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Wind Guide You

Discussion in 'Skyrim Fan Fiction' started by imaginepageant, Apr 13, 2012.

  1. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    After crossing paths with Ulfric Stormcloak at the age of eleven, the course of Annika's life was forever changed. Two decades later, she returns to Skyrim to join the rebellion, but finds herself fighting more than just one war, as dragons, conspiracies, questions of fate, and her own inner demons rise to challenge her.

    Wind Guide You is an ongoing fanfiction that involves the game's main storyline and civil war storyline. It is currently around 110,000 words, and still growing.

    Our Dragonborn's saga begins en route to Helgen, but, just as the player can take their game in any direction they choose, so too will her adventure veer off course and into new territory. If you're put off by the familiarity of the first chapter, I implore you to keep reading; the original story is just around the bend.

    I greatly appreciate any feedback you can offer. Knowing there are people out there who want me to keep writing encourages me to do just that. Thank you for reading!



    table of contents

    Chapter Eight: Season Unending​
    Epilogue: Only Just Begun​
    cast of characters
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]



    theme song
     
    • Like Like x 5
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    Latest Given Reputation Points:
    Irish: 11 Points (I absolutely love this. Very well done!) Mar 13, 2014
    Anouck: 25 Points (Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Harisson Ford.. All I miss is Anthony Hopkins. :D) Apr 12, 2014
    lizardisok: 15 Points Feb 21, 2016
  2. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    one: awakening


    The first thing she noticed was the cold.

    The chill that bit at Annika's skin was a hundred times sharper than it had been only minutes ago. But had it been mere minutes? The stiffness in her back and the grinding ache of hunger in her stomach suggested otherwise. When she opened her eyes and blinked away the last blurry remnants of sleep, the dull light of morning settled it: hours, not minutes, had passed. Hours since she'd left Cheydinhal as the sun dipped below the mountains, since she'd reached Dragonclaw Rock in the dead of the night, since she'd been stopped by those Imperial soldiers on the road heading north. The left side of her face throbbed, a memory of an armored fist, of the blow that must have knocked her out.

    A horse whinnied to her left, and all at once, she became aware of her surroundings. The horse, guided by an Imperial legionnaire gripping reins in gloved hands, pulled a wooden cart over a bumpy road. Two men sat across from her, and one next to her, each avoiding the eyes of the others. When she looked skyward, a wall of trees rose up before her. But these weren't the lush and leafy trees of Cyrodiil; these were the wild and snow-dusted evergreens of Skyrim.

    Home.

    The warm flash of joy that sparked inside of her at the revelation died with another: her wrists were bound.

    "Hey, you. You're finally awake."

    Annika jumped when the man's voice broke the rhythmic clicking of hooves against stone, and looked up from the thick rope scratching her wrists to see that he was bound just as tightly as she was.

    "You were trying to cross the border, right?"

    She hesitated before nodding, uncomfortable to suddenly be under the scrutiny of a strange man. His face was open and kind, and framed by the thick blonde hair that was the mark of a Nord, but she had lived long enough to know not to trust anyone who hadn't earned it.

    "Walked right into an Imperial ambush, I bet," he said. "Same as us... and that thief over there."

    The man he nodded to scowled at him before turning to Annika, making her shrink back on instinct. "You and me, we shouldn't be here!" he cried, as though she were to blame for their plight. "It's these Stormcloaks the Empire wants!"

    The blonde man heaved a weary sigh. "We're all brothers and sisters in binds now."

    On the road ahead, another carriage housed another handful of prisoners. Annika's brothers and sisters in binds. Maybe guilty. Maybe innocent. It didn't seem as though the Empire cared any longer... if it ever had to begin with.

    She turned back to the passengers in her own carriage, and followed the thief's angry eyes to the man who was seated next to her. His back was to her as he watched the road disappear in the distance behind the carriage, and all she could see of him was hair as flaxen and wavy as her own, mingling with a heavy fur cloak that glistened with recent snow. He had been so quiet that she'd forgotten he was there, and as he turned towards her, as though he felt her gaze on him, she saw why: he was not only bound, but gagged as well. A dingy cloth hid the lower half of his face, but the defeat in his eyes was painfully clear.

    The thief shrugged towards the gagged man. "What's wrong with him?"

    "Watch your tongue!" the other man snapped. "You're speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King of Skyrim!"

    Annika could not be sure if it was the carriage jostling her about, or if it was the brute force of her heart pounding in her chest, but all of a sudden, the entire world seemed to shift beneath her. Ulfric Stormcloak, close enough to reach out and touch, if her hands had been free to do so.

    Of course she hadn't recognized him—she'd only seen him at close distance once in her life, and that had been two decades ago, when she was but a child. Those years seemed to melt away now, as if she'd come in from the cold to stand before a blazing hearth. Behind his dismal eyes, she saw the fire and valor he had looked at her with so long ago. Through that gag, she could imagine the confident smile he'd boasted in his early days as a Jarl. Oh, yes, it was him. It was Ulfric Stormcloak.

    "Jarl Ulfric," the thief gasped. "But if they've captured you..." His words trailed off and his eyes went wide with fear as he came to a catastrophic conclusion.

    Annika reached it at the same moment. Imperial soldiers carting a bound and gagged Ulfric Stormcloak to destinations unknown could only mean one thing: the war was over, and the cost of the Empire's victory would be the rebellion's blood.

    The thief whimpered denials of his fate, the terror in his voice striking a deep chord within Annika. But right alongside the fear of her own death was the fury and heartbreak of coming all this way to join the fight, and being forced to watch Ulfric Stormcloak fall before she could. The terrible injustice of it settled upon her so heavily that she worried her resolve would crumble under the weight of it, and that she would die with tears frozen on her face.

    Annika paid no mind to the continued discord between the men across from her, but she could not help but feel a twinge in her heart when the blonde proposed that a Nord's last thought should be of home. Hers would be—at least she had that to cling to. Now that she was back in Skyrim, breathing that crisp air, feeling the golden warmth of the sun on her face as it broke through the clouds, she knew without a doubt that this was her home, no matter how many years she'd been away. How long had she believed that she'd had no home, that there was nowhere in all of Tamriel that she belonged? But she'd been wrong. She knew that now. She was a daughter of Skyrim, and it would always be her home. As her eyes roamed over the snow-capped mountains and the towering evergreens, she thanked the gods that she was able to see it once more before being sent to Sovngarde.

    As the cart rolled closer to the stone walls of an unfamiliar village, a soldier rushed out to greet the head of the convoy, a grisled legionnaire in ornate Imperial armor sitting high atop a horse.

    "General Tullius, sir," the soldier called out. "The headsman is waiting!"

    "Good," the general muttered, leading his horse through the gates. He turned to glance at the passengers of the carriages with narrowed eyes, staring directly at Ulfric for a long moment. "Let's get this over with."

    As the carriage crossed the threshold of the village, the thief began to pray to the divines.

    Within minutes of the convoy's arrival in what the blonde man called Helgen, villagers were clustered together on the side of the road, flushed out of their homes by the scandal of prisoners being carted through their little town. Annika could almost feel their eyes piercing her skin, judging her for crimes unknown, eagerly anticipating the moment of her execution with perverse excitement.

    The carriage slowed as it turned into the town square and rolled past the headsman standing in the corner of the snowy stone courtyard, his axe polished and gleaming in the sunlight.

    An Imperial soldier appeared at the back of the carriage a moment after it stopped, and motioned for its passengers to disembark. Ulfric stepped down without hesitation, and Annika followed in his wake, far braver than she likely would have been had he not been there beside her. The thief, however, seemed to be rooted to the rough wooden plank of his seat, until the blonde man kicked his boot.

    "Shouldn't keep the gods waiting for us," he muttered with the utter calm of a man who had accepted his fate.

    The thief began to panic when the legionnaire pulled him forcibly from the cart, insisting that he wasn't a rebel, that they were making a mistake. But his pleas fell on deaf ears, giving Annika little reason to believe that begging for her own life would achieve anything.

    She pressed her lips together and looked forward to the Imperial captain that stood before them all, commanding respect with her firm posture, and fear with her heartless eyes.

    "Step towards the block when we call your name," she ordered, shooting hard looks at each of the prisoners in turn as the soldier beside her held up a length of fine parchment.

    "Ulfric Stormcloak," the soldier announced, "Jarl of Windhelm!"

    A collective gasp rose up from the villagers on the fringes of the town square as they realized the scope of the drama that was about to unfold before their very eyes. They turned to whisper into one another's ears, gawking and pointing at the leader of the rebellion, now at the mercy of the Empire he despised. A few appeared devastated, but the majority looked just as bloodthirsty as the Imperial captain did.

    Ulfric stepped forward, his head still bowed, his fur cloak flaring out behind him in a sudden cold wind.

    The blonde man from their carriage drew his shoulders back and held his head high, the best salute he could manage without hands.

    Annika could only watch in stunned silence as Ulfric walked away from her, each step hammering a rusted nail into her heart. Beyond him, the headsman stood ready and waiting, stroking his axe with sickening glee. Panic began to rise up within her, turning her stomach and burning her throat, as she envisioned that mess of blonde hair being severed from that shaggy fur cloak, of Ulfric's blood coloring the snow beneath her feet. She slammed her eyes shut and prayed to the gods to take her first, so that she may escape the torture of witnessing the death of her hero.

    "Ralof, of Riverwood," the Imperial soldier called out next.

    The blonde man left her side and followed Ulfric to the center of the town square.

    "Lokir, of Rorikstead!"

    Once again, the thief refused to move, denying that he had anything to do with the rebellion, prompting the solder to grab him by the arm and pull him forward. They struggled until the thief managed to break free, and, without a moment's hesitation, ran for the road whence they had come.

    Before Annika could even blink, a volley of arrows flew through the air and sunk into the thief's back, knocking him to the ground, where he lay still and silent, one arm still outstretched to the freedom he would never reach.

    The captain turned back to the remaining prisoners, her face red with rage and her nostrils flaring. "Anyone else feel like running?"

    Silence fell across prisoners and spectators alike as the weight of her words hit them all: their lives were in the Empire's hands, and they were powerless against it.

    "You, there."

    Annika's attention snapped back to the soldier, and she realized with dread that his eyes had locked onto hers.

    "Step forward," he ordered.

    She took a deep breath and willed her heart to calm down, but it seemed determined to make the most of its final minutes, and went on drumming its violent beat. She forced her feet to move, lest she, too, be struck down by an arrow. No, she would face her death with courage and honor. No one here would remember her once she was gone, but she wanted the gods to know that she did not die a coward.

    The Imperial looked her up and down, one eyebrow raised in confusion. "Who are you?"

    She had to swallow through the lump in her throat before she could answer. "Annika, of Kynesgrove."

    Long wisps of his chestnut hair fell into his eyes as he studied the parchment in his hand. "Captain, what should we do? She's not on the list."

    "Forget the list," the captain barked back, not even bothering to spare Annika a glance. "She goes to the block."

    "By your orders, Captain." He turned back to Annika with a sigh. "I'm sorry," he said, his face drawn with honest regret—though not enough, it seemed, to question the execution of one who might be innocent. "Follow the captain, prisoner."

    Once again, Annika had to fight to get her legs to work. They carried her to the center of the town square, threatening every moment to give out on her, but miraculously holding strong.

    If the villagers' eyes had pricked her before, they burned right through her as she took her place among the other prisoners standing before the headsman. She had attended only one public execution in her life, when she was fourteen, and she had been sickened by it, and haunted by nightmares of it for months afterwards. She couldn't imagine how the people of Helgen could seem so thrilled by the promise of death—of murder—occurring right in front of them. To escape their harsh stares, she turned her focus to Ulfric, the one calm port in this storm.

    What she could see of his face reddened as General Tullius approached him, the bronze embellishments on his Imperial cuirass gleaming in the sun.

    "Ulfric Stormcloak," he boomed, speaking not just to the man he addressed, but to everyone present. "Some here in Helgen call you a hero, but a hero doesn't use a power like the Voice to murder his king and usurp his throne!"

    Ulfric growled through his gag, the only rebuttal he would be allowed to give.

    "You started this war," General Tullius charged, pointing a finger at Ulfric. "Plunged Skyrim into chaos! And now the Empire is going to put you down, and restore the peace!"

    His words were punctuated by a rumble in the distance, not quite thunder, not quite the roar of a beast, but somehow both.

    "What was that?"

    "Nothing," the general dismissed with a wave of his hand. "Carry on."

    "Yes, General Tullius!" the captain replied, sounding, for the first time since their arrival in Helgen, pleased to be there. "Give them their last rights!"

    A priestess in golden robes lifted her hands into the air, an offering to the gods, and began to intone the blessings of the Eight Divines. At the affront to Talos, one of the prisoners stepped forward and spat on the ground before her. The crowd gasped, but the priestess did not seem bothered; she only bowed away at the prisoner's insistence that the execution commence.

    He took his place before the block, sneering at the headsman who seemed confused by such willing prey. The Imperial captain jumped to action, lowering the prisoner to his knees before kicking him down onto the block like a dog, determined to strip him of his dignity before stripping him of his life.

    In a flash, the headsman's blade sliced through the air and into the prisoner's neck. Annika jumped back and clamped her eyes shut, but it was too late: the red ribbon of his blood was already burned into her memory, for however little time her memory had left.

    Cries rose up from the crowd around them, some cheers, some curses; some hailing the Empire, some bold enough to shout their support for the Stormcloaks.

    "Next!" the captain shouted over the din. "The Nord in rags!"

    There was no question that she meant Annika. She was the only Nord in rags left now that the thief lay dead with an arrow in his back.

    Her entire body began to tremble with the sort of chill she had never before known with her hardy Nord blood, and she could not breathe no matter how hard she tried. All eyes were upon her, even Ulfric's—and as their gazes met, as surely as though the priestess had cast a calming spell on her, Annika stopped shaking, and the weight that seemed to crush her lungs was lifted. The gods had answered her prayers: she would not be made to watch Ulfric die.

    Once again, the sound that was neither thunder nor beast rippled through the clouds. Everyone turned their faces to the sky, save Annika. She had seen enough of the sky throughout her lifetime. She wanted Ulfric Stormcloak to be the last thing she saw before she left this world.

    "There it is again," the soldier mused. "Did you hear that?"

    "I said, next prisoner!"

    Annika's gaze remained on Ulfric as she approached the block, and when his gag twitched across his lips, she wondered what he was trying to say to her, and if, in whatever life would come after this one, she would ever find out.

    She did not close her eyes until her cheek touched the cold, wet block.

    "To Sovngarde," Annika whispered to herself, not quite blotting out the sharp scratch of metal against stone as the headsman lifted his axe.

    She waited for it to come down, waited so long that she wondered if she was already dead, already outside of the realm of Imperial soldiers and Stormcloak rebels and bloodthirsty villagers. But then another thunderous roar tore through the air, the ground shook beneath her, and screams erupted from every direction.

    Annika's eyes snapped open to meet those of a massive winged beast perched atop a stone tower, haloed by swirling storm clouds that flung fire down at the world. The glowing red coals that were his eyes stared at her, studied her, bored into her, and when its mouth opened, for a single moment of madness, she thought it was speaking to her.

    "FUS... RO DAH!"

    She was blown over with the force of a hurricane, the sky spinning above her and below her, and then the world was dark once more.


    * * * * *​


    She could not see anything but smoke. She could not hear anything but ringing in her left ear, and muffled screams in her right. But she could feel everything—the ground quaking beneath her crumpled body, tiny embers landing on her face, strong hands closing around her arms and lifting her to her feet.

    No sooner had Annika left the ground than a blazing ball of fire struck the very place she had lain. The explosion rocked her back into a wall of a man, and she felt the soft caress of fur against her cheek. She blinked rapidly, her eyes stinging with the acrid smoke that blurred her vision, and slowly, the face of her savior emerged from the fog: Ulfric.

    His lips moved as he spoke to her, free of the gag, but his words were nothing more than dampened noise to her ears, so far away that he might have been calling out to her from Oblivion.

    She shook her head, desperate to slough off her disorientation, and coughed long and hard when she breathed in a fresh gust of smoke and ash. Finally, the cotton in her head began to thin, and a single, terrified scream reached her ears above all the others.

    "Dragon!"

    But that was impossible. Like most Nords, she had grown up listening to the fables and legends of dragons, the stories of the ancient warriors who had slain the beasts and ended their tyrannical reign over the world—but that's all they were, stories. She searched the skies for it and found it easily, a dark silhouette against the inexplicable storm, its leathery wings, as black as deepest night, outstretched as it circled back towards the village, fire shooting from its mouth. She'd never seen anything like it in all of her travels... but could it truly be a dragon?

    "Come with me," Ulfric shouted, the first of his words that Annika could hear, as he tugged her toward the stone tower across the courtyard. She followed close behind him, clinging with bound hands to the man who had saved her life in more ways than one.

    She had scarcely wondered what had happened to his gag and binds when she spotted a villager slicing through the rope around Ralof's wrists with a dagger. He caught up to Annika and Ulfric in moments, and the three of them stumbled into the tower as another ball of fire rocketed down from the sky and burst against the stone behind them.

    "By the Nine," Ralof gasped, "what is that thing? Could the legends be true?"

    Ulfric's brows drew together in apprehension, and he hesitated for a long moment before replying. "Legends don't burn down villages."

    Another blast of fire rattled the very walls of the tower, and cries of pain and anguish reached in through its door and windows. The vast shadow of the beast covered the ground outside and darkened the room within. When it lifted, Ulfric peered through a window, his eyes following the beast's flight.

    "We need to move, now!" He waved for Annika and Ralof to follow him out of the tower. "Head south for the village walls!"

    They hastened down the road amongst panicked clusters of villagers, rebels, and legionnaires alike, all fleeing the same threat. Annika tripped over a body on the ground—the thief from her carriage—and that moment of stumbling was enough for her to lose Ulfric and Ralof in the fray.

    And then the beast was circling back towards them, a torrent of flames spilling over the village on the crest of its roar. Knowing she could not outrun it, Annika ducked into what was left of the inn, raising her arms to cover her face as the heat of the fire poured in after her. She could barely see past the swirls of black smoke that rose up from the blazing wooden beams of the floor, and she held her breath as she ran through it, dodging fallen chairs and pools of spilled mead waiting to catch, finally leaping through a hole that had been ripped into the wall at the far end of the inn.

    Outside, chaos reigned as balls of flame continued to fall from the sky like shooting stars, setting homes alight and sending men, women, and children running for their lives. Even as Annika watched, an Imperial soldier was struck down and writhed in the dirt as the fire consumed him. She wished no one dead, but she could not help but be thankful for this devastation, for though it was taking the lives of so many, it was precisely what had spared hers.

    Charred wood and chunks of masonry blocked the main road, but with a quick glance around, Annika found a narrow alley between a house and a battlement. Just as she reached it, a legionnaire ran into the passage from the other side, waving and shouting at her to get back, but he need not have bothered: she'd already seen the shadow of the descending beast. It landed heavily atop the wall, sending a shower of pebbles and dirt onto her head. It was so close that Annika could see each scale on its toes and each crease in its wing, so close she could smell the pungent scent of death rising up from its skin.

    The legionnaire pulled her against the wall as the beast snarled above them.

    "Still alive, prisoner?" he shouted over the din. "Keep close to me if you want to stay that way!"

    It was then that she recognized him: the man who had called out the names of those condemned to die at the Empire's hands, who had apologized to her for her fate.

    "You sent me to the block to be executed only minutes ago," she yelled back at him. "Why should I trust you now?"

    "Because I'm the only hope you've got!"

    But that wasn't true. She had Ulfric. And Ralof. And her own strength of body and mind—she had not survived skooma-starved Khajiits in Elsweyr and vicious Alik'r mercenaries in Hammerfell by being helpless, after all. And dragon or not, she was still a prisoner—had the soldier not said as much himself? Would following him now put her head back on the block later? Maybe so. Maybe not. But if she had to choose between being executed by the Empire and being killed by a dragon, she would happily take the dragon. It would, at least, be a courageous death, and she would become a part of the legend.

    Her decision made, Annika pulled away from the legionnaire and ducked beneath the beast's wing, its sharp talon narrowly missing her face as it reared back for another assault.

    "YOL... TOOR SHUL!"

    This time, she was certain: it was speaking. A language she didn't recognize, but a language all the same. Those were not just roars or growls; those were words, and the moment they died on its tongue, another stream of fire shot forth, catching two Imperial archers who had dared to aim for its snout.

    Annika ran under its chin, choking on the lack of air and closing her eyes against the blinding light of the flames. Behind her, the legionnaire called out for her to stop, to come back, but she pushed on. She dove to the ground and crawled beneath the torrent of fire until she could slip into the side of the ruined house, its splintered wall providing little respite against the searing heat. She gave herself three seconds to catch her breath before lunging forward and running as fast as her shaky legs would carry her, never looking back, sure that the beast would see her, or smell or, or pick her up in its powerful claws and fly off with her.

    But, by some blessing of the Divines, it didn't.

    She made for a stone archway that led to the round tower of a keep, ducking beneath a barrage of arrows being sent skyward and dodging burning embers that rained down from above. When she emerged on the other side of the battlement, she spotted Ralof across the courtyard. Her heart leapt as he rushed toward her, but fell when she saw that Ulfric was not with him.

    "Ralof," a voice shouted a distance behind her—the legionnaire. "You damned traitor!"

    "There are bigger things to worry about now, Hadvar," Ralof shot back, reaching out to Annika when they met in the middle of the courtyard. "We need to get out of here! Come with us!"

    "I will never ally with rebels," the soldier snapped, glaring at Annika as he rounded the pair of them, as though his captain's suspicions of her guilt had been proven true. "I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovngarde!"

    Ralof shook his head in disappointment. "Better the dragon than you."

    The soldier's eyes went wide and terrified. Annika and Ralof turned to follow his gaze and saw the beast hurtling towards them, wings aloft and feet stretched out to perch on the nearby village wall.

    It was looking at her again, at her—but such a thing was absurd. She was nothing. She was nobody. Why in Oblivion would a dragon be bothered with the likes of her? And yet... had it not been stalking her through this village? Everywhere she turned, there it was, unleashing its fury in a path that led straight to her.

    No, it was just a coincidence. It had to be.

    The legionnaire fled to save himself, but Ralof swung an arm around Annika's shoulder.

    "Come on," he shouted, turning her towards the stone tower behind them, "into the keep!"

    She was once again drowning in unbearable heat, in that stench of bitter smoke and burning flesh, but she pushed towards the wooden door of the keep, praying to every last Divine that it would not be locked, and nearly collapsing in relief when it flung open at her touch.

    They flew inside, and Ralof slammed the door closed behind them, muffling the roar of the fire and the screams of those caught in it.



    * * * * *​


    Annika followed Ralof's lead and leaned against a wall to rest and catch her breath. Anger welled up inside of her at the sight of Imperial flags hanging from the ceiling, fluttering in a draft that had blown in on their heels, and she had the sudden urge to pull them down and tear them into pieces.

    "Are you all right?" Ralof asked.

    The truth was, she didn't know. She lifted her hands to her face, fearing what she would find, but although her skin felt tender in places and her right cheek was sticky with a dead man's blood, she did not seem to be burned or wounded. Her head ached from hitting the stone courtyard when the beast had first appeared, and several of her long blonde waves were singed at the ends, but no bones had been broken, and no blood had been lost.

    "Yes," she answered, nodding. "And you?"

    Ralof shrugged. "I'm alive, which is more than most can say today."

    "And what of Jarl Ulfric?"

    He shook his head, and Annika's heart pounded out a terrified beat.

    "I don't know," he said with a sigh. "We were separated when that... that thing tried to land right on top of us. It was a dragon, no doubt. Just like the legends foretold. The harbingers of the end times."

    "But dragons are supposed to be just that," Annika replied, "legends. Do you truly believe they're real?"

    But Ralof was no longer paying her any attention. He pushed off from the wall and rushed across the circular room to kneel down before a body Annika had not noticed before.

    "Gunjar?" Ralof shook the man, shouting his name into his ear two, three, four times more, but to no avail. He heaved a sigh as he slid the man's eyes closed with gentle hands. "We'll meet again in Sovngarde, brother."

    Annika approached slowly, feeling that she was intruding on Ralof's grief just by being there. "He was your brother?"

    "In binds," he replied, echoing his earlier words. "He was a Stormcloak, a true son of Skyrim. He fought bravely, and I'm sure he died that way." He stood up and turned back to Annika. "Come here, let me see if I can get those bindings off."

    She held her arms out to him, and within a minute, he had the knot in the rope undone.

    "There you go."

    "Thank you."

    "You may as well take Gunjar's gear—he won't be needing it anymore."

    That may have been true, but the idea of stealing clothes from a dead man was a grim one. Her fear for her life, however, outweighed her respect for Gunjar's death, and even the dullest blade would find her heart through her own worn furs. They served well for hunting or traveling, but she would need something tougher if she was going to survive this day.

    "Arkay forgive me," she murmured, kneeling at Gunjar's side.

    Ralof joined her, and helped her to unbuckle and slide off the dead man's armor.

    He turned away to allow Annika to dress. The chainmail was heavier than anything she'd worn before, and it hung on her like a dress; Gunjar's shoulders were considerably broader than her own. Once she added the leather tunic, she felt like a child in her father's armor, almost small enough to disappear in it. But when she draped the blue wrap across her chest, she swelled up with pride for bearing Stormcloak colors.

    Behind her, Ralof rattled a barred door. "Locked. Maybe that gate—Imperials!"

    Annika's head snapped up at Ralof's warning, and she saw them not far beyond the gate: a pair of Imperials rushing down a corridor and towards the central room of the keep, swords drawn and ready to be dipped in Stormcloak blood. They quickly raised the barrier and burst into the room.

    Gunjar's iron axe felt clumsy and wrong in hands that were used to holding bows, but it was all she had to defend herself with, and when the first legionnaire lunged towards her, she swung the axe with all her might. It connected with thick steel armor, but the legionnaire staggered back, her eyes flaring with familiar rage—it was the captain who'd overseen the execution, and shrugged Annika's death off with cold indifference. With new anger, Annika raised the axe again and brought it down on the captain's helmet, sending her to the ground in a daze. A third swing hit the exposed line of her neck, and blood spouted from it like water from a spring.

    It was not the first person she had killed—a woman traveling alone across Tamriel is bound to run into trouble—but it was, without question, the most brutal and violent death that had ever been dealt by her hands. She trembled as she stared down at the bloody captain with wide, haunted eyes, barely registering the other legionnaire hitting the ground beside her, Ralof's stolen sword deep in his stomach.

    "You're wounded."

    Ralof bent to inspect a slash across Annika's left arm. She hadn't even felt the captain's blade touch her. Now that she knew it had, pain flared up around the wound, and she winced as Ralof's fingers eased it apart so he could gauge the severity of it.

    "Just a scratch. Nothing compared to what you did to that captain," he added with a smile.

    "I don't like that axe," Annika replied. "I need a bow."

    "An archer, are you? We'll have to find you one, then."

    As Ralof rifled through the fallen soldiers' tunics, Annika raised her right hand over her wound and closed her eyes. A wonderful warmth emanated from her palm and enveloped her injured arm, knitting her skin back together with invisible threads and dampening the pain into a dull throb. When she opened her eyes once more, there was nothing left of the laceration but a soft pink line that would diminish with time.

    "You can heal?"

    Ralof was looking up at her with astonishment, and she wasn't sure if she should feel proud or ashamed. Most Nords looked down on magic, but most Nords didn't have to watch someone they loved bleed to death in their arms, knowing they were powerless to stop it. She would never let that happen again.

    "I know a few spells," she told him, and though she tried not to sound defensive, she was unable to keep the edge from her voice.

    But when Ralof's lips turned up into a smile, she relaxed.

    "Never cared much for magic myself," he said, "but you won't hear me complaining when a priestess is using it to patch me up after a battle. Ah, found a key!" He withdrew his hand from the captain's armor and tossed Annika the key, a small bit of rusted silver. "See if it opens that door. I'd rather not have to go the other way—who knows how many more Imperials are down there."

    Annika thanked the gods when the key turned easily in the lock. After pocketing a dagger and a few septims he'd lifted from the soldier, Ralof followed her through the door.

    "Your name is Annika, right?"

    "Yes," she answered. "And you're Ralof?"

    "I am." He held out a hand. "Pleased to meet you."

    Before she could stop it, a laugh bubbled out of her. The only reason she and Ralof stood before each other now was that they had just narrowly escaped having their heads lopped off by the Empire, and being roasted alive by a dragon—and he was pleased about it? The idea was absurd, but she was thankful that he'd said it. After the horror they had just been through, it felt good to laugh.

    Ralof returned her smile, and for the first time, she truly looked at him. He was young; close to her thirty-one years, but not quite there. He had the height and brawn of most Nord men, but there was an air of innocence about him that Annika envied. He looked, she was startled to realize, like a friend. Though it had been less than an hour since she'd woken up on that cart surrounded by strangers, it seemed that a lifetime had happened between then and now, and Ralof had done enough to earn her trust.

    Annika slipped her hand into his for a shake. "The pleasure is all mine."

    "Come on, let's get out of here before the dragon brings the whole tower down on our heads."

    But whether the dragon's ire was drawn away from the keep or it was taken down by whatever forces remained fighting in Helgen proper, it gave them no further trouble as they rushed through the dark and damp inner corridors of the keep. Past an abandoned mess hall and a torture chamber that made Annika's blood run cold, they came to a hole blown through a wall, revealing a tunnel forged of packed dirt beyond. She didn't savor the idea of burrowing any deeper into the earth, but there was nowhere else to go. Halfway through the tunnel, a familiar sound reached her ears: Imperial voices. Ralof charged ahead, ready for another battle, but Annika, hefting Gunar's axe with a tired wrist, dreaded what they were about to walk into.

    It was a cavern, wide and yawning and harboring another cluster of Imperials. The legionnaires rushed forward the moment they spotted them, the prisoners, the rebels, the Stormcloaks who were to be struck down at all costs. Ralof took on two by himself, but Annika was rooted to the ground with fear—until an arrow whipped past her head.

    Across the cavern, a legionnaire was loading another arrow into his bow, but by the time he let it fly, Annika was moving too fast for it to hit its mark. She darted past Ralof and the two soldiers he fought, across a mossy stone bridge, and straight towards the archer. He shot a third arrow at her, but she lifted her axe just in time to deflect it. And then the axe was swinging through the air in a wide arc, connecting with the archer's shoulder and making him drop his bow as he howled in pain. Annika released the axe, still lodged in the man's arm, and seized up the bow. In a single fluid motion, she tugged the arrow he had meant to kill her with from his hand and shot it into his left eye.

    As the legionnaire crumpled to the ground, Annika heard footsteps running up behind her. She pulled an arrow from the quiver on the dead man's back and whirled around, ready to fire at her new assailant. But it was only Ralof, the bodies of his foes lying broken and bloody behind him.

    "Ysmir's beard," Ralof breathed, his eyes wide and trained on the arrow that pointed at his chest. "You are an archer—and a damned good one at that!"

    Annika lowered the bow, and got to work removing the sheath from the legionnaire's back.

    "I have to be," she replied with a shrug. "There have been many seasons where I didn't eat unless I shot my meal myself. There's no better tool to hone a marksman's skill than hunger." Slinging the quiver over her shoulders, she felt, for the first time that day, like herself. "All right, let's keep going."

    "And pray to the gods we don't run into any more trouble," Ralof added.

    But they didn't. The caves were dark and eerie, one lit only by glowing mushrooms growing in patches on the wall, another dripping with webs that harbored frostbite spiders, easy prey for Annika's arrows. But the last of the Imperials were, thankfully, behind them.

    When they finally emerged into fresh air and sunlight, blinking in the sudden brightness, a roar overhead sent a new wave of panic rushing through Annika's body. She ducked behind a rock, Ralof quickly following suit, and they watched the dragon soar through the sky, heading north, away from Helgen. Away from them.

    They waited until the dragon had disappeared over the horizon before they stood up.

    "Looks like he's gone for good this time," Ralof said, though not without a hint of worry in his voice. "We'd better clear out of here; this place is going to be swarming with Imperials soon enough. Where are you headed?" he asked. "You said you were from Kynesgrove, right?"

    "Yes," she replied after a moment's hesitation, "but it hasn't been home for a very long time."

    "Why not come with me to Riverwood?" he suggested. "My sister runs the mill there. I'm sure she won't mind giving us something to eat and a place to rest for a little while."

    Annika returned Ralof's smile, deeply touched by his generosity. She had a bow and arrows with which to hunt and could have killed a rabbit to sate her hunger, but the comfort and pleasure of sharing a meal with the only friend she had was far more valuable than the meal itself.

    "Yes," she told Ralof. "That would be wonderful."

    He beamed at her. "That's great! Let's go, then—but keep your eyes peeled for Imperials!"

    As they started down the dirt road that would lead them to Riverwood, the heavy weight of fear and uncertainty that had been dragging her down was lifted off of her chest. A day that had begun with such utter hopelessness was now full of promise, and for the first time since she awoke to find herself being carted towards her doom, Annika felt certain that she would be alive to see the sun rise tomorrow.


    * * * * *​


    If it weren't for the towering mountain blotting out the sky to Riverwood's east, Annika might have thought she was walking into Kynesgrove. The vibrant evergreens, the thatched-roof cottages, the mist that had settled over the quiet village... it all reminded her so much of her home, of her past, that tears welled up in her eyes.

    The people of Riverwood moved with slow and relaxed gaits, a jarring change from watching Helgen's frantic villagers flee a dragon's fire. Men were smiling, women were laughing, children were playing with a rowdy dog. It seemed impossible that peace could still exist in Skyrim after what had just happened, but here was proof that it did.

    "Looks like nobody here knows what happened yet," Ralof murmured, leading Annika over a wooden bridge and the lazy stream that trickled beneath it. "Oh, there's my sister! Gerdur!"

    A blonde woman carrying an armful of chopped lumber around the side of the mill whirled about at Ralof's voice, and her face lit up. She dropped the wood and rushed over to take him in her arms.

    "Brother!" she exclaimed. "Mara's mercy, are you all right? Are you hurt?"

    "I'm fine," Ralof said, swatting her hands away as they checked his face for cuts and bruises, but smiling at her fussing all the same. "Gerdur, I'm fine!"

    "But we heard that Jarl Ulfric had been captured!"

    "Keep it down," he hissed at her. "I'll tell you everything, but not here."

    He nodded over his shoulder at the other mill workers, a couple of strong Nords and a wiry Bosmer, all busy chopping wood, but close enough to overhear their conversation between the hammering of axes.

    "Let's go to the house," she suggested. "We can talk freely there, and you two can have something to eat—you look like you could use it."

    As if on cue, Annika's stomach gave a great groan. Gerdur didn't even know her name yet, and here she was, offering her food. It seemed that this family was blessed with the merciful soul of Stendarr himself.

    Ralof made the proper introductions on their way to Gerdur's home, a quaint cottage on the edge of the village. A hefty brown cow grazed on the front lawn, and two chickens stared up at the trio with interest as they crossed the threshold into the house. Ralof and Annika collapsed into chairs, and Gerdur urged her brother to talk while she gathered food and drink for her guests.

    He told the tale of the ambush at Darkwater Crossing two days earlier, the long wait at the border while General Tullius contemplated their fate, and the journey to Helgen, where the headsman's axe was waiting. Gerdur thought him jesting when he revealed that a dragon had saved their lives; it was their dark and haunted eyes that finally convinced her of the truth. She paled when Annika told of the screams, the chaos, the carnage left in the wake of the beast's fire.

    "By the Nine," Gerdur breathed when their story reached its end. "A dragon." After setting a platter on the table between Annika and Ralof, she drifted back to the kitchen, shaking her head, trying to come to terms with the nightmare Annika already wished she could forget.

    A heavy silence fell as they ate, ravenous and desperate for food. The cheese was soft and spongy and possibly the most delicious thing Annika had ever tasted—until she bit into one of the apples, its juice running over her tongue like ambrosia. She wasn't meant to be alive to eat this meal, and knowing that made it all taste even sweeter.

    "Thank you so much for the meal," she said between bites of crusty bread, feeling guilty, suddenly, for glutting herself like a barbarian. "I appreciate it more than you know. Is there anything I can to do repay your kindness?"

    Gerdur thought for a long, quiet moment. "Actually, there is," she finally said. "If that dragon attacks Riverwood, we won't have a chance of surviving without walls or guards. We must get word to Whiterun, and ask Jarl Balgruuf to send soldiers to defend the village. Will you do this for us?"

    "Of course," Annika answered without hesitation. "I'll leave right away."

    Ralof jumped up from the table, startling the women. "I'll go with you!"

    Gerdur rolled her eyes and smirked at her brother. "I should have known. You'll use any excuse to see Ysolda."

    Ralof's face turned redder than Annika would've thought possible for a man, and his eyes skipped around the room as if unsure of where to land. She knew that look; it had been awhile since she'd last seen it, but it was the same as ever. Excitement, shyness, and turmoil all fused together to make a man drunk on love.

    "Finish eating before you run off to Whiterun," Gerdur insisted with a chuckle, "and take an apple or two for the road, as well."

    "Thank you, sister."

    "I've got to get back to the mill before I'm missed. Make sure you say goodbye before you leave, you hear me?"

    Once Gerdur was gone, Annika popped another wedge of cheese into her mouth, watching Ralof with a bemused smile. She wanted to ask about Ysolda, but his face still burned and he seemed to be avoiding her eyes. He began to ramble about Riverwood and the peaceful life he'd lived there, working the mill with his sister and her husband, before the war started ripping families apart.

    A face drifted up out of her memory, a firm voice charging Ralof, of Riverwood to step forward. "That legionnaire, in Helgen, who called you a traitor. Did you know him?"

    Ralof smiled, but it was full of sorrow. "He's my best friend."

    Annika suddenly wished she had asked about Ysolda after all. "He sure didn't sound like a best friend," she replied, keeping her words as gentle as possible.

    "We haven't exactly seen eye to eye since the war began. Hadvar joined the Legion as soon as he came of age; it's something of a tradition in his family."

    "His father is a legionnaire as well?"

    "He was." Ralof picked at the last of his bread, all trace of cheer gone from his face. "Henrik was killed when the Empire first attempted to take Fort Greenwall, in the Rift. All Hadvar could see was his father's blood on Stormcloak hands, but I saw more. Henrik died defending the Empire and their ban on a god he once prayed to! He died protecting the Thalmor's right to execute his own son should they discover that he still secretly worshipped Talos! And how many other Nords had already died for the same reasons? How many would continue to die for an Empire that had betrayed them? The injustice of it all infuriated me," he growled, shaking with the very anger he spoke of. "That's why I decided to join the rebellion. And that's why Hadvar called me a traitor—I'm in league with the people who killed his father."

    Annika stared down into her flagon, speechless. It was one thing to be told of the war by those who weren't affected by it, but another thing entirely to speak to someone in the thick of it, to hear the pain in his voice and see the misery in his eyes. It made it all that much more real.

    When she looked up again, she found Ralof watching her.

    "You should come to Windhelm with me," he said. "Join the rebellion. You've seen the true face of the Empire today; you know better than most, now, why Skyrim needs to be liberated from it."

    Despite the gravity of his words, Annika couldn't help but smile. "That's what I came back to Skyrim to do, actually," she told him. "That's why I was arrested at the border."

    "What? You didn't tell the Imperials that you meant to join the Stormcloaks, did you?" he asked, his eyes widening.

    Annika shifted in her seat. "Not exactly."

    "What did you tell them?"

    She took a sip of her water, and a deep breath. "They asked what business I had in Skyrim," she began, "and I told them the truth: that I was returning home after several years abroad. The captain warned me that I was safer in Cyrodiil, that Skyrim was a dangerous place now thanks to 'that murderer Ulfric Stormcloak and his army of savages.' It would have been smarter to hold my tongue, I know, but... I couldn't stop myself from charging back that Ulfric wasn't a murderer, but a hero." She said it with the same zeal and confidence as she had the night before, even though Ralof needed no convincing. "Needless to say, the captain didn't appreciate that. He threatened to arrest me if I didn't swear allegiance to the Empire right then and there... but I refused."

    "Oh, by the Nine," Ralof gasped. "You must have a death wish!"

    "They're already dictating which gods I'm allowed to believe in; I wasn't about to give them control over what I thought and said, too. But, to be honest, I didn't expect it to go as far as it did." She shook her head, her brows drawing together in anguish. "This is not the Empire I remember. To arrest a person for nothing more than speaking words they don't agree with—it's madness."

    "It's what we've been forced to live with since the day Ulfric challenged Torygg," Ralof growled. "The Empire has become cruel and ruthless, imprisoning and executing people at the slightest hint of defiance. And for what!" He slammed his fist down on the table. "So they can keep licking the boots of those damned elves!" He thrust a piece of bread into his mouth and chewed it with vengeance until he calmed down. "So, what did the captain do?"

    "Drew his sword, and ordered his men to disarm me," Annika replied. "One of them threw my bow and arrows into their fire, and another held my arms behind my back. That's when I knew I was in over my head. The captain began shouting at me, cursing me for turning my back on the Empire and supporting treason against a High King. I thought he was going to kill me right then and there... but instead of a sword, he sunk his fist into my stomach."

    Ralof nearly choked on his bread. "That bastard! Striking a defenseless woman!"

    "They all had a good laugh about it, too."

    She heard them cackling in the back of her mind, and felt, as she had the night before, less than human. That is what they had made her into; a thing, a toy, a piece of meat. Something to play with, and laugh at, and throw away once they grew tired of her. And they called the Stormcloaks savages?

    "At first, I did nothing," she went on. "I thought fighting back would only make it worse. But after the third blow... something in me snapped. I started struggling against the man who restrained me, and when the captain came forward, I spit at him and kicked him hard in the knee. Then his fist was flying at my face, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up on that carriage."

    Ralof shook his head and let out a low whistle. "I guess that explains your black eye."

    Annika gingerly touched the bruised skin over her left cheekbone. "I didn't know I had one."

    For the first time in days, she took stock of her appearance. A black eye, a wild mess of singed hair, ill-fitting armor splattered with the blood of the legionnaires she had killed. She'd been able to wash the blood and soot off of her face at the river, at least, but she must have been a wretched sight nonetheless.

    She began to laugh in spite of herself. "I can't step foot in Dragonsreach looking like this! The guards will think me a beggar and have me tossed out of Whiterun!"

    "I'm sure Gerdur won't mind if you use her comb," Ralof suggested, trying to hide a smirk as he ran his eyes over her tangled mane. "Once we get to Windhelm, you'll be given armor that will fit you like a glove—if you still want to join the fight, that is, now that you know that the cost might be your life."

    "I've always known that," Annika answered, a hot ferocity in her voice. "If anything, my desire to join is even stronger now."

    "That's what I like to hear! You have just the sort of spirit Jarl Ulfric likes to see in his soldiers. Now, come on," he said with a grin, leaping up from the table once more. "We can make it to Windhelm by morning if we leave soon. You'll be a Stormcloak in no time!"

    Annika beamed. The idea and the promise of being welcomed into Ulfric's brigade lifted her spirits and renewed her vigor. She downed what was left of her water, pocketed the last piece of bread, and stood up, ready and eager to begin their journey to Whiterun, and more importantly, Windhelm.


    * * * * *​


    Whiterun's heavy gates were closed when Annika and Ralof arrived, an odd sight for a city known for its constant flow of traders and travelers. Two guards leaned back against the wall, shoulders slouched, arms crossed over one another, exuding an unmistakable air of boredom despite being faceless behind full iron masks. They snapped to attention when Annika and Ralof approached, and one stepped out onto the road to block their path.

    "Halt!" the guard cried, holding one palm up while his other curled around the hilt of his sword. "City's closed. Official business only."

    Annika and Ralof shared a worried look. Cities like Whiterun only closed their doors in matters of extreme danger—and what danger was more extreme than a dragon? This could only mean one thing: Imperials had made it out of Helgen and brought word to the city. There were likely legionnaires within the city walls at that very moment, perhaps searching for any Stormcloak prisoners who had escaped and were seeking refuge. But Gerdur's words echoed in Annika's head—we won't have a chance of surviving without walls or guards—and she knew they couldn't turn back now.

    "We bring news from Helgen," she announced, hoping neither Ralof nor the guard heard the tremor in her voice.

    "Do you?" The guard studied them for a long, tense moment before relenting. "All right. Go on in and speak with the Jarl."

    He nodded to his partner, who swung the gates open and waved Annika and Ralof inside.

    The moment they crossed the threshold, a cold chill ran down Annika's back. Her suspicions were right: a man wearing Imperial red stood not twenty paces away, a threat to her freedom, to her very life. She grabbed Ralof's arm and pulled him back, praying they could slip out of Whiterun before the legionnaire saw them, but the gates had already closed behind them.

    "It's all right," Ralof said, coaxing her forward with a smile. "That's Idolaf Battle-Born. He isn't actually a legionnaire, just a staunch supporter of the Empire. All the Battle-Borns are, so don't expect a warm reception from any of them."

    Sure enough, when the man turned and spotted them, his eyes narrowed.

    "Get out of my city, Stormcloaks," he snarled at them.

    "Nice to see you, too, Idolaf," Ralof returned as they strode past him.

    Still worried, Annika glanced over her shoulder at the man. "What if he turns us in?"

    "He won't. The Gray-Manes would have his head if he did something like that. They back the Stormcloaks," he explained, "and they have just as much power as the Battle-Borns do in Whiterun... maybe more, with their ties to the Companions."

    Ralof related the history of the feuding clans as they walked through the city, but Annika's attention was elsewhere. Despite his reassurance, she couldn't help but fear the eyes of the people around them, unsure of who was a friend and who was an enemy. Not for the first time in her life, she regretted never learning the art of illusion magic; an invisibility spell would have made this journey much easier, and much safer.

    Her worry began to abate once they reached the market, and memories came flooding back to her. She had only been to the city once in her life, the summer she was eleven. After a devastating winter, the summer had yielded exceptionally fruitful crops, and Annika's mother took her two girls to Whiterun to barter with merchants who were rumored to pay well for produce and game from other holds. Annika had made more gold from her meats and furs in one day in Whiterun than she did most weeks back home, and collected just as many compliments for being such a skilled hunter at so young an age.

    Now, twenty years later, Whiterun was just as she remembered, though the dry, dusty roads were no longer as foreign and strange as they had been when she'd only known the rich soil of Kynesgrove, and the cold, wet granite of Windhelm. The inn, built of sturdy wood, looked cozy and inviting, and the aromas of fresh fruits and dried spices wafted over from the market stalls to envelop her in the warmth of familiarity. The mingling voices of merchants, citizens, and travelers weaved throughout the square in a soft but cheerful din. There were more people in this one district than in all of Riverwood, yet Whiterun, so enormous in her youth, seemed small now that she had lived a year in the Imperial City.

    They weaved through the crowd at the market, Ralof craning his neck to catch a glimpse of each face. Annika wasn't sure if he was looking for Ysolda or for legionnaires, but he seemed to find neither before they continued up to Whiterun's middle tier. Beyond a majestic but wilting tree, a man in monk's robes stood with his hands outstretched to the sky, his voice booming over the empty courtyard that everyone else seemed to be avoiding.

    "Rise up, children of the Empire!" He pointed an accusing finger at Annika and Ralof as they passed. "Rise up, Stormcloaks! Embrace the word of mighty Talos, he who is both man and divine!"

    Annika's eyes went wide, and Ralof laughed.

    "And you were worried about being seen in Stormcloak armor," he joked, bounding up the first of many steps to the palace. "Jarl Balgruuf hasn't sided with either the Empire or the Stormcloaks, so Whiterun is neutral territory."

    "I didn't think such a thing as neutral territory existed."

    "It does—or at least, it will until the Thalmor succeed at placing justiciars within the city walls. Try preaching about Talos in Solitude or Markarth," he muttered, "and your head will be rolling on the stone before you can blink. It's not nearly as oppressive here in Whiterun or down in Riften, but most people are too afraid to even say Talos's name out loud. Windhelm is the only city left that allows full worship; Jarl Ulfric wouldn't have it any other way in his hold. Here we are!"

    Annika had only glimpsed Dragonsreach's pitched roofs from the market as a child, but now, it loomed up before her in all its grandiose beauty, and took her breath away. It was a seamless blend of Skyrim's rustic wilderness and Cyrodiil's cosmopolitan sheen, yet seemed bigger than both. As she turned in a slow circle, taking in the view of the palace, the city below, and the plains beyond, Ralof spoke to the guards flanking Dragonsreach's immense doors, and obtained their permission to enter.

    Inside, there was even more to see. The vaulted ceiling seemed to be a mile away, shrouded in a gauzy veil of dust that swirled in the sunlight streaming through windows to the sky. Fine chandeliers hung overhead, but the light of their candles was eclipsed by the great hearth fire that roared in the center of the hall, surrounded by long tables dressed gaily and awaiting the evening's feast. Annika had never imagined that such regality could exist in Skyrim.

    "What is the meaning of this interruption!"

    Her eyes snapped forward to see a Dunmer approaching them, her brows drawn—as well as her sword.

    "Riverwood calls for the Jarl's aid," Ralof answered. "They are defenseless against the dragon."

    The woman's eyes narrowed. "You know about the dragon?"

    "We were at Helgen when it attacked."

    She sheathed her weapon, but not her suspicion. "The Jarl will want to speak with you personally. Come."

    They followed her to the dais at the end of the Great Hall. The Jarl, in all his finery, sat upon his throne, arguing with a man who spoke with an Imperial's sophisticated tongue, more familiar to Annika's ears, and more similar to her own dialect, than the Jarl's thick northern accent.

    "My lord, this is no time for rash action," the Imperial charged.

    "What would you have me do, then? Nothing?"

    "We need more information before we act!"

    The Dunmer cleared her throat. "My lord," she announced, presenting Annika and Ralof with a wave of her arm. "Two survivors from Helgen."

    Jarl Balgruuf turned towards them. The moment his eyes met Annika's, her body flushed from head to toe, remembering the day it stood under the suffocating heat of another Jarl's gaze. She suddenly felt like a child again, small and insignificant before a man who seemed to hold the entire world in his hands—or at least, her entire world. How similar this day was to that, and yet the woman she was now was nothing at all like the girl she had been then, thanks to that Jarl who had shaped all of her days since with one single act.

    "Helgen!" Jarl Balgruuf exclaimed, drawing Annika out of her memories. "You saw the dragon with your own eyes?"

    "Yes, my Jarl," Ralof said. "We saw it burn the village to the ground. Riverwood is now in danger of the same fate. We request your assistance on their behalf."

    "My lord," the Imperial broke in, "if we send soldiers to Riverwood, Jarl Siddgeir will assume we're siding with the rebellion and preparing to attack Falkreath—"

    "Enough, Proventus!" the Jarl shouted, turning angry eyes on the other man. "I understand your concern, but I do not share it. I will not stand idly by as a dragon burns my hold and slaughters my people! We might be able to trust in the strength of our walls, but Riverwood does not have that same advantage. Irileth—send a detachment at once."

    The Dunmer gave a perfunctory nod, already starting down the steps of the dais, while the Imperial, not bothering to mask his displeasure, bowed and stepped back from the throne.

    The Jarl turned to his visitors once again. "What are your names?"

    Annika couldn't swallow through the breath caught in her throat, let alone speak, and was relieved when Ralof spoke for both of them.

    "I am Ralof, of Riverwood, and this is Annika, of Kynesgrove."

    "Well, Ralof and Annika, you've done my hold a great service," Jarl Balgruuf declared. "I appreciate the risk you took in seeking me out, and I won't forget it. But... there is something more you could assist me with."

    They both hesitated, thrown by the Jarl's request.

    "Yes, my lord?"

    He rose from his throne. "Come," he beckoned, waving for the two of them to follow him through the hall. "My court mage has lately been looking into the history of dragons. You may be able to offer valuable insight, having not only seen one, but survived one."

    He led them to a study off the east side of the great hall. Though she had never dabbled in the arts herself, Annika recognized the alchemy laboratory, the soul gems displayed in delicate silver holders, the tomes and scrolls that practically hummed with magical energy. The priestess in Cyrodiil who had taught her how to heal had quarters much like these, filled to the brim with various instruments of the arcane, but Annika had never expected to see such devotion to magic in Skyrim.

    "Farengar!"

    A man in hooded robes looked up from the scroll his nose had been buried in, sparing no more than a lazy glance at the newcomers.

    "I believe I may have found someone to help you with your research into the dragons," the Jarl told him. "Ralof and Annika were present at the attack on Helgen."

    "Really!" Farengar set the scroll down and stood from his ornate wooden chair, studying the two of them with great interest now. "How fascinating!"

    His enthusiasm over their brush with death had the same unsettling tone as that of the villagers who had gathered in Helgen to watch the execution, and as he raked condescending eyes over Annika's bruised face and loose armor, she began to regret following the Jarl into the mage's study.

    "I would very much like to hear the details of the encounter," Farengar said, "but there is a much more pressing task I could use your assistance with."

    Protestations were on the tip of Annika's tongue. She didn't want to relive the nightmare of the dragon's eyes boring into her very soul; she didn't care to spend another minute in the uncomfortable company of a man who had so quickly earned her disdain; she had pressing tasks of her own that she needed to pursue. But before she could devise a polite way to turn down the request, the Jarl cut in.

    "I will, of course, compensate the two of you for your time," he told them with a gracious smile. "Five hundred septims for your help in this matter—just see my steward, Proventus, when Farengar is finished with you."

    Leaving that irresistible carrot dangling before them, Jarl Balgruuf turned and strode out of the study.

    Farengar clapped his hands together. "Now then! While the story of the attack on Helgen is most intriguing, I believe it would be more prudent to focus on preventing any further attacks. To do that, I will need you to fetch something for me."

    From the corner of her eye, Annika could see Ralof growing ever more impatient.

    "What do you need us to fetch?" she asked.

    "A Dragonstone," Farengar replied, "an artifact of the ancient Nords said to contain a map of dragon burial sites. Only minutes ago, I received word that this Dragonstone is housed in Bleak Falls Barrow."

    "All right. Where is Bleak Falls Barrow?"

    "You get straight to the point—I like that. Leave the details to your betters, am I right?" One corner of his mouth curled up into a smirk. Annika wasn't sure if the affront was deliberate or if he was always this patronizing, but either way, she was liking the man less and less by the second. "Fortunately, the barrow is very close," he went on. "It's near Riverwood, a miserable little village a few miles south of here."

    She could almost feel the heat of Ralof's fury radiating out of him in waves, and when he drew in a deep breath, she worried that he was about to lose his temper with the mage and land them both in trouble. Instead, he forced a smile that was the very opposite of friendly.

    "Excuse us for a moment," he said, taking Annika's arm and pulling her away.

    She didn't speak until she was sure they were out of earshot.

    "He's awful, I know," she whispered, "but five hundred septims! We must do this!"

    But Ralof was already shaking his head. "Five hundred septims isn't worth the time we'll waste."

    "It is to me," she insisted, clinging to the hope that the promise of gold had given her. "Your life is waiting for you in Windhelm, Ralof, but everything I had in this world was taken away from me last night. All we need to do is fetch something from a barrow, and we'll have enough gold for a warm meal, a good night's sleep at the inn, and a carriage to Windhelm—and we'll still make it there by sundown tomorrow! How can we refuse?"

    He stared at her for a long moment, his eyes flashing between desire and duty, but he finally gave a sigh of defeat. "I'm sorry," he said. "I need to get to Windhelm as soon as possible. If Jarl Ulfric didn't make it back, no one there will know what happened at Helgen—and no one will know to go looking for him."

    She knew at once that Ralof was right. He might be needed in Windhelm, and could not afford to spend any more time away. But she couldn't afford to pass up an opportunity like this, no matter how much she longed to stand before Ulfric Stormcloak and swear fealty to his cause. She could survive on hunting foxes and rabbits if she had to, but that wasn't possible without arrows—and the eight she'd salvaged from Helgen wouldn't last forever. The arrows alone would be worth postponing her journey to Windhelm, but that gold could also buy meals for a month and clothes to sleep in other than chainmail. Most importantly, it would buy her a sense of security—at least for awhile.

    "Go on, then," she told Ralof. "I'll meet you in Windhelm."

    His disappointment was written all over his face. "Are you sure? Barrows can be dangerous—"

    "I can handle a few draugr, don't worry." She gave him a tremulous smile. "I'll buy you a drink at Candlehearth Hall tomorrow night and tell you all about the adventure, all right?"

    Ralof hesitated, likely still worried for her safety. But it wasn't his help she needed; it was his companionship.

    "All right," he finally replied. "You have yourself a deal."

    They shared a brief embrace, and a fretful voice in the back of Annika's head wondered if she would ever see him again.

    She didn't want to watch him leave, so she returned to Farengar, holding her head high and hoping to convince both the mage and herself of her bravery.

    "I will retrieve the Dragonstone for you," she announced.

    The mage stared after Ralof, one eyebrow raised in confusion. "What of your friend?"

    "He has other duties to attend to. Will that be a problem?"

    He looked her up and down, and huffed his annoyance. "No, I suppose not," he sighed.

    Annika made no effort to hide her dislike of the mage as he described the Dragonstone and the barrow in which it was interred, dropping snide remarks about his suspicions of her incompetence along the way. He painted a picture of certain death, smirking the entire time, as though the idea that she might survive was a joke.

    "Find the tablet," he finished with obvious sarcasm, "and bring it to me—simplicity itself."

    If it was so simple, she wanted to ask, why didn't he fetch it? And if he was so sure that she would be useless in this task, why was he bothering to send her at all? But she only gave him a curt nod before spinning around, more than ready to leave the study that had become too full of the mage's arrogance to have any room left for the likes of her.

    Jarl Balgruuf, perched once more on his throne, paid Annika no mind as she marched past the dining tables and the hearth fire, nor did the whining Proventus, nor the children who strutted about, making absurd demands of the servants. Perhaps she did not need a spell to be invisible, after all.

    The palace looked somewhat less impressive now that she had heard the Jarl bickering with his steward and bore the brunt of the court mage's condescension. In her youth, she had placed the nobility of the great city of Whiterun high on a pedestal, and was both stunned and disappointed to find it crumbling under their feet. These people may have lived in luxury, wearing fine clothes and eating gourmet meals, but beneath the surface, they seemed no more regal than the peasants in the market.


    * * * * *​


    The Dragonstone hit Farengar's desk with a crash that resounded through the silent castle. Within moments, the mage stumbled into the study from an adjacent chamber, his nightdress flapping around his ankles, his face the very picture of confusion as he blinked at Annika. When his bleary eyes landed on the tablet, they grew to twice their size.

    "The Dragonstone," he breathed, rushing over to it. He ran the tips of his fingers across it in great reverence, as though it were made of delicate vellum and not heavy stone. "You found it! And you came back in one piece!"

    "That," Annika growled, "is debatable."

    Farengar glanced up at her, and seemed taken aback by all that he hadn't noticed before: the blood coating her right arm, the slashes in her blue Stormcloak wrap, the ferocity in her eyes.

    "Ah," he said, trying to hide his amusement, but not quite succeeding. "Run into some trouble with the draugr?"

    She had to laugh. Draugr were easy prey compared to the foxes and rabbits she'd hunted her entire life—it's hard to miss a target that's either sleeping or shambling mindlessly towards you. Even the master of the barrow himself hadn't offered much of a challenge; it may have taken her thrice as many arrows to bring him down, but she was much faster and spryer than he, and it hadn't taken much effort to stay out of reach of his rusted axe. No, she'd had no trouble with the dead denizens of the ruin.

    "Did you know that place would be crawling with bandits?"

    She had her answer as soon as Farengar's eyes skipped away from hers.

    "I had an idea," he replied. "Barrows are often full of gold, after all, and gold attracts bandits, does it not?" With a shrug, he turned his attention back to the Dragonstone, tracing the strange symbols carved into its face, similar in design to those that had covered the curved wall behind the master's casket. "Isn't it beautiful? Imagine, a piece of ancient history, right here, in my very own hands!"

    Annika shook her head in disbelief. She'd almost been killed by bandits he hadn't bothered to mention would be there, and all he cared about was an old slab of rock. She was covered in blood and bruises, and all he could do was shrug.

    If she'd disliked the mage before, she despised him now. Not because of the wounds she'd suffered, or even the ambush itself, but because he had backed her into a corner with no easy way out. She'd had no choice but to kill those bandits, or else be killed herself, and if she accepted the Jarl's gold now, it would be nothing more than blood money. But without it, she'd be desolate and destitute with even less hope of reaching Windhelm alive than she would have had if she'd left Whiterun with Ralof.

    She simply could not afford to leave Dragonsreach empty-handed.

    "Where can I find the steward?"

    "Sleeping in his bed, I presume," Farengar replied, taking a seat at his desk and waving her away now that he had no further use for her. "If you'll excuse me, I have a great deal of work to do."

    This time, Annika was the one to shrug, and she made sure to wipe her muddy boots on Farengar's fine carpet on her way out of the study. That small piece of retribution was nothing compared to what the mage had put her through, but it would have to be enough.

    She stalked past the long dining tables that had been cleared since the evening's meal, thankful she hadn't been there to smell the rich aromas of what the highborn could afford to eat; what little she would be able to buy for her own dinner would pale in comparison. She doubted the guards would wake the steward for anything as paltry as her reward, but she had lifted enough septims from the bandits to buy herself room and board at the inn for the night; she would return for the gold promised to her in the morning.

    She was steps away from the castle's doors when they flew open with a clatter. Three guards tumbled inside, one badly burnt and injured, the other two supporting him on either side.

    "Dragon!" one of the men cried out. "A dragon is attacking!"

    In moments, the hall was filled with the entire court and their guards, as well as a tension so thick the air itself seemed to hum. Thoughts of the inn slipped away as Annika lingered in the shadows the castle's foyer, listening to the guards tell the Jarl that the dragon had all but burned down the western watchtower, watching the fear wash over everyone's faces before they could mask it with courage. The stench of burnt flesh, singed hair, and fresh blood—and the grim memories they conjured—might have made her ill had there been anything in her stomach.

    When the guards described the dragon's pearly gray hide and snowy white wings, Annika knew it could not be the same beast that had attacked Helgen, and that chilled her more than anything else. There were now two of these horrors razing villages and killing innocents. How many more were taking to the skies at that very moment? How many would they be able to quell before Skyrim was completely decimated?

    The Jarl, looking no less dignified in his silk robe and stocking feet than he had in his earlier regalia, thanked the injured guard for his bravery, and asked the others to see him to the temple to be healed. He ordered Irileth to gather the city's garrison at the front gates to ready a retaliation, and denied Farengar's beleaguered requests to accompany them. He was about to turn back into the castle when he spotted Annika on the fringes of the crowd.

    "You!" he cried, waving her forward. "The survivor from Helgen! You're the only one here who has any experience with a dragon!"

    The hall went silent, and all eyes fell upon her. She shrunk into herself, growing hot under the sudden attention of nobles and warriors alike.

    "But—but I don't," she sputtered, too stunned by the claim to remember the proper etiquette for speaking to a Jarl. "I have no experience with dragons aside from watching men fall under one's fire while running for my own life."

    "But you've seen one," the Jarl insisted. "You've survived one! Surely you must know more about the beasts than any of us do!" He approached Annika in her failure to answer his beckoning, squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin so that his height seemed greater and more intimidating than it truly was. "You called for my help earlier," he reminded her. "Now I'm calling for yours."

    But he had already asked for her help—the hastily-healed wounds and bruises that shadowed her arms and hid under her armor could attest to that. How many times did she need to risk her life for the Jarl before he would be satisfied? At least once more, it seemed; his stony eyes and heavy brow were an obvious warning that she would never see the gold he'd promised her if she refused him now. And so she found herself trapped in yet another corner. She could turn her back on the Jarl and his hold and try to make her way across the wilds of Skyrim with only a sparse pocketful of gold to her name. Or, she could face this dragon, and leave Whiterun five hundred septims richer—if she managed to live through the night.

    But this wasn't Helgen. She was no longer a helpless prisoner with bound wrists. She had a sturdy bow, and two full quivers of arrows stolen from the crypts of sleeping draugr. She had chainmail and leather armor, and the colors of the Stormcloaks swathed across her chest. She had confidence and valor born from rushing bravely into impossible battles and emerging triumphant. And, this time, she would be running towards the dragon, instead of away from it; she would be the hunter, not the hunted. And that would make all the difference in the world.

    "Of course, my lord," she acquiesced with the slightest sigh, bowing to the Jarl. "What is it that you need me to do?"

    "Follow Irileth to the western watchtower," he replied, "and put that bow on your back to good use. If we are to have any hope of defeating this thing, we need to be able to attack it in the air with as much force as possible."

    "Yes, my lord."

    Irileth had already disappeared through the grand doors. Annika hastened after her, barely able to keep up as the Dunmer charged down the long stone staircase and through the winding roads of the city. Whiterun was dark and quiet, most of its residents asleep in their beds, enjoying dreams of fancies and blissfully unaware of the danger that lurked nearby, threatening to burn their homes to the ground at any moment. She wasn't sure whether to envy them, or pity them.

    Every one of the city's guards were, as the Jarl had ordered, mustered at the front gates; some were more than eager for battle, while others shook with fear. They fell quiet as Irileth approached, and gave her their full and rapt attention as she addressed them. She spoke of honor and duty, of the peril their homes and families faced; she spoke of the glory that was theirs to take, the glory of killing a creature that had been but a legend until that very morning. Her words seemed to inspire courage and drive in even the most frightened men, who took their swords and axes to hand, while the more zealous warriors amongst them pounded their chests and bellowed battle cries.

    Annika, too, pulled her bow from her back, and while she knew she would have a better chance of landing blows with her arrows than the warriors did with their steel, she couldn't help but feel small and insignificant as she got lost in the crowd of men nearly twice her size. It didn't help that the housecarl shot her a cold and disparaging look as the garrison surged through the front gates, making it clear that she did not share the Jarl's delusions that Annika had anything worthwhile to offer them. After all, what was one outsider with a simple hunting bow amongst the hold's best archers who had trained all their lives for battle?

    As soon as they were past the city's walls and battlements, they saw the western horizon aglow with fire; the stars above had been erased by the billowing smoke of dry brush burning. But the night was silent, and that, somehow, seemed even more foreboding than a dragon's roar would have been.

    The closer they drew to the watchtower, the slower the guards moved; even Irileth seemed to grow anxious, her grip on her sword faltering. Annika, however, was stunned to find that, instead of fear beating its frantic wings against her heart, she was filled with nervous excitement. As she searched the sky not in dread, but in anticipation, she realized that some small part of her wanted to see this dragon. Wanted to see if its eyes would dig into her as the last one's had; if this one would speak to her, too. She needed to know if it had all been in her imagination.

    The pounding footsteps and rustling armor of the approaching garrison drew two frightened guards out of the watchtower.

    "Get back!" one of the men shouted, waving them away with both hands. "It's still here somewhere!"

    But the only movement on the plains came from the plumes of smoke and their perpetual rise into the air. Irileth rushed to the men hovering in the archway of the watchtower, wasting no time in pummelling them with questions.

    "When did you last see it? Which way did it go?"

    "I don't know," the guard answered, shaking his head. "It—it grabbed Hroki and Tor when they tried to run! It picked them up in its mouth and flew off..."

    The man continued to speak, but his words became nothing more than noise. Another sound had lured Annika's attention away, a sound so faint that it was more of a quake in the air, something to be felt rather than heard. It moved across her skin and into her bones, echoing throughout her body in perfect tandem with the rise and fall of her chest.

