The Dragonborn Has No Tongue
"Did you not hear my Commander?" the Imperial squinted down at him. "Why do you have so many..." he pointed with his whip handle at Matt's bare arms and torso, splashed and spattered in white, healed-over scars.
"He can't speak, m'lord," Pinna said, affecting a Bruma accent. They'd stripped her to the waist as well, kneeling there beside him outside the Commanders tent, and found her sole cured burn, running from breast to hip. Vagon's kiss.
Her attempt at an accent was a good idea. He'd seen Nord's killed and worse by Imperials in his time, just for being too proud and too nordic at the wrong moment, and her imitation of a certain Bruma trader they'd both known was near to perfect.
"Oh, but he can smile can he?" the second-in-charge rounded back on him, face so close that Matt could smell his meady breath. "Can't talk but he can smile? I'll make you talk, you f-" he raised a fist to strike.
"He's got no tongue, m'lord," Pinna said.
The fist dropped, along with the Lieutenants expression. He turned to his Commander slowly, and walked back to where he sat, picking at a salmon-steak without enthusiasm. Matt saw the younger second bow his head and whisper to his superior, and it wasn't hard to guess the words.
The rest went unsaid. Anyone with ears knew the Dragonborn had no tongue. In fact, it was the one, unchanging piece of gossip you always heard among the many varied tales.
'The Dragonborn lives as a beggar, you'd spit and pass him by.'
'The Dragonborn and his gang of friendly warriors travel the provinces, righting wrongs.'
'The Dovakiin became one with Akatosh and time eternal, and looks down on us all from the realm of the gods.'
All of those and countless more, but always 'the Dragonborn has no tongue.'
The Commander rose from his meal and cleared his throat in an attempt at levity, but Matt saw a flicker of fear pass and leave his face.
"How did he lose it?"
If Pinna faltered here, things may go badly, and very fast.
"An accident when he was young. He bit it off. In a game with other children. M'lord."
"A curious occurance," the Commander said. He picked at the ruby pommel of his sword. "So many lose their tongue for slandering the Emperor. A much more common story. Are you sure that's what really happened?" The casual tone invited her to reveal the true cause, like he was soliciting gossip. It was both unsettling and inviting. It was good. If there was one thing Matt had learned in his time as a Stormcloak, it was that the Legion did not promote fools.
"It was... as I said, m'lord... when he was-"
"The youthful folly, yes." He gave a look of little love to a group of nearby soldiers and ordered them to move the prisoners inside his officer's tent, but it was the quick glance skywards that told the tale. He might be moving them under cover for any number of reasons, there was only one reason he would worriedly scan the skies.
The tentflap was closed and Matt and Pinna were knelt down again, this time at spearpoint. Five soldiers, one lieutenant, and a Commander. It was almost flattering.
Their captor broke off his muttered conversation with his second and poured himself a goblet of Riften's finest, then took a gulp. "Of course there is one other reason you may lack a tongue."
"Dragonborn," the Lieutenant said, in the tone of a curse.
Some of the soldiers shifted from foot-to-foot after hearing that. A drop of sweat rolled from beneath one guards simple helm and hit his boot with what seemed like a thunderclap.
"He's been hearing that all his life, m'lord," Pinna said quickly. "Oh you must be the Dragonborn since you have no-"
"Gag her," the whitehaired Commander said. His oily lieutenant did the job, using a relatively clean looking strip of netchleather.
"You've bitten down on worse than this in your life peasant, stop struggling," he said. "Or do, it makes those bare teats of yours jiggle." Once he was done, he stepped back with a grin.
"What have you forgotten, Oleo?" his Commander asked.
"We... we should hood them as well, before they're hitched to the chain-line." He almost managed to keep the question out of his tone, but not quite. Oleo. Matt had never heard of him but he sounded too aristocratic to be anything but Cyrodiil-raised, through-and-through; all good grammar and inbuilt arrogance. Maybe it came naturally having that Talos damned elf-tower of theirs - to look down on everyone else from.
"We should indeed hood them," the Commander nodded. "But what else? What facts have not yet been ascertained?"
Lieutenant Oleo's face was a study in blankness.
"Open your mouth," the older man said to Matt. It took a shove with a speartip to get the result he was looking for. Yes. There it was. Where a pink tongue should be was a truncated stub, cut flat, cut neatly - like an Emperor's man might carry out the act on a commoner charged with slander.
