Helgen and it was officially decided that he would go to deliver the message to Jarl Balgruuf the Greater.
“The cloak is good, we’ll keep that. The gambeson is done, far too bloody. I’ll throw it out.” Delphine had mused later, when the others had left, eyeing his meager possessions while he slipped the jerkin over a fresh woolen shirt provided by Ordnar. “You don’t smell quite so much like blood and pus now so maybe they’ll keep their focus on the dragon and not on you. You redid your hair too, good. The less messy you look, the better. The gladius and the bow will work as well, we’ll keep them for now.” She crossed her arms over her chest, thinking. “They’ll think you’re maybe a hired scout working for the Empire.”
“A scout that got marauded by bloody bandits.” He was not beyond joking himself.
The Breton chortled. “Aye, either that or attacked by a dragon, which is the truth, but if it gets you inside to warn the Jarl, I don’t care if they think you’re a damn funny man…”
“They may well think that with the news I am about to bring.”
“True.” She finished fastening his jerkin when his shaking hands could no longer work the fastenings and threw the cloak over his back, pulling the hood far over his eyes. “With it over your eyes, and if you don’t speak so posh, they may think you’re a Nord. Can you do their accent?”
“Delphine, it is against my Order to lie—”
“You can say your tenets, later, Knight-Paladin.”
“You know about that?”
“Of course, we were fucking good at our jobs. We made it a point to know their enemies. Your bounty is higher than a Blade’s, higher than mine, and that’s rare in their world.” She gave him a small, bitter smile, her eyes going far away while she remembered who she once was. “You’re kind of a legend, Äelberon of Dusk. One of those secret, small legends that only a few know. Our loremaster, knew. He admired you and now I can see why. Most Aprax die within their first year.”
“Do they know?” He asked, his eyes on the door of the inn. “About you?”
She turned away. “No, not even Ordnar. They don’t, and I’d like to keep it that way. You were right, Dusken.”
“The attachment. I just wish it wasn’t that way. It would have been easier. I spent too much time here and it’s happened. I can’t change it.”
“It is natural to not want the loneliness, Delphine, but to run is to be alone. For many years I have known this. Any respite, however brief, is welcomed.”
“Aye. And one day, you will have to leave Riverwood, just like I had to leave Bruma, our eyes always on the road, upon every shadow...” His expression became thoughtful and he smiled at her. “But for now, enjoy the respite, Delphine the Publican, your secret is safe with me.”
“As is yours, Dusken.”
“Hope your numbers are better than mine.” He offered, his smile morphing into something more awkward and he shrugged. “I think I’m bloody it for my Order.”
“Shame. It was great in its day.” The Blade was so tiny that even with him sitting, he was still taller, but he quite admired her strength. She must have been very talented to have been recruited by the Blades at such a young age. Delphine cleared her throat and focused herself. “So, now that that’s out of the way, give me your best Nord accent.”
“By Shor’s Hairy Nut Sacks…” He grinned.
Delphine laughed, shaking her head. “You are so dead, Dusken.”
He gave her a look that suddenly sucked all the humor from the small room.
She bit her lip, a resigned sadness flashing over her features, understanding what he had meant by that.
“One last mission, Dusken, and then you can stop running forever...”
He blinked when he felt a cool hand on his shoulder and then heard a gasp, feeling the hand pull away quickly.
He had no idea how long she had been standing there watching him.
“Was I asleep?”
You are really fucked when you don’t even know yourself, Old Mer.
“No, just very still, looking to the horizon. I thought for a moment that you were, well...”
“Aye, actually. You were so still. And then you just blinked.” She giggled, covering her mouth. “You scared me, made me jump. I am sorry it took so long. The palace is on edge, but they’ll see you.”
He immediately straightened, leaving the support beam to walk towards the doors. It was clear from her worried expression that she was beginning to comprehend his deteriorating physical condition and he saw her clutch her flower basket a little tighter. “You will go to the temple after you tell them, yes? Danica, she can help you.”