    The dragon was still here, somewhere. And she could hear it breathing.

    Annika tilted her head back, lifting her gaze from the base of the watchtower to its roof. She could just make out the seam where stone ended and sky began through the curtain of smoke, but nothing more. Nothing, until the pointed tip of a thick and muscled tail slithered up into the air, flicking back and forth in undeniable glee. And there were its eyes, two pinpricks of reflected fire against the dark backdrop of the night, watching her watching it.

    Neither Irileth nor any of the guards noticed Annika's arm snaking up and over her shoulder to slide an arrow, inch by inch, out of its quiver; their voices continued to dance around her, contemplating the whereabouts of a beast that lay in wait right above their very heads. She held not only her tongue, but her breath, as she drew the string of her bow and took aim. The dragon tilted its head ever so slightly to the side, as though amused, perhaps believing that her flimsy little arrow would do nothing to its tough and leathery hide.

    But she wasn't aiming for its hide.

    The dragon reared back with a thunderous roar when the arrow sunk into its left eye, and the fragile calm of the night shattered into chaos.

    The garrison scattered as the beast launched into flight, and in its rage and confusion, sent a torrent of fire down onto an empty plain. Whiterun's archers shot arrow after arrow into the sky, while sizzling bolts of lightning streaked out of Irileth's palms to catch the dragon's tail. It circled the watchtower three times before it dove towards the bulk of the garrison and grabbed one of the men in the gnarled claws of its feet. The guard plunged his sword into the dragon's leg; it roared in pain once again, and let its prey plummet back down to the earth.

    Annika counted down her arrows as she fired at the beast—twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-one—but none were reaching their mark. When she hunted, she aimed not where her prey was, but where it would be, but this dragon flew too high and too fast for her to keep up with. And the way it moved was dizzying in its unfamiliarity—it swam through the air like a snake in the sea, weaving this way and that quicker than she could make sense of it. At twenty arrows, she lowered her bow, knowing that she would have little chance of hitting the dragon from the ground. She needed to be higher.

    Darting past the archers who refused to surrender and the warriors awaiting their chance to strike, Annika tore across the plain and into the watchtower. She climbed over the rubble that covered the spiraling staircase, remnants of a wall that now opened to the sky, until she emerged into a night cooler and clearer than it was down below.

    Breathing hard and feeling sweat trickling over her temples and between her breasts, Annika crouched behind a parapet scored with claw marks to watch the dragon swoop over the heads of those who couldn't reach it. It was teasing them, taunting them, bathing them with fire as it spiraled through the air with twists and turns that were almost graceful, despite the arrow jutting out of the beast's blinded left eye—the arrow that had not been enough to kill it, only anger it.

    When the dragon next swerved away from the watchtower, Annika let an arrow fly, watching just long enough to see it hit its shoulder before ducking once more below the parapet. Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen—she landed three more hits before her prey grew wise to her scheme and arced over the roof, snarling in fury when it found her. Their eyes met, and in that flash of a moment, Annika was stripped bare of clothes and skin, of a name and a history, of her entire life, and she was no more than a soul floating in the mist between realms, just as she had been in Helgen when the fiery eyes of that hellish beast had pinned her down and picked her apart.

    The dragon's jaws stretched apart, and the same strange words Annika had heard once before roared out of its mouth.

    "YOL TOOR SHUL!"

    She raced for the stairs, but the dragon's flaming breath beat her there. She leapt through the curtain of it, feeling the skin peeling from her arms and her lungs curling up into ash. She was dead, or dying, she was sure of it, but as she tumbled down the watchtower's unforgiving stone steps, each one seeming to break a new bone, the pain that engulfed her entire body promised her that she was still alive. The curve of the wall broke her fall, and she collapsed into a heap, gasping for air that didn't seem to exist. When she dared to open her eyes, she found that the agony was far worse than the actual damage; her arms, though red and blistering, had not melted away, and her bones were still intact. Her hands trembled as she healed herself, and she wondered just how much destruction her body would be able to handle before it became impossible to put it back together again.

    A resounding crash shook the walls of the watchtower, sending a shower of dust down into Annika's face. Outside, the dragon howled, and it took her a moment to realize the sound came from below her, not above—it had finally landed. But this battle was not over yet.

    She pushed herself to her feet and began the climb to the roof once more. Making no effort to conceal herself this time, Annika stumbled to the edge and peered over the parapet at the bedlam below. The warriors of Whiterun hacked and slashed at the dragon as it snapped its jaws at them, and when it tried to take to the skies, it lost its footing and fell once more. Its hide was growing bloodier by the moment, but that would not be enough to kill a creature of that size and strength.

    Annika braced one foot against the parapet and sent a volley of arrows down to the plain. Sixteen, fifteen, fourteen—she missed her mark as the dragon whipped its head at the guards who had gotten too close. Thirteen, twelve, eleven—the sinews of the creature's neck strained and snapped as they were severed by the piercing tips of her arrows. But it still was not enough.

    She wiped her damp hands on her tunic before drawing her bow once more. One eye snapped shut as she took meticulous aim and let the arrow—ten—soar through the air and the smoke, past the dragon's swinging tail, to pierce the back of its head. A cry louder and more chilling than any others before it burst from the creature's gaping mouth before its entire body went limp and slammed against the ground.

    She waited for a twitch of its tail or a beat of its wings, for its back to rise and fall with breath, for fire to pour from its mouth and into the faces of the men who continued attacking. But nothing happened. The dragon was dead.

    It was over.

    Thank the gods, it was over! And she was alive! Bruised and bloody, but alive! She dropped her bow and leaned back against the parapet, laughing and crying, in relief and disbelief, that she had not only survived a second dragon, but she had helped defeat it. And she knew, now, beyond all doubt, that the beasts—both of them—had looked into her soul, and spoken to it, and tried to extinguish it with flaming breath that carried words on its crest. But the questions of why, and how, and to what end, would have to wait. She cared not to think on these impossible things now; all she wanted to do was revel in the life she still pumped through her veins, that the dragons had not managed to snuff out.

    Her exhaustion no longer eclipsed by adrenaline, Annika now felt every ache in every muscle, and a heavy blanket of fatigue weighed down each of her limbs. She would have been content to lie down and sleep right there on the coarse stone of the roof, but as cheers of victory rose up from the ground below, metal clanging against metal as the men embraced and beat each other on the backs in congratulations, she pushed off of the parapet and began the descent through the watchtower, step by arduous step.

    Outside, fires continued to smolder across the plain, keeping the air clogged with smoke, and the triumphant smiles of the men who had escaped death were thinning as they began to tend to the broken bodies of those who hadn't. They might have won, but not without suffering some loss.

    Irileth, however, seemed more concerned with the body of the dragon; she gave it a wide berth as she circled it, her sword still drawn and lightning still crackling in her hand, as though fearful that it would attack the moment she let her guard down. But the thing lay completely still, and the eerie sound of its breathing had ceased, leaving it as stiff and silent as a statue carved from stone. Annika moved closer to tell Irileth that it was, indeed, dead, but before she had drawn the breath to speak, the dragon's body began to glow from within. She stopped short, as did the housecarl, and they watched with tense anticipation as the light grew brighter and stronger.

    And then it was engulfed in flames. Its flesh seemed to disintegrate in the fire, turning to ash and floating away into the night as if it had never existed at all, leaving nothing but the gleaming white bones of its skeleton behind.

    A pulsing heat suddenly enveloped Annika's body, and she stumbled back in a panic before seeing that it wasn't fire, but wind, that was flowing out of the dragon and into her. It blew her hair up off of her sweaty neck and flapped what was left of her Stormcloak wrap around her waist, but it didn't harm her. It caressed her, stroked the tender skin of her face with comforting hands, filled her with something so vast and endless it was a wonder that her small body could contain it all.

    The wind and the fire died out together, leaving her invigorated and weakened all at once, buzzing but breathless, staggering on legs that were no longer strong enough to bear her. She whirled about to see a hundred wide eyes watching her, questioning her, revering her.

    Annika fell upon the singed and dusty grass, surrounded at once by silhouettes that blotted out the stars that spun in the sky. She reached out for something that might anchor her to the world, but her fingers closed on air, and then she was spiraling into the void. A veil of blindness slid over her eyes, but her ears caught a single word echoing across the plain before she was plunged into the realm of darkness and dreams.

    "Dragonborn!"
     
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  3. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    two: the heart of a nord


    Annika awoke with a start.

    The nightmare that had pushed her from sleep with violent hands slipped away, faces and voices and words dissolving before she could cleave to them. She was left with only the sensation of flying, and of falling, and of not quite knowing what was real and what was not. Breathing hard, she sat up in a bed she did not remember lying down in. The room itself was just as unfamiliar, but its opulence—polished wooden floors, fresh candles glowing despite the morning sun beaming through the high windows, fine linen bedsheets that had grown damp with her sweat—told her she couldn't be anywhere but Dragonsreach.

    Swinging her legs out of the bed, she saw that she was wearing a simple white nightdress. Her armor lay folded atop a chest at the foot of the bed, though she didn't recognize it right away: half of the leather tunic was charred, and nothing but tatters remained of the blue wrap. The odor of smoke and fire rose up from it—remnants of a dragon's scorching breath. So that, at least, had not been a dream.

    As she pulled on what was left of her armor, a deep sense of discomfort settled over her. She felt different, somehow. Bigger. As though the armor was suddenly a size too small, despite having been worn by a man much taller and broader than she. Annika twisted and turned before realizing that it wasn't the chainmail or the tunic that no longer fit; it was her own skin.

    "Good morning!"

    Annika jumped, startled by the unexpected intrusion that made her feel like a child caught stealing a sweet roll, and whirled about to see an elderly woman in a servant's apron bustling across the room towards her.

    "Good morning," she returned in a hesitant mumble, unsure of what else to say; she was not accustomed to being tended to by servants.

    The woman held out a goblet of crystalline liquid. "Drink this tonic; it'll alleviate any lingering pain."

    "Thank you, but... I haven't any," Annika told her, mystified to discover that, unlike her armor, her body lacked any evidence of the battles she'd fought in the past day and night. The raw sting of her burns and the deep ache of her muscles were no longer, nor did she see any bruises or scars on her arms. "Did someone treat me?"

    "One of the temple's best priestesses," the woman answered with a nod. "The Jarl insisted on it."

    Annika was taken aback. The Jarl hadn't seemed to care much for her wellbeing earlier; why such concern now? Had he put the city's entire garrison up in lavish chambers after the battle, or just her? Perhaps he was only showing his gratitude for her help in killing the dragon... but the suspicion of a more insidious agenda smoldered in the back of her mind.

    "He asked to speak with you as soon as you awoke," the servant added, deepening the enigma. "I am to escort you to the Great Hall."

    "Of course."

    Annika watched the woman from the corner of her eye as she slung her bow and arrows over her shoulder, wondering whether she was her escort, or her warden.

    They made their way through the winding corridors of the keep and emerged into the Great Hall. The long dining tables were once again lavishly set in preparation for a meal, and the aromas of the Jarl's cooking breakfast wafted in from the kitchens to make Annika's mouth water. How long had it been, now, since she'd last eaten? Fifteen hours? Twenty? She'd gone much longer without food in the past, but reminding herself of that didn't seem to lessen the grinding pain of today's empty stomach.

    The Jarl sat upon his throne, conversing with his steward and housecarl, but he waved them away as soon as he noticed Annika approaching. "Here she is!" he exclaimed, clapping his hands together and beaming a wide smile her way, looking for all the world like a proud father whose daughter was to become High Queen.

    Annika stopped at the bottom of the dais, but the servant nudged her forward, making her trip over her own feet as she stepped up to bow before the Jarl.

    "It is I who should be bowing to you," he said, "for defeating the dragon!"

    "Thank you, my lord, but—but you are too kind," she replied with a stutter, her face flushing with heat at a compliment she was sure she didn't deserve. "It was not I who defeated the dragon; it was all of us."

    "Irileth tells me it was your arrow that delivered the final blow."

    "I believe it was, my lord, but I was only able to take the shot after your men had grounded the beast."

    Balgruuf's smile only grew broader. "Such modesty!" he laughed. "That must be why you failed to tell me you were Dragonborn!"

    Dragonborn.

    The word richocheted through her mind, knocking loose memories she had thought were mere fragments of her dream. The dragon's flesh dissolving off of its bones, a searing wind embracing her, a hundred eyes staring down and a hundred voices rippling into the night.

    "Dragonborn?"

    The Jarl's eyes widened at her confusion. "Don't tell me you don't know! Our oldest legends tell of those born with the body of a mortal, and the soul of a dragon—those who can wield the Voice as only the dragons themselves can."

    Oh, she knew the legends, the stories, the songs. She had sung them herself, countless times, when Anya was too frightened of the howling wind to fall asleep without her sister's soothing voice to coax her into dreams. But she had never taken them any more seriously than she did the tales of dragons. There was no denying, now, that dragons were more than just myths, and Annika had no trouble believing that the Dragonborn could be real, too. But that didn't mean she was one.

    She swallowed hard and shook her head. "Forgive me, my lord, but you must be mistaken."

    "Oh? I've had no less than twenty men tell me they saw you take in that dragon's soul with their own eyes."

    "They're wrong," she charged back. "I can't be Dragonborn. The idea is preposterous."

    The housecarl shot forward, scowling, her hand clenched around a steel axe instead of her usual sword. "Regardless of what you are, girl," she snapped, "you will show some respect when addressing a Jarl!"

    "Irileth. It's all right." But Balgruuf's eyes had lost some of their warmth; he didn't appreciate Annika's attitude any more than Irileth did. "Tell me—why are you so convinced that you are not Dragonborn?"

    "Because I'm... I'm nothing," Annika answered. "I'm nobody." She could not meet the Jarl's eyes as her doubt in herself poured past her lips. So she stared down at the grain of the wood flooring, at her stolen armor, at the hands that were callused and weathered from a lifetime of honest work—not heroic adventures. "There's nothing special or remarkable about me, and I haven't done a single extraordinary thing in all my life."

    "Slaying a dragon isn't extraordinary?"

    She opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out. Slaying a dragon—he made it sound much more grandiose than it actually was. All she'd done was shoot a few arrows. It had been dangerous, yes, but so was hunting wolves and boars, and she'd been doing that for years. Besides, it wasn't courage, or valiance, or honor that had driven her to face the beast; it was greed and desperation. Where was the glory in that? The Dragonborn of legend was a hero, a champion, a leader—everything Annika was not.

    But... something had happened to her after the dragon's death, had it not? Something had settled inside of her. Something that was still there, now, making her skin feel too tight, her body too small. Something that felt like wrath, and terror, and doom.

    "Whether or not you believe you are Dragonborn," the Jarl went on, "the Greybeards do."

    "My lord?"

    "Their voices thundered down from the Throat of the World while you slept." The last of his gaiety faded away, a sign of the gravity of the situation. "It is a great honor to be summoned by the Greybeards, one that has not been bestowed on anyone since Tiber Septim himself—and one that cannot be refused. You must go to High Hrothgar right away."

    A fierce resentment bubbled up inside of her at the command. She had returned to Skyrim with a single ambition: to fight for Ulfric Stormcloak. And what had she done so far? She'd come to Whiterun to appeal for assistance on Riverwood's behalf. She had traversed a perlious barrow in search of a dusty stone tablet. She'd helped defeat a dragon. And now she was expected to climb the Seven Thousand Steps to speak to some monks who thought she was something she could not be?

    No. She had been distracted from her purpose for long enough. She was done following paths that others laid out for her; it was time to pursue her own.

    "I will leave at once," she told the Jarl, not quite lying but not quite telling the truth, either. It was best to let him believe she was headed for High Hrothgar; outright defiance of both a Jarl and the Greybeards would be nothing short of foolish. "Pardon me if I am out of line, my lord, but... but there is still the matter of my compensation—"

    "Of course, of course," he cried, beckoning his steward forward. "As promised, five hundred septims for assisting Farengar... and another five hundred septims for the service you have done my hold in killing the dragon."

    Annika's breath caught in her throat as the steward dropped a heavy coin purse into her hands. One thousand septims. She'd never held so much gold at any one time in her life... but now that she had it, she was not sure it was worth what she'd risked for it.

    "Thank you, my lord."

    "I wish to show my gratitude in one more manner."

    He rose from his throne and motioned for Irileth. Her eyes flared in silent defiance as she surrendered the axe to the Jarl, who in turn presented it to Annika. It was heavier than the delicate engravings on its head and the supple leather wrapped around its haft suggested, and it felt awkward and unbalanced in her hands. She looked up at the Jarl, awaiting answers to the questions that surrounded this gesture.

    "I doubt you will find much practical use in this axe, being an archer," he said, nodding at her bow, "but let it symbolize the title I offer to you by my authority as Jarl—Thane of Whiterun."

    Annika nearly lost her grip on the axe, but her shock subsided as the final piece of the puzzle slid into place, revealing a dark and nefarious picture. She had not been given a bed in Dragonsreach and treatment from one of the temple's best priestesses out of simple kindness, nor was she being offered the title of Thane, despite being an outsider who had only stepped foot in the city the day before, in gratitude for anything. None of this would have happened, she was sure, if the Jarl hadn't been convinced that she was Dragonborn. That she possessed a unique gift, an immense power—one that he would rather have beside him than against him. By giving her status within his hold, Balgruuf would effectively be claiming the Dragonborn for Whiterun, before anyone else could get their hands on her.

    The only problem was, she wasn't Dragonborn.

    And she would not be claimed by anyone.

    "I am honored, my lord," she finally replied, forcing a polite smile. "But I am afraid I cannot accept your offer."

    She held the axe out to the Jarl. He blinked down at her for long, speechless moments, his face reddening in indignation, before he snatched it from her hands.

    "And why is that?"

    "I do not intend to take up residence in Whiterun," she told him, "nor any other hold. I have not come back to Skyrim to put down roots. I have come only to support my people in their fight for freedom."

    Balgruuf took a step back, his eyes narrowing. "You wish to join the rebellion?"

    Annika took a deep breath before answering. "I do, my lord."

    He resumed his seat on the throne, yet still managed to glare down his nose at her. "You should know, then, that you won't be supporting your people—not all of them. For not all of them want to give up the protection the Empire offers, even if the cost of keeping it is worshipping our god privately while we deny him publicly."

    Annika said nothing. She had no interest in debating the politics of the war with anyone, especially not a Jarl who had just tried to buy her favor with a title. Instead, she held his frosty gaze, determined not to show any weakness or fear, and praying that her frantic heart wasn't beating loud enough to betray her.

    Finally, the Jarl waved his hand in dismissal. "If you'll excuse me, I have a city to keep."

    Annika gave a cursory bow before turning away.

    She knew that this was not the last time she would face Jarl Balgruuf the Greater. Whiterun may have been neutral ground for the moment, but he would have to make his choice eventually. If he chose to support the rebellion, they would become allies after all... but if he chose to side with the Empire, he would be her enemy until the end. When they met again, it would, perhaps, be with her arrow aimed at his chest.

    Annika felt the eyes of the entire court on her back as she hastened for the door, and she didn't breathe again until she was safely on the other side of it.


    * * * * *​


    The cook at the Bannered Mare may not have had the same gourmet ingredients to work with as those at Dragonsreach did, but Annika doubted the Jarl would be served anything as delicious as the honeyed apple and flatcake dish that she ordered at the inn for her breakfast. She was pointed toward the Drunken Huntsman after inquiring where she might buy arrows, and was pleased to find a Bosmer behind the counter there; she allowed herself a few minutes to reminisce with him about Valenwood, his first and her last home, before setting out with full quivers.

    The road out of Whiterun wound naturally around streams and rocks, leading to the stables and the handful of farms dotting the plains around the city. This was the third time Annika had walked it, but the first in the clarity of day. The sun had just risen in the east, spilling cleansing light and rare warmth over Skyrim and chasing away the early morning mist that still hung over the west. She turned in a circle, in awe at how far she could see: the White River that led all the way to Eastmarch, the very tip of the Throat of the World, the hazy ranges of the Reach.

    The watchtower was a blight against the glorious blue sky. The fires had been put out and the smoke had dissipated, but the hole that had been ripped into the structure itself would take time to rebuild—as would the spirits of the men who had tasted the rage of a myth come to life. And there was the skeleton of the beast, bones gleaming white under the sun as though it had lain there for centuries instead of just a single night.

    Annika did not know she was walking toward it until she was halfway there. Some invisible thread that stitched her and the dragon together was tightening, pulling her forward, even when her body began to seize up in fear of the thing. But it was harmless, now. It was dead. And the closer she drew to it, the smaller it seemed—smaller than it had been in life. Perhaps it was just that the skeleton looked so feeble in comparison to the roaring demon that had flown over her head and breathed a torrent of fire down on her. Or, perhaps, it was because she had stolen its soul.

    She could not, truly, think of a single reason that she couldn't be Dragonborn... except that she didn't want to be.

    Who would want the body of a human, but the soul of a dragon? A body was nothing but a shell, after all, a husk to be left behind when this life ended. And when it did, the promise of Sovngarde awaited—for those with the brave and valiant soul of a Nord. Into which realm would hers be cast, if it was not a Nord's, but a dragon's?

    What frightened Annika the most, however, was not what would happen upon her death, but what this revelation would mean to the only life she had ever known. She did not want to find that she wasn't the person she'd spent thirty-one years believing herself to be, that she had been deceived and betrayed by some trick of fate. She didn't want to look at her reflection and see a stranger staring back at her. She didn't want this evil and vicious thing living within her, seeping into her heart, her mind, her body, and taking those from her, too. She did not want to be the hero of legend, for she didn't believe she could ever live up to such an impossible title.

    Nobody ever wanted the burdens they were made to bear, but that didn't change that they had no choice but to bear them. She could turn away from this burning question, but that would not silence it. She could try to run from her fate, but it would lay at the end of every road.

    If she was Dragonborn.

    There was, of course, one way to find out.

    Annika reached a cautious hand out to touch the edge of the dragon's skull. It was smooth and rough at the same time, just as those strange engravings on the curved wall in Bleak Falls Barrow had been. She had known, the moment she saw them, that they were words... words not unlike those she'd heard a dragon speak earlier that very morning. She couldn't read them, but there was one cluster of markings that, somehow, she understood, one that had seemed to burn and crackle and hum with a thousand voices calling out to her from across time.

    Perhaps it was time to answer.

    "Fus."

    Her voice seemed to explode out of her mouth, louder than she had ever heard it before, louder than should have been possible, and the skeleton trembled as though a violent gust of wind had stricken it. Annika stumbled backward, tripping over a tangle of dry weeds and falling to the ground; her eyes wide and her pulse pounding, she scuttled over the dirt like so many mudcrabs, trying to get away from the creaking bones. But as the dust settled, so did they, and she knew that it wasn't the skeleton she should be afraid of, but herself.

    She clawed at her arms, at her neck, her fingernails leaving long welts across the skin that felt even tighter now, so tight she could barely breathe even as she gasped for air. But there was no reaching it, the thing whose voice had thundered through her throat, the curse she had never asked to harbor within herself, the cataclysmic truth she could no longer deny.

    She had Shouted.

    She was Dragonborn.

    Annika looked around in a panic, worried some guard or farmer had heard or seen what she had done, but the watchtower and the plains around it were deserted, save for her. Thank the gods. No one knew, and no one would ever have to find out. She could leave Whiterun the same way she came to it: as Annika of Kynesgrove. Not the Dragonborn.

    She ran back to the stables on shaky legs and paid the fare for a carriage to Windhelm, before she could change her mind.


    * * * * *​


    "You're sure you haven't seen him?"

    The woman behind the counter sighed.

    "Like I already told you," she said, her voice flat and weary, "he hasn't been in here for at least week. Now, are you going to buy something or not?"

    Annika paid for a night's lodging despite the innkeeper's sour attitude. Ralof's absence was much more worrying; he should have gotten back to Windhelm hours earlier. Perhaps he hadn't yet had the time to stop into Candlehearth Hall to leave word for her. Yes, that had to be it. After all, the Palace of the Kings must have been in a state of turmoil since Ulfric and what remained of his regiment had returned late last night—thank the gods—with news of Helgen.

    To hear the innkeeper tell it, Ulfric had stormed into Windhelm with the rage of a midwinter's blizzard, wasting no time in addressing his people with a speech that was as inspirational as it was passionate. The Empire, he had told them, had tried and failed to execute their Jarl, to abolish their fight for freedom; in what could only be a merciful act of Talos himself, a dragon had come out of myth and time to lend its voice to that of the rebellion who would not be so easily silenced. How Annika wished she had been there to hear it for herself! She might have believed it, coming from Ulfric. As it was, the idea that the dragon had been led by the hand of Talos seemed nothing more than wishful thinking.

    The innkeeper showed Annika to her room, and, with an air of impatience at the request, brought in a bucket of well water and a rag. Annika scrubbed her face, neck, and hands the best she could before slipping into the green dress she'd purchased at the market upon arriving in the city; she could not stand before Ulfric Stormcloak in armor stolen from the body of one of his fallen soldiers, after all. She combed her fingers through the tangles in her hair until her long blonde waves were smooth and shiny. And then she was out of reasons to remain at the inn, to put off doing what she had come all this way to do. It seemed the longer she waited, the tighter the knot in her stomach grew, and by the time she had finally talked herself into leaving Candlehearth Hall, she was certain she would be ill before she reached the keep.

    The afternoon had begun its descent into evening. The sun that had shone its warmth over Skyrim that morning was now smothered in heavy clouds the color of old bruises; a certain gloom had fallen over the city, one she had not seen in all her years away, and one that would always sing of home. Men and women bustled this way and that, hurrying to get home before the snow began to fall, and a few familiar faces stood out from the crowd. The blacksmith who'd always paid a good price for Annika's skins and furs. The crotchety old Altmer who owned the apothecary. The priestess at the Hall of the Dead who had been so kind to Annika after death had come into her life.

    But as she ambled through the stone labyrinth of the city, the memory that rose up above all others was, of course, that of the night she first came face to face with Ulfric Stormcloak. That night of desperation and terror and, at the end of it all, hope. That night, when everything had changed. And here she was, at the end of the circle that had begun on that night to lead her back to Windhelm, twenty years later. The memory was as strong and vivid as though it had been but a week.

    And when she stood before the imposing iron doors of the Palace of the Kings, she shook with the same fear that had consumed her all those years ago. The difference was, of course, that this time, she was there by choice.

    Inside, the keep was dim and quiet, but for the groan of the door closing behind her. The two guards flanking the foyer eyed her with suspicion, but did not stop her; she must not have looked threatening enough to bother with. Still, her walk down the length of the Great Hall was slow and cautious, made with held breath and wide eyes that flew from the long banquet tables to the blue Eastmarch banners decorating the walls to the throne that sat empty at the end of the chamber.

    Where was everyone? Annika had expected the castle to be clamoring with people, but it seemed deserted. Had Ulfric already taken his men back out to seek retribution for his attempted beheading? Or was he hidden away in the safety of the depths of the castle, in case of an Imperial siege on the city? After building this moment up to the heavens, would she see him at all?

    Her questions were answered at once.

    "You think I need to send him a stronger message?"

    She whirled about, and there he was. Ulfric Stormcloak, not bound, not gagged, but striding into the Great Hall with the power and the confidence he had come to be known for. Their eyes locked, and her heart thumped with such intensity that she was sure he could hear it.

    The man trailing behind him barked out a laugh. "If by message," he growled, "you mean shoving a sword through his chest—"

    Ulfric held a hand up to silence him.

    His eyes stayed on Annika as he closed the distance between them and took his place on his throne. He watched as she bowed to him, as her shaky hands fidgeted with one another, as she reddened from head to toe under his searing gaze.

    She was eleven years old again, tiny and weak, trembling with both fear and awe of the man before her. But Ulfric was no longer the fledgling Jarl she had met all those years ago; time had aged him, leaving lines around his eyes and mouth, giving a rough edge to the features that had once been more delicate than rugged, more beautiful than handsome. There was a weariness in his eyes, now, that had not been there before, a sadness she had not expected to see on the face of a man who seemed too strong to be tormented by such things.

    Finally, he spoke.

    "Only the foolish or the courageous approach a Jarl without summons."

    "I—I mean no disrespect, my lord," she stammered, ducking her head in deference. "I only wish to join the rebellion, and fight for Skyrim's freedom."

    Ulfric's heavy brow rose in interest. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the man who had followed him in, and who grunted his disapproval of the command, but obeyed it nonetheless.

    And then they were alone, Annika and this man who was as much of a legend as any dragon. He didn't seem quite real, but rather a figment of her imagination that had come to life and was greater than she had even dreamed. She found herself entranced by the wave of his hair, the twin scars on his cheek, the rise and fall of his chest, all with the same breathless fascination she thought a mortal might have in the presence of a god.

    Ulfric, however, seemed as unyielding as the stone walls surrounding them, and studied her face for a long and tense moment before his own lit up.

    "I know you."

    Annika went still. He could not possibly recognize her as the pitiful young girl who had stood in that very same spot two decades earlier... could he? The memory of that pivotal night had been etched in her mind ever since, but surely it had meant nothing to him, nothing to a Jarl who saw so many problems, both trivial and dire, laid at his feet every day. Surely he did not remember the day their worlds had collided.

    "Yes," Ulfric continued with a nod, "you were at Helgen."

    A sigh of relief tumbled out of her before she could stop it.

    "I was, my lord. You helped me up off of the ground after the—the dragon attacked."

    "I remember. They called you the 'Nord in rags,'" he mused, his words slow and syrupy, but cold as ice. He raked his eyes over her long hair, her milky skin, every inch of her generous height. "You do look like a Nord... but you speak like an Imperial."

    Annika's cheeks grew even hotter, and despite the chill that hung in the air, sweat began to bead on the nape of her neck. This was not going at all as she had hoped. But could she blame Ulfric for being distrustful and suspicious, after being captured and nearly executed only the day before? Would she not be wary of outsiders, too, if she could never be sure which of them wanted her dead? If she wanted his trust, she would have to earn it, and if she wanted his respect, she would have to prove herself worthy of it—such was the way of the Nords.

    "I was born and raised a daughter of Skyrim," she told Ulfric, "but I left years ago to travel across Tamriel. I have spent time in Cyrodiil, it is true, but also in Hammerfell, and Elsweyr, and Valenwood. My accent was born from all of these places." She had not meant to pull her shoulders back and lift her chin, a posture unbecoming of a commoner speaking to a Jarl, but her pride, it seemed, was stronger than her humility. "I may not have the voice of a Nord, but I assure you, my lord... I have the heart of one."

    Ulfric's head cocked to the side, and Annika held her breath, unsure if he was amused or offended by her boasting. But then his lips softened into a smile, and a husky laugh fell from them to break through the tension.

    "Yes, it seems you do," he said, gazing at her with great curiosity now. "Does the 'Nord in rags' have a name?"

    "Yes, of course," she quickly replied. She couldn't help but smile, too, half in embarrassment that she had forgotten to introduce herself, and half in elation at Ulfric's attention. "My name is Annika."

    "And you have returned to Skyrim to fight for her freedom?"

    "I have."

    "Why?"

    Annika shook her head in confusion. "My lord?"

    "Why do you wish to fight for a place you no longer call home?"

    She was caught off guard by the question, one she had not anticipated, nor prepared for, but it was not difficult to craft an answer. She only hoped it would be enough to appease his concerns.

    "I believe in your cause," she began, trying desperately to keep her voice steady. "I believe Skyrim should be freed from a crumbling Empire that will only drag her down with it. I believe Skyrim needs a High King with the strength and the will to do what is right, instead of what is easy."

    These were not lies; Annika did, with all of her heart, believe everything she claimed to. But that was not the real reason she had come back to Skyrim, the true reason she wished to fight alongside Ulfric in this war. That, she would never tell him. That, he could never know.

    But the passion she put into her words must have been convincing, for Ulfric nodded, and smiled once more.

    "Am I to assume by the bow on your back that you are an archer?"

    "Yes, my lord."

    "A skilled one?"

    This time, Annika hesitated. "I have been hunting since I was a child," she told him, "but I must admit, my bow has not seen much battle."

    He considered this, but shrugged it off. "Either way, you made it out of Helgen alive—and not many people can say that."

    "I can't take all the credit for that, my lord," she replied. "I doubt I would have lived through the morning had it not been for the help of one of your men—Ralof."

    Ulfric leaned forward, his eyes wide. "Ralof's alive?"

    As his hopes soared, Annika's sank.

    "He—he was when he left me in Whiterun yesterday afternoon," she told him. "He meant to come straight to Windhelm. Has he not arrived yet?"

    Ulfric sighed and slumped back in his throne. "No, he hasn't," he murmured, pensive and worried. "I'd given him up for dead, along with the others we couldn't find after escaping Helgen. But if he managed to get out of there in one piece, I'm sure he's all right now."

    Annika nodded, but did not hold much faith in his words, nor did she believe Ulfric himself was convinced. Ralof had been so adamant about getting back to Windhelm that she could not imagine anything would've stopped him... aside from bloodthirsty bandits, hungry wolves, another raging dragon. How many different deaths might he have met out there?

    The creak of the castle's door echoed through the Great Hall, followed by a patter of footsteps. Annika looked over her shoulder to see a diminuitive man hurrying towards them.

    "Jarl Ulfric!"

    "What is it, Jorleif?"

    "A letter, my lord."

    The man approached the throne and presented a scroll of creamy parchment. Ulfric stared at the red wax seal that held it closed for a long moment before ripping it open with eager hands. His eyes flew across the page, growing darker and smaller with each line he read. By the time he reached the end of the letter, Annika could almost feel his fury, quiet yet terrifying, pouring out of him in waves.

    Finally, he crushed the letter in his fists and thrust it back at Jorleif as he leapt from his throne.

    "Gather the messengers."

    "How many, my lord?"

    "All of them!"

    Jorleif nodded, and rushed out of the keep as quickly as he had come in.

    Ulfric stepped down from the dais to stand before Annika, and she was lost in his shadow. He was a beast of a man, his height and breadth rivaling that of most Orcs, and with his shoulders squared and his head held high, he seemed larger than life, wonderful and terrible all at once. Though she knew his anger was not directed at her, she could not help but tremble in the wake of it.

    "There are important matters I must attend to," he said, his voice tight and harsh. "In regard to your wish to join the rebellion, so long as you fight with honor and integrity, we will welcome you into our ranks. Speak to Galmar Stone-Fist, my second in command—he will handle your initiation."

    "Thank you, my lord."

    Annika gave a deep bow and watched Ulfric stride away, his fur cloak flaring out behind him, the heavy soles of his boots thundering against the stone tiles. She did not turn away until he had disappeared from sight, and even then she remained rooted to the floor, afraid that if she took a single step, she would wake up to find that this was all a delirious dream.

    But it wasn't.

    She let out the breath she didn't know she'd been holding, and smiled so wide that her cheeks hurt. Despite the mysterious letter that had angered Ulfric, despite Ralof's worrying absence, she was happier than she had been in months. She wanted to laugh and cry and dance atop the banquet table. She wanted to run through Windhelm and tell anyone who would listen that she was a Stormcloak. She wanted to count down the minutes until she would see Ulfric again—no longer just her hero, but her leader.

    And she knew now, more than ever, that she would follow him anywhere.


    * * * * *​


    A group of men stood hunched over a massive wooden table, staring down at a map that was peppered with tiny red and blue flags. They were so entrenched in their thoughts and their muffled conversation that they didn't hear Annika come into the room. She waited in the doorway for several awkward moments before clearing her throat to announce herself.

    Three of the men's mouths curled into lascivious smiles when they saw a woman in their midst, but the fourth didn't seem to care who or what she was. When he stepped forward, she saw that he was the same man who had accompanied Ulfric into the Great Hall earlier. He glared at her now, just as he had then, as did the dead yellow eyes of the bear that had become his helm.

    "Pardon me," Annika began, timid and nervous. "Are you Galmar Stone-Fist?"

    He grunted in what she was quickly learning was his favored reply.

    "Jarl Ulfric asked me to speak with you about—about my initiation."

    Galmar walked a slow circle around Annika, looking her up and down with complete disinterest, tapping a finger on the tip of one of her arrows to test its edge.

    "Heard Ulfric say you were at Helgen," he growled. "You don't look like much, but if you made it through all of that, you might be worth something to me."

    She wasn't sure whether to be insulted or flattered, though the smirk that peeked out from his thick beard could not have been a good omen.

    "Good with a bow, are you?"

    "Good enough."

    Galmar's laugh was low and gritty. "We'll see about that," he taunted. "Before I can put you to use, I need to know what you can do."

    Annika swallowed hard, but her mouth still seemed to be full of cotton. She started to slip the bow off of her shoulder, but Galmar held a hand up to stop her.

    "Not here," he said. "Shooting an arrow at a practice target will prove nothing."

    "Then... what shall I shoot?"

    He thought for a long moment before answering. "A sabrecat has been causing trouble just south of the river," he told her. "Nearly took the arm off one of our messengers last night, but by the time my men got there, the animal was gone." He folded his muscled arms across his chest and gave her a sly smile. "Bring me its pelt, and I'll know you have what it takes to be called a Stormcloak."

    She blinked up at him in disbelief. She hadn't expected an audition—especially after Ulfric himself had given her his blessing! But questioning Galmar's order would only make her look weak, and scared, and insolent, and she could not afford that. So she lifted her chin and met Galmar's fiery eyes with her own.

    "Consider it done."

    Annika started for the door, but the confidence in her gait slackened when she heard stifled laughter trailing after her. Was this task truly a test of her mettle, or were Galmar and his men only playing with her, mocking her, sending her to what they believed would be her doom? After all, what chance did such a wispy woman have against a vicious sabrecat? What chance did a simple bow have against fangs and claws?

    Her insecurity was eclipsed by her anger, her indignation at these narrow-minded men, writing her off without even giving her a chance. They likely didn't think they would ever see her again, but they would. And they would not be laughing then.

    She'd killed wolves, bears, bandits, a damned dragon—and she would kill this sabrecat, too.


    * * * * *​


    If there was one thing Annika hadn't missed about Skyrim during her years away, it was the cold.

    Her Nord blood may have blessed her with a natural tolerance to the frost of the tundra, but it certainly hadn't given her any sort of affinity for it. Once she'd decided to leave home all those years ago, she'd headed right to the hot sun and dry deserts of Hammerfell, longing to know how it felt to be warm all of the time. After that, she'd gone on to Cyrodiil, and then Elsweyr, before finally settling in Valenwood. She'd been spoiled by those warm climes, and she was paying the price now. An icy wind tore up the White River, carrying the first of the evening's snowfall with it, and the cold seemed to dig deeper into Annika's bones than she remembered. And it wasn't even winter yet.

    The road out of Windhelm diverged at the end of the bridge: to the right were the riverbanks, and to the left was the path up the hillside to Kynesgrove. Annika had made that journey so often in her youth that she could've walked it with her eyes closed. She likely still could, if she'd wanted to. But she wasn't ready to take that road yet. She had been running from more than just the cold when she left Skyrim, and now that she was back, she knew she would have to face those ghosts eventually. But not now. Not today.

    But even the riverbanks plagued her with memories. All those hours spent scouring the shores for rabbits, foxes, and deer who might have stopped for a drink. Sitting by the waterfall in the autumn salmon season, hoping for a bite on her homemade line. And the lazier summer days of collecting river rocks, seashells, and barnacles with Anya.

    Annika shook off her reflections to focus on her present pursuit. She had gotten used to the lush soil and soft bark in Valenwood that made it easy to find and follow prey, and had almost forgotten how challenging hunting could be in Skyrim, especially amongst the hard ground and prickly evergreens of middle Eastmarch. If that wasn't enough, the shadows that stretched across the hold now that the sun had dipped behind the Throat of the World would cloak whatever tracks the sabrecat might have left behind—and the falling snow would soon erase them completely. She flew past the scrubby bushes and through the steam rising from fissures in the earth, as quiet as a whisper and as graceful as a doe, looking for any sign that the sabrecat had been there: pawprints in the dirt, claw scratches on rocks, the sharp scent of its mark on its territory.

    But what she found was blood. A small spattering of red amongst crushed weeds and, so faint beneath the dusting of snow that she almost missed them, clumsy bootprints that had stirred up the dirt around them. The blood looked too fresh to belong to the messenger who had been attacked the night before; the sabrecat had found another victim.

    The trail grew from mere droplets to full splashes, leading to a disused fisherman's shack tucked into a nook in the cliffside along the river. Its door was smeared with blood, but closed—something a sabrecat dragging a meal back to its nest could not have done. Someone was in there, either dead or dying.

    Annika hurried to the shack, but the door, though half off its hinges, would not open. She peered through a gap between the rotting wooden planks of the shack's wall and spotted the rounded shape of a man's body huddled in a corner. He cradled his left arm against his chest, the cloth he had wrapped around it almost completely stained red with blood, but for a small patch of blue at the edge. In the midst of the tangled blonde hair that curtained his face, she saw a single braid.

    A shiver that had nothing to do with the snow ran down her spine.

    "Ralof?"

    His head snapped up, and the fear on his pale but sweaty face was palpable.

    "Annika!" He stumbled across the shack, cringing at the pain it caused his wounded arm. "You've got to get out of here!"

    "Are you mad? You need to be healed before you bleed to death!"

    "No, listen to me, it's still here, it's—"

    And suddenly she understood, but by then it was too late. She heard it behind her, its snarl as low and steady as a purr, its heavy paws almost silent on the snow. Annika whirled around, reaching for an arrow, but the sabrecat was already lunging at her, and she knew that she had mere moments to live, that all the arrows in the world would not save her now.

    But maybe something else could.

    "Fus!"

    The Voice shot out of her like a whip, more instinct than decision. It staggered the sabrecat for only a second, but it was enough. She sunk an arrow into its skull before it could regain its footing, and with a sharp cry, it fell back into the shallows of the river. She readied a second arrow, and though she was shaking so hard she could barely hold her bow steady, she kept it trained on the animal until she was sure it was dead.

    Annika dropped her bow and turned back to the shack. She heard the scrape of wood against dirt, and through the hole in the wall she saw Ralof, breathless from the effort, tugging a bookshelf away from the door with his good arm. She wedged herself inside the moment she could fit through the gap.

    "What... what was that?"

    Instead of answering, she helped him to the dilapidated bed in the corner. "Give me your arm."

    "By the gods," he whispered as he sat down, his face growing even paler than it already was. "That was a Shout, wasn't it? The Greybeards were summoning you, weren't they?"

    "Your arm, Ralof!"

    He gritted his teeth as he lifted it away from his chest. With gentle hands, Annika peeled away the soaked wrap, and gasped when she saw the mess underneath. His arm had been cleaved apart from shoulder to elbow, the sabrecat's claws ripping clean through leather and chainmail and flesh, and though the flow of blood seemed to have slowed, it still trickled from the laceration with each beat of his heart. She knew she wouldn't be able to heal a wound this severe with her simple spells, but she also knew Ralof wouldn't make it back to Windhelm alive if she didn't try.

    He sighed with relief as she began to cast her magic, and though he closed his eyes to savor the reprieve from the pain, they locked on her the moment they opened again.

    "I can't believe you didn't tell me—"

    "I didn't know. Not until this morning."

    "What are you doing here, then? You should be up at High Hrothgar!"

    "If I was," she retaliated, "this shack would have been your tomb."

    With that sobering thought, Ralof fell silent.

    Annika poured everything she had into healing him, not letting up until she was entirely spent. She had managed to staunch the bleeding, but his arm still looked raw and mangled, and, she imagined, burning with pain.

    "Look at that," he joked with a weak laugh. "Good as new."

    It was only then that Annika could allow herself the joy of finding Ralof alive, and her lips broke into a wide smile. Minding his injured arm, she pulled him into an embrace and held onto him for a long moment, comforting herself as much as him.

    "Thank you, Annika," he whispered. "You truly did save my life."

    "Maybe so, but we should get back to Windhelm as quickly as possible nonetheless."

    He brightened as she helped him to his feet. "You made it, then? To Windhelm? Did you speak to Jarl Ulfric? Does he know you can Shout?"

    She could not help but laugh at all of his questions, at his boyish enthusiasm despite having just nearly been mauled to death, and she thanked every last one of the Divines for their mercy on this man. She hadn't known how much she'd missed him until he was beside her once more.

    "Yes, I made it to Windhelm," she answered, "and yes, I spoke with Jarl Ulfric. But no, he doesn't know that I'm—I'm Dragonborn."

    It was the first time she had said it aloud, and hearing herself speak the words made them seem all the more real, and all the more dreadful.

    "Why didn't you tell him?"

    "Because..." Her voice trailed off as she cast around for the right words, though she wasn't sure there were any. "Because I want him to see me for who I am, not who legend says I should be."

    Ralof rolled the idea around in his head before nodding. "Your secret is safe with me, then."

    Not a single silent moment passed on their careful walk back to Windhelm. He told her the tale of the sabrecat's ambush, how it had chased him south and stalked the shack for hours after he'd barricaded himself inside, bleeding and starving and too weak to even consider fighting the animal. And Annika told him all that had occurred since they parted—the glowing wall inside Bleak Falls Barrow, the dragon's attack on Whiterun's western watchtower, Balgruuf's bribe of a title, her audience with Ulfric. By the time they'd reached the city, he knew of her reluctance to believe that she was Dragonborn and her utter thrill at finally standing before the man she had revered for as long as she could remember. She was stunned at how easy it was to tell him these things, things she couldn't imagine sharing with anyone else... but there was still so much he didn't know. So much she could not tell him.

    When they stepped through the high archway into the front courtyard of the Palace of the Kings, Ralof beamed up at the dark facade of the keep.

    "I thought I'd never see this place again," he said with a delighted laugh. "But here we are. Home."

    Annika thought of the path to Kynesgrove she had turned away from, the misty tips of the village's evergreens she'd spied from the riverbank. She thought of the small cottage she had been born in, and wondered if its remains still stood. She thought of her family, and knew that, without them, Kynesgrove would never be home again.

    She longed to believe Ralof's words, that this, the ancient city of Windhelm, the historic Palace of the Kings, could become home to her, but the familiar apprehension that had flared up within her the moment they'd set foot in the city was less than encouraging. Would she ever be able to face these doors without worry of what awaited her on the other side?

    "Home," she repeated, and bit her lip as Ralof took her hand to tug her inside. "That remains to be seen."


    * * * * *​


    Annika's earlier expectation of a busy and bustling keep was at last fulfilled: twenty or more soldiers swarmed the Great Hall, carrying an array of swords and shields and pieces of armor as they rushed about. Several of the men gave Annika and Ralof curious looks as they crossed the chamber, but it was Galmar who, in the midst of shouting orders at a group of young recruits, truly took notice.

    "Ralof!"

    He bounded toward them, relieved to see his lieutenant alive and well and back home in Windhelm. But his broad smile faltered when he saw the pallid sheen of Ralof's face, and died when his eyes landed on his bloodied arm. He seemed even more stunned to find Annika, in her charred and slashed armor, at Ralof's side, guiding him to the banquet table and insisting he rest.

    "Ysmir's beard, what happened to you?"

    "He needs a healer," Annika declared in way of a reply. "I did what I could, but..."

    "What I really need," Ralof interrupted with a tired grin as he sunk down onto the bench, "is a thick, juicy mammoth steak—and a whole bucket of mead."

    "Mead won't save your arm. A healer, Galmar!"

    Galmar looked from one to the other, too confused and bewildered to care—or perhaps even notice—that he was being given orders by a commoner. It was, to Annika's dismay, Ulfric who followed them, breaking through the crowd that had quickly gathered.

    "Hroldir, fetch Wuunferth," he commanded one of the men. "Engar, meat and mead from the kitchens." He stood before Annika and met her eyes, his own demanding but kind. "Now, tell us what happened."

    For a moment, she could barely find her breath, let alone speak. "I found him holed up inside an old fisherman's shack a few miles south of here," she told him in a nervous rush, "badly injured by the same sabrecat Galmar sent me to kill."

    "Which she did," Ralof put in. "I know I'm not quite as valuable as that pelt you asked for, Galmar, but I hope you won't hold that against her."

    Galmar's widening eyes blinked in disbelief. "You—you killed the sabrecat?"

    "And saved my life in doing so," Ralof added, beaming up at her with such pride that he might have been the hero of the tale, and not Annika.

    She flushed, ever uncomfortable under the heat of praise, as all eyes turned to her. She spotted two of the men who had mocked her earlier, now looking entirely abashed, and Galmar's gaping shock subsided into a smile that seemed—dare she even think it?—rather impressed. She had worried that Ralof's account would not be proof enough of her success in the task, or that Galmar would merely shrug it off and continue to think her a milk-drinker. But maybe it was possible, after all, to win his respect. Maybe she had.

    When she glanced up at Ulfric, however, she was startled to find him staring at her from beneath drawn brows, a hundred questions darkening his pensive eyes. Unlike the others, he didn't seem at all interested in her victory over the sabrecat, only thoughtful and, perhaps, suspicious.

    "What did you mean," he asked slowly, "when you said you had done what you could?"

    Annika hesitated, frightened, somehow, of telling him that the wreck of flesh that was Ralof's arm was, in part, her doing. "That I healed him, my lord," she answered, a tremble in her voice betraying her uncertainty in herself.

    Though Galmar and the other men grunted and gasped their astonishment, Ulfric gave no reaction other than a small nod.

    "You can heal," he mused, a statement rather than a question.

    "Not well enough, I'm afraid. I thought he might bleed to death if nothing was done for his wound, but... perhaps I should only have wrapped it and left the sorcery to more capable hands."

    "Don't be ridiculous," Ralof chided with a laugh. "I had about three drops of blood left in my veins when you found me. I'm alive now thanks to your hands, inadequate as you think they are."

    Annika appreciated his faith, but knew he was giving her far more than she deserved, and a sharp stab of guilt pierced her stomach when she glanced at his arm. How presumptuous she had been to think her paltry spells were needed to save his life; she should have waited, should have cast them only as a last resort. Now, he would likely be left with mangled tendons and hideous scars.

    But Ulfric did not look down on her with contempt or reproach, nor did he chastise her for her hastiness. He only studied her for a few moments longer before turning to Galmar.

    "Take her with you."

    Galmar's eyebrow rose, disappearing into the perpetual snarl of his bear's head helm. "But she hasn't taken the oath yet."

    "There will be time to honor traditions later. We've just gotten word from a scout in the Pale," he told Annika, "that a small band of Imperials stopped at Nightgate Inn two hours ago, asking after one of our couriers. I want them taken alive. A healer may be needed to ensure that happens."

    A heavy dread seized Annika's heart. She was a hunter, not a healer! Had he asked her to slay another sabrecat, she would have gone forth in confidence, but this? This was not what she came here to do. This responsibility was too great for someone of her meager skill to bear. She could not be relied upon to heal the deep wounds of real battle, or to chase death away from every man or woman it wished to claim. She looked once more to Ralof, eagerly tearing into the rabbit haunch that had just arrived from the kitchens, and knew that if she had saved his life, it was only because the gods had saw fit to grant her that one mercy. Were she to face the same challenge again, she was sure she would fail.

    But how could she refuse the will of her Jarl? It had been so easy to counter Balgruuf's claim that she was Dragonborn, but she could not imagine telling Ulfric that he was wrong, that she was not what he believed her to be, that she would not do what he asked of her. She couldn't stand to let him down. But whether it was now or when she returned to Windhelm with the cold bodies of the men he wanted brought back alive, she feared she would.

    Before she could say another word, an elderly man hobbled into the Great Hall, complaining loudly about the disruption of his research to the young soldier who had been sent to fetch him.

    "Wuunferth," Ulfric called, waving him over. "Ralof's been wounded, and needs treatment."

    "All right, all right," Wuunferth rasped with an air of impatience, pushing men a quarter of his age out of his way with a gnarled staff. He huffed a sigh when he saw Ralof's wound. "Again? Didn't you almost lose that same arm a fortnight ago? You need to be more careful, boy."

    Ralof ducked his head, a smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth and quickly hidden by a flagon of mead as Wuunferth began to heal him.

    Annika watched the mage with fascination. His spells burned brighter than her own, and seemed to not only close Ralof's wound, but reverse time itself, as new skin bloomed over the raw flesh of his arm. In mere minutes, he was healed to near perfection, and Annika was left breathless in wonder. She had not known restoration magic could work such miracles.

    This was the caliber of healer that Ulfric deserved to have on the field—not a novice like herself. This was the caliber of healer she would need to be if she could ever hope to save herself the sort of devastation she'd once been helpless to prevent. She glared at the mage with bitter envy at the power he held in his hands. The power over life and death.

    "Wuunferth."

    Annika started at the sound of Ulfric's voice, and looked up to find his eyes, blazing and shrewd, locked on her, even as he spoke to the mage.

    "How would you like an apprentice?"


    * * * * *​


    Wuunferth, as it turned out, did not like having an apprentice.

    "No, no, no," he snapped, snatching his hand away from the light of Annika's spell. "What do you mean to do, heal me or tickle me? You need to concentrate!"

    "I'm trying," Annika shot back through gritted teeth. "It's difficult to concentrate when you keep shouting at me."

    "You'll have a lot more than an old man's shouting to worry about when you're healing soldiers on the battlefield," he reminded her. "Now, try again."

    In the week since she'd arrived in Windhelm, much of Annika's time had been spent holed up in Wuunferth's dark and eerie study, listening to his wheezing lectures and grumbling rants and resisting the urge to throw whatever dusty tome he'd charged her with reading that day into his hearth fire. But every now and then, between the endless criticisms of her incompetency that she tried not to take personally, she managed to actually learn something.

    The oath she'd taken to pledge her blood and honor to the service of Ulfric Stormcloak hadn't been for naught, however. Three days after assisting in the capture of the legionnaires at Nightgate Inn, she'd helped defend Fort Amol from an Imperial siege, her arrows striking down six men in total. Now there was talk of the rebellion advancing on Whiterun, if Balgruuf continued to withhold his support. Annika embraced every chance she had to wear her new armor—not tailored to her own body, but at least made to fit a woman's curves—but was not looking forward to attacking such an immense and well-defended city, and hoped it wouldn't come to that.

    All in all, life in Windhelm was agreeable enough. The frost of the impending winter—and of Wuunferth's attitude—was a small price to pay for a bed in the keep's barracks, a nightly meal, and as many arrows as her quivers could hold. When she wasn't out on assignment, Annika closed her days at Candlehearth Hall with Ralof and his friends, drinking mead, sharing stories, and singing along with the tavern's resident bard. She fell into bed each night tired and aching, but completely content.

    Today, however, Annika was not at all content. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and tried to focus her mind on the words of the incantation, but her frustration needled her like a sliver. She had found Wuunferth in worse spirits than usual that morning, having misplaced a jar of chaurus eggs (though he would never admit to it, and had instead insisted that it had been stolen), and he seemed intent on taking out his ire on her.

    "By the gods, child," he raged, spittle flying from his lips to catch in his long beard. "You couldn't heal a hangnail with that magic!"

    "How am I supposed to heal what isn't there?" she retorted. "You don't have a hangnail!"

    A man cleared his throat behind her, and she whirled about, praying that Ulfric hadn't overheard her shouting at his court mage. But it was only Ralof, wearing his armor and a bemused smile that he wasn't trying very hard to hide.

    "Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but Galmar's found it."

    Annika jumped up from her chair, her annoyance with Wuunferth already forgotten. "He has? Where?"

    "Korvanjund. We're setting out on the hour." Ralof's smile stretched into a grin that covered his entire face, bright with boyish exuberance. "He's asked that you come along."


    * * * * *​


    They were ten minutes away from Korvanjund when the scout came riding back to them, his mare's hooves almost silent on the snow.

    "Imperials," he called out before he had even come to a stop. "At least six of them standing guard outside the barrow."

    Galmar's face twisted and reddened with rage until Annika imagined she could see steam rising from his skin. "Damn them!" he cursed. "How in Oblivion did they find it? Let's make haste!" He dug a heel into his horse and bounded forward, followed by the two lieutenants with the benefit of mounts. "We can't let those bastards get their hands on the Crown!"

    Though Ulfric himself did not set much store by the legend of the Jagged Crown, Galmar's zealous obsession was infectious, and Annika had been caught up in his quest to find it since hearing the story five days before. Made of the bones of dragons and imbibed with the power of every king to wear it, the Crown was lost to the ages after the death of its last master, King Borgas—a death that had borne the first era's War of Succession. It seemed wonderfully poetic that the catalyst of Skyrim's last civil war could end this one, and to Annika, any myth that might bring Ulfric closer to the throne was one worth chasing.

    She only wished she had a horse upon which to chase it. She was already tired from trudging through the heavy snow of the Pale that had quickly soaked through her boots to numb her toes, but she pushed herself to keep pace with the others on foot. By the time they caught up to the contingent's leaders, Galmar, Yrsarald, and Ralof had hitched their mounts a distance away and concealed themselves behind a thicket of low evergreens. The barrow lay in a bowl dug deep into the earth, giving the Stormcloaks a broad view of the legionnaires below.

    "Six Imperials," Galmar confirmed once everyone had gathered around him. "We're twice as many and twice as strong, so this should be smooth sailing. I know some of you used to be in the Legion and may know men on the other side, but remember this: they are the enemy now." He shot several of his men a stern look, but not Annika, nor, she noticed, Ralof. "We need to hit them hard and fast. I want the heavy armsmen to take the vanguard for a strong opening blow, and—"

    "No!"

    Annika was just as stunned as anyone by her interruption; it had come out unbidden, a reaction to the strategy she knew, instinctively, would be the death of them all. Galmar's mouth hung open though his words had died on his tongue, and the rest of the group looked either appalled or amused that she would have the audacity to contest the second-in-command's orders.

    "Forgive me," she rushed on, knowing she had little time to justify her insolence, "but I don't think that's the best course of action."

    Galmar barked out a cold laugh. "And what do you know about war?"

    "Very little, I'll admit," she replied, "but this isn't a battle for a fort or a stronghold; this is a hunt for the Jagged Crown. The moment the men nearest the door see us, they'll flee into the barrow to alert the rest of their contingent. We can't give them that chance. We do, and we're handing them the Crown on a silver platter."

    He stared at her for what seemed like an hour, until his eyes, small and shrewd, skipped back to the barrow, and Annika knew that reason had won out over rage.

    "All right," he said, a hint of mockery in his voice. "What do you suggest we do?"

    "I'm an archer, if you recall—put me to use. I can take out the men guarding the door before any of them even know we're here."

    Annika held her breath as Galmar eyed the bow slung over her shoulder with suspicion. Like most Nords, he trusted in the power of brute force and sharpened steel, not knowing—or perhaps refusing to believe—that the bow could be just as deadly a weapon, making up with swiftness and silence what they lacked in strength.

    "Fine," he finally relented. "We'll do it your way. But gods help you if it goes wrong."

    No one could say that Galmar Stone-Fist wasn't a stubborn man, but it seemed, Annika was relieved to discover, that he would not put his pride before the integrity of his mission. She gave a firm nod and set off without another word.

    Keeping low to the ground to evade the eyes of the legionnaires below, Annika approached the southeast side of the barrow's sunken threshold, and readied an arrow before taking position. The men at the door made perfect targets: standing still, shields lowered, the soft curve of their necks exposed between collar and helm. She took careful aim and let her arrow fly, another following a moment after the first hit its mark. The legionnaires collapsed, their swords and shields hitting the stone ground in a clatter that their allies could not have missed.

    But before they could rush to their fallen comrades, Galmar and his men were charging down the steps towards them, roaring their rage and lifting their battleaxes and warhammers high into the air. Annika watched from above, her bow drawn and ready should any of the legionnaires make for the barrow's door, but after a minute of bloody battle, none were left alive to try.

    "Good work," Galmar grunted with a nod when Annika rejoined the group, a slightly begrudged compliment, but one bearing respect nonetheless.

    "Thank you."

    "I suppose there's something to be said for stealth and subterfuge after all."

    Indeed, Galmar was so swayed by their success that he instructed his contingent to continue with the strategy once inside the barrow, delegating Ralof, with his penchant for silent strikes, to take the vanguard with Annika.

    They made their way through the barrow, Annika sniping legionnaires at a distance while Ralof crept up behind them to bury his axe in their necks. The Imperial forces seemed thin; only two or three legionnaires were to be found in any given chamber. Watchdogs, Annika was certain now, meant to alert their allies rather than fight their enemies... though they hadn't the chance to do either.

    It was not until they came to the barrow's Hall of Stories that they met any real resistance. Past the ornate carvings that lined the walls, past the dead draugr that littered the floor, past the urns and candles and cobwebs, a group of legionnaires crowded around an iron door inlaid with engraved wheels that struck a familiar chord within Annika. There were far too many soldiers for her and Ralof to eliminate on their own, but she was able to shoot two down before the others grew wise to the attack, and Galmar's warriors charged in to take over.

    Steel clashed with steel as rebels fought legionnaires, flesh splitting and blood spilling faster than Annika could keep up with. She had done enough killing; now was the time to heal. She cast her spells in a continuous stream, with much more success than she'd had on Wuunferth's imaginary hangnail. But she could not heal the artery severed by one legionnaire's dagger, nor the decapitation dealt by another's greatsword. Two Stormcloaks were beyond her help, but eight Imperials had lost their lives in return.

    Ralof raised his axe to dispatch the ninth, but did not swing.

    "What are you waiting for?" Galmar hissed after a moment. "Kill him!"

    The axe only hovered in the air.

    The legionnaire, surrounded and vastly outnumbered, dared not raise his own sword. At a glance, his dark brown hair and olive skin suggested he was a native of Cyrodiil like all the rest, but as Annika inched forward for a closer look at the man Ralof was so hesitant to kill, she knew he wasn't. For she had seen him before, only on that day, she and Ralof had been at his mercy... and he hadn't any. If it had been any other legionnaire, he would already have been dead. But it wasn't any other legionnaire. It was Hadvar.

    "Kill him!" Galmar ordered once more.

    Ralof pointed to the small silver badge pinned to Hadvar's cuirass. "He's a Quaestor."

    "So?"

    "He could be of value to us. The Legion's still holding some of our men prisoner in Fort Snowhawk, right? Maybe they'll agree to a trade."

    Galmar glared at Hadvar, his jaw pulsing as he clenched his teeth. "Fine. But you'll be his keeper until we get back to Windhelm," he snarled at Ralof. "Tie him up."

    Ralof took one of his own belts off and wrapped it around Hadvar's wrists until he was as bound as they had been in Helgen. Hadvar stared at him with utter contempt the entire time, but Ralof kept his eyes down.

    "Just kill me," Hadvar growled under his breath. "I don't need your mercy."

    "Maybe not," Ralof replied. "But I do."

    When he turned and caught Annika watching them, he paled, worried, she assumed, that she would tell Galmar the true reason he wished to spare this man's life: not because he was a Quaestor, but because, once upon a time, he was Ralof's best friend. Because he had forsaken Galmar's earlier words of warning: they are the enemy now. She gave a small nod to assure him that she wouldn't.

    "Now," Galmar said, kicking aside a body that had fallen on the threshold of the door. He pried at the wheels with gloved fingers; they turned, but did not give way. "How does this damned thing work?"

    "I know."

    Galmar turned to Annika with a look of exasperation, as though he was growing tired of her having all the answers. "And how, pray tell, do you know?"

    "I've seen one of these doors before." She ran her hand over the engravings on each of the three wheels, symbols different from those on the door in Bleak Falls Barrow, but she guessed the riddle could be solved in the same way. "The key is shaped like a claw."

    "All right," he said, a hint of disbelief in his voice. "Does anyone see a claw anywhere? You, Quaestor—you know anything about this?"

    Hadvar said nothing, only met Galmar's glare with one of his own. Annika had the distinct sense that he knew all about the claw, but she couldn't blame him for keeping quiet. After all, she wouldn't be very forthcoming with information the Legion needed were she in his shoes.

    But it didn't matter. After half of the dead legionnaires had been turned over, the claw, crafted of gleaming ebony, was found pinned beneath one, the tip of its long middle finger embedded in the man's arm. Galmar pulled it out and wiped the blood off on the corpse's armor before handing it to Annika.

    "Now what?"

    She turned the wheels on the door until their seals matched those carved into the claw's palm—a fox, a moth, and a dragon. Once the key was in place, the door creaked and groaned as whatever ancient magic it had been enchanted with worked to open it. Galmar let out a hearty laugh as the iron slid down into the earth, allowing them passage into the barrow's frigid crypt.

    At the end of a long and winding corridor they found an anteroom, lined with bookshelves full of crumbling tomes, that opened into a round chamber. Upon a raised stone dais, a throne sat between two sentry caskets, both taller and broader than even Ulfric himself.

    "By Talos's grace," Galmar breathed, stopping short before the dais and lowering his battleaxe. "There it is. And that—that must be King Borgas!"

    He approached the throne slowly, humbled, it seemed, to be in the presence of one of Skyrim's ancient kings, regardless of how dessicated and moldering he now was. The corpse's bowed head bore the Jagged Crown, the helm forged of the bones of dragons, and, Annika saw with a start, the fangs of one as well.

    It was not until Galmar reached out for the Crown that the corpse's eyes snapped open.

    "Fus... ro dah!"

    Galmar was blown backward by Borgas's Shout, the words sounding more like a sharp clap of thunder than the roar Annika had heard from the mouths of dragons—or perhaps that was the sound of the caskets breaking open, two more draugr awakening within.

    All at once, they attacked. Yrsarald lead the charge with a fierce bellow, sinking his axe deep into Borgas's stomach and withdrawing a trail of blackened viscera; the corpse's eyes, glowing a ghastly blue, narrowed in anger, but betrayed no pain or weakness. Once Galmar had caught his breath, he leapt into the fray and added his steel to the assault, focusing his strength on the king who had sent him flying with naught but his voice. Only Ralof and Annika stayed on the fringes of the battle, Ralof to keep his prisoner from fleeing and Annika to heal the wounds inflicted by the draugr's rusted swords, praying to every last god that, this time, she would not fail.

    She didn't. When the dust had settled and the king and his court lay dead, she was relieved to find that her allies, though somewhat worse for wear, were still standing.

    Galmar plucked the Jagged Crown from the fallen king's head, holding it up in great reverence for all to see. A hush fell over them as they beheld the ancient relic, and through the quiet came a sound almost too faint to hear, but tangible enough to make the hair on the back of Annika's neck stand on end.

    "Do you hear that?" she whispered to Ralof as he came up behind her, Hadvar in tow.

    "Hear what?"

    "That... chanting."

    She peered into the darkness beyond the throne and the caskets, beyond the ritual candles and their immortal flames, and saw a tiny flicker of light, the same blue as King Borgas's eyes. She moved towards it as though in a trance, the chanting growing stronger and the light brighter, and she knew, long before she stood inside the curve of the stone wall and read the scratches etched upon it, what they were, and what they meant.

    Tiid.

    The word burned and crackled on the wall and in her mind, and the Voices removed from time itself embraced her tingling limbs. Their mystery had frightened her in Bleak Falls Barrow, before she knew she was Dragonborn. Now, their truth frightened her even more. She knew the beast that stirred within her in response to their call, the beast that stretched and purred and locked its claws into her lungs and her throat. She knew, and she could not run from it, this time.

    When the wall went dark and the chanting died away, Annika turned to find Galmar, Ralof, and a handful of others behind her.

    "What was that?"

    She shook her head and swallowed hard. "I don't know," she replied. "Whatever it was, it's gone now."