"Why would he lie-" Oleo began.
"Why would a rebel lie?" his Commander nearly thundered before he controlled himself.
Matt sensed some unpleasant duties ahead for Oleo, or possibly promotion to Commander of a 'fodder legion.'
Finally the older man sighed and sat back down to his cooling fish and peas. "Hood them and chain them between those cats and let me finish my damned meal. And fetch a courier."
The Khajiit he spoke of were not gagged, but they were ill-treated looking and bone weary. Even the lowered hood let Matt see that much. The two closest ones, a mottleshell and a black-and-white, were dusty and bristling with fur they couldnt maintain with their paws and necks chained to the other ten or so prisoners. Matt wondered how they managed to keep a chaingang of - now - thirteen as well as their own troops fed, before a closer look at the many ribcages showing told him that possibly they weren't fed at all. His stomach rumbled disapproval.
"Oh, this one is special, yes?" the mottleshell said. "This one and this one," he flicked his ears at Pinna. "I told you, Pr'shaow. I told you when they walked into the big tent. This one is special. Now he and his woman get the hood treatment. Who are you, friend?"
Usually Pinna could speak for him, but Pinna was gagged, so Matt repeated his stub-for-a-tongue display from earlier for the captive Khajiit. Today had been a humbling experience, and it seemed the humbling wasn't over.
"Oh, I am sorry, my friend," the mottleshell said, after a flash of a pitying grimace. "That was evil-done. I'm sure that current hackled-up jarl in the palace was deserving what you said, and more again."
The black-and-white, Pr'shaow, hissed at the talkative mottle. Just a quick noise of dissatisfaction to say 'hush,' but the mottle didn't really seem to care, and he rolled his enormous feline eyes; dark green jewels that seemed to take in everything as a joke. All the Khajiit Matt had known were austere, pensive Cathay-raht who were even more battlehardened than him, and older. This mottleshell must have been just out of his kittenhood.
Matt wished he could ask him where they were. Any inner map-markers he may have had were wiped out when Vagon fell over the Alikr sands, west of Sentinel.
It wouldn't do to dwell on that, but he found it hard not to.
Not dead, he told himself, returned to Akatosh. Part of time. But it didn't help.
Matt blamed himself. Flying too hard, too many imperial crossbows; clear sky and a clear shot. The purple dragons screams would haunt him forever. Then rolling. Rolling down a massive Alikr dune with Pinna rolling too, and the massive dragons bones snapping like thunder as he failed to do the same. Dragon blood and sand hissing through the air. Pinna had dragged him screaming from his Dov friends hulking, smoking corpse, knowing the Legion would be following close behind them. After all, there was even a chapter about it in the Legionaire Manual: 'when your enemy is crushed totally and reduced to a mere ember, make sure to extinguish that ember, or it will flare and flame again.' Thourough bastards.
Matt had almost reached out to absorb Vagon's soul, before thinking better. Still bound to his body, he might be reabsorbed into the bosom of Nirn and reborn, should Akatosh will it. Matt wasn't much for religion, but he wanted it to be true.
The friendly Khajiit chained beside him shocked Matt out of his memories when he used hand-signs to say: 'Without a tongue, surely you must know hand-language, yes?'
'Yes,' Matt signed back, 'I speak it with Pinna.'
"Then I must ask you something very serious, my friend," the mottleshell said, reverting back to his lilting, accented common-tongue. "You were in that Commander's tent, so tell me... what does an Imperial Commander have for dinner?" Matt was liking this young Khajiit more and more, if only for the fact that his joking was a distraction.
'You don't want to know,' Matt signed, smiling.
He put his hand up like a handshake and then snaked it, like it were swimming through a river, and the whole chain-gang of cats moaned in unison.
The next morning Matt was woken by a chunk of hard bread hitting his chest. When the guard threw the next one at Pinna, he caught it and then shook her shoulder to wake her, but he had to plead the same guards permission to lower her gag before she could eat. The young man allowed it, and then stood there while she ate, to order it back on, Matt assumed.
Wolfing down his portion and wiping the moldy crumbs from his fingers, he hand-signed at the young khajiit 'You're certain it's to Sentinal we're headed?'
"I make no promises my nordic friend - but a cat's ears? They hear much." He wiggled them and made Pinna laugh. "And you men creatures talk very loud."