Nothing is helping this old body now, lass.
He smiled and gestured to the door with his head, remembering himself. “This first. It is far more important than an Old Mer’s nagging cough.”
Ysolda bent her head, her brow furrowing while she fingered a flower in her basket, delicate, light blue, and he wondered if maybe it was a source for a dye they used. Matched the shade of her dress almost exactly. He stopped his crazy mind before it went too far one of its unimportant Altmeri tangents.
“Is it true?” She suddenly asked. “The dragon?”
His expression sobered and his eyes found the building storm clouds to the east, watched the lightning. “Aye.” He nodded. “It is.”
She took the flower and held it towards him, making him turn to face her again. “You could have run away.”
“It was my duty to bring the news to Whiterun. My mission.”
“Take this then, Sir Knight. For your service.”
It was a simple gesture from one who was poor, but it was appreciated. Äelberon took the flower and brought it to his nose. Crisp and light, like a fresh spring morning. “Now that is the nicest thing I have smelled all day, lass.” He nodded in approval, tucking the flower within his jerkin. “Thank you.” He gave her a small bow in gratitude.
He cradled his animal’s head against his thigh and swallowed hard, finding what he was about to do next a bit harder than he expected. “Do me a favor, Ysolda?”
“Can you watch this little snowberry while I am inside the palace? Sit with him? He will not run off, he is far too good for that, but he is in an unfamiliar place.”
Time for you to make new friends, my little one…
The smith’s young daughter in Riverwood, Dorthe, and now Ysolda. Perhaps maybe even Delphine if she was so inclined to have a fine working dog at her side. Koor would not be alone and he was young, given time, he would recover from the loss.
“Of course.” She smiled, giving the husky a friendly pat before taking a seat at the palace’s steps, not understanding what Äelberon was really asking. Koor’s tongue lolled and he licked Ysolda’s fingers for a moment before switching to headbutt Äelberon’s thigh, demanding even more affection from his Master. He gave the animal an ear rub and then brought his hand under the muzzle, lifting it so they could make eye contact.
“Be good, eh boy?” He smiled, giving the dog’s muzzle a wee scratch, though he knew his voice came out strained by his race’s standards, the wave of emotion hitting a little stronger than he expected.
With that, he opened wide the double doors to Dragonsreach and entered.
Koor and Ysolda were waiting for him outside, their breath visible in the night air. Äelberon heard the sounds of thunder and looked at the sky. The storm was getting closer, ominous. With a grunt, he sat at the steps, next to the Nord lass, covering his mouth to cough. She put her hand on his shoulder to steady him during the fit. Another hand brought a cloth to his mouth. He tried to push it away, not wanting to make it dirty with the blood that was coming up, but she was a persistent one.
“It’s okay.” She soothed.
“Thank you, Ysolda.” Äelberon managed when his coughing finally died down. He cleared his throat and wipe his mouth with the cloth, taking time to just breathe for a few moments, drying his eyes and cheeks of the tears. He must look a dreadful sight to her, beyond filthy. “Took longer than I expected.” He finally continued, shaking his head to clear it. He groaned, shaking his head only made it worse. “Sorry to make you wait in the cold.”
“I’m a Nord, this isn’t cold.” Already his boy had moved his head from Ysolda’s lap to his. “He missed you.”
“Was he good?”
Of course he bloody was.
She nodded, giving Koor a friendly pat on the head. “He’s a fine animal.”
“What did they say?”
He reached for a pouch attached to the belt of his jerkin and opened it.
“Hold out your hand, Flower Maiden.”
All ladies like shiny things, since the beginning of bloody time, so he could not help the grin when she let out a tiny squeal of delight upon seeing the amethyst land in her palm, her amber eyes lighting up at its beauty.
“A gift, for my initiative. And…” He just started laughing because fuck it all, why not?
“What’s so funny?”
“I have a job.”
“A job?” She raised her eyebrows, looking at him like he was utterly bonkers. It was not the first time he had been given that look.