    But Galmar's eyes, dark with suspicion, followed her out of the crypt.

    The sky was just beginning to darken when they emerged from the barrow, and a bitter wind blew pinpricks of snow into their faces as they marched eastward. To Annika's relief, Galmar's attention seemed solely focused on the Jagged Crown, safely nestled in the crook of his arm, and she hoped that, by the time they got back to Windhelm, he would forget all about the mysterious curved wall buried deep within Korvanjund.

    She did not dare speak the word with the others so near; its balance on the tip of her tongue was so precarious that she tried not to speak at all, for fear that it would fly out on the wings of her curiosity. She knew—or the thing inside of her knew—that it meant time. But beyond that, she could not imagine what power the word held. Would it stop time? Reverse it? Quicken it? The idea that she might be able to bend the flow of time itself was terrifying and tantalizing all at once.

    Annika wondered, too, how many of these walls were scattered across Skyrim, how many of these words smoldered in the darkness, waiting to be read. She wondered what other magic could be done simply by uttering a few syllables. Could she breathe fire like the dragons had, or whip the skies into the same tempest that had laid waste to Helgen? Was there a Shout that could save a life? Was there a Shout to end one?

    It was not until the Palace of the Kings rose up over the river that Annika shook free of these thoughts and questions. She was not here, she told herself, to hunt down strange etchings on stone walls. She was here to see Ulfric Stormcloak become High King, and until that day came, nothing else mattered.


    * * * * *​


    "All hail to Ulfric, you are the High King! And in your great honor, we drink and we sing!"

    The song had never rung as true as it did that night. Though he had protested at first, Ulfric had eventually given in to Galmar's behest to wear the Jagged Crown, polished and buffed to brilliance, a symbol of the title that was rightfully his. All who had assisted in its recovery had been invited to dine with the court in the Great Hall, where flagons never lacked mead and the walls shook with raucous and drunken song late into the night—a true Nordic celebration. Her head dizzy and her cheeks aching with laughter, Annika looked up and down the banquet table and wondered how she had ever had any fun with the pensive Redguards of Hammerfell or the serene Bosmer of Valenwood.

    Ralof was the only one who spent more time brooding down into his mead than making merry, and each time Annika turned his way and saw the worry on his face, her heart broke for him. It could not be easy to celebrate when your best friend sat stewing in the castle's dungeons, even when that best friend despised you. Seeing that his flagon was almost empty, she filled it from one of the many jugs on the table; if the music wasn't lifting his spirits, copious amounts of mead surely would.

    He tried his best to return her warm smile. "Trying to get me drunk, are you?"

    "Trying to make you feel better."

    Ralof downed half his mead in one swallow. "What if General Tullius doesn't accept the trade? Am I supposed to stand by and let the man I've loved as a brother all my life have his head cut off?"

    Annika hesitated. Hadvar had been willing to do that very thing, but she didn't think it very kind to remind Ralof of that right now. "You may not have a choice," she told him gently. "Whatever else he is, he's still a legionnaire. He's still the enemy. And aiding the enemy is treason."

    He heaved a sigh. "I know. I'm sorry you have to be involved in this, just by knowing who Hadvar is. Thank you for keeping it quiet."

    "Of course. You kept my secret, after all."

    "Yes, but now you have two secrets," he returned. "You lied to Galmar back at Korvanjund, didn't you?"

    Annika shushed him, though she needn't have; no one was paying them any mind, and the din of the celebration was so loud that they could barely even hear each other. "The etchings on the wall," she said. "They were words."

    "How could you tell?"

    "I could read one of them." She gave a small laugh. "How can I read a language I've never seen before?"

    "Only the gods know. What did it say?"

    But Annika's attention had moved to her mead. It had begun to tremble, tiny ripples swelling out from the center, and she could not make sense of why. A moment later, she had her answer. The sky was split open by a crack of thunder so deafening it was as though the castle lay within the clouds themselves. Plates and cutlery rattled, flagons pitched over to flood the table with mead and wine, and dust fell in waves from the rafters. The very walls shook, and the floor beneath her feet seemed to be falling apart. A chorus of voices rolled in on the edge of the devastation.

    "Dovahkiin!"

    The echoing call died away, and the Great Hall was plunged into silence for a single moment before dissolving into bedlam, everyone asking their own questions and nobody having any answers. But they all seemed to have some idea, at least, of what had just happened—all except Annika.

    "What was that?"

    "The Greybeards," Ralof told her. "Didn't you hear them the first time?"

    She shook her head, thinking back to the morning she awoke in Dragonsreach to discover that she had been summoned by the Greybeards while she slept. "No, I didn't."

    "It was so much louder this time, though. I wonder why?"

    It was the foremost question on everyone's lips, but Annika couldn't believe that Ralof had to ask it. She knew the answer at once.

    So, it seemed, did Ulfric. He rose from his seat at the head of the table, effortlessly demanding the attention of every man and woman in the Great Hall without a word.

    "The Greybeards have spoken again," he proclaimed, his voice booming through the Great Hall. "Why did their Shout almost bring the entire keep down on our heads? Because, this time, it was directed at us. The Dragonborn they seek must be here in Windhelm—perhaps in our very midst."

    Wide eyes and suspicious whispers flew around the table, looking for some sign that the Dragonborn was there amongst them, or, perhaps, wondering if they themselves were the Dragonborn. Annika sipped her mead, waiting for someone's gaze to light on her and remember that she was the outsider, the one person who had not been there a week ago, when the Greybeards sent their first summons down across the world. But no one seemed to remember that she was there at all, and with every moment that passed without a finger being pointed her way, it became easier to breathe.

    And then, Galmar stood up.

    "Her," he said, looking right at Annika. "It's her!"

    She was as frozen as she'd ever been in the coldest winters of her youth. All eyes turned to her, but the only ones she could see were Ulfric's, looking at her as though he had never seen her before.

    "Why do you think this, Galmar?"

    "There was this... this wall, in Korvanjund," he recalled. "Marked all over with runes I'm sure were Draconic. And when she drew close to it, it began to glow, and—"

    Ulfric held a hand up to silence Galmar; that was all he needed to know. His gaze had never left hers, but where uncertainty had been, conviction now took root.

    "Is this true?"

    Annika could not lie to him. Not Ulfric. Not even when she was a child, trembling in fear of him, knowing a lie might have been her only hope of salvation, could she speak anything but the truth when he asked her for it. Not when he pinned her with those burning blue eyes that seemed to see right through her.

    She took a deep breath, and, slowly, she nodded. "Yes, my lord."

    A low murmur of awe and disbelief swelled over the crowd until Ulfric spoke again, a simple demand.

    "Leave us."

    The soldiers and lieutenants paraded out of the Great Hall, some taking their flagons or half-eaten haunches with them. Annika felt the heat of every gaze upon her, but she kept hers down on her fidgeting hands. Soon, only she and Ulfric remained, and the pounding of her heart was the only sound that filled the chamber for a long while.

    Finally, he breathed something between a sigh and a laugh. "Never in a hundred eras would I have guessed that I would find the Dragonborn sitting at my very table," he mused, shaking his head. "Why did you keep this from me?"

    "Forgive me, my lord," Annika pleaded. "Perhaps I should have been honest with you from the beginning. But—I didn't want your opinion of me to be based on a legend. I wanted to prove my worth to you."

    After a beat of hesitation, Ulfric smiled. "You certainly do have the heart of a Nord, don't you?"

    She flushed from head to toe. He remembered. And here she thought he had forgotten her entirely.

    Ulfric left his honored place at the head of the table to join her at the middle of it, leaving the Jagged Crown behind. He topped up both of their flagons and took a long swill of mead before leaning back against the polished wood. "So, Dragonborn," he teased with a smirk, "tell me: why did you not answer the Greybeards' summons? Why are you not at High Hrothgar?"

    "I didn't come back to Skyrim to be closeted away in a monastery."

    A true laugh tumbled past his lips, melting away the last of her worry. "Talos knows I can't blame you for that. I couldn't stand to be closeted away in a monastery when war was at hand, either. Did you know that I was to become a Greybeard myself?"

    Annika blinked up at him in wonder. "No, I didn't." She knew, of course, that Ulfric had been taught by the Greybeards, but she could not imagine him as one of them. She could not imagine this man, the very image of a fighter and a leader, living a lifetime of silence and passivity high atop a mountain. "If I may, my lord—why did you wish to study the Way of the Voice?"

    He said nothing for a long moment, and Annika feared that she had asked too much; Dragonborn or not, she was still a commoner and he was still a Jarl. But a faraway look came into his eyes, and he began his tale.

    "I idolized Tiber Septim in my youth, as most Nord boys do," he told her. "Not because he was a conqueror or an emperor, but because he was the Dragonborn. While others my age played at being warriors with wooden swords, I had greater ambitions. I wanted to use the Voice, as Tiber Septim had, and as not many others could. I wanted that most unique gift of the Dovah Sos—the Dragonblood."

    He took another swallow of mead, his features darkening with some memory, perhaps painful, that played in his mind. He seemed just as mesmerized by his recollections as Annika was with him, hardly daring to breathe in fear of breaking the spell.

    "I wanted to be Dragonborn more than I had ever wanted anything," Ulfric murmured. "I had convinced myself, for a time, that I was Dragonborn, but that I would only be awakened as such if I gave myself fully to the Way of the Voice. The Greybeards, in their infinite wisdom, sensed my devotion to their creed, and chose me to be their apprentice. Since I was my father's second son and thus not meant to inherit his Jarlship, he proudly sent me up to High Hrothgar at the age of nine. I was there for nearly a decade, and though I eventually came to accept that I was not and would never be Dragonborn, I was content with the life I had chosen. Until," he added with a smile that spoke of sadness, "the Great War began. The Greybeards believe it blasphemy to use the Voice for anything but worship of Kynareth, but my loyalty was never to Kynareth—it was to Talos. I could not sit back and do nothing while his own Empire was under attack."

    "And so you left."

    "And so I left," he echoed. "Much to the Greybeards' dismay. They are a dying breed, and they have been seeking someone to carry on their legacy for a long time. They had hoped I was that person, but all I turned out to be was a disappointment. They will now, most certainly, see you as their savior. You may even come to see yourself as such."

    Annika's heart had soared with Ulfric's understanding of why she'd eluded the summons, but fell as she anticipated the course of his words. "You wish me to go to High Hrothgar."

    "I wish you to do what your heart tells you to do," he replied. "I may not agree with their philosophy, but I cannot deny that the Greybeards have an unmatched wisdom in the Way of the Voice. Their guidance and their counsel can be of great benefit to you. But it is your choice, Dragonborn."

    "I have already made my choice," she countered. "I pledged an oath to you, my Jarl."

    "You need only ask, and I will free you from it."

    It seemed as though all warmth had been drained from the Great Hall. Ulfric was not ordering her to leave, but he was not asking her to stay, either. He was giving her freedom to do as she would. And though she wanted nothing more than to stay by his side, she would, above all, trust his judgment.

    "I shall go to the Greybeards, and take what knowledge I can from them. But I will come back to fulfill my oath," she promised. "I do not wish to be freed from it now, nor will I ever. I am yours, my lord."

    He nodded down at her, and she thought she saw a gleam of pride in his eyes.

    "I will have a mount readied for you at the stables in the morning—assuming you can ride?"

    "I can."

    "Good. The horse will get you to the bottom of the mountain, but the Seven Thousand Steps must be walked on foot. Rest well tonight," he bid her, rising from the table. "You'll need it."

    "Thank you, my Jarl."

    Ulfric stood before her for a long moment, haloed by the light of the candleabra that flickered above him. "I look forward to hearing about your pilgrimage, Dragonborn. I do, now and then, miss the serenity of High Hrothgar. But," he added, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips, "don't tell the Greybeards I said that. Goodnight."

    "Goodnight."

    And then he was gone, and Annika was alone in the vastness of the Great Hall, where she remained for some time. She nibbled at a sweet roll no one had wanted, her head spinning with all that had come to pass, and what it would mean for the days ahead.

    She was no longer a nameless, faceless pawn in this game of thrones. She was someone now. She was the Dragonborn. And for the first time, she saw it the way Ulfric did: as a gift, not a curse.


    * * * * *​


    The sun, just peeking over the east side of Windhelm's high walls, cast a rosy glow on the stone facade of the temple, and on the hesitant hand that hovered over its door. Worship of gods was so often passed down from father to son and mother to daughter, a tradition more than a devotion for children too young to understand why they prayed, or to whom. Annika had prayed to Talos because she'd been taught to pray to Talos, and had otherwise not given much thought to the man who had become a god.

    But as she stood before the temple, a shiver ran down her back that had little to do with the morning frost. To Annika, Talos was no longer just a god; he was the last true Dragonborn. Whatever her soul was made of, his had been the same, and though his soul had not ended up in Sovngarde, as she feared hers wouldn't, it had ascended somewhere much higher. It only seemed fitting to pray to him now, to ask for guidance as she pursued her destiny as the new Dragonborn.

    The door whined as it swung open. A biting chill hung in the air, the temple not yet warmed by the dawn's light, nor the weak flames of the candles that flickered at the base of the shrine at the far end of the chamber. It was as silent and still as a grave, and as she crept through the temple, Annika believed she was alone. Had he not turned in the polished wooden pew to face her, she would not have noticed Ulfric at all.

    "My Jarl," she breathed, fumbling to bow as she backed away. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to intrude. I'll take my leave."

    "Stay, please," Ulfric insisted. He gestured to the pew, an invitation to join him. "I was just thinking about you."

    The frost of the temple was forgotten as her cheeks filled with warmth. "You—you were?"

    He gazed up at the towering statue of Talos, glorified in his defeat of a monstrous serpent, and remained quiet for a full minute after Annika seated herself next to him. She had not been this close to him since they were both prisoners on a carriage heading to Helgen, and now that she no longer feared their imminent deaths, she noticed so many intimate details she had missed before: the comforting scent of the fur cloak she had never seen him without, the tiny white whiskers sprinkled through the blonde of his beard, the heat that seemed to emanate from his very skin.

    But she also saw the bleakness in his eyes, and the slouch of his shoulders. The good humor of the night before was utterly gone.

    "Have you ever heard of the Song of the Dragonborn?"

    "No, my lord."

    "I don't believe many have, aside from those who've studied dragon lore. I had not thought of it in years," he told her with a deep sigh. "Not until last night. The few words I remembered plagued me, keeping sleep at bay, until I finally went down to the library to seek out an old tome I'd kept from my days at High Hrothgar. What I found was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the night." Still staring up at the shrine, Ulfric recited a pair of couplets in a low and reverent voice. "'And the Scrolls have foretold of black wings in the cold, that when brothers wage war come unfurled; Alduin, Bane of Kings, ancient shadow unbound, with a hunger to swallow the world. But a day shall arise when the dark dragon's lies will be silenced forever, and then, fair Skyrim will be free from foul Alduin's maw. Dragonborn, be the savior of men.'"

    A memory flared in Annika's mind. The dragon chasing her through the chaos of Helgen, so black it could have been shrouded with night itself. Alduin, Bane of Kings. She knew at once, and without a doubt, why the song troubled Ulfric so. It was not a song at all, but a prophecy.

    "Do you see?" Ulfric asked, finally turning his anguished eyes to her. "I began the war that woke Alduin's hunger. And you, Dragonborn, must save us all from it." He bowed his head. "Our fates, it seems, are entwined."

    Annika's heart quickened. Oh, yes, their fates were entwined, but he had no idea how deeply. He had no idea that, were it not for his kindness on one long-ago winter's night, she would not have come back to Skyrim two decades later. She would not have been at Helgen when the dragon attacked. The sleeping beast within her would never have stirred. There would be no Dragonborn.

    Not for the first time, she wished to tell him the truth of it, but she resisted. She would not show him the weak and helpless girl she'd been when their paths first crossed, in such need of mercy, in such need of saving. But she could appease some of his guilt, with some of the truth. She owed him that much.

    "I suppose they are, my lord," she finally replied, her voice little more than a whisper. "But think on this: were Skyrim not at war, I would have no reason to be here. If the song is to be believed, and you did waken Alduin, then you also brought the Dragonborn back to destroy him."

    "Perhaps," Ulfric mused. "But all the same, I would rather this evil never have been unleashed into the world. We have enough evil to contend with as it is."

    Annika didn't know what to say to that, and so said nothing, only gazed up at the shrine of another Dragonborn defeating another evil. She thought of the song that had rung through the Great Hall the night before: we're the children of Skyrim, and we fight all our lives. Whether the enemy was cold or hunger, wolves or dragons, the Empire or the Dominion, it seemed there was always something to fight. Always something to slay.

    "Go to High Hrothgar," Ulfric urged. "If you are to defeat this menace, you must know how to fight fire with fire, and though the Greybeards are against fighting at all, they will guide you in their own way."

    "You could guide me," Annika proposed, quietly and carefully. "You know the Way of the Voice. You know how to fight with it."

    With a gentle smile and a shake of his head, the hope that had begun to kindle within her was put out. "The Greybeards have many lifetimes of wisdom and skill to offer you. I, on the other hand, need you more than you need me."

    Disbelief widened her eyes and thrill colored her cheeks, asking the questions she was too speechless to ask herself.

    "I trust you, Dragonborn," Ulfric continued, "but I don't know who else I can trust."

    "Why is that, my lord?"

    He hesitated, heaving an uneasy sigh before answering. "The Imperials at Korvanjund weren't there by coincidence."

    Annika's brows furrowed with confusion. "Of course not. They were there for the Jagged Crown."

    "Yes, but Galmar had been searching for the Crown for months," he reminded her. "The Legion may have been, too; we can't say for sure. But what are the chances they'd find it on the very same day we did?" A cold and bitter laugh fell from his lips. "No, they knew where to look because they were told where to look."

    "But... by whom?"

    "That is the question, isn't it? By whom."

    Somewhere, in the dark shadows of her mind, Annika knew just what Ulfric was implying, but she didn't want to believe it.

    "Maybe—maybe it was just a coincidence," she suggested. "It's possible, isn't it?"

    "Alone, it would be," Ulfric agreed. "But did the Imperials at Nightgate Inn simply guess the route of my personal messenger? And the contingent that ambushed me at Darkwater Crossing, outnumbering my men three to one—were they only there to see the waterfall?"

    Annika saw his meaning, and could not deny its truth: once could be chance, but thrice could only be design. She bowed her head in remorse that she had doubted the man who seemed to have none in her.

    "The Legion is always one step ahead, and not by coincidence," he insisted, his tone darker than ever. "I have been betrayed. Treachery and corruption lie beneath the stone and snow of my city, and I will need your help to uncover it."

    "I will do anything you ask of me, my lord," she began slowly. "But, though I appreciate your faith in me, I don't understand it. Why do you trust me, an outsider, over men and women who have served you for years?"

    "This has been going on far longer than you've been around to have any part in it," he replied. "But that is insignificant. I trust you because you are the Dragonborn. You are what I have longed to be all of my life, and you came into my life the very day it was to end. And on this day, when Skyrim's soil was walked by the first Dragonborn in centuries, her skies saw the first dragon in millennia. How can that be a coincidence?" he asked, his eyes blazing with zealous conviction. "I would have been executed were it not for that dragon. And I don't believe that dragon would have been there, at that crucial moment, were it not for you."

    All thoughts of trust and betrayal flew from her mind, and she shivered with dread, with the terrible revelation that was building up within her. "That morning in Helgen," she murmured, hearing the crackle of fire and the screams of the dying in the back of her mind, "I thought the dragon was following me through the village. I thought it was speaking to me. I thought it was looking into my very soul. And I couldn't imagine why, then." She sat back in the pew, shaking her head. "It knew, didn't it? It knew what I was, before I did. It was only there to see me dead."

    "If the Song of the Dragonborn is true," Ulfric replied gently, "then it is your destiny to destroy Alduin. And Alduin will do everything he can to destroy you first."

    There it was. The truth that had been haunting her every step for days. She'd known it all along, hadn't she? That some thread connected her to these beasts. Something beyond blood and souls. Something beyond fate. Their very lives were tied to each other; while one lived, the other walked in the perpetual shadow of death. She had to kill them, or they would kill her.

    And as they sought her, these dragons would leave a trail of carnage in their wake. She thought of Helgen again, of the legionnaire who had writhed in the dirt as his flesh burned away, of the men and women and children who could not outrun the fire of a beast who saw no difference between the guilty and the innocent. How many had lost their lives that day, on the chance that she would lose hers?

    And yet... Ulfric had lived. Annika stole a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye, of the man she had thought of every day for the last two decades of the life he had saved. And, if he was right, and she had saved his, then perhaps the price had been worth it.

    Fate. She had never embraced the idea of it, that her life was not hers to live as she saw fit, but a fixed path she had no choice but to follow. But if her destiny was to slay these dragons, it was that destiny that bound her to Ulfric. And that was a path she would walk willingly.

    He turned to her, then, and her gaze skipped shyly away.

    "Do not forget: Alduin is not the only evil that threatens us. You are the only one I can trust," he told her once more. "If you come back to Windhelm—and I hope you do—I will need you to be my eyes and ears. I will need your help to root out the cancer that has been eating away at this rebellion, before it's too late."

    "I will come back," she promised. "You have my word."

    He nodded, and gave her one last smile, though it still spoke more of guilt and sorrow than anything else.

    "Talos be with you, Dragonborn."

    The rising sun glinted through the high windows, warming the still air of the temple as surely as Ulfric's faith had warmed Annika from the inside out, despite prophecies and destinies that may or may not be true. She bowed to her Jarl before taking her leave, loath to walk away from him, but taking solace in knowing that she would be back. That he trusted her. That he needed her. That, one way or another, their fates were entwined.

    For she was everything he had ever wanted to be. And he was everything she had ever wanted.
     
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  4. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    three: chasing destiny


    A spiteful wind snapped over Annika like a whip, its icy fingers seeking out her most vulnerable places: the nape of her neck, the backs of her knees, the ridges of ears she could barely feel. She drew the hood of Ralof's worn woolen cloak tighter around her face, more thankful than ever for his insistence that she take it; though it was heavy and wet with snow, it did, at least, give some respite against the gale that burned her skin as surely as the dragon's fire had.

    She'd gotten halfway up the Seven Thousand Steps before the storm had begun. She could not be sure how much time had since passed; dark clouds and thick snowfall had plunged the world into perpetual dusk, and the painful sting in her fingers and toes stretched every minute into an hour. The higher she climbed, the fewer skeletal pines there were to cling to when the shrieking wind threatened to throw her off of the mountain, and the fear that she would never see Windhelm again grew with each treacherous step.

    But when she rounded a slick bank of rock and saw the grim stone turret of High Hrothgar looming up against the leaden sky, its western face beaten with snow that cleaved to it in staggered waves, Annika fell to her knees in relief. She wept for a moment before pushing herself onward. Those last steps were, perhaps, the hardest, now that she was so close, yet still so far. It seemed another hour had crawled by before her numb hands hit the slick iron door of the monastery, and heaved it open without a moment's thought for knocking.

    She stumbled inside, her ears ringing in the sudden quiet. Only the faint howling of the wind, seeping in through cracks in the stone, echoed off of the walls, and a distant crackle promised a roaring fire. In the absence of the storm, she felt for the first time the crust of ice that had built up on the cloak, and threw it down, only to shiver even more without it. The chattering of her teeth was so violent that she did not hear the footsteps hurrying through the chamber until a man, ancient and grey, stood before her, his arms outstretched to catch her as she collapsed into them.

    Without a word, he helped Annika through the austere halls of the monastery and seated her at a long stone table, its middle hollowed to allow a brazier of fire that caressed her stinging face with soothing warmth. A second man draped a blanket around her shoulders, and a third put a steaming wooden bowl into her hands, a deep aroma of beef and potatoes wafting up from it to make her mouth water. She ate the stew in heaping spoonfuls as the Greybeards watched her, silent and still.

    "Thank you so much," she rasped between swallows, the sound of own her voice a hammer to her head. "And thank the gods I made it here alive. I truly didn't think I would."

    The monks remained quiet, and continued to stare.

    "I've no idea how long I was out in the storm," she went on. "Is it nightfall yet?"

    Again, they did not answer.

    She looked down into her bowl, all at once very aware of how isolated this place was, how very far she had come. She appreciated the blanket and the stew more than she could say, but the silent stares unnerved her, and she had the peculiar sense that these Greybeards could not see or hear her at all.

    But she was too weak to truly care. Fever was taking rapid hold of her, making her sweat even as she shivered. It was a challenge just to lift the spoon from the bowl to her mouth, just to keep her head aloft and her eyes open. She wanted to lay her weary body down and fall into sleep so deep that even the roar of a dragon would not wake her.

    Then, finally, the silence was broken.

    "Are you the one we have been waiting for?"

    Startled, Annika whirled about to find a fourth man shuffling into the chamber, wearing the same roughspun robes and impossibly long beard as the others, but offering a small smile where they had only given a bow.

    She set the rest of the stew down on the table and pulled the blanket tighter around herself, suddenly nervous and frightened. She thought of what Ulfric had said the night before, that the Greybeards had long sought someone to carry on their legacy once they were gone, and she was hesitant to answer the man's question, whatever its meaning.

    "You summoned the Dragonborn," she replied slowly. "I am answering that call."

    He took the seat across from her. The light of the fire brought every line and wrinkle on his face into sharp relief, and shone back at her from cloudy eyes. She had never seen a man this old before, older than she thought possible for a man to live. Older than she imagined anyone would want to live.

    "We would taste of your Voice," he said. "Speak, if you truly have the gift."

    Hot tears needled Annika's eyes at the command. She was struggling to whisper, and he wanted her to Shout? She could barely move her own rigid limbs, and he wanted her to take the reins of the thing that burrowed inside her? And if she could not, would the Greybeards throw her back out into the storm to die an imposter's death? It was pure fear of the wind and the snow that drove her to take as deep a breath as the weight on her chest would allow, and to shape her lips around the word that would prove her Voice.

    "Fus."

    The flames in the brazier shuddered and died.

    The men before her rocked back as though hit by a hammer, and their eyes went wide, as astonished as Annika was herself at the might of her Shout. So the beast within would thrive even when her mortal body failed her.

    Her last ounce of strength drained, she sank against the high stone back of her chair and closed her eyes for a moment, willing the room to stop spinning, but it did not.

    "Dragonborn," the Greybeard breathed. "It is you."

    She struggled to focus as he introduced himself as Arngeir, and his brethren as Wulfgar, Einarth, and Borri, but their faces swam before her until she could not tell one from the other. They were all echoes of the same drab robes and wiry beards, watching her with the same expectation in their eyes. When she spoke, it was to Arngeir, the only one she was certain of, for he was still the only one who had spoken to her.

    "I have come to seek your guidance in the Way of the Voice."

    "Of course, you will have it. We will do our best to teach you how to use your gift in fulfillment of your destiny."

    "And what is my destiny?" she asked. "To defeat Alduin?"

    Arngeir stilled, and all joy left his face. From the hazy corner of her eye, Annika saw the others share a suspicious look.

    "How do you know that name?"

    She hesitated, reluctant, somehow, to mention Ulfric.

    "From the Song of the Dragonborn," she answered simply. "'Alduin, Bane of Kings, ancient shadow unbound, with a hunger to swallow the world.' Am I meant to stop him?"

    Arngeir thought for a long moment before replying, and when he did, his words sounded carefully measured. "That is not for us to know," he said. "We can show you the way, but not the destination. Concentrate on honing your Voice, and you will soon find your path."

    Even in the fog of her mounting fever, Annika knew Arngeir was holding something back. Surely, the Greybeards knew the Song of the Dragonborn better than anyone, and so they had to know of the prophecy it held. Perhaps they did not believe as Ulfric did, that it was a prophecy. Or, perhaps, they had a different interpretation of it.

    But, as Ulfric had promised, it seemed they would guide her in their own way, and so she clung to that.

    "How long will it take, honing my Voice?"

    "True understanding of a Thu'um, or Shout, can only be achieved when your inner spirit is in harmony with your outward action," Arngeir replied. "This can take decades of training and meditation—for most of us. But you, Dragonborn, have been given the gift of the Voice from Akatosh himself. It is in your very blood. You will learn to harness it without effort." His eyes narrowed and darkened, suddenly, burning into Annika with an intensity that rattled her. "But do not let your easy mastery of the Voice tempt you into the arrogance of power," he warned. "That has been the downfall of many Dragonborn before you."

    Her pride bristled at the insinuation, that she was weak enough to be seduced by power she had never desired and a gift she had never asked for. She wanted to tell him that she did not come to High Hrothgar seeking power, only knowledge... but an uneasy wave of doubt held her tongue. She remembered leaving Korvanjund, captivated by the idea of controlling the flow of time, curious about other words on other walls that might do even more incredible things. She remembered her thoughts of a Shout that could end a life, and felt sick with guilt.

    She did not know what else to say, and so she only nodded.

    "We will begin your training tomorrow," Arngeir announced, rising from the table. "For now, you need your rest."

    She would not argue that, nor did she refuse his arm when he offered it to her. Her legs seemed boneless, and her head full of cotton that weighed more than rocks, and she doubted she would have been able to reach the bed that was to be hers without help.

    Once again, each of the Greybeards did their part to accommodate her; one carried in an oil lamp to light the small alcove, another layered thick furs upon the bed, and another put a goblet of water into her hands. She drank every last drop before crawling beneath the furs and laying her head down.

    With her body at rest and her mind swiftly following suit, it was nigh impossible to keep her eyes open. The last thing Annika saw before slipping into sleep was the Greybeard who had spoken to her, whose smile had seemed more ominous than obliging, and as cold as the storm that had almost claimed her.


    * * * * *​


    Three days passed, and thrice as many books. Histories of the Way of the Voice, chronicles of past Dragonborn, treatises of the legendary Dragon War of the Merethic Era. Arngeir said that to harness the Voice, Annika must first understand whence its power comes. And so by the light of day she read each of the tomes he gave to her, as dull and dusty as those Wuunferth had bid her to study.

    But come nightfall, the books were put away, and Annika began her true training under the guidance of the Greybeards. Her throat grew raw and sore as she learned to better aim and project the Shout she knew—or thought she knew.

    On her second evening at High Hrothgar, once she could knock a small but heavy pewter goblet off a plinth from across the courtyard, Arngeir deemed her ready to learn the second word of the Shout. It was Einarth who taught it to her. With a wave of his hand, the word was carved into the wet stone at her feet: Ro. It vanished moments later as a hot rush of wind passed from the Greybeard into Annika. The following night, Borri taught her a word of a new Shout in the same manner, and this time the wind flowed from his body and through hers. This magic had happened once before, when she killed the dragon in Whiterun, and the beast within her woke to take its soul. But unlike the dragon, Einarth and Borri had not turned to ash afterward. Unlike the dragon, they had given her their power willingly.

    "Why can't you teach me all the Shouts you know this way?" Annika asked Arngeir that night.

    "We could teach you the words... but not the skill to wield them, nor the discipline to control them," he said. "It would be as putting a greatsword into the hands of a girl who has known naught but daggers. Even if her arms were strong enough to make a clumsy swing, without understanding of both her weapon and herself, understanding that can only be attained through devoted practice, she could not hope to strike her enemy."

    Annika appreciated his meaning, but resented it. She did not mean to make a life of study in the Way of the Voice. She merely wished to defeat Alduin, if it was her destiny to do so. These Greybeards could so easily impart their wisdom to her, so easily give her the means with which to strike these dragons from the sky, and yet they would not. Instead, they gave her riddles and mysteries, and a fool's quest to retrieve what they called the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller from a barrow in Hjaalmarch. How that would help her understand her weapon and herself, she did not know. She wouldn't have the chance to understand anything if she was incinerated by flaming breath or crushed between monstrous fangs first.

    She had trouble finding sleep that evening, and when she did, it was fitful and restless. It seemed she tossed and turned for hours upon hours through a night that would not end. Time played tricks on her in the many moments she was caught between sleeping and waking, and feverish dreams blurred the lines between what was real and what was not.

    She saw Ulfric, haunting the halls he had walked long ago. Sometimes he was no more than a boy, small and pale, urging her to leave High Hrothgar before it was too late. Other times, he was the sorrowful man she had left behind, pleading with her to come back, but when she called out to him, he did not hear her. It was her own voice that woke her, then, and she carried her oil lamp through the halls of the monastery, looking for the man she had been so sure was there, but found only drafty corners and empty shadows. Some time after she returned to bed, she felt Ulfric beside her, wrapping her up in his arms and holding her fast against the beat of his heart. This, she knew, was a dream, for she had dreamed it before.

    Then came the dreams that were not dreams, but memories, flitting up from the deepest wells of her mind. Memories of soaring through clouds and past stars, of scorching the world below with a sigh, of falling apart, piece by piece, until the final darkness fell. Memories that could not be hers, and yet she saw and heard and felt them as surely as she did her mother's face, her sister's voice, the weight of her first bow in her young and awkward hands.

    She woke from these visions gasping and shivering and overwhelmed with fear of something she could not name. She thought of her predecessors, the other Dragonborn she had read of, and wondered if they, too, had one day discovered memories they had not known before. But most of these Dragonborn had never come face to face with a living dragon. They had not killed one, or stolen one's soul. They had never looked into glowing red eyes set in jagged black scales and saw their own doom staring back at them.

    Annika lay awake and afraid for the rest of the night.

    And every now and then, she thought she heard the deep and steady breathing of a dragon, looming somewhere above her. She felt it watching her. Waiting for her to close her eyes, to succumb once more to sleep.


    * * * * *

    After the harrowing storm on the Seven Thousand Steps and the damp chill that saturated all of Hjaalmarch, the dry, sunny plains of Whiterun may have been the sweetest sight Annika had ever seen.

    She was sorely tempted to spend the rest of the day in the city, wandering the market and taking her evening meal at the Bannered Mare, perhaps seeing the temple's priestess about treating the fever that had lingered for nearly a week now, despite her attempts to heal herself. But the roll of parchment tucked beneath her cuirass seemed to burn hotter than her fever, and so she rode her horse on past Whiterun, past the stables and the farms and the meadery, until she crossed the bridge that would bring her back to Riverwood.

    The village was just as she left it: calm and quiet, the sort of place she might have made a home and raised a family in, had her life taken a different turn. She was relieved to find it untouched by dragon's fire, though she knew the threat still loomed over every thatched roof that lined the cobbled roads. She hitched her mare outside the small inn at the heart of the town, and took a deep breath before going inside.

    It was as empty as one would expect it to be this early in the evening, housing only a single patron, the man Ralof had pointed out to her as the village drunk on her last visit to Riverwood. Even as she passed him, he took such a deep gulp of mead that two thin rivulets ran down his chin to stain his already spotted tunic.

    "Orgnar? Orgnar! Are you listening?"

    A woman, blonde and round-cheeked and a head shorter than Annika, stood with her hands on the hips of her apron at the far end of the inn, staring daggers at the man behind the counter.

    He didn't bother to look up from the flagon he was wiping out. "Hard not to."

    "The ale is going bad," the woman said. "We need to get a new batch." She waited, but got no reply. "Did you hear me?"

    "Yep," Orgnar grunted. "Ale's going bad."

    The woman rolled her eyes and huffed a sigh. "Just make sure we get a fresh batch in soon, would you?"

    She stormed away, but her theatrics seemed wasted on the man. He had not shifted his attention away from the task of wiping down flagons in the slightest, and Annika wondered if he had even noticed—or cared—that the woman had left. When she approached the counter, he sniffed and nodded at her.

    "Welcome to the Sleeping Giant Inn," he greeted in a bored monotone. "We've got rooms and mead. Food, too. I cook. Ain't much else to tell."

    "I need a night's lodging, please," Annika said, drawing open her coin purse. "Is the attic room available?"

    "Attic room?" He laughed. "Look up. You see an attic?"

    She did as he told her, and sure enough, the wooden rafters met at a steep point in the center of the roof. Flustered and confused, she pulled out the roll of parchment she had found deep within the barrow of Ustengrav, where the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller should have been. She read the missive once more to be sure of its instructions.
    Dragonborn,

    I need to speak to you, urgently. Rent the attic room
    at the Sleeping Giant Inn in Riverwood, and I'll meet you.


    — A friend

    Annika looked back up at Orgnar. "Are... are you sure there's no attic room here?"

    It was the blonde woman, suddenly at Annika's elbow, who answered. "Let me show you our other accommodations," she said. "I'm sure we'll find something that meets your needs."

    At a loss, Annika followed the innkeeper into a suite outfitted with a large bed, wardrobe, and private dining table. Books were stacked on the nightstand, next to a mug and a crumpled handkerchief. The bed linens were slightly mussed. Why was the innkeeper showing her a room that was obviously already occupied?

    "I'm sorry, but is this the only inn in Riverwood?" Annika asked, suddenly uneasy. "You see, I was told specifically to ask for the attic room..."

    The woman closed the door and turned to Annika with a sly smile. "I know you were," she said. "There is no attic room, but I believe I have something else you're looking for."

    She crossed to the wardrobe and unlocked it with a large brass key. It appeared empty, even of shelves, but when the woman knelt down to reach in, Annika saw the ancient and gnarled tusk laying on the wardrobe's bottom.

    "The Horn of Jurgen Windcaller," the woman declared, offering it to Annika. "I figured the Greybeards would send you after it. They're nothing if not predictable."

    Annika looked from her to the Horn and back again, not quite believing her eyes. "You're the one who left that letter in Ustengrav?"

    "Not what you were expecting, am I?"

    "Not quite," she admitted, carefully taking the Horn into her own hands. It was heavy and cold, and ringed with bony spikes that time had made dull. "I didn't think innkeepers raided barrows in their free time."

    The woman chuckled. "I'm not just some little-village innkeeper, I assure you."

    She plucked a candlestick from the nightstand and shone it into the wardrobe. With a press of her palm, the back panel swung open to reveal a hidden staircase, leading down into shadows and an ever-thickening mystery.

    Annika shook her head in awe. "Who are you?"

    "My name is Delphine," she replied. "I'm part of an order that's been looking for someone like you for a long time—if you truly are Dragonborn, that is. Before I tell you anything more, I need to be sure I can trust you."

    She started down the stairs, waving for Annika to follow.

    "And how do I know I can trust you?"

    Delphine glanced back over her shoulder. "If you don't, you were a fool to walk in here in the first place."

    There was some truth to that, Annika knew. But walking into an inn was a much different story than descending a hidden staircase to a secret basement with someone masquerading as an innkeeper. Delphine may have been small of stature and along in years, but she'd left a long trail of dead draugr behind her in Ustengrav—she obviously wasn't as helpless as she looked. She might have been a master necromancer hoping to add Annika to her cache of corpses, or an assassin of the Dark Brotherhood with a contract to kill the Dragonborn. And yet, her eyes were warm, and her smile kind, and some instinct deep inside Annika told her that she could trust the woman.

    Nevertheless, she took her bow in hand as she made her descent.

    The basement was lined with racks of weapons ranging from sleek swords to hulking warhammers, an oddly reassuring sight; neither a necromancer nor an assassin would have need of such arms. Delphine lit the candleabrum hanging from the low ceiling. Beneath it, a wooden table held a map of Skyrim marked with bright red crosses, and a black book bearing the sigil of the Empire.

    "So, the Greybeards think you're Dragonborn," Delphine said, setting her candlestick down beside the map. "I hope they're right."

    "Why?" Annika asked. "Why are you looking for a Dragonborn?"

    "Because I remember what most don't—that the Dragonborn is the ultimate dragonslayer. The only one who can truly kill a dragon, by devouring its soul." She leaned over the table, her eyes wide and alight with the flames that glowed above her. "Can you do it? Can you steal a dragon's soul?"

    "That's how I discovered I was Dragonborn. A dragon attacked Whiterun a fortnight ago, and I helped bring it down. But it was my arrow that killed it, not my taking its soul," she confessed. "Anyone could have done it."

    Delphine sighed and shook her head. "These are the first dragons Skyrim has seen since the Merethic Era. Haven't you wondered where they've been all these millennia?"

    Annika raised an eyebrow. "You mean to tell me that you know?"

    "They were dead," Delphine proclaimed. "Not in exile. Not in hibernation. They were dead and buried, but they had been killed with arrows and swords, with fire and ice—deaths which aren't forever, not for dragons. Their graves now lay empty. They aren't just coming back; they're coming back to life."

    A long and still silence passed between them as Annika let this revelation take root in her mind. Once upon a time, she might have thought the woman's words absurd. But this was no longer the world she had grown up in. This was a world where myths and legends had become reality, where ancient beasts soared the skies, where she was a hero of prophecy who could steal souls and speak with the voices of demons. After all of that, nothing seemed impossible.

    "All right," she finally said. "What do we do about it?"

    "First we need to figure out how it's happening, and who's behind it."

    "Who's behind it?" Annika echoed. "You think there's someone out there, resurrecting these dragons?"

    "How else would they be coming back to life?"

    She thought of what Ulfric had told the people of Windhelm, that Talos himself had sent the dragon into Mundus to save the rebellion from annihilation, and doubted that Delphine would put any more faith into the theory than she had herself. But she did believe what Ulfric had told her and her alone, on that cold and quiet morning in the temple, about the prophecy and the parts they played in it. She believed it because he believed it.

    "Couldn't it be something, instead of someone?" she suggested. "A certain... chain of events could have triggered it, for instance."

    Delphine's eyes narrowed. "What do you know that you're not telling me?"

    Annika looked down at the table, at the black book embossed with a silver dragon that seemed to writhe in the flicker of the candles above. "Have you ever heard the Song of the Dragonborn?"

    "I have. What of it?"

    "It speaks of an ancient dragon that would be unleashed when brothers waged war."

    Delphine's features softened with understanding. "The Greybeards told you this?"

    "No, I knew of the song before I went to High Hrothgar. The Greybeards wouldn't say much on the matter when I asked them about it."

    "And neither will I. The Song of the Dragonborn is not the only prophecy that connects a war with the return of the dragons." She slid the book across the table to Annika. "There's another in there, if you care to read it. And another is said to have been carved on some lost wall by the ancient Akaviri. But all these prophecies claim is that the two events would coincide—not that one would cause the other."

    Annika couldn't help but smile. Ulfric would be pleased to hear this idea, that he was not to blame for any of it.

    "But then... what is bringing the dragons back?"

    "That's what I'm hoping to find out."

    "How?"

    Delphine nodded down at the map. "This shows every dragon burial site across Skyrim," she said. "I've canvassed about half of them since the attack on Helgen, and found four empty—two in the Rift and two in Eastmarch. Just this morning I received word that two more in Eastmarch have become nothing more than gaping holes in the earth. There's an obvious pattern, and I believe I know which one is next. If we get there in time, we can see how the dragon is resurrected."

    A shudder ran through Annika. Witnessing a dragon crumble into ash had been disturbing enough; she had little desire to see life breathed back into one.

    "And if we don't?"

    "Then we'll see a dragon," Delphine answered with a shrug. "And you'll have a chance to prove that you're Dragonborn. Once you do, I'll tell you everything I know."

    "Can't I just Shout for you?"

    She laughed, but it was cold. "Ulfric Stormcloak can Shout, but he's no Dragonborn."

    Hearing his name spoken with such derision was a slap in the face. Annika's spine stiffened, and she lifted her chin to stare down at the other woman with an unmistakable look of warning.

    "Do not speak ill of my Jarl to me."

    "Your Jarl? You're from Windhelm?"

    "Kynesgrove."

    The smirk melted from Delphine's face, and her eyes went wide and blinking. "Kynesgrove? But that's—" She pulled the map towards her and jabbed a finger at one of the red marks. "That's where the next resurrection should be."

    It seemed as though all the warmth had left the room.

    Annika was not sure what troubled her more: the thought of a dragon attacking the village she once called home, or the thought of stepping foot in that village for the first time since it had taken everything from her. She had always known that she would see it again, someday, but the thought of seeing it consumed by a dragon's flaming breath was almost too much to bear.

    But that did not have to happen. She could stop it. She had killed one dragon; there was no reason why she couldn't do it again. She could claim this one's soul for her own, and with it, she could unlock the unknown power of Tiid, or Feim, which she had found buried in Ustengrav, crackling on a wall the same as the others. It was, after all, what the Greybeards would have her do—earn her right to wield the Voice.

    And what other choice did she have? If she was meant to destroy Alduin, she would have to find him first. And if the Greybeards would not help her in this, she needed someone who would—someone like this innkeeper who was not an innkeeper. She did not know who this woman was, or how she fit into the puzzle that this was all becoming, but her motives seemed to align with her own. That would have to be enough, for now.

    Annika gave her a firm nod.

    "To Kynesgrove, then," she said. "Let's go slay us a dragon."

    * * * * *​

    The moons were high and bright by the time they reached the road into Kynesgrove. Their horses bucked and whinnied at the threshhold of the village, perhaps sensing a dragon nearby... or maybe it was only Annika's apprehension, spilling over onto the mares. Some deep and visceral part of her knew that this was wrong, that she should not be there, that she should turn back before it was too late. But it was already too late.

    Everywhere she looked, she saw a memory. There was the tree she'd climbed and fallen from during her seventh summer, suffering a sprained ankle that kept her in bed for weeks. There was the house of the boy who had wanted to court her when she was sixteen, but whom she had turned down, for a certain Jarl had given her a high set of standards with which she would judge all the men in her life, and the boy had fallen miserably short. And there were the mines that had killed her father, so long ago she could not recall his face, though she did remember how quiet and sullen her mother had grown every time they passed the smelter.

    And yet, even in all its familiarity, there was something off about Kynesgrove, something she could not quite put her finger on. There were some noticeable differences, like the veneer of shabbiness and neglect that covered everything. The inn looked as though it might fall apart in a strong wind, and the grove that the village had been built up around and named for was a shadow of its former self, half of its trees reduced to rotting stumps. But they were still the same inn and the same grove she had seen every day of her youth. Why, then, did they seem so foreign?

    It took her a minute to realize that it wasn't Kynesgrove that had changed. It was her.

    "Do you know where the burial mound is?" Delphine asked.

    Annika pointed to the hill that flanked the village's east side. "Up there."

    They left their horses tethered at the inn, and with bated breath headed up the path that would take them to the top of the hill, and whatever waited for them there. But they found the grave intact. There were no dragons soaring overhead, nor any other sign that a resurrection was about to take place.

    Annika knelt at the edge of the massive mound and skimmed a hand over the dirt. She had grown up hearing the same lectures that all Kynesgrove children did, to stay away from the grave, lest her soul become corrupted by the ancient evil buried there. Of course, such threats only made her more wont to creep up that hill, hoping to spy the demon she was supposed to be afraid of, to prove that she wasn't afraid of anything. She had to laugh, now, at the irony of it all.

    "Looks like we're early," Delphine said, circling the mound.

    "So, what do we do now?"

    "We wait."

    Annika sighed, casting wistful eyes north to the distant glow of Windhelm. "For how long?"

    "If the pattern holds, it should happen tonight," Delphine replied. "Let's ask around at the inn in the meantime; if anything strange has been happening up here, surely the innkeeper will have heard tell of it."

    Annika followed her back down the hill, but at the bottom of it, turned right instead of left.

    "I'll catch up with you," she said. "There's... another grave I need to visit."

    Delphine asked no questions, only nodded. Annika waited until she disappeared into the inn, and then, with a deep and shaking breath, set off down the road that would take her home.

    It was one she had walked almost every day for years, one that had seemed so long after a tiresome day of hunting or trading, when she wanted nothing more than the warmth of her hearth and the comfort of her bed. Now that she dreaded turning that last bend, it came much sooner than she remembered, and all of a sudden, there it was. The house she had been born in. The house they had died in.

    She'd both hoped and feared that it had been torn down, but whether out of respect for the dead or a simple lack of gold to waste on such things, the husk of the house still stood. What was left of its walls were black and crumbling, the stones covered in soot and the surviving wooden beams charred but still intact. There was no roof to speak of; the thatch had been the first to burn.

    Annika took a tremulous step towards the house. The air seemed colder around it, and the myriad sounds of the woods fell quiet against the memory of crackling flame, her sister's weeping, her own cries for help. The small patch of garden on the house's western side had grown choked with weeds and pebbles, the only stones that marked the graves she had dug herself.

    She went to her knees and laid her hands on the soil. Their remains lay deep below, but what had become of their souls? Not for the first time, she wondered if they had risen to Sovngarde, if such a realm would take the souls of a humble mother and an innocent child, if neither had ever wielded sword nor shield, if neither had ever had the chance to prove their valor. Since that terrible day, Annika had comforted herself with the hope of meeting them again in Sovngarde. Now, she could not even cling to that. Now, it was her soul she could not be sure of.

    A rumble spread through the village. Annika felt it before she heard it, a slight ripple in the wind, a soft shudder of the earth. And then the roar echoed across the sky.

    She ran for the inn.

    Delphine burst through its doors as Annika rounded the bend.

    "Hurry!" she cried. "It's happening!"

    They hastened up the hill, breathless by the time they reached the top, and crouched close behind a boulder big enough to hide them from whoever had come to work dark magic on the grave. But it was as they had left it. They were alone on the hill.

    Annika looked to the skies. Her eyes swung back and forth across the stars, but that was all she saw... until she noticed a patch of darkness where the stars were blotted out, but for two, glowing brighter than the rest. In half a heartbeat, she knew they were not stars at all.

    A gust of wind lifted loose tendrils of hair from around her face as the dragon's wings beat the air. It was no more than a shadow shifting across the sky, until it swooped in close enough for Annika to see the moonlight glinting off obsidian scales, the curls of smoke seeping from its nostrils.

    Delphine let out a faint gasp when she finally caught sight of the beast.

    "We missed it!"

    "No, we didn't."

    This dragon was not newly resurrected. The sinewy wings, the curved talons, the thorned hide that seemed carved from stone, and those eyes, those burning red eyes... Annika had seen them all before, and not only in her nightmares.

    It circled the hill once more before coming to a hover before the burial mound.

    And then it spoke.

    "Sahloknir! Ziil gro dovah ulse! Slen tiid vo!"

    The last of its words thundered like others Annika had heard, from her own mouth as surely as from the mouths of dragons. An echoing crack followed, and the hard earth of the burial mound fissured and crumbled like spring soil under the bloom of planted seeds. But instead of flowers, a skeleton burst from the ground, stretching and swelling and unfolding itself from centuries of sleep. Annika heard a heartbeat, though the thing lacked a heart; she heard it take a rasping breath, though it lacked lungs to do so. The bones themselves were alive, and crawled like an infant to that which had given it life.

    "Alduin, thuri!"

    "Sahloknir," Alduin returned, "kaali mir."

    A fiery light enveloped the skeleton, illuminating the ashes that had suddenly appeared around it, borne from the air itself. The skeleton seemed to drink them in, and they turned to flakes of skin and scale as they covered the bones. In mere moments, the patchwork of flesh was complete, and it was no longer a skeleton, but a dragon.

    "Ful, losei Dovahkiin?"

    Annika's breath caught in her throat at the sound of a word she knew, a word she had heard before, thundering down from the Throat of the World to knock dust from the rafters in the Palace of the Kings.

    Dovahkiin.

    Dragonborn.

    She looked up slowly, and her eyes locked with Alduin's.

    "Zu'u koraav nid nol dov do hi." It gave a cold laugh. "You do not even know our tongue, do you? Such arrogance, to dare take for yourself the name of dovah."

    Annika rose from her crouch and stepped out from behind the rock; she should have known, after Helgen, that there was no use in hiding from this beast, who could smell her, or hear her, or perhaps sense the truth of her soul in some other way. She shook from head to toe, not in fear, but in anger. This monster had stalked her through the blazing ruins of a village it destroyed for the chance of destroying her with it, and now it was here, in Kynesgrove, a stone's throw from the very spot she had been born, raising another of its like to raze another village, to kill more innocent people in the name of striking her down. And it was calling her arrogant?

    "I take nothing for myself," Annika proclaimed. "It is a name others have given me, with the hope and trust that I will deliver them from your evil." She pulled an arrow from her quiver. "And I will."

    She notched and drew, and Delphine appeared at her side, her sword ready and her lips pulled into an angry snarl. But Alduin only laughed again, if it could be called that; it was a mirthless sound, dark and cruel. The dragon's eyes gleamed with what Annika thought was amusement.

    "Sahloknir," it purred, "krii daar joorre."

    Both dragons took to the sky, their wings whipping the wind into a frenzy. Alduin soared south, quickly out of reach of Annika's arrows, and disappeared into the night. The other, Sahloknir, circled the burial mound and dove to bathe its foes in fire. Annika and Delphine ducked behind the boulder once more, just escaping the shower of flames.

    "If you can bring it down with arrows," Delphine said, "I might have a chance of finishing it with my sword."

    Annika gave the woman's blade a doubtful glance. "Half a hundred swords couldn't finish the dragon in Whiterun."

    "Half a hundred swords in the hands of lazy city guards doesn't equal one in mine."

    The dragon swooped around the rock, so low to the ground that the tip of its wing nearly grazed Annika's cheek. She loosed an arrow and saw it sink into the soft underside of the joint where wing met shoulder. It gave a sharp roar of pain, but still it flew. A second arrow found the back of a leg, and a third missed and disappeared into a thicket of pines... pines whose full lower branches created a wide canopy over the shadowed ground below.

    Annika grabbed Delphine's arm to get her attention, and pointed to the trees. "Come on!"

    They ran across the dirt and the snow, but Sahloknir was quicker, and his fiery breath caught their backs before they made it under the cover of the pines. Annika's blue Stormcloak wrap took to flame as easily as the last one had; Delphine beat it out with gloved hands, but her own arms were covered in angry red blisters. Annika took a moment to heal both of their burns before they drove further into the cover of the wood.

    Sahloknir circled the hill three times. The trees blocked Annika's view as surely as they did the dragon's, and the darkness of night cloaked what little of the clearing she could see, but she heard its wings beating, and the grunts and snorts it gave as it grew more and more frustrated with its hidden prey.

    But the dragon was her prey, now.

    She had spent hours upon hours laying in wait for foxes and birds and deer, so still and silent that she might as well have been invisible. She knew that the best way to draw prey towards you was to trick it into thinking you weren't there at all. Of course, the dragon knew she was there, somewhere, but if it couldn't see her, if it couldn't reach her... it couldn't kill her.

    Just as Annika had anticipated, Sahloknir landed in the clearing. It crawled forward on awkward limbs not meant for walking, and poked its snout towards the trees, sniffing the air.

    Delphine raised her sword to strike, but Annika threw an arm out to stop her. The distance between them and the dragon was still too great, and its fire would reach them before Delphine reached it; nor could Annika chance loosing an arrow when all it might do was tell the beast where she was. Unlike Whiterun, there was no garrison of archers and warriors here to distract the dragon, and no high vantage point from which she could shoot it. And despite Delphine's insistance that her sword was worth more than half a hundred of Whiterun's, it wouldn't be worth anything unless she had the chance to run it through the dragon's head or heart for a swift kill.

    Annika would have to give her that chance. And all at once, she knew just how.

    She imagined the dragon in the courtyard at High Hrothgar, standing between the wrought iron doors of the massive gate she had missed countless times before gaining control over the direction and strength of her Thu'um. If she missed her mark now, she knew the mistake might be fatal. But with a dragon inching closer and closer, standing still could mean her death, too.

    And she wasn't ready to die just yet.

    Annika took a deep breath.

    "Wuld!"

    The world was a blur as she burst forward, past Delphine and the trees and the dragon's enormous snout, too fast for it to follow. In the split second after she came to a sudden standstill, she saw Sahloknir's eyes, wide with confusion and flaring with anger. It swiveled its head towards her, but its size made it slow, and it never got the chance to unleash its fury.

    Annika leapt onto the beast, digging a foot into its spiked hide and pushing herself up to straddle its neck. Sahloknir gave a furious roar and bucked, but she clenched her thighs tightly around its straining muscles, and wrapped both hands around one of its long horns. It reared again, trying to throw off the pest that clung to it. In a flash, Delphine darted out of the trees, ran beneath its jaw, and drove her sword into the soft white underside of its chin, burying it to the hilt. The tip punched through the top of the dragon's skull with a hot spray of blood that showered Annika's face.

    Another roar sputtered and died in Sahloknir's throat. It took two stumbling steps backward before collapsing into the snow.

    And then came the light, the glow from within the beast itself, the fire that did not burn Annika, but filled her with warmth and life and power. She soaked it in, feeling it stretch through each of her limbs, to the tip of every finger and every toe, down her spine and between her legs, feeding the horror that was her soul.

    She jumped down from the dragon's neck to watch its flesh dissolve back into the void. In moments, it was a skeleton once more.

    The night was still and quiet, as though nothing at all had happened. As though two mortals had not just defeated a mythical creature that had been asleep in death for millenia before the prophesied eater of worlds brought it back to life. Annika blinked and laughed and shook her head, not quite believing any of it herself, even with the proof of the beast's bones right there before her, even with the thing's blood still wet on her cheeks.

    Delphine, however, didn't seem to see anything but Annika. Moonlight glimmered in her wide eyes, her mouth an even bigger circle.

    "By the gods," she breathed. "You are Dragonborn."

    She went to her knees, and laid her bloodied sword at Annika's feet.

    Annika shifted uncomfortably, wiping her face with her gloves. "Get up, Delphine. I'm Dragonborn, not High Queen."

    "They're one and the same to the Blades. I am sworn to serve and protect you. And I will tell you all you want to know."

    Annika sighed, thinking of all the questions she could ask, now that they would be answered, and knew that she did not wish to ask them there on that cold and windy summit, watched by the dark and eerie sockets of a dead dragon's skull. Worse yet was the scent of scorched grass and burnt earth that lingered in the air, reminding her of the shell of the house at the bottom of the hill, and the fire that had blazed through it fourteen years before. All at once, she could not stand to be there.

    "We'll start with who, or what, the Blades are," she said to Delphine. "But first, let's go back down to the inn. I'm suddenly very thirsty."

    And so they began their descent. Annika stopped to look back at the skeleton for just a moment, and wondered what would become of it—if it would be left to rot as her home had been, if it would someday be the superstition that the parents of Kynesgrove warned their children away from. She wondered, too, if those parents would tell of the hero that had defeated it, the Dragonborn that had saved their village from ruin.

    She wondered if they would know that she had once lived in that very village. And if any of them would care why she had left.


    * * * * *

    The keep was dim and quiet. At such a late hour, Annika did not truly expect Ulfric to still be sitting his throne, but she was disappointed to find it empty nonetheless. She stood alone in the Great Hall, caught between the barracks and the kitchens, too tired to eat, but too hungry to sleep, and weak from the fever that would not break.

    Her choice was made when she heard voices drifting in from the war room.

    Ulfric looked up from his maps and scrolls at the sound of Annika's footsteps. Their eyes met, and the corners of his mouth twitched up for just a moment. All thoughts of sleep and food faded from her mind.

    "Dragonborn."

    A dozen other faces turned towards her. Galmar frowned at the disruption, and Jorleif raised a suspicious eyebrow, but Ralof's smile was broad and warm.

    "My Jarl," Annika replied with a small bow. "I don't mean to interrupt; I only wanted to let you know I've returned."

    "Please," Ulfric said, waving her in. He looked to his men. "We'll continue on the morrow."

    They took their leave without another word, though Annika could not miss the surly glare Galmar gave her on his way out. Once she and Ulfric were alone, the silence in the chamber was palpable. She did not know what to say or where to start, and was thankful when he spared her the trouble of deciding.

    He nodded to the gnarled old horn hanging from her belt. "The Horn of Jurgen Windcaller?"

    "You know it?"

    "The Greybeards had me fetch it, too." He gestured to a small round table nestled in the corner of the room, and she joined him there. "I take this to mean your training is going well?"

    Annika accepted the mug of mead he poured her from a pewter carafe, and thanked him for it. The first swallow made her empty stomach burn, but it gave her time to consider her answer. She did not think it wise to seem mistrustful of the Greybeards, or unappreciative of their help, so she merely said, "Yes, my lord."

    But Ulfric saw right through her. "You hesitated," he pointed out with a smirk. "Tell it true, Dragonborn."

    Annika flushed, contrite to be caught in her lie but relieved that she could now be honest with him. "I believe it is as you said," she told him. "The Greybeards want someone to carry on their order. They make me read all manner of history books, and send me to retrieve this useless horn, but they will say nothing of the prophecy, or of Alduin. They do not seem to care that dragons are attacking Skyrim, or that I may be the only one who can truly stop them." She sighed and shook her head. "They're only grooming me to be their successor in the Way of the Voice, aren't they?"

    Ulfric took a long swallow of his own mead before replying. "Their intentions matter far less than their actions. Yes, they may see you as nothing more as their successor, but they will teach you what you need to know all the same."

    "By the time they do, it may be too late."

    He laughed. "It has been a week. I was at High Hrothgar three years before they sent me to Ustengrav. Have patience, and faith. Now, why do you bring the horn to me, instead of the Greybeards?"

    Annika bit her lip. "I... got a little sidetracked."

    She told him all: the note she'd found in Ustengrav, the mysterious innkeeper in Riverwood who turned out to be one of the last surviving Blades, the burial mound in Kynesgrove, Alduin's resurrection of a long-dead dragon.

    "After we slew the dragon, and I took its soul, Delphine finally accepted that I was Dragonborn, and... she told me of her suspicions that the Thalmor are involved with the return of the dragons."

    "The Thalmor?" Ulfric frowned. "Why does she think that?"

    "You were about to be executed. The war was at an end. Then a dragon descends, you escape, and the war goes on. And who does the war benefit but the Aldmeri Dominion?" Annika shook her head and took another drink. "These are Delphine's words, of course."

    "She is right in some things. The war will weaken both the Empire and Skyrim," he admitted, "but not enough to give the elves any real advantage. And though the appearance of a dragon at that very moment could not have been a coincedence, it had nothing to do with the Thalmor. Alduin was there because you were there. I am sure of it."

    "I told Delphine as much, and she did agree that it was likely. But she brought up a good question: Alduin may be raising these dragons, but who raised Alduin?"

    He heaved a sigh. "I have been asking myself that same question. But how in Oblivion could the Thalmor have done it?"

    Annika shifted in her seat. "Delphine thinks there may be a way to find out."

    "Oh?"

    "There's to be a party at the Thalmor Embassy, in three weeks' time," she explained. "Delphine wants to use the opportunity to infiltrate the Embassy and look for evidence that connects the Thalmor to Alduin's return."

    Ulfric's eyes narrowed. "And she means to send you."

    "Yes, my lord," she replied, and heard a growl rumble behind his tight lips. "She would do it herself, but they'd know her before she could get a foot in the door."

    "Then she should hire a sellsword to do her dirty work."

    "She did consider it, but a sellsword's tongue is easily loosened by gold. I'm the only one she can trust." Annika gave him a tentative smile. "It seems the two of you have that in common."

    He softened a little, but still looked distraught. "Those elves won't hesitate to kill you should they find you sneaking around their Embassy," he warned her. "And that's if you're lucky. Their First Emissary, Elenwen... she might think death too lenient a punishment."

    "They won't find me," Annika replied, but her voice was small and uncertain. His words had sent a chill through her. "I know how to keep to the shadows, and how to make my footsteps silent. And remember, the Embassy will be playing host to Skyrim's rich and prominent; the guards will be distracted, and there will be no lack of excuses if I do get caught somewhere I shouldn't be."

    Ulfric didn't seem convinced, but in truth, neither was Annika. She knew she could get in and out of the Embassy without coming to harm, but that didn't mean she didn't dread the possibility of ending up in shackles once more. She would be no help to Ulfric or his cause if she was thrown into the Thalmor's dungeons.

    But she couldn't hope to defeat Alduin if she didn't know the full scope of the threat she faced. If the Thalmor were indeed pulling the dragon's strings, then it was the Thalmor she would have to slay, not Alduin. Part of her hoped to find nothing of significance hidden within the Embassy; if the full strength of the Empire couldn't bring the Aldmeri Dominion down, her efforts would seem as a fly's against a herd of mammoths. It would be much simpler if all she had to worry about were dragons.

    After a long moment's silence, Ulfric turned to her again. His worry was still written all over his face, and it made her tremble with a different kind of chill.

    "Are you sure this is necessary?"

    "No," Annika admitted. "I'm not convinced that the Thalmor have a hand in any of this. But this may be the only chance we get to find out."

    He nodded slowly. "All right. Do what you must, Dragonborn. But be careful."

    "I will, my lord."

    He drained the last of his mead, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Will you be here long before returning to the Greybeards? That is, if you'll be returning at all."

    Annika chuckled. "I will, but perhaps not for a few days. I took ill at High Hrothgar, and my fever lingers."

    "I thought you looked pale. Have Wuunferth brew you a potion if you still feel unwell in the morning; I've never had an illness he wasn't able to relieve. And," he added, "I suppose I'll have to relieve Kynesgrove of a certain carcass."

    "A certain skeleton," Annika corrected. "The flesh, it... melts away when I take the dragon's soul."

    "Truly?" His eyes lit up with intrigue. "I should like to see that someday."

    The thought of slaying a dragon with Ulfric Stormcloak took her breath away. She looked down to her lap, and let her hair fall to curtain her face in hopes that it would hide her reddening cheeks.

    "Perhaps you will, my lord."

    Annika heard the trickle of mead into a mug, and declined when Ulfric offered her more; the little she'd already drunk had been enough to make her head swim. She would have loved to stay right there, talking and drinking with him all night long, but she was likely to nod off at the table. She longed for her bed, and her pillow, and the dreamless sleep she was sure she'd have now that the uneasiness of High Hrothgar lay behind her, if only for a little while. Even in that damp and mildewed inn in Morthal, the nightmares had plagued her. But she was home now, and knowing that Ulfric was near would be the sweetest lullaby.

    Still, it was difficult to push herself out of her chair.

    "It's growing quite late," she said. "I'll take my leave so you can get back to whatever matters I interrupted."

    But Ulfric was lost in thought once more, and didn't seem to have heard her.

    "Kynesgrove," he suddenly said. "You are from Kynesgrove, are you not?"

    "Yes, my lord."

    "I thought so. Why did you leave?"

    Annika sat back down, the lure of her bed forgotten. She'd always known the question would come up eventually, but she was not prepared for it tonight. She was quiet for a long moment before answering.

    "Because I had nothing left to stay for."

    Ulfric set his mug down. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to pry. If it's too personal..."

    "No." She shook her head and gave him a warm, albeit tremulous, smile. "I don't mind."

    There were two secrets that she had always kept close to her heart, two secrets she had never told another living soul. Ulfric knew one, for he had asked her to keep it, two decades ago. And now he would know the other.

    "The summer I was seventeen," she began, "I returned to the village one evening to see a pillar of smoke rising over the hills and the trees. Deep down in my bones, I knew whence it came. I prayed to every last Divine that I was wrong. But I wasn't."

    It hurt to speak these words out loud, words she had long buried in the bottomless pit of her memory... but at the same time, every syllable seemed to wash away a bit of the darkness that had shrouded her heart since that day. For years after, she wouldn't tell anyone what had happened, hoping that if nobody else knew, it would seem as though it had not happened at all, as though it was just a terrible dream that she would someday forget. It had never seemed any less real, and she had never come close to forgetting. But she'd never stopped trying, even after admitting to herself that it was useless.

    "The first thing I saw was my sister, crawling out of our burning home, black with soot and red with blood. Anya was screaming and sobbing, but she calmed when I took her in my arms. She told me how she and our mother had come home to find bandits prowling the house, stuffing anything of even the littlest value into sacks. My mother grabbed Anya's hand and tried to run, but the bandits caught her, and drove a dagger into her heart."