"That's long enough, put her gag back up," the red-cloak said. "And make it tight or I'll find a new use for my sword pommel other than breaking mirriam nuts."
They were certainly marching somewhere, the camp was being struck around them, and with imperial efficiency. Fires hissed out and tent canopies collapsed, with barely a word exchanged between the soldiers performing their duties. The lack of complaining told Matt they were used to this, used to being on the move and taking brusque orders. Every imperial calf was tanned and corded with muscle from long marching in the Hammerfell sun. It seemed their new khajiit friend - who'd finally introduced himself last night as Anassa - had not failed to notice it, either.
'They have the stink of special about them too, don't they?' he signed, but meaningfully left out the final gesture that would make it a question.
The road northwest was thankfully even and easy-going. They were leaving the true desert behind now, and passing the occasional nomad hut - seemingly unoccupied - but constantly having to dip through parched riverbeds and pull each other up the opposite sandy banks.
"You men-creatures call this a desert?" Anassa quipped. "I quite like it. It reminds me of the warm sands of Elsweyr."
'How did I know that was coming?' Matt signed.
Anassa seemed to take his question seriously. He scratched his whitefurred chin. "You have known Khajiit - Khajiit other than Anassa - would be my guess."
'You have many scars, pardon my saying further,' Anassa hand-signed. 'And you seem to find the friendliness of we Khajiit surprising. You have not expected me to either rob you or sell you skooma. Yet you know about some Khajiit customs, so you must be used to our more muscular cousins, the Cathay-raht.'
Matt pointed, then made his fingers dance like a flickering flame. 'You're warm.'
'My litter-mother used to tell me tales about the Dragonborn fighting alongside the Cathay-raht to free our homeland of the Empire.'
'Was that a question?' Matt hooked the air.
'She said in one battle, the Empire brought dragon-netting catapults to break a certain seige and one of their sharpshooting elves netted himself a Dovahkiin. Of course Herrik, the boldest Cathay-raht warrior who ever lived, came and stole him back from the Legion's torturers, but not before they had taken something very important from him - his tongue.'
'That's one thing people say about him,' Matt signed, 'among others.'
"It's what every Khajiit knows," Anassa said, then signed, 'we owe him a great debt,' and walked on in silence.
At suns-wane, they were trudging up a narrow, sandy track flanked by reedy rushes. Their guards had to drop back and ahead of them to avoid getting sliced to pieces on it, and that was when Pinna sidled up beside him, sweaty, with strands of her blonde hair sticking to her forehead. Thankfully their metal shackles had enough space to allow them to walk almost side-by-side.
"You feel something." Matt noticed she'd worked the leather gag out of her mouth.
He nodded. Yes, he felt something. At first he'd put it down to the desert heat, or exhaustion. But exhaustion didn't make you hear things.
"It's one of them isnt it?" she said. "You feel it near."
'I think it is,' he signed as they reached the crest of the hill - scrubby landscape stretching out below them. 'There,' he bowed, 'down in the valley, among the crags. We're headed straight for it.'
Pinnacette thought for a moment, then switched to hand-signing. 'Even if we did wake it, we wouldn't know it's name. We couldn't force it to do anything.'
'The distraction may be enough of a help to us,' Matt said. 'And the dragon priests never knew a sleeping dov's name, either; they named them, at the moment of their birth.'
"And you know how to do that, do you?" Pinna smiled. "From one of those crumbling draugr scrolls you're always reading?" She was very pretty when she smiled, even sunburned and sandwhipped.
Matt was halfway through signing a response when he felt a shove on his shoulder and fell face-first into the back of the Khajiit in front of him. Regaining his feet, he saw Lieutenant Oleo puffing and panting beside him in his ridiculously shiny, red-feathered helm. It looked like it was boiling his face.
"Don't think I don't see you having your little secret conversations," he croaked, and spat in Matt's path. "And I swear I'll stitch that gag on your little whore the next time I see it off her."
When it was back on, Oleo checked the knot, re-tied it, and tighened the slack until Pinna cried out in pain.
'This one wants to die first,' she signed in her lap. Oleo was too busy being proud of his new knot to notice.
"There is no escape for you two, you must know that," he said. "We lost you once in Elsweyr. We're not going to lose you again. We need you, Dragonborn."
The rumours were true then.