“Keep it safe for a wee bit, eh?.” He closed her hand over the gem. “I am really thirsty. Did a lot of talking in there. Sometimes,” Äelberon started to explain, “I cannot help myself.” He nodded and he knew he was sporting a silly half-smile and his voice was almost breathless from the high of what he had just accomplished in there. And it was a high. He, yet again, overcame his knife ears, the slant of his eyes, who they initially thought he was, and as bedraggled and half dead as he was in his shit armor, wielding his shit weapons, they could not ignore the over two years of undead experience had just walked into Dragonsreach, with the brains of the Crystal Tower to match. Their court mage had been particularly impressed to speak to someone who had delved into nearly everything in Tamriel from Akaviri ruins to the Dunes of Anequina and the walking trees of Valenwood. He took a deep breath, trying to quell both his anxiety that he had perhaps gone too far in his promise to the Jarl and his excitement, only to start coughing again. “Altmer, lass,” he croaked between coughs, “tend to talk far too much. They were pretty impressed and now I have a job.”
Äelberon removed a waterskin from the bindle that had stayed by Koor’s side while he was in the palace. He took a long drink, but nothing would help this time and it took a long while to quell the cough. He watched her hold the stone to the light of the brazier’s fire as he wiped his mouth of blood and stored the waterskin back in the bindle.
“This will fetch coin. It’s a good stone, clear, well-colored.” She murmured, handing it back to him. “What kind of job?”
He chuckled, still trying to figure out what the Oblivion he had gotten himself into, and he pointed southeast. “Bleak Falls Barrow. I am to retrieve a stone for the Court Wizard. A tablet etched with a map of Dragon burial sites. It is a sound plan to know where they are, I admit, though I am still unclear as to why the interest in the mounds. I only saw one dragon in Helgen. If a dragon is buried in a mound, surely it is long dead? I do not think the Wizard knows either. Says he needs to do more research, which, to be honest, I would love to help him with. It is all so new and exciting in a way--”
“But you’re—” Ysolda shook her head in disbelief.
“Sick? Dying?” He finished her thought, tucking the amethyst away in its pouch before storing that too in his bindle. “I know. My time has finally come, Ysolda. My final mission complete. I can rest, and rest well knowing that Riverwood will have the aid it needs. It took so much for me to even be here, coming from Helgen and then Riverwood. I am dying and I think you suspected when you first saw me.”
She nodded slowly. “There was an urgency to you, Sir Knight. Like you were running out of time.”
“Aye. So many years old and now I am out of it.” Äelberon sighed, feeling her hand squeeze his gloved one. “You have shown me great kindness, Ysolda, sitting here with me.” He squared his jaw and faced her, the youngling Ysolda, seeing the puzzlement in her clear amber eyes. No Urag, no Decimus, no Bumph. It now fell upon this poor lass to be his confidant in the end, to hear a Knight-Paladin’s final confession. “I am dying, yes. And yet I still cling. Like that stubborn last leaf, shaking from Winter’s brutal wind, that just refuses to fall. I promised them I would find the Dragonstone. I promised and my word has always been true.” Another sigh and he keenly felt the profound sadness of an unfulfilled life weighing on his shoulders, the memories of hundreds of years blurring together in a jumbled mess, his many successes and his many brutal failures. The sudden weight caused his head to bend, his hand rubbing his forehead.
“Maybe…” he continued, squeezing his brow to relieve the intense pressure. “Maybe, I just wanted to pretend for a little longer that I would wake up tomorrow.” Äelberon turned his head, searching the girl’s eyes for an answer and did not like that they were beginning to mist over. Don’t spread your sorrow, Old Mer. She’s too young for your bullshit. “I’m sorry, I am not well. And you have been far too kind to listen to my madness.”
“You’re not mad. It’s the dragon. It changes everything.”
“Ysolda. I was on the block at Helgen” He explained.