    She heard Ulfric draw a sharp breath, a million miles away.

    "They argued over what to do with my sister," Annika continued, hardly hearing her own haunted voice. "She was thirteen, then, and small for her age, and she looked such a child with her big round eyes and her two long braids. One of the bandits didn't want to kill a little girl, but the other two insisted that they had to, lest she run to the guards and they ended up with their own heads on the block. But when one of them went for Anya... two great waves of flame exploded out of her palms."

    "By the gods," Ulfric breathed. "She was a pyromancer?"

    "None of us had known. Not even Anya herself. She begged me to believe her, that it had just happened, that she didn't mean to do it, that she couldn't control it. Of course, I believed her. This was the girl who had wept the one and only time I brought her hunting with me, because she couldn't stand to see a rabbit die. Anya would never have hurt a fly." Her voice, not much more than a whisper, hitched in her throat. "And yet, she'd burned the skin right off this man's face. He fell upon her in a rage, screaming and slashing with his dagger. The blade caught her in the stomach, and the fire burst from her hands again, and suddenly the man was dead, and the others were gone, and the roof was on fire, and then the walls were, too. Anya went to my mother and shook her and shouted in her ear, but she wouldn't wake up. So she crawled around the flames and through the smoke, and somehow made it outside, and that's when I found her."

    Annika heard her sister's voice as surely as if she were there in the room, pleading with her to believe that she hadn't meant to kill anyone. Anya had seemed more frightened of her own hands than of the burning house, or the gash in her middle. That, perhaps, is what hurt the most. The fear in her sister's eyes, not of what had been done to her, but what she had done herself.

    "I screamed for help, but nobody came," Annika murmured. "Blood was pouring out of her, more blood than I'd ever seen in my life. I knew I couldn't save her. So I held her, and rocked her, and told her how much I loved her, and that I'd see her someday in Sovngarde. And then she was gone."

    A deep silence fell between them. Annika heard the beat of a heart, but she wasn't sure whether it was hers or Ulfric's. Finally, he sighed, so long and so heavy it sounded as though he was breaking apart.

    "I remember that fire," he said. "I remember seeing the smoke from the castle windows. I sent a contingent to help, but by the time they got there, the fire had already burned itself out. One of them told me, later, that three bodies had been found—a man, a woman, and a child. I'd believed them to be a family who had perished together in a terrible accident." When he looked up at her, his face reflected her own pain. "I am so very sorry."

    "You're not to blame."

    "Everything that happens in my hold is, in the end, my responsibility. If there had been more guards stationed in Kynesgrove, if these criminals had already been locked away in the dungeons..."

    "If I had gotten there half an hour earlier," Annika returned. "If I had spent less time haggling at the market. If the tern had been enough, and I hadn't gone chasing after that squirrel, too." She smiled, but it was full of sadness. "I've thought of a thousand ifs over the years, my lord. None of them will change what happened, so none of them are worth dwelling on."

    "But a Jarl's duty is to protect his people," he insisted. "And look at what has befallen mine—the Grey Quarter is falling apart, beggars and orphans roam the streets, innocent children are murdered by bandits." Ulfric hung his head low, his eyes dark with the same sorrow she had seen in the temple on the morning she'd left Windhelm. "I wish I could help everyone."

    Annika's breath caught in her throat, remembering those same words spoken by this same man, twenty years before. "I know you do."

    "Thank you for sharing your story with me," he said. "It is good to know that you trust me as I trust you."

    "Of course, my lord. Thank you for letting me tell it."

    Now that she had, now that the door to that darkest of chambers of her heart was finally opened, it seemed she could breathe easier than she had since watching her sister die in her arms. Ulfric may not have been there that day to give her comfort, but his knowing, now, his sharing the weight of her pain, gave her more peace than she could have imagined possible. And she never could have imagined letting any other but Ulfric into her heart to help heal it.

    He rose from his chair, and Annika was quick to do the same. He towered over her at his full height, and even this late, even in the safety of his castle, he wore his mail, his leather pauldrons, his fur cloak. He looked a giant amongst men. But she was beginning to see that he wore guilt, regret, and sadness, too, just as she did. When these things creased his brow and dimmed the light in his eyes, he seemed smaller, and he wasn't a king, or a Jarl, or a soldier, or a rebel, or a hero. He was just a man. And she loved him even more for it. And she hoped that, someday, he might let her into the dark chambers of his own heart, and she might be able to give him comfort, too.

    "You were right, Dragonborn," Ulfric said, scrubbing both hands over the whiskers on his cheeks. "It is growing quite late. Forgive me for keeping you overlong; I can see how weary you are."

    "There is nothing to forgive, my lord."

    "A good night's sleep might help that fever of yours."

    Annika nodded. "I hope so."

    She bowed her head and made to leave, but the sound of Ulfric's voice pulled her back.

    "We have more in common than I would have thought," he mused, voicing just what she'd been thinking. "Perhaps I'll tell you a story of my own, soon."

    Annika smiled, and was warmed through when he returned it.

    "I would be honored to hear it, my lord."

    And with that, she left him to his maps and his scrolls, and to his thoughts, thoughts she dared to hope might be of her. Leaving was easier, this time, than it had been before, for even as she walked away, she knew they grew ever closer.


    * * * * *​


    As she had hoped, a long and dreamless sleep did much to ease Annika's troubled mind and spirit. But it did nothing for the fever that had her both sweating and shivering when she awoke, nor did a soak in the bathhouse or a breakfast of hot porridge and buttered bread. And so she found herself in Wuunferth's study against her better judgement, begging help from a man who was not known for being charitable.

    "I cast every healing spell I know, to no avail," she told the mage. "The fever won't break."

    "Healing spells are meant to heal injuries, not cure illnesses, you witless girl," Wuunferth railed. "Haven't I taught you anything?"

    Annika gritted her teeth. "Not that, obviously."

    He raised a hand to her forehead, and she flinched at the touch of his wrinkled palm, but did not pull away. After a moment, he nodded, muttered a few wordless syllables to himself, and shuffled to the cluttered shelves that lined the chamber. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of vials and bottles, pouches and chests, none of which were labeled or organized in any apparent pattern, and yet Wuunferth plucked containers from the wall with barely a glance at what they held.

    "Frost salts," he declared the first vial, its glass iced from within. "Mandrake root. Lavender. Chaurus—" His eyes went wide and his hollow cheeks trembled as he snatched a faintly glowing jar from the shelf. "Confound it!"

    "What's wrong?"

    "It's happened again!" Wuunferth thrust the jar at Annika's face, stopping mere inches from her nose. "I had a sellsword harvest a full score from Stillborn Cave just days ago! Does this look like a full score to you?"

    Clusters of jellied eggs filled half the container, clinging to the inside of the glass and giving off an eerie shimmer. Chaurus eggs. Suddenly it all made sense, and Annika gave a weary sigh.

    "Perhaps you miscounted, Wuunferth."

    "I never miscount," he insisted. "And I didn't simply lose the last jar, either. Someone is stealing them, I tell you!"

    "Take it up with the Jarl, then. Shouting at me isn't going to catch your thief, nor will it cure my fever."

    He sniffed and grunted, but thankfully said nothing more of the missing chaurus eggs as he brewed her potion.

    Annika watched the mage toss a pinch of this and a dash of that into a bowl, measuring only with his eyes and fingers. His mastery of the art astounded her. She had never been able to make sense of alchemy; there were too many rules and too many ways a potion could go wrong, and she had found a good number of them as a girl, when her mother tried to teach her what she knew of the trade. Of course, her mother had only what common herbs she could grow in their little patch of garden, or in clay pots on the windowsills; they would never have been able to afford the rarities that Wuunferth had at his disposal.

    She drifted to one of the small and murky windows set deep in the study's eastern wall, and looked past the courtyard of the castle that had been home to kings, past the city walls built by Ysgramor and his Five Hundred. She couldn't quite see Kynesgrove in the distance, but she knew it was there, the tiny village of miners and loggers, and wives whose lives were spent whelping children. She wondered what her mother would say to see her now, in the Palace of the Kings, having a potion of fresh chaurus eggs and imported mandrake root brewed for her by the court mage, at the behest of the Jarl himself.

    Below, a pair of soldiers passed beneath the high arch of the courtyard, and hurried over patches of melting snow and ice. Annika recognized them as Ralof's friends, Tormund and Mors, men she'd shared mead and broken bread with at Candlehearth Hall. They had been sent to garrison the rebellion's Whiterun camp before she'd left for High Hrothgar. Had they been recalled so soon? The urgency of their stride and the determination in their hardened features hinted otherwise. Something was wrong.

    "Here's your potion," Wuunferth grumbled. "Take it slowly, and—"

    The concotion was scalding its way down Annika's throat before he could finish. She slammed the cup down on the alchemy table with a wince.

    "Thank you, Wuunferth."

    Leaving the mage to rant about her foolish insolence, Annika fled the study and hastened through the dim and stony corridors of the keep's western wing. When she emerged into the Great Hall, the soldiers were already in audience with Ulfric. She knew at once that the news they'd brought had not pleased the Jarl.

    "How did they get in?" Ulfric demanded. "Our last reports claimed Balgruuf was still denying the Thalmor admittance to Whiterun."

    "By decree of the Emperor," Tormund answered. "The guards had no choice but to let them pass, or be put under arrest."

    "And how many people were put under arrest?"

    The men shared a look. "Sixteen. And one executed."

    The Great Hall fell utterly silent. Ulfric leaned forward in his throne. Even across the chamber, Annika could see the muscles in his neck and jaw tightening and pulsing.

    "Who?"

    "A priest of Talos, my lord, by the name of Heimskr," Mors said. "He preached daily before the shrine of Talos in the city's Wind District. The justiciars went to his home to place him under arrest, but he resisted, and cursed them and their kind in the name of Talos. After some struggle, the justiciars dragged him bodily to the Wind District, and put him to the sword in front of the shrine."

    Ulfric's face twisted into a storm of rage.

    Annika remembered the priest, charging her and Ralof to embrace the word of Talos as they passed the square on their way to Dragonsreach. Ralof had told her that the man's head might have rolled if he'd tried preaching in Solitude or Markarth, but Whiterun was neutral territory, and so he would not be prosecuted. Instead, he was killed. It seemed that neutral territory offered as much protection as a paper shield.

    "Balgruuf did nothing to stop this?"

    "The Jarl came to the square too late, my lord," Tormund replied. "When he saw what had happened, he ordered the Thalmor agents to leave the city at once, but they presented the Emperor's decree, and warned him that he himself would be arrested under charges of treason if he impeded their investigation in any way. He then consented to the investigation, but demanded that no further executions be performed within city walls. Whether the justiciars heeded this demand or were simply not given cause to put anyone else to the sword, we don't know, but no more blood was spilled either way."

    Ulfric drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. "Did any elves remain in Whiterun after the raid?"

    "No, my lord. Six entered the city, and six left the city."

    "And you are certain of all of this?"

    "We are. Olfina Gray-Mane rode to our base herself with the news. As you know, my lord, Clan Gray-Mane has been our most reliable source within Whiterun since the start of the war. We have no reason to mistrust her tidings. Furthermore, one of our scouts saw the Thalmor entourage heading west with three carts of prisoners at the hour of the wolf."

    Ulfric nodded. "Thank you for your report. You have done well. Eat and rest, but I will need you back in Whiterun by day's end."

    Tormund and Mors gave a brief bow before leaving the Great Hall.

    Ulfric rose from his throne and gestured towards the war room. "All in command, with me." Annika took this to mean Galmar, Alvis, Ralof, and Erik, the only officers and lieutenants present to hear the report, but at the threshhold of the war room, he looked back and nodded at her. "And you, Dragonborn."

    Her heart leapt. She didn't think he'd even seen her there, amongst the guards and soldiers who'd lingered to hear the news from Whiterun. She hurried down the length of the Great Hall and followed the others into the adjacent chamber, where Galmar stood red-faced and indignant before the Jarl.

    "Why should she be privy to our war councils?" he hissed. "She isn't an officer or a lieutenant. She's barely even a soldier!"

    "She is the Dragonborn," Ulfric said, his tone plainly warning Galmar not to press the matter further.

    Annika edged into the room, avoiding Galmar's eyes. Ulfric took up his usual place on the far end of the table, while the other men gathered opposite. Annika thought it best to stay apart from those in command, so as not to appear too presumptuous and rile Galmar's temper any further; she stood off to the side, hovering near the chair that had been hers the night before.

    Ulfric stared down at the map on the table, at the tiny blue and red flags that delineated support for Stormcloaks or for Imperials throughout each hold.

    "The time has come to take Whiterun," he announced. "If the Emperor could force Thalmor into the city once, he can and will do it again, and having found the Jarl so lax in enforcing the terms of the White-Gold Concordat, my guess is it will happen soon. Unless, of course, the raid frightened Balgruuf enough to declare for the Empire, in which case an Imperial contingent will be sent in from Cyrodiil in a matter of days. Either way, if we lose Whiterun, we lose the war." He jabbed a finger at the city's spot on the map, the only area unmarked by neither blue nor red. "We must have the city before the week is out."

    Galmar gave a grunt of approval. "I can have my men ready to storm the gates by tomorrow night."

    "Have them muster in the Pale and prepare to attack from the north. I'll send word to the Rift and have Gonnar move his men to Ivarstead to ready an attack from the south. But do not advance on Whiterun," Ulfric commanded with a strong and firm voice. "Not yet."

    The second-in-command was not so pleased by this order, and threw his arms up. "And why not?" he growled. "The time is ripe, Ulfric, you said it yourself!"

    "It is... but if we can win Balgruuf's allegiance without bloodshed, all the better. Tullius's ploy might have backfired, doing more to sway Balgruuf to our side than to scare him into compliance. He must see, now, that we cannot abide the presence of the Empire or their Thalmor puppeteers in our lands." Ulfric's hand went to the axe on his belt, and he stroked it with the tenderness and love of a man for his wife. He withdrew it from its holster and laid it across the map. "I have appealed to Balgruuf thrice with words, but words are wind, and men who understand each other often have no need of them. This time, I give him my axe."

    The axe bore a curious resemblance to its owner. It was old, its head chipped from battles past, but its blade diligently kept sharp and deadly; there was a certain barbaric vulgarity to its roughly hewn edges, yet the leather that hugged the haft looked supple and smooth. It was nothing at all like the one Balgruuf had put into Annika's hands a fortnight past, ostentatious with its ornate carvings and immaculate gleam. But that axe's purpose had been much the same as this one's.

    Annika took a tentative step forward.

    "My lord, if I may?"

    All eyes turned to her, and Ulfric nodded. "Of course."

    "Before I came to Windhelm," she began, "I helped slay a dragon in Whiterun. Jarl Balgruuf's housecarl and half a hundred of his guards saw me take in the dragon's soul, and the whole city heard the Greybeards' summons. And in the morning, the Jarl presented me with an axe of his own, and the offer of a thaneship within his hold." She hesitated, uncomfortable to speak ill of one Jarl to another, but she knew she must. "I believe he only did so in interest to ally himself with the Dragonborn. He was not pleased when I turned down the thaneship, but... it may be that he still holds that interest."

    Ulfric grasped her meaning at once. "You wish to take my axe to Balgruuf."

    "That the Dragonborn has sworn fealty to you may be an added incentive for him to do the same."

    "Or," Galmar cut in, "he may take it as an insult, that we send your axe with an envoy who threw his own back in his face!"

    The chamber was quiet as Ulfric considered both sides of the coin, his eyes darting back and forth across the flagged map, his fingers rubbing the whiskers of his chin.

    "By all our legends and traditions," he mused, "the Dragonborn is a figure of honor and integrity. The Dragonborn is a hero, a shield that guards the realms of men, whether the threat is dragons... or elves." He looked once more to Annika, and pride shone in his eyes, in his smile. "That is what he will see when he sees you."

    Ulfric closed the distance between them and put his axe into Annika's trembling hands. He unfastened the belt that held its holster, and gave her that as well. She was suddenly very hot, as though she was clad in flames instead of a cotton tunic and woolen breeches, and yet, when his gaze met hers, she felt so open and so vulnerable she might have been wearing nothing at all.

    "You will need to leave at once," he told her. "If Balgruuf accepts the axe and our terms, have a rider from the Whiterun camp bring word to Windhelm. If he refuses, send one rider to Windhelm, and one each to our contingents in the Pale and the Rift, to mount the attack."

    "Yes, my lord."

    "Leave your armor behind at the camp. Wear plain clothes, and carry no arms but the axe; it is not so different from what a farmer might carry. The Thalmor have eyes within the city, that is a given now. It would not do for them to hear of an archer in Eastmarch blue parading up to Dragonsreach to see the Jarl."

    Annika stilled, thinking of her last sojourn to Whiterun. She'd been wrapped in the Eastmarch blue she had taken from a fallen soldier, with Ralof beside her, wearing the same. They would be safe in Whiterun, he'd promised her. But he had said the same of Heimskr.

    Ralof appeared at her arm, then, as though he'd heard her thoughts. His face was so rigid and tense that, at first glance, she did not recognize the man who always had a smile for her. And then she remembered: Ysolda. She hoped, for Ralof's sake, that she hadn't been one of the sixteen prisoners carted off by the Thalmor.

    "Jarl Ulfric," he said, his voice just as strained as the rest of him, "may I have your leave to accompany Annika to Whiterun as her shield brother?"

    Ulfric's hesitation lasted for only a heartbeat. One less attuned to his every breath would have missed it, but it did not escape Annika's notice.

    "You may."

    Ralof gave a firm nod. "Thank you for the honor, my lord."

    "We haven't the time to draw up new terms for a treaty. Jorleif," Ulfric called, and the steward seemed to melt from the very shadows. Annika had not even seen him come into the room. "Meet the Dragonborn at the stables with a copy of the last proposal we sent to Balgruuf. It will have to serve."

    "At once, my lord."

    Ulfric turned again to Annika and Ralof. He took a deep breath, and pulled his shoulders back. "Now, go," he said. "Ride swiftly, and be careful. Talos guide you."

    They bowed to their Jarl before taking their leave.

    Neither Annika nor Ralof spoke as they hurried through the city and over the great stone bridge to the stables. His thoughts were with Ysolda, Annika was sure, but her own lingered on the axe that hung at her hip, brushing her thigh with every step. So much hinged on that axe. So much hinged on her. If she succeeded, she would be giving Ulfric Whiterun, the most integral seat in Skyrim. She would be bringing him that much closer to the crown and the throne that were rightfully his.

    But if she failed...

    She would not fail. She could not fail.

    A month ago, she had been living a peaceful life in the lush green forests of Valenwood, and she would've been content to spend the rest of her days amongst the serenity and safety of the trees she had come to think of as her home. But then word of a civil war in Skyrim, of a rebellion led by Ulfric Stormcloak, had reached her ears, and changed everything.

    Since then, she had been captured and beaten by Imperial legionnaires. She had laid her head down on a block that had just seen another's sliced off. She'd been singed by a dragon's fire. She'd knelt in bloodstained snow to steal gold from a corpse who had, moments before, tried to kill her. She had lost count of the number of times she'd felt death's rattling breath on the back of her neck.

    Annika had known from the start that hers would be a treacherous crusade. She'd known that fighting in this war could likely mean dying in it. She had come to fight it anyway. She had come to see Ulfric take Skyrim's throne.

    And she would see it done, no matter the cost.


    * * * * *​


    The Whiterun they walked into was not the same one they had left two weeks before.

    The streets were empty and silent, the only movement coming from the swirls and drifts of dirt kicked by up an errant breeze. The forge at Warmaiden's was cold, and the shutters in the windows of the Drunken Huntsman were shut. Half of the stalls in the open market were closed; the ones that were open for business boasted a scant few buyers, but their footsteps were hurried, their eyes ever darting over their shoulders. None of them had red hair.

    "She might be at the Bannered Mare," Ralof suggested. "She's going to buy the inn from Hulda one day, you know."

    A thin curl of smoke rose from the inn's chimney; Annika took it as a good sign. But when they stepped inside, they found it almost as bereft as the market. Two men sat at the bar, their heads together as they spoke in whispers, a grisled woman in dented steel plate nursed a mug of something steaming in the far corner, and the innkeeper was sweeping the floor with an air of boredom.

    "Come on in," she called to the newcomers, "just stoked the—" Her eyes went wide when she spotted Ralof, and, broom in hand, she hurried to meet them at the hearth. "Ralof, what are you doing in the city? It isn't safe—haven't you heard what happened?"

    "I've heard," he replied. "Is Ysolda... was she..."

    Hulda sighed and smiled, and nodded over Ralof's shoulder.

    They turned around. A pretty young woman with flaming red hair stood in a doorway behind them, her face bright with joy.

    "Ysolda!"

    Ralof rushed to the girl and wrapped her up in his arms. They embraced for a long while, and though they didn't kiss, Annika still felt she should look away. Ralof had told her the story with a furious blush one evening at Candlehearth Hall: he'd grown sweet on Ysolda, and she on him, while he was stationed in Whiterun during the early days of the war, but they'd agreed not to marry until the fighting was finished. Ralof knew there was a chance he wouldn't make it home, and didn't wish to make Ysolda a wife and a widow in the same year.

    "I was so worried about you," he said, pulling back to look over Ysolda's face. "When I heard the Thalmor had gotten into Whiterun..."

    "What, you thought they'd find some great shrine up on my mantle and take my head off?" She clucked her tongue and smiled. "You should know I have a bit more sense than that. But what about you? Hulda's right—it isn't safe here for you, not anymore."

    "That's why we've come." His voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "Jarl Ulfric hopes to finally win Jarl Balgruuf's allegiance, now that he's seen what happens when elves have the right to rule... and now that we have something Jarl Balgruuf wants."

    "What's that?"

    Ralof turned to wave Annika over. "This," he told Ysolda, "is the Dragonborn."

    Ysolda's mouth dropped open.

    "My name," Annika said, shooting Ralof a frustrated but bemused look, "is Annika."

    "By the gods," Ysolda breathed. She gaped down at Annika's offered hand for a moment before taking it. "Are you really..."

    "Yes, I am." She gave Ysolda a warm and geniuine smile. "It's lovely to meet you, Ralof's told me so much about you. But I'm afraid time is short. I must get to Dragonsreach."

    "You must get to Dragonsreach?" Ralof echoed. "You're not going alone. You could be arrested if the Jarl's already decided to side with the Empire!"

    "And if I am, will you fight off the entire city guard single-handedly? You'll be arrested, too, if you're with me. And who will bring word back to Windhelm, then? Who will bring word to the contingents in the other holds?" She shook her head. "Stay here, Ralof. If I'm not back by sundown, leave the city at once, and finish what we were sent to do."

    He was still and silent for a long moment before nodding.

    "All right," he said, but with obvious reluctance. "Just... be careful."

    "I will."

    With that, Annika left the inn.

    Though she had only been there once before, she easily recalled the way to Dragonsreach. Through the market, past the wilting Gildegreen, and across the courtyard where—

    A wave of dread roiled her stomach. She knew, of course, that the zealous priest would no longer be preaching in that courtyard. But she had not anticipated the dark stain of blood blanketing the stones, drying to a crisp burgundy in the afternoon sun.

    The last time she'd been there, Ralof had assured her that Whiterun was safe, that no harm would come to them. And none had. But that did not mean that they hadn't been seen by whatever eyes the Thalmor had hidden within the city. Had the presence of two renegades wearing Stormcloak blue led to the invasion that had captured sixteen and killed one? Was that priest's blood on her hands?

    She fled the courtyard without looking back.

    The steps leading to Dragonsreach seemed endless, and Annika was out of breath by the time she reached the keep's massive doors, more from her panic at seeing the remnants of the execution than from anything else. The guards on either side of the bridge were as faceless as all the others; for all she knew, they might have fought the dragon alongside her at the western watchtower. But neither of them showed any sign of knowing her as they let her into the keep.

    Jarl Balgruuf slouched on his throne at the far end of the Great Hall, in audience with a dark-skinned man wearing a fine quilted tunic. His diatribe seemed to be boring the Jarl almost to tears, but when he spotted Annika drawing near, his eyes went wide and he sat up straighter. Standing sentry beside him, his housecarl, Irileth, sneered.

    "I'll take your advice into consideration, Nazeem," Balgruuf said to the man, cutting him off mid-sentence, and gestured for a guard. "Thank you."

    The guard led the stymied Nazeem away from the dais, allowing Annika to approach.

    "Dragonborn," the Jarl announced. "I must say, I didn't expect to see you here again. I thought you meant to join the rebellion."

    "I did, my lord," she said. "That is why I'm here. I've come to treat with you on behalf of Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak."

    He stilled, and his features tightened. Irileth's lip curled even higher.

    "I see."

    He waved a hand, and another guard came forward, though this one wore war paint instead of a mask, and the long handle of a greatsword loomed over his right shoulder. Annika's entire body tensed up, and she had a sudden overwhelming urge to run before she could be put in shackles.

    "Hrongar," the Jarl said, "escort the Dragonborn to the solar. I'll be up momentarily."

    Annika relaxed by a small degree—he'd said solar, not dungeons—and followed the man to the staircase off the east side of the dais. Her foot had barely hit the third step before she heard angry whispers erupt behind her. She couldn't make out any words, but she was sure Irileth was making as grand a case against her as possible.

    Hrongar bade her to take a seat in one of the wooden chairs set before a table overlaid with maps. One was dotted with red and blue flags, a twin to another map in another keep in another city. Annika found Whiterun amidst the flags, and sighed with relief to see it was unmarked here, too.

    Several anxious minutes passed before she heard footsteps coming up the stairs. She stood when the Jarl came into the solar. He was alone, though Hrongar remained to stand guard in the housecarl's place.

    "Please," he said, motioning for her to sit. He took the chair on the other side of the table. "Now, then. Does Jarl Ulfric send new terms?"

    Annika handed him the scroll clutched in her unsteady hand. He tore through the blue wax seal and unrolled the parchment. His eyes skimmed its length, and he frowned.

    "These are the same terms I rejected almost a month ago."

    "They are, my lord. But today Jarl Ulfric also sends this."

    She unhooked the axe from her belt, and laid it across the table.

    Balgruuf stared down at it with shrewd eyes. "I see," he said again. "So it has come to this. An ultimatum."

    "Jarl Ulfric was shocked and saddened to hear of the tragedy that befell your people last night," Annika told him, "and he does not wish to see it happen again. He has thus far respected your decision to remain neutral in the war, but at this point, to do so would be to give the Thalmor the open door they need to take control of your city, and through it, all of Skyrim. He cannot allow this to come to pass."

    "And he thinks the best way to save Whiterun is to attack it?"

    "No, my lord. He thinks the best way to save Whiterun is to join the strength of his army to yours in alliance against your common enemy."

    "But he will storm my gates nonetheless, should I refuse."

    "Whiterun would be better off taken by Stormcloaks than by Thalmor."

    Balgruuf exhaled deeply through his nose, and tapped his fingers on the table. "Whiterun would be better off not taken at all, but left in my rightful rule."

    "Do you think General Tullius would agree, now that he knows you've allowed a shrine to Talos to remain in a place of prominence in the city, in direct violation of the White-Gold Concordat?"

    He reddened, but said nothing.

    "The Emperor forced a contingent of Thalmor agents into your city last night," she continued. "It is only a matter of time before he does so again. You must see that."

    Balgruuf threw the scroll onto the table. "All I see," he growled, "is Ulfric taking advantage of my misfortune to further his own interests. That is his way. That has always been his way."

    Annika felt a palpable change in the atmosphere, as though the Jarl's indignation was consuming the very air around him. She was losing him. Perhaps he clung to some foolish hope that the Empire would protect him and his city from the Aldmeri Dominion. Perhaps he believed the rebellion to be the easier challenge to overcome, or the greater of the two evils he was faced with. Or perhaps whatever Ulfric had offered him was not enough.

    That, at least, she could change.

    "Jarl Balgruuf," she began slowly, "this treaty can further your interests as well."

    "Do you think promising me a greater number of soldiers to defend my city or additional lands to expand my hold will convince me?"

    "I lack the authority to make such promises, whether or not they would sway you. But there is one thing I can offer you."

    "And that is?"

    "Me."

    They stared at each other over the maps. Balgruuf kept his emotions well concealed; only his lower lip gave the slightest twitch. But Annika could almost hear the wheels in his head spinning.

    "A fortnight past, you offered me a thaneship," she reminded him. "If you make this alliance, and if you support Jarl Ulfric's claim as High King when the Moot convenes, then, when the war comes to a close, I will accept that offer."

    "You presume it is still on the table."

    "Yes, I do, because I know as well as you that having the Dragonborn as your Thane would be a great advantage—and not only in the prestige it would bring to Whiterun." She turned her head just enough so that she was facing the bookcase to Balgruuf's right, but not Balgruuf himself. "Fus."

    Everything seemed to happen all at once. The bookcase quaked, and half a dozen of the tomes lining its shelves tumbled to the floor in a loud clatter. The Jarl, crying out, jumped up from his chair and stumbled back, and behind her, Annika heard Hrongar drawing his greatsword. She leapt from her seat, reached for Ulfric's axe, and spun around.

    "Hrongar," the Jarl shouted, and the man stopped in his tracks. "It's all right. She means no harm."

    Only after Hrongar sheathed his greatsword did Annika lower the axe.

    "That," she said, turning back to Balgruuf, "was a mere glimpse of the power that would be sworn to protect you and your city."

    He attempted a laugh, glancing at the books on the floor, but the strangled noise he made instead beytrayed his uneasiness. "That was an impressive trick, but I fail to see how it will protect anyone."

    "Do not forget that we are fighting a second war—a war against dragons. I've already killed one that threatened your hold. Last night, I killed another in Kynesgrove. There will be more. Many more. And every one I slay only makes me stronger." She gave him a moment to swallow that before going on. "Tell me, my lord—have you heard of the Song of the Dragonborn?"

    "I'm afraid not."

    "It foretells the return of an ancient dragon, Alduin, who threatens our entire world. And it foretells its defeat by the Dragonborn."

    "A story," the Jarl said, waving the idea away with a hand. "Just as all the others."

    "Believe me, I wish that were so," Annika replied quietly. "But you cannot deny that dragons have returned to Tamriel, or that the Dragonborn sits before you now. I have seen Alduin with my own eyes. I have felt the heat of his fire on my face and I have looked into the cold depths of his soul. He has twice tried to kill me, and I have twice survived him. And I will defeat him. And my glory will be your glory—if I am your Thane."

    She watched Balgruuf, his jaw taut, his eyes darting back and forth, and she feared that this offer still would not be enough for him, despite it being everything to her. She cared nothing for power, or prestige, or glory, but she was giving up her freedom to go where she would and to do as she liked. She was giving up her freedom to stay by Ulfric's side for as long as he would have her.

    When the Jarl finally looked back to her, she saw the gleam of greed in his eyes. He reached across the table for Ulfric's axe, and then for one of the flags that lay in a clay pot on the corner of the sprawling map of Skyrim.

    He pinned the flag to the sigil of the horse that represented Whiterun. It was blue.

    Annika left Dragonsreach half an hour later, holding a scroll sealed with golden yellow wax. Within was written Balgruuf's acceptance of the alliance between Whiterun and Eastmarch, his support of Ulfric's claim to High King, and his right to take the Dragonborn as his Thane once the war was over. Between battling legionnaires and hunting dragons, Annika knew it was unlikely that she would live long enough to hold up her end of the deal. But if she did, if she one day had to walk away from Ulfric...

    She ground the heel of her palm into her cheek to wipe away the tear that had fallen.

    She had known, leaving Windhelm that morning, that she might have to trade her freedom to secure the allegiance of Whiterun that Ulfric so desperately needed.

    What truly broke her heart was that Ulfric had known it, too.
     
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  5. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    four: into the fire


    Not even in the Imperial City had Annika seen so much wasteful opulence.

    Porcelain vases ringed with gold stood on every polished surface, bearing delicate blooms that had to have been imported from Cyrodiil, Valenwood, or perhaps the Summerset Isle itself. The air was sweetly scented by perfumed candles that burned in elaborate silver holders. An immense carpet lay in the middle of the room, embroidered all over with intricate curlicues of goldwork that glinted in the shifting light.

    And then there were the platters of food laid out across a dozen tables: golden loaves of bread speckled with bits of fruit, bunches of plump grapes, apple and pecan tarts, massive wheels of creamy cheese, small white cakes sprinkled with saffron, sweet rolls dripping with icing. It was more food than Annika's family had eaten in an entire month of her youth, and it was all meant for one roomful of people to consume in a single night.

    And these people were more pretentious than she had imagined possible. She overheard a Thalmor justiciar referring to himself as a superiorly bred Mer; he was strikingly handsome, even by human standards, but Annika had to stifle a laugh at his overblown arrogance. A glamorous young Imperial seemed to be at the party solely to show off her immense and glittering betrothal diamond. Worst of all was a middle-aged Nord woman who flung thinly veiled insults at everyone she spoke to, and made several snide remarks about the ignorance of elves in the matter of quality mead.

    Amidst Skyrim's wealthy and extravagant, Annika felt much less a fool in the costume Delphine had stuffed her into. The dusky rose gown, with its layers of tafetta and brocade, and its long bell sleeves she worried she would trip over, was finer and heavier than any dress she had ever worn before. Delphine had even pulled her hair up into a fancy but uncomfortable twist, after an hour of combing through snarls and knots. Though she felt quite outlandish, there was no denying that her attire helped her fit into the sort of crowd that attended affairs at the Thalmor Embassy.

    The weeks leading up to the party had been swift, and had seen a great deal of advancement on all fronts. Now that the Stormcloaks had access to the roads between Whiterun and Falkreath, taking the southern hold had been almost effortless; Dengeir of Stuhn, a staunch supporter of Ulfric's, had been given back the jarlship that the Empire had forced him to relinquish at the onset of the war. With Delphine's help, Annika had tracked down and slain three more dragons, after which she returned to High Hrothgar for several days to master the new Shouts she had learned. And then, all of a sudden, the twentieth of Hearthfire loomed, and Annika was travelling to Solitude to meet with Delphine and prepare the infiltration.

    And now here she was, her palms sweating, her heart pounding, hoping she would be able to pull off this ruse and make it out of the lion's den alive.

    She drifted along the buffet tables, breathing in the mingled aromas of bread and fruit and honey, and was thankful she'd taken a meal at the Winking Skeever before leaving for the party; she didn't think she would've been able to concentrate on the task at hand had her stomach been begging to be filled with these delicacies. For the sake of appearances, she plucked a red grape from a platter and popped it into her mouth.

    When she turned around, she almost walked into the Thalmor agent standing silently behind her.

    "Oh," Annika cried, nearly choking on her grape. She swallowed it quickly. "I beg your pardon. You startled me."

    "I'm so very sorry," the woman replied, in a tone that suggested she was not sorry at all. "I don't believe we've been introduced. I am First Emissary Elenwen. Welcome to the Thalmor Embassy."

    Annika flinched. This was the woman Ulfric had warned her of. What had he said? Their First Emissary, Elenwen... she might think death too lenient a punishment. Looking into the elf's amber eyes, she could easily believe it. There was a cold and calculating cruelty in them that she had seen before, in coyotes stalking prey before moving in for the kill. This, she thought, was the sort of person who would take pleasure in causing pain.

    "What a honor," she said, trying to mask her unease with a bright smile. "I am Annika Red-Tooth."

    Elenwen peered down at Annika's outstretched hand with a dry look of distaste. She did not take it.

    "Ah, yes," she said, "from the East Empire Company. It is unfortunate that Orthus Endario was unable to make it; we do so enjoy his joviality."

    "I'm pleased I could come in his stead."

    "As are we. It is vital for the Empire, and by extension the Aldmeri Dominion, to maintain a good relationship with the Company's Windhelm chapter, especially with the current climate in the city. Do you do much business with the rebel, Ulfric Stormcloak?"

    "I'm afraid not," Annika answered, a bit sharper than she had intended. "I mainly oversee shipments between Windhelm and Solstheim."

    "Pity. We are always looking for friends wih the right... connections, in Windhelm."

    Annika stilled, cold at the thought of the Thalmor having friends in Windhelm. She would ask Ulfric to investigate this Orthus Endario when she returned; he could easily be the one smuggling information in and out of the city, and might even be able to name the conspirator inside Ulfric's inner circle—a mystery she had not yet solved.

    "I am sorry I could not be of more help."

    "As am I." Elenwen gave a withering smile. "Red-Tooth, did you say? Of the Imperial City Red-Tooth clan?"

    "I'm honored you know it, Madame Ambassador. That is indeed my family."

    "So the merchant's trade is in your blood. Red Diamond Jewelry is one of the most prosperous establishments in the Imperial City today, isn't that so?"

    Annika hesitated. The cover story that Delphine had devised gave her believable enough reason to be at the party, with ties to the East Empire Company and a famous ancestry, but she lacked the actual knowledge to back it up. She'd passed Red Diamond Jewelry many times during her year in the Imperial City, but had never had reason to enter it, nor had she ever met the company's current proprietor. She had dreaded facing questions about her supposed background that she wouldn't be able to answer, but hadn't dreamed that the First Emissary herself would be the one to corner her.

    Her mind raced to find a way out of the potentially disastrous conversation, but she was, thankfully, saved by the approach of another Thalmor agent.

    "Madame Ambassador," he said, his voice low and furtive. "Gissur has arrived, and is requesting your presence in the solar."

    Elenwen sighed. "His timing is impeccable, as always," she muttered. She gave Annika a tight smile. "I'm afraid we will have to get better acquainted later. If you'll excuse me."

    Annika waited until the elves were out of earshot to let out the breath she'd been holding. That was much too close, and she doubted she would be so fortunate again.

    It was time to slip away.

    She drifted into a shadowy corner, and, after ensuring no eyes were on her, withdrew a stoppered vial from an open hem in her sleeve. The poison tasted strongly of stewed fish. Within moments she was nauseous and sweaty, and even her hands had grown pale and jittery. She only hoped she looked as sick as she felt.

    Clutching her stomach, Annika staggered over to the nearest guard.

    "Pardon me," she said weakly. "I'm suddenly feeling quite ill. Is there a privy I might use?"

    The guard looked down his nose at her. He appeared more disgusted than concerned, and pulled away from her as though worried he would catch whatever ailment plagued her.

    "I suppose," he answered with a sneer. "Follow me."

    He led her out of the drawing room and through a dim and quiet hallway, rounding two corners and descending a narrow staircase before coming to a small door. The guard stopped several arm's lengths before it, his nose wrinkling at what Annika had to assume was an imaginary odor, for she smelled nothing at all.

    "See to your... needs," he said, "and return to the drawing room at once. Guests are not permitted to wander about the Embassy."

    "Of course. Thank you."

    Annika stepped into the privy. It was frigid cold; a single window was set high in the wall, uncovered by glass or shutters, though a crust of snow and ice overlaid the sill. She pulled the door closed behind her, and listened for the guard's retreating footsteps. Only once they had faded away did she pull a second vial from a second hidden hollow in her sleeve: the antidote. She downed it, and silently thanked Delphine for her insistence on taking the poison for authenticity; she didn't think the guard would have cared enough to assist her had she not looked as though she might retch on the other party guests at any moment.

    She eased the door open again. She didn't know where she was going, but she had to get there quickly; as disinterested as the guard had seemed, there was every chance he would come looking for her if she lingered overlong.

    At the top of the stairs, Annika peered around each corner. The hallway was deserted. She took a deep breath before delving deeper into the Embassy, as though afraid she might drown.


    * * * * *​


    The guard's head snapped up at the sound of a muffled voice at the other end of the courtyard. He took a step forward, drawing a sword from its scabbard.

    "Who's there?" he called. "Show yourself!"

    No one answered.

    The Altmer slowly lowered his weapon and dropped back to retake his position. But then he heard it again: the voice, a woman's, her words too quiet to make out. He readied his sword once more and rushed towards the sound.

    "I'm warning you! Show yourself, now!"

    Behind his turned back, Annika stole over the snow on quick and silent feet.

    Her Thu'umZul—had worked even better than she'd hoped, making her Voice a whisper instead of a shout, carrying it from her mouth to the point, far across the courtyard, that she had focused on. It was the perfect distraction, and just what she'd needed to get past the lone guard stationed at the entrance to a stone edifice detached from the rest of the Embassy compound.

    The door eased open on well-oiled hinges, and Annika ducked inside.

    The main room of the small structure was mercifully empty, and even more mercifully warm; Annika's dress may have been pretty, but it did nothing to shield her from the bitter wind of Skyrim's northern mountains. It was quiet, here, too, but for two voices trickling in from an adjacent chamber, one deep and masculine, the other easily recognizable as Elenwen's. So this was her solar. There were half a hundred places Annika would rather have stumbled upon, but there was no turning back now. She crept through the room, passing from pillar to pillar of the solar's many decorative arches, until she could hear the conversation.

    "...been told they left Riften six days ago, but I haven't heard nothing from you," the man said. "I don't like being made to wait!"

    "And I don't like being interrupted when I am hosting very important guests."

    "What choice did I have? I helped you find the old man, and now I want my reward!"

    "Ah. Is that what this is all about, Gissur? Gold?"

    "Yes, gold. A hundred septims, like was promised."

    "A hundred septims?" Elenwen clicked her tongue. "That won't do at all. You deserve a much greater reward for your trouble, wouldn't you agree?"

    The man was silent for a moment, obviously thrown by the proposal. "Well... well, yes, now that you mention it," he said. "Risked my life to find that old man, I did. How about... how about three hundred septims?"

    A deep sense of foreboding rippled through Annika. She peered around the corner of the pillar she had hidden behind, and saw Gissur through the open doorway. His clothing was old and threadbare, his ragged hat clutched in dirty hands. He was thin and haggard, as though he hadn't eaten a proper meal in weeks. She could not blame him for doing whatever it took to keep himself alive—she had, after all, committed her own crimes in the matter of survival. But did he truly think he could negotiate with the Thalmor?

    She had a sudden and ridiculous urge to laugh. Gissur was only asking for some gold, but Annika was infiltrating the Thalmor Embassy, spying on the First Emissary, and searching for incriminating evidence against the Aldmeri Dominion. Which of them was more the fool?

    She couldn't see Elenwen, but she heard the cold smile in her voice when she next spoke.

    "Caluril," she said. "Give Gissur his reward."

    A justiciar stepped up behind the beggar, and in a flash of gleaming moonstone, buried a dagger in his back.

    Annika's hands flew up to cover her mouth.

    Gissur cried out, and coughed up a spray of blood. He dropped to his knees.

    "That," Elenwen purred, appearing before him and staring down at him in cruel satisfaction, "is the only reward I give to men who presume to make demands of elves."

    She stalked out of the room.

    Annika fell back behind the pillar, her heart hammering against her ribcage. She kept absolutely still, not even daring to breathe, until Elenwen had left the solar. Even then, she was too scared to risk moving, to risk letting herself be discovered.

    She could no longer see Gissur, but she could hear him. She heard him grunt when the dagger was pulled from his flesh. She heard him whimpering prayers to the gods that had forsaken him. She heard the wet rattle of his final breath. Only silence followed, and Annika knew that he was dead.

    And then she heard footsteps descending the stairs to her right.

    There was nowhere to go but deeper into the solar. She fled into an antechamber and ducked behind an ornate wooden bureau. The footsteps grew louder as their owner passed through the main room, but they did not follow Annika. She remained hidden for a full minute before carefully peeking over the bureau. She was alone.

    And she was mad for coming here, for thinking she could make it out alive! She should have listened to Ulfric. He had known how perilous this venture would be, and he hadn't wanted her to gamble her life on the chance of finding evidence that might not even exist. He'd been wrong about one thing, though: death, it seemed, was not too lenient a punishment for those who crossed the First Emissary. Annika had no doubt in her mind, now, that she would face the same fate as the beggar, should she be found. She had to get out of there.

    But fear had frozen her limbs, and she could not stand up. She peered over the edge of the bureau again, taking notice of her surroundings for the first time. The antechamber was even more elaborately furnished and decorated than the other areas of the Embassy she had seen, outfitted with several bookshelves, a small sitting area off to the side, and a massive tapestry bearing the sigil of the Aldmeri Dominion. A number of scrolls and leatherbound files lay upon the polished top of the bureau, along with an ink pot and a white quill. It was a study.

    Elenwen's study.

    Annika grabbed up the files and read the label of each, hoping to find some mention of dragons, but only seeing names. Alexia Vici. Gissur. Maven Black-Briar. Esbern. Idolaf Battle-Born. Ulfric Stormcloak.

    The other files slipped to the floor. Though trembling, her fingers made quick work of unfastening and opening the only one she cared to read... though she dreaded what she might find within.


    Status: Asset (uncooperative), dormant, Emissary-level approval.

    Description: Jarl of Eastmarch, Imperial Legion veteran, leader of Stormcloak Rebellion.

    Background: Ulfric initially came to our attention during the First War Against the Empire, when he was taken as a prisoner of war during the campaign for the White-Gold Tower. Under interrogation, we learned of his potential value as son of the Jarl of Eastmarch, and he was assigned as an asset to the interrogator, later First Emissary Elenwen. He was made to believe information obtained during his interrogation was crucial in the capture of the Imperial City, and then allowed to escape.


    The narrative continued, but Annika seemed only to see one sentence. She had to read it three times before she could trust that her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. He was made to believe information obtained during his interrogation was crucial in the capture of the Imperial City...

    A long forgotten memory drifted back to her, of the cold and cloudy day that Ulfric had been named Jarl of Eastmarch. Standing on the tips of her toes at the fringes of the crowd that had gathered for the ceremony, Annika, a child of only seven, had laid eyes on Ulfric Stormcloak for the very first time. He stood before the high walls that opened to the Palace of the Kings, three heads higher than the spectators beyond the stone steps that had become his stage. Rich and poor alike, they hailed their new Jarl with cheers and applause, a smile on every face. Every face, but one. Even from that distance, even in her youthful innocence, Annika noticed what no one else seemed to: Ulfric did not smile. Not once. All of Windhelm was celebrating, but for the very man being honored.

    And now, she knew why. Not only because he had lost his brother, and his father, and the war itself... but because he had believed he was to blame for the fall of the Imperial City, the burning of the White-Gold Tower, and the hundreds of brutal and merciless deaths that followed.

    By the gods. Did he still believe the lie? Did he harbor guilt and shame and regret to this day, for something he did not do?

    "What do you think you're doing!"

    A justiciar stood at the threshhold of the study, his mouth a snarl of anger, one hand sparking with electricity, the other curled around a dagger still smeared with the blood of a beggar.

    Annika leapt to her feet. She reached for her bow, but it was not there. And so she reached for her Voice instead.

    "Kaan!"

    The Altmer's face relaxed. The lightning in his palm fizzled out. He looked around the chamber as though unsure of why he was there, and the discovery of a dagger in his hand seemed to confuse him. When his gaze again landed on Annika, he gave her a tranquil smile.

    "I... I was sent to fetch this file," she said, holding it up for him to see before tucking it into the folds of her dress. "For the First Emissary."

    "Yes, of course," he replied, his words airy and slow.

    "Is there a way out of the solar, aside from the front entrance?"

    "Through the interrogation chamber, I suppose." He pointed to the open doorway at the other end of the study. "But you'll need the key."

    "Where is it?"

    The justiciar rifled through the large ring of keys dangling from his belt. "I have it here somewhere..."

    "May I—may I have them all?"

    He shrugged. "I don't see why not."

    She rounded the bureau to take the offered keys, then carefully backed away, anticipating an attack at any moment. Until now, she had only used this curious Thu'um on animals, never humans or elves, and she didn't know how long the calm would last. A few minutes, at best. A few minutes before the justiciar came to his senses and sent every armed guard in the Embassy after her.

    She shot out of the study and down a narrow staircase beyond. An imposing iron door waited at the bottom, and Annika tried three keys before finding the right one. The door opened onto a small balcony overlooking a cold and musty cellar. She knew at once that the chamber was not empty; another pair of voices argued below, out of sight.

    "Where is the book?"

    "Destroyed, as I've already told you."

    "As you've already lied. A loremaster would never destroy so precious a tome."

    "A loremaster would, rather than letting it fall into the hands of the enemy—"

    The man's words dissolved into a strangled scream that did not quite mask the crackle of lightning. And then all was silent.

    Annika slipped inside and carefully closed the door. Crouching close to the ground, she inched across the balcony until she could just see over its edge. And what she saw startled and disturbed her even more than the beggar's death had.

    Barred cells lined one side of the chamber. In the cell closest to her, an elderly man sagged towards the floor, held up only by the rusted iron shackles binding his wrists to the wall. His bare chest was riddled with dark bruises, dried blood, and new wounds that seemed to steam in the chill. She believed him unconscious, but he stirred when a justiciar struck him across the face with the back of his hand.

    "If you no longer have the book," the justiciar growled, "you still have its knowledge. Where is Sky Haven Temple?"

    The prisoner struggled to catch his breath. "I... I will not say."

    "How is the temple related to the return of the dragons?"

    "It's—I don't know."

    "Who is bringing dragons back to Tamriel?"

    "I don't know."

    "How are the dragons being controlled?"

    "I don't know!"

    "How are the Blades involved?"

    "They aren't—or if they are, I know nothing of it!"

    "How many other Blades are in Skyrim?"

    "I don't know, I haven't seen—"

    "Are they operating out of the temple?"

    "No, they—I—I don't know."

    "Where is the temple?"

    "I will not tell you!"

    The justiciar laughed, cold and cruel. "Oh, you will... eventually."

    A bolt of lightning streaked out of his palms and into the old man's chest. His entire body seized up, his limbs going rigid, his eyes rolling back into his head. Finally, the lightning died, and he fell back against the wall, drained of what little strength he'd had.

    A different light kindled in the justiciar's hands, then, a soft golden glow that Annika knew well. A healing spell. He cast it over his prisoner for just a moment, only until the risk of death had passed, until he was alive enough to withstand more pain, more torture.

    "I can do this for days," the Altmer promised. "For months. For years. For as long as it takes for you to tell me what I need to know. I will give you some time to think on that."

    He turned his back on the old man's sputtering pleas. Annika could not see the door through which he left, but she heard the metallic whine of it closing behind him.

    Once again, she was too stricken to move. This wasn't interrogation—this was torture. Had Ulfric once been shackled to another wall in another dungeon, made to suffer these same brutalities until he told the Thalmor what they needed to know? And how long had it taken? Days? Months? Years? The sudden ache in her chest was so real that she might have been electrocuted herself.

    The sound of the prisoner rousing pulled Annika from the horror of her thoughts. She descended wooden stairs into the cellar, and hurried to his cell. Its barred door had been left open.

    "Never," the old man moaned, breathless, when he heard Annika approaching. "I will never tell you, no matter what you do to me."

    "I'm not one of them," she replied in a quick and hushed tone. "Look at me, I'm a Nord."

    He struggled to lift his head as she fumbled to fit keys into the locks of his shackles, and his eyes widened when they found her face.

    "You're a Blade, aren't you?"

    He hesitated for only a moment before nodding, his honesty, Annika knew, driven by his desperation.

    "Delphine sent me," she told him.

    "D—Delphine? Delphine's alive?"

    The first shackle popped open at the twist of the right key. Annika quickly unlocked the second, and the old man, now free, fell against her. She healed what she could see of his wounds, but the worst of the burns and blisters resisted her spells. They did, at least, give him enough strength to stand on his own.

    "How do we get out of here?"

    He shuffled out of the cell and cast watery eyes around the chamber. "There," he said, pointing to a rickety hatch in the floor across from the last cell. "They threw a... a body down there, two days—"

    The snap of lightning rent the air, and hot white pain stabbed Annika in the side. She choked on a scream as the jolt richocheted up her chest and through her arms, down her legs and out her toes.

    The justiciar she'd calmed readied another spell as he charged towards them, followed by three others wielding swords and daggers.

    "Get behind me," the old man ordered, pushing Annika back.

    He raised his hands, suddenly aglow with fire, and made a slow and graceful motion in the air, until his entire body was engulfed by flames he did not seem to feel. He threw his arms out, and the chamber became an inferno.

    Annika caught a glimpse of the elves falling, writhing, wailing as they burned, of every wooden fixture and fitment in the room curling up into ash, and she saw the pyre of her home, she saw her sister haloed by the blinding light of the fire borne by her own hands, and her lips began to move in silent prayer to the gods.

    She felt someone tugging at her arm, heard someone shouting into her ear, and then they were at the hatch, and the iron lock, drinking up the heat of the fire, seared the tips of her fingers. The first key she tried turned almost without effort.

    They descended into the blackness, the old man first, Annika second, her feet splashing into mud that stank of rot and urine. The tunnel was narrow and damp and seemingly endless; the fire in the old man's hands granted only a small breadth of illumination. They rushed over packed earth and tangled weeds and what could only be bones, heedless of what might lie ahead, for it could not be worse than what lay behind.

    A snort and a growl warned them of the beast awaiting them in the cave at the tunnel's end. A troll—Annika saw its brutish face, howling with rage, in the flickering light of the flame spell that consumed it, and what was left of the human leg it had been eating. The corpse of the Thalmor's last prisoner. The determination in the old man's face gave way to terror when he saw the fate that had almost been his.

    He turned away with a shudder. "How did Delphine know the Thalmor had me?"

    "She didn't," Annika replied carefully. "She'd be just as stunned as you were to learn there's another Blade in Skyrim."

    "But... you said she sent you."

    "Yes, to find out if the Thalmor are the ones behind the dragon crisis."

    He sighed, and continued trudging through muck and bones. "They aren't," he muttered, "but they sorely wish they were."

    They soon emerged into the cold and blustery night. The old man winced and shivered against a sharp wind. Annika hadn't noticed how gaunt he was until now; she could count his ribs, and his skin was almost translucent. She slipped the overcoat of her dress off and draped it around his shoulders.

    He huddled into its warmth. "Thank you," he said, "for everything. You saved my life, even though that is not what you came to do, and for that I will be forever in your debt. What is your name, child?"

    "Annika."

    "Annika, I am Esbern."

    He gave her a smile so true and warm that she could not help but return it, even though she was still shivering herself... not from the cold, but from all she had seen, all she had discovered, all she now knew.

    "Please," he said, growing serious once more. "Take me to Delphine."


    * * * * *​


    A curl of smoke rose into the sky, dark against the bright backdrop of the moons.

    "Dragon Bridge?"

    "Perhaps the inn," Esbern replied. "But it might only be a campfire."

    Annika tried once more to picture the maps of Haafingar she had studied for days, but it was impossible to get her bearings. If they'd left the Embassy by its front door, she would've had no trouble getting to Dragon Bridge. But they had fled an unknown cave in blind panic. The moons, at least, had pointed them south, but every step deepened Annika's worry that they were heading too far east or too far west, and that they would miss the village completely.

    But they had not. Once they descended the rocky cliffside, the inn came into view through a thicket of pines, its windows aglow with the light of the hearth Annika longed to warm herself beside. But Dragon Bridge, the seat of the Penitus Oculatus, was not a safe place for a Stormcloak and a Blade on the run from the Thalmor—who were, most certainly, hunting them at that very moment. They had to keep moving.

    They stole through the sleepy darkness of the village, over the bridge it was named for, and into the wood on the other side. Annika whistled into the trees. A moment later, it came back to her, and she followed it. She traded the signal twice more before finding Delphine, well-camoflauged in her worn brown leathers.

    "Well?" Delphine said in greeting, handing a heavy traveling cloak to Annika. "Did you find any—who is that?"

    She tensed, and her hand went to the dagger at her hip. But when Esbern stepped into a sliver of moonlight breaking through the trees, Delphine forgot all about her weapon.

    "Hello again, old friend."

    "Esbern?" Delphine gaped at him. Her mouth opened and closed several times before she found words. "Is it really you?"

    "Indeed it is."

    Delphine barked out a laugh, and her face split into a wide smile. She bounded forward to throw her arms around Esbern, looking happier than Annika had ever seen her. Indeed, she looked like an entirely different person. This was Delphine not looking over her shoulder, not wary or suspicious or fearful. Annika had always thought Delphine had a fairly good life for a fugitive: a home, an income, and the security that came with them. But she appreciated now, for the first time, how lonely she must have been. She had never taken a husband, or had children, and she had few, if any, friends; it was too dangerous to love someone the Thalmor might capture, and kill, to get to you.

    "How?" Delphine asked, shrugging off her own cloak to give to Esbern. "Where did you find him? What happened?"

    "The Thalmor took me prisoner a week ago, and have been holding me at the Embassy since. Your young friend here saved me."

    "Esbern, do you know who she is—what she is?"

    "Dragonborn," he replied, beaming with the same awe he'd had upon discovering it. "So there is hope after all. For so long, all I could do was watch our doom approach, thinking the gods had grown tired of us and left us to our fate. But now, everything is changed. But there is no time to lose. We must make for the Reach right away."

    "The Reach? Why?"

    Delphine looked to Annika, but she shook her head; this was the first she was hearing about the Reach herself.

    "I suppose I should explain," Esbern said. "First and foremost, the Thalmor are not in control of the dragons, as you had suspected—but that is their ambition."

    "So we're right back where we started," Delphine groaned. "Completely in the dark."

    "Not completely. We know something that no one else does; I made quite sure of that. I would have taken this secret to my grave, no matter how long it took them to kill me."

    "Take what secret?"

    Annika thought of the interrogation she had overheard, the torture she had witnessed.

    "Sky Haven Temple," she mused aloud. "What is it?"

    Delphine's eyes had gone wide again. "Sky Haven Temple?" she repeated. "You know where it is?"

    "Oh, yes," Esbern replied. "And I believe it is crucial to our understanding—and perhaps stopping—this rebirth of dragons."

    "But, what is it?" Annika repeated.

    "A Blades outpost, abandoned for centuries and lost to the ages. But I've found it again, in the scraps of the archives I'd managed to salvage before the Thalmor's siege on Cloud Ruler Temple. What we seek is not the temple itself, however, but what lays within—Alduin's Wall, where the Blades set down in stone all of their knowledge of dragons, and of Alduin."

    "The prophecy," Annika said at once. "'The Scrolls have foretold of black wings in the cold, that when brothers wage war come unfurled...'"

    "Yes, but Alduin's Wall is only part prophecy; it holds history, as well. This is not the first time Alduin has wreaked havoc on our world," Esbern reminded her. "The ancient Blades found a way to defeat him. They must have chronicled their triumph on Alduin's Wall."

    "And the Thalmor are after this knowledge, too?" Delphine asked.

    "Yes, but not to defeat Alduin." His voice was suddenly very grave. "Can you imagine it? The Aldmeri Dominion harnessing the power of dragons? They would raze a path from High Rock to Black Marsh and demolish everything in between. They would burn Tamriel to the ground if they could rule over the ashes."

    A heavy silence fell, and lingered for a long moment before Annika spoke again.

    "They won't."

    Once again, the divergent paths of her fate were crossing. Her enemy was not only the Empire, or the Thalmor, or the dragons, but all of them, entwined and overlapping. She could not defeat one without defeating the other. And she had to defeat them all.

    Delphine gave her a tremulous smile, but Esbern only looked anxious.

    "Let us hope not," he said. "Now, to the Reach."


    * * * * *​


    "I think it's time I met your leader."

    A flicker of frustration passed over Arngeir's face before he could mask it with his usual calm. He rose from his kneel, his mediation well beyond disrupted, and turned to face her.

    "I do not agree."

    "Of course you don't," Annika railed back. "You would have me sit here in silence for the rest of my life, but that I will not do. Alduin must be defeated, and to have any hope of doing so, I need to learn this Shout. If you will not teach it to me—"

    "I cannot teach it to you," Arngeir corrected, "for I do not know it, nor do I wish to. I can tell you it is called Dragonrend. It was created by those who had lived under Alduin's tyrrany centuries ago, whose lives were consumed with hatred for dragons. They poured all of that into this Shout, and if you learn it, you will be taking that evil into yourself."

    Delphine had guessed that the Greybeards would take this attitude toward the Shout they'd found depicted on Alduin's Wall, and Annika was not surprised that she'd been right. Arngeir had twice before refused to say anything of Alduin or the prophecy of the Dragonborn, insisting that these were matters the Greybeards took no hand in. But he had promised guidance, and now it seemed he would not give her even that.

    "And if I don't learn it?" she returned. "What then? We are living under Alduin's tyrrany now, Arngeir. Soon we will all be consumed by hatred, and anger, and evil."

    "All of this, despite that this Shout was used to defeat Alduin once before," he pointed out. "Have you considered that perhaps Alduin is not meant to be defeated? Those who overthrew him only postponed the day of reckoning; they did not stop it. If the world is meant to end, let it end and be reborn."

    Annika stared, disbelieving, at the old man. "Who are you to say what is and isn't meant to happen? Who are you to say that it is time for the world to end? Have you considered that all the prophecies that say I am meant to slay Alduin might be true? They were right in everything else they foretold, from the eruption of Red Mountain to the Oblivion crisis to Skyrim's civil war. And now another war is at hand, and I must fight it."

    He shook his head. "War is not our way."

    "But I am not one of you! I am not a Greybeard. I am the Dragonborn."

    Arngeir closed his eyes, but this was not the quiet meditation Annika was accustomed to seeing. This was impatience.

    "Yes, you are," he finally said. "And it seems that you have no interest in what we have offered you. You think you are ready to meet our leader? You will not be ready until you have returned to the path of wisdom."

    Annika began to reply, but another voice thundered through the cold stone corridor.

    "Arngeir."

    Einarth appeared out of the deep shadows that forever lingered in the monastery, no matter how many oil lamps were lit. He had never spoken in Annika's presence, nor had any of the Greybeards save for Arngeir; that he was doing so now to intervene in their dispute both humbled and awed her.

    "Rek los Dovahkiin. Rek fen tinvaak Paarthurnax."

    His words were whispers, but made the walls tremble even so. The Palace of the Kings had trembled, too, when the Greybeards summoned Annika to High Hrothgar, and Windhelm was leagues and leagues away; she could only imagine what would happen if they used the full strength of their Voice within the monastery. So that was why they so rarely spoke.

    She recognized the language Einarth used as Draconic, but she did not understand the meaning of the words. Arngeir, however, seemed to. His eyes, hard and fierce only moments before, now took on the humility of a chastised child.

    "Forgive me, Dragonborn," he said, his tone softer now, too. "I allowed my emotions to cloud my judgement. Master Einarth has reminded me of my place. The choice of whether or not to help you is not mine to make; that power rests with Paarthurnax alone."

    Einarth gave a slow nod, as stoic as ever, and retreated into the depths of the monastery whence he had come.

    "Paarthurnax," Annika repeated, the syllables sharp and strange on her tongue. "Is that the name of your leader?"

    "Yes. He lives in seclusion at the very tip of the Throat of the World. He speaks to us very rarely, and never to outsiders."

    Annika frowned. She had anticipated a struggle to be allowed to meet the mysterious fifth Greybeard whom Arngeir seemed to keep under lock and key, but she had not considered that he might not want to meet her.

    "Will he speak to me?"

    "You are hardly an outsider," Arngeir replied. "But it is possible that Paarthurnax feels as I do, that you are not ready, that you have strayed too far from the Way of the Voice."

    "He does know about me, then?"

    "Paarthurnax knows a great deal more than you would presume, as isolated as he is."

    She recalled her first nights at High Hrothgar, and that unsettling feeling that someone—or something—was watching her. A fancy of her fever, she'd thought, but perhaps she had not been imagining it, after all. Perhaps this Paarthurnax had been studying her the entire time, through whatever magic his mastery of the Way of the Voice had bestowed upon him. The thought made Annika somewhat less eager to come face to face with him.

    "Does he know of this Shout?"

    Arngeir sighed. "I cannot say for certain. But if anyone does, it would be Paarthurnax."

    "And I suppose one must pass through the windy arch in the courtyard to get to him."

    "Yes, but only those whose Voice is strong can do so," he warned. "Come. I will teach you a Shout, and then we will see if you are, indeed, ready to meet Paarthurnax."


    * * * * *​


    Annika's Shout ripped through the impassable and unforgiving wall of wind that impeded her climb up the Throat of the World, but that was not all it did. As her Voice echoed and rippled and swelled into the sky, it took with it the thick clouds that had cloaked the rest of the world below on each of her visits to High Hrothgar. The sky above her turned brightest blue, capturing her bewildered attention for a long moment. And then she looked down.

    She could see everything. The shimmering spire of the White-Gold Tower to the south. A plume of smoke rising from the Red Mountain to the east. And was that a sliver of Atmora, far across the seas to the north? She understood, now, why so many people made the pilgrimage up the Seven Thousand Steps. Perilous though it may be, no amount of gold could by anything half as beautiful as this view.

    What astounded Annika most of all was that, on this day, she had made the view possible. She had chased away the storm, and called the sun out from hiding. She had taken control of the air, the wind, the clouds, the snow. Never had she seen or heard of any magic that could do such a thing... but now, she could.

    The icy wind challenged her every few minutes, but it was no match for her Thu'um. Each time she Shouted, the horizon seemed to grow even more vivid. Twice she had to remind herself to watch her step instead of the sky and the mountains, the forests and the rivers, lest she slip off the edge and they become the last things she ever saw.

    The circuits around the tip of the Throat of the World grew smaller and smaller, until Annika came upon a plateau crusted with snow—and bearing another of those strange curved walls that held so much power, power that was hers to take. A rush of excitement welled up within her, where there was once only fear and foreboding. She hurried towards the wall.

    She didn't hear the flap of wings until an immense shadow fell over her.

    There was nowhere to hide, here, at the top of the highest mountain in Tamriel; she was trapped in wide open space, and the only thing she could do to defend herself was attack the beast. Annika had her bow in hand and an arrow drawn before the dragon landed on the wall. But something made her hesitate, for just a moment. Something in the milkiness of its eyes, something that spoke of curiosity instead of malice. That moment was all that was needed.

    "Drem yol lok," the dragon said—normal words, harmless words, words that sounded patient and kind. "Greetings, wunduniik. I am Paarthurnax."

    Annika's grip on her bow faltered, and she almost loosed her arrow in her shock.

    "You—you are Paarthurnax? You are the master of the Greybeards?"

    "Zu'u. I am."

    "By the gods," she breathed. "You're a... dragon."

    She thought she saw the corners of his mouth curl up in a smile.

    "I am as my father Akatosh made me," he replied. "As are you, Dovahkiin. Now, tell me why you have come here."

    Slowly, carefully, still not quite sure that she should, Annika lowered her bow. The beauty of the world beyond the Throat of the World seemed nothing compared to this new marvel, this dragon that was not a foe, but a friend. Could such a thing even exist?

    "I have come seeking a Shout," she told him. "Dragonrend."

    "Prodah. As I expected. You would not come all this way simply for tinvaak with an old dovah. No, you only seek your weapon against Alduin."

    Annika was not entirely sure what he had said—his sporadic use of Draconic confused her—but she had the sense that he was disappointed, perhaps even sad. She felt that she should apologize, but for what, she didn't know.

    "I shall answer your loanne," Paarthurnax went on. "But first, let me taste of your Voice. Greet me not as mortal, but as dovah."

    She took a slow step forward, still not fully trusting that she was safe in the presence of a creature that was her natural enemy. But he seemed to trust her, even knowing she had the ability to steal his very soul, and that, more than anything, put her at ease.

    "Fus."

    A gust of force rushed from her lips and slammed into Paarthurnax, who swelled and twisted in what seemed more like bliss than pain.

    "Ah, yes," he purred. "Sossedov los mul. The Dragonblood runs strong in you. It is long since I have had the pleasure of speaking with one of my own kind."