It was why he and Pinnacette had come to Hammerfell in the first place, those rumours. When the Second Age of Dragons had begun a year ago, Matt's exploits in destroying the plague had spread across Tamriel. It didn't take the Empire long to envy and fear the tales they heard. The power of someone who could control one of the massive beasts? Anyone who could control one could control the Empire, or destroy it.
So Emperor Kyus had sent ships beyond count to Akavir, the fabled ancient seat of the Dovah - Nirn's Easternmost continent. The few that had returned, returned with nothing but tales, rocks and speculation - not one had discovered any sign of their quary.
What one of the Empire's Mapmakers did discover, however, had turned their attention back to Tamriel. Matt had seen the blood-soaked letter himself, intercepted by the Stormcloaks and its meaning tortured out of the courier who bore it. How Illiac Bay - the shape of it - lined up with the eastern shoreline of Akavir on a map by the same cartographer. Overlaid and held up to a candlelight, the shorelines formed one solid, curving line.
The rumour was Emperor Kyus didn't believe the tales his mapmakers were spinning about what this meant, but that he was much too dragon-hungry to care. Any lead would be investigated, and it was much less of a drain on the Empire's coffers to search in Illiac Bay's surrounding provinces than to send more ships to Akavir, and lose two-thirds in the process. Rumour also had it that the Empire was training new dragonpriests using magic and centuries-old texts found in Draugr Halls. New, living wakers and servants, ready to worship the newly-woken Dovah like gods.
Knowing dragons as he did, Matt thought they would all burn before they got the chance to kneel and worship. Even if successful, Kyus was about to find out you couldn't just acquire a dragon because it matched the Imperial emblem on your cloakpin. In Matt's experience, any Dov under one-hundred years of age was fire-mad, fickle, and often quite objectively-speaking, evil.
And of course that was why they wanted him. He had experience. The Empire would torture him and likely Pinna for months, maybe years, to get at that knowledge. He dazedly watched the young Khajiit Anassa ahead of him, running his paw through the silk stalks of the native grasses their little chained troop were walking through. His paw was making simple signs he saw then, intended for him, unnoticable to the untrained eye.
'How you get out - this one - friend?' the single paw said.
With the sun behind them, Matt's hands could make shadows that appeared the the grass ahead. 'Thinking,' the shadow-fingers said. 'When I give sign, cut Pinna's gag with your claws.'
'What's in it for me?'
'Life,' the shadowed grass returned.
By then they were at the foot of the sandy crags, some looming as big as houses. Ages ago, some stoneworkers had carved the banner of Hammerfell into the closest one, a shield bordered by three scimitars, some twenty feet across and deeply rendered. The soldiers never slowed or halted in their march, though. They would be going through the natural maze ahead, he saw. Likely they had come this way before in setting out.
A colony of tawny rabbits took in their approach and tittered to each other before disappearing in a hiss of sand. Matt heard them thumping through the trails between the twisted sentinel stones, and squeeing to their young to get underground.
His bond-sickness was getting even worse.
In nature, a dragon was a solitary creature without the need to mate or seek out fellowship with their own kind, but they always knew when one another were near due to their innate need to battle and absorb each others souls. Their blood wanted to be united, and it called and thrummed and sickened until it joined in one dovah's body.
As Dovahkiin, the same blood was literally in Matt's veins. Blood calling to blood. And accompanying this feeling was a cracking sensation in his skull. He fancied he could feel the stone dragons body anticipating birth from the rock, the rock desiring to become flesh, and aware of his presence as much as he was of it.
Apparently sensing his weakness, Oleo was back at his side, trailing a gaggle of mean-looking young soldiers with him, two redguards and a stocky, pigfaced Breton. A bright, short knife was in his hand, polished so clean that it was blinding to look at when the sun hit it.
"I wanted you to see this, and I just couldn't wait," the Lieutenant said, staring at the knife like he was just seeing it himself for the first time. "This is the knife I'm going to use on you and your woman here. Oh, it's quite worthy of the task, I assure you - The Emperor bestowed it on my father for faithful service. When I joined the Legion, he gave it to me. Now what do you say? Isn't that a knife worthy of cutting up a Dragonborn, piece by piece?"
His soldiers laughed. "It's so sharp you won't even feel it at first, not if I don't want you to. Imperial steel. Like these chains here." He tapped the bonds with his father's knife. "Good Imperial steel. Try one of your thu'ums on that and you'll just tear your arms off, Nord."