She shook her head in disbelief, leaning closer to him. “I don’t believe that. There must have been a mistake. No true criminal would have done what you did today.”
Äelberon raised his eyebrows. “Nevertheless, the axe, child, was going to fall.”
He closed his eyes, resting his elbows on his knees and let his shoulders stoop while he prayed, letting out a growl of frustration against the god of his Order. “Why am I here? Why dangle the Barrow before me? Why put me in the very land where you know he is? Why get me so far only for me to fall? Why tease a future when you know there is none for me now?”
He felt her cool hand on his burning shoulder and she whispered in his ear. “Who are you talking to? There’s no one else here. It is the sickness, Sir Knight.”
“Where do I go from here?” Äelberon asked after a few moments, only half listening to her encouragement, her assertions that it would be alright. He had been so ready at the block. So ready to die.
“Sir Knight, you should really go to the Temple. See Danica.” She took his hand, “Gods, so hot, even through the glove.” She pulled at him, urging him to rise. “I’ll lead you there myself. She can help you, Ser Knight. Make your last days more comfort—”
“I do not want to die in a temple sick bed, youngling.” He suddenly snarled, like a desperate animal, feeling his nostrils flare and his eyes blaze. And it hit him, just then, what the root of his deep despair truly was. It had absolutely nothing to do with dying, it was how he wanted to spend his final moments. Not in a bed, not comfortable, all propped by pillows, being spoon fed broth while his body slowly gave, waiting for his heart to stop. Not feeble and weak. He wanted to die the right way, for him.
Aye, Auri-El, I decide. I decide where I fucking die.
At first, Ysolda looked taken aback by his angry words, but then she gave his hand a squeeze and nodded, understanding what he really wanted. Orcs and Nords, almost the bloody same, deep down. The Nord then stood, setting her jaw, and pointed to the southwest of the palace, towards the large upside-down boat and Äelberon felt a smirk fast approaching.
“Then go there, Sir Knight.”
He laughed gruffly, rather enjoying the irony of where his old carcass was going to end up and stood, hoisting his bindle over his shoulder to ready himself for one last journey. He acknowledged Ysolda, appreciation in his eyes. “You know what I seek then?”
“Aye, and they will give it to you.”
He gazed at the Jorrvaskr and smiled. “There’s fight in me yet, lass. I may give them trouble. Rock their boat.”
“Good. They could use it.”
Her last words made him furrow his brow with an unspoken question, but he ignored it. “Thank you.” It was softly-spoken, humble and from his heart.
She did a small courtesy and he was flattered by her formality, feeling the tips of his ears blush pink at the attention. “I take my leave of you then, Sir Knight.”
Ysolda made to leave and Äelberon’s eyes then found his Koor, who, by now, was up as well, wagging his tail in anticipation of them being on the move again. Together. Another pang of grief, but Äelberon shook it off, hardening himself. It needed to be done. “Ysolda!” He called, grateful that she stopped and that the call did not set him coughing again.
“What?” she answered from the lower rung of stone steps.
It was such a big request and he did not know quite how to phrase it. “Tomorrow, lass, would you pay a visit to Jorrvaskr?” His hand fell upon his animal’s head and he felt the husky push against it, wanting attention again. Of course, he obliged. It was sometimes hard to believe that this snowberry who constantly wanted ear rubs and cuddles and kisses could be capable of any violence, but when battle called, Koor answered, his loyalty to his Master without bounds. Äelberon hoped that he would carry that fierceness to the end, maybe finish what he himself could not. You got it in you to kill the shit, boy? he asked, his eyes locking with those great, great sky blue eyes.
The husky’s unwavering stare gave him his answer.
Äelberon looked up, facing Ysolda. “His name… is Koor. Would you pick him up, and see that he is--”
“You have my word.”
He nodded in approval. “I know a Nord’s word. Very good.”
The old Knight then straightened his back, making himself as tall as possible, and gave his snowberry a quick pat on the shoulder, urging him down the steps.
“Let’s go rock their boat, boy.”