    "Your own kind," Annika mused. "I doubt there is another like you in all of Tamriel. Why are you not like other dragons?"

    "I was, once," he replied, seeming sad once again. "I fought alongside Alduin at first, in the mortals' war against the dov. We all knew we could dominate them... but I was the first to question whether or not we should. I came to believe that we could share this lein, this world, that we could live in harmony. We had the skies, the mountains, the oceans, the deserts—all the places inhospitable to mortals. Why could we not leave for them the places inhospitable to us?"

    "Alduin must not have liked that."

    "No. We are born believing we have the right to rule. The will to power is in our blood; you feel it in yourself, do you not? Alduin felt it more fiercely than any of us. He had always thought himself the greatest creation of Akatosh, but during this war, his came to believe himself to be a god in his own right, superior to all others—joorre and dov alike. It was this claim of godhood that finally broke my loyalty to Alduin, and pushed me to ally with the ancient Nords—those who created the Thu'um you seek."

    "Do you know it, then? Dragonrend?"

    "Krosis. I do not."

    Annika's heart plummeted. "But... Arngeir said that if anyone knew it, you would."

    "It cannot be known to me. It was the first Thu'um created solely by mortals, as a weapon against the dov; it was said that it could force a dragon to experience mortality. Our hadrimme—our minds—cannot even comprehend its concepts. Now, I have a question for you, Dovahkiin. Why do you wish to learn this Thu'um?"

    "As you said yourself, it is a weapon against Alduin."

    "But why? Why do you wish to fight Alduin?"

    "Because I must," she said. "If I don't destroy him, he will destroy me. He will destroy our entire world."

    "Pruzah. As good a reason as any. There are many who feel as you do, though not all. Some would say that all things must end. Perhaps this world is simply the egg of the next. Would you stop the next world from being born?"

    The philosophy had sounded like apathy coming from Arngeir, but Annika could see why a dragon might feel this way.

    "Perhaps this is another concept your mind cannot comprehend," she began carefully, "but most mortals are driven by an instinct to survive. We cling to life, because it can so easily be taken from us. If the next world's birth means our death, then yes, we would do almost anything in our power to stop it."

    "What if, by trying to delay the end, you only bring it closer? What if those who work to hasten the end only delay it?"

    Annika's mouth opened and closed on nothing but air. What could she say to that? By that logic, there was no point in doing anything at all.

    "Do you know why I live here?" Paarthurnax asked. "At the peak of the Monahven—what you name the Throat of the World?"

    "No, I don't."

    "Zok revak strunmah. This is the most scared mountain in Skyrim, perhaps in all of Tamriel. Here, the first Tongues, the first mortals to whom I taught the Thu'um, brought Alduin to battle."

    Annika thought of the mural of Alduin's Wall, the three heroic figures shown, in meticulous detail, bringing Alduin down with their Voices.

    "They defeated Alduin with Dragonrend," she said.

    "No, they only crippled him with Dragonrend."

    "Then... how did they defeat him?"

    "They did not. If they had, you would not be here today, seeking to do the same. They were mighty, do not doubt this; the Nords have had many heroes since, but none greater. Even so, they were no match for Alduin. They could not defeat him, but they could displace him. They used a Kel—an Elder Scroll—to cast him adrift on the currents of time."

    It took a moment for all the pieces to fall into place. The sudden fall of the Dragon Cult in the Merethic Era, followed eons later by the sudden return of Alduin to Tamriel. Alduin may be raising these dragons, but who raised Alduin? No one raised Alduin, she understood now, for he had never been killed.

    "They sent him forward in time," she said, "to our time?"

    "They hoped he would be forever lost. Meyye. I knew better. Time flows ever onward, and it was inevitable that Alduin would one day emerge from it. I knew where, but not when. That, Dovahkiin, is why I live here. For thousands of years, I have been waiting."

    She stared up at him with wide eyes. Thousands of years of isolation, waiting for a day that might never have come—or that might have ended in his own destruction. Paarthurnax might not have been able to comprehend a mortal's instinct to survive, but Annika could not comprehend living on and on for millennia. Did dragons feel loneliness as acutely as humans did? Had he spent all those years yearning for a companion, for someone with which he could share his burden? She was stunned to find that she felt sorry for him; she would never have anticipated feeling such a thing for a dragon.

    "What happened?" she asked. "When Alduin did emerge?"

    "We battled. Neither of us would have been able to truly kill the other, of course, but I thought—I hoped—I could bring him to losei dinok—the false death, from which we can be awoken."

    "But you did not."

    "No, but neither did Alduin find victory over me. After a full night of battle, we reached an impasse, both of us greatly weakened. Alduin was the one who fled. Nivahriin. I remained here, to meditate and regain my strength. When I saw other dov soaring across the skies, I despaired. But then... then, I saw you, Dovahkiin."

    Annika looked out over the land, wondering how Paarthurnax could have seen the speck that she was, lost amongst a thousand others, miles and miles below. But, of course, he did not mean that he'd seen her with his eyes. He had seen her with his soul, just as Alduin had in Helgen.

    "Your awakening changed everything," he went on. "For you, and only you, can inflict the vahzah dinok—the true death—upon Alduin."

    "But... if the ancient Tongues couldn't bring him down even with Dragonrend, how can hope to without it?"

    Paarthurnax grew pensive for a long moment. "I believe the knowledge of the Thu'um died with Gormlaith, Hakon, and Felldir... but there may still be a way to learn it. Tiid krent," he mused. "Time was shattered here, by what the ancient Tongues did to Alduin. The wound still bleeds; if it is open here, it may, too, be open at the other end of the break. If you brought the Kel—the Elder Scroll—here, where it ripped time open once before, you may be able to cast yourself back. You could learn Dragonrend from those who created it."

    Annika's head swam with the very idea of it. Traveling back through time, witnessing something that happened thousands of years ago, hearing the Voices of men who had been dead for eras. How could that be possible? That she needed an Elder Scroll to achieve all of this seemed the least preposterous aspect of Paarthurnax's plan.

    "Where is this Elder Scroll now?"

    "Krosis," he said again. "I do not know. Perhaps the Greybeards could help you in this."

    She doubted it, but thought better of saying so to Paarthurnax. He was, after all, their master, no matter how difficult she was finding it to wrap her head around that fact. Did Ulfric know what Paarthurnax was? Had he been allowed to meet the head of the order to which he had devoted ten years of his life?

    Annika was stricken with a sudden wave of longing to be back in Windhelm. She looked north. She could not pinpoint the city from so high above, but she knew it was out there, waiting for her. If only she had been given the gift of a dragon's wings as well as a dragon's soul.

    "If I find the Elder Scroll," she said, "I will return with it."

    "If you do not," Paarthurnax replied, "I hope you will return still."

    She looked up at him once more, this gentle beast, who was so much more like a human than a dragon, and she thought again of how lonely it must be up there, on top of the world.

    "I will."

    "Go now, Dovahkiin. Ven aak hin."

    Annika gave a small bow before she turned away.

    A smear of dark gray clouds had begun to drift back across the sky. Once, they might have compelled her to take refuge in High Hrothgar until the oncoming storm had passed, however long that might be. Now, she did not need to fear any storm. Now, she could Shout her way down the mountain, out of the Rift, and through Eastmarch. She could Shout her way back home, to Ulfric.

    And if she found this Elder Scroll, she might just be able to Shout her way through Alduin.


    * * * * *​


    The streets of Windhelm were bustling with merchants and buyers taking advantage of yet another day of unusually perfect weather, still trading even as the sun began its descent. Annika overheard a farmer remarking on how quickly the morning's snow had stopped, how completely the storm clouds had vanished. A blessing of Kynareth, he said. Annika smiled to herself as she passed.

    She found the Palace of the Kings much quieter. The usual faceless guards flanked the keep's massive doors. A pair of servants were clearing away the remnants of the evening's meal; Ulfric's place had not been used, his plate and goblet still immaculate. At the end of the Great Hall, the steward stood at his post by the throne. He never seemed to tire of standing still.

    "Jorleif," she greeted once she had crossed the length of the chamber. "Where is Jarl Ulfric?"

    "Meeting with an envoy from Morthal."

    "Will you let him know I've returned?"

    The steward's bristly mustache twitched. "I'm afraid he's asked not to be disturbed."

    Annika frowned. Ulfric had been so worried about her infiltrating the Thalmor Embassy that she rather thought he would want to know she'd gotten out alive. But if there was one thing she had learned about Jorleif during her weeks in Windhelm, it was that he took orders only from the Jarl—and he took them very seriously.

    "Very well," she said. "Is Wuunferth in his study?"

    "I believe so."

    "Please send word to me there as soon as Jarl Ulfric is free."

    "Of course, my lady."

    She blinked at the title. No one had ever called her a lady before, and for good reason—she wasn't one. Being the Dragonborn had earned her Ulfric's trust, and the inexplicable privilege of sitting on his council, but that did not make her a lady. Still, Jorleif's favor made her flush with pleasure.

    She nodded her thanks, and retreated to the west wing.

    Wuunferth was, indeed, closeted away in his study. It was a rare sight to see him anywhere else in the keep; he even took his meals in the privacy of his own quarters, rather than dine with the rest of the court. Annika knocked on the open door out of courtesy, and the mage whirled about, already fuming at the intrusion.

    "What?" he snapped. When he spotted his apprentice, his expression softened by only a small degree. "Oh, it's you. Made it out in one piece, did you?"

    "I'm pleased to see you too, Wuunferth," Annika replied with a smile.

    "I didn't say I was pleased," he grumbled, turning back to his alchemy table, alive with steam and bubbling potions and piles of various ingredients waiting to be boiled down into some masterpiece or other. "What do you want? I'm very busy, in case you hadn't noticed."

    "I won't take much of your time. I only wondered if you knew where I might find an Elder Scroll."

    Wuunferth coughed out a laugh. "An Elder Scroll. You're more foolish than I thought, child."

    "Forgive me. I know the Elder Scrolls are immensely rare, almost to the point of mythicism, but I thought, if anyone knew of one's existence in Skyrim... it would be you."

    The old man's eyebrows slowly lifted from their scowl. Annika lingered for a few moments, letting her flattery fill him like one of his potions, and then made to leave.

    "Wait," he said. "I... I heard a rumor, some time ago. Talk of an Elder Scroll being buried in some Dwemer ruin. Don't ask me which one, I do not know. But if you are determined to pursue this mad crusade, start there."

    Annika beamed at him. "Thank you, Wuunferth. I knew you'd be able to help."

    "Yes, well, don't thank me yet, it was only a rumor," he muttered, even as his cheeks reddened beneath the wilderness of his whiskers. "Now, if you'll be quiet while I finish these draughts, I'll—oh, Shor's stones, what is it now?"

    Annika looked over her shoulder at Wuunferth's new annoyance: a young recruit who appeared very sorry to be there.

    "M-my apologies, my lord," he stammered. "I was asked to give word to the Dragonborn—Jarl Ulfric's meeting has concluded."

    Her heart leapt. "Thank you very much," she said, and dismissed the boy with a nod. "Wuunferth, I must see the Jarl. I'll be back when I can to continue my lessons."

    "Don't hurry on my account."

    She gave him another smile, and if she didn't know better, she might've thought he returned it.


    * * * * *​


    Annika arrived in the Great Hall at the same moment as Ulfric.

    When his eyes found hers, they lit up with the same thrill that made her stomach swoop and her skin tingle. His smile was wider and truer than it had ever been before, and his hands fluttered out towards her for just a moment before they fell back to his sides. She hated leaving, but she loved seeing him so happy to see her come back.

    "Dragonborn!"

    Annika bowed to him when they met in the middle of the Great Hall. "My Jarl."

    "Thank the gods, you're all right. I was starting to fear the worst."

    "Forgive me for not coming sooner. We went straight to the Reach from Haafingar, and then I had to see the Greybeards..."

    "Sounds like quite the tale," he said with a laugh. "Come dine with me, and tell me all of it."

    "I would be honored, my lord."

    He guided her to the east wing, his wing, to which she had never before been invited. Upstairs, a servant was already setting out their fare in Ulfric's private dining room. It wasn't all that different than the Great Hall; smaller, darker, much warmer with a crackling hearth beside the table, and certainly more intimate, but it wasn't any fancier or better appointed, and their meal was served on the same earthenware as the soldiers used in the barracks. She would not have guessed this was a Jarl's chamber if she hadn't already known it was, and yet she saw Ulfric everywhere: in its ruggedness, its simplicity, its sincerity.

    Annika took the seat he offered her, next to his own at the head of the table, and let the story spill out between bites of chicken and swallows of wine.

    She told him first of the disastrous infiltration, how it had so quickly gone awry, how she had barely made it out alive... though she left out certain details she was not yet ready to tell him. He had never suspected the Thalmor of having any involvement in the return of the dragons, but he seethed to learn of their interest in gaining control of them. Then came Annika's journey with the Blades to Sky Haven Temple, their discovery of Alduin's Wall, and the depiction of a Shout the ancient Tongues once used against him.

    "I've never heard of such a Shout," Ulfric said when she asked him about it. "I assume this is why you went back to High Hrothgar?"

    "Yes. The Greybeards knew of it, but not the words themselves. So I asked to meet their master."

    His eyes went wide. "And?"

    "Arngeir refused at first. He said I wasn't ready, that I would not be ready until I returned to the path of peace." She could not keep the note of frustration from her voice, and noticed a hint of a smirk play across Ulfric's lips. "Luckily, Einarth intervened. From what I gathered, he reminded Arngeir that the choice was not his to make. And so I was granted my wish." She paused, uncertain of how much more to say. "Did you... meet Paarthurnax, while you studied at High Hrothgar?"

    Ulfric gave her the knowing smile of one conspirator to another. "Yes."

    A rush of breath burst out of her. "He's a dragon!"

    Ulfric only laughed.

    "You might have warned me about that."

    "And ruin the surprise?" he teased.

    "I almost shot an arrow at him!"

    "I doubt he would have felt it."

    Now it was Annika's turn to chuckle, thinking of Paarthurnax's joy in being enveloped by her Thu'um. "No, you're probably right."

    "Did he give you any insight on the Shout?"

    She hesitated for several beats, picking at a bit of chicken on her plate. "Yes and no," she finally replied. "He didn't know the words to Dragonrend, either, but he believes there is a way they can be learned."

    Ulfric listened in silence, but his expression deepened from skepticism to incredulity to total disbelief. One dragon cast forward through time, another laying in wait atop a mountain for millennia, an Elder Scroll the key to the mystery of it all... it sounded even more absurd coming from Annika than it had from Paarthurnax, perhaps because she still could not quite believe it herself.

    "Every answer only leads to more questions," she finished with a sigh. "I'm no closer to knowing how to defeat Alduin now than I was a week ago."

    "But you are," Ulfric countered. "You know you need to find this Elder Scroll."

    "Yes, and that shouldn't be difficult at all." She shook her head. "Even if, by some blessing of the gods, I do find it, there is no promise that it will show me anything. It might all be for naught."

    "We will cross that bridge when we come to it. Have you any idea where to begin looking?"

    "Wuunferth thinks one might be in a Dwemer ruin."

    "A Dwemer ruin?" Ulfric's gaze turned sharp in an instant. "Most are teeming with Falmer. Do you recall what I said about the Thalmor, when you told me of Delphine's plan?"

    Annika swallowed hard. She remembered very well, and if she hadn't, the file tucked between her linens and leathers, throbbing in tune with her heart, would have reminded her.

    "You said that they wouldn't hesitate to kill me."

    "Falmer are a thousandfold more dangerous than any Thalmor agent could ever hope to be," he growled. "They are foul, brutal, heartless creatures, and they will rip you apart before you even know they are there. I beg of you, Dragonborn—stay away from Dwemer ruins."

    All she could do was nod, moved by the fervor in his voice, the fire in his eyes—all in fear for her life. She felt her face flush with heat, and had to look away from him.

    "How will we find the Elder Scroll, then?"

    "I will send seasoned men to explore those ruins nearest us."

    "But you need all the men you have taking the fight to the Imperials—"

    "There will be no one left to fight on either side if Alduin is victorious," he reminded her. "Our war with the dragons is just as crucial as our war with the Empire. Especially if the Aldmeri Dominion seeks to use them against us."

    Annika nodded once more, staring down into her goblet so she would not have to see the darkness that came into Ulfric's eyes at every mention of the Aldmeri Dominion. It was no secret that he despised them, but now she understood why.

    The dossier hidden in her armor burned her conscience, tugged at the edges of her mind. She wanted to tell him the truth she had discovered, that he was not to blame for the countless deaths that followed the fall of the Imperial City. But she was afraid. Afraid of what it might do to him, learning that he had suffered nearly thirty years of guilt and shame for nothing. But he had to know. If she could relieve him of that guilt and that shame, shouldn't she?

    "My lord," she began, quiet and timid. "There is... something I have not told you."

    He raised an eyebrow.

    Trembling, and cold all over, Annika reached into her armor and withdrew the file.

    "I found this in Elenwen's study, while I was looking for something that might connect the Thalmor with the dragons." She faltered, biting her lip. "It was not my place to read it, but I did. Please forgive me."

    She handed the sheath to Ulfric.

    He opened it. The curiosity drained from his face, supplanted by anger, and fear, and pain. His breathing quickened and grew deeper. Annika longed to reach out to him, to take his hand, to remind him of where he was now, for she knew the words in that file had taken him back to what was likely one of the worst times of his life.

    But when he looked back to her, it was not in shock or confusion.

    "I have long known of their lie, Dragonborn," he said softly.

    She let out the breath she had been holding. "You have?"

    "Yes. I believed it for months after my escape—or rather, my release. I blamed myself for everything, and feared retribution for my treason. But none came. Once I had gathered all the facts, I found that they didn't match up; the Imperial City had been sacked some days before I'd given up the information the Thalmor had told me led to their victory."

    "Thank the gods. When I read that..." She shook her head. "I couldn't bear the thought of you having lived with that lie for so many years."

    Their gazes locked for a moment before he blinked and looked away.

    "They had to have known I would discover the truth before long," he said. "I don't think they meant me to believe the lie forever. It was only another needle in my mind. Only another way to—"

    He stopped abruptly, and took a mouthful of wine to swallow with the rest of his words, but Annika still heard them in his silence.

    "The prisoner I found," she said carefully, "the Blade—they weren't just interrogating him. They... they were torturing him."

    Ulfric nodded. "I thought as much."

    "Were you..." Her voice trailed off; her next words choked her, and she could not force them out. All at once, her courage left her. "I'm sorry, my lord, I should not be asking such—"

    "It's all right," he replied gently. "I once promised to tell you a story of my own, did I not?"

    "You don't have to—"

    "But I want to. It is time I told someone."

    Ulfric reached across the table and rested his hand upon hers. It only lasted for moment, but the gesture spoke volumes. The warmth of his skin lingered on hers, moving up her arm and into her hammering heart.

    "Two years into the Great War," he began, "I was captured, along with a number of other legionnaires, at the Battle of Anvil. We were taken to a Thalmor base in Valenwood, where we were interrogated on the location of other contingents, the details of our defenses and battle strategies, the Emperor's personal guard—everything. They withheld food and water from those who did not comply, and any who were bold enough to try to fight or escape were killed immediately."

    He paused to take a long draw from his goblet. Annika had lost all interest in hers; she could already see the hardening of his features, the storm of enduring anger brewing on his face.

    "It is impossible to count days when there is no sun or moon by which to measure time, but I would say I spent perhaps a month in that prison, before they discovered who I was—not a nameless legionnaire, but the son of a Jarl of Skyrim. Someone of value. Someone they could use," he added, his eyes small and fierce. "They moved me to my own cell, then, and left me alone for some days. Finally, a justiciar came to me. Elenwen." He spat out her name as though it tasted sour on his tongue. "I would not answer any question she put to me. Hunger and thirst did nothing to persuade me, as it had some of the other prisoners. And so she changed her strategy."

    He went quiet again, but there was no need for him to elaborate.

    "The Blade." Annika's whisper came out unbidden. "They—they were torturing him with shock spells, when I found him."

    "They used shock, yes, and fire, too. But they were nothing compared to frost. Most people, Nords especially, underestimate the power of frost. I don't. Not any longer. Shock and fire may take only moments to make you scream, but frost is so excrutiating precisely because it is so slow." His eyes, wide and haunted, fixed on some point in the air, but were seeing, Annika knew, years into the past. "The first hour, you only feel cold. The second hour, numb. But by the fifth hour, you can feel your flesh dying, your veins shriveling up beneath your skin. By the tenth hour, your entire leg is frozen solid, and if they'd only give you an axe, you would hack it off yourself."

    His voice faltered, shaking, thick with pain that sounded too fresh, too real. He shook his head and closed his eyes, steeling himself against it. Annika's welled with the tears she knew he would never let himself cry.

    "That was the first time I gave in," he told her, "and gave them the information they wanted. I thought if I did, they might let me go, or at least kill me—I would have welcomed death then. Instead, they healed me. And that was the most frightening thing of all, for I knew it meant they would do it all again another day. And they did. Again and again."

    The fingers of his right hand wandered to his left. He was not wearing his gauntlets, but the long sleeves of his tunic covered his arms, until he pushed one back to reveal the puckered, ruined skin beneath.

    Annika drew in a sharp breath.

    "I suppose I should thank them for letting me keep all of my limbs," he muttered. "But they left deliberate scars, so that every time I looked at myself, I would hate them more. That was their greatest trick, you see. Their true aim. They didn't need any information from me; they needed an instrument, a puppet, one with the power and the means to create a rift in Tamriel. They filled me with enough hate, and rage, and fear, to make me rise up against the Empire that betrayed its people and signed away our freedom. Part of me always knew that that was exactly what the elves wanted, that I was playing right into their hands. But another part of me, a stronger, louder part, hungered for revenge, for justice, for peace, and knew we would never see it with the Empire controlling our kings and our laws. I could not sit back and watch Skyrim wither. If she is to die, it won't be without a fight."

    He tugged his sleeve back over his wrist, hiding the brand he had been given—that of a fighter, a warrior, a survivor. A man who had been broken, and who had rebuilt himself from the bottom up. She saw his shame written all over him, but she only felt pride for all he had done, all he contined to do.

    "You're doing more than fighting," Annika said. "You're winning."

    "This war, perhaps. The true war still awaits us."

    "I will fight it with you," she promised. "My bow is yours until my dying breath."

    Their eyes met, and it was all Annika could do not to reach for him. She would have done anything to take away his sadness, to make him forget the horror he had lived through... though she knew no magic in this world could erase those memories.

    "That reminds me," he said, standing up so quickly he almost spilled his wine. "I have something for you."

    "For me?"

    "Stay here, I'll only be a moment."

    Ulfric was gone before she could say another word. Without him, the chamber seemed colder. Annika sipped her hot spiced wine until he returned, what felt like an hour later, with something long and gleaming in his hands.

    "By the gods," Annika breathed. She rose from her chair and drifted to Ulfric as if in a dream.

    "Forged from the bones of the dragon you slew in Kynesgrove," he told her. "Stronger than ebony, more resilient than malachite. And the only one of its kind in existence."

    It was the most exquisite bow she had ever seen. A tentative hand fluttered up to let a finger stroke the length of it. The outer limbs were as smooth and shining as river stones, with small spikes protruding closer to the grip. The bones appeared sunbleached, despite having spent the last few millenia buried in the earth beside the place she was born. This was the beast that had threatened the home that had once been hers, the beast who had tried to kill her. She had taken its soul, and now she would take its bones, too, and use both to slay others of its kind.

    Annika looked up to find Ulfric watching her intently, the smallest smile curving his lips. He glanced away in the same heartbeat.

    "You... you made this for me?"

    "Well, the blacksmith made it," he answered. "But yes, it is yours. There are arrows, too."

    He slipped a quiver from his shoulder; two dozen arrows, tipped with flawless triangles of bone. Annika took both bow and arrows from him, handling each with great reverence. The quiver rested comfortably across her spine, and the bow, though heavier than what she was used to, fit her palm with perfect balance.

    "My lord, I..." She shook her head, searching for words she would never find, for no words could express the fullness of her heart. And so she said the only two she could. "Thank you."

    "You are welcome, Dragonborn."

    There was that smile again, small and shy, lighting up eyes that were fixed on her own. The shadow of the past, and all the pain it carried, was gone. Perhaps she had been able to make him forget, after all, even if just for this moment.

    Silence stretched between them, making her nervous and flustered, and she grasped for something, anything, to say.

    "All of this, and still you call me Dragonborn?"

    Ulfric laughed. "What would you have me call you?"

    "I do have a name."

    "As do I, yet it's always my lord or my Jarl with you."

    She flushed again, and bowed her head in contrition. "It's disrespectful to address a Jarl by name."

    "We're all brothers and sisters in binds, remember?" he returned. "If you wish me to call you by your name, I must insist that you do the same, Annika."

    It jarred her to hear her own name sliding off of Ulfric's tongue, the hard consonants softened and rounded by his rich voice. A warmth that had nothing to do with the wine spread across her chest.

    He took the smallest possible step towards her, but she noticed it. She felt it. Something in the air shifted around them, an invisible but palpable change that made Annika's skin shiver in anticipation of something she could not name. Her body responded without her mind's consent, burning under Ulfric's knowing gaze, for he had felt the change, too. His neck pulsed as he swallowed, and the whiskers of his beard twitched when he parted his lips, perhaps to speak—

    The spell was shattered with a single, hard knock on the door.

    Jorleif burst into the room without waiting for welcome.

    "My lord," he said, urgent and anxious. "You must come at once."

    "What is it, Jorleif?"

    "The Imperial prisoner from Korvanjund, the quaestor. He's escaped."


    * * * * *​


    The cell was empty, its door still locked.

    "When was he last accounted for?"

    "This morning, when I began my post," the guard answered. "He was sitting in the corner, right there."

    He pointed to the far end of the cell, where a skin of water and a crust of bread sat abandoned. Annika imagined Hadvar huddled there in his rags, waiting to be rescued by the Empire he'd pledged his life to.

    "And no one has come through the dungeon since that time?"

    "Only Galmar, making his rounds before he left for the Reach."

    "No one else? You're absolutely certain?"

    "No one else, my lord... unless they were invisible."

    The guard chanced a smile at his jest, but Ulfric was not amused.

    "Tell me, then, how a prisoner in a locked cell managed to get out of it, lock it again behind him, and walk out of the dungeon without you noticing?"

    The man flinched. "I... I don't know, my Jarl."

    "This quaestor was to be released three days hence, as a trade for three of our own men the Empire is holding prisoner," Ulfric snarled. "Now they'll be left to rot, because you let him escape right under your nose."

    He glowered down at the guard, fuming, his lips nothing but a tight slash through his beard.

    "Bjorn," Jorleif interjected, "tell the Jarl what you told me."

    "Yes, sir. The prisoner had a visitor last Fredas, my lord—Lieutenant Ralof."

    Annika blanched.

    "Ralof?" Ulfric repeated. "Did he say what he wanted with the prisoner?"

    "No, but..." He hesitated, and glanced to Jorleif for reassurance. "I overheard them talking about Riverwood. It seems they both grew up there. It sounded like they'd been good friends before... before the war."

    Ulfric's eyes flamed at the revelation.

    "Jorleif," he said, his voice suddenly calm, yet somehow even more threatening, "relieve Bjorn from duty until otherwise instructed. Annika, with me."

    He stalked back through the dungeons, Annika following close behind. Neither spoke. When they reached the war room, Ulfric rounded the map table and leaned over it, making an obvious effort not to explode. Annika was too afraid to speak first, to quicken the question she knew was coming.

    "You've grown close to Ralof," he finally said, "have you not?"

    "Yes, I have."

    "He spared this legionnaire's life at Korvanjund, on the pretense of using him in a prisoner exchange. Now I find that Ralof knows this man personally. That they were friends. That he had his own motive in saving him, the enemy." He pinned her with a hard, demanding stare. "Did you know about this?"

    Whatever had come alive between them upstairs was crumbling down around her, and there was only one way to stop it. She could say no. She could say she'd been none the wiser to Ralof's connection to this legionnaire. But the thought of lying to Ulfric, of taking advantage of his trust, troubled her even more than the danger of the truth.

    She stared, unseeing, at her feet, her gaze forced down under the demanding weight of Ulfric's eyes.

    "Yes, I did."

    He heaved an anguished sigh, and pounded his fist into the table.

    "I thought I could trust you!"

    "You can!" Annika cried. "You can trust me!"

    "Then why did you not tell me? You know someone in my inner circle has been betraying me, yet you didn't think to tell me that one of my lieutenants had connections to the Empire?"

    "It isn't like that, he doesn't have connections to the Empire—he just happens to have known someone who became a legionnaire. You could say the same of half of your men."

    "And how many of those men have brought legionnaires into my keep—my home? How many of those men lied to us to protect one of them?"

    There was nothing she could say.

    Ulfric shook his head, his jaw clenched, his fists balled at his sides. "You should have told me, Annika."

    How had this schism opened so quickly? Just minutes ago, he was baring his heart to her, sharing his darkest secrets with her, looking at her in that way that made her whole body sing. Now he was glaring at her as though she was the one who had betrayed him... and perhaps she had. Her loyalty was not to Ralof; it was to Ulfric. Always, it would be to Ulfric.

    "Yes, I should have told you," she conceded. "And I am truly sorry that I didn't. But please, my lord—please, Ulfric—believe me when I tell you, now, that Ralof would never betray you. He had nothing to do with Hadvar's escape."

    "Hadvar—the prisoner we took, the man whose life we spared, on Ralof's request?"

    "He didn't want to see his friend killed, but that doesn't mean he helped him escape. If he wanted Hadvar freed, all he had to do was wait three days—he was to be released in a trade, you said so yourself."

    "Yes, and now not only is Ralof's friend saved, but the Empire gets their quaestor back and our men die in an Imperial prison. Do you remember what I said, once, about coincidences?"

    "Sometimes a coincidence truly is just a coincidence. Do you remember who stood beside you in Helgen, ready to die for you? Ralof's head was on that chopping block as surely as yours or mine."

    "There are men on both sides who would die for the cause they believe in."

    "Yes, but there was no reason for Ralof to die, not there, not then, not if he was in league with the Imperials. The legionnaires who captured you—Hadvar among them—could have released Ralof after the ambush. Or General Tullius could have acquitted him in Helgen. For that matter, why would Ralof have gone to Darkwater Crossing with you at all? If he'd helped arrange the ambush, why wouldn't he have made some excuse to remain in Windhelm while you went to your doom?"

    The anger drained from Ulfric's face, leaving his eyes wide, his mouth hanging open. He staggered back as though someone had hit him in the stomach.

    "Galmar."

    Annika shook her head. "What of him?"

    "He wouldn't come with me," Ulfric muttered. "He was so close to finding the Jagged Crown, he'd said, and had to stay in Windhelm to await news. I laughed, thinking he'd make any excuse not to go to Riften."

    A cold, hard ball of dread settled in her chest.

    "You don't mean... you don't think Galmar could be...?"

    He began to pace across the floor. "It was Galmar who suggested the route through Darkwater Crossing," he told her, "so we could rest and water our horses at our camp in the Rift. That courier who was almost intercepted by Imperials in the Pale—he was there on Galmar's orders. And within hours of Galmar discovering the location of the Jagged Crown, the Imperials were after it."

    Annika let out a long and shaky breath. "They would've gotten it had we followed Galmar's strategy at Korvanjund—and we likely would've been killed."

    "He pushed me, time and again, to attack Whiterun, no matter how risky it was. And he was the only one who protested your bringing my axe to Balgruuf in a bid for peace."

    "He was the only one in the dungeons this morning, right before Hadvar escaped."

    "Every time," Ulfric whispered. "Every time we met an obstacle, every time something went wrong..."

    "A coincidence?"

    He looked up at her, and his eyes said what he didn't have to. She had never seen him so terrified.

    "How could I have been so blind?" he said. "He knows everything I say, everything I do... he knows every battle plan and every war strategy. He's in the perfect position to tell the Imperials anything they want to know."

    "But... why? Why would he tell them anything? Why would Galmar, of all people, betray you?"

    "Why does any man betray another?" Ulfric asked in return. "For gold, for power, for vengeance."

    "But—Galmar despises the Empire, more than anyone I've ever known! He'd rather fall on his own sword than see them win this war!"

    "Or he could be a very good actor."

    Annika shook her head. "This is madness. Talk to him. Interrogate him. Look for proof before you jump to this terrible conclusion. Where is Galmar now?" she asked. "That guard, he mentioned the Reach?"

    Another wave of dread washed over Ulfric, stealing what color was left in his face.

    "By the gods," he breathed. "He's leading them into a trap."

    "What do you mean? He's leading who—"

    He barreled around the table and out of the war room. Annika hurried after him.

    "He's taking three contingents into the Reach," he told her, not breaking stride. "Two to attack Fort Sungard and create a diversion, one to take Markarth by stealth while most of its defenses are occupied. But if he is the one betraying me—if he is working for the enemy—this would be the perfect opportunity to take out sixty of my best warriors. Jorleif," he roared when they reached the Great Hall, and the steward, back from the dungeons, jumped to attention. "Send word to the stables to ready my mount, and all others possible."

    "What?" Annika cried. "You don't mean to go after them?"

    "Gather as many riders as there are horses," he continued to Jorleif, ignoring her. "Fully armed and armored. And provisions. We ride for the Reach tonight."

    "No, please," Annika begged, "Ulfric, you can't!"

    "You wanted me to look for proof," Ulfric said, continuing through the Great Hall. "No one else knows of this plan, no one but Galmar and me. Not even his men will know they're taking Markarth itself until they reach the city gates. We kept it covert so word could not be leaked to the Empire. But if we find Markarth in open battle, if we find they had been ready for an attack—there's your proof."

    "But—but if you're right, you'll be walking into a massacre!"

    He whirled about, his face hard and blazing. "Do you know what I did in Markarth, after the Great War?"

    She shrank away. She'd always chosen not to believe the worst accounts of the infamous Markarth Incident, but she had come to know what shame looked like in Ulfric's eyes, and she saw it there again now.

    Her silence was answer enough.

    "I wanted Markarth taken quietly precisely to avoid another massacre within its walls. But if my men are ambushed, they won't go down without taking as many of the enemy with them as they can." He pressed his lips into an even deeper scowl. "I will not have any more of that city's blood on my hands."

    He set off again, and again, Annika followed.

    "I'm coming with you, then."

    "That is out of the question."

    "Why have I been learning to heal if not to heal you?" she shot back. "You are my Jarl; it is my duty to protect you. I will not have your blood on my hands."

    He turned back to match her glare with his own. "Yes, I am your Jarl. Do not forget your place, Dragonborn."

    His return to the title cut right through her heart, but did not sway her determination.

    "I would rather defy you and see you live than obey you and watch you die."

    She stood as tall as she could and was still lost in his shadow, but her devotion to him towered over them both. He was not only her Jarl; he was her hero, her savior, the man who had taken her life in his hands and breathed fire back into it. She had pledged that life to him long before she was given an oath to repeat and a blue wrap to wear, and she would see that pledge through. She would not back down.

    But she would not have to. After a long moment's impasse, Ulfric gave a single stiff nod.

    "Fine," he said. "But know this—I will not watch you die, either."

    He strode off towards the barracks.

    This time, Annika hung back, watching his long blonde waves streaming out behind him, the hem of his fur cloak lapping at his boots, knowing only that if it came to it, he would have to watch her die. If it came to it, she would die for him.
     
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  6. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    five: when one door closes


    They rode hard into the night, stopping only briefly in Whiterun before pushing on to the Reach. The gods had blessed them with both moons, and Annika's Thu'um ensured a clear sky from which Masser and Secunda could light their way. Even so, it was past the hour of the witch when they came to the southern border of the Reach, where Fort Sungard stood high atop a hill, nestled at the crossroads between holds. Moonlight etched its stone walls with silver, but the torches on the battlements were not lit.

    Halfway up the rise, Ulfric held up a hand. The column came to a halt, and Annika pulled her mount up beside his.

    "Something isn't right," he told her, lowering the hood of his traveling cloak. "It's too quiet."

    "They've already taken the fort?"

    "Not that quickly. As fast as we rode, we shouldn't be more than half an hour behind them. They should still be fighting..."

    His voice trailed off, but his eyes narrowed, locked on a dark figure on the ground just ahead. He cued his horse towards it, and Annika followed suit.

    It was a body. A corpse wearing Stormcloak blue. Another lay a few yards away, and another just beyond that, and another—

    An arrow ripped through the air.

    Annika whirled to see a soldier tumble from his horse.

    A second arrow soared into the host and caught another soldier's mount in the chest. It screamed and reared, throwing its rider from its back.

    Ulfric was on the ground just as swiftly. "Shield wall!"

    Annika dismounted with the rest of the men, and pulled the shield from her saddle, thankful that Ulfric had insisted she carry one. She ducked behind it and fell back to help the men who'd been hit. The first was already dead. The second's leg was trapped beneath his dying horse; she helped pull him free, and cast the strongest spell she knew to mend his mangled shin.

    She caught up to the contingent and added her shield to the blockade just in time to catch an arrow. It punched down through the wood, stopping inches from her nose.

    They moved as one body, one shield, towards the fort. Arrows rained down from the battlements, but none got far enough to even slow their advance. When she heard footsteps pounding down stone steps and over packed dirt, she knew they'd reached the gates.

    "Shields front," Ulfric shouted, and they repositioned the wall in time to meet the swarm of Imperials.

    Swords slammed against their shields, but they only pushed back harder. Stormcloak blades and axes swung over the wall, cutting down whatever happened to be in their way, bringing sprays of blood back with them. Annika clung to her splintered circle of wood with one hand, while the other stabbed her dagger into any opening she could find. A slash of red and grunt of pain rewarded her.

    Back and forth they surged, gaining ground only to lose it a moment later, but the resistance thinned with each thrust of steel. It might have taken an hour, or perhaps five minutes; time did not seem to exist in the heat of battle, though Annika's left arm ached under the weight of the unfamiliar shield. Finally, the Stormcloaks bowled over the remaining forces to finish the battle without the hindrance of shields.

    The last man fell, and the night was quiet once more.

    Bodies littered the ground all around them. It took Annika a moment to notice that many more of them had been comrades than enemies.

    "What happened?" she wondered aloud.

    It was Ulfric who answered, wiping a smear of blood from his axe as he came up beside her. "The two contingents Galmar sent in," he said, his voice thick with anger. "The Imperials knew they were coming."

    "How can you be sure?"

    "Because they're all dead." He shook his head as he circled a pair of corpses, both in blue. He pointed out half a dozen more, all wearing the same. "They outnumbered the Imperials at least three to one, yet they lost the battle. Half of them were stricken down by arrows before they even reached the gates."

    A scuffle in the dirt behind them caught their attention. A legionnaire, bleeding but far from dead, pushed to his feet and began to scramble away as fast as his wounded leg would allow.

    Ulfric stalked after him, each of his strides worth two of the legionnaire's, and when he had closed enough distance between them, he swung his shield out and knocked the other man back down into the dirt. He planted a boot on the man's chest, pinning him to the ground, and leaned over him.

    "Where are the rest of your men?"

    The legionnaire gasped for breath until Ulfric shifted his weight off of him.

    Then, he laughed.

    "In Markarth," he said, "killing your men."

    Ulfric's face buckled with rage. He dug his foot into the man's chest, yet still he laughed. He only fell silent when Ulfric's axe found his throat.

    He pushed off of the body. In a moment he was looming over Annika, so close she could feel his breath on her face when he leaned down.

    "You wanted proof?"

    She could not meet his eyes, for fear that their fire would burn her.

    "On your mounts," Ulfric bellowed, and no one dared question him.


    * * * * *​


    The deep wail of a war horn echoed over mountains and valleys.

    Ulfric rode his mount harder, faster, up the road into Markarth; Annika struggled to keep pace. The symphony of battle grew louder with every gallop, the war horn soon joined by angry roars, anguished cries, the clash of steel on steel.

    The city walls came into view, and Ulfric leapt from his horse before it came to a full stop. The rest of the host abandoned their mounts, too, to storm the gates on foot, easily cutting down what little resistance remained on this side of the walls. Annika weaved through the others, her sights set only on Ulfric. She caught up to him at the very threshold of the city, and they plunged in together.

    Markarth was in chaos. Bodies were everywhere—Stormcloaks, Imperials, city guards, civilians who had taken up arms against the intruders. Blood creeped out from beneath them, trailing wherever gravity pulled it; enough had spilled into a trickling stream to make its waters run red, the color made lurid by the fires that snapped around fallen torches and kindled corpses. Stumbling around the bodies and through the blood, what was left of Galmar's contingent struggled to survive an endless barrage of swords and axes and arrows.

    Any last doubts Annika might have clung to were gone.

    She looked to her left, and panicked to find Ulfric missing; she spun around and found him, three paces behind, rooted to the spot as the river of his men flowed around him into the city. His eyes were wide and wild, darting back and forth over the devastation, and his chest heaved with deep and ragged breaths. His earlier words came back to her. Do you know what I did in Markarth, after the Great War?

    She hurried back to him and laid a tentative hand on his arm. He jumped at her touch, and seemed startled to find her there.

    "Annika," he said, the naked pain in his voice cutting right through her. "Stay with me."

    They dove into the fray.

    Ulfric sliced down the first man he saw wearing Imperial red, and moved on to the next without missing a beat. Annika stayed at his back, aiming her arrows high against the archers shooting from Markarth's upper tiers, but she kept one eye on Ulfric, ready to heal any wound he suffered. But his axe found his foes' heads and necks and stomachs before their swords could hope to reach him.

    The heart of the battle inched higher, Ulfric's forces joining with Galmar's to drive legionnaires and guards back towards the rocky mountain that was Markarth's western wall. A swell of reserves poured from the keep, balancing the fight once more, but this meant that the Jarl had been left with a skeleton guard; Ulfric must have known it, too, for he struck out at his enemies with greater determination. His axe was alive in his hands. High, low, overhand, he rained steel down upon anyone who stood in his way. He grabbed men whose backs were to him and threw them bodily from the mezzanines, the crunch of their skulls on the stones below swallowed up in the din. He tore a path through the Imperial army faster than they could fill it.

    For a moment, Annika was lost in awe of him, of the beast he had become in the blink of an eye, and yet he fought with such grace, making every battle a dance. He strode from foe to foe, his axe a blur of red and silver, his cloak spinning around him, never stopping to think, only acting on instincts and reflexes honed from decades of fighting wars that never saw an end.

    Her eyes were on him when his flared with sudden rage. She looked to where he pointed.

    "There."

    She spotted the bear's head helm one tier above them.

    Ulfric bowled through the men that stood between him and his betrayer, hacking and throwing and crushing in a frenzy, so single-minded that Annika worried he wouldn't notice a sword running through his chest.

    And then they were on a bridge over rushing water, the steaming hiss of a waterfall to their left, the cacophany of the battle to their right, and Galmar just ahead of them, kicking a dead legionnaire out of his way.

    "Galmar!" Ulfric shouted, his voice raw and bloody. "Gods damn you!"

    Galmar turned just in time to see the axe arcing towards him, to stagger back out of its reach.

    "Ulfric?" His eyes held no anger, only shock. "What are you doing? Why are you here?"

    "To stop you!"

    Ulfric swung again, but Galmar deflected with his own axe.

    "What are you talking about?" he roared. "You need to get out of here, it isn't safe! We walked right into an ambush—they were waiting for us!"

    "Because you told them we were coming!"

    "What? Have you gone mad?"

    "No, I've finally come to my senses. It's been you all along, hasn't it?" Ulfric snarled. "You've had a hand in every failed strategy, every stroke of misfortune! Everything that's gone wrong, you've been right there!"

    Galmar gaped at him. "You think I'm the one who's been betraying you?"

    "Only two people knew of this plan—and the Imperials didn't hear of it from me."

    "Nor from me! I would sooner die than betray you. You're as good as a brother to me, Ulfric, you know that!"

    "What did they promise you? What is worth turning your back on your brother? On your people?"

    "Nothing!"

    "You lie!"

    Galmar's axe leapt up to block Ulfric's cut, and sparks flew when the steel kissed.

    "What's come over you?" he bellowed. "Has she poisoned your mind against me?"

    "She is the only one I can trust!"

    "Trust me, as you have all of your life! I am not your enemy—they are!"

    He waved an arm out over Markarth, the battle that raged below them, above them, all around them. But Ulfric was blind and deaf to everything but the suspicion that his anger and his pain and his fear had convinced him was true.

    He struck with a beastial roar. Galmar ducked back, parrying, but Ulfric pressed the attack, and suddenly they were battling in earnest, steel ringing as they spun and swung. No sooner did Galmar turn one cut than the next was on him, Ulfric driving him back and back without a moment's respite. Galmar stumbled on the dead legionnaire, and Annika thought it was done, but he went to one knee instead of falling, and his axe flew up to block a downcut that would have cracked him like an egg. He fought his way back to his feet stroke by stroke.

    Annika stood by with an arrow drawn and ready, but her fingers had turned to stone, and her head spun with what Galmar had said, with the hurt she had seen in his eyes.

    And then steel found flesh, and a ribbon of blood streaked out of the gash in Ulfric's sleeve and mail.

    Ulfric barely seemed to feel it, but Galmar did; he gaped, horrified, at what he had done. His axe slipped from his hand and clattered to the ground.

    "Ulfric... I..."

    Ulfric heaved his axe into the air for the final blow, but his injured arm buckled under the weight of it before he could follow through. Annika lowered her bow and rushed forth to heal him, but he pulled away from her and made to charge again at Galmar.

    "Stop!" she shouted, grabbing whatever she could reach of him—a shoulder, a fist of cloak. "Let me heal you before you lose your arm!"

    He lost his grip on his axe again, and only then did he relent and let Annika cast her spells. He kept both eyes locked on Galmar, but Galmar was still as a statue, only his lips moving without making a sound.

    "My Jarl," he finally sputtered out, bowing his head. "Forgive me. I should not have raised my axe against you."

    "Nor should I have raised mine against you," Ulfric growled, though there was no hint of apology in his voice. "You don't deserve to die in battle. You don't deserve the honor or the glory. You will die a traitor's death."

    Galmar's head sank lower, but his gaze rose to meet Ulfric's, pleading.

    "Do as you feel you must," he said, "but I swear to every last Divine, I—"

    His eyes flicked up, drawn away by something over their shoulders, and went wide.

    "Ulfric!"

    Galmar lunged. In the space of a single breath, he seized Ulfric, spun them both around, and threw his own body over him. An arrow bloomed from the small of Galmar's back, then another from the bend where his shoulder met his neck, and another from his lung.

    He fell forward against Ulfric.

    Annika notched and drew, but the archers were already fleeing their stone rampart. Her own arrows would never reach them in time. But her Voice would.

    "Fus ro dah!"

    The men flew off of their feet, off of the rampart itself, tumbling head over feet as they plunged to the ground, far below.

    The flow of the battle turned all at once, like a flock of birds changing course. Imperial swords pointed Annika's way, and she heard them naming her, cursing her. Dragonborn.

    Ulfric struggled to put Galmar on his feet, but he only sagged in his Jarl's arms, clutching for his cloak with shaking hands. Annika hurried to them, spells aglow in her palms, but some deeper part of her knew it was for naught. His lung was punctured. He was already drowning in his own blood. Some things not even magic could mend.

    Galmar gasped for air, and coughed up a spray of red. "You have to... get out of here!"

    Ulfric could not speak, but he didn't have to. His eyes said it all, staring huge and devastated down at the man who had been a brother to him, the man he had fought for and fought with and fought against. The man who had sworn to die for him, and who was now doing just that, slipping away little by little and then all at once, his body going rigid, then limp, his eyes glazing over and then darkening as the light inside of him went out. His last breath spoke of more truth than any words ever could.

    They were wrong.

    Ulfric did not seem to hear Annika's voice, shouting inches from his ear, nor feel her hands straining to pull him up, away from the storm of foes swelling all around them.

    Finally he let go of Galmar, and took up the axe the second-in-command would no longer need. He threw himself at the first Imperial to reach them, swinging his own axe with enough force to cleave him from shoulder to heart, burying Galmar's into the next man's forehead.

    Annika loosed arrow after arrow into the crowd, and then her fingers closed on air when she reached for another. She unleashed her Voice, crushing the closest line of legionnaires against those behind them, but that did not slow them for long. She snatched up a lost shield, took her own dagger in hand, and prayed for Talos to protect her, to protect Ulfric.

    From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a swathe of sunlight against the darkness, of yellow amidst the red and blue, illuminated by the light of a raging fire. Another flashed by, and then another, and when she chanced a look at the bottom of the basin that was Markarth, she knew they were saved.

    Soldiers wrapped in yellow, carrying shields branded with the sigil of a horse, swarmed the city.

    They overcame the opposition swiftly, far outnumbering the legionnaires and guards who had survived the rebels. A cry for retreat rose up from the ground, and those left fighting for the Empire withdrew—if they could—to Understone Keep.

    Ulfric rallied his men to follow, and stormed the palace with all the strength of Whiterun behind him.


    * * * * *​


    The morning dawned cold and bleak in Windhelm.

    Snow swirled down from a gray sky, the frozen tears of the gods who had cried for two full days and nights since Galmar's death. The soil of the courtyard was blanketed in white, in the frost that had come too soon.

    "Before the ancient flame, we grieve."

    Those who had come to bid their last goodbye repeated the priestess's words.

    The pyre snapped and crackled, but consumed only air, and the mist of the snow that melted around it. Galmar may not have been Ulfric's kin by blood, but he was still family. He would be laid to rest deep in the catacombs of the Palace of the Kings, with Ulfric's ancestors, and, someday, Ulfric himself. Stormcloaks don't burn, he said; they endure.

    And Galmar was a Stormcloak, perhaps the truest of them all. His sacrifice had proven that. A turncloak would not give his life to save that of the man he had betrayed, but a loyal ally would give his for the man he had always been true to. A friend would. A brother would.

    "At this loss, we weep."

    The leather of Ulfric's gauntlets creaked as his hands curled into tighter fists. Only Annika, standing at his side, heard the low grumble in his chest, and she knew his thoughts, for they were her own. The traitor still walked amongst them. Galmar's blood was on one of his mourner's hands.

    "For the fallen, we shout."

    She inclined her head enough to peer up at Ulfric. His gaze was as hard and as cold as the ground it was fixed upon. But that fury and that hatred only masked what lay deeper, what she did not believe he had let anyone else see. His guilt. His sorrow. His pain.

    His hand uncurled itself, and drifted slowly out to find hers. He clutched her so tightly she thought he might crush her fingers. She would not have cared if he did.

    "And for ourselves, we take our leave."

    They stood there, hand in hand, and watched the bundle that was Galmar, bound in linens and furs and weaves of flowers, until Ulfric could no longer bear it. His hand slipped from hers, and he stalked back to the keep, his face hidden by the curtain of his hair.


    * * * * *​


    They feasted Galmar that night, both to mourn his death and to celebrate his new life in Sovngarde, where he was enjoying an endless feast of his own. For no matter what Ulfric had said in the heat of that awful moment, Galmar had not died a traitor's death. He had died the most noble and honorable death a man could.

    The Great Hall was open to all who would come, and come they did, friends and comrades and those who had never so much as spoken to Galmar, but wished to pay their respects to the man whose sacrifice had saved their Jarl. Songs were sung. Speeches were made. Flagons and goblets and horns were raised high in tribute.

    And all night, Ulfric sat at the head of the long table, present but not truly there.

    Upon his insistance, Annika was at his right hand. She had expected someone to protest, but no one did; it took her some time to remember that the only man who would have was no longer there to do so.

    The hours crawled by until Annika was sure half the night had passed. The platters of fowl and fish were picked clean, the tureens of soups and stews drained, the towers of cheeses and breads demolished. Enough mead and wine had been consumed to turn the mood from somber to lively, which only made Ulfric retreat further into himself. Annika caught Yrsarald's eye from across the table and gave him a pleading look; he understood at once, and declared that the feast had come to an end. It took another quarter of an hour to corral the mourners out of the keep.

    Ulfric only stared into his mead.

    At last, the Great Hall fell quiet. His duty done, Ulfric was free to withdraw to his quarters. But he did not. Instead, he dismissed Yrsarald and the two guards left at the keep's entrance. Annika moved to leave as well, but he caught her arm before she had fully risen.

    "Stay."

    He drained his flagon; his sixth, or his seventh? Annika had lost count. He was silent for a long while, looking only at his hands, the table, the stubs of candles whose flames had begun to sputter and die, leaving the chamber with only a dusky glow. She began to think he'd forgotten she was there at all, and was startled when he finally spoke.

    "The men who returned from Markarth this afternoon—they found something in Understone Keep," he told her. "Markarth's court mage is a renowned scholar of the Dwemer, and has been excavating Dwemer ruins across Skyrim for years. It seems he lately explored a place called Blackreach, and procured a number of relics and curiosities from it."

    Annika waited, but he did not continue.

    "I'm afraid I don't understand."

    He turned his eyes to her, then, and met her gaze for the first time all night.

    "He had it. The Elder Scroll. And now it is ours."

    A faint flicker of something that might have been victory passed over her. She should have been more pleased, but she simply did not care, now, about Elder Scrolls, about dragons, about saving the world. She only nodded.

    Ulfric rose from his seat and rounded Annika's side of the table to snatch up the last of the mead.

    "Looks like it's up to us to finish this off." He poured half of the bottle's contents into Annika's flagon, and the rest into his own, before lifting it into the air. "One last toast," he muttered, his voice hard and bitter, "to the sons and daughters of Skyrim."

    He took a mouthful of his mead, stared down into it for a moment, and hurled it across the chamber with all his might.

    Annika flinched.

    "The sons and daughters," Ulfric growled, "who keep dying because of me."

    She leapt up and put a hand on his arm. "They are not dying because of you—"

    "Galmar died because of me. If I hadn't been there, if I hadn't gone rushing off to Markarth—"

    "He would have died still," she finished. "If we hadn't called for reinforcements from Whiterun, Galmar and every man in his contingent would have been slaughtered."

    He had to know she spoke the truth. Some corner of his mind that wasn't drowning in grief had to know that he couldn't have prevented what happened, he couldn't have saved everyone. But he just shook his head.

    "He gave his life to save mine. And I did not deserve such a sacrifice."

    "He believed you did. He believed Skyrim deserved that sacrifice, and so do all the other sons and daughters who give their lives for your cause. They don't die because of you," she insisted, "they die because they know there are things worth dying for. They die so that their children and grandchildren won't have to. They die because they know dying free is better than living in bondage. Isn't that why you're fighting this war?"

    He looked at her, blinking, clinging to the idea, and he let her draw him down to the bench. He sat with his back slouched against the table and his legs splayed across the blue carpet, peering up at the banners that hung from the rafters.

    "I fight," he murmured, so low at first that she could barely hear him, "for the men I held in my arms, dying on foreign soil; for their wives and children, whose names I heard whispered in their dying breaths. I fight for we few who did come home, only to find our country full of strangers wearing familiar faces. I fight for the people impoverished to pay the debts of an Empire too weak to rule them, yet brands them criminals for wanting to rule themselves. I fight so that all the fighting I've already done hasn't been for nothing." His hands clenched into fists beside him, remembering all the adversaries they had already torn down, and all those they had yet to meet. "I fight because I must."

    "And your people fight because they must—for their families, for their freedom, for their home."

    "And you?" he countered, turning to pin her under a demanding gaze. "Why do you fight? You, who left so many years ago? You'd already lost your family. You had your freedom elsewhere. And you hadn't called Skyrim home for more than a decade. So, why did you come back to fight for her?"

    Annika went still, but for her heart, pounding beneath her ribs.

    She had never meant to tell him. But she had never expected to be anything more than another face amongst the masses. She had never dared to imagine that Ulfric Stormcloak would want to know her name, let alone her reasons for being there. But the moment had come; the question was asked. And she had to answer it. He needed to know.

    "I didn't," she admitted. "I didn't come back to fight for Skyrim."

    She could not look at him, but she felt him watching her.

    "Why, then?" His voice was brittle and tense, and cold enough to chill her. "Why are you here?"

    "Because, like a river flowing into the sea, fate led me back." She sighed so deeply she shook from the inside out. "It is not a story that can be told in only a few words, for it began long ago, when I was eleven years old."

    The thought of telling him no longer frightened her, for it no longer mattered if it made her look weak, or helpless. All that mattered, now, was Ulfric knowing why one person, at least, thought he was worth dying for. Still, her hands fidgeted in her lap, and she struggled to find the right words to paint the picture no one else had ever seen.

    "That winter was an especially harsh one," she began. "The frost went so deep and lasted for so long that even our hardiest winter crops withered and died, and the constant snowfall made hunting impossible. To make matters worse, my mother was bedridden with fever, and couldn't look for work in town, nor could my sister or I, as young as we were. What little reserves we had were quickly exhausted, and with nothing to sell or trade, we were literally starving to death. After a week of eating nothing but a handful of snowberries and a few flour biscuits, I made the desperate decision to steal what we needed to survive."

    She paused, swallowing hard, shocked to find it so difficult to admit to that long-ago sacrifice of honor.

    "I came into Windhelm one night, intending to take fruits and vegetables from gardens, or if I was lucky enough to find one unlocked, meats from a salthouse. But when I saw how little there was to be had, it hit me that the winter had been hard not only on us, but on everyone. I couldn't bring myself to steal food from people who needed it just as much as we did. But, just as I was about to leave the city emptyhanded, I thought of one house that surely would not miss a few carrots or potatoes... the Palace of the Kings."

    Recollection dawned on Ulfric's face, and Annika's flushed in the vulnerability of being known.

    "I stole into the back courtyard," she went on, her words tumbling out in a nervous rush, "and had managed to pick a few vegetables from the gardens before a guard came upon me. I was too scared to even try to run. So he took me by the arm and hauled me into the castle, where I was brought before the Jarl."

    She glanced over at the throne on its stone dais, remembering with vivid clarity how much larger than life it—and the Jarl who had sat upon it—had seemed to someone so young, and small, and simple.

    "The guard announced that I had been caught stealing, and I had terrible visions of being thrown into the dungeons and never seeing my mother or my sister again. But the Jarl only smiled at me, with what I thought to be amusement, and asked why someone as young and innocent as I would want to steal. With a great deal of shame, I told him of my family's dire situation. The Jarl went silent, and stared at me for what seemed to be an eternity."

    That same Jarl was staring at her for that same eternity, but Annika could look only at the scrapes on her hands, the hem of her tunic, the frayed ends of the hair that blanketed her shoulders and stuck to the back of her neck. She took a deep breath to calm herself, but all she breathed was him—musk and sweat, fur and woods, honey and juniper berries. It only made her head spin even more.

    "Finally, the Jarl stepped down from his throne, knelt before me, and asked—"

    "If you could keep a secret," Ulfric finished in a whisper.

    Her eyes flicked up to his, and she thought she saw a hint of a smile there.

    "Of course," she continued breathlessly, "I vowed to keep whatever secret he saw fit to trust me with. And then, to my immense disbelief, he instructed the guard to put together a basket of fruits, vegetables, breads, and meats for me to take home. He asked me not to tell anyone of this favor, for though he would have liked to help everyone in Eastmarch in the same way, he did not have enough to do so, and it would be unfair to have to refuse others what he had given me. And, on my honor, I have not told a single soul of the kindness that the Jarl had shown me that night."

    Ulfric let out a rush of breath, and his eyes skipped away. She waited for them to come back to her, and when they did, he looked at her as though he was seeing her for the first time.

    "So you see, I didn't come back to fight for Skyrim," she told him once more. "I came back to fight for the man who, with a single act of compassion, saved the lives of two young children and their mother. The man who taught me that heroes are real, and not only characters in stories and songs. The man who gave me back the hope and faith I had lost." The candlelight danced across Ulfric's face, making him seem as ethereal as he had been in her mind ever since the night he had changed her entire world. "I came back to fight for you."

    A tear slipped down her cheek. Ulfric's gaze followed its course, until his hand drifted up to wipe it away. His skin was rough, but warm, and his touch made her eyes flutter shut. When they opened, they locked with his, and the intensity and rawness of the emotion she found there sent a shock shuddering through her body. His soul touched hers in that moment, asking a thousand questions and giving a thousand answers, telling her everything she needed to know without saying a word.

    And then his lips were on hers, and the rest of the world fell away.

    His kiss, hesitant and hungry all at once, consumed her, engulfed her, ignited something buried within her, a seed planted long ago, waiting ever since for the sun that would bring it to life. He pulled away all too soon, and his hot, unsteady breath spilled over her. Her eyes opened to find his anxious, uncertain, and beseeching, as though he would ever need to ask if she wanted this. It did not take him long to read the answer written all over her.

    His hands flew up to take hold of her face, and his mouth found hers again, more demanding than before. Annika became aware of everything all at once: the taste of mead on his tongue, the tug of his fingers twining in her hair, the heat of his body pressing against hers. Above all, she felt his need, even stronger than her own, reaching out for her, leaning into her, begging her to hold him together so he wouldn't fall apart.

    Ulfric carried her out of the Great Hall, though she could not remember leaving the table, or being lifted from the floor, or wrapping her legs around his waist.

    The hearth in his bed chamber roared. He laid her down into furs softer than anything she had felt before, a heady contrast to the whiskers that grazed her neck along with his lips, the coarse hands that slipped beneath her tunic to tug it off of her. He shrugged out of his fur cloak and let it fall to the floor, but it took longer to do away with the rest. Her own hands fumbled with the buckles on his belts, the clasps on his gauntlets, the cords that laced his trousers up.

    It was the first time she had ever seen him without the full regalia of his armor, and he seemed somehow larger without it. The scars she had only glimpsed before stretched up both of his arms and across his chest, a map to his heart. Annika traced the tips of her fingers over them, and felt his entire body tense. There was that fear again, that vulnerability he did not let anyone else see, and weaved throughout it was his trust in her. She drew one of his hands to her lips and pressed them against the ruined skin there, the scars she knew would always haunt him, hoping to supplant the memory of their making with something sweeter.

    He bent to kiss her, to join himself to her, and his hair fell down around their faces, a shroud against the rest of the world. Only the light of the fire shone through, glowing in eyes that drilled into hers to find her soul once more. It made no difference whether it was human, or dragon, or something else entirely; it didn't matter if it ever found Sovngarde, for she had already found her forever in Ulfric's arms.

    And that was something worth dying for.


    * * * * *

    Sun slanted in through the high windows to draw Annika out of sleep.

    The fire in the hearth had died, yet she was enveloped by warmth. It came from Ulfric, from the strong arms that were still wrapped around her, the dewy skin of his chest pressed against her naked back.

    A smile bloomed wide on her face, making her cheeks ache.

    She could feel his heart beating, his body swelling with every breath. She timed hers to match, and their rhythym nearly lulled her back to sleep. She wouldn't have minded. She would have stayed there in Ulfric's arms, in his bed, all day long if she could have. She would have stayed there forever. Let the war rage around them, let the dragons tear Tamriel apart. She would not care, not as long as she could hold onto this.

    He stirred, as though he had heard her thoughts. His arms tightened around her, his face burrowed into the nape of her neck. A deep, rumbling moan told her that he was awake.

    "Good morning."

    "Yes, it is," he replied, his words tickling her skin. He breathed in deeply. "You smell wonderful."

    "Oh?" Annika chuckled, and peeked at him over her shoulder. "And what do I smell like?"

    Her heart nearly burst to see him smile for the first time in days.

    "Like me."

    She twisted around and rose up on an elbow to kiss him, and that exquisite rush soared through her again, tilting her center of gravity, lighting her up from within. This time it was her hair that curtained them, locking them in their own little world. Her tangled golden waves fell to mingle with his, so alike that she couldn't tell where hers ended and his began. Ulfric raised a hand to tuck a long tendril behind her ear.

    "I still can't believe it."

    "Believe what?"

    "That our fates were tied together so many years ago." He sighed, and shook his head against his pillow. "If just one thing had gone differently, we wouldn't be here right now. If that winter hadn't been so harsh, or if your mother hadn't fallen ill. If you hadn't had the courage to steal from a Jarl. If you hadn't gotten caught."

    "If you hadn't been so kind to a hungry young girl trying to rob you."

    "And it goes back even further. What if my brother hadn't died in the war, and took his rightful place on the throne of Eastmarch instead of it falling to me? What if that war had not happened at all, and never gave rise to this one? What if you'd been born in Riverwood instead of Kynesgrove?" He gazed up at the rafters, reading some invisible map of all the paths that could have led them astray. "Can you imagine it? If our lives had not converged on that one night, you would not have come back to Skyrim, twenty years later, at this crucial moment in our history."

    "You would have died in Helgen," she whispered, pained to even think it.

    "That's not what I meant." He sat up, suddenly grave, and she followed suit. "My life means nothing when our entire realm is in peril. You are the Dragonborn. You are the one with the power to save us all. And if even one of a thousand things had gone wrong, you would not be here to do so. Don't you see?" His eyes smoldered with the fire of his faith. "None of this is a coincidence. It is fate. It is destiny. The gods brought us together then so that I could bring you back now. You were meant to be here, Annika. You were meant to drive Alduin out of our world—and you will."

    Her gaze skipped away from his. The absolute strength of his conviction gave her a chill, for she did not share it. How could he be so sure that she would succeed? That she was any match for an ancient and malevolent beast who could devour entire worlds? It might have been her destiny to fight Alduin, but that did not mean she could not fail. It did not mean that the gods had been right to choose her as their champion.

    But she could not dwell on the difficult days to come when her heart was brimming with so much joy.

    "The gods brought us together," she repeated, taking his hand. "The why of it matters little and less to me."

    Ulfric smiled, and laced his fingers with her own. "I cursed myself for not asking your name that night. For months after, I wondered what had become of the little girl whose hungry eyes haunted me. Why did you not tell me you were that same girl?"

    "I didn't want you to think me weak," Annika admitted. "I didn't want you to see me as someone who needed your mercy and your charity. Who would want someone like that fighting in their army?"

    "You came marching into my keep with bruises on your face and blood on your boots, walked right up to my throne, and told me you wanted to fight for me. How could I ever have thought you weak?"

    Annika could not help but laugh. She had never thought of it like that.

    "Would it have made a difference, if I'd told you on that first day?"

    He took a moment to mull it over. "No, not truly. What I did or did not know of you made no matter once I discovered you were Dragonborn. After that, I trusted you completely."

    He grew solemn again, heaving a shaky sigh.

    "You don't know what it means for me to have someone I can trust," he said, low and husky. "When you've been tricked and used and deceived and betrayed as much as I have, everyone is an enemy in your mind. Every word spoken to you is a lie. Every vow made will be broken. Everyone you know is waiting to bury a dagger in your back the moment you finally turn it. But with you..." His hand tightened on hers. "With you, I can breathe. I can speak without measuring my words to ensure they can't be used against me. I can look into your eyes without imagining malice or treachery in them. I can open my heart to you, knowing you will not break it. You are a gift from the gods."

    His words should have swelled her heart, but something in his voice, something in his eyes, darkened their beauty and filled her with dread.

    "If you truly believe that," she said, "then why do you look so sad?"

    Ulfric hesitated for a long moment before answering. "I am not a young man, Annika."

    "No, you're not," she chided, hoping this was his only concern. "You were fighting in the Great War before I could even walk. What of it?"

    "You have many years ahead of you, years that could be spent with some man who would not soon make you a widow when his age claims him—or when an Imperial sword takes off his head, and that of all who fought by his side. A man who would not put you in danger with every breath he takes. You could leave here today, and that danger would not follow you."