Matt waited for him to have his fill of boasting and rejoin his mounted Commander, then turned to Pinna. 'Ready?' he signed. 'It's the scrub-covered one on the right.'
'I know which one it is,' she signed. 'Don't you think I'm feeling it, too?'
When they were still twenty feet away from the unremarkable stony cliffside, he gave Anassa the signal, and watched as the khajiit casually circled behind Pinna, and sunk one extended claw under the netchleather gag, and pulled.
A horse whickered.
Pinna's arm was sweaty in his hand, and for some reason he was going blind, the world was greying out. His sister's body and his felt like one. He could literally feel the desert breeze on her other arm as if it were his, feel the hunger in her stomach,
feel the roar rising in her throat as it was rising in his, a perfect vibration as the word was born. He had always been the bookish twin, and she the bold. Matt's will and her tongue were all they needed.
"MIDDOVAH SOSSEDOV ALOK! (ALLY, BLOOD OF MY BLOOD, ARISE!)"
The twin siblings were the only ones left on their feet as the rippling barrage hit the stone and exploded like Zenithar's hammer had struck.
Then the world caught fire.
Some men screamed in mortal terror, and Matt understood why: a new god was coming. Others were more in control of themselves, but not many, most were taking in the spectacle of flame and thunder sucking back into the bulging rockface, or holding their heads to block out the maddening teakettle scream of pressurised air, as if reality itself were being pulled towards one point, and fighting the whole way.
When he started dragging Anassa and the other cats towards the source of the madness, the young Khajiit hissed and looked at him like he was going to claw Matt's eyes out.
"You... you are mad! This is your plan?" Anassa screamed.
'You must all come now!' he signed. 'Now! Or die!'
It got through. Cats had courage. More than most men. The others got it quickly enough too when Anassa put it to them, and then they were on the move. Reluctant and stiff with terror, but moving.
Ahead of them there was a melee of some sort and screams as men were cut down. Matt caught a glimpse of a decaying skull, and a flash of an ancient pitted sword, and now understood why no-one was paying attention to their chaingang - draugr stalked among them. The explosion must have opened up a barrow from the first Age of Dragons and the dead priests had spilled forth like maggots from a corpse. A credit to their Legion, at least half of the redcloaks stayed to fight them; until a colossal dragon scream pierced the air and the draugr deadmen fell to their knees, heads bowed to swordhilt and axehandle. Their deity had finally arrived, eons after their own deaths.
As one, the crowd of men watched as a gigantic armoured neck coiled out of the rockmist, and a golden yellow eye as big as a shield irised open, bright as a lantern, with a dark slit full of menacing intelligence.
Matt took Pinna's arm again and felt the joining. "Graag'zeymar! (Greenbrother!)" The twins called. "Zu'u Vahru'kiv hi! (I name you!)"
The green tower of a neck extended upwards and belched flame like a volcano into the nightsky. It took the last of the siblings shared strength to shout "ZAAMHUS! Qiilaan!" (or 'submit and bow' in the commontongue).
The dragon's head snapped back to stare at them, smoke whisping from its nostril-slits, and they watched as it's enormous eyes dilated black, and it arched it's unprotected neck towards them. Anassa was patting out the burning fur of another khajiit, but with his eyes fixed soley on the keep-sized beast before him, drooling liquid fire onto the desert sand in glowing, orange pools. Matt dragged him forward in a daze, stepping up the dragon's scaled wing like it were a flight of stairs.
He helped sling Pinna behind him on Graag'zeymar's back, but there was no time to get everyone aboard; some of the soldiers were already shaking off their dragon-awe and forming groups.
"BO!" Matt shreiked. "BO!" A word that didn't need a tongue.
Graag'zeymar's wings unfurled to their full span, some forty feet across of green leathern webbing and talons, his claws long and sharp as scimitars. The intial downward swing of them was a deafening woosh, and redcloaks scattered like leaves in a gale. The chain went taught where he had threaded it over the green dragons dorsal spine, and the cats screamed and hissed as all ten or so of them were swung up into clean air.
He felt the dragon adjust for the swaying they caused and angle for a steep ascent. That was fine with him. Maybe less fine for Anassa, Pr'shaow and the rest of the Khajiit swinging under them like some game of rattleball, but at least the chain was holding. Oleo had been right about that one thing, at least.
It was good Imperial steel.
- end of chapter