    Annika reached out to stroke his face, to cradle it in her palm. He leaned into her touch, pulling her closer even as he tried to talk himself into letting her go.

    "I'm not leaving, Ulfric," she promised. "You say you trust me—then trust these words. I'm not leaving. Your age means nothing to me, nor do the Imperial swords that would see you dead. The only thing that matters is that I've been in love with you since I was eleven years old."

    Something broke in his eyes, relief and hope and desperate longing waging war with his guilt. He looked away from her, and into himself, and she watched his silent struggle with bated breath. His hands left hers, and for half a heartbeat, her entire world threatened to come crashing down. And then he was lifting her face to his, and pressing his lips to hers with the very passion and zeal she loved him for.

    Not a single moment with him would be wasted, for every moment of this—this bliss, this ecstasy she had dreamed of and yearned for for so long—was worth more than a million moments without it. Even if he was taken from her tomorrow, she would not regret today.

    Annika only heard the knocking at the door after Ulfric pulled away.

    "Jarl Ulfric," a muffled voice came through the wood—Ralof's. "Forgive me, but there's urgent news."

    Ulfric raised his eyebrows in silent inquiry, and Annika nodded.

    "Just a moment."

    They dressed quickly, though Ulfric only bothered with his smallclothes, trousers, and tunic, leaving the rest of his armor where it lay. Annika was still trying to smooth her tousled hair when he opened the door.

    "A rider came in the night," Ralof began at once, "from—"

    His words died on his tongue when he noticed Annika, perched on the edge of Ulfric's bed, the furs and linens behind her still mussed, cloaks and belts and shoes still scattered across the floor.

    "From Solitude," he finished, with much less urgency. The corners of his mouth twitched up, but he pressed his lips together to keep the smile at bay. "He reports that—that, ah—two ships, carrying at least three score legionnaires, docked last night."

    "What?" A storm began to brew on Ulfric's face. "How did it get past the blockade around Stros M'kai?"

    "He doesn't know, my lord. As soon as he saw the legionnaires, he made haste for Windhelm. Further news should be close on his heels."

    "Good. Wait for me outside."

    Ralof nodded and retreated into the hall, and Ulfric closed the door behind him. Annika helped him with his mail and cuirass, his gauntlets and boots, the armor he was never without even in his own keep, for he never knew which of his men might turn their blades on him.

    "Do you trust him?" he asked.

    "Ralof?"

    Annika's hands stilled on his shoulders, on the fur cloak she had just draped there. They had not spoken of the possibility that Ralof was the Empire's spy since Ulfric's more devastating suspicion of Galmar had eclipsed it. Her eyes went to the door, and her thoughts to the man who had helped her survive Helgen, who had kept the secret that she was the Dragonborn, who had been a brother to her—and not just in binds—since the moment she'd opened her eyes on that rickety cart.

    "I trust him with my life," she answered.

    Ulfric nodded slowly. "Then so too shall I."

    He turned to press a kiss to her forehead. Before she could ask what he meant, he was at the door once again.

    Ralof stood sentry without, and snapped to attention when it opened.

    "With me," Ulfric ordered, sweeping past him and starting down the hall.

    But Ralof, no longer able to hold back his grin, lingered behind. The longer he stared at her, the hotter Annika's cheeks burned.

    "What?" she hissed.

    "It's about time."

    She looked ahead, but Ulfric had already disappeared down the stairs. "What do you mean?"

    "You and Jarl Ulfric," he said. "I've known this was coming from the first time I saw him look at you."

    He beamed even brighter, and hurried off to catch up with his Jarl.

    From the first time he saw Ulfric look at her?

    She trailed after them, an unbidden smile twisting her lips, the heat in her face flowing down into her neck, her chest, her heart.


    * * * * *​


    By the time Windhelm's officers and lieutenants were all roused and gathered in the Great Hall, a second rider had arrived from Solitude.

    "They were seventy-five legionnaires in total, my lord."

    "Nearly four score?" Ulfric's frown deepened, and his grip on the arms of his throne whitened his knuckles. "You're certain of the number?"

    "I had it from the innkeeper at the Winking Skeever, who had it from two dock workers who helped unload the galleys. Holgar saw most of them with his own eyes."

    The man beside him spoke up. "It was dark, and I didn't want to waste time counting every man, but I'd estimated that thirty legionnaires had come off each galley. Seventy-five in total seems valid. I doubt the ships could have held many more."

    "By the time I'd left the city at the hour of the ghost," the other scout added, "no further ships had docked."

    "And you heard no word of how they managed to get past Hammerfell?"

    "No, my lord, but our other ears in the city may yet turn up some hint."

    Ulfric gave a heavy sigh. "Let us hope so."

    He thanked the scouts for their reports and bid them to take a meal in the barracks, then beckoned those in command to follow him to the war room.

    The mood of the chamber was dark, and not only due to the morning's ill news. It was the first council without Galmar, and his absence was palpable. His gruff voice had always been the first to speak; no one seemed to know what to do or say without his eager lead. Though Annika had taken part in several councils since her first, the memory of Galmar's indignation held her back on the fringes of the room, just as it had on that day, nearly a moon's turn ago. But Ulfric's eyes quickly found hers, and she saw that he was just as lost as the others. His need for her was greater than the shade of Galmar's resentment, and so she came forward to stand where she belonged: by his side.

    He blinked down at the map of Skyrim, now almost fully occupied by blue flags, but for the two holds in the northwestern corner.

    "We have closed every road into Skyrim to prevent the Imperials from bringing in reinforcements," he said, pointing to each of the roads in turn. "Yet they have. I want to know how this happened. Hrothmund."

    One of the lieutenants stepped forth.

    "Yes, my lord?"

    "There are three Redguards in Thorygg's company in Falkreath. Send them to Stros M'kai to investigate Hammerfell's blockade of the cape. It was most likely attacked and destroyed by an Imperial fleet. If they find this is the case, one of the men is to bring word back to Skyrim, while the others go north into Sentinel as envoys, to determine what we might be able to contribute to a new blockade."

    "And if there was no attack?"

    "It is possible the Empire sent their ships wide around Hammerfell," Ulfric mused, "but I doubt they would take the risk of straying so far from the coast. If our scouts do find the blockade intact and unharmed, they are to return with haste—and they must not let their allegiance be known. I can't believe Hammerfell has been bought by the Empire, but we can't take any chances."

    He turned to the next lieutenant without missing a beat.

    "Erik, pull ten men from Dawnstar and ten from Whiterun, and send them to help garrison Markarth. Tullius would be wise to keep his strength close, but on the off chance he tries to retake the Reach, I want it well defended."

    "At once, my Jarl."

    "Yrsarald, choose two men to accompany Holgar and Sven back to Solitude, posing as miners driven out of the Reach. We may have need of more ears within the city."

    "Yes, my lord."

    "And Jorleif?"

    "Yes, Jarl Ulfric?"

    Annika could not see the steward, lost as he was behind a line of brawny warriors. Even his voice was small, with none of Ulfric's deep resonance, or Ralof's lilting tones.

    "Send word of these ships to every hold we currently control. The other Jarls should know of this new threat."

    "Of course."

    "One last matter of business," Ulfric announced. He pulled his shoulders back and lifted his chin high, and the air in the room seemed to crackle with sudden tension. "In light of Galmar Stone-Fist's death, there are appointments to be made."

    He strode around the map table, and stopped before Ralof.

    "Ralof, of Riverwood," he declared. "I would name you my housecarl, and Second-in-Command."

    Ralof's mouth dropped open, as did a few others in the crowd. He was silent and still for a long moment, only his lashes alive on his pale face, blinking madly. Finally, he went to one knee.

    "You honor me, Jarl Ulfric, but I don't deserve—"

    "You do," Ulfric said, the words as sharp and firm as his voice.

    None of the other men were fool enough to question him, but Annika caught more than one pointed glance shared between them. From the talk that had been winging around the keep over the last few days, they had all, to a man, expected Yrsarald to succeed Galmar; he commanded the forces in Eastmarch, after all, and was a veteran of the Great War besides. They likely saw Ralof a green boy in comparison.

    But it was Annika's opinion that Ulfric trusted, not theirs.

    "Do you accept?" he asked.

    Ralof let out a rush of breath. "Of course, my lord."

    "Then rise, Commander Ralof."

    He did, awe and pride mingling to color his cheeks.

    "Let your men know of Ralof's new office," Ulfric ordered of the chamber at large. "I expect his word to be heeded as well as Galmar's always had. You are all dismissed. Ralof, Annika, stay."

    The other officers and lieutenants bowed and filed out of the war room. Ulfric turned to Annika once the last was gone.

    "I know what you're thinking," he said—and indeed, he did. "The other commanders already take issue with me allowing you a voice in my council, and my naming Ralof as Galmar's successor will not sit well with them, either. Pay them no mind. They may mutter now, but they will come around. You may find it a challenge to assert your command, Ralof, but I have every confidence that you will rise to meet it."

    "Thank you, my lord."

    "Now, you should know why I chose you."

    The confusion on Ralof's face deepened. He looked to Annika, but she said nothing; this was Ulfric's tale to tell.

    "Do not mistake me," he began. "You have proven yourself in more battles this past year than some of the others have in the past decade. You are a worthy warrior. If this was not true, we would not be having this conversation at all. However, your battle prowess is not the reason I want you as my housecarl."

    He beckoned them both closer.

    "We have been betrayed," he told Ralof, his tone low and urgent. "And not just once. Someone in our army is playing double agent, and relaying sensitive information to the Legion. That is how we were captured at Darkwater Crossing, and how Markarth was ready for Galmar's invasion."

    Ralof took a moment to process this new revelation; it seemed even more difficult to swallow than his being named Second-in-Command.

    "Do you have any idea who it is?"

    Ulfric dropped his gaze to the floor. "I... believed it was Galmar. His sacrifice proved me wrong. Now, I could not begin to guess. I was sure it was someone of higher rank, for they had passed on information a common foot soldier could not have known. But nobody knew the plan to take Markarth but for Galmar and I—yet the spy divined it, somehow. And if they could uncover that plot, they could have uncovered any other, regardless of whether they're an officer or a raw recruit." His mouth tightened, and a deep crease came into his brows. "It could be anyone."

    "But you don't think it's me."

    "Annika trusts you," Ulfric replied. "And I trust Annika."

    Ralof glanced her way, and she gave him a reassuring smile and nod.

    "With you as my housecarl, we can look over our shoulders a little less. We can also make use of your eyes and ears—watch, and listen, for any sign of treachery, from anyone and anywhere."

    "I will, my lord."

    "In the meantime, it would be unwise of us to make any further moves against the Empire while we remain compromised. We can't attempt to take Hjaalmarch or Haafingar when our plans will undoubtedly be leaked to Tullius."

    "What would it matter?" Annika piped up. "We may not be able to take the cities by stealth, but we can take them by force. Our armies are greater than theirs—"

    "Theirs were just bolstered by two shipfuls of fresh legionnaires," Ulfric reminded her. "And more may dock today, or tomorrow, or when the moon turns."

    "All the more reason to press the attack now, before their numbers can grow too large."

    He shook his head. "Our numbers have grown too small. Sixty men left Windhelm with Galmar; half were killed in battle, and more than half of the survivors were left to garrison Markarth. We are weakened. If we send our men out in force, we may be able to take Morthal... but at the cost of leaving Windhelm vulnerable. Tullius will send a galley full of legionnaires across the Sea of Ghosts to land on our shores, and Windhelm will be in Imperial control by the time the sun goes down."

    Annika shivered at the thought. "But you said yourself that he would be wise to keep his strength close—"

    "For the benefit of those listening," he said. "The more ignorant we appear to Tullius's strategies, the more likely he is to do just what we expect of him—and the more ready we will be for his attack. He may keep his strength close now, but the moment he sees an opportunity, he will lay siege to Windhelm. I have no doubt."

    "How can you be so sure?"

    "Because it is what I would do."

    "He's right," Ralof put in. "Tullius won't waste men defending Morthal when there's a sweeter plum to be had. If we leave Windhelm, we lose Windhelm."

    "And the same can be said for Whiterun, or Markarth, or Riften. The minute we send word to pull our forces out of any hold, Tullius will know of it, and he'll have legionnaires ready to take the city as soon as its defenses are down."

    Annika let out a long sigh. "So, we wait until their spy is rooted out?"

    "Yes. Then, and only then, can we make a move that Empire won't be two steps ahead of." Ulfric stalked back to the map and leaned down over it, his hands splayed out over east and west. "We were so close," he whispered. "So close. And now we are at an impasse. And every moment we are idle, the Empire grows stronger, and our battles ahead loom larger."

    Annika looked to Ralof, but he did not seem to know what to say any more than she did. Ulfric's words rang with terrible truth she could not deny, no matter how much she longed to.

    He took a deep breath, and scrubbed his hands over his beard.

    "Ralof," he said. "Go and break your fast. And if you would, have Sifnar send a tray up to my quarters, for both Annika and myself."

    "Of course, my lord."

    "We'll reconvene at midday."

    Ralof bowed and left the chamber.

    Ulfric let himself go lax, his shoulders wilting out of the strong posture he always kept, his arms hanging limp at his sides. He looked wearier than Annika had ever seen him before. When he turned his eyes to her, her heart broke to see such despair in them, when only an hour past they were alive with light and love.

    If only they could have stayed in the safe haven of his bed, in the warmth of each other's arms, and shut out the war that hung over their heads, as she had wished they could when she'd first woken. She did not want to think of siege strategies or Imperial spies or the cold, bloody block she had laid her head down upon to await the headsman's axe, a lifetime ago. She did not want to think of Windhelm falling, of Ulfric being thrown down on that same block. She had to believe that that day would never come.

    She took a tremulous breath, and a small step forward.

    "If the Legion is building their numbers, we must do the same. I could help recruit," she offered. "I am the Dragonborn, after all. Men and women who were hesitant to join the rebellion before might rally beneath me."

    A sad smile flickered and died on Ulfric's face. "Perhaps later on. For now, you have your own quest to pursue... or have you forgotten?"

    She did, for a moment, but then it came rushing back to her.

    "The Elder Scroll."

    "Winning this war will mean nothing if we lose the other," he reminded her. "Take the Elder Scroll back to Paarthurnax. See what you can learn from it. See if it does hold some power against the dragons, against Alduin."

    She tried to swallow, and found she couldn't. Her hands were suddenly cold, while her eyes burned with tears. She shook her head.

    "I don't want to go."

    Her stomach twisted with the thought of leaving Ulfric. How could she walk away from him when he needed her more than ever? He may have woken with a smile, but his grief and his guilt still stormed inside of him. She had glimpsed flashes of it all morning, whenever he thought she wasn't looking. And how could she walk away from him when every inch of her body and soul cried out for his? How could she live if she left her heart behind?

    "I don't want you to go," he echoed, his voice breaking. "But you must."

    Once again, she heard the painful truth in his words, and she knew she had no choice but to accept it. She nodded, trying, for his sake, to be strong.

    "I dreamed of you, one of the first nights I spent in High Hrothgar," she told him. "I thought I heard you calling out to me, and I got up to look for you in every cold, dark corner of that lonely place. It was only after I returned to bed that I finally found you, holding me close as I slept."

    This time, Ulfric's smile was warmer. "Dream of me there again, and I shall dream of you here."

    "If I leave by midday, I should be able to make Ivarstead before nightfall."

    Ulfric said nothing, but his gaze kindled a fire within her, and when he stepped closer, a shiver moved across her skin. One hand snaked up her neck to twine in her hair, while the other reached around to pull her against him. She pressed her face into the soft fur of his cloak, and felt his own rest upon the crown of her head. He held her so tightly it almost hurt, yet it was the most beautiful feeling in the world.

    "Tomorrow," he murmured into her hair. "Leave tomorrow."


    * * * * *​


    It was heavier than she'd thought it would be.

    She had expected a little curl of parchment she could tuck into her armor like any other scroll. Instead, a long bronze canister was strapped to her back, housing a massive roll of vellum wrapped around what appeared to be a solid gold core.

    The burden of the Elder Scroll made the climb up the Seven Thousand Steps even more tedious than usual. The ache in Annika's back forced her to rest, with some reluctance, at High Hrothgar for the better part of an hour. She had no interest in the Greybeard's company, but she did appreciate the hot bowl of stew Wulfgar offered her. Thankfully, her path did not cross Arngeir's; somehow, she did not think he would approve of her possession of an Elder Scroll.

    She found Paarthurnax perched on the wall, exactly where she had left him. Had he moved at all in the week since? With a jolt, she remembered that the dragon had been waiting for Alduin on the tip of that mountain for millennia; a few days of anticipation of her return must have seemed like no time at all.

    Paarthurnax reared his head, sniffing the air. "Ah, you have found it," he said in that slow, soothing voice. "The Kel, the Elder Scroll."

    "It found me, actually," Annika replied, breathless from the hike.

    "You have it. How that came to be matters not." His wings fluttered against his sides as she neared. "Tiid kreh. Time shudders at its touch. Do you feel it?"

    All she felt was snow seeping into the toes of her boots. She shook her head.

    "No, you would not. The dov are the children of Akatosh, and thus we are specially attuned to the flow of time... and perhaps uniquely vulnerable to it." He cast his gaze out across Skyrim. "Alduin will feel this sundering. He cannot miss the signs. Volaan meyz. Take the Kel into the Time-Wound, Dovahkiin."

    Paarthurnax nodded towards the middle of the plateau. There was nothing there... but then she saw it, the disturbance in the air, like the molten shiver just above a flame. She treaded through the untouched snow, goose flesh rising on her arms and neck as she grew closer to the Time-Wound. She had stolen the souls of monsters and spoken with the voice of demons, yet this anomaly, this slow writhing of light and wind and time itself, may have been the most unnatural thing she had ever seen.

    "What will happen to me?" she asked. "When I go into it? When I read the Scroll?"

    "I believe it will grant you a seeing, a window to the past, to the moment of the Time-Wound's creation. But nothing is certain with such things. Vomindok."

    Annika stared into the disturbance. What if it didn't grant her only a window? What if the Elder Scroll cast her adrift in time, as it had Alduin? What if she stepped into that strange swirl and her heart stopped beating? She could be chancing her life on this dragon's theory.

    But Ulfric's voice whispered in the back of her mind. You were meant to drive Alduin out of our world—and you will. She did not believe that prophecy or destiny made her invincible, but Ulfric believed that she was meant to defeat Alduin, and she could not do so if she died today. Ulfric trusted her, and so, too, would she trust him. She would not die, because she could not die, not here, not now.

    Annika took a step forward, into the stream.

    Nothing happened.

    "Right, then," she said, with a rush of breath.

    She tugged the canister from her back, and, with all the care of a mother for her newborn child, withdrew the Elder Scroll from its casing. Was it only her imagination, or was it... humming? Had it shimmered like that in Windhelm?

    "Yes, the Kel," Paarthurnax purred. "Read it, Dovahkiin."

    Annika took a deep breath, and unrolled the Scroll.

    She caught a glimpse of glowing silver, lines and symbols and etchings afloat in the very air before her, and then her vision clouded, and the world disappeared in a blinding flash of white. She was falling... or was she flying? Was the sky above her or below her? Her stomach turned over on itself, her heart beat ten times too fast, a bolt of lightning ricocheted around inside of her head. She was dying, she was dying...

    Slowly, slowly, it all came back, riding the crest of a fierce wind blowing only in her mind.

    The roar of the dragon, however, was real.

    The sky had gone dark. The sun, high above her head only moments ago, was now setting in the west. Its dying light cast a red glow over the snow of the Throat of the World, not quite masking the pools of blood scattered here and there amongst the dead.

    Paarthurnax was gone from the wall, but a dozen other dragons soared into Annika's skewed vision, imprinted with the luminous silver symbols of the Scroll. Some were mere specks in the distance, some were close enough for her to see the shape of their wings, the hue of their scales. One of the dragons, paler than the rest, descended upon the mountain.

    "Daar sul thur se Alduin vokrii," the dragon snarled when it landed. "Today Alduin's lordship will be restored!"

    Annika tried to reach for her bow, but her arms would not move. When she looked down, she found that she didn't have arms at all, nor anything else. Her mind was there, but her body was not. She was seeing to the other end of the crack in time, just as Paarthurnax had thought she would. She thanked the gods. It had worked.

    Three warriors rushed forth to meet their foe, the men wielding battleaxes, the woman a greatsword. The blades were coated in glistening red, just as were those who wielded them. This battled had raged for some time, and yet it was far from over.

    "For Skyrim!"

    Annika could only watch, through the window of the Scroll, as they fought the dragon. It was the woman who finished it, cleaving into its skull with a wide swing of her blade.

    "Know that Gormlaith Golden-Hilt sent you down to death!"

    The beast collapsed upon the snow. It fell still and silent, dead, but its flesh did not rise up from its bones; its soul was not pulled away in the rush of wind that had become so familiar to Annika.

    A sudden rush of recognition hit her instead. She had seen this dragon once before. She, too, had killed it. Those milky wings, those shining scales—this was the dragon that attacked Whiterun, the first dragon she had slain. The first soul she had stolen. Or would steal, thousands of years from this moment.

    Gormlaith Golden-Hilt wiped her longsword clean on the the dragon's hide, and, with an arrogant laugh, strode back to her companions.

    "Brothers! A glorious day, is it not?"

    The younger of the men looked at the devastation surrounding them, and gave Gormlaith a sneer.

    "Have you no care beyond blooding your blade?"

    "I care for killing dragons. Do not forget, Hakon—four of Alduin's kin have fallen to my blade alone this day."

    "But not Alduin. Not yet. The battle below goes ill; if Alduin does not rise to our challenge, all may be lost. Everything rides on Felldir's plot."

    "He will come," the older man, Felldir, promised. "He cannot ignore our defiance."

    "And when he does," Gormlaith said, "I will have his head."

    "All those who have stood against him have fallen."

    "They did not have Dragonrend."

    "You do not understand," Felldir charged, frustration coloring his weary voice. "Alduin cannot be slain like a lesser dragon—even with Dragonrend. He is beyond our strength." He pulled his cloak tighter around himself, and Annika saw the bulge beneath it, the shape of something strapped to his back. "I have brought the Elder Scroll."

    The others whirled on him.

    "We agreed not to use it," Hakon growled.

    "I agreed to nothing. And I will use it if I must."

    "No! We will deal with Alduin ourselves, here and now!"

    "I pray you are right. I pray we can."

    "We shall see soon enough," Gormlaith said. She pointed to the skies, to the black shadow soaring closer. "Alduin approaches!"

    The warriors braced themselves, readying their weapons.

    Alduin's Thu'um ripped open the sky. The tempest that burst from the void obliterated the last of the sun's rays, and whipped the heavens into the same frenzy Helgen would someday see. Alduin landed atop the wall, on the very spot Paarthurnax perched, millennia later.

    "Meyye!" he roared. "Your dreams will wither! I am your doom!"

    Gormlaith bared her teeth. "Let those that watch us from Sovngarde envy us this day!"

    The three stood together, and Shouted as one.

    "Joor zah frul!"

    Their Voices chased Alduin into the storm. It hit him with a crack louder and more ominous than any thunder, and enveloped him in an electric glow brighter than any lightning. He sank under the weight of the Shout; his wings lost their grip on the wind, and he spiraled back down to the Throat of the World.

    Joor zah frul. Annika had no throat or tongue with which to speak the words, but she felt them, alive, within her—wherever she was. She recalled Arngeir's warning against taking the evil of this Thu'um into herself, but she did not feel evil, or anger, or hatred... only power, filling and stretching and strengthening her. The power to make dragons fall out of the sky.

    "Nivahriin joorre!" Alduin howled. "What have you done? What twisted words have you created?" The dragon writhed and thrashed under the corona that kept him pinned to the ground. "You will die in terror, knowing your final fate—to feed my hunger when I come for you in Sovngarde!"

    "You speak of terror," Gormlaith railed back, raising her greatsword high. "You, who feel fear for the first time this day. I see it in your eyes!"

    She charged, and her shield brothers followed.

    They attacked Alduin from three sides, Gormlaith slicing into the flesh of his face, Hakon hacking at its tail, Felldir using his Voice to strike the dragon with a squall of frost.

    Alduin, too massive and too slow to do much on the ground, snapped his jaws at his nearest adversary. Gormlaith evaded once, feinted twice, and rushed forth to aim a fatal thrust at his neck. Her arrogance was her downfall. Once she was within Alduin's reach, he lunged, closed his jaws around her, and lifted her from the ground. The sound of steel plate buckling between his teeth severed her screams. Alduin flung her from the mountain, and she fell out of sight.

    "Damn you!" Hakon wailed, swinging his battleaxe wildly. "Die, you beast! Joor zah frul!"

    Alduin seemed not to feel the blows, but the constraint of Dragonrend was driving him into hysteria. He bucked against its weight, growing more desperate to leave the ground with every fruitless effort. His tail, lashing aimlessly, caught Felldir in the chest and threw him off of his feet. His jaws snapped at Hakon, and bit into steel instead of flesh; with a flick of his neck, he divested the man of his battleaxe.

    "We cannot best him," Felldir cried, fleeing the battle. "We must use the Scroll!"

    "No!"

    But it was already in the old man's hands. Hakon tore across the plateau, but was seized by a torrent of the dragon's fire. He crumpled, howling in the melting snow.

    Felldir unfurled the Scroll.

    "Kynareth," he shouted to the churning sky, "grant us your sacred breath to make this covenant heard!" He held the Scroll aloft, a shield between him and Alduin. It soaked up the fire of Alduin's fresh assault, leaving Felldir unharmed. "Begone, World-Eater! By words with older bones than your own, we break your perch on this age and cast you out!" The wind swelled around him, nearly drowning out his voice. "We shout you out from all our endings unto the last!"

    A cyclone of smoke burst into being around Alduin.

    "Faal Kel?" He roared in fury, in agony. "Nikriinne!"

    The funnel tightened and contracted. Alduin tucked in his tail and flattened his wings to his body, but he could not escape the smoke that was closing in on him from every side, smaller and smaller every moment. When it touched him, instead of passing through it, his flesh disappeared into nothingness.

    "You—are—banished!"

    Alduin's roar shook the mountain. And then he was gone.

    The storm above dissolved, and the blinking stars of the night sky emerged. The Throat of the World was still and quiet once more, as it would be for thousands of years hence.

    Felldir dropped the Scroll, and fell to his knees in supplication.

    "May the gods have mercy on our souls."

    Silver etchings surged in the air before Annika's vision, but were lost in a wash of white. She was spinning again, being pulled back, and back, and back...


    * * * * *​


    The ground was solid beneath her feet, and the crisp air nipped the skin of her cheeks. She opened her eyes, and the sky was blue, the sun was high, and the roar of a dragon echoed around her.

    Millennia after being siphoned out of time, Alduin plunged towards the Throat of the World.

    "Bahloki nahkip sillesejoor," he growled, his voice as sinister as any demon's. "I have fed my hunger with the souls of your fellow mortals. Die now, Dovahkiin, and await the same fate in Sovngarde!"

    He careened towards Annika, and she stumbled back, weak with terror, reaching for her bow, for an arrow, but he soared over her head and away.

    "Dovahkiin," Paarthurnax called to her as he, too, lifted off into the skies. "Use Dragonrend, if you know it!"

    Dragonrend. Yes, she knew it, she had it, this weapon that she prayed would serve her better than it did Gormlaith, Hakon, and Felldir. Her eyes followed Alduin's errant path. When he turned back towards her, she drew in a deep breath, and unleashed her Voice.

    "Joor... zah frul!"

    The Thu'um and the dragon collided. He tumbled down, forced to land by the weight of his sudden mortality. He opened his mouth wide to answer, and fire flooded down. Annika snatched the fallen Scroll from the snow and held it before her as Felldir had, warding herself against the flames.

    "You may hold the weapons of my ancient foes, but you are not their equal!"

    No, she was not; unlike them, Annika knew not to get too close to a grounded dragon.

    She ran for the wall, loosing two arrows into Alduin's hide on the way. He snarled when they hit him, but there was little more he could do from his invisible cage, especially after Annika had ducked behind the stone to hide from his fire.

    But she could not escape the storm Alduin called forth, the same he had wreaked on the first Tongues. Once again, the heavens filled with dark, swirling clouds that funneled up and up into nothingness, and flaming rocks streaked down to leave steaming holes in the snow.

    Paarthurnax shot past the plateau, bathing Alduin in his own flaming breath.

    "Paarthurnax, zeymah," Alduin called after the other dragon. "Join me, and let us take back the world that is rightfully ours!"

    "Unslaad hokoran! Never again!"

    Annika fired three more arrows at Alduin, but they proved just as effective as Gormlaith's greatsword and Hakon's battleaxe, as a fly attacking a giant. Even under the spell of Dragonrend, Alduin was stronger than any dragon she had battled; it would take more arrows than she carried on her back, perhaps more arrows than existed in all of Skyrim, to do him any real damage.

    Paarthurnax, however, had a better weapon: his Voice. He hit Alduin with a sharp flurry of ice on his next pass, to which Alduin retaliated with an even greater inferno. Paarthurnax, fluid in flight, easily eluded it.

    Dragonrend's grip on Alduin began to fade. Annika stepped out to Shout once more, but before she could speak even the first word, a blaze of light caught her eye. She looked up to see a ball of fire rocketing out of the clouds, on a course that led right to her.

    Paarthurnax streaked past, a blur of gray; the fire hit his wing with a hiss.

    Instinct took hold of Annika's Voice and Shouted into the sky.

    "Lok vah koor!"

    The tempest fizzled and faded away.

    Alduin was in the air again. The dragons circled each other, Shouting scorching fires and veils of ice, golden light and swirling voids.

    Annika could only watch in awe from below, hesitant to use Dragonrend lest she catch Paarthurnax by mistake, or to waste arrows on prey that moved too fast to follow. This battle was not hers, despite whatever prophecy named her as Alduin's downfall. She had the power to manipulate the turn of the tide, but not to stop it. Not yet.

    Finally, Alduin swerved far enough away for Annika to target him; hit with Dragonrend, he spiraled back down to the mountain again, more enraged than ever.

    Paarthurnax followed, hovering above his trapped foe, and the brawl continued.

    This close, Annika could see what distance had hidden—Paarthurnax's charred scales, his bloodied hide, his faltering wings, even more tattered than before. Age could not kill a dragon, she knew, but it seemed it could weaken them, and Paarthurnax had lived and felt every one of the thousands of years Alduin had missed in his leap through time.

    Even as she thought this, Alduin's Thu'um caught Paarthurnax full in the chest, and he tumbled back, and sank down into the snow.

    Alduin's red eyes flashed with what Annika thought was triumph. His mouth yawned open for another attack—

    "Fus ro dah!"

    But her Voice snapped out first. Alduin, in all his immensity, withstood the Thu'um better than any other had, but still it rocked him back and stayed his Voice.

    That was enough.

    Paarthurnax unleashed his own, and set Alduin's entire body aflame.

    Alduin roared, twisting and writhing in the pain he could not escape.

    "Niid! I am Alduin, firstborn of Akatosh! I cannot be slain here, by you or by anyone!" He shook off the dying effects of Dragonrend, and vaulted into the air. "You cannot prevail against me, Dovahkiin! Zu'u hin al!"

    Annika Shouted after him, but he swerved to evade her Thu'um as he took to the skies and fled the Throat of the World. Within moments, he was nothing but a black silhouette moving south into the endless blue.

    His cowardice proved one thing: if he feared being slain, he could be slain.

    Paarthurnax collapsed, the last of his strength spent.

    Annika hurried to him, taking account of the myriad wounds she could see, and wondering how many she could not. She didn't know if healing spells could even affect something as massive as a dragon, but she had to try. She raised her hands, already aglow with magic.

    "No, Dovahkiin," Paarthurnax gasped. "Fus."

    She staggered back under the force of his Thu'um.

    "Let me heal you, and we can go after Alduin while he is so close to death himself!"

    "He is gone, and I would not know where to find him. That will be up to you."

    "But... how?"

    "This was not the final victory, but it was a victory all the same. Alduin always took domination as his birthright, but he could not dominate you this day. He fled from you—from a mortal. This will shake the loyalties of his grah-zeymazinne—his allies." Hs breath rattled in his throat; the effort to speak seemed to weaken him even more. "You may be able to convince one of them to betray him, and help you find him."

    "Paarthurnax... you're hurt," Annika said gently, taking a tentative step towards him. "Please, let me heal you."

    "Listen to me. You saw it with your own eyes—the savage tools of mortals barely scratched Alduin's flesh. Nust ni bahlaan. You will need greater weapons if you are to stand a chance."

    "Shouts."

    "Yes. It is your destiny to defeat Alduin, but your Voice is not yet strong enough. I have the Voice, but it is not my destiny to use it. Neither of us can do it alone."

    "So we'll do it together."

    "Yes, Dovahkiin," he said. "We will."

    Paarthurnax began to glow from within.

    "What are you doing?" Annika cried. "Paarthurnax, don't, you can't—"

    "My gift to you, Dovahkiin."

    "No—!"

    The wind of his soul passed out of his body and into hers. It mattered not that she didn't want it, that she held her hands up to try to hold it back. It had nowhere else to go, for Paarthurnax's flesh had already begun to burn away into ash. His milky eyes closed against the light of the fire, finally at rest, and then they, too, were gone.

    With his soul came all of Paarthurnax's knowledge and wisdom. His thousands of years of loneliness. His shame of the sins he committed so long ago. His power. It surged through her, greater than anything she had taken from any other dragon. Every nerve was aflame beneath her skin. Her entire body vibrated. She was so completely alive.

    The will to power is in our blood, he had once told her. You feel it in yourself, do you not?

    How could she not feel it? It screamed through her, clawing at her throat, wanting to escape, to Shout at the world until it fell to its knees before her, in worship of her. She could do it, she could, with all she now knew, all Paarthurnax had given her, not only his Voice, but that will to power, that thirst for it, that desperation to break the shackles of her insignificance and rise above those she was meant to dominate.

    It was too much, and she was too small, too weak, too human. She was bursting, tearing open at her every seam. It was not quite agony and not quite ecstasy, but somehow greater and more terrible than both.

    The fire burned out, the wind died down, and Annika fell into the ancient bones of the dragon who had died for her.
     
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  7. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    six: the chaurus and the moth


    Everyone was looking at her.

    Annika felt their eyes on her, following her as she closed the door to the inn and shuffled past the roaring hearth. Men and women, humans and elves, soldiers and shopkeepers, they all stared at her, yet when she turned her gaze to them, they acted as though they didn't see her at all.

    But they had to see her. They had to see the change in her. She could not feel as monstrous as she did now and still look as she had before. Did her eyes shine red, like Alduin's? Had horns sprouted from her head, or wings from her back? Did she wear scales instead of skin? She looked down at her hands to reassure herself, for the hundredth time, that they were still the same as before.

    Why, then, were they all looking at her?

    Their chatter was incessant, and though she only caught one word in ten, Annika quickly gathered that they were talking of the unnatural storm that had swirled high above Ivarstead around the Throat of the World earlier in the afternoon, of the bright flashes of light they'd seen shooting across the sky, the thunderous roars they'd heard and felt shaking the very earth itself. Dragons, she heard them say, again and again and again. Dragons.

    "Annika," the innkeeper greeted jovially when she approached the bar. "Will you be staying another night?"

    "Yes—please."

    The coins in her purse jingled when her shaking hand dipped in for a night's fare. She tossed a few onto the counter, not noticing if she had grabbed ten- or hundred-septim pieces. Her eyes were too busy darting over her shoulders, then back to Wilhelm, to the pretty bard playing a jarring tune on her lute, to the village guards taking a break to down mugs of mead, to the handsome Imperial pulling a young Nord woman down onto his lap.

    "Will you be taking a meal as well?" Wilhelm asked. "I've got a pot of clams on the fire, or there's venison if you'd prefer."

    She could smell it, that salacious aroma of roasting flesh, of fat spitting on the bones, of blood dripping down to burn in the flames. Her mouth was already watering, her stomach already growling, demanding tribute. She wanted to say yes, to accept the offer, but a raucous laugh behind her made her jump, and the meat was forgotten. Were they laughing at her? They were looking at her again, she knew, yet none of them would meet her gaze. She picked at her fingernails, reached up to scratch her neck, to smooth her braid, to pull at the tight collar of her leather tunic, her hands fluttering about as wildly as her eyes, never stopping, never satisfied.

    "Are you all right?" The innkeeper's brows came together as he studied her face. "You don't look well..."

    All at once, Annika went still.

    Her eyes snapped forward and locked with the man's. She stared up at him from behind a stray lock of hair, as steady as a sabrecat stalking a doe. His concern turned to fear. She could smell it, spicing his blood. It stoked her fury. He was so weak, this man, so worthless. And he dared to judge her? Her hand went to the dagger on her hip. In a heartbeat she could bring it swinging across his neck, spilling all that sweet blood in one hot rush. That would give them something to look at, something to talk about. They wouldn't be laughing, then. Only running, and crying, and screaming. Oh, that lovely music of a mortal's screams—

    Annika gasped. Her eyes went wide and took once more to their manic flight.

    "I'm fine," she said, the shrill tremor in her voice betraying the lie. "I'm fine, thank you."

    She snatched up the key on the counter and fled to her room.

    She shut and locked the door behind her, leaned back against it, and slid down to the floor, breathing hard, gulping in the musty air. Her hands flew up to cover her face and stifle her sobs. She couldn't let them hear her. She couldn't let them know.

    It had been so much worse this time.

    It was one thing to be filled with inexplicable rage when surrounded by rocks and trees and snow, but quite another when there were people close enough for that rage to lock onto, to lash out against. She'd wanted to kill that man. And she almost had. Another few moments is all it would have taken for that rage to boil over. Annika had never in her life felt anything like it—such pure malice, such enormous hatred, such a thirst to kill. Oh, gods, what had she become?

    A quarter of an hour passed. The talk in the inn's common room began to taper off, as did the frenzied clamor of her heart. Annika rose on unsteady legs and stumbled over to the small bed her room was afforded. She threw her bow and quiver down beside it, climbed in still fully armored, and gathered the threadbare blankets up to her chin. Her dagger was in her hand, though she did not remember drawing it. She slid it beneath her pillow before laying her head down.

    She closed her eyes, but doubted sleep would come.


    * * * * *​


    Behind the tall doors of the Palace of the Kings, Annika felt all at once safer and more vulnerable.

    The Great Hall was alive with noise and light and all the aromas of the morning meal. Ulfric was not amongst the soldiers seated around the long table, but Annika had not expected him to be; he had taken all of his meals in his own quarters since Galmar's death.

    That is where she found him, cutting quietly into a thick strip of fried ham.

    His face lit up when he saw her standing in the doorway.

    "Annika!"

    He dropped his fork and knife, rose from his chair, and closed the distance between them in three strides. And then he stopped short, his smile fading, his hand hesitating just a moment before coming to rest against her jaw.

    "What is it, what's wrong?"

    He saw it, too, whatever it was that marked her for the monster she had become, and he would hate her, now, just as she hated herself. Annika shuddered, utterly consumed by her fear for one awful moment, before Ulfric lifted her chin and forced her to meet his eyes. In them, she saw concern, not repulsion. And he had reached for her, not recoiled from her.

    "Paarthurnax is dead," she told him.

    Ulfric sighed and took her into his arms, and she went limp against him, weak with relief, and wept into the fur of his cloak. His hand was in her hair, cupping the curve of her head, and his body seemed to fold around her, sheltering her, telling her what she so desperately needed to know. He did not blame her, as the Greybeards had. He would not cast her out. He saw her, still, as the woman she thought had been lost.

    She let him guide her to a chair. He pulled his own closer so that he could hold both of her hands; her skin felt even colder against the impossible warmth of his.

    "Tell me what happened."

    Annika shook her head and sighed. Where to even begin?

    "I read the Elder Scroll at the summit of the Throat of the World," she said, "and it did just what Paarthurnax had hoped it would—it gave me a vision of the last time it had been read there. I saw it all, as though I had been right there, with the ancient Tongues, as they battled Alduin."

    "And Dragonrend?"

    She nodded. "They used it, and I learned it. It isn't a weapon, exactly—it didn't seem to harm Alduin, only pull him to the ground, where they could attack him. But they barely scratched him. Three of Skyrim's greatest warriors, and they barely scratched him. And so they used the Elder Scroll."

    "And sent him to us."

    "Paarthurnax didn't believe they knew what would happen... but they did. One of them, Hakon, he didn't want to use the Scroll; he said, 'We will deal with Alduin ourselves, here and now.' He didn't think Alduin would be lost in time; he knew they would be condemning someone else, in some other time, to the burden of defeating him."

    "And what of Paarthurnax?" Ulfric asked. "How did he..."

    Annika's hands tightened on his. "When I came out of the vision, Alduin descended on the Throat of the World." She swallowed hard, past the shame that choked her. "I tried to fight him, but he felt my arrows even less than he did the Tongues' steel. I could have shot him a thousand times and it wouldn't have mattered. Paarthurnax, though... oh, I wish you'd been there to see it, the two of them battling with naught but their Voices."

    "I wish I'd been there to help you."

    She imagined it, Ulfric fighting alongisde her, joining his Voice to hers against Alduin. Not for the first time, she wondered how much he had learned during his years at High Hrothgar. But she no longer wondered which Shouts he knew that she did not, for she doubted there were any.

    "Alduin finally fled," she continued, "weakened enough to fear defeat. But he'd done more damage to Paarthurnax than he'd taken himself, and Paarthurnax, he... he wouldn't let me heal him. He told me I could only conquer Alduin with my Voice, but that my Voice wasn't yet strong enough, and..."

    She trailed off. Her stomach twisted and clenched; whether it was her aversion to the memory or the bloated beast of her soul glorying in it, she did not know. Ulfric waited, silent and patient, until she had braced herself to go on.

    "He let himself die," she murmured, her voice thin and far away. "He let himself die so that I could take his soul, and all the wisdom and power that came with it. And there's so much, Ulfric, so very much." She saw her own awe and astonishment, her own dread and dismay, reflected in his wide blue eyes. "He gave me his understanding and mastery of every Thu'um he knew. So many words, all tangled up in my head. I wondered, once, if there was a Shout that could end a life... and there is."

    Annika shivered as the words came unbidden, an unscratchable itch in her mind that made the sleeping beast within her stir and lift its nose to sniff the air. Krii—she shook her head and snapped her eyes shut, afraid that if she thought them, she would speak them, and anyone near her would wither and die.

    "Do not fear the words," Ulfric said. "They are both your weapon and your armor against Alduin. That is why Paarthurnax gave them to you. Embrace them."

    "How can I embrace something so evil?"

    "They don't have to be evil."

    "But they are!" She leapt from her chair and aimlessly paced the chamber. "I feel them, Ulfric, and they're burning me. They're filling me with anger and hatred and cruelty, they're making me want to do things I would never before have dreamed of doing! They're taking whatever is left of the human side of me and they're poisoning it, they're destroying it. They're making me evil."

    Suddenly Ulfric was there, grabbing both of her arms, holding her still when she would thrash and rage.

    "Listen to me," he said, his voice firm and hard. "Paarthurnax gave you his power, and with that power comes discipline. Think on it. He was a dragon, Annika. They are bloodthirsty and tyrannical by nature. But he was not. He once asked me which was better: to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort—and that is what he did."

    "By condemning himself to isolation!" she cried, pulling out of his grasp. "Would you have me spend the rest of my life alone atop a mountain, too?"

    "Of course not. I only mean that you have a choice—a choice to be good, or to be evil. Paarthurnax made that choice every day, every moment, for thousands of years. If he gave you his wisdom and his power, do you not think he gave you his strength to control it all, too? The strength to make the same choice he did?"

    Annika looked up at him through the tears blurring her eyes. "I don't want to have to make that choice."

    "But we all do," Ulfric said. "You already have, many times before now. When you were eleven years old, you made the choice not to steal from others who were in as much need as you."

    She laughed, but it sounded more like a sob. "Yes, and then I made the choice to steal from you instead."

    "And I thank the gods you did."

    "I suppose everyone should thank the gods I did," she added bitterly. "If I hadn't, there would be no Dragonborn here to fight Alduin."

    "You know that isn't what I meant." He brought one of his hands to her face, and stroked a tear from her cheek with the flat of his thumb. "What do you feel, right now?"

    She blinked, startled by the abrupt change of direction.

    "Afraid."

    Ulfric's other hand moved to the small of her back, and he pulled her closer to him. He leaned in to press his lips to hers.

    "And now?"

    Now, she felt as though the room had turned on its end and her body was fighting to find its center of gravity.

    "I..."

    He kissed her again, but this time her mouth opened under the demand of his. The touch of his tongue sent a flood of heat through her body.

    "And now?" he asked again. "Are you angry?"

    "No."

    "Do you hate me?"

    "No, of course not."

    "Do you wish to hurt me?"

    "No! Ulfric, what—"

    "You said the words you've learned were filling you with anger and hatred and cruelty. But you don't feel any of them now."

    She stared up at him, unsure of whether she should laugh or cry.

    "These things," he went on, "are not felt by dragons alone. Men suffer them just as much. Where we differ is that we also feel compassion, and joy, and love. As long as you have that, you have your humanity."

    "I wish it were that simple," Annika whispered. "You don't understand. You can't understand."

    "Make me understand."

    How could she do that when she barely understood it herself?

    "After I killed that first dragon in Whiterun," she said, "after I took its soul, I started finding I had memories that didn't belong to me. It's much the same now—I'm feeling emotions that aren't mine. Paarthurnax's emotions, some that must have been buried for millennia, some he may have felt only days ago. They come out of nowhere, and they utterly consume me."

    She took a deep breath, and held her hands out before him. He looked, and saw what he hadn't before: the mottled bruises across her knuckles, the heels of her palms. She could only imagine what they would look like if she hadn't been wearing gloves.

    "I was halfway down the Throat of the World when I was overwhelmed with fury," she told him. "I started beating my fists against a dead tree, and a cairn, and then the mountain itself, crying out my anger like someone possessed. And then, just as quickly, it was gone. And in Ivarstead..." She wrapped her arms around herself, chilled by the memory, and choked back a new flood of tears. "The innkeeper asked if I was feeling well, and I almost took out my dagger to cut his throat. I wanted to. Gods forgive me, but I wanted to."

    For once, Ulfric was speechless.

    "And it isn't only anger," Annika continued, "but sorrow, and loneliness, and guilt. I wept twice this morning without any idea why, and I felt so utterly ashamed of things I haven't done l that I truly considered throwing myself in the White River. Can you imagine what that's like, having such dark and terrible emotions thrust upon you without any rhyme or reason?"

    A shadow passed over Ulfric's eyes. "No, I can't," he admitted, plainly shaken. "But do not forget—Paarthurnax could control and suppress these emotions. So, too, can you."

    "And what of Alduin's emotions?"

    There it was at last: the crux of her terror, laid bare for him to see, for him to fear, too. And he did, if only for a heartbeat. She saw it in his eyes, the flicker of dread and doubt when his gaze faltered and fell from hers.

    "If I slay Alduin," she said, "and steal his soul, will I also get his power to destroy worlds—and his hunger to do so? And if I do, how can I ever hope to rein in the absolute malevolence that is his very essence, when he never could?"

    "He never wanted to," Ulfric corrected. "It is the choice that matters, the choice that makes all the difference."

    "What makes you so certain that I'll make the right choice?" she charged back. "What makes you think that, by the time I face Alduin again, I won't be so corrupted by all the dragon souls living within me that I choose not to kill him, but to join him?"

    "Because you are meant to kill him! It is your destiny!"

    "But if it's the choice that matters, why would I not have a choice in this?"

    Ulfric opened his mouth, but said nothing.

    "This isn't fate at all," Annika went on. "A Dragonborn needed to exist at this time, but that I am that Dragonborn was mere chance, a flip of a coin. It could have been anyone. It could have been you... it should have been you."

    "Why?"

    "Because you wanted it! Because you're a warrior, and a leader, and a hero, and I'm just... I'm just..."

    He took her hands in his again. "You may wield a bow instead of an axe, but you fight with no less heart than any other warrior in my army. You've led Balgruuf's fealty to me in an alliance I could not win this war without. And how many lives did you save by slaying the dragon in Whiterun, or Kynesgrove, or anywhere else in Skyrim? How many more will you save by defeating Alduin?" He bent closer to her, tilting his head to try to meet her downcast eyes. "You are a warrior, and a leader, and a hero, Annika."

    She shook her head and clamped her eyes shut, an attempt to block out the hope he was offering that she couldn't bear to take, for fear of it being snatched away the moment she reached for it.

    How could he have such unshakable faith in her? Or was it only faith in the gods, and their mad plot to put this soul into her body and make her their instrument? She wanted to trust him, she was desperate to trust him... but she could not trust herself, not now, not any longer. Not while this evil made its nest in her heart.

    Annika heaved a shaking sigh and let her head hang low. She did not know what else to say, what else could be said. Talking about the curse she had to bear would do nothing to lift it, and she was weary of talking. She was weary of living.

    "I don't want to do this anymore," she whispered.

    Ulfric pulled her into his arms, and held her so tightly she felt, for one sweet moment, that her world was not falling down around her.

    "You don't have to do it alone," he promised. "I will be right beside you." He pressed his face into her hair, his lips close to her ear. "And I will not let you forget that you are human."


    * * * * *​

    "Zun... hal viik!"

    The axe flew out of Ulfric's hand and clattered on the stones behind him.

    "Very good!" he said with a grin. "Now, let's try something smaller."

    He drew his dagger, the polished steel flashing in the warm glow of the setting sun. The blade was a sliver compared to the wide head of Ulfric's axe, but Annika's Thu'um was straight and true, and ripped it from his grip all the same.

    "Very good! Perfect aim!" Ulfric retrieved his lost weapons and strode towards Annika. "I don't think even I could disarm a foe from that distance, and this was the first Shout I mastered."

    "I may not have yet mastered the words," she replied, "but I mastered aim many years ago. Shouting at your dagger across a courtyard is nothing compared to putting an arrow between the eyes of a rabbit at two hundred yards."

    He laughed. "I suppose that's true. I don't think you'll need further training with disarming, in any case. What's next?"

    She slipped a hand into her leather cuirass and withdrew a small scroll. The parchment was black with scribbles, a maze of Draconic runes and their common script translations. Ulfric's suggestion to put them down on paper had already lifted some of their weight from her mind; indeed, she felt almost normal for the first time in days.

    She chose a triad at random. "How about this one?"

    "Feim zi gron," Ulfric read. "I'm not familiar with these words."

    Annika pointed to each in turn. "Fade. Spirit. Bind." She had not yet used this Shout, but the words, their meaning, their purpose—Paarthurnax had given it all to her. "It makes you... ethereal. Almost as though you were a ghost."

    Ulfric raised his eyebrows. "Show me."

    She Shouted. It would have been a strange and unsettling feeling, if she hadn't already felt something much like it, after reading the Elder Scroll. She was weightless, her body nothing but air and light. She could not feel her heart beating, yet she was breathing, nor the ground beneath her feet, yet she was still standing. Her vision, too, was changed; the color had seeped out of the world, and everything was infused with a misty blue tint.

    Ulfric reached out to her, and his hand passed through her shoulder.

    "Incredible," he breathed. "Do you feel that?"

    "No. I don't feel anything."

    She tried it, too, touching him, but the luminous outline of her fingers disappeared into his solid flesh. She withdrew them quickly.

    "What is it?"

    "What if the effect wears off while part of my body is within yours?" she wondered, horrified at the thought. "What if I tried to walk through a wall, and became real again at that very moment? Would I be trapped in the wall? Would it cleave me apart?"

    They stared at the misty silhouette of her hands, floating in the air, and then they were flesh and blood and bone again. A sharp tingle pulsed throughout Annika's body.

    "I don't think I like that Shout."

    "Perhaps you should avoid walking through walls," Ulfric said, trying and failing to hide a smile. "But don't count it out completely. It could save your life, used a moment before an Imperial runs you through with his sword, or a dragon unleashes its fire upon you."

    "I suppose," she replied with a noncomittal shrug. "The Greybeards truly never taught you this Shout?"

    "No, they didn't."

    "Nor did they teach it to me. How peculiar. You'd think they would favor a Shout that makes you powerless."

    Ulfric barked out a laugh. "I see you have as much love for them as I do."

    "Why do you think I wanted to continue my studies with you?"

    Though he had insisted, weeks ago, that he did not know enough of the Way of the Voice to guide her in it, Ulfric had not denied her second request; perhaps he worried, as she did, what would happen if she returned to High Hrothgar. She might have known more Shouts than Ulfric did now, but, as Arngeir had once warned her, without practice and discipline, she would be fighting with a greatsword when her hands knew only daggers.

    Annika looked again to the parchment, and pointed to another Thu'um.

    "Laas," Ulfric read aloud. "I know this word. Life."

    "Yes. The Shout reveals life forces around you. Laas yah nir."

    The words were whispers instead of shouts. A silky red light surrounded Ulfric, brighter around his heart, weaker at his hands and feet, shifting and swirling around him like water.

    "Do you see that?"

    Ulfric looked down at himself. "What?"

    "You have an aura." She smiled, watching its languid flow. "I suppose only I can see it."

    "There isn't a Shout to reveal deception or betrayal, is there?"

    Annika knew he had meant it as a jest, but as his aura faded away, so too did his good humor.

    "I wish there was," she replied. "Has there been no progress with the prisoners from Markarth?"

    "None. I am sure Igmund knows something, but he refuses to talk."

    "What if there were a way to force someone to talk?" she wondered. "Wuunferth may know of a potion that loosens the lips of its drinker."

    Ulfric scratched at his beard. "Perhaps. Unless Wuunferth himself is involved in the treachery."

    "Wuunferth?" Annika considered the notion, one she would never have thought of herself. "He is a brilliant mage, but..."

    "That is exactly why we should be wary of him. Do not forget: Igmund had enough warning of our attack on Markarth to bolster his garrison's strength with reinforcements from Solitude. The question is not only who warned him, but how they came by the information themselves. We have to acknowledge the possibility that the secret was divined by some magical means."

    "But how?"

    "I know little and less of magic," he said with a sigh. "If there is a potion to loosen a man's lips, could there not also be a potion to make that man forget what he's said and done? Could there not be a spell to read a man's thoughts like a book?" He shook his head. "I would take care not to put too much trust in Wuunferth. It distresses me that you spend so much time in his company and under his guidance as it is."

    "His guidance in healing has saved my life more than once," she reminded him. "He's teaching me to use wards now."

    "Even so, I want you to be careful with him."

    The concern in his eyes made her nod despite her own doubts. "I will."

    Ulfric looked to the scroll in her hand. "What's next?"

    Annika's eyes wandered over the parchment, and lit on a cluster of runes that seemed diferent, somehow, than the rest. She traced her finger over them, and felt a strange twisting in the pit of her stomach.

    "Od ah viing," Ulfric read.

    "Odahviing. It's a name," she mused. "A dragon's name." A memory buried deep beneath the weight of Paarthurnax's sacrifice clawed its way back to her. "I—I think I'm meant to summon this dragon."

    Ulfric's eyes narrowed beneath drawn brows. "Why?"

    "Paarthurnax thought our victory over Alduin might be enough to convince one of his allies to turn against him. And this is the only name he gave me."

    "He must have thought this Odahviing would be likely to help you."

    Annika looked to the skies as though the dragon would already be soaring overhead.

    "And if he won't?" she asked. "I hardly think he'll want to sit down for a chat. He'll attack me, and I'll have to defend myself, and one of us will be dead before I can appeal for his help."

    Ulfric chewed on his lip, lost in thought for a long moment. "Unless... you trap him."

    "And how would I trap a dragon?"

    "Have you ever heard the story of Numinex?"

    She shook her head, though the name seemed vaguely familiar.

    "Olaf One-Eye," Ulfric said, "a Tongue in the First Era, fought the dragon Numinex at his lair atop Mount Anthor. Olaf exhausted the dragon, but instead of slaying him, brought him back to Whiterun, where he had a prison built in which to hold the beast."

    "Dragonsreach," Annika whispered.

    "You have heard it, then?"

    "No, I... I remember it."

    It was as hazy as any memory of times long past, but it was there, a vision of a dragon pinned down to a great stone balcony, a heavy wooden beam over its back, its limbs and tail chained. An endless blue sky lay just beyond the parapet, tormenting the dragon who could not fly it, but only watch the sun and moons pass, day after day.

    "I remember it," she said again, "because Paarthurnax remembered it. He must have gone to see Numinex while he was imprisoned."

    Ulfric watched her for a moment, an odd look on his face. "Numinex's skull is now mounted over the throne of Whiterun."

    "Yes, I remember that, too—though this I saw with my own eyes. Do you think Dragonsreach is still able to hold a dragon?"

    "I can't be sure, but if it is, you'll need Jarl Balgruuf's compliance in luring and trapping Odahviing."

    Annika sighed. "I am weary of asking that man for favors."

    Ulfric smiled, but it was small and short-lived.

    The matter of her promise to become Balgruuf's Thane after the war lingered in the air between them, unspoken but not forgotten. She did not truly think that Ulfric would surrender her to Balgruuf now that so much had changed, now that she slept in his arms every night and spent her days by his side... but she could not believe, either, that he would forsake his side of the treaty, if it won him the war. She could not ask him what he meant to do, for she was too frightened of the answer.

    Instead, she held the scroll up once more.

    "Why don't you try something more aggressive?" Ulfric suggested.

    Annika was immediately aghast. "On you?"

    He gestured to the figures at the other end of the courtyard, men made of straw and burlap, red and white targets painted on head and heart.

    Her heart calmed, but the dread that had leapt into her chest did not dissipate. She would be hesitant to use her more destructive Shouts even if she faced a band of legionnaires instead of harmless dummies.

    Ulfric sensed her reluctance at once, and laid a comforting hand on her arm. "Paarthurnax gave you these words for a reason," he reminded her. "They are your best weapon against Alduin."

    She let out a long breath, and nodded.

    The Shouts at the bottom of the scroll had been the most difficult to write. She looked to them now, and saw fire, ice, and thunder in the runes, in the words. She saw pain, and suffering, and death, and she wanted nothing to do with any of them. But Ulfric told it true: she needed them, if she were to have any hope of defeating Alduin. They would be her sword and shield, her bow and arrow. They would be her victory.

    Annika let the scroll curl up, and tucked it back into her cuirass. She strode on unsteady legs to the middle of the courtyard, and positioned herself before one of the dummies. Straw and burlap. They had burned like dried leaves in Helgen, the bales of straw outside the stables, the burlap sacks of potatoes that had burst and spilled inside the ruined inn. How had she even noticed such small details in the run for her life? Was every moment of that nightmare etched forever into her memory? She prayed not.

    The dragon's Voice, though, the dragon's words... those, she knew, would haunt her always. Especially when she spoke them herself.

    "Yol."

    A gust of flame rushed from her lips, but it did not burn her. It wrapped blazing tendrils around its target, a deathly embrace. In half a heartbeat, the dummy was its own funeral pyre.

    Annika staggered back from the sudden heat and light, from the inferno borne from her own mouth, much like she had after the very first time she had Shouted, at the bones of the dragon she had slain in Whiterun. But this time, she did not fall. This time, Ulfric was there to catch her.

    She twisted to take hold of his arm, but kept her eyes on the fire. It consumed the dummy, the burlap curling up into black ash first, the straw disintegrating quickly after. The wooden post that was its spine burned slowly, filling the air with a cloud of smoke. The embers that fell to the stones fizzled and died. The screams she heard in her head did not.

    "Good," Ulfric said, though not as brightly as before. "That was good."

    "I'm glad I only used the first word."

    His nervous laugh broke the tension. "So am I."

    "Did you ever study that Shout?"

    "No. I doubt the Greybeards would have taught it to me even if I'd spent the last thirty years at High Hrothgar."

    "No, likely not." Annika turned away from the remnants of the destruction her Voice had caused, though she could not escape the scent of charred wood that hung in the air. "I wish I knew how to share my knowledge of these words, like they do. I would give them all to you."

    "It wouldn't be quite that simple. As the Dragonborn, you can harness the power of a word instantly, but it would take me years of training and practice to master even one Thu'um."

    "But you have mastered some."

    "Yes."

    "Why do you not use them?" she asked. "Why do you never use your Voice?"

    Another sad smile touched his lips, and he reached up to smooth back a curl that had broken free of her braid. "There isn't much use for it when you spend most of your days sitting a throne."

    "But in the Reach," Annika pressed. "At Fort Sungard, and in Markarth. You didn't Shout even when the legionnaires had nearly overwhelmed us."

    Ulfric was quiet for a long moment. "I used my Voice in Markarth once before," he told her. "And I have always regretted it."

    She went cold all over. All she could do was nod.

    "I suppose the philosophy of the Way of the Voice wasn't entirely lost on me," he went on. "I have never been able to hold to its strict principles, but I don't feel the Voice should be used lightly. It is, after all, a gift of the gods. I lost sight of that during the Great War, and everything that came after. In the years since, I have only used my Voice when I have had dire need to, as is part of the creed."

    Annika's gaze dropped to the axe on his hip, and the hand that fidgeted there. She hesitated, wary about finally broaching the issue she had long wanted to ask him about, even though it seemed a small matter, now, compared to everything else he had shared with her.

    "You... you used it against King Torygg."

    Ulfric's hand stilled. "Yes, I did," he replied, his voice suddenly very quiet. "What need could be more dire than our freedom? Torygg was nothing but a puppet of the Empire, and through him, the Empire would continue to run Skyrim into the ground. So I challenged him, in the traditional way, to bring our wretched condition to light, and I used my Voice to prove I had the strength, ambition, and dedication he lacked. Though I didn't 'Shout him to pieces,' as some would tell you. I Shouted him to the ground, but it was my axe that killed him." A darkness that spoke of bitterness and resentment came into his eyes. "Not that the difference matters to those who say it wasn't honorable or fair to use my Voice at all."

    Annika had heard the argument more than once in Candlehearth Hall, from arrogant travelers too deep in their cups to know how violently such an opinion would be opposed in Windhelm. She had never expected Ulfric to believe it himself, and yet she heard doubt in his words.

    "Anyone who says that is a fool," she countered at once. "The Voice is a weapon that anyone can wield, the same as a sword or an axe or a bow. You spent years learning to Shout; King Torygg didn't. That was his choice. If he had never been trained in arms, would you have been expected to put aside your axe and use your bare hands?" She shook her head. "Few battles are evenly matched, but that doesn't mean they aren't honorable or fair."

    Ulfric stared at her for a long moment, his expression strange and unreadable. And then his hands were cupping her face and lifting it to his. His kiss was deep and fierce, and when their lips parted, he pressed his forehead to hers.

    "Thank you," he whispered.

    Still trying to catch her breath, Annika smiled. It was so sweet to smile, after being so afraid that she never would again.

    "Thank you," she said, her fingers trailing up his neck to tangle in his hair. "I don't know what I would do without you."

    "More training than talking, most like."

    Ulfric tugged the scroll from her hand and stuffed it down into his armor. With another kiss, and a long, lingering look that warmed her from the inside out, he drew her back towards the keep. Annika followed him eagerly. She'd had enough of both training and talking, of runes and dragons and kings. She would welcome the quiet crackle of his hearth, the comfort of his bed, and the bliss of the little world they had created for themselves there.


    * * * * *​


    She could not have said what woke her, in the dead of the night.

    Ulfric's deep and steady breathing told her he still slept. Annika carefully withdrew from his embrace and slipped out of bed. She found her dress amongst the mess of their discarded clothes; the linen was cold against the flush of her skin. Her feet were silent on the carpet, on the stone floor.

    She crept downstairs and through the Great Hall with purpose, though she could not have said what that purpose was. Not until the sharp scent of old sweat and nightsoil hit her like a fist.

    "I wish to speak with Jarl Igmund."

    The guards blinked up at her, their game of dice forgotten. They did not seem to know what to do. They likely did not get many visitors to the dungeons at such an hour, and certainly not women.

    "We're not to let anyone speak with the prisoners," one of the men finally said. "The Jarl's orders."

    "Oh. I only thought—well—do you know who I am?"

    "Of course, my lady."

    "Jarl Igmund knows who I am, too," Annika told them. "He saw me Shout down his personal guard with his own eyes. It may be that he holds more respect for the Dragonborn than the average interrogator... and thus might be more willing to tell me what he has withheld from them."

    "But, the Jarl..."

    "Surely the Jarl would not take issue with me asking the prisoner a few questions?" She gave them a furtive smile. "I'm hardly just anyone, after all."

    The meek bowing of their heads told her they knew she spoke the truth. It had not taken long for word to spread, and by now, everyone in the keep knew that the Dragonborn shared the Jarl's bed—including these guards. She could almost see the gears turning in their heads as they tried to decide what would be worse: disobeying the Jarl's orders, or denying his paramour's wishes.

    They shared a look, one furrowing his brow, the other chewing his lip. Finally, the burlier of the two shrugged.

    "All right," he said, rising from his chair and tugging a ring of keys from his belt. "I suppose a few minutes couldn't hurt."

    "That should be all I need."

    He led her through the dungeons, carrying a torch to light their way; the corridors were dim and cold, with only one flickering oil lamp hung for every five cells. A handful of prisoners still awake leered at her with equal parts hate and hunger. She met each gaze with a hard one of her own.

    They came to a cell at the end of a hall. It was only slightly larger than the others, the only luxury afforded to the deposed Jarl of Markarth. The guard set the torch into a sconce, and gave the bars a hard kick.

    The bed roll in the corner twitched. A face peered out of it, eyes glowing in the firelight. They went wide when they saw Annika.

    "Dragonborn."

    Igmund crawled from the bed roll and got to his feet. He looked much smaller in his cell than he had on his throne, and he had been stripped of his noble raiment and given the same roughspun as any other prisoner. He seemed to have aged ten years in the ten days since his capture.

    Annika nodded to the guard, and he started away.

    Igmund curled his hands around the bars. There was dirt beneath each of his fingernails, and scabs ringing his wrists where his binds had rubbed him raw on the road to Windhelm.

    "What do you want?"

    "The name of the man who has betrayed Jarl Ulfric," Annika said. "And you are going to give it to me."

    He snorted a laugh. "Leave it to Ulfric to send a woman to do his dirty work."

    "I'm here of my own accord. Who told you we would attack Markarth?"

    "General Tullius."

    "And who told General Tullius?"

    "I do not know."

    "I think you do."

    "I don't care what you think."

    Annika smiled, slow and cold. "You should."

    Igmund's steely gaze faltered for the first time.

    She sauntered closer to the cell. "I'm too young to recall the Great War, of course," she said, "but I grew up hearing stories about it, and stories about what happened in your city, afterward. The Markarth Incident." She gave a dry, derisive laugh. "Everyone condemns Ulfric for what he did, yet they always seem to forget that it was you who asked him to do it. Tell me—how long did it take you to turn against the man who had won your city back for you? How long before you sold him out to the Thalmor?"

    Igmund's face hardened into a deeper scowl. "The Thalmor threatened us with another war if we did not comply with the White-Gold Concordat."

    "So you sided with the elves who would destroy you, rather than the Nords who would fight for you and defend you."

    "I didn't have a choice—"

    "Since you hold the Thalmor in such high regard," she continued, raising her voice above his, "perhaps you'll be more responsive to their techniques than you've been to ours."

    His eyes went wide. He let go of the bars and stumbled back, as if the shadows of his cell would protect him. Annika followed, closing the distance he put between them, and laid her own hands on the rusted iron.

    She drew in a long, deep breath. She felt the Thu'um before she spoke it, as though the mere idea of it drank the warmth from her skin, her veins, her very core.

    "Iiz."

    A flurry of frost burst from her lips.

    It hit Igmund's chest, and in a single heartbeat, radiated out to encase his arms, his legs, his head in solid, glistening ice. His scream froze in his throat. His eyes glazed over. He could not breathe, but he was still alive in his cocoon, still seeing, still feeling, still knowing.

    Frost is so excrutiating precisely because it is so slow.

    Not this frost.

    Annika watched him, and waited.

    A resounding crack echoed off the walls and down the corridor. The ice split, and shards sloughed off piece by piece, until Igmund could gasp for air. After his second breath, he choked out a strangled cry.

    "You—you're—you're mad!" he shrieked at her. "Guards!"

    The prisoners in the surrounding cells were roused now, some banging on their bars, some laughing, some joining their voices to Igmund's in a cry for help.

    "Tell me who betrayed Ulfric."

    "I don't know!"

    "You're lying."

    "I'm not, I swear to the Eight, I don't—"

    "The Nine," Annika corrected. "Iiz."

    The ice enveloped him again. This time, it left glittering trails of frost along the floor of his cell. Even the walls and the ceiling were beginning to crystallize.

    The other prisoners quieted at once, stunned by her Shout. She paid them no mind one way or another. They were nothing. Igmund was nothing, but he knew something. She would know it, too, before this night ended. She would have what she wanted.

    Annika heard the guards thundering down the halls long before they reached her. She turned to face them. They lurched to a halt when they saw the icy tomb of Igmund's cell, and the statue he had become. One guard reached for the axe slung from his belt, the other for his dagger.

    "Faas ru mar!"

    A swirling red light rode the crest of her Thu'um. It wrapped the guards in a soft embrace, and they were stricken with sudden fear. They fled from her, from the absolute power that was hers alone to command, dropping their weapons in their haste to get away.

    By the tenth hour, your entire leg is frozen solid, and if they'd only give you an axe, you would hack it off yourself.

    Annika reached the fallen axe in three long strides. It was heavy in her hand, but it was not her hand that would wield it.

    The ice shattered and fell away from Igmund once more.

    "Stop," he sputtered. "P—please!"

    "Tell me who betrayed Ulfric."

    "I know nothing, I—"

    "Tell me who betrayed Ulfric."

    "I don't know, gods damn you!"

    Annika's gaze went to his left leg. The scope of her focus and her will narrowed and tightened until it was all she could see.

    "Iiz slen nus!"

    Her Thu'um shot out like a whip, and caught Igmund's leg.

    The ice did not spread, this time. It wrapped around his foot and shin and calf, but went no higher.

    Igmund screamed, loud and high and wordless.

    "Gods," he choked, "stop this, please, make it stop, make it stop!"

    Annika threw the axe into his cell. It skittered across the floor and came to rest at his feet. He stared down at it as though it were alive.

    "You can make it stop yourself," she said, her voice as calm as his was manic. "All you have to do is tell me what I want to know... or cut off your leg."

    A dark stain appeared across the front of his pants.

    Annika laughed.

    So weak, this pathetic mortal, so very fragile. So insignificant, just like all the others. He screamed again, and wept like a babe in its mother's arms. It was so sweet a sound. His bony hands clawed at the ice, pulled at it, beat at it, but his efforts were as futile as his tears.

    "Annika!"

    She whirled about, and saw Ulfric.

    Rage flared up within her, scalding hot and insatiable, and riding the wave was the beast that was her soul, digging into her throat and bracing to unleash itself once more.

    But another part of her, trapped and bound and fighting to break free, saw the shock and fear and hurt that came into Ulfric's eyes when he saw what she had done.

    What she had done.

    Oh, gods, what had she done?

    Her legs buckled and she fell to the floor, gasping once before a choked cry escaped her lips, shivering as violently as though she had been the one frozen.

    Ulfric rushed to her and took her in his arms.

    "I didn't—I didn't mean to," she stammered, "it wasn't—wasn't me!"

    "I know, I know," he breathed into her ear. "It's all right, it's over."

    But it wasn't.

    It would never be over, not as long as this vicious thing lived within her. She wanted it out, she wanted it gone, and she mauled her throat as Igmund had his leg, skin splitting beneath her ragged fingernails before Ulfric had her hands, and then all she could do was sob and wail and finally let herself go soft in his unyielding embrace.


    * * * * *​


    It was past midday when Ulfric found her, still in his chambers, curled up in a chair by a corner window with a book cradled in her lap.

    "Are you going to come down at all today?"

    Annika glanced up when she heard his voice, but quickly turned her gaze back down to the study on wards. She had even less hope of focusing on the lesson now than she'd had all morning, but letting the words blur before her was easier than meeting Ulfric's eyes.

    "It isn't safe."

    "You could have at least broken your fast."

    "I wasn't hungry."

    But as he drew closer, the aromas of the tray he carried elicited a grinding growl from her stomach. She chanced a peek, and saw a bowl of stew, fragrant with apple and cabbage, and a plate of fried bread.

    "Annika," Ulfric pleaded. "Look at me."

    She shook her head and huddled lower in her chair. "I can't," she whispered. "I don't know how you can look at me, after what I did."

    "Because I know it wasn't you that did it."

    "But it was, on some level," she insisted, despite what she had said in the dungeons; the more thought she gave to the incident, the more fault she felt for it. "Do not forget, my own soul is that of a dragon, and it has its own will. If it was only Paarthurnax's fury taking hold of me again, it wouldn't have cared to question Igmund. I wanted to question him. I wanted to make him tell me what he knew." Finally, she lifted her eyes to his, and a fresh stab of shame shot through her. "I did to Igmund what Elenwen did to you."

    Ulfric laid the tray down on the table beside the chair and went to a knee before her, suddenly intense. "Listen to me. You did nothing like what was done to me. I was tortured for days, for weeks, over and over again. And not only with magic. Their manipulation of my will, their conditioning of my mind—that was a thousand times worse than anything physically inflicted on me."

    "But Igmund—"

    "Igmund is fine. He will bear no lasting damage. You wounded his pride more than anything, I promise you."

    "And the next time it happens?" The tenuous dam of her strength trembled and collapsed, and the first of her tears coursed down her cheeks. "What if I wake one night full of a rage I can't control, and I unleash it on you?"

    He set her book aside, and sought out the hands that had hidden beneath it. "You won't."

    "How can you know that?" she demanded. "How can you know what I might be capable of when I don't know myself? You might trust me, but I don't trust the evil inside me not to hurt you." She pulled her hands from his grasp and wrapped her arms around herself. "Maybe this is why Paarthurnax chose isolation. He couldn't hurt anyone if he was alone."

    "Is that what you would do, then?" Ulfric asked. "Hide yourself away from the world—from me?"

    "If it means I won't slit your throat as you sleep, perhaps I should."

    He was silent for so long that she had to look up. His eyes, full of the same hurt she wanted to spare him from, said everything he wouldn't.

    "You promised you wouldn't leave, Annika."

    "This is different—"

    "Yes, it is. We are at war, and in every war, there is always the chance that you will not live to see its end. Every minute of every day, both you and I are in danger from an endless number of enemies. But what you call the evil inside you—you can control it. I know you can, because Paarthurnax could. That dragon was more gentle and kind and merciful than any man I have ever known."

    "Maybe, in time, I could," she allowed. "But until then?"

    "Until then, we will fight this thing together."

    She let out a long and shaking breath. Ulfric saw danger everywhere he turned, except where it truly lay. He did not see the risk in her because he did not want to see it. But when she let him close his hands over hers once more, his touch calmed her, as it always did. Perhaps he saw more truth than she; if he was the only one who could anchor her to her own will, she had more hope of fighting this with him than she did without him.

    But if the beast within her hurt Ulfric, if it killed him... she would have no hope at all.

    "If it happens one more time," she finally said, "I will have no choice but to leave."

    He gazed at her for a long moment, but made no reply. Then he plucked the bowl of stew from the tray and pressed it into her palms.

    "Eat," he ordered. This time, she did not refuse. "When you're finished, we will go to the temple to meditate and pray."

    Annika gave him a skeptical look. "I don't see how that will help me."

    "It helped me, after the war," he told her, watching her spoon stew into her mouth. "I came home from years of battle and months of imprisonment, from watching so many good men die... and all for nothing. I spent my days fighting the seeds the Thalmor had planted in my mind, and my nights fighting the horrors that tormented my sleep. The temple was the only place that offered me any solace. There, everything fell away, and my mind was quiet. I could empty myself of all that poisoned me, and let Talos's grace fill me and strenghten me. It helped to remind myself of what I was fighting for."

    "I know what I'm fighting for," Annika said. "For you."

    "The war, perhaps, but not Alduin. You fight Alduin because you cannot sit back and watch your world be destroyed any more than I could."

    "I thought I was fighting Alduin because it is my destiny to do so."

    "I believe it is, yes. But I also believe that you were right—you do have a choice in this. You could turn your back on destiny if you wanted to. You could do nothing. You could leave Skyrim today and never look back. Yet you stay. You fight. Because whatever your soul may be, you have the heart of a Nord."

    Annika could not help but smile at that, yet she felt guilty for it, for feeling anything but contrition for what she had done.

    "Come to the temple," Ulfric said again. "Pray to the god who had been a man with a soul like your soul, and a destiny like your destiny, to fight that which threatened his world. He fought, and he won. And so too will you."

    She took a deep breath, and nodded. "I'll come."

    She would, for his sake, but she doubted she would find the same solace he had, once upon a time. After all, it was the gods who had played this trick on her, the gods who had given her this corrupt and vile soul. She had no desire to pray to them—not even to Talos. He might have had a like soul and a like destiny, but he had been a Dragonborn without dragons. He had never been made to suffer the burden of saving the world from an ancient beast who would devour it. He'd never had to battle demons within himself for control of his own body and mind.

    This torment was hers and hers alone. Not even the gods could save her now.


    * * * * *​


    Annika's ward shattered, and the golden stream of Wuunferth's spell broke through.

    "You wouldn't block a dragon's sneeze with that shoddy casting," the mage grumbled. "Try again."

    She did, but her ward was even weaker this time. It flickered and died before Wuunferth could cast his own spell against her.

    "What part of concentrate didn't you understand?"

    "I'm sorry," she replied, too sullen to be annoyed by Wuunferth's abrasive attitude. "I have a lot on my mind right now."

    "Yes, I'm sure you do."

    She avoided meeting his eyes. She couldn't tell if he was still angry over being woken to heal Igmund the night before, or impressed with what she had done to the former Jarl. Perhaps a bit of both.

    "Take a break," he said. "Recover your energy. My tea should be finished brewing, anyway. Care for a cup?"

    "Yes, thank you."

    Annika joined him at the table just big enough to seat two. He poured two cups and slid one across to her. A woody aroma billowed up with the steam. She was not overly fond of the canis root brew Wuunferth favored, but she was still chilled from her walk back from the temple, and it would be good to have something warm in her stomach.

    Staring down into her cup, an idea struck her.

    "Wuunferth," she blurted, suddenly excited, "is there any sort of potion that can—can cure madness? Perhaps a tonic taken daily to keep the mind at ease?"

    He gave her a queer look that spoke more of pity than concern. She tried to ignore it.

    "Nothing specific that I know of... but I'm sure I could come up with something."

    He went to the bookshelves lining the wall and pulled out a heavy tome, sending a cloud of dust swirling into the air. He laid it down on the table between them, and, sipping his tea, began to peruse the pages. The gilded lettering along the cracked spine read One Thousand and One Alchemical Compounds.

    "Lavender, surely, for serenity and strength of will," he mumbled to himself. "Mandrake root, yes, yes. Clouded funnel cap, perhaps. Chaurus eggs and scaly pholiota, for focus. A few drops of fluxweed oil and juice of ginger added to the base..."

    Annika listened attentively to be polite, though he might have been speaking another language for all the sense his musing made to her. After several minutes of silence, broken only by the sigh of flipping pages and Wuunferth's occasional muttering, he drained the last of his tea and rose from the table.

    "It would be a waste of my time to continue your practice with you so preoccupied," he declared, shuffling over to his laboratory. "With any hope, whatever I cook up will keep you from wasting even more of my time at our next lesson."

    "Thank you, Wuunferth. Is there anything I can do to help?"

    He spat out a laugh. "Don't be ridiculous. Do you even know what clouded funnel cap is?"

    "Not a clue."

    "Read something, then. If you can manage it."

    She doubted she could, but retrieved her text on wards nonetheless, while Wuunferth set about collecting ingredients.

    "Wait," he said, plucking a nearly empty jar from a shelf. "There is something you can do for me after all. This little experiment will exhaust my store of chaurus eggs."

    Annika caught on at once. "I'll see Nurelion first thing in the morning."

    "Good. You can pick up a few other things for me while you're there. Talos knows I've already had enough of that elf this moon's turn."

    She bit her lip to hide her amusement, and returned to her book.

    Wuunferth did not speak again for the better part of an hour. Indeed, he was so engrossed in his grinding and distilling and mixing that he did not seem to notice when Annika's exhaustion caught up to her and she began to nod off at the table, knocking her empty teacup to the floor before jolting awake.

    "All right," the mage finally said. "I think I have it."

    Annika looked up to find him pouring his concoction into a goblet. She closed her book with some relief and joined him at the laboratory.

    "Now, you must understand this is purely experimental."

    "I do."

    "I cannot guarantee it will have the effect you desire."

    "Of course."

    "Nor can I guarantee that it won't have adverse effects that were not intended," he added. "I don't believe any of the components I used will have reacted negatively, but even the most knowledgeable of alchemists are still discovering new synergies, so there is always a chance of unexpected results."

    His warning made, Wuunferth handed her the goblet.

    It was not the molten liquid of other potions she had taken; it was thinner, more akin to ale than mead, but it held a faint blue glow, a remnant of the luminescent Chaurus eggs.

    Annika gazed at it for a long moment. Ulfric would not like this. She heard his voice in the back of her mind. I would take care not to put too much trust in Wuunferth. I want you to be careful with him. This was certainly not careful. If the mage was working against them, she had just given him the perfect opportunity to dispose of her. For all she knew, clouded funnel cap could be a poison that would stop her heart or seal her lungs. It might aggravate her episodes of rage even further. Or, it could be just the cure she needed.

    She did not like going against Ulfric's wishes, but her first concern was being careful with him. If there was even a chance that this potion could prevent her from losing control and doing him harm, she had to take the risk.

    She brought the goblet to her mouth and drank.

    Her heart did not stop. Her lungs went on breathing.

    "I'll bottle the rest for you," Wuunferth said. "Take the same measure, at the same time, every day for the next week. If it seems to have helped, I'll draw up another batch. If not, I'll try something else."

    "Thank you, Wuunferth." She gave him the warmest smile she could conjure. "Truly, thank you. This means a great deal to me."

    He grumbled wordlessly under his breath, as humble as he ever was when shown any sort of appreciation.

    "Go on, then," he said, waving her off. "Get some sleep. I don't want you breaking any more of my teacups."


    * * * * *​


    Four days in, and Frostfall was already proving its name true. A glistening crust of ice covered almost everything in Windhelm, making Annika's foray to the market a precarious one.

    The merchants were still setting up their wares for the day's trade, but the blacksmith's smelter was hot and steaming, and tempting to linger by. Oengul nodded to Annika as she passed, and one of the Shatter-Shield sisters gave her a warm smile and bid her a good morning. Annika returned both greetings, relieved to find that she did not feel threatened by them, and that she no longer felt phantom eyes watching her every step. She couldn't be sure if Wuunferth's potion had worked, or if the beast inside her merely slumbered, but she was glad of it either way.

    The shades on the windows of the White Phial had been pulled up, announcing the apothecary open. Annika stepped in, a sharp draft riding in on her heels.

    "By the Eight, shut the door," a wheezing voice railed from an adjoining chamber. "You Nords may have ice running through your veins, but the rest of us actually feel the cold!"

    "Forgive me, Master Nurelion."

    Annika latched the door closed behind her, shivering herself despite the supposed ice in her veins, and an elderly Altmer shuffled in, a scowl written plainly on his face.

    "Oh, it's you," he muttered when he saw her. "Has Wuunferth sent another outrageous list of materials impossible to import with all of the country's borders closed? He does know we're at war, does he not?"

    Annika suppressed a smile. She could not see why Nurelion and Wuunferth weren't the best of friends; they were so very much alike.

    "Master Wuunferth has sent a list, yes," she replied briskly, "though I could not say whether his needs are outrageous or not."

    She laid the scroll on the counter, along with a jingling coin purse. Nurelion unfurled the parchment, and his yellow eyes narrowed to slits as he read.

    "Chaurus eggs, again?" He laughed, but it was devoid of humor. "You Stormcloaks think you're so clever, don't you? You didn't think a master alchemist such as myself would figure it out?" He spilled out the contents of the coin purse and began to tally them, grumbling all the while. "The steward buys up all my luna moth wings on Tirdas, the court mage sends for chaurus eggs on Loredas—don't think I don't know what you're up to!"

    Annika could only stare at him. "I... I'm not sure I understand."

    "Sure you don't. The Jarl's little pet, not wise to his schemes? Am I supposed to believe that?"

    Nurelion swiftly gathered the items on Wuunferth's list. Annika placed each one into her basket, so thrown by his accusations that she didn't think to make certain she had everything, or to thank the Altmer. She watched him for a few moments longer, pocketing the gold, straightening the display of frost mirriam that the wind had put askew. His words had stricken a disturbing chord in her, though she did not know why, or what they meant. She was on the verge of asking him, but thought better of it when he glowered at her again.

    "Will that be all?"

    "Y—yes, Master Nurelion."

    Annika hurried out of the apothecary.


    * * * * *​


    Wunnferth's study was empty when Annika returned. An odd sight; he must have been in the privy, or perhaps the bathhouse. Either way, she didn't have much time. If Nurelion was right, and Wuunferth was indeed up to something, it would not do for him to know of her suspicions. She had to find the answers quickly.

    She hurried to the bookshelves and ran a finger over the cracked spines of half a hundred well-read tomes. Spell books, enchanting books, books on wards and summons and runes... and finally, alchemy books. Properties of Distillation, Constantine's Pharmacopoeia, One Thousand and One Alchemical Compounds. She tugged the latter from the tight prison of its neighbors and brought it to Wuunferth's desk, her heart quickening with every beat.

    Annika whipped through the pages, every one covered with tiny, cramped text and notes scribbled within the margins; the letters and numbers blurred together until she forced herself to slow down, lest she miss what she was looking for—not that she knew what that was. She skimmed through recipes for potions that healed and potions that harmed, studies on the alchemical uses of fire and frost salts, colored illustrations of strange plants and insects, all the while glancing over her shoulder and listening for footsteps that thankfully did not come. Her stomach twisted when she found a regenerative potion calling for luna moth wings, and again at a mention of chaurus eggs in a magicka poison, but neither seemed to be cause for concern.

    And then she saw it.

    Add 1 measure pressed chaurus eggs
    to 2 measures boiled water. Stew until
    eggs have dissolved. Crush 1 dram
    luna moth wings to a fine powder.
    Add to chaurus egg mixture and slowly heat.
    Simmer until liquid turns completely clear.

    She looked to the top of the page, at the name of the potion this recipe made, and her blood ran cold.


    * * * * *​


    Annika hurried through the Great Hall, clutching the book to her chest. The long dining table was packed with soldiers and lieutenants breaking their fast; she ignored the few who bid her a good morning, looking only for Ulfric. His place at the head of the table was empty.

    Ralof, biting into a heel of bread, caught her eye and pointed to the war room.

    She swerved without missing a beat, and burst into the chamber.

    "Ulfric, I—"

    She stopped short when she saw that Ulfric, bent over the flagged map of Skyrim, was not alone. Jorleif stood to his left, his arms crossed behind his back, as quiet and unobtrusive as ever. His eyes skipped to the book in Annika's arms.

    She swallowed hard, and moved her hands over the book's cover.

    "Forgive me for interrupting," she said, stealing a quick glance at Jorleif before looking away. "Ulfric, I need a word with you."

    His expression slid seamlessly from curious to foreboding.

    "Of course. Jorleif, give us the room."

    The steward gave a small bow. "My lord."

    Annika watched him leave from the corner of her eye, holding her breath until his footsteps disappeared into the Great Hall.

    She flew around the table and grabbed Ulfric's arm.

    "It's Jorleif," she hissed. "He's the one betraying you, he's the Imperial spy!"

    Ulfric's eyes, wide and stricken, shot to the doorway that Jorleif had just passed through.

    "Why do you think this?"

    "Chaurus eggs have been going missing from Wuunferth's stores for weeks," she told him in a jumbled rush. "He insisted that someone was stealing them, but I thought he'd just misplaced or miscounted them. But I've just been to the White Phial, and Nurelion was suspicious of the court mage wanting chaurus eggs so soon after your steward had purchased luna moth wings—"

    "Annika, slow down, you're not making any sense."

    "Invisibility potions!" She thrust the alchemy book at him. "Chaurus eggs and luna moth wings combine to make invisibility potions. Remember what the guard said in jest, after Hadvar escaped? No one else had come through the dungeons unless they'd been invisible."

    The revelation crashed over him, twisting his features into a terrible mix of shock and horror and rage.

    "That's how he knew about the attack on Markarth," she barreled on, "and everything else. He could have been anywhere, at any time, listening to anything said in confidence..."

    Goose flesh rose over her entire body, as though a ghost had breathed on the back of her neck. She looked to the door, cracked open but a finger's width.

    "...including this."

    Annika ran for the Great Hall.

    "Laas!"

    Her Voice flew out in a whisper, and every man and woman at the dining table flamed with red light that only her eyes could see. If Jorleif had simply sat down or stood still, he would have been lost amongst all the others. But she could not miss the illuminated silhouette running the length of the chamber, fleeing like a coward, proving his guilt with his desperation to escape.

    "Kaan drem ov!"

    This time, everyone heard her Shout. The Great Hall fell quiet.

    The invisible figure stopped just steps from the keep's front doors, snared in the net of her calming Thu'um. Annika caught up to him quickly.

    Though she could not see his face, she saw the aura that revealed his presence, glowing as red as all the blood on his hands. Galmar's blood, and that of all the men who had lost their lives in the Reach. Gunjar's blood, and everyone else who died in Helgen. Very nearly her own blood. Very nearly Ulfric's.

    Fury simmered just under Annika's skin, threatening to spill over, to take hold of her once more, to use her for its own ends—but they were her ends, too. She wanted to burn Jorleif to a crisp, to turn his heart to ice, to break every bone in his body and tear him into a thousand pieces. She wanted to make him suffer as he had made so many others suffer. She wanted to hear him scream, and cry, and beg for mercy she would never give. She wanted everyone to know the price of betraying Ulfric Stormcloak.

    And they would. But not here, not now. Not at her hands.

    What you call the evil inside you—you can control it.

    She could control it, she could.

    She held back her anger and swallowed down all the words that had risen in her throat. She balled her hands into fists so they would not wrap around his throat to choke the life from him. She turned away from the man she would make her victim, and towards the man she would make her king.

    Annika pointed at the red glow that was Jorleif.

    "He's there," she told Ulfric. "Right there."

    He reached out, and his hand hit solid air, then found and seized an arm. There was a goblet in his other hand; he upended it over Jorleif's head, and a thin dark wine spilled over him, carving out fragments of a face, just as bloody as the aura that had begun to fade.

    Ulfric summoned the guards.

    "Arrest this man," he ordered. "Bind him, wrists and ankles, and throw him into the dungeons. And search his quarters."

    "For what, my lord?"

    He glared at the emptiness before him, at the crimson shade of the man who had betrayed him.

    "For evidence of treason."


    * * * * *​


    Ulfric paced back and forth in front of the barred cell. He had not spoken since being given the charred scrap of parchment now crushed in his fist, but Annika could see his fury swelling with each turn.

    Jorleif, visible once more, sat just as silently within the cell, watching Ulfric's every move.

    He looked at the parchment again, though how General Tullius's signature was still legible at all, after being burned in Jorleif's hearth and balled in Ulfric's fist, Annika did not know. The hardness in Ulfric's eyes renewed, and his jaw pulsed with the effort of not completely exploding.

    Finally, he stopped, and turned towards the cell to stare at Jorleif. He said nothing. He did nothing. He only stared. As the seconds stretched into minutes, the steward's fortitude faded, and fear came into his eyes for the first time since he had been caught.

    "Why?"

    There was a deadly calm to Ulfric's voice that chilled even Annika.

    Jorleif merely shifted on the crate he'd been given for a chair.

    "Why?" Ulfric repeated. "Why have you done these loathsome things? You, whom I have trusted for over twenty years, and whom my father trusted before me?"

    "Your father," Jorleif muttered, "would be ashamed to call you his son after all the loathsome things you have done, Ulfric. You have disgraced his name and his legacy with the war you started in your lust for Skyrim's throne."

    Ulfric took a step towards the bars, seething.

    "My lust for Skyrim's throne? Have you forgotten that I never wanted even my father's throne—that I was put upon it by men and women crying out for justice and retribution against the Empire who had abandoned them?"

    "How many of them cried out for you to murder their king?"

    "I did no murder. I challenged Torygg, and he accepted. And I won. This was the way of our ancestors, and it should be the way of our children. A king should earn his throne with his own strength, and will, and ambition, to prove he is deserving of the honor and able to bear the responsibility. For too long, our kings have been nothing more than glorified puppets of corrupt old men in Cyrodiil, who use them to serve the wishes of the elves who would kill us and take away our gods."

    "Oh yes, the elves," Jorleif jeered. "The elves you so despise, yet you serve their wishes yourself. This war only weakens Skyrim, and the Empire, leaving little resistance against those elves when they next invade."

    "They are invading now, through the back door of the Emperor's apathy," Ulfric shot back. "The Empire has long been weakened. It has already lost Elsweyr, Black Marsh, Morrowind, and Hammerfell. We are one of the last on this ship, and it is sinking. I will not let Skyrim drown while I have the power to save her."

    "You are drowning her yourself, Ulfric, all for the sake of being a king."

    Ulfric pounded both fists against the bars. "I do not care about being a king!" he roared. "I care about being alive! I care about being free!"

    "You care only about yourself, as you have done since you were just a boy, running off to High Hrothgar to chase a fairytale."

    "And what do you care about? What was your price for turning traitor?"

    "The crow calls the raven black," Jorleif scoffed. "I seem to recall you making an oath to serve the Empire, once upon a time. Yet here we are."

    "I was young and naive, believing what I was told because I had yet to see with my own eyes. Had I known then all I know about the Empire now, I would have made no oath."

    "But you did. And you broke it. You swore fealty to King Torygg, but you broke that oath, too. If you would have my head off for being a traitor, Ulfric, yours should come first."

    "Why did you not kill me yourself? Gods know you've had every chance to."

    "I was ordered not to, yet," he answered. "General Tullius feared a silent assassination would only provoke your supporters to even greater anger. It had to be a public execution, to show everyone that the Empire still retained control, that it would root out its usurpers, and bring them to justice."

    "A public execution. Helgen."

    "Yes, Helgen. And what a disaster that was." Jorleif shook his head and gave a bitter laugh. "A dragon. Only Ulfric Stormcloak would be saved by a damned dragon. It seems the Eight share your love of the dramatic moment."

    Ulfric bristled. "The Nine."

    "After Helgen," the steward went on, ignoring the correction, "Tullius still held out hope for a public execution, but soon you had secured Whiterun, and then Falkreath. Your forces were growing too big, too strong, while you cowered here within the safety of these walls."

    The fire in Ulfric's eyes flamed even hotter. "So you plotted to cut off my right hand."

    "And rouse you out of hiding, to seek vengeance for its loss. But that, too, went awry. The shock of you rushing off to Markarth, thinking Galmar was your betrayer, was nothing compared to the shock of you coming back, alive, with the Reach under your control. Your good fortune astounds me."

    "The gods see the righteousness of my cause, and they guide me to victory."

    Jorleif sighed. "You will tell yourself anything to justify your sins, won't you?"

    "No more than the Empire tells its followers to justify its negligence and its cowardice."

    Jorleif pointed to the burnt scrap still in Ulfric's fist. "That told me to tip a vial of poison into your mead. I received it only this morning. It seems Tullius finally gave up on making an example of you; he would see you dead, now, by any means. I was to be that means. And now she has robbed me of that honor." His eyes, narrow and cold, slid to Annika. "You owe her your life, Ulfric."

    "I would give it to her gladly."

    "And how many others will give theirs to satisfy your thirst for power? How many sons and daughters of Skyrim will you sacrifice to win this pointless war?"

    Annika's breath caught in her throat. The slightest wince twitched Ulfric's features, and his shoulders sagged just an inch. But she saw it. She felt it, the knife that passed through his heart and into hers. But he did not let his fear or his guilt drag down his resolve.

    "Lives will be lost," he agreed. "But lives will also be saved. Some must die now to ensure that all are not massacred in the Dominion's next bid for supremacy—for it is plain that the Empire can no longer protect us."

    "And you think you can?"

    "I can try."

    "You will fail."

    "I would rather try and fail than lay down and let the elves take our gods, our freedom, and our very lives from us."

    "They will do just that if you win this war! You will have your crown, but you will rule nothing!" Jorleif rose for the first time and rushed the bars, his composure finally crumbling beneath the weight of his own anger. "Don't you see? United, we can stand against them; divided, they will pick us off one by one, until we are no more than a single page in their history books."

    "Have you forgotten our own history?" Ulfric demanded. "Ysgramor and his Five Hundred stood alone against the elves when they were the only men in all of Skyrim. And they won. They drove the elves out, and took this land for themselves, and founded the first kingdom of men on Tamriel. This very castle was built in Ysgramor's name, and I sit on Ysgramor's throne, called to defend that kingdom against its foes, as many Nords have done before me. You think we need the Empire to fight the Dominion?" He took a step towards the cell, squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin to reach his full and frightening height once more. "You are wrong. I almost regret that you won't be alive to see me prove it."

    "You will regret all of this, one day," Jorleif promised. "When you take your dying breath, you will look back on your wretched life and see nothing but the bloody trench you tore through Skyrim."

    There they were again, Ulfric's darkest doubts put into words sharp enough to cut him to the bone. Annika took a step forward, so he would not forget that she was there, that no matter how many still believed those words to be true, many more stood behind him, believing in him, in his cause, in everything he was fighting for.

    "And when you take yours," he returned, "all you will see are the eyes of those you betrayed, cursing you for the traitor you are, and condemning you to eternity in Oblivion."

    Jorleif shook his head again, glaring at Ulfric with such disgust and such pity that he might have been the one locked up in a dungeon.

    "I pray the gods will have mercy on your soul, Ulfric."

    Ulfric took one last, long look at the man he had known his entire life, the man he had trusted and confided in, whose opinion he had always valued. The man who had betrayed him. The man who had almost cost him his life, and all he had done to make it worth something.

    "Don't pray for me," he said, "unless it's to all nine gods."

    He stormed away from the cell, never looking back.
     
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  8. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    seven: to sovngarde


    The guards at Dragonsreach no longer stopped Annika at the front doors.

    The scent of the evening's roast boar lingered in the great hall, but the tables had been cleared and Balgruuf was back on his throne, speaking with a man Annika recognized as the commander of the city guard. She waited at a courteous distance until their meeting concluded.

    Balgruuf raised an eyebrow to see her approaching his throne yet again, though this time, she did so alone.

    "Dragonborn," he greeted, not without a hint of exasperation. "Here to seek my help again, I assume? Do you wish me to storm the gates of Solitude now?"

    "I seek your help, yes," Annika answered, "but not with the war."

    "What, then?"

    "I need to trap a dragon—here, in Dragonsreach."

    Balgruuf's face was impassive for a long moment. And then he began to laugh, long and full and heartily. The steward laughed. The guards laughed. Even Irileth allowed herself a brief smirk.

    Annika merely waited.

    When Balgruuf took notice of her sober expression, his mirth faded. The rest fell quiet when he did.

    "Are you serious?"

    "Yes, my lord."

    "Are you mad?"

    Her lips tightened. "No, my lord."

    "Explain yourself, then. Why in Oblivion would you wish to trap a dragon?"

    "I met Alduin the World-Eater in battle, not a fortnight past," she said. "I could not best him, for he fled in fear of defeat, and has since gone into hiding. I need to find him, if I am to destroy him. I believe I can convince one of his allies, Odahviing, to turn against him, and lead me to his lair."

    "And you mean to bring this ally here? You mean to bring a dragon into my city, after all I've done to keep them out? After what just befell Rorikstead?"

    Annika stilled. "Rorikstead?"

    "A dragon attacked the village yesterday morning," he told her, his voice cold and dead. "It now lies in ruins, the same as Helgen."

    Her gaze dropped to the floor, and she let out a long breath. "Were there any survivors?"

    "Not as many as there were casualties. Those who did manage to escape with their lives have nothing to go back to. All the village's crops and livestock were burnt to ash as well. Rorikstead was the agricultural hub of my hold, and now we face the coming winter with very little to harvest."

    Guilt settled heavy on Annika's chest. That dragon had laid waste to Rorikstead only because she had not yet slain it. She was the only one who could, after all. Did that not make her responsible for every death they dealt? But Alduin was the one raising them. How many thralls did he have, flying the skies, waiting for their chance to strike fear into the hearts of men? How many would end their tyranny over Skyrim once she had ended Alduin's tyranny over them?

    "Jarl Balgruuf," she said, cordial but firm, "I am truly sorry that your people have suffered such a terrible tragedy. But these tragedies will not stop while Alduin lives. We mourn a village now, but it will not be long before he burns all of Skyrim to the ground. We must not let that happen. Please," she begged. "Help me find him. Help me defeat him."

    The Jarl sighed, long and heavy, and where bitter grief had hardened his eyes just moments ago, a dull resignation had taken root instead.

    "How do you propose to capture this Odahviing?"

    Annika swallowed hard and took an eager step forward in her relief not to be summarily dismissed.

    "Surely you know Dragonsreach was built to imprison a dragon—that dragon, as a matter of fact." She gestured to the skull mounted above the Jarl's head. "Unless it was since torn down, your great balcony should be capable of imprisoning another. I will call him, he will come, and we will spring the trap."

    "And if he is not so easily trapped? If he takes the opportunity to attack Whiterun, as his brother did Rorikstead? I notice you do not come with an entourage of soldiers hungry for battle, this time."

    "With the heavy losses we suffered in the Reach, Windhelm could not spare any of its strength, but for a shield brother to accompany me here—"

    He broke in with a cold laugh. "You think you alone can keep this dragon from burning down my home?"

    "Another dragon tried to burn down my home," she countered. She pulled her bow from her back, and held it up for the Jarl's inspection. "These bones are all that is left of it. I do not need an army of men behind me to slay a dragon. Not anymore."

    The sneer on Balgruuf's face withered and died.

    "Be that as it may," Annika went on, "I've already taken the liberty of enlisting the assistance of the Companions. Give the word, and they will be ready to defend Whiterun—if it needs to be defended. I don't believe it will, my lord. I don't believe we will need to slay this dragon."

    "How can you be sure?"

    "Dragons are vain creatures. Their pride would not let them shy away from a challenge put to them by any mortal, let alone one who speaks with their own Voice. Odahviing will come to meet my challenge, not to ravage your city. He will be too single-minded to bother with anyone but me until it is too late."

    Balgruuf brooded for a long moment, picking at one of his many jewelled rings.

    "Say we do manage to trap this dragon," he said. "What if he refuses to betray Alduin? What if it is all for naught?"

    "Then you will have another skull to mount on your wall."

    Balgruuf laughed again, and shook his head at her nerve.

    "Brother." Hrongar stepped forward on the Jarl's right, every inch a Nord in his horned armor and ferocious war paint. "The Dragonborn tells it true. Put a thousand archers on our walls, and they may stop a thousand dragons, but they will mean nothing once Alduin turns his sights to us. You know the legends; he is the World-Eater, the bringer of the end times. We can't just stand around and hope the threat goes away. We must do our part."

    "If we had a thousand archers," Irileth piped up from the other side of the throne, "we could summon this dragon in confidence that we could bring it down if need be. But we don't. What strength we do have can't be wasted on this mad scheme; our men need to be ready to meet an Imperial attack should one come. Or have you forgotten what General Tullius—"

    "I haven't forgotten, Irileth, thank you."

    Annika's eyes flicked back to Balgruuf to find his face flushed with heat. Her hackles went up, the predator within sensing the sudden fear of nearby prey, but she hid any trace of suspicion or mistrust behind a mask of indifference. She kept very still and very quiet, watching the Jarl shift out of his slouch, adjust the gold chain dangling between the clasps of his mantle, fold and unfold his hands in his lap, trying to act as though he was still in control, all the while avoiding her gaze.

    "I will consider your request, Dragonborn," he said, his words clumsy and impatient. "Remain in the city; I'll have word brought to you by nightfall tomorrow."

    "Thank you, Jarl Balgruuf. Your men will find me at the Bannered Mare."

    She made no move to leave, despite her clear dismissal. Balgruuf seemed to grow more uncomfortable with every moment of her lingering presence.

    "Is there something else?"

    "Yes, my lord," Annika said. "There is one other matter you should be aware of—incidentally, one that may ease Irileth's concerns."

    "Yes?"

    "General Tullius is not like to siege Whiterun and leave Morthal or Solitude vulnerable to an attack, now that he is no longer receiving forewarning of our actions. You see, we have rooted out an informer in Jarl Ulfric's court."

    "An informer? Who?"

    "The steward, Jorleif."

    Balgruuf leaned forward, his brows rising high. "Ulfric's steward is working for the Empire?"

    "Was," Annika corrected. "Only his head will return to Castle Dour; the rest is already feeding the crows on Windhelm's great bridge. Jarl Ulfric does not suffer traitors to live."

    For a long moment, Balgruuf did not speak, nor move, nor did he appear to even be breathing. And then his eyes grew small and sharp, his nostrils flared, and the color in his cheeks deepened while his lips went white.

    Her message had not been missed.

    Annika gave a deep bow, her eyes never leaving the Jarl's. "My lord."

    Her footfalls were the only sound in the great hall until the heavy wooden doors creaked open to allow her through.

    She did not stop at top of the stone steps leading down into the Wind District, but gave a nod to Calder, the Stormcloak waiting for her there.

    "The Jarl needs time to deliberate," she told him, starting the descent. "He'll send word to the inn."

    They headed to the Bannered Mare, as Annika had promised, where they took a meal and paid for a room apiece. Behind the counter, Ysolda gave a curious look at their request for lodging, but a slight shake of Annika's head cautioned her not to question it.

    Once the evening rabble packed the inn and the tumult of their chatter nearly drowned out the bard's lusty crooning, Annika took her leave of the common room. Instead of retiring to her chamber, however, she slipped out of the inn's back door, and under the cover of darkness, crept through the streets to Ysolda's house. She let herself in with the key her friend had given her upon arriving in Whiterun, and locked the door behind her.

    It might only have been Ulfric's paranoia rubbing off on her, but she felt safer where the Jarl's men could not find her, should he send any to seek her out while she slept. Still, the knots in her stomach did not unwind. Had they pulled out the weed of Jorleif's treachery only to sow more in its place? Though a reluctant ally from the start, Balgruuf had proven himself true in the battle for Markarth. But if Tullius was issuing ultimatums, if he was making threats against Whiterun, how long would Balgruuf's allegiance last?

    Annika settled into her bed roll, and pulled the furs tight around her. She would not find rest easily, as anxious as she was, but she took comfort in imagining Balgruuf tossing and turning in his own bed, in his castle in the sky, haunted by the knowledge of what awaited him should he give in to the Empire's demands.


    * * * * *​


    The view from the great balcony might have taken Annika's breath away, once. But Dragonsreach was a pebble in the shadow of the Throat of the World, and the modest vista it offered could not compare to the scope of the tallest mountain in Tamriel. Still, the rosy glow of dusk painted the plains of Whiterun with an understated beauty she had never seen from its arid ground.

    Calder's wide eyes and hanging jaw betrayed his wonder, and even a couple of the Companions appeared impressed. Jarl Balgruuf, however, did not spare the world beyond his castle even a passing glance.

    "The chains are rusty and the wood soft," he said, gazing to the rafters high above, "but they will hold. We put it through a dozen trials without issue."

    "Except fire." Irileth's mouth twisted into the scowl that was as much a part of her armor as her cuirass or bracers. "All wood burns under fire. Should your dragon decide to unleash its fury on us—"

    "It will unleash its fury on me," Annika cut in. "And my ward will soak it up before it has a chance to burn anything."

    "And if you're wrong—"

    "Irileth," Balgruuf warned. "I consented to support the Dragonborn in this venture. That should be enough for you."

    The Dunmer bowed her head at once, though her apprehension still shone in her red eyes. "Of course, my Jarl."

    "Once the dragon is in position," he continued, turning back to Annika, "my men will drop the trap. If the beast ever lands, that is."

    One corner of her mouth pulled up. "He will."

    Balgruuf gave her a skeptical look, but said nothing. He went to the balustrade, and the setting sun gleamed off his steel plate. He looked as unseemly in armor as Ulfric did out of it.

    "Remember," he boomed across the balcony, "we are here to trap this dragon, not to slay it. It is not to be attacked but on my order. The Dragonborn needs it alive. Now—to your posts."

    The group scattered. Two guards manned the mechanism that would spring the trap, three archers took position on each of the galleries flanking the main balcony, and the Companions lined the walls. Farengar lingered back by one set of stairs, eager to watch but ready to hide. Balgruuf, Irileth, and Hrongar remained at the balustrade with Annika and Calder.

    "We're ready when you are, Dragonborn."

    She gazed out at the plains, the mountains, the skies. She saw no dragons soaring in the distance, no speck of black against the palette of reds and oranges to the west, nor the blues and violets to the east. Would Odahviing hear her call, wherever he was? Would Ulfric feel the echo of her Voice all the way in Windhelm?

    She closed her eyes, made a silent prayer to Talos, and drew in a deep breath.

    "Odahviing!"

    Her Thu'um ripped across Whiterun, thunder without a storm. And then the evening fell quiet once more.

    They waited, and watched. But no dragon came.

    After several minutes, Annika heard whispers strike up behind her, along with the impatient rustling of leather and steel.

    "Maybe you should try it again," Calder suggested.

    She bit her lip, and pretended not to notice Balgruuf's demanding glare. Her own doubts rose sour in her throat, begging questions that had not even crossed her mind while plotting this scheme. What if Alduin had never raised Odahviing? What if he had, and Annika had already slain him, and taken his soul for her own? Might she have simply been foolish to believe a dragon would deign to come when called?

    The soft sigh of flapping wings was her answer.

    The dragon soared over the roof with a sharp snarl. He swerved, and in half a heartbeat he was streaking towards the balcony, towards Annika. Her stomach flipped over on itself as the words tore up her throat.

    "Joor zah frul!"

    Her Shout hit its mark, but so too did Odahviing's talons. His momentum winged him past the balcony, and Calder with him, his scream whipped away by the same rush of wind that tossed Annika's hair into her face and slapped her with the bitter stench of smoke and blood. Odahviing, caught in Dragonrend's snare, quickly lost his grip on his prey; Calder twisted and flailed as he fell through empty air, and then he was gone.

    The dragon careened around and plummeted to the balcony once more. Annika leapt from its path, and stumbled when the stones shook beneath her unsteady legs. She righted herself at the same moment the dragon did. His jaws yawned open, and a torrent of fire as red as his scales surged forth, but Annika's ward was already up to catch it. The searing heat that poured around its edges choked her, but she did not burn.

    Somewhere behind her, Balgruuf was shouting for the archers to hold their fire, for the warriors to stand down. Let them come, she wanted to say, let them try. This was her battle, a battle of the dov, not of simple men and simple steel. She would Shout them back if she had to, fling them from the balcony with the force of her Voice alone—

    No.

    The river of flame ran dry. Annika dropped her ward and stepped back, and back, and back, and hit Odahviing with Dragonrend again. He roared and snapped, writhing against the maddening weight of her Thu'um, crawling forward on ungainly legs and bony wings to pursue his foe. Though cumbersome, he was swift, every one of his steps making up three of hers, and too soon he had closed the distance she'd put between them, and she could reach out and touch him if she dared. She could count the scales on his snout, smell the smoke curling up from his nostrils, see Calder's blood trickling over the dragon's teeth when he opened his mouth to strike.

    "Feim!"

    She closed her eyes and winced when Odahviing's fangs snapped around her, but they did not pierce her, for she was no longer flesh. He reared back, growling, his malachite eyes wide and furious at her trick. She retreated further into the cavern of the great balcony, chancing a glance up to the rafters. Odahviing had eyes only for her, and he followed where she led him.

    "Now!"

    The slithering grind of rusty chains erupted high above, and then the creak of old wood. The curved beam crashed down over Odahviing, and two halves of a steel vice slid out to lock below his neck.

    The dragon bucked against the restraints, and gave a ferocious roar when he found himself trapped.

    "Dovahkiin," he growled. "Tahrodiis kiir! Yol toor shul!"

    Another wave of flame burst from his mouth. Annika, vulnerable in her flesh once more, threw her ward out, but this time it could not stand against the brutal force of the dragon's fire. Her arm trembled all the way up to her shoulder, and the spell shattered, but her Voice was ready to take its place.

    "Fo krah diin!"

    Thu'um collided with Thu'um in a deafening song of ice and fire, consuming one another until both vanished into the void.

    "Odahviing," Annika cried. "Zu'u laan tinvaak, ni grah. Let us talk, not fight."

    "Who gave you my name?"

    "Paarthurnax."

    The dragon tilted his head to study her, a deep growl rippling through his body all the while, and then he jerked back with a snarl. "You killed Paarthurnax?"

    "Alduin killed Paarthurnax."

    "But you stole his soul. I sense him in you."

    "He gave me his soul," Annika said. "He gave me his knowledge and his power, to help me defeat Alduin. And he gave me your name, believing you, too, would help me."

    Odahviing snorted in what she thought might have been a laugh. "Mey dovah. I will not give up my soul so easily."

    "I don't want your soul. I don't need your soul. I only need to know where to find Alduin."

    A deep sigh rolled through him. "Alduin," he murmured. "He fled in fear of you—of a mortal. Many of us have begun to question his lordship, and whether his Thu'um is truly the strongest. This is why I answered your call, Dovahkiin: to test yours. It is greater than I had imagined. So, too, is your cunning, to trap me like common prey.

    "You shall have your freedom once Alduin is defeated."

    "Then I shall languish here until the end of time."

    "Not if you tell me where to find him."

    "I could," the dragon mused, "but it would not help. You may have the Voice of a dovah, but without the wings of one, you will never reach Alduin."

    She saw his meaning at once. "How convenient," she said, her tone flat and dry. "And I suppose you will take me to him, if I free you."

    "I will, Dovahkiin."

    Now it was her turn to laugh. "Do you expect me to believe that? To trust the word of a dragon?"

    "You trusted Paarthurnax, did you not? He told you to seek my help, and here we are."

    "Paarthurnax did not answer my questions with riddles. If you would have me trust you, you can start by giving me the truth. Tell me where Alduin is, that I can't reach him myself."

    "He hides in the ruins of Skuldafn," Odahviing replied, "one of his ancient fanes in the mountains to the east. The temple was built by the most devout of his followers, joorre who ascended on the backs of dovahhe to rule high above the rest of their mundane civilization."

    "We mundane have climbed higher mountains," Annika countered. "We carved seven thousand steps into the Throat of the World."

    "Go, then. Carve seven thousand more up to Skuldafn. I shall wait here for your return... or Alduin's."

    The dragon bared his fangs in a grin, but Annika gnashed hers together behind tight lips. There they were, the Dragonborn and the dragon she had captured, at a stalemate. Yes, she trusted Paarthurnax, and Paarthurnax had trusted Odahviing. But could she?

    "He tells it true, Dragonborn."

    Annika whirled about at the sound of Farengar's voice. She had all but forgotten there were a dozen people behind her, bearing witness to this parley of legends. Every face had gone white with shock, even Balgruuf's. His eyes were as bright as the moons and full of something she had not seen in them before: respect.

    "You've heard of this Skuldafn?" she asked Farengar.

    "I have," he said, creeping forward on careful feet. "But I'm afraid I know next to nothing about it, for there is next to nothing to know. It is very rarely mentioned even in texts dating back to the Merethic Era, precisely because it is impossible to reach, and thus study."

    "You see, Dovahkiin," Odahviing purred. "If you would seek out Alduin, you will need my wings."

    Annika pivoted slowly, flexing the fingers of her ward hand.

    "And you would take me to him? You would turn against your master?"

    "Alduin has proven himself unworthy to rule," he replied. "The time has come for the dov to seek a new way, and a new master."

    "And you would be this new master?"

    "No, Dovahkiin. You would be."

    "Me?" She laughed again. "Now I know I can't trust your word. Dragons would never accept a human as their master."

    "You think you understand us," he said, "but you don't. To the dov, power equals truth. We had always been more powerful than humans, so we made them our slaves, and Alduin was the most powerful of us, so we made him our master. We reigned as gods for centuries, under Alduin's rule. But a time came when the jul began to rise up against us... and some of us began to rise up against Alduin. Paarthurnax was the first. He gave our Voice to those who would wield it, forging something more than human but still less than dovah."

    "The Tongues."

    "Yes, the Tongues. Alduin went to meet their challenge, and never returned. We thought him defeated—the strongest of us, defeated by those we believed weak and worthless. This was our first glimpse of the jul holding more power than the dov, but not our last. One by one, we fell to them. I met my own death at their hands. When Alduin breathed life back into my bones, I thought I had been asleep for but a night. Yet thousands of years had passed." His entire body seemed to wilt, and his gaze wandered away. For a moment, he almost looked sad. "The world we once knew is no more. Those we once ruled now seek to rule us. And perhaps that is your right. If your power is greater than ours, Dovahkiin, we will follow you. Such is the way of the dov."

    Annika could not help but smile, for she heard Ulfric in the dragon's words.

    "We are more alike than I would have thought," she said. "My people, too, once chose their kings for their strength and their will. Some of us strive to make that true once more."

    "Then both of our races stand on the edge of revolution. If either is to come about, Alduin must fall. Free me, and you will be at Skuldafn by the time the moons rise."

    "Tonight? You want to take me there tonight?" Suddenly she had to fight to breathe. "I can't, I—I'm not ready. I need... I need..."

    "More arrows?" Odahviing guessed. "A suit of steel? Why should you need the crude tools of mortals when your Voice is your weapon and your armor?"

    She shook her head. She already had all the arrows she could carry, and she preferred her mail and leather to heavy plate, but she doubted Odahviing would understand her true reason any better than he did a desire for crude tools.

    She needed to say goodbye.

    "I need to prepare," she finished simply. "I came here with the intent to capture you, not meet Alduin in open battle. I am not ready."

    "Know this, Dovahkiin," the dragon said. "I would help you for the sake of my own curiosity and ambition, more than the esteem I hold for you. Should you defeat Alduin, I will recognize your rule. But until then, zu'u ni hin aar—I am not your servant, at your beck and call."

    "Give me one day. Just one day. Please."

    He regarded her for a long moment, tilting his head to the side and sniffing the air as though to root out weakness.

    "One day," he agreed. "One turn of the sun. Call me on the morrow, and I will come. Call me after that, and I will not."

    "Thank you." Annika bowed her head in appreciation. And then her eyes jumped back up to meet his. "But know this, dragon," she added, her voice just as hard as his. "If I release you, and you make any move to attack me or anyone else here, you will not live to see the turn of the sun. And if I call you and you do not answer, I will hunt you down. If I cannot have your wings, I will have your soul."

    Odahviing bared his fangs, but it was a smile, not a scowl. A deep laugh rattled through his body, and the tip of his tail flicked back and forth.

    "You do not trust me?"

    "You are a dragon."

    "Daar los vahzah. But we are not all like Alduin."

    No, they were not. Paarthurnax had proven that. And perhaps Odahviing would, too, if she gave him that chance.

    Annika turned to the men at the winch. "Release him."

    They looked to the Jarl, and after a moment's hesitation, he nodded.

    The crank turned, the vice opened, and the beam jerked up off of Odahviing's neck. The Companions readied their arms, and the archers on the galleries notched and drew.

    Odahviing twisted about to face the balustrade, and crawled towards the open sky.

    "Zu'u saraan uth, Dovahkiin."

    His wings unfolded and stretched out to their full breadth, throwing a great shadow over the balcony. He vaulted into the air and soared over Whiterun. Annika braced her Voice to bring the dragon down, but he made no strike on the city, nor the farms or mills beyond the walls. Instead, he swerved to the east, sailed along the wind, and disappeared into the distance.

    Annika let out the breath she was holding. The tension rippling throughout the balcony broke all at once, as swords were sheathed, arrows were returned to their quivers, and an excited frenzy of chatter sundered the silence.

    "Well done, Dragonborn."

    Annika turned to face the Jarl, and found him smiling. But his mouth was tight, his eyes hollow. He seemed more shaken and distressed than pleased with the evening's outcome.

    "Thank you, my lord," she replied. "For everything. Your assistance is, as always, greatly appreciated."

    "Good," he said, lifting his chin to look down at her. "Do not forget that when it comes time to repay your debt."

    Annika stilled halfway through her bow, her waist bent and her head inclined, before slowly righting herself. Perhaps he was only being vigilant with his promised Thane's loyalty. Or, perhaps, he knew she had become much more than a soldier in Ulfric's army, a trifle to be traded like so many septims. Perhaps he was plotting to forsake their treaty before she could.

    She forced her eyes to meet Balgruuf's, so he would not see the betrayal brewing in her heart.

    "I won't, my lord."


    * * * * *​


    Though it was only the hour of the witch, Ulfric was already abed.

    His hearth had died down to embers, their somber glow granting just enough light for Annika to see her sleeping giant, one hand reaching out to the other side of the bed, empty and cold in her absence.

    She shed her armor piece by piece, and left her smallclothes puddled on the floor at her feet. The chill air nipped at her skin, damp with sweat after a hard night's ride. She had not eased up on her mare once between Whiterun and Windhelm. If she was to fly to Skuldafn on the morrow, she would spend this night in Ulfric's arms.

    He had kicked off the furs, leaving only thin linen to blanket him, and only up to his hips. Annika worried he was cold, but when she slipped in beside him, she felt heat pouring from him in waves; the fire in the hearth may have gone out, but the fire within him never did. She drew as close as she dared, wanting his warmth but not wanting to rouse him yet. She held back the hands that itched to touch him, but allowed her eyes freedom to roam where they would.

    Even in sleep his features were tense, brows drawn together, eyes clenched tight, lips pursed in a frown. Was it a dream that tormented him, or only the struggle and strife of the day pursuing him into the night? Would he finally find peace when this war was done, or was peace just a fleeting illusion? He seemed content only in the moments they closed their eyes to the rest of the world and lost themselves in each other, but when the sun rose in the morning, so too did their battles, always waiting to be won. She would forsake her destiny and stay there with him forever, if only it would scatter his burdens and his sorrows to the wind. But he would never let her give up on saving the world, even if it meant saving him.

    Her gaze drifted along the mess of flaxen curls spilling down his neck, to the soft slope of his shoulder and the sharper slant of his collarbone, to the trail of hair that led her down the hard muscles of his chest and stomach, only to disappear beneath the sheet. A drowsy groan rumbled through him when she drew the linen away, but he did not wake until he felt her weight upon him. His eyes flickered open, and he gasped to find her leaning over him. Her mouth closed on his in the next heartbeat, and as their tongues danced, she felt him stir beneath her. She took him into herself, and a sound that was half a sigh and half a moan escaped her own throat.

    Ulfric sat up to embrace her, to crush her against him until she could barely breathe, and her legs went around him to pull him closer yet. They moved in tandem, his body rising to meet every fall of hers. She buried her face in his neck to stifle her cries, but a hand twisted into her hair and tugged her head back, baring her own neck for his lips, his tongue, his teeth, biting into her hard enough to send a shock staggering right down to her toes, and make her cry out even louder.

    They made love as though it was the last time they ever would—and the possibility that it could be loomed over Annika, a dark eclipse against the fire of their passion. She clung to him with all that she was, trying not to drown in the bottomless fear of losing him, of leaving him, of all he would suffer if she never returned. She slowed their pace to draw every moment out as long as she possibly could, and she etched each into her memory, to carry with her once she was gone, to remind herself why she had to succeed, why she had to survive.

    She did not let him go even after he had spent himself. She only tightened her grasp around him, knitted her fingers deeper into his hair, kissed him longer and harder than before, and hoped he would not see the shine of tears on her face.

    Finally, Ulfric twisted their bodies around to lay her down, and himself beside her, arms and legs still entwined. He gazed at her for a long time, and when he spoke, his voice was a whisper.

    "Why did that feel like goodbye?"

    Annika bit her lip to calm its trembling. "Odahviing answered my call. He is taking me to Alduin on the morrow."

    "Taking you?"

    "There is no other way," she said. "Alduin makes his lair in the ruins of Skuldafn, an ancient temple nestled high in the eastern mountains. It can only be reached with wings." She gave him a tremulous smile. "Odahviing has agreed to fly me there."

    The rise and fall of Ulfric's chest stilled beneath her palm, but his heart pounded twice as hard to make up for it.

    "This is it, then."

    She nodded against her pillow. "This is it."

    "Are you ready? You haven't had much time to train your Voice."

    "It makes no matter. Odahviing made it very plain that his offer is limited. If I call him past nightfall tomorrow, he will not come."

    "Then forget this dragon. We will find another way to get you to Skuldafn... or a way to draw Alduin out."

    It was a tempting possibility, running from the gathering storm of her destiny until she was better prepared to face it. The part of her that was afraid and insecure leapt up to take the escape, but another, stronger part of her, the part that had learned courage and hope and what it was to be a hero from the man lying next to her, raised its voice to remind her of her duty.

    "This opportunity is more than I could have hoped for," she said. "I can't throw it away. The longer I put this off, the stronger Alduin gets—and the more my courage wanes." She closed her eyes and sighed. "I just want this to be over."

    "As do I. But I don't want you to be in over your head." Ulfric was quiet for a spell, one hand idly stroking her back. "Take Ralof with you."

    "What? Ralof is your housecarl—"

    "And the one I most trust to protect you."

    "I can protect myself."

    "Against legionnaires and sabrecats, I have no doubt," he said. "But gods only know what lurks in Skuldafn—and there is Alduin himself to consider. I would send an entire army to stand behind you, if there was a way to get them there. Take Ralof with you," he said once more. The corners of his mouth twisted into a wry smile. "I command it, as your Jarl."

    Annika could not help but laugh. "Oh, do you? And if I won't obey that command?"

    "I'll have no choice but to throw you into the dungeons," he jested. But then his smile withered away, and worry deepened the lines over his brow and around his eyes. "Please, Annika."

    She reached up to cup his face, and his whiskers tickled her palm.

    "All right," she whispered. "I'll take him. But you keep your army here, where they're needed." She hesitated, wary of tainting their oasis with talk of the war, but he had to know what she'd uncovered. "You've not received word of General Tullius moving against Whiterun, have you?"

    "No. Why?"

    "Jarl Balgruuf's housecarl made mention of a potential Imperial attack on the city, implying that General Tullius had threatened as much."

    "Tullius is getting desperate," he scoffed. "He'll say anything to win back support, because he knows he's doomed without it. But such threats are empty. He doesn't have the strength to siege Whiterun. Balgruuf knows that."

    "I'm not so sure he does," Annika replied. "He was quick to silence his housecarl, and seemed rather rattled that I'd heard as much as I did. Whatever threats or demands General Tullius has made, Jarl Balgruuf obviously doesn't want us to know about them."

    Ulfric brooded on this for a long moment, and gave a doubtful grunt. "He would be a fool to go running back to the Empire now that we are so close to driving them out of Skyrim. And he would be a fool to betray me when my men surround him on every side."

    She shifted uncomfortably in his arms. "What if he means to betray you before you can betray him?"

    "What do you mean?"

    "Jarl Balgruuf accepted this alliance on the condition that I become his Thane after the war," she reminded him, her voice small. "If he's discovered that I've been sharing your bed... if he believes you won't surrender me to him..."

    "He would be right," Ulfric finished. "And he would still be wise to keep his alliance with me, if he wants to keep his throne. I would strike Balgruuf down with my own axe before surrendering you to him. He can take you as his Thane in name, but you will stay here in Windhelm, with me. If that is what you want, of course."

    Annika's lips parted, but she could not speak. The thrill shooting through her, setting her entire body on fire, consumed any thoughts she might have voiced, and left her dizzy and breathless. She kissed him instead, long and hard, until words came back to her.

    "I've never wanted anything more."

    His arms tightened around her, drawing her closer until skin was flush against skin, leaving no room between them, for one perfect moment, for fear or doubt or truth. And then he pulled back to press his lips to hers once more, to her cheeks, her forehead, her eyelids.

    "Don't worry about Balgruuf," he said. "Don't worry about the war. You have your own battle to think of, now. After you defeat Alduin, we will defeat the Empire together."

    "If I defeat Alduin."

    "You will," he insisted, his voice fierce, but pleading. "You must."

    From the very beginning, Ulfric had never wavered in his conviction that she would fulfill the prophecy made so long ago, that the Dragonborn would slay the World-Eater. But for all his faith and all his certainty, he knew that the end to this quest was not written in stone. He knew that she might fail. That she might not survive. She saw that, now. It was in his eyes, her own fear reflected back at her, even as he tried to blink it away, to bury it beneath the cloak of his courage. If he was so determined to deny reason, she would not force him to face it.

    "I will."

    He drew in a deep breath, as if to take her promise into himself where he could keep it safe from harm.

    "You should get some rest," he murmured. "You're going to need it."

    After one last kiss, Annika turned over to nestle her back against Ulfric's chest. But sleep was evasive and fleeting. She did need rest, but more than that she needed to savor these moments, for no matter what she promised, there was every chance that they would be her last with him. And so she lay awake for hours, tucking every last detail into the vault of her memory: his impossible warmth, the steady rhythym of his breathing, the beat of his heart, the heady scent of his skin, the strength of the arms wrapped around her and the tenderness of the hand that rested on her stomach. If she was sent to Sovngarde on the morrow, she would take all that she could to sustain her until the day he joined her there.

    And still it would not be enough. It would never be enough.


    * * * * *​


    An icy wind tore down the coast, bringing with it the salty scent of the sea and the needles of snow it lifted from the banks. Annika turned her face into the hood of her cloak to shield herself from it, cursing this trick of Kynareth; her Thu'um would have dispatched any blizzard that beset Skyrim, but it did nothing against the northern wind screaming down from Atmora.

    Ralof and a small contingent of soldiers awaited them at the shrine of Arkay in the hills north of the city.

    "We had to chase off a couple of wolves," he said in greeting, giving a nod and a smile to Annika, "but there was no other trouble. I doubt even an assassin would brave this wind."

    "A man will do anything for the right reward," Ulfric countered. He looked to Ralof's men, and to those in his own guard. "Stay vigilant until we are back in the city. Wolves and assassins will be the least of our worries should this dragon turn hostile."

    When he turned to Annika, her stomach seemed to fall through her feet. She bit her lip and nodded to the question he had not asked, trying to convince herself more than him that she was ready, that it was time. Yet her Voice was as frozen as the crust of ice along the river's shore. One more hour, one more day, another year... then, perhaps, she would be ready. A wedding, children, a life together... then, maybe, it would be time.

    She drew her cloak tighter around herself, but it did not help quell the chill that had settled into her heart.

    "Odahviing!"

    Her Thu'um was all but lost to the roar of the wind. Would the dragon even hear it? Was this gale perhaps not Kynareth's trick, but her wise hand guiding Annika away from Skuldafn and back into Ulfric's arms? They waited, watching the cold blue skies for Odahviing, and every moment that passed without sign of him, the weight on Annika's shoulders seemed to lift a little more, to blow away with the wind.

    But then a speck of a shadow drew closer and closer, until she could see the wide spread of the wings that would take her to her fate.

    Odahviing landed heavily on the plain, high drifts of snow swallowing his gnarled feet.

    "Drem yol lok, Dovahkiin," he greeted. "I am glad you heeded my words."

    "I am glad you heeded mine," Annika returned, only half a lie. "My shield brother will be accompanying us to Skuldafn."

    Ralof came forward, one small step at a time. His eyes were wide, but full of awe, not fear.

    A low rumble rolled through the dragon. "I agreed to take one, not two."

    "And I agreed not to slay you, in return for your help."

    His shining green eyes studied her for a long moment, and then he snorted a laugh, a thin wisp of smoke rising from his nostrils.

    "You certainly have the arrogance of a dovah," Odahviing said. "It is fortunate for you that I admire arrogance in my friends. Very well—your companion is welcome. Now, let us be off. Alduin awaits."

    "A moment. Please."

    Without waiting for the dragon's consent, she turned to Ulfric, and threw herself into his embrace. He held her for much longer than a moment, but she did not care.

    "It should be me, going with you," he whispered. "I should be the one keeping you safe. I should be the one by your side, if..."

    "No," Annika cut in, so he would not have to finish his thought. "Your place is here. Skyrim needs her king."

    He took her face in both of his hands, and his eyes, so blue yet so red, pierced hers with the very same pain that was tearing her apart inside.

    "You come back to me," Ulfric said through gritted teeth, his voice raw and strained. "You come back alive. Skyrim needs a queen, too."

    Annika shivered when his lips touched hers, begging her, pleading with such desperation she almost lost herself in it. And then he pulled away, and took a step back, as though he didn't trust himself to ever let her go if he held onto her for even one second longer.

    She forced herself to smile before she turned away from him, to remind him that she had the heart of a Nord, brave and mighty and true.

    Odahviing leaned down to allow his passengers to mount. Annika settled herself between two of the spikes that ran the length of the dragon's spine, taking care not to crush her bow or quiver; Ralof sat in the crevice behind hers, and hesitated before putting his arms around her waist. It was not all that different from sitting a horse, though she would have preferred having reins to grasp rather than the bony thorns Odahviing's neck provided.

    "Once you fly the skies," the dragon purred, "your envy of the dov will only grow. Hold on tightly, Dovahkiin. Mu bo kotin stinselok."

    Odahviing's wings unfurled behind them, and caught the wind at once. With a great push against the frozen ground, he launched into the air. Annika gasped, and then she could not breathe at all.

    She looked back to Ulfric, growing smaller and smaller as she was lifted higher and higher. Was she only imagining the tug on her chest, or was that her heart leaping against her ribs, trying to get back to his? She had to crane her neck to keep him in her sights when Odahviing banked south, though she could no longer tell Ulfric apart from the other tiny figures that might have been men, or rocks, or trees. And then all of it was gone, and she finally let fall the tears she had not wanted him to see.

    Annika turned her gaze down to her hands, gripping the dragon's spikes so tightly a seam in her glove had started to split, yet it seemed they would slip off at any moment. She struggled to steady her breathing, to push back her harrowing thoughts, to focus on her tenuous hold on the beast below, lest the weight of her grief drag her back down to earth. Her arms and thighs already ached, her stomach churned, and every tear she wept froze to her face, but none of it mattered. Nothing mattered now, but getting home.

    "By the gods," Ralof breathed behind her. "Annika, look."

    She did, and found the entirety of Skyrim laid out before them. Odahviing had taken them even higher than the Throat of the World. The wild beauty of their savage garden stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see, across golden plains and rolling greens, over rivers and lakes and crags, all the way to the wall of rock in the west, the shimmering spire of the White-Gold Tower far past the hazy ranges bordering the south, and the smoke and ash that dominated the horizon to the east.

    "We must be the only people alive who've seen Skyrim like this," Ralof shouted over the howl of the wind. "This is incredible!"

    Yes, it was incredible. It was what the gods saw when they looked down from Aetherius, and perhaps what their ancestors saw when they looked down from Sovngarde. It was more than any man or woman could ever hope to see.

    And Annika would have traded it all to see Ulfric's smile, one more time.


    * * * * *​


    They flew south and east for perhaps half of an hour before they approached the mountains, and Odahviing began a slow descent through the clouds that ringed the peaks.

    Annika searched the cliffs and ridges for Skuldafn, but found no ruins, no barrow, no ancient dragon laying in wait. There was only rock. A cold panic rose up within her. Had Odahviing played her for a fool? Was he flying them into a trap of his own making? But then she saw it, carved from the mountain itself and seeming to fade back into it every other moment, a trick on her eyes that left her unsettled. It was massive and sprawling, at least half the size of Windhelm, and the tiers upon tiers above ground were only the tip of the iceberg. This wasn't a temple... this was a city.

    Odahviing swooped into the valley of the barrow, and landed on a flat stretch of stone. Annika jumped down at once, eager to be back on solid ground and to feel the protection of her bow in her hand.

    Something moved at the edge of her vision, but when she whirled about, hand already reaching for an arrow, she saw nothing but stone arches and stone walls, stone steps and stone bridges. Nor did she hear anything. The silence was unnerving after the steady howl of the wind, and her heart beat harder to fill it. The hair on her neck and arms stood on end beneath her cloak and armor, as though half a hundred eyes were on her.

    "This is as far as I can take you, Dovahkiin."

    "This will do," Annika replied. "Thank you, Odahviing."

    "If you find victory over Alduin, summon me once more, and I will come to kneel before you. If you do not... I will know that our revolution is not to be. Krif voth ahkrin."

    The dragon raised his wings and lifted off. He flew west over the ridge, and then he was gone, leaving them in the heavy silence of the dead.

    Annika turned in a slow circle, her eyes darting to every corner and every crevice, and still not finding anything but stone, some patches of snow, the odd sprouting of weeds from cracks in the hard ground. Yet she could not shake the terrible foreboding that they were not alone.

    "Ralof... do you get the feeling that we're being watched?"

    He already had his axe in hand. "Glad I'm not the only one."

    She stopped looking for the menace, and listened instead. A faint hint of wind in the distance, the light rhythm of Ralof's breathing... and a soft buzzing, somewhere close, that struck a familiar but ominous chord in her. It was not unlike the hum of the spriggans she had encountered more than once in the forests of Valenwood, but why would a spriggan dwell in a vale made of rock and all but devoid of life? An ice wraith, perhaps, though she had never known the vicious creatures to hide. A chill far worse than theirs crept over her skin when she remembered the chronicle of wispmothers she'd found in the library, and the description of their otherworldly hissing screams.

    Gods only know what lurks in Skuldafn.

    Annika stepped forward on careful feet, following the sound to a crumbling archway. She notched and drew, and pointed her arrow ahead of her as she rounded the corner.

    It was only a cloud of fat black flies.

    She let out the breath she was holding, and lowered her bow. And then she saw it at her feet, the bloody, ragged stump of the human leg that fed the droning swarm.

    She cried out and recoiled from the carnage.

    Behind her, Ralof sucked in a sharp breath. "I thought men couldn't reach Skuldafn on their own?"

    The leg had once worn simple roughspun trousers; a farmer, perhaps, snatched up as a dormouse by a hawk.

    "They can't."

    There was a great rush of air to her right, and from the corner of her eye she saw a piece of the barrow break away and rise up into the sky. For half a heartbeat, she thought the stone had come alive. But there was no mistaking those wings, or the roar that tore from its jaws.

    Annika answered with one of her own.

    "Joor zah frul!"

    Snared by her Thu'um, the dragon swerved and dove for the ground. It hit hard, throwing both Annika and Ralof off balance and knocking the arrow out of her hand. The beast's jaws stretched open, and Annika saw a scrap of bloody roughspun snagged on a fang a moment before a wave of flame burst forth to incinerate it. She threw her ward up just in time to catch the fire.

    When it died down, she stumbled back to put distance between herself and the beast's snapping fangs. It followed, snarling and slavering in anticipation of another meal with every clumsy step.

    "Skuldafn fen kos dinok!"

    Annika pulled another arrow from her quiver and drew her bowstring. A wave of wicked pleasure quickened her blood when the dragon saw she wielded the bones of a brother.

    Skuldafn will be death.

    "Yes," she answered. "Yours."

    She loosed, and the barbed forks of the arrowhead sunk easily into the dragon's golden eye.

    It reared and roared. Ralof shot forth to duck beneath its writhing neck. With one wide swing, his axe sliced into soft flesh, and a bright splash of red followed in its wake.

    With one last sputtering roar, the dragon collapsed, and the fire of its soul kindled to consume its flesh. Light and wind poured into Annika, leaving only bones behind.

    She turned to find Ralof staring at her as though she'd grown a second head.

    "What is it?"

    "You... you took its soul."

    She smiled. "Did you forget I was Dragonborn?"

    "No, it's just... seeing it for yourself is quite different—"

    An arrow ripped through the air between them, close enough to ruffle the hem of Annika's cloak.

    She grabbed Ralof's arm and pulled him behind the archway.

    "Are you sure men can't reach Skuldafn?"

    Her eyes found the arrow on the ground ahead of them. Brittle, graying wood, ragged fletching, and a roughly hewn iron head. The same sort she had taken from the rotting quivers of corpses in Bleak Falls Barrow.

    "They're not men," she replied. "They're draugr."

    She peered around the corner of the pillar, hidden by the shadow of the stone above. Across a churning river and one tier up the barrow, there it was, stalking back and forth, looking for the prey it had lost. Keeping her bow close to the wall, she notched and drew, training her sights on the draugr. The moment it stopped, she loosed.

    The draugr fell away and out of sight.

    Annika waited five breaths before deciding she would not need to take a second shot.

    Where there was one, there would be more, but her sweep of the barrow's face turned up nothing. She took advantage of the momentary reprieve to shed her cloak; it was warmer in the mountains than the tundra, and the long wool would only get in her way.

    "Good idea," Ralof said, following suit. He had one arm out of his when he stopped, his eyes wide at the sight of her armor. "What is that?"

    The scaled hide was suppler than any leather she'd ever touched, yet its strength was tenfold, and, crafted to her measurements, it fit like a second skin. The breastplate and faulds were unfamiliar but not uncomfortable, and lighter than she would have imagined dragon bone could be.

    A sad smile touched Annika's lips. "A gift from Ulfric. Dragon scale and dragon bone."

    She had almost expected it to go up in flames the moment she touched it, but it seemed the dragon's soul did not live in its hide. The mages of Winterhold had slain the beast a week past, and along with its soul, its flesh and blood had remained; Ulfric had sent an envoy to procure what he could of the reaping, and tasked Oengul to craft a full suit for her. Gloves, boots, and a cowl were yet to come, but Annika felt untouchable in the body armor alone. It was hard not to, clad in the skin and bones of her greatest foes.

    Ralof walked a circle around her. He knocked on the backplate, stroked the smooth scale of a sleeve, and almost pricked a finger on the tiny spikes of a pauldron.

    "It's incredible," he said. "Jarl Ulfric had a gift for me, too." He held out his axe, and Annika saw what she hadn't before: it was not his usual steel, but a shard of pale bone, sharpened to a fine point along the blade, with a deadly spike at the other end. "I think he meant it for himself. This is an axe fit for a king."

    "It fits you fine. Keep it at the ready," she added, throwing her quiver back on. "You're going to need it."

    They crossed a stone bridge carpeted in lichen and slick with mist from the river below. A great wall of rock met them on the opposite bank, along with patches of spiked grass, a few withered snowberry bushes, and a fallen tree trunk, half rotted out and crawling with ants. To their right, a short flight of steps led up to another archway. The tattered red banner hanging from the stone flapped in a gentle breeze, and when it fell slack, Annika could just make out the sigil, faded from centuries of sun. It looked a sinister cross between a man and a dragon.

    A dry, rattling cry came from the top of the steps. A draugr in crumbling rags that might've once been leather came barreling down, wielding a black sword furry with moss. Two more were close on its heels.

    Annika dodged the first's swing and planted an arrow into the center of its skull. Ralof took on the second, parrying the draugr's axe with his own. The third wore plated armor and a heavy helmet, leaving little room for arrows to find what was left of its flesh. It rushed Annika, warhammer arcing wide and missing her by no more than an inch.

    "Zun... hal viik!"

    The warhammer hit the ground, and Annika kicked it away. The draugr chased after it with an angry snarl, and a gap opened between helmet and backplate when it bent to retrieve the weapon. The curve of Ralof's axe bit in to sever the thing's head cleanly from its body.

    He wiped the blade off and grinned at Annika.

    "We're tied," he said. "Two and two."

    "I didn't know this was a competition."

    "Why not? Couldn't hurt to have a bit of fun."

    She rolled her eyes, but couldn't help but smile back. So long ago, it seemed, she'd pleaded with Ralof to come to Bleak Falls Barrow with her, not because she'd needed protection, but because she had wanted companionship. Perhaps that was why Ulfric had insisted on sending Ralof to Skuldafn. So she wouldn't be alone. So she would have one friend amongst a hundred foes.

    They continued on through the ruins, up more stairs and under more arches, dispatching two more draugr each before another dragon descended. This one breathed ice instead of fire, but it was all the same to Annika's wards, and frostbite healed more easily than burns. When the beast's soul joined hers, she wondered if Alduin felt its loss.

    There was no sign of the World-Eater, no hellish voice taunting her, no obsidian wings shadowing the gray clouds that had begun to bruise the sky. Annika was less concerned about where he was hiding than why. She had assailed his territory and slain two of his brethren, all on a hunt to destroy him. Why did he not try to stop her?

    A wide stone courtyard and two towering archways gave way to a grand staircase that climbed so high they could not see the top from the bottom. But they did see the draugr that poured over the crest, dead eyes glowing, dead voices growling, dead hands hefting swords and axes, conjuring flame and frost.

    Annika shot two down before the horde had even reached the last step, and danced back to keep loosing into the fray. Those who came too close were Shouted away; none of their blades touched her, and their spells dissolved against her wards. Ralof was a blur, dodging and blocking and striking, hacking off limbs and heads as though he'd been born to it.

    The last draugr fell, along with a quiet calm. Ralof wrenched his axe from the corpse's chest, and started up the steps while Annika salvaged what she could of her arrows.

    "Nine to seven by my count," she said, twisting one out of a decaying cuirass. "You're falling behind."

    Her teasing was met with silence instead of laughter. She looked up to find Ralof rooted to the spot near the top of the staircase, his back to her, his hand tight around his axe.

    "Come here," he called down. "You need to see this."

    "See what?"

    But by the time she had reached him, her question answered itself.

    A great iron door engraved with the intricate likeness of a dragon loomed before them, set in a wide stone wall that was twice as tall. But it was not the door that put a flutter into Annika's stomach. Above and behind it, a twisting beam of light flowed up into the darkening sky.

    Ralof gazed up at it, his eyes bright with awe. "What do you think it is?"

    "It's—" But her mind was suddenly blank, as though she had woken from a dream she could not recall. She closed her eyes and tried to pull it back, but it was gone. She shook her head and sighed. "I had it a moment ago, I swear to the Nine."

    "What do you mean?"

    "The dragons," she said. "They knew what it was. Their knowledge passed to me with their souls. It's there, somewhere, but I can't grasp it."

    She looked to the funnel of light again. It reminded her of the Time-Wound on the Throat of the World, but this was brighter, stronger, and somehow more ominous. The Time-Wound was just that, a tear in the flesh of time. Could this be the same? Had Alduin found a way to open that door himself? The thought quickened her pulse. That wasn't quite it, but she was getting closer. That light was wrong, unnatural, a profane abberation; it was a breach of their world, of their realm. That much she knew, as well as she did her own name. The very sight of it reached into her chest and squeezed her heart with cruel hands. She tore her eyes away from it, but she still felt it, the pull, the lure, the silent song that spoke to the darkest parts of her own soul.

    Ralof walked the length of the landing, but found no other steps or bridges, no other doors.

    "Looks like this is the only way through," he said. "Shall we?"

    Annika nodded and followed him to the door. The iron eyes of the dragon carved into it seemed to be watching her.


    * * * * *​


    She had seen barrows before, but nothing like Skuldafn. It dwarfed Ustengrav and Korvanjund; the antechamber alone was a cavern, gaping so high and wide that a dragon could have rested comfortably within, though she couldn't imagine how one would fit through the door. More red banners hung from walls and rafters, along with rusted iron cages just big enough to hold a man. A dozen braziers lit the room with enchanted fires that flickered off lacquered urns and bronze effigies of grotesque creatures. Even in ruins, it was a temple to rival the most opulent in the Imperial City.

    But the great altar in the center of the chamber set it well apart from any temple to any god. Instead of herbs or incense, gold or gems, swords or shields, the altar bore an offering of blood. The body had long since dried out, black skin shrivelled around brittle bones, but the shape of it was unmistakable. This had been a place of human sacrifice.

    Each chamber they passed through offered similar horrors, along with living corpses to protect the dead ones. The draugr were less of a challenge than the heavy stench of rot and decay that shadowed their every step. Annika sniped as many as she could from a distance, and Ralof made quick work of the rest.

    When they came to the Hall of Stories, Annika stopped short, a wave of dismay crashing over her.

    Ralof looked back. "What's wrong?"

    How could she have forgotten this most vital detail of the barrows she had explored before? Had they come this far only to be thwarted by a single door? It bore the same engraved iron rings as the others, and the same pronged keyhole for which they lacked a key.

    "Do you remember the claw we found, in Korvunjund?" she asked. "We'll need another like it to unlock that door. And I haven't seen one."

    He squinted down the long, dim corridor. "It's got to be around here somewhere."

    They roamed the hall, kicking aside the skulls and bones that littered the floor, reaching blindly into urns and basins, scouring every corner where an archway met a wall. They found nothing more than dust and cobwebs.

    Annika passed beneath the final archway before the door, and rasping growls erupted from both corners. Two draugr melted from the walls they had all but faded into, their desiccated flesh and ancient armor the same ashen brown as the stone.

    One of the creatures wielded a bow, but Annika drew hers faster. It crumpled like a child's doll when her arrow sunk into the withered hollow of its cheek. She reached for another, but her fingers never found it.

    "Fus... ro dah!"

    The draugr's Thu'um hit Annika and Ralof with the force of a hundred fists, and they flew down the corridor.

    She hit the ground with a sickening crunch, and for half a heartbeat she thought her own spine had cracked, but it was only the skull she'd landed on. She panicked again to find her hand empty, and her bow well out of reach. She scrambled to her feet and lunged for it, noticing a moment too late that the living draugr had already grabbed up the dead's bow.

    A searing pain split her leg apart, and a savage howl that could not have been hers tore up her throat.

    Ralof's arms went around her, and he swept her out of the hall and around the corner a moment before the second arrow shot down to clatter against the ground.

    The shaft of the first jutted out just above Annika's knee, in the gap between her fauld and boot. She gritted her teeth, clutched at Ralof's arms, and writhed wildly to break out of the net of her pain, but there was no escaping the fire spreading up and down her every vein. It was her anger that kept her anchored. This couldn't be how her story ended. This couldn't be how she died. She would not let Alduin win so easily.

    "Ralof," she gasped, "pull it out."

    "But the draugr—"

    "Will shoot you down long before you reach it, and this tomb will be ours. Now pull it out, before the arrowhead comes loose." She ripped the slice in her breeches wider, wincing at the fresh agony that lanced through her, and stuffed one of her gloves between her teeth. "Do it."

    Ralof took a deep breath. He pressed one palm against her leg for leverage, and wrapped the other around the arrow. His eyes flicked up to hers. She gave a sharp nod, and he pulled.

    The pain was white hot and blinding, flaying the full length of her leg, shredding every muscle and every nerve. She bit down hard on the glove, her throat convulsing with screams, and her entire body went as rigid as a corpse for a long moment before she could breathe again. Her fingers managed to find the arrow Ralof had dropped, and she held it up to look at its bloody tip through the haze of her tears. It was intact. The gods were not done with her yet.

    Annika cast the first healing spell that came to mind, and moaned with relief as her flesh knitted back together. When the wound was closed, she took a deep breath and struggled to her feet. Her knee and thigh still burned with pain, but they would hold her weight. And her wrath.

    She pulled an arrow from her quiver, though her bow still lay in the Hall of Stories.

    Ralof threw his hands up to hold her back. "You're not going out there—"

    "It won't hit me again," she said, her voice hard and raw. "Trust me."

    But he did not move to let her past. His Jarl had charged him to protect her, and she had no doubt that he would do so to the death. After all, she was his someday queen. But perhaps he had, indeed, forgotten what else she was.

    "Feim."

    Annika dissolved into air and light, and walked through the man who could no longer stop her.

    The draugr loosed the moment she came around the corner, but the arrow sailed through her. It shot another as she stormed down the corridor, and another, and another, but to no avail.

    Annika stopped two steps before the draugr. Her smile was colder than the soulless blue eyes that flashed furious at her trick, at her arrogance.

    "Zun hal viik!"

    Her Thu'um brought her back to flesh and blood and tore the bow from the draugr's hand. She dove for it, and in one swift motion, drew and loosed. Her arrow plunged into the soft flesh between the draugr's eyes, and their infernal light sputtered out.

    She tossed the bow down and turned back to retrieve her own.

    "It's done, Ralof."

    He came around the corner, his axe at the ready, but he lowered it when he saw the draugr lying in a heap at the end of the hall.

    Annika found the claw slung from one's belt. At first glance she thought it carved from glass, but when it caught the light of the many candleabra scattered about, it gave off a brilliant shimmer that spoke of diamonds. She spun the gyres in the door to match the symbols on the claw's palm, thrust its fingers into the keyholes, and turned.

    The door opened into a vast and frigid chamber, silent but for the scratching echo of iron grinding against stone.

    The wide foyer narrowed into a passage between two great crypts, lined with roaring braziers and stone thrones seating brittle skeletons. Annika readied her bow, but a kick to one's leg only broke the shin away from the knee. There was no life here.

    But then she heard it, the whispers, the chanting, the crackle of the power buried millennia ago and waiting ever since for someone to reach out and take it. The dais stood at the end of the passage, hugged by the wall that curved around it. A faint blue light illuminated one cluster of runes etched into the stone.

    "That's a word wall, isn't it?" Ralof asked, reverent but excited. "What does it say?"

    Annika stepped up into the hollow, and read the inscription. And then she turned away from it.

    "Nothing I don't already know."

    Ralof followed her past the word wall and through the dark and winding hall beyond.

    They chased a dim yellow light that promised fire to small chamber warmed by a blazing hearth. It looked entirely out of place in sprawling ruins inhabited only by draugr, who had no need of fire. But they had not always been draugr. The ancient dragon cult had left more than sacrificial offerings on grisly altars as a monument to their existence. They'd left fire, in hearths and braziers, in lamps and candelabra, enchantments that lasted throughout the ages to remind Annika that all draugr had, once, been human.

    Finding no other doorways that lead out of the chamber, she started back towards that whence they'd come.

    "Hold on," Ralof said. "Let's rest here for awhile."

    "I don't need to rest."

    "You're limping."

    She took another three steps before realizing he was right; she was favouring her left leg, and any weight she put on her right thrust a dagger into her knee. In her haste to kill the draugr before it could kill them, she hadn't healed herself as well as she could have. She sighed and turned back into the chamber.

    "All right," she said. "Ten minutes, no longer."

    Ralof helped her up onto the stone table before the hearth before taking a seat himself. He dug into his waistpouch as Annika cast a steady stream of magic on her leg, the throbbing ache lessening every second.

    "Eat this," Ralof ordered, handing her a strip of dried salt pork. "It'll keep your energy up."

    This time, she did not resist, though she did raise an eyebrow when he offered her a flask.

    "I hope that's water."

    He gave her a withering look. "You truly think I'd meet Alduin in battle drunk on mead?"

    "You do like your mead."

    He cuffed her on the shoulder, remembering too late the small but sharp spikes that covered her pauldron. Annika couldn't help but laugh as he cursed and pulled his hand away, trying to shake out the pain. Her laughter was more healing than any spell, and more filling than any meat, and for those precious few moments, she almost forgot that they might be some of her last.

    "So, any ideas about that light?"

    "I think it's some sort of portal," Annika replied, "though to where, I couldn't say."

    Ralof gnawed on a bite of his salt pork. "You don't think it could be an Oblivion gate, do you?"

    She shook her head. "I doubt it. I saw paintings of them in Cyrodiil, and they were always depicted with a ring of fiery red light, not a beam of pure white. Besides, dragons are invading Skyrim, not daedra."

    "I hope you're right. I don't fancy a trip to Oblivion... though it'd make for a good story."

    "Battling Alduin the World-Eater alongside the Dragonborn isn't enough of a story for you?"

    He chuckled. "By the Nine, just being here in Skuldafn is a story unto itself! We're right in the middle of the darkest chapter of our history, encountering the last vestiges of the dragon cult that almost conquered our world. We're the first humans to step foot in this temple in thousands of years... and no one else is like to ever come here again."

    "Hopefully," Annika said, "no one else will have reason to."

    "I'll second that. I'm glad I had the chance to, though, despite the circumstances. I'll never forget this. I can't wait to tell Ysolda about it all."

    "Oh, I'd almost forgotten!" Annika dipped into her own waistpouch and withdrew a small scroll. "She sent a letter for you."

    Ralof's eyes lit up, and he quickly unrolled the parchment.

    Annika focused on healing herself while he read, casting her strongest spells to great effect. When she was done, the dull ache of an old bruise lingered, but flexing her knee did not cause it to scream in agony as it had before, and there was not so much as a scar left where her skin had been sliced open. Wuunferth would be proud.

    When she glanced to Ralof, she found his face pale and his mouth open in shock.

    "What is it, what's wrong?"

    He only stared at the letter, wide-eyed and thunderstruck. After a long moment, he looked up at her with a smile blooming slow but bright.

    "Ysolda's with child," he said. "I'm going to be a father."

    "Oh, Ralof! How wonderful!"

    She threw her arms around him, both of them laughing with joy and delight.

    "She says the baby will arive at the end of spring. She's already looking into selling her house in Whiterun, so she can be settled in Windhelm before then."

    "You're going to purchase Hjerim, then?"

    He shook his head, his grin growing even wider. "I discussed the idea with Jarl Ulfric, but he insisted Ysolda and I make our home together in the Palace of the Kings. Just think—our children will grow up side by side, like true brothers!"

    Annika's hand went to her stomach with a will of its own. Her moon's blood had only just left her, but perhaps Ulfric's seed was quickening in her womb even now. Her elation faltered, shadowed by the fears of what sort of child her tainted blood might sow, but she pushed them back and cloaked them with a smile so great she almost believed it herself.

    "I'm so happy for you, Ralof."

    "And I for you." He gave a sigh staggered with laughter. "Can you believe how far we've come? I was born a miller's son, you a miner's daughter. And now I'm housecarl to the man who will be king, and you... you will be queen."

    Her eyes skipped away from his. Her heart should have soared with the thought of it, but it only shivered in knowing such a fragile dream might not come to pass. She hopped off of the table so Ralof would not see the doubt and the dread she could no longer hide.

    "Not if I don't defeat Alduin." She grabbed up her bow, and tried to draw courage from the bones of the beast she had slain. "We have to finish this, or there won't be a Skyrim left for any king or queen to rule."

    "Your leg—"

    "Is fine, I promise. It's time, Ralof."

    He nodded, and after tucking Ysolda's letter into his armor, right over his heart, he took his axe in hand. "Lead on, then."

    She strode across the chamber and into the corridor beyond. They followed it to a wooden door overlaid with ironwork. The golden glow of the dying day trickled in where the wood bowed and split, but there was no telling what darkness waited for them on the other side.

    Annika had, indeed, come a long way from being born a miner's daughter, from growing up in a tiny cottage that was never quite warm enough, from eating scraps stolen from dogs so she wouldn't go to bed hungry. She had come a long way from losing her home, her family, all she had in the world, from wandering about Tamriel, looking for something she could not name, an answer to a question she did not know.

    She had come a long way, but there was still so far to go. And if she looked back, she would be lost.

    She pushed the door open.


    * * * * *​


    The sun was a violent lick of flame peeking over the mountains to the west, and it nearly blinded Annika when she stepped outside.

    Squinting down at the stone, she caught sight of movement to her right: a draugr, patrolling the plateau. She notched, drew, and loosed, and it toppled off the edge, leaving a raspy growl in its wake. Another sounded to her left, the second sentry alerted to the first's demise. It met the same fate.

    And then she heard it, the same rattling purr that had stricken her with fear at Whiterun's western watchtower. Now, it only stoked her anger. Annika turned her eyes skyward, and found the dragon slumbering atop a high stone plinth behind them. Its scales were a ruddy gold, not black, and its head was tucked beneath the blanket of its wing.

    Just beyond, that ominous beam of light rushed up into the clouds.

    They crept away and around a corner. At the far end of the plateau, a long set of stone stairs rose up towards the light, guarded by another draugr that ate another arrow and fell out of their way.

    Annika notched and drew as she stole up the steps, but stopped dead when she heard chanting. It was not the chorus that called to her from word walls, nor the dry rasp of a draugr, nor the deep booming of a dragon's speech. This was something else entirely, something cold and corrupt, something unnatural and perverse. She inched closer, holding her breath, until she could make out the words.

    "Zu'u uth naal thurri dein daar miiraak. Zu'u uth naal thurri dein daar miiraak!"

    My master commanded me to guard this portal.

    The shape of a man came into view over the crest of the stairs, arms outstretched in supplication, ragged cloak fluttering too slowly, too lightly, though there was no wind to lift it at all. One more step and she saw the narrow stone pulpit silhouetted in the twisting light, and the man's feet, bony and black, hovering inches above it.

    This was no man.

    It ceased its chanting, and the light sputtered and died.

    It turned, and where Annika expected to see the glowing blue eyes of a draugr, there was only the expressionless face of a mask.

    A dragon priest.

    She loosed, but the creature waved the staff in its hand and a bolt of lightning streaked out to knock the arrow away. Another flash, and this time the bolt hit her; her dragonscale soaked up the worst of it, but the aftershock ricocheted through her body. Her ward caught the next blast, and her arm trembled with the effort to hold it steady.

    The priest ceased its attack but started towards them, gliding on air though it lacked wings to fly. Annika drew in a deep breath and loosed her Voice.

    "Yol!"

    A rush of fire burst forth, but fizzled and died against the priest's own ward.

    For half a heartbeat, she was engulfed in the most profound terror she had ever known. She was powerless against this thing, this abomination. Her Thu'um was nothing to it, her arrows even less.

    And now the dragon was awake and circling overhead. Its roar echoed through the valley... but when Annika glanced up, she saw that it wasn't an echo at all. It was a second dragon, scales glinting silver in the dying sun, answering its brother's call.

    Ralof tugged her up the last steps and towards the wall to their left. They ducked into a passage carved through the rock; it would hide them well enough from the dragons, through the priest would be on them before long.

    "You have to distract it," Annika said.

    "What about the dragons?"

    "They're the lesser threat right now. If I don't get that staff away from the priest, we won't have a chance."

    Ralof hesitated for only a moment before giving a single sharp nod. He barrelled back into the courtyard, bellowing a war cry to rival the roar of the dragons. He was halfway across when his body lit up with electricity.

    The priest came into view, its back turned to Annika as it advanced on its prey.

    She darted out and took three long strides towards it.

    "Zun hal viik!"

    Her Thu'um hit its mark this time, and she swelled with triumph. But when the priest swiveled to face her, she saw the staff still in its hand.

    She was too stunned to block the bolt of lightning that licked out of it, but she did catch sight of the dragon streaking over the opposite side of the ruins, its jaws already yawning open.

    "Joor!"

    Thrown off balance, the dragon's fire poured down onto the priest instead of Annika. It hissed and pulled back, and the great golden beast crashed down between them.

    Annika ran as hard as she could, catching up with Ralof just as he staggered into the archway.

    "Are you all right?"

    He could only nod as he gasped for breath.

    She pulled him through the pass and around the other side of the wall before healing him. His armor afforded him more protection than she'd had against the justiciar in the Thalmor Embassy, but it lacked the natural resistance of her dragonscale. There was no telling how many more jolts he could sustain... and there was no escaping them, either.

    "I couldn't disarm it," she confessed, her voice shaking. "My arrows aren't fast enough and my Voice isn't strong enough. I don't know what to do, Ralof."

    "Isn't there a Shout that would just—kill it?"

    She stilled, the words screaming at her from inside her own head. Krii lun aus. Such small things, yet they could indeed kill. They would eat away at the priest's strength, its vigor, its very life—or whatever passed for life to something so dead. But of all the words Paarthurnax had given her, these frightened her the most... for they also tempted her the most.

    Arngeir had warned her, once, about giving in to the lure of power. That has been the downfall of many Dragonborn before you, he'd said. Yet no Dragonborn before her had tasted this much power, given to them in one fell swoop. They'd only had their own weakness to fight against, not thousands of years of suppressed rage and malice and hunger of a being born to dominate, to devour, to destroy.

    And no matter how corrupt this priest was now, it had been human once. It had been born with a human soul and it had lived a human life. And when it gave in to the lure of power, it traded that life for this terrible immortality. Where we differ, Ulfric had told her, is that we also feel compassion, and joy, and love. As long as you have that, you have your humanity. If she put aside her humanity to embrace the evil that fought to vanquish it, how was she any better than the priest? If she started using such dark sorcery against human souls and human life... how would she ever stop?

    There had to be another way. Another Shout.

    The word wall buried within Skuldafn had not taught Annika anything she didn't already know. But someone had put it there, eras ago. Someone had carved those runes into that stone and imbued it with their own power—power Paarthurnax himself had gifted to men, to use against Alduin. Was it a warning? A tribute?

    Or a hint?

    "Stay hidden beneath the arch," she ordered Ralof. "You'll be safe there."

    "Safe from what?"

    "What I'm about to do."

    "And what about you?"

    She was already halfway through the passage, and she did not look back.

    "My own Voice can't hurt me."

    The dragon she'd grounded was in the air once again, circling Skuldafn with its brother. The priest had retreated to the far end of the courtyard to hover over the spot whence the beam of light had surged only minutes before.

    Annika did not give them the chance to strike first.

    "Struhn... bah qo!"

    The clouds that veiled the sky swelled and grew and darkened to turn the gray dusk black, swallowing up the last of the sun's light. In its stead, a flurry of lightning lit up the ruins, streaking down from the heavens to scorch whatever it hit—stone, snow, the red banners snapping in the sudden gale. Blinding white bolts caught both dragons, but Annika could not hear their roars over the booming thunder that shook the ground beneath her feet, or the angry hiss of the rain that drove down in waves.

    The priest paid no mind to the storm, but began its eerie drift towards Annika. She stalked forward to meet it, readying an arrow instead of casting a ward. Let it hit her. Let it do its worst.

    But her lightning hit the priest first, and it let out a shrill, unearthly shriek. She loosed, and her arrow sunk into the stringy gray flesh at its side, drawing out another cry. The priest retaliated, sending a sizzling bolt her way; the impact threw off her aim, and her second arrow sailed through the tatters of its cloak to bounce off the stone beyond. It knocked the third arrow out of the air with a quick flick of its staff, but took another hit from the storm itself.

    The silver dragon swooped down, snarling and snapping, and sent a torrent of frost down upon Annika before she could cast her ward against it. Her armor soaked up most of it, but the tender skin of her face stung for one vicious moment before going numb, and her muscles stiffened beneath her mail and scale. She loosed an arrow after the dragon and caught the sinew of a leg, but took two more jolts from the priest as penance for her distraction.

    Before she could catch her breath, the dragon swerved back around for another assault, but its flight curtailed when lightning ripped through its wing. Annika dove out of its path, narrowly missing the wild thrash of its tail as it slammed into the wall. The ancient rock exploded under the dragon's weight, and a landslide of rubble rushed over the other side, along with the broken body of the beast itself. She could not see the light of its soul burn through its flesh, but she felt it filling hers.

    Drenched and shivering and jittery, Annika ran for the pulpit and ducked behind it. Her storm was serving well against the dragons, but would it be enough to fell the priest? Would the next bolt strike it down, or would it withstand a hundred more? Even if it did, it mattered little and less; all she had to do was outlast it.

    She peered over the stone and spotted the priest on the other side, gliding closer. It staggered with another hit of lightning, and when it recovered, its height seemed to have dropped an inch. It was weakening.

    Annika rounded the pulpit in time with the priest, keeping the stone between them. Another bolt hit it, and then another, and then its cowled head slumped down, and its bony hand slackened on the staff. She heard its rattling wheeze in the calm before a clap of thunder startled them both. The priest's head snapped up, and the eyes hidden behind the mask found her.

    And so had the surviving dragon. It tore over the wall opposite Annika, its roar shaking the ground as much as the thunder, a swirl of flame already swelling up its throat.

    Perhaps her Voice would not be enough. But hers wasn't the only Voice making itself heard.

    "Feim!"

    Annika dissolved into nothingness, and ran for the priest.

    Blind with rage and desperation, the dragon unleashed its fire on the courtyard. It blasted right through Annika, but the priest, only an arm's length away, caught like the wick of a candle. It shrieked and writhed and burned until the rain quenched the flames. But the damage had been done. Its withered flesh was blackened and peeling, its cloak mere cinders. Only the tiered columns of dragon bones it wore over its shoulders and down its front remained unscathed.

    The priest swung its staff, but the lightning that burst from it could not touch Annika.

    The bolt that shot down from the clouds, however, caught the priest in the back, and it reared with a bloodcurdling howl. Another bolt crashed down onto its mask, leaving a smoking patch of char across one side. A third stabbed into its chest, where its heart would have been, if it still had one.

    Annika watched the thing crumple and fold. She could not see its eyes through the mask, but she knew it was staring into the misty spectre of hers. One skeletal arm reached to claw at her, but found nothing but air. By the time she returned to flesh and blood, the priest was a heap of bones in scorched rags, drawing sharp, shallow breaths like a stag in the throes of dying. She stared down at it with pity for the man it had once been, and with pride in herself, for resisting the thirst for power that that man had not.

    One final streak of lightning turned what was left of it to ash.

    Only the dragon remained.

    She searched the skies, but found only billowing clouds, though the storm had begun to subside. Lightning flashed less frequently than before, and the rain had ebbed to a soft sprinkle. The thunder was no more than a dull rumble, not quite enough to mask the heavy sigh of wings behind her.

    The dragon rose over the crest of the stairs and dove, its talons leaving long gouge marks in the stone as it skidded over the courtyard. Annika reeled back towards the broken wall and threw her ward out before her, but the beast thrashed so wildly that its fire poured over and under and around the shield, searing her boots, the bare flesh of her wounded knee, a long lock of hair the wind had pulled from her braid.

    It snapped at her as soon as the flames died, and she jumped back to dodge its fangs. Her feet found rubble instead of ground, and she stumbled, twisted, and collided with a chunk of broken masonry, sending a flood of wreckage over the edge and onto the tier below. She managed to steady herself, but when she whirled back to the dragon, it was already lunging for her.

    In the next heartbeat, she was bathed in blood.

    The dragon roared, but instead of fire, a hot red spray poured from the gaping gash in the side of its neck.

    It whipped its head around to find its attacker, but Ralof dodged and swung his axe at the beast's face with a primal bellow. The blade sliced down over an eye, and another burst of blood followed.

    The dragon careened back and lifted quivering wings, but Annika pinned it down with Dragonrend. Ralof hacked at it again, and again, and finally it collapsed in the lake of its own blood. A wet bleating churned up its throat in lieu of a roar, and then it fell silent.

    Death ignited its soul, and its soul burned through its flesh.

    The blaze nearly blinded her, but it was not quite enough to eclipse the flash of lightning that ripped down from the dying storm.

    Ralof's strangled cry was not unlike the dragon's. His body went rigid, and then folded and buckled.

    "Ralof!"

    Annika fell to her knees beside him and took his head in her hands to steady its erratic twitching. His eyes, wide but unfocused, stared blindly up into nothingness, and his chest heaved for air he could not seem to breathe. She cast her spells in a frenzied rush, shielding his body with her own against any lightning that would try to strike him.

    Only when his lungs finally filled did she breathe herself.

    She lifted her face to the storm.

    "Lok vah koor!"

    The rain ceased at once, but it took a few moments for the clouds to dissipate, leaving the sky a velvety cobalt dotted with the evening's first stars.

    A bout of dry and ragged coughing seized Ralof, but he caught his breath before Annika could panic again.

    "Are you all right?"

    He sat up, not without some effort and a pained groan. "Never better. Guess I'm not much of a Stormcloak after all, though." His lips stretched into a grin. "Get it?"

    Annika could not help but laugh as she threw her arms around him, and when she pulled back, she gave him a playful shove.

    "I told you to stay hidden."

    "And Jarl Ulfric told me to keep you alive." He looked her up and down, and shrugged. "Luckily, he said nothing about keeping you clean."

    "You're one to talk."

    They were both drenched; the last of the rain had washed some of the dragon's blood away, but they both still looked a fright. Annika wiped what she could from her face, and slicked Ralof's hair back off of his forehead.

    "Maybe," he said, "Alduin will take one look at us, covered in the blood of his brethren, and surrender."

    "Somehow, I don't think Alduin is the sort to surrender."

    Ralof looked over his shoulder. "Still no light. What if that priest sealed the portal?"

    Annika helped him up, and they rounded the dragon's skeleton together. She climbed the steps of the pulpit and looked out across the courtyard, seeing what she hadn't before: a great circle carved into the stone, along with the darkened silhouette of a dragon's head and wing curved around the smaller seal in the middle. The ground was solid and unbroken, lacking any breach through which the light might have shone.

    But there was a similar seal in the rock at her feet, and a small niche within it, deep and narrow and round. A keyhole.

    "Ralof—get the priest's staff."

    He gave the heap of ash a wary look before gingerly plucking out the staff. He held it at arm's length until Annika relieved him of it.

    The wood slid easily into the receptacle and locked into place.

    A deafening crack rent the air, and the courtyard split open. The circle fractured into half a hundred pieces of stone that sunk down to funnel around a swirling blue void. Cold white light streaked out and rose up into the sky.

    "By the gods," Ralof whispered.

    Annika shook her head. "The gods had nothing to do with this."

    Perhaps it was intuition, or the souls of the dragons within her warning her away, but she knew without a doubt that this was a profane corruption, a gateway that should never have existed. Yet she could not say to what dark realm it led. It made no matter, one way or another; she had long been caught in the current of fate, and if she tried to resist it now, she would surely drown.

    Ralof went to the edge of the circle, squinting against the brilliance of the light.

    "Shall we?"

    Annika hesitated. "Ralof..."

    "I know what you're going to say," he cut in, "and it won't change my mind, so you might as well not waste your breath. I'm coming with you, and that's that."

    She sighed as she stepped down from the pulpit, but said no more. When she came up beside Ralof, his hand was pressed to his chest, to the letter he had stowed beneath his armor.

    High above, a swathe of watery light stretched across the sky, rippling like sunshine on the bottom of a pond. The aurora. Annika had forgotten how beautiful it was, after so many years away. There was nothing like it in the deserts of Hammerfell, or the forests of Valenwood. This was a gift of the north. And it reminded her of what was at stake. Skuldafn seemed a realm unto itself, as detached and desolate as it was, but the aurora made its graceful dance over the ruins as much as it did over the rest of Skyrim, over Ulfric in Windhelm and Ysolda in Whiterun. How many other sons and daughters did it weave together on this pivotal night, when their world would either be saved or doomed?

    Annika reached out to take Ralof's hand in hers.

    "For Skyrim," she said, and together, they walked into the light.


    * * * * *​


    Annika was not flying, but merely rising, as though she had lived her entire life at the bottom of the sea and was finally floating to the surface. She saw only white light, and heard nothing but her own heartbeat. But she felt rain and blood and sweat trickling down her skin, her chest swelling against her armor with every breath, and her quiver resting across her back, every sensation a promise that it wasn't only her mind traveling, as it had through the Time-Wound, but her entire self.

    It might have been minutes or it might have been hours before the light faded into a palette of dark and dismal blues and grays, and Annika found herself standing upon solid ground, before a host of giants. She flinched and cried out before realizing they were only statues carved from stone, massive and faceless in their cloaks. A long set of steps led down into a valley between them, lined with gaunt pines and dotted with braziers, though their fires were weak, snared in a battle with the tendrils of fog that rolled in from the surrounding mountains. Far in the distance, the dim silhouette of a castle rose out of the mist, and the familiarity of something so human filled her with relief.

    Thunder rumbled high above, and when Annika looked up, that relief turned to dread.

    The sky was not a sky at all, but a funnel of clouds that twisted and swirled up to a cold imitation of the sun. They were not fleecy and white, nor even the heavy gray of an oncoming storm, but a roiling blend of fiery red and poisonous violet, a deadly miasma veiling the countless stars trying to blink through. Annika had never seen anything more beautiful, or more terrifying.

    She turned to Ralof, but he was not there.

    "Ralof?" She whirled about, frantic to find him, to see his smile and hear his voice, to know she was not alone. "Ralof!"

    Only the thunder answered her, and the sound of her own panicked breathing.

    And, somewhere down amidst the fog, the ferocious roar of a dragon that could only be Alduin.

    Annika rushed to hide behind the nearest statue, pulling her bow from her shoulder and an arrow from her quiver. She waited, still and silent, for several minutes, but Alduin came no closer, nor did Ralof suddenly appear on the plateau, nor was there any sign of the portal that had brought her here. She was alone, and trapped in this strange place that looked a grim and sinister mockery of Skyrim, while her greatest enemy awaited her in the valley, poised to destroy her, to devour her soul. Her only hope to escape this realm was to destroy him first.

    Gathering her courage, Annika left the statue and started down the steps. At the bottom, stone gave way to dry and dusty earth, dotted with patches of brown grass and wilted flowers. The trees, too, were withered and haggard, half of their needles sapped of color, the other half already fallen to the ground. Every living thing was dying. There were no sounds of life, either, no birds singing or crickets chirping. Only the rolling thunder, and a stray howl of wind, and the faraway flap of wings.

    She crept through the valley, following a faint path through the great knots of fog that engulfed her, an arrow notched and ready to draw at any moment. But she met no threats. She met nothing at all, until a dim figure shivered through the mist, and a deep voice called out from the gloom.

    "Is someone there?"

    Annika's breath caught in her throat. She knew that voice.

    She moved towards the shadow until it became a man, nearly as tall and broad as Ulfric, and wearing a bear's head helm.

    "Galmar?"

    He turned, and the world spun with him.

    "Dragonborn?"

    The glare he'd always had for her was supplanted with wide-eyed shock and dismay, mirroring her own. This could not be. She had watched him die in Ulfric's arms, witnessed his body put to rest in the catacombs of the Palace of the Kings, mourned his death and celebrated his new life in Sovngarde—

    Sovngarde.

    Galmar closed the distance between them in three long strides.

    "Dragonborn," he cried. "By the gods, what happened? Did Ulfric—is he—"

    "Ulfric is fine. He's alive. This... is Sovngarde, then?"

    He gave a solemn nod. "Not quite the one the stories spoke of, but yes."

    The truth was a fist to her stomach.

    "Am I... dead?"

    It hadn't felt like dying, when she stepped into that ethereal light in Skuldafn. She was still breathing, and her heart still pounding a violent beat against her ribs; how could that be, if her soul had left her body behind? And if the price for passage was her own life, why had the portal not taken Ralof's, too?

    The fog shifted and parted around them, and Annika noticed that Galmar seemed to be partly fog himself. His entire form was pale, a portrait drawn in watered-down paints, and she could see the faint outline of the rocks behind him right through his armor. She looked down to her own body, but she was as solid as ever.

    Galmar saw the difference, too.

    "You don't look like the rest of us," he said. "But if you haven't died, how can you be here?"

    Annika shook her head. "I don't know, but it doesn't matter right now—Galmar, Ulfric knows you didn't betray him."

    In the time she had known him, Galmar had been a hard and intimidating man, to whom smiles were rare and tears did not exist. And so the storm of emotion that passed over him now turned him into an entirely different person, one who was vulnerable, who had doubts and fears, who loved.

    "He does?"

    "You gave your life to save his. After that, he knew you'd always been true to him."

    "Thank the gods," he breathed. "That was the worst of it, that he believed me a traitor. That he hated me. Death was nothing in comparison."

    "He hates himself for ever doubting you," she told him. "Losing you tore him apart."

    "It was worth it, if it saved him. I would die a thousand deaths for that man. I've loved him as a brother my entire life."

    "He knows you did."

    "And you? Does he know you love him?"

    Annika hesitated only a moment, stunned that he, her greatest critic, had known the truth of her heart the whole time.

    "He does."

    "Then, if you are still alive, we need to get you back to him."

    "You can't imagine how badly I want that," she said with a sigh. "But there's something I need to do first."

    As if on cue, Alduin's roar rippled through the fog to shake the very ground beneath their feet.

    Galmar's eyes went wide. He hurried to take cover behind a small rocky hill on the edge of the path, waving Annika to follow. She ducked down beside him, and shuddered when another beastly bellow tore across the sky.

    "Is that what you need to do? Kill that damned bastard?"

    "Yes. Ulfric believes it's my destiny."

    Galmar snorted a laugh. "He always was a sentimental fool," he said, though his voice was wistful, not derisive. "Destiny or not, Dragonborn—slay that dragon. Legend didn't name him the World-Eater for nothing."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Look around you. Does this look like the Sovngarde the priests of Arkay always preach about?"

    Annika had thought nothing of the bleak landscape before the realm had a name, but now that she knew where she stood, the browning grass at her feet and the the wilting pines across the path took on a terrible meaning. This was not at all the paradise promised to brave and valiant Nords; this was a garden of squalor and blight, struggling to survive, and failing.

    "Everything is dead," she murmured.

    "Aye. Alduin's hunger is insatiable. He hunts the souls who wander lost, but when they are not enough, he drinks the life from the earth itself." Galmar reached out to touch a flower, its weak stem drooping under the weight of a shrivelled bud. What petals remained fell away at his touch. "I saw a patch of these wither under Alduin's shadow. He's turning Sovngarde into his own little corner of Oblivion."

    Annika took a second look around, and noticed what she'd missed before: the silence, the stillness, the utter desolation.

    "You said I didn't look like the rest of you," she mused. "Are there others?"

    Galmar hestiated, turning his gaze away from hers. "There were—men who died in Markarth, Stormcloaks and Imperials both."

    "Where are they all now?"

    "The Imperials went their own way. Some of our men wandered off into the fog and couldn't find their way back. The rest..."

    The echo of a roar carried through the mist, saying what Galmar did not need to.

    A memory peeled off the wall of her mind: Alduin, descending on the Throat of the World, even as the Elder Scroll still burned in her hands. I have fed my hunger with the souls of your fellow mortals, he'd said. She had never imagined that he'd meant it literally, that he had invaded this most hallowed realm and corrupted it to his own ends. He'd given a similar warning to the Tongues, too; had Sovngarde languished in this cursed state all the years Alduin had been adrift in time?

    The Tongues.

    "Galmar, has Alduin breached the Hall of Valor?"

    "I don't know, I haven't found it yet."

    She blinked up at him. "You've been lost in the fog all this time?"

    "It hasn't been that long," he said, his tone defensive. "And I've spent most of it trying not to be devoured."

    "Hopefully the Tongues did the same—they might be able to help me defeat Alduin." She stood up and strode back to the path, though it was almost completely obscured beneath a rolling blanket of mist. "The Hall of Valor is that way," she said, pointing. "I saw it from atop a hill."

    "I saw it, too," Galmar muttered, coming up beside her. "But here I am, lost all the same. The fog plays tricks on you, throwing you off course just when you think you've found your way."

    Annika bit her lip. "I could get rid of it."

    "What? What in Shor's stones are you waiting for, then?"

    "I'll need to Shout," she told him. "And if I do, Alduin will know exactly where we are."

    Galmar's eyes went wide, his mouth tight. It was strange to see such naked fear in a man she had always thought of as fearless. And then she understood—he had been fearless in life, because he'd always known Sovngarde awaited him. What awaited him now, but the blackest depths of nothingness?

    But then his features hardened, he pulled his shoulders back, and he gave a firm nod.

    "Do it, and get to the Hall of Valor as quickly as you can."

    "We'll get there," Annika said. "Together."

    One corner of Galmar's mouth curled up. She had seen that smirk before, when she'd gone to him for her initiation into Ulfric's army, and he'd remarked that she might be worth something to him.

    "Do it," he said again.

    A cold finger of dread trailed down her spine to make her shiver.

    "Galmar, please—"

    "If you don't find the Tongues, you'll be facing Alduin on your own," he said. "Can you do that? Can you defeat him alone?"

    She hesitated for a long, uneasy moment. "Possibly. Defeating him is supposed to be my destiny, after all."

    "Possibly isn't good enough. If you fail, there are no second chances. You must not fail."

    Annika's mouth opened and closed on air, her mind racing to think of some excuse, some reason for Galmar not to do what he meant to do. But he spoke the truth, as desperate as she was to deny it. She would have but one chance to slay Alduin. And with the Tongues' Voices added to hers, her chance for victory would be that much greater.

    She peered into the fog once more, but saw no more than a couple of yards ahead in any direction. If Galmar had been wandering lost for weeks, what chance did she have of escaping the haze, or coming upon the Hall of Valor by blind luck? What chance did she have of destroying Alduin before he could destroy Sovngarde, and turn his hunger to Skyrim?

    When she looked back to Galmar, it was through burning tears.

    "I've already had to watch you sacrifice yourself once," she sobbed. "I don't want to do it again."

    He only smiled. "I meant what I said. I would die a thousand deaths for Ulfric."

    "Ulfric isn't here—"

    "But you are. And I can't let him lose someone else he loves."

    Annika closed her eyes and sighed. She could not argue with that, not when she, too, would do anything for Ulfric... even if anything meant letting the man he had loved as a brother give up not only his life, but his soul, to help her get back to him.

    She turned towards the Hall of Valor, and drew in a deep breath.

    "Lok vah koor!"

    The fog slowly dissipated, revealing a sprawling field of decay as far as she could see, and the looming silhouette of the Hall of Valor, a startling distance away from where she'd thought it was.

    "Go, Dragonborn," Galmar said.

    But she did not move. The mist may have gone, but that eerie silence still lay heavily over the valley, broken only by her own shallow breathing. She turned slowly in a full circle, looking out across the horizon, and saw nothing.

    "He's not coming," she whispered, a small smile daring to curve her lips. "He didn't hear it—"

    And then a roar split the sky, and a black shadow tore over a copse of pines, turning their rich green a sallow brown. Alduin's scarlet eyes burned bright amidst the coal of his scales.

    "Go," Galmar shouted. "Run—now!"

    This time, she listened, and tore down the path with such haste she stumbled and nearly fell. She chanced a look back and saw Galmar racing the other way, leading the dragon away from her. Alduin swerved and dove, and a torrent of blinding flame poured down to light Galmar up like the sun. And then Alduin's jaws closed around him, and he was lifted into the air. She never heard him scream.

    Annika ran as fast and as hard as she ever had. She ran until she could barely breathe, until a knife of pain stabbed into her side and her legs threatened to give out. But there was nowhere to hide, there was nothing but open field and a few withered bushes, so she pushed herself to keep going, to keep running. Another minute, or perhaps an hour, and she saw it—up ahead, atop a sloping hill, a gray stone wall like so many others she had found before, though this one was dark and silent, as dead as everything else in Sovngarde.

    She flung herself behind the curve of the wall and pressed her back flat against the stone. She tried to catch her breath, but she was sobbing too hard. Her hands clamped against her mouth to stifle the cries that might draw Alduin to her. But even if he did not hear her, or see her, he might sense her soul in some other way. She could not linger there and let Galmar's sacrifice have been in vain.

    The fog was rolling in once more, great billowing waves swallowing up ground and sky alike. The Hall of Valor lay ahead, so close yet still so far, and the fear of losing sight of it again was enough to push her back to her feet.

    "Go," she told herself through gritted teeth. "Go!"

    Annika did not look back when she heard the roar chasing after her.

    She did not stop when she reached a bridge made of bones so gargantuan she could not imagine from what beast they had come, nor when she glimpsed the bottomless chasm to either side of it, a mere foot's slip away from being her death. There was no room for fear of falling in a heart so consumed with terror of the beast behind her, gaining on her, every flap of his heavy wings worth a dozen of her clumsy footsteps.

    "Yol toor shul!"

    The bridge trembled under Alduin's Thu'um, but she felt no flame burning her flesh, nor even licking at her heels as they hit flat stone.

    She whirled about to find Alduin circling away from the bridge, away from her. She wasted no time wondering why.

    "Joor zah frul!"

    Her Thu'um flew over the abyss and crashed into its target... but Alduin only flinched, faltering just slightly before righting himself and soaring into the cover of the fog.

    His Voice could not reach her. And hers no longer had any effect on him.

    She turned back to the Hall of Valor. It bore no signs of damage or disorder, no evidence that Alduin's corruption had touched it at all. Instead, it was everything the songs had said it would be. Built of the smoothest stone and the lightest wood, it rose half a hundred storeys into the sky, its windows aglow with golden light that promised warmth, and solace, and sanctuary.

    And, she hoped, everything she needed to destroy Alduin.


    * * * * *

    The color that had been drained from Sovngarde was alive and thriving in the Hall of Valor. Everything golden flamed in the glow of the massive hearth that spanned half the hall, and everything stone took on the watery cobalt of the light streaming in through soaring windows. The countless figures milling about the long table were more vibrant than Galmar, but were made of the same delicate gossamer, thin enough to see right through.

    For a moment, no one noticed her. They went on talking with one another in hushed tones, or gazing down into their jeweled goblets, or listening to the bard playing a mournful song on her lute. Then one man's gaze lit upon her, and his companion looked up to see what had distracted him, and the man behind her turned at her gasp. Soon every eye in the chamber was on her, and every voice had fallen silent. Some took to their feet while others stayed rooted to their seats, but every face shone with the same hopeful anticipation, the entire chamber holding its collective breath, waiting for her to speak.

    A man came forward, his head held high and his shoulders squared, clad in a style of armor Annika had only ever seen in history books. He looked ready for battle, but what she could see of his face beneath the wilderness of his beard was warm and gracious. She stepped down into the hall to meet his approach.

    "Dragonborn," he greeted with a slight bow. "Welcome to the Hall of Valor. Long have we awaited your coming."

    "You know who I am?"

    "Indeed. By Shor's promise, we knew a hero of the dragon blood would arise from the vale's deadly mist to deliver us from Alduin's torment. And here you are at last." He smiled, noble and proud. "I am Ysgramor."

    Annika stared at the man for a long moment, her eyes wide and her mouth slowly falling open. Then she dropped to a knee and bowed her head.

    "It is an honor, my lord."

    Ysgramor laughed. "There is no need for that, my child."

    "But there is," she replied in a rush of breath. "I was born and raised in Eastmarch, where you settled the first men on Tamriel. I live now in the very castle you and your Five Hundred built, and the man I love sits your own throne."

    "The Dragonborn and the consort of a Jarl?"

    "He is not only a Jarl, my lord, but the rightful king. He means to wrest Skyrim back from the grip of elves, just as you did in your time."

    "A fine match for one fated to wrest Skyrim back from the grip of dragons."

    Annika rose, but her gaze fell from Ysgramor's in shame of her failure, until she remembered that he, too, had needed support to fulfill his purpose.

    "That is my wish," she said, "but I fear I cannot do it alone. I have come seeking the ancient Tongues—Hakon One-Eye, Gormlaith Golden-Hilt, and Felldir the Old."

    Ysgramor smiled once more before turning aside. Behind him, two men and a woman strode forth. They seemed smaller, somehow, than they had in her vision atop the Throat of the World. And yet these people had shaped her destiny, her very life. Had they not brought Alduin to battle, had they not cast him forward through time with the Elder Scroll, Annika would not have been the Dragonborn. She would not have had a dragon's soul, nor the weight of the world resting upon her shoulders. Ulfric would have had no reason to trust her, or need her, any more than he did anyone else.

    They bowed to her, these legends, these heroes, and laid their steel at her feet.

    "Dovahkiin," Gormlaith greeted. "Our Voices are yours to command."

    "I am glad to hear it. Alduin has grown strong enough to resist my own, but with any hope, our Voices joined might be enough to bring him down."

    "Just speak the word," Hakon said, "and with high heart we shall hasten forth to smite the beast. For a hundred lifetimes, my heart has burned for revenge too long delayed!"

    Felldir held up a hand. "Patience, friends. We cannot rush blindly into battle. Alduin's mist is more than a snare; it is his cloak and shield. We must first Shout together to dispel it, and put to test our strength united, before we face our foe."

    "We shall Shout," Gormlaith said, a smile stretching wide across her face. "And we shall prevail. The fields will echo with the clamor of war this day!"

    She took up her sword, and the others retrieved their axes, though their expressions were grim instead of eager. Annika, however, did not draw her bow, but peered past the warriors to the rapt crowd beyond, seeking out a different weapon.

    "Are there any other Tongues here who might add their Voices to that clamor?"

    The heroes shared an ominous look.

    "Those who would fight have already gone forth to do so," Hakon said, "despite Shor's behest to sheathe our blades and venture not the vale's dark mist. We three alone heeded his command."

    Annika stared at him for a long moment, hearing the words he did not say in those he did.

    "And those who would not fight?"

    It was neither Hakon nor Gormlaith nor Felldir who answered, but another man still seated at the table.

    "They hold fast to their devotion to the Way of the Voice."

    Hakon's features hardened in plain indignation. "Do not forget, old man—your way is not our way. We find no honor in apathy."

    The man rose, but kept his shoulders drawn, his back hunched, his hands folded together in perpetual supplication. His robes were the same simple roughspun as the Greybeards, his face the same collection of lines and somber tranquility.

    "Trust and faith in the gods is not apathy," he countered. "And they find honor in my way, else they would not have welcomed me into Sovngarde."

    Annika had never seen a portrait of him—the Greybeards were too modest an order to allow such pride—but she knew him all the same.

    "You're Jurgen Windcaller."

    "Yes, Dovahkiin."

    Her lips tightened in what might have passed for a smile. "It should please you to know your successors won't lift a finger to help defend the world, either."

    A laugh bubbled out of Gormlaith, and Hakon's eyes went wide with wonder.

    "It is not our right to meddle with the will of the gods," Jurgen said. "Do not doubt that their hands guide the fate of the world. If they deem that fate is to end, it shall end. I would walk with the gods; would you stand against them?"

    "I would use the gift they bestowed upon me. Why would they give me the strength and the power to defeat Alduin if it was not their will that I do so?"

    "The Voice should be used to worship the gods, not to slight them with fancies that the savagery of killing brings them pleasure and glory. The very dragon who gave the Voice to mankind showed me this path, after he put aside his own destructive nature to take instead peace into his heart."

    Hakon whirled about, once again seething. "Paarthurnax gave the Voice to us, not to you—and he meant us to slay Alduin, not to sing songs to the skies until death came for us. Do not presume to know his heart better than we did."

    "He was consumed by anger and hatred when he gave you the Voice," Jurgen said. "You knew naught of his heart, but for the bleeding shred that held the evil he sought to overcome."

    "Paarthurnax gave me a gift, too," Annika cut in, her voice as hard as the gaze she pinned to Jurgen. "The gift of his soul."

    They looked to her with naked horror, the Greybeard's calm broken by a sharp crackle of fury, the Tongues's tenacity fading under sudden grief. They had all loved Paarthurnax, and had likely thought him eternal. And he might have been. He might have lived forever, were it not for the destiny he so deeply believed was Annika's to fulfill.

    "He waited atop the Throat of the World for millennia," she continued, "waiting for the chance to rid the world of Alduin for good and for all. And when he could not, he gave his life so that I might succeed where he failed. He gave his life in hopes that it would bring about the end of Alduin's. Do not for a moment think that he would counsel us to yield at this crucial hour." She swallowed hard and took several deep breaths to calm the fervor of her indignation—and Paarthurnax's. "You may all have known his heart, but I hold his soul within me—his anger, his sorrow, his guilt, and his longing for a peace we will never know while the World-Eater lives."

    She strode past the Tongues, past Jurgen Windcaller, and stood before the other souls whose own heroics had led them there.

    "Alduin made a grave mistake in coming to Sovngarde," she said to them. "In seeking power, he rallied the very men and women best able to fight him—the most valiant warriors Skyrim has ever seen. I am asking for your valor now. I am asking for your help, whether you wield Shouts or steel."

    She swept her gaze over the crowd, hoping they would see the fire in her eyes, hoping it would kindle one in them.

    "It is said that I am destined to defeat Alduin. I don't know if that is true prophecy or just desperate hope, and I don't know whether or not I will succeed. But I do know that I cannot succeed if I do not try." Her breath hitched in her throat as she remembered Ulfric's words to Jorleif, words she had admired him for then, and would make her own now. "I would rather try and fail than lay down and let this evil destroy our world," she said. "Who amongst you is willing to do the same?"

    The hall was still and silent. Few eyes were left on her; most had skipped away as she spoke, perhaps in fear that she might single them out, perhaps in guilt that they would not rise to her challenge. They stared down at their hands, or glanced around at each other, these heroes, Skyrim's supposed best. Annika's heart fell. Had she been so wrong to think that they would stand with her?

    A figure rose slowly from the table. He was more a boy than a man, so young had he been when his life was taken from him, and though there was fear written on his face, so too was there hope, and spirit, and courage.

    He stepped forward. "I will fight with you."

    Another came forth, and another, and another, until more than half of the hall was standing before Annika. A scant few of them wore robes similar to Jurgen Windcaller's, but the Greybeard and the rest of his disciples remained in their seats, holding fast to their piety. They mattered little and less, and soon she could not see them at all beyond the crowd of brave men and women who would fight.

    Annika beamed back at them with a tremulous smile, and a teary haze over her eyes. She had her army.

    "I thank you all," she said, "and should the gods see fit to restore me to Mundus when this is done, I will see that all of Skyrim thanks you, too."

    She drew her bow, and at her cue the rest unsheathed their own weapons: at least two score swords, axes, maces, and bows, and a handful of Voices, all sworn to her and her cause.

    "Alduin's doom is ours to seal," she declared, her voice ringing throughout the hall. "He is not a god, and he is not immortal; he bleeds the same as any beast. Today, we will make him bleed for every life and every soul he has taken! Today, we will reclaim our world for all those who will come after us!"

    Her heroes answered with a cry of righteous fury and vengeance, and thrust their weapons high into the air. A thrill leapt up within her heart, and she swelled with the same confidence she imagined Ulfric felt when he led his own men into battle.

    You are a warrior, and a leader, and a hero, he had once told her, and for the first time, looking out at those who would follow her into the final chapter of an ancient war, she believed it.

    For the first time, she believed that she could triumph, that she could prevail, that she was, truly, the promised Dragonborn.


    * * * * *​
     
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    #8 imaginepageant, Apr 13, 2012
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  9. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    Reserved.
     
  10. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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  11. Neriad13

    Neriad13 Premium Member

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    My main gripe with it is that, in the beginning, I thought that the story followed the game's script way too much. The first scene was one I could read with my eyes closed and hear in my head just about word for word by heart. Curveballs are always highly appreciated.

    However, I highly enjoyed Annika's interactions with Hadvar. I honestly think that he's a good guy and that he's doing what he thinks is best. But can he really be trusted, if he follows orders like that without a word?

    And it's eerie how well the cast looks like the characters they're portraying! Ralof without dirt on his face - I never thought I'd see the day. :p
     
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  12. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    That's actually exactly why I wanted to get the Helgen scenes as close as possible to the game: it is rigidly scripted, and the only scene in the entire game that is exactly the same for everyone playing it, and one that we've probably all memorized by this point. I felt wrong messing with it too much. But I can definitely see what you're saying—since we do know that scene so well, it can get repetitive. Do you think it would be better if more of that scene was introspective, and included less of the actual dialogue (without adding completely new dialogue)?

    In any case, I am planning on using dialogue from the game here and there and to at least loosely follow the more important scenes, but I can promise that there will be curveballs. :D I already have the final Stormcloaks vs. Imperials scene planned out and it will end quite differently than it does in the game.

    Vladimir Kulich actually voiced Ulfric in the game! It is uncanny how much his character in Ironclad resembles Ulfric. If the film hadn't been released just a few months before Skyrim, I would be convinced that Bethesda used his character as inspiration for Ulfric.

    I'll be adding more of the cast as the story goes on. I'm wracking my brains for someone to play Hadvar and coming up empty, though... Nevermind! Found him!

    Also, thank you so much for reading and commenting! You're pretty much the fanfiction queen around these parts, so your advice is greatly appreciated!
     
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  13. juni0rj0hn

    juni0rj0hn Article Writer

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    Wow, Imag, I really can't imagine the amount of work, time, and hard effort put into this amazing article. I love the fact that you included the part where the general didn't really if Annika went to the block or not. Stories like these not are fun to read and recognize thee hard work put in, but you need to make sure you clarify that the Imperials ARE wrong in the final scene! Thank you for your hard work, and I can't wait for more
     
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  14. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    Thank you for reading and commenting!

    I'm pretty vocal about being a Stormcloak supporter myself (I mean, look at my icon), and I hope I've showed in the first few scenes that Annika will be as well, so you can be assured that this story will be quite anti-Imperial. :rolleyes:
     
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  15. bulbaquil

    bulbaquil ...is not Sjadbek, he just runs him.

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    I could tell simply by recognizing the title from Ulfric's little speech. :)
     
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  16. juni0rj0hn

    juni0rj0hn Article Writer

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    Wow, Imag, I'm really sorry about some mistakes in my last reply lol. When I was talking about the commander I meant that he didn't "care" if she went to the block or not, thats what i meant. And the second one was that I meant not "only" are these stories fun to read and so on...
     
  17. bulbaquil

    bulbaquil ...is not Sjadbek, he just runs him.

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    Your selected Hadvar does look quite Hadvar-ish. Maybe not as much as your Ralof looks Ralof-ish, but....
     
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  18. juni0rj0hn

    juni0rj0hn Article Writer

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    I think Thor looks more like Ulfric than that Vladamir guy...
     
  19. bulbaquil

    bulbaquil ...is not Sjadbek, he just runs him.

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    Yes, but Vladimir Kulich sounds much more like Ulfric. And for a rather good reason, too. :)
     
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  20. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant Slytherin Alumni

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    But... but... Vladimir IS Ulfric! Well, he's his voice, at least. I think he works perfectly to play him, though... he's got the long blonde hair, the fur cloak, even the axe! And they're about the same age - Vladimir is fifty-five and I imagine Ulfric has to be at least in his late forties, since he was in the legion thirty years ago. Chris Hemsworth is only twenty-eight, so I don't think he'd be a good pick for Ulfric, seeing as he wouldn't even have been an embryo when he fought in the Great War!

    Oh, and I got what you were trying to say in your last post, no worries!
     
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